Company Man – Excerpt
Nick backed his Chevy Suburban out of his space too fast, not bothering to check whether anyone was behind him, and careened through the parking lot that encircled the headquarters building. Even at the height of the workday, it stood half-empty as it had for the last two years, since the layoffs. Gallows humor abounded among the employees these days, Nick knew. The upside of losing half the workforce was, you could always find a parking space.
His nerves felt stretched taut. Acres of empty black asphalt, surrounded by a great black field of charred buffalo grass, the remains of a prescribed fire. Buffalo grass never needed mowing, but every few years it had to be burned to the ground. The air smelled like a Weber grill.
Black against black against the black of the road, a desolate landscape. He wondered whether driving by the vast swath of scorched earth everyday, staring at the charred field through the office windows, left a dark carbon smudge on your psyche.
You need to go home. Now.
When you have kids, they’re the first thing you think of. Even a guy like Nick, hardly a worrywart, you get a call from the cops and your imagination takes flight in a bad direction.
But both kids were all right, the cops had assured Marjorie. Julia was on her way back from school, and Lucas – well, Lucas had been in classes today and was doing whatever the hell he did after school these days, which was another issue entirely.
That wasn’t it.
Yes, it was another break-in, they’d said, but this time he really needed to come by. What the hell could that mean?
Over the past year or so, Nick had gotten used to the periodic calls from the alarm company or the police. The burglar alarm would go off in the middle of the day. There’d been a break-in. The alarm company would verify that the alarm was genuine by calling home or Nick’s office and requesting a code. If no authorized user said it was a false alarm, the company would immediately dispatch the Fenwick police. A couple of cops would then drive by the house, check it out.
Inevitably it happened when no one was there – the crew working on the kitchen were taking one of their frequent days off; the kids were at school; the housekeeper, Marta, was out shopping or maybe picking up Julia.
Nothing was ever stolen. The intruder would force a window or one of the French doors, get inside, and leave a little message.
Literally, a message: words spray-painted in Day-Glo orange, all capital letters formed with the precision of an architect or mechanical engineer: NO HIDING PLACE.
Three words, one on top of another.
Was there any doubt it was a deranged laid-off employee? The graffiti defaced the walls of the living room, the dining room they never used, the freshly plastered walls of the kitchen. In the beginning it had scared the shit out of him.
The real message, of course, was that they weren’t safe. They could be gotten to.
The first graffiti had appeared on the heavy, ornate ash wood front door, which Laura had deliberated over for weeks with the architect, a door that had cost a ridiculous three thousand dollars, a fucking door for God’s sake. Nick had made his feelings known but hadn’t objected, because it was obviously important to her, for some reason. He’d been perfectly content with the flimsy paneled front door that came with the house they’d just bought. He didn’t want to change anything about the house except maybe to shrink it to half its size. There was a saying that was popular at Stratton, which old man Devries was fond of repeating: the whale that spouts gets the harpoon. Sometimes he thought about having one of those bronze-looking estate wall plaques made for him by Frontgate, the kind you see on stone entrance pillars in front of McMansions, saying in raised copper letters, SPOUTING WHALE HOUSE.
But to Laura, the front door was symbolic: it was where you welcomed friends and family, and it was where you kept out those who weren’t welcome. So it had to be both beautiful and substantial. “It’s the front door, Nick,” she’d insisted. “The first thing people see. That’s the one place you don’t cheap out.”
Maybe, on some level, she thought a three-inch-thick front door would make them safer. Buying this insanely big house in the Fenwicke Estates: that was her idea too. She wanted the safety of the gated community. It took only a couple of anonymous threatening phone calls, as soon as the layoffs were announced.
“If you’re a target, we’re all targets,” she said. There was a lot of anger out there, directed at him. He wasn’t going to argue with her. He had a family to protect.
Now, with her gone, it felt as if he’d absorbed her neurosis, as if it had penetrated his bones. He felt, sometimes, that his family, what remained of it, was as fragile as an egg.
He also knew that the security of their gated community was little more than an illusion. It was a show, an elaborate charade, the fancy gatehouse and the guards, the private security, the high black iron fence with the spearhead finials.
The Suburban screeched to a stop before the ornately scrolled cast-iron gate beside the brick gatehouse built to resemble a miniature castle. A brass plaque on one of the piers said FENWICKE ESTATES.
That little ‘e’ at the end of Fenwick – he’d always found it pretentious to the point of being irritating. Plus, he was so over the irony here, this posh enclosed neighborhood equipped with the priciest security you could get – the tall wrought-iron perimeter fence with the fiber-optic sensing cable concealed inside the top rail, the pan-tilt-zoom CCTV surveillance cameras, the motion-sensor intruder alarms – where you couldn’t stop the loonies from scrambling in through the dense surrounding woods and climbing over the fence.
“Another break-in, Mr. Conover,” said Jorge, the day guard. Nice guy, couldn’t be nicer. The security guards were all professional in demeanor, all wore sharp uniforms.
Nick nodded grimly, waited for the motor-driven gate to open, ridiculously slow. The high-pitched electronic warning beep was annoying. Everything beeped these days: trucks backing up, dishwashers and clothes dryers, microwaves. It really could drive you crazy.
