In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It remains a seminal work of conspiracy fiction. Today, The Omnivore continues a serial-fiction experiment: Illuminoimia.
Everything You're Afraid Of Is True.
Previously On Illuminoimia
Chapter 5: The Nicest Man In The World
North America, Present Day
The Old Man is in Florida, thinks the guy who is Next In Line. He’s dying there--finally allowed to pass on--fat and happy and surrounded by children and grandchildren and nurses. The Old man's tenure at The Firm--as well as his life--is ending and soon, very soon, Next In Line will get the call--or more properly the message--from The Nicest Man In The World. Then he will be in charge and things will begin ... again.
It is everything he thought he ever wanted--and he is dreading it.
Forty years ago, when Next In Line was fresh and clean and ambitious and angry (even though he’d never admit that even to himself) he had met the Nicest Man In The World. Next In Line (who we will call Hal, as it is his name) was an up and comer in the world of advertising. He was smart and ambitious and, well, handsome enough. He hadn’t known the phrase “the world is your oyster” had come from Shakespeare but he understood it well enough--and was naive enough--to think it was true.
That was when he had been introduced to the Nicest Man In The World. The NMITW had come out from behind a magnificent desk in an amazing office and sat next to Hal on a glorious sofa. They had talked and laughed over delicious coffee brought by a uniquely gorgeous (and clearly fuckable) young lady who was surprisingly convincing that she was Glad To See Hal--even when he was sitting next to the Nicest Man In The World.
The Nicest Man In The World was not rich--he was, Hal thought, groping for the word--above that--whatever came after rich. If this had happened decades later he might have thought of ‘Ultra Rich’--or ‘Uber Rich’--or maybe the point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one-percent. But he looked at the Nicest Man In The World, with his bespoke suit and his enigmatic gold ring, and his perfect leather shoes and the ease and, could he say it, humility? With which this man inhabited them and he knew the man was above mere money.
The Nicest Man In The World wanted to be Hal’s friend. The Nicest Man In The World had gifts to bestow--for his friends--and they were there for the taking. The very first was an excellent job--with no interview: the talk over coffee was the interview.
The Nicest Man In The World told Hal something before he left to go to another building to look at his new office--it was kind of somber: “You can take the job Hal--I like you and it’s yours to pluck--but just know this--some doors don’t swing both ways. The job’s yours as long as you want it--but if you leave it I’m pretty sure no other job will ever measure up. Once you go through that door, there’s no going back.”
The idea that a job so good that everything else paled by comparison could be a downside was almost insulting to Hal. If the man giving to him hadn’t been so nice and so generous he might even have said something smart-alecky. As it was, he took the job without hesitation and set about finding a secretary one tenth as fuckable as the Nicest Man In The World’s.
When he next saw the NMITW--who was some kind of board of director--or owner (despite his young age)--of The Firm--it was almost a decade later and Hal was ready to move up. He handled accounts for clients big and small. He had handled accounts for actors and actresses. He had been to parties where he had witnessed scandalous behavior and, on more than one occasion been asked about it by his friends--the press--and even his former secretary (now his wife). He’d kept his mouth shut. At the age of thirty he was still a go-getter.
Once again, he was struck by the intense humility of the Nicest Man In The World. Again the man came around his desk as he entered the room (no waiting!) and gripped his hand and smiled his brilliant smile (had he aged? Not much) and sat him down and asked about his wife and his children and everything as though they had met yesterday despite so much time having passed.
The Nicest Man In The World really liked him--and he had, after all, made him. The next step up, said the NMITW was waiting for him: if he wanted it. The offer wasn’t that of a used car salesman--it was a little somber--it was just a touch sad--and it was incredibly sincere.
“You said any job would be a downgrade,” joke Hal. He was excited and nervous--but he felt he could say anything to this guy--maybe now--after the coming step up--they’d go to the same country club.
“I know,” said the Nicest Man In The World, “and I’m sorry, Hal--I wasn’t lying: it will be. Lots more money--more perks. Some good travel--you’ll love Bern--take the whole family--but I am not lying when I tell you that it won’t be as … I don’t know--innocent? As care-free? The next step up--these are big steps Hal. Are you sure you’re ready?”
Hal was. He was certain. There was no way he’d turn this down--and wasn’t his cadillac a little on the older side? And Courtney wanted another baby and that meant the need for more house too … and maybe a cook as well as a nanny? There was not a moment--not a nanosecond--that Hal entertained saying “No.”
