Empty crisp packets on top of the dashboard skittered across her eyeline as she veered round the corner. An empty milkshake cup beat the foil wrapper of a Wispa to the finish line across the width of the windscreen and bumped to the floor.
The last job of the day. Her boyfriend had text her during her penultimate client, with the enfuriatingly tempting promise of a lasagna waiting for her when she finished. The Italian dish added weight to her foot and her Ford Transit cut through the roads toward her own finish line.
A few days before Christmas, and a break over the festive season. No work, just days filled with good company and good food. She had worked hard to get this company up and running. Craxy hours that stretched the sinews of her relationship with Andy, it looked like they were past the worst of it. Hard work trumps most things, and her client list was healthy enough to give her the first Christmas week off for three years.
Five minutes away from arriving at the last job, she allowed her mind to drift to Andy opening his gift – she had got him the jacket he had been fawning over every time they walked past the Armani store – she started imagining the wine flowing, cheesy music providing the perfect soundtrack to memories made.
And roast potatoes cooked in goose fat. Oh my word.
She snapped back from the most delectable of imagesto be confronted with a wall of grey.
Her sat-nav informed her coldly that she had arrived at her destination. She pitied anyone who had to work here, it was dreadful. Abject structures of grey stone blocked her view of any sign of colour. It was as if someone had stolen all the colour from the area. It reminded her of a Disney story she had seen before, but even Disney couldn’t dream up such a miserable setting.
She rolled the Transit up to the front reception area, highlighted by one lonely sign. She grabbed her kit from the footwell of the passenger seat and ambled in, her steps still lightened by the promise of what was to come after work finished.
The double doors sighed as she pushed past them, keeping the theme of emotional drought in the area. The front desk was the finest MDF, and the only sign that Christmas was real was a wrap of tinsel around the lip of the desk. The tinsel had gone on a diet and taken things too far, it looked like a glittery red pipe brush and seasons greetings were thin on the ground.
Still, Lauren was on her cloud and these signs of dejection were not affecting her. She rang the bell on the front desk, and waited. As she did so, she turned around and began looking at the curled posters on the wall. One was notifying all workers of their duty to stamp out germs by washing their hands. On the opposite wall, a faded headline had failed to warn everyone about the dangers of leaving their computers unattended.
After a few minutes, she rang the bell again. Again, there was nothing. She was close to just packing away her kit and ending the day, but there was a reason her company had beaten her competitors. It was her dedication and she wouldn’t leave loose ends. It would drive her to distraction during her much-anticipated break.
She pulled out her mobile and scrolled down to the email contact for the job. Some email addresses give off a vibe for a person or company, but this was as nondescript as the building that housed it. It was a mess of numbers and the dreary business title didn’t exactly snap your attention. She looked for contact details to call someone, but there was only one landline. She pushed her thumb on the number and it dialled.
The phone on the front reception buzzed. There was no one here aside from her obviously, but she let it ring. Hopefully the noise may alert someone.
It rang. She started to grind her teeth after another few minutes, and then she ended the call. This was no way to run a business.
There were three sets of double doors, all in different directions. She tried them all, but only one was unlocked. She pushed through them and was greeted by a hallway with just one door at the end. Along the walls of the hall were the same posters she had been bored by in the reception. Perhaps they could have a suggestion box, she had a few ideas that could be posted in, she thought.
The door at the end of the hall was different to the rest. It was cold metal, with a small slit window at eye level. There was noise behind the door, but she couldn’t quite make it out. It sounded like an industrial noise, some sort of grinding, but it was a noise she was used to. She specialised in the industrial sector, and ensuring the water supply is within regulated standards was pretty important for such grand work.
She tried the simple door handle, and it clicked and gave way smoothly.
The door was heavy, but Lauren, laden with kit, pushed it aside and went in.
The door, now behind her, clicked again as it closed. She couldn’t see much, the darkness was quite unsettling. Her subconscious gave her the feeling that she wasn’t supposed to be here, like a child being somewhere her parents’ had asked her specifically not to go.
She could make out some big structures around her, and a faint light emanating from some form of spark. She made her way gingerly toward it, calling out as she did so.
This was ridiculous. She was here to do a job they had called her to do. The least they could do was bloody answer her so she could be allowed to perform her role. She thought back to her decision to stay rather than go home and start festivities early, and she regretted it. Her mind also reminded her that it wasn’t a decision as she never allowed herself to cut corners.
