Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D2/C9

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


Second Draft - Chapter Nine


Norman pulled his car into the driveway and switched off the ignition. The outside light by the kitchen door was on, and it comforted him that his family was expecting him home. He should be afraid for what was happening to him, but he was too tired to know if he was. He leaned his head against the steering wheel and tried to remember what fear felt like. But all he could remember was fatigue, which is what he felt now.

He got out of the car and dragged himself into the house.

The remnants of a take-out dinner were piled up on the counter in the kitchen. His scotch bottle was still there, and it still had two or three drinks in the bottom. He inspected the take-out containers. There wasn't anything left, just spots of some indeterminate sauce in one of them. He wasn't hungry anyway.

He poured the remains from the scotch bottle into a glass and walked out into the living room. The sight of his family all sitting together on the sofa restored him somewhat.

Gwen was between Justin and Lisa. She had an arm around each of them, and the three of them were watching television. It looked like the same infomercial Justin and Lisa had been watching last night. The same blow-dried personal growth enthusiast was explaining the importance of self-confidence to a studio audience of people who looked like they needed it.

Norman's family hadn't heard him enter, but Justin looked up and saw him when he came up beside the sofa.

"Hi, Dad."

Then Gwen and Lisa looked up and greeted him as well. Gwen looked at the glass of scotch in his hand, and her expression became overcast for a moment, but then he could almost see the effort behind her eyes as she brightened and smiled at him.

"Hi, Sweetheart," he said.

Gwen pointed the remote at the television, paused the tape, and set the control on the coffee table. She held her arms out toward him.

Norman sidled in front of the coffee table and bent over to kiss her. He hugged her one-handed, holding his scotch in the other. Then he gave Lisa a one-handed hug, then tousled Justin's hair.

"What have you squids been up to?"

The kids summarized their days at school much more briefly than he would have liked, then Justin picked up the remote and started the tape again.

Norman wanted to sit down on the sofa with them, but he needed to finish his scotch, and he felt a little ashamed of the way he probably smelled as a result of the liquor. So he sat down in his reclining chair. It creaked as he pushed up and back to stretch himself out. Then he watched the tape with them while he sipped at his drink.

The infomercial seemed particularly stupid. They were pushing some kind of kit with forms and notebooks and software. It was designed to help you prepare a resume, write a cover letter, and prepare for a job interview. It didn't seem to provide anything that wasn't readily available to a person born with the rudiments of human intelligence.

"Hey, Justin," said Norman, "isn't anybody doing spray-on hair or steak knives this evening?"

"Norman," said Gwen. "I thought it would be useful for the children to see this. It's never too soon to learn how to prepare a good resume."

Norman remembered Pierce's remark and thought it didn't really matter what your resume said if being dead was a major qualification for a management job.

When the tape was over, Norman's glass was empty, and it was time for the kids to go to bed. Norman and Gwen went from room to room and tucked them in the way they had a few nights ago, and Norman felt like there was one aspect of his life that was as good as it could possibly be.

Norman wanted to tell Gwen what was going on at his office, but he thought she might be a little unreceptive because of his drinking. He decided he'd better ask her about her day first, which he did.

"It was just fine," she said. "You finished that whole bottle of scotch, didn't you?"

Norman shrugged. "I've got problems at work. Bad problems."

It did not seem to surprise her. "Does it have to do with the acquisition?"

"Yeah, but probably not the way you think."

"You aren't being laid off, are you?"

"As a matter of fact, Pierce eliminated my department today. It's part of his re-engineering effort."

"Re-engineering?" It was the kind of talk Gwen loved most in the world.

"I have to tell you about Pierce," said Norman.

"Is he really re-engineering the company?"

"I don't know. I guess so."

"Tell me, Norman." Gwen was excited now. "Did he start with a blank sheet of paper like the consultants say you're supposed to do?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," said Norman. "But that's not what I need to tell you about."

"What's he going to do about compliance if he eliminates Human Resources?"

"He says the company will only do work that contributes value, and the compliance record-keeping will be handled by something he calls a Personnel Management Work Team."

