“You looking at naked women?”
Nicholas closed his eyes and returned the photograph of Felicity to beside his computer. He picked up the draft auditing report, gave only an oblique turn of his head, “Just some share prices. Don’t say anything though.”
Kieran blew a sharp burst of air from his nose, a dissatisfied bull, “Who am I
going to tell?”
True enough, Nicholas thought. His colleague took great pride in doing the
minimum amount of work required to discourage complaint—from colleagues, from supervisors, from clients. He was a willing ear to apathy for any kind of exertion.
“You sure you ain’t looking at ladies?” Masticating sounds leapt from
Kieran’s mouth, a weakness for Wrigley’s Extra. “It’s nothing to me.”
Nicholas bowed his head, briefly massaged his eyelids. He arranged his features to signify impatience, turned them on his colleague.
Kieran paid him no mind. He was clutching the photograph of Felicity, eyes only a few centimetres from the glass frame. He flipped the frame to examine its back, then returned Felicity to his gaze, “Funny looking shares.” He grinned. “You trade in women?”
Nicholas stared absently at Kieran’s neck, the blood suffusing in altering
patterns, the distended skin glowing a vital red, its swell and recoil like a bellows
stoking a fire. Nicholas reached across and placed a hand on a part of the frame not
appropriated by his colleague’s enormous hands. He rested it there until Kieran, unhurried, surrendered his grip.
Placing the photograph on the opposite side of the desk, Nicholas
straightened his body, realigned himself with his computer, “Well, better get back to it then I suppose.”
More bovine noises. “To what? Your shares?”
“To looking at pornography.” Eyebrows raised, Nicholas glanced over his shoulder at Kieran, “Do you mind? It’s something I enjoy alone.”
Silence from the man at his elbow.
Nicholas closed his eyes again. He knew better than to joke with Kieran. A miscalculated gibe or ill-timed snub toward his colleague had the power to incite a week of wordless, brooding hostility—harmless, but oppressive when endured for eight hours a day in a space no bigger than a bus shelter.
The other edge of the sword was equally sharp, though, and Nicholas recoiled now at receiving its blow—Kieran’s deep, rising chuckle, his hand clamping onto Nicholas’s shoulder, tightening, his husky voice close to Nicholas’s ear, “You’re all right, Nick. I’d forgotten. But seriously, are you into that kind of thing?”
Nicholas gripped the desk, retreated his chair, swung his whole body to face Kieran. He hunkered his brow, set his lips tight, “I was kidding before, yeah? And about the shares as well? You get that, right?”
A shake of the head, a playful smile, Kieran’s eyes narrowing conspiratorially,
“Not here, moron. Do you watch it? At home like?” His eyebrows leapt at the photograph of Felicity, “When the pretty wife ain’t around?”
“Go back to your desk, Kieran. I mean it. I’ve got work to do.”
Kieran impervious, half-raised from his chair now, head perched and eyes scanning above their cubicle walls, an office meerkat. Grinning again, he stabbed a chubby finger to the floor between them, “I had Anne Drummond, right here, on my desk, last night, ka-blaam.”
Nicholas’s blood rapidly cooled. It thickened, began to ice over. The mention of pornography was awkward, embarrassing, unpleasant. Talk of having sex with their manager, Anne Drummond, was litigation.
Nicholas swung back to the computer, snatched up a blue highlighter, bent over the auditing report.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” Kieran said. “I can tell you don’t believe
Nicholas highlighted random phrases in the report: detection risk; modified opinion; limited assurance engagement, complementary user entity controls.
“You’re telling me you don’t want to hear how I made Anne moan right here in our cubicle? You don’t want to—”
“Enough!” Nicholas leapt from his seat. He bared his teeth. He blazed his eyes. He thrust out his right hand between them, chopped the air with it.
A moment later Kieran mumbled something inaudible, turned away, sulked back to his desk. Neither man spoke to the other for the remainder of the week.
The following Tuesday all twelve accountants, Nicholas and Kieran among them, sat around a composite table in a small, white, windowless room on the twelfth floor of an unnamed building. At the table’s head was a large whiteboard, to the right which stood Anne Drummond.
