A few years ago, I wrote this story. It’s long and odd and has no chance of finding a paying market, so I thought I would finally just put it out there. You’ll find an excerpt below. The full version is available for sale on Amazon, bundled with some other pieces I’ve already published here. Because Amazon does not allow you to give Kindle books away, I have to charge $.99 for it. If you don’t want to pay, you’re welcome to download the free versions linked below; they also contain the full text of the story.
THE FINAL REPORT OF THE SMELL COMMITTEE
TO: The Board of Directors
FROM: Mr. A.V. Jascowitz
Mr. B. Sykes
Mrs. E. Drake-Avilas
Mr. T.S. Holm
Ms. T. Burke
On Tuesday, September 8, 2012, Joseph Schultz reported a strong, musky odor near his workstation in the payroll department of the Dubuque office. Schultz claimed that he had begun to notice the smell days earlier and had assumed it would dissipate of its own accord. Instead, it had grown increasingly palpable and had begun to significantly impact his ability to work. Facility Services investigated and noted a “faint” odor, which they traced to some old food in the nearby kitchenette. That weekend, the refrigerator and all fixtures were cleaned vigorously, and the issue seemed to be resolved.
The following Monday, September 14, Schultz reported that not only had the smell not been eliminated, it had actually grown in strength; he claimed he could now smell it in a radius of 20 feet from his workspace — a distance that encompassed nearly a quarter of the building’s third floor — and that its character had changed from a simple food-related odor to a fouler, more pungent stench altogether, one that Schultz described in a garrulous stream of emails as a “stink of death” or “what hatred must smell like.” Several of Schultz’s coworkers began reporting the smell on their own, attributing it variously to paint, cleaning solvent, new carpeting or other prosaic sources. In response to the volume of complaints lodged with Facility Services, a professional steam-cleaning service was contracted to clean every square foot of the payroll department. This operation was performed on September 22, again to no avail, and the payroll staff reported to work the following day to find the smell had returned undiminished.
With no options apparently remaining, Facility Services had little solace to offer Schultz or his colleagues, who resorted to their own methods to attempt to restore comfort to their workspace. Payroll Director Dot Freidburger organized a floor-wide effort to improve the work environment, with employees bringing in, at their own expense, a variety of air fresheners, air purifiers, potpourri sachets and other similar items. These invariably proved ineffective: potpourri turned dry and brittle within a few days; a potted fichus plant took on a peculiar chalky texture before crumbling into dust; and chemical air fresheners either had no apparent effect at all or else made the odor worse. Freidburger and her colleagues abandoned their efforts, and no further attempt was made by the employees to combat the smell.
Several emails from this period subsequently reviewed by the Committee reveal instances of poor work performance, unusual behavior or cognitive difficulties whose potential severity went unrecognized at the time. Payroll Specialist Amelia Beakman filed a quarterly Paid Time Off Usage Report that actually consisted of a thousand-word description of an erotic dream; she later claimed to have included the material through a simple cut-and-paste error and was not disciplined. Several employees were cited for failing to report to work, explaining later they had confused the day with Saturday or Sunday, though one in particular claimed, with no lack of embarrassment, that she had forgotten she was employed by the Company at all. Formerly outgoing men and women were observed to become quiet and withdrawn, and several emails sent to Human Resources took on an ominous cast. “I can’t sleep at night,” one employee wrote, “because all I think about is having to come back here and work in this smell.” Another wrote, “Do something. If you don’t, somebody will. This isn’t any kind of a threat. But you don’t understand how people are feeling here.”
Whether Joseph Schultz arrived at work on the morning of October 8 knowing it would be his last day both on earth and as a Company employee is impossible to say. He had evidently grown convinced that the smell emanated from a corpse buried in the floor beneath his desk, and that if he disinterred it and buried it properly the odor would finally be expunged. Through the service elevator he brought up to his workspace an axe, a chain saw, a crowbar and a small hydraulic jackhammer. He also had with him one hundred yards of rope and several rolls of heavy tape. Immediately he began using these tools he was confronted by building security, whom he captured and took hostage with the threat of a 9mm pistol that he had also carried in with him. Five other people tried to intervene, and all were captured and quickly bound with rope and tape. Efforts to reason with Schultz proved futile, and he was regrettably shot and killed by a police sharpshooter. Before his death he had succeeded in ripping up more than 30 square feet of flooring; naturally no corpse (other than Schultz’s own) was found within, and the smell — though largely unnoticed in the midst of the crisis — remained undiminished.
