The Safe Place Page 3

Emily realized then how much she’d enjoyed her six weeks at Proem. She didn’t exactly fit in, of course, but people had started to say hi to her in the coffee room, and she’d even been sent a fun little questionnaire for the in-house “newsletter,” whatever that was. “Get to Know Your Team,” the email had said, with a note explaining that her answers would be posted the following week along with her photograph. It had felt nice to be included.

She looked for more excuses to hang around. Buoyed by the attentions of the abandoned little boy, she found increasingly elaborate ways to entertain him: Twenty Questions, magic tricks, a treasure hunt. She swept the floor. The photocopier was beeping; the paper tray was jammed. The coffee machine needed cleaning, the cushions straightening. She wanted to leave the place looking perfect. Maybe someone would realize what a great employee she’d been and call her back. But when the office activity began to wind down and the boy’s mother finally appeared to reclaim her shrieking, writhing child (Emily had pumped him full of sugary bribes), she knew it was finally time to go.

Picking up her bag, she took a last look around. Somewhere in a parallel universe, maybe she belonged in a place like this. Maybe there was a version of her walking around in a Stella McCartney outfit and carrying a briefcase.

But back in the elevator, she studied her reflection once more. On second thought, she decided, probably not.



THE FAT nib of the pen was too blunt to penetrate his skin, but Scott Denny was giving it his best shot. He forced it into the center of his palm, turning it slowly like a screw, first one way and then the other, grinding the metal against his flesh.

It was painful but not nearly enough. He cast his eyes over his meticulously ordered desk, searching for something that might do the job properly. There wasn’t a lot to work with. His phone obviously wouldn’t do much damage. Neither would the metal prongs of the charger, not even if he pressed really hard. He could maybe crush his fingers with one of the heavy granite statuettes. Or smash the ornate picture frame and use the glass to carve lines into his arm. If he had a stapler handy, he could slam it repeatedly into his thigh.

Too messy, though. Too loud. Too conspicuous.

On the other side of his desk, her slender frame perched delicately on a Danish cherrywood swivel chair, his executive assistant, Verity, blathered on. Her immaculately manicured nails tapped an irregular beat on the keyboard of her laptop as she made updates to his schedule.

“You’ve got the managing exec of Alkira-Dunn coming in with her lawyer tomorrow at eight thirty, and after that you’ve got a conference call with the rep for Truss and Boulder. He’s hoping we’ll finance a buyout. I’ve already talked to him; he doesn’t have a business plan and we’re a bit unclear on competitors, so we need to look at that tonight. And then if you need to run models you’ve got some time before your lunch meeting. Now, you need to tell me what you want me to do about…”

She droned on and on.

And under the table, grind, grind, grind.

He really should stop. It was going to leave one hell of a mark.

The sky outside, dissected into squares by bronze-mullioned windows, was dishwater gray. Where had the afternoon gone? In just a few hours, the streetlights would start flickering on: a neat line of fire stretching along Grosvenor Street all the way to Hyde Park, a procession of torches lighting the way home for all but the likes of him, the night owls for whom the days were not defined by the rising and setting of the sun but by the open and close of global trade.

Scott suddenly registered silence. He looked up. Verity had paused mid drivel and was giving him an odd look.

“What?” he said.

“Yesterday’s start-up. I need to know if you want me to go ahead and contact their director.”

Scott tried to recall the previous day and drew a blank.

“Everything okay?” Verity’s doll-like face was rumpled with concern.

“Fine.” He smiled thinly. “Just a few issues at home. Nothing major. Yes, set up a meeting. What else?”

Verity gave him a sideways look and returned to her screen, unconvinced but keen to press on.

Grind, grind, grind.

Beside him on his desk, Scott’s phone lit up displaying yet another new message. There was now a neat little queue of them.

Please talk to me …

Last night I thought …

We need you, don’t …

I swear if you …

I fucking hate you …

Selfish thoughtless cowardly bastard …

Grind, grind, grind.

