In 1997, shortly after Katherine Spencer’s death, Joan O’Connor travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to clean out her estranged mother’s house. Hidden amongst her mother’s things, Joan finds a wooden box containing trinkets and sealed letters to a person identified only by a first initial. Through the letters, Joan learns that her aloof and unyielding mother was anything but – that she had loved deeply and lost that love to circumstances beyond her control.
The story shifts to 1930s Chicago where Katherine has left her small town in Kansas and the marriage proposal of a local boy, to live on her own and work at the glove counter at Sears & Roebuck. It’s here that she meets Annie Bennett, a bold, outspoken feminist who challenges Katherine’s idea of who she thinks she is, in addition to what she thinks she wants.
The decades-long, often tumultuous relationship between Katherine and Annie, Katherine’s subsequent marriage to a man she grows to hate, and the fractious relationship between mother and daughter ultimately shows that despite their differences, they’re more alike than Joan had ever realized.
**Letters Never Sent is the winner of the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Historical Fiction and the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Debut Novel. It was also a runner-up for the Best Lesbian Novel.
**Letters Never Sent is a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction in the 26th Annual Triangle Awards.
Kansas City Star Feature Article
Carleen Spry's Review on Frivolous Views
Salem West's Review on The Rainbow Reader
Erin Golding's Review on The Healing Scribe
Beth Mitchum's Recommendation on UltraVioletLove
Topeka Capital-Journal: Novel Revolves Around a Mother's Secret
LOTL (Australia/New Zealand) Book Review
The Liz McMullen Show (Podcast and Slideshow)
Flicks & Swizzle Sticks (Podcast)
The Cocktail Hour (Podcast)
A native Kansan, Sandra has worked as a newspaper journalist, a political speech writer and an archaeological tour manager. When she's not running around Kansas City (literally) or torturing college students with the fundamentals of anthropology, she can be found in her lair listening to Pandora and making up stories.
Her debut novel, "Letters Never Sent" is available for Kindle at Amazon.com, for Nook on the Barnes & Noble website, and at the Bedazzled Book Peddler. Paperback editions will be available September 1, 2013.
Hello Book Club Readers:
One of the things I enjoy most about reading a good book is, once I'm finished, discussing it with other people. It's so much fun to delve into the deeper issues ... the motivations of the characters ... the "why's". And one of the things that frequently happens (at least to me and my friends) is someone says, "I wish we could ask the author that question."
Well, the good news is that for any of you that have read Letters Never Sent, you can. I love group book discussions and would be thrilled to join you and your book club via Skype, phone or in person (if you're in Northeast Kansas). Feel free to drop me a line at Moran.Sandra.D@gmail.com. Be sure to include your discussion schedule and preferred form of participation. I will contact you and we will figure out how to make it work.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Sarah sat in the high, uncomfortable chair and squinted up into the powerful lights that hung overhead. It seemed unreal that after so many months of scheming, planning and anguish, she was finally here. Perspiration ran in rivulets down her back and sides, causing her blouse to cling to her skin. She had opted for a light color in the hopes that her perspiration wouldn’t show on the television but she hadn’t expected to sweat this much.
She cleared her throat. “Could I get a glass of water,” she asked hoarsely in the direction of the bank of faceless shapes she knew to be people. There was no answer although a heavy man in a plaid shirt that stretched over his substantial stomach stepped into the light and handed her a bottle of water – room temperature water.
“Thanks.” Sarah twisted off the cap and lifted the bottle to her lips, careful not to smear her lipstick.
“So, let’s go ahead and get started.” A man in a dark blue pin-striped suit slid into the chair directly across from her. Sarah swallowed and then smiled. Finally. “Now, I know you’re no stranger to all of this,” the man continued, “but do you have any questions before we start rolling?”
Sarah shook her head just as the man in the plaid shirt and jeans stepped forward again, peered at her sweaty forehead and then yelled over his shoulder, “Can I get a touch-up?” He swung to face the man, studied him just as closely and then grunted, “Matt, we’re ready when you are.”
“Great.” Matt Lauer cleared his throat and looked at Sarah. “You ready?”
Sarah nodded despite the make-up woman dabbing powder on her forehead.
“All right,” Plaid Man said as he took several steps backward and stood next to the cameraman. “All clear.” The woman gave Sarah's face one last pat and then she, too, stepped back into the gloom. “And three … two …” Plaid Man swung his finger and pointed at Matt.
“She has turned the religious world upside-down with a supplement to the world’s religious texts that she claims was dictated to her by God,” Matt began. “And not only has she produced what’s being called The Addendum, but she’s made it freely available on the Internet to anyone who wants it. She’s loved by some, reviled by many and today, she’s here in Studio 1-A to explain how she came to be chosen by God and what her Addendum means for humanity.” He turned now to face Sarah. “Welcome Sarah Sheppard.”
Sarah smiled confidently at the camera and then turned her body so she was facing her interviewer. “Thanks, Matt. It's a pleasure to be here.”
He smiled and Sarah could tell from the look in his eyes that he was genuinely interested to hear what she had to say.
“So, Sarah, it’s been quite a year for you.”
“It has.” Sarah tried to appear outwardly calm even though she could feel her heart thumping twice its normal rate. “It’s not every day you’re called to do something like this.”
Matt Lauer nodded sympathetically. “I can imagine. So, tell me about the reaction to your … I don’t even know for sure what to call it.”
“It’s an addendum to the world’s religious texts,” Sarah said smoothly. This was familiar territory. “For Christians, for example, it picks up where the New Testament left off and brings humanity up to speed with what the Christian God has done since the crucifixion. For other belief systems, it’s a supplement to their religious texts. And for those who don’t have a specific text, like the Buddhists, it’s a …” She shrugged. “It’s a message that is applicable to the human experience of belief in something greater than oneself.”
Matt nodded. He held a pen in his left hand, a sheath of papers in his right. He pointed the pen at Sarah for emphasis. “And what do you say to the people who argue that this is not rooted in any kind of basis, that you didn’t talk to God and that you’re just … well, I’m going to say it … a little crazy?”
Sarah smiled confidently as she always did when this question came up. “I say that they’re wrong. I was chosen for various reasons -- which I, of course, can't disclose -- to bring the voice of an inclusive God to the people.”
