The mood in the conference room, for lack of any better word, was tense. Phillip was not willing to look anyone in the eye. In truth, no eyes were meeting any others, but the four adults in the conference room all felt the pressure of each other’s imagined stares. The silence in the room did nothing to alleviate the feeling that their hypertachyic heartbeats were audible to everyone else.
“As I said,” Daniel announced suddenly, “that could have gone far better.”
“I should have told you to call him on his lies earlier,” Phillip said.
“How could I have missed the signs?” Katherine cried.
“This is an unmitigated disaster,” Chloe said.
None heard the other’s words– they had all spoken at once. Immediately, they turned away and spoke no more.
This pattern repeated itself twice more, with varying self-recriminations, before Chloe continued. “All right, this is getting us nowhere,” she said. “We’re not the kind of people who brood over our mistakes like–”
“Like children,” Phillip spat.
“Yes, exactly,” Chloe said. “We are being childish now. We should calm down and take a look at what happened.”
“Obviously,” Katherine said, “we picked a fight with a psychopath.”
“Perhaps those words are not as harsh as they are accurate,” Daniel said. “We should leave the diagnoses of Alexander for a later time. For the moment, let us focus on Twilight Wings.”
“Agreed,” Phillip said. “We blew it big time.”
“Maybe,” Chloe said. “I’m calling everyone in early on Monday, and we’re going to go over our alternates one more time. Maybe we can make do with one of them.”
“I highly doubt it,” Katherine said. “Rob was the only one who even came close to fitting into the current matrix.”
“Perhaps the matrix needs further analysis, as well,” Daniel said.
Phillip stayed calm, but inside he was furious. “I, uh,” he started. “Look, I don’t know what I can do, except–”
“On Monday,” Chloe said, “I would like you to have your group finish up all of their current outgoing letters and then take the remainder of the week off. We won’t be pursuing any further funding for the immediate future.”
Phillip was stunned. “You’re laying us off?”
“Not you,” Chloe said. “You’re staying here until we sort this out. Your team, however, is temporarily unnecessary. We can pay them in the interim, can’t we, Daniel?”
“As far as I am aware, that should pose no problem,” Daniel said. “I will have my group run through the budget and provide an estimate on how long such a state may persist.”
“Good enough,” Chloe said.
“I still feel kind of useless, though,” Phillip said.
“Far from it,” Katherine said. “You were absolutely right in there. Alex was unstable, and when I finally called him on the magazine thing, that was what caused it to fail. If anyone’s responsible, it should be me. We almost had him until–”
“You never had him!” Phillip snapped. “He came in here dead-set against it! There was no way in hell he was going to listen to a word any of us said!”
“Phillip, calm down,” Daniel said. “The reason for Alexander’s non-receptiveness is partially explained by how the MacKenzies were contacted. For that, the blame falls upon my shoulders.”
“I think we should hear how you did get them in here,” Katherine said. “Phil’s right; Alex was pretty torqued up before he got here. What did you promise them, anyway?”
“I promised them nothing,” Daniel said. “I may, however, have altered a few of the details surrounding the purpose for the interview.”
“Such as?” Chloe asked.
“I am afraid that I am not at liberty to say,” Daniel said. “The reason for this is also, sadly, to be kept secret for the time being. I will, however, acknowledge that the meeting was not presented to Alexander in good faith.”
“All right,” Phillip said. “So Alex was brought here under false pretenses. What I don’t understand is why he would get so enraged at praise for his son.”
“I think I said ‘psychopath’ already,” Katherine said. “He’s seriously looney-tunes.”
“It’s a bit early to be throwing words like that around, don’t you think?” Chloe said. “His behavior does warrant some looking into. Phillip, once we’re done, I would like you to get a copy of the interview film from Ben and review it tonight, once the kids are in bed.”
“Gotcha,” Phillip said. “Though I can say that the really good part isn’t gonna be on there.”
“The timing of the observation failure was most unfortunate,” Daniel said. “I would be most intrigued to know the source of the failure.”
“I’ll talk to Ben and see if he can figure it out,” Katherine said.
“Kath,” Phillip said, “you mean it wasn’t on purpose?”
Chloe gasped. “Phillip, how can you–”
“Katherine left a pen in the interview room when she left,” Phillip said. “When Daniel came in, he picked it up, just before the cameras went dead. I think there might have been a remote control in the pen.”
