Off-site: Read the first chapters

OFF-SITE

By Marietta Miemietz

 

Copyright © April 2012 Marietta Miemietz

All rights reserved.

ISBN-10: 1475179057

ISBN-13: 978-1475179057


 
 


Off-site
Copyright© April 2012
Marietta Miemietz


CONTENTS

 

Acknowledgments

i

1

Premonition

1

2

Moorland Manor

3

3

Nocturnal adventure

13

4

Between a tree and a hard place

15

5

Hate mail

20

6

A gruesome find

27

7

Trapped

24

8

Liberation

43

9

Safe and sound

49

1 Premonition

 

 

 “You don’t look happy, darling.”

“I’m not feeling happy.”

Aline dropped another pair of socks into her bag and stared gloomily at her battered old suitcase as if it were to blame for her woes. Her boyfriend Jim took a more positive view of her upcoming travels and gazed almost wistfully at her partially packed suitcase.

 “Come on, it can’t be that bad. In fact, I almost wish I could come with you. A romantic stay in a haunted castle down in Cornwall sounds a hell of a lot better than my bank holiday weekend.” 

“I don’t know where you’re getting the haunted castle bit from. It’s just a dilapidated country cottage that has belonged for generations to a family of noblemen-turned-paupers. And you know you can’t come with me because the thought that any AgriBank employees could interact with the outside world scares management out of their wits.”

“Plus I have the small matter of a pitch-book to attend to. My boss is meeting a prospective new client next week and I don’t want to be to blame if we don’t win any business.”

Jim sighed. He had been prepared to work long hours when he had accepted a job in the M&A department of one of the most successful global investment banks, but he had secretly hoped for an occasional weekend off. 

“You should consider yourself lucky to be working for a bank that actually cares about business. They’re getting to be a rare breed. My job seems to be all about internal politics.”

“Yeah, I know. You’ve told me time and again that this famous Head of Research of yours is the first person from his family in three generations who needs to work for a living. So you can’t expect him to be very good at it.” 

“Except he’s not called Head of Research, but Super-Sector-Leader, because after they fired my old boss, they couldn’t call his successor Head of Research for legal reasons.”

 “Anyway, I think it’s cool. None of my line managers have ever invited me to their family country residence”, Jim marveled while watching Aline dump an entire stack of candy bars into her suitcase. 

 “And besides, I wouldn’t put all that chocolate right next to your silk blouses and cashmere sweaters, because it will probably melt. The weatherman says it’s going to be the hottest weekend so far this year. Are you really worried that they’re not going to feed you at your seminar?”.

“As I’ve explained to you, it’s not a seminar. It’s a team-building off-site and I wouldn’t be surprised if making you eat the grub your colleagues had collected for you in the woods was their idea of teamwork. But maybe you’re right”.

Regretfully, Aline removed the candy from her suitcase. She loved chocolate, but she was even more attached to the garments that were sitting neatly folded at the bottom. She finished packing in silence before curling up on the couch next to Jim.

“I know it sounds like fun. But you have never met any of my colleagues. I’m just not comfortable around them”, Aline murmured. She could not begin to fathom just how uncomfortable she would be within seventy-two hours.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Moorland Manor

 

 

An awkward silence reigned during the long bus ride from London to Sandy Cove in South West Cornwall. Aline’s colleagues appeared to be in their usual zombie-like state, which caused her far greater embarrassment on this journey than it did at work. She had grown accustomed to ignoring her surroundings in the office, where she focused on her research and her external contacts. But on board this bus, she did not have a keyboard to play with or a Cisco IP phone to call her clients, and she soon ran out of tasks to perform on her blackberry. Was she expected to engage her co-workers in conversation? Or were they enjoying the last hours of solitude before the round-the-clock display of team spirit that would surely be expected of them once they reached their destination? She briefly considered plopping down next to one of the other analysts and chit-chatting about some irrelevant topic. But she could not think of a good opening line and was put off by the possibility that one of these anemic-looking creatures would just stare back at her helplessly.

Aline wished she could have used the journey time to get caught up on work. Vincent Worthington, recently appointed to the position of Super-Sector-Leader at the Agricultural Bank of Southern England, possessed an unrivalled ability to invent busywork for the department on top of the tasks she needed to perform in order to build her own franchise in the marketplace. As a result, her to-do list had reached epic proportions and she could hardly afford to take the entire bank holiday weekend off. But working on a laptop was out of the question and even reading was risky in light of management’s admonitions. Vincent had made it clear before departure that he expected his analysts to take their mind off work and other distractions. He demanded full dedication to this off-site meeting, the purpose of which still eluded her.

The outrageously expensive two-day course in the art of teamwork appeared to be an end in itself. There didn’t seem to be any connection with AgriBank’s business or clients, a phenomenon Aline had grown used to in the wake of a major management reshuffle that had taken place six months earlier. The reshuffle itself had been fallout from a series of refinancing operations and strategic reorientations that had been necessitated by the financial crises of 2008 and 2011. Until then, AgriBank had enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of the steadiest and most pleasant employers in the City.

But in 2008, heavy asset write-downs and liquidity fears had prompted the mid-sized bank to take on board two strategic investors who took a more short-term view on its operations. This in itself had proved to be somewhat disruptive to AgriBank’s business. Nonetheless, the traditional British lender had managed to muddle along fairly well when the French bank Credit Continental, which had taken a sizeable stake in AgriBank as part of the initial recapitalization plan, had to be bailed out by a Russian-Chinese-Brazilian syndicate that had been formed hastily in order to prevent the collapse of this major lender during the 2011 banking crisis. The ensuing boardroom reshuffle had culminated in a patchwork quilt of cultural identities and incongruous business plans that AgriBank employees were now expected to deliver against on a day-to-day basis.

Unsurprisingly, confusion had reigned ever since, and middle management had developed a growing reluctance to take any firm stance with regard to any subject whatsoever. During Vincent’s rare speeches to the department, he rarely mentioned clients and did not appear to be concerned with the content of his underlings’ analytical work. He merely liked to convey the impression that his research analysts were not doing enough of whatever it was that they were supposed to be doing. In theory, Aline’s strong work ethic should have made her a favorite with management, but the harder she worked and the more business she generated, the more disapproval she seemed to meet with. Admittedly, her coverage of the banking sector occasionally comprised pointed remarks about the state of the industry that her own management could have done without, but even her least controversial pieces usually gave rise to poorly concealed displeasure in the upper echelons.

If there was a key to pleasing management, she did not have the faintest notion what it might be. While Vincent’s attitude had intrigued and puzzled her, it had never given her cause for concern. She was a rising star among equity analysts, AgriBank provided her with a fairly adequate platform and if she ever found that some moronic management team was not sufficiently supportive of her efforts, a space at a rival firm was bound to open up sooner or later. In short, the world was her oyster.

