Phantom View

By Ben James

As Sam waited for an elevator, he admired the lobby of the skyscraper that housed the SCZ Group’s headquarters. He’d been in ritzy Manhattan office buildings before, but this space seemed particularly elegant, and slightly intimidating. Anxiety overtook him as he studied the vaulted ceiling and immaculate marble walls. He suspected that the sweltering subway ride down from the Bronx had left the back of his shirt dappled with temporary sweat stains.

An assertive “ding” rang out and a set of elevator doors parted, revealing a black-clad attendant.

“What floor, sir?” the attendant inquired.

“I’m looking for the SCZ Group,” Sam replied, stepping into the elevator car.

The attendant pushed a button and they drifted up. About thirty seconds later they stopped. Sam stepped out into a long hallway. The elevator doors closed behind him before he could ask for directions.

Gray metal doors lined the corridor. Flimsy gray carpeting stretched between white walls. Sam began walking, turned a corner and discovered an identical gray-and-white expanse. He kept moving and eventually rounded another corner. He sighed with relief when he noticed the letters “SCZ” printed on one of the doors.

He knocked gently, then pushed the door open. He found a waiting room where rows of plastic chairs faced a desk with a dark-haired receptionist sitting behind it. She threw Sam a perfunctory smile.

“The temp agency sent me?” he said.

“Please have a seat and help yourself to a drink,” she said, motioning toward a water cooler. “I know how hot it is.”

“Thank you,” Sam replied. He pulled a paper cup from a tube attached to one side of the water tank, filled it and drained it in one gulp. He refilled the cup and sat down. The receptionist left the waiting room, exiting through a side door Sam guessed led to deeper recesses of the SCZ suite.

Sam mused on what this new job might entail. Most temp agency gigs involved monotonous crap like stuffing envelopes or filing. But the SCZ assignment might be different, he reasoned, since it came with an unusually high $19 hourly pay rate.

When Sam finished his water, he crushed the cup and tossed it into a nearby wastebasket. The receptionist returned, accompanied by a tall blond man in a gray suit. Sam stood when the duo approached. The blond man gave him a strong handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Sam,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Call me Cliff.”

“This is Mr. Regatta,” the beautiful receptionist said in a way that made Sam think she saw Cliff’s familiar tone with him as an undeserved reward.

“Nice to meet you as well,” Sam told Cliff.

Cliff stuck his hands in his hip pockets and straightened his arms, which made his prominent shoulders jut out further. “I’ve been reading your resume,” he said, looking at the floor and shuffling absentmindedly to his right as he spoke. Sam nodded.

“I think you’re a very interesting young man,” Cliff continued. As he said “young man,” he raised his voice an octave. Sam threw a furtive glance at the receptionist, who seemed perturbed about something but not surprised by Cliff’s intonation.

“Thanks,” Sam responded.

“You’re quite welcome,” Cliff said. “Come back to my office and let’s have a chat.”

“Sounds good,” Sam replied. Cliff headed toward the side door. Sam followed, but after two steps shot a glance back at the chair where he’d been sitting. Horror paralyzed him.

He’d befouled the seat with a brown stain. A revolting blotch festered right where his butt had rested. He quickly inspected himself. His pants, front and back, were clean and dry.

“Coming?” Cliff said. Sam forced himself to face Cliff and the receptionist, neither of whom could possibly miss the shameful blemish. Embarrassment overwhelmed him; frustration pushed him nearly to tears. His struggle to survive would be thwarted by this bizarre snafu, he assumed. Not only would he lose the SCZ job, but when the temp agency heard about this, they’d certainly stop finding him work.

“I’m sorry,” was all Sam could say.

“Sorry about what?” Cliff said, without any anger or disgust. The receptionist also seemed unfazed.

“They can’t see it,” Sam thought.

“Sorry I’m not walking faster,” Sam said.

Cliff led Sam out of the waiting room and to a small office, which, though somewhat cramped, offered an impressive view of the nearby Chrysler Building. The blond man settled into a high-backed chair behind his desk. Sam gingerly took a seat facing him.

