Subject: S.E. by C.M. Barnes


She watched the man approach the house on the security screen. He was not as tall as she had expected—and definitely not as old. She couldn’t guess his exact age—somewhere between a care-free thirty and a super-fit forty-five—but she had expected a looming, sepulchral figure: some old Father Time with a bent back and a gnarled cane. This guy was practically jogging up the drive from the guard hut. He was dressed all in black (at least that made sense), but it was a very fashionable black: pea coat, thick scarf, dress shoes.

Definitely not antique funeral style.

He was even wearing expensive sunglasses, and his long, brown hair was swept back behind his ears with some kind of glossy product that shimmered though the high-def screen. If she hadn’t known better, she would have guessed he was a successful realtor—or maybe an attorney who dealt in some kind of white-collar law, so complicated as to be bloodless.

But she did know better.

It had been Harvey’s doing, of course. Harvey, the family lawyer whose job it was to look out for everyone and everything connected to Enoch’s legacy. That he had even seen to this bizarre contingency was telling of his thorough professionalism—that, or a well-hidden insanity. What had he said? All the big guys get it done. Presidents, hedge funders, CEOs who manage to get out with their golden parachutes intact...Of course, Enoch didn’t fit into any of these categories, at least not anymore.

At one point, you could have said he was a businessman—a highly successful one and a billionaire, but still a businessman. But he was way beyond that now: He had passed into the realm of legend, even of a god. More importantly, he had done it before he even passed from this earth. Metatron had become one of those companies that was essentially its own hybrid part of speech: a noun (“I’m sure it’s on Meta. Everything is!”), a verb (“Want to just meet up and Meta?”), and an adjective (“This thing is like Meta-big!”), and Enoch had maintained full control of his creation all the way to the end.

He had also—maybe even more unusually—maintained one marriage throughout his life, which was why she was here this morning—a faithful widow devoted to maintaining her larger-than-life husband’s memory. The fact that she had never really known him didn’t matter. No one had. Not really, anyway. And the marriage had just been part of the show. She had played her part dutifully though, and now there were just a few bits of epilogue to finish up. This was one of them, and apparently, only the closest of kin could be present.

She left the security alcove and started down the long, tiled hall toward the front door, her suitably low heels clicking. Normally, she didn’t meet guests at the door. It wasn’t a snob thing. It just usually wasn’t possible in such a large house. But she’d sent all the staff home for the day, and the children had not yet made it back from the far-flung continents where they liked to spend their time and money. An empty house was necessary, the man had said.

She had done some point-and-click research, and it seemed guests were often present at the ceremony, at least historically speaking. Maybe the isolation and the secrecy—because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?—were features of the modern iteration. She wasn’t sure, and she wasn’t planning to ask. Instead, she opened the front door just in time to greet the man with an appropriately subdued smile.

“Hello,” she said as he came to a stop before the threshold. “I’m so glad you were available on such short notice.”

He smiled, and it was a perfectly nice smile. Genuine looking, yes, but no teeth visible and a reassuring number of laugh lines crinkling around his pretty blue eyes.

“No problem at all,” he said. “It’s sort of the nature of the business.”

He had the kind of warm, robo-friendly voice that invites you to watch the safety video before takeoff.

“I suppose it is.”

They were still smiling at each other from either side of the open door, and it took a long moment to realize he wasn’t going to enter without her say-so.

“Please come in,” she said, stepping aside. “The...coffin is in the sunroom at the back of the house. The windows face east in there, and Enoch liked to read the paper in the morning light.”

“Lovely.”

He stepped into the hall and began to shrug his way out of his thick, black coat.

“I’m sorry,” she said, surprising herself. “Obviously, I’ve never done this before. Would you like something to drink first? Coffee? Tea?”

He smiled at her again, and she almost laughed with embarrassment. Had she really just offered to get him a beverage before his meal? What were they going to do if he said yes? Sip and chat at the coffin side for a few minutes before the main course?

“No, thank you,” he said evenly. “All I need is what I asked for in the email. Do you have it ready? It’s fine if it’s not. I have all morning.”

“No. It’s ready,” she said. “It’s back in the sunroom too.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll follow you...unless you’d like to talk for a minute first? It can be difficult to have a conversation in the presence of the deceased, and people naturally have questions.”

He met her gaze with those deep, blue eyes—eyes as deep and blue as the water in some opulent Mediterranean grotto that she never would have seen had she not married Enoch, had she not become an accessory to the kind of fortune that could open up every corner of the world, no matter how obscure or exclusive.

“I don’t have any questions,” she said, trying to put some authority into her voice. Who was serving whom here after all?

“Wonderful.”

“Yes,” she echoed. “Wonderful.”

She led him back down the hall toward the sunroom. Of course, the cutesy story about Enoch liking to read the paper in the morning light was the purest bull. Enoch probably hadn’t touched a flesh-and-blood newspaper in at least a decade, and he’d been instrumental in putting hundreds of them out of business. Whenever possible, he had operated purely via screen. He also probably hadn’t known there was a sunroom in the house. On the rare occasions he was here, he’d been walled up in his basement study, door locked tight, typing, scheming, always conference calling away in his never-ending quest to dominate the market. If she had wanted him for anything—which she rarely had— she’d had to text him, and even then, she’d usually only receive a response from his personal assistant, Emanuel. But now Emanuel was gone too. He had jetted away to grieve in his chalet in La Fontaine Sainte-Agnès. Like everyone else, he would return for the funeral, and so she wanted to keep the coffin in a sunny place. Anything to make this all a little less strange.

She heard the man’s expensive shoes clicking down the hall behind her. Thankfully, he seemed to be all business behind that friendly smile. Then again, he was probably practiced in reading his clients’ moods. Harvey had said he was highly respected within his field. Granted, she had never even heard of this field before. Through Enoch, she had known some very powerful people—ones who probably could have benefited from the ceremony.

“In here,” she said, gesturing toward an open door off the hall. “You’ll find the coffin near the back of the room in front of the condolence bouquets. There are a lot of them, and more keep showing up every minute. Security is supposed to hold any who arrive down at the gate while you’re, um...working. You won’t be disturbed.”

The man paused in the doorway, and for a split second, she thought he winked at her.

We won’t be disturbed,” he said. “You’re a part of this too, as I think I explained in the email. Are there chairs on either side of the coffin?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then please follow me in when you’re ready. Take your time. Like I said, I have all morning.”

I bet you do, she thought. I bet you have all morning and then some for the richest man on the planet—or at least the richest estate on the planet. She scowled. I’m a big part of that estate, and I plan to be treated as such. So, I will take my time, thank you!