Short Fiction

 

 

Matthew Harrison

 

Working with People

 

Tender plc had an exciting new HR role and, with some trepidation, Robbie applied.

 

Tina, the SVP in charge, explained it to him. “It’s a great opportunity for the right person,” she flashed him a smile. “Or I should say, for the right man. We really prefer a man for this job.”

 

“Well, I qualify there!” Robbie said, getting into it. Her smile was infectious.

 

“I suppose so!” Tina laughed. “The previous incumbent was a woman, but, frankly, she wasn’t strong enough. You look better suited.” She consulted her notes. “Yes, your physical was good too.”

 

“I do try to keep myself in shape,” Robbie said modestly. He was in fact six foot tall, strongly built, and used to ‘mixing it’ – exactly as the job spec required.

 

“Now, your role…” Tina opened a notebook and positioned it on the table between them. “Tender is downsizing, our budgeted headcount is down six percent,” (the screen helpfully showed a noose being tightened around someone’s neck) “but we’re also growing, probably ten percent or more in some areas” (an image of muscles being pumped). “So, how do we meet Tender’s objectives?”

 

“Cut selectively?” Robbie ventured.

 

“Exactly!” Tina beamed. And the screen showed someone’s leg being sliced off with chainsaw.

 

Robbie queried the saw. “Oh, we won’t be cutting anyone up!” Tina laughed. “Very droll! No, headcount here is about whole people – integers not fractions, you might say.”

 

“So how will you go about it?” Robbie wanted to know.

 

Tina pursed her lips. “It’s all about our values, Robbie. Tender is a caring company, so staff reductions have to be done sensitively. Our objective is minimum disturbance to the continuing staff – let us call them amputees – and maximum consideration for the staff being released – the amputated. Dave from Admin will provide logistical support, and of course we in HR are always there too.”

 

She wound up and asked him how he felt about the role.

 

Robbie liked it, although he did have concerns. “It sounds a step up from my last job,” he said frankly. “It’ll be a challenge.”

 

Tina nodded sympathetically. “I think you’ll grow into it – although of course the job has to get done. No soft hearts, now!” she warned roguishly.

 

Robbie assured her that his heart was as hard as flint.

 

Tina laughed: “That’s the spirit! The staff have had it all explained to them, so there’s no need to be shy. Just, ‘go in and get ’em, cowboy’!”

 

Robbie laughed with her, although he knew it wasn’t that easy cutting staff, HR often overlooked the difficulties. But he needed the job. And it looked as though Tender needed him.  At the end of the interview, Tina stood up and extended a hand. “We’ll be contacting you very soon!”

 

#

 

A week later, on his first day at Tender, Robbie turned up at the Admin department to be kitted out. Despite Tina’s encouragement he was a little apprehensive.

 

Dave from Admin turned out to be a reassuringly robust Australian. “We’ll start you off with one of these,” he said, taking an instrument down from the wall.

 

Robbie hefted the thing. The handle was polished wood, like an old-fashioned police truncheon, while the business end was a chunky steel knob. It had a pleasing weight to it.

 

“You know the drill,” Dave was saying. “You’ve got your list, right?” Robbie showed the list of names tagged with photos and locations that HR had provided. “Good! Well, you just work your way down that, and Sandra here”, a petite young Chinese woman came over, “will go in after you to clean up. Simple!”

 

Robbie agreed that it was, although privately he would have wished for a bigger assistant. “What’s the protocol if there’s… you know…?”

 

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Dave said with a laugh (it seemed that there was a lot of laughter in Tender) “Sandra’s very good. You’ll see.”

 

With some misgivings, Robbie shook hands with Sandra and introduced himself. Then he sat down with her to plan the first assignment.

 

#

 

They started the following morning. The first port of call was Marketing, where two staff were to be released to allow Sales to expand by two. It did cross Robbie’s mind that the staff could just be moved from the one department to the other. But policy wasn’t his job.

 

Marketing was in a corner of the building, and that was good – the fewer exits to cover the better, in case the staff did a runner. One of the targets was a VP in the corner office, while the other was someone else’s secretary seated a few cubicles away. That presented a problem. If Robbie went for the VP first, the secretary might escape, but if he tackled the secretary, that would alert the VP.

 

From a vantage point in the nearby pantry, he surveyed the other staff. They were quietly working, a tall girl having a word with a colleague over the cubicle wall, and he was going to spoil their day. Well, the cuts had to be done, but he would have liked to have got to know them first. It wasn’t good going in cold like this.

