On the forty-first floor of the high rise building in the Lehmann Brothers offices, Matthew Brook's concentration was diverted from the accounts page on his Apple Mac computer to a stream of light cutting through the myriad of buildings outside and finally resting on the tower block opposite. The flare of sunshine brought to Mathew's attention the strangest thing. He saw a man in the bankers’ building, some two hundred yards across, on the same level as Mathew, struggling by the window as two men grappled with him, threw a bag over his head and dragged him out of sight. Mathew leapt to his feet and pressed his face against his office window to see more clearly but the light had changed and the building opposite was suddenly cast in darkness.
Mathew rushed to his secretary, Nia, who was seated outside his office and found her staring blankly into space, fiddling with a stress toy.
‘Nia,’ said Mathew breathlessly, ‘I saw something, a kidnapping maybe, or I don’t know what. Can you find out if anyone on this side of the building has seen anything while I call the police.’
Nia was snapped out of her trance and dutifully began making phone calls, while Mathew returned to his office and dialled the police. Finally, he was put through to a Detective Anderson after waiting for what seemed like hours on the line.
‘Mr Brook?’ Anderson said, ‘How can I help you? There's been a robbery is that right?’
‘No, no,’ said Mathew, ‘I mean maybe. I saw two men in the opposite building, on Bank Street, throw a bag over another man's head and take him away.’
‘Do you remember what the men looked like?’
‘I really don't know. I couldn’t see clearly.’
‘Think Mr Brook.’
‘I just remember the light. It was so strange. That's all.’
‘Did anyone else in your building see this?’
‘I'm not sure. I've asked my secretary to call everyone on this floor but it's more than possible that someone could have seen this too, yes.’
‘OK I'm going to investigate the building where you say this incident occurred and then I will come straight to you to follow up. I'm going to need you to rack your brains for more information though and I will need to speak to your secretary too.’
Mathew hung up and went to find Nia. She wasn't at her desk. He found her in the coffee room, sharing a laugh with a number of other secretaries from other offices whom Mathew barely recognised.
‘Nia,’ he said urgently, ‘have you found out anything?’
‘About what?’ she said, catching some crumbs from a biscuit that was falling out of her mouth.
‘About the man I saw, for God's sake.’
‘Oh right, yeah, no, no one knows what you're talking about.’
‘Come with me, Nia.’
In his office Mathew took a seat behind his desk and then swivelled it around to face the window that looked out onto the building where the crime had occurred earlier. He could see businessmen on many floors at their desks or moving around in their offices, unconcerned, as if nothing dramatic had just happened.
‘Why aren't you more bothered Nia? I've told you a man has been kidnapped and I find you laughing and joking.’
‘I did what you asked me. No one saw anything. And I was on my break. Maybe you were mistaken about this man.’
‘Mistaken? How dare you? You're skating on thin ice, Nia. Well the police are involved now and they'll get to the bottom of this, I'm sure. You’re excused.’
Just before 5pm Detective Anderson, a slight but formidable looking man with pock marks on his cheeks and slick hair, styled into a centre parting, was shown inside Mathew's office by Nia. The men shared a vigorous handshake and as Mathew took a seat Anderson unfurled his notebook and paced about.
‘Well,’ said Anderson, ‘I've checked out all fifty floors of the building on Bank Street and I've come up with nothing. Your secretary, Nia, tells me no one in this floor can corroborate your story either.’
‘So what are you saying?’ Mathew said.
‘Well Mr Brook, we have nothing to go on. We simply have a man, by that I mean you, who may or may not have seen something. Maybe the light reflected off Venus,’ Anderson said, chuckling to himself.
‘I said the light was strange, OK? That's all. And it was. Look, I'm not just some nut looking for attention. I know what I saw. Isn't there any other avenues you can explore?’
‘Frankly, there's no point in taking this matter any further. Mr Brook, banking is probably pretty boring, and I hear cocaine is the bankers' drug of choice. Maybe you should stick to vaping.’
Anderson revealed a set of yellow stained teeth.
‘Are you serious?’ Mathew said. ‘Get out, Detective Anderson. Get out of my office.’
As Anderson strolled out, Mathew called after him, ‘An innocent man has been attacked and you're just going to let whoever did it get away scot-free. I hope that doesn't weigh too heavily on your conscience, Detective.’
Anderson shook off Mathew's comment by giving a playful salute and then left.
