A Rush To The Head
Peter Brophy spread his booty out on the dining table. Five glinting rainbow discs lay in front of him, like a vision of the future from the 1970s. He had given them a cursory glance the night before, but the process of obtaining the discs had taken so much out of him that he was incapable of doing much more than ascertaining that they were not DVDs at all, but Blu-ray discs, and becoming angry with himself for not having a Blu-ray drive. At 3am he had still been wide awake, turning over the events of that evening in his mind, and had taken a couple of over-the-counter sleeping pills, which led him to doze through his alarm that morning.
‘Honestly, Peter,’ said Orlando, as his unshaven colleague fell into his chair 18 minutes late. ‘There are very few men who can carry off rumpled with any sort of aplomb, and I’m horrified to have to tell you that you are not one of them.’
Pete did not care. He just needed to get through that day without being sacked for reading websites and forums about Blu-ray disc encryption and forensics when he should have been managing the expectations of CME Plastic Solutions, but he could barely see a word. His fatigue had placed a thin sheet of grey crepe paper between his eyes and the world. And Orlando was just going on and on…
‘Really, Pete, you look like a parcel that’s been worried by a dog. Whatever you do, don’t sit on any benches or somebody will give you loose change. And those bags under your eyes – if you ever try to board a plane they…’
Pete thumped his desk. The sound reverberated through the ideasphere, bouncing off the exposed brickwork and the orange and chartreuse panels, and through the spokes on the wheel of the bicycle bolted to the ceiling. ‘Orlando,’ he said, with the force of years of frustration, ‘for the love of Christ, will you please, for once in your life, shut the fuck up?’
For a few moments there was silence, as immaculately observed as on Armistice Day, dented but not broken by the vibration of phones receiving Twitter notifications. Pete’s rage was subsiding as a tide of embarrassment and regret came washing in. Then a phone rang, and the low-level hum of business picked up again, leaving Pete and Orlando staring at each other. Orlando looked wounded and confused, like a loyal basset kicked by its previously loving master, his eyes coated in a watery film which was going to burst at any moment.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Pete. ‘I’m just under a lot of strain at the moment, and, well…’
Orlando stood up in silence, picked up his own empty mug, and took it to the javasphere, where Pete could see him hunched over the sink, while Nish soothingly and ostentatiously patted his back. Pete knew he was going to regret this. He shook his head and continued his search for the cheapest Blu-ray drive available on the high street. Everything about this quest was costing him money, he thought. This was the equivalent of another 12 bowls of pad thai. Orlando returned to his desk, the steam rising from his freshly filled mug, and sat down again in silence. Conversation between the two of them for the rest of the day was entirely work-related and mostly monosyllabic. On any other day, Pete would have considered that a result. But not that day.
Ten minutes later, while he was poring through a badly written Yahoo! Answer about Blu-ray file formats, he heard the ping of an email. He ignored it while he carried on with his research. Pete did not work in IT, despite what people thought, but he did know more about computers than most. He had explained it to Alice once. ‘Look,’ he had said, ‘Most people know nothing at all about computers. They know how to switch them on and how to find Facebook, but other than that, nothing. It’s like cars. I know as much about computers as most people know about cars. I know that you have to fill them up with the right fuel and I know how to fill the water bottle for the windscreen wipers and I know how to inflate the tyres. But most people know nothing at all about computers. So when they break down on the M6 because they haven’t put any diesel in, and I come along with a billy can of magic brum-brum firewater and get their car moving again, they think I’m a genius. Y’know, I’m not a great cook, but I can follow a recipe. That’s the sort of level I’m talking about, do you know what I mean?’
‘Have you ever thought of mixing metaphors for a living?’ Alice had replied.
He found in the jumbled syntax and eccentric spelling of the Yahoo! Answer the information he needed, something which might give him a short cut, and so he checked his email. At the top of the list was a message from Lydia Harris in HR. With a sick feeling in his stomach he opened the email. HR email was the worst sort of email. It usually meant that he would have to go on a course, or they wanted him to be a fire marshal, or something ridiculous like that.
‘Dear Mr Brophy,’ it began. That was not good, thought Pete. Formal was definitely not good.
‘A meeting has been set up between yourself, Toby Pryce-Jones, Toby Lagarde, and myself tomorrow (30 October 2015) at 10.45am to discuss Performance Issues. I am legally obliged to inform you that you have the right to be accompanied by a union representative.
