“This really isn’t what we do,” the consultant from Rheinhart & Ritter tried. The CEO bulled on, running over his words.
“You have to help. This is beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with.”
“Call me Simon. Look, I’ve heard a lot of things about your outfit, and believe me, this is right up your alley.” He tapped a finger on the embossed script of the consultant’s business card. ” ‘Discreet, creative solutions for the modern office.’ If word gets out that Maher Industries is being undermined this way–”
The consultant took a deep breath. “Mr. Maher, someone is stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator. That’s hardly –”
“That’s the problem. We can’t stop him.”
“Surely you’ve tried cameras.”
“Of course. And we’ve captured the thief on video.”
“You have? Why haven’t you fired him?”
“We can’t. We don’t know who he is.”
The consultant blinked. “Someone is breaking in from the outside?”
“He has a badge, but no one recognizes him, and all the badges are accounted for.”
The consultant sighed. “Maybe you better show me what you have.”
The consultant watched the video in the small conference room, without distractions. It was refreshing to be alone, with only the subaudible presence of the consulting firm to keep him company.
Against the backdrop of that ever-present communication, he watched the company’s morning routine unspool on tape. People dropped off their lunches, got their coffee, exchanged greetings, all in stark black and white. The break room emptied out, and except for one or two people passing through for a mid-morning coffee, it stayed empty. The moments ticked on; the consultant viewed patiently, never moving. Finally, at about 11:35 am, someone entered the break room, opened the fridge, and selected a lunch. He turned and smiled directly at the consultant. Then he left, out of the camera’s view.
The woman whose lunch had been stolen searched through the remaining lunches with increasing fury, finally slamming the fridge shut in a crescendo of violence.
Even through the videotape the energy from her rage shocked the consultant from the soles of his shoes along his spine. He pressed pause on the remote. If the people at the company felt anything remotely like that, he thought, no wonder the CEO was worried.
“Did you see it?” he said. The hum intensified. He nodded at the response. “And did you feel that?”
Again he nodded. “It could be a Bad Amy. I don’t want to rule out that possibility, but it is not usually that sort of creature’s modus operandi. I did not perceive individually focused malice, for instance.”
The consultant smiled. “Yes, it’s interesting. I don’t know where my investigation will take me, but I intend to enjoy it.”
Simon Maher rose and offered his hand as the consultant came into his office the next morning. “I’m glad you decided to take the job,” the man said. “It’s been a little embarrassing, this lunch thief problem.”
The consultant gripped his hand. “I’ll need free rein of your site,” he said. “A badge of my own. And I’ll have to talk to people.”
The CEO nodded. “That’s fine. Whatever you need. You just let Helen know.”
Helen was Simon Maher’s administrative assistant, as briskly competent as promised. In short order the consultant had a visitor’s badge and she led him to the lunch room. “We’re all so glad you’re here,” she said, her heels tapping away on the linoleum floor. She wore fashionable slacks, pointed pumps, a lavender twinset, and prim jewelry. Highlights streaked her chin-length hair. She opened the door to the break room and nodded at the red light shining near the ceiling. “The video camera. Though it hasn’t done much good.”
The consultant glanced at it, then looked around the room. A refrigerator hummed in one corner, a microwave next to it. The long counter was taken up by a machine, its various displays blinking. The consultant frowned at the machine, puzzled. Helen glanced at him, identifying his confusion.
“Here, let me help,” she said, selecting a foam cup from the stack. “You take this packet and put it in the slot, punch in brew, strength, kind of coffee, whether you need room for cream and then put your cup here. Press a button, and there you go! Coffee.” She beamed. The consultant beamed back.
“Thanks. It’s very modern.” The coffee machine blinked and hummed, and coffee trickled out into his foam cup.
“Well, it’s a little silly, to have a ‘coffee system’ –” She made air quotes with well-manicured hands. “I usually get my coffee on the way to work, but sometimes when I’m running late it’s all I have time for.”
The consultant took a sip. The brew was insipid, vile. She laughed at his expression and he found himself revising his first opinion of her.
“And there’s the catch – it’s terrible stuff,” she said frankly.
He glanced at her over the cup and then poured the coffee down the sink. “Do people complain?”
