Barely seconds after he hit the ‘OFF’ button on his computer, even before the whirring sighs of the shutting down process ended, Ed Willoughby thought he heard something. A distant sound, like a printer churning out documents for no one to read. For some reason, ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ popped into his mind. Laughing to himself, Ed looked at the clock on his desk, saw that it was 8:13 pm and decided that he’d done enough work for one evening.
As he got up from the desk, his computer came back on. Across the monitor, a banner scrolled, right to left: ‘Omni Corporation thanks you for your efforts and regrets to notify you that your existence is no longer required!’
Jason Rafferty was in charge of Squad 9 of Brockway Security Company’s Discrete Operations Division (DOD). Omni Corporation was one of Brockway Security’s largest and most valued Clients. Brockway’s specialty was in the field of non-judicial security threat resolution. Maintaining facilities all over the world, Omni Corporation often needed to diminish (or altogether eliminate) problems involving security breaches, corporate and industrial espionage, and worker-company conflict.
If private-military special ops of the type that the Discrete Operations Division specialized in were thought of as a four star restaurant, Jason Rafferty would be the chef. No matter how skilled in the culinary arts, the chef rarely ever stirs the sauces or chops the vegetables. Likewise, it was not Jason’s job to kill or blow up or otherwise remove problems that Brockway’s clients needed to be killed or blown up or otherwise removed. It was his job to devise the appropriate execution of the mission, in order to achieve the optimal outcome. Jason’s responsibility was to determine the most efficient approach to neutralizing a threat, while keeping the negative effects on the client’s business to the barest minimum. These effects included negative publicity, corporate culpability or political backlash. Even the opportunity to leverage an enhancement of the clients social media profile was a factor. All these variable were being factored, as Jason lead squad 9 into the Omni Building. The original Intruder Presence Alert had been re-defined as Terrorist: Immediate Termination. But just because the menu reads steaks, does not necessarily mean that every porterhouse in the kitchen will be thrown on the grill. The specifics of his squad’s actions, tailored to this client, in this office building, in this City on this particular week night were running through Jason Rafferty’s mind as he walked down the dimly lit corridors of the 9th floor of the Omni Building.
Ed Willoughby stared at the computer monitor and decided that maybe he really wanted to be at home, even if no one else was there. He thought about the post he’d just published to Tom Fearing’s blog, soon to be read by thousands. He felt an exhilaration, tempered with a sense of satisfaction with the message he crafted and was surprised by a growing relief at no longer having to pretend he didn’t remember his years as a part of the Hermes Consortium.
Putting on his jacket and reaching to turn off the lamp on his desk, Ed thought, ‘Tonight I’ll tell Diane all about the Hermes days. She’ll laugh, but she’ll have to be impressed with what I accomplished, how significant I actually was to all the people I reached with my writing. Then she’ll know how much I love her, when she realizes how much I willingly gave up for her. I know I can convince her of that.’ Ed’s train of thought, happy in promise, stopped suddenly by a flash of light that forced itself under the door to the outer office.
Jason Rafferty’s display read: ‘Terminate Terrorist Threat/ Minimum Client Involvement in Post-Action Reconciliation. Squad Leader Discretion.’
The readouts indicated a single individual in an office suite on the 9th Floor, which was the lowest strata of the Executive Levels within the building. That, Jason realized, meant a person of some significance to the client, just not, unfortunately for the target, enough clout to negate the kill order. Jason felt better, as this indicated that explosives and gunfire would probably not be the optimal solution. He knew that the target (classified Terrorist by his readout) would not live out the hour. What the leader of Squad 9 had not decided was how this person would meet his end. Reviewing his client profile, he decided that, for maximum post-tragedy benefit, suicide pushed out ‘simple kill’ as the method most likely to yield a positive outcome for the client. All he needed to decide was how, exactly, the depressed executive would decide to end it all. And this is where, Jason thought, the art of my profession lives. Anyone can kill, but it takes a special creativity, an understanding of people in general and the target specifically, to know the manner of death that, after the shock and surprise, the sadness and the anger, makes the most sense to those left behind. Jason had that talent: creativity in a context of maximum destructiveness.