‘Human Resources Manager’
This was not good, Pete surmised. His first thought was to tell Orlando, but that was clearly not an option that day. Orlando was pointedly not looking at him and only one step away from building a fort of in-trays to remove his colleague from his sight. Pete closed the Blu-ray information window, and got on with his job, while he still had one.
Pete arrived home that evening having bought an external Blu-ray drive for his laptop for a ridiculous amount of money, seeing as soon he would probably be out of work. He disposed of the preposterous amount of packaging and plugged the drive into his computer. Do this methodically, he told himself. Boil the kettle, then wash the cups. He slotted in the first disc and checked its properties. The disc was dated 16-08-2011. Of course, it was possible to fake a date on a disc, but that way lay madness, he thought. Jerzy had no reason to fake it. Pete decided to take it at face value, and he would try to burrow deeper if he found nothing on the surface. He had never been afraid of hard work, exactly, but he had always treated it with a wary respect.
He looked at the catalogue of files. There were 10, named Epizod01 to Epizod10. He picked Epizod05 and opened the file. An episode of Realm Of The Sword began to play. A quick online check told him it was indeed the fifth episode of the first season of Realm Of The Sword. He ejected the disc and tried the next one. It was another 10 episodes, numbered in the same way as the previous disc, but this time season two, and dated 12-06-2012.
The third and fourth disc followed the pattern, dated 23-05-2013 and 06-06-2014, both dates preceding the premiere of the season finales. How on earth had he done this, Pete wondered, how could Jerzy be so clever and so bloody stupid?
He came to the final disc. It was ten episodes again, and dated 16-05-2015. That fitted Marketa’s story. This could not be a coincidence. If the files were anywhere, they must be on this disc, surely. But there they were: ten episodes. No other apparent files in the catalogue. He adjusted the settings and looked for hidden files. There was nothing there that should not have been there. If Jerzy had hidden an encrypted file on that disc, not even the disc knew about it. He was at a dead end. He could not be at a dead end.
He stopped. Maybe one of the episode files was mislabelled. Could it really be that simple? Jerzy could have given an .XLS file an .MP4 label. To the casual observer – hell, even to the disc itself – it would appear to be a video file in the catalogue. But in reality it would be a spreadsheet, filled with incriminating material about Karl Chapman. His hands full of the straws he had clutched, Pete called up the catalogue again and checked the running times of the videos. They were all exactly as specified online – 55 minutes give or take a couple of seconds. The last episode was a minute longer, which briefly rang an alarm bell, but there was no spreadsheet file in the world that was the size of an hour-long high-definition video. And, in any case, Pete opened the file. Sure enough, it was the fifth season finale of Realm Of The Sword.
That was it. Pete had reached the very limits of his knowledge. He had nowhere else to go. And, really, to whom could he turn? He could not take the disc to the police. It was arguable that he was in receipt of stolen goods. The IT guys in work hated him anyway because he kept ‘fixing’ his own computer, and he did not want to involve them, even if they were inclined to help, which they would not be, for the reasons already specified.
He could not be at a dead end. He was at a dead end.
‘Pull up a bag,’ one of the Tobys instructed, in his usual ‘hey, we don’t wear ties here because this isn’t a business, this is a thought factory’ way. Pete dragged over an orange bean bag and collapsed into it, not entirely sure how he might stand up again. Across the low table were the other Toby, with his bald head and Edwardian beard, as if a practical joker had rotated his head around its periphery, and Lydia Harris from HR, with her Tatty Devine dolphin necklace and her dolphin tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
‘Thanks for coming for this chat,’ said the other Toby. ‘It’s nothing too heavy, just need to clear the air a little in private, y’know? The cobwebs…?’
In private? Pete looked around. He was in a glass-walled office – The Cube – in the middle of the ideasphere. Everybody in the London head node of Beta Bee Solutions knew he was about to receive a bollocking. Yes, it was a bollocking wrapped in croissants and coffee because ‘we care about all our bees at Beta Bee’, and nobody else could hear what was being said, but everybody knew it was a bollocking, nonetheless.
The first Toby – also bearded, but with an over-elaborate quiff – picked up the ball from his partner. ‘Look, Pete, we know it’s been difficult for you over the past couple of months, y’know, with that man being stabbed and all the blood and all that. And we’ve been very supportive, I’m sure you’ll agree…’
‘We let you take that time when you were arrested as leave, and we gave you the afternoon off to go to the funeral. We don’t have to do that as it wasn’t a close family relative, isn’t that right, Lydia?’
