The Maze: Episode 1

**In Episode 1 of The Maze, three corporate employees—Amanda, Hugh, and Evan—are on a business trip in central Ohio. They have no idea of what awaits them.***

The Three Travelers

Evan Daley would later reflect that he should have known better than to enter the Maze. After all, his coworker and sort-of mentor, Hugh Jackson, had tried to tell him about the Maze, and Hugh had tried to tell him that the Maze was probably dangerous.

But how do you take seriously a warning issued in a McDonald’s on a bright, warm, September morning?

Besides, before Evan saw the Maze, he would have sworn that he dreaded nothing so much as Amanda Kearns, his boss.

Evan and Hugh occupied a table in one corner of the McDonald’s dining room. The McDonald’s was located just off I-71—the interstate that would take them to this morning’s sales presentation. The restaurant was filled to near capacity this late in the morning—mostly with truck drivers and other business travelers.

Evan was digging into his Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. He felt a little guilty, eating this artery-clogger in front of Hugh. Hugh was contenting himself with a low-fat, sensible bowl of Fruit and Maple Oatmeal.

As Evan forked a mouthful of pancake, he noticed Hugh staring down jealously at his syrup-smeared Styrofoam plate. 

“Sorry,” Evan said. “I’m eating a mountain of delicious fat and cholesterol here, and you’ve got to eat that bowlful of grain and berries—or whatever that stuff is.”

Hugh Jackson had a hereditary heart condition. Evan didn’t know the details, but Hugh had told him that his father had died while still in his mid-fifties. Hugh was already close to that territory himself. He therefore had to count his daily fat and cholesterol intake in milligrams.

The older man smiled back at Evan, though. “Just because I’ve got a bum ticker, it doesn’t mean that you have to suffer along with me,”

Amanda’s coffee sat steaming in front of her empty chair. Amanda was out in the children’s playground area, talking intensely into her cell phone, her outrage visible. Evan could see her from where he sat: Her long, slender body was leant against a plastic blue slide. The slide was topped with a dome fashioned to resemble a McDonald’s hamburger.

Evan discretely gestured toward Amanda. “She talking to Oscar, you think?”

Hugh nodded ominously. “It would appear so.”

Amanda had sat down with them initially. Within a few minutes, though, her cell phone had rung. After a clipped, moody hello into the phone, she had immediately stood and headed outside, where she could talk privately.   

They both knew that Oscar was Amanda’s boyfriend. They also knew that the relationship had been less than harmonious of late.

Oscar was a big shot in one of the investment banks headquartered in Cincinnati. Oscar had accompanied Amanda to the Merlesoft holiday party last December, showing up overdressed in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit.

Evan had talked to Oscar for all of five painful minutes. The investment banker made a few snide, clipped remarks about Evan’s choice of college major—English literature. Apparently Oscar—a finance wizard with an MBA from Wharton—didn’t think much of folks who elected to spend their undergraduate years dissecting The Canterbury Tales and the collected short fiction of Ernest Hemingway.

I can’t blame him, Evan thought, recalling his brief and mostly humiliating exchange with Oscar at the holiday party. I should have majored in something more practical. What the hell am I doing with my life—an English literature major working in software sales?

It was a question that he had asked himself many times over the past twenty-odd months, since he had started work at Merlesoft. This was his first “real” job—that is, his first post-college job. The corporate politics at Merlesoft were baffling and unrelenting. Evan, furthermore, struggled to pass himself off as a software guru during customer presentations.

And finally, there was Amanda, who seemed intent on riding his ass all the time.

Amanda. Damn Amanda, he thought.

And damn Oscar for doing what he was doing right now—whatever was causing his relationship with Amanda to go south. When Amanda fought with Oscar, she became even more critical of Evan.

“Anyway,” Hugh said, changing the subject away from breakfast. “I want to warn you about something. In fact, I really need to warn you about something.”

***

Evan could tell immediately that the older man intended to broach some topic of considerable magnitude. Probably something related to this morning’s sales presentation.

Today’s clients—the attorneys of the law firm Rich, Litchfield, and Baker, were a stodgy, hard-to-please lot. Hugh had made the preliminary sales call by himself and had reported as much.

The accounting software packages that Merlesoft sold were expensive, and required a client company to reconfigure a considerable portion of their internal accounting procedures. The sales process was therefore a multistep one—usually beginning with an exploratory sales call, followed by several quotations, and multiple customer consultations over the phone.

They had been going through this back-and-forth with Rich, Litchfield, and Baker for the better part of four months. Evan had yet to visit the clients’ office; but he had talked to several of the law firm people over the phone.

Today would be the final dog-and-pony show, which would hopefully result in a purchase order from the law firm. Amanda, Hugh, and Evan would make a PowerPoint presentation and answer any remaining customer questions. This was the whole purpose of making the two-hour drive from Cincinnati to Columbus today. It was “do or die” now, in the typically hyperbolic language of corporate culture.

As Evan contemplated this morning’s meeting—barely an hour in the future—he felt more like dying than doing. Amanda had given him a “challenge”, announcing that he would be making the sales presentation solo.

Evan knew from experience what this actually meant: Amanda would vigilantly wait for him to make the slightest mistake or omission. Then she would pounce and interject during the middle of his presentation, throwing him off his rhythm and undercutting his credibility in front of the customers.