For the time being, however, she was confined to her seat on the bus her company had chartered to take her to a remote setting for the sole purpose of schmoozing with her co-workers. To her relief, the vehicle was large, with the number of available seats outnumbering the travelers more than twofold. She had been concerned that the group would be as space-constrained on the bus as it was in the office. Instead, she had two seats all to herself, and the two seats across the aisle from her were free as well.

The atmosphere was therefore rather peaceful, and as she looked out of the window and contemplated the scenery, she was only dimly aware of her immediate surroundings. Their journey took them through picturesque villages where time appeared to stand still, dense woods composed of tall, majestic trees that allowed only thin rays of sun to penetrate, salty marshlands and dry heathlands until they finally reached the spectacular, rugged coastlands of Cornwall. They drove past patches of Cornish heath, where delicate, lavender-colored plants that looked even more fragile in the soft evening sun stood solemnly amidst dry grass, as if they took pride in their ability to make do with what they had. The sea, which had taken on a deep blue hue, shimmered invitingly as gentle waves lapped around rocky beaches. This was how Aline had always imagined England based on narrations by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes had travelled these roads over a century ago, followed by Miss Marple and Aline’s famous compatriot, Hercule Poirot.  

Aline’s reveries were interrupted only twice during the long journey. The first interruption occurred when Vincent dutifully sat down next to each one of his charges for approximately two minutes at a time and engaged them in small talk. Aline politely thanked him for his kind invitation. In a grave manner that seemed at odds with the triviality of the occasion, Vincent replied that while team-work was of paramount importance, many people paid insufficient attention to collaboration on a day-to-day basis; hence his decision to hold a team-building off-site. He looked deep into Aline’s eyes with a characteristic sad, pleading look on his face before he scurried over to his next underling, just as he did at regular but infrequent intervals at the office.

Vincent had his own office one floor above the research room, where Aline and her colleagues sat packed like sardines. He rarely graced them with his presence, and Aline suspected that his rare visits were sparked by a sense of managerial duty rather than a genuine desire to interact with his staff. As far as Aline could tell, there was not a single research analyst who seemed to entertain cordial relations with him. She did not understand why he appeared to feel so ill at ease among them. True, he had only recently taken over the department in the wake of a management reshuffle which had effectively resulted in his demotion. He was probably aware that his new role was widely viewed as a step back. He had not been involved in a single analyst’s hire; every one of Aline’s colleagues had been recruited by one of Vincent’s many predecessors. This might partly explain his sense of isolation, she mused. But it did not seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for the strange emotion that flickered in his eyes whenever he was face-to-face with Aline – an emotion which she struggled to place and which seemed to bear a resemblance to fear. 

One of Aline’s colleagues was responsible for the second interruption. Julia, a young oil & gas analyst, chose the precise course of action Aline had briefly contemplated and subsequently rejected. She plopped down on the seat next to Aline and started chattering cheerfully. She nearly succeeded in creating the impression that they were high school students on a field day. Aline could not make Julia out. She seemed normal enough at first glance, but her outgoing personality was so blatantly incongruous with the morgue-like atmosphere at the office as to create a profound impression of disregard for etiquette, in the nature of a guest wearing full evening clothes to a casual get-together. The other analysts seemed to avoid Julia. Aline had been unable to gather the reasons for their distrust from their vague, deprecating statements.

Management appeared to harbor similar feelings. Vincent’s predecessor, Jonathan, had sought to undermine Julia wherever possible. But Vincent’s own behavior was the most striking. Although the working environment could hardly be described as congenial, during his rare visits, Vincent had a strange habit of asking analysts whether they were happy. His tone varied. Depending on the analyst, he would put the question jokingly, hesitantly or in a paternal manner. Whenever he asked Aline if she was happy, his voice had an odd, pleading quality, as if he were afraid that she would answer in the negative and leave him to deal with some unknown consequences. He never put the question to Julia. Whenever he stood next to her desk, Julia would look up at him with a cheerful, mischievous grin, and he would stare at her in blank terror, to all appearances unwilling or unable to utter a single word. 

From the first day, Julia appeared to have taken a liking to Aline. To the superficial observer, there was no reason why the two girls shouldn’t be friends. In fact, they had a lot in common. Both were recent arrivals; Julia had started her job with AgriBank a mere two months before Aline had joined. Both had moved to London from the Continent; Julia had grown up in Germany, while most of Aline’s childhood and adolescence had been spent in Belgium. They were driven and took pride in their work; on most evenings, they turned out the lights at the office. Julia seemed to be generating research and unearthing new clients at a mind-boggling pace and frequently offered to introduce Aline to her contacts. Julia’s friendship would have been the perfect cure to the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness that assailed Aline every time she set foot in the dismal office - if Aline had been able to feel at ease in Julia’s presence. She was not sure why Julia made her nervous. Was she simply afraid that her unpopular colleague would further alienate her from her other co-workers, thus adding to her isolation while her career prospects at AgriBank diminished? Or was there something else, something in Julia’s demeanor that filled her with a vague sense of apprehension? 

While Aline was pondering the question, Julia carried on chatting excitedly.

            “You know what happened at that residence, right?” she asked, undeterred by Aline’s apparent lack of interest.

“I don’t, and I have a feeling I don’t want to know.”

“Well, I think sooner or later you’re going to hear about the tragedy that took place there. It explains a lot.”

“Whatever.”

“I know what you mean, but I think it would be prudent not to say whatever in front of Vincent. He was badly shaken by it all. Anyway, let’s see how this weekend goes.”

Aline’s curiosity was aroused in the manner in which a reader’s curiosity might be piqued by the back cover of a book. If she had been reading a mystery novel, she would have flipped to the part that described the tragedy that had struck at Moorland Manor. But in real life, she felt a strange reluctance to embroil herself in Vincent’s family affairs. There was something unreal about this little, hunched man with the sad eyes, and Aline intended to keep it that way. She felt no desire for any aspect of her office-life to become real. She possessed a remarkable ability to concentrate on her work. Whenever she immersed herself in her projects, the lifeless AgriBank employees, the menacing tone of any communication by management, Vincent’s incoherent speeches, the strange silence on the over-crowded research floor, the cheap plastic desks and the dirty old carpets tended to fade into the background, like an ugly piece of faded tapestry in a furnished room. She preferred them to remain in the background. Any attempt to inquire into their motives or motivations was bound to let them take center stage – a development Aline was determined to avoid. 

