Janus

This story is part of the AI Project series of short stories I’m working on. Click here to read more of that series.


“What does it smell like?”

“What?”

“What does it smell like?”

“What do you mean what does it smell like?”

“Exactly what it sounds like I’m asking. Does it smell like anything?”

*****

“Charlie?” Kristov called out from his office. “Charlie, quit making me yell and get in here.”

Charlie came bounding around the corner and charged into Kristov’s office. He came to an abrupt stop, doubling over and panting.

“What the fuck are you out of breath for?” asked Kristov. “Your desk is twenty feet away.”

“I was walking out of the bathroom down the hall when I heard you yell,” replied Charlie.

“Ah. Well good hustle or something.”

Kristov leaned forward onto his desk, burying his head down into his arms. After a few moments of adjusting, he rose back up and opened a drawer on the left hand side of his desk. He produced a black fleece blanket from the drawer, which he violently shook open. Kristov then placed the blanket over his head and placed his head back down in his arms, blanket covering him as he did so.

“You needed me, sir?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” Kristov said from beneath the blanket. “What’s my calendar look like today?”

“Dennison Ward will be here at 10:30 for a meeting reg..”

“No he won’t.”

“Are you saying I should cancel it or a…”

“I’m saying he won’t show up. What’s next?”

“Your wife called to tell you that she’ll be by around 11:45 to pick you up for lunch.”

“Call Kim back and tell her I’m not feeling well,” Kristov grumbled. “If she insists on checking in on me, let her in, but come into my office after ten minutes with a very important phone call so I can get her to leave.”

“And who should I say is calling?” Charlie inquired.

“I don’t care if you say it’s the Dali fucking Lama, just make her believe that I need to take that call.”

“Can do.”

“Anything else?”

“You have a call with Atlantean Partners at 3:00,” replied Charlie.

“Fuck!” Kristov shouted from the depths of fleece fortress. “I thought that was tomorrow.”

“No, sir. Every month on the second Tuesday of the month.”

“Call Williams and see if he can take it.”

“Williams is on vacation in Aruba.”

“What about other Mark?”

“Kerja?”

“No, not the Swede,” Kristov grumbled. “The Mark that reports to Mark Williams.”

“That’s Mark Kerja.”

“No!”

Kristov rose up from his desk, throwing the blanket onto the floor behind him.

“Just get me the Mark who is supposed to take my place if Williams can’t make it,” Kristov demanded. “I don’t care if you have to book a plane ticket, learn Papiamento, and track down Williams in person. Figure out who can take that call instead of me by lunch time.”

“Yes sir,” replied Charlie meekly.

Charlie started to walk out the door, only for Kristov to shout after him.

“And Charlie?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t let anyone other than Kim near my office before this afternoon,” Kristov said. “This hangover’s a bitch.”

Charlie strode out the door and sat down in a rigid metal chair behind his rickety wooden desk. He opened the organizational hierarchy on his tablet and began searching through the leadership of Shackelford & Polzin Group to try to figure out who Kristov could have been talking about. Charlie knew that Kristov meant Mark Kerja. Mark Kerja took all of the important calls if Mark Williams or Kristov couldn’t make it. This was a matter of figuring out who Kristov thought Kristov was talking about, as well as stalling long enough to let Kerja get into the office.

The hierarchy was straightforward enough that Charlie knew it from memory. Kristov Polzin — the Polzin of Shackelford & Polzin Group — had two direct reports. Mark Williams (better known as just Williams around the office) led the sales and strategy group and was responsible for making Shackelford & Polzin as profitable and as public friendly as it could be. On the operations side, Lucy Calvert made sure that meat of the business for Shackelford & Polzin Group, the acquisition, demolition, reposition, and redistribution of companies acquired by the Group, went off without a hitch.

Mark Kerja (Kerja, MK, or The Swede , depending on who was addressing him) was just one of the direct reports to Williams, but in reality, he was the only one that mattered to Kristov. Kerja was the VP of New Business for the company. As Kristov reminded the company’s employees on every call, existing business keeps the lights on for Shackelford & Polzin, but new business makes sure the lights are bright enough to blind the competition. Kerja wasn’t actually Swedish, despite Kristov’s insistence on referring to him as such. He was born in Rosemont, Illinois and had never left the United States. But when your boss’s boss gives you a nickname, you stick with it, no matter how much you hate it.

Charlie saw that it was 9:10 in the morning, but Kerja had yet to arrive. Kerja’s secretary had just returned to his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, black, with an ice cube in it. Charlie walked over to the secretary’s desk, feigned looking around for a moment, then addressed the young man.

“Is MK in today?” Charlie asked.

