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The Client

“Lily, would you come in here? I need some photocopies made,” said my boss, Mr. Hollis. I told him I’d be right there, but popped into the bathroom on my way to check my hair and clothes. Most of the clients didn’t even look at me when I came in to collect ID, witness wills, or make photocopies, but Mr. Hollis did, and I didn’t want him to think I was a slob since I had only been at this job for three weeks.

The door to Mr. Hollis’ office was closed and I knocked twice before stepping inside. The first thing I noticed was darkness. The only light source was a small lamp on the table illuminating the papers in front of Mr. Hollis and his client. Even sitting down, I could tell he would tower over both Mr. Hollis and myself when standing. His features were obscured, but I could see that he was rail thin, and his skin was as pale as tattered moonlight, a stark contrast to Mr. Hollis, whose skin was a rich, dark color and who had a healthy amount of weight around his waist.

“Ah, Lily, there you are. Here, I need three copies of these and four of those.” Mr. Hollis gestured at two piles of papers on his desk. Each stack had several papers turned every which way to indicate different sections. I reached for the papers, but I froze when the client spoke.

“Is this your new girl, Alistair?” I don’t know what bothered me more, his use of the word ‘girl’ or his raspy voice.

“Yes, this is my new assistant.” Bless him, I thought as he placed a gentle emphasis on the word ‘assistant’. “Lily came highly recommended by her former employer. She moved here from Toronto. Lily, this is Mr. Cromwell. He is one of the firm’s oldest clients.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” I turned to look at his face and I felt his eyes burn into me to study my soul. My secrets, my being, tumbled out across the floor like a long winding scroll. I could feel him devouring every word. It took Herculean strength to drop my gaze back to the papers and break his hold, but I did. I had to get out of there. I wondered if I could convince Suzanne, Mr. Hollis’ other, more senior assistant, to take the papers back in for me. It might be a cheap move for a new staff member, but I was sure she’d dealt with this client before.

“Oh, I am sure that the pleasure is all mine, Lily.” He savored my name, rolling it around in his mouth like his favorite flavor of ice cream.

“That will be all, Lily. Thank you.” Mr. Hollis cut in.

I’ve never gathered up papers and left a room as quickly as I left that one, but I was back in my shared office with Suzanne before I even realized it.

“Something wrong?” Suzanne stopped typing to look at me.

“That client of Mr. Hollis’. He…”

“Mr. Cromwell? Yes, he’s…” Suzanne trailed off.

“Creepy?” I laid the papers out on my desk, careful to keep them collated.

“Creepy? Did he say something?”

“Well, he called me Mr. Hollis’ new ‘girl’.” I knew it sounded weak even as I said it, but it was impossible to articulate the rest of what I had felt.

“Ugh, I hate when old men do that. Unfortunately, Mr. Cromwell has been a client at this firm for a long time, so we have to put up with him. Without him, this firm would probably go under. Al kind of needs him.”

Suzanne had been at the firm since it had belonged to Mr. Hollis’ father and had earned the right to call him by his first name. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to. First of all, he had to be at least forty-five, close to twenty years my senior, and I had a lot of respect for him. He may have inherited the firm from his father, but in the three years since he had taken over, the firm had grown significantly. I’d researched him a long time before applying for the job. The plan was to work here a couple years and then hopefully find the money to head to law school myself and I’d need all the connections I could get when I graduated.

“What does he do?” I started copying some of the documents at the photocopier in the back of our shared office area. The machine was noisy, but not so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. I cursed internally when I noticed that some of the documents were randomly double-sided and stapled. This would be a nightmare.

“He owns a lot of businesses. He pays Al to manage all of his corporate dealings.” Suzanne stood up and looked at me. “Wow, he really did a number on you.” She helped me remove staples and organize the copies.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Your hands are shaking, and you look even more pale than usual,” she said, and I rolled my eyes, pretending to be offended.

“It was mostly the way he looked at me and how he said my name. It made my skin crawl.”

“Well, he does like the younger ones.” Suzanne put a hand over her mouth.

