Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
‘Fourth floor, Miss.’
‘Thank you. And it is Mr Jameson I’m seeing?’
‘Head of Art Interpretation, Provenance and Authenticity?’
‘Have you not been told Miss?’
‘I suggest you ask him your questions, Miss.’
The man on reception was so nice. Like a grandfather figure, all smiley eyes. But I really didn’t understand what I was doing here. No, I did. Money. It was the rest I didn’t get. In my fifteen years learning about authenticating works of art I’d been paid a pittance. Everyone was, save a couple of the very well known. Yet here was a job, which seemed perfect and paid four times my current salary. And they’d head hunted me! Flattery and cash. There had to be a catch.
The lift was one of those with glass sides, allowing me views over the city. Slightly disconcerting and screaming ostentatious wealth; most unlike my usual places of work. The entrance, 19th century chinois mahogany carved doors, was grand. Inside, the walls were hung with an incredible range of art – unless they were copies. A lot I didn’t recognize. As I peered at one – a Vermeer – I heard a cough.
Mr Jameson was unctuous – oily even – but full of ‘the company’ as he called it. If he said it once he said it a hundred times – ‘discretion is our watchword’. Rich clients, unrivalled access to the best works. And he made it clear they wanted my 20th Century European expertise and I needed the cash ever since my boyfriend left me with a hole in my heart and my finances.
I’d already said yes as I crossed reception.
‘Miss?’ The nice old man. He wanted to scan me. ‘Just a precaution.’
I said yes but it felt weird; what could I have taken? As he waved this thing around my head and shoulders he stared at me – a bit creepy frankly – for some reason it put me in mind of Mr Wolf in Red Riding Hood.
It was an odd job. There was little interaction with other staff though I saw them often enough. I suppose it was the sheer volume of works to look at – I was blown away with some that came through – that meant there was little time to socialise. Even when in the canteen, people kept their heads down, usually reading or on line. It’s not that we weren’t sociable but it was all very superficial.
When did I realise the daily scan messed with my memory? I suppose after three months. I’d been working on one piece that I really felt was fake but which Jameson was adamant was genuine. I knew there was a surrealist specialist, not really my field so I went to find him. Xavier Loosh. He was nice enough and over a couple of days he was very helpful. It was the Friday – May I think – when he said, apropos of nothing special, ‘Have you wondered at Don’s scanning?’
‘The old guy on reception. Each evening he scans us, right? Somehow he remove the details of all the art work you’ve looked at that day. He replaces it with some bland nonsense, enough to answer your loved ones. You’ll not remember this picture tonight.’
‘Ok. Take a picture on your phone, write yourself a note and see what memory it triggers.’
He was right. He wasn’t keen to talk about it beyond saying he thought it some sort of hypnosis which allowed us to remember the detail while at work. He said he didn’t much care as long as they paid him ‘top dollar’ but it made me feel sick to my boots. He explained it away as an excess of caution over client confidentiality but it had to be more than that. When I said I wasn’t happy he backed off. ‘Don’t rock the boat, Millie,’ he said and it sounded like a warning.
I live alone with no family to speak of. Since my last boyfriend left I’ve had no significant relationship. In a way I had nothing to lose. And I really didn’t like someone messing with my memory. I reasoned like this: they’d only do this if they had something to hide but what? It must be within the building but where? I had two lines of inquiry.
I also took more pictures and wrote more notes. I was sure I’d be caught but something written on a scrap of paper passed them by. And gradually my memories started returning like water wearing away at stone. I probably should have left but I wanted to know. Curiosity killed the cat.
I made zero progress with my questions and was wondering if I wouldn’t be better off just going when I overheard a conversation about an auction. It seemed some of the works we had worked on would be there. I managed to give myself a sufficient briefing that I found myself at the sale. I’d just turned a corner when I saw it; a painting, which I’d dismissed as a brilliant fake was on sale but authenticated as a recently uncovered original. I was dumbfounded. Where was my report? Jameson’s validation of my report? That’s when he approached me.
‘Miss Drabble, may we have a word?’
Police. Serious fraud. They were convinced my employers were running the best ever faking business and using me and my colleagues to ensure the works were the best they could be before they were authenticated and sold for hundreds of thousands, millions some of them. And because we were left without any memory recall we couldn’t have challenged them even if we saw them for sale. When the policeman, MacKenzie saw me in a state of shock he had realised I was different.
They knew my name, background and role at ‘the company’. They made it quite clear they had me. Was I horrified? Why hadn’t this already occurred to me and if it had (and in truth it was one scenario I considered and dismissed) why hadn’t I left? Believe me I asked all these questions and more as I was interviewed by Mackenzie and his boss, Carter. I was in the deepest mire imaginable. But they could help me out if I gave them an insider’s view.
Did I have a choice? It didn’t seem like it.
It didn’t take long for me to agree to be wired and to record a tour of the building. I’m not sure who suggested it but we planned it for a Sunday afternoon. No one I knew worked at the weekend. I didn’t even know if the building was open. But it was worth a try. To lend my arrival some credibility I left a bag in my work station. It turned out to be a doddle to get in. Don wasn’t round and the young man, who seemed more interested in the football on the TV at his desk than me, waved me through.
Now I was in and probably alone I set up the camera and began a tour. Nervous? You bet. Fascinated? I suppose. Certainly the adrenaline was pumping. And I made a discovery. There was a part of the third floor that I’d never accessed and was, in effect shut off. I tried to find the way in but no joy. When I told MacKenzie, that evening when I handed over the camera, he was noticeably animated.
We had agreed, pretty much at the outset, that once I’d obtained the film, I would resign and they would then decide whether to prosecute but whatever happened I would be left out of things. The news of this mystery room seemed to have thrown the plans, at least their plans. They wanted me to take a film of the inside; I wanted shot of the whole thing. Finally they agreed to let me hand in my notice – it was a Wednesday – and I’d hear no more.
I have to say I was relieved and fixed to see Mr Jameson at 11 on the very next day. When I arrived at his office a few minutes early he was in a meeting. Generally Mr Jameson is a busy man and there are groups outside his room. Not this Thursday. Even his PA had disappeared.
‘Ms Drabble. Do come in.’
As I approached his door the first thing I saw was Xavier, ashen faced, sitting by the window. Then I saw MacKenzie and Carter.
‘I think you know our security people, Miss Drabble. It looks like you have decided to cause us some distress. I’m afraid your contract will have to be terminated for gross misconduct. Mr Mackenzie has had your things cleared out from your workstation and you will be shown out.’
I was numb but in many ways relieved. I had no idea what was going on – maybe it was all above board – but I didn’t want part of it. We headed for the lift.
But rather than going all the way to the ground floor the lift stopped at three. MacKenzie said, ‘I thought I’d show you what really happens here. You’ll have your memory wiped so it’s not like you’ll tell anyone.’
We went through a door. It was a projection room. I was offered a seat. ‘What’s this, MacKenzie?’
He sat next to me. ‘Your future.’
The film was about five minutes long; it was me. It certainly looked like me. And in the five minutes I died in about fifteen different ways, none of them a peaceful end. I was then shown out.
You can imagine I was shaken. To the core. It was only as I opened my front door that I realised this was the first time I’d remembered anything from within the building after I’d left. But what was worse was I knew he’d shown me the rest of the third floor. And whatever it was I’d seen – and I recalled no details – frightened me even more than the film.