“Our Pentagon boy’s stabilized, Ken... Looks like he’ll pull through, but the press are sniffing around the hospital,” Suspecting that Ken would be in the office early, 2nd in charge, Henry Fowler, had been waiting for him to arrive since 7am.
“He’s conscious?” Ken was relieved; the degree of the man’s recovery would dictate the depth of the military’s investigation.
“Yep... but doing some strange babbling that nobody can make head or tail of. On about demons and spooks... sounds rather X-Files... weird stuff. Oh yes, Leon says your name came up in his ranting. Your name... and Craig’s.”
Leon was the resident PhD Psychiatrist in LifeGames’ employ—in charge of hypnosis.
A chill ran up Ken’s spine; his mind immediately jumping to the recording on his handset and email.
Henry continued waffling, “What seems odd to me is that the guy probably read about you in the press... but who knows Craig’s name? Strange.”
Ken was logging into the central server; he didn’t look up from his monitor and ignored the speculation; “Any further clues of what put him in hospital?” Ken had thought it important to ask the question to keep the decoy rolling away from the truth he alone knew.
“Nope, but we’ve still got the Time Dilation unit shut down. The good news is that the standard Commercial Side is going like hell.”
The Commercial Side was company jargon for the ordinary, non-Time Dilation, virtual training procedure.
“Yesterday I had three hours on the blower to Lufthansa, they’re expanding the crew analysis to executive management as a quarterly review! We’re prepping modules to run executives through for dealing with mid-air disasters, missing planes and major collisions... told you they’d bite. With them in the bag we’ll pull all the others in. They’ve got an image to uphold and the right attitude for technology.”
Ken needed to concentrate as he navigated through the network into Craig’s computer; Henry’s babbling was distracting and irritating, and he tried to shut it out, giving no encouragement or feedback.
But Henry was oblivious to Ken ignoring him, he steamed on in a buoyant mood. He intensely disliked Craig and had not shed a tear. Today was just another workday.
Ken had spy software running on every computer of executive staff; the software took a screen image every thirty seconds, and logged every keystroke made.
Inside Craig’s desktop, he was running a search for a .wav file, a sound file, searching for any possible recording that might contain a sample of Craig’s voice. Only the occasional word from Henry’s rambling penetrated his mind.
Ken hated it when Henry tried to imitate his personal style of slick talk, which he was now doing. Henry was a suit, a nerd, he should stay within his own grey little personality.
Unperturbed by Ken’s lack of enthusiasm, Henry was still happily rambling on about Lufthansa, “I told Jimmy to steer us their way. Once they’ve signed on, it’ll be a flood. We won’t keep up,” He was beginning to get into gear, “...and my money would be on Cathay or Emirates being next. I told Jimmy to forget the American airlines, forget British... their nose is going to be out of joint if the Germans do it before them. They’ll only come into the program once they think that a dignified period has past.”
Ken grunted on impulse, wishing he hadn’t because it only encouraged the fool.
“Virgin may be the problem. If Branson sees that the training’s working he’ll probably try to copy our systems and go into competition before you know it!”
Ken was sick of it and needed to derail Henry before his anger popped, so he cut him short; “You ready for our ten o’clock?” It was clear that Henry was a frustrated marketer who couldn’t wait to meddle in Jimmy Castle’s Marketing Department.
Any excuse that he could find, Henry was in on any of Jimmy’s meetings, chipping in his penny’s worth of opinion. Jimmy hated the interferences, but he had admitted that Henry possessed an instinct to spot a market opportunity.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Henry beamed. There was relish in his eyes.
“Jimmy will be delighted!” Ken said just as Nancy stuck her head around the door. Her eyes were ringed dark with insomnia and puffy from crying
“Morning,” she said in a manufactured perky voice, she was not one to ever impose her sadness on others.
“Morning Nance, how’re you doing?” Ken asked out of conformity.
“Bearing up,” she assured, her mouth curled a forced smile.
“I got your email and phone message last night, thanks. By the way, what time did you leave the message?”
“Just before five, didn’t I give the time? I usually do.”
