“Marcus, we have a problem.”
Marcus Chen didn’t answer. He was sitting in deep thought behind the big steel-gray desk, studying a very faded black-and-white photograph of a boy, no more than six years old.
He thought about that boy from the photograph, of his room, watching the harbor, wondering where the ships had come from, where they were going … it seemed impossible that that youngster would even understand how much time could have passed since that moment.
After interminable seconds Marcus put down the photo and gestured towards the two leather swivel chairs in a corner of the grand office. There was a small table between the chairs with a jug of ice water and two glasses and you had an excellent view through the big panorama window to the skyline of Downtown LA.
Ray shut the office door behind him, walked over to one of the swivel chairs and sat down. He put a phone and notebook on the table. He poured a glass of ice water to the brim and downed it.
DD Systems’ press chief was a big square man with silver-gray short-cropped hair but he moved with precision and care.
Marcus got himself seated while straightening his dark brown suit. It was impeccable like everything else about the elderly Hong Kong businessman who had rooted himself in the Americas for the time being. “Talk to me.”
Ray put the phone gently on the table and pushed it over to Marcus.
Marcus picked it up and scanned the screen. Then he put it down again.
“She can’t be doing this!”
Ray retrieved the phone slowly. He glanced at his boss and friend through forty years.
For a moment, you could slice pieces out of the air with a knife.
Marcus looked like he was turning something over in his mouth. “Was our legal department informed? HR? The Church?”
Ray shook his head. “This went to the press first … ”
Marcus’ lips became a thin line. “Mrs. Harbington is out for blood.”
He struggled now—to stay in the memory of how the busy morning street in Kwun Tong looked. The street just outside his window in that redbrick building where he had lived until he was 21. There had been a drizzle of summer rain, and ships dotting Victoria Harbor in the background.
He knew he would see all of that, perfectly, if only he took the photo in his hands again and closed his eyes.
He forced himself to focus on a quote from Fred Alan Wolfe:
‘According to the tenets of the quantum physics based on the uncertainty principle and the complementarity principle, there is no reality until that reality is perceived.’
Was it possible to use this insight to change the experience of time, of age itself? At least that’s what he wanted to explore in the new course he was developing.
The preliminary ad copy was bland like it had been with the courses from the previous year, but he hadn’t objected. He knew that the depths of the insight couldn’t be expressed on a website landing page, anyway, so what did it matter?
It was the biggest question of all. How could the memory of that harbor he had marveled at as a boy feel so present and at the same time be forever lost?
He would rather have been in the Church HQ at Oceanside, reflecting, deeply on how he could have both that sense of the world being open as the boy did and at the same time be aware of the end that was approaching. He would not live forever.
No, these were the most important questions of all.
“I have prepared three scenarios,” Ray said.
Marcus gazed at the empty glass. “Of course you have.”
“First, we could go hard on her little ass. If she is not going to the police, or even to the Church’s legal department if there’s nothing more to back it up than what she writes, then it’s just slander … We make sure she understands in no uncertain terms that we will sue if she doesn’t retract.”
“And number two?”
“Containment. Reiterate that if Mrs. Harbington has any complaints, she will be more than welcome to report them to the police and the Church Universal will cooperate fully as the case is investigated. We apologize officially for any pain that may have been caused and yadayada. The course instructor in question will be sent on leave.”
“And what if nothing comes up and she persists with her story?” Marcus asked quietly.
Ray wet his lips. “If she somehow gets no evidence twisted … like, she is a victim of ‘police negligence’, ‘corporate patriarchy’, that kind of bull, and it won’t go away, well, then we might have to fire the instructor. That will stop her cold.”
“We can’t just give in to her accusations if there is no evidence.”
Marcus had a sour taste in his mouth.
“You know as well as I do that in these cases, it is never clear cut,” Ray said. “It’s a matter of who said what and who thought what. You know how my ex once accused me of raping her, even though she was drunk as fuck at the time and so much in on it—”
Marcus broke him off. “What’s the third scenario?”
Ray shrugged. “We just wait. If she is not doing anything else, then neither are we. Let it be buried in the news stream. It’s risky, but—” he grinned “—-it would really piss her off if nobody cared.”
