Philosophy 101 saved my life. A weird thing to say, I know, but it’s mostly true. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that my sleazy professor taught me how to stay alive. Of course, that knowledge was passed on accidentally. Professor Tomlinson’s teaching methods consisted of smoking dope and trying to screw his female students, me included. Any actual learning was purely circumstantial.
Back to philosophy saving my life, because I know that’s hard to swallow. We can skip past Descartes and his boring mirror image Kierkegaard. I think therefore I am; I am therefore I think; so pointless. Attention, old dead white guys: No one cares what you thought or were, regardless of what order you did it in.
So yeah, the course was incredibly boring. I was considering lifting the vintage cheerleading skirt for Tomlinson—one time only—so I could skip the rest of his lectures with a passing grade. Luckily for me, we banged into nihilism before I had to bang his ancient yuppie ass. Nihilism threw me the life-ring of nothingness.
I was born smack in the middle of Gen-Y. My Gen-X parents named me Ashley, which puts me top of the name list for a pathetic generation. The Boomers feasted on the fat of the land, Generation X gnawed the bones, and the Millennials were left with an empty table. Nothing and nihilism; suddenly it all made sense.
I embraced my new philosophy as a guiding beacon, a searchlight devoid of intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. It offered me a clear rejection of the past with no need for moral or political baggage. I did not matter, nothing I did mattered, and no one cared. Welcome to the reality of Generation Y.
My time done; Academia kicked me to the curb. I had a worthless bachelor’s degree, forty-thousand in student debt, and a new-found freedom. Fat lot of good any of those things did me. Which is why I ended up working at Keyes, Howard, & Brand, an assistant to Mister Keyes personal assistant.
Keyes, Howard, & Brand sounds like an Ivy League law firm, but it’s not. The company pimps social media advertisement designed to shear the public sheep of their dwindling disposable incomes.
Melanie is my boss. She is also Lowell Keyes personal assistant. She takes care of all his needs, including weekend junkets to the Bahamas aboard the company jet. I don’t get invited to the Bahamas. I’m an office grunt.
The hierarchy of the advertising world is still a big fat patriarchy. Fly all the rainbow flags you want; it doesn’t change the facts. Old white guys run everything. Mister big-shot-partner Lowell Keyes screws my boss Melanie, both literally and figuratively. Melanie is pissed off because her gym-toned flesh is starting to sag, and she knows that Bloomingdales train won’t run forever. So, she dumps her shit on me, usually in the form of a heavy file folder.
Why the hell anyone still uses paper files is beyond me. It’s like these dinosaurs have never heard of cloud storage. Lowell Keyes, or Lizard-Man as I call him, has a huge file room all to himself.
The place is downright creepy, like something out of a bad British movie. Rows of oak filing cabinets, dark wood paneling, old brass lamps that make more shadow than light, and all of it four times the size of my shitty apartment. I spend my workday creeping up and down the aisles of that mausoleum, stepping and fetching for Melanie.
My minion desk sits outside the paneled doorway that leads into the file room. Like I’m guarding a portal or something. The doorway beside my desk may be the only way in, but there is another door set back in the shadows of the far wall. It’s narrow, wedged in between two filing cabinets, and made of dark oak like everything else in the room. There’s a brass plaque in the center of the door. The plaque is engraved with a symbol, a triangle with a circle inside of it.
Three years slinking around that creepy room and not once did I see that door open, much less what was behind it. Three years of fetching the file on the Morris or the Barnes account. Life would have stayed a lot simpler if that door had never opened. But it did open. That’s what doors do. Just remember, nothing matters, at least not in any meaningful way.
Doors open for lots of reasons, not least of all because people do stupid shit. It wasn’t my fault.
* * *
The file hit my desk like a dead fish and I barely had time to wipe my Facebook page off my monitor. Melanie was standing in front of my desk looking a whole lot worse for recent wear. Her silk blouse was done up one button off and the fake tits she’s so proud of were in danger of escaping. Whatever needs she was taking care of for Lizard-Man must have been pretty damn vigorous.
Melanie was staring down at me, her eyes all weird and glassy like she was having trouble remembering who I was. She looked like a rave girl who had done way too much ecstasy and lost her goofy smile. While I was trying to process this new look, my boss dropped a heavy brass key on top of the file.
“Backroom, special file, lock the key in your desk.”
Before I could say a word, she turned and wobbled off on her high heels. I watched her go, waiting to see if she would hit the carpet or Lizard-Man’s door. She managed to reach the doorway, braced herself with one tanned arm, and staggered back into the den of the Lizard-Man. I sat alone in the empty foyer, blinking like a confused owl.
