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Marteen was a blackmailer, an extortioner--that was the truth, the truth that he would not let himself recognize. Her depredations probably had much wider scope than he guessed. He must save her from herself; he must somehow reach the submerged personality and awaken it to the hideousness of that other, the soulless, heartless automaton that schemed and executed crimes with mechanical exactitude.

He took a long breath of determination, and again grinned at the farce he was playing for his own benefit. Through repetition he was beginning to believe in the fiction of his former intimacy with Marteen. True, he had known him slightly, had once or twice snatched a hasty luncheon in his company at one of his clubs; but far from liking each other, the two men had been fundamentally antagonistic.

Neither was Dorothy an excuse for his peculiar state of mind. He was drawn to her with strong protective yearning. Her childlike beauty pleased him. He wished she were his daughter, or a little sister to pet and spoil. But it was not for her sake that he savagely longed to make the mother into something different, "remolded nearer to his heart's desire. He wished he knew. He found his mind divided, his emotions many and at cross purposes.

His keen, almost clairvoyant intuition was at fault for once. It sent no sure signal through the fog of his troubled heart. How would it all end? Ah, how would it end? He sensed the situation as one of climax. It could not quietly dissolve itself and be absorbed in the sea of time and forgotten commonplace. As an outlet for his mental discomfort, his restless spirit busied itself in hating Victor Mahr. He had always disliked the man; now he malignantly resented his very existence; Mahr became the personification of the thing he most wished to forget--the victimizing power of the woman who had enthralled him.

Gard had met the one element he could not control or change--the past; and his conquering soul raged at its own impotence. She will not 'be under obligations. Who are you, Marcus Gard, to cavil at the lust of conquest--to sneer at the controlling of destinies?

I'll search till I find the way to the citadel, and if there is none open, I'll smash one through! Martin Marteen requests the pleasure of Mr. Marcus Gard's company at dinner"--the usual engraved invitation, with below a girlish scrawl: "You'll come, won't you? It's my very last dinner before we go South. He took a stubby quill, which, for some occult reason, he preferred for his intimate correspondence, and scribbled: "Of course, little friend.

The crowned heads can wait. Two months had passed, and he was no nearer the solution of the problem he had set himself. His affection for the girl had deepened--become ratified by his experience of her sweetness and intelligence. They were "pally," as she put it, happily contented in each other's society. On the other hand, the fascination that Mrs. Marteen exercised over him was far from being placid enjoyment. She continued to vex his heart and irritate his imagination.

Her tolerance of young Mahr's attentions to Dorothy drove him distracted, his only relief being that Miss Gard, his sister, swayed, as always, by his slightest wish, had developed a most maternal delight in Dorothy's presence, and was doing all in her power to make the girl's season a most successful one; also, in accord with his obvious desire--her influence was antagonistic to Mahr, his son and his motor car, his house and his flowers, everything that was his; in spite of which, Dorothy's manner toward Teddy Mahr was undoubtedly one of encouragement.

Honesty compelled Gard to own that he could not find in the boy the echo of the objectionable sire. Perhaps the long dead mother, who was never a lawful wife, had, by some retributive turn of justice, endowed him wholly with her own qualities.

Gard could almost find it in his breast to like the big, large-hearted, gentle boy, but for a final irony of fate--the son's blind adoration of his father, and that father's obvious but helpless dislike of the impending romance. Every element of contradiction seemed to be present in the tangle and to bind the older watchers to silence.

What could anyone do or say? And meanwhile, in the pause before the storm, Dorothy's violet eyes smiled into her Teddy's brown devoted ones with tender approval. One move only had Gard made with success, and the doing thereof had given him supreme satisfaction. The account opened in his office in Mrs. Marteen's name had been transferred to Dorothy, and with such publicity that Mrs.

Marteen was unable to raise objections. Right and left he told the tale of his having desired to advise the widow of his old friend, of his successful operations, of Mrs. Marteen's refusal to accept her just gains as "too great," and his determination that the account, transferred to the daughter, should reach its proper destination. The first result of his outwitting of the beneficiary was a doubling of the usual letters inclosing a cheque and requesting advice. The secretary was plainly disgusted, but Gard grimly paid the price of his checkmate, and by his generosity certainly precluded any accusation of favoritism.

The bell of his private telephone rang--only his intimates had the number of that wire--and he raised the receiver with sudden conviction that the voice he would hear was Dorothy's. There was a little gurgle, and an obviously disguised voice replied:.

I felt it in my bones; it was a pleasurable sensation. This is the superintendent of the Old Ladies' Home, and we want autographed photographs of you for all the old ladies' dressers--to cheer them up, you know. To your apartment, I suppose. Is there anything else? Did you know that mother has been ordered off to Bermuda at once?

The doctor says she's dreadfully run down. She won't let me go with her. She wants me to do a lot of things; and then in three weeks we all go South. Mother's doctor says she mustn't wait. Isn't it a bore?

And Tante Lydia is coming to-day to chaperon me. Did you get my invitation? But do come in this afternoon and have tea; perhaps you could persuade her to stay a week there--she won't obey me. I'll drop in this afternoon. Good-by, my dear. He hung up the receiver and glowered. Marteen in the doctor's care! It gave him a distinct pang, and for the first time a feeling of protective tenderness. This instantly translated itself into a lavish order of violets, and a mental note to see that, her stateroom was made beautiful for her voyage.

Adding his signature to the pile of letters that Saunders handed him served to pass the moments till he could officially declare himself free for the day and be driven to the abode of the two beings who had so absorbed his interest. He found Mrs. Marteen reclining on a chaise-longue in her library-sitting room, the Pekinese spaniel in her lap and Dorothy by her side.

She looked weary, but not ill, and Gard felt a glow of comfort. Dorothy advised me of your impending journey, and led me to believe you were not well. But I am reassured--you do not seem a drooping flower. Marteen laughed. Couldn't you put it into a madrigal? It really is absurd, though, sending me off like this.

But they threatened me with nerves--fancy that--nerves! And never having had an attack of that sort, of course I'm terrified. I shall leave my butterfly in good hands, however. My sister is to take my place; and I sha'n't be gone long, you know. Marteen hesitated.

The Bermudian sails this week. If I cannot go then, and that is possible, I may take the Cecelia , and make the Caribbean trip. It's a little longer, but on my return I would join Dorothy and Mrs. Trevor, crossing directly from Bermuda to Florida. It's absurd, isn't it, to play the invalid! But insomnia is really getting its hold on me. A good sleep would be a novelty just now, and bromides depress me, so--there you are!

I suppose I must take the doctor's advice and my maid, and fly for my health's sake. In spite of the natural tone and her apparent frankness, Gard remained unconvinced. He could not have explained why. All his life he had found his intuitions superior to his logical deductions. They had led him to his present exalted position and had kept him there. No sooner had this inner self refused to accept Mrs.

Marteen's story than his mind began supplying reasons for her departure--and the very first held him spellbound. Was it another move in her perpetual game? Was she on the track of someone's secret? Was her scheming mind now following some new clew that must lead to the discovery of a hidden or forgotten crime--the burial place of some well entombed family skeleton? He shivered. Gard is cold, Dorothy.

Send for the tea, dear--or will you have something else? Really, you look like the patient who should seek climate and rest. It would be pleasant to have your society for so many weeks, uninterrupted and almost alone. I'll think of it--if I can arrange my affairs.

He had been watching her closely, and seemed to surprise in the depths of her eyes and the slow assuming of her impenetrable manner, that his suggestion was far from receiving approval. Everyone tells me the next few weeks will be crucial. Your presence may be needed in Washington.

She could afford to be pressing. More and more convinced of some ulterior motive in Mrs. Marteen's departure, his irritation made him gruff. Even Dorothy, seeing his ill-temper, retired to the far corner of the room, and eyed him with surprise above her embroidery.

Feeling the discord of his present mood, he rose to take his leave. He bowed himself out and, sore-hearted, sought the crowded solitude of the Metropolitan Club. His next move was characteristic. Having got Gordon on the wire, he requested as complete a list as possible of the passengers to sail by the Bermudian and the Cecelia. A new possibility had presented itself. That person might be sailing. If only he could accompany her, perhaps in the isolated world of a steamer's life, he might bring his will to bear--force from her a promise to cease from her pernicious activities, and an acceptance of his future aid in all financial matters--two things he had found it impossible to accomplish, or even propose, heretofore.

But she was right; the moment was critical, and his presence might be necessary in Washington at any moment. When, later that night, the lists were delivered at his home, he spent a throbbing half-hour. There were several possibilities. Allison was Bermuda bound; so was Morgan Beresford. Both had fortunes, a whispered past and ambitions. The Honorable Fortescue, the wealthy and impeccable Senator, the shining light of "practical politics," was Havana bound on the Cecelia , so was Max Brutgal, the many-millioned copper baron.

Allison he discarded as a possibility. He was sure that Mme. Robin Hood would disdain such an easy victim and refuse to hound one of her own sex. Looking over the list, he singled out Brutgal, if it were the Cecelia , and Beresford, if it were the Bermudian. Beresford was devoted to the lovely and somewhat severe Mrs. He might be more than willing to suppress some event in his patchwork past. Gard threw the lists from him angrily. After all, what right had he to interfere? What business of his was it which fly was elected to feed the spider?

