Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Diedre disliked the manager as much as anyone but to stuff three potatoes into the exhaust pipe of his Volvo seemed a little much. Childish she thought but didn’t speak the word out loud. To survive in an office you must be politic and the universal opinion was that he richly deserved it. He did. But still it seemed to Diedre that such pranks said more about their perpetrator than their victim, or at least as much.
No one knew who did it. Whoever it was, was a great dissimulator, for Diedre, a very astute and perceptive young woman, could not come up with even an intelligent guess. She knew she didn’t do it but otherwise she could not rule out a single one of the twenty six people working in the office. Or the three temporary workers filling in for people on vacation and the one temp doing a mat leave. Anyone could have done it including the manager who was quite capable of pulling off such a stunt for perverse reasons of his own. Possibly it could have something to do with his wife, a thin, worried woman. She and the manager were constantly at war. Everyone on staff were occasionally subjected to the manager’s lectures on his wife’s supposedly twisted character. Considering the source, most privately considered his wife to be, in all likelihood, a sane and balanced woman. He could have stuffed the potatoes himself in order to provoke pity. This would be ridiculous for if he invoked anything by such an act it would be derision not pity. But the manager was not one to see himself as others saw him. His could not be trusted to think clearly in such matters.
The potatoes did terrible things to the Volvo. The repairs amounted to several thousands and when they were done he traded it in for another. As it was a company car this did not cost him a penny. In fact he benefited for he exchanged a three year old for a brand new Volvo. The big boss, far off in an eastern city, didn’t seem to care. The operation made lots of money. A few extra thousand in expenses could easily be buried in a mountain of several millions.
The manager played the aggrieved victim to the hilt. He went from worker to worker explaining his hurt and perplexity. Why would someone do such a thing to him? After all was he not a good boss? Did he not treat everyone with respect? Did he not give them a present (from company funds) on their birthdays? Did he not send them flowers (again, from company funds) when they were in the hospital? Did he not provide them with a lavish Christmas party complete with presents, Santa Claus, and strippers, male for the females, female for the males? Did he not make himself available to listen to their personal problems? Did he not remember the names of their husbands, wives, and children so that his relationship with his employees did not lack the personal touch? And now this. Now betrayal.
This was very painful to the employees for no matter how lugubrious his performance they could not laugh, excepting of course when they got home and described his antics to their partners or friends. While they were listening to the manager they had to put on a commiserating face and drive all levity from their minds. As one could imagine the effort was staggering. And, even worst, when he was finished they had to assure him that this was an isolated act, obviously performed by a psychotic, and was no reflection at all on the quality of his leadership. They had no option but to reassure him, messaging his injured ego with the heavy oils of lies and flattery. Thus their days were poisoned with self disgust and everyone spent at least a half hour in the evening examining the classifieds for positions with other companies.
At first the manager claimed he did not want to know who did it. He was above that kind of pettiness, floating upon a sea of injured dignity and benevolent self restraint. This did not last for long. He soon developed a theory that it was one of the temporaries who stuffed the potatoes. Day laborers with no true connection to the company, they were the ones most likely to be subject to envy, jealousy and other dark human emotions leading to such an act. The temp company was sloppy in its hiring practices. A sociopath had been allowed to slip through, a viper, a mad dog.
He began to conduct secret researches. He consulted those he considered to be his closest allies, including Diedre. He demanded copies of the personnel files of the temps from their company. This was illegal but he did not care. Neither did the temp company. They were concerned about losing a lucrative contract so they sent the files over by courier the same day they were requested. Everything in them was average, normal, unremarkable. But then what would you expect? A sociopath doesn’t know he is a sociopath. This is one of the essential conditions of being a sociopath. But even if they did know they would hardly insist it be entered in their personnel file, would they? For then they would have no job and no need for a personnel file. He read the files through three times and then made Diedre go through them as well. There was nothing.
Then the manager, in one of his sessions with Diedre, suddenly began banging himself on the forehead and calling himself, dumb, stupid, idiotic, half witted and so on.
