The Job, Part Four: The Task

A serialized story in seven parts

Ken Preston

28 January 2024

An ancient, leather bound book

Are you keeping up? Here we are at Part Four: The Task.

If you've missed the story so far, you can start here.

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4. The Task

The little man found her an empty cubicle containing an empty desk. He indicated that she should sit down at the desk. When she was seated, her hands on the top of the desk surface, he bustled off before she could ask him anything.

Is this what I am to do? Sit here at an empty desk and wait for the day to end? Is that what all the other women are doing in their cubicles?

The minutes stretched out and Susan had to resist the urge to tap her fingers against the desk surface. She knew that she would be reprimanded within seconds of beginning to drum her fingernails. Finally the little man returned with a massive, leather-bound book in his arms. The book’s spine was cracked with age. In his arms, this huge book dwarfed the little man and he grunted as he shoved it on the desk. He was only just tall enough to get it on.

‘There,’ he said, wiping his hands together and brushing at the dust off his jacket.

Susan looked at the book and then back at the man. ‘There … what?’

‘You read it,’ the little man said. ‘Read it all and then report back to me once you’ve finished.’

Susan turned her attention back to the massive, aged volume. ‘What, all of it?’

But the little man had already gone.

Susan sighed. Her hands hovered over the book as she thought about opening the cover. There was no title or author printed on the front. Determined to not let herself down on her first day, Susan placed her fingers on the book’s leather cover. Already she could feel the dirt and oil on her fingertips and she wished she had brought something to wipe her hands with, but then she hadn’t been expecting this. She’d thought that maybe it was secretarial work, or admin of some kind. Not reading an aged book that looked as though it had been stored for several hundred years in the cellar of a ruined castle.

She opened the book.

Here was the title, on the frontispiece.

A Hystory of Wytchcraft in the 15th Century.

Susan swallowed, but her throat made a dry, clicking noise.

What was this all about? Was somebody playing a practical joke on her? Perhaps there were hidden cameras, spying on her, ready to record her every reaction for the amusement of an audience somewhere. That had to be the answer. None of this could be real, it was so outlandish and ridiculous.

Susan leaned back in her chair until she could see into the cubicle on her right. A woman sat at the desk, bent over her work.

‘Excuse me?’ Susan whispered.

The woman slowly rotated her head until she was gazing at Susan.

‘You should get back to work before Mr. Withershaw comes back,’ she said, and returned to her task.

This time Susan got a glimpse of what the woman was doing.

She was also reading a thick, ancient, leather-bound book.

Susan returned to her desk. She wiped her hands on her skirt in an attempt to clean her fingers of the dirt from handling the book.

This was silly. She should just get up and leave right now.

But she was scared. Scared of all the women turning their baleful glares on her as she stood up and headed for the exit.

And that was another thing. She didn’t even know where that door was anymore, the one that opened onto those vertigo-inducing stairs that led down to the alley. There were so many cubicles in here, it was like a maze. Perhaps if she found the little man, told him that there had been a mistake, that this wasn’t the job she thought she had been applying for. But then, where was he? And how could she find him?

Susan thought about asking the woman next to her, but decided against it. She would only tell Susan to continue with her work.

With nothing else to do, she decided she might as well read the book. At least that would pass the time, if nothing else. And then when it came time for the first break, if they even had breaks in this strange place (but failing that, lunchtime), then she could find her way to the exit and leave.

Susan turned the gossamer-thin pages, until she got to the first chapter.

The Strange and Unusual Case of Maryon Whytechapel.

A block of tiny text covered the page beneath the chapter title. The paper was so thin, Susan could see the faint impression of the text on the reverse.

After one last glance over her shoulder at the hunched forms of women in cubicles, presumably pouring over their own ancient volumes of history, Susan turned back to her book.

She began reading.

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