Thursday, October 1, 2015

Short Story: Black Box

Happy ‪#‎IndependenceDay‬ Nigeria. Enjoy my new ‪#‎ShortStory‬ as you rest in your homes :). ‪#‎BlackBox ‪#‎Mystery‬ ‪#‎Suspense‬

I wrote this short story after an All Staff Session where I work. The story was inspired by the session and all my colleagues who were present at that time, therefore I dedicate it to all of them.

You can read the story below.

Description:

An Ideas Box is proposed during a Market Knowledge session in a company. But the box goes missing because it is believed to contain much more than ideas. Who has the Ideas Box and why? But the main question is: What is really in the box?
***

“Let’s have one voice and work towards a common goal. Let’s adopt the support system strategy, master it and use it, until it becomes our culture,” Mr. Charles Mo-Uboh concluded on the speech on Market Knowledge he had been giving for about an hour. He waited, but no one commented or clapped. Everyone stared at him… those who were awake.

Mr. Charles was the founder and MD/CEO of Inflygroovics Nigeria; a fast paced design services company that employed mostly young people, and it wasn’t new to him that no one clapped or commented whenever he gave speeches or organised interactive sessions. It wasn’t as if he lacked the congregation, because some of his staff members were present for the much-awaited session. Clara Orlu, the HR Manager was there; Chinelo Anigbo-Tewogbola, the Marketing Manager was present; two Technical Support Analysts, Evangeline Ottah and Eugene Isaiah Nwajesus, didn’t miss the session. Two Research Officers Nichole Oshodi and Abu Osman had come prepared with their laptops, android tablets and two smartphones each. A Technical Administrator, Otito U. Otito happened to be passing by and joined in. And then finally, there was Enoh Ernest, the Admin Officer. All the other staff members were either out of the office, on leave or in other Inflygroovics offices around Nigeria.

Mr. Charles didn’t lack the manpower on that fateful Monday morning to receive comments and claps. His staff members in general didn’t just like voicing out their opinions or clapping. Sometimes, it felt as though they were scared, or rather, afraid; as if they were afraid of being laughed at, teased, corrected or turned down. They were afraid of appearing or sounding like idiots in front of their colleagues who actually didn’t care if they sounded like idiots or not.

“Any comments?” Mr. Charles asked. He didn’t get an answer, either. “Are you trying to tell me that I have just been speaking with myself all this while?”

Still no answer and Mr. Charles was getting frustrated. He decided to use another technique. “Do you have any questions?” he asked, believing that his staff members were just waiting for him to ask that question, because usually, they would either decide to talk or not, and at least someone always said something. Today wasn’t that day. They all decided not to speak.

“Clara?” Mr. Charles called out. “What is going on?”

Clara looked back at first, as if the glass wall that separated her office from the pool office was talking to her. She then looked at Mr. Charles and shrugged. “Please, this is an interactive session, people, and you are all expected to participate or give an opinion,” she announced.

No one spoke.

“It’s obvious that some people are afraid of sounding stupid,” Eugene pointed out.

“There you go,” Clara said, looking at Mr. Charles. “An opinion.”

“I think some people are shy,” Nichole added. She was sitting by a corner of the pool office, very close to Otito, and both of them had been giggling occasionally during the session.

“What should they be shy of?” Abu asked, in a distinct accent. “Are we not one family?”

“Do you know what I think?” Chinelo said. “We should have an ‘Ideas Box’ in the office where we can put in our ideas, opinions or suggestions.”

“Yes,” everyone chorused.

“It should also be anonymous, so that people would feel free about it,” Evangeline added.

“Deal,” Mr. Charles said. “Clara, set up the box and decide where to put it, probably in your office. You’ll manage it… Also, organise a follow-up session on Friday. We’ll open the box and work on the ideas.” He looked at his wristwatch. “That’s all for now. Thank you all.”

Before everyone dispersed and went about their business for the day, Enoh shared hot meat pies to them with very cold soft drinks. That was the best part of Inflygroovics’ sessions; the snacks and the drinks, and in some cases, there was proper food.

***

By lunchtime, Clara had gotten a black box that had a small round hole by the top of the right side. She liked what the box looked like and thought it would be great for their ideas. She was going to be in charge of collecting all the ideas, then she would keep the box until Friday when it would be time to open it and share with the office.

Before she went for lunch, she scribbled down one interesting idea she had, which had been inspired by the Market Knowledge session. She smiled when she was done writing it, but she didn’t put it into the black box just yet. She didn’t want to be the first person to put an idea in. What if she was the only one with an idea? What if the others thought she was a know-it-all? What if they didn’t want to move forward with the idea or they voted it down? What if, what if, what if. Clara folded the paper and put it under her desk, she was going to put it in later.

***

During lunch break, Clara announced to the staff members that the black box was now available and that it was going to be placed on her table, right next to the printer. Everyone acknowledged the announcement, but she didn’t see anyone come into her office to drop an idea. She wondered why she was bothered about it and decided not to worry herself again.

A little while later, Clara got engrossed in the work she had to do, then forgot about the box until it was getting close to 6.00pm. She shut down her computer and left the office. No one had come to drop an idea yet, and she was glad she hadn’t dropped hers, too. She was going to wait and watch before dropping it.

***

Clara came to the office at about 9.00am the next day and noticed that the box had moved a few inches to the right. It meant that it had been touched, and someone, or some people, had definitely dropped their idea or maybe checked if there were ideas in it. She looked at the pool office from her glass wall and saw that no one was looking at her. So she picked up the box and shook it. She heard pieces of paper grazing the edges of the box. She was satisfied.

