HTG: Donna Learns the Ropes
by Delilah Winston
If the women at HTG were good at two things, it was commiserating and supporting each other, and having celebrations. As Donna began her third month working at HTG, the news came of a really big party being given at Jackson's in honor of Mary's promotion. She was becoming an investment executive with the Mature Bonds department, which processed various investment bonds that had reached maturity. Only six weeks later she would be celebrating her 31st birthday; a double feat for the English-born rock of the women's support network.
Mary's promotion also meant some reorg for New Bonds. Christina desperately wanted to stay in her current position until Donna finished her first year, so moving to fill Mary's spot as Mr. Halwell's secretary was Claire, secretary for Mr. Westman, a new junior manager for New Bonds. This was because KJ, Mr. Westman's receptionist, had the most seniority and was the most ready to move up to a secretarial position. KJ's full name was Karen Jeanne; she used her middle initial and name, calling herself KJ, to distinguish herself from the Karen that had been a backup 'big sister' for Donna. KJ stood the same height as Donna and wore her auburn hair in luxurious waves a little longer than Nancy's. Her eyes were brown but she wore corrective contact lenses and opted for blue-tinted ones. KJ also wore a hearing aid despite being no older than Christina; she mentioned she was simply born hearing-impaired. KJ normally wore the 'invisible' ones that fit neatly inside her ears, but during 'Down Time' (as Donna had decided to call it; a reference to how she was laying down on her stomach while she was hogtied), she switched to a full-size one that clipped around her outer ear so they wouldn't be dislodged. Like Donna and Christina, KJ was a screamer while she was gagged and struggled even harder at working her gag off than trying to get out of her bondage.
Even though Mary wasn't leaving the company, her promotion to Mature Bonds meant less contact with her for the women of New Bonds. So the dinner at Jackson's was a sort of going-away party. Everyone brought Mary a small gift; something to decorate her new office or her home with. Donna had done some shopping online and bought a CD of the London Philharmonic for Mary. Each of the women also shared their favorite personal experience with her; Donna's story was from just three weeks ago, when she and Mary came here for coffee and Mary finally explaining how HTG accommodated her asthma during 'Down Time...'
“Even though flare-ups are uncommon with me, when I was diagnosed, I was equipped with a nebulizer for emergencies,” Mary explained to Donna. “It's a smaller, more portable version of what hospitals use when someone goes there with a flare-up that the regular inhaler doesn't relieve completely.”
Donna nodded. Deena had one as well, though Donna didn't remember her sister bringing hers to work like Mary apparently had been doing.
“My orientation actually lasted four weeks,” Mary continued. “The first week they didn't come in to tie me up at all. Carla dropped a few hints as to what was going on, such as coming in to help me with the company software programs right after she'd been untied, rubbing her lotion into her wrists in front of me.”
Donna sipped her coffee. “How did you respond when you found out what she was doing that for?”
“I was too embarrassed to ask her,” Mary admitted. “But I knew rope marks when I saw them. We played Cowboys and Indians a few times in school, even in Exeter.”
Donna had to chuckle at this. Kids' games were kids' games, almost any part of the world. “How bad a shock was it when they tied you up for the first time?”
Mary thought back to the day and had to grin. “It was bad, I'll give you that,” she said. “But I guess being scared was good, because it kept me from laughing hard enough to pass out...”
Donna's coffee cup dropped to her plate, spilling a bit of it around the table and onto the napkin across her lap. She blushed as she pulled it away and put it on the table. “They what?!”
“They started my nebulizer up and slipped the mouthpiece into my mouth, with the tube tucked underneath my gag,” Mary repeated. “The cloth held it in place so it wouldn't slip out from my struggling. Fifteen minutes later, one aide came in and took it back out, then quickly left the room again. When Carla and Barbara took me to dinner that night, I had to use my fast-acting inhaler, I couldn't stop laughing.”
