Twelve boxes in total were pulled and despatched. Again, Paul took it on himself to deliver the orders. I was in no state to face Mr Golien again, just yet.
Paul asked me to carry on with the Destruction List. The two youngsters, subdued by the news of Phil, were quiet and industrious. I left them to it and wandered back into the office.
I sat in Paul’s chair and rubbed my eyes wearily. I’d got the answers I thought I wanted, and now I wished I’d never bloody asked for them. Time for decisions. There was no way I could stay here now, not after all the shit I’d uncovered. I’d go up in a moment and tell Tyndall to stuff the job.
Just close my eyes for a moment…
“We’re off now, Mark. Lunch time”
I turned suddenly, stared blankly at the two storemen. I glanced at the clock on the wall. Bloody hell, one thirty already. One of them grinned at me.
“Typical bloody supervisor! Having a kip while we do all the work.”
I smiled back. “Sorry, lads. Haven’t been getting much sleep lately. How long was I out?”
“Just half hour. Don’t worry, I won’t grass you up to management.” They both left, laughing amongst themselves.
I squeezed the bridge of my nose and looked at the PC screen. The homepage on the database screen still said WELCOME, PAUL MASKELL. In the mad rush and shocking news he’d forgotten to log himself out.
A thought struck me. As Storage Supervisor he would have more permissions than any of the stores staff. I wouldn’t have the same permissions until I took over his role. Yeah, right. As if that was going to happen.
Still, wouldn’t do any more harm in looking at what Paul had access to. I clicked on the welcome screen and stared at the options that came up.
CURRENT ORDERS…twelve of them, all with the same delivery address. Marcham Interchange, A34 Northbound. And yes, along with the unique box barcode was the title P Ross and what looked like his date of birth. I hit the back button and looked at the other options.
RETURN TO STORE…nothing there. Obviously all booked in and put back to shelf.
CURRENT DESTRUCTION…yes, that was what me and the two youngsters were working on. I clicked on that.
The screen went yellow for a moment, making me blink. Then a list was populated. Two hundred and twelve records, each entry coming up in the same format as an order request, and in date order, most recent last. Box barcode, title, date of birth…
The most recent one was no surprise. S Lander. I wondered if that was the box that had caused so much terror to the storesman who had dropped it and looked at the contents.
“No, Mark, it wasn’t,” a voice said behind me. I whirled round in the swivel chair. Peter Tyndall was standing in the doorway.
He looked tired and strained. His tie was loosened around his collar, his hair was dishevelled and his face pale and drawn. He entered and closed the door. He nodded towards the PC monitor.
“Paul hasn’t told you everything, I see.”
“He’s told me enough. Jesus Christ, Tyndall. How can you put up with this? How can you expect anyone to do this job without going insane? Why do you do it?”
A faint smile. “You’re implying that we have a choice. Did he tell you about the contract? Probationary period? No, I bet he didn’t. I need to discuss that with you.” He pulled over one of the chairs and sat down next to me. He looked at the screen, sighed softly and shook his head.
Yellow was the wrong choice of background colour for this database. And Paul had the contrast set to high. Turning back to Tyndall I had white blotches in my vision. For a moment it looked like Tyndall had specks of yellow in his eyes. I blinked, squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again.
“Seeing things, young Mark?”
“No,” I muttered. “Screen’s a bit too bright, that’s all.”
“Ah yes, the screen.” Tyndall leant forward. “Click on the most recent entry.”
“Yes, Mr Lander. The gentlemen you met yesterday.”
I did as instructed. Up came a screen I hadn’t seen before.
ARCHIVE CONTENTS – Please select
The screen contained a listing of every single item that was in the box.
“As you can see, everything is catalogued. We’re in talks with the client to scan the items, have them in a digital format. It would make deliveries so much more…”
He frowned. “Cost effective is the selling point we used. However, money is of no object to the client – “
“And he prefers the traditional methods of pen and paper.” I quoted from the managers’ response in my interview. I clicked on a random entry on the screen. I stared at it in surprise and whistled. “He’s got a point. The last thing he’d want is these things being accessed by a hacker. Or left on a laptop or flash drive and being lost on the Underground.”
