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 Impossible to Please

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Impossible to Please   Mon May 01, 2017 7:34 am

Chapter 1

 

“Who am I?” The words rattled around in her brain, echoing the uncertainty she experienced and the fragility of her self-esteem. Looking at the mirror, Erin studied the person reflected in the glass. She had her backpack and travel clothes on ready to leave. She took the beanie off fearing comparisons to characters in children’s ‘where-are-they’ books. It was always a cause for indecision. Should she conceal her red hair—something she was constantly insecure about—by wearing a silly hat, or just look silly with her brightly coloured locks. Her red hair had been a bane since she was little. A long history of taunts and name calling had left their mark. Now, when others registered appreciation and admiration, Erin still viewed her hair as a handicap. Her unhappy experiences raised suspicions that people concealed their scorn with false compliments. She grabbed a beret off the hat rack. It was a compromise that was passably fashionable.

Erin was ready far too early for her taxi pickup. This gave her some uncomfortable time for self-examination. With her emotional life a mess, identity was becoming a key concern. She had been defined by her job and by her obsession with her boss. So, who was she? Somehow she was going to discover herself—to get in touch with the real Erin Turner. It was one of the major purposes of this trip. Would backpacking through Europe and then Australia bring all the things that mattered into focus? Or, would the nagging doubts about her values and the possibility of a spiritual reality continue to beset her?

She rued the thought. Some ideas are inescapable. They won’t leave you alone. You can’t forget them. They haunt you, they plague you, and they imprison you with the tantalising prospect that there is an answer, a solution, a reason.

Erin was assailed by such a notion. ‘There is something more’. There has to be something more. She had been mauled by sleepless nights, tossing and turning, replaying the ‘could have beens’ in her life. What else? Where else? Most importantly… who else could fill the void she wrestled with?

The counter point was thrown into the fray. Life was facts. She was sure of it. She held that if you couldn’t prove a proposition through experiment and mathematical constructs then it resided in the theoretical realm. That was all right if the particular theory was useful and had practical applications; in a pragmatic sense it was verifiable and scientific. Because of that, Erin shied from the metaphysical. It called upon her mind to grasp hold of speculative, supernatural explanations. That in turn would require her to reconstruct her whole schema of the world she lived in. And yet, there were people she knew—logical, reasonable, intelligent people—who had chosen a path, she considered, in direct contradiction of her empirical world.

***

Erin’s thoughts were once again flooded with the heartache of unrequited love. She had resolved not to dwell on the past, but her mind continually cast back to Dan—sweet, kind, adorable Dan. She had been absolutely taken, completely besotted, by him the day she had got the job working in his fledgling digital technologies research company—Wafer Chip Research. Had she been too professional? Should she have flagged her feelings for him?

She remembered the hospital visit when for the first time they seemed to be communicating as something closer than merely friends. Then Naomi walked in. Immediately, he only had eyes for her. Erin should have taken the hint then, but, several days later when she visited the hospital she again felt really close. When he was discharged that morning, he asked her to take him home. Briefly, she thought that perhaps he was interested in her. Then, once they had arrived at his place, he rang Naomi and she didn’t exist anymore.

It was all too late now. Dan was engaged to marry Naomi. Not only that, but he had embraced a spiritual dimension. A dimension that was totally inconceivable to her. He had taken on board the whole idea of faith and devotion to God. And even more particular, he had said, he had accepted that a belief in Jesus was the centre and key to human history.

She was sure he had no knowledge of her infatuation. She had masked her true feelings and, as any ‘good friend’ would do, wished him and Naomi well for their future. Inside, however, there were unkind thoughts and burning jealousy. It was partly those bitter memories, and her frustration that the company hadn’t monopolised their discoveries into a technologies production corporation, that made her decide to ‘cash in’ on all the work she had done.

Was it unethical? Yes. Was it illegal? Well, yes, because she had signed various confidentiality clauses in her contract and, of late, had to sign an official secrets act for work Dan had done on fullerene and nanotube circuits. The information itself was deemed government property, so she would also be defrauding the US Government. But she justified her actions by arguing that her financial ambitions had been thwarted. Instead of being a co-director of a company possessing a unique, advanced electronic product she remained a research engineer in a small R&D laboratory. Sure, the business had huge sums of money in the bank for having sold off their processes, but she had profited little. In reality, Erin tried to avoid thinking about the ethical and legal ramifications of what she was doing. Her anger and disenchantment at the direction life had taken masked any rational considerations.

Selling the information would give her a chance to start anew. Maybe just enjoy the high life. She had already organised for an account in Dominica so she could transfer any payment directly there.

