At some point in the future, allegedly.
Mickey Valkyrie, soon to be known only as Eleven, walked the hallway littered with young businessmen and businesswomen trying to look busy in his presence. With the economy as it was, no one wanted to appear like they were expendable, especially after the recent round of layoffs.
None of them knew who Mickey was, mind you; he just gave off the aura of being someone important and they assumed he was one of the men up top. They were right in this case, but they weren’t always. The men up top kept themselves sequestered off and never spent any time with the employees, choosing to only speak through a few intermediaries. It made the process of running the company less personal and therefore more productive. If you actually knew the employees then you might get attached to them which would only lead to trouble when one of them had to be given a shove out the door.
Once Mickey reached the bathroom near the end of the hall, he entered it silently, making certain there were no others inside. He went to the marble sink, placed his briefcase on it and opened it up. Inside the briefcase were papers, flash drives, a laptop and a black mask. Mickey took out the black mask and pulled it over his head, zipping it up in the back. He looked at himself in the mirror, now completely unrecognizable. The mask covered almost all of his head, leaving room only for his lips and eyes to be seen and even then it was tight around those portions of his face.
Without further thought for his appearance, Mickey left the bathroom and turned right, arriving at the conference room three minutes early. He stepped inside and instantly became Eleven.
The conference room was barren except for a large, circular table made out of mahogany wood. Rumor had it that One had made the table himself sometime before he entered the business world.
Eleven looked for the place card that matched his number and took a seat. Three and Five were already here, both wearing the same mask as Eleven did (if they hadn’t they would’ve been immediately terminated) and they both nodded in his direction. He’d met Five outside of the conference room a few times but had never met Three, at least not so far as he knew. Five had been an uptight fellow, appearing not to have much in the way of a personality but that might have just been the face he put on when he was at work. Forming friendships between the eleven executives was frowned upon at best. Rumor had it that the previous Three and Six had been ousted because they ended up becoming too close. A harsh measure, certainly, but a necessary one, one that would allow for the success of the business to remain at the forefront of people’s minds.
The rest of the executives came in, all masked as well, with One arriving last, sitting directly next to Two and Eleven. Eleven liked being next to One because even though he was the low man on the totem pole at least he got to sit beside One, to hopefully make a better impression than the others. He always wore his best suit, his most stylish tie and made sure his handkerchief peeked out of his pocket on the days he was to be in One’s presence (he thought it added the right amount of pretentiousness without overdoing it). He always slouched a little in his chair, though, as One was slightly shorter than him and he worried about appearing as if he wanted to upstage him.
Everyone at the table looked to One, waiting for him to give the go ahead. A few of the executives tugged at their black masks, clearly not comfortable with wearing them. One had come upon the idea of wearing the bondage masks only a year earlier and not everyone liked it and some whisperings of resentment still remained. The whispers never grew loud.
“Let’s begin,” said One. He didn’t have to say who went first, it was understood that they would go in numerical order.
Two began by saying, “There’s the problem of profits first and foremost. We’re staying steady with the rest of our competitors but since our competitors aren’t doing as well as they used to that doesn’t say much for us. We’re going to need to cut staff.”
Cutting staff? Always a tricky topic, Eleven knew. It shouldn’t have been but the press had a field day going after any companies that lay off employees. What did the media expect? Business came first, not charity.
“Not again,” said Five. “We were skewered the last time we let people go and that was only six months ago.”
“I know,” said Two, “but if we want to continue receiving the level of income that we do now then cuts will need to be made.”
“Are we in debt?” asked Nine.
A bad question to ask, Eleven thought. Nine should’ve known that.
“No,” said One, his voice strong enough that Nine had the presence of mind to look down. “Debt of any type is unacceptable. I will fire every single employee if I have to in order to balance the budget. We will never be in debt.”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Two said, “Yes, well, something will need to be done much sooner than later lest we fall behind our competitors.”
Eleven glanced over at One. He couldn’t see his face thanks to the mask but he could sense that One was thinking something over, trying to come up with some sort of plan of action while everyone else just felt sorry for themselves, wondering what they did to deserve this suffering.
“We did 10,000 layoffs last time,” said Eight. “We can’t do that again. Not only will the press make us into villains but it will also make us appear weak.”
“Not once the next quarter’s profits come in,” said Six. “That would quiet any talk of us going out of business.”
