The meetings became somber since the day of the earthquake when Shaka Byte disappeared. There were no programmers left in the company and nobody seemed to have the will—or the skill—to complete the flagship app.
As if sensing the bleak mood, Willie Stroker solicited, yet again, input about the new workstations. “As you know, we will be moving from this building shortly. Not only it is old and decrepit, haunted even by some accounts, but we have outgrown its accommodations.”
Anass Kissinger, second-in-command but first in brownnosing nodded with such gusto, that his head behaved as if joined to his torso by a mattress spring.
Encouraged by his subordinate’s public display of appreciation, Willie Stroker continued: “We in management have received so much feedback about what you would like to have in your new workstations that I have decided to appoint a committee to categorize that marvelous trove of insight.” He turned to look at his partner in crime. “Anass, I am appointing you ‘Chair of the Workstation Committee’.”
Anass Kissinger’s smile was like a half-moon. His face muscles were stretching so much that they almost popped. With great difficulty, he managed to bring his lips back together to vocalize his acceptance. “Thank you, Mr. Stroker. I’ll task Anita with creating a SharePoint site for the team to publish their bright ideas.” He looked at Anita. “Anita, let’s take this offline.” Then he took a quick, discreet sniff of his armpits.
Anita Potty looked back at the Chair of the Workstation Committee as if he were a sergeant who had just ordered her to charge a machine gun nest with a toothpick, or as if she were a particularly chunky woman in the process of being sold to a tribe of hungry cannibals—which she wasn’t, of course: she looked like a model. Her eyelids became piggy bank slits that barely let the shine of her baby blues through; the nostrils of her pointy nose expanded and contracted as if she was hyperventilating.
“Another thing,” Willie said glancing toward Mike Litorus, the receptionist/janitor/IT coordinator: “I’m sorry to inform you that the new facility will not be equipped with military-grade toilets as you requested.” As if sympathizing with Mike’s round face of disappointment, he added, “But it’s not something that might not be considered in the near future.”
Willie looked at his smartphone, swiped his index finger twice, opened his black notebook, turned a couple of pages, and went back to his smartphone. “The second order of business is to introduce my new hire. I’m extremely pleased to announce that Ruby C. Sharpe has joined SCR-OTUM as a full-time systems developer, starting tomorrow. Ruby brings ten years of experience in application development, testing, implementation, and post-deployment support. His immediate responsibilities will be taking over Shaka Byte’s unfinished application. This is to further align the competencies and skillsets of the team in order to ensure that we continue to improve our capability to provide business-driven technology solutions to our key business partners. I trust you will join me in welcoming Ruby to our team!”
Such was the level of excitement that one could hear human skin rubbing against the touch-sensitive screens of the team’s devices. Occasionally a tap or two, but mostly sliding, the wearing out of mankind’s largest organ.
Ruby C. Sharpe arrived at 8:35 that morning. The HR director, Gayle Male, had told him he’d be working on the twelfth floor. But upon exiting the elevator, he realized the glass door wouldn’t open without an access card. He waited for someone to come in.
At 9:39, the elevator door opened and a talkative young woman with beautiful blue eyes and a slick, pointy nose came out accompanied by a tall, dark man with a serious countenance; ignoring Ruby, the woman swiped her access card.
“Good morning,” Ruby said to the blue-eyed beauty with his most amiable smile: “My name is Ruby C. Sharpe, and today’s my first day here. I was not issued an access card. Could you please help me get my bearings?”
She examined him up and down like he was a bug, and twitched her nose in obvious disgust. Ruby thought for a moment he might have forgotten to put on deodorant.
“Go to the reception, fourteenth floor!” she said, pushing him out of the way.
He would’ve hit the wall if it wasn’t for the tall man who, on his way in, elbowed him out of his path. Ruby felt like a pinball. His cellphone fell from his pocket and hit the hideous chequered tile floor, shattering the screen. Cursing, he called the elevator. When the door opened, a crowd came out and almost stomped him; he had to hug the wall to avoid injury. After the unruly horde cleared the landing, he jumped in the elevator and went to the fourteenth.
