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The two of them stopped short of Pierce's office, and stood just outside the box of light cast on to the carpet by doorway.
"Jacqueline," said Norman, 'are you all right?"
Jacqueline didn't answer. She just stared at him with her dark, lenseless eyes.
"It's only been hours since she joined us," said Pierce. 'It takes a few days for them to regain speech."
"Who's us?" said Norman.
"The new management team." Pierce stepped through the doorway and flipped the light switch as he entered.
The room turned dark except for the second-hand light of the reception area, and Norman could see nothing. He heard movement, however, and then the halogen desk lamp was switched on.
Pierce sat down behind the desk. 'I really hadn't expected to start the re- engineering process so soon, but Jacqueline was such a good subject."
Norman didn't want to ask what he meant by that.
"Sit down, Norman."
Norman went to the chair he had sat in Friday night. He pulled it back another foot or so from Pierce's desk before sitting down in it.
"I'm not going to bite you, Norman." Pierce was barely visible outside the glow of the desk lamp, but his American Express Platinum smile seemed to glint out of the shadow that was his face.
"I don't understand what's going on." Norman looked around for Jacqueline, but she had vanished into the darkness at the back of the room.
"She's more comfortable in complete darkness for the time being," said Pierce. "It's part of the process."
Norman had seen enough horror movies to recognize the process Pierce was talking about, but he wasn't about to believe any of it. "What process are you talking about?" he said.
Pierce sighed as if he thought Norman willfully dense. "Jacqueline is a revenant."
"What does that mean?"
"You know what it means, Norman." Pierce's voice took on a barely perceptible edge. "I don't have time to discuss it with you anyway. We must talk about the police. You called them."
Norman felt unaccountably ashamed and disloyal.
"We all make mistakes," said Pierce. "I just want you to promise me you'll take it no further."
Nothing in Norman's experience had prepared him for this situation. He was trained in organization behavior, the management of social environments, human communication, employee counseling, and adult education. But he'd never had a course in how to act with a boss who appears to prey on human beings.
"And, of course," continued Pierce, "We must find a way to discredit you with the police. You don't happen to have a history of alcoholism or substance abuse, do your
"No," said Norman.
"Never mind. I think we can probably create one for you."
Norman didn't care if Pierce called the police and told them he was a drug abuser. He felt that was probably the least of his worries, because it had begun to dawn on him that he was most likely Pierce's next victim.
Pierce opened his desk drawer, took out a piece of paper, closed the drawer, and stood up. He began to walk around the desk toward Norman.
Norman gasped and started to get out of the chair, but Pierce looked him in the face, and he found himself paralyzed again.
"Don't go anywhere, Norman." Pierce did not approach him, but simply leaned against the front of the desk, the way he had the morning Norman met him. He gestured with his piece of paper. "You're in no danger from me."
Norman couldn't move, but he found he could speak. "I'm not?"
"I'm sure you have a lot of misconceptions about the feeding process as a result of books and movies," said Pierce. "One aspect you're probably not aware of is that the feeder absorbs some of the personal characteristics of the food. I won't feed on you because I can't risk absorbing your attitude." His shadowed face turned upward and gazed toward the ceiling, as if he were recalling a distant memory. "We are people of commitment. It's a characteristic we have been cultivating for hundreds of years. I can't put at risk the strength that allowed us to survive the Industrial Revolution. We'll need it for the Information Revolution."
"Why are you telling me all this?" said Norman.
Pierce's head turned back toward Norman. "What kind of manager would I be if I didn't build a certain level of trust with my subordinates?" He raised his wrist and looked at his watch. "It's getting late. I think you'd better be getting on home now.
"What if I call the police again?"
"I don't think you'd put your job in jeopardy," said Pierce. "You aren't even fully vested in your retirement plan yet. I wonder what you would tell your wife if you lost this job. I doubt she would understand. I believe she is a woman of commitment, too."
what did Pierce know about his wife?
"Take this with you when you go." Pierce handed him the piece of paper. "It's a list of our top employees. I want you to start bringing them for interviews with me, one at a time."
"On Friday evenings," continued Pierce.