Discussion had progressed to the fourth agenda item when Erica Kenny, web- design team leader, lowered suddenly from the waist in a prayer-like gesture. She descended until her forehead clunked cheerfully on the table, where she remained, eyes closed, head rocking back and forth.
Amid the general laughter, Nicholas affected a smile while looking beyond Erica, whose stylised collapse provided a clear line of sight to Kieran. Kieran was neither laughing nor smiling. He sat slumped with his arms folded across his girth, staring steadfastly at something or someone at the head of the table.
Nicholas surreptitiously drew back his chair as Rebecca Ho, communications team leader, gestured at Erica, repeated her dismay. Careful to move only his eyes, Nicholas traced the line of Kieran’s gaze. He followed it to and fro, a man watching a tennis match.
Knelt before the table, her chin in her hands, nodding solemnly at Rebecca, was Anne Drummond. She was either unaware of Kieran’s stare, or she was unwilling to return it.
Later that day, after Kieran returned from a client visit, Nicholas rolled up on his chair beside him. He glanced at the entrance to their cubicle, and, still finding it empty, withdrew from his pocket a small scrap of paper. He smoothed the paper on the desk and slid it toward Kieran.
Kieran looked at Nicholas a moment, then at the paper. He picked it up, turned it over. He mouthed the words unconsciously: Are you sleeping with the manager?
Kieran slow-blinked, shook his head, slid the note back toward Nicholas, “You had your chance.”
Nicholas nodded. He leaned in, whispered, husky, “I just wanted to tell you how impressed I am. I underestimated you. I had no idea.”
Kieran squinted at his computer, “I know what you’re trying to do. Might as well save your breath.”
“For sure,” Nicholas said. “Absolutely.” He felt like an actor reading lines, following stage directions: protagonist shakes his head, laughs, leans back, raises his hands as though under arrest, “I’m just paying my respect. God knows every guy in here wants to hit that.” He paused, studied Kieran’s face. “But you actually did. You hit it. You beat the drum.” He shook his head again, the smile gone now, his face all business. “I am exceedingly impressed.”
Kieran’s eyes flashed in Nicholas’s direction. It lasted less than a second, but Nicholas caught it. “So impressed,” Nicholas said. Then he did something he thought he would never do: he slapped a hand down on Kieran’s rump-like shoulder, gave it a firm squeeze, whispered, “I’d love to hear your secret sometime.”
Nicholas was wheeling himself back to his desk when Kieran said, “I know you go to the toilet to cry.”
Nicholas stopped. He turned and looked at Kieran, who was still showing his back, peering at his computer. Nicholas was quiet a moment, then he laughed, nervously, “I beg you a pardon?”
“You heard me.” Kieran half-turned his head, looked at the carpet between them. “I’m just saying. Everybody has secrets.” He glanced at Nicholas, then back to the carpet. “If you’re still interested, we can meet this evening. The Anchor after work.”
Nicholas arrived at the Hope & Anchor tavern at a quarter to six. Under the pretext of finishing the auditing report, he had delayed his departure from work to avoid making the short walk to the pub with Kieran, whom he now saw seated in a booth at the rear of the tavern. Alongside Kieran was another man, one Nicholas didn’t recognise.
Nicholas ordered three Leffe Blonds—Kieran had stipulated that he drank nothing else, tolerated nothing else in the company he kept—and headed to the table.
“This is Frostie,” Kieran said as Nicholas laid the beers on the table. Nicholas extended his hand; Frostie shook it.
No one spoke as Nicholas slid into the booth opposite the men. Kieran sat hunched, staring into his existing half-drained Leffe. Frostie, his back military- straight against booth, gazed into the main section of the tavern.
Nicholas glanced around for a moment, commented on the stormy-grey décor, smiled absently at his companions, then looked down and frowned at his drink, regarding it the way one might a tall glass of pond water.
When he lifted his gaze he saw Kieran pull sharply away from Frostie’s ear. Nicholas laughed softly to signify that he had witnessed the exchange, but when neither man would meet his eye, his expression hardened. He thought he saw clearly now the reason for his invitation this evening: to be the butt of some joke, the details of which were still being finalised.
Sharply, Nicholas said, “You ready tell me about Anne?” When Kieran didn’t immediately answer, he added, “There’s nothing to tell, is there?”
