Loco

Loco

It just didn’t make sense.

He stirred his coffee without looking at the cup as he sat at his desk and looked out of the window across the city. It was a grey and drab day. The rain fell on the city in a light but persistent drizzle, swirling round in the light eddies of wind that occasionally strolled along the shiny wet streets. The slate roofs of the nearby houses reflected the dull steel colour of the cloud heavy sky. Everything was wet. Everything dripped.

The miserable scene matched his mood. The dull tightness he felt in his stomach was a knot of frustration, the kind of thing you get when you know you have to do something but you don’t know how to do it. Like defusing a bomb or quadrilateral equations or not drinking too much. Or working out why she’d done it.

He reached out for the cup of coffee, again without looking. He didn’t get the angle of approach right and poked the cup with the end of his fingers. It was a top-heavy stoneware cup and it wobbled at the touch of his fingers. His reflexes were good enough to correct the approach and grab the cup before it fell over, snatching at it so that just a mouthful or two slopped over the lip of the cup and on to the grey melamine surface of his desk. The spilt coffee began to pool towards the laptop in the centre of the desk.

“Bollocks,” he said, lifting the laptop and throwing a handful of paper tissues from the box on his desk on top of the spill to soak it up. “Bum-bugger-bollocks.”

Could do with not frying yourself at the moment, Jackie boy, he thought as he cleared up the spillage. We don’t need another bloody puzzle just now do we? We’ve enough on our plate with the one we’ve got.

He threw the soggy brown pulp of tissues into the waste bin beside the desk and stood up. He picked up the cup and wiped the base with another tissue and then took a sip. He wrinkled his nose at the bitter chemical taste of the cheap instant coffee. He took three sachets of sugar out of his desk drawer and emptied them all into the cup, stirring the mixture with a pencil. He tasted again. The sweetness of the sugar had overpowered the bitterness of the coffee and the two ingredients together caused a pulse of adrenaline somewhere inside him that gave him a brief lift.

“It’s a bit shit but at least it’s free,” he said. He was alone in his office. He looked out through the glass partition to see if anyone had noticed that he was talking to himself. Nobody in the open plan office outside was looking in his direction. They were all too focussed on the flat screen monitors positioned on every desk, each screen displaying the life-blood numbers of the company as they coursed through the electronic arteries of the computer systems.

He turned back to the dismal view through the window and wondered where to start. He decided to work backwards and begin at her ending. He tried to recall exactly what happened when he saw her kill herself.

“It’s an absolute waste of time,” Colin muttered behind him.

Jack swivelled round in his seat to look at the dark-haired young man with the stubble beard. “I want you on my team when the time comes, Col,” he said. “Anyone as utterly miserable as you are makes everyone else feel good.”

Colin smiled. “It is though isn’t it? Complete waste of time. I don’t know why they made it mandatory. I could be doing something useful somewhere else.”

“What, like bringing down the network again maybe?”

Colin turned to the mousey blonde girl sitting beside Jack. “Good morning Susan,” said Colin, his smile brightening. “I told you – it was the contractor, not me.”

“And who set the contractor on Colin?” said Susan, smiling in return. “Who told him what to do?”

Colin shook his head. “Not guilty. I just told him what we needed, not how to do it. He’d got more qualifications than you could shake a stick at. He should have known what he was doing. That’s what we were paying him for.”

“Makes us wonder what we pay you for Col,” said the overweight man to Jack’s left.

“And good morning to you too, Jeremy,” replied Colin. “What is this? A clobber Colin session? I thought this was supposed to be about building teams. Not much chance of that with all the flak I’m getting right now. Bugger the lot of you.”

“Calma, Col” said Jack. “You know we love you. Well one of us does.” He looked at Susan, who blushed and looked at Colin, who blushed and looked away.

Jack swivelled back round to face the front of the plain bright classroom. There were about a dozen people in the room, all managers of one level or another, all familiar with each other. He watched them as they came into the room and settled at their desks. This is already a good team, he thought, feeling relaxed and comfortable amongst them.

“Who’s running this session today?” asked Jeremy of nobody in particular.

“I think it should have been Karina but she had some sort of ante-natal appointment so Lorna has stepped in,” replied Jack.

“Oh, good,” he replied. “Instead of Karina the witch we get Lorna the bitch. Somebody is making sure we aren’t going to enjoy this, aren’t they?”

Jack looked at Jeremy, who sat now with his arms folded on his cushion of a stomach. “No need to hide your feelings Jez,” he said. “I suppose it’s funny, though. I was just thinking what a good crew we’ve got here and then you go and drop something like that out. I’m surprised at you. Anyway, what have these two ever done to you?”

Jeremy turned his head towards Jack and raised his eyebrows. “I’m surprised at you too, Jack. You know these two as well as I do. I agree that most of the people in the company are really quite sweet but there are just a few who are anything but sweet. And those two are definitely not sweet. I’d go as far as to say they were positively sour.”

“I haven’t had much to do with Karina but you’re right about Lorna,” said Jack. “She’s the most ambitious person I’ve ever met. I’m sure she’d stamp on your neck if it was a rung on the career ladder. And she loves to show that she has bigger balls than all the boys in the management team.”

“Karina is just the same, Jack. I guess that’s why they get on,” said Jeremy. He smiled to himself and flicked his head backwards slightly in the universal sign to come closer. “You know Karina isn’t her real name, don’t you?” he said as Jack leaned towards him. “It’s really Karen. Apparently she has this self-image of herself as some sort of Russian princess. That’s why she wears all the sparkly costume jewellery and what have you.” He snorted a laugh. “Russian princess my arse,” he said. “Unless there is a branch of white Russians called Higginbottom.”

Jack turned a laugh to a cough as the door opened and a woman walked in. She was a tall woman with a full head of badly styled hair and clothes to match. She wore mauve eye shadow and lipstick. Her eyes were bloodshot. She looked unwell.

“Good morning everyone,” said the woman as she bent to place her handbag and a set of folders on the desk at the front of the room. She looked up. A couple of strained responses came from the front seats. “Good morning everyone,” repeated the woman.

“Good morning, Lorna,” mumbled the people in the room.

She stood up and looked at the group. “Oh, come on,” she said, exasperation already in her voice. “Don’t let’s start the day like this, like kids at school being forced to do extra maths or something.” She paused and shook her head. “Does everybody know why we’re here?” More mumbles came from the group. Lorna’s face became flushed and stern. “We’re here today to learn how to form and manage effective teams. Teams that are fun to be part of, that you as managers would be proud to manage, that would be proud to have you as their managers; teams that can carry the business going forward.” She walked to the centre of the room and back and began scanning the faces of the attendees. “Yes?”

Some people in the room nodded. All the people in the room remained silent.

“Oh God!” screeched Lorna. “What is the matter with you people?” She began pacing along the front of the classroom. “I’ve given up my own time to be here. I should be on holiday but I thought this was important enough to put that off. And the company has made a commitment, an investment in this. It has agreed to you taking time out of your normal routines to attend this class in the full hope and expectation that it will make you, each of you, into better managers. That this will bring you greater job satisfaction and that you will be able to cascade that satisfaction out to your teams. That this will result in better productivity and improved performance and higher profits and so secure the long term future for the company and all its employees. And you’re all sitting there like a complete bunch of lemons, like it doesn’t matter, like you don’t even want to be here.”

Lorna was breathing quite heavily now, pacing up and down along the front wall of the room in a way that reminded Jack of a caged animal. He saw that she had a bubble of spittle on her chin. She was staring at the floor, no longer looking at the group.

“Maybe that’s it,” said Lorna. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here. Maybe you don’t deserve to be here, any of you. Maybe you’re all just – not – good – enough.”

To Jack’s right a sharp intake of breath told of Susan’s shock. The silence that followed told of the shock of the other people in the room.

“I’ve been in this job for about a hundred years now,” said Jeremy in his unhurried deep basso, “this job or something very much like it.” He wasn’t looking at Lorna as he spoke. He sat with his elbows on the armrests of his chair, his fingers interlaced, looking down to his right. “I’ve built up teams and torn them down and built them back up again. I’ve recruited people, good people, even some great people; I’ve let people go and I’ve sometimes encouraged people to leave. I’ve been on pretty much every course that has been run for managers since the company started running them, and I’ve learned each of the latest management theories and models as they came along and I’ve watched as these theories and models became last year’s thing. I was looking forward to learning about this year’s thing because, whilst none of these models have ever given me or anyone a hundred per cent of what they need to manage a team, most of them have given us a little something to help us on our way, a little widget of some kind to stick in the kit-bag so that we can pull it out and use it when the need arises. And I’m sure this year’s model would have been no different. Notice I said ‘would have’.” He looked at Lorna now. “’Would have’. I’m leaving now, you see.” He got to his feet. “And I’m going to leave you with my theory. It’s a simple as you can get, and this is it; the two things every good manager needs are trust and respect. Trust in the team and their ability, and their trust in return; and respect for each other – even if they fail to deliver – as long as they’ve given it all they’ve got. Trust and respect; it’s as easy as that. If you don’t give it, you’re not a good manager. If you don’t get it, you’re not a good manager.”

Jeremy walked slowly towards the front of the class. He stopped on the other side of the desk from Lorna and, resting his knuckles on the desk, leaned forward. “The little performance you gave a just now shows one thing very clearly. You have no respect for us. Despite all your studying of these models and theories and fads, you just don’t understand the humanity of management. And for that reason I don’t trust you.”

