It didn’t alarm us at first. I guess, we didn’t know what it was.
I just looked at Chocolate, who looked at Steven Black, and Steven Black didn’t look at anyone, just paused halfway through a bite of his croissant. It was silent for a moment. Then we just looked back at the TV.
Seconds later it came again.
Bap bap bap bap!
We heard a scream. Then another.
Then that noise again.
Bap bap! Bap bap bap!
And then came a different type of scream. Not just one. Many. We froze as the sound pierced the windows and shilled through our bones, and suddenly, we weren’t so asleep anymore. Our eyes were wide open. Because it was the type of scream where we didn’t even need to ask. We already knew.
Something horrific was happening.
I bounced off my seat and bounded into reception. The boys scrambled behind me. I found Sienna crouching at the window in the waiting area, her hands pressed up against the glass.
“The fuck is happening?” I gasped, rushing over and crouching next to her.
People were running in all directions. Screams. More and more screams. Then that noise again. Louder this time.
Bap bap bap bap!
Sienna didn’t say anything. Just stayed eerily still, her knees pulled close together, like she was huddling outside on a cold winter morning. Her cheeks were still dry, but in the cup of her eyelid, tears had started to well.
She looked at me, her face white like marble.
“He had a gun.”
Steven Black and Chocolate stood a few metres over from us, staring at the road below. None of us knew where to look. Everywhere there was someone running, someone pointing. That noise again.
Bap bap! Bap bap!
“I know that sound..” Steven Black said under his breath, his eyes unmoved from the scene below.
Finally I stood and took a few steps back. I could hear my heartbeat thumping against my rib cage, but to my surprise, my mind was crisp and unclouded.
“What do we do?” I said, looking at them. None of them moved.
“Hey!” I screamed. Finally Sienna turned and looked up at me. Chocolate stepped back from the window and turned to me as well. His eyes threw me for a second. I’d never seen him scared before. But neither of them said anything.
“Call the police, right?” I pulled out my phone. “That’s what we do. We call the police. Yeah?”
I didn’t wait for them to answer. 1-1-1. It was strange seeing those digits on the screen. I’d never dialled them in my life.
“Yes hi, I…I’m calling from the Grant & Woodson Tower opposite Vic Park, I just…”
“Yes sir, we’re aware and units are on the way, please get as far away as you can, do not stay there…”
“No you don’t understand, I’m calling from inside the building. I’m on the seventh floor.”
“You’re inside the Grant & Woodson tower?”
“Yes, me and some others.”
“Four of us.”
Then behind me, one of the meeting room doors opened. Darsh came walking out. He already seemed spooked, but when he saw our faces, the frightfulness in his eyes turned worse than Chocolate’s. He walked over to the window and took a look for himself.
“Make that five.”
“Okay, five of you. Are you sure there’s nobody else?”
I glanced back to the hallway toward the offices, where I could barely see the west side.
“No. I’m not. “
She paused for a tick, as if writing something down.
“Okay sir, I’m going to keep you on the line, what you need to do is get yourselves to a safe place on your floor. But do not move from where you are. Do not get in the lift or take the stairs down. It’s not safe. Do you understand that? That’s very important to stay where you are.”
“Yeah. I got it.”
“Okay, secure yourselves in a room please. I’m going to stay on the line with you while you do.”
I held the phone to my chest. They’d all been watching me, like anxious children.
“She says we need to move to a room and stay there. What do you think? Boardroom?”
“Lunchroom,” Chocolate said quickly.
“Fuck that! Let’s elevator down into the carpark, we’ll be safer there. At least we’ll be on the ground!”
“No way man, they’re shooting down there!”
“Nobody can get in though, right? You need a card? We could get out the back entrance or something. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in here!”
“She said we can’t!”
“The fucking police lady!”
I waved the phone at him, surprised at the way I’d snapped.
“Man…” He shook his head, staring back out the window again. “Motherf….okay, let’s go.”
We hurried into the lunchroom, all trailing behind Chocolate. Sienna was crying. Steven Black angry. Darsh blank faced, but certainly not smiling. I shut the door behind us and put the phone back to my ear.
“Okay. We’re here?”
“Okay, good. Good. You’re doing great. Now can you explain to me where this room is?”
In painful detail, I described to her the path to the lunchroom, the same path I’d walked so many mornings over the past three years. First, coming out of the elevator. Then right, into the hallway. Then the first left into another long hallway. Past the first meeting room, where we’d spent the first two weeks of our careers in training as graduates. Past the second meeting room, which nobody ever used because it still had the old chairs and tables that nobody liked. Past the IT office. All the way to the end, into the lunchroom where we spent every morning gossiping and every Friday night sinking our weekly sorrows in beer.
“Okay, I’m going to put you through to an officer who wants to talk with you, alright?”
The changeover was almost instant.
“This is Superintendent Delowe. How you doing, son?”
“Well, you can tell me what’s going on.”
He cleared his throat quickly and swallowed.
“There’s a shooting at the restaurant on the first floor of your building. We don’t know much yet, but the building is being surrounded as we speak. I can tell you the safest thing you and your companions can do right now is stay put. The security system in your building is top notch. We’ve already shut down the elevators and turned off the access card system. We’re turning off the power now too. So nobody can get to where you are via the lift or the stairs. Now, the first thing I need to ask of you all, stay away from any windows. We can’t have any media seeing you up there. Are there any windows in the room you’re in?”
I flicked my eyes up to the far wall, where huge windows looked out over the city.
“On how many sides?”
“What can you see from there?”
“We’re the tallest building here. The harbour, maybe the roof of the Vodafone building next door.”
“Okay, yes. I know the one. I’m going to need you to stay on the opposite end of that room, and keep below the window line, okay? Stay out of sight. That’s really important. Nobody can know you’re up there.”
“And this might not be easy. But for now, I need you to keep this quiet, from everyone. Even your family. Nobody can know you’re up there. Just until we get this under control. If it gets out to the media you’re up there, things are going to get…complicated.”
I looked up at the rest of them. I knew they wouldn’t like what he’d said, even more than myself.
“You’re saying we can’t tell our families we’re here? What are we supposed to tell them?”
He was silent for a moment.
