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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Jan Christensen—All for One, One for All

89_ym_all4oneone4all_amr.jpg
Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2021

                    ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL

                                                   by

                                        Jan Christensen

 

        A file drawer, partially open, spilled folders onto the floor. The bookshelf was in disarray, and three of her desk drawers were gaping, obviously searched. Lisbeth stood in the doorway and watched Billy Wood, his back to her, open another desk drawer and paw through it. Her heart seemed to be in her throat and her stomach at the same time, and she felt as if she were watching something obscene. On silent feet, she crept away. What was he looking for? She had nothing to hide in her office.

* * * * *

        The day had started all wrong for Lisbeth. Soon after she arrived at work, April Simmons, her boss, called her in to complain about a phone message Lisbeth had taken. The name and phone number both were wrong. April was obviously annoyed, but mystified. Usually her assistant took impeccable phone messages. Lisbeth mumbled an apology and backed out of the room without a real explanation.

        Backing, she bumped into Jennifer, the departmental clerk.  A file folder tumbled, contents spilling everywhere.  “Oh, Jenny, I'm sorry. Here, let me help.  I didn't see you.”

        “It's hard to see someone when you're backing up—you're not equipped with mirrors, you know,” Jenny joked as they bent down and scooped up papers together. “Is something wrong, Lisbeth?”

        “No, of course not.”

        “Well, how about lunch with the bunch? We're going to Denny's.”

        “Not today, thanks. I've got lots of work to do, so I'll eat here.”

        “But you never go out with us anymore.  You've become a regular hermit. And you end up eating with the Princesses of Unhappiness in the cafeteria. Not healthy.”

        Lisbeth smiled. “Is that what you call them?”

        “Yeah.  You ever notice they're always complaining? You get like that, and I'll misfile your memos, make lots of typing mistakes and mess up your phone messages.” She stopped when she saw the look on her friend's face.  “What is it? Something's wrong and has been for a while. I just know it.”

        “Nothing, really, Jenny. Now I honestly do have an awful lot to do.”

        Jenny shrugged. Lisbeth turned away, walked to her office, and closed the door, allowing her shoulders to slump in discouragement. Severely slender, and losing weight lately, she knew she should not slump. She was pretty, with even features and luxurious brown hair which tumbled down her thin shoulders. Dark circles and faint lines had started to appear around her soft brown eyes. She'd stopped looking at herself closely in the mirror. Mentally she shook herself and noticed all the drawers were shut and her office looked pretty normal.  She walked to her desk, banging her hip on the corner. Absently she rubbed it as she sat down and began working.

        A little after noon she went to the nearly deserted cafeteria, joining the table where Millie sat with several other secretaries. Few employees took advantage of the cafeteria, so it was quiet, though a bit dumpy. Lisbeth understood why Jenny dubbed the group the Princesses of Unhappiness. Millie, Personnel Secretary, dominated the group. She was the largest, both in height and girth, and she had a loud voice which she used to give her opinion about everything. Next to her sat Ellen, mousy and mostly quiet, but when she did speak, it was almost always to say something negative. Ellen was the Personnel Department Assistant. Nancy and Melissa from Accounting rounded out the group. They were complaining about their bosses while Lisbeth remained silent. Then the conversation turned to the up-coming Christmas party.

        “Have you bought anything new to wear, yet, Lisbeth?” Millie asked.

        “Yes, I have. It's silver and slinky.” Lisbeth smiled.

        “How wonderful. Sounds like you'll have to pull your hair back and wear dangling earrings,” Millie told her. Snakelike, her hands reached out to pull Lisbeth's hair away from her face.

        Lisbeth ducked violently, upsetting her soda into Millie's lap.

        “Be careful,” Millie yipped.

        “Oh, I'm sorry,” Lisbeth said as she grabbed napkins to hand her.

        Everyone was quiet while Millie dabbed at her skirt, vexation showing on her pudgy face. Lisbeth quickly finished her lunch and hurried back to her department where April saw her and asked her to come into her office.

