The office resembles a lair inside which predatory, malevolent creatures scuttle, their vampire teeth ready to puncture the neck of the unsuspecting victim. Set back from the main road, it is a single-storey, window-less building looming ominously beyond a line of tree cover. Its atmosphere is lent a dark, impenetrable quality by this dense foliage, which seems to ward off any passing stranger.
Dusk creeps in: the denizens of the nocturnal world come home to roost. The unnatural-sounding bleeps of locking cars in the car park herald their arrival at their place of work.
They are shadows. They bring bounty: they clutch headsets, filofaxes, customer-signed paperwork which will be mounted on the walls like trophies. Some of them lunking laptops too, which in the gloaming could be torn-off legs of ungulate animals. They are dripping with lanyards containing the amulets of identification badges which will spirit them past the access-controlled door.
There are four of them: sharply suited, crudely-oiled hair, snake-spit-shined shoes. They come with warnings of imminent disaster, of impending crises, of unavoidable death. They come with inked tongues and small, sharp teeth. With immaculately manicured claws and ties like nooses. They come bristling with hate.
They are the insurance salesmen.
The salesmen work in the evening, which allows for a greater chance of an unsuspecting victim springing the trap - answering their home telephone. The salesmen are well versed in playing upon the unconscious fears of their potential prey, hinting at the stench of death around every corner and veiled threats of abject poverty if policies are not taken out. Because they work in the evening, because they shun natural light, their skin is pallid as a blank cheque and their eyes are rheumy. Like those of creatures which have inhabited the subterranean depths for the majority of their natural lives.
And beyond that.
They could be corpses. Smell like corpses. As though they've had to be doused in perfume, bathed in formaldehyde, just to cover up the reek of the grave. The stink of competition. They are, loosely, a pack. And yet they snarl and growl and snap and bite at each other whenever they have to, in their neverending quest to be alpha here. To be top of the leaderboard. To have the bell rung to mark another sale, another victim snared.
It takes a special type of character - or perhaps no character at all - to be able to set aside misgivings about such work, and Sam Elton, the newest of the recruits, does not possess such a talent for disassociation. He is awkward. Fumbles with his identification badge at the door as though he is as yet uncertain of his role in this place.
Sam has a tendency to wrap misery around him like an iron cloak which at once acts to close out the world, and also to secure him in his self-absorption. He is stuck in a rut: without the skills to be able to undertake a more secure profession, but believing himself to be above this undertaker-like sales job. It is his apparent belief that he is better than everybody else which makes him the butt of all jokes; the wounded dog which other staff never tire of kicking.
Frustration drips from Sam like a tap which will not turn off. Acid rain-clouds of irritation spread out from his furrowed brow, burning others with their snappy forked-tongued discharge. Indignant beads of sweat trickle in cantankerous rivulets to form an angry confluence on his reddened cheeks. Stung by another almost too personal attack on him, he mutters to himself and grimaces. It is the sheer futility of his existence which drives him round the bend.
And not just round the bend but round and round in an endless centrifugal tailspin of suppressed rage which he cannot free himself from. Colleagues know him as "highly strung", "moody" or even "a heart-attack waiting to happen". They know him as a menacingly quiet man with an undercurrent of hot temper which constantly bubbles underneath the surface ready to erupt in a volcanic explosion.
He's not a proper part of the pack. He hasn't bloodied his claws enough yet. The sales manager, Roger, has made Sam aware of this fact. He has outlined it in two monthly appraisals and in one "informal chat" (which also involved the HR manager.) Sam sometimes thinks it is ironic they have a Human Resources manager here at all, seeing as though the werewolves here are so brutally bestial.
Sam enters the cattle-pens on the first floor. Plugs himself into a computer and a telephone. His heart-rate increases. From the next pen Gerard is loudly telling Mark, from the next pen, about his "fucking" some "bitch from accounts" last night: "Her bark's not a patch on her bite, hey-hey." Farther along the row of pens, Niall mangles his lilting Irish voice into something approximating a vampiric whisper as he informs whoever it is he has on the other end of the line: "But what if your husband does die? You told me he's 64. Ripe for a heart-attack or a stroke, or whatever."
Sam clicks into his email account. An email barks to announce its arrival. It's from Roger, the sales manager. It tells Sam he wants a brew. Now.
Sam sighs, flattens out his telesales script, and accesses the list of telephone numbers. He's been given a newer, easier postcode today, where the victims will be "ripe for the picking".
He makes a call. Is told where to go. His ears ring from the victim's receiver being slammed down.
From the pen next door, bestial grunting, slapping noises. Is Gerard wanking? Sam does not know where to put himself. All he can think is I'm not like them, I'm not like them, over and over like a ritualistic chant. He is not a goddamn animal.
The door at the end of the office - at the end of this world - swings open, smashes into the wall. Motivational posters shudder in their frames. Roger thunders out, nostrils wrinkling, eyes darting here, there, everywhere. Sam ducks, but it is too late.
Roger's head over the parapet of the pen. "Yo Bear, where's that cuppa I asked you for?"
Sam's hands are under the desk. Balled into fists. Knuckles snap and crackle.
Roger sniffs. Scents the crumpled masculinity here. Says: "Ah, what are you here for if you can't even make me a brew when I want one? S'not like you're bothering the sales leaderboard, is it?" Roger casually, almost for habits' sake, throws in this dig to rile his subordinate. It's a Management Tool straight from the old school, intended to control and pacify staff through a culture of fear - belittling them into compliance. Cocksure Roger leans nonchalantly against the pen, hands wedged in pockets, his arrogant beer-gut protruding almost aggressively over his trousers. He has the self-assured, almost violent attitude and appearance of a male sea lion, king of his pack.
Sam staggers to his feet. Cowers.
Roger clicks his fingers.
"Just on my way, Roger," whimpers Sam.
Defeated, Sam slinks out of the office and into the kitchen with the echoes of Roger's mocking laughter assaulting his ears. He descends the stairs. Wonders whether Roger is stupid enough to think Sam can't hear him now he is not in the room. Realises it is he who is stupid. Roger wants him to hear this.
Roger, to Gerard or to Niall: "Won't last the bloody month, that cunt. Had another like him a while back. Daniel. Dan The Man. Remember him? Thought he was better'n all of us on account of his university degree or whatever. But never had what it took - the brass bastard balls, or neck, whatever - to lay waste to a set of telephone numbers. Suck the fucking blood out of them. Keep ringing and ringing and ringing until the fear of fucking God, or Satan, was in whatever Sad Old Dear's heart on other end of the line."
Gerard, or maybe Mark responds with a snigger. Then: "If I was Bear and I had to make an impression, I'd be in that fucking postcode in fucking person, like a thief in the night, like a constant shadow, like an axe about to fall."
Sam forces his head to remain high. But in the kitchen, he has to lean against the fridge for support. Overcome with a burning, corrosive fury, he contemplates spitting in Roger's tea, adding an extra ingredient of rat poison, even leaving the tea bag in the cup. Then hating himself for desiring such petty revenge, because that sort of behaviour is beneath him. It is childish, bestial. He lets his head rock back so that the knot of bone on the back of his skull hits hard against the fridge door. It feels like a nail being hammered into his brain.
He closes his eyes, huffs a breath. Opens them again. And with a start, realises he is not alone in the kitchen.