Attention Span

by Julian Penrod

Preface

"Attention Span" describes a problem that spirals out of hand disastrously.


"I don't know what you said to them", replied Mack, "but it doesn't seem to have done much good. In fact, I hear they called Jerry and he's coming down to see you about it."

"I didn't say anything!", Walt almost screamed, "I said if there were any problems, I'd take care of them."

"Well, that's not the way they took it", Mack interjected, "They seem pretty mad about it all."

"What more can I do to explain it?", Walt said sobbing, "I didn't have anything to do with it. I tried to keep them out of it. I tried to smooth everything over."

"They don't see it that way", said Vern, "This all started with you, remember."

"But it didn't!", Walt was blubbering now, "I was just there when it started! I didn't even know what was happening!"

"This has got me worried", Vern put in suddenly, "Jerry knows about it, too. And he's taking it worse than any of the rest of them. If we're here when Jerry comes down, he might think we're in it, too."

"What?", Walt blurted, "Why's Jerry coming down?"

"He has as much a stake in this as anyone", said Vern.

"But he doesn't know anything about the process", retorted Walt, "He's never visited, he's never watched as things were handled, he's never been to offices, he doesn't know a thing about it."

"That doesn't mean he's not willing to draw his own conclusions", said Vern.

"The problem is that Jerry acts on his conclusions", added Mack.

Walt exploded, "You're not pulling out are you? If you leave, I won't have anything!"

"We're not pulling out, don't worry", Mack said somewhat unconvincingly.

"Look, I mean it", Walt shot back, "I need somebody with me! Don't forget, I've done a lot for you both! You owe me!"

"No", was Vern's tentative reply, "no, we're not going to leave you. We're...in this together."

"You're going to pull out, I know!", Walt screamed again, this time in desperation, "That's it! If I can't count on you, I'm going to the police!"

"No!", Mack was more than adamant, almost frantic, "If we bring in the police, who knows how far this'll go! A lot of people could get ruined for a simple misunderstanding!"

"But if Jerry is as mad as you say, maybe the police is the only way to go!"

"No, no, no", Vern joined Mack in trying to dissuade Walt, "He's mad, but, if we can keep this from getting out of hand, keep low, let things cool off, he'll probably become more reasonable."

"How can we do that?"

"We've got to get somewhere he can't find us", said Mack, "If he can't get to us, he won't have any alternative. He'll have to take situations as they are."

"Where can we go?"

"I don't know."

"I have to go to the police."

"No!" It was almost as much a scream from Vern as from Walt earlier.

"We have to handle this ourselves", said Mack, almost as if trying to divert attention from Vern's outburst, "The police won't be able to make right what's wrong...and they'll take a dim view of the circumstances if they got the whole story."

Mack was right about that. The way things developed, they had gone from inconvenient to genuinely serious very quickly, too quickly to be concerned about niceties like legalities. And, if what Walt had heard was correct, Jerry wasn't likely to think over the consequences of his actions until some time after they were over. Matters were not to Jerry's liking right now and that's the first, last and only thing he'd concentrate on.

"How are we going to undo all this?", asked Walt.

"I don't know. We're going to have to put things together and figure out how matters went so wrong. Then maybe we can put them right." The next was said after a slight pause which, if it wasn't intended to emphasize the point, managed to, anyway. "But we can't do it here. Jerry's first thought would be to check here. And if he finds us, I can't guarantee what'll happen."

"What are you thinking?", asked Vern.

"We have to get out of here. Go somewhere. Make some calls. Try to nail this down."

"Where can we go?", asked Vern.

"Not you", said Mack, "just Walt and me. We'll go somewhere where we can makes some calls."

"What about me?", uncertain, on the verge of terrified.

With an unsettling hesitation, Mack replied, "You'll stay here and try to talk some sense into Jerry."

"Are you crazy?"

"Jerry's not mad at you. He barely knows you. He only wants to take this all up with Walt. You can't make him any angrier, the worst is that he'll go away as mad as he was before. But if you talk to him, you might be able to calm him down. If you assure him that we're trying to fix this, he make think things over and call this all off."

"I think I'd rather leave with you."

"Jerry catches you with us, he'll only think you're closer to the matter than you really are, and that'll really work against you!"