“Okay, Hal--I’m very proud of you--” and somehow that meant more than his dad saying it--the few times he’d said it--before passing on--”But just be sure. Once you take this job there are certain pieces of sensitive data that we share. Things you sign--stuff you can never talk about. It’s part of being in a very special club and while I’m not allowed to tell you everything I can tell you that once you go through that door there’s no going back.”
In this case the door was a real physical door. It was unmarked and although of quality build unremarkable. Hal stood, brushed at his pants--it wouldn’t do to look too eager--shook the man’s hand--and strode to the door.
“I’m ready,” he assured the Nicest Man In The World.
“Of course you are,” said the man.
The door led to the Training Assignment Office. Hal noted that, when he went through, the door automatically locked from the other side (panic? No--there was a room with another easy exit back to the offices--it was no trap). But it clicked shut and he tried the knob--very, very gently--and it didn’t move--like it was set in stone.
Now he was part of a department in ‘Creative.’ The Firm worked with artists of all levels. They co-produced work, commissioned pieces (it was the Italian Model, they said--the Renaissance had worked that way) and even helped make commercials, blockbuster movies, and live shows. They sat on the board of many of the Madison Avenue companies Hal had worked with and when ‘Creative’ got involved it was to do a kind of “product placement” that was so deep under the covers it might be said to be subliminal.
A new soft drink was coming out in the summer: they put the tune for the jingle into a big movie coming out on Christmas. They worked with an ex-bookmaker genius and they got people placed with the sports teams they thought would do well--and identified people who would do image management for the up and coming star players--so they had input on the designs of clothing lines and endorsement strategies. Often the ideas they were “planting” had nothing to do with the star at all--they were related to something entirely different and were just meant to subtly remind the fans of this other thing--the thing ‘Creative’ was really promoting.
It wasn’t even the image manager that knew about Hal or his team--there was a go-between in there: someone they trusted in the industry--someone they went to periodically. That person was on ‘Creatives’ payroll.
Once in awhile they would even write songs for singers who had others do that. How exactly ‘Creative’ got the lyrics (which he only ever understood after they were explained) into the hands of the songwriters the musicians trusted, he was never certain. There was an invisible art at work and Hal only saw portions of it. It was like a giant transparent spider web of meaning he was working to weave through the world.
He had his new house. He got three new cars (one for the nanny--why not). He got his daughter. They summered in Bern Switzerland (which The Firm liked--and had offices there) and although Hal sometimes marveled at his good fortune he had to admit the Nicest Man In The World was right: the job was stressful. Getting the little implants from ‘Creative’ just right--just so that they matched “the message”--was tricky. The clients were all anonymous--the requests came through ‘Handling’ which masked whatever was really wanted and were delivered in the forms of adjectives and nouns which seemed almost random. The drive for perfection … was severe.
The Firm didn’t lay people off--but if you weren’t performing it didn’t look so good at the annual Christmas party--did it? And he didn’t want to let the man down.
It was almost a decade later and everything was roaring again when he was summoned to an entirely new building with a view of the sun blazing off the mirrored walls of the skyscraper and he, again, had a sitdown with the Nicest Man In The World.
The man was still young--strong--athletic in a way that even Hal (who worked out regularly and ate pretty good--he had a cook after all)--was not. The man was still smiling and friendly but now Hal could see how easily the Nicest Man In The World came down to his level. How effortlessly he stooped to sit with Hal to pretend to be his equal.
Now the man’s quick, light banter--inquiries about family and friends and the job--didn’t feel quite so entrancing. Oh, sure, if you thought about it, reasoned Hal, it was clearly the old salesman’s trick of looking up his client in the index cards to re-familiarize himself with the basics (wife’s name, kid’s names and birthdays, favorite sports team--How About Them Mets!?) but when Hal thought about it harder that wasn’t what it quite felt like. It felt that instead of taking some time to re-learn the basics, the Nicest Man In The World held a vast reservoir of knowledge about Hal’s life. The friendly touch to the shoulder--that was intimate in a way that the mere physicality of it was not. This was a man who knew Hal inside and out. This was a man who knew everything.
“We have an opening,” The Nicest Man In The World said.
“I figured--if I’m here.” Hal had, in his second decade given up on joining the country club with the Nicest Man In The World. He wasn’t sure where that country club was--but he had gotten the picture he was never going to see it.
“I wish I had more time for you,” said the man. “I’m really impressed. You’ve done even better than I expected: and I thought I knew what you were capable of.”
Hal smiled at that--sincerely. It felt like sunshine.
“Are you ready for the next step?” Asked the man.
“There’s no going back is there?” Asked Hal.
“I’m afraid not,” said the man. “You don’t have to go. You really don’t.”
