The Office in the Back
I made my way to the back of the second floor, where my new office awaited. My nameplate was on the wall next to a door that hung so crookedly that it would not shut. Good thing I have an open door policy, I thought as I pushed the door fully open, revealing the boxes that held all of my crap. The movers had placed them haphazardly around the office.
I walked behind the desk and pulled the blinds open. At least I had a window, even if it did overlook the loading dock and a couple of huge green dumpsters. From this vantage point, I could look right in at the piles of garbage and flies. This was quite a change from the partial view of the park I had in my upstairs office.
This was only temporary, until I got my feet back under me and began to re-climb the corporate ladder. This time I’d be a little more careful to temper my objections and to be cognizant of whose idea I was shooting down. How was I to know that lame-ass idea came from the CEO’s son-in-law?
I turned to see a tall man with a full head of disheveled long gray hair and a long gray mustache enter my office and sit on one side of an old brown couch. It seemed to mold around him perfectly, as if he had spent many hours in that spot. He looked like a walrus — a walrus with thick glasses.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’m Ron.”
He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “I saw the nameplate. I’m George.”
“Nice to meet you, George. What is it you do here?”
He kicked his feet up on the scarred coffee table and began to pick at his fingernails. “Whatever you say, boss. I’m your employee.”
“Oh, I see.” I pulled a creaky chair from under the desk and sat down.
“Welcome to the bonfire,” George said.
He swirled his hand in front of him. “This office. That’s what we call it, the bonfire.”
“I guess it’s just me now. There used to be a couple other employees in this department.”
“Why do you call it the bonfire?”
He went back to picking at his fingernails. “It’s where the shooting star execs come when they flame out. They burn down and burn out right here.” He pointed freshly cleaned finger at the center of the office. “Nothing left but smoldering husks of broken dreams.”
“Quite a visual.” I wondered how much he knew of my situation.
“You’re not the first,” he said. “A lot of folks have come through this office on their way out.”
“I’m not on my way out,” I said, with the most confident voice I could muster.
“This is just a reassignment,” I insisted.
“You must’ve pissed off somebody important.”
He looked up at me through those thick glasses. They made his eyes look huge. All the better to see right through me.
“This is just temporary,” I said.
“They couldn’t just fire you outright.”
I sat back in my chair, not quite believing my ears. Subordinates didn’t speak to their bosses like this.
“They wouldn’t do that,” he continued. “They’d be afraid you’d sue them for wrongful termination.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I dismissed the thought with a wave of my hand.
“They’re hoping you quit. If you don’t, they’ll start giving you bad performance reviews. I’ve seen it before. Within a year, they’ll have enough in your file to fire you for cause.”
“You’re crazy.” Somehow, everything he said was anything but crazy.
“Nobody’s ever lasted more than a year in the bonfire.”
“And how long have you been here?” I began to see holes in his theory.
“Heh heh, I’m not in the bonfire. I sit just outside. There,” he pointed to a small desk behind a row of shelves. “I have a front row seat though. Close enough to burn my weenie.”
“Well, I won’t be here a year either. I’m going to get back into my upstairs office.”
“That’d be a first.”
“In the meantime, why don’t you tell me exactly what it is we do here.”
“Company archives.” He uncrossed his feet and took them off the table before placing them back on the table with their positions reversed.
“The history of the company, all the deals and projects and information about the people who’ve worked here.”
I looked out at the rows of shelves packed tightly with binders. “Are they in any particular order?”
“It’s all digitized and categorized in a fancy database.”
“Really?” I was sure he was pulling my leg.
“Some folks are really motivated and energetic when they first move into this office. They actually get a lot done before they succumb to the futility of it all.”
“Uh huh.” With this guy around, I could see how it could become pretty gloomy down here. It was like having Eeyore as a sidekick.
He took his feet off the table and stood up. “Once you get your computer set up, I’ll show you how it all works.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” I lied.
He gave a brief two-fingered salute before leaving my office.
Fuck, was I fucked. I’ve fucked up before, but this was the most fucked I’ve ever been. Everything George said made sense. I’d been here three years, and a few executives had mysteriously disappeared in that period.
I began to unpack my boxes. This office was much smaller than my previous one, everything wasn’t going to fit on shelves and tables. I stacked several boxes in the corner. That’ll make it easier when they do get around to firing me. I pulled my keyboard and mouse out of the box and untangled the cords. After hooking up everything and logging onto the network, I checked my emails. Nothing. I sent myself a test email just to make sure it was working. I used to get thirty or forty emails a day. Now my inbox had the single test email from myself. It’s as if I had been completely removed from the essential workings of the company.
“Are you ready for me to show you the archive database?” George popped his head into my office.
“Sure. You said you can search by employee?”
“Current and former.” George pulled an extra chair over to the desk and took over from me at the keyboard.
As he was bringing up the archive search software, I asked, “Can you look up Charles Banksy, the Third?”
“Chuck-in-law? Is that who you pissed off, the son-in-law of the CEO?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t see any reason to try to keep it a secret.
