“I’ve been worried about him for some time, Nance,” Catherine puffed on the electronic cigarette she’d taken to using, trying to wean herself off of the bad stuff. The management at the trendy restaurant had cleared her use of it.
She preferred Juicy, a brand with a distinct cherry signature; calling it her juice-stick;
“I don’t want to peddle rumors, but Ken seems to have quite the little problem... his Columbian marching powder...” She put her juice-stick aside and added, “Not that it’s any of my business, but he’s got it all... he’s arrived. Why gamble it on addiction?”
Her concern was sincere. She could speak freely with Nancy. The relationship between the two women had matured fast, over the past months they’d become close.
Nancy’s expression looked pained; Ken had a manipulative way of welding people to him so that they cared for him as a friend.
“I’ve been wanting to talk about it with someone for a while. Two years ago when I joined, it wasn’t so obvious, but lately.... actually, over the past month, he’s been out of control with it.”
“Well you know him a lot better than I do Nance, so if I’ve seen the deterioration, then it’s bad.”
“And the mood swings? You never know what you’re getting. I used to accept them, thinking they go with the territory. But it’s become over the top,” Nancy’s expression and voice were despondent.
“I’m with you... Everyone says he’s impossible. He’s been great to me... he knows precisely what he wants, and he nitpicks... fine... I can deal with that. But since this incident at the hospital, it’s like I don’t know him. He’s like a different person.”
The way Catherine moved her eyes betrayed that emotion had crept in. “Shit... she’s falling for him,” Nancy thought with alarm. She reached across the table to take Catherine’s hand, “I’ve got a way with him, Cath...” then she added, “...whatever we speak of here, stays here... okay?”
Catherine smiled appreciatively as she raised her head.
They continued holding hands as Nancy went on;
“The real deterioration began with Craig’s incident. The General was hospitalized the day before, creating Bedlam at the office... long-knives in the Boardroom.”
“That’s very traumatic, but Ken’s not a regular human in that way... he’d never normally be phased by something like that. I’m sure you don’t know his back-story...? A lot of trauma. Really, and I mean truly bizarre and gory deaths of friends and family—it’s like he attracts it.”
“Wow... that is news to me!”
The warmth of the bond between the women elevated by their continued touch of hands. The tenderness stirred something in Catherine, it felt a little like the love of a sister she’d never had, but it was more than that too.
They’d been meaning to dine together some time prior to the Craig incident, but somehow had never got around to it. For months their social calendars had been too frenetic for either of them to find a slot and make the time.
Eventually, the weight of the prevailing circumstance had made it necessary to share mutual difficulties.
Nancy kept recapping, “He understandably took the day off, the first day I’ve ever known him to stay out of the office. The place runs itself, but he won’t stay away for anything.”
“Anyway, he took that day off. I left a message on his voicemail around five that evening. Remember? It was about your campaign review the following day.”
“Ken was in the office early the next morning, cheerful enough in spite of all the calamities with Craig and the General, but nitpicking over what precise time or sequence one thing or another had occurred. He insisted that I dig up an old sample of Craig’s voice... made up a story about being sentimental and wanting to hear his old friend’s voice again... like.... seeeeeriously out of character. I played dumb... acted like it was a regular thing he would do.”
“Weeeird...” Catherine encouraged, engrossed in the story.
“He asked me to call Stuart our sound engineer up for a matter.”
“I met him—I went down to call Ken for the review.”
“Of course, yes. I directed you... odd thing is, Ken has nothing to do with the operations staff, Henry runs that.”
Ken had impressed the strict chain of command on Catherine—his breaking of it was significant.
“I confess it... I’ve got a naughty habit; I look on screens and I see every detail at a glimpse.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
They both laughed.
“When I took coffee in, I saw Ken had an email from himself to himself with a sound file attachment. I’m an admin person, I know these things, and the file type was voicemail from his mobile... Why would you email yourself a voicemail, I wondered...?”
“Probably to keep a record of it,” Catherine ventured.
