Sam was a loyal employee.
He knew that’s what they would say about him even after what would happen today. Even after they discovered the depths of his faithlessness. Sam was a loyal employee.
He stood quietly in the entry court outside the Company’s building. It was raining softly and he was getting wet. But he didn’t move the few steps into the lobby to get out of the rain. David, the morning-shift security guard was looking at him with–what? Confusion? Curiosity?
“Mr. Houston?” David opened the big main door enough to look out at him. “Mr. Houston? Can I help you with something?”
Sam focused slowly and half-smiled. “Not anymore, David. Not anymore.”
David opened the door fully and Sam stepped through. David’s own half-smile mirrored Sam’s. Sam didn’t notice. His pace quickened a bit as he moved toward the elevator bank.
“Way too late for that,” he said without meeting David’s gaze.
“Yes, sir,” David said, though he wasn’t sure Sam was talking to him. He stepped behind the security desk and watched Sam disappear into an elevator.
Sam rode the nineteen floors to his floor alone and in silence. It was still too early for most of the others to be at their places. But Sam thought it was appropriate for him to be among the first arrivers on this day. At least.
He left a small puddle in the elevator and walked across the main workroom to his office, soggy footprints in his wake. The lights automatically came on as he crossed the big room filled with desks and cubicles. In fact, Sam was the first to arrive.
He took off his wet overcoat and laid it across his single guest chair and sat behind his desk. His office was small and, though it was enclosed, it did not have a door. His computer screen was blank. He touched the keyboard and the screen-saver popped up. It showed the time was 7:13 A.M. He knew Mr. Princeton’s computer would show this entry. Sam smiled. He’d beaten his boss in this morning.
He sat, watching the clock on his screen change. He dimly realized that others were filtering in, taking their places in the workroom. Some of them noticed Sam sitting motionless at his desk. Most did not.
He was jolted out of his reverie when Mr. Princeton appeared in the doorway. He glanced at his screen—8:27 A.M. He moved the mouse a bit and the clock disappeared. But, not before Mr. Princeton noticed it.
“You busy, Sam?” he said.
“No, sir, Mr. Princeton. Just getting the day started.” Sam looked up.
“Mmmmm.” Mr. Princeton glanced at Sam’s screen again. “We need to meet this morning. How’s 9:00?”
“Sure.” Sam made a show of opening his calendar. “No problem.”
“Good. I’ll come here.” Mr. Princeton glanced at Sam’s overcoat. It had stopped dripping.
Sam turned away from the doorway as Mr. Princeton walked off. He frowned a little. What was this about? How would it affect his plans, his schedule? He turned back to the doorway and peered at the wall clock across the workroom. Nine o’clock wouldn’t be a problem, he thought, if Mr. Princeton didn’t take too long.
Glancing around to be certain that Mr. Princeton was not outside his office, he turned his back to the doorway and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. Making sure his body blocked the view, he looked inside and gave a small sigh. It was still there. Everything was on track. He closed the drawer carefully and faced his screen. Though it had many icons and file names, his eye was drawn to the icon in the lower left corner captioned, simply, “Plan.” He thought about opening it, but didn’t. He knew what it said.
He noticed his office smelled a little like a wet dog.
Douglas Princeton closed the door to his office and, before settling behind his desk, stood looking out the wide window. The rain was still falling. Was, in fact, coming down harder now. His partial view of the Bay Bridge was dimmed but not entirely blocked by the rain and gray mist.
At length, he turned away and sat heavily at his desk. The performance workbook was still open on his screen. It showed in minute detail the efforts made by each of the employees sitting on this, his floor. The cursor was still set on the lines showing Sam Houston’s stats. He noted again that Houston had arrived earlier today than anybody else on the floor, including him. Even so, the line also showed that, until a brief moment ago, Houston had not made even a single keystroke on his computer.
“Typical,” he said, mostly under his breath.
He pulled his keyboard toward him and opened the file marked “Sam Houston – Q3 review.” Sam Houston, he thought. What a ridiculous name for somebody so unimpressive.
