“Air conditioner’s broken again,” Clarke observed, quite unnecessarily.
“Chalk up another deduction for Sherlock Holmes.” Eli Henderson was well aware that the air conditioning in the ChemiTex skyscraper was broken. He knew it wasn't wise to use that acerbic tone with Clarke Kroch, who was the CEO's brother. The Kroch brothers were a pretty tight unit. But Eli's shirt was clinging to his back; his hair was pasted to his forehead as he walked beside Clarke Kroch down to the conference room. Sweat burned Eli’s eyes, and so did the glare from the big panel window they passed, the picture window overlooking the city below. No movement of traffic down there. Just a kind of vague writhing through the haze, the murk...
Though the sun itself was hidden behind haze—the orb seeming smeared, blurred out by the membrane of clouds—its harshest radiance seemed to burn through, right into Eli’s retinas. A mix of pollutants from the refineries, car exhaust, and evaporates from the Gulf produced the haze, and it seemed to him that the murk never quite cleared up in this part of town. He really needed a vacation, away from Houston, somewhere cool, and cleaner—Canada maybe.
They turned the corner, saw whited-haired Al Kroch, Chemitex CEO, at the other end of the hall. Kroch was heading for the same conference, looking vaguely depressed. The older man’s tie was loosened, and he carried his blazer over his right shoulder.
Seeing Al, Eli experienced a rippling feeling and with it a strong sense of déjà vu. The long hallway, the tired older man hooking his coat over his shoulder, tie loosened, sweat marks under his arms...
Hadn’t he seen that same thing, Al coming toward him exactly that way, countless times? No, that wasn’t possible. Most days the air conditioner would be working, and Al would be cheerful, he’d be natty, wearing his jacket, very buttoned down. Eli shouldn’t have seen him here, like this, before. It wasn’t Al’s style. Déjà vu was some kind of illusion in the brain...
But he felt it again when he stopped at the door to the conference room, facing Eli—who’d also come to a stop. Clarke, too, hesitated beside Eli, gently swinging the metal briefcase that seemed almost permanently attached to his hand. Clarke was never without that briefcase. Had he carried it on his honeymoon with Lorraine?
They just stood there, the three of them, a bit awkwardly. “After you,” Eli said, smiling, mocking the curious awkwardness.
Al shrugged. He didn’t move. He just kept staring at Eli.
Eli cleared his throat. “How about this air conditioning? I mean—how many hundreds of millions of bucks did this building cost? Only fifteen years ago—I remember when it opened. We were all at the ceremony. Well, except Clarke—he’s just a kid.”
He grinned at Clarke—a younger man, it was true, but not really young. Forty-seven. Clarke smiled pensively back at Eli and glanced nervously at Al Kroch. “So—” He licked his lips, and seemed to speak with great difficulty. “—so who’s going in first?”
“Same as always,” Al said, swallowing. There was a dull resignation in his voice.
“You...” Eli licked his lips, trying to remember what their meeting was about. Oh—the lawsuits. “Clarke...you bring...bring those risk assessments?”
“Got ‘em right here...”
Another ripple went through Eli. They’d had that precise exchange before, exactly the same, sometime, hadn’t they?
Clarke...you bring...bring those risk assessments?
Got ‘em right here...
“Ha, whoa, what a feeling of...” Eli’s voice trailed off when he saw the stricken look in Al’s eyes.
“Don’t say ‘déjà vu,’” Al said, almost pleadingly. “Just don’t say it. They laugh when you say that.”
Eli stared at him. “Who laughs?”
Al opened his mouth to reply—then a kind of dullness swept over his features. He shrugged. “I...can’t remember.” He cleared his throat again. "I...I wanted to see that design for the new website...before Clarke and I meet with Senator McConnell...before the..." His voice trailed off.
"Oh yeah, that's coming. I got the designer on it." The Kroch brothers were enthusiasts for astroturfing, putting up websites that looked like grassroots stuff but was actually designed at the behest of the Kroch brothers, to support people like Mitch McConnell. Big campaign contributions for McConnell and Boehner coming up, too. Find a way to camouflage as much money as possible before they decided how much to pay to the PACs and...
But did the election matter?
What a strange thought. How could he wonder that.
Al Kroch put in dreamily, “Well. We’d better...head on in. To the meeting.”
He led the way, Eli followed him, his heart sinking. It was even hotter in the rectangular conference room. The farther end had its own wide window on the city. The skyscrapers looked a little warped by the thick haze.
Eli reached up to loosen his own tie, then remembered he’d taken it off completely. “Gosh it’s warm in here. I don’t feel dressed without my tie, but...”
