He recalled the click of safety catches.
Auric Keller was at a niche Kensington bistro and then he wasn’t.He’d gone to the bathroom just before the dessert course and then he wasn’t in the bathroom.
Shards of short term memories ripped across his mind.The unmistakable visceral odour of a cloth pressed against his mouth, the clumsy way he hit his forehead against the pristine marble washbasin as he tumbled into unconsciousness and the vice like grip of his abductors’ hands propping him up.And that clicking of safety catches.
And then.. “Deus Irae” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” hoisted him abruptly back into the world.There was his Iphone on the ground next to his throbbing head.On the ground?The cold from the rough,uneven earth seemed to seep into his very bones as he shook and shivered awake and squinted at the phone’s screen.”Caller Unknown”.
Auric Keller gave out a primeval groan,part anger,frustration and fear.Mostly fear.Still wearing, albeit terminally splattered and dishevelled,his casual suit from the dinner date he got unsteadily to his feet and scooped up the phone and swiped accept.
“Talk to me,whoever you are,tell me I’m dreaming”.
“Mr.Keller? good morning to you,and you know you’re not dreaming when you wake up in the middle of field and have no idea how you get there;am I right Mr Keller?”
Auric Keller Head of Global Investment Acquisitions at JamesonCorp had very little time for fools or the cliched dialogue so fond of Hollywood screenplay hacks.
“Listen whoever you are,just give me the bottom line and spare me the existential drama.How much,where and when.”
Did Keller detect a barely suppressed chuckle at the other end?
“Oh Mr.Keller you’re obviously labouring under a misapprehension,allow me to enlighten you,put you straight as it were”
Auric Keller by this time was taking in his immediate physical environment,making mental notes,assessing his own condition and surroundings.A field about a hundred yards long,unremarkable countryside,weather fine,possible distant traffic noises?
“What was that?” he said absentmindedly.
“Please do pay attention Mr.Keller ,the exercise begins in a just a few minutes,you must concentrate;honestly you corporate bosses are all the same”.
He couldn’t see anyone else in the vicinity.It was just him all on his lonesome in the middle of a field.His phone told him that it was 8:57 am.That meant he’d been out cold for the best part of 10 hours.So why no hypothermia? Because they-whoever they were- had kept him indoors and dumped him here maybe an hour ago or less.
“I see you’re orienting yourself Mr.Keller just like the good ex- Special Forces officer they obviously trained you to be.Figuring out why you hadn’t succumbed to the privations of hypothermia no doubt..”
“See? you just said I see,figure of speech or close by”.That chuckle again,”Good heavens no; there’s a drone if you look up and to your three o’clock”.And there was.
“You still haven’t addressed my request”.”The how much,where and when?”
“You got it pal,well?”
“Well as I was attempting to tell you there ain’t no how much or where or even when, you’re not being held for ransom”.
Despite his Officer training and undeniable reasoning and analytical skillset, Auric Keller found non-sequiturs unsettling.
“In that case what am I doing here and just exactly what is your game?”
“Now that’s the first sensible utterance to come from your lips thus far Mr.Keller,I stress thus far,you’ve still got some way go and we haven’t even started the game yet”.As the voice was blathering in his ear,Keller had visually reconnoitred more of his surroundings.An outhouse of sorts,part of its roof missing,an industrial type refuse skip,bags of cement,wheelbarrows,ladders,shovels..
“I can tell you’re casting your gaze toward the farm outbuilding,why don’t you go over there.You’ll not get the chance later on once we’ve started”.
Keller ambled over toward the outbuilding.Game and starting,he carefully evaluated those words as he spun round and looking in the direction of the drone.
” ‘We’ are not starting any ‘game’,what’s about to happen is I’m putting a stop to it right now” and with that he exaggerartedly pressed 9-1-1.
Nothing.Of course he was in England,had been for the past 72 hours,for the board meeting and that intimate dinner date.9-9-9.
Even as he spoke with what he imagined as being in a cool,calm and collected manner it wouldn’t sound like that to the person answering;he knew all too well the outcome.Can you me give your location-no-but you guys can you do GPS tracking,depends on what you’re calling us about,kidnapped?when?have you managed to escape your abductors?no? where are you phoning from-the field in which you woke up and is anyone standing next to you or threatening your life right now?And so Keller hung up.
“Caller Unknown” rang:”Well Mr.Keller that was rather pointless don’t you think;our emegency services do so hate crank calls;now with time running out please make use of what’s left of it;it’s for your benefit”.the call ended again with the muffled chuckle.
Thirty seconds elapsed,”There you are Mr.Keller back to your best,our apologies it might be that we overdid the chloroform and that’s slowed you down ;so paying attention?”.Keller grunted and nodded.”The game space – ie.the farmer’s field has been mined with IEDs which at the commencement of the proceedings will be remotely activated.Your game mission is to get yourself across the field alive in the allotted time.In 60 minutes an unmarked white Bedford van will appear at the far gate where the driver will wait to pick you up and bring you in and the game will be officially ended”.
