Thursday, March 21, 2013

The importance of self-assessment

Career Tip: Set the goal of learning one new skill, or acquiring one new resume credential every 2 ~ 3 years.

*       *      *

I once saw an advertisement in a magazine (I can’t remember what product or service the ad was meant to sell) that featured a picture of a smiling, impeccably groomed man in a three-piece suit.  He had his resume in hand, and it was obvious from the setting that he was in a job interview. 

The ad caption detailed the man’s many qualifications: He had an MBA from an Ivy League school, and a law degree from another prestigious institution. He spoke four languages. 

The punch line of the ad revealed another fact about the candidate: he was also a liar.

The point here is that no one has it all. 

However, you need to have a precise awareness of what you have—and what you don’t. It is important to identify in which areas your relative strengths and weaknesses lie. This realization will enable you to a.) play to your strengths, thereby marketing your current bundle of qualifications more effectively, and b.) identify areas for future improvement.

Mailbag: large companies and bureaucracy

A reader asks: Why are large companies characterized by so much bureaucracy, compared to small ones?

“Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.”
-Milton Friedman

Small companies have less of a tendency to develop bureaucracy and red tape. 

This is partly because they have smaller cash flows, and must therefore be more vigilant against wasteful practices. 

Another important factor is that small companies are often headed by entrepreneurs who despise red tape themselves (often as a result of a previous professional life as an employee of a large corporation).  

Large corporations have to manage more complex operations, and cope with the competing interests of multiple decision makers. This necessitates an extensive system of checks and balances, which inevitably means more “red tape.” 

If you go to work for a large corporation, then you need to accept a certain amount of bureaucracy as part of the bargain. 

If you are really, really bothered by the idea of wearing a photo id badge or filling out requisition forms in triplicate, then perhaps a large corporation is not the place for you.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Termination Man: Chapters 21 to 30

Get Termination Man on Amazon Kindle

Read chapters 11 through 20

Chapter 21

Lunch hour in the company cafeteria. With only a few hundred employees at UP&S, there was no hot meal service here; but there was a long row of vending machines along one wall of the cafeteria. These were stocked by Aramark, the largest player in the field of industrial food service. For a few dollars, the vending machines enabled you to purchase a plastic-wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwich or a gyro, which you could then heat in one of three microwaves that Aramark also provided.
It wasn’t particularly good food; but it was edible if you didn't allow yourself to think too much about minor issues like preservatives and sodium content. This was another aspect of working undercover in a factory environment: lots of substandard food.
The lunch hour was turning out to be a source of real opportunity in my observation and strategizing campaign against Lucy Browning and Alan Ferguson. By the end of my first week on the job, the three of us had become regular lunch companions. I realized that Lucy and Alan had been lunch companions prior to my arrival, of course; and they had graciously included me as the new face in their midst—or the FNG, as Alan still occasionally liked to call me.
Not surprisingly, the topics of our lunchtime conversation frequently turned to the ongoing turmoil at UP&S. On this particular day, Lucy seemed to be hatching some sort of a scheme to attack Shawn Myers with grassroots democracy.
“I’ve been talking to some of the women in accounting,” Lucy said. “They have to work under Shawn Myers, too, you know. I’ve got the idea that we could put a petition together, asking TP Automotive to either remove Shawn Myers or force him to undergo some sort of sensitivity training. To tell you the truth, though, I don’t think that any sort of training is going to turn Shawn Myers into an acceptable manager. He needs to go.”
“And you think that you can accomplish that with a petition?” I asked, striking what I hoped would be just the right chord of pessimism.
“They will if they think that they might have a revolt on their hands,” she said.
It took an effort for me to keep my face neutral. Lucy was obviously naïve—she had no idea how big corporations work. Did she think that UP&S was some sort of Athenian democracy, where she and her friends could vote Shawn Myers out of his position? The more likely outcome would be that she would not be the only one to lose her job as a result of the revolt. If there was indeed a petition, anyone who signed it would become a marked employee, just as she and Alan had become marked employees. She could do no good with these methods. She could only take other employees down with her.
“So let me get this straight: You plan to put together a petition attacking Shawn Myers, convince a bunch of other employees to sign it, and then submit it to Beth Fisk. Is that right?”
“We plan to simultaneously submit a copy to the corporate offices of TP Automotive,” Lucy said. But I knew that the “we” here was only Lucy—and possibly Alan. 
“Well, it will be interesting to see how that works,” I said.
Alan gave Lucy, and then me, an exasperated look. “We won’t change anything by working within their system,” he said. “Here inside the company, they control everything. It’s like being a dissident inside the old Soviet Union.”
Yes, I thought, recalling the previous night’s conversation with Claire. Except for the fact that the citizens of the former Soviet Union had no choice about their form of government. You’re an employee here at UP&S of your own free will.
“Therefore,” Alan continued. “Our only recourse is to appeal to outside parties.”
“What are you talking about, Alan? The EEOC? Some sort of class action suit?”
“No. Lucy and I have been talking, and I don’t think that we have enough evidence to take a legal route against them. Not yet, anyway. There’s also the fact that they’ve got most of the office staff intimidated.”
“Meaning that most of the office staff want to keep their jobs,” I said, unable to resist pointing out the folly of what they were apparently planning.
“Wait till you’ve been here a few months, Craig. Then see how you feel. But yes, if you really want to break it down that way, I suppose you’re right. It was only a matter of months ago that UP&S was on the verge of bankruptcy, and everyone believed that they were headed for the unemployment line. Then TP Automotive comes in here and plays the white knight. So they believe that they can do whatever they want. They think they can call Lucy an idiot, or put people in senior management positions who have no business being there. I mean, think about it, Craig: Shawn Myers? He’s not qualified to organize a bake sale, much less run a company.”
I couldn’t argue with Alan’s last observation. And I feared that if I pushed the company’s side of the conflict too much, I would risk arousing his suspicions—the last thing I could afford to do.
“Okay, Alan, I see your argument. So what’s your next step, then?”
Alan leaned closer to me in a conspiratorial fashion. “Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone,” he said. “But about two weeks ago I contacted a journalist from the Detroit Automotive Gazette in Detroit. I told him about the crappy situation here, how the Myers have been screwing up the company.”
“You spoke to a journalist from the Detroit Automotive Gazette about the situation here at UP&S?” I asked.
Hey, keep it down!” Alan said in a loud whisper, leaning even closer to me. “I don’t want to tell the entire cafeteria, you know.”
“That’s pretty bold, Alan,” I said, doing my best to affect the half neutral, half sympathetic pose that would be expected if I were really Craig Parker the new employee, and not Craig Walker—the undercover consultant. “So is this journalist biting? Or has he blown you off as simply one more disgruntled employee?”
“He wants to do some more fact-checking,” Alan said. “And I believe that he wants to cultivate another source inside UP&S, or inside one of the other companies recently purchased by TP Automotive. I’ve heard that there has been some turmoil at one of their companies in the Cleveland area.”
Great Lakes Fuel Systems, I thought, but did not say.
“Once he does all of that, I believe that we can expect an article about TP Automotive’s shenanigans. Something that will publicly embarrass their senior management, and show them that they can’t come into a company like UP&S and do whatever they please.”   
But that’s where you’re wrong, I thought. They can do whatever they please, as long as they don't break the law, and as long as their poor decisions don't put the company out of business. Moreover, there was no law on the books that would prevent TP Automotive from moving Shawn Myers into the top spot at UP&S. Nor was that decision—by itself—likely to put the company out of business. Shawn Myers had an entire support network within TP Automotive that would prop him up, despite his own unsuitability for a leadership position.
All of this meant that the machinations of Alan and Lucy were futile, self-destructive gestures, parts of a petty rebellion that would consume any other employees who foolishly agreed to partake in them.
It was Alan who immediately recognized my skepticism regarding the plans. “You think that all of this a waste of time, don’t you, Craig?” he asked me.
“What do I know, Alan? I’m just the FNG around here.”