“Concentrating on the temps has blinded me,” he declared. “After all, dear Diedre, most murders are committed by persons close to the victim. After all, why would a passion of murder spring up between strangers?”
The manager’s revelation meant they had to go through the personnel files of all the full timers. This took some time for the manager insisted they read everything, even yellowing twenty-five year old evaluations, on the theory (unconsciously absorbed from TV cop shows) that significant facts could emerge from seemingly irrelevant details. But all this reading led nowhere. The manager demonstrated this to Deidre by opening his empty hands and leaving them that way for several dramatic seconds. Diedre grew suddenly afraid. If she were working for a mad man did this not mean that she was mad herself?
“The personnel files,” said the manager, “are useless. Who would have thought that, in the matter of real information about character, personnel files are pure garbage, detritus, junk, irrelevant. In fact I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that personnel files are useless altogether even when it comes to matters of personnel.” He knit his brows and gave Diedre a piercing look. “And that, Diedre, is a scary thought.”
The manager decided they would have to take a different path. The files were useless. Feedback from his personal spies came up with nothing, ‘nada’ as he put it. Therefore they would have to go to extraordinary lengths. A genuine secret investigation would have to be conducted. No more politeness. No more Mr Nice Guy. Hardball. That was what was called for. Did Diedre not agree? Diedre agreed.
The manager first thought of hiring an investigating company. There were people who did that sort of thing for an hourly fee, usually ex police officers. These companies claimed they were the soul of discretion but the manager wondered. There were two of these men in his club with whom he occasionally played golf and they were certainly not discreet. Police officers, living lives of occasionally intense activity alternating with long periods of lethargy and boredom, were horrible gossips. How could he entrust company secrets to people like that? Obviously he couldn’t. In no time at all that the company was investigating its employees would be all over the city. Coffee shops would be abuzz. People would speak of nothing else. Impossible. It would be as suicidal as Coca Cola publishing its secret formula in the New York Times.
The investigation would have to be done secretly, by a trusted Lieutenant who had the best interests of both the company and the manager at heart. Nothing else would produce results without the danger of public scandal. Did Diedre agree? Diedre agreed. Good. Then they would start next week.
The manager put out that Diedre would be attending meetings out of town on Mondays and Tuesdays. These meetings were top secret and had to do with a project no one was to ask her about. If they did ask her the manager would be displeased, most displeased, ragingly displeased. Wednesday through Friday she would be in the office performing her regular duties. Any mention of this project would mean thumbscrews for the mentioner and thumbscrews for those who listened to the mentioner. Did they understand? Yes, they understood. They worked for a mad man who frequently demanded they not do obscure things which they had never had the slightest intention of doing. On this point, like Dick Nixon, they were perfectly clear. Not that they cared much what he was up to. Long ago they decided he was a lunatic. What they themselves were up to were salaries, vacations, RRSPs, and the juicy possibility of a wrongful dismissal suit. If they wished to indulge themselves in conspiracy theories they could go up on the net.
Diedre was instructed to disguise herself as a plainclothes police officer. The manager was vague on detail. Should she wear a black skirt with white blouse and black tie, black hose and a pair of sensible shoes? The manager did not know. How could she expect him to know what plainclothes police officers wore? He didn’t hang around in such circles. She would have to find out for herself. Take some initiative for God’s sakes. Did he always have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s? Did she expect him to suddenly transform himself into a female police officer and demonstrate? No she didn’t. Fine then. Investigate the costume and then afterwards investigate the employees bringing back the name of the potato stuffer. He wanted that name. He needed that name.
The weekend before she was to begin her investigations Diedre thought a great deal about what she was going to do. She did not do this by sitting on the sofa and drinking coffee. Rather she kept busy. Saturday and Sunday afternoons she played softball. Saturday morning she cleaned the apartment. Sunday morning she jogged in the park. Sunday evening she had supper with an old boyfriend, coming home alone early to watch a movie. While she was busy doing all this the sub mind was sifting through all the possibilities, examining, selecting and choosing alternatives. By the time she awoke on Monday morning, her path was clear.
