The Lorelei Signal
The Voynich Group
Written by Jill Hand / Artwork by Marge Simon
The female voice that came out of the cell phone’s speaker sounded as if it was imparting really great news. It sounded like the cheery voices you hear in supermarket announcements, the ones that urge busy moms to hurry on over to aisle five and grab a healthy snack for their family.
Women supermarket shoppers are invariably referred to as “busy moms,” and they’re always being encouraged to grab some brand of juice box, or some violently colored fruit-flavored snack—never select, but grab—as if they’re presumed to be fleeing a forest fire or an advancing army. It’s one of the tricks of advertising: making consumers feel an urgent need, as one of my college professors used to say.
The voice which came from Sanjay Chakrabarty’s phone said this:
“You have reached the Voynich Group. Our office hours are nine a.m. to six p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday. If you know your party’s extension, press one now….” There was a pause, and then the voice dropped to an ominous, menacing growl.
“If you don’t know your party’s extension then you’re filthy scum who doesn’t deserve to live. You’ll be beaten with clubs, stripped naked and chased into the forest, where you’ll be devoured by wolves.”
Sanjay and I stared at each other, horrified, from where we sat on opposite sides of a booth in a bar called Dad’s Place. The booth’s red vinyl upholstery was haphazardly patched here and there with silver duct tape. In other places the vinyl had ruptured, disgorging bright yellow, crumbling foam padding. Dad’s Place might be called cozy if you were in a forgiving mood, or if you were very drunk. The pine-paneled walls on which were displayed faded photographs of race car drivers and boxing champions and Little League teams had absorbed decades of cigarette smoke. The place smelled of stale beer and the bartender’s pungent aftershave.
How Dad’s Place ever passed a health inspection was a mystery. The single, unisex restroom was so revolting it was best not to go in there unless you absolutely couldn’t avoid it, and then your shoes would smell of the thin layer of urine that was always on the floor. However, beers were only one dollar, and it was equidistant between my home and Sanjay’s and the office where we’d recently started working for the Voynich Group, whose main number was now playing a deeply disturbing message.
The cheap beer and convenient location was why Sanjay and I patronized a miasmic old man’s bar and not some club in downtown Burlington, where the music was deafening and multi-colored laser lights would be flashing like an insane carnival and people our age would be packed in, shouting and spilling drinks and generally behaving like idiots.
Besides the bartender and two skinny old guys who were playing pool, and three even older and skinnier guys who were perched like vultures on bar stools, silently watching a football game on the TV mounted above the bar, Sanjay and I were the only ones there. We could hear the pool balls clicking and the faint sound of the ball game but other than that it was dead quiet.
The recorded message continued, the woman’s voice having resumed its former upbeat, perky tone. “For shipping, press one now. For customer service, press two now. To summon Shax, marquise of hell, press three now. If you wonder who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp, press four now. To confess to a murder…”
I couldn’t stand to hear any more. This was the second time Sanjay had played it for me and it was freaking me out. “Turn it off,” I begged him. He pressed the red circle on his iPhone’s keypad, cutting off the woman in mid-word.
“What do you think is up with that?” he asked.
I had no idea.
“Maybe somebody hacked into the phone message system, as a prank?”
Sanjay nodded thoughtfully. “Or it could be industrial espionage by a rival company, to make them look bad,” he said.
“I think you mean industrial sabotage,” I told him, brushing crumbs of yellow foam padding from my dark blue wool skirt. The skirt was new and expensive, bought especially for my first full-time job after graduating from college in June, in the marketing department at the Voynich Group. I realized sadly my skirt would have absorbed the odor of grease from the hamburgers and onion rings they cooked in the squalid little kitchen behind the bar and would have to be dry-cleaned. The same went for my Fair Isle sweater. Damn natural fibers. Life was simpler when all my clothes were machine-washable and came from discount stores.
“Whatever, it’s just so weird,” Sanjay said, putting his phone back in his jacket pocket.
He drank the last of his beer. “Want another?” he asked, getting up and moving toward the bar.
I told him no; another beer and I’d have to use the restroom. No way did I want to do that. I gathered my coat and purse, told Sanjay I’d see him at work on Monday and headed home.
