On the Nightwire

by John Grey

“Damn!” cried Emma.

“What the…!” exclaimed Adam, three cubes behind her.

Jessie’s “Hell!” proved loudest of all.

The room on the 20th floor was in complete darkness. Every computer monitor, all printers, scanners, copy and fax machines, shut down in an instant.

“So much for the emergency power,” exclaimed Jimmy.

Emma felt her way to the window.

“The whole city’s out,” she told the others.

“That’s just great,” said Adam. “How are we supposed to get a newspaper out with no electricity.”

“I’ve got a flashlight,” piped up Jimmy.

At twenty five, he was the youngest of the Tribune late night crew. He shone his light on the faces of the other three. Thirty year old Jessie grinned. Emma, her elder by a year, could work up no expression beyond nonplussed. Adam, the senior member of the team, was merely angry.

“Get that light out of my eyes!” he snapped. “I gotta call Atkinson.”

He grabbed the phone but then slammed it down in disgust. He didn’t need to tell the others that there was no signal.

“Let me borrow that flashlight,” said Jessie as she stumbled her way to Jimmy’s cube. “I need to powder my nose.”

“Be my guest.”

Jimmy handed it to her and she disappeared through a maze of desks on her way to the ladies’ room.

“Look you guys,” announced Adam, “I’m going to look around and see if I can find a phone that works.”

“Don’t get lost,” said Emma.

“Don’t worry. I know my way around this newspaper blindfold.”

The Tribune occupied the top three floors of the building. Adam held out little hope of finding a workable phone but he was not one for just sitting around waiting for things to happen. He’d try every telephone on all floors to find one that worked. He had to do something even if it achieved nothing.

“I can’t believe this,” he muttered as he made his way toward the exit, knocking over waste baskets, coat stands, as he did so. “It’s 1990, not 1490.”

“Just you and me now, Emma,” said Jimmy, once the clatter of Adam’s departure had sufficiently died down.

“Don’t get any ideas,” she laughed.

“I’ll try not to.”

Emma had no illusions about being any kind of man-killer. She was thirtyish and plain and she accepted the fact. She’d had men friends over the years but nothing serious. Jessie was the one on the team with the short skirts and nice legs. Sure, she overdid the makeup but she was never short of male attention.

Emma leaned back in her chair. She figured it was just a matter of waiting. With the entire city in a blackout, there’d surely be an army of utility workers out there somewhere though the Tribune crew were too far up to hear the roar of the accompanying police sirens. She expected the power would come back on within the hour. The paper might go out a little late but that was to be expected. And it wouldn’t be the first time. The Tribune lagged behind the other city dailies when it came to exploiting the latest technology. Being late and sometimes last off the presses was nothing new to that daily rag.

The dark made Emma sleepy. At that hour, bright lights were always the adrenalin injection she sorely needed. Without them, her body clock prepared itself for shutdown mode. She stood and paced a little to prevent herself from dozing off. Her attention was grabbed by something at the far end of the newsroom – a sort of glow.

“What the hell is that?” she said to herself.

Curious and with nothing else to do, she slowly made her way toward the gleam. As she drew nearer, she could discern that it was coming from the old night wire machine. It was an antique kept around as an historical artifact. She couldn’t remember it ever being plugged in. But it was lit up. She was about to call out to Jimmy when, to her great surprise, the machine began to kick into gear and a thin stream of paper emerged from its tele-printer.

“I’m dreaming. I must be. I’m really back in my cube with my head on my desk. This damn thing probably hasn’t worked in thirty years. Or maybe I’m seeing things.”

The machine pumped out a few feet of teletype paper and then stopped.

“Well girl, this is your job. Better get to it.”

She ripped the paper from the tele-printer and began to read.

“Bulletin: Whitechapel, London, September 30th, 1888,” it read.

“Someone’s playing a joke,” Emma figured though she couldn’t imagine how it was being done. Did someone in the building have their own power source? Had they connected up somehow to this ancient wire machine?

“Jack the Ripper strikes again. The body of Elizabeth Stride was discovered in Dutfield’s yard off Berner Street. Three quarters of an hour later, a passerby came upon the horribly mutilated corpse of Catherine Eddowes, throat severed, abdomen ripped open, left kidney and uterus removed. Stride’s body was not defaced as was Eddowes and that of previous Ripper victims. Police conjecture that the killer may have been interrupted.”