“Could be… I know Ken’s patterns and the way he works, and something definitely agitated him. He had me call Anton, our top programmer. Remember—Ken had missed a day and had a huge backlog, plus your review, yet he was cramming in meetings that break protocol… I thought it really strange and out of character… some kind of prank Anton’s sorting out for Ken.”
Ken had hinted to Catherine that there was good progress being made by the ‘programming department’ on their cyber-sex game and now as she silently connected the dots, she hoped that she wasn’t blushing.
“Later that morning Stuart called me, bubbling with triumph. He asked me to tell Ken that ‘he had a match’. What kind of match?”
Catherine loved to solve puzzles and this was a mind bender that sent the cogs and wheels of her mind churning, trying to link information.
Nancy put forward her best hypothesis;
“My guess is that there’s a connection between the time of day that I left the message on his voicemail, Craig’s voice on the dictation recordings, and the time that the General woke up in the hospital. I just haven’t figured out what it is.”
“Whatever the match is, it didn’t make him too happy,” Catherine suggested, “I think that’s the day I went down to the sound-room; Ken and your sound man were playing a voice backward and asked if I knew what it was, it was obvious, so I said it and they acted like they’d hit the lottery... Ken kicked me out of the room in a buoyant mood. Twenty minutes later, when he came into the review his mood was very sour. Something must’ve gone wrong.”
They considered that fact a while, failing to reach clarity.
“So... was he matching his voicemail to my dictation files?”
“Perhaps they didn’t match and that’s what upset him?” Catherine proposed, “I can’t imagine what recordings could contain that would upset Ken so much.”
They pondered the point for a while before Nancy came up with another lead;
“It wasn’t twenty minutes between you going down to the audio room and Ken emerging. Ken came up to his office within five minutes of me showing you down there. He seemed bewildered and grouched at me to get his tenth coffee of the morning. He looked like death, like he’d seen a ghost!”
Nancy’s words sparked a memory flash in Catherine’s mind, “I paused before I went into the sound room, I was in a bit of a rush, but the sounds were so weird, goose bump stuff, they transfixed me. Then after they threw me out, I stood and listened again... they were up to something that gave me the creeps, Nance.”
Nancy’s skin was prickling, hairs standing on end, “You know what that is? Backwards talking? It’s Satanic!”
“Come on? Ken interested in spiritual stuff? I can’t see it.”
“That’s what it is though,” Nancy was adamant.
“You think he’s into a cult?” Catherine posed.
They looked at one another, each entertaining the possibility. Then, simultaneously burst into peels of laughter at the improbability.
“Henry came up to my desk earlier. He was full of mutters about Ken biting his head off. He said that the door wasn’t properly latched and he used the same word as you... ‘the weirdest sounds’ he said.” She paused and cocked her head. “Now I think about it... he said he heard Craig’s voice... said it was emphatic; ‘STOP’, but it was blended into a rumbling and ticking... the weird sound. He also said that it gave him the creeps. Huh!”
Catherine was infected by Nancy’s strange account, the sounds once again echoing in her mind;
“Sounds from one of your dictated recordings?”
“I doubt it Cath, for security reasons all company recordings are locked and encrypted. I’ve never heard anything like what you and Henry described on Craig’s or any other recordings.”
Catherine scowled, “What else is there...? The voicemail you saw...” she deduced, “a message from Craig? Could that explain Ken’s obsession with times and sequences of events?”
“Oooh... this is intriguing...”
They both took lingering sips of wine they considered the plausibility of their findings.
“On the day the General melted down, the whole Executive holed up in the Board Room till nightfall—and we know Ken and Craig went back to the mansion... and then Craig’s death. Would it be a recording from that day that rattled him… if so, then why? If not, what’s the connection? I don’t think they ever socialized...”
“Beyond me... maybe it’s nothing? Probably we can’t get to the bottom of this.”
“But isn’t it fun trying...” Nancy rubbed her hands gleefully. “Okay... here’s another clue. Leon... our psych guy.”
“Love him! Batty old coot.”
“He was at the military hospital when Ken went loopy. Ken was off for three days, and for most of the next week too. Leon spent a lot of time at my desk, picking my brain about Ken and what had transpired. I told Leon everything I know... everything I won’t get fired for... and a bit more.”
