Another Short Story by Bill Tope

No good deed goes unpunished in Bill Tope’s story about a sexual harassment case in an Illinois office, 1994.

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Pete Fountain's clarinet played sad, sexy notes of sweet vintage jazz from the turntable on the bedside table. Elise shook her head, determined not to let the music distract her from what she had decided to do. She sighed. She didn't recognize the tune. Pete played on.

Elise had, after great thought and many misgivings, decided to report her boss to her superiors on a charge of sexual harassment. She knew there would be an investigation into both her allegations and the alleged victim herself. There might even be blowback on Elise, though she was just the messenger. She knew the drill: did the accuser - a little known intern named Peggy Turner - encourage her boss in his advances; did she purposely dress provocatively, try to use her sexuality to gain favors, win influence? Elise had already answered those questions to her own satisfaction, but Larry Klatz, the man in question, had been with the Agency for over twenty years, was productive, successful, a good manager in most respects. He was also a sexist, a misogynist who preyed on women - especially young women - to satisfy his own murky psychological and physical needs. His technique was inscrutable: become a mentor, encourage the woman - or the "girl" as he called his victim - under his wing and gradually allow her some success, some growth in her position. And then, the other shoe would drop.

Next morning, Elise strode into Norma, the Personnel Office Manager's, office, written complaint in hand. "Hi, Elise, what can I do for you?" said Norma, staring hard at the paper in Elise's hand.

"Norma, I want to file a sexual harassment complaint against Larry Klatz," she replied, proffering the written charge. Norma made no move to accept the paper. "I was told that it had to be in writing," added Elise.

Norma took a deep breath, reluctantly accepted the document. "Are you sure you want to do this, Elise?" she asked. The two women stared at each other. In the last year, great emphasis had been placed on addressing instances of sexual harassment, by their employer, the State of Illinois. After all, this wasn't the Stone Age, it was 1994. Employees had even been required to attend workshops addressing this issue.

"Should I take it up with Mr. Barton?" asked Elise, referencing the Regional Director in charge of Operations.

"No, I'll take it," snapped Norma with poor grace. "It's a personnel matter." She began reading the complaint. Elise turned and left the office.

The complaint named Larry Klatz, a supervisor - in charge of some fourteen employees, including nine women - in the alleged harassment of Peggy Turner, a summer intern and recent college graduate. Peggy had pleaded with Elise to get Klatz "off my back," claiming he had importuned her repeatedly for sexual favors. Peggy was fearful of not getting hired by the Agency at the end of her internship if she didn't acquiesce to Klatz's demands. Peggy was reluctant to "make waves" by complaining herself. "You have to know that everyone will find out it was you who complained," Elise had told her.

"Yes, but if you make the complaint they'll take it more seriously," insisted Peggy. "I'm just an intern," she added. After much back and forth, Elise had agreed to act as Peggy's advocate and file the complaint. Later that morning, Elise had encountered Larry in one of the corridors running the length of the rabbit's warren of offices occupied by the Agency, and nothing seemed amiss. "’Lo, Elise," he said, smiling confidently as he passed.

"Hi, Larry." She couldn't make herself smile, felt somehow hypocritical by being pleasant to him. She herself had never been the target of his advances, about which she was strangely ambivalent. Why hadn't Larry ever tried to coerce her? she had wondered. Was she unattractive? No! She shook herself, reminded herself that sexual harassment, much like sexual assault, had little do with a pretty face or a curvy figure and everything to do with power! And more to the point, she was attractive; Larry just hadn't had the stones to try to victimize someone with her equanimity, her sense of self-worth. She would have cut him off at the knees had he tried, and they both knew it. That afternoon, Elise encountered Peggy in the lunchroom.

"Elise!" said Peggy in a stage whisper. "Mr. Uhe asked me to meet him at three o'clock today." Uhe, Elise knew, was the Assistant Director for Human Resources for the local office. He was far above poor Norma. So, the big boys were getting involved already, she thought. "Would you go with me, Elise?" asked Peggy desperately.

"Maybe you should take your attorney," suggested Elise. "Someone who knows all about business ethics and sexual harassment. All I know is what I've read in the Personnel Handbook and seen on TV," she explained.

"But I don't have an attorney."

"You don't?" Elise was a little surprised.

"I can't afford a lawyer," cried Peggy. "That's why I wanted you to file the complaint." Just then a man from Uhe's office approached the two women, handed Elise a folded note, left without a word. She unfolded it, read.

"Looks like you'll get your wish," she remarked. "Uhe's secretary said he expects me in his office at three pm sharp."

