I’ve always been more comfortable with writing novels rather than short stories. I’m more of a marathon guy rather than a sprinter, and have always envied those writers who can accomplish characterization, plot and world building in under 10K words rather than 100K+, but I have made a few cracks at the form, which I’ll occasionally post here. This story, “Clockwatchers,” was originally written for a contest with the theme “zombies in the workplace.” I missed the deadline for entry, though, and never tried to submit the story anywhere else. One note- this story is so old that the use of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” as ironic counterpoint actually predates the Will Smith I am Legend. They stole it from me, okay?
The man with whom she had fallen in love, or something like love, walked down the aisle toward Polly Covett. She froze when she saw him, as she always did, but Jason shuffled by her desk without even glancing in her direction. There was something plodding about his gait, as if he was sleepwalking. Polly wondered if that was a deliberate tease on his behalf. He liked to tease her. She spent half her time trying to decipher the deeper meaning of his most casual words and gestures.
She thought of the last time they’d made love. Or fucked, to be perfectly blunt. Lovemaking was far too elegant a term for what they’d shared on their lunch-hour last Wednesday. In a cheap-ass motel off the interstate, Polly’s face buried in a musty pillow as Jason plowed her from behind. She screamed when she came, and when she opened her mouth she actually tasted the rank pillowcase. No way that’s hygienic, she’d thought. Not that this did a thing to diminish her lust. With Jason the sleaziness was part of the appeal. He made her feel dirty, but good God could he get her off.
Jason stepped into the elevator. By the lighted numbers above the door, Polly could tell he was headed upstairs. He didn’t even turn to favor her with a smile or a wave as the doors slid shut behind him. What the hell was that about?
“Are you still there?” said the voice in her earpiece.
“Yes, sorry,” Polly said. “As I was saying, uh . . .” Her train of thought was a twisted pile of smoking metal.
“The copiers,” Mr. Outcault prodded. He was the chief purchasing agent for a major soft-drink distributor with offices and warehouses throughout the Midwest. A potentially huge commission.
“Yes, with the IOS-9000 series, the copier also functions as a completely wireless network scanner, color printer and fax. Plus, with the new thumbprint ident-i-key security function, you will be able to monitor for inappropriate employee usage.”
Like when I scanned my left tit and e-mailed it to Jason, she mentally added.
“Yes, yes, I read your brochure,” Outcault replied testily. “My concern is with the price. I have bids in from Xerox and Canon. They don’t have a lot of the tech features you have, but considering the cost difference, I wonder if I really need all that.”
Polly pinched her wrist hard and tried to force all thoughts of Jason out of her head. It was time to strap it on and close the fucking deal. Still, throughout the ten-minute phone call that followed, her mind kept wandering upstairs. There was only one floor above this one. It was storage space for whatever paper records had yet to be scanned into the digital archives, and obsolete malfunctioning office equipment too old to be worth repairing. What the hell was Jason doing up there?
Finally, despite her offer of a thousand free touch-screen 3-D monitors, Outcault hung up with only a vague promise to “think it over.” Polly had probably blown the sale.
She sat there for several minutes, her elbows on the desk and her head in her hands. Half her mind was consumed with Jason, the other half with self-condemnations for allowing him to distract her from her job. This schizophrenic reverie was interrupted by Tom, the salesman from the adjoining cubicle. He sat down on Polly’s desk, munching from a bag of Goldfish crackers. They were the garish rainbow-colored variety that most people over the age of twelve would be embarrassed to be seen eating.
“Polly wanna cracker?” he said, and then laughed as if he had not cracked the same silly joke at least ten thousand times.
“No thank you,” she said, pretending to be absorbed in checking her e-mail.
“Oh my God,” Tom said. “You will not believe what I just saw in the break room. Lindsey walked into the room with one titty totally hanging out of her blouse. Didn’t even notice. It was like she was sleep-walking or something. Then she tried to pour herself a cup of coffee, and poured it all over her hand. It was hilarious.”
“Are you listening to me, Polly?”
“Sure,” she said. “Lindsey had her titty out. What do you care, anyway?” Titties held no sway over Tom. He was more of a man’s man.
“I can appreciate a good titty,” he insisted. “I just wish I had my camera phone.”
“Do you know any reason why Jason would go upstairs?” Polly asked.
“Don’t tell me you’re still hooking up with that guy,” Tom said. “You do know he’s married.”
“And he told me that was a decoder ring!” Polly slapped her forehead.
“Ha ha. Seriously, Polly. That guy’s no good. Delicious looking, I’ll grant you, but he’s a dog. You’re going to get hurt.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, barely hearing Tom’s concern, remembering a post-coital conversation she’d had with Jason. They had discussed the places where they could have sex at work without being caught on one of the omnipresent security cameras. So far they’d tried a men’s room stall and the second floor supply closet. Another possibility he’d suggested had been the roof.
