This story contains murder, violence and strong language
‘She was such a wonderful woman’, is the general utterance around the office today. A crooked photo of Marian Forester – a plump, cheerful lady in her late forties – is lovingly thumb-tacked on the announcement board; the proverbial eye of a storm. Scattered Post-it notes with various messages of heart-felt commiserations have been placed to surround the blown-up and distractingly pixelated quality of Marian’s face.
Fucking Mondays. Claire jams her finger into a cracked yellow button labelled
‘capcino’. The standing coffee machine is a relic from the ‘90s and remains obstinately quiet, withstanding her increasingly pointed jabbing. She really needs a coffee right about now; the tearful whispers and I’m sorry for your loss’s have pushed her to the absolute limit. Two years of non-stop grinding and barely any sleep; getting her work out fully edited and at least three days earlier than everyone else’s; the promises of your time is coming, the reassurances of you deserve this more than anyone and now? Goodbye promotion and bonus, hello redundancy.
Marian died but so what? People die all the time, no need for it to interfere with Claire’s work. She can already feel yet another headache coming on (they’ve been getting worse and more frequent after Marian’s promotion and then subsequent disappearance about a week ago) and this stupid fucking machine just wants to add to her ever-growing list of reasons why she should just fucking-
She startles at the sound, knocking back into the machine. It rumbles to life with a deep groan, like a cavernous beast ready to consume. Mr Michaels, her skeletal-framed, yellow-toothed boss leisurely strides over to her with spidery fingers wrapped around a Starbucks frappe.
‘I need the finalised Windoms Report by today. James was meant to finish it with you, but seeing as the prick has gone MIA for whatever reason, I need you to get it done ASAP.’ He says in the cadence of someone talking to a small child. Plastering her best attempt at a nonchalant smile, Claire determinedly ignores the halitosis wafting into her face – the smell is like decomposition.
‘No worries sir, I’ll get it done.’
He nods in a self-satisfied manner and turns to leave, but pauses. Claire braces her nose for the next onslaught.
‘Oh by the way, sorry to hear about your botched promotion.’ It’s barely an apology, more a wedge of lemon rubbing into a salt-flecked wound. ‘I know it was really neck-and-neck but you haven’t worked here as long.’
‘…Thank you.’ She forces out through near-gritted teeth.
‘Isn’t that Marian’s?’ He asks, silver-tipped brows furrowed and motioning at the now full ceramic blue mug she’d placed in the machine. She glances over her shoulder and responds with a completely deadpan, ‘huh.’ Mr Michaels nods again, with a graceful air of pity this time. ‘Yes’, he murmurs, ‘what a shame, the poor woman. Her promotion was so well-deserved.’
Claire thinks that Marian is a thieving cow (or was) and got what was coming, but she silently turns to grab the cup, effectively ending the conversation. She bids the gaunt man a curt ‘sir’ and scurries to her desk before he can entrap her into another of what she is sure to be a titillating exchange of banter.
Somebody’s crying in their cubicle, broken by an occasional nose blowing. The longer it goes on, the more obvious it’s Sonia, the office darling, trying to be quiet. Claire barely gets to sit in her chair – ergonomic and bought with her own money – when the sniffling woman stands to talk over the divider.
‘I can’t believe someone… murdered her,’ Sonia blubbers, ‘she was -hic- the nicest person -hic- I’ve ever known.’
Claire tries not to look at her disdainfully and takes a sip of her coffee instead. The sour taste of burnt grounds and clumps of chocolate syrup coats her tongue. Sonia mistakes her grimace as a dismissal and disappears back over the wall with an offended hic.
Claire finishes the report in four hours with thirty minutes left before clock-out, and is excessively pleased with herself until she realises that the printer is out of paper. She spends the next hour and a half in a desperate hunt for any blank A4 sheets that she can scrounge up from nearby desks and paper baskets; Mr Michaels cannot fathom why people nowadays use all that newfangled technology and worry about the hubbub of transferring files and the such, when paper is so reliable and after all old is gold.
Mr Michaels has a lingering smile like the cat that got the canary when she runs in and drops the wonkily stapled report onto his desk, pausing from packing his briefcase for the day.