“That’s preposterous,” Katherine said. “I brought the pen in to write with!”
“And to signal to us,” Chloe said. “I recall you clicking it for yes and no.”
“That was a spur-of-the-moment thing and you both know it,” Katherine said. “I can’t believe you would think I…”
“It is quite an interesting coincidence,” Daniel said, “but I am afraid that that is all it is. A mere coincidence. I picked up the pen to write notes of my own with. You will find those notes on the case file.”
“Be that as it may,” Chloe said, “I’m starting to think the timing of the camera failure wasn’t simply an accident.”
“But who would want to sabotage the recording?” Katherine said. “You know me, Chloe, I’d crucify anyone who messed with my data sources.”
“And I certainly have no reason to damage the operations of the Foundation any further than they may be by other parties,” Daniel said. “I am also certain that you, Miss Reed, or you, Mister Brookfield, would have no ulterior motive as well.”
“That’s true,” Phillip said. “Still, that only leaves Ihab or Ben.”
“I’ll vouch for Ihab,” Katherine said. “And I’m sure Ben has no reason…”
“But we don’t know that, do we?” Chloe asked. “He did, after all, wire the system.”
“Fascinating,” Daniel said. “I shall have a talk with Ben later.”
“No need,” Chloe said. “I’ll deal with it. I’d rather not have you scaring him to death.”
“As you wish, Miss Reed,” Daniel said.
“One more thing,” Phillip said. “I thought we had backups of the cameras.”
“We do,” Chloe said. “But they were on order, and hadn’t been installed yet. Our normal setup is four cameras with a redundant four. Today, we were using all eight cameras, repositioned for maximum coverage.”
“Who suggested that?” Phillip asked.
“It was my request,” Daniel said. “I believed that we would need as much observational ability for this interview as we could get.”
“Be that as it may,” Chloe said, “it was risky.”
“I apologize,” Daniel said. “I was certain that all would go according to plan.”
“Maybe it did,” Phillip said, “but it sure as hell wasn’t our plan.”
“Alex played us,” Katherine said. “I’ve been thinking here that we blew our shot, but I have to consider the chance that maybe he changed the game as soon as he found out what we were up to.”
“You’re not making sense,” Chloe said.
“Alex isn’t dumb, we can be sure of that,” Katherine said. “If he had some kind of trigger on his son, some kind of mental alarm bells, then as soon as he understood that the meeting was about Rob– specifically, in praise of Rob– he started getting deliberately contrary. He started spewing out lies left and right, hoping one of us would call him on them, so that he could get the moral high ground.”
“He did have it, once you started lying,” Phillip said. “You’re Catholic. You wouldn’t know–”
“I do know,” Katherine said evenly, “that no sane church, extremist or otherwise, would dare run an identical fund-raiser to a public school’s. That would open them up to so many lawsuits, it wouldn’t be worth it. And the fact that it wouldn’t get them any money anyway.”
“What do you mean, wouldn’t get any money?” Chloe asked.
“The only reason to run an identical fund-raiser,” Daniel said, “would be to perform an act similar to culture-jamming. By oversaturating the area with magazine subscription offers, the number of successful orders, for both operations, goes down. If your goal is to raise awareness of your own cause, it would be a failure. But, if your purpose were to deliberately drive down the profits of the opposing fund-raiser…”
“It wouldn’t just work,” Chloe said, nodding, “it would be seen as an act of aggression. Got it.”
“This, of course, sets aside the concept that a sufficiently extremist church,” Daniel said, “would not hesitate to use such… shall we say, suicidal tactics.”
“All right,” Phillip said. “Let’s just say you got lucky on that one, Kath. What’s our next move?”
“For the moment, our move is to wait,” Chloe said. “We can’t do anything else today, and we need to see if there is any way to salvage Twilight Wings.”
“The way you phrase that,” Katherine said, “it’s like you’ve already given up.”
“I am not optimistic, that’s true,” Chloe said, “but there’s no way to close it down immediately.”
“Kath, you’ve seen the report,” Phillip said. “Can the project be saved?”
“Given the funding we’ve acquired and are banking on,” she said, “we would need to be able to cover the matrix gap with no more than three students, without over-covering other study areas.”
