Cruise Into the Mind
As he placed the shiny, new repair parts in the far corner of the room and arranged the pieces to ensure they would reflect enough of the dim incandescent ceiling lights to be seen, Bob Davis didn’t know why he was doing it.
The act was something he was compelled to do. What he wanted, for some vague purpose.
His knees ached when he extended his large frame upward from a crouched position to stand. The man stared at the valve extension and pump interceder. The eight screws that would hold each unit in place were also shiny and new. He spread them about the concrete floor with his foot until he was sure they caught the light.
Billy’s sure to spot these when he makes his rounds tonight, Davis thought.
The dank smell of interior walls of the dam filled his nostrils. The man’s vacant blue-grey eyes took in the scene.
Next, the ceiling,
A six-inch-wide steel chain hung from a pulley mechanism above.
It’s still too high, Davis reasoned.
He walked toward the bank of controls on the opposite wall and found the small wooden stool the dam operators used when they had to check the pressure gauges at the top of the array.
Davis picked up the stool and strolled back and positioned it directly below the chains and carefully stepped up onto it.
He stretched both arms upward. His shoulders ached. They always did toward the end of his three-to-eleven o’clock shift, which had ended thirty minutes before.
Davis pulled the loop of chain down from either side. He could feel the tension of the retracting mechanism in the ceiling as he drew the chain until it hung about six feet from the floor.
Satisfied, he returned the stool to its previous spot.
The oval of chain dangled like a noose in the cool, dark subterranean control room in the center of the dam.
Is there anything else I need to do to prepare? Davis thought.
As his eyes darted past the colored lights on the control panel along the wall, his mind flashed back to the cruise ship and the colorful, blinking slot machine.
It was months before; Davis couldn’t recall how many.
He sat a few stools down from Billy Harding. It was just minutes after The Victory reached international waters and the captain had announced the gambling deck was open for guests.
A slight smile came to Davis’ face when he recalled Billy’s glee at hitting a row of sevens on the nickel slot.
After more than four years of working together at the San Luis Dam, he had never seen his co-worker smile like that. His child-like reaction to winning a few dollars from the one-armed-bandit was out of character for the man who treated his safety job so seriously while on the clock at the dam.
The paychecks were good, but most of the hourly employees who worked at the state of California’s department of water resources were hard-pressed to save the money to afford a ten-day sea cruise.
The state’s ethics policy restricted government workers from receiving gifts valued at more than one-hundred dollars, but not the ability to take advantage of a one-year performance incentive program established for select government employees in fiscal year 2003.
Called the Public Productivity Project, or P3, and funded through the generosity of The Singh Corporation, P3 was aimed at increasing productivity in the public sector – especially among employees who worked to maintain and enhance the country’s infrastructure. To facilitate the project, the company created an incentive program that could be accessed by select state governments.
The P3 pilot program was introduced in only fifteen states, including California. Employees who developed and implemented plans that either saved taxpayer money through value engineering, or through the modification of job tasks so they could be accomplished more safely or effectively, had the chance to win the trip of a lifetime – a free cruise or Singh Corporation common stock that represented the same value.
Bob Davis, a structural engineer who had worked on several of California dams, water systems and aqueduct projects over his career, had identified long-obsolete government rules that had the unintended effect of slowing down the completion of water renovation projects state-wide. Working with the agency’s governmental affairs personnel, he crafted legislative changes that removed the flaws with only minor modifications to state regulations.
Billy Harding had spent fifteen years in the state water division’s human resources department before a staff reorganization forced him to take a safety position. The new role required him to travel to pumping stations, dams and other project offices all across California.
Through the work experience he had at various water facilities throughout California, Harding proposed reorganizing the safety department to add more oversight of the state’s water-related operations, which would reduce the number of employees while decreasing costs at the same time.
Both projects were among those approved as ‘P3 Worthy’ by a joint committee made up of twenty people – all individuals hand-selected by the Singh Corporation.
On the job, Davis and Harding were barely acquaintances – nodding occasionally to each other when they passed in the corridors of the plant or exchanging pleasantries in the break room when their schedules overlapped. While they did make friends with other winning government employees, mostly from California, as the only two workers from the San Luis Dam Operation, they gravitated to each other more often than not during the cruise.
To the consternation of their wives, spouses weren’t allowed on the cruise, only the employees who were beneficiaries of the Singh Corporation’s generosity.
By the time the cruise ended, they knew the names of each other’s spouses (Louise and Jean), where they had lived as children (Escondido and Yountville, California) and shared other details of their respective jobs.