“I’m sorry but, we just can’t risk…for now just say what you need to say, but nobody can know where you…”
“Look I get this is serious but, I’m sorry, we’re not dying up here without telling our…”
“Woah! Look, none of you are dying today, okay? That’s my job, I’m going to make sure of it. I’ve just seen the building plans. I wouldn’t ask you to stay up there if I didn’t think it was your safest option. But if anyone finds out you’re up there, things get a lot more complicated for us. So we need you to keep it quiet for now, okay? We’ve got every available officer on this, including our armed and special forces. The best guys in the country. We’ll get you out of there. But we need your help on this, alright?”
I flicked my eyes warily at Steven Black, Chocolate, listening with watchful eyes. Sienna was sitting hunched on the floor, staring at the ground between her knees. Darsh sat at one of the tables, staring into nothing.
“Yeah. I got it.”
“Okay, good. Now I need you to keep this phone free. I’ll be in touch often. If you need to make phone calls, try doing it from another phone. How’s your battery looking?”
“It’s about halfway, sir.”
“Okay, that’s fine. Keep it open. I’ll call you again soon. I’ll be right there on the ground in a few minutes. I’m going to give you back to Toni now, and she’s going to take a few more details down, like some extra phone numbers and your names and so on. Alright? We’re going to get you out of there. Believe me, I won’t stop until we do. That’s my word.”
I said thanks, but my voice croaked and barely a sound came out. The operator lady came back on and asked for more details about us. By now all the others had huddled against the back wall, talking quietly among themselves.
Then, as I was reciting first and last names to the police lady, the building shook. It was sudden, and we froze and gaped at each other, instantly braced with bent knees, like the earth was shaking. The rumble boomed through the building and vibrated violently through the bottoms of our feet, and continued for several long seconds, before finally dissipating into a terrifying silence.
“Was that a fucking bomb?” Steven Black seethed. He ran for the door and Chocolate followed.
They both stopped and turned to me.
“The police guy said stay in here. Stay out of sight.”
Steven Black looked at me again with those burning eyes, defiant. Then with a grimace, he breathed in deeply, once, and then out, and then slowly let go of the door handle. After a tense few seconds, he came back shaking his head, and muttered the four words we’d all been thinking ourselves.
“We’re going to die.”
Two hours passed. It felt like thirty. We sat still, silent, along the inside wall of the lunchroom. Chocolate stayed glued to his phone, and read out the news headlines as they changed every fifteen minutes.
Shooter attacks Persian restaurant in Auckland CBD.
Five confirmed dead in Victoria Park shooting.
Eleven dead, eighteen injured in Victoria Park shooting, more casualties expected.
Shooter confirmed trapped in Auckland office building.
Multiple shooters suspected to be taking siege in Grant & Woodson tower.
Prime Minister condemns terrorist attack on Persian restaurant in CBD.
Attack on popular Persian restaurant suspected to be racially motivated.
Police unable to enter Grant & Woodson tower amid heavy explosives and shooters.
“Yep, front page in India now too,” he sighed. “We’re going to be famous. Dead, and famous.”
“This is bullshit, man,” Steven Black said, staring at the ceiling. “I need to tell my parents. How can they expect us to hide up here and not tell our families? Let’s say this whole building blows up and we didn’t tell them? That sound right to you?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t say anything. I agreed with him.
“I think. They just need to make sure it doesn’t leak. You know, one person tells another person, the Herald is going to find out eventually. Then we’re on the news and…”
“And what? These crazy shooters come running up here to kill us? They’re going to do that anyway.”
“They don’t know we’re here,” Sienna said softly.
“Of course they know man, our cars are in the carpark. Where else would we be?”
I turned my head and glanced at him. His eyes fumed. Chocolate was the opposite, quiet with anxiety. Sienna stayed silent, but it seemed every time I looked over at her, fresh tears were welling in her eyes. Only Darsh was emotionless.
“You always come in on a Saturday?”
They all looked up at me. My eyes were on Darsh. He sighed deeply, then looked back at the ground.
“Nah…I was just, getting the boardroom ready for Monday. The partners have a big thing early on Monday morning.”
“Oh that’s right…” My mind rolled back to the staff newsletter that week. “That big marketing agency they talked about, yeah?”
“Not sure man. I just do the tech.”
I didn’t know a lot about Darsh at the time. That would change immensely over the weekend to come, obviously. But before that day I only knew two things about him; he was the IT guy, and he was Indian. And one of those was only half correct.
Darsh had an Indian father, but actually grew up in Sri Lanka. To be honest, I didn’t know the difference between the two. His lunch smelled and looked just like Indian food, and I suspected it was just as delicious. His skin was dark, and his features were sharp, and his accent was a mild mix of Indian and Kiwi undertones. He seemed reasonably well put-together, always in a well fitted suit, and the shirt always matched the tie. And people liked him well enough. That was probably the most telling thing about him; I’d never heard anyone in that office say a single bad thing about Darsh.
Part of that could’ve been because we never saw him. Or rather, we saw him often – in the server room, in the IT office, carrying computers and screens and projectors around the office – we just never got the chance to talk to him. Any time we crossed paths, we simply swapped a “Morning, bro” or “Hey, what’s up”, and coming to think of it, those were possibly the only five words we’d said to each other in three whole years.
My phone rang. I recognised the number.
“How you doing, son? Superintendent Delowe.”
“Yeah, we’re uh. Getting along.”
“Listen, we’re not sure how long you’re going to be up there. But as you can imagine, this is a complex thing we’re dealing with. I just want you to know, we’re working as hard and as fast as we can. And I can promise you, I’m not going home to sleep until you’re down here with me.”
His voice was different now. Calmer, but with more concern. I guess he’d just needed a moment to come to grips with it, like us. Either way, he seemed sincere.
“Thanks. We appreciate it.”
“Anyway, here’s the situation. We’ve shut the power off in the building. And like I told you before, the lifts and access card system are off too. We’re trying to give them as little resources and movement as possible. But we still need to be able to contact you guys. You got any power banks or laptops or anything you can use to keep your phones charged?”
I managed a smirk. “I think one of us can sort that out.”
“Hey, Darsh. We need to get some laptops together so we can keep our phones charged. Can you hook that up?”
Without saying anything, he stood up and walked calmly out of the room. The IT office was just next door.
“Just a reminder if anyone leaves that room, make sure they stay under the window line. You might have to crawl around, I’m afraid.”
