Cubicle Murder – Chapter 1 of 9

Starting time at Radon Corporation, for myself and just about every other employee, is 8:00 AM. Normally I’m a consistent twenty minutes late to work every morning but on this particular morning traffic was unusually light. When I pulled into the parking lot I was actually a few minutes early. This was somewhat disturbing, since the last thing I wanted was to start a precedent by arriving on time, let alone early. No way was I setting “unpaid foot one” in that building, as a matter of principle.

On the days when I arrive twenty minutes late the parking lot is always full of cars but is generally empty of employees, except for a few latecomers who are either racing for the lobby doors in the desperate hope that being sixty seconds less late to their desk will save their job, or those determinedly strolling toward the doors bearing the look of the prisoner standing before the firing squad who sneeringly refuses the blindfold. But it was now about five minutes before the starting hour, and all the good, loyal, and true employees were out of their cars and moving like a herd of cows toward the lobby doors.

Never one to overlook an opportunity, I began circling the lot, feeling a bit like a seagull flying overhead at the beach. I maneuvered my car – a dirty, 25 year old GM-Ford-Chrysler mongrel that had outlived two previous owners – into a tiny sliver of space at the front of the lot. I then waited with motor running, crouched down in the front seat, surveying the oncoming crowd in my rear view mirror like a lion scanning a herd of wildebeest for potential prey.

After a moment I spotted my target emerging from a black BMW that probably cost more than I make in a year. Looking thirtyish but probably in her forties, she was dressed in an elegant, cream colored pantsuit that hugged her trim curves and showed just the right amount of teasing cleavage. Her blond hair was beautifully styled and something sparkled in the morning light around her neck. She was a stunner, no denying it. I wondered what I was looking at: perhaps a high level executive from corporate headquarters, here to inform us that our jobs were now being outsourced to Uganda? We are ever so grateful for all your hard work and would you please be out of your cubicle by 3:00 PM?

Miss Corporate Shark didn’t see me, or if she did, she didn’t realize her danger as she crossed behind my car. With exquisite timing I switched off the ignition. The death rattle of my car’s engine was a sudden thunderous roar of angry denial. The woman’s head swiveled in my direction. Finally grasping her peril she gave a panicky bleat and made a desperate jump to the side. It was a good effort – the wildebeest trying to duck the lion’s swiping paw – but not good enough. My car belched a final explosion of black smoke. I heard a shriek, then a sob, and suddenly a crazed woman covered in oily soot from hair to shoes was banging on my window and screaming incoherently. I was absolutely awestruck. Before and after photos on the Internet would have made me a fortune.

I rolled down my window. “I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t see you behind me.”

“You-you-you…” she managed. Her face was trying to turn red but under the soot it could only manage a purplish color. I pushed open the door and climbed out.

“It’s not so bad,” I said, looking her over critically. “Run a comb through your hair and no one will notice.”

“I have to give a presentation in an hour!” she wailed.

“Oh, that’s such bad luck! Well, I’m sure it’s the content of your presentation that will matter, not the packaging,” I said, piously.

The woman sucked in a huge lungful of air. I thought she intended to scream or curse at me. Instead, she swung her purse with truly lethal intent directly at my head. I ducked and began moving quickly toward the lobby.

Over my shoulder I said, “Sorry, miss, no time to talk. Can’t be late for work.” I hadn’t noticed, but a crowd had gathered. “Excuse me. Excuse me,” I said, striding forward with chin up and elbows swinging, the very image of the conscientious employee hurrying to work. Meanwhile, my ears were alert for the populist reviews behind me.

“What an asshole!”

“Somebody should call the police!”

“Where the hell is security? No way a guy like that works here.”

“Dude, you rock!”

It was all sweet music to my ears. I was smiling as I entered the lobby. Old Herman, the ancient black security guard, was sitting at his desk. According to legend, Herman was a hundred and thirty years old and had once been arrested for bank robbery by Melvin Purvis himself.

“Hi, Herman,” I said. “How’s life?”

“Taking forever, seems like,” he replied laconically, passing me a clipboard with sign-in sheet attached.

“Is it true you’re a hundred and thirty years old?” I asked, looking over the sign-in list.

“Not anymore,” he said, white teeth flashing in a grin.

The sign-in sheet had a space where I was supposed to note my arrival time. I looked up at the clock. It was ten minutes past eight. I was a little surprised because I thought that today I would be able to truthfully say I was on time. Evidently, time really does fly when you’re having fun. Well, no problem. I wrote down 7:59 AM, signed my name, and passed the clipboard back to Herman. He glanced at the clipboard, grinned again, and set it down.

“What was all that commotion outside, Gordie?” he asked. “Did you pull another seagull?”

I grinned. “Herman, my friend, this one you are just not going to believe.”

Suddenly his head swiveled toward the lobby doors and his face went carefully blank. I heard the doors open. “Shee-it!” Herman said, and either he had training as a ventriloquist or he spoke telepathically, because as far as I could tell his face was set in stone.

I whispered, “Quick, Herman, buzz me in!” Herman pressed a button, his eyes never leaving the apparition in his lobby. The lock buzzed and I raced for the door.

“Hey! Hey, you! Stop!” she bellowed behind me. “Somebody stop that man!”

“Shee-it!” Herman’s lips never moved but somehow he said it again.

I opened the door and risked a quick look back. Oh, she was a perfect demonic vision, covered in oily soot, hair wild, face streaked with tears of rage! I shook my head, marveling. For a moment I stood transfixed. I was a deer caught in the demon lady’s headlights.

