The Department of Fate and Predetermination

by Sam Rae

Jerome knew it was a dream because this was about the 100th time he’d had it. “A recurring dream”, was how he’d described it to his co-workers who weren’t really listening. In the dream he was sitting on a metal chair in a concrete room, unable to move. There were metal tubes protruding from the skin on his arms, legs and torso. His groin was covered by some menacing contraption that held his penis and testicles tightly. He was aware that he was in pain, and a large amount of it, but it didn’t really bother him. It was like someone was telling him that he was in pain. It was second or third hand information at best. He tried to speak but his mouth would not open. Were his teeth wired together? Jerome did not feel an appropriate level of distress considering his situation. He was somewhere approaching calm, if not quite calm. He sat for a long time listening to sound of his own breathing. He was aware that it was a dream and he felt like he was in control but he could not will himself free. He was “in control” in the same way you would be “in control” of this situation in real life. It seemed like a waste of a lucid dream.

        After a while, a door, that he had not been aware of, opened to his left. A handsome woman in a lab coat strolled, leisurely into the room without breaking eye contact with the tablet device in her hand.

“And how are you feeling, Mr - ,“ she scrolled down on the device, “ - er… Castle?”

Jerome mumbled an unintelligible answer.

“Excellent,” she said, satisfied that he was doing as well as could be expected. “It's your big day tomorrow, isn't it?", there was a short pause while she failed to come up with another topic of conversation, "You take care.”

The woman left the room, her lab coat swinging behind her. Jerome noticed her legs as she strode out of the room. They were very nice legs. Very nice, indeed. A sharp stinging pain from his groin put that chain of thought to rest at once.

He sat in silence, once more.

        The alarm is going to go off in a second, Jerome thought.

        Any second now.

        Any second.

        Jerome awoke sharply. It was 7am. It was a Monday. It was the start of another week of work.

        Jerome Castle was not an interesting man. He was 43 years old, tall and slim with a tired, worn face. He had started to lose his hair a few years ago, the realisation had sent him into a deep depression for which he was prescribed an SSRI and, unhelpfully, a hobby. He was single and had never been married. He hadn’t really ever been in a serious relationship. They all just sort of fizzled out. Usually ending with the phrase “This just isn’t working”.

Jerome enjoyed his work despite the Monday blues.

Jerome worked for Dubious Industries in its services division: Dubious Services. His part of the company took government contracts or assumed the responsibilities for overstretched bureaucracies and charged them through the nose for the privilege. Jerome felt he was doing something useful. More useful than his previous jobs, anyway. He worked in the “Fate and Predetermination Department”. In 1997 the UK government had decided it could no longer manage the backlog and privatised the department. Dubious Services was the only bidder.

        

        Jerome walked through the office on basement level 1 to his desk in the far corner. The office was almost empty, only a few other people had gotten in before him. He arrived at his desk. Everything was as he had left it on Friday except for a post-it with the words “See Me - Stan”, scrawled in a childish hand. Stan was Jerome’s boss. What did he want now? It wasn’t even 9am and Stan was already breathing down his neck. That wasn’t fair. Stan wasn’t a bad boss. Jerome was always in a bad mood after that dream. And he hadn’t had his morning coffee.

        “Did you want something?”, Jerome said as he peered round the door of Stan’s office. Stan was a short, plump man with a round face. He desperately wanted to be a good manager and had read many books on the subject. He frequently attempted to start conversations about these books at the dinner parties he and his wife attended but no-one seemed interested. Stan and his wife had not had sex in three years. He often wondered if he could somehow apply his honed management skills to that problem, too.

“Hi, Jerome. How are you? Listen, I got an email - Do you want a coffee, Jerome?”, Stan said people’s names too much when he was talking to them.

“No, I’ve already - “

“I received this email from Gemma on basement 5 - Gemma McArthur - Do you know Gemma, Jerome?”