‘Just on time, eh, Claire?’ He asks, in that way where it’s not really a question – Claire herself,
has done it many times, but to be on the receiving end makes her bristle.
‘Er, yes sir.’ She tries to be congenial anyways.
‘Well,’ he hums, delicately picking up the papers with a lifted pinky, ‘try not be late with your submissions if you still want Marian’s position.’ He casts an indiscernible look her way, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I know how murderously competitive you can be.’
It’s hilarious but Claire can’t let on, and responds in a slightly too-eager, ‘I’ll try my hardest, sir.’
Driving to James’s apartment usually takes twenty minutes from her place, and a thirty minute drive from the office. It takes her an hour and a half to slog through the slough of traffic, and by the time she’s managed to find a parking spot – because James’s car was still in the resident’s underground car park – the early evening skies have opened up to release a torrent.
Claire runs for the building entrance as best she can in her sensible loafers, holding her briefcase over her head in a vain attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity. When she stumbles through the sliding doors, she’s soaked to the bone. An elderly lady seated in the lobby – a retired starlet from the ‘60s visiting her estranged grandson – gives a pleasant chortle. She’s got a trembling, white Maltese Terrier in her lap – basically half blind from all the crusty eye bits – and a wizened hand with a firm grip around its middle.
‘No umbrella, dear?’ She asks with a grin, patting her poor dog who looks like one who’s my gorgeous, lovely angel away from hurtling itself into oncoming traffic. Claire stares blankly then abruptly turns to stomp to the elevator, leaving a trail of puddles behind her. The smile freezes on the old lady’s face and slowly falls as she watches the dripping woman walk away.
Claire barely has enough patience to ignore the good-humoured jab but when the elevator button doesn’t light up, the gradually unravelling thread – twisted filaments breaking loose and stretching further and tighter – just-
Something cold and hard settles deep in her stomach. She straightens, pushes one more time and the elevator arrives. James is where she’d left him earlier this morning, in the living room and limp in his chair – not ergonomic – like a puppet with cut strings. When she bends down to cup his face, his eyes blearily blink open and take a second to focus on her.
‘Evening.’ Her tone is saccharine, dripping false honey.
Claire pulls her arm back and hits him hard across the cheek and he topples to the side like a sack of potatoes, still strapped to the chair. His head bounces off the panelled wood floor with a loud thunk and he cries out, muffled by the tape over his mouth. A crimson line slowly forms over his eyebrow and then begins to weep, steady trickles of ruby-red trailing down the curves of his brow and forehead to drip onto the floor.
A clear stream of snot starts to leak from James’s nose, dribbling over the duct tape and soon enough, his whole face is host to his various somatic liquids of blood, sweat, mucus and tears. Being strapped to a chair for the past two days has left his whole body aching, both from the pains of Claire’s blows and being unable to stretch. It’s a physical strain to pull his eyelids open and look at her, standing over him with a slightly unhinged smile.
‘No, no,’ she tuts at him, ‘don’t look at me like that.’ A whimper leaves him unbidden.
‘No,’ she says, snappier, ‘I was a veritable ray of sunshine and you just fucked me
over.’ The words are pouring from her like a broken dam. ‘I mean seriously, I have never known someone as dogged as you when it comes to plagiarism. The amount of shit I have to deal with already as a young woman in a corporate hierarchy based on age and inherently biased against my gender and then you come in and steal my project?’ She can’t help but scoff. ‘I’ll admit, the gall is fucking unheard of.’
James tries to tell her I’m sorry, I’m sorry but all that comes out is a wet blubber. Claire is completely unimpressed and continues, lost in her disbelieving outrage.
‘Why is everyone so determined to just fuck me over? I try to be nice, I don’t actively interfere with anyone else’s shit so why,’ she stresses, squatting down to meet James’s eyes, ‘does everyone keep messing with my shit?’
She riiiiips the tape off and James yelps in pain. ‘Explain yourself.’ A moment passes as he struggles to speak through the tears and clogged nose but as soon as he opens his mouth, Claire immediately regrets ever removing the gag.
