Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Consulting Detective

Well, it’s happened once again: the comments have outshone the post. I wish to thank everyone for their very thoughtful and heartfelt responses to my previous post on homelessness. Everyone had something to offer on this issue and I enjoyed reading them all. How this blog has ever attracted such insightful people I’ll never know, but no one’s ever accused me of turning away a good thing. Glad to have you all aboard.

Of course, having just said that, I must post the following advisory per order of the editors of The Schprock Report:

WARNING: SILLINESS AHEAD

Now the editors are probably taking their job a little too seriously making me do that, but, truth is, if you’re not in the mood for any foolishness right now, if your valuable time is too important to waste, then you might want to skip the following. No will blame you, trust me. As for the rest, read on at your own risk: you can’t say you weren’t warned.

I have mentioned before that I’ve been extremely busy at work. Ms. Smith has plied her whip without mercy. Layouts have come back with comments like “this looks weak and awful” and “the colors we’re looking for should be ‘fun’ and ‘vibrant,’ not ‘putrid’” (all true). It’s been a series of taking one step forward and two back — we just can’t get any momentum going. Consequently, I’ve been working longer and longer hours; satisfying her and the other clients (Ms. Smith, by the way, thinks she is our only client) has turned into a mad steeplechase with no finish line in sight. 12 and 14 hour days are becoming the norm. Suffice it to say, it’s really starting to not be very much fun anymore.

When you’re overwhelmed with work and things always have to be done in a hurry, the first thing to go out the window are good habits, simply because you can’t afford the time to have them. Conscientious preparatory work is bypassed, rules get broken, and planning ahead becomes something you hope to do one day. Often I’ve had to crudely split the job up three ways and parcel it out, trusting my colleagues to do this or that the right way, because I won’t have time to check their work until the following week. It’s become all about getting it done any way you can.

Last Tuesday I found myself alone in the office at 9:30 in the evening, still hard at it. My day had started at 6:30 that morning, so the old brain was feeling none too peppy. Quite frankly, I think the poor little guy was nothing more than a mushy mass of nerves at that point. I was working on a large document — the key document for the entire project, in fact — when I decided to take a bathroom break. Returning to my computer, I saw the file wasn’t up on my screen anymore. That’s odd, I thought. I clicked here and clicked there, but it soon became apparent I had accidentally quit out of it.

Wearily, I relaunched the program and navigated to the document’s folder. Another surprise: the file wasn’t there! That was very strange. I’ve been known to mistakenly save documents in the remotest and darkest places of the server, but this particular file shouldn’t have gone anywhere. A feeling of uneasiness, very mild at first, began to seep in. I remained calm and did the only logical thing: I used my computer’s finder to search everywhere — it’s own hard drive, the server, my personal external drive — for the missing file.

After five minutes, I succeeded in only locating a backed-up version of the file — from five days before. Remember me saying good habits go out the window when you’re constantly rushed? All my professional life I’ve been a zealot about backing up my work, but here, to my horror, was a prospect I’ve always feared: the only document I could find for a critical job was hopelessly obsolete. If I couldn’t locate the current file, there was no other word for it: I was screwed.

Of course, the next thing I did was spend a half an hour repeating the same steps over and over again, every time turning up the same result. When you can’t think of anything else to do, the only viable option seems to be just that — unless you happen to know a little voodoo. Finally I gave way to sheer panic — I didn’t bother to restrain myself in the slightest. I stood up, nearly tore out all my hair, and commenced to throw every small and handy object in sight. I blush now to think back on the stream of obscenities that came out of my mouth. Despite my mental exhaustion, the apprehension I had of my predicament was terribly and unforgivingly clear: I had single-handedly set the entire job back one week!

You can only be hysterical for so long. Eventually the delirium dissipates; you recognize after a while there are less things to throw and less bad words to shout without repeating yourself; then a cold resignation rolls in to fill the void, unannounced and unwelcome. I saw the futility of how I was carrying on and almost thought it funny. With exaggerated lassitude, like a melodramatic stage actor, I slumped back into my chair and, too tired to cry, rested my head in my arms on the desk.

