It had been a bad day and it was only going to get worse because I wanted something specific. I’d missed my first two classes at Rice University and was late for a meeting downtown. Frustrated behind the wheel of my car, I blasted the music and turned up the air conditioning. Houston in summer is like hell, without the charm of novelty.
The drive up from Memorial was uneventful. I split off to Allen Parkway, a long strip of road without stop lights that lead directly to the teeth of downtown. To my left, I noticed the sleek bright red hood of a Ferrari. I was not in a particularly playful mood, but I was feeling dangerous, so as the driver edged up, I punched the gas of my Porsche, spooling up the turbo, keeping even with him. He pulled ahead, and I hung back a second, passed behind him, and then sped up in the left lane where it was completely clear. I laughed, checking the rearview. He was right on my quarterpanel. I accelerated from 50 to 60 then 85 on a narrow, winding, three-lane road, and it felt dangerous and good. Up ahead, a Fedex truck lumbered onto the road. I pushed my little German auto-legend to cut in front of the Ferrari. The Ferrari pulled to my right. Just up ahead, there was a split where one could enter downtown on a sweet curve, or go straight and turn left. At the exact right moment, I chose straight as the Ferrari chose the curve.
A game of tag; the roar of the engine. The simple pleasures of speed and music always yielded more joy than it took.
I drove through the city streets toward my destination and turned the corner just in time to see the Ferrari pull into the garage. My heart caught in my throat. Oh no. That could not be who I think it might be. No no no no. I knew Ken Rice and if he recognized me from that little jaunt, I was in trouble.
He parked near the elevators and I rolled several aisles back in the hope that he would grab the elevator, and I would not be seen. I stepped out of the car and locked it, then quickly tried to straighten my clothes and pat down my wind-tossed hair. The garage was silent, and in the silence was a low moan. I lifted my head at the exact moment in my peripheral vision I detected a black blur, and a slicing katana, coming directly for me. As I opened my mouth to scream, I felt the sickening clutch of a hand – bones – on my neck. The next second, the head of a fetid zombie rolled under my right front wheel. Before I could even react, I saw that coming from all directions, more roving packs of the sorry stricken were lumbering toward me.
“Come on,” the ninja Ken Rice said. He shoved me behind him as a group of undead Enron workers clustered around us in a hive of moans and reaching hands. The zombies wore the suits they had been buried in, ties off or askew, filthy and torn from their climb from the tomb. I could barely stand to glance, horrified, into their grisly faces. Hairless, with bulging eyes and flesh eaten away. In one zombie, a fat worm slid from his nostril, and hung, swinging, out his empty eye socket.
I screamed, but neither the zombies nor Ken Rice paid any attention. His katana blade sliced through their necks by the dozens as we moved through the clustering crowd. The numbers didn’t seem to diminish as I trembled in horror behind Ken, but his exacting and rapid swordwork kept them at bay until we could reach the sanctuary of the elevator.
As the sliding doors secured us inside, Ken looked upon my ragged state. “It’s bonus time,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“They get this way around bonus time. Only the strong survive…” His words faded. He watched the numbers on the elevator. I trembled, awed at his skill in the deadly arts.
“Where did you learn..?”
“I practice at Dr. Ciscon’s shaolin.”
“I’ve heard of it,” I offered timidly. “The best sparing dojo in all of Houston. But I had no idea you…” I blushed, for lack of appropriate response. What does one do when a gentleman ninja saves you from roving zombies?
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “You should go.”
“I need to speak to Jeff Skilling.”
He began to laugh. “Nobody sees Jeff.”
I straightened my spine. “I am sure he will see me.”
“Good luck getting past his assistant.”
I glanced at him but Ken said nothing more on the subject of Mr. Skilling’s assistant, so I let the matter rest, instead opting to ask a more germane question. “Why are there zombies at Enron?”
“They’re cheap,” Ken replied simply, examining the zombie remains on his beautiful sword. A little blood streaked the silver blade, and green flesh clung to the serrations. I fought the urge to vomit on his shoes. “We lease them for seven hundred years,” said Ken Rice. “They’re good workers. Except during bonus time. Everyone gets a little rambunctious around here.”
