Reluctantly, I turned the water off as the final suds of soap filtered toward the drain between my bare feet. The steamy air left my skin damp and moist despite my best efforts with the towel. Bounding down the stairs toward breakfast, my wet hair clung to my neck and back while the cool air brought goosebumps to my still naked flesh. I suppressed a shiver and the urge to wrap my arms around myself, an act my parents would no doubt take as an attempt to preserve modesty rather than warmth. In truth it would have been both, although I do not know why I still find it embarrassing to be seen naked by my parents; They have seen it all before.
"Good morning," I said, entering the kitchen to the sights and sounds of my mother's morning routine. Dad was still upstairs and, by the sounds of running water, showering. I tried to keep my voice cordial as I spoke, but it came out as timid and subdued with a tremor of the morning coolness sounding like a touch of fear.
"Morning Dear," Mom said without a single hesitation in her cooking, "Did you sleep well?"
My eyes locked on the back of my chair where the pile of my previous day's work clothes remained draped over the back. On the table, the small collection of implements Dad brought home from his meeting with Mrs. Anderson rested in plain view. I still found it hard to believe he had taken them and more so that he had readily agreed to have them paid for out of my salary. I forced myself to look away and discovered Mom staring at me, impatiently waiting for an answer to her question. "Fine," I said abruptly and immediately wished I had chosen a different word as Mom's brow furrowed in response.
Mom turned back to the stove ignoring me for a long, uncomfortable moment. I waited, expecting a comment or worse from Mom in regards to what she would most likely consider my bad attitude. Instead, she said, "Your boyfriend called for you last night." She glanced over her shoulder at me, no doubt hoping to gauge my reaction to the news by the look on my face.
"You mean Mark?" I asked, wondering why she would consider him my boyfriend or any other guy for that matter, when I barely have the time to return phone calls and rarely get to enjoy anything even resembling a date. Her imagination was undoubtedly running wild when it came to speculating about the intimate details of my life.
"Are you seeing so many men you're not sure which one called?" Mom asked, suggesting more with her tone than her words, if that was possible.
"I'm just trying to figure out how two dates makes him a boyfriend," I said, hoping Mom would not take offense to the annoyance creeping into my voice. It was just like her to make ridiculous insinuations and moral judgments without having all the facts. She thinks she is good at seeing beneath the surface of things to their fundamental cores, but in reality she is just really good at inventing soap operas out of the mundane details of everyday life.
"Well what should I call him then?" Mom asked, exaggerating exasperation with a wave of her cooking spoon in the air, "Your boy toy perhaps?"
I closed my eyes to hide the fact they were rolling for the sky, the stars, and the vast emptiness of space beyond. A quick breath to calm myself and I said, "How about by his name? I'm sure he'd appreciate it."
"Allison," Dad said from behind me, making me jump as I turned toward the sound of his gruff voice, "How many times do I have to tell you to lose the attitude when speaking to your mother?"
"I'm sorry," I said, more out of reflex than because I actually felt that way.
"No, you're not. If you were sorry, I wouldn't have to keep reminding you," Dad said.
"You know what," I said, a sense of bravery, or was it stupidity, washing over me, "You're right. I'm not sorry one little bit. You've yanked me out of my home and dragged me back here like some teenage runaway and if you think I shouldn't have an attitude about it, then maybe you're the one that's been smoking that weed you're always worried about me trying out."
"Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," Mom said from the stove. I spun around to glare at her, no longer caring what my parents would do to me. There comes a point when you have to stand up for yourself.
"Not the wrong side, mother," I said with emphasis on her title making it sound more like an expletive, "The wrong bed. Mine is on the other side of town, not upstairs."
"Not anymore," Dad said, "I had your things put into storage yesterday afternoon and turned the keys back over to the building manager."
I spun around on my Dad, my hand flying through the air to connect against his cheek without thinking about the possible consequences. The loud slap echoed in the kitchen as the red print of my hand raised itself on my father's cheek. I was angry enough not to care and enraged enough to want to do it again. His dark eyes glared back at me and for the first time in my life, I glared right back and yelled, "How dare you!"
Rage shook my knees while my chest puffed up and down with shallow breaths through my nose. If I had my 9mm, I would have emptied the clip into my father's head and I knew that was all wrong. I could have wrapped my hands around his throat, tackled him to the ground and clawed his eyes out. The heat of anger steamed the air between us and I swear for a moment I saw horns and a pointed tail attached to my father along with a red aura.
