The promotion should’ve been mine. Mine! They implied they were going to choose me if I put in the work, if I put in the time. But in the end they went with an outsider, with Irena, Irena (or Irennna, as she pronounced her name) Kerkow, Irenna Kerkow!
I don’t begrudge her. She had as much right as anybody to apply for the position. It’s not her fault – this woman, this outsider, who’d emerged from nowhere to usurp what rightfully belonged to me; this woman, who was as unimpressive as she was bland, as she was tremulous, and underwhelming; this woman who, even now, thrashed in the stranglehold of my makeshift garrotte as I choked the life, the ambition, and temerity from her.
I hadn’t planned to kill her, really I hadn’t. Oh, certainly, you can make a case that I cut the b-string from my piano; that I brought my gardening gloves in to work; and I lay in wait, in the parking lot, enshrouded in darkness, surrounded by thickets, obscured by driving rain splattering on the glistening asphalt, wearing my aforementioned gloves; but, really, I was only trying to feel self-important.
Then she emerged from the exit of the building, whistling a merry tune (usurpers often whistle), jingling her car keys in her hand as she made her way to her company car (a Beemer), a bounce in her step.
Next thing I knew, I had the piano string tightening around her neck – tightening so that it carved into her throat; shearing through flesh, muscle, and tendon. It felt – and sounded (for what muffled, grinding sound it made, and could be heard through our exertions, not to mention over the rain) – like leather ripping.
She couldn’t scream, couldn’t use that voice that had inexplicably impressed the Associates into choosing her over me. But she did struggle, for what little it was worth, although I was too big. Too strong. Too determined – as determined as I had been when I’d put in the work, the time, because they’d implied the promotion was mine.
I felt a pain slicing into the bottom half of my right hand – it was the piano string which, in my efforts, had cut through my glove and was now in the process of doing to my poor hand what it was doing to the beastly Irena’s neck. Oh, the damn woman! Would her inconsideration never end? First my promotion, then my hand! What more need I go through? Need I suffer?
Her struggles abated and her body slumped in my grip, supported only by the piano string. I stood there momentarily, stricken. Irena’s keys fell from her limp grip, and the jingle of them hitting the ground startled my still thoughts into mania. Where to now? I had not considered this at all, and now that the act itself was done, I was unsure what to do. But I was an editor and used to cleaning up messes. Not to mention I’d also read my share of mysteries.
The scene! I had to clear the scene!
I went to my battered Ford and opened the boot, which was filled with sacks of remaindered books. I’d collected them periodically from the office with the intention of disposing of them but had not gotten around to it yet, (such is the busy life of an editor). Underneath them, I had a tarpaulin that I pulled out and used to wrap up Irena’s body.
Slinging her into a fire-person’s carry (if indeed, firemen and firewomen use the same carry), I dumped her in my boot only to find I hadn’t the room! Damn remainders! I considered laying her in the backseat, but that was risky. What if I was stopped? And why have her there anyway? Laying there reproachfully as I drove. Hadn’t the damn woman cost me enough!
I recovered her keys, opened the boot, and slung her in there. Ah, a perfect fit! Then I drove to the bay, taking a scenic route – the Beemer was a beautiful car, and who knew whether I would ever have another opportunity to drive one? It was just too good a motoring experience to abbreviate as I had abbreviated Irena.
When I arrived at my destination, I removed Irena from the boot, unwrapped the tarpaulin enough to weight her down with rocks from the bank, wrapped her back up, and threw her into the bay.
So much for her. Now for the Beemer.
For one insane moment, I contemplated keeping it. Why not? It should’ve been mine! Of course, now it was connected to a disappearance so it had to go. I abandoned it in the northern suburbs – the demesne of stolen cars, (not to mention scoundrels).
Then – via our wonderful and ever-helpful public transport systems – I returned to the parking-lot, fetched my own car, and drove home, where I washed out the wound to my hand. It stung bitterly, and I imagined it would hurt worse tomorrow. Oh, that damn woman! I wish she could feel this pain!
Still, it was a small price to pay.
It started with the Gems – not real gems, but books, old classics, which the Associates had wanted me to repackage and re-release. They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Maybe that’s true. What’s truer is that you can sell books with really nice covers.
I met the Associates in their conference room, taking the elevator up to their floor. The elevator itself rattled and heaved in its shaft, and had a propensity to short-circuit if you pushed too many buttons at once. The stairs were no better – their tiling cracked and shifting treacherously – and the stairwell itself dimly lighted (particularly when the single bulb was out). I thought it said something, that the Associates were hard to reach, that they oppressed us employees in poor conditions while they revelled in opulence.
On this fine Monday morning, they sat on one side of their long marble table, mere silhouettes. But I recognised them all: Randolph Lippincott, old, distinguished, authoritative; Arturo Morgan, young (at forty-five), but ambitious, ruthless; Regina Boggs, matronly, seemingly ageless, a definite lesbian; Stanley Sikes, stoic, emotionless, rumour has it he’d died years ago and nobody had yet realised; Kay Harlow, wheezing, decrepit, so old time had forgotten her.
‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott greeted me. ‘There’s an opening for a senior editor.’
