What if your life was so messed up that you could see no way out? What if you spent every night in a cold sweat and every day looking over your shoulder? What if you’d done something you were so ashamed of that your whole body shook with terror every time you allowed yourself to think about it? A sordid secret that no one knew.
And then what if, one day, you found a way to take back the reins, change your destiny, and wipe it all out?
In just three easy steps.
Would you do it?
The waiting room was like none he had ever been in. No tables strewn with magazines. No water cooler. No plants in the corner or pictures on the walls. Just stark white décor and black plastic bucket chairs filled with people who looked familiar.
All of them were men, wearing clothes like his (suit, tie, overcoat) and expressions like the one he saw every day in his shaving mirror. Some wrung hats in their thin white hands, or tapped bony fingers on their crossed knees. Some ran shaking hands through their thinning hair. All of them looked sickly, pale and lost.
Worried. Like him.
“Watson,” he said to the thin lipped woman sitting behind the reception desk. She wore a crisp overall and a haughty expression.
“Take a seat please, sir. Your name will be called.” Business-like, professional.
David Watson sat.
He’d seen the ad over breakfast a week ago. Carol, his wife of 18 years had been tucking heartily into her bacon and eggs, prattling on about something that he had long since tuned out from. Probably something about a manicure or a new handbag, or the expensive spa retreat she was planning with her girlfriends.
He had only picked at his breakfast, because there was something living in his stomach that refused to let food stay too long. Stress? Ulcer? Cancer? Maybe all three, but whatever it was, it terrified him.
He turned the page of his newspaper; scanning the job section, the “for sale” ads, moving on to the sport pages. Anything to distract him and to stop the ticking of the time bomb that his life had become.
A bold black font caught his eye:
Ctrl, Alt, Delete – Three steps to freedom. Discover the best kept secret they don’t want you to know. Wipe out your mistakes – however large – and start to live again. Satisfaction guaranteed. Immediate results. Contact:
A London number. Local and convenient. As he made his appointment – after Carol had left for Zumba – he hoped with all his heart that the last two years really could be wiped out.
When the receptionist called his name, his heart shifted in his chest like a seismic plate below the earth’s surface. With a dozen pairs of beady, curious eyes on him he walked the short distance to the office door that bore the legend Ctrl, Alt, Delete – CEO Andrew Mountford. His legs felt like jelly.
The office was very warm, and surprisingly bright, with several pictures of smiley people on the walls. The man behind the desk consulted a file in front of him, lifting papers to read the information there.
“Take a seat Mr… Watson. I see you are admiring our satisfied customers.”
David sat down in the chair across the desk from Andrew Mountford. His palms were starting to sweat but the face that looked back at him was kind and very open, with eyes the colour of a tranquil, tropical sea, and framed by blond hair so light it looked almost translucent.
David’s hair used to be blond, many moons ago. Now it was all but gone, and what remained looked like fragile, silver cobwebs.
“We have many fine testimonials,” continued Mountford, sliding a brochure across the desk toward David. “Our results speak for themselves. One hundred per cent of customers have had a full and successful programme.”
“Is that so?” He tried to imagine what life would feel like with no worries. It had been many months since he had been able to get out of bed in the morning without a feeling of sickness and dread. Not for almost two years. It didn’t seem possible that you could make all that go away.
But sure enough, there in the brochure were endless photos of families who all seemed to have no cares. The men looked content and the women looked fulfilled, and the children all look privileged.
“I can understand your reticence to try it; your cynicism,” Andrew Mountford seemed to read David’s thoughts. “But a 24 hour free trial is available, and if you’re not entirely satisfied, then there is no obligation to carry on any further into our programme.”
“That’s very reasonable,” David smiled. Andrew Mountford smiled back, looking very like an old uncle indulging his nephew.
“There is, however, one very important rule you must follow.”
David leaned closer across the desk without even realising it, but he felt a chill slide slowly down his spine.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“You must speak of this to no one. Not your wife, or your family, or any of your friends. Not even to other men whom you suspect have undergone the programme themselves.”
Secrets can cripple, not least because the urge to tell someone always takes over. And not the most because if it has to be a secret, there is something wrong at its heart.
But David readily agreed.
The envelope was metallic blue. Against the white of his hands it was very bright, and somehow mystical.
David turned it over, revealing a black seal, made from wax, at the bottom angle of the triangular flap. The letters CAD were pressed into it. He looked over his shoulder; the study door was closed, and the sound of Carol’s Pilates DVD distant along the hall.