Erin diminished her culpability in the scheme of course. Any company could have made the intellectual breakthroughs that they had made, so she was just going to give others a bit of an assist. She stared at the memory stick. It was so ordinary looking. Yet it held much of what their research had achieved over the past two years. And it was worth a small fortune if she sold it to the right buyer. If some overseas manufacturer started producing the same type of minute circuit, what did that prove? Tying another product back to their breakthroughs would be a legal minefield.

She picked up the memory stick and placed it in a small pocket of her backpack. This course of action had been niggling beneath the surface for some time now. What had happened to Dan and Naomi showed that there was a real market for their processes. Even though, for the last two months, she had been working on multiple layer additions to the 3-D chip and they now had contracted out for production, she had got no satisfaction from the work. There had been annoying setbacks and failures leading to redesign and reappraisal of how they packaged the microscopic semiconductors, but they had persevered. Overall the modifications were coming together and they might soon have a more powerful, more efficient version of their 3-D chip.

None of the progress at work brought any joy to Erin. She felt on the outer. Dan was still in Somaliland helping out refugees with Naomi, who also assisted at his father’s mission hospital. She missed him and realised part of the excitement of her job had been seeing Dan at work. Now it was a job. It was still interesting and occupied her time, but it didn’t satisfy her.

On the day some junk email arrived informing her that people in her profession had ideas that could be worth millions. She laughed to herself until she noted a contact email address and the comment that her interest would be kept off the record. The increased security and clamour to maintain confidentiality highlighted, to her, the value foreign markets would place on their intellectual property. Armed with such advanced technology she could become independently wealthy.

 

Her preliminary contacts had basically agreed to her terms once they became aware of the general content and scope of specifications that would be covered. She had two possible customers but only one would benefit from the arrangement. The only communication was through generic web mail. In principle, both parties had agreed to two million dollars (US) with one hundred thousand for the initial outline and to show good faith. Her plan involved separating data as a safeguard. Erin’s heightened state of tension was somewhere between fear and excitement. She convinced herself that the money would be a consolation for all the shattered dreams and expectations she had built up over the past several years.

***

She wandered over to the mantelpiece and examined the invitation once again. She read it for the tenth time:

                                    You are invited to the wedding of:

                                    Naomi Stockton & Daniel Treloar

 

                                    On Saturday 24th of August

                                    At the residence of Marcie Dougall-Quentin…

 

Erin didn’t read the rest. She had already sent her regrets saying that she would be unable to attend due to her travel commitments. What a joke! The lame reply had been so inadequate. She wanted to say that the emotional torment would be too much to bear; that she wasn’t prepared to torture herself, seeing the man she adored pledged to another. It was one of the main reasons the trip had been organised—to avoid explaining her non-appearance at Dan’s wedding. Erin stood there daydreaming about times when Dan and she had been close colleagues. Had it just been about work, she wondered?”

            A horn sounded outside her North Shore Road apartment. Her taxi had arrived. Shaken suddenly from her meandering thoughts, Erin scanned the room to determine if she had forgotten anything. Her scrutiny made her none the wiser, so she itemised a mental checklist—passport, wallet, ticket, backpack (with barest survival necessities that was still heavier than she had anticipated), cell phone, doors secured. Her mind became mired with the impending journey and the unprecedented uncertainty and risk she might encounter. There was something forgotten; something left undone. Erin couldn’t isolate the transient, vagrant thought. Bracing herself with the rationalisation that ‘everybody travelled these days’, she exited her place with a quick check of the lock. Using a stomping stride, Erin went down the stairs and walked out the main entry of the building. The thought of the illicit cargo was pushed aside. The files were carefully pass-worded. Mentally assuring herself that it was digitally secure, she tried to calm her nerves. Then conscious of her bustling gait, she steadied her pace.

            The taxi driver looked agitated. He leapt out the car. As he opened her door he complained,

“You hab to be quicker miss. It take much long.” There was a refugee quality to his desire for productivity.

“Sorry, I got caught up…” Her voice petered out. He wasn’t interested in excuses. He just took her backpack, closed her door once she’d settled into her seat, and then placed the pack in the trunk.

She read the name plate as the driver hustled into his seat—Luan Lin.

“You go Logan airport?” he asked by way of confirmation.

“That’s right.”

It was only a few miles down the road and it was familiar territory. Familiar because Erin had flown out of Logan many times before. Usually it was for work—going to particular west coast circuit manufacturers. Sometimes it was flying home to Washington where her parents lived and worked. More recently it was a little trip to the Caribbean to sort out a hidden niche for her anticipated ill-gotten gains. So the airport was becoming part of her routine. Not only that; being exposed to the continuous traffic of passenger jets banking away over Broad Sound had become part of her routine and almost inured her to their thunderous roars. It was just over the last week or so, as she contemplated her travel plans, that the sleek, flying hulks came into prominence again. It made her wonder how she put up with living so close to the flight path.