She reddened, touched her necklace. “Well, I don’t know. I guess that would be kind of ungrateful, to slander the coffee. It’s free, you know. And it’s not all that bad.” Her voice faltered.
They both looked at the sink with the last of the coffee draining in it. Her phone rang, and she started. “Let me know if I can help with anything else,” she said hastily as she left. “Hope you find this guy. He’s worse than the coffee, that’s for sure.”
The consultant nodded, and waited. A couple more people breezed in. He frowned at the coffee machine again.
“Need a hand with the coffee?” one said, his eyes flicking over the consultant’s visitor badge.
“Yeah, I’m not sure where to begin,” the consultant said.
He poured out at least seven cups of coffee as the morning wore on. Finally, the break room emptied out. The bright industrial lighting fell over the sink, the coffee system, and the fridge. The only sound came from the humming of the machinery and the ticking of the clock. Outside the room, the consultant could hear the intercom, people’s voices, cell phones. A printer and a fax machine. Deliveries.
At 11:45 the first of the early lunchers came in. It was Helen. She looked at him, startled. He realized he hadn’t moved. She smiled breezily.
“Still here? Well, hopefully you kept him away at least for today.” She opened the freezer door and stood there for a long moment. Then she slammed the door closed. “Son of a bitch,” she said, the professional persona slipping off her as if it were part of her outfit.
The consultant felt the same jolt of energy; this time, proximity made it painful. She had no reaction, he thought. It should have knocked her over.
The firm responded without words and he acknowledged it. Aware or not, she had to have felt it, and the aftereffects would be devastating.
An entire company feeling this… they were being tortured, and didn’t know it.
She looked at him, frustration and anger pouring into her voice. “What happened? Didn’t you see him?!”
The consultant shook his head and she exploded. “What the hell kind of consultant are you? He stole my lunch!” She threw up her hands and stalked off. The consultant frowned, and headed off to view the video.
“I was in there the entire morning,” the consultant said. “You can see me.”
Simon Maher didn’t have the consultant’s patience, so he fast forwarded through most of the tape. He gasped when he saw the lunch thief walk in, grab the frozen entree from the freezer, glance at the consultant with a grin of malice, and then walk out.
“How could you miss him?” Maher said. “He was right there.”
“I know.” The consultant smiled and then gave Maher an apologetic look. “Sorry. It’s not often we get a challenge like this.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying this,” Maher muttered.
“So does he just steal women’s lunches?”
“No. Equal opportunity thief. He’ll take veggie meals, meat leftovers, anything. Totally random. He only ever takes one lunch. He always smiles for the camera. He’s even taken the same person’s lunch a few times. If he were trying to target everyone that wouldn’t happen.”
“Has anyone tried sabotage?”
Maher wrinkled his nose. “We have some creative people here. Laxatives were popular for a while. He has never eaten a sabotaged lunch as far as I know.”
“Anything more – final?” The consultant’s voice was bland.
When Maher spoke next his words were careful. “The company is not aware of any kind of unlawful entrapment efforts by employees. We do not condone any action that could bring harm to anyone and will prosecute to the fullest extent possible any attempt at revenge.”
“There is no ‘unofficially,’” Maher snapped. “And everyone knows that. He’s just a lunch thief – we’d be crucified in the press.” He sighed. “What next?”
“I’d like to see your employee roster cross-referenced with photos.”
“It’s not one of the employees.” Maher hesitated again. “And privacy laws…”
“I just want to check faces.”
Maher capitulated. “Helen will get you what you need.”
After hours at Maher Industries was a quiet place. One security guard sat at the front desk and another prowled the dim halls. The consultant sat in the small conference room that had been assigned to him and reviewed the tapes. He had the electronic personnel files up on the computer. At first glance there was nothing to distinguish the lunch thief from the employees. It didn’t take the consultant long to realize, though, that whereas he could close his eyes and visualize any employee after one glance at a photo, he could not remember what the lunch thief looked like. He looked at the tape and got a hazy impression of dark hair, male, white. Then he looked away and the image dropped from his mind.
“Are you getting this?” he said to the room, just as the door opened and the security guard poked his head in.