Driving, I thought about why Sanjay had called the office in the first place. It was a Friday night and he’d discovered upon reaching Dad’s Place that he’d left his scarf at work. He didn’t feel like going back for it so he called me on my cell phone, hoping I was still there. We’d agreed to meet at the bar. I’d been finishing up some work when he left. I finished what I was doing and neatened my cubicle. I was excited to have a cubicle, pathetic as that may sound, seeing it as the first step toward achieving my ultimate goal of a corner office with my name on the door. I was on my way to meet Sanjay when he called so I didn’t answer. I never answer the phone when I’m driving; I figure that whatever it is can wait until I get to where I’m going.
When I got to Dad’s Place Sanjay had already called work, hoping to reach someone who would retrieve his scarf from the breakroom, where he thought he left it before buying a candy bar from one of the machines and heading out for the night. It was after six and nobody picked up. Instead, his call was answered by the automatic answering system, which played the bizarre message.
Sanjay spent the remainder of our time at Dad’s Place alternately fretting about his scarf and wondering about the message. Who did it? Should we tell somebody? Should we tell Jeanne, the office manager? Did I think his scarf would be okay until Monday?
“It’s a nice challis scarf. My mother bought it for me when she was in Milan. She’ll be upset if I tell her I lost it,” he said, glumly studying the head of foam on his beer.
“Does this foam look like it’s a funny color?” he asked.
I told him it was fine; it just looked turquoise blue from the neon sign outside the window next to where we sat. The sign announced it to be Dad’s P, the other letters having burned out. The window, like everything else in Dad’s Place, could use a good cleaning.
“Why wouldn’t your scarf be okay? Nobody’s going to steal it,” I said.
Sanjay didn’t reply but his evasive expression provided the answer. He wouldn’t look me in the eye; instead he looked down and appeared to study the initials and messages that were carved into the booth’s scarred wooden tabletop. RILEY U R NO GOOD proclaimed one. I LUV BOOBS! exalted another.
“You think somebody from the cleaning crew is going to take it, don’t you? I said. I felt annoyed. He knew I worked on a cleaning crew when I was in college. He also knew my mother used to clean offices, after my dad left us and before she married my stepfather. Sanjay and I met when we’d been paired in a getting-to-know-you exercise for new hires at the Voynich Group in which we had to talk for three minutes about ourselves. I told him about my decidedly down-market life. In return, Sanjay told me about how he once broke his collarbone playing polo and how he got flying lessons for his sixteenth birthday so he could fly his father’s plane.
“It was only a little Beechcraft Bonanza,” he said modestly.
After that, I sometimes call him Thurston Howell the Third, after the rich guy on Gilligan’s Island.
“Listen,” I said heatedly. “Everybody thinks people who clean offices steal stuff, but that’s not true. Nobody I ever worked with, nobody my mother ever worked with ever stole one single thing, not ever. Even if we found money we’d put it in an envelope and leave it on the front desk. We wouldn’t even think of…”
Sanjay held up his hands. “Okay! Calm down! I get it. Cleaners don’t steal. I was just worried that somebody might see the scarf and go, hey! That’s a Philippe Orinzard! I always wanted one of those!”
“Then go get it tomorrow morning, if you don’t feel like doing it tonight,” I told him. And that’s exactly what he did.
I was watching a rerun of Doctor Who on Netflix while blow-drying my hair Sunday night, in preparation for work the next day. I couldn’t hear the TV with the blow-dryer going so I had it on closed caption. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate as the script running across the bottom of the screen read: ‘Sound of TARDIS taking off.’ I looked at my phone. It was Sanjay calling. I turned off the blow-dryer.
“Hi, what’s up?” I said.
On the TV, the Doctor had run into some Daleks. The caption read: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’
Sanjay said he went to the office on Saturday and found his scarf.
“That’s good,” I said, wondering why he felt he needed to call and tell me.
“Yeah, it was where I thought I left it, in the breakroom,” he said. There was a pause and he cleared his throat, “So anyway, Jeanne was there and I told her about the weird phone message.”