“Yeah, She was - “

“The email says they need someone to look after The Eyeless Oracle,” you could hear the capital letters as he said it, “until next month. They’re a bit short at the moment and I thought this would be a good opportunity for you - “

“I’m not really qualified for that, Stan. I just do the - ”

“It’s only for a while, Jerome. It’s just until they can hire someone permanent. HR are already looking for someone”, Stan pronounced the H in HR as “haitch” in the most infuriating way possible, Stan may not be a bad boss but he was definitely a very irritating man.

“I have a lot to do this week - “, Jerome attempted to interject.

“I told them you’d be down there by noon, so, I can count on you, yeah?”.

Stan considered this interaction a success. He had been firm with Jerome and pushed him towards an opportunity for him to get noticed and advance. Stan later masturbated to a picture of his sister-in-law in the office bathroom.

                There was no lift from basement 1 to basement 5 so Jerome had to negotiate the combination stairwell/deep storage warehouse/filing cabinet graveyard/toilet/smoking room that lead there. He was about half way down when he heard footsteps coming up from below. Jerome looked over the railing to see if he could see who it was. He noticed that the stairwell seemed to go down a lot further than 5 floors. There were only 5 basement floors listed, though. Jerome couldn’t see the person responsible for the sound. The footsteps got closer. They must be right below him now. He had the strange thought that it would be the woman from his dream. The mysterious, handsome woman with the lovely legs. The footsteps did sound like high heels. Was she wearing heels in the dream? Probably, Jerome thought. A few more steps, one more corner and he’d be able to see who it was.

                Gemma McArthur didn’t seem to be paying much attention as she passed Jerome on the stairs. It wasn’t until Jerome cleared his throat that she stopped, slowly turned back to face him and looked up from her phone.

                “Oh, it’s you,” she said, absentmindedly.

                “Hi, Gemma. Stan said you needed me to look after the… The Oracle guy?”

                “Yeah, I have to pop out for a bit. All the instructions are on the door.” Gemma had started walking again and was typing on her phone.

                “Ok. I’ll do my best, but I did tell Stan: This isn’t really my forté, you know.”

                “Yeah, well it’s really easy. A monkey could it. Just make sure you feed him on time. See you later, Jermaine”

                “So, I shouldn’t feed him after midnight, then?”, Jerome joked, ignoring the fact that she had gotten his name wrong.

                “I’ll be a couple of hours, just make yourself comfortable.”

                The instructions on the door read as follows:

                                

                                9:15am - BREAKFAST:        

One banana. Cut into SIX pieces

Kellog’s Fruit and Fibre, semi-skimmed milk (in the fridge)

                        12:45pm - LUNCH:

Tuna melt panini from the sandwich place across the road

Can of Blood Orange San Pellegrino (they sell it at the sandwich place)

                        5:20pm - DINNER: (or whenever you leave in the evening)

                                        One Chicken Kiev (in the freezer)

                                        Runner beans or boiled carrots (with butter)

4 roast potatoes (he likes the Aunt Bessie’s frozen ones in the freezer)

                        Any time - SNACKS (2 a day)

                                        Nutrigrain bar

                                        Any fruit from the fruit bowl (2 pieces)

                                        Cream Egg (not more than 2 a week)

Jerome thought it all seemed pretty normal. Pretty specific but pretty normal.

The door was probably, at one point, a normal office door, but it had been repaired so many times, Jerome wondered how much of the original door was left. Jerome chuckled at his joke. Then he thought about how a door might come to be so frequently damaged and he stopped smiling. It was 11:45am, he should probably go and fetch the sandwich and the drink now or he’d miss The Oracle’s lunch time. Jerome tried not to get annoyed that no-one had told him before he walked down all those flights of stairs that he was going to have to walk straight back up them. He failed to not get annoyed.

Jerome returned with 2 paninis, one for himself, with 10 minutes to spare. There had been a long queue at the sandwich place and everyone was taking the longest possible amount of time to order their food. Jerome was very annoyed about things today, he noted.

Ten minutes later he was standing at the door plucking up the courage to knock. He had arranged the sandwich on a plate; He had tried, and failed, to make it look appealing.

