LOW MAN ON THE TOTEM POLE

Outside, it was a cloudy May morning. This didn't bother Rory. He drove yawningly down the road, listening to Single Tear and looking forward to the big concert late that night.

It was Friday, and not only the concert, but the long May 2-4 weekend beckoned.

It was slow-going, but an easy drive down Lakeshore. Right after Mississauga ended and Toronto began, there was Rory's office building on the right. Turning in, he could just see down the road McMurdo Abbott's sworn enemy, the rival engineering firm of Quinton Haggard-Yates.

"It's a pain I work for a place that's so wound-up" Rory observed, as he drove into the underground parking lot with his passcard. "But at QHY there're whacked, and you don't even give you an office."


Headquartered in Toronto, McMurdo-Abbott had offices across Canadian, not to mention New York, London, Paris, Toyko, Bridgetown and Sydney. Rory had been proud to get his job, with a little help from letters of recommendation from a prof, his mentor, Ethan and Benny. Rory's pals had been hired right out of their graduating class as just plain engineers a few years before Rory completed his own program.

The rival, Quinton-Haggard Yates, was the subject of universal contempt . . . if you worked in the offices of McMurdo Abbott. The privilege to work at home was a feature at McMurdo-Abbott. QHY had grudgingly granted it for the duration of the pandemic a few years before, but suspended it just as quickly. At QHY everybody worked in an open office, while McMurdo-Abbott gave almost all engineers, architects and executives their own.

Rory did think QHY might have the right idea by letting you wear what you want, having a daily cheer at nine am (even if it was an incredibly lame cheer), and best of all . . . not having closed the dining room twenty years before as an "unnecessary expense". Rory had to rely on either Chinese takeout or burritos, with a few of the cloves of garlic he brought from home as a snack.

McMurdo Abbott was under the thumb of the very stuffy and old school Mr. Roderick Abbott. The big cheese. Rory had never met him in person, he took a private elevator to his penthouse offices and sent memos on down. But he saw him at a distance, black briefcase, black double-breasted suit, black tie, black fedora.

Ethan had even had a misgiving the man was a bloodsucker or something. But Ethan was important enough to meet him when he was hired. And yet though man was perfectly human, but made Ethan look easy-going and worry-free in comparison.

All in all, stuffiness was the major bug in working for McMurdo-Abbott. Ethan, Benny and Rory felt the same way here. Everybody going about in dark suits and ties. Last names and titles, last names and titles all the time.

Rory secretly thought he might someday want to revive his Prankee alter-ego. There were people from the top on down who could use a little orange paint in the face . . . or even old school pranks like the whoppee cushion, joy-buzzers and thumb tacks on the chairs. But Rory had enough common sense to know if he tried it he'd be fired from what was, on balance, a very good job. And, sometimes fun too . . . .


Rory rode the elevator to the sixth floor. That was where Benny's locked-up office was.

As for Ethan, he had, much against his will, been transferred away from his buddies and into New York. This worked well for Sarah, who, with degrees in fine arts and architecture, was, as Rory heard, now some sort of "artsy architectural consultant." And Erica was there too, working on Broadway. But Ethan got tired of the big apple real fast . . . and the high-level socializing he was expected to do. Rory knew it was colossally embarrassing for Ethan. But little did McMurdo Abbott know that the torture they had unwittingly inflicted on Ethan; this was the first step leading to Ethan and his friends starting their own firm . . . .

But that was still six years away. Rory just felt a little down that his closest buddies could only be zoomed or skyped; Ethan's corner office had been given to a McMurdo nephew or niece or cousin or aunt or brother-in-law or something like that.


Rory was pals with the new secretary that had come to work for Benny (and three other engineers). Or, Rory thought he was.

"Hi Barb!" said Rory, as he smiled eagerly at the tall, leggy brunette.

Barb was always wearing short skirts, not that you could see it under her L-shaped receptionist desk.

"Oh, Keener" she said. "Expecting Mr. Weir back?"

That was another thing. The secretaries and technicians always called their superiors by their titles or last name. By rule of the very high, and very condescending, Mr. Roderick Abbott.

"Are you expecting Mr. Weir . . . I mean Benny back?" asked Rory, eagerly.

"No" said Barb, giving a weak smile. "He's still in the Northwest Territories, working on roads and bridging around the new diamond mine and the company town. You know, it's rare for someone his age to be the deputy in charge"

"Yeah, I know that" said Rory casually, who had heard it from Benny. "But Benny's not here."

"Lucky for me" Barb muttered.

"Huh?"

"It's too bad in a way" she said. "He's not here, where the action is. I hear your team is on the Baker Development account."

"Yeah, designing standard house blueprints for their new subdivisions" said Rory, a little bitterly.

"Well you have to start somewhere" offered Barb. "And, what do you know, I think it's fantastic. Very cool."

"Really?" asked Rory.