The receptionist, Mike Litorus as Ruby read on the name tag fixed to the obese man’s bosom, didn’t seem to get a good vibe off him. “Open a ticket with Service Desk!” he vomited and went back to his computer.
Ruby controlled the urge to slap him. A glance at the clock on the wall told him he was already one hour late for his first meeting. “Excuse me, Mike, today’s my first day and I’m late. Could you please call my boss, Mr. Stroker, to let him know I’m here?”
Mike looked at him as somebody who is watching his favorite show’s finale looks at his devoted mother-in-law when she decides to stand between him and the TV to count the links in her holy rosary. Huffing and puffing, he picked up the phone.
“And please welcome Ruby C. Sharpe,” the boss said to the packed boardroom. “Let’s introduce ourselves, starting with you, Anass.”
“I’m Anass Kissinger, assistant manager to Mr. Stroker and Chair of the Workstation Committee. I recommend you don’t come late to our meetings.” With that, he looked to his right, as if passing the baton.
“I’m Anita Potty, the SharePoint specialist. You should use the project site I’m developing to keep track of our meetings, so you won’t be late again.” She looked to her right, smiling and blinking at her colleague.
“I’m Connie Lingus, the database administrator. Anita’s SharePoint site will use a database I’m developing. Make sure you fill in all mandatory fields.”
To Ruby, the database administrator seemed capable of spinning the massive mahogany table on the tip of her little finger, like an Amazon warrior. She also looked as if she’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else.
“I architect,” said a young Asian man with heavy glasses and an inverted black bowl on his head that passed for hair. “I Chew Kok,” he said, shooting his right hand out and tipping over Connie’s coffee mug in the process. Impervious to the look of utter hate from the Amazon warrior, he proceeded to pull out, from under the table somewhere, printouts with multicolored diagrams about computers, clouds, and brick walls, all of them connected by arrows.
“I architect data flow, you see?” He stuffed the printouts on Ruby’s face. “Once components in place, you be able leverage cohesive in order achieve business required efficient.”
The final introduction was for the business guy: a tall, dark man who looked like some ancient king sitting on his throne. “I’m Senior Business Analyst Faar Tonjou. Yes, it’s French, I get that all the time. What’s important now is for you to get familiar with the app as quickly as possible, hit the ground running if you know what I mean, if you catch my drift, if you get me. Shaka’s code needs to reach a code-complete state because he left it in a code-in-progress state before he disappeared.”
“Well that just about does it,” Willie said. “And let me add that you should be really mindful of the meetings’ schedule. We pride ourselves on respecting timetables here, we don’t usually make our colleagues wait. Check your calendar for our next meeting. Thank you team, I’ll be in my office if any of you requires any coaching. Remember I have an open door policy.”
Ruby took it in stride—new place, new culture, that sort of thing. He’d get used to it. So he dove right into work. He opened Visual Studio and began to comb through Shaka’s code. It was terrible. Not a single comment, it looked like it had been written by an amateur or somebody fresh out of college. Sometimes he did find comments that indicated the source of the vast majority of the codebase: “© Chucky Egg Basement Software. All rights reserved bro, so watch it. Not for commercial use.”
He looked for architectural diagrams to help him get the big picture of what this monster application was all about, but an Outlook dialog box popped up, reminding him that the next meeting was in fifteen minutes. Another boardroom. Where was it? It just said the name: “Morakachat Room 2B.”
By the time he burst into the meeting room, which he found by running through all sixteen of them—Morakachat 2B being the last one—, his sweat glands had gone to afterburners. But he was one minute early, so at least he got that part right. Nevertheless, the accusing stares of his colleagues made him feel like he had just entered an inquisition chamber.
“Exceedingly generous of you to grace us with your presence,” the boss said targeting Ruby with his hawkish eyes. “This meeting is about agility.” Willie was standing next to the whiteboard, projector control in hand, and he was pointing at the first slide of his presentation. “We have to embrace the agile methodology. It will empower us to react to business requirements changes efficiently and effectively. In short, it will allow us to be agile. We don’t want perfect code here, we want code that is just good enough to meet the business requirements, and we will improve it on each subsequent sprint.”