“Think of it like making a soup,” Daniel said. “If you are missing one ingredient, which would otherwise be perfect, it is certainly feasible to substitute similar ingredients. But in doing so, you must be careful not to add unintentional flavors, or emphasize the wrong flavors already existent in the soup.”
“Fair enough,” Chloe said. “Can we do it?”
“Hypothetically, yes,” Katherine said. “We’ve got about six or seven alternates, and the program is supposed to be scalable to any class size. The problem is that we were counting so strongly on Rob, given that he was the highest scorer on the tests.”
“That’s not like you,” Phillip said. “You usually take the worst-case scenario.”
“This is the worst-case scenario,” Katherine said, “only it just got much more worse. The alternates we were counting on to cover for Rob’s absence washed out in earlier testing.”
“Please,” Chloe said, “let’s not go slinging blame. We have to consider the very real possibility that we will lose Twilight Wings.”
“If that were to happen,” Daniel said, “the amount of stress on our resources and assets may become too great to bear at our current operating level. I blame myself for this; I did not foresee any difficulties with Twilight Wings’ success.”
“We’d have to scale ourselves back, that’s true,” Chloe said. “We could probably try going out for more federal funding.”
“The Feds always the same thing,” Phillip said, shaking his head. “We have to go through the state. And the state always says that it’s in the Feds’ hands. We’d have to look into more corporate grants, and they’d be looking for more tangible products.”
“Perhaps,” Daniel said. “At least your team would not have to worry about becoming superfluous, no?”
“Gallows humor isn’t exactly appreciated right now,” Phillip growled.
“And yet, that is where we stand,” Chloe said. “We are on the edge. The fate of Twilight Wings, and perhaps even the whole of the Foundation, is likely to hinge on what we discover on Monday.”
“Indeed,” Daniel said.
“Wait,” Katherine said. “We’re really in that deep? We put all our eggs into Wings?”
“It looks that way,” Phillip said. “Funding has been drying up lately– it’s all about the oil, they say. Our charter doesn’t allow for the option of a public offering, and even if we were a corporation that could do that, we’ve been bleeding money since day one. I can’t think where else we could get more grants from, and this is after getting exceptionally creative.”
“I still don’t know how you got the National Football League on board,” Katherine said. “But yeah. If it’s all about the money, and Wings was our biggest moneymaker, then we’re sunk.”
“I would prefer,” Chloe said, “that we not consider failure to be a likely option. It is something we must consider as an absolute last resort, but it’s not something I envision as being the Tuesday news.”
“Let’s go down this alley for a minute, though,” Phillip said. “What exactly would happen if we were to go under?”
“The consequences would be quite dire,” Daniel said. “All of our staff would be let go. Four hundred jobs gone in an instant.”
“The research we’ve been doing would be for nothing,” Katherine said. “We could sell off the rights for Blue Streak– we’d probably have to, to cover our debts– but I don’t think it would work in anyone else’s hands but ours.”
“I would think that the loss of all our jobs would be reason enough to soldier on,” Chloe said. “But then again, having come this far only to fail, that would be… devastating.”
Phillip paused before speaking. Losing his job with the Foundation would put him in a bind, that was certainly true. He had taken little notice of the ‘golden parachute’ clause in the contract he signed when he was promoted, but what he could recall at that moment led him to believe that it would not be sufficient to support the kids for very long. He supposed that the newspaper would always welcome him back, but a copy editor made far less than a board member of one of the rising stars of the educational research world– or, should I say, falling, he thought. It still wouldn’t be enough.
“I will have the legal department review the contracts,” Daniel said, “on Monday, to provide an accurate estimate of how much severance pay we would need to have liquid in the event of failure.”
“Good plan,” Chloe said. “Send them to my office, as well, I want to revise my contract.”
“Gutting us already?” Katherine said, laughing.
“No,” Chloe said evenly. “I’m waiving all of my severance pay and placing it into the asset pool, effective immediately. If anyone can’t be paid, then I won’t be either.”
Phillip blinked. “Very gutsy,” he remarked.
“It’s the right thing to do.” Chloe stood up. “I think we’ve run out of things to say. We should just all go home and try to enjoy the rest of the weekend.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” Katherine said, her laugh far more hollow this time. “But you’re right. I’ll get the notes from the interview room.”