12:44:57

58

59

12:45:00

Now or never. He knocked.

“Enter”, a deep voice rumbled on the other side of the door. Jerome opened the door as if disarming a bomb and walked into the darkened room. A cloaked figure stood 20 feet in front of him on a bare, concrete floor. The light from behind Jerome was the only illumination in the cave-like chamber.

        “What have you brought me, child?”, the figure spoke in rasping tones.

        “I… it’s the sandwich… the panini… across the road. Gemma said I - “, Jerome, usually not a shy man, was stricken with panic as he attempted to explain the most mundane object in the world.        

        “And what about the Blood Orange San Pellegrino?”, there was a peculiar emphasis on the word ‘blood’. The drink! Jerome had forgotten the drink. He was concentrating so hard on remembering to get the right sandwich he had forgotten the other half of the meal.

        “I - I forgot -”, he stammered.

        “YOU DID WHAT, BOY?”, The Eyeless Oracle boomed.

“I can go and get - “, Jerome pleaded.

            “Nah, I’m only messing around. Don’t worry about it.”, The Oracle’s voice had jumped up and octave to a more human pitch. There was a hint of an accent, too. Birmingham, maybe?

                “Turn the lights on, will you? There’s a good boy. I only had them off so I could fuck with the new boy.”

Jerome looked behind him. There was a very normal looking lightswitch on the wall. Jerome was expecting the room to be sparsely furnished with mahogany pews, gothic chandeliers, caged, dead-eyed virgins, a snake pit and a stone altar but when the lights came on it was more like a student bedsit. An unmade double bed, a small desk in one corner. A large television. The walls were dotted with posters depicting nude men and women, all magnificent examples of the species. Firm, muscular, bronzed and oiled . At least he was right about the dead eyes.

                “Um.”, Jerome mumbled, dimly.

The oracle wore a long, dark red (possibly) velvet robe. It was tattered and stained and Jerome quickly became aware that The Oracle was not wearing anything underneath it.

                “Do I get to eat my sandwich or not?”, The Oracle said, cheerfully, from a comfy looking sofa in front of the television.

                “I don’t get many visitors, down here.”, said The Oracle through a mouthful of panini, “I have to rely on whoever is “Feeding me” if I want someone to talk to. There’s the internet of course but those forums can get a bit heated and I don’t really care for the politics of some of those American types...,“ The Oracle continued to talk but Jerome was not paying attention. He was mulling over a few important questions to which he would like some answers:

  1. The “Eyeless” Oracle appeared to be anything but eyeless. He had two eyes in his head and did not appear to be visually impaired in any way. So why was he called The Eyeless Oracle?
  2. Why was this man being kept down here? Jerome sort of the knew the answer to that. It was so he could interpret the ancient scrolls, and write people’s destinies on little scraps of vellum that the Department of Fate and Predetermination could type into an official looking letter and send to people so they knew what their destinies were. But that was just what he did down here, which lead to:
  3. If he was not being kept, why did he stay down here? There was no lock on the door. No guard. Why remain in this voluntary prison?

        “Why are you down here?”, Jerome interrupted The Oracle midway through an explanation of why the XBox One will ultimately fail as a games console while the Playstation 4 will succeed.

        “You know why we’re down here, Jerome.”, Jerome didn’t remember telling the Oracle his name but thought he probably shouldn’t be too surprised that someone called “The Eyeless Oracle” mysteriously knows his name.

        That evening Jerome was walking back to his desk on basement level 1. He had left his coat and bag there. Jerome thought he should probably keep his stuff down on basement 5 if he was going to be there for a while. Jerome’s coat was not hanging on the back of his chair where he had left it. Stan was still in his office. Jerome thought he might know where his coat is.

        “Stan, my coat isn’t where I - “, Stan hurriedly covered the papers on his desk and blurted: “We got you a new coat, Jerome!”, as if buying a coat for a colleague was a thing that people did.

        “A new coat?”

