Susan assures everyone "things will be set right," then leads me and Paul back up to her office. If she notices the yellow shirts at the edges of the cube farm, frowning like a band of grumpy shepherds, she doesn't let on. Her skirt whips behind. Her fingernails dig into the crisp cuffs of a dress shirt.
Following to the elevators, I cut my eyes to Jim Davis. His expression is prickly and penetrating, but neither he nor any of his stooges make a move to stop us. I must say I'm enjoying having somebody else carry water for the rebellion. Susan claims attention like a warlord taking scalps, and I love it. I walk happily in her wake.
Onto the elevator car, Susan punches 10. The doors sigh shut.
"Ubb." She knuckles the corners of her eyes. "This is not how I was planning to beat jetlag."
I ask if her plane was delayed, and she says it was.
"The clean itinerary had me in at noon," she explains, "just a few hours into Blackquest 40. None of this creepshow business should've gotten off the ground."
The elevator dings for Ten. Entering E-Wing, I stride forward ... and land short. It's dark. Nearly pitch-black once the elevator's dome light drops away. Paul stops. Susan and I edge ahead. Every floor has the same layout near the shaft; I move by memory muscle into space.
Paul asks, "Did they go home?"
Susan scouts forward using her cellphone flashlight. From the interior of the floor, I hear a noise.
Judging by Susan's face—a grimace, frozen by the phone's light—she hears too.
I whisper, "A cough?"
Susan beckons me on. We pad forward shoulder-to-shoulder, crouched low, our bugged eyes peeking in offices. Paul lumbers to catch up before we turn the corner.
I feel the bodies' heat before I see them. Muggy, a staleness back in my jaw.
Forty or fifty people on cots. By some pale glow in the middle—night light?—the forms resemble lumpy potato bags. Katie Masterson, who I recognize by her Elite polo shirt, sleeps slightly apart; otherwise the rows are perfect.
The sight is raw and wrong and incongruous. It feels like Neo's first glimpse of the human battery-farm in the Matrix.
I say, "Are we gonna, I guess, wake them up?"
For a moment, Susan can only shake her head. "I—we need to get our heads around this first. Let's talk in my office."
As we leave them behind, I feel weird jealousy toward the snoozing biz-siders. Clearly all checkpoints have been satisfied here. There's no sign hypodermic needles were brandished, and I'll bet if I go check the kitchen here, I won't find it transformed Guantanamo Bay-style. The pretend private space business plan must be coming along. Were they pressed about color palettes for the logo? Did Jim Davis poke his finger in somebody's face about customer segmentations or ten-year revenue horizons?
Seems like they're sleeping well. If you laid me down on a cot now, after the day I've had? Pretty sure I'd be awake, wired, buzzing like a hive of bees until sunup.
Susan flicks on lights and sits forward on her couch, the suit's navy regal against the silver-flower pattern.
"Please." She gestures for us to sit too.
I take a spot that lets me to see up the hall. Paul collapses wherever, still working one wrist with the opposite thumb.
"I've heard Deb's angle," Susan begins. "Paul, now I want your take. How far off the rails has this thing run?"
This momentarily stings me—she thinks I'm lying?—but Paul backs me up 100%. He portrays Elite as the aggressors in my failed attempt to leave, using words like "criminal" and "assault." Describes their Draconian motivation techniques, including the options grab I forgot to mention in the lobby.
Paul is winding down his testimony—and it does feel like testimony, him sweating and paining over memories—when the global intercom blips on. We listen to irregular static for a few seconds, then it blips off.
I wonder if this could be disorder on the part of Elite. Are they contemplating some hostile move against Susan? A seizure? Can they do that? The rest of us are guppies but Susan is a minor-to-midrange celebrity. She just got back from pressing the flesh with sheiks and technocrats in Davos.
Can you seize a person like that?
"Okay, talking this through—today Elite's been taking ownership of stock options," Susan says, raising a svelte finger in the air, "but over the last several months, they've been wiring money to us? By some shady backchannel?"
Paul says, "If what Deb saw reflects reality."
"Oh, it reflects," I snap. "The Voronezh money was making up something like 60% of our revenues. Carter was making his bacon off it."
Susan taps her curvy upper lip. "He told us it was the new aerospace dollars, and the growth in biomedical. That was his entire justification for the hiring push."
Paul slumps back into his cushion. He was against hiring all Carter's slicksters from the start, but doesn't gloat now.
"Where is Carter?" Susan says. "I haven't seen him yet."
I look to Paul. Paul looks to me. With a shiver, I realize I haven't seen our CFO for hours. Not since I told him to shut this trainwreck down and cut his losses.
What if he tried?
YOU ARE READING
Blackquest 40Mystery / Thriller
** WATTYS 2018 WINNER ** Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training. Her company's top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds fo...