Hardberger & Maro, Attorneys at Law by Le’ Stevion Harris

A yellow taxi travels down a downtown Dallas road, carrying a passenger along for a ride. The pink and peach of dawn are unraveled against the darker remnants of last night’s sky. The taxi’s body looks scuffed and acquainted with the city, with seemingly haphazardly placed stickers on its windows: one is a logo for ‘K104’ radio station; another is a partially degraded and halfway removed logo for ‘Johnny’s Pizza and Subs.’ Still, there are more. The larger stickers of the price points are fixed perfectly balanced in the back corner of each rear seat window. The passenger thinks the road is not as packed as expected for the downtown of a big city. In the back seat, the passenger sports a low taper fade haircut, brown skin, and anxious brown eyes, which peer out the window as the reflections of streetlights and busy people pass across the glass. This twenty-something man, in his simple grey suit, is Deonte Clark.

The traffic light ahead turns red. Spinning black tires screech to a halt on the damp road. The yellow taxi jolts to a halt. Deonte snaps his gaze toward the driver and tries to catch his frustrated sigh, but air and noise find their way to the driver. The driver looks back and begins.

“Sir! You said you were in a hurry,” he says, looking apologetic yet ready to defend his behavior.

“Yea, I am. You’re good, man.”

“Alright, ‘cause I’m going to get you there. I am quick, brother!”

“Yea, I appreciate it man. Just get us there safe, you know.”

“I got you, brother. No worries, my friend. I drive fast because the people here, they drive crazy, man. So I drive crazy too.” He offers a hopeful chuckle to Deonte. “You know what I mean? I have to get you there. I know you have important meeting, you’re an important businessman.” Deonte nods along in the backseat. “But safely,” the driver continues. “Thirteen years, and I never had an accident. Never.”

“Well, that is a little reassuring.”

“Yes. See, I watch everything. I don’t wait until a car pulls in front of me. I’ve been watching them already. I can tell they are about to get over with no turning light.” 

Deonte is nodding along. He’s all but checked out mentally. 

The driver continues, “I watch my passengers too because everybody’s crazy here. I see what they are wearing, how they move their hands, even the way they sit back there, because the devil’s in the detail.” 

Deonte’s sensibilities are alerted by the final phrase. He adjusts himself a bit to be more presentable in his seat. 

The driver continues, “You, for example, you are easy to talk to. Seems like I know you already. You’re better than the guy I dropped off here yesterday, so I think you will be fine. He was dressed like you… even looked like you a little, but he wasn’t as nice. His spirit was ugly.” Deonte takes a little delight from the favorable analysis.

The driver continues talking about some thing or another while navigating the roads and looking very astute as captain of the taxi. Deonte settles back into his seat. He has slipped away from the driver’s words and is thinking that the driver wasn’t this talkative before giving him whiplash. The driver, noticing his passenger drifting from the conversation, decides to call it quits. He’s apologized enough and has made a couple more of those hard stops since the first one without an outward objection from Deonte.

Now, Deonte hopes the driver will stay quiet, and he’ll be able to think on his wife, Macy, and their kid, BB, for the last couple of minutes before arriving at his destination. Then, the driver says, “Your stop, sir.” Damn. Deonte returns, “Appreciate the ride.” Deonte hands his driver a ten-dollar bill, who grips the money firm and thanks Deonte.

Wood brown, leather oxford shoes step out of the taxi, planting themselves on the pavement. Deonte brings himself out of the taxi and stands 5’11’’. Looking up, the Dallas skyline is glorious with buildings that give his neck a workout and remind him of the power of human agency. He enters the building. In the lobby, he pauses to read over his invitation from ‘Hardberger and Maro, Attorneys at Law.’ It states that the office is on the seventeenth floor.

While heading to the elevator at the end of the lobby, he receives a text: Good morning babe. News people say Texas just got a little hotter with u in it. BB and I are thinking about you. Anyway, knock ‘em dead. join u soon. Deonte grows a warm smile. Still headed toward the elevator, he spots a large cowboy hat atop the head of a large man in jeans and a tucked in farmer-formal shirt, with a giant belt buckle to seal the outfit. Deonte arrives at the elevator, presses the ‘up’ button, and the elevator opens for him.

Empty. No one aboard to keep him company for seventeen floors. He enters and takes a comfortable position against the back wall’s rail. Deonte whips out his cell and begins thumbing the screen. Texting his wife: Seen a real cowboy. Definitely down under now. Seeking your guidance babe. Macy is from Dallas and promised to familiarize Deonte when her and BB join him there. Deonte presses the ‘Send’ button on his cell. Not Delivered! appears next to his carefully tailored message. He looks to the top corner of the screen seeing that there’s an offensive slash across his signal bars. Deonte curses under his breath and looks up from his cell’s screen. A light hops from one number to another above the elevator doors. 10, 11, 12, 13.