She bent down slightly and felt around under her desk. She touched a folded piece of paper, took it out and was about to open it when Enoh knocked on her office door and entered.

“Excuse me, ma,” Enoh said, holding out her phone. “Oga wants to talk to you.”

“Me?” Clara asked, as she wondered why her boss wanted to speak with her on someone else’s phone. She quickly tucked the piece of paper she was holding into the black box, then took the phone from Enoh.

“He said he has been trying to reach you, but you are not picking up,” Enoh added.

Clara glanced at her phone. It was on silent, as usual, so she had no idea the phone had been ringing, and that there were ten missed calls on it. “Hello?” she said, after she placed Enoh’s phone to her ear.


***

The day had gone quietly and somewhat slowly in the office, but at least people trooped in and out to drop their ideas. Clara always paid them no attention. She acted indifferent and stared into her computer whenever someone entered and looked at the box. She didn’t want them to think that she was memorising the type of paper they were using or how many pieces they were dropping in, but sometimes it sounded as though they were dropping ten pieces of different ideas at the same time. She wondered what ideas they were and why anyone would want to have that many.

By close of business on Tuesday, Clara felt that everyone had dropped their ideas in the box as it seemed heavy, compared to a similar empty box. All she had to do now was to wait until Friday when they would open up the box, bring out the contents and brainstorm.

***

It was about 9.35am when Clara got to the office on Wednesday, and barely five minutes after she settled in, Mr. Charles got to the office. His driver, Samson, went in first, carrying Mr. Charles’s laptop bag and some books. Mr. Charles stood outside for a few long minutes, talking on his phone and also using the opportunity to inspect the property — the garden, the gravel on the parking lot, the security lights, the building... When he was done talking on his phone, he walked into the building and made a stop at the HR office first.

Clara looked up when he entered. “Good morning, sir,” she said.

“Morning, how are you?” he replied.

“Fine, thanks, and you?”

He tilted his head to the side. Clara wasn’t sure if it was a ‘yes,’ a ‘no,’ or a ‘maybe.’ He then looked at the box and smiled. “How’s the box doing?”

“I believe it’s doing very well, but I can’t check for now.”

“Right. Until Friday.”

At that instant, Samson was passing by. He was probably going back to the car, to park in his designated parking slot. Mr. Charles called him.

“Samson, please, bring my laptop bag.”

Samson went immediately and came back about thirty seconds later, and gave Mr. Charles the laptop bag. Mr. Charles rummaged through the bag — he had a lot of documents, pieces of paper, receipts, invoices, and what have you, in the bag. In fact, there was no laptop in it. It was more of a paper storage bag for him. His cell phone rang as he continued to go through the bag, then he picked it up and began to talk. Shortly after, he pushed what seemed to be a neatly folded and rolled up A4 paper into the hole of the box, then got up and left.

No one else entered into Clara’s office for the rest of the morning, and she was then sure that they had all dropped their ideas.

Just after lunch break, Clara was writing an email when a general email entered into her inbox from a Sales Analyst in Abuja, Antonia Uche. Clara hadn’t opened the email yet, but from the ‘To’ field, she could tell that it was addressed to all staff members. It was just at that moment she realised she hadn’t informed the rest of the Inflygroovics staff — the ones who had missed the session — that there was an Ideas Box. It wasn’t like Clara didn’t want to involve the rest of the office, but she thought that she should just test the new process with only those that were at the session. So she decided to send a general email the next week.

***

At approximately 3.30pm, there was a knock on Clara’s office door. She usually never said “enter,” but whoever was there always entered, either way. She stayed glued to her laptop.

“Sorry to disturb.” It was Evangeline.

Clara didn’t look up. “How can I help you?”

“Please, I need to retrieve my idea from the Ideas Box.”

“What?” Clara looked up. She had actually heard, so before Evangeline could repeat what she had said, she added, “Why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t think my idea is good enough.”

“I think it is.” Clara resumed looking at her laptop screen.

“You read it?”

Clara looked up again and shut her laptop. She needed complete concentration to have the conversation. “Okay, I believe it’s good, I don’t think it is.”

“I’m sorry to say, but what you think or what you believe isn’t the issue here.”

Clara narrowed her eyes into a line, but her eyeballs bulged at the top. Evangeline wanted to also narrow her eyes, but they already looked narrow. It would have been pointless.

“So?” Evangeline broke the silence that was beginning to get too long.

“So, the door is behind you. I’m not opening the box for you to take anything. You would not even know which idea was yours.”

“I’ll look through.”

“And see everyone else’s own? I don’t think so.”

“But it’s anonymous. I won’t know who wrote what.”

“Evangeline, please. The idea can’t be that bad. And even if it’s bad, no one will know it came from you.”

Clara had a point and Evangeline knew it. Evangeline turned around and left the office, but not before glancing at the box that still sat on one corner of Clara’s desk, beside the printer. She thought briefly of snatching the box and running to lock herself in the toilet to find her idea. Well, it wasn’t an idea per se. In fact, it wasn’t an idea at all. Evangeline had mistakenly put something else in the Ideas Box... something else that she didn’t want anyone to see.

On Tuesday, she had searched for the ‘something else’ frantically because she knew that the office was the last place she had seen it. It wasn’t until that afternoon that she realised she had put her ‘something else’ inside the Ideas Box, because her idea was still under her desk.

