Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. - William James
Walter savored the Cohiba and poured himself a second tumbler of Glenfiddich, then turned to look down on the city. Since the year this whiskey went into its cask he had worked to build his business, and after the most recent deal he felt that he had at long last arrived. In all that time he had rarely relaxed, seldom taken a vacation and never allowed himself the luxuries other businessmen did, but all that was about to change; perhaps he might even restrict himself with the kind of business ethics he had always totally disregarded before. But now that he had finally reached the goal he set himself at eighteen, he could afford morality as easily as he could expensive indulgences.
With that thought, he turned back to his computer screen and hit “send”. His days of cheap cigars, second-rate liquor and reasonably-priced escorts were over; now he was playing in the big leagues, and could easily spend the money for a companion of real quality. For him that meant Sibyl, the woman who had fascinated him since he first encountered her website months ago. Still, he had hesitated; though her price was well within his comfort zone, he found her screening requirements rather daunting. He did not like the idea of identifying himself so clearly and definitely to a stranger about whom he knew absolutely nothing, but two generous servings of Scotch had helped to steel his resolve and now he was committed.
Walter wasn’t sure how long Sibyl would take to get back to him, but he certainly didn’t expect it to be within minutes. Perhaps it was just an autoreply, though it didn’t sound like one:
My Dear Mr. Grey,
Thank you for sending the information I requested! Though I know you’ve been frightfully busy with that important deal you mentioned in your last letter, I was beginning to think you had perhaps changed your mind about meeting me. I’m glad to see you haven’t, and I look forward to meeting you in person after I’ve finished my screening process, which I’m sure you will understand must be very thorough. I’ll let you know by Friday afternoon, but as my preliminary inquiries have indicated that you’re exactly the sort of man I like to see, I don’t imagine any difficulties.
Very Sincerely Yours,
Friday! What kind of damned screening could take three whole days? Walter shrugged, closed the email program, and barely even noticed the fleeting error message which flashed on the screen during the shutdown procedure.
He had thought about taking the next day off, but he was a creature of habit and so eventually found himself at his office again, though several hours later than usual. It was more than early enough; there weren’t really very many loose ends to tie up, and he would’ve been done in plenty of time for a round of golf had he not been required to deal with a long column of annoying emails on a computer which seemed uncharacteristically sluggish, while at the same time dealing with phone calls from the accounting and contract departments. It was a singularly frustrating day, and while it was not bad enough to completely ruin yesterday’s celebratory mood, it did demonstrate exactly how much the intense negotiations of the past few months had exhausted him; after his date with Sybil this weekend, a long vacation in the Caymans would be in order. In the meantime, though, a leisurely day tomorrow would help; he had been cooped up in this damned office for so long he kept receiving the bizarre impression that his computer was watching him, and that the screen was its enormous, unblinking eye.
The night’s sleep did not alleviate the delusion at all; if anything, the next day was even worse. Every screen he passed or used – his plasma TV, the stereo display in his car, even the touch-screen on his iPhone – seemed to be watching his every move, carefully examining him, peering through his clothes and skin to the nerves, dissecting his brain and smearing his soul onto a slide to be viewed under some impossible, intangible microscope. Walter was far too rational and self-assured to actually believe what he thought he saw; it was perfectly clear to him that this was merely the inevitable but long-delayed result of years of intense stress which would have destroyed a lesser man, but was now catching up to him. Sybil would do him a world of good, and he had already told his secretary he might be out of touch for weeks after he left for his holiday next Tuesday. And though there would be far too many screens at the airport and on the airplane for his liking, he would be far away from the hateful things on a lovely beach in the Caribbean.
In the meantime, though, the scrutiny from the peering eyes behind the screens grew almost unbearable. They watched him from his golf partners’ phones after he turned his off, and later from the windows of stores after he covered the car’s console screen with his jacket. He felt so surrounded in the restaurant that he was forced to cut his dinner short, and though there was a movie he wanted to see the thought of sitting for over two hours in front of a screen twenty meters wide was absolutely unbearable. So he instead went directly home, took a bottle and glass into his bedroom, and closed the door so he wouldn’t have to see the huge flat screen in the living room. He then tried to read for a while, but mostly drank until he sank into terrifying dreams of gigantic, long-lashed eyes prying into every corner of his home.
When he at last awoke to the sound of a ringing telephone, the day was already half gone. The nightmares had finally ceased about dawn, and the beautiful, sultry voice on the other end of the phone heralded a far brighter day than yesterday as Sybil told him that she was done with her screening, and would be happy to see him tomorrow evening as he had requested. She told him the address at which he could pick her up, and suggested they begin the evening with dinner at a restaurant he had heard good things about, but never tried for himself. He hung up the phone with a smile on his face and a much lighter heart, and he dismissed the lingering scent of a strange and spicy perfume as a figment of his imagination brought on by the unsettling presence of the television set within view of his breakfast table.
Friday afternoon passed without incident, and Walter enjoyed the postponed movie as much as the reviews had assured him he would. A lovely late dinner and a good bottle of wine made for the perfect conclusion to the day, and back at home he laughed at yesterday’s ridiculous fears as he flipped channels to relax before bed. His sleep was peaceful and unhaunted by ghastly disembodied eyes, and he awoke the next morning refreshed and optimistic about his date with Sybil and his life in general. He had always regarded his doctor’s warnings about overwork with a mixture of amusement and annoyance, but now he recognized that he had been wrong and resolved to apologize at his earliest possible opportunity…after his vacation, that is.
He hurried out for a haircut, had his car washed and went through all the other preparations he would have made for an unpaid date; though he knew Sybil was a professional, he also knew she was very selective and might refuse to see him again if he made a bad impression. He arrived exactly at the agreed-upon time, having already made an electronic payment to her account yesterday as instructed. She was more beautiful than he imagined; her face and body were flawless, her style impeccable and her personality enchanting. The only thing which kept her from total perfection in his eyes was her perfume; it was strange and spicy, yet vaguely familiar and somehow associated with the unpleasant memory of Thursday. But that one sour note soon vanished into the symphony of her presence, and the disquiet it caused was more than drowned out by his rising passion for her.
The next few hours passed in a blur, and Walter felt as excited and nervous as a teenage boy on the drive back. Her house was nearly as intriguing as she was, and her parlor adorned with all manner of beautiful, unique and obviously expensive furnishings and curios. She offered him a drink, then suggested with a mysterious smile that it was time for her to change…but he felt an unaccountable chill sweep over him when she glided off to a shadowy corner of the room and slipped behind an ornate Oriental screen.