The previous senior editor, Barney Sacks, had resigned for health reasons. The workload had gotten too much for him, and poor Barney – never the most fortified to begin with, (but then again, who am I to judge?) – had suffered a nervous breakdown. He voluntarily institutionalised himself, where his belt and shoelaces were taken from him, and he underwent several radical, if not barbaric treatments, such as trial pharmaceuticals, electroconvulsive therapy, and a correspondence course in Scientology.
By right of succession (if there ever was such a right) his position should be mine. I was the heir apparent for a variety of reasons – seniority, experience, and capability. But nothing was ever that simple – particularly at a multi-million dollar publishing multinational like Grey’s.
‘We’d like to release a new line of books,’ Lippincott said. ‘Gems, we’re going to call them. Old classics. Which have fallen into public domain. But repackaged. Brightly. What do you think?’
Before I could respond, Harlow interrupted with a wracking cough. Besides her antiquity, Harlow was emphysemic. Time froze in meetings while her coughing fits overpowered not only her, but the entire office, and the office building. She should’ve retired, or been retired, but nobody retires from Grey’s. Not wittingly.
‘I think —’ I began once Harlow had seemed to cease, but she then reverberated us with aftershocks. Finally, she fell silent, although I waited – just to be sure.
‘Come along, Codswallow!’ Lippincott said. ‘Don’t keep us waiting!’
‘I think it’s a marvellous idea, sir,’ I said quickly, just in case Harlow set off again.
‘Do a good job, Codswallow …’ Lippincott’s voice trailed away, as if he expected me to guess his mind.
‘Well, what is it we say here? There are no black and whites, no colours, only Grey’s. Do a good job, Codswallow, and you know what!’
What could only mean the vacant position – or why else mention it?
I set to work immediately, dredging our backlists, communicating with the estates of deceased authors, designers, lawyers – everybody responsible to put together the Gems. We released three (of a planned series) in succession, with gold-trimmed covers, each meeting commercial success.
When Lippincott next called me in to speak to the Associates, I was optimistic.
‘You’ve done an exemplary job with the Gems,’ he said. ‘And those gold-trimmed covers …’
There were murmurs of assent from the other Associates – from all but Sikes, who remained silent and unmoved.
‘The new senior editor will be pleased!’ Lippincott said.
I was pleased.
‘She will be in tomorrow.’
My question was lost under an earthquake of Harlow’s coughing.
I went home, played the piano, rationalised why they hadn’t wanted me – there was no logical reason. Did they think I was too old? Or underqualified? Or overqualified? Perhaps they just liked me where I was. Few moved internally at Grey’s.
Well, it just wouldn’t matter. Life is full of disappointments.
I would make it not matter.
Over the next several weeks the police spoke repeatedly, but perfunctorily, with everybody – perfunctorily, because what was there to investigate? Certainly, Irena had disappeared, but there was no real evidence of foul play – the rain had washed away the parking lot, there were no signs of a struggle, and the company Beemer had not yet been found.
Some speculated that Irena had absconded with the car. I recall standing at the water-cooler (which was broken, but still the place for talk) with the other employees, and ruminating, ‘Do you think maybe she had a habit? Alcohol? Drugs? Gambling! Perhaps she’s taken the Beemer and gone on a bender!’ And then, the next thing you knew, rumours were flying around the office. However do these things begin?
But I had no time for rumours, or to indulge in malicious slander.
‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott said, when I met the Associates that morning. ‘Tragic, this Irena-thing. But not to worry. We do have you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
‘And we’d like to ask you … ’
‘What do you think of Nigel Bentley?’
Bentley was a contemporary, a fifty-something senior editor who’d worked for many of the multinationals. He was a friend – or he had been a friend, for many years, before time and distance had seen us grow apart. But if Grey’s had managed to land him, he would be quite a coup, and I told Lippincott that.
When Bentley arrived for work several days later, he embraced me and commended me extravagantly on the success of the Gems.
The gloating bastard.
We fell into the rhythm of our friendship as if it had never been interrupted. We caught the train to and from work together. We had lunch together. And he was forever dropping by my desk, asking for my opinion on all matters publishing (and, more significantly, all things Grey’s).
After being at Grey’s for thirty years, I finally felt as if I was becoming an important cog – a mechanical feat in itself. Everybody at Grey’s knows they’re a cog, but one no more, or no less, important than any other. In actual fact, Grey’s perpetuates an environment of spiritual and emotional communism. Perhaps it is the Associates’ way of maintaining the status quo; or neutralising us, their workers, and keeping us in our place.
I commented upon this to Bentley, as we waited for our 7.36 am train one Wednesday morning amongst a throng of commuters.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, but whilst his tone was interested, his manner was distant – although that was to be expected. Bentley was in the process of a separation; he’d taken this job as a means of getting a new start. ‘The Associates do exercise a form of elitism,’ he said. ‘But possibly no more than any employer.’
‘But I feel it deeply,’ I told him, as our train rumbled in the distance. ‘Particularly …’
‘After the Gems?’