“Yes, sorry... of course you did. I forgot,” Ken smiled and then added, “What time did the General wake up?”
Nancy shrugged, but Henry answered, “Around eight last night. Leon called it through, under the circumstances I suggested we not bother you.”
“I’d like to have known... but thanks.”
The strange chain of coincidences seemed to be escalating. Craig dying in the small hours, his voice appearing later in the afternoon, then the General finally waking ranting and babbling about Ken and Craig. It was a silly correlation, but one Ken couldn’t avoid making.
“How many dictation recordings have you got of Craig’s, Nance?” Ken asked.
Craig was a stranger to the keyboard and Nancy typed from his dictations.
“Shew,” Nancy blew through pursed lips and rolled her eyes, “Hundreds on my laptop. You after anything in particular?”
“Not really... just a voice sample... silly... unlike me but... I dunno... maybe closure? Bit of a history with him you know, guess I want to just hear his voice once more,” he played the sensitive card masterfully as Nancy and Henry both nodded thoughtfully.
“I’ve got a ton—I’ll email something over.”
Nancy disappeared to do his bidding.
“The police think that it could have been drugs, Ken... Craig’s death,” Henry solemnly ventured.
Ken was staggered by Henry’s express knowledge of the incident, “Where the hell did you get that, Henry!” Ken tried too late to obscure the alarm in his voice, but it had rung through.
“Sorry Ken, I got sidetracked with Lufthansa, I was going to talk to you about it... An officer was here yesterday going through Craig’s personals; he had a search warrant. Did you know they found a large quantity of cocaine in Craig’s car?”
Ken feigned disinterest and nodded minor acknowledgement, focusing his attention back to the pile of papers cluttering his desk. In truth he focused intensively, tuned to every word and intonation Henry uttered, trying to get a measure of how much the man knew or was likely to figure out.
“Drug takers right here... under our nose. I never liked the guy—told you as much.”
Ken formulated a response; he rose and moved over to shut the door.
“I’ve known about his problem for a while, Henry,” he began to explain. “Hadn’t you noticed how absent minded Craig became?” As Ken spoke he was nodding his head just perceptibly, lightly drumming his fingernails on the desk like a miniature horse galloping, affirming his lie, welding it into Henry’s mind.
Henry began to nod in time, “You know, now that you mention it... but drugs? I thought he was maybe ticked in the head.”
“I tried to keep it under wraps, Henry. It wouldn’t do team morale any good,” Ken asserted, “that’s why I had him round to my place last night... gave him an ultimatum to quit the drugs or resign his position.”
“I know, the officer told me,” Henry chirped triumphantly.
Again Henry’s insight stumped Ken, and a small panic rose that he had misjudged the Colonel.
“Was it the Colonel or the Lieutenant?” Ken quizzed—the answer to which would seal the fate and career prospects for the man who had broken his unspoken hint to keep these matters confidential from the office.
“Only a Lieutenant came here—he said his boss had gone to break the news to Craig’s wife... or widow should I say.”
“I’ll deal with him...” Ken made a mental note. “Okay... Well... it’s true, there’s no point stoking the rumors and bringing the man down, so just keep it to yourself. The whole situation at my place blew up over the issue; Craig went crazy when he realized that I knew about his addiction, he panicked... got out of control; I’ve never seen anything like it, he laid a strip of rubber the length of my driveway... God knows how they’ll clean it up—and he destroyed my entrance way.”
“His wife know about it?” Henry asked.
“I doubt it. I think that’s what sent him off the deep end, when I brought up her name he thought I was threatening to reveal....”
“Come in,” Ken called.
She stuck her head around the door, hesitating.
“Come on in Nance, we’re not hiding from you.”
“I mailed you four recordings.”
It was quite unlike Ken to be sentimental, but she guessed that every man had a right to a change of heart in the face of tragedy. More curious was his interest into the specific times that different events had occurred; her call, the General waking; she knew him well and this was out of character. He was trying to cover something up.
“I think we all need to get on with other things,” as if he’d read her mind trying to fathom his, his voice was suddenly brittle.