Mary's grin was infectious enough to pull Donna's lips into a grin of her own, but the story did strike a bit of a negative chord with her. “So... after you were untied, you weren't...?”
Mary caught Donna's tone and her smile faded into a look of compassion. She touched Donna's hand lightly, briefly.
“Of course I was,” she admitted. “Oh, I hated it badly as any of us did our first night, our first week. Even more because they started watching me right away. I didn't get those three weeks of listen-only, like the rest of you did. I fumed at that. I called in sick on my third day. Came ten minutes late on my fourth. They took it all in good stride, though. I have to say I was impressed at how gracious they all were about it.”
“They had to be,” Donna pointed out.
“Perhaps yes,” Mary smiled again. “But you do customer service enough, and you can tell when a person is doing something because they have to, and when they're doing something because they like to. Mr. Halwell wasn't just giving me some personal space, hon. That's why I was so amused in spite of how shocking it was. Watch the BBC's comedies a few times; you'll see what I mean. It was downright comical and surreal how they accommodated me and my disability. Hard as it might be to believe, HTG is one of the most accessible companies you can find! How's that for odd?”
All the women laughed heartily at the story. In her seven years working in the company, Mary had built a truly irrepressible spunk and spirit. By the time the party was done, all the women took turns crying on her shoulder for a few minutes.
* * * *
“Her name's Sasha,” Christina said to Donna of the new hire. “She'll be starting this Monday. KJ will show her our computer software and get her started on processing forms and stuff.”
“Know anything about her?” Donna asked.
“Just that she graduated with top honors from her college,” Christina said. “If she can handle the transition here, she'll probably be a real dynamo at getting work done.”
Donna went into the restroom after lunch. As she was washing up to resume her shift, a young woman came in. She was a little shorter than Christina; her hair was light brown and curly, though longer than KJ or Nancy wore their hair. Her skirt suit was freshly pressed.
“Oh,” she said, slightly startled at finding someone in the restroom besides her. “Hi, I'm Sasha. I just started today.”
Sasha had a somewhat husky voice, but a pleasant one. Her handshake, as she accepted Donna's offered hand, was firm and crisp.
“I'm Donna. Nice to meet you,” Donna said. “You liking it here so far?”
“It's great,” Sasha smiled enthusiastically. “Investment and financing are right up my alley.”
Donna gave a polite smile of acknowledgment. But in the back of her head, she was thinking what she knew, must have been the very thought on Christina's mind when Donna gave the same look, a few months ago, that Sasha was giving now. 'Definitely coming full circle here,' she thought to herself.
“So who's your manager?” Sasha asked curiously. “I mean, I know I'm going to be dealing mostly with KJ and Mr. Westman for the first few days, but I like to learn whatever names I can.”
“My manager's Mr. Stone,” Donna said. “Very conscientious, hardworking man.”
“Mr. Westman seems that way as well,” Sasha mused. “I'm surprised he didn't come introduce himself to me in person, though. I did some student intern work while in graduate school, and my manager was the first person to greet me when I walked through the door.”
Donna offered a small smile. “I've wondered about it myself.”
She froze. This was Sasha's first day. Donna wasn't sure she should be telling the new hire that she hadn't met her manager face to face yet despite having just begun her fourth month.
Sasha glanced up from the sink. “Pardon me?” she asked.
“Sorry. I misspoke,” Donna gave a nervous chuckle as she answered. “I wonder about that myself. Maybe Mr. Westman was just really busy throughout the morning.”
Donna was sure she felt Sasha's eyes on her as she left the restroom to return to work. She had a feeling she'd done something wrong.
* * * *
Donna was finishing the last forms after Down Time was done and found her copier/printer was running out of toner. She called down to office supply to get it refilled.
“Oh, hi, Donna,” Freddy G. said. “Yeah, we have to go into the stock room. Someone forgot to open a new box and stock our shelves.”
Donna raised her eyebrows. “Someone?”
“Yeah, you know the little joke about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody?”