“You don’t have to warn me,” Evan said, anticipating the nature of Hugh’s advice. “I know that Amanda is going to be watching me like a hawk today, waiting for me to make the slightest flub-up, or to forget the smallest detail. That’s why I’ve crammed for today’s presentation. I stayed up till midnight last night going over everything. First I reviewed the four quotations we’ve submitted up to this point. Then I went over the procedures that Rich, Litchfield, and Baker use in their accounting process at present.

“And I didn’t stop there, let me tell you. I also made a list of questions that I could reasonably anticipate them asking today; and I think that I’ve got every one of them nailed. You ought to see the notes I prepared, Hugh: They fill a good ten pages on a legal pad.”

Evan finished off the last of his breakfast, wadded up his napkin, and dropped it onto the Styrofoam plate. He smoothed his tie to make sure that it contained neither syrup, egg fragments, nor sausage crumbs. Noting also that the sleeves of his white dress shirt were free of stains or debris, he nodded at Hugh with a cautious air of self-contentment.

“You can feel free to offer me any last words before the wedding, though, buddy. Or you can hit me with any questions that you think I might have missed. But I believe that I’ve got them all down.”

Hugh leaned forward. “That’s not what I want to talk to you about, Evan. It’s something else.”

***

“What, then?” Evan was suddenly alarmed by Hugh’s expression. The older man sometimes let him know when a shake-up was imminent at Merlesoft: a firing, a promotion, a resignation, or a reorganization.

Evan had also discovered that most of these changes ended up being disagreeable in one way or another. This was yet another rule that he had learned during his slightly less than two years of corporate life: The devil you know is always less objectionable than the devil you don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: Change is usually bad.

“Don’t tell me you’re transferring to another department, Hugh,” he said. “Or—wait a minute—you aren’t leaving the company, are you?”

Hugh shook his head. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

“Well, what then?”

Hugh dropped his plastic spoon into the little plastic container in which his Fruit and Maple Oatmeal had been packaged. “This is going to sound a little strange to you, but I’m going to tell you, anyway.”

“Hugh, I’ve learned to accept things that are strange—especially since Amanda entered my life.”

Evan allowed himself another quick glance at Amanda: She was still outside, still talking to Oscar. By the look of her facial expression, the phone call definitely wasn’t going well; and that would only mean a more difficult morning for him. Amanda would have to wrap up the call pretty soon, though, troubles with Oscar notwithstanding. Otherwise, they would arrive late for their nine o’clock appointment at the lawyers’ office.

“I know you haven’t been to the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker office yet,” Hugh continued. “It’s located inside this place called Lakeview Towers—a huge office complex with hundreds of individual offices that are rented out.”

Evan had no idea of what Hugh might be getting at with this line of explanation. He didn’t want to be rude, though.

“No, Hugh, I haven’t been there,” he acknowledged. “But I’ve given presentations at unfamiliar locations before. It shouldn’t be a problem. I’m green, but I’m not that green.”

“That isn’t what I’m getting at.”

“Well then, exactly what are you getting at?”

Hugh paused and looked around, probably to make sure that Amanda was still outside talking to Oscar.

“Well,” Hugh began, “let’s just say that you ought not allow yourself to get too far off the beaten path at this Lakeview Towers. What I mean is, don’t go wandering around unnecessarily.”

***

Evan had no idea what to make of Hugh’s advice. Did Hugh think that he was some kind of a child?

This sounded like the sort of thing his mother would have said years ago—on the few occasions when his mother actually noticed his existence. She would have told him to stay close while they were out at the shopping mall—not to stray away from her protection.

But why would his colleague say something like that now? He might be the youngster on the team, relatively speaking, but he was still an adult.

“What the heck are you getting at Hugh? Would you care to elaborate?”

Hugh gave him another pause, as if weighing whether or not he should reveal some crucial but sensitive bit of information. Then he was suddenly distracted by something behind Evan’s shoulder, toward the main entrance of the McDonald’s.

“Amanda’s back,” Hugh muttered discreetly, in a barely audible voice.

Amanda’s sudden reappearance meant that the explanation of Hugh’s cryptic advice would have to wait. Amanda took her seat at the table, her bad mood palpable. What was just as obvious, though, was the fact that she was attempting to hide it. The managers at Merlesoft all maintained a constant front of rah-rah-rah enthusiasm. That was part of the corporate culture. Amanda would not allow a breakup with a boyfriend to put a crack in that all-important managerial veneer—not if she could help it.

“Well, guys, are you ready to get going?” she said with a forced camaraderie that none of them felt. She sipped her coffee and stood up again.

Evan permitted himself a discreet glance at her figure. Although she was ten years his senior, and the bane of his existence most days, he had to admit that Amanda Kearns, sales manager at Merlesoft Software Systems, was hot. She was about 5’10”—almost Evan’s height, and she had the long, lanky build of a former athlete.

Evan vaguely recalled her mentioning, in a rare moment of actual human conversation, that she had competed in the hurdles event in high school and college track. She was in good shape for a thirty-five year-old, you had to give her that. (Certainly she was in better shape than Hugh, who was in his forties; but Hugh’s health problems put him in a whole separate category.)

Amanda wore her hair long, her one concession to un-corporate femininity. Most of the female heavy hitters at Merlesoft preferred short hairstyles that bordered on androgynous. But not Amanda. She was all woman.

You want her, Evan, he thought to himself. That’s part of why you despise her so. And you’re angry because she sees you as a subordinate, not as a man.

