Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, Career Move, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
Darius put the cup down in the saucer with a firm, solid bang.
‘I don’t know why you should feel that way’ he said exasperatedly ‘It’s the same for every one of us. We all have our crosses to bear.’
He fussed pedantically with his spectacles, cleaning them vigorously with a furious motion of his large white handkerchief.
‘When I first started out’ he continued, ‘things were vastly different. People took pride in their work. Everything left near and tidy. No rough edges if you know what I mean’ cocking his head on one side as he thrust the wire ends of the spectacles over his ears with the gesture of a bird preening itself.
He folded the handkerchief into precise squares and put it neatly back in his breast pocket.
It looked like it had never been used.
‘It’s not as if you’ve been in the business very long. Personally’ and he moved to stand in front of the mirror over the fireplace ‘I’ve always found it a great help to try and learn from others for as long as possible. Even I’ smiling at himself in the mirror as he straightened his waistcoat and immaculate tie ‘even I, hard though that may be for you to believe, can still learn something from others. I am sure it must be even more so for you’ he smiled smugly, turning to face me.
I perched uneasily on the edge of the seat.
Whichever way I sat on it, I was extremely uncomfortable.
Darius of course had the armchair, the only other alternative being a chaise longue under the large old sash window.
Draughts came through this window to such an extent that sitting on the chaise longue would have been tantamount to basking in a full-blown gale.
This had seemed to me the lesser of evils.
Now I was not so sure.
Balancing a cup and saucer whilst the caning cut straight across both my thighs was not only no mean feat but also a test of endurance.
I began to eye the chaise longue longingly.
With a start I surfaced from my contemplation.
I leaned forward, stretching out my arm almost to its limit to reach the shaky legged table and place my cup and saucer on it. Even mustering all my control the cup still chinked madly in the saucer.
Darius made a disapproving sucking sound through pursed lips.
‘Well’ I said slowly, trying to speak reasonably, ‘I did think I might avoid having to deal with the lower end of the scale when I joined the firm. I hadn’t realised I would still have to cope with the sharp end of things as well as working towards the higher echelons. Not only is it tiring, but it totally disrupts the social side of things I’m trying to build on.’
Darius smoothed his thin brown hair away from his forehead.
I was always fascinated by his forehead – a high, domed, noble edifice that shone, literally shone almost as if he polished it with the same vigour he did his spectacles that sat on the sadly, un-noble snub nose.
‘One day’ I had mentally promised myself ‘I shall be on such good terms with Darius I will be able to get close enough to check if I really can see myself in his forehead.’
The desire to do this had become almost an obsession with me.
Darius seated himself in the armchair, tweaking and straightening the immaculate creases in his tailored trousers. Wiping imaginary specks from his knees he smiled – I thought quite ferociously – at me.
‘My dear boy I quite understand. I know it is in the firm’s interests, as well as your own, for you to press your suit with Lady Saskia and I’m sorry you have had to cancel your evening’s appointment with her but, at the end of the day, the job and the firm must come first. It’s the only way to advance yourself securely. I too, did my stint, just like you - and now look at me.’
He preened himself like a little bantam cock getting ready to measure up against a true fighting cockerel.
It was hard for me to believe that Darius had ever been in the same position as I was.
‘Only two rungs beneath the Chairman himself. One day, who knows……’ He shrugged nonchalantly as if only modesty prevented him from saying what he was quite sure the rest of the world must know.
That he was destined for great things.
For a moment I hated him and his smug security in his position, almost as much as I hated the menial tasks I was still obliged to do.
I forced myself into a mode of amiability and tried to smile ingratiatingly at him.
‘You deserve it I’m sure’ I said, hating myself for my obsequiousness, ‘but nevertheless things are still difficult for me when I have to drop everything to take charge of a task someone else could have easily performed and of a nature I thought I had left behind me when I joined the firm. I really can’t see why it has to be me.’
Darius leant forward and patted me on the knee.
I tried not to shudder.
His hands were always moist. He wasn’t overweight; he merely had the beginnings of a rich man’s paunch, covered very neatly by his expensive handmade suits. It wasn’t that he sweated too much either. I always felt his hands were moist with anticipation and they repelled me. He wore a pinkie ring on his left hand and the small, discreet diamond flashed with his every gesture.
‘My dear fellow, please be at ease. It won’t be long before the probationary period is over. I have high hopes, high hopes indeed for you. Rest assured I wouldn’t have called you in on this except there was no one else I could ask. Not at such short notice. And I know you and I are friends. We are friends aren’t we?’
His brown eyes fixed upon my face.
They always had what appeared to be a merry sparkle. Indeed, he cultivated a jovial personality. But I was not fooled. Not me. I might be new to the firm but I had been in business too long to be fooled and here was Darius trying to persuade me he was my mentor and I his protégé; that he would see I got ahead in the game if only I saw to it that he stayed ahead of the play too. And of course, in that respect, he was right.
It would be stupid of me to antagonise him. Everybody needs a hand up - unless that is – they can see their way clear to scrambling over the man in front of them in which case it was more helpful to give them a push down!
But not right now. Not here and not now. One must always wait for the window of opportunity to open first, even if only a crack.
I put on what I felt was my most earnest and open expression.
‘Of course we’re friends. Obviously I’ll help all I can. Saskia will wait after all’
I smiled my innocent wide-eyed ‘let me be your friend’ smile and hoped for the best.
Darius rubbed his hands together, the diamond flashing and sparkling.
‘Good, good. Good boy.’
He leapt from the chair and patted me on the shoulder.
‘I won’t forget my boy. You see the Chairman doesn’t know I’m doing this little job for him. No one does. I knew he wanted it done and thought I’d just go ahead and earn some brownie points. Y’know, kudos after the fact?’