Keller wasn’t sure what to think,”Are you out of your mind? A game that involves me crossing a frickin minefield?”
“That is indeed the nature of the competitve challenge”.
“Well, I’ve news for you pal no-one is crossing this field,mined or otherwise”.
“But Mr.Keller we are contractually obligated to facilitate this psychometric evaluation exercise”
The proverbial penny seemingly began to drop for Auric Keller as he gathered his wits and began scrutinising the horizon for an alternate point of exit from the field – the game space?The voice at the other end took on an air of exasperation- real or feigned,Keller wasn’t sure.
“We’re really sorry Mr.Keller but on 3,2,1, now! we have remotely armed the IEDs.You know as well as anyone Old man Jameson’s aphorisms,you’ve been in his employ long enough to understand just how he gets people to do his bidding in order to get the things he wants,done”.
Now That surprised Keller.”Corporate are paying for all this shennanigans?To have me abducted from a restaurant,held hostage and dumped into a field?That’s insane”.
“Sorry to hear that coming from you Mr.Keller but the clock is running and I’m afraid I’m at the limits of what I’m able to legally share on sensitive corporate contract details with you,despite your position and of course your ambitions to be the next Veep”.
“Whoa their pilgrim just take a step back..”
“How can I Mr.Keller I’m sat in front of a control panel”
“Is that your idea of a lame joke?”He heard that muted chuckle.
“We’re merely facilitators and I may say amongst the market’s leading brands in providing such experiences.” Keller had made the 90 or so feet over to the hodge -podge of idling equipment and materials by the outbuilding.
“You’ll be familiar with the ZenithCorp scandal Mr.Keller,last Fall?c’mon you must be”.
Keller was uncomfortable at the mention of a corporate escape-room task evaluation exercise by one of JamesonCorp’s biggest market rivals.Five of their up and coming executives had been designated an escape-room weekend which they thought involved a mock up flight simulation in a customised hangar.The idea being to see how they would react to being in an aircraft falling out of the sky.Except there was no hangar.And when they showed up at their exercise venue there was a real private jet waiting for them.
“They survived all of them more else,one of them is permanently in a wheelchair”
“Oh that wasn’t us that was a competitor outfit.The point is,the lady in the wheelchair got the top job after a corporate merger and the exercise was deemed a success,she was the one who landed the aircraft.But it was real Mr.Keller,a flight simulator and an entire weekend to work out the clues all with no actual jeopardy that doesn’t tell you anything about character”.
Keller demurred,”Oh it sure does”.
“I’m glad you agree”.
“Yeah it shows that whoever set it up is a complete raving psychopath,so count the minutes down,I’m staying put and you’ll have to explain to Corporate why the exercise didn’t happen”.
“As you wish Mr.Keller,but did I forget to mention a really important clause in the contract?”
“Which is..?””Oh,here it is..that once the 60 minutes of scheduled evaluation exercise time has elapsed all IEDs are to be remotely detonated..in order to avoid any unforseen liabilities once we’ve disengaged from the venue”.
And that point,Keller’s attention was caught by a scurrying motion just in front of his feet,a field mouse burst out from under an partially upturned bucket and headed away from him.A screeching sound made him jump as a goshawk elegantly divebombed onto the mouse some thirty feet away now.And then..
He groaned a little,checked his limbs for injuries,felt the back of his neck.All good.”Mr.Keller,Mr.Keller,you there? You Okay?hello,Keller”.Amazingly he had kept a firm grip on his IPhone.
” Yah,I’m okay, thanks for your concern and I get it.It’s a live fire exercise;well let me tell you you worthless piece of crap,I’ve done live fire exercises and run them too so I’ll deal with you afterwards.Now,how much time I got left?”
“48 minutes..” Keller pressed the mute button and went to over to the stockpile of materials.
“Improvise,improvise” he spoke aloud to himself,repeating his own Special Forces training mantra…
When he looked at his phone screen again,his countdown clock was showing 37 minutes of gametime remaining.
He had retrieved an elongated barrow,mounted an odd assortment of long handled,long reach implements hanging down from the front and bound them as securely as he could with ropes and spare wire he had dilligently scrounged from the pile.
He took a long,deliberate look toward the wide farm gate – he figured about 80 yards or so distant – and off he set trundling the precarious wheelbarrow with its accoutrements over the field with as much confidence and optimism as a Heath-Robinson minesweeper might inspire.
He’d gotten about 20 yards when a voice interrupted his operating theatre concentration.
“Oi,I said oi you there where’d you think you’re going with all that gear?” Keller kept going.”Not now”,he muttered to himself,”not now”.But he did have to pause,turn his head round and look.A farm labourer, rough and mean and meaner looking with every stride he took.”You can’t go thieving just because we leave stuff unattended,take it back right now!”Keller shouted for the man to stop,the potential horror was too much; “And I’m telling you so you’d better listen,stop where you are,don’t take one more step this way”.
