They say a picture is worth a thousand words but Anna only needed a single word to slay the dragon who loomed before her.
“Is this seat taken?” a tall, pale skinned woman asked.
Anna glanced up before answering and smiled. The woman’s features were elegant enough to make a sculptor’s heart ache, but Anna’s smile held a sharper edge than any chisel or knife.
“That depends,” Anna said. “Who would like to take it?”
“Come now Ms. Ilyina, please don’t pretend you weren’t expecting me,” the woman said as she sat down opposite Anna and picked up the menu that had been left for by seat.
It was a vibrant spring day, perfect for lounging at an outdoor cafe and enjoying the sunny weather and long absent warmth. Despite the mild, seasonable breeze however, the air between the two women held an icy, dangerous chill that convinced the serving staff to wait on other people rather than rudely interrupt them.
“What one expects isn’t necessarily what one desires,” Anna said. In her hands she held a pad of sketch paper. She’d already doodled some quick images and added a few notations to them with small, neatly written chinese characters. “But then you would know all about managing expectations wouldn’t you, Ms. Skillings?
“Surely this is a meeting you’ve been looking forward to though? And it’s Zoe, please. I feel we are not so far removed in what we do to stand on formality.”
Anna flipped a page in the sketch page and began tracing a loose outline.
“Do you mind?” she asked, indicating the sketch pad.
“You’ve taken up art? Interesting, your bio didn’t mention anything about that,” Zoe said.
“It’s an old hobby,” Anna said. “One which I am dreadful at but it’s important to try new skills to keep ourselves sharp.”
“Are you afraid you’re losing your edge then?” Zoe asked. She opened the menu and glanced over its contents without paying any attention to them.
“Should I be?” Anna asked, pausing from her sketch to measure the line of Zoe’s nose at a distance.
“You’ve attracted a powerful enemy,” Zoe said. “But that’s not a concern for you of course. It’s not possible to move in the circles we do and be considered a friend to everyone.”
“Yes,” Anna said. “With some people and organizations there can be no common ground. I believe we see such people differently however.”
She gestured for Zoe to turn her head slightly and Zoe smiled, looking up and meeting Anna’s gaze directly.
“Do we?” Zoe asked. “In our fundamentals, I doubt we are really all that different. You and your organization prefer to hold onto outward trappings which suggest qualities such as kindness, compassion and other traits which play well with the groundling masses. When push comes to shove though, you do whatever is required to see your agenda carried to completion, just as I do.”
“”That is a rather dire view to take of life,” Anna said. “But you are correct that I have done dire things on occasion to achieve my objectives.”
“And there we find our common ground,” Zoe said. “When I received the dossier on you, I was supposed to put together a team to deal with your organization. Normally that would be a simple matter of delegation, but the more I read the more I knew I needed to meet you in person.”
“Was that out of concern for your employees?” Anna asked. “PrimaLux has not had the best track record with their personnel when it comes to interactions between our two organizations.”
Zoe suppressed a smile as a police car drove by. It coasted down the street and turned left into the parking lot of the Deus Rex office building. In neat lettering under the Deus Rex welcoming signage the words “A PrimaLux company” were stencilled in plain white letters.
“PrimaLux can afford the loss of its employees,” Zoe said. “Or did you think you’d caused a noticeable amount of damage to our enterprises?”
“I notice that you are here,” Anna said. She breathed in deeply, closing her eyes and picturing the image she wanted to sketch, rather than the one she was managing to create. When she opened her eyes, she jotted down a few more short notes at the border of the portrait she was working on.
“This is a gesture of respect,” Zoe said. “You have been a formidable opponent for our organizations less apt members.”
“There had been a surprising amount of basic negligence in your ranks,” Anna said without accusation or disparagement. “It’s one of the perils of dealing with any large entity I guess. You can’t exercise the influence you need to without growing in scale, but creating a large team of talented individuals is exponentially harder than doing the same with a small one. I imagine there are days when firing them all and starting from scratch must seem very appealing.”
“The only reason what you said is not true is that starting from scratch would involve sitting through endless hiring interviews and, with some exceptions, I find those even less tolerable that dealing with underperforming staff members.”
“And in what instance do you find interviews less terrible to endure?” Anna asked.
“When the candidate brings something unusual to the table,” Zoe said, nodding towards Anna. “I enjoy working with exceptional people who are willing to commit themselves to exceptional things.”
“So long as those exceptional things coincide with your interests I presume?” Anna asked.
“Reasonable people are able to see the value in aligning interests with a stronger party,” Zoe said. She placed her menu down and fold her hands in front of her, shifting the small purse that she’d brought with her to the side of the table to make room.
“There are many strong parties in this world,” Anna said. “It’s not possible to align with all of them. Or even desirable.”
“There are many organizations which hold power in varying degrees,” Zoe said. “The most important consideration for any actor however needs to be which organizations are proximate either to the cause’s the actor favors or to the actor themselves.”
“And the role of one’s principles in all this?” Anna asked.
“Principles, true principles, not the ones people espouse to raise their social capital, must be rooted in what is beneficial to the individual who holds them,” Zoe said. “Dying for one’s principles is an overly romanticised act but one which can be exploited in one’s enemies if they allow it to be.”
