Morale is down. It’s always down, so relatively speaking it isn’t down. But it is down in the absolute sense.
Bitching is up. But like morale, it’s always up, so there again, you can’t say the bitching has increased.
The elevator brings you to your floor, the third.
You swipe your badge to gain access to the office. The clock on the wall actually says 7:06, but from your perspective, you could with a straight face believe it said 7:05. You write 7:05 on the sign-in sheet.
A minute here or there is okay. The company has screwed you over enough times in the past to justify this tiny theft.
But you have to be smart about it. You can’t do this all the time. You have to steal minutes in dribs and drabs. That’s why Melissa-what’s-her-name-from-Operations was axed. She had Cory-with-the-mustache sign her in thirty minutes early every day. Cory wanted to bang Melissa, that is why he did it. But as always happens with these things, Melissa couldn’t keep her mouth shut, somebody told somebody else, and eventually the secret made its way to Stacy, the office gossip, who told everyone. Stacy meant to email her friend with the secret, but instead accidentally added the general office distribution list.
Melissa was fired.
Cory was fired.
And the poor bastard didn’t even get to bang her.
Last you heard, Melissa is enjoying her new job, working for one of the competitors, making more money, with more benefits, with better coffee, with fewer hours, and with a shorter commute.
That’s what the rumor mill always spits out about someone that has decamped: it is always for greener pastures, higher salaries and better quality of life.
Yes, things are always better somewhere else. The younger employees actually believe this myth. But you’ve worked at two other companies, so you know it isn’t true. Things are the same everywhere.
Of course, every once in awhile, you imagine this Shangri-La where employees enjoy what they do and are paid accordingly and can climb the corporate ladder to the rung they aspire to.
You’ve started thinking about these things more seriously, ever since your minor promotion.
You head to the kitchen to drop your lunch off. You reach for the door to the fridge, but your hand stops in mid-air because there’s a new note on the door:
If you enjoyed my Stromboli on Friday and want to know where you can get another like it, come see Marvin.
Someone ate Marvin’s Stromboli?
Shit, that isn’t good. That isn’t good at all.
At least Marvin has shown a sense of humor about the theft by leaving that note on the fridge.
But you see, you’re a middle manager, which means a few things. You don’t have any real authority, though your team assumes you can move mountains. The people above you value your input, but they still think of you as a worker bee. The people below you see you as part of management. To your face, they exempt you from blame for the company’s oft-lamented faults and shortcomings. But behind your back, you know they lump you together with the higher-ups and blame you just as much. You know that because that’s exactly what you did when you were in their seats, not too long ago.
Being a middle manager also means one other thing. It’s your job to keep your team’s morale up.
The phone rings. You check the caller ID first. You always check the caller ID first to see if it’s a call you can let trickle its way into your voicemail. It’s so much easier listening to a voicemail than talking to a person. Who calls anymore? Only the people with complicated problems. Everyone else has the good sense to e-mail or IM.
But you can’t let this one go to voicemail, because the caller ID tells you it’s your boss. Or at least that the call is originating in your boss’s office. And you want her to know you’re in the office at 7:11 in the morning. It shows how dedicated an employee you are.
“Hey, Colleen,” you say.
“Good morning. I was on your side and saw the note on the fridge.”
You’re not sure where this is going, but assuming the worst is always a good strategy when it comes to your boss. “I saw that too. Somebody must have eaten Marvin’s Stromboli Friday.”
“Yes, well…” She lowers her voice. “This isn’t the first time this has happened.”
How many times had someone else eaten Marvin’s Stromboli? And shouldn’t Marvin be taking more proactive steps to safeguard his lunch?
“That’s four complaints in the last month. We’ve got a series.”
A series? There is an awkward pause while you wait for Colleen to say more.
So you say, wisely, “Wow. What do you think we can do?” Is there even anything you can do?
“This is bad for morale. We need this to stop. I’ll send an email reminding everyone that they should not eat other people’s lunches.”
You don’t want to live in a world where that kind of email is remotely necessary. But there are no other worlds to live in.
You say, “Sounds good.”
“I need you to make inquiries. Discreet inquiries.”
“About the Stromboli,” she says, an edge to her voice.
“Oh. Okay. I can do that.”
“See what you can turn up.”
Turn up? “Sure, I’ll ask around.”
“Good. I want to know who did this by close of business.”
Ah, the dreaded C-O-B.
Colleen ends the call.