Jeremy leaned back, an utterly contemptuous look on his face. He turned to leave.

“No,” said Lorna.

Lorna was looking at Jeremy but seemed to be looking right through him. “No,” she said again. Her right hand went to her handbag. She scrabbled in the bag, feeling for something, not looking for it, still staring in the direction of Jeremy but not at him. “No,” she repeated, finally finding what she was after. Her hand came out of the bag carrying a large metal nail file, the kind with the curved hook at one end for cleaning out the detritus that gathers beneath fingernails. “No,” she repeated one last time. She drew the nail file up to the left side of her neck and slashed in a diagonal downward motion, ripping through the flesh with a soft tearing sound. A great spurt of blood pumped out of the side of her neck and ran over her shoulder and down the front of her body. Stepping backwards, she sat down on the chair behind the desk as if she was about to begin the class.

Jack became aware of screaming coming from his right, of bangs and clatters as people jumped from their seats and ran forward, knocking over desks and chairs and other members of the class. One man fainted. Another ejected a stream of bright pink vomit on to his desk. Several people just ran straight out of the room.

Jeremy had run to Lorna and taken her wool scarf and wrapped it around her neck. He turned his head and shouted something to Jack, his face purple, his hands and arms now covered with blood. Jack couldn’t make out what he was saying because of the booming sound of his own blood as it pounded round his head.

“Ambulance! Get an ambulance Jack!”

It was as if he couldn’t catch up, as if he was braked. Everything around was moving at some kind of slow-time dream pace but he felt as if he moved even slower. He got to his feet and began to look around for a phone before he remembered that there were none in the training room. He almost sat down to think about what to do next when the brakes came off.

“Everybody out,” he shouted, pointing at the door with one hand and reaching for the mobile phone in his jacket pocket with the other. He dialled the emergency number and grabbed Colin by the arm as he passed. “Get a first aider and get them here now. I think Shelley in accounts is the one for this section. Make sure there is somebody in reception to bring the ambulance people up here as soon as they arrive.” He saw Susan trembling in her seat and picked her up by the arm. “Take Susie with you. She needs to be somewhere else.” He walked up to Jeremy as he gave the operator the details of the emergency. “The ambulance should be here in ten minutes. Do you know what you’re doing?”

Jeremy shook his head. “I wish I did Jack. I’ve never had to do anything like this before. I think we need to keep her upright though. Can you grab her other arm so that we can keep her in place?”

Jack took Lorna’s right arm. Jeremy held her left arm in one hand and the ends of the scarf twisted around her neck in the other. Lorna’s mouth hung open and her body had gone slack. Her eyes were unfocussed and had begun to close. On the floor around the chair a pool of blood had soaked into the grey office carpet. Jeremy and Jack were both standing in it. Jack heard a sticky clack as they moved their feet. He noticed her perfume.

“Come on Lorna,” shouted Jack. “Don’t go to sleep. Fight it! The ambulance will be here any minute.”

Jeremy looked at the floor and then at Jack.

“What?” said Jack.

Jeremy’s voice was quiet. “It doesn’t matter how soon the ambulance arrives, Jack.”

“What do you mean?” said Jack.

“I was hoping she’d just nicked it, that she hadn’t caught it right,” he replied. “I thought that if it was just a little cut we could keep the pressure on and stem the bleeding and have a fighting chance of getting her to hospital. But look at the floor.” He looked down at the sodden carpet again. “I think she’s completely severed the carotid artery. There’s no way back from that.” He sighed and looked away from the blood-smudged face that would haunt his future nights. “She’ll be dead before the ambulance gets her to hospital.”

It still didn’t make sense.

He stared out of the great plate glass windows at the people passing by on the street outside. The local pub was a great place for people watching and Jack liked people watching. He liked pubs too, and he knew he liked them a bit more than was good for him. He’d been here every day so far this week but he wasn’t thinking about that right now. He was trying to think about other things, but one thought kept coming back into his mind, kept pushing all other thoughts aside.

Why did she kill herself?

He picked up his glass and took a sip of the fine malt beer, absently moving the empty predecessor further away from him with his other hand, distancing himself from the quantity consumed. Outside, on the other side of the window, smokers sat shivering in the open air of the cold November day, their discomfort a further tax on their habit. He thought for a moment about joining them but decided against it. After several failed attempts he’d finally managed to kick that ugly habit last year. He knew that ‘just one’ would become ‘just today’ and then ‘just this week’. He picked up the glass of beer again and drank some of the beautiful, golden, bitter-sweet liquid and wondered why he couldn’t kick the habit of drink too.

He saw Jeremy walking past the window. He was wearing a small brown leather pork pie hat and an enormous green waxed raincoat that made him look like a marquee. He caught sight of Jack and stopped. After a brief internal debate he turned and came into the pub. Walking up to Jack he nodded at his glass.

“Bitter?” said Jeremy.

“A little,” said Jack.

“No, I meant…”

“I know what you meant Jez. It was a feeble attempt at humour. I’m OK thanks. Just get yourself one.”

Jeremy smiled a small smile and went to the bar. He came back with two beers.

“I’m glad to see that you aren’t afraid to talk to me,” he said.

“How do you mean, afraid?” said Jack.

He took a sip from his glass that left the glass half empty. “Maybe afraid is the wrong word. Nervous, perhaps. Unwilling. Something like that.”

“I don’t get you, mate. Why should I be afraid or nervous or whatever about talking to you?”

“I forgot. You never were much of a one for gossip, were you Jack?” He took another draining sip and reached for the second glass. “You won’t have noticed the way people are avoiding me since the…, since Lorna…”

“Not noticed a thing Jez. I haven’t been out and about in the office much what with taking to the police and putting the report together and what have you. What’s been happening?”

“More like what hasn’t been happening,” he replied. “Conversation hasn’t been happening. Nobody is talking to me. They see me coming and they start talking to someone else or they pick up the phone or they develop a sudden urgent need to get a coffee or to be somewhere else. Anything other than talk to me.” He took a sip from the second glass. “I suppose I can’t blame them though.”

“They think it was your fault?”

“Don’t you?”

“Absolutely not,” said Jack. “How could it be? She killed herself, right in front of everyone. How could you be in any way to blame for that?”

“You know how people are. They think she must have been what they call ‘emotionally fragile’ and that the little speech I made pushed her over the edge.”

“But that’s bollocks. And you know it’s bollocks as well as I do.”

“Maybe,” said Jeremy, swirling the beer in his glass. “Yes, maybe it wasn’t just me. I can’t help feeling that I was at least partly responsible though.”

“I suppose that’s understandable,” said Jack. He could see that Jeremy was close to tears. Jeremy, who just strolled through every corporate and personal crisis with barely a change in his moustached, moon-shaped face, was about to cry in public. “And I think it’s to your credit. It shows your humanity. But it wasn’t you, mate. She did it all by herself. Cut yourself some slack, have another beer. I’m buying.” He stood up.

“We should be back at the office by now,” said Jeremy.

“We’re in a de-briefing meeting Jez,” replied Jack, heading for the bar. “The Security Officer says we need to de-brief until we’ve had enough.”

“No argument from me,” said Jeremy. He smiled again. Jack knew it was going to be a long afternoon.

He woke early the following morning and made toast and coffee in the dining kitchen of his small flat. His head hurt and his thoughts were muddy and slow even after a full pot of strong coffee. He smeared some marmalade on the buttered toast and the sweetness helped a little but he still needed a couple of paracetamol tablets to take the edge off. The faint tick from the analogue wall clock emphasised the silence in the flat and he switched on the shiny new digital radio in pride of place on top of the fridge freezer. The inanities of the hyperactive presenter made him switch it off again after a couple of minutes. He sat back in the tall stool that stood beside the granite-topped island in the centre of the room, taking regular gulps of coffee and irregular bites of toast and watching the hands of the clock tick round.

He had lived alone since he and his ex-wife gave up on each other a couple of years earlier. Left to himself he had developed the unhealthy and self-destructive habits that most single males in similar circumstances acquire. He drank too much, didn’t exercise enough (didn’t exercise at all to be more accurate), ate irradiated meals and didn’t sleep well. At forty-two years of age, Jack still didn’t know himself well enough to understand why he did all this. So he just kept on doing it.

He went to the bathroom to clean himself inside and out. In the shit/shave/shower sequence that was his morning routine he got as far as shave. Looking at the tired old face that looked back at him from the mirror, Jack learned his first lesson in self-knowledge: he didn’t like himself very much. After brushing his teeth (which bled, again) he stepped into the shower cubicle and punished himself for the transgressions of the previous evening by setting the temperature to icy cold – but not for too long.

He put on some old jeans and a vintage sweatshirt and went and sat in his favourite chair in the living room and tried to think what he should do today. It was Saturday and the whole day lay luxuriously unplanned before him, although this wasn’t a rare occurrence now that he lived alone. All his friends had wives to cuddle and children to cosset. Jack, in contrast, was free to do anything he wanted, anything at all.

He sighed. He knew what he was going to do today.

He picked up the blue wallet folder that had been lying on the coffee table in front of him and took some of the documents out from inside it. Spreading them out on the table in something close to a timeline he began again to think about why Lorna Bellingham had killed herself.

