Blood Flats: Chapter 13

For Lee the sound of helicopters would forever have an association with Iraq, But the helicopter was no Marine Corps bird. This was a Kentucky State Police helicopter. It was making wide circles across the fields and forests, following a general trajectory down the highway.

Perhaps Phelps had not pursued him into woods, after all. The sheriff had chosen to work smart rather than hard. Lee could appreciate the reasoning of his adversary. The sheriff would have looked more heroic if he had engaged in a foot chase. But that would have ultimately been fruitless. Lee was both younger and fitter. He had had a head start on the lawman. Phelps had no doubt taken these factors into account. He was thinking strategically rather than emotionally.

And now Lee had to control his own emotions if he intended to keep his life and his freedom. 

There would be two men—possibly three—circling above him in the helicopter. He imagined them looking down on him through a pair of binoculars. Yes, that’s the man, they would be saying. He’s the one who killed those two people in that trailer.

If he fled across the field into the woods, he would draw the helicopter down upon him. A lone man racing across an empty field would not go unnoticed from their vantage point. They would descend upon him and call in more units and drive him into a noose.

Nor could he go back the way he came. And yet, he would draw attention if he merely walked down the highway. 

A short ways down the road was a feed and agricultural supply store. Surely the general citizenry would not be alerted of his fugitive status yet. He could go in there and mill about for five or ten minutes, pretending to be another shopper. By that time the helicopter would be gone.  

The aircraft made another circle in the general area above him. Had he already caught their attention? 

He began to walk toward the agricultural supply store, his steps as deliberate and natural as he could manage them. There was a sign in the parking lot that advertised special pricing on herbicides. Another sign declared a deal on a device that captured carpenter bees. 

Lee was within a few yards of the parking lot when he realized that the .45 was still jammed in his belt. 

A pickup truck rolled past him from behind, slowed, and idled into the parking space near the front entrance of the store. What a damn fool he had been; the gun would have been in clearly visible from the front seat of the truck. Lee was lucky if the driver had not seen it, in fact; hopefully he had not been paying attention.

A sunburned man clad in jeans, a stained tee shirt, and John Deere cap climbed out of the parked pickup truck and walked through the front entrance of the supply store without giving Lee so much as a glance. He had been lucky; but he had to do something about the gun before another vehicle drove past.

The sound of the helicopter’s engine seemed to grow louder as it roared overhead again. He risked a brief glance at the sky: The chopper was moving away from him now, though he knew it would circle back, sweeping the area in a series of wide, gradually shifting arcs.

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There was a culvert at the edge of the parking lot. Lee did his best to ascertain that no one was watching him. Then reached behind his back and removed the gun from his belt. He knelt and pretended to tie one of his boot strings. He slid the gun into the mouth of the drainage pipe, and pushed it far enough into the corrugated steel opening so that no one would notice it. 

Then he stood up. The police helicopter was growing louder again. Hopefully the men above him had not noticed the lone figure stooping to push an object into a drainage pipe. 

Lee crammed his hands into his pockets and walked toward the main entrance of the store. Two other shoppers walked past him, exiting the store: one with a bag of seed slung over his shoulder, another carrying a newly purchased shovel and hoe. Neither man was familiar. 

The automatic glass door slid open and Lee stepped into the air-conditioned interior. The floors were bare concrete and the main area of the store was a maze of pallets: Many of the items that farmers bought were packaged in bulky sacks, bundles, and buckets. The pallets were stacked waist-high or shoulder-high. Along the outer perimeter of the main room were shelves of smaller items: hand tools and containers of insecticide, work gloves and spare parts for farm equipment.

At the back of the customer area was a television mounted near the ceiling on a steel frame. A group of three men and one woman were gathered around the set.

I need to kill about five or ten minutes in here, Lee thought. Just enough time for the police helicopter to move on. Lee prayed that none of the shoppers would recognize him. Of course, he had many friends and acquaintances in the county, and his picture had recently been in the paper following his return from Iraq.

Lee buried his face in a newspaper-sized promotional circular that was lying on an adjacent stack of boxes. The boxes contained a chemical fertilizer that was—according to the words printed on the cardboard—specially formulated for use on soybeans. The circular had been printed by the Burpee seed company. 

He pretended to divide his attention between the circular and the television set. This strategy, he decided, would make him less noticeable than a deliberate and obvious effort at seclusion. He stood just outside the gaggle of shoppers watching the television.

The broadcast was a news magazine talk show of some sort. The show’s host was interviewing a middle-aged, bearded author. When the camera panned on the interview subject, the man’s name and source of distinction were identified by electronically generated letters:  “Brett St. Croix, author of The Death Factory: How the U.S. Military Turns American Youths into Killers”  

The interview had apparently been underway for a while, and St. Croix was in the middle making a particular argument. 

“Militant Islam is nothing more than a reaction against Western interventionism!” St. Croix declared. The camera angle shifted from the author and the host to the studio audience. The author’s comments elicited a few groans from the crowd—but these groans were drowned out by a larger volume of cheers. “And we shouldn’t be intervening in the Middle East!”

Lee was in no mood for politics at the moment; but he found himself, ironically, welcoming the distraction from his more immediate predicament.

By God, I agree with you, Lee thought, repeating the author’s last statement in his own mind. Though for an entirely different set of reasons.

Hawkins County was red-blooded patriot territory; but Lee knew that the war in Iraq had been less than popular in many quarters of the country at large. He had seen the protesters on television and on the Internet. In fact, he had watched more than a few news reports of these protests while in Iraq. There was a television in the rec room of the fortified compound that had been his home in Iraq. On more than one occasion, he had subjected himself to the irony of these televised protests against the war, only hours or minutes before the Marine Corps subjected him to the real thing.  

The protesters don’t get it, Lee thought. Even when they are right, they are right by accident. 

There were perspectives on militant Islam and great power intervention that the media mostly chose to ignore. Lee remembered one particular Iraqi village that he and his fellow marines had entered during an anti-insurgent sweep. They had found no al-Qaeda in the village; but they had found something else that made Lee question the ultimate success and meaning of the U.S. mission in Iraq. 

In the center of the village a group of men had been gathered around the body of teenaged girl. Her arms were bound around her waist. To Lee’s horror, the girl had been buried up to her waist in the sand so that the men could more easily pelt her to death with rocks. 

The girl had already been dead by the time the marines arrived. The village men were in the last stages of their rock-throwing. A few members of Lee’s squad had fired in the air to make them stop. The marine interpreter had shouted at the male villagers, demanding an explanation. 

There was much shouting, and more than a few threats hurled in both directions. Gradually the story came together. The sixteen-year-old girl had been married off to a man three times her age. Her father had wanted a choice patch of land that belonged to the prospective groom, who already had two middle-aged wives and four children who were older than his new bride.

Apparently the young girl had been quite beautiful, and she had attracted many admirers. Trouble had arisen when the girl’s husband had decided that she was too flirtatious with a young man in the village. Nothing had ever been proven; but there were damning accusations. The young man had fled one night in terror. The girl had remained to face the summary justice of the Quran. Her father and her estranged husband were among the men who had thrown the stones.

There was nothing about the girl that looked flirtatious or beautiful now, with half of her torso buried in the sand, her hair matted with blood, her face a mass of contusions.  

Is this the society that we are fighting to preserve? Lee had thought, as he looked at the smashed concavity that had once been the nose of the young girl. Is this what I am risking my life for?  

Standing in the feed store now, Lee recalled the dark, violent impulse that had seized him in that moment, as he had looked from the crushed, swollen face of the teenage girl to the sullen faces of her male executioners. He had wanted to gun down all of those men who had thrown the stones, to slaughter them in a righteous fury of the Old Testament variety. In the end he had restrained himself; but there had been moments since then when he had wished he had killed them—every last one of them. 

These reminiscences came to an abrupt stop when there was a sudden change in the programming. The talk show was interrupted by a news bulletin. 

Lee didn’t wait to hear if the news broadcaster mentioned his name, or to see if they flashed a photo of him across the screen. No doubt that would come with time. He turned as soon as soon as he heard the words “multiple shootings” and the name of the trailer park. 

On the way out he bumped into a man who looked familiar. He greeted Lee with a smile. “Say aren’t you?” he began—for this man had not seen the images on the television. 

Lee nodded and brushed past him, then out the main entrance of the store. He scanned the sky: there was no helicopter in the burnt blue haze, and its sound was gone as well. 

He knelt by the culvert and quickly pulled the gun from the drainage pipe. He shoved it into his belt and stepped onto the two-lane highway. There was the screech of brakes, and a horn blared. Lee leapt aside as the driver of an old Ford Mustang shook his fist and accelerated again. Watch where the hell you’re going he shouted, mouthing the words through his windshield as Lee, more than a little dazed, silently stared back at him.

Chapter 14

Table of contents

Blood Flats: Chapter 12

Back into the woods again. Lee had no idea where he was going now—except that he was still traveling south. It would be about noon: He allowed himself a brief glance upward and saw that the sunlight filtering through the tree leaves was intense, burning the outlines of branches into negative images across his retinas. 

Perhaps he had made a mistake in leaving Tradd’s gun where the young father could find it. Tradd might be tracking a short distance behind him even now, as the law was surely tracking him.

He passed a deer blind that was suspended about a foot off the ground. There would be no hunters in June but the deer blind spooked him nonetheless: It reminded him of a machine gun pillbox on four wooden legs: He imagined Sheriff Phelps taking aim at him, sliding a rifle out from the wooden structure’s firing slit. 

Was the image a premonition? Was that how this was all going to end? A bird darted across a shaft of sunlight in the middle of the trail and Lee started, expecting Tradd or Sheriff Phelps or perhaps someone else.

Calm down, he told himself. You have to think. You have to get your wits about you.

Lee also found that he was haunted by the parting look that the boy, Zack, had given him. He pictured the young boy telling his grandchildren about the incident someday, the way that old-timers sometimes told stories about chance encounters with famous outlaws from the 1920s. He knew that he was no John Dillinger or Baby Face Nelson; and at this exact hour much of the county still regarded him as a war hero. But that collective opinion of him would surely change—just as Tradd’s opinion of him had shifted in the flicker of an instant. The false accusations and the circumstantial evidence would be enough to damn him in most people’s minds.

Whatever Lee’s true motivations, whatever the truth of what had happened in the trailer, the young father would recall only one fact: that Lee had held a gun on him and, by extension, his family. And when the law learned of the incident it would only add to the weight of his apparent guilt. He was going to end up dead or behind bars—and probably dead—through a series of his own miscalculations and plain bad luck.

The trail descended and rose again and the woods abruptly ended. Beyond the woods was not the uncut meadow or cultivated field that he might have expected, but a stripped landscape of dirt and uprooted trees. The land had been cleared in a wide semicircle, and the uncomfortable fantasy of being an outlaw in the woods gave way to an even more uncomfortable reality: He was an outlaw in the open daylight.

Lee heard the sounds of the heavy equipment before he saw the men working: A county work crew was adding an extension to Route 257: The new road would pass by the campground where Lee had been an unwelcome guest at the campsite of Tradd and his family.

He sensed that he was walking into a bad situation; but once again going back the way he had come was not an option. Lee walked forward, trying his best to appear nonchalant, hoping that he would be able to make his way without attracting attention. It was a hope that soon proved futile.