He nodded along with whatever Verity was saying, his thoughts drifting further and further away. Images darted birdlike through his mind, swooping and flashing their colors at him. He saw an orange sun peeking through feathery fronds of pampas grass. A wet footprint evaporating on hot polished travertine.

Then a pillow, soft and plump. A delicate finger, pointing.

And stars. A thick blanket of stars across a clear, black sky.

He fought the urge to slap himself. His eyes wandered, seeking an anchor. Through the glass wall of his office he could see the worker bees buzzing from room to room at a time-lapsed pace. Clients came and went. Junior staff members leaned in doorways clutching dainty cups of espresso. And over in reception, a large potted fig tree wobbled as a fully grown woman tried to wedge herself behind it.

He narrowed his eyes. Was he seeing things? No. His receptionist really was hiding behind a potted plant. Suddenly, a small boy jumped out from under the desk and hopped up and down, pointing with glee at the ill-concealed blond. She clutched at her chest as if shot, then fell to the ground in a heap. The boy laughed and sat on her head.

Scott removed the pen from his hand.

He watched, entranced, as the receptionist negotiated her way out from under the boy and staved off a second attack with some sort of trick. The child gazed up at her as she produced a small object from behind his ear, and for the first time in a long while, Scott smiled.

There was a soft knock at the door, and both he and Verity turned to see David Mahoney’s smarmy little face peeping around the door. “Sorry to interrupt,” David said, “but I just wanted to let you know that it’s done. I told her.”

Scott blinked. “What?”

“The temp on reception. I fired her. As … as we discussed.” David’s eyes slid to Verity, who shrugged.

“Oh.” Scott glanced back toward reception. The young woman was now galloping around and flapping her arms like wings. “Yes. Good. Thank you.”

David pressed his hand to his heart and pretended to faint. “Oh god, don’t do that to me. For a minute there I thought I’d made a mistake.”

“No. No mistake.”

“Thank heaven for that.” He let out a high-pitched laugh. “I was worried I’d be out the door next!”

Scott stared at him.

“Okay, well, she ought to be packing up her things as we speak.”

“No rush,” Scott murmured. Down the hall, the receptionist was wrapping what looked like a stack of cookies in a napkin. She pressed them into the little boy’s hand.

David backed away with an almost courtly bow and the door clicked shut after him. There was a brief pause, during which Verity raised a penciled eyebrow. “Dare I ask what she did to offend you?”

Scott said nothing, and Verity went back to her laptop. She knew better than to push him. She resumed her meaningless stream of facts and figures.

And underneath it, a small unpleasant sound.

Tap tap tap.

Scott frowned. It was coming from under the table. A soft, wet rhythm, somewhere near his feet.

Tap tap tap.

Peering down, he saw several tiny dark splashes of blood on the polished concrete. Well, would you look at that, he almost said. Clearly, you should never underestimate a blunt instrument.



AFTER HEADING out of the main lobby and onto the street, Emily circled around the back of the building and turned left toward the small Tesco Metro near the Tube station. She was starving, and the cupboards at home were pretty much bare. A mental rummage through her fridge turned up a small hardened block of cheese, a jar of curry paste, tomato sauce, and a carrot. Not even Jamie Oliver could make a meal out of that.

She checked her phone as she walked. No missed calls, no new emails; just a text from her acting agent, Lara, reminding Emily of the times of both the following day’s audition and the routine admin meeting they’d scheduled for an hour beforehand. Emily tapped out a response: Yay! See you tomorrow! and quickened her step. At least getting fired meant that she wouldn’t have to sneak out of work again. Actually, maybe it was a sign. Destiny or something. Maybe she was supposed to get fired so that she could go to this audition. After all, the universe worked in strange and mysterious ways.

In the supermarket, Emily found herself humming along to the tinny background music as she browsed the aisles, her basket dangling from her elbow. She picked up milk, eggs, cereal, onions, tomatoes, and chicken, and on a cheerful whim she threw in some smoked salmon and an avocado. By the time she reached the self-service checkout, she’d also acquired a block of the good chocolate and a four-pack of Bacardi Breezers, because why not?

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