The DocuMax 4000 had customers, which wasn’t surprising. What did alarm me were the people in line. It is an unspoken rule that those who manage, don’t copy. Ever. That is a job best left to eager interns and office toadies, fighting over scraps of administrative affection. I knew my place, and stepped back, leaning against a nearby concrete column.
From my view, they were like worshipers visiting the mysterious oracle, whose incantations released the green light over its believers. Those in line, well, it would make your jaw go slack. There was a Vice President, a high-level Manager, and that chap there – he was head of Sales.
So out of place, I thought.
And the looks on their faces. Not the usual get-out-of-my-way-you-underling glare that you got when walking the hallway after a major executive meeting, no, this was of an entirely different variety. Not quite vacant, but distant-focused. They clutched their copies in both hands, like a sacred tome of forbidden knowledge.
I waited until the line dwindled down, and the last of them had power-walked to the main hallway. I was about to enter the tabernacle to the holy green light when Bob careened around the corner, panting.
“Hey… come here!”, he gestured with a hand that looked like it had lost a fight with a stack of vicious envelopes. Bob worked in the marketing side, and his primary duties were dealing with a large volume of client packets. This meant a lot of copies, and lots of paper cuts.
I looked both ways to make sure I wasn’t being put on. I disliked pranks, and I didn’t need another story about the old man who got goofed on circulating the lunchroom. Not if I wanted to maintain my dignity, that is.
I stepped forward, wary of a setup.
Bob grabbed my arm, and whispered, “Don’t use that machine.”
“What?, it’s out of order again? Bloody typical, I just needed to–“
Bob drew closer with a finger to his lips, stopping me mid-rant. I see, a secret. I was game, but I firmly put some distance between us and straightened my sleeve.
“Everyone has got copy assignments now. I don’t like it. When my manager went, she came back like…”, Bob stopped and gulped, trying to force down the fear I saw in his eyes.
“Your manager what? Bob, pull it together man, I know you’re an oldster like me, but honestly… stop joking around.”
Bob drew up slowly, tucking in the tail of his shirt. He had run to get here. Bob never runs. A growing unease started to ball up in my stomach. If only I hadn’t eaten one of those horribly bland sandwiches at that stupid meeting.
Bob opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a loud chirp. It was Bob’s leash, or more precisely, his work issued phone that chirped when his boss needed to see him. The pavlovian reaction was instant, he brushed a hand through his thinning hair, adjusted his tie and whispered, “I have to go, but I’ll see you before you leave today. Don’t make any copies.”
His warning hung in the air as he briskly walked off, down to the elevators back to his marketing warren. I looked down at the rolled up papers in my hand. Then the neon-orange note. I’d better investigate to be sure. There’s no telling what Bob was on to, but it looked like it couldn’t wait until quitting time.
I grabbed a manila folder from the supply rack outside the copy cubicle, wrapping my papers in the camouflage of the busy worker bee, on the way to something important – so don’t bother asking me questions or inquiring how my day has been. Stalking down the cubicle rows, I took a peek over the nearest wall to get a better view.
Every monitor had a neon-colored note on it. Some at different angles and on different sides, but always the same short message, written by an unknown taskmaster for its polyester minions. I walked slowly down one row, still acting like I had important papers to deliver.
Sidelong glances revealed that every chair had papers on them, and when I dared to check one of the notes – the wording was nearly the same. An urgent call to complete a mission, go to the copier, distribute the contents. I felt like I was carrying a pound of plutonium, wrapped in a flimsy paper wrapper. Better not read them, just to be safe.
My unease turned into full-blown alarm. What was going on here, and why was Bob so adamant about not using the copier? I let those questions run rampant in my skull, kicking over the fences of reason and cool logic. There has to be an answer here. If anyone knew, it would be Mr. Barnes. He had been here longer than anyone.
Extracting myself slowly from the cubicle field of neon notes, I walked towards the elevator bank in the center of the building. Just on a routine mission, I thought, boldening my stride. I’m just walking along like any other day, never mind what dark shadows are playing inside my head.
I nearly convinced myself, and even pursed my lips to whistle a jaunty walking tune when I stopped in my tracks.
The worshipers, lined up at each elevator door, turned and looked at me in unison. My camouflage felt as thin as the papers I was holding. Under that collective gaze, even an urgent call for a meeting with the CEO wouldn’t have cut it. I paused and pretended to check my phone, which had been eerily silent today.
“Oh bother, another one-on-one scheduled.”, I said to no one, turning slowly and willing myself not to look back. That might have done it. I wasn’t going to blow it, fake it until you make it, that’s the ticket. Forcing a modest pace, I walked back to the side hallway, a quick left bringing me to a door marked “Exit”.
If I couldn’t use the elevator, I’d have to take the stairs. I hoped Mr. Barnes was in, it would be rather bad if he wasn’t. Pushing open the grey door and checking for idle smokers, I silently closed it behind me, softly descending into the building core.
(To be continued…)
Next – Part Three
This is a multi-part story. Confused? Start at the beginning – Part One