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Chapter One – The Anonymous Knight

Chapter One

Nothing about the situation was reasonable.  But the people milling around the copier and printer kiosk kept trying to apply reason.  Granted, theirs wasn’t reason in the strictest sense, but more a synergistic groupthink, the kind of committee logic that has bestowed upon humanity such fetid gifts as the battery-powered battery charger and see-through body bags.

As such they were never likely to adequately explain why multicolored ink was flowing like blood from the printer’s every orifice or why the copier made a buzzing bark whenever someone tried to touch it.  They were at a total loss to account for the existential crisis causing the fax machine to dial in to the “God Talk” radio program.

The company occupied three floors of the building and had six separate kiosks—two on each floor like an office version of Noah’s Ark—so  when Bob Digby from Accounting had tried to copy a document and found the machines “uncooperative” he had simply tried another.  That had been before the machines had manifested their more alarming symptoms.  Bob shuffled from one kiosk to the next, his documents still unique and utterly copy free.  His alarm increased with each failure.  At first he was most daunted by the prospect of taking the stairs to the next floor as he was not a healthy man, but as he moved from one copier to the next and the sweat stains glistened at his arm pits he began to get a sense of a larger picture that frightened him enough to overcome his passive nature and knock on the office door of a manager.

Three hours later things had not improved.  Chagrin etched the faces of even the most even-keeled department heads.  This could not happen at a more inopportune time for the company.  Quarterly reports were due.  Decisions had to be made on any number of topics and the dark specter of ESBI Corp.—the company’s main competitor and arch-nemesis—cast an ominous shadow over everything.

Outsourcing was out of the question.  These were important documents that remained either unique or existed only in virtual form.  But something had to be done, and soon.  What hours ago had begun with nervous laughter had now passed to a state of horror and despondency over thwarted printing ambitions.

Still, despite all of this, Tanner Roy maintained a state of Zen-like calm.  He, too, had a document that needed copying—existed exclusively in his trademark longhand scrawl, truth be told—but it was an unhappy document and Tanner had considered sticking it in his mouth, chewing and swallowing it unread before the unfortunate printer kiosk situation had given him a measure of time.  He wasn’t entirely sure what he should do with this time, as it seemed there were more than enough panicked bystanders, and as that was all he could add to the situation he just sat quietly at his desk and watched IT representatives try to keep the mob calm, which they were not ideally equipped for, having neither tear gas, billy clubs nor the physical stamina to face a stampede of alarmed office workers.

He had almost decided to leave when Bob Digby approached him from behind and cleared his throat, Bob’s way of indicating that he had something to say.

“What’s on your mind?” Tanner asked, aware a question any more probing than that would just chase Bob away.

“Do you think they’ll fire me if I go to Kinko’s?” Bob asked, his tiny, brown, puppy-dog eyes barely holding back tears.

This question had its origin in a place beyond Bob’s basic paranoid nature, beyond even the secret fear Bob held that somehow he had caused this printer calamity in his shuffling walk early that morning.  There had been strange rumors and events taking place in the company of late.  Entire departments went missing with only throwaway explanations involving a new satellite office in Cincinnati that convinced no one.  New walls had been constructed overnight that blocked access to previously accessible rooms.  Strange sounds like the whinnying of horses and the hammering of steel wafted down from the elevator shafts.  A single memo had been distributed to all employees as a response to multiple inquiries.  It read simply: Your concerns are being investigated.  Management appreciates all of your hard work and dedication in the interim.

“Depends on how good you are at sneaking out of the building with confidential documents,” Tanner answered, though he knew this was not the kind of reassuring answer that Bob was looking for.

“I don’t think I’m good at that at all,” Bob whispered, his porky finger tightening around his documents.

“I wouldn’t chance it then,” Tanner suggested and then cast a glance at the documents Bob was holding.  “Bob, is that a birthday party invitation?”

Bob nodded slowly, a single bead of sweat dripping down his face.

“Then I think they’d probably prefer if you got them copied at Kinko’s.”

“You think?”

Tanner nodded.  Not a deep thinker, Bob.  But sound.  Steady.  The kind of smiling, pack-mule type worker that supervisors can never get enough of.  Provided there was someone with the wherewithal to point him in the right direction.

