Episode 1: The Tactician

Jarrod re-entered his study, snack mission a raging success, and stopped suddenly in his tracks.  Entering the room had been like walking out of the heat into a cool, crisp wall of air conditioning, but in this case the wall of change was composed that feeling somewhere between deja vu and the every-man’s spider sense screaming that something is out of place.

He stowed his cargo on the desk and swished the mouse, deciding that whatever it was would either make itself known or find itself forgotten.  His team was up ten to four, a nice boost to their weekly rating, and he wasn’t about to start jumping at shadows when there was business at hand.

He slipped his headphones on and sat motionless, staring at  the pile of his own hands before him.  The feeling was persistent, and the mental wedgie he was feeling creep in was making it difficult to get focused.  His teammates were chattering heatedly about something, but his mind was wandering and he didn’t join in.  Finally he keyed in to speak and said “guys, shut up a second”, to which they protested in colorful style, to which he dropped the ‘phones on the desk and leaned back into his chair.

An insect-crossing-the-desk motion flirted with the edge of his vision, one that triggered knee-jerk cocktail of fear and revulsion.  His eyes widened as they shot that direction, revealing that it had actually been a sliver of his own reflection across the chrome-plastic edge of a tablet PC.  It was propped mutely to his left between his printer and monitor, a place he was positive had been vacant just prior to the silent call of the munchies.

“Hello there” he said, an unthinking stare accrediting the brief mental incapacity responsible for the comment.  Everything in the room – and indeed the room itself – began to take on a less substantial feel, the images stretching out long and seeming to disappear altogether.  It hit him then; this was it – the thing that had been ‘off’ in the room.

He didn’t own a tablet, and never had.  “Now where did you come from?”  No answer.  He had regained himself for the most part, so the question had been rhetorical.

It sat facing him, a shiny rectangular eye, the overlapping lip of its display base the lower lid.  The words ‘turn me on’ were on the glossy black screen in a flat, unobtrusive gray.  The placement was dead on for something belonging to the room, creating a sort of natural camouflage for the device considering that it sat exactly where he might have placed it himself.  In fact, he had planned to do just that when he finally purchased one.

Realization dawning, Jarrod backed his office chair away from the desk and looked around feverishly, more than a little unnerved.  He was alone in the room, of that he was sure; there weren’t exactly a lot of hiding places unless the person could fit in a two-liter bottle or pizza box.  He took a moment to collect his thoughts, the tablet seeming to smirk at him tauntingly.  I know something you don’t know, Jarrod.

“Kiss my ass, you,” he replied.  Something about treating it like the asshole friend that likely put it there made him feel a little better, but it also turned up the creep factor, making it feel more like the thing was watching him.  Ultimately he decided a quick tour of the house was in order.

He searched both floors and the basement, his overactive and rather chatty imagination convinced the walls were actually enormous eyes following him everywhere he went.  He felt exposed in his own home, as though he were not only being watched, but perpetually on the verge of falling into some trap.  He might as well have been about to audition for American Idol in the buff.

Upon his return, Jarrod settled back into his chair, eying the thing thoughtfully for a moment.  He took time to examine the device itself with a closer eye, careful not to touch it, but also deciding that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  It was just a tablet on a stand, the only cable attached to it the one running to the wall for power.  There weren’t even any fingerprints on the screen.  It was as if it had literally been beamed into place.

He logged into his PC ans accessed his router’s configuration.  Nothing strange in the firewall traffic, either.  The thing wasn’t even trying to access the ‘net – not that it could with his MAC address filter set to only allow specified devices connectivity.  Even if the thing had access to attempt to hack the router it would be stopped at the door; it was set to prevent wireless access to the router configuration.  The only way this thing could even be allowed on the network would be if he set the capability himself.

He resumed his contemplations, the nervous emptiness in his stomach and the creeping need to urinate a testament to the state of his nerves.  These were signs he had learned to listen to, and it was all he could do to keep from calling the police immediately.  Wait – why hadn’t he call them already?  It seemed to be the only course of action that made any sense, and he was avoiding it?  Hell yes, Jarrod, let’s wake up and get the ‘po-po ‘over here right now to sort this thing out.