‘Claire, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to plagiarise. And ok, I took your fountain pen and, and-’ he babbles, nearly incoherent and desperately pleading with her, ‘and I swear, I never would have taken your chair if I knew how expensive it was and, and I swear I’m not a bad guy ok? I have so many female friends-’
The more he talks, the more her eyes drop. She huffs and goes to pull out a knife from the standing block in his kitchen. Panic shoots through James like a bolt of electricity and he jerks in his bonds, yanking hard at his restraints from his position on the ground. She notices and saunters back over, admiring the clean shine of the blade, the heft of the handle. ‘A whole Wüsthof set? Holy shit, how much was your bonus?’
It’s when she’s cleaning up the smattering of pools and droplets that she hears a sharp rap – knock knock! – at the front door. The baking soda has already been sprinkled onto the exposed blood, so she quickly tears off some paper towels and drops them over the areas to hide them as best she can.
She quickly ducks into the bathroom to double-check James’s body is neatly arranged in the tub, the majority of his blood contained in the porcelain. A deep exhale leaves her and she pulls on a friendly face, stretching her mouth to form a kindly smile. The knife is resting in the sink so she grabs it and hides it behind her back as she unlocks the door.
It opens only for her to see the bleak, gaunt outline of a looming figure she knows all too well.
‘Tessa Li, Paul Beecham, Marian Forester and now James Garcia.’ He drawls, spidery fingers clasped in front of him. ‘My, my, you have been busy.’
A cold wave douses her, the feeling of ice shards trickling down her spine. Her smile is frozen in its place and static fills her head as she struggles to unstick her tongue to form words, something, anything, just, fuck-
Mr Michaels smiles at her with those yellow teeth, except they seem much larger than usual. ‘Oh don’t be modest Claire, you’ve been so singularly clever.’ His eyes seem to penetrate her very soul, digging into the little crevices and nooks and unlocking every dirty thing she’s ever done, every nasty gory detail-
She shoves him back hard and bolts.
Claire runs. She doesn’t know where she’s going and how but she runs. The knife is clutched tight in her white-knuckled fist and her breaths are coming out harsher and harsher as she flees, not bothering with the elevator and slamming open the fire escape door, taking the steps two at a time.
She goes down, down, down until she reaches the ground floor and shoves her whole weight into shoving the door, stumbling with her momentum into the brisk night chill. It’s no longer raining, but the dampness has sunk into the ground and freezes her skin, her breaths coming out as cloudy white puffs that dissipate quickly.
‘Where are you going, Claire?’ Mr Michaels calls from behind her, candidly pushing open the door. ‘Let’s just have a little chat, us two.’
Blood roars in her ears and she struggles to gain her bearings; the edges of her shoes catch onto divots in the dirt and stray rocks, making her feel dangerously unbalanced and entirely too prey-like. ‘What,’ she says, swallowing a hard lump, ‘could we possibly have to talk about?’
‘Well, don’t be so shy, we’re more alike than you think.’ His countenance is the very picture of languid, but she can’t help imagining him as a lurking tiger, approaching her in a slow crawl. ‘How do you think I got to where I am? Wasn’t through any hard work I’ll tell you that.’
Her heart is rabbiting in her chest, beating against her ribs like it’s trying to burst free. Desperate, she slashes the knife at him in a large swipe and bares her teeth. ‘Don’t come near me, I’ll kill you.’
The threat is true and he knows it, but if anything, it sparks a little flare of joy in him. ‘Oh, please try.’ He croons, advancing on her with those skeletal fingers outstretched and appearing all too claw-like.
Trying to back away, she trips over her own feet and falls back with a startled shriek, slashing with the knife in distress. Mr Michaels pounces onto her, fingertips digging into her arms and piercing the skin deep.
His mouth stretches open into a red, dripping maw and Claire only has a few seconds of vivid, terrified awareness before his teeth close over her head.
Hannah Wotton is an award-winning author currently pursuing a BA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University with an interest in Early Childcare Education. She is an avid coffee and tea drinker, to the detriment of her wallet. Her writing characteristically deals with mental health and manifestations of fear which is reflected from her own experiences.