A tall man in a black suit dove to the ground when the screaming started, the sleeves of his jacket pulling back to his forearms awkwardly. A wet smack of meat against wall followed less than a heartbeat later. Something warm splashed across the back of his neck as he pressed his face into the cheap carpet. The wiry high-traffic, low-comfort industrial fiber dug painfully into the side of his face. He squeezed both his eyes shut and briefly tried to imagine he was somewhere less stressful. Like maybe a war zone or an active mine field.
He opened his eyes and, finding that the office hadn't suddenly transformed into a 1940’s Eastern front trench, gathered himself up into a tentative crouch. A quick survey of the carnage revealed a burst burrito, it's insides trailing behind it for some distance, and a brown bag of tortilla chips scattered across the floor. There was still a cup of queso and a full soda within his assailant’s reach, which caused him to crouch a little lower behind a chair as his insides tensed. After what felt like a year of incomprehensible obscenity fragments and animal noises the man pounding the desk with his fist started to calm and form coherent sentences.
“I specifically said no pinto beans and what's the first thing I see when I open my food?” the burrito chucker asked, splotches of his face red with anger, “I see a goddamn pinto bean! How hard is it to follow basic instructions?”
He leaned over the desk with the speed and intensity normally demonstrated by feral animals, or coked up meth-heads, and locked eyes with the employee still crouched near the wall.
“I asked you a question, Jorge. How hard is it to follow basic instructions?”
“Apparently harder than expected, Mr. Grant.” He picked himself up from the ground to a mostly upright position as he answered.
“If that isn't the truth…” Merrick Grant said, trailing off with the barest hint of amusement under the anger in his voice.
Jorge remained vigilant as the winds of this conversation could shift suddenly. If he wasn't careful, the tornado of anger in front of him could very easily barrel in his direction. Considering it was a throwing stuff kind of day for Merrick, that could end up being costly at the dry cleaners.
“Must be a new guy at the taco place,” Jorge offered, checking the weather vein of his boss’s anger.
“It's unacceptable regardless,” he said, speaking with exaggerated clarity. “I expect my food to be correct and delivered on time.”
Jorge decided to just stay on edge and assume the remaining food items on the desk could be headed his way any minute, accepting that they might hit him. He stared at the motivational poster on the wall behind the desk, looking out of place in its thick wooden frame. The image of a train blowing smoke from the stack and sides racing directly toward you down the tracks, its orange light a single glowing eye. Bastard probably hung that poster up there as some passive intimidation or as a stress focus to make employees uneasy.
“Are you deaf?” Merrick said, snapping his fingers loudly in front of Jorge’s face. “I said why didn't Chip bring me my food today? You cost too much for me to have you pissing away your time on bullshit errands.”
“He quit, effective today,” an old man said in a thick German accent. “His parting email was quite spectacular, really. Sent it out to the whole company. It had some really choice words about the job and our business in general.”
“What? He can’t fucking do that!” Merrick yelled, sending the cheese into the wall with a vicious backhanded slap. Looming over the laptop, he stabbed at the keyboard with enough force to walk the device back a couple inches on the desk, despite it being seated snugly in a large docking assembly. His eyes flitted across the screen in sharp jerking patterns as the shade of red in his face deepened.
“That little bastard!” Merrick said through clenched teeth. “I pay him double the market rate and ignore all the bad habits, lack of professionalism, and this is the thanks I get? No notice and a company-wide email blast of blatant lies?”
He dialed a number on speaker using the desk phone and was greeted with an unsettling noise followed by a voice politely stating that the number was no longer in service. Merrick disconnected the call, slammed the lid of the laptop shut and ripped it from the dock, shoving the computer roughly into a leather bag. He turned toward the door as if to leave, pulling the bag strap over his shoulder before remembering the suit jacket was still hanging behind his chair. He cursed under his breath as he set the bag back down to wrestle the jacket on.
As this was happening, the old man shuffled over to a visitor’s chair in front of the desk and sat down with carefully measured movements. Merrick raised an eyebrow as he finished pulling his arm through the sleeve and grabbing the strap of his laptop bag.
“I’m clearly leaving. What do you want Wolfram?” he said, his words clipped.
“Oh this won’t take long,” he said, waving a knobby- knuckled hand in a dismissive gesture. “I was just going to ask if you wanted me to bring in an outsourced asset to replace Chip. I think I have one available that would be the perfect fit.”
“I told you before I’m not interested. First off, I won’t have an employee I can’t sit face to face with when I need to. Secondly, you’re asking me to let the inmates run the asylum. It’s not going to happen.”
“I only offer it as an option for consideration. I understand you have reservations, but there are clear advantages. For instance, the one I’m thinking of wouldn’t be able to libel you to the whole company and disappear without consequences. It might be the solution you need.”
“You know what I need? I need a competent employee sitting in Chip’s chair, in this building, doing his job. One that can’t just ghost us for no damn reason,” Merrick said, slamming a fist down on the desk. “You two need to make that happen. Get me someone and lock them down, I don’t care how.”
With that he left, taking care not to drag his shiny oxfords through any of the food mess on the carpet. Jorge collapsed into the other visitor’s chair, his arms dangling to the floor, straining against the suit jacket as he slumped backward.
“You’re an ass sometimes,” he said, still looking straight ahead at the stress train poster.
“Bah, that went fine. I always tell you that you’re too sensitive,” the older man shook his head, “he’ll be mad, but the task is set now and with no restrictions. We won't hear from him again until he's calm. We just need to grab a suitable body willing to stick around for a bit.”
“You’re kidding right? Chip was an anomaly and I’m still a little shocked he lasted a full three years. We’re just going to have to divide his work between us. Anyone else is going to break things and Merrick will just fire them.”
“Look who's the joker now? You want to be in his crosshairs? Hmm? We need a body.”
“They’re just going to quit.” Jorge slumped so fully into the chair that he was effectively laying down, chin touching his chest as he spoke. “Either quit or get fired within the week.”
“Such pessimism. I happen to have a candidate in mind. And if he gets fired, at least Mr. Grant will feel gratified with the consequences he’ll face afterward. Either he's good, and he stays because we make him, or he's bad and we let him fall. Or, better yet, we keep him around and outsource him anyway off the books.”
Jorge turned slowly toward the curious warm smile of the old man, looking very much like a cold reptile seeking a source of heat. “Well then you should go fill out that contract with Satan to harvest souls or whatever it took to summon someone to throw into this fire.”