Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D1/C1

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Catbird Press -- Draft 1
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske


First Draft - Chapter One


The next day, Jacqueline seemed pleased at the idea of meeting with Norman and Pierce, and it occurred to Norman that she felt it as important to get close to power as get a salary increase. In fact, it was probably even more important. Maybe she would grow out of that some day.

It was Friday, and everybody else cleared out of the department by five. Norman sat at his desk, doing nothing as the darkness crept over the parking lot outside. It was said the Assistant Production Manager's car had been in the nearest row of the far lot when he got in it and blew his brains out. Norman hadn't seen it happen, of course, except in his mind's eye, which replayed its own version of the event for him incessantly.

He saw the Assistant Production Manager leaving his boss's office with a stony face. His boss might even have been a little concerned that he looked like he was taking the news of his layoff too calmly. The man didn't go back to his own desk, but after giving his boss his i.d. card, walked out to his car. He climbed in the car, opened the glove compartment, and took out a pistol he kept there. It was a .38 probably, or maybe a nine millimeter. Norman imagined the Assistant Production Manager then turning the gun upside down and putting the muzzle into his mouth. It clicked against his teeth, and its metal taste was strange but not really unpleasant. He moved the muzzle around a little until he was sure it was pointing directly at the roof of his mouth, then he pulled the trigger.

Norman wondered if he had closed his eyes before he pulled the trigger. He wondered what went through the man's mind. How could he possibly think a job was important enough to kill himself over? Even Gwen didn't think her job was that important. Did she?

He wondered what would happen if Gwen were laid off and committed suicide. He wondered what would he tell the kids if that happened. Did women ever commit suicide over something like that? You heard about men doing it from time to time, but you never heard about a woman doing something like that. They never shot up their offices with semiautomatic weapons, either. As near as Norman could tell from talking with Gwen, women couldn't even understand the impulse to do such a thing. Maybe they just didn't know how to handle guns.

"Norman?"

He looked up, and Jacqueline was standing in the doorway, staring at him with eyes the color and intensity of the gas flames. He glanced at his watch and saw it was a few minutes to six. He had lost time again.

"Time to go, huh?" He got up and looked around his office. He decided he'd just leave his coat and briefcase here and stop back to get them after the meeting. "I imagine an evening meeting spoils your weekend, Jacqueline." He hoped Gwen got home early to be with the kids, as they'd agreed. The nanny didn't like to have to stay late, and they couldn't afford to lose this one.

"You don't have to worry about that, Norman."

He looked at Jacqueline, and she looked as serious as ever. She was wearing another power suit. He wasn't sure, but he thought the stripe was even more pronounced this time. Norman wondered if Pierce would be equal to dealing with her. For that matter, he wondered what his decision would be about her raise. Norman should resent Pierce's usurping his authority, but he couldn't bring himself to. The truth is, he didn't care if Jacqueline got a raise, as long as she just did her work and didn't make his life difficult. He wished he were home with his kids.

"Shall we go then?"

Jacqueline stepped out of the doorway to let him pass and lead the way to Pierce's office on the fifth floor.

They walked in silence to the elevator. Norman knew he should probably make small talk with her, but he also knew she wasn't much better at small talk than he was. So they rode in silence.

The fifth floor was as deserted as the Human Resources Department on the third floor, and most of the lights were off. Norman and Jacqueline walked through the gloom to Pierce's office.

They stepped around the secretary's empty desk, and Norman tapped on the door. It was almost thirty-six hours since he had last done this.

"Come in," said Pierce's voice, and the door opened into the same inky shadows Norman had seen in here before. Jacqueline seemed taken aback a little, but Norman walked into the darkness toward the halogen desk lamp as naturally as if he'd taken a B-school course on meeting your boss in the dark.

Pierce was standing in the shadows behind the desk.

"Pierce," said Norman, "this is Jacqueline Sanger, the Assistant Manager of Human Resources."

"Please sit down," said Pierce.

There were two chairs facing his desk, so Norman sat in one. He noticed as he sat that the desk lamp was arranged to shine directly into his eyes. He looked away and saw Jacqueline fumbling a little to seat herself in the other chair. She was not unattractive in this light. Seen from the side, her contact lenses were even bluer than when you faced her. Her black hair gleamed where the light caught it, and when she turned her head to look away from the desk lamp, she showed an expanse of creamy white neck.

Norman thought he discerned movement on the other side of the desk, and he wondered if Pierce might shake hands this time. But the movement stopped.

