by Stoney M. Setzer

And you fear losing your job?

~*~

“Mr. Stouffer is here for his employee evaluation, sir.”

Riley Gateman looked up from his computer screen, feasting his eyes on Amber, his new office assistant. He had secretly cut the wires in the intercom from her desk to his own, forcing her to poke her head through the door every time she needed him. She was quite easy on the eyes, which made her little interruptions quite welcome. Though he would never admit it in this litigious age, her looks had been the deciding factor between hiring her and retaining his father’s former assistant, Charlotte, whom Amber had replaced. “Send him in.”

She quickly disappeared and was replaced by a sight far less appealing, that of the pudgy, balding, and bespectacled Harry Stouffer. To Riley’s mind, Stouffer was the poster boy for the “old guard,” the men and women who had been in the trenches with his father as he built Gateman Fabricators from the ground up. Now it was the largest employer in Benton, a town full of factories and mills. Each member of the old guard had been on the payroll for roughly two decades, plus or minus a couple of years, collecting all of the pay increases and bonuses that went along with such tenure.

Riley had Stouffer’s file on his desk, but he knew its contents without having to crack it open. If the late Walter Gateman ever had a favorite employee, Stouffer was the man. Dad had certainly talked about him enough through the years. Harry Stouffer is a genius. That man can do anything with technology, even on a shoestring budget. I’ll bet he saves this company at least a half-million dollars a year, if not more like a whole million. If it weren’t for him, we’d have shut down long ago. I keep offering him vice-president, but he won’t take it, says he’s happy where he is.

Then, of course, was Riley’s personal favorite: Son, if you want to be successful after I’m gone, you’d better learn everything you can from Harry Stouffer. If you don’t, you won’t have a prayer.

As Stouffer entered the office, Riley felt all of his old envy and resentment coming back anew. If he had felt any doubt about what he planned to do, it was gone now. “Good morning, Mr. Stouffer,” he said with all the fake courtesy he could muster.

“Good morning, Riley.” His use of the first name didn’t sit well with the younger man. Does he still think I’m a kid and that he doesn’t have to call me Mr. Gateman?  It’s time to do this.

“Mr. Stouffer, I’ll do us both a favor and cut to the chase. You’re aware that the economy is tough right now, and we have to cut corners anywhere we can. As a result, you are hereby terminated.”

Stouffer’s face went ashen. Obviously, this was the last thing he would have ever expected, and his shocked expression gave Riley a rush of sadistic glee. The only thing more gratifying than cutting Stouffer loose was blindsiding him with the decision. After a moment, however, the older man composed himself. “And why is that, Riley?”

“Because you’ve done such a great job in mechanizing this plant that you’ve put yourself out of a job,” Riley sneered. “Consider yourself the creator of your own demise–that and a lot of your fellow employees.”

“I designed those machines to help the workers, not replace them! A machine can’t do everything that a human can!”

“True, but for what they can’t do, I can find someone younger for less money. I can do that with a lot of people around here, and I am–today in fact.”

“You’re full of it, Riley!”

“I assure you, I have a dozen people I’m going to….”

“Not that, you idiot!”

Riley felt his blood pressure skyrocket. “What did you just call me?”

Stouffer shrugged. “Does it matter?  You’ve already fired me! Besides, I know money doesn’t have anything to do with it!”

“Is that so?”

“Our profits are the best they’ve been in three years, aren’t they?”

“So what?  The only reason the profits are so good is that we’ve mechanized so well. I figure if we cut some payroll expenses, then the profits can only improve.”

“That’s a crock, and you know it. You’re just trying to get rid of anybody who spent more than about five years working for your father. You want to break away from how your father did things, but you can’t do that with a bunch of us older ones around to remind you that you’ll never be half the man he was! Isn’t that about right, Riley?”

Riley clenched his jaw, ready to explode in anger, but he forced himself to laugh. “I don’t have to be just like my father to run this company as profitably as he did.”

“I never said you weren’t a capable businessman. I said you’d never be half the man Walter was–big difference. Your father would have never put his own ego ahead of the good of his employees! Think about somebody other than yourself for a moment! These are people with mortgages to pay, kids to put through college, and everything else, and your about to cut their legs out from under them! Not because they deserve to be let go, but just because you can! But this is your company now, so I’m sure that you don’t care what I think!”