“Quite,” Tyndall sighed. “His response exactly.”
I shook my head at what I was seeing. “Seems this Lander bloke wasn’t the quiet family guy the press painted him as. Some real dodgy dealing going on here. Bribes, backhanders…healthy bank balances, too healthy by the look of them. Didn’t think insurance paid that well.”
“How come all this is on file? I can’t imagine Lander would want anyone knowing about this, let alone having it in black and white.”
Tyndall cocked his head and stared at me. “He didn’t have a choice. The client insists. All part of the Terms and Conditions of the contract.”
I frowned. “You’re losing me. What, was he employed by him then?”
“In a way.” Tyndall closed his eyes and rubbed his neck. He rolled his shoulders and head, wincing. “I’ll be glad to come off the rota. It’s your turn tomorrow.”
“Now hang on a minute – “
“Mark.” He smiled knowingly. “I know what you’re going to say. I know you have cold feet, you’re thinking of pulling out. That’s why I need to talk about your contract with you. I need to show you something.”
We left the office, walked over to the returns pallet. The Lander box was on the top of the returns pile.
“So what was it that freaked the young’un out?”
“His father died last month. Heart attack. It was his box that he…inadvertently opened. Shocking way to learn what your old dad is really about, don’t you think?
“As his father passed away the client had no need of the records anymore. That is why it was returned to us, on the Destruction List. That is why Mr Lander’s box is no longer required.”
Defying the orders of the contract with the client, Peter Tyndall opened the box and pulled out a sheet of paper. “I said Mr Lander was employed by the client, in a way. And he was. Not a regular contract of employment, as such, but something more binding.” He handed it to me.
As I held it in my hands I realised it wasn’t paper. It was parchment. The writing on it hadn’t been done with a laser or inkjet printer. This was handwritten, a flowing river of words that was almost beautiful to look at. Like the most stunning piece of calligraphy I’d ever seen. All in black, apart from the signature at the base, below the name of Stefan Lander.
Lander’s own signature. It was old, but even if the date hadn’t given it away the fading and discolouration of the liquid used for the signature would have done.
Faded and discoloured, but still unmistakably blood.
I lowered the parchment and handed it back to Tyndall. I didn’t want to read the finer points of the contract.
“Every single box in our archives contains one of those. The rest of the documents…well, they vary from individual to individual. No one’s life story is the same now, is it?”
“Returns,” I whispered. “Why are there returns? If the boxes are called out when these people die, surely they’re only needed once. Why don’t they all come back on the Destruction List?”
“The boxes don’t just go out upon the death of the subject. Every seven years the contract must be renewed. The client needs to add fresh data, new documentation on his client’s lives and sins to their individual files. That’s when the client adds new archives to the file. Until the individual passes away… no live file is ever complete.”
New archives. Lives and sins…
“Oh, Jesus…” That was it. I was getting out, now. I turned, heading for the exit.
“Going for lunch, are you?” Tyndall asked meaningfully.
“Yeah. And I ain’t coming back. You can shove this job, Tyndall.” I was at the door when he called out to me.
“You can’t leave, Mark. You signed a contract as well.”
I halted, my hand on the pushbar. I smiled as I turned back.
“No, Peter. I’m still on probationary, remember?”
Tyndall laughed softly and walked towards me. He put his hand on the pushbar, next to mine.
“Did you read the contract thoroughly, young man?”
“Yeah,” I said hoarsely. “I don’t put my name to anything without knowing what I’m signing up for. Fine toothcomb, Pete. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Really.” He had a sad smile on his face, pitying. “I think you’d better go home and read it again. Nothing out of the ordinary? What did you sign it with?”
I laughed in his face. “Well, I didn’t sign it in blood like the stupid fuckers in these - ” The words froze in my mouth.
Tyndall sighed. “Didn’t you? Go home and have another look at it. I’ll be waiting.”
