I’m seeking your general ‘reaction’:
Whether it grabs you - whether you’d want to read on - whether it's confusing or should start at a different place.
Basically - whether I should keep the day job :-)
It’s a re-write of a 117 000 word novel I wrote on a beach in Spain in 1995. Spelling set for Americanese
(hope you’re all safe in these crazy-virus-ridden times)
A dab at the ‘play’ button and the Boardroom lights dimmed, hauling attention back to the 100-inch wall monitor where the digital leader counted off the seconds to video start—9-blip… 8-blip… 7-blip…
“Mark’s team did something exceptional with your brief…” Kathleen Shaw, the founder of Dreamscape Ad & PR, began introducing the second campaign of her agency’s pitch. “I’m very prou…”
“The cripple?” Tom spoke over her. “Mark the cripple?”
She tapped the pause button.
…blip-1… was frozen on the screen, half pixilated away to the start of the action.
“Yes, Tom. Mark Riggs,” she kept the anger from his insult out of her tone.
“Amazing.” Sarcasm was thick in his voice. “He put in a day of work? Whadaya know. I’m breathless with anticipation. Carry on then.”
Mark headed up the computer graphics creative team. This was his final assignment before the inevitable. That Tom somehow knew he’d worked remotely as best he could, was both infuriating and daunting.
“You do understand its motor neuron disease?” It was all the rebuke she dared to venture.
“Yeah, yeah… every bum has a sob story.”
“Come on,” her open palm gestured exasperation. “It’s genetic bad luck.”
“And the tattoos?” he snorted his doubt.
“They’re irrelevant to his health and work.”
“He’s sure got you duped.”
“I’d appreciate keeping with the review,” she urged, her voice now clipped.
Getting under her skin brought a hint of a smirk to Tom’s expression.
“I’m not saying your lot are bad, Kath,” his voice was suddenly engaging and warm. “So far, not bad. You’ve done reasonable work. But admit it… Faggots and creeps you’ve got over there. It’s a freak show. If I ever let them in here, we’d have to fumigate .”
It was supposed to be funny, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile.
He paused, openly appraising her.
Auburn hair to her shoulders, she wore a canary yellow Versace pencil skirt to the knee, just the way she knew this key client liked it. She was a rare specimen who needed little more than shampoo and hairdryer to show up looking fabulous. The blush of makeup she’d applied for the occasion, had even drawn a compliment from the man. Perhaps the makeup was a bad idea. He couldn’t stop looking at her, his eyes a little too hungry.
“You’re alright, though,” he gave his verdict.
She drew her breath and pressed her hands to the mahogany tabletop till the color drained from their margins, her anger daring her quick tongue to say what he deserved.
It would probably kill the deal—or maim it at the very least.
Of course, killing the deal would kill her company, would kill her employees, would destroy everything she’d worked a decade to build before this big-break came along. The Executive-Limits contract had come with a ‘jealous God’ exclusivity clause and a fat retainer for the trouble. The beast that Executive-Limits was, it would tolerate no other account handled under the same roof. Accepting those terms meant Executive-Limits and Executive-Limits only.
On paper, she was still single, still an independent company, still her own boss. In truth, though, she found herself steadily being reeled into a hostile marriage. It was more than her junior company manacled to the megalith.
For the thousandth time, she thought back to that moment six months ago when, with a trembling hand, she’d inked contract, then turned around and burned her bridges behind her.
She’d had no option though—the retainer and bonuses were off the charts.
The terror of the drastic decision to sign had melted when the first retainer hit her bank. It weighed in at more than her previous eight months of gross revenues combined. The second retainer a month later was twice that again—and the obscene revenues had doubled yet again when she outstripped her performance marks.
She was drinking from the fire-hose of success, adding staff as fast as she could find them globally, leasing new equipment, and expanding offices in other territories. She was galloping bareback on a steed with pepper under its tail, clinging to the thing’s mane with grim determination.
“Just glad you approve of the work,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could manage, and hating herself for it. “Can we move on?”
As Tom examined her, that hint of a triumphant smirk crept up the corners of his mouth. It was all gameplay, a ploy to unsettle.
And it happened again. His eyes slid for an instant to her lips, caressing them.
It was so fleeting, so masterfully done, that she second-guessed whether she’d seen it at all.
