Evan’s office was on the third floor of a drab concrete monstrosity assembled in the 1960s. It overlooked a small car park, the main road, and a park.
“What’s the matter?”
Amber sat at the opposite desk. She shared the same window. She could see what the problem was if she tried. All she had to do was look up from her keyboard.
“It’s those kids.”
“They’ve been there all morning. Got to be almost half a dozen of them.”
“I’m sure they’re not doing any harm.”
“Why do they have to hang about there?”
“It’s a park, Evan. Where are they supposed to hang around?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere else. It’s not as if they’re doing anything.”
“Have you finished processing those invoices? They need to be reconciled by one.”
“If they’re still there at lunchtime I’ll go and have a word.”
“If those invoices aren’t done by lunchtime Jan will be having a word with you. If Steve doesn’t get you first. He’s stats-mad at the moment. Honestly, I don’t know how they expect the two of us to do all this. We need more people, really. Imagine if they cut the team to one. The place would stop running without us.”
* * *
Evan’s pen clattered on the desk.
“Would you bloody believe it?”
Amber didn’t answer. She only had another two minutes to find out if Eddie and Martin would find Tony’s body in Dadeni Cottage.
“Would you believe it? Those kids were still there right until we stopped for lunch. I went downstairs to the car, and guess what?”
She closed The Tor and looked at him.
“They’d gone! Must’ve seen me coming.”
“I’m sure it’s coincidence.”
“You think so? Take a look. They’re back.”
“Where? They’re clearly not doing anything. Speaking of which, if you don’t log on in the next minute Steve will be wondering why you’re late starting work.”
Work arrived in two sessions. Any invoices arriving between eight am and one pm had to be cleared by five. Anything arriving after one was added to the pile for the following day. The work never stopped. Not that they got any recognition or thanks. If they worked well, Steve expected them to work quickly. If they worked quickly he wanted them to work even faster. For what? They got paid the same no matter what pace they went.
Stats drove the office. From the moment he logged in to the moment he left for home, the system monitored and recorded everything. How long it took him to deal with an invoice. How long it took him to open the next one. How many invoices he dealt with per hour. What time he took his breaks. How long he spent on each break. How his stats compared to the company average. And all the while tomorrow’s documents swelled his in-tray.
By three he hadn’t stopped. They got a lunch break in the afternoon, and that was it. His head pounded and hid hands ached. An email pinged into his in-tray. Steve. ‘Can we chat tomorrow about your stats’.
He thumped the keys as he worked through the invoices. Amber looked up.
“Are you okay? Your keyboard’s making a heck of a noise.”
By five he was exhausted. He logged out of the system and said goodbye to Amber. He grabbed his coat and swept down the stairwell.
The car park was almost empty. Somehow the others always managed to get away before him. That wasn’t all that annoyed him. He could see it from the steps. He thought about running; but no. They could still be watching. He didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. He plucked the note from under the wiper, and waved it at Amber.
“Now do you see?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. It’s because you park on the end.”
“It’s the only place I can park.”
“Then get a smaller car. Why do you need such a big estate? You could fit a body in that boot. Bye, Evan.”
A car reversed past his. In the rear view, he saw Amber’s sensible Corsa roll by. He waved, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy fiddling with the radio.
He opened the slip of yellow paper.
Humph. Bloody rabble.
He started his engine and prowled after Amber.
* * *
The next morning Evan arrived five minutes earlier than usual. Still, the small car park was crowded. After circling it twice he ended up in his usual spot.
He let himself into the empty office. He glanced at Amber’s vacant chair, then stared out the window.
“I wonder where the rabble is today.”
The voice startled him. He kicked the bin as he turned in his seat. A small yellow ball rolled onto the carpet.
“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to make you jump. Amber in yet?”
“Haven’t seen her.”
“Unusual. When she gets in, let her know I need to speak to her.”
“What shall I say it’s about?”
“Just ask her to come to my office.”
Amber didn’t arrive by nine, or quarter past. At half past, Steve dropped by again. At nine forty-five he wanted to know if she’d phoned Evan, or if Evan had any idea why she wasn’t answering her phone.
“Evan, you okay? Every time I drop by you’re staring across the road. What’s up?”
“There. There they are.”
“They were there just now.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Probably not up to anything. I dunno why they’re not in school though. Be sure to send Amber to me when she gets in.”
By eleven Steve was muttering about zero-hour contracts, and how those on them needed to be so careful about keeping their jobs.
“She seemed happy here,” said Evan, “but you never can tell. People leave all the time.”
“Yeah. Listen, about that email I sent. Jan’s concerned about your stats, and so am I. You need to pick up. Would it help if we moved your workstation?”
“Away from the window. Somewhere where there’s less distraction. Look, a heads-up. Jan wants a report on your performance by the end of the day. She just emailed me again. It’ll take me, what, forty-odd minutes to do the Excel sheet. I’ll start at around three, so do what you can to make the stats look good between now and then, yeah?”
The office door closed. The frosted glass swallowed the shape of Steve.
“But it’s just me in the department,” said Evan.
At lunchtime, Evan went to his car. There was a staff break room in the basement. Dingy, grotty and noisy, and filled with too many people. Much better to make the short drive to the parade of shops.
As he got closer to his car something caught his eye. Something fluttering in the breeze, like a butterfly caught in a web. A note pinned under the wiper blade.
The same yellow paper as before. He screwed it up and dropped it on the passenger seat.
The rest of the day passed without interruption. He looked out the window every so often but caught no sight of the rabble.