Hal did not waver though: he didn’t want to disappoint the man--but, even moreso, the idea that he had surprised this man--this man who had everything Hal wanted--could ever want--felt like power. It felt like maybe he had a piece to play here. Maybe he could cover this step and … make the next one?
He pretended to think about it.
“Where’s the door?”
“It isn’t here. East side. A car will take you.”
Hal stood. He thought of something then--and he wasn’t sure why. “Can I call my wife?”
The man shook his head: “Call her after--and Hal … good luck.” His smile was firm--reassuring--encouraging.
Hal left the office and took the elevator down. His heart was pounding. He’d been in high stakes meetings. He’d stared down representatives for unhappy clients, met tortuous deadlines, and out maneuvered some of his office mates who were all, if you put it that way, pretty heavy hitters themselves. He didn’t know why he felt so fearful now. It was the next step up. What was wrong with that?
The building was old--there were weeds. The windows had bars.
“This can’t be right,” Hal told his driver. “It looks condemned.”
“It’s the place,” said the man, dully. “Inside and up to the 3rd floor. I was told the elevator works and this is the key. That’s all I know.”
Hal was sure that was the truth. The key turned in the lock effortlessly--it was new and heavy and oiled. One of those ‘unpickable’ security locks. The floor was dirty but the elevator had been cleaned and ran quietly and smoothly.
At the top was a hall but there was one door was opened and by it stood two morons, a stack of bricks, and a wheelbarrow full of fresh cement. The morons--you could look at them and tell they weren’t right--overalls and blue shirts--caps with no particular color--held trowels. They had stupid, half-vacant smiles and blunt looking faces.
“Hello sir! Hello,” they said, bobbing excitedly. “We were waiting on you.” Hal looked at them--their gloved hands--their bad grammar. “You go inside.”
He nodded--he didn’t shake. It wouldn’t be right to. He saw what was coming: I’ll go inside and then they’ll brick the door up. He felt cold and he needed to go to the bathroom. He did not want to do this--their dull eyes and sloppy grins--it was too much. He’d go down and get back in the car, he thought: fuck this--he was NOT being walled up inside some deserted building.
He stepped past them and went in. If there wasn’t another way out he wasn’t going through with this.
There was another door to a stairwell leading down. In the center of the room was an old TV and a VCR on a cheap metal stand. There was a small wooden chair--like a school-child’s chair--in front of it. Next to the metal stand someone had left a plastic bucket--maybe from cleaning the room. A typed sheet of paper said “Watch All Of It.” The tape stuck halfway out like a tongue. Everything was plugged in and turned on. Static played silently on the screen.
Hal inhaled. He pulled the door to and heard the men move. They were walling it up: laying bricks and concrete. The first door had locked, he thought--although really the first door had just been some advice --this door now: once it was bricked up, that was that.
He knew the Nicest Man In The World was making a point and he didn’t quite like it. This was going further than was necessary, he thought. The man may be one of the owners. He is certainly incredibly, incredibly rich--but this is unnecessary. We are both men and we have both seen the world and I will tell him when I see him next--whenever that is--that I do NOT appreciate this. He would do that--politely--he would let the Nicest Man In The World know that he was an equal in a way--in his way--as a fellow man. He promised himself this.
The bucket was not left by a cleaning lady. It was for him to throw up in.
YOU CAN DIE FROM A BROKEN HEART. The words appeared in white block letters on the black screen. There was a room--a girl--a woman--maybe in her late 40’s--in a straightjacket looking up at the camera--so thin--so forlorn--so broken--her eyes huge with misery. There was one of those monitor lines--scratchy--her heartbeat--irregular--at the bottom of the screen. She moaned wordlessly (and soundlessly)--her eyes flickered with a terrible finality and she slumped. They were still open.
Words appeared. She was survived by her loving husband. A man named Manuel.
YOU CAN DIE FROM A BROKEN PROMISE. The words floated up. Hal was horrified by what he had just seen. He did not understand it at all. It simply could not be real. A young man stood in what was clearly a darkened room. He might be a college student. He looked up--saying something unheard to people unseen somewhere outside the room. He looked composed and reasonable as he talked--and then there was gas from the ceiling. Vapor. He coughed and then went to the floor. He desperately opened his collar trying to breathe better and then curled up hands bent inwards clutching at nothing and convulsed. The heart monitor ended. The words appeared. He was survived by a loving father and mother: Veronica and Edward.