Firstly she would not be conducting any real investigations. It was not her job, she did not want to and even if it were her job and she wanted to, she was not qualified. Police officers are trained. They know something about technique, proper procedure. She did not.
Secondly, even if she were qualified, wanted to and it was her job, she would not do it for she found the thought of sneaking about interviewing neighbors, friends, bartenders, caretakers and so on to be morally repulsive.
Thirdly even if she was qualified, wanted to, it was her job and she did not find it morally repulsive she could not bring herself to do something which would implicate one of her fellow employees whether they were guilty or not. She had no desire to catch the potato stuffer. In fact she rather admired him or her. Besides the task was impossible. How could one find the guilty party from the hopeless jumble of disassociated gossip coming out of such an investigation? The very idea was insane, delusional. So why do it? To kiss the boss’s ass and keep her job was the only answer to that. But was it worth it? That would depend on how much she wanted to keep her job. She did want to keep it but not at the price of conducting such an investigation. But she might be willing to pay the price for pretending to conduct an investigation. Actually, pretending to conduct an investigation might be fun.
On Monday morning Diedre slept late. When she got up she dressed in weekend clothes – jeans and an old jacket – and walked to the diner around the corner from her apartment for breakfast. She had pancakes and ham. After eating she took a notebook and pen from her briefcase. Seated in a booth at the very back of the restaurant she began making notes. The investigation, according to the manager, was supposed to produce a name but there was little likelihood that it would do so. After all, his own investigation produced nothing. It was just possible that no one from the office stuffed potatoes into the manager’s tailpipe. It may have been a passing juvenile delinquent or even an avenger striking at the manager on the basis of a long ago incident which the manager had forgotten. Or it could be the manager’s wife, who, as far as Diedre could see spent seventy percent of her time hating and refusing to speak to the manager and the other thirty percent wheedling money for clothes and plastic surgery. But one thing was for sure - an investigation did not necessarily have to come up with a name and if it didn’t come up with a name a pretend investigation was just as good as a real one. A pretend no name and a real no name were exactly the same.
Diedre listed all the employees in alphabetical order. When she was finished this she pulled out a pile of file folders and filled in the tabs. On blank sheets of loose paper she began to make up imaginary conversations with ‘informants’ about Joan Arras, the first name on the list. She invented a loosed tongued caretaker who looked after the small block across the lane from Joan and who claimed her to be the sweetest soul on earth, an angel erroneously mixed up with the human beings. A garbage pick up man claimed he had never seen a liquor bottle in Joan’s garbage and that the back of her house was always in impeccable order. A local dry cleaner remembered the time when Joan returned eight blocks to his store to give back one dollar too much mistakenly given her in change. She filled six pages with this bogus reporting carefully noted down in small precise handwriting taught her by the Sisters of Charity of her elementary school days. She remained in the booth until the lunch crowd started coming in. When she started back to the apartment she had filled out reports for two names and started in on the third.
That afternoon Diedre went to a movie and in the evening she played a playoff softball game. When she got up on Tuesday morning she finished the ‘reports’ on the third name and by mid afternoon completed two more. She figured that was enough. She sat down at her computer and typed the lot. She printed two copies putting one in her own file cabinet and the others in five separate folders for the manager. These she put in her briefcase and brought with her to work on Wednesday morning.