I might have been like that for a few minutes or even longer, I don’t know, when I suddenly got the distinct feeling I wasn’t alone. Don’t ask me how I knew it, for I didn’t hear a sound, but I had an awareness there was someone else in my office observing me. Have you ever noticed that sensation? In a crowd you can be standing there and suddenly lock eyes with a stranger who had been idly staring at you, as if you knew? So it was with me. Slowly I rose my head. My eyes traveled up and then over the computer monitor in front of me. Above the monitor, I saw a tweed cap. Rising still further, I saw that the tweed cap was resting on a head. Now standing, I beheld, to my amazement, an entire man seated composedly before my desk.

I forget exactly what I said. I think it might have been something inane like, “Hello?” Even though he was seated, I could see he was tall and thin, wiry really, thinness with strength. The material of his suit exactly matched his cap — his whole outfit looked as if from a century other than this one or the 20th; he could have been an actor in costume for a play. It was difficult to guess how old he was — somewhere in his forties, perhaps. His face was relatively unlined and thin like the rest of him, sunken-cheeked perhaps, but not necessarily in an unhealthy way, set off by an aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes. You got the impression, without him saying a word, of a powerful intellect. And the strangest thing was this: without ever having met him, he seemed familiar to me somehow.

He withdrew from his coat pockets a briar pipe and a pouch of tobacco. “You’ll permit me, of course,” he said.

“I don’t think they allow you to in this building” I numbly said.

“Pish! Americans,” he said, then filled the pipe, tamped down the tobacco and lit up. Soon a great cloud of smoke began to fill my little office.

“I couldn’t help but notice you have a problem,” he addressed me mildly between puffs. “Some people think I’m good at solving them. Perhaps I may assist you.”

”I doubt it,” I said, thinking him as old-fashioned in manner as in dress. “It’s computer-related.”

“You refer to that machine on your desk of course,” he said, pointing to my computer with the stem of his pipe.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “You have some misgivings — perhaps you doubt my expertise. While that is understandable, I must remark that some say I’m a fairly quick study. How else would I know, for instance, that you played the saxophone in junior high school, you only learned to tie a necktie last year, your father was an alcoholic fishmonger and your mother a circus tumbler, you have ridden a horse only once in your life, you have a fondness for shellfish, you play tennis badly and golf even worse, you allow your wife to buy all your clothing for you, and you love baseball but think hockey a complete waste of time?”

“Why—! It—!” I spluttered. “This is witchcraft! How could you have possibly known all those things? You — you must be a demon of some kind!”

“Tut, tut, my dear fellow. Nonsense. What may seem wonderful to you are merely extrapolations and deductions my trained mind is in the habit of making. It’s really not much more than a parlor trick, I assure you. But to the matter at hand — you’ve lost something and you want it found, that much is plain. Please tell it all to me. Pray be as specific as you can. Even the smallest fact, however insignificant it may seem, can be of immense value.”

“But who are you?” I asked.

“You would want to know that, eh? Quite so. I am, so far as I can tell, the world’s only consulting detective. People bring me their problems, insoluble mysteries which have confounded the experts usually; they lay down before me all the facts, and through a rigorous mental process — largely deductive reasoning — I can, from my armchair, untangle the skein and make everything perfectly understandable.”

“And you think you can help me?”

“My dear fellow, if I were a gambler, I’d stake my entire fortune upon it.”

These were confident words indeed. And, in my desperation, I grasped at his claim like a drowning man would a thrown rope. I lost no time describing what had happened, but that wasn’t enough. The detective wanted to know at what time had I arrived for work that morning (he knew, somehow, that I rode a bicycle), what I had for breakfast, did I drink tea or coffee (“Suggestive!” he declared, when I told him tea), where did my wife shop for her groceries, could I sing on key, was I in the habit of filing things alphabetically or by date, and on and on. When he asked me to estimate, as near as I could, the number of steps it took to get to the convenience store where I bought a package of Twinkies that afternoon, I begged him to please focus more on the computer and my lost file. At this, he withdrew from inside his coat a large magnifying lens and meticulously went over my entire office with it. Stray fibers and bits of crumbs caught in the carpet elicited cries of delight (“Illuminating!”); trade publications and software user’s guides on my bookshelves intrigued him (“Hardly used,” he remarked); a hanging plant of swedish ivy held his attention for some two or three minutes (“It tells a story as if it could speak,” he said); and finally he seated himself before my computer.

