“Floor 3 today?”
RAPL’s receptionist looked up into Claire’s face with the same look that she would give had she stepped in something brown and noxious. Claire was different today. Her meek, mouse-like appearance had given way to self-confidence. Her chin was raised, and there was not a hint of a stutter in her voice. And that didn’t do at all.
“Who are you?” the receptionist asked with a sneer.
There it was. The look of self-doubt that the receptionist thrived upon, and it forced a mild smile to her lips.
“Um, Claire? The intern.”
The receptionist nodded. “Right. I’d forgotten all about you. You’ve got a forgettable face, haven’t you? Floor 3. Ask for Mrs. Dale.”
Claire cursed herself for falling for her mind games, yet again.
“Good luck,” the receptionist called after her. “You’ll need it.”
Claire very nearly called a thank you back, but she knew the receptionist’s words weren’t kindness; they were an attempt to frighten her. And she wouldn’t be frightened. Not today.
Today was the day that she was going to crack the mystery of RAPL once and for all. The corporation was trading humans – she was sure of it – and using the name Rare Animal Protection League to cover their tracks. She was also fairly confident that the employees of the company were victims of their trafficking. On each floor, the staff worked furiously, non-stop and without lunch breaks, as far as she could tell. She never saw anybody else enter or leave the building at the same time as her, and was sure that was because clocking-off time didn’t exist for anyone but her. She would free them, once she got her evidence.
Claire stepped into the lift and slipped her hand into her pocket as the doors closed behind her. She felt the familiar buttons of the voice recorder she used for her college classes and pushed record, glancing at the tiny surveillance camera positioned in one of the lift’s upper corners. She didn’t know what the day held for her, but she was determined to capture something incriminating.
The lift lurched to a halt at the third floor and the doors opened to another reception area, this one much smaller than that of the ground floor. She headed towards the desk, and was faced with the same receptionist she’d left behind three storeys down.
“How did you get up here so fast?” she asked
The receptionist eyed her with disdain. “You are?”
Claire rolled her eyes at her. “Where can I find Mrs. Dale?”
“I can’t let you find anyone until you tell me who you are.”
“Claire! I’m Claire. You know who I am.”
“Ah,” the receptionist said with a smug smile. “My sister told me about you.”
Twins, Claire realised. Twice the amount of obnoxiousness.
“She’s behind that door on your right. Knock first.”
Claire approached the door and rapped on it.
MRS. S. DALE – CEO
She panicked as she took in the sign. She hadn’t expected to be reporting to the CEO during her internship. She had a feeling of dread in her stomach, as though she was set to enter the lion’s den. She’d be spending the day with the brains behind the whole, sick operation.
“Come in!” The voice sounded cheerful as it filtered through the door. Claire couldn’t let fear take over her now. Perhaps going into the lion’s den would give her the vital information she needed. She gripped the handle, took a deep breath, and entered.
“Hi Claire, so lovely to meet you.” Mrs. Dale rose from her chair and reached out a hand. Her long fingernails were painted in a deep shade of red which matched the lipstick on her smiling mouth. She looked friendly enough, Claire thought, but these sorts of people always did; that’s how they hid their wrongdoings. “Come and take a seat, let’s have a chat.”
Claire did as she was told, and Mrs. Dale took the opportunity to remain standing above her for a few moments. She drank in Claire’s appearance, still with the bright, red smile, before she returned to the large, leather office chair on her side of the desk.
“Well, how have you found your week with us so far?”
“Good, thank you. Interesting.”
“We are very interesting!”
There was that smile again. Claire felt compelled to smile back, although she didn’t want to.
“What is it I’ll be doing today?” Claire asked.
“Today is, basically, an interview. I want to get a feel for you and try to figure out how you might fit in here at RAPL, on a permanent basis. Your career advisor told us you’ll be looking for permanent work once your exams are over next summer.”
Claire nodded, but she wanted to shake her head with disgust – there was no chance she’d be accepting a job offer today.
“You’re very thin, Claire.”
“Everyone here has told me that – but everyone else who works here seems to be slim, too. You included.” Claire was feeling brave, and she shocked herself for finally saying whatever she was thinking.
Mrs. Dale’s smile faltered a little. “You’re astute, I can see that. Skinny and astute. Interns like you go either one of two ways, here at RAPL.”
“And those two ways are?”
“We’ll get to that. What is it that you think we do here at RAPL, Claire?”
Claire hesitated. She wasn’t sure if saying what she thought would be the right plan of action on this occasion. “You, um, look after rare species. Supposedly.”
Mrs. Dale simply nodded and waited for her to continue.
Claire reminded herself of the voice recorder in her pocket, and felt her bravery soar once again. “But I don’t think RAPL takes care of rare animals at all.”
