Luke Darringer liked his cappuccinos extra hot, his tailored suits perfectly steamed, and his drivers on time. He was not a patient man. Efficient, yes; patient, no.
So he was in a bad mood when he arrived at the Fealty Insurance firm that day. His driver had given him excuses about why he’d been late: New York City traffic jams, construction, blah blah blah. Luke told him in no uncertain terms that he should have just left earlier—“How long have you lived here?”—but this only produced a new flurry of excuses, so he didn’t bother to pursue his point.
Charlotte, Luke’s administrative assistant, raised her eyebrows when Luke approached. Her desk sat just outside of his glass-enclosed office, so he couldn’t help but see her coming in or going out.
“Get up on the wrong side of the bed?” she quipped.
“Not in the mood, Charlotte.”
“Hence my comment,” she pressed, standing up and following him into his office with a stack of papers waiting for his perusal and signature. She plopped them on his desk, ignoring the view of the New York City skyline through the windows of the office. They were both used to it. “You skipped your morning cappuccino, didn’t you?”
“No time. My stupid driver—”
“—who has a name,” Charlotte insisted, leveling him with a chiding glare. He liked to act like her boss occasionally, and she let him, for the sake of his ego. But both of them knew that he needed her. He could grumble and fume, but he could only go so far with her.
Luke huffed. “Tyler was late, and then fed me a bunch of excuses about it.”
Charlotte tilted her head to the side, eyeing Luke pointedly. “You want me to go get you a cappuccino?”
Luke met her eyes, his expression softening for the first time that morning. “You’re an angel. Extra—”
“Hot, I know. With one sugar on the side,” she rolled her eyes. “How long do you think I’ve worked for you?” Luke gave her a grudging smile, and she went on, “By the way, Matt Bishop called to protest his company’s increased premium. He said he sent you email last week but you didn’t answer. He’s furious and demanded to talk to Gary, to place him with a different agent before he signs the renewal contract.”
“Dammit!” Luke swore, running a hand through his hair. “That contract pays me a sweet yearly bonus—get Bishop on the line now!”
Charlotte shook her head. “No need. I apologized to Bishop for the delay, but informed him that you’d been waiting to respond until it was official that his favorite charity—the Maginnis Diabetes Foundation—has been granted a $30,000 donation from Fealty’s charitable fund. Remember, Bishop’s son is diabetic, and he believes the foundation might find a cure? He’s now quite happy to pay the thirty percent premium increase, and thinks you’re a swell guy for putting his charity before the Fealty board. He wants to take you out for a drink after work,” she finished with a flourish.
Luke’s eyes grew round. “And when he finds out there is no $30,000 donation—?”
Charlotte gave him a self-complacent grin. “Oh, there is. I researched the Maginnis Diabetes Foundation and discovered they’re a worthy group. I submitted the recommendation to the Fealty Charitable board three months ago. It was approved yesterday.”
“Oh.” Luke blinked. “Thanks. Uh—get Bishop on the line anyway, and I’ll just… reiterate what you said.”
“And accept his thanks for being such a fabulous human being,” Charlotte winked.
Luke suppressed a smile. “That too. Anything else I need to do?”
“Well, your landlord called again. Apparently your current girlfriend… Ginger? Gidget?—”
“Gayle,” Luke supplied, raising an eyebrow. He knew Charlotte remembered her name.
“Gayle let her dog do his business in the common area and didn’t clean up after him. He says pets are in violation of the lease, and he’s starting eviction proceedings against you.”
“What?” Luke rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Gayle had only been staying over at his place on and off for the past two weeks, but every time she did, she insisted on bringing that mangy critter with her. “What did you tell him?”
“I called a cleaning and landscaping service to clean up and plant some gardenias around the perimeter of the common space. You will also notice a couple of lovely new shade trees that have been added just south of the fountain, and you’ll receive the bill in the mail. I assume Gayle will be gone within a day or two anyway?”
“Tonight,” Luke muttered, giving Charlotte a reluctant smile. She smiled back knowingly. Then he raised his eyebrows at her, in silent prompting.
“Cappuccino, I know, I know. I’m going.” She tapped the stack on his desk. “You might want to read the file on top first. It’s a new case, but it’s marked urgent.” She tried to act nonchalant, but Luke glanced up at her tone.
“And?” he pressed.
She shrugged, not meeting his eyes. “And what?”
“I don’t know, there’s just something you’re not telling me. You seem… excited about it. Which is weird, because we do liability insurance, which has to be the most boring topic on the planet…”
She bit her lip, but then gave in and grinned. “Okay fine—this company,” she tapped the top cover sheet, “looks… amazing. It’s Dreamscape Adventures, Incorporated!”