“What does that mean? Has something happened before?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Suzanne flashed me a brilliant smile. “Let’s just get these copies done. Mr. Cromwell hates to be kept waiting.” She took one of the piles and headed out the door, presumably to the larger photocopier down the hall. I made a mental note to bring her a ‘thank you’ coffee when I went out for lunch later. I worked to get the copies done as efficiently as possible, but couldn’t help reading sections of them as they slipped through the paper feeder. Mostly there were long columns of numbers, but there was a lot of writing in a language that I couldn’t identify. The letters were strangely triangular, and I wondered what it meant. Sprinkled throughout these were some plain English papers that seemed to be only generic corporate documents, at least from what I could tell. I wanted to figure it out, but right now, I needed to take the papers I had finished, collect Suzanne’s, and take them back to Mr. Hollis before much more time passed. I didn’t know how he could stand talking to that man as long as he did.

I was most of the way down the hall when I overheard Suzanne talking with one of the other secretaries, Terry? Tessa? Their voices were low, and the photocopier was rumbling in the background, but I could pick up some of their conversation.

“I can’t believe he called her in to see Mr. Cromwell so soon. Al is usually a lot more careful than that. I don’t know why he didn’t call me in. I know the photocopying is her job, but Mr. Cromwell always gets way too interested in the new, young secretaries.” Luckily, Suzanne had a naturally loud voice.

“Maybe that’s why… I’ve heard that Mr. Cromwell…” The same could not be said of Terry/Tessa. “It has been a long time since…”

“Yes, I know, but otherwise we all might be out of a job.”

“Is that really … keep your job? She is …”

“I know. That’s why I’m helping her with the copies. I hope we can keep this one.”

I backed up and then when I walked back down the hall, I stomped my feet a little so that they could hear me coming. “Hey Suzanne, I’ve got my half done. Thank you so much.”

“It’s no problem. That was a lot. I’m on the last one now and then I’ll help you carry them back in.”

“You’re the best. Hey, why does Mr. Cromwell like to meet in the dark?”

Suzanne shrugged. “I’m not sure, but when he comes into the lobby, he always wears dark sunglasses and a hat. I think his eyes are sensitive or something.”

“And all of his meetings are on rainy, cloudy days,” volunteered Terry/Tessa.

“Oh Tessa, that’s not true. I’ve seen him come in on a sunny day before. I’m sure of it,” Suzanne laughed. “Come on, Lily, let’s get these copies back to him, and then we can forget all about Mr. Cromwell.”

I was relieved to have Suzanne with me when we went back in. I could feel Mr. Cromwell’s eyes sliding over my body, but I avoided making eye contact. Suzanne and I were out and back at our desks in record time, and he left soon after. Once he was gone, I relaxed and got back into the groove of my work.

* * *

Mr. Cromwell’s second visit was on a dreary day full of rumbling thunder and steady, pounding rain. I had learned from Suzanne and Tessa that Mr. Cromwell came in each month to meet with Mr. Hollis, and he always had piles of incomprehensible photocopying to do. Sometimes, he was acquiring or selling different businesses, but other times he seemed to just want to meet with Mr. Hollis, and he’d had the same routine with the original Mr. Hollis.

That day, our usual receptionist was homesick and as junior staff, it was my duty to cover for her. Most of the time I didn’t mind reception, as long as the questions on the phone weren’t too stupid and no random people wandered in off the street demanding to see a lawyer, which happened a lot since our firm was downtown. Mr. Cromwell arrived at precisely 9:30 a.m. He was, as expected, wearing sunglasses, and welcomed me with a wide Joker grin. I forced a polite half-grin back.

“Ah, Lily, it is good to see you are still here. I look forward to working with you more in the future. Those copies you provided us were impeccable and done so quickly.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or mocking me, but I responded with a quick thank you and pointed out that Suzanne had helped me.

“Ah yes, Suzanne. She is a lovely girl.” I reminded myself that he was an important client. He grinned even wider. Immaculate teeth peeked out between his pale, pink lips.

