You never know for sure what people are thinking. Take the woman opposite, gazing past him out the train window. Late middle age, lumpy, unflattering pedal pushers and floral blouse.
What did women of her age think about? You could guess mundane things such as shopping or meeting friends for coffee. But she could be just as easily be thinking of last night’s tryst with her toy boy, or her next canoe trip down the Amazon.
That was the interesting thing about people. Their unpredictability.
He studied the woman’s sagging cheeks and lipstick bleeding into the lines around her mouth. Unpredictability aside, you could probably eliminate the toy boy scenario.
And he’d wager a million dollars she didn’t have an inkling of what was going through his mind. If she did, she wouldn’t be sitting there so engrossed in her own world.
He slipped his hand into his coat jacket and fingered the inside pocket. It was still there. He knew it would be, he remembered placing it in there, before he kissed Jocelyn goodbye and ran to catch the train. But he liked to make sure, to feel its reassuring solidity.
He glanced at the faces around him. The travel-induced glaze in their eyes gave away nothing of their thoughts. The element of surprise always achieved the most gratifying results. He’d whip the pistol out without any warning and spray the carriage with bullets. Then watch everyone spring into action, like an ant’s nest being disturbed - ducking, running, screaming, as blood spurted and shards of metal and glass flew through the air. He’d keep going until he ran out of bullets and the air was thick with cordite.
It wasn’t that he was a violent man, far from it. He never watched violent movies or television shows, and he refused to let his children watch them, not even crime shows - although he knew that Jocelyn let them watch CSI Miami on the nights he went to Rotary meetings. He was trapped by the sheer monotony and futility of his existence, a wild animal yearning for freedom. Sometimes his chest burned so intensely with frustration he thought he was having a heart attack.
The woman opposite was staring at him. He realized he still had his hand inside his coat. He took it out. Of course he wouldn’t do it. She should consider herself lucky. It was just a rehearsal fantasy, a warm-up for tonight.
With a screech of brakes the train glided into the platform. He disembarked and moved along in the stream of people up the stairs to the footpath.
It was a crisp, grey winter morning, the sort that weighed him down with depression. Everything was twice as unbearable on a gloomy day. The streets bustled with businessmen and well-dressed women in heels. He searched their faces, looking for signs of discontent, needing to find it in others to vindicate his own.
He stopped in front of a tall, glass-fronted building and surveyed his reflection in the front door. Short hair, rimless glasses, suit well-cut to hide his thickening physique, the legacy of a sedentary job, white shirt and plain tie. Conservative, trustworthy, reliable. In a word, unexciting - he could see it in the faces of the junior office staff and the shiny-eyed new graduates.
He opened the door, walked to the lift and pressed the button. Footsteps clacked behind him. He looked up. Jodie, the office trainee, was hurrying to catch the lift, breasts bouncing, long legs teetering on high heels. He held the open door button until she was inside.
‘Thanks, Mr Cresswell,’ she said breathlessly.
‘Running late this morning?’
‘Yeah, bloody bus, it’s never on time.’
She stood at the front of the lift, side on to him. He could see the curve of her breasts under her blouse. Her eyes were fixed on the upward journey of the lighted numbers. In his mind’s eye he saw himself, in one graceful arc of movement, draw his pistol and fire a bullet through her blonde head. She slumped down, legs splayed, bits of brain and bone spattering the lift. One life extinguished forever, another irrevocably changed through one split second act. The thought made his heart beat faster.
Ping! The lift door slid open. Without a backward glance Jodie tottered out into the reception area of Hodgson and Levitt, Chartered Accountants.
He followed her, then turned left down the carpeted corridor, past the partners’ lavish offices with harbour views. He turned again and at the end of the next corridor, across from the rest rooms, was a door inscribed ‘Neil Cresswell, Chartered Accountant.’
