© Paul Kardos
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Note: * - denotes italics
Leonard Duff was okay with being a loner. Whether it was because he had been born an only child and never knew any different, or had been conditioned by all those solitary, sometimes terrifying years in school, Leonard had long ago resigned himself to life as an introvert.
Which is why when he returned from his lunch break, Leonard was surprised to find a mysterious, beautifully gift-wrapped box waiting for him on his desk. It was small, no bigger than a jewelry box one would use for a ring or perhaps a brooch. The paper was heavily bonded and had a silvery sheen to it. Ribbons were wrapped around the box in perfect symmetry, culminating into an elegant and remarkably complex bow. Whoever had left the present had clearly gone through some trouble to not only deliver a beautiful presentation, but insure anonymity as well. He was puzzled to find no card had been left with the box, only a small tag which bore his name affixed to the top.
He swept a gaze around the office. Surely the giver would be watching, wanting to see Leonard as he found the box. To gauge his reaction as he opened it and saw whatever awaited inside.
It would not be the first time that Leonard had been the target of a cruel hoax. Embarrassing and vicious taunts made in front of dozens of his classmates. Malicious and painful punches guised as playful banter in front of the disinterested eyes of teachers. Ridicule by girls who had taken offense merely by catching him admiring their beauty. He had seen and heard it all, and then some.
Why he had been a constant target was something Leonard had never quite grasped. Not that it would have mattered. To his relief, eventually the frequency of the abuse abated. The tormentors had either grown up and taken an interest in bigger, better things, or they had simply fallen out of his life after graduation. Even so, twenty-something men, testosterone raging through their veins, occasionally find reason to randomly take their aggressions out on the unwary. It didn't happen often, but it did happen. Especially when Leonard unwittingly ventured into their territory. All the more reason to keep to himself. Staying off the radar had its benefits, made life more predictable.
Until today, of course. Until the box.
There were distant sounds of conversations, the tapping of keys, the occasional cough or sneeze. Background noises which you got used to if you worked in an office environment long enough. Everyone looked as busy and as uninterested in the comings and goings of Leonard Duff as always. Seemed that whoever left the box had no intention of making themselves known. At least not yet.
He sat down in his chair and picked up the box. There was a noticeable shift in weight as whatever was inside moved around. The package itself was rather light, but the object it held felt as though there was a certain mass to it. He shook the box and heard dull thuds as it rattled around. A coin? No, heavier. Like a battery, maybe.
Leonard quickly stood up to look over the walls of his cubicle again. If someone was having a go at him, he wanted to at least know who it was.
He sat back down. Open it? Well, of course open it, weirdo. That's how those things worked. Someone goes through the trouble of buying and wrapping a present for you, pretty reasonable of them to expect you to open it at some point. Things were different now. Harassment in the workplace was a cardinal sin. If the thing in the box was something bad, if the boss found out he'd certainly make inquiries. The kind of inquiries that cost people their jobs? Maybe. All depended on what was inside.
It occurred to Leonard that he could lose his job right along with them, just for being part of it. That didn't seem fair, but wasn't that how corporate lawyers thought? If you have a problem, just get rid of everyone involved. No more problem. This wasn't his favorite place to work, but it was still a paycheck. One he needed as much as anybody else. And nothing sounded worse during an interview than having to tell them you got fired from your last job.
Well, almost nothing.
*You're being ridiculous. Why can't you be a normal person and just open the damn thing instead of over-analyzing everything like some psycho.*
"I'm not a psycho," Leonard said under his breath. It was a good point, though. What *would* a normal person do?
He decided to open the box.
It was a shame, but the fancy bow disintegrated as he pulled at ends of the ribbon. He put the tangled string aside and tore open the wrapping paper. The box underneath was made of white cardboard and had a lid secured down with tape. He cut through the tape and lifted the lid, admitting to himself that he was actually looking forward to seeing what was inside.
A bed of fluffy white cotton lined the bottom of the box, on top of which lay a single unspent 9mm cartridge.
Later at home, upstairs.
Leonard obsessed over the meaning of the bullet and who in the world would give him such a thing. Earlier, after opening the box and finding his "gift", Leonard had dropped it as though it were hot. The bullet click-clacked across his desk, rolling off the edge and down to the floor. He had scrambled to pick it up before anyone could happen by and start asking questions. Questions he didn't have the answers to.
Was it a threat?
*I'm going to kill you.*
When he arrived home after work, Leonard had refused the dinner his mother cooked for them. As soon as she saw him, her expression told Leonard that she knew something was wrong. He didn't know what to make of this "gift" himself yet, never mind figure out how to explain it to her, so he begged off dinner and told her he wasn't feeling well. A stomach virus, maybe. Anything to be alone and think.