Marcus chuckled, but his brow was a sea of strain lines. “Maybe this instructor really did—We have had a case last year—”
Ray held up his hand. “I took care of that.”
“And what was this instructor’s name again?” Marcus asked.
Ray glanced in his notes “ … Darren Johnson.”
“Don’t know the man,” Marcus said, “but he has to have been vetted, trained, all that. And this … journalist … She deliberately takes our courses so as to be able to concoct those stories. Before Easter, it was …” he searched for the word.
“The ‘brainwash’ crap,” Ray finished.
“Yes.” Marcus closed his eyes briefly.
Those rain-soaked streets were fading fast. The sunlight, too. His sister quietly opened his door ajar, to check if he had fallen asleep … He could hardly hear that door …
Ray gazed squarely at his boss. “It’s not just the Church Universal we have to look out for.”
Marcus sighed. “I know. And I know several people on the board who’d be happy to get rid of me, because of my involvement with the CU. This will only strengthen their case, no matter the outcome.”
Ray said nothing to that.
“But if she really is lying?” Marcus pressed. “Can we prove it?”
Ray smiled grimly. “We’d have a hard time proving anything for the reasons I just gave. In a case like this, the actual truth isn’t the point—” He looked straight at Marcus “—it’s how we deal with an attack.”
Marcus leaned forward. “Should I take a personal meeting with her to clear things up?”
“Would she even agree to that?” Ray turned the pencil around on the table, its tip down on the surface, like it was a nail he was getting ready to drive in.
“Why would she not accept?” Marcus continued, “It’d be any journalist’s wet dream to sit down on one with her object of hate and get him to say something incriminating, wouldn’t it?”
“That’s exactly why you shouldn’t do it. And again, wouldn’t she just find an excuse to slither out of it? ‘Trauma’ or whatever … ”
Marcus bit his lip. “I guess you are right. If she really wanted that she would have reached out to me directly for a comment before publication. Has she even reached out to the Church PR department?”
“She hasn’t,” Ray said quickly. “But it was Lisa who saw this shit and notified me.” He stopped the pencil in a spot near the middle of the table. The sharp end was still down.
Marcus shook his head. “Who is her editor? How can he allow this kind of journalism?”
“It’s called a feature article,” Ray said, without missing a beat, “and the editor – she doesn’t like you either.”
Marcus sat for a long time with his hand folded again.
Then he got up.
“I will make a decision and call you.”
Ray nodded, picked up the phone, and headed back to the big double door.
When he was about to close it, he stopped and looked back at Marcus. “However you decide to slap around this little hussy, I’m going to make it happen, Marcus-you won’t have to worry about it.”
Marcus held up a hand and shook his head. “Go have an espresso, Ray. I know ice water isn’t quite enough for you at this time of day.”
Ray grinned. “All right. Call me as soon as you can.”
The door closed and Marcus was alone again.
In a niche behind the swivel chairs, there was a little shelf and a few small trinkets on top of it to remind him of life outside the corporate spaceship, for example, a small replica of the Behaim globe made with real parchment.
Marcus went over to it. He gazed at the globe for a while, then took a deep breath and pulled up the article on his own phone:
Sex, Lies and Quantumscape
by Linda Harbington
The Church Universal, with its enticing promise of inner growth through the understanding of the “quantum brain,” meditation, and lessons from Buddhism, had always piqued my curiosity. However, behind its façade of serenity and spiritual awakening, I discovered a much more sinister reality …
Marcus read it all then tapped the phone and it went dark.
He walked back to his black desk and picked up the old photo of himself as a boy.
If only you knew all the things that would happen …
Ray had done some research on Mrs. Harbington. Apparently, she thrived on doing these kinds of exposes, but she had targeted the Church specifically in the past few years, or so they had concluded, because she had a sister with some kind of diagnosis and the number of Church courses promising alleviation of mental problems had been like a red cape to her.
And, it seemed, in Mrs. Harbington’s world there was no cure for, say, autism. And anyone who said anything differently, or even just hinted at ways of alleviating, well, they were what—traitors to be shot at dawn?
