Thrust, parry. Thrust, parry. Thrust, parry.
We retreat to our safe spaces and eye each other warily. My opponent is dangerous and obviously well trained in the nuances of one-on-one combat. They have the slight positional upper hand but so far they have not launched an all out attack. They have been happy to remain safely out of my reach taking sporadic pot shots in order to test my defense.
Thrust, parry. Thrust, parry. Smile?
It is more of a smirk actually. An evil smear of a smirk spread underneath his thick shit-coloured mustache. I don’t like the look of it at all. He is about to go in for the kill.
“So you’re saying you missed the deadline because you had too much work?” Michael drawled. He always fucking drawls. I wanted to reach across the table, grab his head, and slam his smug face in dull grey laminate until it ran red.
Instead I fixed my face in my best rendition of a meek, mild-mannered young go-getter who is just trying his best.
“I tried so hard.” I start, working to keep my emotions in check. “I even stayed back late a few nights, just to get it done. But in the end it was simply not enough. Or maybe too much work.” I shrug, feigning ignorance.
His smirk deepens.
“That’s the confusing part.” His dark brown eyes focus intently on me, unblinking and unyielding. “You are aware that I see all your time-sheets yes?”
I nod, suddenly uncertain where this is going.
“When I review your time-sheet for the last month, and in fact for the last three months, I see no overtime logged. Just mostly standard days.”
My uncertainty turns in to full blown incomprehension. Is this sad dimwitted excuse of a weasal manager going to argue about not paying me overtime?
“Why did you not log the overtime Jack?” He drawls again. I choke down my scream and let it echo inside me, quietly reverberating around my internal organs while I valiantly try to keep my outward composure.
“I must have forgotten.” I furrow my brow as if I am diligently attempting to recall my past actions. “I don’t think about timesheets too much.”
His eyes light up and that’s when I know I’m fucked.
“Aha yes and now we come to what I think is the crux of the problem young man. Your lack of interest in the rules.”
“What?” I snap before I can help myself. All of my government intelligence officer training for handling stress and being calm and in control of my emotions and this mother fucker is unsettling me. I shake my head to clear the red mist of anger and he continues.
“Time and time again you have failed to comply with the rules. But you walk a fine line. No major offenses and nothing against our corporate culture or departmental code of ethics. But you brazenly flout the system. You do not record accurate time-sheets, you do not log overtime, you wear headphones while you work even though our team charter states ‘We will be open and available to our team members at all times'”. Spittle flies from the corner of his mouth to emphasize his point.
He pauses giving me an opportunity to react but I have reinstated my poker face, behind which my teeth are firmly clamped shut lest my scream escapes and gives away my strong desire to strangle away my worries.
“I could go on but I won’t. Put bluntly you are not a team player Jack. You are more like a lone wolf, like you are just acting the part and not actually wanting to be here.”
I have to give him credit. For a ‘lifer’ public servant of over 20 years he is showing a level of perception I did not expect. That has me unsettled. I’m honestly not sure what happens if I get fired. I mean, this government department doesn’t even pay me directly. They pay a fake account administered by my real employer who then pays me in to an offshore walking account set up under their jurisdiction which then forward the money to a local domestic account under my alias. But it is not the money that is the problem. For reasons not clear to me my employer has posted me here in this role in this department with a very simple instruction:
“Keep your head down. Observe all managers. Report fortnightly.”
Yep, getting fired will create all sorts of problems for me. I decide to go in to damage control and see if I can escape this meeting with my cover intact. I bite down on my teeth and swallow the bile bubbling at the back of my throat like poisonous death adder venom. It is time to shelve my dignity and use my expensive government-supplied psychological training to take control of the situation.
“I’m sorry.” I begin, as a I adjust my posture to be a mixture of submissive form and mirroring of Michael’s body language. A cunning trick designed to elicit subconscious support from a target. “I’m going through a tough time-”
“I don’t want to hear your excuse.” He bites back, riding rough shot straight over the bald-face lie I was building toward. This guy is good. A tough opponent. Normally here in this shitbox department where dreams go to die the managers are easy targets for manipulation. Anyone with a passing interest in human behaviour would be able to figure that out, but with my advanced training it has become all too easy for me to be well regarded by the managers without actually doing anything useful. With those other managers I could literally get away with murder. With Michael, murder might well be the only option I have to get away from the situation.
“I’ve looked in to your situation here.” His emphasis scares me. What has he been up to? Just how much does he know?
“Your time-sheets, server logs of your internet activity, even CCTV security footage.”
What. The. Fuck.
“It all checks out. Nothing I could ping you on. That in itself is an anomaly. Most people here slip up once or twice. A little time-sheet fraud to gain a few minutes of flex time, or the odd ‘accidental’ viewing of something ‘Not Safe For Work.'” He pauses and stares me down with his unblinking brown eyes. “Whereas, everything from you came back 100% clean. Very odd.”
Phew. I’m safe. I think.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” I probe, testing the waters, still unsure where Michael is taking this conversation.
“Maybe.” He replies noncommittally. “I’m not sure. But I do know that I don’t trust you and I don’t want you in my team. As such I have made a formal request to the executive team which was accepted as of this morning’s meeting.”
I swallow. Here it comes.
“Starting tomorrow you will no longer be part of this project. In fact you will not be on any project for the foreseeable future.’ His smirks is back. This is what he has been building to. He planned this whole one-on-one meeting from the start and he’s got me right where he wanted me.
“Starting tomorrow you will be joining the Transition Team.”
In retrospect being fired would have been a better result.