May 27, 2010

Here’s the third chapter of my novel, Railroaded, which means the first three chapters are now online, the requirement of most literary agents. So now you can read the opening to this novel, put yourself in an agent’s position…and send me a rejection.

I’m blaming the cover letter at the moment.

You can read the first chapter here.


The huge sprawling office complex of The Pharmara Corporation stretched across the entire 15 mile brow of the hills overlooking Wigthorn. Deemed an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ by The World Heritage Foundation in the past, the trees and hedgerows once lining this landscape had been replaced by pure white buildings sealed with black solar panels, no windows or doors faced the town of Wigthorn. This was the view a Wigthornian would see if he or she looked northwards, if one were to look south across the sea towards France then the horizon would be filled with the tops of wind turbines like rows of runaway wagon wheels careering through the English Channel out towards the Atlantic Ocean. Wigthorn was a town cannibalising its natural assets in order to survive, as all towns were.

The Pharmara Corporation headquarters up on the hills of Wigthorn were only on one floor and designed to have no right angles or curves, every corner was irregular and every surface flat like a stealth fighter plane. Each department has its own building, the biggest being ‘Statistical Acquirement and Analysis’, it tracks every single item leaving the factory floor; from products and packaging to pallets and people. Every item has its own CBID tag (Constant Broadcast Identification) transmitting, via satellites, its vital statistics 10 times every second. Temperature, location, speed, humidity, human DNA in vicinity, other items in vicinity, the speed, temperature, location of those nearby humans and other items…and so it went on, every statistic was vital.

Amy sat at her ergonomically perfected desk looking at live graphs and numbers reflecting the reality outside as The Pharmara Corporation products moved about the country; changing hands, changing temperature, changing altitude, appearing and disappearing. All desks were communal and free of personal identity as employees were always being moved around to discourage the establishment of friendships and other time wasting activities. The desk surface was a flat media display recreating an electronic version of a keyboard and navigation to operate the computer. The media display of the desk continued to slope upwards until it was vertical and showed the necessary documents, files and video. Each desk was part of a hexagonal unit housing its six workers like a hive, each unit a finely engineered cog, each office ordered by rank, each department born into a caste. Amy’s face was lit up by all the information dancing in front of her, her eyes hypnotised by the constant manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposing of The Pharmara Corporation’s output. Where others saw charts and figures, Amy saw people and relationships. Amy didn’t feel like a God, she felt like a voyeur.

Amy leaned back in her chair to pull her brunette hair back into a pony tail, she always felt it was better off tied up and put away at the back somewhere. Amy didn’t get many compliments about her appearance, only whispered comments about her lack of effort. When she did make an effort for a Christmas party one year the overwhelmingly positive response put her in a place where she didn’t want to be; the centre of attention. Being brought up by a single father, along with three older brothers, meant her feminine aspirations and instincts lacked any kind of subtlety or acute honing but this was how she liked it. There was something to be said for simple emotional needs. There was also something to be said for keeping things simple elsewhere in life; the wardrobe, the bedroom and the kitchen. Jeans, t-shirts, occasional flings and toasted sandwiches were enough sustenance. That’s what she told herself, anyway.

Amy was putting together a report detailing a sudden upsurge of ‘Giant Bolster’, a muscle building chocolate bar, when a holographic representation of her supervisor appeared in the centre of the hexagonal desk overlooking the six media displays of the hive. He first appeared with his back towards Amy and looked down upon each of his charges until he found the one he wished to speak to. Amy kept her head down and focused on the display in front of her when all of a sudden it shutdown. She slowly raised her eyes up to face her supervisor who now had her full, undivided attention.

“Miss Jay, I have been sent a request that you should meet with the Head of Statistical Acquirement and Analysis in precisely one hour.”

Amy felt a knot tighten in the pit of her stomach. Employees located in other corporations with the same job as Amy would now be detecting a sudden change in physical disposition. The manufacturers of her clothes, mobile device and shoes would be receiving data of a female, approximately 30 years old, located in an air conditioned Pharmara office on the hills of Wigthorn. Heart rate had just gained a few beats per minute, body temperature had just dropped a few degrees and body was slightly shaking due to frenetic foot tapping. All this would be lost within the masses of aggregated information passing from customer to seller via satellite but it was still recorded and available for analysis all the same. In quiet moments Amy liked to drill down to an individual and watch them via their vital statistics and imagine what they were actually like, as a person.

“Do you know why?” Amy asked.

The supervisor looked down at Amy, “Her P.A. did not specify. Report back to me when you return.” With that, the hologram flickered for a split second before disappearing in a puff of smoke, an amusing touch added by a new employee with time on his hands. Tiny giggles rippled around the desk unit breaking the deafening silence of the office.

