M.D.Benoît

Chapter One

Thursday, 3 February, 11am

“For your living room, you could go with Sea Froth or Linen Sand.”

I stared at the woman who sat behind the two-inch-thick slab of tempered glass that passed for her desk. Her ingenuous gaze didn’t match her angular looks, sharpened by a military-style suit, and slashes of red at mouth and nails. “What the hell is Sea Froth?”

She frowned slightly, as if she didn’t understand my question. Then her brow cleared. “It's a very nice, warm, pale chocolate. Linen Sand is a pale yellow, on the cool side.” She paused, cleared her throat. “We could always go with Timid Dove, which is a very nice pale grey, if you dislike the other two colors.”

“What’s wrong with plain white? I like white.”

Her eyes widened in horror then closed for a second. She took a breath. “Mr. Meter, please. I know you’re getting impatient, but this is the last decision you need to make before we start on your apartment. White is not an option the builder offers. Besides… ” She glanced out the window, and then looked back at me. “ White is such a… a stark color. I can’t imagine you wouldn’t want something with more warmth.”

I’ve got news for you, sister, I wanted to say, white ain’t a color. She’d probably hit me with her spiked heel or break into tears. I kept mum and shrugged instead. “Just pick one, okay? I don’t particularly care.”

She gasped, shook her head. “No. No, I can’t do that, Mr. Meter.” She opened the folder she’d placed in front of me and pointed at the three two paint chips. “You’re the one who’ll have to live with the choice. I can’t be responsible.”

With a sigh, I looked at the swatches. To me, they looked grey, yellow and beige. I tried to think what Annie would have liked. The yellow, I guessed, which would enhance the antique furniture she’d collected. She’d put it in storage when she came to live with me. I’d hated the fussiness of it —not to mention it was damn uncomfortable— but now it was the only part of her I had left and I’d decided to use it to furnish my new apartment. I thought it would make me feel closer to her, somehow. “That one, then.”

She beamed at me as if I were a child who had taken his first step, picked up the yellow chip and wrote something down. “Very well. Now, for the fixtures…”

My cell rang. With a prayer of thanks to the God of Communications, I raised a hand, fished out the phone. “Yo.”

“As usual, Mr. Meter, your bedside manners leave much to be desired.”

I grinned at Charlie’s prim voice. “That’s cuz you’re not in bed, darling. What’s up?”

“First of all, I must impress upon you that I am not your secretary. I am Mr. Winston’s assistant, who, in a spirit of generosity I will never understand, lets you rent the rooms above. My calling you to relay messages will not become a habit. Is that clear?”

“As melting snow. What’s the problem?”

“There is a gentleman standing in front of my desk who insists on speaking with you.”

I raised an eyebrow. The disdain she placed on the word gentleman led me to believe he was far from one. The guy’s demand must have been quite forceful to get Charlie to track me down. Then it clicked. “He wouldn’t have a gun pointed at you, by any chance?”

She sniffed. “Yes. He does.”

My heart started playing bongos against my ribs. “Where’s Winston?”

“In court.”

“Tell the guy I’ll be right there.”

“He wishes to speak to you now.”

I heard some rustling then a smooth voice. “Mr. Meter? No cops. Cops make me very nervous. You have ten minutes to get here.”

“It’s the middle of the day. I won’t make it.”

“Ten minutes.” The phone went dead.

I closed the cell, shot up. “Gotta go,” I said to the woman who was watching me with wide eyes. I couldn’t remember her name —Liz or something— and I didn’t care.

“I heard you mention a gun,” she said. “Shouldn’t I call the police?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“What about the rest? Your apartment.”

I stopped in the doorway and turned. “It goes like this, sweetheart. You have a choice. You have five days to take care of everything, or you lose a fat —very fat— bonus. Got it?”

She straightened, eyes glaring, the red of her lips a dash of hostility, and gave me a short nod.

I rushed out and clambered down the fire escape stairs from the second floor to the underground parking garage. I hit the ground running, at the same time zapping my car unlocked through the remote on my key ring. For the first time, my doubts about spending a small fortune on four wheels and an engine flew out the window. The SUV’s engine purred immediately and the tires didn’t even squeal when I burst out of the garage and veered west onto Wellington.

The office was in an old house on Bronson near Slater. At eleven at night, I could make it in under five minutes. At eleven in the morning, I wasn’t sure I’d make it in ten, but I was damned if I wouldn’t try.

