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by Martin Green

Mr. Landis (nobody ever called him anything else) was in his cluttered little cubicle, trying to finish a personnel report which was due by the end of the day. His phone rang; the new Director wanted to see him at once.

Just what he needed. Mr. Landis swore under his breath and resisted throwing his pen across the room. Then he told himself to calm down. He made it a point not to display his feelings at work. Only his wife and his children really knew what a temper he had.

When Mr. Landis entered the Director’s office, notebook and pen ready, he wore his impassive civil servant look. He was a rather small, slender man in his forties, balding and with glasses. He’d worked in the State bureaucracy for 20 years and now headed a unit in the agency that administered roadside rest stops.

Prosset, the new Director, who’d come in with the new Governor, was a pink-faced young man with prominent blue eyes and a brisk manner. He wanted to use his position to promote social change. Instead of repairing the state’s crumbling facilities, he wanted to build a new network of bicycle paths.

“Come in, come in,” Prosset said impatiently. “We have an emergency. That jerk Rumbaugh has introduced a bill to have private companies take over the rest stops. They’d have concessions selling food and drinks and be able to charge for toilets.”

Rumbaugh was a prominent figure around the state capital, a local developer who’d gone into politics and thought all government enterprises should be run for a profit. He and the new Governor were old political enemies.

“I need a report showing what a disaster this would be,” said Prosset, “and I need it right away.”

Mr. Landis noticed that, although the new Director preached austerity, that hadn’t stopped him from putting a new carpet and new furniture in his large office. The Director had also brought in half a dozen new young aides with him while promising to cut the rest of the staff.

“Rumbaugh’s always coming up with crazy bills like this,” said Mr. Landis. “Why not wait and see how far it gets?”

“Because I want to show up that old bastard, and this is my chance.”

“What about the personnel report?” asked Mr. Landis. “You wanted that right away, too.”

“That’s right. I want to cut staff by 20 percent, move out all the deadwood and bring in new blood. But that’ll have to wait. Showing up Rumbaugh comes first.”

“But that’s going to require digging up a lot of facts and figures.”

“Then do it. I want that report on my desk by five. And I don’t want any excuses.”

At that moment, Mr. Landis wanted to hit the new Director right in the middle of his pink face. But he swallowed his anger and, like the good civil servant he was and said, “Yes, sir. I’ll get on it right away.”

When Mr. Landis returned to his office, the first thing he did was sweep all of the personnel files off his desk, scattering papers over the floor. That made him feel better. Then he had his secretary bring him all the roadside rest files. He read through them and started to write his report.

At lunchtime he went down to the building cafeteria and brought back one of their tasteless sandwiches and a container of milk. He kept on writing through the afternoon.

At 3 o’clock, Prosset looked into his cubicle and asked him how the report was going. “It’s coming along,” said Mr. Landis.

“Don’t forget, I want it by five. And no excuses.”

At five, Mr. Landis brought the report into the Director’s office. “Here it is,” he said.

Prosset glanced at it and put it on his desk. “Okay, I’ll read it later. It had better be good.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Landis. He returned to his cubicle, carefully picked up the personnel files and straightened out his desk. Then he punched his filing cabinet as hard as he could, put on his jacket and went down to his car.

* * *

Mr. Landis and his family lived in a small house in one of the city’s older residential areas. The first thing Mr. Landis noticed when he got home was that his driveway was blocked by a Big Wheel. Then he noticed that the lawn looked even browner than the day before. His wife had forgotten to water it again.

He stormed into the house. His two young sons were wrestling around in the living room. They banged into a table, knocking a lamp off onto the floor. The lamp broke. He grabbed the boys and yelled at them. His wife came running in to see what was going on.

“They’re wrecking the house,” he said. “And where were you? Do you just let them do whatever they want?”

“I was in the kitchen, trying to get dinner ready.”

“What do you mean, trying?”

“The stove’s not working right again. It’ll take another hour.”

“Jesus, and I’m starving,” he said, although he was so angry he wasn’t really hungry.

“Daddy’s hurting my arm,” said one of his sons.

“No, I’m not,” said Mr. Landis, but he loosened his grip.

“Darling, you know you have to watch your temper. If you’re not careful you’ll hurt somebody.”

“Don’t lecture me on my temper. You can’t even have dinner ready when I get home. And when are you going to water the lawn? It’ll be dead before you get around to it.”

“Please, just sit down and try to relax.”

Just then the smoke alarm went off. They all rushed into the kitchen, where smoke was coming out of a pot on the stove. “Oh, dear,” said his wife. “I knew it wouldn’t be ready so I turned up the heat too high.”

“That’s it. I’m out of here,” said Mr. Landis. He turned around and headed toward the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. To get something to eat. Out.”