“Hey, you can’t cut through here!” the leader of the work crew shouted at Lee above the rumbling of a road grader. He was in his early fifties and he had a considerable paunch. He badly needed a shave and a cigarette dangled from his lips. The crew leader had been talking to the crewman operating the grader when he noticed Lee. The massive yellow machine was about to transform a strip of this bumpy field into a more level surface that would become the next increment of the Route 257 extension. Black smoke belched from the machine’s vertical exhaust pipe.

The crew leader signaled for the crewman operating the road grader to hold on for a moment. He came jiggling over to Lee, shaking his head and muttering beneath his breath—no doubt cursing this fool who didn’t have the sense to stay away from a construction site.

“You can’t cut through here!” the crew leader said. He was close enough for Lee to smell the man’s sweat and the cigarette.

The .45 was tucked in the waistband of Lee’s pants at the small of his back. Lee did not think that any of the county work crew members were close enough to notice the outline of the gun beneath his shirt. But they were pausing their tasks and gawking now, as men engaged in tedious work will do in the presence of any unexpected diversion. 

“I’ll stay away from the equipment,” Lee said. He knew that these words would not placate the man even before they were out of his mouth.

“No, you don’t understand,” the crew leader said. “This is a restricted area. You get hurt here and the county is liable. That would mean my ass and probably my job. I’m not going to lose my job because some fella wants to take a hike through the woods.”

“I’m just passing through,” Lee said.

The operator of the road grader had now killed the engine of his machine and was climbing down from the cab. 

The crew boss removed his cigarette from his mouth, turned his head and spat in the dirt. “I can’t let you through here. Look—we’ve got pits and trip hazards all over the place. This is a dangerous area.”

I’ve witnessed a double murder, for which I’m now on the run, and this guy wants me to concern myself with “trip hazards” Lee thought.

Nevertheless, Lee was now facing a potential confrontation with two men, as the crewman from the road grader was beginning to walk toward him. He was a large man who looked like he had a temper—the sort of guy who regularly engaged in knock-down-drag-out bar fights on Friday nights—just for fun.

“What’s the matter, dude? You hard a hearin’?” the road grader driver called out. “You’re in a restricted area.” 

A few more exchanges of words and there might be a real confrontation, Lee realized. He had the .45 of course, and the crew boss would back down in an instant if he saw it. But that would expose his presence to yet another set of witnesses. And the crewman from the road grader might call Lee’s bluff. Some men were daring and stupid enough to charge a loaded firearm.

“Tell me where I can go,” Lee said.

“Now that’s the spirit,” the crew boss said. “You got two choices: Go back in the direction you came from, or take that road outta here.” He jabbed a thumb toward a gently declining hill at the edge of the construction area. Lee could see pavement through the breaks in the trees.

Since Lee could not retrace his steps in the direction of Tradd, he would have to go down the hill, then. 

He eased his way backward, taking short steps so that he would not take a pratfall and then roll down the hill. The road crew probably interpreted this maneuver as fear of an attack. In reality, this was the only way Lee could keep them from seeing the .45. 

“Show’s over!” the crew boss shouted to his subordinates, seeing that Lee was going. “Back to work!”

Lee walked through a short band of trees and undergrowth and came out on a two-lane highway. His first impulse was to head for the grassy expanse on the opposite side of the road. Another forest lay beyond it. 

Then he heard the thucka-thucka of the helicopter.

Chapter 13

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 2

Tom Jarvis guided Jennifer and Clint into the main area of the first floor, where the living room, the kitchen, and the dining room all intersected. Every room on the first floor had cathedral ceilings; and the kitchen looked to have been updated within the last ten years. 

Whereas Jennifer was transfixed by the interior details of the home, Clint gravitated immediately to the sliding glass double doors at the rear of the kitchen.

Mildly disappointed, Jennifer briefly studied Clint’s tall, lanky frame. His body was silhouetted against the sunlit glare as he cast aimless glances around the shrubs, the trees, and the ivy garden that dominated the back yard. 

Her husband—the son of a union machinist—had spent his entire childhood in the same postwar-era tract home. Since their marriage, the two of them had lived in one rented condo and two apartments. Clint knew next to nothing about real estate. That much she could have lived with. What bothered her was that he did not seem very interested in learning. They had toured more than a dozen houses so far, and Clint had yet to ask what her attorney father would call, “a reasonably intelligent question”. 

Jennifer ran her hand across the marble countertop in the kitchen. “The first floor, at least, is awesome,” she announced, mildly embarrassed for inadvertently reverting to a childhood word. The present owners of the house, the Vennekamps, were tasteful decorators. And of course, the house had been immaculately cleaned for showings. 

“Want to take a look at the fireplace?” Tom Jarvis asked from the living room. Jennifer nodded, then walked past her husband and tapped him on the back. Clint turned around suddenly, giving her a blank expression that made her think of their six-year-old son, Connor. But he dutifully followed her.

Jarvis flipped a switch on the wall, and a little artificial flame shot up within the fake logs inside the fireplace. “Gas burning,” Jarvis said. “It can get a little expensive if you use it a lot, but it’s a lot cleaner than the original wood-burning setup. And what’s more, you don’t have to chop any firewood.”

Jennifer nodded, her attention drawn away from the fireplace to the pictures and knickknacks on the adjacent shelves. During the touring of prospective houses, she had often found herself inexplicably curious about the little details of the resident families’ lives. There was something vaguely improper and voyeuristic about this impulse, of course; but it was probably harmless. It wasn’t like she was opening people’s private closets and drawers; she was only noticing what they had displayed in the open for the house showings.

Her gaze fell upon a framed photograph: a family of four posing for a studio portrait. This was Jennifer Huber’s first look at the Vennekamps.

“That would be them,” Tom Jarvis said in response to the unspoken question, “the current owners. Richard and Deborah Vennekamp. And their children, David and Marcia.”

“You were saying during the ride over,” Jennifer said, continuing to study the portrait, “that there was some disagreement between the couple about selling the home. At least that’s what I understood you to say. But the house is very clearly on the market. So what’s the story there?”

“The story,” said Tom Jarvis, “is that Richard Vennekamp is too sick to maintain the yard and he wants to move into someplace smaller.” 

“What’s wrong with him?” Clint asked.

“Pancreatic cancer,” Jarvis said. “And no, I’m not sure if it’s the kind that can be cured. What I do know is that Richard Vennekamp is no longer the man you see in that picture.”

The Richard Vennekamp in the portrait was, indeed, the picture of early middle-age male vitality. He was stocky with blond hair. His tight smile asserted a kind of quiet, calm masculinity. 

“Richard Vennekamp had his own contracting business,” Jarvis went on. “He made out well during the construction boom, before the big real estate crash a few years back. But that all ended when he got sick. He had to sell off what was left of his business; and now he’s got to sell off this house, too.”

“That’s horrible,” Clint said.

“It is,” Jennifer agreed. Her enthusiasm for the house was now tempered by a vague sense of guilt. This nice home inside the Mydale school district was such a bargain because Richard Vennekamp was a sick—possibly dying—man, and the house was priced to sell. 

Still, if the house had to be sold, then somebody had to buy it. And why shouldn’t that somebody be Clint and Jennifer Huber?

“Plus there’s the fact that the Vennekamps’ children have long since moved out,” Jarvis continued. “The empty nest thing. David and Marcia would be well into their thirties by now. Possibly older.”

If that was the case, then this portrait of the Vennekamps was rather old. The David and Marcia Vennekamp in the portrait were both teenagers. 

David Vennekamp was a moderately overweight, awkward-looking youth with thick-rimmed glasses. He must have combed his hair for the picture; but he still looked like he had just gotten out of bed. David seemed sullen, and his smile for the camera looked both coached and forced. 

Marcia, meanwhile, was a mousy, diminutive teenage girl whose shyness was unmistakable, even in this old family portrait. She stared wide-eyed at the camera through glasses that were thankfully not as thick as her brother’s. Her smile was tight-lipped, as if she did not want to reveal her teeth. Jennifer wondered if the girl had been wearing braces.

Two teenage misfits, Jennifer thought, not uncharitably. She had thankfully never had to worry about “fitting in” during her high school or college years. But nor had she ever been one of the “mean girl” types who take a perverse delight in tormenting the David and Marcia Vennekamps of the world. 

“That doesn’t explain the conflict,” Jennifer said. “I mean, we’re both very sorry to hear about Richard Vennekamp, but—”

“The problem,” Jarvis said, “is that Deborah Vennekamp doesn’t want to sell the house. Don’t ask me to explain exactly why. It seems that Mrs. Vennekamp has a sentimental attachment to this house. An excessive attachment, you might say.”

Jennifer could understand a sentimental attachment to a place where one had raised children, lived as a married couple, and passed through other milestone stages. She could understand it to a point. 

However, the fact was that it made sense for the Vennekamps to downsize now, for all the reasons that Jarvis had enumerated. This was a big sprawling house that had been built for a growing family—not a pair of older empty-nesters. Deborah Vennekamp would surely get over her attachment to the house, once she and Mr. Vennekamp had relocated to a place that was more manageable and better suited to their needs. 

“But the house is for sale,” Jennifer said. “Just like every other house that we’ve looked at.”

“Yes it is,” Jarvis replied. “But I can’t promise for how long that will be the case. Deborah Vennekamp is very strong-willed.”

Jennifer looked at the Deborah Vennekamp in the portrait. A thin woman with conservatively styled light-brown hair, she didn’t look very strong-willed. In fact, Jennifer rather suspected that Marcia had acquired her obvious timidity from her mother.  

“Then we’ll need to make an offer on the house as soon as possible.” She noted the immediately raised eyebrows of both Clint and Jarvis. “Provided that everything else checks out, of course. Come on, let’s take a look at the rest of the house.”

Chapter 3

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 1

To thirty-four-year-old Jennifer Huber, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive seemed pretty close to perfect. If only, she would later think, there had been something wrong with it—something that would have sent her and her husband Clint running, never to return. 

That wasn’t the way things worked out, though. On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive drew the Hubers in. Or at least the house drew Jennifer in.

The seduction began in earnest in the realtor’s car, as Jennifer, Clint, and Tom Jarvis (the realtor) pulled into the driveway.

“It’s a Tudor!” Jennifer exclaimed.

“And what would that be?” Clint asked.

“This style of home,” Jennifer replied. “This is what they call a Tudor style home.”

Jennifer had a fairly extensive knowledge of residential architecture, and she had studied the house’s spec sheet on the Internet the previous night. So she already knew that this would be a Tudor-style home. Her surprise had been feigned: It had simply been a gambit to prod Clint into showing some more enthusiasm about what they were doing today.

“You’ve got to admit, hon: It looks good from the road.”

“It’s a good-looking house,” Clint allowed.

Built in 1940, the house had a look that was simultaneously homey and classic: It had steeply pitched gables (a prerequisite of the neo-Tudor style), decorative half-timbering on the exterior walls, and brick inlays around the ground-floor windows. 

“Let’s have a look-see,” Tom Jarvis said, turning off the engine of his Lexus and opening the front driver’s side door. Jennifer didn’t wait for either Jarvis or Clint.  As soon as the vehicle was parked, she was out of the overly air-conditioned back seat and racing ahead of the two men.