“Check on the kids, too,” Phillip asked. “They’re probably terrified.”
“That’s your department,” Katherine said. “Still, I’ll make sure they’ve got their guides.”
“Thanks, Katherine,” Chloe said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Daniel stood and opened the door for her. “Doctor, please have a good evening.” She nodded and left. “Phillip, I believe that Ben will have prepared the disc of the interview by now.”
“Would you go check on that for us, Daniel?” Chloe asked.
“No, it’s okay,” Phillip said, “I wanted to go talk to Ben myself anyway. I’ll head down there right away.”
“One moment, Phillip,” Chloe said. “Could you please leave us for a moment, Daniel? I apologize, but this is between us.”
“I understand,” Daniel said, nodding. “I shall shut down the rest of the office for the night, then.” He closed the door behind him.
“You’re worried,” Chloe said, without preamble, turning to face Phillip. Staring her in the eye, it was obvious that she shared the sentiment. “I know that money’s always been tight for you, but with the kids…”
“Hey, I chose to adopt them,” Phillip said. “I can’t let them down now. We’ll manage.”
“I know, but… perhaps I can help,” Chloe said. “I’ve got some extra set aside in some hedge funds… Until things get better–”
“No,” Phillip said, flatly. “I mean, I appreciate the offer, but like I said, this was always my decision. I’m a father now, and I have responsibilities. I have to at least try to handle this on my own. You know, to set a good example and all.”
Chloe smiled. “Of course,” she said. “Phillip. I’m aware that you and I have an understanding. It’s always been in the background, but I’m afraid that this crisis could bring it to attention.”
“I understand,” Phillip said, “but that’s not going to happen. You can bank on that.”
“I worry about everyone, of course,” Chloe said. “It’s our nature. But I happen to worry about you just a little bit more.”
“And you can’t afford to do that,” Phillip said, smiling grimly. “We’ve got to handle this on our own.”
Chloe sighed. “There’s no way I can convince you?”
“It’s nothing personal,” Phillip said, grinning genuinely now. He stepped forward and gave Chloe a gentle hug. “For what it’s worth, lady,” he said, “I had a blast.”
She returned the hug. “I’m glad,” she said. “We’d better get going. Daniel will probably think we’re making out in here or something.”
“He can dream on,” Phillip said. He opened the door for her, and she stepped out into the hallway. “I’ll go check on Ben, and be right back up.”
The monitoring room was still dim; Ben was seated in front of the large plasma screen, and did not acknowledge Phillip’s presence. The screen itself showed only the blue ‘no-signal’ field.
“Are you all right?” Phillip asked.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Ben said. “I’ve gone back over it a dozen times. The plasma’s getting the right signal from the DVRs, and the DVRs are getting the right signal from the switch box. Everything’s working perfectly.”
“And this is bad because…?”
“Because there’s nothing to see,” Ben said. “It’s just… dead. The cameras still aren’t working. The whole thing just… died. All at once.”
“That’s not a common thing,” Phillip said.
“That’s not a possible thing,” Ben shot back. “This literally should not have happened, man.”
“I may have an idea on that,” Phillip said. “But I’m supposed to be asking if you got the disc burned.”
“Oh yeah,” Ben said, handing him a DVD case. “Everything that we got, in high-definition glory. But if that’s what you’re supposed to be doing here, what are you really doing here?”
Phillip grinned. “I want you to look for an antenna.”
“What, like someone siphoning off the DVR feed? No, there’s nothing there. I told you, everything checks out.”
“Not here, and not one going out,” Phillip said. “I think that someone cut the cameras on purpose.”
“Who?” Ben asked. “No, how?”
“Well, I don’t know who, exactly,” Phillip said. “But I think I can guess how. There’s got to be some central point where all the cameras’ cords go out, right?”
“The cameras are wireless, and we’d have seen a warning if their batteries were going to die,” Ben said. “But they don’t have great range, so their local receivers are…” Ben’s eyes lit up with recognition. “The patch panel!”
“The electrical closet in between the interview rooms has the bank of camera receivers,” Ben said. “All those receivers go into a gigabit ethernet switch that’s fed through the building’s wiring conduits.”
