Mildred Smithson was never late for work. In fact, she was always early. It was her calling to organize, support and even rarely stand-in for her boss, Mr. Bradly. He was the manager of a small brokerage and Mildred knew without her help, he would not be as successful as he was.
Making coffee, booting up the office computers and organizing Mr. Bradly’s desk were a few tasks Mildred completed before anyone else arrived. Although there was a janitor that came at night, Mildred was often not satisfied with his attention to detail. She kept a can of Lemon Pledge in the cubby above the coffee pot and took great pleasure in using it on all the office furniture. Then she’d run the vacuum over the carpet, paying special attention to Mr. Bradly’s office. He had allergies that could flare up, bless his heart. He told Mildred that she shouldn’t do those things, but deep down Mildred knew he was impressed with her work ethic.
On this particular Monday, Mildred had made the decision to speak frankly with Mr. Bradly about several matters. In twenty-five years, she’d never had a closed-door meeting with him. But it was time. Past time.
Mildred was the office manager but Mr. Bradly had not consulted her about hiring an office assistant. Tiffany just showed up one day about five months ago. She was completely incompetent, her desk was a mess and she had not been on time once. This was an intolerable offense in Mildred’s opinion. Tiffany chewed gum, took multiple personal calls and wore very short skirts. These bad habits spoke to her character and a person of Tiffany’s ilk didn’t belong in a professional environment.
This was the day Mildred, as office manager, would tell Mr. Bradly all about Tiffany’s issues and ask him to fire her. Mildred wasn’t worried about Tiffany finding another job. There were bars that always needed someone like her. Or she could get a job in one of those places where men watched women dance and do God knows what. The thought of that was so disgusting, Mildred shivered and put it out of her mind.
Mildred had worn her navy suit on this Monday to communicate how professional she was. How her opinions should be respected. Tiffany had to go. She simply wasn’t right for this job. In fact, there was no need to have an office assistant and it was a mystery to Mildred why anybody had been hired. Perhaps Mr. Bradly thought that hiring an assistant would relieve Mildred of some of her workload, so that reasoning was a bit flattering. Thinking about Mr. Bradly trying to please her brought a flush to her cheeks. Mildred wasn’t going to question why he did it; she planned to tell Mr. Bradly that Tiffany should be fired but no worries. She would interview and hire Tiffany’s replacement.
The clock on the wall behind the file cabinets read 8:01 a.m. Of course Tiffany was late. But Mr. Bradly was usually on time. He always called if he had an appointment with his doctor or dentist. Mildred wasn’t too concerned. Perhaps traffic was heavy. Maybe his alarm didn’t go off. Mildred had a regular alarm clock, a clock radio and an Apple Watch all set to ensure she was never late to work. She smiled just thinking about her perfect record of punctuality.
The coffee smelled inviting and Mildred was torn. She normally made Mr. Bradly’s cup of coffee. Lately he’d been using Splenda and not sugar, no creamer. Since he was running late, she didn’t know if she should wait to make his cup or just go ahead knowing he would be walking in the door at any minute. Mildred decided to wait. Why risk cold coffee? No, he deserved better than that.
Mildred turned her attention to her desk and decided to rearrange some things. She moved her inbox to the right side of her desk before going into the office stock room. She got a fresh legal pad, two pens and two pencils. Mildred sharpened the pencils to perfect points which gave her great satisfaction. Back at her desk, she replaced the old pens and pencils with the new ones. Her workspace was absolute perfection.
Across the room, however, was a different story. Tiffany‘s workspace reflected poorly on Mildred’s. The only choice was to go ahead and try to straighten it up. Fumigate, Mildred thought and chuckled. She normally wouldn’t entertain vulgarity but she really had been pushed to her limit.
Tiffany’s desk was a disaster. There was no sign of actual work going on. She had printed quite a few emails that didn’t appear relevant to financial services. “Girl, you are too much! Call when you get there!” Mildred was annoyed. This was a personal email received on a company-owned computer and printed on the company’s laser printer. The very nerve.
It was now 8:15 a.m. A tiny drop of worry formed in Mildred’s stomach. Several scenarios presented themselves. Maybe Mr. Bradly had been in a car accident. Maybe he’d been in the bank and robbers came in. Mildred took control of her emotions and stopped thinking negatively. It was probably nothing.
One of Tiffany’s desk drawers was open a few inches and something caught Mildred’s eye. She opened the drawer and found a dozen or more travel brochures. There were sales catalogs for summer beachwear. Who uses print these days? Tiffany apparently. She really isn’t a bright girl, Mildred thought. She probably had no charge card due to bad credit so online purchases were not possible. Pathetic.