The boss looked at Ruby. “For instance, in an agile world, I can ask you for your estimate to complete the current sprint. What’s your estimate?”
Ruby studied the faces around the table for signs of laughter, because Willie was probably kidding. He found none. “Um,” he said, “I don’t have any requirements yet. What is it you want me to code?”
Willie shook his head and tsked. “Perfect example right here,” he said to the room. “The first thing that comes out of the developer’s mouth is the excuse that he has no requirements. With agile you don’t need requirements. That’s why you’re agile, get it?” he said, turning back to Ruby, whose face was turning a peculiar shade of red.
“I completely, absolutely, utterly, one hundred percent agree,” Anass said, bouncing his head.
Ruby went back to his desk muttering unspeakable words under his breath. He needed this job; his wife had just been laid off and he couldn’t afford to skip another mortgage payment. He wished he had accepted that management position they offered him in the last gig; he wished he could’ve put his pride behind him, for once in his life, and accepted it. It was just a ceremonial position, he knew: attend meetings all day and spit buzzwords, just like Willie’s textbook performance. But he realized that it would have been more BS than he could have handled. What he didn’t realize was that they would fire him for not accepting.
He killed those bad memories for the time being and checked and re-checked his emails for any semblance of a business requirement. Finding nothing, he decided to try and make some friends; he approached the nearest colleague he had met in the meetings.
Chew Kok didn’t seem to understand what he was asking him. Instead of a simple answer about what part of the monster application he should work on, the architect produced a stack of printouts with diagrams containing brick walls, fluffy clouds sailing blue skies, workstations, human stick figures, and arrows shooting in all directions. Those diagrams could be interpreted to code logic to send astronauts to the nearest interstellar neighbor, or to track the sale of potatoes by region, by month. Such was the ambiguity that oozed from them, and Ruby could swear he was able to smell their malodor. Time to move on to the next dear colleague.
Anita, the pretty SharePoint specialist, was having trouble mastering the basics of mouse governance. She kept tapping the screen with her left hand’s index finger while holding down the left mouse button with her right hand’s index finger, apparently hoping that would cause the desired effect, whatever that might be. It came to no surprise to Ruby when she answered his query about the project site with another question: “Is that a SQL Dynamics storage philosophy or a Cloud-related approach?”
Ruby double-backed on his steps slowly, carefully, without losing sight of her, as if confronted by a mountain lion. Thankfully, the danger dissipated quickly; Anita went back to her mouse-taming activities as soon as he was outside of her field of view.
“Watch yourself!” the database guru said when Ruby bumped into the back of her chair. Amazon-like Connie was the opposite of princess-like Anita. She showed great expertise and dexterity in mouse handling, although what she was doing, Ruby could see by glancing at her screen, had nothing to do with database development. She was playing an RPG game and she was good at it.
“Could you help me with the database? I just need the server name and the service account so I can connect to it and take a look at the tables and stored procedures that Shaka’s code expects.”
Connie was on a killing spree. “Um, yeah, um, like, open a ticket with Service Desk and, like, oh damn you! I got you now, boy!” She was tapping the mouse like a madwoman and didn’t address Ruby again. He vacated the area promptly, feeling stuffed with emptiness; as if the oxygen had just evacuated his lungs.
In another forest of pods, he found the senior business analyst, Faar Tonjou. Faar saw him coming and busied himself with something under his desk. Ruby stood by the pod and cleared his throat once, twice, and one final, exaggerated third time that turned heads.
Still no Faar, at least not the upper part of his body, perfectly camouflaged in the crowded paper basket—like an ostrich sinking his head in the sand. Ruby felt the urge to tell them off and walk out of there. But the mortgage. The mortgage chained him to that madhouse, at least until he could catch up with payments and find a better job.
Just then, spring-headed Anass located him and announced the boss requested his presence immediately.
Willie arched his eyebrows. “We don’t usually burst into a superior’s office without knocking,” he said.
“You said you had an open-door policy,” Ruby said, taking a seat.