Could that be it? Did he just saunter past her desk on the way to the roof, not even looking at her, trusting she’d get the hint and follow? Polly was torn between resentment at his audacity, and a desire to follow him up there and give him what they both wanted. She wished Tom would leave her alone so she could make up her mind. But Tom remained seated on her desk.
He was staring intently up at the clock hanging on the wall above the door to the conference room. The clock face was a 3-D digital screen that could display a variety of analog clock faces. Currently, it looked like an old-fashioned grandfather clock, with highly stylized roman numerals, ornate hands and a celestial interface showing the phase of the moon. The face changed often, and seemingly at random. Sometimes it looked like a plain wall clock one might see in any office, and then sometimes its face resembled an elegant wristwatch or something even more arty or strange. Polly had even seen the clock face melting, ala Dali. Sometimes it didn’t even look like a clock at all. The truly odd thing was that the face only shifted when no one was looking. No matter how long you stared at it, you would never catch it morphing from one face to another.
“Did you ever notice,” Tom said, “how the clock display flickers in a sort of counterpoint rhythm?” About half the conversation in the office concerned the behavior of the clocks.
“Uh, no,” said Polly. “I can honestly say I’ve never noticed that.”
“It’s like long-long-short-short-long.” Tom air-drummed a complex syncopated rhythm with his fingers. “Yesterday the numbers changed to these weird deco-looking symbols and the whole thing was a really beautiful amber-golden color for a whole minute. When I looked at it, I felt really . . . content.”
“Don’t you have some work to do?”
“Yes.” A beaming, seemingly un-ironic smile came over Tom’s face. “I enjoy my job. Work helps define who I am as a person.”
With that, he was gone. Polly shook her head at his strange manner, but put it quickly from her mind. She had an important decision to make. In her purse was a silver half-dollar piece. Her Dad had given it to her just a few days before he died when she was eight. In the years since, the coin had acquired a talismanic significance in her life.
She spun the coin upon her desk, setting it into motion with a flick of her finger. The spinning coin gave the illusion of a ghostly blurred orb. The ringing, whirring sound it made was familiar and soothing.
Heads, I’ll go up on the roof and have my brains screwed out in the open air, she thought. Tails, I’ll call Outcault back and kiss his ass instead. Let Jason wait up there until he figures out I’m not his little fuck-puppet. Polly would abide by whichever course fate would choose for her. The will of the coin be done.
The coin whirled towards the edge of her desk, threatening to leap over the edge, and then mysteriously changed course and headed back towards the center. Polly was relieved. If the coin fell on the floor, it would have to be spun again and the second spin was somehow never as portentous as the first.
After what felt like a very long time, inertia dragged upon the coin and caused its rotation to falter. It wobbled upon the desk, shimmering in the fluorescent light, still moving too fast to be read. Polly fought the urge to slap her palm on the coin to bring it to rest. A coin in motion should never be touched.
Finally it stopped. Heads. Kennedy’s handsome, tragic profile seemed to wink at her knowingly.
Polly grinned. Looking about to make sure she was unobserved, she reached up her skirt and pulled her panties down past her shoes. She deposited the undergarment in her top desk drawer and went to meet her destiny
The stairwell doors opened upon a glaring tarpaper blowback heat. Polly squinted against the waves radiating from the black roof as she looked around for her lover. She hoped he had been considerate enough to bring a blanket (or kneepads, depending on what he had in mind) but didn’t have much faith. Consideration wasn’t his strong suit.
“Jason?” she called.
She found him on the opposite side of the huge rattling air conditioning vents. He was standing near the edge of the roof with his back to her, staring out over the town.
“There you are,” she said, approaching him.
He did not turn or acknowledge her in any way. So that’s how he wants it, Polly thought. Fine. Some of their most fevered trysts had been wordless. She stepped behind him and slipped her arms about his waist. One hand reached around to lovingly clutch the front of his pants and found him disappointingly flaccid. Polly pressed her face against his back. His scent was usually a delight to her, but his sweat now smelled foul and sickly. The muscles beneath his work shirt were cold and taut.
“Are you feeling well?” she asked.
Jason turned to face her, not looking well at all. His face was clammy-looking and colorless, his eyes muddy.
“Are you sick?” she asked.
He groaned, seemingly in affirmation. Then he lunged at her. Jason grabbed a fistful of her blouse and tried to pull her towards him. Polly, utterly surprised, stepped back and managed to slip from his grasp.
“I don’t like this,” she said, thinking perhaps it was his idea of a game. They’d often swapped fantasies and some of his were pretty wild. Still, she couldn’t remember him ever saying that he wanted to take her by force on a rooftop.