The first document was a summary of the statements that the company had produced for the police. Lorna Bellingham, head of operations, had been with CoLoCo for five years, two of them in her current position. Her speedy rise from front-line Loan Adviser had been achieved by virtue of her being very good at the job and even better at cultivating relationships with the influencers and decision makers within the organisation. It was widely expected (by Lorna more than anyone) that she would have been offered the position of operations director next year. Her key strengths for them were her willingness to implement the difficult things like restructures and redundancies, together with a photographic memory for the types of drinks, meals and presents preferred by the directors and their wives.

Her popularity at the senior levels of the organisation had been matched by her level of unpopularity amongst the operational staff. She had the unforgiveable habit of taking all the credit for the successes they achieved, despite the fact that Lorna rarely initiated anything that resulted in success. The fact that her claiming the credit masked her inadequacies as either an innovator or a strategist simply compounded the resentment.

The second document was a bare bones summary of her life outside work. She had been with her partner for many years, having agreed with him at an early stage never to marry or have children. He was by all accounts truly heartbroken by her death, and was unable to come up with any reason why she might have killed herself. Their finances were in good order, they had recently moved into a nice new home, and only the week before the event they had booked a luxury cruise for next year.

The final document was a record of Jack’s notes from conversations he’d had with various people since the incident. Lorna was not depressed and was not on any medication according to her partner. The helpfully indiscreet police liaison officer had told him that the coroner had not found any drugs in her body during the autopsy, and that there nothing on her police record beyond a speeding fine last year. The Human Resources manager (Karina – he’d had to bite his lip as she spoke) had said that there were no disciplinary or performance issues on her file.

He knew he was missing something.

He sat back in the chair and put his hands behind his head as he tried to recall the scene once more. He’d gone over it again with Jeremy in the pub last night and he had described the same sequence as Jack had in mind. Everything was fine up to the point where Lorna started the rant. As soon as she began to bad-mouth everybody she began to get weird. He could recall the way her eyes changed as she spoke, starting off as a normal bad-tempered stare but then becoming not-normal. He closed his own eyes and saw hers, saw how they stopped moving around and became fixed and staring. She seemed cooked, like the junkies he’d had to deal with in the old days. He knew he wasn’t close enough to see this but he had a sudden recollection that her pupils were dilated, big and odd-sized. Maybe that was just how they looked when he was helping Jeremy to try to stem the blood flow and he was mis-remembering. Maybe it wasn’t that. But there was something else.

“What’s missing from this picture?” he said to himself, staring at the documents on the table.

He sat up as a thought struck him. He picked up the papers and read through them again, sorting them into two piles. He took out his mobile phone and made ten calls before calling Jeremy.

“What were her last words?” he said.

“Good morning to you too, too” said Jeremy.

“Sorry – I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I think I might be on to something. It came to me when I was visualising the scene of the incident this morning.”

“You need to get out more Jack.”

“Yes, OK. Right now I need you to tell me if you can remember what her final words were.”

Jack heard a sigh from Jeremy. “I’m unlikely ever to forget them Jack. I can’t imagine that you will either.”

“That depends,” said Jack.

“Depends on what?”

“Depends on whether or not we both remember the same words.”

“What?”

“For God’s sake, just tell me Jez. What were her last words?”

Jack heard him mutter something to himself. “OK,” he said. “Her last words were ‘you’re all just not good enough’. Satisfied?”

Jack was silent.

“Jack? You still there? Did you get that? She said ‘you’re all just not good enough’.”

“No,” said Jack.

“What? No what?”

“Her last words were “No”. She said “No” four times and then she cut her own throat.”

Jeremy didn’t respond for a moment. “I didn’t hear anything like that. Where did you get this from?”

“From the people who were in the room with us,” said Jack. “I knew there was something odd but I just couldn’t work out what it was. I’d been going over the scene in my mind but I realised this morning that it wasn’t what I saw. I’ve just called Colin and Susie and Maurice and all the others who were there to confirm what they recall. Do you want to hear the really weird bit?”

“There is something weirder?”

“Yes. Six people remember hearing her say ‘you’re all just not good enough’. All the others remember hearing the word “No”. But nobody can remember her lips moving when she said it.

James Clarkson rose to his feet and tapped the glass on the table in front of him with a spoon. The sound of the glass was faint but the people in the room had been expecting it and they quickly fell silent. The opening speech at the annual Christmas dinner had become a traditional event over the years and was something the CoLoCo employees looked forward to.

The chief executive was a tall, elegant man. Despite coming from a fairly ordinary background he had presence, the calm air that comes with earned success. Alongside him at the top table were the other CoLoCo directors and their partners, all wearing their finest formal party clothes. James’s wife sat in the seat to his right. To his left was a single empty setting. He looked around the room, smiling, giving a couple of stragglers entering the room the chance to settle into place.

“Late as usual Maurice,” he said, looking at the stragglers, “rather like your software releases.”

Laughter rolled around the room. Maurice made as if to respond before forcing a strained smile and sitting down, that gentle public jibe reducing the development manager to a burning silence. Happily unaware of the offence he had caused, James tugged on the sleeves of his expensive white shirt and then clasped his hands together as he began to speak.

“I don’t propose to take up too much of our time with this little speech,” he said. “I’m aware that most of us are quite hungry. Some of us perhaps more than others.” He looked at Jeremy and smiled a public absolution. The big man patted his stomach in acknowledgement and subdued laughter bubbled around the linen-clad tables. “So, welcome everyone, thanks for coming along to this lovely venue to help us celebrate yet another successful year for everyone at the Collateral Loan Company, known to the industry as CoLoCo, known to its employees as just plain Loco because you don’t have to be crazy to work here…”

“…but it helps!” chorused the room.

James grinned. “You’d think we’d be bored with that routine by now wouldn’t you? Anyway, to business,” he said, picking up a card with notes on it.

“The figures this year are again better than last year’s – significant growth in revenues, another increase in profitability, committed income streams extending well beyond the end of the next financial year – wonderful stuff! We’ll be handing out awards in recognition of the individuals and teams that achieved these results later on in the evening so I don’t intend to say anything more on that right now.” He unconsciously unclasped his hands and shaped them as if in prayer. “However, I do intend to say something about the terrible tragedy earlier this year.” He paused and glanced at the empty place setting beside him, a pin-drop silence settling on the audience. “We cannot possibly know what drives anyone to take such a dreadful course of action. The human mind is capable of the most wonderful, uplifting, glorious conceptions. It is also capable of the darkest and deadliest thoughts. What makes the mind take one course rather than the other is something that no scientist or psychologist or shaman can explain with any degree of certainty. We must be thankful that whatever it is that causes a person to take the dark path is so rare. The suicide of Lorna is the only such incident I have personally been exposed to in my entire life, and I would imagine that is true for almost all of us. That is not to lessen the tragedy in any way. Rather, I suggest we use it as a spur and that each of us should resolve to live our lives in a way that is as full and as happy and as long as we are able to make them.” He raised his glass. “To Lorna.”

“To Lorna,” echoed the crowd, mirroring his actions.

“Let’s make a start now,” James continued. “Let’s have a night that is as long, full and happy as we can make it. Enjoy yourselves!” He sat down to the sound of enthusiastic applause and much stamping of feet.

Waiters in short white jackets began to emerge carrying trays of food from the kitchen at the rear of the room. The burble of conversation began again and a string quartet started to play seasonal music in a far corner. Waitresses in smart black uniforms attended each of the circular tables, pouring drinks for all the employees.

The seating plan had followed a random allocation process (an office junior drawing names written on scraps of paper out of a big Santa hat) in an effort to make sure that people from different functional teams were given the opportunity to mix. This random process had resulted in Jack being seated at a table with three couples and a shy girl from the accounts department who appeared to have lost the power of speech. Jack took the first opportunity to head for the bar. Jeremy had beaten him to it and was already heading for the outside terrace with a pint of beer in his hand.

Jack stood at the bar and tried to catch the eye of the busy bartender. As he waited he looked around at the other employees. It was too early for anyone to be really drunk, although one or two were already heading in the direction. Most of the people were just happy and excited, glad to be here and looking forward to the entertainment and presentations scheduled for later in the evening. In one corner of the room a group of women were fussing around a seated pregnant woman. As he watched the pregnant woman got awkwardly to her feet.

“Leave me alone!” she shouted and waddled towards the rear of the room. The group of women followed her, babbling and chattering in her wake.

Jack finally managed to get his drink and went out through the sliding doors on to the terrace. The early evening air was cool but not too cold for December. He saw Jeremy leaning with his back against the terrace railing and extinguishing a cigarette.

“Thought you’d given up,” said Jack.

“I thought so too,” said Jeremy.

They both watched as more people came out. They saw more people gather round the pregnant woman inside the bar, who was now sitting on a chair again.

“It’s Karina, isn’t it?” said Jack. “Any idea what’s up?”

“Yes it is and no I don’t,” he replied. “And I don’t intend to get involved either. There are too many hormones over there for my liking. Something’s going to blow.”

Jack nodded. “Better go and keep an eye on it though, hadn’t we?”

Jeremy sighed and followed Jack back inside the bar. They stood together in the middle of the room watching the drama unfold.

