Police investigators reckoned the mangled wreck was beyond freeway speeds at its point of impact. The steep descent of the driveway had helped the car flirt with the limits of its acceleration.
Evidence of Craig making any attempt to slow or avoid the stone retaining wall across the street was nil. Speculation had it that his neck was snapped by the initial impact with the gate. The car had run headlong across double lanes and concertinaed the chassis against the stonework, flaccid airbags hung like oversized spent condoms from every panel.
The coroner on scene disagreed with the police assessment. Craig’s neck displayed a lateral force break from his right side, an inconsistent fracture with the head-on impact; a fact that, though noted on file, was put aside as a strange curiosity. The police were more interested in the events that had led up to the catastrophe.
“We argued, yes Colonel... Another cup?” Ken, the high-ranking police officer and his Lieutenant were alone in Ken’s breakfast room; the staff clearly shaken was keeping to themselves in the scullery.
Twenty-four sleepless hours; among the worst in Ken’s memory; had soaked his energy. He knew that it would be many more hours before he could hope for shuteye—he was running on caffeine and other self-medications.
The Colonel, called as he had been from bed at Ken’s insistence, had personally taken over the scene. He was conducting the report in a friendly and efficient manner. As a police Colonel he naturally had LifeGames certification; he owed his career to the company, and so considered himself very fortunate to be in the presence of the man who had made his rise through the ranks possible.
He’d sped through the motions of the exercise without pushing for more answers than were plainly obvious to even a layperson; he had no intention of finding fault in a man he considered to be something of a personal hero.
Ken could sense the man’s sentiments and felt comfortable now, confident that the incident was going no further than this report. He was more concerned with three major problems arising:
With Craig dead, the potential security risks of leaking the nature and function of the pharmaceuticals were eliminated. There was now the question of tweaking the chemical formula to avoid further reactions.
Ken had worked as closely as possible with Craig during the development phase so that he had a working knowledge of the active chemistry. He’d also taken the precaution of video recording all-important developments; these were stored in his private vault. He could have new chemical batches re-synthesized to the existing specs; it was engineering the unknown problems the Pentagon man was suffering from that might prove impossible with Craig gone.
Fortunately, he thought, a lab in China was on a secret payroll for just such an eventuality—and further developments could proceed there without too much fuss or ethical squint.
Secondly, the fact that Craig had died under these circumstances; at the mansion and during the early hours of the very morning following the unresolved catastrophe at work; would be bound to raise eyebrows.
It didn’t hold risk for Ken; he’d just rather not set tongues to wagging.
He put the worry aside; he’d work on a story to out-maneuver any possibility of gossip later, after some sleep.
And finally, the General’s life still hung in the balance and along with it Ken and LifeGames’ reputation. If the man were to die, he would take them a long way down with him.
It was going to take finesse and a spot of luck to get out of this quandary, he thought.
The Colonel finished his questioning before he and his Lieutenant departed to inform Craig’s estranged wife, Pat, and son of the tragedy.
After the man had left, Ken phoned through to the hospital where the General who had suffered meltdown was being treated; he desperately needed some positive news on the man’s recovery;
“Yes Sir, he’s stabilizing. Would you like to speak to anyone in particular? The gentleman’s family is down the corridor...” The nursing Sister had a pretty voice, brimming with compassion.
“Not to worry Sister, I’ll call back later,” Ken hung up before she could ask him any more questions.
“Good,” He spoke out aloud to himself, “one down, two to go,”
He went directly down to the server room in his basement—it was 9am—it would be midnight in China so he’d have to handle that last.
He keyed into a numeric touch pad on the wall and it slid back revealing a hand-print reader onto which he placed his palm and fingers; above it a hidden mask flipped and swooshed forward—he placed his forehead against the pad and stared into the mechanism; his eye pattern matching the database, a section of wall clicked and hinged open.
He walked through and the door closed behind him. Inside was a console encircled by several screens—this was his private secure communications room; from it all communications were 128-bit encrypted for maximum confidentiality.