Evan realized that his feelings toward Amanda were at least a little bit complicated. Truth be told, he was mildly resentful at being bossed around by a woman whom he found attractive. That somehow added insult to injury. 

But there was also the fact that Amanda did seem to enjoy riding him—and not in the way that he would have preferred.

Evan and Hugh both nodded, the latter’s mention of the office complex called Lakeview Towers temporarily forgotten—at least by Evan. Whatever Hugh was going to caution him about, it couldn’t have been that important in the big scheme of things. It certainly wasn’t anyone’s priority.

Evan began to steel himself for the professional trial that lay directly ahead of him. Merlesoft’s annual performance review season was only one month away. Whatever he pulled off successfully (or screwed up) today would have a significant impact on the ratings that Amanda would assign him in October.

Evan dreaded his upcoming performance review even more than he dreaded the “do or die” meeting with the important, persnickety clients at Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. A great deal was hanging on this morning’s sales presentation.

***

They headed out to the McDonald’s parking lot and piled into the Merlesoft pool car: a generic Toyota Camry, tolerably comfortable for three people and a two-hour drive on the interstate.

Evan climbed behind the wheel. The junior person on the team did most of the driving. This wasn’t an absolute, formal rule—but the way it always seemed to work on business trips.

That was okay with Evan, though. He enjoyed driving; and the act enabled him to slip into a controlled trance where he could become lost in his own thoughts.

What had caused his recollection of his mother this morning? After all, he could be fairly certain that his mother was not thinking of him at this moment. Ditto for his father.

Evan was not technically estranged from his parents; but he was not exactly close to them, either. It occurred to him that he had not communicated with either Roger or Janet for about three months, and then only by email: “Hi, Roger!” “Hi, Janet!” “How are you doing? Hope all is well!”

His parents were long since divorced. When he communicated with them at all, he sent them separate versions of this more or less identical, perfunctory message.

Mom and Dad. Roger and Janet. Who the hell calls his parents by their first names? Yet Evan had been doing it for so many years, that it was now second nature.

The Roger and Janet thing had started when he was still in junior high. His parents were already divorcing by then, both of them moving toward other relationships that would shortly become other marriages. They had encouraged him to address them both by their first names.

So far as Evan knew, none of his friends addressed their parents by their first names. The very idea had had a faintly grown-up appeal, however; and it was what his parents wanted. It had therefore been Roger and Janet ever since.

And the next year, when he had two new stepparents, it was Roger and Monica and Janet and Mike.

Both Roger and Janet ended up having more children with their new spouses. Evan had met his multiple half siblings, but he wasn’t close to any of them. Nor did he make a habit of showing up at either parental household on the main holidays, though a pro forma invitation was usually extended. He knew that would be awkward for everyone.

Evan shook away these memories as he guided the Camry onto the entrance ramp of the interstate, leaving the McDonald’s behind them. They were traveling through the vast farm country between Cincinnati and Columbus. 

“Are you all ready for the presentation today?” Amanda asked from the back seat, interrupting his thoughts.

She had her phone in her lap, and was busy typing a message into its tiny keyboard. Evan apparently wasn’t entitled to her full attention.

That was okay. The less interaction with Amanda, the better. Hugh had mercifully climbed into the seat next to him. If Amanda had chosen to ride shotgun, he would have felt pressured to make conversation with her during the remaining ride to Columbus.

“I’m all ready,” Evan said, doing his best to sound corporate gung-ho and cheerful. 

Then he recalled what Hugh had said about not getting off the beaten path at the office complex where Rich, Litchfield, and Baker rented space.

What was it called? Oh, yeah: Lakeview Towers. Now why, exactly, would Hugh give him a piece of advice like that?

It had almost been a warning, as if the office complex was a dangerous neighborhood. But nothing bad happened to people in offices—nothing physically bad, at least.

Episode 2

Episodes List

‘Termination Man’: Episode 1

Welcome to Termination Man, an Edward Trimnell Books serial fiction project.

Click here if you haven’t read the Prologue Episode

**Episode 1 begins in 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. Craig Walker, the Termination Man, stalks his first victim**

Smoking with Strangers

Cleveland, Ohio, 2011

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.

My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him.

Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a “Union Yes” baseball cap.

I certainly didn’t look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.

I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named “Ben” might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned.

But then, at this moment I wasn’t Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.

***

I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin’s picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek.

Kevin’s evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Every day he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.

The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:

“This is too painful to watch.”

ESPN was replaying highlights from the previous Monday’s Browns game. Cleveland had been clobbered by Cincinnati—the town that every self-respecting Clevelander loves to hate. Cleveland and Cincinnati are at opposite ends of Ohio, and the sports rivalries between the two cities are the stuff of legend.

He turned around and looked at me and gave me a double take: It was an expression that I’ve seen from a lot of women over the years, and yes, more than a few men. One of the items noted in my file on Kevin Lang was his “ambiguous sexuality.” Kevin was thirty-six and unmarried. He had no girlfriend, and we had never observed him contracting the services of an escort, picking up a streetwalker, or entering a strip bar.

We had discovered that Kevin maintained a profile on a bisexual Internet dating site—a site for “bi curious” males. My researchers had been unable to confirm if this aspect of his life had progressed beyond online activity. Kevin had not logged on to the site for a number of weeks.

