Anna answered the phone. The receptionist told her the 11 o’clock was waiting. He’s early, Anna noticed, that’s good. Some of the buggers were late and unrepentantly so. Some of them failed to put in an appearance at all. Then she made them pay. The latecomers too. Anna wasn’t there to be messed around. You’re given a time and you stick to it. Or you face the consequences.
“Send him through, Steph.” She hung up leaving Steph to say “Okay then” to a dead line.
Anna pulled out some papers and pretended to annotate them. This was more effective than pretending to be preoccupied with something on the monitor. More businesslike.
There was a light rapping at the door. Polite, then. And weak.
“Come in!” she called out but kept her eyes on the paperwork. She heard the door open and close again and became aware of someone standing in front of her desk. She waved her biro. “Take a seat.”
The dark shape in her peripheral vision grew shorter as her 11 o’clock sat down on the uncomfortable plastic chair.
“One moment…” She made a couple of marks on the paper, adding her initials to some random paragraphs. Then she straightened up and shuffled the pages like a newsreader signing off at the end of a broadcast.
It was only when she put the papers down that she saw her 11 o’clock for the first time. He was a tall man – you could even see that sitting down – and he was painfully thin with sharp features. His nose, chin and cheekbones looked ready to burst through the sallow skin that was stretched taut across them. His eyes were dark and rimmed with red but his hair was luxuriant, blue/black with a healthy sheen.
“Mister…um…” Anna faltered. She called up her calendar on screen but found she couldn’t read the name in the spreadsheet cell.
The man smiled. His skinny lips peeled back to reveal pointed teeth in a row. Anna immediately thought of a shark. Or her ex, the estate agent.
“Now, you don’t need to worry. This is nothing for you to worry about,” Anna launched into her spiel although she was more than a little disoriented. She’d seen some weirdoes in that chair in her time but this one! Bloody hell! “They send you to me when you’ve been claiming for a certain amount of time, and once you’re in my clutches, I see what I can do for you. Assess your needs. Have a look at your skills base. See what your training needs are. Revitalise your CV. Polish your interview techniques. That kind of business. But I must warn you, failure on your part to comply with my assistance will mean sanctions will be taken against you. It’s not me. It’s the rules. If you don’t attend these meetings, on time, and follow my guidance, your benefits will be stopped. Is that understood?”
The 11 o’clock showed her his teeth again. He lifted a hand, a pale ghost of a finger with a sharpened red nail. Anna frowned. She watched as the finger pointed at her and then at the carpet.
“I don’t understand…”
The finger moved in a straight line through the air. A corresponding rip ran along the carpet.
“You’ll pay for that!” Anna gasped.
The tear in the carpet grew wider and deeper. Anna found the wheel of her swivel chair teetering over the rim of a rocky chasm. The office was full of the smell of smoke and the heat of a thousand coals. There was another smell too. Anna pressed her hand over her nose and mouth and spluttered. She recognised that smell from her chemistry lessons at school, the acrid rotten-egg smell of sulphur.
The thin man stood up. He jumped into the crevasse, snatching Anna from her swivel chair, pulling her into the crack with him. Anna tried to scream, to call for Security, but the breath was crushed from her throat as they plummeted further and further from the office. Above her, like an eye winking shut, the crack closed forevermore.
“Cooee,” Steph popped her head around Anna’s office door. “Your 11.15’s here. Oh!”
The office was empty. Anna’s screensaver rolled around the monitor like a fish in a bowl. There were papers on the desk and a biro. There was even tea in Anna’s mug.
But of the work programme advisor there was no sign.
Puzzled, Steph returned to reception and told the 11.15 to go home. “I’m ever so sorry,” she fretted, “I don’t know where the hell she’s gone.”