The promotion should’ve been mine. Mine! They implied they were going to choose me if I put in the work, if I put in the time, but instead they went with an outsider, with Irena, Irena (or Irennna, as she pronounced her name) Kerkow.
I don’t begrudge her. She had as much right as anybody to apply for the position. It’s not her fault – this woman, this outsider, who’d emerged from nowhere to usurp what rightfully belonged to me; this woman, who was as unimpressive as she was bland, as she was tremulous, and underwhelming; this woman who, even now, thrashed in the stranglehold of my makeshift garrotte as I choked the life, the ambition, and temerity from her.
I hadn’t planned to kill her, really I hadn’t! Oh, certainly, you can make a case that I cut the b-string from my piano; that I brought my tattered gardening gloves with the frayed hems in to work; that I wore my black suit and a grey shirt; and I lay in wait, in the parking lot, enshrouded in darkness, surrounded by thickets, obscured by driving rain splattering on the glistening asphalt; but, really, I was only trying to feel self-important – anybody would do the same!
Then she emerged from the exit of the building, whistling a merry tune (usurpers often whistle), jingling her car keys in her hand as she made her way to her company car (a Beamer), a bounce in her step.
Next thing I knew, I had the piano string tightening around her neck – tightening so that it carved into her throat; shearing through flesh, muscle, and tendon. It felt – and sounded (for what muffled, grinding sound it made, and could be heard over her gurgling and gasping, our wrestling, as well as the pounding rain) – like leather ripping.
She couldn’t scream, couldn’t use that voice that had inexplicably impressed the Associates into choosing her over me. But she did struggle, for what little it was worth, although I was too big. Too strong. Too determined – as determined as I had been when I’d put in the work, the time, because they’d implied the promotion was mine.
Pain sliced into the bottom half of my right hand – the piano string which, in my efforts, had cut through my glove and was now in the process of doing to my poor hand what it was doing to the beastly Irena’s neck. Oh, the damn woman! Would her inconsideration never end? First my promotion, then one of my favourite gardening gloves, and then my hand! How much more need I suffer!
Supported only by the piano string, her body slumped, a lifeless marionette. I stood there, stricken. Irena’s keys fell from her limp grip, and the jingle of them hitting the ground startled me into action. Where to now? I had not considered this at all, and now that the act itself was done, I was unsure what to do. But I was an editor and used to cleaning up messes, used to making something coherent and purposeful from something ungodly and directionless. Not to mention I’d also read my share of mysteries.
The scene! I had to clear the scene!
I went to my battered Ford and opened the boot, still filled with sacks of remaindered books. I’d collected them periodically from the office with the intention of disposing of them but had not gotten around to it yet, (such is the busy life of an editor). Underneath them, I had a tarpaulin that I wrangled out and used to wrap up Irena’s body.
Slinging her into a fire-person’s carry (if indeed, firemen and firewomen use the same carry), I dumped her in my boot only to find I hadn’t the room! Damned remainders! I considered laying her in the backseat, but that was risky. What if I was stopped? And why have her there anyway? Laying there reproachfully as I drove. Hadn’t the damn woman cost me enough?
I recovered her keys, opened the boot, and slung her in there. Ah, a perfect fit! Then I drove to the bay, taking a scenic route – the Beemer was a beautiful car, and who knew whether I would ever have opportunity to drive another? It was just too good a motoring experience to abbreviate as I had abbreviated Irena.
When I arrived at my destination, I removed Irena from the boot, unwrapped the tarpaulin enough to weight her down with rocks from the bank, wrapped her back up, and threw her into the bay.
So much for her. Now for the Beemer.
For one insane moment, I contemplated keeping it. Why not? It should’ve been mine! Of course, now it was connected to a disappearance so it had to go. I abandoned it in the northern suburbs – the demesne of stolen cars, (not to mention scoundrels).
Then – via our wonderful and ever-helpful public transport systems – I returned to the parking-lot, fetched my own car, and drove home, where I washed out the wound to my hand. It stung, and I imagined it would hurt worse tomorrow. Oh, that damn woman! I wish she could feel this pain!
Still, it was a small price to pay.
It started with the Gems – not real gems, but books, old classics, which the Associates had wanted me to repackage and re-release. They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Maybe that’s true. What’s truer is that you can sell books with really nice covers.
I met the Associates in their conference room, taking the elevator up to their floor. The elevator itself rattled and heaved in its shaft, and short-circuited if you pushed too many buttons at once. The stairs were no better – their tiling cracked and shifting treacherously – and the stairwell itself dimly lighted (particularly when the single bulb was out). I thought it said something, that this was the way the Associates separated themselves from the rest of us employees.
On this fine Monday morning, the Associates sat on one side of their long marble table, mere silhouettes as they sat in front of a broad window that showered them in sunlight. But I recognised them all by their shape and mannerisms: Randolph Lippincott, old and slumped yet still authoritative; Penelope Morgan, upright and young (at forty-five) and ambitious, ruthless; Regina Boggs, matronly, seemingly ageless, a definite lesbian; Stanley Sikes, stoic, barely a shadow, rumour has it he’d died years ago and nobody had yet realised; Kay Harlow, wheezing, decrepit, so old that time used her as a measure.
‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott greeted me. ‘There’s an opening for a senior editor.’
The previous senior editor, Barney Sacks, had resigned because the workload had gotten too much for him, and poor Barney – never the most fortified to begin with, (but then again, who am I to judge?) – had suffered a nervous breakdown. He voluntarily institutionalised himself, where his belt and shoelaces were taken from him, and he underwent several radical, if not barbaric treatments, such as trial pharmaceuticals, electroconvulsive therapy, and a correspondence course in Scientology.