One look in Jason’s eyes told her that this wasn’t an attempt at rough-edged lover’s play. The man she’d loved was no longer there. In his eyes she saw only a dull animal hunger. He stepped towards her with outstretched hands, trying to grab her again.
Just the year before, Polly had taken a six-week course in women’s self-defense. Lesson one had been the move most likely to dissuade a potential rapist. Polly utilized it now. She kicked hard between Jason’s legs, connecting with enough force to bounce his balls off the roof of his mouth. Jason didn’t even flinch. Didn’t even blink. He just kept coming towards her.
Polly, off balance from the kick, stepped backwards and tripped. She landed hard on her ass and Jason was on her in an instant. She had borne his weight many times, but now he felt as dead and heavy as a sack of wet sand. She tried to push him off, but he wouldn’t budge. Jason leaned in, his mouth going for her neck. Panic took over when she felt his teeth dent the skin of her throat. She managed to simultaneously push him off and twist to the side. Once free, she jumped to her feet and ran.
Polly reached the stairwell door and pulled hard. Locked. Screaming an inarticulate curse, she hazarded a glance back. Jason was still struggling to get to his feet.
She looked around wildly for anything at all she could use as a weapon, and saw only a dead pigeon rotting away beside a silver vent fan. She grasped at the idea of hurling the bird’s corpse at Jason. By the time she had rejected this illogical notion, he was limping towards her again.
Poly ran, though there was nowhere to go. She ran with nothing even approaching a plan in her head, operating on pure panic. When Jason was nearly on her again, Polly pulled another trick she’d learned in that same defense class. She dropped slightly, ramming one shoulder back into Jason’s solar plexus. Grabbing his arm, she twisted, utilizing his momentum to flip him forward. With a heaving grunt, Polly tossed Jason over her shoulder.
She didn’t realize how close she was to the edge. If she had, and if she was operating on anything like conscious volition, Polly might not have attempted such a maneuver. As it was, she tossed her lover off the roof of the six-story building.
She did not look over the edge to see him fall. She didn’t see his head bounce off the fire escape with a clanging, splattering glance. And she definitely did not see his back snap in two as he landed halfway in and halfway out of the garbage dumpster in the alley behind the building. No. She didn’t see any of that. And even if she did, she deleted the horrible images from her mind as soon as they registered.
Polly staggered back from the roof’s edge, reciting a curious litany of mixed obscenities and appeals to the Almighty.
“Holy fucking Jesus shitty-ass God!” she gasped.
Now that the immediate danger had passed, the delayed terror response overwhelmed her. Her heart clawed at her rib-cage like a panicked wildcat and her breath came in hyper-ventilated hitches. Polly’s legs felt like they had been filled with that stuff they used to put in Stretch Armstrong dolls. She leaned against a sun-hot vent fan and tried to process what had just happened.
You killed Jason. That was a neat summary of her situation, barely hinting at the implications and potential consequences of the act.
It was self-defense, a reassuring voice in her head noted. To Polly, it sounded like the voice of her mother, also departed from this world.
Who’s going to believe that? a more contentious voice countered. This was Polly’s own voice, practical and pessimistic. There were no witnesses to testify that Jason had attacked her, but Polly knew their affair was a hot item of gossip downstairs. Any number of her co-workers could have seen her follow him up to the roof. From there, the story was a well-worn classic. The fury of a woman scorned. The treacherous shove of the jilted lover. “Frankie and Johnny.” “Henry Lee.” Her life had suddenly become a murder ballad.
She walked unsteadily back to the stairwell door. No matter what there was to be done about Jason, she still had a more immediate problem. She was trapped on the roof. The improvisational flair which had saved her from being murdered had fled her mind. Her plan, if it could be called that, was to pound on the door either until someone heard her or she collapsed from exhaustion and hopelessness.
When Polly reached the door, though, she had a premonition so keen it was simple knowledge. The door would be unlocked now.
She tried the door and it opened easily. Trembling like a condemned prisoner on the way to the chamber, Polly descended the stairs.
By the time she reached the elevator at the end of the top-floor hall, she had managed to achieve a level of calm. She was still reeling from shock, of course, but was at least breathing normally again. Her wits had returned to her, too. Polly knew she had to call the police. The longer she waited, the more suspicious it would look. There was one task she needed to accomplish first, though. Whatever ordeal awaited her, she wanted to face it with her panties on.
Polly braced herself for the phone call, the questions, the investigation, the trial, the verdict, and the sentence. The entire worst-case scenario played through her mind in the minute it took the elevator to descend to her floor. But when the doors opened, she found that her worst-case scenario had been wildly optimistic.