*
It was barely ten minutes after Evangeline left that Clara’s intercom rang. She had been so engrossed in the work she was doing on her spreadsheet that the call sounded like a fire alarm to her. It took her a few seconds to realise that it was just her intercom. She went to check the number... it was her boss calling.

She picked up the receiver. “Sir?”

“See me in my office.”

“Sir, I’m compiling and analysing data for a compliance certificate. I have a deadline and I would like to meet it.”

“I know what I said. Come right now, priority has changed.”

“To what, if I may ask?”

Mr. Charles was getting irritated. He hated it when someone challenged him. “Just come... And Clara, bring the Ideas Box with you.”

“I don’t need to carry the box to your office.” Clara laughed. “When you are leaving, you can simply drop your additional idea or ideas.”

Mr. Charles didn’t reply. He had already hung up.

***

Clara had had a long debate with her boss over the Ideas Box. He had not asked for the box so that he could put in more ideas; he only wanted its contents, and Clara wouldn’t have that. She didn’t know what exactly he wanted with the contents, but she wasn’t going to give them to him. If he had good intentions, he would wait until Friday when the box was officially opened.

Mr. Charles didn’t get what he wanted, and at that instant, he hated himself for agreeing to set up the Ideas Box, and also hated Chinelo for proposing it. Just like Evangeline, he had put the wrong document in the Ideas Box, thinking it was his idea. His phone call had distracted him that morning, and he didn’t know what would happen if the whole office saw what was on the paper he had put in. He had to pray that something mysterious would happen and that the ideas session would not hold on Friday or on any other day.

*
Shortly after Clara got back to her office, Eugene knocked and entered. He, too, asked to get his idea back. In fact, he didn’t want the idea, he just wanted the money in it. Apparently, he had squeezed up five thousand naira with his idea and dropped it in the box, and he wanted it back. Clara told him that she had taken note of his complaint, and that she would look out for the money on Friday.

The next person to enter was Otito. He, too, had the same complaint. He had put something in the Ideas Box that he shouldn’t have, and he wanted to retrieve it. There was no way that the ‘something’ he had put in there could ever come out, and he was willing to do anything he could, even pay a bribe, to get it. Clara shook her head and told him to wait until Friday.

*
When the office was quiet again, Clara glanced towards the pool office and saw that some people were looking fixatedly into her office. It wasn’t certain if they were staring at her or staring at the Ideas Box, so she changed the location and put it on the floor, right next to the shredder. That way people would focus on their work, and not on her desk.

*
Ten minutes later, Abu entered Clara’s office, claiming that he had dropped a note in the box that had to do with the financial security of the country. Clara felt that Abu was suffering from paranoia, as he always felt that someone was out to get him, his family or his money.

Clara knew that there was no financial threat to the country or to anyone. And like she told the others, she told him to go and come back on Friday. The country would be safe until then.

Shortly after he left, Enoh entered and said that she had dropped several recharge cards in the Ideas Box. Clara doubted it, but Enoh confirmed that she had bought a lot of recharge cards — the ones normally printed on paper—, and was going to sell them to her neighbours. It was her personal business and a means of making extra money.

“What’s the value of the recharge cards?” Clara asked.

“Ten thousand,” Enoh replied.

“Ten thousand what?”

“Naira.”

“I know it’s naira, I was just being... never mind. So how would you put ten thousand naira worth of recharge cards in a box and not know all day? How many ideas did you have?”

“Like fifteen. I wrote them on different pieces of paper, and packed them together with the same colour of rubber band I used for the recharge cards. I put the wrong pack in the box.”

“Hmm.” Clara sighed. “Please, wait until Friday.”

“What about my business?”

“It would have to wait until Friday, as well.”

Enoh grumbled and left.

*
It was then Nichole’s turn to enter and ask for her idea. She had given Clara a story, but Clara didn’t listen to it. She simply told Nichole to wait until Friday. Just as Nichole was leaving the office, Chinelo was entering. She smiled at Clara and went to sit on the chair opposite her. Before she could speak, Clara interrupted.

“If you are coming to ask about your idea and how you can retrieve it, don’t bother.”

“But I put a phone number in there by mistake instead of my idea.” Chinelo opened a piece of paper where she had written her idea. “I just want to swap it with this one.”

Clara shook her head. “You can swap it on Friday.”

“It’s a phone number. I need to make a phone call today.”

“I’m sure it can wait until Friday.”

Chinelo stared at Clara, wondering what her problem was. It was her idea after all to set up the Ideas Box, so why wasn’t she given special treatment? She stood up and wanted to hiss as she walked out, but she didn’t... she rolled her eyes instead.

Clara wondered what was going on. Everyone that had participated in the session and put an idea in the box wanted the idea back, apart from herself. What were the odds, she thought.

*
It was 4.50pm already and almost time for close of business, so Clara started to get ready to leave. It was then that she noticed that the photocopy of her driver’s license she had made was no longer under her desk. She searched for it everywhere, because she needed to use it first thing the next morning before coming to the office. She didn’t find it.

Just when she was about to give up the search, she found her idea, neatly folded... and just like the others, she had put something else in the Ideas Box. She then realised that she might have put the photocopy of her licence in the box instead. She needed to get it out of there as soon as possible. She looked towards the pool office and half of them were looking at her — the half who had come to retrieve their ideas, or rather, their ‘something else.’