He lit a cigarette. It took three attempts because his hands were trembling and his breathing was heavy and kept on blowing the flame out. When he had got it lit, he quickly smoked half of it before crushing it out in the ashtray next to his keyboard.
The wax made a dull cracking noise as he pulled the flap. It sounded like a tiny bone breaking. David shivered.
Andrew Mountford had told him to follow the instructions exactly, and if he did that, then the result would be amazing.
His computer screen flickered in the dimness of the study; its empty white mocked him. “See, this is how empty and pointless your life is,” it seemed to say, and David knew that was crazy but couldn’t stop the thought.
“Just do it and it will all be okay,” he said aloud in the quiet of the room, and looked over his shoulder at the door again when the sound of his voice hit his own ears.
Removing the paper from inside the envelope, he unfolded it. The CAD logo was at the top centre of the paper and beneath it, a long alphanumeric code and an internet address.
He logged on and went to the website, entered the code, and watched as a grey text box appeared. Above it, three short sentences:
Who do you want to Control?
Type their name into the box.
He turned the paper over. There was nothing on the other side.
Was that it? Surely not. But Mountford had been convinced that this trial would make David part with the money – almost six months’ salary. Something gnawed at him inside, in his brain. Some part of this – a large part – did not feel quite right. But that was just fear of the unknown. And, if he was honest with himself, the thing he did know was a lot scarier than this.
This was the only option available to him and he had come this far. What did he have to lose?
He typed Carol at the top of the white screen. With only a second’s hesitation and a tiny tremble, his finger hit the Ctrl key.
“Whatever you say, darling.” Carol smiled a sugary sweet smile and slipped her arm through his.
They were in Debenhams, the accessories section, and handbags were everywhere. Carol could never resist them and had at least a million, it seemed. She loved the designer ones the most. Of course she did. But today she readily agreed to walk on by and go for coffee.
David couldn’t stop staring at her. As she sipped her cappuccino he watched her mouth, saw how she licked the foam off her top lip. She always did that. No difference. Watched how she scooped a bit of the chocolate topping up with her finger and licked it. She always did that too.
She was wearing her brown leather coat and blue scarf, and occasionally tossed her blonde hair back out of her eyes. Her long, painted nails tapped text messages constantly into her phone.
Everything was as it had always been, and her face looked just the same.
But she had taken no for an answer, and that was not the same.
Surely a fluke. A co-incidence. Nothing to do with typing her name into the teasing, white face of the computer and watching it get swallowed up as he hit the Ctrl key. Seeing it disappear was like watching it fall into the jaws of a hungry monster. Because it didn’t just disappear, as he thought it would – it went in chunks, like it was being… chomped.
“I thought we might go away for the weekend soon,” he said, forcing her to lift her eyes from her phone. “Next weekend.”
This would be a test. Next weekend was the spa retreat and she and her cronies had been planning that for months. Many new clothes, shoes and pots of make-up had been bought. This was bound to meet resistance.
“Okay. I’ll phone Sandra and cry off the spa. It’s about time you and I did something together.”
She was smiling, and it looked real. Genuine and real and sincere. David felt a heat wash over him, like he was going to faint. This could not be happening. It could not be this easy, surely to goodness.
But Andrew Mountford had been adamant. And he was right.
The Alt part was going to be big. Life changing.
Controlling Carol had helped considerably (less spending meant fewer bills, less debt) and a lot of pressure had been taken off, but there was still The Thing.
The Thing had dominated his life for two years; had consumed him. When you make the decision to become a criminal, and when you take steps to do it, there is no going back.
But now, Alt could be his saviour, and the answer to everything.
At work there was a file on his computer. This was the file that haunted his dreams, with the ghosts of all the people, all the names that did not exist. Names he had made up. People he had created; brought to life and made into rich people. They had money that he could only ever dream of. Even now, he could do nothing significant with it. He couldn’t buy cars, or mansions, or go on exotic holidays. Because it was too much. He could only ever dip into it, which he had done to help out with payments for health spas and handbags, final reminders, and the threat of eviction because of unmet mortgage repayments.
He needed to take it all back. Make it like it never happened. Make it so that all those transactions, all those bits of money from the real accounts of countless billionaires who would never miss it, had not diffused through into the bogus ones. Not just delete it – that would not help. Too many wires and veins to trace, to sever, to think about.
He had to change it so that none of it had ever happened.
