The soft tread of someone walking past my desk surprises me.
I look up to see who has returned from lunch early but it is no one I know. The summer sun glints off his sunglasses and I spare a second to think, ‘pompous ass,’ before returning to my spreadsheet.
I hear my boss’ one fingered typing stop as the stranger enters his office and then nothing as the door closes behind the man with a soft click.
Soft, even voices start up, but I can’t hear what is being said through the flimsy partition wall. I try to return to my spreadsheet but my curiosity is piqued, there is not much that goes on in Michael’s office that I don’t know about.
Ten minutes later the stranger leaves as calmly as he arrived. He doesn’t look in my direction.
Michael is a gossip and so I expect him to come and tell me all about the brief meeting but five minutes pass and he doesn’t.
This is unusual; he knows we are alone on this floor of the office block.
I give it five more minutes and then I cannot wait any longer. I need to go and see him.
It is ten steps from my desk to his doorway. On average I make this journey eight times a day.
Normally I walk straight in but today I stop in the doorway and stare.
At first I think Michael is play-acting. Then I think he is asleep. Then I notice the red. It looks like a spilt paint pot. The colour is startling. It is spreading over the desk and pooling down onto the carpet.
I cannot breath. I cannot think.
I hear a noise and spin round, but there is no one behind me. The noise must have come from the open window.
I take a step towards Michael. Then another. Five in total, until I am standing next to him.
His head is resting on the desk; his arms have dropped down by his sides. I pick up an arm to feel for a pulse but then I notice his neck. I drop his arm. There is no need to check for a pulse.
I don’t know how long I stand there my mouth opening and closing as if I am trying to find something to say but suddenly I think, ‘Police, I must phone the police.’
I reach for Michael’s phone but as I do so I see a letter written in Michael’s untidy scrawl. The edges of the paper are soaked in blood but that’s not what catches my eye.
My name leaps out at me from the page and punches me between the eyes.
I read the letter from start to finish and what I see leaves me doubled up on the floor gasping for breath.
The letter, addressed to Michael’s wife, is a confession. He claims that he has defrauded our clients to the tune of two million pounds and he names me as his accomplice.
The first, absurd, thought that occurs to me is that Michael would never have written to Stacey, he hates her.
The second is that my colleagues will be back soon and there is no way anyone can see this letter.
I panic, and do something stupid. I run over to Michael’s door and slam it shut, locking it from the inside.
As I lean my hands against the door trying to get my breathing back to normal I hear voices from the other side. It’s my colleagues coming back from lunch. It’s then that it hits me that I’ve locked myself in a small, contained space with a dead body.
This is not good.
I take one deep breath and breathe it out through my lips. I need to calm down and plan.
I force myself to sit down in the office chair and to count, slowly to sixty.
After that, I find that, if I sit with my eyes closed, I can keep myself relatively calm.
I know what I must do first. I must remove that letter.
After two minutes of consideration it becomes apparent that I must approach Michael.
I stand and tread gently on the carpet so as not to bring attention to the fact that there is anyone in here. It seems an over the top precaution because the conversation in the main office sounds boisterous with the colleagues buoyed up by Friday lunchtime drinks and an absent boss.
The letter is resting under the top of Michael’s head. I think I need to lift the paper up directly. Sliding the paper out will smudge the blood, making it obvious something is missing.
I count to three and then lift his head with my right hand. It’s heavier than I was anticipating. My left hand is shaking so badly that I need to take a few seconds to steady it before carefully lifting the paper up. Once it’s free I drop his head back down and wince as it thwacks the table.
I quickly fold the paper into quarters to stop the blood dripping to the floor and then I sit back down again.
There is only once place for the paper to go and it doesn’t appeal. I take another deep breath and then neatly tuck the paper into my bra.
The blood is cold and sticky against my skin.
I retch three times before I manage to get myself under control.
Now on to problem number two. Getting out of the office.
The urge to get away from Michael’s body is overwhelming but it’s one I must resist. Running out now would make me look guilty of killing him even though someone as tiny as me could never have overpowered a man of Michael’s bulk.
How would I explain locking myself in here for twenty minutes with his dead body without looking guilty of something?
It can’t be done.
There’s a weekly meeting at 3.30. So I will have to leave then.
It’s risky though as the meeting is not compulsory.
I could be seen.
The alternative is to wait until the end of the day but I just don’t think I can do it. For one thing my absence from the office will be missed. I am always there.
I’ll have to risk 3.30, which means sitting with Michael for an hour.
It’s an hour that passes very slowly.
At first I try to work out what the beige man must have said to Michael to make him write such a letter. And why kill him?
This line of thought doesn’t keep me calm and my mind keeps snagging on the blood inside my bra. Instead I do sums in my head, which helps.
At three o’clock someone knocks on the door and turns the handle.
Anxiety darts around my heart and I tense to leap, even though I know the door is locked.
‘The bugger’s only gone and locked it.’
‘Where you think he is?’
‘Probably banging Emma somewhere.’
The bastards. How dare they insult me like that.
‘During work time? I don’t think Emma…’
I miss whatever else they say about me as their voices fade away.
My indignation gives me something to think about and for a while I sit there seething until I realise it’s nearly time for me to leave. I spend the last few minutes in an agony of suspense.
Finally it is time to leave.
I press my ear up to the door and wait for the office to go silent; then I slowly open the door and take a peak.
