The Box

He was an arsehole, in short. Not massively offensive you understand, like one of those racist yobs you see on the telly, marching through the streets hurling unfocussed abuse at brown people. Those people were easy to categorise, he was different and I’m sure you’ve met one. Just… smug, with no real self-awareness, or grasp of society.He was the sort of person who paid seventy quid a month for a gym membership, and spent the entire time walking on a treadmill. He’d go running in his lunch break then go up and down one floor in a lift. He watched Top Gear and extolled the wisdom of Clarkson like he was some kind of modern prophet and read the Daily Mail, but ‘just for the sports coverage’.

He’d say things like, “my thoughts would be, going forward, that we should ensure the engagement teams have cognizance in advance, to ensure buy-in on the communications piece,” when he really meant, “go and tell the engagement team”. That kind of arsehole.

He had no real empathy at all. Not in a nasty way, he just couldn’t grasp that people had a different world view from him. People on benefits were scroungers, homeless people were lazy, and immigrants were ok as long as they kept to themselves, the EU interferes with my bananas and they should be stopped. Politics in any real sense was a foreign concept too, bizarrely. Plenty to say but no idea why. It is a religion, or at least a cult, that secretly engulfs vast swathes of the population. The Cult of the Self.

He was no monster. By any social measure, he was a ‘good guy’. He took the kids to scouts, gave to charity, and did fun runs. He recycled, probably, drank in the local. He was everyman. So why did he irritate me so much? I don’t know. Every time he opened his mouth and started talking to my tits though, I felt the sudden, barely contained urge, to stove his face in with the kettle in the tea room.

I wasn’t going to tell them that though.

I was sitting in a ‘conference room’ in the local Police Station, having a ‘chat’ with the two investigating officers. What I’m supposed to know, I have no clue. I just worked for the prick.

“How did he seem the last time you spoke to him? Did he seem agitated, or stressed? Distracted?” asked the female police person. She wore a Marks and Spencer trouser suit in black, or maybe dark blue, it was hard to tell under the fluorescent lights. I’d forgotten her name. Detective Sergeant something. I’m rubbish with names; I never hear them when people introduce themselves.

“No,” I said. My hands sat in my lap, sweaty. “He was just normal. Cheerful, bubbly,” a wanker.

“Did he say anything peculiar or out of the ordinary?”

“Not that I recall,” I cleared my throat and reached for the brown plastic cup of thin brown liquid that alleged to be coffee. The taste made me grimace.

“Awful isn’t it?” said DS Trousersuit. “The coffee.”

“Awful,” I repeated.

“How would you describe your relationship with Mr. Snow?” she asked. To her right, her superior, Detective Inspector Ill-Thought-Out-Goatee wrote spidery notes in blue on a yellow notepad. He took a sip from a similar brown plastic cup containing hot water.

“Professional,” I said. “I guess. I’ve worked for him for about twelve months. Er… I mean, we’ve been for a drink after once or twice, but I tend not to socialise with people from work too much.”

DI Goatee gave me a look over the top of his glasses.

“On your own?” asked DS Trousersuit.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve been for a drink with him on your own?”

“Oh, no. No, with other people, with the rest of the team.” Yuck.

“OK,” she said, making a note. “Did he ever make any… Suggestions to you of the sort, advances?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did he ever try to engage with you in a suggestive manner, or try to arrange to see you in private, outside of work?”

“Do you mean did he ever make a pass at me?”

She shrugged. “Or that.”

“No,” I said. But he wanted to.

“Did you ever see him do that sort of thing with anyone else in the office?”

“Not that was obvious,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

DI Goatee gave me a sharp look. “We aren’t free to discuss that with you Miss Ebony, I’m sure you understand.”

“Ms.” I said.

“Sorry?”

“It’s Ms. Ebony,” I said.

“My apologies,” he said.

“What do you think happened to him? Has he just run away or is it something else?”