Then, the light stops. The elevator rumbles and roars. Grinding noises outside. Vibrating cables. The elevator begins to slide back downward. Deonte cowers to the corner, screaming in horror. The lights flicker off. Darkness. Then, the elevator bounces to a hard stop. Horror becomes Deonte’s face in the darkness. The lights flicker on, and the elevator continues upward again, faster than before. The sharp movements of the elevator practically paralyze Deonte and keep him from mashing the red ‘help’ button as he so wishes to. In the new light, his face is petrified and slobbering. Now he only wants to scream, but he can’t seem to project any sound in his paralyzed state. Suddenly, the elevator slows to a stop. Ding! The ’17’ is lit above the elevator doors. The doors open and Deonte throws himself out of the elevator, onto the office floor. 

Deonte gets up from the floor, wiping his slobber and looking around to take in his environment. A large office with many desks and busy attorneys in the center of its main floor. There are individual offices lined along the walls of its perimeter. Many feet hitting the carpeted floor, keyboards clacking, attorneys conversing on their desk phones, and papers swooshing. Deonte is approached by a tall, beer belly-toting man in a cowboy hat, but this cowboy has a nice formal grey suit. The man opens boisterously with “Virgil Hardberger,” and extends his hand for a shake. They shake and Hardberger wraps his arm around Deonte’s shoulders. “It’s German. The last name. I’ll spare you the details of the job for today. We hired you because we know you do good work, but we’re glad you’re making the switch to civil.”

“Me as well.”

“No prosecutions around here. Today you’ll be running coffee and copies. Et cetera of that nature. Your guy loves coffee. Oberman. Y’all should get along good enough. Don’t care if you do really, so long as you get done what needs to be done.”

Deonte can hardly listen to anything after what happened with the elevator. Deonte begins, “Hey, the elevator—”

“I’ll get someone to call maintenance again before the day’s out. That thing is jacked. Scares people all the time… but it brought you to us on time. Early even. Don’t ask that clock though.” Hardberger points to a clock that has motionless hour and minute hands, mounted directly across from the elevator, above Hardberger’s office door.

Deonte wonders how a law office can be getting along with the main clock out of order and no other clocks in sight.

Hardberger continues. “Let’s keep with the basics for today. No frills. We have two restrooms. One working,” he states while pointing toward the kitchen to his right. “Just past the kitchen, and the other not working,” as he points to his left, down a dark hallway of more doors. “Just down that hallway. The florescent lightbulb needs to be replaced in the ceiling, then it’ll be back to its normal dimness.”

Deonte wonders again. This is a law office. How could an entire hallway be unlit and one of only two restrooms not work? A lot of stuff is broken around here.

“Our staff phone is down, but the building’s tech guy is working on that. When it’s up and running, that is what we use to make or receive personal calls. Although, those should still be limited anyway. It should be up before the end of the shift.”

Deonte wonders where this phone is at, but Hardberger is plowing forward as they walk the perimeter of the busy office.

“How are you liking Dallas?”

“Oh, I haven’t even gotten a place yet.”

“No worries. You’ll like it here. But you’re transitioning, okay?”

“Yes, sir. You don’t have to worry about me running back to the cold north. I will say, though, that if I had known I would end up practicing in Dallas, I would have chosen to attend SMU Dedman. I did apply.”

“Ah, don’t worry about that, son. We do have a lot of Dedman alumni here… a lot, but you’ll fit right in. Besides, collegiate credentials don’t matter when you’re already in the door and have a track record of success. Which we know that you do have, getting the bad guys off the mean streets of the Midwest. Like that one mafia affiliated S.O.B.” Deonte’s eyebrows rise without his consent. He and Hardberger reach the door to Hardberger’s office. Hardberger points up to the writing above his door.

Hardberger & Maro, Attorneys at Law

Per Aspera Ad Astra

They enter Hardberger’s office. A man sits facing away from them in one of the two guest chairs that face Hardberger’s large wooden desk. The slick haired and slick dressed man turns around with a likeable enough smile. He promptly gets up to greet Deonte. Extending his hand for a shake, he begins, “Hey. Donald Oberman.”

Deonte returns, “Deonte Clark.”

Hardberger takes over. “Glad you two have made each other’s acquaintance. Deonte, you’ll be under Oberman for the time being. Sound good?”

“Yes. Looking forward it.” Deonte offers a reassuring, pinched-lip grin to Oberman. It isn’t that he doesn’t like Oberman, who seems to be a fine fellow. Deonte simply had different expectations of how these first ten minutes on the job were going to transpire.