I resisted my reflex reaction—which was to flinch when another man appraises me like that. A key element of my success is my ability to get underneath people’s skin, to expose their weaknesses. This means that I sometimes have to be adaptable. Within limits, of course.

“I’ll say,” Kevin said. He recovered himself, and seemed vaguely embarrassed that his eyes had lingered on me a few seconds too long. He returned his attention to the television set. Like my character of the day, Kevin was a blue-collar working stiff. But whereas “Ben” was a fabrication, Kevin was the genuine article. He lifted his sandwich and took a large bite from it.

“I turned the game off during the third quarter. Not worth the time,” he said through a mouthful of food.

Kevin was an employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company called Great Lakes Fuel Systems, or GLFS for short. GLFS had recently been bought out by TP Automotive, a large automotive components conglomerate that owned various factories in twenty-three countries. TP Automotive was the company that had hired me to be here on this barstool beside Kevin.

“That’s okay,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “At least the Monsters are doing well.” The Lake Erie Monsters are the hockey team that everyone in Cleveland follows. “I’m more into hockey, anyway.”

I noticed that Kevin was wearing a United Autoworkers tee shirt beneath his Cleveland Browns windbreaker. Although I had a job to do, I wished for Kevin’s sake that he had not embraced the UAW. TP Automotive’s management team had immediately pegged Kevin as one of the troublemakers at GLFS; but his decision to support the union had been his real undoing.

Truth be told, I didn’t like assignments like this. Most of the time, my clients hired me to go after white-collar agitators and malcontents: people who were hauling down high five-figure and even six-figure salaries, but still weren’t happy with their lot in life. I didn’t relish the idea of taking down a man like Kevin. There was an aspect of him that reminded me of my father, who had spent thirty years as a machinist in a grimy industrial plant near Dayton. Dad had been a lot like Kevin in some ways: he worked long hours in a job he tolerated, and he took his pleasures in simple pastimes like following professional sports. Nothing like my life.

But merely tolerating your job is one thing; hating it is another. Acting on your resentments and grievances is another thing still.

Practically every person whom I have ever targeted is one of that 71% of the population who, according to pollsters, “hates their jobs.” It is rare for a truly satisfied and dedicated employee to run afoul of their management to the degree that my services would be required. My clients pay me to handle the most intractable elements of the unhappy 71%.

Employees like Kevin Lang.

***

They call me the Termination Man. I never really cared for that nickname; but once the moniker arose in client circles, it sort of stuck. Termination Man inevitably calls to mind that series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which a future governor of California portrays a homicidal android who goes about blasting hapless mortals to kingdom come.

There is nothing even remotely science fiction-esque about the services performed by Craig Walker Consulting, LLC. In my job, I am part lawyer, part private investigator, and part crisis management specialist.

I am called when a company wants to terminate an employee for reasons that cannot be strictly traced to job performance issues. This is more common than you might think—unless you have ever worked in corporate human resources, or in one of the corner offices of company management. There is a wide range of factors that might drive a corporate employer to oust one of its own.

A few years ago, every CEO and CEO-wannabe was reading a management book entitled Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The author stated that in order to succeed, a company has to “get the right people on the bus.” Otherwise, the bus—the organization—won’t go in the desired direction.

The corollary here is that a company sometimes has to get the wrong people off the bus. This is where my services become essential. I get the wrong people off the bus.

The target employee can fit a variety of profiles. He might be a rank-and-file staff professional who poisons the atmosphere with his bad attitude, turning his colleagues against management. She might be a first-tier manager who has made veiled threats about filing a frivolous sexual harassment or discrimination claim. Or he might be a union agitator, like Kevin Lang.

***

Kevin and I had both downed several beers when I finally made my first reference to the marijuana cigarette that was in the breast pocket of my shirt. We had already exhausted the full gamut of working-man-at-the-bar topics: professional sports, the best places to drink after work, our respective trades. I had studied up on the basics of welding the week prior; and as usual, my thoroughness paid off: It turned out that Kevin knew a thing or two about welding himself. If I hadn’t prepared, Kevin would have been able to see through my cover in a heartbeat.

“Just out of curiosity,” I began when the conversation reached a lull. “Are you 420 friendly?”

Four-twenty is a codeword for smoking marijuana, known universally within the cannabis subculture, and sporadically throughout the general population. I don’t move in cannabis circles, but a cursory Internet search informed me that the term had originated in California in 1971, when a group of high school students developed the habit of lighting up just outside the grounds of their school at 4:20 p.m.

Kevin made a perfunctory display of being mildly shocked.

“Why would you ask me something like that?”

I shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve been known to light up myself every now and then. Nothing heavy. A joint here and there. You know?”

In fact, I knew from my file that Kevin Lang was more than a little 420-friendly, though he had apparently been abstaining of late. Great Lakes Fuel Systems had tried to nail him through their ostensibly random drug testing program twice in the past three months. The results were negative both times.

“Yeah,” Kevin said with a reluctant smile. “I know. But I haven’t smoked any weed in years now. My employer is aggressive with the drug testing. My number has come up two times in the past three months.”

“Doesn’t sound very random to me,” I said.

Kevin placed his beer mug on the bar. It made a loud clapping sound. “When did I say it was random? My company doesn’t much care for me. They’d be glad to see me quit. They’d be even happier if they could can me for toking up. Say—what’s the real reason why you’re asking me this? I don’t even know you, after all.”

Kevin was giving me a long, slow stare. I would have to be very careful now if I wanted to avoid arousing his suspicion.