“Bottom line is, there’s one central place,” Phillip said. “I bet if you look there, you’ll find that kill switch.”
“Gotcha,” Ben said. “I’ll get on it first thing–”
“Do it now,” Phillip said, “and keep it quiet. Don’t even tell Chloe.”
“You think she–”
“I don’t think anyone,” Phillip interrupted. “But hurry.”
Phillip walked Ben up to the fifth floor, and then out into the main lobby. The kids were waiting for him, wearing their coats and bags. Katherine was standing by the elevator. Gene looked especially upset, though it was mostly only in comparison to his sister. Jeanne’s eyes were hard and set, unblinking, staring directly ahead; she barely registered his presence until Gene nudged her. This snapped her out of her trance, and she looked to Phillip with an expression more in tune with what he expected: raw terror.
“Phillip,” she cried, lunging for him. Gene followed close behind. The two children crushed him in a cross between a hug and a tackle; he gently put his arms around them. “What happened out here?” she asked, looking up at him.
“A lot,” Phillip said, honestly. “But nothing we can do anything about here. Come on, let’s go get something to eat. I bet you’re hungry, huh?”
“Yeah, a little,” Gene said. “I still wanna know what happened.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “It sounded really bad.”
“It’s nothing,” Katherine said. “Go on, now. Phillip’s got soda and candy for you.” He blinked at this, but Katherine only nodded twice.
“That’s right,” Phillip said. “Let’s go get something really good.”
“And ice cream, too!” Gene said, seizing on the opportunity.
“And ice cream,” Phillip said. “Kath, do you want to join us?”
“I’d love to,” she said tonelessly, “but I still need to wrap up here. Maybe another time.”
“Come on,” Jeanne said. “You know you want to.”
“Katherine’s very busy,” Phillip said. “We’ll invite her over for Thanksgiving, okay?” This seemed to pacify the children for the moment, and the elevator’s gate opened. He herded them in and pressed the button. As he descended, he caught a glimpse of Katherine’s face; a single tear dribbled from her chin, one he suspected would be merely the first of many.
“Is Katherine going to be all right?” Gene asked.
“She is,” Jeanne said, before Phillip could speak. “She’s smart. Way smart. She probably has a plan for, uh, whatever happened.”
“I hope so, sweetie,” Phillip said. “I really hope so.”
Downtown Pittsburgh did not have much that enticed the children’s tastes, so the trio took a bus to a mall on the outskirts of the city. Phillip couldn’t count the number of cars in the parking lot, and the walkways outside were more populated than usual with customers and clerks alike taking in a few gasps of fresh air. The food court, just inside the main entrance, was already crowded with the assembled multitudes, mostly trying to take advantage of the last few sales before the Christmas season began in earnest.
On any other day, the children would have been very wary about entering such a chaotic environment; their enthusiasm for plunging into the throngs confused Phillip momentarily until he realized exactly why they were not paralyzed by so many people around them. None of them were shouting or angry. There were some people upset here and there, of course– human emotion was not so easily manipulated by conspicuous consumption as to make everyone in the mall happy– but the predominant mood was just general contentment.
The kids were perceptive of this, but their hunger and desire for sugary treats overrode that analysis. In the end, Phillip wound up making three trips to the food counters; Gene had wanted pasta, Jeanne was hungry for a chicken sandwich, and Phillip felt like some chicken stir-fry. This was to say nothing of the ice cream.
As the amount of food before them dwindled, though, the children started dwelling more and more on what happened. Phillip knew better than to hope to distract them perpetually from it; the only solution was to face it head on. “You guys okay?” he asked.
“Kinda,” Jeanne said. “It’s weird. I don’t feel scared of the guy shouting anymore, but I still feel like he’s hanging around.”
“How do you mean?” Phillip asked.
“Like, he’s following us,” Gene said. “I feel it, too, but I don’t think he really is. It’s just like he’s following us.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said, nodding. “I know he’s not here.”
Phillip paused. Maybe he was dwelling a bit too much on it himself, he thought. “Well, like you said, it’s over now,” he said. “We should look forward to tomorrow.”
“Movie day, yeah,” Gene said. “But… I don’t know. It still feels like what he was shouting about isn’t over yet.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “Phillip, who was it?”