That was Jeanne Slover, the office manager. On our first day of work she handed us silver Mylar balloons with our names written on them in black marker. “Let’s welcome our newest family members: Sanjay, Miranda, Eric, and Nadia,” she announced loudly, throwing her arms open like a game show host introducing new contestants.
The office was built on an open plan, with glass walls and shoulder-high cubicles. Heads popped up over cubicle partitions at the sound of Jeanne’s words, looking like prairie dogs peeking out of their holes. Those higher-ups who merited glass-walled offices poked their heads out of their doors. There were broad smiles on every face. The CEO, a palsied old man with dark brown liver spots on his bald head, making him resemble an elderly Dalmatian, came tottering out to greet us personally.
“Welcome aboard. I’m Sheldon Shingler. Glad to meetcha,” he said, pumping our hands. I took his hand cautiously, not wanting to squeeze his arthritic fingers.
We introduced ourselves and he studied Sanjay with unabashed curiosity.
“Young man, where are you from originally? If you don’t mind my asking,” he said.
“Ohio, sir,” Sanjay replied.
Shingler clapped him on the shoulder. “How about that! Well, welcome to America, son. It’s the land of opportunity! You’ll find you can go far if you work hard and apply yourself.”
With that he turned and shuffled back into his office. Through the glass wall we saw him approach a black leather couch and carefully lower himself onto its cushions, kicking off his shoes before stretching out full-length and closing his eyes.
The four of us newcomers looked at each other, nonplussed.
“He thinks you’re from India, or Pakistan or something,” Eric whispered.
Sanjay shook his head. Not only was he born here but so were his parents. Nevertheless he gets asked where he’s from a lot, his name and his bronze skin and hawk-like nose making him stand out in our little pocket of Vermont.
Eric and Nadia worked in shipping and customer service, respectively. They were allowed to disappear into the elevator and go down to their departments but Sanjay and I had to walk through the main floor to our cubicles in the marketing department. We smiled fixedly, embarrassed at being the center of attention, our balloons bobbing behind us. People shook our hands and introduced themselves. I instantly forgot their names, which made me worried because they all knew mine; it was written on the silver balloon that Jeanne insisted on tying to the back of my desk chair.
“There! Now you’re all set,” she said, standing back and admiring the balloon as it swayed in the warm air blown down from the vent above my desk. “Coffee machines are right over there.” She pointed to an alcove. “There’s also hot water for tea. Is there any particular kind of tea you like?”
I couldn’t think of any.
“Orange pekoe? Green tea? Earl Grey? Lapsang souchong? Oolong?”
Those were a lot of different kinds of tea, none of which I’d ever had. I usually just drank Lipton. “I guess orange pekoe,” I said, since she hadn’t mentioned Lipton.
“Great! I’ll pick some up for you next time I’m at the store.”
I told her not to go to any trouble but she insisted.
“That’s what I’m here for, Miranda,” she said. “Is it Miranda, or do you prefer Randi?”
“Miranda’s fine,” I said.
“From The Tempest,” she said. Striking a dramatic pose, she proclaimed, “If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.”
It must have been obvious I had no idea what to make of that, because she added, “That’s Shakespeare.”
“Oh, right,” I replied, as if I was familiar with all of Shakespeare’s works. I’d read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in high school. This Tempest thing was news to me.
All that first day people kept dropping by my desk and saying hello. I told Sanjay later it must be what joining a cult feels like.
We’d been there a month and had two more to go until the end of our three-month probation period, after which we’d be eligible for health benefits and vacation days and other perks Larry Pantone, the head of human resources, had described vaguely but enticingly as “really, really terrific.”
Now Sanjay said Larry wanted to see us first thing in the morning.
“Why?” I asked. I patted my hair but it still wasn’t completely dry. I have extremely thick, curly hair, which people who have thin, straight hair tell me they envy but drying it takes forever.
“I don’t know. Jeanne Slover called a few minutes ago and said he wants to see us both as soon as we get in.”
That would be 9 a.m. I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to see us, or why it had to be the first thing in the morning. Maybe there was some kind of form we needed to fill out. I hoped we weren’t getting fired. I couldn’t think of anything we could have done wrong. Then I had a thought.
