The Problem

"We have a problem, Jim." Alfax blended his steps in with his boss and glided down the hallway with him. The headed, without paused, toward the small boardroom.

"Walk with me," Jim barked.

Alfax pushed out a breath. "This may be worth a pause."

Jim looked over his shoulder, raised a dark brow, and straightened his already immaculate tie. "Bad?"

"Potentially epic," Alfax nodded, chewing on the inside of his cheek and ignoring the trickle of sweat winding down from his temple.

Jim considered him for a moment, weighing his words, his actions, probably even the tie he'd chosen that morning. Then gave a brief nod, pressing his palm into the door panel. "That's what we have interns for."

He burst through the door and twenty young people, fresh out of college, crushed each other to stand. "Mr. Ho," they all said in a confused round. One man, elderly and patient, remained seated in a far corner of the room, watching.

"Hello, interns, and welcome to AWB International. As you guessed, I am James Ho, Vice President of Finance Development. This is my Lead Assistant Manager, Mr. Roger Alfax."

Jim paused, unbuttoned his suit jacket, and flung himself elegantly into the seat at the head of the table. "I want you to think of Mr. Alfax as Hermes, and attend him diligently."

A nervous chuckle danced around a few of the interns, but died quickly. Jim glowed at this, loved a captive audience and instilling in them a touch of fear. But he did always manage to weed out the best of the interns.

"For those of you who didn't study your true classics, Hermes was the messenger of the gods." Jim explained, playing with his tie.

Another nervous titter attempted to run its way through the interns, but didn't quite make it.

"Anyway," Jim swiveled and sat up at the table. "We have our first assignment. Alfax? Tell them."

"Sir," Alfax muttered, the tips of his ears hot. "They don't have clearance for the Betty Project."

Jim blinked at him, glanced at the old man in the corner, but then smiled with his mouth and laughed. "So, generalize. Let's see what solutions our intrepid interns come up with. How will the new generation wow us today?"

A frown pursing his lips thin, Alfax slid his finger along the screen of his work pad. Linking it to the wall screen. A large, colorful presentation with big black squares of redacted information glowed at the interns.

"This particular project is a business need-to-know in the medical branch of our holdings." Alfax paused for another frown, flicking past several pages where all that was left to see was colorful images of smiling young adults, and big black squares hiding any useful information.

Alfax dropped his arms down, careful to keep his unredacted work pad screen pointed toward his own body. "Basically, a breech has been discovered, personal information has most likely been obtained by agencies unknown."

The interns gasped at this, a potential company-killer. One earnest young golden boy, glittering with righteous indignation, spoke up. "We have to report this to the authorities. Get a workgroup going to protect the people whose information has been violated. Get police units into the files and find out who and how they breeched!"

Jim raised an eyebrow, and nodded his head.

Alfax nodded, his fingers flying across his work pad. Golden boy and a couple of enthusiastic nodders would not be returning tomorrow. Today's Duddley Dogooders became tomorrows Wally Whistleblowers. They'd be better off in a sterile government internship, perhaps somewhere in the Midwest; HR would determine the details when they sold their contracts.

Before anyone could get too nervous, Jim smiled, stood, and walked to the wall screen. He swiped and tapped the wall screen until an image of a white note pad came up.

"Of course, all that. Of course. But in the meantime. The public." Jim said. He balled his fist like he held a fat marker and scrawled the word PUBLIC in all caps across the screen. He flashed an enigmatic smile over his shoulder at them. "Do you understand what the public means to our company? To any company, really?"

The table of interns became a sea of blank faces. A few looked as though they had guesses on the tips of their tongues; but rumor had it there was only one full-time gig available at the end of this internship and no one wanted to blow their wad on a guess. The rumor was false, of course. There were as many positions as Jim felt there was talent; usually it played out to about four. But it was Alfax's job to help display the talent, a task for which he preferred to use fear. Which was why he'd started the rumor.

Jim, however, was destined to be their best friend; time enough for those who stayed to figure out what a bastard he was later. For now, Jim played them like a virtuoso. With a boyish grin, he took off his suit jacket and casually tossed it at a chair. He loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves.

Alfax felt a little sentimental, for a moment. This problem was big enough that it could wipe Jim out with it, if they didn't find an appropriate slug. This just might be the last time Alfax got to see Jim's best-friend-and-mentor act.