Hardberger again. “Okay, Oberman. Out you go.” Oberman begins out. “Take Deonte esquire out with you.”

Deonte takes a moment to realize the situation, then he follows Oberman out of the office and closes the door behind himself. Stepping out, he scans the office. Looks like a scene out of a Hollywood office drama. There shouldn’t be this much outward commotion going on in a real law office. That certainly wasn’t the case back in the small office in Illinois. Then, in the front right corner of this large office, a few feet away from that damned elevator, Deonte notices a small lady at her desk. She’s shivering, seemingly on the brink of crying, and trying poorly to continue with her paperwork. Oberman is still walking toward his desk in the center of the overly large office space when he notices that Deonte’s attention has been taken elsewhere. He returns to Deonte, who is frozen and unknowingly staring at the small shivering lady.

Oberman makes his way back to Deonte.

“Is she cold?” Deonte asks.

“No. She has a condition. But she doesn’t have to come in tomorrow. You can help her by leaving her alone. Now, would you follow me?” They walk across the busy office, then reach Oberman’s desk. “Today you will be doing menial work. Very menial. In fact, I’m not even sure you could call it work.”

“Hardberger has explained as much.”

“Great. So your job today is to do as I direct and don’t disrupt the work of others.” Oberman gives Deonte a focused stare in the eyes and implores with, “Do not disrupt the work of others. Got it?”

“Got it,” replies Deonte.

“People need to get out of here as soon as possible, but the amount of work to be done is nearly insurmountable on a daily. No one needs you making their stint longer. Now, I need Keurig. Everything you need is in the kitchen. Surprise me with the flavor, but something sort of dark might suit me at the moment. No creamer. One sugar.”

Deonte assumes that the oddity of this first day rite-of-passage, or whatever, is but a drop… a weird drop in the bucket of the bounty that is sure to come of his law career in Dallas. I mean, this is surely one of the best smaller group law practices in the city. Deonte, an attorney, has done his research.

Deonte appears from the kitchen with two coffees in hand. If he is gonna be Oberman’s bitch for a day, he is gonna need his own caffeine as well. Looking across the office, Deonte sees that Oberman is standing, leaned over the desk of a woman who is sitting behind her desk, which is close to Oberman’s own. Oberman is mentioning something to the attorney. Moving closer, Deonte notices the apparent discomfort on her face. Not physical discomfort. Deonte is halted by the scene and finds himself witnessing yet another pained woman amidst the chaos of this office. 

The woman gets up from her seat and walks around to the front of her desk. She tries to skate past a looming Oberman with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. He quickly turns around to face her. She is extending over the desk directly facing hers a bit to hand some other attorney a manila folder. With Oberman turned around to face her now, her backside is directly in front of him. Deonte can’t believe the scene that unravels as Oberman confidently and assuredly moves toward the unsuspecting woman’s turned back, extending his arm and hand toward her butt. Oberman smacks the woman’s butt with a firmness that would suggest they were proudly wedded to each other. 

The lady whirls around to face Oberman. Her disposition is astonished. She makes a defeated walk back around to her desk chair. She simply folds her arms and looks down a bit, half mad and half sad at her position of subjugation. Even now, Oberman has the audacity to grin at the lady, still right in front of her desk. He won’t leave the lady alone. 

Deonte looks around to see who is looking. He thinks that with as many people as there are around here, and with the scene going down smack in the middle of the office, someone must have seen it. He knows someone did. Hell, everybody must have seen it. Apparently, no one did. He marches toward the scene as quickly as he can with hot coffees in both hands and navigating the clustered scene of moving parts and people scattered across the office. This cluster obstructs Deonte’s vision of Oberman and the woman. By the time Deonte can set his sights on the scene again, the lady is giving Oberman some opposition. She’s saying something with attitude, though Deonte can’t hear any of it. Just before Deonte reaches them, Oberman begins walking back toward his own desk. Deonte stops mid-stride, not having been noticed by either of them yet. The scene is over now, though. What to do? He should still confront Oberman, right? And he is not gonna work for a guy like that. Not past today, anyway. Today is needed to get in the door. But he vows to give Oberman a piece of his mind when the time was right. 

Deonte is in shock for a while but then asks others if they saw what happened. He doesn’t ask in the way one does with actual inquiry, but more so in the way you ask as a hypothetical. Everybody seems to have noticed the one-sided flirting, yet nobody seems to have noticed the physical assault Oberman committed. Furthermore, no one seems to care either way.

