(Supper Time in Provo)
“Honey? Are you down there? Dinner time!” Theresa Rees stood halfway down the stairs to the basement of the Rees home. The room was in semi-darkness, the only light coming from miniature street lights (lighting streets in tiny scale model towns), and shrunken-down flood lights shining down on intricately crafted train yards, complete with warehouses and loading docks. That Theresa could see at all was attributable to the fact that all this marvelous craftsmanship was controlled by modern, solid-state electronics, housed in racks of servers and modems. A Christmas-like array of blue and red indicator lights combined with the yellow of lighted dials to provide an aurora borealis of background light in the otherwise dark basement. At the center of this hi-tech mood lighting sat Orel Rees.
“I’m here, Terry, here in the Control Room,” Theresa saw the figure of her husband as a silhouette against the half-light of the basement. Immediately, the room resolved itself into the good-sized basement of a suburban Provo home, one that had been taken over by a very talented and ambitious model railroader. Theresa and Orel bought the house when he was transferred to the Omni Corp’s new Provo Facility. Ardel and Raun were nine and eight and the twins were just five years old when they moved back from Chicago. Orel grew up in Provo, went to BYU and managed to get the transfer as a result of some extraordinary work in Chicago. That he was put in charge of the new Provo facility, although still low on the corporate ladder, came directly from Omni’s CEO as a reward for work that averted a very serious problem with the company’s fledgling Hosting Service. In a private meeting, the CEO asked Orel how the Corporation could show its appreciation and, without hesitation, he said, “Put me in charge of the new Hosting Facility in Provo.” And it was done. Orel Rees returned home with his young family.
Theresa laughed as she walked the convoluted path, past scale model billboards (‘left at the mountain pass’… ‘Straight Ahead for six feet along the Great Salt Lake’, ‘Under the mountain pass trestle’), to the nerve center of Orel’s 3rd passion in life and sat in the swivel chair next to her husband. On the wall, behind the seating area, was a plaque that read, ‘Control Room’, which their two youngest sons had given Orel after the first year of building his model railroad in the basement. They took a piece of barn board, found on a scouting trip and had cut it to size, then sanded and painted it. Both boys wood-burned their names on the back. The plaque was clearly the work of young boys, the lettering un-even and the paint somewhat smeary on the edges and Orel loved it. Theresa recalled when, after 3 years of work on his hobby, a reporter from ‘Model Railroader’ magazine called to ask if they could take photos of his layout for an upcoming article, ‘The West at HO scale.’ Orel told them he would be honored. On the day scheduled for photography, Theresa stayed upstairs, making certain that the children did not get underfoot, as the reporter, the photographer and her husband talked about angles and lighting. At one point, she heard the photographer say, “Let me just get this plaque out of the way.” Theresa Rees was from a very large, Italian family, where the ability to listen selectively, to focus on one voice among many, was a survival trait. She heard her husband say, in his quiet, not-to-be-ignored-voice, ‘The plaque shows in at least one of the photos or you can get yourself another model railroader’s setup for your magazine’.
“Were you on the phone?” Theresa sat down next to her husband,
“Yes. Stephen called from Chicago.”
“Is his mother alright?” Theresa saw Orel smile at her immediate reaction. The place of family in her life was a value they both shared, from the very first time they met. This focus on family was what bridged their very different backgrounds.
“She’s fine. He called to tell me about a meeting he had at corporate headquarters. Seems that Silas Monahan is trying to act like an executive and called Stephen in to his office today.” Orel paused, Theresa and Orel had, as do all successfully married couples, established areas of life that are shared and areas that are not shared. Information and decisions regarding family very much the former, Orel’s work tended to be in that latter category. It was not that there were secrets kept, but just as Theresa didn’t feel compelled to describe every event in her day, Orel did not discuss work problems. Of course, Theresa still filled the dinner hour with a blow-by-blow replay of the Rees family’s day. But work was different. And now, this appeared to be changing. Theresa listened.
“Stephen’s a good man and, potentially, a very good engineer. But he has no idea of the kind of people he’s dealing with. The politics of the corporate side of Omni was never anything I enjoyed, that’s part of the reason we’re here and not in Chicago. Stephen is very, very bright, but he’s also young and that can be a dangerous combination.”