‘Your contract specifically states spouse stroke civil partner stroke common-law partner, parent, child, or sibling stroke sibling’s spouse stroke sibling’s civil partner,’ confirmed Lydia from HR.
‘But the thing is, Pete,’ said Bald Toby, ‘it’s a quid pro quo, isn’t it? And we’re not getting enough quo for our quid.’ He leant back in his seat, pleased with himself for that, and fighting every urge to go for a high-five with Quiffed Toby.
‘I’m sorry,’ Pete said. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ve become erratic, Pete, unfocused. You’ve taken more sick days in the past month than you had in the six years before that. Your internet history is very concerning.’
‘We’re very much a family here at Beta Bee Solutions,’ said Quiffed Toby. ‘But you’re in danger of becoming the black sheep.’
‘And you never wear your lanyard,’ said Lydia from HR, ‘despite several reminders. You could be anybody.’
If I could be anybody, thought Pete, I would not be me.
‘But I’ve worked here for six years,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Lydia, ‘but what if a new person didn’t know who you were? They might think you’re a thief, or a corporate saboteur.’
‘That’s actually a very good point,’ said Bald Toby. ‘Lyd, we need to get together on this next week. Can we work on a…’
‘Wait, what do you mean by erratic and unfocused?’ said Pete. ‘I work bloody hard.’
‘That incident yesterday,’ said Quiffed Toby. ‘Raising your voice to a colleague. That’s not Pete Brophy, that’s not cool, and it’s certainly not within the parameters of the Beta Bee Solutions mission statement.’
‘No…’ said Pete. He did not really have a defence to offer. What could he say? ‘Jesus, Toby, have you ever sat opposite Orlando for 30 minutes? It’s a wonder I haven’t stabbed him.’ A flash of Jerzy in the hallway. It was almost always there, and even if it were not he would somehow remind himself. Maybe he was a saboteur after all.
‘And yes, you do work “bloody hard”, Pete. When you’re here,’ said Bald Toby.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Pete. ‘Am I supposed to be working bloody hard when I’m not here?’
Bald Toby laughed, in the way that people without a sense of humour laugh, an even laugh designed to prevent other people from discovering one’s inherent humourlessness. ‘No, of course not, but we have noticed that you’re not putting the hours in that you used to.’
‘The word “clock-watcher” has been mentioned,’ said Quiffed Toby.
‘Oh, yeah?’ said Pete. ‘By whom?’
The Tobys and Lydia Harris from HR shuffled their papers.
‘So,’ Pete went on, ‘Your problem – your real problem – is that for a few weeks I’ve been working for the 40 hours a week you pay me, instead of the 50 hours I’ve been doing for you? Is that right?’
‘Now, come on, Pete,’ said Quiffed Toby, ‘That is very unfair. This isn’t a 9-5 environment, it’s a 24/7 agile environment.’
‘So why do you pay me on the basis of a 9-5 environment?’
‘Brand maintenance doesn’t sleep, Pete!’ said Bald Toby, barely concealing his rage behind his ridiculous beard.
‘Brand maintenance,’ said Pete. ‘Fucking hell. What do we actually do here, Toby and Toby? Really? When your nana asks you what you do for a living, how do you explain your job?’ He could feel his heart thumping, just like the time he chased Kuba, like the time he broke into Jerzy’s flat, like the time he swung the thurible. He went on, he was as incapable of stopping himself as were Lydia from HR and the Tobys. ‘When the asteroid hits, when the zombie apocalypse comes, who the fuck is going to say, “Hold on, guys, we have to chuck these two nurses out of the bunker, we need to find room for the online brand consultants’?’ He stopped. He was definitely a saboteur.
‘People will always need logos,’ said Quiffed Toby, quietly.
‘We don’t even make logos, Toby,’ said Pete. ‘Somehow we make money out of telling people where to put their logos.’
The Cube became quiet. Lydia from HR fiddled with her dolphin necklace. Bald Toby took a deep breath. ‘Are you prepared to fall back in line, Peter? Because at the moment you’re out of step with everybody else in this family.’
‘If you mean,’ said Pete, ‘am I prepared to continue to work hard during the hours you pay me and not to shout at Orlando again, then yes. Otherwise, I am not your slave. I have a life outside of here, and you can’t keep routinely dropping three-hour jobs on me half an hour after I should have gone home.’
