Thursday, December 6. 2012
Numbers floated by. Daniel leaned back and the lights flickered. A tiny pool of light in a sea of dark office. He picked up his cards and began shuffling them. There was nothing else to do. 31%. The computer had slowed down after five. It only worked eight hours a day, just like his co-workers. 31% The computer was calculating Zeno's paradox apparently as every percent took twice as long as the last. Daniel drew a card. Seven of spades. Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work. He remembered lying in bed, wondering if he should call in sick this morning. Life was full of little regrets like that. He drew another card. It was also a seven of spades. Daniel sighed. He remembered the exact moment when his boss had appeared. It had been 4:59, against a brilliant red dusk. Red sky at night, prepare for blight.
“Hey, Daniel, how are you?” Steve had a nasty habit of creeping up on you, especially when you were reading the sports fixtures.
“Just finished those projections for next week,” Daniel said, minimising the web browser.
“Yeah, about those,” Steve said.
Daniel made a face at the computer. Then turned around with what he hoped was an innocent curiosity.
“Yes, actually. Turns out they didn’t want to include the Northwind figures,”
Daniel made a show of sighing “Oh boy. I’ll have to start again,”
“My bad, seriously. I should have checked with them before telling you to go ahead,”
“No problem, Steve. I can turn them round in time for next week,”
Steve’s face twisted, like a kid swallowing bad medicine. “That’s… the other problem,”
Of course I can get them for you tonight Steve. No problem. Daniel wondered when he’d become such a suck-up. Possibly just three hours ago. 7:59 and up to 32%. He shuffled the cards. The extra seven sat propped against the monitor. Doing them by hand was faster than this. Every time he had to check a figure the computer insisted on recompiling. There’d been a big expo of the latest accounting and analysis software yesterday. When he’d arrived they’d lost his name-tag and he’d had to wear a handwritten one. The people who bought these things were not the people who had to use them. He’d had a rather nasty argument with one of the salesmen. To hell with this. He snagged the spare seven off the desk and went in search of sustenance.
He was at the coffee dock playing with the seven when the lights went on around the corner. A portly business suit appeared, occupied by a balding man in old glasses. He looked important so Daniel nodded respectfully and pretended to be busy.
“Daniel, was it?”
Oh god, they’d met before. Daniel turned, holding up a mug defensively “Hi,” He swallowed. “Late night, huh?”
The man nodded and smiled “Working you hard are they?”
What kind of question was that? Was he being set-up? Were they checking on Steve? Daniel scrabbled for a neutral response.
“No, just some reports I forgot,”
“Well don’t let them keep you too late,” the accent was Canadian. The only Canadians around here were the directors though. Oh crap.
“Uh, no sir,”
There was a glittering smile. “Just call me Wahlberg,”
“Yeah sorry,” Daniel edged away. “I’d better go check my reports,” he finished lamely and fled.
Halfway there he realised what he was missing. He’d stashed the cheat sheet in the car at lunch. After all, why risk forgetting it? He made for the stairs, eyes on the lookout for the director. Wahlberg? When did he meet a Wahlberg? Christmas party? Business lunch? Maybe it was on the street? He racked his brains the whole way down the lift. Wahlberg. What a name. Were they going for walnut? Some parents were horrendous. His mother had mentioned once that she’d been going through a hippy phase when he was born. He’d almost been condemned to a life as Stardust. The thought had kept up Daniel for days. What poor fool could suffer being named after a Bowie song?
“No I don’t want that one. It could break halfway,”
The voice echoed through the car park. Daniel could see his car, sitting alone in the corner furthest away from the doors. He made a mental note to move it, eyes roaming for the speaker. There were two cleaners in the underground car park. Daniel didn’t know their names, but he bet Wahlberg didn’t either. The cleaners wore grey uniforms that blended against the office walls; presumably so important people couldn’t see them. Daniel moved slowly towards them. He had to; they’d taken over the car park. Two piles dominated the scene, one of office chairs, the other fire extinguishers.
“Alright, how’s the pressure?”
“Evening,” he called out.
The younger one looked up. She had an extinguisher in her hand and the pin in the other. She wasn’t so much scrawny as wiry. Or at least that’s what he thought before she fired at him.
A jet of water shot a good twenty feet toward him. He jumped, but only droplets speckled his shirt.
“Cease fire!” yelled the older one. The water died away.
He limped towards Daniel, dragging a mop behind him “Sorry about that. She’s an itchy trigger finger,”
There was something vaguely foreign about his weird, wrinkly, smiling face.
“Bloody hell,” said Daniel rather dramatically. He made a show of wiping his shirt.
“Are you alright sir? No bones broken? Mental anguish? PTSD?”
“I’m fine… what are you doing?”
The cleaner wrapped his arm around Daniel’s shoulder and near dragged him towards the piles. He could see now, they had a couple of the chairs on their rollers and the ground was streaked with water.
“See these extinguishers? They’re due a refill. Them chairs? They’re about to be thrown out,” said the cleaner, arm waving expansively.
The girl, woman, dropped the extinguisher with a clang “This one’s good,” she said.
“That makes five then. We should be good to go,” said the older cleaner.
Daniel ducked out from under the arm. He felt a growing horror at the scope of this clearly criminal enterprise “So what are you actually doing, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Waste not, want not. Daniel wasn’t it? I’m Gundrea,”
Daniel was not put off by the platitude. He pressed the attack “Ok, just mind my car please. It’s over there,”
They followed his outstretched finger. It was hard to miss the battered Ford. It was after all the only car there.
“Right,” Gundrea nodded “You know you’re welcome to join in. That’s Ellen by the way,”
Ellen sat in one of the chairs and pointed the extinguisher in front of her.
The blast cut him off. The chair shot forward, and she sped across the car park before bouncing off the wall.
“How was it?” yelled Gundrea.
“Little flimsy. Not sure if you can handle it,” she shouted back.
“We’ll see about that,” he said, adjusting his hat.
“I’ve gotta go,” said Daniel.
Nobody missed him.
Back in the elevator he remembered the cheat sheet. Bloody, bloody, goddamn. Now he’d have to go back down and face those maniacs. He went up anyway and puttered about for a bit, just to save face. The computer was up to 42%. His coffee was cold. He made a fresh brew. The lights were off. Wahlberg must have skipped home.
Finally he was ready. He used the stairs. It’s not like he wasn’t going to be here all night anyway. The door opened to a chorus of cheers. One of the chairs was in full flight. Daniel watched in awe and horror as its occupant lost his propellant and bounced off a pillar. He approached slowly when he realised it was Wahlberg staggering from the chair.
“Well done!” Gundrea leaned on his mop.
Ellen appeared to help Wahlberg up “Not bad, you need to focus on keeping it steady,”
Daniel met Wahlberg’s gaze and shut his mouth.
“Ah, Daniel! Up for a race?” Wahlberg grinned like an adrenalin junkie.
Daniel opened his mouth again. “My reports,” was all he managed.
Gundrea sidled up. “Where would we be without projections and statistical breakdowns?”
Wahlberg frowned “Wait, are you doing the Northwind projections?”
Daniel looked at him nonplussed “Well actually they’re minus Northwind,”
Wahlberg dismissed him with a gesture “Don’t worry about them. The meeting got put back to next week,”
Daniel felt the bottom drop out of his world. He was guided to a chair. The other contestants took their seats and lifted extinguishers. The race was about to begin. Daniel held his fire extinguisher, imagining what it would feel like buried in Steve’s skull. He barely noticed when Ellen leaned across.
“Why do you have a name-tag?”
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