I thought about calling out before he got too far, but stopped myself, remembering there were no windows in the hallway. Barely two minutes passed before he came in rolling an equipment cart, around fifteen laptops on it. Even Chocolate managed a snicker.
“I think we’re good for laptops, officer Delowe.”
“Okay, now the water is still on, for fire safety mostly. So you should be fine for water. But do you have any food up there?”
I looked over at the pantry, the staff fridge, the drinks fridge we’d emptied the night before, the door to Chef Margot’s kitchen. Then put the phone back to my mouth.
“I think we’ll be…okay.”
And for the next thirty minutes, we ransacked Chef Margot’s kitchen. It was the first time any of us had been in there. The freezer was mostly big cuts of meat and some ice, but she also had several bags of frozen scones and hamburger buns. The fridge was more fruitful, with a decent stash of bread and milk, fruits, raisins and berries and chocolate chips, plus a few boxes of half eaten cake.
The lunchroom pantry had the usual coffee, tea, sugars, and a whole shelf of Friday night bags of pretzels. The staff fridge was mostly boxes of questionable leftovers and pre-packed lunches and random condiments. And of course, the bottom half of the drinks fridge was still full.
We laid it all out on the lunchroom bench and I counted everything out, bouncing my finger and whispering one-two-three-four-five under my breath.
“Eleven bags of pretzels…sixteen bottles of red wine…nine bottles of white…twenty-six Cokes…sixteen Sprites…eleven Fantas…ten L&P’s.”
Next was the haul from Chef Margot.
“Three litres of milk…twelve bananas…four apples…some grapes…six cans of pineapples…four cans of condensed milk…one can of cherries…half a chocolate cake…half a carrot cake…three bags of raisins…a bag of chocolate chips…two bags of frozen berries…one block of butter….two bags of cheese…tin of flour…tin of sugar…two bottles of cream.”
Then the staff fridge and pantry.
“Two jars of peanut butter…some leftover spaghetti…Thomas M’s two slices of pizza…someone’s half eaten burrito…six different boxes of cereal…Marie S’s jar of Nutella…Susan C’s jar of apricot jam…Matt L’s frozen bag of bagels…Blonde Amy’s salad from Subway…someone’s butter chicken…four frozen loaves of bread…and one tub of half eaten mint chocolate chip…”
“Ice cream!” grinned Sienna. I hadn’t seen her smile in a few hours.
“We could probably survive the month,” she said, staring at it all.
“No way. Chocolate can eat all of this in a day.”
We all looked at him and chuckled, but he wasn’t in the mood for jokes. Just gave us the straight-lipped smile and nodded, silently.
“The power’s out, so we’ve got to keep the fridge closed. Let’s keep the milk and cream and cake in there and finish that first. Then I guess the bread and fruit next. And pretzels and peanut butter and that kind of stuff, eat that last.”
“And the ice cream tonight,” Sienna said, holding the tub to her chest.
“You guys are talking like we’re gonna be in here until Christmas,” Steven Black scoffed.
I turned my palms up, shrugging a shoulder.
“Best to be safe, I guess.”
“Well, let’s rip into these bananas now then!” he said, grabbing a bunch. He broke one off and threw it at me. Then was about to throw one at Chocolate, who shook his head. Sienna did too. And Darsh. Steven Black shrugged and took one for himself, and we all retreated back to the same wall we’d been sitting against all afternoon.
That evening, just before darkness fell, Superintendent Delowe called again. He asked to be put on speaker, and we all huddled around the phone and listened eagerly.
The first thing he told us; we’d probably be staying the night up there. There were devices they suspected were bombs wired at all three entrances, and he couldn’t get a bomb squad close enough. Shots were still being fired whenever they approached the building.
The second thing he told us; after looking at the building plans, we could leave the lunchroom, but only to the two meeting rooms and IT office down that hallway, and to the boardroom across the hall. Anywhere else would expose us to windows. Media cameras were everywhere, and we couldn’t risk them seeing us. If we had to go anywhere else in the building, to get a laptop to charge the phone, for example, he said to crawl “like in the army”, and for only one of us to go. But he made it clear, at least three or four times – only for “absolute emergencies”.
The third thing he told us; to be quiet. He wasn’t sure exactly where the suspects were in the building and, especially in the night, there’d be a chance they could hear us. “Talk in whispers, and walk on eggshells.”
The fourth thing he told us; he assured us, once again, access to the floor was air tight, and nobody would be coming in or out. The number of times he seemed to say that, it started to feel like he was only reassuring himself, and in reality wasn’t so sure about it at all.
The fifth thing he told us; we couldn’t go into the stairwell to use the toilet. He asked us, regretfully, to piss in the sink, and to gather some of the small rubbish bins from around the office for “number twos”. He suggested each of us get one for ourselves, and designate a “toilet room” to keep them in. We all cringed at the sound of it, but since there was a mini kitchenette in the boardroom, we decided instantly that would be the “shitting and pissing-in-the-sink” room. Nobody but the partners ever saw the inside of that room, anyway. We figured this would be a perfect way to christen it for the east side.
The sixth thing he told us; to not sleep alone. That we should all sleep in a room with at least one other person, and ideally altogether. It was important we all knew where each other was at any one time. We told him we doubted we’d be sleeping at all. He managed a laugh, and said he wouldn’t be either.
The seventh thing he told us; he was sorry. And that he’d worked his whole life to be prepared for a moment like this one, and he’d be stopping at nothing to get us back to our families.
“He actually seems alright,” Steven Black said after we hung up. We all sat tired, silent, in a circle on the lunchroom floor. The sun had long set, and now only moonlight lit the room through the large windows on the far wall. In the centre lay a pile of banana peels, a handful of dirty spoons inside the ice cream tub, two empty bread bags, an empty cake box, and a jar of peanut butter. Beside us we each had a Coke, except for Sienna, who sat crinkling an empty can of L&P between her fingers.
“You guys wanna see what’s happening outside?” she said.
We all looked at her, confused.
“But we can’t…”
“I know somewhere…” she interrupted. “He just said stay away from windows, right? So nobody sees us?”
She put her L&P down and stood up slowly. None of us moved or said anything, just watched her tip toe, like a ballet dancer, over Chocolate and Darsh’s legs and then to the door. She pulled the handle down and it creaked ever so softly, but we were so silent, it felt like we could hear the sound whirl past us and across the room. As she was about to step out, she turned and looked at us, all sitting on the floor like kindergarten kids, staring right back at her.