“Sorry,” the man said. “I have to check all the offices.”
“Not a problem,” the consultant said.
The security guard took in the monitor, with the lunch thief frozen in action, and the computer screen with employee dossiers. “So you’re the one trying to find the guy. Man, he really sounds like a piece of work. Where I used to be stationed, at the fab out there north of town, some guy used to steal lunches and go eat them in the bathroom. You’d go in there and someone would be in one of the stalls, chewing away. That place went out of business though. Hey, maybe it’s the same guy.” He grinned.
The consultant nodded at the monitor. “You ever see this guy? Maybe working late or something?”
The security guard looked, frowned, and shook his head. “Nobody I know.” He touched his flashlight to his visor and backed out of the room.
The consultant looked at the monitor. The lunch thief stood there, plastic container in hand, a smile on his face. The consultant looked away and couldn’t remember if the thief had brown hair or black, if he wore khakis or jeans, a button down or a polo. He sighed.
Then he wondered about what kind of thief would steal a lunch only to eat it in a men’s room stall.
Maher Industries had four restrooms, two each for men and women. The consultant stood in the doorway of the closest restroom, just looking in the dimness of the off-hours lighting. The cleaning crew had come for the night, and the urinals and stalls gleamed with strong disinfectant. A faucet dripped at the end of the row of sinks. He walked through, pushing open doors. Nothing.
He did the same with all the restrooms, including the women’s, which had a heavy floral scent. He pushed on the last door, only noticing at the last minute two pointy-toed pumps under the door.
“It’s taken,” said a familiar voice. The consultant opened his mouth, realized that was a bad idea, and walked out.
The next day, he met Helen in the break room at her usual time. She raised an eyebrow at him taking up position in the same spot, and shot a tiny glance at his shoes.
“Still need help?” she said, turning her shoulder as she pretended to choose a coffee packet.
“No, I have it now,” he said. “Here.” He handed her a mug of coffee, still steaming. The coffee smelled strong and bitter with chocolate notes. “It’s a peace offering,” he said. “And an apology. I didn’t mean to frighten you last night.”
Her eyes flicked from the coffee to him. She took the mug, but warily, eyeing him over the rim. Good, he thought. He didn’t want to talk to office personas. He needed to speak to people who were stripped down to their core.
“A peace offering or a bribe?” she said, her bright voice challenging. A few people came in and she and the consultant stepped out of the way, their bodies moving together.
“Why a bribe?” he said.
“So I won’t say anything about you, last night, in the restroom.” The break room had been rebounding with talk that skipped along the surface of the room but at her words, everyone turned to them. The consultant felt almost the same jolt he experienced when a theft was uncovered. Helen’s cheeks got pink and her voice went bright again. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I know you’re here to find this guy. I was startled, and you know.” She gave a little wave.
It’s armor, he thought. Like the twinset and the pumps. Another bout of curious glances and then the conversation rose up around them again.
“It’s all right,” he said, and nodded at the cup in her hand. “You should drink that before it gets cold.” He gave a cordial nod and went off to the small meeting room.
The consultant replayed their encounter on tape. There was the usual swirl of activity around the coffee machines and he and the woman off in the corner, quiet over the coffee mug. The mug had a bit of a halo around it but the consultant dismissed that – only he could see it and he was used to it. He watched himself leave, the woman watching him go. She wore an odd expression – puzzlement, a bit of enjoyment at their encounter, a sort of half-arousal that made him smile wistfully. The arousal was buried far deeper than even she was aware, stuffed down beneath the armor of business casual. After a moment she took a sip of the gift coffee. Her face lit up with a grin and in the meeting room the consultant grinned back.
This time the lunch thief never showed
Simon Maher wanted to count it a job well done with a handshake and payment due, but the consultant shook his head.
“I’m not even close yet,” he said. “And according to the security tapes, he didn’t steal a lunch every day anyway.”
“No,” Maher admitted. “He would lull us into thinking that he stopped and people started bringing lunches again and leaving them in the refrigerator. Then it would start up again.”
“Has Helen been here long?”
“Six months. You can’t possibly think that she has anything – anyway, we’re looking for a man.”
