The Tinted Window
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A short story by Gareth A Williams, March 2008
"Look at Daniel, he hasn't moved for days."
They sneaked a crafty look at the impossibly skinny export clerk, sat motionless, staring at his PC screen.
"God, Shell, tell me about it. He eats at his desk and never seems to go home."
Craig and Michelle regarded their colleague thoughtfully. He was as white as a sheet, and his greasy hair gave him a passing resemblance to a young Nick Cave.
Michelle involuntarily shivered. He gave her the willies, even from a distance. “Jesus, Craig, where did you find him?”
“Oh, you know, the agency, as usual. Hey, don’t look at me like that, he works harder than you!”
Michelle laughed, and gave her boss a pretend punch on the nose. “Mr Johnson, I resent that remark!”
Craig laughed too. “Oh yes? Well what do you plan to do about it, darling? Is it worth a reprimand?”
Michelle smiled coquettishly. “We’ll have to see about that!”
Oh, please! How did this company ever get off the ground? How do they manage to sell anything? No wonder they need me, thought Daniel.
He concentrated on his work as best as he could, but the laughter was starting to grate. Why couldn’t they just get the shagging over with? He was disgusted by their perpetual flirting; for God’s sake, anyone would think they were teenagers. He forced himself to concentrate on the legal document he was formulating in front of him. The intrastat needed to be submitted to HM Customs and Excise by the end of the day, and he hadn’t even done the heading.
Without looking round, he visualised the scene behind him: his preening middle-aged suavity and regimented hair, his neat yet ordinary suit, his facial features defined by the red wine supped each evening; next to him was Superdrug Incarnate, her red lips pouting (a cat’s anus gained from a lifetime’s nicotine addiction), and piles of hair dyed a golden honey, with giant brassy hoops swinging freely from each ear.
Daniel swapped one window for another with a deft alt and tab. The intrastat spreadsheet on which he’d been working was replaced by an image of a large building, a house, half hidden behind an impressive cast-iron gate. A neat and spacious gravelled frontage set off the view nicely, as did the sporty Beemer parked out front. The top of the screen was filled by a legend: “WEB CAM ONE: 11.20.”
It was ironic, mused Daniel, that Michelle – so intoxicated by her boss’s money and power – detested him, Daniel, so much. If she knew the truth, knew that this house on the web cam belonged to him! She’d soon change her opinion of him, the filthy gold digger.
Daniel bought the house just six months earlier, a nineteenth century relic with lots of original features. But obviously, these had to go; he had no time for antiques – his was a sleek, minimal existence. He had started by replacing all the old wooden door furniture with modern chrome equivalents. Apart from one little box room that he had no plans for yet.
Daniel checked his house regularly throughout each working day. It was important to him: he didn’t want anything to happen to it while he was doing these long stints away. He couldn’t be too careful; there were some very disreputable people around.
As he stared at the digital image, it faded without warning, leaving darkness in his head. After a second, it returned, exactly as it was before. Well, almost. “WEB CAM ONE,” it said. “11.25.”
Daniel smiled to himself. As well as security, the web cam served a second purpose, just as important: it reminded him why he was doing this. Another hacking laugh from Michelle made him wince. And my God, he thought, he had to take all the comfort he could from that.
His need to check on his house being, for now at least, satisfied, Daniel returned to his intrastat. Trader’s address: The offices of Johnson & Co. Import and Export Specialists. Submission date, easy again. But then it got tougher; the list of potential commodity codes filled a terrifying two thousand page ledger, and he couldn’t afford to get any wrong. It would not do to draw attention to the contents of his report. Some smart arse, tin-pot Hitler in Customs could bring his world crashing down if he wasn’t careful. Buried deep on page 214 of 320 would be a couple of items of which Johnson & Co. knew nothing, things which Daniel planned to keep quiet to the point of hidden.
But it was such a bore! What he’d give just to stand up and walk out and never come back! It’s not as if he needed the pitiful scrapings that passed for wages here. But the setup at Johnson & Co was ideal for his purpose.
These “offices” would in fact be more accurately described in the singular, as there was just one office, into which three desks scrummaged competitively against wall-to-wall cabinets and shelves overflowing with paper and files. The overall effect was one of chaos; a paper world where no one knew what the hell was going on. This was primarily the reason Daniel had found employment here; Johnson & Co. was a small-time outfit that had got lucky with the trade winds, to the point where it had outgrown its time-honoured and insular way of doing things. It needed assistance from someone who, with the right drive and energy, could transform it into a modern-thinking, forward-looking company; that Holy Grail of commerce, the paperless office. And so Daniel, via a local recruitment agency, had arrived!