Nine minutes and forty-five seconds later, I careened into one of the two parking spaces behind the house then took a breath. If I came in too fast and scared the guy, Charlie might buy it. I had a sweet spot for Charlie, even though she had the personality of a prickly pear and thought I was a bum. We both had a weakness for good coffee, and that was enough for me. After the first cup of java she’d served me, I’d adopted her as my pet secretary, to her deep despair.

Instead of going in the back way, I walked around the house and entered from the front door. Inside, I stopped, listened. The house creaked, the furnace started, but there were no moaning or raised voices. That was good. Maybe.

Winston’s office door was closed. I knocked. “It’s Jack Meter,” I said loud enough to be heard through the thick door. It opened quietly, revealing a white-faced Charlie sitting at her desk, her hands flat on the surface. She looked like an angry rat, ready to jump and bite. No sign of her uninvited guest, so I assumed he was behind the door.

“Hey, Charlie,” I said. “I would’ve brought you back a coffee, but I was caught in traffic.” I stepped inside the office. The door closed behind me and I turned around.

The man still pointed his gun, this time at me. His appearance matched the voice: average height with bright, intelligent eyes. Sharp suit, cashmere coat, Italian leather shoes, designer hair. All in black. Not the kind of man anyone would imagine with a gun in hand, threatening a defenseless secretary.

“Please take this man away,” Charlie said, in the same tone she’d use if she were asking me to take out a particularly smelly piece of garbage.

“We’re leaving, Ms. St-Clair,” the man said in his smooth voice, with a charming smile that involved a lot of teeth. “I suggest you not call the police. If you do so, an unfortunate accident could happen to Mr. Meter, which, I’m sure, you wouldn’t like on your conscience.”

Charlie threw me a questioning glance. I shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”

She pursed her lips then nodded.

I opened the door, stepped out. The gun and the man followed. “Where to?”

He gestured with the gun towards the back door. “We’ll take your car.”

I shrugged again, relieved to get outside, away from Charlie. When we were both seated in the truck, the thug —he might be well dressed, but he was still a thug in my eyes— instructed me to take the Queensway westward.

He whistled and caressed the dashboard. “Nice vehicle. Always wanted to ride inside one of those babies. I would’ve picked one of the cars, though, not the SUV. Too hard on gas.”

“Does this conversation have a point?”

“Just trying to pass the time.”

“You have a name?”

“Sure, but you don’t need to know it. There’s little chance we’ll meet again.” He waited a few heartbeats. “At least you want to hope so.”

I snorted. Yep, just as I thought. A thug. “Where are we going?”

“CompuLife.”

I’d never heard the name, but it wasn’t surprising. New businesses cropped up almost every week in this town. Some of them closed almost as fast. “Insurance company?”

The thug snickered. “Yeah, you could call it that.” He pointed forward as I merged into traffic on the Queensway. “Get off at the Moodie Drive exit, toward Robertson Road. Turn right on Robertson.”

“Who’s at CompuLife?”

“Javed Ambrose, CEO of CompuLife. He wants to see you. I’m playing delivery boy.” He grinned, but there was anger in his eyes. It looked like someone, probably Ambrose, had applied pressure, and the thug didn’t like it.

He fell silent after that. I thought about trying something, but there was the matter of the gun still pointed at me. I didn’t like guns. People who carried them had a tendency to use them and I wasn’t interested in an extra hole in my body, especially now that I didn’t have my telecarb to whisk me away to Thrittene for a repair job. I decided to wait and see what Ambrose wanted of me.

The trip from downtown to Moodie Drive took about twenty minutes. Even though temperatures had been well below normal for the beginning of February, and there was the menace of snow in the air, the highway was dry. Everyone was sick of winter at this point. There had been very little snow, but it had been bitching cold in January. Old farmers consulted their bursitis and said we were going to buy it in February or March, with snowstorm after snowstorm. I didn’t believe them, really, but each day that passed without a flake was one day closer to spring, in my book. As if to taunt me, globs of wet snow began to fall when I took the Moodie exit.

“Next?” I said when I turned on Robertson.

“Straight ahead, second light on your left.”

His directions led me into a cul-de-sac, which ended at a five-storey glass-and-steel structure that took up at least a full block. The sign “CompuLife” ran half the length of the top floor. The windows, tinted a sort of orangey-red, reflected daylight and gave no clue as to what was inside. All I could see was my own truck coming down the road. I had expected a small business, one of those fly-by-nights that don’t make a blip in the economic radar. Judging by the real estate alone, CompuLife looked like a major company. Strange that I hadn’t heard about them at all.

The parking lot in front of the entrance was empty, another weird thing. Sure, it was nearly noon, but I doubted all employees had left for lunch, every one of them with their vehicles. I parked, turned off the ignition.

