Night fell once more.
"Oh. So that Georg guy's dead."
Catherine silently closed her eyes, as if grieving for the previous owner of the chair upon which she sat.
Night-time at the office. Usually, he would be able to hear the hustle and bustle of the team on the other side of the partition, but just for today the area was enshrouded in silence. The staff, shocked by what had happened to Georg, had all gone home when they were supposed to, leaving only Freddie behind.
"Are you okay?" Freddie looked at Catherine, who had turned up like nothing was wrong, with concerned eyes.
"Me? This is just work for me. Are you okay?"
"You have an awful look on your face." She leaned towards him, taking the chair with her, peering at him with cat-like eyes and extending her pale arms. Pleasantly cold palms covered his cheeks. "Hehe."
Wondering if he glimpsed a sparkle in Catherine's blue eyes, she gave him a kiss that felt like the wings of an angel. It was a hesitant, sweet sensation. His head prickled at her scent, sweet like honey. As Freddie moved to respond to her, the kiss turned hungry and desperate. Her tongue, mollusc-like, slipped into Freddie's mouth, tracing the roof of his mouth with its tip. His body tingled as if electricity pulsed through him.
He grabbed her by the shoulder and tore himself away. A thread of spit hung like a bridge between the pair's lips.
Sheep. Bell tower. Collapse.
He leaned forward, clutching at his head. The dream he'd almost forgotten tried poke its head up out of the swamp of his memories, but he somehow managed to suppress it.
"Leave me alone..." he said hoarsely, shaking his head. His head hurt.
"You really don't look well at all, Freddie. Soooo, how about I make you feel better?"
"It's alright. I'm fine."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Catherine's joking tone became serious. "Maybe you should lie down for a bit?"
Looking concerned, Catherine gently put her hand behind his head, then beckoned him to rest it on her lap, still sitting on the chair.
"You must be tired out with all that's happened. I'll finish the proposal. You just take it easy."
Ah, Catherine. He'd never felt so at ease on a woman's lap before. Feeling as if his tightly bolted away heart was being freed, he buried his face in the gap between her soft thighs.
"Hey! Freddie! You're so naughty."
She pinched his back, but even that felt nice. Catherine ran her fingers softly across the nape of his neck, not seeming to be truly angry.
"What?" he asked without opening his eyes.
"I guess I've kind of taken a liking to you. Would it be okay if I... came to your apartment tonight?"
There was bashfulness in her voice, but also a conviction that Freddie would say yes.
Arrogance and innocence coexisted within Catherine without a hint of contradiction. He no longer had the will to fight his desire.
"Sure," he replied, just as she wanted.
No - I answered the way I wanted it. He wouldn't be able to sleep alone tonight.
His headache was suddenly gone. At that moment, the pocket of his shirt began to vibrate.
Catherine pulled her chair back in shock, and he awoke from his cosy dream. What the hell? I finally got to feel good. He rose and took the phone from his pocket. He had had it set to silent, causing it to vibrate instead of ring. It wasn't a message, but an incoming call. The caller's name was displayed on the screen - Stella. He slammed the receiver against his ear.
"I finally got through. Hey, where are you right now?"
"Hmm? Who's that?"
Catherine threw back her head. In a panic, he hid the phone's screen from view.
"Sorry. I'll just go to the bathroom for a bit."
Ignoring Catherine's attempts to stop him, he jogged away and burst into the nearby conference room. He put the phone back to his ear.
"Hello? Is that you, Stella?"
"I called you so many times. Why didn't you answer?"
"Oh, you did?" He'd been so consumed with what had happened to Georg that he hadn't noticed. "Anyway, I'm at work, you know? I told you not to call me when I'm at the office."
"Hey, can we meet up now?"
Stella's voice, nasal and tearful, sounded like she was trying to hold back her anger. Freddie couldn't disguise his surprise at the sudden shift.
"What's up with you all of a sudden?"
"Hey, are you listening to me?"
Part and parcel of Stella's being an author was that her mood could change at the flick of a switch, but even still, something seemed off tonight. She wasn't the kind of woman who would suddenly ask to meet up. He could hear weeping on the other end.
"Sorry. I guess I'm still just confused..." He heard a sniffle.
"Something isn't right with you. Something actually happened, didn't it?"
"I don't want to talk about it over the phone. Please, just come to my house."
"You can't just ask something like that out of nowhere..."
Catherine's face flashed through his mind. He'd thought that he would be able to get through such a tough night if he was with her, and now this woman was going to get in the way.
"Sorry. I'm kind of tired, too. You're not the only one with stuff going on."