To her surprise, they did not stop at a restaurant for dinner during the long journey. She was even more baffled by the absence of complaints about this omission. Admittedly, her colleagues seemed unfazed day in and day out by the abysmal working conditions that ranged from freezing temperatures or a complete breakdown of the air-conditioning to the department’s television set running at maximum volume levels while Aline was desperately trying to make herself understood on the phone. But surely they ate dinner? Or had they possibly stepped right out of some Twilight saga, waiting to feed on human flesh and blood after dusk? Aline shook her head in disbelief. She could only hope that somehow, there would be some food waiting for them upon arrival.

The sun was setting when the bus drew up in front of Moorland Manor, near Sandy Cove. The rambling old country mansion rose majestic and stark against the darkening sky. Built over a hundred years ago on a grass-topped cliff, the grim three-story stone building overlooked the sea. The water lay eerily still on this calm summer evening. The setting was vaguely reminiscent of a haunted castle, Aline thought. Jim would have been delighted. The bus driver turned off the engines and Vincent took the microphone.

“Welcome to Moorland Manor!” he announced in the proud tone of a host greeting his guests. Apparently, he was deeply attached to his family property, irrespective of any tragedies that might have occurred there. ”As you know, the bank has very generously paid for this trip, and my family is making this residence available so that all of you can get to know one another better, far away from the distractions of the office. To keep you focused, I ask that you hand your blackberries, mobile phones, i-pads and other electronic devices over to me. I will return them on the way back to London. While I collect your phones, I will hand each of you a sheet of paper with the name of your room written on it. You have twenty minutes to unpack, and then we will all meet again in the drawing room to discuss dinner.”

Aline was indignant. The audacity of asking her for her personal phone! She had previously lamented her management’s socialist mind-set; they had always seemed to attribute little value to personal development objectives or satisfaction in the work place. Now, things were taking a decidedly Orwellian turn. At least the prospect of having her own room lifted her spirits. She was not sure what sort of accommodation she had expected, but in light of the open-plan office space, where nearly forty people were crammed into one room, she had come prepared to spend her nights in an outsized dormitory. She remembered that at the start of her first semester at university, her room had not been ready on time and faculty staff had tried to coax her into spending the first to weeks at a youth hostel, sharing a dormitory with thirty other students. “It’ll be a lot of fun!” they had promised with a glitter in their eyes that had made Aline shudder. She had preferred to start the semester late and miss a few lectures, but clearly, turning around on her heels would not have been an option on Moorland Manor.

Relieved at the prospect of privacy, at least during whatever short hours she would be allowed to spend in her room, she reflected on Vincent’s cryptic remarks about the evening meal. How could you discuss dinner? In her book, you either ate dinner, or you skipped it. There was nothing to discuss, unless the weekend’s team-building exercises entailed the joint drafting of a gourmet critique column. Maybe Vincent had meant to say that they would choose a restaurant in the vicinity together. If so, Aline hoped that Italian, her favorite, would win out. In any case, she kept her fingers crossed that there would not be much of a lobby for Japanese food, as she did not share the world’s apparent enthusiasm for sushi. Would she have a veto right in the event of a sushi motion? If so, would a veto place her firmly in the non-team-player camp, making this weekend even more of an ordeal than it already was? Chances were that all of these considerations would be a moot issue, since she strongly suspected that there were not many restaurants in the vicinity to choose from. In fact, Aline doubted that there were any shops or theaters or neighbors within a radius of twenty miles. The desolate manor was by far and away the most isolated piece of land she had ever visited.

Vincent interrupted her train of thought, handing her a note with the name of her room scrawled across it. She would be staying in Dartmoor. What sort of a family invented names like this for rooms in a private house? In Aline’s opinion, hotel or office meeting rooms named after famous cities were already painful enough. She preferred not to probe into the mind-set of people who named bedrooms in their own homes after cities that were best-known for their penitentiaries. Vincent looked at her expectantly and she obediently handed over her company-provided blackberry.

“I think you also have a mobile phone”, he said, with just a hint of menace in his voice.

Aline briefly debated how to handle the situation. Of course, she could deny that she had brought a personal mobile phone, but she suspected that Vincent had seen her holding her little orange device in her hands during the journey. In any case, her assertions that she did not possess a personal phone would sound implausible. She felt indignation rise again. She did not see any reason why she should tell a lie. After all, there were no rules against the use of personal mobile phones outside of office hours!

“I won’t use it during the seminar”, she replied with finality, hoping that Vincent’s upbringing in a family of blue blood, albeit limited means, would prevent him from discussing the matter further. But she had underestimated his obstinacy. He shook his head sadly and held out a hand. Loath to make a scene, she reluctantly handed over the offending phone, hoping that she had either deleted all the texts in which she had complained bitterly about the working environment at AgriBank, or that Vincent wouldn’t bother to read them.

 

 

Twenty-five minutes later, Aline was standing in a large, old-fashioned kitchen, absorbed in the mundane task of slicing pickles. The ‘discussion’ about dinner had consisted of assigning chores to each analyst. Julia was busy setting the table, while several other analysts were preparing food. Aline mused that she should have predicted that her stingy company would never foot the bill for a restaurant dinner or caterer. Chances were that the bus ride alone had pushed them well over budget, and that management would soon embark on a frantic cost-cutting drive, indiscriminately slashing business travel, taxi rides and market data subscriptions. At least, the pantry at Moorland Manor was well-stocked. There were shelves carrying loads of potatoes, tomatoes and carrots, every variety of tinned food imaginable and a large refrigerator that contained cheese, ham and dozens of fresh eggs. Aline, who shunned domestic chores whenever possible, had to admit that this old mansion, which she had so scornfully referred to as a dilapidated country cottage, was surprisingly well-tended. Except for Aline, everyone seemed to be enjoying their household duties. The crowd in the kitchen was slightly more animated than she had ever seen them at the office.

“Hey guys, I found some fresh mushrooms!” Fred Frobisher, the food retail analyst, cried excitedly. Aline had always thought it fitting that he should cover the food sector. From his simian face to his hunched back and ape-like way of speaking, everything about him created the impression that peeling bananas was just about the most difficult task he was capable of performing. “That will be a nice finishing touch for the salad.”