He went to bed, and passed a sleepless night trying to determine, nevertheless, which was the doomed insect. He would have liked to prevent the ships from leaving the harbor, or invent a situation that would make it as impossible for Mrs. Marteen to leave as it was for him to accompany her. A few days later, when Mrs. Marteen finally announced her intention of departing on the longer cruise, Gard seriously contemplated a copper raid that would keep Brutgal at the ticker.

Then he as furiously abandoned the idea, washed his hands of the whole affair and did not go near Mrs. Marteen for three days. At the end of that time, having thoroughly punished himself, he relented, and continued to shower the lady with attentions until the very moment of her final leave taking.

He accompanied her to the steamer, saw her gasp of pleasure at the bower of violets prepared for her and formally accepted the post of sub-guardian to Dorothy. As the tugs dragged out the unwilling vessel from her berth, he caught a glimpse of Brutgal, his coarse, heavy face set off by an enormous sealskin collar, join Mrs. Marteen at the rail and bid blatantly for her attention. Gard turned his back, took Dorothy by the arm, and, in spite of her protestations, left the wharf.

His motor took Tante Lydia and Dorothy to their apartment, where he left them with many assurances of his desire to be of service. He sent a wireless message and was comforted. He wondered how, in the old days that were only yesterdays, people could have endured separation without any means of communication, and he blessed the name of Marconi as cordially as he cursed the name of Brutgal.

To exasperate him further, the rest of the day seemed obsessed by Victor Mahr. He was in the elevator that took him up to his office; he was at the club in the afternoon; he was a guest at the Chamber of Commerce banquet in the evening, and was placed opposite Marcus Gard. Despite his desire to let the man alone, he could not resist the temptation to talk with him.

Mahr, whatever else he might be, was no fool, and even as Gard seemed a prey to nervous irritation, so Mahr appeared to experience a bitter pleasure in parrying his adversary's vicious thrusts and lunging at every opening in the other's arguments.

Both men appeared to ease some inner turbulence, for they calmed down as the dinner progressed, and ended the evening in abstraction and silence, broken as they parted by Gard's sudden question:. One day of restlessness succeeded another. Ill at ease, Gard felt himself waiting--for what? It was the strain of anxiety, such as a miner feels deep in the heart of the earth, knowing that far down the black corridor the dynamite has been placed and the fuse laid.

Why was the expected explosion delayed? One must not go forward to learn. One must sit still and wait. A thousand times he asked himself the meaning of this latent dread. He set it down to his suspicions of Mrs. Marteen's departure. Then why this fibril anxiety never to be long beyond call?

Surely, and the demon in his brain laughed with amusement, he did not expect her to send him a cryptic wireless--"Everything arranged; operation a success; appendix removed without opposition," or "Patient unmanageable; must use anesthetic.

Four days had passed, four miserable days, relieved only by a few pleasant hours with Dorothy and the enjoyment he always found in watching her keen delight in every entertainment. He went everywhere, where he felt sure of seeing her, and could he have removed Teddy Mahr from the obviously reserved place at Dorothy's side, he could have enjoyed those moments without the undercurrent of his troubled fears.

That Mahr was rebelliously angry at the situation was evident. Gard had seen the look in his eyes on more than one occasion, and it boded evil to someone. What had he meant when he spoke of his son's probable absence of a year or more "to study the lumber business"? Gard approached the young man and found him quite innocent of any such plan. Dorothy, when questioned, blushed and smiled and evaded, assuring Gard that of all the men she had met that season he alone came up to her ideal, and employed every artifice a woman uses between the ages of nine and ninety, when she does not want to give an answer that answers.

The very character of her replies, however, convinced Gard that there was more than a passing interest in her preference. There was something sweetly ingenuous in her evasions, a softness in her violet eyes at the mention of Teddy's prosaic name that was not to be misunderstood. Gard sighed. Still the sense of impending danger oppressed him. He found himself neglectful of his many and vital interests.

He took himself severely in hand, and set himself to unrelenting work, fixing his attention on the matters in hand as if he would drive a nail through them. Heavy circles appeared under his eyes, and the lines from nose to chin sharpened perceptibly. More than ever he looked the eagle, stern and remote, capable of daring the very sun in high ambitious flight, or of sudden and death-dealing descent; but deep in his heart fear had entered.

Oh, good morning. Is that you, Teddy? Yes, you did wake me up--but I'm very glad. Half past ten? You called me at half past eight--day before yesterday--Why, of course--I know that--but you did just the same. Why, yes, I'd love to. What time to-morrow? That will be jolly; but do have the wind-shield--I hate to be blown out of the car--no, it isn't becoming--You're a goose!

No, I haven't had a word from mother, and I don't understand it at all. She might have sent me a wireless. Yes, I'm awfully lonely--who wouldn't miss her? Well, I can't, positively, to-day--to-morrow, at three; and I'll be ready--yes, really ready. Dorothy hung up the receiver, yawned as daintily as a Persian kitten, rubbed her eyes and rang the maid's bell. She smiled happily at the golden sunlight that crept through the slit of the drawn pink curtains.

Dorothy swung her little white feet from under the covers and crinkled her toes delightedly ere she thrust them in the cozy satin slippers that awaited them; a negligee to match, with little dangling bunches of blue flower buds, she threw over her shoulders with a delicate shiver, as the maid closed the window and admitted the full light of day.

Hopping on one foot by way of waking up exercises, she crossed to the dressing-table, dabbed a brush at her touseled hair, then concealed it under a fluffy boudoir cap. She paused to innocently admire her reflection in the silver rimmed mirror, turning her head from side to side, the better to observe the lace frills and twisted ribbons of her coiffe. Breakfast arrived, steaming on its little white and chintz tray, and Dorothy smacked hungry lips. I'm starved! But her loneliness was not for long.

An avalanche of Aunt Lydia entered the room, quite filling it with her fluttering presence. I've had my breakfast ages ago--indeed, yes--and seen the housekeeper, and ordered everything. It was shockingly late when we got in last night, my dear. I really hadn't a notion it was after three, till you came after me into the conservatory.

That was a delightful affair last night, I must say, even if Mrs. May is so loud. She isn't stingy in the way she entertains, like Mrs. Best's, where we were Wednesday. That was positively a shabby business. Now, dear, what do we do to-day? I've just looked over my calendar, and I want to see yours.

Really, we are so crowded that we've got to cut something out--we really have. Then I can go to the Caldens for bridge in the afternoon at four. That'll do very nicely. And then, dear, about my dress at Bendel's; I do wish you could find a minute to see my fitting.

I can't tell whether I ought to have that mauve so near my face, or whether it ought to be pink; and you know that fitter doesn't care how I look, just so she gets that gown of her hands, and I can't make up my mind--when I can't see myself at a distance from myself, and those fitting rooms are so small! Dorothy paused in the midst of a bite. Mellows pouted fat pink lips, and looked more than ever an elderly infant about to burst into tears. I only wish to look well for your sake.

I have no vanity--why should I have? It's only my desire to be presentable on your account. Dorothy leaped from the divan, to the imminent danger of the breakfast tray. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, and, besides, you know you are the really, truly belle of the ball.

Why, you bad thing! Where were you all last evening? Didn't I have to go after you--and into the conservatory, at that! And what did I find, pray--you and a beautiful white-haired beau, with a goatee! And now you say you are only dressing for me --Oh, fie! The chaperon was mollified and flattered. Dorothy snipped a bit of toast in her aunt's direction.

There are first aids to beauty, you know--and a very nice rouge can be had--". What are you saying, and what are young girls coming to! At your age, I'd never heard the word, no, indeed. And, besides, my love, it is indecorous of you to address me as 'Lydia. Her charge giggled joyously. You aren't one day older than I am, not a day.

If you were, you wouldn't care whether it was mauve or pink--nor flirt in the conservatories. Mellows' belated exclamation. The insistent call of the telephone arrested the conversation. Dorothy took up the receiver, and Aunt Lydia became all attention. Dorothy went on talking, carefully refraining from any mention of names. No, I'm not going out just yet--not in this get up.

What color? Pink-- and a lace cap--a duck of a lace cap. All right, you're forgiven. I'm busy all day-- all, all day--yes, and this evening. No, orchids won't go with my gown to-night--don't be silly--of course, gardenias go with everything, but--now, what nonsense! Now, listen to me--". A tap at the door, and Aunt Lydia, hypnotized as she was by the telephone conversation, had presence of mind enough to open the door and receive a square box tied with purple ribbon.

She dexterously untied the loose bow knot, and withdrew from its tissue wrappings, a fragrant bouquet of violets. An envelope enclosing a card fell to the floor. With suppleness hardly to be expected from one of her years, she stooped to pick it up, and in a twinkling had the donor's name before her. Dorothy hung up the receiver and turned. Of course, I knew all along that it was Teddy Mahr--I guessed--why not? Really, Dorothy, you misinterpret my interest in you, really, you do.

