The Man in the Box, Chapter 3
January 17, 2014 7 Comments
My debut novel, The Man in the Box will be coming out in its second edition soon. Please enjoy these sample chapters until then. And be sure to Like The Man in the Box on Facebook for your chance to win a free autographed copy. More details here.
Robbie spent the rest of the day drowning in a tank of anxiety—two more people were asked to pack their things. At first Robbie avoided Kurt at all cost; he steered clear of the break room when he knew Kurt would be there and he took the long way round to the bathroom so he wouldn’t pass Kurt’s windows. But by one o’ clock, he began to cultivate curiosity and even hope. He was growing convinced that he wasn’t going to be fired after all. But in order to have a true peace of mind, he would have to find Kurt and feel him out. Would his boss be awkward? Would he be cool as usual? But Robbie learned from a colleague that Kurt had stepped out of the office for a meeting for the next few hours. He sat at his desk and wallowed in misery. He didn’t even have the heart to spend the day looking up top-rated Hawaiian tours on the Internet.
What if he did get fired? The economy would crush him. He feared going back to retail or some other dead-end job. Though he wasn’t wealthy by American standards, he didn’t want to have to sacrifice his comfortable lifestyle to make ends meet. He didn’t want to have to put every dollar on trial, or examine the necessity of every bill. He had been through all that and had grown up. This was supposed to be his time to live the easy life!
He glanced at a picture of Rosalynn and him posing in front of the ocean in Ventura Beach in Southern California, which stood next to his phone. The picture was taken when they were dating. They had met at a beach party while they were both attending USC. She looked absolutely stunning in her floral summer dress, her auburn brown hair falling down over her shoulders. He was much skinnier then and sporting facial hair, which did nothing for him but label him as an aspiring beach bum.
Robbie wasn’t big on group gatherings, but his roommates coerced him into joining them at the beach that night with the promise that there’d be enough girls and beer to go around. Well, any self-respecting young man couldn’t turn down such an offer. Though the idea of partying (something he hadn’t done much in high school) sounded intriguing, he just couldn’t bring himself to jump fully into the festivities. He had held back at the beach that night, cooking S’mores and making chitchat to whomever needed humoring.
He had just lit a cigarette when a new voice beside him said, “You seem as bored as I am.”
Robbie nodded, not feeling really comfortable around cute drunk women, much less sober ones like this one. He drilled himself, trying to figure out why he hadn’t seen her around campus before. “You hang out with these psychos?” he asked.
“I’m starting to. My ex took all my friends with him, so I’m sort of group-hopping at the moment.”
“So how’s this one ranking?” Robbie asked.
They both turned to watch a couple stumbled and fall in the sand laughing hysterically. “So far, it’s kind of a let down, to be honest.”
“Good,” said Robbie as he blew out some smoke. “Because I’m really not part of this group. I was talked into coming here. I’m not really much of a partier, anyway.”
“I don’t date smokers,” said Rosalynn eyeing the lit cigarette in his hand. Robbie barely had time to form a thought before she said, “Sorry. Was that too fast?” she asked.
Robbie laughed. “No. I mean, it was, but that’s fine with me. I’m sure that’d be fine with anybody, actually… it’s much easier that way.” Robbie stopped himself before he said anymore, afraid that he’d scare off this beautiful woman. He cleared his throat and added, “It’ll take some time for me to quit, though. Are you patient?”
“I can be. Wanna share a beer?”
His reminiscing came to an end when Kurt phoned him and asked him to step into his office.
Robbie’s legs felt like jelly as he made his way through the suite toward his boss’s office. He felt every eye on him, conveying pity, just as he had looked at the others who were called into Kurt’s office that day. To distract himself, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and pretended to read text messages. He muted it when he reached Kurt’s door and knocked. He couldn’t help feeling like he was a kid again, being summoned to the principal’s office.
“Have a seat,” sighed Kurt when Robbie walked in. He sat down slowly, and as he did, he couldn’t help but notice the painting hanging directly behind Kurt. It was a large picture of a panther, crouching behind tall grass in a dark jungle. Robbie felt like it was piercing him with its yellow-eyed stare, waiting for Kurt to wound him so it could finish the job off.
