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Section 1: Welcome to the Ajax Corporation, Shorty

I started at the Ajax Corporation with mixed feelings. I wasn't enthusiastic about working in a corporate environment, but it was good money, and it was just a six month contract. I hadn't worked regularly in nearly a year, so I was gladly willing to give up six months for an infusion of cash.

On the morning of my first day, I got up early, dressed in a shirt and tie, and drove through rush hour traffic to a boxy glass building with manicured lawns and man-made ponds.

At the front entrance, I got a door pass from security, went inside, and found my cubicle. It was a small box in the midst of thousands of others just like it, with the same desk, shelf unit, and fabric-covered dividers. Everything fit a soft lavender and peach color scheme. And there I met Josephine, my supervisor, who gave me a stack of documents to read.

"Here's some background material, Shorty," she said. "Oh, I'm sorry. May I call you 'Shorty?'"

"Yeah, sure," I said. "Everybody calls me Shorty. Been doing it most of my life."

My real name is Lloyd, and as you may have gathered, I'm short. Only my mother and a few ex-girlfriends have ever called me by my given name. But that's not the only unappealing aspect of my appearance. If only it were. I'm also rather hairy. These are my burdens, friends, and although I can imagine worse ones, that is little consolation.

I was left alone in my cube, and within a few days I had gone through all of the documents at least twice and had gleaned from them what I could. However, I was still confused about the nature of the project and had no idea how to get started.

I assumed that Josephine would stop by again with more instructions, but she did not. I called her a few times each day, but she was never in. I left messages on her voice mail, each slightly more stressed than the previous, which she did not return.

Several days went by. I arrived in the morning with everyone else and left in the evening with everyone else, having accomplished nothing. I was getting more nervous each day. I was drinking so much coffee, my entire body was vibrating. So I set off through the long, straight corridors of the Ajax Building searching for Josephine.

Many hours later, I found Josephine quite by accident in an empty conference room. She had a cell phone to her ear. She looked up smiling vacuously and said, "Be right with you."

Into the cell phone she said, "I do too love you, baby. How can you ask such a thing? ... Of course, I can prove it, silly man ... I'll show you later." She giggled and made several loud kissing noises into the phone before shutting it off.

"Hello, Shorty," she said.

"I've been trying to get in touch with you for days, Josephine, but you're never in your office."

"I can't get anything done in my office, so I stay away from it," she said.

"Plus, you don't return phone calls."

She chuckled. "Can't. Too busy."

"But how can anyone contact you?"

"Look, there are things about Ajax that just aren't meant for contractors to understand. Now what is it you want?"

"I need help getting started on the project," I said.

"The first thing you need is a project number," she said. "Every project must have a number, or else we have nothing to charge your hours against."

"What about my time so far?"

"That goes against the project number if you get one."

"If I get one? You hire someone for a project, but you may or may not have the means to charge for the hours?"

"That's right," she said.

"Why not obtain the project number before you hire a contractor?"

"Shorty, we don't need contractors telling us how to run our business. We do things a little different at Ajax, and this is something you must accept if you're to succeed here."

"Fine. Let's do it your way. How do I get a project number?"

"Go to HR. That's short for Human Resources. The office is down the hall on the left."

"Human Resources?" I said. "What are Human Resources?"

"Shorty, you have an irritating habit of concerning yourself with things that are none of your business."

"Forget I asked."

She continued. "Pick up a project number request form at HR. Fill it out, put it in the Project Number Request Bin, also at HR, and hope for the best. In the meantime, find something to do."

"Like what?" I said.

"Look, you're getting paid per hour, so don't sweat it," she said. "Apply for a number, and make sure you're ready to go when the number arrives."

"What exactly do I do with a project number if I get one?" I said.

"First, store the number in a very safe place," she said. "Then print the number on every document used during the course of the project."

"Why's that?"

"Because it's the way we do things," she said. "Please, just leave it at that."

She brought the cell phone to her ear and nodded toward the door.

"If you don't mind," she said, "I'd like to be alone now."

So I found HR and asked for a project number application form. A clerk handed the packet of forms to me with a smirk and said, "Good luck, Shorty."

"What does luck have to do with it?" I said.

"You'll find out soon enough," she said. "By the way, do you mind if I call you 'Shorty'?"

"Not really," I said. "What's your name?"

"Claire," she said.

"Look, Claire, what gives with these project numbers?"

"I'm sorry, but I can't say," she said. "That's between you and your supervisor."

"But my supervisor has been somewhat vague on the subject."

"I'm not authorized to divulge that information. They're pretty strict about that around here, especially with contractors. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Yes, there is," I said. "What exactly are human resources?"

"I'm sorry, but I'm not a liberty to say. Have a nice day, Shorty."

"It's Lloyd," I said. "Please, Claire, call me Lloyd."

I started in on the application and filled it out as best I could, but I needed help with the essay sections on description, purpose, intended audience, and market potential of the project. So I again ventured through the long hallways of the Ajax Building looking for Josephine.