Five minutes passed, and he hadn’t moved a muscle.  The dilemma of the situation was infuriating.  One part of him was experiencing a healthy fear of the thing, but the more stubborn parts were fascinated by it.  The mystery was appealing, a sort of danger akin to voyeurism that made his legs tingle and his mouth dry, but was still a thrill for the simple fact that nothing had to happen unless he wanted it to.  For all he knew, he could decide to leave the thing untouched as long as he wanted.

It occurred to him at this moment that he had instantly dismissed all possibility that this was a gift.  Could he have just missed it all of the time he had been gaming tonight, too taken with strategy and execution to be bothered with taking in details outside of the game?  He looked at the thing, imagining it with a red velvet bow and a ‘happy…whatever’ card attached, and for a moment it took on a far less sinister presence.

No.  No way.  He didn’t know a single person within four-hundred miles that cared enough to do something like this spontaneously, and the nearest holiday was two months out.  Besides, he didn’t know anyone close enough to get him a gift with enough money for something like this.  It was a top-of-the-line model, after all – he had priced one very similar to this for roughly two grand and change.

It could be a bomb.  This possibility picked up some serious momentum and quick.  It certainly could be.  In fact, it was that thought that dominated Jarrod’s mind and kept him focused, at times pacing the room in worried concentration. He did so for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, and even ate dinner standing in the doorway to the study as he watched it absently.

The pissed-off shouting of his friends coming through his headphones tinny and indistinct had ended hours ago, but then again he hadn’t given the noise any more attention than the ambient swishing of the ceiling fan or the darkening of the sky outside.

The pondering continued long into the night and eventually early morning came, the gray outside ushered in with a familiar headache and the chirping of birds that usually reminded him to feel guilty for wasting another night on video games.  While that feeling certainly had a presence now, it was only skirting the edges of his mind.  Jarrod sat in a half recline, his sandy, drying eyes threatening fire if forced to roll around his red-rimmed lids.  He imagined himself an old, decrepit thing, and had to fight the giddy need to cough out the word Gollum.  He told himself that if he did, chances were good he would break into maniacal laughter and not be able to stop himself.

By now, Jarrod had run the gamut on possibilities.  He had organized them in his mind and determined a reaction to each, though one still managed to elude him.  The bomb possibility would require a proactive defense, namely one that included giving the damned thing lots of room and calling the police.  This seemed the least likely of possibilities, though.  This was too elaborate to be a murder attempt.  It would be easier, more cost effective, and simply made more sense to just put a bullet in him.

His life balanced on cliched logic one could find in any of a thousand movies.  Just perfect.

If anything, blackmail seemed more likely.  Involvement generally meant that your secrets weren’t being shared.  Sure, there was some mental case out there siphoning money or service out of you for keeping your secrets, but at least one had marginal control over whether something bad would happen to them.  It was far better to know who had you by the balls and with what.  If that turned out to be the case, Jarrod would deal with it.  In the meantime, it would be better just to go ahead and find out.

He lifted the device in shaking hands, almost unable to pinpoint the dodging button with his finger.  Even before the button was fully depressed, the gray words disappeared, replaced by a solid green line dividing the screen horizontally.  As a voice began to speak (Jarrod could tell that it had been doctored, even though it still sounded normal enough), the line broke up into hundreds of dots that rose and fell as sound rolled out of the tiny but surprisingly robust speakers.  An equalizer.

“Hello, Mr. Reynolds,” the device purred in a deep, youthful voice.  There was no accent to speak of, but each syllable was clearly enunciated in a way that was very smooth and left sounding cultured.  “I will venture a guess that it is currently after six in the AM.”  Jarrod glanced at the digital clock on his television cable box.  It was six forty three.  “I’m right, aren’t I?  You see, that sort of attention to detail is what first piqued my interest in you.  You leave little to chance, and you do something most people don’t.”  Jarrod heard the smile in the man’s voice.  “You think.  So few people take the time for something as trivial to the modern American as thought, don’t you agree?”

