The screensaver replaced the unread document and Nigel Bates never even blinked. It showed the number of days to his retirement in bold, three dimensional Verdana. Lifting a finger, he pressed a key and the turgid document returned. He paged down, trying to look busy, trying to fly below the radar.
He had to believe there was more to life than this, but it was all he had. He wondered if he would give in today, if he would put an end to it. Bad things were supposed to happen on Friday the thirteenth, and he wasn’t going to argue with that wisdom.
His hand dropped to the sports bag under his desk, but he returned his fingers to the keyboard when he realised what he was doing. It was too soon, he wasn’t ready yet, but would he ever be? He’d heard stories of disgruntled employees running amok with shotguns, had any of them felt the way he did?
He hit the page down.
It wasn’t his fault, this whole place made him crazy, the whole software industry in fact. Didn’t anyone know you could either have software: fast; cheap, or good; as long as you only picked two and didn’t expect all three? No one cared if another failed computer system made the headlines as long as it wasn’t their cash point machine that got busted.
His hands coiled into fists as flashes of regret stabbed through his mind like lightning: Life had not turned out the way he had planned. He stared down at his white knuckles, lamenting missed opportunities and bad decisions. Sure, other people had their own frustrations, even the crazies with the shotguns, but none of them had it as bad as he did, he was sure of that. He deliberately unfurled his hands and placed them over his keyboard.
Nigel looked up and scanned the heads peeking up over the open plan partitions. Battery programmers, every one of them.
Some lucky chickens got to be free range, why not programmers? Free range, organic software.
He laughed to himself, and Sam in the next cubicle looked up.
A smile, full of crooked teeth, pulled up Sam’s loose jowls like folds of unbaked pastry. Tiny glints of hope shone in his rheumy eyes.
“Sorry Sam,” Nigel said, waving at the screen, “just a funny e-mail.”
“Oh, do share,” Sam said, wafting bad breath.
“Sorry mate, it’s personal.”
Sam returned his attention to his own work and Nigel watched his face grey out, his eyes glaze over. Just as if the computer monitor was leeching him.
Of course, not everyone was an office undead; there were a few who flourished in the inhospitable environment, and in some ways they were even worse.
Jackson, for example, cruising the room like a rogue shark; with his perfect, expensive teeth, fake tan and designer salon hair. Today, the unfortunate victim of his scrutiny was a new temp, probably just out of college and ill equipped to deal with such a predator.
Nigel felt his stomach roll over. He dropped his gaze back to the dull screen.
His eyes wandered to the clock.
Is that damn thing broken?
Then Felicity glided into the room like a windblown blossom. She was just a secretary, but pretty, and she was the only decent thing in the office.
Smiling, she flitted from desk to desk depositing pay slips.
“Here you go, Nigel.”
He hesitated, wanting to say more, but she moved on leaving her fragrance to linger.
Sam stood up and took the drinks tray from Nigel’s inbox, where it had lay undisturbed since someone else had fetched the last coffee round. He stood, like some timid animal. When Nigel eventually looked up Sam said, “Would you like a drink Nige?”
“A number twelve please.”
“The machine’s out of sugar, how about a thirteen.”
As Sam plodded to the drinks dispenser Jackson swerved into Nigel’s view, his grin too bright and looking more false than usual.
Nigel froze; it was too late to look away.
Jackson leaned on the partition preceded by his noxious cologne. “So Master Bates,” he said, smiling at own overused joke. “We need to have a little chat.”
“Meeting room thirteen, in ten minutes,” Jackson said. He dismissed Nigel with a glance before stalking away, clicking his fingers and winking at the temp. Jackson’s arrogant presumption made Nigel’s stomach want to empty itself all over the desk. The prospect of Jackson barking at him was too much to bear.
Another thirteen, is it a sign?
With sudden liberating certainty Nigel realised this was the moment to end the whole sorry fiasco. Standing up, he stooped to pick up the sports bag, and left the room.
As he walked he reflected on how peculiar he felt, there was no excitement, no red mist of rage, just an absolute sense of calm.
Down in the basement, the door to the server room was ajar, as he knew it would be, despite the pushpin combination lock.
The room was small, and lit by two long fluorescent tubes that were so bright they washed-out all the colours. Along one wall stood a bank of wardrobe-sized computers – the servers. Thick bundles of cables ran between them and into conduits that riddled the building like arteries. Green and red lights flickered and casing fans hummed, the air was clean, scrubbed of dust and as dry as sun bleached bones.
Closing the door, he held the handle down and eased it shut. Then he hunkered down and unzipped the bag. From it, he drew out three full petrol cans.
Hesitating, on the cusp of wrecking the building and endangering everybody, or just going back to his desk?
They’ll be free, and so will I.
The irrationality of it did register, but he didn’t care, for once he felt in charge of his own life, he was going to do something that would make a difference. He’d show Jackson just how important his job really was; he’d show Sam that there was more to life than slaving for a second rate software firm. He’d show them all. With that in mind, he set about dousing the shelves of boxes and carpet. The final can was for the servers themselves. He paused to enjoy the way the fumes made him light headed, and the kaleidoscope colours on the petroleum puddles.
He laughed and splashed the contents of the remaining can onto the computers.
Immediately, there came sparks and smoke as one machine after another shorted out, each light winking and going black. Then there was a louder crack and one of the machines burst into flames.
He almost laughed; he wasn’t even going to need the matches. He watched as the flames leapt from one computer to the next, then to the walls, and floor. Before he could blink he realised he had to get out.