"Fascinating!" said Gwen. "Are you heading up this work team?"

"No, Jacqueline is."

"Oh, Norman. I'm so sorry. I know what it's like to be passed over."

"I don't care about being passed over," said Norman irritably. Then he realized this could be interpreted as criticism of Gwen's attitude toward her own problem. "I'm sorry. I know it's probably hard for most managers to have a subordinate promoted above them, but it just doesn't matter to me."

"Oh, Norman." Gwen stroked his hair. "You don't have to put on an act for me."

Norman decided not to argue but to go directly to the matter at hand.

"I think Pierce is killing people," he said.

"A new manager is always tough on incumbents," said Gwen. She stroked his hair again, then loosened the knot of his necktie.

"No, I mean he's actually killing people," said Norman.

"Take off your clothes and get in bed." Gwen began taking her own clothes off. "You're as tense as a knot. You have to get relaxed."

Before he knew what was happening, Norman was stripped and on the bed, and Gwen, naked, was astride him with her hips undulating as she worked herself down on to his erection. She put her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward, and began rocking rhythmically. It was not a position from which he could easily explain what was happening at the office. He found, in fact, that he couldn't think about anything except what was happening in his groin.

After they had both climaxed, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.


Norman didn't know what woke him. He lay in bed and worried about formless things that had the unnerving habit of coalescing into the shape of Pierce. He thought about waking Gwen up to tell her the rest of the story, but he heard a sound from the living room, something like the creak of his recliner. He wondered if one of the kids had gotten out of bed or was sleepwalking.

He slipped out of bed and pulled the robe from the bedpost over his shoulders.

He started toward the living room, tying the robe's belt around his waist. He didn't call out. He had read somewhere that you shouldn't wake a sleepwalker.


As Norman came into the living room, the recliner creaked again as it came upright. The room was dark, but Norman's eyes were already accustomed to it, and it was neither Justin nor Lisa in the chair. His heart jumped to his throat when he saw the white hair, which seemed to glow from the little bit of light that leaked into the room from the streetlamps outside.

"Good evening, Norman," said Pierce.

Norman's heart pounded like a rivet gun. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see where you live," said Pierce.

Norman's heart beat so fast he feared it might burst.

"Don't be alarmed, Norman," said Pierce. "I don't mean you or your family any harm. This is just another intimidation tactic."

"Why?" squeaked Norman. He wondered if Pierce thought him not sufficiently intimidated already.

"Norman, how long have you worked in the corporate world that you would ask a manager why he intimidates his employees?"

"Pierce--"

"There was something else as well." Pierce's voice came to him blandly from under the white hair. "I wanted to tell you not to worry any more about the police. We've convinced them you're having troubles again."

Then Norman's curiosity overcame his fear. "Again?"

"I had Jacqueline show them your personnel records. The part about your leave of absence for substance abuse problems."

"I've never had a leave of absence for substance abuse." Norman's fear transmuted to indignation.

"Oh, angry now, are we?" said Pierce. "Good."


Norman was about to ask what he meant by that when he heard Gwen calling softly from the hallway.

"Norman? Norman, what's going on?"

Norman moved over to the hall entryway. He turned his back on Pierce to keep Gwen from coming in the living room. She was coming down the hall in her fuzzy pink robe, which looked gray in the darkness.

"Gwen, stay back there. Don't come in the living room."

But in twelve years, Gwen had never taken an order from him. She walked directly up to Norman.

"What's going on? Why are you up?"

"It's Pierce," said Norman.

Gwen tried to look over his shoulder.

"Where?"

"He's sitting in the chair. Now go back to the bedroom. I'll explain later." Norman started to put his hands on her shoulders.

Gwen sidestepped Norman's attempt to hold her and walked past him into the living room. "Where?"

Norman turned and tried to grab her. But he saw there was no need. The recliner was empty. He went to the end table by the sofa and switched on the lamp. Pierce was nowhere to be seen.

Gwen blinked against the light. "You really are under a lot of pressure, aren't you, dear?"