“Jimmy!” she called out. “Come and look at this!”

There was no response from her co-worker.

“Jimmy, I know you’re there. Look, it’s dark. I’m a woman. You’re a guy. I get it. You’re going to jump out from behind a cubicle and scare the living you-know-what out of me. Why don’t we just pretend you did it and I went ‘eek’ while you come and look at what I have here. It’s totally bizarre.”

There was still no response from Jimmy.

“Jessie, are you back? Can I borrow the flashlight. I need to go to the ladies room too. But first I’ve got to show you this.”

A little night vision had kicked in so it was easier for Emma to make her way to the far end of the room where the late shift cubicles were located. She was surprised to find that Jimmy was away from his desk. And a quick glimpse in Jessie’s spangled-up, photograph-filled work space told her the office temptress was still not back.

“Oh well, I’m going to the ladies room if anyone’s interested.”

Her voice sounded hollow. And, despite the noise softening drop-roof and cluttered floor plan, there was a hint of an echo from the far walls.

“Get the power back on, damn you,” she muttered to no one in particular as she made her way across the room to the hallway and the bathrooms. The Ladies’ was dark as she expected. But it was one place in the building where she was confident she could make her way around with eyes closed.

“Jessie, are you still in here?”

This time the words really did bounce from the porcelain, the tiled floor. The sound of her own words speaking back to her was in no way comforting. She cursed the darkness once again. She hated being so angry and frustrated at something she couldn’t fix, couldn’t control. If this was an exercise in surviving without the comforts of civilization, then she was failing badly.

Her hands reached for what she imagined was the first stall when she tripped on something. She tottered, almost fell, grabbed onto a door handle which slowed her inevitable contact with the cold tiled floor.

“What is this?”

Blind as she was, she knew this obstacle didn’t belong there. It was a leg.

“Jessie. Oh my god. What’s happened?”

Her first reaction was that Jessie had hit her head on something in the darkness. But what? She appeared to be wedged in the doorway of the stall. Emma rummaged around for the flashlight. Her fingers touched something wet and sticky. She shuddered but continued with her search.

She eventually laid hands on the object in question but when she flicked it on and pointed its beam at the fallen Jessie, she let out a loud scream. Echo slammed against her ear drums. She dropped the flashlight. It went dark on impact with the floor. She then scurried wildly looking for where it had fallen and rolled. She was relieved when she finally laid hands on it. One prayer was answered at least when she flicked the switch – the flashlight wasn’t broken.

As Emma stumbled to her feet, she almost wished it had been smashed to pieces. There were things in that bathroom that she did not wish to see. But curiosity overcame dread. She turned the beam once more toward the figure of Jessie. Only a repeat of her initial shock prevented her from filling the air with scream after scream.

Jessie’s face was locked in abject terror. The twisted mouth, bulging eyes would have been bad enough but it was the sight of her mutilated chest that made Emma turn away and retch. Jessie’s clothing was torn to shreds. Her torso was cut open but not haphazardly, wantonly, as if it was the handwork of a butcher. As Emma gritted her teeth and girded herself to look, she could see that Jessie had been dissected with a surgeon’s precision. Sure, there was blood everywhere – she retched again when she saw that her fingers were covered in it – but the incision was neat. And, even with the little that Emma knew of human anatomy, she could quickly tell by the way the flaps of Jessie’s skin fell into empty space, that her insides were no longer intact.

“Who did this?”

She staggered away from the body. It occurred to her that the killer must still be around. She could be the next victim. Emma shuddered as she slowly turned the light’s beam toward every corner of the bathroom. There was no one there. She was alone with Jessie’s body.

“I need to find Adam,” she said aloud as she cautiously left the bathroom, pointing the flashlight up and down the hallway.

“Adam! Come quickly! Something terrible has happened! Jessie’s in a bad way! I need your help! Jimmy! Are you here?”

There were no replies. She reentered the newsroom, still brandishing the light in front of her. That narrow ray of illumination felt like the one thing that was keeping her sane. She felt the urge to flop down onto the floor and bawl her eyes out. But the light dwelled on an empty desk, a couple of scattered pens, a family photograph. This tiny oasis of humanity kept her going. Something told her she had just imagined seeing Jessie’s body, that if she made it back to her own cube then everything would be fine. She resisted the urge to shine her precious beam on her dripping, crimson fingers and put that hopeful fantasy to the truth test.

