April 30, 2018
Michael was talking. He had been talking for a while now, but Gretchen had long since stopped listening. The importance of the speech was not in the words — Michael could spend the next hour talking about nothing if he wished — the true power was in the time it took up, in the unbreakable hold Michael held over the assembled crowd.
The crowd of their coworkers was gathered facing Gretchen and Michael in a loose attempt at a circle. The office floor at Wilhelm’s had been made to pack cubicles, not people, which forced people to sit on desks and peer over partial walls and to crush into the aisle until it was close to bursting, all of them craning their necks to keep an eye on the action. They stood there in their shirts colored like chalk, their faces carefully blank, pallid and inoffensive. Gretchen hated them with the same fury that the devil hates God. She would communicate that if she could, would cook the spineless feckless worms where they stood with the heat of her gaze, but they would not look at her. They looked at her feet or at Michael, or at the six wheels of her office chair.
Gretchen possessed one of the only chairs in the entirety of the Wilhelm’s office floor that had all its wheels. It was fitted with a temperpedic pillow prescribed for her scoliosis, and so soft it felt like leaning back into a mattress. It had been her throne, and the Wilhelm’s floor had been her kingdom. Just yesterday she had owned each and every one of them, and now they stood and nodded their heads and avoided her gaze and listened to Michael.
In her lap Gretchen’s hands appeared neatly folded into each other, but the one on top squeezed and squeezed like she was trying slowly break her fingers in a vice but couldn’t quite get the pressure high enough. All the while Michael droned on and on and on.
“So you see, Gretchen,” Michael said, content to finally reach his point. “You’re just not what we want here at Wilhelm’s. We’ve come together and discussed what we want this team, this family, to be like, and you’re not it. We have to ask that you leave. You can, of course, dispute this with upper management, but I’m sure we can all agree that we don’t need them to get involved.”
The words “upper management” fell over the crowd like a spell, and a shudder rippled through the them.
There was no question of being able to get upper management involved. They wouldn’t care how the floor was run as long as it brought in money. There would be no help offered there. If Wilhelm’s was a normal company, this would be the point where she would go and complain to HR, but as it stood this wasn’t an option.
She looked around. Her coworkers seemed emboldened by Michael’s statements, and now they dared to look at her chin and forehead, and there they directed expressions of timid resolve.
“So you’re firing me.”
“Well, I suppose those can be the words you decide to use.” Michael said, trying not to be too obvious in his enjoyment.
“You can’t fire me.” Gretchen said, tightening her jaw. “You can’t fire me, because I quit.” She spun round in her chair and then stood with a force that sent it careening back into Michael’s legs. She stormed away, Michael’s indignant shouting at her back.
The sun shone blindingly brightly down on the street outside the Wilhelm’s office building and it took Gretchen’s eyes a minute to adjust. The street was empty of pedestrians and cars, the only people around were the ones already tucked away in the neighboring buildings hard at work in their offices. Gretchen turned away from them, heading for the nearest bar that was far enough to be off her former coworkers’ radar. If Wilhelm’s was a normal company she would have been walking out of the neighborhood with six years in sales and management. But Wilhelm’s was not a normal company. She had just been assured a six year gap in her employment history, and she planned to drink a hole in her head to match.
Wilhelm’s, where she had worked until just now, listed itself as “in the business of data acquisition over the telephone.” Most people assumed this was a polite way of saying “Telemarketer.” This is what the description was meant to make you think. In reality, Gretchen spent her days there pretending to be the IRS and calling old people and immigrants. She would then scream at them until they gave up their social security numbers and their bank account numbers and their passwords. The social security numbers would be passed along to upper management to do whatever particular brand of identity theft they wanted. Gretchen would use the password and the bank account number to log in and reroute every single cent into an offshore account, which would then automatically bounce the money between a series of proxies before finally settling in the company accounts. The kinds of people Gretchen called did not tend to have much money in their bank account, but when you did it for as long as Gretchen did it added up. Especially when you were as good at it as she was.
