Sunday, March 22, 2009

You Have the Right to Remain Silent, Pryvett Rawgers!

July hit the warehouse of Package Handling Company, International, like a dirty bomb. The anemic, ancient fans management positioned around the place only served to stir the dust and rouse the encroaching stink of armpit and ass-crack. Pryvett Rawgers and the other PHC scanners moved about the warehouse, sweating, morose, irritable and with a grudging, management-hating lethargy. From a shelving unit in the corner rasped a small radio no one was allowed to touch. It was tuned to a station that called itself The Rock, which abused the minions with bargain bin alternative music, such as Nickleback and Silverchair. Amid his grumbling, Pryvett referred to the music on the station as the "Guantanamo Bay mix-tape."

Among his assignments that sodden morning, Pryvett was sent to the Customs area to rescan all of the packages awaiting inspection. Once a week, a gaggle of Customs agents came in with their sniffer dogs, to sort through the packages. They hadn't been there recently, though, and the avalanche of packages piling up for inspection was growing more unwieldy than usual. Eyeing the mess, Pryvett sighed and shambled back to the office. As he did so, a cheer went up in the warehouse as a battered box being kicked by one of the trolls finally split open and disgorged its contents of Girls Gone Wild Vol. 5 DVDs.

Pryvett entered the office. "What's going on with Customs? Their area's starting to look like Krakatoa."

None of the three office workers looked up. The plant manager, Stan, talked with one of them: "No, the memo from head office was very clear -- orange highlighter for lates," he said in a flat, nasally tone he thought made him sound like a member of the Kennedy clan. "Pink for those calling in sick less than the mandatory eight hours before a shift, green for a second warning, blue for third time written-up --"

"Stan?" Pryvett said, heated. "Why haven't Customs been here so we can clear out that area?"

Stan looked up, fogged and frowning. "Uh, what?"

"What's going on with Customs?"

"Oh, the dogs haven't been able to work."

"Whaddya mean?" Pryvett said. "Don't they have more than one dog?"

"They have plenty of dogs," Stan said. "They can't work in this weather."

"Weather? We're in doors!"

"The heat. It's too hot for the dogs to work."

Pryvett stood there and died one of the thousand deaths a warehouse worker dies each day. He looked out the door at the other PHC workers. "And we have to work in this heat?"

"In fact, yeah," Stan snapped. "Get back to it!"

* * *

Pryvett stood in the Customs area, perspiring prodigiously, scanning packages, wishing he belonged to the Customs K-9 Union. At least he was away from the wretched vortex of the radio. As he thought about the approaching lunch break, the warehouse P.A. system crackled to tortured life. "'yvett Rawgers to the off-off-off-office. Pry-y-y-vett Rawg-eeeeeeers to the office."

Gritting his teeth, Pryvett holstered his scanner and maneuvered through the cluttered the Customs area. If that ass-wise shit-clown asks if I've completed the lifting and stacking refresher, he thought, I'm gonna lose my shit.

Stan met him at the office door. He was accompanied by a mustachioed man Pryvett had never seen before.

"Come with me," Stan said, and lead Pryvett and the other man to a small, windowless meeting room with blank taupe walls and half a dozen folder chairs around a laminate table. At least the room was air conditioned. For a moment, Pryvett wondered if there'd been some family emergency and this man was some sort of grief counselor professionally trained to give bad news. Then he remembered this was PHC, the locus of all un-grief-counseled bad news.

"Have a seat," Stan said to Pryvett, looking away from him. The nameless man nodded at Stan, dismissing him. Stan left, closing the door.

The man was paunchy with a brush cut, and a mustachio that looked like a redneck hood ornament. He held a leather folder and took his time setting it on the table, opening it and leafing through a few of its pages. Finally, he looked at Pryvett and offered a wan smile.

"My name is Gerald Blightman. I'm head of PHC security for the tri-county region," he said. The smile vanished and he shouted, "Are you familiar with PHC's Zero Tolerance policy on pilferage?"

"Uh, yeah," Pryvett said, suddenly not enjoying the air conditioning as much as he had been a moment before. "There's a reward of thirty pieces of silver, or something, for turning somebody in."

Blightman's eyes narrowed. "Are you fucking with me? Cuz, I don't like it when people try and fuck with me."

"Who's fucking with you? I'm answering your question."

Blightman eyed Pryvett and began on a different tack. "Yeah. Five grand if we successfully prosecute the miserable thief."