Deonte is half-busy being perplexed when Oberman taps him on the shoulder. This is professional Oberman again. He removes a coffee from Deonte’s hand and thanks him. Back across the office, Hardberger’s office blinds have a small opening where his eyes and nose peer out, observing Deonte. The opening in the blinds drops closed. Back in the center of the floor, Deonte is standing in front of Oberman’s desk listening intently as Oberman explains how the Keurig brought to him is a little too dark and how perhaps an extra half packet of sugar could have helped it. Deonte is nodding along, falling away into a mental numbness. It’s either this or rage. He’s handled and witnessed enough criminal cases to have an extreme aversion to rage. So he nods along. A hand taps Deonte on the shoulder, to which Deonte turns to greet. Oberman silently waits. The hand belongs to some other young guy looking up at Deonte.

This guy states dryly that “You’ve been summoned. Hardberger’s office.” Deonte responds simply by heading to where he’s been summoned. No word to the messenger or to Oberman. He’s simultaneously relieved to get away from Oberman and frustrated that his first hour has been marked by nothingness and a little workplace harassment. Never have grandiose imaginings been subverted so quickly. 

As Deonte enters Hardberger’s office, and Hardberger directs him to have a seat. They sit facing each other with the large wooden desk in between them. Hardberger says: “You look dead out there, son. Oberman’s not an orator. He’s ugly, too. An ugly, ugly man. A little beside the point, I know, but I’m gonna tell you something. He has a lot of work to do around. I give him more work than anybody really, and he gets it done. That’s why I’m starting you with him because I’ll be needing you to be high volume as well. Understand?”

“Yes,” Deonte affirms.

“Need a break yet? Step outside to call home?”

“No, I only break from work when absolutely necessary.”

“Okay, well that’s all.”

Deonte was hoping for more, or something different, but he now must head back to his disappointing introduction to work here on the seventeenth floor. He stands up and heads for the door. As he opens it, Hardberger asks, “Could you see yourself here for 20 years?” Deonte hesitates for only a second and is about to respond when Hardberger interjects. “Ahh, don’t answer that. We’re glad to have you for the time being.”

Deonte exits, closing the door behind himself. He begins toward Oberman’s desk, then makes a beeline left toward the kitchen. Once in the kitchen area, he heads to the massive window that overlooks the busy street below. He never does this, but he whips out his cell phone at work. Still no signal. The sound of the refrigerator opening on the other side of the kitchen spurs him to rush his phone back into his pocket. Whipping around, he sees a guy pulling plastic food containers from the refrigerator. This guy’s arms and hands are full of dishes, bags of potato chips, and even a small box of plastic ware. With his initial surprise completed, Deonte becomes annoyed with the scene. Why doesn’t this guy set some of this stuff down and get it in increments instead of trying to tote the entire kitchen at once? It’s idiotic. The guy notices Deonte now, and calls to him, “Hey! Give me a hand?”

Deonte heads over to the guy. While trying to pull another container from the fridge with his last remaining and barely free hand, the guy begins, “This place is a riot. And how about that Oberman? He’s all over Reyes, and let me tell ya, she doesn’t want it.”

So, that’s her name, Deonte thinks to himself. “Yea man, I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed. What’s that about?”

“I can’t be bothered to deal with it right now. No one else wants to talk about it, so I don’t want to. I won’t be here much longer, myself. Got another job. Guess where?”

Deonte thinks to himself, I don’t know, but I wish you would just tell me.

“On the eighteenth floor.”

“On the eighteenth floor? Of this building? What practice is that?”

“Nah, I’m out of law.”

“So, what will you be doing there?”

“I’ll tell ya later, but could you help me here?”

Deonte reaches to grab some items from the man’s arm, but the man interjects. “No. Down there,” pointing to the cabinet space below them. “I’ll set these down myself,” he says while letting the contents of one arm topple loudly on the counter near them, but maintaining many other items between his torso and other arm. “There should be a large bowl.” Deonte crouches to reach into the lower cabinet. Then, the sound of tumbling plastic dishes, clacking and thudding, fumbling onto the guy, and plopping onto the floor. Broccoli, chips, and a long box of foil all clash to the floor. Deonte looks up to see the guy yanking his arm back from the above cabinet space. Some sort of clumpy, ketchup-colored food paste has splashed onto his face and in his hair. 

He yells out “My back!” and winces in pain. “Ahh fuck, I hurt my back trying to reach for it!” 

Deonte looks concerned. What to do? 

The man continues, “Don’t worry. This back has been jacked for a while now, but sometimes I just forget. Usually when I’m hungry.” The man lets out a chuckle and a smirk through the subsiding pain. “Sometimes those meals call me. Here, do me a solid though, would ya?”

“Sure. What do you need?” Deonte quickly responds.

“I just can’t make any sudden movements, and I don’t want to return to my post with whatever the hell this is all over my face. Would you?”

