|The Calendar: Excerpt|
"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology
No one could ever accuse her of being addlebrained. She paid close attention when people were speaking to her and she made notes. Lots of them. It was no wonder then that Joanne Gravitz felt momentarily confused when she arrived at Kolea Square and parked in the first available slot. She was the only human being in sight, although almost every slot was occupied by a vehicle. That was not only surprising, it was downright weird.
Rain swept into her car as she opened the door and then her umbrella and hurriedly climbed out onto the wet pavement. An involuntary shiver brought the familiar sense of apprehension that had plagued her for months. Obviously, the rain had made all the others rush into the building, she rationalized. It was silly for her to make a big deal out of something so logical. No one lingered in the rain. But she wasn't late. Surely at least one other employee would cruise in at the last moment. She mentally chastised herself for surrendering to one of the downright gutless traits that occasionally swept over her of late. She needed to toughen up. Be more like her old self.
The night sky was moonless because of the thick screen of rain-filled clouds, but thankfully a dozen artificial lights illuminated the area. She'd be able to make a safe transition from her car to the entrance of the Kolea Square annex. Once inside, she'd find all the others. Nevertheless, the eerie quietness made her uneasy. The steady drumming of raindrops on her umbrella didn't help. Goose bumps popped up unbidden on her skin as she headed across the lot, forcing herself to refrain from peeking over her shoulders to hunt for a mythical boogie man. She jerked violently at the unexpected ringtone of her iPhone. Her momentary fright turned to a feeling of instant relief. It was probably her fiancé, Bob Jacobsen, returning her call. Just hearing his voice would quiet her qualms.
Fumbling for her phone while trying to balance her umbrella, she was about to bring it to her ear when she glanced at the digital display. Gerald Grimes. Again. All afternoon, he'd been pestering her about his current project—a new Hewlett Packard platform that needed a set-up for the marketing department. A self-ascribed workaholic, he was definitely not making the transition into her new managerial position at OmegaSoft run smoothly. He must still be in his office. He knew she was on her way to the scheduled meeting and had said he'd see her there, so what was his problem? If absolutely necessary, she'd talk with him there.
Ignoring the call, Joanne replaced the phone and hurried towards the lobby, keeping a firm hand on her shoulder bag and the umbrella handle. Dismissing her irrational fears as just that, she sucked in a deep breath and blew it out forcefully. She didn't need an escort anymore. The past was the past and she couldn't allow one terrifying event to change the way she lived the rest of her life. The fiend who called himself CyberGod was behind bars and couldn't hurt her or anyone else. The world was full of evil people, but they weren't all focused on her. Just because she'd created software used by the FBI and security companies worldwide and then personally assisted them in their duties didn't mean she'd become a target a second time.
The slippery, rain-slicked pavement of the parking lot shimmered under the florescent lights and appeared more ominous than it really was. She had to be careful with every step though. The stiletto-heeled, knee-high boots she'd chosen for the event didn't provide comfort or safe walking even on carpet. She skipped gingerly over a pile of pine needles and a couple shallow puddles and wished she had arrived sooner to snag a prime parking space so she wouldn't have to walk so far.
When she finally pulled the handle of the entrance door and entered the safety of the lobby, she pursed her lips and blew out all the air she had been holding in her lungs for the last several feet. “Get a grip on reality!” she said to herself. Looking about, she was surprised to see that the security guards weren't at their regular posts. They were probably prowling the premises. Shaking the rain from her umbrella before folding it, she headed past the company gym, which was devoid of equipment due to renovation, and then a couple conference rooms. Finally, she reached her destination—the company ballroom.
Joanne paused outside the door to drape the umbrella strap over her wrist and fluff her hair. Running her tongue over her lips, she took another deep breath and placed her hand on the door handle. Bracing herself for the “surprise!” greeting she'd get the moment she entered the room, she worked to control the corners of her lips that wanted to break into a wide smile. Why did so many adults continue to believe surprise parties ever stayed that way? She hadn't been blind or deaf to what was going on in the office. She wished she could simply open the door and say, “Ta-da!” Instead, she slowly pulled open the heavy door and peeked inside.
The place was completely deserted.
None of her colleagues were present to celebrate her promotion. She was greeted by nothing other than the vast marble floor illumined by dimly lit sconces on the gold-colored plaster walls. She stood there for several seconds, one foot forward with her right hand still clutching the door handle. Had she made a mistake, or was someone playing a joke on her? It had to be the latter, because this was definitely the place. Her calendar had said so. And so had her boss and Stephan, her friend and coworker who was about to come with her. Where was Stephan, by the way?
Joanne's left hand still gripped the strap of her shoulder bag as she made a few hesitant steps forward. The cryptic stillness amplified the clicks of her heels against the hard marble. What was that ! She froze and cocked her head to listen while searching the room with darting eyes. Again, she heard a sound coming from behind the massive black drapes drawn over the stage. They were hiding on her! She stepped back a couple steps and eyed the curtain. Nothing more happened. No one jumped out to shout, “Surprise!”
She waited with bated breath. Something wasn't right. Maybe she'd made a mistake after all. She was under pressure in her new job and already distracted with the planning of her wedding to Bob. She fumbled for the phone in her purse's side pocket and punched the number of one of her coworkers. When she didn't answer, she tried another one. Again, she reached only her voicemail message. Shoving the phone back into her purse, she peered about the room one more time.
That's when she saw the movements behind the drapes.
They must be planning something special. Something spectacular. But, why didn't they make themselves known? Maybe they didn't know she had arrived yet. “Hellooo!” she called. “It's Joanne. Anyone there?”
Another few seconds passed.
She could feel her heart accelerating. Was she being watched, or was her imagination working in overtime again? Instantly, she felt vulnerable. The still fresh memories of last year's CyberGod saga rushed to her mind. She'd been in situations like this before and knew the consequences. Her old fear of being alone in an empty place swept over her. It wasn't her imagination. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
She turned and dashed out of the empty ballroom, not waiting for the heavy door to shut behind her. She headed directly toward the desktop computer on a counter next to a courtesy telephone. A computer and a telephone were made available for guests when they were in the building, especially for events held in the ballroom. She tapped the keyboard. It came to life and asked for her security ID to log in. She was about to provide it when her intuition warned her. Get out, Joanne! Get out now!
She rushed toward the entrance, her mind racing ahead with what to do next. Once she was safely locked in her car, she would drive back to her office or some other safe place and check the company calendar in her PDA. She'd find out if she'd gone to the right place.
Finally out of the lobby and heading across the parking lot without the use of her umbrella, she heard echoing footsteps behind her. Oh, my God! I'm being followed! She cast a hasty glance over her shoulder and saw a man in a dark suit walking with quickening strides behind her. She started to run. She needed to reach her car. Faster. Faster. She wouldn't look. She could outpace him. Stay focused. Don't slip. Don't fall. Why did I park so far from the building! There. Only twenty more yards.
She felt in her purse for the car keys and pressed a button on the remote attached to them. The headlights of her car blinked a couple times and the car alarm tweaked as the car doors unlocked.
She froze in place.
“Joanne! Wait! ”
With her hand on the door handle, she finally peered over her shoulder. A powerful light flashed from the building she had just vacated. It was huge and blinding and coupled with an ear-shattering explosion. She saw the silhouette of the man as he was thrown to the ground, and then a white fireball erupted into a titanic ball of flames.