The idea of being in the same boat as Mack and especially Walt, and what that meant, resonated visibly with Vern.

"When we get something, we'll call you. Just tell Jerry to wait. Or have him go back home. We can call him there."

"When?"

"Maybe we'll be able to track something down right away. At worst, tell him by noon tomorrow. Tell him we'll call him when everything's taken care of. We have his number."

"You think he'll accept it?"

"He's angry, but he's not stupid. He wants things resolved. He'll go along with whatever promises that things will work out right."

"I guess so", said Vern, not completely convinced.

They left Vern alone in the office and Mack silently hustled Walt downstairs to the parking garage. After several seconds of casual perusal of the surroundings, they rushed to Mack's car, got inside and sped out.

Walt was still in a near state of shock. How could things have gone so bad so fast? How could anything so innocent have ballooned out of control? What was Jerry capable of doing if enraged? Lost in the wastes of the situation, Walt turned to Mack for some sign of consolation, and instead found clinical suspicion.

"What did you do with them, anyway?", asked Mack.

"I never had them, I told you", Walt almost blubbered.

Unmoved, Mack continued, "Well, you were the last one who could've had them. They were right there! They were part of your work load!"

"My 'work load' usually consists of deciding who else would handle a lot of the business! That day, I know I sent a lot of files down to various departments. I don't know which file they were in, if they were even there in the first place!"

"Well, Jerry's sure they were there, that's all that matters. And he's willing to get...demonstrative...on the basis of what he believes."

"Well, I've got to find who received the folder with them in it."

"Good luck with that. Who did you distribute them to?"

"It's not a specialty type affair. Whoever is in at the moment gets the job. I just send them out to the staff. I don't know who was there, at that time."

"There's got to be someone who knows."

"Well, Clara might know, if they all came to the office at once. But it might only have been one of the staff who came up after all the files and then distributed them to the others."

"I think you better hope it works out the other way."

Mack turned the wheel suddenly, the car lurched to the right. With alarm, Walt realized it was the driveway of his house. He had decided to hide here?

"Why did you come here?", Walt asked with rising trepidation, "Jerry knows you're involved in this, too. Wouldn't he think first to come here?"

"I don't really have anywhere else to use", replied Mack, "But we need a place to regroup and make plans. You can call Clara and see if she remembers who got the files and then try to get them."

"But what about Jerry?"

"Vern should be able to talk him down. He's only interested in getting this deal handled and he's not going to go on the warpath and endanger it. And if Vern doesn't calm him down, at least this'll give us some lead time to try to work things out."

"I could've made the calls from the office, then we could've left if we didn't get too far. Now, we've used up the time driving home and who knows how long it'll take to try to get to Clara."

"Look, just make the calls, don't start criticizing me. If it wasn't for you and your ideas, we wouldn't be in this as far as we are." Again, Mack's attitude began to turn. "But maybe I should just walk out of this now. Jerry knows I'm with you, but he knows you're the one who screwed him up. If I step out of it now, I could probably avoid any violence. Maybe that's what I should do!"

Practically on his knees, Walt implored, "No! No! I'm sorry! I'm just scared! It's alright this way. I'll call Clara and this will all be cleared!"

"Well, just watch it! I don't have to be in this and for two bits, I'd just as soon step out of the way!"

"I promise I'll watch it." Something occurred to Walt. "What about Sandy? Won't she wonder what's going on?"

"Don't worry. She won't be a problem."

A race to the door, fumbling with the key, swinging the door wide then rushing inside.

"Mack?", asked Sandy, "What is it? What's the matter? Why didn't you just ring the doorbell?"

"We got a lot to do", replied Mack hurriedly. He pushed Walt to the door to the basement without even giving him a chance to exchange pleasantries. "We got some phone calls to make. Don't let anybody in, but let us know if anyone comes to the door."

“Don't let anybody in the door?” Sandy's expression was one of incredulity. “Mack, what's the problem?”

“Just a misunderstanding, but we've got to get it all ironed out before it goes much farther. Sonme people got...the wrong idea about what's happening and one thing we don't need right now is their interfering and making things worse. That's why I need you not to let anyone in.”

“What should I say?”

“Just tell them I went to the midtown office. They'll know where it is.”