“I want a status update. How’s the project coming along?” Willie said while moving around things on his desk for no apparent purpose. Some items he put back in places they’d been before he started the exercise.
Ruby looked at the desktop-shuffler slit-eyed. “What project?”
“Why, your project, of course! What’s the exact percentage of completion?”
Ruby shut his lips and tried to think of happy times. He wished he had his smartphone with him, he could pull up some pictures of him and the wife in the Caribbean. But he had surrendered his smartphone to the Service Desk, and he feared he would not be seeing it again any time soon. “I can’t give you a status update of my project, because I have no such thing. You haven’t assigned me anything. I’m studying Shaka’s code out of my own curiosity. By the way, that K9 software is preventing me from installing Database Management Studio. I’ve opened a ticket with the Service Desk and they said that their response time was anywhere between two hours to three weeks. How’s that for an estimate?”
Willie lifted his bird-of-prey gaze from his desktop. “I realize you are still new, and unfortunately, your work ethics are not, as of yet, a perfect fit for our culture. But blaming the Service Desk for your lack of progress seems like a rather defensive approach. We are team players here, and I hope we won’t have this conversation again.”
As Ruby left the boss’ office he was torn between slapping him and sucker-punching him. He slithered back to his cubicle to cook up some ridiculous status report, considering the sucker-punch approach. It wasn’t easy for him coming up with BS; it had never been easy for him; it had cost him jobs. He sat there, staring at the screen, and the screen stared back, accusingly.
Meanwhile, in boardroom Morakachat 2B…
So that’s how he trapped me, that bastard spirit! I got upset, too upset! And I didn’t have my cellphone with me! I remember now! It got infected with that goddamn virus that called 911 every time I opened a porn site! Yes, I had dropped it off with the Service Desk for them to clean it up, I remember now. And the earthquake! Yes, that’s it! The earthquake! That opened the portal, or whatever the hell it’s called. He sucked me in! All these assholes are immune because A, they always have their bloody noses buried in their phones, and B, they don’t give a rat’s ass about their jobs. I had neither A nor B in my favor!
Shaka paced the boardroom like he had been doing since his body was stolen. His field of view was akin to a security camera fixed to the ceiling. When he moved he couldn’t seem to get any lower nor higher, as if he was in a two-dimensional space. Or cell.
But he could shift from boardroom to boardroom as he pleased. Usually, he would pick the empty rooms to avoid his coworkers. Just by chance, he was in this boardroom the other day, and the new employee intrigued him. He seemed a competent programmer. Should he get to know him better? Should he help? Could the new guy help him?
Ruby presented his estimate in the next meeting. While the boss and Anass dissected the numbers projected on the whiteboard, Ruby could have sworn he heard an eerie voice. He looked around at his colleagues. Everybody was fingering their smartphone.
Listen to me Ruby, I’m Shaka Byte. Do you have a cellphone?
I’m losing it, Ruby thought. Just what I needed. He looked at Willie and his second-in-command with a mix of hate and resignation because he blamed them for his predicament.
You’re not crazy Ruby, but this place can make you believe it. I can help you if you trust me. Do you have a cellphone, though?
Who the hell are you? Ruby thought, glancing left and right. Everybody was absorbed by their gadgets.
I told you, man, I’m Shaka Byte! The programmer of the application you said you’ve been studying all this time. What did you think of my polymorphic abstract factory classes? And my optimized recursive functions? And what about that idiot-proof security code that prevents the moron from the Service Desk to screw up the database if they forget to change the server name when they push the build to production?
Ruby was now positive he had gone fishing. He was about to excuse himself and leave the room when the extraneous thoughts entered his head again.
Don’t leave! I know you’re pissed off. I can see myself in you, you know. We are alike. I can actually see myself in you if you know what I mean. Right inside you.
That was too much. Ruby mumbled something about a headache and ran out bumping into Connie, who dropped her phone and made a comment about his mother.
Ruby thought his food was the solid equivalent of water: tasteless and odorless. That had never happened to him before when eating a burrito with extra spice. But the voices in his head had him worried. Were his screws loosening, finally, after all those years of jumping from one cretin-infested gig to another?
