What would you do if you overheard three of your coworkers planning a murder?
Frank Joseph has a quiet life, a daughter he loves, and a “typical boring desk job” in the purchasing department of Thomas-Smithfield Electronics.
One day he overhears three of his coworkers plotting the “elimination” of another coworker.
Frank is both shaken, and uncertain of exactly what he has overheard. But he is also incapable of standing by and doing nothing, while an innocent person’s life is in imminent danger.
Frank attempts to intervene. But he soon discovers that he has the situation all wrong, and now he is the next target of a complicated and deadly conspiracy.
“There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”
My name is Frank Joseph. What follows is the story of what happened when I eavesdropped on a conversation at work one day.
I was a purchasing agent at a company called Thomas-Smithfield Electronics.
Yes, a humble purchasing agent. I spent most of my day in a cubicle, hunched over a computer, often with a phone in my ear. I attended meetings. I did my best to finesse the intricacies of corporate politics.
A typical boring desk job, you might say.
Well, that typical boring job almost got me killed. Or to be more precise, what I overheard one day at work almost got me killed.
Before I tell you what happened, let’s talk a little bit about eavesdroppers and eavesdropping, shall we? We all claim to look down on those who eavesdrop.
And yet, we all do it. Be honest—if not with me, at least with yourself.
This is especially true in office settings. The cubicle farm that has become the fixture of modern corporate life encourages eavesdropping.
Sometimes you simply can’t help but listen in on a discussion that doesn't concern you. (This is largely because, corporate politics being what they are, any given discussion very well might concern you—or it might even be someone talking explicitly about you.)
Of course, many of the conversations we overhear in passing, both intentionally and unintentionally, are indeed inconsequential: People talk about their weekend plans, their preferences in food and entertainment, a fight with a spouse or a significant other. People talk to pass the time, especially at work.
Most of this stuff simply floats in one ear and out the other, forming the white noise of the modern workplace.
But every once in a great while, you overhear something that really does change your life. Sometimes people reveal the darkest of intentions when they think no one is listening.
And that’s what happened to me.
Donnie Brady and I were both standing before the mirror in the men’s room on the third floor of the Thomas-Smithfield Electronics headquarters building. I was doing my best to ignore his presence, but I knew that he wasn't going to let me off that easy.
“So,” he began, “All that sucking up you’ve been doing has finally paid off.”
Donnie was about my age, give or take a year or two. We were both in our early thirties. The main difference between us was our relative sizes. I was five-ten and weighed maybe a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet. Donnie was six feet, three inches tall. His frequent gym workouts were apparent even beneath the white fabric of his button-down oxford shirt. He usually left the top button of his shirt unbuttoned and worse his tie loose. His neck was that thick.
“I’ll take that as a congratulations on my promotion,” I replied. Truth be told, Donnie Brady made me more than a little uneasy—even before everything happened. He had always given off the aura of a hoodlum in business attire. But I wasn't going to back down; I was determined not to let him rattle my cage.
Donnie noisily expelled a puff of air out through his lips, a universal expression of sarcasm.
“More like you’re just a big suck-up,” he said. He stopped checking his hair (although he was often disheveled, he was simultaneously vain about his appearance), and took a step closer to me.
Donnie now towered over me, and I couldn't ignore the disparities in our heights, sizes, and physical strengths. I had thought that concerns about bullies were twenty years behind me, in the distant memories of junior high. Well, you just never know what aspects of childhood are going to come back to bite you in early middle age, do you?
I was still determined to hold my ground. “If you’ve got a problem with it, Donnie, talk to Sid Harper. Or talk to HR if you want to. Hell, I don’t care. You’d think I’d been promoted to president of the company. It’s a grade promotion. That’s all.”
Donnie was miffed because I had recently been promoted to senior buyer. This was, as I’d reminded him, a very low-key grade promotion. But it came with a modest bump in pay, and eventually it might mean a marginal level of authority. The promotion had been decided immediately prior to the company’s Christmas/year-end break; and it had gone into effect a week ago, the first week of the new year.
I won't lie: I was more than a little happy to get the promotion. It was a small bright spot in what had otherwise been a depressing phase of my life. I had been downsized (or “right-sized”, or whatever they call it) out of my last job two years ago, about the time that my marriage had imploded. I was now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my ex-wife and daughter were living an hour away, in Dayton.
Thomas-Smithfield was a snake pit of a company in many ways. There had been a series of upper-management shakeups; and the average employee didn't seem to be particularly happy. Well, I guess they call it “work” for a reason, right? Since joining the company barely a year ago, I had done my best to buckle down and work hard. Sid Harper, the manager over our purchasing group, had recognized and acknowledged my efforts. The grade promotion had been his idea.
“You haven't been here as long as either Bethany or me,” Donnie said. “And you’re the one that gets the grade promotion. Explain to me how that happens.”
I was going to tell Donnie that it might have something to do with all the time he spent checking ESPN and NFL.com on the Internet. Or maybe it was all the time that he and Bethany spent sneaking around, making out and fooling around in one of their cars during work hours.
But mentioning those things might be going a bridge too far. I didn't want to escalate matters. I wasn't actively afraid of Donnie. But I avoided being alone with him when I could. I didn't know if he was capable of real violence. But I knew, even then, that he wouldn't be above keying the side of my vehicle in the company parking lot.
“Like I said,” I told him, “I don’t decide who gets promoted. You got a problem with it, talk to HR or Sid.”
I turned to leave the men’s room. Donnie turned around, too. He stepped ahead of me, and cut me off, blocking my path to the exit.
“Maybe I’ve got a problem with you,” he said, throwing down the gauntlet.
“I’ve got work to do,” I muttered. I brushed by him. It was then that I got a full sense of his height and strength. He didn't yield at all, and I had to squeeze myself between him and the wall.
But at least I didn't back down. I passed through the swinging restroom door and stepped out into the main office area, relieved to find that Donnie hadn't followed me, at least.
I know what you’re thinking: Why didn't I go to HR about Donnie? Thomas-Smithfield, like every company in the litigious twenty-first century, had a lengthy and explicit set of policies that forbade all forms of bullying and harassment, or “hostile work environment”, in human resources parlance.
The simple truth was that I didn't want to be wuss. My manhood had already been challenged by my unwanted divorce, and I wasn't going to let Donnie Brady humiliate me further—even if it meant getting my ass kicked one day in the parking lot after work.
How far was Donnie Brady prepared to go? I had no idea then. But I would soon find out.