I pocketed the keys to the RX before I jumped out. My passenger followed suit and rounded the front of the truck. “Go on in,” he said. “I’m right behind you.”

I snapped up the collar of my jacket, shoved my hands in my pockets, and strode to the front entrance. It was a set of glass doors, equally impenetrable, at the end of a short walkway covered by an overhang, also made of glass. The doors opened silently onto a dark interior. I hesitated, looked back. My well-dressed thug grinned and gestured with his gun for me to go in.

I stepped inside and the doors swished closed, leaving the thug outside. The interior was as dark as it first appeared, except for a portion of the floor in front of me that glowed faintly for a few meters, forming what looked like a path leading into darkness.

I waited for a minute, but no one came, so I guessed that whoever had so kindly invited me wanted me to follow the yellow brick road. I started walking and, as I advanced, the floor lighted up in sections. On either side of me, darkness was total. My steps echoed and bounced around me, giving me an impression of a much greater space than the CompuLife building itself. An illusion created by darkness, maybe. Didn’t matter; both the sound and the feeling of empty space were spooky. If Ambrose had created the scene to creep me out, he’d succeeded.

I rubbed my wrist, thinking that wearing my telecarb just about now might not have been such a bad thing. If it had worked properly, that is. During my stint at rearranging parallel worlds, I’d decided to have it removed. I’d had enough of aliens and space, not to mention the threat of changing into Thrittene goop every time I used the telecarb to transport me from one place to the next. Despite all attempts to fix what the Thrittene called a “glitch,” the telecarb had become useless to me, so I’d insisted they find a way to remove it. They did, and I was soon happily back in the world of the Earth-dwellers.

Even though the Thrittene had left me a way to contact them, I had no intention of doing so any time soon. I was glad to be rid of the Thrittene along with the telecarb. Sure, maybe I missed those wacko aliens occasionally, but it felt real good not to be connected to the great beyond. The universe was large and it was scary. I’d rather stay close to home.

The lighted path ended at an elevator. Its doors opened when I approached. I stepped inside. The doors closed and the car began to rise before I’d turned around. The walls were gleaming copper and bare, with none of the usual buttons for each floor or a flap for the emergency telephone.

A bit over the top, I thought. So far, the situation had the melodrama of a gangster B-movie, combined with a touch of science fiction. I was curious to meet the man who was playing the game.

The elevator doors opened onto a medieval lobby. It was the only way I could describe it. The receptionist’s desk a gothic behemoth, woven tapestries blanketed every wall, antique Persian rugs covered a stone floor, and pillar candles set in wall-mounted sconces lighted the room. Not a telephone or computer in sight.

“You took your own sweet time getting here,” a voice said near the desk. Almost blending into the faded tapestry colors behind her, the woman could have been Charlie’s twin. Same disapproving eyes, same thin lips, same efficient-looking hands.

I stepped up to her desk. “I’m here, now.”

Stiff-backed, she rose, walked three paces, and pulled back a tapestry to reveal an intricately carved wooden door. “In there.”

From ultra-modern outside to gothic inside, I next stepped into nineteenth century shabby. The first thing I noticed was a roaring fire in a marble fireplace, its surrounding white surface stained with soot. On either side, two wing chairs, their backs covered with large antimacassars, were set at the perfect angle to warm toes without burning the soles. Beside one of the chairs, a crystal brandy decanter and cognac glasses rested on a small, round table, which I remembered Annie calling a gueridon. All I could see from the person sitting in the chair was a pair of feet in ratty slippers crossed at the ankles, one big toe poking from a hole in the fabric, and a wrinkled hand at the end of a housecoat-covered arm drumming its fingers impatiently.

The rest of the room was dim. Heavy velvet drapes covered what might be the windows and fell in a puddle on the floor, again covered with more Persian carpets.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Have a seat, man.”

The male voice, reed-thin and cranky, seemed even older than the hand. I came in further until I stood beside his chair. He had white hair and stooped shoulders —bony within the housecoat— and his eyes had the rheumy haze of a person in need of a cataract operation.

“Pour us a brandy, will you,” the man said. “It’s a nasty morning out there. I’ve never liked February.”

I walked around the chair, poured a hefty dose of brandy for each of us, handed him one of the snifters. Still without a word, I sat across from him and sipped. The drink flowed down my throat like liquid fire and warmed bones I didn’t realize were chilled. Whatever his tactics to get me here, the old man knew his brandy. After the sip, I stared at him, a questioning look on my face.