He’d planned to put it aside till he could get some sleep first, but his mind wouldn’t pipe down in its searching for a plausible story; “Why was Craig at my house?” The question repeated laboriously in the echo chamber of his exhaustion.
The scenario was falling into place, so he dialed through to Nancy’s private line, “Hi, Nance. I’ve got some dreadful news I’m afraid. You do need to sit down...” he paused for a moment and she confirmed that she was ready, “…Craig’s been involved in an accident.”
“Was it serious?” Nancy’s voice quavered in reply.
“Very, I’m afraid. It’s... Uhhmm... fatal.”
“What? How? Where did it happen…? When?”
“At the bottom of my driveway... last night.”
She peppered him with a flurry of questions, staggered by his coolness, but betraying nothing of any unspoken thoughts that attacked her. She’d become very fond of Craig; a little too fond, Ken thought.
“With yesterday’s problems... neither of us were going to get sleep so we went to my place for a nightcap.” Ken could hear her tugs of breath as the reality set in and her sobbing began in earnest, “He had so many personal problems... just wanted a good friend, I guess. He hit the bottle a bit hard.”
Ken knew without any doubt that the investigation would be quashed, so he reasoned that nobody at the office would ever know for sure what was in the police report. He figured he could pretty much say whatever suited him.
After a parade of condolences had been traded, Ken proceeded discussing the business of the day.
“I won’t be in today so do update me with the General’s situation and anything else that I should know about. And, oh yes; set up a Board Review of the advertising campaign and PR review. Any time from tomorrow will do. Also get hold of Catherine and make sure that she has the recordings ready.”
He signed off with Nancy.
With the mundane business wrapped up, the big problem could be attacked.
By late afternoon Ken had been thinking about using China to prepare an urgent intervention, and the more he thought about it, the worse the idea became. The Chinese government were already working on a competing program to LifeGames’ option. One wrong meeting behind the bamboo curtain, and he’d be paying for their fast track to overtake him.
No… he needed somewhere less competitive, somewhere he could control and eliminate anyone fool enough to leak it.
From his private vault he took out a well-worn address book bound in calfskin and thumbed through to the “D’s”.
“Kenny, Kenny… me old mucker… let’s get something straight here, if you’ve got a nutritional problem you’d go to Nestle. You’ve only come to me because you’ve got a narcotics problem... True?”
Ken could hear David Karcher smiling gleefully, and counting a big payday.
There was a long and suspenseful silence; each man could hear the other’s breathing as it puffed through the handset’s mouthpiece. Ken began to sweat as his mind raced for a way out of the dead end David was so good at snaring him into. He tried a few angles.
David let Ken stumble on with a bunch of poor explanations before he decided to brake the deadlock and let Ken off of the hook;
“If you tell me about it Kenny, I’ll put you onto the right people, otherwise let’s stick to pleasantries.”
Ken had forgotten how the beach bum attitude that David portrayed could instantly snap about, becoming a steel thrust.
“Ok, all that I’ve told you was half true,” Ken admitted. “This is an idea that I’ve been having since we started heating our subjects up a little too much with the virtual reality; I’m looking for something to make their transition back to reality... gentler.”
Ken was a bath of perspiration; David always had a way of doing this to him, the acrid sweet smell reeked of fear as he skirted the precipice of truth.
Ken had claimed his internet Skype camera was malfunctioning, so that David could not view him in his unsettled state; he might be able to fake confidence in his voice, but David was a master in neuro-linguistic programming; having taught Ken all that Ken now knew about the technique; and David would instantly have had him at a vast disadvantage if he had a visual bead on him. Ken took refuge in invisibility today.
There is proverbial honor that exists amongst thieves; the trust between these two men extended beyond that and on to a mutual gun held to each other’s head; both knew the details of dirty dealings that would put the other into a deep dark place for a long-long time.
“This must be bigger than I thought, old son!” David was enjoying his turn to rub in the advantage, “Still so guarded, Kenny...”