“Police are there now, you know,” said Jorge. “Three cruisers, sir.”
“Any idea what it is?”
“No, sir, I don’t, I’m sorry.”
The damned gate took forever to open. It was ridiculous. In the evening sometimes there was a line of cars waiting to get in. Something had to be done about it. For Christ’s sake, what if his house caught fire – would the fire department trucks have to sit here while his house turned to toast?
He raced the engine in annoyance. Jorge shrugged a sheepish apology.
The second the gate was open far enough for the car to get through, he gunned it -the Suburban’s pickup never ceased to amaze him – and barreled over the tiger-teeth tire-shredders that enforced one-way traffic, across the wide circular court paved in antique brick in a geometric pattern by old-world Italian stonemasons shipped over from Sicily, past the SPEED LIMIT 20 sign at twice that at least.
The brick pavement turned into glass-smooth macadam road, no street sign. He raced past the old-growth elms and firs, the mailboxes the size of doghouses, none of the houses visible. You had to be invited over to see what your neighbor’s house looked like. And there sure as hell weren’t any block parties here in Fenwicke Estates.
When he saw police squad cars parked on the street and at the entrance to his driveway, he felt something small and cold and hard forming at the base of his stomach, a little icicle of fear.
A uniformed policeman halted him a few hundred feet from the house, halfway up the drive. Nick jumped out and slammed the car door in one smooth, swift motion.
The cop was short and squat, powerful-looking, seemed to be perspiring heavily despite the cool weather. His badge said MANZI. A walkie-talkie hitched to his belt squawked unceasingly.
“You Mr. Conover?” He stood directly in front of Nick’s path, blocking his way. Nick felt a flash of annoyance. My house, my driveway, my burglar alarm: get the fuck out of my way.
“Yeah, that’s me, what’s going on?” Nick tried to keep the irritation, and the anxiety, out of his voice.
“Ask you some questions?” Dappled sunlight filtered through the tall birches that lined the asphalt lane, played on the cop’s inscrutable face.
Nick shrugged. “Sure – what is it, the graffiti again?”
“What time did you leave the house this morning, sir?”
“Around seven-thirty, but the kids are normally out of there by eight, eight-fifteen at the latest.”
“What about your wife?”
Nick gazed at the cop steadily. Most of the cops had to know who he was at least. He wondered if this guy was just trying to yank his chain. “I’m a single parent.”
A pause. “Nice house.”
“Thank you.” Nick could sense the resentment, the envy rising off the man like swamp gas. “What happened?”
“House is okay, sir. It’s brand-new, looks like. Not even finished yet, huh?”
“We’re just having some work done,” Nick said impatiently.
“I see. The workers, they’re here every day?”
“I wish. Not yesterday or today.”
“Your alarm company lists a work number for you at the Stratton Corporation,” Officer Manzi said. He was looking down at an aluminum clipboard, his black eyes small and deeply inset like raisins in a butterscotch pudding. “You work there.”
“What do you do at Stratton?” There was a beat before the policeman looked up and let his eyes meet Nick’s: the guy knew damned well what he did there.
“I’m the CEO.”
Manzi nodded as if everything now made sense. “I see. You’ve had a number of break-ins over the last several months, is that correct, Mr. Conover?”
“Five or six times now.”
“What kind of security system you have here, sir?”
“Burglar alarm on the doors and some of the windows and French doors. Basic system. Nothing too elaborate.”
“Home like this, that’s not much of a system. No cameras, right?”
“Well, we live in this, you know, gated community.”
“Yes, sir, I can see that. Lot of good it does, keeping out the wing nuts.”
“Point taken.” Nick almost smiled.
“Sounds like the burglar alarm isn’t on very often, sir, that right?”
“Officer, why so many cars here today for a routine-”
“Mind if I ask the questions?” Officer Manzi said. The guy seemed to be enjoying his authority, pushing around the boss man from Stratton. Let him, Nick thought. Let him have his fun. But-
Nick heard a car approaching, turned and saw the blue Chrysler Town and Country, Marta behind the wheel. He felt that little chemical surge of pleasure he always got when he saw his daughter, the way he used to feel with Lucas too, until that got complicated. The minivan pulled up alongside Nick and the engine was switched off. A car door opened and slammed, and Julia shouted, “What are you doing home, Daddy?”
She ran toward him, wearing a light-blue hooded Stratton sweatshirt and jeans, black sneakers. She wore some slight variant of the outfit every day, a sweatshirt or an athletic jersey. When Nick went to the same elementary school, more than thirty years before, you weren’t allowed to wear jeans, and sweatshirts weren’t considered appropriate school attire. But he didn’t have time in the mornings to argue with her, and he was inclined to go easy on his little girl, given what she had to be going through since the death of her mother.
She hugged him tight around his abdomen. He no longer hoisted her up, since at almost five feet and ninety-something pounds, it wasn’t so easy. In the last year she’d gotten tall and leggy, almost gangly, though there was still a pocket of baby fat at her tummy. She was starting to develop physically, little breast buds emerging, which Nick couldn’t deal with. It was a constant reminder of his inadequacy as a parent: who the hell was going to talk to her, get her through adolescence?
