The company man’s GRV Corp. tie clip clanked against the smoked window of his car, a company car, as he stooped to unlock the door. He’d had the electronic key disabled after successfully copying the signal into his own home-made device—a kind of electronic skeleton key to be used for his own nefarious misdeeds—and now he trusted only the old, mechanical locks—customised by himself, of course. He slammed the door behind him with the vigour of a slaughterhouse meat-packer, cleaving into the first carcass of the day. The crack startled a cat that had spent the night down with the cars in the underground car park; it looked up from its breakfast: a skinny, bloodied mouse. Pressure often got the better of this company man, but at least he knew that a mind in equilibrium was essential for his line of work and accordingly his stress management skills were exemplary. He opened and slammed the door again as if to prove a point, cutting more bone. He followed up with his right fist—clawed, heavily ringed fingers—driving into the charcoal-coloured dashboard. ‘Bitch,’ he cursed the woman he lived with, grinding the word out of his smoker’s throat, noisily opening another pressure valve. He growled the word again, followed by her name, flung at the windscreen.
Feeling a little better, he put the pad of his thumb into the security lock; the device liked his print and blinked a green light. The company man twisted the key in the ignition and started the engine; pushing hard on the accelerator, he squealed the tyres as he let in the clutch. The cat was quick, but not quick enough in front of a fully revved-up V6 turbo-charged engine at the hands of a similarly wound-up GRV Corp. company man: Mason O’Keefe killed the cat.
Calm again, O’Keefe’s deflated mind was now able to logically run through the morning’s events that had so successfully pushed up his barometer. He checked his reflection as best he could in the rear-view mirror and liked what he saw—power and looks. The car’s interior was warm and he loosened his tie a millimetre or two. She had said so many seemingly conflicting things that it would take a cool head to go through them and figure out the consequences—somebody’s life might depend on it.
The sleek black car shot out of its subterranean lair and into the heavy flow of rush-hour traffic, its wheels slipping on the tarmac, wet from an early-morning shower. O’Keefe did well to ignore the horned indignation of frustrated commuters. Today Mason O’Keefe would need more than his stress-management skills to stay ahead: he had his festering paranoia to keep in check.
The woman’s outburst had stung O’Keefe’s pride. ‘Love me or leave me,’ she’d said, which hurt him because it meant that he’d lost what he considered to be an innate ability to fake feelings of love towards a woman—something he had successfully managed to do his entire life. That handicap might be bad for business in the long run; it might even lead to an early retirement, but he was sure that he could maintain the illusion for the present: he would just need to up his game, that’s all. Anyway, going through the phrase logically, he realised that it was in fact an empty ultimatum as it was she who was living in his apartment, and she would be the one to leave—if things ever got that far. His laughter sounded like gravel in a coffee grinder.
With a residual smile still brightening his stubbly face, he braked, suddenly remembering the cat. His shiny sports car came to a stop in a pile of refuse that had washed into the gutter at the side of the road. He stepped out, carefully keeping his Italian leather shoes away from the filth. The sun was already strong but had not yet burned away the remnants of the shower. A bundle of sodden rags moved on the pavement; a head then an arm levitated off the slippery surface.
‘A pound for a cup of tea, mister?’ came a wispy voice.
‘Get a job,’ O’Keefe snapped back, ‘scum-bag.’
He hiked up his Francoise Raymon trousers, crouched down, and inspected the front bumper for cat’s blood; none was visible, but he ran a white cloth along the shiny chrome all the same.
‘Love me or leave me’, that tired old cliché that had so touched one of his nerves, wasn’t the only thing she’d said that bothered him; the other things could have immediate consequences that ran into the millions.
O’Keefe was on his way to see a client who was showing mild interest in a GRV product—a 32-bit data-mining solution—which was not a money earner for him personally, but he had to keep his job and so here he was, visiting more stiff suits. The solution turned on an algorithm, the source code for which he’d already stolen and offered to various GRV competitors, none of whom wanted it; they had their own, better technology for data-mining—GRV was a laggard in this field, hence today’s client’s tepid interest. The real money was in cryptography, and GRV had invested a king’s ransom in its research. Unfortunately for O’Keefe, GRV also ran airtight security around its cryptography secrets; and even a high-ranking sales exec’ such as himself wouldn’t get so much as a whiff of any product until it was about to go to market. That’s why he needed Lona, the woman he was now referring to as ‘bitch’.