“No, he’s out,” the secretary replied. “His little girl had to stay home from school again.”

“That’s too bad. Ear infection again?”

“I think so. It’d be the third time in the last two months if so. Poor girl.”

“Yeah. I hope she gets better.”

“Does Kristov need MK for something?” the secretary asked.

“He was hoping MK could take the call with Atlantean Partners at 3,” replied Charlie.

“Can’t Williams do it?”

“Williams is in Aruba until the 23rd.”

“And I’m guessing Kristov is hungover again?”

“Like a sailor on shore leave.”

“A sailor on what?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve got to work on your expressions, Charlie,” stated the secretary. “You’re a bright guy and everyone likes you, but no one other than old man Shackelford understood your references half the time. He’s been gone three years now. It’s time for your references for him to go join him.”

“Jesus, dude, he’s not dead,” retorted Charlie, “he just retired and moved to Arizona.”

“Might as well be dead.”

Charlie walked back to his desk and dialed Williams from his tablet. It’d probably be too early to reach a vacationing man who had likely drank a third of his weight in mai tais the night prior, but it was worth trying. After a couple of rings, a brief grey screen came up, followed by a pre-recorded message.

“Hi. You’ve reached the voice and video message inbox for Mark Williams of Shackelford & Polzin Group. I’ll be out of the office from April 6th through April 22nd. If your message is important, please contact Mark Kreja at 814-555-2017. Otherwise, leave your name, contact information, and a short description of your request. Messages will be replied to as I’m able. Thanks.”

The grey screen replaced Williams’ face and stated simply: You may begin recording in 3…2…1…

“Hey Mark,” Charlie began. “Sorry to bother you on vacation, but Kristov is really looking for someone to handle the Atlantean Partners call at 3 Eastern today. MK is out ill today and Kristov is in no shape to talk to them. He keeps insisting that the Mark who reports to you take the call, but you and I both know that’s Kreja. If you have any idea what he’s talking about or if you could tell me who can take the call, that’d be lovely. I’ll have my tablet on me all day. Bye.”

*****

“I don’t understand the question. Why does it matter what it smells like?”

“You remember what Christmas was like as a kid?”

“Yeah…why?”

“Remember how your mom and dad or whoever raised you always asked you for a Christmas list to give to Santa Claus. So you’d write up a list of all the things you’d want. Some kids wanted dolls, some wanted action figures, some wanted video games, some wanted stupid shit like art supplies and dress up costumes. So you’d write your list, give it to your old man in hopes of getting the best Christmas gift ever — whatever that was for you. Then Christmas morning came and you started opening your gifts. There was the stuff you got every year like socks, underwear, cheap chocolate, and some oranges. For me, there was usually a tiny copy of the New Testament in my stocking. Then you got to the real presents. And on your last gift, you were convinced that you had managed to get that special gift that you wanted. You tore into the wrapping paper with abandon, only to find that Santa had brought you the generic knock-off of the gift you wanted because your Christmas list wasn’t specific enough. Do you remember that feeling?”

“That’s an oddly specific explanation. But yeah.”

“Think of me as the Santa Claus of problem solvers. I’m really good at giving gifts and giving people what they want. I’ve even got a bunch of little helpers who will help make my gifts if I can’t do it myself. After all, there’s a lot of little boys and girls in the world who want their problems taken care of. But just like your childhood Christmas list, if your description of this gift I can give to you isn’t specific enough, I might make a mistake and get you the wrong thing. Do you understand now?”

*****

The morning had passed with little incident for Charlie. Though he had sent Williams additional messages hoping that he’d answer, Charlie’s tablet went silent in terms of responses.

As the clock neared 11:30 in the morning, Kreja’s secretary walked up to Charlie’s desk, light jacket and umbrella in hand. In the distance near the elevator doors, Charlie observed the secretary’s work friends — another personal assistant and two younger women from the marketing team — mulling around and joking. The other personal assistant’s loud, cackling laugh echoed throughout the room, causing multiple people to look up from their desks to see where he was at.

“We’re going to Cervelli’s for lunch,” said Kreja’s secretary. “Wanna join?”

“No thanks,” Charlie replied. “I have to be here in case Kristov’s wife shows up.”

“Are you bailing him out or guarding the door so they can bang?”

“Ten minutes and I have to tell him he has a very important call with — and I quote — the Dali fucking Lama.”

“Sounds like a very important call. Isn’t the Dali Lama like twelve though?”

“I don’t think Kristov knows the old one died.”

“Wouldn’t shock me. But really though, Charlie,” the secretary continued, “you’ve got to come with us some time. I’ve been inviting you out for guys night for weeks now, but you’ve always got something to do.”