Kieran glanced at Frostie, who continued to gaze vacantly toward the tavern’s main section. Then he said, “You want to know how I had sex with her in our cubicle?”
“I’m here aren’t I?”
Kieran glanced at Frostie again—still statuesque—then, returning to Nicholas, took a sip of his Leffe and, articulating each syllable, announced, “Virtual reality.” He spread his glistening lips wide as he closed out the latter word, and held the grin.
Nicholas, vaguely aware that he was grimacing but powerless to stop it, said,
“A computer game?”
Kieran’s grin collapsed. He bowed his head and looked sideways at Frostie.
Leisurely, Frostie drank the remaining three-quarters of his beer in a single tilt, gently reset the glass on the table, and slid from the booth.
Kieran watched him until he was out of sight. Then he screwed up his face at Nicholas, “What is the matter with you? It’s not a computer game, you moron.
You’re embarrassing me.”
Nicholas smiled, shook his head, looked away. Kieran was right; he really was a moron. On what planet was mother-of-two Anne Drummond sleeping with Kieran? On no planet. A virtual planet.
Kieran’s voice was exasperated, “You must have heard of virtual reality?”
Still smiling, Nicholas returned his gaze to Kieran, thought for a long moment, then caught hold of a memory: Nicholas as a fledgling teenager; the brief stay of a VR boxing simulation at his local arcade; the machine an elevated circular platform, one meter in diameter, encircled by a waist-high railing, like a crow’s nest atop a sailing ship; emanating from the rear of the platform three thick black tubes connected to a full-face headset and two gloves; donning the headset revealing a crude apparition—a collection of electric-blue geometric planes loosely cast into human form, the creature’s movements as fluid as a plastic action figure.
Nicholas had barely begun to recount the memory when Kieran waved a hand in his face, “Are you kidding me? Forget that. It’s just like the real thing now. The graphics are unbelievable.
“That so?” Nicholas took another drink of his Leffe. He was suddenly very
relaxed, almost happy. He didn’t immediately recognise the emotion; it had been so long since he felt it. He slumped a little farther into the seat.
“You can do anything now.” Kieran mirrored Nicholas’s retreat into the backrest, toasted him, “A-ny-thing.”
“Even sleep with the boss.”
Kieran toasted Nicholas a second time, finished his beer, slid the empty glass across the table toward him.
“Another?” Nicholas asked innocently. “Frostie too.”
When Nicholas returned to the booth, Frostie was back alongside Kieran, and the two men appeared to be arguing. Frostie stared straight ahead, metronomically shaking his head, while Kieran, who was turned toward him, spoke rapidly and gestured wildly with his hands. Both men, like illicit lovers, broke-apart when Nicholas set down the beers before them.
“You promised me this was a karaoke bar,” Nicholas said. “My voice makes grown men cry.” He laughed, but neither man joined in. All the better, Nicholas thought; no one would lament his departure after a flat joke. “Sorry to do this to you, Kieran,” he said, “but I have to leave.”
Kieran gave no indication of having heard. He looked sidelong at Frostie,
“Frostie isn’t sure if we should ask you. He forgets things cost money.”
Frostie gathered his refreshed glass, tipped half of it down his throat.
Nicholas tried again, “It’ll have to wait for another time I’m afraid.
Something’s come up.”
Kieran looked up at Nicholas, “You’re cool, right Nick?”
Nicholas, half-turned to leave, hesitated. Below him, Kieran’s eyes were huge. His face was soft, slack, imbued with entreaty. He looked like a child, holding forth to Nicholas a great chunk of his honour, to be fortified or to be smashed.
Still Nicholas hesitated. He looked toward the exit, longed for it. Then he sighed, looked back. He narrowed his eyes at Kieran and set his mouth tight, as though the very question of him being anything other than cool was deeply offensive, to both of them. He lowered himself back into the booth, “Make it quick.”
Kieran nodded, looked at Frostie, “We’ve got a proposition for you.” Frostie’s right hand—having rose unseen by Nicholas to shoulder height—
suddenly exploded earthwards, a sprung mousetrap, the open palm crashing to the table with a thunderous clap.
Nicholas jumped in his seat. Kieran, who also jumped, fumbled his fresh Leffe, which capsized violently, spraying beer across the table and onto the seat next to Nicholas.