George gave a low whistle as he typed in a few commands. “Here, I found a bio. This is probably what we have on the website about him.”
We both began to scan through the document.
“He went to Yale,” George said.
“Of course he did.”
George sniggered at the sarcasm in my voice. “Frat boy too.”
“He met the CEO’s daughter there.”
“Tri Delt. I figured she’d be in a sorority,” I said.
“You’re catching on.”
“What are all of these other search results?”
“Anything that has his name attached to it.” George clicked on one of the links, and it brought up a folder containing several documents. “It looks like this is a request for proposal to select a supplier of sheet metal. These are the bids we received.” He clicked on one of the bids. The summary at the top indicated the total bid was for nearly four million dollars. “Here’s the final contract.” George clicked on the contract.
I pointed to the numbers on the screen. “That contract is for $12.2 million.”
“And the bid we saw was for less than four million,” George said.
“Who got the contract?”
George scrolled to find the name of the company awarded the contract — Trampe Industries.
“Find that bid,” I said.
“Way ahead of you.” George clicked on the bid from Trampe Industries. It was for $12.2 million.
“Why did they get the contract?”
“That’s a good question,” George said. “Last I checked four was less than twelve.”
“I’m going to do a little more research on this. Thanks for showing me the archives, George.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
George headed back to his desk as I began to read all of the bids.
After reading and re-reading every bid and analyzing the contract, I could find no reason why that bid would have been selected over any of the lower bids. I took a break and walked to the park to clear my head. It didn’t work. I ended up looking for my former office from the part of the park I used to be able to see. I counted eight floors up, then three sets of windows over. There it was. I wondered who was in it now. My walk was ruined. I returned to the building and made my way to the office in the back that couldn’t be seen from the park.
George tapped on the doorframe and planted himself on my couch. “Find anything interesting?”
“I found some other contracts that seemed to have gone to the wrong bidder. Chuck was involved in all of them.”
“Have you found anything in common among the winning bids?”
“How did you piss him off?”
At this point, I wasn’t shocked by the directness of George’s question. “I disagreed with one of his ideas.”
“What idea?” George’s butt sank into the couch and his legs went up on the table.
“He wanted to outsource our call center.”
“Like to India or something?”
George sat up and placed his feet on the floor. “I hate calling a company and ending up talking to somebody in India.”
“I know, right? Also, we don’t have a big call center. They’re only open during business hours, and they have no problem keeping up with the calls. We’re ranked very high on our customer service. Why mess with that?”
“Why indeed,” George nodded and played with his mustache. “What company did he want to outsource to?”
“Some stupid name. New Dial-y, I think.”
“Let’s look them up.” George slid a chair over and took over at my keyboard. Shortly, he had the company’s website up on the screen. “It’s a fairly new company, just a year old.”
“Does it have a list of senior executives?”
“Here we go.”
A page of thumbnail pictures appeared. Several of the senior executives were older with gray hair, as I would have expected, but there were some younger executives mixed in. One stuck out in particular, he had the same smirk I’d so often seen on Chuck’s face. “Click on that one,” I said.
The bio was very similar to Chuck’s. “Yale,” George said.
“Hey, that’s the same frat Chuck was in.”
“Coincidence?” George asked.
“No way. Let’s check out some of those other companies.”
It took us a few days of research, but we were able to tie several of the other winning bidders directly to Chuck. One had an executive who had gone to Yale and was in the Tri Delt sorority with Chuck’s wife. Another had an executive who was in the same polo club as Chuck. Chuck briefly served on the board of directors of another company that won a bid.
“What are you going to do with this information?” George asked.
“I sent it to our ethics committee. They have representatives from HR, Legal, and upper management. They said they’d get back to me with any developments.”
“Aren’t you afraid of retaliation?”
“Whistle blower laws will protect me.”
“You’ll be the first to escape the bonfire.”
“When I get my old office back, would you consider moving upstairs? I could use an assistant.”
“I appreciate the offer, but the next poor shmuck who ends up in the bonfire is going to need me more.”
“True.” A truck was beeping behind me as it pulled up to the loading dock. I turned around to watch as it skirted the dumpsters. I couldn’t wait to get back to my office with a partial view of the park.
The next morning, I checked my email, hoping to see an update from the ethics committee. Nothing. Just the unopened test email I had sent to myself a few days ago. It was too soon. Things like this took time. I’d just have to be patient.
George tapped on the doorframe and entered my office. It was hard to tell, but his mustache seemed to be drooping further than usual. He sank into the couch and placed his feet in their usual position on the table. “Bad news, boss.” He picked at his fingernails.
“A few things went missing overnight.”
“All of Chuck’s files. Gone.”
“No shit? They’re still in the database, right?”
“The database is gone too.” He looked up at me, expressionless.
I did a quick search for Chuck. No records found. I did a search for myself. No records found. I did a wildcard search that should have returned everything in the entire database. No records found.
George pointed to the unpacked stack of boxes in the corner. “You gonna unpack those, or pack up everything else?”
If you liked this, please check out some of my other writing.