O’Keefe dropped himself back into the driver’s seat, wiped his brow with a red paisley handkerchief, then lazily rolled a cigarette. With his left hand he called up a frequency on the digital receiver and with his right hand he put a flame to the tobacco, filling the anthracite-upholstered interior of his LX-A11 with blue Virginian smoke and Vivaldi—simultaneously. Satisfied, he pulled away.
After being hired (Personnel used the term recruited; he preferred to think of it as an infiltration), O’Keefe had gone after Lona, who worked at the fringes of the CEO’s inner circle, close to the wellspring of GRV power. As a liaison officer, she operated between the nerds at R&D and the company’s top dogs, translating clunky scientific progress reports into smooth corporate-speak. For Mason O’Keefe and his insatiable greed, she was in the perfect position. Lona was a plain-looking, ageing spinster, who lived and breathed the company: she was easily charmed by O’Keefe’s magic. He knew that looks were only skin deep; he could see through her plain exterior; and what he saw was a pot of gold.
O’Keefe smoked and thought hard about the possible reasons for Lona’s ire. If she really was a company man (a rower) and had stumbled on his duplicity (for that must have been the only way), he was neck-deep in quicksand. If, on the other hand, she was just a regular woman who needed to be loved, he thought he could handle it. He decided he needed some outside help. He bit the tip of his filterless cigarette and inhaled deeply on a rising cadenza from Summer; he then opened the window to help clear the Vivaldi.
He carried an iPhone only for show; O’Keefe, the consummate professional, didn’t trust them one bit, knowing full well that if he could bug them, trace their calls, and otherwise tamper with their hardware and software, so could a hundred other deviants in the same line of business. As he was fitting in the ear-piece of his go-to brand of burner phone, a cyclist shot out of a side street without looking, causing O’Keefe to swerve into a traffic island.
‘Friggin’ asshole,’ he yelled through the open window.
He thought about pushing the cyclist off the road and stopping for a confrontation, but he’d already called up Smiley Granger’s number and was listening to dialling tones; he satisfied himself with a further vulgarism directed more at the cyclist’s mother than the rider himself.
‘Smiley; Mason O’Keefe here. Things okay with you this morning?’ He caught the wobbling cyclist in the rear-view mirror and felt better.
‘Yeah, sure. What’s up?’ Smiley Granger toiled at in-house security: a sentinel. He was also O’Keefe’s man. He’d never made it past grade 2 and was destined to be a rower for the firm for the remainder of his working life. Rowers were the little people in the big corporate ship, who spent their lives tirelessly pulling the oars of progress for the good of the company. Smiley’s function and life’s work was to vet (filter) potential employees, making sure that it would be possible to break them into good rowers like himself. He was lowly but could still be useful to O’Keefe—he was in the right place and he kept his eyes and ears open. Smiley would know if something was afoot and he would tell O’Keefe because of the file of evidence O’Keefe had on him. Even rowers were corruptible: several years ago, O’Keefe had shrewdly let his one-time buddy in on a deal; the payoff had been small but O’Keefe had assiduously documented Smiley’s involvement—everything in digital. And he had kept Smiley dirty ever since, with crumbs thrown from his ever-growing pie of ill-gotten wealth. Now Mason O’Keefe had the eyes and ears of a sentinel.
‘Lona tells me you are on to somebody,’ he lied.
‘Lona said that? What does she mean ‘on to somebody?’ Smiley said.
‘On to somebody, Smiley, like checking up on somebody, trying to catch somebody with his hands in the till—you follow?’
‘How would Lona know that?’ Smiley said.
‘Listen Granger, you little shit, if you’re holding out on me, I swear I’ll . . .’
‘Okay, okay. Let me think a minute,’ Smiley pleaded.
The line went quiet for a while and it sounded as though Smiley was moving, but O’Keefe couldn’t be sure. He waited: he never pushed a person when he was sure that the person was about to crack; give him time to make peace with his conscience; it makes everything easier in the long run. O’Keefe used the pause to pull up in a restricted parking area outside a public hospital, blithely ignoring the warning markings on the road and the no-parking signs. The death-wish cyclist rode past.
Smiley Granger came back on, now with a humming in the background. ‘This is what I know,’ he started in a whisper. ‘Ivanovich [chief sentinel, ex KGB] is trying to flush a magpie with a new ultra-algorithm for our failing data-mining solution. He knows that Sentra and a few others were offered, but turned down, the old algorithm.’ Granger paused, giving O’Keefe an earful of the background hum. ‘Only the new one is a decoy,’ he went on, still in a hushed voice, which O’Keefe thought rather comical, ‘it doesn’t really work. They are putting together a dummy release right now for you canvassers in Sales. But I don’t know everything; I’m not privy to much down here.’ He stopped.