Chapter 22

I was professionally obligated to tell TP Automotive about what Alan and Lucy were planning. Immediately after lunch, I sent Beth Fisk a text message telling her that I had to meet with her, Bernie, and Kurt. An urgent issue, I typed.
However much I may have disliked Shawn Myers, and however much I was beginning to doubt the judgment of his father, I could no longer dispute my clients’ basic assessments of Alan and Lucy. These two had willingly stepped into their roles of the company rebels. Whatever their reasons, they were both taking extraordinary steps to oppose TP Automotive—the entity that now paid both of their paychecks. And yes, they would end up being ejected from their jobs. What else could they reasonably expect?
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention so promptly,” Beth said when I had finished my account of the lunchtime conversation with Alan and Lucy. “You were absolutely correct to gather us all immediately to let us know.”
For a moment the executive boardroom was filled with what appeared to be stunned silence. I don’t think that any of them were particularly disturbed by the petition—which in all likelihood would never see the light of day outside of UP&S or the TP Automotive headquarters building. But the talk of the Detroit Automotive Gazette had clearly rattled them.     
“I have some contacts at the Detroit Automotive Gazette,” Bernie finally said, breaking the silence. “I’ll give them a call, see if I can put the lid on this ‘story’ about UP&S. I don’t know what kind of an exposé they might be planning, other than revealing the fact that we have two very ungrateful employees on our payroll. But it’s possible that a rogue journalist on their staff might try to run with the idea. Some of them can never pass up a chance to give a reputable company a black eye. Craig, I don’t suppose Alan told you who he was talking to at the Gazette, did he?”
“No. And I figured that he would be suspicious if I asked him. Alan is a cagey one.”
Bernie nodded. “Of course he is. The man is trying to stab his employer in the back. I would be hyper-vigilant myself, if I were him.”
 “This is an outrage,” Kurt Myers said. “An unmitigated outrage.”
Kurt Myers had barely spoken throughout my description of the plots that Alan and Lucy were hatching. His face had grown red during my telling, and he had relied on Bernie and Beth to ask for clarifications and additional details.
 “I’m absolutely disgusted by those two,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I’m of half a mind to simply call them both in here right now and fire them on the spot. Today. Without further ado.”
“No,” Bernie interjected. “I don’t think that would be wise. We could be accused of interfering with their freedom of speech.”
“They can have all the freedom of speech they want outside of these walls,” Kurt said, sweeping his arm in a wide gesture meant to indicate the physical shell of the company. “I don’t care whom they vote for come election day. I don’t care if they’re evangelical Christians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, or atheists. I don’t care if they’re monogamous, celibate, or swingers. I’ve never meddled in the private affairs of my rank-and-file subordinates, like Henry Ford did.”
Kurt was referring to the moralistic and intrusive management practices of Henry Ford, the founder of the automaker that still bears his name. Henry Ford had established a “social department” that was responsible for maintaining high moral standards among his employees—including those at the lowest levels of his organization. Ford Motor Company investigators ferreted out after-hours misbehavior of all kinds, including drinking, gambling, consorting with loose women, and even the failure to attend religious services. As the author of a tract entitled The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, Henry Ford had also been known for his anti-Semitic views. Nazi Germany bestowed the Grand Cross of the German Eagle on Ford in 1938, the year before the outbreak of the Second World War.
“All I ask,” Kurt went on. “Is that my employees work hard, follow the company’s rules, and be loyal team players. These two have betrayed our trust. They have broken the basic social contract that underlies every employment relationship. And they will both suffer the consequences.”

Chapter 23

After that meeting, I didn’t want to go back to my desk immediately. I decided to make my own little tour of the plant floor—maybe I could pretend to check the inventory of some of the items my department purchased. Or I could simply pretend to be the eager new employee who was overly anxious to learn about UP&S’s manufacturing operations.
I was quite sure that neither Alan nor Lucy would have the slightest inkling of what I was up to. Nevertheless, I didn't want to be among them just then. It wasn’t exactly guilt that was holding me back. I firmly believed that both of them were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Maybe it was simply the regret that I was not in a position to take them aside and warn them of what was coming.
Donning the required safety gear from the little storage room in the hallway leading to the plant, I stepped through the double doors and into the noise and bustle of the plant floor. I followed more or less the same trajectory that I taken with Alan only days before.
I came upon the workstation of Roy Jones and Helen Dufresne. To my surprise, they both recognized me. Roy hailed me in a loud voice.
“Hey, College Boy!” he shouted. “You been readin’ any Plato?”
I walked closer to them before answering, so I wouldn’t have to shout.
“Actually, I’m reading Posidonius today,” I said, referring to a mostly forgotten stoic philosopher who had lived during the Roman era. It was an obscure name that I barely recalled from one of my undergraduate philosophy courses. I had decided to see if Roy and Helen could receive as well as they gave.
“Posey who?” Roy asked.
“He lived about three hundred years after Plato.”
Roy paused. “Can you spell that guy’s name for me, College Boy?”
“Forget it,” I said. “I don’t want to tell you. If I do that, next you’ll ask me a question that will really stump me.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take much to stump old Roy here,” Helen said, pulling a fresh part off the rack of stampings beside her machine. She placed the oblong stamped component on the bed of her riveting machine, closed the clamps, and pressed the red cycle-start button. The riveting machine began to do its thing: Clatters and hisses. Burning smells. The cycle lasted no more than fifteen seconds. Once it was over, Helen proceeded to repeat the process. Working quickly, she lifted the completed part off the machine bed and placed it atop the pile on another rack—this one for finished parts.
Neither of these two had any connection to my assignment at TP Automotive. My contract involved Alan, Lucy, and the two suspected embezzlers on the loading and receiving dock, Nick King and Michael O’Rourke. Strictly speaking, Roy and Helen were out-of-bounds, as far as I was concerned.
Nevertheless, I made a habit of learning as much as possible about the organizations in which I operated. I had long ago reached an important realization: I would never grasp the complete picture from either a company’s senior management, or from one of senior management’s targets. Senior managers would seldom admit that there was anything wrong inside an organization (with the exception of under-motivated and ungrateful employees, of course). The targets of my termination assignments, on the other hand, were by definition suffering from motivation and/or morale issues. They weren’t exactly unbiased sources either.
This is why I frequently needed to tap other individuals in an organization in order to understand the big picture. Roy and Helen seemed perfect: They weren’t members of the company’s hierarchy. Nor had they come to anyone’s attention thus far as disgruntled employees.
“You two have a minute?” I asked.
“Sure, what’s up, College Boy?” Roy asked me.
I knew that I would have to be careful here. I had to make my questions as innocuous as possible, so that they were unlikely to remember this conversation as anything unusual. And I certainly couldn’t ask anything that was openly leading. Nor could I distract them from their tasks for long. A protracted conversation would attract the attention of one of the production supervisors, and inevitably lead to inquiries.
“You guys have both been here a long time, right?”
“You mean at UP&S? Sure,” Roy said. “Me and Helen both been here more or less since they opened the doors, just like Alan tol’ you the other day.”
“You two would be a good source for me, then.”  
“’Source’? What you talkin’ about, College Boy?” Roy’s demeanor was still fundamentally friendly, but cautious now.
“I’m new here,” I said. “I’m trying to learn the ropes, get the lay of the land. You understand?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Well, I’ve been hearing some talk about the new management. You know: People are telling me that things have changed—and that things are not as good as before. What do you think? Has TP Automotive ruined the environment here?”
That was, I reflected upon saying it, a fairly leading question. But subtlety likely wouldn’t get me the answer I was looking for.
“Shee-it,” Roy said with a toothy smile. “I don’t know about nothing being ‘ruined.’ I’m just happy to have my job. I was one of the ones they let go during the temporary shutdown, before them folks from TP Automotive come in and bought the place. All I could find was some part-time gig in Columbus, stocking shelves in a Walmart. You ever work in a Walmart, College Boy?”
Roy temporarily returned his attention to the task before him:  His rivet-welding machine clamped down on an aluminum part. There was the smell of ozone.
“No,” I said honestly. “I can’t say as I have.”
A smile. “I didn’t think so. Well, this job beats the pants off of that any day. Here we get decent pay and benefits. You work retail, you live hand to mouth for the rest o’ your life.”
Helen nodded at this sentiment. “I’m glad to be here, too. To tell you the truth, I’m grateful.”
Was this display of company spirit nothing more than a show for a suit from the front office? I wondered. I wanted to find out, so decided to push them a bit further.
“Well, tell me this: Haven’t there been any changes in work procedures since the TP Automotive buyout? They say that when a big corporation like that takes over a place, the new management team doesn’t leave things as they are. Surely you guys have seen some changes.”
Now I was certainly leading too much. I sounded almost like a union organizer myself, I thought.
Roy pointed a finger at me: “Sure there been some changes,” Roy said. “But let me tell you one thing, College Boy: They ain’t nothing that we can’t handle. And if it keeps my job from going to China or Mexico, I ain’t going to complain none,” he said.
Helen nodded in agreement. “TP Automotive isn’t asking for much—not really,” she said. “A little more output per hour. It’s amounted to some shortened cycle times. But like Roy said, we can handle it—when we aren’t being distracted by some wet-behind-the-ears college boy, that is.”
“Hey, you guys were the ones who called out to me.”
“That’s because we felt sorry for you,” Roy said “We knew that nobody else was going to talk to your sorry college boy ass, so we decided to do what we could to make you feel at home.”
“Well, remind me to include you both in my will!” I said, waving and taking my leave of them.
“I’ll be countin’ on it, College Boy!” Roy said. “I’ll be enjoyin’ myself on all them stock options o’ yours!”
I shook my head and walked away. I’ve gone undercover in a lot of factory environments, and virtually all of them are like that: Every joke is simultaneously personal, biting, and good-humored. These cheerful insults were, believe it or not, Helen and Roy’s way of showing me that they liked me. 
Their comments also helped me to see the jeremiads of Kevin Lang, Lucy Browning, and Alan Ferguson in a different light. Clearly, not every employee perceived TP Automotive as some sort of evil empire. Roy and Helen seemed to understand the score clearly enough: America’s postwar era of hothouse capitalism and gentlemanly competition had been replaced by something that was brutal and cutthroat—something that demanded a new set of rules. Of course, nobody likes to have cycle times shortened and production quotas increased—but it's preferable to losing one’s job.
And in my own small way, I thought, I was doing my part to preserve the jobs of men and women like Roy and Helen—hardworking Americans who wanted nothing more than a shot at a solid middle-class life. 

