by Barbara Baraldi
Translated from the Italian by Josh Pachter
The view of Milan from my cube is breathtaking, thanks to the Japanese architect with the unpronounceable name who designed the glass-and-metal skyscraper that has been my second home for the past three years. In fact, I spend more time here than in my apartment. I work for an advertising agency, and Matilde Scalandra, who owns the place, has a motto she never lets us forget: To create the best tomorrow, you have to live the best today.
She pushes us never to procrastinate, so we all work insane hours in a competitive environment where we have to watch our backs at every moment.
Is that really “working to live”? Or is it more a case of “living to work”?
For Leonardo Mondelli, it’s definitely the latter. He’s athletic, tanned year round, arrogant. Rumor has it he and Matilde are having an affair. He showed up here one day in a Ferragamo suit, with an impressive list of clients from his previous agency in hand. Within a couple of months, he was Matilde’s right-hand man, ensconsed in a choice private office. He orders us cube-farmers around as if he’s a medieval lord and we’re his vassals, tyrannizes those who’ve been here the longest, never misses a chance to harass an intern with inappropriate comments.
This morning, I start my workweek at the copier, running off a stack of sketches for a soft-drink campaign Giorgia and I have been slaving over.
Oh, speaking of Giorgia, she hasn’t shown up yet today. I’ve been so slammed with the final touches for our campaign I didn’t notice her absence until just now, even though we both have desks in the cube farm, the cramped cubicles separated by low partitions that don’t give us drones much in the way of privacy.
For no apparent reason, my mind drifts back several hours. This should have been a typical Monday, but on my way to work I felt oppressed by a strange sensation. I was running a little late, but that wasn’t it. It was as if I was being followed, and the feeling stayed with me all the way to the subway.
As I clattered down the steps, I thought I caught a glimpse of a man in a blue Armani suit peering at me out of the corner of his eye while he pretended to fiddle with his smartphone.
I hurried along, resisting the urge to look back over my shoulder to ensure that the footsteps I heard behind me weren’t his. When the car doors closed, I heaved a grateful sigh. The mystery man had not followed me aboard.
But then why could I still feel his eyes staring at me?
* * *
“Hey, Young Yeti!”
I whirl around at the greeting, startled from my reverie.
It’s Cristiano, our creative expert in marketing communication. He nicknamed me “Young Yeti” because I’m cold-blooded. Even in the middle of summer, I wear a headscarf and a cardigan.
“Lunch in a few minutes. Want to grab a bite?”
I shake my head regretfully. “Got to get this finished. The client’s coming at one-thirty. I’ll grab something from the vending machines and join you at the cafe for a quick coffee, okay?”
Cristiano shrugs his disappointment. As always, he’s dressed flamboyantly: yellow bow tie, floral-patterned shirt, Abercrombie jeans that have been washed to within an inch of their lives. He compensates for his eccentric taste in clothing by being incredibly competent at his job. He’s worked here at the agency for about ten years, won all sorts of awards for his campaigns. Leonardo’s position really ought to have gone to Cristiano, and I think he’s kind of bitter it didn’t.
* * *
I’m still hunched over the photocopier. The wall clock reads 12:30, its face the popular black-and-white Fornasetti print of a woman with a shushing finger to her lips. My colleagues rise from their desks like a platoon of soldiers called to attention and march for the exit. No one notices me: the bulky copier in its blind corner beside the snack machines half conceals me from sight. I refill the paper tray and yawn. I didn’t get much sleep last night. Can’t wait to go home, take a pill, and collapse into bed.
A movement from the far side of the empty cube farm catches my eye. The door swings open, revealing Leonardo and a girl with long dark hair in the middle of a heated argument. Her back is to me, but from the way her shoulders tremble I can tell that she’s weeping. His face is pinched, his mouth distorted in a scornful grimace.
My instinct is to look away. Their fight is none of my business. But I find the tableau morbidly fascinating. Suddenly the girl shakes her head and raises her voice, and I recognize her as Stefania, a new intern.
“I’m afraid!” she says, her voice carrying across the space between us.
Leonardo squeezes her arm tightly and touches a finger to her lips, like the woman on the clock.
“Let go of me!”
But Leonardo’s grip is iron. He drags her off toward his office. She struggles, at first, then gives in to his superior strength. They disappear from sight behind his frosted glass door.
My heart pounds. I don’t understand what I just saw, but it upsets me. Did I just witness a lovers’ quarrel?
Leonardo must have thought they were alone in the office. What if he hurts the poor girl? The cold expression on his face makes me fear the worst.
I’m lost in thought when I hear footsteps approaching. Not pausing to think, I shrink into hiding behind the copy machine. The footsteps, I can tell, are made by a woman’s shoes. The sound of stiletto heels tapping on the Carrara marble floor is unmistakable.
I edge forward and see a woman I haven’t ever seen before. She’s nicely dressed in a dark suit. The Prada bag hanging from her shoulder looks heavy. She strokes it absently, a nervous tic.
She taps down the corridor and goes into Leonardo’s office.
I strain to listen, but all I can hear are indistinct voices.
I need to know more. I tiptoe out of my hiding place and halfway down the corridor, hoping I’ll be able to eavesdrop on whatever’s going on in there.
The sudden ring of a phone makes me jump. It comes from the cube farm. In fact, it seems to be coming from my work station. Who would be calling me here during the lunch break?
If I don’t pick it up, one of them might step out from Leonardo’s office and catch me. I’m not doing anything exactly wrong, but I don’t want to come across as some kind of snoop.
I hurry to my desk and lift the receiver. “Yes?”
There’s no response.
“Who’s calling, please?”
In reply, I hear the single word: “Run!” The voice is disguised, little more than a whisper. It makes my skin crawl.
“Who is this?”
The only response is the click of the phone being cradled.
This development is so completely unexpected my legs give way beneath the weight of it. I drop into my chair and try to think. For just a moment, I wonder if I’m still at home, in bed, dreaming, the alarm about to rouse me.
No, this is not a dream. This is real. And someone just called me and urged me to run away.
I peer out the window. From up here on the fifth floor, I have a clear view of the street below. What I see there freezes the blood in my veins.
A man in a blue suit stands in front of the building’s entrance. I can’t say for sure, but he looks like the same man I worried might be following me this morning.
He’s holding a cell phone. Was he the one who called me? How could he have gotten my direct number? Maybe he’s trying to lure me outside so he can—
A hand grips my shoulder from behind. A shiver runs up my spine, and I swallow a scream. Whatever the man in the blue suit is up to, he has an accomplice right here in our office. And they’ve got me now. I’m trapped.
“Cara, it’s me.” Giorgia’s voice. My friend. “I’m sorry I frightened you. I said your name, twice, but you didn’t hear me. You were off somewhere.”
I stare her straight in the eye. “Where have you been all morning? I needed your help for the presentation, but you weren’t here.” I look around for listeners and see no one. “Never mind that now,” I whisper. “There’s something weird going on. I got a phone call. A voice I didn’t recognize told me to run!”
“What do you mean, where have I been? I’ve been at my desk all morning, and you never said a word to me. Anyway, come on. There’s something I have to show you.”
I reluctantly follow her back to Matilde’s office.
She reaches for the door, but I push her hand away. “Are you crazy? You know how Matilde feels about her privacy. If she finds us in her office—”
“You have to see this,” Giorgia interrupts me. “Trust me.”
She pushes the door open as if she’s performing some ancient ritual. And what I see inside takes my breath away.
Copyright © 2020. Manic Monday by Barbara Baraldi