Rand Clemmons was already there, at the foot of the oval brushed steel table, frowning over papers, occasionally glancing at a laptop. He was a heavyset man, with a wide mouth, weak chin, big eyes—a froggish face. He sat hunched over the paperwork, shirtsleeves rolled up. Eli could smell the man’s sweat. There was a rancid undertone to it, like a dead thing.
Rand tapped the laptop. “Damn thing...” His voice was always surprisingly high pitched, to Eli’s ear. He had a pretty sharp New Orleans accent. “...just does not want to work...”
“Can’t get a laptop to work?” Eli said, trying to kid him. He sat down to Rand’s left. “You were the technical whiz kid Al snatched up right outta MIT...and you can’t get a laptop to work!”
“I’m a chemical engineer, Eli,” Rand said, his voice whiny, as he jabbed at the keyboard. “Not an IT engineer goddammit...”
Clarke, who was more computer comfortable than the other ones, came and glanced over Rand’s shoulder. He seemed taken aback by whatever he saw on the laptop. “What the hell. What kind of a screensaver is that? Boy, what a picture. Looks like that’d hurt, all right.”
“It’s not a screensaver,” Rand responded, in his irritated whine. “Must be something off the wi-fi. Might be from a computer virus. It just...appeared.”
“Look at all the teeth on that thing. You try rebooting?”
“Yeah!” Rand snapped. “Of course! But...I can’t even seem to get it turned off. Never mind.”
Rand slapped the laptop shut. “I’ve got everything here in these papers. Lord it sure is hot along here...”
He opened the second button on his shirt, showing part of his tee.
“Don’t you open that shirt anymore,” Eli said. “We’re likely to faint if you do.”
Rand shot him a savage look. “You think you’re funny. You always think you’re so...”
Abashed, Eli looked at Al, sitting at the head of the table, his turned back to the window. The blurred cityscape behind him seemed to quiver and dance, as if the buildings were gelatinous. Must be the heat...
“Why can’t we get the air conditioning fixed?” Rand persisted. “Al? I don’t ask for a big bonus every year. But some air conditioning don’t seem unreasonable.”
“Hell, you get a bonus anyway,” Clarke muttered, sitting down across from Eli.
“I get a moderate bonus! And all I ask is working air conditioning...”
“And you get stock options,” Al growled. “Now just...shut up. We have to get with the routine.”
Eli looked at him in puzzlement. The routine? That wasn’t something he’d usually say at a meeting. The thought prodded Eli with a nagging feeling that there was something important he’d forgotten. Something he couldn’t quite remember; as if that steaming haze outside was fogging up his memory.
Al took a deep breath, put his elbows on the table, clasped his hands—almost as if he were going to pray—and then said, “Let us...” His lips twisted. “Let us...review the material. In preparation for the deposition...”
Clarke opened his briefcase, handed a sheaf of papers to each man, as Eli looked around. “Where’s Louise? And Grace?”
Clarke glanced around in confusion. “Aren’t they supposed to be here?”
“She resigned,” Al murmured, to himself. “Resigned...I’m resigned...she resigned...”
“She resigned?” Eli shook his head. “I don’t remember...Why did she...”
Then it was as if something unseen gripped Eli by the throat. A voice whispered in his ear, “Follow the protocol. Do as usual. Stop fighting. Play nice.”
Eli gasped for breath. “Yes...”
The pressure on his throat eased. He looked at the papers dazedly. The fog curled in his memory... It seemed to him the edges of the papers on the table were curling up, like wet leaves drying out in the heat...
“We...We could cancel this meeting,” Rand said suddenly, in a strained voice. Eli glanced up at him—saw rank desperation in the froggish face. Rand licked his thick lips and went on, “No air conditioning. Not healthy. Eli’s having trouble breathing. Might be asthma. We could...postpone it.”
“Asthma!” Al said, his lips buckling. He laughed bitterly. “Or emphysema. Or...lung cancer. That what you mean? Lung cancer?”
Then both Rand and Al began to wheeze. Eli thought he could see hand-marks appearing on their necks.
“Okay...” Al gasped. “Okay!”
They breathed more easily and looked hastily down at their paperwork.
Al looked at the papers Clarke had given him and scowled. “Hexavalent Chromium’s association with cancer is undoubted. What the hell’s this?”
Eli, as head of marketing, knew what he was supposed to say to that. “Who says it’s undoubted? We could challenge the basis of the science on that alone—there’re always doubts...”
Clarke shrugged. “It’s thought...the firm thinks...we need to make as small a settlement as possible, and insist that just because we manufactured the stuff we didn’t expect people to have real exposure. They’re supposed to be cautious around it. Of course some of them didn’t know they were exposed to it... that’s...” He wiped sweat from his eyes. “...what their lawyers say. But we can argue that they should have known...”
