Breakfast was a mash of overly bright post-dawn light and harsh jarring sounds. He’d choked back some dry white toast, using black coffee syrupy with sugar as a chaser. After he kept that down, he brushed his teeth twice before leaving the house, jacket slung over his shoulder. He was already sweating through his shirt by the time he almost made his bus, watching it pull away from the stop as he rounded the corner.
The driver of the next bus was a man sitting proud behind the wheel, stamping with binary control at the gas and brake pedals, lurching and cursing his way through the crowded morning streets with nausea inducing irregularity. The only blessing was that no one wanted to sit next to him — even Val could smell the Bacardi sweating through his skin.
He spent his time before his meeting surfing the Internet and drinking bad coffee and stale water. He avoided his co-workers, taking refuge in his cubicle. The office hummed with the gentle background of cloistered productivity, phones and conversations overlaying each other into white noise. All except Werner in the cube next to him; that man shouted into his phone like he was trying to raise the dead. Maybe he was — he worked the marketing angle of the project they were on.
By the time he had his meeting with Davies, the shaking in his hands had stopped, the world returning to normal levels of brightness and colour. He was still sweating through his shirt.
“Sit, Val.” Davies’ tailored suits were a thing of office legend, fitting a frame that spent a lot of time eating healthy food and doing whatever it was they did down at Gold’s Gym. He stood behind a baroque desk, a screen, keyboard, mouse, and cellphone laid out just so.
Val’s personnel file was open on the desk too, a couple pages marked with cheerfully coloured Post-its. A gold pen, Cross brand embossed on the clip, sat ready on a legal pad.
No notes, yet.
Val shut the office door behind him and settled into a chair designed for thinner men. “Hey, Pete. Look —”
“Hear me out, Val. It’s not what you think.” Davies shuffled a few of the pages of the file, as if he hadn’t already read each page twice. “You’ve been with the company a while.”
That was a bit unexpected. “Uh, sure. Since —”
Davies held up a hand. “Almost five years. Done some good work for us. Really saved our asses in that coding war with Unisys.” He chuckled to himself, as if it was some beachhead victory they were remembering together. “Top performer three years in a row.”
Val shifted a bit. The padding on the chair was worn thin, and he felt like was sitting on raw plywood with sackcloth nailed over the top. “…Right.”
“There’s not really a delicate way of talking about this.” A smile that was more a grimace sat on Davies’ face. “Since Rebekah passed, well, we’ve noticed some changes.” Davies looked at Val’s gut, then picked up the Cross, tapping it on a paragraph in the file. “Fact is, we still need you.” The clock on the wall ticked by a few more seconds, the sounds of the city outside the open windows gentle. “But we need the old you. You’re a wreck —”
“Hey Pete, c’mon. I crank out the code like you need. I’m the first guy to punch in every morning…”
“And the first guy to hit the Blues at lunch. After lunch, you’re back at your desk, but you’re thinking about your next drink. When was the last night you didn’t knock back even just a few?”
“Everyone has a pint after work, Pete. Be serious. We work in computers. And our clients are assholes.” Val tried for some easy camaraderie. “Who wouldn’t drink on a government contract?”
“It’s not like we work in the ER, Val. And if it was the work that was the problem, we could fix that. You work in a team of what, ten guys?”
“Yeah, and they come down for a beer at lunch too!”
“They don’t all go down. With you.” Davies examined a perfectly manicured nail. “At the same time. Fact is, they’re going down to make sure you’re ok. A few of the guys — and I’m not naming names, it’s confidential — are worried about you. They said they want to keep an eye on you. They’ve come to see me, to ask me to … intercede.”
He grabbed a sheet from the file — this one suspiciously laid out in corporate style — and spun it on the old wooden surface towards Val. “It’s a leave form, Val. It’s on the house. But it’s got conditions.”
Val didn’t lean forward to look at the form. “You’re getting rid of me. Gardening leave. I don’t know if I should be flattered or pissed off.”
Davies tapped the paper again. “Maybe you should just be… Well. I think we both know ‘happy’ is a bit of a stretch, considering. Get your house in order. Drive up the coast. See some friends.” He paused, as if the idea had just occurred to him. “Get some help, Val. See someone.”
Val reached forward to get the sheet, seeing his hand shaking with either anger or the memory of the hangover. Maybe a heavy salting of both. The form was straightforward — a month of leave, but with a small catch.
“The company wants some return, of course.” Davies looked down in carefully constructed abashment. “We want the old Valentine Everard back. We want you a productive member of the family again. We’re going to … invest, shall we say … a few weeks. What’s a few weeks? That’s on us.” Nodding, Davies replaced his expression, looking Valentine right in the eye with an affable smile. It was like watching a super marionette, as if all those management courses had taught him which emotions to try and fake, and when. “But you’ve got to do your share. A part of the bargain.”
It was there in black and white. They’d even helpfully supplied a phone number and a website — probably one of the narcissists in HR. Those fuckers thought of everything with their saccharine sincerity. They wanted him in an alcoholics group of some kind.
“If I don’t sign?”
Davies swapped the grandfatherly smile for a look of grandfatherly reproach. “Well Val, then things might have to get formalised. You know how it is.” As if it was out of his hands. Just one of the boys, Val and him in this thing together. “But we — well. I don’t want it to get formalised.” He handed the Cross to Val.
After he’d signed — like there’d been a choice — he walked out to collect his jacket. He felt as if the entire office watched his walk from Davies’ office to his cube, the air heavy with the silence of funerals. The hessian partitions were covered with the same old crap, charts jostling for supremacy next to Dilbert cartoons. The odd slice of fake humanity was shown with photos printed in cheap colour on the office laser — corporate functions, team building. Outside his own cube, he saw a photo of himself peeking out from under layers of project charts and productivity estimates. It was like growth rings on a tree, those layers — the closer to the heartwood of the hessian backing, the older they were.
He remembered that shot, pulling it out. The photo showed him sprawled on the ground, the thick rope for tug-o-war draped over him and his team buddies. He’d been thinner then, the grin cracking his face one of delight.
It was probably about the time when Rebekah had first told him she was pregnant.
Valentine’s an ordinary guy with ordinary problems. His boss is an asshole. He’s an alcoholic. And he’s getting that middle age spread just a bit too early. One night — the one night he can’t remember — changes everything. What happened at the popular downtown bar, The Elephant Blues? Why is Biomne, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, so interested in him — and the virus he carries? How is he getting stronger, faster, and more fit? And what’s the connection between Valentine and the criminally insane Russian, Volk?
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Genre – Action, Thriller, Urban Fantasy
Rating – R16
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