‘I know you stupid jerk,’ thought O’Keefe, but he said nothing for a moment. ‘So they think the magpie is someone in Sales?’ he finally said.
‘Absolutely not; they are just going following the normal procedure,’ Smiley said.
‘Thanks Smiles,’ O’Keefe said, then he added, ‘Anything on the new crypts?’
‘Face to face, Mr. O’Keefe,’ Smiley returned.
‘Of course. Talk to you soon.’ O’Keefe hung up.
This was not good news for O’Keefe; he pulled away viciously, just missing an incoming ambulance whose siren he had blanked; he sped through a tunnel then rode a red light before suddenly swerving into the parking area of a fast-food outlet to gather his thoughts. Ivanovich, the Ukrainian thug, seemed to suspect someone; ‘but not necessarily me,’ he thought: there were always magpies to be flushed in a company of GRV’s size and wealth. O’Keefe considered he might be safe yet. Without warning, however, his malignant paranoia resurfaced with some alarm bells of its own. It was still possible, he thought, that Lona had fed Ivanovich something, or, equally possible, that Ivanovich had gone to Lona for help. Who knew what and who was telling whom? And could he really trust Smiley Granger to feed him the truth? It was a mess and that was for sure, but O’Keefe hoped he might still be in the clear; and then, as if to help clear his thoughts, he raised the long, ringed fingers of his right hand and slapped them down hard on the steering wheel. But at that exact same instant, something bumped into the back of his car, making him instinctively look up into the rear-view mirror, where he caught the swinging dreadlocks of a dark-skinned youth. He yelled, turning his head back over the seat to get a better look. He then opened the door, got out, and stepped forebodingly back towards the grinning youth, who had evidently lost control of his skateboard and had swung his bag of junk food into O’Keefe’s car—coke dripped down the paint-work.
‘What the fuck . . .’ O’Keefe bellowed, uncoupling the buttons of his Francoise Raymon suit jacket and flexing his long fingers.
The teenager hopped off his skateboard and backed away.
‘Sorry, man; it was an accident,’ he said in a tremulous voice, clutching his leaking bag of junk food. The grin had vanished.
The next moment the youth turned and ran, probably the most intelligent thing he could have done given this company man’s current stress level and his exemplary stress-management skills. O’Keefe bent and lifted up the board and in a single, swift movement, he heaved it after the fleeing kid, puffing a little as the pressure boiled off. Calmly, he retrieved the same white cloth that he’d used for the cat’s blood and ran it over the spilled coke, watching from an oblique eye as the kid hesitatingly returned for his skateboard, like a timid bird pecking up thrown crumbs, ready to fly again at the first sign of danger. He thought about getting coffee, but checking again exactly which burger chain he was at, he thought better of it—he needed a clear mind to head off this trouble. He got back in the car.
Could Lona have known about the offer he’d made to Sentra? O’Keefe regretted making that rash proposal; the algorithm was a relic from the non-linear days, when everything had to follow Kraustein’s Law, before the Chinese had discovered ultra logic. Thank god those days were over, but what had he been thinking of by taking such a risk with a piece of junk. ‘Hardly,’ he concluded. ‘Lona could hardly have known about that regrettable manifestation of his avarice. The suits he had dealt with at Sentra had never seen him or got anything other than a coded pseudonym; he’d remained as incognito as Lord Lucan, and as soon as he realised that they weren’t buying he had disappeared. And his side of the business was covered, as usual: the only way Lona could have found out anything would have been by breaking into his home computer. Given his firewalls and passwords and Lona’s profound lack of imagination and technical know-how, that was an impossibility. He may be greedy but he wasn’t stupid. Lona, however, was yet a cunning woman—he may have talked in his sleep.
Norm Bitterman might know something about the ultra-algorithm trap which was being set by Ivanovich and his sentinels; O’Keefe called his number.
‘Norm, Mason O’Keefe; how’s things over at R and D this morning?’
‘Oh, Mister O’Keefe; pretty good thanks,’ Norm replied.
‘Mason; for God’s sake call me Mason, please. Anyway, Norm, I hear that you boys are throwing ultra logic at our data-mining fiasco.’ O’Keefe tested the water.
‘Christ, Mr. O’Keefe how did you know that?’ Norm blurted out. ‘It’s supposed to be . . . ah . . . top secret; if the Chinese get an inkling of what we’re up to, we’re dead . . .’