“Okay,” I said, laying my hands flat on the bar. Luckily, the buzz of a dozen conversations and the blare of the television made our discussion virtually inaudible to others. “I’m not much of a smoker myself. But I like to dabble with it. From time to time.”

“Yeah. Keep going.”

“Well, I got my hands on some Citral the other day.”

“Citral!” Kevin said. I could tell that I had pushed the right button. Kevin’s natural sense of apprehension was weakening. “Been a long time since I’ve had any of that stuff. Where’d it come from?”

Citral is a sweet, high-grade form of marijuana that is grown mostly in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A favorite of European potheads, Citral is rare in the United States. And expensive.

“Bought it from a friend of a friend,” I said. “Kind of on impulse.”

“Potent?” Kevin asked.

“That’s what those little green men told me. It stretched my limits.”

Kevin laughed. “I might have seen a few green men in my smoking days. How much did you buy?”

“Well that’s the thing,” I said. “I bought two joints. The first one I smoked already. And like I said, it was a little too much for one person. I overdid it. I’ve got one left.”

“How much did you pay for them?”

“Forty for both,” I said.

“Geez,” Kevin said, wincing. “You got taken.”

“I know, I know. But I’ve still got this one left, and—”

“You were wondering if I might like to buy it,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to tell you, man: I’m not used to dropping a twenty for a single joint. A bit too rich for my blood.”

“I was thinking we might share it,” I said. “And you could give me five or ten bucks—whatever you can spare. That will defray some of my costs—and I won’t have to smoke it alone.”

I was worried for a moment that the use of a word like “defray” might be a bit out of character. But this had apparently escaped Kevin’s notice.

“It’s tempting,” he said, nodding contemplatively. “Citral is really good weed. But still—I’ve got to think about that drug testing thing.”

And now I inserted a piece of logic that would be almost impossible to argue with: “You say they already tested you twice in the last three months? And you came up negative both times? No way they’re going to hit you again in the near future. That would make them liable for harassment charges.”

“Unless I come up positive on their third try,” Kevin said.

“Yeah,” I allowed. “But it’s not like somebody from your company’s HR department is going to smoke it with us.”

Kevin paused for a moment and gave this some more thought. As I had anticipated, my argument was bulletproof.

“Sure,” he said, smiling anew. “What the hell? I may not get another chance to smoke Citral for a long time.”

Episode 2

Episodes List

‘Termination Man’: Prologue

Welcome to Termination Man, an Edward Trimnell Books serial fiction project.

**The Prologue Episode opens in November 1996. Carla Marsh and Jill Johnson are two OSU coeds out for a night on the town. A stranger is watching them…and he appears to be dangerous.**

The bar, the creep, the murdered coeds

Columbus, Ohio, November 1996

The man seated at the bar was making Carla Marsh more than a little nervous, even as she studiously tried to ignore him. Go away, she thought. Just leave me alone. The last thing I need tonight is to attract the attention of a weirdo.

It had been a rough week at school. Carla’s GPA was hovering perilously close to the lower threshold of the 3.0 mark. She had promised her parents that she would maintain a GPA of at least 3.1.

Maybe I’ve been going out a bit too much this semester, she thought.

She wasn’t a heavy drinker—not compared to some people, at least—but it was hard not to get swept up in the hubbub of campus social life. More than 50,000 students attended the Ohio State University. There were so many people to meet. So much going on.

Of course, there were some bad apples in that cast of fifty thousand. Carla looked up from the glass of beer that she had purchased with a fake ID, the one that gave her age as twenty-one—rather than her true age of twenty. The weirdo was still giving her the eye.

She considered glaring at him or even giving him the finger, and then thought better of it. Sooner or later he would find another target to obsess upon. She wasn’t the only unescorted woman in the room, after all. Far from it. The Buckeye Lounge was an off-campus drinking establishment, and by definition, therefore, a meet market. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties milled about everywhere. Lots of mingling going on. Dozens of young men hoping to get lucky tonight. Carla reflected—not for the first time—that the entire bar and entertainment industry would probably collapse if not for horny young men.

That was really what it was all about, wasn’t it? Practically all of the young men here were on the prowl in one way or another.

And that explained the noise—the sheer excess of it: When college-aged men wanted to impress women, Carla had noticed, they seldom did it quietly. A few tables away, a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt was responding to one of his companion’s jokes with exaggerated laughter.

As if playing the role of a loud drunk were the best way to make oneself attractive to the opposite sex. You aren’t going to get laid that way, buddy, Carla thought.

She returned her gaze to the bar: The young man—the weirdo—was still looking at her.

Since he was looking at her, she took a moment to look back at him, to assess him: He had the generally tall and broad-shouldered build of an athlete. But something told Carla that this one was no member of the football or basketball team. He didn’t look like the type to associate himself with teams or groups, and he was definitely alone tonight. Jocks usually traveled in packs; and come to think of it—so did most everyone else. On the campus bar scene, loners were rare. And the weirdo was obviously a loner.

This wasn’t the first time that Carla had been ogled by an anonymous male in such a venue, and probably not the hundredth time, either. That much went with the territory––especially when you were twenty years old, female, and more than a little attractive.

But something about the lone man seated at the bar was different. Unlike other would-be campus Lotharios, he was making no effort to be either furtive or flirtatious. He simply stared at her over the rim of his beer mug, fixing her with half-lidded eyes, and a smile that was somehow knowing. He seemed to be claiming his possession of her, even though they had never even met.