I hadn’t intended to return. I’d been determined to slam the door on Adasantsat Storage and never look back. But when I got home and pulled out my Terms and Conditions of Employment from the expanding folder, staring at the document in mounting horror and disbelief, I knew I was going to have to return.
Tyndall was right. I didn’t have a choice. None of the employees at Adasantsat did. Least of all me.
Graham O’Neil and Oliver Nigel did though. The two managers who’d interviewed me, who hadn’t shown up at the firm since. They had more in common with Mr Golien than I’d realised. Not just a shared taste in made up names.
I parked sloppily, slamming the door. Trudging my way to the storage facility, my shoulders slumped, I pondered the contract again. I could have kicked myself. The small print was there, in black and white. How could I have been so bloody stupid? Had the pain from the falling picture, the cut on my finger dulled my senses?
The company reserves the right to extend or reduce your probationary period as it deems appropriate. I’d seen that as standard. A lot of firms extend it if you have too much time off sick or commit breaches of their disciplinary procedure, that’s standard business practice. Very few firms think you’re such a golden boy that they’ll reduce it.
Yet that’s what they’d done to me. On my way out of the flat I’d noticed a letter on the doormat addressed to me. A letter from the Personnel department, congratulating me on my outstanding performance and notifying me that my probationary period had ended with effect from yesterday’s date. After only two days I was a fully-fledged member of the company. And as such, had a job for life.
Signed in blood. Well, I hadn’t used a quill dipped into a cut vein. But it was my blood on the contract, just over my signature. I’d only realised that when I looked at my copy and wondered where the stain had gone. I’d kept the bloodstained copy and sent the clean one to the HR manager. I was sure of it.
I was obviously wrong. There was no trace of blood on my copy whatsoever.
I’d thought of going to the Personnel department to ask to see my records, have a closer look at what I’d sent them. There was no point.
The HR manager had signed herself as Ms E Olgin. There was only one place my records would be kept.
I just wondered what shelf location my archive storage box had. Was there a special bay for Adasantsat employees? Or was it stored alphabetically? After all, with so many boxes coming out and so few returning there were plenty of gaps on the shelves.
I pulled open the door. I couldn’t see anyone about, but I saw the rear of one of the scissor lifts disappearing into the racking of the centre aisle.
I frowned as I realised that the coat hooks didn’t have the youngsters’ coats on them. They were still out to lunch.
Tyndall’s suit jacket was there, though. So he was the only one who could be in that scissor lift.
“Pete?” I called out. “You in there?”
I advanced towards the centre aisle. I could hear the incessant beep-beep-beep of an ascending scissor lift. Going down the aisle I could see Tyndall, his hand pushing the joystick down. At his feet was an archive storage box. Attached to the front guide rail was something that looked like thin rope or heavy twine.
“Pete! What you doing?”
Tyndall turned over his shoulder, caught my eyes and smiled sadly. He released the joystick and the machine stopped.
“You got the letter then, Mark. Congratulations. You’ll be getting another letter shortly. Selected people can rise very quickly within the firm. ”
“Selected? What the fuck does that mean? Selected by who?”
Tyndall shook his head slowly. “The client has great plans for you. Just remember what I said when we first met.” He pushed the joystick forwards, the machine ascended to the very top of the warehouse. He leaned over the front safety rails of the scissor lift. At first I thought he was looking for something.
Then he leant backwards, kicked the platform extension release pedal and pushed the extension forwards. The blue rope tied to the front was lifted and placed around his neck.
A noose. The only thing Tyndall was searching for was a way out.
Satisfied that the modification to the scissor lift was appropriate to his task, and ignoring my shouted requests to stop, Tyndall clambered over the guide rails and jumped.
The rope that unravelled had a length of about eight feet. Just enough length for the tightened noose to snap the MD’s spine with a wet cracking sound that echoed around the warehouse.
I swayed on my feet, legs turned to jelly, overcome with the horror I’d witnessed. My first thought was for a phone, I had to get the police out here. Too late for an ambulance, but –
“No need to contact the authorities, Mark. We’ll take care of that.”
