By Sreelekha Chatterjee
The atmosphere was stiflingly hot. A sense of infinite void prevailed amongst impenetrable darkness; its strange tranquillity was disturbed by a sudden intrusion of a speeding car’s headlight. I was blindfolded, struggling hard to keep my eyes open. The deafening sound of the accelerating engine kept increasing as the car drew nearer and nearer, escalating my wild heartbeat and an uninviting dread. There was no escape. I needed to react, but my limbs wouldn’t move; a sense of fatality gripped me as my reflexes resigned. An instant of acute tension and then there was quiet. I opened my eyes to the brilliance of the table lamp spreading over my desk. It was the usual vision—which kept haunting me for the past six months—all over again while at work.
I concentrated on the sheets of papers that lay before me. The edits marked on them seemed like worms wriggling about. My nerves were screaming in my head. I looked up. The chairs of the office hall were empty. It was always the same every single day. The whole day I would dig my head into work partly due to the necessity to cope with the work pressure and partly to hide my embarrassment. I only looked up when everyone left. After hours was the time for me to finish any pending work along with my search.
It all started about six months ago when the only copy of the manuscript of a book being edited by me had disappeared from my desk—lost forever and never to be found. I couldn’t forget the harsh words that my supervisor uttered for me, questioning my loyalty and emphasising on how irresponsible I’d been. The edited papers vanished a day before it had to be sent for typesetting. Being a fast-track project, the book had to be published within a month’s time. It wasn’t a feasible proposition for me to re-edit the entire book within a day’s time. To save our publishing firm’s reputation, the work was outsourced to freelance editors on urgent basis so that we could still be on track.
Who had stolen it from my table? What was the motive for the theft? During the past six months I had searched every table, every drawer, every cupboard, except the ones that were in our senior managers’ cabins on the first floor, but the manuscript was nowhere to be found. It could be possible that the culprit had removed the manuscript from office. Wearied and assailed by hopelessness of my never-ending search, I surveyed the semi-dark hall. My eyes stuck at the glow of light coming from the farthest corner. I checked my watch. It was almost 8 o’clock. Who could be there at this time? I felt my hair rise with alarm. Someone was working late or spying on me.
On reaching the end of the hall, I found a young lady with spectacles concentrating on something that was open on her computer. I felt a pang of anger, a sting of possessiveness on seeing her use my computer. But I had stopped working on it for the past six months and had no reason to entertain jealousy. After the manuscript theft, there was a significant change in my job pattern, and I had been assigned the role of quality checking instead of editing. I had myself volunteered for that, as I was losing my eyesight due to long work hours without any break in front of the computer—an unacceptable professional hazard in late-twenties.
I leaned forward, peering closely at her file that was displayed on the computer. I coughed aloud but she didn’t stir a bit, oblivious of my presence. She seemed to be unusually engrossed in chatting with a friend on a social networking site open on her system.
Perhaps she was a new employee as I hadn’t seen her before. She seemed to ignore me. Being reticent by nature, I didn’t have the courage to ask her name or to initiate a conversation. Just as I turned to go away, her mobile rang.
“I’m working late… nothing urgent, just needed to impress my boss…after all the appraisal time is drawing near…” I heard snippets of a brief conversation before she hung up.
There was some movement outside and a human shadow appeared on the frosted glass door. I quickly concealed myself behind a nearby table, as I didn’t want anybody to know that I was there. Someone moved inside. As the light from the computer lit the man, I could recognise him. It was the security guard.
“Will you be late, ma’am?”
“Ah…probably by an hour or so.”
“In that case, inform the duty officer at the watch room as I’ll be leaving now.”
He sauntered away and the lady once again concentrated on the computer.
Those who worked till late hours had to enter their names in the register at the watch room outside office. I could go and check her name there. I followed the security guard outside. The night watchman was already there. While the two men were chatting, I quickly turned the pages of the register and to my utter disbelief, no name had been entered. Had the rules changed?
As I was going inside, I found the security guard loading something in his car.
“You might get caught.” I heard the night watchman say.
“Don’t worry. Nobody cares to notice what happens to an old computer.”
Bewildered at the contrast between their outward pretension of duty-bound appearance and the reality, I moved inside the office. I needed to get away from the web of bitterness and keep focused. As I approached the coffeemaker which lay at a distance, the machine started automatically all of a sudden startling me. I found a cup placed near the pipe from which coffee poured out. Suddenly the lady whom I had seen earlier came from nowhere. I heard the sound of the printer working somewhere. The lady turned towards me, shook violently with a start as she huddled together. She shot a terrifying glance at me and then averted her eyes as if I didn’t exist. Some people exhibited arrogance to an extent that was disgusting.
I walked unmindfully and reached the printer. Pages were coming out like a fountain, flying in all directions. Some of the pages fell on the floor and the rest inside the wastepaper bin that was kept beside the printer. I bent down to pick up the papers when the lady reappeared. The very thought that the lady was following me everywhere scared me. A few days ago, I heard people saying that our office was haunted, and the mysterious lady triggered my suspicion about her possible supernatural connection.
I strolled randomly from one desk to another. Something inside me felt strongly that the stolen manuscript was somewhere in the office, and I had to look for it. But the lady in the office was a big hindrance to my mission. I tampered with the main telephone operating box, removing all the cables. I checked the phones kept at the reception—all of them were dead. Next, I locked the hall door from outside to make sure that the lady couldn’t come out. I’d already stolen her mobile phone from her desk. Satisfied with the initial execution of my plan, I went tiptoed to the first floor.
