By Duane Swierczynski, Dennis Calero
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Duane Swierczynski
All rights reserved.
Pleasure doing business with you. — ANONYMOUS
His name was Paul Lewis ...
... and he didn't know he had seven minutes to live.
When he opened his eyes, his wife was already in the shower. Their bedroom shared a wall with their bathroom. He could hear the water pelt the tile full-blast. Paul thought about her in there. Naked. Soapy. Suds gliding over her nipples. Maybe he should step into the shower, surprise her. He hadn't brushed his teeth, but that was fine. They wouldn't have to kiss.
Then he remembered Molly's morning meeting. He glanced at the clock. 7:15. She had to be in early. So much for a reckless Saturday morning.
Paul sat up and ran his tongue around his mouth. Dry and pasty. He needed a Diet Coke, stat.
The central air had been running all night, so the living room was dark and cool. On top of the entertainment center sat the two DVDs they'd rented last night: two ultraviolent Bruce Willis thrillers. Surprisingly, they had been Molly's idea. She usually didn't like action movies. "But I have a crush on Bruce Willis," she'd said sweetly. "Oh you do, do you?" Paul replied, smiling. "What's he got that I don't?" His wife ran her fingernails down his chest and said, "A broken nose." That was the end of the DVD viewing for the evening, with about thirty minutes left to go on the first movie.
There were two boxes on the dining room table. One, Paul knew, was for Molly's boss. What, the man couldn't pick up his own mail? The second box was white cardboard and tied with string. Probably full of vanilla muffins or chocolate-filled cannoli, picked up from Reading Terminal Market on her way home last night. Molly was way too kind to those stuck-up jerks at the office, but Paul would never tell her different. That's just who Molly was.
Paul turned the corner and walked into the kitchen. For a second, he was worried that he'd left the Chinese food containers on the counter, and their leftover fried rice and lo mein and Seven Stars Around the Moon had spoiled. But Molly had taken care of it. The white-and-red containers were neatly stacked on the fridge shelves, right below the row of Diet Cokes — he'd been on regular Coke until Molly had pointed out how much sugar he was drinking every morning — and above a white Tupperware container with a blue lid and yellow note taped to it: FOR LUNCH ONLY!!! LOVE, MOLLY.
Paul lifted the edge of the lid, and the sweet aroma hit him in an instant. Molly's potato salad. His favorite.
She's made him potato salad, just for today.
God, he loved his wife.
Paul had grown up in a large Polish family — before it was Lewis, it was Lewinski, and boy was Paul glad they changed that name fifty years ago — so he ate the requisite Polish foods. His grandmother Stell was famous for a decidedly non-Polish dish: potato salad, which had accompanied every holiday meal since Paul was a baby. But Grandma Stell died when Paul was thirteen, and since then, nobody could replicate the potato salad. Not Paul's mother, or her sisters, or any second or third cousins. A few months after they started dating, Paul confided in Molly how much he missed Grandma Stell's potato salad. She said little, just smiled at him and listened, which is what she usually did. But inside, she had been thinking. And in the weeks that followed, Molly Finnerty — later to become Molly Lewis — did some research.
The following Easter, Molly presented her fiancé with a Tupperware container. Inside was a potato salad that defied imagination. It tasted just like Grandma Stell's, down to the sweetness of the mayonnaise and the sideways cut of the celery. This potato salad was a surprise hit among the Lewis family. Molly was cemented into their hearts, now and forever more.
Today she'd made it for him, apropos of nothing.
Paul reread the admonishment, FOR LUNCH ONLY!!! and smiled. Molly was grossed out whenever she woke up Christmas or Easter morning and caught her husband with a tablespoon inside the Tupperware container hours before company was due to arrive.
Ah, but today isn't a holiday, Paul thought. No company coming.
He fished a tablespoon out of the drawer behind him, then helped himself to a mouthful of the most delicious food known to man. The moment the special mayonnaise blend touched his taste buds, a narcotic-like rush flooded his bloodstream. It was a taste that reminded him how lucky he had it, being married to a woman like Molly.
A moment later, Paul started choking.
It felt like an impossibly large chunk of potato had lodged in his throat. Paul thought he could just cough once and everything would be okay, but it was weird — he was unable to draw any air. Panic replaced that warm-and-fuzzy potato salad feeling. He couldn't breathe or talk or yell. Paul's mouth flopped open, and half-chewed potato chunks tumbled out. What was going on? He hadn't even swallowed the first bite.
His knees slammed against the linoleum.
His hands flew to his throat.
Upstairs, Molly Lewis was finishing up in the shower. The warm water felt good on her back. Just one more strip of flesh to shave on her leg, then a rinse, and the shower would be over. She wondered if Paul was still sleeping.
Paul's legs kicked out wildly, as if he were running on an invisible treadmill knocked on its side. His trembling fingers scratched at the floor. No. This can't be it. Not this incredibly stupid way to die. Not Molly's potato salad.
