Melanie Cox had just got engaged to the man of her dreams, Luke Piper. He’d whisked her away on a Disney cruise and proposed on a beach on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. He’d even arranged for a live band to serenade her with I See The Light from Tangled and for Mickey Mouse himself to come and deliver the ring.
That magical moment seemed so long ago now that Melanie was back mindlessly crunching numbers in an office that was sparse and clinical and couldn’t be less ‘Disney’ if it tried. Still, Luke was planning something big for her birthday tomorrow and it was likely to be another dazzling and heart-meltingly romantic affair. Last year he’d surprised her with a Beauty and the Beast-themed afternoon tea, complete with Mrs Potts and Chip crockery and Lumière-supplied candlelight, and front row seats at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End to see The Lion King.
Melanie text Luke. Just one. One clue.
Luke replied a moment later. The information booth is closed.
Not even one?
You like surprises.
It was true. She did like surprises. But she also liked knowing things. It was a genuine dilemma.
Just a teeny tiny one.
Alright. I’ll give you a teeny tiny clue...
She waited. Her phone told her he was typing another text.
It’s to celebrate your birthday.
She chuckled. I know that!
He sent her a smiley with a kiss in it. That’s all you’re getting.
Melanie noticed her colleague, Lara Driscoll, glaring at her from the other side of the C-Suite, probably for being on her phone. Even though both of them were executive assistants promoted to the C-Suite at the same time, Lara fancied herself Melanie’s boss and acted like it, forgetting that her detective chief inspector days were behind her.
Melanie ignored it, replying to Luke. Lara’s giving me daggers again. I’m sooo gonna tell her where to go soon.
Yes, do! She needs bringing down a few pegs. Remind me what time you’re working till tonight?
10. Wish I wasn’t. Wish I was at home, snuggled up with you.
Soon, baby. I love you.
I love you too. So much. So much. How could she have got this lucky?
“Do you have enough work to do, Melanie?” said Lara Driscoll, sitting down at the computer next to her, her patronising tone like a fork scraping a ceramic plate.
Melanie winced. “Plenty, thank you, Lara.” She threw her a sarcastic smile stretched taut over gritted teeth.
“Why are you on your phone then?”
“Because—oh wait, I just remembered, it’s none of your business.”
That did it. Enough was enough. Swivelling her chair towards Lara, she muttered sharply under her breath, “Actually you nothing. I’m going to say this once and once only, Lara. You’re not my boss. So quit acting like you are or so help me”—she picked up her mug, dregs of her cappuccino sloshing about inside—“I’m going to break this mug over your head.”
Lara’s eyes snapped wide, but she fell silent, shook her head disapprovingly and returned to what she was doing. Melanie’s knees jittered. She hadn’t meant to lose her cool like that, but the woman had been twanging on her last nerve for weeks now. At least her slightly ungraceful outburst seemed to shut her up.
A moment later, the door to the CEO’s office opened. With her usual effortless elegance, Miss Morgan emerged on three-inch stilettos that looked like they could puncture steel, a tumble of coal-black hair spilling over her ruffled collar blouse and charcoal jacket.
“Listen up, people,” she announced.
The C-Suite quietened immediately.
“Time Travel is about to embark on an urgent assignment in Ancient Rome. In ten minutes the building will be locked down and the Shield will be raised. It shouldn’t be for any longer than two hours, but I’m afraid those of you who are due to finish their shift at ten are going to have to wait.”
Damn it. Melanie contemplated asking Miss Morgan if she could finish early, then thought better of it.
As Miss Morgan returned to her office, Melanie texted Luke. Looks like I’m going to be working later than planned. Sorry baby. Don’t wait up.
A couple of minutes later her phone buzzed. Don’t work too hard. Wake me up for a cuddle when you get home. Love you.
Not long after, the main lights dimmed and a big, red, pyramid-shaped lamp at the centre of the ceiling came on, flushing everything and everyone crimson: the lockdown light. There was one on every floor, there to tell staff that the Shield was up, the building was sealed, and that if anyone were to leave, they risked getting absorbed into an alternate timeline. The Shield protected them all from potential changes caused by in-progress time travel assignments. Once assignments were complete, the Time Travel Department would establish whether it was safe for the Shield to be lowered, which meant confirming that any permanent changes to the timeline were minor and had little to no effect on the company or its goals.
Just over two hours later, at 10.43pm, Melanie’s eyes stuck to the clock and counting every second, Miss Morgan stepped out of her office to announce, “Mission accomplished. In a few minutes the Shield will be deactivated and the lockdown will be lifted. Those of you who were meant to finish at ten will be free to go.”
Melanie gave a small, subtle sigh of relief that would’ve been a lot more obvious had Miss Morgan not been standing there. As soon as the CEO was gone, she texted Luke. Leaving shortly, baby.
Her phone vibrated. I’m still awake. Reading in bed, keeping it warm for you.
Melanie smiled. Then the lockdown light went out and the main lights flooded on.
Melanie didn’t notice tender bruises and copious cigarette burn scars appear on her upper arms and legs. None of her colleagues saw her eyes become shadowed with sleepless bags. Nor did they see her skin pale or her hair lose body and colour.
She checked her phone, but wasn’t waiting for a message from Luke anymore. Luke Piper wasn’t her fiancé. Ian Venables was. A permanent change to the timeline had occurred, just not one that substantially affected the company. In other words, it didn’t matter. A staff member ending up with a different fiancé was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Melanie read Ian’s text. Tell me the truth. Where have you been?
Her heart rate climbed as she typed her reply. I told you. I had to work later than planned.
I know that’s what you told me. I called your office to make sure. Couldn’t get through.
She couldn’t tell him why. Not the real reason, anyway. No one but select staff, with clearance, knew that the company had invented and was using time travel. Like I said, we had a problem with the phones.
Bullshit. You were with that dickhead again. Don’t even try to deny it. I saw the way you looked at him at your works do last week.
A knot of dread and panic balled in Melanie’s gut. He’s a colleague. Nothing more.
You fucked him, didn’t you. You’re a lying whore.
I’m not doing this again. Let’s talk when I’m home.
You can talk. To my fist. BITCH.
He’d been drinking again. Please not tonight. She hoped the fact that her birthday was tomorrow might earn her a reprieve.
She tossed her phone in her handbag and headed for the kitchen, passing Lara Driscoll on the way. “Miss Cox, did you finish that inferential analysis?”
“Yes, Miss Driscoll,” Melanie replied. “It’s in your inbox.”
“I hope there are no errors in it this time.”
Melanie swallowed hard. Miss Driscoll was scary when she was mad, which was why Melanie had double-checked, then triple-checked, before submitting it. “No, ma’am.”
“Good. Enjoy your weekend.”
She wouldn’t, but hey-ho. Relationships weren’t always plain sailing and Ian was a far sight nicer to her than her previous boyfriends. “Thank you, Miss Driscoll. You too.”
Melanie walked into the kitchen, poured the dregs of a camomile tea down the sink and placed her mug in the dishwasher, grabbed her coat and left the building to embark on the ten-minute walk home to a fiancé who, for all his flaws, she loved with all her heart.
Issue 8 & 9
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