I swallowed noisily. I thought I’d been alone, I’d heard no footsteps approaching after the incident. That meant they had been behind me all this time, watching Tyndall’s suicide. Doing nothing about it but watching.
“We see he’s saved you the trouble of picking the box.” It was O’Neil who spoke this time. “And of course, there’s no requirement for you to deliver it. The client can collect it ourselves.”
I turned to face O’Neil and Nigel. They were both smiling, both looking at me, and I knew it was no trick of the overhead lights that caused their irises to appear flecked with gold. I knew what their link to the client was.
“The client can collect it ourselves…” I smiled grimly. “Took me a while to figure that bit out. Mr Golien. G O’Neil. O Nigel.
“And of course, E Olgin from Personnel. So many of you, and yet only one name. One name that fits all. For you are many.”
O’Neil clapped his hands in mock applause. “Legion doesn’t give you many options for name variations, we will admit. You can call us by our…more well known title if you prefer.”
Now I started to laugh. I was all too aware that my laughter was high-pitched, almost the hysterical laughter that came from Paul Maskell earlier.
“Adasantsat Storage. Y’know, as soon as I figured out the Legion part it didn’t take long to work out what that title is an anagram of. Do you want a giggle? At first it came out as Santa’s Data. But no…”
O’Neil shook his head while Nigel smiled patiently.
“Not Santa’s Data,” I continued. “Definitely not Santa. Santa gives – you just take. You take it all.”
Nigel spread his hands. “It is ours to take. You’re damned. All of you.”
My laughter turned to anger. “Bollocks! Everyone who died on Piper Alpha, everyone who dies in a natural disaster, a terrorist attack - don’t you dare tell me that their souls all belong to you. What about the innocent? Children? How can you tell me that they signed contracts in their own blood?”
“A fair point, Mark. It is only the adults – the easily tempted, the easily corruptible – who willingly sell their souls. The others…the ‘innocents’ as people like you insist on calling them…well, we’re involved in a dispute with the other party who believes the souls are his to keep. A business dispute, a question of breach of contract, but this is a case that no Earthly lawyer can involve himself in.
“We take them nevertheless. His agents visit them afterwards and attempt to release them. Sadly, we’ve had to let quite a few go.”
“But our stock never remains depleted for long,” O’Neil said, smugly. “For very…’innocent’ that we are forced to release, there are a score or more who willingly sell themselves.” He looked around the warehouse, grinning at the corpse dangling down the extension platform of the scissor lift. “The archives get bigger and fatter for those. And eventually, the full bays will overtake the empty ones. We believe that the time will come shortly when we once again need to expand our storage facility. The contract’s escalation is only a matter of time, and we need quality staff. Such a shame that Mr Tyndall let us down.”
“Not cut out for the job,” said Nigel. “A tragedy. He showed so much promise in the early years. Still, he’s only human.”
“Only human. You see Mark, this is the problem we have. We are dependant on human beings to run this operation. We may be legion, but we can only spread ourself so thinly. The physical storage of these precious archives is an all too earthly requirement. Of course, the majority of our stores teams do not think too deeply and just get on with what they’re asked to do. But there’s always one or two who will insist on thinking. On asking questions. On opening boxes. None of you remember Pandora.” His eyes bored into mine, the same unearthly penetrating gaze that Golien confronted me with.
“The contract is normally enough to keep these…individuals in line. As Ross and Maskell told you, no-one goes out on a delivery until the probationary period expires and the contract is firmly in place.”
“And no-one is going to risk breaching that contract, are they?” I smiled mirthlessly. “And if anyone fucks up…Jesus, fear is a powerful weapon, isn’t it? Kept Paul Maskell in line – not Phil, though, and obviously not Jim. Tyndall?”
“As we said, a pity. However, this wasn’t entirely unforeseen. Mr Tyndall’s position will not remain unfilled for long. ”
O’Neil put his arm around my shoulders. I stiffened.