Aline opened her mouth to announce that she hated mushrooms and would much prefer for them to be served on a separate plate, but thought better of it. Loudly refusing to eat something your colleagues had prepared for you during a team-building weekend was probably tantamount to carrying a sign that read ‘I am a maverick’. It would be far more prudent to pick out the mushrooms from her salad during dinner, in the hope that her fellow travelers would be too polite to comment on the mushroom pile left on her plate. Next to Aline, Roger, one of the capital goods analysts, was cutting tomatoes into minute pieces, as if he were trying to invent a new nanomaterial, and a tall auburn-haired researcher who had arrived recently and never been introduced to Aline asked no one in particular if they had any idea how much milk you needed to make scrambled eggs. Vincent only intervened once, when Tom Kearney, a conceited young banks analyst who had joined Aline’s team several months ago, tried to open a bottle of vintage Baron de Rothschild he had found in the wine cellar. Aline’s boss did not seem to notice or care that one of his underlings had opened a jar of expensive caviar.   

After the welcome distraction of preparing food, they sat down to dinner in an almost Gothic atmosphere. The lamps on the walls gave only a dim light, and so they had lit candles that flickered every time someone passed the butter or reached for the water decanter, throwing grotesque shadows on the walls. They were nibbling their food in silence and, in Aline’s case, hiding a growing mushroom pile underneath a piece of half-eaten bread, when Vincent, somewhat belated, tapped his glass with a spoon. Thirty-two pairs of eyes turned to him obediently. Aline hoped that he would be brief. Over the years, she had developed the ability to look sufficiently interested and appropriately amused during boring speeches, but Vincent’s ramblings were usually pitiful to the point of causing his listeners embarrassment. His welcome speech was no exception; Aline cringed at his pathetic attempts at burlesque.  

“I am happy to welcome you to Moorland Manor”, he began with an air of grandeur. “But I have no illusions. Most of you are not thrilled to be here. You are probably asking yourself Why am I spending my bank holiday weekend in the middle of nowhere? ” Vincent let his gaze wander around the room until his eyes rested on Aline as if he had witnessed the scene with Jim on the eve of departure. “You are wondering Is this guy nuts to charter a bus and invite his whole department to stay at his family’s property? He will need to up his insurance premium! “. He gave a hollow laugh at his own joke. It was a bizarre habit of his; he frequently giggled stupidly after announcing bad news. At times, Aline doubted his sanity. “But make no mistake, you will get to a point in your career when you will be grateful to me. The world has changed. The competitive landscape for Research has changed. You can only succeed as a team. If you don’t work together as a team, our long-term competitiveness is at stake. So far this year, this department has produced only three joint pieces of research. I’ll be frank: that is not enough. The good news is that you still have four months to turn this around.”

I’ll be frank was one of Vincent’s favorite lines, and he generally used it whenever he seemed to be at his most hypocritical. Aline felt resentment rising within her once more. She was all for collaborating with her co-workers whenever they had a common goal. However, most of her analyst colleagues covered different sectors and wrote for different audiences. There was simply no overlap between their research reports, and she had wasted many valuable hours trying to find enough common ground to warrant the production of one of these joint pieces that seemed to be en vogue at AgriBank.  

“If you say to yourself I’m a good analyst, I know my sector, clients rate me and therefore I will get a good bonus, you are wrong!” Vincent continued. To Aline’s surprise, anger sparked his voice. “And the repercussions won’t be limited to your bonus. If you don’t turn this situation around, then I can’t guarantee that you will have a job next year!“ He pronounced these last words with fake regret and just a trace of menace in his voice, but switched to soothing paternal tones as he continued. “I know it’s not easy for you. Teamwork is still not taught sufficiently at school and university. That’s why I have brought you here. In unfamiliar surroundings, far away from any distractions, you will perform team-building exercises. You will learn to trust your colleagues. And in doing so, you may save your bonus – and your job. Enjoy your dinner.” He nodded at his underlings with a quiet air of satisfaction and sat down.

If his speech had crept out Aline’s colleagues in the same manner in which it had affected her, they betrayed no sign of it. Everyone around her was eating calmly, with their usual expressions of boredom and detachment stamped on their faces. Aline went over Vincent’s speech in her mind. None of it had rung true. She was fairly certain that someone else at AgriBank had lent his voice to Vincent, who as far as she could tell did not have any opinions of his own. Maybe this was why no one came close to him; his robotic qualities made it impossible to get a message through to him. But who had effectively ghost-written these lines for Vincent and why? Could you learn to trust your colleagues, just as you learnt to use a new piece of computer software? she wondered. She didn’t understand why things had to be so complicated. Surely, people were capable of sitting down together and just getting on with their work where necessary, without spending a weekend involved in bizarre games? And why did Vincent have to remove them from their familiar surroundings, as he had put it, in order to imbue them with a sense of team spirit? The more she thought about it, the more she disliked the strange emphasis he had put on the words unfamiliar surroundings. So absorbed was she in her thoughts that she did not notice the furtive glances Vincent darted at her as she sat across from him, mechanically removing mushrooms from her salad.     

The beauty of travelling with listless people was that nobody suggested any after-dinner activities. Aline escaped to Dartmoor at the earliest opportunity, which presented itself shortly after eleven pm. She had to admit that apart from the macabre name and possible link with family tragedies, the room was not bad. It was spacious and the furniture and hard-wood floors, while showing signs of wear and tear, had clearly been expensive, as had the faded flowery tapestry on the walls. Most importantly, the king-sized bed had been fitted with a fairly soft, thick mattress. The only real drawback was that the door wouldn’t close completely. Aline tried several times to move the doorknob so as to allow the lock to snap in, but her efforts were in vain. It was obviously broken, and she eventually decided to leave the door ajar. Sprawled on the big, comfortable bed, the world looked much brighter. Mechanically, she reached for her phone to text Jim, but felt nothing but empty space. Puzzled, she groped around in her bag. The phone wasn’t there. In a flash, she remembered that it had been confiscated for the duration of the weekend. It didn’t matter; she knew he wouldn’t worry as he clearly thought that she was in good company, surrounded by hard-working and infinitely boring investment bankers. Exhausted, she turned the lights out and went to bed.

 

 

She had been drifting off to sleep when she suddenly became aware of another presence in her room. She did not have time to react. She heard soft steps approaching rapidly and felt a weight on her left leg. When she looked up, she found herself gazing straight into a pair of yellow fluorescent eyes.


 

3 Nocturnal adventure

 

 

“Well hello there”, Aline murmured tenderly and held out a hand. The little black cat that had just jumped onto her bed sniffed it curiously. It was still young and frisky; it pawed at a strand of Aline’s hair that fell forward as she bent down to caress the animal. The kitten rubbed its head against her hand, then fell down on its back and purred. Several minutes later, it jumped to its feet and left as rapidly as it had arrived. Another twenty minutes later, Aline was sound asleep.

 

 

It was still dark outside when she awoke to the sound of a moan. She checked her watch. It was not even five am. What was that sound? She listened attentively. There it was again, longer and with greater intensity than the last time. There was no doubt about it, someone was in agony.