“First off, congratulations on your anniversary.”
Good, good. An acknowledgement on his loyalty and dedication. Maybe this wasn’t going to be what he feared. “Thanks,” said Robbie, sitting up.
“How many years is it now? Ten?”
“Eleven.” Would twenty be better?
“Unfortunately it falls on a bad day. I’m sure you know we’re letting people go.”
So much for loyalty and dedication. “Don’t do this to me, Kurt.”
“I’m sorry, Robbie. I know this hurts, and you’ve got your family to look after. I did all I could to avoid this, but there wasn’t anything I could do.”
Robbie’s stomach tightened, and he was chewing on the inside of his mouth like it was gum; Rosalynn would have been having a fit. The panther continued to gaze lustily at Robbie, looking as though it were ready to pounce on him. “This is all I know, Kurt. Where am I going to look?”
“Check the Web, for starters. There’re all sorts of companies looking to hire right now. With your expertise and experience, you’ll find something in no time. I’ll give you a good reference. I’m sorry, Robbie. We’re only keeping a small handful of people, if it makes you feel better.”
Oh yes. Much, thought Robbie.
“After that… who knows?”
“What about my vacation?” asked Robbie, feeling petty for bringing it up.
“Technically, I can’t pull that from you since you’ve already earned it. But I would strongly consider canceling your plans if I were you. Where were you going? Sandals?”
“Oh, man. Well, think of it as two weeks added to your severance.”
Robbie’s head was spinning as he cleared out his desk. Had he really just been fired? He’d never been fired from a job in his life, and now he knew what it felt like. He wanted to kill Kurt for not being a better manager and avoiding this catastrophe. He never realized how many personal items he had until he saw how full his box was. What was he going to tell Rosalynn? How would she react? He flirted with the idea of not telling her until they got back from Hawaii. But no, Hawaii would have to be canceled. They’ll need that money when the severance is paid out.
The sweet smell of sunscreen was fading fast.
He somehow survived the walk of shame through the suite. He noticed no one made eye contact with him. It was as though he was a leper making his way through the village and no one would risk being ostracized for acknowledging him. He was about to plop his box of things down in the backseat of his car when his phone rang. He glanced at it and saw that it was an unknown caller. He answered and recognized Don’s voice. “Meet me at Mad Betty’s.”
“How did you get my number?” Robbie asked.
“Just come over here now. Park in the back.”
Robbie drove his car across the street to the local bar and pub. He pulled around back as instructed and parked next to Don’s Malibu.
Inside he found Don waving at him from a corner booth barely illuminated by a hanging green light. The lingering smoke made him long for a drink. And a cigarette.
“What’s up?” asked Robbie, taking a seat across from Don.
“I’ve got something big,” he said. “I was cleaning out the hard drive on my computer. You won’t believe what I found. But I probably shouldn’t tell you this.”
“You probably should since you called me over here. There are other places I could be right now.”
Don held up a small, folded sheet of paper. “I found Kurt’s passwords and sign-in names to our system. That’s how I got your number, it was listed under his employee information.”
“No. I’m sure that’s illegal. Throw it out.”
Don slammed his fist on the table, jarring the salt shaker. “I knew it. I shouldn’t have told you,” he declared as though he had been debating with himself over the issue for hours.
“How did you get it?”
“The best I can figure is Kurt was in my office a couple of weeks ago showing me a few things. He signed in with his user name, punched in his password, and the computer stored it in the system. If you leave your password in an HTML field, or the browser auto-completes it, the password and user name can be retrieved.”
Robbie looked at him blankly; these words meant nothing to him.
“It’s a big long computer thing—you wouldn’t get it. Anyway, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take it after he fired me. It was lucky, but I got it.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Don’t you get it? We have access to his leads, his clients, anyone who’s anyone in the publishing industry! We use these leads, we’ll have jobs again in no time. Or, we could start our own company and take CipherMill’s clients. He won’t need them anyway with so many of us gone now.” Don took a gulp of his beer and dug his fingers into a basket of fries, stuffing some into his mouth.
“This is insane and I’m pretty certain it’s illegal,” said Robbie. “Besides, when did you get to be so gutsy? You don’t seem to strike me as that type of guy.”