“Jesus!” Kieran said, righting the glass and raising it from the foaming puddle. “Did you get hit there, Nick? Nick, did it get you?”
Nicholas didn’t answer. He was staring at Frostie, who was staring at him.
In a rasping baritone, a voice that if heard in the dark Nicholas would have
attributed to a centenarian smoker, Frostie said, “Even if you don’t agree, you speak of this to no one. Is that understood?”
Nicholas said nothing. Any interest he had in what was happening between these two men, or indeed any stake or influence he had in its outcome, vanished the moment Frostie low-fived the table. Curiosity had compelled him here this evening, and some sense of misguided allegiance had retained him, but neither could survive being treated like some kid who couldn’t be trusted with a secret, one that almost certainly wasn’t even worth knowing.
Nicholas had discovered that Kieran was indeed sleeping with their boss … in a computer game. Fine, wonderful, that great mystery was solved. That Nicholas
had expected anything less ridiculous and juvenile was shame on him. And if civility had been abandoned on the one side of the table, he saw no reason to continue it on his. He slid from the booth.
“Nick, hey, wait.” Kieran spoke rapidly. “You like to day-dream right? Hey, wait. What do you cry about at work?”
Nicholas, free of the booth, his back to Kieran, stopped.
Kieran raced on, “Maybe sometimes things ain’t too good at home like, yeah?
Stress with work, with family. Stress with the wife, right? Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I?”
Nicholas turned his head. Kieran was half out of his seat, one hand extended toward him. “Everybody needs time out. You need to release some tension. It’s healthy. But in a way that doesn’t harm anyone, am I right? It’s natural. It’s healthy.”
He paused, his voice finally easing off the accelerator. “Before you go, just tell me: what you dream about? What do you—” Revelation suddenly alighted upon Kieran’s face. He levelled an index finger at Nicholas. “Katrina!” He smiled, wide. “What if I told you … what if I guaranteed you that you could have an experience with Katrina that was so real you would swear you were actually touching her?”
During his pitch, Kieran had been throwing anxious glances at Frostie, seemingly attempting to gauge how much information he could divulge without incurring the man’s wrath again. Clearly he had been operating close to the threshold, Frostie’s glare ceaselessly boring though him. With his final few remarks, however, Kieran went too far, and in a simple, placating gesture that signified the great imbalance of power between the two men, Frostie reached up and gently rested his hand on the back on Kieran’s neck, whereupon the latter quietened and bowed in submission.
This unnervingly intimate pose lasted a few seconds. It detached only when Nicholas, leaning over the table, tapped his removed wedding ring four times against Kieran’s soiled glass. Having secured the men’s attention, he laid the ring on the table, slid it slowly toward the centre, placing a bet. “It’s not in my interests to tell,” he said. He didn’t wait for sanction. “You’re offering a service, right? Well, I’m interested.” Careful to avoid the soaked areas, Nicholas slid back into the booth, focused on Kieran. “Not Katrina, though. I want Arianna. Only she’ll do. Can you do that?”
Kieran, appearing slightly dazed at the sudden turn of events, gave Nicholas a puzzled look. “The receptionist?” Then he seemed to remember his overseer, but a nervous glance to his left revealed Frostie staring pensively into the crowd again.
Kieran tentatively received this disregard as assent. His expression, however, grew serious. His manner abruptly assumed a formal, business-like air, a professionalism Nicholas had never witnessed as work.
“Here’s what we offer,” Kieran said. “A twenty-minute tailored program, with unlimited access to that program, but we retain the copyright. It’s five hundred for a consultation, three thousand for a program, and two hundred for every visit after that.”
While Kieran spoke, Nicholas watched Frostie, who had looked away from the crowd and was staring at Nicholas again. “Okay,” Nicholas replied. “When can I start?”
Kieran shook his head, blew a customary burst of air from his nose, “It doesn’t work like that. You’ll need a few things first. There’s—”
Frostie touched his hand to Kieran’s forearm, silencing him. In his ancient, weathered tone, Frostie said, “Your wife’s name.” There was no rising inflection in his voice; it wasn’t a question.
“Your home address.”
Nicholas stared at Frostie. The man’s face was emotionless. He had no interest in Nicholas’s responses. This was about power. It was about Nicholas surrendering his.