“But you slaughtered them…”
“Some people say it gets easier over time to kill your rogue co-workers. I never found that to be the case.”
The doors glided open. From my vantage point, I saw nothing – and even less when Ken pushed me back against the wall. “I must check for more zombies. Unless of course you’re in the mood to be zombie food.”
“No,” I said meekly. “I would prefer to keep my head about me.”
He permitted me to exit the elevator. As we rounded the corner, a frightful commotion was to be heard inside a nearby office. It sounded like someone was fighting zombies right inside that office!
“Ken,” I exclaimed, “Should you go in to help?”
“No,” he said and grabbed my elbow to lead me farther down the corridor.
“Wait… please, wait….” I jerked my elbow back, and quite indignantly demanded to know why a gentleman with a katana would refuse assistance to his compatriot in that office.
“It’s not zombies,” he said simply.
I grew quite frightened. “What… what is it?”
From inside I heard a man’s voice say, “Down! Here! Take it!” Then the odd sounds of … a man cooing, as if to a child, or someone he wished to comfort. “Good boy. That’s a good boy. You like that, don’t you? Of course you do, you sweet bastard.”
“What on earth…” My eyes felt wide as milk saucers.
Suddenly the door opened and then quickly closed. A man I recognized from news reports as Andy Fastow approached. It was his elegant, coffin-shaped face that matched my image of him. His gray eyes glanced from Ken to me. I knew my appearance must have been alarming. The spatter of zombie blood covered my dress, and I felt like I must have a finger stuck in my curls behind my ear. I dearly hoped that was not the case, even as I cogitated on the possibilities of what horror lie behind that closed door.
“Zombies?” Andy asked.
“Afraid so,” Ken replied.
“I detest zombies,” Andy replied, his expression never changing.
“Me too,” I offered quickly, perhaps too quickly because he glared at me with silver eyes that left me cold. I smiled in an effort to put him at ease. “You’re not a zombie, are you?” I asked in a joking way.
Without cracking a smile, he replied, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
He walked past, and I looked hopefully to Ken. “What’s his problem?”
“He’s just… That’s Andy.”
Ken glanced up the hall where another pack of unmentionables were coming for us. They appeared to be feasting on the flesh of a recently-killed mortal. I trembled and hid behind Ken for safety. “Stay here,” he said and ran at them. I watched in awe as he ran up the wall, performed a backflip, and brought his sword down across the necks of two zombies, and then easily hacked the putrid heads off at least fifteen more; his performance was so inspired others – even zombies who were not rogue – stepped out of their offices into the hallway to marvel. They provided raucous applause when each zombie lay headless on the floor. Ken took a gracious bow and laughed.
I ran to him. “You’re very brave.”
“Not brave. Just have a strong survival instinct,” he said.
I smiled, pleased with his modesty. “Would you be so kind as to direct me to Mr. Skilling’s office?”
He smiled again, amused at my persistence. “I am telling you, his assistant is never going to let you in to see him.”
“Allow me to worry about an over-protective gatekeeper,” I replied.
“Very well. Come along.”
I followed him to the top floor. He indicated the office and before he turned to leave, I thanked him. “Not just for your assistance but your…. relentless assassination of your co-workers.”
“I am sure you could have handled yourself,” he replied gallantly. I said good day and turned to meet The Assistant.
When I saw her, I nearly laughed. She did not look foreboding at all. Petite and blond, she barely looked old enough to have a job at all. She looked up from her work and smiled. “May I help you?”
“I am here to see Mr. Skilling,” I replied.
“Oh, I’m afraid he’s indisposed just now.” She looked genuinely sad that I had troubled myself to come for naught.
“If you could just ring him, perhaps?”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Perturbed, I frowned mightily. “Please, it will not take long.”
