Tag Archives: science fiction

Acquisition Department

Standard

Mark grinned at himself in the mirror, straightening his tie. Each time he did this he remembered his dad first showing him how to tie a Windsor knot. “You only get one chance to make a first impression, buddy boy.” He was ready for his interview. He grabbed the Jack Georges leather briefcase, which had been a graduation present from his parents, and locked the door to his studio apartment.

A ten-minute walk and forty-five minute subway ride later he was in the city. Mark straightened his tie again as the thirty-story building that was his destination came into view. He grinned at himself again in the glass door as he strode through it. Mark climbed aboard the elevator as the doors whooshed open. He pushed the button for the tenth floor. He felt like he was flying as the car sped upwards, stopping with a slight bump. Mark stepped off of the elevator and walked to the metal horseshoe shaped desk. It was so high that it reached his chest and he felt like he had to stretch up in order not to feel short. “I’m here for in interview with Mr. Raleigh; Mark Johnson,” he told the slim, smartly dressed woman sitting on a high stool behind the desk.

“Please have a seat Mr. Johnson and he will be right with you,” she answered with a smile, tucking her long, wavy brown hair behind her ears.”

Five minutes later, a tall, broad-shouldered man walked out of the double, dark wooden doors behind the receptionist’s desk. He looked like he should be wearing cowboy boots and wrangling cattle, instead of wearing this suit that probably cost more than Mark ever even dreamed of earning. “Hello Mr. Johnson, welcome to ArbitrageX. Please follow me.”

Mark walked into the most extravagant office he could imagine. It even smelled like money. Mr. Raleigh took a seat behind his yacht-sized desk and motioned for Mark to have a seat across from him. “So tell me about your past experience and why you think you would be an asset to our company.”

“Well, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in computer science and a minor in statistics. I have expertise in GPU hardware and my final project was research into low-latency systems. I have the confidence, work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit needed for this position.”

“You certainly appear to have the qualifications we are looking for. But it’s not just about what you learned in school. Are you prepared for the long hours and fast pace of this career? It’s a high stress job, Mark. You have to be accessible 24/7.”

“Absolutely, this is my dream. I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to work in this company.”

“Okay Mark. Thank you for coming in. I will be making a decision soon and my assistant, Stephanie will be calling to let you know in the next few days.”

“Thank you for your time and for this opportunity,” said Mark. “I promise, you will not regret giving me a chance.”

Mark walked back to the elevator, giving Stephanie what he thought of as his confident, don’t you want me grin on the way out. I’ve so got this. Mark, used to being the wonder boy, the top of his class from pre-school to graduate school, never even considered that he might not get the job. He had always accomplished what he set his mind on. Even in Kindergarten, his coloring pages were always displayed on the bulletin board. He never, ever colored outside the lines.

“Dad, the interview went great,” Mark said into his phone.

“When will you hear?” asked his dad.

“Soon. I’m not worried.”

“Good for you son. Just out of school and working for the newest, fastest growing industry, high frequency trading. And ArbitrageX no less. Congats.”

“How’s Florida?”

“Actually, we’re coming home early. Mom hasn’t been feeling well. Touch of the flu maybe, but it’s really wiping her out.”

“Really? Give her a hug for me. Is she up for travel?

“She insists on coming home. She misses you and her friends. She’s a tough old bird. She’ll be okay.”

“Alright. Well call me when you get in. I’ll bring dinner over or something. It will be good to see you guys. I’ve missed our Sunday dinners this month.”
“Me too kid. Well congrats again and I’ll let you know when we get home.”

“Okay, see ya dad.”

Mark tapped the end call button on his phone.

After a nap and a shower Mark, wrapped in a towel, made himself some eggs and bacon. He thought of his last girlfriend as the eggs cooked. He always made eggs for the girls he dated. It was a kind of game he made up, matching the type of eggs to the girl’s personality. He had had poached, hard-boiled, toad in the hole, and a whole variety of omelets. Tricia, his last girlfriend had been scrambled with a little sharp cheddar and paprika. He missed her, or at least her body. He decided to spend some quality time with himself before getting dressed. Then he put on his jeans, well ironed, and tucked in his polo shirt. Looking in the bathroom mirror he put some Man Paste into his short brown hair mussing it into the desired effect. He called his best friend Greg. “Dude, you have to come out with me. I had my interview today and of course I rocked it.”