Not really, the consultant thought. “No,” he explained. “I meant only that I needed someone who had been here for a long enough time that they could review the tapes and correlate the date stamps with anything unusual that happened that day.”
Maher shook his head. “That would take weeks. And anyway, I can tell you that the days the lunches get stolen are just like any other day around here.”
“It’s not the days the lunches get stolen,” the consultant corrected. “It’s the days they don’t.”
Maher was reluctant but he finally agreed, proposing they turn to Helen’s assistant, Suzanne. She agreed to review her calendars, but she looked dubious. “Exactly what am I looking for?” she said.
“Anything that jogs your memory,” the consultant said. “They say you know everything about this place, better than anyone. I need that kind of institutional knowledge.”
She smiled to cover up a deep-seated disgruntlement that the consultant had come to recognize at Maher Industries – the entire company was a stew of resentment. Nevertheless, three days later she emailed him her notes, a play-by-play of the daily life of the company. The consultant reviewed them late at night in the quiet presence of the consulting firm.
The first pattern was no pattern: the lunch thief stole lunches or did not steal lunches and Suzanne’s meticulous notes made no connection. So the consultant stopped trying to fit the two together and looked only at her notes. He could feel her resentment through the computer monitor, a subaudible grudge through which she filtered everything. Armor, he thought. Armor against what? He thought about Helen, her airy breeziness hiding explosive anger.
No, not anger, he thought. Fear.
What were they so afraid of?
He scrolled through the notes. Meetings, shipments, e-mails, accounts receivable, quarterly earnings. Vendors delivered, the company signed new customers, engineers designed new products, marketing launched them. Coffee was delivered.
The consultant stopped. He had asked Suzanne for the noteworthy, and instead she dutifully transcribed the unremarkable. But noting the coffee order? He almost laughed, until the room’s silence pressed itself upon him.
The endless communication from Rheinhart & Ritter had ceased.
The consultant felt a sick pressure that he identified as fear. He turned and flicked on the security monitor.
The lunch thief grinned maliciously back at him. It took the consultant a moment to recognize that he was not in the break room. The monitor lost the signal and when it came back the lunch thief was gone, and all he could see was the empty restroom.
Empty except for a pair of pointed pumps just visible under the door of the last stall.
He pushed the door just as Helen pulled it open, almost flinging it into her. They collided, grabbing each other.
“What are you doing?!”
The lunch thief was gone, but a lingering sense of oppression remained. Rheinhart & Ritter remained blocked.
“Let’s go. We’re in trouble.”
On the heels of his words the bathroom mirror shattered as if someone had taken a baseball bat to it. They ducked as glass showered down on them. The consultant grabbed her wrist and pushed her through the swinging door ahead of him.
Something shrieked behind them and they ran, her shoes clicking on the floor.
“What’s going on?” she panted. He ignored her, his hand hard around her wrist, pressing on the silver bangles.
“When was the coffee system put in?”
“Three, four months, I don’t know. Listen, what is this about?” She pulled back. “You need to let me go.”
“Who ordered it?”
“I don’t know! I’m not in Facilities, I don’t keep up with this stuff.”
They had come around the corner to the break room and pushed through the door. The break room was quiet in the dim light and looked empty, but he thought of the lunch thief’s face on the monitor and knew they weren’t alone. He started to pull the coffee system with its packets and brew sections away from the wall. “Give me a hand.”
She stood still. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Killing your lunch thief.”
The big three-prong plug resisted his attempts to pull it from the socket. The sick pressure increased. The coffee system groaned and swayed, but refused to come off the counter. He turned back to the woman. “Listen, I need…”
Her face had become the face of the lunch thief. She started for him. They fought, falling to the floor. The consultant banged his head and saw a flash of white. Several canisters of non-dairy creamer rolled off the counter on top of him.
Helen was trim but not strong, and after the first surprise he managed to overpower her. Her face came back and the lunch thief was gone. She looked at him, pale and frightened. A groaning noise made them both look up in time to see the refrigerator coming down on top of them. The consultant rolled left, the woman right, and the fridge crashed between them, its thick cord pulling out of the wall. A flash of sparks came from the microwave in the corner. The appliance hurled itself at them, turntable plate flying out and rolling out the door with a clatter. The microwave smashed to the floor.