‘Yeh, yeh,’ O’Keefe interrupted. ‘What have you got? a new algorithm? or is it more cosmetic?’
‘An algorithm, yes,’ Norm said, in a hushed voice, as if the entire Chinese secret service were eavesdropping.
O’Keefe couldn’t push Norm as much as he could Smiley. Smiley was up to his armpits in dirty money, but not so Norm, whose only corruptible offence had been a sexual indiscretion he’d made while on a business trip with O’Keefe to the Far East. Norm had been there to talk formulas, boffin to boffin, but he’d done more than just scribble algebra with one particularly geeky Tokyo University graduate and Mason O’Keefe had had the foresight to digitise the evidence.
O’Keefe pushed again about the new ultra-algorithm; to which Norm said:
‘Yes, of course it’s good. I helped on the cascading binary-flows—ultra logic gets pretty tricky you know.’ He was gloating. ‘Anyway that last solution should be put in the museum as soon as we drop it; it was so shitty.’
O’Keefe hated the way geeks talked, in that whining, arcane gibberish that they pass off for communication. And why was this little prick bragging about something that doesn’t really exist. ‘Who is getting it for canvassing?’ he asked.
‘Oh, just your team Mr. O’Keefe; at least I think so. I might even be the one to talk you through it.’
Mason O’Keefe hung up on Norm, sickened by his adolescent-like prattling and his obvious double-crossing. Smiley Granger had sworn that Ivanovich didn’t know who the magpie was, but now Bitterman had just told him that the dummy would be coming his way. Why? And why wasn’t Bitterman telling him the truth when he knew the consequences of not doing so? And if Bitterman was right, then Granger must be . . . The intrigue was unravelling beyond the range of his professional eye.
Reflecting for a moment, O’Keefe asked himself why it was so surprising that Norm had gone against him. Turn the tables, Mason, what would you do, god forbid, if you were Norm Bitterman? Rein in my uncontrollable dick first off, he chuckled. And stick to pimply, pasty-faced girls—the kind you find hanging around computer fairs, exercising their uncontrollable, goofy laughter for the benefit of full-bloodied, sex-starved nerds. But besides that, he thought, he would probably also side with Ivanovich—if the price was right.
‘Shit,’ O’Keefe shouted, hitting himself on the forehead and screwing up his face. ‘Lona must have found out something about me and passed on a suspicion; now it’s too late to do anything about it. Why else would they make me the canvasser on this one?’
The question hung in the air as O’Keefe swerved into the outside lane, forcing the unfortunate driver of a family saloon festooned with disabled-driver stickers to brake hard. He ran the red paisley handkerchief along his glistening brow then stepped on the accelerator, determined to blow off more steam. Soon, however, he ran into a line of backed-up vehicles at a tollbooth and had to brake; when it was his turn to pass he threw the pre-paid ticket at the unfortunate toll-collector. The ticket fluttered to the ground as he sped away.
‘Marge,’ he said to himself, ‘that just leaves Marge.’
He selected her number from the menu of his mobile phone and pressed the dial button. Lona was a driven power-woman, the kind that eats nails for breakfast and suppers on iron filings. Marge was Lona’s shoulder to cry on, Lona’s soft spot.
‘GRV Customer Service Financial. Marge Mellor speaking.’
‘Hey, Marge, Mason here; can you speak?’
Marge confirmed in a deflated voice that she could and gave O’Keefe her private mobile phone number that he asked for. O’Keefe knew that the sentinels recorded all calls in and out of Customer Service Financial. He called back directly.
Marge was a new lever for O’Keefe; he’d never pulled her before, just kept her in the bank, so to speak.
‘Marge, how are you,’ he enquired but continued without waiting for a reply. ‘Have you talked to Lona recently?’
Unfortunately for Marge Mellor of Customer Service Financial, a respectable, married woman with two kids, she had slept with Mason O’Keefe—once. Or to be less euphemistic about her base, untamed behaviour, she’d had unbridled sex with him on the Paris Express, right under the English Channel, which wouldn’t have meant anything if it weren’t for the photographic evidence—in digital, 3.2 Megapixel resolution—and Marge certainly wasn’t asleep in any of the pictures. Marge knew about the photographs—she’d begged him to erase them often enough—but didn’t expect that O’Keefe would ever use them against her.
‘Lona? Yes of course; we talk all the time.’