“C’mon!” she whispered.
We followed her, crawling, single file across the hallway, past the entrance of the boardroom, which opened out into the reception waiting area. It felt like we were twelve year olds again, sneaking out of our cabins during school camp, the eeriness causing me to shiver, like we were trespassing and might be caught any second. I’d never been in the office this dark, this quiet. I almost doubted these were the same floors I’d spent the last few years walking across every day.
The client waiting area was made up of four colourful couches, surrounding an oversized coffee table. I cringed at the moonlight pouring in through the windows at reception, just a few metres away. But a thin three-quarter wall separated the reception desk from the waiting area, which kept us all hidden. That wall was also lined with magazine racks and a water cooler and little baskets of shortbread cookies and breath mints we’d all forgotten about. As we crawled past I reached up and grabbed both, sure to add them to our food stash in the lunchroom. Then, at the front of the waiting area, stood a huge floor-to-ceiling window, looking out over the entirety of Victoria Park. It was the same window I’d found Sienna at that afternoon, in those moments after hearing the first gunshots.
Sienna stood up, and walked right over to it, her face only an inch from the glass. I was seconds from launching to my feet and tackling her to pull her back down. From the looks of it Chocolate was too. Yet the calmness with which she did it threw us off, and we stopped ourselves, before turning to one another with doubly confused glances.
“This is a double window,” she finally whispered. “It’s a mirror on the other side. Nobody can see in.”
We all gaped at each other, then stood up and shuffled up next to her. And with our first glimpse at the street below, our eyes glowed with disbelief. End to end, it was filled with police cars and vans, army vehicles, news cameras, important looking men in suits, flashing blue and red lights, officers in full assault gear – the kind of thing you’d see in Call of Duty – orange cones lining the intersections in every direction, two ambulances parked side by side, lights flashing. It was hard to believe this was even our street.
My eyes flicked between each different face; the guy talking on his phone with far too many hand movements, the two paramedics talking while sitting on the edge of an ambulance, the officer built like a rugby player strolling up and down the park with a rifle under his armpit. But my gaze stopped on the guy sitting on the footpath, just beside a police car, chewing his way through a Subway sandwich. Meatball, it looked like. I guessed he’d been there all day, the way his shoulders slumped slightly, and his tie hung loose, and his hair was cleanly combed at the back but falling slightly messy at the front. Then suddenly his head popped, and he turned to look somewhere in the distance, before jumping to his feet and jogging over. An older officer handed him a radio, and he listened intently. I wondered if that was Superintendent Delowe. In my mind I tried to match his voice to the face. I shrugged. Maybe.
Steven Black broke the silence. “It’s like a movie,” he whispered, hands rested on his hips. “Like Die Hard, man. You know that scene? That black dude with the donuts, camped outside the building, trying to figure out what Bruce Willis is doing?”
We all heard him, but nobody said anything. It was too much to take in, too hard to believe this was the same road we walked down every morning and evening. For so long this had been the road we’d all considered the most boring street in the city. Nobody came here for anything. Nothing newsworthy ever happened here. And now suddenly, everything did.
That night we all slept in the lunchroom. The back wall was lined with a padded bench, the kind you’d find in a McDonald’s booth. Steven Black fell asleep there first. Darsh fell asleep next, just a few inches down. Sienna slept on the floor in the corner, her purse and sweater stuffed under her head like a pillow.
I didn’t sleep. I sat upright, my back against the south wall, the same one we’d been sitting against all day. My throat tickled, and I looked over at the fridge and thought about getting another Coke. It gave me flashes of that morning, where we’d been in Chocolate’s car, down on the waterfront, knocking down beers we’d stolen from that very same fridge. Eighteen hours later, here we were again. Right back where we’d started.
It must have been about 3 a.m. when I finally gave up on sleeping. I crinkled the empty Coke can between my palms, a habit I’d had since I was young, but stopped myself, mindful it might wake someone, or that the crazy shooter person might even hear it through the floorboards. I looked over at Darsh snoring lightly with envy. My eyes were wide open, sucking in moonlight, now doubly wide with caffeine and sugar. I snuck out the door and went back to the window.
To my surprise Chocolate was sitting there, cross-legged, staring at the road below. I hadn’t noticed he was gone. I crawled up next to him, slid up close to the glass and hugged my knees to my chest. We both gazed silently at the scene below, as if looking down on an ant farm. Nothing much had changed. It was quieter, slightly, maybe because things has settled a bit. The shots had continued sporadically throughout that day, but we hadn’t heard one in several hours.
“You know…I’ve never heard a gunshot before,” I said quietly.
Chocolate nodded to himself, his eyes still fixed on the road below.
The officer eating the Subway sandwich was still there. Although the sandwich was finished, and had been replaced by a takeaway coffee cup. I guessed it was from the gas station down the road, where we sometimes bought pies on Friday nights.
“Didn’t really sound the same as in the movies, right?” I asked.
He shook his head, in slow motion, five, six times, as if reliving the noises in his mind.
Then he shook his head again, faster this time.
“Nah…man. Shucks. Way different.”
I let out a breath, a long one, looked around at the ceiling, as if there were answers or comfort waiting for me up there.
“All those times we talked about…how we didn’t want to spend any more of our lives in this place.” I managed half a smile, thinking over the many mornings I’d ridden up that elevator, promising myself that soon it would be my last. “Now…we’re probably gonna die in here.”
We both laughed, doing our best to keep it hushed. They weren’t happy laughs, obviously. But we needed some laughing, or some crying. And neither of us felt like crying, yet.
“You know what man. I wish you weren’t here, but…I’m happy you’re here, you know? Like if we’re gonna survive this, you’re the one I’d choose to survive it with. I can think of a lot worse people to die with in here.”
I held out my fist. He bumped it.
“Fuck, imagine if you were stuck in here with Drewlove.”
“Georgina!” we both laughed again. A real laugh, this time.
“I mean I know we all die, and if I die next to you, then alright. But I just wish it’d happened when we’re 80, on a beach somewhere. Instead of in this fucking place.”
“Well,” I offered. “It wasn’t the worst life, really. Was it? I mean, free beer on Friday, and Chef Margot’s raspberry cheesecake, and…”
We stayed silent and thought for a moment.