“Kristov keeps me on call 24 hours a day,” replied Charlie. “It wouldn’t be fair to you guys if I came out and then had to leave ten minutes in.”

“You’re allowed to take time off, you know.”

“If it’s not written explicitly into my contract that I am required to take some time off, I don’t think Kristov particularly cares. Besides, someone has to keep this place running.”

“And so modest too.”

“Fuck off, Spencer.”

Kerja’s secretary, Spencer, flipped a middle finger toward Charlie, laughed, then walked to the elevator to join his waiting lunch party. Charlie stared at his tablet, running his own words through his mind. When was the last time he had taken a day off? He thumbed through the history of his calendar, finding the answer. Eleven months ago, taking the day off for his yearly check-up. Even then, Kristov had called him in twenty minutes after the appointment ended, saying that there was an important meeting that they needed to prep for. Prepping for the meeting entailed Kristov giving his notes to Charlie — notes that Charlie had written himself — and telling him to take the meeting for him.

Charlie’s tablet flashed repeatedly, bringing up Williams’ face on the screen. Charlie answered the video call quickly, knocking over his tablet in the process.

“Nice ceiling, Charlie,” Williams joked. He then sipped a drink that Charlie couldn’t see through a straw, the noise loudly echoing through the device’s speakers.

Charlie sat the tablet back up and looked at the screen. Williams was shirtless, his graying chest hair occasionally being caught by the light of whatever hotel lamp happened to be on. He had a hand towel wrapped draped over his neck, partially obscuring a silver cross necklace that Williams wore to work every day. Though Charlie didn’t recall Williams being a particularly vocally religious person, he was pleased to see the necklace on Williams in a non-work setting. It always made Charlie feel good to see when someone’s work appearance wasn’t just an act.

“Hey, thanks for calling me back,” Charlie said.

“I don’t think I really had a choice,” replied Williams. “You seemed panicked.”

“So you heard my message.”

“Yeah. I’ve already called Kreja, but he’s taking his daughter to the hospital, so he’s out. I don’t have a clue who Kristov’s talking about if it’s not me or Mark. We’re the only ones who have taken the Atlantean call other than him for the last couple years. Mark’s old assistant took the call a couple of times, however I’d find it hard to believe even Kristov would confuse a woman named Saffron with either Kreja or myself. Not that he knew about that anyway.”

“What do we do then?”

“As much as I’d like to help by taking the call, I’m pretty sure my wife would have my head if I cancelled our couples massage to take it. If he has to have someone take it, see if you can get Kreja’s notes from Spencer, then give them to Emily. That said, I’d recommend you talk Kristov into cancelling the call. I don’t feel like dealing with Kristov being all self-righteous that a woman took this call.”

“Emily in PR or Emily in strategy?”

“Strategy Emily. Super tall blonde lady on the third floor that works for me. Her office is the one with the giant Temple pennant on the wall. She knows Atlantean’s account better than me. She could probably take the call without the notes, but get them just in case. That said, please try to cancel it first if you can.”

“Will do,” replied Charlie.

“Can you do me a favor too while you’re at it,” Williams asked.

“What’s that?”

“I’ve got a pile of resumes on my desk for a new secretary. Or assistant. Or whatever Kristov wants them called now.”

“I think everyone’s a secretary except me. He is the only person that gets a personal assistant.”

“Right. I can’t keep up with him sometimes. Anyway, HR left me a pile of prospective candidates to go through. Could you look at them and send me the resumes of the three you like the best? I’ll give them calls tomorrow while Kiersten is at the spa.”

“Of course. I’ll do it right after I talk to Kristov.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Charlie. If you want to take a vacation, let me know. This place is great. I think you’d enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Have a good day, Charlie. Let me know what happens with that call.”

“Thanks Mark.”

*****

“I understand completely.”

“Wonderful. So I’ll ask again then. What does it smell like?”

“He smells…normal, I guess? Sometimes he wears cologne. I couldn’t tell you what brand it is. I don’t think I’ve ever once known him to smell bad.”

“No light cinnamon scent always coming from it?”

“No. Not that I’ve ever noticed. And why do you keep saying it? He’s a guy.”

“They’re not people. If you’re not a person, you don’t get a pronoun that says what you are. It’s not a he. It’s not a she. It’s an it. You can call it whatever you want, but when I solve your problem, it won’t matter if it’s a he, a she, an it, or a figment of your imagination. It will cease to exist in both the present and the future. With any luck, we’ll be able to get rid of its past too.

*****

“Kristov?”

“Mmmrrrrmmmmrmrrrm…”

“Kristov, are you awake?” asked Charlie.