O’Keefe slowly wheedled Marge for information, discovering piecemeal that, among other things, Lona was upset about him.
‘Did she say if the company was . . . eh . . . concerned about my . . . work?’
‘Mason, Why don’t you just ask her yourself,’ was Marge’s quick reply. Too quick.
‘Because, Marge . . . because this is a sensitive, delicate matter,’ O’Keefe was circling his prey, ‘almost as sensitive as certain digital pictures I have of someone aboard the Paris Express,’ he pounced for the kill.
The line died into silence, during which O’Keefe congratulated himself on such a deft execution of his work.
‘You bastard,’ she came back at him finally. It was an appellation that O’Keefe often answered to. ‘Great,’ he thought to himself, ‘now there’s an understanding.’
Marge was dumb—she wouldn’t have known a crypt from an algorithm, or a firewall from the Wall of Jericho (she worked in Customer Service Financial, after all), but she understood a threat when she heard one.
At first she tried to avoid answering his questions (a trick of her trade). But O’Keefe’s sixth sense (he called it the criminal sense) knew that she was aware of something and he relentlessly twisted the rope. At last the tension was too great and she snapped, admitting that Lona had mentioned something about O’Keefe’s corporate indiscretions. It transpired that Lona had picked up on a few of his lapses in company protocol and passed on a big hint that O’Keefe might need slapping back into line. Now the inner circle had his name on some kind of a blacklist. ‘Not bad,’ he thought, checking his watch, ‘just seven minutes to crack Marge Mellor of Customer Service Financial.’ He hung up and began to feel better.
Knowing where you stood, O’Keefe knew, was fundamental to winning at business and he now had all the information he needed to ascertain exactly where he stood—within the length of a coffin or two—and he felt much better for it, the best he’d felt all morning, in fact (besides that exhilarating moment when his wheels had run over the cat). He’d always believed that he could accomplish anything if he knew where he stood. What was industrial espionage all about anyway? Information: about your company, their company, your employees, theirs; what you knew about them and what you knew that they knew about you. Intelligence was the name of his game, and knowing where he stood amid all the corporate greed, lies, and deception was the key to winning at business.
O’Keefe eased into a guest parking space at Zorda Technologies, relieved that he wouldn’t have to take Lona to the meat packers. He wasn’t a killer; he was, at heart, a businessman. Killing for passion, honour, or revenge abhorred him; but killing used as a tool for conducting business—that he could accept. Or, at least, he used to accept—recently he’d been getting tired. Lona didn’t really deserve such a fate even if she had found out about some of his dirty secrets or had passed on more than a suspicion about him. So she was a company man after all, snitching on her lover for the good of the company (and her own career); but that was perfectly understandable to O’Keefe, whose own depraved evil made her behaviour look more like the antics of a school tell-tale. Despite her belief in the company and plain looks (not to mention her naked ambition), he’d grown to admire her over the months, like her even. What had she really done? It seemed little more than make a few people look his way, that was all. And she might even believe that he still loved her. Lona? he still liked Lona—she had been one of his most lucrative investments.
A blacklist implied corporate paranoia to O’Keefe; there must be other names besides his. The inner circle probably had nothing more on him than a hunch put their way by a jealous lover; and this silly set-up of Ivanovich’s with his phoney algorithm was like pissing in the wind: it would fly back and make the Ukrainian look foolish. But O’Keefe was pragmatic: he knew that his days of plundering GRV secrets were over. He knew that the sentinels had his name and would be following all his moves from now on. He might not even survive as a company man: they would probably take him down as a cost-cutting exercise—that, however, would be better than spending the next twelve years behind bars, with not even a Lona for companionship.
O’Keefe slowly rolled another cigarette and then, sucking a flame through its crisp end, gratified himself with a long inhalation of nicotine. He turned off the Vivaldi. Never mind, he’d been thinking about quitting anyway, hadn’t he? He could leave his stress-management skills at GRV Corp. and find somewhere to live out a care-free retirement; he was tired of being a company man; he needed a different kind of life.
He got out of his shiny, black car and closed the door, gently, producing nothing more than a soft click. The sun had at last dried the ground and he felt it beating down on his uncovered head. He stooped and exhaled a blue cloud of smoke against the tinted window; and as the jagged piece of iron slipped into the lock, he felt a sharp pain twisting through his chest. He pulled up and instinctively his right hand slammed into his heart. A strangled cry rasped through his smoker’s throat as Mason O’Keefe staggered back from his LX-A11.
© Paul S. Davey, 2017