As she got nearer to the faint light, she realised it was actually quite bright, but it was behind a grimy plastic cover. The stains were brown, either burns from what appeared to be an intense heat from the light, or something else…
She saw on one of the steel girders a switch, signifying lights. She called again, that child inside her mind again rising to the fore and telling her she shouldn’t be playing with machinery.
She flicked it anyway, her business head taking control and telling her she was here to work and she was already running late.
The lights blinded her. Her eyes settled into action and she could see all the machines that circled her vision. There was a gantry above, and a small building that looked like it was the hub for the whole room. It was also illuminated now, with one figure standing in the middle of the window.
Lauren blinked but the figure was no clearer. She could see they were quite small, probably a woman. That was all she could discern though.
Her ears crackled, before feedback rattled her ear drums. The hairs rose on overy inch of her.
“Thank you for coming Lauren.”
How did she know her name?
“I’ll come straight to the point as time is wasting for both of us. You’re here not because I want you to check water levels. You’re here because I hate you.”
The last words boomed around the metal and Lauren went cold. She immediately went back to the door she came in through.
“There is no way out, so stop wasting your time and mine, and listen.”
Lauren looked for a way up to the gantry where this obviously deranged person was. There was one ladder that had been pulled up. Logically, she scanned around for something to use to climb up.
“STOP WASTING TIME!!!!”
The voice screeched. It was unhinged, it was dangerous. Lauren was now panicking. Her eyes began to dart around rather than scan methodically.
“Your company took my contracts, my work. I went under a year ago. I’ve got enough experience to find another job, but my company was everything to me. What really smarts though, is that the man you have was MINE.”
Fear gripped her vocal chords, her brain felt like it had been dropped into an ice bath.
“I’m going to make you feel what I felt. I’m going to take everything from you, and then you’re going to die.”
Before tears began to escape from Lauren’s eyes, commotion coming from the speakers grabbed her.
“Say hello Andy.”
Lauren screamed. It was a vent of pure anger, tinged with helplessness.
The next noise was a gurgling, and images swarmed across her stricken brain.
“Now then, Andy is gone. How do you feel Lauren? Please tell me.”
Lauren crumpled to her knees, wracking sobs waltzed with the cold hard laugh from the speakers.
“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE UPSET!!!!!!!!! HE WAS MINE!!!!!!!”
The pure madness that dwelled within this woman was evident in every syllable.
“I think you’re listening now. Do you see the glow over there? That is an acetylene torch Lauren. I want you to go to it.”
Lauren clenched every bart of her with rage as she scremaed “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!!!!!!! I’M NOT DOING ANYTHING YOU SAY YOU FUCKING BITCH!!!!!”
Her anguish made her scream eerily similar to the deranged noises from her unknown enemy.
“I thought you’d say that Lauren. Andy isn’t dead. Not yet. I’ve just cut out his tongue. I will be taking a part of him every time you don’t do what I say. You want to keep your stolen boyfriend Lauren? Then GO TO THE FUCKING TORCH!!!!”
Lauren unclenched with a mixture of relief and dejection.
She stood up slowly, and made her way to the glow. Her mind was poring over any conceivable solution, but with every step, her escape chances lessened.
The speakers squeezed out a new sound now. It was a hollow noise, a hopeless holler. It tore at Lauren’s soul.
“Lauren, you’re hurting Andy. I’ve just taken his ear because you keep being so stubborn. Now go to the torch.”
Lauren hurried her steps, sobbing as she went.
She stood in front of the stained plastic again. She lifted the safety mechanism and her eyes looked on a constant white light, as bright as a firework , but it didn’t dissipate. It just burned. And hissed. The noise was a wordless warning that the darkest reaches of your mind recognise and tell you to stay well clear.
She had to do the opposite.
“I’m going to take his lip if you take longer than three seconds to put your hands on the flame. You’ll be ruined. But, if you don’t do it, then Andy dies, and I’ll kill you.”
A frenzy of thoughts criss-crossed her mind, but in no discernible way.
Lauren began her roar before her clasped hands touched the flame.
The pain was absolute, ironclad, and blinding. It was one second of tangible hell.
She fell to the floor, making sounds that she had never heard before.
Then she fainted.
She woke in a hospital gown, in a hospital bed.
She immediately sat up, cold sweat beading her brow.
“Where’s Andy? Andy? ANDY?!?!?!?”
A nurse scuttled over, making soothing shushing noises as she went.
“It’s OK, hush now, ssshhhh.”
Her voice was soothing, but her hand dialling up the morphine was the real clincher.
As Lauren slumped back into the pillows, she heard a familiar laugh, coming from the nurse…
She swam into the darkness of ignorance….