The sight which greeted her was so strange and terrible that it took her a few seconds to even understand what she was looking at. Lindsey, the assistant office manager of the recent wardrobe malfunction, was kneeling over Kurt the mail clerk. Kurt, a white dread-locked college student with perpetually blood-shot eyes, was slumped back against his mail cart. From Kurt’s detached i-Pod earbuds, Bob Marley reassured him not to worry about a thing, because every little thing was gonna be all right. In this case, though, Mr. Marley was a straight-up liar. Every little thing most certainly was not all right with Kurt. Lindsey had torn his throat open with her teeth and was gnawing at the tough, spurting cords of his neck.
Polly made a surprised Germanic sound with the back of her tongue. It sounded like “Ach?” Lindsey looked up at her and snarled through bloody lips, a sizable flap of skin caught in her teeth. In her eyes, Polly recognized the same vacuous ferocity she’d seen in Jason’s.
Lindsey stood. Her blouse had fallen completely open now. Her enviable breasts dripped with fresh blood. Her black-lace bra was soaked through with blood so bright red under the fluorescents that it looked unreal, like movie blood. She came at Polly, emitting a low, breathless growl.
Polly sidestepped the woman, her only object not to be trapped in the elevator. Lindsey made a twisting grab for Polly, but she did not seem coordinated enough to pull off such a complex maneuver. Her balance faltered and Polly managed to trip her and send her face-first into the elevator car. The doors at that moment closed, trapping Lindsey inside.
Kurt the mail clerk looked up at Polly with pleading, stony confusion in his eyes. His lips moved, but his voice gurgled nonsensically from his neck in bloody bubbles.
“Help!” Polly yelled. “Can I get some help over here!?”
No help was coming. The rest of the office had problems of its own. Polly had often heard the phrase “all hell breaking loose,” but had not understood what that might mean until she looked out upon the office floor. It was like a “Dilbert” cartoon drawn by Hieronymus Bosch.
Kat the temp, with the black-dyed hair and the startling facial piercings, had gone feral. She’d cornered Roger, the Human Resources manager known for the whiskey-laced coffee he sipped all day (and the mouthfuls of Altoids which fooled no one) over by the water cooler. Her black-painted nails had torn his belly open and she was chowing down on his entrails as he tried feebly tried to push her off. Ironically, she was a vegan.
Across the room, Michael from Accounting was face-down in the shattered scanning glass of the big copier. Clara and Sharon, sisters from Purchasing known as “The Doublemint Twins” despite their utter dissimilarity to one another, were lapping his blood off the floor as it dripped from the back of the machine. Some of the blood had soaked the machine’s power cord. Clara chomped down on this sopping treat, biting right through with a sizzling spark Polly could hear all the way across the room. The lights dimmed for a moment. Clara dropped the cord from her smoking mouth. Her tongue was blackened, but she was seemingly unfazed.
All the digital wall clocks were blinking crazily, alternating gold and red flashes of strange symbols, like hieroglyphics, in place of clock faces. Polly had no explanation for the phenomena and, as it seemed unimportant in the face of the chaos going on all around her, she dismissed it from her mind.
Behind her, the elevator door opened with a cheerful ding. Lindsey stepped out. She looked from Polly to the shuddering bloody heap of mail clerk on the floor, considering for a moment which one she wanted more. She decided upon the already wounded prey, descending upon Kurt as he let out a weak gurgle of protest.
That got Polly moving. She ran to her desk, retrieved her underpants from the top drawer and stepped into them quickly. The half-dollar piece was still resting on the top of her desk, and she scooped this up as well. When she looked up, Tom was standing before her cubicle.
“Tom,” she said. “What the hell is going on?”
“Bleaaaugh,” Tom answered. A thick line of drool fell from one slack lip.
“Oh, fuck. You too?”
Polly grabbed her stapler, the most lethal item in her desktop arsenal, and hurled it at Tom. It bounced off his forehead with a clang, causing him to wobble a bit but otherwise having no effect. He stepped into her cubicle, reaching for her throat with clutching hands.
Polly jumped up and managed to vault over her cubicle wall, landing on the carpeted aisle right in front of John Foster’s office door.
The office manager, his face normally as dry and gray as his suits, was now livid with color. His thinning hair wild, his horn-rimmed glasses askew, Foster’s usual unflappable officiousness was now most definitely flapped.
“Polly!” he called from the threshold of his office. “Are you all right?”
“Well, sir, all things considered . . .”
“For God’s sake, get in here!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into his office, then slammed the door shut.
