“Start, you complete bitch. Why must we go through this every time that the temperature drops below, like, two degrees?” I hit the steering wheel as hard as I can with the palm of my hand, accidentally beeping the horn, I look up, through the part-defrosted windscreen, at the schoolgirl in the almost too short skirt walking across the road. She flips me the bird, then turns to her friend with the massively abnormal eyebrows and calls me something like ‘King Perve’ although I’m not entirely sure that I caught the first part of what she said. I made sure that they’d both turned the corner onto the pikey housing estate that leads to the local comprehensive school before I tried the engine again. There is nothing as pathetic as the sound of a fifteen year old car engine turning over but not quite catching. I stretched for the lever that opened the bonnet before realising that all that would lead to would be me, the ‘king perve’, stood in the slush, freezing my nuts off whilst I stared at whatever confusing hardware cars have under their bonnets, not really knowing what I was looking for. A voice in the back of my head reminded me that perhaps I should have bought a new battery the weekend before last, rather than buying that studenty-looking girl two pints of cider and a pizza in the vain hope that I could find out whether she actually was wearing ‘Adventure-Time’ panties.
I got out of the car and slammed the door harder than perhaps I should have. The sound of something falling off inside the car didn’t help my mood any and I fumbled with my key, aware of the fact that it would be just my luck if it snapped in the lock. I managed to get into the hallway without experiencing any other emergencies despite my glasses misting up almost instantly and the slush melting into my socks. I made my way into the kitchen, dialed the office, and balanced the phone handset between my shoulder and my cheek whilst I filled the kettle.
“Hello, Dale & Samuelson, how may I help you?” Tina, the head receptionist answered, in her normal, disinterested way.
“Hey, Tina, it’s Steve.”
“Oh… Hello Steven, ringing in sick… Again?” She pronounced the ‘N’ at the end of my name as if she was hitting me over the head with a brick in a sock. But her comment did remind me that the word ‘disciplinary’ had been mentioned more than once in the past couple of weeks.
“Actually, no. I was just calling to say that I was going to be a few minutes late, my car is refusing to start you see. So I’m going to wait for the b…” I didn’t bother continuing, she’d obviously got bored of me and had decided to put the phone down, bitch! She was one of those women who think they run the company. You know the type, all high-heels, pencil skirts and plunging necklines when either of the partners were in the office. Made a mission of making everyone else’s life a misery when they weren’t. The kettle boiled and I looked at the clock; it was almost 8:30. Fifteen minutes to drink my coffee, half an hour to get the bus into town, then maybe a ten minute walk, I should be in the office by half nine, probably. Providing the busses were running on time because of the light covering of slush on the roads, and I didn’t spill my coffee down the shirt that I’d just ironed. Not that I like to tempt fate you understand.
I jog up the stone steps to the imposing oak door of the office. I’m always overcome with the feeling that I should knock, you know? Despite the fact that I’ve worked there for over a year now. Do you ever get that feeling? As if you’re not really a member of the team, that they’re just tolerating you? I’m still the new-boy you see, no-one else has joined the company recently. In fact, I’m surprised that they don’t still make me get the coffee. I push the door open and step onto the marble tiled floor, my old, damp, trainers squeaking with every step. The noise echoes around the empty space, making me cringe. I tried to make myself as small as I could, but Tina still spotted me from behind the sweeping desk and holds up a pencil, as if it were Lion-o’s Sword of Omens and she’d suddenly found that she had the power of Greyskull.
“Please hold, caller,” she said, talking to the client on the phone, but never losing petrifying eye contact with me, “Mr. Samuelson wants to see you, in his office, now.” She looked over her shoulder at the clock behind her, then turned back to me and shook her head. The Pencil of Omens was lowered and she continued talking, politely but firmly, to the client. As I pass the desk, I notice the sound of traditional Christmas Carols coming quietly from the radio, even though this was only my second Christmas with Dale & Samuelson, I’ll wager that our Reception had never heard the voices of Noddy Holder, or Michael Buble for that matter, wishing us a Merry Christmas – It was traditional choral music or nothing. Traditional… that was a word that came to mind more often than not.