She continued to call out for Adam and Jimmy but to no avail.

“Adam Bernstein, where the hell are you? Jimmy, this is no time for foolery. It’s Jessie. Something terrible has happened. We need to call the police.”

She knew she was talking to herself. Jimmy and Adam were probably on another floor. Adam surely would still be trying to find a phone that worked. Jimmy was no doubt taking the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity as to what exactly went on in all those other departments. So what if it involved blundering about in darkness.

But then a more terrifying thought hit her. What if whoever had killed Jessie had also murdered Jimmy or Adam or both? It couldn’t have happened in the newsroom because she would have heard. But, with both of them out there wandering, anything could have transpired. Her thoughts were never far from the grim possibility that she was the only member of the late night news team still breathing.

This dire prospect was suddenly interrupted by clatter from the far end of the room.

“The night wire. It’s started up again.”

The sound was almost a comfort compared to the eerie silence of a moment before. Whatever madness was happening with that ancient machine, at least it gave her something to occupy her mind.

“So what’s the latest?” she asked aloud as she followed her flashlight’s beam to the machine in question. “Another Ripper murder?”

As before, a stream of paper had spooled out of the night wire’s tele-printer. She broke it off and began to read.

“Bulletin May 6th 1937. Disaster in New Jersey.   German Airship LZ 129 Hindenberg catches fire when docking. Many believed dead. Further reports to follow.”

“Oh great,” said Emma. “Stop the presses. We need to totally recast tomorrow’s front page. Let’s go with the Ripper and the Hindenberg. And why don’t we throw in the Wall Street Crash and the hula hoop craze. What’s with the damn electric company? How can a whole city go dark?”

Emma didn’t wait around for further developments in the Hindenberg story. She was determined to find her co-workers. She knew that the three of them needed to stay close together this night even if Adam and Jimmy didn’t realize it. It was obvious no phones were working anywhere in the building. And what did Jimmy hope to find in departments like accounting and personnel that would be of the slightest interest to him. If the killer was still around, she’d just have to risk it. At least, if she kept on the go, there was no way he could creep up on her.

“Come on Emma old girl. You’re not some frightened child. You can handle this. If any guy comes near you just kick him in the balls and then whack him over the head with your flashlight.”

She exited the newsroom and climbed the stairs to the next floor. In all her time with the Tribune, she had rarely ventured into Accounting, Finance and Payroll. It was no different than the newsroom – a bunch of cubicles, a couple of offices, the usual copy machines and newfangled faxes.

As she passed through the department’s doors, the first thing she noticed was the smell of smoke.

“Jimmy Schmidt, is that you? Are you smoking? That’s just like you. You could set off the sprinkler system, you idiot.”

Her light gravitated toward the smell and she followed. As she came nearer, she realized the odor was much too strong for a simple cigarette. She figured maybe Jimmy had dropped some ashes in a waste paper basket and started a small fire.

But it was more than just a smell, it was a stench. And a sickening one at that.

“What the hell’s happened?”

She shone her light on the floor between two cubes in a section where the smell was strongest. Jimmy was slumped there, his face blackened, clothes still sizzling.

“My God, Jimmy. What did you do to yourself? Did you touch a live wire? Of course, you couldn’t have. There are no live wires in this entire building. In the whole city for all I know.”

But Jimmy had done more than just burn himself. His face was cocked sideways as if his neck had been broken. She had to turn away from the sight of a couple of leg-bones protruding through his seared trousers. His eyes were open and unblinking. His lips didn’t move. He was unquestionably dead.

“What’s going on?”

Emma staggered away. She tried collecting herself. She considered running down all twenty flights of stairs, smashing her way out through the ground floor security door if she had to. She needed a cop. There were two corpses in the Tribune building. One was a horrible murder. The second – she had no idea what had caused Jimmy’s death. It could have been deliberate. It might have been accidental. In other circumstances, the death of a colleague would have filled her with sadness. But these were no ordinary deaths. Any weeping she had done were more for her and her bewildering circumstances than for Jessie or Jimmy.

She called out to Adam once again but there was still no answer. Wherever his search for a working telephone had taken him, it was no longer on this floor. Next flight up was the stockroom. Emma figured she’d give it a try. More than anything, she wanted someone else, a co-worker, a friend, to verify what she had seen: an old wire machine spitting out historical news items, Jessie’s mutilated body, Jimmy all broken up and burned as if he’d leapt from…yes, she said to herself, as if he’d leapt from a crashing German airship. Was it just a coincidence that his last name happened to be Schmidt?