He pulled up the most recent action memo from Houston’s file and reviewed again the plan for this morning’s meeting. He wasn’t entirely sure this plan was a good idea but, then, it hadn’t been up to him. He had tried to tweak it but had been overruled.
He glanced at his watch. Eight fifty-five.
At the same time, Jeffrey Ewer, one of three executive vice-presidents, pushed through an unmarked door just down the fortieth floor hallway from his office. The door opened on a softly lit vestibule that led only to another door across from where he entered. The hall door closed quietly behind him and, after a beat or two, he heard the click of the automatic lock. He pushed through the other door. It opened into a largish room lit only by a score of computer and video screens and myriad flashing green, red and yellow lights.
Ewer walked quietly to the closer of two work stations. The man sitting there didn’t look up from the screens in front of him.
“Everything on track, Grant?”
“Yes, Mr. Ewer.” Most of the screens showed text and data files, charts and reports. One of the central screens showed video – a wide-angle view of the nineteenth floor workroom. Douglas Princeton was moving through the cubicles headed for Houston’s office.
“Can we get video or audio of Houston’s office?”
“No, Mr. Ewer. All those cameras were disabled last quarter.”
“Right,” Ewer said.
Both men watched as Princeton entered Houston’s office. Then, without comment, Grant typed a short command on his keyboard. The view of the workroom flipped to black then an image from the inside of Houston’s office appeared. The audio was very low but, by leaning over Grant’s shoulder, Ewer could clearly hear what was being said.
Both men watched in silence.
Sam sat quietly while Princeton took his overcoat from the chair, looked for a place to hang it, then dropped it on the floor behind the chair. He could tell that the chair was still damp so he stood next to it and cleared his throat. Sam looked at him.
“As you know, Sam, for the last six months, we’ve been paying special attention to your work here. When we put you on the performance improvement plan, we had high hopes for your future here.”
He paused. Sam shifted his gaze to look over Princeton’s shoulder at the corner of the room. “I know, Mr. Princeton. I’ve been trying my best to meet your expectations. You know, my wife had some serious health issues before she moved to Atlanta to live with her parents. Our kids are in high school but it’s still hard for me to cover everything.” He wasn’t talking particularly quickly but his deliberate pace made it difficult for Princeton to interrupt.
Sam continued to look over Princeton’s shoulder. Curious, Princeton thought, and briefly followed Sam’s gaze. Just a corner where two walls met the ceiling. He turned to Sam, held up both hands.
“We know all that.” Sam stopped talking abruptly and turned to meet Princeton’s eyes. “Believe me, Sam, we know about your personal issues and have done our best to take that into account.”
Sam watched Princeton. His left hand drifted down to touch the handle of the lower desk drawer. He slowly opened it. Princeton didn’t seem to notice.
“We’ve tried to find a way to take best advantage of your talents, Sam. We’ve talked a lot about those talents, in light of your problems.” Princeton was launching into his prepared notes now and started to relax. “But, it has become increasingly difficult to justify keeping you here. We know you have always been a loyal employee, but the Company . . .”
Abruptly, Sam turned to his left, reached his right hand inside the drawer and pulled out the gun. Not exactly my plan, he thought, but good enough. He turned back to Princeton who had stopped talking and was staring, open-mouthed. All Princeton could think was that the gun seem to have a very long barrel.
There was a loud pop and a flash (later Princeton would say he was surprised that it wasn’t louder) and, to his amazement, he actually heard the whine of the bullet as it flashed past his left ear.
On the fortieth floor, Ewer and Grant watched Houston point the gun at Princeton. They, too heard, the pop (but were not surprised by how quiet it was) and both audio and video stopped at once.
After a moment, Ewer said, “Let’s see the workroom.” Another short series of key strokes and the nineteenth floor workroom came into view. It showed Houston stride purposefully, but not hurriedly, across the floor and enter the stairwell near the elevators. His right arm hung unobtrusively at his side. The others in the room had obviously heard something unusual but were not sure of its origin. Some watched Sam cross the room but no one showed any particular alarm.