“I don’t know. I just kind of snapped when I was packing up my things. This is the fifth job I’ve been fired from.”
“Wow. You are going to need help.”
“Thanks. The restaurant business wasn’t good for me. I had no self-control in the kitchen. Will you help me? We’ll split the leads down the middle.”
Suddenly, the idea seemed tempting. Robbie didn’t want to have to spend the next several months competing with the rest of America’s younger, sharper and higher-qualified job seekers. He certainly didn’t want to have to settle for some job cleaning toilets at a 7-11 while he tried to make ends meet. The idea made him sick to his stomach.
“What do we have to do?” he finally asked.
“The system we use–Cipress, or something—isn’t universal. It’s only on CipherMill’s computers. So we’ll have to do it from the office.”
“You realize we can probably get arrested for this,” said Robbie.
“We’ve just been fired in a crappy economy. How can it get any worse?”
“By having a felony charge on our records.”
“Just shut up and listen. We’ll have to do it from downstairs in the warehouse. I’m pretty sure they have the same system we do. Kurt never goes down there, and he’s the only person we’ve got to watch out for, so the chances of success are in our favor.”
“This is insane.”
“All we have to do is keep our cars parked out of sight. Hang out in the bathroom for a while until the warehouse workers leave, sneak in, pull up the information, print it out, and leave.”
Robbie contemplated the scheme, rolling it around in his head. The more he thought about it, the more foolproof it seemed.
“Half of the leads is like two hundred publishers. That’s two hundred chances that they’re looking for someone to hire. Not all businesses are failing.”
An hour later Robbie walked toward the door to the warehouse at the end of the hallway and pushed against the metal bar swinging it open. The lights were still on and the workers had all gone home. The bulky computer was at the far end of the room. He rushed toward it and entered Kurt’s user name and password, once prompted.
When he asked Don why he didn’t just print this stuff out in his office, he responded that he had panicked and just wrote down the password on a piece of paper and left. Robbie could understand that. What he couldn’t understand was how he let Don talk him into taking on the most dangerous part of the mission while he, Don, stood on guard, phone in hand, ready to alert Robbie of anyone coming into the warehouse.
Nonetheless, Robbie signed in as his former boss with no trouble. Clicking the mouse furiously, he navigated through the menu options in search of the coveted client list. But the computer was agonizingly slow. He had been there long enough. He needed to just find something of value and print it out. Finally, he came across the list of clients and leads and their contact information. The list was several hundred long, and it shined like gold.
Of course, the printer was more than a decade old. It pushed out each sheet like they were worms crawling on hot pavement. During the ninth page, Robbie heard the metal bar on the door from across the warehouse. He panicked, and all he could think of was Kurt walking in on him fraudulently printing up his personal information. The thought of Rosalynn and the kids visiting him in the slammer was unbearable. He jumped into a cardboard box that lay next to his feet and pulled the flaps down over his head. He had to scrunch, but it nearly fit him perfectly. He wouldn’t be able to stay crouching like that for long because at some point his bones would give under the pressure of his body doubling up on itself.
No one came in through the door. His ears must have been playing tricks on him. Before he crawled out of the box, though, he sat upright on his rear and laid his back against it and rested while the printer did its thing. He realized he hadn’t been inside a box since he was a kid.
As he exhaled, he closed his eyes.
Instantly Robbie felt a cool breeze that sent a shiver up his spine. His knees were pulled up to his chest and his hands were at his sides and they were wet. He lifted them, dripping droplets of cool water all over his suit.
When he opened his eyes he saw that he was crouching in a giant puddle of crystal-blue phosphorescent water. The water glowed brightly enough to reveal a vast cavern surrounding him. A ray of light shone through a hole several hundred feet above his head.
Robbie shivered as he stood up to observe his surroundings. It was chilly in the cave, especially with little gusts of wind whooshing past him. He had no idea where he was, or where he had come from. But somehow, he didn’t really care. He was just simply … there.
He could hear tiny waves lapping against the cavern’s rugged walls. The only other sound came from the echoes of leaking water trickling off the walls. The only way out had to be down one of the several corridors surrounding him.