You had another headache, but this one was worse than normal. Ever since you were offered to be a partner in your law firm you had been getting headaches of varying degrees. This was the worst so far. It was the kind that starts behind your eyes and then crawls under your temples before it ends up nesting itself in the sides of your head. Painful, what you imagined a migraine might feel like, but you had never had one before to compare. All of the other muscles in your head were tense, tight with the pain. It was like there were invisible fingers in your head pulling all the muscles and tendons taut. You tried pills, over the counter stuff, but they didn’t work. You tried drinking it away, but it was the middle of the day and, being a new partner and all, you didn’t want to be drunk chasing away a headache should someone need you or want to conference. You sat in your office chair and tucked your face into your palms trying to massage away the pain. You loosened your tie and unbuttoned your shirt before you leaned back in the chair trying to stretch out all the muscles in the rest of your body hoping that, by virtue of being part of the same whole, your skull might loosen up too. The chair leaned back and you reached out your arms, grunting quietly, with your eyes squeezed shut. You released the stretch, but stayed leaned back. Your eyes opened and you saw that it was dark out. The day had completely gotten away from you. It was after hours, about 7:30, only the associates and researchers would still be here. You should have been at home. You sat back up, blinked your eyes and stretched your mouth. The pain was getting worse. Now your vision was getting blurry. You probably needed to see a doctor, but all you could think to do at the moment was get some sleep. Yeah, that would help, sleep. You’d just take a little nap and then get home and call in sick. You needed a day or two to recover. Maybe work from home? You got up from the chair and made a move toward the couch. You bumped into the corner of the desk. The sudden new pain relieved your head for a split second, you really enjoyed that second. You got to the couch and flopped down with a thud. It wasn’t the most comfortable couch in the world, purposely so no one felt too comfortable in your office (it was a tactic the firm used with all of its lawyers) but at this moment it felt like a cloud and you passed out before you even hit the cushion.
You woke up the next morning with the sounds of the office whispering through the door. It must have been early because the phones weren’t ringing off the hook yet and you could only hear the secretaries talking to each other, probably gossiping about their bosses before they came in. You started to get up and winced in pain, the headache wasn’t gone yet. It wasn’t any worse, but it wasn’t much better either. At least your vision had returned for the most part. You looked at the clock: 6:15. You didn’t have much time before the other lawyers would start arriving for work. You wanted to get out before they saw you. It’s better to call in sick instead of being seen as sick. You didn’t want to be viewed as weak, especially since you hadn’t yet established yourself yet. You forced yourself off the couch, stumbling a bit as you did it. You made your way to the desk and collected your things and grabbed your coat. When you opened the door you were assaulted by the light and sound, it was enough to make you wince. Everything was surrounded by a halo and your ears throbbed with each ring of the phone. Your assistant caught sight of you and hurried over with a concerned look on her face.
“What are you doing here?” She grabbed your coat out of your hands and helped you put it on.
“I got sick, I slept here. I still don’t feel good.” Your voice was strained and dry. It was hard to talk.
She helped to get you to the elevators, “I’ll clear your schedule. This will all be fine; you just need to get some rest.” She smiled in a soothing way and helped guide you into the elevator car. You smiled back as well as you could as the elevator door closed. The trip down was gratefully quick as you rubbed your forehead trying to relieve any pain that you could. When you reached the lobby the doorman was ready for you and led you to a car that got you home. The ride home was forgettable, since you spent it with your face firmly planted in your hands rubbing your temples. The door surprised you when it opened and you almost fell out, caught by the driver before you could hit the street. He helped you to your door and once the door closed behind you everything went black.
When you slept the nightmares came. You were taken back to your first day on the job, the tour that you were given of the offices as you were introduced to the other lawyers and support staff. But instead of the power suits and dresses you saw that day, everyone was draped in black robes with hoods that concealed their identities. Where once there were desks and cubicles there were now chains hanging from the ceiling over grates that were slick with blood and small tables that had tools of torture set upon them, some still gore covered. On the first day that you remember, you were introduced to a lawyer named Peterson who had a hearty laugh, a belly, and very little hair. In this nightmare-scape he was a rotund torturer in a leather smock who was peeling the skin off of a screaming naked woman with red hair – although it wasn’t clear if her hair was naturally red or if it was blood soaked. His laughter as he did it chilled you to the bone. There was a background noise of moans and cries of pain. You could hear muttering whispers that always seemed to be right behind you, until you turned and saw that there was nothing to make such noise. You began to look for a way out, some avenue of escape. Running to doors that somehow led you back to the torture floor, running down the stairs to the lobby only to find the doors guarded by demon dogs that barked flames and drooled bile. Grabbing chairs you attempted to break the window glass only to see the glass turn to flame and re-form, unscathed, keeping you trapped in this hell-vision. With nowhere else to go you retreated to, what you hoped was, the safety of your office; closing the door and barricading it with your furniture – the only furniture that was that same as it was in the real world. You backed away from the door and turned to go to your desk. Your chair, tall and black leather, was faced away from you and began to slowly turn. As the chair turned you heard a piercing ringing in your ear, like a high pitched test pattern sound. As the chair turned it became louder and more unbearable. The noise brought you to your knees and you felt blood begin to pour out of your nose. Your eyes vibrated and the chair still turned. When you finally saw what was sitting in your chair you screamed at the sight of it! Its face, so terrifying you can no longer even remember it; your memory so traumatized that it attempted to remove it, smiled at you as it hissed your name.
