I couldn’t leave without an answer. My legs wouldn’t let me. You might know the feeling; It’s like butterflies, but so strong that your body won’t let your mind override it. Something was telling me that I couldn’t, shouldn’t, just write this jump off too.
So I called him.
It didn’t even ring.
His voicemail was a generic message, but still it filled me with dread. What if…
I wonder how many rash decisions have been made because of a ‘what if?’ I could think of at least one, as I went back up the stairs to my office. If Ward thought he could just ignore me, I would make it as difficult as possible for him. I logged into my computer and opened My HR.
I typed in his name.
I copied his address onto my phone
Then I booked an Uber.
Ward and I spent the whole evening, that first time, trying to figure out what had happened. He asked me to go over everything, from the beginning of my day to the bizarre end. He even wrote a transcript of the whole exchange and asked me to perform it with him. It was weird that he never doubted me, and that I never doubted him. I remember thinking that at the time. For my part, I felt guilty about the whole thing. If I hadn’t looked so distressed, Ward wouldn’t have got involved. He was just being a nice guy. A nice, nosy guy. But I should have been more suspicious of him. Never trust anyone who appears just when you need them.
But that night, a mixture of unease and guilt got the better of me, and I let him lead our investigation. I performed the exchange with him and he timed it. At most, with as many gratuitous pauses as we could fit, the whole thing was just under seven minutes. Seven minutes.
‘Let’s record it again.’ I said.
Ward started the recording. We said the words as we remembered them. 7 minutes again.
‘We must be doing something wrong.’ I pushed, ‘How long does Openscape take to search a name?’
We played out the scenario again with the appropriate props. Six and half minutes.
‘I don’t understand.’ I pressed, frustration getting the better of me, ‘We must be doing something wrong. How does ‘7 minutes’ turn into ‘3 hours’?’
Ward leant against the Reception desk.
‘When you try to remember 4 o’clock, what happens?’ He asked.
‘How about 5’ o’clock?’
‘Nothing. When I think back, It’s just the man, and then us talking about the man. Nothing else. What about you?’
Ward closesd his eyes.
‘I come out of those doors. I see the man. I speak to you. I speak to him. He leaves and then, this. That’s it. But I can remember 4pm yesterday. I can remember 4pm the day before. Today is just…It’s like the time didn’t happen at all. I can only see that man.’
‘Well if you can’t remember any time, then maybe we just have the start time wrong.’
‘We can’t have.’ Ward said, ‘And if we do, then that means…’
He shook his head.
‘What makes more sense: that we both lost part of our day for two different reasons and then met that man, or that we both lost part of our day while we were talking to that man, together?’
‘Neither of them makes sense.’ I said.
‘True, but one is much more terrifying than the other.’ He said, quietly.
I didn’t ask him which one. I knew the former was more farfetched, and the latter meant- Well, it meant that we were in this together. Which, even though we didn’t know each other that well, was so much better than tackling this alone.
‘We need proof of the start time.’ I said. He nodded.
‘Someone must have seen something.’
In an ordinary period of three hours, people would pass the reception between 30-40 times. I know this because, well, I’d counted before. I have a lot of free time on reception and I spend it…wallowing in the mundane, I guess. Granted, this was a quiet period, but at least one person would have walked by, or gone into the post room to talk to Ward. All we needed was someone else who could say ‘Yes, I saw that man.’ Or ‘Yes, I spoke to you on the phone at 4.’ Then we would at least know what we were dealing with.
But in my gut, deep down in the shadowy depths of my consciousness, I knew that something unfathomable had happened, that it was linked to our visitor, and I was just trying my best to block it out. I think Ward knew it too, but we went through the motions anyway. It made us feel like we were in control.
Ward and I did a lap of the office. No one else was around. In the fading afternoon light, the place looked like it had been abandoned. It gave me chills.
‘Ground floor.’ Ward suggested.
