Read Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE: THE CRUNCH

Don’t blame me for the dead bodies. There were just too many of them. Things just got out of hand. It was not my fault. I always get the blame for everything. Well, most of it wasn’t my fault. Perhaps I did murder one of them – or two, now I come to think of it. Perhaps even three. But then the whole thing did get very confused.

I was not responsible for all the deaths.

They couldn’t cover it all up. Not with all that death and destruction. But the whole story never did come out and if it did, most people would not believe it.

I am by nature an easy going and gentle person, the last person you would suspect of murder. In short I was a “wimp”, as Norman always called me (more about the odious Norman later).

When I think about the old me I cringe with embarrassment.

But I was forced to change. None of us ever know when our life can suddenly swerve away from its dull routine and hurl us into sudden-death situations. For me it came as an epiphany, a moment of clarity, when I knew I had to break away from the person I had become and evolve into someone new if I was to survive.

The screams are the worst bit. I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Just when I think I have found some peace I hear them again, an old recording of acts of evil played over and over again in my brain.

Alright, perhaps four murders were down to me, but that is definitely it.

Then there was a possible fifth one if you count . . . But in the end I was just blamed for so many deaths that weren’t my fault. I guess I just have to get on with the whole terrifying story.

My trouble is that I am an honest, caring guy who just wants to help other people, but some people view that as a weakness.

My name is Martin Lock. I was rather weary and middle aged, worn down by the constant struggle of existence. Some would have regarded me as a failure, but how do you judge these things? One person’s failure is another person’s success.

I worked at a business, scientific and technical book, magazine and web publishing corporation based in a grim part of South London. The company set up its base there only because the offices are so much cheaper.

The nightmare began there. The day that everything changed forever started out badly. Edgar Bullfinch, our publishing director and founder of the company, demanded to see me immediately as he swept in at 11am.

I followed him into his office and closed the door behind us while he settled his bulky frame into the leather swivel chair behind his grand mahogany desk – a sharp contrast to the plywood-partitioned, cramped, open plan workstations where the rest of us slaved.

I’ve been writing reports all morning for the senior partners,” Bullfinch bellowed, regarding me through bloodshot eyes. He then proceeded to break the law.

He pulled out a cigar from the box in his desk drawer and lit it up – regardless of the fact that smoking in any public building was illegal in the UK.

I knew he was lying about writing reports that morning. He always got in about 11am because he was lazy and had probably had a late night. He usually got me to write the reports for the senior partners but sent them with his name on.

The senior partners were also sleeping partners and invisible partners and I had no idea who they were. All I know is that Bullfinch always referred to them in hushed tones and was in obvious terror of them.

Things are very hard, Lock. Advertising revenues are well down. I am fighting to save everyone’s job, including yours, but it is very difficult when we are not meeting our targets. You have failed me, Lock. It is crunch time. You are just not bringing in the business and we are going down the toilet,” Bullfinch said.

There is a general recession that has hit everyone. People just don’t have the money at the moment,” I started to explain.

Bullshit. The money is there. It just takes professional salespeople to get it and I am afraid you are not one of them.” He hissed cigar smoke in my face.

Look, I am not a trained salesman. I just do it as part of my overall duties. We take multi-skilling to a ridiculous degree in this company. I work long and hard and I have missed out on a salary rise for the last three years . . .” I began to protest.

Don’t give me that. We have all had to make sacrifices,” he barked back.

My eyes strayed to the photo of his yacht that sat on his desktop. The massive motorised yacht was moored in the South of France where he liked to holiday. It kept Bullfinch close to the casinos and roulette wheels where a lot of the company profits ended up.

Look, I will speak frankly with you. What I say in this office stays in this office. You are a weak link and we all want you out. It will happen one way or another, by redundancy or sacking. Of course we have to work within the restrictions of the stupid employment laws we have in this country and have a lot of meetings with HR,” Bullfinch said.

HR?”

Human Resources. We used to call them ‘personnel’. Trust me, you will be ousted; but this conversation is off the record and I will deny it if you bring it up. We will get you out as cheaply as possible and you would do well to go quietly. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to become an enemy of the senior partners.

You are holding back ambitious young men like Clive who have to work under you.”