Norman's remark died in his mouth, which was just as well, because he didn't know exactly what he was going to say anyway. His paralysis vanished again. Reeling inside, he managed to keep himself together as he stood up, took the paper from Pierce, and walked toward the door.
At the doorway, he turned around. "Are you going to kill these people?"
"Let me tell you something, Norman. Life isn't really so great. It's simply what you're used to. I should think you would have figured that out by now."
Norman found himself back in his own office with no memory of having ridden in the elevator or walked across the reception area. He was amazed at how quickly his life had turned into a nightmare. Was this punishment for his lack of commitment to the company? He wanted to be home with his wife and kids. He started going through his jacket pockets to make sure he had his car keys. His swollen hand hurt when he ran it into his pants pocket. It didn't hurt as much as in the looser pockets of his jacket, however, and in the right one, he felt a piece of pasteboard. He pulled Riordan's card out with two fingers.
He stared at it for a moment, then he went to the telephone and began punching in Riordan's number. At the first menu, he tapped in the extension number listed on the card. Riordan answered on the fourth ring.
"This is Lieutenant Riordan."
"I'm either on another line or away from my desk," said Riordan, interrupting him. "Please leave a detailed message after the tone. If you need to talk with some one right away, please press pound."
A tone sounded, and Norman started stupidly at the telephone receiver. what was he going to say? Lieutenant, we spoke a few minutes ago. I'm the man who was paralyzed by his boss and heard the woman moan. I just found out my boss has resurrected the woman from the dead, and now he wants me to bring him more employees to attack.
It sounded ludicrous, not the kind of thing you would want to entrust to voice mail. He shrugged and put the receiver back in its cradle. He wanted to go home. Gwen would have some insight about this.
He found his car keys, switched off the office overhead light, and left.
In the reception area, his way was blocked by a shadow, a short one with white hair that shone in the ambient light like arctic ice.
"Don't try to call them again, Norman."
Norman shrugged. He realized he didn't care if Pierce fired him. He didn't care if he lost his retirement holdings and got no severance. He could get another job, even if he had to leave Human Resources and go into a different field. And if he no longer cared about keeping his job, what did Pierce have to hold over him? "If you try to call them again," said Pierce, "I'll hunt you down and kill you. Just because you're unsuitable as food doesn't mean you're invulnerable."
Then Pierce was gone. Either the man moved at superhuman speed, or he had mastered the trick of evaporating.
Norman drove home slowly. He had to hold the steering wheel with the fingertips of his right hand, because the palm and heel were too tender to rest against it. He thought about Pierce. The man had an enormous catalog of extraordinary abilities. He could see in complete darkness. He could paralyze you by looking you in the face. He could override your commands to the department voice mail system, and he knew whom you were calling on the telephone. Finally, he was apparently able to reanimate dead people. Norman decided that when Pierce told him he would hunt him down and kill him, he was not joking.
Pierce was obviously not a man circumscribed by normal human morals, and his extraordinary powers meant it was probably impossible to escape him. Norman realized, with a kind of uncomfortable curiosity, that he was desperately afraid.
In his driveway, he switched off the car's ignition and sat for a long time in the darkness, collecting himself. He didn't want his family to see he was afraid. The thought of his family, however, completely submerged his fear, when he realized that they were as vulnerable to Pierce as he was. what was it Pierce had said? "I believe she is a woman of commitment, too."
Was that some kind of threat?
Most of the lights in the house were on, and it was cheery inside. He found Justin and Lisa eating dinner together in the kitchen. Dinner consisted, apparently, of chocolate cookies with vanilla icing, barbeque potato chips, and milk.
"Where's your mother?"
"She's in bed." Justin wiped chocolate crumbs from his lip with his thumb.
"What happened to your hand, Daddy?" said Lisa.
"I caught it in a door. Don't you think you should have something better than this for dinner?"
"There's nothing better than this," said Lisa.
"It's got something from your cookie group and something from your barbeque group," said Justin.
Norman was a little disappointed to see he was raising comedians in his home. "You guys are too smart for your own good. Lisa, warm up some of that canned soup, OK? I have to go see Mommy."
The bedroom door was closed, and when Norman opened it, he saw it was dark inside. He heard sobbing from the vicinity of the bed. He walked in and switched on the lamp at Gwen's side of the bed. She was lying on the bed, still fully dressed in her work clothes. Her eyes were rimmed red, and her face was streaked with tears.