“Where are my manners, though?  Please allow me to introduce myself.  I am Mr. Black.  Of course that isn’t my real name, but the nature of our relationship will not necessitate you having more than minimal information about me.  By the way, welcome to the Organization.  As of this moment you can consider yourself a recruit.  We are in need of a designer – a tactician, if you will – and we have determined that you have precisely what we need.”  Jarrod blinked.  The shakes had left him, and now he just felt a light tickling pressure just below his waist.  Why did nervousness always make him feel like he needed to piss?

“Let me begin by suggesting that you take this message very seriously.  The method of delivery should suggest something of my capabilities, so rather than sitting there doubting my sincerity, please at least act as though you believe what I am about to say.  You will for real soon enough.”

Jarrod laughed out loud.  Is this the part where you tell me that if I drive slower than fifty-five my bus is gonna blow up?  It was nerves more than anything.  Against his conscious judgement, he found himself buying into whatever was happening here.  He had suspected something sinister from moment one, but realistically he still expected to hear one of his idiot friends’ voices when it was turned on.  When he hadn’t, and then even more so when the speaker declined to identify himself, he started to lose the bit of hope that left him feeling that the thing was harmless.

“Let me start by reciting the rules of the workplace.  One.  You will never, under any circumstances, divulge any information about either myself, this meeting, the organization, or any future meetings we may have to anyone.” Jarrod’s stomach knotted.  Future meetings.  “This includes family, friends, fellow employees, and of course a special consideration to our good neighbors the police.  If you break this rule, you will find your relationship with this company…terminated.  Take that any way you please, just as long as you take it seriously.  Termination, in any sense of the word, is permanent.”  Jarrod decided at this point that he had heard enough.

He felt as though a threshold had been breached, as if by listening this long he had reached some point of no return, but when direct threats started to get tossed around, he figured it was time to end the party either way.  He leaned forward, index finger homing in on that circular power button.

“Did you consider the ‘bomb’ possibility when deciding whether to activate this device, Mr. Reynolds?”  Jarrod stopped instantly, his finger less than an inch from its target.  “I’m all but certain you did, but I wonder if you’d considered the possibility that it was only set to arm itself when the tablet was activated.”  Of course he had.  “Two.  You will keep this device with you at all times.  If it notifies you of a message, you will answer it immediately.  It would be fair to assume that breaking of this rule also results in termination.

“Three, you will accept all assignments and adhere to all of their requirements in full.  When given an assignment, you will be issued full instructions, which are to be followed to the letter.  Failure to do so – well, see rules one and two.”

The voice paused for a moment, and Jarrod fought the wall of pressure closing on his vision, trying to get a mental foothold on the situation but failing miserably.  Later he would berate himself for letting the pressure get to him like this, but for the moment it was all he could do to avoid all-out panic.  His mouth was like a bed leaves, his tongue made of cotton.

“Let me be frank and say that I don’t care what happens to either your personal or professional lives, Mr. Reynolds.  You will do the work you are assigned, and you will do it well.  But let’s not be all rules and regulations about this.  I should tell you that you will also be compensated for your work.  We at the Organization are not so heartless as to ask you to work for free.”  A chuckle.  Jarrod swallowed hard.

“In approximately thirty seconds, a man is going to enter the door six feet to your right.”  Jarrod’s eyes snapped to the locking mechanism on that door with frightening precision.  It was a side door, one he never used, and one that had been latched, bolted, and the doorknob switch in the ‘locked’ position for as long as he could remember.  As of this moment none of them were.  “Do be courteous, but under no circumstances are you to speak to him.  When he enters, you will look to him and either nod your assent or shake your head.  Which of those you choose to do will be the answer to this question: do you accept my offer?”