“There are duties we all share which extend beyond ourselves,” Anna said. “We are the legacy of our pasts and the foundation of our future.”
“The past is no more important than the impact is has on the present moment, and the future is an uncertain quantity at best,” Zoe said. “Our duties, must begin and end with ourselves. To pretend otherwise is to grovel for the approval of others and deny our own importance.”
“That is an interesting argument to take for someone from an organization which enforces such absolute loyalty,” Anna said, erasing some of the lines she’d been tracing.
“You were speaking of duties to the general populace, to people who offer no benefit or value beyond simply consuming and producing more consumers,” Zoe said. “In any organization there is a flow of duty and recompense, with obligations and privileges based on the value one brings to the organization. PrimaLux places high demands on its staff but they are compensated according to their value.”
“Fairly?” Anna asked, arching her eyebrow to match the wry grin that spread across her lips.
“There are many definitions of ‘fair’,” Zoe said. “For a candidate with demonstrated talent and a long and distinguished history to draw on, I can assure you the recompense is more than fair by all parties standards.”
“I don’t believe it can be,” Anna said. She jotted down a few additional notes and flipped through the sheets of the sketchpad.
Zoe sat back, her brows knitting at the perceived rebuff.
“You know our resources,” she said. “Or a portion of our resources. Do you think there’s anything we are incapable of providing?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “A clean conscience.”
Zoe rolled her eyes and huffed in exasperation.
“Isn’t that a bit beneath you?” she asked.
“I believed so at one time,” Anna said. “Conscience seemed like a lovely luxury and a costly self-delusion. My understanding of it then however was as limited and flawed as I suspect yours may still be.”
Zoe leaned forward, adopting an air of studied patience.
“Do explain what you’ve discovered then,” she said. “I know those who have found enlightenment are always eager to share it with the less fortunate.”
“You believe your conscience to be a voice of guilt and shame, something which punishes you for your misdeeds and rewards you for being virtuous,” Anna said.
“That is the general interpretation of a conscience,” Zoe said. “I don’t believe it is any such thing though. I believe it is simply fear. Fear that others will not approve of what we do. Fear that who we are and what we want is something that we must suffer for unless it is hidden, and that we are always in danger of the hidden being revealed.”
“You are not alone in that belief,” Anna said.
“And yet so few seem to be able to take the next obvious step,” Zoe said. “Fear is a weakness and weaknesses are meant to be overcome. Discarding the notion of an irrational ‘conscience’ being a viable guiding force in one’s life is a step I frankly have a difficult time imagining that you would walk away from.”
“You are right in everything you said, and yet wrong in everything you believe,” Anna said, an amused twinkle sparkling in her eye.
Zoe’s jaw took on a hard set that carried into her voice.
“Am I?” she said. “Or are you simply unable to grasp how completely you’ve lost.”
“The fault lies in your base definition,” Anna said, ignoring the wrath in Zoe’s eyes. “Our conscience doesn’t arise from fear. Don’t misunderstand me, fear certainly does motivate people, especially in its guises of guilt and shame. Managing those is a challenge which likely requires more than the scope of a lifetime from everything I’ve seen, but our conscience is a much simpler matter.”
She paused her drawing and met Zoe’s gaze before speaking again.
“Our conscience is entangled with the roots of ourselves,” Anna said. “It isn’t something imposed from without but something that we grow from within as we take shape into the people we choose to be. It is where our truest confidence in ourselves arises. It’s the measuring stick we hold to our thoughts and deeds to evaluate how much we can trust ourselves to live up to the things we believe in.”
“That is a novel view of a conscience,” Zoe said, still frowning. “It allows for monsters to exist with clear consciences and saint’s to be tormented by trivial failings.”
“The monster may suffer no pangs but their conscience is a fragile, underdeveloped one. It is vulnerable to the slightest of doubts, even ones which arise from the undeniable realities which surround them,” Anna said. “A saint may suffer for their failings, but their conscience is broad enough to weather any storm. They can brave death itself, not because they hate life, or wish to suffer but because they know themselves and know the value of what they stand for.”
“So you wish to walk the saint’s path then?” Zoe asked.
“No,” Anna said. “I merely wish to be more at peace with myself today than I was yesterday.”
“It’s such a shame,” Zoe said. “Martyrdom doesn’t suit you. You could have been so much more.”
“I think you may be counting me out of our game somewhat prematurely,” Anna said.
“Am I?” Zoe asked. “Or has your grand plan against PrimaLux already fallen through? I know, you should check with your friends! That is who you were planning to have handle all of the heavy lifting right? They were going to spirit away one of our more treacherous Vice Presidents while you kept me and my team distracted with this conversation?”
“You seem to have seen through our stratagem,” Anna said. “But I think you underestimate my friends.”
“No more than you have underestimated mine,” Zoe said. “Go ahead. Give Ms. Le Li Tam or Ms. Valentina Perez a call. Check up on them and see how they’re doing. I can even give you the code word you’re to exchange in case they’re supposed to abort the mission.”
Anna put down her sketch pad and reached into her purse for her phone.
“Shall I dial it for you?” Zoe asked.
Anna scowled and tapped Tam’s entry in her contact list. The phone rang and rang until it hit voicemail. The same happened when she tried to contact Val.
She had no way to reach them, and no way to warn them of the danger they were in.