“I think we can help each other,” Cliff began.

“Excellent,” Sam said. “What exactly does SCZ do?”

“Have you ever heard of Feed the Future Inc.?” Cliff asked.

“Yes,” Sam responded. “They provide nutritious meals through the mail for people in low-income neighborhoods, right? It’s a non-profit funded by health insurers who think they’ll save money in the long run if they invest in getting people to eat healthier. Are FTF and SCZ somehow affiliated?”

“Sam, you’re very well-informed,” Cliff said. “Tell me, have you tried any of FTF’s food?”

“Actually, I have,” Sam said. “The part of the Bronx I live in is up-and-coming. They’ve been sending me stuff for a couple weeks.”

“And you’ve actually been eating it?” Cliff wanted to know. “This morning, too?”

“Yeah, I eat most of what they send me,” Sam replied.

“Run auditory hallucination script,” Cliff said.

“What?” Sam asked. Cliff’s only response was a frigid smile. Sam heard someone whisper his name. He looked for the source but couldn’t find it. He heard another whisper, then another. Soon he was listening to a seething mess of whispers. Sam rubbed his forehead and leaned forward.

“Amazing,” Cliff said. “End script.” The whispers stopped and Sam sat up straight.

“What was that?” he asked Cliff.

“What was what?” Cliff said. Not eager to admit hearing voices during a job interview, Sam let it go.

“Let’s discuss your resume a bit,” Cliff said. “It says you spent two years at Charnwood College. That’s a good school!”

“Yeah, expensive too,” Sam said.

Cliff loosed a high-pitched coo from the back of his throat that fell in pitch as he ran out of breath. After listening to a few falsetto howls, Sam realized this was how Cliff expressed amusement.

“You’re not going back?” Cliff asked when done laughing.

“Not this fall,” Sam said. “I need a break from college life.” He neglected to mention that he’d been expelled for selling LSD.

“I’ll bet you took on quite a bit of debt. Probably seems like more than you could ever pay off,” Cliff said, smiling as if Sam’s predicament amused him.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Sam said. “That’s why I’m hoping to catch on with an outfit like SCZ and work my way up.”

Cliff emitted another weird laugh.

“You’ve got SCZ written all over you, Sam,” he said. “I guess the only question is whether you’re willing to perform the task we need done.”

“Oh, I am,” Sam proclaimed. There wasn’t much he’d refuse to do for $19 an hour.

“Outstanding,” Cliff said.

The blond man extracted a ring of keys and a bulky leather pouch from one of his desk drawers. He stood, pocketed the keys and tucked the pouch under his left arm.

“You’ll be in a different office,” he informed Sam. “Let’s get you set up.”

“Sounds good,” said Sam. “What exactly will I be doing?”

“I’ll explain when we get there,” responded Cliff, who had already moved to the doorway and paused, waiting for Sam. When Sam reluctantly rose he saw he’d left another gruesome stain, and braced for Cliff’s wrath. But the blond man smiled. Nothing was wrong. They left the office walking side-by-side.

“Do you like politics?” Cliff inquired.

“Not really,” Sam responded.

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Cliff said.

They reached the end of the hallway and turned left. At the end of that hallway, they turned right. Then another left. Finally, Cliff stopped and unlocked one of the doors.

They entered a large office, where posters and leaflets featuring a young firebrand Congresswoman covered the walls. A chest-high stack of file boxes stood on one side of the door they’d come through, and on the other side was a closet. A conference table, surrounded by chairs, dominated the center of the room.

“What do you think of her?” Cliff asked, pointing at the political paraphernalia.

“She’s alright, I guess,” Sam said. “It’s nice to see some fresh faces on Capitol Hill, even if I don’t agree with everything they say.”

“Wrong,” Cliff said. “She’s a vampire. Her so-called progressive politics are a Trojan horse for Communism. She’s trying to destroy America from within, just like Khrushchev said they would.”

“You got a job for me or what?” Sam demanded to know.

