Master – 7.2

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Master strolls over to his desk, then searches through the various drawers. “I need you to kill the man staying in room 203 at the Sheraton tonight. Sleep in his bed and wait for further instruction.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m looking for…” He says, more absorbed by his search than our conversation. “Ah, here it is.” Master returns into view with his hand wrapped around the handle of a spoon. He holds the rounded tip up to his nose, then sniffs it.            “What?”

Master makes his way over to me, stops, then stares plainly into my eyes.

“What?” I say.

He places his thumbs on my temples. “I don’t think you’re half as handsome as she thinks.”

“As who thinks? What are you doing?”

Master stabs the blunt end of the spoon into my chest.

“Ah!” I scream.

He grinds it in until the pressure is enough to break through my skin and tear into my muscle. I rock my head back and scream. Master carves out a portion of my flesh, then digs in again. And again. The pain is real – I feel Master scrape out my chest, piece by piece, with the round tip of the silverware. He plucks out one chuck of flesh after another.

The pain from his endless digging only intensifies as more time passes. My eyes roll back in my head, and I shout in terror. So much blood splashes off my tongue I’m forced to shut my mouth to save my nose from the stench of it.

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CHAPTER 7

It’s raining this time. I can tell through the window. Down below I see the same trees and cars as last time. Sitting in the couch opposite my own is Master. My first instinct is to stand and charge him, then beat his ass to a pulp. But I can’t move any body part lower than my jaw – this dream belongs to Master. He scribbles in his notepad.

“Ever had your heart broken, Mr. Gordon?”

“Where are they?”

“Some say the emotional wrench of lost love far surpasses any harm that can be inflicted physically.”

“You have them, don’t you?”

Master stops writing. He folds his hands and sets his heel over his opposite knee. “Your wife and daughter have been kidnapped. They will be returned, alive and well, as long as you observe my instructions.”

“What are you? Who are you?”

“We discussed this already. I am Master.” He sets the notepad aside, then adjusts the square box glasses sitting over his nose. “Our meetings will take place in your subconscious, though the threats and demands I will make pertain to the real world. Your wife and child are mine, I told you this during our previous session together.” He rubs the tip of his index finger against his temple. “Tell me, Phillip, how would you react if the love of your life left you for another man?”

My teeth clench shut.

“Well?”

I breathe through my nostrils. “Return. My. Family.”

Master sighs, then traces his finger along his chin. “You are important to me, you know. If I am Morpheus, you are Neo.”

“You touch Loretta, I’ll end you.”

“Loretta and Avery will be returned to you, unharmed and intact, so long as you comply.”

“Lay a finger on either of them I’ll slit your god-damned throat.”

I breathe. I stare.

Master rises from his seat, then strolls around the room. His wrist swoops up imaginary snow as he talks.

“I don’t think you’re capable of saving your family, Phillip. That’s just me being honest, man to man. You might be big and strong, but underneath all that meat you’re nothing but a coward.”

My head rattles in place. He stands still and faces me.

“I’m inside of your mind, and all that surrounds us are your countless fears, troubles, and anxieties. You do not think you can save your family, not even for a moment. You plan to try, yes, but you don’t plan on succeeding. Oh, no, no, no. And it’s not the first time, either.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Football, Phillip. You quit. For so long you persevered, for so long you improved. But at some point along the journey, a realization occurred to you – you’re just not good enough, and never will be. The thought of failure doesn’t bother you; not in the slightest. You’re happy to walk around town as the loser you are. You hate success because it doesn’t match your personality. Failure, yes, that’s your comfort zone. And after your family is killed, and everybody is telling you how sorry they feel, you’ll be ecstatic deep down, your little secret between you and yourself – you lost; the side on which your personal preference resides during competition. You’ll be relieved to no longer concern yourself with providing financially for other humans beings. Gleeful that Loretta didn’t live long enough to leave you – and yes, she would have anyway. A woman like that deserves better than a failure like you.”

Master grins, then continues. “Loretta will be murdered before she can divorce you. Remind you of anything?”

I don’t respond.