“Is it because of the phone message, do you think?”
“I don’t know, maybe. I told Jeanne about it and she called the main number from her phone but it was normal, nothing about wolves eating people or any of that other stuff.”
He sounded unhappy. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. She asked me to call it from my phone and it was the same: just the usual message. She kept asking me what it said, exactly, but I could remember, except that it was really weird. I told her you heard it too.”
In the background I could hear a shrill voice calling for Sanjay.
“Be right there,” he shouted. “My mom says they’re going out for dinner and do I want to go? See you tomorrow.” He disconnected the call, leaving me feeling apprehensive. If we were fired Sanjay would be just fine. He lived with his parents and two younger brothers in an enormous house with a six-car garage and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Tennis court? Check. Exercise room full of the most expensive equipment money can buy? Hell yeah. A movie theater that seated thirty and had a regulation-size popcorn machine and soda fountain? That too.
Sanjay’s family was filthy rich. Getting fired from the Voynich Group would be of little concern to him. I, on the other hand, was poor and I couldn’t move back in with my mom and stepdad because they’d given my former bedroom to my oldest stepsister, who had a baby and had broken up with her fiancé. I’d be out on the street if I lost my job and could no longer afford to pay the rent for the jerry-rigged little apartment in an old lady’s basement which I shared with the furnace and the water heater and boxes of the old lady’s possessions. The apartment probably wasn’t even legal, but it was the best I could do.
“Shit,” I said to the furnace. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
The following morning, after a restless night, I reported to human resources. Sanjay was already there. We sat grimly reading the notices on the bulletin board about a visit from the bloodmobile, a 5K fun run, and a reminder to recycle for a greener America.
Larry came out and beckoned us into his inner office. It had a floor-to-ceiling glass window through which Eric and Nadia, who’d been hired at the same time as Sanjay and me, were visible. They were standing next to the loading dock about twenty feet away, where a No Smoking sign was posted. They were bundled up in down jackets and smoking cigarettes.
Larry seated himself behind his desk. “Chilly day,” he remarked, making me suspect he’d noticed the two miscreants outside. He clasped his hands on his desktop and indicated the two chairs facing him. “Sit down. Relax. Jeez, you look like scared kids who got called to the principal’s office!”
He gave a merry laugh at that and Sanjay and I chuckled nervously. Larry went on, “You’re probably wondering why I wanted to see you.” He fixed us with a bright, inquisitive gaze and cocked his head to one side, like a bird. With his prematurely white hair and intelligent black eyes he resembled one of those long-legged birds that stalk around the edges of swamps.
Sanjay asked, “Is it about the phone message?”
Larry looked down at the yellow legal pad on his desk. “Jeanne told me about your…I guess you could call it an incident, Friday night.” He made finger quotes around the word “incident.” Sanjay and I bobbed our heads. Looking at the legal pad, Larry read, “Phone message alleging to come from our office, mentioning werewolves, ghosts, and demons, is that correct?”
Not exactly, Sanjay said. “There were no werewolves or ghosts, but it said something about a demon named snacks or sacks, and about people getting beaten up and eaten by wolves.”
“Shacks, that was the demon’s name,” I put in.
Larry opened his eyes wide. “Gosh! Shacks the demon! And you were at a bar when this happened?”
Larry fixed us with his bright, birdlike gaze. “Maybe you got confused,” he suggested. “Called the wrong number, maybe. Or maybe you had a few drinks…” He trailed off but his meaning was clear.
“I had one beer. Sanjay had two,” I said firmly. “We weren’t drunk.”
Through the window behind Larry’s shoulder I saw Eric nudge Nadia and point in our direction. They hastily threw down their cigarettes and vanished through the door to the loading dock.
Larry said he didn’t mean to imply we were drunk; only that we might have gotten mixed up. “It happens. Busy day at work, your mind’s on what you’ve got planned for the weekend. It’s easy to get mixed up and think you heard something you didn’t.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“And there was nothing the matter with the phone message on Saturday morning, right?”
