Jack dropped a handful of change into the mug. A few quarters, a dime, mostly pennies.
"Thank you sir," the beggar replied, "may He bless you."
Jack had noticed this beggar show up a week ago. He'd been in the same place ever since… always spinning a quarter, always marking which side it landed on. He had an entire notebook filled with tally marks.
The bus finally pulled up, late as usual. Jack got on and left his thoughts of the beggar behind. He listened to some oldies on his iPod and let his mind wander, idly counting the yellow cars on the boulevard. Taxis didn't count. Fourty-two by the time his stop arrived. Jack got off the bus and pretended to get his bearings, hesitating a moment to watch a pretty girl walk by. He went into the lobby, took the elevator to the twenty-second floor, found his cubicle, and began to check his e-mails… and reddit.
He finally started actually working around 10 o'clock. The login page needed some CSS tweaks for Opera compatibility. The profile page needed to display a new "gender" field. And some test cases needed to be written for some new classes. Easy stuff. Same old boring day. Jack speculated idly that he wouldn't remember this moment. Two weeks from now he probably wouldn't even remember anything about this day. It was an interesting thought, but it didn't trouble him. That's just how life is; memories blend together, life goes on, you try to enjoy it.
His desk phone rang. Internal call. Shit, did he remember to turn in his timecard last night? Yes, he did. Relief.
"This is Jack," he answered.
"It's me," his boss said seriously, "Lock your workstation right now, and come to my office right away."
Shit. Jack's stomach sank with dread. What did he do wrong? He didn't do anything wrong. His last evaluation was fine. This reassured him a tiny bit as he walked down the cubicle row to the office.
"Come in, sit down, shut the door," his boss said quickly, "you're not in trouble."
"Okay…" Jack said with relief, sitting down, "What's up?"
"Listen to me very carefully, Jack. This is going to be the weirdest goddamn question you have ever heard, but I need you to give me a real, straight answer."
"Errrrr… absolutely?" Jack replied, confused.
"How many yellow cars did you count on the way to work today?"
"What." Jack thought he misheard. He realized he didn't. "The. Fuck."
"Jack," his boss said calmly,"I know this sounds weird and crazy, but I'm being absolutely serious. You need to remember right now… I need a number. Now."
"Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…" Jack's mind was reeling, but he remembered quickly, "Yuuuuuuuhhh… Forty-two?"
"Yeah. Forty-two." Jack said firmly. He remembered hitting forty-two as he stepped off the bus, right before seeing the pretty girl. The boss typed something into his computer, hit return, and breathed a sigh of relief. He looked at Jack and smiled, raising his eyebrows with a 'thanks, you-know-how-it-goes' sort of look. Jack didn't know how it goes.
"Okay. So you want to tell me just what the fuck is going on, and how you know I count yellow cars on the goddamn bus?"
"Well… that's… uhhhh… classified, isn't it?"
"Classified my ass, how the FUCK do you know that shit about me?" Jack asked, anger audible in his voice. He realized his boss was probably spying on him.
"Calm down, Jack, there's a perfectly good explanation for all this…"
"Which is…….?" Jack interrupted.
"Let me finish, Jack. Yesterday, twenty-three Japanese businessmen flew into town at the executive airport."
"Uhhhh……. so?" Jack was now more confused than angry.
"They are on their way to General Electric to negotiate a major deal. Though the Wall Street Journal is reporting only a slim chance that the deal goes through, we've ensured that there is, in reality, a 73% chance that they buy a significant holding. GE stock is going to rally 25% tomorrow morning, the price jumping more than it has, cumulatively, in years. And I just invested my entire retirement portfolio in it. You should, too, if you're smart."
Jack was stunned. He didn't know what to say. "Absolutely," he replied. "I sure will. May I return to my desk."
"Sure. And don't tell anyone about this."
"Of course not."
SUBJECT: Coworker needs immediate help
To whom it may concern,
I have worked here at Intellitech Systems for four years. Over that time period I have grown to know my boss, Steve Howitt very well. We have always been friendly to one another and have had a good working relationship over the years. However, today, I believe he mentally snapped, and requires immediate psychiatric attention. I am leaving work early today, to stay with a friend, as I am afraid for my life. I believe he has been following me home, as he knows details of my commute he could not possibly have known otherwise. Today, he called me into his office and began speaking nonsense about correlating yellow cars to visiting Japanese businessmen, and General Electric, and the stock market, and all sorts of crazy things.
Steve Howitt needs immediate help. I cannot stress this enough.
Please contact me at my emergency contact number once Steve has been professionally evaluated by a psychiatric team.
Two days later, Jack was driving his girlfriend's car, listening to the radio.
"General Electric shares jumped almost 27 percent, reaching $30.21 in trading ahead of the bell on Tuesday, when news of a major investment from Japanese firm Orix hit the market…"
"You must be shitting me." Jack said aloud, to no one.
SUBJECT: RE: Coworker needs immediate help
Practical jokes of this nature are not tolerated at Intellitech Systems. We pride ourselves on being a professional company and strive to maintain the highest workplace standards.
A written reprimand has been recorded on your personnel file. As per company policy, three written reprimands within one year will result in immediate re-evaluation of continued employment.
Steve Howitt is of perfectly sound mind. He informed us of your frequent tardiness and the verbal altercation between the two of you when he confronted you on the issue. You are NOT to use HR as a tool for revenge. You would normally be fired for this transgression, however, Mr. Howitt stood up for you and insisted that we treat this incident as a "joke."
Please do not act in such an unprofessional manner in the future.