It should be creepy, she knew that. But the guy could pull it off. Perhaps it was his money and confidence, but somehow he made it strangely exhilarating, like juggling blindfolded with hand grenades.
Charisma. That was the problem. The Devil had doused the bastard with a bucket full of it.
Everyone knew that when Tom Ferris turned the charm on, he could get away with anything.
He knew it too.
Angry as she still was, that something stirred again, all the way to her loins. The animal thing that had been there from their first handshake, the courting danger that she hated herself for so readily succumbing to.
He’d hooked her again. She caught herself rising to his challenge, locked in a stare-down, his smirk morphing into an engaging smile, wheels turning behind those fathomless eyes.
Without breaking eye contact, he reached out and dabbed the intercom button on the conference table. “Nance, before you leave, another latte for me and a double one for Kathleen; she’s got a long night ahead.”
He cut the connection halfway through his PA’s confirmation.
Kathleen broke off the stare. “Thanks,” she offered and dropped her eyes into her lap. When she looked back, he was poking away at the iPad as if she and the review screen on pause didn’t exist.
She waited patiently, the uncomfortable crackling silence stretching time.
Her finger itching to hit the ‘play’ button again, the half-pixilated “1” of the countdown was still frozen on the wall monitor, the first frame begging to burst into action hiding in the background.
They’d gone all-out to showcase the diversity of Executive-Limits’ capability in simulation training. They’d plucked scenes from every conceivable facet of human endeavor.
The first session behind them had featured a heart surgeon and an astronaut, each coping with crises. Next up, it was time to cater to Tom’s whim, a military theme.
The narrative that he’d demanded would never have been on her choice list; it was a fatal Public Relations nightmare in the making. But he was the boss, and he’d insisted on shock and gore, on skirting the precipice of a woke world—a world Tom predictably scoffed at.
Hers was not to judge, only deliver. And, boy, have the team delivered.
They’d been at this review for nearly an hour already, and they’d barely scratched the surface of what she’d come to show. It was time to move the meeting along.
“Ready?” she ventured, her finger hovering over the play button.
Tom nodded his permission but kept at the iPad.
A man’s voice, soulless, and matter of fact, cut the silence. A green murk of night vision materialized onto the screen, the view moving beyond the crosshairs, following a meandering network of tracks winding through scrubland far below.
This ad was the drone footage concept that Tom had prompted at the last briefing.
Telemetry data and compass orientation scrolled with leisurely precision in a ticker-tape below the action, relaying the airframe’s drifting orientation to the horizon.
“...all-seeing, I’m Jehovah hovering above, with lightning bolts to touch the wicked.”
The camera tracking the night below drifted onto a deserted rural village and zoomed in on half a dozen phantoms busying themselves around a pickup. The crosshairs came to rest on the group. The scurrying figures were ethereal, pale-green spooks on a hurried mission, hefting loads into the vehicle.
“Their bad choices make my choices easier.” This Almighty sounded somewhat Southern. “Being God,” he paused unhurriedly, just a hint of Tom’s accent to win his approval, “has consequences. First rule: stay calm. Don’t overthink. Let them make the decisions. Let them be responsible for my actions,” and the frame cut for a moment to his trigger finger, squeezing the joystick.
Threads of lightning streaked away, fairy lights of death diving toward the green unfortunates. The vehicle swallowed four of them; six become two, and then the two evaporated into the pickup as the tracers stitched the ground toward it.
For a silent instant, the green night vision of the monitor was blown-out to white light.
“Go with God,” the narrator’s intonation sounded indifferent, “Allahu Akbar... straight to hell.”
The line was so corny, so dangerously edgy and provocative, that Kathleen sneaked another peek at Tom. Thankfully, he was nodding approval at the creative execution of his brainchild, or perhaps the sneaky insertion of his own voice.
It was eerily silent in the on-screen chamber of death.
“A peculiar kind of Top Gun… dispensing my justice from half a world away.” There was an indifferent dullness to the narrator’s voice now, as the burning debris from the explosion continued raining to stillness at the attack site. “When my shift’s done, I hang up these headphones and grab takeaways and milk on my way home to the family and suburbia.”
Startled greens come pouring out of the houses, scattering to the wilderness or running toward their dead.
