Friday, August 26, 2011

The Third Wish - Part 1 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

This is an old 'trunk story'.  I sent it around the markets back in 1998 and circulated it for three years before letting it gather dust.  It's wordy and too long for the subject.  But I never wanted more than a little look at the 'three wishes' concept.  Time for a little airing.

"You don't even try!"  Beth's voice over the phone was so loud that Leon Neuman winced when he saw John in the next row of cubicles imperfectly try to ignore it.  There was no privacy in this group.  He picked up the next application and began to copy the hen-scratches into his screen.  He couldn't stop working now, not even to talk to Beth.
"Are you listening to me?"
Leon nodded, then replied in a near whisper, "Yes.  I didn't know you had asked a question."
"Well I did!  What are you going to do about our house?"
Our house?  Leon didn't recall making any of the two or three offers that would lead Beth Hannover to feel ownership.  But now was not the time to point that out.  He put the application in the 'Done' bin and picked up the next one.
"I told you I have written a letter..."
"In other words, you aren't going to do anything!  You are going to let that bank 'droid lock you out of your own house and you are just going to stand there and smile."
"Well, it isn't quite like that.  The contract clearly states..."
"You should march right into that bank and demand to see the president."
"I wish it were all that simple..."
"You are the simple one!  That's it.  No more.  Don't call me again!"  Click.
You called me.  Leon let out a sigh and put the phone back on its cradle.  He could type better with both hands anyway.  He glanced at his 'In' basket.  It was taller than it had ever been.  Ferris had been quite clear.  Get them all entered, perfectly, today, or find another job.
He could feel the other clerks watching him.  He didn't need to look away from the screen.  He was the boss's target.  He was the one with the loud girlfriend.  He was the pathetic one.
For just an instant, his mind went blank.  His hands paused on the keyboard.  The screen made no sense.
No.  Keep cool.  Think about one thing at a time.  His hands resumed their rhythm.  Too many problems, all at once.
The house–the bank was missing the payments he had sent it, and the man on the phone was quite abusive about it.  They hadn't locked him out, yet, but it was on the agenda.  He had made the payments.  The checks had been cashed, but his account had been with the same bank, and he could not get any help ordering photocopies of the canceled checks.  His own records were hardly conclusive.  F3, submit.  Next form.
His car had been old.  It burned oil.  AC worked when it felt like it.  It badly needed a paint job.  Now it was totaled.  The guy who had rear-ended him hadn't even acted apologetic.  There was no insurance from him.
Leon thought he was covered, but when he called, the policy wasn't on the computer.  He had trusted that insurance agent.  The broken windshield two years ago had been handled with pleasant efficiency.  They had joked about boys with baseballs and he had been convinced that he would keep his policy with there forever.  Now, his calls were never returned.  The body shop had called to complain.  He had to come up with money, or they would have it towed off the lot.  F3, submit.  Next form.
Money.  The bills in his wallet might be all that he had, and the daily taxi ride to work was depleting that rapidly.  Would he be working on this robotic, repetitive job if he had any other options?
At first the job, coming out of the blue like it did, had seemed to the work of a guardian angel.  The pay, while unspectacular, was steady.  The work was undemanding.  No one seemed concerned about his former work experience.  No one even asked why he hadn't completed his degree.  It was better than fast-food, or digging ditches.
Everything changed.  His boss, Ferris, changed overnight from a pleasant good buddy to a strident monster.  "This department is sloppy," he had declared.  "Changes will be made."
Leon shook his head.  All of them were focussed on him. He became the department scapegoat.  F3, submit.  Next form.
There was a noise, or maybe the lack of noise.  He looked up from his work.  A security guard strode through the maze of desks towards him.
Leon paused in his data entry midway through the next account name.  It can only be for me.
"Get your hands away from the keyboard!"  The stout man in the company guard uniform rested his hands on his equipment belt.  His pistol was holstered, but plainly visible.
Leon sighed and lifted them away from his desk.  He turned to the man at the next desk.  "Bill...." he started.
"Get your mouth shut!  Now stand up, slowly."  The guard reached for the hand cuffs at his belt.
It was all too ridiculous.  He had done nothing.  It it had been possible, he would have laughed.  As it was, all he could do was give the room full of his co-workers a rueful grimace and a shrug.
Bill didn't catch his eyes.  He, as well as half the floor, had heard Ferris refuse to accept that the crashed hard disk yesterday was not his fault.  The ultimatum wasn't likely to be met, even if Bill decided to drop his own work and try to help him out.
Leon felt the cold metal of the hand cuffs snap around his wrists.  He couldn't even work up any more indignation.  It was just one more calamity.
This morning had been a sign.  The power had been cut off to his house, and he had overslept without the alarm clock.  The cab company had been nearly an hour late in picking him up.  Then, when he arrived at the office building, the elevator chose just the wrong time to lock up, with him stranded between floors.
He didn't blame Bill.  It wasn't safe to even talk to him.
Once the guard marched him out into the hallway, Leon asked, "What..."
"No talking."  He poked him with his baton.  He was pushed into the opening elevator.
Leon had a brief, very brief, surge of anger.  If he had the slightest belief that outrage would do him any good, he would have blown his top.  He didn't have that much optimism left.