“Now, when you say ‘the people,’ you’re talking about all people, right?” Matt asked. “Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Christians. Everyone.”
Sarah nodded. “Exactly. Everyone. It’s all the same God – the same power. Just different interpretations.” She glanced to where he knew Fiona would be standing next to Jim, but couldn’t see either of them. There was silence and Sarah realized she had missed a question.
“I was asking about some of the claims you’ve made.” Matt glanced down at his papers. “That there is a mathematical trinity comprised of Infinity, Enumerae and Innumerae. That Enumerae – an entity that you claim first appeared to us as Jesus – has been walking among us throughout history as some pretty amazing characters.”
Sarah smiled again. “Yes." She crossed her legs and sat up straighter. “As I was working on this, I began to call them ‘nudges’ because each of these characters … people … historical figures … were designed to nudge humanity back to considering their beliefs and either reaffirming them or, in some instances, providing new avenues for worship – the creation of new religions.”
“Hmmm.” Matt leaned back in his chair and nodded thoughtfully. His eyes were slightly narrowed as he appeared to consider what she had said. “I’ve read your Addendum and I have to admit I’m a little skeptical.” He paused, seemingly for affect, and then leaned suddenly forward to deliver his next line. “So, Sarah, I have to ask … what proof can you offer that this actually happened – that you spoke to God repeatedly and were directed to create this document?”
Sarah had anticipated this question. It had been asked in almost every mock interview and her response, though practiced, was genuine. She shrugged slightly and shook her head in capitulation. “I have no proof – just like the men who created the Old and New Testaments had no proof it was divinely inspired.” She spread her hands widely. “It’s all based on … faith.” She paused. “I was an atheist when this all began. I thought belief in a higher power was for fools – something for people who were weak and needed something to lean on. A crutch.”
She looked away from Matt to the shadowy figures in darkness of the studio and wished she could tell which ones were Fiona and Jim.
“—no longer believe that?” Matt was asking another question.
Sarah took a deep breath and returned her full attention to the interview. “No – at least, not in so many words. My experience has changed me. It’s made me see that we’re not – any of us – alone. We’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. The Addendum is proof of that and I’m honored to be the messenger.”
Sarah felt the bullet strike her chest before she heard the explosion of the discharge. It felt like being pinched, she thought distractedly. Then she felt the second and third bullets. The force of the impact threw her backwards off her chair.
“Fiona,” she said and reached out her hand. “Jim.” Fiona reached her first and scooped her into her arms. Her hair fell around her face as she leaned over her, veiling Sarah, providing them with a few precious moments of privacy.
“What happened?” Sarah whispered the words.
“Oh, Sarah.” Fiona began to cry. “Forgive me.”
Sarah Sheppard leaned back in her chair and looked out the window at the twinkling lights of the city spread out around and below her. It was, she recognized for the hundredth time, a magnificent sight that more than anything spoke to how far she had come. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to enjoy the almost sinful comfort of her black, leather chair. She had paid too much for it – she knew it at the time. But it was a luxury that she was convinced she deserved. She had worked hard to get where she was and she was determined to enjoy it.
“Who would have guessed,” she murmured. Her life in New York was a far cry from the cornfields of Nebraska and the small, rural town of Bellevue. But she had made it. She had lifted herself out of nothing to become one of the company’s top advertising executives. She worked long hours and reaped the rewards – a corner office, unmentionable company perks and the admiration and envy of most of the people in the company. No one could argue that Sarah wasn’t a master at crafting messages, subliminal persuasion and the overall turn of phrase. They knew it and she knew it. What most people didn’t know was that her success had come at a price. When she went home at night, it was to an empty apartment. She had no real friends. No relationships other than one-night stands. Not even a pet.
Still, she reminded herself, the sacrifice had been worth it. Being where she was and being who she was made it absolutely worth it. She opened her eyes. The view made it worth it.
The computer on the desk behind her pinged and Sarah swiveled around to peer at the screen. She had a 7:30 p.m. meeting. The client had been a last-minute addition and her assistant, Jenny, had simply entered the appointment without any information aside from “Mtg w/ New Client.” Sarah sighed in irritation and reached across her desk for the manila folder with her paper schedule inside. It was old-school, she knew, but she liked to be able to hold a sheet of paper in her hand. The appointment details here had clearly been quickly penciled in. The name of the man she was supposed to meet was almost illegible. Sarah squinted at the smudged writing. Nathan Aileng … Nathaniel … something.
“Nathaniel.” The voice was soft and low. Sarah jumped in surprise and looked up to see a slender man in a dark suit standing in the doorway. In his left hand, he clutched a black leather briefcase. She blinked several times and inhaled deeply. She didn’t like surprises. She lifted a hand to her chest and laughed.
“Jesus. You startled me.” She took another breath and when she next spoke, her words were more controlled. “I didn’t realize there was anyone there.”
The man smiled, turned his upper body slightly and gestured to the desk outside Sarah’s office. “Your assistant must have left for the night. I took the opportunity to let myself in. I hope that’s all right.”
Sarah smiled and quickly stood. Though she couldn’t show it to this man, she was irritated with Jenny for not telling her she was leaving and even more so for leaving before she had shown Mr. … Nathaniel … in. Sarah made a mental note to discuss it with her in the morning to ensure that it didn’t happen again. “No, that’s fine,” she said moving forward, her hand extended for the perfunctory shake. “You just startled me. Please, come in. Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? Soda, coffee, something stronger?”
“No thank you,” Nathaniel said. He grasped Sarah’s hand and then moved toward one of the two visitor seats. He smiled perfunctorily and unbuttoned his suit jacket and lowered himself carefully into the chair. Sarah took the moment to do a quick inventory. Average height and build, although he looked to be strong in a lean sort of runner’s way. Dark complexion, possibly Middle-Eastern. Dark wavy hair and dark brown eyes. His nose was slightly hawkish. His suit was expensive and well-tailored. Sarah prided herself on being able to read people and this man, although uptight, possessed a quiet power and composure.
Sarah reached across her desk for her black, leather portfolio and then moved to sit in the seat next to him. She crossed her legs at the knee and opened the portfolio to a clean page of legal paper. She noticed that her guest didn’t even glance at her legs. Interesting. “So, it’s nice to meet you, Nathaniel. I’m sorry, though, I didn’t catch your last name.”
