Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D2/C7

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Catbird Press -- Draft 2
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske


Second Draft - Chapter Seven


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 hurt as much now as he did when he went to bed, only now he hurt with a headache and a thick, stinking substance wrapped around his tongue.

"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 look any more promising by sunlight than it had looked last night in the darkness.

He felt a little 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. His scotch bottle, with two or three drinks left in it, was still sitting on the counter.

The kids seemed a little wary of him. 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.

The kids left shortly after that. Norman didn't bother to make himself any breakfast before going to work.



At his office, he found Cheryl at her desk in the reception area.

"There's a PI waiting in your office for you," she said.

A sort of elation raced through Norman as he realized the police had taken him seriously enough to send a private investigator to see him. He tried to hide his enthusiasm as he stepped rapidly into his office.

In the chair across from his desk was a severe-looking woman with a heavy demeanor who did not look up from reading what appeared to be an issue of some sort of academic journal as he entered. She was wearing a multicolored shawl over a heavy yellow tee shirt and a dark, loose skirt that resembled the peasant garb of some central European country. If she was a private detective, she was a very eccentric one. She looked, in fact, like a Biomethods scientist. Then he remembered that PI was Biomethods lingo for principal investigator. The company employed a large number of scientists, and although they filled the roles that would be filled in any other company by managers, they refused to be called managers. The name principal investigator was an academic borrowing that originated in the Byzantine system of government research grants.

"Hello." Norman trudged to his desk and sat down.

The woman looked up. She crossed her legs under the voluminous skirt, and Norman noticed she was wearing Doc Martens.

Occasionally, the infomercials that Norman's son loved so much featured people posing as scientists, and they always wore white lab coats over what appeared to be business clothes. But the only people at Biomethods who wore lab coats were the janitors. The PIs seemed to go any length to avoid looking either like scientists or business people. They all dressed themselves up as caricatures of graduate students, even the Nobel laureate who sat on Biomethods' board of directors (whom Norman had once met but whose name he could never remember). Norman supposed this was some small effort on their part to convince the outside world, or at least themselves, that they had not sold out to commerce by going to work for a private company.

The message indicator was blinking on Norman's telephone, and the PI did not introduce herself.

"I'm having trouble with one of my lab technicians," said the PI.

Norman wondered what this woman's troubles with her subordinates had to do with him, but experience had taught him that PIs often worked themselves around to what they wanted over the course of a few minutes, so he waited.

"It's his attitude," she said.

Attitude. It was never an easy discussion when managers started talking about their subordinates' attitudes.

"What's the matter with his attitude?" said Norman.

"He spills xylene."

Norman wondered if this was an elaboration on the attitude problem or another of the technician's deficiencies.

"Xylene all over the bench. Little pools of it on the floor. Do you know how dangerous xylene is?" The PI looked at Norman as if she didn't expect him to know what xylene was.

Norman, in fact, didn't know what xylene was, but it came under his general hazards rule: anything ending in "ene" is a dangerous substance--too dangerous to be left in little pools on the floor.

"Is it part of his job description to handle xylene?"

"Of course," said the PI. "He has to use it to prepare the slides."

"Does he know he shouldn't spill it?"

"Of course. Everybody knows that."

"Did you ever say to him, 'Don't spill xylene.'?"

"Of course not. He should know."

Norman had doubts about the efficacy of "he should know" as a management principle, but years of dealing with Biomethods' PIs had taught him it was well accepted among them. He had never successfully argued any of them out of it.

"What do you want me to do about it?" said Norman.

"I want you to fire him."

"I thought you just said he was one of your lab technicians." Norman could not keep the irritation out of his voice. "He doesn't work for me. I don't even have a lab." He gestured around at his pedestrian-looking office to emphasize the absence of lab benches and research paraphernalia.

The PI didn't seem to notice Norman's irritation. "You're the personnel manager."

"Human Resources," said Norman.

"What?"

"Human Resources. I'm not a personnel manager. I'm the manager of Human Resources."

"Fine." The PI stood from the chair and leaned over Norman. "Just get him out by Friday."

Norman started to reply, but she was already headed out the door.

