12. Office Politics
Michael’s explanation was somewhat vague, but it was specific enough to catch me seriously off-guard. “What exactly does that mean, ‘cleaning house’?” I asked, making air quotes for emphasis. “Like a financial audit? Or what?”
Michael shook his head. “‘Or what’. Kind of. It’s -- God, how do I put it -- ” He put his glasses back on and drummed his hand against his leg, making a crescent with his hand and bouncing his thumb and middle finger back and forth against his knee. “Parker’s looked through everything, all the records, every person the company’s ever hired or fired, every dollar AGATE’s ever earned, every client the company’s ever had -- he’s been over all of it. That is literally all he’s done since, I think, late June? July at the latest.” Explaining gave him something to focus on, and he was considerably calmer than he’d been five minutes before. “That’s why this whole mess was such a surprise. He doesn’t do any assigning these days, let alone actually leave the office. White handles everything. Which -- hm.” He frowned and lapsed into silence.
For a moment I thought of my own personnel file. For a moment I thought about Parker reading it. For a moment I thought I might be sick. “So... what’s he looking for?”
Michael drummed harder and his frown deepened, and then he unbuckled his seat belt and threw the door open. “I am going to go crazy if I spend one more second in here,” he muttered, and jumped down. “We can talk while we walk. Be sure the door’s locked. I am going to go crazy.”
I followed him out, folding my envelope in half lengthwise and stuffing it in my back pocket while I climbed across the seats. By the time my feet hit the ground and I closed the door, he was halfway across the parking lot, headed for the near end of the building. I jogged after him, the cold breeze scrubbing my face, and caught up just as he rounded the corner. He shortened his stride a little to fall in sync with mine, and we walked in step along the length of the cinderblock wall.
Michael kicked a rock as we went, hitting it with the toe of his shoe so that it skittered and bounced ahead of us across the pavement. “Rachel, I, I wasn’t yelling at you back there,” he said quietly, both hands balled into loose fists and tucked under his arms. “I mean, I was yelling -- ”
“ -- and you were there, but ... I wasn’t yelling at you.”
“Yeah, I know.” The rock had traveled over to my side, and I swung my foot on my next step and sent it flying. I stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets, curling my fingers in on themselves to keep them warm. I wished I’d thought to bring gloves. “If I couldn’t deal with angry people shouting in my ear, I would have quit this gig way before I actually, you know, quit this gig.” We reached the rock and I kicked it again. My aim was off, and we watched it careen away, hop the curb and disappear into the overgrown hedge opposite the row of service doors. “And it’s not like I never yelled at you -- or around you -- either.”
We reached the back of the building and turned, slowing a little as we started to encounter potholes. “Yeah, we all got pretty noisy from time to time,” Michael admitted. “Adrenaline, I guess.”
“That’ll do it.”
Michael stopped and tipped his head back, searching for the patches of pale spring blue that kept peeking through the overcast. The sun was a bright fuzzy spot of yellowish-white among the whitish-grey, a bare bulb set behind a pane of textured glass. “My mom used to say that for my dad, the family was the company, and vice versa,” he said, and lowered his head to look at me. “I never really understood what she meant by that until this past year.” He took off walking again.
I tried to parse that, failed, and trotted to catch up. “Is Parker actually doing anything with the AGATE records,” I asked, slightly out of breath, “or is he just reading them for fun?”
Michael ‘smiled’, baring his teeth all the way back to the molars. “Oh, he’s doing something, all right,” he said. “The whole reason my dad hired him was to take the company Into The Future!” He said the words grandly, with a sweeping behold-my-name-in-lights gesture for emphasis. “He’s got: Plans! And: Trajectories! That will: Make Us A Leader In Our Field!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Do we even have a field?”
“I’m serious.” He paused in the shadow of an empty, rusted dumpster and looked around carefully before he continued. “Parker is the fixer to end all fixers,” he said, all trace of the showman gone. “He’s got his own ideas about where the company needs to go, and you and I both know there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do, or have done, to make sure it gets there. And there may not be any hard proof -- ”
“There never is,” I said, bitter and sharp.
“But the circumstantial evidence and scuttlebutt make a downright damning case for what he’s been up to. I’ve been pretty well locked out of the main loop for months -- I haven’t even had access to the van until a week ago -- but -- ”
Something rattled on the roof not far from us, making us jump. We listened, but the sound did not repeat itself, and Michael rubbed the back of his neck and continued. “Put bluntly, Parker’s looking for loose threads -- anything that might come back to hurt the company. Old clients, paper trails that could lead us into legal trouble, anything financial that’s remotely fishy, if it could damage AGATE’s reputation in the future, he’s got it noted and he’s going to be sure it gets fixed.”
I started to feel sick again, a heavy, turning knot in the middle of my gut. “And I’m guessing that includes... ”
“Employees who disobeyed protocol and spectacularly botched the most critical assignment of their careers to date?” Michael finished for me, and savagely kicked the side of the dumpster. “Yes.”
That’s putting it mildly. “So when you say he’s cleaning house... ”
“I mean exactly that.” He kicked the dumpster again and looked away. “Chickens. Roost. Some assembly required. We’re boned.”