Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Chapter 20: Lunchtime

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 


 
                                                                      20



          Lola McIntyre sat at the usual table waiting on the others as workers took their spots in the break room to empty paper bags and unseal plastic containers. She had observed the night-before preparation ritual in advance of a long morning commute, but the ham-and-cheese-on-white stayed in her oversized purse despite her growling stomach.
          Once, at the point of reaching in, Bill had stepped inside the door and stood there in the black broad-shouldered tunic that sent a charge through her. He jerked his head and she excused herself to follow him. Though lunch turned out to be fast food eaten in the limo, it was the most romantic noontime she could remember since high school. In hope of prompting another lunchtime summons, she waited as long as possible.
          Mailroom Joe dropped a wrinkled brown bag on the table and took a seat. His white ear buds were in place under stringy brown hair that touched his shoulders. Then Stockroom Bob came in, looking neat in checkered short-sleeved shirt that showed off his muscles. A Tupperware man, he placed a rectangular container and two small round ones before him, then nudged one into alignment. “Aren’t you eating?” he teased. She nodded, eyes fixed on the door. Then Bill entered and went over to sit.
          “Driving Slade to the Palisades. Not much time.” He pulled an apple from his pocket and bit in. The statement from the tight-lipped chauffeur triggered questions and conversation about the CEO who was going to tour the mansion owned by an ally, where Dave Forester’s wedding would take place the following month. Joe mentioned the fancy hand-lettered envelopes that had passed through the mailroom. Lola averred they were the invitations then expressed excitement over who’d receive them, followed by depression for being excluded. “It’s a big event in the company. It's not right we don’t get to go.” She tossed her head and the charms on her bracelet jingled, though the blonde wave plastered to her face did not move.
          “I’m going,” said the chauffeur who wasn’t the kind of guy to boast of such things. Lola blinked rapidly then began to plead. Joe seemed to wake from a slumber to watch something happen. Even Bob, who liked things and people in their proper place, displayed a kind of expectation. “You want to go? You’ll have to work.” He looked around the table. They were unanimous. “I’ll tell the caterer.” Lola shouted “Hooray!” to smiles all around.
          Bill headed for the door, and she hurried after to push him into the hallway. She whispered, “I want to tell you: I’ve been to the condo.” She paused for effect but the face beneath the shaved head did not crack. “Helen asked me. It’s lovely! The view! The furniture! You should have taken me. Listen. Let’s go together. What do you say?”
          “Helen lives there.” Before she could object, he added, “After work she doesn’t go to an apartment or anyplace else. She stays. When she goes out, she comes back.”
          “You followed her?”
          “I got to go.” He left her staring with mouth wide open like a dummy. She had thought to zing him; instead her mind raced to catch up: Slade buys the condo, transfers Helen. She must be---. She dates Atom, then he leaves because---. Bill is following so---.
          As a storyteller, Lola strived for certain effects but right then wasn’t sure of the gist. Delighted to deliver pithy comments to elicit laughs, her subjects often were the same as on TV comedies. She favored stories that ended happy after frustrated desire, but wasn’t good at drama. With something of graver import, her voice croaked to a halt mid-sentence, forcing her audience to complete the thought. They believed she knew more than she was willing to say and she encouraged that belief.
          Her mind drifted. A zero-minute commute, nice! Helen dreaded transferring to the condo, and now lives there. Funny, yes? Wanting to laugh, she felt something crawling up her back that she couldn’t quite scratch. She headed to her workstation. Good stories start as first drafts. She was wont to try hers out on Mimosa Liang, the co-worker in the next cubicle. Her recommendations were that they didn’t share the same friends, she tended to hone in on the consequences of things and had an easy-to-read face.
          Petite with long black hair and dark eyes, Mimosa liked living on the happy side, so seeing Lola approach evoked a frown, and then as she listened her face expressed a holy sorrow. “The poor wife!” She wrung her hands as Lola hovered above her chair.
          “At home with the kids, while he spends time with the other woman. That’s humiliating! No wonder we never see her, or else he keeps her away so she doesn’t find out. What would she do? The kids have priority, sure. I liked Helen but didn’t think she was that way. She’s too na├»ve, but he isn’t so sure about her if he’s having her followed. I could see her liking Atom. He must have been a threat. I don’t like this. It’s not pleasant. Somebody’s going to pay. Why are you telling me this?”
          Signaling confidentiality with a finger to the lips, Lola retreated into her own cubicle with a better sense of inevitable crash and injury. She blushed thinking about workplace romances and her flirtation with Bill, but was thrilled more than cautioned, certain of being beyond the flack zone where she could watch harm-free.  