 

Robbie shared his feelings with Sandra. The young woman was gratifyingly businesslike. “Just leave the sec to me,” she said briskly. “We don’t need them in a modern company, anyway.”

 

Robbie could only agree – and it freed him to focus on the higher-value target. He took a breath. Time for action! Holding the bludgeon behind his left thigh, Robbie strode up to the VP’s office. He knocked on the already-open door, then entered and closed the door behind him. The surprised VP looked up.  

 

“Hello,” said Robbie, “I’m from HR, come to introduce myself. Robbie Payne.” And he extended his right hand.

 

The VP rose reluctantly. As he shook hands, Robbie yanked the VP forward, at the same time bringing the bludgeon down with smashing force on the man’s head. There was a sodden ‘crack’, and the VP collapsed onto the desk, blood and brains dribbling out of the breach in his skull.

 

Robbie hardly had time to relish the satisfactory completion of the task when from the outer office he heard a woman’s scream, cut short.

 

#

 

Robbie had nothing but admiration for Sandra that morning. He had not even seen the knife with which she dispatched the secretary; she must have had kung fu training. Then there was the cool way she washed the blood spots from his shirt in the pantry (“Wear paisley next time”). And the self-assurance with which she led the way back to the lift.

 

Marketing was in chaos. People were gathered around the bodies, the tall girl he had noticed before wailing and wringing her hands. “Shouldn’t we, you know, clean up?” Robbie wondered.

 

“Don’t worry about Betty,” was Sandra’s rejoinder. “Let it sink in – sends a stronger message. I’ll come back with the cleaners this afternoon.”

 

That seemed to make sense, you had to see the job in the round. Still…  Robbie glanced back, and his eye caught the desolate gaze of this Betty standing over the body. Snatching himself away with difficulty, Robbie followed his capable colleague into the lobby.

 

Their assignment that afternoon was Finance, and Dave had a warning word with them before they set off. It seemed that there were troublemakers there, a couple of burly characters to look out for. “In fact,” Dave continued, “I’d better come along with you.”

 

That didn’t feel good. Robbie really wanted the chance to prove himself. Fortunately, Sandra assured her boss that they could handle it. “You’d just get in the way!” she smiled at him.

 

Nonetheless, when they reached Finance, Robbie was quite worried. From the lobby, they could see that filing cabinets had been dragged across the floor to form a barricade; a couple of large male staff – presumably the ‘troublemakers’ – were standing guard with makeshift staves. Robbie almost wished Dave were with them after all. But there was no thinking of that now, he had to get the job done.

 

He paused with Sandra behind a pillar to discuss the approach. “The advantage we’ve got,” he said, consulting his office plan, “is that they don’t know who we’re after. Look – that’s our target.” And he pointed to a woman seated near the window.

 

“I’ve got this,” Sandra said. “Wait till I’ve distracted them.” And without waiting for his confirmation she coolly marched up to the bigger of the two guards, hailing him sweetly.

 

Robbie gulped. But they were committed now. Action! He rushed out, and sprinted up the aisle as if making for the corner office. Shouts went up, the VPs sprang from their seats and tried to shut their doors. Then, at the last moment, Robbie jinked into the target’s cubicle and swung the bludgeon. Perhaps it was his momentum, or perhaps the lady was delicately built, for the bludgeon quite took her head off, sending it bouncing off the cubicle wall.

 

With a roar of rage, the two guards lurched across to block his escape. Robbie turned and braced himself for a fight.

 

But he had forgotten Sandra. With a lightening movement she dashed up behind the bigger guard and stabbed him in the kidneys. As he screamed and went down, Robbie seized his chance and sprinted through, knocking the other guard over in the confusion. He and Sandra raced towards the lift.

 

As they descended to safety, Robbie turned to assistant, panting. “That was two. We weren’t supposed to get two of them.”

 

“It’s OK,” said Sandra with a grin. She wasn’t even out of breath. “Next stop, we’ll just do one fewer!”

 

And that was what they did.

 

#

 

It had been a tough day, and Robbie found he had quite a headache. Relieved to get back to HR, he thanked Sandra for her help, and entered his room. Then, as he turned to shut the door he felt something hard prod him in the back.

 

“Put your weapon down,” came a calm female voice.

