The Company Memo
I received an internal email one Friday morning. It read:
Go to 54.2585248 -7.813142999999966, 08:00hrs tomorrow. Come alone.
I couldn’t identify the sender.
I’d only started working in the company recently, but I was not so new that I hadn’t heard about their team building exercises. Personally, I thought that sort of thing was bullshit, but I wasn’t going to throw away a cushy number.
Word was, the company frowned upon non-team players. If I didn’t show up on Saturday morning, I could kiss my new job goodbye.
I’d have to miss my lie-in, but I suppose it couldn’t be helped. The end of month bonus would hopefully make it worthwhile.
Reluctantly, I opened my Google maps and checked out the coordinates.
Using my I-Plod satellite navigation system, I made my way across the moors, and into the woods. As I walked under the first of the ancient trees, the I-Plod spoke to me, “Signal lost!”
I continued on in the same direction, holding the phone above my head, searching for a signal. I might as well have been in a tunnel. Nada, not a single bar.
Luckily, I’d planned ahead. Inside my rucksack I’d packed an ordinance survey map and even a compass. They hadn’t been used since I was a boy scout, but it was like riding a bike, right? Some things you never forget.
My watch said 07:39. I was still in the dense woodlands, probably lost, and time was running out. I should have reached my destination by now, but without satellite I wasn’t sure. I could have walked right passed it, and not known. I didn’t even know what I was looking for, but it had to be something … something other than just trees.
It was then that I spotted the steelworks, interwoven between the trees. They were red with rust and blended against the autumnal backdrop, so at first I had missed them.
The twisted metal looked like some strange sculpture, or a little like the monorail track of a fairground ride. I spotted another track to my left, and then one further away on my right. They were all heading in the same general direction so I decided to follow them.
As I strode along, they drew closer, and I spotted others farther off. They were heading towards an epicentre, like the spokes of a wheel or a spider’s web. I hurried, aware of the minutes flying by. I needed to reach the centre before my watch hit 08:00.
By now, I was running along, tripping and falling over hidden roots, and clambering to my feet to run again. I was breathless, but the centre of the crazy steel web was getting closer.
I was nearly there.
“BEEP! BEEEP!” The alarm on my watch warned. “Shit!” I cursed, my heart hammering away like a hummingbird.
A robed figure stepped out from behind a tree, right in front of me. I nearly screamed at the suddenness of his appearance, and my heart skipped a beat. He looked like some sort of demented monk. and his face was hidden in shadows.
“Who dares enter the sacred glade?” he asked. His voice was raspy; heavy with malice and too much nicotine.
“I-I’m Jack Johnson!” I replied. “I got the company memo!”
The hooded figure laughed, but the sound was not a comforting one. It held little merriment. “You may pass, Jack Johnson, but before you can go any farther, you must leave all your earthly possessions behind.”
“Oh … right! Okay!” I stammered. Unhooking the shoulder straps, I dropped my rucksack onto the ground. Digging into the pockets of my anorak, I removed my I-Plod, wallet, keys; even the compass.
I started passed the strange monk, but his hand struck my chest, blocking me.
“Everything,” he insisted.
I pulled out my trouser pockets to indicate that they were already empty.
“You must abandon everything!” he insisted, “if you are to be reborn into the Society of the Black Widow.”
“What … you mean my clothes too?!” I whined.
“Everything. When a baby comes into the world, he’s wrapped only in his mother’s blood.”
Reluctantly, I sat down and started to untie the laces of my boots. “This is whacked!” I grumbled. “Is all this really necessary?”
He didn’t answer.
I looked up to find him gone. I looked around, but I could not see him. I suspected he was hiding somewhere close by, watching me, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.
I see! I thought It’s like that, is it. Office pranks can be so juvenile at times, but it was important to play along and show a sense of humour.
It was cold, standing there naked, hiding my manhood. The early morning sun barely reached this far into the forest, and the first frosts of winter were not far away. Rubbing my arms for warmth, I walked forward, more carefully now in case my bare feet stood on something sharp.
It didn’t take me long to reach the centre of the steel web. I stood there for a moment, at the edge of a glade. A small pool dominated the clearing, overshadowed by the strange steel construction I’d been following. On a rock beside the pool I found a folded item of clothing and a note. It said, ‘Bathe and dress, then follow the path to your rebirth.’
With some reluctance, I stepped into the pool. The water was murky and had a deep reddish tinge to it. I smiled at the theatrics of it all. The colour was probably caused by iron in the water, but it looked a lot like blood. Maybe they had even gone so far as to use some food colouring for greater theatrics.
Fine, I thought. Whatever! I slipped farther into the pool and was surprised to find that the water was warm against my skin. Soon, I was up to my neck in the murky water. Nonchalantly, I peered around the clearing, looking for prying eyes as I made some pretence of bathing. I even sank beneath the waters and anointing myself with their bloody water. I hoped that my secretive watchers would be happy with my performance.