“A keyboard arranged like an ordinary typewriter. And this is what you call a ‘mouse.’ Ah, yes, very good, I see how it works. Ingenious, I’m sure. Now let’s see — this operating system is apparent enough — one navigates this way — these icons represent programs, while, over here, these fellows are the documents created from them. Simplicity itself. Virus program has not been updated for a while — very bad of you, but my reasoning particularly does not point to a virus — ah! and this is what you mean by a ‘bug.’ We’ll work around it this way…” and on he went in this vein. Soon his speech became even less coherent to me as he picked up speed. His fingers flew over the keyboard and he clicked on the mouse as if tapping out Morse code. On the monitor’s screen, windows appeared and disappeared in rush; the computer made many sounds I never heard come from it before. His face was all concentration; you could feel a union between he and the computer, as if they were communicating with each other. “Ah, a diagnostic program!” he exclaimed at one point, and then, “a file recovery feature — did you know you had it? No, of course not,” and on he kept going, his hands never idle for a moment.

I watched all of this in amazement and with a growing hope that the consulting detective might find my precious file after all. Minutes ticked by while he clattered away at the keyboard. He clicked many buttons and ran this program and that; it was like watching a concert pianist attack a difficult Chopin etude with masterful facility and zest. Finally a window with a big button on it appeared on the screen and it stayed there. All movement stopped. The detective stared at it for a long moment. This, I could see, was important.

Suddenly he turned to me, his eyes blazing. “Tell me — and here you must be absolutely certain, for the wrong answer could be fatal!— when you put your socks on in the morning, with which foot do you start?”

“My — my socks?”

“Dash it all, man, your socks I said! Which foot do you start with? Come, come now, think! Everything depends upon it!”

Bemused, I acted out in my mind a ritual I’ve performed every morning of my life but had never taken the time to consider. The consulting detective impatiently looked at me, glanced at the computer screen, and back to me again.

“I — it’s — I put them on my right foot first. Yes, always on my right.”

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Then I have it! Do you see this button here? I will tell you that never before has any living creature ever had the need to click this button. I will warrant that this button right here, sir, is the most dangerous button of all buttons. You can even see it written here: ‘Do not click this button’ it says. But why did they make such a button then, eh? To what end, you may ask? Because, my dear fellow, we have hit upon the only conceivable circumstance of which this button can be of any possible constructive value. Everything points to it! My reasoning is flawless. To recover your file, this button must be clicked!”

It was a very scary looking button indeed. “But are you absolutely sure? Things now are bad enough — I can’t afford to make them worse.”

“Where is your courage, man? Do you want that file back or don’t you? Authorize me to click that button, and I assure you, upon my honor, that all will be well.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that this was the most painful decision of my life. It was like putting the deed to your house down on red 22 at roulette. But this was no time to wring my hands. It was now or never. “Yes,” I said, “I authorize it. Click the button!”

The consulting detective smiled at me as if to show approval of my good sense. I marveled at this man whose constitution seemed to admit of no indecision. He turned back to the computer, took the mouse firmly in hand, and clicked.

First the only thing that happened was that the window went away. Then, slowly, the computer screen darkened. A faint noise began to issue from within the computer, which, after several seconds, began to pick up in volume. It seemed to be speech, a babble of many voices, shrill voices and deep bass voices, some singing, some merely chanting. Then my desk began to shake; the consulting detective reached over and grasped the monitor with both hands to keep it from tumbling off the desk. Lights started to flicker across the monitor’s screen, the vibration increased, the voices grew louder, and soon a sort of mist began to pour out from within the computer’s housing. “Steady!” the detective shouted to me. “Steady, old boy!” Now the floor began to shake and books started to fall from the shelves. I held onto to a nearby cabinet for support. The detective, with a quick movement, wrapped the whole computer in a tight bear hug; I saw his cap fly off his head. “Steady on!” he cried. The lights in my office flicked on and off; the voices grew to such a pitch my ears began to hurt. “Shut it off!” I cried. “We’ll be killed!”