Dorothy laughed. Here, I'll divide with you. If you do, I'll tell Mother about all your flirtations the minute she gets back--I will, too! Mellows, her apple-pink face becoming suddenly serious, "I don't understand why we haven't had any news from your mother, really, I don't. She might have sent us just a wireless or something.

We might get the company, and find out if any other messages have been received from her. Suppose you do find out. Dorothy turned to the telephone and made her inquiry. Well, that does relieve one's mind. It isn't because she's ill, or anything like that. Now, Aunt Lydia, that's my mail. Indeed, I think you are positively insulting to me! Here, that's from your cousin Euphemia, I know her hand; and that's just a circular, I'm sure--and Tappe's bill.

My dear, you've been perfectly foolish about hats this winter. This is a handwriting I don't know, but it's smart stationery--and, dear me, look at all these little cards. I really don't see how the postman bothers to see that they're all delivered; they're such little slippery things--more teas--and bridge. She turned at the door, "You're a rude little girl, and I shan't count on you to go to Bendel's.

If you want me, I'll be here from half past two to four, when I go for bridge. Dorothy suffered herself to be dressed as she opened her mail. Aunt Lydia had diagnosed it with almost psychic exactness, and its mystery had ceased to be interesting. Last of all she opened a plain envelope with typewritten directions. The enclosure, also typewritten, gave a first impression of an announcement of a special sale, or request for assistance from some charitable organization.

Idly she glanced at it, flipped it over, and found it to be unsigned. A word or two caught her attention. She turned back, and read:. The words danced before Dorothy's eyes, a sudden stopping of the heart, a hot flush, a painful dizziness that was at once physical and mental, made her clutch at the table for support.

She dropped the letter, and stood staring at it, fascinated, as in a nightmare. An anonymous letter, a cruel, hateful, wicked atrocity! Why should she receive such a thing? It couldn't be so. She had misread, misunderstood.

She picked up the message and looked at it again. It was surely intended for her, there could be no mistake. Then fear came upon her. The abrupt entrance of the maid, carrying her hat and veil, gave her a spasm of panic. No one must see, no one must know. The wretched sender of this hideous libel must believe it ignored--never received. She thrust the paper hastily into the bosom of her dress. Its very contact seemed to burn. I--I have some notes to write; don't bother me now.

Her voice sounded strange. She glanced quickly at the maid, fearing to surprise a look of suspicion. It seemed impossible that that cracked voice of hers would pass unnoticed. But the maid bowed, carefully placed a pair of white gloves by the hat and jacket, and went out as if nothing had happened. Dorothy, left alone, stood still for a moment as if robbed of all volition. Then, with a suppressed cry, she dragged out the accusing document and carried it to the light.

Who could do such a thing! Who would be such a lying coward! Her helplessness made her rage. Oh, to be able to confront this traducer, this libeler. To see him punished, to tell him to his face what she thought of him I Somewhere he was in the world, laughing to himself in the safety of his namelessness--knowing her futile anger and indignation--satisfied to have shamed and insulted her--and her mother--her great, resourceful, splendid mother, away and ill when this dastardly attack was made.

Impulsively she turned to run to her aunt, and lay the matter before her, but paused and sat down on the little chair before her writing desk. Covering her eyes with her clenched hands she tried to think. Tante Lydia was worse than useless, scatterbrained, self-centered, incapable.

What would she do? Lament and call all her friends in conclave; send in the police; acknowledge her fright, and give this nameless writer the satisfaction of knowing that his shaft had found its mark? Teddy would come to her at once. But what could he do? Sympathy was not what she wanted; it was support and guidance. With a trembling hand she smoothed the paper before her and, controlling herself, reread every word with minutest care. But this third perusal left her more at sea than before.

What did this enmity mean? What could have incited it? Why did this wretch give her such minute instructions? She knew of no safe in the library--could it be just possible that such a thing did exist? Could it be possible that this liar had obtained knowledge of her mother's private affairs to such an extent that he knew of facts that had remained unknown even to her?

A new cause for fear loomed before her. Had this venomous enemy access to the house? Was he able to come and go at will, ferreting out its secrets? Dorothy turned about quickly, almost expecting to see some sinister shadow leering at her from the doorway, or disappearing into the wardrobe. Her terror had something in it of childish nightmare. Acting as if under a spell of compulsion, she rose and tiptoed to the door. She looked down the hall, and found it empty. The querulous voice of Mrs.

Mellows came to her, raised in complaint against hooked-behind dresses. Like a lovely little ghost she flitted down the corridor to the library, paused for an instant with a beating heart, and, entering, closed the door with infinite precautions and shot the bolt. She was panting as if from some painful exertion. Her hands were damp and chill, her temples throbbed. The room seemed strange, close shuttered and silent, as if it sheltered the silent, unresponsive dead.

The air was oppressive, and the light that filtered through the dim blinds was vague and uncanny. It was some moments before she felt herself under sufficient control to cross by the big Jacobean table, and face the hooded fireplace--"to the left, the second panel. To all appearances it was reassuringly the same as all the others. Gently she pushed it right and left, then up and down, but her pressure was so slight and nervous that it did not stir the heavy wood.

She breathed a great sigh of relief, and beginning now to believe herself the victim of some cruel hoax, she dared a firmer pressure. The panel responded--moved--slid slowly behind its fellow--revealing the steel muzzle of a safe let into the solid masonry. It seemed the result of some evil witchcraft; her blood chilled. Yet, with renewed eagerness, she turned the combination. She did not need to refer to the letter, she knew it by heart--the numbers were seared there.

The heavy door swung outward. Within she saw well-remembered cases of velvet and morocco. Sliding her finger along the inner frame of the safe, she felt a knob, and pressed it. One side of the receptacle clicked open, revealing an inner compartment.

Then panic seized her. She could never recall shutting the safe door and replacing the panel, the movements were automatic. She was out of the library and running down the corridor before she realized it. Once more in the sanctuary of her own room, she threw herself upon the bed, buried her face in the tumbled pillow and gasped for breath. Suddenly she sat up. The tears dried upon her curved lashes.

Of course, of course--Mr. Gard, her friend, her mother's friend. The very thought of him steadied her. The terrified child of her untried self, vanished before the coming of a new and active womanhood. She thought quickly and clearly. She would go there at once--cancelling her luncheon engagement on the ground of some simple ailment. Tante Lydia must not know. Once let Gard, with his master grip, control the situation, and she would feel safe as in a walled castle strongly defended.

A tower of strength--a tower of strength. She felt as if, from afar, her mother had counseled her. She would go to him. It was the right thing, the only thing to do. The morning of the fifth day since Mrs. Marteen's departure found Gard in early consultation in the directors' room of his Wall Street office, facing a board of directors with but one opinion--he must go at once to Washington.

Strangely enough, the plan met with stubborn resistance from his inner self. There was every reason for his going, but he did not want to go. His advisers and fellow directors looked in amazement as they saw him hesitate, and for once the Great Man was at a loss to explain.

He knew, and they knew, that there was nothing that should detain him, nothing that could by any twist be construed into a valid excuse for refusal. He amazed himself and them by abruptly rising from his seat, bunching the muscles of his jaw in evident antagonism and hurling at them his ultimatum in a voice of defiance. The situation requires it. But I ask you to name someone else--the vice-president, and you, Corrighan--in case something arises to prevent my leaving the city.

Gard, no one can take your place. It's the penalty, perhaps, of being what and who you are, but the honor of your responsibilities demands it. There is more at stake than your own interests, or the interest of your friends. There's the public, your stockholders.

You owe it to them and to yourself to shoulder this responsibility without any 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts. Gard turned as if to rend him. But--and there is a but--gentlemen, you must select another delegate, or delegation, in case circumstances arise--". Denning's voice interrupted from the end of the table.

Sudden death. The contingency I speak of is very remote--if it is a contingency at all. But I must be frank. I cannot have you take my enforced absence, if such should be necessary, as defalcation or a shirking of my duty--so I warn you. I do not think we can improve on the president's suggestion, but," and he turned to Gard sternly, "I trust the contingency is so remote that we may consider it an impossibility for all our sakes, and your own. Gard did not answer.

In silence he heard the motion carried, and silently and without his usual affability he turned and left the room. The others eyed each other with open discomfiture. A very puzzled and uneasy group dispersed before the tall marble office building, while in his own private office Gard paced the floor, from time to time punching the open palm of his left hand with the clenched fist of his right, in fury at himself.

What is it? He wouldn't give his message--said you'd want to see him in private; so I ventured--". He stopped short. He felt the mysterious dread from which he had suffered to be shaping itself from the darkness of uncertainty. Gard," came the quiet voice of the detective, "I've a piece of information, that, from what you told me the other day, I thought might interest you.

I have found out that Mr. Mahr is making every effort to find out the combination of Mrs. Marteen's private safe. I learned it from one of the men in the Cole agency. Mahr didn't come to us. I'm not betraying any trust, you see. It was Balling, one of the cleverest men they've got, but he drinks.

