Denis Bell



The pear-shaped doorman murmured a squishy good morning. Big purple face like a giant pomegranate. He reminded Frank of Buster Higgs. Buster and his mob of…
Frank nodded curtly and entered the marbled lobby. Rode the executive elevator up to the tenth floor. The drive to work had brought on another blinding headache. He walked to the window and closed the shades then fumbled in his desk for a bottle of aspirin…
Linda sauntered into the office around 11:30. Wearing that top again. She fixed him with a saucy half smile.
“I’ve just been on with Marla at F&A. I scheduled them for 2:00 pm. The conference room on eight.”
With that she moved closer. Right up to the edge of his desk and stood peering down at him.
Frank glanced up at Linda nervously. A serious young woman with glasses rather than contacts and thin blond hair tied tightly above her head in a bun – seemingly the very model of professional efficiency. Yet appearances could be deceptive. Recently sweet little Linda had been acting a little strangely. Getting—fresh with him. Nothing overt but the signals were unmistakable. The way she moved, spoke, an inviting lilt at the edge of a remark. Manner of dress.
How she stared at him with those come on eyes! How she was staring right now…
He couldn’t deny, it was all starting to get to him. He a married man and this woman—girl—young enough to be his… well not quite but almost. At certain moments Frank pictured Linda as a dominatrix named Helga. Helga on with Marla and F&A in the conference room on eight…
“Can’t it wait until tonight… er, tomorrow, darling? A little preoccupied with this other business today. On second thoughts, have them make a damn appointment. We’re not Burger King.”
Linda shot him a quick glance.
“They already did. You approved it last week.”
Frank was having a little trouble keeping track of things lately but of this he was sure, he hadn’t approved anything of the sort.
Linda hesitated a moment before going on.
“Do you want me to—”
He didn’t see her come around the desk but suddenly she was all over him, mouth in his ear.
“—for you?”
“What the… what in God’s name are you doing now, woman?”
Linda looked startled. “It looked like you needed some… something… ”
Frank glared at her for a moment then his expression softened. “Didn’t mean to snap, sweetie, but… really!”
She was, he supposed, trying to be nice to him, albeit in an entirely improper way. Had he overreacted? He had a tendency to do that.
He stood up and offered a reassuring arm. She flinched at the touch and brushed it aside, skipped over to the other side of the desk. Playing coy.
Frank had recently started to see people as produce. The sweet boy in the mailroom with the oval face and the mottled complexion was a plum. His housekeeper Mrs. Womack had become a Granny Smith. Here Linda stood before him in the full bloom of youthful feminine beauty as a Golden Delicious. Ripe and fresh and, well, virtually crying out to be—plucked.
Frank was something of a oddity in this game—an old school type who loved his wife and not much of a player. But Rose was wilting and the world changing, both inside and out, values evolving and shifting, barriers collapsing. Perhaps he would have his just desert after all. Not now but some time…
Linda handed over a thin sheaf of papers.
“The agenda for the Board meeting and your schedule of afternoon appointments. I’m out of here. Buzz me if you need anything.”
Bite me, is what Frank heard.
Linda didn’t linger there a second longer than necessary. She didn’t know what was going on with Frank but it was freaking the living daylights out of her. One minute he’s carrying on a perfectly normal conversation—or what passed for normal in Frankville these days—and the next gone AWOL. Catatonic. Just as she’s on the point of calling in the medics, he’s back on planet earth and yelling at her and the next instant all sweetness and light. She’d nearly jumped out of her skin when he touched her. You’d think she’d be getting used to it by now—this was the third episode in as many weeks.
Abrupt mood swings, temper tantrums, odd lapses of memory. Her mom had acted a bit this way when she went through the change but such womanly angst didn’t exactly jive with the testosterone-soaked world of corporate finance. Alzheimer’s? – way too young. A mid-life crisis, then? After five years with the firm she knew all about that and again it didn’t seem to fit.
Unlike most of the creeps in this place Frank actually treated Linda like a human being and she liked him… now all this. She wondered if Frank was undergoing some kind of breakdown.
It so happened that today was the culmination of six weeks of intense research and market analysis on Frank’s part. He now had a major, possibly career changing, decision to make. The Abernathy deal. He was scheduled to meet with their reps in just a few hours.
Frank’s rise to the tenth floor within three years of joining the firm had been nothing short of meteoric. On the other hand, he hadn’t made a major killing in months and the pressure from above was starting to build. In order to achieve his goal of making Partner by age forty—a feat unprecedented in the history of the firm—he was going to have to do something spectacular, and soon. Pull off some kind of major coup. This deal could be the one.
