I look in the mirror. I do it every day. Pretty much most people look in the mirror every day.
I see a girl. That’s a relief. A girl with hair, two eyes, a nose, one mouth, and as I push the hair back as I’m brushing it to check – yes, still got two ears. Phew.
My housemate, whose name escapes me most days, has forced me into this, the reason I’m awake and brushing my hair at the ungodly hour of ten a.m. How dare she go for her abortion today, and pack me off instead to do her media studies homework? Couldn’t she have had her termination some other time?
I have to go and interview some vending-machine business mogul. The company is called Dry Goods, Inc, and the owner, Crispin Dry, supplies our University with all of its vending machines. He’s notoriously hard to get appointments with. When you ring his office, you have to press so many buttons on the phone to finally get through – only to be told that your selection is no longer available, and to choose an alternative.
Miss Whatsername, my housemate, says that she’s got to get this interview for the University paper. I don’t know why, they only use it to wrap take-out cartons in the refectory. Maybe it’s to promote a new drinks machine range.
So I’m having to forgo my weekly visits to the body farm and the morgue for my own research project. I don’t even know if I’ll be back in time for work later.
She’s going to owe me big-time for this. If I don’t get to see a corpse this week, I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s one I’m rather fond of in a wheelie bin under a silver birch tree at the body farm, where I like to sit and eat my sandwiches. He’ll have changed so much the next time I see him…
I leave Whatserface, my best friend, packing her nightdress for the clinic.
“Good luck!” says Thingummyjig, as I head out. “Make it a good interview!”
“I’ll bring you back some sanitary towels,” I concede, and slam the front door.
* * * * *
It’s a long drive to Seaford West Industrial Estate, but luckily I have my father’s trusty bullet-proof Hummer in which to navigate the rain-soaked roads. I don’t think my Pizza Heaven scooter would have made it. When I put my books in the insulated top-box, it always skids over in the wet. And sometimes nasty people put other things in there, when I’m doing a delivery.
Dry Goods House is a huge monolith of connected storage containers, converted into offices on the seafront industrial park, an illegal immigrant’s dream. Mirrored glass windows inserted into the corrugated steel keep out any prying eyes.
The revolving doors swish as I enter the Customer Enquiries lobby. A brain-dead-looking blonde is sitting at the stainless surgical steel counter.
“I’m here to see Mr. Crispin Dry,” I announce. “I’m Sarah Bellum. Miss Thing from the University sent me.”
“I’ll text him,” says Miss Brain-Dead, picking up her phone. “Have a seat.”
She eyes me as I sit down on the plastic chair between two vending machines, one for hot drinks, the other for snacks. I feel over-dressed. Maybe stealing my housemate’s Christian Louboutin studded Pigalle pumps and Chanel suit had been taking it too far. The receptionist looks cool and comfortable, in turquoise blue overalls and a neon yellow hi-visibility industrial vest.
“He’s on his way down,” she says, after a moment. She reaches under the desk. “You’ll have to put this on.”
I get up again to accept the hi-visibility yellow vest she hands me, which has VISITOR stencilled on the back. I pull it on grudgingly over my borrowed Chanel.
The adjoining door creaks, and I turn, still adjusting my Velcro.
I know, the moment I see him.
The black suit. The pallor of his skin. The attractively tousled, unkempt bed-hair. The drool. That limp… oh, God, that limp…!
“Crispin Dry?” My voice catches in my throat.
“Miss… Bellllummmm,” he moans softly, extending a dirt-encrusted hand.
My heart palpitates wildly, noting his ragged cuticles, and the long, gray, prehensile fingers.
“My housemate,” I begin. “Miss Shitface – she couldn’t make it today. Got the uterine bailiffs in…”
I grasp his outstretched hand in greeting. So cold… and yet so mobile… a tingle crawls deliciously up my forearm, and I snatch my hand away quickly, scared of showing myself up. His jet-black eyes glitter, equally cold, and his upper lip seems to curl in the faintest suggestion of a smirk. Or is it my imagination?
“Were you offered a refreshment, Miss Bellumm?” He gestures towards the famous vending machines.
I shake my head, and he turns to glare at the receptionist. She cowers visibly, and I’m sure I hear him emit a long, low, guttural sound. The receptionist scrabbles in her drawer and holds out a handful of coin-shaped metal tokens.
“I’m fine, really…” I croak, although in all honesty, my throat does feel terribly dry.
My knees feel weak as he holds the door open, and beckons, his head at a quirked angle.
“This way, Miss… Bellummm.”
How he rolls my name around his mouth makes my own feel drier than ever. I stumble hazily through into the corridor, hearing the door creak closed again behind me, and the shuffling, shambling sound of his footfalls in my wake.
“Straight ahead, Miss Bellumm.”