“WEB CAM TWO: 11:35.”
A French window leered out from the computer screen, a rather dull still-life. A blackbird was caught skipping lazily across the lawn, a brief pause between inspecting the ground closely and moving on. The quality, of course was first rate. Four mega-pixels were more than enough to identify an intruder, should one appear. One never had, but he was ready, should one do so.
‘Daniel, my darling, would you like a cuppa?’
Alt, tab; back to the spreadsheet.
‘Er, no thanks Michelle. I’ll be fine.’
‘Okay, my love. Just let me know if you change your mind.’
Bitch. Sneaking up on him like that. He didn’t think she saw anything, though. Not that it would have meant anything to her, mind.
Daniel continued to work on the intrastat. Better to get it out of the way. Then in the afternoon he could get down to business.
He was just finishing the last checks on the report when he heard Craig and Michelle leave for lunch. Craig winked as he made his offer: “A bite to eat and drinkypoos?”
Michelle’s earrings quivered as she scrunched up her face in an approximation of pleasure. “Ooh, yes please,” the cat’s anus mewed.
The invitation was not extended to Daniel. Not that he would have accepted. Drinkypoos were part of Craig and Michelle’s Friday routine.
Their prolonged lunchtime absence gave Daniel ample opportunity to make his changes to the report before submission. With a beautiful display of forward planning, he had left a space on page 214, together with a couple of asterisks and “PUT IT HERE” in capitals. He smiled to himself and made a note not to be so complacent next time. He positioned the cursor and began to type: “85311030 760Kg”
Of course, it seemed completely illogical to inform HMRC of his little operation, but that was the beauty of it. No surprises. No awkward questions. No fear of discovery. He just let the officials bury the evidence in their ivory tower.
He was done in seconds. The goods were already making their way across the English Channel, and he had already collected the money. After a brief moment of looking over the report as a whole, he submitted the spreadsheet to the Customs web site. Job done.
Daniel leaned back in his chair. He only allowed himself to slouch once the job was over. He sat back, enjoying the brief respite, the indulgence of being out of character. How ironic, he thought, that he and Craig were in the same business, selling whatever they could get cheaply at a profitHe wasn’t even sure that Craig’s business dealings were any more legal than his own. Didn’t care; it provided him with the perfect cover.
So how was Web Cam One looking?
There it was: his beautiful house. Just as before. Well almost – the time, obviously, had moved on. But there was something else, too. Was it that the sun had moved round? Possibly. No, that wasn’t it. He didn’t see it immediately, but then he spotted it. One of the upper windows, belonging to a spare bedroom, looked odd. It seemed to be darker than usual, just in one corner. A cobweb perhaps? No, too pronounced for that. A bird’s nest? No, it’s not distinct enough.
He thought distractedly about the room to which the window belonged. It was a tiny annex room, even smaller than the smallest bathroom. Its restrictive size meant he had never decided what to do with it, and hence it remained the only room still to be developed. It was bear and bereft of furniture. He couldn’t even remember the last time he set foot in it.
Daniel couldn’t explain how it made him feel. He knew it was stupid, but he instinctively knew something wasn’t right. His pale nose was millimetres from the screen; close enough to verify he wasn’t looking at a smudge or fingerprint.
With effort, Daniel managed to push the web cam from his mind. He wanted to update his web site before the return of the Despicable Duo. He opened his FTP client and connected; he typed in the password:
He dragged and dropped a couple of files from his hard drive onto the ftp site and deftly ended the connection as if nothing had happened. Then he opened his internet browser, to see how his changes looked on line.
Below the fictitious company name and logo (five minutes in the making – how could the marketing industry justify their prices?) was a little bit about what he sold. At the moment it was mainly fire safety equipment; alarms and so forth. He had managed to get a load from a friend of a friend. On other pages, he had an impressive list of satisfied customers (satisfied they may have been, but he’d “borrowed” the names from someone else’s web site.)
And there he saw the amendments he had just uploaded: a Buy One Get One Free offer on all fire safety equipment. He’d prudently decided to offload the lot as soon as possible, seeing as he’d just heard that one of his customers had died in a fire. They can’t prove anything, he thought. It was not designed to convince him his liberty was unthreatened; he also wanted to ward off unhelpful spasms of guilt.