She couldn't even know how right she was, but Norman decided it was time to tell her what was going on. He switched off the lamp. "Come back in the bedroom. I have to talk with you about something."

When they got back into the bedroom, he switched on the lamp and sat down on the bed beside her. He explained to her that Pierce had been sitting in the recliner in the living room just before she came in. Then he told her how his boss had paralyzed him and Jacqueline then had done something to her that he thought was tied up with her death.

"Her death?" said Gwen. "I thought you just told me a while ago that he had put her in charge of a work team dealing with human resources."

"She's a revenant," said Norman.

"A what?"

"She's come back from the dead."

Gwen took his face in her hands. "Norman, baby." She pulled his head down against her chest and began to stroke his hair in back. "My poor baby."

Norman didn't like the fuzzy pink material of her robe against his face, and he wasn't prepared to be pitied. He pushed away from her.

"Don't treat me like I'm out of my mind," he said.

Gwen looked serious. "Norman, you're under a strain. We should make an appointment for you to see a doctor."

Norman wished he hadn't told her.


***


In the morning, when Norman arrived (late again) at Human Resources, Tim was sitting at Louise's desk, staring at a pile of transmittal memos.

"Tim," said Norman. "Why are you out here at Louise's desk?"

Tim shrugged. "In case anybody comes in."

"Oh."

"But I don't think anybody will. It's pretty strange here today, Norman. No calls. Nobody coming in. And this morning, I found these on my desk." He scooped up the pile of memos and handed them to Norman.

Norman took them and looked through them. They were transmittal memos for the bonuses due the Genographics Unit. Tim had been working on them a week, but Norman hadn't realized he was so close to finishing.

"Good work," said Norman.

"Maybe," said Tim, "but it's not mine. I was only half finished all the figuring and writing the memos. But these were all done and on my desk this morning."

"That's strange," said Norman, knowing full well it wasn't. "Are they correct?"

"As good as I could do," said Tim. "The strange thing is, if I didn't know better, I could swear they are in Jacqueline's handwriting."

Norman looked at the memos again. Tim was right.

"Who did the memos, Norman?"

Norman figured his best course was to lie. "I don't know."

"You're the department head, and they need your approval," said Tim. "Is my work not meeting the standard? Am I in trouble?"

"I don't know," said Norman truthfully.

"And you don't have anything to say about it, huh?" Tim stood up from the desk.

Norman had never known him to be so assertive.

"Tim, I don't know who did these memos. Let me look into, OK?"

"I'm going home," said Tim. "It doesn't look like you need me around here."

Norman watched Tim walk toward the elevators out in the lobby. Tim pressed the call button and stood waiting without turning around. Norman sighed. It looked like he had lost Tim, but he wondered if it mattered, since the department was being disbanded anyway.

He remembered that he now had a regular meeting with Pierce in the evening, and his spirit seemed to gain weight. He trudged into his office to call Gwen and tell her he'd be home a little late.

Norman was surprised again about Gwen's willingness to cut her day short and go home to be with the kids. It was as if being passed over a few days before had deflated her commitment to her job.

But Gwen was still concerned about the night before. She told him she'd made an appointment for him for the next day at the HMO and she made him promise to keep it.

Norman promised. Then he hung up the phone.

He heard Cheryl and Louise talking in the outer office, and he realized they'd returned from their break. He stood up and walked to the doorway, where he leaned against the jamb and listened to their conversation. They seemed to be talking about a particular novel that Louise was fond of.

"It's just the same old story," said Cheryl. "Only it seems a little different because it's set in a small town in Maine."

"That's why it works so well," said Louise. "You don't expect vampires in a small town. You don't expect a little place like that to be the site of unspeakable evil."

Unspeakable evil. Norman had never really thought about the idea of evil before, much less unspeakable evil. He supposed Louise would consider Pierce unspeakably evil. Norman was quite certain now that he had killed Jacqueline, although he was equallly certain that he'd somehow brought her back to life. Was it evil to kill someone if you then bring her back to life and give her a promotion? The ethics of it were complicated.