He watched the multicolored shawl that covered her back recede through the Human Resources reception area. He hoped she slipped on a pool of xylene when she returned to the lab.



The message light was still blinking on the telephone. He picked up the receiver and tapped the RETRIEVE button.

"Norman, I hope it's not inconvenient, but I'll need you to stay a little late this evening."

Pierce's voice, in the same tone in which it had threatened to hunt Norman down and kill him the previous evening, made his heart jump in his chest. He dropped the phone receiver back in its cradle as if it were too cold to handle. He sat and stared at the telephone console, breathing deeply and trying to collect himself.

He thought he'd rather go fire that woman's technician than listen to the rest of the phone message. But he realized Pierce had more control over his well being than all the PIs at Biomethods put together.

Slowly, like a man calling the IRS about his audit, he picked up the phone and went into the voice mail system again.

"Please meet me in my office at your earliest convenience after dark," concluded Pierce with the generous politeness the powerful can always afford to show toward the powerless.

Norman knew that Pierce wanted to go over the details of his plan to "interview" the company's top employees one by one on Friday evenings. What were his options for dealing with this situation? Calling the police again was futile, he knew that. He couldn't report Pierce to his superiors. As far as Norman could see, Pierce had no superiors. He could quit his job, but then Pierce might well implement his primary management option, which was to hunt him down and kill him. There didn't seem to be anything to do but go along with everything, at least until he could figure out just what was happening.

He sighed and started to call Gwen. He disliked having to ask her to go home early again, but he felt trapped. He was a little disappointed to get her on the first call. He would have preferred to make his request by voice mail.

"What's the thing you wanted to talk about this morning?"

"I didn't call about that." Norman was not about to use the telephone to tell her about his problems with Pierce. His boss had already known the content of one of his phone calls. He could be listening right now. "I just wanted to ask if you could leave early to be with the kids tonight. I have to stay late."

"I'll leave before five." Gwen's voice sounded its usual competent timbre, but it lacked the edge Norman knew she cultivated for the telephone. He wondered if being passed over had somehow wounded her spirit.

He was worried about her, but he didn't see what he could do, so with helplessness settling over his shoulders like a collapsing tent, he thanked her and hung up the phone.

Norman looked at the pile of papers Cheryl had left in his in-tray. Then he reached over and gathered up the entire stack and put it in the center of his desk blotter and started to go through it.

Norman could not say that any of the paperwork interested him, but for the first time in his life, he found it to be engrossing. Human Resources thrives on detail, and he allowed the details to wash over him and crowd out all other considerations. He gave himself over to a kind of trance induced by an endless succession of memos, requisitions, transmittal forms, and updates. He read them, highlighted them, signed them, sorted them. He crumpled some of them and threw them away, punched holes in some and put them in three-ring binders, filed some in the hanging folders of his lower right-hand desk drawer, stapled some of them to others, attached yellow sticky papers to some with cryptic notes on them. He was barely aware of Cheryl and Louise entering and leaving the office at irregular intervals to drop more papers in the in-tray or scoop the processed ones from the out-tray.



He emerged from his trance when he was aware of his stomach growling. He looked at his watch and saw it was quarter after twelve. He stood up, stretched, and wandered into the reception area, where he found two empty desks. Cheryl and Louise had apparently gone to lunch without even telling him. He shrugged. He couldn't blame them for not keeping him informed. They weren't used to reporting to him. They had always been managed by Jacqueline. It was natural they had not yet come to view him as her replacement.

He went down to the company cafeteria and got himself a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tea at the counter, then wandered out into the dining room to find a place to sit down.

"Norman!"

He looked up and saw Cheryl was calling to him. She was sitting at a table with Louise, who looked extremely subdued. Cheryl waved him over.

He walked over to their table. Their near-empty paper plates had bits of bread crust and catsup-covered plastic knives lying on them. One plate had a gum wrapper on it, and he judged Cheryl was having her after-lunch chewing gum. They were both working on half-filled paper cups of coffee.


"Sit here with us, Norman," said Cheryl.