But then it all stopped. The office lights stayed on, the floor quit shaking, and the hanging plant slowly ceased to rock back and forth. Whatever had happened, it was over.

The consulting detective reached down to pick up his hat and, with a theatrical flourish, offer to me my chair to sit down in. “Inspect the results, if you please,” he said. We stepped around each other and I seated myself. I hardly dared to look. But there, on the screen, was dearest sight I had ever beheld in my whole existence: the little icon that was my file!

I think I went out of my head for a while. The consulting detective appeared quite proud of himself as he watched me whoop and make other such exclamations of unbounded happiness. At last, I buried my face in my hands and wept tears of joy.

When I had done, I lifted my head up and at first noticed a very peculiar thing: my little office was put back in order. All the books that had fallen from the shelves were back in place. The hanging plant, which had lost some leaves during that apocalyptic scene, was as healthy and serene as ever. There were no paper clips strewn over the floor; my pencils and pens, which had gone flying everywhere, were back in their cup. This to me was disturbing. But here’s what upset me most: there was no sign of the consulting detective! Where did he go? And then the thought hit me at once: was all of this a dream?

After that came the most chilling moment of all: what about my file? Now I know very well that at this point in the story it would have been customary for me to see, on the monitor, the lost document. I would gasp, the reader would gasp, and question would hang there: was it a dream . . . or not? But here I’m afraid I must let the reader down. Sadly, my file was not there. Evidently, I had fallen asleep and dreamt it all.

I got home very late that night and slept fitfully. When I did fall into a shallow slumber, I dreamt of the consulting detective working away at my computer. It was really no good trying to sleep — I awoke for the final time a full hour before my alarm was set to go off.

I am what you may call a “worry wart.” Although I know perfectly well it makes no sense to to do it, I can’t stop myself from turning over and over in my mind whatever predicament I might be in. I have an unhealthy habit of replaying distressing events as if on a loop and examining each scene again and again, trying to find a silver lining or a solution that never reveals itself. Everything, as it inevitably always did, seemed hopeless.

Back in the office that morning, I informed my bosses of what happened and told them the only thing I could think of was to call the IT service we always turn to when our computers won’t behave themselves. I knew it would do no good, but I had to give it a try. As usual, when I called them, they said I would have to wait a couple of days; all their technicians were busy. I’m sorry, I said, it can’t wait, something will have to done to make one of them available now. Please excuse me, sir, that’s not possible, the voice on the other end said. We’ll pay extra, I pleaded, please do something. Someone will get back to you, I heard.

In the end, the IT service arranged for a technician to arrive at one o’clock that afternoon. When the hour arrived, he wasn’t there. 1:30 came and went, and still no IT guy. Finally, at 1:57, the elevator doors swished open and there he appeared.

Although it grieves me to say it, I must at this point once again disappoint the reader. We all know that when the technician shows up, he should look exactly like the consulting detective. And then, of course, I’m supposed to gasp and the reader, in his turn, should do likewise. But the technician, whose name was Seth, looked nothing like the consulting detective. Where the detective was tall and thin, Seth was short and fat. While the detective’s countenance had the eager features of a bird of prey, Seth’s was more like a Buddha who had stayed up too late the night before. The detective was rather nattily — if slightly out of fashion — dressed: Seth’s shirt tails were in a constant struggle to free themselves from the tops of his trousers. The detective moved quickly and decisively; Seth waddled and breathed hard from the strain.

Seth carried with him a special backpack that had everything he needed: a laptop, scores of CDs, and an array of tools only people like Seth would know how to use. I explained the problem to him and he assured me he could locate the file inside of 15 minutes. I couldn't believe it when he told me! Could I be saved that easily? Seth huffed and puffed around my desk and seated himself. My chair made a nasty little squeak when his entire bulk came to rest on it. From within his backpack he withdrew several CDs, a length of cable, and a tool or two that appeared to have more of a dental application than an electronic one. He also extracted a bag of Cheetos and a can of Mountain Dew.