“If you’ll have a seat, please, I’ll let Mr. Hollis know you’re here.”

“I believe I’m a touch early for my appointment, but by all means, let Alistair know I’ve arrived.” He didn’t sit down. Instead, he stood over me, and I wished the receptionist’s desk were wider, taller, and surrounded by bulletproof glass. “Where did you work before? Alistair mentioned that you moved here from Toronto?”

“Not Toronto exactly. I lived in Oshawa. I worked for a sole practitioner there, Jody Pilsner. She specialized in-“

“Family Law and Litigation. An interesting combination.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“And you moved here because?”

“My mother isn’t well. She needed me.” I hadn’t wanted to share something so personal, but I couldn’t help it. I felt that, even if I had lied, he would have known anyway.

“Mr. Cromwell, so good to see you. Please, come into my office,” Mr. Hollis called.

“I will see you again soon, Lily.” Mr. Cromwell nodded and turned to follow Mr. Hollis to his office. I wondered what Mr. Hollis thought of his father’s strange client, but I dared not ask. I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask much more about Mr. Cromwell, except maybe Suzanne and the gossipy Tessa, but I didn’t want to seem overly interested.

That night, I spent hours on the internet trying to find information on Mr. Cromwell. I found references to some of the companies I knew he was associated with, but nothing that named him or identified him in any way. His companies operated under various titles, but I thought somewhere I’d see a picture of him or something. I found other Cromwells, but none that seemed to be the right one.

As the weeks went by, I began taking on more and more duties related to Mr. Cromwell’s business empire. The businesses he purchased ranged from fast food joints to accounting firms and I often had to edit the agreements. I found this part of the job tedious, but I seemed to be good at it, so soon I was proofreading documents for the other lawyers when my load for Mr. Hollis wasn’t too heavy. It was nice to gain some recognition at the firm. I spent my spare moments perusing old files related to Mr. Cromwell’s business to see what I could learn, but all the paperwork seemed normal. None of the paperwork stored at the firm was in that strange alphabet I had seen earlier.

I thought I was hiding my obsession well, but one day, Suzanne said, “You need to stop Lily.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop digging. I know you’ve been trying to learn more about Mr. Cromwell, and you need to stop.”

“What do you mean? Why?”

“He’s not someone you want to know more about. Unless Mr. Hollis calls you in for something, steer clear.”

“He creeps me out. Why do you think I want to spend any time with him? Ok, I admit a mild curiosity about his business, but I want nothing to do with him, personally.”

“Good, keep it that way. I’ve enjoyed working with you these past few months and nothing good happens to the secretaries who get caught up with him.”

“Ok.” A thin panicky worry ran down my back and settled in my stomach. “Thank you. I like working with you, too.” I resolved to stay away from now on, but three days later when Mr. Cromwell’s came in again, Mr. Hollis called me.

“Lily, can you come to the boardroom for a moment?”

“Yes, I’ll be right there.” I stole a look at Suzanne, who was on the phone with her daughter, but she didn’t seem to notice that my phone had rung. I darted out of there, only taking the briefest of pauses at the mirror to check my appearance. I felt strangely eager to see Mr. Cromwell again, even though he still repulsed me.

Mr. Hollis’ office was, as usual, lit by a single lamp. Mr. Hollis was standing behind his chair and even in the dim light, I could see how nervous he was.

“Lily, my dear, I’m glad to see you again.” I could almost hear Mr. Cromwell’s grin spread across his face. “Your presence has brightened my visits here lately.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cromwell.”

“Lily, we need two copies of this pile, but only one of these.”

I started for the papers, but Mr. Cromwell reached out and closed his left hand over my right one. “We don’t need the copies yet, Alistair.” His voice was soft, soothing, like the chirrups my cat makes before it pounces on a fly.

“Shit.” Normally I would have been shocked to hear Mr. Hollis swear, but all I could focus on was that touch.