The advantage she had was that the Ideas Box was now on the floor, so she could use her chair to cover herself while she filtered through the box and took the photocopy of her licence because there was no way she could allow anyone look at the licence. She glanced at the pool office again, and people weren’t really looking at her anymore. So she turned to her left side, stretched her hands to the box and was about to open it when her office door swung open after a mild knock. She almost had a heart attack.

When Clara looked up and checked who it was, she saw Happiness, the office cleaner who had just come to empty the trash, as usual, before 5.00pm, so that she could leave by 5.00pm sharp. Clara immediately left the box, then stood up to go and use the toilet, which was just opposite her office, before she headed home.

By the time Clara had finished using the toilet and gone back to her office, Happiness had left and everyone else was preparing to go home, too. Clara didn’t want to stay back simply because of the Ideas Box or the photocopy of her licence she had put in it. So she decided that she would take care of the problem the next day.

***

Chaos broke out the next morning when everyone came to the office and the Ideas Box was nowhere to be found. It was gone without a trace.

Abu was the earliest person to get to work, and he said he hadn’t seen the box at all. Then it would definitely have to be the last person to have left the day before, they all reasoned with themselves. Enoh was the last person to have left, and she swore that the box was still there when she left.

Abu also added that the back door of the office had been left open all night, so anyone could have come back and taken the box. Enoh shook her head. She had locked it herself and taken the key to the appropriate key-box at the security stand... or did she? She wasn’t really sure anymore. Either way, no one believed either of them, because the box couldn’t have suddenly developed wings and flown away.

Clara looked at all of them and felt that they were all in it together. She had gotten to work late, and for all she knew, they might have all taken back what they had put in the Ideas Box, and pretended that the box was missing. She didn’t know what to do... her mind went to the photocopy of her driver’s licence and she shook her head.

She picked up the intercom and called the security post. After a few rings, the security man picked up. She put the call on speaker. “Hello, Courage.”

Good morning, ma,” Courage replied.

“How are you?”

I’m fine, ma.”

“Tell me, did you see anyone come back to the office last night when everyone had gone home?”

I don’t know, ma. I wasn’t on duty yesterday.”

Clara sighed. They had a security team that stayed overnight, but they were each on two-day shifts. Courage was going to be on Thursday and Friday shifts, which meant that he would have resumed by 7.30 in the morning and wouldn’t have seen anyone come in or leave before then.

The only person I saw this morning was Mr. Abu. He came by 7.40am and he hasn’t left the office since then,” Courage concluded.

“Okay. It was Moruf on duty yesterday, right?” Clara didn’t know why she asked that, since she already knew that it was Moruf.

Yes, ma.”

“Can you give me his personal phone number?” Clara realised that she didn’t have the phone numbers of the security team, and was going to get them later.

He doesn’t have a phone, ma.”

“Hmm.” Clara sighed. “So, it’s until Monday before we see him again.”

Yes, ma.” Courage answered, although it wasn’t a question.

“Okay, thanks, bye.” Clara dropped the receiver and looked at everyone. They all looked confused, or rather, very worried.

The office was so quiet the whole morning that Clara wondered how bad a secret they all had in the box. She, for one, knew that hers was bad, and there was no way on earth anyone could see it.

The only noise that was heard that morning was the sound of the garbage truck operated by LAWMA — Lagos Waste Management Authority — that came to empty the dumpster they had at the back of the office.

***

Mr. Charles got to the office by midday and walked into Clara’s office first. “Morning, how are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m fine, sir, thanks.”

He looked at the table where the Ideas Box should have been kept and been accessible to all to put their ideas in. “So, where’s the box that you’ve guarded so much with your life?” he joked.

Clara saw him smiling, but she didn’t return the smile. She shook her head. “I don’t know where the box is.”

Mr. Charles’s smile immediately turned into a scowl. “What do you mean?”

“We came to the office this morning and noticed that the box was missing. Enoh was the last person to leave yesterday and the box was still here, Abu was the first person to come in this morning and the box wasn’t here.”

“I was actually the last person to leave yesterday and I saw the box before I left.”

“On my table?” Clara raised an eyebrow. Mr. Charles had pointed at her table.

“Yes, of course.”

Clara knew that it wasn’t true. She had kept the box on the floor, so he couldn’t have seen it before he left, because he was still looking for it on her table this morning. He had probably left the office without even thinking about the box or noticing that it wasn’t there. He was surely trying to blame the earliest person, or people, to have arrived by mentioning that he had seen it before leaving.

Mr. Charles stood up. “This is unacceptable. I need to understand how an Ideas Box would go missing in an office. It simply means that we have to beef up our security and start locking up our doors now, even during the day. I don’t know what culture we would portray then, if we send a message that we are afraid of each other and we don’t trust each other. Our people have trusted us with their ideas, the least we could do is to make sure that those ideas are well protected, and eventually developed and taken out to the market.”

Clara didn’t know if he really cared about the ideas or just retrieving the document he had put in there, and secondly, she didn’t know if to tell him that there was not a single idea in the box. She kept quiet and listened.

“I need a report on everything that happened within the last twenty-four hours on my table before close of business.”

He walked out of the office, not smiling.

*
Clara put Enoh to the task and asked her to prepare the report. She didn’t know what she was hoping to get back from Enoh and didn’t know what Mr. Charles was hoping to achieve with the report, but since he wanted it, it had to be done.

Enoh started by interviewing Clara, and she mentioned how everyone had come to ask to take their ideas back. Clara didn’t give the real reasons — that they had all put in the wrong things and what the things were—, she just said that they didn’t think their ideas were good enough... All of them? Yes, all of them.