Sanjay said there wasn’t. “But I know what I heard,” he stubbornly insisted.
Larry pursed his lips and swung his ergonomic desk chair from side to side in a wide arc. “How did it make you feel? Were you frightened? Intrigued? Angry? Or what?”
Sanjay said he felt frustrated. “It was just a lot of weird stuff. I wanted somebody to pick up so I could tell them to go get my scarf and put it in my desk.”
“A pragmatist,” said Larry, nodding. He halted his chair from its side-to-side movement. “How about you, Miranda, how did it make you feel?”
I thought about it. It was creepy but at the same time it was interesting. I wondered who’d done it and why, for what purpose? “Interested, I guess, and curious,” I said.
Larry smiled and wrote something on his legal pad. Then he stood up. Our meeting was over. We apparently weren’t being fired. That was a relief.
“Thanks for coming in and clearing that up,” he said, although we hadn’t cleared anything up, as far as I could tell.
Later that week I encountered Eric and Nadia at a fast-food restaurant where I’d gone to get lunch. They were eating burgers next to an indoor play area where children in the ball pit were violently lobbing plastic balls at each other. I stopped by their table to say hello.
“We handed in our notices today,” Nadia announced, taking a long pull from the straw in her cup of soda.
I was surprised to hear that. Like me, they’d only been there a month. Nadia said she was going to go to school to learn how to be a dental hygienist. She said Eric was going to learn how to become a carpenter.
Eric nodded and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “There’s an apprenticeship, for like, three or four years where they teach you everything.”
There was a long line at the counter, so I sat down with them while I waited for it to thin out. “Didn’t you like it at Voynich?” I asked.
“Do you?” Nadia asked.
I said I did. Work wasn’t terribly demanding. The one marketing campaign I’d been assigned to was for a dog treat called Chompers. The packaging had a frightening-looking dog on it that resembled a mastiff. I discovered from searching pictures of dogs online that it was called a Cane Corso and it was bred to hunt wild boars. The copy in red lettering above the picture of the dog read: Chompers! It makes dogs go wild! The dog on the packaging had yellow eyes and strings of saliva dripping from its jaws. It looked like going wild would be no problem for it.
“We think there’s something sketchy going on there, right, Eric?” Nadia asked.
Eric took a bite of his burger and chewed thoughtfully. “Uh-huh,” he said. “I worked in shipping before, over at the Book Bonanza warehouse, and we busted our asses. At Voynich there’s all this downtime, and my supervisor’s always coming over and saying shit.”
“What kind of shit?” I asked. Eric was black. I thought maybe his supervisor was being racist.
“He keeps asking do I like adventure, do I like to travel, shit like that,” he said.
“I told him it sounded like he’s trying to recruit him to become a drug mule,” Nadia said.
“Naw, I don’t think it’s like that,” said Eric. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I think it’s a scam.”
Nadia agreed that might be it. “We were talking, me and Eric, out by the loading dock, and he brought up this movie he saw, about con artists. They set up this place to look like a real business, with desks and computers and executive-type people walking around looking busy and everything. It was supposed to be some kind of financial consulting firm or something.”
She took another pull from her soda straw and rattled the ice in her cup. “They got the mark—that’s what they call the—to invest millions of dollars with them and then they took off, just cleared out and left without a trace.”
“It’s called the big store, that kind of con,” said Eric, nodding somberly, fishing the last French fry out of its cardboard container.
It seemed unlikely that doddering old Sheldon Shingler and Jeanne Slover, with her scrubbed, motherly face and cheerful insistence on getting me the kind of tea I liked, were part of a gang of con artists, but I wasn’t about to argue with them. I wished them luck in their new careers and went to order my food.
Sanjay was the next to leave. We’d been at Voynich almost three months by then and work had gotten busier. In addition to Chompers dog treats I now helped out with promotion ideas for a biodegradable tooth-flossing product called Floss like a Boss, as well as the National Rutabaga Growers Association account. We were in a marketing department meeting when Sheldon Shingler tottered into the conference room.