“You quit before you had a chance to enter the NFL and become the wasted draft pick you knew you were bound to become. Just as comfortable as you are with that decision, so shall you one day be with the death of your family – with your inability to save them in time.”

He clicks his teeth together so I can hear them, half a dozen times, then speaks.

“I don’t understand why you failed to properly warn Loretta about our last therapy session. I told you I was going to abduct her.” He balls his hand into a fist, advances forward, then knocks his knuckles against the side of my head. “You could have prevented all of this, you know.” Master returns to his seat, crosses his legs, and taps his fingers on his kneecap. “Sheep would sooner follow the herd off the cliff then risk communal castration by reversing their direction.”

“I don’t care what anybody else thinks.”

“Of course not, you’re a loser. That’s what losers do; they accept their inability to contribute to the rest of mankind. You’re dead weight, lying down and covering your ears is what you do best. Allow others to step all over you, allow others to take the little you have. You don’t care, after all you’re content with just being ignored. You don’t care what others think because you know what they think: You’re an embarrassment – your entire town is ashamed of you. You, more than anybody, should have escaped this dung-ho community and made millions of dollars with all the fame and fortune a celebrated life entails.” Master breathes a laugh. “Pathetic. A miserable wash-up. Why did I pick you?”

“Why did you pick me?”

“Oh, oh-oh oh.” Master points his index finger at me, then stands again. “Now you’re asking the right question.”

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Master – 6.1

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CHAPTER 6

My left hand chokes the steering wheel while my right sticks to my phone. I flip it open, push ‘send’ for Loretta, then wait. Voicemail. I ring again. I speed along the roadway. I’m not far from home, and I’ll see that white van coming a mile away.

“God, protect my family. God almighty, for the love of God protect my family.”

I don’t breathe. I’m locked on the road. I enter my neighborhood doing 50 plus. When I see him, it’s too late. Charlie – wearing the red-shirt, playing with chalk.

Now he’s drawing in middle of my street.

I press the brake pedal down, but I’m way too late. I rip back the parking brake – fumes from burnt rubber swarm my pick-up. I’ve veered right, straight for my neighbor’s oak tree. Charlie flees blind – and heads the same direction.

“No!”

I punch my horn and hold it down.

He watches me barrel toward him like a dumbfounded deer.

I crash.

Airbag deploys. Everything’s hazy. Blood and glass are everywhere.

Oak tree splits the front end of my truck. I wobble outside, then search my surroundings.

“Charlie? Charlie, are you okay?”

I’m dizzy; my brain is still bouncing. I don’t see his body anywhere. Then I hear crying. I turn to see –

“Oh my God.”

Hand to my chest. The kid dove into some bushes. If it weren’t for the tree, my Dodge pick-up would have obliterated him. He’s got a few twigs and thorns in his arms, but that’s it.

Charlie screams and goes running inside. I don’t blame him.

Tires screech. I turn around – the white van. It just turned onto my street. I see one roided-out driver, but his comrade from the passenger seat is gone.

“Loretta!” I scream. I pump my arms and race home. “Loretta!”

I reach my driveway. The van skids behind me and stops with a loud ‘bang’ against my garage door. I fly up the front porch and turn the door handle.

“Loret-”

Shotgun clicks from the monster holding it the second I shove the door open. He smiles, then stabs my neck with a syringe. A shooting pain enters my neck as I crumble to the floor. The injection comes from the man I saw in the passenger seat of the van – one with the cleft lip. He’s been standing here, waiting for me.

I’m too late.

I slip out of consciousness.

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“What kind of pansy-ass…”

It goes against everything I know about conduct with police officers, but I step out of my Dodge pick-up and walk over to the officer. He’s now sobbing uncontrollably.

“Easy.” I continue to creep carefully. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” I say with a laugh, hoping to get a rise out from him. He doesn’t even react.

I’m within feet of him now. His chin is in his chest as he looks downward at his gun. He’s shaking it erratically in his lap.

“Why don’t you put that gun back in its holster, Officer?”

“No, no. Everything is not alright!” He waves the gun as he screams.

I take a step back. I swear if he were any person besides a police officer, I’d grab that gun away from him.

“I can’t do this anymore, Phillip.” He says, then turns away.