"Freddie. We're dating, aren't we? I want you by my side at a time like this. What're you thinking?" Her teary voice regained its demanding tone.
"I know, but I have problems of my..."
"If you don't come, I'll curse you."
Her sharp remark sent the scales of fate that had caused him continued turmoil leaning to one side. I have horrible dreams every night and now even a colleague has died - I'm exhausted. There's no way you're talking to me like that. What a thoughtless woman.
"Sorry, but today isn't going to work," he announced, gripping the phone so tightly he thought he might crush it. "I'll make time somehow tomorrow."
"Tomorrow... won't do. Fine. Don't bother."
The call cut off abruptly. He pictured Stella, on the other end, slamming her phone against the wall.
"What the hell? You're the one making demands."
He'd even proposed the compromise that tomorrow would be fine; Stella was in the wrong for refusing. Right - she's in the wrong.
"What're you doing in here?"
Catherine opened the door and peered in. The office lights ate away at the pitch blackness of the conference room. The white Catherine stood there with white light at her back, looking like an angel.
"You took so long that I started getting worried. Weren't you going to the bathroom?"
"So, who were you talking to on the phone?"
"A friend. Of Georg's. They were really in shock, so I had to calm them down."
Giving her the excuse he'd randomly come up with, he plopped his phone back into his pocket. His palms were moist with sweat.
"Hmph. I see." Catherine's shapely brows knitted into a scowl, her nose twitching slightly. "I smell a woman."
He reflexively brushed off his shirt before he realised - why would a phone call leave a smell?
Catherine's mouth turned up at the corners, as if to say gotcha. Cold sweat ran down Freddie's back. Freddie frozen with nerves, Catherine linked her arms around his, pressing her chest against him.
"Not that I mind, anyway."
The plump stimulus, separated from him by a thin blouse, pressed directly into his side, and Freddie's thoughts dulled.
"I finished the proposal. Now we can leave together, right?"
Catherine smiled bewitchingly, and all Freddie could do was nod.
"Do you know the story of Rapunzel?"
"Hey, listen seriously for a minute."
She bumped her dissatisfied-looking face against Freddie's as he lay facing upwards on the bed. Pressing her body tightly to his, she pinched his upper arm with all her strength.
"I'll do something even worse next time if you don't listen."
"Okay, okay. I'll listen to whatever you want, start talking."
"Okay. Long, long ago, there was a girl called Rapunzel. She had very long, beautiful hair, but she had been shut away in a tall, tall tower by a witch."
"Her parents had stolen vegetables from the witch's garden. As punishment, they were forced to give up their child when she was born."
"There's no way something like that would ever happen."
"Just shut up and listen." This time, Stella dug in her nails.
"I told you, that hurts! Fine. I'll be quiet."
"Rapunzel was always shut away in that tower, and had never seen anyone other than the witch. But one day, a prince was passing by the tower when he happened to see her looking out of the window and fell in love with her at first sight. So he called to her, 'Rapunzel, please, let me inside your tower.'"
So there were princes who were superficial and lusted after women, too? Freddie considered making a joke, but after one look at Stella's face decided to remain silent. Instead, he jerked his chin to indicate that she should go on.
"So Rapunzel hung her long hair down from the tower. The prince clambered up it, and then they made love. The end."
"What the hell? What happened to the witch?"
"I think there was more, but I've forgotten it. Anyway, I wonder if I can use the story for the plot of the horror novel I'm going to write?"
"You mean rip it off?"
"No. Call it an 'inspiration', please. The ending will be a lot better in my version, for sure," Stella declared, full of confidence. She was only happy when she was talking about her novels.
Freddie wanted to tease her a bit. He combed his fingers through her hair and kissed her earlobe.
"Interesting. Let's hear it, then."
"It's a secret."
"Come on. What was all that build-up for?"
"I suppose whether or not you get to hear what comes next depends on you."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Stella traced the confused Freddie's upper arm with her index finger, then licked her lips.
"Your skin is so pretty."
"Stop. You're creeping me out."
"Hehehe." Laughing bewitchingly, she leaned over him.
"I said stop. I'm not in the mood."
He tried to push her aside, but Stella's body was as heavy as lead.
"I wonder just where the witch got to. You don't have any idea, do you?"
Stella now sat astride him, her hair beginning to billow out around her. Like a snake, it wrapped itself around Freddie's neck, turning to steel and strangling him.
"Rapunzel. Poor Rapunzel."
Stella's voice grew louder and quieter, sounding both like a song and a curse, until finally his consciousness melted into the darkness.