“I think you already have all the diversion you need to sneak out,” Tanner prompted, and jerked his head down the hall towards the elevators.  “No one will miss you.  Scram.”

Tanner watched as Bob took his advice and shuffled away with a kind of nostalgic happiness.  It was the people like Bob that made working at the company a quality experience.  Much to Tanner’s delight, his was not your average company.

All Tanner had to do was think back to the day of his initial interview with the company.  It had been conducted by a man in a wet suit.  The man had worn a reflective aquamarine tie that matched his flippers and the first question of the interview had been, “How do you feel about vegetables?”  The whole experience had reminded Tanner of a tame acid trip he had once had and he had been fully composed as the man in the wet suit moved from one irrelevant topic to the next.  Tanner had been offered a job by the end, which he quickly accepted.

While the company offered a broad network of products and services, Tanner worked in what he liked to call the Above-Board/Friendly Espionage Division.  It was his responsibility to know the enemy’s products inside and out.  The identity of that enemy changed from time to time, became little more than a name, but Tanner’s job remained the same:  go out and meet his counterpart for drinks, exchange information, play pool or darts and report on what he learned the following day in the office.  All in all, Tanner’s job satisfaction was high and his performance evaluations had been stellar.

He had a knack for this kind of thing.  Somehow, when Tanner put pen to paper he was able to put odds and ends together that had remained unspoken the night before and draw conclusions that were dead on.  For two years he had worked this routine and earned several pay raises as a result.  And so he had ended up with the ESBI file on his desk.  And his work on the ESBI file had resulted in the two-page, hand-written report that was on his desk right now.

Chagrin was turning into panic over by the printer kiosk.  The fax machine was dialing repeatedly to the tune of La Cucaracha.  Someone had asked whether they should call in a priest for an exorcism, but management had put the kibosh on that.  Unplugging the equipment had proven—on multiple occasions—to be surprisingly unsuccessful.  The company sledgehammer had been located, but if at all possible, management wanted to save the expense of purchasing new equipment, so its use had been delayed.  Meanwhile the printer had apparently run out of ink and was now wheezing and spitting, like an elderly gentleman who had just mistakenly started chewing on a handful of aspirin that he thought was hard candy.

“That’s something, isn’t it?” came a voice from over Tanner’s shoulder.

He turned to see his own boss staring intently at the commotion around the kiosk.  His name was Gene Bergman and he was your typical middle-management type, middle-aged, receding hairline, gut beginning to sag just a bit below the belt line.  He was unobtrusive to the point of invisibility; though nominally supervised by him, Tanner didn’t interact with Gene much more than once a day.

“Morning, Gene,” Tanner greeted him.  “Like your tie.”

Gene glanced down momentarily at his tie, trying to recall if he’d put on something new and unusual rather than his standard crimson red.  Deep down he knew he hadn’t, knew that when you buy a dozen of the same shirt and same ties that variance is impossible.  Gene was no fool.  But somehow, he always cast his eyes down whenever someone—usually Tanner—called attention to it.  Gene had often wondered why he did this, but thus far had come to no conclusions.

“And I like yours,” Gene replied, vaguely aware that this was almost certainly the same thing he had said to Tanner the last time this had happened.  This didn’t bother Gene very much.  It was easier than trying to think of something original or clever.  Besides, a little something commonplace and banal would be a nice change of pace on a morning such as the one Gene was having.

It had been his door Bob had knocked on a few hours past.  His were the first middle-management hands to touch the faulty equipment.  His solution had been simple and elegant.  Turn off the power and turn it back on.  Yes, such a solution had worked many times for Gene in the past and there was no reason why this time should have been any different.  No reason at all.  Only it hadn’t worked.  His only solace was it had not been his attempted solution that had prompted the barking and vomiting of ink, but rather his own supervisor’s efforts and that other people had been there to witness it.

