“Surprise, surprise...” Nancy’s tone was sarcastic; “they’ve traced it to his phone.”
“I just got the tweet... The media are still carping on about Spontaneous Human Combustion... guess it sells ‘Tycoon Burst Into Flames’ makes a great headline, we can all identify with the sentiment,” Catherine mocked.
They were being callous; they knew it and simply didn’t care.
Their forgiveness was shallow; they knew that too and simply didn’t care either; their absolution of his deeds was only relief by another name, relief that they had him cornered, that he was dismantling what he’d built, and doing it quickly.
Those efforts were in place. Nancy was being fed a constant update from many angles within the company—it was over, the nightmare that Ken had created was behind them. That he was dead was meaningless now—there was momentum and a trajectory in the right direction.
“I’ve been so busy I haven’t caught up on the details; what gave them the notion he’d spontaneously combusted?”
“Apparently the hands and feet usually fall off and the fire seemed to cause very little damage to combustible things in contact with his body,” Jacky jumped in—she’d been following the story ghoulishly since it broke eight hours earlier and they’d all decided to dine together.
“Chicken a la Chong,” Catherine intoned in her ritualistic prayer to the food they were about to receive as she knocked her favorite microwave warmed and batter-encrusted apparitions out of their Chinese takeout cardboard boxes onto delicate Meissen porcelain. “Lovely dinner conversation,” she added.
“Revenge... goes rather well with claret, I believe,” Nancy added, and they all laughed.
“Okay, girls... I think it’s getting a bit distasteful and catty. Seriously... the guy was a pig, fine... we all hated him, but I think we’ve had our fun with it.” Catherine was tired of the ghoulishness.
“Alright mum,” Nancy chimed in, raising her glass, and with a smile they all clinked glasses.
“Even I agree,” Jacky added, “...the bastard’s gone, it’s over. Let’s get serious about where we stand...”
“Well, I spoke with Henry earlier today,” Nancy recapped. “He was the first on scene... at 3am he was woken by a very urgent message from Ken to come straight over, so he tried to call back but went directly to voicemail. He was there before 3.30 and said the front gates were wide-open, front door open. As he came in, he said he was yelling and then smelled the burning, ran upstairs and found the room full of smoke and Ken’s bed... well. Not pretty.”
“Now that’s interesting... a message? Didn’t his phone ring?” Jacky was intrigued.
“No... I mean a message from the messaging system, not a written one, he said... a voice one. That’s what he told me.”
“Who’d send a message in an emergency? Why not just call?” Jacky pressed.
“How about the A.I... maybe it doesn’t make calls.”
“Come on, Nancy, don’t give me the hee-bees again,” a shudder with through Catherine.
“If it really did it once with Craig... why not?”
“Because they’re shutting it down... they’ve shut it down, we know that much,” Catherine assured.
“I thought Ken said they can’t...?” Jacky intoned.
“He was a pathological liar,” Nancy reminded them. “Want to know why I’m a bit freaked?”
“Do we have to?” Catherine wanted to believe it was all over.
“I’m not making up scare stories... Better we talk it through though... Henry told me the electronic bolts on the vault door of Ken’s walk in strong room had malfunctioned. It’s why he called me at 4, he stays right across the city and I’m just down the road from Ken... he wanted to drop something at my house that he said was very sensitive... files. Asked me to keep it quiet.”
“You let him?” Jacky seemed a bit shocked.
“He’s a good guy, Jacky, I trust him, and I trust you to keep this between us... I just need a sounding board. It’s probably stuff that’s too sensitive to be locked up if they make it a crime scene, as they have. I may be selfish, but I have shares in the company, it’s my nest-egg, so I’ve still got vested interest that it survives. Of course I’m going to help where I can.”
“Did you take a look at what he dropped?”
“I helped him bring it in. A boot load of stuff, files and hard-drives, a lockbox... admin stuff. He asked me if I minded putting it in a garden shed that I have, said he’d be back to collect it after he went back to Ken’s. He took the key, I gave him a remote to get back in...”
“Did you not check it out when he’d gone.”
“I couldn’t, he had the key.”
“When’s he getting it? Maybe you can try then.”
“The remote and key was in an envelope, through my letterbox slot by noon. He’d cleared it out.”
“I would just love to know what was so urgent...” Catherine piped up to unanimous agreement.
“I was in a position... couldn't refuse, couldn’t ask... It could be anything. I got the sense that it came out of Ken’s strong room. He didn’t say it, but it felt like a ‘oh... shit!’ moment when he realized he’d have to call the emergency services, and the info would be behind police tape. That’s how he inferred it to me.”
“Very intriguing. Why hadn’t he already called the cops or fire department if there was smoke?”
“I asked, and he said it was obvious that it was too late. Said he burst in, Ken was smouldering... looked desiccated, like a mummy, his hands and feet burned right off... that’s why the media ran down that path. I guess he felt he had time to clear up a possible mess… strategic, it’s the smart thing to do.”
“Or a mysterious message told him to clear it out...” Jacky added.
“Come on Jacky... enough of that now,” Catherine admonished her.
“Then what made him go into the strong room?” Jacky challenged. “It’s not exactly a normal thing to do in a fire crisis when you find someone burned to a crisp?”
“Henry said the door of the strong room was standing wide open, a huge thick door blocking halfway across the passageway, said he could hardly miss it. He’d been to the house before and didn’t even know it was a strong room, just a door off the corridor before Ken’s bedroom, he told me.”
“What kind of architect puts a strong room next to a bedroom?” Catherine speculated.
“An architect working for a psychopath,” Nancy suggested.
“Ahh... yes. How could I forget...?”
