Migration to the sixth floor commenced at the beginning of February. At the end of day three, the paralegal’s shredder ate the Fire Marshall’s Maximum Occupancy notice. Human Resources, Desktop Support, and Application Technology sat two to a cube. Office chairs collided, power cords vanished, lunches went missing, and a dozen leashed rats were tethered to monitor stands.
The occupant of a corner cube that might reasonably have seated six was relocated to a card table in the copy room. Her nameplate was replaced with another, but the Application Architect declined the relocation offer. “I don’t have time; I’ve got three months of change requests in the queue and also, you know I hate people. It would end badly.” The VP of Application Technology banged his head against the wall and retrieved the nameplate.
Construction started at the end of the month; walls were torn down, carpets shredded in place, and the dropped ceiling came down in chunks. Margaret didn’t blink. When they started pulling cables, she got up and stood on her desk. “Hey! You! Cable Dude! See these four cables hanging over my head? You just unplugged my life support.” Cable Dude froze; the scar on Desktop Boy’s arm was nasty. He ran her cables back up the wall and the construction team nailed six layers of plastic sheeting around the two open sides of her workspace. She was delighted. Her boss made a sign for her desk. In the event that anyone was stupid enough to enter the space, the directive was clear. The sign read: Get Out!
Margaret thought the driver of the white Nissan Sentra lived in the building because the car was gone during the day. Even in a full garage it was hard to miss a piece of Vegas, and for an economy vehicle, it sure did have a lot of bling. She’d seen Honda Civics with low profile tires but had a hard time reconciling a Nissan Sentra doing more than sixty-five on the highway no matter what was sticking out its back end. The oversized rear spoiler just looked silly, but the dual manifold exhaust system was ludicrous. The hubcaps were preposterous. They had to be custom because the sole purpose of domed chrome caps was to advertise the size of the engine under the hood. She wasn’t buying any of it, the hood was standard and so where the wheels.
All oddness aside, there was the business of the vanity plate to consider. She could have asked the maintenance crew and maybe gotten a straight answer, but she never did. She took a picture once but deleted it when she got home. There was a wrongness about the plate that was more than just the word. The wrongness got the better of her curiosity and she walked away.
The day the plastic sheeting went up she found the Nissan parked right up against her car, leaving twelve inches between the doors. She got in the passenger side and scrambled across to the driver’s seat. A foot of clearance was more than enough to back out clean, but the six inches of chrome dome smoked the deal. Margaret killed the engine and shimmied back out the passenger door.
The driver’s side hubcap was resting against her back tire. She tipped it upright and rolled it toward her. It was a lot heavier than a hubcap had any right to be. She propped it against the front bumper and got the hell out.
In the morning it was sitting on her passenger seat.
The Nissan was still parked over the white line, but the hubcap had been replaced. She glared at the thing sitting next to her computer bag and drove to the other side of the garage.
Margaret’s cube measured ten by twelve which created enough floor space for a small conference table and two extra chairs. The hubcap went on the table and the ‘Get Out!’ sign was stapled to the plastic sheeting. Margaret was sweating, the thing had to weigh thirty pounds. She’d wrapped it in her coat and carried it up five flights of stairs bypassing everyone except Plumber Butt, who scuttled into the kitchen when she crashed through the fire door. She ran off to the ladies room for paper towels and a cup of water. It didn’t really need a polish, but it got a bath anyway. She named it Steve.
The afternoon sunlight hit the workspace like a blow torch. Steve absorbed it. By the time the sun dropped to the other side of the building, Steve was blue. She poked the top of the dome with her index finger. Steve rippled. The palm of her hand made waves and both hands cleared the mirror. Steve looked at Margaret and winked. Margaret ran out of her cube and came back with a hammer. He put a finger to his lips and whispered, ‘naughty’. “Fine. You’ve got my attention. Now what?”
She was told to sit. It wasn’t wise to tell Margaret to do anything unless you wanted her to do the exact opposite. Margaret’s lizard voice suggested that contrary behavior might result in unfortunate consequences. Since she wasn’t sure if the lizard meant contrary to Margaret or contrary her mother, she sat.
The mirror was a glass dome, any pretense of chrome had vanished. Steve wore filthy blue coveralls, about eight sizes too big, and a very expensive haircut. The coveralls belonged to a mechanic named Big John. She wondered what happened to Big John.
Steve stood in front of a whiteboard with a handful of markers. He selected red and dropped the rest on the floor. Margaret was leaning in trying to see if she was missing anything. Steve threw the marker at her face and bellowed: “SIT!” The marker bounced off the inside of the dome and vanished. He picked up another and turned back to the board.
And then nothing; Margaret sat there looking at ‘Still Life With Steve’s Butt’. Patient, for Margaret, was a five-minute wait. He got three. She tossed a lap blanket over the dome, packed her shit, and went home. Shortly after midnight, she returned to the office, booted up, and got to work. Steve gave her half an hour to wake up before he started banging on the inside of the dome. She pulled the blanket aside and blinked. He asked if she had the time. Margaret squinted at the clock on her screen; she was still kind of sleepy. “What the hell, Steve?!” The bloody bastard winked and went back to the whiteboard.
Steve wrote a word on his whiteboard. He stepped back and admired six perfect letters. Margaret screamed. “And that, sweet cheeks, is why we’re here in the middle of the night.”
Steve had a job for Margaret. In the interest of friendship and a functional working relationship, he was perfectly willing to accept either answer: ‘Yes, when do I start?!’ or ‘I’d like to negotiate, please.’ He also indicated that silence was an affirmative. She told him to get on with it.