He definitely wasn’t her type. Not that he was a bad-looking guy—not really. But he was creepy. Way too creepy.

“Carla, what the hell’s up with you?” Jill Johnson asked her, having noticed her distraction. “Have you had too much to drink?”

Jill was seated across from her at the small table that the two of them shared. But Jill was seated with her back to the weirdo. She couldn’t see him.

“Are you drunk?” Jill persisted.

Jill was half-drunk herself, but she knew that something was up. Jill always seemed to know when something was up with her. Jill was Carla’s best friend in the world, and a fellow native of Cleveland.

Less than two years ago, the two of them had headed off for OSU together. They were roommates and shared many of the same classes. Watch out for Jill at college, the other girl’s mother had told Carla. Make sure that she doesn’t get into trouble at OSU. Both sets of parents acknowledged that Carla was the more responsible member of the pair.

But now Carla was the one with a problem, and he was seated at the bar only a few yards from their table. Since Carla had known Jill forever, her friend was able to discern that she was seriously spooked. They seemed to share a wordless sense of mutual understanding.

In her Japanese 101 class, Carla had learned that the Japanese referred to this as inshin-denshin—“an unconscious sharing of the minds between two individuals”—or something like that. She had taught Jill the term and it had become a running joke between them.

“I’m getting those inshin-denshin vibes from you,” Jill said. “So what’s up? Is something wrong?”

Carla reached across the little barroom table and placed her hand gently atop Jill’s wrist. For some reason that she could not completely identify, it seemed necessary to play it cool, to conceal her alarm from the man at the bar. Carla was suddenly certain that if she revealed her fear, the young man would exploit it to his advantage.

“Don’t make a big deal of it,” Carla said. “But take a casual look at that guy seated at the bar.”

For once Carla was grateful for the excessive noise in the Buckeye Lounge. The blare of the jukebox and the incessant clamor of voices gave her more freedom to talk. The constant din assured that the man at the bar would not overhear her—even if he was able to maintain his surveillance.

Jill turned around—less discreetly than Carla would have preferred—and then turned back.

“Oh, I’ve seen him around campus,” Jill said, nonchalant. Apparently the weirdo didn’t disturb her as much as he disturbed Carla.

“You know him?”

“No, not exactly. I think I had a class with him last semester.” Jill paused for a moment to think, with the deliberate effort that intoxicated people often require. “Yeah—that’s it. Someone mentioned that his father is rich. A big executive at some company. I never got his name, though. But, oh—now I remember—he was in my abnormal psychology class.”

“How apropos,” Carla said.

“He really isn’t a bad-looking guy,” Jill said. “Just a little weird. Very intense.”

And now that she got a better look at him, Carla noticed once again that he wasn’t all that bad-looking. No, not at all. He was seated; but she imagined that he would be more than six feet tall when standing. She had always had a weakness for tall men.

But not this one.

“He might not be bad-looking,” Carla said in a low voice. “But that staring routine of his is kind of a deal killer. And something about him looks, well—mean, too.”

Mean? Carla thought, wondering if that was the right word. Lots of her girlfriends were mean. She was mean sometimes herself. But the weirdo looked capable of physically hurting someone. That represented a different level of mean.

She felt a chill begin to creep up her spine and stopped herself: Don’t let your imagination get the best of you, girl. This guy is definitely an oddball; but that doesn’t make him dangerous.

Jill merely shrugged at the suggestion that the stranger might have a truly dark side. Carla sighed: her friend had always had a soft spot for the bad boy types.

Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a burst of feminine laughter. Then their drinks nearly slid onto the floor as someone practically fell upon their table.

“Tina!” Carla said—half in amusement, half in annoyance. Only a quick reaction on her part kept the table from tipping over. Carla was gripping both sides of the table now, feeling like an Atlas trying to hold the world aloft. The young woman leaning on the wooden surface weighed perhaps ninety pounds soaking wet; but it was difficult to keep the table righted with all of her weight on it. “Tina, stand up! I can’t hold you and the table both.”

Tina responded by moving to a crouching position. Carla was now supporting perhaps a third of her weight.

Tina Shields was a young woman with whom she had shared a number of classes. The two of them had gotten to be casual friends. Not close friends, though. Tina moved in wilder circles than either Carla or Jill. There were persistent rumors about her sleeping around a lot—and she had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Well, more than a bit of a drunk. Carla didn’t know about the sleeping around; but Tina Shields most definitely had a drinking problem.

“Tina! You’ve got to watch where you’re going!” Carla said, helping the other young woman lift her head from the table. 

The baby-faced coed didn’t look old enough to be legally drinking in the state of Ohio. In fact, she barely looked old enough to have a high school diploma.

Carla didn’t want to play the prude; but it seemed incumbent on her to impart a word of caution. As Jill’s mother had long recognized, she was the responsible one, after all.

“My God, Tina. You look so sweet and innocent,” Carla said. “You keep stumbling around like that, and one of these guys in here is going to take advantage of you.”

“Maybe so,” Tina said, smiling vacantly. She righted herself onto wobbly legs. She gave Carla and Jill a little mock salute, and then moved on, becoming lost in the crowd.

“Who was that?” Jill asked.

“Tina Shields.” Carla shook her head and smiled. “Tina likes to party.”

“You think?