        April looked so upset that Lisbeth was sure she had made another mistake and that April was ready to fire her. Her supervisor motioned for her to sit, so she perched on the chair, clutching her hands tightly in her lap.

        “Lisbeth,” April began. “I don't know how to say this. Where to begin.” Her voice trailed off as Lisbeth held her breath, her fingernails digging into her palms.

        “I need to tell someone, someone I can trust.” Lisbeth relaxed a little. “It's about Billy Wood.” April paused once again and looked searchingly at Lisbeth, eyes pleading for understanding. “He's been harassing me. Sexually. He calls me into his office, closes the door, and says terrible things to me. I can't even repeat them. Then he pressures me to go out with him. He says I can never prove anything, that he talks like that to me and no one else, so I'd better not try charging him because I'd lose my job. Today he gave me one week to decide between going out with him or being fired.”

        “Oh, April. How awful.” Lisbeth was horrified. “What are you going to do?” Lisbeth knew April needed the job. She was a single mother, and her ex-husband was months behind with child support.

        “I don't know. You know how hard it is to prove harassment.”

        “Yes, but still. April, I believe you. I want you to know that. And if there's anything I can do--”

        “I appreciate that, Lisbeth. I had to tell someone.” Lisbeth nodded her understanding and got up to leave. April came around her desk, and impulsively, they hugged.

        Lisbeth went back to her office, and a few minutes later her intercom buzzed. Billy Wood told her to come to his office.

        After she arrived and sat down, Lisbeth waited for an explanation.      

 .      Billy tented his fingers and looked searchingly at her before beginning.

        “It seems that your behavior has become erratic lately.”

        Her body tensed as if awaiting a physical blow. “What do you mean by erratic?”

        “Well, you have trouble walking a straight line, close the door to your office an awful lot, avoid co-workers and get phone messages wrong. Some of your other work is slipping, too, I hear.”

        “Who told you that?” she demanded.

        “April.”

        “She wouldn't have—not officially—without talking to me first. What were you looking for in my office?”

        “You saw me?”

Lisbeth nodded.

“Bottles,” he said flatly.

        Lisbeth looked blank for a moment, then she scowled at Billy.

        “Liquor?”

        “Exactly.”

        Someone banged loudly, just once, on the door. It was April, who entered, breathless.

        “What's going on here? Billy, you have no right to talk to Lisbeth without my knowledge and even my consent. Jenny saw what was happening and told me you even searched Lisbeth's office, for heaven's sake.”

        “In this case, I do have the right. I have reason to believe she's been drinking on the job.”

        “What? Are you crazy?” April looked from one to the other, wide-eyed, then sat down abruptly in the other visitor's chair.

        “Mr. Wood,” Lisbeth said, chin raised. “Did you find any bottles in my office?”

        “Well, no.”

        “I guarantee there are none. I rarely drink—a little wine now and then. I would like to know who suggested the idea to you?”

        “Oh, I can't tell you that. But, of course if you were drinking, you wouldn't admit it. What other explanation do you have for your behavior?”

        Lisbeth hesitated. Then, with both April and Billy staring at her, she slowly raised the hair covering her ears and removed two hearing aids, placing them carefully on Billy Wood's desk.

        “About a year ago I noticed I couldn't hear the phone ringing from outside my door like I used to. Then my ears started buzzing. And when I put my head at a certain angle, the whole room whirled. So I went to a doctor, who sent me to an audiologist, who fitted me with these. They can't fix the buzzing or the occasional dizziness. They help me hear better, but sometimes things still aren't clear, especially when I get tired.” She turned to April. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. Somehow, I was ashamed. I thought maybe you'd think I wouldn't be as much help. I close my office door to hear better on the phone. I don't go to noisy restaurants because with these aides I hear the noise as loud as the conversation at my own table, so I have a real hard time understanding. Yes, I stagger—I have an inner ear balance problem.” Her eyes pleaded for understanding. “I was scared when this happened. I can't lose my job—I have hardly any savings, and no one in my family can help.”