“Can’t think of anything else, actually.”
“Me neither,” he laughed.
“Yeah. Steve’s in a mood, but he knocked out. Darsh, fast asleep. Sienna…”
“Yeah, how’s she doing? You guys are pretty close, right?”
“She seems okay now. Might be doing the best out of all of us, actually.”
“She found us this window, didn’t she? She’s an artist. Probably sees beauty or poetry in everything, you know. Including this.”
“She’ll probably write a book about it.”
“Oh man, this would make one hell of a play.”
He turned and frowned at me.
And just before he said it I smiled to myself, remembering, and shook my head.
I woke up the following morning on one of the couches in reception. It was a smell that woke me up. That seemed odd, because if there was one place in that entire office they kept sparkling clean, it was the waiting area in reception. I sniffed the couch, which smelled somewhat like an airplane pillow. Not my favourite smell, but hardly offensive. I sniffed the magazines on the coffee table. They smelled like paper. I knelt down and smelled the rug under the coffee table. Musky, like a grandmother’s knitting. But not offensive either. Then I sniffed the air, and that led my nose to my shoulder, and then my armpit. And then I realised. Of course. The smell was coming from me.
I knelt down and crawled into the hallway towards the lunchroom. I could hear the whispers in there, even from around the corner, though when I finally stepped inside, I barely recognised it. It looked like we’d been living in there for a month.
Sienna had found garbage bags in Chef Margot’s kitchen, and I saw one stashed in the corner, already ballooning with banana peels and Coke cans and takeaway boxes and empty bread bags. Staying below the window line meant we always sat on the floor, in a circle, and they all sat in the same spot as the day before, now glugging cups of milk and chomping on peanut butter sandwiches. Sienna was crouched in the middle, making one of her own.
“Breakfast?” She smiled as I sat down, handing it to me. I was still only half awake.
Chocolate had half a banana in his hand, and was reading out news articles again.
With 29 now confirmed dead, and several still trapped inside and unaccounted for, the Pride of Persia massacre is set to become the deadliest public shooting in New Zealand’s history.
I heard the words, but I wasn’t trying to hear any more doom and gloom headlines. I could tell he’d been reading articles aloud all morning, because everybody else had tuned out as well. Then Sienna finally stood up and rested her hands on her hips.
“Can I say something?”
We all stopped eating and looked up at her.
“I’m sorry, but I’m just going to say it.”
She looked at me first. Hesitated, then looked at Chocolate. And finally Steven Black.
“You guys smell.”
I let out a wry smile and nodded at her.
“We’ve been in these clothes since Friday morning,” I said grimly. “And they had a hell of a Friday night.”
Steven Black’s eyes turned upwards, as he replayed the memory, smiling.
“Well unfortunately, we don’t keep a wardrobe at our little cubicles,” Chocolate mumbled, still scrolling through his phone.
My eyes lit up.
“But someone does!”
Chocolate peered up and squinted at me, as if the answer was written on my forehead in fine print.
He stuffed the rest of the banana into his mouth and threw the peel at the garbage bag in the corner, missing it by half a mile. Then picked himself off the floor and walked with me to the door.
“Okay but look,” I said, resting my hand on the door handle. “We’re not supposed to be going down there.”
“Delowe said we could go to get supplies. For emergencies.”
“Yeah, is this an emergency?”
“Yes,” Sienna said from across the room. “It is. Go.”
Chocolate and I eyeballed each other, trying not to smile.
“Okay, but we gotta be stealth!”
“Shucks mate, I was born stealth.”
“You’re a fucking hippo.”
“And you’re what, a sloth?”
“Just follow me and don’t get us killed.”
We tip toed down the hallway, then fell to all fours and crawled past the elevators. But each time our knees hit the ground, I could almost hear the floor echo, and winced with nervousness.
“Shhh!” I whispered back at Chocolate.
“It’s you!” he seethed back at me.
At the pace we moved, it felt like we’d be crawling until sundown. We got to the west side entrance and sat up against the wall to rest. With the air conditioning off, the office had started to warm, and beads of sweat rolled down both our foreheads. After catching our breath, we crawled past the filing room, and into the west side. Now that we had to avoid them, the windows on the west side seemed twice as large and bright as I’d remembered. I dropped to my stomach and army crawled, moving only inches at a time. I glanced back at Chocolate. He was doing the same.
It took us forever to get to Drewlove’s office. Luckily the door was already open. The office doors were huge, and moving them could have easily been caught by a camera from the ground. Though we figured we were just being paranoid, and the chance of someone zooming in on that particular office window was close to zero. Still, I told Chocolate to stay outside. I was much smaller than him, and was able to crawl in and get to Drewlove’s closet without much trouble.
We’d seen his small collection of shirts and ties in there several times, and never thought much of it. Just found it bizarre, how he kept them there, since we’d never seen him change shirts at the office, ever. At least now, his little collection would finally have a purpose.
When I finally weaseled my way out, with great difficulty, a handful of shirts thrown over my shoulder, we sat behind his secretary’s desk and flicked through them. Chocolate gave an approving nod.
“You reckon all these other partners got clothes too?”
He pursed his lips, holding up one of Drewlove’s shirts.
“Let’s find out.”
By the time we army crawled back into the lunchroom an hour later, we had enough fancy shirts to start our own High Street store. Not to mention a few pairs of pants, a couple of blazers, and three bottles of cologne from Peter Mack’s desk.
“We were about to come looking for you!” Sienna glared at us.
“Good things take time,” Chocolate grinned.
We laid the clothes out over one of the tables.
“Check this out!” Steven Black gasped, flicking through them. “Burberry. Saint Laurent. Whose are these?”
“High roller. Life must be good on the west side.”
Sam Drewlove’s shirts were more my size, though his were hardly as glamorous. Barker’s, mostly. Not that I was complaining. Any clean shirt was a treat.
Once we’d picked our spoils, the three of us headed to Chef Margot’s kitchen. We laughed hopelessly as we gave ourselves a wash with some dishwashing soap and paper towels, and changed into our fresh wardrobe.
As we came out Sienna tried to cover her mouth, but couldn’t stop herself from laughing out loud at the sight of us.
