Ephram managed to pull one arm away from the guards who’d been dragging him along the dank passageway. That was as close as he got to getting free. He couldn’t break the other one’s hold on him. And within moments, the other had recovered. Together the big men in black military armor took turns subduing him with a combination of punches, kicks, batons and a couple jolts with a taser. By the time he was put in the chair and strapped to it, there was little fight left in him. Perhaps he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque after all.

The room he’d been dragged to stank of rust and a couple decades of mildew growth. The lights were dim, fluorescent, a couple flickering. Everything else in this place had the feel of a place abandoned for decades. Not a surprise, but hardly pleasant to endure, in addition to the beating that had left him aching all over, for his own good they’d told him. His dad used to say that too.

The lights brightened, though several of the overhead fluorescents still flickered, and one immediately burnt out. Before him was an array of monitors. Black and white. Dusty. They showed scenes of an office. Several people sitting at their desks or walking from one workstation to another. Ephram recognized it all.

He tested the bindings that held him to the chair. They were solid. He took in a breath, felt his ribs ache in response. He let it out slowly. Then the doorknob rattled. He glanced to the left as an elderly man in a dark suit entered.  By the man’s stoop and heavily lined face, Ephram guessed the man must be close to eighty. if he was what he appeared.

The man smiled mildly when their gazes met.

“I hope you understand why this was all necessary,” he offered.

“Not exactly,” Ephram replied. He could still taste blood in his mouth from the beating he’d taken. You could just have had a receptionist like normal people do.

“You came here looking for something specific and important to you,” the old man said. “It’s our job to ensure you find it. Most people have trouble coping with what they find here.”

“I’m not most people,” he stated. “I at least was honest about that.”

“Were you?” the man asked, then glanced at the monitors. “And yet, what are we looking at. And why are we looking at it?”

“To offer me a taste of my own medicine?” Ephram asked.

He’d probably had that coming.

“Surveillance,” the man told him. “Of your employees, those you direct to do your dirty work. The messes you feel you must clean up.”

“I wouldn’t describe my business that way,” Palantine told him. “It’s about problem solving. Fixing things.”

The old man reached over to the table and picked up a folder, began rifling through it.

“These names look familiar; Nora, Frank, Benny, Flores, Angela…”

“They’re my people,” Palantine admitted.

“They aren’t people!” The man suddenly shouted at him then slammed a fist on the table between the two of them. This was getting somewhere. “They are your tools, your playing pieces, pawns, knights, rooks.”

“I think you misunderstand the nature of my business,” Ephram told him through gritted teeth.

This wasn’t going to be easy. Not with this man, not with those fish eyes glaring at him.  Well, Palantine could take his licks like a man.

“Do I? Do I!?” the old man protested, his voice rising as he did as though he was speaking an audience of more than just one. “Lets see how you view them, and how you watch them suffer when they are forced to face what you compel them to.”

This was getting a little melodramatic. Ephram would have preferred to get right into it, and save the histrionics.

“I think you are a little confused,” Ephram offered. “I’ve just told you they aren’t playing pieces or tools. They are people to me. I’m here for them.”

“We’ll see.” The main said. “You understand every reaction, every twitch, every glance you make will be monitored, recorded, assessed. Mocked if that’s appropriate.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?” he replied. “As opposed to shits and giggles.”

“That’s what you claimed,” the man said. “So, there are your offices in Columbus. Reception, Main office, kitchen. Cozy. Home away from home.”

“It doesn’t take a lot of people to do the work that comes our way?” Ephram replied. “It’s fairly specialized. Personal.”

“But you do go through employees, they don’t tend to stay very long” the man said.

“It can be stressful work,” Ephram admitted. “And challenging, in certian ways.”

The man gave a harrumph, then glanced back at the dusty screens.

“Nora, Frank, Benny, Flores, Angela, and someone we don’t recognize waiting in reception,” the man said. “A client?”

“Probably a new hire,” Palantine said. “They are understaffed at the moment.”

“Those empty desks?” the man noted.

“Tasmin is on assignment, in Africa, with Dr. Burnes,” Ephram noted, not meantioning Erick. “But you already know that.”

“Ready to watch them as they undertake your work,” the man said. “That you don’t take the time to prepare them for. That could leave them ending up dead. Or worse.”

Ephram let out a breath. The tone the man was using was still bit over the top, even for the role he was playing. Where was the audience he was playing to?

“It would likely be more enjoyable with a cigarette, even an electronic one,” Ephram suggested. He’d had a pack in his jacket pocket. They’d taken that from him, left him in his white dress shirt, pants and socks. They’d taken his shoes for some reason, and even taken his tie.  They’d better not do anything with them.  It took months to properly work in a good pair of shoes, not toe mention a tie.

The man pointed at a corroded no-smoking sign on the wall.

“More’s the pity,” Ephram offered. “How about a coffee, I assume you want me to sit through this all of this?”

“Black?” his adversary suggested.

“Cream and sugar,” Palantine replied.

“I’m afraid we’re all out of cream and sugar down here,” the old man replied.

“And… I will need at least one hand free to drink it,” he said. “Don’t worry. I won’t try to escape.”

“No.” The old man smiled as he looked back from the door he was already walking towards. “You aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Go to Chapter 2

 

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