Daniel threw the mail on table by the door as he came in. “I’m home babe,” he called out as he took off his shoes.
“Hey good looking,” Alice said, coming over to kiss him. She picked up the mail. “Anything good?”
“Junk. How was your day?”
Alice did not answer. She was engrossed in a postcard-size, glossy mailout advertising a beauty seminar. Daniel had glanced at it while rifling through the mail downstairs, but hadn’t noticed anything that would warrant that kind of scrutiny. He went to the kitchen and got a beer from the fridge, cracking it open.
“So how was it babe?” he said, taking a long pull.
“How was what?” Alice said, in a distracted voice, still reading over the mailout.
“Oh, it was fine,” Alice said, setting down the mail and looking up at him to smile. “How was yours?”
Daniel shrugged and took another drink of beer. “Same old. What are you thinking for supper?”
After dinner, when Daniel went to put the mail in the recycling, he noticed the mailout was missing.
“You thinking of attending that seminar?” he said, when he came back into the apartment.
“The one from the mail. The one you were looking at.”
“Oh no,” Alice said, laughing. “I thought I recognized the name of the company. I think maybe a friend of mine works there. I was going to look it up.”
Daniel grunted in response and went to turn on the television. Alice watched him for a moment, biting her lip. When Daniel glanced up from the television she smiled and he smiled in turn.
Alice looked up at the building number to confirm she was in the right place. 1415, the reverse of the number on the mailout. And she was on 17th Street, not 71st Avenue. She had briefly been worried that Daniel would realize the address on the card was fake, there being no 71st Avenue in Calgary. He had definitely noticed her interest in it and had been curious about it. Fortunately he hadn’t pressed her on the matter.
The building was a small office tower filled with innocuous seeming businesses. Law and accounting firms. Counselling agencies. Financial advisors. And the LeBreton Beauty Seminar offices.
They were at the end of a long corridor, lined with a dark green carpet, and filled with closed doors, requiring keycard entry. There was nothing to distinguish any of them, except for the nameplates beside the doors. The carpet was soft and expensive and it hushed her footsteps, making her feel like she was in a library.
She knocked at the door and was received by an impossibly beautiful woman of glacial expressions, who looked Alice over as though she could not possibly belong in a place like this. Alice fished out the card she had received and handed it over.
“One moment please,” the woman said and retreated behind her desk. She murmured something into a phone, eyeing her computer screen. Glancing up, she gestured to Alice. “They’ll see you now.”
Alice proceeded past the front desk and some empty cubicles to a conference room at the back. It had been converted into an office with three work stations. There were two women there, busy at their computers. One looked up as Alice entered.
“You’re activated now,” she said, without any preamble.
Alice nodded, gulping at the air. The woman got up from her chair and passed her a piece of paper covered with typing. It had come from an ancient printer, a dot matrix, or something of that sort. She hadn’t even known those things existed anymore, or that you could get ink for them.
“You have to read it here,” the woman said, gesturing to the empty chair. “Once you’re done, return it to me.”
Alice sat down and read the document over quickly and then a second time more slowly, to take in all the details. When she was done she sighed and read it a third time, to make sure she had not missed anything. She handed it back to the woman who immediately slipped the paper into a shredder and handed her a small envelope.
“Don’t open it till later,” she said.
Alice left without saying anything. When she passed the front desk the receptionist was murmuring into the phone again. She watched Alice pass by, with the same guarded look and vacant eyes.
Alice did not return home that evening. She drove to the airport and put her car in longterm parking. From there she took a taxi to a nearby hotel, checking in for the night. She paid in cash, having already retrieved her alternate identification and travel necessities before going to the meeting that morning. She had hoped that she would be traveling somewhere far away—there was a chance then that she could come back and resume her old life. But there was no possibility of that now.
First, she opened the envelope and studied the business card within, flipping it from side to side as though it might reveal some deeper secrets. Next, she cut up her identification and thoroughly destroyed her phone and anything in her possession that might tie her to her life as Alice. As she did so, she thought of Daniel and about the life she was abandoning. She had always known this day would come. And now it was here. It would be worth it, she told herself. She was a part of a greater whole.
The next day she checked out of her hotel and caught an airport shuttle back to the airport. From there she took transit back to downtown, after picking up a burner phone, not far from where she lived. Had lived, she had to remind herself.
She made her way to a coffee shop and ordered a flat white and sat down to wait, taking care to note everyone who entered as she pretended to peruse her phone. An older man with close-cropped grey hair, a simmering handsomeness and a barely contained physicality entered, glancing about the room. She felt her heart sink a little, though she couldn’t have said why. Her initial impression proved correct as he came over to sit across from her.
“I thought I recognized you,” he said. “Ana, right?”
She smiled in turn. “Yes. Darryl? From Treehorn?”
“Yeah. How’s the conference services world?” Darryl said, sitting across from her.
“Busy, always busy. Have to keep those clients happy,” she said, waving her hand at her cell phone.
“Doing any work with anyone I know?” he said. He had contrived to sit at an angle so that he too could see everyone coming and going from the cafe. No one was paying any attention to them. Why would they? Even Alice was bored by this conversation, whose hidden imports she understood.
“Do you know Technique Finances? Gerald McCarthur? LeBreton connected me with him. He’s doing a lot of stuff in your line of work. He’s in town this week for a payroll systems conference. Might be worth trying to connect with him.”
“You have his phone number?”
“I have his card I think,” Alice said, reaching into her purse and pulling out the card from the envelope. She passed it across to him, their fingers touching briefly.
“Thanks, I’ll give him a call today,” Darryl said. He was already standing as he spoke, his eyes staring past her, already on to the next thing.
Alice watched him as he went to order a coffee and left, without glancing in her direction again. He got into a dark sports car and drove away. Alice stared out the window long after he had gone. She needed to be going herself, she knew, but for some reason she could not find the energy. If she started walking now, she could be home in twenty minutes. Walk back into her life, as though she had never left it.
That wasn’t possible though. She took a sip of her coffee and found that it was cold. She left it on the table and walked out of the cafe, starting down the street.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
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