‘OK. You’ll be suspended on full pay for two weeks,’ announced Bald Toby, glancing at Quiffed Toby. Lydia from HR nodded with approval.
‘What?!’ said Pete. ‘On what grounds?’
‘We have a zero tolerance policy on bullying in the workplace, and your treatment of a colleague yesterday violated that policy.’
‘And maybe during those two weeks you can think hard about your future and how you can contribute better to the Beta Bee Solutions family.’
Pete tried to stand up, but he was sunk into the bean bag, and it was impossible. He rolled onto his side, and onto his hands and knees, posterior in the air. Then he stumbled to his feet.
The thurible hit the photograph of Canon Price right in the beatific smile, smashing the glass into a thousand shards, and sending it careering across the room.
‘I don’t need two weeks,’ said Pete, the blood whooshing through his ears, compounding the dizziness he felt from standing. ‘Shove your job up your ridiculous arses, you pair of pound-shop Bransons. And you,’ he said as he turned to Lydia, ‘here’s your fucking lanyard.’ He took the pass out of his pocket, and flung it across the desk. ‘And let’s hope you don’t all fucking garrote yourselves.’
He marched to the door of The Cube and flung it open. ‘I have had enough of this place,’ he announced to everybody and nobody in particular. ‘It’s been a pleasure working with some of you. The rest of you are fucking idiots and I hope I never see you again.’ Then he strode over to the exit door for what, it turned out, was the penultimate time. It would have been the last time, but, as he reached the door, he remembered that he had returned his pass card quite emphatically to Lydia from HR.
And so he slunk back to his desk, to Orlando. ‘Can you let me out, please?’ he said.
Some cognitive therapists believe that distraction from a problem-solving task aids in finding a solution. Pete had a huge knotty problem, in the form of a Blu-ray disc which, he was convinced, held hidden evidence of Karl Chapman’s involvement in the murder of Jerzy Gruszka. And so he needed a huge distraction. Luckily, making oneself unemployed in London in 2015 was such a beast.
And it was while he was sitting on his sofa on the night of October 30, 2015, hours after his shambolic resignation, working out how much money he had and how long he had to find another job before it ran out – four months, three days – that a solution to his other problem suggested itself.
He booted up his laptop, and inserted Jerzy’s pirated Realm Of The Sword season one disc. Then he called up the catalogue and cross-checked the running time of each episode with an online log of running times kept by an obsessive Realm Of The Sword fan. They all matched exactly, as Pete expected, for Jerzy was methodical and obsessive too. His vast DVD collection was in perfect alphabetical order. Pete could not imagine the massive arse-ache that maintaining a collection like that would be.
He did the same with the other discs. The running times of all episodes were exact matches with the online log. Except for one. Episode Seven of Season Five was three seconds longer.
Pete watched the episode from beginning to end, timing it with his iPhone. It was indeed three seconds longer than the online log. But why? Why was this different?
That is when he remembered Marketa’s book in Jerzy’s bookcase. He had often thought about Marketa’s book since finding it, specifically the photographs of her lean and angular body hidden between the pages, and especially when he found himself awake in the darkness and did not feel like switching on his laptop and looking for wanking material. Yes, he felt guilty about using his memories of those photographs as he tugged on his swollen cock in the wee small hours, but it was not his fault he had seen them, and where was the harm? Besides, Pete had had Catholicism injected into his DNA. Guilt was his aphrodisiac.
It was worth a try, he thought. He watched the episode again, this time at 1/32nd normal speed.
Birds cannot watch films. Their eyes process images far too quickly for the slow 24 frames per second of celluloid. To a bird, a film looks like a procession of flashcards slowly revealed by a bored teacher. That is why they wait until the last second before they fly away when a car approaches. To a bird everything appears in slow-motion. She has all the time in the world to move.
Pete watched Episode Seven of Season Five of Realm Of The Sword like a bird. Frames appeared on the screen for half a second before being replaced. As it happened, he missed the first rogue frame, because he was rubbing his eyes. But at 3.46am, on Hallowe’en 2015, he saw the second frame. He paused the programme and rewound a few frames, to discover a high-resolution photograph of a spreadsheet. Pete was right. Jerzy had interleaved the files he had stolen between the frames of the programme, just as he had hidden Marketa’s photographs between the pages of her book.
‘I’ve got you, you bastard,’ he said, to nobody.