Ken was desperately seeking a way of breaking David’s grip. He guessed that humor, even weak humor stolen from Catherine would buy him time to think.
“I trust you to keep the secret Dave; it’s the people that you tell that I don’t trust!”
“Always the joker under pressure, eh? You’ve got to work on it, boy’o,” David let the pregnant silence last for a torturously long period. “Ok, I’ll allow you some privacy, what’s your email? I’ll pop some options over and asterisk the really wicked outfits; they’re probably the ones you’ll want to use... but it’s five times the usual rate.”
“I was thinking twenty times would be outrageous. How about ten times the rate then?”
“I’ll still do five if you like…”
They settled on five times the already exorbitant rate for information and silence, and signed off.
An hour later the email was in. There were six options, five of which were third-world dictatorships infamous for their narcotic exports. One of the six immediately stood out, one of the two that had been asterisked. *Paris*
“Which way to go?” Ken began a monologue with himself, his nerves still frayed and jangling from the conversation with David.
“Paris is bound to be more sophisticated... and discrete if everything goes right... but if anything goes wrong it’ll be near impossible to keep the lid on it there.”
“Backwaters,” he thought, “they’re so much more convenient… you can pay-off or bump-off dissenters,” and it made him smile, seeing the options narrow.
He began to loose concentration. It was time for a line of powdered-inspiration.
Moments later Ken felt invincible, *Colombia*, the other asterisked option had his attention
“I know the lingo… hmm… and if anybody could, they can certainly be persuaded to keep mouths shut.”
He paced... pondering it, back and forth, and then went back to the screen and stared at the list until a decision whispered itself into his head.
“Ok... Colombia... if their lab’s up to the task... this time they will run a human....” He didn’t finish the sentence to himself.
His plan cementing in his mind—he’d take a short trip to make sure things were followed through and bodies were properly disposed of.
It was early evening as Ken went through various messages on his phone.
The Colonel had kept his word by phoning through some information concerning the investigation into Craig’s death. “They’ve picked up narcotics on the man’s body, Sir. As you suggested it looks as if Mr. Angelis had been dealing... cocaine... quite a sizable quantity.”
Careful in making his statement, Ken had led the Colonel to believe that he was a deeply ethical and law-abiding citizen.
The picture he’d painted of Craig was slanderous;
“We’d been arguing about his deterioration at work, his absent-mindedness and so on... It already cost him his marriage; I put it to him that his career wasn’t looking too rosy. Don’t get me wrong Colonel, he was a hell of a worker and well liked; maybe a genius. That’s precisely the problem... the reason it upset me to watch him tossing his life away on drugs!” Ken had paused to worry with his index finger at an itch near his eye, “His wife knows nothing of this of course. The man was very secretive; tragic...”
He’d left the thought unsaid and looked down in the pregnant silence, pleased that the Colonel and his aide were swallowing the story. He’d pretended to compose himself; looking slowly skyward, shaking his head hopelessly, tears welling in his eyes;
“…I’m sorry, I get really pissed off with these idiots... some things you’re supposed to grow out of.”
“Of course, Sir.” the Officers had each sympathetically reassured him, acting as sounding boards for the man’s grief.
“...You know, Craig was worth more than this nonsense,” Ken had laid it on thick, preparing fertile ground for escape routes if he ever needed them, “I kept this whole situation from his colleagues.... That’s why I asked him to my house to discuss it. I thought it would be better if the two of us could sit down, as friends, and thrash it out...”
Another theatrical pause had built the empathy. “...’You’ve got a child, Craig... a wife who loves you that you’ve driven away...’ I told him.”
As he’d spoken, Ken had been acting out the bogus scene for the men; dropping carefully crafted neuro-linguistic actions into his pantomime to cement key ideas into the officer’s minds.
“...and that’s when he blew his stack, Colonel. I’ve never seen anything like it. I tried to stop him, but he was demented—he just took off.”
