The worldwide headquarters of Redfire Advanced Security Solutions was a tinted-windowed monolith rising from a grassy field. The building and its manicured grounds appeared to have been assembled by extracting a skyscraper from the nearest city and dropping it into the middle of a golf course.
An enormous version of Redfire’s corporate emblem decorated the outside corner of the top floor. When the sun struck the polished silver stylized flame, the logo seemed to burn.
The even-cut grass at the base of the thirty-story tower was surrounded by a ten-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Regularly spaced along a paved walking path inside the fence were tall metal poles capped with flood lights and cameras.
Rod North steered his car away from the main entrance where four lanes of cars had backed up at the security booths, waiting to check in. He drove along a smaller road, following the “Security Employees Only” signs. The queue at this checkpoint was much shorter.
“I’m telling you, he’s complaining that he can’t sleep!” Rod yelled into his cell phone.
“Oh, that’s crap, Rod,” Carol said from the other end. “You’re still bitter because my lawyer kicked your lawyer’s ass.”
“You say that every time Toby complains to me. I don’t bring up the fact that you’re bitter because you didn’t get as much child support as you wanted.”
“I can always try again.”
Rod felt a pain developing above his right eye. “Carol, can you think of someone else first for once? Especially our son? He said you smoke and you have friends over late and it keeps him awake. I’m not telling you what to do, I’m telling you to tone it down when he’s with you, okay?”
“When I see him, I’ll ask him how he feels about it.”
“He’s obviously afraid to tell you. Do you know why that is?”
“He’s just shy.”
“I think he’s afraid you’ll yell at him.”
“He needs to lighten up. Where do you think he got that from?”
“Carol! He’s a kid! A child, okay?”
“Well, he’s got to grow up sometime. Are you sure you can pick him up tonight?”
“Yes. For the tenth time.”
“Good. Because I have plans. With the girls, and maybe someone else.”
“Well, I hope he’s patient.”
“Oh, he is,” she said, dragging out her words slowly.
“Are you trying to sound sexy? If you’re hoping to make me jealous, it’s not working at all.”
“Just letting you know that I’m having fun.”
“All I’m asking is that you take it easy when our son is around, okay? We’re not in our twenties or thirties anymore. You can still have fun, but Toby comes first.”
“Sure, Rod. Whatever you say. Always be good. Do the right thing.”
“Sorry I’m that way. I guess to you it’s a flaw.”
“Damn right it is, that’s why you were never any fun.”
“I’m at work now, Carol. Gotta go.”
Rod hurled his phone onto the empty passenger seat. It bounced up against the window, ricocheted into the dashboard and fell to the floor.
He pulled up to a barrier and held his company badge under the scanning laser.
“Hey, Rod,” the armed guard in the booth said, “how’s it going?”
North didn’t answer. The gate lifted and his car jerked forward with a squeal as he sped through.
After parking, North walked to the nearest entrance and swiped his ID badge across a small black panel. The panel chirped and the magnetic bolts behind the door released with a loud clack. He pushed through and waited for the door to latch behind him.
His steps echoed in the long unpainted concrete hall as he walked under a ceiling that alternated between fluorescent lights and black hemispheres hiding cameras.
He stopped at a door blocking his path and looked to his right through the reinforced glass. The guard on duty looked up at the clock.
“Hey, North. You’re early. Way early.”
“Yeah,” Rod said, opening the door. “Don’t remind me. I’m filling in for Barra.”
“I hear the line out there’s already backed up. Had a few call outs.”
The door buzzed as it unlocked.
Rod entered a small room lined with ten heavy-duty metal lockers on either side, a wooden bench down the middle. He opened his locker and stored his lunch, removing his automatic pistol. He checked the ammo and the safety before holstering the weapon at his hip.
He rested his right hand on the weapon and tapped the two photos on the back of his locker door. The largest was of him and Toby, arms around each other, at a baseball game. Toby’s cap was too big for his head and sliding down to the side. He held his plastic bat tucked under his elbow and a giant foam ‘We’re number one’ hand aloft.
Underneath that photo was a picture of the six men in Rod’s old military unit. Each of the muscular men were dressed in desert camouflage and posing with their heavy rifles. ‘Afghanistan Class of 2002. Iraq Class of 2004. Your Mom Class of 2006, sucker!’ was painted on the side of the helicopter they were leaning against.
Rod pulled a silver necklace from his locker. A small pendant the size of a quarter dangled from the end. Inside was a picture of him and Toby smiling into the camera.