Once the quiet was quickly restored, Amy racked her brains to find a reason why the Head of Statistical Acquirement and Analysis would want to see her. Amy had never met Estelle Hawthorne, only a glimpse of her on the odd occasion when she had breezed through the office on her way somewhere else. Being the head of department seemed to mean that you rarely spent any time there or interacted with your own staff.

A co-worker sitting at a desk directly behind whispered to Amy, “Are you OK?” A Pharmara subsidiary manufactured the jeans Amy was currently wearing and this co-worker had quickly drilled down to track Amy as soon as she heard the supervisor talking to her. Amy dismissed the concern by ignoring her co-worker, there was no such thing as privacy in the tracking department of any corporation.

The hour dragged along and all Amy could do was try to think of a reason why she was being summoned. As the final seconds ticked by she still hadn’t come up with anything that made sense or was even remotely possible, when all of a sudden a preset alert startled her and signalled the waiting was over. Amy arose from her exquisitely styled chair and exited her department towards Estelle Hawthorne’s office.

As Amy walked through a myriad of offices and corridors she gave herself an internal pep-talk; demanding she stay strong, confident, to be in control, a winner, not one of life’s victims. Then the disturbingly improbable, but nonetheless true, thought pierced her one-woman motivational seminar, she didn’t know anyone who had actually spoken to Estelle Hawthorne or had been in her office. Amy knew where the door to her office was and the receptionist who sat outside it like a Grenadier Guard with matching hairstyle, unable to smile through duty.

“Oh my God!” thought Amy, “What if Estelle has a stupidly high pitched voice or a lisp and I start laughing?!” These thoughts weren’t the kind she needed so she returned to the motivational seminar in her mind.

Amy approached the receptionist, “Hello, I’m Amy Jay and I have a meeting scheduled with Miss Hawthorne.”

“Yes, go on through.” The beehive said without deviating from her work or posture.

A pair of large double doors automatically slid open as Amy approached them and she walked through. Immediately opposite were another pair of double doors but they did not slide open as she walked closer. Amy tried to push them but they were not to be budged. The first doors shut behind her so she was enclosed in a fairly small space, then she could feel the whole room begin to descend. This elevator was unexpected but non-threatening; there was light and barely audible soulless music. A few seconds passed, the elevator ceased its descent and the doors in front of Amy opened to reveal the office of Estelle Hawthorne.

The first thing to hit Amy was the size and shape of it, an extremely large circular room covered on all sides by glass. As Amy stepped in she glanced at the floor to check her footing and was taken aback by the sight of tropical fish swimming in the crystal blue waters beneath. Estelle was sitting at a large round table in the centre of the room and beckoned Amy over. As Amy walked towards the chair she looked at the walls, there appeared to be soil behind the glass. As she focused in on certain areas she could see cross-sections of burrows and warrens occupied with their architects and inhabitants.

Amy turned to focus her mind back on the meeting and sat herself in one of the chairs at the end of the grand, circular table. At the other end sat Estelle Hawthorne; dressed in a figure hugging, charcoal coloured suit with her smoky grey hair elegantly blowing out the top. Her face was intriguingly beautiful; smooth tanned skin, rejuvenated lips, rehoused cheek bones, an inviting smile like a good deal and intense blue eyes like the small print. A woman of her age should not look this good, although a woman this wealthy had no excuse to look otherwise.

Seated next to Estelle was a middle aged man in a suit who knew his place and sat in it comfortably, waiting for Estelle to get the meeting started. Estelle stood up from her chair and walked over to Amy’s side of the desk. “Welcome Amy, I’m Estelle Hawthorne.” Her outstretched hand shook Amy’s as she took a seat next to her. “Call me Estelle. I’m glad you could come, it’s always nice to meet fellow employees.” Being this close to Estelle and sitting face-to-face was unnerving especially with the other man looking at her from across the other side of the desk. What was even more unnerving was Estelle’s apparent friendliness.

“Amy let me introduce you to Gerard Abbot.” Amy looked over at Gerard as he nodded his acknowledgement across the desk. “Gerard is one of our managers from the Purchasing department; more specifically he purchases body parts for Research & Development. A recent purchase has resulted in a few irregularities and Gerard has asked us for assistance.”

Amy, keen to show that she wasn’t nervous about being in such considerable company but even more keenly aware that she shouldn’t say anything idiotic, cautiously replied, “OK.”

“Gerard, could you go into further detail about our predicament?”