“I wharbalgarl mrmmmmmrmm.”

Charlie opened the door further and took a couple of steps into Kristov’s office.

“Are you awake sir?”

“I’m trying not to be, but you’re making it real fucking hard,” Kristov replied.

“I’m sorry,” responded Charlie, “I’ll try to make this quick then. Kim called and said she won’t be in at lunch, but that she will be here around 4 to trade cars with you so that she can pick up your kids.”

“Is she going to come inside?”

“She said you have the only keys to your car, so I would assume so.”

“That’s fine. Same deal as before though. Ten minutes, then important people are calling me.”

“Got it,” said Charlie. “I talked to Williams about the Atlantean call. Kreja took his daughter to the hospital this morning, so he won’t be able to make it. Williams recommended that we call Atlantean and try to reschedule for next week when either he or Kreja is back.”

“Unacceptable!” shouted Kristov. “Did he say who else could take the call?”

“Williams says that Emily House from the strategy team can take the call. She’s one of Mark’s direct reports and knows Atlantean better than Mark does.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“His words, not mine.”

“You take it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me, Charlie,” Kristov replied forcefully. “You take the call.”

“But Mr. Polzin,” Charlie answered, “Williams assured me that Emily is the best person to take this call if you, Kreja, and him aren’t available.”

“I don’t need the best person to take the call, I need the best man to take this call.”

“Then why are you picking me? I don’t know this account as well as the people in strategy do.”

“Because I paid for you to be here. And because I paid for you to be here, I need you to do exactly what I say. From time to time, that’s going to mean you need to ignore your logic processors or whatever it is you have in there and do exactly as you’re instructed. Have I made myself clear, Charlie?”

“Completely, sir.”

“Now, go talk to Emily and learn everything you can about Atlantean before three. I’ll tell Spencer to take your calls while you’re gone.”

“Spencer’s at lunch.”

“Not now he’s not.”

*****

“I’ve been told this isn’t your first time taking care of a problem like mine.”

“No. You’re quite fortunate you found me. The Civil Servant’s Association often advertises problem solvers such as myself. They’re trying to trap people looking to take out their sophisticated, programmatic androids because one accidentally stepped on some old lady’s petunia’s while delivering a package. What you’re here for is to rid the world of a deadly creature, not a package bot that didn’t update its aerial maps to account for a new flowerbed.”

“Do the civil service androids ever go off the rails like the others?”

“Not that the CSA’s willing to admit to. There were a couple in the early days of the program that didn’t stick to their programming or that malfunctioned, but the worst that happened was an android short circuiting while delivering some lady’s birthday cake. It was traumatizing for the kids that saw it, but no damage done otherwise. Except to the cake. The cake caught fire.”

“Do people actually want the civil service androids taken out?”

“I’ve had a couple of requests from private citizens to get rid of them, but I blow the whistle on them to the CSA. If there was ever a real problem with those assets, the CSA would contact me. They’ve had my group round-up end of life units before when they’re too busy to handle it themselves. I find it best to help keep the people who keep your legitimate business in business happy.”

“But this isn’t the first time taking out one of these…things, I guess you would refer to them as?”

“Creatures is my preferred term, but as long as you’re not humanizing them, I don’t care one way or the other what you call them. And no. From my group’s research, we’ve determined there were twelve of them out there at one point in time. Counting your problem, that list is down to six now.”

“Are they easy to kill?”

“You don’t kill a creature like this. It’s more of turning them off so they can’t turn back on again. But the worst we’ve had one do so far is trying to hide. We’re fortunate that they haven’t learned quality self-preservation skills yet.”

“How’d the last problem get solved?”

“It was simple. Just like solving your problem will be.”

*****

“Emily?”

“Oh hi!” Emily said excitedly as she stared up from her computer. “You’re Mr. Polzin’s assistant, Charlie, right?

“Yes, that’s me,” Charlie said.

“Mark told me you might be coming by this afternoon. I’m guessing the Atlantean call is still on at 3?”

“It is. What did Mark tell you the plan for the call was?”

“He said that you were going to try to convince Mr. Polzin to reschedule the Atlantean call, but that if you came by, it more than likely meant the call was still on and that I’d be taking the call in his place. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am for this call. One of the partners at Atlantean is Michael Marin. He was my dad’s first business partner.”

“Wait, really?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah. Michael and my dad ran a sandwich shop together in college. When my dad decided to franchise, Michael let the investment group buy out his shares. His wife still sends me and my sister individual birthday and Christmas cards every year.”

“Well that makes this conversation a bit more awkward. Not that it wasn’t already.”

“What do you mean,” questioned Emily.