At our first meeting, I had felt laid bare, but this time he scraped my soul raw. Every emotion, thought, or feeling that I had ever had or ever would have was now his. I think I made some sort of strangled gasp before jerking my hand back.

“Yes, she’ll do, Alistair. You have a keeper here.”

I was so jarred that I left without the papers. I sat down at my computer and stared at the screen, only half-aware when Suzanne left and came back with them. She busied herself about the photocopier but said nothing to me. Once she had delivered the papers, she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? I’ll talk to Al. You don’t look so well. Do you have someone who can pick you up?”

“I can drive,” I insisted but when I tried to stand up, I fell right back down in my chair.

“Never mind, I’ll drive you. Your car will be fine in the garage overnight,” said Suzanne.

I gave her my address, but I must have fallen asleep in her car because I didn’t remember getting home or how I wound up on my couch wrapped in a blanket when I woke the next day. I stayed home that morning but went into work in the afternoon. It was Wednesday and Mr. Hollis spent the rest of the week in a strange, distracted state. I, however, felt fine. Once I’d recovered, I felt refreshed, and I attacked my job with a renewed vigor. Suzanne was happy to see me feeling better, and I had to field about a dozen concerned calls from my mother insisting I take the rest of the week off. I assured her it had only been temporary exhaustion, now cured by extra sleep. The only person who wasn’t happy to see how much better I felt was Mr. Hollis. If anything, the better I felt, the more concerned he became. He kept telling me to take it easy and relax. Then, on the following Monday, he called me into his office.

“Lily, there is something I need to talk to you about.” He gestured for me to have a seat and a little alarm bell went off in my stomach. “You’ve been doing a wonderful job here. I want you to know that I think well of you and that you make an excellent legal assistant.”

“But?”

“But, unfortunately, I don’t need you here anymore. My work is changing, and I think it would be best for both of us that you move on.”

“You’re firing me?”

“No, nothing like that. I’ve made arrangements with a friend of mine, who is a lawyer at Stevens and Nodd. I’m offering a bonus and I’ll supplement an extra two dollars per hour for your salary for the first six months you’re there on top of what they’ll pay you.”

“That’s generous. What is this about?” I asked, although I already had some suspicions.

“I just think you’d be better off working there rather than here. If you don’t want to work at Stevens and Nodd, I will provide you an excellent recommendation and you can still keep the bonus and the two dollars per hour, only I’ll have to offer it as a flat sum.”

“Stevens and Nodd is a respectable firm. It’s not that. I just don’t understand why.”

“Please, don’t press this, Lily.” He looked at me and my heart ached a little at the pain in his voice. “Please take the offer and go. If anyone asks, you chose to leave. Only myself, Ralph Stevens, and you know the details.”

“Is this about Mr. Cromwell?” I couldn’t help it.

“Ah, uh, what makes you say that?” He tried to play it off, but the panic in his eyes betrayed everything.

“He is an interesting man,” I said. “He seemed to take an interest in me.”

“He’s not interesting, Lily.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Please do not think any more about him. Ralph is ready for you to start, tomorrow.” He stood up and stretched out his hand to shake. I took it and thanked him for the opportunity. Inside, I was buzzing with questions and more than a little concern. Was Mr. Cromwell’s interest really that dangerous?

I went back to my desk with no intention of telling Suzanne anything, but she seemed to already know. She hugged me and told me how much she would miss me. I returned the sentiment, not realizing until then how much I had enjoyed working with her. As I was leaving, she made one strange comment that I didn’t want to understand: “I’m glad he decided not to go through with it.”

* * *

I wasn’t at my new job for very long when I walked into the lobby and found Mr. Cromwell standing there, creeping out the receptionist. I dropped the papers I was carrying. I bent down to try and pick them up before he noticed me but when I looked up, I saw Mr. Cromwell staring at me. Even through his sunglasses, I could feel his eyes boring holes into me. That old, naked, exposed feeling washed over me, and I straightened up my shirt as I stood back up. I scurried back to my half cubicle and struggled to catch my breath. I put the papers on my desk and hid in the bathroom. It took three breathing exercises and splashing my face with water twice to regain my composure.