The entire office seemed like a graveyard of computers. It felt as if I was walking on a dark, lonely road faintly lit by streetlights. Suddenly a car came from nowhere, its dazzling headlights blinding my eyesight, my ability to search. A momentary loud explosion followed by suffocating silence. I opened my eyes to the stillness of the dark office corridor where I had ventured to find a closure to my search. A strange numbness overpowered me, and I feared betraying the purpose of my visit. I had to continue with my search even if it went on forever. Although aware of the consequences if I got caught while checking the senior managers’ cabins, I couldn’t rest until and unless I figured out what was haunting me.
As I collected myself and groped my way through the impenetrable darkness of the corridor, I heard footsteps coming from behind accompanied by a faint, persistent knock on the floor, perhaps with a stick. Was it the night watchman? What if it was the CEO? I heard on innumerable occasions that the CEO visited our office late at night to work on important projects. I had hardly seen the middle-aged guy once or twice during my 6-year-long service and vaguely remembered his face. To my surprise, I found myself outside his cabin door. A faint suspicion about his involvement in the theft lurked in my mind. My body trembled with nervous agitation and the burden of wrong doings as I tried the door handle.
It opened. The large, spacious room had a single closed window with blinds raised, allowing a faint light to penetrate from outside. I switched on the lady’s mobile torch to discern my way as I progressed from one cupboard to another. A subconscious uneasiness loomed as I checked all the drawers except one which was locked. I looked for the keys and found a bunch of them in a side table drawer. In spite of all my efforts, none of them worked. Suddenly, I recalled having seen a key inside one of the drawers of the computer table placed at the centre of the room. I went back to fetch it. The drawer opened as I turned the key which fitted perfectly. A foul smell of old papers wafted in the air. I checked the papers inside but none of them were related to the manuscript.
After locking the drawer, I was about to leave, relieved of the guilt that I had wrongly accused a respectable man, when slow footsteps were audible outside the room. I hid behind the computer table and waited with bated breath. The shadow of a man fell on the floor near the open door. It seemed to be that of a tall man. My faint recollections hinted that our CEO was a tall man. Was it him? The shadow gradually became elongated and moved towards the wall indicating that he was walking away. Perhaps there were dead souls other than me looking for something or the other—our missions were different but our search had become closely intertwined. Suddenly the shadow stopped as if it had become a statue and the sound of footsteps ceased. I glanced at the glass window visible from my hiding place. The sky seemed to brighten up with a faint glow of light trickling down. My search had to be stalled, as there wasn’t much time to look into other senior managers’ cabins. I had to leave before the next security guard came in at 4 o’clock in the morning.
I heard footsteps all of a sudden and this time those were quick and faster than before. I could hardly comprehend further, as a tall fellow with scarcely perceptible features and hunched back entered hurriedly. Positioning a torch with his right hand and a file beneath his left elbow, he cautiously unlocked the same cupboard drawer which I had opened earlier. He slid a file and locked it. In the middle of the room near the computer table, he paused to respond to a phone that vibrated in his pocket. He answered it while turning his back towards the door. It was the perfect instance when I could easily slip out of the door. Endeavouring to leave, I crawled up to the door but my curiosity about the hidden object in the drawer got the better of me. I couldn’t afford to get caught, and the dull blue sky outside was brightening up bit by bit.
“Yes. I’ve removed the manuscript. Now they’ll have no other option but to give it to the freelancers.” His words drew my attention while I shifted behind the open door.
He kept quiet for a while as if listening to the person at the other end and then blurted out angrily, “Yes, yes, have faith in me.”
“Do remember my commission.” He disconnected the phone and turned towards the side where I was hiding. Heedless of the fear that paralysed my faculties, I looked up to find that he was staring at me—his eyes gleaming with unearthly lustre, focused on mine; his expression changing from triumph to that of horror. A few seconds elapsed before he stooped to pick up something from the floor.
Was there a chance of survival? Did he see me? Random thoughts kept crowding in my head. Realising the need for instant action, I attempted to plan out my next move. I wished that he left the room without seeing me. I observed him carefully as he walked towards the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” I closed my eyes and after what seemed like a second. When I looked up, there was nobody around. Was it a dream that I was witnessing all the while? I had actually seen the man enter the room…
I walked up to the drawer where the man had concealed something. I unlocked the drawer once again but couldn’t open as it had got stuck. On pulling the drawer with all my strength, it came off, throwing me off my balance, I fell with arms flailing wildly and landed on the ground with it. As I dusted myself, I found my lost manuscript lying among the heap of papers that had fallen off the drawer. I didn’t experience any pleasure on finding my culprit at last. Nauseated by an oppressed dread mingled with disgust, I decided to quit that life and moving out.
I managed to reach the front door where I observed the CEO, the lady and the security guard talking amongst themselves.
“How come you were in office the entire night?” CEO asked the lady.
“Someone had locked me from outside. The whole evening, I experienced such weird things. My phone was stolen, and I couldn’t contact anybody outside as the landline wasn’t working.”
“Is this your mobile phone?” CEO asked while taking out something from his pocket.
“Yes! Where did you find it?”
“In my cabin… why did you go there?”
“I swear! I’ve never been to your cabin…”
The security guard interrupted with an impatient eye roll, “This place is haunted. Strange things have been happening ever since the senior editor’s accident…”
I sensed freedom as the truth finally unfolded before me. I walked past the trio while they were trying to figure out a logical explanation to what had happened with them. I knew that they wouldn’t notice me anymore, after all I didn’t belong to their world.
Sreelekha Chatterjee lives in New Delhi. Her short stories have been published in various national, international magazines, journals, and have been included in numerous print and online anthologies.
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