“Oh yeah, I have a job for you,” Cliff answered. He set the leather pouch he’d been carrying on the table, unzipped it and took out a .45 caliber pistol. Both men stared at it for a moment.

“You know what this is, of course,” Cliff said, and he was right. Sam had been infatuated with the Colt M1911 since he was a little boy, when he’d discovered an encyclopedia entry with a “phantom view” diagram that detailed the gun’s inner workings. The weapon was a cultural icon, carried by all America’s toughest G-men and GIs.

“Can I hold it?” Sam asked.

“Sure, get familiar with it,” Cliff said, handing the gun over.

Sam immediately noticed its weight. Even if it wouldn’t fire it could still do damage. He imagined using it to smash Cliff’s craggy features.

“How did you know I had a Colt .45 fetish?” Sam inquired.

“The background checks we run on prospective employees are quite thorough, and include Internet search history,” Cliff replied.

“Is that legal?” Sam asked

“It is if you sign a waiver like you did at the staffing agency, which, by the way, is a subsidiary of SCZ,” Cliff said.

“Oh,” Sam said

“Let’s get down to business,” Cliff suggested. He turned two chairs so they faced each other and sat, motioning for Sam to do the same.

“Fine,” Sam said. He put the gun on the table, sat down and clasped his hands in his lap.

“It’s loaded, in case you’re curious,” Cliff said. “There’s even a round in the chamber.”

“It felt loaded,” Sam said.

“Later today, you’re going to use it to kill her,” Cliff stated, waving his hand to indicate the young politician the room was devoted to.

“No,” Sam said. “I can’t do that.”

“You can and you will,” Cliff insisted.“I’m not here to play games,” Sam said.

“I’m here to work and get paid.”

“You will get paid,” Cliff said. “All your debt can vanish. And when you get paroled, you’ll be set up with a comfortable life.”

“I’m going to leave now,” Sam said.

“Run headache script,” Cliff said.

Sam felt spikes piercing his eyes and temples. He let out a strangled whine that resembled Cliff’s laugh.

“End script,” the man in the suit said. The pain evaporated, leaving Sam with mild vertigo.

“What was that?” Sam asked.

“That was you realizing you’re going to do exactly what I tell you to,” Cliff said.

Sam darted out of the room. All he had to do to complete his escape was find stairs or the elevator. He walked to the end of the hall and took a right. He started jogging.

When he turned the next corner the sight of another indistinguishable hallway set the world spinning. He leaned against the wall. He looked at his phone. He couldn’t make calls and had no Internet access. He started walking again, trying random doors: all locked. He rounded yet another corner and saw a door ajar. His heart sank when he realized it led into the room he’d fled.

“Why don’t you come back and sit down?” Cliff called out.

Sam poked his head through the doorway and said “Tell me how to get out of here.”

“I already did,” Cliff replied. “You’ll spend several years in prison, no way around that. But think about who you’ll be doing a favor for. For powerful people like that, getting you out of jail and setting you up with a lucrative, do-nothing job won’t be a big challenge, particularly if you’re willing to give them a little time.”

“This is crazy,” Sam said.

“No, it’s not,” Cliff said. “A lot of assassins are recruited from temp agencies. SCZ’s West Coast affiliate got Sirhan Sirhan a job at a health food store before he did his thing. And how do you think Lee Harvey Oswald ended up working at the book depository?”

“I’m not killing anybody,” Sam said.

“I know it seems drastic,” Cliff said. “But doing nothing has consequences too. Come on in. Sit back down.”

Sam rolled his eyes. He had no other options. He returned to the chair he’d previously occupied and sat on an arguably invisible stain.

“Why me?” Sam asked Cliff. “Why are you asking me, in particular, to do this?”

“You’re bitter because you can’t earn a living that’s commensurate with your generous view of your own intelligence,” the blond man responded. “You’re unable to establish or maintain meaningful relationships due to your sordid family history and penchant for drug use. That lack of connection with other people makes your life unbearable, and the notoriety you’ll get from committing a political assassination will bolster your grandiose self-image. You are the perfect triggerman. That’s why I’m asking you.”