“My name is Javed Ambrose,” the old man said after coughing over his sip of brandy. “I’m the CEO of CompuLife.”

“The lackey who came to fetch me said CompuLife wasn’t a life insurance company.”

“Ha!” His amusement turned into another fit of coughing. He waved me back when I started to rise, thinking that I should maybe thump him on the back before he croaked in front of my eyes. “Sit. No, Mr. Meter, we are not in the life insurance business. If anything, this organization has caused more deaths by itself than any war or famine.” He mulled that over for a few seconds then shook his head, looking mournful. “Come to think of it, we’re responsible for those wars and famine. The Black Death, too.”

Why did every case I’d had lately start with someone who sounded ready for a reserved padded room at the Royal Ottawa? I was somewhat hazy on the specific dates, but I was pretty sure the Black Death had occurred in the fourteenth century.

Ambrose peered at me, an amused grin on his face. It was clear that he knew exactly what I was thinking. “Ever hear of the three Fates, Mr. Meter?”

“As in the three Greek goddesses who determine and control the length of each person’s life?”

“I’m impressed. Most people don’t know about them.”

“Classical education. My mother hoped I’d become a priest.”

“Ha! It didn’t take, I see.”

“Nothing’s wasted.”

Ambrose nodded. “I knew you were a smart one. I’m gonna need a smart buck if I want to get out of this mess. What else do you know about them?”

“That’s about it.”

“Hmm. There’s Clotho, who’s in charge of spinning the thread of life. She calls herself Linda, these days. Lachesis, or Cam, coordinates the measurement of it. Atropos has the hardest job. She decides when and where to cut.”

“She has another name, too?”

“She likes Ialysa.”

“Pretty. So what does that have to do with my being here?”

“That’s what CompuLife is all about, man. Spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life for the world. Linda, Cam, and Ialysa are in charge of the process.”

“They don’t think they’re goddesses, I hope.”

“Their identities have never been in question. They’ve been the same people for thousands of years.”

I suppressed a sigh and tried to find a gracious way of getting out of there. “How many people are on Earth, these days? Billions. They must be really busy women.”

“Don’t be a smart ass. We got tools that help.” His eyes glazed over with nostalgia. “It was real easy in the beginning. Only a few hundred thousand people, the girls could finish the job by lunchtime. They could have leisure activities, rest up. There was laughter around, and a certain ease. Then Linda got ambitious and got a frame spinner, and that meant more people to manage. We had to hire staff. Project management wasn’t her strongpoint. She let the production run 24/7. You can imagine what that did to the workload. With population growth, it soon became apparent that whoever had thought of the trio system hadn’t done any long-term planning. The girls started fighting amongst themselves, Cam and Ialysa went on strike for a while. I tell you, it was a real mess. We got backed up. Population explosion’s not good. Brings out all sorts of problems. So we had to introduce the plague. Had to do that a couple times more, after that. Drastic way to control population, but there you have it. Even then, we’ve never been able to control increases in the same efficient manner. There’s this complicated formula Cam expressed to explain the problem, but I’ll be damned if I understand it.”

I took a large sip of fortifying brandy. Even a year ago, I’d have thought the old man either was trying to scam me or was delusional. Best scenario, someone was playing a joke on me, but I didn’t think so. All I knew was that I wasn’t running out of the room screaming. I wasn’t sure where Javed’s baloney led, but he’d made me curious. “You still haven’t explained how they manage the lives of billions of people.”

Ambrose grunted. “Ever heard of Oracle?”

“The lady of Delphi or the database?”

He threw me a disgusted glance. “Of course the database. We created that. Meaning the Fates, of course. I just run the business side of it.”

“Dropping the name of a well-known database isn’t quite convincing, I’m afraid, even if the name touches on destiny.”

“We’ll visit the data centre once we’re finished here.”

I took another sip of brandy then looked deep into the fire. Now I understood why he'd sent a thug to bring me here at gunpoint. The deeper Ambrose’s story got, the more ludicrous it got. If I believed his story, I could step into the delusions of a lunatic. “Okay, let’s say I believe you. What do you want from me?

“Want?” he barked. “What I want is for you to find Ialysa. She’s been kidnapped.”

“Let me think. Ialysa’s the one who snuffs lives, right?”

“Cheeky bastard. Didn’t you listen to anything I said? You can laugh as much as you want, but this situation is catastrophic. Oh, we can carry on for a while without her, but our system needs constant, minute decisions. Unless you find her and get her back to us, the Earth will continue to fill up, but no one’s gonna die. No one. Ever again.”