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‘I thought I saw…’
She trailed off. The coffee machine gave a loud beep, jetting boiling mud-colour liquid into the cup below the nozzle and Jeanette risked a glance at the woman at her side who had just spoken. Bowed head, face nearly hidden by frosted blonde hair, but the eyes still peering through in hopeful entreaty: Ask me what I thought I saw.
[private]Jeanette arranged her face into an approximation of polite enquiry, half I’m here for you, sister and half oh God, please don’t overshare, I’m busy. She didn’t actually check the slim, platinum watch encircling her wrist, but the message was there: instead she blew across the top of her plastic cup of moccachino, angling her shoulders very slightly away, her flight implicit. The other woman clarified, quickly and without looking up, ‘I thought I saw Alice.’
The other woman: Sandra something, from Research and Intelligence. It was a big company; people who sat at adjacent desks communicated solely by email and only recognised each other’s faces in relation to names when called into physical meetings. It made it easy to not know one another.
Jeanette nodded distractedly, gazing into her drink. The coffee powder and chocolate powder and creamer substitute settled in layers, the sponge of froth scumming the top, trapping improbable heat and leaving a clinging tide mark of solid bubbles around the sides like chemical dregs on a polluted beach.
Sandra carried on in a low voice, ‘I was picking up some prints on Tottenham Court Road and I could swear I saw her in the crowd. Only,’ she paused, a frown folding her voice, ‘I can’t be sure. It was her. It was her, the image of her – she was carrying a bag of something, dry cleaning it looked like, but she looked different somehow. She was always so smart, so,’ again she paused, groping for the right word, ‘alert. But this woman, no. Her hair all scraped back and she was wearing a tracksuit and she looked so… oh, but she looked so much like Alice.’
Jeanette glanced up. Sandra hadn’t moved, was still spying expectantly through her hair. There was no easy way to avoid it.
‘I’m sorry, who’s Alice? I work with so many people-’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Sandra said, quietly.
They work with so many people.
‘I saw the police here again earlier, was that about Alice?’
Graham glanced up to see Sandra from Research and Intelligence standing uncertainly in his office doorway.
‘Alice?’ The woman who’d not turned up for work last month, the one who’d cost them the Gerber contract and saddled them with a ninety-pound-an-hour contract temp while they filled in the stacks of rehiring paperwork. ‘No, they were here about the alarm system.’
‘Have there been no updates?’
Graham frowned. Updates about the alarm system? Oh, no, wait – he raised his eyebrows and forced a smile. Sandra looked strangely wound up, at once lost and brittle as if she might break into hysterical tears at any provocation. A crying employee: the last thing he needed. Trying to make his voice soothing, without committing too much, Graham reassured,
‘Updates? I don’t know, but I’m sure they’d inform us if something came up. It would be in the papers. They’re following their leads, I’m sure.’
‘They’re not following their leads very quickly.’
Sandra inched one toe, in its pearlised café au lait court shoe, resolutely over the office threshold and Graham took a check-mating step towards her, hands spread wide.
‘Sandra … Sandra, people disappear. She was young, I don’t think she had any family; she certainly seemed to be losing focus on the job. I think that chances are she just moved on.’
‘Young women who ‘just move on’ turn up dead.’
Graham’s gaze skipped casually over that interloping step, nudging into his comfort zone. Sandra shuffled her feet. There was something determined behind her collared hysteria.
‘Now, we can’t start thinking like that-’
‘I think I saw her.’
He paused, mid-user.
‘You saw her? Sandra, then you must tell the police. It could be important.’
‘I can’t be sure it was her, though.’
That lost look again. Graham’s shoulders loosened, his voice smoothing.
‘Sandra. I know this is hard on you. It’s hard for us all. Were you very close to Alice?’
‘You were obviously friends.’
‘Friends?’ Making the most of her blink of uncertainty, Graham placed a hand on the doorframe, barring her entry. Sandra shook her head, ‘No, not really.’