“I’m sorry to hear that you’re leaving us, Mister Chakrabarty,” he said to Sanjay. “We tried to make you feel welcome, but I suppose it was difficult for you, learning a new language and adjusting to our ways and customs. Good luck! Send us a postal card when you return to your homeland.”
Then he tottered out again. Shingler apparently still labored under the misconception Sanjay was a foreigner.
I looked at Sanjay. “You’re leaving?”
He said he was. He’d told Karen Kessler, the head of marketing, and she asked him not to say anything until she announced it at today’s meeting. That made me annoyed. It was as if he thought I couldn’t keep a secret.
Karen chimed in and said I’d be taking over Sanjay’s work on the Lidz ‘N Skidz account, which made me feel even worse. Lidz ‘N Skidz was a new account, a fashion line of matching hats and sneakers owned by a ten-year-old rapper called Lil’ Playtime. The hats and sneakers were covered with frenetic drawings of dinosaurs and octopuses and flower-bedecked skulls made by Lil’ Playtime himself. They were so hideous they’d probably be a huge success among his preadolescent fans. I doubted working with Lil’ Playtime, or with his representatives, since he’d probably consider himself too important to take my calls, would be easy. Working with the head of the National Rutabaga Growers Association, Maynard “Bud” Wilcox, was no day at the beach and he wasn’t nearly as famous as Lil’ Playtime.
The meeting continued. We ate miniature muffins Karen brought in from a bakery and took turns describing our progress. My attempts to contact Bruce Springsteen and try to interest him in endorsing Floss like a Boss had yielded no results, nor did I ever expect anything other than a polite yet firm refusal. Bud Wilcox wanted some kind of rutabaga-costumed mascot to appear at supermarkets and also a contest soliciting original rutabaga recipes. Marketing was beginning to grate on me and I’d only been doing it for a couple of months.
Later that evening, at Dad’s Place, Sanjay explained why he was quitting. First he said he was going back to school, but when he was unable to say what he’d be studying or what school he’d be attending, he admitted he had no plans whatsoever; he just wanted to leave.
“There’s something funny about work; it doesn’t feel right,” he said. That was what Nadia and Eric said before they quit.
I rubbed my arms to warm them up. I’d left my coat in my car, not wanting it to pick up the disgusting aroma of Dad’s Place. When I’d asked the bartender if he could make me something hot to drink he’d looked at me in bafflement, as if he’d never heard of such a thing.
“Hot spiced cider? Hot chocolate with brandy in it?” I asked plaintively. It was almost as cold inside as it was outside and my fingers were getting numb. Maybe they hadn’t paid the heating bill, or the furnace was broken.
“Don’t got no hot chocolate; no cider neither,” he said. “I guess I could heat up some rum in the microwave, you want that?”
I told him no thanks and ordered coffee instead. The coffee was terrible; I hadn’t expected anything else, but at least it was hot.
Wrapping my hands around the thick white coffee mug (there was a big chip in the rim, the kind of Dad’s Place special touch that means so much) I asked Sanjay what he meant by work not feeling right.
“Haven’t you noticed? I mean, what do we do all day?” he asked. “Rutabagas? Some kind of dog treat nobody’s ever heard of, with a picture of vicious dog on the front? That stupid role-playing game, Thunder Wizard Cave Warrior? Are you telling me those are real marketing accounts?”
Thunder Wizard Cave Warrior was one of Sanjay’s accounts. It was a board game that came in a purple box with pictures on it of bearded men in robes hurling lightning bolts at each other. We’d tried to play it one time, but gave up after about five minutes. The rulebook ran to something like two hundred pages and had to be read in its entirety before the game could begin. We simply weren’t motivated enough to want to embark on a quest to become lord of the thunder wizards.
“The box said it’s soon to become a major motion picture,” I said.
Sanjay shook his head. “Never going to happen. Something’s fishy about Voynich. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I got the feeling they were sizing me up, studying me or something. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being paranoid, but people I talk to online who work in marketing say they don’t sit around all day, the way we do. They have to work late sometimes, and sometimes they have to come in on weekends. We never do, and they have real accounts, not fucking Thunder Wizard Cave Warrior.”