I was out with him last night, and he let it out; he said it was the rummiest job they'd had in a long day, and that his chief wouldn't have taken it, but he had a lot of commissions from Mahr, and I guess, besides, he gave some reason for wanting it that sort of squared him. Anyhow, that's how it stands. They know the make, and they've got access to the company's books, and the company's people, and if she hasn't changed the combination lately, they'll land that all right.

I tried to find out if they'd put anyone into the apartment, but Balling sobered up a bit by that time and shut down on the talk. But it's dollars to doughnuts he's after something, and they've put a flattie around somewhere. Of course I don't know how this frames up with what you told me about young Mahr, but I thought you might dope it out, perhaps. Thank you. Now I put you on this officially. Find out for me, if you can, if they have put anyone in the house.

Find out what they're after. Anything at all that concerns this matter is of interest to me. Put a man to shadow Balling; have a watch put on anyone you think is acting for Mahr. I will take it upon myself to have the combination changed. I'll send a message to Mrs. Brencherly shook his head. It's an even chance Mr. Mahr would have any messages reported.

He could, you know; he's a pretty important stockholder in the transmission companies. You'd better have a watchman or an alarm attachment on the safe, if you can. Gard sat silent. He was reasoning out the motive of Mahr's move.

Did Mrs. Marteen still retain evidence against him which he was anxious to obtain during her absence? It seemed the obvious conclusion, and yet there was the possibility that Mahr contemplated vengeance, that in the safe he hoped to obtain evidence against Mrs.

Marteen herself that would put her into his hands. On the whole, that seemed the most likely explanation, and one that offered such possibilities that he ground his teeth. He was roused from his reverie by Brencherly's hesitating voice. Gard, I'd better go at once. I want to get a trailer after Balling, and if I'm a good guesser, we haven't any time to lose.

I was thinking what precautions had best be taken at Mrs. Marteen's home. I'll plan that--you do the rest. The telephone bell on the table rang sharply. Gard took down the receiver absently, but the voice that trembled over the wire startled him like an electric shock. It was Dorothy's, but changed almost beyond recognition, a frightened, uncertain little treble.

Gard, can I see you right away? Of course; I'm at your service always. A moment later Dorothy entered. Her face was pale and her eyes seemed doubled in size. She sat down in the chair he advanced for her, as if no longer able to stand erect, gave a little gasp and burst into tears. Tell me! She continued to sob, but reaching blindly for his hand, seemed to find encouragement and assurance in his firm clasp.

At last she steadied herself, wiped her eyes and faced him. Read it--read it! He picked up the envelope. It was directed to Dorothy in typewritten characters. The paper was of the cheapest. He withdrew the enclosure, closely covered with typewriting, glanced over the four pages and turned to the end. Then he read through. Gard crushed the letter in his hand in a frenzy of fury. So this--this was Mahr's objective, this the cowardly vengeance his despicable mind had evolved!

He would strike his enemy through the heart of a child--he would humiliate the girl so that, with shame and horror, she would turn away from all that life held for her! He knew that if the bolt found lodgment in her heart she would consider herself a thing too low, too smirched, to face her world. The marriage, that Mahr feared and hated, would never take place.

Doubtless that evidence which Mrs. Marteen had once wielded was now in his possession and with all precautions taken he was fearless of any retaliation. The obscurity and exile he suggested would be sought as the only issue from intolerable conditions. No, no, a thousand times no!

Mahr had leveled his stroke at a defenseless girl, but the weapon that should parry it would be wielded by a man's strong arm, backed by all the resources of brain and wealth. As these thoughts raced through his mind, he had been standing erect and silent, his eyes staring at the paper that crackled in his clenched fist. Dorothy's voice sounded far away repeating something.

It was not till a strange hysterical note crept into her voice that he realized what she was saying. Why, nothing, my dear. It's a damnable, treacherous snake-in-the-grass lie! Shake it out of your pretty head, and leave me to trace this thing and deal with the scoundrel who wrote it; and I'll promise you, my dear, that it will be such punishment as will satisfy me --and I am not easily satisfied.

Dorothy rose from the table. Gard," she whispered, "you won't think badly of me, will you, if I tell you something? And you will believe it wasn't because I believed one word of that detestable thing that I did what I did--you promise me that? He could feel his face grow ashen, but his voice was very gentle. Of course I know you couldn't have noticed such a vile slander. What do you want to tell me? I wanted to see how much they really knew.

I never heard mother speak of the safe in the library. I didn't want to speak to Tante Lydia. Gard's heart stood still. Then I was so terrified that anyone--a wicked person like that--could know so much about things in our house--I slammed it shut and ran away. I could not stay in the house another minute. I felt as if I were suffocating. The sigh that he drew was one of immeasurable relief. But I'm greatly troubled about what you tell me, about your having opened the safe.

I want you to come with me now. Is your aunt home? Well, I'll telephone my sister to call for her and take her out somewhere. Then we'll return, and I will take all the responsibility of what I think it's best to do. One thing is quite evident: your mother's valuables are not safe, if they haven't already been tampered with and stolen. You see--well, I'll explain as we go. I'll get rid of Mrs. Mellows first. A few telephone calls arranged matters, and a message brought his motor from its neighboring waiting place.

One is, that this anonymous person is mad. In that case, we can't take too many precautions. The ingenuity of the insane is proverbial. Then, this may be a vicious vengeance; someone who hates your splendid mother, and would hurt her through you.

Naturally, this led to some pretty severe languagebased conflicts with customers. The end result was an angry customer screaming at the confused FSP, who knew terrible things would happen at the hands of the Evil Twins if he or she started screaming French obscenities at the asshole. The rest of us tried to be nice to the FSPs, sneaking them beers from the walk-in fridge and so on, but we knew any attempt to turn the Evil Twins in to The Man would be fruitless; it was clear that the proper hands had been greased, and there were dark rumors about the Twins providing sexual services for officials at the French Consulate in Los Angeles and even the Newport Beach cops.

It all seemed quite plausible. Parents mostly boozed up, in jail, missing teeth and tinfoil on the TV antenna in the Huntington Beach Aztec Tacoburger dingbat apartment building. Her days flew by in a whirl of pizza toppings, bong hits in the parking lot, and half-C-note humps with coworkers on the green corduroy couch at her place at Park West.

California Potato Chips the crackly circles of dried schtup juice that result from postcoital drips on the rough fabric of a thrift-store couch would flake off and be replenished as the old springs took another 30 seconds of abuse from the thrustings of a year-old pizza cashier. I tried to stay out on the road as much as possible during my delivery shifts, as the scene at Colonel Sausage could be depressing if not soul-damaging.

Beaten-down sorry bastards toiling under the wicked verbal lash of the Evil Twins, or facing hordes of assholistic customers at the counter or on the phone. I gave my coworkers an Employee Discount on my wares, figuring a good high might help make the drudgery tolerable.

Chapter Six At this time, I had a regular girlfriend. Violet Tran, born on a shrimp trawler full of refugees in the South China Sea. Schoolteacher parents fleeing the Cong death camps or some such grim s One of those boring stories involving terrible wrongs committed by guys with AKs and floppy camo hats. Raised in Garden Grove, attending Chapman College on a volleyball scholarship, of all things.

Mama-san would beam approvingly. What a nice American boy, to humor crazy lonely old Papa-san and take daughter-san out for some homework assistance. She hated surfers, fancying herself more of a crypto-goth Angry Chick. Although I am technically a tall, blond-haired, suntanned Southern California white boy, perhaps vaguely resembling a surfer if the observer squints or has a head injury, I got my tan lounging on vinyl lawn furniture in the backyard while sipping very non-surfer Whiskey Sours and reading extremely non-surfer Russian novels.

After a few months, I realized that her conception of what made up a Surfer was, in her own dim marsupial way, a fairly interesting mental construct and perhaps worth more study. The more I thought about the massive disconnect between the surfer reality surrounding her and her conception of it, the more fascinated I became. As she was a loadie supreme and I was the Dope Man, I knew we could work something out. While stuck between deliveries I imagined a plan- a cruel one-act surfer drama with her as unknowing participant- that would be one of my finest pieces yet.

One warm evening, with the brown sunset sinking into the petrochemical horizon and the Econoline idling in the Col. Sausage lot, I called her over to the car as she left her shift. Producing a pinecone-sized bud of Hayward Haywire and drawing it under my nose like a plutocrat applying a sneef to a fine cigar, I suggested that perhaps we might find a satisfactory arrangement. The early 60s are gone. My Little Surfer Girl fantasy. Ah, my little possum, just you wait.

Even I, with my legendary Iron Head, was a little scared of the stuff. I had her. Hallowed traditions, passed down from generation to generation. Rituals and secret languages. I began noticing Charlene a bit more during this time, too- I mean noticing her in a malefemale sort of way- especially her nice, fully-packed round ass and small waist. I had always been aware of her in a pussy-hound-type way, of course, but I tried to avoid slipping the meat to customers. Business with pleasure and all that.

I knew she was thinking along those lines as well, but there were some weird pride issues on both sides and, as it turned out, some dark better-left-unexplored rooms in her basement. I was beginning to view my visits to her place as more of a social event, a chance to kick up my feet on her coffee table, suck down a few Pacifico Claros, pack the four-footer with my finest dealer-quality weed, and shoot the s with her for a few hours before rolling home.