Donna rolled her eyes but found herself chuckling softly. “Oh yeah, I know that one,” she said. “Will you be able to send someone up before the day's finished?”
“Yes,” Freddy said, “but if you're in a rush, you can come down here; we have extra copiers.”
“Okay, I'll be right there,” Donna said.
Donna made the copies and was on her way back to her office when she passed by KJ, who was returning to her own office from the restroom. “Hey, KJ,” she said in greeting.
“Hi, Donna,” KJ answered, but her voice sounded a little garbled... and Donna noticed that KJ seemed to be trying to avoid looking right at her. For KJ, this was especially unusual, as direct eye contact greatly improved her comprehension when speaking with other people.
Donna stopped and lightly touched KJ's arm. “KJ, what's wrong?”
KJ resisted briefly, but then allowed her face to turn toward Donna. Donna's eyes widened at the sight of a small bruise next to the left corner of KJ's mouth.
“That wasn't done by the people that I think didn't do it...” Donna said.
KJ smiled. “Narrows it down to only one other possible culprit, right?”
Donna swallowed. “Sasha.” The new hire's reaction to her first 'orientation' must have been particularly severe.
“Guess Karen and I won't be taking her to dinner,” KJ quipped.
“I'm sorry, KJ,” Donna said, lightly touching her co-worker's tricep.
“It happens sometimes,” KJ reminded her.
* * * *
Donna was washing her dishes after finishing dinner when a knock sounded at her door. She walked over to it and looked through the peephole. “Who's there?”
“Detective Green, city police,” came the reply. An ID was held close to the peephole so Donna could see he was who he said he was.
“What can I do for you, detective?” Donna asked nervously.
“I'd like to ask you a couple of questions,” he said. “May we talk face to face?”
Donna felt her skin temperature getting warmer. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, ma'am,” the detective said. “I'd just like to ask you something.”
Even with the reassurance, Donna felt a need to stall for time. Understanding was dawning on her. Sasha had called the police to blow the whistle on HTG.
“I'll need to verify this with your CO,” she said. “What's his or her name?”
There was a pause before Detective Green's voice became sterner. “I can bring her here in person, if I need to, Miss Richmond. Along with a warrant.”
Donna had a feeling he meant it. Her hand started to reach for her lock when she stopped herself. Sending him back to get the warrant would give her time to call Carla for advice. “Yeah, you do that, sir,” she shot back.
“Calm down, Donna,” Carla told her insistently. “First, they shouldn't be coming to speak to you immediately. Something happening at the company, they should be speaking to our chief of corporate Human Resources. That's quite a few steps higher on the ladder than Mr. Stone or Mr. Halwell, let alone you or I.”
“Do I need to get an attorney?” Donna asked.
“Not yet,” Carla warned. “It'll look suspicious. Just stick to the point that they need to contact the company's head of HR, who's the only one authorized to speak as the official 'mouthpiece' of HTG.”
“So why did he knock on my door and tell me he was going to get a warrant if necessary?” Donna asked, bewildered.
“That, I don't know,” Carla admitted. “And I think you're right; he will be back there with one any minute. Calm down, honey. It'll be okay, you hear me? Stick to the point I gave you. They can't touch you long as you don't back down on it.”
Donna let out a breath. “Okay.”
“I'd better get off, so they don't overhear you talking to anyone on the phone,” Carla said. “They're smart enough to know you called someone, but anything they overhear themselves is potential evidence.”
“Right,” Donna said. “Thank you, Carla.”
* * * *
The knock came harder this time than before. Standing beside Detective Green was a stocky woman; her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. They slid a document under Donna's door. Sure enough, it was a warrant legally authorizing them to demand entry to Donna's apartment.
She opened the door to let them in. “Lieutenant Silvers,” the woman said, introducing herself.
Donna nodded to acknowledge the introduction and spoke to Detective Green. “So what's this all about?” she asked, keeping her voice respectful.