Both Henry and Nancy saw the tide of Ken’s mood swing and Henry excused himself to go about his daily chores.
“Coffee?” Nancy offered a peace settlement.
“Please... and get Stuart Reese from IT up to see me urgently. When I’m done with him, I want to see Anton. I’ve gotta see both of them before ten, thanks love,” Ken was fond of Nancy and her peace offer had instantly doused his irritation.
When he was alone, Ken listened again to the emailed voicemail; to the “...Stop!” recording. Then he immediately listened to one of the four-dictated recordings of Craig’s voice that Nancy had sent to him.
He re-listened to the extracts until Stuart’s timid knock sounded at his door. “Come on in, shut the door. Coffee?” Ken smiled genially at the youth.
“No thanks, Mr. Torrington,” Stuart was nervous and expecting the worst with all manner of persecution cramming through his mind; Could it be the problem with the General, or something with Mr. Angelis?
Stuart was a sound engineer, and his specialty was looking after all audio aspects of the Commercial Side.
Summonses to the executive suite were rare and the only time he’d ever spoken directly with Mr. Torrington had been at his sound-mixing desk when visitors needed to be impressed. Ken would generally ask him technical facts and other specifics regarding what he had been doing at any moment in the sound mixing process; all fairly canned for the visitors’ benefit.
“Are you sure you won’t have a cup? I’m having,” Ken couldn’t have been friendlier.
“Ok,” Stuart relented in a stutter, he didn’t drink coffee, “I mean, yes please, Sir.”
Ken saw his apprehension, “Don’t worry Stuart, there’s no problem. I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”
Stuart relaxed slightly.
“Milk? Sugar?” Ken asked warmly.
“Two please.” Gingerly the lad regained his nerve, “A... a little milk too please,” Ken dabbed at the intercom’s talk button, “Another coffee for me please Nance. One for Stuart, two sugars, milk.” He released the button without waiting for confirmation, shutting off the transmission as he continued to address Stuart in a lowered tone, “You know much about voice fingerprinting, Stuart?”
“I.... I’m sorry, Mr. Torrington?”
“It’s a term I’ve heard, voice fingerprinting. Isn’t that what you call it… when you match a voice to a specimen to confirm identity?”
“Sorry, Mr. Torrington. That’s right, acoustic fingerprinting. I mean your term is correct, I misheard-heard you, that’s all.”
“Have we got the equipment to do that?” Ken asked. He’d never quite come to terms with the precise applications of all the gadgets within the guts of his own facility.
“Sure Sir, we’ve got great stuff, the latest!” On the territory of his beloved skill, Stuart’s personality blossomed to life, his face was an ear-to-ear smile.
“Could you check something out for me?”
“You’ve heard about the tragedy with Mr. Angelis?”
“Yes Sir,” Stuart averted his eyes, “I heard he was a very good man. I’m sorry.”
Ken saw that it was genuine grief and it provided him with an opportunity to capitalize;
“Stuart, I’m trying to help the police with their investigation and I thought that our lab might be more up to date than theirs is. Craig was a great man and a close friend to me. Our company is going to miss him and I intend to do all that I can to help get to the bottom of the tragedy.”
Stuart was gazing at Ken, almost hypnotized by Ken’s sham sincerity. He too had fallen in time with the rhythm of Ken’s nodding head and imperceptible horse-gallop drumming fingers.
“The police have asked for absolute confidentiality on the matter and I gave them my word that they would have it. Now I want you to promise me that no one else but you and I will know about this—not even inside the company. Understand?”
Stuart almost did himself damage in his eagerness to ratify the promise.
“Good,” Ken was satisfied, “Take a look here. These four recordings definitely contain Mr. Angelis’ voice. This other recording is from someone’s voicemail and it sounds a bit like Mr. Angelis saying, ‘STOP!’ Think it’s enough to go on?”
“Yes, Sir! Any word, in any language... even humming and I could get a match. I can download an app with a modular analyzer that magnifies... that amplifies... the target sound. We can tease it from any background and eliminate auxiliary static through coaxial logic in a quadratic array of hyper-contained modular fragments that..."