Luke blinked at her, and gave his head a tiny shake to indicate that this didn’t register.
Charlotte heaved an exasperated sigh. “Really? Do you live in a cave? Don’t answer that, of course you do,” she muttered quickly, waving one hand in the air. “Dreamscape Adventures, Inc! It’s been all over the media! They’re building this interactive theme park that’s a combination of holographic and virtual reality way out in the middle of the desert, and they create vacations tailored to each participant, where they get to actually experience whatever they fantasize about!”
“That sounds dirty.”
“Only to you,” Charlotte retorted.
“And they need insurance, I take it?”
She nodded, barely suppressing her grin now. “That’s why I’m so excited! They want Fealty to send an employee to be their first client, so we’ll underwrite them! They’re a huge potential account, and Gary knows the Bildenberg account was finally signed last week, so you have the time—”
“Charlotte,” Luke deadpanned.
“Don’t ‘Charlotte’ me, you are between projects. And this will be amazing!”
Luke narrowed his eyes. “I’m still not seeing why you’re so excited.”
“Can I come too?” she blurted, clapping her hands together once.
“To… my fantasy?”
“Oh, don’t flatter yourself,” Charlotte scoffed, “they could tailor a different one to each of us! It’s not like once they’re open for business, they won’t have more than one client at a time. And you’ll need a backup opinion on the liability issues, won’t you? So it isn’t just yours?”
“Why would I need a backup opinion? I know what I’m looking for. You’re just an administrative assistant!”
Charlotte dropped her chin and glared at him. “Excuse me? Just?”
“You know what I mean. Besides, who’s gonna be taking my calls and emails, and generally holding down the fort while you and I are both off living our separate fantasies?”
Charlotte huffed. “Fealty does have other administrative staff. They can handle things for a week without us!”
“And you take your phone and your laptop everywhere you go anyway,” Charlotte persisted, as if he hadn’t said anything. “It’s not like you wouldn’t be connected…”
“Weren’t you gonna go get me that cappuccino?”
“Can I go to Dreamscape Adventures with you?” she begged, pressing her palms together.
“Is my cappuccino contingent upon that?”
She hesitated, licking her lips.
“I’m just trying to think of better leverage!”
While Charlotte was gone, Luke reviewed the paperwork from Dreamscape Adventures—and started to see why they required a test client. Charlotte had described it as a vacation from reality for the wealthy, but that wasn’t all. It wasn’t even most of it.
The company was developed by an entrepreneur named Elijah Mendelssohn. The vacation arm of the company was just designed to pay the bills, and fund his real “baby”: a facility designed to help emotionally damaged individuals develop a healthier worldview and reintegrate into society. Mendelssohn touted Dreamscape as “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on steroids”—perfect for patients suffering from PTSD, suicidal or criminal tendencies. The highly experimental preparation phase would involve not only intensive questionnaires for the participant himself, but also for those in his or her immediate circle, as well as actual dream analysis and input from the participant’s subconscious mind. That way, the technical team at Dreamscape could work with their staff psychologists to construct the ideal experience designed to help the participant reframe his or her painful memories.
“But in order to do this effectively,” Mendelssohn wrote, “we must also study the beliefs, actions, and reactions of so-called ‘normal’ individuals in real time. Therefore, participants in the entertainment branch of Dreamscape will be asked to sign a waiver allowing their data to be included in our ongoing research. This will be at the participants’ discretion, of course, but we will make it clear that all such data will be anonymous.”
A dreamscape adventure was not cheap—it couldn’t be, since the facility had three holodomes to maintain, and a full IT and psychology staff in addition to basic maintenance and utilities, plus very large loans from several private angel investors who helped to get Dreamscape Adventures off the ground. It was a labor of love for Mendelssohn, who longed to see damaged members of society reintegrated—but such individuals were rarely wealthy. Therefore, Dreamscape would be funded by both private individuals wishing for an escape, and also ideally by government health insurance dollars for those under the poverty line. Mendelssohn also hoped that private health insurance companies might cover a portion of the experience for qualifying patients, as well.
But all of that was, of course, contingent upon Dreamscape qualifying for liability insurance. Since nothing like this had ever been done before, liability risk for such a venture was a total unknown. Mendelssohn wrote a personal plea to Fealty: “In order to make Dreamscape a reality, we need your help. We are offering one of your partners a complimentary dreamscape experience in order to demonstrate the safety of our program, in hopes that this will convince you better than any statistical analysis or presentation we might otherwise be able to make. Dreamscape experiences can last anywhere from forty-eight hours to three weeks, depending on both the clients’ desires and, in cases of psychological treatment, what the team deems necessary. Please respond at your earliest convenience, and if your answer is favorable, we will schedule your questionnaires and subconscious analyses as soon as possible.”