Perhaps this is what Ken Rice had warned me about. Well her stubborn refusal was just childish. I turned and walked toward the door of Skilling’s inner sanctum, but then felt something grab me, and yank me back quite roughly. I realized in horror they were purple tentacles, many of them, and I was wrapped tight as a bug in a cocoon, unable to breathe. I writhed desperately, to no avail.
“Oh, Sher–” Ken Rice appeared in the office once again, his eyes wide at what he had found. His exasperation was evident and I was ashamed for having taken so much of his day already. “Release her into my custody,” Ken said dryly, and one by one the tentacles released me, leaving a sticky glue behind.
“I told you she was good.”
“Good!” I replied indignantly as I ungracefully rose to standing. “She’s murderous!”
“That’s why she’s paid the big bucks. What is your business with Skilling anyway?”
And just then, the door to Skilling’s inner sanctum opened and a bright light flooded the area. I felt weak in the presence of such light, and felt that it was only beneficent and good. I swayed on my feet, held steady only by the presence of Ken Rice beside me.
“Sherri, can you get Causey on the phone?” said the man.
Was he a man? He did not quite appear mortal He was not particularly tall but he seemed regal and his blue eyes burned with a cold fire, sunk deeper than Atlantis. His hot, focused gaze flicked onto me. “Are you selling Girl Scout cookies?” he asked in a rougher voice than I had anticipated.
“Cookies…? Oh, no sir…”
“Then get the hell out.”
“Told you,” Ken and the Assistant said in unison.
“Sir, I have an appointment with you.”
He looked to the Assistant. “Does she?”
“Name?” she asked.
“Cara Ellison. But my friends call me Sunflower.”
“What do you know. Sunflower, two o’clock. Why didn’t you just say you had an appointment?”
“She’s dumb,” Ken replied.
I blushed furiously, wishing a zombie would appear and bite his head off. Then I looked at him and saw that he was smiling and instantly forgave him.
“Come on, then,” Skilling said. “Somebody find me some Girl Scout cookies!”
“Sir,” the Assistant said, “It’s August. I believe they’re only sold in the Spring.”
“Get Andy to do it. Andy’s a man who knows how to get things.”
“Andy’s busy,” the Assistant said calmly.
“Then Rex Shelby,” he said. “I need to speak to him anyway. Tell him if he doesn’t come back with two packs of Thin Mints, he, Scott Yeager, Joe Hirko, Michael Krautz, Kevin Hannon and Kevin Howard are fired!” He paused and slit his eyes at Ken. “And you too.” He then looked at me. “Are you just going to stand there and wait for an engraved invitation?”
“No sir, I …”
I walked forward, into the bright light.
He sat in a black leather chair and then put his feet on the desk, which was immaculate. That was another part of the reason I was here at Enron. I needed to know how Enron made its money. And the fact no work was on his desk only deepened my curiosity.
“So what is it you’d like to know, Mizz Ellison?”
I frowned, trying to imagine where to begin. “Why are there zombies working at Enron?” I asked timidly.
He shrugged. “They only get like this during bonus time. They’re usually very assiduous workers. And they’re cheap.”
“So what happens when ten percent of the workforce is lost to Ken Rice’s sword almost every day?”
He laughed then. “You should speak to our HR people. You’d be awed at the number of applicants we get every day. Trust me, there’s no lack of zombies who wish to work at Enron.” He swung his legs off the desk and opened a desk drawer where he brought out a cigar, which he lit with a hundred dollar bill. He dropped the remains of the money into the wastebasket, which was overflowing with other destroyed tender.
He set the cigar down and studied me in a way that made me want to hide. I blushed to the ears.
“Why are you really here, Sunflower? Are you writing an article for your college newspaper? Or is it more than that?”
“They say you’re doing something… unsavory… here at Enron.”
“And you came to discover what it is? Well, I give you points for your naiveté.”
He stood up and walked over to the large windows in his office, where I had already surmised the bright light originated. The city spread out before him and he seemed lost to me in that instant, faraway.
“Come here,” he said without turning around.
I rose and followed him to the window.