“We're investigating a complaint by one Sasha Frederickson,” Green said. “She alleges severe misconduct and employee mistreatment at your workplace, HTG Inc.”
“I've only started my fourth month there a couple of days ago,” Donna began. “Speaking on behalf of the company at my status is strict--”
“Strictly prohibited by company policy... we're aware of that, Ms. Richmond,” Lt. Silvers replied. “And we'll be doing exactly what you've no doubt been told to tell us to do while we were getting this printed up.” She pointed at the warrant that Donna still held in her hand.
“S-so... why are you here?” Donna asked.
“Ms. Frederickson stated in her initial notice of complaint that she spoke to you in your department's ladies' room right after lunch hour,” Detective Green said. “She stated that you have information that makes you a potential witness on her behalf, even if a hostile one.”
Donna fought desperately but futilely to keep herself from blushing. Detective Green's next words came right out of her own fears.
“...says that she wondered why her immediate manager, a Mr. Westman, hadn't introduced himself to her that morning, and you responded, and I quote, 'I've wondered about it myself,'” Detective Green read from his notepad. “Ms. Frederickson states that you admitted that you had yet to meet your own--”
Donna forced a chuckle out. “That's ridiculous,” she protested. “I told her I misspoke.”
“Ms. Frederickson believes you didn't, and that's why we're here,” Detective Green said. “Not on the complaint against your place of work itself, but what you said to her in the ladies' room that makes you a potential witness on her behalf.”
Donna tried to calm herself down by going over the computer network's emergency access codes in the back of her mind. Aside from keeping the number sequences fresh in her head, it helped her keep from showing signs of emotion that she didn't want to show.
' 6-18-1-14-11,' she thought to herself. '8-1-9-18: 19-8-15-18-20, 12-20 2-18-15-23-14... 5-25-5-19: 3-5-18-21-12-5-1-14.'
“Ms. Frederickson may believe whatever she wants,” Donna told Detective Green flatly. “If I took everything my parents said so literally, my face would be frozen in place for the last ten years.”
Detective Green flashed a humorless grin. “Your manager is a Mr... ?”
“Stone,” Donna said. '12-9-14-4-1... 19-9-12-22-5-18, 23-5-4-4-9-14-7, 2-1-14-4...'
“Describe him for me,” he answered.
Donna's attention drifted from the detective's eyes to his hands. He'd begun putting some notes down in his notepad in a mixture of shorthand and what Donna presumed was a form of police code.
Donna realized she was staring at Detective Green's hands and blinked hard, looking back up at him. “I'm sorry?” she excused herself.
“Describe your manager for me,” Detective Green said.
Donna started to panic. Sasha had her by the throat. 'Oh, Carla, what do I do now?'
“Start with his first name,” Detective Green said. “Even if you don't call him by that name, surely you at least know it by now?”
Donna felt her will starting to buckle heavily. She was on the verge of throwing herself onto her hands and knees in front of the two officers and surrendering herself as an accessory to whatever Sasha was going to be charging HTG with.
Detective Green wrote something else in his notepad in his particular shorthand and Donna found her eyes involuntarily dipping to follow his hand as he wrote in his particular code...
Donna blinked hard, felt her temples pulse with a brief discomfort. She seemed disoriented for a brief second, and in fact she was; she felt like she'd seen spots in front of her eyes as a result of looking into a too-bright flash of light.
That was it.
That was it!!
“His name is Frank,” Donna said, suddenly looking up to meet Detective Green's gaze with perfect calm and poise.
These weren't 'emergency access codes' for the computer network. It was children's alphabet code. 1 was A, the first letter; 2 was B, and so forth. Each numerical sequence gave Donna a particular fact about Mr. Stone. 6 was F, 18 was R, 1 was A, 14 was N, and 11 was K. 6-18-1-14-11... Frank.
'Thank you, Mr. Stone!'