Chapter 24

The monthly meeting was about to begin, and Shawn Myers was absolutely terrified.
He passed through the doorway to the meeting room, his personal copy of the inventory report tucked under his arm. He was five minutes early, and the meeting room was still a chaotic flux of people.
I would give anything to be in a strip bar right now, Shawn Myers thought sourly. Then he reflected that even his desk back at the UP&S factory in New Hastings would be preferable to these high-pressure surroundings.
He saw his father on the other side of the room. Kurt gave him a smile and a nod. Shawn returned the gesture as best he could, nodding back at his father and smiling weakly.
They were in a large meeting room within the TP Automotive headquarters complex in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit. The other attendees were taking their seats among four empty tables that had been arranged in the shape of a wide square. At one end of the room a screen had been pulled down to display images from a projector. A prim and attractive female assistant sat at the projector, making last-minute preparations prior to the start of this month’s dog and pony show. Shawn wondered, in complete futility, if there was any chance that the projector would malfunction. Then the meeting would have to be delayed, even cancelled. There was a chance…
Don’t be a fucking idiot, he scolded himself. Nothing short of a nuclear war would delay the monthly meeting. And even a nuclear war would be no guarantee—unless a warhead happened to land somewhere in the Detroit metro area. 
Shawn knew that this last thought was an exaggeration; but he also knew the gravity attached to the monthly meeting. This was the gathering in which TP Automotive’s management team convened each month to put their accomplishments on display, and to scrutinize the accomplishments and shortcomings of their peers. What took place here would be talked about for weeks, in every branch office and factory that bore the logo of TP Automotive or one of its many affiliates. The monthly meeting was a highly ritualized, highly anticipated event throughout the company, one that demanded the preparation of high-level managers, mid-level staff professionals, and lowly administrative assistants alike.
A total of about fifty TP Automotive executives would be in attendance, and most of them seemed to have already arrived. The conversations were dying down now. Shawn took a seat at one corner of the table that was closest to the door.
Tom Galloway had been designated as the leader for this month’s meeting. As he opened his mouth to speak, the last traces of whispering faded to total silence.
“All right, everyone. Thank you for attending this month’s meeting. We have quite a packed agenda today, so let’s get started.” Tom Galloway was a senior executive who was more or less at his father’s level. He spoke imperiously, without humor.
This entire meeting is without humor! Shawn thought frantically. In the hours before the meeting he had dared to imagine that if his presentation hit a few rough spots, then he might be able to bluff and joke his way through it. Perhaps, he had speculated, his audience would go along with the gag if he gently poked fun at himself. But now he saw the stark fact that he had previously denied: These people took this meeting as a deathly serious business, as if they were planning a military operation in which lives and the fates of nations hung in the balance.
Galloway motioned to the assistant operating the projector. She clicked a few buttons on the device, and the agenda appeared on the screen, a PowerPoint slide with white letters and a blue background. Shawn noted—with a minor bit of relief—that he was not the first speaker, at least. Three people were scheduled to give their presentations before his turn would come.
As he listened to the first three presenters, Shawn made several last-ditch attempts to fully grasp all of the details of the inventory report, and the questions that he knew would be inevitable. The UP&S plant—like most automotive plants nowadays—ran according to lean production principles. That meant a detailed accounting of inventories at each stage, cycle times, and takt times (whatever those were). Each of these factors was interrelated to the others—or so he had been told.
“And now we’ll hear from Sean Myers,” Tom Galloway announced. “Vice President of Operations at UP&S, one of our new subsidiaries in Ohio.”
Shawn rose and stared at the projected image—the summary table from the first page of the inventory report. He knew that all of the senior managers in the room had been previously provided with a copy of the document. Each of them would now be analyzing its contents and drawing their own conclusions.
Where to begin? The inventory report was nothing but a sea of numbers, and these people expected him to talk about them in some meaningful way for ten minutes. How could you talk meaningfully about numbers? There was nothing to talk about: Numbers were simply numbers, after all.
Tom Galloway cleared his throat. “I think we’re all ready, Shawn,” he said. “Please begin.”
“Okay,” Shawn said. He pointed his laser pointer at the screen. The little red dot landed on the first number in the table column labeled “WIP”. Then Shawn began to read each number along with the descriptions given in his printout copy of the report. He knew that this was not what they were expecting, but maybe it would get him through, he thought.
There was the sound of shuffling throughout the room. One male voice—whose owner Shawn could not identify—said “mmmm” in a mildy skeptical tone.
“As you can see,” Shawn said. “WIP has decreased over this month.”
He knew immediately that he had said something wrong. Every face in the semi-darkened room was fixed on him, taking cruel delight in his torment.  
“I uh—” Shawn began. But the words seemed to be stuck in his throat. Why did they all continue to stare at him so intently?
Finally the silence had to be broken. So Tom Galloway, as this month’s designated meeting leader, took it upon himself to break it.
“WIP has increased this past month,” Tom Galloway said, as if WIP were the most important thing in the world. Increased—decreased, so what? The point was that the number had changed. Why did these people have to be so goddamned picky?
Then the gray-templed executive leaned back and held his own copy of the report out in front of him, drawing the attention of the room to the printed pages.
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “That’s not it at all. I’m afraid we have a few inconsistencies between your presentation and the information presented here.”
Shawn detected a murmur in the room. They were not really saying anything that he could discern—and yet they were saying so much. They were damning him.
Condemnation in the corporate world comes in many forms. Sometimes it is overt, as when an employee is lectured about his deficiencies or sat down for a formal disciplinary meeting. More often, however, condemnation is delivered subtly, with backhanded remarks and shifts in tone and facial expression. Tom Galloway’s raised eyebrows spoke volumes about the failure unfolding before him. Shawn might not have understood the inventory report—but he understood that his performance had already been judged a major screw-up.
And then he felt another emotion welling up from beneath his embarrassment and awkwardness: Rage. Tom Galloway was deliberately accentuating his blunder, going out of his way to make him look bad.
Shawn was seized by the notion of how satisfying it would be to drive his fist straight into Tom Galloway’s smug-looking jaw. That would divert his attention from the inventory report and the presentation. And Tom Galloway would be just the start. There were others around the room who were giving him similarly snide expressions, savoring his moment of defeat and humiliation.
He felt blood rush to his head, felt a familiar throbbing there. He was within a few seconds of losing his reins, of letting the rage take control of him.
He knew that this was something that he could not do. If he struck Tom Galloway—or even called him a name—there would be severe repercussions. Galloway would not be silenced by the mere fact of who his father was. Nor would the others in the room. Many of them were of equal or greater rank than Kurt Myers.
At the same time, there was so no way that he could force himself to grovel before these people. He therefore reached a decision: He had to leave the room. Now.
There were more murmurs and a few gasps when Shawn dropped his laser pointer and his copy of the inventory report on the table and started toward the room’s exit. He could imagine what they were saying about him. Let them talk. None of them would have had the courage to ridicule him to his face. He would find a way to get even with them later. 

*     *    *

“Well,” Tom Galloway said, after Shawn had left the room. “That was most unusual. I’ve heard of going to a meeting a little unprepared; but I’ve never known a case of a TP Automotive manager walking out of a monthly meeting during the middle of a presentation. This is something that will have to be discussed later. For now, though, let’s move on to the next speaker on the agenda.”
Before the next speaker could be called upon, though, Kurt Myers stood up from his seat.
“Kurt?” Tom Galloway asked. Like everyone else in the room, Tom’s focus was now riveted on the elder Myers. “Do you have something to say?”
“Please, Tom. If you’ll allow me.”
“Of course,” Tom said. Kurt nodded his thanks before proceeding.
“I’d like to apologize for my son,” he said. “I fully understand that Shawn’s performance here today did not meet the high standards that we set for management personnel here at TP Automotive. And I want you to realize that I take complete responsibility for today’s disaster.”
“Well, I hardly think that this was your fault,” Tom Galloway said.
“No. It is my fault. Shawn is new to the management of manufacturing facilities,” Kurt went on. He spread his arms wide, in a gesture that simultaneously invited criticism and sympathy. “We all know that Shawn is a new manager. And we also know that when we train a new manager, we make every effort to give that manager the tools that he needs to perform—to excel.”
Kurt paused to let these words sink in. Then he continued.
“Well, gentlemen—and ladies—this is where I failed in my role as a mentor, a senior manager, and, quite frankly, as a father. Shawn has taken over a situation at UP&S that is very unstable, and fraught with dissension and open rebellion within the ranks. I’m afraid that Shawn may have been sabotaged by some subordinates today, who sent him into this meeting with data that he could not possibly explain or defend.
“We all know that no manager in this room is involved in the creation of detailed items like inventory reports. How many of you would be capable of creating an inventory report from scratch?” Kurt paused and looked around the room before going on, as if challenging each one of them to contradict this implied assertion. None of them spoke up. “Of course not. That isn’t what a manager does. A manager must rely on his or her subordinates to summarize, to explain the details—to give the manager what he or she needs to do the analysis and make the important decisions. This is what Shawn did not have, and he told me as much last week.
“I want you all to know, however, that we’ve already taken steps to correct the situation at UP&S, so that these individuals will never be able to disrupt our management process as they have today.”
“You’ve fired someone?” Tom Galloway asked.
“We will fire someone,” Kurt replied. “Or rather, they will fire themselves. We’ve employed the services of a very skilled consultant who specializes in getting the deadweight employees and troublemakers out of organizations. And he’ll do it in a way that will not expose the company to any legal liabilities or bad publicity.”
Kurt exhaled. “So there you have it. As you know, we don’t make excuses here at TP Automotive. We get the job done. Nevertheless, I felt that all of you deserved an explanation for the substandard performance that you witnessed today.”  
Heads began to nod.  And just as quickly as the current in the room might have shifted against Kurt, it was now shifting in his favor. The vice president of strategic planning had laid himself bare, had given the room a mea culpa. They had been ready to strike at him, but he had beaten them to the punch.
How could they, now, censure a man like Kurt Myers, who had practically handed them the tools by which they might reproach him? His explanation was reasonable, after all. And didn’t Kurt’s son deserve an equal measure of latitude, given the challenges that he was facing in Ohio?
Finally, Tom Galloway spoke up for all of them: “All of us, Kurt—and I think I can say with confidence—every single one of us, has been hampered at one time or another by a subordinate who either didn’t meet expectations, or decided to play the role of backstabber. No matter how hard a manager may strive, it seems that there is always that one bad apple in the bunch.
I, for one, can certainly understand what Shawn must be going through. I was a young manager once myself, you know—sometime during the Jimmy Carter Administration.” This occasioned the obligatory laughs from the meeting attendees, and all at once the tension was broken. “I’m glad to hear that you’ve taken measures to root these people out of the new organization that you and Shawn are building at UP&S. Problems are inevitable. The important question is always: What are you going to do about it?