His phone rang, his email client displayed a little box at the bottom of his screen, his instant-messaging application popped its own box next to it, and Anass came barreling down the hall, managing to take a discreet whiff of his armpits without losing balance. He said the boss required his presence.
“Ruby,” Willie said, “go down to the cafeteria and get me a coffee with two sugars, one cream, and a box of maple syrup donuts. Let’s have a conversation.”
For some reason, the burrito Ruby was still chewing didn’t seem bland anymore. It became spicy, bold. Stinky even. It lit a fire in his throat. He opened his mouth and the words poured out like magma flowing from an angry volcano. “Better send Anass. He’s better qualified.”
“I’m disappointed in you,” Willie said rattling his fingers on his chin. “This, we’ll have to discuss at length, later. Now I wish to talk about something that has come to my attention and is frankly worrisome. It’s about starting work without a user request to properly track your time. You are never to start any work without being assigned a user request first. Demand one in case somebody approaches you. Is that understood?”
Anass knocked and walked in with a tall latte and a box of donuts. Willie waved Ruby away, like an annoying servant. “Be on time for the next meeting,” he said to his visibly upset underling.
Ruby had already improved Shaka’s code tenfold, trapping all errors and exiting processes gracefully, sending email notifications to the support team, and logging everything in the database. He was now working on the business logic layer, optimizing the code so it would use less memory and run faster, when Connie, the database guru, emailed him requesting fifty stored procedures because she was just too busy. But since the boss didn’t want any work done without a proper user request, Ruby courteously replied asking for one.
In the first meeting of the afternoon, Willie berated Ruby for ignoring his coworkers, labeling him uncooperative. Anass checked his armpits and accidentally elbowed Ruby on the cheek.
Back at his desk, Ruby had all of twenty-six seconds to check his emails and go to the washroom before the next meeting.
“How do you get any work done if you’re always in meetings?” he asked the room. Everybody dropped their smartphones and looked at him in surprise.
“By working late!” Willie barked.
Ruby had reservations believing that statement, so he purposely stayed late that evening. Unsurprisingly, by ten to five the office was deserted—starting with Willie, who was a typical LIFO: last in, first out.
It was a tough place alright. Unless he became a devoted brownnoser, Ruby realized, things would turn unbearable. He wasn’t sure how to deal with it. He couldn’t afford to quit, the mortgage wasn’t going away any time soon. Desperate, he went to the nearest boardroom. At least, if he was going crazy, he’d have somebody with whom to vent his frustration, even if that somebody was only in his mind.
As soon as he entered the room Shaka began talking about how he, too, detested the boss and his colleagues. Ruby felt like he had just walked into a shrink’s office. After a long conversation, his fury dissipated, and he went back to his desk to code the fifty stored procedures for the vitriol Amazon bitch.
First morning meeting. Willie informed the team that due to “factors that adversely and unpredictably hampered the calculation of space requirements,” there wouldn’t be enough room for regular workstations in the new building. In the end, management issued an edict to install long tables with benches to accommodate resources next to each other. “On the plus side, it’ll allow us to embrace the new technology everybody is raving about: Agile Programming,” he said with the smile of a new mother showing off her firstborn.
Ruby was still crawling his way out from under the last load of crap he got the day before, so he wasn’t in the best of moods. He stood up, leaned over the table, his arched hands on the shiny mahogany, and said, “So you set up a committee that met for months to design the perfect workstation, and now you end up squeezing people together? Like in a sweatshop?”
Willie’s face turned scarlet. Ruby felt the adrenaline rush. Somehow, he heard Shaka’s voice louder than ever before. An inviting voice. Like the voice of an old friend, a voice he was beginning to trust.
The boss announced the meeting was over and left the room; he didn’t talk to Ruby for the rest of the day—until the last meeting when Chew showcased his latest architectural diagrams. Ruby flipped. “What the hell does this wall mean?” he yelled. “No, not that wall, this one! What is it? A firewall? A stonewall? A brick oven? It doesn’t mean crap to me, I can’t program anything out of this!”
