by Steven Cuffari
Bill sat at his desk, typing on his computer with his phone clamped between his ear and shoulder. He nodded and repeatedly said, “Uh-huh.” He was preparing a mass email to the managers of the company reporting on the number of security risks he had found that week. He was still at number one and had yet to type anything in the space.
“Yes, Bill,” Bill said. “I understand that. I’m moving my things as fast as I can. Yes, I will. Yeah, like I said. I’ll do my best. Okay. Okay. Bye.”
He lifted his ear and let the phone slide down to his elbow. With one hand he slammed it down on the receiver and sighed.
The blank email stared back at him. “What the fuck am I doing?” he whispered.
He looked away from the screen for a moment at the cardboard boxes filled with his personal stuff and office supplies. He sighed again. Just as he was about to go back to the email, Jess knocked on his door, which was open.
“Hey, Bill,” she said. She smiled at him.
He smiled back at her and rolled away from his desk. “Hey.”
They locked eyes and just kept smiling.
“Lunch?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely. I’m starving.” He got up and straightened his shirt out. “Let’s go.”
Before he took another step, the phone rang. “Hold on a second, Jess.” He didn’t bother to look at the number calling in. His eyes were fixed on Jess’ smiling face. The moment the voice on the phone assaulted his ear, he felt a stab of regret.
“Jesus Christ, Marcey, what have I told you about calling me at work! Yeah, I know he’s my son too. That’s what I pay child support for!” He rolled his eyes and shot himself in the head with his fingers. He mouthed the words, “I’m sorry” to Jess and sat down again. “If you would just stop screaming for a minute, we could– Yes, I know, but–”
Jess pouted and waved goodbye.
“Marcey, I can’t– Fine. I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon, but I’ve got to go now. Yes, yes fine.”
He curled his hand into a fist and mouthed the word “motherfucker” into the air above him. His face got red as he mimed curses at the universe. Just then, Ray walked in.
Bill groaned. “Okay, Marcey. Really I’ve got to go now. Bye! Bye!” He slammed the phone down and grunted. “She’s gonna be the death of me,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” said Ray. “We’ve all got personal problems. Can’t control everything, can we?”
“You got that right.”
“Simon is here. He wants to have a meeting. You available?” Ray asked.
“Actually, I was just about to take lunch.”
“I think you can push lunch back an hour. Grab an apple from the kitchen. Grab two. I’ll see you in conference room 1 in five.”
Ray gave him a forced smile and left.
“Fuck,” whispered Bill. He pulled out his cell. I can’t make it to lunch, he texted Jess. He put the phone back in his pocket and closed his office door behind him. The phone chirped from his pocket. It was Jess. She texted him back a sad face. Bill sighed and went to conference room 1.
“Glad you could join us, Bill. We saved a seat for you,” said Simon.
Bill sat down and frowned.
Simon continued his presentation. “So as you can see the new password security protocol is another autonomous module that fits into the security network. Just as the other modules, it is secure in itself while providing integrated access to other sections of the system. As you all know, my patented designs make it impossible to hack from one module to the next. This goes even for this new password protocol.”
“That’s not confusing,” Chuck said.
The room laughed.
“It’s okay, Charles,” said Simon. “Basically, if a hacker somehow manages to break into the password module, they are immediately denied access to the other modules, maintaining the overall system unhackable. Impenetrable. By design.”
“Impressive!” said Ray.
“Impossible,” whispered Bill.
“Thank you, Raymond”
“What was that, Bill?” said Ray. “Did you have something to add?”
Simon smiled and turned his attention to Bill. The whole room looked at him.
“Yes, Bill. You’re the head of in-house security. I’d like to know what you think,” said Simon, still smiling.
Bill straightened his shirt out and sat up. His frown made him feel like an outcast, but he couldn’t change his expression.
“Bill? This is all based on your suggestions. You must have something to say. What do you think?” asked Ray.
Bill took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Well. It’s very good.”
Simon’s smile got bigger. “Thank you, Bill!”
“But,” Bill continued. “It’s only good in theory.”
The room was intrigued.
Simon kept his smile. “Actually Bill, I have been developing and testing this design for years in my own home. You know that. It’s all in the introduction that I gave you last year. I can resend–”
“I don’t need to read it again, Simon. I’ve said this before. We’ve only tested for known vulnerabilities. There is no zero day protocol.”
Bill gave him a dirty look. “Chuck, listen…”
“Bill, you always do this,” said Amanda. “Why don’t you just stop?”