“You are so full of yourself.”

“Yeah I am. And rightly so.”

“You’re a dick,” said Greg laughing.

“Yeah, your favorite dick.”

“Well actually my second favorite dick. Where are we going?

“Meet you at Hole in the Wall in an hour.”

“See ya.”

Mark walked into the bar, dark even though it was still light outside. A wave of stale beer hit him and he smiled, I love this place. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he scoped out the room looking for Greg and also noticing the lack of women.

“Hey,” said Greg coming out of the bathroom.

“Where are the ladies?”

“It’s early. Buy me a beer.”

Mark ordered two beers at the bar and sat down next to Greg.

“So tell me about this job,” said Greg.

“High frequency trader. It’s like security trading on steroids.”

“No idea what that is, but I hope you get rich so you can live in a penthouse and have amazing parties with super models and invite your best friend, me.”

“Could totally happen. How’s your job.”
“High school history teacher. Just as awesome as you would imagine it would be. Meaning it sucks. Kids don’t give a shit about history. They just want to sext on their phones and piss on each other on Facebook. I spend more time confiscating phones and mediating social disputes than teaching.”

“Sounds fun. Back to me. I’m already planning my new uptown apartment, maybe a vacation house on the bay.”

“Keep dreaming buddy.”

Mark ordered another round as they continued their verbal sparring match.

“Holy shit, how much have we had to drink?” asked Greg.

“Uh-I think maybe a lot,” answered Mark trying unsuccessfully to stand up.

Greg grabbed Mark’s arm to help him stand and they both fell to the ground laughing hysterically. Somehow they got on their feet, leaned on each other and headed to the door.

The next morning Mark had no idea how he got home and called Greg. Greg answered the phone with a gravelly, “What?”

“How did we get home last night,” Mark asked holding his head as tight as he could, waiting for his brain to leak out his ears.

“Subway I think. Leave me alone. I’m going back to bed…forever.”

Mark fell back on his 1,000-thread count black sheets, squinting against the light coming in the small window. I think I’m dying. Just then the phone rang. “Hello?” Mark said in a weak voice.

“This is Stephanie from ArbitrageX calling.”

“Hi,” Mark said trying to make his voice sound awake and enthusiastic as he curled in a fetal ball on the bed.

“ Mr. Raleigh asked me to contact you. He would like to offer you a special opportunity.”

“Wonderful! Thank you,” said Mark all of a sudden feeling much better. “When do I start?”

“Someone will be by today to go over the specifics with you.”

“Wow, they’re coming to my apartment. Pretty nice.”

“Good luck Mr. Johnson.”

“Won’t need any!”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Stephanie and disconnected.

Mark showered, dressed and fixed himself a Bloody Mary. Hair of the dog that bit ya’ he though and gulped it down.

About an hour later there was a knock on Mark’s door. Mark opened the door and saw a tall, thin man with short grey hair. Mark smiled but the man was all business. “Come on in,” Mark said in a friendly voice hoping to melt the ice face.

The man walked in and looked around. “Have a seat,” Mark said gesturing to his small loveseat.

“No need,” said the man handing Mark a tar-black folder.

Still trying to make conversation Mark asked, “So you’re from ArbitrageX HR?”

“Not exactly,” answered the man. “We work closely with Mr. Raleigh. You might say we’re a pre-employment trial.”

Mark was feeling off kilter all of a sudden. He tried to summon his usual bravado as he opened the thick folder. The heading on the top sheet read in an elaborate script, “Eternal Slumber Funeral Home”. Mark looked up feeling confused. Then he looked down at the paper again and saw in smaller letters under the main heading “Acquisition Department”. Now Mark felt like he had just dropped into the Twilight Zone. He wondered if he was still drunk and passed out. “What the hell is going on? What does an acquisition department do at a funeral home?”