“Don’t criticize Chew’s brilliant solutioning!” screamed Willie. If you don’t understand the technical aspects, I suggest you book a meeting to further discuss it in depth!”
Ruby shut his mouth, inflated his cheeks like a hot air balloon, and opened his eyes wide, all the while staring at the boss as if he could vaporize him with high-energy lasers. Again, Shaka’s voice invaded his head.
Piss him off, Ruby, piss him off! Lower his guard!
“Moving on!” Willie said. “Our Cloud effort is going well, Infrastructure tells me. Within a few weeks, we’ll be completely and utterly virtualized. Our applications and data will leverage limitless scalability. All we have to do is swipe our credit card to spawn new virtual hardware. And besides-”
Ruby, who was still standing, interrupted him. “You want to move your entire business to this cloud bullshit? Don’t you realize you’ll be surrendering control of your core business to some tech in a data center somewhere tropical? What happens when the damn thing goes down? Or when it gets hacked and your customer’s information sold to the highest bidder? What then?”
Willie fired back. “We’re not moving to Mom & Pop Cloud, Ruby! We’re leveraging the expertise and professionalism of a tried, tested, true, and trusted partner! And I’m warning you, one more exabrupt-”
Connie yelped: “Database’s down!”
“Is that database in the Cloud?” Ruby asked.
“Yup!” said Connie, reading aloud the email alert on her phone.
Willie suddenly began patting the top of his head like a berserk gorilla, as if his hair was on fire.
Well done buddy, well done. Get him over the edge and I’ll take care of the rest, Shaka said.
Connie couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so she sent an email to Ruby and cc’ed Willie. Five minutes later, when Ruby didn’t answer, the boss went after him. “Why are you taking so long to solve this production issue?”
“First thing,” Ruby said, “I’m not the database specialist here.” As if to prove an earlier point, he called the Service Desk and said, “Please read me the event log for the Cloud database server that choked.” He got his answer and said to Willie, “Second thing, your bulletproof virtual database server just ran out of disk space. I assume you didn’t swipe your credit card enough?”
The boss was yelling at this point. “I don’t want excuses! I want this fixed ASAP!” He said into Ruby’s ear. “Your job is on the line!”
Ruby fought the overwhelming urge to strangle Willie and relieve himself on his dead body. That bastard was going to blame him for whatever issue popped up because of his incompetence. He’d have to look for another job and get out of here. But for now, he had to take it; his mortgage payment was coming up. He had to take it.
“Leave it with me,” he said and picked up the phone again. Five hours later, Ruby managed to get some techie from overseas to increase the virtual hard-drive space, but only after he provided his own credit card number. When he hanged up, the office was empty. Except for Shaka, available in the nearest boardroom. And another five hours later, Ruby was sure he had the perfect plan to keep his job—and get rid of Willie.
The first meeting of the day. Willie worriedly announced that the new line-of-business application, the mother of all software inventions, the apex of computer science as he called it because his boss had coined it that, and his boss’ boss before him, had not been designed for the Cloud. “Explain this to me,” he said, pointing his index finger at dumbstruck Ruby.
Ruby smashed his fist on the table and all the smartphones resting on it shifted location.
“Twenty tracks, dozens of architects and business analysts involved, and you’re asking me? Did I just become a project manager? Why don’t you ask one of the architects? There’s one right here!”
Willie’s color cycled through several shades of tomato. Ruby was sure he was going to fire him in front of everybody. He was counting on it. He was going to make him so mad, so irate, that Shaka would have an easy pick.
He didn’t count on the architect speaking.
“Cloud integration never require. I said include but no! Business no want! Business no necessary, say, and no waste time and no waste money and no waste, no waste, no waste! No need, say, no need!”
Willie typed something on his laptop and left the room with a cryptic look on his face.
A thick cloak of silence smothered every last free decibel roaming around the boardroom. Ruby wished he could explode Chew with his eyes, but no explosive rays came out. For one brief moment, his greatest desire was to harness the power of telekinetics; he could negate the effects gravity exerted on the architect and send him on his way beyond Mother Earth’s life-giving biosphere.
