“Workplace Violence” – Fiction by Leland Neville

Desk Murder – R.B. Kitaj, 1970 – 1984

Let’s ease back into the work week with a bit of the old “Workplace Violence,” Leland Neville‘s diabolical short story from our Summer 2015 issue (available here, here,here, or here).

{ X }

IT WAS WORKPLACE VIOLENCE, possibly premeditated. The approaching sirens announced my crime. I didn’t have a lawyer. My iPhone was back at my desk. Rudy’s laptop was opened, but I didn’t want to trespass. I remembered the names of those law firms whose ads are impossible to avoid. Their phone numbers all contain seven identical numerals.

One of Rudy’s responsibilities involves escorting terminated employees from the premises of the National Data Archives. That usually happens once a day, always after lunch. Rudy doesn’t carry a gun. (I never witnessed a fired worker refusing to leave or even offering a mild verbal protest.) Our division of the National Data Archives (nine hundred associates and growing) is strictly an information call center. Other departments of the NDA answer letter and email queries.

I had delivered one vicious punch to Doug’s head in exchange for an instant of mindless pleasure. I definitely wanted him to die. Doug collapsed on his ass. My right hand burned. A woman screamed and a man yelled, “Shit!” I think I smiled.

Doug’s round shiny bald head trembled and white foam poured from his surprised mouth. A muscular, six-foot man, one of my coworkers, restrained me. “What got into you?” he asked.

“Does anyone know first aid?” asked a female coworker. “I think he’s dying,”

“I think he’s choking on his tongue,” said another female coworker. “Someone should place a pencil between his teeth.”

Doug rolled onto his belly and extended his arms. He began a steady swim kick. I focused on his Kanji neck tattoo and single black stud earring.

That’s when Rudy from security arrived. He ignored Doug.

“You’d better come with me,” he said.

We walked wordlessly down one flight of stairs, across the lobby, and into the security office, a windowless closet.

“Just wait here,” he said before leaving me alone. “You can sit at my desk.”

Fifteen minutes passed. The disjointed conversations from the lobby seemed irrelevant to the tragedy that was unfolding. There was talk about the warm weather. There was talk about the underperforming ventilation system. Had anyone inside the National Data Archives’ building not yet heard about Doug’s murder? Of course Doug was dead. The absence of a shrieking siren from a departing ambulance confirmed my worst fears. A journey to the morgue is a leisurely and quiet affair.

I assumed the detectives (they usually travel in pairs) were interviewing eyewitnesses.

“I don’t know what provoked the assault. I didn’t hear any harsh words.”

“I didn’t actually see him punch Doug, but I did see him standing there smiling.”

A coworker, maybe the man who sits at the desk behind me, will defend me by mentioning my excellent work habits. Every National Data Archives employee is polite, diligent, and punctual. Job performance evaluations are a continuous process. There are no pep talks, critical feedback, or second chances. In the end there is only Rudy offering to help box up your personal belongings.

Where was Rudy? Where were the police? What was taking them so long? What were they bagging and tagging as potential evidence? Was my computer going to be forensically examined for digital evidence? Every keystroke at the National Data Archives is monitored. The detectives desperately want to know how the Internet had influenced the murder. They would study the search history of my iPhone and pursue signs of a mental breakdown.

Was I a flight risk? I live alone. It was less than thirty feet from Rudy’s office to the back alley. I considered walking away. If Rudy or the police were lurking nearby I’d tell them I needed some fresh air. I hadn’t been formally arrested. I couldn’t even be charged with fleeing legal custody. My bank was two blocks away. What amount of cash could I withdraw that would not arouse suspicion? Had the authorities already frozen my accounts? There was no reason to return to my apartment. There was nothing that couldn’t be replaced. How difficult would it be to obtain a new identity? Maybe I could leave the country. There is a demand for English speakers in Asian call centers. My new life wouldn’t be much different from my old one.

More voices from the lobby, loud, garbled, but somehow familiar, invaded Rudy’s office. Were the television news crews preparing for my perp walk? Breaking workplace murder incidents interrupt regularly scheduled programming. I vowed to present an inexpressive face. “Why did you kill him?” they’d shout in unison. I’d feign deafness. They’d yell louder. “Why?”

I began working for the National Data Archives not long after being laid off from Polypsi.com where I robotically curated and added new content to trending political topics. I expected the NDA to be a temporary job until something better came along, but it soon felt comfortable. I am authorized to answer forty-eight personal data related questions. The eight hours at the information desk fly by. There is little in the way of stress, and I never leave work mentally exhausted. At Polypsi.com I suffered from insomnia and endured the occasional nightmare.

Doug Carter arrived at the National Data Archives one month ago. His first name was embroidered in white on the collar of his red polo shirt.

We don’t use our real names at NDA. It’s not strictly forbidden, but it’s certainly not encouraged. Last month I was Scott. This month I’m Brian. The use of pseudonyms has been shown to increase productivity. Clients will frequently want to speak to the employee who previously and successfully resolved a personal data question. These virtual friendships and the subsequent exchange of vapid pleasantries are time-consuming and cultivate “off-script” responses. It has also been suggested in scientific studies that the use of short-term identities increases employee morale. A new name at the beginning of each month means a new beginning.

Doug shook my hand and touched my shoulder during his first day at the NDA. “Just call me Doug. I guess we will be desk neighbors.” His unblinking eyes bore into me.

