Early Finish Friday: a short story

The open-plan office gaped, empty, the cubicles like crooked teeth in a vast mouth from where she stood by the lift. Although it was only five minutes past five o’clock, on a winter Friday that meant the place was as deserted and dark as at midnight on Hallowe’en.

Jo had been down in the archives longer than she’d realised and now as she returned to her department, it seemed she was alone in the building. Every hallway was gloomy, the security lights by each lift giving each floor its only illumination. Half an hour ago, there had been a hundred people here. But now…

Two rows down a computer screen glowed. As the lift doors closed behind her, she could see the blue sky and yellow sand of the beach-scene screensaver. She would have liked to turn right around and walk straight out of the building, but her jacket and bag were still under her desk, along with the car keys and purse she needed. She was halfway down the aisle when the music started.

The sudden sound brought her up sharp, and the tiny hairs on her forearms prickled upright. She shivered. It was an old 60s song, Dream a Little Dream of Me. Mama Cass singing in her effortless, understated way. But the computer’s speakers didn’t exactly deliver the best sound quality. The tinny, hollow, echoey music continued, the song bouncing off the cubicle walls and seeming extra loud in the emptiness. Jo had a feeling she wasn’t alone but one hasty look over her shoulder then another, showed her emptiness by the water-cooler, and deep shadows by the photocopier. Nothing moved.

Swallowing a sob and forcing herself to walk with measured steps to the computer, she reached out her hand to jiggle the mouse to bring up the desktop. Confused, and not taking in what she was seeing, it took her a moment to realise the music was still playing, but not on this computer.

There was someone here, she knew it. Someone watching her. She turned to look behind her again, but could see nothing but shadows. This is ridiculous, she told herself, it’s only just after five o’clock, barely even evening. Everyone had only just gone. Then, as she flicked the switch under the monitor to turn off the screen, she felt angry. Someone—a colleague—was playing a joke on her. And not a nice one. Let them be in the office in the dark when everyone had gone home, see how they liked it!

She paused where she was for a moment, considering. Should she go back to the lift doors to the master switch and turn on all the lights, or should she just figure out which computer the music was coming from, turn it off quickly, then run all the way back to the lift and down to the main doors and freedom. As this last word echoed in her mind, she lost patience with herself.

“Oh for God’s sake!” The sound of her own words braced her. She turned to face into the office, trying to track the direction the music was coming from. It sounded like it was coming from the far right corner, either from Gina’s computer, or Sophie’s. She moved down the rows until she reached that corner, going slowly because it really was dark here at this spot furthest from the window and the security lights. She went first to Gina’s desk, it was closest and on this side. Just when she got to within ten feet of the desk, the music stopped, the song had come to the end.

Relief flooded through her, but the silence that filled the void was too heavy, too brooding. She started violently when the song began again, the gently measured female voice eerie in the darkness. The music wasn’t coming from Gina’s machine but from Sophie’s. Jo made a detour round to the last line of computer cubicles, jumping when the leaves of the huge potted palm brushed her cheek.

When she saw how dark it was round this side she thought about just going home and leaving it for the security guys to find at some point during the night. But she knew they wouldn’t be likely to notice. She doubted they’d even leave the ground floor where they had their office. She didn’t want to leave that music to play on a loop the whole weekend. She glanced back to the lift doors, waiting at the far end of the office. No one would know. She could just leave. Why should she be concerned if someone else hadn’t bothered? But then the next verse began, and seemed so much louder, it started her into action. She hurried round to the desk, relieved to discover this was indeed the right computer. She jiggled the mouse to get rid of the screensaver and clicked to open the media player.

A plastic bag came over her head and she was forced to the ground. As she struggled for air and life, the music continued, and as her hands fell to her sides and her head drooped in death, the killer walked away, back towards the lift, whistling along to the final bars of the song.


all content is copyrighted © Caron Allan 2013