Nathaniel met her gaze and gave her the same, closed-lipped smile as before. “For now, just Nathaniel is fine.” His expression gave nothing away.
“Right.” Sarah frowned slightly. She wasn’t used to people not giving her what she wanted. She nodded slowly. “So, Nathaniel … What can I, or I guess I should say, what can the firm do for you?”
Nathaniel’s smiled widened to show his small, even teeth. They were, Sarah noticed, very white and she wondered idly if he had them professionally whitened.
“That is a good question,” Nathaniel said. “A very good question, indeed.” He pursed his lips and turned to look out the window. “So many lights. So much noise and distraction. I don’t know how people get things done nowadays.” He paused as if in thought and then returned his gaze to Sarah’s face. “Right … so, I am here in the hopes of acquiring your services.”
Sarah pasted her “You’ve Come To The Right Place” expression on her face and nodded enthusiastically. “Great. So, tell me a little bit about what you’re looking for.”
Sarah tried not to flinch as Nathaniel pressed his lips together and studied her face. The scrutiny was, Sarah thought, unnerving. She wanted to speak – to fill the silence. Instead, she forced herself to wait.
“Well,” Nathaniel said finally. “We have a document that we would like developed. And, we would like to have you … oversee the process. And then, once it’s done, we would like for you to spearhead a campaign to disseminate it world-wide.”
Sarah nodded slowly. What Nathaniel was proposing had the potential to be very large and very lucrative.
“I want to be clear, though,” Nathaniel continued, “It’s a different kind of campaign than what you’re used to. It will be more culturally significant than anything you’ve ever done.”
Sarah pretended to scribble something on her notepad.
“It’s a document, rather than a product,” Nathaniel repeated. “But we need a contemporary spin on it. We need it to be catchy.”
“I’m sure Marshall & Associates can accommodate your needs,” Sarah said quickly, even though she still wasn’t entirely sure what she was being asked to do.
Nathaniel smiled. “Yes, Ms. Sheppard, about that.” He paused. “This offer is for you, not your firm. We would like you to join us – to work for our organization as a key member of a very special team comprised of the most talented professionals in their fields.”
Sarah blinked, frowned slightly and leaned back in her chair. She was used to other companies trying to woo her away from Marshall & Associates, but something about this man’s approach was different.
“You want me to leave M&A,” she said. “To work for you.”
Nathaniel crossed his legs and folded his hands neatly in his lap. “For my organization, yes. And there you will head up a team of the best and brightest. Writers. Scholars. Theologians. It would be a defining moment in your life, in your career, in your existence.”
Theologians? Sarah frowned. Just what kind of document was Nathaniel hoping to produce? She capped her Waterman fountain pen and closed the portfolio.
“It sounds like an interesting project, Nathaniel. But I’m not sure it’s my kind of project.” She smiled confidently and tipped her head slightly forward and to the side. “And, if I were to be honest, I’m pretty sure you can’t afford me.”
Nathaniel laughed. “Oh, I think we can – if money is what you want. But I think you’ll find our offer interesting outside of just the monetary gains.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “You’ve lost me.”
“Allow me to explain.” As he spoke, Nathaniel absently fingered the sharp crease of his trousers. “I know I’ve been vague and I guess I … we … can hardly expect you to agree to this without understanding what it is we want you to do. However, I need your word that this conversation is between us and that discussion of this offer does not leave this room.” He stared straight at Sarah and smiled, although his eyes remained hard.
“I’d like to hear you say it aloud,” Nathaniel said. “I would like your oath of honor on this.”
“My oath of honor?” Sarah spoke the words slowly and then laughed in disbelief. She shook her head and then, when she realized Nathaniel was serious, narrowed her eyes. Nathaniel calmly met her gaze but said nothing. Finally, Sarah cleared her throat. “I promise.” She held up a hand, palm forward as if she were testifying. “This discussion, the offer, this project will go no further than me.”
“So help you, God?” asked Nathaniel.
“So help me, God,” Sarah said.
Nathaniel smiled. “Excellent. Well, then … We would like to commission you to help us craft the most important project known to man in the last 1,500 years.” He paused. Sarah raised her eyebrows slightly and waited for him to continue. “Your role would be to join our team of historians, writers and theologians and take their arguably dry and sometimes less-than-exciting work and put a fresh, hip, spin on it. We want this to be something that is applicable to modern-day humans. And then … we want you to ‘sell it.’” He made air quotes around the last two words.
Sarah nodded slowly. “And ‘it’ is …?”
“An addendum to the world’s religious texts,” Nathaniel said simply. “Given my employer’s identity, is should be clear to you now why I have been so cautious in sharing the details.”
Sarah waited several seconds before she began to laugh. “This is a joke, right?” She leaned forward. “I mean … you’re not serious.” She looked around dramatically as if searching for a hidden camera crew. “You’re with … what? One of those gotcha shows?”
“I can assure you this is no joke,” Nathaniel said, his expression serious. “Quite the opposite.”
“Right,” Sarah leaned forward, tossed her portfolio onto the desk and then settled back in her chair. “So, let’s just say just for the sake of argument that you’re for real. You must have read my … uh, file … and know that I’m not religious. I’m an atheist. I’m not even a member of your team in the first place. Why would I join now?”
“Mine is not to question why,” he said simply. “I was sent here to recruit you. My employer thinks you have a gift for selling people on things.”
“Uh huh.” Sarah rolled her chair forward and propped her elbows on desk. “So, can I begin by saying that I find this entire proposal unbelievable and that I’m a little pissed that you’re wasting my time? And anyway, isn’t the Bible done? I mean, there is the whole Book of Revelations, isn’t there? Doesn’t that tie everything up?”
“No.” Nathaniel shook his head. “Actually, it doesn’t. It prophesies the end of days, but the Bible, itself was never completed – at least not the way we wanted. The scribes did what they could, but in retrospect, we really should have been more thorough. There’s still so much more that needs to be clarified and, to be quite honest, in some instances, corrected.”
“Corrected?” Sarah shook her head slowly. “What do you mean, ‘corrected?’It’s the Bible. Isn’t it supposed to be right?”
“Right is such a challenging word,” Nathaniel said. “What is right?”