“I sense one can really trust him, good Karma.”
“Very... Now, a penny’s just dropped in my mind; Leon mentioned a recording that Ken was too nervous to talk about. Wow...”
“Leon had him hypnotized... said he became agitated. Leon think’s it’s very spiritual... thinks Ken’s somehow spiritually shaken.”
“Quick recap... you said Henry also heard what I heard?”
“Gave him the creeps... just like you... just like Ken... Fffflowers!”
On impulse, Catherine took her hand and cupped it; they kept holding hands, it was comforting and warm—like sisters. Like sisters... and perhaps something more.
“Why’s everyone so terrified of this sound?”
“Wait till you hear it.”
“Don’t think I want to... seems to have put the fear of God into Stuart... our tech geek... both Leon and Henry said they can’t get a squeak out of him, and here’s the next twist; The only thing he’d volunteer was that it all has to do with a police investigation into Craig’s death!”
They discussed the police connection and came to no firm conclusions, so Nancy continued;
“Ken hauled Stuart over the coals for that leak; would have lost his job... in fact, he did, but Henry intervened and reinstated him... said he had ordered him to disclose the details... so there’s now a bigger rift in the Executive. Two camps.”
“Sounds grrrreat for business... aren’t you all just the happy crew.”
“Yeah... really! Since the incident the poor kid’s evidently not showed his face outside of his sound room. Ken’s also had an unholy blowout with Leon shortly after he came back to work.”
“I got the impression that Ken thought quite highly of Leon?” Catherine asked.
“He does. I think this is a temporary squabble between them... Leon definitely wasn’t fazed in the least, told me that it was just a perfectly normal reaction that Ken was experiencing.”
“Any clues about their argument?” Catherine quizzed.
“Yes… and I don’t have to suppose anything... Ken’s door is only three inches of solid teak and I heard every word... Let me correct that... I heard every word from Ken!”
“That bad,” Nancy agreed, “Leon instigated the meeting himself, he asked me to hold all calls for either of them. I knew that he intended to speak to Ken about the hypnosis session and Ken’s drug problem.”
Catherine withdrew her hand to fire up the juice-stick; it had been the first break since they’d touched, both so comfortable with the affection.
Nancy kept explaining what she’d learned, leaving her hand where it lay, waiting for Catherine’s touch;
“There was no sound from Ken’s office for about ten minutes after Leon went in, then I heard Ken’s voice beginning to rise, ranting about his confidence being betrayed and Leon’s snooping into business that didn’t concern him.”
“Then Ken began using language to make a sailor blush”
“Sounds like we need to discipline him.”
They were both a little tipsy and strung out by the intensity of conversation. Catherine’s silly innuendo sent them into a fit of delighted chuckling.
“In a nutshell,” Nancy still tittered, “Ken’s not real keen to be hypnotized by Leon again. I think he’s scared it makes him too honest.”
Another burst of laughter.
Their giggling infected other diners close by who periodically laughed in response to Nancy and Catherine’s mirth.
“Ken’s effectively banned all of us from talking to him or one another about the recordings or anything else that undermines his authority’.”
“Oh... isn’t that nice,” Catherine joked. “The guy is loosing it.”
“Seriously... I’m worried,” Nancy agreed, hoping she was putting a spoke into any further affections Catherine might develop for her boss. He was below her.
“And the General? News on him?”
Officially, Catherine was supposed to be ignorant about the incident; Ken had smoothed it with the military top brass, so there was no threat of a leak or PR damage control.
“I really don’t think that you want to know!” Nancy staged a shudder.
“With a reaction like that, I insist on knowing. I’ll beat it out of you if you make me!”
“Promises, promises,” Nancy teased, the wine talking.
Catherine raised a seductive eyebrow, “Speak,” she ordered in a deep voice.
Nancy obeyed, “Yes mistress... Leon’s been down to the hospital... for God’s sake don’t breathe a word of this to Ken... visiting the General is on the banned list, but the doctor at the hospital is intrigued and can’t stand Ken.”
“Scout’s honor,” Catherine saluted with two fingers.