Enoh went around interviewing everyone, or rather, investigating them, because that was what it appeared to be. She had other things to do during the day, so it was by 5.25pm, that the report was finally ready — typed, edited by Clara and printed.

Clara put the report in a folder and took it to Mr. Charles. She knocked and entered his office, then handed him the report.

“Oh, you really wrote the report?” he asked, as he took it.

Clara was tempted to roll her eyes, but she didn’t. Of course she wrote the ridiculous report, or rather, she supervised the writing of the report and edited it.

Mr. Charles read it quietly. It was just a five-page report, but Clara hoped that he would ask her to leave, then maybe read it on his way home... he didn’t. She glanced at her wristwatch, trying to calculate when he would be likely to finish the report.

Ten minutes’ time, she thought.

*
By the time he was done with the report, it was 5.47pm. It had taken him approximately twenty-three minutes to read the report, and Clara was pissed off. He placed the report on the table, and with no expression, he said, “Really?”

Clara raised her eyebrow.

“They all wanted their ideas back?” he asked.

Clara nodded.

“For the same reason we set up the Ideas Box? It’s anonymous, so why would they all think their ideas weren’t good enough? Wasn’t that the idea behind the box? To curb negativity?”

“I have no idea.” Clara shrugged. “They just all wanted the ideas back.”

“It just simply means that they all connived to get the ideas back, if they really wanted it.”

“You, too, wanted your idea back, sir. It doesn’t mean you could have connived to get it.”

“I don’t hang around with them, so if they were conniving, they would have excluded me,” Mr. Charles replied. “But I get your point.”

Clara didn’t say anything. A thought flashed through her mind that maybe Mr. Charles had taken the Ideas Box. But he would have noticed that there were no ideas in it at all, just a load of ‘something else.’ What if he was just messing with her? What if he had the box and he saw that there was nothing reasonable in it? What if he just wanted to know how she would cope in a real life similar situation? What if, what if, what if, yet again.

“Did you hear me?” Mr. Charles interrupted Clara’s thoughts. “I asked you a question.”

“Sorry, sir. Please, what was the question again?”

“How come it was only you that didn’t want your idea back?”

If only you knew, Clara thought.

Clara was confused, though. She couldn’t tell if Mr. Charles knew what was really going on or not. He seemed to be playing some sort of game, but he still appeared clueless.

“I guess it’s because I didn’t think my idea was stupid. It was anonymously put in there.”

“So is it safe to assume that you are hiding the box, to release it tomorrow?” Mr. Charles was starting to smile.

“It’s not safe to assume that, sir. Because I don’t have the box.”

Mr. Charles flared up. It wasn’t the answer he had been expecting. “Okay, then, we should hold an emergency meeting first thing tomorrow morning, by 8.00am, and everyone must be there. I cannot emphasize enough on the point that everyone MUST be there, seated before eight. We will get to the bottom of this. Please, send out meeting invites before you leave. Thanks.”

Clara felt that it wasn’t as serious as Mr. Charles thought, but she went back to her desk, drafted an email and sent it with the meeting invite to everyone. Then she called it a day.

***

Nobody had accepted the meeting invite, but by 7.55am, they were all seated in the training room, waiting for their boss. They knew what the meeting was about, because the subject of the email said ‘Missing Ideas Box,’ but they didn’t think it was necessary. At exactly 8.00am, Mr. Charles called Clara’s phone and asked for the meeting to be moved to 2.00pm. He had an impromptu meeting that he had to attend and wasn’t going to make it back to the office before 1.30pm. Clara informed everyone and they went back to their desks to work.

The day went without incident and by 1.40pm, Mr. Charles came into the office and went to his own office directly. After about ten minutes, he called Clara and asked her to inform the staff that the meeting was going to hold by 2.00pm as planned, upstairs in the training room. When it was five minutes to the time, everyone went upstairs, including Mr. Charles.

It was very hot in the training room. There was power, but the current was too low to carry the air-conditioning systems, and Enoh, the Admin Officer, didn’t think it was wise to run the generator and use up part of their diesel supply just because they wanted to power up two air-conditioning units in the training room. All the other offices were cool, even when there was low current. It was only the training room upstairs that got super hot, almost oven-like, when the air-conditioning units were turned off.

Clara proposed that they take the meeting to the pool office, where they could enjoy the coolness of the open space and even open all the windows to have some cool breeze. Mr. Charles refused. He was beginning to sweat, but he refused. He started the meeting with a speech about trust, mutual respect and understanding, communication, honesty, and finally security. The speech took almost thirty minutes, and everyone was getting tired because of the heat.

During the speech, Mr. Charles would stop at intervals to read his messages when he got notifications, and reply to some of them. He did that at least ten times. After the speech, he started asking individual questions to ascertain where the missing box was.

“Sir, it’s okay. If the box is lost, then it’s lost. We don’t mind. We have more ideas from where the other ideas came,” Evangeline said.

“That’s right,” Eugene complemented.

“The question is that: Would you be willing to share them again after what has happened now?”

“Why not?” Chinelo replied.

“Then you would all troop into the HR office again and ask for your ideas. And when Clara doesn’t give the ideas back to you, the box would go missing again? That doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Charles said.

Everyone kept quiet. Individually, they didn’t know that each person had gone back to ask for their idea. Only Clara, Enoh and Mr. Charles knew. Now every other person knew — that is, if they were fast enough to understand what Mr. Charles had said.

