Richard felt very fortunate to have been granted the golden opportunity of an interview at Praseo.

His fiancée Helen wan’t the worrying type, wasn’t really the neurotic type. But the unexpected downsizing at Richard’s firm had caught their single income household by surprise. The young engineer had been unemployed for just over two months and his severance pay was dwindling rapidly. Also, there was a wedding in the works, not exactly a minor expenditure.

The morning of the interview, Helen and Richard went out to breakfast and chatted about the fantastic opportunity that had presented itself . Helen mentioned a figure she had heard bandied about. It was the starting salary of another engineer at Praseo, a spouse of a friend of a friend. “Well, alleged salary,” she specified. “You know how gossip is.” She smirked and Richard pointed out some egg goo above her pretty lips. They laughed.

Richard choked a little on his toast when Helen told him that. Had the toast been particularly dry? Or was it that somewhat stupefying figure Helen had just dropped? Praseo had hugely lucrative government contracts. Defense contractors for the military raked in big bucks. Everyone knew that.

Richard dropped Helen off at their split-level in the burbs. She gave him a kiss through the driver’s side window and showed him her crossed fingers. She gave his hair a last little mussing. She kissed him once more for luck. And then he was off.

Richard arrived half an hour early at Praseo Industries. The company occupied an imposing highrise in a quieter sector at the edge of what would be considered “downtown.”

Richard knew to expect a ridiculously high level of security. He stood on the sidewalk before the building, and saw the entire ground floor was a solid, featureless titanium wall. When he stepped forward and spoke into the intercom (which was nearly invisible at first) a voice answered him in synthesized speech.

“Good Day, Richard Ames,” the inhuman voice articulated. It was a woman’s voice. “Please step into the vestibule.” Two titanium panels separated left and right, and Richard stepped into the vestibule. Those panels closed behind him. He could still see nothing of the building itself, its interior, since another titanium wall was before him.

A scanning process began. He could hear the low hum. He had sent in the requisite photographs and even a requested biological sample. He knew Praseo used highly advanced identification techniques for their employees.

“Approved,” the human and inhuman voice said. “Proceed into the lobby.”

The titanium door before him slid to the left, taken into the wall, and Richard stepped into the lobby. It was a chamber with a lovely atmosphere. A Satie composition played quietly, subtly. Very tall palm trees nearly reached the high ceiling, planted in twin terrarium features on either side of the large room. There was the illusion of sunlight. Illusion because there were no skylights. But you felt as though you were experiencing actual sunlight. You looked up and there were “skylights” that seemed to show blue sky. The light felt like sunlight on the skin. But it wasn’t real. It was Praseo engineering magic.

There was not a single human being in the chamber. There was an information desk placed centrally, but Richard suspected it was only helmed on certain days, perhaps when representatives of the government or other corporations visited.

Richard heard the burble of the koi ponds and felt himself start to relax a bit. Any company that could create such a welcoming, dream-like atmosphere had to be a company with vision. He felt proud just being there, just for being considered.

“Proceed to elevator, please,” the artificial female voice said. He already felt he knew her. Though she did not exist.

As Richard stepped into the elevator, he noticed there were large iron rings protruding from three of its walls. The elevator doors closed and Richard prepared to speak his floor into the audio-tech sensor. But before he could do so, the female voice (he now thought of her as Rose,” for some odd reason) said, in the flattest tones, “Prepare for floor dismantle.”

As the elevator began rushing upwards, without any specification as to destination, the floor of the elevator began dropping out in phases. There were four quadrants collapsing downwards. Richard grabbed onto one of the large iron rings and was soon swinging over the void of the dark shaft as the elevator skyrocketed upwards. He tried to resist looking down but failed. He saw certain death below his dangling feet. While it might have taken just over a minute to reach his destination, it seemed an eternity. Rose announced, “74th floor. Interview with Mr. Gravesend.” The floor reassembled itself beneath his feet. But Richard didn’t want to let go of the iron ring. The elevator floor was no longer a friend he could trust.

He waited for the door to open, his emotions weirdly in check. His brain zapped that figure Helen had floated at breakfast back through his neurons as incentive. He waited some more for the door to open. Did Rose have a glitch? Finally, she spoke. He sensed that some sort of preparation behind the door had been taking place. He just knew this, courtesy of that sixth sense we all possess.

“When the doors open, find the high frequency whistle to control Rupert. The elevator floor will dismantle in fifteen seconds and the stability rings will be retracted. Please disembark the elevator now.”

What the fuck? And the doors did open. He stepped onto the drab grey carpet of a very long corridor. He was somewhere close to the middle of it. At the far end, he saw a very large dog sitting. The dog began running towards him immediately, growling savagely.

