Friday, April 13, 2007

A Chicago Ghost Story

Gentle reader,

Some time ago I found myself working for a software consulting company in Chicago which, as it turned out, was only a few short years away from bankruptcy. One of my clients at the time was a retailer that sold what I can only describe as "stuff for rich people who already have too much stuff". After spending a few days poring over the software that ran their web site I discovered some serious problems in the computer code that was being used to process the online orders. I needed to perform an update and I needed to do that at a time when very few people were using the web site. I decided to schedule the update for late on Friday evening.

Well, Friday rolled around, and as luck would have it, the evening was cold and stormy. Living in the Mid-West you come to expect a relentless procession of cold-fronts. A cold front in Chicago can quickly drop the temperature by 30 degrees or more and in late fall you can expect wind and snow. That night didn't disappoint, and I made my way through the driving sleet, passed under the "L" tracks at Wells and Adams and pushed through the revolving doors of the towering office building on West Monroe. A memory flashed through my mind of a consultant from Idaho who had visited me in Chicago once, only to get stuck in the revolving doors, trying to go through the wrong way. He had never in his life encountered a revolving door before. Walking up to the front desk I flashed my ID to the security guard and crossed over to the elevator banks.

I stepped into the elevator and the journey up was enough to allow me a brief and pathetic lamentation on how I was spending my Friday evening. Maybe it was time to move on to a management gig instead of spending my days as a computer jockey. Sometimes the work was frustrating. I had my plan of attack for that night worked out pretty well but I had been around the block enough to still expect some problems to crop up. That's just the way it is with software. Call it Murphy's law. Somehow, things always took longer than you expected.

On reaching the 22nd floor the elevator cut into my thoughts with a cheerful "Bing!". The doors opened and I was greeted by the all-too-familiar office. My home away from home, for the past several years. Instead of being filled with polite chatter though, this time the office just hummed gently with the sound of lonely computers. I made my way to my cube, threw off my coat and got down to business.

I worked more methodically than usual - my normally frantic typing tempered by fear - the particular fear that one can only acquire by having previously fucked-up a company's sacred data. I knew I was at the point of no return. With trepidation, I uploaded the new computer code to the main web servers. The time was exactly midnight.


Suddenly, the entire office was plunged into darkness. My computer itself mercifully remained on. It was connected to an "uninterruptable" power supply. However, working in a dark sea of cubes bathed only in light from screen-savers was not what I had in mind. I headed for the elevators. I had just reached the closest elevator bank when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a shadowy figure. Unable to deny that the figure was human, I instinctively reached for the knife that I always carry in the right pocket of my Levis. It was not a knife of any consequence, it was a true nerd's knife, manufactured by none other than Victorinox of Switzerland.

"Who the fuck is that?"

"Hey, how ya doin'? It's just me!"

Oh for Christ's sake. It was our network admin, Regina.

"I'm sorry, but you scared the shit out of me!" I said, trying unsuccessfully to sound calm and in control.

"Yeah, well I heard that you were going to come in to do an update tonight, so I thought I'd at least give you some moral support. And besides, we've been having so many weird network outages lately. I wanted to be sure you could connect to the servers."

With a sense of relief, I told Regina that I was going down to the lobby to try to get our lights turned back on. "Good plan" she said, before walking off toward the server room. That room was still reasonably well-lit, by emergency backup power, presumably. By then, I had realized that the lights in our office was almost certainly on a timer, set to go off at midnight, aimed at saving some electricity.

Sure enough, in the lobby I mentioned the problem to the security guard, who flicked a switch and restored our office lights. I made the trip back up to the 22nd floor and looked for Regina, but she was nowhere to be found.

There was still plenty of work to do. I moved on to the next phase of my late-night project: a little testing. I wanted to be absolutely sure that my new code worked. I submitted a few orders with a special fake credit card. Let's see...I had always wanted a hydrofoil water scooter. While I'm at it, why not take a couple of radio-controlled blimps. Things seemed to be working as well as could be expected. I breathed a sigh of relief. Time to wrap things up. I walked over to the server room, looking for Regina. Unable to find her, I headed for the elevators. Back down in the lobby, I asked the guard to leave the lights on, in case Regina was still in the office. I braved the raw Chicago night one more time, finally making it home around 3am.

The following Monday I walked into the office, as usual, at around 9am. Immediately, I could tell that something was wrong. People were talking in hushed tones in small groups. My boss was in one of the groups so I went over to talk to him.

"Did you hear the news?" was his greeting. He appeared agitated. He continually smoothed over the few remaining hairs on his forhead.

"No, what's going on?" I replied.

"It's Regina - she was in a car accident. She didn't make it."

I felt nauseated.

"But I just saw her! When and where did this happen?" I inquired

"On Friday night. She was hit outside her apartment in Roger's Park just before midnight." was the reply.

A cold shiver ran down my spine. Before midnight?

That summer, on our annual camping trip with the kids and nephews, I recalled sitting by a camp fire, trying unsuccessfully to come up with a ghost story. Next year, I wouldn't have that problem.

Not at all.

Until the next time, gentle reader, I remain,

Your friend,

Buford Twain

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