Personal Assistant wanted. Flexible hours, competitive salary. Candidate must be a twenty-two year old male student, studying chemical engineering. Initiative and ambition essential.
Competitive salary, Leo liked the sound of that. The job advertisement could have been written with him in mind. Initiative was his strong suit and he had no end of ambition. The ad appeared in the free local rag. Leo would never have thought of looking there if it hadn’t been for Tom Walsh.
“You’d be surprised,” Walsh said, “what you can find in the situations vacant.”
Tom Walsh, of all people, actually coming up with something useful.
The exams hadn’t gone well. Leo relied too much on last minute cramming and pulling all-nighters. The thermodynamics exam was a real worry. He spent the first twenty minutes drawing water molecules in the margins before he could think of anything to write. Having to retake thermodynamics in August was a depressing possibility. It meant putting his plans on hold. An ex-girlfriend promised to set him up in Barcelona, giving English lessons. Easy money before heading to the Loire Valley for the grape picking season, sun and wickedness. Instead, he faced the prospect of a summer stuck in Dublin.
Money was a problem. Socialising didn’t come cheap and Leo had debts to repay. Since Christmas, he’d borrowed three hundred euros from Walsh and two hundred from Kevin Matthews and Shay Phillips. Money he spent on nights out with the chic med student set, not with losers and no-hopers like Walsh and co. They were after him for the money, which was a pain. He would have to pay some of it back, enough to get them off his back.
Leo checked the other ads for possibilities. Hotel receptionist wasn’t an option, he had no interest in dealing with guests’ complaints. He couldn’t pass for an experienced chef or even an inexperienced greasy spoon cook. There was always building site work but he didn’t fancy the hours or the work. That left security jobs, minimum wage for mind-numbing night shifts. He would go for the personal assistant number. Interviews were scheduled for the following Friday. The ad gave an address in town, somewhere off the quays.
On the morning of the interview, Leo stood under a cold shower. The invigorating pings of icy water would get the blood flowing to his brain and focus his concentration. He clipped his nine fingernails, filed them to a smooth roundness and felt a familiar dysphoria at the asymmetry caused by the missing half of the middle finger. An unfortunate accident when he was a kid. One of his weekly chores had been to cut the front lawn and he was always in a hurry to get it finished. Part of a fallen branch jammed the blades, he reached in to clear the blockage and sliced through his finger. He didn’t like anyone seeing his damaged finger but if he balled his right hand into a fist, it wasn’t that obvious.
A shave next, and Leo didn’t skimp on the shaving cream, lathering his face and neck, no unsightly spots or blemishes. He used the double-edged razor that had belonged to his father. Leo often thought of the old man when he shaved. His father never took risks, married a woman with no expectations and Leo was their only child. A decent person everyone said but still a failure, died from a stroke at fifty two with only twenty thousand in the bank. Leo was nothing like his father. As far as he was concerned, every opportunity should be grabbed and milked to the maximum.
The doorbell rang, interrupting his preparation.
“You’re up early.” Tom Walsh grinned at him, jam jar glasses, face covered in pimples ready to pop.
Leo let him in but didn’t offer him any tea or coffee. They stayed standing in the kitchen, Leo with his hand behind his back.
“You were in some state the other night.” Walsh pushed his glasses further up his nose.
“What do you mean?” Leo was wary.
“Don’t you remember? I was with Kevin and Shay when we ran into you coming out of The Palace. You were fairly steaming, said you’d rammed the Thermodynamics exam.”
“You got that wrong,” Leo set him straight. “I was only pissed off because I didn’t get to finish the last question.”
Walsh noticed the newspaper on the table, open at the situations vacant page.
“Did you find anything there?”
“Nothing much, maybe a stop-gap.” Leo folded the newspaper and dropped it in the bin. “Look, I’ve got an interview to go to and I’m pressed for time.”
“I thought you looked spruced up.”
Walsh was acting very uppity, the bugger must be feeling sure of himself after the exams.
“About that money.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Leo walked him to the door. “I’ll get back to you, leave it with me.”