“Yes. Of course.” Deonte’s head goes on a swivel as he begins to search for napkins or a towel.

“Your hand’ll work fine. Get this off of me.”

Deonte composes himself before reaching for the man’s face. His palm is cupped a bit as he plans to swipe with a downward scooping motion. His hands meet the man’s face and make two large, careful swipes on the left cheek. There’s still more red on the man’s face, and Deonte did not plan on this much intimacy. A third swipe and a fourth clear one half of the man’s face. Deonte shakes the gunk off his hand and watches it fall to the floor. Looking back up at the man’s face, Deonte sees a small flap of skin hanging down from the cleaned cheek. Deonte squints to examine the abrasion.

Deonte starts, “Oh god, I’m so sorry.”

“Why is that?”

“Your skin… on your face. It’s peeling a little. I don’t know, maybe I rubbed it too har—”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I should have told you. I have a condition. It’s just a little skin. That was loose before you ever touched it. I’ll put a bandage on it like normal. Trust me, you’re fine, but please do continue. I don’t want to walk out there with half of my face covered in… whatever this is.”

The man is still standing slightly hunched over, with hands planted on the counter to stabilize himself. Deonte cups his hand again and reaches to clean more gunk from the man’s face — this time on the other cheek. Deonte states, “You should probably call the paramedics and be done for the day. It looks kinda serious.”

“I’ll be fine. Lots of work to do.”

Deonte’s hand makes its way. One large swipe to remove the majority of the gunk. Deonte looks at his hand as he is about to shake the gunk to the floor, but there is something else among the gunk in his palm. He stares at what looks like another larger piece of skin. His gaze snaps back to the man’s face. A larger, deeper, bleeding abrasion on the man’s other cheek. Deonte screams in terror. 

The man snaps his palm over Deonte’s mouth. “Shhhush.” How did his movement get so explosive with his injured spine? “It’s okay. This happens all the time. I’ll just go bandage it up in the restroom. Don’t need you making a scene.” 

The man cautiously removes his hand from Deonte’s mouth. Deonte’s mouth is still wide open, but no longer screaming. 

The man continues. “Ah maybe you’re right. I should call the paramedics.” 

Deonte nods. 

The man continues. “I’m gonna wait here for a moment. Just go back to your work, and please don’t cause a scene. And I’ll call them here in a bit.” 

After a moment, Deonte collects himself and complies with the man’s wishes.

Deonte is back on the main floor, listening to Oberman go on about how productive the office is, when he excuses himself, in a supposed emergency, to Hardberger’s office. Slightly agitated, Oberman remarks, “You’ve had a lot of interruptions in your first day.”

Deonte arrives at Hardberger’s office. Hardberger lets him in and offers Deonte a seat. Sitting across from each other, Deonte begins explaining the events of the kitchen and the peeling of the man’s face. Deonte expresses his concern that the man receives medical attention. Hardberger explains that it is okay and that the guy has been taken off by paramedics already. Deonte is curious about how paramedics arrived and took the man in just the few minutes since it has happened. Furthermore, how had the scene gone unnoticed by Deonte while he was on the office floor? 

Hardberger explains, “They just took him now.” Hardberger points to his office window behind Deonte, which now has the blinds pulled up. “Right behind you. You just missed ‘em.”

Deonte asks, “Do we have on-call medical staff here?”

“No, but some happened to be in the building,” Hardberger explains.

Deonte notices that he is the subject of attention when leaving Hardberger’s office. He sees the shivering crying lady again. She sees him looking at her and rushes her face down into the pile of paperwork and manila folders on her desk. Then he sees Oberman is harassing Reyes again. Deonte marches over to Oberman and gets in his face.

Deonte starts, “Hey, man, let me talk to you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yea, just to the side here,” Deonte replies as he steps a few paces away from Oberman and Reyes, waiting for Oberman to join him. Oberman huddles with Deonte.

“New guy, I’m busy with going over some stuff with Reyes here and—”

“I’m an attorney. John Marshall Law School. Not ‘new guy.’ Now, I don’t think that… Reyes,” Deonte says, looking toward her for some approval. Reyes gives a look that signals she is not involved. Now, Deonte tempers his voice to offer some semblance of consideration for Oberman. “I’m pretty confident that you’re crossing the line with your behavior with Reyes. It’s okay to kid but—”

Reyes interjects. “I’m fine.”

“It’s okay, his behavior is—”

“I said I’m fucking fine, new guy. What? Does your wife have you on rations, that’s got you so pent up? Can’t I have a guy slap my ass while I play coy? Hey, who invited this guy? I’m gonna strangle Hardberger and piss on that stupid hat.”