Ken held up his hand to halt Stuart before he could really get going on his pet subject;
“As long as we can get an accurate identification, that’s all the police need...”
He cut it short as Nancy arrived with the coffee and offered her finest maternal smile to Stuart.
Ken waited for her to leave before continuing;
“There’s something else in the background, something that sounds to me like interference, the police want to know if it’s a clue to location. See if you can make sense of it. They also suggest that you may want to see the sequence of the message runs-ins. I don’t know if it would be preserved, but I forwarded the mails either side of this target recording.”
It struck Ken what he’d said, “I forwarded,” and the contents of the message would pin the messages directly back to him. In an instant he decided that the kid was too terrified of him to ever breathe a word about it, but he emphasized it again, to be sure.
“Now, remember... it’s very confidential; I can’t disclose why... But the cops are not too certain that it’s a direct sequence, it seems someone might have fiddled with this and replayed an earlier recording as a prank... can you check for any super-imposing or editing... anything.”
Stuart was pretending to sip at the coffee. “When do you need the details, Sir?”
“As soon as possible, Stuart. I want you to make it a priority, and if Mr. Fowler or anyone else inquires, you tell him to talk to me. Now, I’m sorry, but I’ve got another meeting lined up.”
Stuart left the office at a canter.
Five minutes later the software coder, Anton Lim, arrived and Ken was on the phone but he held his hand over the mouthpiece and greeted him “Morning, Anton. I’ll be thirty seconds—organize me a coffee.”
Anton disappeared out the door and moments later Ken heard Nancy exclaim. She was a health nut and Ken knew he’d soon be having his ear chewed for his caffeine intake.
When Anton returned, Ken was done with his call.
“Close the door would you,” Ken asked, still seated.
“Sorry to hear about Craig, Ken. I heard that it happened over at your place,” Anton had been indifferent to Craig as a person yet Ken reckoned that his neutrality would probably have turned to aversion if they’d had more interaction with one another.
“Yeah, a great shame... but life’s a sexually transmitted disease, you see... curable only by death,” Ken shrugged.
“I suppose you want to know about the progress...? The cyber-sex development,” Anton asked.
His voice had a habit of carrying and, as if hushing a child, Ken put his finger to his lips.
“Shhh... This can’t get out, Anton... my connection’s a freak. We don’t want to piss him off with a leak.”
“Shit... Sorry. I’m always too loud,” Anton apologized in a whisper.
“Seriously, Anton. I told you, he’s Saudi royalty—it’s a favor for a favor... I can’t even talk directly to him about it; he hinted, I suggested it could be done... it’s a very delicate arrangement... but if we get it right there’s a lot... a whole lot of doors that will open. Understand.”
Nancy entered and set the tray down. She pointed at the coffee and wagged a cheeky finger at Ken.
“Yes mom... sorry mom,”
“Yah!” was all she responded in matronly terms.
When the door was closed, Ken went on.
“The guy’s got a kink; he wants something exotic. Think you can come up with something spectacular?”
“Something vintage maybe? Has he got any interests?”
“He’s mad about the Roman Empire, if that’s hint enough.”
“Just reiterating... it’s not something I want rigor-mortis sniffing around about.”
Rigor mortis was a nickname Ken and Anton had coined for Max Schneider, Anton’s immediate superior and Vice President of Research.
Neither of the two men liked Max’s painfully serious and staid outlook on life. He was dead but refused to lie down.
Anton grinned; “He won’t know a thing.”
“Treat it as priority Anton and, if Rigor-mortis does get wind of it tell him to come talk to me... That’ll shut him up!”
Max wouldn’t dream of crossing Ken as he knew Ken wanted him out of the company.
But, as one of the foremost authorities in the world of virtual reality programming, he was indispensable. Since LifeGames Corporation was right at the cutting edge of virtual reality technology; neither man could do without the other, yet Ken still wielded the heavier and sharper sword by far.
“Sorry Ken, I haven’t had a chance to mention it. Yesterday I dug around a bit in the Dark Web and scratched up some useful code, it’s A.I. enabled... I can deconstruct and knit into something useful.”