Hurriedly, she put on a long cardigan and stepped into the aisle. The moan was coming from a shared bathroom at the end of the corridor. When she opened the bathroom door, an arresting sight awaited her. Roger was hunched by the toilet, his hands pressed to his stomach, his face contorted.

“Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” Aline asked, genuinely concerned.

Instead of a response, Roger vomited copiously. Aline was at a loss what to do next. Under normal circumstances, she would have called an ambulance. But The Powers That Be had confiscated her mobile phone, and she doubted that she would be able to locate any ambulances waiting close by in the event that a mystery illness should break out on Moorland Manor. Chances were that by the time an ambulance arrived, Roger would either have made a full recovery, or would be too far gone to save. Was there a medicine cabinet in the building? And what drugs were you supposed to administer to a patient with severe gastrointestinal symptoms of unclear etiology? While she was pondering the question, the door flew open and Tom rushed in. Seeing that the toilet was occupied, he dashed straight to the sink and emptied his stomach contents into it. When the turmoil in the bathroom subsided, Aline could distinctly hear someone else moaning in one of the bedrooms. Before she could reflect on the strange coincidence that all of her colleagues should become ill simultaneously during a company off-site held in a secluded spot, Julia stepped into the room. The look on her face held both surprise and alarm.

“What’s going on?” she wanted to know. “Is this some kind of a new summer vomiting bug going around?”

Like Aline, she seemed unaffected by the mystery illness.

“I have no idea what this is all about or what I’m supposed to do.” Aline shrugged helplessly.

“Not much we can do, to be honest. Maybe check everyone’s pulse and temperature and clean up the mess in the corridors.”   

Aline closed her eyes and shuddered. She had secretly hoped that all those who had been taken ill had made it to a bathroom on time and was distressed by Julia’s revelation that this was not the case. The two girls set out to work in silence, in turn taking each colleague’s wrist, then holding a hand to their foreheads. No one seemed to be about to faint or to be running a high fever. They checked every room on their own floor and the floor above, until every analyst was accounted for. Everyone was ill, without exception, some experiencing a moderate level of discomfort, while others were visibly in agony. When the girls reached the conclusion that they had done all they could for their unfortunate co-workers, they cleaned up as necessary and returned to their rooms.

Aline checked her watch. It was shortly after six am. She would try to sleep for a couple more hours, she decided. For a few minutes, she lay still, anxiously monitoring herself for any signs of the outbreak. Was she experiencing the first symptoms, very faintly, of nausea? Stop imagining things and go to sleep, she scolded herself. She counted a mild form of hypochondria among her principal weaknesses and knew that she would be able to diagnose the symptoms of just about any illness in herself if she listened to her body long enough. Exhausted, she finally fell asleep.   


 

 

4 Between a tree and a hard place

 

 

Breakfast on Saturday morning was a cheerless affair. Nobody was eating, either because they were still feeling ill, or because they did not trust the food following the night’s events. Even Vincent was running late, on the grounds that he had passed a very bad night. Since he slept in a different wing of the building, Julia and Aline had not seen him when they had nursed their colleagues. Looking ashen, he asked feebly whether anyone else had been ill. Most of those present just confirmed by nodding their heads. Only Tom added belligerently: “Seems everyone was ill – except for Aline and Julia.” Aline felt thirty-two pairs of eyes boring into her like daggers. 

Health issues notwithstanding, the group soon proceeded to the first team-building exercise on the agenda. Standing outside in the blazing sun, Vincent outlined how they would build mutual trust by climbing trees together.

“Once you have trusted your colleagues with your life, you will know that you can trust them in business”, he declared importantly.

Trust your colleagues with your life? Aline had come prepared for some mildly embarrassing interactions with her co-workers. She had not expected to find extreme sports on the agenda. And Vincent’s logic was completely flawed in her mind. Surely no one wanted to be served with a lawsuit for dropping an opponent from a tree top, Aline thought, but did not verbalize, but office politics were a different matter altogether. She had no inkling how soon she would have to reconsider the theory that no one on Moorland Manor wanted to hurt her physically.    

Vincent divided them into groups. Aline was assigned to climb a tree together with Tom, Fred, Amanda and Julia. This play of chance – if it was a play of chance – came close to a disaster scenario. These four were the colleagues she would never have chosen for any endeavor whatsoever, least of all for any activities where she risked life and limb. In her mind, Tom was a lazy and utterly useless young whippersnapper, who tried to hide his inferiority complex behind a breath-taking self-righteousness. Aline, upright and independent of character, was always put off by his hallmark holier-than-thou speeches and was regularly at a loss how to deal with his unpredictable passive-aggressive behavior. As an absolute beginner who had recently entered the complex world of equity research, he naturally struggled to produce meaningful reports and to gain recognition in the marketplace. Aline blamed management, who expected anyone with basic reading, writing and googling skills to morph into a fully-fledged analyst overnight, instead of allowing young professionals to grow into the analyst role over time by supporting senior colleagues. But for some inscrutable reason, Tom had always blamed Aline for his inadequacy as an analyst, nurturing jealousy that bordered on hatred. On his first day in the office, he had arrived with a friendly smile on his pudgy little face. The smile had soon given rise to a perennial sulk that verged on the comical.

His best and seemingly only friend Fred complemented his passive resistance very nicely through a highly active display of aggression. While Fred never seemed to utter a word on the research floor – Aline even doubted that he ever spoke to any clients – she had often overheard him dripping poison into someone’s ear by the coffee machine. That someone all too frequently was Tom, who seemed to have an overwhelming desire to hear that the world was unfair and that he was being subjected to some nameless injustice.

Amanda was even more annoying than the two guys, if that was possible. While Fred and Tom confined themselves to philosophizing as an outlet for their self-righteousness, Amanda engaged in one charitable activity after another in an effort to save the world in the most conspicuous manner imaginable. Worse yet, she documented her progress very avidly and very publicly. Aline shuddered as she recalled Amanda’s recent participation in an AgriBank-sponsored marathon to support some Corporate Citizen charity. Amanda had provided e-mail updates about her training on an almost daily basis via the centralized distribution list, sharing pointless and frequently unpalatable episodes with the entire department. Her detailed account had covered the electrolyte imbalances she had suffered as a result of her physical exhaustion at a level of granularity that had far exceeded the boundaries of good taste.

And then there was the inscrutable Julia. While Aline did not have any specific reproaches, she had decided that Julia appeared too normal to be real. Everything about her was business-like, friendly, practical and resolute. She never complained or moralized. Instead, she quietly got on with her work, superbly ignoring management’s extravaganza in the process. No one else at AgriBank seemed that normal. It had to be a façade, Aline mused, like the perfect maid in an Agatha Christie mystery that invariably turned out to be a crook or thief on a grand scale. Aline had yet to form a theory as to what exactly Julia might be trying to hide behind her innocent façade.        