While they were still debating, Mr. Charles turned to Clara, and asked, “Can you go to the fridge downstairs and get me a cold bottle of water?”

Clara didn’t raise herself from the seat. She simply raised her eyebrows.

“Sir, let me get you the water,” Enoh proposed. She felt that she should get the drinking water instead, since her job included buying the water. She got up.

“Sit back down,” Mr. Charles said, sounding strict. “I asked Clara to get it.”

Clara frowned, but she got up and went downstairs to get the drinking water. When she came back to the training room, she was still frowning. She handed Mr. Charles the bottle of water and went to take her seat. She looked at her wristwatch. It was 3.00pm... she couldn’t believe that they had wasted one hour because of an Ideas Box that didn’t contain any idea.

After Mr. Charles had taken a few gulps of the cold water, he sent a few more text messages or maybe replied to the tons of text messages he received. Then he talked about the Ideas Box again and said whoever was found with the box was going to face the music, but he didn’t say what type of music. He then dismissed everyone about five minutes later, since they were not getting anywhere, and since he also claimed that he was feeling hot. Clara rolled her eyes. She had proposed they use the pool office before, but he had refused. Everyone dispersed, angry that there were no meat pies or cold soft drinks served as usual, emergency meeting or not.

*
When they got downstairs, chaos broke out, for a second time. Eugene was the first person to notice the black box on Clara’s desk through the glass wall. He ran past Chinelo, almost knocking her down on her mega high heels, as she was going to use the toilet. He then barged into Clara’s office before she could, and grabbed the box.

“I have found the Ideas Box, on Clara’s desk,” he announced.

Everyone looked at Eugene, amazed, as he held up the box.

Chinelo didn’t go to the toilet anymore. She made a detour and entered Clara’s office, as well. “Are you sure it’s the box?” she asked Eugene.

“Of course.” Eugene turned the box to the side, revealing what Clara had written on it in bold letters ‘IDEAS BOX.’

Mr. Charles was coming down the stairs at that instant, sweating as if he had just run a marathon. He immediately looked towards Clara’s office. Almost everyone was inside the office — those who could fit in, and who had interest in the box —, while the others stood by the door, stretching their necks to see. A few seconds later, he noticed Eugene holding the box. “What is the meaning of this nonsense?” he asked, looking at Clara.

“I don’t understand,” Clara replied.

“I asked you yesterday if you had kept the box away, so that no one would come and take their idea before the session today, and you said ‘no.’ Now we have wasted one hour talking about a missing box only to find it in your office.”

“And I told you I didn’t keep the box. I have no idea who took it and who brought it to my office, but it wasn’t me.”

“But you are the only one that came downstairs during the meeting,” Abu said.

“I passed the other door and went directly to the conference room to take the water. I didn’t come into the pool office or even to my own office,” Clara replied.

“It’s your word against ours,” Otito added, and Nichole nodded.

Clara looked at him. “But it’s the truth.”

Mr. Charles looked at his wristwatch; it was 3.15pm. “Since we are all here now, let’s move to the pool office and have the ideas session. We might not be able to finish it today, but we can pick about three ideas at random and discuss.”

Nobody replied immediately, but Clara broke the silence after a few seconds.

“Sir, why don’t we hold this session on Monday? The day is already over.” Clara did not want the box to be opened. She needed at least one more day to get a hold of the box and take the photocopy of her driver’s licence.

“It’s just 3.15pm, and the last time I checked, the office closed later than this. Everyone, move to the pool office now for the ideas session, but before we start, we need to find out how the box miraculously came back to Clara’s table, since she claims she wasn’t the one.”

The opinions and suggestions immediately started to pour in after they were all seated.

*
Another fifteen minutes passed and they couldn’t get to the bottom of the mystery, so Mr. Charles decided to move forward with the session. They were going to pick only one idea at random, then complete the process on Monday morning. Heartbeats started to race, as no one wanted their own ‘idea’ to be picked.

Mr. Charles then opened the Ideas Box... it was empty!

***

Clara glanced at her wristwatch; it was 4.15pm. They had all been sitting in the pool office for approximately forty-five minutes, going back and forth on the missing contents of the box. From hiding the box, Mr. Charles now accused her of having taken the contents, but he never said why. She was the scapegoat in all cases, since she was responsible for the box and its contents.

At a point, Mr. Charles started to sound like he was fighting for a cause. In fact, he said that he was fighting for his people, for their precious ideas that he wanted to turn into big projects, and their hopes and dreams that he wanted to keep alive. Clara had to produce the contents of the box whether she liked it or not, or she was going to get fired on the spot.

Clara wasn’t sure what the motive was anymore and didn’t even know if Mr. Charles’s concern was genuine. If she could recall, he, too, wanted his idea back, meaning that he was among the people who wouldn’t have wanted the ideas session to hold, but he was acting like he wanted it to. It was all pretence to her.

After trying to defend herself with no luck, Clara came up with her own theory. “Sir, I believe you set everything up,” she said to Mr. Charles.

Everyone turned to look at her, then turned back to look at Mr. Charles, afraid of what he might say. Mr. Charles blinked twice, but said nothing, so Clara continued.