“Very good... excellent thinking.” Anton’s news brought the prospects for Ken’s coming thrill with Catherine closer to reality by a huge margin.
“Let me make it run first before the plaudits,” Anton cautioned.
“How long you reckon?” Ken wanted a number to focus on.
“Depends. These things never go smoothly.”
“A week? A month... six months?”
The fresh scent of the chase was making Ken giddy and reckless, so he moderated his enthusiasm; “Sorry, I’m ahead of myself, I just want to impress the guy. Make it happen as fast as you can, Anton. If I can help you in any way... with a little cash boost... tell me how.”
The intercom beeped announcing a message and Ken held up his hand for silence before pressing the on button, “Yes?”
“Stuart Reese in Audio, Ken. He says that he has got a match?” Nancy’s voice was thick with puzzlement.
“Thanks, Nance,” Ken immediately rose and moved toward the door.
Anton mirrored him.
“Keep me up to date,” Ken instructed, reaching for the door handle.
Anton nodded, “Sure. Thanks for the coffee.”
Ken drew pinched fingers across his own lips as if he were closing a zipper. Anton nodded again in acknowledgment.
Stuart’s small empire was a world of humming servers and colorful, dancing monitor graphs. Ken watched the boy’s fingers fluttering instructions into a keyboard, and in response a ream of gibberish data scrolled onto one of the screens. Stuart had been so thoroughly entranced by the data that he hadn’t heard Ken entering the room. The click of the latch closing behind him made the youth leap to his feet, “Sorry Sir, I… I didn’t hear you coming in.”
“Didn’t mean to startle you, son,” Ken gladly assumed the role of master to slave; a relationship Stuart was keen to amplify, “You’ve found something?”
“Sure, Sir. A bunch of things!”
Ken liked the boy’s enthusiasm and noted how, around his own subject, Stuart was a giant of self-assured maturity.
“I’ll cover what I’m sure of first,” Stuart explained as he busied himself in a blur of activity, punching keys and clicking his mouse; “The sequence is affirmative, in other words, there’s no way that it’s a collage or any other kind of superimposition. The cut-on to cut-off pulse of the voicemail was crisp with no shadowing or partial obscuring. Secondly, the voice is without question a perfect match. The dictated recording had the subject saying the word “stop" twice. I lifted each of the utterances off onto a separate file.”
Stuart leaned across in front of Ken to dart a string of commands into another keyboard, but when Ken stepped backward to allow him better access Stuart suddenly leapt to his feet;
“S...So... Sorry Mr. Torrington sir, I lost myself in the data! Won’t you please sit down.”
“Relax, Stuart,” Ken reassured as he guided a chair up next to him, “You carry on and don’t mind me here.”
“Thanks, Sir. Errr... where was I? Yes! The graph that you see on screen ‘A’,” He pointed to a screen stack with its uppermost unit marked by a plaque reading ‘A’.
“That’s the word ‘stop’ frozen in graphic animation. I lifted it off of the dictated recording,” He tapped the appropriate recording on the desk before him, “Screen ‘B’, is ‘STOP!’ lifted from your voice recording.”
Ken felt an icy chill squirt through his veins, Stuart had clearly said, “your recording”; so he definitely knew it was from Ken’s phone; but the boy was under obligation to maintain the strictest security, so Ken forced himself to relax.
All the while, Stuart was excitedly rambling onward with his findings, “…from the dictated recording.”
Ken filled in the spaces he’d missed in Stuart’s explanation as his mind had leapt with diversion; Screen ‘C’ represented the second dictated ‘…stop’ from Nancy’s recordings.
“Even at a glimpse you can see that they’re identical. The small inclusions are noise or static from outside interference.”
Stuart tapped a few keys and the screens re-scrolled in perfect synchronization with one another, making them look even more identical.
“I’ve applied a noise reduction filter, it’s something like the Dolby option on your home stereo... eliminates the ambient...”
He frantically began to key away again, talking as he did so;
“I’m giving you a quick background Sir, but I’ve already run a printout of all the screens and the information is backed up onto disk for the police. I can go around and explain my work to whoever is dealing with the case.”