They laughed, because there was nothing else to do about Tina Shields but shake your head and laugh. But the situation really wasn’t funny, Carla reflected. A girl like Tina Shields could come to a bad end in all sorts of ways. She needed help.

“Am I interrupting something?” a male voice said.

Disrupted by Tina Shields, Carla had almost forgotten about the weirdo at the bar. But when she looked up, there he was—no longer at the bar—but standing at their table. She had been too distracted to notice his approach.

He smiled—though it wasn’t a friendly smile. Nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous, as most men would be when approaching two unfamiliar females in a drinking establishment.

“What do you want?” Carla asked. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve been staring at us for the entire night.”

“What do I want?” he repeated. “Well, let me tell you.”

He proceeded to describe a sexual act that involved both of them—along with him, of course. This, too, was delivered deadpan, without the slightest hint of humor, shame, or empathy.

“I think that would hurt,” Carla said. “Not to mention the fact that it would be more than a little disgusting. Especially with you involved.”

There, Carla thought. That should be enough to get rid of him.

The weirdo, however, did not seem ready to take no for an answer.

“I’ll give you one chance to take that back,” he said.

Oh, the nerve of this guy. Who does he think he is? Jill had said something about his father being a rich big shot. Well, Carla didn’t care.

When a couple walked by—a man and a woman—she was suddenly seized by an inspiration.

“Excuse me!” she called out, catching their attention. The age and dress of the couple revealed them to be students, although she did not recognize them. No matter.

“This guy here—” She indicated the man standing at their table. “He seems to get off on approaching unknown women and making perverted suggestions. What do you think of that?”

The male half of the couple took one look at Carla and Jill’s unwanted visitor. He shook his head and said, “That is so not cool.” The woman advised the intruder not to be a “loser.”

The young couple showed no interest in involving themselves any further. After making these brief remarks, they continued on.

But Carla could tell that the exchange had produced its desired effect. No young man wants to be called a “loser”—especially when the person assigning the label is an attractive young female. The word “loser” had made him flinch, like a slap across the face.

There, she thought. Humiliate him in front of all these others, make him feel like a total asshole. That’ll teach him a lesson.

Now Carla and Jill were alone with him again. Carla could see that the young man was shaking—not with fear, but with rage. His cheeks were crimson, and his hands were balled into fists. He stared first at her, then at Jill, his eyes seeming to bore through them.

“You ungrateful bitches,” he finally said.

“Oh, why don’t you get over yourself?” Carla shot back. She was still afraid, sure—but she felt her courage returning. This guy had been trying to play some serious head games with them. And clearly she had found a chink in his armor: the threat of public humiliation. Let him try to play the physical intimidation card. Let him just try. What could he really do to them, here in the middle of all these people? The bar was crowded, and she could easily humiliate him even more if necessary.

“You’ll regret this,” he said, just loud enough for both of them to hear.

“I already do,” Carla said. “Believe me.”

“Hey,” Jill said, speaking to their unwanted visitor for the first time. “Why don’t you go back to the bar, huh? Leave us alone. Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”

And then—somewhat to Carla’s surprise—he did exactly that. He abruptly turned his back on them and walked away, though he didn’t return to his spot at the bar. They watched him disappear into the crowd.

“That was spooky,” Jill said when he was finally gone.

“That was annoying,” Carla said.

In truth, Carla had also found the incident more than a little spooky. But she didn’t want to acknowledge the fear that was making her tremble right now. That would only give the young man more power over them.

He had surprised them—caught them both when they were off guard; that was all. He was nothing but an essentially harmless creep who had shrunk away at the first sign of determined resistance.

“But he’s gone now,” Carla concluded.

“You think so?” Jill asked. “You think that’s the end of it?”

Jill had a point. The stalker types often disappeared momentarily when rebuffed, only to make an unexpected appearance at a later time. You could never be sure. Carla, however, had no intention of allowing the young man to afflict her with a lingering case of the heebie-jeebies. He would not get under her skin.

“We’ll never see him again,” she said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough social intercourse for one night.”

“I think it’s safe to say that that guy had more than social intercourse on his mind,” Jill said.

They both laughed; and Carla thought: Yes, I suppose it’s good that we can make light of it. Joking about it diminishes that creep’s power over us.

They stood up; the atmosphere of the Buckeye Lounge had been ruined for them—at least for tonight.

As Carla pushed her empty chair under the table, she noticed the heavily intoxicated coed who had nearly fallen into their laps only a few minutes ago. Tina Shields nodded at her when their eyes met. Tina was seated in a beanbag chair that was pushed against the adjacent wall, giving her an unobstructed view of the table that she and Jill were vacating. Tina Shields probably observed the entire exchange between them and the weirdo.

Take care of yourself, Tina, Carla thought. But I have a feeling that you’re destined to come to a bad end. And then to Jill she said: “I think I need to lay off of the drinking for a while.”

***

From the Columbus Dispatch, November 1996

Two OSU Students found Bludgeoned to Death in Apartment Near Campus

Jill Johnson and Carla Marsh, both 20, were found dead Sunday morning in their off-campus apartment on North High Street in Columbus. A spokesperson from the Columbus Police Division (CPD) stated that both young women died from multiple blunt force trauma wounds.

CPD investigators believe that the women were killed the previous Friday night. As the investigation is ongoing, the CPD has declined to give additional details regarding either the murders or the crime scene.

Johnson and Marsh were both Cleveland natives. Both were students at the Ohio State University. 