Chapter 25

After storming out of the monthly meeting, Shawn decided to walk out of the TP Automotive headquarters building as well. He ducked into the nearest elevator, hoping that Tom Galloway—or worse, his father—would not decide to run after him. He pressed the button that would take him to the ground floor.
The elevator opened into the main visitor’s lobby. Even though he was home free now, Shawn was still gripped by the belief that someone would come after him. That would be an exchange that could end badly if it were anyone but his father. He knew that he was in no mood to be trifled with, and his only guarantee against further disaster would be to escape this building. He finally broke into a run when the main entrance came into view. The security guard at the visitor’s reception desk said something to him. Shawn pretended not to hear. The guard did not follow after him, and Shawn reflected that the guard’s decision to stay put might have saved them both from calamity.
His Audi was located at the side of the building—in his old parking space. He gunned the engine and sped out of the lot. A woman—probably another uptight administrative assistant—made a great show of scurrying out of the way as Shawn raced past.
The TP Automotive headquarters building was not far from the interstate. Shawn drove aimlessly on I-94 in a westerly direction, toward Ann Arbor. He knew that at this very moment, his father and probably others were looking for him, searching the men’s rooms and the hallways of the headquarters building. Perhaps the security guard had recognized him and alerted others. Perhaps his father already knew that he had fled not only the meeting, but the walls of the company as well.
He drove on. When he had driven for perhaps five or ten minutes he began to contemplate the consequences of his spur-of-the-moment flight. He realized that every minute he stayed away he was in fact digging himself into an even deeper hole, making it more difficult to extricate himself from the disaster of the past hour. He therefore found himself in a classic dilemma: Should he return and face the music, or continue to savor his freedom and delay the consequences?
For now he would delay.
With no particular purpose in mind, he exited I-94 just past Ypsilanti. The exit emptied onto a two-lane highway that would lead him toward the countryside south of Detroit, in the direction of the Michigan-Ohio border.
He didn’t see the stop sign—not really. He wasn’t aware of his mistake until he heard the blare of a horn and saw the blur of another vehicle. He slammed his foot on the brake pedal. The Audi skidded on the gravel and turned at a 90-degree angle. He braced himself for the inevitable impact. The sound of the other car’s skidding tires vaguely registered somewhere in his awareness, along with its still-blaring horn.
But the impact never came. Shawn opened his eyes (he had closed them at the last second, when he was sure that a crash was imminent) and saw that both his car and that of the other driver were stopped in the middle of this rural intersection. The two vehicles were only inches apart—perhaps a hand’s breadth. Ironically, the crash had been narrowly averted by the gravel on the pavement, which had caused both of the cars to spin around. 
The other driver was already stepping out of his vehicle. It was a pine-green Ford Taurus, not the most recent model. The driver himself was due for an upgrade as well. He was short, mostly bald, wearing a blue dress shirt and a tie. He had a potbelly and a little mustache. Shawn could see that he was sweating profusely despite the chilly weather; half-circles of moisture darkened both armpits.
“Are you okay?” The other driver asked. He was now standing before Shawn’s door. The guy obviously wanted to say something, so Shawn pressed the armrest button that lowered his front driver’s side window. He thought: This clown looks like an accountant—the sort of bean counter who would probably understand the damned inventory report.
“I’m fine,” Shawn said. He didn’t bother to return the question. The accountant had gotten himself out of his car, walked over here, and uttered a question. He was obviously fine.
“Good to hear it,” the accountant said. “Because your driving is anything but fine. You blew right through that stop sign. Didn’t even slow down. You could have killed us both.”
Shawn contemplated offering this man an explanation. He could have told him that he had just had an exceptionally horrible afternoon, and that his mind was now occupied by matters that were far more significant than minor traffic regulations. But no—he had no intention of offering this little man an explanation for his actions.
Just get back in your car, buddy, Shawn thought. Get back in your car, and drive back to your boring accountant’s office, or your piggy wife and children, or wherever it is that you’re heading. No harm was done, so this is your chance to walk away without a scratch.  
But the accountant apparently wasn't on the same wavelength, as he kept talking, and thereby made the situation even worse.
“You know, you really ought to try paying attention when you drive. You were obviously off in dreamland, or you would have at least seen the stop sign.”
Shawn took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. He could sense where this was going—and he knew that it would only end badly for both of them.
“Mister,” Shawn said. “Let me give you a piece of advice. You should just shut the fuck up this very minute, get back in your cheap secondhand car, and drive away. That would be the best thing for you to do.”
If the accountant had possessed any sense whatsoever, he would have taken this as his cue to make a getaway. To Shawn’s amazement, however, he kept talking.
“What?” the accountant asked, the indignation in his voice unmistakable. “What’s that little remark you made about my car? Do you think you’re better than me? Do you think that you have some sort of special privilege just because you drive an expensive car?” 
Shawn looked up into the accountant’s face, and for a second it seemed to merge with the face of Alan Ferguson—the ungrateful subordinate who had spoken to Bill Prescott behind his back and humiliated him so.
Then he felt something inside him snap, suddenly and inexorably. It was the latch on the box that contained and (usually) restrained his anger.
The accountant started talking again, though Shawn didn’t really hear him. He was acutely aware of only two things—his building rage, and the metal object beneath the front seat on the passenger side of the Audi. As the accountant talked, Shawn discreetly moved his hand beneath the adjacent seat, until he grasped the curved end of the crowbar.
Why had he acquired the crowbar? He had purchased the item last week, when he stopped by a Home Depot to pick up some light bulbs and other miscellaneous supplies that he needed for his condominium in Columbus. He had told himself that a crowbar was a handy item to have—knowing all along that he really had no legitimate use for such a tool.
“No,” Shawn said, pushing open the door of the Audi. “I think that my privilege comes from the fact that I can kick your ass.”
Shawn stepped out of the car, and the accountant abruptly stopped his monologue.
When the man saw Shawn’s size—and the object in his hand—he made a quick assessment of the situation. Shawn could see the middle-aged accountant’s eyes widen; then his face went slack with fear. Despite his rage, this brought Shawn a moment’s worth of satisfaction. It didn’t take much to reduce the average man to stark, naked terror; did it? The two of them were in a sparsely populated area, and he could beat the man to a pulp with the crowbar before anyone would happen along and intervene. He knew it; and the accountant knew it.
But the accountant had apparently decided not to hang around and wait for that scenario to unfold. Without another word to Shawn, he spun on his heels and turned toward the field that was nearest him. He scrambled up the embankment, and then—after taking only a few seconds to right himself once he reached level ground—broke into a run across the field.
Shawn noted that the accountant moved faster than his physical appearance would have suggested. He was visibly huffing and puffing; and he might drop dead from a heart attack at any second, Shawn thought. The accountant was determined to flee for his life until his physical limitations overcame him. 
Shawn started to give chase, and then thought better of it. This intersection was removed from the main traffic of Detroit; but it wasn’t exactly out in the middle of nowhere. Sooner or later someone would drive by, and become a witness to his beating of the man who continued to run across the empty field.
So instead he decided to vent his rage on the man’s car. He raised the crowbar above his head and brought it down on the hood of the Taurus with all his might. The resultant clang and the yielding of metal were satisfying. His rage was not yet spent, but a few more minutes of this and he would feel good enough to go back to the world.
He would need to drive back to the TP Automotive building; he would need to locate his father, perform a mea culpa, and then find some way out of his situation. His lack of fundamental knowledge about manufacturing operations had been exposed at the monthly meeting. Would his father be able to rescue him again? He decided that yes, his father would. The old man had saved him from far worse messes than this in the past. Comparatively speaking, a flubbed presentation at a company meeting was nothing.
Having thoroughly mutilated the hood of the Taurus, Shawn turned his attention to the windshield. In its reflection he saw the faces of the people who had been present at the meeting—men like Tom Galloway, who delighted in showing off their superior knowledge and expertise. He also saw the faces of Alan and Lucy, of course, the two people who were primarily responsible for today’s disaster. How satisfying it would be to smash the crowbar into both of their heads.
And he also saw the face of Alyssa—the cleaning woman’s daughter—who was frustrating him so much with her refusal to submit to his perfectly understandable desires.
With all of these faces in mind, Shawn swung the crowbar over his head and shattered the windshield of the Taurus. Glass rained onto the dashboard and the front seat. The car was for all practical purposes undrivable now. The accountant—if he ever summoned the courage to come back and retrieve his car—would have to find alternative transportation.
Shawn allowed himself a few more swings. He took out the front passenger and driver’s side windows, and then gave the Taurus a few more dents at various places on the driver’s side. Actually, the accountant had done him a favor by appearing at this intersection at an inopportune time. Without this chance to vent his anger and frustration, Shawn realized, he might have continued his solitary drive for hours.
The thought of the accountant caused him to turn his attention from the ruined vehicle and toward its driver. The man was now standing half a football field’s length away, in the middle of the field into which he had fled. The accountant’s tie was askew; and even at this distance Shawn could see that he was drenched with sweat. The man had probably not run like that for the past decade or two. He was bent over with his palms on his knees, panting from exhaustion. But he had also been watching the methodical destruction of his car.
What a pussy, Shawn thought, reflecting that he would never stand by while a stranger took a crowbar to the Audi.
Finally Shawn had a smile on his face. Yes, he was feeling much better now. “You can have your car back now, if you still want it!” Shawn shouted at the accountant.
The accountant did not respond; he merely watched Shawn warily as he carried the crowbar back to the Audi, opened the door, and slid into the driver’s seat. The fine piece of German engineering was still running; he had never killed the engine.
He put the Audi into gear, gave the accountant a final wave, and drove away.

