‘Good night, Charles!’
Charles Bolinger looked up from his desk. ‘Night Sue,’ he smiled, immediately turning his attention back to clearing his desk. He was looking forward to his weekend away with Ruby, his wife. He owed it to her to make their time together as good as he possibly could from now on. He had cheated on her and although she did not know what he had done, the guilt and hatred lay uncomfortably in his gut like a spicy meal before bed. He was truly ashamed of his actions.
He snapped the clasps closed on his briefcase and hurried out of the office towards the lift. Impatiently he pressed the call button then stood back, craning his neck to watch the red numbers on the display counting down the floors.
‘Hey Charles! I heard you cleaned up on the Japanese deal. Congratulations, we all knew you could do it.’
‘Thanks Denis,’ Charles replied insincerely. It got harder with each passing day not to show just how much he despised Denis Frost. He was only thirty-five, but he acted like a man twice his age. He was irritating, had a liberal sprinkling of dandruff nestling on the shoulders of his jacket like a carpet of snow on the roof of a ski lodge, and he stank - bad breath and BO; what a worm. Charles shook his head as if to clear away the awful thoughts about Dennis the monster.
A sudden ting noise stole him back from his reverie, as the lift doors opened before him. Charles looked up anxiously. The lift was empty, just the way he liked it. No dirty people to stand next to, no rancid cigarette smoke to creep up his nostrils or stale coffee breath to waft in his face with each agonising word of forced conversation. He stepped inside.
Without a conscious thought he took a tissue from his pocket and wrapped it carefully around his hand, then extended his finger towards the button. Suddenly, realising what he was doing he retracted his finger with a dry smile; his obsession with personal hygiene was getting ridiculous, starting to encroach on his every action.
He paused as his mind travelled back to the day his obsession had begun. It had happened whilst he was in the scouts, he was only eleven years old and it was his first summer camp, his first time away from home. As a kind of initiation, some of the older boys had dangled him over the cesspool. The latrines had been freshly emptied and the smell was repugnant. They were only supposed to hold him over the top, but something went wrong and they dropped him. At first they all stood and laughed as Charles had writhed around in the human sewage, but soon they all had looks of genuine pity on their faces – maybe some guilt too.
Charles climbed or slimed out of the pit and sat on the grass, his head buried between his knees. As the bluebottles flocked to explore the new grazing land Charles cried, cried like he had never done before nor would be able to ever again. The muck stuck in his hair and under his fingernails and the smell hung around for days. Everybody kept trying to persuade him that it had gone, but he could still smell it. Even now, as a fully-grown man, if he concentrated sometimes he could still detect the faint and unnerving aroma hanging over him, particularly when he was feeling down about something. Thus began his obsession with cleanliness, an obsession that would add another dimension to everything he did and would further complicate an already muddled life.
He leaned forward a little and stabbed the button with the tip of his outstretched finger, naked now, just skin on plastic. Plastic that had been touched by the skin of hundreds of others. Just as the doors were about to touch, sealing Charles Bolinger into his own private hygiene chamber, a hand poked through the crack as though someone had just split the door in two with a karate chop. A second hand followed and the doors were forced apart with a curious hissing sound like that of an enraged snake. A short balding man with a briefcase and badly creased pinstriped suit bundled into the lift.
Charles let out a small but rather loud sigh of irritation. He could not bare the thought of this other person, this intruder, being in the lift with him. Their eyes met momentarily as they exchanged dry, meaningless grins.
‘Going down?’ the intruder asked.
The snake hissed as the doors closed and the intruder pressed the button for the ground floor. Charles settled into the corner of the lift as far away from the other man as he could get, squeezing himself tight to the wall as though he were trying to meld with the metal.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the stranger asked.
Charles was about to try to ignore him and pretend that he thought it was somebody else he was addressing. Then it dawned on him just how stupid that would be for they were the only two people in the lift. Grudgingly he turned to face the stranger.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Oh I think we do. In a passing sort of way’ the stranger replied with a menacing glint in is eyes. He had a deep voice and spoke slowly and methodically in an almost theatrical kind of way.
Moving a step closer, the stranger extended his hand towards Charles. Stifling his need to scream, Charles took a deep breath, he could sense the panic building in him. The stranger was closing in on him, invading his space and trapping him in the corner, and as if that was not bad enough now he wanted to touch him!
A thin glistening film of sweat began to break out on Charles Bolinger’s face as his heart pounded rapidly in his chest. He bit down hard on his lip. Like a crippled man trying to learn to walk again, he summoned up enormous effort to thrust out his hand to meet the stranger’s greeting. The stranger’s grip was aggressive and painful, unclean.
Despite the show of pleasantries, there was something wrong with the picture and Charles began to feel increasingly uneasy. He glanced at the number display and almost let out a yelp when he saw that they were still only on the ninth floor. Somehow the lift in this building seemed to have been built with a cruel variable speed, it was always fast in the mornings when there was no rush to reach the office, but painfully slow in the evenings, and right now, when other things seemed more pressing.
Suddenly the stranger reached over to the control panel and pressed the emergency stop button. The lift stopped with a shudder that was echoed in Charles’ heartbeat. He opened his mouth to protest, but surprise and the chilling finger of fear that ran down his spine stopped the words from coming out.