Three other shell-shocked people were in the room besides Polly and John Foster. Max was a corpulent red-bearded IT guy who had once confessed to Polly that he published pornographic e-books under a pseudonym. He was wedged between two filing cabinets, his shaggy face in his hands, appearing quite immovable. Alice, an older woman from Accounts Receivable, sat in a chair manipulating a rosary with shaky fingers. Bridget from the Credit department was on the edge of Foster’s desk, coolly inhaling a cigarette despite the long-standing indoor smoking ban. The small room was filled with her haze.
“All right,” Polly said. “What is going on here?”
“It’s the terrorists,” John Foster stated with certainty. “They put something in the water which made people go crazy. It’s 9/11 all over again.”
Foster’s secret vice was AM talk radio, which he listened to at nearly subliminal volumes all day long. Given that, Polly took his theory with a whole shaker of salt. At the moment, though, the cause of the situation was moot. All that mattered was what they were going to do about it.
“Has anyone called the police?” she asked, starting with the obvious.
“The phones are dead,” Bridget exhaled. “Internet’s down, too. My cell doesn’t even work.”
“Put that out,” Foster snapped. Bridget flipped him off and continued to smoke.
“What about the in-house wireless network?” Polly asked. “Is that still up?”
“I think so,” Bridget shrugged. “But I don’t see what that . . .”
“The printers downstairs are networked,” Polly said. “Maybe somebody down there can call or get some help.”
She slid into the chair behind Foster’s desk. His computer was equipped with the newest model 3-D motion capture monitors. The icons seemed to float in front of the screen, and were manipulated by touching the air where they appeared to be. She pinched the air in front of the screen and opened the “Compose” icon.
“WE HAVE A SERIOUS WORKPLACE VIOLENCE SITUATION ON THE 5TH FLOOR,” she typed. “PLEASE SEND HELP.”
She selected the “All printers” option and printed the message.
“Brilliant idea,” Bridget said. She had the kind of voice which made everything sound sarcastic, even if it wasn’t intended to be. “Now what do we do? Wait?”
“Yes,” John Foster said. “The door’s locked. They can’t get in. Somebody’s going to send help soon. We’re going to sit tight and wait, and you are going to put out that cigarette, young lady. I’m still in charge here.”
“Whatever,” Bridget snarled. She had smoked down to the filter anyway. She tossed the butt to the floor and ground it out under her shoe.
A loud clatter made them all jump. Tom was at the office window, banging the glass with the stapler Polly had thrown at him.
“He’s going to break the window!” Alice spoke up for the first time. She brought the rosary to her mouth and kissed the beads desperately.
“No,” said Foster. “That glass is half an inch thick. There’s no way he’s going to break it with a stapler.”
Bridget pointed at one of the framed hunting prints hanging on John’s wall, which she seemed to take as a personal affront. “I don’t want to die looking at a painting of a dog with a dead duck in its mouth. We gotta get out of here.”
Bloody-breasted Lindsey joined Tom at the window. Lacking any kind of bludgeoning instrument, she banged the glass with her head.
“They can’t get in,” spoke Max the part-time pornographer, looking quite pale. “We’re safe here. The police will be here soon and we’ll be safe.”
“They’re getting in!” Alice shrieked. Indeed, Tom had succeeded in chipping out a small chunk of glass with his stapler.
Bridget and Foster looked to Polly. Hers seemed to be the tie-breaking vote. She bit her lip, trying to force some kind of rational thought through her head despite the distracting thunder of the people banging on the window. Then she remembered the coin still clutched in her sweaty palm. She flicked it into the air. A flip was not as good as a spin, but would have to do under the circumstances. Heads we stay, tails we go.
She caught the coin in her right hand and slapped it down on top of her left. Tails.
“Do you have anything in here that we can use as a weapon?” Polly asked.
“No,” Foster said. “We are staying in this office. I’ve decided and it’s final. I am responsible for all of you.”
Polly’s eyes lit on the leather golf bag propped in one corner of the office. A non-golfer, she didn’t know the difference between a nine iron and a double bogey. She tried a couple of the clubs for heft, and selected the heaviest one.
“Absolutely not,” John’s voice shook as if Polly were manhandling his infant son. “Those are very expensive clubs. They were a gift from my wife!”
Polly ignored him. “Those people outside, they’re not very coordinated. They’re clumsy, and slow. We can get past them. All we have to do is make it to the stairwell.”
“And what if there are more of them downstairs?” John challenged. “Have you considered that?”
“If there are more them downstairs, then we’ll just deal with . . .”
Polly was interrupted by a loud quivering moan from the corner of the office. Max was convulsing with enough force to cause both the file cabinets he was wedged between to rattle. His teeth clenched, bloodying his tongue. Pinkish foam dripped from his russet beard.
“Are you all right, Max?” Alice knelt down beside him.
“Don’t touch him!” Polly cried.