At five he logged off the system. He picked up his coat and was stepping out of the office when he narrowly avoided a collision.
“Oh! Oh, I am sorry, Evan. I didn’t see you there. Do you know where Steve is? I’ve not seen him since this morning.”
Evan puffed the air out of his cheeks.
“Hi Jan. I’ve not seen him this afternoon. He was in here around eleven.”
“Oh, okay then. I expect I’ve just missed him. On your own, are you?”
“I bet it’s been quiet. Well, no worries. I expect I’ll catch Steve tomorrow. Take care Evan, have a good evening.”
She bustled off down the corridor, sheaf of papers in hand. Evan smiled after her and walked the other way.
Home wasn’t far. Too far to walk, but still a comfortable commute. Off the main road, left at The Crown, straight on past the little play area, and... would you bloody believe it?
The rabble was congregated in the play area, as proud as anything. A miscellany of black hoodies and black jeans. Evan slowed the car. He wanted a good look. He wanted to see their spotty little faces up close, commit them to memory for when the police came visiting. As he knew they’d have to.
He pulled to a halt in his driveway. He flicked a glance up and down the road before opening the garage door.
The side door opened into the kitchen. He sidled through and locked it behind him. He called a ‘hello’ and walked through. He was kicking his shoes off when Deb put her head around the living room door.
“I was getting worried.”
“You’re almost an hour late.”
“I am?” He checked his watch. “Oh. I had some stuff to drop off. Listen, there haven’t been any kids around, have there?”
“Carl had Luke over after school for a bit, and Dan’s out with his friends at the moment. They called for him about half an hour ago. Millie’s got a play date on Saturday with Jenna. Why do you ask?”
“But no one unusual. Nobody you haven’t seen before. Not hanging about the street or anything?”
“No, not at all. What’s this about, Evan? Is everything okay?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I don’t know. I mean, first of all, you’re late home and seemed surprised when I mentioned it. Like you had no idea. And now you’re asking weird questions about strange kids.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of concern for my family’s security, is there?”
“No, but... anyway, your dinner’s keeping warm in the oven. I’m off out now.”
“Pilates. With Jo. You knew about it. I told you this morning. At breakfast. Don’t look so blank, we were sat at the table. Honestly, it’s like you’re a different person sometimes. Anyway, Millie’s watching TV in the lounge and Carl’s on his X-Box in his room. Dan’s due back half an hour early because he was late last night, but I should be back by then. That sounds like her beeping outside. Got to go. See you later.”
Different person indeed. Bloody cheek.
By the time she arrived back, Carl and Millie were in bed. Dan’s music murmured through the ceiling. Deb swept through the door and dropped onto the sofa.
“Phew! I’m knackered. I’m gonna shower and come back down for a bit. Anything good on TV tonight?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Maybe we’ll watch a DVD then.”
“Maybe. Did you come back past the play area? You must have. Did you notice if it was empty?”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“But did you look?”
“Evan, it’s nearly dark outside and I was talking to Jo. What’s this about?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry.”
“But I am worried. You’ve been off all week. What’s the matter? Is there a problem at work?”
“Uh, yeah. Sort of. I’m looking for a change, that’s all. I’m fine. Go and have your shower.”
When she came back the DVD was starting. Two cups of tea sat on the coffee table.
“I hope you don’t mind, I picked one.”
“No problem. And thanks,” she added. She picked up the tea and curled her legs underneath her.
After the film ended Deb reached for the mugs. Evan shook his hand.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get them.”
“Yeah. Get yourself up. I’ll be right behind you.”
Deb kissed him on the cheek and made her way to the bathroom.
Once he’d heard the door click shut he took the cups to the kitchen. He checked the door to the garage was locked, then the front door. He tested the back door handle and turned all the lights off. He checked the garage door again.
He set foot on the stairs, and paused. He crept to the living room, his feet silent on the carpet. The light still off, he snuck to the curtains and teased them open, just enough to look up and down the street. The lamps showed nothing but shadows.
“Are you coming up?”
“Be right there. Leave the bathroom light on for me.”
“Just checking the windows aren’t on the latch.”
She was in bed before he’d finished brushing his teeth. He slipped under the duvet.
“Goodnight,” he whispered.
“Now I think about it... I might have seen someone in the park.”
His back stiffened.
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
She drifted off. His pulse raced. He stared at the wall and thought about the rabble.
He jerked awake. Why? What had woken him? When had he fallen asleep? He checked his phone. Almost 1am.
There it was again. A soft tapping, like tired fingers on a cheap keyboard. Deb was asleep. He chose not to wake her.
A gentle light crept onto the landing, sneaking under Dan’s door. He’d fallen asleep with the TV on again.
But the sound didn’t come from the TV.
Carl and Millie’s door was open. Not fully, but enough for a comforting fan of landing light to illuminate her pillow. The sound of her mumbling in her sleep was as familiar as Carl’s intermittent snore.
Three bedrooms filled. Soon they’d need four.
Five people did indeed make a houseful.
The tapping drew him downstairs. He peered into the living room first, though he knew that wasn’t where the sound came from. Nor the kitchen. He put his ear to the garage door. He was certain he heard the faint clunk of the external door closing.
The key was in his hand. He had no idea how, but it was. He pushed it into the keyhole. The garage was pitch-dark. He groped for the switch. After a few stuttering blinks, the phosphorescent tubes threw their glare over everything. The neat shelves. The tool chest he never used. The breeze block walls.
Five yellow notes. He had no need to open them to know what they’d say.
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