“First of all,” Bill said. “None of you know what he’s talking about. Only I do. So Chuck, Amanda, please. Let me finish.” He stood up, about to continue.
“No, Bill, they’re right. Just because they’re not security experts doesn’t mean they aren’t following Simon,” said Ray.
Amanda smiled and crossed her arms.
“What other threats could there possibly be?” asked Ray.
Bill sighed. “There’s a whole grey area we’re ignoring. If I just had more time, I–”
“I’m sorry, Bill. We can’t waste more of our budget on wild goose chases,” Ray said. He stood up and waved to Simon to finish.
“Well, thank you, Bill. I know where you’re coming from. But I assure you, I have tested this system ad infinitum. You just have to trust me.”
Bill shook his head and sat down. His frown sank deeper into his face.
“If nobody has any questions,” Simon said.
Everyone began to stand up.
“I guess not. Well, everyone. Have a nice day. Thank you…”
The room was half-empty before he could finish.
“Have a nice holiday.”
Bill stayed seated.
Amanda and Chuck gave him dirty looks as they left.
Simon gathered his things and walked past Bill. He stopped before leaving.
“Bill?” he said.
Bill groaned. “What?”
“I know this is hard for you.”
“What? No, it’s not hard for me. But it would be hard for you if they gave me the resources I needed.”
Simon almost frowned. “I never meant to go against you. I just want to help.”
“Help? If you wanted to help, you would tell them to let me do my job.”
“Trust me, Bill. I would if I could. You know, out of all the companies I work for, this one has been the best prepared for my system that I have ever seen. That’s all thanks to you. You really are one of the best.”
Bill stood up and straightened his shirt out. “I guess I should take that as a compliment. Coming from you. You’re the famous one.”
Simon smiled and put out his hand. “I know what you are going through here. We don’t have to be enemies.”
Bill smiled for a split second. “No, we don’t.” He looked at Simon’s hand and walked out.
Simon sighed, and his face saddened.
That night, Bill lay in bed at home next to Jess. “And that bitch Amanda just thinks she knows what the fuck she’s talking about. Like she’s better than me because she’s in Sales.”
“Bill, you know I hate that word,” said Jess.
“Sorry, but you know what I mean. She’s the worst.”
“Didn’t you two used to…”
“Don’t remind me, it was the worst mistake of my life.”
“You’re so dramatic.” Jess came closer to him and put her head and arm across his chest.
“Oh god, I just remembered I have to skip work tomorrow. I’m so tired. I don’t want to do anything.”
“What do you have to do?”
“Caleb is having trouble in school again. The school shrink wants to talk to me and Marcey together tomorrow. She really chewed my ear off today. She’s such a f–. I can’t stand her. I mean, I’m broke, barely paying my own bills, and she cuts me no slack on alimony. And that bastard, Simon, with his stupid system.” He makes air quotes. “He’s been killing my bonuses for over a year now. I’m just drowning.”
“Maybe you should cut back on your spending. I mean, this apartment. It’s ridiculous for one person.”
“Cut back? That’s not gonna happen. I worked hard for all this. I’ll be damned if I am getting rid of any of it.”
“Oh, Bill. I don’t know what to tell you then.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything. It’s my problem. I’ll figure it out.”
Jess smiled and kissed him. “I know you will.”
“Thanks, Jess. Ugh, I’m dead. I’ve got to get some sleep.”
They cuddled up, shut the lights and said good night.
It was still night when Bill woke up. He sat up in bed and Jess rolled away from him. He stared in the darkness for a moment and finally went over to his laptop.
He typed in Simon’s name into a web search. The first result was his personal website. Arrogant bastard, he thought. The site was filled with testimonials and accolades. He clicked on the “About” link. Simon’s smiling face popped up.
Bill remembered what he had said in the office that day. I’ve been testing it for years in my own home. Bill clicked on the “Contact” link. There was Simon’s home address.
“That’s it,” Bill whispered. He turned and looked at Jess who was motionless. He clicked on the address and sent it to his phone. “Let’s see how secure your system really is.” Bill smiled and shut down the computer.
The next morning, he and Jess arrived at work together. They kissed quickly on the street, and she went upstairs. Amanda was walking toward him just as Jess left. She shook her head at him and went past. Oh great, just what I need that bitch talking more shit about me. “Whatever,” he said and went across the street for coffee.
Upstairs, he explained to Ray that he had to go to Caleb’s school and miss most of the workday.