In short, they had become good friends.
When the trip began, Davis and Harding didn’t realize they had each earned the cruise until they saw each other while boarding a 727 in San Francisco. The Delta flight took them to Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, then onto Miami International, where they ran into each other again outside baggage claim and decided to share a cab to the cruise terminal.
Once the taxi traversed the dense pedestrian traffic of downtown Miami in late afternoon, they saw the port ahead.
Since neither had ever taken a cruise, both men were awed by the sheer size of their temporary home for the next ten days.
The Victory was a tremendous vessel to behold.
Registered out of Panama, the 130,000-ton ship was just over a thousand feet in length. It was the largest anchored at port that afternoon – and could play host to more than thirty-six hundred passengers.
Their cabbie maneuvered through hordes of arriving and departing passengers to deliver the men and their suitcases outside the chaotic entrance that led to the terminal building.
Amid the confusion of thousands of first-time and veteran cruisers (some disembarking, others hustling across the parking lot to find the proper entry point), the men spotted the sign for The Victory. Davis and Harding stepped into line together.
Once through the initial check-in, where a happily-obese African-American woman eyed their driver’s licenses and waved them through the security checkpoint, they lost each other beyond the conveyor belt that spit their luggage from the x-ray machine.
Inside was an expansive pre-boarding area filled with thousands of other passengers. Aisles separated by red stanchion ropes coursed with people of all races, sizes and nationalities, moving through the separate queues that meandered through the lower level of the terminal building.
They followed their fellow passengers as they were funneled into shorter lines, then grouped alphabetically by their last names. When each reached the check-in counter, they were greeted warmly by cruise personnel, given their personalized identification badges and herded up the last escalator that took them to the covered gangplank leading into The Victory.
It was a few hours later, after Harding’s big win at the slot machine, that the men ran into each other again: this time in a throng of nearly three hundred people – all beneficiaries of the P3 Awards – at a welcoming event held at a mid-ship hospitality suite hosted by the Singh Corporation.
They sampled shrimp cocktail, hors d’oeuvres with interesting flavors neither had experienced, and strange meats balanced on toast points – all heaped on round plastic trays and served up by a small army of ship staff moving through the crowd with efficiency.
As their appetizer and beverage trays were depleted, the waiters and waitresses moved haphazardly through the crowd, disappearing into the background only to reappear moments later, seemingly from nowhere, with more food and drink for the devouring crowd.
Drinks were served in tall, colorful hard-plastic cocktail cups with names that embodied the essence of a Caribbean cruise: Yellowbirds, Mai Tais, Goombay Smashes and Hurricanes, along with the Victory at Sea, a special concoction of rums, grenadine and papaya juice created especially for their first day out of port.
The Singh Corporation sponsored the event, but very few of the winners expected to see the company’s president and board chairman, Dr. Rishikesh Singh. It was well known that the doctor was still convalescing, as he had been since the crash of his private jet in India. So, the attendees weren’t surprised when his wife Sumera took to the podium to greet the crowd midway through the two-hour event.
Sumera Singh was dressed in jet-black slacks and a black top, which accentuated her chocolate-brown Indian skin. On most women, the outfit would have seemed bland. But with her skin tone, her deep-brown eyes and shoulder-length, jet-black hair, she made the simple outfit pop when she pulled the microphone from a stand at center stage.
“We’re happy to host the brightest and best among our public sector employees in the United States,” she began hesitantly. The slightly tipsy crowd was quickly quieted down, their conversations quelled as the more attentive winners on the front rows “shushed” the talkers...their calls for silence moving like a ripple to the rear of the large hospitality suite.
“My husband wanted to be here to thank you himself,” she continued. “But he, unfortunately, is still recuperating from the accident,” she said, her voice tinged with regret. “However, he is making a rapid recovery...he’s feeling better every day...and he wanted me to let you know how proud he is of the work you’re doing to make our country the best, most efficient in the world.”
The audience erupted with spontaneous applause.
When the clapping ebbed, she continued.
“I’m not the public speaker in the family,” she said apologetically. “So, I hope you understand if my comments are brief and to the point.”
Sumera Singh set her head back slightly, becoming taller and more erect at the podium.
“My husband came up with this program because he believes in America...and that a personal commitment to excellence is what made your country...and our adopted country...the greatest in the world.”
She was interrupted by applause again.
