There was nothing unusual about me going to the vending machines. I was an inveterate Coke Zero drinker, and I made a trip there at least once per day. But I had never made the walk to the vending machines with the intention of playing the snoop, of fitting myself in the little space behind the meeting room.
When I arrived at the vending machines, another Thomas-Smithfield employee—a middle-aged man named George Hurley—was purchasing a can of Coke. Just my luck, it took him a full minute to retrieve three quarters from his pocket.
At least he didn’t strike up a conversation with me. Hurley didn’t even acknowledge my presence. He was obviously preoccupied with something else.
As George walked away, I realized: I had one final chance. I could still walk back to my desk. I hadn’t done anything underhanded yet. I could still call this off.
Instead I took a quick, furtive look around to make sure that no one was approaching, and no one was actively watching me. Then I sidestepped to the far side of the Coke machine, and slipped behind it.
The space between the concrete wall and the false wall of the meeting room was directly before me.
Go, I told myself.
I maneuvered myself into the space. It was a tight fit. A larger person—like Donnie, for instance—could never have wedged himself into the opening.
I had to take several steps forward before I would be directly behind the meeting room. This required no small amount of caution. I was in almost total darkness now. There was a rat’s nest of electrical wiring on the floor beneath my feet. My toe touched a large, boxlike electrical outlet that had been installed for the wiring.
I stepped over it slowly, exercising care not to tangle my feet in the unseen, rubber-coated wires.
I could hear the buzz of a voice now. Sid talking. I still couldn’t make out any words, though. I took another step in the darkness. If I fell now, I would likely fall against the false wall of the meeting room, alerting Donnie, Bethany, and Sid to my presence.
I was finally in the right position. I leaned forward toward the false wall. I could hear them now.
“Keep your voices down. We shouldn’t even be discussing this here in the office,” I heard Sid Harper say.
“Then why are we?” Bethany retorted.
“Because Ellen is on to us, like I’ve just explained to you. And we need to come up with a game plan immediately.”
“Dammit!” Bethany said, “Damn.”
“Saying ‘damn’ won’t fix it.”
“I never said that it would. I just said ‘damn’.”
“Neither will being a smart-ass.” Sid again. “And I need to make clear, right now—I hope you’re hearing me, Donnie—if Ellen says anything to you, you’re to play dumb.”
Play dumb? I thought. That ought to be easy for Donnie. But behind that whimsical thought, something else: This was not the conversation I had anticipated—not even close.
If I hadn’t known better, it would have sounded to me like Bethany, Donnie, and Sid were….
…Accomplices of some sort.
“I’m not going to say anything,” Donnie shot back at Sid. He spoke to Sid much like he would have spoken to me. That is: without much respect. “What makes you think I’m going to say anything?”
“Maybe because you’re you, hotshot.”
Donnie grunted out a terse, gruff reply that I could not make out.
“What the hell?” Bethany muttered. “What the freaking hell are we going to do?”
There was a pause. Then, finally, Sid spoke.
“I don’t think we have any choice: We have to eliminate Ellen.”
Bethany: “You mean…?”
Sid: “It isn’t what I want. But we don’t have any choice.”
Donnie: “This is getting out of hand.”
Sid: “Shut up.”
Donnie: “Don’t tell me to shut up. You’re supposed to be the smart guy here. You might have anticipated this.”
Then Bethany interjected: “Stop it, you two. Sid has a point. None of us wants to do that. But if she’s on to us, then Sid is right, we don’t have any choice.”
“That’s what I’m trying to get across to you,” Sid said. “Both of you.”
“When?” Donnie asked. “And how?”
“I think we’ve already discussed this enough in the office,” Sid said. “We’ll go over the details offsite. I just wanted to pull you both in, to let you know about the situation.”
Sighs from both Bethany and Donnie.
“Keep cool, both of you. We’ll get through this.”
With that they ended their conversation. I heard them stand up and exit the meeting room.
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, trying to process what I had heard, and all its implications. I knew that I couldn’t even begin to dig into it now, it was potentially that earth-shattering.
Had I really heard them correctly?
Yes, I told myself, I had heard what I had heard. My first thought at that moment was: I should have remained at my desk.