Head on, Phillip thought. “It was Mr. MacKenzie,” he said. The children gasped. “You’re right, what happened is not over yet. Not by a long shot.”
“It was really important, wasn’t it?” Jeanne asked, leaning forward. “Like, really really important?”
“Yes,” Phillip said. “I’m sorry, kids, but while you were in for evaluations, Rob was being interviewed, and his parents were talking with Katherine.”
Gene nodded. “I don’t know how, but I kinda thought he was around,” he said. “But…”
Jeanne swallowed a mouthful of soda. “Katherine had us do a really weird experiment,” she said. “Well, me, at any rate. I was left alone and told to just listen, and talk about what I heard through some static.”
“A hearing test?” Phillip said. “What’s so weird about that?”
“There wasn’t anything in the static,” Jeanne said. “It was… what did she call it? Light noise?”
“White noise,” Gene corrected.
“Yeah,” Jeanne nodded. “There wasn’t anything to hear. I guess it was just to test my imagination. But what I heard… it was really scary. I must have a really weird imagination.”
Phillip felt no need to correct her on the purpose of the experiment; he suspected that Katherine had neglected to tell the children the other half of the test, and obviously she had not told them whether or not they did well. It was likely just another point of data for her, but Phillip got the distinct impression that if the children applied themselves, they could easily understand just what it was they were asked. It was risky, and Katherine had to know it. “You don’t have a weird imagination,” Phillip said. “You probably just were nervous and started assuming the worst.”
“Probably,” Gene said. “Phillip, is Rob going to be coming with us to evaluations now?”
He took a deep breath before answering. “No,” he said. “The shouting was because Mr. MacKenzie… got the wrong impression about the Foundation, and said no.”
Jeanne fixed him with a stare. She knows I’m not telling the whole truth, he thought. “That’s all?” she asked.
“That’s all of it that’s any of our business,” Phillip said. “There was some other stuff there, too, but I don’t think Mr. MacKenzie meant to blurt it out in public. It probably embarrassed him more once he realized he was airing out his dirty laundry.”
“Dirty laundry?” Gene asked.
“You know, his secrets,” Jeanne said. “Like that song Phillip always listens to. ‘Come and whisper in my ear’, I think.”
“Something like that,” Phillip said. He was surprised that Jeanne would remember the old ode to 80′s excess more readily than he did.
“It might not be our business,” Gene said, “but if Rob’s in trouble because of us, we should explain to his dad about it.”
“He’s not in trouble,” Phillip said. “I don’t think so, anyway.”
“Rob’s always in trouble,” Jeanne said darkly. She looked down at her hands, her expression unusually foul. “He’s always in trouble and it’s never his fault.”
“Yeah,” Gene said.
“Kids,” Phillip said, “I know you’re concerned. But we can’t affect it at all. If we were to try to butt in, it would make things worse– for everyone, not just Rob. So we’ll just wait and see how it turns out, okay?”
“Okay,” Gene said. “If there’s really no other way, then that’s all right.”
“It’s not all right,” Jeanne said, “but it’s going to have to be, right?”
“Right,” Phillip said. “And it will be all right. Pretty soon this will have all sorted itself out, for the best.” If the kids picked up on the fact that he was, again, not being entirely truthful, they didn’t call him on it this time.
After the early dinner, Phillip took the children home. The evening was still young, and Phillip decided that their indulgence had not yet been sufficient. He started up one of the older video game consoles on Gene’s request. During the game, Phillip was asked to join in; as always, he held back against his kids, though he didn’t make it too easy on them, either. Every time he used some of his experience to gain an upper hand in the game, the children would quickly use that strategy against him. The rate at which they learned was quite impressive.
Eventually, however, the late hour caught up to them, and he put the children to bed. Jeanne in particular seemed less upset than before, while Gene protested the heat over all other concerns of the day. Neither one argued with the need for sleep; he would gladly have gone to bed himself, but he had one last thing to attend to before this never-ending day finally came to a close.
The disc Ben gave him was unlabeled, but the familiar ring of where the data ended was clearly visible on the underside. Putting it into the player, he picked up a pair of wireless headphones from their docking cradle. He put them on as he flopped down onto the couch.
Instantly, the eight-way view of the interview room appeared on the screen; each sub-picture was numbered. Phillip pressed the 3 key on his remote, and the view switched to the third camera; pressing 0 took him back to the multiple view.