I passed through into the offices themselves, momentarily wondering if I could go to Samuelson’s office via the kitchen so that I can make myself a coffee or something. But I thought better of it, Tina’s obvious scowl at the clock had told me all that I needed to know. The partners’ offices were on the top floor, obviously. With grand views across the city. The few times that I’d been up there and had the time to look out - the skyline always amazed me, so many towers and spires, so much that you would never see from ground level. I arrived outside his office door after squelching my way up four flights of stairs, winter had managed to soak its way into my second pair of socks for that day. I looked down and realised that I was still wearing my trainers. Then I looked at the old drawstring swimming bag that contained my brogues. Oh God! Did I have time to change into my shoes? If I could just slip off my…
“Come in please, Steven.” Samuelson’s voice echoed clearly onto the landing as if it had not had to suffer the indignity of actually going through the closed office door and my heart sank. Nothing for it I suppose, ‘time to face the music’ as my father always said. I opened the door and stepped inside, trying to conceal the bag behind me.
“G… Good morning Mr. Samuelson.” I stuttered, kicking myself for making it sound like a schoolchild greeting his teacher. He pointed at the chair next to me with the flat of his hand and I sat down, awkwardly. He reached toward a floral teapot that was sat, gently steaming on his desk.
“May I interest you in some tea? It’s Da Hong Pao.” I shook my head and he smiled gently, his pale, thin lips parting to show hints of his tea-stained teeth. “A Christmas gift from a particularly satisfied customer. Its name means ‘Big Red Robe’ you know – I think it may have been his little joke.” He looked at me and I smiled blankly back at him. “Big… Red Robe? No? Saint Nicholas?” I nodded, finally understanding what he meant, and started to smile. He copied my movements almost exactly then sighed and turned away towards the window, as if he was dealing with a complete imbecile. Which in fairness, at this stage, he probably was. But he poured out two cups anyway. “What do you do for us, Steven? What is your reason for being with Dale & Samuelson?”
“I’m a junior filing clerk, Mr. Samuelson.” There are few feelings more cheering than sitting in your boss’ office and realising that he has no idea of who you are or what you do.
Yet another smile escaped his lips as he stood and moved over to the window. “I appreciate that is your title, Steven, but that does not answer the question that I asked. What is it that you do?” he raised his eyebrows, giving me the feeling that my future very much rode on my answer to his question.
“Well,” I started, trying to make it look as if I wasn’t just desperately stalling for time, “I cross reference all the paperwork that I receive daily, I process the probate applications and of course there’s the filing and the archiving in the… erm… cellar,” I juddered, as if someone had walked over my grave, I hated going down to the cellar, just the merest mention of it made me go cold, with its rows of dusty shelving and mysteriously locked doors. You never felt that you were completely alone down there, “and of course I flag up any queries with Mr. Muller, for him to follow up personally.” I noticed that I was wringing my hands in my lap with a mixture of anxiety and the cold spreading up from my wet socks.
“Mr. Muller, yes, one of our oldest and most respected staff members. Did you know that I recruited him personally?” I shook my head once more, “No reason you should of course, I just thought that he might have mentioned it.” He turned from the window and caught sight of my sodden trainers and the damp trail that they had left on his carpet. I squirmed, nervously, in the chair. “Are you… Uncomfortable? I understand that many of the younger generation wear their training shoes to travel to the office, but I admit to having assumed that they would change into something more ‘business-like’ upon their arrival.”
I held up my swimming bag, and explained that I had been in such a hurry to get to his office that I had forgotten to change my shoes. He peered at the bag over the top of his glasses, regarding the cartoon pirate motif. “And who is this ‘Captain Pugwash’ exactly?” he let me talk for a good few minutes about The Black Pig and Tom the Cabin Boy before holding up his hands and admitting that he was teasing me.
“My Mother made it for me.”
“I’m sure she did, yes. Look, I tell you what, why don’t you take off your socks and dry them by the fire, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend the morning with wet socks, let alone eternity.”