“What you talking about mate?”
“Just believe me when I tell you ,you’re endangering your own life by coming after me”.
“You threatening me?” he queried continuing his advance to where Keller stood immobile.”I’m not threatening you,in fact once I reach the gate down there I’m going to leave all this stuff for you to take back”.The labourer kept coming albeit with diminished fervour.”There’s too much to explain,look some people have planted landmines in this field and..”
“Mines,landmines,you think I’m stupid?”
Keller was conscious of the clock running down and he wasn’t making any progress.”Just please go back the way you came!”pleaded Keller.
“Why you bloody cheeky..” the man strode purposefully forward,except that he never got to complete his stride.
Keller didn’t look back to check,he never did on the field of battle and the blast and ensuing clouds of raspberry coloured particles pushed Keller and his trundling wheelbarrow out of their lethargy.
24 minutes left.The Heath-Robinson contraption aka minesweeper trundled on with Keller immersed in a virtually hermetic bubble of fevered concentration.The yards got harder,the terrain rougher and more uneven.Somebody’s going to get their lights punched out when I get back to Corporate after this.
11 minutes left.The physical strain was telling on Keller.The years of soft Corporate life were a Wind he had sown and now it felt like he was reaping the whirlwind.
His phone rang.
“Before you say anything else,let me say this,you’d better explain yourself to me really well when you see me next;now what do you want?”
“Everything shall be explained entirely to your satisfaction Mr.Keller of that I can assure you;now your gametime is showing 5 minutes..”A wave of nausea passed through Keller.”What? No way there’s 10 minutes at least,I set my phone”.
“We are sole adjudicators in matters of contractual dispute Mr.Keller the unmarked Bedford van will be pulling up in 5 ,hope the driver won’t be coming back passengerless”.And there was that irritating barely suppressed chuckle again.
Taking a deep breath,Keller parked the barrow and let it flop onto its side and took a long look toward the gate.He was actually closer,a lot closer than he at first imagined.He noticed a semi-circle of gravel this side of the gate marking the boundary where the field itself ended and began.
The unexpected when you least expected it.Another one of his military aphorisms that he loved to impart to the rookies out on their first mission.
Only two mines had been detonated and for an entire field to have been mined that seemed more than just a little fortuitous.He’d covered some eighty odd yards with the Heath-Robinson minesweeper contraption.Which had hit nothing.
That told him they were saving their best to last.The entire broadsweep fieldside of the gravel semicircle in front of the gate.That’s where I would sow a lot of mines.Obvious.
He half-heard a van coming down the farm track.2 minutes he guessed.Picking up and righting the minesweeper he moved 5 yards then stopped again.The van had come to a halt and the driver’s door slid slowly open.
Keller was maybe 15 feet short of the gravel arc.Time to see just how fit he still was.He carefully disrobed himself of his suit leaving only his boxers on.He bundled up his clothes with spare rope and heaved the bundle airwards and they landed smack next to the gate.And now,he made a mental note of his mark and paced back ten yards for a run up.The van driver looked at his watch.Keller set off.His long jump sent him crashing into the gate itself.
On their way to the control room,which as it turned out was at the actual main farm house not quarter of a mile away; the driver kept half his attention on Keller,”Man that was crazy! just plain out of this world crazy.I bet they didn’t see that one coming”.
Keller let the man talk.A flunkey, a hired hand who probably wasn’t shown the full set up anyway.He had a severe talking to give but not to this guy.They pulled up outside the 18th century renovated,modernised farm house.He was of course expected and to go straight in and see the boss.
The control room was all blue screens and had an air of “This is Houston” about it.They showed him the screens,all the screens and the recordings.And they explained things and answered his questions.Keller was dumbfounded.”If you look closely at the man on screen 1 he’s in what we call our studio barn.His image is projected as a CGI hologram on screen 2 that’s him talking to you.”
“And the mouse?”
“Nope that was a real mouse and a real goshawk but with a micro explosive attached giving you the required impression of a mine going off”.
“So nobody got killed and there were no actual mines”
“And we made a donation to the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well!”.
Someone behind Keller let out a chuckle.
“Well it seems all you guys need do is send the exercise evaluation report to old Jameson,huh?”
“Poor old Jameson a corporate Titan and 89 years old and unable for the last 15 to even remember his own name”.
Keller laughed,” Back there on the field I thought I was at the mercy of a bunch of evil,sadistic psychopaths who kidnap,torture and would kill for fun”.
There was that chuckle again.Keller spun round to see who it was.
“Hi Keller,I’m sorry that we didn’t get to finish our dinner date but what were saying just now?”
“Oh nothing,I thought you might’ve been a bunch of evil,sadistic psychopaths..”
“Really?” she smiled back at Keller,”and who said that we weren’t?”
And just as Keller understood things at last, he heard the clicking of safety catches.