Soulless
By: Steve Carr

The name Simon Hedwick faded from the computer screen and then the computer shut down. John Preston opened the computer and removed the hard drive and put it in his leather satchel. He then pulled the cover down over the computer and then slung the satchel over his shoulder. He looked around at his cubicle, noting the many tacks that were stuck in the empty walls where three years of news articles about Simon Hedwick along with many pictures of him had hung. He walked out of the cubicle and down the aisle between the cubicles saying goodbye to his co–workers.

"You off to write that book?" the Op–Ed Editor asked.

"Sure am," John replied.

"It going to be about your idol Simon Hedwick?" the News Editor called out.

"We'll see," John answered. "That depends on how close I can get to him."

He reached the elevators and waited impatiently until the doors opened. Brian Short, the features editor, stepped out of the elevator. He patted John on the shoulder.

"So, this was your last day with us," he said. He took a cigar from inside his suit jacket and handed it to John. "This is for good luck."

"Thanks, but I don't smoke cigars," John said.

"You'll need to learn," Brian said as he shoved the cigar in John's pocket. The gold band of his ring with the hangman's noose engraved in it gleamed.

John stepped into the elevator. The doors closed.

# # #

Six months later at a little before midnight John stepped out of the elevator on the ninety–eighth floor of the Hedwick Tower and into Simon Hedwick's outer office. Stooped over, her bent back weighted by a large hump, Hilda stood at the door to Simon Hedwick's office with one hand on the knob and her other hand on a cart containing cleaning equipment equipment and supplies. She looked John up and down, from head to toe. "You gettin' a promotion?" she asked.

John straightened his tie. "How did you know?"

She squinted at him, sizing him up. "People always come at this time of night when they're movin' up. It's one of Mr. Hedwick's peculiarities."

"Mr. Hedwick called me himself to come right away," John said. "I didn't know Ruth Eberson was leaving her position."

Hilda lowered her voice to a raspy whisper. "Mr. Hedwick don't like being told no." She opened the door. "He'll be back in a few minutes. You can come in and wait for him while I clean up." She pushed the cart into the office and scanned the room as John walked in behind her. The smell of cigar smoke hung in the air. John went to the window and looked out at the city skyline.

Hilda took a broom and dust pan from the cart and swept up a mound of ashes that were on the floor in front of a chair with a red velour seat placed in front of a large mahogany desk. She then poured the ashes into a brown paper bag and then brushed a pile of ashes from the seat into the bag. She shook the bag and pulled out a gold ring with a hangman's noose insignia. She dropped the ring into her pocket, returned the broom, dustpan and brush to the cart and wheeled it to the door.

"Good luck, young fella," she said.

John turned. "Thank you," he said. "I'd like to ask you some questions sometime if you wouldn't mind."

Hilda let out a loud cackle. "I've been here almost from the day this tower was built and I can tell you it's best not to go about askin' questions."

Just as she walked out, Simon Hedwick walked in. He was tall and skeletally thin. His expensive suit hung loosely from his frame. He wore a toupee that moved almost imperceptibly around on his head. A lit cigar hung protruded from the right side of his mouth. "You're John Preston," he said with a mixture of question and statement as he walked to John with his hand out.

"Yes, I am. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hedwick," John said, shaking Mr. Hedwick's hand.

"Call me Simon," he said, as he took his throne–like seat behind his desk. He waved to the chair that Hilda had just brushed off. "Please sit down."

John sat down and looked at the hand that Simon had shaken. It tingled as if it had just been exposed to an open flame. When he looked up, Simon was holding a black velvet ring–sized jewelry box.

"You come with a good resume in communications and media and your past six months with us has demonstrated your talents," Simon said, "but before I tell you your duties, I ask only one thing, your total allegiance to me. Do you understand?"

John nodded. "This is a huge honor, Mr. Hedwick, I mean, Simon. I've followed your every step religiously for several years now. You work miracles."

"Exactly what I want everyone to know," Simon said. He pushed the box across the desk. "This is a symbol of our union."

John took the box and slowly raised the lid. Inside was a gold ring with an insignia of a hangman's noose. "This is beautiful," he said as he took the ring out and slipped it on his right index finger.

Simon reached for his glass humidor with a large H carved into the top. "Do you smoke cigars?"

"No, sir."

"It's the first thing you'll need to learn," Simon said. He took a gold lighter from inside his suit jacket and tossed it to John.

