lookingup

Dustin LindenSmith

father | musician | writer


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prospective opening for new crime short (~1750 words)

This is one of several openings I've experimented with for my current fiction project. My intent is to write a short murder story that takes place in an office setting. The protagonist is an employee of this company who is ultimately driven to kill his boss.

I've tried various POVs with this piece, but the first person keeps feeling the most natural to me. I think this is partly due to my motivation for writing this story. Without writing a full-length novel, I want to explore fairly deeply the relationship between the protagonist and his boss. I also want the reader to feel empathy for the protagonist as he feels increasingly compelled to cause serious harm to this boss.

If this opening is effective, you'll want to keep reading to find out what he did that night and to learn more about this woman. Do you? Be honest, now.


In retrospect, I know that I should have acted differently that night. For starters, I shouldn't have stayed late at work to do that "assignment" she gave me. I should have just said to hell with her and just gone home at the end of the workday. At the very least, I should have gone home when I finally did finish her damn assignment so that she couldn't pull me into another argument. Dammit, if she just hadn't started in on me that one last time, I wouldn't be in here now.

God, that woman -- incredible. Incredible! Even now, after 18 months of the drudgery of this place, I can remember every detail of her face and all of our arguments word for word. Every day for the past 18 months, I've gone over in my mind every e-mail, every meeting, and every confrontation I ever had with her. And it's weird, because I've almost developed an awe for her technique. It's definitely something, how quickly she buggered my life into such total hell. It only took her nine weeks! Within nine weeks of her meeting me, she started the complete unravelling of everything that was good in my life.

Thinking back, it's not like she didn't get what she deserved in the end. And still, she barely suffered. Certainly she didn't suffer as much as she made us all suffer. But even so, she sure isn't the one sitting in a 12-by-6 cell for 18 hours a day. No, that would be me.

I also think it's weird how when she was first hired just over two months before that night, we hit it off right away. She became my direct boss, but we shared a serious jones for fast cars, of all things. It was a true passion for both of us. She had even fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to take a racecar driving course and to race semi-pro on the weekends. We spent the entirety of our first meetings together swapping specs about our favourite cars and telling bullshit stories about how fast we'd driven on city streets. At the end of her first day at work, she even let me take her black-on-black Impreza WRX-Sti for a spin. I remember winding those 300 horses up to 190 kph on a ten-block stretch with no lights. Man, what a sweet ride. I remember that I tried to respect her for a bit longer just because of that car. That feeling didn't last long, though.

I had been roped into sitting on her hiring committee so that let me in on her job interview. My first impression of her was that she was a serious tomboy. In fact, she could easily have passed for man at a distance, if not up close. She was short -- maybe five-one -- but she wasn't petite. Nor would I call her stocky, though: it was more in the way she stood, on the balls of her feet with her knees slightly bent and bouncing as though she were prepping for a fight that might break out any second. Through that stance of hers, she managed to convey a certain physical strength.

In looks, she totally lived up to her name of Janet Brown. She was uber-Plain Jane, to a fault. Her straight walnut hair was newly cut almost as though with a bowl: her bangs formed a straight line across her forehead and the hairline continued around her head in a perfect helmet. On the sides her hair was just long enough to cover the tops of her ears, and in the back it was cut to a length just above where a man's collar would sit. She wore a shapeless tan cotton sweater that betrayed no feminine features at all, and her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow to reveal heavily-veined, dark-haired forearms and no polish on her short-clipped nails. Her pleated men's chinos ended in a folded cuff above thick-soled brown walking shoes with a rounded toe. She had no jewelry on at all, not even earrings. Her only hint of colour came from a Timex digital watch with a bright green streak on the strap.

Her appearance would have been totally forgettable had it not been for those eyes. They were such a dark brown that the iris couldn't be distinguished from the pupil. Looking into those eyes was like looking into nothingness. Those eyes were lifeless black holes. No matter what her facial expression, the eyes were always empty. As I got to know her better, that gaze of hers felt like two cold steel rods pressing into me. They were at once penetrating and invasive; never animated, and never bright.

She gripped my hand firmly when I first introduced myself at that interview and she gave me what I think she thought was a winning smile. I found it cold and affected, and she only smiled when the discussion absolutely warranted it. She gave concise, intelligent answers to all of our questions, making it obvious that she had extensive technical experience. She also seemed to be a tough enough cookie to manage the unruly team of 20 programmers at our software company. Her job wouldn't be easy.