Tom’s nodded approval was gaining enthusiasm.
The view on-screen began to widen, retracting, pulling back from the action. It became evident that the on-screen view was a monitor within a flight simulator, filmed over the shoulder of an operator seemingly wearing headphones.
Beyond his silhouette, on that monitor, the green dead and living ghosts of the night vision were attending to the private drama of their destroyed world.
“The right choices take training,” the operator casually rambled.
The camera’s point of view began to rotate laterally until what seemed like headphones turned out to be a virtual-reality helmet, revealing the advert as a deception built within an illusion.
“You can relax now,” a new and hypnotic android-sounding female’s voice instructed. “SLEEP!”
The man obeyed, his head slumping forward into unconsciousness.
The advert pixelated to blackness and white writing faded in. The tinny voice of the android female read the words written there, “The Raw Power of Executive-Limits Corporation.” Her tone was hollow and timeless. “Your Future... Safe in our hands,” the company slogan and logo bled onto the screen.
Kathleen hit the pause button, and the lights in the boardroom warmed to full brightness, the android’s words frozen on the screen.
Just then, a knock and the door opened before Tom could grant permission. He glared a lightning bolt at Nancy, his Assistant standing at the threshold.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she fawned and groveled suitably. “It’s an emergency on hold.”
She mimed a phone held to her ear and retreated, slinking backward out of Tom’s line of view. Still in Kathleen’s line of sight, she exaggerated round eyes and straining neck tendons, the universal ‘big-trouble-brewing’ face dragging the corners of her mouth down.
Tom snatched up the receiver. “What?!” he bit into the mouthpiece.
A high-pitched treble of explanation came pouring out of the earpiece, audible but incomprehensible from where Kathleen sat.
“Oh, FUCK’S-SAKE!” Tom stood, his Herman Miller office chair shot away from behind him on its castor wheels and collided with the wall. “Where’s Leon in all this?”
Kathleen had met Leon on several occasions. A wizened little man with a string of internationally-acclaimed books on psychology and regressive hypnosis to his name, Leon occupied a key seat on the Board of Directors at Executive-Limits Corporation.
His office took charge of the critical hypnosis sequence that Kathleen knew was a cornerstone of the company’s operation, Leon had been essential in the company’s innovation and meteoric rise.
The phone’s earpiece prickled with a response, “…paramedics…” Kathleen heard, then “…security detail…”
“What have you fucking clowns done!” He punched the handset back onto its cradle. “Wait here,” he ordered Kathleen and stormed out the door, leaving it open.
A few minutes later, Nancy’s head appeared nervously around the door.
“Big shit,” she said.
“No, kidding. What’s up?”
“Heck, you saw the reaction. Not sure if I can say too much. One of our subjects, you know.”
“I figured as much.”
“Heads gonna roll.”
“I’m keeping mine very low.”
“Yeah,” Nancy looked ashen. She hadn’t advanced into the room and hung onto the door with both hands, her stance suggesting she’d beat a retreat at the smallest sound from down the corridor.
“Going on here at HQ? In this facility?” Kathleen asked.
“Yep. Special Forces General, Pentagon boy on a simulation. Gone nuts. Poop’s hitting the fan BIG time, breaking the place apart down there.”
“Wow!” Kathleen gulped, estimating whether it was going to make a public mess she’d have to clean up. “He mad at someone?”
“Worse. Much worse.” Nancy looked behind her in a conspiratorial manner, dropping her voice and leaning in with apparent concern for being overheard. “Sounds like something wrong in our systems, Kath. He’s having a reaction to the virtual reality or hypnosis sequence. I didn’t want to cut in on your meeting, it’s been going off, out of control for an hour. Guy’s a loon, like… ranting about the Spanish Inquisition or something. Bipolar, Leon said. Had a total personality collapse. Thinks it’s the fifteen-hundreds and on abo… shit.”
She straightened as Tom came striding silently through the door past her, his eyes fixed ahead.
Without any greeting to the women, he went directly into his private restroom, and the door slammed behind him. Nancy pulled the round-eyed facial expression again and evaporated without another word, closing the boardroom door with a click.
Kathleen sat in the daunting silence, wondering what new hell she’d inherit from all this drama. Without any sound to announce that the toilet had been flushed or faucets used, Tom appeared through the restroom doorway.