        “That’s right. A lovely new coat.”, Stan pointed to a deep red, wool, houndstooth coat hanging the on the coat rack. Stan was being very strange.

        “Ok. Can I have my old - “, Stan was already walking over to the coat rack.

        “This one is so much better, Jerome. And we got you a tie to match, Jerome. Look.”

There was, indeed, a matching silk tie. There was no designer label on either but they were beautiful. Jerome had never owned such a nice coat. Did the person looking after The Oracle get a special coat? Was that the deal? Why not just say that? Whatever was going on Jerome had gotten a free coat out of it.

        “I didn’t always want to be The Oracle”, The Oracle waved his arms in mock reverence, “I was normal, like you, Jerome. But you know what it’s like, you get a job and you just sort of change until you fit it, don’t you? Nice tie, by the way. New, is it?”

        “Yeah, Stan bought it for me”, Jerome said looking down at the tie. “Well, he said “We got you this” but he didn’t specify who “We” is...are. So...”, The Oracle looked thoughtfully at Jerome’s tie. He looked away as if in pain but quickly forced a smile.

        “Well, I’d better get back to it.”, The Oracle gestured towards his desk. It was Jerome’s second day as The Oracle’s personal conversation recipient/room service maid and they were getting on like a house on fire. Jerome left The Oracle’s chamber and sat at one of the desks in the dark, empty office next to The Oracle’s room. Jerome had been told not to bother with his normal duties and just to “take it easy”, whilst caring for The Oracle. Not being an idle man, Jerome had brought some of his work down with him anyway and busied himself filling out rejection letters for all the people who had applied for a deferment on their predestined life course.

        Two weeks had passed and Jerome and The Oracle had settled into a comfortable routine. Jerome hadn’t gotten any answers to his questions but he did have it pretty easy in this position. Senior members of staff would call him by name and say “Good Morning” and “How are you, Sir?” when he passed them in corridors. Subordinates seemed terrified of him during his infrequent trips to the upper floors of the building. Jerome surmised that he must be a big shot, now. Jerome liked being a big shot.

Jerome hadn’t seen Gemma since that first day. When he asked after her, people said, “Oh, she’s probably on holiday or something, Sir. Don’t worry about her.” or something along those lines.

Jerome was wearing a lot of red these days. It just felt right.

At the start of week three, Jerome was heading down the stairwell to basement level 5 when it occurred to him to wonder what happened to The Oracle at the weekend. Jerome only worked Monday to Friday. What did The Oracle do on Saturday and Sunday? Did he prepare his own food? Did he stay in his room? Jerome decided to ask The Oracle when he got down there.

When Jerome walked into the kitchen/office/waiting room adjoining The Oracle’s room there were two worried looking men in sharp suits, a bedraggled, mole-like man who was so obviously a Doctor it was painful and a two nurses. The group of strangers glared at Jerome as he strolled in.

“Hello, can I help you - “, Jerome was talking to people in the way very important people do: rudely.

“What did you do?”, said the first suited man, almost shouting.

“I’ve been looking after - “, Jerome was not used to being talked to like this.

“The Oracle is dying.”, the second man explained.

“I’ve been following the instructions to the letter.”

“Well, you obviously - “, the Doctor began.

“Well, you obviously bloody haven’t, you prick. Because he’s. Fucking. Dying.”, the first man took over. Clearly a more qualified speaker for that sentence.

“Can I see him?”

“No, you can’t. You’ve done enough damage. Go back to your old desk. We’ll be talking to you soon enough.”

Jerome sat at his old desk. It had remained untouched in his absence. It felt very strange to be back here. Jerome was acutely aware that he wasn’t doing any work. He shuffled some papers and pretended to write something on his computer but to anyone but the most idle observer it would be clear he was not doing anything. Jerome had grown very attached to that strange little man in the red cloak. He was worried about his new friend and he was racked with guilt that The Oracle’s illness might be his fault. The phone rang. It rang again. Jerome couldn’t remember the last time anyone phoned him.