He straightened and smoothed his waistcoat again with automatic gestures and suddenly I realised he was nervous. Smooth operator Darius was nervous.
The window opened a crack.
Nice to think maybe he had bitten off more than he could chew and needed my help to get out of the frying pan.
I realised with cool dispassion I was starting to think in clichés.
Darius always had that effect one me, making me feel like a young office junior just starting out with no mind of his own. I rose smoothly from the hardwood chair, my thighs screaming with relief.
Erect, I felt more my own man again.
Darius was somewhat shorter than me – ‘by about five inches’ I thought sniggering to myself like a schoolboy.
I walked over to the cold fireplace. I could lean nonchalantly against that facing Darius and maybe I could try a little dominance.
‘You mean you’ve got stuck in something without the Chairman’s authorisation?’ I asked pleasantly.
I could bully off with the best of them.
Just watch me.
If nothing else I’m a quick study. I had to admit I had indeed learnt a few things from Darius. I would give him credit for that.
‘Well I wouldn’t say stuck exactly.’
Darius smiled deprecatingly and waved his hands benevolently.
‘I did have Simpson helping me but he made a mistake. Now there’s twice as much work to do. That’s why I’m going to help you myself. I should have done that with Simpson, but really I thought he could cope on his own.’
He wagged his finger at me in the manner of a headmaster.
‘You can see now why I say everyone till has something to learn. If Simpson had taken that to heart, which I thought he had, he wouldn’t have made such a drastic mistake.’
I smiled my agreement.
The window opened another inch.
‘You say the Chairman doesn’t know about this matter?’ I reiterated smoothing, ‘if not, we had better both make a good showing.’
I stressed the ‘both’ syllable so that Darius would receive and understand that I was looking for a little share of the kudos myself. Almost a kind of blackmail you might say. But I didn’t think of it that way.
A small frown of worry appeared on the shiny dome.
‘Yes that’s right. We better had. And of course I know you’ll hold up your end of it well and’ he spread his hands wide, little diamond flash, flash, flash ‘I shall naturally do my best for you, as I always have done’ he added hastily.
He moved towards the door to the right of the fireplace, which led to the bedroom. He glanced back at me.
‘Well come on them, we haven’t got all night. You’ve had your tea and it’s time to get to work.’
Briefly I thought of Socks, my Labrador puppy, so soft and beautiful and how he made me laugh while he raced around the room even if he was tearing to pieces one of my very best Italian ties.
Briefly I wished I were there with him instead of here.
He was so much better company than Darius.
I followed him silently through the door.
The bedroom was very neat.
One single bed. Curtains closed. Clothes folded over the bedside chair – another hardwood monstrosity. All very austere and shipshape. Spartan almost.
The only jarring note - the two corpses on the floor between the bed and the window - one naked except for a pair of underpants and a small, round hole in its chest, blood congealing from the wound in a faint trickle. The other, fully clothed – nice suit I thought abstractedly – and so it was except that this corpse had bled rather more profusely. That sometimes happens with a stomach wound. Nasty things. Takes a long time to die that way.
The two guns on the floor bespoke an overabundance of weapons.
Darius moved towards them as I lounged in the doorway. He turned to me his lips pursed in aggravation.
‘I always told Simpson – never underestimate your anticipated deceased, sometimes they have weapons too. I suppose he thought if the chap was in bed there was no problem. As near as I can work out he had time to get his gun – probably under the pillow – shoot Simpson and took one slug himself at the same time. Messy, messy work. A sloppy job all round. I always told Simpson – aim for the head or throat. Far, far less problem and always a certainty.’
He turned to face me and spoke almost deferentially.
‘You can see why I needed you. Simpson was supposed to do the job, get rid of the evidence and come and tell me all was AOK. Then I could tell the Chairman he needn’t worry anymore. Now we’ve got two bodies to get rid of. It really is too bad of Simpson. So inconvenient all round. And you with your Lady Saskia to see.’
He shook his head as I smiled and smiled.
The window was wide open.
‘I don’t think Saskia will have to wait too long’ I said as I drew my gun and shot him neatly through the head.
He dropped like a stone making a third corpse on the floor.
‘Just enough for poker’ I thought.
Darius would have been pleased with me.
There was no mess.
He hardly bled at all.
I resisted the temptation of his ring much as I admired it.
After all I could never wear it.
It was too easily recognisable. And how would I explain it?
‘Oh Darius gave me this as a farewell gift?’
No. I was moving up. Petty trophies were no longer necessary. I was after bigger game.
But there was one thing I had to do.
I walked across the room and knelt by his body.
I noted his eyes no longer had their merry sparkle. But that was only to be expected.
I bent even lower.
Yes – I was right! I could see myself in his forehead.
Only faintly I grant you. But I could see myself dimly reflected.
Well enough to note with some alarm that my mouth seemed to wear the same self-satisfied smirk that his had done.
That would never do.
I wiped it off immediately.
I would have to remember never to do that in the future.
Well, it only antagonises people doesn’t it? Makes them more aware of what you’ve got that they want.
Another lesson well learnt.
I put the gun away and went back to the living room.
Darius had made the tea before I arrived. It had been too sweet for me anyway.
I had touched nothing. Nothing without my gloves on. They had never left my hands.
Another of Darius’s little lessons.
I looked around the room and felt a great deal of satisfaction.
One more rung up the ladder.
Simpson and Darius gone.
The Chairman didn’t even know about the job.
Me? I was never there. Well I never was, was I?
I had to give Darius credit.
There was always something to learn.
I had learned all the lessons he taught me.
I would never forget them.
He forgot the cardinal rule.
There is always something to learn.
Even for him.