That afternoon the two women were ushered into the Assistant Director's office, shown to seats before Uhe's desk. He didn't bother standing as they entered.

"Would you ladies like some coffee?" asked the secretary graciously.

"Never mind about that, Madeline," snarled Uhe. "They won't be staying that long." He peered critically at the pair. "I received your complaint..." He glanced at a paper. "...Smithers... which one of you is Smithers?" he asked obtusely. It informed Elise very much about Uhe and about the situation they faced, if the Assistant Director hadn't made himself aware of their identity by this time. Or was this some kind of weird mind game? He surely could have picked up the Agency's photo directory for a brief perusal. Perhaps he was only emphasizing how insignificant they really were. A mind game.

"I... I'm Smithers," said Elise half raising her hand. Uhe huffed.

"And you, must be little Peggy Turner," he conjectured, arching his brow at her.

"I think she's the full-sized Peggy Turner," interjected Elise archly. Uhe huffed again. Frankly, Uhe annoyed her.

"I'm Peggy," said Peggy in a small voice. "Yes, sir."

"I wanted to meet with you two in order to tell you that this alleged sexual harassment incident will be investigated and adjudicated by CMS in order to assure fairness and non-prejudice." Elise knew that Central Management Services was the Agency overseeing all the state agencies; they hired, fired and disciplined and promoted state employees, among other duties. Uhe turned to Peggy. "Have you retained an attorney..." he glanced back at his paper, "...Ms. Turner?" When he pronounced "Ms.," Elise thought he sounded like a bumblebee.

"Uh... no, Mr. Uhe. I haven't." For the first time that afternoon, Uhe smiled.

"That's fine. The investigation will begin tomorrow morning at nine sharp. Report to Ms. Haver's (Norma's) office at that time. You're entitled to Union representation if you so choose. You will be paid for your time. Dismissed," he snapped. The two women filed out of the office.

That night, Elise was fixing dinner when the phone rang. Leaving the wooden spoon in the pot she was stirring, she picked up the receiver. "Hello?" She continued to listen, but no sound came through the line. "Hello?" she said a second time, shrugged, started to hang up when a harsh, metallic screeching noise emerged, causing her to hurriedly move the instrument from her ear. She winced.

"I know where you live," came a thick, heavy voice over the line.

"Who is this?" demanded Elise intently.

"I can see you now," it went on. "You're in your kitchen, making soup. That's a good idea," continued the voice. "Because you could stand to lose a few pounds..."

Reflexively, Elise slammed down the phone, stood there shaking. She glanced at the window, quickly closed the curtain, took a deep breath, released it. She walked back to the stove. The soup was softly roiling, but Elise had lost her appetite.

The following morning at nine sharp Elise was directed to a conference room, which had been set up to accommodate the "Inquisition," as Elise thought of it. She knocked on the open door and a strikingly handsome man in a light blue shirt and Hermes tie crooked his finger, inviting her in. At the table sat a second man, dressed similarly to the first. Both men immediately rose to their feet.

The first man consulted a tablet of yellow foolscap, said, "You would be Ms. Smithers, did I get that correct?" She nodded. "Great!" He smiled. He really was quite attractive, thought Elise again. "Please, Ms. Smithers, have a seat, right here, if you would." He indicated a chair at the head of the long, oval conference table, nearest the door. "I'm Brad Travis," he said, "and this is Paul Birney," he indicated his partner. "We're from Central Management Services, which as you probably know has jurisdiction in this matter. Oh, can I get you anything, coffee, water?"

"I'm fine," said Elise.

"Excuse me," he said and snapped on a recording device which looked like it came off the set of a Star Trek movie. "This," he went on, "commences the investigative phase of our review. Once that is completed, our adjudicators will take the information we have gleaned and then render a decision in the case of Turner v. Klatz on the alleged sexual harassment complaint. All parties will in turn be interviewed and facts gathered." Elise felt a frisson of excitement; Travis not only looked hot, he smelled terrific!

"W... will other employees, aside from Peggy and Mr. Klatz, I mean, be interviewed as well?" Elise knew that Klatz had wreaked a path of destruction for at least the four years she had worked for the state. "Everyone will be interviewed." Wow, thought Elise that was at least ninety people. Travis took a seat across from Elise. In short order he swore her in. "You are a witness in this investigation, Elise," he said. She felt warm at hearing her first name spoken aloud. "The target is Mr. Larry Klatz." He looked up at her. "Okay?" She nodded. "You'll have to speak... into the microphone," he indicated the recording device. He smiled again. She blushed. "Sorry. Yes, I know Larry. I've known him for four years, ever since I first came to work for the Agency." He smiled, nodded his understanding. Was he actually flirting with her, she wondered.