Live through it.  Something has to change.
The elevator door closed.  The guard reached for the buttons then suddenly groaned.  He fell with a floor shaking crash.
What now?  Leon could only stare.
The heavy man looked unconscious.  His arm was draped across Leon's shoe.  He twitched his foot loose and stepped back.
What is wrong?   He stayed motionless.  Surely it was a trap.  The instant he moved, the guard would open his eyes and shoot him.
But what if he is really sick?  If he is having a heart attack he could die while I stand here.
The guard was motionless.  Leon couldn't tell if the man was breathing.  He found it hard to act.
Leon Neuman had always been fairly passive.  He had been the third child of four.  His place had always been to wait until his older brother and sister had their pick of seats in the car–their choice of TV shows.  He had gone to his brother's college.  He didn't recall giving the issue any thought.  Such things were always decided before hand, for him.  It had bothered him for years, but even now, on his own, he still moved through life step by step, checking his footing each time.
Leon shook off the paralysis, a man's life could be at stake.  There were things to do.  First things first.  He pushed the call button.  There was no response.
He yelled, "Hey!  There is a sick man in here!"  No answer.
He moved his bound hands up and pressed the door button.  There was a lurch, as if the elevator car had dropped a foot, but the doors didn't respond.
Am I going to have to do this all myself?  He kneeled down and put his hands on the man's chest.
He could see the man's gun, and the keys to the handcuffs.
There is something wrong here.  He looked hard at the guard's head.
He stood up.  Definitely, something wrong.
"Okay!"  He spoke loudly, "You can get up now.  I know you are faking it."
There was only the faintest of tensing in the guard's jaw, and he continued to lie as he had fallen.  Leon was confident.  He had taken enough first-aid courses in the past few years that he could plainly see that the man was in no real distress.
He leaned back against the wall, made himself as comfortable as possible, given the handcuffs, and started humming the repetitive melody of a song from the radio.  He could out-wait them.
Twelve minutes passed.  Leon tried his best to sleep.  He would not rise to the bait.
"Okay Fred," came a man's voice over a hidden speaker.  "You can bring him on up."
The guard opened his eyes and levered himself to his feet.  He showed no sign of embarrassment when Leon looked him in the eyes.  His perpetual scowl didn't change.  He took out a set of keys and turned one of the locked switches on the strip that were labeled for fireman usage.  The elevator started up.
Somewhere between the 22nd and 23rd floors, the elevator stopped and the door opened.
The guard grabbed his hands and removed the handcuffs.
"Get."  He ordered.  Apparently, the guard wasn't coming with him.
Leon rubbed his wrist where the metal had pinched, and stepped out into the elegant surroundings.  The whole floor appeared to be someone's office.
The Old Man.  It was a guess, but a reasonable one.  Office rumor had it that the founder of the company, Edmund Tennery, had never really turned over the power to the current CEO and board of directors.  Supposedly, he still pulled the strings from on high.
No one but the multi-billionaire recluse would likely have this office.
It was a very subdued decor.  It you didn't pay attention, it looked nice, but if you examined the wood-paneled walls, and the comfortable furniture, you quickly realized that everything wasn't just 'nice'–it was perfect.
"Don't dawdlecome on in."  It was the voice from the elevator.
Leon stepped silently across the carpet.  As he entered the main area, he spotted the man putting up a book in a floor to ceiling bookshelf that stretched along the whole back wall..
Yes.  He did look like the grainy black and white photo on the history plaque in the lobby.  The old man waved to a chair.  "Sit.  We've got some things to talk about."
Leon did as he was told, but he was not too thrilled by this latest revelation.  Anything new was likely bad news.  The man sat at his desk and pulled some fat envelopes from a drawer.
"You are Leon Neuman, a data entry clerk.  Why did you choose that job?"
"I didn't choose it," he answered abruptly.  He throttled back on the anger that had jumped out.  He continued, a little more civilly, "It was the last job on the list.  You get hungry and any job starts to look good."
Tennery looked at the papers in his hands.  "You didn't finish you doctorate.  Why?"
"What do you have there?  Have you been spying on me?"
For the first time the old man looked him straight in the eyes.  He nodded, "Yes.  Most of this is standard employment information, but I have been looking at you a little closer than that."
Leon felt a dark suspicion start to grow.  It must have been reflected in his face.
Tennery read his expression and nodded, "Yes, I have been responsible for some of your recent troubles."  He tossed one envelope his way.
"This is the corrected papers on your house.  I have paid off the remainder of the loan.  You now own it free and clear."
He tossed another envelope.  It was smaller and contained something hard inside.
"This is a replacement car.  It is parked in the garage below."
Leon glanced at the contents, ownership papers with his name filled out.  The keys were fresh cut and shiny on a BMW ring.
"What is going on here?  Was my boss...?"
"Yes.  He was acting.  He gets a nice new promotion out of it.  You are already penciled in as his replacement."
"But,"  the old man held up his hand, "I didn't have anything to do with your girlfriend."
Leon sat back in his chair, holding the envelopes that were worth more than he had planned to make in many years.
"I don't understand."
"I don't expect you to.  For the moment, just think of this as a job interview.  Answer my questions and I will explain everything later.

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