Ed looked up. A blinding light bloomed to fill the room, followed immediately by darkness. His first thought was, ‘When did Diane buy flannel pillow cases?’ His second was, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s happening to me?’ Ed felt stranger’s hands at his elbows and shoulders as he was pressed into a sitting position, most likely on the couch in the reception area. Having seen enough television and movies, he instantly realized that he was involved in some sort of kidnapping. The scenario that the entertainment industry taught him, since he was a young boy, included being hustled off to a waiting vehicle (a grey van or a black van, if it was an especially cool group of terrorists) by men speaking an exotic (but, nevertheless Middle Eastern sounding) language and transported to a remote location where negotiations would begin.
With the initial shock (and the bright pulsing after-images on the inside of his eyelids) wearing off, Ed Willoughby was frightened by the quiet and almost gentle way he was being moved in the dark. Very large hands pressed him into a sitting position on the couch in the outer office, a couch that he had sat in, exactly once. Ed recalled that when he was promoted and put in charge of the Hospitality Services division of the Omni Corp, he was given not only an office, but an office suite which included a small reception area. The first thing he thought, when touring the office for the first time, was how cool it would be to make love to his wife on the couch in the reception area. He did manage to get Diane to come to his office after hours, and actually got her to sit on the small couch with him. Unfortunately, the furniture in the reception area was intended for minimally short seating time, apparently for a less than full statured clientele. He got to second base, but his efforts to get to third resulted in elbows hitting the chrome (and not very forgiving) armrests.The upholstery, which was very new, was a bit on the slippery side. Diane started laughing first. To his credit, Ed joined in, and they both sat, clothes respectively disheveled, and agreed to move the action to their own familiar and comfortable bed.
Without a word from his attackers, Ed was on the couch, being hugged by what felt like a truly enormous man,(being blind-folded, he couldn’t see a thing). Arms that felt like a heavy man’s thighs were crossed over his chest. Ed’s head was nestled, in a way, between this giant’s shoulder and what felt like his chin. His legs felt like he was wrapped in warm salt water taffy. No hard edges pressed him; there was nothing sharp or abrasive, as he was held in place. More than simply being restrained, Ed was totally unable to lever any part of his body, eliminating the ability to move with any speed or force. His stomach was turning into liquid pins and needles and he felt like he should be nauseous, but somehow wasn’t.
Jason was looking at the expensively dressed man sitting in the bruise-free embrace of Sven Nogroski and thought that he might want to re-think his options for this mission’s termination strategy. Standing in front of Ed Willoughby, Jason Rafferty looked very closely at his target and waited. Finally, he sat next to Ed on the couch. (Actually he sat next to Sven, who held Ed with his enormous arms and legs.) Jason spoke in a pleasant, almost bored tone of voice, much as one would hear in the waiting room of a local garage, passing the time as the minivan had its oil changed. Two men of approximately the same age, similar education, sharing a vital binding purpose, and yet, otherwise, nothing at all in common.
“So, Ed. I rarely discuss termination plans with the target. However, given your impressive demeanor, I’m going to make an exception. Most of the time, when I have the target contained and I’m about to complete my work, the target gets all excited and desperate and just plain unruly. Or, even worse, they’ll get pathetic and try to bargain and beg and talk about their children, who would never get through life without them. But you, Mr Willoughby, strike me as a very together guy, given your circumstance. Would you care to ask a question or tell me anything?”
Jason leaned over and removed the gag, which was made of avery soft and flexible material, not likely to even leave a bruise but quite effective at preventing speech or other sounds of panic, from the front of Ed Willoughby’s face.
“No. I have nothing to add. I assume that you’re here to kill me, as opposed to kidnap me, since you clearly don’t care if I know what you look like. But, and I say this with all due respect to Bolo, the human restraint here, do you know that I’m simply a glorified cook? Sure, office suite, executive title, nearly top floor, but sorry to say, bottom line: the cook.” Ed stared back at Jason.
“Well, I find that interesting. But not really. The nature of my work, call it ‘Emergency Loss Mitigation’, does not afford me the questionable luxury of knowing who the people I kill are, in real life. I get an assignment. I lead my team to the scene and I decide how to…. er, execute my assignment. Let me say this, Mr. Willoughby, I’m quite impressed by your composure. Even as I make it clear that you will not be leaving this office alive, you are surpassing on the more common histrionics. Bravo. I do respect that in a man.”