But the stockroom proved as devoid of life as Accounting. She called out Adam’s name a number of times but there was no reply.

“It’s time to get out of here,” she told herself. “Streets can’t be any creepier and crazier than this place.”

She quickly exited the stockroom, almost ran down two flights of stairs, grabbing the railing as she did so to prevent herself from falling. Her pocketbook was still in her cube so she had to make one more stop before fleeing.

When she reentered the newsroom, she called out Adam’s name once again though she knew it to be futile.

“I’m going crazy,” she muttered to herself. “Jessie’s not dead. And nor is Jimmy. It’s hallucinations. It’s stress.”

At the far end of the room, the night wire kicked into gear.

“I don’t hear a damn thing!” she shouted. “You’re just a figment of my imagination that’s all. And don’t think I’m going to check out what hackneyed old story you’re spewing this time. Jack the Ripper. German airships. What a sick sense of humor. Well, you’re not going to take me in this time. I’m wise to your game. It’s the power of suggestion, that’s what it is. For all I know, Jessie, Jimmy and Adam have packed up their stuff and left the building long ago. They’re on their way home. They figure the lights aren’t coming back on so why bother hanging around. Maybe, the world has run out of fuel and the lights are never coming back on.”

The old night wire clanked and clattered, louder than before. To Emma, it sounded like it was talking back to her, daring her to come and see its latest story.

“Bang and rattle all you want. I’m out of here.”

She reached her cube and grabbed her pocketbook. The machine shook louder and louder. The whole room quaked like a factory floor. She could hear the tele-printer pounding out a stream of paper. She wanted so much to just leave but the newshound in her took over. What if it was a real story and not some claptrap out of ancient history? She’d curse herself forever if she missed something big.

“Okay buddy. You got me. I’m coming. God, how will I ever explain this to the others.”

Emma shone her way to the far end of the room, snatched the paper from the machine and began to read.

“Bulletin: Auschwitz, Poland. January 27th 1945. Russian troops liberate concentration camp. Mass unmarked graves, gas chambers uncovered.”

Emma shuddered. She was well versed in the photographs of the victims of the camps. She had read up on the horrifying details of the Holocaust. That unspeakable event was at the top of her “this must never be allowed to happen again” list. Adam had encouraged her. Yes, Adam Bernstein – his grandparents were just two of the six million slaughtered in the worst genocide in human history. This news clip was a cruel joke to play on the man.

She squeezed the paper in her fist and tossed it into the darkness.

“I’m going now,” she snarled at the machine. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

But this night would not let Emma off that easily. Her path out the door took her by Adam’s desk. She’d checked in more than once since he’d disappeared and there’d been so sign of him. But, this time, as her flashlight’s beam illuminated a computer terminal here, a waste basket there, it paved a bright way through the shadows to Adam’s cube. The chair was occupied. Emma let out a great sigh of relief.

“Adam, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

But the occupant of the chair did not turn to greet her.

“Adam. Adam, what’s wrong?”

His face was slumped down on the desk. She shone her flashlight on the back of his head. It wasn’t Adam. This man’s hair was thin and gray, almost white. Adam’s was black and thick.

“Who are you? What’s wrong?”

She edged nervously toward the stranger, touched him on the shoulder. He didn’t flinch.

“You need an ambulance but I can’t call one. There’s no phones. There’s no power. There’s nothing.”

He was dressed in what appeared to be pajamas – striped pajamas. She lifted his head back and was surprised to find how light he was, how easily she could maneuver the man. As he flopped back in the chair, his pajama top opened, exposing his chest. There was barely a hint of flesh. That chest was nothing but rib cage.

“What’s going on? I don’t understand?”

She shone her light in his face. She’d never seen such gaunt features. Skin wrapped tight around bone like sheer stockings. The mouth was parched. The eyes blank.

She suddenly let out a large wail and dropped her flashlight. She recognized the man in the chair. There was little of him left but just enough for the truth to hit home. It was Adam, her colleague; Adam, her boss. It was Adam done up like one of those corpses she’d seen in cruel photographic detail in books on the Holocaust. It was Adam like one of those nameless cadavers plopped atop ten thousand others.