The stranger positioned himself between Charles and the control panel and edged up real close, leaning over him such that their faces were almost touching. Charles winced, he could feel the stranger’s breath on his face, could smell the faint unpleasant smell of stale cigarette smoke with each exhalation. He felt an impulse to bring his knee up sharply and crush the weirdo’s balls. Maybe then he would think twice about hassling Charles Bolinger, but he knew it would be an unwise move. The stranger was heavier and bulkier than he was and would probably tear him to shreds. He had the kind of build that bull terriers had, small but deceptively powerful. Besides, if he was mentally unstable he might pull a knife or something to swing the odds even further in his favour.
Charles looked searchingly into the stranger’s eyes. He saw madness there all right, madness and anger that looked on the verge of boiling over.
‘You are a smarmy little bastard aren’t you!’ the stranger yelled.
Charles began to shake, and then a crazy thought entered his mind. If this went on much longer he would be late and Ruby would go crazy, she might even suspect him of having an affair! ‘Aren’t you?’ the stranger bellowed, thrusting a pointy little finger into Charles’ ribs.
‘Yes. Yes!’ Charles blubbered, frightened now and eager to do anything to end the crazy situation. He felt afraid, a feeling that echoed from his school days when the hardest kid in school had bullied him for almost three terms.
‘You make me sick, people like you. You are all the same, you pinstriped pussies. Waltzing through life thinking you can have whatever you please, shit on whom you like on route. Well my friend, the waltzing stops with me. Do you hear!’
Charles nodded quickly as sweat began to pour down his face.
‘Wh . . . who are you?’
‘Who am I? He says!’ the stranger chuckled.
Charles reached into his jacket and pulled out a thick leather wallet bulging with folded notes.
‘Look, if it is money you are after, here, that is all I have. Take it.’ He held the wallet out to the stranger, pushing it against his jacket.
The stranger smacked it out of his hand and Charles recoiled like a terrified child, shielding his face with his hands. A warm, wet feeling grew in his trousers. Pee! Jesus, he was pissing himself! But it was only a few drops, a little slip that was all. It didn’t really count did it? ‘Was she good, Isabelle?’
Charles’ face went as white as a snow-capped mountain as the daunting truth of the situation came crashing down on him.
‘Look, it is not what you think. All I . . . ‘
‘God, save me the clichés Charles, I know exactly what you have been up to. That whore has never been able to lie to me.’
‘Oh Christ, you may as well call me Richard now, I feel like we’ve known each other for years. Hell, we’re intimate friends now Charles, you’ve been screwing my wife for three months, I don’t think it gets a lot more intimate than that, do you?’
‘Richard. What can I say? It is over now. It was a stupid mistake but it is over now. I can understand how you feel. If you want to hit me go on, it’s what I deserve.’
Suddenly Richard Fulton’s mood seemed to change. He span around and walked to the other side of the lift, his hands in the air like some crazy and eccentric professor who’s just seen the answer to his life’s work,
‘I don’t want to hit you Charles,’ he whispered in a strangely serene and contrasting tone, as though the mere thought surprised him, hurt his feelings somehow.
Charles glanced over at the button panel. They were between the eighth and ninth floors; if he was quick he could probably reach the panel and start the lift up again. But what use would that be? It was just as likely to make Richard crazy again. No, Charles decided, it was too risky. There was no telling what Richard Fulton might do. Fear gripped him and a pain began to develop, as though his stomach had knotted itself into a tight tiny ball. A tear welled up in his eye as he contemplated his options.
‘Richard, please, I . . .’
But before he could get another word out, Richard Fulton hit the button and the lift shuddered to life once more. He turned his back on Charles as though the entire episode had never happened. Charles sighed and shifted nervously on his feet, unsure what he should do or say.
Ting! The lift stopped on the third floor and Fulton stood in front of the doors. As they opened, he turned slowly to Charles Bolinger and looked him directly in the eye. He spoke with a sly and curiously vulpine look.
‘Goodbye Mr. Bolinger.’
Charles looked at him, his heart beating like a steam hammer in his chest. ‘Goodbye’ he offered tentatively, but Fulton was not hanging around for a reply. As Charles managed to stutter the word out he was disappearing down the corridor and the doors were sliding shut again.
Alone again, Charles let out a deep breath, shaking his head in disbelief. It was hard to believe that he had just met the husband of the woman he had been having an affair with and had escaped unscathed. After this episode, he would never do it again. He would work hard to rebuild his marriage, to drink once again from the rich and deep pool of love that had once blossomed between himself and Ruby, and he would start tonight over dinner.
With the doors fully shut, the lift kicked back into life and Charles felt safe again, he lifted his head and again concentrated on the numbers counting down on the display. He felt safe again, alone and sealed in his clean room. 3-2-1.
He had made it; the lift journey from hell was finally over. He swooped to pick up his briefcase and wallet as the swish of the opening doors signalled his exit. A smug grin creased across his face as he noticed Fulton’s briefcase against the far wall of the lift. Hard luck arsehole, he thought contentedly, as he shifted past the brief case and exited the lift, a beaming smile radiating from his face. Charles Bolinger’s life was going to start afresh this evening.
Two seconds later when he was no more than a few feet away from the lift, the bomb in the briefcase went off. Charles Bolinger, the briefcase, and half of the ground floor lobby disintegrated in an instant. Richard Fulton watched it happen from the stairwell, the rush of air from the blast sweeping through his hair. One down, one to go. It was time to go and pay Isabelle a visit, but he had to be quick, Ruby would be waiting.