"The public, dear interns," he crossed his casual arms over his chest, "is like a bear that you have raised since it was a cub." He winked at them. "You all know bear, yes? Been to a zoo?"

They gave a nervous laugh, mentally preparing acceptable anecdotes in case they should be asked. Alfax cued the cute vid track of the bear cub and tapped it into a loop.

"It seems tame. Eating from your hand. It fills your day, gives you purpose. We need our public to conduct our business. And, usually, everything goes well, fine. We create their need, fill their need, take their money."

Jim turned to the wall. "But let the least thing go askew and--BAM!" He slapped his fist into his palm as Alfax tapped up a vid track of a full-grown, bellowing grizzly bear. No loop this time, but the sound ripped through the room, even causing a few screams. Alfax knew fear. He left the final image of the bear on the screen.

"This rampaging, rabid beast doesn't want to hear about corrective action plans, doesn't care about proper authorities. The public wants one thing, and one thing only. What is that?" Jim pointed at the table of interns.

"Blood!" yelled a wide-eyed intern, who with one tap from Alfax would be scrounging in the depths of the call center tomorrow. Showing such easily provoked enthusiasm stamped the word gullible right across his forehead.

"Blame," Jim went on, never missing a beat. "The public needs someone to blame." And he turned back to the screen, sans bear and back to the note pad. Jim wrote the word with his fist in bold red letters.


"The public knows we're going to handle the situation; they don't care about that. What they want is a face." Jim drew a quick sketch of a stubble-cheeked man in a baseball cap--he was quite talented--and labeled the drawing SLUG. "They want someone to throw their rotten tomatoes at."

"The public needs to see this man paraded in shame. They need to see him punished, to hear his sorry life story and why he turned wrong. They need to see him show remorse. And then they need him to quietly go away."

Jim let this settle into their fertile young minds. He crossed his arms over his chest, leaned back against the wall screen, watching their faces, glancing just once at the man in the corner. He waited, knowing someone would ask.

The silence stretched on, the interns began to rustle in their seats. A bead of sweat trickled again down Alfax's temple. This was not a drill; they needed someone to speak up, here. His thumbs flicked over his work pad screen, reviewing their profiles. Which one would speak?

Finally, one of the enthusiastic Barbies already sold off to the Midwest politicians opened her painted mouth and said the words. "But, did he do it?"

"No," Jim said softly, with a sad shake of his dark head. He rolled his sleeves down and put his jacket back on with a shrug. "Business doesn't work like that." He slid the knot of his tie back up. "Everything these days is done by committee meeting, workgroups, key process teams. There is no 'one person' decision-maker anymore." His smile looked a little sad. "Come along. Let's continue our tour of the facility."

"But, who is he, then?" the blonde girl nodded at the drawing.

Jim shrugged. "A paid scapegoat. Probably just a SLUG."

"What's a slug, Mr. Ho?" piped up a tightly-wound brunette destined for the corporate library.

Alfax spoke up. "The term is a police procedural acronym. Someone Living Under Government Support." He did not add that to the wall screen, those files could be subpoenaed. "It's a derogatory term from someone not independently employed. Living off the dole, as they say."

Many sneering nods bounced around the room.

Jim gave a half a shrug. "We all know someone like that. They dropped out of college or voc-ed, and just float around doing nothing, soaking up resources."

"Sure," said one tall, dark, and handsome youth. "Like Biggie."

Jim frowned and cocked his head to the side. "I'm sorry, son. What's a biggie?"

That word son echoed around the room. The poor boy grinned and got chatty with his senior executive. "Oh, he's this kid I knew at school. Biggie was his nickname. Really fat kid." He laughed and shook his head. "I see him at the Coffee Hut all the time. It's gross."

Jim looked up at Alfax.

Alfax slashed and tapped at this work pad.

"Yeah. I knew this one kid, too. Looked like a scarecrow," another hopeful piped up. "He had this twitch..."

Jim lead the intern sharing hour out of the board room and down the hall. Alfax trailed after, tapping furiously, learning all he could about their premier volunteer intern.

Dane Marcus III, graduated 4th in his class 18 months early. Good family, a legacy recruit for AWB International; his father and uncle were middleweight paper-pushers in the aeronautics division. A promising young lad. Such a shame.

Three taps and Dane just became upper middle management in the medical research, pharmaceutical division; housing and transportation allowance attached. HR would grab him and give him the good news on the way out.

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