“This is almost like a spy movie, or something,” his voice came from the left headphone.
“It feels like one,” Ihab’s voice sounded, from the right headphone; Phillip understood immediately. The sound channels were separated so that he could focus on one side of the conversation or another at a time. He let the interview run at normal speed, hoping that he would remember when to change perspectives or when something caught his eye.
When he startled himself awake again, the screen was a pure, blank blue; the clock on the cable box read shortly past eleven. He took the disc from the drive and locked it in the cabinet before going to bed himself.
Sundays were the usual day for play; the morning routines were often hurried through in an effort to hasten the coming of the fun, but today they seemed to be dealt with in a leisurely manner. Phillip had slept well enough, though he knew he was going to have to go over the interview properly at some point.
The benefit of Sunday, however, was the custom of play. A friend of the family came by every week to take the children to a movie or two. As the kids were finishing getting dressed, Ben arrived; Phillip greeted him and led him into the library. Moments later, the front door opened again; Chloe had come by as well.
“Is everything all right?” Phillip asked. “Ben’s already here, I figured…”
“I think I’d like to spoil the kids a little today,” Chloe said, grinning. “Certainly, you don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course not,” Phillip said, “but Kath–”
“Leave Katherine to me,” Chloe said, putting her finger gently but firmly on his lips. “And it’s been quite a long time since I’ve humbled Ben at his games. The kids would love to see that, right?”
“Oh, you only wish,” Ben said, leaning against the door frame. His face was stretched in a Cheshire Cat-style grin, stripping away a significant amount of the innocence his youth implied. “I don’t think they’ve fixed the Pong machine, Your Royal Highness.”
“Hey, watch your mouth!” Gene said, yanking on one of the chains attached to Ben’s jeans. The older boy’s knee jerked, and he grimaced in mock agony; Jeanne popped out from behind her brother and leapt to Ben’s chest, hugging him tightly.
“Hey, hey, all right,” Ben said, hugging Jeanne back. “Sorry, all right?”
“You better be nice to Chloe,” Jeanne said, scowling in all seriousness, “or she won’t let you have any popcorn!”
Such a dire punishment was too much for Ben. “No, please,” he said, the horror in his voice sounding ridiculously affected to anyone over ten years old. “I’ll be good.”
“I certainly hope so,” Chloe said, also playing the role the children had foist upon her. “Anyway, we’d better get going if we want to make it to the early show.”
The children clambered towards the foyer, with Chloe ushering them along. Phillip turned to Ben. “Did you find it?” he asked.
“Find wha– oh, that,” Ben said. “No, not yet. Daniel rushed us all out of there pretty fast, but I was able to lock the electrical closet before I left. Nobody can get in there and mess around.”
“There’s no spare key?”
“There is, but only Chloe and the building supers have them,” Ben said. “I’ll look first thing Monday, scout’s honor.”
Phillip grinned. “You flunked out of the Boy Scouts.”
“But not before I learned the honor,” Ben shot back. “Catch you later, man.”
“Let the kids win once or twice, all right?” Phillip called after him. Ben waved him off, and soon the house was empty save for Phillip.
He spent a while taking care of some of the more mundane tasks of housekeeping; laundry, dishes, making plans for the week’s meals. Once he was done with those, he went up to his room in the attic and unlocked his personal mini-refrigerator. Katherine had made her disdain for caffeine abundantly clear at the outset of the program, but the reason he had locked up his energy drinks was a far more simple one: the kids were still kids, and they could become seriously ill if they ever overindulged in his preferred stimulant. Every time he opened the small cube refrigerator, he remembered his own first experience with a caffeine rush, and the subsequent very hard crash, at twelve. He made a note that he would have to get another six-pack before taking one of the tall cans down into the game room.
The disc of the interview was exactly where it had been left before; he knew the kids wouldn’t dare mess with it, but at the same time it was always better to take that precaution. The disc once again went into the player, and he sipped at the drink while the interview played.
Alex’s reactions, to Phillip, seemed random, but on further analysis, a definite pattern was evident. Alex had been trying to dominate the conversation, rather than participate in it. True enough, every time he was presented with information that went against his own preconceptions, he went livid. As long as Ihab and Katherine were giving the impression of agreeing with him, he seemed perfectly reasonable. As soon as either one of them contradicted him, the man blew up.