At first his confidence was indestructible. He inserted one CD and then another. Like the consulting detective, he made this window and that rapidly appear and disappear on the screen. He clicked many buttons. 15 minutes passed, then 30. A whole hour came and went. At first he let me watch him and indulged me my innocent, yet stupid, questions. One thing didn’t work, then another and another still. At the hour and a half mark, the half-eaten bag of Cheetos and opened can of Mountain Dew were all but forgotten. His insouciance dissolved into puzzlement; from puzzlement there came annoyance. Large blotches of sweat began to appear on his shirt. When I made one suggestion, he turned to me very crossly and said, “Do you, like me, still go by the name you were born with?”

“Well, yes—”

“But does your name have little letters that come after it, like my name does?”

“No—”

“Do you know what those little letters mean?” he asked.

“Well, I—”

“They mean I know what the hell I’m doing and you don’t. Now please go over there and don’t come back until you’re called.”

Meekly, I stepped out of my office.

Two hours passed, then three. Seth called his office for technical support; then he called the computer’s manufacturer — nothing they offered worked. He accused me of trashing the file or giving him the wrong name. He questioned its very existence. At last I could stand it no longer and reentered my office. I had to see what he was doing.

“This is it,’ he said, his shirt now completely saturated with sweat. “I’ve tried everything.” I saw one window flash by, then another and another. Finally there came a window I recognized instantly.

“Seth!” I cried. “That’s it!”

“What?” he asked irritably.

“Do you see that button right there?”

“Oh, I see it all right. Believe me, you don’t want anything to do with that button.”

“Seth,” I said hoarsely, for my emotion at this point was clearly getting the better of me, “you must click that button!”

Seth stopped what he was doing and turned to address me much like a schoolmaster would an errant child. “Are you insane? Do you know what that button is? We, in the trade, call it ‘the unclickable button.’ No one has ever dared click that button. There are theories of what would happen, all of them disastrous.” Here his countenance turned a little dreamy. “Not that I’ve never thought of clicking it. We all would like to. I tell you, the man who finally clicks that button will have a song written about him.”

“Seth,” I said, struggling to maintain my breathing, which was now coming in ragged gasps, “you are that man! I — I authorize you to click that button!”

“You’re mad!”

“Click it, I say!”

A look of terror stole over Seth’s face. All assurance was gone. The image of a frightened Moses staring at the burning bush came into my mind. He didn’t know what to do.

“Don’t think!” I directed him firmly. “Click the button!”

With infinite slowness he turned back to the computer. His shaking hand feebly took hold of the mouse. He hesitated.

“Everything depends upon it!” I cried. “Click the button!”

Seth clicked the button. First there was nothing; then the screen grew dark. Seth whimpered and slid in the chair back from the desk. Then came faint sounds emanating from within the computer; they grew louder and louder. Ancient tongues, Babylonian, Aramaic, Hebrew, joined in an unholy cacophony of sound. The computer began to vibrate; then the desk vibrated; presently the floor and the walls shook. Books flew off the shelves; Seth was struck on the head by a volume of Flash 5 for Dummies and dropped senseless to the ground. I reached for the computer and clung to it, keeping it on the desk. I tell you now I thought for sure the end had come!

And then it all stopped. I looked around and saw my office was in complete disarray. My hanging plant swayed back and forth, bereft of nearly half its leaves. Books and notebooks and every office supply you can think of were scattered everywhere. The handset of my telephone was knocked off its hook and I could hear the alert sound it made. Seth lay in one corner in a heap.

“Seth!” I said, shaking him. “Seth, are you OK?”

Seth’s eyelids fluttered open and he looked at me. “Am I — am I dead?”

I laughed. “No, you’re alive. You did it! You clicked the button and survived!”

“The file?” he asked.

Oh, yes, the file. Until then, I hadn’t thought to look for it. I picked up my chair, set it down and stumbled into it. After all of that, I think what I feared the most was confirming if my document had been restored. But a quick glance told me everything: the cherished icon was back where it should be. I was saved!

A half an hour later Seth was packed up and ready to go. I saw in his eyes something very nearly like respect for me. The solemn expression on his face when he shook my hand was priceless. Then the elevator doors swished open, he waddled through, and he left. He had a story to tell. Seth would soon be famous.