It couldn’t be a coincidence that Mr. Cromwell had moved his business. He wanted me for something and whatever it was I was not interested. But even then, inside my adamant refusal, there was a thread of me that was being pulled at by him. When I had collected myself, I dialed Suzanne. She answered, and she sounded haggard. I whispered that Mr. Cromwell was here, and I wanted to know what was going on. Suzanne said she would call me back in five minutes from her cell phone because she didn’t want to talk about this in the office.

“Lily, hi, sorry for that. Things here have been hectic ever since Cromwell found out that you left. Al told him you were sick on his next appointment and the one after that, but then he started to get suspicious. Al hired a new male assistant, and it didn’t go over well. Look, if Mr. Cromwell has followed you to the new firm, then you need to leave. You should quit and find a new profession. Maybe go back to school. You should definitely move out of town.”

“Move out of town? Suzanne, what is going on?”

“Look, I have to be careful, ok? I’m in my car, where I don’t think anyone can hear me, but you never know.”

“Suzanne, you’re starting to freak me out. I can’t move. My mother needs me.”

“Just stay away from Cromwell. He’s clearly taken an interest in you. Do not take an interest in him. The best thing you can do is to put him out of your mind. Try to think of him as an unimportant client and maybe that will help.”

“What? How can I do that after all of this?”

“Just trust me. Please, promise me you’ll do your best to think of him as ordinary. He likes young women. They fascinate him and he wants them to be fascinated by him. Those who are don’t do well.” She groaned. “Look, I know I’m not being very clear. I’m not sure how to explain it all. Just stay away from him. I have to go.”

“Suzanne? Suzanne?” I asked, but she had hung up. I stared at my phone, running Suzanne’s bizarre comments through my mind. I made my way back to my desk to find the phone ringing. The word on the phone made my blood run cold, BOARDROOM, where Mr. Stevens was meeting with Mr. Cromwell. I headed down the hallway, slowly, not even bothering to answer the phone. This time I did not stop to fix my hair or check my clothes. Suzanne had said to act as if he were unremarkable, and that was exactly what I was determined to do.

“Ah, Lily, there you are. I’d like to introduce you to my newest client, Mr. Cromwell. Mr. Cromwell, this is-” Mr. Stevens began when I entered the boardroom.

“Lily, yes, we’ve met.”

“You have?”

“Yes, Lily worked for my previous lawyer, Alistair Hollis. I knew she had sought other employment, but I didn’t know that she was here.”

Something seemed to register on Mr. Stevens’ face, and he shot me a worried, apologetic look. I quashed the nervousness I felt and reminded myself that Mr. Cromwell was just like any other client. Nothing special, nothing remarkable. It almost worked.

“Yes, Alistair and I had a bit of a disagreement. I was quite disappointed. I worked so well with his father. It’s a shame that his son is not quite as cooperative. I do hope you’ll be more cooperative, Ralph.” Mr. Stevens nodded, and Mr. Cromwell continued, “It’s a pleasure to see a familiar face. I believe that working together will be beneficial to both of us.” He turned his face toward mine and I tried to think what I would do for any other regular client, but my mouth felt dry, and my mind went blank. Finally, I dropped my eyes, forced a half-smile, and turned back to Mr. Stevens.

“What is it you needed me for, Mr. Stevens?”

“I have some photocopying for you.” He explained how many he needed of each page and how he wanted them collated. I took them and turned to leave.

“It’s a pleasure to be working with you again, Lily. A pleasure, indeed.” Mr. Cromwell said as I left.

As soon as I stepped out into the hallway, the shudder I had been suppressing rocked through me. I walked to my desk, dropped the papers, and spent a solid minute contemplating grabbing my purse and going home, packing up my mother, and just getting the hell out of that city, but instead, I did my job and returned the fresh copies to Mr. Stevens and Mr. Cromwell.