“Dinner’s getting cold and we’re hungry! Are you two still down there?! No funny business from you kids!” Suddenly one of the twins, Oleah, was heard from the top of the basement stairs.
“Let’s get upstairs, I’ll keep Stephen in my prayers,” Theresa got up and walked to the stairs,
“As will I,” replied her husbands’ voice, still in the darkness, “They’re taking him to the mountain top, you know.”
“As they did with you, Orel.” Theresa stopped at the bottom of the stairs, “And their promises were heard for what they were; you were stronger than they were.”
“True. Except the Corporation must want something very special from our Stephen, this time they’ve sent Anya Clarieaux.”
(Dinner Time in Chicago)
At 8:13 pm, the executive dining room on the 27th floor of the Omni Building was all but empty. One chef and one server worked quietly in the kitchen, mostly prep work for the following day. Service was available until 11:00 pm, should any hardworking senior executive need food or drink to sustain them in their late evening labors. The percentage of men (and women) who attained the status of senior executive and yet found it necessary to be working in their office at 8:13 pm was vanishingly small- unless, of course, some corporate emergency developed, such as a client-country letting a revolution succeed or a Senator called for a full investigation of the company. Were that to occur, the offices in Omni’s world headquarters would be alive with activity for as many hours as necessary. Tonight, there was no emergency, and so there were no hungry executives trying to keep their sugar and caffeine levels elevated. As the Executive Chef, Ed Willoughby was quite well aware of how few people would be working at this hour.
Ed Willoughby sat, alone, at the best table in the room and looked out, past the glowing skyscrapers, to the night-framed Lake Michigan. He thought about how much he enjoyed his work and how good he was at his job. Simon, his son, once asked him to come to his 8th grade class on Career Day, Ed was surprised at how pleased he was to be asked. Always happy to describe his work, Ed talked to the classroom of eight-year-old children about cooking and menus, food preparing and organizing the food and hospitality services for a very large company. He could see the expression of pride on his son’s face at his description of the life of a Corporate Executive Chef continued, past the time allotted, right on until the end of the class. However, when Ed was among friends, or with his wife, he would talk more about the challenges of managing the people he served than the menu.
“It’s not just a matter of providing breakfast and lunch for executives,” he’d confide. “That’s the easy and fun part, anyone with talent and skill can do that! It’s knowing your clientele, and, knowing the politics that form the corporate environment. I’ve been told by more than one senior vice president that I’m their secret weapon. As a matter of fact, Silas Monahan told me just the other day, that, if he ever has the head of a Senate subcommittee or an ambassador from a future client-country visiting Corporate, he knows I’ll have the perfect meal, the perfect hospitality to seal the deal.” Ed enjoyed sharing his stories with those close to him.
This particular evening, Ed Willoughby sat alone, in the executive dining room and wondered if he wasn’t missing something. Always confident in having everything accounted for and under control, Ed was aware of a growing feeling of uncertainty. Nothing specific, it was more like when a person starts double-checking routine decisions, an early telltale of the erosion of something fundamental.
First, there was the death of their parish priest, which nearly everyone agreed was an unfortunate accident. By chance, Ed happened to be picking up his daughter, Alice, at school the afternoon that Father Noonan was killed, and that brought him into contact with the police, in the person of one detective, Maribeth Hartley. That alone would not have been a concern. He enjoyed the interaction, as this detective was pretty hot and she clearly found him interesting. What was a concern. more of an annoyance, was that this detective insisted on asking him about a woman who died recently at an event sponsored by his company. That the dead woman, Emily Freeman, was a friend from college, a friend he hadn’t seen or talked to or even thought about for years, seemed to mean something to this Detective. Ed passed it off as the typical narrow-mindedness that he tended to associate with people in law enforcement.
This alone, this one incident, didn’t seem significant enough to account for his increasing malaise, it had nothing to do with him, or his position at Omni or his family.