Deonte is frozen. Mouth gaped open. Astonished, bewildered, and a bit fearful, even. Once he can shake himself from his shock, Oberman and Reyes are back to their previous routine, with Reyes seeming genuinely and utterly put off by Oberman’s inappropriate advances. Absolutely no one in the entire office at any of the desks seems to have noticed that Reyes’ loud outburst even happened. The many noisy sounds of the office continue. Now, Deonte notices the seemingly terrified shivering lady again. Something has got to give. He storms to Hardberger’s office, intent on confronting Hardberger about his unease.

Just before he reaches Hardberger’s office, a hand grasps Deonte’s arm. It’s another attorney sitting at his desk, looking up at Deonte. He states, “The devil’s in the details, new guy.”

Deonte asks firmly, “What?” 

The guy stares blankly at Deonte, causing Deonte to rush at the guy’s throat, grabbing him up by the collar. The guy, staring blankly back at Deonte, simply restates, “The devil’s in the details,” now with confusion and fear at Deonte’s aversion to the phrase. 

Deonte releases the guy, who plops back into his seat. Then, Deonte begins again toward Hardberger’s office with even more aggression than before, pushing aside attorneys and paralegals in his path. When he knocks, there’s no response. Deonte knocks again and shouts “Hardberger!” No response. 

He turns around to look about the office, and everyone is going about as normal, except the guy that Deonte just confronted, who is shifting between watching Deonte and looking away with unease. Deonte simply grabs the office’s doorknob and barges into Hardberger’s office. He sees no one as he enters and turns around to shut the door behind him. When he turns back into the office, he sees a person sitting still in Hardberger’s chair.

This was certainly not Hardberger. Stringy and wet black hair cover the face of a motionless young woman in a disheveled and waterlogged skirt suit reminiscent of motel staff, complete with a name tag. She is sitting behind Hardberger’s desk. Her skin is pale purple, her veins black. Hardberger is some sort of sick bastard. He’s really in with the mafia. 

Deonte darts over to her, reaching out to her. She needs help. Closer now, he reads her nametag: ‘Cara M.’ His hands make it to her shoulders, then he gently rocks her in an effort to wake her. Her head bounces back and rolls off her neck, onto the floor. The corpse’s deep red, bloodied neck remains devoid a head. Deonte’s eyes nearly escape his face as he leaps backward, falling to the floor, screaming and screaming at the top of his lungs. His horrified gaze finds the head on the carpet staring back at him with bulged eyes and black lips. For the briefest moment, he begins to move toward the head in hopes to help. Help was impossible, and Deonte bolted out of the office in screaming horror. “Help! Help! Somebody!”

Hardberger is at the Sparkle jug water fountain and is just about to sip from his paper cup when he is interrupted by Deonte’s obnoxious yelling. He rolls his eyes. Deonte spots him and rushes over. Upon arrival he slams Hardberger against the wall, shaking up the water fountain. The office is carrying on as normal. Deonte has Hardberger by the throat, his thumb nearly bursting the artery open. Deonte inquires, “What the fuck is going on here, man?!”

Hardberger tries to squeeze his voice from Deonte’s grip. “Let— me go.” Deonte’s grip releases Hardberger, but his forearm mounts Hardberger’s chest and presses him against the wall.

“You know what’s in your office. I’ll end you right now. What is going on around here?”

“Help me understand. Just let me go and tell me what you’re talking about.”

Deonte drops his head, calmly shaking it in frustration. He lifts his head back up with a new placidness in expression. With a more tempered and trembling voice, Deonte implores. “Tell me what that is in your office… who that is.”

Hardberger is slow to respond, staring back at Deonte with more concern than fear. Then, “Listen, son, I don’t know what you’re talking—”

Deonte yanks Hardberger from the wall and gathers the man’s arms together, restraining them behind his back. Deonte forcefully escorts Hardberger into his office. The men enter the office, and Deonte doesn’t fully close the door behind them. There’s no way he would ever be closed off in this office again. 

The corpse is gone without any trace. Deonte throws Hardberger to the ground, and he lands with a crash, just in front of his desk. 

Deonte begins, “The fucking corpse!” With his voice nearly whining, Deonte continues. “She was— she looked like she’d been dead for a while. Her head— her head fell off! And nobody around here—” 

Unable to complete his sentence, Deonte turns his head away and places his palm over his forehead in silence for a moment. He turns back to Hardberger. “I’m gonna call the cops, I’m gonna make sure they do a thorough investigation of whatever’s going on here, and I’m gonna get this place shut down. I know that you’re involved with the mafia. Now I’m gonna get on that elevator, and if you so much as breathe at me or have anyone come for me, I will defend myself to the fullest extent. I will hurt you.”