It was impossible to think of him as ordinary. Cromwell had taken some sort of hold over me. I started counting out the days between visits and marked them on my calendar. I spent every night searching for him online and, even though my earlier searches had turned up nothing, this time I started to find him. All the references to those other Cromwells that hadn’t quite fit, began to make sense. I didn’t learn anything specific about him, but I saw him everywhere, even in my sleep. His looming figure and the touch of his hand filled my dreams. I would wake coated in sweat and terrified yet strangely exhilarated. Until one day when Mr. Stevens called me into his office.

“Lily, I need you to come with me off-site for a quick drive. I have a client signing a will, but they aren’t physically healthy enough to come to the office. I need a witness for the signature. How do you feel about taking a little trip today?”

“In your new Mercedes? No problem, boss.” I joked and Mr. Stevens laughed with me. The whole office had been buzzing about the new car all week.

“Excellent. I’ll be at your desk in about fifteen minutes. We shouldn’t be gone long.”

I sat at my desk and poked at my work, reluctant to dive into anything when I would be leaving soon.

“Ready to go, Lily?” Mr. Stevens asked as he walked up. I nodded and followed him to the elevator.

As the numbers blinked through their countdown, I noticed that Mr. Stevens had a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead. I found it a little chilly in the elevator myself, but he was wearing a full suit and I was in a light summer dress. When we left the elevator for the parking garage, we walked past my car, which I did not point out because it was twelve years old, and each day that it actually made it to the office was a victory. We turned the corner to where the lawyers parked their cars and I saw Mr. Stevens’ car. It was red and even though it was probably born of some sort of mid-life crisis, it was still beautiful.

The ride to the client’s house was uneventful. We made some awkward small talk, and I couldn’t help but notice that even though Mr. Stevens had manipulated the temperature in the car to be a perfect balance between cool and warm, he was still sweating and now seemed to be shivering as well. Mr. Stevens wove us through the city streets until we were coasting down a long, winding, country road lined with fields. The houses on this road only got more and more elaborate until we reached the end of the road and a large gate. Mr. Stevens rolled down his window, pressed a button, and announced us. A loud buzzer opened the gate and we rolled through.

At first, I was excited – was this a celebrity’s house? Who lived out here? Mr. Stevens hadn’t needed to consult directions or a GPS to get here. I tried to imagine all of our clients and think who might be rich enough to have a home like this. When only one client came to mind, the car’s temperature plummeted, and I became the one who was shivering and sweating at the same time. It couldn’t be… no, please, I’m wrong about a lot of things, please let me be wrong about this.

Then the house itself came into view and in my heart, I knew I’d been right. I could see him written all over its ominous design. The property was bathed in perpetual shade from the large trees that blocked all sunlight. The mansion looked more like a castle than a home. The windows were small and sparse, and those that were visible were covered up. I pictured each room in that house dark except for a single lamp. I looked at Mr. Stevens, but he was focused on pulling the car into the large garage at the side of the building.

“Mr. Stevens, whose house is this?” He didn’t answer. “Mr. Stevens?”

He parked the car, got out, and stood, waiting for me to do the same, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Any excitement I might have felt about riding in the Mercedes was gone. All I felt was cold terror and slick panic. I doubted that we were here to sign a will.

“Come, Lily, our client is waiting.” Mr. Stevens would not meet my eyes as he gestured for me to get out of the garage and head to the door. I realized that he meant for me to go in front of him, and I felt the first sliver of hatred towards him, but I said nothing and walked forward. There was still a chance I was wrong and that we really were going to sign the will of an elderly person who was too sick to leave their mansion. An impossible chance, but I clung to it. I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I didn’t think I could run very far in my heels, or climb the gate. Even if I could, I didn’t know where we were. No, I would see this through, hope that it was just a will signing, and then pack up my stuff and my mom and leave town just like I should have done weeks ago.