"Oh, come on, Louise," said Cheryl. "Don't you think it's just a little bit simple-minded? They screw around sharpening baseball bats until dusk before they go looking for the vampire, and then they're surprised when he catches them in the dark. Why is it that the only character with any sense is the vampire?"

"Excuse me." Norman felt self-conscious about interrupting, but he couldn't help himself.

They both turned to look at him.

"Why did they sharpen baseball bats?"

"They make good stakes," said Louise. "A nice handle, and the end is flattened, so it's easier to hit with the hammer."

"Did they get him?" said Norman. "Did they stake him? In the book, I mean."

Cheryl rolled her eyes, as if she'd been trapped in a roomful of fools.

"Yeah, they got the big one," said Louise. "But then it was too dark, and they had to let the rest go."

"What happened then?"

"Everybody in the whole town became vampires, except for a man and a boy, who got away."

"The whole town?"

"Yeah," said Louise. "The man came back later and burned it down."

"Oh, God," said Cheryl in disgust.

"In the daytime," added Louise.

Norman went into his office and sat down behind his desk to think about all this. Sharpened baseball bats. A whole town becoming vampires. Norman sided with Cheryl on the question on vampires. He thought the very idea was absurd, but he could no longer insist his boss was simply insane. The man did seem to have some kind of powers.

Norman had never had problems at work before, and he didn't quite know how to deal with this. Like most of the other employees at Biomethods, Inc., he'd spent his career perfecting the skills of corporate invisibility, knowing that invisible people never advance spectacularly, but they always advance steadily. And, if you can't become CEO by being invisible, well, you can make a perfectly reasonable living and then you can retire well.

The visible people didn't seem to care about retirement. Look at Jacqueline. She cared about visibility, and now retirement seemed to be out of the question for her.

When night finally fell, Norman went up to Pierce's office.

The fifth floor was, of course, deserted when he got there. He went to Pierce's office and tapped on the door. The door opened.

"Come in, Norman."

Jacqueline was sitting on the corner of Pierce's desk. Norman wasn't surprised. He was beyond being surprised by anything. He wasn't sure how safe it was to be around her, but he wasn't surprised.

She was wearing one of her power suits, but it looked like it badly needed cleaning and pressing. She was holding a stack of memos and reading them very quickly, although the halogen desk lamp was pointing in another direction altogether.

"Pierce isn't here. He's in a meeting." Jacqueline looked up from her memos.

Norman had no idea what to say to her.

"How are you, Jacqueline?"

A cold fire burned in Jacqueline's dark eyes so that when she looked at him, it hardly mattered her face was in darkness. "How do you think?"

"I didn't mean to anger you," said Norman. "I was just making conversation."

"Conversation means nothing to me," said Jacqueline. "And I'm not angry. I don't get angry any more."

Regardless of the risk, Norman had to take the opportunity to probe. He had to needed to understand what was happening. "How do you feel about your new responsibilities?"

Jacqueline shrugged. Norman had never seen her make that gesture when she was alive, and he didn't know she was capable of it. But when she did it, she gave it a fluid grace that he rather admired. All of her movements, in fact, had become much more graceful than the deliberate, impatient Jacqueline he'd known when she was alive.

"I don't have much choice about them, do I?" she said.

"More choice than most of us," said Norman. "You're a talented manager. When you were working for me, holding on to you was my major preoccupation."

Norman thought he detected a softening of the cold fire in her eyes for a moment, as if she were somehow pleased about something. But then the hardness returned, and she looked a little like an ice sculpture in a badly pressed business suit.

"How could I get another job, Norman?" Jacqueline dropped the memos on to Pierce's desk with a flopping noise. She pointed at the file cabinet standing against the wall in the shadows. "That file cabinet and I have the same body temperature. I'd never get past the medical exam." She stopped and looked toward the doorway. "Hello, Pierce."

Norman was startled. Pierce stood in the doorway with someone who looked like the manager of the sales department, except his eyes were vacant and he wasn't trying to shake anybody's hand.

"Jacqueline." Pierce left Kevin in the doorway and stepped into the office beside Norman. "Why don't you take Kevin into the other room and help him fill out the forms for his promotion?"