Chapter 26

By the time Shawn returned to the headquarters building, the monthly meeting had been concluded. There was no way to salvage today’s performance. But he could perhaps still salvage his relationship with his father.
Shawn wandered the halls, occasionally ducking into an alcove or a vacant room when he heard other voices. He did not want to be questioned, even though he knew that questions were inevitable.
Finally he spied his father walking down one of the hallways on the third floor. Where was the old man headed? Was he waiting for his son to return? Had Kurt known that his prodigal offspring would come back, to more or less beg for some form of forgiveness?
“Dad,” Shawn said in the empty hallway. “I’m back.” 
“Shawn,” Kurt said neutrally. As Shawn had half-expected, Kurt’s face did not betray much surprise. Kurt paused and scanned the hall in both directions. Father and son were alone.
“In here,” he said, motioning to an empty meeting room.
Shawn followed his father inside the meeting room and Kurt closed and locked the door.
Kurt issued his instructions without preamble, as if he were talking to one of his many subordinates in the company.
“Listen to me good, Shawn, because I will brook no argument. You will seek out Tom Galloway today,” he said. “And you will personally apologize for what you did this morning. You embarrassed him today. You embarrassed yourself. You embarrassed me.”
“I will not apologize to that prick!” Shawn said. A moment ago—fresh from the catharsis of destroying the accountant’s car—Shawn had been on the verge of feeling contrite. But now he found the thought of apologizing to Tom Galloway to be more than he could bear. What his father was suggesting was unthinkable.
Kurt sighed and gave his son a long, venomous stare. Then he darted forward and grabbed both lapels of Shawn’s blazer. In an instant Shawn was on the ground, staring at his father’s feet.
Kurt kicked him once in the stomach. Shawn, incredulous and suddenly quite humiliated, let out a loud cry. I sound like child, he thought. The old man has reduced me to this!
He rolled over onto his back and tried to stand, but he suddenly found one of Kurt’s loafers planted squarely on his chest.
“Stay down!” Kurt commanded. Shawn struggled in vain for a moment, then resigned himself to submission. 
Kurt was surprisingly strong and agile for a man who would never again see the age of sixty. He still prided himself on his record as a college football player. He hit the gym with regularity, thereby assuring that the physique of his youthful prime would remain recognizable. Though no longer a serious athlete, he could hold his own in the weight room or on the basketball court. More than a few thirtysomething managers had been humiliated after accepting Kurt’s challenge to a game of one-on-one on the basketball court in the company’s fitness center.
He looked down at his son, lying on the ground like a little boy.
“Do you realize the limb I had to go out on today? Because you screwed up?”
“I told you, Dad! It’s those two shitheads back at UP&S! Alan and Lucy!”
“Don’t give me that!” Kurt hissed. “I read that report myself. It’s no different than any other inventory report from any other TP Automotive plant. In fact, it’s better than many of the ones I’ve seen recently. The problem is that you can’t interpret it. You don’t understand the basic concepts behind it, do you?”
Shawn looked up at his father, suddenly defiant again. Kurt gave his son another kick—this time in the ribs. Shawn winced in pain.
“No, Dad, I don’t understand it.”
“And why is that?”
Shawn let out a long breath of air. “I don’t know! Jesus, Dad. I don’t fucking know!”
“I’ll tell you why,” Kurt said. “It’s because you’ve spent your entire life up until now drinking, chasing tail, and getting into trouble. And I’ve been forced to follow you around, cleaning up after your messes. Well, from now on, you’re going to turn over a new leaf. You’re going to get serious about important matters, starting with the inventory report. The next monthly meeting is in January; and by the time that meeting rolls around, you’re going to be an expert on the inventory report. You’re going to be able to talk about it like it's the most important thing in the world to you, which it is at this point in your career, given that your failure to understand it has embarrassed us both. Is that clear?”
Shawn was now completely defeated. He stretched out his arms in a gesture of submission, the sole of his father’s loafer still planted on his chest.
“I’ll do better, Dad,” he said. And both men were surprised by the tears that suddenly welled in Shawn’s eyes. “I promise you: just get rid of Alan and Lucy, and everything will be better. I swear!”

Chapter 27

The day after the monthly meeting debacle, Shawn Myers faced a decidedly easier audience.
He hadn’t known that he would be giving at talk at New Hastings High School until 8:00 a.m., when Beth Fisk “reminded” him about it. She stopped by his desk at the head of the open office area, and casually asked him how his preparations for the “high school talk” were going.
“What talk?” Shawn asked. “I don’t know anything about a talk.”
“Didn’t you see my email?” Beth replied with forced sweetness. “I sent you an email two weeks ago. We received an invitation from the principal at New Hastings High, and your father—er, Kurt—decided that you would be a good choice to give a talk to the local kids.”
“But I haven’t prepared!” Shawn said angrily. He scanned down through the emails in his inbox, and sure enough, there was an unopened email from Beth Fisk, dated almost a month ago. The subject header was “New Hastings High School Career Week.”
“All you need to do is give them a brief introduction to UP&S,” she said. “Tell them about what we do, what sort of employment opportunities we provide to the community. That sort of thing. This is just a standard PR speech, really.”
“It would be if I was friggin’ prepared!” Shawn shot back. He was reading through Beth’s email when he heard his father speak up.
“Go. Those kids don’t understand the inventory report either. You won’t get any questions from them that you can’t answer.”
Shawn stifled a gasp. He hadn’t even realized that the old man had been present and listening. He turned in his chair and saw his father standing behind him.
Beth Fisk, apparently sensing that a father-and-son moment was imminent, began to ease away.
“Thanks, Shawn.” she said. “I apologize if you didn’t know about it before today; but I really don’t think it will be all that difficult, even if you only have a few hours to prepare.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Beth,” Kurt said. “A manager needs to read his emails.”
Thanks for humiliating me in front of Beth, Dad, Shawn thought but did not say. And Beth, thanks for making me look like an ass in front of my father. Again.
He wondered if the news of his meltdown at the monthly meeting had already traveled throughout the company. Had Beth heard about it, too? Was it possible that even Alan and Lucy knew? And wouldn’t they love to know that their boss had looked like a total idiot in front of all the other managers?
“Go,” Kurt said again, once Beth was out of earshot. “I’m not going to cover for you on this one.”
“You won’t have to,” Shawn said. “I can handle it.” And he thought: A bunch of high school kids. How hard can it be?
He spent the next hour making abortive attempts at typing out a script, and then abandoned the effort. He looked at the clock on the adjacent wall: He was running out time.
Fuck it, he thought. I’ll just wing it.

