Trouble at the Mill

by Nick Harkins

I took the job because I was desperate and it was the only thing I could find that allowed me to work at night. Newly and acrimoniously divorced, I’d moved away to start again. After months of searching and numerous rejections, I got a job in a call centre working the night shift handling insurance claims.

The nocturnal hours were what attracted me; I’ve never been comfortable alone in the dark at night. As a child, I saw and heard things in my bedroom; things nobody else in the house ever saw. Figures appeared in the gloom, gliding amongst the shadows of my toys, floating past the posters of pop stars and action heroes on my walls. Often they spoke to me, tittering voices in my ear.

No further such incidents happened after leaving home for University in my late teens, but the anxiety has never left me. Spending my nights beneath the artificial glare of office lights was therefore far more appealing than being alone in the dark jumping at shadows and wondering where my life went wrong.

I was part of the first group of employees to start work in the call centre which had just opened in a converted factory. It was an old red brick building that had been empty and crumbling for decades, and had been completely refurbished into a modern office. Although the interior was unrecognisable from its industrial heyday, the exterior retained a grim gothic menace; a textbook satanic mill that was once a teeming sweatshop before it crumbled into decades of neglected ruin.

After two weeks of training, group role plays and corporate psychobabble designed to help us relate to customers, the big day came and the phone lines were turned on. Everyone was given a glass of alcohol free sparkling wine and a fun sized Mars Bar by the manager to celebrate the occasion, although sadly the Mars Bars had all gone by the time I arrived for the night shift.

I managed to overcome my disappointment, put on my headset and logged into my phone. Although I had little enthusiasm for the job, it was, I told myself, better than being at home alone in the dark. My sleep had been disrupted by nightmares of late; many of them vague and hazy, but one particularly vivid dream where the spirits that haunted my childhood came to me. They seemed scared, keen to warn be about something. Kept telling me to leave, to come home. I put it down to the stress of the divorce and the new life I was building.

I received few calls. By the time it came to midnight, I’d spent over an hour sitting at my desk discreetly surfing the internet. This wasn’t bad that bad, perhaps things were finally going to work out for me. Just after midnight my phone rang, disturbing me from a fantasy about meeting someone here on the night shift, having a nocturnal love affair. The loud bleep in my ear made me start in surprise.

“Good eve…good morning, you’re speaking with Neil at Winston’s Insurance, how may I help?” I said.

“You can hear me?” said the caller.

“Erm…yes, Sir. How can I help? Are you interested in any of our insurance products, or would you like to make a claim?” I asked.

“No. I’m interested in you. None of the others can hear me” Said the voice, a middle aged man by the sound of him, with a thick Yorkshire accent.

“In me, Sir? I’m flattered” I said.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m working, Sir. Now if there’s nothing else, I’ll bid you goodnight” I said, my hand edging towards the phone.

“Well, there is summat else. You’ll clear off if you know what’s good for you. All of you. You don’t belong here, this is my place” said the voice, then the line went dead.

Drunk or stoned, maybe both, I assumed. I figured working in a call centre in the middle of the night; you were always likely to get the odd crank call. The guy had sounded spiteful even for a crank though, I‘d felt the fury building in his voice. Not just fury, but genuine outrage, outrage at my very presence. I felt certain that whatever threat he was trying to make he was more than capable of delivering on if he got the chance, and felt sorry for any poor soul that had him in their life.

I went back to trawling the internet and tried to put the lunatic out of my mind. No sense letting something like that upset me, I’d no doubt encounter worse. I went back to idly flicking through articles on news sites and found something that interested me. I began to read, putting the call out of my mind. Just as I was about to finish the piece about the latest billionaire football club takeover, the screen froze. I tried shaking the mouse and randomly tapping the keys with no response, then bent down under the desk to disconnect the mains from the base unit and plug it back in.

When I sat back in my chair, the screen had changed to a sepia image of the inside of an old factory. Men, women and children worked at machines in the background, while a stern, grim looking man stood at the front of the picture. Dressed smartly in a suit and tie, his chin jutted forward in a challenging, pugilistic pose. Malevolent piggy eyes glared from a plump, ruddy face; this was clearly the owner of the factory.

Shocked, I looked closely at the photo then around me at my surroundings. The picture was taken here; it was the building in the days when it was still a factory. I’d never seen the picture before, and wondered if it was something installed as a screensaver as a nod to the building’s industrial heritage. Even so, there was something disturbing about it, about the man in the suit particularly. As I studied the photo it began to fade away until the screen was completely blank.

Words started to appear.

I told you, I own this place. Leave. All of you.

I stared at the screen in disbelief. Was this some kind of prank from one of my colleagues? I looked around the office, hoping to see somebody smirking at me, but the other night workers were either gazing at their monitors or talking on the phone.  As I frantically searched for some sign that somebody here, somebody alive was sending me these messages, the atmosphere became hazy, filled with thin, translucent smoke. Figures were appearing all round the office, or what was the office. Machines and furnaces formed amongst the rows of cubicles, overlapping the present with the past. The clang and thud of industry, the roar of furnaces, drowned out the bored drone of telephone conversations and keyboard tapping.

More scenes appeared as others vanished. Workers grew older, children becoming adults then old men and women, while still working at the same post; entire lives played out before me all in the space of a few seconds . Other things began to appear, horrible things. A boy of perhaps ten tied to a workbench and flogged bloody with a cat o’ nine tails, his screams, shrill and desperate, ringing above the pounding machines. Then the man in the photo had a woman bound and pinned to the floor, thrusting into her, his expression as grim and implacable as in the photograph. The image faded, replaced by another; the same woman, screaming and struggling from the grip of two men restraining her, as a crying baby is tossed into a furnace.

Horrified, I turned away and lunged out of my seat. I ran to the person nearest me, a middle aged alcoholic who worked the night shift to escape his wife. “We have to get out of this place”, I yelled.

“Mmmmm?” he muttered, his eyes briefly leaving the tabloid newspaper he was reading.

“We have to get out, something’s wrong with this place. We don’t belong here, it’s not ours” I shouted, turning away and addressing the whole office. A number of people turned and looked at me; some in alarm, but more of them in pity. But nobody moved from their chair.

“They’re not listening” I pleaded. “Nobody will listen.”

The sound of the furnaces started again, louder this time, much louder. Not just noises and hazy images anymore. I could actually feel the heat. Translucent figures, moustachioed men in overalls, shovelled fuel into the flames of the furnaces, feeding them. Not coal, but dismembered bodies. Dry and brittle with decay; heads, limbs and torsos gave succour to the blaze. The heat was building, becoming unbearable. The spectral beings feeding the blaze turned to me, nodded grimly and vanished.

Others had noticed the heat now, were leaving their seats, looking around in panic. A furnace overheated and exploded, debris blasted across the room, maiming and eviscerating. Flames spread, greedily devouring plastic, synthetics and flesh. Screaming chaos reigned. Those still in a position to do so, bolted for the exits, shoving and trampling. Every door was found to be padlocked; some were even gone entirely, bricked over as if they’d never been there.

I never made it out alive, but I’m still here working in the factory. The owner recognised my attempt to warn everyone and took pity on me, gave me a job.

It’s not so bad. At least I’m never alone at night.

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