“Funeral homes are struggling,” said Ice Man. “Cremations have gone up 20% in the past twenty years. Hardly anyone does a full-frills burial anymore. So we need to make sure our volume is up, hence the acquisition department.”

“You have got to be kidding me. Is this a joke? Some sort of Candid Camera thing? Everyone’s laughing somewhere watching this right?” Mark asked looking around for hidden cameras.

“I’m afraid not. ArbitrageX lends us their best candidates. Those who are able to understand our complicated computer systems, and who are willing to do anything to work for ArbitrageX. If you can make it with us for a year, then Mr. Raleigh will give you a chance.”

“So what exactly would I be doing?”

“You would update and use our algorithms to help choose our next acquisitions.”

“That can’t mean what it sounds like.”
“Actually, it’s exactly what it sounds like. We need algorithms that will find people who are in our area, and who’s loved ones are most likely to use our funeral home. We find people who are sick and close to death anyway. We just help them along a bit.”

Mark couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He sat down on the loveseat. Looking up at Ice Man he asked, “And then? When someone is identified?”

“Our Procurement Department takes over.”

“I can’t believe this. No way.”

“Suit yourself,” said Ice Man putting his hand out for the folder. “This is obviously confidential. I will trust that you will not relay this visit to anyone.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Ice Man stood there, folder in hand staring at Mark.

“No, no I won’t say anything.”

“Good. We’ll know if you do. Goodbye then.”

Ice Man walked out the door. Oh Shit. Mark shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He had an internal debate with himself while he chewed on his fingernails. Suddenly he ran into the hallway. “Wait, wait,” he said catching up with Ice Man. These people are on the verge of death anyway right?”

“Mostly.”

“We’re probably doing them a favor. Working for ArbitrageX is all I want. I have to work there. I’ll do it,” Mark said quickly before any reason or ethical thinking could sneak its way into his brain.

“I’m glad you changed your mind,” Ice Man said handing Mark the folder again. “The address is in the folder. Be there on Monday at 8:00.”

Mark walked into his apartment and flopped down on the love seat, dropped the folder on the floor, and closed his eyes. “What have I just done? And I can’t tell anyone about this? Oh-my God.” Mark curled into a ball, feeling sick again and slept for the rest of the day. He woke up just as it was getting dark outside. His hopes that he had just been having a really bad dream died as he saw the black folder, crouching like an evil creature on his floor. He crossed to his bed, giving the folder a wide berth, stripped and crawled under his covers. He fell right back asleep and didn’t wake until the sun was flooding the small room.

Mark opened one eye and then closed it, putting his head under his covers as the events of yesterday came flooding into his brain. Mark lay there as if he could hide from what he had done. His phone rang and he crawled out of bed slowly as if he had aged overnight. “Hello.”
“Hey kiddo. Just wanted to let you know we’re home.”

“Oh, great. How’s mom?”

“Still not feeling great actually. I’m trying to convince her to see the doctor but she’s so stubborn. How about you? Having a good weekend? Any word on the job?”

“Actually, yes. I got the job.”

“Wonderful! Congratulations! When do you start?”
“Tomorrow, bright and early.”

“You ready for this? Pretty high stakes you know. When it comes to money, it’s kind of like life and death for your clients.”

You have no idea. “Yeah, I know dad. Listen, I’m just getting up. Can I call you back later after I score some coffee?”

“Of course. Talk to you later buddy.”

“Bye dad.”

Mark got up and poured himself some orange juice. The weekend passed in a blur. Before he knew it Monday morning had arrived. He showered and put on a suit. He picked up the folder where he had left it on the floor, trying to ignore it all weekend even though he could feel its stare. He slipped the folder into his briefcase and went outside to hail a cab. He was curious to see what Eternal Slumber looked like. Would it look menacing and creepy? He was surprised when the cab stopped in front of a white colonial. It looked peaceful surrounded by an open porch lined with rocking chairs. Ferns hung from the porch. The walkway was lined with brightly colored flowers. The only sign that this wasn’t someone’s family home was a small plaque beside the front door that said Eternal Slumber Funeral Home.