I’m in luck the office is empty.
I shut the door behind me then sprint to my desk, grab my wallet from inside my bag and run to the door.
Once outside I turn right and head down an alley that runs alongside the building.
It takes me out into another narrow alley that runs along the back of the office buildings. The path is dank and smelly and is therefore deserted. I lean against the building, my fingers pressing into the bricks. It takes a while for me to realise that the weird keening noise I can hear is coming from me. I can’t get it under control. All I can think about is poor Michael.
After a while the keening subsides into weeping and I start to think again. With shaking fingers I take the letter from my bra and tear it into tiny pieces.
I wipe my eyes with my sleeve and then walk along the path trying to think of what to do with the pieces of letter. My overwhelming urge is to throw the bits into the bins lining the path but I’ve watched too many detective programs and I’m paranoid that a clever forensics expert could put it back together with painstaking deliberation. My DNA will be all over it.
In the end I walk to the canal that runs through the town. I lean over the edge of the bridge and the tiny pieces of paper fall into the water. I watch as some of it sinks to the bottom while other fragments begin their slow journey down stream.
I desperately want to go home but I know that I cannot. I need to know what’s happening back at the office and so I reluctantly head back. I stop to get some food at a nearby cafe. Not because I’m hungry but because I want the receipt to prove I’ve been out of the office.
Everything is calm when I return.
Michael has not yet been found.
I go to the bathroom and wash my hands under the scalding water until my skin turns pink.
‘What are you doing?’
I jump and turn round.
Leanne, the company receptionist, is watching me with undisguised laughter in her eyes.
‘Washing my hands.’
‘Why for so long?’
‘Germs,’ I say and turn back to the water.
I wait until she is in a cubicle before drying my hands and leaving.
Back at my desk I find I am able to concentrate surprisingly well on my spreadsheet. So much so that I actually jump when someone starts screaming.
After that chaos reigns. People are shouting and screaming, some are even crying. The place is crawling with police, who herd us in the meeting room and ask us to wait.
Things are not much calmer in here. Many of the women continue to weep, which I can’t really understand; I’m pretty sure that Michael was not well-liked.
I sit quietly in a corner. My hands resting on my lap. No one asks how I am or even if I know anything. I try and think of numbers again but they do not come.
After waiting for two hours I am called to speak to the police.
‘Hello Miss Parks. Please do take a seat.’
A young detective indicates a seat opposite him. There is no desk between us. I feel exposed.
‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting so long. I’m sure you’re keen to get home.’
I nod in agreement.
‘I need to ask you some questions before you leave.’
I nod again to show that’s OK, even though it is anything but.
‘What was your relationship to Michael?’
‘He was my boss.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Some of your colleagues have suggested your relationship was more than that.’
I think of Michael’s red veined, bulbous nose and I shudder.
‘I can assure you,’ I say, allowing some of the revulsion to creep into my voice, ‘that they are mistaken.
The detective just nods.
‘It’s malicious gossip,’ I add, ‘they don’t like me. I think it’s because they are jealous.’ Nerves are making me uncharacteristically verbose.
‘Jealous of what?’
‘I’ve been promoted twice since I started here two years ago. It’s caused some resentment amongst my colleagues.’
The detective nods for a second time but I don’t fall for the silent treatment again and this time it’s him who breaks the silence.
‘Where were you this lunchtime?’
‘I went out for a walk and bought some lunch.’
‘Did you see anything suspicious before or after you left?’
Now is my time to mention the man in beige. I pause but I know that I can’t do it. I don’t want anything to do with the whole business.
So I say, ‘No, nothing.’
‘Why were you washing your hands so thoroughly in the bathroom after lunchtime today?’
I am momentarily speechless. That bitch Leanne.
‘I always wash my hands thoroughly. Germs.’
I glance down at my hands. They are sweating so badly that damp patches are appearing on my skirts.
The detective nods again, this time more slowly. I don’t like the way he is looking at me. I must remember that I am not guilty of killing Michael.
The interview lasts another excruciating eight minutes.
By the time I am allowed home I am convinced that the detective thinks I am guilty of something. However, there is nothing in Michael’s office to implicate me. The only thing a bit odd is the hand washing but most people in the office would testify to me being a bit odd anyway.
My legs are shaking as I stand on the bus. The putrid smell of my own sweat emanates from my outstretched arm. My breast itches where Michael’s blood has dried against my skin.
It seems to take hours to get to my tiny flat but it is the same ten minutes as always. I’m still shaking so badly that it takes me three attempts to get my key in the door.
Once inside I take five deep breaths to calm myself down.
Then I start to think.
I must be logical in what I do next.
First I go to my kitchen and strip off. I put all the clothes in the washing machine. Then I hurry through to the bedroom and strip all the sheets off the bed and add these to the machine. I start the wash and head straight to the shower to scrub off Michael’s blood.
The next two hours are a frantic exercise in cleaning.
I need to remove any trace of Michael’s presence in my flat.
Most of his time here was spent in the bedroom but I clean the kitchen and the tiny hall just to be sure.
When I’m satisfied I sit down at the computer and check our account.
The money is still there.
It is the work of thirteen minutes to move it all to an untraceable account in my name only.
I think the man in beige must know what Michael and I have done otherwise why would it be outlined in that dreadful letter. But if I can just keep one step ahead of him then the two million pounds are all mine now Michael is dead.