DarknessFalls

Storybook | Game

The Paragon Institute.

Jason’s collar was too tight. It was a new shirt, hand made and crisply starched. His new shoes squeaked slightly on the polished marble floor. His first day was a haze of steely handshakes and unwavering eye contact. This is Brad, he’s one of our sharpest litigators, this is Hal, he’s in corporate refinement, Marlie here’s in litigation defence...

Jason smiled, tried not to be too new boy, tried to match their cold, business like air, and let himself be whisked on. The building throbbed with activity. There’d been a Paragon Institute since the late 40’s, he knew that, he’d read the glossy corporate website cover to cover. If websites had covers.

His guide was ushering him into a glass elevator. As it crawled up the atrium of the building he looked out.

It had started... 1946, three retiring army officers had pooled their demob support and started a business consultancy. One accountant, one lawyer and one badass ex-colonel that everyone had called the colonel until the day his heart had finally got tired of beating on a golf course. The idea had been to bring the discipline and organisation of the army to the businesses of Darkness Falls, many of them still rooted in the practises of the 19th century. To be a paragon of business efficiency and discipline. At least that had been the idea.

The website hadn’t said, but they hadn’t done too well to begin with. Old habits died hard, racketeering had been widespread, and changing habits, firing people who’d sat on their fat asses in non-jobs for decades had not proven easy. Compared to the discipline of the army, the clarity of the battlefield it must have seemed like they were fighting in a sewer. In the dark.

Jason looked down as the elevator rose. The atrium was pretty standard, all glass and big escalators. It was full of people. Everyone seemed young, there wasn’t a suit down there under a thousand dollars, everyone had that driven, competitive air of a corporate lawfirm.

But Paragon was more than just a lawfirm, more than just business accountants. Research was his thing, he was good at sniffing out information, had a nose for it, a real gift. It had been a tough choice between law school and journalism. But law paid better. And you got to wield more power.

Paragon had had to fight for its survival in the early days. Sometimes literally. There were no police reports, it looked like someone had done a little editing, but they’d forgotten the hospitals. Major Edward “Ted” Abbott, the accountant, had had a .38 revolver round removed from his left hip. The Major had walked with a limp for the rest of his life, used a stick in later years. Major Charles “Chaz” Gorton, the lawyer, had sustained second and third degree burns to his right arm and face, cause not given. Colonel Francis “Frank” Katz had had a broken arm set and a bullet removed from the muscles of his abdomen. The notes had remarked on his physical strength and how damned lucky he was to still be alive.

The elevator opened with barely a sound. The people in the corridor turned to look, their faces masks of casual disinterest. Jason met their gaze as he was ushered through the floor. This was where he’d be working. Cubicles, chest high panels carved the huge room into little cubicles where the grunts drummed up business, stayed out of trouble and did whatever the hell their seniors told them to do. And if you were in this room then everyone was your damned senior. Brightly lit by strip lights and airconned the room might have been miles underground. He could almost feel people losing interest in him as they realised that this was where he was heading.

His guide ushered him toward a meeting room.

So the Institute - making it a charitable body had been Abbott’s idea, the property tax breaks had been irresistable - had been born in the blood of its founders. But then it had stopped. From mid 1949 onward there were no more hospital reports. No more small ads in the local paper recruiting replacement staff. The attacks had stopped. In 1949. The fourth partner had joined in 1949.

Inside the meeting room the chairs had been arranged in a pretence of egalitarianism. A friendly circle, intended to suggest that they were all team, none above another. He wasn’t fooled. The man he was meeting was already standing. Silver haired, tanned, tennis-player’s body. Ten grand suit and Rolex, smile that seared your retinas.

“Jason,” the man held out his hand, “I can’t say how much I’ve looked forward to this.”

“The pleasure’s mine sir, I’ve read all about you, your defence of Empress Oil was one of my favorite cases in college.”

He took the man’s hand, shook it with practised eagerness. Actually the Empress Oil disaster had dragged on for months and threatened to bring a major oil company to its knees. If the chief protester's car hadn’t lost control and gone off the highway it could still be rumbling on today.

“Well I’m sure you’ll be adding to our list of triumphs pretty soon hey?”

Both men laughed. It was bullshit; once you were in that call centre you could stay there for years with seniors stealing all your glory making it impossible to get out. But hey, two years of this on his resume, make a few connections, impress a few clients and he could walk into a smaller, easier practice, hopefully take a few clients with him. Two years, that’s all he needed.

“You got any problems you don’t keep them to yourself hey? You make sure you bring them to Emmett there. It’s what he’s there for, isn’t that right Emmett?”

“In other words never trouble me again you irrelevant little piss ant,” thought Jason. “Don’t worry old man, I don’t think I’ll be needing you from here on in.”

Emmett winced a smile. “That’s right sir, anything at all.”

Jason looked him in the eye. “I’ll do my best not to need you.”

The older man laughed loudly. “That’s the spirit. Right, Emmett, all yours. Good to meet you Jason, good to meet you.”

Outside Emmett took him to a small cubicle. It had been stripped bare but there were subtle clues of its previous occupant; the slight trace of ink stains on the monitor, wearing on the edge of the desk, the faint imprint of glue stains on the partition, wide enough spaced to have been photographs. A woman, he decided, his predecessor had been a woman. Family photos, kids maybe, although few in this building, in this profession had time for kids.

