The Conspiracy

A story by William H. Duquette

I wrote this shortly after being moved from my nice office with walls that went to the ceiling and a door that closed into a cubicle. But the events that follow, and the people to whom they occur, have no basis in reality. Fortunately.

On October 27th, Marston Burbury was moved from his cozy, upwardly mobile office with four solid walls and a solid wooden door and real furniture to a cubicle with cloth-sided partitions and pre-installed work surfaces and flip-lidded bookshelves. Sitting in his office chair, the sole piece of furniture he’d been allowed to move, he found that the situation was as plain as the moving labels on the not-yet-unpacked boxes that surrounded him. It had been ten years since he had last had to work in a cubicle. This was clearly a calculated snub.

But on whose part? Wasting no time in idle speculation, Marston Burbury immediately confronted his supervisor. She was unpacking boxes in her own new office. It had a door.

“I’m sorry, Mar,” she said. “I tried to get hard-walled offices for everybody, but Facilities wouldn’t allow it. I gave you as much space as I could. You deserve better, but my hands were tied.”

She seemed to be sincere. Marston Burbury returned to his cubicle and stared at the lids of the flipper cabinets. So his enemy was in Facilities, was he? Or her–he mustn’t jump to conclusions.

So…what was he to do about it? He couldn’t leave this slight unnoticed, and as for working in these conditions, it was unthinkable. He pulled boxes open until he had located a pad and a pencil, and began to scheme.

After a thoughtful hour he had outlined a two-tined strategy. Penetrating Facilities was the main thing, but it would take time; in the meanwhile, it would be best to act as if nothing were wrong. Accordingly, he placed the notes for his campaign in a hanging file at the back of his file drawer, and unpacked his boxes.

In keeping with the second part of his strategy, he hummed the theme from Carmen as he worked: Bum-bum-ba-bum-bum Bum-ba-bum-ba-bum, Bum-bum-ba-BUM, Bum-bum-ba-BUM. He hummed just loud enough to ensure that the shortcomings of open-plan office-space were clear to all of his neighbors. It wouldn’t do to be ostentatious.

At lunchtime, having consulted the company directory, Marston Burbury made his first reconnaissance. The Facilities department was housed in building 251, on the far side of the Trimcorp campus. Nibbling at a bagel, he went for a leisurely stroll that happened to take him along all four sides of the building. It looked like most of the others: two stories, interior stairwells, exterior doors at both ends. He was glad to see that there was no sign of a receptionist’s desk. He would not want to be noticed.

Returning to his cubicle, Marston Burbury spent a quiet five minutes removing the lock from one of his flipper cabinets. Placing it in his pocket, he went to talk to his supervisor.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but one of my cabinets is missing its lock. Who should I call to get it fixed?”

“Hmmm. I suppose I’d better call Facilities. The contractor was supposed to make sure all of the cabinets had locks, and Facilities will want to follow up on it.”

Aha! His hunch had paid off. “Please don’t trouble yourself,” he said. “I’ll call them.”

She looked doubtful. “It’s no problem,” she said, but when he pressed her she gave him the name and phone number.

The name was Milo Rivera, and when Marston Burbury heard it he felt rocked to his very core. He was careful to let no sign of this escape as he thanked his supervisor and returned to his cubicle. Milo Rivera! That name was so familiar. If only he could remember where he had encountered it before–he would be a long way toward knowing why Mr. Rivera (or his superiors) had done this to him.

He dialed the number, and reported the missing lock to the person who answered. The cool voice on the line gave nothing away.

As he drove home that night he found himself pondering his supervisor’s strange reluctance to give him Rivera’s name and number. She had seemed so sympathetic that morning…but was she playing a double game? His work had been above average over the past year, as usual, but had anything else happened to cause her to wish him ill?

Come to think of it, something had. Some months previously he had gone on a blind date with a woman who had turned out to be his supervisor’s cousin. The evening had not been a success, in any sense of the word; indeed, nothing had gone right, and his left cheek bone had ached for a full week. Could she have talked to his supervisor? Not only could she have, Marston Burbury was certain that she had. It was appalling, the things women were willing to talk about among themselves.