“You don’t know what I could achieve,” Sam countered. “I’m unique.”

“No, you’re not,” Cliff said. “You’re an archetype created by economic and social forces set in motion well before you were born. You are every basic white boy. And I know you think you’re special. You think someday you’ll start a company, or write a novel, and that will redefine you. But Sam, that’s what every basic white boy thinks!”

“I’m not killing anybody,” Sam said again. Cliff sighed.

“Just take the gun and wait in the closet,” the blond man said. “The Congresswoman will be here later with one of her communications people. When you hear voices, step up and do your duty.”

Sam shook his head.

“OK, I’ll make it simple,” Cliff said. “You do your duty, or I’ll make sure everyone can see the stains.”

“What stains?” Sam said with fake nonchalance.

“Oh please,” Cliff scoffed. “Imagine when social media gets hold of that? You’ll be infamous. I wonder what nickname they’ll give you. Shitty Sam? Swamp Ass Sam? Maybe just Swamp Ass. Prepare to be humiliated worse than you ever thought possible, Swamp Ass. Oh, and have fun finding work.”

Sam shook his head in protest and looked down at the floor. He noticed that the gray carpet was surprisingly cheap and thin. It had a waxy, rough texture and didn’t adhere well to the floor. In several spots around the room, it bunched up into tiny hills.

“I’m not killing anybody,” Sam reiterated, standing to reenter the hallway maze. “I’ll find my own way out.”

“Run shame script,” Cliff said as Sam moved toward the door.

A plume of guilt and self-hate blossomed in Sam’s brain. He envisioned the rest of his life laid out in front of him, unbearable seconds stacked into tedious minutes piled into pointless years. He heard death’s sweet voice begging him to erase himself. Sam unsuccessfully tried to open the room’s two windows. They were ten floors up. He grabbed a chair by the armrests, preparing to hurl it through a window and follow it out.

“Whoa, whoa, OK,” Cliff said. “End script end script end script. Jesus.”

Mind reeling, Sam sat in the chair he’d been about to throw. He wasn’t sure if his brain was drifting back toward normalcy or if Cliff had permanently damaged him. The blond man put the .45 in Sam’s lap and began pushing the chair, which was on rollers, toward the closet. Before Sam could object, he was in the dark little box and Cliff had closed the door.

The closet was not a closet, but a remote viewing portal that allowed Sam to travel through time and observe events all over the globe. Being new to omniscience, he started off small, recalling things from his own life. He jumped back ten years and watched his father dropping news of his parents’ imminent divorce at a family meeting around the dining room table, surprising everyone, including his mother. Sam’s younger sister sat on their father’s lap, crying. Sam’s mom begged his father to stay. Sam, who’d quickly realized his dad’s mind was made up, swallowed his rage and didn’t bother protesting.

Cliff had been right about Sam’s family history—specifically, the dissolution of his immediate family unit—ruining his ability to forge interpersonal connections. Several years after abandoning Sam’s mother, his father split with a second wife, who was terminally ill at the time. That left Sam estranged from a stepbrother and two stepsisters, to whom he’d grown close. And it drove home a hard truth about relationships: they are always ephemeral, no matter how badly you want to believe otherwise.

Fast-forward, almost to the present. He remembered holding his mother’s hand, which felt so frail the slightest squeeze might crumple it like paper. Days after that she died, having endured cancer without complaining at all. After her death he realized how much she’d suffered throughout her life, not just during her illness, but before, and she never let on, a prophylactic move to shield him and his sister from her pain. Her toughness awed him. He wished he’d recognized it sooner.

Sam then began making better use of the closet’s powers. He conjured up that infamous day: November 22, 1963. He hovered over Dealey Plaza and watched the assassination play out. He realized that Oswald, and only Oswald, had shot and killed the president.

