Close to Home
Nathan’s email contained an all hands notice to attend a town hall in the cafeteria at 0800. He, along with 300 or so co-workers, filed like drones into the big, funky dining hall on the first deck and sat at long, penitentiary-style tables, chatting as they waited for Bobby to start the show and tell.
The division chiefs were seated on folding chairs atop a raised dais. They were mostly pale, middle-aged, somber-faced, gray-haired, casually attired, and slightly overweight. Top dog Bobby Bendix, a lunchtime jogger, was tall, lean, and fit, with the handsome, haughty face of a Ted Bundy.
Nathan wondered what this so-called town hall was all about. The agency had never had one before. The recently elected president may have started the town hall craze during the election, going from town to town to commune with average citizens and convince them he was the most caring candidate. Other candidates followed his example, and pretty soon Nathan was unable to turn on his TV without encountering one.
Now that the empathetic dude had been elected, his minions were imitating him, It seemed like they were using town halls to feign interest in workers but didn’t honestly give a shit; it was all public relations and keeping up appearances.
Nathan hated the agency, composed of paper pushers, bureaucrats, and managers for life, but at least he couldn’t get fired, as in private industry, where he had worked before. In that former life, he had grown weary of the recurrent layoffs. He had joined this den of mediocrity for job security.
“What the fuck’s this all about?” Doug said to Carl, who was seated beside him. Carl was Doug’s best and only friend in Human Resources. A former Marine, Carl always said what was on his mind.
“Bobby wants to impress everyone what a sweet dude he is,” Carl said.
“You don’t like him, Carl?”
Carl snorted. “Fuck, man. Do you?”
“I’m working in the shithole because of him.”
“It’s town hall, you can complain.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Don’t, man. You’ll piss him off. You can’t go no lower than the bottom deck on this ship of fools.”
Doug did not want to be there. It would be boring and painful having to listen to that asshole talk gibberish into the microphone for however long it took to exert his death grip on the workers. He would rather be roaming the Internet, doing social media, pornography, computer games, and whatnot.
He detested Bobby. Once, on an elevator, he had overheard him say to a division director, “Have you ever noticed how human resources departments are filled with losers?”
The memory stung, for two years ago, after losing his temper and spouting off to a manager, the manager complained to Bobby, who demoted Doug from programmer to trainer, and reassigned him to HR, where he worked in a cubicle in the basement, the refuse bin of the agency. It was filled with filing cabinets, outdated computers, a supply room, and cast off employees in cold storage because they didn’t fit in or were fuckups, insubordinate, lazy, or too stupid or smart for their own good. His new job was to man the computer help line and train computer incompetents how to use their computers.
“Oh-oh,” Carl said. “Bobby’s on his feet. . . now he’s walking to the mike . . . he’s about to tap on it. Shit, cover your ears, Yogi Bear.”
A tapping sound like an over amped snare drum at a deafening rock concert filled the hall, then silence, then the nasally voice of the supreme leader said, “Hello, guys. How is everyone?”
Mutterings from the audience followed by a few claps.
“You all look fine,” Bobby went on.
“I bet you’re all wondering why we’re having this town hall.” A long pause.
“Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because it gives us a chance to bring you up to date on agency developments and allow you, our talented workforce, to share your thoughts on how to improve our workplace.”
A long pause.
“I’ll start by saying that the downsizing rumors are just that, rumors, so your jobs are safe, at least for the time being.”
“How long is that?” someone shouted.
“Who asked the question.” A pause.
“Please stand up.”
No one stood.
“Well, if whoever asked the question won’t identify themselves, I won’t respond.”
Someone whistled. Scattered clapping echoed throughout the hall.
Bobby turned to the seated division directors and they carried on a brief dialogue.
When the audience quieted, Bobby turned back to the mike. “Ahem. Moving on, in the next three months, contractors will be removing walls on floors six and seven to convert the private offices to open space with cubicles.”