“But if we look weak then no one will buy from us,” said Eight. “If our consumers smell weakness then they’ll flee to another company. Talons Incorporated has done a good job of looking like they’re doing better than they are so I wouldn’t be surprised if we lost business to them.”
Eleven held back a groan. Talons Inc had been a thorn in the company’s side for a while now. They seemed to expand every other day, taking over smaller companies as if it was a bodily function. He should really send an application their way.
“Are you trying to say that laying people off is out of the question?” asked Six. “I’m really interested in your solution then.”
“I don’t have one,” said Eight.
“Well then maybe we’ve found the first person who should go,” said Six.
Oh, Eight did not like that comment. He disliked it so much that he almost stood, an action that was forbidden until the meeting was adjourned. Instead, he just said, “Well what’s your idea?”
“Layoffs,” said Six. “Just get rid of a ton of people and be done with it.”
Eleven didn’t mind the idea of layoffs, not in principle, but he was worried, like Eight was, about how it’d look to outsiders. Even appearing weak could be disastrous. He’d have to jump ship if the company looked like it was going under. To have his name anywhere near a company that failed would be incredibly embarrassing. Even thinking about it made his stomach churn. The worst result would be having to take a job that was beneath him while he looked for a bigger one. God forbid it, he might have to take a job at a non-profit place. He’d heard of someone who was forced to do that and committed suicide not long after.
“How many would have to go?” One asked Two.
Two hesitated before saying, “Five thousand.”
“Oh, Jesus,” said Eight.
“Five thousand?” repeated Six. “That’s our entire Detroit branch right there. I suppose we could close that one up, though. I mean, it is Detroit.”
One lightly tapped on the table, but the move was enough for everyone to go silent. “There is a solution that would give us what we need without taking a hit in the press,” said One. “It’s a bit unorthodox but times like this call for unorthodox measures.” He paused for effect and then said, “We could just kill them.”
No one said anything. What was there to say?
One interlocked his fingers, placed his hands behind his head, leaned back and said, “Unorthodox, I know.”
“I’m… I’m not sure what you mean,” said Three.
Eleven silently thanked him for having the courage to say that.
One said, “We kill five thousand employees. The Detroit branch might work, as Six pointed out. It sounds extreme but it’s better in the long run. We make it look like an accident or some sort of madman’s attack. That’s certainly preferable to appearing like we’re weak and soulless.”
“You don’t think that might hurt us?” asked Three, his voice soft. “I mean, an explosion that kills five thousand people will not make us look like a powerful company.”
“We’ll have to do it, if we do it, in a way that makes it look like it had nothing to do with our safety standards lacking,” said Six.
Eleven thought what One and Six said had a certain logic to it, yes, but the idea of actually killing employees was, well, a challenging one. He’d have to hear that it made complete business sense before giving it his vote of approval. He wasn’t so cold-hearted as to give the thumbs up to doing such a thing without at least hearing some more facts. Heavens no.
“There’s a major flaw,” said Five. “Even if we lose the employees and make it look like our security measures weren’t at fault, the government will be looking into all of our procedures and safety standards. Can we really stand such scrutiny?”
“Likely not,” said One. “However, you forget that it is your predecessor who is in charge of the Safety Standards Regulatory Committee. He’ll have our backs.”
“That is true,” said Two. “He’s been a good ally in the past.”
“But still,” protested Eight. “Killing our own employees? That’s an act I don’t think I can condone.”
“Even if it saves the business?” asked Six. “I think we should hear a little more of this idea before we say anything that we can’t take back.”
All eyes turned to One, who smiled at the attention, his leather mask squeaking as it moved around his lips.
“Think it through, gentlemen. If we can orchestrate a way to appear completely innocent then we will be victims in the eyes of the public. All we need do is have someone go out and give a speech about how we’re going to throw a little money towards the families, not too much, and people will be saying that we’re truly a caring company. That alone will bring us business. Now, yes, some of our larger customers might want to flee, worried that this catastrophe will make us go under. But they won’t. They won’t because it would give them exactly what we’ve been fearing: bad press because they’d appear heartless. So they won’t leave and since we’ll be prepared we won’t miss a beat. They’ll continue to get the customer service that they’ve always gotten and will stay with us.”