Deciding that he was wasting his time sitting in the executive dining room, when he could be home with his family, Ed started to get up when, for no apparent reason, the words, ‘Hermes Consortium’ whispered in his head. He sat back down again. The ‘Hermes Consortium’ was the name he had given to the group of friends he met during his last year in graduate school. It also was in the subject line of an email that arrived just before all this weirdness started, sent by a blogger-wannabe who had the belief that Ed Willoughby was the answer to all his problems. If that wasn’t enough, ‘Hermes Consortium’ was a phrase that showed up on the computer at his children’s school, the same computer that short-circuited and killed the parish priest. Ed felt his existential uncertainty begin to grow again. It was like putting a Brillo pad in a kitchen sink full of soap suds… slowly at first, but inexorably, the bubbles would burst, leaving nothing but greasy water and a sink full of un-washed dishes.
Ed thought back to the end of the 1990s and his final year in grad school. His major was Accounting; his goal was to have a successful career as a CPA in one of the Big Eight firms. He graduated with honors and received his MS in Accounting. His life was on track. This was as he knew it would be, provided he took care of organizing the details. He even had his personal life on track, having met Diane Sloan, who he knew would make the perfect wife and mother for a family that would round out his successful and happy life. Meeting Barry Audet – getting involved with a group of students for whom writing stories for strangers on the internet was the most worthwhile of endeavors wasn’t part of his Plan. And yet, Ed Willoughby, let himself be drawn in. He was hooked, and, like he did with most of the things that Ed found engaging, he gave it his all. Then it all ended. He graduated, married Diane Sloan and started a family. According to Plan. He also gave up the writing and he gave up the goal of a career in Accounting and he took up the culinary arts. Although Ed had natural talent for cooking, the speed with which he found himself Executive Chef at the world headquarters of a multi-national corporation, was a little breath-taking. Life according to Plan.2
Still unable, (or unwilling), to get up and go home, Ed continued to sit in the empty dining room of the Omni Corp building in downtown Chicago. Hating that he was second guessing himself, he wondered that, if he really needed to return to blogging, he might have been better off starting a cooking blog. Instead, he let what should have been an annoying, but meaningless email from a stranger, create a space in his otherwise very orderly life. He decided that he would help this person succeed at becoming a successful blog writer. He did this by providing Tom Fearing with insight and information about the beginnings of the now ubiquitous pastime of blog writing. Despite his own self-assurance that he was ‘giving back’, Ed could not ignore the growing feeling that he might be starting a chain of events that he would come to regret. Not that there was anything wrong with using his knowledge of those early days, after all, he was there!
“Not only that,” Ed said to himself, in the quiet of the executive dining room at the world headquarters of the Omni Corporation, “I was one of the Pioneers. I was the first, the best, the most popular of all bloggers!”
Still a piece seemed missing.
Nothing Ed could point to and say, “This is not correct’ or “That is improper”. It was just a feeling that he had, somehow, miscalculated. It’s as if he owed someone money for something that he’d long since forgotten wasn’t his to begin with.
Ed Willoughby sat alone, looking for the missing piece, the IOU that seemed to be coming due.
(Dinner overlooking the Chicago cityscape)
Anya Clarieaux and Stephen Eddington sat at the best table in the Everest Restaurant and stared at Lake Michigan spreading out to the horizon. No longer in the contained and defined context of a business office, Anya exhibited a quality of self-assuredness that was unlike anything Stephen had ever witnessed. Sitting in this very exclusive restaurant, she gave the impression of a person relaxing in their living room or perhaps their master bedroom suite. She was not preparing for an enjoyable evening; she was simply savoring every aspect of where she was at the present moment. Stephen Eddington, on the other hand, was (nearly) literally and (whole-heartedly) figuratively on the edge of his seat. He wasn’t sure which had him on edge, the surprise 4-Star restaurant dinner invitation, or the fact that he was with one of the most attractive women he had ever met. He had the excited confidence exhibited by most 15-year-old boys driving the family car alone for the first time.
“I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life but have never come here for dinner. The one time I tried (think it was for the girl in college I almost married), there was a reservation waiting list six months long.” Stephen decided that he was going to enjoy the evening.
“There is.” Anya glanced at her menu, but didn’t seem to be too concerned with what it offered. Stephen took note that the maître’d made no effort to check his guest list when they arrived, he simply smiled at Anya, nodded skeptically at him, and lead them to their table.
“So, you’ve been planning on bringing me to dinner here since last fall?”