“Will you all just go away!” shouted Karina, using a hand to lever herself awkwardly off the chair and on to her feet. “Just leave me alone!”

She used one arm to grab the back of the chair for support. A short round girl took hold of her other arm but Karina snatched it away. The group around Karina stood still, not knowing what to do.

“It’s all the time,” said Karina. “Somebody is after something from me all the time. Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“But we don’t Karina,” said the short round girl. “Nobody wants anything. We just asked you if you were OK. You seem to be a bit – flustered. We’re just a little concerned, that’s all.”

“Concerned? You’ve been banging on at me about who would be taking over while I’m on maternity leave almost as many times as Paul has,” she said, pointing at a short balding man in spectacles who leaned away from her accusing finger. The balding man and the round girl both looked at the people in the small crowd, shaking their heads and whispering that it wasn’t true, that they would dream of doing anything like that. “And if it isn’t you it’s some other desk-blocker pestering me to find out if they are entitled to a bigger pay rise or a more bonus or whatever. As if it’s anything to do with me.” She sat back down, landing heavily in the chair.

Colin and Susan appeared beside Jeremy.

“What’s the crack Jez?” asked Colin.

“No idea. I think Karina is having a bit of a meltdown with Jill and Paul. Dunno why though. Let’s just watch, eh?

“It’s not a show, Jeremy,” said Susan. “The poor girl is pregnant. Her head must be all over the place right now.”

“I’m sure her condition is indeed playing a part in this little sketch,” agreed Jeremy. “I’m pretty certain that they are only playing a small part though. What you see here is a poor little witch girl who has temporarily lost the power to pretend. I do hope she doesn’t find it again before she does something significant.”

The round girl spoke again. The tone of her voice was no longer motherly and supportive. There was a staccato harshness to it that had not been heard before.

“What do you mean?” she said to Karina.

Karina had a smile that raised her upper lip and made it look like a sneer. It was in place as she spoke to the round girl.

“It was always going to happen, Jill. I don’t know why you’re so surprised.”

“We worked on this. You, me and Paul, we went through all the numbers and the potential benefits and they just didn’t make sense. That’s what we said. That’s what we said in the proposal we sent to the Board.”

“Yes, we did,” she said. “But I decided to speak to someone I know from another company who had already done this kind of thing before I submitted the report. They showed me how we could halve our annual staff costs just by thinking a bit bigger than one department. It was a no-brainer, so I revised the numbers before I put to the Board.”

“Bigger than one department?” asked Paul.

Karina nodded. “We should have included all the mechanical functions; accounts, payroll, HR – not just the software development team. In fact, the only things we really need to keep are the public-facing functions like sales and marketing. And the senior management team of course. That leaves you with almost a virtual company that runs itself and makes industry-leading profits because of the lower costs. Like I said, it’s a no-brainer.”

“Let me get this right,” said Paul, “you’ve put a proposal to the Board that recommends they should outsource all the functions in CoLoCo except the sales and marketing teams?”

“Plus the senior management team. Yes, that’s about right.”

“But that puts almost two hundred jobs at risk.”

“One hundred and eighty-four,” said Karina.

“Including ours,” he replied.

Karina shrugged. “Not mine, Paul. I’m part of the senior management team.”

Paul stared at Karina. The people all around him stared at Karina. Everyone in the bar area was staring silently at Karina. Music from the band in the room next door said merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun. Look to the future now.

“You fucking bitch,” said Paul, softly.

James walked in to the room laughing, his wife holding his arm and laughing with him. Every head in the room turned towards the pair. Nobody said a word to them.

“This isn’t the most festive scene I’ve ever encountered,” he said, looking at the unsmiling faces all around the room. “Is there a problem of some kind?

“Paul just called me a fucking bitch, James,” said Karina.

The look of horrified astonishment that came over James’s face was a stark contrast to the happy smile of just a few seconds earlier.

“I beg your pardon?” said James.

“She said that Paul called her a bitch, James,” said Jill, who hadn’t taken her eyes away from Karina’s face. “A fucking bitch. She just didn’t say why.” She spoke to Karina. “Tell James why Paul called you a fucking bitch, Karina.”

Karina looked straight back at her. “It doesn’t matter why he said it,” she replied. “That’s a disciplinary offence. It might even be legally actionable.” She turned to James. “I think he’s just had a bit too much to drink, James. I’ll sort it out on Monday.”

“I’m a designated driver,” said Paul. “I’ve been drinking lime and soda all night.”

James’s face had been getting progressively redder and redder during this exchange. He lowered his head and took a deep breath.

“OK. Someone tell me what is going on. Right now.” Karina opened her mouth. “Not you,” he said.

“I’ll tell you,” said Jeremy, looking at Karina.

“I’ll tell you,” said Paul.

“Me too,” said Colin. “I’ll tell you.” The offer was echoed by other people in the group.

Jill stepped away from Karina to face James. “I’ll tell you, James,” she said. “I feel sort of responsible to be honest. I should have done something before now, should have stood up to her, reported her to someone. I’ll tell you what’s going on.” She turned back to face Karina. “Karina – Karen – Karen Higginbottom here has just told everyone about the proposal she produced for the Board; the proposal that will result in the positions of almost two hundred CoLoCo employees being outsourced. Except for the senior management team of course. Including Karen.”

James shook his head, small shakes as if he was trying to shake a wasp off his nose. He screwed up his eyes and bunched his eyebrows and looked at Karina.

“But we aren’t going to do anything with that proposal,” he said. “We never were. We never would. We would never treat our people like that.”

“What?” Karina levered herself off the chair again and almost spat the word out.

“There are no circumstances under which we would implement that proposal,” said James, addressing the rapidly filling room rather than Karina. He turned to face her. “None whatsoever.”

“So you’re a liar then,” she said.

“I’m sorry?” said James.

“You lied. You said you would give the proposal serious consideration.”

James looked around the people in the room. Almost everyone had crowded in to hear what was going on. He pressed his lips together and clenched his jaw, the muscles rippling on either side of his face as he finally lost patience. He turned back to face Karina.

“We did. We gave the report serious consideration out of respect for you and for the amount of work you had clearly put in to the proposal,” he said. Jill snorted. James continued. “We considered it and discounted it on the basis that it is at complete odds with our culture, our principles and, to be completely frank, common decency. It shows no respect for the people who work at CoLoCo, for them or their families. That is not what we are about. The company, the business that this proposal would create would be a bad one. It would not be a company I could work for.” He turned away from Karina once more and spoke to the crowd. “I’m still not sure how we got into this mess but I repeat. We will never implement this proposal. We will not be outsourcing any positions. Your jobs are all safe.” He held his hands up in the air and pointed towards the bar. “Now let’s put this silliness behind us. The drinks are on me for the rest of the night.”

The crowd cheered uncertainly and then surged towards the bar. James took Karina by the elbow and steered her out of the room. He indicated with his finger that Jack, Jeremy and Karina’s colleagues should follow them. Colin and Susan tagged along unasked. He stopped beside the lifts in the reception area outside the main dining room. He turned to face them, eyes shining with fury.

“This is not a conversation so don’t any of you speak if you value your future with this company. We will revisit this debacle first thing on Monday in my office. In the meantime I want Susan to accompany Karina to her room to make sure she is settled in for the night. Jeremy – I want you to get hold of her partner and to tell him to get here right now. Tell him that she’s over-tired. Tell him that she’s drunk. Tell him that she’s threatening to jump. Tell him anything; just get him here so that he can take her home. And as for you,” he turned to Karina, “You have behaved disgracefully and your condition offers no excuse for that behaviour. Your maternity leave will start straight after the meeting on Monday and Jill and Paul will take on your responsibilities together with immediate effect. Their first task will be to consider what disciplinary action is most appropriate to the incidents tonight. Away you go.” He pointed to the lifts. Karina made as if to speak. “Don’t,” he said.

James and Jack stood in front of the lift as Susan and Karina got in. Susan stood beside the floor selector panel, Karina stood with her back against the rear of the lift. Susan asked Karina for her room number but Karina was just muttering to herself now.

“She’s in 515, one of the executive suites on the top floor,” said Jill from behind Jack. “She insisted on that.”

The doors slid shut and James turned to the remainder of the group and sighed. “I don’t know about you lot but I need a drink. Care to join me?” Without waiting for a reply he headed back through the bar to the outside terrace, picking up his wife, two bottles of wine and a couple of glasses on the way through.

“What a bloody nightmare,” said James, pouring a large glass of white wine for his wife. He reached for the other bottle on the easy-clean glass table and poured himself an equally large glass of red wine. He slouched his long frame in the easy-clean mesh chair and tilted his head backwards and looked up at the stars in the cloudless night sky. “But what a lovely night,” he said, reaching out to take hold of his wife’s hand. He took a big breath and sighed deeply. “The evening proper begins here,” he said. “Let’s speak no more about what went on earlier.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Jeremy, raising one of his two glasses of beer.

“Me too,” said Colin, raising his glass. “I just wish she’d decided to speak no more too.”

“Who do you mean?” said Jack.

“Karina,” replied Colin. “Didn’t you hear her muttering away in the lift? ‘No, no, no’. Like she was trying to fight us off or something.”

“You heard her say No?” said Jack, taking hold of Colin’s arm. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Didn’t you?”

Jack got up and looked at Jeremy. Jeremy rose to his feet too.