When did the world become so … upside down?
Marcus looked at the photo of the boy for some time, again then he put it in his pocket, and left the office.
He took the remotest elevator to get out of DD Systems’ office building.
Once outside, Marcus crossed Figueroa St. quickly and took the short walk under the 4th St. bridge to Venture Hotel. It was fairly hot and he had to have his jacket over his arm.
When he arrived he found an empty table in a corner of the hotel restaurant which wasn’t difficult at this time of day. He ordered the usual and then leaned back, trying to unwind enough to ponder the problem.
Ray would expect an answer soon, and it would probably be prudent to give it to him within the hour. The first journalists had likely already been calling to follow up from other media and it was unfair to Ray, and to Lisa over in Church PR to have them tap dance around this for too long.
And then his own phone rang.
“They are here,” his wife said without preamble.
“Did the trip go well?”
“Apparently Carrie fainted on the way, but she is alright now.”
Marcus frowned. “‘Fainted’?”
“You know about her anxiety attacks,” Deborah said, “just back luck it had to happen on the plane.”
“Emma is fine. She’s one cool cookie for a 9-year-old. I’m driving them to Carlsbad now, so they can rest.”
“I’ll be there shortly,” he said.
“Okay … ” Deborah replied with the slightest of hesitation, which he picked up very well.
“I won’t rush.”
“Always. Take good care of … Caroline and Emma.”
He hung up before she could answer.
The waiter came over with tea. Marcus said nothing. When the waiter had gone he picked up the cup.
Marcus didn’t let his lips touch the heated water. The scent alone was enough. He was again looking out over Victoria Harbor, but it was closer to sunset. The light was still beautiful, and gentle. A wonderful blanket that God had chosen to put over the jagged skyline of Hong Kong to soothe its edges, as it soothed the edges of life.
What could you do to hold on to time?
The works he had studied, whether from Wolfe or the Dalai Lama, seemed to promise an answer to this question.
They felt like an affirmation of what he already felt life should be – eternal and beautiful.
Like those sunsets from his childhood. The sunsets were temporal, yes, but also eternal
They always came back.
And then there was … his stepdaughter’s fierce accusation.
It also kept coming back …
‘For Christ’s sake—your ‘church’ is just another sham to make money off all the beautiful things people want to believe, but which are not true!’’
He had replied with a sardonic remark about how odd it was that Caroline called upon Jesus in the same sentence that she had dissed the Christian faith.
It was already a long time ago, but it was searing in his memory. That night.
It had all started with a superficial talk about how Caroline could get a job, and then he had said something about why she didn’t create her own like he had created the company and then the Church, and … then it had deteriorated into one of those absolutely pointless discussions about the existence of God.
And it had ended with Caroline literally waving the scars on her arms in his face. Too many needles …
‘Where was God when I needed him? Maybe he was watching me on HomeGrownVideo because it’s always a fucking him?!’
Yes, that Christmas in Carlsbad hadn’t been … easy.
The waiter was hovering near the entrance and for a moment he made a motion to come over, but Marcus waved him off. He took a long sip of his tea and enjoyed the quiet. He looked at his watch and knew it wouldn’t last.
He then looked at his reflection in the window. It seemed like a conglomeration of echoes from that time that had passed like a raging river.
For the moment, Marcus felt most like seeing Mrs. Harbington’s white bony ass with a large footprint on it.
Like he had felt about Caroline that first Christmas together.
Oh, they had patched up since …
As much as you could patch a car wreck, he supposed.
The mutual resentment still lingered. Like a bout of malaria. It could always flare up.
How dared she? She never took her time to get to know him. She didn’t even think to ask about his life or work, to try to understand.
Certainly, she had had a troubled life and all but for how long could you use that as an excuse to treat everyone else as trash whenever you got angry?
He wondered how Caroline, so full of her righteous anger, would have felt, had she been him right there at Kai Tak airport in 1971, and no one arrived.
His fiancée … gone.