She wanted to just run, run anywhere, far away from that cube. She’d flee into the darkness if she had to, smash against chairs and desks – it didn’t matter. But her legs were frozen. At her feet, the flashlight shone into the nothingness. To her mind, it was all nothingness now. The lights, the power were out, and the world as she knew it no longer existed. There was just her and the dark, nothing to hold onto, not even that flashlight. It was just temporary respite from all of the darkness to come. Who knew how long its batteries would hold out.

In the distance, she could hear the night wire suddenly shake and splutter to life.

“That’s all I need,” she muttered. “I’m sorry. You’re wasting your time. I have no more colleagues. You’ve decimated our entire team.”

She could hear the tele-printer disgorging paper.

“Of course. Stupid of me. There’s still one of us left. Me. Poor old thirty something Emma. So how do I die? North Koreans? Vietcong? Maybe there’s a famous flood or fire. When I was a little girl, the boogie man was Charlie Manson and his family. Is that what you have in store for me? Am I to be 1990’s Sharon Tate? Have you ever thought, you crazy old machine, that, at this point, I might even welcome being the victim of a little helter skelter.”

The machine stopped. The newsroom was totally silent.

“What if I just ignore you? If no one reads your sorry bulletins then maybe nothing happens. Excuse me if I don’t know the rules you play by. This madness is all new to me. But you understand me too well, don’t you. The story is everything. I’ve no private life. Just this job. I don’t have any friends outside the office. The only people I ever have a conversation with are Adam, Jessie and Jimmy. And they’re all dead. There’s just me. And you of course. Okay then, let’s see what the fates have in store for Emma.”

It was a still bewildered and fearful Emma who tore the latest missive from the tele-printer. But it was also an angry Emma. She was angry at the blackout. She was angry at the butchered, burnt and emaciated corpses of her colleagues. But, more than anything, she was angry at this machine that was doing its best to drive her crazy.

“It’s not going to work,” she declared. “I’ll see this thing through. The electric company will fix the problem. It will be dawn soon enough. The day shift will arrive. This place will be full of people. It will be really humming.”

As she read the night wire report, she couldn’t help laughing.

“Bulletin: September 12th 1990. Total city blackout. Utility company working around the clock. Police report uptick in crime. All leave canceled. Woman leaps from 20th floor of Tribune building. Identified as Emma Broughton, 32.”

“So that’s it, is it? I’m supposed to leap to my death. How am I going to accomplish this? Those windows are thick. They can’t be opened. And why would I do it, anyhow? You figure I have nothing to live for? That may be true but I have nothing to die for either. Maybe craziness. Yes, I am feeling a little crazy. The dark. The solitude. And, of course, you’ve been no help. A machine that hasn’t been in use for thirty years. Maybe you’re the one that’s loony. Now you sure are big and heavy enough to smash through that window.”

Emma tried to move the machine but it was more than she could manage. It budged a little but the carpet beneath was thick. It would have to be lifted and she wasn’t anywhere near strong enough.

“Can we help you?”

The voice came from the shadows behind her.

“Adam!” she exclaimed on seeing her boss.

His body was as scrawny and wasted as when she had found him at his desk but he was standing and speaking. He was alive.

“Can you help me with this? It’s driving me crazy.”

“I am a little weak at the moment,” he replied. “But maybe with the four of us.”

“The four of us?”

Jimmy emerged from behind Adam. His face was blackened but the grin that surfaced through singed lips was undoubtedly his. Then Jessie sauntered into view. Emma didn’t stop and wonder how the woman could still move about – sway her behind – with a body lacking most of her innards.

With eight hands gripping onto the machine and raising it, it felt surprisingly light. As they carried it toward the window, its trailing cords split and tiny sparks flew from exposed wires.

“No more messages from the past out of you,” Emma said triumphantly as the team bore the machine to within one good toss of the window.

“Okay,” Emma announced. “On the count of three, let’s do it.”

“We’re with you,” the others said as one.

“One- two –three!”

The sound of triumph in Emma’s voice was palpable as the accursed night wire slammed against the window, shattered the glass.

“Let go,” said a voice from behind her.

But she didn’t listen. This was her moment. She had outwitted this devil, conquered it. And she was determined to follow its downfall all twenty floors. The moment it hit bottom, and exploded into a thousand pieces, the lights all over the city came on.

The End