Jacqueline glided off the desk, walked over to Kevin, turned him around, and marched him out the door. He seemed to move wherever she pointed him, taking direction without a word.

Norman watched Jacqueline and Kevin until they vanished into the shadows, and when he turned back around, Pierce was gone.

"Norman, I'm glad to see you."

Norman turned toward the voice and found Pierce seated behind his desk. He wondered how his boss had gotten to the other side of the room without making any noise or at least creating a little breeze.

"I wanted to designate the next employee you will be bringing to see me," continued Pierce. "We're moving it up. I want to see her tomorrow night. Her's name Louise. She works in your department."

What did Pierce want with an admin? Norman thought about Louise and her superstitions. A visit with Pierce would probably turn her innermost fears into reality.

"Does it have to be Louise?" he said.

"She's on the list, Norman."

Norman hadn't reviewed the list. He worried now that Pierce might quiz him on it or something.

"Now what can I do for you? You haven't heard from the police again, have you?"

"No."

"I thought not," said Pierce.

"But they're bound to come again sometime," said Norman.

"Not if you don't call them, they won't."

"They have to follow up," said Norman. "As soon as they find out about Jacqueline's body being missing, they will start putting things together."

Pierce looked at him. He must have smiled, because his white teeth glinted out of the shadows. "This is one of the reasons your kind has always been enslaved by my kind. We live in the real world."

"Your kind?" said Norman. "Are you a different species or something?"

"More like a metaphor," said Pierce airily. "Like you."

Norman recognized that Pierce was sharing something with him, but he didn't know what. He strained to extract some meaning from the comment.

Pierce seemed to interpret the puzzlement on Norman's face. "You're a metaphor for a border collie."

The room was silent, and Norman wondered if he was expected to reply. But he couldn't. Somewhere along the way, his relationship with Pierce had changed to where there was no real communication between them. Norman couldn't understand at least half of his boss's conversation. He'd never really grasped the idea of the metaphor anyway. He was absent the day they discussed it in high school.

Pierce broke the silence again.


"I'm sorry, Norman. I didn't mean to trouble you with an idea. I had forgotten what a problem those are for you." His voice was warm and sympathetic, like the way Norman might talk to Justin, or to a puppy.

"Pierce," said Norman, "I need to know what's going on. I need to know what you want from me and what kind of work you need from my department."

"Do you know how rare ideas are in the modern corporation, Norman?"

"What do you want me to be doing?" said Norman.


"I am afraid the age of big ideas is gone. Your people once had big ideas and small corporations. Now they have small ideas and big corporations. Do you know how many small ideas it takes to make a difference in the world?"

Norman didn't know, and he didn't want to. Frustration corroded his restraint. "My people don't know where they stand. Tim's project was completed before he could do it himself."

Pierce did not reply for a moment. When he spoke again, his tone seemed more businesslike, less expansive. "That would be the bonuses for the Genographics Unit, right?"

Norman nodded.

"We had to get those done right away," said Pierce. "I'm disbanding the Genographics Unit."

"How can you do that, Pierce? Everybody says that's the company's most promising project. Those people were on the verge of creating an economical blood test to predict consumer buying behavior."

"We need the labs and the people to work on another project," said Pierce.

"But--"


Pierce raised his hand into the shadows as a gesture for silence. "I get sick of your society's obsession with consumer buying behavior. Nearly everything you people do gets back to manipulating consumer buying behavior. Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look?"

Norman looked down into the shadows at his feet. He felt ashamed for his species.

"I guess you do, don't you?" said Pierce, and his voice was not unkind. "Never mind. The number one priority of this company right now is isolating and eradicating HIV."

"HIV?" said Norman. "You mean AIDS?"

"Well, yes," said Pierce. "It does cause AIDS in those who are susceptible."

"You aren't?" ventured Norman.

Pierce laughed. "Of course not."

"Then why do you want to eliminate it?" said Norman. "For us?"

"Hardly," said Pierce. "No, it's much simpler than that, Norman. We have to get rid of it because it tastes bad. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do."

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