Chapter IV:

The Box-Mart Account

It was the third time Leon had seen it, but the first time that he hadn’t shrugged it off. They all looked the same; it was the consistency that finally got him. One of them had been in the Financial District, crossing Market Street on its small, black-coat donkey. One of them had been on the BART train coming home during rush hour, jammed up against the wall, holding the overhead bannister like a normal person would. It had turned its head towards him.  And of course there had been two of them at once in the sushi restaurant, which he had only just been able to ignore. But they had looked at him. Oh yes they had.

All Leon could do was continue about his business, but he was afraid. He had seen the look in Stuart’s eyes: there was something about the figurine that made people crazy, and it was showing him something that he didn’t want to see. He didn’t want to worry about his sanity. He seemed to be the only one in the crowd who could see them.

Was he really going crazy? It was happening so fast. And the things looked so ridiculous.

Walled into his office the next Tuesday, he set quietly about his work.

At around 3:30 Mathilda knocked on his door and opened it just afterwards. Of course, she had seen it too.

“Mr. Ramble,” she asked, peeking out from the door.

Leon looked up from the stack of papers in front of him.

“Yes, Mathilda?”

She slid into his office and closed the door behind her. She was wearing a long green dress with short sleeves, showing off her shapely arms. She was very easy to look at, but the look in her eyes was not far from the look that had been in Stuart’s: determination.

“Frank called to tell me he wanted to see you.”

“Why didn’t he call me?” Leon asked, capping the pen, thinking about the Quixote positioned just to the left of his papers.

“Maybe he didn’t want to break your concentration.”

“Did he say what time?”

“Whenever you’re free.”

Mathilda’s eyes slid down to the Quixote and stayed there. Leon watched greed glaze over her face.

“That’ll be all, Mathilda,” he said. “Thanks for telling me.”

Mathilda shook her head smartly, then sneered at Leon as if he’d just insulted her.

“Thank you,” she said, and left his office.

There was certainly something about it. Did he look like Mathilda, with that vacant, hungry expression, when he saw them out in public? He didn’t believe so. If anything he looked the opposite: afraid of them.

Leon put his hands to his temples and massaged them, leaned back in his chair, stared at the ceiling, and for the next few minutes allowed his questions to wash through him. When they were done, when he was thinking of nothing but his real life responsibilities, he let out a long, deep breath, and then sat forward in his desk chair and returned to marking the Research Proxy’s shareholder vote recommendations. A few hours later he capped his pen again and, having finished his stack of work for the day, decided it was a good time to see Frank. Frank had never called him to his office before, so it was either for a dressing down or a dressing up. Because everyone said his work had been especially good of late Leon expected it to be the latter.

About halfway there he was surprised to realize that he had left the Quixote on his desk. Frank’s office in sight, a chill shivered through his body, and he felt naked and exposed, and he even stopped for a moment to consider going back to his office. If it had appeared so mysteriously, who’s to say it couldn’t disappear just as easily?

Co-workers passed around and before him like grains of sand in the ocean’s waves, inexorably. Leon was not going back to his office for the thing, he decided, though his mind was certainly empty when he came to knock on Frank’s door (his secretary was not at her desk), and heard Frank’s voice booming back to him: “It’s open!”

Leon opened the door. His boss was standing at an easel with a paint brush in hand, his hobby. The easel was positioned past the man’s desk, which was cluttered with papers and technology, two laptops and a tablet with a built-in keyboard.

The office was huge, and elaborately decorated. There were bookshelves, impressionist paintings, and plaques commemorating notable achievements in business occupying the office’s wall space. Before long, Leon noticed that his boss was smiling at him.

“Have a seat, please, Mr. Ramble, right there if you like,” Frank said, motioning towards a tan suede couch behind the easel.

Leon sat in the middle of the couch, that way Frank could talk to him while he painted. Leon put his hands together between his knees. Frank considered him while he was painting, as if he’d decided to do Leon’s portrait.

“Your work has been stellar lately, Leon. I wanted to tell you that.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“The clients have been pleased and there haven’t been any hang ups. I’ve had some curveballs thrown your way too and you didn’t even seem to notice.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Let’s start with the Berringer account.”

“What was wrong with it?”

“Their finances were a mess, for one thing. If it weren’t for us I wouldn’t be surprised if a mass shareholder exodus would have occurred.”

“That wasn’t all me. Mathilda’s been fantastic.”

“Don’t worry, she’s in for a promotion too.”

“Promotion?” Leon couldn’t believe his ears.

“Well, not exactly.”

Frank set his brush down on a palette on a little foldout table near the easel, took off his gloves and walked over to his desk, where he fished out a light blue folder from the mess. Light blue meant high-priority clients.

He circled the desk and sat against it, ankles crossed, arms folded, considering Leon like he were his painting.

“What do you know about Box-Mart Leon?”

“The largest retailer in the nation?”

“That’s a start.”

“I know they’re no strangers to the law.”

“Go on.”

“Well, they’ve run afoul of the EPA several times over the last few years, issues with their disposal of waste and the way they handled potentially hazardous materials like paints and fertilizer. They’ve been sued for workers’ rights abuses and discrimination against women and minorities.”

“Anything else?”

“That wasn’t enough?” Leon asked, suspecting that he knew what was in the blue folder.

“There’s more to their story, yes.”

“I couldn’t name what it is.”