He sat in her place, displaced her ghost. A pasty, slightly shiny man with thinning hair popped up from behind the partition to his left.

“Howdo, name’s Brian, welcome to the team.” He held out his hand, it was pudgy and slightly sweaty.

“Thank you, Jason.”

Emmett spoke over them. “Ok, Brian can show you the ropes, IT should have issued you with passwords. Did you get your staff pass? Good, keep it on you at all times, it opens every door you’re entitled to open in the building and it logs you onto your computer. That’s the task list, at the moment you don’t have a specialism so you just take something off of the general pile. A senior wants something they add it to the job list, you guys get to do the job. All very simple, I’m sure Brian can fill you in on the details. Any questions?”

Jason smiled, he hoped sincerely. “No, you’ve been very helpful, I guess I’d like to just get started now.”

“Good, well, yes, welcome.” Emmett actually faked someone grabbing his attention. Jason almost laughed. “Excuse me I’m needed.”

“He’s a dick.” Brian whispered as Emmett scuttled off. “And welcome to the battery farm.”

“What happened to my predecessor?”

“She packed up her desk one day, left her pass with security and walked out of the building. I’ve heard rumors she’s studying pottery at community college but I don’t think she keeps in touch.”

“Wow.”

“Hell if she can be happy making pots then good luck, better than being a slave in here. Oh, couple of things you should know? He’s right about that pass; you cannot move without it. It gets you into the men’s room. It gets you out of the men’s room. It logs how long you spend in the men’s room. It logs who else is in the men’s room with you, and that includes visitors, most of whom have been vetted so try not to be in there with any journalists, looks very bad. Don’t use the restroom on the lower floors, is my advice. It logs when you open doors. It logs when you close doors. And it logs when you try to open doors you shouldn’t.”

“Does it log what I do in the men’s room?”

“No but the cctv cameras probably do.”

“You are fucking kidding me.”

“Nope. We are a military operation guy, we are at war.”

The rest of the morning was spent pulling tasks off of the task list. At the centre of the room an LED display logged who was working on a task, how long they’d spent on a task, whether they were in the restroom or not and how long they’d spent in there. As soon as you took a job off of the pile a time came up, the time they reckoned you should take, and it started ticking down. He passed the time drafting letters, reviewing depositions, researching information requests. Brian had been right, it was a battery farm. Down here were the grunts, unnoticed, unvalued. But up there...

Ibraheem al-Awahi. The fourth partner. He’d joined in 1949, no record of where he’d come from, no record of what he’d been. No mention of him before he’d been added to the Paragon Institute as a full director. In 1949. The year the attacks had stopped. The year the fortunes of the Institute had started turning around. Maybe al-Awahi had had some kind of mystic joo-joo, but whatever it was it had worked. Within five years the Institute had been posting profits, counting some of the biggest companies in the city among its clients, within ten it was one of the biggest companies in the city, even working for the Mining Company. The early walk up offices had been replaced by their own building. And that had been replaced by this, a state of the art office complex with state of the art environmental management and state of the art facilities. And state of the art security.

Nowadays it was famous. Everyone knew. Whatever you needed, you could turn to the Institute. Whatever problem your company was having you could turn to the Institute. A one-stop trouble-shooting solution to all your business needs. Whatever you needed. Whatever. But it came at a cost. There was always a cost.

Jason pulled his pass out of his keyboard. Instantly his screen locked and his name on the giant display turned red. A clock started ticking off seconds next to his name. He made his way to the cafeteria, picked his selection of health conscious, calorie controlled foods from behind the clear plastic windows and paid for it with his pass. He congratulated himself on picking the fruit over the candy bar. The system would log what he was eating for sure, and people who ate badly worked badly. And it would be noted.

He spotted the managers with ease. In another corporate bullshit pretence of equality the tables were laid out in what seemed to be no order. There was of course, there were always patterns, and there was a clear empty zone around the managers’ eating area. He sat on the edge of it, near a window, pretending to admire the view out of the floor length windows.

Their conversation was soft but relaxed. Jason watched them out of the corner of his eye and let his awareness wash over them. It was the small clues, the little give aways. They called it a ‘tell’ in poker, just that little subtle giveaway clue that told you what was going on. He was good, he had a real instinct for what was going on. Journalism or Law School, it had been a tough choice. Hell, he was young, maybe he could still do journalism. Maybe this was his Pulitzer right here.

And there it was. Just in the way they tensed, just in the way the conversation paused, became careful at certain points. They were discussing nothing - some guy was talking about his boat, another was talking about his investments. On the surface they were the most boring bunch of bastards alive. But under the surface.... And they thought they were good at hiding, which made them all the more vulnerable.

They had a secret. One they were afraid of, one that they’d suffer heavily for revealing.

The attacks had stopped. In 1949.

Ibraheem al-Awahi had appeared from nowhere and had been recruited, not just recruited but handed a quarter of the company. In 1949.

Now the managers, the seniors, held a secret that they were terrified of revealing. There was a secret at the heart of the Paragon Institute and it was his ticket out of the battery farm.

“We are a military operation guy, we are at war.”

Jason finished the last of his fruit juice. He emptied his tray into the waste collector and headed back to his desk. Two minutes early.

“We certainly are,” he thought, “and I'm on my side.”

Storybook | Game