#

The blades of the helicopter continued to whirl as John and then Simon climbed out of the back seat and ran across the park and stopped at the line formed by police holding the crowds back. Across the street a dust cloud hung over the collapsed high rise apartment building. Firefighters and other first responders were climbing over the pancaked remains of the structure and shining flashlights and peering into the holes and crevices in the slabs of cement. When a child was pulled from the rubble, the crowd cheered.

A gust of wind blew dirt into their faces. John wiped his with the back of his sleeve.

"Who's to blame for this?" he asked.

Simon took a cigar from his jacket and put it in his mouth. "Blame?"

"Buildings don't just collapse like this," John said. "You own this property so you know who built it."

Simon laid his hand on John's shoulder. "My lawyers are already at work scrubbing my name from any connection with it."

Two firefighters yelled out, "We've located another one."

"But you do know who built it?" John asked.

"If one of those snoops in the press digs up something that says I had anything to do with this building, ever, your job is to deny it, just as you did with that dam collapse." He gripped John's shoulder, hard. "You did an excellent job on that, and on the rape charges that nurse accused me of. Just keep doing your job, which isn't to ask me questions."

The two firefighters pulled out the body of a dead woman.

"But, what about the dead…" John started.

"The dead serve a purpose," Simon said harshly. He removed his hand. "When I get on social media and post comments about the sadness of this tragedy the public will love me even more than they do already. I'll join them in wanting to bring to justice whoever caused it." He lit his cigar.

"What happens when the builder or architect mentions your name?"

Simon chuckled. "You already know that people who might cause me problems just suddenly vanish, like a puff of smoke." He blew a smoke ring that lifted in the air and disappeared.

"Things like this just don't go away," John said.

"Sure they do," Simon said. "In a few days most everyone will forget everything about it except their good feelings about me. I plan these things very carefully."

"Plan?"

"You know well enough already that Simon Hedwick and serendipity aren't acquainted."

#

John stood at the podium facing a crowd of reporters. "Simon is in mourning at the loss of his great friend and President of the United States, Myles Tarkenton. The President's death in the horrific and unexplained fire at the presidential retreat has shocked Simon just as it has shocked the entire nation."

A reporter in the front row raised her hand.

"Yes?" John asked, pointing to her.

"This may be too soon, but has this tragedy made Simon give any thought to running for president?"

John twisted the ring on his finger. "Yes it is too soon, but I can assure you that Simon will heed the call of his country if the people demand it."

#

The limousine stopped a few yards from the beginning of the scorched earth. Yellow rubber cones had been placed along the dividing line between where the limousine was parked and what had been the street but was now blackened cement. Men in blue hazmat suits carried large red plastic body bags from the charred remains of houses that lined the sides of the street and tossed them unceremoniously into a dump truck parked on the burnt grass of what had been a lawn.

Simon and John watched what was happening outside on a television screen behind the driver's seat. Simon took a long drag on his cigar and blew out a cloud of smoke. "They died quickly," Simon said coolly.

John fidgeted with his Hedwick ring, twisting it around his finger. "That hasn't been determined yet."

Simon slammed the palm of his hand down on the white leather of his seat. "It's how it will be determined," he said through clinched teeth. "These back and forths with you are getting tiresome. It's your job to make certain the authorities determine the deaths were swift and the public feel only the emotions I want them to feel. Do you understand?"

"I don't know how you can cover up the deaths of over three hundred people who may have been gassed before they burned," he said, forcefully. "You can't hide the pictures of an exploded chemical plant and the subsequent incineration of three neighborhoods. The truth about what happened here will come out eventually."

Simon tapped his cigar on the edge of a gold ashtray installed in the door, breaking off the ashes from the cigar. "The truth is whatever I can convince people to believe," he said, "and people want to believe that I, Simon Hedwick, the man who supplies them with so many of the goods, products and services they love, want to believe me even when they know it's not the truth."

John felt sweat trickle from under his arms and down his sides. "What about the man who claimed he purposely caused the explosion?"

Simon looked at the television screen and watched as one of the men in a hazmat suit and carrying a bag folded over in his arms collapsed to his knees, his shoulders shaking. Two others rushed to him and helped him to his feet. The three bowed their heads, as if praying, before tossing the bundle into the truck. "The man who did this was paid handsomely. His family will be wealthy for generations to come."

John made an audible gasp. "What are you saying?"

Simon glared at him. "If people think that someone, anyone, is out to get me in one way or another, they'll go to any lengths to protect me. A lunatic sent to the electric chair to fry for blowing up one of my lesser important properties is a great diversion from reality that keeps everyone's eyes off the ball. It allows them to vent their anger built up over the crappy lives they feel they lead at a complete–and unbeknownst to them, innocent–stranger."