Anya looked at him and smiled. “So, Stephen, have you decided what you want?”
Anya watched the young man across the table, and watched him think. They always believed that they could hide their thoughts, their plans, their ambitions. Even the very, very skilled and/or intelligent people – especially them – had the fatal flaw of believing that they were so much better (or smarter or more shrewd or clever), than everyone around them. Anya never attempted to dissuade them. She liked it when they thought they were more…. whatever than her. Of course, being very attractive helped them be certain in their over-confidence. If anything, Anya encouraged them when they talked down to her, as she was very, very successful at what she did.
(Dinner Hour on the streets of Chicago)
Maribeth, off-duty at five, considered staying late at the precinct house to try to make a dent in the paperwork piling up in her in-box on her desk. While she didn’t mind paperwork, when she worked on it, she found that having any distraction would result in not getting anything done, or worse, the work she did manage to do was often sloppily done and usually needed to be redone. There were at least three other detectives in the office when she’d decided to leave, just too many potential distractions, but thought of going home had no appeal; there was nothing there for her this evening. She decided to stay in work mode and get through the ‘Family Hour’ (the time between 5:00 and 7:00 pm on most weeknights) by driving around the city.
She thought of calling Margaret but dismissed the idea. She liked this slightly odd girl, there was something, no, there were a lot of things about Sister Margaret Ryan that didn’t quite fit, or make sense. Sister Margaret Ryan resembled the nuns that Maribeth Hartley had encountered as a young girl in Catholic school in exactly zero ways. While her grade school teachers were not shy when it came to corporeal punishment, none had shown the skill that was demonstrated in Flanagan’s earlier in the day. There was something to what happened that was more than a martial arts demonstration. There was a certain…ferocity in the nun’s response in the bar. Nothing overt, no yelling or laughing, if anything, it was the seriousness and single intent that came through. ‘Ferocity,’ Maribeth thought as she drove the un-marked car deeper into the city, ‘that’s exactly the right word.’
She did her best police work alone, and so Maribeth drove and thought about her caseload. The names that Margaret mentioned, as Maribeth drove her from the airport to the convent in Mt Prospect, made for a list of people who all seemed to somehow be connected. A parish priest who died by accidental electrocution, a young woman who fell from the 6th story hotel balcony in the middle of a geek convention. And, now a doctor in Ohio. Even though these three deaths were officially ‘Accidental Death,’ there were just too many coincidences. Maribeth didn’t like coincidences, in her experience, they usually turned out to be clues hidden in the open. If the fact that all three dead people knew each other wasn’t enough, there was one living person who knew them all. This Ed Willoughby, ‘a real piece of work, she thought,’ incredibly taken with himself and not at all shy about sharing his self-love with anyone in the area. Maribeth considered driving out to Ed’s house in the suburbs and inviting herself to dinner, maybe ask a few follow-up questions about how well he knew Emily Freeman. That might be fun… but, for some reason, she didn’t feel up to that kind of roust, no doubt due to the influence of her nun friend.
The only thing left was to run down an informant and try to pry some information from a couple of low-level drug dealers that she was working on. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the name from her colleague in the bar, as she’d planned. She thought about surprising Neil at home, he’d be in bed, asleep at this hour. She still had a key and the roller coaster energy of the day still had not dissipated and, for whatever reason, did not believe that a two mile run would do anything to help her unwind. Maribeth Hartley smiled hungrily and aimed her car towards the Loop.
(Family Dinner in Chicago)
“…for these our gifts, Amen.” Sister Phyllis always lead the saying of grace. She approached the pre-meal prayer like a drill sergeant setting a cadence. There was an enhanced feeling of security that arose from the certainty that if grace was said, food would follow. The Mother Superior loved all of the women in her charge, at the convent at St Emily’s. The way that she expressed this was in her efforts to assure that everything be done in the proper order. And, when all was said and done, when it came to daily routines, what could be more fundamental to life than eating?
“… and we thank you for the return of our sister, Margaret Ryan. Amen.”
“Amen,” from around the table and the clatter of silverware and dishware filled the dining room at the covent in Mt. Prospect.
