Charlie’s eyes widened as the implication dawned on him. “Wait… you mean… me?”
“I didn’t say that,” Sandra replied. “But at the same time… You were the only one here that night.”
“No… absolutely not!” Charlie protested. “I didn’t—like I said, I was holed up at the front.”
“Until your alleged ghostly entity forced you to come back this way, according to your story.”
“What? No; look, that’s what happened, I swear. I came back here, and I found Mr. Lurge. It was the first I saw him or knew he was here! I would never have done anything to him, anyway—he was a good boss! He gave me this gig and he was always nice to me.”
“Calm down,” said Venus. “We’re not accusing you.”
Charlie seemed not to have heard. “I’ll tell you what happened—it was the ghosts! Samuel, I guess. Maybe something else. But that’s the only way it makes sense—they must have brought the robots online and had them kill Mr. Lurge. Probably to get revenge on the family, I guess.”
He paused to catch his breath, and Sandra seized her opportunity:
“This ghost business has got to stop, okay? I’m not saying you’re implicated, but spouting nonsense won’t help your case, understand? Just be cool, kid.”
Charlie nodded, still looking quite frantic.
“You said the bots have to be activated in the main office—where’s that?”
“It’s in the center of this building. We’ll have to go further into the factory and then go up a couple floors. But it’s—“ he paused abruptly, seeming not to know what to say.
“Uh, well, I don’t know how to… that is…”
“It’s something else about ghosts, isn’t it?” said Venus.
“Look, we can handle any ghosts, okay?” Sandra said firmly. “Take us to this office.”
Charlie swallowed hard and then pointed the way. Together, the three continued past the long, silent line of mechanical warriors, which were sporadically illuminated by the blue glow of lightning flashes. The storm outside was drawing near, and the narrow window slits where the wall met the ceiling rattled in the increasingly violent wind.
At last, they reached a sort of central pillar made of huge concrete blocks, inside of which was molded a stairwell leading up into blackness. The three went inside and up the winding stairs, advancing slowly, sweeping the beam of Sandra’s light before them. Once, Venus abruptly held out a hand, pressing it into Sandra’s chest to bring her to a halt.
“What are you doing?” Sandra demanded.
Venus nodded upward, and Sandra raised the beam of her light in the direction indicated, till it fell upon a huge, hairy spider scurrying into a crack in the wall.
“Whoa, thanks. How did you know that was there?”
Venus shrugged. “Sixth sense, I guess.”
They began to move forward again when a muffled noise from behind made them turn around. Charlie remained on the landing, staring at the wall.
“I hate spiders, okay?” he said. “Can’t we just blow this haunted pop stand and come back in the daytime?”
“We’re going to the office,” Sandra said. “You wanna stay down, be my guest.”
Considering this, Charlie reluctantly followed. “Sure, you two probably feel safer with me.”
At last, they came to the top of the last flight, and a battered red door that opened into a long hallway. This hall was more luxurious than the industrial, unpainted metal-and-concrete of the lower levels. It was carpeted with avocado-green shag and the walls featured vintage Lurge adverts depicting bots in alien landscapes or space stations. There were doorways every few yards, leading to vacant offices.
“These are the executive suites,” Charlie said. “I’ve only been up here once, for my interview. That’s when Lurge told me about the control panel in his office. It’s at the end of this hall, on the right.”
And indeed, as they reached the end of the corridor, they saw to their right a large wooden door, with a brass nameplate bearing the words, “Lothar Lurge, President and CEO”
Charlie stepped forward and inserted his key into the lock. He turned it hesitantly, and the door creaked open.
“Look at you, with a key to the boss’s office,” Sandra remarked.
“Naturally,” he said, some of his old bravado returning. “Old Man Lurge knew I’d need a master key since I kept the whole joint secure at night.”
Lurge’s office was fairly spacious. An area at the front, separated from the main space by avocado-colored dividers, had a desk and filing cabinets, was presumably for a secretary — Miss Ritter, according to the nameplate. The larger, executive desk sat at the rear of the room, in front of a massive bank of windows against which the rain continued pounding.
“So, where are the controls you were talking about?”
“I think they’re at Mr. Lurge’s desk, but I don’t know exactly”
“Okay. Stay just outside in the hallway and guard the door,” Sandra commanded, as she and Venus hurried to the desk, and started looking at the panels of monitors, buttons and switches arrayed there.
“It wants a password,” said Sandra, opening a window on the largest terminal. “Do you know it?” she called to Charlie, who shook his head.
“Hey, I’m pretty good at guessing passwords,” said Venus, resting her fingers on the keypad and closing her eyes, as if concentrating for a moment. Then her fingers flew, and immediately, the words “Access Granted” flashed on the screen.
“How’d you do that?” Sandra asked in amazement.
“Something I picked up in the FES,” the other woman replied with a shrug. “Here, let’s do some digging.”
Together, they read through the messages on the mail client, which was automatically displayed on the screen. Most were uninteresting reminders, alluding to meetings and deals they had no knowledge of.
“What’s this here?” Sandra said, pointing at one message, from Mr. Lurge to Miss Ritter. Venus opened the message and read aloud:
I need to expedite matters. She’s been looking daggers at me every morning, and it gives me the creeps. I think I’ve got a plan. I’ll give you the details — and a whole lot more — when you get back.
“Ewww!” said Sandra and Venus in unison as they exchanged shocked looks. “Well, I don’t like the sound of that!” said Venus, with a scandalized expression.
“Neither do I,” said Sandra.
“Me neither, ladies,” the voice of Max concurred, causing both of them to start.