Norman sat down on the bed beside her. "What's the matter, sweetheart?"
Gwen pulled herself up enough to push her face into his chest. "Oh, Norman. I've been waiting for you to get home. I had lunch at the Sky Room with Rod today." She was overcome with her weeping, and Norman couldn't understand what she said after that.
"What is it?" he said.
"He told me he's giving Human Resources to that doofus Stevenson." Gwen wailed out the last three words, but Norman understood them well enough.
"The vice presidency?"
"Yes, the vice presidency," she sobbed indignantly. "I didn't get it-" Gwen's breath caught, and she began to stutter with her crying. "-and I've b-b-b-been passed over. After lunch, I had to spend the rest of the day acting like everything was all right." The last part seemed to break her down completely. She fell out of his arms and buried her face in the pillow.
Norman sat with Gwen and comforted her for what seemed like days. Her despair reminded him of what he went through when he flunked out of his MBA program. It had seemed like the end of the world. But he discovered that alter you'd been through the end of the world the first time, it wasn't as hard the next time. Eventually, he had discovered, it got pretty easy. He sat beside Gwen and rubbed her back and made sympathetic noises while she cried. He felt sorry for her; she'd never had her world end before, and she was rather brittle.
He would have preferred being comforted himself, but it obviously wasn't his turn. It hardly mattered that his problem was life-threatening while hers was just a wound to her professional pride. You can't interrupt somebody else's end of the world with your own, even if that somebody else is your wife--especially if that somebody else is your wife. Besides, what was he going to do? Wait a minute, Gwen. Stop crying for a minute. This evening, my boss said he was going to hunt me down and kill me.
It just didn't sound right.
When she had exhausted herself from sobbing, he made her take off her clothes and climb into bed. He tucked her in and then left to go see to the children.
"Is Mommy all right?" Lisa was pouring some hot soup from a pan into a bowl for Justin.
"She's had a serious disappointment at work." Standing in the kitchen, Norman remembered the bottle of scotch he kept in the uppermost cabinet above the sink, stored there against occasional moments of suffocation and despair. "You two get ready for bed."
"But it's only eight o'clock," said Justin.
"Yeah, eight o'clock and time for bed."
"But I haven't had my soup yet."
Norman would not be moved. He was going to sit in the kitchen and drink himself into a stupor, and he didn't want his children watching. "You can have the soup for breakfast. I'm not arguing with you."
"Get ready for bed, do you hear me?" Norman surprised himself with the intensity of his command. He rarely yelled at the kids.
The two of them looked a little scared and then went quietly off to their rooms.
"Don't forget to brush your teeth." Norman called after them. He went to the cabinet to get out the bottle of scotch. "Not side to side, either," he called into the hallway. "Up on the lowers and down on the uppers." He poured three fingers of scotch and began drinking it entirely too quickly. He wondered if he should go after them and supervise them brushing their teeth. He thought about brushing his own teeth. Then he thought about Pierce brushing his teeth. Were his teeth the same as normal people's? Was Pierce even a human being? Norman wondered if his teeth lengthened and turned into fangs sometimes. That's what happened in the movies. He guessed such a transformation would require some kind of dental growth hormone or something.
He took a swallow of the scotch and its warmth made him realize how chilled he'd felt. Dental growth hormone? It sounded like one of the projects from the R&D Department. Suddenly, a small part of this whole bizarre situation began to make sense. Pierce's superiors, whoever, they were, had more of a personal than financial interest in Biomethods, Inc. But the scotch blurred his thinking, and he couldn't figure out what that interest might be.
Norman woke up in the morning with a taste of decomposition in his mouth. It was late, and the sun was already up. It glinted redly through the bedroom window while Gwen moved quickly around the room, putting on her shoes, tying her foulard, and slipping into her jacket. Norman was as scared now as he was when he went to bed, only now he was scared with a headache and thick, stinking taste in his mouth.
"Gwen, I have to talk to you." Norman addressed her without facing her. He didn't want to chance she could smell the awful taste from his mouth.
"Can it wait, dear? I'm late again."
"It's pretty important," said Norman.
