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Thriller: Stories To Keep You Up All Night James Penney's New Identity\Operation Northwoods\Epitaph\The Face In The Window\Empathy
By Lee Child
Mira Copyright © 2007 Lee Child
All right reserved.
The process that turned James Penney into a completely different person began thirteen years ago, at one in the afternoon on a Monday in the middle of June, in Laney, California. A hot time of day, at a hot time of year, in a hot part of the country. The town squats on the shoulder of the road from Mojave to L.A. Due west, the southern rump of the Coastal Range Mountains is visible. Due east, the Mojave Desert disappears into the haze. Very little happens in Laney. After that Monday in the middle of June thirteen years ago, even less ever did.
There was one industry in Laney. One factory. A big spread of a place. Weathered metal siding, built in the sixties. Office accommodations at the north end, in the shade. The first floor was low grade. Clerical functions took place there. Billing and accounting and telephone calling. The second story was high grade. Managers. The corner office on the right used to be the personnel manager's place. Now it was the human resources manager's place. Same guy, new title on his door.
Outside that door in the long second–floor corridor was a line of chairs. The human resources manager's secretary had rustled them up and placed them there that Monday morning. The line of chairs wasoccupied by a line of men and women. They were silent. Every five minutes the person at the head of the line would be called into the office. The rest of them would shuffle up one place. They didn't speak. They didn't need to. They knew what was happening.
Just before one o'clock, James Penney shuffled up one space to the head of the line. He waited five long minutes and stood up when he was called. Stepped into the office. Closed the door behind him. The human resources manager was a guy called Odell. Odell hadn't been long out of diapers when James Penney started work at the Laney plant.
"Mr. Penney," Odell said.
Penney said nothing, but sat down and nodded in a guarded way.
"We need to share some information with you," Odell said.
Penney shrugged at him. He knew what was coming. He heard things, same as anybody else.
"Just give me the short version, okay?" he said. Odell nodded. "We're laying you off."
"For the summer?" Penney asked him.
Odell shook his head.
"For good," he said.
Penney took a second to get over the sound of the words. he'd known they were coming, but they hit him like they were the last words he ever expected Odell to say.
"Why?" he asked.
Odell shrugged. He didn't look as if he was enjoying this. But on the other hand, he didn't look as if it was upsetting him much, either.
"Downsizing," he said. "No option. Only way we can go."
"Why?" Penney said again.
Odell leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Started the speech he'd already made many times that day.
"We need to cut costs," he said. "This is an expensive operation. Small margin. Shrinking market. You know that."
Penney stared into space and listened to the silence breaking through from the factory floor. "So you're closing the plant?"
Odell shook his head again. "We're downsizing, is all. The plant will stay open. There'll be some maintenance. Some repairs, overhauls. But not like it used to be."
"The plant will stay open?" Penney said. "So how come you're letting me go?"
Odell shifted in his chair. Pulled his hands from behind his head and folded his arms across his chest defensively. He had reached the tricky part of the interview.
"It's a question of the skills mix," he said. "We had to pick a team with the correct blend. We put a lot of work into the decision. And I'm afraid you didn't make the cut."
"What's wrong with my skills?" Penney asked. "I got skills. I've worked here seventeen years. What's wrong with my damn skills?"
"Nothing at all," Odell said. "But other people are better. We have to look at the big picture. It's going to be a skeleton crew, so we need the best skills, the fastest learners, good attendance records, you know how it is."
"Attendance records?" Penney said. "What's wrong with my attendance record? I've worked here seventeen years. You saying I'm not a reliable worker?"
Odell touched the brown file folder in front of him. "You've had a lot of time out sick," he said. "Absentee rate just above eight percent."
Penney looked at him incredulously. "Sick?" he said. "I wasn't sick. I was post–traumatic. From Vietnam."
Odell shook his head again. He was too young. "Whatever," he said. "That's still a big absentee rate." James Penney just sat there, stunned. He felt like he'd been hit by a train.
"We looked for the correct blend," Odell said again.
"We put a lot of management time into the process. We're confident we made the right decisions. You're not being singled out. We're losing eighty percent of our people."
Penney stared across at him. "You staying?" Odell nodded and tried to hide a smile but couldn't. "There's still a business to run," he said. "We still need management."
There was silence in the corner office. Outside, the hot breeze stirred off the desert and blew a listless eddy over the metal building. Odell opened the brown folder and pulled out a blue envelope. Handed it across the desk.
"You're paid up to the end of July," he said. "Money went in the bank this morning. Good luck, Mr. Penney."
The five–minute interview was over. Odell's secretary appeared and opened the door to the corridor. Penney walked out. The secretary called the next man in. Penney walked past the long quiet row of people and made it to the parking lot. Slid into his car. It was a red Firebird, a year and a half old, and it wasn't paid for yet. He started it up and drove the mile to his house. Eased to a stop in his driveway and sat there, thinking, in a daze, with the engine running.