He’d called the file “Trusts 2012 – Foreign”. It sounded generic, harmless. No one would ever dream of clicking on it, even if it had not been in his personal drive. It was not allowed to password protect files within a drive. Drives themselves could be password protected but the passwords had to be stored in the office safe, to which only the CEO and his PA had access.
If all went well tonight, when he went into work tomorrow, that file would no longer be there.
Would never have been there at all.
He logged onto the website. This time, above the grey text box, the three sentences read:
What do you want to make Alternate?
Enter it into the box
He let the curser line blink for a long time. What did “make alternate” mean? Did it mean the same as “alter”? He had thought Alt meant alter. Thought it meant change it. But “make alternate” sounded sinister and clinical and altogether terrifying.
But… it sounded close enough. And things had to change, of that there was no question or argument. What that change turned out to be, he would soon find out, and was prepared for the risk.
He typed in Trusts 2012 – Foreign
And hit Alt.
“Good Morning, David,” Margaret, PA to the CEO Albert Sanderson, said as David hung his coat on the coat stand and took off his hat.
He jumped at her presence; he had not realised she had been right behind him as he came in. She stood in the doorway to his office. She wore her usual twin set and pearls (the latter straining like a choker across her bloated neck), and the sarcastic expression for which she was notorious.
“When you’ve got your coffee, Mr Sanderson would like to see you.” A flicker of something on her lips, like she was trying hard to stop them from trembling with mirth. This woman only ever smiled when someone was in pain. Her amusement was not good news. He knew it.
When she had left he flicked on his computer. It took an age to boot up and he felt the sweat forming on his brow, the threat of a headache.
He clicked on his personal drive. There were all his clients’ files, arranged neatly into categories. Files and folders dating back years. Ad hoc files, arranged alphabetically by name of venture – they were all there too. Spreadsheets cross-referenced and cross-linked. Everything he had ever done.
There was no folder called “Trusts 2012 – Foreign”.
He scrolled down, checked and double checked. He looked in the recycle bin. He did searches for several of the names of his ghostly millionaires. Nothing. It had all gone.
Like it had never been there.
So why did Sanderson want to see him?
“Take a seat, David, please.” Sanderson was himself drinking from a huge coffee mug. David placed his own down on the coaster on his side of the table and sat in the chair that always creaked like a tired old man. He wanted to gulp down the coffee, but feared he would spill it with his trembling hands. He couldn’t afford to be too cocky and optimistic.
“I am afraid I have bad news,” Sanderson began and David closed his eyes. Oh God, he had done it too late.
“I have had to let Morris go.”
“What?” The word was out before he could stop it, and his eyes snapped open. “Why?”
“I’m afraid that something has come to light that has compromised his position with the company, and which has led this morning to his arrest.”
David sat and listened in stunned silence as Sanderson told him how Morris – a quiet, self-deprecating, balding man who had worked for the company for fifteen years – had for the last two been defrauding the company and stealing from countless clients, syphoning money into bogus accounts in false names. Not only had this been detrimental to the company name, but it had betrayed the trust of the people from whose accounts he had taken money.
David felt like someone in a dream. Sanderson’s voice floated by him, talking about a folder found on Morris’s personal drive – a drive to which only three people had the password. A folder that held all the damning evidence.
“Not that he denied it,” Sanderson said, draining his coffee mug. “He was banged to rights. Admitted it all. Broke down and cried and said he’d been in financial straits for a long time and that he just wanted to save his home and his family.
“If it were not for the random, routine check that Margaret had been doing last night, we would never have discovered it. Strange how things turn out.”
Strange indeed. David felt his stomach lurch, though whether in relief or fear, he could not tell.
“Anyway, David. The one good thing from this is that I realise how valuable my loyal staff are. I need to create a role, have someone be my right hand man, so to speak. To protect me, and help make sure this never happens again. Are you in?”
For a £20,000 pay rise, David was in.
David did not like this “alternate” world. Because the truth of it – its twisted (but now real) truth, hurt his head.
It turned out (became) that Morris had been defrauding the company with the bogus accounts because he had recently acquired a very demanding girlfriend. He had been seeing her for two years, behind Mrs Morris’s back of course. Apparently, his new woman loved shoes and handbags and going to spas with her girlfriends.
Now, Morris was facing criminal charges and while awaiting trial had retreated to a cottage in Wales with his mistress, who had left her husband to stand by her man.
When he came down to breakfast and saw the note propped up against the sugar bowl, David put all the pieces together. The late autumn sun threw orange patterns on the breakfast table, and glinted off Carol’s wedding ring, which sat abandoned and empty next to the note.
