Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

When I first got to Empire City I started keeping this journal in a notebook. I only made a few entries, but I've got the time to transcribe them, so why wouldn't I do that?

First entry:

All the other drones were wearing khakis and golf shirts and stuff. (Well, the male ones, anyway.) I was the only drone in a suit. Fine, I don't care. The next blank on the form was 'Minimum Acceptable Hourly Rate', which was always a tricky balancing act. I figured eight bucks was about right. What the hell; I could always change it later. Temp agencies hate it when you do that, but that's something else I don't care about.

There were about twelve of us in the room, signing on with the Stuart-Neill Temporary Staffing Agency. Temp agencies are always my first stop when I'm looking for work, and this one had been recommended to me by a friend of my dad. After all, I didn't know much--yet--about the fine art of looking for a job in Empire City. This place didn't look promising, though. The beige carpet was looking pretty frayed around the edges, the fluorescent lighting was flickering, and the woman who was purchasing our souls had a big smear of lipstick in her ear.

Lipstick-in-her-Ear--her nametag said 'Kim'--stood up at the front of the room and waved a short stack of forms in the air. These would be the timesheets.

"These will be your timesheets," Kim said, handing them out. "I'm going to fill out one as an example, so you can all see how it's done. If you don't fill out your timesheets accurately, you will not be paid. It's very important that you fill out your timesheets accurately." I took three. They seemed perfectly simple, so I zoned out and missed Kim's example.

Not even a window in the room. I couldn't tell which way I was facing, and I'm a guy who likes to know where magnetic north is. Let's see, the building entrance was on the east side, and I turned left to go into the elevator...

I was still trying to retrace my steps through the Stuart-Neill hallways when Kim intruded. "Does anyone have any questions about the timesheet?" Amazingly, some people did.

"Where do we put our overtime hours?" asked a guy in a T-shirt. Yes, a T-shirt.

How about in the 'Overtime' column?

"If you look to the right of the column marked 'Regular Hours', you'll see a column marked, 'Overtime Hours'. If you work more than fifty hours in a week, you put the excess hours in that column," explained Kim.

It was all I could do not to shoot my hand up at this little revelation. Fifty hours before you qualify for overtime? Total bullshit. A couple of things became obvious: Stuart-Neill survived by hosing its employees, and complaining to Kim wouldn't accomplish anything. I could either submit to the hosing or take my fifty-words-a-minute and my science degree elsewhere. Or possibly both.

T-shirt Guy stuck up his arm again. "But where do we put the first fifty hours then?" Get me out of here.

Kim answered a few more stupid questions and had us fill out some more stuff, and told us we were done and we'd be contacted when we had our first assignments. They didn't give any of us typing tests. I hadn't talked to anybody about what I could do or what I wanted to do or what they might want me to do. Nobody even looked at my resume. What was Dad's friend thinking when he sent me here? This place was a joke.

But you never know. As we were filing out I stopped in front of Kim and said, "What kinds of companies does Stuart-Neill have as clients?"

She smiled and said, "There are brochures in the lobby that can answer all your questions about that."

"Yes, thanks, I have one," I said, showing her. "I was hoping you could tell me a bit more, though." Like, say, anything at all.

"I think you'll find everything you need in the brochure." Translation: I know nothing. Please insert another coin.

"Okay, thanks," I said, giving up and moving on.

She smiled again. "Glad to help!"

It was a long elevator ride down to the lobby. Any day in which I wear a suit and don't get paid does not get marked down in the plus column. No point in trying to find another agency today, either; it was almost four o'clock. As I recalled, it was only about ten blocks back to the apartment, so I started walking, taking note of restaurants and video stores in the neighborhood as I went.

Ron was drinking the last of a carton of milk when I got home. "Hey, Dennis," he said, wiping his mouth. "How'd it go?"

I pulled my tie off over my head and hung it on a coathook. "Worst temp agency I've ever seen," I said.

"Ah, well. First day looking. You'll find something; you're good at this." He put the empty carton back in the fridge. "I could get you a job at the restaurant, if you want. Just washing dishes, but it's better than nothing. I could ask my cousin tonight."

"You're working tonight?"

"Yeah, I gotta get out of here pretty soon, actually. What do you say, are you desperate enough?"

"Melting my fingerprints off in a sink for minimum wage and a share of the tips? I think I'll hold off for now," I told him.

Ron laughed. "No tips."

Was everybody getting shafted in Empire City? "Dishpigs don't get tips at your cousin's restaurant? What is that?"

He shrugged and picked up his keys. "Dishwashers are just manual labour. We servers are talent. Listen, I'm not going to be back here till late, so don't put the chain on, okay?"

"Got it. You out of here?"

"Yep." He pointed his keys at me. "See you."

"See you." He left.

I looked around the apartment for something to do. I could unpack my stuff, except I hadn't brought a lot of stuff and there was nowhere to unpack it to. It was just a bachelor apartment and most of the space was taken up by Ron's and Carl's belongings. If that sounds cramped it's because it was. This place would be a tight fit for one normal person, so the three of us were stepping on each other's heads a lot.

So if it was so cramped, why was I spending any more time here than I had to? I changed out of my suit and headed out.

I walked around the city for a while, stopped at a sub shop for supper, and walked around some more. Eventually I got kind of annoyed with myself for not having more of a life than this, and sat down in front of a fountain to cheer up. Okay, so I have no life, so what? I'm young enough to get over it. I'm in the big city, I've got my health, I'm not quite broke, there are all kinds of possibilities. Just stick with it and good things will happen.