Then you woke up. You were covered in a thick, greasy terror sweat that had a raw odor and tainted the sheets. The pain of your headache was retreating like a shadow to the back of your head; not completely gone but so much better that you actually smiled with relief. It was morning. You had slept the whole of yesterday and last night. As you got your bearings, you checked your phone: only 3 emails, all from the senior partners sending well wishes and telling you to take all the time you needed. That was unexpected. Being a partner certainly had its perks. You got up from your bed and changed into fresh track pants and a t-shirt, something dry and comfortable. In the bathroom, when you washed your face, you could see that you looked better. Whatever you had was a real doosy! You walked out of your room and smelled food; someone was cooking in your home! You made your way quietly and quickly to the kitchen where you found your assistant, Lucy, cooking you breakfast.
“Good morning,” she was making pancakes and frying some bacon. “I’m glad to see that you survived. How are you feeling?” She flipped a pancake and took the strips of bacon off of the griddle.
“I’m much better.” Your voice was still horse, but sounded much better than yesterday. “Is there coffee?” Lucy reached up and grabbed a mug while pulling the carafe from the coffee maker. As she poured you noticed that you could hear the sound of the liquid hitting the cup clearer. You could hear the bacon snapping too. Your hearing in general seemed to be generally keener. “I’m surprised to see you here. Were you sent to check in on me? Make sure that I wasn’t dead?”
Lucy smirked, “Actually, that’s about right. The senior partners would hate to lose someone so promising so soon after they are made partner; especially since you haven’t finished you initiation yet.” She wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and removed the apron she had been wearing. For a slightly older woman she was very attractive. Honey blonde hair done very neat and tight in a French twist. Her suit was impeccable, in a soft brown that was form fitting without being snug. Her shoes walked the line of fashion and function so elegantly that you knew they must be expensive, but they weren’t ostentatious. She picked up her purse, Hermes, and pulled out her phone, dialing with a single touch of the screen. “He’s doing much better,” she smiled and looked at you out of the corner of her eyes. “Yes, I will give him the file.” She hung up the phone and pulled a file from her purse, placing it down on the counter next to your breakfast.
“Now that I’m better they need me to earn my keep, eh?” You smirked at her and bit your bacon. Pulling the file toward you and opening it. You saw a grisly murder scene that took you by surprise. “Is this part of the initiation?”
“That’s right.” Lucy walked up next to you and pointed at a few key things in the file. “This was one of Peterson’s clients. She was a high ranking investment banker at Goldman-Sachs and they found her dead in her apartment.” Her finger flipped the page over showing a picture of the victim before she was killed. “Kathy Walker, she was a real she-bitch in heels who loved to make deals.” When you looked at the picture it was unnerving, Kathy Walker was the woman you had seen in your nightmare; the redhead being flayed alive. Now, here she was plain as day, and the crime scene photos showed her skin had been removed in several places.
“My God! Who did this?” It was odd, even though the images were beyond gruesome, you continued eating.
“The police don’t know, they never know. She was one of our clients so we are keeping a close eye on this one. Since you’re new and barely know Peterson the senior partners want your opinion on it.” Lucy began to walk to the door to leave.
“Do the partners think that Peterson did it?”
Lucy stopped in her tracks and laughed out loud, “The senior partners don’t care as long as the fees are paid. But, should Peterson or anyone in the firm come under suspicion, they would like to have some ammunition for any defense that may need to be launched. See you tomorrow!” And without any further explanation Lucy left and you were stuck with your breakfast and a file folder.