Sure, she was full of s and coasting on a fat layer of grease provided by her trust fund and god-knows-what-other-sources-of-income, but she did it with such style, a sense of entitlement, that I shed most of the contempt I had once harbored for her. Naturally, all this took place to a young-urban-nihilist soundtrack of vintage Throbbing Gristle and Negativland on her high-end audio system.

I even told her about my exploits with Possum Girl. Charlene was impressed and more than a little excited by it. She looked at me with new respect for having put Possum Girl through the sexual wringer like I had; that kind of stuff was right up her alley. After a few more drinks, I even told her about my latest evening with Violet, since we were on the subject. Yeah, all five of them, I thought, smirking, but I said nothing.

What they want seems to be a sort of role reversal from their everyday lives, which involve pissing all over the poor fers under them in the office. An occupational hazard of the stoner lifestyle. Now, these same boss-types often feel the need to be humiliated in a sexual-type way by someone, as the abstract idea of being on the receiving end of such humiliation seems exciting to them.

A Lexus. A new cleaning system for the pool. Or a few hours at the receiving end of the whip of Mistress Carlotta. Plenty of suspension of disbelief is required for my client to enjoy himself; both of us have to kind of half-squint and do a lot of pretending. Once there, I could see what she meant about suspension of disbelief. But I was starting to get some ideas. And that cuts into my bottom line. In my superstoned state I was sure I could smell that poozle.

It smelled good, like what you smell when you stick your face into a jar of fresh pennies and take a big whiff of copper. To paraphrase Hank Williams, I was getting ready to start howling at the moon. She laughed politely, no doubt sensing an extra charge to the air. I could see her eyes darting around nervously; she was thinking about offering me a sample of what she gave her clients, just for laughs of course. Back to business. Like you recreate his cubicle world, complete with ringing phones, photos of triple-chinned offspring gnawing dispiritedly on corndogs at a urine-soaked waterslide park, and the stench of microwave popcorn?

I was imagining how much fun it would be to set up such a place. And, I admit, I may have had an inkling that this scheme might result in us making a buck or two. We headed back upstairs, to settle down on the couch for some serious discussion. We need to rent some actual office space somewhere cheap, and furnish it with real office furniture. Clocks on the wall. Beige carpeting. You know, get the phones to ring. Maybe pay some folks to sit at the desks wearing depressing office clothes and… look busy.

Whatever it is they actually do in offices. This project would almost certainly provide me with ten grand worth of entertainment, plus I figured I could probably use the office as an additional dope-dealing front if nothing else. I had a personal engagement set up for the following night. I hung a few leis and shark-tooth necklaces here and there, then sprinkled a bag of sand around for that extra bit of realism.

Two fists full of gnarly biker rings, with the classic chrome skull-and-eagle iconography of the genre, and a fresh Huntington Beach skinhead shave job completed the look. I felt like an evil Don Ho. I thought about maybe a phony skinhead tatt, maybe a Palmdale Peckerwoods prison job executed in crude blue Sharpie pen, but figured that would muddy up the image to the extent that even Possum Girl would become confused.

No need to overpaint, I figured, and anyway the idea that tattooed white supremacists were fhead losers may have penetrated even her thick skull. The plan called for a generous helping of reefer smoke and groaning Econoline springs. In order to avoid the embarrassment of Johnny Law intruding on our festivities, I needed a private venue.

Unfurling the bag, allowing it to unroll in a masterly Dope Kingpin fashion, I whiffed the open end beneath her nose as she huffed into the van. I wiggled it enticingly, first up and down and then side to side. Ideally, I was shooting for one of those grim three-story 70s buildings favored by on-theskids attorneys and bloody-handprints-on-the-walls alcoholic dentists. Walls made of sagging sheetrock and every surface encrusted with an adobe-like layer of cheap paint.

The place where employees spent their ostensibly free time, while praying hopelessly for a painless death and end of the grim treadmill of their working lives. I was quite picky about the Break Room for the Office of Torment; it would have to be simultaneously dingy yet brightly illuminated with a pitiless will-to-live-leaching glare. It needed cupboards with crooked, squeaky-hinged doors, an undersized microwave oven caked with years of pork-based Instant Lunch schmutz, and a buzzing refrigerator.

Finally, I found the ideal place. An entire floor of a small office building near John Wayne Airport. A pretty expensive area, but the proximity of the General Electric jetengine repair facility, with its screaming turbofans and keronese jet-fuel smell, kept the high-rent tenants away from this particular building, which meant it had never been renovated.

The landlord was a greedy little bastard who took one look at the wad of hundreds I whipped out and became quite agreeable about giving us the privacy we needed for our up-and-coming business and skipping all of that unpleasant paperwork. Cracked up all my friends with my rants about the Sux-M-Owt: Say goodbye to old-fashioned finger-down-the-throat remedies, folks! No more harsh emetics or costly trips to the emergency room when your child drinks a bottle of iodine or eats the roach poison!

Just plug in the Sux-M-Owt and let the hissing chrome probe suck your troubles away! I figured a half-dozen French Pizza Slaves would be just about ideal for our purposes. But I figured it was time for me to try something different, and I figured the Office of Torment scheme had real potential. Truth be told, I was somewhat afraid of the Twins, and was dreading this day of reckoning.

But I had a plan. That would be my way of turning in my notice of resignation. Explaining the deal with Sux-M-Owt, I recruited seven of them, three male, four female, to spend the rest of the summer as proud Sux-M-Owt employees; the rest waved happily as they burned shoe leather sprinting into the International Terminal at LAX.

We drove away into a glorious chocolate-colored Inglewood sunset. Getting back to the new offices of Sux-M-Owt, Incorporated, I set up the staff on cots in a pair of server rooms toward the rear of the office.

They had a refrigerator full of beer and microwave cuisine, a brand-new U. Transportation, dope, beer, entertainment, and food. What else would they need? I could think of nothing. It was getting late, so I headed out. Every cop in the area knew my van from years of pizza driving; the vehicle had become a normal part of the background, like smog, and I was usually able to maintain a pleasant cloak of invisibility while behind its wheel.

After I came to a stop, the cop strolled up and leaned against the van, his 9-cell Mag-Lite pointed straight into my eyes. He seemed angry. Oh, s! Sitting on my cuffed hands, I fumed as Aurore smiled ominously at me through the wire-mesh screen separating the back seat from the front. Just wait! She fired up a Marlboro and blew a streamer of smoke out the window as we roared away from my van.

At least, I hoped the Twins believed in the Vagos connection. The Caprice blasted into the Colonel Sausage parking lot. The place was closed for the night; the neon sign featuring a huge sausage sporting a handlebar mustache and a Confederate uniform was out and the dumpsters were locked tight to prevent the homeless from scrounging a free pizza meal.

Officer Thugg popped the back door, grabbed my collar, and hauled me out of the car. Smiling in her evil way. They hustled me through the restaurant and into the walk-in freezer. Officer Thugg hulked in the doorway, flexing his muscles and fondling the Mag-Lite like he really wanted to beat me into a fine red mist with it.

His walkie-talkie crackled, sputtered. You too, Aurore. My lawyer will grind you up like diseased hamburger. Thugg, I think we know the best way to teach our friend a lesson. Before I could object, she had me by the shirt front and was slicing my shirt away. Apparently they approved of what they saw.

They will hate you for it. Thugg, hauled me out to the Caprice, still in my damp boxers, and shoved me into the back seat. Dumped me onto the pavement next to my van and burned rubber into the night. On the face of it, a dreadful experience that left me shaken and angry… but a price that had to be paid to get Sux-M-Owt, otherwise known as Torment, Incorporated, off the ground.

In fact, I felt positively entrepreneurial, the bad taste of my shameful experience in the Colonel Sausage walk-in freezer fading from my mouth. In the elevator, I observed with approval the oppressive, threatening ambience of its dim green fluorescent bulb, which flickered and buzzed as the decrepit elevator wheezed and lurched its way up to our floor.

A client would doubtless feel a delicious sense of foreboding as he ascended toward his fate at the hands of Charlene, President of Torment, Incorporated. I hit the reception office of Torment, Inc. The smell of Mexican chow and reefer wafted from the break room as ex-FPSs whooped it up on their first night of freedom from the clutches of Colonel Sausage and the Evil Twins.

I headed over to the breakroom and poked my head in the doorway. A huge pyramid of empty beer cans was stacked on the break room table; several ex-FSPs were passed out on the linoleum from burrito-and-beer overindulgence.

I could see that staff morale was high. Sure enough, she was sitting behind the big oak boss-quality desk, applying purple polish to her toenails and nipping at a glass of red wine. She smiled pleasantly as I entered the room. I paused. She had an unerring sense for such things.

She looked eager, excited. I thought, but kept my cool. Those poor fers are scared sless of the Twins. The dilettante trustifarian I had known just weeks ago was starting to live the dream of being Mistress Carlotta for real. I backed toward the office door and turned to go. Once I got downstairs, I sprinted to the Econoline. She wanted me, I wanted her. Thus began the circling, wary dance we would do around each other for the next year. Chapter Nine Even with the new tension between us, Charlene and I proved skilled and efficient managers of our new business.