Two days later Mathew was scouring online papers for reports about anyone who might have been assaulted in one of the buildings in the neighbourhood, but to no avail. Taking a break from his search, he stood and gazed out of his window. Storm clouds had gathered and thunder was rumbling around until he saw a bolt of lightning flash down from the sky. As a glint of light shifted between skyscrapers, Mathew caught sight of a man in the opposite block, on the floor below, slam his hand several times against his window, while screaming, only for a couple of men to seize hold of him and haul him away while he struggled in vain. Then there was silence. Nobody in the opposite building gave any indication of there being anything wrong. The incident had taken less than ten seconds but there was no doubt in Mathew's mind as to what he had seen.
Mathew threw on his overcoat, exited his high-rise and braved the storm to get to the adjacent building where the disturbing events had taken place. As he entered through the revolving doors, he noticed the front desk was abandoned and tinny muzak echoed through the empty hall. An elevator had just arrived and the doors glided open. The lift was vacant.
‘Huh,’ Mathew muttered to himself. He stepped inside the lift and pressed the button for the fortieth floor. As he ascended, he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. Blood stained the cloth. The doors slid open and he saw a multitude of deserted cubicles and offices. Light poured into the floor from the giant windows on the far side. Tentatively Mathew called out, ‘Anyone there?’
There was no response, so he began to explore the area until he found the workplace of the man he saw kidnapped just minutes earlier. Mathew could see his own office through the glass, one floor up and across the way, so he knew he was in the right place. The room he was in displayed no evidence of a struggle, in fact everything in the office was neat and orderly - desktop computer gently humming, paperwork neatly stacked by the monitor and a few books of fiction lined up on the shelf by the door.
Mathew decided to check the floor above where he saw the first kidnapping. Surely he'd be able to find someone there who could help solve this conundrum. But when he arrived at the forty-first floor he was shocked to discover it was completely unoccupied too. He made his way to the scene of the first crime from where he could see clearly into his own office. Mathew looked around but the truth was he had given up any hope of finding anything. He decided to call Detective Anderson, who answered immediately, saying, ‘Somehow I thought this wasn't over. What is it now Mr Brook?’
‘I saw another kidnapping,’ said Mathew, ‘and I came to check out the building where the crime took place, just to see if anyone knew anything. I'm here now, and the place is deserted - both floors where each attack happened. I bet the whole building is vacant too. I'm convinced something big is going on.’
‘Maybe there was a fire drill.’
‘Maybe, I guess, but wouldn't I have seen the workers milling about outside? Look can you just come down here one last time? I won't bother you again.’
‘Fine, give me an hour. Go back to work Mr Brook, I'm sure there are many people who depend on you.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I'll be in touch Mr Brook.’
As Mathew slipped his mobile into his jacket pocket he noticed some movement in his office in the opposite tower. It was Nia. She was fishing around in Mathew's wastebasket, digging deep inside. Then she seemed to sense someone was watching because she stood up sharply and darted out of the room.
When Mathew returned to his office he passed Nia without acknowledging her. He closed his door and rifled through his bin. There were a number of blood-stained tissues but other than that there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Mathew buzzed Nia and asked her to enter his office.
‘What have you been doing in my room, Nia?’
‘Nothing, Mr Brook, this is the first time I've been here all day.’
‘Now, we both know that isn't true. I saw you rummage through my wastebasket while I was in the opposite building. Tell me Nia, what do you know about these kidnappings?’
‘Nothing, absolutely nothing.’
‘What was that?’
‘You smiled just then.’
‘Respectfully Mr Brook, I think you're wrong, I didn't react in any way at all.’
Mathew's phone rang and he said, ‘You can go Nia, I have to take this. Hello Detective, what have you come up with?’
‘As I predicted, nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone is at work, the building is as it should be, a bunch of bankers fleecing the general public as usual.’
Mathew turned and looked out of the window and saw hordes of workers busy in the opposite block.
‘It can't be. Did they say it was a fire drill?’
‘No, they didn't, but as you can see everything is normal. Mr Brook do you have a wife? Children?’
‘Yes, I'm married and we have one girl.’
‘Well I suggest you take a holiday and spend some time with them. I think the stress is getting to you.’
Mathew hung up. He decided to check out the skyscraper opposite for a second time, despite the fact he was starting to feel like he was losing his mind.
As he moved through the revolving doors once again he was greeted with an overfriendly smile from a man in a blue pinstripe suit at reception. He said to Mathew, ‘Hello sir, how can I be of assistance?’
‘Where were you earlier?’
‘Excuse me sir?’
‘I came here about an hour ago. You weren't here.’
‘No, I have been here since 9am and I've yet to take my break.’
‘I know you weren't here because I was here. I would have seen you.’