She was Morris’s girlfriend.
Maybe this was the pay off – the cruel irony. A joke that Andrew Mountford played. Or maybe it was the punishment for greed and selfishness.
Those words: “Make Alternate” had played heavy on his mind even as he had hit send on his computer. He had not questioned them, but maybe he should have.
“Alternate” was the flip side of a deceptive coin, and the underbelly of something nasty. Not clean or clear cut, or something that would absolve him of all his sins and despicable actions. A penance. That is what “alternate” was. A way to pay.
Carol was the love of his life, his sweetheart since childhood. Marriage had been a struggle, that was certain, and maybe amid the craziness of life and work they had lost sight of the love, but it had been there still. He was sure of it. All the madness of money worries had brought something sinister into their lives, and he had reacted badly. Like a criminal and a coward.
Controlling Carol had worked – at first. She became a supplicant, but at what cost? The fire had gone from her, and he had hated that. Despite the initial relief to his wallet, controlling Carol had started a chain reaction.
The second link in that chain had been the Alt part of this insane programme. With no spark left in their marriage, once the Alternate version came into play, some master of the game had drawn Carol to Morris. David thought he remembered them meeting once two years ago, at the bank’s Christmas party. Then – in that version of the world – Carol had said that Morris was the most boring man she had ever met. But in the version he had “made alternate” she had obviously found something very attractive.
He loved her but he knew he had done something irrevocable to her and to their life. He missed her, even as her side of the bed was still going cold, but knew she could not come back. Not in this version of the world. And if she did come back, if he could make that so – what then? Wouldn’t it all just start over?
In his study, faced with the open, greedy, animal mouth of his monitor (as in the lizard, he thought, and shivered), he had a choice to make.
The words blinked at him:
Who/what do you want to Delete?
Enter it into the box
Could you delete an idea, a concept? A troubled marriage? A criminal thought?
Could you delete expensive shoes and handbags? Unfulfilled dreams? Could you make all those problems go away and leave perfection and simplicity in your life?
He could delete Morris. It would not be killing him. It would be making it so he had never been born – all that Morris-shaped space in the world re-shifting and refilling with the aura of someone else, or no one else.
But then, would the fraud come back to him? With no one to shift it onto, would it come back? He could not risk that.
He could delete Carol.
The thought made him physically jolt, like someone had stuck a needle into him. He did not know where the thought had come from.
If there had never been a Carol, where would he be now? Who would he be? Would he be married to someone else, and committing fraudulent acts for them instead? Was it really Carol that had made all this happen and made him a criminal and a weak, weak man?
Carol. Love of his life. Now the love of Morris’s life. His love, his hopes, and his dreams stolen by another man. It was unbearable.
Who/what do you want to Delete? – the words still blinked; each beat was a question. The same question.
He took a drink of the whiskey from the tumbler by the side of his computer. He had drunk almost all of it. A pack of cigarettes – bought that morning and just two left – lay to the side, next to a small plastic tube of anti-depressants that he had considered taking but was worried would not work.
Carol had been prescribed those when the doctor told her, four years into their marriage, that they could not have children. His fault, not hers, but she had stayed, and eventually replaced the pills with shoes and manicures and friends who did not see beneath the veneer. She had never really been happy. He knew that. Maybe it was time to put her out of her misery.
He finished the final two cigarettes as he watched the question flash over and over on his screen, and drank the last of the whiskey. The hour was late and he was tired. He needed to do this.
His fingers trembled as he typed in a name, hesitated just a half beat, and hit send.
Carol was a very lucky woman. She told herself this every day as she went down to the kitchen to make breakfast. Her kitchen, like her house, was huge and sunny, and she loved to get up first to put the coffee and eggs on, and to prepare for the day.
She’d been married for 18 years and life could not be any better. She had a husband who adored her, who made enough money as CEO of his own bank to support her and her love of shoes and handbags, and who would do anything for her. She had everything.
Everything plus three gorgeous, amazing children – 17, 14 and 10 years old. She could not even imagine a life without them in it.
Being a mum was what Carol Morris had always been born to do.
Debbi Voisey has been published in The Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2015, National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2016, and is a short story reviewer at TSS (www.the shortstory.co.uk). She is currently working on getting her novel published while juggling a job with DHL in communications. She can be found twittering @DublinWriter and has a website – My Way by Moonlight (www.debbivoisey.co.uk).