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"Ah, Norman," said Pierce as he arrived at the doorway to his office. "Are you feeling better?"
"I'm not sure," said Norman.
"You fell asleep during our meeting Friday night, and I couldn't bring myself to wake you."
"I'm sorry." Norman was embarrassed in spite of himself. "I've never done anything like that before."
"Think nothing of it." Pierce stepped through the doorway and flipped the light switch as he entered.
The room turned dark, and Norman could see nothing. He heard movement, however, and then the halogen desk lamp was switched on.
"Who was that with you on the elevator?" said Norman, trying to sound casual.
Pierce sat down behind the desk. "That was Jacqueline. I am naming her head of my re-engineering transition team." Norman heart jumped, and for a moment he thought perhaps Pierce was being serious. Then he realized it was all a joke, but he didn't have a chance to laugh before Pierce spoke to him in a voice of steel.
"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. Soft laughter echoed from the glinting smile.
"I don't understand what's going on." Norman shifted in the chair. He had the absurd feeling that Pierce's companion might be sneaking up on him in the darkness. "Jacqueline died on Sunday." Norman couldn't see Pierce's face in the shadow.
"It's part of what qualifies her for her new position."
Sitting there in the darkness, with some strange woman roaming around the department, Norman felt it was barely possible that Pierce was speaking seriously and was about to confess to practicing voodoo or something.
But Pierce simply waited in silence.
Norman didn't know what to do. It occurred to him that Pierce was a lunatic and that he might be dangerous. He thought about jumping up and running, but he realized he was likely to trip and break his neck in the darkness. He felt he had no choice but to play along.
"If you're promoting Jacqueline, I'll need to hire a replacement," he said.
"Don't replace her just yet," said Pierce. "I don't know if we'll be continuing the training and orientation programs."
"What?" Norman didn't know which was more bizarre: pretending Jacqueline was still alive or trying to run the company without training and orientation programs.
"That's what re-engineering is all about, Norman. We start from scratch and plan only for the work that adds value."
Norman wondered how long he would have to continue this insane conversation before he could get away.
"I don't have time to discuss re-engineering with you right now." Pierce's voice took on a barely perceptible edge. "We must talk about the police. You brought them in here."
Norman was surprised at the feeling of shame that welled up in him.
"We all make mistakes," said Pierce. "I just want you to promise me you'll take it no further."
Norman was trained in organization behavior, the management of social environments, human communication, employee counseling, and adult education. But all his training emphasized the solving of problems. He'd never had a course in how to act when your boss was a crazy person.
"I didn't know what else to do," said Norman. "I saw something very strange here Friday night, then Jacqueline died, and when I tried to talk with you about it, you--" Norman was about to say "ran away," but as the words ran through his brain on the way out of his mouth, it sounded offensive. He stopped himself. "You left," he said at last.
"Are you in the habit of calling the police whenever your manager leaves the office?"
"Well, no." Norman shifted in the chair again. "There's something strange going on here, Pierce. Why did you call me if you were on your way out and didn't want to talk to me?"
"Haven't you ever heard of intimidation, Norman? What kind of manager would I be if I didn't intimidate my employees from time to time?"
Norman thought Pierce's candor was in keeping with his insanity.
"Did you think I was attacking Jacqueline?" said Pierce.
Norman knew he had to tread carefully. "Of course not."
"You could be mistaken."
There was little of Pierce that was visible besides his red necktie and pink shirt. The rest of him was outside the circle of light and enshrouded in shadow. The conversation had become entirely too surreal for Norman's taste. He felt again like bolting, but he was feeling the strain of a long work day under a great deal of stress. His throat had dried out, and it felt like it was beginning to swell shut.
"At any rate," said Pierce, "I think we understand each other. I'll take care of the police. If you hear from them, you're to refer them to me, do you understand?"
"Yes." Norman heard his own voice as a whisper.
"I'll need to find a way to discredit you," said Pierce. "You don't happen to have a history of alcoholism or substance abuse, do you?"
Everybody seemed too ready to believe Norman had a drinking problem. "No."
"Never mind. I think we can probably create one for you."
Norman thought this was more than the company could rightfully expect from him, but the situation was so bizarre--and perhaps dangerous--he did not try to object.
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 started to get up again.
"Don't go anywhere, Norman."
At Pierce's remark, Norman felt like sitting back down. He did.
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. "Re-engineering is delicate work. It will take all our energy and imagination to manage the morale problems ahead. I can't have the police in here upsetting the balance."
"Don't take this the wrong way, Norman," said Pierce. "But if you call them again, you will put your job in jeopardy. You aren't even fully vested in the retirement plan yet. I wonder what you would tell your wife if you lost this job. I doubt she would understand."
Norman wondered what would constitute taking this remark in the wrong way. And then he wondered why Pierce felt it necessary to mention his wife.
"I'm not going to take up any more of your time." Pierce handed him the piece of paper. "Take this with you when you go. It's a list of the employees I want you to start bringing for interviews with me, one per month."
"The first Friday evening of each month," 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. He stood up slowly, took the paper from Pierce, and walked toward the door. Then he imagined himself bringing an employee to Pierce's office on Friday evening. He imagined himself falling asleep in a chair while Pierce bent over someone and the employee moaned.
At the doorway, he turned around. "Why have you chosen me for this?"
"Don't you think you are ready now for a leadership role, Norman?"
Norman's heart began to pound. "Frankly, no."
"And that's why I've chosen you," said Pierce.
