Tony enters the conference room with a mix of trepidation and frustration. It’s too early for a meeting with software developers. Corporate people never understand.
The view from the picture windows is pretty. They’re on the twenty-third floor, and the city is spread out below. Maybe later he can explore a little, get a drink, try to forget the fight he had with his wife on text last night as he was sprawled out on the hotel bed, blissfully alone.
People filter into the conference room. He recognizes them from their profile pics on various social media sites and Google Hangouts. There’s Maribel from Portland, her sleeve of tattoos covered with a button-down, A-line haircut pinned back to hide the blue streaks. Burly blond Eric from New Hampshire has a bald spot Tony never noticed on the webcam. Neo from San Jose, a slim man with hollowed-out cheekbones, is all west coast glam, his black suit unbuttoned over a black t-shirt.
Sherry, one of the executive assistants, a grandmotherly woman with bright orange hair, welcomes the bleary-eyed arrivals. She directs them to the coffee and donuts table. “So nice to meet you in person,” she gushes to each of them.
Tony ends up next to Maribel at the coffee. She elbows him in ribs. “You’re taller than I expected.”
He smiles at her sideways. She’s as hot in person as he’d imagined. “You’re a shorty pants,” he says.
“Captain Obvious.” Her eyes are coal-dark, lined with black.
He pulls his eyes off her and looks around the room at their travel-weary colleagues. “So what do you think this little family reunion is all about? Launching the new app? Seems silly to drag us all down here for a launch.”
“Naw, I’m expecting a company culture thing. Inspirational bullshit.”
In unison, they say, “Morning culture moment,” making fun of the daily emails.
At last, they’re all seated at the conference table. Each place has been set with a plastic folder and a gathering of pens, highlighters, and post-its. At the head of the table, a folding screen has been erected. Sherry, the admin assistant, cuts the lights and fusses with the projector remote while everyone pretends to be busy on their phones. In a room full of tech people, no one wants to help with the projector.
The projector flares to life and the screen fills with cobalt blue. “Oh thank goodness,” Sherry breathes. “I’ll leave you to it then!” She backs out of the room and pulls the door shut behind her.
The blue screen resolves into an image: Jeff Burdwell, their ever-bow-tied, middle-aged, golf-playing, living-in-the-Florida-keys-after-Making-a-Huge-Life-Change Chief People Officer. “Well hey there,” he hollers with intense webcam eye contact. “Look at you handsome devils. A great-looking team, aren’t you? So glad you could make it today. This is our first annual corporate retreat for the dev team. We’re making history. And you know what? I like making history. It’s a great feeling!” He cheeses harder, one cheek creased into a forced dimple.
Tony frowns and examines the screen, the projector. There’s no webcam. “This is a recording, not a hangout,” Tony says.
Neo snorts. “This dude didn’t make the trip out, and he didn’t even conference in? What a douche!”
“Game on,” Maribel quips, which is Burdwell’s favorite expression.
“Motherfucker,” Eric sighs, and he puts his head down on the table to take a nap.
Burdwell drones on, his smiling face huge on the screen. “We’re going to have some fun today! It’s all about collaboration, communication, and...what’s that third C word we all love so much?” He grins, giving them time to respond.
“Cunt,” Maribel and Tony chorus, while Neo says, “Killing myself.” “That starts with a K,” Eric points out.
“That’s right,” Burdwell cries. “Compassion!”
“Forget the C’s, someone give this guy the D,” says Neo. Tony inhales a mouthful of coffee and dissolves into coughing.
Burdwell rambles on about company culture and bringing your A game to work. Tony’s eyes wander out the window. “I wonder if it’s suicide glass,” he says idly.
“Ask Neo,” says Eric.
“I’m Chinese, not Japanese, dickwad,” Neo snaps.
“So let’s open our packets and get started!” Burdwell cries. “In front of you, you’ve got a sealed folder. Let’s see what’s on the agenda!”
Tony flips the manila envelope over and tears the side open. He flips a page over, and then he cries out in shock. Nearby, Maribel gasps, shaking her hand out like she’s been shocked. Eric and Neo exchange huge-eyed expressions of shock.
“What the fuck,” Tony breathes. “What did you guys get?”
Neo flips his paper over and displays a photo of a dead man lying on a city street, surrounded by blood and broken glass. The man looks flattened, squished, and then Tony realizes from the context that the man must have fallen from the nearby building.
On screen, Burdwell’s face smiles benevolently.
Eric shows them his. It’s a photo of a dead man propped up against a tank of some kind, maybe a water heater. The man’s stomach is slashed open and one arm is clasped to it like the man had tried to push the escaping entrails back into his body. The man has blond hair just like Eric.
Maribel shows them her photo. It’s of a dark-haired woman not dissimilar to herself. The woman is running down a darkened staircase and is glancing over her shoulder at the camera, eyes huge with fear, blood covering the arm that holds the stair railing. From the vantage point of the camera, a hand can be seen: the photographer’s hand, clearly, holding an axe.
“Oh my God,” she says. She tips her manila envelope upside down. A wicked-looking, serrated knife clatters out onto the table.
“No one touch it,” Neo says.
Maribel raises her eyes from the knife to Tony’s face. “What’s your photo?”
Tony flips his over. It’s a picture of a man with brown hair and suntanned skin like his own. The man is sprawled out on a concrete surface, his throat sliced from ear to ear.
Burdwell shifts position. “I’ll just give you guys a few more minutes to look through your packets.”
Neo hops up and hurries for the door. “Sherry,” he calls. He stumbles back, the door unopened. He jiggles the handle. He slams into the door with his shoulder. “It’s locked!”
Tony hops up and the two of them ram the door with their shoulders, kick it, pound on it. Eric and Maribel join them. Maribel inspects the hardware. “No hinges on this side.”
Burdwell chuckles, the sound echoing around the conference room, which suddenly feels huge and cold and full of danger. He says, “So you’ve had a chance to review your materials.”
They turn toward the screen, eyes fixed on the man’s smiling face.
Burdwell says, “Have you tried the door? You might have noticed it’s locked. I’ll give you a second to try it out in case you haven’t.” He waits, the same shit-eating grin plastered across his face. “All right,” he says. “I think we’re ready to start the game!”
“The game?” Maribel repeats. One of her hands is frozen on the door handle, and it reminds Tony of the woman in the picture, one bloody hand gripping a stairwell railing.