“It looks like somebody really wants a house,” she heard Jarvis say conspiratorially to Clint. 

Who wouldn’t want a new house? Jennifer thought. That’s the sort of thing we work for, after all.

That thought reminded her of the job she hated and the secret that kept her bound there. She pushed these thoughts away. Today was a happy occasion. She wasn’t going to think about her job at Ohio Excel Logistics. Not on a Saturday afternoon like this.

“Check this out,” Jennifer said, pulling her husband Clint by the hand. “Japanese maples.”

The front garden did indeed have three Japanese maples, plus several small pine trees and a whole lot of ivy. It was the sort of landscaping that took years to develop—either that, or a whole lot of money. 

“Connor would like the yard,” Jennifer observed as Tom Jarvis bent down and retrieved the key from the lockbox on the front door.

“He probably would,” Clint replied.

“And best of all, it’s in the Mydale school district.”

Their son, Connor, was going to be a first-grader in a mere two months. The public schools in Mydale were regarded as the best in the Cincinnati area.

And then there was the most important thing about the house—the factor that made this a real possibility: The asking price of the home at 1120 Dunham Drive was within the Hubers’ range. Most of the homes in Mydale were a lot pricier. 

By now Jarvis had unlocked the door. He smiled and held the door open for them.

Jarvis smiled again as Jennifer walked by and looked down. He wasn’t overly obvious about it, but the realtor had clearly taken the opportunity to check her body out. 

It wasn’t the first such glance that she had noticed from the real estate agent. Nor was it all in her imagination. Clint had remarked the other day that Jarvis had taken so many liberties with his eyes during their real estate office meetings and home viewing excursions, that he owed them an additional ten percent off the asking price of whatever house they eventually settled on.  

She asked Clint if it made him jealous—Jarvis looking at her that way. Clint had scoffed in reply: Jarvis was an old guy, basically harmless.

Jarvis was indeed older than them, maybe in his mid- to late-forties. He was balding and could have dropped ten pounds; but he still carried himself with the swagger of an ex-jock. Jarvis had probably been a “hound” back in the day; and his manner strongly suggested that he still considered himself a claimant to that title.

As Jennifer walked into the cool house and out of the midsummer heat, Jarvis closed the door and briefly loomed over her. He finally looked away, but not before allowing himself a furtive glance down her blouse. 

Okay, that one was a bit much, she thought, but did not say.

Since roughly the age of thirteen, Jennifer had noticed that a large number of men noticed her. That seemed to go along with being thin, blonde, and reasonably pretty. Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal; and for a period of her life it had been undeniably flattering.

But she had been married for most of a decade. She was a mom now; and she was devoted to Clint. 

Or at least she thought she was. Would a woman who was totally devoted to her husband and son get herself into the jam she was in at work? 

Is there something wrong with me? she wondered. Do I give off the wrong signals?

Her unpleasant thoughts were pushed aside by the interior of the house. The front hall was high-ceilinged and spacious. Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. Unlike many older houses, this house wasn’t dark and dingy. Quite the opposite, in fact, the windows of the downstairs flooded the first floor with natural light. 

“I think I love this house.” Jennifer declared, setting aside what she knew to be her habitual skepticism about being sold anything at all. Clint, who was standing beside her, gave her a curious look. 

Then the realtor said what Clint must have been thinking:

“Well, Mrs. Huber, you’ve only just seen the front yard and the front hallway. But that’s a good start.”   

It’s like he doesn’t want me to get my hopes up, she thought. They had toured numerous homes with Tom Jarvis—most of them homes that Jennifer and Clint had preselected through exhaustive, late-night Internet searches. Practically none of those homes had given her instantly warm and fuzzy feelings. 

But this one did. And Jarvis wasn’t exactly right about her having seen only the front yard and the front hallway. Having spotted this house online and grasped its potential, Jennifer had poured over the available photographs of its interior and landscaping. Jennifer had bookmarked the home’s portfolio in Internet Explorer, and had returned to it numerous times, in fact.

On the drive over from the realty office, Tom Jarvis had said that the situation surrounding this house was “complicated”. He had started to explain; but apparently the act of giving an explanation was complicated, too.

“For now lets just keep our options open,” he’d said. But what exactly did that mean? Was Tom Jarvis planning to ultimately steer them toward another house? Maybe a turkey of a house that could only be unloaded on a naïve young couple making their first home purchase?

Well, she thought, the unknown motives of a self-serving and mildly lecherous real estate agent were not going to dissuade her if this house turned out to be as perfect as it seemed. Real estate agents were always working their angles, she’d heard. None of them, she had been warned by friends, were to be trusted. 

She didn’t want to make a negative generalization about an entire profession. Still, she and Clint would have to be careful. The Internet was filled with horror stories about dishonest and prevaricating real estate agents. Tom Jarvis knew they were first-time homebuyers. That might lead him to the conclusion that they could be easily led.

One thing was undeniable: For some reason, Tom Jarvis didn’t want them to purchase this house.

Chapter 2

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 9

“That concludes our presentation,” Amanda said to the room full of lawyers, and to Hugh, of course. “Are there any questions?”

Hugh was certain that there would be questions, and he would make sure to field these unless Amanda intervened. With Evan leading off and Amanda finishing the presentation, he had been little more than ornamentation thus far today.

Hugh had offered to take over when Evan unexpectedly left the room; but Amanda had insisted on taking over herself. This was her way of demonstrating that she could come through in a crisis, and indeed she had. Hugh had to hand it to her: She had done an admirable job of recovering the big pitch from the very jaws of disaster, speaking extemporaneously based on the PowerPoint slides that Evan had prepared. 

One of the lawyers—or rather, the accountant who worked for the lawyers—raised his hand.

“Could you explain again about how the outstanding accounts receivables will be updated?” he asked.

Hugh grunted discreetly to let Amanda know that he would take the question. “Certainly,” he said. “When you go to the main screen, you’ll find a little icon with an image of a dollar sign and a left-facing arrow. All you have to do is double-click that, and you’ll see a complete list of all the outstanding accounts receivables. You can print out the report, of course; and you can narrow your parameters using the drop-down fields at the top of that screen—based on date, vendor, or the amount of the invoice.”

“And this is updated regularly, I take it?” the accountant asked.

“The user interface report updates against the database every eight hours,” Hugh replied. “So yes, we can say that it’s updated regularly.”

The accountant nodded thoughtfully, apparently satisfied with Hugh’s explanation. Hugh was happy to see that the meeting was going well, after all. But the other half of his mind was focused on Evan, who had been gone from the meeting for far too long. He thought about going after the younger man, who had no doubt forgotten the warnings issued to him earlier this morning. 

Hugh felt an undeniable weight of responsibility here: If Evan had failed to take the warnings seriously, then he was at least partially at fault, wasn’t he? He had not given Evan much to go on. 

Hugh realized that he had been extremely vague about the potential dangers lurking in this building. But on the other hand, he could not really be certain about what he had seen during his previous visit to Lakeview Towers. The memory still gave him an uneasy, insecure feeling, as if the ground had shifted beneath him.

It might have been an optical illusion, a trick of the light—that security guard who was not quite a security guard, the one who had approached him in the corridor just outside the suite rented by Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. At first Hugh had thought nothing of the security guard’s presence, until he had taken a close look at the guard’s face: Then he had seen that it wasn’t a person at all, but some sort of a mannequin—a robot, in fact. 

And then one of the lawyers had suddenly stepped out of the firm’s suite. Opening the door and standing in the doorway, he said that he wanted to catch Hugh to ask one final question.

Hugh had turned to talk to the lawyer. When he’d turned back around, after answering the lawyer’s question, the creepy security guard had been gone. 

So maybe it had been nothing. Maybe. Nevertheless, Lakeview Towers made him feel uneasy. There was something odd about this building—some quality that didn’t belong in a modern office complex. Lakeview Towers had been built no more than ten years ago. Yet there was something much older here—a presence that Hugh could sense, but could not articulate. It might have been nothing more than his imagination, he told himself. Still, there were too many vast, open spaces here, and too few people. Something simply wasn’t right. Hugh just didn’t know what that something was.

If my heart were better, Hugh thought. If my heart were better I would come here one day—perhaps even on my own time—and walk the halls of Lakeview Towers. (A fifteen-year employee of Merlesoft, Hugh had plenty of vacation time, and too little to do on his vacation days.) I would get to the bottom of whatever is here. Or I would satisfy myself that nothing was here; I would be able to say with confidence that the mannequin-like security guard had been a trick of the light, a rare but harmless illusion of some sort.

If not for my heart… That was exactly the excuse that he had been using ever since his twenty-first birthday, after his father had died at the age of fifty-two, from what Hugh now thought of as “the family heart condition”. The cardiologist had informed Hugh that he had inherited the same life-limiting cardiac defect. 

“Your odds of suffering a fatal myocardial infarction will increase by a certain percentage each year after the age of thirty-five,” the physician had told him. Naturally, the doctor had been unable to give Hugh any more specific indication of the odds. But his paternal grandfather had lived until the age of fifty-four—two years longer than his father had lived—so it seemed that the family medical curse was shortening their lives progressively with each generation. 

In an attempt to end on a positive note, the physician had told Hugh that with the proper diet and light, controlled exercise, he might be able to live a “reasonably long” life. But what did that mean? Fifty-three? Forty-nine? Hugh was already forty-five years old, and he knew that he would almost certainly be dead within the next decade. 

The attorneys had a few more questions, which he again answered, and then finally the meeting was over. Evan had still not returned to the meeting. 

During the post-meeting banter with the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker folks, Hugh was distant, lost in his own speculations: Had Evan encountered that security guard—the mannequin or the robot, or whatever it was?

And he reminded himself that “it” might have been nothing more than a normal security guard, who had appeared to be something abnormal due to a trick of the light. What was that old rule he had learned years ago—the one known as Occam’s razor? “The simplest hypothesis is most likely to be the true one.” Or something like that. The simplest explanation was that his eyes had played a trick on him that day. Without incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, there was no reason to let his imagination take off on a flight of fancy.

Hugh and Amanda gathered up the equipment that they had brought in with them, including Evan’s laptop and the projector, both of which Evan had transported in. Amanda offered to carry both of these additional items; but Hugh insisted that they divide the extra load between them. He made a point of carrying the projector himself, which was heavier and bulkier than the laptop.

Amanda knew the basic story regarding his heart condition, and she had always gone out of her way to be deferential about it. But sometimes this embarrassed Hugh, her kind intentions notwithstanding. I’m not that fragile, he thought. And even if I am—well, I’d rather go down fighting, carrying my share, versus allowing someone else to shoulder my burdens for me.

On the way out, Hugh made a final visual sweep of the table and noted the key fob for the pool car Camry. Prior to beginning the meeting, Evan had removed it from his pocket and had nervously passed it from one hand to the other. He had set it down on the tabletop just before starting his presentation. Hugh snatched up the key fob: they wouldn’t get far without it.

At the doorway between the law firm’s suite and the hallway, Barry Litchfield was waiting for them. “Give us a few days to discuss this internally,” he said. “We’ll be in touch by the middle of next week.” Hugh perceived this as normal: Even when sales presentations went well, even when all of the i’s were dotted and all of the t’s were crossed, clients still needed time to arrive at a decision. That was the way bureaucratic organizations worked. Some salespersons allowed themselves to be driven batty over this; but Hugh had always regarded the waiting game as just another inescapable step of the sales process.