“Hello?”, Jerome answered sheepishly.

“Jerome Castle?”, A woman’s voice. She sounded familiar.

“Speaking”

“This is Liz on basement 6. Can you come down here a second? Thank you.”

“How do I get to basement 6?”

There was a pause while Liz considered the question.

“You go to basement 5.”, she said, finally.
        “Yeah.”

“And then you go down one more floor.”, and she hung up the phone.

When Jerome got to basement level 6, which was, indeed, just below 5, he came across another dark, empty office. There didn’t seem to be anyone around.

“er… Liz?”, he said, slightly louder than speaking volume but by no means shouting.

Nothing.

He waited for a few seconds and then turned to leave.

“Now!”, someone shouted from the shadows.

When Jerome came to he was strapped to a cold metal chair in a concrete room. There was the smell of bleach in the air and it was deathly cold. Jerome was naked apart from his underwear. Jerome could hear voices from outside the door, they were too muffled to make anything out.

The door began to open.

“And then Carol nearly picked up the phone when Mei Ling was calling. Can you imagine trying to explain that? Oh yeah, sorry darling, that’s just this girl I imported from China so I could have a bit on the side and not have to deal with any of the usual shit. Why did I give her a fucking phone? - Mr Castle”, the suited men were in a much better mood than the last time Jerome had seen them.

“Why am I here? What are you doing to me?”

“It looks like you have a chance to actually do some good around here for once, Mr Castle. You’re going - “

“You can’t torture me. You can’t do this. I won’t let you stick those tubes in me! I WON’T LET YOU! You can’t! Please! You're not putting my dick in that machine. Please!", Jerome had begun to sob.

“I literally have no idea what you’re talking about,” Turning to his sidekick, “Do you know what he’s talking about?”

“I have no idea”, the second man said, doing his best henchman act.

“Listen, Jerome. We’re probably going to be spending a lot of time together, so, I’m Michael and this is Dave.” Finally, names to go with the faces. Those will be useful when I escape, thought Jerome.

“Hi,” said Dave.

“Hi,” said Jerome.

“Yeah, lovely. Listen, J-Man, thanks to your incompetence, The Eyeless Oracle has died - “

“I did everything right! I fed - “

“Well, it doesn’t really matter now. He’s dead and with his last - not breath - because he wrote it down. With his last er… action, he named you as his successor.”

“Is that why I got all the red clothes?”

“What?”, the two men looked at each other, puzzled.

“You were grooming me to become the New Oracle so you were making me wear red.”

“Your outfit really isn’t our concern.”

“Why am I tied to this chair, then? The Oracle was free, sort of, in his room”

“Yeah, it didn’t start like that, though. It’s not a fun job but the pay is great. Really great. Bonuses. You name it. Any questions?”, Michael asked hoping there wouldn’t be any questions.

“Why did The Oracle die? What killed him?”

“Foretelling the Destiny of Millions takes a great toll on the soul of a man and he just… withered away….”, Michael looked solemnly at his shoes.

There was a moment of silence.

“Did he say anything -  “, Jerome began.

“Nah, only joking, you probably fed him a fucked up panini or something. The point is, you’re the new guy and we need you to stay here until you stop being a dick and start co-operating because this is important.”

“So, you’re not going to stick tubes under my skin?”

“Why would we do that?”

“What about the woman in the lab coat? With the legs?”, This seemed all too familiar to Jerome, he was determined to get some answers.

“I don’t know, Jerome, there are women here, some of them wear lab coats, most of them have legs.”, Michael said wearily.

Dave looked at his watch and whispered something in Michael’s ear.

“We have to go now. But we’ll be back and you can ask all the questions you want then”, they both moved, briskly towards the door.

“One thing, quickly!”, Jerome called after them. Michael stuck his head back round the door.

“Yes?”, the word thick with feigned patience.

“Why was he called The “Eyeless” Oracle? He had eyes. He could see.”

“Er… I think it was some copyright thing from ages ago. I don’t know, see you later, J-Dog”.