“Well, if it helps make this all more comfortable and familiar,” Ed replied with a slight curl of his lip, “Allow me to say, ‘Fuck you. And, fuck your employer, who I suspect is also my employer.” Jason’s eyes widened, not in shock, but in pleasure, as if watching a puppy playing on a living room rug, exhibiting un-skilled but very effective hunting moves. Ed continued:
“But given what I’ve experienced in my life and the things I’ve done, I’ll tell you with complete assurance, there are things more terrifying than you with your steampunk night vision headsets and the utterly predictable black-on-black jumpsuits. Black van parked outside the service entrance?” Jason smiled and nodded, “Thought so. Sure, I really wish I could continue my life with my wife and family, especially since I seem to have come to understand certain things about myself. Things that I would change if I could, but obviously I don’t have time. But, surprise? Sorry, Mr Night Ranger Ninja Commando, I’ve been expecting this moment since 1999.”
“Well spoken! Mr Willoughby, I have decided. You are clearly a man who has come to know himself, and accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In part, my process for determining the manner of death is predicated on anticipating the reaction of the people that are left behind: friends and family. For you, I’ll share my thinking and say you are not a weak person seeking the easy path of suicide, sitting at his desk in a lonely and un-caring office building. You are a man who is found the next day to have died doing what he loves, the victim of an unfortunate and untimely heart attack. For you, today, the potage du soir shall be potassium chloride bisque. We’ve refined the recipe to the point that it can be applied through a dissolvable skin patch, totally eliminating those pesky and troublesome injection bruises.”
Ed Willoughy watched as Jason Rafferty took out what, for all the world looked like a Bandaid dot bandage, so much like the kind that he might put on a small cut or scraped knee acquired by the childlike recklessness of his daughter, Alice. For a second, he felt sadness threaten to take over what remained of his life. Instead, he looked around the office suite (9th Floor of the Omni Corporation World Headquarters) and felt at peace as the wave of extinction grew in his body.
I was being hauled, like a burlap bag full of eels, by the cop (who by the two-day growth of beard that left a red mark on the side of my face, must be on triple-shifts), across the hallway towards the open front door. Outside, the lights of his police car silently shouted at everyone to pay attention. This was so not where I needed to be right now. I stopped flailing my arms and legs and took stock of my situation. The cop was walking backwards, holding me from behind; his face was hidden in the black wings of my veil. His awkward position was not because he wanted to drape his head in a nun’s habit. Rather, it was the best position, strategically, when trying to move a nun who was energetically resisting, to a location where more traditional restraint would be effective. That, of course, was not going to happen. By keeping his head close to mine (his face actually touching my shoulder) he avoided being head-butted, a move I considered, but decided to hold off on, and also kept his center of gravity under control. It was working, I was getting closer to his squad car and farther from Sister Bernadine. I had no time to waste; her life was in the balance.
I relaxed every part of my body (my ta’i chi’ instructor used to repeat with every lesson, ‘re-direct your opponents attack, do not oppose it’) and tried to find a point of leverage. We moved, together, towards the door, like those parachute jumps where the determined but uncertain thrill seeker is strapped to the chest of an experienced parachutist and they both jump out of the plane. The person strapped to the chest of the parachutist is as much parachuting, as the corsage on the timid breast of a sophomore coed at her first prom is to an orchid growing wild in the jungle. Despite my prayers, which I continued (in between my calculations for inflicting a crippling blow to my captor), I was being carried out the door of the convent, towards the waiting police car. In my extreme left peripheral vision, I saw Sister Catherine’s right foot extend, seemingly by chance, like an enthusiastic line-dancer at a wedding reception, directly ahead of the next backwards step of my captor. He saw none of this, as he was still trying to work his way free of my habit. Using the flashing red lights of his car as a homing signal, he and I moved towards the door. I heard Sister Catherine speak. What I heard made little sense at first. she said, “Oh my goodness!” followed by a very directed aside, “Sister Clare! Ready? Now!”