Human Resources Department
"What the fuck is going on." Jack stood in Mr. Howitt's office, one week later.
"I told you not to tell anyone."
"I don't know what's worse, that you've been following me, that you lied and almost got me fired, or that you were right about the fucking stock market."
"Heh," Mr. Howitt laughed, "You weren't almost fired. I'M your boss. HR can't do anything to you without my consent. And I don't follow you home. And yes, OF COURSE I was right."
"If you don't follow me home, how do you know what I do on the bus?"
"Well, that's classified."
"Classified my ass, this is about MY LIFE! I can't believe I'm even talking to you, you're INSANE!"
"I'm not insane, Jack, though I'm glad that from your perspective, you think so. That's good. You're perceptive, and confident."
"Listen, boss, let's go talk about this together, with someone else. Let's talk to HR about it."
"No, Jack, I've actually been authorized to offer you a job."
"What. No sir, I already work for you. Come on, sir, lets go talk to HR about this. Or we can call them. Right here. It will be easy."
"Heh, Jack, for the last time, I'm not crazy, and we're not talking to HR. Was I not right about the stock market? Did you forget about that? I can tell you how I was right. And you can be part of something important, and make some damn good cash at the same time."
Many geniuses were insane, Jack thought. Was it possible that this crazy person really had a fix on the stock market? Maybe he was like that guy in the movie Pi. Probably not. But at least Jack could catch him in the act and get him some professional help. He decided to play along.
"Okay," Jack said, "I'm in. Sure. Let's go do this… thing."
"Great!" his boss said excitedly, standing up, "This is great! You will be PERFECT! So observant!"
"Yeah. That's me." Jack said dully.
"Okay, okay. Listen. Here's the deal. If you back out… if you tell anyone about this again… well… you're going to forget it ever happened. I'm part of a very powerful group, and we have ways of making people… errrr… forget things."
"Yeah, that's not creepy at all."
"Yeah. I know, you still in?"
"Sure, what the hell."
"Okay, so we're a part of Directorate K. Consider yourself a member starting right now."
"Yep. The Portuguese Swamp Archaeology Authority."
"I… don't know what I was expecting." Jack responded.
"Don't expect any memos or a desk, and don't expect a company card… or even a paycheck."
"So. how do we get paid?"
"Remember the stock market tips?"
"Right, of course. Let's get back to the stock tips."
"No, let's talk about the organization first. I'm not really sure how large it is, no one is, but you, where you're at, you won't be talking TO anyone else. But you will get messages. Sometimes it will be on your computer screen, as anonymous text messages or e-mails disguised as spam, or pre-recorded phone calls. But usually someone random will just come up and talk to you, and you need to listen to them."
"Absolutely. I'll make sure I listen to anyone who comes up to me and starts talking nonsense. I'm getting good at it."
"Great! That's the idea."
"Sooooo… how did you know I count yellow cars?"
"One of our members informed me. You might know him, Jack, he's the guy who spins the coins."
Jack stopped and thought for a moment. "Wait, are you talking about the bum at the bus stop?"
"You know the bum… at my bus stop? You've been talking to him?!" Mr. Howitt was, impossibly, far crazier than he originally thought.
"Yeah, he's one of ours. He checks for large scale probability-shift anomalies. He's great at it."
"Holy fuuuuuuuuck." Jack said, shaking his head. "ALRIGHT. So. How does the stock market thing work?"
"Okay, well remember I said that the day before, twenty-three Japanese businessmen flew into town?"
"How could I forget?"
"And your bus was late that day."
"Which you knew from talking to the bum who spins quarters…"
"No, I know that because over the past few weeks we've had teams crossing city crosswalks back and forth, going nowhere." Mr. Howitt started talking with his hands, motioning people walking in circles. "This has had the effect of making all of the buses in the city late by an average of six minutes. 11% more bus riders, therefore, are now taking their cars. Combined with the added traffic, this has caused a rise in smog! You'll notice there was a smog advisory last week."
"I don't usually pay attention to that…"
"Well there was. And lots of smog equals a red sunrise. And the Japanese see red sunrises as a sign of good fortune."
"So… you made the Japanese feel lucky… and that's why they bought the stock."
"Invested in the company, yes. Sort of. We've also had teams going around the city, polishing all the yellow street signs to be bright and reflective and blinding. Yellow only, that's important. And those guys in the crosswalk causing traffic jams? They've all been wearing yellow ponchos. Oh, we also set all yellow lights to be four-tenths of a second shorter. We also have been painting rental cars around town a disgusting shade of yellow for weeks."
"Of course you did."
"This has caused a subtle but significant reaction in the public. 37% of people in the city now have an unconscious dislike for yellow. BUT, we've been doing the OPPOSITE in Tokyo! So our visiting Japanese, on the other hand, have a strong preference for yellow! We've ensured that they are in the perfect state for being happy, agreeable, and feeling fortuitous."
"This was all you?"
"No, it was the Directorate. Which I'm a part of. Which WE'RE part of."
"And what do we actually do? What does Directorate K do?"
"You know… I don't actually know."
"Let me be honest with you, boss."
"I don't believe a goddamn word you're saying."
"But, what WILL make me believe in what you're saying, is a stock tip. You give me a stock tip every day for the next few weeks, and then we'll take it slow, and see what happens."
"Proctor and Gamble."
"Hey Carl," Jack said, dropping a fifty dollar bill into his mug. "How're the odds?"
"50/50." he smiled back. For a bum, Carl sure had a great attitude.