His voice is like sandpaper being rasped over a headstone. It tickles my inner ear and the back of my throat, sends chills down my vertebrae. It resonates with my deepest darkest thoughts.
Things I had not even entertained notions of while eating sandwiches under the silver birch tree, beside my dear Mr. Wheelie-Bin…
His arm extends past me to swipe his security card in the lock of the next door, and a waft of his moss-like scent washes over my strangely heightened senses.
“Go through, Miss Bellumm,” he practically whispers in my ear.
The door clicks open, and I step through. Murky grey daylight filters through the tinted windows from the seafront, and I gasp. Another brain-dead blonde is banging her head repeatedly on the steel wall, not three feet away from the door.
“Debbie,” Mr. Dry says. Is that a tinge of disappointment, or disapproval in his voice? “Take Miss Bellum’s coat. You will not need the yellow site vest either while you are with me, Miss Bellumm.”
Debbie turns to look at us, her flat bleached-out bloodshot eyes registering nothing. She holds out her arms to accept the navy-blue Chanel and hi-visibility vest as I shrug them off, feeling exposed now in my Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe t-shirt. Miss Brain-Dead Mark II takes my jacket with a soft grunt, but goes nowhere, turning back to face the wall instead, contemplating the smear where her head had been rebounding off it just a moment before.
Crispin Dry takes my arm to steer me past, the unexpected contact eliciting another gasp from me. Those long, cold, prehensile fingers, closing around the soft warm flesh of my tricep…! I trip along the next corridor, trying to keep pace with his rolling, loping gait, like that of a wounded panther.
“My office…” he hisses, swiping his security pass a second time, and ushering me through.
It is black. Everything is black, from the desk, to the leather seating, to the vertical blinds. The only colour in the room is a giant white canvas, on the wall facing the long window, upon which a modern meditation in red is represented.
“You like my art, Miss Bellummm?” he murmurs, seeing my open gape at the piece.
“It’s yours?” Wow – now I’m really intimidated. The only art I see is on custom car bodywork when passing the breaker’s yard, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fit mechanic. “It’s beautiful…”
“I call this one… ‘High-Velocity Spatter’,” he confides in a husky voice. “Sit.”
I plant my quivering haunches onto the soft leather, and start to take out my notes. The only sound otherwise in his office is the eerie call of gulls, from the windswept pebble beach outside.
Crispin Dry watches me, calculatingly. He circles around the sofa opposite, not yet seated.
“Would you like something to drink, Sarah Bellumm?” He moves languidly towards the huge, black, state-of-the-art vending machine in the corner.
The sound of my full name on his lips is like the opening of a beautiful white lily…
“I am a little parched,” I admit. “Yes, please, Mr. Dry. Thank you.”
“What would you like?” His hand hovers over the illuminated keypad. “Tea, coffee, hot chocolate? Iced water? Chicken soup? Gin and tonic? Bubblegum? Breath mints?”
Mmmm – a vending machine with everything!
“A chicken soup would be lovely,” I hear myself say, and my stomach grumbles in agreement, recalling the last slice of cold Pizza Heaven pizza I ate for breakfast, many hours ago.
“Chicken noodle, chicken and sweetcorn, Thai chicken and lemongrass…?”
“Yes please – the last one…”
I watch as his clever fingers dance over the keys. There is the faintest hum from the machine. In a trice, a large fine china mug appears, steaming, on its own saucer, garnished with fresh chives and coriander. There is even the traditional porcelain soup-spoon on the side, intricately decorated.
I wonder what sort of businesses he supplies this particular machine to. All that the University ones dispense, is various colours and temperatures of pond-water à la Styrofoam. We must be at the very bottom of their budget range.
He brings it to the low onyx table in front of me, and presents it with the gallant flourish of a red napkin. Something of the gesture, and the way he arranges himself laconically on the sofa opposite, makes my heart sink slightly.
Oh no. He’s so gay…the way he’s fidgeting his earlobe in that I’m-ready-to-listen way and stroking his knee with his other hand – that’s at least fifty shades of gay…
I struggle to focus on the list of questions that Knobhead has written out for me. I’m starting to worry that maybe I won’t enjoy finding out the answers to some of them.
“It’s very hot,” he says, in a warning tone. It startles me.
“Hmmm?” Am I always this jumpy?
“The soup, Miss Bellummm.” His mouth twitches in the corner, and his black eyes crinkle slightly. It’s as if he can see into the dark shadows at the back of my own mind.
“I can get started with the questions while it cools down,” I say, brightly, batting away the shadows in my head at his curt nod. Definitely gay. I look down at the sheet of paper. “Now… the first question. Is it true that you employ foreign child labour in the construction of your vending machines?”
“No.” The answer is as cold as ice, and as solid. “There are other ways of manufacturing our machines to a budget that is mutually beneficial, to the product consumers, and the workforce.”