 The next chapter will be posted by September 4..
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Chapter 19: Take Down

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 


 
                                                                      19


          Atom watched her car until it vanished around the corner and then recovered awareness of his own circumstance: standing alone before a clothing boutique that had long since closed. The street that was busy during the day slumbered after Friday rush hour. Half a block back was the Dedalus Bar and Restaurant, distinguished by the bright lights that splashed onto the pavement. His car was parked a few blocks away on a residential street.
           While walking, he thought about the evening with Helen and his frustrated effort to get a commitment. Then she sprang that stalker stuff on him without giving him the chance to frame himself as part of the solution. Nothing was going as he had hoped. 
          He turned the corner onto the street and it was like the lights had gone off. The house fronts, lawns and cars were bland and colorless, and the air cool with the exhalation of plants and grasses. His footsteps scraped the sidewalk as he approached his Mercedes coupe. He reached into his pocket when something wrapped around him and pushed him to the ground.
          With the imprint of asphalt on his cheek, he smelled oil, gasoline and worn rubber. A considerable weight held him down as his arms were wrenched behind him. Then a knee pinned the small of his back and his head took a hard punch. A voice growled. “Head down.” His attacker grabbed his wallet and phone. Something skittered across the pavement. “Count to a hundred. Don’t look up.”
          The pressure let up but he sensed the presence was waiting to smack him. He began to count before realizing he had and cursed his helplessness. At twenty-five, he turned on his side then sprang to a crouch to peek around a car. When he stood up he was the only one on the street. “So much for going to the gym,” he muttered, feeling ridiculous about wanting to protect Helen when a mugger could so easily take him down.
          He had no phone to report the assault and no access to his car just a few feet away, but then recalled the skittering sound. He stooped to search the adjacent area and covered the same ground again and again, growing self-conscious about how it looked and wary of houselights going on or someone walking up. Finally he found the key fob under a bush, and then ventured to the end of the block to search for his cell and wallet.
          With the aid of GPS, he found the local police substation, a sedate affair with an open counter and small bank of cubicles to one side. The sole attending officer listened skeptically before posing a few questions. Atom answered that he didn’t see a weapon and that he couldn’t describe his attacker. He admitted to drinking a little.
          The officer pointed to one of the cubicles and told him to use the computer to file a report, which he later reviewed. He advised him to cancel his credit cards and lock down his phone. “You were lucky.”
          Atom drove home not feeling lucky at all.                   

 



   The next chapter will be posted by August 23.
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.
  
                                                     
                                                        

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Chapter 18: Over My Shoulder



MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 


                                                                          18
                        

          Outside the bar, Helen spilled her story, which, given her earlier reluctance to talk, took Atom by surprise. He was speechless.
          “I’m not a girl who’s afraid of odd noises or tricks of light, but lately I can’t help looking over my shoulder. Which came first, the looking or the note, I can’t remember. I’d driven to Melrose for some shopping, and was going back to the car. It was starting to get dark, and my yellow Beetle stood out like a highlighter. I was swinging my arms like a little girl, when I see something on my windshield. A ticket! The blood rushes to my head. I paid the meter and wasn’t gone that long. So unjust! Walking faster, I focus on the windshield, but when I get there it’s a piece of paper folded in half. Relieved, I set down my bags and open it. Written in block letters: I’M WATCHING YOU.
          “Such a sick joke! My stupid friends, I think, and look around, but I don’t see anyone I know, just strangers passing and wondering what’s going on. My anger turns to fear and my body goes rigid. I drop it and rush inside. After making sure the doors are locked, I stare through the windshield, then the rearview and side mirrors. No one seems to be paying attention. I drive away and watch for anyone following. I’m not sure there was, and not certain there wasn’t.
          “Ever since, I’ve been trying to come up with who. A stranger, someone I know, an enemy? I’m sorry to say I thought of you then struck you off. You’ve always been straightforward, even if your advances were ahead of my timetable. I thought of Kelly but that doesn’t make sense. He’s the one that drifted from me, and we’ve known each other too long. Then there are the investors. Stephen has always warned me not to get too close. I thought it was jealousy, and cute. Now I think he was right. Dress up, smile and be pleasant, he says. If one tries to be too intimate, excuse yourself to go make drinks or something. Unnecessary, I thought, but he was right. They had more in mind than investing in Slade.
          “I put them into categories and worked from that. Strike off the young to begin. Not many and more likely to spend time with someone willing than to waste it changing her mind. Next came the sophisticates who size up the scenario right away. In public, they’re pleasant and engaging then retreat into private space to scratch their itch. They saw I wasn’t going to follow. Strike them off.
          “That left the super-rationalists who think that because they have money they can buy anything. It’s the largest category, and Stephen’s target: men with disposable cash who want to leverage it into more wealth. I can’t remember all the things they offered: weekend trips, vacations, cars, jewelry, clothes. My problem was how to decline without saying no. Stephen taught me about getting the client to nod yes when closing the deal. So he’s trying to get them to yes-nod and I’m trying to avoid saying no or shaking my head. Sometimes I was afraid to breathe and feel partially to blame if someone got the wrong impression.
          “One guy stood out. Stephen was making introductions and I shook hands with everyone. His were dry and bony and a shock to feel. I went to get the drinks and didn’t think more about it. Later, I feel my skin crawl. He’s nearby and watching. He wasn’t typical of the others. He’s stick thin with gray hair crawling around his neck and ears. His skin’s red, like he’s outside a lot. His clothes are out-of-fashion: a too-large green plaid sports coat and brown slacks. His glasses are thick like bottle bottoms and his crazy green eyes are rimmed with red. He’s frightful, and I didn’t understand why Stephen would allow him there. I excuse myself but feel his eyes as I escape to the bedroom. I stayed so long Stephen came looking, and when he knocked I imagine those bony hands scraping the door. I can’t forget him so he’s on the list even though there’s no proof.
          “I tried talking to Lola about things and had her up, but she was so excited about being at the condo, she didn’t pay much attention. That’s good in one respect. It’s a relief to talk someone else. You can see I’m going a bit crazy. I’m flattered you want me to go with you, but I don’t want to make any big decisions right now, not until I get my head straight. Then there’s Stephen’s project. I’d like to see it to its conclusion. Things might be clearer then.
          “I don’t feel comfortable outside. I need to get back. Sorry I can’t invite you over. Can I drive you to your car? No? Good night then.” 
          Helen climbed into her car, started the motor and drove away, leaving Atom alone and confounded about whether to leave Slade as planned, or wait until more certain of her affections. 
         



The next chapter will be posted by July 26.
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chapter 17: The Matter