“We like to promote and recruit from within.” His voice was soft and sibilant, a snake’s hiss. “I believe you were informed of this by your previous employer? We were hoping to move Paul Maskell into the role of more senior management, but we believe he’ll be happier – and secretly relieved - if he remains on the shop floor.
“You, however…you are a very special individual. You have more in common with us than you realise.”
“You have a certain look in your eyes,” Nigel added with no sense of irony. It wasn’t lost on me though. I felt like screaming, running away from that burning, gold-flecked gaze with pupils that were pinpricks of the ultimate darkness, but I knew there was nowhere to run to. There was no escape – even Tyndall knew that. Where he went now only O’Neil, Nigel and Golien – Legion – knew. It would be no respite though. It was an act of ultimate despair.
“That’s why we took the decision to end your probationary period so rapidly. You came very highly recommended from your previous employers.”
I shook his arm away and moved backwards. “Say what?”
Nigel grinned, his teeth gleaming. “You reference came to us before you applied for the job. Before you were even considered for redundancy.”
“This has all been planned. Preordained, if you prefer,” O’Neil added, his bared teeth an exact mirror image of Nigel’s – and Mr Golien’s, come to think of it. “You are ours. You have always been ours.”
I stepped backwards, hands raised. “No. No fucking way.”
O’Neil advanced, his head inclining forward, his eyes burning into mine.
“Signed in blood, young man. That confirms it. But you sold yourself to us the moment you lied on your application. Stores Manager of two warehouses? Your salary was a lie, also. Did you not think it odd that we gave you a higher salary than you quoted?”
Despite my fear, my continued retreat, an urge to laugh overcame me. I halted.
“A lie? Is that all it took? Fuck me, Mister Legion, everyone lies on their CVs. Everyone! How else d’you get the job? Shit, get real!”
“A little white lie?” Nigel raised his eyebrows. “An embellishment here, a covered-up gap in employment history there…a half-hearted attempt to deceive your wife. Sorry, your ex-wife.
“Yes, little lies. A drop in the ocean, you may say in your defence. Everyone does it, it’s no big deal, you bleat.
“Yet what is an ocean but a massive concentration of these little drops? Everything adds up, young Mark. A drop in your eyes merely adds to that ocean in ours. A sea. A massive, undulating ever-rising sea. A sea of sins, ever increasing, forever becoming deeper with each drowning soul that is inadvertently sold to us by the little sins. You become mired in your sins so greatly that after a while you don’t know the difference between the little sins and the greater ones. That is when we step in, open your eyes to what you really are, what you have become. Then, with a fresh contract we can really do business. We can help you make the most of yourself, make these sins work for you in this life. There are so many pleasures that those sins can buy, so much comfort and riches. Why not enjoy your time on this plane while you can? You’re damned anyway, after death you are ours regardless. Why be a martyr to it?”
I laughed, my confidence returning and starting to overcome my fear. I remembered how I’d look at myself yesterday, the confidence I’d felt over the breakfast before I met and spoke with Tyndall. For that moment, I forced myself to forget what I’d physically seen of myself in the mirror, ignored the harrowed face and words of Tyndall. The confidence. The arrogance. I stuck with that. I made myself stick to it. If I slipped once, I’d realise what I was doing, what and who I was up against and I’d stumble and fall. And there’d be no recovery from that.
“Pretty speech, Mr Legion. No sale, though.”
O’Neil and Nigel glanced at each other. The smiles froze before turning back to me and widening with false warmth.
“You’ve got the bloody cheek to lecture me about lies – but what are you? The Master of Lies, the ultimate deceiver. Oh yeah, I remember some of my Sunday School lessons! Funny how some of the stuff you thought was absolute shite as a kid still sticks, becomes a help as an adult!
“We’re human. We all fall, we all sin. But don’t you dare stand there and tell me that it automatically makes us yours. That putting a bit of blood to a contract is just ‘enhancing’ the sale for our benefit. If we all belong to you, you don’t need us to hand over our souls on paper. That’s just your warm-up before you go in for the big sell. Go on, Beelzebollocks. Pick the bones outa that one.”