It was all he said.
He slumped into his seat and began to poke again at the iPad. Only the occasional sniff and dab at his nose hinted at why he seemed so suddenly calm.
Kathleen twisted within. The uncomfortable, unmentioned elephant of his recent explosive reaction to the phone call was still looming like a living thing in the room. Tom seemed genuinely oblivious to it.
Talk about bipolar! She thought.
After long minutes, Tom placed the iPad aside then slowly reclined his chair, making a show of touching thumbs and fingers together in front of his face. Head tilted slightly and jaw jutting, his index fingertips began to tap out the rhythm of a cat’s tail before it pounces. It was his standard pose that always preceded a monologue.
Was this the moment he’d tell her about the crisis? She was unsure if she wanted to know or be part of it.
“From what we’ve covered, I give you points for effort. It’s reasonable stuff...”
Clearly, he was going nowhere near the crisis. It was business as usual, back to the matter of review. He paused and nodded—evidently agreeing with a thought in his own head—and then smiled in a most unsettling way.
“…You see, I’m always right in the long run. Always... But I grant you a little credit,” he huffed the concession, “you take criticism well. It spurs you. You need that.” He paused. “...Kids always do.” His palms came together before his face, fingers laced in the style of prayer, index fingers pressed together, pointing to the ceiling. With them, he tapped against pouted lips, contemplating some wisdom. “Good thing I didn’t drop you last quarter.”
“I was on the chopping block last quarter?” Kathleen attempted a polite smile.
Tom didn’t acknowledge, rendering the question rhetorical. He just sat, comfortable and untouchable, in the charged silence.
“Rerun it or move on?” Kathleen offered, hoping to propel the conversation out of the quicksand of Tom’s mind-games.
Ignoring the question, Tom carried on studying her. His hands dropping to chest level, now cradling an imaginary ball, perhaps the whole world between kissing fingertips
“I know exactly what you’re thinking, honey.” His forefinger and thumb began to smooth a non-existent mustache. “I’m a difficult son-of-a-bitch. But put yourself in my shoes.” Posturing. A moment of dramatic pause. “I’m only interested in dealing with adults, you see, with...” he seemed to search for the word, “...professionals. But here,” he indicated the screen, frozen in place, “we can see the results. I take charge, and I eventually get acceptable work.”
Kathleen held her silence, waiting for him to finish.
Tom remained silent, too, allowing her time for the thought to resonate. “People don’t understand me, Kath,” he suggested in contemplation, suddenly bipolar in his warmth. “I don’t intend to be a tyrant, I’m pushed to it.” He huffed the effort of suffering fools, shook his head in agreement with himself, and went back to poking at the iPad as he concluded. “You stick with me, young Kathleen... Stick with me, and I’ll make something of you and your little company.”
“Just glad you approve, Tom.” Kathleen gagged on the involuntary response that spilled from her mouth.
He said the same thing during the last three reviews she silently consoled herself, as the lava of the “little company” insult boiled within.
When enough of her precious time had been volunteered to passive silence, she collected her composure like tattered rags, “Rerun it, or move on?”
Tom declined to acknowledge, preferring the distraction in his hands.
She returned to silent waiting.
While she waited, Kathleen’s thoughts detached, and a frigid trickle of memories seeped within, Tom’s snide abuses triggering emotions that cartwheeled her back through time.
Her mind slid deep into the swamp of nearly forgotten territory—an archive of pain suffered at the hands of an estranged father, a charmer who’d so closely resembled this arrogant man.
Tom flicked leisurely back and forth across his screen, occasionally poking at it while conducting two brief monosyllabic personal calls when his mobile buzzed.
As the moments labored by, an agonizing procession of submission to his whim, Kathleen reeled her thoughts back, closer to the present. She began to contemplate the months of grind that had transported her to this moment. Bruised by Tom’s affront, she took refuge in assessing how professionally she’d overridden so many urges to turn the contract down time and again. But this was undoubtedly her desperately needed break into the industry’s big-time.