“All partners now, huh?” she giggled, like a big sister watching her brothers play dress up. Eugene’s shirts actually fit Steven Black perfectly. With a little haircut, you might have guessed he was getting ready for a modelling shoot.
“Can’t forget the scent,” Steven Black grinned, heading back to the table and walking his fingers over the cologne bottles.
“Peter Mack eh, living the high life. What you reckon boys, DKNY? Dior?”
We each picked up a bottle and sprayed profusely. I’d never worn cologne in my life, but suddenly felt inclined – indulging in a first-time experience, with death lingering on the doorstep.
“Okay enough, enough! You boys are…ugh.” She waved her hands across her face, reeling from the smell. We all grinned at each other.
“How do we smell now?”
“Fantastic,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just…fantastic.”
It seemed our little clothing mission had lifted our spirits some, perhaps even got the adrenaline pumping, and by mid afternoon, the shock of our situation was starting to wear off. At least some of it. Steven Black was no longer moping, Chocolate’s eyes had come back to life, and Sienna’s heartwarming rabbit-toothed smile was shining bright once again. Darsh and Chocolate had even opened up one of the laptops and were playing video games. We’d heard about three sets of gunshots during the day, and by the third set, nobody even stopped to look at each other anymore. Perhaps the alcohol stash had something to do with it, too.
I was laying on the seats against the back wall with Steven Black and Sienna, picking at pretzels and wine. They were both on their third glass, at least.
“Anyone from work texted you?” I asked.
Steven Black nodded.
“Anyone ask where you are?”
“Dad…” Steven Black mumbled.
“Boyfriend,” Sienna followed.
“What you tell em?”
“Studying with a friend.”
“Studying at home.”
My girlfriend had been texting non-stop as well. “That’s your building! Oh my god!” I’d tried to stay nonchalant, and even said I was semi-happy about it. Work would be closed, and I could study from home for a while. “Big workshop next week,” I’d said. It wasn’t that easy to build a lie around it, but it hadn’t bothered me to be honest; I knew I could explain everything later. It was my Mum I was worried about. I’d told her the same thing, and I hated lying to her. Especially like this.
“Yo Chocolate. Your family ask where you are?”
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes fixated on the screen. “Oh man! How you always kill me like that?” He punched Darsh on the arm, and they both snickered at each other.
“What you tell ’em?”
He finally turned away from the screen and looked at me.
“I said I was with you.”
I laughed sadly.
“If only. I’d kill for one of those chicken and veges right now. Hamilton trip if we ever get outta here, eh.”
“Shucks mate, Hawaii trip more like it!” he bellowed, jamming the laptop keys.
“Guys, shhhh!” Sienna leered at us. “We’re supposed to be whispering, remember? Murderer downstairs? Got a gun? Might come up here and kill us all? Yeah?”
We both smiled sheepishly. She was right. Somehow, we’d almost forgotten why we were here.
A few seconds later, Chocolate’s phone started vibrating. Still engrossed in his game with Darsh, he turned his eyes down for a split second and stared at the screen.
I walked over to look.
“Nah, man. Then I just need to lie to him too. I can’t keep up with all these lies.”
“Just tell him what you told everyone else, we’re road tripping.”
Chocolate shook his head.
“He’ll ask why we didn’t invite him,” he laughed.
Then the call cut, and not two seconds later, Steven Black’s phone started vibrating. He snatched it off the table, frowned, and held it up to us.
“Maybe it’s something important?”
“Mate, when has Jeff ever called you about anything important?”
“Well maybe that’s why he’s calling us all?”
I watched his name flash on the screen from a distance, three times, four times, five times. Then just before it stopped, Steven Black shook his head as well.
“Choc’s right. I love ol’ Jeffery, but I ain’t got energy to be spouting lies to him as well.”
Then, as I’d feared, my phone rang next.
“Shiiiiiit,” I whispered, pulling my phone from my pocket. But it wasn’t Jeffery. It was Superintendent Delowe. I put him on speaker and we huddled around.
“How you all doin’? Doin’ alright?”
We all grunted.
“Yeah well, can’t blame ya. Look, good news and bad news, I’m afraid. Good news first, yeah?”
He didn’t wait for us to answer.
“Good news is, we think we know who’s in there. We’ve traced his car throughout the city’s CCTV, and we think we know. We’re quite sure we know. I want you to know we’re making progress, and we’re on it. Bad news…we still can’t get in there. He’s rigged the place up pretty good. Until we can get a bomb squad up to the points of entry for long enough, we can’t be sending men in. He’s still in there shooting out at us. We can’t risk any more lives than we need to. At this stage, it’s looking like we might end up having to starve him out. So….”
He took a long breath, then sighed.
“So it looks like you might be up there another night.”
Nobody said anything. Nobody looked at each other. We just picked at a fingernail, rubbed a chin, scratched the back of our neck. There was nothing else we could do.
“How you guys for food. You okay?”
Everybody hummed, muttering under their breath. Darsh had already gone back to his video game.
“Yeah,” I said finally. “We’ll be okay.”
“I’m sorry, guys. I really am. We’re going to get you out of there. Hang in there for me, alright?”
As soon as he hung up, Steven Black grabbed the bottle and swigged it hard.
“This is such bullshit, man. Just drive a tank through the front and cook him! What’s so hard about that? It’s one fucking guy!”
“It’s all politics, man,” I shook my head. “You know if they do some Rambo stuff and an officer dies, then someone loses their job, they look like shit in the newspaper. That kind of thing. People’s careers are probably riding on this thing. They gotta look perfect an’ whatever.”
“Man screw their careers. How about not getting us killed, how about that?”
“If he calls tomorrow and says we have another day in here,” Steven Black said, grimacing, “I say we run down those stairs and cook this loser ourselves.”
“Cook him, eh? How do we do that, Black?”
“Just walk right up to him, strangle his face off.”
“Strangle his bullets, too?”
“Yes, man! Or I promise you, I’m gonna do something. Better than sitting up here waiting to get blown up. Isn’t it?”
He grabbed the bottle of wine and sucked down a few gulps. He was normally a cheery person, Steven Black, but he’d been on edge ever since we’d heard those first shots that morning, when we’d bounced off these very same seats and into reception, half eaten croissants hanging out of our mouths. And as we watched him now, drinking angrily from the bottle, we weren’t sure if it was the sudden outburst, or the tight-fitting purple shirt, or the ridiculous amount of high end cologne emanating from his body, but we all suddenly burst into laughter at the sight of him. He peered down at us all in fits, and then after a devil’s stare that lasted less than a second, coughed up half a mouthful of wine and started rolling with laughter himself.