 

Heart racing, Robbie let his bludgeon drop to the carpet, then turned slowly to face his assailant. It was a smartly-dressed woman, whom he recognised from his list as the Head of Legal, their planned target for the following day. And she was holding a derringer.

 

Cursing himself for not insisting on a gun, Robbie said, “To what do I owe the pleasure…?”

 

“Cut it!” The voice was as unwavering as the gun barrel. “And kneel down.”

 

“Could he rush her?” Robbie wondered. But she had stepped back, the distance was too great. Slowly, he knelt. Now that the moment he had brought to so many staff had come to him, he felt surprisingly calm. Just a pity that he hadn’t had longer, things had been going so well…

 

Smash! A chair came crashing through the inner window. Legal ducked, then brought up the derringer with admirable coolness. But it was too late. A stiletto sprouted from her neck; she gasped, staggered, then slumped to the floor. Robbie seized his bludgeon and leapt across to deliver the coup de grâce.

 

He was still panting over the body when Sandra came in. “Thanks a million!” he gasped gratefully. “I thought I was a goner!”

 

“Just doing my job,” Sandra said modestly. But a soft smile showed that she was pleased.

 

And when the HR programme had been completed, Robbie rated Sandra ‘outstanding’ for her contribution to the assignment. Tina did query that – she’d never seen such a high rating before. But Robbie insisted, and as it helped with diversity (another of Tender’s core values), Tina added her own endorsement.

 

#

 

Tender had numerous subsidiaries, and Robbie was retained on a longer term basis. As he sat in his now-repaired office, planning the approach, he found time to catch up on administration that had been overlooked in the heady start to the job.

 

First up was the purchase of an armoured vest. He also requested a gun, but that was turned down (“We don’t want you spraying,” Tina explained) so he had to satisfy himself with a sheath knife strapped to his shin.

 

It was also time to write a proper job spec. “How’s this sound?” he asked Tina, with whom he had quite become friends: “‘Job title: Contract killer – Internal’.”

 

Tina considered it. “OK with me,” she smiled. “Has a nice ring.”

 

So they settled on that. Name cards and office placards were duly ordered and delivered. And, professional that he was, Robbie also found time for the soft side of the job. Rebuilding the confidence of the ‘amputees’, as Tina called them, became one of his priorities. Curiously, he found that he liked this rehabilitation work almost better than his day job.

 

One of the priorities for rehabilitation was of course Marketing. The team assembled glumly, colleagues on the edges of the group keeping a watchful eye on the doors – as well as on Robbie himself – while Tina explained the benefits of the staff cull. The staff didn’t buy in at once, but after Tina had given her ‘death-is-a-part-of-life’ spiel, and Robbie had shared his impressions of their VP’s final moments, they all held hands, said a few words for the departed, and broke up for tea and cake – thoughtfully provided by Sandra. In between bites of cake, Betty did accuse Robbie of being a ‘murderer’. But her heart wasn’t in it, and by the time he had shared his pre-action nerves, she was calling him, ‘our shy assassin’. In all, it was a very meaningful occasion.

 

Even the debriefing with Finance went well. The remaining guard shook hands with Robbie, gruffly acknowledging his, “No hard feelings…?  Just doing my job.” They agreed to have a drink, and although this didn’t happen, they both felt that it could have happened, and that was good enough.

 

As Robbie settled in, he couldn’t but congratulate himself on his good fortune. He liked his colleagues, enjoyed the work, and was even paid quite well. “I do like working with people,” he confided in Sandra at one point, “it’s just such a good feeling when you help the team along.”

 

Sandra couldn’t agree more. “But don’t go soft on us!” she added.

 

“Oh, I won’t, I won’t,” Robbie said sheepishly. But in truth he was feeling a little soft at the end of that day as he made his way over to Marketing. As he walked past the pantry where he had huddled with Sandra, he thought to himself, I couldn’t have done it alone. Betty greeted him warmly, and he shook hands with her colleagues, receiving smiles and greetings in return.

 

He voiced the thought to Betty as they walked out towards the lift together.

 

“No you certainly couldn’t!” Betty giggled. “You were absolutely green!”

 

Robbie winced, but Betty linked arms and gave him a reassuring squeeze, and by the time they reached the ground floor he was smiling again.

 

When at the end of the year Sandra duly became an AVP and was given a larger cubicle, Robbie was the first to congratulate her. And Betty and the Marketing colleagues made her a cake.

 

 

_____

 

 

Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely, his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous speculative short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets, as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.

Website: www.matthewharrison.hk

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