Chapter 28

As Shawn started up the Audi, another realization dawned on him: Half of his audience would be female. A whole room full of teenaged girls who were just waiting to be corrupted by an older man. (Not that you really needed to corrupt these girls nowadays, he silently added.)
Would Alyssa be among the audience? She should be a student at New Hastings High School, shouldn’t she? Even so, for her to be in his audience today would be too much to ask for.
Upon his arrival at the high school, Shawn presented himself at the principal’s office. During the five minutes he spent with the principal, he learned that he was not the only Career Week speaker. There were many of them: Dave Bruner, the police chief of New Hastings, would be speaking to several groups of students. A local attorney had also been invited, as well as a firefighter, a physician, a dentist, and a score of others.
“We’ve slated you to speak to the junior American Civics students, if that’s okay,” the principal said.
Shawn stated that this was okay. He was escorted to the classroom of a Mrs. Martinez, who taught American Civics to the juniors.
Once inside the classroom, Shawn knew that he was going to make it through this: the relatively small audience was a relief. He still had no prepared speech; and that would be awkward in a large auditorium full of students, who would be eager to see an adult fumble around and make a fool of himself. In a more informal classroom environment, though, he would be able to interact with the students and engage them in a two-way exchange. This way, they would end up doing half of the work.
Mrs. Martinez was perhaps thirty-five years old, a tall woman with dark brown eyes. She greeted Shawn effusively when he entered the room.
“Oh, thank you for coming, Mr. Myers,” she said. “It’s so nice of you to take some time out of your busy day to talk with our students.”
“Think nothing of it,” Shawn said. He involuntarily glanced at Mrs. Martinez’s considerable cleavage. Then he looked up and stared into her eyes for a few seconds. She wants it, Shawn thought. She wants me.
But then she demonstrated otherwise, giving him the subtlest of frowns and looking away.
Mrs. Martinez turned to the roughly thirty students in the room before her. “Today we’re going to hear a talk from Mr. Shawn Myers, Vice President of Operations at UP&S, the largest private-sector employer in New Hastings. Mr. Myers, why don't tell the students about the sort of work you do at UP&S?”
Shawn noted that as Mrs. Martinez walked back to her teacher’s desk, she put her hand over the top two buttons of her blouse, as if attempting to shield the cleft of her breasts from roving eyes. It was likely an involuntary gesture; but for Shawn it only confirmed a new realization that had occurred to him a moment ago: Mrs. Martinez was nothing but a tease.
He began with a classic conversation starter. “How many of you kids have ever thought about working in a factory?” he asked. None of them raised their hands, of course. Probably no kid in the state of Ohio would ever think about working in a boring place like UP&S. These kids all wanted to be computer programmers, professional athletes, or rap musicians, naturally. He couldn’t blame them for that.
“Well,” Shawn said. “It looks like I need to tell you all about the exciting world of automotive components manufacturing.” This remark got an obligatory laugh from a handful of them. He noted that even prim and proper Mrs. Martinez gave him a smile, though she was probably still worried about him looking at her chest. And his opening gambit had been witty, if he did say so himself. This was the sort of line that one of the big players at TP Automotive would have used to break the ice with an unfamiliar crowd. It was the kind of opener that his father would have employed in such a situation.
He spoke for the next fifteen minutes or so, all the while scanning the room for the Alyssa. She wasn’t present; and this didn’t disappoint him too much. He would have many other chances to see her. After all, she joined her mother at the UP&S factory almost every night.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of other young girls to look at from his vantage point at the front of the room. (He was careful, however; Mrs. Martinez was almost certainly watching him now.) The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old coeds seated before him in their miniature pupil’s desks wore makeup and jewelry that belied the implied innocence of their ages and the academic setting. It was all a big tease, wasn't it? The girls made him think of that subscription website, with its over-the-hill “barely legal” models. Well, here was something just as offensive: obviously worldly young girls who made a pretense of being innocent and unsullied.
He noticed one particularly attractive girl who was seated in the front row. Her permed, dark blonde hair was swept back into a ponytail. A black tattoo in the form of a Chinese ideogram poked up from the otherwise unblemished pale skin beneath her blouse collar. Lean and sinewy, she was obviously tall as well: one of her long legs was crossed over the other; and she was bouncing the suspended foot in the air. Was that restlessness, or an attempt to attract his attention? He forced himself to look away before his lingering glance showed up on Mrs. Martinez’s radar.
The kids laughed at several more jokes that he made. None of these quips were cutting-edge humor, but rather the sort of cynical, self-deprecating remarks that play so well to adolescent ears. This was the sort of presentation that he could definitely handle. It had turned out to be nothing like the disaster that had taken place at the TP Automotive headquarters. There was no Tom Galloway here, and no other executives to analyze his every word and sneer at every little mistake. 
Finally it was over. The classroom full of high school juniors gave him a hearty round of applause. Moreover, one or two of the young ladies in the audience seemed to be actively checking him out as he concluded his talk.
“Well, thank you again, Mr. Myers,” Mrs. Martinez said, rising from her desk to show Shawn to the door. “Should I page someone to see you out?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Shawn said. “I can find my own way out. I remember the way.”
Mrs. Martinez gave Shawn a tight smile and ushered him out of her classroom.
Shawn retraced the path that he had taken to Mrs. Martinez’s classroom. He was just about to round an “L” in the hallway toward the school’s main exit when the classrooms on all sides of him began to disgorge students. He must have talked until the change of class periods. Suddenly he was in a sea of young bodies. Half of them were male, of course; but the other half was female. A nubile teenaged girl with fashionably tattered jeans and a pouty expression bumped into him. She excused herself and Shawn gave her a wide smile. She either ignored the come-on or did not notice. Probably the latter, he decided.
Then he noticed something else—something peculiar: None of the students really seemed to be paying much attention to him. He was obviously not a familiar face here; but they must have assumed him to be a teacher or a visiting school board official. And why not? There were probably unfamiliar adult faces in these hallways all the time.
So what exactly are you getting at, buddy? he asked himself.
What he was getting at was that he might as well have a look around, since he was here. What harm would that do? If stopped and questioned, he could always claim that he had taken a wrong turn and gotten lost. He had a legitimate reason for being here in the first place, after all. The school principal had invited him here to speak.
Then an adult passed by him in the crowded hallway—obviously a teacher, given the cheap, tacky blazer, hopelessly unstylish tie, and oversized teardrop glasses that looked like artifacts from a museum of bad 1980s fashion. But the more interesting thing was the teacher’s reaction—or rather, lack of a reaction. The teacher glanced briefly at Shawn as he passed by, but without the slightest hint of suspicion or alarm.
It was his almost certainly his business attire. The price of the clothes that he was currently wearing would probably equal the weekly salary of any adult in this building—including the principal who had greeted him when he first arrived. Had he been dressed in jeans and a tee shirt—or even khakis and a sweater—he would have been stopped and questioned at every turn. But evildoers didn’t wear Italian suits and black wingtips, did they? The clothes were his free pass—to wherever he chose to circulate within this building.
At first Shawn didn’t have any concrete idea of where he wanted to go, until he noticed Alyssa at the opposite end of the hallway. She was retrieving books from her locker. The familiar sight of the object of his desires simultaneously aroused, humiliated, and angered him. Overall, it was not a pleasant mix of emotions. But it was an irresistible one. Now that he had spotted her, it was impossible to turn away.
And wasn’t it inevitable that he would see her here? When you added it all up, there had to be some sort of karma at work: his recent disappointment with the Russian porn site, the last-minute dispatch to the high school for the Career Week talk. For the past several weeks, he had been moving toward something. And his final pursuit of Alyssa was it. The chase was drawing to a close. The dam would break soon, he was sure.
Don’t run, Shawn cautioned himself. Just walk nice and slowly. Deliberately—as if you belong here. Because right now, you do. 
Alyssa closed her locker. She didn’t notice Shawn as he threaded his way through the students. He tried to avoid the outright shoving aside of kids; but he seemed to be moving against the main flow of traffic.
Then Alyssa headed in the opposite direction, toward an outside exit at the end of the hall.
Now Shawn permitted himself to be a bit more aggressive. Once she made it outside, he could easily lose sight of her. He bumped into a teenaged boy and gave the kid a little shove. The boy’s face registered surprise rather than anger: How many times had this kid been shoved by a teacher or a school board official, after all? Nowadays educators weren’t even allowed to use overly stern language with kids; physically manhandling them was out of the question. Welcome to the School of Shawn, little chump. This thought brought Shawn a moment’s worth of satisfaction, until he glanced back in Alyssa’s direction: She had apparently already exited the building.
Shawn made his way to the end of the hallway, roughly jostling aside several more kids in the process. Along the way, he noticed at least two or three girls who were—in terms of their physical attributes—far more attractive than Alyssa. If you really wanted to be technical about it, Alyssa was just average, he supposed. So why did she have such a hold on him, he wondered.
The answer, he realized, was the fact that Alyssa had so steadfastly resisted him. On more than one occasion, she had defied him, openly denied his desires. Ever since he could remember, this sort of feminine behavior had simultaneously enraged him and magnified his lust. The more a woman rebuffed him, the more he wanted to conquer her—to teach her a lesson.
And Alyssa certainly needed to be taught a lesson, didn’t she?
He pushed through the exterior door at the hallway’s end, the same one through which Alyssa had departed. He found himself on a covered sidewalk that adjoined two school buildings—an older wing and a newer wing, by the looks of them.
Out here, the flow of students had thinned to a trickle. Most of the kids had now made their way to the next period’s classroom. Luckily for him, though, Alyssa was one of the few stragglers. He saw her waifish figure striding away from him, her long, dark hair swishing to and fro along her back.
“Alyssa!” he shouted—loud enough so that she was sure to hear, but not so loud that he would attract attention from the entire campus.
She stopped and turned at the sound of her name. It took a few seconds for her to register his identity, he could tell. The little tease had never expected him to show up here, had she?
Shawn didn’t intended to waste any time. While she paused, he advanced forward. He took a moment to glance around. Now the commons area between the two buildings was completely deserted.
Oh, this was perfect. They were all alone out here. Just the two of them. No one else to meddle or get in the way.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked. “Do you recognize me?”
She looked away from him—first to one side and then down at her feet. He felt his irritation rising. Why couldn’t she at least look at him? Was he so horrible to look at? He had a lot more to offer her than any of the boys at this high school, if she would only have the good sense to recognize the facts. Stupid little uppity bitch, that’s what she was.
Finally she said: “I know who you are.” But she would still not look him in the eye.
“Well, then, why don’t you at least act like you’re glad to see me? I’m your mother’s employer, you know. I ought to at least rate a hello.”
“Hello,” she said. Then: “Sorry, but I’ve got to get to class.”
He could read the tone of dismissal in her voice. Did she think he was an idiot or some sort of a pushover?
He had gone to all this trouble of coming to this high school today. Then he had gone to the effort of finding her. He had practically chased her this far. And how did she repay his efforts? With gratitude? No. With friendliness? No.
She wasn’t even giving him the fucking time of day, was she?
It was humiliating—completely unacceptable.
“Maybe you can be a few minutes late,” he said. He started to reach out for her, knowing this was a horrible mistake, but feeling unable to help himself. She saw him moving toward her, and she cringed in response. Then a nearby door opened and two chattering girls stepped out onto the paved walkway.
The two girls saw him as he reached for Alyssa, and she shrank away from his grasp. Their conversation came to an immediate end as they apparently sensed an unfolding situation—a situation involving a fellow student and an adult man.
Shawn silently cursed the meddlesome pair. He almost told them to quit gawking, to keep moving and mind their own business. But he checked himself—realizing that even his business attire would not permit him that degree of latitude. He would have to resign himself to a tactical retreat.
“Well, Alyssa, enjoy your class. Tell your mother I said hello.”
There, he thought. That should put to rest any suspicions these two meddlers might have. He was a friend of the family—that was why he had stopped Alyssa.
As soon as he had convinced himself that he was off the hook, he seethed with another irksome realization: His desires had just been thwarted by two teenaged girls—three teenaged girls, if you counted Alyssa.
What if Tom Galloway and the other pricks from the monthly meeting could seem him now? They would all take immense delight in laughing at his defeat, wouldn’t they?
He spun on his heels and walked back toward the entranceway from which he had come. The double doors swung backward with a loud clatter when he shoved them open. He headed down the now empty hallway of the school. On either side, he could see the routine of classes resuming. Students were now facing the front of their classrooms with varying degrees of attention and boredom.
He felt his anger rising—like the other day in Detroit, when the middle-aged accountant had defied him at the intersection. And he realized now—as he had realized then—that such a surfeit of anger would have to be vented.
To his left he saw a pair of doors that were obviously restrooms. He entered the one marked “Men,” and stepped into a semi-dark space reeking of urine, bowel movements, and harsh chemical cleaners.
He also smelled cigarette smoke. He saw a male student with shoulder-length hair, clad in a tattered jeans and an army surplus jacket. The boy was furtively smoking a cigarette over a urinal, in a stance that would allow him to dispose of the burning contraband at the first sign of a teacher. Shawn had burst in so quickly and unexpectedly, though, that he was upon the boy before the young man had a chance to execute his practiced maneuver.
The boy looked up guiltily at Shawn and then down at the cigarette in his hand. This one—like the mass of students in the hallway—assumed that Shawn was either a teacher or a district administrator.
“Oh, shit,” the boy said. It would be futile to discard the cigarette now. He had just been caught red-handed.
“Get rid of that thing,” Shawn said. “And then get the fuck out of here.”
Those words seemed to shock the boy even more than the sudden appearance of an adult authority figure. In a different state of mind, Shawn would have taken a twisted delight in shocking a carefree youngster this way; but he was in no mood now for irony.
Shawn could tell that the boy was thinking about talking back. He might be smart for his age. He might have sensed that this adult’s use of the F-word identified him as an outsider, since school-affiliated adults didn’t talk like that in the presence of impressionable students.
Shawn recalled the confrontation at the intersection in Michigan—how his temper had simply snapped, and how he had let loose his fury on the accountant’s Ford Taurus. This kid had no car to destroy. And unlike the accountant, he had nowhere to run. Shawn knew all too well that he was capable of harming weaker individuals when provoked. If this aspiring hoodlum set him off, he knew that he would beat the young man to a pulp—and there would be consequences. Consequences that neither his father nor Bernie would be able to make go away.
But the boy—who was possibly a sophomore or junior (definitely not a senior)—weighed perhaps one hundred and forty pounds soaking wet. Shawn could have felled him with a single punch. Perhaps the kid was thinking: If this adult will use that word in my presence, what else would he be willing to do? How far will he go?
The kid apparently decided that the risk wasn’t worth it. He uttered a barely audible curse of his own, flicked his cigarette into the urinal and walked out past Shawn, giving the mysterious and unknown adult a wide berth. Smart kid, Shawn thought, as the youth passed by in a waft of cigarette smoke.
Shawn looked around the empty restroom. He saw a metal trashcan. He saw a row of three sinks, each with a mirror above the basin.
He lifted the metal trashcan and aimed for the mirror above the middle sink. He propelled the trashcan into the glass. It shattered in a satisfying crescendo of cracking glass and raining shards. He dimly wondered if anyone would hear the racket; but right now such concerns were secondary. He would worry about consequences later.
The trashcan clanged onto the sink and then onto the floor, rolling about before finally coming to a rest. Shawn paused to admire his handiwork. He was still angry about Alyssa’s rebuff; but he felt that familiar torrent of immediate, irresistible rage subsiding. And this time the damage had been minimal and manageable. He had spent his rage on a mirror in a public high school restroom, rather than on a living, breathing person who could make subsequent trouble for him.
But that didn’t eliminate all of the risk associated with his actions. The noise had surely reverberated into the hallway and the classrooms beyond.
Shawn took a deep breath and walked over to the restroom door. Inching it open, he peered out into the hallway, scanning the area in both directions. To his relief, the clamor had not drawn any curiosity-seeking students or meddling adults. He had been lucky. But now it was time for him to leave.
On the way out, he passed by the glass-walled office of the principal, who was engaged in a telephone call. Seeing Shawn, the principal smiled and motioned for Shawn to come into the office. No doubt the man wanted to express his gratitude for Shawn’s participation in the Career Week activities.
Shawn smiled right back at him, and—without slowing his pace—pointed at his watch and shook his head apologetically. The principal nodded and gave him the thumbs up: Surely the man understood that UP&S’s vice president of operations had a lot on his plate.
Finally he reached the sunshine and open air of the school’s parking lot. He was home free now. The broken mirror would eventually be discovered, of course; but there was no way that anyone would link the damage to him. There was a small chance that the puny kid in the army surplus jacket might finger him for the crime—but no one would believe the word of a punk like that against an adult.
And not just any adult. His position at UP&S made him a pillar of the local community, after all. His company’s tax dollars went to pay these teachers’ salaries; and it was a certain bet that more than a few of this school’s students were supported by UP&S paychecks. Take that blonde girl who had sat in the front row of the American Civics classroom, for example: One of her parents might be an assembly line worker, or even an office employee who was directly beneath him on the company’s organization chart.
Walking toward the Audi, confident now that his vandalism in the restroom would not be connected to him, Shawn’s sense of irony returned. His father had ordered to give the Career Week speech; and that—by all indications—had gone rather well.