“Oh, dear. You know how you are when you get like this. The last time you rammed the car into a tree. Drive carefully. Please.”

“I’m perfectly capable of driving.” He slammed out of the door, then hit his shin against the Big Wheel still in the driveway. “Damn.”

* * *

Mr. Landis didn’t know where he wanted to go but he found himself driving downtown and eventually he parked outside of The Club, a restaurant and bar which was popular with the capital’s politicians and where he sometimes had lunch. The parking lot was already nearly full.

He took a seat at the bar and, while he sipped at a beer, ate some cheese and crackers. Now he did feel hungry. While he ate, he heard a voice which he recognized. Rumbaugh was at one of the tables, haranguing a group of his hangers-on.

Rumbaugh was a big man, well over 200 pounds, with a round, moonlike face. Mr. Landis couldn’t quite make out what Rumbaugh was saying but it was clear from the tone of his voice that he was recounting his latest triumph, whatever that was. He held a drink in his hand and it was also clear that he’d been celebrating for quite a while.

After he’d had enough cheese and crackers, Mr. Landis finished his beer and went out to the parking lot. It was dark by now. As he was about to get into his car, he heard a crash and the sound of glass breaking. He saw that a large car, a Cadillac, had backed out of its parking space and smashed into another car, crumpling its front bumper and breaking a headlight.

The driver of the Cadillac got out, a big man. It was Rumbaugh. Mr. Landis watched Rumbaugh checking his own car for damage, then start to get back in. “Hey,” he called to Rumbaugh, “you hit that other car.”

Rumbaugh came toward him, weaving a little. “So what’s it to you?” he asked, the famous loud voice slurred. He was drunk, all right.

“You can’t hit another car and drive off just like that.”

“Oh, yeah. Why not?”

“It’s not right.”

“Well, little feller, suppose you mind your own business because that’s just what I’m going to do.”

“No, you can’t.”

“Say, do you know who I am?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then you know I can do anything I damned well want,” Rumbaugh said angrily. “And I can crush you like a little bug.”

Mr. Landis felt his own anger rising. “The hell you can.”

“Why, you little pip-squeak.” Rumbaugh grabbed Mr. Landis by his jacket and pushed him hard against a car. Pain shot up Mr. Landis’s back. He jerked away, then slipped and fell to his knees. Rumbaugh bent over and grabbed his shoulder. It went numb.

Now Mr. Landis felt a familiar tide of rage sweeping over him. He literally saw red. He groped around the asphalt and felt a round hard object, a rock. He hit Rumbaugh on the head with it, as hard as he could, then hit him again. The grip on his shoulder loosened and Rumbaugh fell to the ground. Mr. Landis looked at him. Rumbaugh didn’t seem to be breathing. Mr. Landis checked the big man’s pulse and felt nothing. Rumbaugh was dead.

Mr. Landis stood up and looke d around. The parking lot was quiet. Nobody else was around. He took a deep breath. As always, once the wave of temper had come and gone, he felt quite calm. He got into his car, slowly backed it out and then drove carefully back home.

His wife was in the living room, watching television. “Where are the boys?” he asked her.

“In their room, doing their homework. Are you all right? Are you hungry?”

“No, I’m fine. I had a bite to eat. What’s on television?”

* * *

The story of Rumbaugh’s death was on the front page of next morning’s newspaper. It was pointed out that the politician had many enemies. The police said that they were conducting a thorough investigation. Mr. Landis waited for further news. If somebody was arrested for the murder then of course he’d have to come forward and confess. He couldn’t let an innocent man be punished for what he’d done.

The next week the police did make an arrest. It was Prosset, his new Director. It was well known that Rumbaugh and Prosset were enemies. Witnesses said they’d been arguing earlier that night in The Club over Rumbaugh’s bill to have private firms run the state’s roadside rest stops. Rumbaugh had been taunting Prosset and several persons testified that Prosset had threatened to get the politician. Prosset had no alibi. The police scoffed at his story that he’d driven around for a couple of hours after leaving The Club and then gone home.

The next day Prosset was absent from the office. In his cubicle, Mr. Landis thought over the situation for a long time. He’d told himself that he’d come forward if someone else was arrested. But Prosset? It was true that Prosset was innocent of the murder, but he was guilty of other things. He’d terrorized the agency and planned to fire 20 percent of the staff, getting rid of the deadwood, as he called it. And with his political pull, even if convicted, he’d get off with a light sentence.

No, the best course would be to remain silent. He’d go about his business, doing his best for whomever was appointed the next Director, being the good bureaucrat. But from now on he’d have to heed his wife’s advice. He’d have to watch his temper.

Copyright © 2006 by Martin Green

[Proceed to Challenge 189]

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