"Can I get you a ginger ale?" she had asked him. It was clear she was still concerned, but apparently she bought the illness ruse because she also seemed a little relieved, as well. "Maybe it'll help settle your stomach."
"No, Mom. I think I just need to sleep it off," he had said and dashed up the stairs to his bedroom before she could press further.
Now, he turned on the television so she would hear some noise. People tended to worry more when things were quiet. Some show about four jokers who played pranks on strangers came on the screen. Leonard didn't watch it, he needed to think.
"Tell someone," he said after a while. "Don't wait for things to get worse. Tell someone right now."
*Well, there goes that job.*
*You're being dramatic. Need to calm down.*
The truth was, getting canned wasn't a far stretch and Leonard knew it. They had rules about things like that. He'd signed some papers to that effect, signifying that he understood and would obey them. If for some reason they couldn't figure out who had left the box, then what? He'd be left holding the bag or, more accurately, the bullet. It would be like walking into a police station holding a bloody knife.
*'Say, what's with the bloody knife there, big guy?'*
*'This? Oh, I dunno. Some guy gave it to me on the way in, not sure who. Didn't say why, either.'*
That would go over well.
So what, then? Sit on it?
*Yes, sit on it. Until you figure out more.*
There had to be more to it. More than just the bullet. Otherwise what would be the point? Here's a bullet, the end. Bad story.
Another voice in the back of his brain told him sitting on it was an equally bad idea, but he silenced it. There were only two choices - tell someone or sit on it. Couldn't both be the wrong choice.
"I'll sit on it. Something happens, you figure out what to do then. Nothing happens, then it's all over anyway."
A sudden burst of nausea made Leonard run to the bathroom and vomit. Apparently he wasn't feeling very well after all. After a few dry heaves, the nausea seemed to pass. He brushed his teeth, changed his shirt, and decided to lay down.
*Sleep it off,* he thought and closed his eyes.
But sleep did not come.
He felt better. Tired, but better. He didn't suppose long, sleepless nights typically had that kind of calming effect, but he wasn't complaining. At some point in the wee hours he had decided that the box had been a gag, and whatever he was supposed to make out of it was beyond his grasp. Best to just roll with punches. He wouldn't talk about it, wouldn't ask anyone about it, wouldn't even act as if the box had ever existed. If that put an end to it all, great. It not, well he'd take things from there.
His mother was already up, of course, and making breakfast. She eyed him suspiciously when he came downstairs, so he made a production out of eating everything on his plate, even asking for seconds. In part because he really didn't want to worry his mother, but also because he'd thrown up last night and was famished. He talked animatedly, made jokes about her eggs, gave her kisses on the cheek. Her tension seemed to ease, and Leonard was glad to leave for work knowing his mother wouldn't spend the day talking to her sister about how worried she was again. Those days were over. She deserved better than that.
He wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived at work, but everything seemed normal. It was an odd feeling.
*You could still tell someone. It's not too late.*
He dismissed the thought and put his packed lunch in the community refrigerator in the break room. He gave a morning greeting to a few people as he hung his jacket on a hook, and then went to his cubicle to get to work.
On his desk was another box.
This one wasn't gift-wrapped, but rather was a simple brown shipping box. It was several times larger than the first one, as well. There was a label with his name on it, but no return address. That there was a second box was unsettling enough, made all the more so as it was first thing in the morning. The daily mail hadn't come yet.
"Hey Stan," Leonard called across to the man sitting in the cubicle next to his. "Did you see who dropped this off?"
Stan looked up from his monitor, looked at the box, and then shrugged. "Didn't see anybody, but I just got here myself. Might have been there already, Leo."
*My name's Leonard, asshole,* he thought but didn't say.
"Okay. Well, thanks anyway."
*Maybe it came yesterday.* It was possible. The mailman didn't drop off packages at each workstation. They left them at the front desk and reception delivered everything from there. Maybe it had come late yesterday afternoon and no one had gotten around to it until now.
*Well here we are again,* a nagging voice in his head said. He supposed it was the rational part of his brain having its 'told-you-so' moment.
"Just open the fucking box," he grumbled.
This time he didn't go through all the shaking and guessing nonsense, instead unceremoniously took a pair of scissors and sliced open the end of the box. The contents slid out and fell on his desk with a muted jingle.
They were still packed in bubble-wrap, but it was pretty easy to tell what they were. He looked up again but no one, not even Stan, seemed to be watching. He quickly put the handcuffs - *silver bracelets,* - into his pocket and then looked inside the box for a note, a packing slip, anything. Nothing.