There were a bunch of skateboarding kids goofing around on the edge of the fountain. Three of them were soaking wet already. They probably didn't have lives either and it didn't seem to be bothering them any.
Here's the problem with this job. You're either really busy, or you're sitting around playing Minesweeper while the cobwebs form between your head and the lamp. Anyone curious about the relative proportions of these two states need only know one thing: after my first two days I had already knocked Carl's name out of the Best Times list in Minesweeper.

Therefore this journal. No doubt Greyghost and Cruickshank would turn pale and cling to the wall for support if they knew I was posting any of this online, but I don't care. I've got the journalling thing set to 'private', so it should be safe. At least I think I do. Anyway, if I can change the way I spend my time at work from:

5 % - do something really interesting and allegedly important
95 % - count fibers in office carpet


5 % - do something really interesting and allegedly important
5 % - type up interesting and allegedly important thing
90 % - count fibers in office carpet

then I'm twice as well off as I was before.

I'm exhausted. I was in here from yesterday evening until ten in the morning filing and crossreferencing a ton of forensic crap that Greyghost had shipped in from Africa. (Believe me when I say that after the first six hours it all starts to blend together in your mind.) So I ran a couple of errands, went home, and was in bed by noon.

Three-thirty my pager goes off. I peel my eyes open and call the man. "You need to go to the bank for me. A courier is arriving at your building with information from Cruickshank. This must be completed by quarter after four." He hung up. I didn't even get a word in.

Five minutes later I'm in a cab heading across town to some Finnish trust company. I've got bedhead, I'm wearing an old T-shirt and shorts, no socks, and my sneakers are on the wrong feet. And I'm frantically reading the sheaf of couriered stuff to try and make sense of what I'm supposed to do.

At the bank. I say I've got an appointment with Mr. Wong, because, well, according to Cruickshank that's exactly what I've got. The entire place is looking at me, basically because I look like I've just fallen out of a tree.

Mr. Wong beckons me into his office at three-fifty. Now I have to tell him a string of lies, which I always hate. I mean, he seems like an okay guy. He's got pictures of his family on the desk. He's got a plastic smurf wearing a mortarboard sitting on the filing cabinet. Why am I filling his ears with BS?

"My name is John Caruthers. I'm confidential secretary to a man named Dieter Solarin. He has instructed me to open an account at your bank that fits these conditions." I handed him a piece of paper. "Mr. Solarin requires this immediately."

Mr. Wong looked first at the paper, then at the pizza stain on my T-shirt. I am too a confidential secretary! Named John Caruthers!

"I'm afraid we'd need Mr. Solarin to come in himself to arrange such an account," he said, handing the sheet of paper back. Dammit, why wasn't Cruickshank handling this instead of me? It's exactly what he gets paid for.

"I have the authority to sign anything on his behalf," I argued.

"If it's going to be his name on the account, and he's going to be approving these... unusual accesses to his funds, we would insist on speaking to him ourselves."

And then my cellphone rang. Ingrid's ring. That's the other problem with this job - there's nobody who has my cellphone number whose call I don't have to take right away, no matter what. I held up my hand in apology to Mr. Wong and answered it, saying "I can't talk right now."

"Why? Where are you?"

"The bank. I have this--"

"Oh, right, the Solarin thing." Because she knows more about it than I do. Of course. "Look, I have to get ready for tonight, so could you pick my cat up from the vet?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Look--"

"Write this down." She dictated the vet's name and address, the cat's name and condition, the phone number, and some other instructions. "Have you got all that?"

"Yeah." It was on the back of a page I tore out of Mr. Wong's Dilbert desk calendar, which was the only blank thing I could reach in a hurry. Tomorrow's page, unfortunately. Sorry, buddy.

"Repeat it back to me."

I did, and if Mr. Wong raised his eyebrows when I got to the part about "Popeye. Diarrhea," who could blame him?

"That's it. Thanks, Dennis. I'll see you tomorrow."

I clicked off the phone. "I'm sorry about that. Now, I--"

He interrupted. "Mr.... Caruthers? I'm sorry, but I don't think I can help you. Perhaps you should try another bank."

According to Cruickshank it had to be this bank. Fortunately he had left me somewhat prepared for this--there was a sealed envelope I was supposed to give to Mr. Wong if he wouldn't go for it. I pulled it out of the courier package and handed it to him.

"What is this?"

"Open it," I said.

He did, and pulled out a letter. I couldn't read it, but I recognized one of Cruickshank's signatures at the bottom. (He has three, and switches between them depending on the situation.) Mr. Wong's eyebrows went up again. "There won't be... any problems, sir," he said, getting out some forms.

As I was filling them out, I could see Mr. Wong gazing at me intently. By the time I was finished he had succeeded in completely creeping me out. But everything went smoothly. He didn't even look at the fake Caruthers ID I found in the courier package. The account was open a couple of minutes before four-fifteen and I got up to go retrieve Popeye before the vet's office closed.

On my way out Mr. Wong called me back. "Sir, if you don't mind my asking?"

"No, what is it?"

He paused, and looked uncomfortable. I drifted back to his desk a little so he could lower his voice. "What was... she... like in bed, sir?"

I said the first thing that came to mind. "Sly, inventive, and a little sad."

He sat back down behind his desk, wide-eyed and nodding. I wonder who I was talking about? Clearly I have to spend more time as John Caruthers. Name's got a ring to it, too.

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