Too late. Max grabbed Alice’s arm, his eyes rolling crazily as he bit down on her wrist and tore away a large chunk of flesh. Her spurting blood soaked his bearded face.
For a second, the sounds echoing about the tiny office were so loud they precluded any thought or action. Alice’s wounded shriek, Max’s hungry growl and the terror-fueled screams of the others, Polly included, all to the insistent backbeat rhythm of the people pounding on the window. Finally, Bridget grabbed Alice and pulled her away.
Polly looked down at Max, struggling to extricate himself from the file cabinets. Then she looked down at the club in her hands.
With a battle cry she was only half-conscious of making, Polly swung the club up over her shoulder and brought it down with all her strength upon the top of Max’s head. The first blow bounced off his skull with a dull whacking sound. Max rolled his eyes in a grotesquely comical expression of dismay. Polly fought back hysterical laughter as she brought the club down again, thinking Gee, bashing someone’s head in looks so easy in the movies. Finally, on the sixth or seventh strike, the club smashed into Max’s skull as if into a ripe pumpkin. It stuck fast and Polly left it there, not having the heart to pull it out. His spasms had stopped. Max was still, his eyes open, looking at the ground with a frozen expression which resembled one of regret.
Polly turned and saw the others looking at her with wide-eyed horror, as if she were the murderous one.
“What’d you want me to do?” she barked. “Knock points off his performance appraisal? He was going to kill her!”
John Foster grabbed two clubs from his bag and handed one to Polly.
“Come on,” he said. “You’re right. We should get out of here.”
Polly nodded and took a deep breath, clutching the golf club tightly.
“Are you all right?” she asked Alice.
She was shivering in Bridget’s arms, clamping her torn wrist with her opposite hand. She still held the rosary, pressing it against the wound as if the sacred object had healing properties.
“I don’t know if I can walk,” she said weakly.
“Well, you’re going to have to, lady.” Bridget let go of her. “Because I’m sure as hell not going to carry you. Give me one of those clubs.”
Foster handed her another club from the bag. Polly, her hand on the knob, counted, “One . . . two . . . three!”
The door was thrown open and the four of them burst into the outer office. Tom and Lindsey turned at once to attack them. Polly gave Lindsey a shove and she fell back, knocking Tom over domino-style. While Polly was occupied with the right flank, there was a simultaneous attack on the left.
Kat the temp, looking more goth than ever with blood smeared all over face, grabbed Alice. Bridget tried to pull her back, and there was a brief tug-of-war over the Catholic woman. Kat tore Alice’s high-necked blouse open and went for the throat. Alice tried to beat off her attacker with her rosary beads, but the blessed object had no effect. Kat pulled her to the floor and dug in with tooth and nail.
Bridget screamed and let go of Alice. John Foster took her by the hand and pulled her away. With Polly in the lead, the three golf club-wielding warriors abandoned their fallen comrade and hurried across the office.
There was smoke in the air, a fire going somewhere on the floor. Before Polly could determine its source, the sprinklers deployed. The overhead lights went out at nearly the same instant. The air was full of rain and smoke, emergency exit lights and the wall clocks strobing in the haze with flashes of gold and red.
From the surreal, soaking mist, came a full-on frontal assault. The Doublemint twins, together with Larry and Louisa from Sales, rushed them. John, Bridget and Polly swung their clubs, finally realizing what feeble weapons they made for close-range combat. Polly managed to extricate herself from the fray, forcing herself not to look back, blocking out the screams as John and Bridget were set upon.
Annie, the overweight Christian chick from Human Resources, stood before the stairwell door. Polly didn’t know if she had gone insane like the others, and did not take time to ask. She only knew this fat pious woman was standing between her and freedom. She swung the club with a drive which would have easily made the green. The shaft snapped in two as the head shattered Annie’s jaw. The big woman fell to the floor and Polly leapt over the sizable obstacle of her body.
Her hand was on the stairwell door when it burst open from the inside. Polly found herself face-to-face with the barrel of a large gun.
The gun was in the hands of a tall woman wearing black fatigues. She was older than Polly, with weathered skin and straw-colored hair pulled tightly back. A very prominent scar ran like the trail of an acid teardrop from the corner of her left eye all the way down to her jaw.
“Get behind us!” the woman barked at Polly. “Into the stairwell!”
Polly blinked stupidly, only now noticing the dozen or so men standing behind the woman. Like their apparent leader, they were all clad in black, holding very intimidating automatic weapons. “Wha?” she said.
“Move your skinny ass!” The woman grabbed Polly by the arm and tossed her into the door. The rough hands of the soldiers, or whatever they were, pulled Polly down the staircase and set her down on the landing below.
She sat on the floor, finally allowing her mind to go slack. From the door above her, she heard gunshots. And screams.