Not only was Aline stuck with her least favorite colleagues on this August Saturday morning that would have been so perfect for a long stroll along the Thames with Jim, but the instructions for the tree-climbing-trust-building exercise that Vincent was reading out aloud were simply abominable. When he had concluded, each group set out to discuss the configuration that would get as many group members as far up the tree as possible, as this was the criterion to be used by Vincent later to declare a winner among the six teams. In Aline’s view, which she wisely kept to herself, this athletic competition seemed to be more apt to put peer pressure on non-tree-climbers than it was to build trust.  

“I suppose we can consider ourselves lucky”, Julia announced with a smug grin that appeared to be laced with a slightly diabolical quality, “to count the lightest, most athletic analyst, who is not afraid of heights either, among our group.”   

All eyes turned to Aline, who was kicking herself for having revealed details about her trapeze class to her colleagues. During a conference dinner several months ago, she had racked her brains for a non-work-related and non-contentious topic of conversation, in a desperate attempt to build something resembling a rapport with other members of her department. Her trapeze class had been the first thing to come to her mind, and so she had blabbed her secret to a bunch of couch potatoes who had clearly never been face to face with so exotic a creature as a hobby trapeze artist. She had only herself to blame if she was now being selected as a guinea pig for this demented and undoubtedly dangerous exercise.

The tree that had been allocated to Aline’s group looked particularly worrisome. Even the lowest branches were so high up that the analysts needed to form a human ladder to reach them. Fortunately, that part of the exercise passed uneventfully. As the tallest member of the group, Fred lent support to everyone else as they attempted to access the tree. Subsequently, the others pulled him up in a joint effort. Climbing further up the tree presented greater difficulties. The sparse branches were spaced relatively far apart and were getting disconcertingly thin near the tree top. After some deliberation, it was decided that Julia and Amanda would stay in the lower part of the tree, while the men, being taller, would have an easier time climbing higher, using the sparse, but relatively strong branches as support. Julia suggested that Aline should subsequently climb all the way to the tree top, on the grounds that she was by far the lightest among the five involuntary athletes, with help from the men, who would by then be securely installed in their respective positions in the upper half of the tree. As she watched everyone climb to their designated positions, showing clear signs of strain in the process, Aline brushed away the suspicion that another reason for selecting her for the most dangerous part of the exercise was the limited value her colleagues placed on her health and well-being.

Finally, it was Aline’s turn. She reached Fred relatively easily, but was far too short to transition to the higher branches where Tom was located. There was only one way to get to the tree top. She had to place her feet in Fred’s hands, and Fred had to subsequently raise his arms high above his head, while holding on to the tree by means of his knees. With a slight push, Fred would be able to throw her in Tom’s direction. Tom, who was also anchored to the tree exclusively through his feet and knees, would hold out his hands to catch her. It was a risky operation to say the least, and in sharp contrast to the training conditions in her trapeze class, Moorland Manor was not equipped with any safety nets. Fred quivered in a thoroughly disconcerting fashion as Aline, the involuntary acrobat, climbed onto his shoulders, but was remarkably steady when she placed her feet on his hands and he raised her high above his head.

“You got her?” Tom shouted to Fred.

“Yeah, sure. She’s such a light weight for me, I could hold her in one hand”, Fred bragged, his gasps belying his statement.    

Aline, who felt that her situation was already precarious enough, was not in the mood for silly jokes. “I’d rather you held on with both hands”, she grumbled. Speaking in mid-air, where no one was likely to hear her, was a mistake she frequently made in her trapeze class, and which she was to regret on this occasion.

“What did you say?” Tom asked, bending forward and shifting the position of his outstretched hands slightly in the process, just as Fred pushed Aline towards him. She missed Tom’s hands, and for a fraction of a second, hung suspended in space, the ground coming fast towards her face. At the last second, with a presence of mind that Aline had never thought possible in her simian food retail colleague, Fred managed to grab her feet, nearly tumbling out of the tree himself as he did so. Aline ended up hanging from Fred’s grip with her head down, slightly resembling a bungee jumper.

She groped for the lower tree branches and as soon as she had gripped one of them firmly and tested its strength, she called out “Thanks, Fred, you can let go of my feet now.”

“Are you sure?” Fred asked. “I can pull you up again very easily”, he offered helpfully, “that way you won’t need to start again at the bottom.”

“Sure I’m sure”, Aline barked, exasperated. “I am done climbing trees for today.”

The truth was that she had only one desire: to plant her feet firmly on the ground again. She was through with climbing trees for the remainder of her stay at Moorland Manor, and possibly for life. She knew that by making her way down now, she was bound to be branded as a party pooper who spoilt the fun for the other members of her group. Her team had come breathtakingly close to victory in the very first team-building exercise, with Aline flying within several feet of the tree top at one point. Now, they were bound to finish in last position, with their trapeze artist unable to claim any firm final position in the tree. Annoyed glances notwithstanding, Aline was of the definitive opinion that her health and, most importantly, her survival had to come first as she scrambled to her feet.


 

5 Hate mail

 

 

Aline and her colleagues were allowed to take a short break before the start of the afternoon session, and Aline dragged herself gratefully and somewhat wearily to her room. She had barely touched her lunch, partly because she still distrusted the food that was served on Moorland Manor, and partly because she was still shaken by her flighty tree adventure in the morning. Starving, she reached into her suitcase for a candy bar. It was empty. Cursing, she recalled removing the chocolate at Jim’s insistence that the weekend would be smoldering with heat (he had been correct on that count) and based on his assertions that AgriBank would feed her properly (here, he had been wrong!). Why hadn’t she at least taken some cereal bars or dry crackers that were less prone to melting in the heat?

She was feeling weak from hunger when she made her way into the library, where the next team-building exercise was scheduled to take place. The library looked very old and ostentatious. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were filled to the brim with old-fashioned, used-looking tomes. The extensive ornamentation and the total silence that reigned as a result of the thick carpets and heavy, dusty curtains inspired awe to the point of suffocating anyone who entered this room. Aline was immediately overcome by pangs of longing for the outside world with its blazing sun, colorful flowers and chirping birds. What plans did Vincent have for his underlings in this mausoleum? 

To her relief, her line manager asked them to take their seats. At least she did not have to risk depleting her reserves completely with any more running, jumping or climbing. It did not take her long to realize, however, that it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the AgriBank Research Department. After jeopardizing his staff’s health in the morning, Vincent now went on a rampage to bruise their egos. To all appearances, they could do nothing right in his eyes.