This photo was less staged than the other. Toby was sitting in the tub, his lower body obscured by a layer of soap. He was looking up, his large brown eyes round, his skin wet, as if he was newly born. The smile on his face made Rod’s heart stutter. Toby held both hands above his head, palms up as if making an offering of the object resting on his fingers, his son’s favorite toy, Mister Duck-Duck.
Rod clenched the necklace in his fist and pressed his fist to his lips.
Rod felt his neck muscles loosen, the memory of Carol’s scraping voice dissolved.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He held his breath, then exhaled.
He put the necklace on, tucked the pendant under his shirt then slammed his locker shut.
Back in the hall, he walked a hundred more steps to another door, used his ID to pass through and exited the drab grey into a colorful mixture of rainforest and shining black marble.
The lobby of Redfire Advanced Security Solutions’ global corporate headquarters was split down the middle. Revolving doors connecting to the outside were separated from the elevators leading up into the building by a security desk and three metal detectors. Visitors were funneled toward the metal detection gates by the gentle curves of a low retaining wall that held the soil for a lush indoor forest. The air was kept humid to nurture the exotic ferns and flowers. The organic smell helped warm the coldness of the marble floor and walls.
An elderly woman sold coffee and pastries from a cart to employees waiting to pass through the security checkpoint. The ample foliage on either side of the large security desk served a dual purpose: it kept the atmosphere relaxing and the air refreshing, but its main purpose was obscuring the bulletproof floor-to-ceiling concrete and steel barrier behind it.
Except for security team members, who came in through the side doorway, anyone entering the building had to pass through this gauntlet to reach the elevators and the inside of Redfire World Headquarters.
The morning rush was on. Two queues extended back from the desk, each at least twenty heads deep. Five security employees were checking people in. This involved scanning their badges, stiff laminated cards that hung around their necks or were clipped to their suits. Security confirmed the photo on the ID matched the picture on the computer and the person presenting it, then beckoned them through the two active metal detectors.
The third metal detector was unused, closed off by a rolling gate.
The lines moved slowly. Rod sat behind the security desk, quickly glancing over a bank of black and white screens. From here he could see what every camera on the Redfire campus was seeing. Each screen held its image for ten seconds before automatically switching to another. A digital stamp in the lower right corner indicated the camera’s location as well as the time and date.
“Hey, Rod,” an older security guard called out. His nametag read ‘Phelps.’ He took an ID from a young executive in a custom-fit suit and held the laminated barcode under a red laser. Phelps handed the ID back after the scanner sounded a friendly beep.
“Harold,” North said.
“You’re late,” Harold Phelps answered, scanning another ID.
“I’m filling in.”
“Yeah, well, me too. And I’m staying past quitting time. Barra is always on time when he picks up from my shift. And I’m never late when I take over from you.”
“Sorry,” North said.
“Sorry? Yeah, right. Then why does it always happen?” Phelps continued to scan badges as he spoke. “You’re never sorry. Of all the managers in the rotation, you’re the only one ever late.”
North stared at the camera monitors. The executives passing through were silent, watching back and forth as Phelps berated North.
“Come on, get up,” Phelps said. “You and I can take the third gate and make another line.”
North pushed himself up and began taking badges while Phelps powered up the metal detector and rolled the gate aside.
Suits started breaking off the other lines, moving to the newly opened entrance.
“You guys really need to have more gates,” the first executive in line said as he handed North his ID.
The suit chatted with Phelps.
“Working late, Harold?”
“Late for me, early for you.”
“You look busy as always.”
“Those acting lessons are paying off.”
The suit laughed and passed through the gate.
The next one was equally cheerful.
“How’s it going, Phelps?”
“Same old. Keeping trained monkeys out of a job.”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
North rubbed his hand over his face, fighting back a yawn. He took the next ID, scanned it and handed it back. The queue to their metal detector formed against the front of the desk as the suits continued to banter with Phelps. North glanced up. One of the suits met his gaze, blinked rapidly and stepped back, looking away.
No photograph failed to match its owner. No one carried or wore any items that set off the metal detectors. The ritual was choreographed and well-rehearsed and entirely unsurprising to anyone.
At 9:30 a.m. the rush ended and the lobby was quiet again.
“All right, fellas, I’m out of here,” Phelps said to the security team. “North is in charge.”
He walked briskly to the security exit and went through without another word, slamming the door behind him.
North was sitting at the bank of screens, watching them cycle through their different viewpoints. He stayed apart from the four other security guards as they joked among themselves.
