Deadline

Deadline

by Bob Beach

The whole affair was an irritation and an insult to Cranston Dinwiddie. He was too old to be working late, cleaning up someone else’s mess. Too senior in the agency—a vice president, almost. The load should properly fall to one of those calamitous college-bred pups always nipping at his heels. But Revis was on vacation and Mitchell and Rosetti were down with the flu. And at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, E. Carson Goldsmith, CEO of Taylor Bank and Trust, would be sitting in the conference room expecting to see his fall advertising campaign.

But dinner first, then back to the office. And on the agency tab for a change. Those teenage account executives, with their spikey hair and undersized designer suits, vacuumed up all the free meals and booze.

Dinwiddie finished the last of his rice wine. The moo shu was excellent. The perfect little pancakes pulled away easily, not sticking together like layers of plastic wrap. His tongue still tingled with the bite of fresh ginger, though the salt would play havoc with his blood pressure. He hoped that wouldn’t come back to haunt him later—he had a long night ahead. He ordered fresh tea, and the waiter dropped a fortune cookie on the table.

The Jade Dragon was a hidden neighborhood gem, serving first rate food in a third rate ambience. The usual hanging paper lanterns and framed Chinese fans, of course, and the lighting was dim without adding character. The booths were lined with cracked green vinyl, threadbare from decades of Chinese butts. The soft jabber of Chinese bickering and the crackle of spitting grease drifted from the kitchen.

The cookie, in its crinkly plastic wrapping, resembled a small, ossified sea creature with a tip of white tongue protruding from its folded yellow body. He peeled off the plastic and cracked the cookie open. He pulled out the fortune.

Don’t go back to work.

He laughed. No chance. They were skating on thin ice with this client already. He sipped his tea and shuddered at the prospect of hanging his boss out to dry in front of E. Carson Goldsmith. His 401(K) wasn’t fat enough yet to survive a disaster like that.

But something wasn’t right. That wasn’t a typical Chinese fortune. They gave you Chinese homilies or your horoscope or promised a tall dark stranger.

He waved the waiter over. “Where did you get this cookie?”

The waiter, an ancient Chinese wearing a gravy-stained white shirt and black slacks, looked confused. “From box.”

“Show me the box,” Dinwiddie demanded. “Bring it out here.” Somebody had to be pulling something.

The waiter disappeared into the back and reappeared a second later with a white corrugated carton filled with plastic-wrapped almond cookies. “Something is wrong with your cookie, sir?”

“You got the cookie from this box? Nobody handed it to you or told you to give me this specific cookie?”

The waiter shook his head in bafflement.

Dinwiddie ripped the plastic from one of the cookies and yanked out the fortune.

            A friend asks only for your time, not your money.

Typical fortune cookie nonsense. He grabbed a handful.

The waiter pulled the box back. “You pay?”

“Do I look like a deadbeat to you? Of course I’ll pay.” Damn chinks.

Dinwiddie sorted out the new cookies and extracted the tiny fortunes.

People are naturally attracted to you.

A chance meeting opens new doors to success and friendship.

Land is always on the mind of a flying bird.

More typical Chinese cliches. All sealed in plastic. All on the same paper, using the same faded red font. But one was profoundly different. One was meant for only Cranston Dinwiddie.

Was it a joke? Or a trick to keep him away from the office tonight—make him look bad? But who would want that? One of the designers, maybe. Every day was hand-to-hand combat with the art staff.

He saw movement near the kitchen—a head popping out and back like a target in a shooting gallery. The culprit checking the status of his ruse, or a cook checking out the crazy fat man who wasn’t happy with his fortune?

Myron, the art director. That cranky old kike would be spiteful enough. He could do a mockup just like the original, plastic and everything. Dinwiddie downed the last of his cold tea.

But the timing didn’t make sense. He never stayed late or ate out. And how would Myron know he’d eat at the Dragon?

Dinwiddie felt a slight chill. If it wasn’t a trick, what was it? Did he believe in fate? His was certain if he missed the morning deadline. Still, some tiny atavistic voice in his lower reptilian brain screamed, “Go home.”

He glanced at his watch. This was nonsense. He had to get to work. He paid his bill and stepped outside, surprised to find it was already dark. He slipped into his car and rolled back to the agency, his heart beating more rapidly than usual.

Gauthier & McKenna occupied the upper floor of a long commercial building. The main entrance opened onto the street, but a rear outdoor staircase led to an upper deck and two emergency exits. Dinwiddie pulled into the deserted parking lot in back. That was odd—no lights. There was almost always someone working late. Damn flu, probably.

If the fortune was just some freak misprint, it meant nothing. But if it was a warning, there was certainly a risk implied. He sat in thought with the motor running and the doors locked. The neighborhood seemed relatively safe. But there were rumors that the blight in full bloom a few blocks down was creeping steadily toward them. There were whispers of moving the office to the suburbs.

He inched the car forward, careful to shine his headlights into the dark corners where someone might hide. He craned his head to inspect the rear deck above. As he rounded the corner at the end of the building, he saw a flash of movement. Someone running? Probably just a shadow animated by his moving lights.

