I had a new revelation about myself, too: I was suddenly unable to sit still. I endured about twenty minutes with Donnie and Bethany sitting in the desks opposite me before I was up and wandering. I had no idea where I was going to go. But I couldn’t sit at my desk. Not now, with this new alternate reality.
Because how do you sit at your desk and analyze supplier quotations when you have just overheard your coworkers and your boss plot the murder of your group admin?
They had avoided the use of the word “murder”, and so had I. But that was what they were talking about, right? “Eliminate” was a weak euphemism for the endgame here. They weren’t talking about getting Ellen fired, I didn’t think.
It would have been well within Sid’s powers to simply fire Ellen, of course. But that didn’t fit with the overall tone and circumstances of the discussion that I had overheard. Ellen knew something that placed Sid, Bethany, and Donnie in peril, or she had somehow interfered in something.
I could only guess what. But whatever it was, it was something big—almost certainly something illegal. My two coworkers and my manager wouldn’t believe themselves out of danger if they merely removed Ellen from the company.
I was walking down the expanse of the third floor, toward one of the stairwells. I figured I would head down to the company cafeteria on the first floor and grab a cup of coffee. Maybe walk outside for a few minutes and clear my head—if that was even possible.
Then, as I was about to make a left turn toward the stairwell, I heard Sid call out my name.
I hadn’t noticed him. He had apparently been talking to a purchasing agent from another group—there were many under his charge. Ordinarily I would have seen him, probably, but not in my current dazed state.
“Hey, Frank, got a minute?”
I had ordinarily met any inquiry, request, or greeting from Sid with an immediate eagerness to please. The man had become my benefactor within the company, after all. And he was my manager.
He must have noticed that something was “off” about me.
“You okay, Frank? You don’t look so good.”
“I, uh, yeah, I’m feeling a little bit light-headed I guess.” I scrambled for my next words. “It might be a touch of the flu.”
Sid cocked his head to one side and looked at me. Remember, I thought, this is not the man you believed him to be an hour ago. That Sid Harper is gone—he never existed.
“The flu? Yeah, I’ve heard that’s been going around. You’re not headed home, are you?”
Leaving the building was, in fact, my immediate impulse, now that he mentioned it. But that would make him more suspicious than ever.
“No, no. I, uh—”
Sid had obviously wanted to talk to me about something. He had hailed me as I was walking by, and he wouldn’t do that idly. I recovered, giving him my best what-can-I-do-for-you expression, well known and practiced by every denizen of corporate cubicle-land.
“I was wondering if you had a minute to talk—in private. If you’re feeling up to it, that is.”
He looked at me in a way that was difficult to interpret. Surely Sid didn’t know that I had been listening behind the wall. No—there was no way he could possibly know that. I was growing paranoid already.
“Sure,” I said. “Absolutely.”
Now I really was beginning to feel light-headed. But I had to play along, maintain all my business-as-usual expressions.
He led me to one of the meeting rooms. The one in which he had met with Donnie and Bethany was occupied, so we took the next one down.
“Hey,” he said, after we’d taken our seats at the little table inside the room, “I just wanted to take a minute to congratulate you on your grade promotion.”
This was strange—because we’d had a meeting with more or less the same purpose prior to the holiday break, just a few weeks ago. But I wasn’t going to point that out.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate the opportunity.”
“You deserve it. You’ve been doing great work.”
I nodded. I didn’t want to sound either obsequious or boastful, so I said nothing.
“Listen, Frank, I know—I know it’s not always easy to work with Donnie and Bethany. I realize that they’re kind of hard on you sometimes.”
When I started to protest, he cut me off—not unkindly, but firmly. “I see what goes on. That’s part of my job as a manager, you know. Very little happens that I don’t find out about, sooner or later.”
What did he mean by that? I wondered. I again asked myself if somehow—impossible as that seemed—Sid had been aware of my presence behind the door.
Surely not. I was over-interpreting, imagining things. There was no way Sid could know that I had been back there. I needed to keep my bearings.
“Donnie, Bethany, and I have had some personality conflicts,” I allowed.
“They aren’t the easiest pair to work with, are they?”
“I guess not, now that you mention it.”
“Well,” Sid said. “it takes all kinds to make a big company like Thomas-Smithfield. Don’t let them get to you. And I want you to promise me that if there’s ever a serious problem between the three of you, you’ll come directly to me—instead of going to HR.”
Now I had some idea of Sid’s game. Whatever the three of them were mixed up in, Sid was smart enough to realize that he had involved himself with two loose cannons. He wanted to make sure that no minor disagreement with me would bring outside scrutiny onto his co-conspirators. So he was preemptively heading me off at the pass.
Moreover, I had to assume that Sid’s outward show of support for me—his playing the father figure—was a fraud, too. Whatever Sid’s game was, he was hiding something massive.
I recalled his words in the meeting room: “We have to eliminate Ellen…We don’t have any choice.”
“Absolutely,” I said, forcing my best smile.