Jeff Montgomery wanted to go home.
His temples throbbed like a bitch, and the spreadsheets beneath his face shimmered like a watery mess. God, he hated tax time. Jeff glanced at his watch. Ten o’clock. Another half-hour, that was it. Work would still be here come dawn.
Removing his glasses, he gave his temples and brow an invigorating rub, eventually reining in his frustration with a deep breath and a sip of cool water. Jeff nearly jumped from his skin when a door slammed from across the hall.
It sounded like a cannon shot – so ferocious the pens inside the mug atop his desk rattled. “Dammit,” he hissed, rolling backward in his chair. His co-workers mentioned something like this one day over lunch. The infamous law office of Matheson and Keene. Whispered speculation persisted about the firm, for their doors were always locked and clientele were never seen; oft-hushed rumors that the partners didn’t even exist. “You actually think the firm is a front for something else?” Jeff remembered asking, face scrupulously wrinkled; he wasn’t sure if the uneasy silence that met him was because he was the new guy or for something else.
He rolled to the desk, pushed his glasses back along his nose and reached for his water. Another bang now, harder than the last. Water breached the rim of the cup, splashing across his sleeve. “Sonofabitch!” Jeff quickly dabbed at the drops atop his paperwork. A different sound filtered to his ears, very faint; barely perceptible. He held his breath, listening intently – soft knocks against the ceiling. Only the heat kicking through the HVAC he surmised, realizing the culmination of nearly fifteen hours of numbers and spreadsheets had finally worked his nerves.
There were other stories, secondhand tales Harold Rivers derived from the cleaning crew. Dark shadows shifting along walls. A palpable heaviness to the air. Sudden door slams and unseen, booted feet pacing nowhere. It all sounded like some cheesy script from a horror movie, but now he sat reminding himself it was only hearsay. A child might hide under the covers at the telling of such yarns, but he was a grown man. Jeff took pen in hand, refocused on his work. Twenty more minutes, he conceded. Twenty more minutes and I’m home.
But the blur of numbers caused his mind to race. What was it that Harold said again? The cleaning crew flat out refused to service the fourth floor at night; in fact, their contract stated that they’d only clean the fourth floor during the day. Jeff gnawed his pen cap. Come to think of it, the cleaning crew always seemed to be finishing the bathrooms when he arrived in the morning. Harold mentioned something else, too. No employee ever worked late on the fourth floor. Jeff put his pen down and slowly turned around.
He was alone in the office. The tax deadline loomed, and yet not a single soul put in extra hours; no one stayed past dusk.
A door slammed for a third time; Jeff’s teeth rattled inside his head. He sprang to his feet, grabbing his suit jacket and briefcase, cursing Harold and his goddamn ghost stories as he hurried out the door. Just great; he might as well pull the sheets over his own head once he got home.
He cursed Harold again and everyone else in the office for good measure; how could he have fallen for such shit? He’d never experienced the heebie-jeebies before, and it sure as hell wouldn’t happen now. Jeff stood clutching the doorknob in the near dark of the hall, quickly rationalizing the situation. The knocks from the ceiling were caused by heat blowing through the vents, but the door slams… cleaning crew doesn’t work the fourth floor my ass, they’re obviously up here doing something. It suddenly clicked. Not only were they here, but they were playing practical jokes just to keep those stories alive. Sonofabitches. And the moving shadows could be explained by the eyes adjusting from the harsh incandescent radiance of an office to the admittedly poorly illuminated hall. Jeff released the doorknob, squared his shoulders. He felt better already. Not only would he call out Harold on his absurdity, but he’d make him pick up the tab next time they ate Kung Po chicken, too.
Jeff thought he heard the faint scuff of feet dragging across carpet and spun around. Only the door to the law offices of Matheson and Keene loomed behind him; it seemed to emanate its own soft glow, distinguishing itself from the wall. Yet no light radiated from beneath. He warily approached the door.
It was cool to the touch, as if chilled by the night air. Jeff leaned into it, but the door didn’t budge. Then a gasp came as though someone had been standing behind the door the entire while. He turned on his heel and fled like a startled bird. This time he didn’t give a shit. Fuck tax time. He’d take his coworker’s cue; this would be the last he’d stay late at the office.