Mark opened the front door, feeling the cool air surround him as he stepped into the foyer. The dark wood floor was covered in a muted red and yellow patterned rug. A narrow oak library table sat along one wall. A bunch of white flowers sat on it in a crystal vase. There was also a box of tissues. Mark guessed this was for grieving friends and relatives coming to say goodbye to the deceased. He wasn’t sure what to do next so he walked further into the house. To his right, double wooden doors opened into a large room where rows of chairs were set up facing a raised platform upon which a coffin was placed. There must be a viewing tonight, thought Mark. Seeing the coffin made what he was about to do more real and his stomach did a flip. He almost expected someone to pop out of the coffin to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing taking this job. He jumped as he heard someone say his name. Whirling around, he saw a short, squat man with red cheeks smiling at him. He kind of looked like Santa Claus, if Santa was a mortician hiring people to help people die faster to up his profit margin. “Welcome to Eternal Slumber. You must be Mark. I’m Steven Raleigh and I’m glad to have you joining our team. Our last employee just moved on to a high-powered job at ArbitrageX. I’m sure you will be headed for the same.”

“Raleigh, like…”

“Yes, he’s my brother. Eternal Slumber and I put little brother through school. So he helps me out a bit by enhancing my work force.” Steven smiled a smile that definitely did not reach his eyes. “Let me show you around. This is obviously our viewing room. We have calling hours tonight for poor Mrs. Schneider. Large German family.” He headed out the double doors and gestured to a door across the hall. That’s my office and further down here is our reception room. That’s where we take people to help them sort through their burial plans for their recently deceased loved ones. Mark peeked into the small room. There was a small round table with four comfortable parsons’ chairs in a soft floral print surrounding it. And of course the obligatory box of tissues on the table, alongside a large binder open to a page full of different coffins. The walls were covered in moss green wallpaper and gauzy curtains covered the large window. A huge green spider plant hung in front of the window, trying in vain to add some life to this depressing room.

They continued on to a dark wooden door. Mr. Grady opened it and Mark saw there was a set of stairs leading downward. Grady flipped on a light and Mark followed him down into a state of the art mortuary room. A silver metal table sat in the middle of the large room. There was a bunch of equipment that Mark had no idea what it was for and didn’t have any urge to find out. Evil Santa led him past the table to a glass door that kind of looked like it belonged in some sci-fi laboratory movie. They walked in and Mark was surprised to see the up to date technology in the space. He didn’t know what he had expected. He supposed some relic of a computer. But this was the best, fastest and newest stuff. The glass windows leading into the room with the steel table were covered in blinds, which Mark was grateful for. He had no desire to see what happened to bodies on their way to their “eternal slumber”. He hoped he wouldn’t hear what was going on in the neighboring room either. On the cop shows he watched, some poor body was always getting its head sawed open as the Medical Examiner took out a brain to weigh it. Why did they need to do that anyway? He wondered briefly if his brain would turn out to be lacking when he died.

“So, this will be your office,” said Santa. “What do you think?”

“This is amazing equipment,” said Mark.

“Yes, we’ve decided to invest in this part of our business to assist in helping with our dropping profits. This business has been in my family for generations and I’m not going to be the one to fail,” he said with his ever-present grin as if he were simply a Business 101 teacher instead of a guy hiring someone to find people on death’s door.

“Well, let me show you the back door that you will be using,” he said leading me back out of the office and showing me a hallway leading to a short flight of stairs leading to a landing with a door opening out into the side driveway. “You won’t be seeing me anymore. I only work upstairs. My brother is the mortician who will be down here. You will share your office with Julia, our procurement rep. She’ll help you get started tomorrow. Show you the ropes. Good luck.” He shut the door behind Mark.

“What the hell am I doing?” Mark said out loud. “Shit.” Mark called Greg and left a message. “Meet me at the Hole when you get out of work.”

Mark had already been there drinking beer in the dark for a couple of hours when Greg walked in at four o’clock. “Um-what the heck,” said Greg. “Rough first day?”

“Kind of …”

“Ohhhhh-kay.” Greg put down his messenger bag, ordered a beer and sat on the stool next to Mark.