My brain was still trying to process Melanie-as-a-zombie so maybe I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I should have been. I was her file smurf and she had given me a file. Still, there were like huge clues if I had only been paying attention: Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
What lay on my desk was an antique portfolio bound in soft leather, probably the skin of an endangered species. The portfolio was held closed by a thick strap of the same exotic hide. The brass key gleamed against the dark animal skin. A heavy steel ring bound the key to a shining triangular fob. A simple circle was engraved over the center of the fob.
A card slot on the portfolio contained a rectangle of parchment. The file name was etched in a fine calligraphy: Pyramid Oculars.
I shrugged it off like, whatever, a file’s a file. Little idiot that I am, I snatched the thing up and headed for the back of the creepy room. The quicker I was done, the quicker I could get back to updating my profile.
I may have never seen the old door in use, but someone had. There was not a speck of dust on the raised oak panels. The brass doorknob was polished to a golden glow. That fancy key slid into the lock without a sound and the tumblers turned like a Swiss watch.
The room resembled a small den or would have if my personal creep-o-meter hadn’t dialed itself up to eleven. As soon as I stepped inside, the door swished closed behind me. The lock clicked and I jumped halfway out of my skin. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s when I saw the paintings.
The room was paneled floor-to-ceiling in dark wood. Brass lamps glowed low and somber. A bank of filing cabinets were built into the wall on my left. On my right was a single overstuffed armchair, a small table, and reading lamp. On the back wall hung five formal portraits painted in oils. The face in each of the paintings was exactly the same. Five different costumes from five different eras, but all the hungry lustful eyes staring down at me belonged to Lowell Keyes.
I was trapped in a small room with way too many images of the Lizard-Man. Lowell Keyes in a white horsehair wig, Lowell Keyes with Victorian whiskers, Lowell Keyes holding a robber baron’s top hat in the crook of his arm. I tossed that stupid portfolio onto the armchair and spun for the door.
My heart was pounding so hard I swear I heard it echoing in that horrible room. But the key fit the lock, the lock turned, and the door opened. I stepped through the door, pushed it closed, and locked it; all in the space of five thumping heartbeats. My sense of relief lasted for the time it took to walk the length of the outer file room. When I stepped into the foyer, the Lizard-Man was standing at my desk, a smile creasing his tanned face.
“Ashley, just the person I was looking for. Would you be so good as to step into my office? Melanie and I have something to go over with you.”
I nodded and forced the squeaky fear out of my voice.
“Of course, Mister Keyes. Let me just get my notepad and pen.”
The key was still clutched in my hand and it felt like it was burning into the flesh of my palm. I reached into the top drawer of my desk, palmed the key down as softly as I could, and brought out my pad and pen. The most natural thing in the world, right?
Lizard-Man ushered me across the foyer and through the door into his massive office. Across the wide expanse of plush carpeting, the city fell away beneath a wall of plate glass. The boss beckoned me to a sofa, and I sat on the edge of the Italian leather. I balanced my notepad on my knees, a good office slave ready for service.
Melanie was nowhere in sight. Lizard-Man fussed around his office bar.
“Tea, Ashley? Or perhaps something stronger?”
This is the scene where the plucky heroine most definitely does not accept a drink.
“Just tea, Mister Keyes, thank you. No milk, no sugar.”
“As you wish, my dear.”
A machine whirred and hissed. Then Keyes was beside me, leaning over me to place a cup and saucer on the low coffee table. I could smell his aftershave, something musky and expensive. He took a seat opposite me, sinking into a low armchair. He smiled at me and sipped at a crystal tumbler he held in his hand.
“An excellent scotch if you change your mind. Melanie should be along in a moment. Please try your tea. It’s a special lapsang souchong. I think you’ll like it.”
So, I took a sip of tea. It was dark and smoky, like no tea I had ever tasted. I know what you’re thinking. I willingly drank from the cup. All I can say is I know better now. Mea culpa, nothing has meaning until it does.
Lizard-Man kept smiling and sipping his whiskey. Melanie did not appear, but the room did start spinning. Then I was falling back onto that soft leather and that smiling face was hovering above me, spinning and spinning and spinning.
* * *
When I swam back into consciousness, it was at forty-thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean. I was aboard the company jet on my own private junket to the Bahamas. My eyes finally focused enough to see Lizard-Man sprawled in a chair across the narrow aisle. He raised a glass to me, and I was flooded with a sense of déjà vu, as if someone had magically switched the scenery during the middle of a demonic stage play. The huge office had been whisked away, replaced by the narrow interior of a Learjet.