Donna easily fired off the rest of the 'code' to give more description of her manager: he had short, light brown hair, cerulean eyes, stood 184 centimeters tall and weighed 83 kilograms--
“You use metric in HTG?” Detective Green raised his eyebrows.
Donna smiled. “Why not? Just because it's not official here in America, doesn't mean those of us who know the system can't use it?”
Lieutenant Silvers made a dismissive gesture. “If that makes you comfortable, go for it,” she conceded.
“He has a mustache, but no beard,” Donna went on. "His wife's name is Linda. They have two sons; I don't know their names. Mr. Stone wears a plain silver wedding band and no other jewelry. No scars or tattoos that I'm aware of.”
Detective Green nodded and wrote more notes. “Got it.”
Lieutenant Silvers nodded in satisfaction. “We'll speak with your company's mouthpiece tomorrow,” she said politely. “Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Richmond.”
Donna nodded in return and opened her door to let the officers out. “My pleasure,” she said.
Donna held her breath as she locked up again behind the officers and tiptoed to her room as quickly and quietly as she could. There she let out a heavy sigh of relief and gratitude. The first thing she did was call Carla to update her and tell her everything was okay. Donna skipped on her usual Monday night TV shows and lay in her bath, letting the Epsom salt soothe her body, and then curled up on her bed with a book for another hour before going to sleep.
* * * *
Waiting to greet Donna in her office the next day wasn't Christina, nor Karen, nor Carla-- and it wasn't Detective Green nor Lieutenant Silvers. Two men stood there in immaculate navy blue business suits with burgundy ties and polished black tasseled shoes. One had short brown hair and a mustache. A glint of silver from his left hand completed his identity.
“Good morning, Donna,” Mr. Stone said.
Donna met his gaze coolly. She'd had some time to think since the officers' visit. “Good morning,” she said. “Is this the part where I thank you for pulling me out of the fire?”
Mr. Stone and the other man smiled. “No, this is the part where I thank you for pulling me out,” Mr. Stone said, and Donna could tell in his voice that he meant it.
Donna accepted the offered handshake of gratitude but kept her face and voice cool. “I don't get it, Mr. Stone,” she said. “Maybe I'm still relatively new compared to a lot of you, but... haven't I 'proven myself' enough times already? How many more times do I have to be 'tested' to move one more step into the 'inner circle?'”
“If I was able to have my way enough of the time, Donna,” Mr. Stone said sympathetically, “I'd have been there with Christina to greet you in person, on your first day here, and you'd be calling me Frank. I'm actually not that much higher than you on the ladder, and just like you, I have to do quite a few things I don't care for, while on duty here.”
“Even if that's true, please don't pass the buck on this,” Donna answered. “Why the cloak-and-dagger alphabet code thingie?”
Mr. Stone gave a regretful shrug and sigh. “Sooner or later I'd have gotten to show myself to you in person,” he said. “But the company feels that the less often I do that, the better. I had to call in a favor to be here myself, right now. The idea is just to isolate the men from the women here. It contributes toward all of you bonding with each other and forming that tight-knit group. It actually works out very well that way. The less you were told about me up front, the longer your seeing my face was put off, the belief is that it was easier for you, and all the other new hires, to rely completely on your co-workers to help you transition into working here. Once you were part of their fold, over time you'd be comfortable with all the 'weirdness' as you women rightly put it, and then finally the managers and male executives here start to get faces and names put together with the voices you hear on your speakerphone now and then.”
Donna looked like she was trying to peer right through Mr. Stone's forehead into his mind. Her gaze was sharply analytical, weighing how rational his argument sounded. Finally she tilted her head in a way that suggested she wasn't buying it completely, but couldn't think of a way to refute it. “It still kinda sounds like another test. Exactly what about me was being tested, though-- that I can't guess at.”
“Neither can I, really,” Mr. Stone admitted. “And I'd guess you do have a point. I may be a manager for the department, I might be your direct superior here, but I'm far from the super-powerful, faceless mastermind that I might have come across as, after you'd finished just your first few days here.”