“You know Bill, you really ought to start respecting your colleagues more. I think you’re letting your professionalism slip a bit these days. It’s no secret that you’ve been having a hard time keeping your personal life out of work.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean just be careful.”
“Be careful? You’ve been talking to Amanda, haven’t you? You know she’s had it out for me ever since… ah, Jesus…”
“Ever since what?”
“Just forget it. You’re right. I’ll do better. See you tomorrow.” He got up to leave.
“Oh, Bill, just one more thing. Bill from office services called me yesterday. He’s really complaining a lot about your office move. Can you get that done before you leave?”
Bill turned and glared at Ray. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” he said and left.
Ray watched him leave, and he shook his head. His face showed his concern.
Bill sat next to his ex-wife, Marcey in front of the Principal’s desk at his son Caleb’s elementary school.
“We think that it is best if you start thinking about private school,” said Principal Mastersson.
Bill groaned and put his face in his hands.
“Bill…” whispered Marcey as she nudged him.
“So you’re just giving up on him?” asked Bill. “Unbelievable. You call yourself an educator?! He gets into a little fight.”
“Several little fights, Mr. Klautmann.”
Bill stood up abruptly.
“Sit down Bill!” shouted Marcey, immediately becoming embarrassed.
Bill just glared at her. “It looks like you’ve already made up your mind.”
“Mr. Klautmann, we still have a lot to discuss.”
“No. We’re done.”
Bill walked out.
“Bill!” shouted Marcey, who remained in her seat, face red as a beet.
Bill went to his car and slammed the door shut. His phone began to ring. Marcey’s name lit up the screen.
“Fuck!” he shouted, slamming the steering wheel repeatedly with both hands. “Fuck!” He pounded it so hard that the glove box popped open. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted. He reached over to close it, but stopped when he saw his 9mm Sig handgun. He picked it up and checked the chamber and clip. He stared at it and noticed the safety wasn’t on. Shaking his head, he shifted it back into place. He held it in his lap as Marcey continued to call his phone.
“God damn it,” he whispered. He returned the gun to its place and blocked his ex-wife’s phone calls for the day.
That night, he lay in bed staring at the ceiling. He looked over at Jess. She was in a deep sleep. He sighed and turned his gaze to the window. The drapes were partially closed, and a sheer curtain covered the window behind them. The moon shined brightly outside. He sat up slowly and put his feet on the carpeted floor of his bedroom. He turned back to Jess one more time before standing up. Without making a sound, he opened the bottom drawer of his dresser and pulled out several pieces of black clothing. He took them to the living room and got dressed in the darkness. Then he went to the den and filled a small bag with equipment. He looked as if he were about to burgle someone’s home. And he was. He went outside, got in his car and drove away as quietly as possible.
After an hour on the highway, Bill got off, entered a wooded area and parked the car in the trees off an unpaved road. He went the rest of the way on foot. There was no mistaking Simon’s house. It was a mansion deep in the woods, a grandiose example of modern architecture, all stark concrete lines and ample sheets of glass and steel. The lights on the inside were out or not visible, but several dim lamps led right to the front door. Bill pulled a black mask over his head and emerged from the forest.
This is going to be easier than I thought, he said in his head.
The lighted path led him straight to the front door of the house. The porch was minimalistic. Two marble vases stood on either side, and there was no other adornment but another dim lamp on the wall above the door. There was a control panel on the wall to the right. Bill scoffed and pulled out a box-shaped device. He adjusted its size and placed it over the control panel. He pressed a button and moments later, the door clicked open without any fuss. He put the device back in his bag and slipped inside.
There was near complete darkness, so he put on a pair of night-vision goggles that could pass for sunglasses and stalked through the enormous house. It wasn’t filled with luxurious decorations or furniture, but instead mimicked the simplicity of the mansion’s exterior. Following his instincts, he found the door to Simon’s office quickly and opened it just as he did the front and went inside.
On one side of the room, there was a large bookcase. On the other side were Simon’s desk and several computers and monitors. Before hitting his intended target, Bill couldn’t help but have a look at what books filled Simon’s library. He took a few moments and wasn’t surprised to find several shelves dedicated to computer programming, security, architecture and engineering. A couple of shelves were dedicated to self-help and psychology books. Some of the titles were 23rd Century Dating, Diagnosing Agoraphobia, Social Media for the Socially Awkward and How to Make Friends and Impress People. Bill scoffed again as he browsed the titles. Then he shrugged and turned to Simon’s computer array.
Time to finish this, he thought.
He went over to the first monitor and tapped the screen. To his surprise, it turned on.