Despite her instincts, she’d stuck it out and miraculously held her ground against the most prominent competitors around the globe. It had been a coup that bore testimony to work that was fast becoming legendary for its creativity and attention to detail. Half-a-year of groveling had brought her, from that day of signing the contract, to this—a review of the finished product. Twenty-three weeks of endless re-edits behind them. But worth it? She mulled for the umpteenth time. No question! Contracts like this seed empires.
“Rerun it,” Tom ordered in answer to Kathleen’s question asked many minutes before. It tugged her from the daydream.
The monitor responded to the click of Kathleen’s finger, and the sequence replayed and ended.
“Again?” Kathleen queried.
“Again,” Tom insisted.
For forty minutes, Tom demanded that the same thirty-second slot be relentlessly repeated, occasionally querying something, taking a note or making a call. Kathleen knew all too well that Tom Ferris was a stickler for perfection, the obsession driving the man on his maniacal quest to find fault with everything and everyone. But, try as he might, for the rest of the session, he could find little room to gripe at any of Kathleen’s several commercial masterpieces.
They all screamed the same core message: “Benefits to humankind through the best simulation training can offer.”
The review was endless, but the view from the boardroom window during interludes was magnificent. Having parried Tom’s initial thrusts and having shown him her firm but accommodating stance, Tom had moderated his attitude. He dropped the sparring and was now focusing entirely on results and outcomes. Kathleen was having an easier time of it.
Toward the end of the workday, he broke from review to take more calls, one or two of them clearly about the earlier incident, raising his hackles.
She entertained herself, soaking in the vista of meadows draped around the private lake on the outskirts of the city where Tom had erected the headquarter of his empire.
Though the meeting had kicked off at midday, she’d canceled all appointments into the evening, fully anticipating that the constant interruptions that always swarmed around the man, would stretch the review till the black of night. This was proving to be the case.
Kathleen maintained a docile temperament until the sun pulled its final rays over the lip of the horizon and twilight set in. At this point, even her Job-like patience could endure no more. “Satisfied?” she ventured after another run-through of the last video-slot. Even after so many hours of grind, she maintained a flat tone that divulged no hint of the irritation seething within.
“A few more runs before we call it a day.” Predictably, Tom found it necessary to entrench his authority, prolonging the moment.
Ten minutes later, Tom's appetite for petty power satiated, he closed proceedings. “Not bad, Kath. Overall, a pretty good effort.”
Kathleen was astonished. For Tom Ferris, “pretty good effort” meant tearing out a chunk of his living self. Compliments from this man just didn’t happen. She reckoned he must have heard his own voice speak the words before he could bite them back.
Her eyes glinted with triumph, and she cocked a brow.
“High praise indeed,” she crooned, revealing only a hint of the sarcasm she felt.
In less than a decade, Tom Ferris had grown Executive-Limits Corporation from concept to a top-ten global company—a trillion-dollar gargantuan.
Even surrounded by a team of executives with the keenest minds, Tom remained distrustful of delegation. He stubbornly clung to his autocratic style, micromanaging and dominating every facet of operations.
Psychopath...? Kathleen asked herself for the umpteenth time.
No. Possessed seemed more accurate.
While she pondered this and shuffled her laptop into her bag, Tom launched into another round of ferocious phone discussions with someone evidently buried somewhere in the depths of the monolithic building. She waited patiently for him to finish before making overt gestures to leave.
His questions answered by the voice on the other end of the line, Tom truncated the conversation with a grunt as he turned his attention back to Kathleen.
“Let’s call it a day,” he instructed, then offered consolation to a tedious afternoon. “Stick around, and I’ll buy you dinner?” He was suddenly charm and roses.
“Thanks... I’ve got plans.”
“They just changed…” he assured her.
She checked her watch.
“I’ve made the booking already,” he disclosed, inclining his head, leaving her no doubt that they’d be dining together.
There was no real way to refuse the man.
She did the best she could to make a show of resisting, “Hmmm... not sure. I’d make a call, but my battery’s dead,” she held up her mobile.
Tom held the door open, “Use Nancy’s line.”
As they moved out of the boardroom, Kathleen wrestled with the prospect of spending more time in Tom’s company than duty required. Better instincts screamed urgently to refuse the offer. But, the devil within; the adrenaline junkie, the tomboy daredevil; wanted answers to many questions that nobody but a privileged few had answers to, and dinner seemed an ideal forum for excavating for truth.