Michael hated the sound of his own voice. So did everyone else in the zoom meeting. Running late into Friday evening, it was reaching the end of its third hour and everyone wanted to die. Charles was hoping his toddler would waddle in with the handgun it could find in the nightstand. For Alexandra, it would be her husband reading her messages in WhatsApp. Lana wondered if she might have an aneurysm. Paul ran his finger over the edge of the knife blade he held under the desk and contemplated opening one of his femoral arteries. Why not both?
Michael had been droning for over two hours on the new, re-drafted remote work policy, forty minutes alone on time zones. It was a beautiful piece of oratory if you had any appreciation for aggressive tedium. Michael did. Making people squirm was all he had left. He couldn’t make them like him. He couldn’t even make them hate him. But under lockdown, within a video conference, as long as he kept talking he could watch as many as twenty four scattered co-workers writhe, grimace, hyperventilate, chew their knuckles, wipe tears from their eyes, wishing they could mute the audio undetected, wanting to quit the app, burn their laptop, flee, but desperate for that one small piece of information that this three hour torture session was nominally scheduled to communicate. Michael was just about to get to it.
“And now to payments. Installing the new monitoring software on all your devices is not enough to resume payment of your salaries. You also have to sign the Agreement to Monitoring within 24 hours if you wish to be paid for the last two weeks and going forward. The url for this agreement is RECONNECTING.”
Michael gave the screen of his laptop a tight smile and a triumphant nod. He had switched off the wifi at the perfect moment. The bastards would be going crazy, jumping into Slack looking for him, but he’d already logged out. They’d have to email him and wait. It was officially the weekend. He was their only hope. An hour before the deadline he would send out the link, “just in case any of you missed it”. He felt like he deserved applause, but he was still startled by the sound of a slow, solid handclap.
“Great work, Mikey. Masterful.”
Sitting on the couch of his home office, leaning forward, legs apart, clapping like a coach in a little league dug-out, was a red-faced man with a narrow black beard and two prominent red horns sprouting from his forehead framing a tall, immaculate black quiff. He was wearing a red bodysuit and a red tail ending in a spade-like tip was coiled on the cushion beside him.
“Uh, who are you?” said Michael. “And how did you get in here?”
“Who am I? Who do I freaking look like?”
“You look like someone dressed up as a cartoon devil.”
“Can a cartoon devil do this?”
The guy looked Michael in the eye. Michael returned the look with his bored, dead stare. The guy didn’t blink. A buzzing filled the room. It grew louder, and as it grew louder it seemed to come from outside the walls, from a great distance, miles away, light years away, like it had started in the primordial darkness and oozed out across vast time and space towards him. Then it was all within his head, that time, that space, and the buzz was a dreadful panic rising. He stood up from his chair, shaking, wanting to run for the door but unable to look away. The guy blinked and the buzzing stopped, the panic subsided.
“Or I could set you on fire,” he said and sat back. The tail curled upwards and scratched his ear.
“What do you want? Am I dead?” said Michael, sitting down.
“You’re not dead. I want to recruit you as part of our advance team.”
“Yeah. We like to get in early. Start torturing the damned before they’re officially damned.”
The guy laughed. “Why you? Come on. You’re more self aware than that. Forty minutes on timezones? Holding back on that link? You’re already doing our job for us. I’d like to expand your scope and reward you handsomely for it.”
“I’m doing your job for you?” Michael rubbed his chin in thought. “So, you’re saying all my co-workers are damned?”
“Mikey! Again, come on! You’re basically money launderers. You’re all servants of Mammon. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, remember.”
“But that means I’m damned, too.”
The guy laughed and beckoned him forward. “Roll your chair over here, Mikey. Nice and close. I’ll let you in on a secret.”
Michael rolled closer. The guy had heat coming off him like a radiator.
“Lean in closer.” The guy grabbed the shoulder of his shirt and pulled him down. He smelled like a gunshot.
“The secret, the loophole, is this—when you’ve had enough, you find a priest, any priest, and confess. Tell him the whole deal. Tell him about me. Tell him about tonight. Tell him you’re sorry. Badda-bing-badda-boom, you’re safe as saints.”
He let go of Michael’s shirt and Michael wheeled away from him.
“If I can just quit like that, why even bother?”
The guy ran his hands over his quiff, smoothing down its perfect surface.
“It’s a number’s game, Mikey. ROI. We might miss out on you, but I know the value you’ll deliver, in raw MPL, that’s Misery Per Lifetime, will make any losses look like a rounding error.”
“And what does being rewarded handsomely look like?”
“Whatever you want. Money, renown, influence, an endless supply of supermodels who are hot for power. Oh, you like that! Mikey, you’re going to be the Hendrix of industrial scale looting. Except for the aspiration of vomit. I want you to have a lengthy and productive career.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Take all the time you want.”
Lana looked at the email and groaned. Monday was starting with another zoom meeting. Four hours had been blocked out of her schedule for it. They did not pay her enough for this. Maybe if she wore her hair down she could get away with wearing AirPods. Then she could podcast her way through it.
Michael swivelled away from his desk to look out the vast window. He smoothed out his tie, ignoring the lump of the defibrillator under the skin of his chest. He rested his hands on his belly and savoured the New York skyline gleaming in the spring light. It was a beautiful day. How many more did he have?
He turned back to his desk and pressed a button on the phone.
“Anthony, get the car ready and let Cardinal Hendricks know to expect me.”
It was a very short drive, just a few blocks, but he wasn’t going to risk walking it. Crossing a street in this city, no matter what colour the lights, was a game of Russian Roulette. If it wasn’t a delivery van it was a bike courier running you down.
Except for Michael it was a taxi swerving to miss a bike courier that ran him over as he stepped from his limousine. It mounted the sidewalk and dragged him into and up the first few steps in front of the cathedral. As the police interviewed him the poor distraught taxi driver wept, nervously alternating between pulling his hair and sweeping it back it into a black quiff.