“You’ve heard of that game, ‘Gossip,’ right?” Nathaniel raised his eyebrows in question. Sarah nodded. “Well, the story gets muddled as it’s told and then retold. That’s what happened with the Bible.” Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but Nathaniel raised a finger. “Take the New Testament, for example. Jesus never documented anything – nor did his disciples. Their words and deeds were transmitted orally for 40-plus years before people started writing them down. And even then ...” He shook his head and sighed. “Paul wrote all sorts of letters to the Christian communities with his interpretation on Jesus’ teachings, but he never even knew Jesus. But guess what made it into the New Testament?”
Sarah blinked, opened her mouth to respond and then closed it.
“The other thing, too,” Nathaniel continued, “is that it’s time.”
Sarah’s chair made a loud snap as she leaned quickly forward. “What do you mean ‘it’s time?’ You mean, like TIME time? THE time?”
Nathaniel’s laugh was genuine for the first time since sitting down. “No.” He waved his hand. “Not the end of times. Just … time. It’s been more than 1,900 years since the texts that eventually became the New Testament were penned.” He again held up his finger. “But I need to be clear that this isn’t only about the Bible. This “next chapter” as it were, will be for all religious documents. The Qu’ran. The Book of Mormon. All of them need an update. The faithful need a little more. They need to know their God hasn’t forgotten them.”
“I still don’t understand,” Sarah said. “I mean, I’m not a scholar of the Bible or any of these books, but don’t they all end with some kind of ‘End of Days’ scenario and then … you know …” She pressed the fingertips of both hands together and then spread them quickly apart with a soft “poof” sound. “Done. No more world or humanity or … anything? I mean, don’t they already have an ending?”
Nathaniel’s expression was one of amusement. He took his forefinger and rubbed the edge of it along one of the corners of his mouth. Sarah thought he was trying to hide his laugh.
“It’s not that simple,” he said after a moment. “God gave humans free will. And that variable makes it tough to know what humans are going to do – and more to the point, when. Since it seems to be the one you’re most familiar with, let’s take the Bible for example. When they wrapped up the New Testament, we really only were giving humanity a couple of hundred years at best. Paul thought that the end would come within his lifetime. Granted, he was always a loose cannon. But who knew that humanity would stretch it out this long?”
“It’s kind of like the Mars rover,” Nathaniel continued. “They expected it to die out years ago but it just keeps going and going. Like that little Energizer Bunny in the commercials.” He pantomimed playing a bass drum and then pointed his finger at Sarah. “Now that was a good ad campaign. Too bad you weren’t in on that one.”
“I don’t …” Sarah frowned,
“I know, I know.” Nathaniel nodded in mock sympathy. “You don’t know what this is all about. You think I’m crazy. You wonder if this is some sort of joke. I can appreciate that. But just because you don’t agree doesn’t change reality.”
Sarah was surprised at how much his words angered her. She wasn’t used to not being the smartest person in the room. And she didn’t like it.
“You’re right.” Sarah struggled to keep her emotions under control as she spoke. “I don’t know what this is all about. I don’t know what you want and, yeah, honestly, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one of Dan and Terry’s elaborate jokes.”
Nathaniel held up a hand.
“I can assure you, it’s not a joke. And I don’t know who Dan and Terry are, although I can certainly look at their files. No. This is a legitimate offer of employment. Based on our mutual needs – we need to get the word out that we haven’t just been hanging out for the couple of millennia. And you …” He paused.
“And, me …?” Sarah prompted.
“You get in.”
“In?” Sarah knew the expression on her face must be one of confusion. “In where.”
“Into Heaven,” Nathaniel said. “You get to come into Heaven – or whatever your perception of Heaven is.”
“I’m an atheist,” Sarah said shortly. “I don’t believe in Heaven.”
“Oh, Sarah,” Nathaniel said with a kind smile. “Everyone believes in Heaven – or at least some kind of heaven or nirvana or … whatever. There’s room for everyone there. There’s the Catholic wing and the Jewish wing and even the reincarnationists have a space, although getting them to stay there can be a challenge.”
Sarah waited for him to laugh at the last bit and when he didn’t, she sighed, slapped her hands on her thighs and stood. “Okay, well, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Nathaniel, but it’s late and I’m tired. I’m sure you can see yourself—” Nathaniel held his hands up in a defensive gesture.
“Sarah, please listen to me,” he said. “This is not a joke. I am serious when I say to you that I have been commissioned to act as an intermediary to secure your services to craft an addendum to the world’s religious texts – all of them.”
Sarah studied Nathaniel with narrowed eyes. To her surprise, he stared back, unflinchingly. After what seemed like an eternity, she again sighed and went around the desk to her leather chair.
“Okay then,” she said as she sank into it. “I appreciate the offer, but I have to tell you, I don’t believe you.” She shook her head. “I believe you believe it, and that’s great. I respect that. But I’m really not the women for the job.”
Nathaniel nodded understandingly. When he spoke, his words were soft, low and patient. Sarah felt like a wild horse that was being slowly approached with a looped rope.
“We anticipated this,” he said. “That’s why I brought this. May I?” Nathaniel gestured to the slim briefcase he had placed on the floor next to his chair.
Sarah snorted softly and raised her hands in a “knock yourself out” gesture. Nathaniel set the case in his lap, thumbed open the front clasp and extracted a thick document. Sarah noticed the expensive leather and the embossed crest on the front of the briefcase. Despite herself, she said, “Nice briefcase.”
“Lambskin,” Nathaniel said without looking up. “Part of the ‘Sacrificial Utilization Initiative.’ You wouldn’t believe all the skins, meat and blood left over from the animal sacrifices. We try not to let anything go to waste. Infinity needed to do something productive with the skins so leather goods were fashioned for all of us. Calf, goat, lamb … they all get used. This one …” He flipped it over and studied it for a moment. “Pagan sacrifice around 200 CE.”
Sarah closed her eyes and gave a brief, disbelieving snort. When she opened them, Nathaniel gave her what she was coming to expect was his standard toothless smile. Using just his fingertips, he carefully slid the document across the desk. The crisp whiteness of the paper seemed to glow in contrast to the black, inlaid leather of Sarah’s desk.