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 




                                                                  17
                        

         Seated side by side in a booth, Atom and Helen observed the crowd celebrating Friday with drinks and loud conversation at the Dedalus Bar and Restaurant. Though glad she agreed to meet, he had hoped for someplace better for what he had to say, and that she wouldn’t be so distracted. The bar lights were high but darkness enclosed them, except for the candle in a rose-colored globe that flickered when they spoke and was steady now under heavy silence.
          The flame reflected off the gold studs in her ears and exaggerated her brow, making her appear to brood. Auburn hair flowed past the nape of her neck where she had cinched it with a purple ribbon. Atom was hyper-vigilant, continually turning to gauge her mood.  His quill-like black hair, parted down the middle, vibrated with every motion. He reached a hand to cover hers on her knee. She offered a yielding smile and he kissed her, and then in silence they watched the scene playing out before them.        
          A well-traveled aisle lay between them and the mahogany bar with a center mirror behind and customers seated before. The waiter’s stand was on one end, through which the bartender –a trim gray-haired man all in black—sometimes passed to return with bottles of liquor. At the other end near the entrance, a big man sat with his back against the wall. He had dark wiry hair cut short above a fleshy face with deep furrows across the brow.
          Beside him, a dark haired man in a tie-less dress shirt had rolled-up sleeves that exposed a constellation of tattoos. He said something to the big man who let loose a percussive laugh. Next to them sat a goateed younger man minus a suit coat, who watched the bartender fill three shot glasses with amber liquid before allocating them. Then the trio raised a toast and downed the shots. Others sat like a row of uneven teeth, men and women whose conversation buzzed from unseen faces sometimes revealed in profile. An inoffensive blend of rock, pop and blues pulsed from a hidden source.
          “Is this where you used to come?”
          “The crowd’s older than we were but it was close by. Now it reminds me of when Kelly and I came to LA. So much has happened since.”
          “We can go if it makes you sad.”
          She inhaled, drawing the flame towards her, as her eyes followed a man’s unsuccessful search for a seat. “I want to stay.”
           Just then the big man erupted in a surprisingly high voice. “That’s not right! How can you even think that?” The tattooed man bent over in laughter and the third man grinned. The room absorbed the good-natured interruption then returned to their conversations, but Helen had banged her knee beneath the table.
          “You act like you’re afraid!” He stared into her face.
          “It’s nothing.”
          “I’m not so sure, but I have something to say.  I’m leaving the company. I don’t like the changes they’re making.”
          “To do what?”
          “Sales jobs are everywhere. That doesn’t worry me, but I want us to continue. Do you know what I mean?”
          She patted his hand. “Why not?”
          “Because when routines change, people do too. I’d like to hear you say why we’ll be together, or if there’s any reason not.”
          “Then you wouldn’t go?”
           “I wouldn’t want to.”
          They embraced and kissed. He still wasn’t convinced but let the matter rest, not wanting to put her off.  He finished his drink then flagged down the waiter for another round.          
           At the bar, a spot cleared and a couple arrived to take it.  They were in their thirties. She, a short hair blonde with round face in a clingy red dress with black branch patterns, and shoes that strapped at the ankles. He was tall with sandy brown hair and dark eyebrows. He wore a blue blazer and crisp white shirt with a high collar. She chatted away, touching his shoulder to punctuate her remarks, while he sat square to the bar and signaled the bartender. After getting their order, he sipped his drink while she slipped off and on her seat, twirled around as if to express approval and attract attention. He gave her sidelong glances until she slapped his shoulder. “Hey! I’m over here.” She settled back onto her chair as he canted his towards hers and adjusted his drink so as to watch them both.
            “They’re not really a couple,” Helen said. “Not yet.” And then, “I could talk to Stephen. I’m certain he doesn’t want to lose someone with your talent. He could talk to you and maybe then it’ll make sense.”
            “Mention me, and he’ll get right on it? That’s not what I wanted to hear. Just how close are you?”
          Her eyes flashed. “Don’t throw away a good thing. Maybe there are opportunities you just don’t see. Stephen could—“
          “Enough!”
          “People don’t like that he’s got the will to get things done. ”
          “And … do you love him?” He thought he saw her blush, which increased his displeasure.
          “Can’t we be happy with what we have?”
           He gazed at her, more aware than ever of the distance between them. He wanted to embrace her and never let her go, but she’d resist. Always another someone or something is beckoning so that no one can claim full possession. Human nature looks towards the horizon and charts the quickest course, yet also seeks out warmth and shelter for however brief a time. She was beside him now.
           Resurfacing from his thoughts, he noticed the bar had cleared, the crowd having moved onto the next phase of the rest of the night, some into the dining room that became the livelier place. After discussing what to do, they decided to leave. He stood and took her hand as she slid from the booth. Then, headed out the door she confided, “I think I’m being stalked.”