But why all this beachwear? It’s September. Tiffany must be looking for clearance items, Mildred thought. Frankly, she dressed for summer every day. Short skirts. Belly shirts. One day she overheard Tiffany tell Mr. Bradly that she’d got her navel pierced. Mildred was shocked beyond words. Then Tiffany asked if he wanted to see it, giggling as she said it. But Mildred put a stop to that. She walked right up to Tiffany and told her she had an urgent call. It was a white lie. When Mr. Bradly went to the men’s room, Mildred told Tiffany how inappropriate that conversation was.
8:30 a.m. Mildred started to panic. She didn’t care about Tiffany. Car wreck, airplane crash, Covid All Versions: she simply didn’t care. That girl was nothing to Mildred. But Mr. Bradly was everything. Something was wrong. He was never this late. If he had been incapacitated in an accident, Mildred would ease his mind about work. She could absolutely run the office as long as it took for him to recover. She did not want him fretting about it.
Mildred tried to call Mr. Bradly’s cell phone. She got her phone out of her purse and quickly called. It rang until the voicemail message played. She left several messages imploring him to call her. Her voice trembled and she realized she was about to cry.
Mildred decided to phone his mother, a very dear lady. She had Mrs. Bradly’s phone number because she was in charge of sending her floral arrangements on her birthday and Mother’s Day. Mildred had a laminated emergency contact list in her pencil drawer. The laminator belonged to Mildred and it was at her house. She had felt that Mr Bradly was impressed by her strategic thinking in buying it.
But when Mildred opened her pencil drawer, she didn’t see her contact list. She saw a white envelope with her name on it. Written in ink, and she recognized Mr. Bradly’s handwriting. Holding the letter in both hands, Mildred couldn’t think straight. She couldn’t think at all. Numb. She was numb because this was not routine. Things outside the routine caused her great anxiety and at that moment she felt a panic attack bubbling up.
Mildred forced herself to take several deep breaths before opening the letter. Her mind could not suggest any scenario that could make this a good thing. The letter looked like a Word document that was printed at work. Mildred braced herself and read:
First, thank you for the years of service. Your performance helped me build this business. You’re as nice as they come.
Second, I have fallen in love with Tiffany and she loves me. As you know, my marriage was over years ago. I was very lonely when I met Tiffany last year. I know you well Mildred, so I know that you are thrilled for the both of us. I feel like a giddy schoolboy.
In the midst of this happiness, I made some terrible mistakes at work. I took money from clients and put it into my personal account. I bought Tiffany a ring, a Range Rover, clothes. I even paid for her to have some cosmetic surgery. I intended to pay it all back but two weeks ago, I found out that we were going to be audited on Wednesday. I would be in terrible trouble if that happened.
Tiffany and I are leaving the country today, Saturday. I’m ashamed of what I did. But Mildred, I know you understand. Love makes you do crazy things. I know that you’ll have no trouble getting another job and I know you’ll have my back.
Mildred felt as if she was having an out of body experience. But two words brought her down to this harsh reality. Best Regards. Like he was writing a total stranger. This man had just robbed her of 25 years and he was a thief. Then there’s Tiffany. How dare he flaunt their disgusting relationship and try to excuse it. All the warm feelings toward Don Bradly turned to blazing, hell fire.
She sat for a few minutes, trying to throw off the fury and fear that had enveloped her. Mildred was many things, but she was not a doormat. Don Bradly assumed that she’d have his back. And she fully intended to and he wouldn’t like it.
Two years later, Mildred flew to Maryland and drove to The Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Don came out and gave Mildred an inscrutable look. He sat across a table from her in a very pleasant visitor’s lounge. He stared and said nothing.
“It was the only way,” Mildred said.
“The only way? Look at me, Mildred. I’m in prison.”
“But you’ll be out next month, Mr. Bradly.”
“Tiffany got 25 years, Mildred. That’s a lifetime.”
“She’s where she belongs. This was all her fault and that’s why I testified against her.”
“You lied to a jury, Mildred. Under oath.”
Mildred felt her cheeks burning.
“Like I said, Mr. Bradly—Don—I had no choice. You never did a bad thing in your life before you met that woman. You blew up our lives. Blaming her for the embezzlement was best for you. She’ll be old, toothless and full of tattoos when she gets out so think about that.”
She could see his mood shift. His anger toward her seemed to be fading.
“I’m not ready to say thank you for lying in court to keep me out of a 25-year prison sentence. But I do understand, Mildred. I’ve always understood.” Mildred paid attention to those last three words.
“Where will you go when you’re released?"
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Mother’s gone now so I have nowhere to go. No money either.”
Mildred felt her cheeks flush as Don Bradly looked into her eyes.
“Come home with me. I have a guest room. Mr. Buttons likes to nap in there but I’ll keep him out.” She was starting to ramble. “I know you might be allergic.”
“I love cats,” he said.
On the flight home, Mildred felt content. It had taken two years to put order back into her life and order equaled success. Happiness. A touch of Don Bradly. Tiffany briefly crossed her mind but Mildred reminded herself that Tiffany belonged in prison. It’s just not proper to steal another woman’s boss and there are severe consequences. Rightly so.