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Cube Sleuth

An excerpt from

Cube Sleuth

Part 1: Chapter 1

My Five Years of Death Award


I stand at the front of a meeting room, an uncomfortable smile like a wet leaf on a windshield stuck to my face.

To my left sits the president of the boring company I work for. To my right, the chairman of the board of said boring company.

In my left hand is a plaque that reads: IN RECOGNITION BLAH BLAH 5 YEARS OF SERVICE BLAHDI BLAH PAINE-SKIDDER BLAH BLAH BOBBY PINKER. In my right hand, a hundred-dollar bill in an envelope. Yay right hand!

Not so long ago, when someone took a picture of you there was a click and a flash and you knew it was OK to move about freely. With digital cameras, if there’s no flash—and often there isn’t—you could stand there like the world’s dumbest statue until the photographer lowers the camera. Which usually takes forever.

My hands are clammy and my mouth is pasty. I’m not a shy person, but these types of artificial social events scare me. I’d rather be onstage naked playing the kazoo than stuck in an elevator with a coworker whose name escapes me.

OK, maybe not naked. But onstage playing the kazoo at least.

I barely know the president of Paine-Skidder. He likes me because I went to his alma mater. I envy his voluminous head of hair. He’s been with the company longer than I’ve been alive; he started in the mailroom and somehow ended up running the joint.

I know the chairman even less than I know the president. He has a beard. And a tweed jacket. That’s all I can tell you.

If the president knew that yesterday I stole two files from Human Resources for my investigation, he’d probably take my hundred bucks away, hit me in the back of the head with the plaque, fire me, and then have me arrested. In that order.

Coworkers receiving their own service awards sit watching me pose for pictures with smiles slightly less awkward than mine. I’m one of almost a dozen five-year employees. Some are ten-year employees. Some fifteen. Three are twenty. And five, including Stella Kruger, the office gossip, are getting awards for twenty-five-to-thirty-five years of service.

At twenty-five years, I hope you get a cyanide capsule instead of a plaque.

The photographer lowers his hand and I slink to my seat at the back of the room.

I admire my classy, well-made plaque until the woman across from me, Faith Riley, drops hers and it immediately comes apart. It’s just a slab of wood with a nice piece of paper over it, sealed with a cheap sheet of plastic and held in place with some crappy plastic screws. Oh well. At least the hundred dollars is real.

I would help Faith pick up the pieces of her plaque, but she hates me and thinks I had something to do with her best friend’s death, so I pretend not to notice.

Everyone in this room has been here five years or more. One person is missing, someone I really cared about.

A woman in my department once told me that we’re all dying a little more each day. Death doesn’t happen the moment you keel over or get shot or your parachute doesn’t open. Death happens cell by cell from the moment of your birth. Maybe it starts in the womb. Every day is a death, she said. This idea seems truest when I’m at work. That familiar smell in the office I’ve never been able to place: it’s probably the subtle scent of gradual death.


Today is Thursday, June 1, 2006. The day before what will be my fifth company picnic. My friend Ron Tipken, who sat across from me in this death trap for a little over a year, has been dead now for three and a half months. I might be on the cusp of answering the two most important questions that have plagued me since he died: Who killed him? And why? Or, I might not be any closer now than I was when I started my investigation three and a half months ago.

And come to think of it, I still need a lot of help unraveling most of the how.

At least I have what, where, and when nailed down.

Let me get you up to speed.