“Thanks Stuart but that won’t be necessary,” Ken patted him on the back, relaxing slowly as Stuart enthusiastically reiterated that he knew it was a sensitive issue.
Then suddenly, speakers began to croak, repeating the sound of a bullfrog in slow motion. The sound was chilling.
Stuart spotted Ken’s fright and quickly apologized over the sound of the rendition;
“Sorry, Sir. I should have warned you. This is the modular analyzer that I mentioned earlier in your office. I’ve slowed the recording five fold to get a visual on the three files.”
He pointed at the monitor stack where a ballet of graphs was snaking in perfect correspondence, one above the other. When the surreal croak ended, Stuart paused the images, “...as close a match as I’ve ever seen, Sir.”
“It’s definitely the same person?”
“Definitely. Yes, Sir.”
“What about the background sounds?” Ken was feeling jumpy.
“I’m afraid that I haven’t got a firm answer, Sir. That’s why I left it till last. It’s like nothing that I’ve ever heard before,” Ken thought that he could see Stuart’s forearm hair standing proud. “That first pop, which you mentioned, Sir. It’s definitely part of the message.”
“In other words, you’re saying that it must have occurred after connection had been made?” Ken squinted, trying to keep up with the technical details.
“Exactly, Sir! The strange thing is that it is ninety nine percent the result of a static electrical arc... a short-circuit, yet an energy release of that magnitude should have knocked out the entire circuitry! The only way that it wouldn’t have done it is if the static burst had occurred before the connection and we know that it hadn’t. Sorry Sir, this must all sound rather muddled, but technically it makes sense.”
Ken was massaging his head, trying to make sense of what he was hearing, “How would you sum it all up, Stuart?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Torrington. It’s only a small detail but it definitely falls outside of any laws of physics and even quantum fluctuations within the electronics that I’m aware of.”
“And the rest? The background.”
“I’ve identified three separate sources or at least that’s what it seems to be. Listen for yourself, Sir. I’ll first run through them all in real time. The sound will be blended and exactly the way you heard it before, but now you’ll notice that I’ve taken away possible ambient hiss. The response should be a lot crisper.”
Stuart hit the Enter key.
The sound was quadraphonic and underlined by a sub-woofer; pure as stroked crystal, it made Ken cringe as an army of spiders ran up his spine, the most powerful sensation of trepidation he’d ever felt.
And into haunting flute of sound, Craig’s voice spliced through it, ethereal and at one with the underlying reverberations. It was an aurora for the ears—an enveloping sound advancing from all directions enmeshed into a single overwhelming cacophony of dread. The voice was not projected over the sound, nor the sound over the voice. The dragging, ticking and droning possessed a timeless quality. There was no comprehending the strange effects; they appeared to emit from a single source.
A loud rapping on the door sent the two men leaping and their hearts jolted with three beats in one, the empty hollow of a skip. It was Henry, busy with his morning rounds.
“Ken... what brings you here?”
Henry’s cheerful demeanor suddenly incensed Ken;
“We’re busy with a very-private-matter. Would you mind closing the door,” he snapped irritably, immediately turning his back on Henry and proceeding to speak to Stuart. “Run it again Stuart.”
The abrupt confrontation had terrified Stuart out of his wits and without looking at either of his superiors he immediately jumped to the task.
“I-am- all right damned-sorry,” Henry grumbled with affront, closing the door from the outside.
“Sorry about that Stuart, he spooked me, I over-reacted,” Ken apologized.
Equally startled, Stuart tried to formulate a response but choked on it.
The prevailing mood of dread that had built up with the swirling sounds, had fled from the room with Henry’s intrusion, leaving a more fertile vacuum of emotion for objectivity.
Ken studied the sound graph’s peaks and valleys frozen alongside a time scale. The total sequence had lasted a shade under seven seconds.
Stuart had regained his nerve enough to talk, “This is the base sound, the one that’s most evident,” he activated the recording.
It had the quality of a low and deep throb not unlike a very large diesel engine, a ship’s engine, idling; its resonance had a timbre so deep it could more be felt than heard.