“You will find everything you need to know in here.” Nathaniel re-fastened the clasp on his briefcase, stood and buttoned his jacket. “It’s the terms of our agreement. I’d like to tell you it’s open-ended, but it’s not. This offer expires in 24 hours. And, not to be dramatic, but the paper upon which it’s tendered will combust at …” He glanced out the window at the Manhattan night sky. “… 8:10 tomorrow night unless you sign the signature page at the back. Let me be clear, Ms. Sheppard, when I say that this agreement is binding. My employer is forgiving, but you should know up front that with us, commitments are taken very seriously. Once you’re on board, you’re on board. It can be tough at times. Ask Moses or Muhammad.”
Sarah stared at the paper and then lifted her eyes to meet Nathaniel’s.
“Seriously.” It was both a statement and a question.
“Oh yes,” Nathaniel said. “I just want you to understand what you’re in for should you choose to accept. And I also wanted to remind you not to be holding this document at 8:10 p.m. tomorrow if you haven’t signed on. Put it in a trash basket or the sink. Outside maybe. But don’t hold onto it.”
Sarah considered his words.
“So,” she began slowly. “Let me make sure I understand this correctly. If I don’t sign your contract, it will burst into flames and I won’t be a part of this … project. But if I do sign it, then it won’t burst into flames and I’ll never know if it would have.”
Nathaniel nodded. “And you’ll be committed to the project.”
“But, how will I know if it really would have supernaturally caught fire if I don’t not sign it?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Such is the price of faith.” He turned and walked to the door where he stopped, paused for a moment and then turned to face her. His voice was earnest. “Sarah, this isn’t a joke. I can understand why you might think it is, but it’s not. Think carefully about this offer and give it due diligence. It would be a shame to discount it out of hand just because you think I’m crazy.”
He pointed at Sarah’s desk and she looked down at the art deco clock that sat on the corner of her desk. It was 8:10. When she looked back to the doorway, Nathaniel was gone.
Sarah blinked. What a bizarre meeting and what a strange man.
She looked down at the paper-clipped document in front of her. It didn’t appear to be lengthy, but the thick paper made it seem substantial. Sarah ran her fingertips over the cover sheet and felt the heft of the cotton paper. The 24-point lettering was in Times New Roman. The words “Employment Agreement for Sarah C. Sheppard” were centered in the middle of the page. She squinted at the watermark. It looked like the crest on Nathaniel’s portfolio, but was hard to make out specific detail.
“Well, if nothing else,” Sarah said aloud. “They went all out, that’s for sure.”
Though she didn’t really believe the document would explode, she was careful when she picked it up, removed the paperclip and flipped to the first page. She leaned back in her chair to read. It was a succinct, straightforward four-page agreement.. The other three pages were Non-Compete and Confidentiality Agreements, in addition to a prepared letter of resignation from her position with M&A effective immediately citing personal reasons. The letter was dated September 16, 2013. A post-it note attached to the latter document read: “Sarah – Must be submitted to current employer (M&A)tomorrow by 9 p.m. EST.”
“Seriously, a non-compete?” she muttered to herself. “Like there’s competition … oh.” Sarah chuckled at the realization as to who the competition could be and then began to read.
Employment Agreement Between Sarah C. Sheppard and Infinity
THIS AGREEMENT is entered into this 16th day of September, 2013, by and between God (or whatever names have been ascribed to this entity, but shall, for this agreement, be hereafter referred to as “Infinity”) and Sarah C. Sheppard, and relates to the marketing and/or advertising services identified on Exhibit A ("Services") which may hereafter be furnished by Sarah C. Sheppard to Infinity.
1.1 Sarah C. Sheppard will provide Services on an exclusive basis for Infinity. These Services shall include, but not be limited to:
(a.) editing, “punching up,” and international dissemination through advertising and marketing efforts of an addendum to the world’s religious texts;
(b.) creation, implementation and oversight of an international marketing and advertising campaign;
(c.) other duties as assigned by Infinity.
It is expressly understood that Infinity has the right to request whatever measures are necessary to ensure that the desired outcome of worldwide dissemination is met.
1.2 Sarah C. Sheppard will render Services to Infinity for the effectiveness of advertising, merchandising, sales promotion and other such matters assigned to Sarah C. Sheppard pursuant to Authorizations which may be issued from time to time by Infinity. Sarah C. Sheppard agrees to cooperate with Infinity and to use her best skill and judgment in the performance of Services. Sarah C. Sheppard will perform Services timely, diligently and to the reasonable satisfaction of Infinity, in an efficient and economical manner consistent with the best interest of Infinity.
No additions to, changes in or deletions from Services authorized will be made without the prior written approval of Infinity. It has been so written.
3. Approval for Publication
3.1 No advertising, merchandising, sales promotion, research or other material will be released, or in any manner placed or published in any medium, unless (1) the material has been reviewed by Infinity; (2) the material has also been reviewed by Infinity’s legal counsel; (3) the material in its to-be-released form has been provided to Infinity and a written authorization is obtained. If, because of time constraints, a written authorization cannot be obtained, a verbal authorization is acceptable provided that such verbal authorization is immediately confirmed in writing by Sarah C. Sheppard to Infinity.
3.2 Sarah C. Sheppard will establish and maintain a procedure to ensure that all legal requirements (e.g., required disclosures) applicable to the advertising, merchandising, or other materials are met.
3.3 Infinity, at the request of Sarah C. Sheppard, will provide Sarah C. Sheppard with substantiation for claims and representations regarding its products or services and industry made in all advertising and other materials. Infinity will indemnify Sarah C. Sheppard with respect to the accuracy of any material or information furnished to Sarah C. Sheppard to substantiate claims or representations.
3.4 Nothing in this Agreement will be deemed to require Sarah C. Sheppard to undertake any act or perform any services, which in her judgment, would be misleading, false, libelous, unlawful or otherwise prejudicial to Infinity or Sarah C. Sheppard’s interests.
4.1 Compensation is based on a fixed fee (admittance to the afterlife of Sarah C. Sheppard’s choice) in addition to provision for Sarah C. Sheppard’s living expenses and project-related travel for the duration of this Agreement.
4.2 Upon completion of Services or agreed upon segments thereof as set forth in the estimates, and acceptance by Infinity, Infinity agrees to pay Sarah C. Sheppard for Service(s) rendered pursuant to Infinity’s Authorization(s).
5. Terms and Termination
5.1 The term of this Agreement will commence as of the date first above written and will continue in effect thereafter until terminated, with or without cause, by Infinity.
