Chapter One: A New job
The doors opened like magic. Helen knew they were automatic, that it was a simple pressure system that activated when she stood by them, but a very small, very excited part of her liked to believe her very presence made the doors acquiesce to her will.
The building the maybe magical doors hid was unfortunately, a very formal, very ordinary looking place that was a little too generous with the lashings of magnolia paint on just about every surface. Definitely rather elegant in places though, with large stone pillars stretched between the frescoes that decorated the ceiling and the polished marble floor. A tiny woman sat amidst an exceedingly huge wooden desk, rifling through papers and tapping on her keyboard. Glasses were balanced precariously on the end of a nose that looked too small to be accommodating them and it made her age very difficult to determine. There was a curious juxtaposition about her timeless appearance and the surrounding area stuffed with modern technology. She looked up and offered a thin-lipped smile to Helen.
“Can I help you?”
“Uh, I’m Helen Newman?” She asked it like a question, and almost bit her tongue in embarrassment. Here she was on the first day of her new job and she was talking like a child who wandered into her parents’ business meeting room. She twisted her fingers before her and grinned.
At least the receptionist didn’t seem to notice, or was polite enough to not react to it. She clacked away on her keyboard and nodded. “Yup, here you are. Sub fifth floor, third door on the right.”
”Sub fifth floor?”
“Here’s your visitor’s pass.” Better yet, the receptionist apparently wasn’t much for conversation. Helen couldn’t really do anything other than put the pass around her neck and sheepishly turn to the elevators. People poured into suits and shiny shoes clopped past her, and even in her best, most official looking outfit, Helen was getting hit hard by a pressing of inadequacy on her shoulders and barely ironed pants. All around her was slicked hair, black suits and the scent of black coffee. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but tomorrow, Helen would be sure to properly curl her hair. She approached the elevator.
Her first hurdle: there was no such thing as anything that resembled the sub floors. She must have misheard, or worse, the receptionist was winding her up. Surely not, her brain assured her, but Helen remained sceptical. She stood there for a few more seconds, hoping a freak spark of inspiration would hit her and she’d figure out the puzzle.
“Sub floors, right?”
Helen spun round, and met a grinning, young face. Very sharp, coiffed hair and a suit to match. Sparkling hazel eyes met her own. “I clocked your pass,” the young man said. Helen was a little taken aback: he was attractive. She’d always had a penchant for a man in a good suit, and this man before her was certainly ticking a lot of boxes. “It’s okay: I got stuck the first time too. I’ll show you.”
Helen nodded gratefully and stretched out her hand. “I’m Helen.”
He took it, such warm hands and a gentle grip. “I’m Neil. Neil Cole. You’re starting with us today, aren’t you? I remember David saying about the new intern.”
David was a name she recognized from her interview. Or rather, Mr. Kotohiki. It had been somewhere entirely different from the building she found herself in now, which is why she felt like a filly at her first horse fair.
“Here, it’s actually kinda arbitrary, but you have to hold the button you want, and also press this button here to indicate that you want a sub level.” Neil pointed to the small, innocuous button to the left of the very used looking other buttons with their numbers well worn from countless years of thumb pushing. With his index and pinky in a hand move that almost made Helen flush, Neil pressed both buttons simultaneously and the doors in acknowledgement, shut.
“Did David say anything about the ins and outs of the job?” Helen looked over and couldn’t help but be won over by Neil’s warm and practically glowing smile. In her head, she was bouncing from foot to foot at having landed such luck to be working with someone as pretty as him.
“Kinda,” she explained, “David was uh…”
“Yeah. My job title is ‘safety and welfare officer’, but that could mean anything depending on what job you end up doing.”
Neil chuckled. “I know. Those kinda titles make you think you have an idea what you’re getting yourself into, but really it’s just a vague moniker.”