“Well... Stephen King, just eat your heart out! What Leon’s uncovered is a real horror story...” she quaffed a glug of claret before continuing, “They’ve traced this Fernando Sanchez—the guy who the General thinks he is. He actually existed... was a real person... was the Spanish Emissary to Rome during the reign of Pope Urban the Eighth, in... yep... the year of our Lord 1630 until his delightful colleagues executed him by hanging in 1638! The Vatican keeps extensive records of these things, and you know old Leon, like a dog with a bone.”
Catherine’s eyes grew larger with each alarming word that Nancy uttered. Finally, forgetting to breath, she choked and exploded into a fit of coughing.
When she recovered her breath, Nancy proceeded;
“Leon’s made lots of progress with Roger, but Andrew... the other doc, is arguing over diagnosis. Andrew feels it’s an extreme case of bipolar behavior... schizophrenia, but Leon’s sticking to an awakening of a personality from a past life.”
“If Leon’s right... my guess is it’s something in the LifeGames program.”
“Andrew says they’ve found traces of antipsychotic medication in the man’s blood... yet no prescription on his file. Leon says antipsychotics suppress dopamine receptor activity... whatever that may mean.”
“I don’t know enough about it, it’s all third hand and over my head anyway, but to them it’s a big deal. Means there’s a rat somewhere.”
“At least the guy wasn’t Cleopatra or Napoleon—that’s the usual claim.”
“Truly...! But there’s hope yet, besides Fernando, Leon has uncovered a further two former lives that Roger can recall under hypnosis. He says he was an Indian Squaw who lived around thirteen hundred and the other personality was in the armies of Genghis Khan.”
“Well the Genghis thing would explain Roger’s current occupation,” Catherine observed.
“Wouldn’t it,” Nancy agreed. “It seems that our Roger is quite the warrior.”
“Has Fernando come up with any more revelations?” Catherine encouraged.
“Yeah, he’s a regular mine of information, turning up facts that only a handful of specialist historians know.”
They both shifted uncomfortably in their seats and Catherine suggested a change of scenery, “Night cap?”
“Good idea,” Nancy agreed.
Settling their tab, they headed for a popular late night Jazz Cafe where the aroma of brewing coffee mingled with the hubbub of festivity.
Time was of no concern to either of them as it was a Friday night and they were both traveling in Catherine’s car.
Nancy continued her story as they drove along the highway, “Leon’s slowly made Roger come to terms with the fact that he harbors a personality from another epoch. Leon tells me that it’s the most detailed past-life regression he’s ever encountered. I mean... it gets weirder and weirder... Roger’s got Fernando’s neck scars, there are the historical...”
“Neck scars?” Catherine looked appalled... darting her eyes from the road to Nancy and back to the road again, her face a mask of shock.
“Didn’t you know about it, Cath? Roger has a rope-burn scar around his neck, but he doesn’t have a clue how it got there and it isn’t recorded on his military file!”
“God-Jesus... Nancy, you’re giving me the creeps,” Catherine shivered.
“You want me to stop?” she asked.
They drove on in silence for a few moments, each contemplating.
“Actually Nance, there is something I was going to mention earlier. I was thinking of doing an on-line run... at LifeGames. I’m a little hesitant now. I’m not really sure that I want to find a Fernando somewhere in my past! My mother certainly wouldn’t approve.”
It was a tonic, the air of dread evaporated.
“Don’t be silly Cath, we’ve run perhaps millions of people through the program with no problems. Ken always says that you’re much safer on-line than you are out in the real world. I can’t disagree.”
Between glimpses back to the road, Catherine managed to convey a look of pull the other leg and they giggled again.
“No, I’m not being paid to say it! Seriously, Leon went into a lot of detail explaining to me about Roger’s regression and besides, Roger has been the only person to have anything go wrong.”
“Oh, come on Nance,” Catherine tut-tutted.
“Okay, okay. I must be sounding like a used car salesman. I’ll grant you that we had some teething problems, but then again we’re working with computer software and they’re notoriously full of bugs and viruses and God knows what else. Roger has been the only one to experience any lasting problem. The Pentagon is our largest client and you know how finicky they are. They wouldn’t endanger anybody’s life; anybody from their own side that is.”
