Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ancient Custom Assures Safety of CEO

photo © Mark Butkus 2007
A short story by Jordan Crittenden.

By now it's an open secret that a major US corporation, ranked within the top 20 of the current Forbes 500, has taken a highly unusual step in the annals of corporate operations. The firm (which chooses to remain anonymous) has assigned an employee the task of tasting beforehand all food and drink to be ingested by the Chief Executive Officer to prevent any attempt to poison him.

"We initially verified rumors that such a practice had been implemented by a firm in Japan – a country always on the leading edge of corporate innovation," said spokesman Hal Witherspoon. "But actually the procedure has roots dating back to Genghis Khan, and, if I'm not mistaken, even back to the days of the pharaohs. Consequently, in this era of hostile take-over bids and bitter proxy fights, the Board of Directors felt it was none too soon to adopt the practice in today's dog-eat-dog corporate world."

After exhaustive screening, the young man named to the new position, Gerald Barker (not his real name), is surprisingly enough, a relative newcomer to the firm, having joined the Accounting Department only a short six months ago. He is a mild-mannered individual of 27, single, with prematurely thinning brown hair.

"I am well aware," he said, "that certain elements within the firm contend I was chosen because any abrupt absence on my part would cause hardly a ripple in the corporate well-being. But I consider my appointment as proof positive of my undying loyalty." Barker paused a moment, then added, "Considering the circumstances, 'undying loyalty' might not be the right term, but I think you know what I mean."

According to Witherspoon considerable pains were taken in the selection of young Barker's official title. "We rejected Toxic Interceptor as too melodramatic. Yet, Nutrition Guide seemed too bland, aside from the fact that it was discovered that we already had a Nutrition Guide on the payroll. Another factor we had first overlooked was that in order to carry out his duties Barker would be required to be at the CEO's side on a virtually constant basis, so we needed a title that would not make his presence seem out of place. Hence, we arrived at 'Vice President of Internal Affairs.'"

"Of course it's a real honor to be named Vice President," Barker said. "True, at last count there are 82 of us – but three of the older ones are now vegetables."

Originally the plan was to bring to the US the Japanese executive who had undertaken the role Barker was to fulfill. It was hoped he could provide a crash course in procedures that would be effective yet unobtrusive. But less than 24 hours before the corporate jet was to fetch him, word was received that he was dead.

"I was assured repeatedly that his death was in no way job-related," Barker said. "They explained that it was a loss-of-face boating accident. As proof they were good enough to send me a personal copy of the coroner's report. Unfortunately, it is in Japanese."

In the meantime, as an integral part of preparing Barker for his new position, he is being exposed to minute amounts of the slower-acting poisons. Witherspoon said, "This is not being done to such a degree that he might, God forbid, develop an immunity, but simply so he can recognize, for example, the odd sugary taste of arsenic."

Witherspoon went on to say, "Of course with the more lethal substances there is no problem. If, say, after a single sip of coffee his eyes roll up and he collapses face down in the mashed potatoes, it's immediately clear that foul play is afoot."

When it comes to putting the system into operation at a banquet table, the lakeside cookout, or whatever, Witherspoon is quick to admit it's still a work in progress. "As I see it," he said, “without any input from the late Mr. Kyoto, we're way up there on our own, working without a net."

One development for the process requires that every entree prepared for the CEO will first have a single bite removed and discarded in the kitchen. Then, a moment or two after being served, the CEO will pretend that he himself has eaten a bite. At this point he will turn to Barker and recite the scripted remark: "By golly, this has to be the best damn (name of entree) a country boy like me ever bit into! Here – try a bite!" Whereupon Barker accepts what is actually the first bite, enabling him to determine if it's safe or unsafe for the CEO.

This leads to a jocular poaching from each other's plate, seemingly in a random fashion, but carefully orchestrated so that Barker manages to take the first bite of all the CEO's side dishes as well.

In practice sessions this came across as blatant effrontery on the part of Barker, but this was smoothed over by further scripted remarks prepared for the CEO and always delivered with a disarming chuckle. Samples include: "Hey, you old horse thief, gimme that back!" and "By golly, with a (dinner, lunch, midnight snack) pardner like you, who needs enemies!"

Rather than stage these little performances – however ingenious they might be – one might ask why not taste everything before it leaves the kitchen? Witherspoon squelched this idea, citing the dangers of a treacherous waiter. "What's to prevent him from furtively adding some lethal concoction before bringing it to the table? For all we know, he might exchange the CEO's entree with a deadly rib-eye cleverly hidden about his person."

One of the perks that comes with the new position requires that Barker, by necessity, accompany the CEO on all the rather lavish junkets available for the pleasure of various senators and other DC power brokers. Among the options offered are a long weekend at the company's beach-front compound in Barbados, a skiing vacation at the company lodge in Montreux, or perhaps a leisurely cruise in the Mediterranean aboard the company yacht.

In preparation for these junkets, a tutor has been hired to teach Barker backgammon, a game enjoyed by the CEO in the idle hours between brunch and cocktails. However, care has been taken to limit his competency at the game, since, despite the CEO's affable down-home manner, he is not known as a good loser.

When it comes to compensation for the new post exact figures are not available, but a reliable source reports a salary in the middle six figures, plus generous stock options.

As for Barker's severance package, it includes a unique stipulation. If he should die in the line of duty, thereby saving the CEO's life – an event referred to as, "A job well done" – his severance package is to include a lump sum said to be in the neighborhood of twenty million
dollars, plus lifetime annuities for his beneficiary and all dependents, as well as further stock options. "It's clearly a golden parachute of the first rank," Witherspoon said, "with the sole drawback that it is issued only after he's jumped."

But – and here's where the stipulation comes into play – if Barker should live out his days with the corporation until the mandatory retirement age of 65, he will receive only the standard benefits: six months’ pay, a plaque attesting to his loyalty, and a Rolex – always genuine except during economic downturns.

The reasoning behind this drastic reduction is that even though Barker undertook what was considered hazardous duty throughout his career, the very fact that he survived is seen as proof that he was never really in any danger at all.

— Jordan Crittenden

Jordan Crittenden was the first person to believe in the idea of the Bar None Group beyond the original co-founders. Jordan was also the first person to submit articles for publication in the first Bar None anthology. Sadly he passed before he could ever see the first published book. But he did leave us with stories! Ancient Custom Assures Safety of CEO appeared in Take Two: Another Anthology of English Writing from the Costalegre. Today we remember our friend on his birthday.

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