“Rishikesh also believes innovation is important,” she said. “Not only our continued investment in the country’s infrastructure, but in our sciences...and especially in the area of mental health. As most of you are already aware, Rishikesh has devoted his life to improving the mental health of all Americans...and people throughout the world...through his efforts to discover the vast inner workings of the brain, and how mental illnesses can be treated or averted. And, with the advancement of new drugs, new surgeries and new therapies through my husband’s research, I know that many of the mental illnesses we fight today will become a thing of the past.
“Just like NASA’s work in space resulted in many commercial successes that made our lives easier, it’s logical that my husband’s groundbreaking research will do the same.”
The audience, especially those in the front rows like Bob Davis, started to listen more intently.
“The much-maligned Hubble telescope, once corrected, produced not only the best photos of our universe, but its Charge Coupled Device chips are now used for the digital imaging of breast biopsies, saving countless lives,” Sumera Singh continued. “Beyond the more dramatic results, many of the things we take for granted now...things that make our lives easier and safer, came from our space technology. Shock-absorbing helmets, home security systems, flat-panel televisions, fogless ski goggles...and even sports bras and self-adjusting sunglasses…all these things were created as a direct result of America’s space program. It wasn’t limited to Tang!”
The older guests laughed aloud and sporadic claps could be heard throughout the audience.
“With that in mind, I’m proud to announce a new, commercial application of my husband’s work. And you will be the first group of P3 winners to have an opportunity to experience it.”
The curtain behind the small elevated stage opened to reveal a simple poster mounted on an easel. The image on it resembled a circular, flesh-colored Band-Aid.
Sumera Singh slipped the microphone from the mic stand and strolled over to stand beside the display board.
“It doesn’t look like much, but you are looking at the next big leap in virtual experience,” she said emphatically. “In the spirit of innovation you have shown at your agencies and organizations, The Singh Corporation is excited to unveil the Happiness Adapting Product...or HAP for short.”
They applauded again, most in deference to their host, not knowing exactly what they were clapping about.
“We’ll need to come up with a better name for our product when it is out of the prototype stage,” Mrs. Singh said apologetically. “We’ll need to get it out of the scientists’ hands and into our marketing department.”
Knowing laughter erupted in pockets of the audience.
“Regardless, tonight, those of you who would like to be the first to experience the HAP will have that opportunity! Simply put, the HAP accentuates the positive forces of your mind: your most treasured memories, your loves, your passions...the HAP identifies those elements of your brain and also taps into the endorphins that occur naturally. You’ve no doubt heard of endorphins. They are naturally produced by our pituitary glands and the hypothalamus during exercise, producing a feeling of well-being. But, with the HAP, these good feelings are electronically stimulated and heightened. Just as you feel happiness after you exercise, when you eat wonderful food...or after a sexual experience,” she added, looking down as the last comment came from her mouth as if ashamed of the reference.
“Though not a scientific term, the phrase ‘endorphin rush’ is common in popular speech, referring to feelings of exhilaration brought on by pain, danger or other forms of stress...the sensations brought on by the influence of endorphins in our bodies,” she said. “They actually serve as a protection when we’re hurt...preventing our nerve cells from releasing more pain signals to our bodies after a bad injury.
“In fact, if you’re having an alcoholic beverage or two, and I know many of you are, you’re really activating your endorphins right now,” she said. She gave the audience a full smile, the first break in Sumera’s businesslike demeanor during her welcome speech.
“To find out more about it, or if you want to take part in our launch of HAP, just see our representatives at the tables set up near the exits and at the bar,” Sumera said. “They can tell you more about it and answer any questions you may have. If you do choose to experience it, we want to know what you think about HAP, if you enjoyed it, or ways we can make the experience even better.”
With that, Sumera Singh moved back to the podium and slipped the microphone back into the mic stand.
“Again, on behalf of my husband and our company, congratulations on a job well done...and we hope you enjoy the cruise.”
Davis was in the second row and listened intently throughout the presentation. He hung on every word she said and had made his decision. Always the engineer, he was interested in new technologies and the opportunity to be part of the launch of the HAP intrigued him.
Meanwhile, Harding munched a beef-on-a-bun and sipped on the daily special from the rear of the room. He didn’t hear much of what Sumera Singh had to say.
Mrs. Singh left the stage, slipping into the crowd, shaking hands with guests as her small entourage joined her and spirited her slowly through the crowd and out of the suite into the corridor.