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Pierce," said Jacqueline.

"Please, Jacqueline," said the dark shape behind the desk lamp, "just call me Pierce. Norman tells me you've asked for a raise."

"That's right," said Jacqueline.

"There's been an acquisition." Pierce did not step into the light, and he looked as featureless as a shadow--a short one--behind the desk.

"It's time for my year-end review," said Jacqueline.

Norman, first squinting into the desk lamp, then looking back at Jacqueline, felt more like he was watching television than participating in a business meeting. He wondered if he should try to contribute anything.

"All the budgets are currently being reevaluated," said the shadow.

"Company policy calls for annual performance reviews and salary evaluations," said Jacqueline.

Norman expected Pierce to whip out his blank paper, but the reaction was very mild.

"All the policies are being reevaluated," said the shadow.

"Each of us was hired under the current policies," said Jacqueline. "Those policies amount to a contract. Changing them breaks the contract."

Norman thought Jacqueline was getting dangerously close to threats here. He didn't know Pierce yet, but he didn't think he was the type to intimidate easily. In any case, an employee is not supposed to threaten the head of the company. Norman wished Jacqueline were more diplomatic.

"We are at-will employees," said the shadow. "You don't have a contract."

"I was speaking figuratively," said Jacqueline. "I merely meant that the firm and I have certain expectations of each other. We can either hold each other to those expectations or break our relationship."

That was a pretty clear threat. Nobody spoke for what seemed a minute or more. Norman looked at Jacqueline, who shaded her eyes as she stared defiantly toward the desk lamp. He wanted to get up and shake her, not as her manager, but as her friend. Just shake her until she began to behave like a more responsible person. What was so important about a raise that she could risk disrupting things over it? Jacqueline continued to stare into the shadows where Pierce was standing. Norman concluded that she knew just how risky this behavior was; she just didn't care. He looked back toward the desk lamp and the dark shape behind it, but he couldn't see anything back there now.

Then things happened too quickly for him to comprehend. He thought he heard a rustling off toward his side, but before he could look over, something passed in front of the halogen desk lamp, and he realized it was Pierce's head. The man's face, completely enshrouded in darkness, was suddenly directly in front of his own, about six inches from it, blocking out the desk lamp and filling his field of vision, such as it was.

"I must tell you," said Pierce in a soft, relaxed monotone, "how gratifying it is to see such self-assertion in the junior management staff where have you been hiding this young woman, Norman?"

Norman smelled the soapy odor of his breath again. He started to say something, but his tongue and tips wouldn't move. A kind of grunt issued from his throat, but he couldn't speak.

"Oh, don't try to answer, Norman." Pierce's voice was both soft and soothing. "That's all right. This is an unexpected level of management talent. The treachery of the Assistant Manager of Production led me to believe this organization had no spine."

Norman wanted to ask Pierce what he meant by treachery, but he still couldn't speak. He tried to turn away, and he discovered he couldn't move.

"Just relax, Norman," said Pierce. "Jacqueline and I are going to talk about her relationship with the company in more depth. You just sit here and relax. You may close your eyes and nap if you wish."

Norman could feel his heart pounding. He tried to get up, but nothing happened. He tried to wave his arms, kick with his feet, but his limbs wouldn't answer the signals from his brain. His head wouldn't turn. He could do nothing but breathe and blink his eyes.

Then Pierce's head passed to the side, and the halogen light shone in Norman's eyes again. He looked away from it as best he could. He could not turn, and he couldn't move his gaze away from the dark beyond Pierce's desk. But as he stared into the dark, his peripheral vision managed to make out Jacqueline's shape in the chair beside him. She was immobilized as well, staring straight into the lamp. As Norman stared desperately into the gloom beyond the desk, Pierce's shape approached Jacqueline's. Norman could make out no details, but he could see Pierce's white hair getting closer and closer to Jacqueline.

Norman imagined her fear as she sat paralyzed under his scrutiny.

Then the shapes began to merge, and Norman wondered if Pierce was climbing into the chair with her.

A soft moan sounded, like a sleeper in a nightmare.

Instinctively, Norman shifted his eyes downward, as if he were embarrassed to see even as much as he was seeing. His heart pounded. He couldn't move, and his boss was sexually abusing one of his subordinates right next to him. It was criminal, and Norman realized with terror, that Pierce would have to silence him somehow. He picked up the barest hint of tense movement from the shadow at the corner of his vision.

Norman tried once more to rise from the chair, but his body would not move. Then Jacqueline moaned again, louder.

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