“I’ll be honest with you”, he took his usual opening line. “Our results in the last client surveys were crap.” He paused for effect, provocatively looking from one analyst to another. 

Julia latched onto his remark. “I thought we were going to prioritize revenues over surveys, at least until the Client Services Department was fully up and running and able to poll our clients properly?” she asked, frowning. She was right. Aline distinctly remembered Vincent’s recent presentation to this effect, as well as her incredulity at her employer’s dysfunctional internal processes. How could they ever have relied on client surveys as a proxy for commissions and as a tool to assess the research department if they were unable to conduct these surveys in the first place?

Vincent stared at Julia with a puzzled look on his face, as a director might look at an actress who did not stick to the script. Clearly, he had not expected any push-back. There was no good response to Julia’s query, and after some deliberation, he pretended not to have heard her interjection. He opted to address it implicitly in his next statement instead. 

“I can ask any senior client whether they rate any of you and the answer will be No. You are barely ever on the phone to clients. You don’t harvest synergies with your colleagues. How many of you have done a joint piece with another research group? In fact, you don’t look good on any metric I can choose.” He glanced triumphantly around the room. Julia was quiet; apparently, she had given up after this latest piece of twisted, irrefutable logic. Even Aline’s natural rebelliousness had been quenched by her Super-Sector-Leader’s apparent desire to find fault with everything his staff did or omitted. She could not help the impression that his speech consisted of borrowed lines, that he was a stooge for someone higher up within AgriBank and that resistance was therefore futile. If only she could play fly on the wall in AgriBank’s boardroom to get a clearer idea of the name of the game!

After some more ranting and raving, Vincent seemed to decide that his underlings had been sufficiently humbled and proceeded with the agenda by writing the word teamwork across a huge sheet of paper that had been fastened clumsily to a bookcase. 

“So, what does teamwork mean to you? Aline.” He gestured in her direction to indicate that it was her turn to speak.

After her tree climbing ordeal, Aline was not feeling sufficiently charitable to provide the type of flowery answer Vincent was looking for.

“Well”, she began with just a touch of sarcasm in her voice. “It seems to be composed of two words: team and work. I think the two are inextricably linked. So teamwork is really only possible if everyone is willing to work and is working more or less in the same line of business. For example, introducing a colleague from another sector to a joint client could be far more valuable than writing a forced joint piece for an audience that doesn’t exist, or risking life and limb climbing trees together. And let’s not forget, if everyone does their own work well, that tends to generate revenues, which maximizes the probability that your colleagues will still have a job next year.”        

Vincent was obviously tired of arguing. He refrained from noting down any part of Aline’s reply on his makeshift giant notepad and merely raised his eyebrows in response to her belligerent and borderline hostile statement, before signaling to Tom that it was his turn to have a go at defining the core of that magical conception, teamwork. Tom was exceptionally well-versed in the art of corporate psycho-babble and relished the opportunity to launch into one of his rambling moralizing speeches, especially after his nemesis Aline had provided him with ample scope to improve upon her response.        

“To me, teamwork is all about collaboration, trust and mutual respect”, he began with his characteristic haughty air of pomposity and self-righteousness that never failed to raise Aline’s hackles. “A good friend of mine from university had the immense pleasure of meeting one of the most inspiring business leaders of our time. He described the great man as simply a good guy.”

How on earth did Tom come up with the script for his never-ending waffle? Aline wondered. Did modern universities nowadays teach a course entitled The Loser’s guide to getting on everyone’s nerves until they leave you alone? She considered herself to be highly creative, but she could never have come up with anything so elaborately pat and meaningless.

Meanwhile, Tom rambled on, undeterred by the glances of boredom, surprise and annoyance that various of his co-workers darted at him. “In fact, most truly senior figures – CEOs, CFOs, highly placed politicians – are very human, very pleasant to be around.”    

Aline suppressed a desire to gag and zoned out. While Tom continued his seemingly never-ending pseudo-inspirational speech, she mapped out her upcoming research report in her mind. It was entitled Chain Reaction and examined in minute detail the repercussions that the bankruptcy of any one major lender would have on the banking system as a whole. Her aim had been to conscientiously analyze contagion risk on a bank-by-bank basis. She had started the report a few weeks back and had been very excited about the topic until her initial research had revealed that under most scenarios, her own employer would default on its obligations, rendering her deferred compensation worthless in the process. This finding had caused her enthusiasm for her project to wane somewhat, and she had decided to put it aside for a while and to turn to cheerier subjects in the interim.

After some more pronouncements on the nature of teamwork that would have provided sufficient material for an entire army of psychoanalysts, Vincent proposed another game. It was called Reality Check and sought to enhance each analyst’s self-awareness by comparing their self-assessment with their colleagues’ views.      

“Here’s how it works. You write a note to a colleague, telling him or her how you perceive them. You can sign your name or leave it, as you prefer. You fold the piece of paper, write the recipient’s name on it and place it into a bag I will circulate in due course. You repeat this exercise for as many colleagues as you wish. I will play postman and deliver each letter to its addressee. You get a few minutes to think about the messages you received, and then you tell the audience how the message compares to your self-assessment and how it is impacting you”, Vincent explained. “Any questions?”

There were none. Vincent distributed notepads and almost everyone began scribbling. Aline was the sole exception: she stared at the white sheet of paper in front of her as if she expected words to magically appear on it. She had steadfastly refused to participate in any note-passing games in elementary school, at a time when writing notes to your friends every time the teacher turned his or her back had been all the rage, and she could not think of any messages to convey to her colleagues now. There was no point in telling anyone that they were the most uninspiring group of people she had ever met, and she was not even sufficiently interested in any of her colleagues to seize this brilliant opportunity to taunt them. Suddenly, she noticed that her inactivity was attracting unwelcome attention. Hurriedly, she bent over her notepad and scribbled I have nothing to say whatsoever, folded the sheet, wrote To no one in particular in the address section and covered the writing with her hands until she had an opportunity to drop the note into the bag.

Vincent sorted the ‘mail’ pedantically as his department looked on. He seemed to be under the impression that suspense was mounting as a result of his deliberately slow movements. It took him a long time to distribute the mail, and Aline was bored out of her skull by the time he gave permission to open and read the letters. Aline had received two comments. She immediately recognized the spidery scrawl on the first note: it was unmistakably Julia’s. She unfolded the sheet of paper. It read “Hi Aline, you’re the only normal person in this room. Let’s catch up over coffee when we’re back in the city. Take care, Julia.” Aline did not have the faintest notion whose hand had penned the second note, which did not bear a signature. It read “You are arrogant, abusive and malicious. If you think you can play cat and mouse with me, you’ll soon find out which one of us is the cat and which one is the mouse.”