Not that it would matter much when she got back.  She was still likely to blame him.  Someone had to be blamed, that was certain.  He wondered how long it took to clean up that much ink from your hair, from your face, from your clothes, hands, everywhere.  It had simply erupted into her face, like a B-movie blood splatter that just wouldn’t stop.  Gene had been amazed.  He remembered the torrent striking her face, the shock of it and then her biting down on her lip in grim determination.  For a moment Gene felt a great admiration for her—her resolve in the face of the extraordinary seemed an act equal to that of an elegant Amazon amidst battle—but the moment didn’t last long.  She started to scream, started and stopped when ink flooded into her mouth.  Gene had no idea that so much ink could be in a machine.  Then she had turned and vomited on a bystander’s shoes.  Not Gene’s though.  The moment was over well before she backed away from the equipment and ran down the hall towards the restroom, leaving Gene the ranking supervisor.  He had managed to stay clean throughout and even as he stood beside Tanner’s desk he harbored an impression that he had used his supervisor as a human shield.

Tanner allowed Gene to collect himself.  Gene was subject to frequent bouts of internal distraction and Tanner had learned it was best to let him work out of it on his own.  Interrupting the process never yielded positive results.  Perhaps it had been unfair of Tanner to call Gene’s attention to his attire.

Tanner well-remembered his first day on the job, meeting Gene in his pale blue shirt and crimson red tie.  He had looked at Gene’s shoes and noticed one was brown and the other black.  Gene had followed Tanner’s gaze and looked himself over, offered up a mumbled, “I dress in the dark,” as an excuse and carried on as if nothing was amiss.  Tanner valued Gene’s abstractions.

“That the ESBI report?” Gene asked, his hand already clutching for it.

Tanner nodded and reluctantly handed over the paper.  The die was now cast.  There was no holding back the proverbial floodgates now.

Tanner considered the possibility that all of it—the printer, the copier, the fax, all of it—was some kind of omen.  He had read a book once about the Oracle at Delphi and other founts of prophecy from bygone eras, had wondered what forms such founts might take in a twenty-first century technological world.  He hadn’t imagined that possessed office equipment would come into play.  He hadn’t considered that at all.

Gene handed back the report.

“Is that it?” he asked Tanner, who nodded.  Gene grabbed his crimson red tie and took a good long hard look at it.  He sighed and looked at Tanner.

“I’ve been thinking I should get a different color tie,” he admitted to Tanner.  “I just can’t decide what color.  I really like red.  I like the way it looks on me.  Maybe just a different shade?”

Tanner didn’t know what to say.  He’d been prepared for anger, for sadness, for bitterness, for fear, for righteous indignation, but not for complete abject denial.  Not from Gene.  Gene was too steady, too predictable to react in this way.

“Perhaps you didn’t see . . .” Tanner started.

“I saw,” Gene replied.  He pointed at the printer kiosk.  “I saw that machine spit ink all over Becky Miller.  I saw it fill her mouth and mix with her vomit on Hank Gladstone’s shoes.  You know how Hank obsesses over his shoes, Tanner.  Vomiting on his shoes is like spitting in someone’s face.  And I saw your report.”

Gene put his hand on Tanner’s shoulder.  In all of the events of the day, for all their peculiarities, this was the one that surprised Tanner the most, drove into him the depth to which this was impacting Gene.  Gene abhorred making physical contact with his co-workers.  For him to touch someone’s shoulder was the equivalent of a full on the mouth kiss from a normal person.

“I woke up this morning,” Gene droned, “And the little voice inside my head told me I’d regret going to work.  But I came any way.  It’s what I do.  No sooner had I sat down at my desk than I received a phone call.  It was like my ass had triggered a speed dial button on my chair, it happened so fast.  I answered the phone, Tanner.  It’s what I do.

“It was the CEO, Tanner.  The god-damned CEO.  And do you know what he said to me?  Do you know what that holier than thou, never seen outside the Ivory Tower, colossal prick told me to do?”

Tanner had never heard Gene talk in this way, had never known there was such passion behind the man in the pale blue shirt and the crimson red tie.  He shook his head and hoped that Gene hadn’t snapped.

“He told me to stay three feet behind Becky today, Tanner.  Bastard knew.  Bastard knew.  Bastard also knew about this report.  Told me you’d have it done two days early.  Told me that once I confirmed its contents that I was to escort you to the express elevator immediately.”

Gene cast a disgusted glance at the report and quoted from it.

“‘Kidnapping key personnel, the identities of whom are yet to be determined?’” Gene read aloud.  “Who does that?”