        She reached out and put the aides back in her ears. Then with dignity, she said, “Mr. Wood, I think you owe me an apology.”

        “Yes, you do, Billy,” April told him. “And whoever started the rumor that Lisbeth drank on the job should be fired. Who knows how many people heard it?”

        Billy hedged. “But if she has these problems, she may not be capable of doing the job she was hired for. We'll have to evaluate this information and make a decision.”

        “You mean you might let me go?” Lisbeth cried.

        “No!” April exclaimed.

        “It's a possibility,” Billy said. Lisbeth could tell by his expression that he had made up his mind to get rid of her.

A loud crash made all three of them jump up and rush to the door.

        In Millie’s area, they stood stunned. A broken vodka bottle was smashed on Millie's desk. She looked at them in shock. “You're fired,” Billy told her. “Get out now.”

        Lisbeth didn’t want to hang around this train wreck. She and April sprinted to their offices.

        “Are you all right?” April asked where they arrived at Lisbeth’s door.

        “I'm fine. I'll always be fine. Billy better watch his back, though,” Lisbeth said through clenched teeth.

        “Twice,” April agreed.

        “Three times,” Millie sobbed as she dashed past them toward the ladies’ room, eyes awash with tears.

        “Wait. Wait, Millie,” April shouted at her as she ran down the corridor. She slowed, and April and Lisbeth caught up to her. “I think we need to get out of here. Grab your coats and stuff and meet me in the lobby.” Lisbeth and Millie nodded agreement as they rushed to get their things.

        April suggested a small bar and grill around the corner. She knew the plush red booth seats had high backs that blocked some sound and would give them some privacy. They ordered Margaritas, fried calamari, and fried zucchini. No one said anything until the drinks were served.

        “Was that really your bottle, Millie?” April asked.

        “No. It was Billy's.”

        Lisbeth started at her, but April only said, “I'm not surprised. He's the one who's erratic.”

        They ate the appetizers and ordered another drink, hardly speaking. Millie popped a fried calamari into her mouth. “I feel like killing him. It’s the only solution. Corporate loves him.”

        “Well, we could all quit,” Lisbeth pointed out.

        April shook her head. “I love my job here. I just hate dealing with Billy.”

        The waitress approached. “Everything all right here?” she asked.

        The three of them stared at her a few moments. “We’re fine,” Lisbeth said, “Thank you.”

        When she moved away, Lisbeth said, “We better keep our voices down and pretend we’re having a great time.”

        April grimaced. “You’re right.”

        “Anyone have any ideas on how to handle Billy going forward?” Millie dipped a zuccini slice in ranch dressing and took a bite.

        “We could all complain to corporate. Maybe check out some of the other workers and see if they’d join us.”

        “You think anyone would?” Lisbeth took a long swallow of her margarita, almost emptying her glass.

        April shook her head. “If we start asking around, it will get back to Billy. He has a few allies, you know.”

        “True,” Millie said. “I vote we just kill him.”

        April and Lisbeth stared at her. “Really? How?” Lisbeth asked.

        “With his own gun. He keeps it in his bottom desk drawer with the booze. I happen to have a key.”

        Lisbeth blinked, and her jaw fell open. “Do you know how to use a gun?”

        Millie shrugged. “Of course, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it.”

        Lisbeth and April exchanged glances. “Tempting,” Lisbeth murmured.

        The waitress appeared and asked if they needed their drinks refilled. They said yes and waited until she was far enough away to continue their conversation.

        “Let’s slow down here.” Lisbeth waved her hand at them. “Does Bily have any redeeming qualities?”

        “No!” Both and April and Millie said, then laughed ruefully.

        “You know he divorced his wife,” Millie pointed out. “And she told me he’s always behind on child support and usually bails on time with the kids. He wasn’t abusive, but he was a jerk with her, just as he is with us.”