An hour later, Polly sat by herself in a downstairs conference room, sipping a cup of hot tea. She suspected that the tea was spiked with some sort of sedative. She felt unduly sedate considering what she’d been through.
On the wall in front of Polly a framed poster showed a twisting country road leading through a forest. “Success is a journey,” the caption informed her. “Not a destination.” Polly stared at the print for a long time, as if it might contain some vital truth beneath the cliché.
She was thinking about her co-workers. She had seen no one else since being escorted to this room. As far as she knew, she was the only survivor of whatever the hell had happened up there. Polly tried to force herself to feel some sadness for their deaths, but nothing came. Perhaps it was the effect of coming down from the adrenaline overload, or maybe it was whatever was contained in the wonderful tea (she had another sip- mmm, nice) but Polly felt nothing but a distinct gladness that she herself was alive.
She had worked with those people, spent forty long hours a week with them, and did not consider even one of them a real friend. She’d liked most of her co-workers, and had enjoyed their company in the context of the daily grind, but outside of work she’d paid them little mind. Whenever a co-worker departed, Polly signed her sincere best wishes on the going-away card when it was passed around, and a week later would have difficulty recalling the person’s face- probably even their name. Polly had often fantasized about the day she herself would quit. They would pass around her going-away card and a week later she too would be forgotten.
The only one she had seen outside of the office had been Jason, but she realized now that their affair had been an extension of the workplace dynamic. The tryst had been, at least from her point of view, a protest against the mind-crushing routine and sterile inhumanity of the office. Lust had been only a minor factor. She had fucked Jason motivated by the same impulses which lead toddlers to draw crayon scribbles on living room walls. Boredom and hatred of order. Polly saw that now, and was dismayed at the childishness of her behavior.
The conference room door opened and the scar-faced woman stepped into the room. She had shed her black combat fatigues and was dressed now in a crisp gray suit-dress.
“How are you doing, Polly?” she asked, sitting in a chair across the table. Her curt smile imparted no warmth.
Polly looked up at her. “Did you just seriously ask me that?” The tea had made her calm, and she was surprised at the sharpness of her own words.
The woman’s smile didn’t even flicker. “I imagine you have a few questions.”
“Only about a hundred,” Polly said. “Starting with, who the hell are you and what the fuck just happened?”
“My name is Nikki Chapman,” the woman said calmly. “I work for Bellemax which, as I’m sure you know, is IOS’s parent corporation. What you probably don’t know is that among Bellemax’s other subsidiaries is a company called Neurotech.”
“Neurotech,” Polly repeated. “What’s that?”
“Neurotech is a research company doing pioneering work in the fields of neural interface, neural networking and neural programming.” She rattled this off as if reading from the company’s brochure.
“Neural means brain, right?”
“They program people’s brains?”
“That’s an oversimplification, of course, but basically yes. One of their flagship projects is a program to increase worker productivity in an office setting. It’s still in the experimental stage. This office was the subject of a test study.”
Comprehension dawned in Polly’s mind. “This was some kind of experiment?”
“Yes,” Nikki said. “It was a multi-faceted program. The water cooler was laced with psychoactive drugs designed to increase receptivity. Subliminal instructions and behavior modifications were fed through the Muzak system and via the wireless network. Positive and negative reinforcement was provided via direct neural stimulation from flashing light and color patterns implanted in the computer monitors and-”
“-the clocks ,” Polly interrupted.
“Yes,” Nikki smiled. “They’ve found that the wall clock is the single most gazed-upon object in any office. Now, the program was a success up to a point . . .”
“Up to a point?” Polly snarled. “Yeah, the point where it turned everyone into a goddamn flesh-eating zombie.”
“Please, we prefer not to use that term. It’s a bit inflammatory, don’t you think?”
That the woman was concerned with politically correct terminology at this point was more than Polly could handle. She threw her hands up in disbelief.
“This office had a very significant thirty-one percent increase in productivity in the three months since the program was started,” Nikki said. “Thirty-one percent, Polly. If that was implemented company-wide, it would amount to millions of dollars in additional profit. Unfortunately, the program still has some serious flaws.”
“That’s one way to put it, sure,” Polly said.
“The Neurotech people tell me they think it has to do with overstimulation of the cerebral cortex. They were feeding too much in. People’s brains couldn’t handle the overload and the higher functions shut down completely. What’s left is what you saw upstairs. Primitive reptilian behavior. Violence. It effects people at different rates, but the end result is almost always the same.”
“So what about me?” Polly said. “Am I going to turn into one of those . . . what’s the preferred term? Brain-impaired reptile-Americans?”
“Some people, for reasons as yet undetermined, are immune to the program. It’s worth noting, Polly, that since the program was implemented, your productivity actually declined by fourteen percent.”