                                                ***

Erin was soon checking her bag onto the flight to London and locating a café for a takeaway brew, before making her way to the boarding gate seating. She hadn’t been seated long when her cell started vibrating. It took a few seconds for her to realise what caused the gentle jarring of her pocket. It was her mother checking her progress. Her answers came to a stream of questions. Yes, she would give them regular updates. Yes, she had enough money; and yes, she had the contact details of various friends in Europe. Whether she would visit them was another question.

At first she was mildly agitated that her mother still interfered in her life, but as she sat on the plane and mulled over her present situation, she had to admit that it was comforting to know people cared. Somehow, she knew, she would have to come to terms with this lostness she felt. Maybe this trip would help her ‘find herself’—whatever that meant.

It was then that her oversight occurred to her. She rang Max.

“Max here.”

“Max, it’s Erin. Would you mind picking up my mail occasionally and letting me know if there’s anything I have to deal with?”

“Yeah, sure thing. Hey where are you?”

“Just waiting for boarding. Listen, I really appreciate this. I was going to ask you the other day and forgot all about it.”

“It’s fine. I only live about four miles away. It’s not a problem. Say …hope you have a great time…and keep in touch, let us know what you’re up to.”

“Okay. Thanks again Max.”

For a brief moment Erin felt a wave of affection for her hyperactive colleague. As workmates they had been friends. Actually, all four original members of the company had been close, it was just the nature of their work—spending late nights testing and collecting data—that meant they had to get on. She bade a distracted goodbye as the concept of the roguish Max and her being a couple was consciously erased from her mind. There was that collegiate, fraternal affection but nothing more, she was sure of it. A mere hint of guilt crept into her thoughts. Was she betraying her colleagues? Well, she didn’t have to sell the data. She could tell those she had contacted that she had changed her mind, she hadn’t brought the information or no longer had access to it.

As she squeezed into her seat, past a large lady, the contrary point of view firmed in her mind. Once she had sold the technical data she would be able to afford first class travel, buy a place in an exotic resort; and anyway, no one would find out.




Chapter 2



 



London was a city steeped in history and attractions and nightlife that, initially, overwhelmed Erin. She spent a few days walking through shops and past monuments soaking in the atmosphere. She then hired a car and drove West, stopping randomly here and there, at a whim, at those places that appealed to her. She eventually made it to Cardiff and followed the coast around through Swansea and then up to Fishguard where she shared a small dormitory with four other girls. Some days she went alone and some days she accompanied two of the girls to the local sights along the Welsh coast.



Her aim was to do some trekking in the mountains of Wales but instead, being advised that the Lakes District provided less demanding climbs than Snowdonia, she diverted south of the mountains and, heading north, bisected Liverpool and Manchester. Erin took a couple of days to wend her way up to Cumbria.     



On her way there she worked up the nerve to make her first contact. Buying four more memory sticks, she transferred parts of the data onto each stick with a separate password for each. She did this so the hand over could be done in stages. It was important to ensure that money was being transferred into her account before all the secrets were passed on. By email she communicated that she would climb a particular mountain and exchange the first of a number of files. If the deal went as planned, further transactions would be organised. She would confirm the day of the meeting once she was there.



In the Lakes District, Erin enjoyed a couple of sunny days exploring the lakeside and narrow roads twisting through meadows. It was there she confirmed her appointment. The contact indicated they were ready to meet. All she had to do was give the word.



She chose a blustery day with scudding showers and short lived breaks of sunshine to drive her hire car the short distance from her lodgings in a west Cumbrian village to a turnoff near Wast Water. From there she hiked up the northern fells with the aim of reaching a ridge overlooking one of the several Tarns or small lakes. The weather was ideal for minimising the number of hikers. The last thing she wanted was a group of tourists witnessing her crime.



Following a stream up the mountain side, Erin was wondering whether the trek was worth it as a sharp, stinging shower lashed at her. No sooner was she considering retracing her steps down, when the squall blew over and the watery sunshine seeped through the misty curtain. She breathed deeply and drank in the sights about her. The half rainbow arching against the western flank of the mountain seemed to beckon her on.



***



A short time later, Erin unzipped her waterproof jacket as she warmed under the strengthening sun. She climbed steadily up the hill unsure of what was to come. The bracing air and pristine surrounds invigorated her. She sighed appreciation as the lake came into view from the ridge she was scaling. The blue waters were bathed in sunshine and the scenic panorama had her snapping shots on her digital camera.