"OK," Pryvett said, still not understanding why he was in the room, "good to know." He stood up. "Well, I don't have anybody to turn in at the moment."

"Sit down. I'm not through with you by a long shot."

"Well, can you get to the point, I'm like the air traffic controller who keeps this place from flying into a cliff."

"Smart guy, huh," Blightman chuffed, nodding. "Smart guys always think they're so smart --"

"What's this all about?"

Blightman stared at Pryvett a second. "We have you on video stealing from PHC, and two witnesses who saw you. So, I just need you to man-up and confess to what you've done."

Pryvett considered these words. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"OK, so you're not just a smart, you're also a tough guy." Blightman grinned. "I'm going to enjoy breaking you."

"Break me? You couldn't break a dollar for change," Pryvett said. "For starters, I want to see this footage you have on me. And I want the names of these witnesses."

Blightman smirked and raised his eyebrows. "And I'd like some beachfront property in Florida. Not gonna happen." He slowly closed his folder and rose from his chair. He paused at the door. "You wanna play hard ball? I can play hard ball."

Blightman exited the room and nearly collided with Stan who had been standing in the doorway with his ear pressed against the door.

"How is it going?" Stan said, flustered.

Blightman shook his head. "He's going to be a tough nut to crack. I haven't seen something like this since interrogating an embassy sous chef in Bosnia in '92 who'd been accused of stealing hot dog buns."

"Did you end up breaking him?"

"It's still under investigation, last I heard."

* * *

The windowless, taupe-walled meeting room was equipped with a small closed circuit camera. Stan and Blightman sat in Stan's office watching Pryvett.

"I didn't see any history of psychosis in his file," Blightman said, his gaze riveted to the grainy, 12-inch monochrome monitor. "Or military service. Is that file complete?"

"To the best of my knowledge."

Blightman stared at Pryvett, who sat in the room still as a statue of a Civil War general atop a fountain in a public park. "What's his game?"

* * *

At the end of Pryvett's shift, three hours later, Stan went to the taupe room and said he was finished for the day. "But you're to report back to this room first thing tomorrow."

Pryvett said nothing. He left for the day, stopping at a bookstore on his way home to pick up the latest issues of Rue Morgue Magazine and The Fortean Times.

* * *

The following day, Pryvett arrived at PHC wearing the clothes he'd worn the day before. He drove to work with the windows of his car rolled up and without the benefit of air conditioning. Upon his arrival, he went to the taupe room. He closed the door and sat down. He put his hands on top of his head, aerating his armpits.

Blightman entered the room a few minutes later. The moment he came through the door, he stopped. His eyes widened and watered; his breath stopped in his throat. He suddenly felt as though a troupe of acrobats were jumping upon his gag reflex. There was a heavy, meaty, humid bog-like stink in the room. He reflexively looked at Pryvett Rawgers to see if he was reacting to the stench. Pryvett lowered his arms and rested his elbows on the table, unbothered.

Gulping back his nausea and combating the urge to leave the door open, Blightman sat down, placing his leather folder on the table. "Well, we've got your finger prints all over the recovered DVD," he said, his voice unusually low, as though he was fighting back a belch.

"Impossible," Pryvett said matter-of-factly.

"What? Hardly!" Blightman frowned. "We've got you dead-to-rights, and all you can do is sit there digging your own grave?"

"Where did you get a sample of my fingerprints?"

"Uh," Blightman said, flipping through pages of his folder that had no relevance to the case. "From your personnel file, where else?"

Pryvett looked up at the CCTV camera in upper right corner of the room, and then back at Blightman. "PHC doesn't finger print its employees."

"No," Blightman stammered, "but we lifted them from your scanner -- that's what I meant to say."

"Those scanners are handled by half a dozen people a day, minimum. There'd be no usable prints on any of them."

Blightman closed his folder and rose from the table, desperate to escape the room, but also desperate not to betray his desperation. He exited and almost collapsed in the hallway, gasping the untainted air. He retreated to Stan's office and watched Pryvett on the monochrome CCTV monitor for three hours. Pryvett didn't move; he sat with his hands folded on the table, eyes forward. After the third hour, Blightman hurled his folder at the wall, scattering his papers like a flurry of dead doves.

* * *

The door to the taupe room opened. Pryvett didn't look up. Blightman entered, wincing against the carrion-mangrove-rotting-cabbage stink of the room that had grown exponentially more rancid in the last few hours. Blightman went to a far corner; clearly hiding something behind his back. Suddenly, he tossed the object at Pryvett -- a copy of Girls Gone Wild Vol. 4 bounced across the table and onto the floor. Pryvett made no move to catch it. He followed its progress with his eyes and then looked at Blightman. "Is that the copy with my finger prints all over it?"