They drank in silence for a bit, Greg sneaking glances at Mark once in a while. Finally Mark let out a big breath and turned to Greg smiling. “You know what? It’s going to be fine. No, it’s going to be great. I’m really lucky. In a few years, who knows where I’ll be. I just have to pay my dues first. Like any new job right? You probably had like the worst classes when you started right?”

“Uh-yeah, sure. So, do you like hate the job or what?”

“No, just not what I expected. I’ll get used to it.”

“Well, give it six months and if you really hate it, you can quit.”

“Are you kidding me, my dad is frothing at the mouth with excitement that I landed this job. He would freak if I quit.”

Greg ordered another round. “Okay, well let’s have one more and then I need to head home. Lots of papers to grade. And you don’t want to be hung over for your first full day.”

“True. Let’s celebrate Friday though. Maybe I’ll have a little party.”

“Sounds good. Invite those girls we met. You remember? Jennifer’s friends?”

“Yeah, okay. So just four days to go and then we can celebrate. I can do it.”

“Of course you can! You’re pretty much the most stubborn son of a bitch that I know.”

Tuesday morning arrived much too quickly. Luckily Mark had gone to bed early after downing about a gallon of water, and four ibuprofen, so he felt fine. He put on a dark blue suit, filled his travel mug with strong coffee, picked up his brief case and walked to the door. He picked up his keys from the small table and looked into the silver mirror, giving himself a little pep talk. “You can do anything for a year, Buddy Boy. Let’s do this!”

He walked briskly to the subway entrance and rode to his stop. He walked another fifteen minutes or so, the sky becoming blue and sunny. He walked around to the back of Eternal Slumber and in the door leading to the basement where he would be working. Standing next to the table, cleaning equipment was Ice Man. So Iceman and Evil Santa were brothers. Figures. Wonder how the other Raleigh escaped the funeral home business. But he must know what is happening here. Great, three evil brothers.

Iceman looked up. “Glad you decided to join us. Julia is waiting to help you get started.”

Mark walked into the room he had visited the morning before. Julia was not what he had expected. It’s Mary Fucking Poppins, he thought looking at her pretty unlined face and long black hair pulled back into a tight bun. She was wearing a pretty knee-length purple dress and black high-heeled shoes. She was wearing bright pink lipstick and gave Mark a smile that he noticed also did not reach her eyes. “Well, I guess another one bit the dust,” she announced.

“What do you mean?”

“Last guy quit. Not many make it the whole year. You think you will.”

“Of course,” Mark said with a bravado he didn’t feel.

Julia shrugged. “We’ll see,” she said leading Mark to a computer. “Here’s your Starship, Captain. Heard you were supposed to be pretty smart so I don’t think you’ll need me too much but I’ll be working across the room if you need me. The last guy left a binder with his algorithms and data sheets. I’m sure you’ll want to create your own though.”

“So when I’ve identified a …”

“A suitable candidate? You send the information over to me and I take it from there.”

“How do you … um, I mean …”

“You don’t need to know anything about what I do,” said Mary/Julia giving him that sweet fake smile again.

“Okay,” Mark sighed and sat down at his table. He looked through the binder and papers on the table. Then he started up the computer and looked through all of the files. The day flew as he worked. He tried to think of the system he was working on as theoretical. If he could make it some sort of game, it was really interesting. Before he knew it, it was time to go.

“See you tomorrow he said to Julia, who had been in and out all day.

“G’Night,” said Julia.

Mark didn’t see Iceman on his way out, which he was glad about.

He followed the same routine the rest of the week. He was getting close to naming his first “suitable candidate”. He had enhanced the program the last candidate had been working on, and now had a complicated plan that ran people’s age, health, location, income and many other variables through a complicated algorithm.

“PAUL ROBERT HAGERMAN, 55 Grand Ave., MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS” popped up on his Mark’s screen. He sat staring at that name for at least 20 minutes. Was he really doing this? He was. He sent the information over to Julia’s computer. She silently unlocked her bottom desk drawer and took out a Gucci purse. She stood up, and walked out of the room without even looking at Mark. He leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. And then he got back to work.

Mark had plans to go to his parents for dinner that evening. He was shocked at how thin she was and how she looked years older. He hugged her and his dad. “Mom, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

“Dad, I don’t believe her.”