Normally, a direct order from a boss is reason enough to take action. But there are days when not even the threat of job loss can motivate you. Those days are usually Mondays. And often Fridays. And sometimes Thursdays, especially if there’s a happy hour scheduled. Tuesday you’re very productive, because you usually aren’t very productive on Mondays and you’ve got to make up for it. Wednesdays are hit or miss.
But anyway, today is Monday. So you’re already not feeling it. And then you think about the nice weekend you had. No, the great weekend you had. You spent it doing exactly what you wanted to do and you didn’t think about work once. You went to a movie and grabbed a few brews with your buds. You met a girl. You went for a jog. You finished a great book and started another one that had promise. So that makes this particular Monday even less palatable.
So that’s one reason why you can’t conjure up the energy to do this.
Another reason is you have to finish all that work you didn’t finish last week. Friday you gorged yourself on pizza at lunch and then spent the afternoon drooling in your office as you slowly came out of your self-induced carb coma.
And finally, probably the most important reason why you don’t have any interest in this assignment is that it’s just a pain in the ass. You’re not a detective, you don’t have access to a crime lab. You don’t even have any real authority to scare anybody into talking. And even if you did, you still wouldn’t catch the thief. You’ve read a lot. You know something like only 10% of all crimes are solved. This isn’t a Wallander novel.
Those are all the reasons you don’t feel like doing it.
But you have to.
Just after you go through your morning routine.
You check your personal email and work email, in that order. You read the online sports page, even though you know what happened in last night’s NBA playoffs. You check to see what movies are opening this Friday, even though you already know which ones are because you’ve been waiting for one in particular. You’re tempted to test the boundaries of the work server’s firewall by opening some pictures your buddy emailed you last night.
But you don’t click. You can’t. You know they can track this shit, and though your job can be irritating, you still need it.
You realize it’s already 8:13, and you spoke with your boss an hour ago. You close out non-work related things on your computer.
You stop in the bathroom. Your stall is taken. So you force yourself to use the near stall, the one nobody ever uses.
You recognize the designer sneakers on the floor in the stall next to you. It’s the Inconsiderate Cell Phone Guy. You hear him make a call while he’s blowing one out.
“Hello. I’d like to make a reservation for this evening.”
Inconsiderate Cell Phone Guy is for real. “No, no. 7:30 is no good. Could you do 7:15 instead?”
Inconsiderate Cell Phone Guy is also Inconsiderate Customer Guy. What difference does fifteen minutes make?
“What kind of wine do you have?”
Alright, that’s it. Normally you keep your ass-roars to a minimum as a courtesy to fellow stall mates, but this guy is a douche bag. As he picks apart their wine selection while dropping a deuce, you let loose as loud as you can in the hopes it will make his call impossible.
But ICPG is unfazed. He continues his conversation with the restaurant manager.
You finish up and while you’re washing your hands, ICPG comes out of his stall, smug grin in place, and puts his phone away.
You don’t know him. He works for a different company down the hall. But still he gives you a smile like you’re friends.
“Guess what I just did? Made reservations for my wedding anniversary tonight and got a deal on their wine,” he says.
“Yeah, I know. I heard you. I was shitting right next to you.”
He frowns. “You were?”
Back in your office, you try to motivate yourself.
You think about morale. How would you feel if someone ate your lunch? And not just any lunch. You’re not talking about a ham sandwich hastily scrapped together in the mind-numbing early pre-work hours of the morning. You’re talking about a fucking Stromboli. Someone ordered that as take-out the night before. No, not someone, Marvin.
Marvin came to work prepared to finish his Stromboli from the night before. And now you think about leftover food, especially of the Italian variety. You know it’s better the next day, almost always. You think about the last Stromboli you had. It was fucking delicious. How would you feel if someone had eaten it instead of you?
No, stop thinking about yourself, you selfish prick. Think about Marvin. He’s a good guy. Funny. Always smiling. He makes the people sitting in his row laugh a lot.
Who would do such a thing to Marvin? Maybe the theft wasn’t motivated at all by hatred, just by an empty stomach. Okay, good. You’re already starting to think like a detective. You think about motive for a moment, till you realize it’s fucking obvious why someone would eat someone else’s Stromboli: because Strombolis are fucking delicious.
But maybe there’s more to it. Maybe this was a planned attack on Marvin. Hell, maybe somebody didn’t even eat the Stromboli. Maybe they just threw it out because they wanted to fuck with Marvin.
There’s one way to test that theory. Look in the trash.
You smell the trash can before you even reach the kitchen.
