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Section 4: A Rapid and Tumultuous Turn of Events

I couldn't watch any more, so I stepped out of the shadows and lifted the needle off the record. They both scrambled to their feet. The woman shrieked and Shropshire shouted, "What the fuckin' hell?"

"Oh, no," the woman moaned. "Not him."

I had no idea what she was talking about. The man and I stared at each other for a good twenty seconds before he spoke again.

"I thought I told you people I was never to be disturbed."

"I'm not 'you people,'" I said. "I'm a contractor."

"I don't care if you're the Goddamn King of Siam. You have no authorization to be down here. Josey, get that idiot Poot on the phone."

"Josey?" I mumbled, staring at her. "Josephine?" With all the makeup and weird clothing, I hadn't noticed a resemblance, but it was there.

"You just can't mind your own business, can you, Shorty?" she said.

The transformation was so complete, I could hardly believe it was her. "What are you doing down here, Josephine?"

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm Mr. Shropshire's personal assistant."

"I noticed," I said. "So you knew all along that I would never get a number? Why did you do this to me?"

"I thought I told you to call Poot," Shropshire barked at her.

"Don't bother, Josephine," I said. "Poot will be out of commission for a while."

"Oh, this is great, just great," the man said. "Didn't I tell them not to hire any contractors, Josey?"

"Yup, that's what you told them," she said.

The man slowly circled toward me. I circled away from him.

"You're in some deep shit, my friend," Shropshire said. "Go back the way you came, and you won't get hurt."

"Not until I get what's rightfully mine, Shropshire. A project number."

"You don't know who you're dealing with here. You're in over your head. Tell him, Josey."

"You better leave before the man puts a hurtin' on you, Shorty," she said calmly lighting a cigarette.

Just then the man fainted toward me. I jumped awkwardly, almost tripping. The man got a good laugh out of that. Josephine joined in with her hellish cackle.

"I can see I'm going to enjoy every minute of this," the man said.

"Look, I don't want any trouble," I said. "Just hand over a number, and I'll leave peacefully."

"That's not how it works, kiddo, barging into my headquarters uninvited, destroying my privacy, scaring my guest, talking tough."

"I filled out dozens of project number applications, but little good it did me."

"Are you that contractor who submitted a new application every day for the last month, whining about your difficult upbringing, how everyone was so mean to you, calling you 'Shorty'? Your name wouldn't be, Lloyd, would it?"

"What if it is?" I said.

The man threw back his head and roared, "You pathetic bastard!"

Josephine had snuck up behind me. She grabbed my ass and shouted, "Woo!" I almost had a heart attack and jumped a good six inches off the ground. Of course, they found all this to be hysterically funny.

I grabbed a handful of a project number applications from a nearby pile and waved them at him.

"Look at all of these applications. Why couldn't you give project numbers to these people? What did they ever do to you? You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Ashamed of myself? Do you believe this kid, Josey? Look, dipshit, I control the numbers, so everybody has to kiss my ass. Now you're questioning my authority, so I'm going to have to waste you. That's how life works. Survival of the fittest. Watch the nature documentaries."

"Only a weak, insecure weasel tries to control people through intimidation and fear. You need professional help. Can you see that?"

"Kid, you're starting to bore me, so I'm gonna kick your ass and send you back upstairs so everybody knows what happens to those who violate the sanctity of my headquarters. But first, here's a little thrill for you."

He knelt before the safe, twiddled the dial, and opened it. It was an awesome sight. The safe contained thousands of project numbers, all neatly bundled.

"I spent the last twenty years wrestling control of all the project numbers at Ajax, and you think I'll give up even one to a hairy midget contractor?"

He pulled handfuls of numbers out of the safe and threw them in the air. They floated down like confetti.

"This is what's called power, Shorty. Pure, unadulterated power."

Josephine danced in the falling numbers and squealed, "Weeee! Pure, unadulterated power!"

I held my hands out, trying to catch a few of the numbers. "It's not fair," I muttered. "Everyone's entitled to at least one number."

I caught a few of the numbers and shoved them into my pockets. "I'm taking these upstairs with me, Shropshire, and I'm giving them out to deserving employees and contractors."

The man bared his teeth, growled at me, and took a few menacing steps toward me. I backed away.

"Please, don't kill him, Daddy," Josephine pleaded. "He's not worth it."

Shropshire screamed and leapt at me. We grabbed each other in bear hugs, danced about a bit, and fell to the floor in a thud. I kicked and clawed and tried to get away from him. I managed to stand and get one leg free, but his grip on my other ankle was like a vise, and he pulled me back down to the floor with him.

To make matters worse, Josephine was hitting whatever part of my body she could reach with one of her high heels shouting, "Bad contractor! Bad contractor!"

We wrestled back and forth for a long time. Finally, I climbed onto his back and pulled his hair, gouged his eyes, and gnawed on his ears. The man rose to his feet like a grizzly and stumbled about his filthy headquarters roaring in rage, knocking over the hi-fi and the television, me clinging to his back all the while.

The man tripped on an empty whiskey bottle, stumbled backwards, and fell, the full force of his weight directly on me. I must've passed out for a few seconds. When I came to, the man had his meaty hands around my throat.

Operating on pure adrenaline, I grabbed his throat with both hands and squeezed for all I was worth. Everything was going fuzzy and black, and I knew I was about to die. But just then the man's eyes rolled up and his mouth fell open. His body convulsed a time or two, and he slumped to the floor and didn't move.