“What room is she in Jill?” said Jack.

A squeal that ascended to a shriek brought immediate silence to everyone on the terrace. The shriek seemed to come from all around them. The people on the terrace looked at each other and into the brightly lit bar and out into the darkness around the terrace but could see nothing.

A scream of absolute terror started and didn’t stop. James looked up just in time to see the body before it hit the table beside him. Karina still had her handbag looped around her arm and it hit James on his head as her body tomb-stoned into the centre of the table. It shattered the glass into a fairy-light sparkle. The wine glasses and bottles bounced off the table into the air and spilled all over James and his wife. The thing he would always remember though, the thing that would jolt him awake and sweating most nights for the rest of his life, was the sound of bones breaking with cracks and crackles as they impacted first the table and then the paving beneath, the flesh and the bones compacting together with a dull liquid thud.

A second wave of screams joined the first scream. James tried to stand but Jack pushed him back into his chair. James looked down to see that he was covered in blood. There was a dirty smell that he couldn’t name. He looked to his left and saw that his wife was also covered in the same gore. She was trembling violently and looking down. James noticed that her left forearm was broken in the middle and that the lower half hung at a right angle to the upper half. He saw Jeremy pick up both his wife and the chair she was sitting in and carry them both as one away from the scene. He looked up and saw Jack speaking into his mobile phone in his right hand, his left hand on James’s chest to prevent him from moving. He heard Jack’s voice but not the words. He heard music but not the tune. He heard sirens.

James looked up and saw millions of sparkling stars in the cloudless Christmas sky.

“What a lovely night,” he thought as blood thundered in his ears and the world turned black.

James closed the door behind the police officer.

“He thinks there is something fishy going on here,” he said, turning to face the other people in his office. “So – is there something fishy going on?”

He remained silent as he looked at each person in turn; Paul and Jill, Jeremy, Jack, and Colin and Susan. Nobody answered. He walked back to his desk and sat down. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the arms of his executive leather chair.

“The police are looking closely at us. The City is beginning to look closely at us. Our shareholders are asking us questions to which we have no answers. We have no choice but to do whatever we can to find out what, if anything, is behind all this.” He raised his hands, palms open towards the group. “Look – I need you to understand my position here. If I find out that somebody in this organisation has had anything whatsoever to do with these horrendous events I will ensure that they are pursued to the fullest extent of the law. The fullest extent. Do I make myself clear?”

Jeremy squirmed in his seat. Susan’s bottom lip trembled. Jack took a deep breath and spoke.

“I understand where you’re coming from James,” he said, “and I understand why you’ve gathered this group together and why you’re speaking to us like this. We’ve all been present at both of the horrendous events. We’re all members of the management team. We’ve all at one time or another worked with or alongside the two, erm, the two…” Jack stopped and looked around at the others. “What do we call them? Victims? Suicides? Former employees?”

“Dead people,” said Jeremy. “Because that’s what they are.”

Jack winced at his words. “The two people who died,” he said, casting a look at Jeremy. “Yes,” he continued, turning back to James, “I can see the sense in starting with this group as it’s not impossible that someone from this group may know more than they’ve said to date and so you need to press us to find out. Speaking for myself, I doubt that enormously. I also feel there’s a danger with that approach.”

“What danger?” asked James.

“The danger of starting a witch hunt that might divert us from tracking down what really lies behind all this. And in any case I doubt that there is actually a witch to hunt.”

“Well there is definitely at least one less witch in the world anyway,” muttered Jeremy.

“Jeremy!” exclaimed Jill. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I don’t see why,” retorted Jeremy. “I never liked either of the ‘people who died’ and everybody knows that so I don’t see the point in being nice about them now. That isn’t to say I’m glad that they are dead, by the way.” He looked James straight in the eye here. “I just can’t help being honest about how I feel.” He looked around the group. “I think we all need to be honest now, honest with ourselves as much as with others. Anything other than openness and honesty might just blind us and prevent us from seeing things for what they really are.”

“What do you mean by that, Jeremy?” asked James.

“I mean that I think Jack is right,” replied Jeremy. “I don’t believe there is a witch to hunt. I think the truth is that we are in the middle of one of the things that make life interesting.”

“And what is that?” said James.

“A statistical anomaly,” said Jeremy. “Lightning has struck twice.”

“You mean the fact that two people who killed themselves happened to work for the same company is just coincidence?” said Jack.

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said Jeremy. “I think we’re gearing up to spend a lot of time and energy to discover that there was something about them, some pre-disposition or medical condition or whatever that meant they would have done this whether they worked for Loco or not.”

“Are you suggesting that we should just do nothing?” asked James.

“Not at all,” replied Jeremy. “I just think we should keep the focus on Lorna and Karina. The answer is in their personal, physical or psychological makeup somewhere. It is not somewhere in the Loco workforce. I also think we should use the counselling service that we’re implementing to carry out some level of psychometric testing for all employees – just to play safe.”

“Now that’s a good idea,” said James. “Something proactive; the City will like that. I’m not sure about just focussing on Lorna and Karina though. We’ve already had a pretty close look at Lorna, for example.”

“Maybe we missed something,” said Jack. “Maybe we just didn’t know what we were looking for. I’ll go back over the work that has been done on her.”

James leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling, linking his hands behind his head as he thought. He winced as he pressed on the bruising on the left side of his head and brought his hands down again.

“OK,” he said. “I think this hangs together as a plan. I’ll come up with a statement of some kind for the financial press. Jeremy – you and Jack get started on the psychological profiles. Paul and Jill can organise the counselling and the psychometric profiling.”

“What can we do?” asked Colin, pointing to himself and Susan.

“You manage the IT support team, Susan manages the call centre. That means you come into contact with the majority of people in Loco on a daily basis. I want you two to feel the pulse of the employees, to find out what they are thinking, what worries or concerns they might have, what they think we should be doing – that kind of thing. I want you both to come back to me with a verbal report at the end of each day. Is that OK?”

“Yes, sure – no problem James,” said Colin, smiling at Susan, who smiled back at him. “I think Susie and me will make a great team.”

“At last!” said Jeremy. “It’s only taken him twelve months to see what everyone else in the company saw eleven months ago.”

Colin blushed. Susan blushed. Everyone laughed.

“Away you go,” said James.

After the others had all left his office, James got up from his desk and filled a paper cup with water from the cooler in the corner of his office. He took a couple of painkillers from his pocket and washed them down with the water. He stood at the cooler and looked out through the open slats of the venetian blinds that covered the glass walls of his office. The people on the top floor of the building were just carrying on as usual; work had to continue, the business didn’t run itself, it couldn’t stop just because a couple of people had killed themselves.

“Life goes on,” he said to himself. “For some of us at least”

He sat at his desk and began to compose the statement to the financial press. Something kept nagging away at the back of his mind that stopped him getting very far. He opened up his laptop and began searching for ‘suicide statistics’ and was mildly surprised to see that the government kept figures for the subject. There were even tables, by God. They showed suicide rates by gender, country and region for the last several years. Intrigued, he searched for ‘suicide statistics in one organisation’. Nothing specific came up but he saw one result from a site called ‘Lost all Hope’. Intrigued he clicked the link. The site provided an even more detailed analysis of suicide events together with support, advice and guidance. There were even some individual stories by people who had contemplated suicide. He read through several of these stories. After a while he sat back in his chair.

“Statistical anomaly my arse,” he said. “Something is just not right.”

Jack leaned over the desk divider and tapped Colin on the shoulder. Colin had been listening to something on his headphones. He took off his headphones and smiled up at Jack.

“El Zeppelinos,” he said. “The oldest and the best.”

“No argument from me, Col,” said Jack. “Just don’t play ‘In My Time of Dying’, though. We don’t have the manpower to put you on suicide watch.”

“Jack!” said Colin in a harsh whisper.

“No sense of humour you young ‘uns. How’s it going anyway?”

“OK thanks. Nothing earth-shattering to report but then again, we didn’t really expect anything did we?”

“No, not really. Have you spoken to many people?”

Colin turned to his screen. “According to the Helpdesk system I’ve had twenty-three calls so far today, which has been about the daily average for the week, so that means I’ve spoken to almost one hundred people up to now. I’ve asked every one of them the same sort of questions and nobody has come back with any indication of worry or unrest. I’ve logged all their comments. Do you want to have a look?”

“Maybe later Colin,” said Jack, without enthusiasm. “How is Susie getting on?”

“OK I think. She’s spoken to a lot of people too. Up to this morning she’d seen all the managers apart from Maurice. I think she might be with him now actually.” He stood up and leaned over the desk divider so that he could see down the office. “They must be in his office,” he said as he sat back down.

“That’s good. I’m guessing that she hasn’t had any adverse feedback either.”

“No, alles sind ordnung, as they say in France.”

“Clever dick,” said Jack.

“Is it the final Friday meeting tomorrow?” asked Colin.

“Yes, I believe it is. I hope so anyway. It will be good to put this behind us.”

“Yes it sure…”

Colin stopped speaking as a door slammed further along the corridor. He stood up and looked down to see Susie running towards him. She was crying.

“What’s the matter Suse?” he said. She shook her head, tears running from her eyes, and continued past him out of the main office.

Colin made as if to follow her but Jack pulled him back. “She will be in the ladies room for a while now Colin. She won’t come out until she’s got her makeup sorted. Let’s go and speak to Maurice.”

