Chapter 02: Slipshod

“Can I help you?” The pretty strawberry-blond girl at the reception desk was staring at him, a tentative smile on her face.

Alex gulped, winded from his half-jog down the hallway outside. The ticket had specified that one of the techs needed to arrive by ten a.m. Traffic snarled and slow around highway construction and blocked lanes and difficulty finding parking had meant that he was nearly forty-five minutes late.

He gaped at her, she was one of those kinds of girls. Her strawberry blond hair and big blue eyes combined with a floral sheer top over a white cami and shiny gold earrings in her delicate ears. She was pretty. One of those girls who combined beauty with complete unattainability for someone like him. And he reacted to them much like Raj on Big Bang Theory, with a wide-eyed silence. Standing there in the office, with its high-end carpet and sleek, spotless furniture, he willed his tongue to work.

“I’m uh,” he blinked, “Uh, I’m from…”

I can’t even remember the name of the company. What kind of loser can’t remember the name of the company they work for?

It was Alex’s third week, the training was over, and now he was on his own. Thankfully, the young goddess who had robbed him so effectively of his words was kind.

“Are you from Nerds R Us?” She asked, smiling brightly, “I’ve been expecting you. You must be new, where’s Ernie?”

Alex stammered. “Uh, yeah, I’m uh, the nerd. I mean, I’m from the Nerds.” He closed his eyes, winced, and started again, “Sorry. I’m Alex, from uh, from Nerds R Us.”

The girl smiled again, wider this time, and his pulse began to race.

“I’m Trish.” She leaned back and to one side, “Here it is.” She placed the machine on the desk and pushed it towards him.

“Oh, right, um, should I stay here or…”

“We have an open office just over there.” Trish pointed to a small office within eyesight of the reception desk. “It’s, um, not being used at the moment.” A flash of discomfort crossed her face. Just a flash, before being replaced with a smile again.

Alex picked up the laptop and nodded, “Okay, great, I’ll get started on it. Should I just,” he pointed at the office and shrugged, his body language forming a question.

“Yep, just over there. Make yourself at home and let me know if you need anything.” Trish chirped. Her phone began to ring and her attention shifted, “Kurgen Real Estate, how can I direct your call?”

The office was small, but it had a great view of the front desk and Trish’s shapely legs peeking out of her conservative, yet short, skirt. He sat down, looked at her talking animatedly on the phone, sat down and sighed.

If only the view could be like this every day.

He set the laptop onto the empty desk, plugged it in, and then opened up his briefcase and reviewed the ticket.

He was supposed to re-image the drive and delete any business files from the laptop or the cloud. The sign-in screen appeared, the cursor blinking.

“Are you doing okay?” Trish was standing in the doorway, and Alex jumped, his heart hammering in his chest.

“What? Uh, yeah, I’m doing fine. Um, just running some diagnostics.” He tried to play it cool, but his words came out fast and ran together.

Face it, dude, there is nothing cool about you. Chicks like this, they don’t go out with geeks like you.

Trish blinked, then smiled again. “It was so weird. The guy, Danny, he just stopped showing up for work one day.” She shrugged, “I mean, this was his office here. The last day he worked, he was walking around like a cat who just ate the cream. Said he had found a ‘lucrative opportunity’ – whatever that meant – and asked me if I’d go out to dinner with him the next weekend.”

Alex swallowed, his mouth was hanging open and he hoped she hadn’t noticed. “So, uh, did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Go, uh, go out with him.” He stumbled over the words. The sweat was so bad in his hands that they felt damp.

“Oh, gosh, no,” she gave him a wide-eyed look. “He was a bit of a perv. He was always staring at me. I’d look over and he’d be staring, and then he would give me this smile that just creeped me out.”

Alex nodded and made a mental note not to stare.

At least, don’t stare a lot.

“I mean, I didn’t tell him no, but I really didn’t want to tell him yes, because, you know,” she shrugged, “Perv vibes.”

Alex looked over, there was a cardboard box filled with personal items, “Is that his?”

“Yeah, he never picked it up. They even tried contacting him and his landlord is looking for him too. He just dropped everything and left. It was crazy!” She paused for a moment, leaning out of the small office to look around. “I get so bored sitting at that desk all day. There’s no one interesting to talk to.”

Alex’s face must have betrayed his concern over that.