Tanner didn’t know.  That aspect of the report had disturbed him, certainly.  He didn’t like thinking about which employees in the company may be targeted in such a ploy—hoped it wasn’t him—and refused to put speculative thoughts on paper regarding it.  But what had disturbed him more was what followed, his conclusion that, “current indicators show a rise in activity consistent with a pending aggressive take over attempt.”  In business terms that was bad enough, but when considered in light of the context of personnel kidnappings, it suggested the possibility of physical violence, which—as a civilized person—Tanner was strongly against.

“Well, it’s beyond me,” Gene said, defeated, although he’d be damned if he understood what exactly had defeated him.  “I’ll just do what I’m told.  Burn that.”

Tanner pulled a lighter from his pocket, raised it to the report.

“No,” Gene put his hand on Tanner’s and guided the lighter back to his pocket, took the report from his hands.  “Not here.  Last thing we need right now is to set off the sprinkler system.  Damned thing would probably shoot out blood the way my day is going.  Follow me.”

Gene folded the report into quarters and put it in Tanner’s front pocket.  He then led Tanner down the hallway towards the elevators.  It was easy to find the way.  All they had to do was follow the trail of ink that Becky Miller had left in her wake.  Guilt hit Gene with every step he took down the hallway.  He mumbled under his breath.

“What was that about human shields?” Tanner asked but Gene just shook his head and would say no more.  Behind them there was a murmur of voices as if there had been a development and then the sound of escaping steam and angry voices raised in consternation.

“Don’t look back,” Gene said to Tanner, “nothing good will come from it.”

Tanner did as Gene instructed, mostly because he was afraid to push Gene over the edge.

They reached the elevators and passed the first two, which were the ones that normal rank and file used on a daily basis.  Past them was the express elevator.  It was called that by people who had never seen it used, who believed it the height of humor to name what for all appearances was a broken conveyance, ‘express.’  No one actually had any first-hand knowledge as to whether or not it worked.  It had no button, nor any way to call it into service.  Tanner had always considered it decorative.  It was intriguing to him to find that it might work after all.

“Well, here you are,” Gene said.  “Best of luck.”

Despite having given his good bye, Gene did not move.  For a moment he had a strange disconnected feeling, like there were no directions for him, that perhaps he might just fade away.  It almost occurred to him to say something about it, but as he happened upon the concept the door to the express elevator opened and out stepped the largest man he had ever seen.

The man was eight feet tall if he was an inch, had to duck his head to exit the elevator and he seemed almost as wide as he was tall.  He was dressed like a traditional hotel bellboy with a maroon cap and matching suit with golden tassels hanging off of his wide shoulders.  It was much more than Gene was willing to tolerate.

“Best of luck,” he repeated and left Tanner to his own devices.

“Thanks,” Tanner replied and had to resist the urge to grab Gene and insist he stay.

The large man moved closer.  Tanner wondered if this giant had once traveled to the Pacific Northwest, took a quick swim and begat the Big Foot legend.  But the thought soon passed as Tanner got a look at the man’s face, his skin clean-shaven and smooth.  It was impossible to tell with the cap on, but it looked as if the man had a shaven head as well.  In fact there was a child-like quality to his face that Tanner found disturbing.

The large man gestured wordlessly towards the open door.  Tanner took a deep breath and stepped inside.  He was quickly followed by the ducking elevator man and then watched the man uncoil to his full height once he returned to the interior.  Tanner was surprised to see the express elevator was also devoid of any floor buttons or mechanism indicating their current floor.  There was wood paneling on three sides and red shag carpeting beneath their feet.  Tanner looked up to the ceiling and saw his own reflection looking down at him.  The only device inside was a single metallic lever with a red velour handle that looked like it was limited to a single plane of movement, forward and back.

The large man grabbed the lever and clenched his hand around it and the doors closed.  They were also reflective and Tanner was struck by the difference in height between himself and his companion as he looked forward at their reflections.

And then the man pushed the handle forward.  Nothing happened.  There was no sudden sense of movement in either direction.  Tanner didn’t know how to react to this as the event was quite outside his experience.   He turned to the large man who was staring straight ahead in silence, as if Tanner wasn’t even in the elevator with him.

Tanner cleared his throat to no effect.