Yes, Clive was an ambitious, slimy little creep who was always scuttling into Bullfinch to complain about me and share cocaine with him.

Look, I have given the company a lot of loyalty and I don’t deserve to be treated like this,” I blustered.

I lacked confidence in my own opinions and I was indecisive. Often at meetings Bullfinch, Clive and the rest of them would be spouting a lot of hot air and I would think to myself ‘that is just not right’ but I would not say it out loud. Then when their latest great scheme would fail and lose money somehow I would get the blame even though I had been against it.

Of course, all that changed later when I was faced with immediate life or death decisions and I gained the confidence to realise that sometimes I was right and other people were wrong.

I started to plead: “I also have a lot of personal commitments and I cannot afford to be out of work.”

That was an understatement. Marian, my wife of 25 years, had divorced me. She was the one who had been unfaithful and took a lover in my one-time friend Norman. My son Peter had stayed with her and I was now paying for him to go through university as well as paying Marian alimony. As if this wasn’t enough, Marian had got our house. It was now her house in spite of the fact that I had paid the mortgage.

As for me, I was now living in a pokey rented bedsit with a bed in one corner, a sink and cooker in another corner, no television, just a computer so I could continue working at home, and an adjoining shower room with a toilet. My bedsit was situated in the very unfashionable Plaistow in East London. I did get to keep the old family car, a modest and old Nissan that, living in London, I hardly used. Just to complete the prison-like atmosphere I was watched over by my 75-year-old German landlady who lived on the premises.

It was unfair but Marian had got herself a good high priced lawyer thanks to intervention from her rich father, who had never approved of our marriage. I had never been good enough for his precious Marian. Norman on the other hand was a successful merchant banker and much more what her father had in mind.

I had my own name for Marian: ‘Marian the carrion’. I had renamed her that as she stripped all my possessions from my carcass. Though, of course, strictly speaking she was not the carrion, I was.

And were my estranged family grateful to me for all I had given up and my continuing financial support while I lived in squalor? Of course not. Peter never called me ‘Dad’, preferring the expression “loser”. At least that was better than the “wimp” that Norman always called me. And of course I was a loser and now I was about to lose my job.

I hated my job but I needed the money and in the current recession I would have great difficulty in finding another job. I also hated Bullfinch and I was debating how far I would humiliate myself by begging him not to fire me.

Give me another chance,” I started. “I have many useful contacts. It takes years to build up as many contacts as I have.”

You have run out of chances, Lock. I have the senior partners demanding action.” Again his tone of voice lowered to one of reverence as he mentioned the senior partners. “We will go through all the procedures we have to satisfy the employment protection laws but trust me you will be gone in a month.” Bullfinch showed no compassion or regret.

His phone rang and Bullfinch snatched it up. Someone spoke on the other end of the line and the change in Bullfinch was instantaneous. He froze and the colour drained from his florid face.

Get out,” he snapped at me – so I did.

Without a doubt that was the beginning of my growing paranoia. Except paranoia is when you imagine everyone is out to get you. In my case I knew they really were out to get me.

When I got back to my desk, Clive was waiting for me. Smooth, handsome and calculating, Clive, who always wore a waistcoat, bow tie and a carnation buttonhole. Clive’s drug taking was beginning to affect his behaviour, but it was hardly something I could speak to Bullfinch about as they were both on the same slow road to self-destruction.

The boss man give you a hard time?” Clive asked with a smirk.

Our conversation was confidential,” I answered.

I am sure he will tell me about it,” Clive examined his fingernails. “He tells me everything.”

Yes I know you are very close,” I said. My sarcasm was lost on Clive.

He just shrugged and moved away but a few moments later he was in with Bullfinch and whispering in his ear. No doubt he was reporting what I had just said. He was like Iago to Bullfinch’s Othello, constantly whispering spiteful tales into his ear.

However, in a dodgy company like ours paranoia ran high. I next had the ‘King of Paranoia’ approach me, Don Murphy, the financial director.

He was a middle aged, scruffy, nervous guy whose hands shook all the time. He was on pills for his nerves. He had also seen me in with Bullfinch.

What do you know?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone was listening. “What have you heard?”