Jarrod wanted no part of this craziness.  He was halfway to the door when the knob turned and it wobbled open in front of him.  It was strange to see the door open at all, but the real shock was the tall, slender man that emerged from behind it.  He was covered head to toe, with black leather gloves, a ski hat and long sleeves despite the summer heat that persisted even into these early hours.  He wore a mask that wasn’t intimidating for any reason other than circumstance, but for that alone Jarrod found himself frightened enough that he thought he might lose his bladder.

It was fear that struck Jarrod hard and without considering the question he’d been asked, began furiously shaking his head ‘no’.  His was an objection to the man’s presence, and though he managed to keep his head enough not to speak aloud, he was oblivious to the fact that he was in all actuality turning down the offer as he approached the man, arms extended as if to usher the intruder right back out the door.

The man’s eyes widened for a split second, and then he closed the gap between them with terrifying speed.  Jarrod realized his mistake and crossed his arms over the top of his head and looked straight down – the only defense he could think of on the spur of the moment.  The other didn’t miss a beat, turning his first blow into an uppercut mid swing.

Jarrod’s head rocketed back, both lips bleeding freely and the fragments of several teeth scattering like shards of glass in his mouth.  His equilibrium left him, and his legs became lifeless.  As he fell he was only vaguely aware of the second blow that landed on the outside of his right eye.  Everything went black before he even hit the floor.

He woke up some time later, his body heavy and the room teetering on edge.  He wanted to get to his feet, but knew he wouldn’t be able to stay on them long, especially when the act of lifting his head threatened him with nausea and darkness.  His mouth was sore and stinging all over, his lips noticeably swollen, and as he swallowed he tasted sick, coppery blood all the way down his throat.  Opening his eyes, he could see a pool of the stuff in his carpet, a spattered, drying trail of it leading the way to where his head had been resting.

The bruiser was there, he could make him out among the blurs of color and shadow his eyes refused to interpret fully.  He was sitting at Jarrod’s desk, casually slicing an apple and feeding the slivers under the bottom of the mask.  His eyes were serious, neither sad nor apologetic, but they stayed on his victim always.  As vision began to come in more fully, Jarrod realized the man was wearing shooting goggles behind the mask,  and his eye color would be impossible to determine.

He pushed himself to a sitting position and started to say, “Y-you…” The bruiser raised a single gloved finger, placing it in front of where his mouth was behind the mask.  Jarrod remembered dimly that he wasn’t supposed to be speaking and nodded sluggishly.  At least the man was compassionate enough to give him this much, and even though he would love to see the asshole dead, Jarrod had to feel some gratitude.

His attacker snapped his fingers twice and then knocked on the desk.  There was a glass of water where he had laid his hand, and he picked it up and offered it to Jarrod.  He held up a note as he did so.  Not poisoned, it said.  Jarrod drank some, swishing it around to clear some of the blood and its awful coppery taste from his mouth.  He would have done the same if it had been a black bottle with the Jolly Roger on it; he truly felt at the end of his rope.

Assault and battery, as Jarrod was starting to think of him, reached into a pocket and produced what looked like an MP3 player and held it up to face Jarrod, fingers positioned over a series of keys on one side.  It was a digital recorder.  What now, Jarrod thought.  Just get the hell out of my place before I – the bruiser pressed a button on one side, and Jarrod heard Mr. Black’s voice again.  It was a portion of the message left for him on the tablet, the portion that asked “do you accept my offer”.

Jarrod gritted his teeth, realizing what was happening.  If he shook his head, the man would stroll over to him and then he would find himself waking up again, this time likely in worse condition.  It would play over and over like it did for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, only he would be reliving the shittiest sequence of events imaginable.  Nothing like being slowly beaten to death over a course of controlled sessions.

Slowly, grudgingly, he nodded.  His eyes never left the intruder’s face as he did so, though he knew as well as any that making his objection to all of this obvious was somewhere in the realm of utterly pointless.

One thought on “Episode 1: The Tactician

  1. Pingback: Episode 1 Back Up | The Readery

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