Now the Ajax Building is a veritable maze of wings, mezzanines, and odd-shaped additions. To make matters worse, each level has a different floor plan. Soon I was completely lost, so I stopped at a security desk and asked for directions. The guard looked at me suspiciously, held out his hand, and said, "Door pass." The tag on his uniform read, "Off. William Poot." He was broad shouldered and hard-looking, with a razor sharp crew cut.

I gave him my pass. He ran it through the scanner. When my record came up on his computer screen, he muttered derisively, "Another contractor."

"That's right."

"We've had a lot of problems with contractors around here," he said.

"Really, what kind of problems?"

"I'm not at liberty to divulge confidential information to non-employees," he said. "We have strict nondisclosure guidelines at Ajax, which we enforce to the letter. Let's just say we've had to physically remove several contractors from the premises for conduct detrimental to the company. So just watch your step, Shorty, because we'll be watching you."

"That's fine. I have nothing to hide."

"Right," he said.

"What is that supposed to mean, Officer Poot?"

"What I mean is no personal phone calls or surfing the Internet during business hours. And don't expect health insurance, vacation days, or any other benefits. And don't try claiming any bogus hours on your invoices. Everybody knows that contractors pad their invoices."

"Security reviews contractor invoices? Are you sure that's necessary?"

"Sure I'm sure. We wouldn't do it if we didn't think it was necessary, now would we? And another thing--we don't need contractors telling us how to run security. As far as I'm concerned, there are too many contractors around here. I'd fire the lot of them. Nobody in the building except legitimate employees, and only those who've been through extensive background checks. Then we'd have a secure environment."

"But it was Ajax's choice to bring in so many contractors. The company laid off 20% of the full-time workforce to save money on benefits."

"You think you're real smart, don't you, Shorty? Typical contractor attitude. I'm adding a note to your record."

I looked over his shoulder as he typed, "Suspicious behavior. Anti-social attitude. Monitor closely."

"That's absurd," I said. "You're the one who's anti-social."

"Disrespectful of authority," he typed. "I'd shut up if I were you, Shorty. You're only making it worse."

"And who said you could call me 'Shorty'?" I said as I turned and left.

He seemed to find this comment extremely amusing, that is if his loud, crude laughter was any indication.

I managed to complete the project number application, but it wasn't easy, especially since I didn't really understand the project or what Ajax wanted me to do. I used a lot of technical words and catch phrases, attempting to conceal my lack of real knowledge.

I bandied about sentences like, "The importance of this project to Ajax's market position in this crucial business sector cannot and must not be underestimated."

In other words, I bullshitted.

I left the application in the Project Number Request Bin at HR. The clerk, Claire, smiled and said, "Having fun yet, Shorty?"

"As always," I replied. "How are Ajax's human resources today?"

"Just fine, as always," she said.

She stood at least 6' tall. Her figure had virtually no curves. Her hair was long and straight, her skin pale and relatively hairless. She may not have met the standard definition of beauty, but as far as I was concerned, she had it all.

Back in my cubicle, I set about waiting for a response to the application. This amounted to staring at the lavender and peach colored wall dividers, making long distance personal phone calls, and surfing the Internet--anything to fight the boredom. I was certain I would be caught by Ajax security for these indiscretions, but I just didn't care.

I was hopeful that a project number would turn up within a few days, but that didn't happen, so I went searching for Josephine again. This time I found her in a remote corner of the company library. Again, she was on her cellular phone.

"There, there, sweetie. Don't let that big, nasty board of directors push you around ... They just don't understand how powerful you are ... Yes, I think you'd be entirely justified in firing them."

When she saw me, she said, "Just a second, darling," and put her hand over the mouthpiece. "What is it, Shorty? I'm kind of busy here."

I explained the situation and my growing sense of desperation.

"Well, just rewrite the application and re-submit it. You've got the time, right?"

"I've got nothing but time, Josephine."

"Patience, Shorty. Patience. We take our time and do things right here at Ajax."

"By the way," I said, "who reviews these applications?"

"There's a man in the basement who handles project numbers. Of course, he may be swamped with applications right now."

"Maybe I'll take a walk down to the basement and ask him about the application. You know, to expedite things."

She spoke into the cellular phone again. "Honey, I'll have to call you back ... Right back, I promise ... Love you." She made those kissing noises into the phone again and shut it off.

"Shorty, I'm sorry, but contractors are not allowed in the basement. Mr. Shropshire has forbidden it."


"He's one of the most powerful executives at Ajax, and he does not want to be disturbed. Just be patient and stay busy."

"How can I stay busy?" I said. "You haven't given me anything to do."

"But you've been here several weeks," she said. "By now you should know what to do. If you don't, something's wrong, and we may have to reconsider your assignment."

Josephine smiled that Ajax smile. I smiled too, although it might have been more of a grimace.

"We're not interested in hand-holding here at Ajax," she said. "We need self-starters, people who take the ball and run with it. This does not bode well, Shorty. This does not bode well at all."

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