Colin didn’t speak. He stood for a moment deciding what to do and then turned and set off towards the office that Susie had come from. Jack followed at a trot behind him. They reached the office and Colin knocked and opened the door in one movement. Maurice was sitting on the edge of his desk with the receiver of his phone handset cradled on his shoulder. He turned towards them.

“Do you mind?” he said. “I’m on the phone.”

Colin stepped forward and pressed the points of the switch hook on the handset. “You’re not now,” he said.

“You little oik,” said Maurice, placing the receiver on the desk and standing to face him. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Jack put a hand on Colin’s shoulder and pulled him gently back. The two of them now stood in silence and watched the other man.

Maurice was a short, wiry man in his late thirties. He wore a look of permanent disdain and clothes that would have suited someone much younger. He was by nature a fidgety, hyperactive person and he stood now moving from one foot to the other, his eyes continually switching from Colin to Jack and back.

“Is there a problem of some kind?” he asked.

“That depends,” said Colin.

“Depends on what?” asked Maurice.

“Depends on what you said to Susan,” he said.

“Oh, her,” said Maurice, waving his hand dismissively.

Jack laid a hand on Colin’s shoulder and pulled him back again.

“Yes, her,” said Jack. “She seemed to be very upset when she ran out of your office just now. She was in tears and is now hiding in the ladies room. Do you have any idea why she might be upset, Maurice?”

Maurice looked Colin up and down and then turned his back on him as he walked around the desk to sit in the chair behind it. “She was getting above herself,” he said. “She was being positively rude, to be frank. I just asked her to go away.”

“Susie couldn’t be rude if she tried,” said Colin.

“Are you calling me a liar?” said Maurice.

“I’m saying that I don’t believe you,” replied Colin.

Maurice banged his fist on the table. “Another one,” he said, “another one who’s calling me a liar. That’s a disciplinary offence. And I’ve got a witness this time.” He turned to Jack. “You heard him, didn’t you?”

Jill knocked and entered the room. Jeremy came in behind her.

“I’m glad you’re here,” said Maurice to Jill. He pointed at Colin. “He just called me a liar in front of a witness. I want disciplinary proceedings brought against him.”

Jill looked at Jack. “Is this true?” she asked him.

“No,” said Jack.

Maurice stood up, a look of disbelief on his face. “What is this? How can you say that? You just heard him.”

“I didn’t hear him call you a liar. I heard him say he didn’t believe you,” said Jack. “That isn’t the same thing at all. And besides, he could be right.”

“What do you mean? Are you calling me a liar too?”

“You only have a case if you can prove that Susan was rude,” said Jack. “So prove it.”

Maurice was moving from foot to foot, an unconscious dance that betrayed his agitation. “You can’t prove anything that was said in a conversation,” he said. “Not without recording equipment and I don’t use that for every conversation I’m party to. Although I’m beginning to think maybe I should.”

“So you can’t prove it,” said Colin.

“I shouldn’t need to prove it,” said Maurice, the volume of his voice continuing to increase. “I’m a senior manager with this company. She’s just a junior manager, just like you. My word should be enough.”

“Jesus,” said Colin. “You’re so far up yourself your mouth must be full.”

“How dare you!” shouted Maurice. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“I’m talking to someone who still hasn’t explained how Susie got so upset,” replied Colin, unmoved by the display of temper. “You said she was ‘getting above herself’. What does that mean?”

Maurice glared at him and looked to the others in the room, seeking support. When no support came he folded his arms and sat back in his chair. “This isn’t right. This is harassment.” He looked at Jill. “Why aren’t you saying something?”

“This is part of an ongoing investigation, Maurice. Colin has a mandate from James to do whatever is necessary to find out why Lorna and Karina did what they did. The others here in this room all have that mandate.” She paused. “Susie has that mandate too.”

“James!” Maurice almost spat the name out. “That dimwit! I might have known,” he said. He lapsed into a furious silence.

“You need to tell us what happened with you and Susie, Maurice,” said Jeremy. “Until we get an answer to that we aren’t going anywhere.”

Maurice was avoiding all eye contact now. “She wouldn’t let up,” he said, after a moment of awkward silence. “She said she was trying to find out if anyone had anything in common with Lorna and Karina.” He snorted. “As if I’m likely to have anything in common with a couple of madwomen like them!” He looked up and saw a row of unsmiling faces and looked down again. “Anyway, she started asking personal questions about my family and my background and contacts and when I told her to mind her own business she got upset and that’s when she flounced out.”

“You told her to mind her own business,” said Jack. “Is that all? Will she say the same thing when we ask her?”

Maurice paused. “There might have been a bit of swearing involved,” he said.

“Thought as much,” said Colin. “Susie can’t stand bad language.”

“Contacts,” said Jill. She looked directly at Maurice, who began to squirm uncomfortably.

“What’s the matter now?” he asked.

“Susie must have worked it out somehow,” said Jill, thinking out loud. She turned to face the others. “Lorna and Karina both joined Loco around the same time. They were both employed on the basis of a personal recommendation from Clint Carney, the chairman of the Loco Board.” She turned back to Maurice. “I believe Clint recommended you too, Maurice.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Maurice. “I’ve known Clint for years – we both used to work for the same bank in the City. So what?”

“So nothing, probably,” said Jeremy. “It may not be significant at all. But it is something that we didn’t know before, so Susie was quite right to press you on the subject. I think you need to apologise to her.”

“Get stuffed,” said Maurice.

“What a nice man,” said Jeremy.

“I’m not apologising to a jumped up nobody like her, even if she is one of James’s little harem. She should have just done as she was told and kept her nose out of my business. I suppose she was only doing what he told her to do though. I bet she does everything he says.” He looked at Colin and poked his tongue into his cheek a couple of times. “Everything…”

“You dirty little…” began Colin.

“Interesting views, Maurice.” The sound of James’s voice came in a tinny echo from the handset on the desk. Maurice’s face froze and paled. Sweat broke out on his face, giving it a shiny look like wax fruit.

Maurice looked at Colin. “You didn’t cut him off.”

“Apparently not,” said Colin, smiling. “He must have called you. Bad luck, old man.”

“I think we need a chat, Maurice. In my office. Right away.” Each sentence struck Maurice like a slap. “Jill – could you come along too, please? I think we need to ensure the correct procedure is followed here.”

Maurice looked at the group with no expression on his face.

“I think we can leave this to James now,” said Jeremy. He turned to leave but paused as he reached the door. “I’m going to trust you to make your way to James’s office without an escort, Maurice,” he said. “You won’t do a runner, will you?”

“No,” said Maurice.

“Do you want somebody to go with you?” Jack asked Maurice.

“No,” he replied.

The group filed out of the room. As she was leaving Jill said, “You look pale Maurice. Do you want some water or something?”

“No,” said Maurice.

“OK,” she replied. “I’m just going to check on Susie. I’ll meet you in James’s office in five minutes.” She left without waiting for a reply.

“Arsehole,” said Colin as the group walked back along the corridor.

“Indeed,” said Jeremy. “I’m sure he’s a wizard with software but his people skills are abysmal. It does make you wonder how he got to be a senior manager, doesn’t it? And how he’s managed to develop such an unjustifiably high opinion of himself.”

They reached Colin’s desk. “I’ll just see how Susan is,” said Jill, heading for the ladies toilets.

“OK,” said Colin. “Tell her everything is OK now. I’ll make her a cuppa.”

The three men walked on to the small kitchen area where the hot drinks were made. Each was consumed by their own thoughts. Colin broke the silence again.

“They are of a type aren’t they?” he said. “All three of them are arrogant; all three are senior managers but shouldn’t be; and all three were recommended by Clint Carney.” The kettle boiled and Colin poured the water into the cups. “I’ve never really met Clint. Does anyone know what he’s like?”

“I’ve only spoken to him a few times,” said Jeremy. “I think that what you said about the other three being of a type is spot on. You can see where they get it from. He’s the original type.”

“So it’s his fault…” Colin began.

There was a distant soft bang and the lights all went off. The screens in the office around them went blank apart from one battery-powered laptop.

“Not again,” said Colin. “We just got the drinks in time.”

Jack looked back along the corridor. “It’s probably the contractors who are fitting the new cabling,” he said. “They must have tripped the mains again. Funny, though. I thought they’d pretty much finished.”

“Can you smell something burning?” said Jeremy.

Jack sniffed. “Smells more like cooking to me,” he said. He froze as he lifted the cup towards his lips.

“No!” they said in unison.

They both ran down the corridor towards the smell. As they ran they heard a scream come from the Reception area at the far end of the corridor. The receptionist was staggering backwards towards them. Jack caught her in his arms. She turned her head to face him.

“He said he wanted to check on the cabling,” she said. She was trembling from head to foot. She bent forward and threw a hand to her mouth but couldn’t hold back the stream of thin brown vomit that spurted out.