Divorced of interference sounds, it was unmistakably the dominant tone. When it was finished Ken studied the screen. It showed each pulse length to be 0.96 of a second, with a 0.72 second pause interval.
“Nothing too significant there,” Ken said it but didn’t feel it, his response rational in spite of the hairs at the nape of his neck telling a very different tale. Standing stiffly to attention they echoed a deep superstitious chill that throbbed with caution, chiming to the very hub of his soul.
Stuart concurred with Ken’s opinion, “This is the second sound, Sir.”
It had an accelerating tick-tock characteristic of a mechanical clock; conveying movement and urgency.
“Or perhaps insanity?” Ken thought, as the crisp and deliberate notes stirred another cocktail of sickening familiarity within him, the origins of which eluded him, “No clues?” he probed Stuart for a hint to the solution.
“None, Sir. Sorry. The third’s the strangest of them all.”
Stuart was right, it was a high-pitched garble of sound; faint, only a whisper that terminated shorter that the other two sounds did. That fact was plain to see on the graphical display. Screen “A" displayed the throb sound. Screen “B" displayed the tick-tock—screen “C" displayed the pitch.
Ken took a closer look. The pitch was shorter than the other two by precisely 0.7 seconds. “Any ideas?” Ken was pointing from one screen to the other, indicating the missing time.
“I saw it too, Sir. But I wasn’t sure if it mattered. I was trying to figure it.”
“Where does Mr. Angelis’ voice fit into all of this?” Ken asked, almost rhetorically.
“I edited it out.”
“Can you put it back in?” Ken probed.
“Easily,” Stuart went straight to the task. That moment the phone began to ring and without breaking stride on the keyboard Stuart scooped the handset up and wedged it between his ear and shoulder. “Audio... Yes... Yes, Miss Armstrong, he’s right here with me,” he handed it over, “For you, Sir.”
“Thanks,” Ken took the hand piece, “Hello, what’s up Nance? Okay… hmmm, alright... God, I didn’t realize the time already. Tell them to start without me. I’m here if you need me,” he replaced the receiver.
“Would you like to carry on later, Sir?” Stuart inquired.
“Not a chance of it! We’re on it, let’s run it to ground.”
Stuart was equally captivated to ferret out the elusive key to the mystery, “Two more ticks and I’ll have it, Sir... Hang on... here it comes... okay,” he hit the Enter key.
The high pitch sound echoed around the room again, but instead of stopping short Craig’s voice was neatly tagged on to its tail. The graph showed just shy of seven seconds—precisely 6.6 seconds.
“Gotcha,” Ken punched his hand with his other fist in triumph, then looked perplexed, “but, what does it mean?”
Stuart shook his head, “It’s somehow familiar, Sir. An old style transmission... Shortwave?”
“No. It’s not electronic sounding,” Ken was massaging his head, the detective work becoming a thrill, “Water? Maybe boiling water... a burbling stream?”
“I doubt it,” Stuart spoke, absentmindedly nibbling his nails like the teenager he was, “wrong waveform, wrong slope, the wavelengths are too abrupt.”
The sound was familiar yet foreign.
“Wait a minute,” a notion flashed through Ken’s mind, “...can you slow the sequence?”
Once suggested, it was an obvious choice, “I’ll slow it five-fold.”
Moments later the porridge of sound began; slowed, it had morphed into a jumble of clipping sounds resembling swallowing or chewing. It possessed rhythm and pace, with a human quality. “Another language? It sounds like someone speaking underwater,” Ken mused out aloud.
Stuart shrugged, wracked by confusion.
They ran the sound through several times before there was another knock at the studio door. It was Catherine and she was breathless, “Morning Ken, Nancy showed me down. I’ve briefed them and we’re on a break; I’m about to run the commercials. I know you wanted to be in on it...?”
“Hi, Cath. Oh, this is Stuart Reese, our audio tech. We’ve had a hitch with a project I must work through, I’ll be up in a moment.”