The air buzzed with malice.
They got to their feet. Helen’s twin set was grimy, and she had lost a pump that now lay under the fridge. She pulled off the other one and tossed it aside. “It was the coffee?” she said uncertainly. “Because the coffee was so bad?”
“It used to be a communal pot. It used to be that the company was a company, everyone pulling together.” He started pulling at the coffee system again. This time she helped.
The plug burst from the wall with a flash of electricity, and the woman gave a little shriek. They pulled the unit off the counter and poised it over the edge, plastic tubing trailing behind it like veins.
“Will dropping it be enough?” she said.
“I don’t know.” He knew he should send her away, but the image of the lunch thief on the monitor, in the restroom where there had been no cameras, made him loath to let her out of his sight. “Be ready for anything. It’s going to be mad.”
She gave a grim smile. He had seen that smile before – rarely in this century though. “It will be a pleasure,” she said, grunting with effort as she pushed along with him. “To not have to drink this lousy coffee ever AGAIN!”
On the last word the coffee system went over the edge and landed with a crash that rivaled the fridge. The unit crumpled, and water and coffee packets fell everywhere. The tubing writhed.
He could hear an impotent, distant screaming. She might have as well because despite her defiance she looked wide-eyed with fear. The coffee system began to pulse at their feet.
That was enough – they bolted for the door.
They watched the rest from the security guard’s monitors. The coffee system took a long time to die. It twisted and thumped and bubbled. The lunch thief appeared and looked as if it were trying to get into the fridge, which had fallen face down. It gave a heartbreaking cry. Helen put her hand to her mouth.
“Did we ever find out who it was?” she said.
“What it was. Betrayal. Despair. A community breaking up. All the things a company is not.”
“It was us.” She said it flatly.
She sighed. “We’re in manufacturing. The rumors are that we’re supposed to outsource to India. And when it happens – after that we aren’t worth anything except what Simon can get for parts.”
He thought about what the security guard had told him, about another lunch thief who stole lunches and ate them in the restroom. It was more common than people thought. Civilization was a thin veneer, and even the best business casual could not hold the jungle at bay.
“Start with the communal pot,” he said, and she looked at him, a vee of confusion between her eyebrows. “You are all in it together,” he said. “It can’t hurt.”
It wasn’t like him to be foolishly optimistic but sometimes a cup of coffee was the only logical response when faced with dissolution. Coffee and a little something sweet, a shared communion. They turned back to the monitor and watched the rest of the coffee system break down on the screen.
The next morning employees lined up outside Simon Maher’s office, where Suzanne presided over the old coffee pot. The mood was light but sad, as if everyone knew it was a temporary reprieve. People had pitched in for coffee, cream, sugar, and donuts. As the maintenance crew cleared away the mess in the break room, Maher stood next to the consultant and grinned.
The consultant knew how he felt – the company’s old comfortable connection was back. Then he forgot about the firm. Helen came toward them, carrying two cups of coffee. She had on a red suit with a vee neck that should have been worn with a silk blouse but in this case only a bit of lace bra peeked out. Her skirt stopped well above the knee, and her heels were easily four inches. Maher radiated shock and confusion.
“You both look like you could use coffee,” she said, and handed them cups. The consultant’s was in the mug he had given her. Simon still looked boggled.
“Helen! What –”
“Celebrating,” she said firmly. “I didn’t come to this company just to be here at the end.” She looked at the consultant, her color a bit high. “I prodded accounts payable and they have a check ready for you. If you would come this way.”
He followed her to her office, a smaller one next to Simon’s. She leaned over her computer and clicked. The printer whirred and spit out the check. She clipped it to the invoice and handed it to him. Their fingers touched lightly. He felt a touch of wistfulness. He had to go soon and would never see her again. That wasn’t unusual, but he had been interested in seeing what sort of person she was without armor. Away from the office. He thought about the flash of temper he had seen in the break room his first day, and her smile when she helped him destroy the coffee system.
Again he was struck by the silence in the room, but this time there was no danger. The firm had just let him alone for the moment, turned its back discreetly. The consultant curved his hand over hers.
“Coffee?” he said.