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No Time Like The Present (HBTC #2)

CHAPTER ONE

    Not the typical murder scene: no dark, rainy street, with concealed doorways and nooks where dangers lurk, imagined or real. Not even a place devoid of other people, who might witness such grisly events with relish. This, an average office in a busy multi-storey block, in the middle of the day (a bright, unseasonably warm one, at that) and the usual staff milling around, mostly temps, armed with reams for photocopying, or otherwise glued to the nothingness of their computer screens. No-one heard, saw, suspected anything out of the ordinary.
    The coffee was ghastly and he poured the rest into the drip tray almost before it registered with his taste buds. Bitterness sensed by the tip of the tongue, cup tossed carelessly into the bin. Would they look here for evidence? Unlikely they would look at all. Yes, ironically the coffee was beyond disgusting today; a perfect day for dealing with the one and only enemy a man ever has. He dragged a towel across his hands, appreciated the possibility that they may find him by this act, and stuffed it in his briefcase, along with The Guardian, a sheaf of papers, his diary and the seven inch bladed knife he had taken from the fisherman down by the canal.

***


    Alice walked past the machine three times before she recognised the odour; it was becoming increasingly familiar and almost as distasteful as the coffee. The coffee: it pervaded not just her nose, but all her other senses, getting into her clothes, and into her mind, refusing to leave her alone, even when she was safely home at night. It wasn't her job to deal with the blasted thing, nor her pleasure, being as she despised even the most richly, freshly ground variety. In fact, that was quite possibly worse, on account of its almost delectable yet ultimately deceptive aroma, willing people to sip from the poisoned chalice. She hated coffee, hated the dispensed tea, even the chemically decaffeinated equivalent, all of it so bad for one's health, leaving its grubby little rings everywhere, the stink on the drinker's breath.
    Fortunately for the coffee supplier, the vast majority of the workforce didn't share Alice's loathing of vended hot beverages, although it was her duty, if not formalised through a job description, to see to it that the coffee was always fresh. Needless to say, it was rarely her priority. First thing she did when she arrived in the morning was switch off the air conditioning and open the windows—a futile act, for within ten minutes the clones would arrive, close the windows, and soon thereafter someone would take it upon themselves to turn the air conditioning back on. There we are again: constant dryness and allegedly temperate conditions for both human and machine to work with perfect efficiency. Yet it never did quite get rid of the stench of the coffee.
    Alice noted the drip tray was full to the brim and muttered under her breath, such as she ever bothered to speak any louder than this, on the pointlessness of wasted time and milk. Why add it in the first place, if only to tip it away? And was there anything to stop them using the sink on the opposite wall, other than sheer laziness and lack of consideration for the poor soul who had to tend to the mess it made? A torrent of insipid, brown goo oozed irreverently down the path of its own stain, onto the brushed chrome stand (which was ugly and out of place, but it came with the lease) and eventually the floor. Surely it wasn't difficult to miss? Well, not for Alice.
    It was apparent from its syrupy resistance that whoever had done it this time had positively piled in the sugar. That was another ploy: to hide the taste of something clearly not intended for constant consumption. Now it was drying on her hands, in between her fingers, glueing them together; it was almost enough to make her vomit, always washing away other people's waste and mess. A personal assistant to whom? She asked this question of the taps, strangling them in exasperation when they failed to reply, then vigorously rubbing her hands with the only cloth nearby: a rancid, chequered tea towel.
    The filter was set and ready to go: not long past 11:30 and already the fifth pot. She estimated the cost in her head, as she did every day at about this time, when it was always the fifth pot; it would possibly have been closer to the seventh, if she'd been doing her job properly—the bit that wasn't mentioned at interview and was glossed over at every performance review. If she were to be run over by a bus that very day they'd all notice, because the coffee would go stale. They might even question where "Thingummy-bob who does the coffee" was. It happened on her last day off: hardly fun, a lengthy wait in a stretch of draughty hospital corridor euphemistically signposted as a waiting room, followed by a swift and insincere apology, something to do with emergencies, and then she was seen, told that all was well and sent on her less than merry way.
    Arriving back at work the following morning, one of the girls, so long a temp as to essentially be permanent, noticed Alice's return and intercepted her at the empty coffee machine; no stocks ordered, so nothing to be done about it. They would have to do without for a day. That was all the evidence required: said temp returned to her seat and spread the word that, "Thingummy-bob's been off, that's why there's no coffee," and all returned to normal, minus the caffeine. Alice wrinkled her nose, as the trickle of fresh coffee brought her back to the moment, the nauseating aroma filling the space around her and making her feel faint.
    Upstairs in the boardroom, an interesting meeting was afoot. It was the usual set-up: vast oval beech laminated surface, polished in an ad lib fashion, leaving smears to catch the eye in the right light, but on the whole perfectly presentable. Slightly cushioned seats on each of the sixteen chairs around the perimeter, sufficient for one or two hours' comfortable convening at best. The occasional clip-framed Monet print adorned the magnolia walls, as did a screen that didn't work the way it should and the tech people couldn't say why. On the floor: a hardwearing beige looped carpet. Standing just behind the closed door were two men, engaged in conversation that to any eavesdropper would have seemed jovial and entirely appropriate to the context: the latest financial news, any chance of sun at the weekend for that round of golf, and so on. It all belied the reality, the build-up of years of envy, months of planning and finally this, not the opportunity he had endeavoured to create, but one which had arrived of its own accord. God knows, the coffee was bad enough to disguise the most obvious poison, but that was not the way it occurred.
    The director leaned back against a chair, heaving in deep, gulping breaths, winded by the surprise, a patch of shimmering red radiating outwards and across the beige nylon around his shoes. How? Why? After so long and so many, it comes to this? The handle of the knife was there in his thigh and he could not shift his hands from their clutch across his ample chest to remove it, the pain there far greater. He slid, grasping at the back of the chair, legs of both giving way, following him down, down, to the floor, as his companion shrugged, smiled and walked away, quietly closing the door behind him.
    Muffled conversations, passing the time of day as if all was as it should be. Not one person could he identify by name, all of them relative strangers in this significant, modern building, where each spent two-thirds of their waking hours. Some voices he could match to faces, or to backs, but names? Who needed names in a place like this? Clocking in and out was a thing of the past, now computers logged the arrival and departure of every single member of staff. No more loitering at reception, stealing a few minutes here and there, and it all added up. It shouldn't matter anymore, for after all he was bleeding to death in his own boardroom.
    And there were people out there; surely someone would stop when they heard his calls for help? Except that he wasn't making any. The words formed in his mouth—he was renowned for his deep, hearty baritone—but left his lips in wisps and wheezes, over and again, until the boardroom faded from view and a flat facsimile of Monet's 'Water Lilies' bloomed, for Alistair Campion, for the last time.

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