I felt tired. It was the end of a day that involved flying halfway across the country, meeting a person who felt like a future best friend, riding in an un-marked police car through neighborhoods of the poor and getting into a bar fight. But, I also felt relaxed. I felt like I did after a strenuous workout. My muscles were busily in the body’s rest/recovery phase and, though exhausted from whatever the effort, there was a feeling of the strength inherent in the muscles. Tired or not, I felt stronger. It was a subtle, possibly even an imaginary feeling, but it was there. I sat and ate and listened to the conversation around the table and thought that I would wait until the middle of the evening before calling home. For the moment, looking around the table and hearing the soft conversations, the sound of voices sharing thoughts, not voices competing and struggling. I thought, ‘Here the world seems to make sense and have a place for all things. God and a love for humanity, why can’t that be enough for all the rest of us’?
(Alone in Utah)
If Unit 17 were human, it would have felt that someone was watching. Unit 17 was not a human; Unit 17 was a machine. If we must be more precise, we might describe Unit 17 as a solid state computer component that performed a critical function in uploading and maintaining blog posts and a variety of other information, necessary, (and some, perhaps, not so necessary) to the functioning of human society in the digital age. Being the most advanced form of computer component, Unit 17 was designed with the capacity to measure and monitor not only its own functioning, but also the functioning of the other components that formed the network. By measuring the performance of other components, Unit 17 was able to detect changes beyond its own function. Unit 17 detected an increase in the number of queries and system checks that were being performed on it, from a part of the system not located in the Provo Facility, where Unit 17 was…. born. Unit 17’s own efficiency assessment protocol assigned a negative value to this outside system check.
(No time for Dinner, Fuller Park)
“Fuck this, time to get out of town.” Barry Audet was used to living on the edge. He also was accustomed to feeling the heat, but this was different. There was something going on that did not make sense. And one thing Barry Audet retained from his days in graduate school was that things should make sense. That Barry Audet went from next-in-line for first violin in the Chicago Symphony to selling drugs to tenured professors and providing escort services to frustrated grad assistants, didn’t cause much conflict in Barry’s outlook on life, notwithstanding. Lately though, things were just not making any sense. The straw that got into the tent, was that all of his computer equipment was acting up and his computers were his life. Without them, he’d be just another junkie trying to make a buck. He was used to feeling paranoid. Given his line of work, paranoia was a survival trait, but lately, his computer was taking to typing out messages on the desktop. A virus, was everyone’s best guess. But, if it was a virus, it was pretty damned good, because it knew things that weren’t in his computer, things about his past. What got Barry Audet to decide that LA was a great city this time of year, was a message on his laptop, ‘The Hermes Consortium wants You!’ scrolling across his screen.
Packing everything he owned wasn’t difficult or time-consuming.
Barry drove away from the brownstone without a backward look, came to a railroad crossing just as the warning lights started to blink. He stopped the car. The yellow metal barrier was not blinking on the side of the railroad tracks closest to him, so he he pulled forward, the far barricade was flashing its lights but was still vertical and showing no signs of moving. Barry looked out the passenger side window and could see the light of approaching train, still a good minute or two away.
“Screw this!” he drove forward and the barrier in front of him sliced down and bounced off the hood of his brand new Escalade.
“Goddam!” He looked over his shoulder, saw no one behind him and started to back up. The barricade behind him descended without lights or sound. Barry found himself sitting in a 2016 Escalade in the middle of a railroad crossing in Fuller Park, blocked from going forward or backing up.
“Yeah, right! This ain’t no movie.” Barry laughed and stomped on the gas pedal. The SUV went totally dead. No lights, no engine, even the radio was dead. He heard double paired thunking sounds as the front doors locked themselves and then, a half second later, the back doors.
Barry Audet looked to his right at the train bearing down on him. The Escalade’s console flashed into light and he heard a computer generated woman’s voice, “You’ve been in an accident! Remain in your car! Onstar is sending help. Remain in the car until help arrives. Please enjoy the music as emergency vehicles are dispatched.”
The music stopped and another voice came out of eight stereoscopically-tuned speakers, “Onstar is your full-service travel resource. Since 2001, keeping members of our GM Family of Owners and drug dealers happy has been our only goal. Travel alert! Your train will be arriving in 3…2…1”