“You’re absolutely right. It is my company now, and I don’t care about your worthless opinion! Now get out of here!”

“Fine,” Stouffer retorted as he stood, “but remember this. A man reaps what he sows.”

“Are you trying to scare me by talking about karma?”

“You call it karma, I call it biblical.  Either way, you need to be careful what harvest you set yourself up for.”

“Get out!”

“I’ve been here a long time, Riley,” Stouffer said, lowering his voice and leaning in. “I know a lot of things about this place that you don’t, things that might be very important to you. If you have any sense at all, you’ll….”

Riley slammed his hands on his desk as he sprang up from his chair. “Get out before I have you dragged out!”

“Suit yourself,” Stouffer shrugged as he turned to leave. Riley glared after him for several minutes before he could make himself sit down again. He wasn’t sure why, but the very mention of anything related to the Bible made him mad. Maybe it was the way his father always worked it into conversation.

It didn’t matter now. Walter Gateman was dead, leaving Riley both the company and the freedom to do as he pleased with it. He glanced at the clock on the wall. In a moment, Amber would be announcing the arrival of the next veteran employee to be terminated, and the purging of the old guard would continue.

#

            “You wanted me to stay late, sir?” Amber inquired as she stepped into his office at 5:15 PM. The factory was emptying out quickly as the employees who still had their jobs–roughly three-fourths of the people who had clocked in this morning–were headed home.

Riley smiled as he opened his bottom-right desk drawer. “Well, it’s taken me all day to do everyone else’s performance review, so this was the only time I could find to do yours.”

“Mine?” she gulped. “But please, Mr. Gateman, it’s only been a week. If it’s about that intercom system, I promise I’ll figure it….”

“Relax, Amber,” Riley chuckled. “And please, call me Riley.”

“OK…Riley.” She sounded uneasy with the use of his first name, but he thought nothing of it. In time, Riley hoped that she would become far more comfortable with a lot of things.

“And I know you haven’t been here long, but I’ve been impressed. In fact, we may even be able to negotiate a raise if this review goes well.” He reached into the desk drawer and produced a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“Oh,” Amber frowned.

Riley began pouring, oblivious to the change in her facial expression. “You see, I really like having you here, and I’d like to discuss how you can stay here for a long time.”
“Mr. Gateman….”

“It’s Riley, remember?”
“Mr. Gateman,” she repeated, her voice firm. “You do realize that this isn’t just for decoration, right?” She extended her left hand, wiggling the finger that bore her wedding ring.

Riley laughed, holding up his own left hand. “I’ve got one of those, too. So what?”

“Mine actually means something to me. You might as well put one of those glasses up, Mr. Gateman.”

The young executive’s face twisted in anger. “Is that right?  What if I told you that I could dismiss you just as easily as…?”

Amber folded her arms across her chest. “Ever hear of something called a harassment lawsuit?  Don’t worry about it, though. If this is how it’s going to be here, then I quit.” She turned and stormed out of his office, slamming his door behind her.

Trembling with anger, Riley glared after her. Who was she to reject him, and over such a trifle as marriage?  Let his wife Lori be presented with such an offer, and she wouldn’t hesitate at all–indeed, thanks to his private investigator, he already knew of at least one time when she hadn’t. Was Amber really so principled, so short-sighted–so stupid–not to see what he could offer her?

Her scream pierced the otherwise silent air. Riley was so startled that he dropped the bottle he still held, and it shattered on the floor. The rapid-fire sounds of running feet in heeled shoes came next, and within a moment Amber had burst back through the door. Once more she slammed it shut, but this time she had thrown herself against it, as if she were trying to hold it closed. She was gasping for air, and her already-milky complexion had grown even paler, as if what little color had been in her face had vanished completely.

“What the…?” he began.

“What is that thing out there?” she interrupted.

“Thing?  What are you talking about?”

Mechanical sounds, buzzing and clicking, came from beyond the door. Amber pointed emphatically toward the door, toward the source of the noises. She tried to speak, but she was too rattled. Whatever was out there, she obviously found it terrifying.