In the afternoon, Daniel wallowed in post-intrastat malaise. Friday afternoons were always quiet, because the major job of the week was done. It was supposed to be the time when Daniel got on with computerising the many thousands of documents, but he was never going to rush into that. Instead he busied himself with his own business.
On the stroke of 5:30pm, he stood up, placed his jacket over his arm and walked out of the office. Both Craig and Michelle watched him go, the sense of occasion not lost on them. Daniel leaving on time!
* * *
Well, he couldn’t see anything. He shaded his eyes from the low Saturday morning sun and peered at the window above him. It looked perfectly fine. It was probably nothing. He went through the motions of dismissing it from his mind, but it stayed there, lurking, making him uneasy. Well, it must be something on the camera lens. He needed to investigate further.
After locating the ladder in the garage, Daniel dragged it round to the front and leant it against the apple tree which was home to the offending camera. He was innately repulsed by manual work (he found it so uncivilised), particularly when it involved heights. Shakily but with the resolve to see it through, he made his way slowly skyward. His thin legs had never seemed to him more fragile, and as he got higher he wobbled in a breeze which had previously gone unnoticed. But he made it to the camera, peered into the lens. The empty eye which stared back at him possessed the coldness of death, and yet also hinted at a spark of alien intelligence. Briefly, Daniel imagined his face looming large in his own computer screen, with no one to witness it. It showed no obvious signs of fault and also looked, thought Daniel, very clean. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it a wipe anyway, then made his way quickly down to the ground.
* * *
Monday morning. As was always the case, Daniel was waiting outside the office door, staring absently, looking at nothing, when Michelle turned up to unlock it.
“Mornin’ chuck. You okay?”
Daniel nodded but said nothing, keen to get in and switch on his PC.
Michelle took off her coat and sat down at her desk, secretly eyeing her colleague. Bloody creep! Craig was out meeting a customer first thing and she hated being alone with him. She had a spray in her bag, in case he tried any funny stuff.
Daniel of course, was not going to try any “funny stuff.” He had much more important fish to fry. Ostensibly he was working on customer details, taking information from paper invoices and typing them into an Access database. But, quite frankly, he had less enthusiasm than ever for the job.
He stared at the screen, and yawned. He was working all weekend trying to move the rear web cam into the house – he had tried and tried to get it working in the little room with the window, but it just didn’t seem to work. Admittedly he was no electrician, but he was sure a simple camera wasn’t beyond him. In the end, he punched it, and left it swinging from the ceiling by its cable. He looked at his right knuckle; it was still swollen from this act of aggression but his initial fear he had broken something proved to be false.
He wanted so much to look at the one remaining web cam, but he forced himself to do some work instead. If he could get ahead of himself, he would treat himself later in the day. With this in mind, he opened a dusty cardboard file, the latest batch of paper invoices. He thumbed through the contents. These were surprisingly new compared with some of the pre-history he’d already transcribed. Some invoices were as recent as two years previous. He still had plenty of older ones left to do but he had begun avoiding them. He had come to realise he just didn’t like dust all that much.
So, to work. He riffled through the invoices, wondering whether to start at the top, or to live a little and work randomly. Something unexpected caught his eye. His own name and address. He pulled out the invoice and looked more closely. CCTV x 2. Of course! Johnson & Co was the company he bought the cameras from. What a coincidence. Well, this invoice might not make it into the Access database. He screwed up the paper into a tight ball and placed it in his pocket. He’d burn it later.
* * *
“WEB CAM ONE: 11:05.” The postman was cheerfully frozen in mid-hop, rejecting the path for a shortcut through the rose border. Daniel had expressly forbidden him from doing this, and would normally have made a mental note to reprimand him on their next meeting. But not today; Daniel’s attention was instead focussed fully on the upstairs front window. This morning, the window appeared darker, possessing a definite (Daniel was sure of the word) tint. What had yesterday appeared to be a blur or cobweb was today an uneven, pronounced blackening all over the window. And behind the glass – inside his house! – was what looked like a dark figure, with a single arm raised, as if in greeting. But it was merely a pattern in the tint. Not a person at all. Wasn’t it? To be sure, Daniel would have to wait until the picture refreshed. The five minutes seemed like twenty, but eventually the mysterious scene before him vanished into blackness and was replaced a similar one.