My brain starts to spin, but then I realize he has my driver’s license. “Hey, relax, it’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. You won’t let me sleep, so what’s the point?”

“What?”

He points the gun at me. I dodge the shot by smacking his wrist with my forearm. I drop back a step then go sprinting toward a front lawn. Another gunshot rings out and I dive. I lie on my stomach with my hands on my head.

“Ahhh!”

I open my eyes and look up. The scream came from a little girl – she points at something behind me.

I whirl around.

“Jesus,” I say.

The police officer blew his own head off. Chunks of brain litter the pavement behind his bike, along with a fresh red pond.

Neighbors exit their homes. I have no idea what’s going on, but they won’t stop asking me. Then someone realizes there’s an officer down, and I’m the guy he pulled over.

“Stay there!” yells a middle-aged woman. She points a plunger at me.

“I can’t,” I mumble. “I didn’t, I don’t know what-”

A familiar ring – my cell phone, sitting in my driver’s seat. Loretta’s calling! I stand, sprint over, fling my dented door open, and rush to answer.

“Loretta!”

“Help.”

Call ended.

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Master – 5.2

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Something’s wrong. I feel it in my gut. I reach out to my phone to text Loretta, but stop when I notice the motorcycle cop in my driver-side mirror.

“Dammit.”

I’d flip a U-turn right here, but it’s a double yellow. I decide to turn into a neighborhood street on my right and lose the tail. He follows me. Three turns later, he’s still on my ass.

“You win,” I say, then sigh.

I pull over, turn the engine off, and dial my wife. It rings, and rings, and rings.

“C’mon.”

Loretta picks up.

“What’s up, baby?”

“I know how bizarre this sounds, but I want you to take Avery and go to your mother’s house for the day.”

“Are you serious? You’re really starting to scare me baby!”

I pull the phone from my face and think to myself. Then I see the cop again – drive by on the road ahead. He stops the bike, whips out a pair of binoculars, then stares at me.

“What the hell…” I mutter.

“Talk to me, baby! Tell me what’s going on! You’ve been acting really strange lately.”

I return the phone to my ear. “Nothing… Just do it for me, ok?”

“Hold on.”

“What’s up?”

“Someone’s at the door. Is the pipe-guy coming today?”

“Babe, I want you to get out of there!”

A loud BOOM. Phone call ends. I dial again. The phone rings, and rings, and rings. Nobody picks up.

I start the truck, turn around and accelerate. A police siren sounds off behind me; I’m being pulled over.

“Dammit!” I pull the car over, then slam my hands against the steering wheel.

I don’t know what I’m being pulled over for, and have no idea why this cop has it out for me. He takes his time parking his bike, and walks slow as hell over to me. I grab my license and registration, roll my window down, and smack my documents against the outside of my door as he takes his sweet-ass time strolling over to me.

“Write me up, I need to get home.”

I toss the documents at the officer.

Rather than mouth a word of protest, rather than so much as bother with a rebuttal, the officer merely nods, and picks the documents up after he fumbles them. He’s nervous; sweating even. Guy looks like he’s ready to cry.

“You alright?” I ask.

He nods. “Huh? Oh, yeah.”

I’m angry and frustrated – yet I can’t help but worry for this officer. Why is he acting like this? Are criminals more courteous these days?

The cop travels back to his bike like he lost a war.

I scoff, then try Loretta again – no answer. I text her.

U ok?

I wait. Two minutes, but it feels like twenty.

Yes 🙂   

I’m not exactly at ease – Loretta says smiley face text messages are for pedophiles. I call her again – still no answer. Another three calls, then I text her.

“Everything alright??”

I wait another four minutes. No response this time. I squint and check out my rearview mirror. The officer is crying and staring at his gun.

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CHAPTER 5

I turn the key, start the engine, and drive off.

Charlie notices me from the driveway he’s marking up with chalk. His red shirt is halfway up his back and he doesn’t even know it. I give my horn a light honk. He shouts and waves with the chalk he’s holding, then returns to drawing some elephant-dinosaur hybrid. I feel obligated to warn him about how dangerous it is to draw so close to the pavement, but neighbors don’t always appreciate well intended advice – especially when it comes to their kids.