Well, it had been a long day and I was beat. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and now, with the strain of all that happened, I was all done in. I wandered into the bathroom, gathered into my cupped hands cold water from the faucet, and splashed my face.

Looking up, I regarded myself in the mirror. I am nearly 50, but I suppose I could pass for 45. Perhaps it had to do with my thinness; all my life I could never put on weight. I inspected the features of my face: the slightly sunken cheeks, the piercing blue eyes, the aquiline nose—

Suddenly it came upon me like a thunderclap! The consulting detective! Why, he was none other than…



Instructions for the Reader

Step 1: Complete the sentence.
Step 2: Gasp as loudly as you can.



THE END

17 Comments:

Blogger Scott said...

Wow Mr. Schprock, that was a trip through wonderland. I love the way you defy the cliche at every junction. It felt like a movie where the dreamer wakes up and finds he's still in the dream and must wake up again, and we have to wonder if the hero has irreparably lost his marbles from the excessive pressure of his job. What a spark of inspiration this piece was. Gripping and unique. Bravo.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

You've really outdone yourself this time, Mr. Schprock. I was drawn in, as I always am, but this time I lost all sense of time, space, and who was scoring touchdowns for Green Bay.

You made one small mistake though: the warning should read Brilliance Ahead.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Yoda said...

Wow! That was some trip :) This reminded me of a week-in-hell during summer. I deleted 3 weeks worth of work in one swift motion.

No IT guy could save me. I had to re-do all the work. Ofcourse, I cried.

9:34 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thank you, Scott and Chloe! Those were very nice things to say.

And, Yoda, I feel your pain.

4:42 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

Bravo, Mr. Schprock, BRAVO! *thunderous clapping*

5:55 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

I guess I can excuse your posting drought--seems you have been busy coming up with good stuff like this.

Bravo, Schprock. Bravo.

7:33 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thanks Michele and Henry! And about my "drought" I'm afraid it will continue. For the next few weeks I'll have to be a weekend blogger only.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

I'm impressed, Mr. Schprock. I am jealous of your imagination and writing ability.

And I wept at your use of "insoluble."

8:04 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

You've aptly described the nightmares regarding every term paper I've ever typed. Only mine was never there at the end. *sob*

I dropped the school's laptop in high school once. No IT smarty could bring back that paper. Or anyone else's. Oops.

8:26 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thanks, Kathleen, for the kind words. I've visited your blog a few times and have noticed you're no slouch yourself!

And Trina, let's review this: "I dropped the school's laptop in high school once. No IT smarty could bring back that paper."

Back in my day, it was: "I spilled gravy on it and the dog ate it."

8:37 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Yeah, but I had proof. I dropped it right in front of the teacher. Accidentally, of course.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

School laptop? I'm with Mr. Schprock on this one - only we didn't have a dog.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Seth’s shirt tails were in a constant struggle to free themselves from the tops of his trousers.

Haha!

Oh boy, there were a dozen lines I wanted to site above, but didn't. Another masterpiece. I scanned the length and said to myself, "Uh no, not right now," but found myself reading and then caught up in it after the second paragraph.

Did you always want to write, Mr. Schprock, or is it just something you're realizing now? The possibilities of being published? Think about it!

8:17 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"…but found myself reading and then caught up in it after the second paragraph."

Beth, the very first post of yours I read, the one about Ruzzo, the same thing happened to me. It hasn't changed. You're a gifted writer and a natural storyteller.

10:38 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Suddenly it came upon me like a thunderclap! The consulting detective! Why, he was none other than…
Nero Wolfe?
;P

Man that was fun!! I really thought you were going to splash water on your face and leave the bathroom only to find that you were at work, alone, because it was a dream within a dream! LOL! But no. Yay Seth. And Yay to the aquiline nosed detective that shouldn't smoke...

9:10 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Ah, but was it a dream within a dream?

(spooky music)

5:12 AM  
Blogger Jaxx said...

Mr. Schprock, you're making me rethink my desire to write. That was one of the best shorts I have ever read. Chloe was right: Brilliant indeed!

6:47 PM  

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