6. Ownership of Materials
The following are applicable to all materials, services, ideas and concepts adopted and “paid for” by Infinity:
(a) Sarah C. Sheppard agrees that all software, reports, manuals, names, logos, programs, compositions, photographs, illustrations, recordings and any other material prepared by Sarah C. Sheppard under this Agreement and all other work products of Sarah C. Sheppard made or created under this Agreement belong exclusively to Infinity.
(b) Sarah C. Sheppard agrees to submit copies of all photographs and transparencies as well as submitting copies of any other works as directed by Infinity which are created or acquired for purposes of performing this Agreement to Infinity’s Media Archives.
(c) Any material or ideas prepared for or submitted to Infinity, but not adopted and paid for by Infinity (regardless of whether the physical embodiment of the creative work is in Infinity's possession in the form of copy, artwork, plates, recording, films, tapes, etc.), remain the property of Infinity and may NOT be submitted by Sarah C. Sheppard to other clients.
(d) Any and all correspondence, intellectual property or information obtained during this project belongs exclusively to Infinity.
7. Entire Agreement
Except as set forth herein, this Agreement together with the attached Confidentiality Agreement, the Non-Compete Agreement and the letter of immediate resignation from Marshall & Associates, shall supersede and replace all prior agreements or understandings relating to the subject matter hereof, and no agreement, representations or understandings (whether oral or written or whether expressed or implied) which are not expressly set forth in this Agreement have been made or entered into by either party with respect to the relevant matter hereof.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties hereto have executed this Agreement as of this date, 16th day of September, 2013.
SARAH C. SHEPPARD
Sarah tipped her head back against the chair and stared at the ceiling. It was unbelievable. More than that, it was inconceivable. Even if God, or Infinity or ... whatever higher power there was, wanted to do whatever this project entailed, she – Sarah – would be the last person on earth to perform the task. She was an atheist, for Christ's sake!
There was no way that this could be a real offer. It had to be a joke, albeit a very elaborate joke. And good -- so good, in fact, that she was a little unsure as to how she should react. There was a part of her that knew Terry and Dan were jealous of her success. She knew that despite their friendship at work, they secretly regarded her as too volatile and, though they would never say it out loud, too ambitious for a woman.
"But ..." Sarah murmured the word, not really sure what came next. She could call their bluff -- sign it and see what happened next. She could ultimately spin it in her favor and turn the joke on them. Or, she could just ignore the offer and see how long it took before curiosity got the better of them. Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the quiet buzz of the cell phone which lay on the corner of the desk.
She squinted at the screen and frowned. It read, “Unavailable” which wouldn’t be strange aside from the fact that this was Sarah’s personal cell phone rather than the Samsung she used for work. Almost no one had this number. She stared down at the phone in her hand and contemplated picking up. Unidentified callers were usually marketers – poor college students with the dismal responsibility of calling randomly generated numbers. But, it could be her brother calling from overseas. Or more likely, jail. She tapped the “Accept” button and raised the phone to her ear.
“This is Sarah.”
“Hello, Sarah.” It was Nathaniel. “Just one more thing – well, actually two more things now that I think about it. First, I wanted to reiterate that this isn’t some elaborate hoax by Dan and Terry. I looked into their files and even if they wanted to pull off something like this, they’re not intellectually capable enough. Also, and I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but for obvious reasons, we have to insist that you do not discuss this offer with anyone. Given the delicate nature of the project … well … It’s just paramount that this project remains under wraps until we’re ready to release it. I’d like to think we can count on your discretion?”
Sarah pressed the phone hard against her ear.
“How did you get this number?” she asked, her voice tinged with anger.
Nathaniel’s modulated voice was calm. “Let's just say we have access to a lot of information – a LOT of information. It’s our job – especially when it comes to people we have an interest in. You, for instance.”
Sarah tried to keep her voice low, even though inside she felt shaky and vulnerable. “Okay, listen, Nathaniel, or whatever your name is, you’re starting to creep me out.”
“I understand how you feel,” Nathaniel said.
“No, I don’t think you do,” Sarah said. “I am seriously thinking about calling the police and reporting you as a stalker.”
Nathaniel laughed softly. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” He paused. “I know this seems … strange – scary, perhaps. But I can assure you there is nothing untoward about what is happening. I’m not a stalker.”
“This coming from the man who refuses to give his last name, suggests that he works for God and who has managed to somehow get the number to my personal phone.” As invariably happened when she was not in control, Sarah felt the flush of anger rise in her chest. She inhaled deeply before continuing. “Your actions suggest to me that you are either a stalker or some kind of ... I don't know ... CIA operative, because there is no way in Hell you’re who you say you are. None.”
Nathaniel laughed softly. “So, what … you need proof? Would you rather a burning bush? Maybe a vision? Do you want to drop a jar of spaghetti sauce on the floor so you can see Mary’s face in the splatter? Would that be more convincing?” He was quiet for a moment and when he spoke again, his voice held none of its former traces of amusement. “Sarah, we contacted you in the way we thought would best make sense to you – in a polite, business-like way. It’s tidy. Organized – the way you like things. But if you want a sign, we can do that. If that’s what it takes.”
Sarah shook her head. He sounded so sane. So rational.
“Just tell me how you got this number.”
“I told you,” Nathaniel said patiently. “There is no information we don’t have access to. We hear your thoughts. We know your wants, your needs, your desires. We know that you are lonely – that some nights, as you lay in your bed in your green and red flannel pajama pants and Brady Bunch retro t-shirt, that you cry.”
Sarah felt something deep in her stomach clench. That was what she wore to bed.
“We know,” Nathaniel continued, “that you stuff them under your pillow every morning when you make your bed.” He paused. “What else do you want to know? Would you like to know that the password you’ve been trying to remember but can’t for that online pornography site is ‘Butterfinger21.’ I can tell you that you’re still scared of the dark and that Barbie doll you thought you lost when you were nine? You didn’t. Tina Anderson from down the street stole it. Oh, and Freckles, the puppy that you tried to dig up when you were five to see if it made it to Heaven? Well, he did make it. All animals make it in. I know you didn’t believe it because the body was still there, but it’s true. He’s there.”
Sarah’s breath came in short gasps. Her heart raced. Nathaniel stopped speaking.