He’d seen no sign of it in his supervisor’s behavior. He wouldn’t have credited her with such deviousness if the evidence wasn’t there before him. It was clear now–she was in cahoots with this Milo Rivera.

All in good time, he thought. He mustn’t show his hand too soon.

The morning of October 28th he called his supervisor from home, and told her that he had a doctor’s appointment during the morning; he’d work late to make up for it. He read a John Buchan novel until 10 AM, and then collected the makings for a lunch and drove into work.

At lunchtime, he removed the lunch makings from the refrigerator in the break room, and prepared them with care. He toasted two slices of bread and buttered them on a plastic plate; then he opened the tin of anchovies and spread them carefully on top of the toast. After warming the food in the microwave oven, he carried the plate into his office and set it by his computer.

Wiping his hands, he walked out of the building and drove to a McDonalds on the other side of town. It wouldn’t do to be seen in the cafeteria.

After lunch he put the anchovies on toast in a brown paper bag and disposed of it in the break room trash can.

At 8 PM that evening, Marston Burbury was ready for his first foray into enemy territory. Striving to appear nonchalant, he sauntered across the Trimcorp campus to building 251, and entered through the east door.

The lights were still on; he’d have to look out for the janitorial staff.

From the company directory he knew that Milo Rivera’s office was 221K, so he climbed the stairs to the second floor. He smiled as he entered the main hallway: 221 proved to be the first open bay on the left. Milo Rivera’s office was a cubicle much like his own. He’d been worried that Rivera’s door would be locked.

A vacuum cleaner was making a reassuring hum at the far end of the floor; if he was quick, no one would see him. He entered the cubicle and sat down behind the desk, and was immediately rewarded. There was a vertical file on the desk, and right at the front was a folder labeled “Office Move: Building 126, Second Floor”. That’s where his new office was. He pulled the folder out, and opened it.

The folder contained a hodgepodge of notes, memos, and letters, as well as a complete floorplan. Significantly absent was any request from his supervisor for additional hard-wall offices. The smoking gun was at the back of the folder.

He almost missed it…as he leafed through the last few slips of paper, he happened to notice a framed photograph of a laughing couple, and froze. He didn’t know the woman–but he recognized the man. Marston Burbury’s second cousin once removed had been engaged to him; he’d met the man at a family gathering. This then was Milo Rivera! No wonder the name had seemed familiar.

Marston Burbury began to nod. It was all coming together. The engagement had ended with fireworks when his second cousin had proven to be with child–by someone else. No wonder Rivera had it in for him. No doubt his supervisor had asked Rivera for a favor, and he’d be bound that she hadn’t had to beg.

The hum of the vacuum was drawing nearer. He almost closed the folder without looking at the last slip of paper, but it caught his eye and he grabbed it as he slid the folder back into the vertical file. He stuffed it in the pocket of his slacks, and didn’t look at it until he was safely behind the wheel of his car.

It was a memo telling Facilities to keep the costs down on the Building 126 Second Floor Remodel. It was signed by James Crick III, the president of Trimcorp.

Marston Burbury pondered this all of the way home. How far did the conspiracy extend?

The morning of the 29th, he decided he needed time to think. He went into work and sat in his cubicle until nearly noon. While he worked he listened to the 1812 Overture through a pair of headphones attached to his computer’s CD player; he was sure to hum with gusto.

At precisely 11:50 AM, he opened his briefcase and removed a plastic zip-lock bag. He opened the bag and removed a limburger-and-garlic sandwich, which he placed in the middle drawer of his desk. He put the zip-lock bag in the wastebasket, and locked the desk. Then he went to his supervisor’s office, and told her that he wasn’t feeling well–that he thought it was the flu and he might be away from the office for a day or so.