“We’re not sure,” said DS Trousersuit. “There is evidence to suggest it may have been a domestic issue and he has absconded, but we can’t rule out the possibility of foul play. As you know he’s been missing for over a fortnight and as of yet, he hasn’t used any of his debit or credit cards.”

She gave me a look that said she thought he had a problem keeping is trousers on. I guess it was more telling of her own experiences than anything else.

“Ms. Ebony,” said DI Goatee. “Can we go back to an earlier question please? You said that Mr. Snow had never made any advances and that you had never met outside of work, is that correct?”

“Erm, yes,” I said. “Apart from when there were other people too.”

“It’s just that we’ve had rumours,” he shuffled a few pages back in his notepad. “Here. Several of your colleagues have mentioned independently that you and he had a conspicuously close working relationship. In fact, more than one person insinuated that you were having an affair with Mr. Snow.”

“What?” I said flushing. It was bullshit. “That’s not true at all, who said that?”

“I’m afraid that information is confidential still Ms. Ebony. Don’t worry, we aren’t accusing you of anything, the information is purely based on hearsay and gossip, but we have to follow these things up. There is no evidence to support these statements.” He took a sip of his hot water. “Yet,” he added quietly.

What a judgmental arsehole. He was older than Trousersuit and me by about twenty years give or take. A relic. There was no way I’d let that filthy bastard Snow touch me. What a disgusting thought. There was no evidence of an affair, because there was no affair. Any extra scrutiny might be troublesome however.

“Was it Sally?” I asked. Time to throw in a curveball. A little misdirection. “The receptionist, Sally Lavender?”

The two coppers exchanged a look.

I sighed. “Listen, he used to… give me these looks,” I said. “Lingering looks. I’d catch him looking at my ar- my bottom, things like that. I think he fancied me. Sally would stare daggers at me if she caught him.”

“I see,” said DI Goatee, scribbling furiously. “And you think that might be important?”

“Well,” I said, feigning nerves. I stared at my hands. “They weren’t the kind of looks you give someone when you’re just jealous, you know? It was more than that, like possessive. Like I was messing with her property.”

“So, you’re saying Mrs. Lavender and Mr. Snow might have been in some kind of relationship?”

“I don’t know,” I gave them a nervous laugh. “All that kind of office politics crap just annoys me. I try not to get involved.”

“Did you ever see them together on their own?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “They’d always brag that they were the last ones in the pub of a Friday when the rest of us lightweights had gone home.” Lies.

“But you didn’t see that for yourself?”

“No, I never stay long,” I said. That was true. Keeping up appearances.

“Is there any reason you didn’t mention this when we asked you before?” asked DS Trousersuit.

“I, er…” I fumbled, pretending to look for words. Sadly, the flush hadn’t returned to bolster my performance, but I’d hit my stride now. “I guess, I just don’t want to be a gossip you know?”

“Miss Ebony,” said DI Goatee.

“Ms.,” I interrupted. He frowned in irritation.

Ms.Ebony,” he emphasised the honorific with distaste. Good. “Can I remind you, you’re giving a statement to the police in a missing persons case. Please be frank, and don’t leave out any details. Even if you think it’s just gossip.” Prick.

“Sorry,” I said.

DS Trousersuit nudged her colleague and tapped her watch with her pen. DI Goatee sighed.

“One more question Ms. Ebony and we’ll let you get back to work,” he said leafing through his notes again.

“Of course,” I added superfluously.

“Where were you on the night of the fifth of May, 2013?”

“At home,” I said.

He looked up at me then, eyeing me like a cat might fixate upon a mouse it was about to pounce upon.

“Your home?”

“Yes.”

“We have a statement here from a mister…” he ruffled some pages. “Green, Aaron Green. It says he called you at around nine PM on your mobile and got no answer. He then tried you house phone and again, it rang out. He then went to your flat and got no answer from the intercom. A neighbour let him in and he even knocked on your door, to no avail. And yet you say you were in?”

“Yes,” I said and gave him a puzzled look. “The fifth of May was the Friday; we’d been out for drinks. I was feeling rough so I made my excuses and went home. I was in bed by half eight or something. I’ve already spoken to Aaron; I must have slept through it.”