“I’ve upset you, haven’t I?” Nathaniel’s tone was solicitous. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. But you need to understand that this isn’t a joke. This is a serious offer that you really need to consider rather than pass off as a prank. You have 23 hours.”
The next morning, Sarah arrived at the office earlier than usual. Sleep had been elusive and by around four-thirty, she had opted to simply get up and make some coffee rather than continuing to lie in bed and revisit the thoughts that wouldn’t settle down. She needed more answers. She needed to be able to ask questions. At one point, she had even gone into the living room, picked up her charging cell phone and tried to dial the “unavailable” number. After listening in frustration to the recorded message, she hurled the phone at the couch. It bounced off the back cushion and ricocheted harmlessly onto the floor.
“Urghhh.” Sarah rubbed angrily at her forehead. “Dammit!” She stomped over to where the phone lay and snatched it up. “This is bullshit. You don’t just do this to somebody.”
Back in bed, she had tossed and turned, running through possible explanations in her head. This was a joke. It was the government. She was part of some experiment. Or maybe it was like that movie with Michael Douglas where he had unwittingly signed up for some life-altering game. Whatever the explanation, Nathaniel, or whatever his name was, knew too much about her. That, in itself, made her think it was governmental in nature. Surveillance. That would explain how they had her personal phone number and how they knew the password to the porn site, which, admittedly, was kind of embarrassing. But what about the childhood memories--or more to the point, the questions that she asked herself? How did they know her thoughts?
“Maybe it’s some sort of psychological test,” she said. “Maybe they’re doing psychological evaluations on faith or belief or lack of faith. That could be it.”
Still, she had to admit to herself that she wasn’t entirely convinced. She thought about it in the shower, in the car as she drove to the office, in the elevator as she rode up to the thirty-second floor which housed the offices of Marshall & Associates. Once in her office, she opened her briefcase and pulled out the contract. She had read it so many times she almost knew it by heart. Still, she scanned the familiar text and then slid it back into the manila folder with a sigh and pushed it away from her.
“This is ridiculous,” she murmured.
But what if it was the government? Were they watching her? Before she could stop herself, she glanced around the room. Her choice in decoration was minimalist. Cameras would be hard to hide. But still, they were monitoring her somehow. She tapped her fingernails on the desk. There was just so much she didn’t understand.
“I have questions,” she said loudly to the room. “If you’re listening, I have questions.”
Before she had a chance to feel embarrassed at playing along, her cell phone rang. The number was, of course, unavailable. She tapped the “Accept” button.
“You have questions,” Nathaniel said before she could say, “Hello.”
“Yes,” she said, clipped and to the point.
“All right,” Nathaniel said pleasantly. “So, what can I do to help?”
Sarah laughed harshly. “Well, you can start by telling me how you know so much about me. You can start by being honest with me. Who are you? Really?”
“Sarah,” Nathaniel said patiently. “I know it’s hard to believe, but everything I’ve told you is true. I work for the supreme being, the higher power, the overriding energy, the pantheon of gods, the everything and nothing. I work for the entity you’ve known as God and that we in the organization simply refer to as Infinity. Consider me an executive assistant of sorts, charged with the task of commissioning your services on Infinity’s behalf. The specifics are detailed in your contract.”
“I understand that,” Sarah snapped. “What I don’t understand is--and for the sake of discussion I’m going to go along with your suggestion this is God--why me? There are a lot of people out there who are believers--people who would love this type of opportunity.”
“We’re not always supposed to know why things happen,” Nathaniel said calmly. “When one is chosen—”
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Sarah said. “Seriously. I’m not in the mood for it.”
“All right, then,” Nathaniel said. “Let’s just say you are the best person for the job. But for you to fully be onboard, we can’t just make you do it. You have to choose to do it.”
“Choose,” Sarah said.
“But I don’t believe.”
“Believe in what?”
Sarah gave a short, harsh laugh. “In you, for starters. In your boss. In any of it.”
“Even not believing is believing in something,” Nathaniel pointed out gently. “Your chosen belief is that there’s nothing other than the here and now.”
Sarah struggled to bite back a sharp retort.
“I’m just telling it like it is,” Nathaniel said after several seconds of silence.
Sarah inhaled deeply. “I know. So, again, assuming that I believe you, let’s say I take this job. I want specifics. How would I get the information? How would I write it? How would I market it? Why don’t you guys do it yourself?”
“All good questions,” Nathaniel said. “I’ll start with the last one first. There is a lot more credibility to a document put together by humans than something . . . otherworldly. It’s how we’ve always done it with teams of people writing, one or two people editing, and then one who also has the responsibility of compiling the whole thing.
“The books of Moses, for example, had four writers, an editor, and a compiler who reduced redundancy--at least that was the plan. It was only later that we learned there were doublets throughout the document. I can tell you that Infinity was less than happy--and that was back in the smiting days, too.
“As for the marketing, it’s actually a lot easier these days than two thousand years ago. Imagine how long it takes to ride around on an ass to get the word out? We were pleased when you people finally invented the Internet.”
Sarah leaned forward, propped her elbows on the desk, and dropped her head into one hand. The conversation was becoming more surreal by the minute. She rubbed her forehead and then up through her hair, pushing her bangs out of her face.
“So, marketing it will be the easy part,” Nathaniel continued. “Especially given your experience in putting together a media blitz. The trick will be coming up with the advertising campaign. But we believe that will come together organically as you’re working with the team.”
“The team . . .” Sarah slid her hand to the back of her neck and rubbed at the tight muscles. “So, they’ve already signed on?”
“Pretty much,” Nathaniel said. “Most of them jumped at the chance. But then, you know how academics are.”
“So, they’re already working?” Sarah asked.
“Yes and no,” Nathaniel said. “They’re working on compiling the history portion of it. But as for the ‘Word of God’ sections, the stories that will contain the gospel, the discussions of the martyrs, and everything surrounding that, you’re going to be the lead.”
“Me?” Sarah frowned. “Why me?”
“You’re the only one Infinity trusts,” Nathaniel said. That’s all I can say.”
Sarah rolled her eyes in irritation.
“I saw that,” Nathaniel said.
Sarah slammed her free hand down on the desk. “Where are the fucking cameras?”
