Authors: Richard Farren Barber
There was no chance of that happening now. What company would want to employ the man who drove one of his interviewers to throw themselves out of a window? Jackson knew it wasn’t his fault, and knew that Fairls believed that too, but he understood that whenever anyone from MedWay saw him, they would be reminded of Malcolm Laine.
On the other side of the glass door, a steady stream of shapes hurried past as the offices emptied. Jackson sensed a few of them pausing as they reached his door, but no one interrupted him. The stream became a trickle, until five minutes passed and he was confident the offices of MedWay Associates were empty.
Except for Fairls. He popped in to check on Jackson every five or ten minutes and provide brief updates. “No sign of the police yet,” or “The paramedics have finished with Malcolm’s body, but they can’t come up and see you just yet as they have to deal with an incident on Loughborough Road.” It occurred to Jackson that the updates were really for Fairls’s benefit rather than his own—an excuse to come into the room and check that he was still okay. It made him think of the flaps in the steel doors of a prison cell with the warder peering through them on suicide watch.
The next time Fairls leaned around the door, Jackson asked, “Have they all gone?”
Fairls nodded. “Pretty much. A couple of the partners are hanging around to tidy up some things and cancel meetings for the rest of the day, but almost everyone’s left now.” He paused, as if deciding what to say next, before continuing. “Did he say anything? Anything at all?”
“I couldn’t hear him properly.”
“I don’t understand,” Fairls said. “We went out for drinks together last week—all of the partners. Malcolm was talking about tickets he had for a cricket match at the end of the month. Why would you buy tickets for a match if you weren’t going to be there?”
Jackson shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t know, not until he did it.”
“I’ll send Donna in as soon as she gets here.”
Jackson nodded, noting the abrupt change in subject, the need to drag the conversation away from Malcolm Laine.
“She sent me a text, she should be here soon.”
“Traffic’s snarled up, it might take a little longer than normal.”
Jackson thought about the queue of cars and buses on the bridge, and wondered whether that had anything to do with the congestion. Maybe they’d had to cordon off the area for the forensics team. He wanted to text Donna and ask her to hurry up, he needed to get out of this place with its eerie stillness and the presence of death hanging over every conversation, but he understood that texting Donna wouldn’t get her through the traffic any quicker.
“Can I get you another tea?” Fairls offered.
Jackson shook his head.
“I’ll be in my office. Just down the corridor. If you need me.”
Fairls closed the door behind him and once more Jackson was alone with the gallery of prints on the walls and the recurring image of Malcolm Laine smashing his head against the thick glass until he was able to claw his way out the window. The scene ran on a loop so that every time he closed his eyes he saw it again. It churned up a sickness in his stomach that he wanted to vomit up like a piece of sour fish.
He stared at his watch and the second hand seemed to crawl around the clock face. How long would it take Donna to get here? Even with the traffic? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? He didn’t know how long it had been since he had been sequestered in the room, since Donna had received the call to come and fetch him.
He sat down on the chair and then pushed it back from the desk so his knees did not knock against the underside of the writing surface. The springs in the chair creaked each time he moved and there was something comforting and habitual about the motion. He fell into a rhythm, moving in time to the second hand on his watch.
The motion helped. It seemed to banish the images of Malcolm Laine’s last moments. It seemed to stop the clamor of thoughts bombarding his mind; he could almost forget why he was sitting there.
He stopped rocking and the metal squeal of the springs halted, allowing silence to flood back into the room and overwhelm him.
There was a part of him that recognized the incipient danger to him in staying in the room, that there was something wrong with a situation where he had to keep moving to keep his mind ordered and safe.
The suggestion struck him as off-kilter. He was safe because he was moving, because he didn’t allow his mind to dwell on what had happened.
He heard the slow, measured creaking of the chair springs as he started to rock back and forth once more. He stared at his hands, flat on the desk. They looked alien to him, but they also appeared to be the only thing anchoring him to reality. If he allowed his hands to lose contact with the desk, then there would be nothing to keep him there.
Jackson stopped rocking. Silence folded over him. He ached for the door to open, for Fairls to peer through and ask “Is everything okay?” so he could tell him. “No, nothing’s okay. Nothing in the world.”
The second hand of his watch clicked forward.
“Come on, Donna, hurry up,” he whispered. He turned his phone over in his hands, but resisted the need to contact her. She would be here soon. She would be here as quickly as she could.
Jackson stood up. The chair shot backward, away from the desk, hitting the wall behind him. He paced across the room and grasped the door handle. The muscles in his arm trembled. He pulled open the door with more force than he’d intended.
He stood in the office, staring out onto a blank wall, pale cream paint and a light blue carpet. He couldn’t remember if he’d noticed the décor on the way into the offices before his interview. Probably not, he’d had other things on his mind at the time.
Jackson stepped into the empty corridor. There was an eerie stillness about the offices, a sense of wrongness. Nothing moved. Not even the air. There was no breeze through the building. He had to get out. Now.
Most of the doors along the corridor were open and as Jackson hurried past them he peered inside. It was like the deck of the
. Someone had taken away all the people and had left only property; chairs pushed back from their desks, coffee mugs that Jackson
would be half-filled with tepid liquid if he bothered to check.
“Mr Fairls?” he called out, but when his voice slipped down the hallway in front of him, he chose not to repeat the summons. It sounded flat.