This was your first look at a murder file. Everything you had worked on in your professional life so far had been mergers and acquisitions, contracts, and other money related deals. In fact it was your ability as a deal maker that caught the attention of the firm in the first place. You had just finished the buyout of a small start-up, Mercy Medical, which made cancer testing machines. Their rival was a much bigger company, IntegraTest, Inc., who wanted the patents for the cancer test. It was you who structured the deal so that all of the patents were included in the final purchase price and effectively eliminated any royalties that would have been owed to the creators of the test. It was a dick move. You knew it, your bosses at IntegraTest knew it, but it was your job to sell it and sell it you did. Even the other team’s attorneys didn’t catch it – until it was too late. When the case was taken to civil court the judge threw it out. The other side even got a slap on the wrist for not being thorough enough. But you knew it was just good lawyering, and apparently Shaitan, Fahleen & Associates agreed. As you were shaking the hands of your IntegraTest bosses in court, a representative From Shaitan, Fahleen & Associates approached you and handed you a card. They were offering challenging assignments, a full support staff, and significantly more money. It was all you could do not to quit on the spot and accept their offer. And now they wanted your opinion on a major murder.
You smiled as you drank your coffee and reviewed the case. The facts laid out in the report included that she was found in her home, dead. She was in her dining room, nude and suspended by rope to the lighting fixture over the dining table. Marks on her buttocks and legs showed signs of being lashed or whipped (“possibly sexual” was jotted as a note in the margin) and there were long strips of skin missing from her back, arms and stomach. Her breasts, face and vagina were clean of blood. Make-up and powder were used to make the skin still appear alive, as if those parts were being put on display. The pictures showed that her face, although limp in death, still bore some of the pain and terror that she must have experienced as she died. It was horrifying. You were still eating, and enjoying it. Then a drop of blood fell on to the picture. Then another, and another; you had a nose bleed and it was bad. Running to the sink, you grabbed a towel and held it to your nose. As you looked up you saw a face in the reflection of the kitchen window – the face you saw from your dream! Your mouth fell open and blood poured from it as your ears filled with the painful ringing and the pain gouged into your head. You tried to scream, but nothing would come out. Reaching out for anything to hold you up, you collapsed on the floor and passed out.
The next thing you knew you were in the elevator in your firm’s building, going up. You were dressed in one of your finer suits, one of the new black ones that you bought after getting the job, and mid-conversation with Peterson.
“…then he says, ‘all right, buddy, you’re coming with me!’” Peterson finished his punch line and then both of you laughed. You didn’t remember the beginning of the joke, but you genuinely laughed as if you had. And you felt taller. “So, did you hear about my client? Yeesh!”
“I did, were you too close?” You didn’t really care, but maybe he had new information.
“Eh, no, not really; I handled her deals and did things when she wanted them done. Frankly I was planning on dropping her as a client.”
“Really?” You were truly confused, “why would you cut loose a major investment banker? Her billables must have been astronomical!”
“They were; ‘were’ being the operative term there.” Peterson leaned in and spoke softer, “she was starting to have a problem paying her fees.”
“No way, a high ranking executive at Goldman Sachs had a problem paying? Hell, from just what I saw in the crime photos she could have sold one art piece in her collection and covered months of whatever you bill.” Peterson gave you a confused look, as if he didn’t understand what you were talking about. Then you panicked a little. Were you not supposed to let on that you had seen the crime scene; that you knew about the report? Then Peterson smiled, “have you had your initiation yet?”
“I… I’m not sure. I think so?”
Peterson’s face relaxed and he slapped you on the arm, “You’ll know, trust me, you’ll know. It’s like falling in love, you’ll feel it all through your body and it’ll be the greatest thing that ever happened to you.” That seemed a bit exaggerated, but Peterson had a big smile on his face and didn’t say much else the rest of the way up.
When the elevator opened Peterson nodded at you, still smiling, and went off to his office. You turned left to go to yours. Waiting outside your door were the senior partners, Allan Shaitan, Lee Fahleen and Robert Beasel, and Lucy. Lucy was holding a bottle of champagne and an empty flute while the senior partners all held flutes that were full. Allan Shaitan, the founder and managing partner of Shaitan, Fahleen & Associates, stood in front smiling at you with thin lips as you approached. Both Shaitan and Fahleen were similar in appearance; they could almost pass as brothers. Both were completely bald, shaved clean, and tall. Mr. Shaitan was very thin, but didn’t look feeble. His body seemed like it was always coiled and ready to strike. Lee Fahleen wasn’t as slender as Shaitan, and had fuller lips and cheeks, but in almost all other respects looked the same. They both had very light brown eyes that could be confused as golden if you were in the right light. And they were pale, both looked like they had never seen the sun. Robert Beasel, on the other hand, was fat. He had thick black hair that was always slicked back and a black van dyke that looked sculpted on his face. His eyes were dark too, almost void of color, like the light wouldn’t reflect. Of the three senior partners Beasel was the toughest to read. As you approached they began to clap softly and Lucy poured champagne into the flute that was to be given to you.