I grab my expos cap from the passenger street and screw it on my head as I exit my neighborhood and start along the main road.

A few repairs to do today, but mostly standard cleaning. Fortunately, most clients won’t be home. I like people; just not the way they look at me when I clean their pools.

I turn on the radio hoping to hear some jams. Instead, I get the stupid AM morning shows that nobody wants to hear. I switch to this popular jackass on FM – he calls himself ‘McWatty9’, and even though I listen to him I swear I can’t stand him. The guy reads the news off like he’s doing standup. Something he says catches my attention. I turn it up.

That’s right, folks the suspect with the penis-hairdo cops hunted like nymphos for has… finally-been-nabbed! Documentation confirms he’s the alleged bomb plotter whose made strange, mange, and deranged purchases up and down the county area. This dickhead won’t stop yammering to authorities either, but he… won’t give us a hint about what he’s done with all his bomb materials! Assuring us he’s not insane, the phallic-tipped bandit claims a man from his DREAMS made him do it!

           

My heart pounds. I pull over to the side of the road, put my truck in park, then turn the volume up.

And that, folks, is your… bum-ba-da- dum! Nutjob of the week!

(sound effect – a parrot chirps, “He’s a nutjob! He’s a nutjob!”)

           

I turn the radio off. Mere coincidence. Has to be. Still, I wish I knew more about the suspect’s story. I wish I knew more about the man in his dreams.

Part of me wants to call Loretta, right now, and tell her to take Avery to her mom’s house. I shake my head instead, then remind myself how ridiculous I’m being – it was a dream. Am I really so paranoid as to think ‘Master’ is real, and has some kind of power over me? I mutter to myself the best piece of advice my father ever gave me.

“Stop being an idiot.”

I get back on the road and head to my first house. It’s a nice place, overlooking the beach. Owner’s a tool, but his pool is beautiful. The water spills over the edge, giving it a ‘waterfall’ effect.

A white van approaches on the other side of the road, traveling the opposite direction as me. Its driver stares at me as our vehicles cross paths – he’s a white male, with serious power alleys. The man in the passenger seat is equally buff and terrifying. A scar runs from his nose to his lip, and he glares at me like a hungry wolf smells blood.

I keep track of the van in my rear view mirror. It disappears from view, driving somewhere in the direction of my neighborhood; in the direction of my family.

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Master – 4.2

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She’s hidden beneath the covers, and I know she hates being woken up. The only exception is Christmas morning. Then again, she’s wide awake every Christmas morning.

I peel back the cover just enough to see she’s facing away from me. I rest my hand on her brown hair, and she doesn’t move.

“I know you’re sleeping right now, Brussels-sprouts. I just wanted you to know-” I pause.

I lived a very lonely life. That’s what people don’t get about me; that’s what they miss. Until you’ve gone without love, you have no idea how powerful it can be when it finds you. It’s not just a saying, and it sure as hell isn’t something I tell myself to feel better about giving up football. I don’t mean to get sappy, but as I stand here at my daughter’s bedside, knowing a short hallway away rests a beautiful woman who loves Phil Gordon the pool guy, I can’t help but thank God for all the life I have, and forget to give two shits about the one I gave up.

“I love you, Brussels sprouts.”

She turns over, and I finally see her face. Avery puts her hand in mine, then rubs her eye open.

“What time is it, daddy?”

I smirk. “Too early for you.”

She giggles.

I kiss her on the forehead, then get up.

“Wait!”

“What is it?”

“Come over here!”

I sigh, then do.

“Pinky.”

I grin, then hold out the finger. She locks her tiny pinky around mine.

“Say it, daddy.”

“You sure? Figured you’re too grown-up for that.”

“Say it!”

I smile. “Daddy cauliflower always returns for princess Brussels Sprouts.”

“Yay!” says Avery, kicking her legs and feet. I can’t help but laugh along with her – she hates vegetables.

I proceed to the kitchen, scoop out some Columbian roast, toss it in the filter, then add about four cups worth of water and turn the coffee pot on. I wait with my hands on the counter and my head dangling over my chest.