A moment, then, “Mack, why shouldn't I tell them you'll be coming back here? They could wait outside or come back.”

“Just tell them what I said to tell them! Don't say anything else! It's important!”

"Al...Alright", said Sandy with the confusion in her voice disappearing swiftly in the distance. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, they arrived in Mack's rec room. Mack ran to the phone and started dialing. Wringing his hands, Walt trudged behind him disconsolately.

A few seconds with the receiver to his ear, then, "There isn't any answer."

"What? Carla doesn't go out much. I've often been able to reach her at her apartment!"

"I'll try again." Again the numbers, again the waiting, holding the receiver. Again, the statement, "Nothing, no response."

"Why would she..." Walt trailed off, wondering if Mack would echo his unspoken worries.

"Vern said Jerry was crazy,..."

"You don't think he'd..."

"Do you want anything to eat or something to drink?" Sandy calling down the stairs.

"No!", Mack barked in return, "Just keep an eye out for anybody coming!"

"Is there a problem?" Sandy sounding more nervous.

"Just never mind!" Idly, Mack circled around the perimeter of the basement, stopping momentarily at the door leading to the exit to the back yard to check that it was unlocked. Walt caught it out of the corner of his eye, but was pulled back to the matter of the phone by the operator.

"What do you mean, no one's on the line?", Walt demanded. The operator was terse, the phone was off the hook, but no one was using it.

"This is bad!", Mack said unnecessarily, "This is bad!"

"Maybe she left it off the hook and doesn't know..."

"Do you really think that's it?", Mack said skeptically, then, before Walt could reply, "This is bad! This is bad! I've gotta figure out how I'm..."

"Aren't you going to help me?", bawled Walt.

"When you could be helped, it was no problem", explained Mack, "Now, I'm not so sure. I'm not going to stand between your mistake and you! I don't have to!"

"You can't just walk out now! I won't let you! Jerry will want to know why you brought me here if you're not involved in this!"

"He's not mad at me. I'm just doing you a favor. But if he starts getting violent,..."

"I'll tell him you..."

"Mack", Sandy's voice came from the top of the stairs, "Somebody's pulling into the driveway."

For all that it was a menacing development, the announcement left Walt and Mack speechless and frozen in place.

"Mack, did you hear me?"

"Mack", asked Walt nervously, "what are we going to..."

The sound of the front door being pushed open and a stumbling gait across the floor to the entrance to the stairs.

"Mack! Walt!" A weak voice, scratchy, slightly slurred, but identifiable.

"Vern? Is that you?", answered Mack.

"Mack! Walt!", came again, the insistence repetition only strengthening the fright that should have been dissipated.

"Vern, get down here!"

A few tentative steps, then the sound of a collapse on one knee, a sliding downward, then a slam as a heavy object hit the support at the bottom of the stairs. It was a bad looking fall, but it's not what gave Vern the bruises on his face, the rips in his shirt or the red that trickled down from his nose and his mouth.

"Vern, what happened?", Walt all but screamed.

"He knows!", Vern forced out, "Jerry knows! He's crazy! He's not going to stop!"

"What do you mean?", asked Mack.

"I waited at the office and he arrived. I tried to reason with him, I tried to tell him we would work everything out. But it wasn't enough! He's crazy! I told him he didn't have to worry, but he's not going to listen! He forced me down to the parking garage, but I got loose. I threw a brick in his car window, so he wouldn't be able to drive for awhile, then I got in my car and lit out of there."

"Did you tell him we were going to call Carla and try to find out who had them?"

"He said he'd gone over to her place himself..." He trailed off disconcertingly.

It took a second, but the implication came through to both Walt and Mack.

"You don't mean...", said Walt, his own voice trailing off before it came to the awful act.

"I told you, he's crazy", said Vern, "I never saw him like this before! I don't think anything will stop him!"

"It won't do any good to take it out on me!", sobbed Walt.

"He won't care. He just wants to take it out on someone."

"There has to be a way to...", began Walt.

"Mack, there's another car in the driveway", Sandy called from the top of the stairs. There was a hint of urgency in her voice.

"You don't think...", said Walt.

Suddenly, there was a crash from above, the sound of a door being all but pulled off its hinges, and a startled cry from Sandy.

"Mack! That man, Jerry, he's..."