Climbing out of the pool, I lifted up the white robe and inspected it. It was not made of the same material as the one used by my secretive guardian. This garment was the sort of thing you would wear before surgery. It draped uncomfortably around me, and left my buttocks exposed to the morning breeze. Still, it was an improvement on being naked.
The waters of the pool quickly stained the robe, giving it a macabre appearance. My hidden audience were trying their best to spook me, and much though I fought against the panic, it was beginning to feel nervous. This was a far cry from paintballing.
When I was dressed, I followed the path farther into the woods. A short walk later I arrived at a small cave entrance.
Here I stopped, and for a moment I almost considered turning back. The black hole looked ominous.
“Hello?” I called, but no one answered.
I’d never been fond of confined spaces. Was my new job really worth all this? I asked myself.
The monthly salary was certainly a lot more than I’d ever earned before. I’d nearly fainted with shock when I saw my bank balance after the first payment.
On top of that, I’d seen the flashy cars that the other office workers drove. You could hardly miss them. The parking lot was full of them: Mercs, Audis, Beamers, even a couple of red Ferraris with personalised licence plates. There had also been hints of healthy quarterly bonuses, plus a fat annual bonus for those who excelled.
Could I really walk away from all that?
The simple answer was no.
I’d grown up knowing intimately about poverty, and after the last few pay cheques, I craved more of the good life.
I wanted a swanky flat in the city so I didn’t have to commute, with a hot chick or two fawning over me. I wanted the flash cars and the Rolex watches. In fact, I wanted it all. So I fought off the urge to panic as the walls closed in around me and walked into the darkness.
Groping my way along the cold stone walls, I continued for what seemed like an eternity. Soon, all traces of light vanished and I was alone in the darkness; alone with my fears.
I felt spiders webs brushing across my face, and heard the scampering of tiny feet before they squeaked and scurried away into the darkness.
My fingers started to tingle, and strange lights twinkled before my eyes. My whole body felt flushed with heat. My mind started to wander, one minute feeling euphoric, the next I was tormented by paranoia. I began to hallucinate. Had the bastards spiked the waters of that pool?
At one point my panic became too much and I turned back toward the entrance, trying to escape the nightmare that was going on in my head. I soon realised that I was lost. I couldn’t find my way out.
“Help!” I cried again and again. “C’mon guys! A jokes a joke!”
No one replied.
No one came to help.
I became hungry, and thirsty; disorientated.
How long had I been trapped in this warren of caves?
Eventually, I curled in a ball and slept, hoping that when I awoke the world would be back to normal.
To my disappointment I awoke to darkness and the rustling of the paper gown I still wore. With no alternative, I groped my way along again, hoping to find salvation. At least the hallucinations had rescinded.
My toe brushed against something, which rattled away. I stopped. Crouching down, I fumbled along the ground until I found the object that I’d struck. My fingertips brushed against what felt like a light round stone. Closing my hand around it, I felt the holes: one, two. My fingers explored further, brushing over the rough lower surface of the stone. It dawned on me what I was feeling: They were teeth; a jaw.
Terror consumed me and I cast the skull aside. Wailing piteously, I dared not move. Frozen with fear, I sat there for countless seconds, before I could control my rising panic. I can’t stay here, I thought. I must find a way to escape this nightmare.
With dread, I fumbled around and found other bones; other skulls. What was this place? Who did these bones belong to? Where they the co-workers who had disappeared from their desks, never to be seen again? What had they done to deserve such a horrible death? Had they given away company secrets, or had they simply arrived late for work?
I wept. It had been a long time since I’d cried, but now, the tears fell freely.
Somewhere in the darkness I found God, despite my strongly held contempt for religions. I prayed with all the fervour of a born-again Christian, making up prayers as I went along. No one answered my heart felt prayers.
God was not interested. My years of denying his existence were coming back to haunt me. In the end, I declared him a figment of my terrified imagination and abandoned him again.
With little other option available to me, I rose to my feet and stumbled on.
Putting one foot in front of the other, I walked, not caring about direction. I simply had to move forward. With my hands before me to ward off the stone walls, I stumbled blindly through the perpetual dark.
Left foot, right foot, left foot … and then my right foot went from under me and I found myself falling. The wind whistled passed me, and I crashed into the sides of the pit as I fell.
With a splash I fell into deep water.
Unlike the bloody pool, this one was bitterly cold; as cold as death. I swallowed water and choked. Swimming around in circles, I tried to fathom which way was up; which way was down. As if ascending to heaven, I saw a light in the distance. Like a lost soul seeking salvation I swam towards it.
It was a beacon in the darkness, it gave me hope. Desperately I kicked out and broke the surface of the lake. With a sob of relief, I blinked at the torches flickering in the darkness. Wearily, I swam towards them.
Dripping water, I crawled out of the lake. Shivering, I stumbled onward, following the line of torches down a passageway. Tears streamed down my cheeks as relief washed over me. Too long had I been alone in the darkness. I teetered on the edge of madness, but the flaming brands gave me the impetus to continue. Where there was fire, there had been human hands, and recently. I sensed an end to the nightmare.