Catherine offered her an incredulous look for the third time.
“Okay, okay. But face it Cath, you’re a skeptic.”
“For beware...” Catherine wagged her index finger in the air to lend her words solemn authority as she quoted the closing words of the Desiderata, “...the world is full of trickery,” her voice possessed all the philosophic resonance she could muster.
“You’re right I suppose,” Nancy agreed, “being a skeptic is good, I’m legendary for it.”
“Sorry I side tracked us, you were going to tell me about Leon explaining something?” Catherine re-focused.
“Uh-huh,” Catherine hummed in a seductive lilt.
“Oh yes, it’s the wine. Leon was saying that, in a tormented spirit like Roger’s, there’s an enormous confusion. In Leon’s telling of it, the man’s participation in the program must have brought all of his violent past to a head, there must have been a particular vision that triggered Fernando to come out of his subconscious. Who knows? Perhaps Fernando the priest wanted to confess Roger for his sins?”
“Don’t you think it’s a little odd that it hadn’t happened to Roger before? How much more realistic can the game be than a real war zone, where they say the guy has spent a lifetime?” Catherine argued.
“True,” Nancy thought about it a moment, “Perhaps you can use it in the next phase of the advertising and PR campaign, Cath, ‘a program so realistic it’ll leave you four times the man you were before’!”
They erupted into the evening’s umpteenth chorus of hilarity and Catherine was forced to halt the car short of the parking lot to catch her breath.
“We shouldn’t be doing this, you know,” Nancy was suddenly struck by the idea that Catherine was driving intoxicated.
“So sorry, mom... I didn’t mean it... it just happened—and it’s only round the corner.”
“We’ll get a cab after this,” Nancy insisted.
“You’re right... I’ll pay.”
“We’ll share the fare. What was it you were going to do on-line?” Nancy inquired.
Catherine spat out the first answer that leapt through her mind, “Ken would kill me if I told you!”
“If that were true then I’d have been a corpse ten times over tonight Cath, “I’ve been spilling the beans to you all night and I’ll beat this out of you if you make me,” Nancy plucked on Catherine’s own line.
“Promises, promises,” Catherine was not to be outdone.
They locked the car and made their way, arm in arm, toward the Cafe.
“Well?” Nancy insisted.
“Well what?” Catherine responded cheekily.
For some reason not clear to herself, she was looking for a way out of telling Nancy about the planned cyber-sex game. Oddly, she could not fathom her own uncharacteristic embarrassment.
Nancy gave Catherine a hard spank on the rump to prick her memory.
“Oh that!” it gave Catherine a remarkable recovery from her amnesia.
“Yes, that!” Nancy repeated firmly.
“All right, all right, I’ll tell you when we sit. You find a spot, I’m going to the little girl’s room.” Inexplicably, Catherine still wanted to delay.
“I’ll join you.”
They spent a few minutes retouching tear-streaked mascara, sporadically giggling.
Then, having found a seat and with medical grade espresso on order, the two settled in, Nancy rubbing her hands gleefully in anticipation of the details to the secret that Catherine had held out on.
She could delay no more;
“You are shitting me, lady!”
“Are you nuts?” Tickled by the tipple, she said it with a laugh. “I didn’t know we had that program.”
“You don’t... well, not yet anyway. That’s what your programmer and Ken are up to.”
“I think that’s the Anton Ken talks about,” the dizzying sensation of disclosure slowly ebbed, leaving Catherine invigorated.
A freshness and conspiratorial level of friendship was now reached, the pair tittered like pubescents, their professional caution hurled to the winds.
“I want details, baby... Where...? When...? How...? Come on, out with it.”
“Not much I can say yet, Ken’s very economical with details; I guess with all his problems, this one’s not a priority.”
“Hmmm... ” Nancy remained flushed. “Don’t worry, he’s a dog... it’s a priority.”
“The little I’ve gathered, they’re patching some external code into a main sequence program, but there are some integration issues.”
“It’s kinda cold though, isn’t it? Very premeditated, a very mercenary way to get your kicks.”