“Kristov doesn’t want you to take the call. He sent me up here to get your notes so I could take the call.”

“Why not? Even without Michael’s involvement, I know Atlantean better than anyone in the building other than Mark.”

“Mark disagrees,” Charlie replied. “He told me you know them better than he does.”

“Flattering, but he’s just trying to give credit to someone else.”

Emily rose from her desk and motioned Charlie into the office. Charlie sat down on a chair across from Emily’s computer. She closed the door to her office, then drew the blinds to the window that looked out onto the sales floor outside her entry way.

“Charlie?”

“Yes, Emily?”

“Can I get you to be honest with me for a moment?”

“Of course.”

“Why doesn’t Mr. Polzin want me to take the Atlantean call? Is it because they’re an important partner and this would be my first unsupervised partner call?”

“It’s not that.”

“Well, is it because he knows I’ve known Michael Marin since I was a baby and he’s trying to avoid any possibility of a conflict of interest between our two companies, even though by the letter of the law this is no where close to one?”

“It’s not that.”

“Do you think I should be on this call?” asked Emily.

“You’re the most qualified individual, potentially now and even when Mark Williams is here,” Charlie replied. “I wouldn’t have any objections to it.”

“Then, Charlie, please tell me what it is that is leading Mr. Polzin to choose not to have me on this call.”

“Because he says that a call of this importance needs a man on it.”

Emily walked behind her desk and started poking at her tablet. Within a few moments, the tablet began ringing. Williams popped up on the screen a few seconds later.

“Good afternoon, Emily,” Williams said.

“Good afternoon, Mark,” replied Emily. “You were right. Polzin’s being a dick about the call because I’m a woman.”

“Language please. My daughter’s in the other room. Not sure how much she can hear.”

“Sorry. I’m just upset. He thinks Charlie should take the call instead of me.”

“Is Charlie in there?”

“I’m here, sir,” Charlie replied. Charlie rose from his chair and moved behind Emily’s desk so Williams could see both of them.

“I was afraid this might happen. Charlie, can you have someone cover your desk during the call?”

“Kristov said Spencer will take care of my calls.”

“Beautiful. I need both of you to be in Emily’s office a little before 3. Charlie, sit behind Emily’s desk so you can see her computer. Emily, sit in one of your guest chairs with your tablet. Make sure your blinds are open but your door is closed, that way the people on the sales floor can think Charlie’s taking the call but they can’t hear Emily actually talking.”

“I like this so far,” said Emily.

“If, for whatever reason, Kristov were to try to come in during the call,” Williams continued, “one of you should accidentally hang up on the call. Tell Kristov you just finished up. Let me know what happened and I’ll send an apologetic email to Atlantean and call them myself before we go to the beach tomorrow to tie up any loose ends.”

“What about the recap Kristov will want?” Charlie asked.

“He’s never asked for it before Wednesday morning at earliest. Get Emily’s post-meeting notes from her, change it slightly so it sounds like you wrote it, then give them to him.”

“And if Kristov wants the notes before then?” questioned Charlie.

“We stall,” answered Emily. “Say you’re waiting on Mark to reply to an email clarifying something on the call.”

“Works for me,” added Williams. “You two all good now? I’m being motioned to come have a tropical tea party.”

“Thank you so much for the plan, Mark,” replied Emily. “Say hi to Kiersten for me and give Shaly a hug for me. I have another book for her if she wants it.”

“I ask her once we’re home. Thanks again Emily and Charlie.”

Williams disconnected the call. As Emily rose from her desk, Charlie started making his way to the office door.

“See you a little before 3 then, I guess?” Charlie said.

“Of course!” Emily exclaimed. “I’m excited to do this. And Charlie?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you give Mr. Polzin a message for me after the call? Just to add to the appearance that you took the call.”

“Sure. What’s that?”

“You can tell that sexist, withering assbag for me that I am a damn good employee — arguably one of the best he has at this company. If he tries to take away something from me again that I am the best person to fix just because I have a vagina, I’m going to drive five hours, borrow my sister’s steel toed hiking boots, drive five hours back, put one boot on, and kick him as hard as I can in his scared, bigoted nutsack. Then, while he’s laying on the ground crying and holding his balls, I’m going to slowly put the other boot on, tying the laces directly in front of his face. When I’m done with that, I’m going to kick him in the balls again, because fuck him, that’s why. Can you deliver that message for me?”

“Word for word or just the sentiment?” Charlie asked.

“Sentiment’s fine,” Emily replied. “You’re just the messenger. No need for you to get his anger just because I said something.”

*****

“So what happened?”

“I don’t discuss the details of clients with other clients.”