The smell of microwave popcorn. Cans of Diet Coke on desks. Photos of children and pets. There was one crucial difference, however. At Torment, Incorporated, the tough-minded manager, so used to asserting his will over the poor saps below him, would be working for an even tougher boss: Charlene Cabrillo, President of the Torment, Incorporated empire I persuaded her to ditch the stupid Mistress Carlotta name and go with her real one.

She got a couple of her regulars from the Mistress Carlotta days to come in, they told their friends, and within two weeks we had dozens of the bastards clamoring to be part of the Torment, Incorporated team; it got so we had to turn potential clients away because the office was full.

The business was a huge financial success almost immediately, and Charlene and I enjoyed each workday thoroughly. Charlene dumped all her cheeseball vinyl and leather wear in the trash and came to the office clad in classy designer suits and Manolo Blahnik shoes. I was part of the act, of course, in addition to handling all the nuts and bolts of maintaining the appearance of a genuine office environment.

After the first week, I got really into it, with harsh fitness reports and lengthy verbal-abuse sessions. Prodded him with the point of my shoe. What were you thinking, Jones? Are we here to save the world or are we here to do business? For the first couple months of business at Torment, Incorporated, we had an exclusively male clientele. Not just male, but most of them were of a type: 30 to 50 years old, white or Asian, mid-to-high-level managers with a fair amount of power in their offices.

But it had to happen; one day we had a female client come in for a taste of that special Torment, Incorporated feeling. We were happy to oblige… for our usual fee, of course. She preferred a clear head while on the job, while I performed my duties better while crusing on a healthy cannabis buzz.

We need a bit more… active participation from you in this case. All business. That made me mad. Knowing that Charlene had some kind of action in mind for us, I felt a bit of an anticipatory thrill. Janet was quite attractive, in spite of the goofball outfit and slap marks; tall, slender, with the good muscle tone that comes from years of workouts with a top-line personal trainer.

She was pure class. Charlene picked up my desk phone and dialed an extension. Moments later, the door flew open and Marie entered pushing a cart full of electronic gear. It looked a bit like an automotive smog-test machine, with lots of probes and wires and readouts. Then I recognized the machine as a polygraph device, aka lie detector. One strange device was a collar with a little plastic box attached, from which protruded a short antenna.

It looked line of those tracking devices scientists put on polar bears to track them. My professional pride was wounded and, besides, she seemed to know what she was doing. I went to the couch, staggering slightly, and sat down. Charlene walked Janet over to me, Marie wheeling the polygraph cart behind. Charlene gestured at the polygraph. Are you ready to start? Charlene stood behind Marie at the controls of the polygraph. Charlene had rigged her up with one of those electric-shock collars, like the kind dog trainers use to stop dogs from barking inappropriately.

Charlene continued. No shock for Janet… this time. I could see blue sparks crackling on her neck. The room started to smell of hot electronics. Janet moaned slightly. They wanted me! But I was feeling something darker: the desire to glut my own depraved and ungovernable lusts on Janet, Evil Power-Abusing Boss. Schtup scene with Janet After a few more months, a strange transformation started becoming evident around the offices of Torment, Incorporated.

The temps seemed to sense that something was odd about the office, but not enough so that they complained about it. The temps were grinding on God-knows-what busywork that the clients handed to them; meetings took place that had nothing to do with our office-themed sexually-overtoned humiliation schtick. Everyone in the place was so familiar with the office environment that they automatically started doing whatever it is people in offices do.

Never mind that the clients were doing all this stuff in between taking cattle-prod shots to the nuts and cat-o-nine-tails beatings. I was learning the core truth about Office Land- people went to the office and accomplished… nothing! This realization was making me very, very depressed. Charlene just laughed when I explained the problem to her one night after business hours. We were hanging around at her place, knocking back a couple of cold ones, just like in the old days.

I hate to tell you this, but a pretty good case could be made that Office Life is the normal condition for Homo Americanus Suburbanus. Some of our clients were highly-placed officials in companies that were viewed by investors as being in the forefront of… some kind of futuristic s Jet-powered backpacks.

How they could actually accomplish anything in such an environment was beyond me. The way they made money was by having the inside information on all the hot companies, and Torment, Incorporated showed up on their radar like a fleet of Libyan Migs heading straight toward the Lincoln Memorial at Mach 3. They had platoons of private detectives following the major players, and more and more of them were coming to our office.

But they knew it had to be big. At first, we had no idea that we were the focus of so much attention. Anyone attempting to enter the office without an ironclad appointment was promptly shown the door- we assumed they were just chiselers trying to get a Charlene beating without paying- and incoming telephone calls not coming to the secret clients-only number were funneled into an endless maze of phone trees and faulty voicemail boxes.

But the curiosity from the VC firms was such that we finally started noticing it. At the same time, the internet bubble, the dot-com boom, the stock-market runupwhatever you want to call it- was in full motherfing effect. It was centered miles to the north, in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, but there was plenty of cash from the waves of investment washing over Southern California as well.

The office-parks near our office started to fill up with flaky-looking high-tech businesses, many of them sporting. Even the once-vacant floors of our building started to fill up with bright-eyed entrepreneurs, their snazzy logos on the sign with Sux-M-Owt. Now we had to deal with the real Office World right under our noses.

The outfit in the floor beneath ours, known as iStalker. Change of address? Unlisted phone number? We already were rich, or felt like it, anyway. So the first VC weasel who managed to worm his way into the office and offered to make us rich got Tazered in the solar plexus by Charlene, who then shoved him into the elevator with a Bruno Magli in the ass.

That just spurred them on; with most up-and-coming young business types willing to offer an unlubed crack at their bungholes to any and all comers promising suitcases full of investment cash, a company that violently ejected such suitors must really have something.

All we needed to do was hit the venture capitalists like the biggest ATM machine in the world, take their free money, and insist on retaining full decision-making control over our destiny. So, dear reader, there was never any talk about defrauding anybody, or doing the venture-capital equivalent of the dine-n-dash.

We actually made more money, in terms of actual take-home pay, during the early pre-VC days of Torment, Incorporated, than we ever did during the period for which we were prosecuted. In fact, we refused to talk about anything having to do with our business, other than the fact that we wanted a few thousand acrefeet of cash, to spend as we pleased, and a full management team to turn our every whim, no matter how deranged, into full, rampaging reality.

What did we do? And it worked. We had a deal. Handshakes all around. They even held a press conference, just to rub it in to the VC firms that had missed the boat on Sux-M-Owt. Once we were flush with effectively unlimited cash, courtesy of our trusting investors in Palo Alto, we no longer had to charge our clients for our services. Now we just hired our favorites including Janet, of course and made Sux-M-Owt. Nothing much changed as far as our day-to-day operations, of course; Charlene still operated the place according to her principles of sadism and humiliation, the temps still punched their time clocks and did whatever it was they did, and I still had fun playing with the icons and archetypes of Office World.

As a matter of fact, they were downright insistent on it. The investors kicked down the money for a beautiful mirroredglass postmodern monolith in Irvine, complete with positive-pressure server room, technical-support call center, and so on, plus a whole raft of employee-coddling frills and perks: A rock-climbing wall. A gourmet kitchen, in which we could and would install a full staff of world-class culinary professionals to cook five-star meals.

A private garden with turf seats and exotic birds. A video-game arcade, with everything from Space Invaders through an Israeli Air Force fighter-bomber simulator. And the furniture: Aeron chairs for everyone. Plasma displays on the walls. NSA-grade computer hardware. Money was no object- in fact, we were often hassled for not spending enough.

So the money was just the background, the sea through which we all swam, not the prize Charlene and I were striving for. Once in the new office, we had room for hundreds more employees than we actually had, even with the eager new hires culled from the pool of former clients. The task of filling our ritzy new facility seemed daunting, but the management team put in place by the investors handled that. But nobody seemed to think it unusual, thus lending weight to my grim theory about the true nature of Office World.

Randy Kraft and the Dead Marines had disbanded. No more cruising with my buddies in the Econoline, or drinking beer after beer while debating the relative qualities of Fear versus the Suicidal Tendencies. I felt vaguely guilty about leaving my friends behind, but the new, VC-turbocharged version of Sux-M-Owt.

Total freedom to indulge my budding artistic sensibilities, with less need to provide sexual gratification to power-obsessed torture clients and no accountability whatsoever for my when I whipped out the company checkbook. One night, after most of the Sux- M-Owters had gone home, I kicked my feet up on my desk, sparked up a bowl of White Widow, and let my mind wander. Of all the folks outside the company, Violet Tran was the one I missed most.

Which was true, in a sense. Yeah, great idea, I though, dialing her number. The new one, in Irvine. Sure, I want to see you. Yeah, I think we could find someplace private to work on your homework. Seconds later, a rapping at my office door. Charlene, also working late. She looked mighty fine; if anything, the rigors of keeping her thumb pressed firmly on the spirits of hundreds of potentially rebellious employees had made her even sexier, given her more spirit, a musky glow to her skin and a traffic-stopping pride in her stride.