Intelligent thought returned after the long moment ruled by the precarious boundary of outright hatred. I turned and grabbed my day old clothes from the back of the chair and then moved to push past Dad on my way upstairs to get dressed. Dad grabbed me firmly by the shoulder and nearly yanked me off my feet. He said, "Where do you think you're—
Virginia's defensive training took over and I threw my elbow backward, breaking Dad's grip. I slapped him again, this time on the other cheek and he was lucky I managed to keep my hand open instead of clenched in the angry fist instincts demanded. If the look on Dad's face was a clue, he thought I had lost my mind. He was right in a sense. I had lost the mindset which previously had me bowing my head to the wishes of my parents. Echoing in my head were the wise words of Tom Clark, "You can't walk on the edge and think you're never going to fall. Either you give yourself to the team and Quondam or you get out." I thought I could be both Allison and Virginia, but Tom was right. It was time to choose.
"I can't do this," I said, my voice creaking between anger and tears, "I'm not who you want me to be and I don't want to be. This is my life you are messing with and you don't have the right to decide for me. Maybe you don't like the choices I'm making and that's your right, but they're my choices to make, wrong or right. I'm not sorry for being me, but I am sorry you can't accept who I am."
Backing away from my stunned and angry father, I rounded the staircase and ran upstairs to my room, slamming the door behind me. House rules are for those who live in a house and I had already decided it was no longer my home. Hurriedly, I slipped into my clothes and tied my hair back, expecting to hear the sounds of my father's footsteps on the stairs at any moment, but they never came.
I checked my purse for phone and keys, confirming they were accessible and marched myself down the stairs and out the front door. Dad must have decided there was no point in trying to stop me because he was nowhere in sight and when the door slammed shut behind me, it did not open again. I pulled out my phone to call for a ride when I noticed my car was parked in the street in front of the house. Dropping my phone back in my purse, I grabbed my car keys.
The engine turned over on the first try and I put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. Without a single glance in the rear view mirror I turned off the block and left my childhood home, my parents, and Allison Beaumont in the past. All the ties were snapped and even the happiest of memories were suddenly tainted with spoiled love. I could have cried or screamed or pounded frustrated fists into my steering wheel, but instead a smile crept its way onto my lips and satisfying sense of pride filled my trembling heart.
"Was that really necessary?" My grandmother asked, appearing in the seat next to me.
I almost ignored her, but the answer fell from my lips only too readily. "Yes," I said, "It absolutely was."
"If you say so," She said, clearly intending for me to hear disapproval in her tone and words. I chose instead to ignore it like she chooses to ignore sarcasm and I said, " I do."
"Perhaps you'll be better focused on the issues this way," She said.
"Don't count on it," I said, glancing over at her while keeping an eye on the freeway traffic. "If I don't start getting some real answers soon, I'll be walking out on you too."
"He knows who you are Allison," She said, a rare serious tone to her voice, "You can no more walk away at this point than you can stop tomorrow from coming."
"Who is he?" I asked, suspecting the answer would be less than an answer.
"The man in the shadows," She said.
"I gathered as much, but who is he?" I asked again.
"It's what I call him as well," She said and disappeared.
On another day I might have spent some time thinking about what she had said and trying to find the purpose behind her visit, but with her disappearance my thoughts returned to the day ahead of me at Quondam. It was supposed to be another day of disciplinary duties, another day of embarrassment and punishment for violating a policy which could have exposed me or my family to some danger, but the truth was, we were already exposed and by someone inside of Quondam to boot. As I weaved through morning freeway traffic, I decided it was time to put Mrs. Anderson in her place as well.
My determination grew stronger with every mile and was etched in stone by the time the elevator door opened onto the fourth floor. I stepped out and walked at a brisk, purposeful pace toward Mr. Foley desks. He smiled his leering smile, but I ignored him and turned the corner into the main offices without word. I heard him stand up from behind his desk and stumble after me calling, "Miss West."
I paused not a beat as I made my way through the desks toward Mrs. Anderson office in the corner. Mr. Foley's hand brushed my shoulder just before my hand was ready to reach out and open Mrs. Anderson's office door. "Mrs. Anderson is not to be disturbed right now," He said.