Jesus! Too easy! he thought, shaking his head. He pulled out a memory stick from his bag and typed a few commands into his phone. Each monitor lit up and displayed an installation bar for the virus Bill was uploading. When it was finished, he disconnected the memory stick and slipped out of the office.
Instead of going back the way he came, he took a slightly different route to the front door and went through the living room. He looked around a bit, purely out of curiosity, sneering at the mansion’s seeming lack of character. As he passed the couch, he heard a wheezing sound and turned toward it. It was Simon snoring on the couch. Bill stopped and watched him for a moment. Unbelievable, he thought. Some security expert. Simon’s snoring abruptly stopped and he shot up to a sitting position.
“Who,” he trembled. “Who’s there?!”
Bill immediately ran, but it was too late. The lights came on. He took off his goggles, but his face was still hidden by the mask.
“Who are you, what do you want?!” shouted Simon, who cowered on the couch.
Without a word, Bill pulled out his Sig 9mm and pointed it at Simon. He rushed over to him with the intent of pistol-whipping him into unconsciousness.
“No please!” shouted Simon, covering his head.
Before Bill could get close enough, Simon whimpered and fainted.
Holy shit, Bill thought. That was close. He turned to run, but when he did, he heard someone speak.
“Bill? Is that you?”
Bill spun around to face the voice that addressed him. When he saw a man in a night gown pointing a shotgun on him, he took cover behind the couch.
“That is you, Bill, isn’t it?” Each time he said Bill’s name, he elongated the syllable as if in mockery.
Bill didn’t respond. His heart pounded. He looked at the unconscious body of Simon and smelled urine. He looked at Simon’s crotch. He had pissed himself.
“I never thought we would meet, let alone like this. Why don’t you come out, Bill, so we can talk? I’m not going to shoot you. I promise. See? I’ll put the gun down. Look.”
Bill had no other option but to bargain his way out. He peeked over the couch and saw the man standing where he had been, now with his hands in the air.
“That’s right, Bill,” the man said. “Let’s talk.”
Bill stood up and pointed his gun at the man, but didn’t say a word. He took a few steps away and when the man didn’t move, Bill ran.
“Oh, Bill,” said the man. He picked up the shotgun and fired a shot.
Bill screamed in pain and fell to the ground. He squirmed and clutched at his buttocks in vain. When the man approached him, he pointed his 9mm at him. His hand trembled.
The man kept the shotgun trained on Bill. “I don’t think that you can hit me even from this distance, Bill. Look at you. You’re a mess.”
Tears streamed down Bill’s face. He groaned though he tried not to.
The man stepped to Bill’s side and nonchalantly disarmed him and tossed the weapon onto the couch next to Simon.
Finally, Bill let out a groan that turned into a sob.
The man pulled off Bill’s mask. “Bill…” he said, shaking his head.
Bill continued to squirm in pain, his backside covered in blood.
“Why did you come here, Bill? Are you really that jealous? That insecure?”
“Just let me go. I need a hospital.”
“I can see that, Bill.”
“Ah, fuck! Stop saying my name like that! Oh, god! How do you even know my name?! Who the fuck are you?!”
The man began laughing uncontrollably. “I’m sorry, Bill. I don’t mean to laugh. It’s just… it’s that you know who I am.” He continued to laugh and looked at Simon on the couch. “I’m Simon!”
“What…” Bill’s face began to get pale. He stopped squirming. He was now sitting in a pool of his own blood. “Then who’s… who’s that?”
Simon looked at the other Simon on the couch. “That? He doesn’t matter. Just another man who once believed money is worth more than life.”
“I… I don’t underst…” Bill couldn’t hold himself up anymore.
“Don’t worry, Bill. You don’t have to understand. Anything. Not anymore.”
Bill’s head thumped against the lacquered concrete floor and he passed out.
Simon pulled out a phone from his night gown and pressed a button. He held it up to his ear and waited a moment. “Yes,” he said. “Four, five, six, eight, nine, two, Bravo, Epsilon. Yes. A cleanup and a replacement. No, everything’s fine. I just need a new one. It was past its expiration date, I think. Okay. Thank you.”
Simon ended the call and put the phone back in his pocket. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder and went back to bed, shutting the lights off behind him.
Outside, a truck pulled up in front of the mansion. On the side of the truck, it read: Luxury Solutions. Four men got out and went inside and came back out moments later with two black bags and loaded them into the truck. Before they drove away, they unloaded a wooden crate big enough to hold a grown man and carried it inside.