Similar, but not the same. The tint and the figure (if that was what it was) were still there. But the raised arm was now at a lower angle. In a crude, accidental animation, the replacement of one picture by the other made the figure appear to wave. Daniel almost fainted, and if it was possible for his deathlike features to get any paler then they would have at this moment.
His mind was an indefinite buzz, he couldn’t form a plan. He had to go. Mumbling something about illness, Daniel rushed to the door.
Michelle watched him go, wondering as she did so how it was possible to tell if he was ill or not. She was well pleased to see the back of him, however, and soon put him out of her mind.
* * *
On his approach to the front door, Daniel peered up at the window. Once again, there was no trace of the sinister figure or obfuscated glass. Quite the opposite, in fact: his house radiated a sunny air of self-congratulation, well-pleased with its generous proportions and comfortable with its own aspect. There was absolutely no evidence of forced entry. As he opened the front door, some mail, pushed through earlier, fell against his foot. He paused halfway through the doorway, listening for a sound. Any sound. He heard nothing but the profound silence which only an empty house could produce.
A faint smell of burning was apparent as soon as Daniel entered the hallway. It was not overwhelming, hardly a smell at all, but the sense of sickening dread welling up was extreme. Anxiously, he climbed the stairs. Without knowing why, he headed straight for the front bedroom, and pushed open the door. He saw immediately the cause of the burning smell: the camera which had so spectacularly failed to work over the weekend was sparking and smoking. He had arrived just in time to see some of these flames transferring to the gossamer curtains, which were instantly consumed by a rabid, ever-growing fire.
Without thinking, he rushed to the curtains and ripped them down. Like some kind of glue, the flames clung to the carpet and the bed; he realised immediately he had just made things worse. He tried stamping on the curtain which was now lying on the floor, but he stopped as soon as he felt the heat in his ankles. He headed for the door but the handle – stupid wooden, bloody antique, sodding old handle – came off in his hand. “What is this – bloody Scooby Doo?” He thumped the door and his heart sank at the solid sound it made. He tried to force it with his shoulder but he was no muscle man, and gave up very quickly.
His best bet, he soon theorised, was the camera outside, the one which had brought him home in such a rush, the one which his PC at work was still broadcasting. If only Michelle, or even Craig, were to notice him waving…
* * *
Craig walked in, removing his jacket and placing it carefully on a hook. His meeting had not gone well; his customer had brought to his attention several technical short-comings in the electrical equipment he had supplied. Not really a surprise considering how he acquired them in the first place, but still, he didn’t like these sorts of meetings. It had cost him an expensive lunch.
When she saw him come in, Michelle pushed herself back in her chair until her stockings were visible from Craig’s side of the desk. She smiled broadly.
“He’s gone home!”
This rare event was not lost on Craig who gave out a long whistle through his teeth. Something in Michelle’s eye told him there was more.
“That means we’re all alone.”
* * *
“I’m sure they can see me,” he said aloud. The sound of his own voice amongst the guttural crackles gave him fresh hope. He believed himself.
He could see Michelle in his mind’s eye, calmly phoning the emergency services, and pointing out the situation to Craig.
* * *
“Oh Craigy! Look at that!”
“Oh Shellie-Wellie! This is all yours!”
He stood erect in front of Daniel’s desk, his underpants around his ankles. He grinned and cleared the desk’s surface with a single sweep of his hand. He looked Michelle in the eye, and knew the time was right, the time was now. Michelle was grinning back and moved towards him. They embraced; Craig reclined on the desk while Michelle climbed on top. He let out a thrilled giggle, involuntary and of the moment. Michelle joined in with a snort of excitement. They kissed and giggled more.
“Craig, you animal! You’re so strong!”
“I’m a tiger, baby. Come on!”
As Michelle’s pale bottom began to move up and down, both she and Craig were blissfully unaware they were making the computer monitor wobble, but the movement did not affect the immaculate quality of the picture: the outline of a man could easily be identified behind the blackening window of a burning building. A face of fear was frozen in time, the mouth forming a shout for help, or perhaps a wail of despair. A single arm was raised in the act of a wave, to gain attention, or perhaps to say goodbye.
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As a reader as opposed to a
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Just read what
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i really enjoyed this. it
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The cat's anus is the bit I
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