She yearned for me to break down and love her up according to her strict specifications, but we were still locked in the same old you-blink-first battle of wills. She caught my questioning look. But Charlene was becoming more self-absorbed every day, more sociopathically concerned with her own hungers and giving less of a s about possible consequences.

That did sound intriguing, although it edged far into the darker shades of gray on my personal morality scale. That scale had become less distinct during my association with Charlene, I knew. But it would be a chance to nibble around the edges of our desire for each other, while having the first-floor receptionist to satisfy our carnal cravings- her name was some kind of Middle Eastern thing, Neda or Nada, and she was a looker wolf whistle, etc.

The reasons for a lot of things seemed hazier, these days. And I meant it, too. Too late; the security guard called from the lobby to let me know my authorized visitor, Ms. Tran, was being brought up to my office. Tran, eh? The investors dug it. She looked cute in her tight Chapman College Volleyball sweatshirt and sensible shorts. Her volleyball-enhanced leg muscles looked sleek.

I felt a few heartbeats in my parts and shifted a bit to allow for a more comfortable arrangement in my pants. Charlene caught the movement and knew it for what it meant. Her eyes narrowed slightly and she gave Violet a cool onceover. Charlene, this is Violet Tran, my girlfriend from Garden Grove. Oh, s… They shook hands. I did a slow simmer. What was she up to? I groaned inwardly, but went with it and invited Violet to take a seat on the plush couch facing the window; as CEO, I got a glorious view of the Pacific.

In fact, the whole office was top-shelf all the way, with that squander-iffic Saudisheik brand of excess: about 3, square feet, Persian rugs on an inlaid ebony floor, the works. And from that cabinet Charlene was selecting some choice refreshments. Hashish-infused baklava straight from Lebanon. And, of course, an ornate Turkish hookah packed with the deadly Gulag Gunjah and topped with a fat ball of Burmese opium. Obtaining the legendary Gulag Gunjah had been a minor triumph for me; the result of decades of careful breeding and selection of the cough-worthy Russian Cannabis Ruderalis plant by exiled Soviet botanists in Siberia, the stuff was so stony that supposedly even Jerry Garcia had freaked out after smoking a single joint.

I was horrified. I know how to party. Her idea of crazy was drinking three wine coolers to her head and mockdirty dancing at a dorm party. Well, she was a grown-up. I was proud of the vintage s shotglasses; it was said that Dutch Schultz had once owned them. Ah, demon wormwood. But I was having a good time- nothing like that here we go feeling of making the decision to get truly hammered on quality dope.

I poured another round of absinthe shots and belted mine down, then took a swig straight from the bottle. Violet giggled, already buzzed from the first shot. Charlene was using a small butane torch to toast the opium ball crowning the bowl of Gulag Gunjah. The hookah was a beauty, with amber carvings depicting Turkish village scenes; the eyes of the horses were tiny emeralds. It cost Sux-M-Owt. Once the opium was prepared it being crass to just fire up a cold opium ball , she put one of the delicate hookah tubes in her mouth and directed the flame downward, sucking down a big hit of opium-enhanced Gunjah.

I handed Violet one of the tubes. She giggled and put it in her mouth. Had I really heard that? Charlene laughed out a lungful of smoke, then lit the bowl. Especially with a hunky guy like Eddie here? I grabbed a hookah tube and had a toke. Violet started to cough and reached for the absinthe bottle. Violet was either too loaded to notice or was enjoying it; her dazed smile could be interpreted either way.

Louder music! Worked my way back to the couch and flopped down between the two women. Even Charlene, who had quite a tolerance, was visibly reeling. The hash was coming on hard, too; the room seemed to be pulsing, bending a little. Violet was holding up well, all things considered.

Suddenly, I loved my job. I was getting higher than Cheech and Chong put together, on the company tab, with two beautiful women, in my private office, with a view of the ocean out my floor-to-ceiling observation window. This beat the s out of a quick toke behind the dumpsters at the pizza joint. Violet leaned over me to whisper something to Charlene. Her chest mashed against my arm and her sweatshirt pulled up in pack, revealing the spot at the base of her spine I loved to kiss. She and Charlene were giggling over something, some kind of girl-talk stuff.

When she pulled back from Charlene, I was left with my hand in place and my arm around her. She was a little sweaty; I could sense she was getting turned on. Charlene shakily pulled her sweaty hair out of her face while Violet rested her face on her belly.

And somewhere The Great Scorekeeper debited my karmic account an unknown amount. The tally was building up. I figured it would be nice to get some programmers writing software that would automate the generation of my Daily Memos, permitting both quality and quantity to increase while leaving me more time to expand the range of my organizational responsibilities. Charlene and I started interviewing applicants, me peppering them with non sequiturs while she paced behind the poor bastards, swagger stick tapping.

Charlene was like a cat who stumbles across a room full of confused, crippled mice- plenty of games to play, no need to work hard. Lazily bat a few mice around, enjoy their fear. After the first few interviews, we had our system down: Bright spotlights aimed at the interviewees eyes, both of us wearing mirror shades and dangling cigarettes from mouths, gun bulges, etc.

Her new look called for harsh Teutonic custom-tailored suits that looked like what Eva Braun would have worn had she been CEO of a particularly sleazy home-foreclosure corporation. I was getting into it as well; designing the most unpleasant, soul-crushing work environment would require the hand of a master. First order of business was the Annex. I sketched out some plans and rang up some contractors, paying triple-time for fast building. We set the place up in the basement, for that gloomy, oppressive ambience.

Since the existing basement was a bit too cheery for our needs, some major remodeling was in order; I obtained several boilers from a shuttered Detroit asbestos factory and had them rigged up to leak steam and heat the place to a miserable, humid degrees. The fluorescent lighting was ripped out and replaced with several watt mercury-vapor floodlights, chosen for their unearthly pinkish-orange light and dismal hum. We rigged up a couple of telephones in a locked office next to the work area and had them set up to ring for hours on end.

Scratchy Chinese pop music played on lo-fi PA speakers, punctuated by blaring commands in incomprehensible tongues like Urdu, Basque, and Miwok. Money was no object, of course. For the millionth time, dear reader, we never thought of it as stealing or even improper use of funds, as we never tried to hide what we were doing or why. Gibberish made them happier, and I just wanted everyone to be happy.

Since I had, or at least tried to have, a fundamental set of moral values appropriate to my time and place, I did my best to exempt the low-level Sux-M-Owt. Naturally, all the temps, secretaries, copy-machine personnel, file clerks, janitors, and so on got full access to the recreational facilities, and I enforced an unprecedentedly liberal policy of slackness when it came to working-hours-versus-break-time for support-staff employees.

If a word processor temp felt like taking two hours over his Patagonian Toothfish pesto kebabs down in the employee cafeteria, followed by a couple of highballs in the employee barhey, no problem; good morale means higher productivity. And if the entire IT Department ditched their jobs in the Server Room to engage in a high-stakes World Championship of Asteroids video-game competition in the employee arcade- again, no problemo. Illumination came from a couple of dim beer signs hanging over the Anchor Steam kegs in the corner.

Cheap incense burned day and night and an endless loop of hypnotic dub music thumped out of 50, watts of dance-club-quality sound equipment. Bongs and pipes were placed on every horizontal surface. Naturally, Charlene and I were exempt from such nonsense- a good thing for her, too, because it took a helluva lot of work to keep her from making life hell for the lowerranking employees.

I gave her carte blanche to do her worst with white-collar staff, but her slide into ever-more-brutal modes of dictatorship made her hungry to fill the camps with everyone. Chapter Eleven Charlene pushed the geek-basement concept too far right away, naturally. Thanks to double jeopardy and the settlement of all the civil suits, I have no motivation to lie about my non-involvement in the suicide of Willy Nguyen and the institutionalization of those three other poor geeks.

I was wrong as hell, of course. A couple weeks after the Engineering Annex was in full effect, I went down there to see how MemoCranker Beta was going. Already getting infected. A few geeks glanced up briefly, recognized me as a company VIP, and increased their frenzied typing with real fear in their eyes.

Way down. A sack of Koko Brand Primate Pellets leaned against his cube wall. These freaks were literally code monkeys. Apparently this guy was the most productive Code Monkeys, since he was permitted unlimited banana pellets. I noticed the cigarette burns on his neck, the T-shirt sticking to blood-crusted lash marks. Streets paved with gold. Worthless Monkeys! Like me! You want to go upstairs and, like, take a break or something?

Leave his cube? No way! For the first time, I felt uneasy about our foray into the corporate world. I vas only followink orders, mein herr! Charlene was gonna f up my fun, just to satisfy her unnatural cravings. Deciding to make a dramatic entrance, I lifted my boot and gave the flimsy door a good kick, right below the knob. The door splintered, just like the movies, and I roared through it like an wheeler through a Hyundai. A stark contrast to the rest of the Monkeys. Her 1 toadie.

I had only myself to blame for that one, having instituted an incredibly complicated system of mutual backstabbing and rat-rewarding. I actually laughed hard enough to spew beer out my nose while writing the Employee Review Handbook. Now the spewed beer was a rising ocean of piss, climbing up around my grille.