He shut the door on Walsh’s ugly mug and took some deep breaths to clear his head. The next thing was food, important to eat before an interview. Leo heated up the remains of a take-away Prawn Tempura, good brain food. He put on his black cashmere jacket. Muggy outside but you had to wear a coat, it was one of rules of interviews. A final check in the mirror, he straightened his tie and brushed some fluff from his sleeve.
No need to rush, he had plenty of time. Crossing O’Connell Bridge, the sun warm on his face, he stopped to watch the eight man scull teams out on the Liffey. Tourists posed for photographs. Businessmen marched to their urgent appointments. Three girls skipped in front of him, one ran ahead and called out to her two friends. It made him giddy. He was looking forward to the interview, the job practically in the bag.
Across the bridge and down the quays, he turned up a narrow street and came to a building with a grey façade, weathered and cracked and in need of repair. He dawdled at the entrance, his exhilaration replaced by caution. Instead of looking for work, maybe he should take a break to recharge his batteries. What was he thinking? He was skint and time off without cash to spend wouldn’t be much fun.
Leo entered a foyer. No one else was waiting. A very fat man stood behind a counter, dressed in a maroon waist-coat over a pale shirt and a large bow tie. His head was lowered, face hidden by the peak of a baseball cap.
“I’m here for the interview.”
The concierge, or whatever he was, pointed to a door that was ajar. Leo had come this far, no going back now. The room inside was dark. The door shut behind him and he waited in the eerie quietness. He heard a click, the room partially illuminated by light from a desk lamp. He could make out tables and chairs and the outlines of shuttered windows.
“Come closer,” a man’s raspy voice.
Leo stepped towards the light.
“Take a seat.”
The legs of the chair scraped against the stone floor. Leo sat down, back straight, hands on his lap, left over right. Across from him, the seated figure picked up a slim cylinder, which he directed into his mouth. He pressed the top. Leo heard a hiss.
“The aerosol aids my throat.”
Leo tried to make out the interviewer’s features in the dim light. His face beneath a wide brimmed hat seemed unnaturally pale, his eyes concealed behind dark glasses. The man turned his head and Leo fancied he was looking for someone at a different table. He felt the arc of the interviewer’s search return to him. The air was moist and dense. A trickle of sweat ran down Leo’s back.
“What is it you want?”
“I saw your job advertisement, I’m here for the interview.” Surely it was obvious why Leo was there. Unless the interviewer meant something else and the question was part of the interview. He would have to watch what he said.
The man took a second cylinder from the table, raised it above his head and began spraying. He wore dark gloves and his hands weren’t visible. The shiny rectangle moved in mid-air like some conjuring trick. There was an overpowering scent of musk, cloying and nauseating.
“I envy you your youth and health,” the interviewer said. He sprayed another shot of musk. “Unfortunately, I suffer from a serious medical complaint, a disorder of the pancreas.”
Leo nodded, not knowing what to say to that. The interviewer’s head began to loll and he stared at the table for some time. Then, he looked up, the sudden movement suggesting surprise at Leo’s presence. He took the aerosol and sprayed into his mouth.
“Do you think it is right to be selfish?” he asked.
A strange question and most likely loaded. Leo saw no point in being defensive.
“What one person regards as selfish may be ambition in another.” Pleased with his answer, Leo recalled the wording of the advertisement. “Are you not looking for someone who is ambitious?” Too late, Leo realised his mistake; never answer a question with another question, another rule of interviews.
“Selfishness is never right and ambition, in the end, means nothing,” the interviewer responded, followed by more spraying. “You think you’re special, better than your peers but you will make mistake after mistake. I don’t remember it all. I’m so weak.”
The man was in no condition to conduct an interview. Personal assistant, that’s what it said in the advertisement. He probably needed someone to deal with his medication. Leo could manage that, if the terms were right.
A sudden banging and violent rattling. Leo jumped in his seat, looked around and saw one of the shutters shake in the window. The noise grew louder as the shutter was pounded, someone or something trying to get in. The door opened and the fat concierge stomped noisily to the window and began fussing with pegs and hooks. He left the room, bowing obsequiously.
Silence. Leo weighed his options. He refused to give in; he would see this thing through. Finally, the interviewer spoke.