Indeed, it was the first thing in Gretchen’s entire life that she could have been called “good at.” She still fondly remembered the day she had first come to the company. Her job search after graduating middle of her class at the most third prestigious public university in Minnesota had been difficult. The best thing that could be said about that time was the admirable speed she was able to leave a job interview after the inevitable “Thank you, but we’re looking for someone with a bit more experience.” This skill in rolling over had been something she had been cultivating her whole life.
It was this quality in particular that had endeared her Charlotte. Charlotte was an old university friend, who in any other circumstance wouldn’t have been able to lead her way out of a paper bag. However, Gretchen’s ability as a natural follower more than made up for any difficulties by Charlotte’s unnatural suitableness for leading. It was in the hopes of reclaiming those idyllic university days that Charlotte reached out with the offered to bring her old pal on board to the company she had just received word she would be starting at.
Gretchen’s training had been a short lesson on the wisdom of not testing the old adage “snitches get stitches” and was then given a telephone and a list of phone numbers and told to get to it. Charlotte barely lasted three weeks. Gretchen had nearly followed. It had been horrible at first — she had only able to bring in anything from the few people who were so scared the bank was calling they practically threw the numbers at her. And that, it turned out, had been the misplaced key to unlocking Gretchen’s confidence. Finally, she was given tasks where she could not lose. The rest of it fell into place.
On the phone at Wilhelm’s, she became something new. She was an angel. She was the devil. She was a fair authority figure you should feel guilty to disappoint. She was an implacable beast who would rain fire down at the slightest provocation. She was reasonable. She was insane. She was whatever she needed to be to get those numbers.
And the forces of will that worked on a senile widow in the Appalachians had the same effect on the man in the cubicle around the corner. She had set herself to using every lick of persuasion at her disposal to fight her way to the top. She had been someone. Someone who led, someone who was feared. She was top dog. She was queen of the castle. And she had been deposed for it.
Now she was walking down a street of offices in the middle of the afternoon with a six year hole in her employment history, and she planned a drinking binge fueled blackout hole in her memory to match.
It was at the bottom of one of these bottles that she saw two blurry suited figures approaching her. She blinked rapidly and the two figures collapsed into one and stood across from her.
“Gretchen Keary?” The figure asked. When Gretchen nodded, the suit continued. “I’m Agent Adrienne Singh with the FBI. I was wondering if I could talk to you about your time working at Wilhelm’s?”
What Gretchen actually understood was that somebody in front of her was wearing a suit, and that she was nowhere near professional presentation. Gretchen’s spine snapped straight, though her hair remained wild, her shirt untucked, and her mind thoroughly soused.
In all fairness, Agent Singh looked a little worse for wear as well. Her suit looked like it had been slept in multiple nights in a row, and the bags under her eyes were massive. All of these details were lost on Gretchen, who was still struggling to find her way back to sobriety.
Agent Singh began to realize that Gretchen was not going to find her way to a response, and that perhaps this meeting was not going to go the way she planned. She pulled out the chair next to Gretchen, which let a tortured screech as its legs scraped over the floor. Agent Singh winced and sat down.
“The investigation into Wilhelm’s has been ongoing for weeks. We have surveillance of you going in and out. We know you’re employed, and we know the names of your coworkers. What we don’t have is enough information about the accounts to get a warrant. We were hoping you could help our efforts there.”
Gretchen, despite her best efforts, continued to be drunk. Agent Singh awkwardly took out her card and attempted to smoothly slide across the table. Instead, it stuck fast to the thin layer of gunk. Her brow furrowed. She began to gently apply her nail to the edge of the crisp white card. The card did not move. She carefully reapplied her fingers, increasing the pressure ever so slightly. The card remained stuck fast. She scraped at the card with full force. Her fingernails scraped up the gunk and then crumpled the edge of the paper as it finally popped free. With a grimace, she extended the card Gretchen.
“Call me when you sober up.”