A few minutes later, Davis was at the Singh Corporation table, signing a release form. The company representative, a young, clean-cut man in his mid-twenties, provided Davis with a packet of information and asked him to follow him to an anteroom. There, the young representative pulled a package from his pocket, ripped the thin paper outer cover to expose the HAP and removed the covering to expose the adhesive. It was a bit thicker and wider, but very similar to the circular Band-Aids Davis had used as a child.
“They work best at the base of the neck,” the representative said. “Take a seat.”
Davis obliged. The young man leaned in to affix the HAP at the nape of his neck just to the left of his right shoulder blade.
“Now, leave that on,” the young man said. “It will take about an hour before it starts to work. The adhesive should survive the water on the cruise. However, if it does get too wet or falls off, just call the number on the information sheet and we’ll replace it. The main thing is to come by this room between 1 and 5 p.m. on day 8 of the cruise, on Thursday, so we can do our exit research. We want to know all about your thoughts and opinions on how it worked,” he said, flashing a smile.
As the cruise ship made its way to Nassau, Cozumel, Isla Roatan, and Costa Maya and back over the next seven days, Davis experienced the HAP: the enhanced memories, the engaging ecstasy of good conversation – further heightened by the tropical cocktails.
Davis enjoyed the experience. He would recommend the HAP to a friend and noted such in the comments section the day he filled out the questionnaire.
And, as a residual effect, Davis had enjoyed a sense of calm ever since he had returned from the sea.
Even now, in the quiet of the night in the bowels of the San Luis Dam, he felt that same feeling of calm contentment.
Yes, the HAP had a very positive effect on my life, Davis thought.
He tugged at the chains a final time.
Satisfied, Davis went to the corner of the room and slid into a narrow space between the bank of equipment and the corner of the wall where he would be hidden from view.
Davis stood silently in the shadows for about thirty minutes when he finally heard the footfalls outside in the corridor he had awaited, followed by the familiar jingling of the keys he had heard so many times.
Billy Harding opened the door of the subterranean control station for the San Luis Dam.
He scanned the room and approached the pieces of equipment strewn about the grey concrete floor.
“Dammit, how many times do I have to tell these people to clear their work area!?” Harding groused to himself.
Harding noticed the chains that hung, unmoving, at his eye level.
“That’s a safety hazard, too,” he muttered under his breath.
Harding bent down to pick up the valve extension device from the floor.
Harding spun around, momentarily startled, until he recognized Davis approaching from the corner.
“Bob, you scared the shit out of me,” Harding said. He chuckled with relief. “You see all the crap those guys left lying around?” He stooped to move the hardware, nuts and bolts, piling them along the edge of the wall. “What are you doing here so late at night, anyway?”
“I was wrapping up a special project. Time got away from me. I was heading out when I saw you making the rounds. Thought I’d wait here for you to tell you goodnight.”
“Well, hell, make some noise next time. You gave me a fright. Hey, can you give me a hand with these chains? I need to get these back up in the ceiling.”
“Certainly,” Davis said flatly.
When Harding turned away to start toward the chains, Davis bolted toward his friend. His 230-pound body rammed Harding in the back. The force propelled the safety officer head-first into the concrete brick wall. Stunned, his head bleeding and on the verge of blacking out, Harding felt hands on both shoulders drawing him away from the wall and something cold being wrapped around his neck...once, then again.
Before Harding could react, Davis tugged both sides of the chain simultaneously to engage the retracting device in the ceiling.
Harding kicked violently as his feet left the ground. The heavy-duty chain yanked his body upward into the dark recesses near the top of the room. His hands clawed at his neck, his body dangling like a life-sized marionette as he struggled to get his fingers beneath the steel links.
There was no scream…only a gurgling noise from Harding and the ugly, thick tinkling sound of the metal chain touching either side of the pulley mechanism while gravity did its work.
Davis watched Harding’s body for two minutes until the swaying ceased. Davis retrieved the wooden stool from where he had stashed it earlier and positioned it directly beneath Harding’s lifeless body.
Pleased with the scene, Davis walked back to the doorway. He flipped the light switch off with his elbow, using his forearm to close the metal door behind him, and he entered the main corridor.
He was unconcerned with the security cameras. He knew the interior video filming inside the dam shut down automatically at midnight.
Davis leisurely strolled down the hallway, took the elevator down to the Basement-One level and made his way into his small office.
He sat down at his desk and a wave of exhaustion came over him.
Davis slid a pile of papers to one side and laid his head down to rest. He closed his eyes.
And, as sleep overcame him, the memory of the murder he had just committed vanished from his mind.