Turning toward him, a confident smile planted on my lips, I said, "I need to see her right now and you can run along back to your little desk before I decide to have you drop your trousers and grab your ankles."
"But..bu," He stuttered, suddenly unsure of himself, "You're, you're on disc—
"Not anymore," I said and his eyes widened to size of half dollars before he wisely decided not to challenge me further. I found it hard not to laugh as he scurried through the room back toward his desk like a frightened rabbit to its hole.
I turned back to Mrs. Anderson's office and entered, closing the door behind to keep things as private as possible. It took me a moment to put the complete scene together once I was inside. There was the sound of sniffling, crying, distinctly female groans, and then the smack of leather against skin. Mrs. Anderson was standing only inches from me, her back to me, and the paddle resting comfortably in her swinging hand. Bent over her desk, a dark haired woman, stark naked, was clearly on the receiving end of a long and painful spanking. I could practically feel the heat emanating from her glowing red buttocks and I was standing a good three feet back.
Mrs. Anderson, realizing the interruption, stopped mid-swing and turned her head to look at me, a scowl on her face. "What are you doing?" She asked, a mixture of surprise and annoyance in her tone.
"We need to talk," I said.
"And so we shall, but I'm in the middle of something," Mrs. Anderson said.
"Obviously," I said, moving away from the door and circling around behind Mrs. Anderson's desk, "I can wait." I sat down in her executive chair and smiled up at her. The naked woman on the desk kept her head down, probably afraid of being recognized or possibly ashamed of the tears no doubt streaming down her cheeks by the sounds echoing off the desk.
Mrs. Anderson clearly did not approve of my presence, but rather than deciding to make a further issue of it she resumed the spanking. The woman jumped and squirmed and held tighter to the edge of the desk with every swat of the leather paddle against her inflamed skin. I wondered what she had done to deserve such a harsh punishment and from none other than Mrs. Anderson, but it was not that I really cared. It was mere curiosity to appease the simple satisfaction I felt at finally witnessing someone else receiving such an embarrassing punishment at Quondam. My smile widened as I thought of the poor embarrassed woman, pushing around the mail cart as I had done only days before, naked and ashamed. I should have felt some empathy for her, but I found I had none at all.
A dozen to twenty swats later, Mrs. Anderson finished with the spanking. She had the woman stand, but it was hard to see her as more than a girl while she stood hopping from foot to foot, hand wringing in the air while her hair flopped around her shoulders and her small breasts jiggled like tight mounds of Jello. The sniffled sobs of half choked tears filled the room with her sorrow as she stared downward unable to look at anything more than her naked toes. It was a scene I knew all too well from the other side, but sitting in Mrs. Anderson's chair watching the poor girl embarrass herself to no end, I was consumed by an amused interest and captivation.
I studied the girl's face while Mrs. Anderson lectured her briefly and then ordered her off to Mr. Foley for reassignment. Hopping around in front of the desk, the girl had seemed tall, but as she walked out the door, naked, she seemed to be shrinking by the second as if the act of hunching might somehow hide her shame. Mrs. Anderson closed the door, cutting off my view, but not before I saw the amused reactions of everyone else in the office as they noticed the naked woman with the red bottom walking through their midst. It was enlightening in a way that should have brought a blush to my own cheeks, but I was in an unusual mood and embarrassment seemed infinitely foreign to me.
"I assume you've heard," Mrs. Anderson said, turning her attention to me in her chair.
"Heard?" I asked and her eyebrows raised.
"Mrs. Elliot, the woman who was just in here," Mrs. Anderson said, "Security determined she was the one behind the picture taken of you."
I nodded and said, "I see."
"She's been doing it for some time apparently and has even started a pay-per-view website with pictures and videos taken of various employees being disciplined," Mrs. Anderson said, obviously trying to gauge my reaction to the news. "Obviously we shut the whole thing down, but it is impossible to retrieve the images and videos from the thousands of people who have probably downloaded them."
"Are you telling me that woman turned me into some sort of a porn star?" I asked, anger building up inside me again.
"No, fortunately for you she, only sent the picture to a few of her friends and had not uploaded it to her site yet." Mrs. Anderson said, allowing me to calm down, " You see, she's a college friend of your sister in law and she's been sending her images and videos free of charge."