Jeremy left Jack to look after the receptionist and walked towards the open door behind the Reception area that led to the small room where the utility services entered the building. The smell grew stronger as he approached. A thin grey fog was seeping out and swirling close to the ceiling. Jeremy leaned forward and looked round the door. He saw the figure of Maurice kneeling on the floor. The figure faced away from him and was leaning slightly forward. Both arms dangled loosely. The hair on the head was burned and smoking. Jeremy moved around the figure and saw that the head was held in place by a thick mains cable inserted into the mouth. The skin around the mouth was burned black and dark brown. A faint lattice of pink and red breaks in the skin was forming as the burned flesh contracted. A clear liquid had begun to form a droplet on the chin. Jeremy wondered if this was body fat being rendered liquid by the heat and then realised what he was thinking. He stepped back through the door and heaved what felt like his whole insides out through his mouth.

“Good morning,” said Clint Carney. “Sorry I’m late.”

He strode into the room to a chorus of reciprocal greetings from the group of Collateral Loan Company employees who were waiting for him. The meeting had been scheduled to start at nine o’clock but Clint had sent word that he had been delayed. It was now almost ten-thirty.

Clint placed his briefcase on the floor beside the seat at the head of the table. “Just let me grab a coffee and we’ll make a start.”

The room in the hotel near the train station was one that was often used by the CoLoCo team when they needed a meeting in the city. James and a team composed of Jeremy, Jack, Jill, Colin and Susan were seated around a cloth covered table on which various cold drinks and snacks had been arranged. James had positioned himself at the opposite end of the table to his chairman. As he watched Clint pour his coffee and carry it back to his chair, James was struck by his ordinary appearance. Clint Carney was the chairman of CoLoCo and sat on the Boards of at least two other companies; he had a network of contacts that led to the highest levels in government and the civil service; he had a successful track record in implementing strategic and organisational change; and yet he looked like nothing more than a short, round, bearded schoolteacher. A lucky but unloved schoolteacher, thought James.

Clint put the cup and saucer on the table. Still standing, he rested the knuckles of each hand on the clean white tablecloth and leaned forward.

“Well, what a mess, eh?” He looked round the group. “What a mess,” he repeated. “I’d like to begin with an update on the results of the recent internal investigations. James?”

James didn’t move from his chair. He looked around at the others seated around the table and then back at Clint, who was now sitting and drinking his coffee. “I’m afraid that there is little if anything to add to what we already know, Clint. The personal and physical profiles we obtained for Maurice showed nothing of significance at all, just like the profiles of Lorna and Karina. They all began their final day on this earth as normal, just like any other day; they all ended it in the most dreadful circumstances following some kind of massive emotional or psychological breakdown. We still don’t know what caused these breakdowns. None of the professional organisations we have engaged are able to throw any light on the subject or make anything beyond what are essentially educated guesses. It’s difficult to see what further action we can take under the circumstances.”

Clint nodded, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, the fingers of his hands steepled together. “I had a feeling you were going to say that,” he said, lowering his arms and reaching for his briefcase. “I’ve been taking some action of my own…”

“I had a feeling you would Clint,” echoed James, “but before you tell us what you’ve done, I believe we asked you for a contribution to this investigation. Could you tell us if you have anything to report, please?”

“I’m sorry?” said Clint.

James leaned forward in his seat. “I’m sure you will recall that we asked you to investigate what relevance there was in the fact that all three of the people who died were employed by CoLoCo on the basis of your specific personal recommendation. Were you able to find anything of significance with regard to that fact?”

“That request was so ridiculous that I dismissed it out of hand,” snapped Clint. “There is no significance in it whatsoever. It is just a coincidence.”

“Once would be a coincidence, Clint. Twice would be a statistical anomaly at best.” He looked at Jeremy. “Three times would be grounds for suspicion in my view. A view, incidentally, that is shared by the team of police officers investigating the events.”

Clint stared unblinking at James. “Are you threatening me?” he said.

“Threatening you?” replied James, a note of genuine surprise in his voice. “Threatening you with what? I was just giving you the update you asked for a moment ago.”

“I sense an underlying message in what you say, James. As usual.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, Clint.”

“Come on, James. It’s time we were honest with each other, I think. You feel I have had some part to play in these tragedies, don’t you?”

“I really don’t know,” said James. “I think there is some kind of correlation between the four of you that nobody can see at the moment but I don’t believe you were in any way actively involved in what happened.” Clint nodded and smiled as James paused for a moment before continuing. “What I do believe is that there was some sort of character flaw within each of the people who died; something not quite right deep inside them that just broke. Do you have any ideas about how they might have acquired that flaw, Clint?”

“Is this an educated guess of your own, James?”

“I suppose it is,” said James. “But you’re right Clint. I think it is time to be honest with each other. You see, I believe these people have been imprinted. I think they have modelled themselves on a dominant figure from earlier in their lives. I’m not sure if any of them consciously chose to adopt the model or if the model imprinting was applied to them in some way. I’m reasonably sure that it happened though, and the result of this imprinting was that they became self-centred and arrogant, intolerant of others. And this imprinting also broke something within them. It broke their compassion, their humanity. It broke their goodness. Just like the source model.”

“I presume that in this imaginative scenario of yours that I am the source model,” said Clint.

James looked at the bearded face at the other end of the table, at the dark eyes that didn’t seem to reflect any light. He nodded. “Yes, Clint. You presume correctly.”

“I think you have just made my next task much easier James,” said Clint. He reached into his briefcase.

The others around the table had been watching the exchanges with a mixture of disbelief and concern. There had always been a degree of tension between James and Clint but this open hostility was something new altogether. They all knew that a line had just been crossed.

Clint drew some papers from his briefcase and placed them on the table in front of him. He looked down at the papers and then laced his fingers together, pressing an index finger against his lips as he thought. He looked up.

“Before I carry out this next task,” he said, “I’d like to understand why you have such a poor opinion of me, James. I don’t believe I’ve ever done anything deliberately to undermine your position. What is it about me that you so thoroughly dislike?”

James sat and thought for a moment. He looked around at the rest of the group and smiled and held out his hands towards them. “This is a really good team, Clint; an open, honest, productive and capable group of people. They are the kind of people who you would choose to have as your friends, the kind of people who go the proverbial extra mile, who naturally and habitually over-achieve; the kind who remember birthdays and who are genuinely interested in you and your family. These are not numbers or units or resources. These are good people, Clint. These are my people.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. He placed his hands flat on the table and fastened his gaze on his chairman. “And the reason I dislike you is that you are about to rip their hearts out.”

Clint didn’t move. “What makes you say that?” he asked.

“Your previous history, Clint. You didn’t get to be chairman of this organisation by being clever or insightful or inspiring. You got to where you are now by virtue of your willingness to do the dirty work. You’ve been responsible for takeovers in the past in which old established companies have been bought out and just dumped to eliminate the competition; where workforces have been cut to the bone in the name of efficiency. You have initiated redundancy programmes that have made ghost towns out of thriving local communities. More to the point, you have always been seen to be doing something in times of crisis, even if that something is entirely the wrong thing to do. Like now.” He pointed at the sheaf of papers on the table in front of Clint. “I presume that is Lorna’s proposal?”

Clint remained motionless, staring at James. After a moment he got up and walked to the window and pulled the vertical blind to one side to look out.

“Looks like rain,” he said. He turned to face them. “We’d better hurry things along if we’re going to avoid getting wet on the way to the station.” He walked back to the table and stood beside his chair. “It is indeed the proposal that Lorna produced. I was late this morning because I have called an extraordinary meeting of the Board later today. I will be taking this proposal to them with the recommendation to implement the proposal in full – with one additional change.”

“You will propose replacing the whole management team.”

“What a good guess, James,” said Clint. He picked up his mobile phone and pressed some of the buttons.

“It wasn’t a guess, Clint. It’s what you do. You want to be seen to be doing something. The possibility that it might be the wrong thing to do has not even crossed your mind.”

“That possibility has not crossed my mind because I know it is not the wrong thing to do,” he snapped. “Wholesale change is required and I am more than capable of making that happen. The real truth is that you are running a sick company full of sick people. I think you too have been infected with this sickness; the sickness of muddle-headed thinking, of consideration for the little man rather than for the needs of the organisation. The situation cannot be allowed to continue. You are all relieved of your duties with immediate effect.”

James laughed. “Class dismissed,” he said. “This one is going to bring you down Clint. You’ve just killed the Collateral Loan Company. It is a people business and you have just got rid of the people who make it work. In a few months time it will be on its knees and the City will look at what you’ve done here and will re-assess what you did in the past. You will be found out.”

Clint barely looked up from the papers he was putting back into his briefcase. “I think not, James. And just in case you feel obliged to share those views outside of this room, I suggest you go and re-check your contracts of employment – more specifically, the confidentiality clause that was inserted last year.” He looked at the others around the table. “You are all bound by that contract. If any one of you utters anything even mildly derogatory about the company, I guarantee that you will lose everything you possess.”

The rest of the group sat in stunned silence as Clint gathered his belongings. As he made to leave the room, Susie got to her feet.

“Shame on you,” she said. “Shame on you.”

Clint turned back from the door to face her. “You have been given a valuable lesson today, dear. The lesson is that you are a person of no consequence. You must learn to live with that fact.”

He stepped through the door without any further words.

“What an absolute Clint,” said Jeremy. He stood up and rubbed his hands. “Well, fuck it,” he said. “I’m going to get on the train home and when I get back I’m going to drink a toast to what I hope will be a very short and very unhappy future for Clint Carney.”

“Now, now,” said James. “Let’s not jump into his pit. That’s a good idea about a small libation though. If you would allow me to I’d love to buy you all a few drinks when we get home.”

