"The Plague of the Purple Phantom "

 

As always, Jason arrived at work at exactly 7:53. As always, he opened the door with his left hand, walked around his desk on the right side, placed his briefcase atop the credenza at a forty-five degree angle to the edge, and with his left hand rotated his chair three complete revolutions before he sat down. As always, he took out his pen to draw a shape around the date on his desk calendar. Since today was the 12th, that meant a triangle. Even days were triangles. Odd days were rectangles. Next, as always, he took out his keys to unlock the desk. His key ring held nine keys. Each had been methodically placed so that each silver one was separated by a gold one. From his top drawer he removed a chrome ruler and placed it beside the stapler on the left side of the desk blotter. The ruler made it an even number of objects on top of his desk. When tomorrow came, the thirteenth, an odd day, he would remove an object from the desk top accordingly. Feeling the satisfaction of completing his morning rituals, Jason relaxed, sat back, and gazed across his desk.

His satisfaction didn't last long. Something about his desk was incorrect. Some one thing was not as it should be. It wasn't something obvious. In fact it was only intuition that caused Jason's uneasiness. He began reading his desktop back and forth from top left to bottom right, comparing what he saw with what his memory had on record. Half way through the scan, he found it. Such a small "it" that no one else would have ever seen it, but to Jason it was a red flag.

At the top right corner of his desk blotter, lay the eighteen-page report he had finished only yesterday. Eighteen crisp white pages detailing the weaknesses in the new hi-tech ceramic compound upon which his company planned to build a lucrative future. It was a future built upon a compound which was supposed to fire into a ceramic 38% lighter than aluminum and 203% stronger than chrome-moly steel. Those eighteen pages contained formulas and processes that someone had obviously read and probably copied during the night. That someone was probably the industrial spy that everyone suspected had infiltrated the firm. Only suspected, because he or she was so good that no evidence had been found of their existence. But recently, MALCO Industries had been consistently beating Jason's company on bids, stealing clients, and announcing new products only days before Jason's company was to reveal the identical product. Jason knew the people at MALCO well enough to believe that it was espionage and not business savvy that was behind their recent successes. He was positive that this corporate mole existed and had to be caught. Now he would be! As good as he was, the spy knew nothing about Jason's quirks. In about two days that ignorance would get him caught red handed . . . well, purple handed!

Since his early boyhood, Jason had reveled in turning common everyday activities around or upside down or backward until he found a method to do them in a different yet hidden way. Following these secret methods made him feel set apart from everyone else in the world who did the same activities in a normal way. In the first grade, he spent the better part of a day mastering the ability of crossing his shoestrings left over right and left loop through first, as a left-handed person does. By the third grade he had perfected nearly invisible yet unique methods of writing each of the letters of the alphabet. He amused himself throughout junior high using totally different pens, ink colors, and handwriting styles for each of his teachers. The highlight of his first year in high school was the feat of arranging his six periods to fall in alphabetical order, beginning his day with Algebra and ending it with Spanish. By his senior year, he had developed 987 such quirks. They ranged from shifting his wallet to his left hip pocket every third day, to alternating each bill in that wallet face up face down. He even developed an exclusive kiss for each girl he dated. When he graduated college, he had proudly accumulated 2,248 such personal secret quirks.

The spy will be caught because he knows nothing of Jason's quirks. No one knows of them. They are all Jason's personal secrets, and that secrecy is what invests them with their power. Each small secret is a little bit of self-discipline. Throughout his life, whenever he adhered to one of these small regimens, Jason felt, at least partially, in control of his life. That secret control seemed to help, just a little. Anytime he was in an uneasy position, like speaking before an audience, or during and interview, or on a date, he would follow one of his secret disciplines. The thought of these in-jokes would give him a tiny bit of self confidence. Usually that was enough to allow him to relax. It had done him well in life. His poise had helped him to advance quickly through his profession. It was as Vice President of Research and Development that he sat smiling while very carefully holding the report in his hands.

You see, the spy had no way of knowing that one of Jason's smallest quirks involves paper clips. Whenever he uses a paper clip, he places it so that the the smaller loop is visible from the front. Most people leave the larger loop showing. That little quirk showed him that other hands had clipped these pages.

The spy also had no way of knowing two other of Jason's secrets. The first was that this was a dummy report. There were no weaknesses in the compound. Besides, Jason would never leave an important report just sitting on his desk. He had 12 quirks alone that dealt with the writing and security of important reports.

The second secret was something special. It held a special place in Jason's heart. Back in high school, while playing his way through chemistry class, he developed a sinister little solution made of a couple of bleaches, a bit of gentian violet, and a variety of other secret ingredients. From that point on, whenever Jason felt put upon or cheated by a burned-out teacher, he would mix up his solution. While wearing gloves, he would carefully brush the mixture on the back of a few sheets of homework, placing it where the teachers fingers would touch it when he or she read the page. When the liquid dried it was virtually undetectable. Subsequent handling of the pages transferred that solution onto three, four or even eight fingertips. Then after about 21 hours of exposure to body oils, two or three doses of hand soap, and chlorinated tap water, the solution turned a glorious deep violet. A deep violet that took at least four days to wear off.

Jason's high school and college life was made a little bit easier by the "plague of the purple phantom". It drove teachers crazy for years. It had given him a great amount of pleasure to be the only one in class to know the source of their problem. But, he'd have to share the secret in about two days when someone showed up for work with purple finger tips. That loss of a secret quirk hurt a little, it was a personal favorite. But shoot, 1 out of 3,339 wasn't bad. He'd replace it in a week.

jack dow

1992

 


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