First a bullet, now handcuffs. What in the fuck?
Leonard sat down in his chair and stared at the blank monitor screen. What did it all mean? More importantly, what was he supposed to do now?
Leonard felt hot and began to sweat a little. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched.
Think, think, think.
*Go to the boss. Tell him about yesterday. Show him the package from today. End this already.*
What would they think when he walked in, only this time with a bullet and handcuffs? How could that possibly be better than yesterday? What would anyone think?
"Hey Leo, you okay?" he heard Stan say.
He mumbled something about being ill and rushed off to the restroom. His heart was racing. He had to calm down. Wash his face with cold water.
Leonard saw as drops of water ran down his nose and into the sink. He was on edge, but also beginning to get angry. What had he done to deserve this? He took a few deep breaths to settle his heartbeat. How ironic. Was that the right word for something like this? When someone does crazy things to a normal guy and when he finally flips out and they say 'See, he's crazy!'. Or like the Salem Witch Trials in the olden days, when they tied people up and then threw them in water. Witches floated, they said, and the innocent sank. Meaning the accused died either way. Leonard felt like he could relate.
He looked at himself in the mirror. "Here's what you're gonna do, old boy," he said to his reflection. "You're gonna get your shit together, walk back to your desk, and do your job. Because if you don't, you're gonna get fired."
As convincing as the face in the reflection appeared, Leonard still wasn't sure.
"Just...fucking...do it," his reflection growled.
By the time he arrived back at his desk, Leonard had gotten himself somewhat calmed down. Maybe he was sick. Being sick made you vulnerable. Prone to all kinds of weird shit. Nobody was sending threats. Nobody wanted to hurt him. It was all just a sick joke and he was overreacting.
He got back to his cubicle and let out an audible groan. This time there was an even bigger box sitting on his desk.
The boss didn't seem pleased. There was another man standing behind Leonard in the room now, too. The boss had called him over a short while after Leonard had come in. That guy didn't seem all that pleased, either.
When he had opened the new box, Leonard had pulled out from within it a seventeen inch bowie knife. Heavy and long, with a serrated edge. It was a nasty looking weapon, obviously built with a nasty purpose in mind. As before, there had been no note, no explanation. Just the knife.
*You gonna tell someone now?,* Rational Thought had inquired. Yes. It was most definitely time to say something.
Now, the knife lay next to the bullet and handcuffs on his boss's desk. When he saw them, the boss seemed confused at first. Confusion morphed into concern, and now seemed somewhat...afraid?
"Uh, Leonard," the boss had said. "What...uh, what is all this?"
The conversation had gone downhill from there, and soon after comes the man who stood behind him now.
"I told you," Leonard said, sounding as though he was pleading for help. Which in a way he guessed he was. "I didn't bring these. Somebody keeps leaving them on my desk. I don't know who. When I walk away, I come back and there's another one."
"Okay, Leonard, okay," the boss said calmly. "I believe you, okay? The first question I have, though, is who? Who left all these things on your desk?"
"I don't know!"
The boss frowned.
*See, it's just like you thought. He doesn't believe you. Nobody ever believes you. Told you to sit on it.*
"Okay, just calm down buddy. We'll figure it out, okay? You say someone did it, I believe you. I believe you, Randy believes you." The boss looked over Leonard's shoulder at the man standing behind him. "Ain't that right, Randy?"
"See? We believe you, Leonard. So relax."
Leonard tried to relax. Didn't work.
After a moment, the boss said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Did they give you anything else? Anything else like these?"
"No, just what's here."
The boss exhaled a little. "Okay, good. That's good."
He pushed the items aside and away from Leonard, and then sat on the corner of the desk. "We're gonna figure this whole thing out Leonard, don't you worry. We got cameras, door entry logs, all kinds of security stuff." The boss chuckled and said, "Don't know what half the shit does myself, but whatever works, right?"
"The thing is, Leonard, I got a little bit of a problem in the meantime. Something we need to talk about."
Leonard's ears perked up. That didn't sound good.
"When something...odd...like this happens, there are certain protocols that have to be followed." The boss sounded almost apologetic. "Procedures somebody wrote, just to make sure everyone is okay and everything goes smoothly. I mean, imagine if word got out that somebody dropped all of this stuff on the boss's desk and nothing happened? People would panic, place would be a fucking nut house. You understand what I'm saying?"
"Now, I give you my word, Leonard. Randy and I are gonna go through the tapes. We're gonna watch the videos, we're gonna analyze the entry logs, we're gonna do whatever it takes to get the bottom of all this. That, I promise you. But while we do it, I gotta make sure I'm looking out for the best interest of the company. I got my own rules to follow, you know?"
