The stooped man moved with me, but toward the elevator, which was next to the door to the steps. “I saw you talking to an old friend of mine,” he said as he pressed the Down button.
“Really? Who's that?” I pushed open the stairwell door.
“Bill Manion.” The elevator dinged.
Curiosity warred with claustrophobia. Curiosity won. “Hold the door.” I scooted into the empty car behind the stooped man. “You know Bill?”
“Yep. We used to work together. Then I got laid off and lost track of him.” The man touched the 'L' button.
“Is that good for you?”
“What? Oh, no. Three, please. I use the catwalk.” Then I remembered. I wasn't in my usual spot. The third floor was roped off. “Nope, sorry. The lobby will be fine today.”
“You must not be from here.” He smiled at my puzzled look. “Minnesotans say 'skyway', not 'catwalk'.”
“You're right. I've been here for about ten years.” The elevator descended and my stomach did an equally unpleasant plummet. “How long did you and Bill work together?” Keep talking, I thought. Keep your mind off the elevator and movement and the small space and the walls and...
“Almost twenty years. Then I got laid off and times got rough.” The man's face hardened briefly, bitterness replacing the dull resignation in his tired eyes. “And I got sick.”
Poor man. Losing a job was bad enough, but losing your health on top of it? I dug a business card out of my bag, my trembling fingers making the task difficult. “I work for the county and we have regular get-togethers for folks who are unemployed. Stop by sometime.”
He took the card and stared at it. I recognized his skeptical look. I'd seen it often enough on the faces of job-hunters at the county employment office where I volunteered. “We call it the Coping Club,” I said. “We talk about coping strategies for job hunting and dealing with unemployment. We meet on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
The elevator doors opened and two people got on. I shuffled to one side to make room, restraining myself from bolting for the open door.
The man moved closer to me, speaking in a low voice. “I haven't seen Bill for a while. Have you known him long?”
“No, I just met him. We met by accident.”
“Oh. Well...” He didn't look at me, his bloodshot gray eyes bouncing around the elevator car. The other two passengers were deep in conversation, ignoring us. “I suppose...”
“Yes?” Keep talking, keep talking, keep talking. The floor indicators were creeping past two and heading for one. After one there was the lobby. It was so close. Keep talking.
“I suppose since you're not from around here, you don't know about him.”
“Know about him?” The door dinged and people got on. I wanted to curse them. What idiot couldn't walk down one flight of stairs? The stooped man and I were moved to the back of the car, exactly the wrong spot for me. I broke out in a light sweat and clung to the strap of my purse. “What about Bill?” I asked.
The man shook his head. “It was sad. Not a nice story.”
My stomach dropped even further and I was close to clawing my way out of the space when the indicator dinged and the door finally opened. I almost fell out of the elevator, pushing past people in my haste. “What story?” I asked breathlessly in the small foyer.
The man started walking down the hall. “Rumor has it he raped someone.”