Charlene and I had been circling each other for months now; we both wanted to X each other, with a maddening and nearly ungovernable lust in our boiling brains, but the whole thing had become a monstrous battle for supremacy. My harmless fing-with-heads games had become more malignant, and Charlene was getting scarier by the minute. Still, we would only f on my terms, no matter what it cost me. And she felt the same way. I had forgotten about Bitsy. Maybe I should order the Code Monkeys out of the room and pour Charlene some pork on the spot, f the stupid power games.

Do it and then cruise back to the office for a welldeserved bongload. Get on the phone and fire her ass. Send her back to powerless obscurity. We were trapped in the Sux-M-Owt. It felt good to have a destiny- that bottom was rushing up at us at an ever-increasing rate. I would crush my opponents and stand triumphant atop a pyramid of broken, defeated bodies. First on the To Do list: Have my way with this naked underling.

Charlene faced me, lacing her hands behind my neck and pulling her face close to mind. I knew I would be paying for it for quite a while, if not the rest of my life. Charlene had turned from half-assed slacker to full-on dictator sociopath, I had been the catalyst for the transformation, and nuclear fire would soon rain from the sky to smite the guilty and innocent together.

Sort of a rags-to-riches deal, with my supposed shrewdness cloaked in a mysterious veil of cryptic statements. In truth, the cryptic statements were what I was actually all about, and the Sux-M-Owt. Profits would come later, everyone agreed. While I enjoyed an audience, the national scale of the latest round of press scrutiny on Sux-M-Owt. It was apparently quite a coup to have a special feature in the rag, but I blew them off at first. Finally Charlene talked me into granting them an hour or so.

They brought their own dope stash, obviously hoping their San Francisco Geekoid-Hipster-Grade supply would knock me on my Southern California ass and loosen my tongue up enough to give them some sort of scoop God knows there was no business secret for me to give up, and I never tried very hard to fake any expertise, preferring to jabber on with a bunch of jarring non sequiturs during interviews.

Their stuff was all right, I judged after taking a few hits off their lumpily rolled joint, but I had a better idea. It looked like a very soft hash of a uniform tan hue, and tasted very clean when smoked. I usually saved the Atom Smasher for my late-night smoking pleasure, but this was a special occasion. Giggling fits. Cindy, the photographer, kept opening her camera to see if it still had film, which kept exposing and ruining the film.

They thought that was a hoot. Rather than guide the interview back to something related to Sux-M-Owt. Carla, the reporter, still wanted that scoop, although she was way too baked to recall what she had been told to find out. Now we were getting somewhere. Carla was a little on the skinny, nervous side, but had that waifish-hipster appeal that sometimes appealed to me. Not just MemoCranker 1. MistahOverseer provided a Great Leap Forward in technology-assisted management tools.

In fact, the software coming from the Engineering Annex was so good that I was able to block out the reality of what was really going on down there. MistahOverseer enabled a take-charge, success-oriented managerial type to really keep the clamps down on his or her workers. Based on the principle that white-collar employees are thieving, lazy, incompetent turds floating in the toilet bowl of the office world, MistahOverseer was built to my exacting specifications and QA-tested by a crack team of cathetered Code Monkeys under the lash of their ruthless supervisor, making it from concept to functioning, debugged application in a stunning nine days.

I could see that Charlene had a real future in the software industry. But that was nothing next to the glory of MemoCranker. I scheduled mandatory meetings just about every day. Each one was organized via a lovely piece of software made to my strict specs down in the Geek Basement; rather than using the mundane, boring old calendar functions on your typical Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes application, LifeSentence 2.

When I created a meeting and entered its specifics into the LifeSentence administrator interface, an inexorable sequence of events got rolling: first, everyone on the invitation list had a popup message appear on top of everything else on his or her computer screen; the message required a step procedure to confirm that, yes, the invitee would be attending the meeting and, no, he or she had never been a member of the Communist Party, and so on.

But that was just the beginning. Reminders, each requiring multistep inputs, would continue to harry the employee on a randomly scheduled basis. Car alarms, of the must-kill-the-asshole-who-owns-this-fing-thing variety, would blare in the cubicles of the hapless invitees starting at about an hour before the meeting.

You get the picture. The crowning glory was the PowerPoint slide shows; if any tool was ever devised for surrealismminded bosses to reduce employees to whimpering blobs of protoplasm it had to be the evil product from the folks up in Redmond. But the real drawback was that the memos and PowerPoint shows took me a lot of time to do properly, time that could be better spent designing TormentLand, the waterslide theme park that Sux-M-Owt.

Something had to be done, and that something was MemoCranker. MemoCranker was actually two separate applications, but both shared the core OfficeJive engine. An intuitive interface, basically a plug-in that rode on top of the Microsoft products, made it possible to create a stultifying tedious document with a few clicks of the mouse; the manager who felt like making an incredibly complicated, brain-jarring presentation that shredded concentration and gave meeting participants a queasy, seasick feeling could do so with a little more effort.

The PowerPoint presentations were even better. MemoCranker incorporated a massive database of sound, video, and image files and could generate on-the-fly animations that resembled a cross between Japanese TV commercials and Department of Health anti-VD cartoons. Gigantic flowcharts and command structure diagrams could be vomited forth with a couple of keystrokes, and the end result made the implosion calculations for advanced neutron fission devices look like kindergarten teaching materials.

It was no sweat for me to create sufficient slides to fill a six-hour meeting. Sure, I got tired officiating over those meetings, but my pride as the creative force behind MemoCranker never got old. During this time, Sux-M-Owt. You may recall the hype that came with it, although we certainly got less attention than other soon-to-join-us-in-bankruptcy players in the futuristic New Economy. At that point, we had even more money coming in and I had a stack of stock options I could foresee would be worthless at some point in the not-too-distant future but also a lot more probing questions about what we were really doing with all the money.

I figured we could fend them off for a time, but sooner or later the mess was likely to fall apart. This is a perfect joint! Just like the old days, sort of. I knew what was on her mind, and she knew I knew. That was the best the mighty Mistress Carlotta could do? I had huge captive audiences eager to try to make sense out of my mind-scrambling works and a big crew of assistants to do the grunt work.

And I got paid huge for it, from a seemingly endless money torrent spewing from a massive venture capital pipe. What was going to f it all up was her goddamn dictator game in the basement. I was back in the saddle, as if our kiss had actually meant nothing. A combination of organizational structure, pie chart, and timeline, it managed to combine several mutually incompatible measuring systems in a 7-dimensional package that redefined the meaning of cryptic.

The junior management go-getters pored over it for days, like the thing was a Dead Sea Scroll. I considered it my masterpiece. Explaining this to her, I observed a deepening smirk on her face. These people will never recover from your head-fing. The mellow high evaporated fast.

Look at the MistahOverseer software you had the Code Monkeys make. I had I. That guy actually functions? All my slaves do their job at maximum efficiency and are happy to do so. They trust me to lead them. MistahOverseer is exactly the kind of thing your old, mellow-stoner-dude, pre-Sux-M- Owt. I can still look myself in the mirror in the morning.

Same as me. In fing jail! What if she was right? More likely, she was just working one of her control games with me. Then you can cash out and start another slave joint, on your own. We need each other, and this is the final stretch. I thought. What kinda crazy s--are you planning down there? Your loyal followers will bring down the evil, corrupt city and then roar off into the desert on dune buggies?

Her eyes looked passionate, bad crazy. Then she turned and left, no doubt headed down to her basement empire. This scene smelled pretty bad. I was getting scared. She was no harmless flake playing at being a dominatrix in black vinyl. She was a cult leader. I was to realize soon enough that the reality was even worse than that. She was already too powerful to challenge directly through the Board of Directors. I could quit, just hop in the car and disappear to Cleveland or Uzbekistan, but that would mean the end of the free dope, captive audience for my work, free quality poontang in new and interesting settings.

She was in her usual severe Harsh Businesswoman attire, with her hair styled into a cruel-looking Marlene Dietrich perm. A notebook and a bottle of designer water sat primly in front of her. She smiled at me. We were in for an interesting meeting. The group looked warily at her; her reputation was well-known upstairs, with some of the old-time ex-clients speaking of her with awe and the newcomers curious but intimidated.

Kelvin, eh? I had a specially commissioned laser-pointer that had several randomly swiveling heads, resulting in a maddening display reminiscent of a Led Zeppelin laser show, circa Charlene pulled a tiny brushed-stainless-steel walkie-talkie from her purse and whispered into it.

Moments later, two of her thugs kicked in the conference room door. Let this serve as a gentle reminder. The sound of his agonized screams cut off suddenly as the elevator doors slammed shut. I plugged in the meeting gear and continued with my presentation. Their faces showed real fear. I felt a sickening, tingling surge of lust at my power; I could be doing the same kind of thing Charlene did, and nobody would say boo. The sexual possibilities seemed endless.

Would I bring four of the carefully made-up, MBApacking businesswomen into my office for some action on my desk? Or perhaps take a walk on the queer side and get some smooth-muscled young stud to swab out my pipes? Or some combination of the above?

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