Ken had carefully assumed an open body language, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees and his palms open directly toward the senior, the Colonel, a picture of grief.
“Who knows a man’s mind? Perhaps the pressure of becoming a father late in life... could be coming from nothing and getting too much too quickly from me? I can’t fathom it, Colonel.”
As they’d moved to depart, the Lieutenant went to use the facilities and Ken took the moment to slip some advice to the Colonel who had announced that he would personally break the news to the newly widowed Mrs. Angelis; “I don’t think there’s much point in revealing the drug angle to her... What good would it do?”
He assumed the Colonel would convey the message to his underling.
The following message on the voicemail was from Catherine, “I’m really devastated for you, Ken. I know you were close to him... Hmmm. I hate situations like this... sorry, I really don’t know what to say. I think I met him once... Well... very awkward; sorry all the same. Speak to you soon. Ciao, ciao.”
Her Italian-style sign-off was a lovely touch, “Ciao, ciao,” Ken repeated aloud, trying to imitate her voice.
On first hearing her voice he had noticed a little stir in his loins. “No way!” He’d thought, “She’s hot enough... but this is ridiculous.”
He laughed at himself, trying desperately to reject any notion that there was also a lump in his throat; with concerted effort, he blocked the feeling.
The idea of actually feeling emotion toward a woman terrified him, “Naagh... not me, mate!” He broke into song in the style of a young Cliff Richard at the dawn of pop music; “I’ll be a bachelor boy, ‘cause that’s the way to sta’ay..."
He was still singing to himself in jovial mood when the next message began to play with an ominous intensity that instantaneously truncated the melody and his happy demeanor.
The message began with an electric click, a popping sound that to Ken sounded like an international connection on a poor line, followed by a weird dragging static echo. Try as he might he could not focus on what it was; it sounded deathly. Ken listened closer, clicking from the handset to speaker; the sound filled his room in an eerie fog of intonation.
Something in the background made his hair stand on end.
Two seconds... three seconds of the driving sonorous cacophony haunted through the veil, and suddenly Craig’s voice, tortured and stretched cut crisply through; “STOP!” his voice was faint as a whisper, but charged with imposing authority. Abruptly the line went dead.
Ken was appalled, staring agape at his handset.
A feeling of dread permeated to every corner of the room, its unfamiliar sensation gripping him.
“Fuck!” he said aloud, not wanting to touch the handset as it lay where he’d put it, not sure what to do with it if he did.
“How could this short message have shaken me to such a degree?” His mind was somersaulting.
Gingerly he picked it up—the digital readout on the voicemail indicated that the incoming call had been logged at 16:36 that afternoon—a mere few hours before.
Ken realized it was the exact time he had been on the other line to David, Craig’s corpse should have been safely in its refrigerated drawer down at the police mortuary, his slack vocal cords having long-since uttered no more.
“It’s some kind of mistake,” he reassured himself confidently, preparing to rerun the message, intent on listening for any telltale transition in the message that might betray over-dubbing.
“POP..." the weird background activity... “...STOP!” disconnection sound—space—new message; “Hi Ken, Nancy here. It’s five to five. Catherine’s on for 10am tomorrow, I’ve confirmed it on the email to you. I hope you’re okay and don’t worry, everything’s under control here. Bye.” Disconnection sound—nothing.
Ken paused the replay. Nancy’s message indicated 16:54, it was within a minute of her own time check, “How the hell did an old message from Craig find itself in the middle of two current messages from today?” he was perplexed.
He skipped back and forth, running through the messages several more times. He maximized volume to study the clicks and pops and other eerie sounds, but none of it made any sense at all.
Ken was no sound technician, yet what he was hearing seemed to gel and have a muddled pattern. Defeated in trying to fathom it, he forwarded all three messages to his email, hoping something in their sequence might explain why they were improbably in sequence; his IT department could take a look at it in the morning.
Exhausted, he made ready for bed, but try as he might he could not shrug off the mysterious dread that persisted and haunted him throughout the long, fitful and exhausting hours to dawn.