On the ground, staring up at Deonte, Hardberger says: “So, let me get this straight. You had some sort of… vision of a corpse in my office, which I did not invite you into, and you think that I have something to do with that? You also believe that this practice is working with the mafia? You’ve been watching too many movies. Deonte, I will see to it that you are seen by a counselor. We have good insurance plans. As a modern business, we are sensitive to these types of things. I won’t even press charges.”

Deonte’s chest rises and falls heavily, and air escapes his nostrils with more ferocity than before. He shakes his head in disbelief. He begins inching backward for the office door, staring hawk-like at Hardberger.

Hardberger’s assistant bursts through the door behind Deonte. Deonte nearly attacks her before realizing who she is. Her mouth prepares to talk, but she is caught by the scene of Hardberger on the floor. She turns to Deonte, and politely and fearfully begins, “Sir, I hate to tell you. Your wife… she keeps calling and I told her that you’re at—”

Deonte takes hold of the assistant. “Which phone?” he demands.

The receptionist looks confused.

Deonte rushes past her, halfway knocking her onto the floor and against the wall. He runs out onto the main floor, head on a swivel and shuffling in wait of a phone ring. “Where?! Where?! Where is the damn phone?!” 

Deonte looks across the office back toward Hardberger and his assistant, who have stepped onto the main floor and are the only two paying attention to Deonte, while everyone else busies along. The assistant, still apparently astonished at Deonte’s behavior, simply looks at him, offering no explanation. 

Deonte freezes, hearing the faint ring behind the noise of the office. Deonte hustles toward the sound, reaching the dark hallway to the right and about two yards down from Hardberger’s office. Deonte rushes down this hallway, reaching the supposedly out of order restroom, still closed and sealed off. Deonte faces the door and throws two monstrous kicks into it. Being that it is old and hollow, his leg begins breaking through. A series of more kicks and pushes clear enough space for Deonte, who then rushes into the restroom. Still ringing! Deonte pounces on the phone and lifts it from its mount atop the toilet tank. 

Dread and cold strike Deonte’s chest as he drags the phone to his ear. Has the call ended? If not, what bad news is he about to hear?

Breaking through the static, Deonte hears “Baby,” in a sobbing voice.

This is definitely Macy’s voice. Deonte replies, “Yes, baby! Hey, baby!”

“Listen.”

Deonte is growing angrier by the moment. Hearing his Macy’s tone and her sobbing, Deonte already suspects Hardberger and this damned office of foul play, but of what kind, exactly? “Macy, talk to me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

“There are people here. They said they won’t let me come there and be with you. They’re keeping me and BB here. I don’t know what to do.” The sobbing turns into full weeping.

“It’s okay, baby.”

“Just come back here, Deonte. Since I can’t go there, just come back here.”

“I’m coming, baby. Right now. I’m coming right now!”

“Just come back here. Why haven’t you spoken to me? I’ve been calling you and calling you.”

“Ohh, I’m so sorry, baby. This damn building… Just know that I’m coming home right now. Macy, can you hear me?!”

“Deonte, I’ve been seeing visions. People crawling on the ground, naked on their bellies, dragging their faces through the dirt, the mud… and blood, scraping their bodies on the rocks, but none will raise their faces to look at me. Their groans are so horrifying because they want me to help, but I can’t.”

Deonte’s countenance grows perplexed at his Macy’s tale of visions. “The people that have you, did you see their faces? Hair color? Tattoos?”

“I can’t hear you. Say something, please. I know you’re there. People are coming over here. I have to go.” 

“Can you hear me, Macy?” 

“Deonte, I need you. BB needs you.” Macy’s voice cracks and pulls to a whisper. “I’m scared. I’m so scared.”

“I lo—”

The call ends. Deonte pulls the phone in front of his gaze, staring at it in disbelief. He’s gotten his entire family caught up in the gravest of… of what? He doesn’t know what exactly. Deonte’s head drops. His shoulders give way and his arms dangle, letting the phone drop to the ugly tile floor. He hunches over the toilet, placing his hands on the toilet seat for support. The seat is missing a lid. Deonte stares into the commode water. Then, his hands pass over his face, creating a split-second transformation from despair to resolution. 

Deonte stands upright. He looks plainly at the phone lying on the floor, effectively his Macy, behind the toilet where it settled. He lifts his right arm, clenches his fist, and launches it at the mirror above the sink. His fist slams into the mirror, shattering glass onto the sink, the countertop, and all over the cramped restroom floor. Deonte eyes the pieces in the sink. Unsatisfied, he hurriedly scans the floor. Someone would come quick after hearing all the commotion. His eyes come across a slender piece of glass right by his feet, large enough and pointed enough. Three inches wide, ten inches long. Deonte picks the piece up from the floor, adjusts it for a comfortable fit into his palm, then grips it tightly. Barely a wince makes it onto his face as the jagged glass digs into the flesh of his hand. Blood slowly squeezes from his palm onto the glass.