Josephine rushed to the man's side. She checked for a pulse and beat on his chest. "He's got a bad heart," she screamed. "He's a got a bad heart."

I tried to get up, but I couldn't move. My legs were numb.

"He was just a crazy old man, and you had to go an kill him. Oh, Daddy. Oh, Daddy. The short, hairy contractor killed you."

"I didn't mean to hurt him," I said. "I was trying to get away from him."

Josephine lay there and wept, her whole body shaking with each tortured wail.

After a while, she stopped and stared at me with a strange expression.

"He got what he deserved," I said. "He was a cruel bastard. I saw how he treated you."

She crawled across the floor toward me. I tried to back away but couldn't.

"I was good to him," she said, "but now you've got the numbers, and I can be good to you too."

"I'm in pain, Josephine," I said. "Please, call an ambulance."

She put a pillow under my head and knelt beside me.

"I know how you've suffered, Lloyd. The world has mistreated you. Your project number applications were brilliant."

"Josephine, I appreciate your kind words. Really I do, but I think I broke something. And Shropshire could use some CPR. For the love of God, get a doctor!"

She caressed my face. "I know what you need," she said, grabbing a handful of numbers and holding them up. "These are all yours now. Now you're the man in the basement."

Then she lowered my zipper and shoved the numbers into my open fly.

I came to in an ambulance. At the hospital it was determined that I had fractured my tailbone and my sternum. I was sent home on crutches and prescribed pain killers and bed rest. The coroner determined that Shropshire had died from a heart attack, so I did not face any legal complications.

I spent the next week in bed at home. Claire dropped by every day to help out. Late one night after she had gone, I got up on the crutches, hobbled out to my car, and drove to the Ajax Building. My door pass still worked, so I was able to get inside.

The corridors of the Ajax Building were empty, and I snuck down into the basement without attracting any attention. Slowly and deliberately I waddled down flight after flight of stairs until, once again, I reached the man's headquarters.

I lay down on the man's couch and rested for a few minutes, but the sound of approaching footsteps startled me. Josephine stepped out of the shadows with a whiskey bottle in hand.

"Oh, it's you again," she said and sat in a nearby chair.

"Drowning your sorrows?" I asked.

"Maybe I am," she said. "It's not a crime, is it? After all, a man died here not long ago."

"I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for either of you," I said.

"Look, Shorty, I had nothing to do with those numbers. Right now, all I know is that the man who was taking care of me, the only friend I had, is gone. And if you can't understand that--"

Her voice trailed off. We sat without speaking for a long time. I drank some of Josephine's whiskey, and she wept quietly.

"Hand me some of those, would you," I said pointing to a pile of old project number applications.

She handed me a dozen or so, and I read through them.

"These people deserve project numbers," I said and picked up a few stray project numbers from the floor. I attached them to the applications with paper clips.

"Would you mind putting these in the company mail, if it's not too much to ask?"

She took the applications with the attached numbers and left. She was back within twenty minutes.

"Mission accomplished," she said.

Josephine made up the man's bed and helped me into it. I slept there that night, and she slept on the couch.

The next morning she made breakfast. I went through another dozen applications and attached more numbers to them. But there were more applications than I could deal with, so I called Claire at HR and told her where I was.

"You're where?" she said, her voice a barely controlled whisper. "You should be in bed."

"I am in bed," I said. "Shropshire's bed." I explained to her what Josephine and I were doing.

"That's insane," she hissed. "Get out of there."

"We need your help, Claire."

"We?" she said. "Now you're in working with that horrible woman?"

"Please, Claire. It's important. Sneak down here later tonight. Bring food. And try to get some whiskey for Josephine."

A few hours later Claire was in the man's headquarters working with us on project number applications.

No one stopped us from sending project numbers upstairs, and Ajax did not send anyone down to take the man's place, so we kept at it. Slowly and steadily, we took over the entire operation. Project numbers were sent up and into the halls of the Ajax Building like never before, and important projects were finally underway.

It took us a few grueling months, but we eventually worked through the 20-year backlog of applications. Employee morale skyrocketed, the Ajax stock price doubled, and the board of directors rewarded me with a stock and bonus package unrivaled in the industry.

The first thing I did with my newfound power was have the man's headquarters remodeled. It is now the site of modern offices and living quarters for Claire and I. A new heating system was installed, and the overworked boiler men were retrained in high-technology applications and now have new careers. The strange beggars who protected Shropshire's headquarters were institutionalized where they can be cared for properly, and the HR department was done away with completely, at my instruction. Officer Poot, who was found wandering the Ajax sub-basements in a nude and beaten condition, was warned to never again darken the halls of the Ajax Building.

Josephine cleaned herself up too. Gone are the flashy clothes, the gaudy makeup, and the bleached hair. She wears business suits and low pumps, and never takes her teeth out during business hours. She is my personal assistant, and I couldn't get by without her.

Yes, things are changing rather quickly here at Ajax, and it's all for the better, if I say so myself. When I stop and reflect, it's hard comprehend the rapid and tumultuous turn of events. Plus, I had no idea I would enjoy corporate management as much as I have. At the risk of sounding immodest, I'm a natural at it.

Sometimes after a hard day, Claire and I open the safe, take out a handfuls of project numbers, throw them in the air, and we giggle like children.

During these moments, I sometimes have what you might call an out of body experience. My consciousness floats up and over the scene, and I watch as Claire and I rub project numbers all over each other, and I think, I really have come a long way. I started as a short, hairy contractor, and look at me now. It really is the dawn of a new age here at the Ajax Corporation.

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