Chapter 29

It didn’t take long for Claire to get completely under Alan Ferguson’s skin. We executed a nearly perfect plan of persuasion.
Not that a tall, blonde, and beautiful woman really needs much persuasive skill to capture the attention of the average man, you might say—especially a middle-aged sad sack like Alan Ferguson.
Fair enough. But we were still operating in the minefield of the politically correct office environment of the twenty-first century. Therefore, Claire’s task was not to merely engage in a straightforward campaign of seduction. Alan Ferguson was no fool; and his suspicions would have been aroused if Claire had been too forward or blatant. The danger of overkill was ever-present.
On the other hand, she needed to dangle the bait in open view, so that Alan would take the plunge and irrevocably commit himself to his own downfall. We needed to strike a difficult balance.
Because my desk was right beside Alan’s, I was often able to observe Claire’s flirtations. These were not always easy in the open office environment. One exaggerated gesture—one ill-timed remark—and the entire office would have been gawking at the two of them, potentially scaring off our prey.
One morning Claire sauntered over from the accounting department and asked how to build a PeopleSoft query of all purchase orders over $5,000 that had been placed in the last twelve months. This was a question that I had given her; I knew that Alan was one of the company’s PeopleSoft “power users”.
To avoid being too obvious, she started by asking Lucy. “I can do it,” Lucy said. “But I’m not the best person to ask.”
“What about Craig, the new guy?”
“Aw, Craig doesn’t know very much yet,” Lucy said playfully.
“That’s right,” I said. “Craig doesn’t know jack. Go ahead and talk about me like I have no feelings.”
“The best person to ask,” Lucy went on, “Is Alan. Alan is an expert on PeopleSoft.”
Claire took a moment to seemingly contemplate this.
“It seems that Alan’s an expert on just about everything,” she finally said. She leaned against Alan’s desk. “We never know what talents Alan could be hiding, do we?”
I noted that Alan was actually blushing. I wasn’t sure if this was going to help our cause or not. When he responded to Claire, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Suave. He explained, in a flat monotone, how she could build her own PeopleSoft query. While Alan was talking, Claire leaned closer and gave him her best bedroom smile.
Alan’s voice cracked, and he became visibly nervous. It was a safe bet that a woman like Claire had never come on to him before.
“Be careful not to overdo it with Alan,” I cautioned her later that night. “He’s more perceptive than you give him credit for. One wrong move, and he’ll suspect that something’s up.”
“I think the problem is that Alan Ferguson hasn't gotten laid too many times in the past decade,” Claire said.
Actually, I couldn’t argue with this speculation. Alan had been divorced for a few years. Our investigations had yielded no evidence of any recent girlfriends. And I couldn’t imagine Alan Ferguson walking into a singles bar and scoring a one-night stand. Claire’s assessment was probably dead-on.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t bring myself to turn the pathetic state of Alan’s social life into joke fodder, either. We had a job to do for a client here, which entailed getting Alan off the UP&S payroll. That didn’t mean we had to ridicule him along the way.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s just keep up what you’re doing. I’ll see if I can’t move things along a bit myself.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“Never underestimate the power of guy talk,” I said. Claire rolled her eyes at me; but I turned out to be right.