YOU CAN DIE FROM SOMEONE TELLING SECRETS. He looked at the screen. And there it was: The Nicest Man In The World--and--and he was at the school where Courtney took the kids. There was Courtney and the children. They didn’t see the golden-haired man--but the camera--a hand-held job from the look of it--followed him there as he walked behind Hal’s family--practically glowing--a smile for everyone he passed. A look at the camera--into Hal’s eyes.
WE CAN TAKE THEM AWAY.
The monitor lines at the bottom of the screen, when the camera focused on his wife, had been her steady heartbeat. When the camera shifted focus, though, it was faster. It was measuring each of the children’s.
The television made a sound then--the same static burst that accompanied the Emergency Broadcast Attention Signal, a combination of the sine waves of 853 and 960 Hz, designed to shock the human ear. Hal was shaken, reeling. What appeared on the screen was worse.
It was a man--or had once been--naked with paper like ash. He--it--was clearly dead: eyes open, mouth a distended scream missing most of its teeth, fingers curled. Parts of the body had sunken in already. It lay on metal and there was a stained concrete floor visible. The metal was machine-stamped and unyielding. The edges were unfinished and sharp. It was a chamber without any sense of mercy or comfort whatsoever.
The head of the man had been opened and funnels and wires entered it. An oxygenated blood red fluid poured from tanks into the subject’s skull and vented through tubes at the bottom. A monitor--a medical device--but covered with stains and mold showed visible waves of some sort coiling across its surface.
YOU CAN SUFFER AFTER DEATH
Hal threw up into the bucket. Hal fled from the room--down the stairs. The door opened. On the street the car was waiting. Running. He got in.
He knew that if he ever saw The Nicest Man In The World again he would not tell him he didn’t appreciate the the way the job was offered. He wouldn’t tell him anything at all. He could see what the man was now--even just a tiny little glimpse of it--and he was glad--so glad--he could not see the rest.
Now, it was the end of one regime and the beginning of the next. Of his. He looked at his phone. The message had come through: a time--a time of death. The Old Man had passed away and now Hal was in charge of ‘Events.’ He no longer inserted tunes for jingles for soft drinks that would come out next summer. He no longer tracked sports heroes. Now he put out images that appeared in world events in the coming weeks, months or years. Now he tracked politicians when he was told to. He knew about wars before they happened. He knew about disasters when they were first envisioned--and planned.
Now they worked with a different ‘Creative’ when they got their orders to put situations into TV shows that parodied tragedies on the news. Now they put together songs where the messages--even more deeply encoded--were strange and numbing. There were the Memento Mori’s--subtle reminders of one’s mortality that they sprinkled through everything. There were All Seeing Eyes and Panopticons--constant reminders that everyone was being watched by someone. There were obelisks and winged-suns. There was a deep language to the iconography that he did not understand even though he often dreamed about it.
There were scenarios that they played out in science fiction movies that would somehow echo what was coming in real life. He knew, with a dread certainty, what would appear on the news before it happened. He told no one: His children were still young.
He rode the elevator down. The building had been made forty years ago and the Old Man told him that they had brought in three different contractors--the last being the “special ones”--so that no one had the full picture. The top offices were owned by The Firm. The middle ones were high security financial companies, and then below the surface by a special elevator, The Vault.
Their orders didn’t come from computers, The Firm didn’t like computers. They came by courier. They were hand delivered in cases designed to destroy the contents if they were opened improperly. The messengers came during the day--during times of heavy traffic. They never spoke. That was how Hal and the Old Man got most of their orders--but not all. There were a few orders that the Nicest Man In The World and whoever he worked with had prepared a long time ago--they were down in the Vault. They did not travel.
The basement had a lock for which the Old Man had given him a key. It had a number pad which required both a secret code (the Old Man had given it to him) and his personal code--which worked.
Inside there was a massive, heavy metal safe door. Hal ignored it: there was only death behind it. He went to the wall and and made the sign. The panel--invisible until the small camera saw what it wanted--opened and he turned the dials there.
The safe opened, revealing padded benches with scrolls in plastic tubes and translucent folders in reds and greens. There was a second safe within and he opened that one too. Inside this last door, surrounded by thermite and chemical sprays, were a small number of red clear-plastic envelopes. Opening them destroyed the cellophane. They were irreversible: once opened, they could not be placed back. Another of those doors.
He took the one the message had come for and, in view of the camera, closed the safe and sat on the floor and looked at it. He would read it here and it would decay quickly: it would never survive to see the upper world. He would memorize it--and then he would go about “loading the Message” into the world’s collective consciousness.
When he read what was written on the paper he felt pale and sick and very small. Hal at first began to tremble.
Then he let out a soft, despairing moan.
Continue to Chapter 6: The Black Magician