The questions came steadily for over forty-five minutes till at length the men, with Travis taking the leading role, had asked Elise almost every conceivable question she could imagine. Finally, Travis reached over to snap off the recorder. Keeping his finger on the button, he said, "That'll do it, I think. Do you have anything you'd like to add?" he asked her.

"No, you gentlemen were quite thorough," she remarked. "Can I go now?"

"Of course. Thank you for your cooperation. We've gotten off to a good start here today!" All three rose at the same time and Travis accompanied Elise to the door, opened it and she slipped out. She paused for a moment and looked back, noting that Travis and Birney had another witness sequestered already.

The evening of her interview, Elise was in her bedroom, listening to Acker Bilk playing "Stranger on the Shore" on the phonograph and writing her newest short story. She couldn't help herself: she was writing about sexual harassment in the workplace. She'd been at it for almost two hours and had framed a rough draft of about five pages. She aspired to quit working for others eventually and embark on a career as a writer. It was a long shot, but everyone needed a dream, she thought. She'd make a copy once she got to work tomorrow. Always paid to have a backup hard copy, she decided. Just as she was taking the pages from her printer, the phone rang again. Preoccupied with her story, she snatched up the phone, said, "Hello?" After about ten seconds, she slammed the phone, perhaps too hard, down on her desk. What she'd heard was a blistering screed of violent, sadistic pornography, all directed squarely at her. Who could it have been? she wondered wildly, then thought: Larry? Or one of his pals from work? One of his girlfriends? The voice had been altered electronically; she couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. She stood by her bed, took a deep breath, released it.

Throughout the next ten days, Elise was confronted with an army of disgruntled fellow workers, who made no bones about it: they felt put out to be sucked into an investigation of Larry, who it seemed was everybody's friend now. Even the other women whom he had used and then discarded seemed to take the whole affair as an intrusion into their privacy and as a reminder of things better left in the past.

The next afternoon, at lunch, Elise sat with Peggy at a table in the break room. That morning, Elise knew, the other woman had had her debriefing with the two investigators, and she was curious to know what Peggy had told them. "How'd it go, Peggy?" she asked over a roast beef sandwich.

"It was cool, Elise," said Peggy with unwonted enthusiasm. She plucked at a bit of salad.

"What did they ask you, what did you tell them?" Elise wanted to know.

"Oh, you know: what did Larry say, what did he do, did he ever touch me. That sort of thing."

"No surprises, then?" Peggy blushed, smiled, and said:

"Well one thing. Mr. Travis asked me out." She tittered merrily.

"What!" exclaimed Elise. "He did what?" she asked, her voice rising.

"Ssh, keep your voice down, Elise. I don’t want the whole office knowing that I'm dating Brad."

"Brad! Peggy, you can't be serious. You can't date... Brad!"

"Why not?" demanded Peggy, her delicate lips forming a little frown.

"Why not?" repeated Elise. "He's an investigator, an attorney, probably, and his decision in this case will determine if you're fired or not!"

"What did I do?" asked Peggy sullenly. "After all, you filed the harassment allegation, not me!" At this Elise blinked, disbelievingly.

"You begged me to do it, Peggy," she insisted. "It was all your idea..."

"No one twisted your arm, Elise," she pointed out. "And, I've pretty much decided to ask you to withdraw the complaint."

"But, why?"

"Because," said Peggy. "Mr. Uhe said I'm in the running for a new job they just created." The other woman just stared at her. "It would be a 7C level position," Peggy went on. "And that," she said with a slightly malevolent smirk, "would make me your boss." Little white spots began dancing in front of Elise's eyes and her head swam. She recalled that she was herself, like Peggy, a 5C level employee, which would indeed make the other young woman her superior. Suddenly she became aware that someone was speaking to her. It was Peggy. "Are you alright, Elise? Can I get you some water?"

Elise stumbled to her feet, regarded her young companion in a whole new light. It was as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She said, "But what about Larry? You were so afraid..."

"I'd rather not speak about Larry anymore. Besides, with a 7C rating, I'd be level with Larry and wouldn't have to take any crap from him," said Peggy. "It's possible I misinterpreted his behavior. Besides, everybody deserves a second chance... don't you think?" She smiled sweetly. Elise took a great breath, let it out slowly, then said, "I don't think you need any more of my help. You've managed to get your act together nicely, to say the least."