“Cubicles suck,” someone shouted.
“Studies have shown that cubicles increase interactions among employees and enhance teamwork.”
“Distractions, not interactions,” someone yelled.
“The decision has been made,” Bobby said forcefully. He cleared his throat, and continued, “Moving on, Ryan Fox is a former FBI agent. He will be coming aboard next week as Security Officer. His office is located on the first floor, opposite mine. I encourage you to drop by, introduce yourself, and make him feel at home.”
Doug stood up and shouted, “Hey, Bobby. I got a question for you.”
Bobby looked at Doug. “What’s on your mind, Douglas?”
“When are you going to fix the climate control system in the HR spaces?”
“Is there a problem?”
“Yeah. It’s freezing down there in winter, and sweltry in summer.”
Bobby turned to Ellen Sparks, Doug’s supervisor. “Is there a problem with the climate down in your neck of the woods, Ellie?”
Bobby looked straight at Doug. “Sorry, Doug. Ellie doesn’t share your opinion.”
Doug said, “You should come on down there sometime, Bobby, find out for yourself.”
“Moving on . . .”
Doug remained standing.
“Was there something else, Douglas?”
“Yes, sir. We already got the federal cops. Why a security officer?”
“Ryan’s a special investigator, on temporary assignment. When he finishes it, he’ll leave.”
Doug flushed, feeling a sudden sense of panic, and sat down.
“Nice work, Dilbert” Carl said. “Now you’re in for it.”
Sitting there in the cafeteria, Doug felt an amalgam of emotions. Anger at Bobby’s dismissive response and his supervisor’s lie. Anxiety about that FBI guy Ryan. Fear because he and Carl had a money-making scam going. Carl ran the supply room. The scam was, instead of shipping all surplus property to a federal warehouse, he took the good stuff to Doug’s garage and they sold it on eBay and Craigslist.
Doug wondered if someone had caught on to their scam and the FBI was coming to investigate.
He felt like mentioning his theory to Carl, but had second thoughts.
Carl had said the scam was undetectable, but he was not the brightest guy.
The FBI always got the bad guys, and if they busted Carl, he would incriminate Doug as his accomplice. Stealing from the government was a federal crime. If convicted, Doug and Carl would spend hard time in Leavenworth.
“Get up, man,” Carl said.
“Huh?” Doug said.
“The revival’s over, man. Time to get back to the shithole.”
Doug got up, and looked around. The cafeteria was almost empty. They walked together toward the stairwell.
“What’s wrong with you?” Carl said.
“You were sitting there, like in a trance.”
“Got a lot on my mind these days, bro.”
Carl checked his watch. “Shit! It’s only eight forty-seven. It’s gonna be a long fuckin’ day.”
A week later, at 7:15 a.m., Nathan drove into the agency parking lot. Most agency employees came in at 7:30 a.m. or later and the lot was almost empty. As he got out of his car, he noticed Doug Prospect’s red BMW M3 in the far corner of the lot. He had probably parked the expensive, high-performance car there to keep it where few other cars would be parked. Doug used to drive a beat-up Honda. Nathan wondered how he was able to afford such a fine car.
Doug had once worked for Nathan. He was lazy, argumentative, and disruptive. Two years ago, Nathan counseled him after he botched a coding assignment and Doug threatened him. Nathan reported the incident to Bobby. Bobby reassigned Doug to HR and let Nathan hire a recent software engineering graduate to replace him. Still acting up, Doug had made a stink in the recent town hall.
Nathan walked toward the rear entrance, a cipher locked steel door with a small, wire-reinforced window, beside the loading dock. Carl Kelvin and Ryan Fox reached the door at about the same time. Nathan nodded at Ryan.
“I don’t know the passcode yet,” Ryan said.
Nathan looked at Carl. “What do you think, Carl. Do you know this guy?”
“Maybe we should make him show an ID,” Carl said, smiling.