It was a dream, I remind myself. Nothing but a dream.

Still, ‘Master’ seemed so real. The entire scene did. Some dreams are so ludicrous you realize you’re dreaming while you’re in the middle of them. Other dreams fool you a little more, but as soon as you return to consciousness you realize you’d been tricked.

The coffee finishes brewing, and I pour myself a cup.

But then there are those other dreams, when long after waking, you are still convinced that you were in the presence of another being. Maybe not physically, but maybe metaphysically. The universe is a strange place.

“Are you trying to freak me out?”

It’s Loretta – she’s standing in the doorway, glaring at me.

“Yes, just the dream. Don’t worry-”

“You don’t spook easily, Phillip.”

“I know.”

“So why do you look so disturbed, baby?”

I think for a moment, and some primitive part of me urges me to warn her about Master. I almost want to stay here, just to watch over my family and make certain everything remains alright.

“Like you said, it was just a dream.” I hand her the mug. “Here, I don’t even want this. Have a good day, babe.” I kiss her and head for the front door.

“So why are you so upset?”

“Just being paranoid, like you said.”

“Love you, Phillip,” she says as I leave.

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CHAPTER 4

“Phillip?” says Loretta.

I’m out of breath and gasping for air.

“Look at you baby, you’re covered in sweat!”

She puts her hand to my forehead. I shove it away, then mount and kiss her with every ounce of passion I have. She pushes me away.

“Phillip? What is it?”

“God almighty, Loretta. I thought you were dead.”

“Bad dream?”

“You have no idea.”

I try to kiss her again, but she scoots out from under me. “What was it?”

“You and I, we were in a psychiatrist’s office… I watched you die, babe.”

“Hmm,” says Loretta. “In your dream, you and I are seeing a psychiatrist.”

“Yea.”

“And he attacks me.”

“Yea, he set you on fire.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing… I couldn’t move.” I lean to kiss her, but she dodges back and catches my face with her palm.

“So you sat there and watched it happen?”

“I had no choice, I told you.”

Loretta scoffs, then rolls over and throws the cover over her head.

“Babe?”

She doesn’t say anything. Her silence makes me feel worse than her yelling. I rub her shoulder.

“Hey, I’m sorry Loret-”

She springs out from her side of the bed and wrestles me onto my back. She’s got my shoulders pinned to the mattress as she straddles me.

“I don’t care if you have dreams about trains splitting my brains across the rails.” She darts her head forward and smushes her lips into mine. “You know why?”

“Tell me.”

She sucks in my lips as she grips my pecks. “Because in real life, Phillip, you would stop that fucking train. You would figure out a way to stop that train and save me, and nothing in the world could stop you.” She kisses me softly, only for a moment.

“And that’s why I love you.” She leans back, then pulls up my eyelids with her thumbs, studying me like a child.

“What?” I say.

“I see it in your soul.”

She kisses me again, then falls away from her straddle of me and returns to her side of the bed. “Baby, what was the name of the psychiatrist?”

“In my dream?”

“Duh.”

I laugh. “He wouldn’t tell me. Made me call him Master.”

She turns over and looks at me. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, why?”

She sits up to her elbows and stares straight ahead.

“What?” I say. “Remind you of someone?”

She laughs, then turns back over and faces away from me. “You’re too paranoid, baby.

Your mind is going to get the better of you.”

I roll out of bed, kick on my jeans, then head out the bedroom. I’m surprised to find the

door to Avery’s room cracked open; usually she keeps it closed.

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“Oh… yeah, bring her in.”

“Loretta, come in now.” says Master.

I want to scratch my temple, but I’m having trouble lifting my arm. Loretta enters through the door. She sits in the sofa across from me.

“Babe, I didn’t know you came-”

Master interrupts. “It’s not just football, Phillip. It’s finances, it’s your inability to be a true ‘man of the house.’ Everyone thinks you’re a joke not because you never made it in football, but because you’re a loser in real life.”

“What kind of therapist-”

“I’m not your therapist, I’m your master.” He stops behind Loretta, and sets the canister of gasoline on her shoulder. “How many people will you kill to save your family?”