"Thanks, Elise. No hard feelings, huh? I'm sure we'll get along fine, once I'm your boss; I won't forget what you've done." And with that, Peggy gathered her things from the table and promptly quitted the break room, leaving her friend to stand by and watch her go.

Before she left for home that Friday, which marked the end of the third week of the harassment investigation, Elise paused at the Xerox machine to make copies of her three newest short stories. "Still here, Elise?" asked Norma, who had seemingly crawled out of the woodwork and taken Elise by surprise.

"Just leaving, Norma," replied Elise, smiling mechanically. Norrma stared at the papers in Elise's hands before marching off. "See you Monday," she said in departing.

As it happened, two weeks following the conclusion of the sexual harassment investigation, a decision from Springfield was rendered: Larry Klatz was history; he was summarily fired for cause, his executive status and his twenty years of service notwithstanding. The air had decidedly cleared at the local office, but there was a certain residual resentment directed primarily at Elise. She shrugged it away, felt like she'd learned a lesson, which was: don't get involved in other workers' problems. But she did feel a certain vindication in Larry's firing. Intrigued, she'd done some research at the library and discovered that sexual harassment was such a hot button issue in the business world, particularly in state and federal government employment, that Klatz's immolation should have come as no surprise. The prevailing notion was that where there's smoke, there's fire. She nibbled a brownie.

Two Months Later

Shortly after the harassment debacle, things had seemed to return to normal. Though she still functioned very well at work, Elise felt a sense of alienation from the Agency. It was subtle, but there it was. The underlying problem came more into focus when she checked her mail box. There she found a letter from Central Management Services in Springfield, the same group that had investigated Larry Klatz. She was due for a promotion at the beginning of the year, which was in just eight weeks, so she smiled in expectation of her elevation and the accompanying raise in pay. She was due to receive recognition as a 6C employee and she was glad she had not quit at the height of all the troubles she'd experienced as a result of helping Peggy Turner. She slit open the envelope, with its gold embossed logo. What she found inside made her blink in surprise.

Dear Ms. Smithers.

It has been brought to the attention of Central Management Services that you stand in violation of rules and regulations as outlined in Employees' Manual for Local Office Procedures (DPA 360a).

An internal investigation will be conducted beginning November 1, 1994 at 9am at your local office. Please be in attendance. You will be paid for your time."

Frank Handbaum
Director, Central Management Services

Elise was lost. She had literally no idea how she had come under the investigative thumb of CMS. Could this be payback? She bit her bottom lip, concentrating, but could find no possible reason for a disciplinary hearing. She glanced at the wall clock: 8:45; well, she supposed she'd find out in fifteen minutes. Leave it to CMS, she thought bitterly, to give her no time to find representation. This wasn't a legal proceeding, anyway, she knew. She could always hire an attorney for a subsequent civil action, but counsel might have come in handy. She thought of contacting her Union Rep, but Rita, the shop steward, had been a no-show for Peggy's hearings. Word had it that Rita was in jeopardy of losing her own job and was treading softly.

At nine sharp, Elise was summoned and conducted to the same conference room where she'd testified in Larry Klatz's sexual harassment investigation only months before. There she found Travis and Birney again, occupying the same seats as before. When she entered this time, however, no one stood. Nor did they look up.

She cleared her throat, finally gaining their attention. As was usual, Travis took the lead. In fact, she could hardly remember Birney ever saying a word. She wondered if she'd recognize his voice. "Please, Ms. Smithers, take a chair, here," he indicated the same hard wooden chair as before. She settled herself. Offers of coffee or water were not forthcoming. In short order Travis flipped on the recorder and swore Elise in. "Do you understand why you're here, Ms. Smithers?" asked Travis, still looking hot and smelling fantastic. She raised her brows, said: "A letter I got just this morning mentioned an investigation into some sort of violation of the Employees' Handbook," she replied. Thinking again of the investigation of Larry, she said, "Mr. Klatz..."

"You are no longer a witness, Ms. Smithers. That investigation is closed; you are the target of this investigation."

"Then someone has accused me..."

"That's correct," he said in what she thought was a hostile voice. "Violation of 116D and 127C and 201C, which concern the use of company equipment and state local office operations materials." He stared flatly at her. Accusingly.

"I don't know what that means," she said, increasingly confused.

"Have you ever read your Employees' Handbook?" he asked, again accusingly.

"When I first got hired," she said. "Well, I scanned it. I got the gist of it, I think."