“I’m sorry,” Tanner said.  “We haven’t been introduced.  I’m Tanner Roy.  What’s your name?”

Silently, the man lifted his left hand to a golden badge on his breast pocket that read, “Hugo.”

“Hugo,” Tanner said aloud.  “Nice to meet you, Hugo.”

Tanner extended his hand to Hugo who turned his head and looked at it with an inscrutable expression, as if he’d never had a hand offered in his direction before and wasn’t certain what was intended by the gesture.  Tanner was amused by this until it occurred to him that Hugo may be judging whether Tanner’s hand was likely to be crushed by his own giant ones.  That gave Tanner cause to consider the wisdom of what was largely, after all, an empty gesture.  And then his hand was engulfed by Hugo’s.

The first sensation Tanner felt was one of gentle warmth but it was soon replaced by a mild electric shock and a feeling of displacement, as if the elevator had suddenly decided to go every direction at once.  Tanner closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.  And just as quickly as it had begun the sense of displacement was gone and Tanner opened his eyes.

He saw not an elevator but a stable gone hazy around the edges.  He felt dizzy and unwell but sensed this had nothing to do with his handshake with Hugo.  His nose was full of scents, the sweat of a sick man, clean hay in the corner, fresh dung somewhere not so far away.  His ears were full of sounds.  A child was weeping, a horse was breathing, and shouts came from outside.  But Tanner couldn’t see any of these things, nor could he turn his head to search them out.  His stare was locked rigidly ahead of him, looking at nothing in particular, barely seeing.  He felt a sudden surge of sadness and pain, a sense of inevitable death and loss.  He felt that this was the end of something that had been beautiful and perfect.  And then he felt himself draw away, the already hazy image going gray and fading into the middle distance.  It faded, faded and was gone.

He hadn’t really opened his eyes, he realized as the feeling left him.  That had been part of the hallucination, if that was what he had just experienced.  So, Tanner opened his eyes and found that tears were streaming down his face and Hugo, his hand no longer in contact with Tanner’s, was reaching for a handkerchief.  He found it and set his large and gentle hands to the task of wiping the tears from Tanner’s face.

Meanwhile Tanner searched for some expression or any suggestion at all that Hugo had undergone the same experience as himself.  But Hugo’s face was a cipher.  If there was any articulation there, it indicated only mild curiosity or concern.  And upon completing his task, Hugo put his handkerchief away and returned his gaze forward.

Tanner was left to his own devices to try to understand what he had just encountered.  It had all felt so real, like he had been possessed by someone else’s memory.  He could make neither heads nor tails of it.  But he was pretty sure that it had been a direct result of shaking Hugo’s hand.  Tanner wished the elevator was bigger, that he could put more distance between himself and Hugo.

“How much longer do you suppose this will take?” Tanner asked.

As if in answer Hugo pulled the lever back and the doors opened.  Hugo extended his hand forward, gesturing that Tanner should leave the elevator at this time.  Tanner tried to move as deliberately as possible, tried not to display the urgent need he had to escape, to get the image of the stable out of his mind.  It wasn’t until he was out into the hallway that it occurred to Tanner he didn’t know where to go next.

He turned back to see that Hugo was pointing a finger to his left.  Tanner matched his point and Hugo confirmed this was correct with a nod.

“Thanks,” Tanner mumbled, embarrassed that he was having a difficult time making eye contact with the man.  He turned in the direction Hugo indicated he should go and the doors closed.

Tanner looked around and tried to get his bearings.  The hallway was much like the one on his floor except that instead of three elevators there was only the one he had just exited and a blank white wall.  Down the hallway to the left, the direction Hugo had indicated he should go, the lights were off and the distance was shrouded in a dark gray with only the suggestions of shapes beyond and absolute silence.

Tanner walked down the hallway and towards the dark.  He wondered how Bob Digby was doing at Kinko’s, whether Becky Miller had gotten the ink off her face, if Gene had closed the door of his office, stuck his fingers in his ears and closed his eyes.  He wondered why he felt compelled to keep walking down the hallway.  What was it about the unknown that attracted him, entranced him?

A normal person has a job interview and the interviewer wears a wet suit, they don’t take the job.  Not Tanner.  A normal person sees office equipment act in a way completely at odds with how office equipment is supposed to act and they gather around said equipment, stare and ponder the ending of the world.  Not Tanner.