“So glad you are still with us,” Shaitan approached with hand outstretched to shake yours.
“I’m glad to be here,” you smiled as you shook his hand and then grabbed the flute.
“We were concerned that perhaps the new position was too much for you,” Beasel was gruff and it didn’t sound like he was joking.
“Quiet, Bob, don’t be ridiculous.” Shaitan turned back to you, “may we go into your office?” He opened the door and the three of them walked in before you could respond.
“I’ll be right outside if you need me.” Lucy closed the door when she left. Shaitan and Fahleen sat on the couch and Beasel remained standing as he drank his champagne. They allowed you to put down you things before they began to speak.
“We had hoped to do this yesterday, until you fell ill.” Shaitan put down his flute and crossed his hands in his lap. “We wanted to speak to you about the case file we had Lucy drop off with you. Have you reviewed it?”
“I have,” you responded quickly, “I have it here.” Then you reached into your case and pulled it out. “I was curious, is this part of my initiation?” the three of them laughed softly between themselves.
“It does appear that it may, since you ask.” Shaitan stood and walked over to you, “That is why we gave it to you. We need you and that deal-making mind of yours to review all of the deals that we have on file for her, all the work Peterson did.”
You must have looked like you had a question on your mind, Beasel answered before you could ask, “Since her untimely death we need to make sure that there is no way that the firm, or any deal made by lawyers of the firm, can be tied to her death.”
“Should I work with Peterson on this?” You asked as you finished your champagne.
“If you must, but try not to take up too much of his time. This is review work and we prefer to have him on new business.” Shaitan finished and then moved to open the door. The other senior partners left the room. “We do look forward to whatever you may find.” As they walked out you moved to sit at your desk. You called for Lucy to bring you all the Walker deal files and prepared for a long day. Before things got too busy you checked your email and calendar. A new event was scheduled for the next night, a company gathering at 8pm here on the main floor. You called in Lucy to ask what the event was.
“It’s for you!” She replied with a big smile on her face, “It represents the end of your initiation. Every lawyer in the firm who makes partner is thrown one. They are truly decadent. We always like it when someone makes partner.” A party, thrown in your honor! That was far better than what you had imagined the initiation might be. If it was just some research and then a party, well then here’s hoping they need to initiate you every year! By the end of the morning the first file boxes had been delivered to your office. It was going to be a long day.
The first few boxes were filled with fairly standard deals: real estate, long term planning, references to financial documents and investment plans. There were cars that were in her name and cars in the company’s name. Race horses and vacation homes, a variety of things that one expects to see when dealing with the ridiculously wealthy. You were about ready to call it quits until you got to the last file in the last box. It was a thick cardboard folder with no title. Inside were pearlescent vellum sheets that appeared to have no writing on them, yet were slightly greasy to the touch. A smell was coming off of the pages and your head began to hurt again; the pain crawling back into your temples and the sides of your skull. Blood dripped from your nose on to the vellum and was soaked up into it, like the pages were drinking the blood. You couldn’t believe your eyes, but it didn’t matter because you were in so much pain.
Then you were back in the nightmare-scape you were in before. The office turned into a carnal slaughter house. Sounds of torture came from behind office doors. You could hear Peterson’s sickening laugh from down the hall. This time was different, though. This time you were in a black robe too. A group of robed figures walked past you and, without realizing it, you began to follow. They walked down the halls until they approached Shaitan’s office – but it was transformed into a dark temple with torches gripped in the hands of corpses with eyes and mouths sewn shut. Shaitan was naked and daubed in symbols that seemed to defy their two dimensions. Beasel and Fahleen sat on the sides of the dais where Sahitan was standing. There was a chanting that you could hear, but no one’s lips moved. Shaitan was looking up, hands reaching toward the ceiling that was filled with an inky blackness that seemed to move and undulate under its own power, like ocean waves or desert sand in the wind. Slowly he lowered his arms and then lowered his gaze. His eyes were a bright golden yellow and he was looking at you! He said a word that you couldn’t understand and then you jolted awake!
You were in your office. It was 5:15pm. The sounds of the office were still in full swing. It was a dream – no, a terrible nightmare. There was a soft knock on the door. It was Lucy.
“Just checking to see if you need anything before you go?” She had only opened the door a crack.