"Yeah, it is. Would you mind handing it to me?"

Pryvett stared at him. "Does this shit actually work on anyone? What are you, a former Sears floor-walker or an Adults Only Video secret shopper? You couldn't bust a kindergarten kid for being five years old."

"Is that what you think?" Blightman said, his tuna fish lunch rising in his throat. Beads of acrid, poisoned sweat formed on his brow. He felt like a child becoming car sick on a long driving trip. "I've broken many --" He rushed out of the room. As he barreled through the door, he collided with Stan who'd been there covertly listening. As Stan straightened up, formulating a lie for his presence, Blightman vomited his day's meals onto Stan's chest.

* * *

Pryvett reported to the taupe room the following day. He wore the same clothes from the last two days, and accentuated their effect by not showering. He again drove to work with the windows of his car rolled up and without putting on the air conditioning. He felt like a thing of nature with his quiver of evolution's natural defenses at its maximum.

Blightman entered a few minutes later. He appeared to have grease smeared all over his mustachio. After a moment, Pryvett figured it was some sort of vapor rub meant as a defense against Pryvett's own natural defense. Right, Pryvett thought. Let's see how the industrial revolution stands up to a hundred thousand years of human odor evolution.

"Do you believe in God?" Blightman said, his eyes red and watering.

"Yes," Pryvett said. "I believe in Odan, the god of Germanic people."

"Stealing's wrong, man," Blightman said tersely. "You wouldn't want the Lord to know you're a thief."

"Well, if I admitted that I was the thief, then I'd be a liar, and where would I be then?"

Blightman sat back pondering that bit of homespun theology. "You wouldn't want your parents to know you're a thief."

For as maligned as Pryvett Rawgers was for being disrespectful and unmotivated at work, there was no denying that he was among the most reliable workers in the PHC warehouse. He'd been out of there for almost three days. Given previous experiences of coming back from vacation, he guessed the melee of the Customs area was devolving into a predictably malignant disarray. He also imagined that Blightman was now under real pressure from Stan to wrap up his investigation.

And so, Blightman was on the offensive, invoking every entity against Pryvett Rawgers, from his first grade teacher to the president of PHC. "You don't want to be a pariah in your society, do you?" Blightman railed.

"I'm already a pariah," Pryvett said. "I work for a monkey-headed imbecile, and no matter how much normality I carry myself with, I am viewed and portrayed as a loose cannon." He stared at his interrogator. "Did you know that Stan thinks 'Anthrax" is someone who works for PHC?"

* * *

Blightman exited the room. He'd choked and gasped the smallest breaths he could manage for so long he was now on the verge of hyperventilating. When the door opened, Stan -- who'd had his ear against it, listening -- sprang backward, flinging himself against the opposite wall. Blightman hurried past, locking himself in the closest rest room, which turned out to be the Ladies room.

* * *

After three days of interrogation, Blightman forced Stan to enter the fetid taupe room to deliver the verdict to Pryvett Rawgers.

Upon entering the jungle-stinking-charnel-house interrogation theater, Stan covered his mouth with the back of his hand and wondered if a person could contract Hepatitis C from breathing such air. The half-hour of threats that Blightman pummeled him with, though, was enough to pry his hand from his mouth. "You're free to go," he choked.

Once the words were out, he was sure that Pryvett Rawgers would hurry out of the room and Stan could escape to his office and breath clean air directly from his air conditioning vent. But Pryvett didn't move. Stan thought to leave, anyhow, but hesitated. "Is there a problem?" he heard himself say.


"Well, what the hell is it? You've been found 'not guilty,' what more do you want?"

"I've been in this room for three days with no lunch or rest room breaks, and without so much as a drink of water," Pryvett said, calmly.

"Well, you're an adult!" Stan said, defensive. "You never asked! You could've left any time you needed a break!"


"What're you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the revised guidelines for corporate investigations that you penned last year."


For a moment, Stan was at a complete and utter loss. Then it slowly filtered back. The guidelines handed down by PHC for internal theft investigations had been entirely too lenient. It didn't take a criminologist to know that warehouse workers were woefully under paid and therefore prime candidates for pilferage. Head office rebuffed Stan's overtures to strengthen management's position in investigations; the suits balking, deferring to the police and justice system in the more egregious and obvious instances of theft. So, exercising his privilege as outlined by a little-known codicil in the PHC management charter, Stan had created his own guidelines for investigations occurring under his purview.

