#fridayflash: cabbages and kings

Sylvester King stepped into the office of King Widgets at exactly 9:05am, as was his habit. He liked to scan the floor and check that all of his staff were in their desks working, and quietly kept notes on those who were not. King believed in details, and he believed in diligence. He often told the employees so during staff meetings.

This particular morning, less than half the cubicles were occupied by workers. At first King thought there was a meeting he didn't know about, or an emergency on the factory floor, but the meeting rooms were all empty, and the view of the factory floor from his office window only showed workers in blue overalls producing widgets at the regular rate.

A glance out of his other office window confirmed what he remembered from his drive in to work: it was a beautiful day, and, yes, his calendar confirmed it, a Friday.

Well, thought King. Only one thing to do about that.

He turned to his computer and dashed off a quick e-mail reminding everyone in the office about the importance of punctuality. Then he walked to the kitchenette to collect his morning coffee.

The route to the kitchenette pulled him further into the office, and he noticed a damp, stale odour. He frowned, and made a mental note to post reminders about not leaving old lunches in the refrigerator.

Coffee in hand, he made his way back to his office, stopping at an occupied desk bordering the corridor to the kitchenette. He was grateful once more that he'd chosen to put both the first and last names of the staff on the cubicle ID plates.

"Good morning, Pina," he said with his warmest smile. "Glad to see you got in on time."

Pina barely glanced up from her computer screen. "I've already got a summer cold," she said. "I think that's why it's not affecting me as much."

King frowned. "I'm sorry?"

Pina entered a series of keyboard shortcuts before responding. "A lot of people started getting headaches yesterday. From the smell in the carpet."

"Oh." King looked down at the carpet, which had the same appearance it always did.

"The air conditioning isn't keeping up with the weather," said Pina.

"I'm sure the air conditioning will handle it just fine," said King.

"Okay," said Pina. "Since Freida's away, do you want me to send the month end directly to you?"

King paused. He hadn't yet noticed that Freida was away. "Yes, of course. But CC Freida."

Pina nodded and hunched over her keyboard.

When King returned to his desk, he saw that his e-mail about punctuality had been auto-replied to by no fewer than eight out-of-office notices.

A few people came in late, looking grey and tired.

King refilled his coffee cup around eleven-thirty. The route to the kitchenette now had a sour, sulphurous smell. Pina was standing with her purse over her shoulder when he headed back to his office.

"It smells like someone hid rotten cabbage leaves under the carpet," she said. "I can smell it even through the cold."

"We do have a cleaning service, Pina," said King. "A rather expensive one."

"They never vacuum," said Pina. "Sorry, Mr. K, but I gotta go home. All the month-end stuff is done."

"I understand," said Mr. King, although he didn't. "Have a good weekend."

Pina wrinkled her nose. "That depends on whether or not these symptoms leave when I do. See ya."

King spent most of the afternoon visiting a client. On the way back to the office, he took a detour to the factory foreman's desk, tucked away in a quiet corner of the production floor. The foreman assured him that no-one was off sick. King thanked him and left without explaining why he was asking.

Although it was only three-thirty when he returned to the office floor, there was no-one there. There was, however, a pale green fog floating everywhere, nearly opaque from the top of the carpet to about knee height, and dissipating entirely at waist height. King called out, but no-one responded.

How do you like that, he said as he hurried to his desk. You leave for one afternoon, and everyone takes off. So unprofessional.

The rotten cabbage smell was thicker, more oppressive. King noticed as he sat in his office chair that there were pale green specks of dust adhering to his shoes.

He sighed. He knew Pina was telling the truth about the cleaning service not vacuuming — he'd told them not to so as to reduce their fees. His eyes were watering a bit from the smell, but he blinked the excess moisture away and finished responding to his e-mails.

Forty-five minutes later, he was done, and his feet felt very itchy. He wasn't sure, but it looked like the green dust blots on his shoes had grown larger since he'd returned to his desk.

King toured the office floor, checking every cubicle. Absolutely no-one was left. By the time he was done and back at his own desk, his feet felt like they were burning, his eyes were watering so much he could barely see, and the cabbage stench was making his nose run. It was hard to tell because of his eyes, but it seemed the green fog was now reaching to chin height, assuming a person was standing. It would have completely engulfed anyone sitting in a cubicle.

He checked the factory floor window. The workers still ran the widget machines, just like always. No-one looked up at his office window. No-one ever did.

King shrugged, took his jacket off the coat stand he kept in his office, and left. It was summer, he was caught up on work, and he was feeling poorly. Enough.

He headed for the elevator lobby.

Near Pina's cubicle, a narrow strip of carpeting acting as a baseboard lifted away from the bottom of the wall. It just looked as if the glue had melted and lost adhesion, until it started to gently undulate.