Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Adventure of the Splattered Manager

Another horrid day at work. I'd arrived promptly for the 10 to 6 flextime shift, barked through bristling teeth at tail-waggingly solicitous underlings, and retired to my office, flinging my briefcase vaguely in the direction of the portrait of The Founder. Missed, as I always do (never was much for athletics.) The briefcase split open, discharging its contents into the wastebasket below, before careening across half the office to land in the damned plant. Temper, temper. Work is never easy, I reminded myself with a hissing martyr's sigh, and that temper, if unleashed, is nearly as likely to land you in trouble as not. I poured out my coffee into my lefthand drawer, then put a serious dollop of 25-year-old Scotch into the cup, reattaching the lid for propriety's sake -- though Lord knows the firm has more stewed employees than a canned beef factory before they changed the labor laws.

I'd taken a chair and gotten the first order of business out of the way: ordering 1000 laptops, canceling yesterday's order for 1025. I do this twice a month -- it's a large company -- and it has to be timed with utter precision for the old invoice switch to work. True, it's small change by corporate cashflow standards, but that's just the point, and it adds up. Hope to be able to buy a third sports car in a few weeks, although I'm spoiling myself. Can't drive them all at once, after all.

By 11:30, by dint of a few more shots, I was feeling pastoral, and ready to head out for first flextime shift lunch. This was a bother, in that I lost the third shift coffee break, but I didn't have to return until 1:45, the end of the third shift lunch period. But I delayed too long in putting out an interoffice memo bonfire I'd started in the 100th Anniversary standing ashtray, and by the time I had it out, just past 11:33, in staggers the old man, without so much as a by your leave, the old rubbish.

I stood up, scattering ashes from my vest to the brisk winds of the central air conditioner. Old Man Batrachian hobbles forward with infuriating slowness, first one dragon-head cane, then the other. After the usual intolerably long procedure of settling himself creakily into the cushioned chair, then arranging his useless legs to his satisfaction, he harumphs -- that old, phlegmish, death-rattle harumph he's practiced for years -- and fixes me with his glittering glass eye while the other rolls about helplessly.

"Well, Bleak," he begins with a gummy brown smile, his pipe, the ivory one carved into a profile of Gordon of Khartoum, clattering to the floor. "Please make yourself comfortable." I've already sat, so I kick off my shoes under the desk and lean back in my chair, hands behind my neck; he's blind as a bat, and looks rather like one too. Feels like one, I shouldn't wonder. "I don't want to worry you with this unusual intrusion, so do relax." I take a long sip from my coffee cup. "There's a problem that's arisen, not an unmanageable one, something in fact I think we can deal with smoothly enough, but it's a problem nonetheless, one that must be addressed." His single remaining eyebrow leaps two full inches on the left side of his forehead, and his monocle toboggans down his face, skidding deftly down his protruding stomach, and lands, quite miraculously, in what remains of his lap.

I'm alert now, somewhat, but I've handled situations before, and have usually emerged the better for it. No sense in letting oneself get too lax. "Quite all right, sir," I reply in the fawning but commandingly masculine voice I reserve for awkward occasions. "Pray continue."

"Please, Bleak," he wheezes companionably. "Call me Ezra. In any case, you've been with the firm a good long time. As had your father and his father before him, bless their souls. Done a smashing job, too. Corporate protocol review was in a sorry state indeed when you took it over. We had our doubts at the time. You were young, you were arrogant, you were a bit too free with the expense accounts and with the ladies. But you came from sturdy stock, went to the right schools, and had a certain dash about you, so we decided to give you a chance. By God, you didn't disappoint. Processed a hundred protocol memoranda in a week's time -- more than had been turned over in the entire accumulated history of the firm. By God, you had a positive genius for moving paper. Still do, I might add." He beamed and gestured with his left cane at the papers in the wastebasket. The cane flew from his hand and shattered a porcelain umbrella stand. "Look at all you've done today, in under four hours. Astounding. Never cared for the paper end of the business myself. Too bad. Give me twenty fellows like you and I'll rule the world, that's what I said at the time. Say it now, too. What are we paying you now?"