There followed a lengthy few seconds of silence, during which the two men stared at each other. Then Kieran leaned toward Frostie and, clearly anxious to return to the business at hand, said, “He’s got a nice wife. I’ve seen her.”
Frostie’s gaze persisted on Nicholas a moment longer, then withdrew toward the main part of the tavern again.
“If you go ahead with this,” Kieran was saying, “you’ll be Lucid Pleasures forty-seventh customer.”
Nicholas smiled politely at the name, then nodded dutifully at the number.
The promise of sex with someone you could only otherwise dream of bedding was, he imagined, an easy sell.
“Like I said before,” Kieran continued, “you’ll need a few things first.” He spoke easily, fluently, like a man who had delivered these words forty-six times before. “There’s no link between the mind and the machine. You have to build the woman first, and, around her, you have to build the world. The devil is in the detail. Frostie needs as many details as possible.” Kieran tipped his head to Nicholas. “That’s up to you. A picture, her voice, a video of how she moves, any specific gestures she—”
Nicholas checked Kieran with a raised hand. He opened his mouth to ask how he was meant to get all these things, then promptly closed it again, realising he already knew. It was same the reason why Frostie transitioned so violently between ice-cold reticence and hostile interrogation: forty-six people before Nicholas had presumably paid over thirty-seven hundred dollars with the expectation of receiving an authentic experience. If this authenticity was dependent on detail, and if that detail was obtained without consent, then perhaps the devil really was at the heart of this transaction.
Nicholas lowered his hand. “How do I get these things?”
Kieran looked down at his glass, toyed absently with it. “Like I said, that’s up to you. We take no responsibility for that.” He looked up again. “But the better quality the tokens the better the program, and the better the experience.” He was silent a moment, then said, quietly, “There’s a picture of Arianna on our website.”
Nicholas nodded, imagining Kieran calling up Anne Drummond’s profile photo on their Intranet page.
“Her voice you’ll need to record,” Kieran said. “You can do it down a phone.” “How much do I need?”
“Maybe a minute or so.” Kieran looked at Frostie for confirmation, but Frostie was unavailable for comment. It occurred to Nicholas that the man might be sizing people up in the tavern, mentally selecting those who would translate well into the virtual world.
“What if I can’t get a video?” Nicholas asked.
“You really should, it’s no good without a video. Penny will—” Kieran
hesitated. “Frostie’s wife—”
Frostie looked at Kieran, who abidingly fell silent. Then Frostie looked at Nicholas, “If you can’t get video footage, we have someone who will supply the movements.”
“The background,” Kieran took up, “just take a picture of that too.” “Where I want it to take place?”
“Yeah. And you’ll need a script as well—how you want it all to play out. You ever see a screenplay? How it’s written?”
Nicholas hadn’t, but nodded anyway.
“Do it like that. All the words, the actions. When you have everything, let me know, I’ll book you a consultation.” Kieran grinned and nodded at Nicholas. He was still grinning and nodding when Frostie leaned into his ear and whispered
something that had Kieran nodding further, this time with a look of concentration. Frostie then stood, shook Nicholas’s hand, finished his Leffe, and left the tavern.
Kieran stood, too, reaching into his front shirt pocket and withdrawing a packet of Peter Jacksons. When he pointed the packet toward the entrance, Nicholas gathered up his ring and followed him outside.
“Don’t mind Frostie,” Kieran said when they were on the pavement. “He never talks much. Always nervous, too. I don’t know how he expects us to make any money if we’re always turning away clients.” He stared at the ground, absently scuffed the soles of his shoes on the sidewalk. Then he laughed suddenly and said, “Arianna, eh? That’s left field. I’ll enjoy that.”
Nicholas, who had been watching traffic move steadily down Macquarie Street, turned and looked at Kieran. He continued to do so until his colleague, who had developed a sudden interest in his hands, turning them over repeatedly, finally let out a nervous laugh. He glanced briefly at Nicholas before returning to his hands. “Hell, Nick. What do you want me to say? Of course I look at them. It’s like looking into people’s dreams, isn’t it? How can you not?” He took a drag of his cigarette and shook his head as he exhaled, the smoke briefly veiling him. “You think you know people, right? But then you see these things they’ve asked for? Jesus. I swear to God, Frostie’s got an iron stomach.” He lifted his gaze to Nicholas’s. “But I won’t look at yours, Nick, all right? Honest.”