The uncomfortable silence returned. Were they seriously thinking this over? thought Eleven. Am I? After all, it did make business sense so far. There were still the ethical problems remaining, sure, but the survival of the business had to come first.
“I rather like it,” said Six. “There are still things to be ironed out but I like it.”
“I think we’re forgetting that we’re talking about killing people,” said Eight.
“Layoffs of a different type,” said Six, waving his hand dismissively.
“Eight has a valid point,” said One. “However, so, too, does our friend Six. If we were to lay these people off in this economy they would be almost guaranteed at least three years of unemployment. There are simply no jobs out there for them. Once the economy rebounds, these people will have been out of work for a very long time which will make it still difficult for them to find a job. Killing these people is worse than laying them off, yes, but not exponentially so.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Eight.
One laughed. “Well then, how much of a paycheck decrease are you willing to take so that we don’t have to do anything? Hm? And how about the rest of you? This company still has its pride, gentlemen, and I’m not going to let that slip out of our hands. We are not going to start reducing our salaries to that of fucking managers. We are executives and we are the backbone of this company. I’ve said it before, this is not a charity. This is a business. I’m calling a vote on this one. I vote yes.”
He turned to Two who nodded and said, “Yes.
Three said, “No. No, I’m not comfortable with it.”
Four said, “I hate the idea but yes.”
Five shook his head and mouthed a no.
Six said, “Yes. There’s no choice in the matter.”
Seven said, “No.”
Eight said, “No. This is the wrong move. Laying them off and taking the hit would be preferable.”
Nine said, “No.”
Ten said, “Yes.”
Eleven was the tiebreaker and knew it. He’d kept careful count, fearing that this might happen. He’d made tough calls before and rather liked doing them; it made him the businessman he was today. But this? This was a different matter. This was a matter of life and death. Or was it? Maybe One had it correct. Maybe this was just business at the end of the day. Maybe all he had to do was decide what made business sense. Was it really up to him to make ethical decisions? Perhaps outside, when he was Mickey. But here he was just Eleven, a man who was part of something greater: a business. “Yes,” he said.
“Well there we have it,” said One. “We’ll get a plan in place and execute it, no pun intended, as soon as possible.”
The rest of the meeting went swiftly, nothing quite comparing to the conversation on layoffs. Eleven listened to very little of it, still in awe of the fact that an important company decision had come down to his vote. No doubt everyone would be taking him a bit more seriously in the future and he may well be bumped up a number or two before year’s end if he was able to work this to his advantage.
As the meeting wrapped up, everyone giving a nod of goodbye towards One, Six said, “We’ve made a good move. I wish I’d thought of it.”
Eleven headed towards the door but stopped when One said, “Hold up, Eleven. I want to speak to you for a moment.”
He’d never spoken one on one with One before. It was an exciting prospect and he felt his value increasing as he walked to One. “What is it, sir?” he asked, feeling the need to add the sir at the end lest he seem disrespectful.
The black mask made it hard to see what One’s reaction was but Eleven thought he saw a small smile threatening to form on One’s face. “I wanted to thank you for making the right call.”
Eleven said, “Thank you. I just, uh, did what I thought was best for the business.”
“You certainly did,” said One. “As a matter of fact that’s why I’m putting you in charge of something important, something that needs to stay quiet.”
“You can count on me, sir,” said Eleven.
“I know I can,” said One, placing a heavy hand on Eleven’s shoulder. “Should something come out about what we’re planning there will need to be a person who takes the fall. I’m in charge of this company so I think I’ve earned the right for it not to be me.”
“Who, sir?” said Eleven. He already suspected he knew who One would pick.
And Eleven had suspected wrong. “Six, sir?”
“Yes. He’s a sycophant and has never come up with a good idea in his life. With luck this operation won’t be the end of him but should anyone find out how our employees died then I want the blame to fall at one person’s feet. At Six’s feet.”
“I’ll get on it.”
Eleven picked up his briefcase and left the room, already wondering how he’d follow One’s orders. It’d take some thinking, no doubt about it, but he’d be able to do it. Letting down One wasn’t an option, not for him.
He went into the bathroom again, opened his briefcase, took off his mask, placed it back in the briefcase and became Mickey once more. He considered, for a moment, looking into the mirror and asking himself who he was and how he’d ended up here. But those would be empty questions, questions he no longer cared about answering.
So he went back to work.