His unborn son …
‘A terrorist attack’ and other inexplicable theories from Taiwan Garrison Command. But the theory couldn’t express what he felt. They could only hint at an inconceivable reality in which those you loved disappeared in the blink of an eye, for no reason at all. No new interpretation of quantum physics could make that reality anything else than what it was.
Yes, his step-daughter’s best friend had OD’ed while Caroline was in college and her step-brother had run over a mine in Afghanistan.
But they bore some responsibility, didn’t they? They knew the risks!
Mei had just wanted to visit him from Taiwan. Before she moved to …
But no. He had promised himself never to lose that calm he had worked for decades to achieve.
However, on that holy night, Marcus was so close to telling Caroline how she could take her egoistic victim drama and stuff it.
Then he spotted Emma and Michael near the Christmas tree in the dining hall.
The little girl was trying to show her younger brother what a Christmas present was. Already back then, they suspected something was wrong but everybody, himself included, kept reassuring themselves that it was just a phase.
But he had noticed Michael’s eyes staring at nothing in particular whenever Emma talked to him. He remembered that blankness clearly, and Emma’s frustrated attempts to get Michael to open his present.
In fact, the only thing that Michael really wanted was to look at the candle lights. He could watch the flickering flame for ages, it seemed, at still found it interesting.
So Marcus had excused himself and gone out on the terrace to look at the stars with Caroline’s husband and talk about the difference between police procedures in Hong Kong and California.
As for Deborah, they had known each other for some time, but even then his new wife didn’t know exactly what had happened at that airport … all those years ago. And she wouldn’t know until some months after that night when he decided it was finally time to tell her.
So the rest of that black Christmas came and went with a lot of feelings still wrapped up.
Here and now at the hotel, he wondered what Caroline would think about “Sex, Lies and Quantumscape”?
Surely, she would read it with glee? She probably kept a dedicated folder for bookmarks with shady links about Church Universal to inspire her to new accusations.
“A quiet day, sir?” The waiter had come over once more.
“Can I suggest the new Rooibos?” The waiter presented a tray with small jars with tea leaves, each hand-marked.
Marcus allowed himself a smile. “I’m the only one who comes over here to drink before noon, huh, Jenkins?”
“You are our most steadfast customer, sir.”
“I’d like to try the Rooibos, but … another time.”
When he was outside again, he could feel a mild breeze coming. It wasn’t often that there was that in Downtown LA. He much preferred Carlsbad for that reason, but you couldn’t always get what you wanted, could you?
He pulled out his phone and called Ray. “Scenario no. 2.”
Ray’s silence at the other end was practically like a thunderstorm.
Marcus did not blink.
“Do you disapprove of my decision, Ray?”
“ … Look … ” his old friend started. “It is not like you to walk away from a fight. She is not in good faith.”
“She is likely not,” Marcus agreed.
“It’s so fucking obvious why she is doing this,” Ray pressed. “You used the methods you developed to rid yourself of PTSD. She bought into the whole ‘we-can-only-manage-it-with-drugs’ Big Pharma lie. So she takes potshots at others to feel better about that.”
Marcus smiled. “Maybe I’m not quite so ‘rid’ of everything … ”
Ray’s voice was gentler now. “She should have gone through the proper channels. She deserves a lesson.”
Marcus nodded. “Yes. She does.”
“I know someone … ” Marcus said slowly, looking up into the sky where a plane passed, “who… was abused repeatedly when she was younger. I guess it was so she could pay for her addiction, but still … these things are never clear cut, are they?”
Ray hesitated. “You never told me … that.”
“But now you know.” Marcus watched the plane cross the dome of the sky. “And really, it’s not about PR. I should give any woman who says that this happened—anyone—the benefit of the doubt. Even if they want to see my head on a stake.”
“Well,” Ray said, “if you say so, old buddy, but just remember what happened to Gandhi, okay?”
“You have my decision, Ray.”
Marcus hung up.
He looked up again. The plane was gone now, behind one of the skyscrapers. But somewhere out there behind all the concrete and steel, there was also the Pacific Ocean.
And ships. There would always be ships going somewhere new.
Perhaps that was the answer?
Last edit 21 Sep 2023