“Some of these corporate chicks should have been models. I swear to. Mm.”
“If I was only a few years younger.”
“You’d still be too old for them.”
“Hey, where it counts, I’m still twenty-one.”
“I didn’t need to know that. Besides, your boyfriend said that’s not true.”
“I’d take those corporate chicks two at a time.”
“Yeah, right. You’d die of a heart attack.”
“Women today are like men. Get in, get out.”
“That’s just fine with me, honey.”
“You need a spanking!”
They all guffawed.
“Guys!” North yelled at them. “Come on. A little lower. Sound echoes in here.”
“Sorry, boss,” one of them grumbled. They whispered to each other.
“Besides,” North said, “it’s time to make your rounds.”
“Barra doesn’t make us go until ten.”
“Barra’s not here. I am. It’s almost ten anyway.”
The four shuffled out of the lobby to patrol the perimeter of the building. North stayed alone at the desk, checking a form on a clipboard as he confirmed through the cameras that each guard had arrived at his checkpoint and given the thumbs up through the video feed.
He had the radio on, the volume low, hearing but not paying any attention to the news.
North glanced at the clock. It was almost noon. The team would be finishing their rounds soon and then taking lunch two at a time.
One of the security screens caught North’s eye. The stamp indicated it was a roof camera, but the screen was washed out as dust blew against the lens. North held down a button to prevent the image from cycling to the next camera’s view.
The whiteout faded to show a helicopter, its rotors slowing. Two suits rushed forward to greet a third who descended from the chopper. They were all frowning, walking briskly, heads down. North couldn’t hear what they were saying, but their hand gestures were urgent and quick.
“Hm,” North mumbled. “Something’s going on.”
The security team returned from their rounds. North was about to tell them to pick lunch times when a woman spoke from behind him.
“Are you Roderick North?”
North turned to see a young lady, dressed in a dark business blazer and skirt. She had short black hair, her features vaguely Chinese. Rod guessed she couldn’t have been older than twenty-five.
Harold Phelps was standing with her. He looked pissed off.
“Yes,” North said. “I’m Rod North.”
“I’m here with your replacement,” she said. “I’m supposed to take you upstairs.”
“Oh,” North said. “Sure.”
“I’ll give you a moment to switch out,” the young woman said.
Phelps stepped to the bank of screens and checked the clipboard.
North grabbed his cell phone and signed off on the papers, logging out of the system by scanning his badge.
Phelps grumbled out loud. “I had just gotten home and took my shoes off when I get the call to come back. They said I was needed to work another shift because no other supervisors are available. At the end of this, I’ll be pulling over 24 hours.”
“Now, Harold,” the young woman said. “Human resources is working on getting you some help as soon as-”
“Save it, young lady. So what gives, Rod?”
North didn’t reply.
Phelps persisted. “They said you were needed for something else.”
“I don’t know what this is about.”
“I think you do,” Phelps said, looking over his shoulder. The young woman was walking across the lobby toward the elevators, but he whispered anyway. “I was pretty sure about Barra, but I never thought you were ex-Special Forces. You’re big, but I think I could take you.”
North said nothing. The older man was blocking his way from the desk.
“Come on, North, you can tell me. I know what’s going on. I’ve been working here long enough to notice some guys get,” he made quotation marks with his fingers, “vacation.”
“I really should go, Phelps.”
“This is just your holding place, right? That’s why you don’t give a crap. Barra just does a better job of faking that he cares. He’s a stand-up guy. But this work is beneath you, is that it?”
“Phelps, let me past. I know you’re pissed about the shift, but that’s not my fault.”
“You work here until they need you for something else. A different kind of security. Bodyguards mostly, but I’ve heard rumors about the more sinister stuff, like knocking off a guy. Am I right? I might not be in your special club, but I’m not stupid. I notice things.”
They brushed shoulders as North pushed past.
“I’ll take your silence as proof that I’m right,” Phelps said. He yelled across the lobby, “Tell me, North, what’s the quickest way to kill a man?”
North let the question bounce off his back. He caught up with the young woman, who was holding an elevator for him.
“Right this way, Mister North,” she said.
When he stepped into the elevator, she turned a key in the control console and pushed one of the buttons surrounded by a gold frame engraved with the words “Senior Executive Team Levels.”
“Scan I.D., please,” a pre-recorded voice said. The young woman leaned forward and swiped her badge across the control panel.
“Thank you,” the voice said.
The elevator ascended.