It took forty five minutes of slow slogging to crest the peak overlooking the lake on one side and the Tarn on the other. By that time the weather had again turned and dark clouds from the northwest came roiling in. Erin sheltered on the leeward, east side of a rock outcrop. She crouched down as the near horizontal rain and sprays of small hail spattered against the plastic of her wet weather gear. Sitting on her haunches, hooded head bowed for protection, Erin equated this culmination to her ascent as an allegory of her life. Maybe she was being punished. She sat hunched like that for about ten minutes. The low bank of clouds swept past and the shower eased to a drizzle.



Strangely, a sense of another presence came over her. A scrape of rock made her jump.



“Are you okay?” the accented voice asked above the gusting wind. Erin looked up to see a tall man with a dark, lank, wet fringe clinging to his forehead. He appeared unsettled by her appearance as his dark eyes remained focussed on her face.



“Yeah, sure…I’m fine,” Erin responded, “Just sheltering from the rain.”



He turned then and looked around, “Looks like it’s blown over,”



Was he the one? Her mind raced. He was meant to ask if she had something for him.



He stared at her. Was he sizing her up? He nibbled his lip pensively. “Were you expecting someone?” he asked.



“No, why?”



“Oh, it looked like you were waiting for someone.”



“No…no…just hiking.” Erin felt her neck getting red. Slowly she rose to her feet. “Well, I guess I had better head back then…before it rains again.” She watched him as he examined her and then scanned the area. He still hadn’t used the agreed phrase. It mustn’t be him. She would have to get rid of him.



“You walk up here by yourself?” he asked. She thought there was a note of surprise, or even disapproval, in his tone.



“Yes!” she retorted, “Did you?”



He was immediately chastened as he sensed her prickly mood. His face portrayed his realisation with a guilty grin, “Er yes, I’m sorry. I just imagined you’d have a travel buddy. Do you want some company back down?” he ventured.



Erin’s eye’s flashed at the perceived affront. Who did he think he was? Was she a child incapable of looking after herself? “No thank you,” she enunciated coolly. “I think I’ll manage.” She wondered if she’d catch her contact on the way down. Suddenly she wasn’t sure if she wanted to.



***



Erin stormed off, initially in the wrong direction, before veering to the right and then back on the path she had come up. She felt his gaze boring into the back of her head as she reined in her irritation and slowed her steps with deliberate caution, ensuring she didn’t embarrass herself by stumbling.



Even as she picked her way back, there was a sudden regret at her behaviour. What did she fear—a stranger on the lonely fells, opening communication with someone who displayed some concern about her? There was a peculiar hollowness within her as she suddenly had questions about the man. Why hadn’t she relaxed in his presence? Was it the way he had just appeared? How long had he been watching her? She glanced back as an afterthought. Perhaps he was following her. If he had been her contact he would have said so—wouldn’t he? There was no sign of anyone else.



Erin experienced a growing concern, now, that the plan had unravelled. Had the stranger scared off her contact? Maybe he was the contact and, now that he had identified her, he planned to get the information in a less commercial manner.



A large expanse of blue sky promised a warm descent. Erin slowed and enjoyed the sunshine in her face and the vista before her. Soon, she hoped, the brief encounter with the other hiker would fade from her mind as she revelled in the purity of the countryside. In a way she felt clean on the inside, not yet having betrayed her friends. It was only as she re-joined the road and headed towards the lake that she examined the peculiar circumstances of her hike.



Erin remembered the details of her meeting on top of the fells. It didn’t make sense. Had her contact thought the stranger was the seller of secrets? And, maybe even now, planned to relieve him of the information. Could the real contact have been scared off? Whatever the case, now she would have to reorganise it if she was going to go through with the deal.



There, to her right, was a small sedan that hadn’t been there when she had started her hike earlier that day. Maybe her contact assumed only one car meant only one person was on the mountain. They could have seen the other man and assumed she hadn’t turned up. Except, they didn’t know it was her! Erin abandoned analysing all the possibilities. Instead, she reflected on the encounter she had. The feeling, on the mountaintop, caused by the startling jolt of an unexpected presence, it had been disturbing—even frightening—but now it gave her a little thrill as she recalled the kindly, accented voice of the stranger. His wet hair and unshaven face replayed in her mind’s eye, but it was his dark eyes, in shadow from the contrasting bright sky, that were most unforgettable.



That night, in her room in the small country bed and breakfast, she reviewed her travel plans. A week or two edging along the south coast before the weather became too cool seemed to be the best option of the several she considered. She deferred any thought of another rendezvous until she worked up the courage.



Once that was decided, she pulled out her sketch book. She began a new charcoal pencil drawing to add to her compilation of memories. A face etched in her memory made its way onto paper.
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