“Right…” I scribble this down, in my best pizza-order shorthand. “And is it also true that you sub-contract your perishable goods supplies, for human consumption, out to companies who deal in black market foodstuffs and out-of-date stock?”
“Our sub-contractors are fully vetted,” he assures me. “If any sub-standard products are finding their way into my machines, it is usually the fault of the site owners, outsourcing to cut-price vandals who access the machines without our endorsement. Quality control is of paramount importance in this business.”
The aroma drifting up from the soup is certainly backing up his argument. But still…
“Are you saying that the recorded cases of food poisoning at Cramps University, and at other sites, is the faculty’s fault?” I ask.
“I am not saying anything, Miss Bellumm,” he muses, his eyes still faintly entertained, his head still quirked. “But you are, it seems.”
I stare down at the page. Twat. That last question was me, my stupid mouth running away with me. Not one of Miss Fucktard’s questions at all. Double twat.
“Moving on,” I say swiftly, aware that his eyes are mentally dismembering me. I look at question number three. “How do you explain your current one thousand percent increase in profits in the current financial climate, Mr. Dry?”
“With excellent book-keeping.”
I look up at him, uncertain whether this is merely a stab at humour. He is still lounging on the sofa, the jet black of his eyes resting on me steadily. My own eyes follow the line of his jaw, and the rumpled Bohemian mane of hair, still intact. His square shoulders in that black suit make me feel weak. What’s wrong with you, girl? He’s still walking around and talking! You’d be bored sick of him within minutes, same as all the others…
I press on with the questions, covering the various charges of tax evasion, pollution, carbon footprint, and illegal immigration, and he has a cool answer for every single one. I’m relieved to turn the page, and find the closing questions are brief.
“…Finally, Mr. Dry. Can you tell me your favourite colour?”
He indicates the décor of the office.
“Black,” he confirms. “With a little fetish for red, occasionally. And sometimes…”
His face darkens. He looks away.
“White?” I suggest, thinking of the painting.
“When black meets white, there is a certain shade – a very delicate and vulnerable shade – that illustrates humanity in its most primitive state.”
“You mean gr…”
He puts his finger to his lips.
“Best left unspoken.” Those black eyes burrow into my head. “A colour for the mind. Not for the lips. Only… under very special circumstances… should the matter pass the lips.”
He’s bonkers. Just what we need right now. Another gay eccentric. I return to the final questions.
“And what music do you listen to?”
“And last question. What car do you drive?”
“I have a number of cars, all black, and a chauffeur, who drives very sedately. You must allow me to take you on a tour of the rest of my complex some time. I may have an opening for a new PR girl soon.”
Outside the window behind him, something turquoise blue and neon yellow crashes wetly onto the pebble beach from above. Without looking around, he produces a remote control, and closes the vertical blinds. Automatic halogen lights phase on overhead, so there is no change in illumination inside the office.
“Thank you, Mr. Dry.” I’m on my feet in that instant, suddenly wary of being in an enclosed office alone with him. Those dark shadows have all sprung to attention in the back of my mind, at the closing of those blinds. “You have been very accommodating, but really I mustn’t keep you any longer.”
“Indeed?” he asks in turn, rising out of his seat. For the first time I notice how tall and manly he is… was, I correct myself angrily. “Keep me for what purpose, I wonder?”
I just nod, blushing fiercely, and head for the door.
“I will have to show you out,” he reminds me, taking out the security pass again, and lurching forward to accompany me. “It has been a pleasure, Miss Belllummm.”
His voice is driving me crazy. And his hand on my arm again, guiding me out of the door and into the corridor. I practically scamper ahead, snatching my coat back from Brain-Dead Blonde Mark II.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Dry,” I say, back in the near-safety of the lobby. There is no sign of Brain-Dead Blonde the receptionist, and I can’t wait to get away. “It has been very educational.”
“I’m sure it will be,” he agrees, with a courteous nod. “Au revoir, Miss Belllummm.”
I run to the Hummer in my pointy Pigalle pumps, and lock myself in. I can see gulls flocking to the spot on the beach outside his office, on the far side of the building.
Those shadows in my head – I fight to control them. How dare he hijack my fantasies, my pure and innocent thoughts of the dead? How dare he make a mockery of it all by walking around in broad daylight and touching me??! There ought to be a law against that sort of thing…
As I drive home again, all I can see through the rain bouncing off the road in front of me, is his gray and amused, sardonic and demonically attractive face.
See the movie ‘Secretary’ (trailer above) for the original Mr. Grey, if copyright law is what lights your candle… and you may find a few more movie tributes, amongst those in the following zombie parody… 🙂
To read on, see the opening chapter ‘Filthy Shavings of Gray Matter’ in The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum:
Available on Amazon Kindle worldwide – click for Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
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