Ken had moved across the room to her, instinctively blocking her view of the graphs on the monitors, ready to usher her out of the room if Stuart ran the audio again. Something within him insisting that she not hear a bar of it; then he rethought this irrational reaction and decided her opinion would be good.
“I told Nancy that you should go on without me,” his voice brittle.
“She told me, but I knew that you invested a whole day in a preview and really want to be in on it when we reveal to the team, so I thought I’d better be double sure.”
His jealously protective demeanor drove her on a retreat through the door, but his attitude suddenly changed and he stopped her short;
“Just a moment, Cath. Give this a listen, it’ll only take a second… Run it, Stuart,” Ken instructed.
As the sound of the chewing obscurity began, Catherine cocked her head over to one side like an inquisitive dog. Something in it resonated with her at an emotional level. With each passing moment she craned with ever more puzzlement.
When the sequence ended, Ken put their best guess to her, “Human?”
“I think so?” she remarked adding, “Sounds like it’s backwards though?”
“That’s-it!” the two men sung in chorus, “Thanks, Cath!” Ken was steering her out the door. “You run along, girl. I’ll be up in a moment.”
Catherine stood for a moment in bewilderment, looking at the door closed in her face.
It took Stuart two keystrokes to invert the garble and the resulting sound was human all right, a yawningly slow human drone; a deformed inflection, the labored rendition of a weary old man intoning; “Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy Name...”
Euphoric at cracking the riddle, Stuart seemed untouched by the content of its utterance. He paused the recording, “Damn!” he said excitedly, “Still too slow!”
The smile of triumph on Ken’s face had melted to an ashen blank gape, plucked from his spot as master of his empire and dumped into the echoing halls of his Catholic upbringing.
Stuart saw the terror, “Are you all right, Sir?”
Ken didn’t reply, he absently waved Stuart back to the task at hand.
“Our Father who art in Heaven...” Craig’s familiar voice began to recite, the tone a nightmare of foreboding cascading from the speakers on all sides.
Something slid through Ken’s gut—the haunting terrors preached into him from the knee usurping his adult confidence.
Stuart was oblivious to the childhood stirrings and improbability of the message’s impossible timing; recorded as it was on Ken’s phone hours after the man’s death, but he saw the naked terror in his master’s gaunt face;
“Do you want me to audio finger-print it, Mr. Torrington?”
“Don’t bother,” Ken had stood up and started making for the door. He was in a stupor, a look of glazed bewilderment and colliding thoughts consuming his expression, “It’s him, I know his voice.”
On the threshold Ken stopped and turned back to face Stuart. He looked stooped, withering under the burden of shock and horror, but he found his voice of authority and instructed Stuart to “send a report, up to my office.”
He went out through the door without looking back.
Back in his office, Ken locked the door and set a large mug of coffee down on a low table before slumping into a sofa.
After tapping a quantity of white powder from a vial onto the tabletop, he cut it into several lines with his Black Card.
“This is bullshit...” he shook his head as he worked, “there’s a logical solution...”
He felt aggressive, cornered—frightened and stalked. His fists clenched until the nails bit into his palms. A lather of emotions had him on long-forgotten shaky ground where Jesuit priests in long black cassocks with leather lashes hanging from their belted rope cincture would stalk the cold drafty corridors of his school.
He shook his head to clear the distant memory of it.
He checked his watch, “Four past eleven. I’ll go in at eleven twenty,” he assured himself aloud. With his feet slung up onto the table, he shut his eyes and began to file all of the events into a logical perspective.
At precisely 11.20am Ken swung the Board Room’s door open and strode in. The gathering within was a full house of hushed suits hunched in eager digestion of the screen’s unfolding visual feasts.
Catherine stopped the image with the pause button and a sea of faces swiveled around as one to stare at Ken. “Morning,” he greeted in a voice made with manufactured cheerfulness.
“Morning,” the chorus replied.
“Forgive... urgent issues needed attention,” he smiled at Catherine, “…continue.”
He slid into his vacant seat as the image on screen burst into life then jumped to the start of the sequence so it could unfold as one for Ken’s benefit.
“Our Father who art in Heaven...” Craig’s voice crept back.