The manager was waiting. As soon as she came in the door he beckoned her to come into his office. She opened her briefcase and handed him the files. He sat down in his high backed chair and began to read. Diedre took the opportunity to begin a series of notes on the sixth name on the list. This was George Dorian, the office wag. George was known, by joyful self identification, as a great user of pornography. She invented an interview with the owner of a porno shop near his apartment building. The owner told her that George never bought perverse pornography, only ‘normal’ pornography by which he meant naked pictures of buxom babes and nubile young females, or those purporting to be such, sunning themselves in the healthy sunshine. No leather or rubber or boots and whips for George. The owner claimed that young men like George who purchased pornography were far less likely to fondle women on public transportation than young men who did not. He quoted four studies from the Kinsey Institute to prove it. She was done this interview and starting another with an imaginary policeman, a friend of George’s since elementary school, who vouched for his integrity, claiming that the use of pornography had no detrimental effects on character development and that it was well known that users were less inclined to commit violent acts than were non users. She was well into the policeman’s ‘report’ when the manager threw the files down on the desk. He gave her an intense look and smiled the cheesy smile he had learned at effective management courses.
“Diedre, this is brilliant work.”
“Thank you,” said Diedre.
“Continue on girl. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
So Diedre continued on for three weeks, the Wednesday morning reaction from the manager being much the same but with a slightly diminishing enthusiasm caused by the fact that the names were passing by without one of them being chosen. On the fourth Wednesday he sat reading her latest while she began notes on the last three. The first of these was Alister Villon, the office boy. Because his last name was the same as the 12th century French poet she decided to give a bohemian theme to his list of informants. One was a bartender in a seedy hotel. Another a late night hot dog vendor outside a country and western club. She thought of making the third a stripper but decided that would be going too far. The actual Alister was a shy, pimply faced lad who lived at home with his mother and three sisters and who, other than in his dreams, had no such associations. It was hard to work up a lively story from Alister’s lackluster life. The boy lacked initiative. When the manager dropped the files onto his desk Diedre looked up into his face which he had drawn up into his effective management mask of sorrowful puzzlement. She was surprised, since there were only three names left, that it had taken so long to get to this.
“Diedre this work is excellent but unfortunately it has not produced a name.”
“This is true, boss,” Diedre replied.
“Why I wonder?”
“Not mine to wonder why, Boss. Mine but to do or die.”
“Very funny Diedre. That’s the Beatles, is it not?”
“Actually it’s Kipling.”
“American, was he?”
“Ah….., yes.” Diedre offered up a prayer that Rudyard would not rise up from his grave to haunt her for changing his nationality.
“But the question remains doesn’t it Diedre? Why has the investigation produced no name, no culprit, no perp as the TV cops say?”
“I am just the investigator, Boss. I do my job step by step and if something happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.”
“A rather fatalistic point of view. Not much get up and go in a view like that, is there? I thought you were the take charge type.”
“I can’t force a name, Boss. I have to stick with the facts or all is lost.”
“True,” said the manager. “The facts are important. If it weren’t for the facts we would be lost in a raging sea of opinion and rhetoric, would we not?”
After a few beats the manager asked, “Where were we?”
“Right. Well, there are three left.”
“Is Villon one of them?”
“I don’t want to influence you but still I should tell you that my suspicions fall heavily upon him. He never looks you in the eye. Did you ever notice that, Diedre? People who never look you in the eye, well you start to wonder what they are trying to hide.”
Diedre mentally revised Alister’s list of informants to a minister, a school principal and a lawyer. “I’ll be working on him all day Monday, Boss.”
“Good. Be impartial by all means Diedre but let’s not forget the killer instinct, right? Sometimes it’s necessary to take off the gloves and drive a bony fist right into the face of your opponent. Is this not true, Diedre?”
“Right on, Boss. Don’t worry. I won’t forget.”
Sunday evening Diedre was sitting on her sofa reading an exceedingly boring novel when the phone rang. It was Elliot Mercer, a salesman not long away from retirement with thirty years of company service. He wanted to talk to her. “About what?” Diedre asked. He would rather not say over the phone. This sounded a little cloak and daggerish to Diedre but she gave him the address of the building and her apartment number. Elliot lived nearby. The intercom gave its electronic bong fifteen minutes later.
When he arrived at the door she ushered him into the living room. On the table was a tray of tea things and a plate of cookies. Elliot poured himself a cup of tea and ate three cookies. Then he started in.