“Seems the electronic lock had malfunctioned so badly it had melted the mechanism leaving it unlocked, said he just walked right in.”
“Doesn’t this strike you as very weird… kind of like the electrical plug spat out at our place…?” Jacky asked, “...that there’s a message instead of a real live human phone call in an emergency to the heir apparent of the fortune who, when he arrives before anyone else in the dead of night finds the gates and front door welcomingly open for him? The safe is blown with the sensitive information packed and ready to go… all while the late Mr. Torrington lies smouldering quietly, and can wait till everything is neatly resolved before outside help is called...?”
She’d put in words what they were all thinking but too afraid to voice.
“They’re talking about a massive electrical spike... I mean... two unlikely events like that at the same time? It is strange, what else can we say?” Catherine tentatively spoke.
“That’s not really what I’m saying, Cath. I’m saying it’s more than strange or an odd coincidence.”
“We’re just going to freak ourselves out with this, Jacky. Don’t you think I’ve been freaked out enough?” There was a timbre of fear ringing through her voice.
“I’m sorry, baby. What impacts you, tears me apart. I’m just stepping back and looking at it; an electrical spike blows a lock, leaves gates and doors open... and now we learn it was the cell phone on the bed... the one that sends a voice message to the one person who can keep the chain intact... sends the message in the dead man’s voice... and then starts a fire that kills the useless piece of shit that is trying to shut down his ‘partner’ in a filthy business...”
Everyone was quiet, digesting the ugly picture she’d painted.
“…Whose got a mobile phone turned on right now? If this fucking thing is behind it, it could be listening to us.”
“Please stop it, Jacky... you’re becoming paranoid... making me paranoid.”
“It feels like a really bad idea to even talk or speculate any further,” Nancy added. “This was supposed to be an enjoyable evening... all finished and done with. Raise a glass to success and get on with life.”
“And what if what you’re saying is being put in you? You’ve been infected... remember... the bots in you taking their instructions wirelessly from the Borg... our router is just over there,” Jacky pointed across to the office nook where the low flat wireless router sat brooding with its LEDs twinkling merrily to whomever.
“Well, that’s a perfectly good way to stuff up a lovely evening,” Catherine added. “Nancy and I agree, it doesn’t look pretty, but Henry is a totally different personality, Jacks. He’s a very honest guy, just a bit of a wimp… I can’t see how he’ll cope. If he winds up with control, we could easily work with him. I’ll set up a meeting, we’ll tell him what we have, and together we can roll this back.”
“Like Ken rolled it back, until it rolled him over.”
“Okay... take the speculation out of it. Let’s pretend for a minute this is all perfectly normal and accidental. Just an electric spike... an electric spike that of course routinely blows electric locks out of their socket and sets fire to mobile phones... they happen all the time,” she said sarcastically. “Doesn’t it sound rather peculiar to you that his mobile sets fire to his linen, killing him... but he doesn’t wake up when the lock blows off his strong room? I’m assuming Mr. Paranoid installed a military grade strong room lock that would take some blowing, right?”
“I think that’s the point... you die from smoke inhalation before you wake, so you’re dead before you hear it blow.”
“Well, that’s two events then... the cell kills you and later the lock blows off... right?”
“I feel like puking, thinking about this anymore,” Catherine pushed her wine glass away.
“And the hands and feet off... Jeez, grizzly... but why are they off?” Jacky wouldn’t let go.
“No idea, it was just in the report. Maybe because wrists and ankles are thin, they burn through first, but I think we’ve probably had enough speculation for one evening.” Nancy put a lid on it.
“Can we please change the conversation,” Catherine amplified it.
“Okay... Shew... girls… so then it’s all over... jolly well done, he’s gone and we’re safe… it’s dismantled. I say we drink to that certain success.”
“I’ll get drunk to certain success,” Nancy pretended that Jacky wasn’t being sarcastic.
“Fine… I’ll just go freshen up then,” Jacky got up, peeved at having her gleeful pondering of Ken’s grisly demise truncated. She trundled off.
“Sorry… she’s rattled,” Catherine spoke quietly. “It’s how she deals with it... very confrontational… more so than me.”
“How is the dismantling of the ritual going?” Catherine gave the positive shift in conversation a shove.
“I don’t think we can speculate much more until we talk with Henry…. or whoever steps into the hot seat,” Nancy added.
“Well then… nothing we can do about it tonight, let’s take it down a notch and I’ll arrange to meet with Henry in the morning. We’ll resolve this... Feedback from the office is that it’s bedlam down there. Without Time Dilation, the company’s fallen back to revenues of four years ago. Big layoffs.”
“How’s the A.I. taking it? Ken’s partner in all this?”
“Well, I don’t know... Nobody’s talked about it. Perhaps he was bullshitting us. Perhaps it is as easy as hitting the pause button. Not a word on that, just what he told us, and that’s always speculative. Let’s just put it to Henry when we meet.”
“So where to for them? Succession—is it confirmed to Henry? What’s going to become of the company?”
“Henry’s the Vice President and has the most shares, his nomination to Chairman and CEO will have to go before the Board. I’m certain he’ll step into the breach; he’s already taken charge today. It’ll probably come down to Ken’s will—where Kens’ shares go, who they go to, I guess.”
“Henry seemed like a proper old fart,” Catherine suggested.
“Absolutely... a boy scout, straight as a dye—things are going to be very different at the company now, no more shenanigans.”
“You might even want to win the contract back, Cath.”
“No chance of that... I think it took Ken’s unique energy to make it happen, I reckon they’ll get overtaken by competition now that the mover and shaker’s gone.”
“Not if the A.I. is still a surviving partner,” and they laughed again. It was a thin, nervous and unconvincing laugh.