The very air suddenly flashed into flames. Even as he threw his arms over his face, he felt his hair brown and shrivel, its scorched stink stinging his nostrils.
He staggered backwards towards the doorway, pushed by the wall of heat, and bumped into the closed door.
Half blinded he scrabbled for the handle but felt nothing but smooth wood.
Through the thickening smoke and tears he could see the handle was gone.
He took a deep searing breath and doubled up in pain as his lungs withered from the heat.
“Help,” he said, trying to shout over the roar of the flames. He slammed his fist against the door, but the noise sounded feeble. “Somebody please help me.”
“On one condition,” a strange voice said, “you have one chance to get out of this, just listen and give me your answer.”
Desperate, Nigel looked up. There, silhouetted against the inferno that used to be the company server bank, stood a figure. The smoke made it difficult to make out any detail. “What? Who are you?”
“In a very short time you will either asphyxiate or be burned alive, so you don’t have long. Do you understand?”
What’s happening? Is this a guardian angel, fairy godmother, a genie?
The figure laughed. “A genie, I like that. As in three wishes, yes, that’s a good one.” It laughed again. “I will rescue you, but you have to grant me three curses instead.”
“But that’s not fair you rigged the door.”
“Of course I did, and more besides. I’d say I’m offering you a good deal. No one will suspect you; I’ll give you that easy life you’ve always wanted, money, security, even the wife of your dreams. All to do with as you please, and all I want from you is three names, Mr Bates, three souls in exchange for giving you a second chance with yours.”
Nigel coughed, his thinking beginning to thin. “I don’t-”
“Three names, quickly, this really is your last chance.”
Confused and almost out, Nigel tried to recall three people he hated. When useful memories eluded him he panicked and resorted to just anyone he could recall. “Sam Harding, that git Jackson,” he coughed again, his throat burning. “Felicity Baker.”
Nigel looked at the dark figure wreathed in flames, laughing at him as his vision faded to darkness.
* * *
Nigel approached the inside of his front door feeling a peculiar mixture of interest and annoyance. His wife said he had an odd visitor, which in itself was not unusual given that he had seen many strangers in the six months since the fire, but the expression on her face had been troubled: and now he understood why.
The stranger stood with his back to the doorway, showing a braided ponytail and a tailored suit pulled tight over an athletic frame. Then when the caller turned around Nigel was struck by two conflicting but equally balanced sensations. He knew this man, of that he was certain, and yet he was sure he had no idea who he was.
“Hello can I help you?”
“I’m hurt you don’t remember,” the stranger said. Then he smiled, a gold cap glinting in the sunlight. “I’m the guy who saved your life.”
“The fire,” Nigel said. Then something clicked inside his mind, something like the lock on a door to a very old crypt. He suddenly felt faint and had to hold the doorframe to steady himself.
“Come on Nigel,” the man said, slipping an arm around his shoulder. “Lets take a walk; we’ve got something to talk about.”
“I’d better tell Fliss – my wife,” Nigel said feeling dazed.
“I know who your wife is, don’t worry, she won’t miss you, just yet.”
He led Nigel across the front lawn, like someone herding a drunk out of a late night bar. “Nigel, do you remember what we talked about?”
“I’m not sure, maybe it is coming back a little. You fixed up my life: made me rich and nearly famous; Rembrandts, an Aston Martin, and a nice wife.”
“Yes, I know that. It’s almost like a fairytale, isn’t it? The local hero who rescued a pretty colleague from a terrible fire. They fall in love and get married. The newspaper interviews, the ghost-written novel. Yes, I fixed it all for you, and now it’s time for us to conclude the deal.”
“I don’t understand?”
“You see,” the man said, shaking Nigel’s shoulder, his gold bracelets catching the sunlight, “this physical life, is but a small part of the existence of your eternal soul. You get out of the afterlife what you put in when you’re living. That’s why so many recycle themselves to have another crack at getting it right. Does that make sense?”
“A bit. What about Sunday School? The good going to heaven and the bad going to hell?”
“Nonsense,” the man said, laughing, “being too bad, or too good, for that matter, is disastrous. You have to live your life neutral, as nature abhors extremes.”
“So what are you?”
“I meddle with the living in order to help souls change. Do you remember our deal? Do you remember the second chance I gave you?”
“Does this have something to do with what happened to Jackson and Sam? It is coming back now; when you said you wanted people to curse, I thought you meant to kill them, not to, not-” Nigel’s voice trailed off, his throat constricting as he remembered the bizarre events that followed on from the fire.
Sam, having bought a new four-by-four had accidentally run Jackson over with it, dragging him for miles tangled in the car’s suspension. By the time Sam realised, Jackson’s arms and legs had been abraded beyond repair. Then, brimming with remorse Sam had botched his own suicide and only succeeded in breaking his own neck.
The man looked into Nigel’s eyes and smiled. “I said I wanted three souls, I didn’t say I wanted to kill them. They’ll be dependent quadriplegics for the rest of their days, two minor soul adjustments that will help in the long run. Do you recall the third name you gave me?”
Nigel felt a deep paralysing fear pierce his heart; he dry swallowed and said, “Felicity? My wife?”
The man nodded.
“But you can’t do that to her. You can’t leave me lumbered with a cripple!”
The man shook his head. “Maybe you’ll manage it next time. Your death’s going to destroy her.”
Nigel’s eyes went wide with sudden realisation.
“Come on, Nigel, it’s time to quit.”