"Among those guidelines," Pryvett now said, "is that the subject of an investigation is not to leave the interrogation area unless prompted by management. No requests may be made --"

"But I didn't mean --"

"We asked you," Pryvett interrupted Stan's interruption, "at the time you released these new guidelines, and you said that anyone accused of pilferage would be given ample opportunities to use the facilities, eat lunch and get something to drink. You haven't done that once for me in three days."

"But you could've asked --"

"But the guidelines are specific in saying we're not to ask -- that management will make time for us to relieve and/or refresh ourselves." Pryvett pulled a stained, folded, stapled, multi-page document from his back pocket. It was already turned to page 13, the center paragraph marked in the margin with a star written in blue highlighter. When Stan had distributed copies of his updated guidelines for internal investigations, he would have bet his house that not a single miscreant under his control would have read the first three words of the document.

"Well, so what," Stan said. "You read the guidelines, good for you."

"After work today, I'm going to contact the Labor Board and county human rights commission to make a report," Pryvett said. "Your nifty document here will be 'Exhibit A.'"

"You can't prove a thing! It'll be my word against yours! I'm the plant manager and you're nothing but a lowly scanner!"

Pryvett nodded at the CCTV camera in the corner of the room. Stan followed his gaze and instantly knew what he was thinking: video evidence.

Without another word, Stan left the room and hurried to his office. He logged on to his PC and found the files of the previous two days' CCTV recordings. He deleted them. He then shut the camera off and deleted that day's recording.

When he returned to the taupe room, Stan was so satisfied with his quick thinking that the stench hardly bothered him. "All taken care of," he said. "You've got nothing."

"Well," Pryvett said, "if I'm not mistaken copies of the CCTV recordings are automatically streamed to head office via the network."

Stan's face fell.

"So, you may have deleted your copies," Pryvett continued, "but head office will have copies of the last few days I've spent in here."

"I can take care of that with a single phone call," Stan said. "Everybody knows me at head office."

"They do," Pryvett said, "don't they."

"OK, I won't win any popularity contests at head office," Stan said, "but I will surely be believed over you by anyone there."

"How're you gonna explain my absence?"

"What?" Stan said. "You punched in and out each day, what's there to explain? Your time card is current. And if you tried playing any jokes with it, that'd be easily explained."

"No, I mean the scanner. You know, the one I use to do my job?"

"I don't see how that . . ." Stan trailed off. Another "efficiency improvement" he'd instituted was calibrating the scanners so that employee activated them each day with a PIN. Stan had long suspected employees were punching in and out for friends who were skipping work, so he clamped down by creating the double-fail-safe of requiring employees to use activation PINs on the scanners. Punching someone else's time card was enough of a risk to take for a friend, but the additional obstacle of entering a PIN into a scanner -- and then hiding it or taking it around with them all day -- was just too onerous. Loyalty among the rabble didn't extend that far, Stan was sure.

"Whaddya want?" Stan said, perspiring despite the air conditioning.

"I want to forget all about this," Pryvett said. "Two extra weeks of paid vacation should help me do that."

"Two --?" Stan said, aghast. "Whaddya think I'm running here? Club Med?"

"Oh, I know this isn't Club Med," Pryvett said. "I'd never make that mistake."

Stan knew enough to know when he was hemmed in. He nodded. "All right, whatever. Two weeks without you around will be a vacation for all of us!"

Pryvett pulled another document from his back pocket. He smoothed out the page on the table. "Sign this and I'll be on my way. The folks at the walk-in legal center got a pretty good laugh out of all this."

Stan felt as though the spit in his mouth had turned to ashes. He pulled a pen from his breast pocket and signed the document. Pryvett may have weaseled this out of him, but the price would be the addition of Pryvett's name to Stan's secret hate list. He'd get Pryvett back for this, with change.

After the document was signed, Pryvett returned it to his pocket. He rose from the table and walked out of the taupe room.

As he passed the main office he saw Blightman standing at a waist-level file cabinet, writing something in his leather folder. Pryvett approached him. "It's been a slice," he said. Blightman turned, startled. Pryvett embraced him, pressing his fetid body odor into Blightman's clothing. "Hope that hot dog bun caper works out in your favor."

He left the office with Blightman looking after him; his greased mustachio quivering.

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