“We went to the doctor. They’re not sure what’s going on, but she’s taking some good drugs, and you know she’s …”

“… a tough old bird,” Mark and his dad finished in unison.

“And don’t you forget it!” said his mom.

They ate dinner but the whole time Mark kept sneaking glances at his mom. The heavy silence told him that his parents were not being totally honest with him. After some apple pie, he gave his mom an extra-long hug and she said, “Stop worrying.” He smiled, rolled his eyes at her and left.

This was Mark’s life for the next year. He told everyone that he was already working at ArbitrageX. His dad told him all the time how proud he was, and Greg and his other friends teased him about his high powered job, and wondered aloud when the lavish parties and trips were going to get going. Mark just kept saying that he was too busy for all of that in his first year on the job. He went to his parents’ house for dinner every Sunday night and his mom still wasn’t looking better, but kept insisting she was fine.

Somehow Mark managed to separate what he was doing at work from reality. He just thought of his ever-evolving algorithms as a mathematical puzzle. He stopped reading the information about the people that came up on his screen. He stopped thinking of them as people. His friends and family started to ask him if he was okay. When he looked in the mirror he saw someone he didn’t recognize. The thick, dark hair that he was always so vain about, and spent minutes each morning mussing in just the right way, was falling out. His skin was turning kind if a yellowish color from being in a basement all day. He had lost quite a bit of weight, and since he didn’t work out any more looked kind of scrawny. But the thing that bothered him the most was his eyes. They looked empty.

Evil Santa never came downstairs, so Mark was shocked to see him walking into his office one morning. “Good morning!” he said in his jovial, see I’m not evil! way.

“Um, good morning,” Mark answered.

“Do you know what today is?”

“Thursday?”

“Yes,” said Evil Santa with a laugh. “But it’s also one week from your one year anniversary of working here.”

Mark couldn’t believe he didn’t realize this. When had he stopped counting down the days of this horrifying internship? When had he just accepted what he was doing?

“I have spoken to Mr. Raleigh and have let him know that you have fulfilled your duties extremely well. You are invited to begin at ArbitrageX on the 28th. Thank you for your service.” And he left, just like that.

Mark couldn’t believe a year was almost finished. He had such mixed feelings about beginning at ArbitrageX. He thought it would be such a happy day, but after this experience, how could he work for that company? On the other hand, if he didn’t, what had this horrible last year been for? Mark sat at his desk quietly drinking his coffee. He sighed and started punching in numbers on his computer. Then he waited. The name that came up on his screen stopped his heart.

JANET MARIE JOHNSON, 99 Oak Ave., BREAST CANCER

It was his mom. That couldn’t be right. She didn’t’ have cancer. What was going on? He looked across the room, panic in his eyes. Julia looked at him. Mark quickly looked back down at his monitor. How could he hide this?

He shut down his monitor and told Julia he was feeling sick. He half expected her to break into, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go dowwwn!” He grabbed his briefcase and left. He didn’t really even remember going to his parent’s house. When he walked in the door, his dad greeted him with his ever jovial, “Hi son! What a nice surprise.”

“Where’s mom?”

“She’s taking a little nap.”

“Dad, tell me the truth. Is she okay?”

His dad’s smile faltered a little. “Mark, your mom has cancer. I’m sorry; we didn’t want you to worry with your new job and all. She’s going for treatments and she’s going to be okay.” Mark wanted to believe this so badly.

“Okay, give her a kiss for me would you? Let’s have dinner tomorrow night.”

Mark’s dad gave him a hug. It seemed to last extra-long. “See you tomorrow night Buddy Boy. Mom will be happy to see you.”

Mark went home and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt. He grabbed a beer out of his fridge and ordered a pizza. His mind was racing. He had to figure out a way to erase his mom’s name from the system. He also needed to change the algorithm so her name wouldn’t pop up when the new person started. He ate two pieces of pizza without even tasting them and went to bed. He wanted to be up early to get to work before Julia.

The phone woke him and he opened his eyes. It was still dark out. He looked at his phone, which said 2:00. “Hello?”