“Motion seconded and carried unanimously,” said Jeremy. “Let’s go.”

They gathered their coats and bags and headed out of the hotel. Each was occupied with thoughts about the events of the day and what they meant for the future so nobody said much. It had begun to drizzle but was only a short walk to the train station. They gathered together on the platform to wait for the train.

A clamour of people appeared on the opposite platform. In the middle of the crowd they could see Clint Carney. He was shaking his head and holding up a hand to indicate his unwillingness to respond to the questions from the troop of reporters and journalists.

“How did they get to find out so soon?” asked Jack.

“Clint will have tipped them off himself,” said James. “Remember when he picked his phone up at the end of the meeting? It’s a trick he’s used in the past. He’s very good at playing the press. Any second now he will stop and turn to them with a resigned look on his face and make the ‘off-the-cuff’ statement that he probably wrote on the train into town. Look, here he goes.”

The group watched as Clint stopped at the edge of the platform and turned to face his pursuers. He placed his briefcase between his legs on the concrete platform and held up both hands in a quietening gesture. He was facing away from James and the others and the noises from around the station meant they were only able to hear some of the words he spoke. One of the reporters in the press pack noticed James and the others on the opposite platform and began taking photographs of them.

“Don’t move,” said James. “We’ve nothing to be ashamed of. It’ll be interesting to see how Clint handles our presence at his little bit of theatre.”

Someone must have told Clint about the group of now former employees of CoLoCo on the opposite platform. He barely turned his head towards them before returning to his statement.

“… A complete replacement,” the group heard him say. “A fundamental personnel issue… couldn’t be allowed to continue… immediate effect…”

The press began to fire questions at Clint. The group heard him say “…unable to add to my statement at this time…”

More questions came at him. Clint looked along the track in the direction of an incoming through train. “No,” he said. “No.”

Clint turned right around to face James and the rest of the group.

“No,” he said.

The train had slowed to ninety miles per hour to pass through the station. Looking straight at the group, Clint stepped off the platform just as the train reached the point where he had been standing. It hit him with a dull thud. His body disappeared, carried away by the train. The screams of people on the platforms were drowned by the almost immediate screech of the train’s brakes. It took minutes for it to come to a halt, out of sight further along the track, past the red blood smeared along the sleepers further up the track.

Jack came up from the grip of the dreamy slow motion of the nightmare scene like a drunk rising from a pavement stumble. He felt sick and unsteady and put his arms out to try to find someone to hold on to. There was nothing around him and so he fell to one knee and put his hands on the ground, like a runner about to start a race. He was breathing heavily. He looked across the tracks at the people running along the other platform and the staff waving red paddles and blowing whistles. He shook his head and closed his eyes.

He heard a voice. “Jack,” said James. “What did you do, Jack?”

Jeremy sat across the table from Jack, one hand on the back of the metal frame chair, the other twisting a paper cup partly filled with grey coffee round and round. The room was small and white and brightly lit. There were no windows and only one door, through which a guard continuously monitored the two people in the room.

“It must have been quite scary,” said Jack.

Jack was wearing a disposable white coverall and a pair of shoes made from the same material. He had a salt-and-pepper stubble beard and untidy hair. His eyes were slightly bloodshot as usual, but Jeremy guessed that this time it was because he’d had too little sleep rather than too much drink.

“You could say that,” replied Jeremy. “In the same way that you could say that Clint is quite dead. Clint and the others, that is. Quite dead. And that you’re quite strange.”

Jack nodded. “Quite,” he said, after a few moments of silence.

“Bit awkward, isn’t it?” said Jack. “This I mean.” He pointed to himself and to Jeremy and back.

“Bit,” answered Jeremy. He took a deep breath and sighed. “Look, I’m not really sure why I’m here. I felt I should come and, you know, see you. But I don’t really know why.” He looked up at Jack as a thought struck him. “You’re not messing with my head are you?”

Jack laughed a dry laugh. “No, Jez. You’re here because of you.” He thought for a moment. “I suppose you’ve come looking for answers. You know; in search of closure; something to put your mind at rest.”

“Yes, maybe that’s right,” said Jeremy. “Have you got any? Answers, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” said Jack. “Perhaps it depends on what the question is.”

“OK. Let’s start with the mechanics. How do you actually do it?”

“I wish I knew,” he said, looking at the wall behind Jeremy’s head. “I can’t tell you exactly how it happens but I can tell you what happens. I’ve told the men in white coats enough times now. It still doesn’t feel real though. It still feels like I’m telling someone about a dream I that someone else has had.

“Tell me about the dream that Clint had,” said Jeremy.

Jack sat with his hands on his thighs. He was still staring into the space above Jeremy’s head as he thought.

“I seem to tune out first of all, like when you accidentally nudge the dial on an old analogue radio. And when I tune back in it feels like some kind of presence setting between me and whoever has been whacked up to full. Everything everyone around me says or thinks is a muddy babble but the thoughts going through the mind of the person I connect to are as clear as my own. And when I do connect I can see all of their lives instantly; all of their hopes and fears and dreams and histories are suddenly as well known to me as my own. Their thoughts become my thoughts. No, wait a minute, that isn’t right.” Jack stood and stretched. He walked over to the wall behind him and leaned his back against it.

“No,” he said, “it’s more like I make their thoughts. I control them. I tell them what to think and feel.”

“So what did you tell Clint?”

Jack looked at Jeremy. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes, Jack. Yes I do.”

Jack looked away again. “I told him what he already knew. I told him about his mother.”

You’ll never forget that look, will you Clint?

No.

The one she gave you as you walked out of the hospital; leaving her there to die alone. The one that told you what she really felt. You’ll never forget that look will you?

No.

All your busy, involved life, all the hours you put in, all of it was just to get away, to avoid remembering that look. The look that said she never loved you; that said nobody will ever love you; that said you were worthless. There’s no point in hiding from it any more, Clint, no point in running from it. No point in anything. No point at all.

No.

The end of time is coming Clint thundering down the tracks towards you just step towards it and it will all be gone all the sad hours and cried eyes the night thoughts in dark rooms will be gone just one step and that look will be gone there’s nothing stopping you now Clint nothing is there…

Jeremy stayed silent for a few minutes. “Yes, we heard you say all that on the platform at the station,” he said. “I thought there might be more to it than that. Do you know why you said it out loud this time?”

“I didn’t even realise I had said anything out loud,” said Jack, closing his eyes and putting his hands up to his forehead. “Up to then I didn’t have any recollection of what happened, not for Clint or Lorna or Karina. But as soon as you told me what happened I knew. I could remember all of it, all three of them.”

Jeremy turned the cup around one more time. “I suppose that answers the question of what happens,” he said, “but I still don’t understand why. I know he was a piece of shit but why did you make him do it?”

“I didn’t do it deliberately or consciously. It was a kind of reflex, a reaction to an irritant like a sneeze or a cough or an itch. You get an itch, you scratch it. Clint was an irritant.”

“So Clint got scratched.”

Jack shrugged. “He was an unpleasant, self-centred little shit, Jez. They all were. You know that. They all thought they were better than everyone else.” He paused and opened his eyes. “I’ve been wondering what they all had in common and maybe that’s it; they each loved themselves more than they loved their fellow man.”

“Sounds like you’ve got some kind of God complex Jack.”

“God help me,” he said. “Maybe it’s a curse. Maybe I’m the next stage in man’s evolution, in which case God help them. Maybe I’m a fucking alien. Who knows? All I do know is that I didn’t ask to be like this. I don’t want to make people kill themselves. It’s just something that happens. Well – that’s how it was with the first three anyway.”

Jeremy stopped twirling the paper cup on the table. “The first three?” he said.

“The thing is, now that I know it was me, I’ve been sort of practising. I’m getting really quite good at it. I saw the story on the news about the man who’d cornered his own family with a shotgun after they’d let out that he was beating the shit out of them every day. That can’t be right, I thought, that can’t be fair. So I thought about him and thought about him and after a while I tuned in and got him to turn the gun on himself – made him blow his own heart out, which I thought was quite poetic. And then I heard about the creep down South who’d managed to convince his neighbours that he was a registered childminder, the one who brought his home video equipment along when he did his babysitting. He got off on a technicality but I got through to him. He used his own camera when he set light to himself. There are a few other people that I need to sort out before they come for me, too. Because they will come for me, of course. Someone like me can’t be left to live. I mean, if anyone upsets me now, if they look at me the wrong way or say something I don’t like, well I can just crawl around inside their heads and find the button, the little thing that will push them over the edge and they’re gone. Although nobody knows I can do this yet. Apart from you, of course.”

Jeremy got to his feet. “So you have set yourself up as judge, jury and executioner now, have you? No right of appeal, no right to reply? Just scratched out like Clint.” He walked towards the door. As he put his hand on the handle he turned to face Jack. “You remember the saying “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? There is another part to that saying that most people forget. It goes, “great men are almost always bad men”. You have a great power now. What are you, Jack? Are you good or bad?”

The two former colleagues stood facing each other in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Jack nodded. “Thanks for coming Jez. You’ve given me plenty of food for thought.” He stepped forward to shake hands. “I forgot to ask about you though. Are you OK?”

Jeremy noticed that Jack’s lips hadn’t moved.

“No?”

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