I was irritated with it all. I just wanted to get on with my job. “If something was going on I would be the last to know. You do the accounts. You must know more than the rest of us”

It is difficult to talk in the office. Walls have ears. Lunch – the usual place?” Murphy asked.

Of course,” I agreed. Anything for a quiet life.

The usual place was a local pub so unfriendly and unhygienic that no one from the office went there. To go into the pub was to step back into the 1950s – the same furniture, the same curtains, the same carpet, the same darts board and the same pool table from 60 years ago. The only concession the pub had made to the 21st century was to remove the partition between the Saloon Bar (men in suits, 1 penny extra on a pint) and the Public Bar (men in overalls, 1 penny off a pint) and make it all one pub. Oh yes, and a colour television in one corner for those who wanted to watch sport.

Choosing what to eat there was easy. Only one item on the menu – a ploughman’s lunch – and since that didn’t have to be cooked it wasn’t too bad.

I had a miniature bottle of wine and Murphy had his usual, a neat double gin.

That must taste horrible without a mixer and should you be drinking that with all the tablets you are taking?” I asked.

It relaxes me,” Murphy gulped at the clear poisonous liquid. It didn’t stop his shakes. “As an Irishman I suppose you think that I should be downing pints of Guinness. Well I prefer this vicious and unfriendly English spirit. My wife is always nagging me to give up the booze and the pills. She says I am out of control and she won’t let me touch anything remotely dangerous. I have had to promise her that I will never drive the car, use the oven or toaster or even mow the lawn with our electric mower.”

Do you keep your promise?”

Of course I have sworn a solemn oath and even I would not trust myself with anything that needs a delicate touch. I could crash the car or blow the place up. Have you ever met my wife?”

No.”

Trust me, if you had met Glenda you would know better than to ever break a promise to her.”

She couldn’t be any worse than Marian the carrion, I was thinking. Then I brought the conversation back to the state of the company.

So according to the Bullfrog (my pet name for Bullfinch) the company is going down the toilet and I am first in line to lose my job,” I said.

Don’t you believe it. There is so much money going through the company. The only problem is that it doesn’t stay there long. Some companies are paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to subscribe to our crappy magazines and even more to advertise in them. Then the Bullfrog siphons it off into obscure offshore accounts,” Murphy told me.

Is this where the senior partners come into all this?”

The senior partners all work for the same multi-national corporation and there is some serious activity going on there. They have their own auditors going over our books at the moment so they are planning something.”

What is this corporation? Will I have heard of it?”

You often hear people described as ‘psychopathic’ but this is the first time I have come across a psychopathic corporation. It is best I keep its name to myself for now. You would not believe how much money this little publishing business pulls in. You also would not believe how much money Bullfinch takes out! By rights we should all be millionaires.”

Is Bullfinch still the owner?” I asked.

Nominally. Our company is not a public company but it is still obliged to publish its accounts and board of directors. If you checked it out at Companies House you would find out that Bullfinch, me as the token chartered accountant, and a couple of nominee directors are listed as our board but we are not really running things. I remember when the senior partners first took over a couple of years ago, to ‘bail’ Bullfinch out it was said, everything changed. We are a small part of something so much bigger that owns us body and soul.”

As long as we don’t end up in jail when the bubble bursts,” I swigged down my wine with a laugh.

Murphy was a neurotic who saw conspiracies everywhere. However the image he had summoned up of a psychopathic corporation would not go away. I strongly suspected that our company was caught up in some very dishonest business, tax evasion or something much worse. As Bullfinch lost control and became more confused due to his drug taking I had increasingly caught glimpses of documents and accounts I was not meant to see.

Bullfinch’s behaviour was becoming increasingly odd and there was one particular incident that stuck in my mind. He had summoned me to his office so I went straight in without knocking. His back was towards me, he was talking to someone and he sounded scared. He had been alone in the office and he wasn’t on the phone.

“Please trust me. I will deal with it at once. I can explain–.” He turned round when I entered and broke off mid sentence.

I was surprised to see him wearing a pair of spectacles with thick black heavy frames. The lenses were opaque and just for a second I thought I saw flashing coloured lights on them.

He snatched the spectacles off almost guiltily when he saw me and threw them in a drawer.

I didn’t know you wore glasses,” I commented.

I don’t, ever,” he barked.

So I knew better than to ever mention it again.