“I mean,” Trish looked embarrassed, “I’m sure you are interesting. I’ve just been talking away and not giving you a chance!” She leaned in closer, and her perfume, full of floral notes washed over him, “So what did happen to Ernie?”

Ernie Ott had been caught in a blackmail scheme with a client and been fired three weeks ago, just as Alex was being hired. On his second day of work, instead of accompanying Ernie on his rounds, he had found himself with Bob, a portly tech with a receding hairline and persistent mournful expression. It had been the longest two weeks of his life, working with Bob, and by the end of it Alex had dreaded going to work. It felt like Bob’s gloom was infectious.

Meanwhile, the rumors in the small army of IT nerds had spread fast. The client in question had been a well-known call girl with a rather elite clientele. From the mayor, city leaders, and several well-placed businessmen, she had slowly built her clientele. At some point, she had struck up a relationship with Ernie. Whether it was Ernie’s idea or hers, the webcam hidden in a potted plant over a period of three months had netted its fair share of indiscretions.

Ernie would approach the target and give them a memory stick with the videos and stills taken in compromising positions and suggest a sum of money to keep quiet, and a bigger sum of money if they wanted the originals to go away forever. It had been quite effective for the first two, and rather disastrous with the third. Between the man beating Ernie within an inch of his life, placing his Smith & Wesson nine millimeter in the would-be blackmailer’s mouth and suggesting he tell him where the duplicate memory stick was hidden, and then retrieving and destroying the evidence – the jig was up.

The fact that he was also a partner in Nerds R Us, silent yet influential, due to his mob connections, meant that Ernie was out of a job as well as nursing two black eyes, a broken nose, and two fractured knees. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, he was surprisingly closemouthed to the police who questioned him at length after he was released from the hospital.

Alex couldn’t tell Trish any of that. “He uh, I think he moved out of state.”

It wasn’t a lie. From what he had heard, Ernie hadn’t bothered to move out of his ratty efficiency apartment near Twenty-Eighth Street. He had packed what he could carry, hobbled to his car, and left town.

Probably the smartest move he could have made.

“Oh,” Trish peeked outside of the office, and then turned back, shrugging, “He was kind of, I don’t know, kind of greasy. Like a used car salesman or something.” Her intonation was unusual, not with the typical Midwestern twang.

Alex had stopped sweating as much. His pulse, though, it showed no signs of slowing down. He was in the presence of something rare, a nice pretty girl. It’s like finding a unicorn in space.

Trish, after another glance outside, walked closer and sat down on the corner of the desk. She was, Alex decided, absolutely perfect. A perfect pink tongue darted out between her lips and Alex’s left knee began to jump uncontrollably, the sweaty palms returned and he felt a flush in his cheeks.

“So, tell me about you. How long have you been with Nerds R Us?”

Alex was doing his best to stammer out a response when the doorway was filled with a platinum blonde woman in her early 50s. Perhaps older, it was hard to tell. The woman appeared to be on good terms with plastic surgery. Anything that could be tucked and lifted, had been.

“There you are, Patricia!” Blanche stood there, her lips thin and curving into a false smile, her eyes cold.

Trish flinched at the sound of the woman’s voice, and quickly stood. “Ms. Artinian! I’m sorry I left the desk, I was just making sure Alex has everything he needs.”

“Alex, is it?” Blanche advanced into the tiny room and Trish skittered around her, heading back to her desk as the phone began to ring.

“Yes, ma’am.” He felt a wave of dislike wash over him and tried his best to hide it.

“Well, good, I’m glad you decided to finally make it in here.” Blanche made a show of examining her watch, eyebrows raised and her face pinched in disapproval. “Standard terminated employee procedure. Wipe the hard drive, reformat it – or whatever it is that you do, and then return it to the front desk.” She glanced at her watch again, “How long will it take?”

“Uh, if there aren’t any problems, I should be done by noon.” He thought of apologizing, but then remembered how Trish had snapped to. He could tell that Blanche was one of those closet dictators who rules the office with a fake smile and venom. He had run into a few since starting with Nerds R Us, and they were difficult to deal with. Something in him bristled at the way Trish had jumped when she heard Blanche’s voice.

“Excellent.” She turned to go, looked around and then asked, “Where’s Ernie?”

Alex shrugged, “I don’t know, ma’am, sorry.”