Molly could save him.
Must stand up.
Reach the top of the stove, grab the silver teakettle, and start banging. Something to get her attention.
Gray spots spun wildly in Paul's vision. His palm adhered to the linoleum, and it was enough to pull him forward a few inches. Then his other palm, already damp with sweat. It slipped. Paul's nose slammed into the floor. Pain exploded across his face. He would have screamed if he could.
He had only one thought now:
Reach the kettle.
He'd given the kettle to Molly for Christmas two years ago. She loved tea and hot cocoa. He'd found it at a Kitchen Kapers downtown. It was her favorite store.
Molly turned off the hot water first, then the cold about two seconds later, relishing the blast of icy water at the end. Nothing felt better in August. She then turned the knob that would drain the water from the shower pipes into the tub. The excess splashed her feet.
She opened the curtain and reached around the wall for her towel. As her hand grasped the terry cloth, she thought she heard something.
Something ... clanging?
Paul slammed the teakettle on top of the stove one more time ... but that was it. He had been deprived of oxygen far too long. His muscles were starving. They required immediate and constant gratification — oxygen all the time. Greedy bastards.
After he fell, and rolled toward the sink, Paul tried pounding his fist into his upper chest, but it was a futile gesture. He didn't have the strength left.
A little wedge of potato had caused his world to crash down around him.
Oh, Molly, he thought. Forgive me. Your life, changed forever because I was stupid enough to spoon some potato salad into my mouth on a Saturday morning. Your sweet potato salad, a mayonnaise-soaked symbol of all the kind things you've done for me over the years.
My sweet, sweet Molly.
The kitchen faded away.
The kitchen they'd redone a year ago, ripping out the old metal cabinets and replacing them with fresh-smelling sandalwood maple.
She'd picked them out. She liked the color.
Oh, Molly ...
Was that Molly in the doorway now, her beautiful red hair dripping wet, a white terry cloth towel wrapped around her body?
God, she was no hallucination. She was really standing there. Looking down at him, strapping jewelry to her wrists. Thick silver bracelets. Paul couldn't remember buying them for her. Where did they come from?
Why wasn't she trying to save him?
Couldn't she see him, choking, trembling, jolting, scratching, pleading, fading?
But Molly simply stared, with the strangest look on her face. That look would be the last thing Paul Lewis would ever see, and if there were an afterlife, it would be an image that would haunt him, even if his memories of earthly life were to be erased. Molly's face would still be there. Perplexing him. Who was this woman? Why did she make his soul ache?
So it was probably merciful that Paul didn't hear what his wife said as she looked down upon his writhing, dying body, "Well, this is ahead of schedule."
Executives owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.
— PETER DRUCKER
His name was Jamie DeBroux ...
... and he had been up most of the night, tag-teaming with Andrea, marching back and forth into the tiny bedroom at the back of their apartment.
What hurt the most, after being awake so many hours, were his eyes. Jamie wore daily-wear contacts, but lately he hadn't bothered to take them out at night. Without them he was practically blind, and he was too new a father to risk changing a diaper or preparing a bottle of Similac with impaired vision. Bad enough they had to work in the dark, so Chase could learn the difference between night and day.
Sunlight this morning, which was turning out to be a blazingly hot Saturday in August. Their window air-conditioning unit was no match for it, and Jamie had to get dressed and head into the office. His eyes swam with tears.
Life with the baby was now:
Melting into each other.
Nobody told you that parenthood was like doing hallucinogenics. That you watched the life you knew melt away into a gray fuzz. Or if they did, you didn't believe them.
Jamie knew he shouldn't complain. Not after having a month off for paternity leave.
Still, it was strange to be going back on a Saturday morning, to a managers' meeting led by his boss, David Murphy. Last time he'd seen his boss was late June, at Jamie's awkward baby shower in the office. Nobody had brought gifts. Just money — ones and fives — stuffed into a card. David had provided an array of cold cuts and Pepperidge Farm cookies, which were the boss's favorite. Stuart ran to the soda machines for Cokes and Diet Cokes. Jamie gave him a few singles from the card to pay for them.
Being away from that place had been nice.
And now this "managers' meeting." Jamie had no idea what it could be about. He'd been gone for a month.
Never mind that Jamie wasn't a manager.
There was nothing to do about it now, though. What could he do? Change jobs and risk losing medical insurance for three months? Andrea had left her job in May, and with it went the other benefits package.
Besides, David wasn't so bad to work for. It was everybody else who drove him up the wall.
The problem wasn't hard to figure out. Jamie's job was "media relations director," which meant he had to explain to the rest of the world — or more specifically, certain trade publications — what Murphy, Knox & Associates did. Thing was, not even Jamie was entirely clear on what their company did. Not without it making his head hurt.
Everyone else, who did the real work of the company, formed a closed little society. They put up walls that were difficult, if not impossible, to breach. They were the driving force of the company. They were the Clique.