Norman disliked fraternizing with nonexempts, but he thought this might be a good opportunity to explain to them that he was their supervisor for the time being and that they should let him know where they were all the time. He set his plastic tray down on the table and allowed himself to fall heavily into a chair next to Louise.

"Did you hear about Jacqueline?" Cheryl's voice was grave, and her face serious.

Norman looked from her to Louise, and he noticed Louise's eyes were rimmed with red, as if she'd been crying. She took a tissue from her purse and pressed it to her face.

Norman bit off a piece of his sandwich and spoke around it. "No."


"Her body's missing." Cheryl's chewing gum cracked. "I called her neighbor this morning to see if she had any details about the funeral, and she said it's been postponed because her body is missing from the Coroner's Office."

Louise whimpered into her tissue.

Norman remembered Pierce saying that Jacqueline's death was part of what qualified her for a promotion. He wondered why his boss's macabre joke came back to him now.

Louise whimpered again.

"Louise thinks her body's been stolen by vampires."

Louise looked up from her tissue. "Shut up, Cheryl."

"This is a horrible thing, Louise," said Cheryl, "but you just make it worse with your mumbo jumbo."

"Vampires?" said Norman.

"She thinks Jacqueline has become a revenant."

Louise wasn't crying any more. "Bodies don't just vanish," she said.

"The way I see it," Cheryl said to Norman, "is the Coroner's Office lost the body. Why not? They're no more competent than anybody else in their work. But Louise has been reading books about vampires and zombies and the occult for so long that it's warped her mind."

"These stories," said Louise seriously, "have been around for centuries. There has to be something to it."

"Oh, there's something to it, all right," said Cheryl. "Sales. That's what there is to it. People want to believe it, and they buy into it. Literally."

"Look," said Louise to Norman. "I've read first-hand accounts. There has to be a reason that virtually every culture has a folklore based on the revenant."

Norman wondered exactly when the grief for Jacqueline ended and the argument began.

Cheryl looked at Norman, apparently wanting to win him over as badly as Louise did. "There's a reason, but it's based entirely on physical phenomena."

"What physical phenomena?" scoffed Louise.

"Bodies try to return from the grave," said Cheryl.

"That's what I was talking about."

"But it's not the way you mean. What do you think started us using coffins to bury our dead? It's because if you bury them without coffins, they tend to work their way to the surface. When they decompose, they bloat. Scavenging animals try to dig them out. There are a lot of natural forces that push corpses back to the surface after they're buried."

"You're just multiplying explanations," said Louise.

"Before the days of coffins," said Cheryl, "corpses resurfaced pretty often. People would then try to stake them in their graves to hold them down. That's where all that staking business comes from in the vampire legends."

"I've read accounts of graves being opened months and months after burial," said Louise, "and people finding a corpse with a smooth skin and a mouth full of blood."

Norman stopped eating and pushed aside his plate. He wasn't hungry, but he found himself fascinated by the conversation.

"It's all part of the decomposition process," said Cheryl. "Look. Go ahead and believe in this stuff if you want, but you would do better to recognize that the stories had their start in some fairly simple physical phenomena. And it wasn't until the nineteenth century, when some people saw a way to cash in on the stories, that the vampire acquired the image it has today."

"You think everybody is just out to make a buck," said Louise.


"Not necessarily," said Cheryl. "I think some have seen the vampire as an opportunity for artistic expression. You could hardly have a better metaphor for the psychopath. The vampire moves among us but is not of us. It preys on us but is unaffected by the emotions and relationships that bind the rest of us to each other. I can appreciate the metaphor. I just can't abide most of that trash you read."

"It's not trash," said Louise.

"Oh, come now," said Cheryl. "Look at that stuff. The vampire can do anything. He can become a wisp of smoke if he wants. He can become a bat, a wolf. He's incredibly strong. He has hypnotic powers over helpless women. Except that in those books you read, sometimes he can do one of those things and sometimes he can't. And there's no rhyme or reason as to when he can turn into a wolf and when he can turn into a puff of smoke. Those books would be a lot more entertaining if they made some effort to obey their own rules."