As soon as the sun started to fall, we ended up back in our usual circle on the floor, laying out dinner once again in the centre. As the electricity was shut off, the building fell into darkness as soon as sundown arrived. We got a few hours of fading sunlight during dusk, but after that our only light was the moonlight that filtered in from the windows on the far wall, and the torches on our phones.
“I think we need to ration this food better,” Sienna said, tying up another bag of garbage. “It’s only the second day, and we’ve finished all the bread and peanut butter.”
Second day. But this sundown dinner had felt so routine, it was hard to believe it had only been that long. Somehow, it was beginning to feel like we’d been living there for weeks.
“Look at all this cereal though,” Steven Black grinned, shoveling another spoonful of muesli into his mouth.
“And how long will that last?” Sienna quipped back, raising her eyebrows. “One more day?”
“Nah, man. If Chocolate stops eating that Nutri-Grain all the time, should last us the whole week!”
“That’s because he eats them straight out of the box, like chips,” I laughed to myself, one slow chuckle after another. I could barely sit upright against the wall, holding my belly from too many sandwiches. “He does that at his desk, too.”
“They taste better that way,” he grinned.
“Okay, I’m going to divide all the rest of this food up into seven days,” Sienna declared, like she was suddenly the matron of the house. “It’s bad enough we’re at risk of getting killed by a madman. I don’t want to worry about dying of starvation too.”
“And what if we’re in here longer than seven days, genius?” Steven Black snarled, before tipping the the rest of his muesli into his mouth.
She smiled mockingly.
“Then we die.”
“Geez, what happened to fun Sienna?” He put his bowl down and came to slouch against the wall beside me. “Going a little coo coo in here, huh?”
“Not a little coo coo. Totally coo coo!”
“And what if it goes the other way? What if we don’t make it seven days?” I was still massaging my stomach, like it might burst any second. My eyes were closed now, and I talked in a half asleep drawl. “Let’s say this guy blows this whole building up tomorrow. We’ll have deprived ourselves of our last few bowls of Nutri-Grain…all for nothing.”
“Oooooh see…it’s a tough call Sienna,” Chocolate laughed. “You willing to bear that guilt for the rest of your life? Any time I see you in heaven, I won’t let you forget it.”
“Who says you’re going to heaven?” Steven Black laughed.
“Shucks mate, I’m probably the only one in here going to heaven!”
My eyes popped open suddenly, and Sienna and I jeered at him.
“What about me?”
Chocolate scoffed. “Do you guys even go to church?”
We all nodded vigorously.
“I went like four years ago, on Christmas.”
“I went when my grandma died.”
“My brother got married in a church, and I was in the front row.”
“Y’all sinners ain’t going anywhere near heaven!”
Darsh interrupted from behind his laptop screen.
“What about me? I go to the temple. Every week.”
“There you go.” Chocolate pointed proudly. “Me and Darsh then! Me and Darsh will be eating Nutri-Grain in heaven. The rest of y’all, better eat now while you can.”
“Sounds good to me,” Steven Black smiled, crawling toward the cereal boxes.
“No!” Sienna cried, then covered her mouth quickly, realising how loud she’d been.
“No. Seriously. We’re on rations now.”
Steven Black sighed, but relented. He knew it was a good idea. We all did.
“But we have plenty of Coke, and wine,” she said, pointing to the drinks. “If you’re hungry, drink.”
“Even better!” he laughed, crawling over to the alcohol stash. He pulled two bottles of wine and opened them both, swigged one, and then passed them around.
“For all we know, we’ll be dead by morning. Let’s enjoy it.”
The wine made that night move quickly. It must have now been close to midnight. I slouched on the large couch in reception, the same one I’d slept on the night before, and stared out the double window several metres away. Though my eyes were barely half open, I basked in the night sky opening out in front of me. I knew the other side of that window was still far, far away, but it soothed, at least in glimpses.
As my eyes began to close for good, my phone rang for the third time in an hour. I already knew it was my girlfriend; Superintendent Delowe never called that late. I muted it and threw it on the chair beside me, then drank another glug from the bottle.
Seconds later, Sienna came in and found me staring into the blackness.
“Timing out?” she asked.
“Aren’t we all in timeout?”
She sat down beside me and grabbed the wine from my hand, swigged it, and handed it back to me.
“Can’t sleep?” I asked.
She shook her head.
It was silent for a moment. Long, but not long enough to be awkward. I took another sip.
“How much do you think this wine costs?” I asked, holding the bottle up in front of me. My hand cupped the base, and I squeezed it, wondering how much harder I’d need to squeeze until it broke.
“No idea,” she said, glancing at the name. “What’s it called?”
She pulled out her phone.
“No don’t Google it. Just guess, what do you reckon?”
“I don’t know. I never drink wine, really.”
I swigged it again and twirled the bottle in my hands.
“I’m gonna say…fifteen dollars.”
“What, is that too high or too low?
“I was going to say like eight dollars.”
“You can buy wine for eight dollars?”
“You can buy wine for four dollars.”
I looked at the label again, studying the “M” on the Mud House, trying to decode it, as if I’d never seen a wine label before. I’d seen many, of course, but this might have been the first time I’d ever looked at one.
“I’ve never bought a bottle of wine in my life. It tastes like cough syrup man. I just drink it ’cause I dunno, the boys pull out the bottle and it’s like, you want a glass? And so I say, yeah, sure. But I mean, do people actually like this? Surely people don’t think this tastes better than, say, Fanta.”
I swigged again and handed it to her.
She took a short sip and nodded.
“Yeah, pineapple Fanta, oh! So much better than this.” She sipped it again.
“Why don’t they get pineapple Fanta for us on Fridays? And passionfruit! That’s the best one.”
“Just orange, eh?”
“Just orange. That’s the worst one.”
“I wonder why they do that. They all cost the same right?”
“I think so.”
“Add that to the list, of shit we need to ask for when this is over. Pineapple Fanta on Fridays.”
My phone vibrated again. We both flicked our eyes across and stared at it. I watched it rrrrr twice, three, four times. Then I looked back at the bottle. I had to admit, it was a pretty nice looking M.
