The Apprentices

The frosted glass doors of the boardroom slid open swiftly and silently. Into the room stepped a grey-haired elderly man. His face, which was covered with unrestrained designer stubble, was one that only a mother could love. His voice made Henry Kissinger’s sound like a boy soprano. His title was Lord of All Evil, and he surveyed the six young would-be apprentices standing before him with some contempt. There were three men and three women, all in black suits, and all were considerably apprehensive at what lay ahead that day. ‘Good Morning, everybody.’ he barked. ‘Good Morning, Lord of All Evil,’ they replied in perfect unison. ‘You may sit down and ponder over what I have to say to you. It will not make pleasant listening. In brief, you are without doubt the most incompetent and arrogant finalists that I have had the misfortune to work with in the history of this competition. The thought that I shall have to select one of you as my personal apprentice fills me with utter despair. But you have all managed to reach this stage of the competition and have won the right to attempt one more task. Before we undertake this task, however, do you have any more observations about your talents and achievements that you would like to share with the rest of us?’ The Lord of All Evil paused and anticipated an embarrassed silence, but he should have known better. He would have learnt by now that, whatever their shortcomings, his young contestants would be unable to resist the chance of perfuming the air with hackneyed phrases from their lengthy and meaningless CVs. A babble of self regard rose to a crescendo as each contestant tried to outshine the others in order to convince the Lord of their unique and valuable qualities.

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‘I have a proven track record of establishing a network of international enterprises. Yet, I am not conceited, though heavens knows I have every reason to be.’ ‘Anyone can see that I have demonstrated functional logistical capability in every single task and shown a thorough grasp of synchronised management concepts.’ ‘Sometimes I have felt like a big fish in a small pond when surrounded by fellow contestants of such mediocre calibre.’ ‘At no stage did I have any problem in conversating with members of my team on a normalistic basis.’
Having had more than sufficient of this nonsense, the Lord of All Evil shouted ‘Enough!’ and was instantly obeyed. In the silence which followed, he spoke softly yet urgently into an intercom on the desk in front of him. Within a few seconds, a servant entered the room with a tray on which were seven glass beakers containing a dark green fluid. The servant placed a beaker in front of each of the contestants, and one before the Lord. The young people stared at the beakers in some confusion, and the one who had every reason to be conceited whispered, ‘Lemonade time, folks.’ Ignoring this trite remark, the Lord of All Evil introduced the final task. ‘Today’s task is to test your powers of observation. You will watch my actions carefully and you will repeat them. It is as simple as that. Each of these beakers contains a fluid that is either quite harmless or the most poisonous substance known to mankind. It doesn’t really matter which, as long as you watch my actions carefully and then repeat them. If you are ready, then our test will begin.’ The Lord of All Evil lifted a finger and placed it in the beaker and slowly stirred the liquid it contained. He then appeared to place the finger in his mouth and suck at it. The contestants stared at this display with incredulity and then repeated what they had seen. Within seconds, several of them clutched at their throats and retched violently. Two attempted to stand up but collapsed and fell heavily to the floor. The other three then slumped to the floor and, soon, all were writhing in agony. The Lord of All Evil watched this horrifying scene without betraying a single emotion. With bulging eyes
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and gasping for breath, the unfortunate job applicants entered their final death throes. Within two minutes all was silent. Only one contestant remained, a rather fastidious young woman who had boasted of her ability to communicate with others. The Lord of All Evil pointed in turn at each of the lifeless figures on the floor and said ‘You’re fired.’ Turning the the sole survivor, he smiled and said ‘You’re hired.’ But the young woman before him shook her head and said, ‘Much as I would love to accept the post, My Lord, I cannot. You see, I cheated at the final hurdle.’ ‘You cheated?’ queried the Lord raising an eyebrow. ‘Well, after I placed my finger in the liquid, I placed a different finger in my mouth.’ ‘And what influenced this course of action?’ ‘The liquid didn’t look too hygienic.’ The Lord of All Evil smiled benignly at his new apprentice. ‘So, your powers of observation are not quite as sharp as I thought they were. You see, m’dear, that is exactly what I did to avoid whatever was in the beaker. I thought it was obvious. However, by your words and actions today, you have shown an unusual combination of deceit and honesty. Though the latter distresses me somewhat, perhaps there is some hope for you in the business world. Now let us withdraw to my office, so we can study your contract and, as you so elegantly put it, conversate together on a normalistic basis.’ Once again, the frosted glass doors slid open swiftly and silently, and the two departed the boardroom. Almost immediately, several cleaners entered the room with buckets and mops, and several large heavy duty plastic sacks.

Tony Crowley (2011)

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