You walk over and realize that, of course, the cleaning crew has already gotten rid of Friday’s trash and replaced it with a new bag. Though that leaves you wondering why the can smells so bad.
The evidence is gone. CSI can’t help you.
Which means you’ve got to do this the old-fashioned way. The Mike Hammer approach. Question, intimidate, get them to talk.
You start with the victim. Marvin. Aged…you’re not supposed to know how old he is, because you’re not supposed to consider these things when you’re dealing with someone in an office environment. But of course you know he’s twenty-six. And of course you know his health is poor, and of course you know he’s a Catholic by birth, Presbyterian by choice. And of course you know his mother, relatively young at age sixty, is already in a home. And that he cheats on his long-suffering girlfriend…on second thought, maybe Marvin isn’t such a nice guy.
You keep all this in mind.
Marvin is a big dude. It’s not surprising that he would be eating a Stromboli for lunch, in other words. A silly thought crosses your mind and you dismiss it. There’s no way Marvin made up this story about a theft. Why would he?
Marvin does the quick-click of the mouse before you reach his cubicle, which means he was looking at non-work-related stuff and heard somebody coming. You used to do that and you still do it so you can’t blame him.
“Marvin, I’m sorry to hear about your…” You let the sentence trail off to express your condolences.
Chin perpetually up, Marvin says, “Thanks. Maybe someone was cleaning out the fridge and just thought it was old.”
You squint, because that’s what the detectives do in movies. “Maybe.”
Marvin’s unnerved by your non-committal response. “You think someone ate it?”
You lean closer. “That’s what I’m going to find out.”
Marvin arches an eyebrow, impressed by what you’ve said. You can’t help but feel good about yourself.
“So walk me through it,” you say.
Marvin does a double-take. “What do you mean?”
“Walk me through your day on Friday. When did you arrive, when did you put the Stromboli in the fridge, et cetera.”
“Oh.” Marvin adjusts how he’s sitting and thinks about it. “Jeez, every day seems so similar, you know what I mean?”
“Of course. But whatever you can think of.”
“I got in the usual time, around 8.”
(This is a lie. Marvin’s usual time is 8:30. You know this because you check the sign-in logs. You also know that Marvin has a habit of signing in first, then running to Wawa to get breakfast so he doesn’t really start his day until closer to 8:50.)
He is still talking. “So I went right to the fridge to put my food in there.”
“What part of the fridge did you use?”
“Part? Jeez. I think it was the second from bottom shelf, to the left. Oh, and I pushed it all the way to the back, because it’s colder back there. I wanted that thing icy when I ate it. Swear to God that Strombolis and pizza are so much better the next day, after they’ve been sitting in the fridge. Know what I mean?”
“You bet your ass I know what you mean.”
Marvin chuckles. “Anyway, yeah, I put it in at 8.”
“Was it in a bag?”
“A plastic grocery bag. From Giant, I think.”
“Color?” You should be writing this all down you realize.
“You know the weird khaki color?”
“Yeah.” You picture it. You’ve put your frozen pizza in bags just like that. It could have happened to you. It could have happened to anyone. That bastard thief. And to think this could be part of a series…
“Okay, not the weird khaki kind. This one was the yellow kind.”
You wonder why Marvin didn’t just say the yellow kind to begin with, but you’re on a roll with the questions and you don’t stop. “When did you realize it was missing?”
“This is embarrassing…I noticed around 9:30.”
It takes you a moment to realize why it might be embarrassing.
Marvin continues, “I didn’t have any breakfast, so I was real hungry by 9:30. And you know, I’ve gotta feed the gut.”
Marvin rubs his beach ball stomach.
“Did you talk to anyone about it?”
“I asked around.”
“Who’d you ask?”
“Well, not ask, so much as make comments.”
“Who did you make these comments to?”
“Everybody in the row here.” Marvin gestures vaguely with his hand. “Everybody else probably heard too.”
Everybody else probably did hear, because Marvin’s inside voice is very loud.
“Okay, Marvin, one last thing. Do you have enemies here? Anyone who might want to hurt you?” You can’t think of anyone, aside from Tony. Tony is a lot like Marvin: he’s the comedian on the other side of the office space. They are very much alike, so it’s not surprising they don’t get along.
“No, not anybody.”
You want to ask, but what about Tony? But that would be feeding the witness and from what you know about police procedure, that wouldn’t be good.
But you’re not a cop, are you? So you can play by your own rules. Just like Philip Marlowe. “What about Tony?”