That Pierce's reasoning made no sense was hardly surprising at this point. Norman left without saying good-bye. Somehow, civilized conventions no longer seemed appropriate.
Norman took the elevator down to Human Resources and walked back to his office, trying to understand what had happened. Nothing made any sense. He felt like Pierce was trying to drag him into his own lunacy. Norman wanted to be home with his wife and kids. He looked around his office, then 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 someone 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 fell asleep in a meeting with his boss and heard a woman moan. My boss wants me to bring more employees to his office so he can make them moan, and he's going to be calling you about my drinking problem.
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 switched off the office overhead light, and left, still holding Riordan's card.
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 felt his heartbeat speed up again, but he told himself it was only because Pierce had surprised him. He gathered his courage and stood there wagging Riordan's business card defiantly. He didn't care if Pierce fired him. He didn't care if he lost his retirement holdings and got no severance. Employment benefits, he realized, were not worth working for a psychopath. He could get another job, even if he had to leave Human Resources and go into a different field. He was still trying to think of something to say to the man, however, when Pierce spoke again.
"If you try to call them again," said Pierce, "I'll hunt you down and kill you."
Norman stared at the shadow. He was having second thoughts about his opinion of Pierce as being a reasonable man. He looked down at the card he was holding, then looked up at Pierce again. But Pierce was gone. The man certainly could move quietly.
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 apparently had the knack of hypnotism. He could override your commands to the department voice mail system, and he knew whom you were calling on the telephone. Norman decided that when Pierce told him he would hunt him down and kill him, maybe he wasn't joking. It didn't look like it would be safe to call the police. He realized then that he was no longer as confused as he was 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.
He could see the lights of the kitchen and the living room were on, and Gwen had left the outside light over the kitchen door burning for him. The bedrooms were dark.
In the kitchen, the air was redolent of cheese, onions, and oregano, and he found a large pizza box on the table. Scrawled across the top of the box in black marker was Norman's home address and beneath that a table of check-boxes with check-marks next to Pepperoni, Extra Cheese, and Onions.
Norman's first thought was that Gwen had trouble at the office. It didn't happen often, but whenever she had trouble at the office, she seemed to find the answer in the bottom of a large pizza box.
He lifted the lid of the box. There was nothing in it but a pizza-shaped cardboard and a sheet of greasy, translucent paper. Norman sighed. He wasn't hungry anyway.
He found Justin and Lisa in the living room watching television, an infomercial about a patented job-hunting system. There were three plates on the coffee table in front of them. Justin's plate and one of the others were bare. Lisa's had a little pile of pizza crusts and limp onions on it.
"Where's your mother?"
"She's in bed." Justin wiped a gout of tomato sauce from his lip with his thumb.
"What happened to your hand, Daddy?" said Lisa.
"I caught it in a door. Did you have anything besides pizza for dinner?"
"What else is there?" said Justin philosophically.
Norman wondered if maybe he wasn't right. But he was sorry to see no evidence of Gwen having gotten some salad into the kids before she let them fill themselves with pizza.
"I have to go see Mommy," he said.
The bedroom door was closed, and when Norman opened it, he saw it was dark inside. The odor of pizza was strong.
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. There was a pinhead-sized spot of orange grease just outside the corner of her mouth.
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. She smelled like cheese and pepperoni. "Oh, Norman. I've been waiting for you to get home. My lunch at the Sky Room, it was--" 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 dropped out of his doctoral program in psychology. It had seemed like the end of the world. But he discovered that after 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 seemed to be 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 say? Wait a minute, Gwen. Stop crying for a minute. If you think you've got problems, 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 wiped the grease spot from her mouth with his pocket handkerchief. He tucked her in and then left to go see to the children.
They looked up from the screen, where a blow-dried type was explaining the importance of self-confidence.
"Is Mommy all right?" said Lisa.
"She's had a serious disappointment at work." Norman remembered the bottle of scotch he kept in the uppermost cabinet above the kitchen 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 this show isn't over yet."
Norman was going to sit in the kitchen and drink himself into a stupor, and he didn't want his children watching. "You can set the VCR and watch the rest tomorrow. I'm not arguing with you." He started toward the kitchen.
Norman stopped and turned around quickly. "Get ready for bed, do you hear me?" He 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 into the kitchen. "Not side to side, either," he called into the hallway. "Up on the lowers and down on the uppers." He grabbed the pizza box and tried to fold it over so he could fit it in the trash can. It wouldn't bend properly, and he began to whack it on the floor to soften it up. After half a dozen whacks, he realized he might not be entirely in control of himself. He stood on two corners of the pizza box, reached down and grabbed the opposite two corners, and pulled upward until it gave in the center. He got it folded over and then stood on the fold, bouncing up and down until he had broken the box's spirit. He threw the box in the trash, retrieved his scotch bottle from the cabinet, and poured three fingers of scotch. He sat down at the kitchen table and began drinking it entirely too quickly.
He wondered if he should go after the kids and supervise them brushing their teeth. He thought about brushing his own teeth. Then he thought about Pierce brushing his teeth. Pierce's teeth. Did he even need to brush them? They looked so expensive they ought to be self-cleaning.
He took a swallow of the scotch and its warmth made him realize how chilled he'd felt. How are you supposed to deal with it when your boss is insane, when he threatens to hunt you down and kill you?
Norman sipped again and remembered that Jacqueline had died over the weekend, and that he'd been near her on Friday night, and was seized with the conviction her death was somehow his fault. He took another long sip of the scotch, but the memory of Jacqueline still hurt. So he took another.
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