Cheryl certainly seemed to see all this stuff for what it was. Norman almost laughed when he thought about Pierce turning into a wolf. Then he remembered the letter opener on Pierce's desk with the picture of the wolf on the handle, and the extraordinary powers Pierce seemed to have. Norman excused himself and let the two of them continue their argument while he wandered back toward the office, trying to decide if owning a letter opener with a picture of a wolf on the handle necessarily implied you had the ability to turn into one.



The afternoon's paperwork was a fog. Norman couldn't concentrate long enough to read any of it. His hands would pick up a paper, and his eyes would stare at it and go over the words on it, but nothing would come into his head as a result. His mind continually wandered back to Pierce's letter opener: its stainless steel blade, the fake scrimshaw handle, the picture of the wolf staring out from it. "Save the Wildlife."

Everybody wants to save the wildlife. What about the domesticated life? Who would save the domesticated creatures? What about the most domesticated of animals, human beings? Something clicked in Norman's mind and he realized human beings were indeed domesticated animals, but he had never before suspected they had keepers.

The insane vision was interrupted by Tim's appearance in the doorway to say good night. Norman realized it must be near quitting time. He looked at the afternoon's work, still piled in his in-tray, as he listened to Cheryl and Louise closing and locking drawers for quitting time. Then Cheryl came to the doorway, one arm in the sleeve of a rabbit skin jacket.

"Good night, Norman. See you tomorrow."

Norman didn't say good-night. He felt like he could use a glass of scotch.

Cheryl and Louise both left, and he found himself alone in the department. Dusk was turning rapidly to darkness outside his window. He thought about how Pierce had suddenly appeared in the outer office the night before, and he had a ridiculous fantasy that Pierce had the ability to materialize at will wherever he wanted. The simple truth was that Norman didn't know what to believe any more.

Outside the window, the arc lights over the parking lot came on, and he decided he had better hurry up to Pierce's office before his boss sneaked in here and scared him again. But he could not make himself hurry. He moved as if weighted down. Bodies... revenants... cattle... human beings.

Pierce was sitting in the darkness, as usual, with the halogen lamp shining toward the eyes of anyone who might be sitting across from him. Norman felt ill at ease as he entered the office. He looked into the darkness around Pierce and realized with a start that someone was standing behind Pierce's chair. He could not keep himself from jumping when he saw the shadowy figure.

Pierce chuckled softly when Norman jumped. "Don't worry about Jacqueline."

The shadowy figure did not move, and Norman wondered if Pierce had stolen her body from the Coroner's Office and was keeping it for some insane reason in his office. Surely, that explanation made more sense than the other one that gnawed at him.

"Believe me," said Pierce blithely, "you have nothing to fear from any of us, as long as you do your job and don't try to bring in any outsiders to make trouble for us."

Any of us?

"Norman, I will need to see you here in this office every evening from now on. Please put a six-thirty meeting on your calendar."

Any of us?

"We're starting on the re-engineering program," said Pierce.

Norman looked at the stack of papers in the out-tray on Pierce's desk. It must have been eight inches high.

"I wanted to let you know," said Pierce, "that I am abolishing the Human Resources Department. We are eliminating departments as part of the re-engineering effort."

"How will the work get done?" said Norman. Faced with Pierce's insanity, he felt he had no choice but to try to act normally.

"As of today," said Pierce, "this company does no work that doesn't contribute value."

Norman felt himself lost in the double negative, but he sensed that Pierce intended to simply discontinue much of the work that passed through his department: compensation and benefits management, record keeping, policy development and administration, insurance, employee orientation, whatever.

"What about federal reporting requirements?" said Norman.

"Good point," said Pierce. "There are some things we must do, if for no other reason than to ensure our privacy. Those details will be handled by the Personnel Administration Work Team, a small, flexible group of people dedicated to streamlining our Personnel policies, benefits, and administration."

The name sounded familiar, and Norman remembered with a jolt that the Personnel Administration Work Team was the name of Jacqueline's idea. "Am I on the Personnel Administration Work Team?"

"You certainly are, Norman. The company needs your experience in this area. You will be one of the most valuable members of the team. Second only to Jacqueline, who is the Team Leader."

Pierce gestured toward the shadow behind him, and, like some kind of nocturnal predator waking, it stirred.


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