“Do you all remember what happened earlier this afternoon? Mr. Charles insisted that we hold the emergency meeting upstairs in the training room, when we could have held it down here. And while we were there, he asked me to get him bottled water, when Enoh could have gotten it for him. When I came downstairs to get the bottled water from the fridge, I couldn’t have seen anyone or seen the box on my table, because I passed through the back stairs and didn’t come into the pool office. And shortly after I gave Mr. Charles the water, he sent a text message and got one back a few minutes later. That was when he ended the meeting and asked all of us to go, also claiming that he was feeling hot.” She emphasised on the ‘hot.’

“I don’t know where you are headed, but continue,” Mr. Charles said. “At least we can all agree that the training room was hot.”

“But you knew it was hot, yet we stayed there for an hour until you got the text message that made you end the meeting.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that, Clara. I received more than twenty text messages this morning alone, and even more this afternoon.”

“But only one of them made you end the meeting and send us downstairs. I’m sure it’s still on your phone, but I can’t ask you to produce your phone so that I can verify.”

“Of course, you can, but it would mean you seeing all my other personal messages, all in the name of supporting your ridiculous theory.”

As the back and forth went on, murmuring could be heard, and it was sure that everyone had had it. Chinelo instantly leaned towards the intercom, picked up the receiver and called the security post. She waited briefly, then the security officer on duty answered. “Courage,” she said. “Please, come into the office right now.” She hung up before he could reply.

From the glass windows, the whole office could see Courage running into the office as if he was running for his life. He entered the office, shocked to see everyone looking at him, then he greeted. He wasn’t sure who had called him on the intercom, so he looked at Clara.

“Did you see who brought that box into the office today?” Chinelo pointed at the box on Clara’s desk through the glass wall.

Courage then realised who had called him. He looked at the box, then looked at Chinelo and nodded. “Oga’s driver brought it in, ma.”

“That Samson must be an idiot,” Mr. Charles lamented immediately, yelling. He shook his head and looked at his staff members, who looked at him with accusing stares. The good thing was that no one could challenge him or throw questions at him, simply because of the position he held. He was suddenly grateful for that.

At that instant, Samson ran into the pool office. He had heard his name and thought his boss was calling him.

“Oga, you called me?” Samson asked, as soon as he saw Mr. Charles.

“My friend, get out of here right now!” Mr. Charles yelled at him. “Nonsense.”

Samson was gone faster than he had arrived.

“You can also go,” Chinelo said to Courage.

“Thank you, ma,” he replied, then dashed off. Everyone saw him run back to his duty post from the glass wall, then they returned their focus to the case at hand... Mr. Charles.

They all sat in silence as Mr. Charles explained that he had come back to the office alone on Wednesday night. He had the key to the office, of course. He had greeted the security man that was there — he didn’t know his name, but he knew that it was a different person from the one he was seeing today, who Chinelo called ‘Courage.’ He was glad when he came to the office the next morning to find another security man there.

So on Wednesday night, he took the box and drove back home with it, but it was not until Thursday morning on his way to work that he opened the box and saw that it was empty. That was his mistake. He could have just checked the box before going home on Wednesday night, and then replaced it, because it was going to be more difficult to replace the box the next day.

He was confused, because he didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t know who had the contents of the box, and he didn’t know what would happen if someone saw his own ‘idea.’ Above all, he didn’t know how he would replace the box unannounced. He had to wait until later that Thursday night to do so... but he forgot.

On Thursday, he had asked for the emergency meeting for Friday, not because he wanted a means to replace the box, but because he really wanted to find the contents. But during the meeting, he had an idea, and an opportunity presented itself, so he indeed sent Clara to get the bottled water from downstairs so that he could set her up. He didn’t know that Samson would not hide what he was doing, as he had been instructed via text message, and that was how Courage saw him. So in conclusion, Mr. Charles had absolutely no idea where the contents were. And with that, he finished his explanation.

It was clear that his staff members had things to say, but couldn’t say them. So Mr. Charles started explaining to them what he hadn’t been asked, and after it was clear that he was just talking to himself and wasting his own time, he kept shut. And in that moment of silence, he looked at all of them, one after the other, wondering who really had the contents of the box... and who now knew his secret.

*
It was as quiet as a library in the pool office that the footsteps they all heard coming down the stairs sounded like thunderbolts. One would have thought that Goliath was in the building. They all turned and looked towards the stairs, and saw Happiness, the office cleaner. She had earphones dipped into her ears, and she saw everyone staring at her, probably wondering why. She simply bowed her head, saying a greeting that no one heard, then went to empty the trash.

She started from Mr. Charles’s office, then the conference room. She then excused herself and took the one from the pool office. Some wires were haphazardly on the floor and she almost tripped over them... although it wasn’t sure if it was because all eyes were on her that she almost tripped. She wanted to empty the trash quickly and run off. At the same time, Mr. Charles didn’t want to say any other thing until she was gone, so he remained quiet.

Happiness proceeded to the Marketing and Operations office and emptied the trash into her big dustbin bag. She then emptied the one that was just beside the toilet. Everyone watched her. She seemed to be better entertainment than Mr. Charles, who had wasted their whole afternoon. Finally, she entered the HR office and emptied the bin. Before she left, she opened the black box and looked inside it. She didn’t see anything, so she closed it back.

“Happiness, come here,” Clara yelled, shocked.

“Yes, ma.” Happiness ran out of the office and went to the pool office.

“Why did you open that box?”

“Sorry, ma, I thought it was a waste paper box. It was on the floor the other time.”

“Have you emptied it before?” Mr. Charles asked.

Happiness nodded. “I emptied it on Wednesday, sir. I saw it on the floor, that’s why I did.”