“Lil’ Playtime’s real,” I said. “I heard him on the radio.”
Sanjay took a swallow of beer and made a face. “Horrible,” he said. “Yes, Lil’ Playtime’s real; I’m not denying that. They probably have some real accounts to make them seem legit. The bottom line is I don’t like working there so I’m leaving. I’m not saying it’s a front for the CIA or anything, just something didn’t feel right to me about it. If you like it there, fine.” He smiled and said we should stay in touch. He said the one thing he was going to miss about Voynich was hanging out with me.
I went home feeling sad. When people say they’re going to stay in touch they rarely do. I learned that from my father, whom I haven’t seen since I was eight. Once somebody’s out of your life they’re usually gone for good.
More time passed. It was almost the end of my three-month probationary period. I decided to go in to work one Saturday, partly to prove Sanjay was wrong and it was a perfectly normal business, and partly because I’d forgotten that I promised to leave the art department a note about my ideas for Rhonda, mascot for the National Rutabaga Growers Association. The way I envisioned it; Rhonda was a glamorous nineteen-forties-style pinup girl in the form of a rutabaga. She would be sexy yet tasteful, making consumers want to give rutabagas a try.
The office was located in an industrial park made up of identical tan-colored brick buildings. They were warehouses, gyms, medical testing places, day care centers, a weekly newspaper, as well as businesses whose nature was unknowable by the signage outside: JTM Industries, Bunbury Consulting, Plasner and Smoot, LLC. The Voynich Group was on Woodcliff Way, the second left after entering the industrial park, followed by the second right. The first few times I went there I’d gotten lost. Not only did the buildings all look the same, the streets all had similar names: Woodlake, Woodfield, Woodbridge. It’s amazing that mail got delivered to the right places.
There were two vehicles in the parking lot when I pulled in. I recognized the green pickup truck belonging to Jeanne Slover. I didn’t recognize the black BMW parked next to it.
There was no sign of anyone when I walked through the main floor, turning on lights and peeping into cubicles. It was interesting to see what kind of things people had in their cubicles. I took the note I’d written about ideas for Rhonda’s costume back to the art department and placed it in the in-box. When I walked out again, turning off lights as I went, there were Jeanne and Larry Pantone, standing side by side in the front lobby. They were watching me.
“Look who’s here on a Saturday!” said Larry.
“Didn’t I tell you she was a hard worker? She’s exactly the type of person we need for our next big project,” Jeanne said.
From the way they were looking at me, with anticipatory grins and laser-focused eyes, I sensed their big project had nothing to do with marketing. Eric and Nadia and Sanjay were right; something funny was going on. I wondered if I should try and make a run for my car. I could probably outrun Jeanne but I wasn’t so sure about Larry.
I was ready for just about anything—an invitation to join a cult, or to become part of the adult film industry—anything other than what Larry did next, which was to hand me several color photocopied pages on which were drawings and words written in a language I thought at first might be Latin. One of the pages had a drawing of what looked like hair rollers strung on a cable. The cable was coming out of something that looked like a hot tub filled with green water. The hot tub had seven naked people in it.
“Do you know what this is?” Larry asked.
“No,” I said. I’d never seen anything like it before. I looked more closely at the writing. It wasn’t Latin.
“It’s part of the Voynich Manuscript. The original’s at Yale University in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It was written the fifteenth century in an encrypted language. The world’s best codebreakers have had a go at it, including some of the ones who worked at Bletchley Park during World War Two. They couldn’t crack it,” he said.
I’d heard of Bletchley Park. It was in a movie about a computer genius I’d gone to see because it had Benedict Cumberbatch in it. Wheels were starting to slowly turn in my brain. Voynich Group-Voynich Manuscript. There must be some kind of connection.
“We know what the manuscript says because we wrote it,” Jeanne said proudly. “Not us, personally, but earlier members of our organization.”
Maybe they’re Masons, or the Illuminati, or maybe they’re just nuts, I thought.
“We call ourselves the Voynich Group as a tribute to the manuscript, which has very powerful uses, for those know how to decipher it,” Larry said.