He was imagining the repo men coming for his car. The only damn thing in his whole life he'd ever really wanted. He remembered the exquisite joy of buying it. After his divorce. Waking up and realizing he could just go to the dealer, sign the papers and have it. No discussions. No arguing. he'd gone down to the dealer and chopped in his old clunker and signed up for that Firebird and driven it home in a state of total joy. he'd washed it every week. he'd watched the infomercials and tried every miracle polish on the market. The car had sat every day outside the Laney factory like a bright red badge of achievement. Like a shiny consolation for the shit and the drudgery. Whatever else he didn't have, he had a Firebird.
He felt a desperate fury building inside him. He got out of the car and ran to the garage and grabbed his spare can of gasoline. Ran back to the house. Opened the door. Emptied the can over the sofa. He couldn't find a match, so he lit the gas stove in the kitchen and unwound a roll of paper towels. Put one end on the stove top and ran the rest through to the living room. When his makeshift fuse was well alight, he skipped out to his car and started it up. Turned north toward Mojave.
His neighbor noticed the fire when the flames started coming through the roof. She called the Laney fire department. The firefighters didn't respond. It was a volunteer department, and all the volunteers were in line inside the factory, upstairs in the narrow corridor. Then the warm air moving off the Mojave Desert freshened up into a hot breeze, and by the time James Penney was thirty miles away the flames from his house had set fire to the dried scrub that had been his lawn. By the time he was in the town of Mojave itself, cashing his last paycheck at the bank, the flames had spread across his lawn and his neighbor's and were licking at the base of her back porch.
Like any California boomtown, Laney had grown in a hurry. The factory had been thrown up around the start of Nixon's first term. A hundred acres of orange groves had been bulldozed and five hundred frame houses had quadrupled the population in a year. There was nothing really wrong with the houses, but they'd seen rain less than a dozen times in the thirty–one years they'd been standing, and they were about as dry as houses can get. Their timbers had sat and baked in the sun and been scoured by the dry desert winds. There were no hydrants built into the streets. The houses were close together, and there were no wind–breaks. But there had never been a serious fire in Laney. Not until that Monday in June.
James Penney's neighbor called the fire department for the second time after her back porch disappeared in flames. The fire department was in disarray. The dispatcher advised her to get out of her house and just wait for their arrival. By the time the fire truck got there, her house was destroyed. And the next house in line was destroyed, too. The desert breeze had blown the fire on across the second narrow gap and sent the old couple living there scuttling into the street for safety. Then Laney called in the fire departments from Lancaster and Glendale and Bakersfield, and they arrived with proper equipment and saved the day. They hosed the scrub between the houses and the blaze went no farther. Just three houses destroyed, Penney's and his two downwind neighbors. Within two hours the panic was over, and by the time Penney himself was fifty miles north of Mojave, Laney's sheriff was working with the fire investigators to piece together what had happened.
They started with Penney's place, which was the up–wind house, and the first to burn, and therefore the coolest. It had just about burned down to the floor slab, but the layout was still clear. And the evidence was there to see. There was tremendous scorching on one side of where the living room had been. The Glendale investigator recognized it as something he'd seen many times before. It was what is left when a foam–filled sofa or armchair is doused with gasoline and set afire. As clear a case of arson as he had ever seen. The unfortunate wild cards had been the stiffening desert breeze and the proximity of the other houses.
Then the sheriff had gone looking for James Penney, to tell him somebody had burned his house down, and his neighbors'. He drove his black–and–white to the factory and walked upstairs, past the long line of people and into Odell's corner office. Odell told him what had happened in the five–minute interview just after one o'clock. Then the sheriff had driven back to the Laney station house, steering with one hand and rubbing his chin with the other.
And by the time James Penney was driving along the towering eastern flank of Mount Whitney, a hundred and fifty miles from home, there was an all–points–bulletin out on him, suspicion of deliberate arson, which in the dry desert heat of southern California was a big, big deal.
The next morning's sun woke James Penney by coming in through a hole in his motel–room blind and playing a bright beam across his face. He stirred and lay in the warmth of the rented bed, watching the dust motes dancing.
He was still in California, up near Yosemite, in a place just far enough from the park to be cheap. He had six weeks' pay in his billfold, which was hidden under the center of his mattress. Six weeks' pay, less a tank and a half of gas, a cheeseburger and twenty–seven–fifty for the room. Hidden under the mattress, because twenty–seven–fifty doesn't get you a space in a top–notch place. His door was locked, but the desk guy would have a passkey, and he wouldn't be the first desk guy in the world to rent out his passkey by the hour to somebody looking to make a little extra money during the night.
But nothing bad had happened. The mattress was so thin he could feel the billfold right there, under his kidney. Still there, still bulging. A good feeling. He lay watching the sunbeam, struggling with mental arithmetic, spreading six weeks' pay out over the foreseeable future. With nothing to worry about except cheap food, cheap motels and the Firebird's gas, he figured he had no problems at all. The Firebird had a modern engine, twenty–four valves, tuned for a blend of power and economy. He could get far away and have enough money left to take his time looking around.
Excerpted from Thriller: Stories To Keep You Up All Night by Lee Child Copyright © 2007 by Lee Child. Excerpted by permission.
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