“I hope your colleague is all right,” Barry said. This was the first explicit reference that anyone had made to Evan’s sudden departure since he had left the room. “It would be a shame if he were sick—or anything.”

Hugh thought he detected a subtle shift in Barry’s facial expression when he uttered that last word, although it might have been nothing more than his imagination. Does Barry believe that there is something wrong with this office complex? he wondered. Does this lawyer know more than he is letting on? Barry was, by Hugh’s estimate, an intelligent, perceptive man. If there was something amiss at Lakeview Towers, it wouldn’t escape the lawyer’s notice.

“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Amanda said. “Thank you again for your time. Thanks to all of you. It was a pleasure.”

Barry Litchfield held the door open for them. “Of course. Thank you again for coming.”

With that Hugh and Amanda found themselves alone in the deserted hallway. Amanda turned to Hugh.

“Do you think Evan is okay?” She looked up and down the length of the deserted corridor. “Or did a lion get him?”

Hugh reflected that this was an odd remark from the hardboiled, all-business Amanda. She and Evan weren’t exactly on the best of terms; but her remark reflected genuine concern about the younger man’s safety. Does Amanda sense something odd about this place, or is that just my imagination, too?

She gave Hugh a quick, terse laugh when he failed to respond. “Hey, Hugh, I was just kidding.” She started walking toward the lobby. “Come on. Let’s get this stuff to the car.”

“Of course,” Hugh recovered, following her. “And I’m sure Evan is fine. He probably just decided that for him to make a second entry into the meeting would be more disruptive than simply staying away; and he was probably right. After all, you and I did fine. I’m sure we’ll find him waiting for us in the lobby.”

Chapter 10

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 8

Evan stared at the closed double doors, wondering for a moment if the robot would follow him into this room. Did its artificial intelligence include a knowledge of door latches and locks? One of the two doors had a handle; and so far, at least, the handle had not moved. Perhaps the thing had wanted nothing more than to maneuver him out of the hallway. Perhaps that was the limitation of its programming—to keep the hallway free of trespassers. The robot’s only words, after all, had been the statement that the hallway was off-limits.

He absently noted that the sales presentation to Rich, Litchfield, and Baker would be a complete washout for him now. The unexpected, and as yet unexplained, encounter with the robot had shifted all of his immediate priorities.

Now reasonably content that the robot would not pursue him beyond the door, Evan turned and surveyed the room in which he now found himself. It was a large storage room of sorts, with high ceilings and little light. High overhead, about a dozen widely spaced florescent bulbs provided a minimal amount of illumination. There were also networks of pipe and electrical wiring overhead, as would be expected in any room with an unfinished ceiling. 

The storage room was dominated by metal shelving: Rows of shelves were positioned in the middle of the room, and also along all of the walls that Evan could see. He also noticed two pallets in an open space a fair distance from him. Cardboard boxes were stacked atop the pallets. 

A dusty, mildewy smell permeated the air. This was obviously a room that was seldom entered, and seldom cleaned. 

Evan walked toward the nearest row of shelving. The first thing he noticed, on the shelf that was approximately level with his shoulders, was a tangled mess of computer cables. Behind the computer cables was a much older item, one that he recalled having seen in photographs: It was an ancient IBM adding machine. Now why would something like that be here? Manual adding machines hadn’t been used in offices for decades—not since the sixties, at least. This thing was an antique, probably worth some money. To store it away in this room was a waste.

He stepped over to his right, to the next section of shelving, and noticed a mass of lumpy objects obscured beneath a large sheet of bubble wrap. They were irregularly shaped—possibly more antique office equipment.

He lifted the sheet of bubble wrap upward and gasped as multiple sets of eyes stared back at him. He jumped back, momentarily jolted by the optical illusion. When he was able to breathe again, he chided himself, the incident in the hallway notwithstanding. What lay on the shelving was not a pile of dismembered human heads, but a pile of mannequin parts: heads, arms, and legs. They all appeared to be fashioned from smooth plastic, just like the robot out in the hallway.

Just like the robot out in the hallway.

Were these parts of similar machines, then, Evan wondered. And why were they here?  

Evan then reflected that he would have a lot of questions for Hugh when the two of them were reunited. Hugh obviously knew something about this highly unusual office complex, but for some reason he had chosen to only hint at the big picture, preferring to leave Evan with a vague and indecipherable warning about not wandering off, and avoiding security guards.

The security guards, Evan thought. The human security guards—there must be some way to contact them. They could take care of that thing in the hall, probably.

He removed his cell phone from his pocket. The phone had Internet access, so he would be able to use it to find the general number for the Lakeview Towers office complex. He could call the front desk, and alert the security guards to the robot that had threatened him. It was probably still in the hallway. (Evan still clung to the belief that the robot was a research prototype of a high-tech firm that rented space in Lakeview Towers.) 

But when he turned his phone on, he found that neither the Internet access nor the phone itself was able to receive a signal. He turned off the phone and returned it to his pocket. It was useless for the time being.

There might be an internal landline phone, then. He walked toward the far wall, being careful to avoid the debris on the floor, which seemed to be everywhere. This room was not only untidy and unused, it was unsafe. He could imagine someone taking a nasty fall in here, then suing the Lakeview Towers management for negligence. 

Halfway between his starting point and the far wall, his toe struck something hard and unyielding, causing him to curse aloud. He had not seen the object, since it had been obscured in shadows. Cursing at the unseen item, he bent down and lifted a layer of plastic bubble wrap from a solid metallic body. This revealed the last thing he would have expected to find in the storage room of an office building: It appeared to be a ship’s anchor. And it was an old one at that, based on its traditional admiralty design. 

Evan ran his hand along the surface of the metal and noted that it was coated with rust. Along the main shaft of the anchor he felt the concavity of an inscription. 

The room was too dark to allow him to read the inscription, so he removed his cell phone from his pocket again. Since the thing could not receive an Internet or phone signal in this room, it ought to be good as a flashlight, at least. 

He turned on the phone and held it near the inscription. In the illumination from the phone’s screen, he read the words, 

“U.S.S. Danville, 1842”

This was even more bizarre than the antique adding machine. Even stranger than the mannequin/robot parts, in a way. What sort of a storage room was this?

Shrugging off the anchor as one of many unanswerable questions that had arisen in the past hour, Evan stood, pocketed his phone, and resumed his walk toward the far wall. When he finally arrived, he found nothing but more shelving pushed up against the cinderblock surface of the wall. This time, he did not investigate any of the items on the shelves before him. He already knew that he could anticipate finding all manner of strange things in this room.

He scanned the length of the wall in one direction. It appeared that the shelves extended all the way into the distance, where the shadows finally made them invisible. In the other direction, the shelves continued into yet another cinderblock wall. 

He walked back into the middle of the room, looking for a light that would indicate another exit—other than the door through which he had entered. Much of the wall space around him was obscured; and he could not see any illumination that might indicate another door. Sometimes doors in buildings were indicated with lighted “EXIT” signs. There didn’t seem to be any such doors or signs here. Was this room compliant with fire codes? Probably not.

Then his attention was drawn by a series of noises from overhead. It sounded like tiny fingernails—or maybe claws—scraping against one of the ventilation pipes. 

Rats, maybe? He walked in the direction of the sound, then looked up in time to see the shadow a long tail disappearing behind one of the large overhead pipes. The tail was long and thick, definitely not anything belonging to a rat. Evan thought: What else is in this room with me, besides plastic body parts and antiques? 

He heard tiny, scurrying footsteps thudding along the top surface of one of the pipes. He followed the sounds, simultaneously exercising caution to avoid tripping over the junk on the floor. 

Finally the footsteps stopped. There was the sound of more scraping, and Evan saw a brief glimpse of a large reptilian face, something with shiny black scales and yellow eyes. 

Evan caught his breath. I did not see that, he thought.

He knew, however, that he did see that; and he heard another set of footsteps, and then more overhead. One of the tailed reptilian creatures (he assumed they were all alike) made a chirring sound. 

It was time to get out of this room. Surely the robot was gone by now. Although there was a certain risk involved, Evan decided that he would attempt to exit this room via the door through which he had entered. He would peek out, at the very least; and if the robot was no longer in the hallway, then he would make a run for the lobby. If the robot was still there—well, he would deal with that contingency when he was confronted with it.

Evan walked quickly back toward the double doorway, much less worried about the robot now than he had been. He heard more scraping, scurrying, and chirring sounds overhead. Were those things, too, some sort of prototypes? Could it be that a biotech company was also housed in Lakeview Towers?

Then he grasped the outlandishness of the scenario that he was proposing to himself: Could he really believe that both a high-tech robotics company, and a rogue biotech company were housed in this office complex? Could he further believe that both companies had somehow built horrific “prototypes” and allowed them to run loose in the building?

He couldn’t believe that, of course; but nor could he think of a readily serviceable alternative theory. 

Keep calm, he told himself. Keep calm. There is a logical explanation for all of this. There simply has to be.

But when Evan arrived back at the spot where the door was located, he was confronted with yet another impossibility: The door was no longer there. It had been replaced by an expanse of bare cinderblock wall, painted in a color that looked like a dull tan in the dim light. 

No way! Evan thought. Doors do not disappear. Doors do not disappear!

Evan now concluded that he was in a truly desperate situation. Whatever was going on here, it was no longer interesting, it was no longer merely curious. It was intensely frightening. 

Since joining Merlesoft as a new college graduate, Evan had often been frustrated at work, and he had occasionally been angered and humiliated. But today would mark the first time that he had actually been frightened at work—even while on a sales call. 

Still, there had to be a way out of this. He couldn’t give up.

Evan began to walk back and forth along the blank wall where the double doors should have been. He occasionally called out, just in case there was someone beyond the wall who might hear him. 

Chapter 9

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 7

Evan walked quickly down the hallway toward the lobby, going back the way he had come about twenty minutes earlier. Once again he noted absently that the hall was free of any human presence. Except for the two security guards and the personnel at Rich, Litchfield, and Baker, Evan had yet to see anyone in the Lakeview Towers complex. 

And now even the two security guards were gone. Evan ran past the empty security guard enclosure, barely noticing its wood-paneled sides and cove lighting this time. The light-headedness and the nausea had both intensified. The walls of the lobby were kaleidoscopic blurs. They were randomly moving back and forth, then up and down. Evan therefore used the floor—which was only moving slightly—to maintain his bearings. He was sure that he would vomit at any second. He felt as if a small animal was clawing at the inside his stomach, angry and struggling to get out.

He stopped and clutched the sides of his head, then closed his eyes tightly. When he opened his eyes again, the room had stopped spinning, though he was still violently nauseous and light-headed.

The main entranceway was but a short dash before him—and beyond it, the bright sunlit parking lot. He had a sudden impulse to bolt for the car, for reasons that he could not quite name. He once again recalled Hugh’s cryptic warnings. Was there something wrong with him, or something wrong with this place?

Maybe I should just get out. Get out while I still can.

No. That was a crazy thought. It would be the wrong thing to do; and it would only make Amanda’s subsequent recriminations all the harsher. 