"Yes" said Barb. "Any chance of seeing them?"

"You don't want to see them" said Rory casually. "Besides, they're locked up in our safe. Anyway, that's not why I've come up to see you. I remember you told me how much you loved Single Tear?"

"Don't tell me they're back together?"

"Two years now!" said Rory in surprise. "Where you've been."

"Well . . . news is sooo boring" said Barb.

"Yeah, uh . . . how'd you like to go with me tonight to Niagara Falls, to see their concert. I have two tickets. I was saving one for this other girl . . . but how about you coming?"

Rory said this last with a mix of enthusiasm and a faux-smoothness.

"Will Malcolm be there?" asked Barb.

"Malcom Brunner?" said Rory, irritably. "No."

"I thought he was your friend" said Barb, assuming an air of innocence. "And I know his firm handles our patent applications when it's just too much for our in-house counsel on the 15th floor."

"Brunner's okay. He's the only school buddy I have here" said Rory as explanation. Well, him and Benny's Mom, Step-Dad, and little brother. But you know, they're not really pals . . . they're Benny's Mom, Step-Dad and little brother."

"Well, then . . . is Mr. Morgan coming up from New York" said Barb. "I heard a rumour he's been appointed the special messenger from the American office."

"No" said Rory. "He'd kill for an assignment like that . . . I mean, he doesn't like to leave Sarah but the dude misses his home and native land."

"Well, that's too bad . . . I just remembered, I have to work tomorrow" Barb considered.

"On Saturday?" questioned Rory. "On the May 2-4 weekend Saturday!"

"Yes" said Barb. "Niagara Falls is nearly two hours away. I'm not going to stay up all night. It's not as if I'm allowed to work from home like you."

"Maybe I can trade up for next Friday night's tickets!" Rory volunteered. "I have a big meeting Tuesday morning. So . . . how's Friday night with the Rorster, Barb?"

"I'll be busy next week" said Barb. "Oh . . . look at the time. I have to . . . go deliver a memo!"

"No one hand delivers memos anymore, you just send it online" said Rory petulantly, but Barb ignored him.

Even Rory couldn't miss the implication, as Barb swayed off to the elevators. Rory stood visibly disappointed for a few moments, but he shrugged it off.


The projects of the least importance were shuttled down to the architects and architectural engineers on the second floor. Rory had been mostly assigned to work on blueprints for private building projects. And to Rory's disappointment in the year he had worked there, private building projects meant plans for single-family homes. It wasn't too bad meeting his pals at lunch to encourage him, but Rory was now alone.

Actually, there was a good reason Rory was assigned here by McMurdo-Abbott. One of the less stuffy McMurdo's had the housing division under his purview, and he liked how Rory sold his plans to clients with boundless enthusiasm. Rory did like making people happy.

So that's why Rory was on the second floor. A quarter of the floor was given to the ornamental spiral escalator up from the lobby and a couple of polished marble conference rooms at front. But going through the double doors at the end of the burnished hall, a person would find themselves under the same Armstrong roofing, amongst the same maze of draftsmen and secretarial cubicles, and surrounded by the same engineering and architect offices that formed Floors 3 through 14.

With the exception of Floor 13, the closed-off dining room. McMurdo-Abbott was too stuffy for superstition; it was also rumoured that 13 was Mr. Roderick Abbott's lucky number. In fact, when it was opened, the dining room had thirteen feet ceiling and an awesome view of the lake. Now, the only vestige from the outside was the somewhat fancy windows gold-plated windows mid-way up the building. Well, at least it looked cool.

To get there by the main elevators, you had to punch a button called "cancel floors", and then punch in a combination of levels in a certain order. Benny and Rory had, away from the office, bugged Ethan to give them the level.

The thirteenth-floor was, as Rory knew, now some sort of record room where the reviewing engineers sat at metal desks surrounded by whirring computers and row after row of blueprints. That is, behind armed positioned at the elevator and stairwell entrances. The main file and computer rooms, the one Rory had actually seen, was in the cavernous third sub-basement. The main room was filed by a few wizened archivists and librarians . . . usually asleep at their desk by the elevator. No armed guards, no engineers.

Even Ethan didn't know the full importance of the 13th floor to operations. When Ethan worked there, he always gritted his teeth if he had to ride the elevator to the financial, advertising and executive offices in the top half of the tower. It wasn't Ethan was nervous. Benny and Rory knew Ethan well enough that he was quashing the urge for his eyes to go white and "see all and know all" Benny joked.

The engineers on the level were tight-lipped; out of duty and out of resentment. There was a joke in the company that "those who can do, those who can't, file on the thirteenth floor."

Ethan had finally spilled shortly before he left. Rory had idly wondered at his "condo-moving-in party" if the company was involved in a secret weapon. The "condo-moving-in party", incidentally, had been inviting Ethan and Benny over for beer and video games.