If someone broke in while he was alone, he’d be helpless. He was past sixty, his body bloated and sagging from a lifetime sitting at desks.

What other dangers might lurk? A terrorist bombing? Preposterous. He supposed he could cut his thumb off in the paper cutter and bleed to death. He laughed nervously. He was being stupid, and Dinwiddie hated stupid people.

He pulled back onto the street and parked his car directly outside the front door. He slid quickly out of the car. His hands trembled as he inserted the key. In a minute, he was safely inside.

He climbed to his small, spartan office and flicked on the overhead fluorescent light and starting a pot of coffee. He settled down to work, sorting and stacking printouts and photographs into neat piles. Where the hell was the Taylor folder? He knew he’d left it on his desk. Had somebody taken it? And this wasn’t his chair! Didn’t the cleaning crew understand how important it was to have the same chair? Was somebody playing games with him?

No time to worry about that now—he’d get started, dig the folder out later. Writing usually transported him to a separate reality where the irritations of daily life failed to irritate, the interruptions failed to impede. But tonight the empty building whispered new and disturbing secrets: the thump of the furnace igniting, the ticking of something unidentified in the break room. Dinwiddie got up and glanced down the dark hallway, the office light behind him casting his long and distorted shadow. The office seemed so much larger at night, unoccupied.

Don’t go back to work.

He decided he’d be more comfortable with the lights on, as they were during the day. One by one he flipped the switches, until the hallway was flooded with light. It wasted a little electricity, which he hated, but the expense was worth it if he could work more efficiently. Anyone could see that.

His phone rang and he flipped it open. “Constance, I’ve told you not to disturb me at work.”

The line was silent.

“Constance?”

There was no answer. But no dial tone. Did he hear breathing? “Constance? Who’s there?” He punched off. Damn wrong numbers, you’d think they’d have the common decency to beg your pardon. Or was it a wrong number? He thought he should check the emergency exits, just in case.

The doors were thick steel, impenetrable. But there were windows. He scurried back to the rear vestibule, his feet silent in the plush carpet. There were three windows—but without screens. He tested the locks. Solid. But anyone could break the glass. He would speak to the office manager about that in the morning

Dinwiddie padded back to his office. The silence was unnerving. There was none of the comforting jabber and rattle of people and machines that filled the office during the day. He turned on his small radio. The soothing sounds of classical music curled around him. Wait. If there were a disturbance, if someone did break in, he wouldn’t hear it. Someone could walk right up behind him…

He switched off the radio and turned back to his computer.

Dinwiddie was just beginning to enter his comfortable writing zone when a clatter from behind bolted him upright in his chair. His coffee cup bounced across the desk, dousing a pile of notes and papers. He whirled. A red stick lay on the floor just outside the break room. He stood and crept down the hall. A broom and mop, leaning against the wall in a bucket, had toppled onto the hard tile of the break room. The bucket was right next to the furnace room—the vibration must have knocked them over. His pulse began to return to normal. He kicked the broom and mop, still on the floor, back against the wall. He patted his brow with a handkerchief.

Don’t go back to work.

He was perspiring slightly, now, and his fingers fumbled at the keyboard. The ideas which had flowed so freely earlier in the day now seemed frozen, trapped in the sluggish amber of his mind. Please, not writer’s block. Not now.

Don’t go back to work.

After an hour of fruitless typing, Dinwiddie refilled his coffee and stepped out into the hallway again. One of the overhead fluorescent lights at the far end of the hall went dark. Not unusual. They did that all the time. As he watched, a second light died, casting the end of the hallway in shadow. Was that strange? Why would that happen? A loose wire? Could somebody be down there?

Icy goose bumps prickled across his shoulders and down his arms, and he found it hard to draw his breath. Could someone have been inside already, waiting for him? “Who’s there?”

It had to be Myron. He’d have a key. “Myron, I’m going to kick your ass!” he roared. Dinwiddie strode down the hall, his fury mounting with each step. Wait. Myron was out with the flu. All week. He pulled up short. “Who’s there?”

He felt lightheaded, and a pain flared at his breastbone. Marvelous—a perfect time for the moo shu to act up. He hesitated, then lurched around the corner into the final, darkened space. “Who’s there?”

No one. The room was empty, of course. It was stupid of him to think otherwise.

His arm and shoulder were aching a little, a belt tightening slowly around his left side. Suddenly his legs would no longer support him. He leaned against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. As he looked up at the ceiling, first one, then the second fluorescent flickered and reignited.

Dinwiddie’s hand slid into his pocket for his handkerchief, emerged instead with a tiny slip of paper.

Don’t go back to work.

About the Author

Bob Beach has followed his muse as designer, film director, copywriter, marketing consultant, web developer, artist, university professor and author. He has written literary fiction, Sc-fi, YA and children’s works. Bob holds BSc and MFA degrees from Bowling Green State University and currently resides in Toledo, Ohio.

You can follow Bob on his website, bobbeach.com

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