As far as the presentation went, presumably either Amanda or Hugh had picked up where he had left off. He could plead ill health, of course, as this seemed to be exactly the case. Nevertheless, his best course of action would be to try to recover somehow, and return to the meeting. He might have to vomit; but vomiting had never killed anyone, right? On those rare occasions when it was necessary, vomiting was simply something that you had to do and get past, in his experience.

Adjacent to the main entrance he saw a little hallway, and hanging from the ceiling there was a sign bearing the universal symbolic representations of a man and a woman. These indicated the lobby restrooms. If he was going to be sick, then he had better not be sick on the lobby carpet. Not with the restrooms so close.

He made a beeline for the hallway, absently observing once more how empty Lakeview Towers was of normal human activity. He had visited many office buildings since beginning his professional employment. There was almost always someone waiting around in a lobby at nine a.m. on a business day. The emptiness of Lakeview Towers was not only peculiar, it was borderline eerie.

He swerved into the hallway and to his right saw a door marked MEN in bold black letters. He pushed the door open and found himself in a pristine, though dimly lit restroom. He immediately took in the familiar and expected layout: There were three sinks and a mirror to one side, then a row of urinals and a row of toilet stalls. 

Nothing was unusual about the restroom, but he felt different now that he was here. Instead of smelling the rotten/burning smell, the odors of disinfectants and cleaning supplies filled his nasal passages. More importantly, though, he noticed that the dizziness and the nausea were all but gone, just as suddenly as they had come over him. 

Barely a few minutes ago he had intended to run for the nearest stall and regurgitate the contents of his stomach. Now that seemed completely unnecessary. 

In fact, he felt like going back to the meeting, and resuming the presentation, assuming that Amanda wouldn’t forbid it. And even if she did, he decided, he would take over anyway. He would assert his will. This morning he had openly defied her, and it had felt good. What was the worst she could do, after all? She could fire him, but she couldn’t order him placed in front of a firing squad. 

Before going back, he took a moment to study his reflection in the mirror. He expected to see at least a hint of paleness, or perhaps an unusually florid color, or a noticeable dilation of his pupils. There was none of that, though—at least not so far as he could detect.  

I’m fine, he thought. There is really no reason why I shouldn’t go back to the meeting. 

Just to make sure that he was completely okay, he turned on the faucet, made a cup of his hands, and doused his face with cold water. He pulled a length of paper towel from the nearby dispenser and dried his cheeks and chin. Yes, his color was definitely normal. Perhaps the dizziness and the nausea had all been in his head. Maybe it had all been psychosomatic, brought about by the usual butterflies before a big client pitch, and the argument with Amanda in the parking lot. From now on, he decided, he would have to find a way to exclude her from his customer meetings. But there was not much chance of his doing that, considering who the boss was in the sales department.

Evan stepped out of the men’s room, by now feeling more than a little bit foolish about his sudden departure from the meeting. And that was when he noticed the security guard blocking the hallway.

The security guard was standing between him and the lobby, occupying the middle of the passageway, so that it would have been awkward for Evan to step around him. His very presence surprised Evan, because the security desk had been empty when he passed by on the way to the restroom. 

And this security guard was both taller and broader than the average security guard. In fact, he might be the largest human being that Evan had ever seen in person.

Assuming that he was—

“Excuse me,” Evan began. “I need to—”

Then he took a good long look at the security guard’s face. As he had suspected, it was not quite human, its features smooth like that of a mannequin. But what would a six-foot-seven mannequin be doing in the middle of this hallway, dressed in a security guard’s uniform? Evan saw that the mannequin was also wearing a gun.

He felt a minor chill go up his spine. What the hell was going on?

Then the mannequin’s mouth moved as if to speak, the hinged lower jaw opening slightly. The thing took a step toward him. It was a mechanical, jerky step; but it was a deliberate step.

This was no mannequin. This was a robot.

Evan knew that the Japanese car manufacturers Honda and Toyota, as well as other companies, had recently made advances in robotics that would make something like this possible. That still didn’t explain, though, why this particular robot was standing before him here in the hallway, and why it was wearing a security guard’s uniform and a gun.

“Access to this area is not permitted,” the thing said, in a high, pinched voice that did not seem to match its superhuman size. The robot took another step toward Evan. 

And this time, Evan stepped back. 

The robot might possibly be a prototype that belonged to a high-tech company that rented space in Lakeview Towers, he thought. But there was something undeniably menacing about this robot; and it seemed to be staring at him through its painted-on eyes. Then the robot lifted its right arm, and clasped the automatic pistol in the holster on its belt. A moment ago this had been merely bizarre; now it was outright threatening.

Evan darted to one side, but the robot proved to be surprisingly quick, matching Evan’s lateral movement in less than a second. The robot stood there staring at him through its dead eyes. Its jointed, flesh-colored fingers were still holding the handle of the pistol. Your move, the thing seemed to be saying.

There was no way that he was going to be able to maneuver around this thing; and the intelligence that guided the robot seemed determined to prevent him from going back into the lobby.

What is this thing? And what is it doing here?

The pistol came out of the holster with a jerky but quick motion. The robot leveled the gun at Evan. Evan could look into its black muzzle.  

The robot stepped forward again, and again. Evan matched each pace with a backward stride of his own. He was moving deeper into the hallway—well past the men’s room now—and farther away from the lobby. 

“What do you want?” Evan asked. But the robot offered no explanation. It did respond, though, with the same words that it had uttered before.

“Access to this area is not permitted!”

Evan glanced over his shoulder and noticed a set of metal double doors. One of the doors was partially ajar, revealing a wedge of darkness.  Although Evan still believed that there was some logical explanation for all of this (his mind fixated on the possibility of a high-tech company’s errant prototype) he could not deny the fact that this situation was potentially dangerous. This might be nothing more than a machine. But it was a sentient machine, after a fashion; and it was a machine equipped with a deadly weapon.

I wonder if that gun is even loaded, Evan wondered; and that thought was followed immediately by the realization that he did not want to find out. 

Then Evan made a snap decision, knowing that this choice might be fatal. Without turning away from the robot bearing the gun, he backed toward the double doors that were behind and adjacent to him. The robot took one step closer but did not object—and more importantly, did not shoot him. The robot didn’t even issue another warning about access being restricted. 

(Evan wondered, dimly, if his going into the double doors might not be a part of the robot’s purpose, though the full implications of this notion would not become fully evident to him until later.)  

As he pushed through the partially open half of the doorway, in fact, Evan had the sudden impression that he was being herded. But when forced to choose between the certain menace of the robot and the uncertainty of the dark and unseen room behind the doors, Evan chose the latter. You couldn’t argue with a gun—even if you weren’t sure about its being loaded. 

Evan slipped into the room while staring into the blank face of the security guard robot. To his relief, the robot did not seem intent on following him into the room. It paused outside the door, never lowering the gun. But it did not make any additional threats or threatening gestures, either—not that the gun wasn’t threatening enough. 

Evan pushed the door closed behind him, leaving the robot in the corridor. Two thoughts immediately occurred to him as the door’s latch clicked into place. 

The first thought was: What just happened? He had seen news reports about advanced robots, and he had seen pictures of the latest ones being produced in Japan. But he had never heard of a robot that was programmed to behave aggressively; and he could not imagine why any corporation would even want to develop such a thing. And if the robot that he had just encountered was a prototype, then why had it been wandering unattended in the hallway? 

Then he recalled what Hugh had told him—first in the McDonald’s and then again in the lobby. Hugh had warned him not to go wandering around inside Lakeview Towers; and he had specifically warned him about security guards. Neither of these warnings had made any sense whatsoever at the time, but they were both clear to him now.

What had Hugh known about this place? And why hadn’t he simply told Evan in a more straightforward manner?

These were questions that would have to wait until later. For now, he would have to decide what to do next.

Chapter 8

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 6

“First, I want to thank all of you for taking the time to hear Merlesoft’s presentation today,” Evan began. He was the only one standing in the darkened room. Six attorneys from Rich, Litchfield and Baker were seated around one side of the oblong table. This number included an accountant and an information systems person, who weren’t really attorneys, but merely employees of the law firm. Amanda and Hugh were seated on the opposite side, their backs to Evan. 

The PowerPoint slide that was projected on the screen at the far end of the room contained an image of the law firm’s logo alongside an image of the Merlesoft logo, almost as if the two were the same company. The message being conveyed here was that the two organizations were joined in an ad hoc partnership of sorts, their mutual goal being to devise the optimal accounting solution for Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. 

This was a standard bit of sales psycho-strategizing. The idea was to spin the (hopefully) imminent purchase order as a partnership between Merlesoft and the client. Then the client representatives wouldn’t feel that they were on the receiving end of a sales process. Even though that was exactly what was happening. 

Evan then launched into the sales presentation, clicking through the slides with the projector’s remote control. He had studied his lines so much in advance that he was almost able to run on autopilot, which was a good thing—as the dizziness that he had briefly experienced in the hallway was now returning with a vengeance. And once again he was aware of that peculiar smell. The odor might best be described as a mixture between gasoline and burning vegetable matter. 

The smell was all around him now, as if it were coming through the air ducts.

The dark room began to shift before his eyes. He knew that his voice was wavering, because everyone in the room had turned their attention away from the screen at the front of the room. They were looking at him—no doubt wondering what the hell was going on.

That was a question that was acutely troubling him, as well. The partially illuminated faces around him began to shift, to melt into the darkness. When he tried to read the slide that was currently projected up on the screen, the words ran together. 

I’ve got to get out of this room, he thought. This isn’t working.

Then an additional complication arose. He was acutely aware of the large breakfast that he had eaten—the one that was supposed to give him energy to concentrate on his presentation. It was churning and bubbling in his stomach, threatening to erupt and spill out on the meeting table.

To pass out before a room full of customers would be bad enough. To upchuck in front of clients would be an unmitigated disaster, though. 

Evan made a snap decision. He placed the projector remote on the table between Hugh and Amanda. One of them would have to take over.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he announced to the room. “I’m afraid that I’m going to be sick.”

Chapter 7

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 5

They pushed through the entranceway. Evan exercised extra caution so as not to drop anything. He briefly imagined the projector slipping out of his hands and crashing to the floor. Then the whole sales presentation would be ruined, all because of his momentary blunder, his failure to anticipate. The resultant recriminations would be unbearable. Like a disgraced Japanese samurai, his only option would be to commit hara-kiri. 

The lobby was state-of-the-art, contemporary office chic. There was wall-to-wall, nondescript grey carpeting, comfortable-looking soft, frameless chairs in the waiting area, and strategically spaced abstract paintings. The three of them headed immediately to the wood-paneled security enclosure, where two security guards—a heavyset woman and a rather frail-looking older man—sat beneath soft cove lighting. 

Amanda motioned for Hugh and Evan to complete the sign-in procedures before her. She wanted to check the messages on her Blackberry before signing in, apparently. Or maybe she wanted to check her personal cell phone for messages from Oscar, Evan thought. 

While Evan and Hugh were pinning on their temporary access security badges and waiting for Amanda to finish with the security guards, Hugh pulled him aside and said discreetly:

“Stick with me while you’re here. And don’t talk to any other security guards you might happen to see here. Only these two at the front desk are okay.”