“There’s a charm in that...” Catherine suggested, “It’s not the only way I’d like my sex, but for a lark, I’ll try it once.”
“I’m not sure I’d be that brave.”
“With your boss...? On the other hand, it could pay dividends I suppose.”
“He’s your boss too... well... sort of.”
“Hmm way to go Nance... give me cold feet.”
Their mood almost sobered, but neither of them wanted the buoyant mood to end.
“So... who’s your lover?”
Catherine jolted with shock at the directness; she’d never disclosed her orientation or private life, the moment to discuss it had never before arisen.
“What’s your fantasy...?”
Catherine’s mind raced at the question. Usually she was an open book, she’d tell anybody anything at any time, but something in this fragile sisterhood was too precious a gem to risk on truth’s rejection;
“Really?” She’d said it before she thought it.
Nancy had seen the surprise, “Was I too forward?”
“No... you just caught me unaware. Don’t be silly, I’ve got nothing to hide, of course I’ll tell you.”
Then Nancy realized her own error; “No... oh, no... not in reality. In the game! Who’s your lover in the game? What’s the setting?”
They both burst into laughter and it broke down another small barrier.
“I’ll tell you... I seriously will, but you must promise to still love me,” she laughed to pretend she didn’t mean it.
“Scout’s honor,” Nancy saluted, and they laughed again.
“I haven’t focused on it. I don’t really think I’m getting that choice.”
“Ken!” Nancy said it on impulse.
“What?” Catherine genuinely missed it.
“I suggested Ken... He’s conceited, if he’s picking, that’s what he’ll pick.” Nancy paused; navigating a sea of morals was always hazardous, especially when alcohol has the microphone, “Honestly...? I saw something spark the very first day you came to the office.”
“You’re kidding?” Catherine looked mortified, “I don’t think...” before she could finish, Nancy cut her off.
“I don’t think anyone else has seen it; both of you hide it well.”
There seemed little point denying it.
“What’s in it for him?” the alcohol asked, “Oops, sorry,” Nancy apologized, “Too many questions... none of my business.”
“Okay, time to stop being coy. Ask away, if I don’t want to answer anything then I won’t answer, ok? I’m a big girl.” Warmth and trust building between them; “Ken’s wants to watch.”
“Just watch?” Nancy cocked her head.
“JUST-WATCH! And only Ken... he said he can arrange it; I’m game.”
“Men!... Bloody voyeurs.”
“Who isn’t?” Catherine flashed a smile.
Nancy didn’t answer.
“I’ll confess it... I’m nervous. It’s a boundary I probably shouldn’t cross. Not with him and perhaps not like this... a first cyber sex experience,” Catherine re-emphasized.
“Probably the safest sex,” Nancy quipped.
Catherine held back; on impulse she almost said, “How about two women?” Instead she offered, “I don’t know, Nance. What if it sends me loopy?”
“A bit late for that!”
Catherine laughed at her exaggerated and crazed rolling eyes, but she snapped back to a serious expression;
“Honestly Cath, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Apart from hospitalization...?”
“I’d do it...”
“Oooh... now there’s something to watch,” Catherine said reflexively, the alcohol lending her tongue its own disobedience.
“You’re welcome,” Nancy went with the lure of decadence.
They were reacting to one another’s comments with knee-jerk honesty and, being so freshly acquainted into full friendship, it continually fractured the flow of their conversation.
Catherine knocked their stuttering segues into mild embarrassment on the head;
“Why are we being so coy? I reckon most people are exhibitionists. Damned to hell and all that.”
“You mean voyeurs Cath, I’m not sure I’m an exhibitionist.... But I think all of us like to look; look in on lives; it spawned reality shows and celebrity obsession.”
“What I’m thinking about is several steps past that.”
They both laughed heartily and easily.
The two had come a long way in a short evening; they’d started as good acquaintances and blossomed into a real friendship and heady intimacy.
Their bond continued to grow from crescendo to concern, from laugh to honest revelation; every breadth of human emotion poured out and shared until the Eastern horizon grew pink and the blossom of a new day promised.