Not if it blew up in his face. He ran the projections on his laptop for the umpteenth time and still couldn’t decide.
He wished his dad were here. Strange, he hadn’t thought about his father in so long. It’s just that these days he felt so… lame… unmanly almost…
The headache was making a comeback and his thought patterns were fermenting, following a recently established trend. He could feel himself sinking into the compost heap of his mind.
He thought about Linda and not in a secretarial way. Thought about Helga. Tried to force his attention back to more pressing matters and found he was unable to. What was wrong with him?
Last night Rosie had threatened to take his two little cherries and leave – something about the way he was acting. She’d have done it already if she knew half of the crap that was churning in his head.
After a while he picked up the list of appointments Linda had left. There was the conference call with Foster & Associates at 2:00 pm. The meeting with the Abernathy boys at 3:00—a grapefruit and an artichoke. Then at 5:00, the highpoint of his professional week, his report to the Board of Prunes.
He realized with a start that he had no idea what the report was about! Was he losing his mind? He’d been working on it for three days! He rifled through his notes in panic looking for some kind of a clue and found, astonishingly, that none of it was making sense. The words seemed to have lost their meaning.
Frank felt as though his head were about to explode. He must have fallen asleep. The clock had advanced by leaps and bounds and the laptop was lying on the floor beside his desk. There were some numbers on the screen. What were they?
A thought was nagging somewhere that he couldn’t seem to grasp hold of, concerning an item of business that needed to be conducted that afternoon. It had the feel of importance. There was something green and prickly involved and a round sour thing, possibly yellow…
Frank could hear a ringing sound and there was an unpleasant smell in the air, a mixture of burning rubber and manure. And it was unseasonably hot in here. You could have fried an egg on his forehead.
It occurred to him that perhaps there was a fire in the building. Scenes from the movie Towering Inferno came spilling into his head. His father had taken him to see it once when he was a kid… one Sunday afternoon, just before his father had up and left them. His father had played football in college, had wanted Frank to play. If he hadn’t been such a little wimp then maybe…
There’s no smoke without fire and smoke is what Frank smelled now. He could hear shouting in the distance, faint but becoming louder by the second…
Chaos and mayhem were erupting everywhere on the upper floors of the building. People acting like animals—yelling and shoving, trampling each other in a vain effort to get to safety. A bunch of rotten bananas—soft and yellow.
Close by, an elevator (perhaps the very one Frank rode up in this morning) packed full of screaming people crashed to the ground. There was a warning sign to USE STAIRS IN THE EVENT OF FIRE but the stairwell was blocked and in any case it seemed people rarely paid attention to warnings these days. Especially the people in this elevator who, as it turned out, were all either anonymous or despicable. One jerk had actually pulled a woman out of the elevator just before the doors closed and jammed himself in there, in her place! This jerk also looked like Buster Higgs.  
Well, he got his!, Frank thought gleefully.                                            
Frank was fourteen years old and sitting in the Odeon Cineplex on Church Street staring transfixed at the flickering screen and munching on popcorn. Buster and his gang of dorks called him Fruity Francis. There had been a thing with a boy in the tenth grade but they wouldn’t dare call him fruity now if they could see him with Rose and Mark and Anne. His position with the firm. The way Linda made eyes… Anyway, how could he be a fruit when he was watching a real scary grown-up movie and he wasn’t in the least bit scared? Best of all, his dad was being unusually nice to him today. He bought him popcorn and a hot dog. It was going to be all right, after all!
He took a first bite of the hot dog. It was delicious, hot and juicy, oozing with mustard and ketchup. He sighed contentedly. He was safe here. Home at last after a long strange journey, or perhaps a bad dream? Only something was wrong. A lot of things. They closed the Odeon down years ago and converted it into an apartment building. Rose… Mark… Anne… Linda? Who were these people? And what was “the firm”? Somewhere off the distance a bell was ringing and his head hurt—
Suddenly the pain escalated to the level of scalding agony and Frank’s vision exploded in a blinding flash. He tried to scream but couldn’t. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped in the chair as the blackness washed over him and he was… free.
Linda glanced at the clock on her desk. It was 1:59 and Frank had still not emerged from his office. He was going to be late for his conference call on the eighth floor.
She knocked sharply on the door and entered anyway when there was no response.
The poor man must have been exhausted, he was sound asleep in his chair. He looked so helpless, just like a little boy, with his mouth wide open and his head lolling to the side.
She hated to wake him but he was late for his call…