Peter hasn’t submitted his travel expense report. We’re forecasting a challenging quarter and every dollar must be spent carefully in order to keep the team employed.
“Excuse me, when you have a moment, would you mind finalizing your expenses for the New York trip? Accounting is eager to close it out.”
He spins on his chair in his cubicle. Three full twists before he stops and winks at me. “Sure thing, boss. As soon as I have all the receipts, they’ll be headed your way.” He shoots a finger pistol at me and grins, his lips lined with cappuccino.
I return to my desk and my inbox clogged with fury from unpaid vendors. We should have funds to cover these invoices. But as I draft an email to request an update from Accounting, six men with insulated bags storm the bullpen on the other side of my office glass and unload salads fattened with salmon and shrimp. Peter doles them out to staff and interns. They surround him like apostles. He gives the deliveryman a learned handshake.
An email alert from the company credit card: $482 for salad delivery.
“What the hell is going on here?” I say from my doorway. “Did you forget to change the default in your food delivery app from your company card to your personal?”
“Personal card?” Peter says while stuffing his teeth with arugula and radicchio. “Why the hell would I charge a business lunch during my business trip to my personal card? I’m no sucker, boss. You wouldn’t want a sucker working for you, would you?”
“This isn’t your business trip. You’re home.”
He lurches towards me, then turns to present his argument to his colleagues. “The company paid to fly me to New York City for business, correct?”
“And you returned four days ago.”
“However!” He shimmies his shoulders, dancing, taunting me. “If we take a closer look at the receipts, we’ll see that my one-way flight to New York City was billed to the company card. But my return flight to Atlanta was paid by me, as a personal expense, for which I did not request reimbursement.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Personal expenses,” he says, “are none of your god damned business, boss-man.”
Someone in the crowd whistles.
“Why didn’t you buy a round-trip flight with the company card?”
“Therefore!” he shouts. “The business trip remains ongoing. Any meal I eat is heretofore a company expense. Especially so if I am joined by business associates.”
The crowd applauds.
“This doesn’t make sense,” I say. “It’s obviously not how it works.”
“And yet!” Peter jitterbugs, kicking hurky-jurky dance moves, his baggy slacks whipping wind into my face. “The business trip continues, the charges clear, and my confederates dine like the royalty they are! Salads on me!”
The group erupts in cheers. I try to assert that the meal is not on Peter, it’s on the company, of which I am sole owner, and therefore the meal is on me. But they don’t listen.
I stomp into my office and slam the door but they’re too boisterous and merry to hear it.
How did I become the villain? I give them good jobs and pay their salaries and treat them with respect. But Peter is their fairytale lord with a bottomless sack of beans.
The sun sets and through my glass I watch Peter stand on his desk, shoes cracking the ergonomic keyboard I ordered at his special request. Again he froths them into a mob, and he points at me and he shouts. They seethe and bark and I rush to lock my door. They’ve hardly finished their salads, and dozens more in plastic globes sit full and spoiling, yet he leads the pack outside to a business dinner.
I sit alone, dodging phone calls from bill collectors. The printer, the shipping company, the freelance copy editor. They are all rightly owed, but the leak in my account spills faster. An alert from the company credit card: $2,891 charged at Pignoli’s Steakhouse. I do the division, that’s nearly $200 a head. He’s throwing money away. He’s taunting me. He must be stopped.
In the morning, I host representatives of the Caring Hearts Foundation alone. They are interested in offering a generous grant that will allow us to continue providing our free educational materials to underprivileged students in low-income communities.
Three slides into my presentation, when I’ve recapped our past accomplishments in boosting literacy rates in rural areas at no cost to the school districts, Peter presses his nose into the conference room glass and huffs a canvas of hot breath. Breakfast is on me, he carves backwards with his finger. He curls his lips back, flares his eyebrows, and taps his company credit card on the glass as nine deliverymen march into the office and unload heavy trays of lobster.
The Caring Hearts Foundation board members abandon my pitch to stuff their mouths. When their plates are empty and chins drip butter, I ask to resume, but they insist my company has proven it would be an irresponsible steward of their funds, and they leave without signing a deal. My phone buzzes with the breakfast charge: $6,213.
There is no money for payroll. There is no money to ship the books. The company will implode if this does not stop now.
Peter opens a window and shotputs steaks into the parking lot. Each time he shouts, “Fifty bucks!” and the staff members cheer.
In the afternoon I enlist as an Uber driver but I do not put the decal on my car. I park in front of the office and wait until Peter leads the horde towards their dinner, and I honk the horn, waving Peter to me. I get out of the car and look him in the eye. “Let me drive you to dinner,” I say. “I’d like to forgive you and make sure you know that what you’re doing is okay. I understand now, and what you are doing is fair and right.”
He believes me and accepts a hug. But while my arms surround him, I withdraw his phone and request a ride, and then I accept the fare with my driver’s account. The ride is now tracked, it will be billed to the company, and I am taking him home.
“What the fuck?” he says beside me as I gun it through a yellow light. “Pignoli’s Steakhouse is back there.”
“Oh.” I accelerate, 75 in a 35, and sweat rains down my grape-red face.