When Sam disappeared into the stairwell, Ewer placed a hand on Grant’s shoulder. He watched the video feed a moment longer then calmly said, “Did you take care of the computer thing?”
“Okay. Alert security to an incident on the nineteenth floor.”
“Yes, sir. Should I also lock down the stairwell doors and alert main floor security?”
“Tell security to respond to an incident on the nineteenth floor, Grant.” Ewer squeezed Grant’s shoulder briefly. Grant looked away from his monitors for the briefest of moments.
“Yes, sir,” he said and picked up his telephone. Ewer left the security center and returned to his office. There was a man sitting on the sofa across from his desk. Ewer nodded to him and the man rose and walked out the door.
Princeton found himself sitting on the floor of Sam’s office, stunned. There was some smoke and the smell of gun powder. Sam was gone. Princeton brought his hand to his left ear to check if he was bleeding. He wasn’t. He turned to look over his shoulder. There was a dark hole in the corner where the room’s walls met the ceiling. Ragged bits of ceiling tile hung down over the hole.
Sam took the stairs two at a time down to the fifteenth floor then stepped out of the stairwell. He was surprised that everything seemed normal. A young woman looked at him without much interest as he stepped through the door. He had left the gun with its long silencer behind a fire hose cabinet on the fifteenth floor landing.
“Don’t hurry,” he said quietly, walked to the elevator, pushed the down button and waited.
When no one stopped him in the main lobby, he admitted to himself that this was not what he expected today. He was starting to feel confused.
“Taking an early break, Mr. Houston?”
“What?” Sam turned to see David at his lobby security station. He was smiling at Sam.
“What? Oh, sure.” As Sam walked out the door, David’s smile dipped a little. It was still raining and Houston didn’t have a coat. He shrugged. He always thought Houston was a little quirky.
As he walked down Sansome Street, Sam’s confusion gradually turned to fear. He had planned for this day but his plans had never gotten this far. He had not expected to get off the nineteenth floor, let alone out of the building.
His paced became quicker and a little jerky until he came to a small restaurant–little more than a diner. It was open. Not much of a drinker, Sam did not expect that, even in San Francisco, the bar inside the diner would be open. But, it was.
Shaking and wet, he took a stool. The bartender looked at him coolly. “Kinda wet out there, huh?”
“What?” Sam still did not expect that he’d have to speak to anyone. “What? Oh, yeah.” Sam looked out the diner’s window. “It’s raining.”
The bartender also looked out the window and nodded. “Supposed to rain all day,” he said and returned his gaze to Sam. “What’ll it be?”
“What?” The conversation continued to confuse him. “Oh. Bourbon, I guess.”
“Rocks?” Sam nodded vaguely.
The bartender turned away and, in a moment, put a small glass of brown liquor in front of Sam. He moved a few steps down the bar. Sam took a sip. The cold liquor burned his mouth and throat. He stifled a cough, then, after a pause, drank it all down. He sat looking at the array of bottles behind the bar. His eyes watered a little.
A man in a gray, wrinkled raincoat came in the front door and looked around briefly. He took the stool next to Sam and motioned to Sam’s empty glass. “You’ll want another,” he said. His voice was a quiet, rich baritone that had a calming effect on Sam.
The man smiled and, motioning to the bartender, indicated two more of what Sam was drinking. They said nothing until the drinks were in front of them.
The man picked up his drink, took a sip. He and Sam continued to look at the bottles. “Interesting morning, huh?” The man sipped again and Sam turned to him.
“Maybe not your plan, but interesting.” The man turned to look at Sam. “The Company is impressed with your talents.”
Sam blinked. Blinked again. He was unable to speak. Unable to comprehend.
The man turned away and smiled again. “You always have been a loyal employee.”
Peter Sorensen is a retired commercial litigation attorney living in Phoenix, Arizona. Before his writing was corrupted by the practice of law, he graduated from the University of Utah in creative writing where he mostly wrote poetry. Peter lives in Arizona with his wife. Find him on Facebook here.