Luke huffed, annoyed, as Charlotte returned bearing two steaming to-go cups. She set one on the desk in front of him, and seated herself across from him, raising her eyebrows expectantly.
“These dreamscapes can last up to three weeks! That’s insane!”
“Why? Because you haven’t taken three weeks off work since summer break in college?”
“I worked during my summer breaks too,” Luke muttered.
“Luke! They are giving you the free vacation of your life—no, better than that, because you’re not bounded by what’s possible in actual reality! You can go climb Mount Everest if you want to—!”
“I haven’t climbed in ten years.”
“Exactly my point!” Charlotte pressed, “you’re in terrible shape, and you couldn’t climb at a rock gym for more than half an hour, in real life.”
Luke snorted. “Remind me why haven’t I fired you again?”
“You keep me around for my beauty and charm.” Charlotte gave an affected toss to her long dark curls. She was very pretty, and she knew they both knew it. Luke laughed.
“And because you keep my ego in check, I guess.”
She shrugged. “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”
He sighed, and relented. “Maybe if they let me bring my devices—”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you just send me, if you’re so reluctant?”
“Because you’re not an attorney!”
“I could still tell you whether or not it’s safe! That’s all you’d want to know—”
“And millions of dollars would be on the line, with nothing more than your rubber stamp of approval. I’m sure Fealty will love that…”
“So, sounds like you have to go.” She seemed almost smug about it. “Your questionnaire appointment is at ten.”
Luke looked up sharply and his mouth fell open. “Wha—?”
Charlotte winked. “Gary already approved it before you arrived this morning.”
“Then why did you let me think I had a choice?”
Charlotte held up two open palms. “Convincing yourself this is the vacation of a lifetime,” she weighed one palm, “or, boss says I have to go kicking and screaming.” She weighed the other. “Comes back feeling rested and happy with lower blood pressure,” she weighed one palm, “or, super pissed the entire time, comes back and takes it out on me…”
“This is all your fault,” Luke grumbled.
“You’re welcome! You seriously thought I was going to let you pass this up? You need a vacation, Luke. I’m just looking out for you!”
Luke knocked on Gary’s glass door a few minutes later, his mouth etched in a frown. He saw Gary glance up at him from whatever he was red-lining, and beckon Luke to enter with two fingers. When Luke did so, Gary tossed the pen on top of the tome before him, running a hand through his thinning gray hair with a sigh.
“Lemme guess,” he narrowed his eyes. “You’re here to try to get out of your dreamscape.”
“Well—” Luke frowned. He hated being predictable, but at the moment it was the lesser of two evils. “Yes.”
Gary shook his head at him. “I can’t believe it. Charlotte was right.”
Luke’s frown deepened into a scowl. “About what?”
“She told me the first thing you’d do is come in here and tell me that I could just as easily send a more junior exec to do this, because your time is too valuable for something so ‘frivolous’… right? Was that about the gist?”
That was exactly what Luke had been about to say, but he wasn’t going to admit it. Instead he tried, “What about Kelsey? This sort of thing sounds right up her alley…”
“That’s precisely the problem, I don’t think she’d be objective,” Gary told him. “Dreamscape Adventures could be huge for us! I hope to underwrite them, but I am very concerned about the potential for liability claims. I need my best guy to review it, and you and I both know that’s you.”
Luke narrowed his eyes at his boss. “You need your biggest pessimist to review it, you mean. Don’t try to butter me up, I know what you’re doing.”
Gary grinned sheepishly, one cheek deepening into a dimple. “Charlotte told me to use that line on you. But I guess it’s not quite as effective, coming from a chubby old man.”
“Sir, all due respect—why don’t you go?”
“Because I’m up to my eyeballs in the Firelights account, and the deadline is next week. I’d love to go, but I can’t get away right now, and Eli Mendolssohn is understandably unwilling to wait. I’m sorry, Luke, but you’re not getting out of this. I told Eli that I’d be sending you, and that Charlotte could go with you, if you felt the need for a second pair of eyes.”
Luke glowered at him. “It would inappropriate for me to go on vacation with my assistant.”
“Well, it’s a working vacation, isn’t it?” Gary said rhetorically, shaking his head. “Honestly, Luke. What’s the phrase? ‘Youth is wasted on the young?’”
Luke chose not to understand him, and Gary glanced at the clock on his wall.
“You’d better get going, Charlotte said she booked your initial meeting with Dreamscape at ten.”