We almost had him! Almost! I just needed a few more seconds and I would’ve taken him! You must piss him off again! You must do it before you move to the new building! I won’t be able to help you there! I can’t leave this place! Bring him back! Bring him back here and piss him off!
For some reason he chose not to share with the team, the boss canceled the rest of the meetings. Did he know something? Did he suspect what Ruby was up to, in cahoots with Shaka?
Email from Anita. The useless tit couldn’t figure out how to post an article on the SharePoint site. The SharePoint specialist couldn’t do it even if her life depended on it. Sensing an opportunity, Ruby replied: “GFY!” and attached an animated GIF of a dancing banana showing the finger.
Forty-five seconds later Anass was standing by his desk, ready to escort him to Willie’s office.
“This has gone far enough,” Willie said, dangerously calm. Ruby had to stop him before it was too late. He had to get him to one of the boardrooms and make him plenty pissed.
“I need to talk to you urgently,” Ruby said. “But not in here, not with your master asskisser as a witness. It has to do with something I discovered in the code that can bring this company down. But if I solve it for you, it will make you look like a star with the board of directors.”
Willie’s eyes brightened. With one quick hand wave, he dismissed Anass and followed Ruby to Morakachat 2B.
“Well, Ruby? Better have something good, because I’m going to fire your ass, you’d better believe it. I don’t care that you improved the flagship app. I can always hire another programmer,” Willie said, smiling coldly.
“Listen you stupid asshole, I’m not putting up with your crap any longer.”
Willie’s lips began to tremble as if he was about to sneeze.
“I’m going to expose your lack of leadership to the board,” Ruby said. “I’m going to get you fired. I have emails that prove how useless you are.”
To Ruby’s surprise, Willie displayed a toothy grin. “You think you have something on me, do you? Well, how about this? How about your mortgage? How will you manage if I fire you right this minute?” He laughed hysterically. “Who cares what some poor resource has to say? With your work history, you’ll be dismissed as just another disgruntled employee.”
Ruby’s anger flared. And his desperation. The bastard was right: even if he could get someone from the board to even listen to him, he would get fired regardless. Even if he could somehow screw Willie, he’d be screwed as well. And then something strange happened: he began to feel like an outsider in his own body as if he was losing grasp of it. Like he was smoke billowing from a fire.
Like a ghost.
“Literally in you,” Shaka had said. And he felt Shaka in him now, like an insidious monster clawing his way in.
“Get out you bastard! Leave me alone!” Ruby yelled, to Willie’s surprise.
Despite his dire situation, Ruby understood. Shaka could possess anybody who was so angry, so desperate, that it tramped every other emotion. But why him? Didn’t the ghost want Willie? Or was it that he couldn’t possess him for some reason? Was there something Willie had that he didn’t? What was it? What could keep the monster at bay?
He reached over the table and snatched Willie’s cellphone from his shirt pocket, more out of a sudden hunch than anything else. The astounded boss fell backward, landing on his back with his feet up. Ruby held the cellphone against his chest and thought of the most peaceful, most beautiful place he could. Home with his wife, a barbecue in the backyard. Beer. The sun clearing the lone, puffy, immaculate white cloud in the blue sky. He even imagined a happy face on the celestial body, complete with aviator sunglasses.
Suddenly his mind was clean. Like it had just been pressure washed.
I almost had you! Almost! I wanted you, not that idiot! I wanted your body and your mind! You’re a great programmer and I could get excellent jobs with your skills.
Willie became the victim of violent spasms. Outside the boardroom, people screamed. Everything was shaking. The boss’s head jerked from side to side, his feet banged the table and his fists pounded the carpet.
Ruby held on to the quivering table and glimpsed his colleagues rushing by the glass doors. The whole building was trembling. He felt compelled to glance at his boss, who was now levitating. Blacklight emanated from the gaping holes that had replaced his eyes and mouth. Like smoke. But it was light because as he spun in the air, gurgling, the dark beams crisscrossed the boardroom.