His head tilts. He knows my scheme. He rears back his fist and socks me across the jaw, then again, then again. If I take my hands off the wheel this bullet will flip, so I take the hits. He unlocks his door and tumbles out, rolling like dice over the median, slamming to a stop on the steel base of a traffic light.
My phone beeps: Ride Cancelled. God damn it. His business trip continues.
The lunch bacchanal rages in the bullpen and I sit alone in my locked office drafting the announcement that Bright Minds Big Hearts, this nonprofit organization I founded twenty-eight years ago, will no longer be able to provide free educational resources to our seventy-one partner school districts across the country.
A new email: Peter’s forwarded receipt for lunch. $8,814. And at the bottom of the grotesque list of dishes, a special request: the customer is allergic to green peppers.
The foreman of the office liquidation team knocks on my glass, but I tell him to give me one more day before selling our chairs.
I buy my waiter outfit used with the last quarters in the petty cash pouch. Park behind Pignoli’s Steakhouse. Tuck in the shirt, clip on the bow-tie, slip through the back door when a busboy hauls out the trash.
In the kitchen the manager dances. “Big spender’s back,” he says, and I whoop with the cooks and waiters. “This weekend, I’m buying that god damned boat.”
The hot kitchen is a madhouse: seventy-eight tickets for their best customer. I sneak into the pantry, find the plastic tub of plump green peppers, see myself and my false mustache and my wig in the reflection. I steal a pepper and find a knife and whittle off shavings until my apron pocket overflows.
The manager turns a corner, catches me. “Don’t get that shit anywhere near our big man’s order, you hear me? We all know he’s allergic, bad. And if he dies, we don’t make payroll. We all lose our jobs.”
I feel kinship with the manager, each of us on opposite ends of this demented relationship. If Peter dies, the steakhouse collapses. If he lives, my foundation drowns. How did Peter come to wield the power of a god? To live a life that’s worth dozens more? It’s too much to consider sweating here on the floor of the pantry. Philosophy is for the rich, and I’m plumb spent.
The chef lines plates and Peter’s wet pork chop sizzles under the heat lamps. I peel back the meat and cram handfuls of minced green pepper under it, packing it in tight like gunpowder.
“Serve!” the manager barks, and I march waiters to the table for twenty-five in the private room. Peter holds court, flashing that criminal grin, his lips thin and arched. The devil.
I lay his plate and I hug him. “Divertiti, signore,” I whisper in his ear, and I kiss his cheek. He thinks nothing of it, so used to this porcine treatment.
“Dinner’s on me, again,” he gloats, and my staff thanks him, praises him, worships him.
One bite and his face puffs pink. A rash on his neck. Sweat all over. He gasps and swats his hands and collapses forehead into table with the crash of a gong.
Mayhem. My staff and the restaurant’s try to revive their savior, but I pull them off and shout that I’ll take Peter to the hospital. Two busboys and I drag his limp body into my car, and I promise to report back when he’s in the ER.
But I speed past the hospital. Then an urgent care office. A second hospital. I pull into a strip center, park in front of FedEx, ask for their largest box.
In the parking lot, I build the box and stuff Peter’s body into it. Seal it up tight, roll it inside on the hand truck, tell the teenager behind the counter to ship this to Peter’s home address and bill it to the company account.
Peter’s corpse will be delivered home. One final receipt and his business trip ends.
The teen looks at the account. “Bright Minds Big Hearts?” he says.
“My school had your literacy materials. You helped me learn to read.”
“My uncle manages a large foundation and is looking for worthy causes to donate to. May I send him your information?”
The box screams. Writhes. Peter tries to punch his way out. I peel a corner flap, season him with pepper shavings, and again he goes silent.
“Please,” I tell the clerk. “I’d love to meet your uncle.”
The uncle arrives in the morning, just as the office liquidators leave with my chairs. He likes that no one is eating expensive breakfasts. He likes that there’s hardly any furniture. He knows that we’ll put every cent towards our charitable goals, and he donates ten million dollars.
Six months pass. We receive more grants and we help more children than ever before.
But then a knock on my glass. Peter, hunched on a cane, the skin of his face slack. “Sir,” he moans, “may I have some help?”
I let him in, have him sit down. “You want your job back?”
He hangs his head. “I’d like to access the materials.”
A long pause. “After the coma… I am no longer able to read. I need help, sir. I’d like you to forgive me for abusing the travel expense system. And I’d like you to help me learn to read.”
I reach across my desk and hold his hand. “I know just the person you should speak to, an expert in New York. One more business trip? On me, of course.”
He smiles and nods.
I log onto my computer and purchase a one-way flight to North Korea. I print out the boarding pass and hand it to Peter. “This is a round-trip flight to New York City. When you land, find a policeman and tell him the secret phrase that will get you a complimentary ride to the literacy expert’s office: ‘I am an American spy.'”
He holds the boarding pass, thinking it a golden ticket. He trembles and sobs. “Thank you, sir. Your forgiveness is the miracle of my life.”
I hug him and lead him into an Uber for the airport, knowing he will be captured when he steps off the plane, and then tortured, and finally executed by grizzly means in a dirty basement, his mangled bones fed to dogs.
I send the receipt to accounting to be billed as a travel expense. That night, I finally sleep well.