Ryan frowned and started to reach into a pocket.
Carl keyed in the passcode; the door lock clicked.
Carl started to open the door.
A gunshot rang out.
Ryan clutched his chest and started to fall; Nathan grabbed him.
A second shot rang out.
Carl cried out and clutched his throat, but had the presence of mind to kick the door open and pull Ryan inside.
A third shot rang out, striking the door. Nathan went through the door and kicked it shut.
Nathan peeked out the window. Doug was about fifty feet away, holding an AR-15 assault rifle at port arms, marching rapidly toward the door. He stopped, raised the rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and the little window in the door shattered, sprinkling glass shards into the building.
Nathan shoved some chairs against the door as a barricade. Carl was seated, leaning against a wall, holding his neck, blood pulsing from his carotid, trickling down his shirt. Ryan was lying on the floor, unconscious, a small puncture wound in his chest. Nathan checked his pulse from a wrist; he was still alive.
Several people came down the hallway to them. Men carried Carl and Ryan to an office and locked the door. Someone called 911, then called Bobby and told him what was happening.
Moments later, the hallway speakers announced the agency was in lockdown, condition red. Bobby’s voice: “There’s been a shooting. Go to your offices and lock the doors. Stay there until you hear an all clear. Don’t worry, folks.
Everything’s under control.”
Nathan and the others who had come to assist them waited in that locked room. One of the men who had been an Army medic tried to control Carl’s bleeding, but to no avail. Through his fingers Nathan felt Carl’s pulse fade and eventually stop.
Carl was dead.
A few minutes later, they heard sirens, and then the sound of running in the hallways, and shouting. Someone knocked on the door, and a man’s voice yelled, “Anyone in there? Open up.”
Nathan said, “That’s not Doug.” He unlocked the door and opened it. Standing there were two men in flak jackets and helmets holding assault rifles. One of the men noticed the two wounded men and made a radio call requesting medical assistance.
Nathan heard shouting from the hallway. He went out the doorway and listened. The voices came from outside the rear entrance. He went to the security door and peeked out the window.
Men in flak jackets and helmets were pointing their assault rifles at Doug, who was sitting on the loading dock with his arms behind his head as if sunbathing beside his AR-15. They closed in on him and, moments later, he was face down on the ground, handcuffed behind his back.
Two men lifted him, walked him to a police car, and deposited him in the backseat.
He was grinning like a madman.
Two medics with gurneys approached the entrance. Nathan cleared away the chair barricade and opened the door for them. “This way,” he said to the medics, and led them to Ryan and Carl. They loaded the pair on the gurneys and took them away.
The hallway speakers announced all clear.
For the next few hours, the police took statements from witnesses.
The shooting made the news—ANOTHER WORKPLACE SHOOTING, RANDOM VIOLENCE, WHEN WILL IT STOP?, and the like, all too familiar words.
Bobby appeared on TV, looking somber, saying, “All of us at the agency offer our heartfelt condolences to the victims and families of the terrible shooting. May God bless you!” When asked what happened, Bobby replied, “A mentally ill worker named Douglas Prospect attacked three agency employees with an assault rifle. The quick, heroic action of an employee named Carl Kelvin saved the lives of two of those employees. Unfortunately, Carl, a former United States Marine, died in the melee. Carl was a genuine hero.”
Agency managers held mini town halls to reassure the workface that all was well and offer grief counseling.
Bobby emailed an all hands memo announcing that he had established a safety office, tasked to make everyone feel safe. It was running fresh criminal background checks on all hands.
Staff were advised to report any suspicious behavior by co-workers and: PLEASE, IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO MAY GO OFF, TELL YOUR SUPERVISOR.
Two weeks after the shooting, Ryan Fox was back at work. He was soon out jogging with Bobby during lunch hours. A few months later, Nathan noticed a picture of Bobby shaking hands with a DoD official while receiving a commendation for exemplary leadership performance.
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).