Then why are you making such a fuss, woman?
‘Well … I’m sure the police are doing all they can to track her down.’
Sandra nodded in gentle consternation and when Graham indicated the way as if assisting, rather than shooing, her back out onto the open plan floor, she followed obediently.
They’re doing all they can.
From the DLR it looked like a fantasy kingdom, crystalline towers flaring in the sun, a place of aspiration and inspiration where all dreams of riches and respect could come true. When you got down to ground level, it was more like a hive of ants: a scurrying gestalt of workers focused on the sole goal of produce, produce, produce.
Productivity seemed increasingly pointless to Ronnie since Alice had gone missing. There was no official statement by management – rather, a vague air of waiting as if she was still expected back at any time. She was replaced almost immediately, within the week, but with a contractor who had to be crash-trained and did half the work for more than double the wage. Temporary measures. They needn’t have bothered: Alice had escaped the rat-race and Ronnie was only working up the courage to follow her.
‘Graham Muldoon says no news.’
Ronnie looked up to see Sandra Coates, the only other person who seemed to give a shit about Alice. Sandra wrapped a strand of blonde hair around her ring finger and looked half-absent, half-miserable. It made Ronnie bite the inside of his bottom lip, guilt gnawing.
‘She’ll be fine. She’ll be happy.’
‘I think I saw her.’
Sandra said it flatly as if she was used to saying it and getting no reaction, like a child crying stranger.
‘You don’t sound surprised.’
‘Oh – right. You saw her?’
It doesn’t work when you repeat it and try to play-act some passion in, Ronnie.
Sandra wasn’t even looking at him but he still felt a kind of accusation, like she knew. He could let her in on it. Let her in on the secret.
‘Have you seen her too?’
He exhaled in a gust before he even realised he’d been holding his breath.
‘No. No, I’ve not seen her, not since she … you know.’
‘People can’t just disappear.’
‘They can if they want to.’
‘You think she wanted to disappear?’
Ronnie managed a sort of grimace and shrug. Sandra said, ‘Sometimes I wish I could disappear.’
‘You want to disappear?’
The look on her face was enough, really.
‘I want to know what happened to Alice. Ronnie, if you know something, you have to tell me.’
You have to tell me. Not ‘tell the police’ or ‘tell the management’. Ronnie licked his lips. Inside his jacket pocket his thumb traced the edge of a piece of card worn soft with worrying and wondering. He cleared his throat, glanced around for eavesdroppers and said,
‘I know a man.’
Silverstone Plaza was a semi-residential street in Kensington, bordering a little pigeon-pocked green and housing a solicitors’, an appointments-only antiquarian bookshop and several other doors that had rows of buzzers with numbers but no names.
The buzzer blared a rude back-room raspberry at the subdued harmony of number six. When Sebastien answered the door, there was a woman standing there, two steps down, clutching the black iron handrail as if to prevent herself from running. She was salon blonde and probably older than a first glance would estimate, well turned out in the city uniform of tailored suit and matching bag. In her other hand was pinched a dog-eared business card printed in red. When she wobbled up the stone steps and Sebastien drew back to let her enter, she was taller than he’d first thought seeing her waiting there, gazing up.
‘Mr,’ she covertly checked the card she was holding, stumbling on the pronunciation, ‘Galafate?’
‘Please, call me Sebastien. And you are?’
‘Coates. Sandra Coates. Ms. Sandra.’
‘Sandra. And how may I help you today?’
Sandra hesitated and turned slightly, taking in the room. When Sebastien politely indicated a chair she shook her head, looking as if she was still carefully jigsawing the correct words.
‘I was given your address by a … colleague. He said that you could help me.’
Of course he did. Sebastien had thought as much, the moment he’d set eyes on her. He smiled sympathetically, encouragingly, and touched the woman’s elbow very gently, indicating again that they would both be more comfortable sitting down, but she shook him off.