He hurried past the empty reception desk where a sheet of paper listed the names of the candidates for that day’s interviews. He noticed his own name on the list against the time of 10:30 crossed through with a thick black line, as if he no longer existed. There had been five candidates for his job; the woman he had passed in reception—Rebecca Marrs—had been next. He wondered what had happened to her.
He could step into the corridor and then use the stairs to get out of the building. Not the elevator, he couldn’t walk to the elevator and wait beside that broken window for the next car to arrive. He would use the stairs and when he got to the bottom, he would ring Donna and explain and they would meet at Café Reynauld: away from MedWay Associates and the eighth floor of The Pinnacle, and it would be over.
He reached toward the door, trying to ignore the pang of guilt that told him he should stay and wait for the police—do the right thing.
Jackson halted. He could go. He
to go. The police could come and talk to him when they had time to do so. But he had to go now. Find Donna. Get home. Hide away from whatever madness had affected Malcolm Laine.
The handle felt warm beneath his palm.
“Mr. Fairls?” he called. His voice rattled down the empty corridor. He could see John Fairls’s door ajar halfway down the corridor.
“I’m going to go home, Mr. Fairls. The police can catch up with me when they’ve got some time, or I can go down to the station and…” Jackson paused. There was no sound in the office. No hum from the lights and no gurgle of water through the pipes. No murmured conversations filtered through the walls. Nothing.
He approached the doorway of the office, understanding that the silence played on his nerves. It had to be the silence because there was no other reason why he should feel afraid.
As he knocked on the door, he caught the harsh scent of a familiar smell, bright as stripped copper.
John Fairls lay facedown on his desk. It was almost possible to believe he was taking a midafternoon power nap if Jackson ignored the stink of fresh blood and the red liquid pooling on the desk around the body.
Jackson hurried across the room. Fairls still held the pair of scissors he’d used to rip a jagged hole in his neck.
Jackson put his hand onto Fairls’s neck, an act mimicked from television medical dramas, but he had a vague understanding of what he was doing—he needed to find if Fairls still had a pulse.
The man’s skin was hot and dry. Jackson prodded about, searching for a sign of life. He thought he could just discern the faintest movement of Fairls’s chest against the desktop—it made the pool of cooling blood tremble.
The wound in Fairls’s neck was a small puncture hole. It was impossible to believe that so much blood could have flooded through the tiny gap. Liquid trickled from the hole in weak spurts, like waves washing the shore at the end of the day. Another sign to Jackson that Fairls was probably still alive.
He needed to stop the man’s bleeding. He wasn’t sure if there was any chance that he could save him. All that blood. It seemed impossible that Fairls could survive losing all that blood. But he had to try.
He looked around the desk. There was an in-tray of files and sheaves of paper, nothing that could help him. Jackson started searching through the drawers. There was something ghoulish about the action, as if he were pillaging the man’s belongings while he lay there dying—perfect fodder for a headline in the
. There was a pack of unopened breath mints; a single silver pen still in its presentation box; a box of tissues.
Jackson took the tissues and wadded them together against Fairls’s throat. Immediately the white paper bloomed red, as if it were drawing more blood out of the wound. Jackson pressed harder. The tissues became heavy and damp with Fairls’s blood.
“Hang in there,” he whispered. “Don’t die on me.”
Jackson leaned over the desk to reach the phone, clutching it awkwardly with his left hand while his right still pushed tight into Fairls’s throat. He could hear a dialing tone and realized he hadn’t even been expecting that. It felt like he was trapped in the heart of a nightmare—the kind where his arms felt heavy and unresponsive and when he picked up the phone for help, there was no tone.
He dialed zero and a moment later he heard the phone out in the reception area begin to ring. He hung up and dialled 999.
The numbers made a strange
as they dialed, as if he were using an old rotary handset. It seemed to take hours for the three numbers to dial.
The emergency services didn’t answer. Jackson put the phone down and dialed again, sure he must have made a mistake because the idea of dialling 999 and
getting an immediate response was more unreal than anything that had happened so far.
He waited again for the
of the three numbers to complete, and again there was no answer. For a moment the line crackled with static and then the silence was replaced with a busy signal.
Busy? Fucking busy?
Pure, perfect panic rose up within him. He was standing in the office with his hand clamped to a dying man’s neck, and no one was going to answer the phone.
He dialled 999 a third time, not because he thought someone was going to pick up, but simply because he had no idea what else he could do.
He’s going to die. There’s nothing you can do to help him, he’s going to die.
The voice was unfamiliar. Jackson shook his head, as if he could dislodge the voice from his mind, as if it was something that had taken up residence somewhere in the folds of his brain. Of course Fairls was going to die.
Jackson dropped the phone and reached out to search through more drawers. There was a large calculator, an old mobile phone handset, a bowl of small change. There was Sellotape and a writing pad that looked like it had never been opened and a clear plastic ruler that had been broken in half. Jackson felt a flare of anguish—a desire to be one of those superhero action types who could fashion something from the random detritus of the desk. But he wasn’t, he was just Jackson Smith.
Each time he moved, a little more blood seeped free of Fairls’s body. So what was he supposed to do, stand there until help came or the man simply bled to death? Help wasn’t coming, Jackson had heard that message loud and clear before the busy signal of the phone. He was on his own.