“But the point is,” Eli said, “that we didn’t know, and that’s what I’ll...what I’ll imply. Without really getting into the...the research...” He had just seen the paperwork that showed that ChemiTex had in fact known that the chemical used in so many industrial settings did in fact cause lung cancer. And that employees exposed to it were not informed as to how dangerous it was. “What about this other part of the suit—this propylene glycol business...I mean, how can they sue us for more than one chemical at a time?”
“In some cases,” Clarke said, peering at the paperwork, “the same people were exposed to two cancer-causing—”
“Allegedly cancer-causing,” Eli corrected him. “Or anyway, in small enough amounts...I mean, you know, there’s some disagreement about how much is safe but as far as we knew...”
“Page seven, Eli,” Clarke said, sighing. “God, we really need the air conditioning back on, this is crazy. Multibillion dollar company and we can’t even...Can’t we get a swamp cooler, for god’s sake, or...how about a fan?”
“We don’t have time for that,” Al said. “We need to get this resolved. We have a deposition to do.”
“How about some water?” Rand said, his voice ever whinier. “We could call down for it. I checked the fridge in the conference kitchen—empty. Fridge wasn’t even running. Couldn’t even find a working water fountain...”
“I tried calling down to secretarial for water, right before the meeting,” Clarke said. “Someone I didn’t know answered. They said sure, sure—and then they just laughed. Need to get their asses fired...”
“We could meet somewhere else,” Eli suggested. “Somewhere cooler.”
Al shook his head. “Stick to the routine,” he growled. “Pretend you don’t notice the heat.”
Jeering laughter came from the window behind Al. That’s how it seemed, anyway—that someone, or something, on the other side of the big window behind Al was laughing.
It really was getting hotter in the conference room. Just hotter and hotter. The air was wavering in front of his eyes. There was a strange smell in the air—as if someone were cooking vomit.
Got to get out of here.
He glanced toward the door. Why not just get up, and walk out? What was keeping him here?
A titter of laughter from the window...
“...and that’s not all,” Clarke said. “There’s a new lawsuit—about the PCBs at that school.”
“We didn’t tell ‘em to build a school there,” Al said, mopping his forehead with a kerchief. “The idiots.”
“We sold ‘em the property, Chief,” Clarke sighed. He took off his jacket, laid it sloppily on the table beside him. Steam rose from it. “And when we signed, we said it was safe...”
“I thought we did some kind of...abatement there,” Al said, clenching his fists.
“Just the first few inches of soil. The PCBs went down way deeper than that.”
That déjà vu struck Eli again. Just the first few inches of soil. The PCBs went down way deeper than that. He remembered those exact statements from Clarke. From the last time they’d had this meeting...
No, not this meeting. One like it. Similar. Not the same meeting. Not possible.
“You know,” Eli said. “Kids get cancer without the help of PCBs. They didn’t manufacture those chemicals in, what, the 15th century, but people got cancer then.” His words seem to bounce around in the room, as if it were an echo chamber. It was an echo, really. Reverberating over and over...
“Right,” Clarke said. “But the risk factors...” He shrugged. “Their lawyers—and their scientists—will argue that we increase the risk of the cancers. And now this new EPA—they’re harping about how most of our new chemicals aren’t even tested. They’re planning to require full testing...”
“Let’s focus on the problem at hand,” Al said, wringing out his handkerchief. Sweat glossed his face. The table was slick with sweat, around each man. Steam rose from the metal in wavering columns.
On impulse, Eli reached out and touched the steel table—and snatched his burnt fingers back.
Laughter warbled from the windows. Or was that from the broken air vents?
Clarke seemed to take a deep breath. He closed his eyes a moment, then opened them and said with more determination, “Look—in the long run we could lose out. That’s my take as company counsel. If we keep suppressing... uh, spinning, whatever you want to call it...the data on carcinogenic chemicals, it could just lead to prosecutions and bigger fines...”
“Fines!” Rand snorted. “They fine us a hundred thousand bucks, so what, we make billions keeping these chemicals in the marketplace. That fine we paid for the Georgia Pacific thing in Florida—for the St Johns River...nothing!”
Clarke nodded, wiped sweat from his upper lip with the back of his hand. “But still—we could lose billions in lawsuits. I mean there are millions of chemicals—we could do a lot more research, find out what the safer ones are for those applications.”
“Research costs money,” Al said. “Maybe later.”
Research costs money. Maybe later. Eli had heard that exact phrase before. He had heard it in this very room...
“See,” Clark went on, with a note of desperation. “If we could say, in court, that we’re looking for safer ones...”
“So go on and say it!” Al said. “Maybe we’ll find some. Sometime. Right now we got to ask ourselves, what market’s hot? We’ve still got a very hot market for BPA, for plastic liners. Now, they claim that way down the line it’ll cause breast cancer, lot of other problems—Hell, we’ll be retired by then.”
That last remark actually shocked Eli a bit. He almost spoke up. But he didn’t.
