This is a flash-fiction story I wrote that was originally published in From the Asylum, a good online mag that has been defunct for over ten years now. It’s rather short, so if I managed to place it somewhere as a reprint it wouldn’t fetch much. So instead of leaving it indefinitely on the shelf, I figured I might as well share it here.
Joel was sitting at a table with his co-workers in the company cafeteria—listening to Simmons’ humorless anecdotes about his daughter’s biker boyfriend—when the stranger in the dark suit approached him.
“Joel Pritchard?” the stranger asked.
“Yes,” Joel said, and immediately knew something was wrong. He had intended to respond with “Who’s asking?” The stranger’s voice had somehow pulled that simple “Yes” right out of him.
“Joel, do you care for most of your colleagues at this table?”
“Not…really,” he said. He wrenched his stare from the stranger’s gaze just long enough to make pleading, wordless eye-contact with Lawrence, who sat beside him. Lawrence gave him a clueless shrug and the stranger went on with his questioning.
“What of Mr. Daniels?” the stranger said, pointing to the grayed VP who sat across from Joel. “Or, specifically, what do you think of his wife?”
“She’d probably let us all screw her at the same time if we asked her to. She wouldn’t even need to be drunk.” He shuddered and tried to break the paralysis that fixed him to his chair. He heard Daniels gasp. The old man beamed his anger across the table and it stuck to the side of Joel’s face like hot tar.
“That’s all?” the stranger prodded.
“The money spent on inflating her tits would’ve been better spent on fixing her teeth—what the hell is this?”
Asking that last question left Joel’s throat sore. The words had been heavy and jagged, like he’d coughed up a giant, broken stone.
“Have you ever tried to kill a man?”
“Have you ever given serious thought to killing a man?”
“Someone at this very table?”
Joel hoped his withering voice would break before he could say the name.
“Lawrence.” In his periphery he saw his friend’s mouth drop open.
“I got drunk one night and told him that I had tried to rape one of the admins at the company Christmas party six years ago. I was afraid he might tell someone.”
“And for that, you seriously contemplated killing him?”
Joel was reduced to nodding now.
The stranger’s mouth spread into a flat smirk. “Safe to say you’re pretty off in the head, huh Joel?”
“Likelihood of you keeping your job after this?”
“None,” Joel said, his voice strained and croaking.
“Likelihood of you killing yourself in the very near future?”
He sighed, exhausted. “Very high.”
The stranger gave a satisfied nod that indicated the end of questioning. He looked at the other men sitting at the table, offered them a polite valediction of, “Gentlemen,” and then left.
“Would you agree or disagree that our agent met your expectations?” the customer service operator asked.
“Definitely agree,” Simmons said. “He was even better than I expected. How did he do that?”
“Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss our agent’s methods, Mr. Simmons. But I’m glad to hear you were happy with the experience. Customer satisfaction is our number one priority. If you’re ever in need of our services again-”
“Actually, while I have you on the phone, I was wondering if you have any sort of preferred customer discount.”
The operator laughed. “Are you a man who collects enemies, Mr. Simmons?”
He smiled and looked out the living room window. A growling motorcycle pulled up in front of his house. Neither of its riders wore a helmet. The teenage girl on back of the motorcycle dismounted and gave the blond, heavily-tattooed driver a long, open-mouthed kiss before walking up the driveway toward the house.
“Nuisances more so than enemies,” Simmons said.