I returned to my desk and stared at the documents that had piled a foot high in the metal ‘to do’ tray. Most weeks I quickly dispatched all I had to review and evaluate. But over the past few days I had trouble concentrating on work; my attention would continually drift away from the tasks in front of me, back to Nabokov’s tale. My young colleagues were gripped by suspense as they waited for Nabokov’s next chapter. I already knew the tale well, having witnessed its original unfolding. There was nothing in it to surprise me and the initial shock of all that happened had worn off years ago. I still, however, remained appalled by Bell’s behavior and wondered what shapes and images the memory of his actions fabricated in his mind. Had time enabled him to see the turpitude of his conduct? Had his conscience finally overcome his instinct for self-preservation or did he still see himself as the victim of persecution? I remembered how he ranted violently as he spewed obscenities at the company’s executives when they confronted him with physical evidence of his crimes. At one point, his screams could be heard in the outer offices as he accused them of plotting to destroy him because he had grown too popular among the clients and staff. As that scene replayed itself, I stared at those documents and knew that the basic moral elements had never entered his mind; he possessed an insatiable ego, which viewed everything in terms of how it affected him. The consequences of his actions, the effect they had upon others never occurred to him. He and he alone was the measure of anything and everything. As a result, nothing he did could be forbidden, taboo, or immoral. His desire superseded all moral boundaries; it ruled him as absolute sovereign and in his judgment granted him canonical authority and justification for whatever he did. What he wanted he had a right to have; what he said was the final word on a subject. Those who disagreed with him or even suggested that his opinion or behavior might be wrong were dismissed as ignorant. When anyone refused to submit to his view, he wasted no time smearing that person with the vilest rumors he could imagine.
I looked again at the pile awaiting my attention and realized I had to shake off the memories that kept invading my thoughts. I walked over to the coffee pot, which someone had just brewed, poured myself a large mug, and returned to my desk eager to drink the black liquid and determined to devour that pile before the day ended. I set to work and didn’t raise my eyes until one document remained in the tray. I picked it up, stood to stretch and saw that all my colleagues had departed. To my astonishment it was already eight o’clock. I let the papers slip back into the tray and walked out of the office. I was especially satisfied with the work I had completed, since it was nothing more than the usual useless data analysis that management required us to do.
When I entered the corridor, I encountered two night crew cleaners, leaning on their brooms, talking and laughing. As I passed, I heard one of them mimicking their supervisor. Apparently, he demanded too much of his workers when he expected them to diligently clean the areas assigned to them. Whenever he chided them about their slackness, they promised to be more thorough and while he watched them, worked furiously. Once he left they lapsed into the languid routines they solemnly observed.
Their laughter followed me to the exit and ceased when the door clicked shut behind me. In the warm night air crickets chirped rhythmically; I knew that sound foretold that fall would soon silence them. Once in my car, I turned my thoughts to my three young lunch colleagues. I had enjoyed watching them work tirelessly at their jobs and remembered that same cheerful energy I once had. Back then, the senior colleagues seemed much older than I thought I appeared to be. I tried to imagine how I appeared to my lunch companions, but I could form only vague impressions of what they might see. By the time I arrived home, night had expelled the day and darkness covered both the outside and inside of my home. I entered the house, and turned on the lights in the front parlor, the kitchen and the den. Too late to prepare and cook dinner, I made toast and tea and read Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I read for two hours, and felt revived after the tedium I had suffered all afternoon.
The next morning, I drove to work early and expected the parking lot to be empty, but one car was already there. It was a black BMW and Jonathan Bell sat behind the steering wheel. I often went to the office earlier than my colleagues and I had never seen Bell at our building that early. In fact, Bell usually appeared twenty minutes late and strolled casually through the main entrance. Ever since he failed to get a promotion he believed he had deserved, he relentlessly found ways to show his contempt for the company’s management. There was no supervisor he did not passionately hate and he enjoyed denouncing them all as stupid and incompetent. They feared him and did anything to appease him whenever they had dealings with him.
His eyes seemed fixed on an invisible object somewhere in front of his car and I was able to pass by him unnoticed. It was just as well; I preferred to avoid talking to anybody in the early mornings, and knew that if he initiated a conversation I would be detained for a very long time. I made it to my desk without seeing another person, and worked on the remaining document from the night before. After, I drew up plans for the projects I would be working on over the next two weeks. In my youth, I had enjoyed preparing ahead any assignment I had. I would formulate the methods I would use and even imagine each step the project would take. Nabokov would needle me about my “schemes,” as she called them. “Still writing those plans?” She would laugh and tell me to “Give up that Frivolity!” I sometimes agreed with her and wanted to break from the habit, but its grip on me was too strong and like the alcoholic whose dependence on drink overpowers every intervention, I continued to plan beyond appeals to reason.