          
    
           
                       

 The next chapter will be posted by June 28.
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

    
           
                            


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chapter 16: Gold

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 




                                                                         16
                       
                  
          Atom Green was on the cusp of sleep but something kept pulling him back. He lay searching the dark ceiling and eventually it peeked through the cloud of daily routine, and he could no longer deny the time had come to move again, even though he was still top salesman. He shut his eyes but they blinked open. Reflection did not come easily. He’d set a course and devote his energies to pursuing it. Sleep came when the body shut down to re-energize and on waking he engaged the activities of the day.
          Nonetheless he knew the value of planning, which had after all brought him from restaurant management to sales, and then through sales job to sales job selling A to Z before settling on financial products. At Slade Insurance he believed he’d soar to the top and realize his potential. Circumstances were telling him otherwise.
          Earlier, he had his first look at his new sales territory; mostly light industrial with pockets of trendy boutiques in gentrifying areas. They were small businesses that had to be courted individually for premiums a single bad claim might dwarf. The wax on his wings was melting.
          A confounding image twisted his mind. Flying in blue sky toward the sun weighty mountains around him spring and on the peaks the sales staff are smiling and waving. He fills in the thought bubble: “We’re equal.”  He tried to shake it off, unwilling to accept the idea, not with the work he’d put in, not with his talent and aspirations.
          True, the changes affected everyone, who now had to devote time improving productivity of the new sales teams. No doubt he’d be near the top. The challenge was to be prominent individually. Elimination of the Top Ten chart worked against that.
          The nagging image flashed again. This time he feels the quaking rumble of mountains growing and the pull of gravity sucking him down. What if the rules changed again? A company might effect change to align goals to overall objectives, but if the objectives were coming unhinged then the goals might keep changing too. His energies would be sapped pursuing someone else’s concept of gold.
          Stephen Slade wanted to take the company public for a cash infusion. The company might grow by expanding lines of coverage or buying other companies, or the cash could be a boon for investors looking for a payoff. Through Helen Roy he knew that the CEO had been aggressively enlisting short-term investors, holding before them the prospect of the golden IPO. The condo figured into that scheme.
          His pulse quickened thinking about Helen. Her fresh face and unaffected manner charmed him, and her optimism was an inspiration. The idea of increasing the distance between them pained him, but it didn’t have to be. He reached for his cell phone and texted a message, “Get together later?” So late at night, he didn’t expect a quick reply but the clock was ticking for that and more. If he left, he wanted to take her with him.
          Resolved, the sleep overtook him.

         
          



The next chapter will be posted by May 24. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Chapter 15: Angle of Ascent