Schultz had been undergoing numerous personal hardships in the last weeks of his life, including separation from his wife and son and an overwhelming sense of impending disaster that had taken a heavy toll on his relationships and commitments. That these circumstances were almost certainly the direct result of prolonged exposure to the smell was not immediately apparent; they did, however, provide the media with a convenient context in which to frame Schultz’s actions. Schultz’s breakdown was seen as a simple instance of a disgruntled man going over the edge, and while his colleagues spoke of the strange smell to numerous reporters and media correspondents, these references found little traction and quickly died away. Schultz’s family was paid an undisclosed settlement, and the third floor employees were temporarily relocated to offsite facilities. The affected section of the third floor of the Dubuque office was converted into storage rooms, grief counselors were called in, and it was in the hope of bringing the story of the smell to a final close that the Board first convened this Committee on October 26, 2012. As we know, of course, that was not to be the case.
The Committee’s work began on October 29, when the five members, accompanied by consultants from Airborne Laboratories, convened in the Dubuque office for the first time. The smell in the enclosed section of the third floor was immediately palpable, the Committee members variously describing it as “fetid,” “cloying,” “vile,” and “blistering”; several of the Committee noted its peculiar tendency to change character, so that at one moment it seemed redolent of, for example, stagnant milk, before abruptly changing to resemble the odor of boiling sweat. The Airborne Laboratories personnel were more conservative in their appraisal, agreeing only that “there’s something there all right,” and taking numerous samples of both the air and the remaining carpet. The Committee agreed that the smell was detectable in an area encompassing approximately 300 square feet; tellingly, it had already seemed to penetrate beyond the area that had been cordoned off for storage following the Schultz incident a few weeks previously.
Following this site visit, and while Airborne Laboratories conducted its analysis, the Committee maintained close contact with the staff of the Dubuque office. By this time the offsite departments had been reinstated on the third floor and the smell had become a daily subject of conversation, with nearly every employee claiming to be in some way affected by it. Attempts to mask the smell through the burning of candles and incense were firmly quashed on the grounds that such activities violated the codes regulating fire in the workplace. Email records provided by Human Resources reveal a distinct pattern of insubordination, sagging morale, and inexplicable behavior emerging during the late fall within not only the Payroll group but in Benefits Administration and IT, groups that adjoined Payroll on either side. Three employees with spotless records were terminated for committing unprovoked acts of violence on their coworkers; others began to exhibit strange tics and compulsions, such as eating copier paper or hoarding coffee mugs from the various break rooms. Assistant systems analyst Richard Ogle grew convinced that a small, imp-like creature named “Freexis” had come to live inside his mouth and was “stealing his words” before he could speak them, while payroll specialist Nancy Lascar lost the ability to see the color brown. Overall, the Committee collected 53 individual complaints, warnings or pleas to take some kind of action on the employees’ behalf. With no data as to the smell’s nature, the Committee offered what assurances it could, confident that the Airborne Laboratories report would provide a clear way forward to addressing the crisis.
That report, when it was delivered on November 18, proved disappointing; Airborne Laboratories could not identify any extraordinary impurities within either the atmosphere or the flooring of the Dubuque office, and its written summary suggested only that the odor stemmed from some natural cause and that a thorough cleaning of the office’s HVAC system would prove sufficient to eliminate it. Despite the expense (as well as the Committee’s private misgivings regarding the efficacy of this approach), the procedure was authorized and scheduled to be carried out by Airborne Laboratories on December 2.
It hardly need be pointed out that the cleaning, while masking the smell for a few hours, proved ineffective; moreover, confirming a pattern the Committee had begun to observe, the odor seemed only to gain in intensity in the days following, as though mustering an olfactory counterassault. By mid-December, the complaints and expressions of alarm had returned to, and soon surpassed, their previous abundance, mitigated only by the uncommonly large number of employees who took time off in preparation for the Christmas holiday. More alarmingly, similar complaints began to filter in from select employees on the second floor. At this juncture, the Committee drafted a memo, which it presented to the Board and the division presidents on December 22. An excerpt follows:
Notwithstanding the difficulty encountered in trying to isolate and identify this odor, it is imperative that the Board recognize the threat it presents to the company’s operational status, its shareholder value and its perception by the media and the public. Furthermore, the disruption caused by the smell may — indeed, almost certainly will — lead to further episodes of ill health, poor work performance and even violence, any of which would leave the company exposed to potentially ruinous legal action.