I turned a corner and caught the scent of roasting meat in the air. My stomach rumbled and saliva filled my mouth as hunger overcame me. How long had I been trapped in the darkness; a day … perhaps two? It seemed like an eternity.
My pace increased as other indistinct smells came to me. I heard the sound of laughter; the hum of human voices. They were coming from up ahead.
Turning a final corner, I gazed in shock at the banquet set out before me.
Long tables filled the cavernous chamber. One line of tables filled each side of the cave, and at the far end another long table sat upon a raised dais.
The tables strained under the weight of rich food and wine. Sitting around them were at least two hundred people, all dressed in the brown monk’s robes I had seen in the woods.
Some were eating their fill of the many platters of rich food. Others were half-naked and frolicking in drunken debauchery. None had yet noticed my presence as I stumbled forward.
A gong rang out, filling the room with the echo of its sound.
As one. the revellers stopped what they were doing and looked towards me.
I also stopped, wondering whether it would be wiser to run away or face their wrath. Was I an uninvited guest? Was I entering their inner sanctum without their permission? I had come this far, and did not want to go back towards the cold dark pool. I craved the warmth of the room, the food, the company of my fellow man.
A robed man rose from the central table atop a dais, and clapped his hands sharply, calling the room to order. The room fell into silence, waiting for his judgement. Was I to be found guilty of trespass? I held my breath and waited too.
“Out of the womb of the earth he comes,” proclaimed the man. I recognised his voice immediately. It was the man I had spoken to in the woods. “Welcome, Jack Johnson. You have been survived the darkness and been reborn. Come forward and be at peace. Sit beside me; eat and drink your fill.”
I didn’t need a second invitation. My legs carried me shakily toward the dais.
The other revellers rose to their feet as I passed and began to clap their hands. Some of the faces I recognised from the office, others were strangers to me. Perhaps they belonged to other departments, other offices within the company. Some smiled in greeting, others merely nodded.
None stopped me.
When I finally reached the dais, the speaker lifted his gold chalice and offered it to me. Now that he was closer, he had a chance to study the man in more detail. He was in his middle years, though he wore it well. His deep blue eyes were sharp and alert, despite the effects of the brandy. His hair was cut short, well groomed and impeccable. On his right hand, I saw that he wore a heavy gold signet ring. On the front of the ring was an image of a spider.
Silently, I accepted the offering and drank deeply. The liquid burned as it slid down my throat, making me splutter and nearly spill the rich brandy.
“Welcome,” he greeted again. “This is the inner sanctum of the Society of the Black Widow. You’ve come a long way, Jack, but your ordeal is now over.”
I wondered whether he was referring to my walk in the dark cave, or to my life in general. Looking around at the opulence of the table, I cared not. “I don’t understand. Who are you? What is this place …?”
“All in good time, Jack. We are a very secret, and secretive, organisation. Knowledge is only on a need to know basis. However, you have taken the first steps towards enlightenment this weekend, as well as making me a lot of money.”
“I did?” I exclaimed.
“Oh, yes, you did,” explained the speaker. “Usually, we recruit from only the most powerful of families; the elite, but you were an exception to this rule. Many of the other department heads thought I was foolish for recruiting you into the firm. They did not believe that you had the mettle for leadership, but I thought otherwise. In fact, I believed it so much that I bet rather heavily on you. I’m so glad that I was right.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“I’ve read your files, not just your personnel file but the ones that technically I shouldn’t have access to. I’ve studied your criminal record, your juvenile records, even the files from your various foster homes. I’ve read the dossiers of the many state shrinks that assessed you through the years you were knocked around in the system. They all say pretty much the same thing …”
“And what was that?” I asked heatedly, not believing what he was saying. No one could get access to those files. Some were years old, and had surely been destroyed by now.
“They said that you were a non-conformist, a scrapper, someone who broke rules just because they were there. Of course they used fancy labels for it, to justify their salaries, but it amounts to the same thing. They said you were dispensable. No one would miss you if you disappeared. Is that correct?”
After a moment I had to admit the truth of his statement. “I guess.”
He smiled, “But they missed something in their assessments.”
“What’s that?” I couldn’t help asking.
“You’re a born survivor. No matter what shit they threw at you, you always managed to drag yourself up and fight again. Despite their lack of faith in you, and the poor quality of your education, you taught yourself to read, you learned how to work with computers … you taught yourself many things when nobody else wanted to teach you anything. You might be amoral, a rebel and a deviant, but you are one tough cookie. That’s why I selected you.”
“Was that why I got that email?”
“Listen kid, without my endorsement, you wouldn’t have even got into the building, let alone get a job there. I vouched for you, and you owe me big time for that. I intend to claim that debt at some time in the future.”
“But you said that you’d won a bet.”
“That doesn’t count. That was my money I was betting with, not yours. You need to pay your own debts, young man, but don’t worry. I have every confidence that you will pay me back for my largesse.”
“How do I do that. I’m broke!”
“Eat,” he offered. “When you’ve recovered, we can talk about your future. I have high hopes for you, young man.”