Communication between employees inside the NDA is negligible. No one stares and there certainly is no touching. Birthdays or anniversaries of any kind are never acknowledged. The first day on the job is no different than the last day. The NDA has done its homework in creating a model work environment. It’s not, of course, a place suited for everyone, but the exhaustive pre-employment assessment tests generally eliminate the undesirables. How had Doug made it through the psychological screening? Did he know someone important? Did he cheat on the assessment test? I had expected to see Rudy at Doug’s desk before his first day was over.

The Galaxy Bar & Grill is an efficient chain restaurant less than a half mile from the NDA. It is busy but quiet. The oversized television screens remain black and mute, and the wait staff does not tell you their names. I didn’t realize that the Galaxy was popular with NDA employees until my third visit.

“Aren’t you Eric?” she asked.

Eric was the name I was using that month at the office. I quickly looked around the Galaxy. It all made sense. She was attractive. Everyone at the Galaxy (just like at the NDA) is attractive but also forgettable. Regular features prevail. Providing the police with an accurate description of anyone employed by the NDA would be a challenge.

There was no reason to ask her name; filler conversation was not required. The pre-employment assessment at the NDA is a more exacting personality measurement than any online dating service could ever hope to provide. She spent the night at my apartment. Foreplay was minimal and there were obviously no uncomfortable words or awkward glances the following day at the office. Many women subsequently visited my apartment. Once, not too long ago, the first woman I met at the Galaxy again returned with me to my apartment. I did not know it was her until I noted the tiny heart shaped birthmark on her left breast. I briefly wondered if she knew I had once been Eric.

I saw Doug at the Galaxy last week. He was talking to a waitress and pointing at the walls. He touched her shoulder and she laughed. I presumed he was attempting to arrange a late night assignation. I tried unsuccessfully to look away. The waitress nodded her head and a moment later the previously black television screen above the bar began to glow. Doug motioned for me to join him but I quickly averted my eyes. My half-eaten hamburger suddenly disgusted me. Numbers (probably sports scores) spewed from the TV. I left the Galaxy alone. Next to my car in the parking lot was a yellow Corvette. The vanity plate read “DOUG 1.”

Rudy’s office felt hot and stuffy. My eyes itched and my throat scratched. I’ve heard many of my recent clients coughing and sneezing.

A single gentle knock on the security office door startled me. Rudy entered.

“Are you still here?” Rudy sounded apologetic.

“I’m still here.”

“You’re a wanted man.”

“I suppose.”

I stood up and looked through the opened door. The lobby appeared empty.

“You do remember the way to your desk?”

“I remember.”

I took the stairs back to the office. I knew the detectives were waiting. Perhaps they would ask me to reenact the crime. The gruff one would read me my rights. The friendly one would attempt to trick me into divulging some self-incriminating information, maybe so I could later be charged with first degree murder.

“What did he say to you?” the friendly one would ask. “It doesn’t take much to make me want to hit someone first thing in the morning.” He’d offer me a cup of coffee.

I recalled Doug standing to the side of my desk. Doug must have said something that morning, maybe about having seen me at the Galaxy. I remember standing up. I probably just wanted to tell him that I was busy. I was also tired. I hadn’t slept well during the night and his presence was already undermining the natural balance of the day. Dreams had unsettled my shallow sleep. I believed Doug was in one of my dreams. I took a step towards him. I am not a violent man. I hadn’t been in a fight since middle school. There have certainly been more annoying people in my life than Doug and they were all relatively easy to ignore. Everyone at Polypsi.com was more annoying than Doug. I looked past Doug’s unctuous smile. What was it about him? The glare from hundreds of monitors stung my aching eyes. Then there was pleasure. Then my right hand burned. Then Doug was on his ass and then his belly, dying.

I walked toward the scene of the crime. There didn’t appear to be any detectives or police officers present. Nothing seemed amiss. The cacophony of voices comforted me. A woman sat at Doug’s desk, probably one of NDA’s permanent substitute employees. I sat at my desk. My iPhone had not been seized as evidence. Had the police instructed my coworkers to continue as if nothing unusual had recently occurred? Were the police watching me? Were they recording me? Did they think I would attempt to conceal evidence? But there was nothing for me to cover-up. Did they think I would suddenly erupt and attack another colleague? That seemed both impossible and irresponsible. Had the event been staged? Had it been some kind of anger management test? The implausible scenarios were a pleasant distraction. I logged on to my computer, slipped on my headset, and adjusted the microphone. My heartbeat slowed. My right hand no longer burned.

“Thank you for calling the National Data Archives. This conversation is being monitored for quality control. How may I be of assistance? My name is…” I remembered that it was the first of the month. I wasn’t Brian anymore. “My name is… Seth.”

I retrieved the relevant documents for client B-776921. She wanted to see “everything in the last two months that has been collected about me.” NDA employees refer to such requests as “the regular.” Many repeat clients naively believe that the personal information the NDA collects will assist them in their efforts to understand their failures and disappointments. I forwarded her call to the sales department since the request was not one of the forty-eight I am authorized to answer.

I worked through lunch to make up for lost time.

In the afternoon Rudy made his appearance. He walked towards me, unhurried and inexpressive. I began to remove my headset, but he stopped at Doug’s desk. The permanent substitute had no personal belongings to place in Rudy’s box. She glanced my way before leaving. It’s possible she was the woman with the tiny heart shaped birthmark on her left breast.

I readjusted my headset.

“Thank you for calling the National Data Archives.”

{ X }

LELAND NEVILLE lives in upstate New York where he is a full-time writer. He previously worked for a news magazine in Washington, D.C. and taught in both a high school and a prison. Some of his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, The Barcelona Review, Blue Monday Review, and Workers Writes. Non-fiction has appeared in U.S.News & World Report and The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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