Here it comes.
"Until we can do that, I don't think it's a good idea that you're here. It wouldn't be safe."
"I'm fired?" Leonard said. "You're firing me? After all these years?"
The boss cocked an eyebrow and shot a quick look at Randy. "I didn't say fired," he said. "You hear me say the word fired, Randy?"
Randy shook his head.
"Think of it more like taking some personal time off. Just until we get to the bottom of things."
Leonard thought there might be more to it than that, but what could he do about it?
"It's for your own safety, really," the boss continued. "I mean, whoever is leaving this stuff on your desk is obviously trying to send a message. A pretty strong one at that. I'm not so sure it's a good idea for you to hang around until we figure things out, do you? As soon as we do, though, I'll call you right back in. You have my word on that, Leonard. Okay?"
Leonard didn't know what to say so he didn't say anything.
The boss nodded and smiled. "Good. That's good, Leonard. Randy? Would you escort Leonard here to his desk? Help him grab his things and make sure he makes it to his car safely. See if anyone acts funny. In the meantime, I'll start making some calls. Get this whole thing straightened out."
He felt Randy put a hand on his shoulder. Time to go. Leonard got up and walked out of the boss's office, faithful Randy a step behind.
The eyes that watched Leonard as he was escorted to his desk, gathered his personal belongings, and went out the front door made it feel like the longest, most embarrassing journey of his lifetime. Outside in the parking lot, he sat alone in his car for a moment.
"I'm so fired," he said.
*Told you to sit on it.*
"Oh shut up," he said and started the car to drive home.
He didn't know what else to do.
Leonard's mother had a surprise for him when he got home. He used the holidays to explain why he was so early.
"They let us go home," he said.
"Well, see?" his mother said. "That's a good boss. Puts family first."
Leonard grunted in agreement. He wasn't ready to break the bad news yet, of that he was sure. "I guess you're right."
"Of course I am," his mother said. She brightened and handed him a brown shopping bag. "Anyway, look at this!"
For a moment, Leonard was afraid to reach in.
Relax, dude. It can't be her.
He withdrew a small package from the bag, ripped off the thin packing paper, and held up a fuzzy red and white hat.
His mother was beaming. "Come on, Leonard. Try it on."
He knew she wouldn't relent until he did, so Leonard obliged and put the hat on his head. A ridiculous white puffball hung down his forehead and over his face.
"Well, what do you think?" he asked.
She put her hand on his cheek and smiled. "I think you are my darling boy."
"Thank you," he said. "For the hat, too."
For a moment, everything in the world was okay again. Just him and Mom hanging out together and having a moment. It was nice.
It also didn't last very long. Everything that had happened earlier came rushing back. He was out of a job. He knew it. They said they'd investigate. They would run the tapes, check the logs, and all that shit. Figure out who left everything on his desk. Normally he'd be ecstatic - he wanted to know who was behind it all just as much as they did. But Leonard also knew he was a marked man. Whoever was doing this to him would know he squealed. What if they never caught the guy? He'd be on the loose and do God-knew-what then. And what about his job? He was part of it, even though he was just a victim. Being a victim didn't mean he'd get off the hook. Everybody played it safe nowadays. The innocent sank. They'd hang him from a hook, not let him off one. Just like the rest of the innocents. That happened to people like him all the time.
He really needed some time to figure out what to do now.
"I'm not used to being home so early," Leonard said to his mother. "I think I'll take a nap before supper. That is, if you don't mind?"
His mother smiled at him. "Of course not. You've been working a lot lately. It takes time to get used to it."
He gave her a quick peck on the cheek and headed toward the stairs. As he began walking up, Leonard heard his mother call out from the kitchen.
"Oh, by the way," she said. "The post office dropped off a package for you. It's a big one, but I managed to get it upstairs. It's on your bed. I hope it's my Christmas gift!"
Leonard's heart fluttered. He dashed up the stairs without answering, climbing the steps two at a time.
It was over.
He didn't know what he'd done to deserve it, but here it was. Things gone too far.
First the bullet. A shock. Any sane person would have taken it straight to the boss right away. Maybe even the police. Somewhere, before things got out of hand. This wasn't some stupid joke, this was a fucking bullet we were talking about. He knew now that he could have stopped it right then. It hadn't been too late.
*And yet you did nothing.*
"I was afraid," he said aloud, sitting on his bed.
That was it. He was afraid. Why? Of what?