By right of succession (if there ever was such a right) his position should be mine. I was the heir apparent for a variety of reasons – seniority, experience, and capability. But nothing was ever that simple – particularly at a multi-million dollar publishing multinational like Grey’s.
‘We’d like to release a new line of books,’ Lippincott said. ‘Gems, we’re going to call them. Old classics. Which have fallen into public domain. But repackaged. Brightly. What do you think?’
Before I could respond, Harlow interrupted with a wracking cough. Besides her antiquity, Harlow was emphysemic. Time froze in meetings while her coughing fits overpowered not only her, but the entire office, and the office building. She should’ve retired, or been retired, but nobody retires from Grey’s. Not wittingly.
‘I think —’ I began once Harlow had seemed to cease, but she then reverberated us with aftershocks. Finally, she fell silent, although I waited – just to be sure.
‘Come along, Codswallow!’ Lippincott said. ‘Don’t keep us waiting!’
‘I think it’s a marvellous idea, sir,’ I said quickly, just in case Harlow set off again.
‘Do a good job, Codswallow …’ Lippincott’s voice trailed away, as if he expected me to guess his mind.
‘Well, what is it we say here? There are no black and whites, no colours, only Grey’s. Do a good job, Codswallow, and you know what!’
What could only mean the vacant position – or why else mention it?
I set to work immediately, dredging our backlists, communicating with the estates of deceased authors, designers, lawyers – everybody responsible to put together the Gems. We released three (of a planned series) in succession as big paperbacks with gold-trimmed covers, each meeting commercial success.
When Lippincott next called me in to speak to the Associates, I was optimistic.
‘You’ve done an exemplary job with the Gems,’ he said. ‘And those gold-trimmed covers …’
There were murmurs of assent from the other Associates – from all but Sikes, who seemed so insubstantial, a breath might evaporate his silhouette.
‘The new senior editor will be pleased!’ Lippincott said.
I was pleased.
‘She will be in tomorrow.’
My question was lost under an earthquake of Harlow’s coughing.
I went home, played ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano, and tried to rationalise why they hadn’t wanted me. Did they think I was too old? Or underqualified? Or overqualified? Perhaps they just liked me where I was. Most movement at Grey’s was horizontal.
Well, it wouldn’t matter. Life is full of disappointments.
I would make it not matter.
Over the next several weeks the police spoke repeatedly, but perfunctorily, with everybody – perfunctorily, because what was there to investigate? Certainly, Irena had disappeared, but there was no real evidence of foul play – the rain had washed away the parking lot, there were no signs of a struggle, and the company Beemer had not yet been found.
Some speculated that Irena had absconded with the car. I recall standing at the water-cooler (which was broken, but still the place for talk) with the other employees, and ruminating, ‘Do you think maybe she had a habit? Alcohol? Drugs? Gambling! Perhaps she’s taken the Beemer and gone on a bender!’ And then, the next thing you knew, rumours were flying around the office. However do these things begin?
But I had no time for rumours, or to indulge in malicious slander.
‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott said, when I met the Associates that morning. ‘Tragic, this Irena-thing. But not to worry. We do have you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
‘And we’d like to ask you … ’
‘What do you think of Nigel Bentley?’
Bentley was a contemporary, a fifty-something senior editor who’d worked for many of the multinationals. He was a friend – or he had been a friend, for many years, before time and distance and respective career trajectories had seen us grow apart. But if Grey’s had managed to land him, he would be quite a coup, and I told Lippincott that.
When Bentley arrived for work several days later, he embraced me and commended me extravagantly on the success of the Gems.
The gloating bastard.
We fell into the rhythm of our friendship as if it had never been interrupted. We caught the train to and from work together. We had lunch together. And he was forever dropping by my desk, asking for my opinion on all matters publishing (and, more significantly, all things Grey’s).
After being at Grey’s for thirty years, I finally felt as if I was becoming an important cog – a mechanical feat in itself. Everybody at Grey’s knows they’re a cog, but one no more, or no less, significant than any other. In actual fact, Grey’s perpetuates an environment of spiritual and emotional communism. Perhaps it is the Associates’ way of maintaining the status quo.
I commented upon this to Bentley one chilly and misty Wednesday morning as we waited for our 7.36 am train amongst a throng of commuters.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, but whilst his tone was interested, his manner was distant – although that was to be expected. Bentley was in the process of a separation; he’d taken this job as a means of getting a new start. ‘The Associates do exercise a form of elitism,’ he said. ‘But possibly no more than any employer.’
‘But I feel it deeply,’ I told him, as our train rumbled into the view, a silver blur punching a hole through the mist. ‘Particularly …’
‘After the Gems?’
‘Yes.’ When Bentley had told me about his separation, I had felt obligated to tell him something in return – and had thus told him about the Gems, and what the Associates had implied if I accomplished the task successfully.
‘Really,’ Bentley said, ‘promotion isn’t the be-all end-all of existence.’
Of course, he could say that. He had one – a promotion, that is.
‘Do not scoff, my friend!’ Bentley went on. ‘I tell you this for your sake. You must really let it go, or it will be your un —’
I shoved Bentley as our train rattled up, the driver’s eyes widening, the face of the train itself stoic, if not bemused at the pending collision. Bentley sailed over the edge of the platform and made – quite literally – a splat as the train hit him. The sound was bizarrely similar to the sound a watermelon makes when it falls and splatters on the floor. The curious editorial part of my mind wondered if it would’ve been visually similar, or if Bentley would’ve been flattened more like a bug on a windscreen.
But I had not much time to wonder as Bentley was lost from sight.
There was a mixture of cries from the other commuters: shouts from the more level-headed that somebody had been hit, screams from the panicked, and even a handful of astonished exclamations.
Lamentably, there was nothing to be done.