Dissatisfied with the simple truth, Sam ran time back 20 minutes and zoomed in on Oswald reading a newspaper in a second-floor break room. A chubby man dressed like middle management approached Oswald and said something that made him scowl and fold up his paper. When Cliff mentioned Oswald earlier, Sam hadn’t taken him seriously, but now it dawned on him that Oswald had actually been a temp worker.

Sam watched Oswald walk up to the sixth floor and meet a tall man in a suit among stacks of cardboard boxes. The man in the suit had used two boxes to create a makeshift table, on which he’d laid a long, slim leather bag. Sam watched with a mixture of fascination and revulsion as the well-dressed man browbeat the money-starved worker. Oswald shook his head in protest; he appeared to be on the verge of tears. The man in the suit unzipped the bag and lifted one end up, so the rifle slid out without him having to touch it. Oswald stared off into space, as if he were trying to mentally escape. The man in the suit yelled at him some more.

Eventually, Oswald picked up the rifle. He walked over to a window and opened it. He set down the gun and stacked up few boxes in front of the sill. He picked the rifle back up and leaned on those boxes. He squinted through the gun’s telescopic sight, trying to calculate the distance between his perch and the street below. Absorbed by range calculations, the ex-Marine didn’t notice the man in the suit leaving with the empty rifle bag.

Voices jolted Sam back to midtown Manhattan. He felt the pistol’s rigid edges digging into his thighs.

Sam pushed the closet door open with his left hand. The politician and a stocky Black woman stood at the conference table with their backs to him, having a discussion over several unruly piles of documents. Sam moved slowly toward them, right hand keeping the pistol leveled at the politician’s ponytail. Neither woman noticed. After a few steps he stopped and waited awkwardly until the stocky lady walked around to the other side of the table and saw him.

She shrieked. She pulled out her phone and dropped it. She fell to her knees and managed to dial 911. She crawled under the table.

The politician turned to face Sam. Her expression showed alarm, but not outright panic. In person, she had a radiance that television cameras didn’t pick up.

“What’s the matter?” she said.

“You gotta go,” Sam said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I can’t explain, but I don’t have a choice,” Sam said. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” the politician urged. “I’ll bet I can.

”She’s the opposite of me, Sam thought. He couldn’t connect with anyone no matter how hard he tried, but she connected effortlessly with everyone she met. The hair on the back of his neck stood up when he realized she was psychic.

The politician peered into Sam, creating an interface so intimate it mortified him.

“Stop it!” he spat. “Stop whatever that is that you’re doing!” He felt an urge to weep but it passed. Sam’s arm grew tired and the hefty .45 started to shake.

“OK,” she said, showing him her palms in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll stop. It’s OK.”

The office door swung open and a policeman burst into the room, pointing a pistol at Sam.

“Drop it!” the cop barked.

This is it, time to show’em what you’re made of, Sam thought. He doubled over and vomited. While bent down, he noticed the woman who’d taken refuge under the table and waved to her.

“Drop it!” the cop repeated as Sam straightened back up.

“Don’t hurt him,” the politician said to the cop. “He’s sick.”

“This is your last chance!” the policeman warned.

“Everything’s going to be alright,” the politician said. “There’s no need for a tragedy.”

She placed her hand on top of Sam’s gun, which remained aimed at her face. She pressed down and he gradually lowered the weapon. When its muzzle pointed at the floor, the cop tackled Sam and handcuffed him. Police flooded the room.

As Sam lay on the floor, the fact that he’d been on the verge of committing an atrocity suddenly became real to him. It also dawned on him that he’d be facing severe legal repercussions, and he’d lost any chance for help, or an eventual payday, from the folks who’d assigned him the assassination. Now he wept. His tears pooled on the coarse gray carpet, which refused to absorb them.

“Please get this man some help,” Sam heard the politician say as the cops hoisted him to his feet. They led him toward the door but he told them to wait, and for some reason, they complied. Sam looked over his right shoulder and flashed the politician an admiring smile.

“You’ve got my vote,” he declared.


(Bio: Ben James is a writer and editor who lives in New York.)

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