“Do you miss your boyfriend?” I asked.
She sucked her lips in and looked at the ceiling for a moment, then sighed.
“Yeah. I guess I do.”
She took a longer drink this time, then handed me the bottle.
“Do you miss your girlfriend?”
My eyes gazed far out the window, over to the twinkling lights across the harbour.
She laughed, and I laughed with her.
“Well,” I said, rethinking. “Define ‘miss’.”
“Well,” she exhaled, lifting her hair off her back, then falling back against the seat. “I guess…if you miss someone…it means you would rather be somewhere with them, rather than where you are right now.”
I sipped the wine again, and feeling the lightness of the bottle, tipped it all the way up until it was finished.
“How did you end up here, anyway? You don’t belong here.”
“It’s a job. What about you? If you hate it so much, how did you end up here.”
“I don’t hate it.”
“I don’t hate it. It’s just…it’s so meaningless, you know? You come here every day in this stupid looking shirt, and you do taxes for all these rich people who don’t give a crap about it, then at the end you give them this little folder with ten pieces of paper and they pay us $20,000.”
“And then you get $1,000 of it,” she laughed.
“Yeah, and you get $800.”
“Please,” she scoffed. “I don’t even get close to $800 of it.”
“Yeah, and I don’t even get close to $1,000.”
“Well at least we get a fifteen dollar bottle of wine on Friday.”
“Eight dollar bottle of wine.”
“Four dollar bottle of wine!” We both laughed.
She took the empty bottle from me and threw it up and down lightly, spinning it between her hands.
“So…if you could leave this place, and go anywhere else…” she trailed off. “Anywhere at all. If you could swap lives with anyone. Where would you go?”
I looked at her, blank for a moment.
It had been a while, since anyone had asked me a question I actually cared enough to think about.
“You know….you inspired me, actually.”
“You know on Friday. When I saw your book. A Streetcar Named Desire. I just kept thinking about it that night, and the next day…”
I stared out the window as I talked, like I was talking to the sky, and she was just watching our conversation, like an audience member at a talk show.
“And it reminded of when I was a kid, there was this show I used to watch, it was called Boy Meets World. You heard of it?”
“Maybe it’s a few years before you. But it was just this stupid show about this nerdy kid in high school. And I used to watch it every day. It used to come on right before Full House.
“I love that show!”
“Yeah, and it’s not like I looked forward to it all day or anything, but I was just always in front of the TV when it came on, and I loved it for some reason, I couldn’t not watch it. And then one day I saw an interview with some of the cast, the main guy, his name was Cory in the show, I don’t know what his real name was. And I was probably like…I don’t know, maybe 12 or 13 back then, and I saw this guy doing an interview, and he wasn’t Cory anymore! And that’s when I realised hey, this guy’s actually a real person. I mean I always knew the show wasn’t real, but somehow it still felt real. And then they showed some bloopers, like behind the scenes of them filming and stuff. And it looked like so much fun, I was amazed. Like, these guys’ job is to create a new world and pretend to be a totally different person, and look how fun it looks! And for the longest time that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to be an actor.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Because I didn’t know I could. I always thought you go to school, and you choose the subjects you want to do at school and that becomes your job. I mean they give you a list of subjects at school, right? And on that list it’s got history, and it’s got English, and it’s got maths, it even has sport. But it doesn’t have acting. I thought all those actors, they didn’t go to high school, they went to some other special school or something.”
“That’s so stupid.”
“Yeah and, okay don’t laugh, but…”
I didn’t want to look at her in case she did laugh. So I looked at my fingernails. A piece of skin was peeling around the edge. I picked at it softly.
“I never realised it wasn’t like that until I talked to you on Friday.”
“Like, if you want to do something, you just go and do it. I just assumed I never learned acting so I’m not allowed to do it, like all these kids on TV, they must have learned acting growing up, right? At some special acting school. And I never did, I went to normal school. So I’m not allowed, but they are.”
She laughed a proper laugh this time.
“Allowed. Like you get a permission slip or something.”
“So after all this is over. You gonna be an actor?”
“I don’t know how.”
“Geez. You haven’t learned anything.”
“No! I have. I don’t think I want to be an actor anymore, to be honest. But I want to do something.”
“So answer my question then.”
“If you could swap lives with anyone…”
I looked at the ceiling, blubbing my lips over and over.
“Well…I saw this video the other day. This Australian guy. He grows rice. Used to grow rice in Aussie, but he lives in Cambodia now, grows rice on some farm out there. Then after the harvest, he loads it up onto trucks, takes it around to all the families who don’t have food. There was some war there or something, now heaps of families don’t have food. So that’s what he does, he just grows rice, sells a little bit, then gives away all the rest to feed people.”
“So you wanna be a rice farmer?”
“Nah! Man. I dunno. I just want to do something that matters to someone. I mean, I gotta get out of this city first of all, and then do something, you know. Something cool. When’s the last time you did something cool?”
I grabbed the bottle back off her and pressed it between my palms.
“Well actually I guess for you, it’s different,” I carried on. “Because you’re already doing something cool. This office here, you’re just passing through, you know? You haven’t dedicated half your life to it, like we have. So when you’re done, you’re going to write and entertain people and all that. And one day you’re going to have your own book. A Schoolbus Named Admire. By Sienna Sutton Walsh. New York Times number one bestseller. Now on Broadway. All shows sold out. Time 100 Most Influential Person 2025. The pride of New Zealand.”
She smiled slowly.
“I’m jealous, you know. You’ve got something you love, and you’re doing it. You could make something that matters to people.”
“What makes you think that? Nobody in this city goes to watch plays. How many people in this city do you know who have gone to see a play?”
“You know…” I sat up and chuckled. “I’ll admit, I don’t even really know what a play is. I mean, of course I know what it is, but…is it just the same as those things we did in primary school?”
“See,” she laughed. “I don’t think people care about what I do any more than they care about what you do.”
“To be honest, Sienna,” I said, resting the bottle on the couch between us. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone in this city who cared about anything other than themselves.”
We both lay there with our feet up on the coffee table, staring out the window. And then I grabbed the bottle one more time, and tipped it to my mouth again, half expecting a sip, even though I knew it was empty.
End of Part 3. Click here to go to Part 4.