“There are no cameras, Sarah.” Nathaniel sighed. “I was told you were farther along--that you were more . . . evolved. Without question, you’re good at what you do. But I would think that someone like you, someone who can create campaigns that convince people to buy this car, eat this food, work out at this gym, would see the potential in this assignment. But all you do is get angry and stomp around full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“You stole that from Shakespeare,” Sarah pointed out.
“Did I?” Nathaniel cleared his throat.
“Didn’t you?” Sarah asked, suddenly considering the implications.
Nathaniel made a noncommittal sound but didn’t answer.
“You asked how you would get the information and write it? Well, that depends. It used to be that Infinity would send word down through one of several proven methods. Then the recipient of the message would go around telling everyone. Eventually, that word of mouth would spread and ultimately, when someone got around to writing it down, those versions would be documented by scribes, then compiled and edited. It was an onerous process and prone to interpretive errors. And then there was the dissemination. It was a procedural nightmare. But eventually, Infinity sent the moveable type inspiration to Gutenberg and then . . .”
Sarah waited for him to continue. “And then, what?”
“At first, it worked to our advantage. It allowed us to more efficiently get the word out. But it also opened up the market for anyone to publish whatever they wanted.” Sarah could almost hear him shrug. “But what could we do? With good comes bad. It’s part of the whole yin-yang balance of life.”
“Yin-yang doesn’t sound very Christian,” Sarah said.
Nathaniel clicked his tongue in disapproval. “How many times do I need to remind you that this isn’t just about Christianity.” He was silent for several seconds. “It’s all the same power, Sarah.” His voice was soft, almost hypnotic. “The same energy. The same creational force. You’re going to come to realize that through this process. And what no one seems to understand is that the unifying force, the unifying concept in all of this is the act of faith.”
Sarah opened her mouth to respond and then stopped. As much as she hated admitting it, Nathaniel had a point. “So,” she said after a few seconds. “Let’s say I agree--which I haven’t. How do we do this?”
“Ah,” Nathaniel said. “The terms. You want to know how this whole thing will work.”
“Yes,” Sarah said.
“Well, it’s pretty straightforward,” Nathaniel said. “Your rent will be taken care of, as will your living expenses. You will resign your position at M&A and, in a reasonable amount of time, go to the estate with the rest of the team. As I said, they’re handling the historical and theological aspects of the project.
“You will meet with them for updates once a week and they will give you the drafts to read. Part of your job will be to make them more readable. They’re talented researchers and their accuracy is unparalleled, but their writing is dry. Boring. We need a modern, readable, approachable document.
“I know that by today’s standards, the Old and New Testaments seem antiquated--especially the King James versions with their ‘thou shalts,’ and ‘thees.’ But when they were written, they were right in step with the vernacular. Granted, Jesus was speaking in Aramaic and there are all sorts of translation errors, but generally, the message is right on.” He paused, as if waiting for Sarah to offer some comment. “You’ll meet once a week with the team and of course, once a day with Infinity.”
“Meet with Infinity.” Sarah shook her head tiredly. “So, like, meet for lattes or . . . ?” She snorted. “How exactly am I going to meet with God?”
“Well, we were thinking, given that you’re going to need your hands free for typing, that a speakerphone might be the best option,” Nathaniel said.
Sarah blinked in disbelief. “Speakerphone.”
“Yes,” Nathaniel said. “Kind of like in that show . . . Charlie’s Angels? I assume you’ve seen it.”
“I’ve seen it,” Sarah said. “It just doesn’t seem like a very godlike thing to do. To call someone on speakerphone. What about a big booming voice from the sky or hearing his words in my head.” She gestured toward the ceiling.
“Ah,” Nathaniel said. “I see. You think because God chooses to utilize technology that it isn’t really God--or that it’s not convincing. I get it. Well, speakerphone makes the most sense given that it’s an option that’s now available. In the past, God had to resort to voices, which incidentally our experience has proven is not the most effective way to handle it. Look at Joan of Arc.”
He paused again, as if expecting Sarah to have something to contribute. She frowned and shook her head sharply, not understanding the reference. Her knowledge of Joan of Arc was pretty much limited to the movie The Messenger, and she didn’t even really remember that very well.
“It’s the voice,” Nathaniel explained finally. “The pitch and the resonance of Infinity’s voice tends to make people go a little crazy. Literally. The voice of God is a pretty powerful thing. Its purity, without some kind of filter, is too much for the human ear to handle. Trust me, speakerphone is the way to go.”
Sarah stood up and paced the office. She held the phone tightly against her ear. “You realize that this . . . this . . .” She gestured at the empty room. “None of it makes sense. It’s all too ordinary and supernatural at the same time. I mean, can you see this from my point of view? God’s executive assistant schedules an appointment with my secretary and then you show up in your European suit and offer me this ‘opportunity’ as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. You call me on my unlisted cell phone so we can have these matter-of-fact conversations that defy reason. I mean, seriously, it does. It defies reason.”
“Sarah, please calm down.” Nathaniel paused.“Let’s pretend the tables were turned. How would you handle it? Let’s say you were the one responsible for approaching someone like yourself. What would you do?”
What would she do? Probably the same thing.
“Exactly.” A hint of satisfaction in his tone made Sarah wonder if he didn’t have a malicious streak. “So, if there is another way you think I should be handling this, please tell me.” He waited. Sarah couldn’t think of a response. “So, you’ll meet for about an hour each day with Infinity. You will take notes on the conversation and then, using the information provided by the team regarding the history and theological conventions of the time, you’ll craft the message. Once a week, you’ll submit your work to me in hard copy and I’ll alert you of any corrections.
“Once the document is completed, we will then form a new team dedicated to advertising and marketing. This team, under your direction, will promote and disseminate the final product. Don’t worry about translations. We’ll make sure that gets done when it needs to.”
Sarah stared out the window.
“So, what other questions do you have? This is the last time we’ll talk before you make your decision so please ask now. After this, you’re on your own.”
Sarah said nothing and the silence stretched on.
“Well, I’ve got to go,” Nathaniel said finally. “Pamela is coming down the hall and she’ll undoubtedly stop to say good morning.”
Sarah looked at the half-open door to her office and within seconds, Pamela’s head appeared. She smiled, saw that Sarah was on the phone and gestured that she would come back later. Sarah nodded.
“Just think seriously about what we’re offering,” Nathaniel said in to her ear. “You have about thirteen hours left.”
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