Ostensibly? Irrespective of accounting irregularities? God knows. I have to think quickly. "Ah, you're too kind, sir...Ezra. But, really, my salary is perfectly adequate to my small needs. It's the job I love, sir. I could easily make more elsewhere, sir...Ezra. But it's the challenges of the position that I live for." Careful, Bleak. Don't spread it on too thick.

Not to worry. "Just the thing," he sputters heftily, "that I'd expect a splendid rising professional such as yourself to say. But you'll be seeing a bit more in your check, I'll make a note."

Oh, no, not that horribly spastic making-a-note ritual, that might take hours. It's noon already, and my lunch "hour" is steadily diminishing. Somehow I manage to distract him by bringing up The Current Matter.

"Ah, yes, yes," mutters The Old Man. "An unfortunate business that. Too bad about Peswicke the other day, eh?"

Careful, murky waters ahead. I put a hand to my brow and reach for my handkerchief with the other. "Oh, just tragic, sir. The poor, tormented fellow. So bright, so promising. If I'd had the smallest inkling of what he intended, sir -- It happened right here. I ought to have been able to intervene, but it happened so quickly--"

"Be that as it may," he says. "We're forthright here, Bleak. That's how the firm is run. No sentimental nonsense. Peswicke, well. Too bad for his family and all that sort of thing, sent his wife a canned ham. But no great loss, if you see what I mean. A bit too much of an upstart, no breeding. Went to some business school or something. Wore horrid ties. Can't think why we hired him. Have to speak to someone about that. Nonetheless, he was an employee, and I do wish the whole sorry mess could have been avoided. We do like to handle personnel matters in the old way. He would have been dealt with in due course."

"Well, yes, sir," I respond with a nod. "But I don't quite see what you're driving at, sir..."

He stirred, little heaps of fat scurrying across historso, then coming to rest with an audible internal collapse. "All right, then. Straight to the point." Good, you old bugger; about bloody time. "We can't have this any longer, Bleak," he says sternly. "It's a different era, we have the corporate image to think of. It just won't do. I think you catch my meaning here."

"Sir?"


"Well, this murder business, dammit. We can't have it. Not even if it looks like suicide. I know Perwicke was an ass, surprised someone didn't toss him off a building long before this. I see that you had to deal firmly with the fellow, and sternly. But your means were a bit precipitous, even if your end was entirely justified. Nor was Peswicke the first chap to fall from your office. We were previously content to overlook these unfortunate occurrences, tensions are inevitable, and you never tossed anyone who didn't ask for it in spades. Saved the firm a lot of tedious paperwork and legal mumbo-jumbo in getting rid of the dead wood, don't ya know?" He sighed like a great collapsing bellows. "But this, ah, defenestration of yours made the papers. It just won't do, Bleak. Won't do at all." A tuft of his thinning hair fell out. "I don't mean to be critical here, Bleak. Leave a solid chap like you to his own methods, I say. Look to the results. But we can't have any more of this murder thing. Bad for business, in the end."

"Well, sir," I reply very carefully, "I'm very glad indeed that you addressed these concerns to me. Anything I can do for the company, all you have to do is mention it. And you have my word, sir, I won't do anything like that again on company time, sir. Not without prior approval. Thanks so much for bringing this matter to my attention." Coffee cup again, but the damned thing's empty. Want badly to re-fill it, but best not press my luck.

"Good, good," groans Old Batrachian. "Can't ask for better than that, can we? You're a good fellow, Bleak. Unfortunate business, as I say, but we've cleared it up like gentlemen, haven't we?"

There follow another twenty minutes of his collecting his sagging body parts and various accoutrements and dragging himself out the door. Damn. An hour shot to hell. Damn it all. Ought to toss the old bugger himself out the window, but he'd be too heavy. Well, I can take lunch, return for a bit of paperwork, slip out at three to make up the time; the evening staff starting to arrive ought to cover my exit.

I'm just leaving the office when my secretary buzzes me. "Mrs. Peswicke on the line." Oh, God. Forgot to tell Griselda that I wasn't in to Mrs. Peswicke, that damnable nuisance of a merry widow. She'll have to be dealt with too, and soon, but for now I must take the call. Blast.

Well, as I said, a horrid day all round. But I'll take things easy tonight. Tomorrow's another day, after all.