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Chapter One

One Month Later

Nine Minutes Eleven Seconds


‘This will be the best thing that ever happened to you!’ 

Dr. Katz’s parting words echoed in Madison’s head as the elevator came to a stop and the doors glided open. “Third floor,” the car’s disembodied voice intoned, “Global Marketing Group - Executive Level.”

Madison’s heart skipped a beat as she stepped off the elevator into a small, deserted lobby. Directly in front of her, a colorful corporate logo dominated the wall: four red-white-and-blue 3D letters, ‘K’ - ‘N’ - ‘O’ - ‘W’, arranged in a playful, off-kilter fashion above the company mantra: ‘We Know Everything.’

She tamped down her butterflies and approached the entry doors. Through the beveled glass, she could see the open-plan grid of workstations, with executive offices lining the outer walls. The assistants in view were busily tapping away at their terminal keyboards.

Madison pulled a door open and stepped inside, clutching a file folder she’d been handed by the pleasant but detached older woman in HR who had been waiting for her in the Main Reception lobby.

“Building 14, 3rd Floor, Station D-9” she had told Madison. “Just make yourself at home, your temporary log-in and password are in the file. Ask any of the other assistants if you have questions; they’ll be more than happy to help.” The HR woman must have seen the look on Madison’s face, because she then added, “This is Know Inc., Ms. Maxwell. We believe in empowering our employees from day one. Learn by doing. Knowledge is power. Be ‘in the know’, so to speak” she had said, half-smiling. And that had been it for orientation.

Madison moved uncertainly down the rows of workstations, searching for D-9. Heads turned and eyes glanced up as her new co-workers gave her the once over, before returning to their work. Madison did her best not to make eye contact with any of them, but noticed they were all female, attractive, smartly dressed, and like her, mid-twenties. But what really stood out was they were all typing in a blur while speaking rapid-fire into headsets or scribbling notes while calmly chatting with a colleague. The norm here was clearly hyper-productive, Olympic-level multitasking. Madison swallowed hard. She’d been in other high-paced work environments before, but that was always when she was temping; this was a whole other –

Maddie, just find your desk!

D-9 finally came into view. Madison quickened her stride as if it were some sort of oasis. The small space was bare bones, just a roller chair, monitor and keyboard; no frills, no welcome sign or any such thing.  

What did you expect – balloons and a cupcake? What’s wrong with you?

She sank into her chair and spun around once. At least it didn’t squeak. As she took in her new workspace, her anxiety level started to rise. Something felt off – 

“You must be Madison,” said a female voice.

Madison looked up to see a young woman peering over the divider from the next workstation. She was a bit older than the others, late-twenties, but still attractive, with a knowing smile. “You look like I did on my first day. It gets better. Hi, I’m Nicole.” 

Madison did her best to look composed. “Oh, hi – Thanks. Nice to meet you.” 

Nicole gestured to Madison’s terminal, “There’s a set of tutorials to get you started. Happy to help if you get stuck.”

“I may take you up on that.”

Nicole smiled reassuringly. “Madison, Know doesn’t pick new hires out of a hat. You got this job for a reason, just like me. Besides, I heard you were a Psych major – E.A. Four will be a piece of cake. Just don’t start psychoanalyzing any of us and you’ll do fine.”

Madison laughed. “I won’t; I promise.” She regarded her new co-worker, “Hey, thanks for making me feel welcome.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” grinned Nicole. “You’ll be up and running like Sam before you know it.” She said it breezily, but as soon as she said it, she looked like she regretted it.

“Sam… Was she the one here before?”

Nicole nodded. Her grin faded a notch.

“Did she get promoted or…?”

Nicole’s grin was gone, her expression tight. “Hit-and-run – last month, jogging in Byxbee Park.” Nicole shook her head. “Really sad. She was only twenty-seven; everyone loved her.”  

A tingle ran down Madison’s spine, words stuck in her throat. 

Nicole straightened up, back into work mode. “T.J. will be – sorry, our boss, Mr. Khan – you’ll meet him tomorrow.” Her desk phone buzzed. “I’m right here if you need me.” She disappeared into her cubicle. 

Madison sat perfectly still in her chair, surveying her workspace. It was still bare bones, devoid of any human touch, nothing had changed. But, just like that, it had taken on a completely different energy and feel. 

The last person who sat here is dead. 

I’m taking her place.

The tingle at the base of her spine began creeping back up – 

This was a mistake.

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