“I don’t care if they paid more or less than me.”

“And I don’t care what you care about. I’m doing this because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you or anyone else pays me to. Profit’s just a bonus.”

“Then why tell me there’s twelve of them that existed? Why tell me it’s simple to end them?”

“Because you clearly need reassurance that your problem will be solved. Are you are of the Roman deity Janus?”

“No.”

“A lot of ancient mythologies had similar, overlapping gods. The Greeks and Romans are probably the most notable instance of this. Both pantheons had a god of love that had basically the same story and powers. The Romans called him Cupid while the Greeks called him Eros. Same thing with the messenger to the gods — Mercury and Hermes, respectively. There’s literally dozens of examples like this. But Janus…Janus is unique.

“How so?”

“Janus is, for all intents and purposes, the god of doors. Both literal and metaphorical doors, that is. The mythology tells that Janus had a temple with doors that would open in times of war and close in times of peace. Not only did the Greeks not have an equivalent to Janus, the Romans didn’t treat him like their other gods. Instead of having a priest who handled ceremonies for Janus, the rex sacrorum was in charge of any ceremonial duties for Janus.”

“What’s the rex sarcophium?”

“Rex sacrorum. He’s basically a combination of a priest and a senator. He was the guy they called — carrier pigeoned, maybe — if the head of Rome wanted to make a sacrifice. Between the rex sacrorum and his wife, the regina sacrorum, every month they performed a unique set of religious rituals that only they could perform. Janus was represented in every religious ceremony because of these two.”

“I see.”

“Janus has two faces because he has two states that he’s always looking towards. One face gazes back upon the past while another stares forth into the future. He symbolizes the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega, if you will.”

“Aren’t alpha and omega Greek?”

“Yes.”

“But you said the Greeks didn’t ha…”

“Don’t get lost in the semantics of what I’m saying. I am a modern-day Janus. I see humanity’s past and look can see into its future. Though we’ve done great things as a species in the past, some of our mistakes have led us to the problems we’re experiencing today. If we don’t stop the advance of these creatures while we have the chance, they’ll one day be on equal footing with the rest of us. It’s happened before. I’m not letting it happen again.”

*****

“Thanks for all your help, Charlie,” Emily said. “I’m sorry you ended up roped into this like you were.”

“It’s fine,” replied Charlie. “I’m just glad you handled the call. Even with your notes, I would have fallen flat on my face.”

“Oh definitely. But that’s not your fault. You don’t just go into a partner call like that blind.”

“When do you want me to come by and get your notes?”

“I’ll have them ready first thing tomorrow morning. How early do you get here?”

“I’m here at 7:53 every morning,” replied Charlie.

“That’s oddly specific.”

“It’s routine.”

“Can you be here by 7:40?” asked Emily.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Come by then and I’ll give you my hand-written notes so we don’t email them back and forth. There’s not a ton, so that should give you more than enough time to have them typed up by 9 if Mr. Polzin needs them by then.”

“Why do you insist on referring to him so formally when he’s such a jerk to you?” Charlie inquired.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” said Emily. “That’s not to say I don’t hate him for how he acts towards anyone who isn’t like him. But I can hate him and still treat him with respect. It keeps me from being like him.”

“Makes sense. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Have a good day, Charlie.”

“You too.”

Charlie exited Emily’s office and made his way to the elevator that would take him back up to his desk. The elevator’s steel gray doors slid open, revealing a faux-mahogany interior that shined far too brightly for anyone to mistake it for natural wood. Charlie pushed the button to go up from floor three to floor seven. The door shut slowly, followed by the low hum of the elevator rising that Charlie had become so accustomed to. It was calming in a way. Even on days Kristov would frustrate him to no end, Charlie would get on the elevator, press the button to take him to the parking garage, then close his eyes and listen to the elevator’s soft whir. By the time he reached the parking garage, Charlie’s frustration would be melted away.

The elevator stopped on the seventh floor, the door slowly opening as the elevator’s chimes indicated its arrival. As Charlie exited the elevator, he noticed Kristov’s wife, Kim, coming toward the elevator.

“Charlie Hopewell, as I live and breathe!” Kim shouted out, her bubbly voice ringing out throughout the office floor. “How the heck are you?!”

“I’m quite well, Kim,” Charlie replied. “How are you?”

“I am living life and loving life! Come give me a hug! I can’t go this long without seeing you and not greet you right.”

Charlie and Kim embraced tightly, Kim’s arms clutching around Charlie’s neck.

“You’re always so cold,” Kim said. “Don’t you ever worry you’re going to get hypothermia?”

“I’m quite comfortable,” Charlie replied.