"Where is he?" A voice like a maniac, followed by a hurried stomp across the floor, the crash of a heavy piece of furniture hitting the floor.

"What are you doing here?"

"I know he's here! I want to see him!"

"Sandy!", yelled Mack, "don't get in his way!"

"I want you out of this house, now!"

"The basement!"

"You're not going down there!"

"Sandy, don't get in his way!"

"Mack, talk to him!"

"Sandy, don't get involved!"

"Get out of my way!"

A louder crash this time, then the sound of feet scuffling, thumping against walls, then a sound like flesh hitting flesh and a scream.

"Sandy!" Mack charged up the stairs into an avalanche of noise, yelling, pounding, crashes, screams.

"I said let me down there!"

"You're not thinking right! This isn't going to help!"

"Mack, be careful!"

"This'll be okay!"

"Get out of my way!"

"Listen to me!"

The next sound was frighteningly louder than the ones before. A powerful thud, a smashing against a wall, a dropping to the floor. Sandy screamed again.

"We got to get out of here!", hissed Vern.

"But, Mack,..."

"He can't help us! And Jerry'll just do the same if he gets down here!"

"What can we do?"

Vern ran to the door to the yard and flung it open.

"Get out! We'll get away from here!"

"What good'll that do?"

"You want to stay and wait for Jerry?"

Maybe it was the sheer outrageousness of the situation, but Walt found himself hesitating. The threat was obvious, the danger imminent, but somehow, he found himself unable to simply flee.

"What are you waiting for?", growled Vern, "Now!"

Almost against his will, Walt followed Vern up the steps and out into the yard. Complying was little easier once up in the open air, and eventually they were in Vern's car and speeding out of the drive.

"Where can we go now?", asked Walt.

"We gotta keep away from Jerry, and we gotta find a way to fix this mess."

"I think we have to go to the police."

"Oh, yeah. They might be able to settle this thing with Jerry, but think ahead. A lot of what you got going at that office isn't exactly what the police would find very agreeable. Maybe they won't find anything to put you away for, but they can shut the office and hit you with some pretty hefty fines. And think about the other people you got waiting for what they contracted for. They'll be madder than Jerry if they find out you shut down and fingered them!"

"I never wanted to do this!"

"Yeah, well, you did. And now we gotta take care of this."

"How?" A moment's reflection on the situation, then, gravely, "We can't go to Carla."

"Yeah, I was about to mention that."

"Where else can we go?"

"The only other place we might be able to get a handle on it all. The office!"

"We're not going there!"

"We haven't got any other choice!"

"But what about Jerry?"

"I'm betting he'll think we're on the run. You already hid out at Mack's house. He'll probably think you're more interested in laying low than going back to the scene of the crime!"

With it all, though, they did lay low for awhile. Vern decided to go to one of the out of the way places along the highway to get some coffee and something to eat, then drive to a deserted part of town, preferably high enough to see a lot of the traffic going by, to wait for dawn.

Disinterestedly downing his meal, Walt asked, "What do you suppose happened with Mack and Sandy?"

"I don't want to think about it."

"What would Jerry do?"

"I don't know. I never heard Sandy shriek like that. She sounded terrified."

"Jerry sounded like he wouldn't stop at anything. How did you manage to get away unharmed?"

"When he came to the office earlier, he was already pretty mad, but he thought that maybe I could be of some help getting to the bottom of this. He was going to have me drive him where you and Mack were. He needed me more or less intact for that. But as we were walking to the garage, he was getting madder and madder. When we reached the garage, I picked up a rock and smashed in the windshield of his car and, broke away. I guess that made him snap. He was still pulling the windshield from the frame when I got out of there."

"This is getting bad. Soon, it may get to the point where nothing we do can make things right."

"Don't forget, you're going to have to answer to the others, too. They can do as much damage as Jerry, if they want to."

"I'm getting scared. What if we can't find anything to tell us where the papers went?"

"You must have some records of who was there, who would have handled the papers. Check through them, you might luck out."

"Carla would have known, too. If Jerry still came after us after visiting Carla..." He trailed off despondently.

"Maybe she didn't know anything. That would have made Jerry mad enough to..." Vern trailed off, too, but frightenedly.