“Yes, of course. I recently purchased a stomach and our research scientists have been taking a closer look at it. It turns out that minute remains of illegal plant DNA have been found within the stomach lining. Further investigations have revealed that the genetic code is that of a tomato but not a patented version manufactured by an approved source. Creating improved hybrids of fruits and vegetables and owning their patent is, as I’m sure you know, one of The Pharmara Corporation’s main areas of business. If an emerging black-market of illegal produce was to take a foothold it could threaten the future of The Pharmara Corporation and the market as a whole. We need to end this production not only to end the proliferation of illegal industry but, more importantly, illegal seeds being released into the natural environment would threaten food crops up and down the country resulting in economic instability.”

Estelle took over the conversation, “As you can see Amy, we cannot let this happen.”

Amy, feeling the focus of unwanted attention, entered the conversation with more certainty and confidence, “I’m not sure where I fit into all this. This isn’t the first case of natural fruit and vegetables being found and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Why don’t you go back to the auction house and ask them where the stomach came from?”

“We’ve already tried.” answered Gerard. “They are not legally obliged to release that information.”

“Not even at a price?”

“Some things can’t be bought such as reputation and integrity. At 20% commission, those guys know which side of their bread is buttered.”

“So you’ve come to a dead end?”

“Not exactly.” replied Estelle regaining Amy’s attention. “We’ve managed to identify the stomach’s owner via DNA records.”

“How can anonymous DNA records have any identifying information that could trace an owner of a stomach? Only the government has personally identifying records of people.”

“Mostly true, however we are allowed to personally track employees via their DNA.”

“So if you already know who this Pharmara employee is, I still don’t know where I come into the equation.”

“We need you to help track down the origin of the illegally grown tomato. We need to find out where this person lived, the places she frequented, the friends she kept, family, etc. Any one of these trails could lead us to our target.”

“Surely you already know most of this if you’ve been tracking this employee. Why me though? There are more qualified and skilled members of your department than me for this kind of work, why me specifically?” Amy let some concern spill into her voice.

Estelle leaned back in her chair and turned down the intensity in her eyes. Gerard leaned forward in his chair across the desk and spoke with a smile, “Because you knew her.”

“Who?”

“The owner of the stomach.”

Amy only knew of one person who it could possibly be. Only one person she knew had died in the past year. “Who is it?” Replied Amy, focusing every sinew of her mind to think of absolutely anything except…

“Nicole Miller.” Estelle stole Gerard’s thunder.

“Nicole?”

“You do know Nicole Miller, right?” continued Gerard.

“Yes, yes, of course.” Amy knew immediately there was no point lying, there would have been reams of tracking data showing Nicole and Amy socialising. It was undeniable they were friends; they had lunch together a few times every week, did yoga every Tuesday evening at the local gym, bought birthday presents for each other and also communicated via email and mobile device. Despite the age gap of about 30 years, Amy considered Nicole a close friend. Someone she had grown very fond of over the years, not quite a mother figure more of an older sister. She admired her vitality, her knowledge, her enthusiasm and the way she was always friendly and nice to everyone, always willing to take time out to help people. Amy had missed her so much over the past few weeks since she had died, not only losing a friend but a mentor and a role model. Amy was slightly confused though, Nicole and Amy shared many alternative views on the world but she had never mentioned anything about being a ‘Mother Naturist’.

“Did she ever talk about growing or buying illegal produce?” asked Gerard.

“No, she didn’t. This is a bit of a shock to me, as you can imagine. I never knew that she would take part in anything like that. Are you sure it’s definitely her?”

“O’yes, there’s no doubt.” answered Gerard. “Her husband confirmed it himself.”

“He’s seen the stomach?”

“No, he was at the auction.”

“What the hell was he doing there?”

“I’m not sure but he’s an avenue we plan to look into further.”

“Do you know Isaac Miller, Amy?” asked Estelle, still looking effortless in the chair.

“No I don’t. I’ve never met him. Nicole said he was very involved in his work and only mixed with family and one or two very close friends.”

“What is this very involving work?”

“He worked in the garden a lot.”

“How involved can gardening get?”

“I’m not sure; I’ve never had a garden. He was retired and worked in his garden, how suspicious can one get about that?”

“Don’t you think it strange that a friend of yours never spoke to you about her husbands work?” Estelle leaned forward to closely examine Amy’s response.

“Stranger than meeting the head of my department for the first time after 10 years? Stranger than being asked questions you already know the answer to? Stranger than this office? What’s with all the fish and the rabbits?” Amy’s outburst had taken her by surprise but somehow it had enabled her to convincingly change the subject.

Estelle leaned back, smiled and raised her hands to show off her office, “Yes, yes, you are right. The world’s a strange place isn’t it?” Estelle stood and released the tension in the room. “So, what do you think of it?”

“It’s big.”