Riley threw his head back and laughed contemptuously. A few minutes ago, when he thought he had a chance with her, seeing her so scared would have brought a different reaction. He would have gladly played the role of a knight come to her rescue in the interest of racking up points with her. Now, however, she only disgusted him. “Come on! Do you not realize how much machinery and electronics we have around here?  Some moron probably left a machine going, and here you are, scared out of what little mind you have!”

Amber shook her head, her eyes wide. “It’s not that,” she managed to stammer.

Rolling his eyes, Riley reached for the door, but she grabbed his arm. “Don’t leave me in here alone!”

With a grunt, he brushed her aside and stepped out into the waiting area. Nothing was amiss, but the sounds were coming from the other side of the entrance, from the corridor. Behind him, the door to his office slammed shut, and he heard the distinctive sound of furniture being pushed across the floor. She’s barricading herself in there–and barricading me out here in the process.

Making up his mind to prove her an idiot, he strode out to the hallway. He looked to his right, saw something, and smirked self-righteously. What an idiot she is! he thought. If she hadn’t already quit, she’d be the next one I’d fire. Chuckling confidently, he turned his head and looked the other way.

Abruptly Riley’s chortling stopped cold as he spied what had upset Amber. The source of the mechanical noises was a robot, rolling down the hallway on a wheeled base. Rising from the base was a metallic torso that supported a bulbous head and two snaking arms, one of which held what looked like some kind of semi-automatic weapon. It was headed Riley’s way….

Without warning, the robot stopped in its tracks, and a red light inside its head began to flash. “Halt!” blared a recorded voice that seemed to echo endlessly down the vacant halls. The robot raised its weapon, like a soldier preparing for combat. “Provide security clearance at once!”

As Riley’s mind reeled, he suddenly thought of the plant’s relatively new security system, which had been Stouffer’s project–one of the last projects completed in his late father’s lifetime. Was this what he meant by knowing things that he didn’t?

There was only one way to find out. “Riley Gateman, clearance code 1762!” he barked. If this robot worked like the parts of the security system that he knew about, then his code would be recognized and….

“Code rejected! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!” the robot barked. “Initiate intruder elimination protocol!”

Shock crashed over Riley like a tidal wave. That had been his security clearance code all along. It couldn’t be rejected, not unless…. Stouffer! This was his doing! He must have changed the codes, which meant….

The sound of the semi-automatic’s bolt being pulled back jarred Riley out of his thoughts and back into the immediate. The robot was lifting its weapon into position, getting ready to put Riley in its sights. Swearing loudly, Riley dove to one side, toward the office door, hoping his weight would be enough to topple whatever Amber had used to block it.

He might as well have tried going through the wall itself. At least his left shoulder would have knocked a hole in the sheetrock, and the burst of pain would have been simultaneously less intense and more productive. As it was, he felt as if one of the Atlanta Braves’ batters had mistaken his shoulder for a hanging curveball, and there was barely a scratch on the door. However, the failed maneuver did put him in position to hear the sound of shattering glass far on the other side, from within his office….

Amber! It wasn’t enough for her to leave him out here in the hall to face this robot that had scared her. No, she had to break out a window in my office and get out that way. Of course, he couldn’t blame her; had their positions been reversed, he would have left her behind to save his own neck. However, being on the wrong end of that equation didn’t sit well with him. Worse still, he had left his cell phone on his desk, leaving him with no way to call for help.

“Intruder alert!” the robot repeated. It had yet to turn to confront Riley again, but he wasn’t willing to wait around for it. Grunting against the agony in his shoulder, he sprang on the robot, throwing his weight directly on top of the weapon. The gambit worked as the impact jarred the weapon free. Not wasting a moment, Riley rolled to the floor, grabbed the weapon, and began clubbing the robot with the stock end.

A moment later Riley found himself panting for breath as he stood over the mangled remains of his would-be assailant. Only then did it occur to him that he could have just shot it, making all of the extra physical exertion seem ludicrous. It didn’t matter now, however. His priority now was to get out of here and fast.

Sprinting toward the elevator, he decided that Stouffer had to be the one to blame for all of this. This was probably his last act before leaving the premises, changing the security codes so Riley’s would be useless. The armed robot was a particularly ominous touch; it suggested that the plan was for him to be killed. It probably wasn’t even a real intruder alert, not in the sense that the police would be called. No, this was a trap to avenge a disgruntled ex-employee.