"If we get to the office and look quickly, maybe we can still quiet Jerry down."

"We'll go back there, but not now", said Vern.

"Why not?"

"I don't want to be alone in the building when it's dark. I'd rather it be light out."

"There won't be many people there. It's Saturday."

"But Jerry would think twice before doing anything so rash when it's light."

Vern settled himself back in the driver's seat and dropped his head to his chest. Before long, he was snoring. Sleep came less easily to Walt. He thought about how far and how bad this all could go if it wasn't stopped. He pondered how everything could have gotten mishandled this way. He wondered if someone had done this all deliberately, to try to screw everything up. He wondered if there was anyone who hated him so much that they would double cross him this way. He went over possible ways of stalling...or stopping...Jerry.

Sleep was not easy for Walt. He felt no more refreshed or rested when he awoke. Vern, on the other hand, was alert and driven. Without even waiting for breakfast, or to try to contact Mack, he had them headed into the city and the office building.

The building was as unnervingly empty as Walt had expected it to be. Their footsteps echoed down hallways no more than inadequately lit, even for daytime.

A beeline for the 15th floor, where the offices were. Then a diversion to the north side of the building, where the processing suite of offices was located. Walt's master key gave them access to the office and, in them, they found what they had expected. Piles of folders, distributed among several desks. The desks weren't assigned to any specific individuals, they were for use by whoever was assigned to handling the files on any particular day. Phones on the desks for contacting the other departments if necessary. Typewriters for making any additions to the paperwork that were needed. And, along the far wall, file cabinets for completed paperwork and associated materials. Of course, if any files needed further work, or authorization or any of a number of other things, they could be sent back out and end up at other locations on the floor.

The files they needed would have been distributed out elsewhere since they weren't...appropriate...for processing. Which meant they'd have to check the other offices. If they hadn't been taken home by someone suspicious of what they contained, that is. But at least things were concentrated here, and they might get lucky and find them right on top of a stack.

It took only a few minutes, though, to show they weren't going to be lucky. What they wanted wasn't at the top of the unfinished business stack. Maybe it was further down. After all, there were still fifty or so files left unprocessed at the end of the day Friday. Hope it could still be in the pile. If not, it would have been sent to one of the middle level executives for...scrutiny. Or whoever found the file would have taken it home with them. They didn't call the police, or the place would be filled with them. They didn't try blackmail, because that would have gotten back to Walt. The file had to be here someplace.

Frantically, they pored through folder after folder. Checking and discarding, checking and discarding, checking and discarding. Don't just let them fall, though, and keep them in order. Don't want anyone raising any questions about someone having suspiciously gone through the files over the weekend.

The sound in the hall made Vern and Walt snap to attention simultaneously. Footsteps, deliberate, loud, unconcerned about hiding, and checking the different offices. There was only entrance or exit for the office, the hall door. And Jerry was a good runner, but also easily angered by someone trying to get away from punishment. What to do? Hide? No. Try to call the police. Not in a million years. Lock the door? Would that really...

The door flew open as Walt and Vern were still nonplussed to immobility by the sudden presence outside. Mack stumbled in, even worse off than Vern had been.

"Mack!", shouted Vern startled, "Are you alright?"

"Close the door and lock it", Mack managed painfully.

Walt set the lock and quickly shut the door.

"Mack", Vern said, "how's Sandy?"

"I couldn't stop him", Mack muttered, "I never saw him like this. I don't know if there's anything that will calm him down."

"Are you saying...", Vern trailed the question deliberately. Mack's answer was a painful silence.

"Where is he now?", asked Walt.

"I don't know. I don't know if he went back to your house or Vern's place. There aren't many spots he would try."

"This is crazy!", Walt exploded, "I'm not going through with this any further! I don't care what the police do, this is too dangerous to..."

A sound at the door like a ton of bricks had been thrown at it.

"Let me in there!", screamed Jerry, "Let me in there! I know you're here, I saw your car in the garage!"

The immobility Vern and Walt experienced before was as nothing compared to the terror filled stiffness that now seized them all.

"I said let me in or I'll take this whole building down!", Jerry shouted at the top of his lungs, "You did this to me! I'm going to see to it that you pay in spades!"

As the threat of violence increased, the panicked rigidity in the three men showed no sign of diminishing.