He stumbled down the hall – Christ, it’s so damn murky – using the glowing exit sign at the end as his guide. He stopped in front of the elevator, stabbing the down button with his thumb. “I want you to know I’ll be contacting the landlord in the morning. Have your fun hiding now because I’ll be having my fun tomorrow,” he addressed the invisible cleaning crew as firmly as he could, but the sound of his voice rang hollow in the hall. “Friggin’ floors are never mopped right, anyway!” He stabbed at the down button again.
A bell dinged weakly as the elevator door slid open. Light escaped, offering relief from the cloying gloom. Jeff stepped inside, placing his briefcase at his feet as he tapped another button for the first floor. Immediately, he felt better… and more than a bit foolish. He chided himself for acting like a scared child; had his father still been alive he’d have called Jeff a baby. The very thought made him cringe. Just the pressures of working at a new firm, trying to make a favorable impression, he tried to convince himself. Jeff leaned against the polished stainless steel wrapping the interior of the elevator. He eyed his distorted reflection and then loosened his tie as the doors slid shut, thinking of a quick snack at home, and his pillow.
The doors shuddered. Four spindly, pale fingers wiggled between them, pushing and squirming their way through, forefinger curling like a lead scout before the doors jerked open. A bowed man entered the elevator, head hung low as to conceal any features. He wore an impeccable suit as shadowy as the hall and his hair – compactly slicked beyond his ears and glistening like morning dew, nearly touching his slumped shoulders. Somehow, the curvature of his form made his appearance all the more daunting. Like a tendril of smoke, he eased into the corner across from Jeff. “Done burning the midnight oil?” the man inquired, voice rich in cadence.
“Umm, yes.” Jeff stood frozen. How the man had slipped so stealthily down the hall, Jeff hadn’t a clue but here he stood, spine curled and head stooped like some demented butler awaiting his next command.
The man clasped his hands, entwining his snake-like fingers in mesmerizing consideration. “Diligence. There is scarce amount left in this world. A sad thing.”
Jeff said nothing. But the man hardly seemed to notice. “It used to be commonplace for an individual to work dusk till dawn, but no more. There are other priorities, or should I say, other distractions, to misplace one from their tasks.” He shifted his head slightly, face still cast in obscurity. “Forgive my absent-mindedness. It is late, and here I stand rambling on. I am sure you long for home.” A bony finger swept across the elevator panel. “The first floor, yes?”
“Yes, thank you,” Jeff answered, hoping his relief remained hidden. As the doors hissed shut, he leaned toward his briefcase and noticed the man’s shoes. Quite unlike his faultless suit, angry scuffs marred their surface; dirt caked their soles. What an odd thing, Jeff thought, like wearing a tuxedo with a cheap pair of Converse. He lifted his briefcase, hesitant of what to say next. Jeff finally offered a frail chuckle. “Well, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t work late all the time. You do what you must during tax time.”
“Aah, you must work for them,” the man said tersely. Jeff instantly made the connection when the elevator halted with a horrible lurch. He stumbled from the jolt, throwing an arm against the wall for support. “Tsk, tsk,” the man scolded as he tapped a long finger against the elevator panel. “This old box tends to stick a bit between the third and second floor. No worries, my friend. It will free itself in a matter of minutes. I’ve unfortunately experienced this inconvenience numerous times. Still, it is maddening. I’ve phoned the landlord plenty, but as you can see, little has been done. The recurring answer is that the maintenance crew has been on it and found nothing wrong. But they’ve addressed the problem only during the day, when the annoyance hardly occurs. No one is willing to come after hours, it seems.” The man tilted his head at last, revealing slits for eyes, as if the admittance of further light would sear them for eternity. Sallow flesh hung from his bony cheekbones. He offered Jeff his hand. “Allow me to use this untimely interruption to introduce myself. Mr. Keene… and you, sir?”
“Jeff Montgomery, a pleasure to meet you,” he said, barely suppressing a smile. That stupid shit Harold. Jeff would make sure he’d be eating free Kung Po chicken for a week. “With all due respect, I’m quite relieved I’ve met you.” Mr. Keene’s uncommonly silky fingers enveloped his hand; the longer they shook, the icier they became.
“Relieved? Do tell why, Mr. Montgomery.”
“I’ve heard a lot of… things.”
Mr. Keene’s brow furrowed; it appeared the skin might slide from his skull. “Things?”
The stainless steel panel behind Mr. Keene suddenly arrested Jeff’s attention, but he quickly averted his gaze as the bowed man squeezed tight upon his hand. Impossible… only a trick of the light; only fatigue, plaguing him once more. “Understand, I’ve just been recently hired, but popular word is that neither you nor your partner even exists.”