“No, thank you, but I think I will leave soon. Could you please have the door man get me a car?” There was still a feeling in your head, like a scratching on your brain, but no blood. What a terrible nightmare.
“Of course, it should be waiting for you when you’re ready.” She closed the door and you could hear her at the desk calling down. You put away the file and tried to shake off the feeling you had; the helpless feeling from not knowing what was happening and hoping that it would all just go away. The car was ready when you got down to the lobby and it took you home in short order; certainly in better condition that the other day. All you needed was more sleep; it seemed to be doing the trick. You cooked yourself something in the microwave and then went right to bed, early and ready to sleep everything away.
Your dreams that night were still nightmares, but different than before in the office. In these were in a small row boat on a dark lake where you couldn’t see the shore. The sky was perpetual twilight, deep purples and blues, with no visible source of light. There was no sound of anything natural; no water against the boat, no waves, no fish or insects, not even your own breathing. The only thing you could hear was a tone, a tone that pulsed like an EKG or a sonar ping. Slowly it rang out; always alone with just the row boat and the pulse. You tried to call out, but your voice sounded muffled, like you were in a recording studio or padded room. No one could hear you no matter how loud you screamed because there was no one to hear you and your voice wouldn’t carry anyway. Giving up you leaned back to lie down in the boat. As you rested you head on the wood you opened your eyes to see the face that had been terrifying you staring back at the end of your nose!
You woke up screaming, wretched terrifying screams like a child who believes his parents dead or that there are monsters, real monsters, under her bed just waiting to grab a foot and pull. It was morning, you had made it through the night, but the light didn’t make you feel any safer. In a hurry you got ready, scared to be in the shower to long or to look down at the sink for fear that the face will return when you aren’t paying attention. Even though the light of day was shining through the windows, you still turned on as many lights as you could, just in case. Being on the streets was better, at least with other people around the face would have a harder time sneaking up on you. You avoided looking in reflections on your way to work, and that was probably for the best.
When you arrived Lucy took great care of you. There was coffee and a bagel ready for you. The boxes of Ms. Walkers other deals were prepared for you to review and everyone was excited about the gathering later that night, senior partners, partners and their assistants only! Very exclusive and exactly what you needed after the week you had. Settling in with the first of many boxes, you called Lucy.
“Yes?” She was chipper and light on the other end.
“I believe I should make a doctor’s appointment. I still haven’t been feeling well and think I could probably use a checkup.”
Lucy giggled softly, “I can make an appointment, but you don’t need one. I’ve seen this happen to new partners for years. You’ll feel much better after the gathering.”
Hearing that actually made you smile, “OK, but if I’m not feeling better by tomorrow morning I’m going to need that appointment.”
“Very good, we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.”
You spent the rest of the day going through the deals, more of the same like you saw the day before; until you got to another thick cardboard folder, with the vellum sheets inside. Again your head began to hurt, the pain reaching deep into the center of your brain. Small rivulets of blood dripped from your nose and fell on the vellum, but this time the blood did not soak into the pages. This time it created words, words that spelled out a contract for Karen Walker. You stumbled up to your feet, blood now starting to drip from your ears, and with the folder in hand made your way for the door. When you opened it you could see it was night out the windows of the rest of the office. You turned and it was night out your windows as well. How did that happen? You took steps toward the lobby and everyone looked at you.
“It’s time!” Lucy called with a grin on her face. Everyone on the floor went to their desks and their offices. You watched, barely able to stand, as Lucy stripped down to nothing and threw on a black robe. Peterson laughed from down the hall and walked onto the main floor wearing a black robe and a necklace of skin strips around his neck, flies buzzing around it as it rotted.
“Finally!” Peterson yelled, “You’re taking too damn long!” Peterson slapped you on the shoulder and it was enough to knock you down. Dropping the folder you tried to get back up, but you were too weak. You were always too weak. Lucy and one of the other assistants picked you up off the ground and stripped you and then dragged you down the hall to Shaitan’s office. In your wake were rows of figures draped in black robes and then the chanting started. With blood now trickling out of the corners of your eyes it was getting hard to see. What you could see was Shaitan on a small dais with Beasel and Fahleen sitting on either side. Above him an undulating inky blackness that covered the ceiling.
Shaitan spoke, “Karen Walker died to bring you here. Make me wait no longer.” And then your head split, cracking in the back where the bones meet to make the crown and tearing through the flesh and muscle that holds it all together. Your eyes bled as they fell from your skull, nothing was holding them in any longer. Your chest ruptured sending gore and viscera across the room and on the bodies of the faithful who danced and writhed in it. Your skin fell off of me and then I was you. I took your skills and I took your identity. You took my place in hell.