"I'm coming in no matter what you do!" A crash even louder than the first. Then a pounding at the door knob. Then another crash at the center of the door.

"We gotta do something!", Mack burbled, "We gotta do something!"

"Push the desk against the door and call the police!", Walt said.

"We gotta do something!", Mack repeated, then, "We gotta do something!"

"Vern, help me move the desk!"

Vern's only response was to break from his terrified stare to gaze strangely at Walt.

"That isn't going to stop him."

"We gotta do something! We gotta do something!"

"I'm going to call the police!"

"That's not going to help."

"We gotta do something!"

"We have to. There's isn't a choice!"

"Open the door, you cockroach!"

"There is something to do!"

"What do you..."

Walt didn't get to finish his question as Vern grabbed him and hustled him to the window.

"What are you doing?" Uttered in puzzlement.

"I'm sorry it has to go this way."

"What are you talking about?" Puzzlement giving way to a rising realization.

"There isn't any other way!"

"You're crazy!" A hand reaches out to grab the side of the window.

"I'm really sorry!"

"Police!" Both hands now grasping onto the window frame.

"Mack, give me a hand!"

Mack ran to the window, pulled Walt's hands free. Vern grabbed one leg, Mack the other and together, they hoisted Walt halfway out the window.

"You're crazy! Both of you! Police! Don't! No, don't!"

"I'm really sorry!"

"Don't! Police! Please, don't! Police!"

"Now!"

"No!"

Together, Mack and Vern shoved Walt the rest of the way out the window and released their grip.

"No!"

His fall was straight down. Not outward, with the possibility of having a car stop his fall near the bottom. His destination was the concrete, bouncing off a few overhangs on the way down. Before finally ending with a sickening soft thud.

"Let me in!", Jerry cried again, "You hear me? I said let me..."

Mack unlatched the door and stood back. Jerry burst in. Followed close behind by Sandy and Carla.

To find Mack and Vern convulsed in laughter.

Carla's apology preceded her into the room. "I'm sorry about this", she blurted to the air, "I didn't know they were going to do this! I didn't give them any permission. I didn't even know they were going to do it!"

Ignoring her, Jerry walked over to the hysterical men.

"How'd it go?"

"Perfect!", crowed Vern, "Better than I thought it would!"

"You were great", Mack congratulated Jerry, "Walt really bought your performance."

"I thought it would come across a little too overdone."

"Walt was convinced every step of the way", said Vern while wiping the stage make-up off his face, then, leaning to the side, "Didn't you, Walt?"

"I was really scared I wasn't going to do it right", said Sandy, "I was expecting him to call it quits any moment."

"You were perfect, too", cheered Vern, "He never suspected for a minute!" Then, leaning to the side again, "Did you Walt? This'll teach you, hunh? Replace my bowling ball in the lodge championships with a below regulation weight ball, will you? Then, when I'm disqualified, telling me I didn't pay attention, I always get too involved in things and don't think about what's going on around me! Well, who's the one not paying attention now, hey, Walt? I was dropping clues like bread crumbs and you didn't pick up on them! Mack didn't tell me he was taking you to his house! How did I know to go straight there? Jerry didn't know anything about the office, so how would he know about Carla or how to get to her?"

"They didn't tell me they were going to do this!", Carla bawled, looking about the office.

"And how would I know your secretary's number to call her?", added Mack.

"I didn't even receive a call", Carla continued trying to exonerate herself.

"That's because I didn't call her!", Mack explained, "I just called my own office phone's number!"

"And you didn't get it!", crowed Vern, "Any of it! Who has the short attention span now, Walt?" Vern craned his neck to look around the office. The others joined in in trying to find the guest of honor. "Walt? I said, who has the short attention span now? Who gets so caught up that they don't realize what else is happening? Hey, Walt? Walt?"

The only answer was the sound of screams and sirens from the street just outside the window. In the office, uncertainty was growing into concern then into a nebulous dread.

"Walt?", Vern called again into the still air, "Walt?"

A sound, then, of multiple sets of footsteps running down the hall, headed toward the office.

Suddenly, a cadre of police appeared at the doorway, guns drawn. An inchoate notion beginning to form in his consciousness, Vern said vacantly to himself, "Wait a minute,..."

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