“Hm. Well, let me know if you have any questions.” She walked away, towards the reception desk as Trish hung up the phone. “I’ll be out of the office for the rest of the day, forward my calls.”

“Yes, Ms. Artinian!” Trish smiled brightly. Alex watched her as Trish’s eyes tracked Blanche out of the main set of doors. The girl’s shoulders slumped in relief as soon as the elevator doors in the hallway beyond slid shut. She turned, rolled her eyes and then flashed a dazzling smile at him, before walking back over.

“Whew!” She sat back down on the corner of his desk. Alex’s pulse began to race again. “She is a beast, let me tell you. Once, I slipped off my heels for just a couple of minutes and was walking around in my stocking feet. She says it ‘isn’t professional’ and I swear she intentionally stood on my toes in the coffee room with one of those stiletto heels of hers. It hurt.”

Alex’s cheeks flushed, “Man, that’s just, that sucks.” He bristled at the thought of Trish’s tiny feet being crushed under the older woman’s pricey pumps. He imagined stepping forward and forcing Trish’s boss to back off, and the pretty girl giving him a kiss in return. The thought of it caused his entire body to react.

Trish brightened, “You are so sweet!” She leaned in and tapped his nose with one pink fingernail. “I know some girls go for the bad boys, but I like the sweet ones.” She paused, stared around the office, and turned back, smile that was both intimate and exciting, “So, what should we do?”

“Well, I, uh,” Alex felt the flush creeping back into his face and the sweat gathering, “I need to work on this laptop here.”

“Well, of course, you do. But later. Everyone, except me of course, is at a teambuilding event.” She pointed at the clock, “Yep, in about five minutes they are going to be locked inside of a room for four hours. It’s a mega-event at Escape Room – unless someone drops of a heart attack or gets a serious case of claustrophobia, none of them will be back until nearly the end of the day, if at all. No one important is going to call, and I can forward the phones to the service and then just write down all of the messages and distribute them on Monday like I normally would. I’m always the first one here anyway.” She grinned mischievously, brushed her hair back and tucked it behind her ear, “So what should we do?”

Attraction warred with a healthy dose of fear. He was the new guy, and he couldn’t afford to lose this job. But one of the prettiest girls who had ever bothered to talk to him wanted to spend the day with him, how could he say “no” to that?

“Give me twenty minutes. I’ll set the reformat to running and cut a couple of corners, but it will get the job done.”

Trish clapped her hands together and wiggled with excitement. “Perfect!” She slid off the desk, “I’ll go freshen up.”

Alex began the process on the laptop, noting first that an SD card had been left in the machine. He popped it out and sat it on top of the open laptop bag. He should ask his boss what Kurgen typically did with SD cards, were they to be reviewed before disposal? One of the other techs, Ian, had told Alex about finding porn on an SD card. He glanced out of the room, Trish still wasn’t back. Should he look at it? He began to reach for it, thought again of the story Ian had told and decided against it.

It would be just my luck and have something screamingly offensive and she would walk in at just the wrong moment and think it was mine. No thanks!

He stared at it, “Fuck it, I’m not getting in trouble either way.” He unzipped a deep pocket and let the small card slid into it. “SD card? What SD card?”

He watched the bar on the machine slowly crawl towards completion. He had already accessed the cloud and wiped the files off of it. The notes on the work order had stated that everything important had already been backed up.

Freshening up took all of the twenty minutes he had requested, plus some. She disappeared into the ladies restroom and emerged dressed in tight, hip-hugging blue jeans and a knit top that conformed to her curvy breasts. Her lips were sporting a pale pink with a clear gloss and her lashes were longer than humanly possible. She smelled divine, the scene of her perfume sliding off of her in waves through the air. She walked around the desk and peeked over his shoulder, resting one hand lightly on his arm.

“You ready?”

Alex’s leg jiggled under the desk. “Um, sure, where should we go?”

Her lips curved up, shining, pink and perfect. “Anywhere. Everywhere. Take me somewhere weird and cool.”

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon, after all, and Alex slipped his hands into hers and smiled at her. “Have you ever been to the hair museum in Independence?”

She blinked, then grinned, “Nope, but it definitely sounds weird and cool. Let’s go!”

The laptop sat, reformatted and ready for the next user, zipped up and neatly put away. A new employee was starting on Monday.