Jeanne nodded her head. “If you join us, you’ll be working for the betterment of mankind. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve saved the world.” She said this as casually as if she’d said she couldn’t tell me how many times she’d gassed up her pickup truck over the years, but it had to be a lot.
“There are occasional mishaps, unfortunately. That thing in Tunguska didn’t work out as planned, but there was no real damage done,” she mused.
There was movement outside the window. It was the white van with an orange flashing light on top driven by the security officers who kept an eye out on things in the industrial park. It was making a loop of the parking lot. I thought about running out and flagging it down, but I didn’t. Jeanne and Larry hadn’t threatened me. Maybe it was a prank they pulled on all new employees, pretending to be part of an ancient secret organization and then laughing and saying gotcha when somebody fell for it.
“We can’t give you details, but if you join us, you’ll be amply rewarded, both financially and in the sense that you’ll be doing important work,” Larry said. If he was joking he gave no sign of it. He paused and gave me one of his bright, birdlike looks. “There will be adventure, and a certain amount of danger.”
The van finished its loop of the parking lot and drove away. “Let me think about it,” I told them. “I’ll let you know on Monday.”
I went home and looked up the Voynich Manuscript online. It existed, and just as Larry said, nobody knew what the writing meant, or what it was for. I also looked up the other thing, the one Jeanne mentioned: Tunguska. It was a giant explosion in Siberia in 1908 that flattened hundreds of square miles of forest. The pictures creeped me out, all those leafless trees lying flat in the snow, blown down by something powerful that nobody was ever able to identify. On the other hand, nobody got hurt. Adventure. Financial reward. Ample financial reward.
Why not say yes? If it was a prank I’d laugh along with them for having fallen for it. However, if it was real…
On Monday I went to work and found the Voynich Group was gone, cleared out completely in the forty-eight hours since I’d been there and talked to Jeanne and Larry. At first I thought I’d made a mistake and had absent-mindedly turned down the wrong street, since they all looked the same, but no. It was the right place and it was completely emptied out, all the furnishings gone, not a soul there. The doors were locked and my key card no longer worked. The telephone number was no longer in service when I called.
I stood there, incredulous, dressed in my new business attire, briefcase in hand (there wasn’t much in it: just a banana and a blank notepad, but it made me feel like an up-and-coming marketing executive.)
Eric was right: it was a scam, I thought.
What do you do when your workplace vanishes? Do you call the police? That didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, I went home and updated my resume. I had two hundred and eighty-two dollars in my checking account and the rent was due on the first of the month. Sanjay, I saw, when I went on Facebook, was vacationing in Thailand.
He posted a picture of himself lounging in a hammock. He wrote: ‘The beaches in Phuket are amazing! I go swimming every day!’
It was four degrees Fahrenheit in Vermont, with a wind-chill factor of fifteen below. As I contemplated my plight a frigid wind rattled the ice-covered windows of my gloomy basement apartment. There was even ice inside the windows.
On Wednesday, just as I was beginning to wonder if I should go check out the homeless shelters in Burlington, a letter came for me. Inside was a cashier’s check for five thousand dollars and a handwritten note, signed by Larry. We had to leave suddenly. Sorry you couldn’t join us. This should tide you over until you find a new job. All the best, L. Pantone and the Voynich Group.
And so I didn’t have to go to a homeless shelter after all. I found a new job. Life went on, as it does. There were never any reports in the news about a team of con artists setting up a fake business in the heart of the Green Mountain State and grifting some billionaire out of millions of dollars. There was never anything at all about Larry or Jeanne or the rest of them. Maybe those weren’t their real names. I wonder a lot of things, as I work on promoting perfectly ordinary products like shampoo and deodorant and breakfast cereals. I mostly wonder what would have happened if I’d told them yes?
Jill Hand's short stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Tales From The Shadow Booth, The Pulp Fiction Book of Phobias, Bubble Off-Plumb, and The Corona Book of Ghost Stories. She is the author of White Oaks, first in the Trapnell Thriller series from Black Rose Writing. The second in the series, Black Willows, was released by BRW on Oct. 22, 2020. A third, Red Pines, is in the works.
Visit her Amazon Author page