“Such horrible rumors. And what do you think now, Mr. Montgomery?”
He glanced again over Mr. Keene’s shoulder, his stomach dropping at the vision captured within the stainless steel. “I think crunch time has gotten to me.”
Mr. Keene relinquished his grip. A smile creased his lips, now razor slashes across his face. “I would like you to join our firm, Mr. Montgomery. Money is of no consequence; name your price and it is yours. In return, I name only mine.”
Nerves frayed beyond repair, Harold shuddered as his chair popped under his weight.
Once the office had emptied at five, he’d been in and out of the men’s room four times, his hysteria pissing out in trickles. The sun hadn’t dipped pass the horizon yet and still his heart beat wildly. He slapped at the sweat dotting his brow; there wasn’t much more he could take.
He blamed his shitty luck – he did come up with the shortest straw drawn in the office, after all. But mostly Harold blamed Jeff Montgomery. Barely three weeks into the job and already he became a no-show. No call, no note, no nothing. Some in the office hadn’t batted a eyelash; Jeff was considered something of a flake. Harold knew the truth however, even if no one dared to admit it. Jeff Montgomery’s last day was the first night he worked late on the fourth floor. Case closed.
That was nearly a week ago. Now Harold sat behind his desk, spreadsheets a sweat-blotted clutter, the sun agonizingly melting into the sky. His mind raced. Sure, the tax deadline loomed and the work needed to be done, but the drawing of the straws had been a ridiculous idea. Maybe it had been the only diplomatic way to choose someone, but who in their right mind would actually be expected to work into the night. No one, that’s who. The clock struck five and the office scattered, frenzied little mice chattering out the door. Not a single person gave Harold a second look. Wait, that wasn’t entirely true. Heather Taylor did. But her eyes were so mournful Harold wished she never had.
A door slammed from down the hall, and Harold nearly crapped his pants.
He catapulted from his chair, papers a whirlwind into the air. Although he accomplished absolutely nothing, he didn’t care. Harold wanted out of the office, off the fourth floor. He wanted home.
The walls erupted with fury, as if a dozen angry fists raged against them in unison. Harold backpedaled, a whimper on his lips as he crashed into the cubicle behind him. He scrambled on the floor like a crab, finally pushing to his feet. Harold dashed from the office.
He entered a pitch-black abyss. The dark disoriented him, and quickly he panicked. He groped blindly for purchase. It seemed a step in either direction and he’d plummet over the side of a depth-less ravine.
The glowing exit sign at the end of the hall served as Harold’s only beacon; snapping his malaise, he ran on jellied legs until finally skidding to a halt before the elevator. He slammed the down button, teeth grinding furiously. Metal pulleys echoed through the elevator shaft; at last, its doors parted. Harold fell into its sweet light.
The uneasy laughing he heard was his own. When the morning came, he had quite the tale to share and only hoped no one would think he embellished it. He didn’t think so. They knew the stories; the drawing of the straws proved their conviction in them. Harold tapped the button for the first floor and leaned against the elevator wall.
A dirt smudged briefcase rested in the opposite corner.
Pale fingers shoved through the elevator doors, and Harold nearly collapsed to his knees. None other than Jeff Montgomery slowly emerged.
“Did I startle you?”
“Yeah, you fucking startled me!” The first thing Harold noticed was the hair; Montgomery never kept it slicked back like that.
“I didn’t mean to. I realized I’d forgotten my briefcase. I’ve been so hectic as of late, Harold. I think I’d forget to eat if I didn’t have food in front of me.”
The second thing Harold noticed was how gaunt Montgomery’s face had become. His cheekbones practically ripped through his flesh and his eyes were slits, empty and unblinking. “I want to apologize to you, Harold, for not saying goodbye. There was no good time to catch you, until now.”
“What the hell are you doing here, Jeff? You just up and went. Quit. Not great resume fodder.”
The elevator began its descent. “I was offered a position at Matheson and Keene, and I took it.” Harold’s jaw nearly touched the floor. “They offered me everything and anything I could desire, Harold. Money. Power. Life. There was one catch, though. I had to pay their price. And now I pass that on to others.”
The third thing Harold noticed, no matter how hard he tried to pry his horrified gaze away, was that Jeff Montgomery cast no reflection in the polished stainless steel panel behind him.
“You shouldn’t feel a thing, Harold,” Jeff said through a wide and gleaming mouth as the elevator came to a jarring halt.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2010, 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.