I blinked. As you might imagine, I was not at all pleased. Two powerful factions who both wanted me to do the same thing were each implicating the other to be at fault, and I was smack dab in the middle. This was not good.
I decided to get the hell away from Carver (and any other representative of Management) for the time being, until I could get things sorted out. To this end, I said, “Great, thanks for the update. I gotta run. I’ll catch you later.”
Carver took my arm, checking my retreat. He took a second to look around and make sure no-one was within earshot. Satisfied, he turned back to me, leaning his head towards mine. “Hopscotch switcheroo,” he whispered. “Penguins dream of formless, unloved salad smoke.”
I blinked again. I’m sad to say I lost my cool at that point. I snatched my arm from Carver’s fingers and whispered hotly, “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”
Carver raised his eyebrows and made a thoughtful grimace. “Interesting approach,” he said. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” He clapped me on the shoulder and shot me a half smile. “Be careful.”
I left Carver with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
My route out of the Complex took me past my department’s cube farm. As I was walking through, I ran across Harold, who smiled at me. “Hi Andrew,” he said. “Are you in the office all day? Maybe we could finally get that lunch.”
“No,” I said. “Sorry,” I added as an afterthought. I began the subtle dance of getting away from someone who is trying to strike up a conversation.
“Gee, that’s too bad,” said Harold, crestfallen. Then he brightened a little. “So how’s the fish thing going?” Harold was always fairly enthusiastic when it came to talking shop and gossip. It occurred to me at that moment that he might be a useful source of information on Management. I stopped dancing.
“Things are going,” I said noncommittally. “But listen, about that.” I leaned in and lowered my voice. “Have you heard any rumors about Management concerning the fish?”
Harold shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Everyone’s talking, but nobody knows anything.” He paused, considering something, then apparently decided to forge ahead. “Do you need any help on this? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the fish are a big deal around here. Maybe you could use me.”
I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not. For one thing, it’s totally against the rules.”
“Yeah, I know, but I figured–”
“For another, this is looking like it will get nasty. Believe me when I say you don’t want to get involved.”
Harold shrugged. he was a little put off, but not really upset with me. “It’s your call,” he said. “I just wanted to make the offer.”
“I appreciate it,” I said, and meant it. “Thanks anyway. Look, I gotta run…”
“Yeah,” said Harold. “Catch you later.” He turned and walked off.
The uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach had gotten worse.
As I made my way out of the Complex, I thought about Harold. He had been with the company almost as long as I had, and we had been fairly close workplace friends in the early days. Over time, as we each proved ourselves, we earned an increasing level of responsibility and workload that drew us apart. But we had always been on good terms. I thought it was nice of him to offer his services, even though he should have known it was an offer I could not accept.
I could not pinpoint the source of my stomach pain, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it. I had bigger problems than a queasy tummy at the moment. As I hoisted myself out of the Complex entrance hole, my primary thoughts were with getting back to Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude and putting our heads together over the puzzle of the origin of the fish. I headed out of the alley, passing through the hologrammatic wall without breaking stride, and made my way briskly back to the hotel. By the time I reached the lobby, the pain in my stomach had evaporated.