He was the staff word nerd.
Murphy, Knox & Associates was listed with Dun & Bradstreet as a "financial services office" that claimed annual sales of $516.6 million. The press releases Jamie wrote often dealt with new financial packages. The information would come straight from Amy Felton — sometimes Nichole Wise. Rarely did it come from David, though every press release had to pass through his office. Jamie would drop a hard copy into the black plastic bin on Molly's desk. A few hours later, the hard copy would be slid under Jamie's door. Sometimes, David didn't change a thing. Other times, David would rework Jamie's prose into an ungrammatical, stilted mess.
Jamie tried to talk him out of it — taking the liberty of rewriting David's rewrite, and presenting it to him with a memo explaining why he'd made certain changes.
He did that exactly once.
"Repeat after me," David had said.
"I'm not joking. Repeat after me."
"Oh," Jamie said. "Um, repeat after you."
"I will not."
"I will not." God, this was humiliating.
"Rewrite David Murphy's work."
"Rewrite your work."
"David Murphy's work."
"Oh. David Murphy's work."
So yeah — David could be a tool every once in a while. But that was nothing compared with how the other Murphy, Knox employees treated him on a daily basis. It wasn't a lack of respect; that would imply there had been respect to begin with. To the Clique, Jamie was just the word nerd.
To be dismissed completely, unless you needed a press release.
Worst of all: Jamie could understand. At his former job, a reporting gig at a small daily in New Mexico, the editors and reporters were tight. They pretty much ignored the newspaper's controller — the bean-counting cyborg. What, invite him out for a beer after work? That would be like inviting Bin Laden home for turkey and cranberry sauce.
And now Jamie was the cyborg. The press release–writing Bin Laden. No wonder he wasn't exactly rushing back to the office this morning.
Somehow he pulled it together. The memory of Chase, sleeping, reminded him of why.
The air-conditioning quickly cooled the interior of Jamie's Subaru Forester. The vehicle was newly equipped with a Graco baby seat in the back. The hospital wouldn't let them leave without one; both of them had forgotten about it. He'd had to run to a Toys "R" Us in Port Richmond, then spent the better part of a humid July night trying to figure out how to strap the thing in.
He looked at Chase's seat in the rearview. Wondered if he was up yet.
Jamie reached into the front pocket of his leather bag. Grabbed his cell, flipped it open. Held down the 2 key. Their home number popped up.
Jamie tried it again, then looked for the bars. Nothing. In its place, the image of a telephone receiver with a red hash mark across it.
No service here — a few minutes from the heart of downtown Philadelphia?
Maybe David had canceled the free office cell phone perk since he'd left. But no, that couldn't be right. Jamie had used the phone yesterday, calling Andrea from CVS, asking if he had the right package of diapers for Chase.
Jamie pressed the button again. Still nothing. He'd have to call Andrea from work.
His name was Stuart McCrane ...
... and his Ford Focus was halfway up the white concrete ramp before he saw the sign. He hit the brakes and squinted his eyes to make sure he was seeing right. The Focus idled. It didn't like to idle, especially on such a steep incline. Stuart had to rev it to keep it in place.
Weekend rate: $26.50.
The Saturday-morning sun blazed off 1919 Market, a thirty-seven-story box of a building. You couldn't call it a skyscraper, not with Liberty One and Two just two blocks down the street. This was where Stuart reported for work, Monday through Fridays. He had no reason to know the garage rates. He almost never drove. The regional rails carried him from his rented house in Bala Cynwyd to Suburban Station, no problem, all for just a few bucks. But this was a Saturday. Trains ran much slower. And without much traffic downtown, it was faster to drive. Apparently, it was more expensive, too.
You'd think a cushy government job would come with free parking.
Then again, you'd think that a cushy government job wouldn't haul you in on a Saturday.
But really, he had no idea why he was being dragged in on a weekend morning. Stuff he did — erasing bank accounts, leaving your average wannabe jihadist with a useless ATM card in one hand, his dick in the other — could be done anywhere, really. He could do it at friggin' Starbucks. There was nothing more simple and yet nothing more satisfying. Maybe some guys got off on the idea of picking off towel-heads with a sniper rifle. Stuart loved doing it by tapping ENTER.
Guess he'd find out what this was about soon enough.
Stuart threw the Focus in reverse, gently lifted his foot off the brake. The car rolled back down the ramp. Another vehicle turned the corner sharply, ready to shoot up the ramp and, judging from its speed, over the Focus, if need be.
Brakes screamed. The Focus jolted to a stop, pressing Stuart back into his seat.
"Man," he said.
He slapped the steering wheel, then looked into the rearview.
It was a Subaru Tribeca. With a woman behind the wheel.
Stuart crouched down into his seat, checked the rearview again. Squinted.
Molly Lewis. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski, Dennis Calero. Copyright © 2008 Duane Swierczynski. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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