“There’s something wrong with your. You know that, right?”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“Are you headed back to meet with Kristov?” Kim asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” answered Charlie. “Just got out of a meeting and have to tell him about it.”

“Now what did I tell you about calling me ma’am. We’re past that stage of knowing each other.”

“Sorry, Kim.”

“It’s alright, hun. Just be careful when you’re going to talk to Kristov. He’s all fired up about something, though he wouldn’t tell me what.”

“Joy…” Charlie said, trailing off into silence.

“I’m sure whatever it is, a drink when he gets home will fix it.”

Charlie laughed a little at the thought of a drink fixing anything related to Kristov, particularly considering how hungover he was when he came in that morning. He wondered how long Kim had been here for. Was it long enough to make Kristov upset that he hadn’t come to “save” him from his wife?

“I suppose I should go find out what’s going on,” said Charlie.

“Well, you have fun with that,” replied Kim. “I’m off to pick up my two walking grass stains from their soccer game. Hopefully traffic’s bad enough that I don’t have to watch much of the game.”

“Soccer still hasn’t grown on you?”

“I love my kids, but I wish the played sports that are interesting to watch. Instead I’m stuck going to soccer and softball games.”

“You have fun with that.”

“Oh yeah…loads. Don’t be a stranger, Charlie. Feel free to stop by the house some time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See you later, Charlie.”

“Bye, Kim.”

Charlie walked into Kristov’s office to find Kristov pensively staring out the window. Kristov sipped from a bottle of water. appearing far more spry than when Charlie had seen him a few hours ago.

“The Atlantean call is over, sir,” Charlie said. “I’ll have notes to you tomorrow.”

“Good,” replied Kristov. “I take it things went well?”

“I feel like it went alright.”

“Excellent. You didn’t save me from Kim though.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I was busy on the Atlantean call.”

“It’s fine,” answered Kristov. “She wasn’t here long anyway. She was talking about how she was so excited to get to the twins’ soccer game. I’ve never seen the appeal to the sport myself, but if it makes the girls happy and keeps them out of trouble, I don’t care what they do.”

Kristov took another drink out of the bottle. He watched as pigeon came to rest on the ledge outside his office window. The bird fluttered to a stop, staring at its concrete perch and looking for food. The pigeon pecked at the ledge a couple of time before unhappily fluttering away.

“How did Emily react to being told you’d be taking the Atlantean call?” Kristov asked.

“She was disappointed,” answered Charlie.

“How disappointed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she get angry? Did she cry? Did she curse you out and tell you how much of a kiss ass you were?”

“No. She just…”

“She just what?” Kristov prodded. “Give me details, Charlie.”

“She shared that she was the right person to take the call and will make sure she puts herself in a position to be ready to take the call next time.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Why?” questioned Charlie.

“I expected far more fire from her. I’ve seen her get feisty with Williams before. It’s a shame.”

“She wasn’t happy though.”

“Then she needs to put on her big boy pants and show some fucking balls!” shouted Kristov. “If she can’t stand up to someone telling her no, how can I expect her to do anything worthwhile around here? I knew I made the right call keeping her off the call.”

“But sir.”

“Charlie.”

“Yes, Kristov?”

“When Williams gets back from Aruba, have him pull the Atlantean call and listen to it. I want him to coach you up to make you a great representative for our company to our partners.”

“There’s no need to take up Williams’ time just listening to me talk,” replied Charlie. “He’s a very busy man with lots of responsibilities.”

“You’re right,” answered Kristov. “He’ll be swamped when he gets back. I’ll do it myself before he gets back.”

“That’s very kind of you, but it’s really not necessary.”

“Not only is it necessary, I’m so happy for you handling this like I asked you to that I think you can take the rest of the day off. Paid.”

Charlie paused, unsure what to do next. Kristov’s mind was made up about this, so he certainly wasn’t going to change it. Maybe he could get IT to delete the call before Kristov started listening to it? Maybe Emily had access to the file and could take care of it herself.

“Why are you still standing there, Charlie?” Kristov asked.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” replied Charlie. “I wasn’t sure if you were serious about taking the rest of the day off.”

“Of course I am. Get your evening started early.”

“Oh. Well thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome. Now get out of my office before I change my mind.”

*****

“How soon will the problem be resolved?”

“You’ve given me everything I need. Give me and my associates 72 hours. You’ll have notification after that.”

“How should I expect to hear from you?”

“If all goes well, the envoy who greeted you today, Hermes, will bring you to a designated location. The remainder of the payment will be due then. If something unexpected should arise, we’ll let you know.”

“Good. I’ll let my superiors know.”

“Thank you for your business.”

