The Rogue Tangerine Tablet/ Qui n’avance pas, recule. by Bleue Rose
Chapter I Don’t Mute the Messenger
Carlos Ortiz sat in his boss’s office perusing the company’s monthly balance sheet when he discovered a serious discrepancy. He gulped. Finding inadequacies prior to a management meeting was pure pressure. Every few seconds, he looked up through the open office door, from behind the massive mahogany desk, to check on Fernando’s whereabouts. Perspiration obliterated the pungent cologne in his open, slowly wilting, crisp white shirt. He felt his throat constrict and a golf-ball-sized lump lodge in his trachea. Knowing where the problem lay and having to disclose it, made him tense. There were many aspects of his job that made his heart hiccup, but finding money missing was the worst scenario.
“We are short a large chunk of cash. I traced it to one of the new distributors. Who wants to tell Fernando?” He looked around at the four male employees sprawled on the leather couch and fiesta-tile, fabric armchairs. Multiple rows of vibrant Mexican pottery lined the office walls displaying the company’s exceptional product. Carlos studied the patterns, breathing in deeply, as he waited patiently for a reply. Dirty boots, up on the weathered mahogany coffee table, swung to life and hit the colorful Talavera tile floor. The boss’s brother, cousin and two nephews meandered their way around the desk to where Carlos was seated beneath a mammoth, bronze ceiling fan. It was hot and the men moved listlessly. He pointed to the missing amount on his spreadsheet and looked up at the surrounding faces. Soft whistles filled the silence. Waiting for a response, Carlos exhaled making a raspy sound through his teeth. This wouldn’t be good.
“I’ll tell him, Carlos,” Jose volunteered staring at the numbers.
Carlos inhaled a quick shallow breath and let it go with congealed resignation.
The ceramics studio and adjoining warehouse in Tampico, bustled with activity. Their prime location, next to Tampico’s active harbor, facilitated the company’s business and expansion goals. Fernando Flores, in his trademark black fedora, was surveying rows of his company’s prized pottery. The expertly glazed products echoed the rich hues of Mexico’s sunbathed landscape. Carlos watched Fernando through the half open office door, as he methodically scanned the stacks of hand-painted pieces, meticulously being wrapped and carefully wedged, into softly lined crates in anticipation of shipment overseas. Proper packing was key, so the goods would arrive at their final destination intact. Company pride dictated that and Fernando was all about pride and precision.
Carlos monitored his boss’s approach through barely moving eye slits. He watched Fernando finger the finished crates as he counted and computed his profits. Fernando was good that way. The man’s brain was a calculator. Unknowingly prolonging Carlos’s discomfort, he inched his way toward the back office at a funeral’s pace, stopping only long enough to wink at a few select female employees. Carlos nervously tapped his fingers on the desk.
Even on a good day, the atmosphere in the office was tense. Problem solving sessions made Carlos antsy. He despised being holed up in management meetings; they suffocated him. Fernando’s management team consisted solely of family members, which put Carlos at an undesirable disadvantage. As the sole company accountant, Carlos worked alone, but every other week his boss randomly called a meeting to “triple check” his profits. Most of the time, Fernando’s calculations were remarkably accurate. The man had an uncanny grip on his business finances. Carlos, who preferred working in solitude, ground his teeth through these obligatory disclosure meetings. In his mind, he was in a no-win situation. Basic survival was all he could hope for. Quitting was not an option.
Carlos visualized Fernando’s blood percolating, like bubbling lava, when the inaccuracy was revealed. He would be livid and Carlos would once again want to melt into the rough terrain of the wall plaster. His boss’s volatile nature was legendary and Carlos knew all to well how disagreeable things could get. The last time someone “borrowed” money without permission, Fernando had the thief’s facial features rearranged and stuck his hand in a hot kiln. The culprit’s fingers fused permanently. Carlos could only imagine how Fernando would handle this digression. He anticipated the pay back with great trepidation. Unless a mistake was an honest, documentable oversight, Fernando Flores did not give second chances. Ever.
Fernando finally entered the office with purposeful strides. He nodded at his 41year old twin brother, his 37 year-old trusted cousin, Jose, his two younger nephews and lastly his eyes met Carlos’s. This was his annoying way of stating rank. Carlos ignored it. Business and family honor were closely intertwined at F&S Enterprises and Carlos was constantly reminded of that. He returned Fernando’s nod and looked down at his hands, dreading to hear how the score would be settled.
“So? Did everything check out this month?” Fernando directed his question at Carlos.
“No, there is money missing. Five figures.” Jose volunteered brusquely. “Check this out, Boss.” Jose pointed to the name and balance on the spreadsheet.
Carlos happily let Fernando’s cousin take over.
“I take this as a personal affront. This business is my pride and joy, handed down through four generations. Rarely have we encountered theft.” Fernando’s voice was soft and steely as he dramatically pounded his heart with a closed fist. He circled the room moving only his intense emerald eyes under the shady brim of his fedora. Carlos knew he was scanning his audience for added impact and instinctively, he averted his gaze. He hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his snug jeans and studied the coffee stains on his white t-shirt, slowly moving to the scratches on his worn tan, cowhide boots. Without looking up, he buttoned his shirt over the stain.
Head down, eyes alert under long dark lashes, Carlos trailed Fernando as he moved around the desk to view the spreadsheet. A second or two of consideration and Fernando’s face clouded as he registered the findings. Carlos could see his expression change from careful scrutiny to barely controlled anger from one moment to the next. He took a step backward, clearing a path for Fernando to pass to where Jose was now standing, opposite him. As expected and without hesitation, Fernando dispatched Jose, his number one enforcer, to solve the problem. He tapped his manicured forefinger on the prominent turquoise and silver cross around Jose’s neck, the only parting gift from his absent father.
“Handle this and make sure you secure our goods,” he growled. “Take Julio and Luis with you. Go. Now.”
The answer came in unison as the three family enforcers filed out of the office. Carlos sighed with relief. He knew Jose thrived on the attention and power bestowed on him. His back up against the wall, Carlos scrutinized Fernando. When the three men exited the room, Carlos followed, turning only once at the door to observe Fernando’s ripped frame menacingly hover by the window, to ensure his men left without delay. Carlos quietly closed the office door behind Fernando’s silent brother, Felipe and himself.
“Carlos.” Fernando barked through the door. “Follow them.”
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. He had hoped to forego this excursion.
Felipe nodded sympathetically and gestured, moving his forefinger across his throat.