The rest of that day, and most of the day after, he strolled on the beach and watched the waves. He was trying to decide how far he wanted to pursue this. He was also trying to remember everything he could about James Crick III. What could the president of the company have against him? They had never met. Unless it was a favor to Milo Rivera, to give the man an ironclad excuse to do him the dirty. He immediately dismissed the possibility that it really was about saving money. He’d seen the annual report; Trimcorp had just had its best year ever, and Christmas was coming.

Marston Burbury stayed away from Trimcorp for the rest of the week. He called in sick each day.

On the evening of November 1st, he had dinner with his widowed mother. He spoke little; he never had to do anything but listen when he visited his mother. This time he was glad.

“So I was talking with Dolores, you know Dolores, my cleaning lady? You know, she comes in three times a week. It’s such an expense, but it keeps the house clean, and you know I can’t be doing all of that bending over these days. Such a mercy to have her. Well, dear, I was talking with Dolores, and she told me the most shocking story about her aunt’s sister-in-law. Her aunt’s sister-in-law is a cleaning lady, too, you know, she’s been in the business for years, and she’s completely reliable, her customers just love her. She’s always said that her customers would do anything for her, that’s what Dolores tells me.

“Well, dear, it seems that Dolores’ aunt’s sister-in-law’s mother, who lives down in Mexico, become frightfully ill–well, she’s an old woman, you know, it happens–and she needed her daughter to come back to Mexico and look after her. Now, Dolores’ aunt’s sister-in-law is a good woman, and she knows her duty by her mother, just like you do, dear, and so of course she wanted to go back immediately. But she didn’t have enough money to get there. Well, she sends it all home, you know, dear, that’s what Dolores tells me, she keeps just enough for food and clothes and rent and vacuum cleaner bags. So she didn’t have enough to get home.

“Now, she’s not a one to sit and cry about things, not Dolores’ aunt’s sister-in-law, so what did she do? You’ll never guess. No, you won’t. Why, what she did was, she went to her oldest customer, a man she’d been cleaning for since she came here from Mexico. He’s a wealthy man, you know, always gives her a big bonus at Christmas time. So she went to him–I don’t remember what his name is, I keep thinking it’s “Crock”, because I keep thinking what a crock he was, but I know that’s not right, but it’s something like that–she went to him and explained her situation and asked if she could have her Christmas bonus early, so she could go see her mother in Mexico. And do you know what Mr. Crock did? You’ll never guess. He turned her down flat. And what’s more, he fired her. And he was her oldest customer. At least, that’s what Dolores tells me.”

So that was it. Marston Burbury knew that James Crick III was a widower, and lived alone; this “Mr. Crock” of his mother’s could be no one else. And James Crick III was no fool. He must have known that stories of his ungenerous ways would get back to Marston Burbury, among others. No wonder so many departments had been moved around at Trimcorp in the last month. James Crick III knew that his employees would look down on him for being such a tightwad; he was getting his revenge silently and proactively by moving all of the people who were smart enough to put two and two together into cubicles. How he must laugh, sitting in his huge office with the raw-silk wall covering and the mahogany desk the size of an aircraft carrier, thinking about all of his little Trimcorp rats squatting in their little mazes.

So that’s why Crick had joined with Milo Rivera and Marston Burbury’s supervisor…or perhaps he hadn’t, perhaps the other two had simply taken advantage of Crick’s plan. It didn’t really matter; the effect was the same either way.

Well, he’d show them.

On the morning of November 3rd, Marston Burbury went back to work. The limburger-and-garlic sandwich was gone from his desk drawer, and there was an e-mail message from his supervisor asking him to come see here. He stood up and peered over the partition wall–her door was closed. Fine. He deleted the e-mail message, and turned off his computer. He filled a grocery bag with a few mementos and keepsakes he’d accumulated in the past fifteen years with Trimcorp. The files and reference books could stay where they were. He left a letter of resignation under his desk blotter.

He sneaked out without anyone having seen him. It was essential that no one realize that he was leaving Trimcorp; it would hamper his freedom of movement.