I felt his hand at my neck and shivered. It was dead cold. Colder than the zombie’s hands had been when they grabbed me in the parking garage. Ice on my neck, freezing into my very soul.
“What is happening at Enron is we’ve created a perfect system. A meritocracy where a person rises exactly as far as their wits take them. One day the world will be run like this.”
I blinked up at him and he smiled, then dragged his gaze from the city to me. I had the strange thought that he was reading my thoughts, and then he was going to kiss me.
He smiled a half smile.
“You’re a vampire,” I whispered. The words had left my mouth before I had consciously formed them.
“Don’t be silly,” he said and I relaxed just a micron. “I’m the King Vampire.”
I didn’t move, frozen to the ground with some otherworldly pressure and fascination. His eyes were magnificent, deeply blue, like the color of the earth viewed from space. I felt the force of his personality behind them, the joy and the sorrow of being Jeff Skilling, and I perceived that he was seeing me in the same way, the small being that was I. “What do you want, Cara?”
“What you have,” I replied automatically, my voice but a rasp. “Money and power. They say you’re doing something bad to get it. Are you?”
His mouth curved into a smile which seemed infinitely sad. “No,” he replied at last. He shook his head sadly. “When you are three hundred years old, you become good at what you enjoy.”
I was silent, letting the thought sink in. Three hundred years old.
The possibilities made my mind sparkle.
Skilling smiled. “No.”
“No, I’m not going to make you a vampire.”
“I’d be a good vampire,” I said softly.
“You’re a better mortal.”
I felt there was a compliment in that statement and I felt humbled to receive it from him.
With his ice cold hand, he lifted my chin so I had to meet his eyes. Gently he brushed my hair off my forehead, and then pulled the zombie finger from the mess of my hair, and tossed it into the trash with the burned money. I blushed, knowing a lady should not have extraneous zombie body parts in her hair. I did not look my best at all, with the zombie spatter and tentacle juice stinking upon my Edwardian-pale skin. But I felt that he looked beyond that, to the soul inside.
“Mr. Skilling, you’re making me quite dizzy,” I murmured.
I stood beside him, feeling warm inside. How could a man so dead make me feel so alive? I heard Sherry in the ante-room, telling Rex Shelby to leave the Girl Scout cookies with her. I had seconds to make my move, or forever regret it.
I glanced upon Mr. Skilling’s lips, and then before he could move or say a thing, leaned up and kissed him. He did nothing. I shut my eyes and set my lips upon the cool satin of his, and only then did I feel the reassuring resolving pressure of him returning the kiss. After a moment, he began to gasp as his long-dead heart sputtered to life, and air began to inflate the sacs of his bronchi as I’d transferred the anti-vampire serum into his mouth. He shrieked back, stumbling with his eyes wide with horror but it was too late. I’d made him into a mortal. My evil plan had worked! With him a mortal, I could take over Enron. The money and power and zombies would all be mine!
As I began to laugh, the door swung open and Ken Rice stood with Rex Shelby while Jeff Skilling writhed on the floor as his body came back to life after three hundred years of death.
“What is happening?” Rex Shelby demanded.
“I think he’s ill,” I replied. “I must go.” I walked past them, and began to run past The Assistant, into the open corridor.
“Cara!” Ken Rice’s voice sounded behind me. “Zombies!”
I turned and saw the zombies were chasing me. Numerous, grotesque, these were freshly dead and putrid, too recognizably human. Beside me was the office where Andy Fastow had emerged. Quickly I opened the door and ran inside, only to slam the door on the zombies reaching for me. As I stood with my back to the door, I saw Andy Fastow feeding the raptors blocks of money. There were four, and they had seven heads each, and their food bowl was empty, but Andy was tossing blocks of money, cooing, “There you go, boy. Settle down…”
He looked at me from his chair, as if he expected me.
And he smiled as the hungry raptors inched closer, their enormous green heads sniffing me out, mouths open to reveal teeth as sharp as Ken Rice’s blade.
I don’t know if I screamed.