Despite everything, Polly was embarrassed by this.
“You’re not a very good salesperson, Polly,” Nikki noted. “But have you considered that you may have some other valuable talents to offer?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been watching you all afternoon,” Nikki said. “In the chopper on the way over here, I had a satellite camera trained on the roof of this building. I was very impressed how you handled the encounter with Jason Myers. That’s why I allowed you to come down from the roof. I wanted to see how you would handle yourself.”
“Allowed me to come down? So you locked me up there in the first place?”
“Our goal here today was containment, Polly. It’s regrettable, but some causalities are considered an acceptable loss.”
“You were going to leave me to die?”
“Please let me finish,” Nikki said, her voice staying perfectly even. “In John Foster’s office, you showed leadership skills and a flair for improvisational thinking. The idea you had, for sending the help message to the downstairs printers, might have worked had we not already evacuated the lower floors. You kept a cool head under severe stress and even displayed a rudimentary proficiency in hand-to-hand combat.”
Nikki frowned slightly. “Your decision-making abilities do need some work, though.” She pulled Polly’s half-dollar from a pocket and slid it across the desk. “You dropped this upstairs.”
Polly stared down at the coin. “What are you saying?”
“You have a choice to make here, Polly,” Nikki said. “Officially, you have about fifteen minutes to live. Along with everyone else in this office, Polly Covett will be killed in the unfortunate gas main explosion which will destroy this building as soon as we finish our clean-up and get our people out. The question is, how do you plan on spending your afterlife?”
The coin was tails up. Polly pondered the contradictory image of the eagle with arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.
“We are prepared to offer you a generous retirement package,” said Nikki. “You will be given a handsome pension and a new identity. We have a research facility on a small Caribbean island that is very beautiful, and you can live there if you so choose. Of course, you may be expected to undergo some memory modification procedures.”
“Do those work any better than your worker productivity programs?”
Nikki ignored the question. “Or, if you prefer, I have an alternate proposal.”
“My job is to . . . clean up messes so Bellemax can avoid embarrassing situations. I am very good at what I do and I am paid very well. In the next few years, I foresee that my services will be in even greater demand. This is only one of many programs the company has in the pipeline. We already have the military and several major advertising agencies making inquiries, but there are a lot of kinks to work out before we’re going to be ready to sell to clients. In the meantime, I’m going to need an assistant.”
Polly looked up at her. “Assistant?”
“I’m not the one who would determine your salary, but I’m sure it will be ample,” Nikki said. “More than the money, though, I can offer you direction. I’ll train you myself. You will be doing meaningful work, much more meaningful than sales of office equipment. Also, if I may say so, you will not need to have affairs with married co-workers to find excitement in your life.”
“You want me to be the Vice-President of Zombie Eradication?”
“I was thinking your title would be ‘Assistant Special Projects Executive.’ That has a much nicer ring to it.”
“I don’t know,” Polly said. “This is a lot to process in one day.” Just that morning, her greatest concern had been figuring out how she was going to pay for the photo-radar speeding ticket she’d received in the mail.
“Take some time to think it over,” Nikki stood, casting a knowing glance down at Polly’s coin. “Either way, you’re coming with us. I’ll send a man to take you up to the chopper in just a few minutes.”
She left the room. Polly was alone with Mr. Kennedy.
“Well,” she said to the empty room. “Here goes nothing.” She set the coin spinning on the conference room table.
Heads, I’ll retire to the beach, Polly thought as the coin whirled and hummed. The only work I’ll do is perfecting my tan and flirting with the corporate research nerds on the island. If it’s tails . . . the coin began to wobble. If it’s tails, I’ll be the Junior Zombie Killer. Travel, excitement, danger, probably a big gun to carry.
In the second-and-a-half the coin was still in play, Polly reviewed the day’s events. She saw herself fight and run, felt again the adrenal rush, the thrill of survival and the terrible joy of destroying those blank-eyed creatures which had once been her co-workers. She heard Nikki’s words again: “. . . leadership skills and a flair for improvisational thinking . . .” “ . . . you will be doing meaningful work . . .”
And, especially: “Not a very good salesperson, but you have other valuable talents to offer.”
The coin came to a rest. Heads. John Kennedy seemed to shrug. Come on, Polly, he seemed to say. Let’s do the beach. Heads, margarita; tails, pina colada. In a few years, you won’t even remember your name.
Polly stared down at the coin for a long moment, then snarled and swept it to the floor. The will of the coin be damned. She wasn’t going to be its fuck-puppet, either.
She stood and went to the door. Nikki was waiting outside, issuing instructions to one of her men. She raised an expectant eyebrow when she saw Polly.
“All right,” Polly said. “Let’s go kick some ass.”