It only took the committee ten minutes to make its decision. While she was out of the room, someone made a joke that sure was nobody gonna wanna get involved with her. Someone else said, "You mean romantically?" and the room dissolved into guffaws. We invited her back in, offered her the position and she treated us all to another round of her tough handshakes. She started with us the following Monday.

Her official title was Vice President of Operational Design and Integration. (I later learned that she had come up with that job title herself.) Her number-one objective was clear: she was here to clean up our operation. Our revenues weren't bad (the bulk of our business being generated by a small but loyal and busy list of clients), but we weren't turning a real profit and there was a general feeling that things were run too fast and loose. We still had a few throwbacks to the 90s Internet boom around like the free pop fridge and the foosball table, and some of us still drove the cars we had won through aggressive bonuses at the time.

Janet's job was basically to give us all a big reality check and to implement a set of policies and procedures that would "improve operational efficiency and improve the bottom line." That's what our management consultant told us we needed, anyway. It only took a week of informal one-on-one meetings with all of our staff for Janet to form her hard opinion of the company. She made it clearly known that she found each of us to be lazy, wasteful, inefficient employees with no regard for the company's long-term stability or profitability. She warned us that big changes were ahead, and the company president gave her his "unwavering support as we negotiated the stormy seas ahead of us." His words.

Miraculously, nobody was fired. At least, not right away. But Janet didn't take long to set the tone for her reign. At the outset of week two, she distributed a new Employee Policy Guide that contained a rigid set of rules and restrictions for all employees. No stone was left unturned and no opportunity for mismanagement was allowed. We were now to be governed by a new internal communications protocol that prevented certain levels of staff to contact each other during business hours. Her new guide covered all possible aspects of human and business interaction during the workday. It even prescribed specific time frames for washroom and lunch breaks, and it mandated that all employees must pay a fine for lateness (which, benevolently, would go into our Company Social Fund).

It would be a huge understatement to say that her Policy Guide and subsequent reforms were met with opposition. There was literally an uproar at every staff meeting from indignant team leaders and project managers (myself included) who were being made to feel by her that their opinions and their work were completely worthless. Janet unilaterally forced us to change completely the way we did even the most mundane tasks of our day, and if we didn't follow her instructions, a note went immediately into our Personnel File and demerit points were added to our public record.

In the beginning, I'll admit that her reforms and new policies were fodder for jokes at home and to my friends. The stuff she came up with seemed so bloody ridiculous sometimes, it just made you laugh out loud to think that she was taking herself seriously. But it only took three or four weeks for all the novelty and amusement to wear off. By that point, most of us had been browbeaten into submission.

See, I've really never met anyone before or since that could rival her style of personal attack. Not even anyone in here, to be honest. She had a lot of weapons in her arsenal, but she used an artful combination of sarcasm and contempt to her greatest destructive credit. Those qualities inspired her approach to all of her subordinates. She made it her point to devastate them frequently. I used to think that cutting down her staff in front of their peers must have been a big motivation for her to get out of bed each morning. It affected practically all of her interactions with us every day.

Her casualties started piling up between Weeks 4 and 6. Three people left for other jobs, one just quit outright with no other job to go to, and two were written off indefinitely due to excessive stress in the workplace. At the end of Week 7, she summarily fired one of our most senior programmers "with cause, for gross insubordination." Her words. Through the grapevine, we heard that he was fired because he refused to obey his orders to suspend the pay of one of his junior programmers for an error they had made.

The atmosphere at work was downright poisonous. Employees who had worked successfully together for years were suddenly adversaries, pitted against each other by compartmentalized tasks, blazing productivity targets and stringent deadlines. All small talk, indeed any conversation at all that was not related to a project, simply disappeared. After everyone had experienced a few of Janet's frequent strifing runs through the offices, it was just easier to sit down meekly at our computers and to get our work done as fast as possible. Especially now that our very jobs were on the line.

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awesboss July 15th, 2005
It's definitely non-stop reading. The reader wants to 'kill' her or at least do something. Yes, I want to keep reading. There's a kind of Hitchcock feel to the descriptiveness and pacing. Like you know something's going to happen and you're just waiting to be a party to the details and you feel you'll be well rewarded as a reader for having dropped in.

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