“When my wife and I were young and even middle aged we were unwise. We were financially reckless. We didn’t save. We maxed out one credit card after another until for five years now one half of our cash income goes out in payments. And still we have significant debt. Reduced, yes, but still enough so that five years of my total cash income would not pay it off. I start with this not to bore you with my personal problems but to give you the background for the proposal I am about to make.”
Diedre smiled politely.
“The doctors have given me a terminal diagnosis. In two years I will be dead. This is not dramatic speculation but surety. My wife does not work outside the home. She never has. After the kids were gone she put her extra time into volunteer work at the church. Mine is our only income. There is no insurance payment through work in case of death and we have no personal insurance. I will be gone before the pension kicks in and even if I wasn’t there are no survivor payments to the spouse. We own our house but if it were sold it would only pay the debt, hopefully. My wife is younger than I and will not be eligible to receive old age pension and social security for ten years. When I die she will be left destitute. She will have to sell the house, pay off the debts and will have no income. I am not complaining, mind you. We got ourselves into this. We spent the money and accumulated the debt and we have only ourselves to blame. Yet I want to do my best to leave her in a position where, even if she has to sell the house, she will have an income to tide her over until she is sixty-five. It would be devastating for me not to be able to do that and this is why I am here. I warn you that the proposal I am about to make is dishonest. Technically I suppose, it is not fraudulent but it is quite clearly dishonest. But I am caught in a corner and would rather be dishonest than to leave my wife destitute.”
Elliot paused to eat two more cookies and sip his tea. Then he continued. “I will not tell you how, because that would mean mentioning names, but I know you are investigating the tailpipe affair as everyone in the office calls it. Ridiculous self dramatization on the part of that poor man who calls himself our manager. In truth he does little managing. The sales staff sells the product, which is easy because it is a good product and in demand. The accountant counts the money and administrates the financial apparatus and the clerks keep this all recorded on the computers and in the filing cabinets. The manager runs a kind of Shakespearian fool sideshow rather than manages. Anyway, I know you are almost finished and have not come up with a name and will not, no doubt, for I don’t think anyone in the office did it. I propose to offer myself as a scapegoat, so to speak, ‘take the rap’ as the manager would put it in his American TV slang. I think if you implicate me on some flimsy evidence we concoct together he will become enraged and fire me. Then I can sue for wrongful dismissal. I have a son in law who is a lawyer. I have thirty years with the company. If I win it will mean a tidy sum and my wife will be looked after when I am gone. You will have conducted a successful investigation and the Boss will be very happy with you. What do you think?”
“I have to ask some questions,” said Diedre. “I know you prefer not to tell me but I have to know what it is that you are dying from.”
“Bowel. Inoperable but chemo and radiation should keep me alive for two years or so according to the doctors.”
“Do you have copies of the Doctor’s reports?”
“A thick file full. At home.”
“I will have to see it.”
“I hate to ask but if I am to consider this I have to be sure of my ground.”
“I’m not insulted. I understand. When I get home I’ll copy the reports and send them over by courier.”
Elliot got to his feet. “You’ll consider it then?”
“How long will it take?”
“If you send me that file over tonight then I’ll phone you tomorrow evening after supper.”
Diedre phoned the next night and told Elliot she would do it. He came over and they spent three hours working out a plan to implicate him. The ‘evidence’ was, as Elliot had said before, a flimsy concoction which would not stand up in court. Otherwise the company could claim the firing was for just cause. But they both felt it would be enough to convince the manager.
The manager was ecstatic when Diedre told him on Wednesday morning. “I knew my faith in you would prove right in the end, Diedre.”
He called in Elliot and fired him on the spot. Unwisely, without consulting the company lawyer, he sent him a letter of termination that very afternoon. Elliot sued. His son in law took the case pro bono. After two years in the courts there was an out of court settlement. Curiously it had no effect upon the career of the manager at all. He continued to manage until they kicked him upstairs to a VP position when he was fifty. Diedre became the new manager. But all this happened some years later.