“Are you a particularly heavy sleeper Miss Ebony?”

“Ms.,” I said. “I don’t know, I’m usually asleep when I’m sleeping. I guess I must be.” I rolled my eyes. “I’d had a few glasses of wine and some co-codamol. I expect I was sleeping like the dead.”

“Ms. Ebony,” said DS Trousersuit. “Why would Mr. Green have been so enthusiastic to try and see you that night? He neglected to mention it and wouldn’t disclose anything when pushed.”

I gave her a knowing smile. “You know how it is,” I said. “Some blokes can’t take no for an answer.”

She returned my smile. DI Goatee looked at me as if I’d just pissed on his doorstep.

“Before this turns into a Sunday supplement, I think we’ll end it there Miss Ebony,” said DI Goatee standing.

“Ms.,” I corrected.

“If you think of anything else that might be pertinent to our investigation, please don’t hesitate to give myself or DS Grice a call. Here’s my card,” he handed me a dog-eared business card with his name, Detective Inspector Drake, and a number. He had handwritten DS Grice’s details underneath. “We’ll be in touch if there’s anything else. Thank you for your time today.”

I signed some kind of disclaimer saying I’d said what I’d said, we all shook hands and I was ushered out by Grice. It was after three thirty when I emerged from the station. My boss was now an official missing person, so I took the initiative and decided I didn’t need to go back in today. I headed for the train station.

Most train stations in the UK are a hideous mash up of Victorian architecture with modern material bolted on top. Solihull was no different. The squat red-brick building was peppered with LED signs and blue-bordered poster frames. I passed through the curtain of cigarette smoke erected by the bored looking commuters who dealt with their addictions as close to the entrance as possible. Some kind of protest at being displaced and made to stand outside? I bet they didn’t know themselves. I walked through the tunnel underneath the raised railway and mounted the stairs. The air was a mélange of cigarette smoke, aftershave, coffee and diesel fumes. The smell of home time.

My train was mostly empty. I’d just managed to avoid the cavalcade of gobby teenagers on their way home from school and college. I was alone with my thoughts, which suited me fine.

I let myself into my flat in the city centre and threw my keys as usual in the dish on the sideboard. There was a ruddy brown smear on the wall opposite the sideboard. I made a note to sponge that off. I kicked off my boots and dropped my coat on the back of the sofa as I slumped into its engulfing, leathery comfort. On the coffee table sat the box.

You are early, it said.

“Yep,” I said. I flicked on the telly. Some news program or other was on.

Why? It asked. Its voice was male, bland, unremarkable. Like the voice from HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I had to give a statement to the police about Simon,” I said.

What did you say? It asked. There was a slight pause each time it replied.

“Nothing much,” I said. The news anchor was handing over to a local news program. “But whatever it is we need to do, we need to do it soon. They’ll work it out eventually.”

We await only you, said the box.

I gave it a worried look. The box was a cube, about ten centimetres to each edge. It was all over black but for a vertical stripe of soft blue light on four of the sides. I don’t remember when I first came by it. It may have been there forever. I only remember it being on the table.

I don’t know what the box is made of. It looks like black stone, onyx or jet, but it weighs almost nothing. The lights down the side appear to glow out of the surface itself, with no join. The lights pulse faintly when it speaks, that’s how I know it’s the box. I couldn’t tell you what it feels like to hold because, well, you never actually hold it. It’s a peculiar sensation. When I first noticed it, I examined it incessantly for hours. I observed that my fingers never met the surface. They got close, maybe a millimetre or less, but they never actually contacted the surface. It was almost like holding a teddy bear or a piece of carpet, but at the same time, I couldn’t compress it.

As I pondered my next move, my attention was caught by the telly.

“…and in Solihull the search continues for Simon Snow. The thirty-eight year old father of two went missing after meeting colleagues for drinks in a bar in central Birmingham, the Posada on the evening of the fifth of May. He has not been seen or heard from since. The police are not currently treating the situation as suspicious but are appealing for any witnesses that may have seen Mr. Snow on that evening or since.”