At ten o’clock, Nabokov appeared at my office door and signaled for me to come immediately to her side. “What do you need?” I asked when I reached her.
“You must come to the conference room and see this.” Her urgent tone stirred my curiosity and I went with her quickly down the corridor to the room she’d mentioned. Once inside, she led the way to the windows, which looked out on the front drive of the building. Outside there were two police officers conveying Jonathan Bell, who was shackled in handcuffs, toward a waiting police car. Startled by the sight, I gasped, “What has happened?”
“I don’t know. Nancy (our red-headed colleague) saw the cops leading him through the halls and ran to tell me about it. I can only guess what legal entanglement he’s gotten himself into. It’s surprising, but hardly shocking.” I continue to watch the police cars. The officers got in and drove out of the parking lot. I followed their progress until the road curved with the landscape and they disappeared into the tree lined street leading Bell to his incarceration.
Everyone was stunned by Bell’s arrest and keen to hear what had precipitated it. Nothing like it had ever happened at the company before. Sure, there had been incidents the management had dealt with. A young male employee, for example, had been mysteriously “let go” one day, never to be seen or heard from again. It was said that he had an uncontainable penchant for the underage girls who interned regularly at our offices, and when the parents of one such girl threatened to call the police because he wouldn’t leave her alone, the management thought it best to take quick action. Other employees had been suspected of similar inclinations and some even married young women who, as teenagers, had been their interns. Stories circulated about these men and often they would be seen benevolently guiding their young charges, a hand resting on the young girl’s shoulder or touching her wrist. Once, a young man who worked with Joe Schmitt in Algorithms and Measurements was overhead ardently imploring an intern not to leave him for another department. It was unclear whether she had altered her career goals or found fault with the way he mentored her. Either way, she severed the association and quit her internship abruptly one Friday in the spring of that year. As far as the management was concerned, if they heard nothing, they saw nothing; it was a policy that reflected the expedience of their ethics.
As usual, I went to eat lunch with our little story “club.” Of course, we talked about the morning’s event and spent almost the entire lunch conjecturing about what he had done to bring the law down upon him. Nabokov alluded to an act of vandalism Bell committed during his connection with Don Driscoll, suggesting that maybe he had committed some similar crime. But when Nancy asked what Bell had done back then, Nabokov waved her off and said something vague about property damage. None of us knew about Bell’s life outside of work, so we had no information to direct our guesswork. Realizing we were getting nowhere, Nabokov suggested we bring Finn into our lunch group; if anyone knew about Bell, it would surely be Finn. We congratulated her for this flawless idea, but I could tell the three young colleagues were also disappointed that our lunch had slipped away without another segment of the Bell and Driscoll tale. Nabokov assured them that she would finish that story and added that now we had two compelling narratives unfolding simultaneously. They laughed and Erica, the young, quiet woman with no opinions, said she never thought going to work could be so interesting. “Interesting, but so strange too,” Nancy replied. I was glad to finally hear Erica speak; I had begun to think she might be mute.
Nabokov asked me to call Finn that night and invite him to our lunch. She knew he would not hesitate now that Bell was no longer in the building. When I left the building Bell’s car was atop a flatbed tow-truck, which was driven by a heavily tattooed woman wearing a railroad engineer’s cap. She winked at me when our eyes met and smiled a little too invitingly. I fumbled for my keys as quickly as I could, and ducked into my car. Later that evening, I called Finn and left him a voicemail to ring me back, which he did shortly after midnight. “Hey Jim! I just got your message. Obviously, it’s about Bell.”
“Yes. We’re all in the dark about why he was arrested. And Nabokov asked me to call you for two reasons. Now that he’s gone, how about joining us for lunch; and maybe you can shed light on what he did.”
“I would love to eat with you guys. And I can shed some light. I won’t tell you everything right now, since it’s too late. What I will say is what I heard from a friend of mine who works in the precinct where Bell was taken. Two nights ago, Bell killed his elderly mother. Apparently, he strangled her in her pajamas sometime in the middle of the night.” I was speechless for several moments, and then told him I’d see him tomorrow at lunch. That night I tossed and turned and went without sleep. When the sun peered through my bedroom blinds at dawn, I got up, showered and fixed myself coffee. I knew I would accomplish nothing at the office that day, so I lingered an extra hour at home trying to chase from my mind the images Finn had put there the night before.