I took the first step, then paused. There was another car here, and it looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Mr. Stevens gave me an impatient look and gestured again, so I walked slowly and deliberately up to the door. I pressed my finger against the doorbell and listened to the ring cascade throughout the house. Footsteps marched to the door and a beautiful, young woman with empty eyes opened the door. Mr. Stevens waited until I went inside first before entering and closing the door behind me. That sliver of hatred grew a little larger. As I’d suspected, no sunlight reached inside the walls. The only light came from electric candles lining the walls, creating an eerie, haunted Halloween effect. We made our way down a hall that ended much like the road had, at an imposing door that I should have never gone through.

* * *

“Lily, thank you for coming,” Mr. Cromwell said from behind his desk.

“Ralph, how could you?” It was Mr. Hollis! He was sitting in a chair across from Mr. Cromwell and staring at me in horror.

“Al, some of us value our business and place in the community. I knew when you took over your father’s business that you were weak. Fortunately for me, I was able to solve your little problem for you. I’ve known Mr. Cromwell for years.”

“Your father handled the bulk of my work, but I do use other lawyers from time to time.” Mr. Cromwell said. “It’s good to have as many connections as possible in this industry, just in case one of them turns out to be a colossal disappointment.” Mr. Hollis winced. I stood in the middle of the room, looking from one man to another, wondering what was going on. Normally, I would be polite in front of a client and my boss, but I was sick of whatever was happening.

“What the hell is this?” I demanded.

“Lily!” Mr. Stevens scolded.

“Seriously? You lied and lured me here, and you’re scolding me?” My anger was bubbling over and overpowering my lifetime of training to “be a lady”, and I welcomed it.

“Lily, please, you’re overreacting,” said Mr. Stevens, who was still in the hallway. Only myself, Mr. Hollis, and Mr. Cromwell were in the room.

“If I am overreacting, then tell me what is going on here.” At least Mr. Stevens had enough humanity left in him to flinch.

“Lily, just remember that I did what I had to do. Al didn’t and now all those people, like your friend, Suzanne, were almost out of a job, but I think they will be happy at my new, larger firm. Now that Al won’t be running his father’s company anymore, I will be merging both our firms under my name. Goodbye.” With that, he nodded at Mr. Cromwell and closed the door. I ran up to it and tried the handle. It was, of course, locked.

“Let us out of here.” I looked at Mr. Hollis for support, but he was slouched down in his chair. “Mr. Hollis?”

“You might as well start calling me Al now, Lily. I just want to say that I’m sorry. I didn’t expect this from Ralph.”

“Lily, my dear, I’m not sure what has you so upset. Please have a seat, I have a proposition for you.” Mr. Cromwell gestured to the other chair across from him. I wanted to adamantly refuse, but when he spread open his mouth to show me his teeth which were no longer perfect white squares, but rows of pointed shark teeth, I sat.

“A proposition?” I hoped he didn’t request his lawyer’s young female assistants for creepy sex games.

“Yes, but first, you have a decision to make.”

“A decision?” I repeated. I knew that repeating his words wouldn’t help anything, but I was so confused and worried I didn’t know what else to say. I scanned the room for windows to crawl out of, but there were none.

“Yes. I have decided to let you decide whose business shall we conclude first, yours or Alistair’s?”

“Me! Just take me. You have no business with her. Please, just let her go. I’ll pay the price.” Al leapt up and started to walk over to Mr. Cromwell.

“Oh, you’ll pay your price, Alistair. Now sit back down.” Mr. Cromwell hissed and both Al and I flinched. Cromwell seemed to have grown and the dim light in the room flickered. Powerful energy knocked Al back and pressed us both into our chairs. He calmed his voice slightly and continued. “I don’t want you, Alistair. You are here because you have become a problem. You will face your fate, but I have something different in mind for Lily. You are of no further use to me, but she is.”

I shuddered and found my voice. “No. I want no part of whatever this is. I want to leave. I will go home, and I will speak to no one. I promise.”

“We have some business to attend to first.”

“No,” I cried and started to get up, but again felt that invisible force press me down.

“Now, please,” said Mr. Cromwell, “are we finished with the dramatics? I grow impatient.”

