Chapter One: Just Another Day

"Hello?"

It's always the same: Get up, go to work, and take calls. The third part's always been my favorite because people are extremely funny when they're mad about something that's their own fault. I can't tell you how many times I've been blessed out for being the one to tell a person they were going bankrupt because of their own spending.

I'm a somewhat proud member of the one and only call center in the state of Arkansas, located in the small town of Central City. There's not much to look at around here, unless you're into deserts and hot weather. Our town is so small, in fact, if you blink, you might miss it. The corporation is known as Global Communications, and we take calls from people all over the world. We're probably the largest building, but when you live in the middle of a desert, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that we have air conditioning.

Today is a particularly slow day. I've been at the call center for almost four hours now, and I've only managed to get through about ten calls. It's not my fault, though. I can only take them as they come through, and they aren't coming very often these days. Someone walks by every so often, dropping off a folder. They're stacking up on my desk, but I just don't want to deal with them.

"You have reached the voicemail of Valerie Winston," says the voice on the other end of the line. I leave my usual message of, "Hi, this is Alexander Mays with Global Communications," and proceed to tell Mrs. Valerie Winston about the debt that has been piling up for two years now. I hang up the phone and wait for another call to make its way through our system. Across from my desk and one cubicle over, Spencer Franklin sits, laughing at me.

"You're not doing very well today," he says with a snicker, while his own phone stays silent. As far as I know, he's gotten fewer calls than me. He runs a hand through his carefully styled hair and leans back in his chair. If ever there was a man who was obsessed with a body part, it was Spencer Franklin with his dirty blonde locks. He spent more time rubbing gel into his scalp than any other person I'd ever known. Add that to his striking blue eyes and bulging arms, and there was no reason to believe that he hasn't been whisked away by a crowd of women. He was certainly doing better with his looks than I was with my muddy-colored hair and eyes to match. All I had on him was muscles in places other than my arms.

"Your phone's collecting dust," I tell him, gesturing toward the deserted area of his desk. "Seriously, have you even touched the thing today?" Someone walks by and drops off a fifth folder on my desk. As she turns to leave, I call out, "Hey, wait a minute." I recognize her from the cubicle across the room when she looks back at me. I hold up the overflowing folders. "What's up with all this?"

"Mr. Jenkins wants you to put those into the computer," she says. Her name is Casey Ryder, and she's the newest member of our quaint little family. With her tiny frame and blonde curls, she shouldn't be working in a call center. She turns to leave again, and when she walks by Spencer's desk, he purposely knocks over a stack of papers, and we watch as she bends down to pick them back up. He flashes me a thumbs-up as she walks away.

"You're a horrible person," I say, but I'm smiling. "Did she give you extra work, too?" I hold up one of the folders and he nods.

"She left three of them just now," he says. "Nobody else has to do this shit." He turns his attention back to his computer and I realize he's just now logging in for the day. He takes the first folder and looks over the names, sighing loudly.

"What have you been doing all day?" I ask, starting my own transfer of names. He looks back at me for a few seconds, and I see the solitaire game pulled up on the computer screen. Of course. At least I was making an effort to look like I was working. After a while, our boss walks over to make sure we're not goofing off.

Ross Jenkins is the manager, supervisor, and every other title of authority at Global Communications. He's also an old man who limps around with a fancy cane, reflecting the fluorescent lights off his bald head. He walks over to me first, tracing a finger over the stack of files I'm supposed to be entering into the database.

"I want those done by the end of the day," he tells me. Any other day, I'd be pissed about the extra work, but since there's nothing else to do, I can't really complain. I catch the expression on Spencer's face and have to stifle the laughter that threatens to come out. Mr. Jenkins raises an eyebrow, but says nothing. Instead, he moves on to check out Spencer's progress. "Mr. Franklin, I hope you're not just sitting there."

"Of course not, sir," Spencer says in his brown-nosing tone. It's the only reason he hasn't been fired yet. "I actually just got off a call." He gives his best suck-up smile and after a few seconds, Mr. Jenkins huffs, turns around, and returns to his office at the other end of the building.

"What?" Spencer demands after realizing that I'm staring at him.

"Nothing," I say, returning to my work. "That's just some pretty heavy bull-shitting." He laughs and returns to his work as well, and that's how we spend the rest of the day: Sorting through meaningless names to place in various parts of the system. Spencer never notices, but I write down a few of them on a separate sheet of paper, and tuck it away in a drawer. I'll retrieve them later, before I leave.

After a few hours of pointless tapping, Casey Ryder comes back down to our corner of the floor. "Conference room," she says simply. "Ten minutes." And then she turns right back around and returns to wherever it is that she stays during the day. I look to Spencer, but he only shrugs. It's weird that we'd have a meeting this late in the day, but then again, Mr. Jenkins might not even know what time it is.

The conference room is a small space lodged in between two cubicles. It's not even really a room; it's more like an indention of the wall. There's a short rectangular table stuffed inside, leaving little room for us to actually get in and sit down. Spencer and I take our usual spots in the back, and wait for the few other people we're lucky enough to work with. Casey comes in first, followed by another new guy named Nick Carson. He might as well have been Casey's twin brother, because he had almost the exact same hair and eyes. Naturally, the two of them sit together, since they've probably been put in the same cubicle. A few other people come in, but I've never bothered to learn their names.