“Tony?” Marvin chuckles. “No, we’re cool.”
“Did anybody say anything to you about it?”
“Just how sorry they were.”
“I’m sorry too, Marvin. I’m sorry too.”
You begin to walk away but think about what other detectives would do. The first one you can think of is Columbo.
“Hey, Marvin, just one more thing,” you say.
He waits for you to ask him something. You don’t know what to ask him.
He regards you with suspicion. “What?”
“What did you…end up doing for lunch?”
“Uh…I guess I went out.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I uh…where did I go?” He thinks about it. The days spent in an office run together and blend seamlessly. “I ate at the mall.”
You retreat to your office. You really should have been writing all that down, so you scramble to find a pad of paper and pen before you forget anything.
Between the hours of 8 and 9:30, a yellow—not khaki—plastic grocery bag containing one Stromboli was stolen from the refrigerator on your side of the building.
You think about how many people there are in the office. Around forty-five? That leaves forty-three suspects, because you know Marvin didn’t do it and you know you didn’t do it.
And Colleen, your boss, she probably didn’t do it. And also Vanessa, the health nut, she wouldn’t have taken it. And…you realize you’re profiling here but as long as you profile everybody it’s okay…Louis wouldn’t have done it because he only eats gluten free stuff, and there’s no way that Stromboli was gluten free. At least you don’t think so. You don’t really know what gluten is and so you search for an explanation online and before you know it, twenty-six minutes later, you’re on Wikipedia reading about fucking marsupials and somewhere along the way you find out that zoologists have a difficult time getting pandas to mate in captivity. You have no idea how you got to marsupials from gluten but you don’t have time to figure it out because you already wasted a half hour.
You go back to your head count. Excluding Marvin, yourself, Colleen, Vanessa, and Louis, you’re down to forty suspects. You probably shouldn’t eliminate these people so easily, but you’ve got to get this done by COB. It’s important. It’ll be good for fucking morale.
That still seems like a lot of people to question. There has to be a better way to go about this.
How then to whittle down the suspects?
You think about the board game Guess Who, which you used to play when you were a kid. That doesn’t really help.
Then you ask yourself who could have taken the Stromboli. Who had the opportunity?
Only the people here between the hours of 8 and 9:30.
You race to the front desk, the thrill of the hunt now getting the adrenaline pumping. You grab the sign-in book and flip back to Friday’s log. You realize you haven’t brought your pad of paper with you to write down the names, so you have to go back to your desk and get it.
You really have to remember to bring the pad with you everywhere you go.
You jot the names down of the people who signed in between 8 and 9:30. There are nineteen on your list.
You realize someone’s standing behind you, waiting to sign in. It’s Stacy, the office gossip, your one-time girlfriend. She’s wearing her hair up, like usual, and is chewing gum. She smells like cigarettes, which sometimes is a turn-on and sometimes a turn-off. You don’t know why.
“Hey did you hear about Marvin’s lunch?” she asks.
You remember to squint. “Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. But I guess you have.”
You realize you’re not making sense but you can’t let on you realize that.
Stacy looks at you sideways. “Ye—ah.”
“What did you hear?”
“Kim told me that Corey saw Tony near our fridge yesterday morning. Which is weird, you know, because Tony doesn’t even sit on our side.”
“Hmm. Hear anything else?”
“Everyone is complaining about it, it’s not good for morale.”
You decide to talk tough. “Nothing’s good for morale.”
She eyes you strangely. “Then, someone, I don’t remember who, saw Marvin eating in his car around lunch time. He never does that. He usually sprawls all his food out on the table so no one else can sit with him. You know, because he has so much food, you know.”
You remember why you broke it off with Stacy over a year ago. Deep down, she is a good person. She volunteers at a soup kitchen. But she always has to make these catty comments about people. A stray insult here or there can be funny, but when they become voluminous, it gets to be a little mean-spirited and petty for your tastes.
“What else did you hear?” you ask.
“What’s it worth to you?” she asks, hip to the game and playing along with you now.
You don’t have time for this femme fatale crap. “What’s your job worth to you?”
She folds her arms and puts more of her weight on one leg. “Excuse me?”
You realize you probably went too far. But justice has to be served.
Before you can say this, though, Stacy says, “You know, you interrogating people isn’t good for morale either. I won’t name names, but there are a lot of people around here this close to quitting. You know most of us could get a better job with any one of our competitors. Then where would the company be?”
You don’t answer her question. Instead, you say, “Keep this conversation between us.”
She wears a puzzled expression as you leave.