‘Well I'm sorry sir, what can I say?’
‘Was there a fire drill today?’
‘No, no there wasn't.’
‘Maybe you were in the back there when I came, or using the toilet?’
‘I'm afraid not sir, I've been manning the desk continuously all day.’
‘OK just forget it. I'm going to check out the fortieth and forty-first floors. When I went to the see them before they were completely empty. I'm assuming you can't explain that either?’
‘I want to help you sir but, to be honest, I have no idea what you're talking about.’
‘Jesus, I can't get a straight answer from anyone today. I'm going upstairs.’
‘Wait sir, you have to sign in.’
But Mathew was already boarding the lift. He pressed the button for the forty-first floor and waited. When he reached his destination and the doors opened he was faced with a floor bustling with life. He tried to engage some of the workers in conversation but everyone he approached simply brushed past him. The people seemed to be minding their own business, but despite this Mathew had the strangest feeling that the people passing him weren’t quite there, as if they were in a half-world of some kind. Mathew couldn't understand why this was or how it was possible, but the impression was tangible. There was something in the eyes of the businessmen, their shade and texture, signifying they weren't truly real. Maybe they were in another realm, outside of this building, carrying out different more elusive activities. He couldn't tell. But the mystery nagged away at him like a fever gradually building. It was then Mathew noticed there was someone occupying the office where he witnessed the first abduction. When he reached the door, he could see a man with a balding crown sitting on an executive chair, facing the window. Mathew cleared his throat but the businessman either didn't hear or was ignoring him. So, Mathew knocked loudly until the man turned to face him. The man waved at him and then pointed at his mouth making jabbing motions. Mathew was confused until the man seated himself in front of his computer and began to type. He wrote, 'I've lost my voice. I apologise. But how can I help?'
‘OK, this may sound strange but I saw a man in this office being kidnapped by two men a couple of days ago and I was wondering if you knew anything about it?’
‘No,’ the man typed, ‘nothing like that happened here, I can assure you of that. Trust me, I'm the only person here who would truly know.’
It was then Mathew noticed something that made his hair stand on end. In the bin under the desk he saw a linen bag poking out amongst crumpled pieces of notepaper. Mathew pulled out the bag from the rubbish and held it aloft. It looked like one of the bags used in the kidnappings.
‘What's this? Mathew said.
The man froze and then blushed. He typed, 'Aren't you Mathew Brook?'
‘What? Yes, I am but that's irrelevant, I want you to tell me what's been going on and why this sack is in your bin.’
‘We went to college together, don't you remember? I'm Abdul Khan. We both studied finance.’
‘Yes, I suppose I do recall you. You're different, but I can't put my finger on exactly how.’ ‘Anyway, it was lovely to see you again, but if you'll excuse me, I am pushed for time. I don't have the answers to your questions and I have to put some things in order. And Mathew, I'd advise you, if you don't want to lose your voice like I did, don't shout so loud. You won't be heard anyway.’
Taken aback, Mathew dropped the sack back into the bin and retreated to his office in a daze as Abdul continued typing to some unseen audience. Mathew was confused. He couldn’t understand why this Abdul Kahn was speaking in such a strange way and how this man was part of the greater puzzle. He immediately sat down and continued trawling the internet for clues, but still found no leads. He went to the window and stared at Abdul in the opposite building. Abdul was staring back, motionless and inscrutable. Then everything went black as Mathew was bludgeoned over the head with a blunt object. He came to in a damp basement, seated beside his wife and daughter, all of them tied to chairs. Two men in garish costume masks and black velvet capes hovered above the family. Flickering halogen lights created a sickening turbulence in the room and the smell of gasoline seeped down through the ceiling. The men breathed heavily through their masks. Mathew's wife, Alice, and daughter, Katie, were crying inconsolably. When Mathew found his bearings he tried to take charge of the situation.
‘What is going on? Set us free immediately.’
One of the men, wearing a black and red mask, reached out to Katie, grabbed her by the throat and squeezed.
‘Stop, stop!’ Mathew said. ‘I'll do anything you say, just don't hurt my baby.’
The men in masks inhaled then exhaled.
‘What do you want?’ Mathew pleaded. ‘Is it about Abdul Khan? Really, I don't know him. Well, I guess I might have studied with him at some point when I was young but I haven't seen him in years. I have no connection with him now whatsoever.’