Gwen stopped her bustling and looked at him. "Norman, I'm sorry, but I was passed over yesterday. If I get to work late today, it will look like I'm letting it get to me.
"But--" Norman didn't finish, because she'd already left.
He heard her saying good-bye to Justin and Lisa. Then he heard the front door close. His head was an anvil a working anvil, not a decorative one. He dragged himself out of bed. He was surprised that his situation didn't took any better by sunlight than it had looked last night in the darkness.
He felt better after a shower, a shave, and a mouthwash, and when he got into the kitchen, he was pleased to see Gwen had done pretty well with the kids' breakfasts. They were eating cereal, toast, and fruit juice.
The two of them seemed a little wary of Norman, and neither mentioned anything about the soup from last night. Norman was ashamed, but he tried to act cheerful.
"Watch out for squids at school today." He started to tousle Justin's hair, but the boy moved his head out of reach.
Norman didn't have any breakfast. After the kids left for school, he found a necktie, pulled it under his shift collar, and began tying it by feel as he walked around the house. He wondered how long it would take him to undo the damage he'd done by yelling at the kids last night.
He started heavily for work. He was going to be late for the second day in a row. He wondered if Pierce would know. The man was uncannily aware of his telephone conversations. Maybe he knew about Norman's comings and goings as well.
The commuting hour was over, and the traffic had cleared out. He took his usual route. Last night, he had the thought that Pierce as threatening his family, but he realized now he didn't have to threaten it. He had already done it damage. Norman hadn't realized how easily he could be scared into yelling at his kids. Norman's route took him past the suburban police station near the office park where his office was. As soon as he saw the station, he knew he had decided to fight back. He pulled into the parking lot, stopped his car, got out, and went into the front door.
He went in and approached a uniformed officer at the desk in front. Behind the man at the desk there was a wall that was mostly windows, beyond which was a bullpen arrangement of desks, rather like the city room of a small newspaper. There were few people at the desks, and at the other end of the room was an office that was mostly windows. Norman thought that was probably the Police Chiefs office. In fact, there was a man in a white shirt with a gold badge pacing the office, ranting at a couple of people who were seated with their backs to Norman. One of them appeared to be a woman. The other was a man with thinning hair. Both of them seemed to be the targets of a torrent of abuse from the man in the white shirt with the gold badge. The man was shouting enough that Norman could hear him, even where he stood, although he couldn't make out any of the words. It seemed a strange management style.
Norman asked the officer at the desk for Detective Riordan. The officer turned to a man in street clothes, who was pouring himself a mug of coffee on the other side of the room.
"Blake, you seen Riordan?"
Blake didn't answer, but nodded in the direction of the Police Chiefs office. The desk officer looked in the same direction. He turned back to Norman.
"Detective Riordan is in a meeting right now. Would you care to wait?"
Norman could see the Police Chiefs face had turned a deep scarlet color. With intuitive clarity, Norman realized the two people he was berating were Detectives Riordan and Juliana.
"Is there anyone else I could talk to?" said Norman. "I'm from Biomethods, Inc., and-"
"You the guy that called last night about being paralyzed and witnessing an assault?"
Norman was pained to realize he had become famous at the police station.
"No," he said.
"Maybe you should wait, anyway." The desk sergeant pointed at a bench across from his desk. "It's Riordan and Juliana's case."
Norman sat down on the bench to wait. He thought about his situation, particularly about Pierce saying he would hunt him down and kill him. Norman wondered what use the police were going to be in fighting this man. He glanced through the bullpen at the screaming the Police Chief. Riordan and Juliana had obviously not organized themselves into an effective team yet. They were going to be more a liability than an asset in the fight against Pierce. Norman doubted either of them or both of them (or even their whole department, for that matter) could stand up to Pierce.
A young woman dressed like a student came into the police station, approached the desk sergeant, and began asking about a permit for a demonstration of some soft. Her request seemed to require a great deal of analysis, and the desk sergeant began pulling looseleaf binders from a low bookshelf behind his desk, paging through them, and then pulling forms from his desk drawer.
When the desk sergeant turned around to retrieve the third binder, Norman stood up and quietly walked out the front door.
He was on his own with this problem.
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