She sucked in another huge lungful of air and this time I knew she wasn’t going to waste it on screams or curses. She reared back and threw her purse. Transfixed my ass, I was through the door like a scalded cat, the purse bisecting the spot that I had just vacated. I heard a boom that reverberated throughout the building as the purse hit the wall next to the door and stuck there, caving a big hole in the plaster.

“Shee-it!” thought Herman loudly, and then the door clicked shut behind me and I was safe behind DoD secure walls.

I heard pounding on the door and muffled curses but nobody without a Compartmented Secret clearance could follow me through. I waited for a moment, just inside the door, but it didn’t open. She didn’t have the necessary clearance. I pumped my fist triumphantly. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Yes, I had that clearance. I got it the old fashioned way: I lied. I lied on my resume, lied on my job application, lied during a preliminary interview, lied during another, more formal, interview, lied on my security application, and of course I lied most ferociously during the lie detector test. “Did you ever… Have you ever… Even one time?” they asked me, as I sat strapped in the chair. I must have sounded like a sixteen year old schoolgirl reassuring her anxious mother. “Oh no, I never did… I never would… Not even one time!”

I kept on lying and they just kept on believing me. Apparently I’m quite good at it. They did check my references. I know because I answered the calls myself. I praised myself to the skies and eventually ended up as lead programmer on several very highly classified “blackworld” projects.

A Compartmented Secret clearance is higher than a Top Secret clearance, high enough to induce classified nosebleeds. Armed with such, I am privy to some truly scary military secrets and I watch with some amusement the never ending dance between the silly bleeding heart liberals and their allies, the crazed conspiracy theorists, and senior Administration officials, who, when questioned about possible U.S. involvement in scary military projects, would inevitably respond with expressions of bafflement and wide eyed innocence that begged the question: how could any sane person believe we would ever be involved in such things?

In fact, the truth was usually far worse than the fiction. For instance, I was currently writing software for a project known informally as “Really Fat Man”. The RFM is a laser guided hydrogen bomb that could be dropped from low orbit. Upon detonation, it would very suddenly transform about 600 square miles of earth into a very large pit. Unbelievable nonsense, in my opinion. Oh, it would work as advertised, perhaps even better than advertised, but what could one really do with such a weapon, practically speaking?

Not too long ago I attended a briefing chaired by high level military brass. They were seated around an oval table. The attending civilians were seated nearby, movie-theatre style, but close enough to ask an occasional direct question. I happened to be sitting in the front row.

I recall an Air Force major chortling about using the RFM to wipe out an entire terrorist organization in a nanosecond. Just drop it on any country harboring such an organization and – poof! – no more terrorists. I remarked from my seat, perhaps injudiciously, that such a weapon might kill non-terrorists as well as terrorists.

At this, of course, there was a good deal of frowning. The Air Force major cleared his throat and glared over at me with some annoyance. “As you say, some collateral damage might occur, but if a country isn’t harboring terrorists, we wouldn’t be dropping it on them,” he said, with the air of a man making an irrefutable assertion.

I then compounded my mistake by wondering aloud what criteria we were going to use to identify a terrorist – anyone saying prayers in the direction of Mecca, perhaps? I received even more glares from the assembled brass.

Never one to pull up before driving off a cliff, I asked if any studies had been done to estimate the ecological consequences of throwing 600 square miles of earth into the atmosphere. Wasn’t it something like this that had wiped out the dinosaurs, so long ago? I was just getting warmed up when my supervisor tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that my presence was urgently needed elsewhere. I suddenly realized that all I was doing was jeopardizing my job. I hastened to repair the damage.

I stood up, slowly surveyed the room, and then said, “My apologies, gentlemen, but for humanitarian reasons I must insist that these issues receive due diligence.” I then crossed my arms and put on a determined, concerned look.

Irritated voices rose in volume and the Air Force major started to say something no doubt crushing when the ranking officer at the table, a white haired, two star general who looked a great deal like God, suddenly barked out, “Enough, gentlemen!” The lesser brass immediately fell silent.

The general glared around the table. “This man’s concerns are well founded, as you should all realize. We are not barbarians here, to imagine dropping hellish weapons without considering the consequences.” The other officers stared down at their hands, smoothly transitioning into rebuked mode.

The general nodded once, then turned his attention to me. “Your concerns do you credit, sir, and I assure you that I, as well as the current Administration, share them equally.” The general then paused, collecting his thoughts impressively, while I put on an expression of concerned skepticism. He leaned forward, his eyes boring into mine.

“In response to you, I can say only that the Administration believes it unlikely that such a weapon would ever actually be used. We are confident that just having it will act as a powerful deterrent to the enemy. But if, God forbid, it ever became necessary to deploy such a weapon, you have my word that it would only be done after all other courses of action had first been considered.” He then gave a final, decisive nod.

I waited a beat. Timing is everything in these matters. “Very good, sir,” I said finally. “I must say I’m relieved to hear this and I apologize if I spoke out of turn. Sometimes my mouth runs away with itself. No one is more concerned with the terrorist threat than I am.” I looked around the room. “But I’m sure if we drop one or two of these babies, the war on terror will come to a very sudden end!”

And just like that I was back with the program, with approving smiles and nods all round. They were morons, of course, but morons with their finger on the trigger. It was a very frightening thought.

It was at times like this that I really do believe in the existence of a beneficent God who is keeping the human race from destroying itself. How else could we have survived until now? And if this is so, then I suspect we’re running the Poor Bastard ragged. The human race is a determinedly stupid lot. Well, rest easy, Big Guy, I’ve got your back on this one. It was my software that was responsible for detonating the weapon and it would perform this task perfectly in every simulation. However, if the bomb was ever actually dropped for real, there would be no detonation; it would fall from the sky like a load from a pterodactyl and the only terrorist it would kill would be the unlucky sonofabitch it landed on.