Mr. Charles looked at Enoh, the Admin Officer. “What day does LAWMA empty the main trash at the back?”

“On Thursday mornings, sir,” Enoh replied. Enoh had no idea, but she had just satisfied everyone that had dropped something in the black box, herself included.

***

Mr. Charles sighed a great sigh of relief. For one thing, LAWMA had buried his secret, and thereby, buried all the evidence. He wasn’t going to get a third divorce. He had written a love letter to his girlfriend. He could have sent an email, but his first wife had caught him once and they had gotten a divorce, and so did his second wife, so he wasn’t going to let that happen a third time. He now resorted to handwritten letters. He thought he had put his one-page idea into the box, but later realised that it was his one-page love letter. He was relieved.

*
Clara was also happy. She had put in a photocopy of her driver’s licence and it revealed her age... her real age. She had claimed to be twenty-five years old in order to get a job in a fast paced, youth-filled company, but her driver’s license revealed thirty-seven years old.

*
Chinelo had put in a phone number. It was just no ordinary phone number, but the number of a contact person in Flyinchronics Nigeria, the main competitor of Inflygroovics. She had contemplated selling business secrets to the rivals, but changed her mind. No one would have believed her if she said that she didn’t call her contact person after she got the number. She was now glad that the information was gone and that she didn’t have the number saved on her phone either. She suddenly changed her mind about selling company information ever.

*
Evangeline smiled from within. Her half naked picture showing her baby bump and other body parts that the general public ought not to see was now destroyed. She said to herself that she was going to buy Happiness lunch the next week. She didn’t know what she would have done if the picture had been displayed in front of the whole office.

*
Eugene also smiled from within, even though he kept complaining that his money had gone down the drain. He said he had squeezed up about five thousand naira and was going to ask the Finance office to refund the money. But in reality, it was only fifty naira that was wrapped up in the paper. No one would ever know that... only himself, the black box, the bottom of the dustbin bag and the LAWMA truck. He was still going to try his luck with the Finance office.

*
Nichole was ecstatic. During the whole Market Knowledge session, she had communicated with Otito, sending small written notes to him. They were a secret couple in the office and never wanted anyone to suspect them, so they passed notes to each other. Since they were both single, they had nothing to hide, but Otito wanted to keep things on the down-low for a while. The contents of the notes ranged from declaration of love to general office gossip about everyone. Nichole was meant to shred the document, but when she entered the HR office, she was so confused and lost in love that she shredded her idea and put her love-gossip note in the black box. She only realised what she had done when the love clouds left her eyes.

*
Abu was satisfied that no one would ever know the code of his ATM card, since he had put a photocopy of it inside the ideas box, and thereby cause any harm to the financial security of the country... whatever that meant. He was suffering from extreme paranoia and also thought that people were out there to steal his money. He had even made photocopies of the card, so that he could carry them around instead of the real card. After this experience, he was going to make photocopies, but write over the card number, so that even if anyone found the copy, they wouldn’t be able to see the complete numbers. He must have surely forgotten that he still needed the real card, either way.

*
Otito was the happiest of all. His mistake was putting up a print version of a picture his real girlfriend had sent to him. She was living abroad. She was fifty-five years old and she was a white woman. She had been taking care of him for a while, sending him money and other things, and he promised to marry her. He was going to get a Romanian passport out of the marriage. He didn’t care what she was going to get out of it. He had told Nichole that he was single, so there was no way the picture could come out, especially as his girlfriend had left a message on it: “To the best boyfriend in the world: Otito! From your sweetheart: Tatiana.”

*
On a similar note, Enoh was the second happiest of all. She had put an invoice in the box instead of her ideas. The invoice wasn’t an ordinary invoice. It was one that she was making... a forged invoice. She had spent some time creating fake invoices so that she could extort a lot of money from the Finance office. She couldn’t imagine what she would have done if she had been discovered. She compared the experience with a near-death experience, and promised to never make fake invoices again.

*
With that, everyone sighed, relieved that their secrets were either swimming with rotten tomatoes, old clothes, and every other garbage in the bottom of a trash truck, or already being burnt to ashes. Shortly after the brief silence, the meeting ended and everyone went back to their desks. That marked the end of the black box... until further notice.

***

Happiness was in the bus going home. It was 5.10pm, and she had left the office by 5.00pm sharp, as she normally did when she was done emptying the bins and taking out the trash. She opened the small pouch she usually carried with her and brought out all the pieces of paper she had taken from the black box... all the secrets.

She knew that everyone talked about the black box, but she didn’t know why. She had taken the contents out on Wednesday and kept them in her pouch. She had actually forgotten about them until the long debate about the contents that went on in the office for two days. It wasn’t until earlier that evening she remembered that she had them, and she dared not mention that she had kept them, so she lied that she had put them in the bin bag, thinking they were trash.

As she rode in the bus, she started going through all the pieces of paper. Sometimes she smiled, sometimes she raised her eyebrows and used one hand to cover her mouth, and other times, she had no clue what the paper was talking about or trying to hide, but she was willing to find out.

When she was done going through the contents, she put all of them back in her pouch and started thinking of what she would do with them. She smiled, then she thought about her empty bank account and smiled again. She then put her earphones into her ears and nodded away to the song that she started listening to as she remembered the list of staff telephone numbers that was pasted on the notice board in the office.

Until Monday... she thought.

*****
Copyright © 2015 C. M. Okonkwo

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Thank you :),

CMO.