*Because you are a chicken-shit, that's why. A chicken-shit that didn't do anything to stop it.*
No, he hadn't. First the bullet, then the handcuffs, then the knife. And now this. These packages, they were messages. Ones that he had failed to listen to. And now he was paying the price. As easy as it would be to dismiss such thoughts as paranoia, figments of an over-active imagination, there were some things that couldn't be so easily dispelled. Tangible sorts of things.
"Like this baby," he said.
The package his mother had brought upstairs had been a big one, indeed. The biggest of the lot. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was impressed that such a small woman had been able to manage it up the stairs by herself. Like the others, it was wrapped in brown with a shipping label in his name. No return address. He opened the package and was not surprised to see the contents.
This time, there was also a note.
He read it twice to make sure he believed what his eyes were reading.
*Getting the message now, Leonard?*
"Yes. Yes, I think I am."
His hands shook at the sight of it, so he put the package away. He didn't want to look at it. The important part had been the note, anyway. It made clear that he had been wrong, that it still wasn't too late. Things had not gone too far yet, after all. It also came with a promise that he could still fix everything. Fix everything in a way that he wouldn't have to worry about his job, wouldn't have to watch his back all the time. More important than all of that, he wouldn't have to get any more packages. The answer was simple. He should have known it all along.
Didn't matter now. What mattered is he needed to make things right. And then everything would be okay. He was sure of it.
*Well, what are you waiting for?*
He heard his mother call out for him. Dinner. He decided he was hungry. What was the rush, anyway?
Leonard stared at the note again for a moment, his eyes unblinking.
Getting the message now, Leonard?
"Loud and clear," he said, and then went downstairs to eat.
The office building’s parking lot was full first thing in the morning. Made sense. Everyone was here. No one calls out on the last day before a long break. Poor etiquette. Oddly, no one was at the front reception desk. Up at a company party somewhere? It didn't matter. Leonard knew the way.
Green and red streamers hung from the walls. A decorated tree in the corner served as his lone companion as he walked to the elevator. During the ride up to the fourth floor, Gene Autry played over the speakers. Leonard smiled and hummed along. He was in a remarkably good mood. Music could do that for a guy.
*All gonna work out. Gonna be okay.*
The doors slid open and Leonard stepped out. His old office was just down that hall. The boss would be surprised to see him, but Leonard would explain everything. He'd just have to hear him out.
He pushed through the doors and saw two people he faintly recognized. They were holding files in their hands, talking and laughing about something. Sharing a joke? Or maybe trading humorous stories about when family from out of town stays over for the holidays.
Whatever conversation they were having ended abruptly when they saw the Leonard standing in the doorway wearing nothing but a red and white Santa hat on his head. He felt a little satisfaction in seeing their eyes widen in surprise and fear.
"HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS!" Leonard screamed at the top of his lungs. "HO HO HO, MOTHERFUCKERS!"
Tim Brody walked over to his partner, Brian Smith, and leaned up against a squad car.
"How is she?" Brian asked.
"How do you think she is? *'Not my son, not my sweet boy',* that sort of thing. She's a mess and in denial. Can't say I blame her."
"I just heard the last one didn't make it," said Smith.
"Merry fucking Christmas," said Brody. "All of those people..."
Smith shook his head. "I heard the guy just got hired on as a temp."
"Crazy, right? Hired Monday, fired Tuesday, and now...this."
"You see inside the place? Talk about overkill. Forensics said the whole place is toast. Even the security cameras were shot to hell."
"They'll tear the whole building down anyway," said Brody. "After what happened, nobody gonna work in there ever again."
"Jesus. Think he was crazy?"
"Had to be."
"They say people go crazy during the holidays sometimes. Makes you wonder what could've driven a man to do that."
"I don't know," Brody said. "His mother said he seemed fine when he left the house. He'd been sick, a little tired, but had a bounce in his step this morning. Said things were looking up for a change. Happy, feeling good. Doesn't make sense."
"Makes it even scarier if you think about it. Like he just snapped."
"Nobody left to say if he did. Mom's having a nervous breakdown, the guy sure as hell ain't talking, and the rest of them..."
Smith nodded. "Guess it's one of those things we'll never know."
Brody checked his watch. "Well, nothing left but the paperwork. We can handle that tomorrow. Get home to the family for a while, Brian."
"Yeah, thanks chief. You ought to do the same."
"Maybe I will."
Brody watched Smith walk off and then pulled out a cigarette. The rest of the pack was empty now, in his hand the last of a dying breed. Instead of sparking up, he tossed the unlit cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his boot. A little gift to himself on Christmas. Probably make the wife happy, too.
That settled, Brody got into his car, turned up the heat, and drove down the snowy streets toward home.