"It has been alleged," said Travis, "that you used Agency photocopiers and Agency printer paper to copy materials not related to work." He stood, loomed over her. She stared at him blankly, then broke out laughing. "You mean making a few copies of stories and poems that I wrote on my own time... is that what you're talking about?"

"Then you admit it, Ms. Smithers?" Gone was "Elise." And suddenly he didn't smell as good as he did before, either. She noticed sweat stains in his armpits.

She blew out air, shrugged. "Sure, why not? It was harmless. I'll reimburse the state for the few sheets of paper I've used in the last four years. I'll even compensate them for the use of the copier; what's the going rate, ten cents a copy, fifteen? Besides, everybody does it."

"We have here," said Travis, ignoring her question and taking up a sheaf of papers from the conference table, "some copies of documents I'd like to have you take a look at." He spread the pages out before Elise like a magician spreading a deck of cards. Curious, she chose one at random. She was startled by what she saw. "This... I wrote this," she proclaimed. "Where did you get these?" she asked.

"Those were confiscated in this local office, specifically in a file cabinet in your office."

"You can't do that," she sputtered excitedly. "These are private, they're not Agency business."

"Anything retained in this local office is considered state property."

"But, how did you get these; they were locked up. You had a duplicate key," she said, answering her own question. Her voice fell away.

"Do you admit that you wrote these documents?" he inquired.

"These doc... yes, yes of course I wrote them. But on my own time, at home," she said. "Besides they're only poems... and short stories," she said lamely.

Travis insisted that she turn each document over and list when she wrote it, when she copied it, and how many copies she made and a dozen other details. He wouldn't let her use a typewriter, it had to be in her own handwriting. After an hour she felt her hand cramp. The men sat and stared at her.

And so it went. Back in her office, Elise could see the procession of her fellow workers, traipsing in and out of the conference room. As Peggy Turner emerged, she smiled winningly at Brad. He touched her elbow and she glistened. The script was written: Elise would be railroaded out of her job not on the basis of poor performance or fraud or cheating, but on the basis of appropriating a half ream of computer paper. She closed her eyes, shook her head in dismay. At the end of one week, on a Saturday, she received another letter from CMS, this one addressed and sent to her apartment. Unfolding the letter, she read that she would be "Terminated for cause, for..." Elise could hardly read it. She was terminated effective immediately, would no longer be permitted in the building. Her "effects" would be shipped by UPS to her home. With the letter was a check from the state. Since she had not worked the requisite five full years, she would receive no delayed compensation. The check was her vestment refund, in lieu of a future monthly pension.


Larry Klatz, Elise later discovered, had, after a six-month hiatus, gained employment at a sister Agency with the state, his sexual predations now forgiven. His connections had spread like a spider web across the state and he and his advocates had cashed in some markers to get him his new job. She was made to understand that he now earned nearly twice his former salary. Elise had no such luck; wherever she went, her firing followed her like a shadow She found herself effectively barred from further employment with the state. So she took a job in Missouri, just across the river, not twenty minutes away, where the pay was approximately one half of what she had earned doing the exact same work as she had in Illinois.

She had over the previous four years formed some friendships with workers in her office; only one of them ever called, wrote, or in any way contacted or communicated with her after she was fired. And that friend, after a luncheon date with Elise, left a voice mail stating that she had received heavy flak for "consorting with a discredited employee." There would be no more lunches. Insofar as the office, the Agency, and the state were concerned, Elise was persona non grata.

Nearly a year later, however, Elise received another communication from an employee with whom she had worked; it surprised her, but only a little. In fact, it gave her fodder for yet another short story. She had plenty of time now to write. It was an invitation to the bridal shower of Celine Peggy Turner, who was soon to wed one Bradley Michael Travis. The bride-to-be, she learned, was registered at Macy's. So Elise guessed that, in some small way, her efforts had made a difference, though perhaps for the worse. As she listened to Jimmy Cobb blow the dulcet tones of "Sweet and Lovely," she thought, I hope they don't have children!


  1. A really gripping read with a very sensitive theme which you handled deftly with excellent writing.

    1. Thanks for your observations, Paul; I appreciate and admire you for commenting on almost every story which appears in Fiction on the Web. Can’t wait to read your next work. Bill

  2. Well done! This is a difficult theme to write about, but you pulled it off with humour and excellent writing.

  3. I enjoyed this take on office politics, this was about harassment all right but a much more Machiavellian kind. I found similar experiences but on a smaller scale when dealing with human resources bureaucracy. The story drew me in to its Kafkaesque world, more frightening because this situation could really happen...on the bright side Elise now has plenty to write about.