The job didn’t seem all that bad. He compared the risk to slaloming the parkway at ninety: you’re home in time for dinner, or you cause a twelve-car pileup with multiple fatalities, it all depends on the weather. After the fact, she wished she’d negotiated something, at least to set the precedent. It would have been nice to let Desktop Boy off with a few bumps and bruises. His absence was attributed to the unseemly number of rats tethered to his workstation. Somebody wanted him dead, or he was just that weird.
Steve gave her the weekend to pull herself together.
The next job was an absolute No Go. Steve chuckled and asked, why the hell not. She smacked the side of the globe and screamed at him. The contractors hit the deck; the last time Margaret lost her shit; the Chief Information Officer came out of the Executive Bunker wanting to know why his architect had barricaded herself in the ladies room. They missed the memo about the Pop-tarts. All six of them slithered into a three-person portable fox hole to wait it out.
While Margaret was busy trashing her workspace, Steve appropriated one of her chairs. Under any other circumstances she would have smashed her fist through the glass and snatched it back. He uncrossed and recrossed his legs and checked the watch she’d last seen on Desktop Boy. He was supremely irritated but kept his mouth shut.
Margaret excused herself and wandered off toward the kitchen. There were three packages of the correct Pop-tarts in the vending machine. She leaned into the hall and yelled, “Good job, guys, no one needs to die tonight!” Six tarts went into the microwave on a paper plate and one giant glop came out. She took the steaming mess and a fork back to her cube.
Halfway through the glop, she came to her senses. She didn’t bother with negotiation, there wasn’t any wiggle room on this one. “Steve, sometimes you’re going to have to accept a No. A disappeared Desktop Boy can go either way but messing with the Securities and Exchange Commission is a Mortal Sin and somebody’s got to have a moral compass around here!”
Knuckle cracking joined supremely irritated. Margaret was at the whiteboard writing her own six-letter word which Steve couldn’t read even with his face smushed against the glass. She pulled two technical manuals off a shelf, propped him up, and left for the day.
Said, the whiteboard.
Six contractors heard the glass shatter and burrowed deeper into the fox hole.
Margaret cleaned up the mess in the morning. The chrome hubcap appeared to have been blasted open from the inside. If not for the shards of glass embedded in the whiteboard, she’d have wondered if it ever had been glass. This time the hubcap was rolled down the hall; Steve’s previous abode had taken on weight. It took significant effort to get the thing off the floor and into the trash shoot. The return receipt was a crash and an echo. If it was going to dig out, it wouldn’t have to dig very far. Maintenance had already emptied the bin.
Two weeks later the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the Assistant Controller with Market Manipulation. The stock dropped from $189 a share to $1.25 and was temporarily suspended. A week later, the building was crawling with auditors.
Margaret had never failed an audit in her life but by the end of the first week she was looking at handcuffs. Every electronic file, every record of even the most minimal system change, every security signoff, and the entirety of her system logs were gone. She’d known the IT auditor for years. It’s unusual to see the same faces repeat one year to the next, but this guy was a lifer. He’d been looking at system fraud for close to forty years and didn’t see any reason to stop now.
He was also her friend, inasmuch as an auditor can be anyone’s friend and she had six years of squeaky-clean results on his watch. Margaret was a Compliance Beast. He gave her seventy-two hours to locate and produce the files and mumbled something about needing to sacrifice a three goats and a lamb.
It’s hard to function when you’re not breathing. She knew she should have been looking for ghost archives, but the white noise said, don’t bother, he took those too. She called Dial-a-Prayer, but he was already in custody. The server farms in the level three facility were toast.
Blind rage cuts in two directions; it can give you the wherewithal to seek and destroy just as easily as it can throw you under a bus. Margaret left the building and crossed four lanes of traffic against the light. The oncoming bus rode the median for half a block, ran the next red light and T-boned a dozen vehicles at the intersection. Margaret walked into Dick’s Sporting Goods and asked for the baseball bat most likely to be found at a murder site. She left the receipt and walked back across the same four lanes. The city’s fatality statistics jumped off a cliff. She stopped for falafel and headed into the garage.
It was way too early for the car to be back, but the son of a bitch was back and had effectively parked her in. She inhaled the rest of the falafel and brought the baseball bat down on the hood. She shattered the headlamps and went to work on the windows. Three hard swings vaporized the fiberglass spoiler, but the dual manifold exhaust system took a little more effort. When the windshield was reduced to piles of safety glass on the front seats, Margaret directed her attention to the hubcaps. They didn’t so much as scratch. She gave up and went around to the front of the car. Margaret homed in on the vanity plate with Steve’s six letters and put everything she had left into the next swing. The bat shattered.
Steve found her twenty minutes later. She was on the ground gnawing at one of the rear tires. He had a fine appreciation for passionate women, but she’d crossed the bugshit crazy line when she picked up the bat. It didn’t much matter if she was still homicidal. He didn’t need her to kill him, he needed her to be him. Or just take over, or something. Maybe even a week or two off, someplace where those little umbrellas decorate blue cocktails. Steve was exhausted and it seriously no shit had to be somebody else’s turn.
They were Margaret’s terms, and they weren’t negotiable. The answer was, ‘yes, ma’am, that would be awesome’. Hard stop. In the end, she felt that she might have given too much. She only got four weeks of vacation time a year and she was giving half of them to Steve for however long she could stand it. “Two weeks, Steve. One at a time or consecutively. We can start as soon as you’ve cleaned up the effing mess you made which includes undisappearing Desktop Boy.”
The VP of Application Technology cleared her two week leave as soon as the auditor was satisfied. He said he better not see her around and she said, “damn straight, you don’t want to see me around. I’ll be back in two.”
Margaret was on her knees in the garage with a screwdriver. The bolts went in just tight enough to keep the plate on. The last thing she needed was the REAPER vanity plate permanently affixed to her vehicle.