Alan and I were having lunch the next day when he asked me for advice about Claire.
He needed some prompting, of course. Alan was vocal enough when criticizing Kurt and Shawn Myers; but he was not the sort of guy who spoke openly about his own affairs. I reasoned that if I waited for Alan to broach the subject, I might wait forever.
“Seems like that new hottie in accounting has taken a shine to you,” I said.
Sometimes the only way to raise a sensitive topic is to be insensitive. And besides, it was only the two of us that day. Lucy was in a meeting that had run late through the lunchtime hour. Alan and I occupied a relatively isolated table in the UP&S cafeteria. Our conversation was private—or as private as private can be in a company cafeteria.
“You’re talking about Claire Michaels,” he said.
“No, I’m talking about Britney Spears, Mila Kunis, and Jessica Alba,” I said. “Of course I’m talking about Claire Michaels.”
Alan leaned closer, conspiratorially. “Is it that noticeable?”
“Like a fire engine with all sirens blazing.”
“I’d thought that maybe I was imagining it,” Alan said. “You know—like wishful thinking.”
“I don’t think you’re imagining anything.”
This was music to Alan’s ears, I knew. Even though Claire had been making blatantly sexual overtures toward him, there was a part of him that still couldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears. He wanted a third-party corroboration.
“I guess not. And now—”
“You’re wondering what you should do about it.”
“Something like that. It’s complicated, you know.”
“I don’t see anything complicated about it. If I were you, I would have already taken her to bed.”
“A guy like you would say that.”
“A guy like me?” I asked. Alan responded with a smirk. I knew what he meant by the phrase “a guy like you.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never had any problem attracting female attention.
“Let’s not talk about me,” I said. “Let’s talk about you.”
“Okay, I’ll level with you. Let’s look at the facts.”
“Let’s look at the facts,” I agreed.
“Well,” Alan went on. “First there’s the age factor. I’ve probably got twenty years on Claire.”
“I don’t think the age difference is that large,” I said. “Let’s say fifteen.” I was actually speaking truthfully here. I happened to know old both of them were.
“Okay,” Alan laughed nervously. “Let’s say fifteen years, then.”
“There you go. Give yourself all the credit you’re entitled to,” I said.
“And there’s also the fact that I’m not much to look at, comparatively speaking.”
“I’d sleep with you,” I said.
“You’re a jackass,” Alan said. “Come on, Craig. Be serious here.”
“I’m only trying to lighten you up,” I said. “What you’re getting at is that Claire is a very attractive woman. And you consider yourself to be average.”
“I am average.”
“Fair enough,” I said. There was no point in denying this fact. “And you’re wondering why a stunner like Claire would take an interest in you.”
“Something like that.”
“I can’t give you a specific answer,” I said. “Only Claire could say for sure why she is attracted to you—which she apparently is.”
“But why?” he repeated. “I just don’t get it.”
 I now grasped—and not for the first time, why unattractive and average-looking guys have such a difficult time getting laid. The deck is stacked against them to begin with; but they are often their own worst enemies. They have a few bad experiences early in life with women, which fatally undermine their confidence. Then after a while, romantic failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’re like the anecdotal circus elephant that is conditioned to be tethered by a progressively lighter force, until the day comes when it can be restrained by only a small peg driven into the earth. 
“Can I tell you a story?” I asked.
“By all means do.”
“When I was in high school, there was this girl named Keri. She was extremely attractive. A cheerleader. Great body. Bubbly personality. All the guys wanted her.”
“Sounds like one of those girls that I was afraid to even talk to in high school,” Alan said.
“I think you could have talked to Keri,” I said. “Because the thing is—Keri didn't want to have anything to do with the jocks and the super good-looking guys.”
“You mean the guys like you.”
“Jeez, Alan. I’m trying to help you out here.”
“Go on.”
“Yeah. Anyway, Keri was only interested in dating guys that the rest of the high school social order dismissed as ‘nerds.’ You know, the guys who were on the chess team and in the A/V club. The ones who wore flood pants to school.”
“I think I owned a few pairs of flood pants,” Alan said.
“Well, these were the only guys that Keri was interested in dating. She turned down the captain of the football team, more or less. During her senior year, she dated this guy named Brad, whom everyone else referred to as ‘the Stork.’”
“And you’re saying that Claire is another ‘Keri’” Alan said.
“I don’t know what she is. I don't really know that much about her. All I know is that this wouldn't be the first time that a hot girl went after a very average-looking guy. There are, as they say, historical precedents.”
“Keri, you mean.”
“Keri, I mean.”
Sitting across the table from Alan, I could tell that he was processing the story I had just told him. Most people will believe in an improbable set of circumstances if they can be convinced that the same circumstances have happened before. Then the case before them does not represent something entirely new and unique.
Keri, by the way, was pure fiction. She was a fabrication that I had designed for scenarios exactly like this. In my undercover jobs, I had met a lot of men who were only big talkers—who would choke when it came time to actually commit and make a move on a woman like Claire.
But the Keri story had never failed. She was a fake; but she was real enough for the men who desperately wanted to believe in her. Men like Alan Ferguson.

Chapter 30

The next day at lunch, Alan was morose and withdrawn. I knew the reason; but it was a reason that he wouldn’t discuss in front of Lucy.
She had joined us today, as usual. She made some attempts to engage Alan in conversation about the usual topics: company gossip, ongoing purchasing projects, as well as their favorite topics—the ones that were responsible for my presence at UP&S.
Lucy was seated across the table from Alan and me. She leaned close and said:
“The other day I could swear I smelled alcohol on Shawn Myers’s breath.”
“Oh, do you really think he would drink on the job?” I asked, pretending to play devil’s advocate. I legitimately wondered if there was any truth in this latest charge thrown against the son of Kurt Myers. Surely Shawn wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to consume alcohol on the premises of UP&S. That was the sort of conduct that would be grounds for immediate firing.
But then I also wondered: To what degree was Shawn being protected? Clearly Bernie Chapman and Beth Fisk saw through him. And they were also studiously avoiding any acknowledgement of his many flaws and misdeeds.
How far was too far? At what point would Bernie and Beth determine—either individually or jointly—that Shawn Myers had stepped over the line?
I already knew the answer, or thought that I did: They would protect him until it was clear that protecting him was no longer in the best interest of their careers at TP Automotive.
“I know alcohol when I smell it,” Lucy insisted. “And that was alcohol I smelled on Shawn Myers’s breath.”
“You must have gotten close,” I said. “You weren’t trying to kiss him, were you?”
She made a mock slap in my direction. “Craig, you’re being a dope,” she said.
“Hey, I’m just saying,” I said, taking a bite of the slice of vending machine pizza that was my lunch today.
Alan did not react at all to this exchange, which was atypical. Alan always had an opinion, always had something to say. And he wouldn’t pass on a chance to get in a jab at me—unless he was seriously preoccupied.
“Alan,” Lucy said. “Did someone do something nasty in your Wheaties this morning? Why the sour face?”
“Just one of those days,” Alan replied. His glum expression did not waver. I knew that Alan was suffering. And I also knew that he had a lot more suffering ahead of him.
“I think,” I said. “That Alan needs to talk to me alone.”
Lucy frowned in mock resentment. “Is this my cue to vamoose?”
“Please do,” I said. “You know how much Alan and I love you, Lucy, but—”
“But you’ve got ‘guy issues’ to discuss. Okay, okay. Say no more. I’m finished with my salad anyway.” She began to consolidate her napkin, empty diet soda can, and plastic salad container onto her tray. “It will be a small sacrifice to make if you can bring the old Alan back.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I promise to give you the old Alan back—for whatever he’s worth.”
Even Alan had to smile just a bit at this remark.
“Say no more,” Lucy said. “I’ll see you guys back in the pit.”
When Lucy had departed, Alan folded his arms and gave me his news.
“I called her last night,” he announced.
“You mean—Claire? Really? How did you get her number?”
“I called her company cell phone,” Alan said. “It’s right there on the company’s Lotus Notes directory.”
I was aware of this, needless to say. This was one more element of the trap that we had laid for Alan. We wanted him to have a means of contacting Claire outside of the office. Since Claire Michaels was a phony name that could not be quickly linked to any publicly listed AT&T landline, we had decided to issue a cell phone to Claire and to then publish the number in Lotus Notes, just as Alan had described. And I had known that Alan would peruse the directory for Claire Michaels’s information. Men who fantasize about their female colleagues always look at their profiles on company network directories. Men are like that.
“So you called her,” I said. “Go on.”
“I called her alright,” he said. “But it didn’t go very well. She was very standoffish—a complete contrast to what I’ve seen out of her at work. And when I asked her out, she gave me a flat-out ‘no,’ and said that there was no way that she could date a man she worked with.”
“Maybe she just wants a friends-with-benefits situation,” I suggested. “Why don’t you ask her?”
“Are you kidding?” Alan snorted. “From now on, I’m going to stay as far away from Claire Michaels as I possibly can. I’ll be lucky if Claire doesn’t tell Beth Fisk that I made her feel ‘uncomfortable.’ And that HR bitch would love to string me up on a sexual harassment charge.”
“I don’t think they can charge you with sexual harassment because you asked for a date.”
Alan wadded up the paper remains of his lunch and tossed them onto his tray more vigorously than was necessary. “Maybe not—but I don’t intend to take any chances.” He stood up. “You ready to go back to the grind?”
“I’ll be along in a minute,” I said, gesturing to my half-eaten fruit cocktail. “Sorry to hear that things didn’t work out with Claire. Looks like I’m not such a great source of advice after all.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Well—still, though. I feel bad about it.”
“It will be okay as long as I stay away from her.”
“Probably you’re right,”
I watched Alan depart, obviously unaware that Claire’s apparent change in attitude was a carefully calculated step in our overall plan. We were disorienting him, while simultaneously frustrating him and heightening his desire.
Because men who are disoriented, frustrated, and filled with lust tend to make critical mistakes. 

*     *     *

Thank you for reading the online excerpt of Termination Man (30 of 86 chapters). If you are intrigued by this tale of greed, lust, and corruption in the automotive industry, please consider the Kindle version of the book. Thanks again!