This memo was formally discussed by the Board on January 5, 2013, with Committee members Holm and Drake-Avilas called upon to deliver testimony in person. The Board determined at that time that, with an unexpectedly soft fourth fiscal quarter and two lawsuits pending against the Company alleging criminal negligence for the violent outburst of Joseph Schultz, the Company did not have the financial resources to close the Dubuque office and relocate the staff. The minutes of the meeting further record that several Board members were openly skeptical of the Committee’s conclusions, accusing the members of being variously “alarmist” and “crackers.” As an interim solution, the Board authorized the Committee to work again with Airborne Laboratories on a plan to eradicate the smell, and requested a follow-up report to be presented at the Board’s next meeting in February.
Working closely with the members of the Committee, Airborne Laboratories formulated a proposal to attack the smell by means of ozone purification. This procedure entailed hermetically sealing the entire building and rendering the atmosphere temporarily unbreathable, and so was scheduled for Saturday, January 9. Committee members Jascowitz, Sykes and Holm were on hand to personally inspect the results. On touring the building, the atmosphere of which still reeked with ozone, the Committee members could not detect any trace of the smell and pronounced the cleaning procedure a tentative success. However, in contrast to what Airborne Laboratories now alleges in its countersuit against the Company, the Committee did not formally consider the contract fulfilled and insisted on a waiting period of one week to ensure that the odor had indeed been eliminated. The answer, of course, came far sooner than that.
The Dubuque staff reported to work the following Monday as usual, and, true to every Committee Member’s fears, emails from distraught employees quickly demonstrated that the smell was returning — once again, even farther in its range and more crippling in its effects. In addition to the unwonted aggression previously observed, there came baffling neurological symptoms: synesthesia, the sudden loss of the sense of taste or touch, the inability to perceive the passage of time (several employees were observed staring at their computer monitors for hours, convinced later their minds had only wandered for a few seconds), and a peculiar form of aphasia that left employees mechanically opening and shutting their mouths without actually speaking. By Thursday of that week, the Committee was informed that many employees had simply ceased coming to work with no explanation. Of the employees who did remain, their productivity took a calamitous turn for the worse, and the affiliates that depended on their output quickly raised the alarm. With revenue targets for the quarter under serious threat, the Board scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday, January 18. At the Board’s request, the Committee traveled to Dubuque to make a personal inspection of the office, interview staff and provide the Board with the information it needed for its deliberations.
CONFRONTING THE SMELL
It was with a deep sense of dread and foreboding that the Committee met at the Dubuque office on the morning of Friday, January 15, equipped with several digital cameras and recorders, as well as professional-grade painters’ masks and goggles. On entering the lobby, the Committee observed that the reception desk was unstaffed and that the main lights had not been turned on. A heavy, unsettling silence hung in the air, along with, it was quickly perceived, the smell. To a person, the Committee were taken aback to discover how powerfully the smell had rebounded from the last assault on it, and aghast at how its character had changed: whereas in June it had been fundamentally recognizable — that is, despite a baffling propensity to change character, it was nevertheless analogous to smells perceived in ordinary life such as sweat, vomit, ammonia or hog fat — at this time it had taken on an aspect altogether mysterious and repellant. It seemed to occupy the air like a solid mass, assaulting the nostrils and throat with a metallic abrasiveness. To say that it smelled “like” something else was no longer possible, so confused, contradictory and revolting were the sensations it invoked; it sapped the will, turned one’s thoughts febrile and disjointed and left one the impression of having been invaded by something malevolent and fiercely determined. For a period of several seconds — but which, subsequent investigation has shown, actually lasted nearly an hour — the Committee was frozen, unable to move or react. Our stasis was broken by Committee member Burke, who struck herself repeatedly in the face with the butt of her camera before turning and fleeing out of the building. The remaining members quickly donned gas masks, which provided a small measure of relief. Freed from the smell’s strange narcotic effect, the Committee decided that, notwithstanding the panic of Ms. Burke, it should fulfill its duties, and we proceeded out of the lobby and into the suite.