The earthquake was in full swing. Ruby crawled his way to the nearest emergency staircase, barely noticing, barely caring, that he dropped Willie’s cellphone. As he sprinted downstairs balancing himself on the handrails and jumping down half-floors, he heard an agonizing cry from Willie, followed by a diabolical laugh.
“Your code sucks!” Ruby yelled back at Shaka as he dove down countless flights of dull stairs. When he got to the third floor, the narrow staircase was blocked by a giant blob that wore oversized black pants and a white shirt transparent with sweat. A gigantic emperor penguin; tumbling to the left, going down one step, tumbling to the right, going down another. Slow-moving Mike was going to get him possessed by Shaka’s skill-hunting spirit.
“Now let’s try that again!” Ruby heard, the voice getting closer. Willie’s voice. “I want your body, buddy, not Willie’s. Yours!”
Ruby thought of giving Mike the mother of all kicks in the ass and jumping over his large volume. But instead, he helped him down the stairs.
The chilling ghostly overtones sounded nearer: “I’m coming down Ruby, I’m coming down! Take care of that body for me!”
“You’re not a programmer, you son of a bitch!” Ruby yelled back. “You got your code from search engines! You’re a bullshitter like Willie!”
An ear-shattering wild scream was the response and Ruby knew he had hit home with that one. Then the building shook again and a large, root-like crack appeared on the wall.
Ruby let go of Mike and pushed the ground level emergency exit door with all his might; it didn’t move an inch, not even after he kicked it like a berserk gorilla. “I’m coming Ruby baby, one floor above you now boy,” Willie sang.
Mike forced Ruby out of the way and leveraging the untapped inertia of his enormous mass, impacted the metal door like a meteor crashing through the Earth’s crust. The deformed emergency door came off its hinges and flew across the street, landing on a parked BMW. At that moment the second-floor landing collapsed just as Ruby and panting Mike, covered in drywall dust, cleared the destroyed door frame.
Outside, by the predetermined emergency assembly area, Ruby’s colleagues had gathered while they waited for the designated Fire Marshall, Faar, who was waiting in line himself, in the packed coffee shop across the street. They all waved him over because he was supposed to have the checklist with everybody’s name on it. He acted like he didn’t see them.
“Where’s Mr. Stroker?” Anass asked.
“I guess he didn’t make it,” Ruby said, bending down and shaking the white powder from his hair.
“Oh my god! It’s a Shaka Byte-kind-of-situation all over again!” Anass said, checking his armpits nervously.
From his thirtieth-floor corner office, Ruby saw the old building collapse upon itself from the controlled explosion. He wondered how many ghosts dwelled in those cursed boardrooms before they became ash and dust. He wondered what happened to Willie. He was never found.
Someone knocked and Ruby turned around to find Anass standing in the doorway. “No need to knock Anass, I told you many times already. Open door policy. Real open door policy.”
“Sorry, Mr. Sharpe,” Anass said. Did you see that? It’s hard to believe it disappeared so quickly!”
“Hard to believe indeed,” Ruby said. “No ‘Mr.’ please: Ruby will do fine. Did you research the courses I requested?”
“Yes Mr.-I mean Ruby, I just emailed them to you.”
“Good. I’ll be assigning each one of you a programming course. You’ll do real work from now on. No more useless meetings. Tell the team, and if anyone has a problem they can talk to me. Also, let them know that Chew will be their team leader. And please get Faar and Gayle from HR to come here in fifteen minutes, with a pink slip.”
Ruby paused, stifled a laugh, and added, “One last thing: inform Mike that I’m having two military-grade toilets installed today.”
“Will do. How about a coffee?” Anass said.
“I’ll get it myself, thank you,” Ruby said. “And by the way, you don’t smell; you never did. You can stop checking.”
Anass smiled from ear to ear.
Ruby felt good. Ever since his attempted possession, he hadn’t gotten upset over anything. He was no longer in danger of losing his temper, or his house; the future looked bright.
Suddenly he felt a vibration in his chest; the shirt pocket, where he always kept his cellphone—his shield—, even when going to the can. He fished it out and looked at the screen.
Call from Willie Stroker.