The men in capes spoke in unison, their gravelly voices interweaving like coiled snakes, ‘Your relationship to Mr Kahn is something you will have to come to terms with in due time because, whatever your denials, he is key. He can be weak, yes, but who isn't? The truth is he is a fine man who has carried out his role dutifully. In fact, he is someone you should aspire to emulate. Remember, from now on you will be unseen and unheard.’
And with that, everything went dark.
Mathew woke up in bed screaming. He felt like he'd been screaming for days, and his throat was sore from the exertion. He was dizzy and his head throbbed. He called out to his wife and daughter but there was no response. He shuffled into the kitchen and found his family seated by the countertop eating cereal.
‘Didn't you hear me calling you?’ Mathew said.
They ignored him and continued spooning rice crispies into their mouths.
‘Is everything OK, guys?’
Alice stood up and cleared the dishes, stacking them in the dishwasher. Mathew reached out to stroke Katie's hair but she blocked him and walked away.
‘Come on Katie,’ said Alice, ‘let's go to the library. We can get some fairy tales for you to read at bedtime.’
‘Do I get a kiss goodbye, then?’ Mathew asked. Reluctantly Katie gave him a peck on the cheek. Alice heaved her handbag over her shoulder and walked out of the room leaving Mathew alone with his troubled thoughts. But before Alice could start the car Mathew raced out to intercept her. He knocked on the window and she rolled it down.
‘Alice, we have to talk. Maybe you think this is all my fault but I assure you that I did everything I could to stop this. I had no idea what I was getting involved in. I was just carrying out my job like I have every other day and then it all just came tumbling down around me. And trust me I'm not the only one, it's everyone.’
‘We can't talk about this,’ said Alice.
‘Go to work, forget about everything, and pretend like this never happened. It should be easy for you.’
Mathew watched as Alice accelerated away and then he went back into the house and got dressed for work. As he entered his tower block and stepped into the elevator he felt something trickle down from his nose. He dabbed his upper lip with his fingers and saw blood smeared across them. He raced into his office and tried to stem the flow of the bleeding. It was then that he heard Nia chatting to someone outside his door. It didn't take him long to recognise the voice. It was Detective Anderson and they were both laughing together flirtatiously. When Mathew poked his head out of his office he saw Anderson perched sideways on Nia's desk playing with her stress toy, juggling it from one hand to the other.
‘I have no further information Detective,’ said Mathew. ‘I don't need your help anymore.’
‘Oh that's alright Mr Brook,’ said Anderson, ‘I'm actually here to see Nia.’
‘Why, what has she done?’
‘Oh no, it's nothing like that. I've come to ask her to dinner. You don't mind, do you?’
‘Um, uh, of course not.’
‘Well I think I'll be off; I'll see you tomorrow night Nia,’ Anderson said, knocking on the desk twice. Mathew returned to his office and took a seat. He glanced at the picture of his wife and child that was resting by his phone. The light moved in a manner that illuminated their eyes. His family seemed to be staring right through him. It was then that he noticed a brown envelope on his keyboard. He picked it up and prised it open. Inside was a couple of grams worth of cocaine wrapped in a cellophane bag. He placed the drugs back in the envelope and ordered Nia into his room.
‘Yes, Mr Brook?’ she said.
‘What's this Nia?’ Mathew said, holding up the envelope.
‘I brought it for you.’
‘Yes, but why? I didn't ask for it and I don't want it.’
‘OK sir, I just thought...’
‘Well you thought wrong. Do you know what kind of position this puts me in? Nia, you've given me no option but to let you go.’
‘I wouldn't do that if I were you.’
‘I'm saying, it wouldn't be wise to do that. People like you think you get away with anything. Well you can't. I might not have your power but there are forces you simply can't challenge.’
‘Pack your things Nia.’
Just then a scuffle could be heard outside Mathew's door and both he and Nia were drawn to the noise. Two men were wrestling with a man across the hall. The victim had a bag over his head and he was shrieking for help. Everyone on the floor continued tapping away at their PCs seemingly unaware of the incident.
‘Do you see that, Nia?’ said Mathew.
‘See what?’ Nia said.
‘Forget it, and forget everything I just said to you. Get back to work,’ said Mathew, who returned to his office and stood by the window. He questioned whether he was the same person he always assumed himself to be. Although he felt similar in many aspects every time he searched for a memory inside himself or gazed at his reflection in the window - when the light struck at a particular angle - he felt lost, without a frame of reference to steady himself. And yet he didn't allow himself to follow these trains of thought for too long. He'd spent too many hours working at his current job, loving the same woman and bringing up a young girl for him to doubt himself now. Because who was he to question such things anyway? Why would anyone? And after all, he needed to get back to work.