Deonte emerges from the hallway back onto the main floor of the office, with his arms folded in a manner that conceals the glass blade. He quickly surveys the place, unable to mask the intent on his face. Most of the staff members look up from their desks as Deonte returns from the restroom, but it must be a busy day because they continue with walking, talking, ringing, typing, and swooshing papers as Deonte stalks toward Hardberger’s office with an expression of ill will.

Deonte bursts into the office. Hardberger looks up from his desk, where he’s been continuing with his work as normal. 

Deonte shouts, “Where is my wife? What have you done to her?” He unfolds his arms to reveal the glass weapon.

Hardberger is appalled by the question and the glass weapon. “What have you done to her, huh?! You think you could just put anybody behind bars without sufficient evidence? You help the system steamroll over whoever when it suits you. You think we hired you for your damn acumen? You’re a fucking low-rent baby lawyer from nowhere!”

Deonte charges across Hardberger’s desk, taking him to the floor. Hardberger manages to knock the glass from Deonte’s grip. Deonte begins pounding his fist into his boss’s face, ripping into the flesh of his lips and knocking his jaw out of place. His other hand holds Hardberger down by the throat. Hardberger’s mouth gushes dark red as he coughs blood. Deonte hurts his fist on a tooth, causing him to lose steam and stop railing. Hardberger, with a bloodied face and missing front tooth, begins chuckling, amused to see Deonte so frustrated. 

Hardberger begins, “You knew he was innocent! He didn’t work for any mafia! Why’d you neglect evidence?”

Deonte is atop Hardberger, panting. Between breaths, he says, “I don’t know what the fuck is going on around here, who you’re tied up with. If you’re with the mafia or into some black magic. I just— I don’t know.” Deonte dismounts his pummeled victim. Hardberger, sporting a calm and bloodied smile, simply watches Deonte leave the office.

When Deonte returns to the main office floor, everyone is standing, motionless, staring at him and chanting harmoniously in Latin. Then, suddenly, they quiet. The entire place is silent, save for the subdued sobbing of the little shivering lady at her desk near the elevator.

Deonte is nearly frozen from the oddity of the scene. Then, some silent people begin encircling him. Deonte begins shuffling through them, but they continue to reposition themselves in his pathway. He tries to make his way to the elevator.

Hardberger enters the main floor, looking half dead after his beating. He speaks to Deonte across the office, stating, “You’re clearly not ready for this. Why don’t you take the elevator back down, get back in the taxi, and try again tomorrow?”

Deonte is finally nearing the elevator. When a narrow path is visible through the crowd of silent people, he launches toward the elevator, falling to the floor in front of it. He reaches up to smash the elevator’s ‘down’ button. Now he can see that the sobbing and shivering lady is at her desk near the elevator, still drudging through tons of disorganized paperwork. As he pulls himself up, looking like one does at the end of a harrowing journey, he can’t imagine what they are doing to her. Why has she been crying all day? He thinks, “She has a condition, my ass.” He looks to the lady and asks, “You can come with me. I’m leaving, and you can leave to. Please, come with me.”

She slowly turns to Deonte, amazed that someone is talking to her. Deonte continues, “Please. You don’t have to stay anymore.”

The lady’s voice, shaking and barely a whisper, manages to speak. “I can’t. I can’t. The elevator—”

“What about the elevator?”

Deonte moves toward her, just a few of feet from the elevator, cautious of the silent people as he steps. They simply watch him. When he reaches her desk, she looks up with the face of a young woman and eyes seemingly begging for help. Deonte sees her paperwork. Blank papers. Hundreds upon hundreds of blank papers. Her phone’s cord is cut and unattached to any phone jack. She begins, “The elevator—”

Hardberger interjects from across the office. “Maro!” The silent crowd has parted evenly, creating a clear path of visibility for Deonte to see Hardberger. Hardberger continues, “Maro stays here. She knows how to comply. Hell, even I’ve learned to comply. Why don’t you take the elevator back down, and no hard feelings?”

Ding! The elevator arrives. The doors open. Deonte peers into it, then back at Hardberger.

Deonte cries, “Did someone call maintenance? Is it fixed?”

Ding! Ding! Ding! The elevator doors remain open, in wait of Deonte.

Hardberger exclaims, “Just get on the damn elevator, Deonte!”

Deonte moves to the elevator. He pulls out his cell phone and looks at the last text from Macy. A tear falls onto his phone screen. He puts the phone back into his pant pocket. He enters the elevator. 

As the doors slide shut, he and the sobbing Maro stare at each other. The doors close.

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