He unlocked the door and threw his briefcase on to the scratched pine desk. He dropped into his wonky swivel chair and stared out the window at the car park. He’d been proud of his name on the door when he’d first started at the firm, but now the words glowered at him in accusation. Neil Cresswell, accountant, never a partner, or even a senior accountant. He was stuck in that office, would probably die there, sitting at his desk. What choice did he have, with a wife who thought a credit card was a licence to spend, and two children for whom only private schooling and every electronic gadget on the market was good enough?
Vivienne Greene, one of the partners, stuck her head in the door.
‘Don’t forget the meeting this morning, Neil.’
She disappeared into the Ladies. He didn’t like Vivienne. She piled her make-up on like a mask, as if she were trying to hide her face. Very unbecoming for a woman her age. And she regarded him with an air of amused condescension, as if he were the office idiot who had to be humoured. In many ways she reminded him of Jocelyn – or what Jocelyn would be like in twenty years time.
He took his seat in the boardroom. Another meeting to discuss new tax laws. The others straggled in discussing their week-end golf games or the latest stock market results. The old joke about accountants being boring was true. They were all as boring as batshit.
At first he’d loved working with numbers, their predictability, that if you put them together in the right combinations, you always got the answer you wanted. He’d liked that feeling of safety and certainty. But now those numbers were a millstone, dragging him down. He stifled a yawn as Bob Cotton, one of the senior partners, took his place at the head of the table and shuffled through his papers.
‘You can take your coat off, Neil,’ Vivienne said,
‘We don’t stand on formality here.’
All eyes swivelled to him. The pistol was heavy and warm against his chest.
‘Thanks, but I’ll keep it on, I’ve got a bit of a cold. If that’s all right with you,’ he added.
Someone sniggered. Jed, who was sitting next to him, gave him a thumbs up under the table. Bob Cotton cleared his throat and began to speak in his usual drone.
He couldn’t wait till tonight. Till the moment he would pull out his pistol and pump a bullet into every one of these supercilious, pompous jerks. And two into Vivienne Greene. He’d blow that snooty smile all over the wall.
He slipped his hand into his inside coat pocket. Despite the heat it radiated, the pistol was icy cold to the touch. Something made him look up. All eyes were upon him again and Bob Cotton was looking at him enquiringly.
‘Your report, Neil, on the new business tax amendments.’
He took his hand out of his coat and rifled through the folder in front of him. He found his report, painstakingly prepared as usual, and began to speak.
Afterwards at the water cooler, Jed said to him, ‘She’s a stuck up bitch, all right. I bet her old man has to bow down, say three hail marys and kiss her feet before she’ll part her legs.’ He gave a shudder. ‘Who’d want to, anyway.’
He liked Jed. Unlike the other new graduates he was friendly and down to earth. He only intended to stay at the firm for two years and then he was off to travel the world. He envied Jed his carefree life and lack of commitments. He’d spare him in the shootout.
Once Jed had said to him, ‘If you had the freedom to do anything you wanted, what would you be doing right now?’
He’d pictured tropical islands, dusky, sun-drenched women, skimming the roads in a Porsche, whizzing down the snowy slopes of the Alps. But they all seemed too superficial. He craved something deeper that would satisfy the gnawing deep in his gut, the restlessness that kept him awake at night staring into the darkness.
In the end he’d said, ‘I want to be noticed.’
But he’d taken so long to answer that Jed had wandered off to chat up the new receptionist.
At lunchtime he sat in the small park across the road with his usual chicken and salad sandwich. The sun struggled through a bank of cloud. He unfolded his newspaper.
There’d been another shooting in the United States, in a shopping centre in Atlanta. Four dead, six injured. The gunman had turned the gun on himself. Why? If you wanted to make your mark on the world, you had to be around to witness the consequences. Of course, there’d be justice and retribution to answer to, but once you’d done the deed, you couldn’t undo it.
That was the beauty and the terror of it.A young couple slumped into the park bench opposite him. Both pale and skinny, sharing a meat pie and coke. Probably on the dole, spent all their time smoking dope. In just a few seconds he could obliterate them. They would never grow up, get a job or have children. Forever suspended in memory just as they were now. Power surged through him, his nerves danced, his fingers twitched. He was ready.