He pulled the ESBI report out of his pocket and looked above him.  No sprinklers.  He took out his lighter and lit a corner of the report.  The paper accepted the flame like a man who received a gift he didn’t expect and hadn’t the first clue what to do with.  The fire sat at the corner of the page but didn’t advance, like the report was keeping it at arm’s length.  Tanner gave it a few seconds to behave normally, but when the flame refused to do so he decided to use it as a torch as he walked into the darkness.

Upon closer inspection Tanner saw that the room he entered was very much like the one he left with Gene.  There was a printer kiosk at one corner, desks and cubicles with phones, notepads and pens spread in a tidy, efficiency officer-approved manner about the floor.  But there was a sense of abandonment about them and Tanner got the impression that the room had been unoccupied for some time.  It looked rather like what Tanner’s floor would look like if some catastrophe kept everyone from returning to the building for ten years.

He walked past the printer kiosk and towards the offices in the back, noting that all of the equipment was sitting docile and quiet in its proper place.

“Hello,” he called out as he opened the door of the first office he came across.  It was empty.  He moved on to the next.  “Hello,” he repeated to another empty office.  Something about this one signified something to him, though he wasn’t sure what it was.  He moved into it and sat down at the desk.  A floor to ceiling window dominated the far wall, but it didn’t yield as much light as Tanner would have expected.  There was an empty picture frame on the desk, and while pondering why an abandoned desk needed such an item Tanner realized the one thing that was wrong with his impression of a decade long abandonment: there wasn’t any dust.  He ran his finger along the edge of the picture frame and held his finger up to his ESBI-report-cum-torch and saw no evidence of dust or dirt at all.  It was in this moment—in this pose of sitting at a long abandoned desk in semi-darkness, studying his finger in the light of a torch that was his report of the actions of the company’s greatest competitor—that another party chose to make their entrance.

“Hello, Tanner,” said a dark figure in the doorway.  “I see you found your way to your new office without any problem.”

“My office?” Tanner could think of nothing better to say.

“Yes, your office,” the man replied.  “Your desk, your chair—comfortable isn’t it?—your picture frame, and your ESBI report on fire.”

The man approached the desk and put out the fire with his hands.  He then extended his right hand forward as if to shake.  Tanner was reticent to participate in a hand shake.   His memory of his experience with Hugo in the elevator was too fresh in his memory, too appalling.  He stared at the hand, which remained extended despite his reluctance.  Tanner supposed he was being foolish.  There was no particular reason to expect history to repeat itself.  No reason at all to believe that if he grabbed that hand he would be sent back to the sad stable tableau.  But reason was not the champion of this particular day.  Reason had yet to rear its ugly head.

“There’s no computer,” Tanner said to the man in front of him.

“You won’t be needing one,” the man said simply.  “Now, shake my hand.”

Tanner leaned back in his chair.  It was comfortable.  It felt almost as if it had been tailored specifically to his taste.  But Tanner doubted whether that was possible.  He had a sudden compulsion to open the top drawer of his desk.  Inside he found a pad of paper which might have been yellow—though it was difficult to tell as the middling light afforded by the window was mostly blocked by the man’s shadow—and a single black pen, his favorite model as it happened, the kind that felt right in his hand.  He looked up at the man and wished the light was on and he could look into the man’s eyes.  After all, they say the eyes are the windows to the soul and Tanner would like to gauge how serious the CEO—for clearly this was the CEO—was about this particular handshake.

“I understand your hesitation,” the man explained in patient tones.  “It’s no doubt been an unsettling morning for you.  I apologize for that.  But still, the niceties should be observed.”

Tanner raised his hand and took the man’s hand in his own.  There was no spark, no displacement, no stable.  Just a firm grip, a single pump and a release.  It was a deflating moment.  The man stepped away and returned to the doorway.  He turned on the lights and Tanner got his first good look at him.  He was a small man, this CEO, small and trim.  He was dressed in a charcoal suit that made a stark contrast to his pale face, which lent the impression that he spent all his time in the dark. His salt and pepper hair was closely cropped against his smallish head.  He had a massive widow’s peak that looked like an arrow pointing in Tanner’s direction and a Van Dyke beard.  He was also sporting an expression of barely contained excitement.  His eyes sparkled.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked and then took a seat at the desk across from Tanner.  “Considering everything.”