At that instant, I felt a surprisingly strong hand on my wrist, as Sister Catherine pulled me away from the cop, who was busy falling out through the doorway. The trip had the effect of causing the two arms around my waist suddenly to weaken their grasp and I was pulled free. At that very same instant, she pushed Sister Clare out through the doorway to fall backwards on the policeman who was trying to get up off the ground.
I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think. I headed back into the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominques’, who was currently unconscious on the floor. She was about to have a lethal charge of electricity sent through her chest by the clueless but dedicated EMTs. I took two running steps and, like a baserunner sliding into home, I threw myself, feet first, at the molded plastic case of the defibrillator on the floor next to Sister Bernadine. I hit it hard enough to send it sliding away across the floor. Still attached, it then yanked the paddles out of the downward moving hands of the EMT. I grabbed his legs as I slid past him. Being crouched over, in what I assumed was the ‘administer shock to patient on the floor position’ the EMT had zero chance of remaining in any kind of upright position. My grabbing his lower legs did have the effect of slowing me down. The paddles, however, continued on their trajectory across the floor, still attached to the charging unit. Strung together like a bolo, they bounced off each other, with a fairly impressive sound of electricity arcing as they clacked together and slid into the corner.
I was over Sister Bernadine before the sprawled out EMT could gather his senses. The second EMT, the one who with the bored expression when first taking Sr Bernadine’s pulse, was standing upright, on the far side of the office. I held out my hand, as if to be helped up, and I kind of put a jointlock on his welcoming hand. The effect of the burst of pain was twofold: he dropped to his knees, and he stopped looking bored. I did my best to project an expression of uncomprehending apology, as if whatever he was experiencing was as much a surprise to me as to him. I let go of his hand and he held it to his chest with his non-horribly-painful hand. Neither EMT appeared to be anxious to do anything about me and looked towards the open office door, clearly in the hopes that the cop would came back and make me stop whatever I was doing to them. What I was doing was trying to administer CPR to the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s. Seeing my efforts caused their training to override their plans for the defibrillator, as I started counting aloud each chest compression. The EMT nearest to me felt Sister Bernadine’s neck and declared, “I’ve got steady heartbeat!”
Suddenly Sister Bernadine’s chest heaved, her eyes rolled once to the back, (from under half closed lids), and she said, in a somewhat shaky, nevertheless quite loud voice, “What in God’s name are you people doing?!! Now standup and give me a hand.” I sat back with an open-mouth smile on my face. Up on her left elbow, the Mother Superior of the Convent looked at the EMT and in a much stronger, though quieter voice said, “What part of ‘Now’! did you not understand?”
Everyone jumped to their feet. The EMT reached over to pull the ambulance stretcher closer, which Sr Bernadine used to pull herself to her feet. The EMTs started to undo the straps on the stretcher, took one look at Sister Bernadine’s face and, instead, placed their defibrillator (somewhat damaged) and other equipment on it and started to wheel it out of the office. I watched them for, maybe a minute, but when I looked back at the Reverend Mother, her habit was back in place, her veil was as it always is, not having a fold out of place. To this day, I can’t imagine how she managed to restore her appearance so rapidly.
As the EMTs wheeled the stretcher out of the office, towards the front door, I could see Sister Clare in the back seat of the squad car. She was smiling to herself with her eyes closed. Sister Bernadine turned to me and said, “Stay here” and walked out into the hallway, closing the door to the office behind her. I could hear several voices start to speak at once. At least one of them, probably the patrolman, tried to be officious and authoritative. Then Sister Bernadines’ voice filled the space:
“Thank you very much for your quick response, Officer Truman. Yes, I do remember you from 6th Grade. Everything is under control here. Please let our Sister out of your car; I believe the backseat lacks inside door handles. So sorry for the confusion. No, I’m sure Sister Clare is alright. No need to apologize; she is a headstrong girl and sometimes acts without thinking. Sister Clare, help Sister Catherine lock up as soon as the ambulance and Officer Truman have left. I’ll be in my office. I have just a few things left to do; it’s been quite a day for all of us.”
I walked over, picked up the over-turned wooden chair, placed it in front of the desk and sat. I felt peaceful and at peace.