At six pm he stood in the spacious boardroom, stuffing canapés into his mouth from the table beside him. He clutched a glass of mineral water. He wasn’t drinking, as he needed a clear head. Laughter, chatter and the tinkling of glass flowed around him, and waiters with trays of drinks roamed the room.
The firm held a New Year’s Eve cocktail party every year on the thirtieth of June to herald the new financial year. Employees and their partners were invited, as well as select business associates and clients. He’d been waiting for this night for months, the perfect opportunity to make the maximum impact on the greatest number of people. Unfortunately there weren’t enough bullets to shoot them all, but he could certainly make a mess and wreak havoc on the occasion.
He looked at his watch and frowned. Jocelyn was late. Typical. She organised his life down to the last millisecond, but was incapable of arriving anywhere on time herself.
She appeared at the doorway, a vision in shimmering green and looked around the room. Bob Cotton disentangled himself from a group and rushed over to her. He hugged her, patting her on her bare back. Men loved Jocelyn. If only they knew.
Then she saw him, and wove her way through the crowd. Eyes followed her pert behind.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said. ‘The babysitter was sick so I had to take the kids to Mum’s.’
She gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘Could you get me a drink?’
She was in arm’s length of a drinks tray herself, but he grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and handed it to her.
She took a couple of gulps. ‘Oh, look, there’s Vivienne. I haven’t seen her for ages.’
She sashayed off, leaving him with the canapés. He watched her as she chatted to Vivienne, her painted lips moving animatedly. Vivienne was wearing a tight black dress from which her mottled flesh spilled out. What could they possibly have in common? Perhaps they were talking about him. Not for much longer, sweetheart.
Someone tapped a glass several times. Bob Cotton was at the front of the room, holding a microphone.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention please!’
This was it. He’d decided to do it when everyone was quiet and listening to Bob’s speech. He positioned himself at the back of the room behind a wall of suits and evening dresses. Bob launched into his speech. A mobile phone tinkled in the depths of the crowd, and heads craned. There was always someone who couldn’t bear to turn his phone off for a few minutes.
He put his hand inside his coat. The pounding of his heart filled his ears. The pistol throbbed with a pulse of its own against his chest. He reached in and drew it out of his pocket.
He jumped. Jocelyn was beside him, her mouth to his ear.
‘Mum just phoned. Michael jumped off the table, she thinks he’s broken his leg.’He stared at her. His hand was still hidden inside his jacket, gripping the pistol. His armpits were damp and heat prickled his body. Michael couldn’t have broken his leg. Not tonight, of all nights.
Jocelyn’s face was taut with anxiety. She dug him in the ribs.
‘Don’t just stand there, we have to go!’ she hissed.
He slipped the pistol back in his pocket. Eyes averted, he followed her through the crowd and out the door.
Later that night, after they’d returned from the hospital and were getting ready for bed, Jocelyn said, ‘You’ve been behaving very strangely lately.’
He shrugged his coat off and hung it in the wardrobe, wedged between his corporate shirts and his formal suit.
‘What do you mean?’
You’re always gazing into space as if you’re on another planet. Vivienne said she’s noticed it too. And sometimes the way you look at me – I’d swear you want to kill me.’
He watched her as she applied moisturizer to her legs, her long fingers gliding over the smooth flesh. Once he’d thought it sensual.
‘Don’t be silly, of course I don’t want to kill you.’
And you’ve always got your hand in your coat pocket. What have you got in there? A hip flask? Or a gun?’
She went to the wardrobe, yanked his coat out on its hanger and rummaged around in the inside pocket. Her hand re-appeared, empty.‘
I give up. Maybe you’re having a mid-life crisis.’
She shoved the coat back into the wardrobe.
‘Don’t forget Jessie’s got hockey training before school tomorrow. And we’re having dinner at Mum’s tomorrow night.’
She got into bed and turned her back on him. Within seconds she was asleep. He lay beside her, wide awake, staring into the darkness.