“Whenever a Box-Mart moves to town all the other retailers move out. They monopolize the selling of goods. Period. It’s just what happens. Mom and pop just can’t compete with low prices and convenience. If it weren’t for the fact that they take up so much damn space one of their superstores might as well be airlifted to the center of every town and city in the nation. It would solve a lot of traffic problems, I think.”

“Sir, you sound like Che Guevara.”

“I don’t mean to. They run a highly respectable business. John Barton, former CEO, built himself up from nothing. I respect that.”

Leon knew that Frank Lewis had not done the same thing. He had been born into money.

“If you don’t mind I asking…”

“I know Leon, you want me to get to the point. Let me ask you this, amidst the daily humanitarian scandals in which Box-Mart has embroiled themselves, have you heard anything about corruption?”

“Corruption?”

“Yes, corruption. Bribes, kickbacks, shoddy accounting, that sort of thing.”

“Can’t say I have.”

“You’re going to over the next month or so. It’s to be your top priority.”

“I always thought corruption was a thing of the past.”

“Well, you’ve always been wrong.”

Leon smiled. Frank did not. He was a medium build man probably in his late sixties who always wore suits with a long black tie to work. Today however he was stripped down to a white T-shirt, and there were paint marks on it. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. There was something about him that recalled the boss in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, as if he had seen himself his fair share of scandals, which made him uniquely suited for the company he’d come to commandeer.

“This is the Box-Mart account, Leon,” Frank said, handing him the blue folder, which Leon accepted.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say.”

“In a few days’ time I’m counting on that to no longer be the case.”

“You want me to bone up on it?”

“I want you to read up on it. In short, Box-Mart has run into some serious problems south of the border. There’s a confrontation brewing between Mexican peasants, Mexican Box-Mart employees, and Box-Mart itself. Believe it or not, Box-Mart has been able to keep it hush hush, that’s why you haven’t seen it plastered all over the news.”

“Where do I come in?”

“It’s a special assignment, Leon. No 10-k’s, no shareholder vote recommendations. We want you to find out how deep the rot goes.”

“Does this mean I’m going to Mexico?”

“No it does not. It means you’re making phone calls and doing your research. Box-Mart’s South American affiliate will have to deal with it on their own. We want you to make sure that the same thing that’s happening there isn’t happening here. They want a thorough accounting of their moral and legal condition. You and Mathilda, and maybe a proxy or two, are to follow through with their requests. Got it?”

“I think so.”

“Read the file through and through, and get a copy to Mathilda while you’re at it. This is top shelf stuff, Leon. I want you on top of your game.”

Leon opened the file and leafed through the first few pages. Frank went back to his painting.

“It looks like any other file,” Leon said.

“Looks can be deceiving.”

“Thanks Frank. I don’t know what to say.”

“Say ‘goodbye, Frank. I won’t disappoint you.’”

Leon laughed nervously.

“Goodbye, Frank. I won’t disappoint you.”

“I know you won’t. Now scram.”

“Do you mind I asking what it is you’re painting.”

Frank’s eyes moved from the painting and settled on Leon’s. They were harsh, penetrating eyes. Leon felt they could see the truth of his soul, see that he was elated to have been selected for the job.

“As a matter of fact I do mind. Now scram.”

“I’m sure it’s good, whatever it is.”

“It’s not that good. Trust me. I know these things.”

“I appreciate the opportunity, sir. I won’t let you down.”

Frank didn’t answer. He dabbed the palette with his brush, and returned it to the painting. Leon closed the door behind him when he left.

On the way to his office he ran over in his mind all that he knew about Box-Mart, the largest supermarket chain in the world, destroyer of small businesses, incubator of minimum wage jobs. He had seen an anti-Box-Mart documentary earlier this year with Heather. It would probably be a good idea to watch it again.

Mathilda was not at her desk and Leon’s door was open. Funny, he could have sworn that he’d closed it after he’d left.

When inside he packed up his laptop, and was relieved that he’d forgotten about the Quixote altogether for the space of a few minutes. But this was to be cold comfort, as it wasn’t where he had left it in front of his computer, but across his desk facing him like it were a patient client.

Stuart Drindle’s office was just down the hall from Leon’s. When 4:50 rolled around and Leon still hadn’t come back from Frank’s office (what the hell could they be talking about?), Stuart, standing in his doorway, watched Mathilda pack up her things and leave. As soon as her back was turned Stuart started forward. There was no one around when he opened the door to Leon’s office and went inside, closing the door behind him.

Stuart was drawn to the Quixote like a hooked fish. It sat on Leon’s desk in front of his computer like it had been waiting for him. Except that when Stuart picked it up he was hit with a sudden, overpowering wave of nausea. The walls, ceiling and carpet floor swam and he felt something akin to the monster head rush a novice smoker gets after smoking too much tobacco. He barely made it to the chair opposite Leon’s desk, where clients and visitors might sit, and he collapsed into it.

The nausea did not subside. He felt the Quixote’s power coursing through his arm, but power to do what? He wanted to find out, but he couldn’t get out of the chair. In fact he had to put the Quixote down, it was too heavy, back on Leon’s desk before he could even stand up. It was almost five o’clock, he was running out of time, Frank wouldn’t keep Leon forever. But he was afraid to touch the thing again. He couldn’t rise past the feeling that maybe he had overstepped an invisible boundary. The Quixote wasn’t for him. In fact it had just defended itself. But he still wanted it. My God did he want it. With it came the feeling that something truly miraculous was about to happen.

Feeling defeated, he took a picture of it with his iPhone, then he left Leon’s office. He passed Leon on the way to the elevators. Neither acknowledged the other’s presence.

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