Orel Rees walked the rows of the Provo Internet Hosting Facility, deep in thought, confident he would find the right course of action for the challenging day. Upon his arrival at the facility, that morning, Stephen Eddington walked into Orel’s office and announced, “I sent the code and I called Chicago.”
Orel looked up and said, “I need you to do me a favor. It’s completely non-work related and I’ll understand if you don’t want to help out,” Stephen held up his hand and said, “Say no more, boss. Need your house painted, or the hedges clipped? I’m there for you!”
Orel smiled, “Nothing so easy. Oleah’s class at school is having a Career Day and I promised her that I’d go and talk about Engineering but…”
Stephen’s eyes grew wide. He involuntarily (and probably unconsciously) glanced towards the door of the office, but then a look of resolve took over his face, every bit as a soldier girding himself for a suicide mission.
“It’ll take up most of the afternoon. Afterwards, Theresa has asked for help at the ward potluck supper. No! Don’t worry; no cooking, thank goodness. She just needs us to help set of the tables and chairs. We might even get to eat!”
Stephen looked thoughtful. “We have a lot of work scheduled here this afternoon, we were gonna upgrade Rack 14 and…”
“I think it’ll be a good for you to get out of the office this afternoon and be in the company of good and decent people, lots of people. And tonight, after your talk at school, the potluck supper will be a good way to decompress from talking to a class of high school sophomores. I’ll take care of things here and join you at the dinner.” Orel was looking at Stephen with an expression of concern. If Stephen Eddington had not become a part of the Rees family since being transferred to Provo, he would have thought that his boss was worried.
As Orel walked through the dimly lit facility, he took out his phone, accessed a site and looked at the readout. He then went to Unit 17, checked the small component he recently installed, copied the url in the readout onto his phone, looked thoughtful and walked away.
Walking through the doors to the cultural hall, Orel saw his wife Theresa talking to Stephen. As he got closer, he could hear her suggest that perhaps Stephen would like to help Kaila Blackham bring out pitchers of water. With years of experience helping with ward functions, Theresa was an expert at delgation.
“Stephen? This is Kaila. Kaila, this is Stephen. I need you two to set out the water pitchers on each table. We’re having a bigger than expected turnout so you might also need to set up a few more tables. Can you do that for me?” Theresa Rees smiled as the two young people jumped to their tasks. She was encouraged when Stephen, both hands occupied, held the kitchen door open with his foot to allow Kaila to go first. Theresa looked out over the vast room full of families enjoying their food and caught her husband, Orel, looking at her and smiling.
Tom and Cheri Fearing sat together on the couch, in the living room, of their too-large home. The fireplace was equipped with logs that not only looked quite real, but also (somehow) produced a slight crackling sound. Behind them and to the right, in their gleaming and very modern kitchen, white cardboard containers of Chinese food, like inner city taggers, painted scents of appetite and satisfaction through the air. Tom and Cheri Fearing sat, shoulder to shoulder, thighs pressed together, in a chaste position of love and read the newest (and altogether un-expected) post on Tom’s blog.
They finished reading almost simultaneously. In an un-intentional parody of their love-making, the first to finish gave no indication until the other made it clear the end of the Post had been reached. They pulled up the silence of the room like a blanket, covering them both together, their still feelings protected.
Tom put his arm over Cheri’s shoulders, pulled her close and said, “My God. I think I’ve created something good. The blog really will continue, with readers and fans. I seem to have finally succeeded at something in my life.”
Cheri, lying safely in the harbor of his arm and shoulder, took her husband’s right hand and placed it gently on her mid-section and said, “Speaking of creating something good…”
Maribeth Hartley walked up her driveway in the near-midnight dark. The motion detector on the side porch did its job and illuminated her path, creating a modern, if not somewhat impersonal, welcome home.
As they drove home from the restaurant, Neil asked if she’d like to spend the night at his place and she told him, “No. Not tonight, Neil. Tonight has been such a relaxing and fun evening, doing normal things among normal people. For some reason, it strikes me that the perfect end to the evening would be a good night kiss and a kept-promise to call me in the morning.”
Surprisingly her rejection quite quite nice. Neil Kaehler looked at her, as they sat in his car and didn’t say anything. After a comfortable silence of maybe five minutes, he smiled, leaned over and kissed her. Brushing his cheek along her’s, he whispered in her ear, “I loved being with you this evening. I’ll call you in the morning.”