The hug went on for several seconds until Nick released her, another thing that had changed since Laura was gone. His daughter’s hugs: she didn’t want to let him go.
Now she looked up at him, her meltingly beautiful brown eyes lively. “How come there’s all these police?”
“They want to talk to me, baby doll. No big deal. Where’s your backpack?”
“In the car. Did that crazy guy get in the house again and write bad stuff?”
Nick nodded, stroked her glossy brown hair. “What are you doing home now? Don’t you have piano?”
She gave him a look of amused contempt. “That’s not till four.”
“I thought it was three.”
“Mrs. Guarini changed it like months ago, don’t you remember?”
He shook his head. “Oh, right. I forgot. Well, listen, I have to talk to this policeman here. Marta, you guys stay here until the police say it’s okay to go in the house, okay?”
Marta Burrell was from Barbados, a mocha-skinned woman of thirty-eight, tall and slender as a fashion model with an air of sultry indifference, or maybe arrogance, her default mode. Her jeans were a little too tight, and she customarily wore high heels, and she was vocal about her disapproval of Julia’s daily uniform. She expressed disapproval of just about everything in the household. She was ferociously devoted to the kids, though, and was able to make both of them do things Nick couldn’t. Marta had been a superb nanny when the kids were little, was an excellent cook, and an indifferent housekeeper.
“Sure, Nick,” she said. She reached for Julia, but the girl scampered off.
“You were saying,” Nick said to the cop.
Manzi looked up, fixed Nick with a blank look, bordering on impertinence, but there was a gleam in his eyes; he seemed to be restraining a smile. “Do you have any enemies, Mr. Conover?”
“Only about five thousand people in town.”
The policeman’s eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me.”
“We laid off half our workforce recently, as I’m sure you know. More than five thousand employees.”
“Ah, yes,” the cop said. “You’re not a popular man around here, are you?”
“You could say that.”
It wasn’t that long ago, Nick reflected, that everyone loved him. People he didn’t know in high school started sucking up to him. Forbes magazine even did a profile. After all, Nick was the youthful blue-collar guy, the son of a guy who’d spent a life bending metal in the chair factory-business reporters ate that stuff up. Maybe Nick was never going to be beloved at the company like Old Man Devries, but for a while at least he’d been popular, admired, liked. A local hero in the small town of Fenwick, Michigan, sort of, a guy you’d point out at the Shop ‘n Save and maybe, if you felt bold, walk up to and introduce yourself in the frozen-foods section.
But that was before – before the first layoffs were announced, two years ago, after Stratton’s new owners had laid down the law at the quarterly board meeting in Fenwick. There was no choice. The Stratton Corporation was going down the crapper if they didn’t cut costs, and fast. That meant losing half its work force, five thousand people in a town of maybe forty thousand. It was the most painful thing he’d ever done, something he’d never imagined having to do. There’d been a series of smaller layoffs since the first ones were announced, two years ago. It was like Chinese water torture. The Fenwick Free Press, which used to publish puff pieces about Stratton, now ran banner headlines: THREE HUNDRED MORE STRATTON WORKERS FACE THE AXE. CANCER VICTIM SUFFERS LOSS OF STRATTON BENEFITS. The local columnists routinely referred to him as “the Slasher.”
Nick Conover, local boy made good, had become the most hated man in town.
“Guy like you ought to have better security than that. You get the security you pay for, you know.”
Nick was about to reply when he heard his daughter scream.
He ran toward the source of the screaming and found Julia beside the pool. Her cries came in great ragged gulps. She knelt on the bluestone coping, her hands thrashing in the water, her small back torquing back and forth. Marta stood nearby, helpless and aghast, a hand to her mouth.
Then Nick saw what had made Julia scream, and he felt sick.
A dark shape floated in cranberry red water, splayed and distended, surrounded by slick white entrails. The blood was concentrated in a dark cloud around the carcass; the water got lighter, pinkish as it got farther away from the furry brown mass.
The corpse wasn’t immediately recognizable as Barney, their old Lab / Golden Retriever. It took a second glance, a struggle with disbelief. On the bluestone not far where Julia knelt, keening, was a blood-slick carbon-steel Henckels knife from their kitchen set.
Many things immediately made sense, now: the unusual police presence, the questioning, even the absence of Barney’s usual barked greeting when Nick arrived.
A couple of policemen were busy taking pictures, talking to each other, their low conversations punctuated by static blasts from their radios. They seemed to be chatting casually, as if nothing unusual had happened. Business as usual to them. No one was expressing sympathy or concern. Nick felt a flash of rage, but the main thing now was to comfort his daughter.
He rushed to her, sank to his knees, put a hand on her back. “Baby,” he said. “Baby.”
She turned, flung her arms around his neck, let out a wail. Her gasping breath was hot and moist. He held her tight as if he could squeeze the trauma out of her little body, make everything normal again, make her feel safe.
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.” Her gasps were like spasms, hiccups. He held her even tighter. The copious flow of her tears pooled in the hollow of his neck. He could feel it soak his shirt.