“I’m leaving.” This time I managed to get up and began to pound on the door again.

“Lily, I thought better of you than this. You had seemed so full of grace and poise. Though, I suppose I did see this stubbornness and determination in you. I admit it was part of what drew me to you. Do not make me regret it.” No matter how I yelled, Cromwell’s words were somehow louder. His presence was overpowering, and I felt that familiar curiosity begin to tug at me again. So far I had just been focused on the alarm bells in my mind, but now I found I wanted to know what he had in mind. Maybe he wanted to offer me a job. Maybe he wasn’t all that bad. I dropped my hands and let my cries fade. I turned around, faced Cromwell directly, and announced, “Alistair first.”

As soon as I had spoken, Cromwell’s grin grew wider than I ever thought possible. He had so many teeth; they seemed to go on forever. Then the lights flickered, faster and faster, before finally sputtering out and plunging the room into unnatural darkness. There were no shapes, nor the tiny flickers that our eyes create, only pure black. In the dark, I heard a rumbling begin. It hissed and rattled like a large snake, and something brushed past me. Al didn’t scream or cry out. The sound of his passing was only silence. Then the lights came back on, and I was alone with Cromwell.

“Where did he go? What happened?” I asked, but no answers came. I braced myself for the lights to descend on me, but they didn’t. We regarded each other and I knew that things were already different. “Am I next?”

“That’s up to you, Lily.”

“What are you offering me?”

“Anything.”

“What do I have to do in return?”

“You will help me out from time to time. Whatever I need.”

“And if I refuse? Do I go where he went?” I gestured to the empty chair beside me.

“No. I believe in free will. Your memory would be altered, and you could return to your ordinary, dull life. Alistair made an agreement and then failed to live up to it. I am not unreasonable.” He spread his lips in something that resembled a grin. “Please, take a moment to consider.”

A clock began to tick a merciless rhythm while I did. I could leave this awful place, forget everything, and spend the rest of my life helping other people build their careers. Or… I could take his offer. I saw how much money and resources Alistair had had at his disposal before he threw it all away for me. I thought about what a shame it would be if his sacrifice had been for nothing.

“Can you cure my mother’s cancer?”

“Your mother will be cancer-free.”

I nodded. This time when our eyes met, I looked into the abyss of his mind. His eyes swelled and filled the room. There was one more door before me and I stepped through. Once there, he showed me pieces of himself. I still struggle to put it into words. He is not a predator, but the predator, and we are all his prey. For the lifetime of humanity, he has always been there, manipulating, guiding, twisting people to his purposes. The oldest adversary. The tempter of man. A child of the morning turned to darkness. I can see his marks on history and all that he can grant me in this life and the one after.

He also showed me the truths behind so many lies. Like how the elder Mr. Hollis hadn’t died of natural causes, but instead, crushed by the guilt of the atrocities he let happen, he’d overdosed on medication. I learned how Al had made his agreement with Cromwell when he had been too young to know better. I learned about lawyers, politicians, and others who had taken similar deals and marveled at the power that Mr. Cromwell could grant. I also learned that my mother had never been sick, just lonely, and had lied to bring me home. In exchange, Cromwell also learned more from me. He already knew about Alistair’s weak attempt to protect me, but he had not known that Suzanne had also tried to warn me, and I learned that Suzanne had once made her own deal to save her son’s life. I worked to keep her betrayal from him as long as I could, but he always gets what he wants.

* * *

Now, I watch as Suzanne steps inside Mr. Cromwell’s home office after a ride in my new Mercedes. She had been surprised when I returned to the firm with a new office and a law degree a couple of years later. I had offered to take her on as my assistant, but she refused. Suzanne had turned to me in shock when she saw whose house I had brought her to. I was surprised it took her that long to figure out what was coming. As she begins her futile attempts to escape his power, I close the door and take my leave. There isn’t much I can do for her anyway. We all have our debts to pay.

END

Originally published in Little Demon Digest #1 by Little Demon Books

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Fiction, Horror

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