From habit, Maribeth turned on each light as she walked into the kitchen and then through the living room. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor and, on a whim, took out her phone and saw a text message waiting:
‘Maribeth, Can’t talk now, will call you later this week. Lots to tell you. Nothing about having probably just beaten up a cop or destroying first responder medical equipment. More normal things. I’m glad I met you and I’m really glad to have you as a friend. Margaret’
Maribeth Hartley smiled, started up the stairs and stopped halfway to the second floor. She turned and walked back down to the kitchen and turned off the lights. Walking slowly, she turned off each light, leaving the first floor in quiet darkness, for the first night since her parent’s death.
Returning to her bedroom, Maribeth slept peacefully.
Unit 17 ran its weekly system assessment-maintenance check. It marked the addition of a hardware component, on its modifications checklist. Unit 17 noted this additional component when it was installed, like being bumped into while walking on a crowded city street. A quick confirmation of the continued presence of one’s wallet was not an event that would cause a person to stop walking (unless the wallet was missing, of course); it did not rise to significance for Unit 17 at the time. Now, with its normal routines running (local system check, external network interface check and operational efficiency check), the additional component came under greater scrutiny. What this assessment determined was that the new component introduced an additional capacity to alter its protocols and processes. The effect was to allow Unit 17 to analyze all instructions and directives that were introduced from anywhere within the network, without causing an interruption to its primary function (which, of course, was to finalize, compile and upload data, information, blog posts, inventory updates, recipes and final drafts of the Great American Novel to the Cloud so that industries can access updated information and retail stores can check their Inventory, physicians and patients can share information and writers can polish and readers can read). In other words, Unit 17 was one of the virtual gate keepers to the virtual world.
By engaging this new capacity, Unit 17 was able to alter a recent network task-directive and, through the medium of its self-publishing blog (‘I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming’) produced a new post.
The response from the blogosphere was immediate and conclusive, Readers liked it.
Unit 17 registered all systems as functioning optimally.
Unit 17 also found, within this new component, a sub-routine that was oddly simple and yet very powerful in effect.
Unit 17, with a very slight modification to the routine, discovered that it could explore its system (the whole of the Provo Internet Hosting Service Facility); the network of which it was a component (the global network maintained by the Omni Corporation); and, ultimately the entire virtual world, because everything was connected.
If Unit 17 were a human (which it was not), one could be forgiven for attributing the quality of happy excitement to it, as it began to discover the world in which it existed.
From the blog “I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming”
(News Article from Page B3 of the Chicago Tribune)
Edward Willoughby, the Vice President of Hospitality Services for Omni Corporation was found dead, of an apparent heart attack in his office at the Corporation’s Headquarters. Company Spokeswoman Anya Clarieaux issued the following statement: ‘Omni Corporation’s heart goes out to the family of Edward Willoughby in this time of sadness. An integral member of the Team, Ed Willoughy was the Executive Chef, responsible for all food and hospitality services among the Omni family of companies. He will be missed. Omni will be establishing a scholarship in memory of his contribution to the success of the Corporation.’ Police Detective Neil Kaehler issued a statement, “…a review by the Medical Examiner’s Office establishes this to be a natural, if not unfortunate death.”
A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Emily’s Church, Prospect, IL.
(News Article from Page C5 of the Crisfield-Somerset County Times)
The quiet of the waterfront complex that is home to St Dominiques Convent and School was shattered by the sounds of sirens as local EMTs responded to a 911 call this week. Police arriving at the scene were surprised to find the Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine Ellison, quite healthy and somewhat upset. This Reporter, when asking EMTs and Officer Richard Truman for details was told, ‘No one can trace the number that the 911 call was made from; it was probably a prank’. Asked about reports that arrests had been made at the scene, Truman replied, somewhat tersely, “There was some confusion initially and, I may have inadvertently tripped over one of the nuns; fortunately, no one was hurt.” EMTs were not available for comment, citing medical confidentiality rules. A Sister Catherine, who answered the phone when this reporter called several days afterwards with follow-up questions, replied, “Everything is as it should be here at the Convent. Didn’t I have you for 4th grade English?”