“Mark…”

“Dad?” There was silence. “Dad, what is it?”

“Your mom.” Mark’s dad started crying.

“What?” Mark sat straight up, his heart hammering.

“She’s dead Mark. She died about an hour ago.”

“No! That can’t be. I’m coming over for dinner. She’s getting treatment. She’s fine.”

“I’m so sorry son. I fell asleep watching TV in the living room and when I came up to bed she was gone.” His dad was sobbing now.

“Dad. Oh my God. I’ll be right over.”

Mark was numb as he dressed. Was this his fault? Julia couldn’t have seen his mom’s name could she? He didn’t send it to her. When Mark got to his parents’ house, the medical examiner had already taken his mom’s body away. His dad was sitting in the kitchen, a cold cup of coffee in front of him.

Mark walked over and bent down to hug him. “Dad …”

“I can’t believe she’s gone.”

“I know.”

The next few days were a whirlwind of visitors bearing casseroles. His mom’s sister flew in and offered to help make all the funeral plans. She and Mark’s dad went to the funeral home, Eternal Slumber of course. Mark’s algorithm worked.

Mark went back to work for one more day. He walked into the room where he had spent the last year. Julia was in her regular spot working on her computer. “Did you do it?” Mark asked her.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Julia not even looking at him.

The funeral was scheduled for Saturday. Mark dressed in a black suit, which matched the dark rainy sky outside his window. Greg was waiting out front in a cab. Mark climbed in and sat silently. He almost threw up when the cab pulled up in front of Eternal Slumber. They walked into the viewing room he had visited a year ago. Evil Santa was greeting everyone with a solemn smile and handshake. He didn’t even seem to recognize Mark. Mark sat in the front row between his dad and aunt. He could picture Ice Man and Julia working beneath him. If his dad knew that he had been working here. If he knew what Mark had done.

After the funeral home they drove in a long procession to cemetery, joining a sea of umbrellas. His mom’s casket sat ready to be swallowed by the pile of dirt he knew was hiding under the fake green turf. The roar of the rain hitting the umbrellas drowned out what the minister was saying. Mark couldn’t even tell if people were crying, or the rain was just pouring down people’s cheeks. Mark himself felt completely numb as he watched the coffin being lowered into the ground. He rode with Greg to his parent’s house. When he walked in the door, the living room where he had grown up looked completely foreign. It was hard to breathe through the wet wool smell that saturated the air. He sat on the couch and tried to listen as endless streams of people gave him their condolences.

It seemed like hours later that the crowd started to thin out. Mark thought he remembered Greg saying goodbye at some point. Through the whole day, Mark kept thinking about what he was going to do. He couldn’t work for ArbitrageX not after this. He had been part of the people that had killed his mom. Murdered her. He had convinced himself that the names he gave Julia were just part of the job. They were not attached to real people. Now he had to face what he had become a part of. His mom was dead. She would never be back.

Mark’s dad sat next to him on the couch. “Dad, I’m quitting. I can’t work for ArbitrageX.”

“But why? Mark, you can’t quit. With mom’s funeral, we’re broke. I might even lose our house. I’m sorry but I really need your help.”

“Dad, you don’t understand!”

Mark’s dad looked at him. “I do. I know it’s a tough job. I can see the toll it’s taken on you and I’m so sorry to ask you for help, but I’m drowning.”
Mark looked down. “Okay, dad. Okay.”

A week later, Mark was at ArbitrageX in a big office, with a pretty secretary. He was living his dream. He was miserable. He never worked less than seventy hours a week. He didn’t have any time to go out with friends. He worked, ate fast food and slept a few hours before working again. He sent money to his dad every month but hardly ever actually talked to him. After six months, he even got a promotion and could send his dad more money. He bought the penthouse on Park Ave. that he and Greg had dreamt of. He couldn’t believe that was only a year and a half ago. Well, this is my life. Be careful what you wish for. He couldn’t see any way out.

Julia looked at her computer screen. The new intern had just sent her another name. MARK GRANT JOHNSON, 561 PARK AVE. Bone cancer.

Well now that’s a first, she thought, unlocking her drawer and pulling out her Gucci bag.