Once again Evan found himself wondering if Hugh was suffering from some sort of a delusion, or possibly setting him up for an elaborate practical joke. 

“You’re really serious about wanting me to not wander off in this building, aren’t you?” Evan asked, smiling in an attempt to break the tension from the quarrel with Amanda, and to calm the butterflies in his stomach. He often felt a slight degree of nervousness just before a big client pitch. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

He had expected Hugh to smile in response, but Hugh’s expression was suddenly more resolute, if anything.

“I’m completely serious, Evan. And I don’t have the time to explain this to you now. But if we make it out of here okay, then I promise you I will.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Maybe nothing more than my imagination, buddy. But maybe something. In any case, safety is the best policy. Just remember what I said.”

Evan opened his mouth to ask another question. And then Amanda appeared, her temporary visitor badge pinned to her blouse. 

“Are you ready, gentlemen?”

“We’re ready,” Hugh said, answering for both of them. “Follow me. I’ve been here before, after all.”

Evan followed Hugh as he led the way down the hallway directly in front of them. The law firm’s office suite was on the first floor, then. Evan was conscious of the combined weight of the portable projector and his laptop. Amanda was carrying her briefcase, and a satchel that contained the handout materials for the presentation. Hugh was carrying only his attaché case. Given his heart condition, neither Evan nor Amanda would have expected him to carry anything more.

They passed by a number of office suites, Hugh leading the way. Each office suite was located behind a stately wooden door; and on each lateral side of each door was a panel of transparent glass. The overall effect was a balance between enclosure and visibility.

Given this arrangement, it was possible for Evan to look into the office suites. He saw comfortable-looking settings, but no people. Strange that there were no people. Perhaps there was more vacant office space here than he had imagined. 

Miles and miles of space, he thought, for no reason that he could fathom.

On and on forever…

A wave of unexpected dizziness hit him. Evan nearly stumbled at one point, as he felt abruptly light-headed. He feared that he would drop the projector—for real this time. He experienced a moment of genuine panic, a sense that he was about to faint. 

Then he quickly recovered and righted himself. As suddenly as the odd feeling had come upon him, it was gone now. Since he was walking behind both Amanda and Hugh, neither of them had noticed, he was glad to see.

What’s wrong with me?

He detected a faint whiff of something unpleasant in the air. It was a burnt, sooty smell—not exactly organic, but not exactly chemical, either. Perhaps it was this odor that had made him suddenly dizzy. It might be the result of a problem with the ventilation system here.

Evan felt almost himself again when they finally arrived at the decorative wooden door that read: “Rich, Litchfield, & Baker, Attorneys at Law.” A receptionist was stationed immediately inside the suite, and there was a small waiting room that was dominated by an imitation fireplace, more ultra-modern office furniture, and paintings that looked much like the ones in the main lobby. The receptionist—a young, redheaded woman who caught Evan’s eye—informed them that they could proceed directly down the adjacent hallway to meeting room 1A—the law firm’s media room.

Meeting room 1A contained a large oblong oak table, which was surrounded by about a dozen high-backed, leather-padded chairs. The attorneys had spared no expense to make their home base attractive, it seemed. At the far end of the room, Evan spotted the roll-up screen that he would use to project the PowerPoint presentation. Being careful not to make direct eye contact with Amanda, he went about setting up the projector and connecting it to his laptop. Luckily, there were plenty of electrical outlets in the room, and he had brought extra lengths of extension cord. 

Hugh had warned him not to talk to any other security guards. Now why would Hugh say something like that? What did he mean? Evan could have asked him—if not for Amanda’s hovering presence. 

Evan had just finished setting up the equipment for the presentation when the lawyers filed in, headed by the eponymous Barry Litchfield. Evan was still feeling a bit light-headed, and he was still more than a little angry at Amanda. He was also dreading the inevitable follow-up confrontation that would surely be instigated by today’s exchange with his boss. When they returned to the Merlesoft office, there would surely be hell to pay—in one form or another.

But now he had a job to do. And he would spite Amanda Kearns by doing it to the best of his abilities.

Chapter 6

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 4

Following the directions generated by the Camry’s GPS system, Evan guided the car off the interstate at the designated exit. They were about five miles south of the Columbus metro area, and the scenery was still pretty rural. This area had probably been nothing but farmland a mere five or ten years ago. There were still plenty of cornfields around, high and dark green in their late summer lushness. On the far, flat, horizon Evan could see a scattering of barns, and even a grain silo. Closer to the highway, though, the landscape was dominated by several newly built industrial parks and office buildings. A bit farther away was a swath of recently erected McMansions. These minor palaces doubtlessly sold far more cheaply here than they would inside the Columbus city limits.

The exit took them around a long, sloping curve that dead-ended in a two-lane highway. The android voice of the GPS told Evan to turn right. 

“That’s the Lakeview Towers complex over there,” Hugh said, pointing in that direction. Evan made the right turn, and as the Camry traversed the rural highway, the office complex called Lakeview Towers gradually came into view. 

The glass-plated, ultramodern architecture looked somewhat out of place here in the middle of the Ohio countryside. True to its name, Lakeview Towers consisted of a series of four towers that must have been ten or twelve stories high. The towers were connected by a series of shorter segments that were perhaps three stories in height. How many office suites would there be in Lakeview Towers? Hundreds, at least. A lot of space to rent this far south of Columbus, Evan thought. Then he concluded that the complex must have been built at the end of the recently collapsed commercial real estate boom. 

They approached in the car, at about thirty miles per hour, and Lakeview Towers seemed to grow even larger as it drew closer. This was only an optical illusion, of course. Down at the exit, the towers had been partially obscured by the topography. As they crested a hill and drew even with the office complex, they saw it at its full height. How tall are those towers? Evan speculated. And what were they doing here, out in the middle of nowhere? All of the other office buildings on the exit were modest, boxlike structures, no more than four or five stories in height. 

The morning sunlight glinted off the high columns of the towers, but Evan could not help noting that there was something dark about them—vaguely medieval and almost sinister. Yet they were undeniably modern—certainly no more than ten years old. 

The immaculately manicured “campus” (as it was now trendy to call corporate facilities) was filled with plenty of “green space” between the parking areas. A pair of artificial ponds dominated the weed-free lawn opposite the main entrance. In the middle of each pond was a water jet. Evan also noticed a small gaggle of white geese distributed between the two bodies of water. This was a good place for the birds: There would be no hunters to disturb them here.

Fortunately, there were plenty of open parking spaces. Evan found a space located reasonably close to the main entrance, adjacent to the two ponds, and parked. 

Before killing the engine, Evan looked at the dashboard clock: It was 8:37 a.m.: They had time to spare before the appointment, even with factoring in the time needed to set up the projector for the PowerPoint presentation.

Evan stepped out of the car, then leaned down to smooth his tie and his white dress shirt in the driver’s side exterior mirror. The right breast of the shirt bore a monogrammed “MSS” and the logo for Merlesoft Software Systems—a generic computer motif. Hugh and Amanda exited the vehicle as well. Finding the key fob in his pocket, Evan pressed the button that opened the trunk automatically. He reached down to lift the projector out of the trunk. 

That was when Amanda pounced. “Did you remember to include a slide containing the timeline of the four quotations we submitted?” she asked, not quite casually. 

Evan stared back at her, nonplussed. He had remembered everything, or so he had thought. He had spent hours preparing the PowerPoint slides and additional hours preparing himself to deliver a flawless sales presentation. But he had not thought to include a slide depicting the timeline of the quotations. 

He could imagine what Amanda wanted: A visual representation not only of the successive changes in pricing, but also something that summarized the technical change points. This would demonstrate how Merlesoft had recommended cost-effective changes to the original specifications provided by Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. 

It wasn’t a bad idea; but it was the one thing he hadn’t thought of—and the one thing that Amanda saw fit to remember, less than thirty minutes before game time.

“No, Amanda,” he said, pausing with his hand on the handle of the projector’s carrying case. “I didn’t think to include a slide showing the timeline of the quotations we submitted.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Evan realized that he had delivered them flippantly. This hadn’t been his intention. He had meant to express the idea of, “I see what you’re getting at, but no—I forgot!” 

That admission would be bad enough; it would add to the long list of black marks against him, a list that Amanda Kearns maintained, he was certain, in one form or another. 

But now it was clear that Amanda perceived his words as a challenge to her authority, the one infraction that any manager at Merlesoft despised more than anything else. 

“Don’t think that I don’t hear the resentment in your voice, Evan. I wouldn’t have to ask you this sort of thing, if only you would think of it yourself.”

Evan felt a wave of anger and resentment suddenly surge through him. Amanda was addressing him as if he were a slacker, a ne’er-do-well. The truth was that he had thought of many things. He just hadn’t thought of that particular thing—the one thing that she had chosen to ask about. And in all the sales presentations prior to this one, he had never prepared a visual timeline of the quotations. Early quotations, in fact, were usually regarded as irrelevant. Final sales presentations usually focused on the most current quotation. 

He now saw what Amanda was doing to him: She was using the process of elimination to trip him up. She had rigged the game so that he would inevitably lose it. There was no way for him to win in a situation like this. 

Finally his temper snapped. “Do you want me to create the slide right now? I have my laptop computer back here.”

“Evan,” she replied with an air of calm superiority. “We both know that there’s no time for you to do that, when we have to meet with the client in a matter of minutes. My point was that it should have been done earlier.”

That was when Hugh intervened.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said, gently squeezing Evan’s arm and interposing himself between Amanda and him. “There’s no time now, buddy. She’s right about that. Let’s just focus on doing the best we can with the presentation we’ve got now. We can talk about next time later on. As it stands right now, we’re going to be on in about fifteen minutes.”

Evan nodded silently, allowing himself to be mollified by Hugh. Amanda, too, allowed this to be the last word about the matter—for now. (There would doubtlessly be further recriminations later—especially if an order from Rich, Litchfield, and Baker failed to materialize.) Evan noted (and not for the first time) that Amanda sometimes allowed Hugh to exert a subtle form of authority, as long as he didn’t step on her toes in the process.

Loaded up with gear and presentation materials, they walked toward the double doors that formed the front entrance of the Lakeview Towers office complex. Evan could see their reflections bobbing in the glass face of the building. He again recalled the vague warning that Hugh had given him while they were sitting in the McDonald’s—or the warning that Hugh had tried to give him.

Chapter 5

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 3

They headed out to the McDonald’s parking lot and piled into the Merlesoft pool car. It was a generic Toyota Camry that was tolerably comfortable for three people and a two-hour drive on the interstate. Evan climbed behind the wheel. It wasn’t an absolute, formal rule—but the way it always seemed to work on business trips was that the junior person on the team did most of the driving. That was okay with Evan, though. He enjoyed driving; and the act enabled him to slip into a controlled trance where he could become lost in his own thoughts. 

What had caused his recollection of his mother this morning? After all, he could be fairly sure that his mother was not thinking of him at this moment.

Evan was not technically estranged from his parents; but he was not exactly close to them, either. It occurred to him that he had not communicated with either Roger or Janet for about three months, and then only by email. “Hi, Roger!” “Hi, Janet!” “How are you doing? Hope all is well!” His parents were long since divorced. When he communicated with them at all, he sent them separate versions of this more or less identical, perfunctory message.

Mom and Dad. Roger and Janet.