“So much to regret, so much hurt that you have done to others.”
Leo could hear scratching sounds behind him.
“You must do what is right and act responsibly.”
The interview running away from him, Leo had to say something. “Do you need my personal details?”
“I know all that.”
The scratching grew louder. The interviewer was spraying again, the air thick with pungent musk. More scratching, closer now. Rats, Leo thought and he pictured them, long tails and grey rat bodies crawling over each other. He had a phobia of rats. The room was stifling, his senses skewed, his fears raw and exposed.
“You enjoy the high life at the expense of others but you will regret it. Regret is bitter and shame will cure you of your cravings.”
Leo couldn’t follow what the interviewer was saying. He had to pull himself together, get the interview back on track. There was the material he had prepared earlier.
“What can I bring to this job?” He didn’t wait for a response. “I’m a problem solver and that’s down to my training as an engineer. More than that, I’m passionate about everything I do. As for initiative, you won’t find a personal assistant with as much initiative as me.”
A bell clanged, the sound reverberating in the room.
“Our time is over,” the interviewer said.
What did he mean? They hadn’t dealt with the terms and conditions, the money on offer. The interviewer peeled off a glove that fell onto the table. He raised his hand. Leo saw the man’s middle finger and its missing phalanx.
“Now do you know who I am?”
The white hand with its four fingernails hung in the air for a moment. The interviewer lowered his arm.
“Of course you do,” he said.
Leo’s body was clammy with sweat, fear squeezing his guts.
“I have come back to bring you this warning. Pay your debts, pay what you owe.”
“What about…,” Leo started to say. What about the job, the salary but he was suffocating, couldn’t breathe. He had to get out of there, out into the fresh air. He pulled himself up from the chair, stumbled through the door and into the foyer. There was nobody behind the desk. The front door wouldn’t open, he turned the handle, pulled and pushed and panicked until the door opened and he was outside.
At the bottom of the street, he saw Shay Phillips coming towards him. This was all he needed.
“What are you doing here?” Phillips asked.
“Nothing important.” Leo didn’t want to talk to him, not after what he’d been through. “I’ve got to go.” He pushed past Phillips and headed for the quays. He would flag a taxi, go home, sleep, put this behind him, delete it and move on.
But what had he seen? Was it a glimpse into the future? Was that ghoul supposed to be his future self? The spray, the sickly musk to disguise the smell of decay. He tried to make sense of what was said, about ambition and selfishness and paying his debts. There was no job, the advertisement a sham. Too drained to work it out, an aberration, some trickery in the heat and oppressive atmosphere of that room. A hangover from the exams, the stress and strain, all-nighters and cramming for two weeks.
What was Shay Phillips doing there? He must have come for the interview. Leo looked behind him and saw Philips enter the building. Was he going for the same job? Who was interviewing him? Leo dreaded the thought of going back to the room but he needed to know what was going on. He dithered, wanting to leave but he had to know. Finally, he dragged himself back up the street.
Still no sign of the concierge, Leo could hear voices and laughter.
“I’m telling you, his face was a sight to see.”
Leo stood at the door and listened.
“Only someone as up themselves as Buckley would believe a job advertisement was written especially for him. Has he never heard of equal opportunity?” Leo recognized Matthews’ voice. “He needs to brush up on his interview technique, all that shite about problem solving and passion.”
“You should have seen his face, he was really shitting it.”
Leo pushed open the door. Phillips went quiet when he saw him. All the shutters were open. Sunlight lit the room. Kevin Matthews was getting out of his fat suit. Tom Walsh had a towel around his neck, his pimply face still daubed with white make-up. Matthews exchanged a look with Phillips. No one spoke. Leo watched Walsh fiddling with elastic bands, pulling them off his hand, flexing his fingers and rubbing his middle finger. He took no notice of Matthews or Philips, all that mattered was Walsh, being mocked and ridiculed by Tom Walsh. Leo squeezed his right hand into a tight fist.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Horla, Into the Void (Pushcart Prize nominee 2020), Lamplit Underground, Emerging Worlds, Scarlet Leaf Review and the Dark Lane anthology. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).