As soon as he had left the Trimcorp campus, he drove to a car rental agency and rented an SUV. He spent the rest of the day visiting grocery stores and pet stores, and finally one hardware store, where he bought several yards of fine wire mesh, a wind-up alarm clock, and a cordless jigsaw.

Precisely at 4:30 PM, he drove back onto the Trimcorp campus, and parked in his usual spot. He sat in the passenger seat and read a novel; the windows were tinted, there was no danger of anyone seeing him. At 8 PM he tilted the seat back and closed his eyes. The smell was discomforting, but the soft rustling from the back of the SUV lulled him to sleep.

The alarm clock woke him up at precisely 1 AM. He got immediately to work. Building 126 was locked after hours, but he used his badge get in. He walked to his supervisor’s office. The door was locked, but he had expected that. He took the cordless jigsaw out of its case, and in a very few minutes cut a semi-circle around the lockset. He couldn’t cut all the way to the edge of the door above and below the lock; the metal jamb was in the way. But it didn’t matter: one good kick, and the door flew open. He put the jigsaw back into its case, and carried it back to the SUV. He made several more trips back and forth between the SUV and the office, arranging everything just so before leaving the severed lockset in its half-circle of splintered wood on the desk and pulling the door shut again.

He started the SUV, and drove it across the campus to Building 251. He left the jigsaw behind, and into the building carried instead several heavy bags and the roll of fine wire mesh. He made his arrangements in Milo Rivera’s cubicle, and then fashioned the roll of wire mesh into a barricade across the cubicle’s entrance, fastening it to the partition wall on either side with safety pins. He returned to the SUV to get a couple of cages; he emptied their contents over the partition onto Rivera’s desk. He was as gentle as he could be.

Finally, he drove to Building 101, where James Crick III presided over his empire. His badge would get him in, but he didn’t want to linger; it was now 3 AM. He loaded all that he needed, including the jigsaw, onto a handtruck, and rolled it to the fourth floor. The jigsaw made short work of the door, and he was in and out in just under half-an-hour. He drove the SUV with open windows back to its spot next to Building 126; once there, he rolled them up, and set the alarm clock for 8:00 AM.

As Marston Burbury drove the SUV out through the guard gate that morning, he smiled at the Jaguar he saw pulling in. He understood it to belong to James Crick III.

Marston Burbury’s supervisor, Milo Rivera, and James Crick III (to say nothing of their co-workers) were due for a rude shock that morning. As James Crick III’s shock had by far the largest shock wave, we will pass over the others in silence. It is only fair to them to say that the extent of their outrage was limited only in scope of action when compared with James Crick III’s.

When James Crick III approached the door to his office, he noticed the smell before anything else–a rich, ripe smell. He noticed the damage to the door as he was opening it, and then it was too late. One white shape slipped through the opening, and then another. Soon, the white laboratory rats had spread all over the building. The exterminators later claimed to have caught some four-hundred and thirty rats on the Trimco campus, including well-over a hundred with brown and black markings, but it is almost certain that some escaped.

Within James Crick III’s office was chaos. Every drawer and every cabinet was open, and every file and nook and cranny had its share of crumbs of pungent, smelly cheese. A Kraft American single dangled out of the floppy drive of Crick’s computer like a watch in a Salvador Dali print. Grated jack cheese littered the file drawers and the computer keyboard. Small chunks of cheddar had once been stashed between the pages of books and within piles of magazines and journals; most of the adjoining paper was now shredded. Little black spots dotted every horizontal surface. The files were ruined.

The authorities soon caught up with Marston Burbury; after all, he had left the letter of resignation and his badge had been used to enter all three buildings. He now gets to spend his time in a drafty room with three extremely solid walls and a fourth one that is rather less so. He spends his days pondering the peculiar behavior of the judge at his trial; he knows he must have met him somewhere before.

He has several more years to go; he’s sent several letters to the Governor requesting an early parole, but he’s received no answer. And, on reflection, Marston Burbury is almost certain he knows why. It has to do with his cellmate’s mother’s dentist’s sister, who was an intern at the state capitol while the Governor was an assemblyman….