Mrs. Dale’s eyebrows shot up towards her hairline, and she laughed a short, condescending laugh. “Really?”
Claire wouldn’t let the laugh fluster her. “I saw an invoice on Tuesday which gave me an insight into what RAPL really does. And yesterday I had a frightened voice ask me for help from inside a wooden crate.”
The smile on the red lips wouldn’t falter.
“You’re involved in human trafficking. And your employees are slaves.”
It was a deep, belly laugh which came from Mrs. Dale this time. Claire had expected there to be fear in her eyes – worry that she’d been caught out. But the belly laugh suggested that what she’d said was utterly ridiculous, and she began to panic that she’d got everything completely wrong.
“You’re a little off the mark there, Claire. But you are right on one part. We do, indeed, trade in humans at RAPL. But goodness, it isn’t slavery which keeps our employees here. It is fear.”
Claire felt the same fear then, but only a hint of it. Most of her fear was overshadowed by excitement as she thought of the little voice recorder, dutifully doing its job in her pocket.
“We do take care of rare species and those rare species can only survive on human flesh. So that is what we feed them.”
The excitement dwindled then. That, she had not been expecting.
“All the human food that’s delivered – it’s for – ”
“Fattening our produce up, yes.”
Claire swallowed down her fear. She needed more details, as much as she didn’t want to hear them.
“Where do you get them from?”
“The produce? Here and there. They’re usually nobodies. People who won’t be missed when they disappear.”
“Do you slaughter them here?” Claire felt sick as she thought of the basement – the floor she was yet to see and where the large wooden crates delivered yesterday had been destined for.
“Some of them, for the smaller species. But most of them are tossed to the animals whole. And alive. Our animals need the stimulation of live prey, you see, to indulge their natural hunting instincts.”
Claire couldn’t think of what to say next. She couldn’t think, full stop. She felt she had enough evidence in her pocket and felt the dire need to escape. She eyed the window and wondered how much injury she’d sustain if she were forced to jump from three storeys up.
“You’re not the first to learn the truth about RAPL, Claire. You’re clever, but you’re not special. And the recording device in your pocket certainly isn’t the first to capture my confessions on tape. So now you have a decision to make.”
Mrs. Dales words seemed to reach Claire’s ears very slowly, as though her vocals were a few seconds behind the movement of her blood red lips. Everything felt as though it was taking place in slow motion, and Claire started to wonder if she was simply dreaming or hallucinating. She desperately hoped she was, but the colour of that lipstick was far too vivid to have been a fantasy.
“Now, you have a decision to make. You can work for us, full time, once your studies are over next July. We will pay you fairly and I guarantee that you will move up through the company quickly, because you seem to be an intelligent young woman. What do you think?”
Claire shook her head.
“Well, that only leaves the other option. Which is to introduce you to Teddy. You’d adore Teddy, Claire. He’s a lovable thing, despite his size. You’ve probably heard his precious little roar during your time here.”
The earthquakes that had shaken her to her core each day – they hadn’t been earthquakes at all. They’d come from a monster. And Claire had little interest in learning exactly what type of monster it was.
“Now, Teddy wouldn’t be very happy with us feeding him such a skinny little thing, so he probably wouldn’t gobble you up quickly. He’d play with you first. Maybe keep you around for a few days few to practice his hunting. Do you think you’d like that, Claire?”
Claire shook her head again.
“Then I suggest you agree to my offer of full-time employment. I have the paperwork here, all ready to sign.”
She pushed a document across the desk towards Claire, and held out a pen. Claire took it with quivering fingers and hurriedly signed on the dotted line.
“Give me the recording device, Claire.”
Claire reached into her pocket and fished out the gadget before placing it on the desk.
“If you’re not in the reception area at 9am sharp the day after your final exam, a representative from RAPL will find you, and then they’ll introduce you to Teddy. And if they can’t find you, they’ll introduce a member of your family to Teddy. And once all your family is gone, your friends will have the pleasure of meeting Teddy too. And on it will go, until you do turn up in the reception area. Do you understand?”
“You’re very lucky to have been thin, Claire. The fat interns never get a choice like you. I’d stay thin, if I were you; chubby employees tend to face the chop if they don’t perform well.”
Mrs. Dale allowed Claire to squirm in her seat as silence hung between them. It was only when she saw a bead of sweat on the girl’s forehead that she spoke again. “You can go now. I look forward to seeing you in July.”
Claire picked up her bag, hurried out the room and into the lift. The thumping in her ears deafened her, so much so that she barely noticed Teddy’s roar which shook the building and made the elevator light flicker.
The receptionist watched with interest as Claire emerged from the lift on the ground floor and ran out of the front door. She picked up the phone, tapped a few buttons, and was soon connected with her twin sister three storeys up.
“I owe you twenty quid. But I bet you fifty she’ll be Teddy-food before the end of July.”