        “That’s awful,” Lisbeth said. “We need to do something. I really believe he’ll get all three of us fired.”

        The other two nodded. “So,” Millie said, “we kill him?”

        Lisbeth’s heart pounded. She was so tempted, but also scared. But she was more scared of losing her job, especially now with the hearing loss. It could be difficult to find another one. She glanced at April. “What do you think?”

        “I am so sick of him.” She turned to Millie. “He’s been harassing me, and I know he’s going to get me fired because I won’t give into him. Let’s do it!”

        “That’s terrible,” Millie said. “You don’t think anyone will believe you if you report it?”

        “No, I don’t. Would you?”

        “No. So, what should we do? Like I said, shoot him?”

        April nodded. “Let’s go back to work, hide out in my office—no one would think it odd if my door is closed—and wait for quitting time, then get the gun and kill him. We’ll all be in on it together, and we’ll keep our jobs.”

        They drank to the idea. Lisbeth wondered if April and Millie still felt the hot anger that crawled deep inside her. That and the humiliation. They had one more drink each and left the bar, still so righteously angry that April and Millie barely staggered, and Lisbeth walked steadier than normal.

        Jennifer was leaving as they marched in, and she gave them a long look, but was anxious to go home, so asked no questions. Lisbeth noticed she seemed more harried than usual. They waited in April’s office until five-thirty because Millie assured them that Billy never left before six.

        They all wanted to be the one to pull the trigger, but Millie said, “I’m the only one who’s fired a gun before. Only at targets, but Billy will be close enough I can’t miss.”

        The minutes ticked by so slowly that Lisbeth thought she would scream. The liquor seemed to have lost its effect on her, and she wished for another drink.

        They watched the clock on April’s wall, and at exactly five-thirty they stood up, checked out the deserted hall and headed toward Billy's office. They made it without meeting anyone.

        When they entered his office. Millie shrieked. April gasped, and Lisbeth slapped her mouth with her hands so she wouldn’t scream.

        Billy lay sprawled across the desk with a wound in his back, very obviously dead. The bottom desk drawer was wide open. The gun had been placed next to his hand, a cushion from the reception area thrown in a corner, spewing its stuffing.

        All three backed out slowly, April returned the cushion she had clutched to her chest to its chair. Carefully checking the hallway, they went back to April’s office without discussing the fact that that was where they were headed.

        April silently closed the door behind them, and they sat down in the chairs they had just left, too stunned to talk.

        “Wow,” Lisbeth finally said. “It's too bad I have such a good motive, and no alibi.”

        “What do you mean?” Millie asked.

        “Well, I can't prove I was on my way home at the time of death, can I? Therefore, I'm a prime suspect.”

        “But we can all three vouch for each other,” Millie said.

        “No,” April said. “I don't have an alibi, either. And of course Lisbeth will have to tell the police that he was sexually harassing me.”

        “Oh.” Realization dawned on Millie. “And I had just been fired and have nobody to vouch for where I was during the time of the murder.”

        “Yeah. It's the least we can do for the killer. I’m sure she had her reasons. It had to be a woman.” Lisbeth said. “I wonder how the police are going to solve this one.”

* * * * *

        They never did.



THE END

Jan Christensen is a writer of short stories (over 70 published. Examples: Mysterical-E, Hardluck Stories, and Untreed Reads), mystery novels (12 published), and non-fiction. You can find her on her website: www.janchristensen.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=596611147 Now she’s off to write another story.


Ann Marie Rhiel is the Assistant Art Director for Yellow Mama Webzine. She was born and raised in Bronx, New York, presently living in New Jersey. She reconnected with her passion for art in 2016 and has had her work exhibited in art galleries around northern New Jersey ever since. She is a commissioned painting artist, who also enjoys photography. Her work has also appeared in Black Petals and Megazine Official.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2021