I slowly untied my trainers and rolled down my socks, all the time looking at him out of the corner of my eye, thinking that this was some kind of test that I would fail at any time. I went to hand my socks to him, but he shook his head and pointed at the open fire. I stood, and trapped my socks under a pair of heavy candlesticks that were on the mantelpiece, so that they hung down, into the flow of heat - and then sat back down.
“How very festive,” Samuelson remarked, “Now, as I was saying, Mr. Muller holds you in very high regard. He feels that you are… wasted in your current position and he also feels that you are ripe for promotion.” He steepled his fingers together and drew them up to his lips. “Steven, I should like to offer you a position as one of Dale & Samuelson’s prestige client service advisors. Do you think that this would be something that would suit you?”
My mind immediately started to spin with the possibilities; I could finally afford to get my car fixed… No, I could probably afford a new car – well, new to me at least. And I could afford to take out girls that weren’t satisfied with cheap cider, I might finally have a shot with the posh ones who ordered wine by the glass. “Yes Mr. Samuelson, I would like to be promoted to a Client Service Advisor.”
“Good, there are some things you should know about your new position. One, you will need to wear this all the time, as a sign to our clients that you are ‘fully accredited’.” He reverently handed me a small box, like one that might hold a piece of expensive jewellery. I opened it to find a small, plain antique key on a chain just long enough to fit comfortably over my head. “It will open any door in the building.” He looked directly into my eyes, “Any door. And Two, there’s also the somewhat particular nature of some of our oldest clients.”
“I know that we have handled the legal affairs of some very prestigious families, from all over Europe. Mr. Muller tells me that some are even royal.” I was desperate to show Samuelson that I’d picked up a few things whilst I worked.
“Did he indeed? And what else did Mr. Muller tell you?” Samuelson’s eyes seemed to light up.
God-damn! That sounded like a loaded question, was there something Mr. Muller had told me that he shouldn’t have? Was this all just a ploy to make me admit to something irregular, or illegal even, that Muller had done with the promise of a promotion? “Erm… No, not really… That was about it, I asked if I could go with him on client visits sometimes, but he always said that it wouldn’t be possible.”
“No, no… Quite right too.” He clasped his hands behind his back and paraded slowly around the room, “You will be dealing with cases where there are post-mortem changes to the will. You would be surprised how often that happens.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t… Oh! Do you mean where there’s an argument between the beneficiaries and the executor about how the…”
“Ah, no. You misunderstand. Sometimes the deceased isn’t happy with the way that their will is being interpreted, there may have been unforeseen circumstances or an issue with a member of the family perhaps, and that is where we come in. Ah! Mr. Muller, so glad you could join us.”
Muller stepped into the room, nodded at Mr. Samuelson and shook my hand. “Welcome to the business Steven. I’m sure that…”
“I was just about to ‘process’ Steven’s promotion, would you care to assist?”
“Of course, Mr. Samuelson, it would be an honour.” Muller moved behind my chair and wrapped his arms around me, pinning me down. Despite my struggles, and the fact that he was easily twice as old as I was, he would not budge. It was as if the chair itself was holding me fast.
Samuelson moved until he was right in front of me. “You see Steven, despite the fact that most of our clients haven’t been dead for very long, they do all seem to have developed something of a distrust for the living, which is why this promotion will be so very final.” He brought his hands from behind his back and I just had time to register the straight-edged razor in his fist before it sliced cleanly through my throat. Muller held me whilst my body tried to thrash around in panic. At one stage I thought that we would both topple over with the chair and end up on the floor. But slowly, the feelings subsided, Muller let go and brushed his lapels, then both men reached into the collars of their shirts and pulled out their own key.
“I’ll have one of the boys from Maintenance move your body to one of the crypts in the cellar, you can visit it whenever you like.”
I looked down at myself slumped in the chair, the front of my shirt and suit was covered in my own, sticky blood, then I saw my key, on its chain in my hand, I took it, carefully put it over my head, and tucked it into my collar.
Samuelson sat down at his desk, “Now, how about that tea?”
This time I grabbed the delicate china cup and drank the cold, black tea down in one gulp, I had never been so thirsty in my life, it was almost as if my throat had been...