“What?”

Master unscrews the canister. “Loretta and Avery are mine. Are you, or are you not, willing to kill to see them alive again?”

I take several breaths through my nose. “Move that gasoline away from my wife.”

“Answer the question, Phillip.”

“I’m not a man of violence… get that god-damn gasoline away from her!” I try to stand – my legs won’t budge.

Master pours gasoline onto Loretta’s head. I can’t do anything but listen to the ‘glup glup glup’ as he drenches her dark hair.

“My bet is, you are. Our actions often contradict our words.”

“What are you-” I want to charge him, but my back is stuck to the sofa, my feet are glued to the ground.

“Light it,” says Master, then tosses the lighter to Loretta.

It lands in her lap. She stares up at him and blinks, then turns to face me. She looks like a sick puppy dog.

“Do something baby,” she says.

“What’s going on?” I scream. “What is this, where are we?”

“Obey your Master, Loretta.” Master pulls a handgun out from his pocket. “Light it.”

“Baby I’m scared,” says Loretta.

“Why can’t I move!”

“Light it!” Master says. He loads the gun.

“Help me Phillip!”

Master reaches his arm long, then presses the barrel into Loretta’s temple.

“Light it.”

Loretta and I meet eyes.

“Save me,” she says softly.

Master pulls the trigger. It clicks. No bullet comes out.

I wince my eyes closed, then return my view to my still-living wife and let out a breath. “Thank God,” I mutter.

Master opens the chamber, then seems disappointed to discover he’s out of bullets. He drops the gun on the ground, walks over to his desk, then opens the draw.

“What is going on here,” I say, calmly as possible. “Why can’t I move the rest of my body? When did you drug me?”

“Stop speaking.” He finds something in one of the draws of his desk that makes him smile– it’s a book of matches and a cigarette. He lights up.

“What are you doing?”

Master takes a seat, sniffs the cigarette, then frowns. “I need you to deliver a package for me.”

“You got it. Let us leave.”

Master grins at me. “Sounds lovely. I’m fond of that idea.”

“Great.”

He sighs. “Not practical though. Tell her you love her before you leave, you may never see her again.”

“What are you talking about?”

Master flicks the lit cigarette at Loretta.

“No!” I scream.

Flames engulf her from head to toe. Her skin melts like wax, her hair shrivels up like dry weeds. “Baby!” she says.

“I can’t move!”

The heat from the fire warms me. I smell my wife’s flesh burn away. My wife dies in agony before my eyes.

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Master – 3.1

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CHAPTER 3

A muscular trashcan clothed in a pinstriped suit sits across from me. Hair slicked-back, big square glasses, and a fiery glare so intense I swear he wants to kill me.

“You’re scared,” he says, scribbling in his notebook.

The sun shines in through the window, where parked cars, trees, and a graffiti-ed fire hydrant can be seen down below. I’m in a psychiatry office, but I have no memory of driving here.

“Talk about your failure as a football player.”

“What?”

“You were a great college player; one of the greatest ever to play the game. If you would have continued, you could have been a superstar. But you quit.” The psychiatrist pauses, then looks up from his notepad with a flick of his eyes. “Why, did you stop?”

“I don’t recall your name, doctor… what was it again?”

“Master.”

I laugh. “Master? That’s what you want me to call you?”

“Yes.” ‘Master’ pulls a lighter out from his pocket, then flicks the flame on. He lets go of the switch, then does it again. “Why did you give up on your lifelong dream, Mr. Gordon?”

“I don’t see it that way, doc, never have. I was in love, and my daughter Avery was on the way. To be honest with you, professional football isn’t really the right environment to start-”

“Fear.” Master stands up, then walks over to a desk. On top of the desk is a canister of gasoline. He begins to walk in a big circle around the room, carrying the gasoline at his side. “Fear drives us to make desperate decisions. In your case, you quit because you knew it was a matter of time before others discovered the truth.”

“What truth?”

Master pauses, then smiles kindly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon, but I feel it would be rude to leave you wife waiting for a minute longer. Do you mind if she joins us? I know it’s a bit of a surprise, but I can assure you this session will be better spent with her present.”

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