The elevator pinged, and the doors revealed sub floor five. Surprisingly light, and Helen squinted a bit. Perhaps she had expected the Batcave or a secret lair hidden deep within a cave system, all hiding under the perfectly normal looking building above.
Instead, a bright, clean corridor and walls, offset by a neat looking desk with a glass surface and a cute, fake succulent plant by the computer. A woman was sitting by the desk, ruthlessly tapping the key lit by strip lights and no decoration to speak of aside from the neutral color scheme. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but definitely a far cry from the marble floors, stone pillars and general opulence of the building above their heads. She looked up and smiled.
“Hi Neil.” Her voice was light, and bounced off the vacant walls with ease. “You’re Helen Newman, correct?”
“I’m Rebecca. Nice to meet you.” Rebecca had a sweet smile that Helen couldn’t help but return. The receptionist rang an internal number from her desk phone. “Thank God,” she said to Neil, “I thought the day would never come David would hire someone.”
The longer Helen stood there, the longer her guts had the time to twist into myriad knots. These people were perfectly nice, but there was something Helen hadn’t been told, a giant elephant in the room hovering over this conversation.
“Can I ask what a safety and welfare officer is expected to do around here?”
It looked like Rebecca was about to answer Helen’s question but a door offset from the reception desk opened and a man who looked like he was born into the sharp suit he wore entered. Everything about him was angular, even his well styled and oiled black hair.
“David, this is Helen Newman.”
“Good morning.” His handshake wasn’t as warm as Neil’s, but way more firm. Helen’s own hand almost wilted in his grasp. David Kotohiki seemed like a very no-bullshit kind of guy. “The team’s all here. Let’s talk safety officer.”
Helen was led into a smallish office with a few tables and a whiteboard. Several crude stick men drawings alongside some important looking scrawls were dotted over the once pristine surface. David was already erasing them as Helen sat at a table. Rebecca brought in a tray of refreshments. Mugs clinking together softly and the smell of coffee was a welcome addition to the somewhat sterile room.
Neil sat right next to her, and she could smell his cologne. There was something about a well groomed man in a nice suit that sent her weak at the knees. Now she was sitting this close to him she could also see the very expensive watch glinting at his wrist. Her brain began to swim in a mild fantasy; she’d watched too many James Bond movies. Not now, she chastised herself, David was about to explain the mysteries of this new job. The job she’d passed a rigorous vetting process for, attended countless interviews and confidential briefings, maybe now, finally, she would find out what she’d beat over a hundred other applicants to do.
David was not a particularly tall man, but he had a very definite presence: broad shoulders, a heavy brow, one hand in his pocket, he was the absolute picture of a bureaucratic boss. Still he stood by the recently cleaned whiteboard, but did something Helen had certainly not expected. He pushed a button, and the entire wall began to lift. There was no obvious scraping and dust billows like Helen had hoped to see from a secret room. Sadly, as the hidden room appeared, there were no flaming sconces or a dungeon wall laced with cobwebs.
There was, however, a glowing hue of blue light that bled from underneath the wall as it rose. It was very pleasant and bright. The more the wall rose, the more the light grew and blossomed, revealing rippling light refracting from within a huge glass tank. The top was open, with a shelf on one side by the water surface with a ladder down the outside. It didn’t stop there either, two tunnels extended out and into a covered area Helen couldn’t see into. She quirked a brow.
Before she could ask a question, the contents of the tank revealed themselves. From the back she saw him first, a flash of close cut hair as he glided from the covered area, through the tunnel and into the main tank. A naked, trim chest, but from his trunk down, a smooth, sleek and rubbery looking tail, not dissimilar to a dolphin. Oddly, her mind had more trouble comprehending the tail he had instead of his lack of legs. The tails she’d always imagined were colorful, floaty tails like betta fish, but his was streamlined, the fins short and the tail pure muscle. Built for speed. The merman turned, and saw Helen. He stopped mid swim, watching her with interest.
“Helen, this is Craig, the reason we needed a welfare and safety officer.”