Something was wrong. Nothing looked out of place, but Sophie felt a sense of disconnection, as if she was looking directly at a scene so horrifying her brain couldn't quite make sense of it.
"Something the matter?" A plate was gently placed on the table in front of her, and she looked blankly up at Max.
He frowned, eyebrows drawing together, as he put his own plate down opposite her, "Soph, you ok?"
"Yeah, sorry." She shook her head, "I was a million miles away."
Max's frown melted into fond smile as he looked down at her. "Hey now," he chided gently, "put work out of your head, it's Friday."
Sophie managed a weak smile as he headed back to the kitchen to grab them both a drink, and she took the opportunity to look around his apartment.
She didn't know Max that well, they'd been flirty co-workers for a few weeks but they hadn't really progressed beyond a few inside work jokes. When he'd asked her out on a first date, she'd been looking forward to getting to know him better, especially when he professed to being an amazing cook. So here she was 2 days later, sat in his apartment whilst he served her dinner, scared stiff by something she couldn't see or explain.
She heard the clink of glasses; there was no art in the apartment, the walls surrounding her all a clinical white as if recently painted.
"Merlot ok with you?" Max called out from the kitchen.
"Yeah that's fine." The furniture was pretty basic as well, all from the cheaper ranges at Ikea.
There was a squeak as the cork slid out of the bottle; there was no TV, no X-Box or PlayStation, no bookcase or plants or magazines, no indication of how Max spent his time outside of work.
The wine glugged into the glasses, and she looked down at the meal in front of her. Steak, rarer than she liked, with juices oozing onto an elaborate china plate. Everything on the table looked expensive; small golden salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of little foxes sat next to candle stick holders covered in etchings of woodland creatures; her knife and fork were a gleaming silver and covered in an intricate detailing of tiny birds. With a sense of terrible calmness she lifted her index finger to prod at the steak in front of her, sliding it across her plate, uncovering the design in the centre as she did.
A deer; arrows sticking out of it's side as it started to fall listlessly. The top of the hunter's head in the background of the scene, peaking above the bushes.
Recognition flooded her. Suddenly she knew exactly what the sense of dread encompassing her was.
She felt like prey.
A glass of merlot appeared to her right as Max emerged from the kitchen to finally take his place.
His eyes twinkled as he smiled at her, "So-"
"Where's all your furniture?" Sophie didn't care if she seemed rude. She wanted Max to give a perfectly valid explanation so she could write off this feeling as the toll of a stressful week.
"Er, I only moved to town recently, I haven't had a chance to buy anything new."
Sophie frowned, "Don't you have anything from your last place?"
"I move around a lot, I don't have much stuff."
"Why do you move so often?"
Max chuckled as he answered, "Christ Sophie, this is one hell of a first date grilling. I don't know, I struggle to settle down, I like moving to new places and meeting new people, especially new people that look like you." He smiled softly at her, his mouth pulling, his cheeks rounding, and his eyes...his eyes utterly blank.
Sophie felt a chill over her whole body, she was done. She didn't care if he told everyone at work she was a lunatic who ran out on him during their date, she wanted to be back in her safe apartment, snuggled in her bed, listening to her roommates clattering around.
She stood up swiftly, the table lurched with her and her glass toppled over. A crimson puddle spreading onto the table and dripping to the floor as she frantically looked for her coat and bag.
"Woah, woah Sophie, what the hell!" Max surged up, hands palm up he planted himself between her and the front door. "What's wrong with you!"
Fuck her coat and her bag, she was getting out of here now. She rushed at the door, using her full weight to side-knock Max out of the way, he swayed from the force before sitting back in his seat with a bump as she reached the door, scrabbling at the locks to open it up.
Final bolt undone, she yanked at the handle and...and nothing, the door wouldn't open. Cheeks flushed and tears leaking from stinging eyes, she rattled the handle and pulled hard but the door remained firmly shut.
"You need the keeey" Max sing-songed over to her. She spun around; he was still sat at the table, half a strip of bloody beef hanging from his fingers, as he slowly chewed the rest.
"Then unlock the door."
"Max, if you don't unlock the door, I'll start screaming."
Max looked unconcerned as he shrugged, "So start screaming."
She did, she screamed until her throat was raw, her head was pounding and her hands hurt from bashing them on the door. Nothing happened, there was no concerned yelling from neighbours, no sounds of doors opening in the distance, it was eerily quiet. She fell against the door in quiet sobs, as she heard Max sigh.
"Come and finish you dinner."
"What?" She croaked out.
"Come and finish your dinner and I'll unlock the door."