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 




                                                                          15



           Jeremy Port stepped from the edge of the room to the podium. Conversations tailed off and eyes shifted to the man with the white hair and the sunny smile stamped on a tanned face. That morning, his smile was less bright for being tasked with communicating something he didn’t fully comprehend.
          Before him, the sales force was attractive, dressed in expensive suits and smelling of aftershave, hair oil and perfume. Always intense, they looked annoyed at being called to a meeting they knew wouldn’t help them close the next deal, which made him proud to be their sales manager and sensitive to what he asked of them.
         The company had rented the conference room in a city of Carson hotel to avoid time wasted driving to downtown headquarters. Twenty rows of cushioned chairs radiated from the front. On a long table in back were two large coffee urns, a set-up of cups and saucers and ice water sweating in silver pitchers.
          He linked faces to names and performance. A few climbed at steep angles and exceeded their personal best each quarter, like Dave Forester and Atom Green. They sat toward the front: one, his high forehead capped by sandy brown hair, had the boyish charm. The other had olive skin, black hair parted down the middle and electric vitality. Their camaraderie fascinated him. In the old days competition precluded friendship. Most of the others were still climbing, though their leveling off point had already been prefigured by the angle of ascent: somewhere in the middle. The rest, hunger diminished, were circling as if to land. He put the percentages at five, sixty-five and thirty.
          “I appreciate you being here on such short notice.” Someone hooted, setting off a wave of disgruntled laughter and then a reaction. “Get on with it.” “Shhhh!” “Come on!”
          “For a long time Slade Insurance has operated on the principle that high performers lead the way, and others succeed by emulating them. Then everybody’s fortune rises. Certainly, we have the high flyers…” He nodded toward Forester and Green who affected not to notice. “And we’ve been giving some thought on how to help others break out. To that end, we’re making some changes.” 
          The gathering leaned forward, and he raised his left hand. “What hasn’t changed is that commissions will still be paid according to your annual contracts. These changes are focused more on intangible incentives.” He raised a finger to count off. “One. We’re eliminating the Top Ten Sales Chart for individuals. From now on, the Top Ten will track the top ten sales teams.
          “Two. Teams will be a mix of high and low performers.
.         “Three. The company is contracting for team-building services to help those teams succeed.
          “Four. The format of the annual sales conference will now emphasize the teams. Those are the changes. Any questions?” He grasped the podium with both hands, as the sales force paused to take it in.  He beamed, the hardest part being over no matter what they asked, since he didn’t know much more than what the CEO had scratched on a cocktail napkin. Slade had ordered change, and change there would be.
         A groan came from the back. “Teams, Jeremy. Really?” Laughter precluded the need for response, but the next question was dear to every salesperson’s heart. “Will this affect our territory?” He was careful. “I can’t say it won’t. We’ll have to see how it plays out.” His answer unsettled them, and they looked around as for someone who would know.
          A man he recognized as Patrick Hamel stood up. He wore green-tinged designer glasses and held a smart phone before him like evidence. “Why is this happening now? Sales have been up every quarter against the previous year’s result, and horizontally too.” Someone laughed. “You’re right, Pat. Overall, sales are up. With these changes, we hope to mine untapped potential.”
          “How will the teams be selected?”
           He improvised an answer. “Randomly…by computer.” More grumbling. Conversations buzzed throughout the room, and then a voice boomed, “Will there be sleepovers?” Laughter ruffled them, and Port picked up the vibe. “If it means more sales, we’re for it!”
          “What about SOQ parking?” At the mention of the tangible intangible only the top salesperson possessed, the room became quiet, which served to underscore his words.  “Effective immediately SOQ parking does not exist. Sorry, Atom.” The salesman flinched at the mention of his name, and seemed surprised to find himself the center of attention. He waved to dismiss the perk and eyes shifted back to the manager. 
          “We’ll keep you posted on the particulars.” He stepped from the podium to encounter a crush of people who demanded more answers but diminished on learning he had none. Already he had already said too much, because from his perspective sales was an individual sport. He wondered what the chairman thought and considered placing a call, but that could wait. When he reached his convertible in the lot, he steered toward the flying club near LAX. He had some friends there and could blow off steam.






The next chapter will be posted by April 26. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Chapter 14: Paralyzed

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                               and the woman important to each 

  
 