“I’m important, it has to be big. You can’t be in my position, have a small office and earn respect. It doesn’t work.”

“Why the fish and all the soil? Do they earn you respect too?”

Estelle starts walking around the perimeter of her office, “They don’t know we’re here. The glass is one-sided so we can see the fish below and the rabbits and moles in the soil, but they can’t see us. They have no idea we’re here watching them. It’s important to observe the observed without them knowing they are being observed.” She turned to look at Amy, “It’s important in our line of work that we make ourselves invisible.”

“But everyone knows everything is tracked. We’re hardly invisible.”

“If we remain out of sight and out of mind then we become forgettable, this is virtually the same as being invisible.”

Amy looked around the office as she was beginning to feel uneasy. “I’m not sure I’m following you Miss Hawthorne.”

“Estelle, please.” Estelle advanced towards Amy, “I mean that our work is to measure, we don’t need to watch everyone all the time. We can observe by numbers. We track, we measure, we analyse and we make changes to improve efficiency and increase profit. The division between the observed and the observer is paramount.” Estelle placed her hand lightly on Amy’s shoulder and then walked past to the other side of the office whilst talking, “If dissenting voices were to suggest that alternative paths could be chosen, alternatives that resulted in irregular patterns of behaviour, then where would that leave us?”

Amy remained silent and straight faced as a defence against not knowing what the hell she was going on about.

“Inefficiency and less profit, that’s where, which would lead into unknown depths of inhumanity.”

“Am I under suspicion?” Amy said with some clarity.

“For what?” Estelle playfully replied.

“For being involved in this situation, however remote.”

“Oh, I know you’re not involved directly. The short elevator ride down here confirmed that you are clear of any evidence. I believe that only circumstance has brought you here, so please do not feel under any pressure. I only wish to make it clear to one of my most valued employees that matters of patent violations and genetic sabotage are taken very seriously. I only hope that you will help us to solve and eradicate such crimes.”

“Of course, I’ve given my whole working life to this company and my intentions are to work harder for more responsibility.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear of such determination. Gerard and I like to thoroughly grill potential new recruits, please forgive us. I’ve heard nothing but good things about your performance, that’s why I’ve decided to help your advancement by transferring you to a special security team, headed up by Gerard, who will work with our legal department to track down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. I’d like you to start immediately as the special liaison between ‘security’ and ‘analysis’ and be their dedicated ‘eye in the sky’, if you’d like the position?”

“Thank you. I’m not sure what to say.” Amy forced a smile for Estelle and Gerard. “I would love to take this opportunity, thanks.”

“OK, good.” Estelle returned to her seat next to Gerard. “Take the rest of the day off, your old team will have to get used to life without you. Details of your new job will be sent to you later this afternoon. Go home, get some rest and come in refreshed ready for tomorrow.”

“Yes. Thanks again.” Amy turned and made her way back to the elevator and stepped in. As the doors started to close, Amy turned and stole a look at Estelle and Gerard. They had remained in their seats and were silently looking at Amy. Amy returned their gaze unblinkingly until it was broken by the closing doors.

Estelle turned to Gerard, “Well, I think that’s set the cat amongst the pigeons.”

Amy knew she was walking out of The Pharmara Corporation offices for the last time. The sense of being used was almost palpable, the first time she meets her head of department, she’s offered a plum job and given the afternoon off? She’d never heard of such things happening before in her decade of service at Pharmara. Her faith in Nicole trumped that of her employer, so in Nicole’s husband she would trust. Pharmara were clearly keeping their cards close and had earmarked Amy as an expendable resource in closing this matter which only added to Amy’s curiosity, meaning she would have to work quickly to get Isaac hidden from prying eyes and find out what he had to say before she decided on giving him up or helping him further. She could stay and start trampling on people to ascend the greasy pole and further her career or run away but neither option sat comfortably. Amy wanted answers and quickly discovered she wanted out. Throwing it all away on a whim increased the average heartbeat of 31 year old women in Wigthorn by 0.0003% – a 10 second video advertisement for a heart tablet to be taken twice daily was triggered and sent to her mobile device and every other 31 year old female in Wigthorn and the surrounding area.

Amy just hoped Nicole didn’t have bad taste in men.

There was no time for one last nostalgic tour of the offices or saying goodbye to the few people she actually liked and there was no time for rest, she had to find Nicole’s husband before they did.


Feel free to post any comments about chapter 3!

2 Responses to “Railroaded: Chapter 3”

  1.  August 14th, 2010 at 12:34 am VMAX guy says:

    A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your sister.

  2.  August 14th, 2010 at 12:05 pm Ben says:

    Estelle is the sister I never had? Hmmmm, I’ll ponder that one.

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