She stared at him, until he rolled his eyes, "C'mon Sophie, eat the dinner that I spent hours making for you, be nice and exchange some first date pleasantries and then I will open the door."
Confused, she shakily stood up and made her way back to the table. "Promise?"
He held her stare for a long time, "Promise."
She sat back down. A deal with the devil was better than no deal at all, and she'd play along if it got her out of here.
"So are you from here?"
Sophie nodded, watching as Max picked up his knife and fork and started to cut more strips of his beef.
"That's nice, do you still have family in the area?"
Sophie nodded again, picking up her own cutlery and slicing into her meal.
"Did you go to college here?"
Max continued to ask inane questions as they ate, finally rounding off with a few questions about whether she liked to travel as they polished off dessert.
With a satisfied sigh, he placed his dessert spoon back into the empty bowl and smiled at her. "This has been really nice Sophie."
She tentatively smiled, "It has Max. We should do it again sometime."
He beamed back at her, nodding slightly as he stood up. Sophie's heart was in her throat as she watched him walk out of the room, returning seconds later with her coat and bag in his left hand, a key in his right.
He slid the key into the lock on the handle and twisted it, beckoning to her as the front door creaked open.
She approached, allowing him to help her into her coat and slinging her bag over her shoulder.
"Why?" she asked him.
He cocked his head, and observed her quietly for a moment as if he wasn't sure what she was asking him, why had he locked her in? Why was he letting her go? Why had he invited her on this date in the first place? "Sometimes it's nice to just sit down with someone and talk. I like not knowing where the evening could lead."
Sophie swallowed heavily. "Goodnight Max, thank you for a lovely meal."
She calmly walked out his apartment and towards the dark stairwell, turning as she got to the top to watch him watch her leave. She started to descend, breaking into a run as soon as she was out of sight. She fumbled with her bag to grab her phone as she ran through the deserted apartment building, crashing through the doors at the bottom and out onto the street, requesting an Uber, uncaring of any Friday night surcharges.
Her ride pulled up as she trembled by the side of the road and she jumped in immediately, taking a moment as they pulled away to look back up at the looming apartment building behind her, all dark save for one window.
As they finally arrived at her own apartment block, she shot out of the car, into the building racing up two flights of stairs and with shaking hands opened her own front door. Sobs overtaking her as she collapsed in front of her wide-eyed roommates.
She could feel their gentle hands on her as they sat her up, softly pleading for her to tell them what was wrong, carefully putting her to bed as she continued to cry. An exhausted sleep coming over her immediately, her worried roommates all perched on her bed watching over her.
In the fresh light of day, Sophie convinced herself that she got it all wrong. Max made no attempt to hurt her, it was normal to keep your door locked when you lived in the city, he had put a lot of effort into dinner and she had been rude trying to leave so early, and a lack of obvious hobbies and a fondness for expensive animal-themed table settings does not automatically make anyone dangerous.
Filled with a sense of shame come Monday morning, she headed to work ready to apologise. She wouldn't go so far as to accept a second date, but she could admit that maybe she'd taken her gut feeling too far and acted bizarrely that night.
Arriving at her floor she started to head over to her desk, when a screeching sound stopped her in her tracks.
"There she is! There she is! Sophie, oh thank God you're alright!"
Sophie was immediately swept into a hug by a number of her otherwise reserved colleagues, wide-eyed she took in their tearful faces. There was clusters of people all over the place, all pale and shocked looking. No one was sat at their desks, let alone working, and they all seemed strangely relieved to see her.
She stiffly patted Margaret on the back and wriggled out of Carol's strong grip, "What's going on?"
Carol shot off with a hurried "I'll get the detective" leaving Margaret to answer, "The police are here looking for Max," Sophie gaped at Margaret, her sight growing spotty. "They wanted to question him in connection with a few missing persons cases from the last few towns he stayed in. They tracked him down to a condemned building yesterday but they think he'd been gone a few days, so they came here this morning."
Sophie felt her legs start to give way, and a chair was pushed underneath her.
"We knew he'd asked you out, the police aren't giving us much detail but they seemed worried when we mentioned you'd been with him. They're with HR now to get your address."
Margaret continued speaking, but the words no longer made any sense, everything had turned to white noise and Sophie could no longer hear anything over her own heartbeat, the black spots started to expand and she felt her body grow weak and faint. As she slipped out of the chair towards the floor she caught sight of her own desk, as clean and tidy as she'd left it on Friday night save for the two golden fox-shaped salt and pepper shakers glinting in the overhead halogen light.