Who the hell calls his parents by their first names? Yet Evan had been doing it for so many years, that it was now second nature.

The Roger and Janet thing had started when he was still in junior high. His parents were already divorcing by then, both of them already moving toward other relationships that would shortly become other marriages. They had encouraged him to address them both by their first names. So far as Evan knew, none of his friends addressed their parents by their first names. It had had a faintly grown-up appeal, however; and it was what his parents wanted. So it had been Roger and Janet ever since then. And the next year, when he had two new stepparents, it was Roger and Monica and Janet and Mike. 

Evan shook his head as he guided the pool car Camry onto the entrance ramp of the interstate, leaving the McDonald’s behind them, a rare outpost of suburbia in what was otherwise the unbroken farm country along the vast highway stretch between Cincinnati and Columbus. He realized now that his parents’ marriage to each other had been a mistake, a dry run of sorts. Although neither one of them had ever intended as much (or so he liked to believe) the net result was that he, Evan, had ended up feeling like a bit of a dry run as well—a test case, if you will. 

Both Roger and Janet ended up having more children with their new spouses. Evan had met his multiple stepsiblings, but he wasn’t really close to any of them. Nor did he make a habit of showing up at either parental household on the main holidays, though a pro forma invitation was usually extended. He knew that he wouldn’t fit in. And somehow, he was okay with that. Despite his parents’ divorce, his life hadn’t been exceptionally traumatic. He had endured a vacuum; but he had suffered no abuse or deprivations. 

His life since then had been peopled by a variety of casual and undemanding friendships. He had had reasonably good luck with women, too—though he had not yet met the woman whom the more dramatic types would call, “the love of his life”. But after the example of his parents, perhaps it was natural that he was cautious—even cynical—about that sort of thing. Perhaps this was for the best.

“Are you all ready for the presentation today?” Amanda asked from the back seat, interrupting his thoughts. She had her Blackberry in her lap, and was busy typing a message into its tiny keyboard. Evan apparently wasn’t entitled to her full attention, but that was okay. The less interaction with Amanda, the better. Hugh had mercifully climbed into the seat next to him. If Amanda had chosen to ride shotgun, he would have felt pressured to make conversation with her during the remaining ride to Columbus. 

“I’m all ready,” Evan said, doing his best to sound corporate gung-ho and cheerful.  

Then he recalled what Hugh had said about not getting off the beaten path at the office complex where Rich, Litchfield, and Baker rented space. What was it called? Oh, yeah: Lakeview Towers. Now why, exactly, would Hugh give him a piece of advice like that? It had almost been a warning, as if the office complex were some sort of a dangerous neighborhood. But nothing bad happened to people in offices—nothing physically bad, at least.  

Chapter 4

Table of contents

The Maze: Chapter 1

Evan Daley would later reflect that he should have known better than to enter the Maze. After all, his coworker and sort-of mentor, Hugh Jackson, had tried to tell him about the Maze, and Hugh had tried to tell him that it was probably dangerous. 

But how do you take seriously a warning issued in a McDonald’s on a bright, warm, September morning? Besides, before Evan saw the Maze, he would have sworn that he dreaded nothing so much as Amanda Kearns, his boss. But then, Hugh seemed to dread Amanda, too—albeit in his own quiet way.

Evan and Hugh occupied a table in one corner of the McDonald’s dining room. The McDonald’s was located just off I-71—the interstate that would take them to this morning’s sales presentation. The restaurant was filled to near capacity this late in the morning—mostly with truck drivers and other business travelers. 

Evan was digging into his Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. He felt a little guilty, eating this artery-clogger in front of Hugh. The older man had mentioned several times that he had a heart condition; and that was why Hugh was contenting himself with a low-fat, sensible bowl of Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. As Evan forked a mouthful of pancake, he noticed Hugh staring down jealously at his syrup-smeared Styrofoam plate.  

“Sorry,” Evan said. “I’m eating a mountain of delicious fat and cholesterol here, and you’ve got to eat that bowlful of grain and berries—or whatever that stuff is.” 

And Evan was honestly sorry. Hugh had always been good to him; he shuddered to think what it would be like to work in the sales department without Hugh to serve as a filter between Amanda and him. There was something vaguely unfair about what he was doing—torturing a man with the sight of what his body wouldn’t allow him to have—a man who had to count his daily fat and cholesterol milligrams lest he drop dead of a stroke or a heart attack. Hadn’t Hugh said something once about his father dying at the age of fifty-something? 

“Just because I’ve got a bum ticker, it doesn’t mean that you have to suffer along with me,” Hugh said, waving away the remark. What exactly was the problem with Hugh’s heart? Evan wondered. He wanted to question Hugh about his condition—whatever it was—but he held back. The poor man was obviously living in a state of ongoing confrontation with his own mortality. No sense in making it worse for him. 

Amanda’s coffee sat steaming in front of her empty chair. She was out in the children’s playground area, intensely talking into her cell phone in a visible state of outrage. Evan could see her from where he sat: Her long, slender body was leant against a plastic blue slide. The slide was topped with a dome fashioned to resemble a McDonald’s hamburger. 

Evan discretely gestured toward Amanda. “She talking to Oscar, you think?”

Hugh nodded ominously. “It would appear so.” Amanda had sat down with them initially. Within a few minutes, though, her cell phone had rung. After a clipped, moody hello into the phone, she had immediately stood up and headed outside, where she could talk privately.   

They both knew that Oscar was Amanda’s boyfriend. They also knew that the relationship had been less than harmonious of late. Oscar was a big shot in one of the investment banks headquartered in Cincinnati. Oscar had accompanied Amanda to the Merlesoft holiday party last December, showing up ostentatiously overdressed in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit. Evan had talked to Oscar for all of five painful minutes. The investment banker made a few snide, clipped remarks about Evan’s choice of college major—English literature. Apparently Oscar—a finance wizard with an MBA from Wharton—didn’t think much of folks who elected to spend their undergraduate years dissecting The Canterbury Tales and the collected short fiction of Ernest Hemingway.

I can’t blame him, Evan thought, recalling his brief and mostly humiliating exchange with Oscar at the holiday party. I should have majored in something more practical. What the hell am I doing with my life—an English literature major working in software sales?

It was a question that he had asked himself many times over the past twenty-odd months since he had been working at Merlesoft. This was his first “real” job—that is, his first post-college job. It wasn’t too bad, really—or yes, really it was. The corporate politics at Merlesoft were baffling and unrelenting. Then there was his inability to pass himself off as a software guru during customer presentations. And finally there was Amanda, who seemed intent on riding his ass all the time. 

Amanda. Damn Amanda, he thought. And damn Oscar for doing what he was doing right now—whatever was causing his relationship with Amanda to go south. Evan had been hoping that Amanda would get an engagement ring soon. Then he could reasonably anticipate her maternity leave—five or six blessedly Amanda-free months. 

She was well into her mid-thirties after all; and if she were married, she would want to start having children as soon as possible. But that wasn’t going to happen if she broke up with Oscar. 

“Anyway,” Hugh said, changing the subject away from breakfast. “I want to warn you about something.” 

Evan could tell immediately that the older man intended to broach some topic of considerable magnitude. Probably something in regard to this morning’s sales presentation. Today’s clients—the attorneys of the law firm Rich, Litchfield, and Baker, were a stodgy, hard-to-please lot. Hugh had made the preliminary sales call by himself and had reported as much. 

The accounting software packages that Merlesoft sold were expensive, and required a client company to reconfigure a considerable portion of their internal accounting procedures. The sales process was therefore a multistep one—usually beginning with an exploratory sales call, followed by several quotations, and multiple customer consultations over the phone. 

They had been going through this back-and-forth with Rich, Litchfield, and Baker for the better part of four months. Evan had yet to visit the clients’ office; but he had talked to several of the law firm people over the phone. Today would be the final dog-and-pony show, which would hopefully result in a purchase order from the law firm. Amanda, Hugh, and Evan would make a PowerPoint presentation and answer any remaining customer questions. This was the whole purpose of making the two-hour drive from Cincinnati to Columbus today. It was “do or die” now, in the typically hyperbolic language of the corporate subculture. 

As Evan contemplated this morning’s meeting—barely an hour in the future—he felt more like dying than doing. Amanda had given him a “challenge”, announcing that he would be making the sales presentation solo. He knew from experience what this actually meant: Amanda would vigilantly wait for him to make the slightest mistake or omission. Then she would pounce and interject during the middle of his presentation, throwing him off his rhythm and undercutting his credibility in front of the customers. 

“You don’t have to warn me,” Evan said, anticipating the nature of Hugh’s advice. “I know that Amanda is going to be watching me like a hawk today, waiting for me to make the slightest flub-up, or to forget the smallest detail. That’s why I’ve crammed for today’s presentation, buddy. I stayed up till midnight last night going over everything. First I reviewed the four quotations we’ve submitted up to this point. Then I went over the procedures that Rich, Litchfield, and Baker use in their accounting process at present. And I didn’t stop there. I also made a list of questions that I could reasonably anticipate them asking today, and I think that I’ve got every one of them nailed. You ought to see the notes I prepared, Hugh: They fill a good ten pages on a legal pad.”

Evan finished off the last of his breakfast, wadded up his napkin, and dropped it onto the Styrofoam plate. He smoothed his tie to make sure that it contained neither syrup, egg fragments, nor sausage crumbs. Noting also that the sleeves of his white dress shirt were free of stains or debris, he nodded at Hugh with a cautious air of self-contentment. 

“You can feel free to offer me any last words before the wedding, though, buddy. Or you can hit me with any questions that you think I might have missed. But I believe that I’ve got them all down.”

Hugh leaned forward. “That’s not what I want to talk to you about. It’s something else.”

“What, then?” Evan was suddenly alarmed by Hugh’s expression. The older man sometimes let him know when a shake-up was imminent at Merlesoft: a firing, a promotion, a resignation, or a reorganization. Evan had also discovered that most of these changes ended up being disagreeable in one way or another. This was yet another rule that he had learned during slightly less than two years of corporate life: The devil you know is always less objectionable than the devil you don’t know. Or, to put it another way: Change is usually bad.

“Don’t tell me you’re transferring to another department, Hugh,” he said. “Or—wait a minute—you aren’t leaving the company, are you?”

Hugh shook his head. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

“Well, what then?”

Hugh dropped his plastic spoon into the little plastic container in which his Fruit and Maple Oatmeal had been packaged. “This is going to sound a little strange to you, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”

“Hugh, I’ve learned to accept things that are strange—especially since Amanda entered my life.” He allowed himself another quick glance at Amanda, who was still outside, still talking to Oscar. By the look of her facial expression, the phone call definitely wasn’t going well; and that would only mean a more difficult morning for him. Amanda would have to wrap up the call pretty soon, though, troubles with Oscar notwithstanding. Otherwise, they would arrive late for their nine o’clock appointment at the lawyers’ office. 

“I know you haven’t been to the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker office yet,” Hugh continued. “It’s located inside this place called Lakeview Towers—a huge office complex with hundreds of individual offices that are rented by probably hundreds of different companies.”

Evan had no idea of what Hugh might be getting at with this line of explanation. He didn’t want to be rude, though. “No, Hugh, I haven’t been there,” he acknowledged. “But I’ve given presentations at unfamiliar locations before. It shouldn’t be a problem. I’m green, but I’m not that green.”