                                                                           14
                         

          After securing the checks in the safe, Helen showered and then dressed in black designer jeans, white cotton blouse and trim suede jacket with matching boots. Her auburn hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her sole cosmetic was gloss to the lips. She looked like a college coed going around the corner to Starbucks, but on her return she reported for work to do record keeping and prepare the checks for deposit. Out of mind was the lover she chased away two hours before. 
          The long carpeted hallway always made her feel isolated and alone because she’d hardly ever encountered other occupants, though the leasing company asserted all the condos had been sold. At the door she punched in the code and waited for the click. When it didn’t come, she entered the code again. Still the lock did not release. She entered every digit deliberately and then stood dumbfounded when it wouldn’t open. Her cell phone held the number for Client Services, but feeling vulnerable she took the elevator down.
           Off the opulent lobby, a constricted hallway with bare floors led to the small, bright office; unoccupied. A pair of steel-frame chairs was set before a desk and phone. With practiced motion, she extracted the cell phone from her hip pocket and set fingers to work like a web-spinning spider.  After pressing send a shrill ring filled the room, making her feel the fool. But after three rings the line hiccupped and the call was forwarded to someone with a pleasant female voice that said, “Client Services.”
            She learned that Stephen Slade had ordered the code changed during the short while she was away, and only he could convey the new one. She thought it strange he would do so without letting her know. She called his cell and got voicemail. She tried his office and reached his secretary who said he was in but unavailable. Helen told her she’d be right up.
          She waited nearly thirty minutes in executive reception, aware of Betsy Murray’s scrutiny and tormented by speculative questions that set her heart racing. Why did he change it? What did he know? How did he find out? Though lacking any certainty, she already regretted bringing Atom over, while at the same time hoping for another, less personal explanation. When told she could go up, she resolved to be strong. 
            The elevator doors opened into his office, and she saw Slade seated behind his desk. Thin-lipped and grim beneath trim dark hair, his hooded eyes tracked her advance. An involuntary shiver rattled her forced smile and words stumbled from her mouth. “Stephen, I can’t get in.” He motioned to a chair and waited for her to settle in. Then he spoke.
          “The condo’s where we do the company’s work. Only people I authorize are allowed.”
          “Of course, but---”
          “No exceptions.”
          “But---“
          “None.”
          He was the rational manager with the business plan and list of workplace dos and don’ts to corral the wayward instincts of employees. He fixed his eyes on her and walked around the desk. She looked straight ahead. Circling, he came from behind to wrap his fingers around her head, ring and little hooked under the jaw, thumbs behind the ears. Four free ones drummed her cheeks. She tried slipping away, but her stretched neck threatened to tear. “Stephen!”
          He readjusted his grip to palm and squeeze it. She was paralyzed, whimpering. He touched his head to hers and spoke low and slow. “You’ve made yourself at home, and I like having you near. For me, and no one else.” His right hand clutched her throat. The other cupped her chin then wandered to caress her face. “For me and no one else,” he repeated, like words murmured in a dream. “Understood?”
          Tears streamed down her face. She nodded. He released her and wrote the code on a slip of paper that he gave her. Sobbing, she flew into the elevator and stabbed at the buttons. Falling back against the wall, she gasped: the doors weren’t closing. Beyond in the office, she could see him watching. 
          He pointed with the index finger of his right hand. “Compose yourself. What goes on between you and me stays between us. Understood?” She wiped her face with the back of her hand and struggled for calm. After some long moments, he made a motion under the desk. The doors closed.
          Her agitation being so obvious to her, she didn’t know how anyone else could miss it as she made her way back, trembling and flushed, to the condo. The unfamiliar numbers seemed like a violation yet they granted access, to a new horror: the bed was undone, the bedspread spilling onto the floor. Dresser drawers lay open, revealing her personal things and lending meaning to his words. The feeling of being violated resurfaced, as did the sense memory of his fingers gripping her head. She pushed in the drawers, trying to restore some semblance of order to the room and to her mind.
          “Take it all and haul it to my car,” is what she thought she should do, but a small dissenting voice inside questioned whether she was being too precipitous. “Think of what you have. Are you willing to give it up?” 
          She liked the flexibility an abundance of free time and money lent, and being close to the CEO made her feel important, part of the action. If she walked out, she’d have to start all over. Then her mind gamboled over to thoughts of Atom Green and a pleasurable glow radiated through her body. He hadn’t mentioned him by name, and not bringing him to the condo would be an easy condition to meet. They could make love at his place or anywhere other than the condo. Easy. 
          After straightening the sheets, she lifted the bedspread back onto the bed and pulled on one end and then the opposite to line them equidistant to the floor. Done with physical tasks, she had also concluded her deliberation. She would not throw it all away. She’d draw a line and call him out if he transgressed, and meanwhile restore herself in his eyes by doing her job well.
         Resolved, she went to her workstation in a corner of the bedroom. Below the table that held her laptop, she reached down to twirl the dial of the safe: a couple of spins right, and then stop on the first number, then left for the second, and right again. Something felt off though, a sense more than a thought. She pulled down on the handle and when it wouldn’t open, the reality hit. She lowered her head and cried.


      
The next chapter will be posted by April 19. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.