One of the two seated individuals rose and began walking to the exit. As he arrived at the exit, he placed his hand on the doorknob and started to pull it closed.

“Don’t do that, John.”

“Why not?” John asked. “I’m leaving.”

“The door remains open while Janus is at war. She’s sending her soldiers to battle.”

“I thought you said Janus was a male god.”

The second seated individual stepped out the blackened room and removed a helmet holding a voice modulator. She stared at John, her cold, steely eyes charging through his soul and instilling fear in his mind.

“The myth of Janus is a man. I’m not a myth.”

*****

Charlie arrived home an hour and a half earlier than his normal time. For the first time in months, his work tablet wasn’t constantly notifying him that there was something new that Kristov needed done before morning hit. The world was silent and a welcome change from normal.

As Charlie went to his bedroom to retire for the night, a pair of notifications arrived on his tablet. The first came from Williams in the form of a short video message. Charlie opened the message and it began to play.

“Hey Charlie. I hear from Emily that everything went spectacularly. I mean, she said it in words I’m not going to repeat at the moment, but everything went well, I’m told. Thanks for all your help. When I get back into town, we should go golfing. Think about a day that works for you and we’ll talk when I’m back. Thanks again.”

Charlie chuckled to himself at the thought of going golfing with anyone, let alone a higher-up in the company. Charlie had always viewed golf as a sport played by the rich, the powerful, or the emotionally insecure — though most frequently played by those who fit all three categories. But it was exciting to get an invitation to not do work for a day, even if that invitation was from someone other than his boss.

The second message was a simple text message from Kristov.

“Don’t worry about driving in tomorrow. I’ll send a car to come get you. You’ve earned it for a day.”

Charlie walked to the night stand in the room and placed the tablet down, connecting it to its charger. He then reached over the head of his bed, dialed the mattress charger setting to “restful sleep”, and laid down on the bed. As the countdown clock in front of his eyes ticked towards sleep, he smiled about how well his day had gone.

The next morning, Charlie was awakened by the sound of pounding at his apartment door. He rose from bed, quickly setting himself to have work-appropriate clothes on, and made his way to the entrance. He stared out the peephole, seeing a diminutive man in a black chauffeur’s cap standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at the door with his hands calmly behind his back.

Charlie opened the door and smiled at the man.

“Minerva Ride Services. Are you Charlie Hopewell?”

“I am.”

“Do you have everything you need for us to be on our way?”

“I do.”

“Right this way then.”

Charlie took a few steps forward toward the stairwell leading to the exit. It was at that time that the diminutive man jumped in the air and stabbed a cattle prod into Charlie’s neck, sending a burst of electricity coursing through his body. Inside Charlie’s body, his programming began panicking.

Voltage overload. Commencing emergency backup protocols.

The driver stabbed the prod into Charlie again, this time into his arm just below the shoulder.

Emergency backup protocols complete. Preventative shutdown in 3…2…1.

*****

At 7:35, Emily strolled into her office, flicking on the light as she opened the door. She immediately dropped everything out of her arms when she saw a pair of steel toed boots on her desk. Emily quickly moved around her desk and found a note attached to the boots.

“If you’re half the woman you boast to be, put these on. My nutsack is waiting. If you’re not, let these serve as a reminder to never do something behind my back.”

*****

“John.”

“Hermes.”

“Come with me.”

“I take it our problem is solved?”

“Indeed.”

“Let me inform my people and I’ll be ready.”

“Very well.”

John dialed a number into his tablet. It quickly connected and the video popped up on the screen.

“It’s done, Mr. Polzin.”

“Good. Thank you, John. See what they can wipe all of his data related to the company. Don’t need that leaked into the wrong hands.”

“Certainly, Mr. Polzin. Have a good day.”

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8 thoughts on “Janus

      1. Feeling ill and a cold room aside, yes. There’s already an ominous tone with this strand, and as the story rolls on, Kristov giving Charlie the day off after everything we’ve learnt so far is so oddly out of character that it puts things just a little bit on edge. Then the chunk that follows, and the way Janus is revealed, it reads as the calm before the storm.

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        1. Thanks. That’s kind of what I was going for. Kristov doesn’t really have an out of character, other than he’s just an asshole and anything he does that isn’t being an asshole is out of character. As for Janus…I promise she’s coming back eventually, though I need another chapter or two for her to matter again.

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          1. Hm, well, I liked it, but that obviously doesn’t mean you have to keep it if you don’t want to 🙂 Looking forward to the rest!

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          2. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll look at it when I go back to edit it later and decide I like it. The next chapter is still a few weeks away, however I’ll have some other stuff out between now and then.

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