John held back the vomit that rose in his throat. "But I say again, Simon, people were burned to death."

"What is that saying about ashes to ashes?" Simon asked with a malevolent grin. He tapped on the intercom. "Karl, is it safe to roll down the windows?"

The chauffeur answered back. "It's not advisable sir."

Simon looked at John. "That's too bad. Poisoned air has a pleasant affect if you don't get too much of it."

John twisted the ring on his finger. "I just can't do this anymore," he said. "I only came to work for you because in the first place because I'm writing a book about you. I want to offer my resignation."

Simon smiled and nodded his head knowingly. "I know all about that book you're writing. In case you haven't noticed, there's little I don't know. When we get back to the city come up to my office and we can discuss this like gentlemen." He pulled a cigar out of his suit jacket and handed it to John.

#

Just before midnight, Simon stared out through the tinted window of his office at the glittering lights of the streets below. He chewed on the end of the cigar that protruded from the side of his mouth. A small cloud of smoke circled his head. He had his hands behind his back, nervously tapping the fingers of one hand in the palm of the other.

Across the room, Hilda silently brushed into a dust pan the mound of ashes from the red velour cushion of the chair sitting in front of Simon's desk. She then took the broom and swept the pile of ashes on the floor in front of the chair into the dust pan. She emptied the ashes into a brown bag and then peered into the bag as she shook the ashes about. With a loudly uttered "aha, another one" she reached into the bag with her long bony fingers and pulled out a gold ring. She rubbed the ring on her cleaning smock, gazed at the hangman's noose insignia on the ring, and then dropped it into a pocket on her smock. She then brushed into the bag the ashes and piece of cigar from the brass ashtray that stood next to the chair. Before opening Simon's office door she slowly scanned the room, making certain she had left nothing undone. She put her hand on the door handle just as the door was pushed open.

Rachel Monroe stuck her head in. "Mr. Hedwick?" she said, timidly.

Hilda cocked her head toward the direction where he was standing. "I had a clean up to do," she whispered.

Simon turned from the window. "You're done here, Hilda," he said. "Come in Rachel."

Hilda pushed her cart out into Simon's outer office and closed the door behind her as Rachel entered the office.

Simon sat in the chair behind his desk, removed the cigar from his mouth, and tapped the white ashes into a crystal ashtray with the letter H etched into its bottom. He put the cigar back into his mouth and waved his hand, directing Rachel to the chair with the red velour cushion. He gazed at her with a mixture of inquisitiveness and lust as she sat down and crossed her long legs. "Have a cigar," he said to her as he opened the glass humidor and held the cigars out to her.

Hesitantly, she leaned forward, took a cigar, and then settled back, uneasily. Beads of sweat formed above her lip. Her throat felt constricted, as if there were hands around her neck. "Did I do something wrong?" she stammered.

Simon closed the humidor and ran his fingers over the H cut into the lid. "The problem with ninety–nine percent of everyone who works for me is that they're always doing something wrong, but no you haven't done anything wrong, yet." He fixed his gaze on her exposed cleavage. "You're a fine looking woman, Rachel. I'd like to offer you the position as my spokesperson." He took a puff on his cigar. "It's a shame about John Preston's sudden resignation, but he just didn't seem to grasp my demand for total allegiance, but I'm sure you and I won't have that problem." He took his gold lighter from his inside suit jacket and tossed it to her. "Light up. We need to talk about the trip to my shipyards. There are some huge problems, very bad problems, going on there."

Rachel bit off the end of her cigar and spat it into the ashtray. After several attempts, she lit the lighter and put the flame to the cigar. She took several puffs and coughed until her face was red. She closed the lighter and leaned forward to hand it back to him.

"Keep it," he said. "Consider it a getting–to–know–you gift."

She put the lighter in her skirt pocket. "I'm familiar with your shipyards, Mr. Hedwick, but I didn't know there were problems."

He removed the cigar from his mouth and licked his lips. He peeled back his toupee and scratched his bald head. "There aren't problems yet, but there will be. When you're as powerful as I am, there are always problems. A disaster could happen any day now," he said. "Do you understand?"

Tears came to her eyes and her tongue burned as she took a drag on the cigar. She glanced down at the ring with the hangman's noose insignia on the index finger of her right hand. "I understand, Mr. Hedwick," she answered.

"Call me Simon," he said with a broad grin that exposed his yellow teeth.

THE END

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