I must admit, I was quite proud of that little speech at the time. I folded my arms and glared at them both defiantly.
I should have known what to expect. An entity that was as old as God, had ensnared innumerable human souls – would it be humbled by me? Swayed by my argument? Of course not. They had me.
You see, after my little outburst they took me back into the office and showed me their copy of my contract. They pointed out the section that explained the company’s disciplinary procedure.
Any attempt to open the boxes or inspect the contents is a gross breach of discipline, and is dealt with accordingly. Tyndall had opened the archive box, but I had looked at it. Inspected it.
“The Disciplinary Procedure is explained quite clearly in the Employee Handbook. Perhaps you were not issued with a copy?” Nigel’s eyes glinted, his very words mocking me. “A failing on our Personnel Department’s side. We do apologise. We will have a word with them about that. In the meantime, please take this copy.”
I thought Tyndall had been doing me a favour by showing what was within the archives. He hadn’t. He was merely making his departure easier for the company by tying me more rigidly to it.
I’m looking at this procedure in the Company Handbook now. It’s seven in the morning and I haven’t been to bed yet. An empty vodka bottle lies on the sofa beside me. I wish I could feel drunk.
Sunlight is prodding through the curtains. It’s going to be a beautiful day by all accounts. That makes it worse. This is the day I have to make the decision. Never before have I dreaded the thought of a posted envelope coming through the letterbox. I look at my watch. Ten minutes past seven. The postie will be here soon. I bury my head in my hands and start to weep.
I’ve read and re-read the Handbook a hundred times. Each time the horror of it fills me with fresh despair. This firm doesn’t bother with verbal and written warnings. It recognises human failings but will not tolerate all too human mistakes.
Each employee has their own archive box, as I’d suspected. Just knowing that is enough to keep us in line. There’s one significant difference in the contracts we’ve signed to those we deliver. By joining the company, by signing in blood an agreement to work for him, we’ve sold not just our souls but our bodies as well. The Disciplinary Procedure goes into great detail about what can happen to the latter. It even gives examples.
O’Neil and Nigel had let me take the rest of the day off after showing the contents of certain archive boxes that had been kept off the Destruction List. A special bay is reserved for these boxes, the records of Adasantsat employees who dare to believe they can get away with disobeying the company. One last, new document is added to the individual’s archive before being put to shelf for the last time. The final file that details how the employee died.
What methods were used, how much blood was spilled, and how long it took to die. A time measured in not hours or minutes, but days, weeks – sometimes even months. All in comprehensively detailed reports, accompanied by full colour photographs.
An archive of pain. After what I was shown from Jim Doyle’s file I was in no fit state to work.
Oh, there’s so much we can do to you, so much pain we can inflict. Knowing that death will not be a release but instead a doorway to even greater suffering it is no surprise that the agonised human body clings tenaciously to life. The Managing Director who tried to stop boxes going out to Aberdeen, in the vain hope that he would give those souls a chance to escape…it took him six weeks to die at the tender hands of our Personnel Manager. Edith Olgin has such a talent for these things.
Fortunate were we that a young storeman by the name of Peter Tyndall had just passed his probationary period with flying colours and apart from a minor breach of discipline was ready to take on the role.
Perhaps Tyndall had been in the same position as me. Perhaps he was offered the same deal as I’m being offered now. Take the job and the disciplinary will go no further. Refuse it and Personnel will come for you.
Put like that I guess I have no real choice. I’ll have to accept, take the job, and figure out a way of escaping later. Trouble with that is that it means some other poor bastard will see a tempting job offer, probably freshly redundant and desperate for a job…and my escape? Maybe something along the same lines of Tyndall’s exit. And what happens after that only Legion – and the Other Party – know.
So, be careful with your job hunting. And read the Terms and Conditions of your Contract of Employment carefully. Very carefully. It’s not just your life that you’re signing away.