I was unable to speak, but conscious of the words Lizard-Man was saying. There was a private airfield in the Bahamas, no passports required for special guests. I was most certainly a special guest. Melanie, alas, had been unable to join us. We would have to muddle through without her. In fact, Melanie had been put to, ah, other uses.
Lowell Keyes hovered over me and as he did, his face blurred and changed. I was certain that he was revealing his true face, that of a giant lizard dressed in a very expensive suit. I felt a sharp prick in my arm and the thin tube of the Learjet sank back into blackness.
The next thing I remember was the ocean breeze. It was warm and soothing on the skin of my arms. It tickled, teased the down on my forearms, invited me out to play. Wake up, Ashley, it’s another beautiful day.
I sat up in the bed I found myself in and instantly wished I had not. Sunlight washed into the room and the brightness of it blinded me with a stabbing pain. My arms felt like lead and my head was pounding with a monster hangover. I forced my eyes open and made myself look.
Where and what and then it came back to me in a flood that threatened the pit of my stomach. I found a glass of water perched next to an ornate lamp on the bedside table. I drank off half of it and paused. When the water stayed down, I finished off the glass. Then I realized what I had done and cursed myself for the stupid bitch I was, but nothing happened. It was just water.
Cursing myself brought on a red-hot anger and the anger pushed away the sick feeling. I climbed from the bed. I was wearing a sleeveless silk nightgown that fell to the floor, expensive and slinky. I tried hard to read my body, to feel what had happened to me, but aside from the pounding headache, I seemed untouched.
I was alone for the span of maybe five minutes, five minutes in which to figure out how not to be stupid. I used the time wisely. I added up all the things that had meaning. It was a very short list.
He did not knock. I knew he wouldn’t. Why knock when you own everything? Then he was in the room, that sick smile plastered across his evil face. His words were the same; smooth, polished, knowing that everything was going to go exactly as he wished.
“You know why you’re here, don’t you Ashley?”
I nodded my head, fought down the urge to hug myself, to hide inside my own embrace. Do not show this bastard any fear. Do not. You are not prey, not unless you let yourself be.
“This doesn’t have to be difficult, you know, not at all. It was Melanie who made the mistake, not you. Melanie’s portion of that mistake has been rectified; her essence devoted to more important uses. As to your seeing what you should not have seen, that is more in the way of a regrettable accident. Still, what is seen cannot be unseen. A man in my position can’t be too careful. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
I smiled; I really did. I put everything I had into that smile, slow and sultry, while I ran one hand through my hair. I waved the other hand through the warm air, taking in that beautiful sun-drenched room.
“I can appreciate all of this, Mister Keyes. The way I look at it, this is Melanie’s loss and my gain.”
I sank back down onto the bed and leaned back.
“Then Lowell, please, why don’t you come over here.”
And he did. He slid across that big bedroom like some happy puppy coming to get his favorite toy, like the entire world was his private playground.
He still had that stupid leering smile plastered across his lizard face as I swung that heavy lamp. That evil smile wavered for a split second, as if disembodied from his smashed face. Then his entire body spun like a top before he corkscrewed to the red tile floor. I was on him like a cat, bringing that ugly brass lamp down on his already bloody head.
Lowell Keyes hadn’t made the shortlist of things that had meaning.
* * *
You might think it would be impossible to escape from a private compound on a tropical island. Difficult, yes, but not impossible as it turns out. It is very helpful if everyone that works for the man you just killed hates him as much as you do. It doesn’t make escaping a walk in the park, but it turns the impossible into the possible. I’m here, and I’m telling this story, so you’ll just have to believe me.
There were some dark days, and I had to do a few things that I am not going to assign any meaning to, but eventually I found myself back on the mainland. All that I had was my own body, the clothes on my back, and an all-consuming rage for revenge. Hell hath no fury to match what was burning inside me.
I begged my way online, sent texts and emails, anything to get the traveling money I needed. With a pocket full of borrowed cash, I was on my way back to the city, ready to rain down fire and brimstone. Every rock was going to be turned over, and every dirty secret exposed.
In the end, I got there, but too late. The firm of Keyes, Howard, & Brand had vanished as if it had never existed. No company name on the directory, no elevator access to the twelfth floor, nothing.
I bribed my way past the doorman and climbed the fire stairs. Pushing open the heavy steel door revealed exactly what the man had said would be there: nothing. No chairs, no desks, an empty room where the file cabinets had been, and a smaller walk-in closet beyond that; no hidden mystery room, nothing but emptiness. Like so much else, it had fallen from the list of meaningful things.