They were displaying a photograph that had been taken on the night by Aaron on his smartphone. It showed Simon and me standing together in conversation. Great. So now people had a mental cue to remember seeing me as well. I turned off the telly. I had made up my mind.

I sat up and rested my elbows on my knees, staring at the inscrutable device.

“What do you want me to do?”

A pause. Are you sure you want to go through with this? There can be no remediation once the process has begun.

No, I was not sure. “Yes.”

Good. Please, take the device. It must be placed upon the chest, as close to the heart as possible for maximum effectiveness. The process will last approximately two hours. You may want to be elsewhere.

“I want to watch,” she said. “I want to know what I’m responsible for.”

As you wish.

I continued to stare at the box for some time. It made no effort to hurry me along.

“OK,” I said finally. “OK.”

I stood and lifted the box with two hands. As always, it felt, indistinct, weighing next to nothing and yet suddenly it weighed the earth. I realised my palms were sweating and my knees were weak.

Do not worry. It is the correct course of action.

I swallowed.

I held the box out in front of me as if it was some kind of delicate jug containing acid, even though I knew it was completely inert. Did I know that? I stepped shakily towards the spare bedroom and nudged the door open with my back.

“Mmmmph,” said Simon.

I placed the box delicately down on the bedside table and switched on the lamp. Simon was tied to the bed where I’d left him, a sock in his mouth gagging him. He had wet himself while I had been at work. The room smelled like a cesspit. I plucked the sock from his mouth and lifted a glass of water to his lips.

“Thank you,” he said meekly after he had cleared his throat. “Please Kat. What’s this all about, what have I done? You need to let me go.”

I tilted my head to regard him, the big boss man, stripped naked and lying in his own piss. In a way, I felt sympathy. As I said, he wasn’t a bad man as such. For the first few days, he had cried endlessly. He’d now resorted to trying to persuade me that if I let him go, it would all just blow over.

“Is this some kind of sexual thing?”

I looked him up and down, from the ingrowing big toenail, past his shrivelled genitalia and his nascent beer-belly, to his unshaven chin and his sunken, reddened eyes.

“A sexual thing?” I said in a tone somewhere between incredulity and aversion.

“You know, some dominance thing? I dunno.” Prick.

“Simon,” I said. I was calm again. My previous nervousness had been dispelled. “I’ve told you more than once, I’m fucking gay. You’re not my type. Too many bits sweetheart.”

“Well I don’t know what you get up to,” he muttered. He almost said ‘you people’, the all-encompassing, universal label for things ignorant people refused to learn about. No, my sympathy had been misplaced. This was the right thing to do. He was the right person. Perfect in fact.

People like him weren’t the same as the crazy street bigots. There was no hatred, nothing so obvious. It was much worse in my opinion. More insipid, insidious. It was a bland and tacit acceptance that some people were just inferior. Not hatred, just… A silent superiority. The old British Empire bullshit.

Time to shatter the status quo.

I lifted the box again.

“Just place it on the chest?”

“What?” asked Simon.

Yes, answered the box. Just on the chest, we will handle the transition.

“OK,” I said.

“Who are you talking to?” he said, the fear rising in his voice. “What’s that box?”

I leant over and placed it gently in the centre of his chest.

“Kat?” he said, closing in on hysteria now. “What the fuck is that Kat? What are you doing?”

Step back.

I stepped back to the door and watched transfixed.

“Kat? Please?!”

The glowing lines began to pulsate regularly. Simon was crying again. The grew brighter and a low-pitched hum began to filter through his ravings. He pissed himself again.

“What the fuck? Please!”

A soft white light obliterated sight, the throbbing hum became almost deafening.

Simon screamed.

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What happens when you sit an infinite number of gibbons behind an infinite number of typewriters? Who knows, but one is bad enough. My toil with writing fiction from scratch…

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