“Zero” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

A huge smile crossed Bert’s face as he gestured at the large chart behind him: ‘…And, with the recent contractual changes, annual profits per branch have increased by an average of twenty percent. Good work everyone.’

Polite applause followed. Bert scanned the table in front of him, carefully judging how much enthusiasm each branch manager showed. Two of them were over-egging it, almost to the point of sarcasm. He made a mental note of their names.

Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘Luckily for us, the press have been focusing on the larger companies. Any blowback from employees?’

‘Some grumbling.’ A bald man in a green suit shrugged. ‘I just tell ’em that if they’re good at what they do, they’ll get more hours. Works well enough.’

The man next to him laughed: ‘Too true, mate. I tell them that zero hours means zero hours if they don’t shut up about it. ‘

Beside him, a blonde woman in a pinstripe suit shook her head. ‘We’ve had a surge in union memberships. No strikes so far. Legally speaking, they don’t have a leg to stand on.’

A chorus of approving murmurs echoed around the room. Bert nodded. ‘Some trouble is to be expected. But, things will settle down. It isn’t like the competition can offer them any better. Honestly, I’m surprised that they haven’t sent us a cease and desist letter. I mean, where do you think I got the idea from?’

Polite laughter followed. Bert stood up slightly straighter: ‘Best of all, if trends continue, then I think that we are all going to have a very merry Christmas.’

More applause. A couple of people got up to shake Bert’s hand. He made a mental note of them too. One showed genuine enthusiasm, the other was brown-nosing. Stay at the top long enough and you get an instinct for this kind of thing. His mind began tabulating bonus figures as he waited for the applause to die down.

His eyes drifted over to the clock. It was nearly four. Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘And that about wraps it up. Keep up the good work everyone.’

As the managers left the room in high spirits, Bert reached for the intercom at the head of the table: ‘Any appointments, Susan?’

Clacking keys echoed over the intercom. A second later, Susan said: ‘Yes, a gentleman just showed up. Very insistent that he meets with you at once. Said that he called a couple of weeks ago and made an appointment. Can’t find any record of it though.’

‘Did you get his name?’

‘Phil Catafalque.’

‘Well, I’ve got a few minutes to spare. I’m sure I can squeeze him in. Send him to the conference room.’

Bert glanced at the clock. Fifty seconds later, Phil strode into the room. Everything from his slicked-back hair to his sharp suit screamed multi-national CEO. And, Bert noted with some glee, not one of those trendy tech company hippies either. A businessman of the old school. They were so rare these days.

As Bert extended his hand, Phil glanced at the clock before nodding at him: ‘I’ve got to say, your list of achievements is impressive. I’ve been waiting to meet you for some time.’

Bert blushed. ‘I wasn’t aware that news travelled so quickly, Mr. Catafalque. Are you interested in this company? I can assure you that our contractual changes are only the start of a wider strategic cost-cutting initiative. There has never been a better time to invest.’

Phil shook his head: ‘I’m interested in you, Bert. You’ve really done well for yourself here. But, alas, all things must come to an end.’

‘I don’t understand. In case you don’t know, I own this…’ Bert’s voice broke off as Phil reached behind his head. From the collar of his suit, Phil pulled a dark hood over his head. Beneath it, his face grew ever more gaunt until it was little more than a skull.

‘You’re… No, you can’t be. It isn’t possible.’ A red flush crossed Bert’s face. ‘If this is some kind of Halloween prank, then I’m calling the police!’

‘You would only be wasting their time. And mine too. Like you, I put a lot of stock in efficiency.’

Bert’s eyes widened: ‘Come on, surely we can work something out? At least let me make a few phone calls. How long have I got?’

A thin smile crossed Phil’s lips. His bony fingers reached towards Bert. ‘Zero hours.

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