Diedre went to visit Elliot in the hospital when he was dying. He was thin and weak but he had little pain. “Basically I am starving to death,” he said. “As if you wanted to know.”
“I do want to know,” said Diedre. “I am insatiably curious even about dying.”
“Well there you go. You know now.”
When she was leaving Eliot said, “I’ll be gone soon so we should say goodbye. Do you want to go to the funeral?”
“Then I’ll tell Ellen and she will let you know.”
Diedre went to the funeral with the manager who had on his best banker’s suit and his most lugubriously insincere mourning mask. After the church service they drove in the procession to the cemetery. It was a cold winter day. The wind whipping across the open fields around the graves cut like a knife. The minister sped through the graveyard service. The mourners were wrapped up like mummies. The flowers were put round the grave for the brief service by the undertaker’s assistants and then whisked away as soon as it was over, some already visibly frozen. Diedre and the manager stood at the very back and were the first to leave and return to the car. Diedre had left it running and once inside they took off their gloves, rubbed their hands together and opened their coats to let in the hot air blowing from the vents. When they were driving back to the office the manager said.
“It’s sad, isn’t it Diedre, when the pioneers begin to go. Makes you start thinking of the day when those who come after us will be standing around at our funerals. Time passes by and so on.”
Deidre did not reply. This did not bother the manager for he assumed her silence was a result of deep pondering. He smiled and looked out the window at the passing fields, covered with drifted mounds of snow.
“One day, Diedre, it will be you and I, and young ones, yet to come, will stand beside our graves and think thoughts full of the mournful quality of passing time. Tempus fugit. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The manager turned to look at Diedre who nodded politely to recognize the fact that he was speaking to her but kept her eyes on the road.
The manager turned away and looked back at the fields being replaced now by clusters of snow slavered fur trees. They reminded him of childhood Christmases and the upcoming office Christmas party. He remembered that Elliot had always been a bit of a wet blanket at the parties, sipping a weak drink, chatting with a few cronies in the corner. Since he was an older man he didn’t say anything to him but if he had been ten years younger he would have kicked his ass. Elliot wasn’t a team man. He didn’t let his hair down. But then again he was innocuous. Excepting that final incident he didn’t cause trouble and his sales figures were good right up to the end. He wasn’t a bad sort, really. One could almost feel a real sense of loss when a man like Elliot passed on. The manager’s eyes moistened and he wiped them quickly with the first knuckle of his right hand.
Then the manager remembered the payout and how the boss in the east had made him come out and get the cheque in person to rub it in. He remembered how the big boss’s secretary had booked him into a cheap hotel in the city’s industrial area and how he had been kept waiting in the outer office for a full hour. How was he to know that Elliot had a shark lawyer for a son in law? They made him deliver the cheque to the son in law in person, by God, and get a receipt. And then, after all that humiliation, the big boss buried everything and nothing more was said.
When Diedre told him she was going to the funeral he decided to come along. “Elliot and I had a disagreement, yes,” he told her, “but he was a member of the team for a long time. That demands a little respect.” Saying this made him feel magnanimous. He wasn’t the type to hold a grudge.
Once again he looked over at Diedre who was giving all her attention to her driving, yet seemed abstracted, far away. Diedre was a hard one to read. She could be quite secretive, even cunning. He wondered why she would bother going to the funeral. What kind of relationship would a good looking young woman like her have with an old fossil like Elliot? He thought about that for a few minutes and came up with a blank. He sighed. Then he was suddenly jabbed in the ribs by the memory of his humiliation. Sitting in the outer office, the secretaries looking at him from the corner of their eyes. Vindictive little bitches as loyal to the loves and hates of their boss as if they were to their own.
He sat up straight and cleared his throat. “Good ole Elliot, eh Diedre?” he said. “He was a vindictive bastard but you have to admit he knew when to sue and when to settle. A money grubber and a back stabber but in the end you have to be fair and give him that.”