‘Yes.’ When Bentley had told me about his separation, I had felt obligated to tell him something in return – and had thus told him about the Gems, and what the Associates had implied if I accomplished the task successfully.
‘Really,’ Bentley said, ‘promotion isn’t the be-all end-all of existence.’
Of course, he could say that. He had one – a promotion, that is.
‘Do not scoff, my friend!’ Bentley went on. ‘I tell you this for your sake. You must really let it go, or it will be your un —’
I shoved Bentley as our train rattled by. He sailed over the edge of the platform and made – quite literally – a splat as the train hit him. The sound was bizarrely similar to the sound a watermelon makes when it falls from a distance and splatters on the floor. The curious editorial part of my mind wondered if it would’ve been visually similar, or if Bentley would’ve been flattened more like a bug on a windscreen.
But I had not much time to wonder as Bentley was lost from sight.
There was a mixture of cries from the other commuters: shouts from the more level-headed that somebody had been hit, screams from the panicked, and even a handful of astonished exclamations.
Lamentably, there was nothing to be done.
Afterward, the police came, and asked if Bentley was perhaps pushed. I told them it was possible, that the platform was packed, but I also told them that Bentley had been distraught – his wife had left him, and he was having trouble assimilating into a new job, as well as a new town, without her. The police nodded sympathetically and later, I imagine they talked to his wife (sorry, ex-wife – the shrew!), who would’ve at least corroborated that Bentley was distraught.
‘Tragic, this Bentley-thing,’ Lippincott said, when I met the Associates that afternoon.
‘Yes, tragic,’ I agreed.
Harlow’s coughing dominated the rest of the conversation.
Unfortunately for Grey’s, and several senior editors, the tragedies continued. Harrison Erskine, who had forty-five years experience, was brought in from interstate to fill the vacancy left by Bentley’s apparent suicide. But Erskine was only in his second day on the job when, on his way to see the Associates, he slipped down the stairs (most unfortunately, the elevator was out, as was the single bulb in the stairwell) and broke his neck. Wilhelma Sorenson, an ambitious forty-six year old career-editor, never even made it to work. She was the victim of a hit and run driver. Bizarrely, when police later found the car responsible, it turned out to be Irena Kerkow’s company Beemer, (and this sparked a woman-hunt for her person). The bullish Thomas Whitton came next. At thirty-five, and a fitness freak to boot, he thought he was invincible. But one night, just after he’d returned home and was on his way to the front door, an unknown assailant bludgeoned him to death – forensics later speculated it was with a sack full of blunt objects like bricks, or maybe possibly even heavy books.
Police were intrigued by the spate of misfortune that befell Grey’s and I unwittingly gave them the impression that Barney Sacks might be responsible. I hadn’t meant to, really I hadn’t. But when the detectives spoke to me, when they asked who might have it in for Grey’s senior editors, who might be so ‘deranged’, I responded, ‘Deranged? Deranged! Are you attempting to impugn Barney Sacks, the former senior editor, who recently had a nervous breakdown? If that’s what you’re trying to imply, trying to have to me acknowledge, and concede, never!’
This was a most inopportune turn of events for poor Barney. He had just been released from voluntary institutionalisation, had just been given back his belt and shoelaces, but the police interrogation drove him to another breakdown and he hung himself in his cell with his recently reacquired belt.
Poor Barney, a dangling modifier.
I sat before the Associates, and while they were again silhouettes, I could still feel their eyes upon me, keen and unrelenting.
‘Codswallow,’ Lippincott said, ‘we have had the most wretched luck, just the most wretched luck! It hasn’t been very good for Sacks, Kerkow, Bentley, Erskine, Sorenson, and Whitton, either. In fact, this whole sordid affair has been very … very … very … what’s the word I’m looking for, Codswallow?’
‘Yes! Tragic. But it now behoves us to do what we should’ve always done, Codswallow. Whilst you’ve been at Grey’s for thirty years, there’s been something about you lately which has impressed us, something intangible. Well, what do you say, Codswallow? How would you feel about being senior editor?’
‘I would,’ I began, beaming with pride, ‘be most magnificently, and most humbly —’
Harlow’s coughing overrode the rest of my answer. I waited for it to abate, as it always had, but on this occasion her coughing rose and rose, building to a crescendo, only to end abruptly when she keeled forward and her face slammed into the Associates’ marble table. Then she was still.
‘Shit,’ Sikes said.
The paramedics came almost immediately, but nothing could be done. Harlow was pronounced dead, loaded onto a gurney, covered with a sheet, and wheeled from the conference room.
I remained seated with the Associates, watching impassively. Death is such a rude visitor – rarely invited and often boorish. But how much death had Grey’s seen recently? It was strange that this death, more than any of the others, helped contextualise what had happened and made me wonder whether it had all been worth it.
‘I do suppose,’ Lippincott said finally, ‘this creates an opening, doesn’t it?’
I swivelled in my chair. ‘An opening, you say?’
In hindsight, I think we have it about right here: there really are no black and whites, no colours.
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue one of Blue Crow Magazine
It was inspired by the treatment of a former teacher, who set up a Degree course for the school with the implication he’d run it, only for the job to be given to somebody else.