Donna knew she couldn't argue that point; Mr. Stone certainly seemed much bigger in her eyes during her 'orientation' than he was turning out to be. Still, she knew he had dodged her main point. “Still, I ask you again. Why the whole alphabet code? If your being hidden from me was to facilitate my becoming part of the support network with Christina and Karen and Carla and the others, why did you provide me with a description of you, and why encode it that way?”
“They were exactly what I said they were, believe it or not, and I wouldn't blame you a bit if you didn't,” Mr. Stone answered. “They were for a real emergency, like the one that happened. Those two detectives confronting you at your apartment, singling you out because of a slip-up in the ladies' room. An emergency code.”
Donna's eyebrows knit together at the middle. The explanation made a lot of sense even though she was still smarting from the little visit from the detectives. “What if I couldn't figure it out? Has that ever happened before?”
“Actually, no,” Mr. Stone said. “You're the first hire we've ever had who needed to use that 'emergency code,' as shocking as that might be. The fact that only one person, a great deal higher on the ladder than either you or I, can really speak on behalf of the company in the event of legal issues, gives us all a lot of protection. Unfortunately, you made a small mistake that painted a target on your own back. That's why we provide that life-ring-- and you came through beautifully. Yes, what goes on here at HTG can get a lot of us in a lot of trouble. Yes, our corporate mouthpiece tells half-truths and full-scale lies to protect us all, when he needs to, and no, none of us are proud of that, especially him.”
“And yet, I was 'tested' on my first day out of 'orientation' to see how honest and loyal I was to the support group; the other women here,” Donna pointed out.
“I should probably let Carla and Karen handle that,” Mr. Stone said, “but suffice to say that the support group isn't 100% drama-free. You're all only human, after all. The difference is they all check it at the door when meeting together, and working out personal issues, well... personally. Using the whole forum for resolution of those issues would collapse the mutual support and bond you all have; the one that makes working here, work, as I've explained before.”
Donna couldn't say she was fully satisfied with Mr. Stone's defusing of the situation, but of course, she still had a long way to go at being fully 'content,' if she could even use that word, at being hogtied each afternoon. Deciding it was enough to appease her, she asked one more question in hopes of covering her own backside. “You say you threw me a life ring to bail me out after my slip-up with Sasha. If it was my mistake that brought this all about... why bail me out?”
Mr. Stone was silent for a good half-minute, and Donna realized he looked a little hurt. “That, I thought, should be obvious,” he said. “Because you matter here. You make a difference. Like you said, you've been 'tested' enough times to show you're really with us... and that means you deserve our support. All our support.”
“Including mine,” said the other man beside Mr. Stone, who'd kept silent thus far. He held his hand out for a handshake, his grip was firm and hearty. “Gary Westman. I was, would have been, Sasha's manager. Your perfect recovery after figuring out the alphabet code was one reason Frank and I were able to pull a few strings to come here and thank you in person. You protected a lot more people than just yourself the previous night, Donna, and you deserve to know how much we appreciate that.”
Donna smiled; her first genuine smile since walking into her office. Mr. Stone and Mr. Westman left out the fact that 'throwing her to the wolves' could have brought HTG completely tumbling down if she became angry and humiliated enough to come to Sasha's aid-- but not because of how obvious that was. She was satisfied by their faces, postures, and tones of voice that it was completely irrelevant to their rationale in coming to her defense. She knew that they protected her because they wanted to, not because they were obligated.
“Thank you,” she said simply. “Both of you.”
Christina came in with some forms and papers; the first batch of work for the day. She grinned at Donna. “Oh, I envy you, hon. I was here half again as long before I got to meet him in person-- and it was just him, none of the others.”
All four of them chuckled. “Okay, we'll let you get to work, then,” Mr. Stone said. “Have a good day today, ladies.”
End of part 5
Copyright© 2014 by Delilah Winston. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org