Before anyone could get to our floor, floor 3 of the office building, they had to pass through the main reception. The receptionists, Aidy and Kate, would have greeted our visitor, asked him why he was here, who he was here to see, and then opened the security barriers. If they hadn’t, he would have had to jump them. Someone would have noticed a middle aged man trying to jump over a barrier.
But when Ward asked, no one seemed to know who or what he was talking about.
‘He was tall, slim. Well dressed. Clean.’ Ward suggested, trying to jog a memory.
‘Very clean.’ I chimed in. ‘Very odd’
‘Clean?’ Aidy repeated.
‘Oddly so.’ Ward emphasised.
Aidy and Kate rolled their eyes in unison.
‘We get a lot of people coming through here. That description could fit 50% of them.’ Kate replied.
‘Could we look at the visitor log?’ Ward asked.
‘I’m looking at the log. No one came through here for your floor. No one came through this afternoon at all, actually.’
Kate looked surprised by this news herself. Ward and I looked at each other.
‘Do you remember what you were doing at 4pm?’ I asked.
‘What?’ Aidy asked.
‘What were you doing today at 4?’ Ward repeated firmly.
‘I went to Starbucks to get some coffee for the two of us.’ Aidy said.
‘Yeah, and there was a paper delivery that I had to sort out.’ Kate said, ‘Not that it’s any of your business.’
‘Maybe he followed someone in.’ Ward suggested, when we were back on our floor.
It was a possibility. The barriers were slow. If you were directly behind someone, you could sneak through without using your pass. But you would have to be really close to the person you were following. So close that they would notice.
‘There’s 700 people in this building, where would we even start to ask?’
‘And when? Everyone’s fucked off home.’ Ward said, rubbing his forehead.
Then, it occurred to me that there was one thing left to consult.
‘What about the CCTV?’ I asked.
‘What about the CCTV- Oh.’
‘We couldn’t…could we?’
‘I mean, that’s really IT’s domain.’ Ward said, putting his hands in his pockets. ‘Maybe we could ask-‘
‘We could ask someone.’
‘We could, I guess, ask someone tomorrow.’
‘We could wait until tomorrow.’
‘What’s 14 hours?’ Ward asked, hesitantly.
‘So…I guess we’ll just go home now.’ I said, searching his face.
‘Yup. Go home and…wait.’
He wouldn’t look at me.
‘It’ll probably be nothing.’ He said, eventually.
‘We’re going to feel so silly tomorrow, I know it, when we check the CCTV and find out it was…What was it, do you think?’
‘I don’t know. It was…We’ll laugh about it, though. I’m sure.’
But neither of us moved. We just stood on opposite sides of the reception desk, rooted to the spot.
The words came out without me meaning them to. Ward nodded.
‘Yeah. Yeah, me too.’
He reached over and squeezed my hand. It was obviously something he wasn’t used to doing. His hands were clammy and he still wouldn’t look at me. After a few seconds, he let go. He began to walk back to the post room. But then he turned back, hesitated, put his hand to his mouth as if he was trying to stop himself saying something and then clenched his fist.
He walked over to my side of the desk and stood close to me, speaking quietly.
‘I’m about to do something, and I need you to promise not to ask me about it and not to talk about it to anyone, not even to me. Do you understand?’
‘What is it?’
‘Wrong answer.’ Ward said. He dropped his voice an octave.
‘Do you need me to repeat the question or are you incapable of following instructions?
His face was grave. I didn’t know what to say. For moment, I think I was scared of him.
‘No, I understand.’
He nodded and walked towards the post room without a word. He tapped his pass against the reader and pushed the door open with his shoulder. He was about to disappear inside when he doubled back and caught the door.
‘Come in.’ He said.
I hesitated for a second. I think that was my gut telling me that I was about to walk into a ‘lesser of two evils’ type of situation, and I should really just go home and bury my head in the sand. But the thought of being alone in the reception, even for a second, while I packed my thing up to leave, made tears well up in my eyes.
So I hesitated for a second. Then I grabbed my things and followed him inside.