In the sequel, Aline was vaguely aware of Vincent gesturing to Amanda, who seized the opportunity to express profound gratitude for this eye-opening team-building game. While Miss Virtuous waffled on, Aline sat dazed, trying to pinpoint the author of the hate mail she had received. Little wonder the document had not been signed. Even her most hypocritical colleagues could not possibly be deluded enough to pretend that this rancorous note constituted well-meant advice from one caring team member to another. And what had driven Julia to pen the particular note she had written? Was she up to something sinister and trying to deceive her perceptive colleague by means of an elaborate show of friendship? Aline breathed a sigh of relief when the coffee break rolled round before it was her turn to take a stance with respect to the messages she had received. She was at a loss as to how she could possibly comment on either note. 

 

            

When they returned to the library after the coffee break, Julia’s seat remained empty. At first, Aline was relieved to find that someone else was deflecting attention away from her own chronic tardiness. However, after twenty minutes had elapsed with no sign of the oil & gas analyst, she began to worry. Eventually, she mustered the courage to ask:

“Does anyone know where Julia is?”

The room fell silent, as it always did whenever someone asked a question in Vincent’s presence. Aline had always been intrigued by this phenomenon. Possibly, it was attributable to Vincent’s violent outbursts in response to questions that sounded harmless and genuine to Aline’s ears. Funnily enough, it was usually Julia who asked the questions that triggered these reactions. Similarly, Aline’s query seemed to rub him up the wrong way. He directed a cold, hard gaze at her.

“It’s not something you need to worry about”, he replied icily. His tone made it clear that he considered the matter closed.

Aline’s heart began to pound. She had been harboring suspicions that Julia might be up to something sinister. But following Vincent’s curt reply, she grew alarmed that to the contrary, something sinister might have happened to Julia. To Aline’s delight, the discussion soon moved on from Reality Check to vague observations about the general nature of trust and respect. For the remainder of the afternoon, Vincent rambled on about team spirit and joint efforts and collaborative work in the context of the five-year plan for his research department. Aline’s colleagues watched him, their bodies motionless, their faces expressionless. Aline found it difficult to concentrate on his monologue as her mind kept wandering to Julia. As much as she tried to convince herself that the resolute German girl was capable of looking after herself under virtually any circumstances, Vincent’s frosty “hands-off” response to her innocent query with respect to Julia’s whereabouts kept sending quivers down her spine.

After a while, she could no longer restrain herself. She had to find out. As she got up and made her way to the door, Vincent darted an inquisitive glance at her, but made no effort to try and stop her. Aline stepped outside and sat down on one of the little stone walls lining part of the premises to determine the best course of action. The brilliant sunshine was dazzling, and the heat made everything seem unreal. The stuffy library where her colleagues were being lectured seemed far away now. She looked back at the rambling mansion. In the abnormal brightness of this sizzling hot summer day, it seemed to lie unnaturally still and to grow darker and gloomier by comparison. It filled Aline with foreboding. How many hiding places did this imposing edifice contain? Was Julia hidden somewhere in the house? Or had she already been moved off the premises in a cloak-and-dagger operation?

Aline shook her head impatiently, as if to clear her mind of these dark thoughts. She would have to rely on her wits if she wanted to help Julia. She decided to start her search in her colleague’s room. With luck, she would discover that Julia merely suffered from a nasty headache and had decided to take a nap. She knew instinctively that this explanation, though plausible, was not the right one. The feasibility of her plan was further hampered by the fact that she did not know who had been assigned to which room. Therefore, the only thing to do was to check every single room in the South Wing, where the analysts had been accommodated. Her search did nothing to raise her esteem for her colleagues. She came across more pornographic magazines and self-help books of the most pathetic type than she had ever dreamt possible. It was one thing to purchase such items with a view to stashing them away at home and reading them surreptitiously in the privacy of your own bedroom, but who would take them along to a company off-site? While her search was thus revealing in some ways, it did not yield the result she had hoped for. There was no trace of Julia anywhere in the South wing.

Aline went back to her own room and sat down on her bed to think. What next? Methodically, she proceeded to inspect the East wing. She was in for a shock. The grimy walls had obviously not been redecorated in decades. In most of the rooms, the sparse furniture was broken and worm-eaten. Numerous planks in the hard wood floor were splintered to the point of representing a safety hazard. In one of the rooms, she even found a large hole in the ground. A shadow dashed past her and disappeared through the hole; she was fairly certain that it had been a rat. She was beginning to gauge the full extent of the Worthingtons’ poverty, and she also understood why her entire department was staying in the South wing. But while her discoveries might contribute to raising her social awareness, they did not bring her any closer to her goal of locating Julia.  

She entered the West wing with a growing sense of futility. Perhaps she ought to give up and return to the library, where her colleagues were probably wondering what she was up to. Maybe even Julia had re-joined the group by now. Possibly, she had just tried to profit from the coffee break to run a quick errand and something had delayed her return. Aline realized that she was trying to convince herself of some fabricated tale with a happy-ever-after ending because that was what she wanted to believe. She knew perfectly well that there was no errand Julia could possibly be running in this deserted spot.

She was torn from her reveries by a familiar sound, which she could not quite place – a faint click or tap. She held her breath and listened, waiting for the sound to recur. There was nothing but silence. After a while, the silence and the darkness of the hallway became unbearable. Had she only imagined the clicking noise? If not, what could it possibly be? And then the sound recurred with a vengeance. This time around, it was not a single, timid click. It was a furious avalanche of clicks, somewhat reminiscent of a woodpecker pecking at a tree. Only, it was coming from the inside of the building. Aline was sure of it. No outside sound could have penetrated the thick stone walls with such intensity.

There it was again. This time, the clicks came more slowly and sounded less aggressive than before. They appeared to emanate from one of the rooms near the end of the long hallway. Aline took several steps in that direction. The volume of the clicking noise rose with each step, supporting her theory. As she advanced, she became increasingly convinced that the sound originated from the corner room at the end of the West wing. She tiptoed to the door to the room in question and listened. There was no shadow of a doubt now. The clicking noise, which was alternately coming in furious cascades and ebbing away, came from inside the room. With her heart in her mouth, she knocked on the door. “Hello?” she croaked, startled to realize that a croak was all she was capable of. She had intended for her voice to sound firm and steady. There was no reply. With a trembling hand, Aline pushed down the doorknob. The room was unlocked. She pushed the door open and entered. 

 


6 A gruesome find

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