Eli never did speak up, never challenged Al...
“But look,” Clarke persisted. “They’ve got that whistleblower—he showed them our research on BPA, our own research showed it can lead to breast cancer. So that means we knew...and if we knew and kept making the stuff. When lots of people die from it—and they claim it’s a lot of people—it’s going to hurt us in court, and hurt us bad...”
“We’ll pay the price,” Rand said, shrugging. “Damn it’s hot in here. We’ll pay whatever fine, whatever settlement—still won’t cost us as much as we’ll make on sales to South America. They don’t have a clue about the stuff down there. We’re still selling them DDT for...for God’s...”
He wants to say For God’s Sake, Eli thought. And for some reason he can’t.
Laughter pealed from the window behind Al again. Eli glanced toward the window—and stared. The city was hidden—the whole skyline was concealed by a writhing wall of smoke.
“Oh my God,” he said, standing. “I think the building’s on fire!”
Al nodded with dreary resignation. Sweat dripped from his forehead, onto the table. The sweat sizzled when it hit the table. The room rippled with heat. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “Almost over, for this one. Gotta try not to forget. If I could just pray. But they won’t let me...”
Now the smoke outside the window was split by flame, attenuated flames of red and blue, licking past the blackening glass. The window glass darkened—and began to melt. The papers on the table burst into flame.
Clarke screamed and pointed at the back wall. Eli turned to see the wall darkening. In the middle of the dark patch a glowing red spot was expanding. Yellow flame flicked up from the glowing red spot, eating away at the wall. The flames grew, consumed the wall, lapped at the ceiling.
Eli stood, knocking over his chair. He wanted to run but his feet felt so heavy. He managed to turn with great difficulty toward the door—he stalked toward it, lifting his heavy feet up with an enormous effort at each step, as if they were encased in blocks of concrete. So hot. Smoke spread, choking the room. He was afraid his clothing might ignite from the heat. The soles of his shoes were melting, sticking to the floor, he had to struggle to pull them free.
He stopped a pace from the door—and saw that it was only a painting of a door. There was no actual knob—just an image of a knob. The door was just a two dimensional image printed on the wall, undulating in the heated air. He reached out to it, brushed his fingers on it...flat. Just the blackening wall...
That laughter again—he was afraid to look toward its source. But he did. He saw the roaring oven that the window had become, and the striated lines of sooty flames had formed faces, bodies, leering and laughing...hands of flame…
They were reaching for Al, who was sitting on his chair, sobbing. And Al waited for them to enclose him in their blazing embrace, as they had so many times before. Their fiery arms enfolded him, and he arched his back with agony, and began to burn. A soul doesn’t burn quite like a body—it’s never quite consumed completely. Al became a living coal, shaped like
Eli’s boss—and then became Al again, and then a coal again...over and over, writhing, screaming, imploring, his pleadings blotted out by the ever increasing volume of demonic laughter.
How many years ago? How long ago had the original meeting been? The meeting they were forced to relive, over and over...
It didn’t matter. There was no time here, really. There were sequences of events, when the demons willed it so. Like film loops, a loop that started again the moment it ended...
Rand screamed, as the demons embraced him, and Clarke, looking at the ceiling, shouted in a cracked voice, “I’m sorry! I tried to talk them out of it—I tried to change their minds!”
But you never left the company, Eli thought. None of us did. We didn’t work to change the policy. We didn’t blow the whistle, we just kept playing along. Ironically, Clarke died of cancer fourteen years after that meeting. Al died of a heart attack a year after that. Rand was killed by some thug in a boy-prostitution bar during a vacation in the Dominican Republic. And me, I shot myself—I remember it now—when my fourth wife left me...
What a relief it had been to pull the trigger. Boom! And blessed silence.
But the silence didn’t last. Footsteps in that hallway, walking along with Clarke. And then...
The oven that the conference room had become was dark with smoke, red with fire, the flames everywhere, each one sprouting a gleeful face, snapping jaws, the jaws reaching for Eli’s head...
Eli didn’t bother to scream. There was no use in screaming. He opened his mouth and no scream came out as he undulated with agony. The burning went on and on...
Walking along in that hallway...and the air conditioner had been broken that day, the day they’d sold the last feeble flicker of their souls...
~ ~ ~
“Air conditioner’s broken again,” Clarke observed, quite unnecessarily.
“Chalk up another deduction for Sherlock Holmes...” Eli Henderson was well aware that the air conditioning in the ChemiTex skyscraper was broken. His shirt was clinging to his back; his hair was pasted to his forehead as he walked beside Clarke Kroch down to the conference room. Sweat burned Eli’s eyes, and so did the glare from the big panel window they passed. The picture window overlooked the city below. No movement of traffic down there. Just a kind of vague writhing through the haze, the murk...