‘There’s no need to be nervous, Sandra. I can help you. When did you come to the decision?’
‘Yes, the decision. To … visit me. To join us.’
Behind him the long-case clock standing against the wall struck a sonorous, antique six and Sandra Coates flinched, her knuckles whitening around the
handle of her bag, her white-rimmed eyes darting.
‘Alice? I don’t understand.’
‘Ronnie said that you sort people out.’ Her words tumbled, a tapped torrent of pent-up paranoia, ‘You help them disappear. He said that he fell behind on his mortgage and his wife was seeing his boss. He said that he was going to go to you but he didn’t have the guts, but Alice did. You were supposed to solve her problems but I saw her and she looked awful.’ Sandra’s voice rose in pitch, desperate, ‘What have you done to Alice?’
Sebastien held out his hands to try and pacify her, but he was stunned when she threw herself into his arms. Only for a moment though – he expected her to run away only for that moment. As she sobbed against his Dege and Skinner suit jacket he rubbed her shoulders and remembered that in the end, he was the only one they had left: comforter, liberator and executioner. ‘Where is she?’ Sandra sniffed, wetly, hiding her eyes with her hair. Sebastien fluffed his handkerchief out of his top pocket with index and middle finger and offered it to her.
‘Alice got what she wanted. She works for me now.’
Above the orange silk pressed to her nose, Sandra’s eyes were round and accusing.
‘She works for you! Fetching and carrying? I know what this is. This is illegal! You kidnapped her, it’s some kind of …’ She looked around the room again, at the gilt-framed original after Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus, the burr-walnut desk, the neatly-kept files lining the walls and the venom trickled from her voice. ‘Modern slave trade.’
‘No. Not exactly. Sandra, you have to realise there is certainly no kidnapping involved. The people who work for me come here of their own volition and ask to be converted. People who are tired of their lives but cannot bring themselves to take them. We free them from that choice.’
‘What do you mean, you free them of the choice?’
‘Didn’t your colleague tell you? It’s quite humane. We provide our clients with medicine and their troubles cease to matter.’
‘You turn them into zombies.’ It wasn’t a question. Sebastien tilted his head to one side and regarded her: the agitated spots of colour in her grey cheeks at odds with her vacant eyes. He’d seen that look so many times before.
‘Zombie is such an emotive word. Also rather inaccurate – what were you expecting?’ He gave a little gesture at the polished desk, ‘face paint and chicken bones, perhaps? We choose to call them employees.’
‘You’re mad. This is wrong.’
‘I’m helping people. I’m laying their minds to rest. They come here driven to the brink by the pressures of modern living: the careers, the possessions, the relentless battle to succeed and the agony of loneliness in a crowded room. No matter how many city jobs they quit or how far they run, it would always be upon them. Are you sure you’re not tempted? It looks like you’re halfway there already. This is the final solution: contentment with a simple life. I’m offering them heaven.’
‘I want to see Alice. I demand to see Alice.’
Sebastien Galafate looked into Sandra’s tired eyes and sighed. Reaching into his suit pocket, he keyed silent numbers into a mobile phone and said,
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
I’ll see what I can do.
The door opened and she entered the room. The door shut behind her. There was a woman, standing with Sebastien. A woman she seemed to know from somewhere, but she looked so different. Sebastien said,
‘Alice, this is Sandra. Do you remember Sandra?’
She did remember, sort of. Sandra. Sandra was nice and that was nice. Alice nodded. Sandra didn’t say anything. Sebastien said, ‘Sandra, see – here’s Alice, safe and sound just as I told you she was. Alice?’
Alice turned her whole body when she looked at him. ‘Are you happy?’ Alice nodded. Sebastien said, ‘Tell Sandra then. Tell her that you’re happy now.’
Turning back towards the other woman, Alice looked at her and nodded once more. Sandra still said nothing in reply but Alice saw in her empty eyes a blissful recognition.[/private]