"So she doesn't know who I am?" I asked.
"She knows you as Virginia West like everyone else here," Mrs. Anderson said.
"Then my sister in law knows the dual identity," I said, as my thoughts strayed to my brother and how he would react if he knew that his wife was involved with the exploitation of such material. No doubt, the spanking she would get would leave her hopping around for more than a few seconds as well.
Mrs. Anderson said, "It would seem not. Mrs. Elliot used fake names with all the pictures and videos she sent in order to make it more difficult to be traced back to Quondam and herself."
"Smarter than she looks," I said.
"Yes," She said, "It would also appear her breach of security is the source of the Q5 info leak."
My head jerked at the news, remembering Patrick Hughes and his use of my real name. If Mrs. Elliot was the leak then how did he know my name? There was of course one other possibility, he had used it only once, and I was so tense at the time, was it possibly I had imagined it? Had I inserted my name in place of what he had really said? Was that why he said it only once and in every other way seemed like a nice, normal executive? I was relieved to not have run off and accused him without proof given the developments, but infinitely more concerned with the thought that I might not be able to fully trust my own senses.
"Are you certain?" I asked.
"Nearly," She replied. "She was using a transmitter tied into the security feeds to grab video of various disciplinary actions throughout the building. The transmitter shows signs of being hacked and Miss Jax confirms it would have allowed an outside party to circumvent most of the computer security. Essentially, someone used this thing to gain access to all levels of Quondam Innovations' data, from military contracts to Q5 operations."
"I would ask how no one noticed this until now, but I gather that's rather outside of your department," I said.
"I'm sure Miss Jax and Mr. Clark can explain the security failure much better than I can," Mrs. Anderson said. "In light of these events, I've been instructed to end your disciplinary duties effective immediately."
I had expected to have to fight with her over the very issue and to hear her grant my wish without even having voiced the demand, felt like fate smiling down on me. Maybe things were about to start going right for a change. I said, "That sounds very fair."
"Of course there is still the matter of 30 days probation, but your access and security clearance have all been restored. Cathy has your security card in the lobby." Mrs. Anderson said.
"Dare I even ask what 30 days probation means in reality?" I said, pushing myself up from the chair.
"Very little really. Your supervisor has authority to issue discipline at any time whether your actions warrant it directly or merely suggest you might require a reminder of policy and procedure. Any serious disciplinary issues during the time frame must be reported to me and at my discretion you could be sent to Disciplinary Retreat in response."
"That won't be happening," I said with confidence, "What about Mrs. Elliot? Will she be retaining her job?"
"That has yet to be determined, however she is emphatically in favor of keeping it," Mrs. Anderson said.
"Seems like she should be attending one of these Retreats I keep hearing about," I said, with a devious smile. I had spent a little time reading up on them and from the way it sounded on paper, they were essentially a trip to spanking hell. It certainly sounded appropriate enough for someone taking advantage of the disciplinary system.
"We'll see. I believe you are expected in Q5," Mrs. Anderson said.
Cathy was all smiles when I approached her in the lobby. I do not know her all that well, but in the short time I have been around her, I have come to see she is a true ally. She believes in the corporate disciplinary system well enough, but she is not the type to wish it on anyone. "Welcome back, Miss West," She said.
"Thank you," I said, collecting my security card from her hand.
I stepped toward the private elevator and pressed the call button, feeling a twinge of excitement at the thought of getting back to work with the team. If I pushed my parents out of my mind, the day was going incredibly well and I felt certain there were positive things just around the corner. Cathy turned from her desk toward me and said, "Oh I almost forgot, Mr. Candle wants to see you straight away."
I nodded acknowledgement and stepped inside the elevator, pushing the button for the 30th floor. No doubt, Mr. Candle was going to try to impress upon me how fortunate I was to have escaped disciplinary duties two days early. I would try to appear suitably contrite although I felt anything but contrite as the elevator rushed upward.
The doors slid open to Mr. Candle pacing the floor, obviously waiting for my arrival. He turned to me and stopped in his tracks as I walked onto the floor and stood before him. Sweat glistened on his forehead, his tie was loosened and the top button of his white shirt was undone. Instantly, I knew something more was going on than I had suspected.
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this," Mr. Candle said, his voice warbling slightly in contrast to his usual steadiness, "But you're going to have to patch things up with your parents."