The e-mail suddenly appeared in the inbox:
Twenty-four hours. Ten thousand words. Make it count. –Awaiting Your Reply
I began to choke on the swelling lump in my throat. My temperature rose at a fevered pitch as my forehead broke out in a cold sweat.
“This is no facile endeavor!” I shouted.
Other than the modem’s gentle hum, my computer gave no reply.
“The witch is growing more fastidious by the minute! Unbelievable!” A fist slammed hard against the desktop. “Ow!” The appendage was my own.
Shaking the pain from my hand, I placed my already shaking hands upon the keypad. I had no time to lose. My fingers began typing at a frenetic pace, trying hard to keep up with the whirlwind of thoughts pelting my brain. This, too, proved to be a most difficult feat as the small plastic tube running into my arm interplayed with my fingers from this state of duress.
My personal study door creaked open. The clicking of heels upon the tile floor soon followed. A quick glance to my right proved that all was the typical fare; I recognized the dark pant suit instantly. My acknowledgement showed no sign of emotion.
Her British accent proved biting as always. “The stipulations have been set by Madame Publisher: Ten minutes per meal at eight, twelve and six. Shall I get you breakfast?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. And, no: no breakfast. As you can see, I have plenty of work to do.”
“Five minute bathroom break every hour on the hour. Shall I escort you on the way, then?”
“I don’t have time to pee, either, Eileen.”
“Very well, then. Shall there be anything else?”
“Yes, you can tape this damned tubing to my arm. The damned thing is flapping everywhere this time.” And, indeed, it was quite damnable. This whole mess was quite damnable.
I dared an upward glance. Her cold, arched brows studied my rhythmic finger movements perpetuating the entanglement with the tubing.
The response was stoic. “I shall return.”
While taping the tubing to my arm, her frigid fingertips sent a shiver through my fevered body. Yet, as cold and calloused as my facilitator was, she couldn’t hold a candle to the boss known only as Madame Publisher. Another rigor surged through my body.
“That should do the trick, then. Will that be all?”
“Yes, yes, that’s all. Now let me be, Eileen. I’ve got to beat the deadline.”
Her faint, smug sneer registered most sinister. “The stakes have been raised, you know. Cheerio.”
“Yes. Yes, I know. Cheer-ee-ohh,” I mocked as the study door groaned shut behind me.
I was famished, having refused both breakfast and lunch. Did I have to pee? I hadn’t noticed. Probably sweated it all out trying to beat the deadline.
With fingers still typing feverishly, I gave a nervous glance at the time on the screen’s monitor. Two till six. Suppertime. Eileen will arrive at any moment. Dare I take my break?
How many words in am I? Four thousand. Not quite halfway, but I’ve thirteen hours left before the deadline. I’ll be cutting it close. I must remember, though, that the back stretch is the killer: Eyes get heavy; brain goes numb and words don’t come so easily. Crap! What to do?
The French doors of the study creaked open, revealing the all-too-familiar sound of those clicking heels.
Man, I can’t stand that sound; I can’t stand her. If I ever find my way out of this, I’d like to give her a deadline to beat.
“So, what shall it be, then? Supper or not?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Pot roast, potatoes and carrots sautéed in brown gravy, dinner rolls, etcetera…”
“Ah, I see how it is: As the plot thickens, so does the gravy – the temptation increases.”
I was on to the scheme, the deathtrap, and I wasn’t about to take the bait. As of this current manuscript assignment, I was the most longstanding writer the company had “employed,” for lack of a better term. The others had been terminated as projects perpetuated. Madame Publisher liked to keep her authors fresh. While walking the tightrope of my thoughts, the hunger pains kept gnawing at me. I’ll call the bluff… Every damned one of ‘em.
“Small portions of each,” I blurted. “Glass of water to wash it down.”
“Smart choice,” she tossed out while exiting, though her words were not intended as a compliment.
The small portions will give me energy without making me sleepy and, hopefully, will minimize my need to use the bathroom.
Eileen returned shortly and placed the plate before me.
“Ten minutes,” she stated while standing over me.
Five was all I needed. I downed the water after finishing one-half my portion of sustenance.