"Thank you for coming in," Mr. Jenkins says finally, after the last person walks in. He hobbles in and takes a seat in the chair closest to the door. He looks around the room, making eye contact with each of us, before continuing. "I'm afraid I have some potentially bad news."

"Potentially?" Nick asks immediately. "What does that mean?" Maybe if you let him finish, he'll tell us, I want to say to the boy. He can't be more than twenty-five years old.

"I'm sure you all know about the declining number of calls we receive," Mr. Jenkins continues, eyeing Nick with an expression I'd love to give him myself. "As you are aware, we're not a very large corporation."

"So what?" Nick asks again. Usually, we just stay quiet until the old man has said everything he wants to say, and then we only ask questions if it's absolutely necessary. Clearly, this guy is an overachiever.

"So, we've got to come up with a way to get more people in the system," Mr. Jenkins says. "We need to get out there and make ourselves known." By that, he meant everyone was supposed to go out and do all kinds of extra work, while he sat behind his desk and criticized our every move.

"What did you have in mind, sir?" Casey asks. I bet if she hadn't said it, Nick would have.

"A contest, of sorts," he tells her. That wasn't something I'd expect from him. "Basically, I'm going to keep track of the people you talk to, and at the end of the year, whichever of you has collected the most payment money will get a special bonus."

"Starting now?" Nick asks. I can imagine him itching to get back to his desk, so he can suck up on a whole new level. Mr. Jenkins is apparently oblivious to what the kid's trying to do. I look at Spencer again, and he's got a hand over his mouth, trying not to laugh.

"Consider this meeting over," Mr. Jenkins concludes, standing up. "Everyone, back to work. I hope to see you all taking this seriously." He leaves the room then, leaving the rest of us to contemplate what he's said. Nick and Casey look at each other and get up at the same time. They leave the room next, heading back to their desks, presumably to call their friends and bribe them to help them cheat.

"Well, I guess we'll have to work a little harder," Spencer says to me. We both stand up and walk back to our cubicle, where the list of names still lies on both desks. It's the end of the work day for us, but I tell Spencer to go on ahead without me. I'll catch up later. Once he's gone, I pull my drawer open and take out the slip of paper I'd hidden in there earlier. The list contains ten names.

. . .

When I'm not at the office, I stay at my apartment, across town. Central City isn't very big, so it's a ten-minute drive to get from one end to the other. It's a relatively small apartment building, but it has a decent price. I live alone, obviously, but sometimes I'm lucky enough to bring a good-looking woman home.

I always take the stairs, even though I live on the fifth floor. I consider it my way to stay in shape without even trying. On the end of the fifth floor, there's a window. I've been living here for over ten years, and that window has always been my favorite part about the place. I like being able to look out and see everything while I'm unlocking my door. Inside, it's one giant space. I've got the couch shoved up against one wall, and on the wall adjacent to it, there's a large panoramic window that only comes in apartments on the ends. A long counter separates the space from the kitchen, and a small hallway across from the door leads to the bedroom and bathroom that make it livable.

I kept the color palate that the previous owners chose: navy blue and mud brown. It's actually a pretty good combination. But then again, I'm a guy and I don't know what's stylish. It's true. That's the one thing I've been told by every woman who's seen this apartment. I obviously don't care, though, because it's still the same. I pilfer through the fridge for leftovers, and feel successful when I pull out a two-day-old box of Chinese takeout. I head for the couch to stuff my face and watch the news before bed.

When I turn the TV to Channel Nine News, Synthia Larkins is just getting started. I smile to myself, imagining a wardrobe malfunction with that low-cut blouse she always wears, and listen as she talks about the most recent horrors of the world.

"Mr. Murphy has made the statement that he will not be pressing charges against the two teen boys who stole from his shop earlier this week," she says, pushing a lock of dark hair from her smoldering eyes, behind her ear. "All he asks is that they make an official apology." She chuckles at this, and I laugh, too, at the thought of two teenagers getting on camera and saying they're sorry for committing theft. Blake Murphy is the owner of the only non-corporation store in Central City. It's only a few minutes' walk from here, so I go there often. He looks a lot like Ross Jenkins, but without the cane, and he's a lot nicer to people.

"In other news," Synthia continues, and I perk up, "Police are still investigating the murders of three women in this area." The photos of the dead women circulate through a couple times, while Synthia says, "Investigators are urging anyone with information to contact Central City's police department." I smile as each woman's face shows up on the screen for a few seconds. Abigail Jenner, Laurie McSon, and the most recent, Jane Avery. All three of them have the same brown hair and eyes, but that's only a coincidence.

"Police are not releasing the names of these victims as of right now,"Synthia tells us. "Police Chief and Sheriff, Elyssa Franklin, will be on with us later to talk about safety in our city." She pauses a moment, and then says, "Once again, if you have any information at all about these murders, contact the police immediately. Now, after the break, we'll be talking to Sheriff Franklin." The channel cuts to commercials then, and I grab the remote to turn them off. As I make my way to the bed, it idly occurs to me that they probably won't catch the killer. As I climb under the covers, I decide to check the weather in the morning for reports of storms.

It's kind of my niche, working in the pouring rain. Rain washes things away, things that are very hard to clean up. Things like evidence.

When I wait for a storm to come, the rain washes the blood away before anyone can collect it. After all, the names of those dead women were right on the list I took from the files at work. I only killed Jane three nights ago, after she cursed me so badly over the phone, I broke protocol when I slammed the receiver down, ending the call promptly.

I really hate people who say bad things to call collectors.