“Can I see Anne?”
For a moment Kieran said nothing, only studied Nicholas through narrow eyes. Then his face relaxed into a smile and he stabbed his cigarette at Nicholas’s chest, “You dog. I was actually going to suggest it. You should have said something earlier. Most clients want to see how the experience will look and feel before they commit to a consultation. You dived right in and didn’t give me a chance to offer.” Kieran took a shallow drag of his cigarette, his voice impatient to reclaim the mouth, “You want to see Anne, just say the word. Hell, come around and try a few if you want. Frostie put together some celebrity files as tasters. Pretty good, too, but Drummond”—he briefly closed his eyes, made a fist with his free hand, kissed the top of it—“she never gets old.” Then his smile wavered. He added solemnly, “Still
two hundred a pop though. You understand?”
“I understand,” Nicholas said.
Kieran flicked his cigarette to the pavement and jerked his head toward the tavern’s door. “Another?”
“I really have to go. See you tomorrow though, yeah?”
Kieran’s face sank a little at this news, then quickly reformed into its familiar affected indifference. “Sure. Remember what I said about coming around sometime.”
But Nicholas was already walking away, his gaze turned toward the cloudless night sky, a cluster of stars already beginning to assume her shape.
Four months later Nicholas sat in his parked car, looking across a manicured lawn to Frostie’s house and the pulsating orange glow emanating from his basement window. He knew Kieran wasn’t supposed to be there, but he couldn’t stop himself imagining his colleague stalking that subterranean space, a visor strapped to his head, gloves on his hands, standing in their office cubicle only not standing in their cubicle, his hands on Anne’s hips only not on her hips, breathing hard, baring his teeth, thrusting into thin air.
Nicholas looked away from the house and closed his eyes, reminded himself of Hayden’s promise.
Frostie’s real name was Hayden. Their consultation had last over two hours, during which Hayden had inventoried the items Nicholas bought with him: a profile picture, an audio file (a message on Nicholas’s phone that he had never erased), and
Nicholas’s script. One by one Nicholas surrendered each item to Hayden, and, one
by one, Hayden reviewed them.
After Hayden inspected the script, he asked if it was the only her laugh Nicholas wished to include; Nicholas said it was. Then Hayden asked him if there was anything else he wanted to add to her description—the smallest details, he said, were the ones that tricked the mind, edged it closer toward the suspension of disbelief.
At first, Nicholas said nothing. In the nineteen months since Felicity’s death, no one had ever asked him about the details before. He thought himself incapable of providing them, believing such things to be too subtle for description, too ethereal, as if they were transmitted between lovers on a senseless, telepathic frequency.
But Hayden had merely waited, pen poised above paper, his silence patient, open. Nicholas spoke slowly at first. Then he began to gather pace. The more he talked, the more the details revealed themselves. They began to snowball. At their peak they assumed the speed and strength of an avalanche, tumbling out of Nicholas with such force that they caused him to crumple, to collapse into himself, as if all this time these tiny fragments of memories were the only things keeping him upright.
Hayden’s pen scratched swiftly across the paper. Only at the bottom of a seventh A4 page did it begin to slow, then finally halt. Nicholas had begun to cry. His body shook. He vomited upon the floor between his feet.
Later, when the two men shook hands, Hayden had held the shake. He caught and detained Nicholas’s gaze, assured him that no one but them would ever view the program.
Glancing over his shoulder at the orange glow again, Nicholas cracked the driver-side door, illuminating the interior light. On the passenger seat next to him, carefully folded, was her white silk dress. Upon the dress was her hairclip, woven with plastic diamonds and cloth flowers. Beside them, in a small wooden box lined with blue felt, lay a bottle of Voyage d’Hermes perfume and her wedding ring.
Nicholas opened the glove box and removed the framed photograph of Felicity. It felt good in his hands, familiar, home. He had missed it while it had been in Hayden’s possession, continuing to reach absently for it at work. He placed the photograph against the steering wheel and looked into his wife’s eyes. Somewhere close by, several dogs began to bark.
“Forgive me Felicity,” he whispered. “Not without you.”
by Ruairi Murphy from Australia