“Off ya go, then,” I stated in mock British fashion.
If looks could kill, I was a dead man. Perhaps I already was – good as dead, that is – if I didn’t beat the deadline this time.
The hours ticked away in the corner of my computer screen. Every hour on the hour, my ever-so-vigilant facilitator, Eileen, came to check on me, though she was more concerned with my productivity. The bottom line: Madame Publisher needed the material which translated into big bucks and retaining the top-dog-tier in the dog-eat-dog corporate world. And Eileen also had a position to retain. I often wanted to ask her: “How much does being a witch pay these days?”
If that corporate world – if the world at large only knew what Madame Publisher was up to: How she acquired her manuscripts… The clandestine sweatshop she ran while I sat here in the middle, under the gun… Just thinking about it all made me have to pee. I went only once.
Six a.m. rolled around. I had one hour left before the deadline expired. To say I was exhausted would be an understatement.
Eight thousand words in. Crap! Two thousand words left to go in sixty minutes. Will I make it?
“Will you make it?”
Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t even notice Eileen come creeping in. She was glaring over my shoulder at the progress on the screen.
“It’s gonna be close,” I responded.
“Well, you know what the consequences are if you don’t.” And she smiled. Lil’ devils sport such a wicked grin.
“Yeah, I know. That’s the kicker.”
“So, what’s this one called?”
“Hmm… Sounds rather hum-drum. Well, as Madame Publisher stated, ‘Make it count.’”
“Yes, I’m fully aware.”
“Alrighty, then, if there’s nothing else, I’ll be back at five before the hour. If you make the cut, you’ll get your four hours of sleep before the next assignment. If not…”
“I know… ‘Cheerio.’” It was the one pleasure I got out of this miserable state: Mocking Eileen. I’d been doing it for months now.
The door was closed behind me. There was no time to lose; I had to get to work on “The Plan.”
“Any progress made?”
I checked the clock. Just as she stated: five till the deadline hour.
“Yes. I’m quite pleased with the end result.”
Her eyes scoured the pages on the screen; her fingers flicked across my keypad, coursing my work from beginning to end.
“I don’t see a definitive ending in this manuscript. Are you sure you completed the assignment?”
“I’m positive and confident. Just give me another moment or two to give it finality.”
“You’ve earned one free pass, you know, due to your tenure here, although you’ll have to start all over without a rest period.”
“You don’t believe that I’ve completed this assignment? Rest assured: I won’t need the ‘pass.’ I’m sticking with ‘The Plan.’”
“Very well, then,” Eileen countered. “We shall see.”
Her cold, hollow eyes coursed their way over the tube winding from the computer’s modem into my arm. The clock in the computer’s screen registered seven on the dot. I hit “send” to the e-mail address registered to Madame Publisher. If she was satisfied, I would be awarded a four hour rest period before moving along to my next work-in-progress. If my work didn’t cut it, the poison would come: That green liquid flowing through the tubing and into my veins. I would then be one author out of work – permanently.
“I knew you were lying!” Eileen gleefully stated as she watched the poison slowly ooze through the tubing. “Working with you has been quite the pleasure.”
“But I wasn’t lying, Eileen. I swear!” I countered.
“Apparently, you didn’t finish the work – you failed to meet the deadline.” She was so smug… Such a witch!
“I did finish the work…”
The oozing liquid had worked its way through the tubing – now but a few centimeters away from the vein in my arm. My fevered brow dripped with sweat; my hands trembled nervously.
“…But you’re correct about one thing, Eileen.”
“And what is that, Dead Man?”
“I did fail to meet the deadline. You’re meeting the deadline!”
Ripping the tubing from my arm, I swiveled in my chair and jabbed the shunt into Eileen’s vein. Time was of the essence to meet said deadline, so I went straight for the jugular. The witch gasped, her hollow eyes now opened wide in disbelief. I watched as the green ooze took hold and coursed through her convulsing body.
Her slender form landed with a thud upon the tile floor: the deadline sticking straight out of her neck; poison leaking onto her pant suit. I unbuttoned her blazer and retrieved the .38 cal from the holster.
“I told you: I’m sticking to ‘The Plan.’”