Richard ran and opened a door marked STAIRS directly before him. There was a brick wall behind it. A fine joke. The dog was halfway to him when he opened the next door on an empty office. He stepped inside and slammed the door. The voice spoke instantly, directly into the room. “You may not stay in any room. Gas will be released in fifteen seconds. Should you choose to remain in this room, you will wake up back in your car. In that case, you will never be employed by Praseo Industries. Or you may continue on to your interview in room 7752.” Rose fell silent.

He cursed himself as he grabbed a small metal chair for defense and stepped back into the corridor, determined to have his interview.

The dog was on him instantly, but he wielded the chair effectively. He saw the fangs covered in slather, and instinctively wanted to smash its skull in, silence its wild barking. He tried another door, randomly, not really thinking rationally, and saw a meeting in session. “Get the hell out of here!” the meeting leader said, and most of the other suits laughed. He stepped back into the corridor and slammed the door.

Richard hurried backwards down the corridor, keeping the chair between him and the maniac dog. He realized luck was on his side since the numbers on the doors were leading up to room 7752. He had gone the right direction when he stepped out of the elevator. But where the hell was the high frequency whistle? He passed a door that said simply “HELP” and realized that must be his target.

He opened the door and was surprised to see blue sky through the windows. There was no one there, but on a large executive style desk there was a whistle suspended in a little case. He grabbed it while still fending the pit bull off with the chair. He was bleeding now from one ankle where the dog had made a lucky grab. He blew the whistle. There was no sound. Well, there was no sound Richard’s ears could hear. But the pit bull instantly sat peacefully on its haunches and looked up at Richard expectantly. Almost like an innocent child.

Richard was trying to catch his breath. He refused to put down the chair, calm dog or not. He noticed then there was a set of headphones on the desk with a note attached which read, “PLAY ME.” He put them on and activated them. A real human voice, a man’s voice, addressed Richard now: “Congratulations! You are now ready to be interviewed for employment with Praseo Industries. Please continue on to Room 7752. No worries. No more tricks or tests. Oh, one last thing. Should you get the job, you simply have to kill your interviewer. Mr. Gravesend. There’s an ax located in his supplies closet. If he confirms your employment, kindly terminate him. We look forward to working with you at Praseo Industries.” The voice was gone. Muzak began playing softly in the headphones. He took them off.

Richard stepped out of the room and closed the door on the dog, who never stopped giving him a look that seemed to ask when they were going to play catch together.

He proceeded to room 7752 and knocked lightly at the door.

“Come in,” he heard from the other side. Once inside, an elderly man stood up to greet him warmly. It was like shaking the hand of one’s uncle, a genuinely warm and beneficent handshake.

And the interview went swimmingly.

At the conclusion, Mr. Gravesend smiled for a moment, his folded hands under his chin.

“You’re a keeper, Richard. Praseo wants you.”

Richard accepted the proffered hand. He looked at the liver spots on the hand. He saw how the hand was wrinkled, the skin so thin.

Richard looked at Mr. Gravesend’s kind, twinkly eyes. He looked at the door of the office supplies closet. His eyes went back to Mr. Gravesend. To the closet. To Mr. Gravesend.

“What?” Mr. Gravesend asked, befuddled, a wave of misgivings suddenly coming over him, now visibly present in his face as a deepening of the wrinkles.

______________________________________________

As Richard parked in front of his charming little house in the suburbs, he saw Helen waiting expectantly at the door. Her nervous smile. He knew she would love him either way. That’s what made it so wonderful.

“Oh my gosh, why are you in your gym clothes? What happened to your suit?” Helen wrinkled her nose in confusion as she opened the front door for him.

“I had a messy little accident. It was nothing.” Richard smiled. “Forget the suit. I never liked it anyway. Focus instead on the fact that you’re looking at the newest employee of Praseo Industries.”

“Well, let my throw these gold digging arms of mine around you, honey.” It was all a little party suddenly. A feast where there had been famine, mere hours before.

When she finally asked about the salary, they were both sitting on their living room sofa, holding hands like children. He whispered it in her ear, sexily.

She looked at him in a childlike way. It was much more than the alleged salary of the husband of the friend of the friend.

“And here’s the best part,” Richard continued. “They might have a job for you. On the fortieth floor, there’s an opening. And I think you’d be perfect for it. It fits your skillset to a T.”

“Really?” Helen shrilled. She was tickled. She had begun to feel guilty that she was really doing nothing with the education in which she had invested so much time and money. Guilty and stultified.

“Yes, hon, but they made me swear that I wouldn’t tell you anything about the Praseo interviewing process. And I won’t. You need to just mentally prepare as best you can. And, besides, they told me every interview is different. Just bring your best game. I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

Helen kissed him again. It wasn’t every man who would feel comfortable with his future wife working for the same company he did.

Richard was special like that: a real keeper.

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.