“That isn’t what I’m getting at.”

“Well then, exactly what are you getting at?”

Hugh paused and looked around, probably to make sure that Amanda was still outside talking to Oscar. “Well,” he began, “let’s just say that you ought to not allow yourself to get too far off the beaten path at this place. What I mean is, don’t go wandering around unnecessarily.”

Chapter 2

Table of contents

Wattpad and digital sharecropping

Last September, the folks over at Forbes wrote a story about Wattpad and its highly exploitive (though completely voluntary) business model:

Wattpad has more than 4 million writers, who post an average of 300,000 pieces a day. The company brings in an estimated $19 million in revenue, mostly from ads on its site and from stories sponsored by companies like Unilever who want to advertise alongside a specific writer or genre. Nearly all its writers are unpaid; several hundred make money from ad-sharing revenue and 200 of those also earn from writing sponsored content and inking publishing deals with Wattpad. That lean business model means Wattpad is profitable. It has few costs beyond bandwidth, its 130 employees and the Toronto offices. The model “is a great way to seek talent without having to pay huge amounts for it,” says Lorraine Shanley, a publishing industry consultant.

Forbes, September 2018

4 million writers, and only a minuscule number (about .005%) make any money for their efforts. 

Wattpad is a textbook example of digital sharecropping.

I have nothing against the concept of web fiction, web serials, or posting fiction for free on the Internet. Much of the content of this site, after all, is web fiction. (I have my own little Wattpad going on here.)

But the defining characteristic of digital sharecropping is the socialization of effort, and the privatization of rewards. Wattpad earns $19 million in revenue, because writers choose to post their fiction there, rather than writing on their own sites

I can already anticipate your “but….” rebuttals.

Yes, I realize that only a handful of these writers, if they created their own web presences, would garner any appreciable audience, or earn any real revenue. But let me ask you: How much chance do most writers have on Wattpad, amid 4 million other writers, posting 300,000 pieces per day?

The odds of genuine success are about the same either way. The writers who are standing out on Wattpad could, with a bit of effort, stand out on their own online platforms. And then they would make a whole lot more money than Wattpad is paying them, you can be sure. Even more importantly, they would control their own platforms. 

Digital sharecropping works because too many creative types are desperately slavering for any form of immediate recognition, like a thirteen year-old boy hopelessly infatuated with an eighteen year-old girl.  

Look at me! Look at me now!A like on a Facebook post! A retweet! A like on a YouTube video! Oh, any form of recognition will do! Pleeeeaaase!

The owners of the social media giants understand this weakness of all creative people, and they eagerly exploit it. 

Resist. If you can’t afford your own independently hosted WordPress site, then start a free blog on Google’s blogger platform. 

Yes, Google ultimately controls Blogger. But there you at least have some independence. (You can also run your own affiliate links, and eventually qualify for Adsense revenue).

Whatever you do—if you’re a writer—don’t post your fiction on Wattpad. Don’t be a sucker. 

Just as Facebook and Twitter have become the cancer that destroyed blogging, so Wattpad has become the cancer that threatens to destroy independently published web fiction. 

Don’t fall for the scam.

Revolutionary Ghosts: Chapter 36

That night, I did manage to go to sleep. For a while, I lay awake in bed, listening to my parents arguing with Jack.

I don’t know if they gave him yet another handout that night. Eventually, though, he left. By then I was asleep.

Late that night—or early the next morning, I should say—I awoke from a dream. 

The dream itself was routine enough: a mishmash of random scenes and events from my daily life. First I was at home with my parents, then I was going to classes at West Clermont High School. In another segment of the dream, I was working at McDonald’s. 

The dream was subject to the usual distortions and inconsistencies of the dreamworld, but it contained no content that was especially memorable or disturbing.

And then some force invaded the dream.

The dream images of daily life abruptly dissolved, replaced by total darkness. I was awake now—but not quite awake. Paused on the boundary between sleep and full consciousness. 

And I wasn’t alone there.

A presence was leaning over my bed. 

I dared not open my eyes. As is often the case in this in-between state, however, I was capable of some version of sight, or what I imagined to be sight. 

Lying on my back, I could sense the vague shape leaning over me. 

It terrified me, whatever it was. It was horrible and seductive at the same time. 

The thing was trying to speak to me. But before I could make out the words, I pulled myself out of this in-between state.

 

Fully awake now, I sat up in bed. Looked around my darkened bedroom. 

I was alone. But I noticed something: The door of my bedroom was slightly ajar.

I had closed it when I went to bed, to drown out the sound of Jack’s rambling pleas for charity, and my parents’ frustrated but half-hearted responses. 

But now the door was slightly open. 

Not good. 

It was just a dream, I told myself. Just a dream.

Another part of me perceived that it hadn’t been a dream, though. The scenes of school and home life and McDonald’s—yes, those had been dreams. But I had been at least marginally conscious when that thing visited me.

I struggled to figure it out. The thing had appeared as nothing more than a mere shape. 

Or no—more than a mere shape. The shape had been distinctly female. But no longer female in the sense that Leslie Griffin and Diane Parker were female. 

The shape had once been female, it occurred to me. My visitor carried femininity—and humanity—as distant memories. But it was something else now. 

Marie Trumbull, were the words that sprang to my mind. 

Ridiculous, I told myself. You were not visited by Marie Trumbull, the executed Loyalist spy. You’re letting your imagination get the best of you.

I lay there, for perhaps an hour or more, before I finally willed myself to go back to sleep.

Chapter 37

Table of contents

Revolutionary Ghosts: Chapter 27

I made it to the McDonald’s on time—barely.

I walked in through the front door. As the six o’clock hour neared, the restaurant was doing a fair amount of business. 

This early, it was mostly families. Young parents with small children. McDonald’s wouldn’t release the Happy Meal for several more years, but the fast food chain was already a hit with children. 

When I walked back into the employees area, behind the customer counter, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces—and certainly no one who could be Diane Parker.

I was about to take my place behind the open cash register—the one on the far right. But first I had to clock in. The time clock, with a card for each employee, was mounted on the wall, adjacent to the manager’s office. As I stepped past the office door, I saw Louis seated behind the desk. He was smoking a cigarette, as always. 

Louis saw me through the window in the center of the top half of the door. He waved me in.

I pantomimed punching my timecard. Louis nodded. I clocked in, so I would get credit for my time. Then I entered the smoke-filled office. 

Oh, another thing about 1976: Smoking in public was still more or less acceptable behavior. Most restaurant dining rooms had nonsmoking sections. But smokers lit up without hesitation in the common areas of offices, shopping malls, and bars. 

“Shut the door behind you,” Louis said.

I complied. The smoke inside the office was so thick it stung my eyes, filled my mouth and nostrils. 

I waved my hands about dramatically, as if I could drive the smoke away. “You’re going to stunt my growth with that stuff, Louis.”

Louis was a tall, gangly young man with black curly hair and a light complexion. He often developed inexplicable red blotches on his cheeks and neck. He wore thick glasses encased in heavy black frames.

Louis smiled impassively at my objection to the smoke. We had had this discussion before. 

“How tall are you?” he asked.

“Six-one.”

“Well, there you have it. You’ve already done all of your growing. And look at me: I’m six-three.”

“We could both get cancer.”

“You won’t get cancer. Have a seat, please.” He motioned to the visitor’s chair on the far side of the desk. “I wanted to go over next week’s schedule with you.” 

I sat down, coughing.

“Quit hamming it up. The smoke will make a man of you.”

“If that’s the case, then I should have a twelve-incher by the time I walk out of here.”

“Hey, I didn’t say that smoke is a miracle drug. Think of what you’re starting with. Anyway, take a look at the days and shifts I have you signed up for next week. Let me know if there’s any problem. But please don’t let there be any problems. If I have to redo your schedule, I have to redo everyone else’s schedule to fill in the gaps.”

He slid the paper across the desk to me and I gave it a quick look. I was scheduled to work almost every evening, as usual. 

Ray Smith had a diktat about day shifts: Day shifts were reserved for the older employees, especially the young married women with children. I think Ray Smith believed that he was doing his part to keep at least a handful of the local teenage population out of trouble, by keeping us at work at his restaurant during the witching hours. 

“I don’t see any problems,” I said, sliding the schedule back to him. “That will be fine.”

“I saw you looking around when you came in,” Louis said. “You were looking for Diane Parker, weren’t you?”

“Not really.” I said. 

“Bullshit. You were rubber-necking like you’d never seen the inside of a McDonald’s before. Anyway, Diane Parker is working a half shift tonight. She’ll be in at eight. Speaking of schedules: You’re good for closing up tonight, right?”

“Closing up” referred to the procedures that we went through after the conclusion of business hours. Some light cleaning, restocking supplies, etc. Everything that needed to be done so that the morning shift didn’t walk into a chaotic, messy restaurant. 

“Of course,” I said dutifully. I would leave the restaurant at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. tonight, I estimated. 

“I guess you can go ahead and get to your cash register.” He glanced at his watch. “Did you get here at six?”

“Five minutes early, actually. Then you called me in here to talk.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, anyway.”

I could sense Louis hemming and hawing around. There was something else he wanted to talk to me about.

 

“Is something else on your mind, Louis?”

After pondering my question for perhaps five seconds, he said, “I’m not sure, really. I’ve been feeling a little…weird, of late.”

“‘Weird’? You’re always a little weird, Louis.”

“Come on. I’m being serious.”

“All right. What do you mean by ‘weird’? Are you sick?”

“No. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong or weird about me. I feel like there’s something weird going on. Around here, I mean.”

It was as if Louis had read my thoughts, been privy to the events of the entire day: the hoofprints at the Pantry Shelf, the missing persons flyer, that shadow I saw in the hallway of my home…and then finally, the second set of hoofprints and the bizarre reaction of the  clerk at the Sunoco station.

“What about you, Steve? Have you noticed anything unusual of late?”

I could have confided in him in that moment. I could have told him about everything I had experienced since roughly noon. 

Unlike the clerk, Louis was certainly open to a speculative conversation.  

But I didn’t reveal anything to Louis. 

“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary,” I said. “Not really. Not at all, now that I think of it.”

Why didn’t I meet Louis halfway, when he was clearly attempting to take me into his confidence? 

I wondered to myself—even then. 

My reasons had nothing to do with Louis. I don’t know if I was still in denial, but I was definitely in a state of resistance. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted it to be filled with fun. Pleasant memories. Maybe a new girlfriend.

I didn’t want to think about young people around my age going missing, possibly the victims of some horrible forces that I could barely imagine existing. I didn’t want to consider the notion that Harry Bailey’s article in Spooky American Tales might be anything more than the sensational ramblings of a pulp journalist. I didn’t want to contemplate the possible meaning of those two sets of hoofprints, the nasty gunk around their edges. 

“I’d better get to my cash register,” I said.

“Yes, I guess you’d better.”

I was standing up from the visitor’s chair when Louis gave me yet one more thing to think about. 

“Oh,” Louis said, “if you do happen to hit it off with Diane Parker, I recommend that you don’t take too long in making your move. What I mean is: Don’t let Keith Conway make his move first. You know how he is, after all.”

Chapter 28

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