The phone rang. It was strange to hear this phone ring because no one had its number. Until that moment, the man who picked it up hadn't even been sure that it had a number. "Hello," he said neutrally, wondering if he were being tested somehow. There was also the possibility that it was just a wrong number. Best not to give anything away.
"I want ANSWERS, you BLACK-LUNGED SON-OF-A-BITCH!" said a hoarse voice on the other end.
The man who had answered the phone fingered the spiral bound note pad that rested on the desk in front of him. Its crisp white and pink pages had the legend "While You Were Away" cheerfully printed across the top. The sheets gave off the unmistakable smell of NCR paper. Someone had doodled a small rat on the cover.
"I'm sorry," he said, wondering what the procedure was for this. "The son-of-a-bitch is busy at the moment." He paused. Would his boss want him to take a message? He was just there to sign for the package when it came. A nice generic name scrawled on the UPS clipboard. He could do it. It would probably get him killed later, but later was better than sooner.
"I want to talk to the black-lunged son-of-a-bitch who was responsible for the death of my father," the voice demanded.
The man played with a short paperclip chain and didn't answer. In truth, he wasn't sure which son-of-a-bitch the voice on the phone wanted to talk to. The men he worked for were all very powerful, all very capable of killing someone's father. He believed they were even capable of killing their own fathers...if they had anything as human as a father.
"Sir," said the man at the desk, adopting a firm tone. "I'm not entirely clear on whom you wish to talk to. You have reached the offices of four highly regarded and successful sons-of-bitches, so you will need to be more specific in which one you would like to speak to." The man fiddled with a stapler remover. Was that correct? Was it "sons-of-bitches"? It was "fathers-in-law." Or should it have been "sons-of-a-bitch"? Now that just sounded silly. He realized he had missed everything the voice had just said.
"Could you please repeat yourself, sir?" he asked, officiously. He was getting worried, perhaps he shouldn't have answered the phone. No one had gone over this with him, and he knew he wasn't getting paid to think.
"Stop playing games with me. I want to speak to that cigarette-smoking SOB who's always lurking in the shadows," the voice said, obviously believing that this would simplify matters.
The man at the desk frowned. These men were like vampires; they never ventured out into daylight, never let the sun touch their wrinkled faces. The light of the sun made them older, weaker. Only in the shadows did they have any strength. And they all smoked. They had been very pleased to hear at the conclusion of the congressional hearings with the tobacco industry that nicotine was not addictive, and that there was no evidence linking cigarettes to cancer. They seemed to forget they had spent a lot of someone else's good money in order for that decision to be reached. He sighed. There was no one there right now except for him anyway, so it really didn't matter.
"I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to leave a message." He eyed the notepad in front of him. It had never been used. Was he about to do something very stupid?
"A message?" the voice repeated, doubt and bewilderment momentarily replacing the anger.
This wasn't standard procedure, then. Well, he didn't know what else to do. "You could call back later," he suggested.
"He's not there?" the voice said faintly, as if this possibility had not been considered even in the wildest of dreams.
"Yes, sir, the black-lunged SOB is currently away from his desk." And they said he couldn't inveigle.
"Well, all right," the voice said, becoming decidedly less certain as time wore on. "I suppose I could leave a message."
"May I have your name, please?" he asked, uncapping his pen. The voice grudgingly gave it to him. The man at the desk suppressed a giggle at the caller's name but asked him to spell it and carefully wrote it down, applying even pressure so that the second copy would come through clear.
He noted the time and the date of the call and checked the box next to "called." He asked for the message and the caller's phone number. He wrote it all down and even remembered to put his initials in the corner.
He was giving his handiwork one last look when the expected knock fell on the door.
For good measure he checked the "urgent" box as well. He hoped his boss had a sense of humor.
For: Black-lunged son-of-a-bitch
From: Fox Mulder
Msg: I want answers, dammit.