Wait, Phillip thought. That doesn’t seem right. It seemed that Alex could be contradicted safely, as long as the topic was not Rob. That seems reasonable enough, Phillip thought; he doesn’t want to be seen as too stupid to know his own kid. Shaming him in front of his wife, by calling out his lie about the fund-raiser, did nothing to make him more receptive to the project.
The problem, then, Phillip mused, was why he lied in the first place? He took a deep pull from the can. Things were more complicated than they appeared, he thought. Alex had no real reason to lie about the fund-raiser. He knew what the prize booklet was the moment he laid eyes on it; Gene and Jeanne had brought home the same booklet themselves a few weeks ago. They hadn’t sold too many magazines, but they were already in good shape for their shares of the trip at the end of the year. Phillip reassured them that they wouldn’t be in trouble, though their competitive nature made the blow harder to take.
Wait, he thought. The kids also brought home a letter from their homeroom teacher. He paused the interview and went into the mansion’s office. Buried under a few other folders and utility statements was a copy of the letter, dated and labeled with Gene’s name and trip balance. The letter gave an overview of the fund-raiser program and some tips to make sure the kids didn’t encounter any disproportionate resistance from the community. It was damning to Alex’s case, and Phillip was sure that Rob would have presented the letter to his father once confronted.
Wouldn’t he? Phillip carried the letter into the game room once more and sat down. Rob was obviously afraid of his father, and was smart enough not to do anything to overtly provoke him. But Phillip wondered if Rob would see the letter as a clear act of aggression, when in truth it was the metaphorical carte blanche he needed. By Alex’s words– if they can be believed, Phillip snorted– Rob had been ‘sneaking around’, looking for ways to do what he needed to do without angering his father. Why would he need to go to such extremes? It made little sense. Rob would naturally know what boundaries were set, and how to work within them.
Unless he didn’t, Phillip thought. The concept was like ice rolling down his back. Rob would only need to sneak around and work covertly because he didn’t know what would set Alex off. It made a twisted sort of sense, Phillip thought, if you took everything Alex said about Rob and treated it as if Rob were saying it about Alex. It wasn’t Rob who was unpredictable and defiant; it was Alex. Alex constantly redefined what was right and wrong, what was compliance and what was rebellion, until Rob could no longer trust a single word his father said. It was simple, from Alex’s point of view: destroy his ability to reason things out for himself, and he’ll follow your directions without question.
The problem was that Rob was smarter than he let his father believe, Phillip thought. No, he amended; the problem, from Alex’s point of view, was that Rob was not getting dumber and more compliant. The fact that Rob’s intellect and mental acuity could not be dulled by Alex’s machinations was obviously infuriating for Alex to be reminded of.
Of course, if Alex was the only figure of authority in Rob’s life, it would have worked perfectly. The presence of his mother and his teachers definitely complicated things. There were more people contradicting him than were corroborating his stories. Weren’t there? Mirielle didn’t seem to be denying what Alex said. It stood to reason that Rob would be more easily controlled if both of his parents were working to delude him, but Rob resisted to a degree that seemed almost to necessitate an inside man, so to speak.
Mirielle’s behavior seemed also oddly subdued. Her hand never left Alex’s grasp throughout the interview. Phillip had noted that at the time, but it nagged at him for a reason that wouldn’t– wait, there! He paused the interview. Mirielle had started to speak, but she squeezed Alex’s hand at just that time. That’s odd, he thought. It’s clearly some kind of covert communications, but if she squeezes, he should shut up. This is backwards, he thought.
Everything’s backwards. The solution was simple, he thought, groaning. She’s not squeezing his hand– he’s squeezing hers; it only looks like she’s initiating it because their hands are such different sizes. He’s telling her to be quiet. It appeared that way most of the time, and sometimes even during periods when Alex was speaking alone. Alex was preventing her from speaking, probably to stop her from revealing his lies.
Phillip leaned back on the couch. He reached for his drink, but the can was empty; sighing, he let his hand drop limply to the upholstery. Rob was even more of a mystery now, but he groaned again. He’s a mystery, all right; one I’ll never get the chance to figure out now.