No problem, Stouffer, he thought as he hit the call button. I’ll show you. Holding the semi-automatic with one hand, he fished in his pockets for his cell phone, only to come up empty.  Had he left it on his desk?  Riley cursed but quickly decided that it didn’t matter. He could call the police as soon as he got out of here, and then Stouffer would have to answer to a charge of attempted murder. For the first time since calling Amber into his office, he smiled.

The smile quickly faded as he waited for the elevator. This was only a three story building; what was taking it so long?  Riley pounded on the doors, but predictably nothing happened. Only then did he look down at the call button and see that it was not illuminated, nor were the directional arrows above the doors. Another expletive escaped his lips as he wondered if the intruder alert had disabled the elevator. Of course, it didn’t matter too much; the door to the stairwell was only a few feet away.

More robotic noises echoed down the hallway as he flung the door open. It should have come as no surprise that there should be more than one security robot, but somehow that hadn’t occurred to Riley until just now. He ducked into the stairwell quickly, hoping that he had been fast enough to avoid detection. With a renewed sense of urgency, he clambered down the stairs toward the ground floor.

Abstractly it occurred to him that, were his father in this situation, this would be the time that the old man would start to pray. In the past, Riley had never seen much point in such an exercise and had never hesitated to share that view with his father. Then again, just about every situation he had faced before had been one that he could solve on his own. He wondered in the back of his mind if prayer really could be as effective as his father claimed, wondered how to even go about it. For the first time in his life, he found himself regretting having not paid better attention all the times that his parents had forced him to go to church as a child.

Riley burst through the door of the ground floor landing, only to have his charge for the exit stopped cold. Three security robots confronted him. “Intruder alert! All units to the ground floor!” they blared. Bellowing in rage, Riley raised his semi-automatic and opened fire, pouring ammunition into the robots. The satisfaction he felt was unspeakable as each of his adversaries was reduced to scrap metal.

Take that, Stouffer, Riley thought vindictively as he stooped to strip each robot of its ammunition. You don’t get to win this one. As soon as I get out of here….

More announcements of the intruder alert echoed down the hallway, prompting him to curse through gritted teeth. Within moments the corridor was flooded with robots. Having no alternative, Riley shouldered his weapon once more and opened fire. He drained the first clip quickly, replaced it as rapidly as he could, and repeated the process.

Finally, just as his last clip emptied, the final robot fell. Panting like a winded dog, Riley navigated through the wreckage toward the door. As he passed the receptionist’s desk, however, the phone began to ring. It was so unexpected, so surreal, that it temporarily took Riley out of the moment. He had the receiver to his ear before he even realized what he was doing. “Hello?”

“Riley?  Is that you?” Stouffer!

“Yeah, it’s me,” Riley snarled, his eyes narrowing into slits. “You really knew what you were talking about, didn’t you?”

“What?  You need to get out….”

“So how did you know I’d be here?”

“I still have a security system monitor here at home. When the intruder alert sounded, I accessed the cameras and saw….”

“Saw that I beat the little booby trap you set up for me?  Well, how does it feel to be a failure, Stouffer?”

“Would you shut up and listen?” Stouffer snapped. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”

“I wiped out all your robots before they could do the same to me. Now I’m coming for you.”

“Are you serious, Riley?  Did you really think the robots were coming after you?”

Fresh fear stabbed Riley in the gut. “Say what?”

“Riley, your father was like a brother to me, but he wasn’t exactly perfect. Way back before the EPA started cracking down, we weren’t exactly–well, careful with the way we dumped chemical waste. The robots were my solution for keeping things under control.”

“Things? What sorts of…?” Only then did Riley feel the hot breath blowing on the back of his neck. He turned around and found himself face to face with what could only be described as a gargantuan snake. Screaming in terror, he dropped the phone and ran blindly down the hallway, not realizing until too late that he had bypassed the door. He was too busy running, trying not to be terminated.

“Terminated” © 2012 Stoney M. Setzer
Original fiction debuting at Fear & Trembling Magazine.
(Image Credit: John/Microchip08, Wikimedia Commons)