“I am,” Tanner said, “considering everything.”

If Tanner had hoped this would wipe the excited expression from the CEO’s face he was sadly mistaken.  A grin crossed his face and then quickly disappeared.  The man steepled his hands in front of him on the desk.

“Well, I’m sure you know the old saw about how you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” the man shrugged his shoulders.  He took the ESBI report in his hands and gave it a quick glance.  “You express things so delightfully, Tanner.  I particularly like this phrase, Despite your average company’s reticence to show their hand at such an early stage, ESBI seems to be deliberately sending signals of their intentions, rather like a daredevil who knows they need an audience before they perform the audacious.  Audacity.  I’ve always appreciated audacity.  It gives things an edge.  If you don’t mind my saying so, your reports have always had a tinge of audacity to them, Tanner.  You would have attracted my attention just for that if it weren’t for your other talents.”

Then, as if to demonstrate that to earn his praise was a worthy objective, he ran his hands together across his face and pulled a cigarette out of thin air.  He showed Tanner the cigarette and then ran his hands together again and the cigarette was now lit.  The CEO put the cigarette to his mouth and took a deep breath, blew out the smoke in rings.  When Tanner did not register amazement or interest the CEO shrugged his shoulders, leaned back and smiled.

“I suppose you want an explanation,” he began.

“I suppose I do,” Tanner replied.

“Then you’ve come to the right place,” the CEO answered quickly.  “And the right time.  And the right person.  I have answers, Tanner.  Oh, not all of them.  But a great many and certainly several of which will be relevant to you, your current inquiries.  Your future inquiries.  About ESBI.  About Hugo.  About things you haven’t the words yet to ask.  The question is, are you the right person at the right place at the right time to hear those answers?  I want you to think about that, Tanner.  Most people who demand answers, who demand explanations are poorly suited to deal with them.

“You have to decide that for yourself.  For my part I am completely convinced, but that will mean nothing if I must spend all my time convincing you.  Many things I would tell you, that you would want me to tell you, well, I’m not going to lie to you, Tanner, you’re going to have a hard time believing them.  And if you do overcome that obstacle, you’ll find it even more difficult to put them to any good use.”

Tanner didn’t reply.  He sensed that in this case, the best answer was no answer at all.  He was trying to put things in perspective.  What was it that was so hard to believe that a man who had just witnessed the possession of office equipment was ill-prepared to come to terms with it?  Tanner couldn’t deny that he was intrigued.  After all, wasn’t the CEO right about him?  Wasn’t there an audacity about him?  How else could Tanner describe the way he had responded to his initial job interview, how he had responded to the printer kiosk situation?  The CEO must have seen something in the set of his face, for he seemed well-satisfied with Tanner.

“Excellent,” the CEO said, drumming his hands against the top of the desk.  “Well, I think that’s enough for today.  Just go to the elevator and Hugo will take you down.  Go home.  Have something strong to drink.  Gird yourself.  There are exciting times ahead of us, Tanner.  When you come back tomorrow, don’t bother clearing out your old desk.  Just go to the elevator—I believe they call it the express elevator, how droll—and Hugo will take you up here.”

The CEO stood and walked to the doorway.  Tanner wanted to say something.  He felt like he had been relegated too much to spectator in this particular exchange now that it was ending.  He couldn’t think of anything and his jaw just worked silently.  As the CEO walked away Tanner got up from the desk, turned out the light as he walked out of the office.  He walked towards the elevator, his head still abuzz.  He paused for a moment in the darkness of the cubicles between the offices and the hallway.  He was still holding the pen he had taken out of the desk in his office.  For reasons he couldn’t fathom, he bent over a cubicle and wrote out a sentence in the dark on a notepad that was lying atop a desk.

When he finished he put the pen away, tore the page off the notepad and put it in his pocket.  As he turned again to the elevator he heard the CEO call out to him.

“Oh, Tanner,” the CEO said, “Before I forget.  Welcome to the Ivory Tower.”

“Thanks,” Tanner said in reply and strode towards the elevator, happy to be heading home for the day.


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