The landlord of the two young women, 57-year-old Leonard Gates, discovered the bodies at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, after using his master key to enter their apartment.

Gates had received a series of phone calls from one of the young women’s parents, who were concerned because their daughter was not answering her telephone or responding to voice messages. 

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The ETB Online Books Project

Like all of you, in recent weeks I have been more preoccupied than usual with current events. As a result, the content here since mid-March has focused on the daily news.

The name of this site, though, is Edward Trimnell Books. I chose that name for a reason. Commentaries on the news will always have a place here. (I’m rather opinionated, as you may have noticed.) That said, this site isn’t, strictly speaking, a news site.  I primarily write books, many of which you can find on Amazon

This is a business for me. I’m an author, of course; but I’m also a micro-publisher.

Nevertheless, these are tough times for many readers. The COVID-19 shutdown has cut US economic activity by about a third. Unemployment now hovers at an unbelievable 18%. Hopefully the economy will be reopened soon, and the raw numbers will improve. Many people, though, will need time to recover from this unprecedented interruption to normal life.

In light of these highly unusual circumstances, I would like to make all of my books available to readers for free.

This is already the case with most of my existing library, if you’re a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program

I realize, though, that Kindle Unlimited won’t be the right option for some of you. And as much as I love Amazon, people were reading online long before anyone ever heard of a Kindle. 

One of the purposes of a website is to provide free online content. Without something for people to read, a website is nothing more than a glorified online brochure.

That’s what all too many websites are. I’ve always wanted this site to provide more to the reading community—especially in times like these.

I initially explored the idea of making more of my existing catalog available here on the site. The problem, though, is that I can’t make content freely available to you here, as well as in the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program. Amazon requires that all Kindle Unlimited titles be exclusive to the Amazon platform (in electronic form). I am bound by the terms of that contract, and I intend to abide by it. 

So I had another idea…

The Edward Trimnell Books Online Books Project

I’ve therefore decided to start making some titles available here on the site exclusively—or in advance of bookstore publication. These will not be serials, technically speaking, but I’ll be posting them a chapter at a time, as I write them. And you’ll be able to read them here for free. 

I have several titles in mind for the first round of online books. These will be a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. The fiction books will span several of the genres that I usually write in (thriller, horror, mystery). I also have some short stories planned.

And for those of you who have enjoyed all the news commentaries over these past few weeks, fear not: At least one of the titles I have in the works concerns politics. But whereas the daily blog posts typically deal with ephemeral headlines, the upcoming book one will dig deeper and involve more theory. 

The plan is to serialize several diverse titles at once, so that at least one of them will be something you’ll be interested in reading. As I say on ETB’s About page , I don’t expect anyone to like everything posted on this site, but everyone should be able to find at least something that they like. That’s one of the advantages of a variety format.

How can you support the Online Books Project?

No, this isn’t a prelude to asking you for money.

Some sites that provide free content immediately turn around and panhandle you at every turn—usually via requests to support them on Patreon. 

I don’t necessarily have a philosophical opposition to Patreon (or similar crowdfunding intermediaries, like Kickstarter). I’ll probably put up a Patreon page eventually, for readers who would like to voluntarily contribute. But if I’m going to make that an upfront requirement, I had might as well just put everything on Amazon first. A Patreon paywall is still a paywall.

***

But I still have bills to pay, just like everyone else. Can free content work with paying the bills? In part, yes. 

One of the really cool things about online content is that “free to the reader/viewer” need not mean “unpaid to the creator/publisher”. This principle goes all the way back to the origins of the Internet-as-we-know-it, in the 1990s.

In the beginning, at least, the Online Books Project will be sponsored the old-fashioned way: through the placement of a few unobtrusive ads.

Some of these ads will be for my books on Amazon. If you really like what you read here for free, consider purchasing a book of mine that isn’t part of the Online Books Project. You may also want to purchase an edited, proofread version of a book that appears online first. But that’s totally up to you.

***

The Online Books Project will also be sponsored (sparingly) by banner ads and affiliate links to third-party products. I don’t fundamentally have any difficulty with the idea of supporting free content with third-party ads. That’s what newspapers, magazines, and television have done since time immemorial. 

Online ads have (not without some justification) gotten a bad rap in recent years. That’s because some sites have totally overdone the concept.

The online versions of The Independent and USA Today come to mind here. These sites are littered with dropdown full-screen ads, autoplay video ads, and many more extremely intrusive forms of advertising. 

Edward Trimnell Books is old-school all the way. Just like I hate social media (why would anyone want to bother with Snapchat or TikTok?), I’m also allergic to newfangled forms of online advertising. I keep the ads here low-key, like they were up till about 2003. 

***

Those are my basic ideas about the Online Books Project.

I’ll be posting new content and new chapters daily, more or less, so check back often!

Quarantined? Read free stories from Edward Trimnell Books!

We’ve had a lot of discussion here in recent days about COVID-19, the  state of the pandemic, possible cures, and the Great Shutdown of 2020.

We’ll continue to discuss them, and I’ll continue to selectively comment on the news. The commentaries and updates aren’t going anywhere.

At the same time, though, some of you must be burned out on the news.

Given our constant cable/Internet news cycle, it never ends. When you watch it minute-to-minute, moreover, it can get pretty repetitive.

So here’s what I’m doing for you:

There are lots of FREE stories on this site—mostly horror tales from my archives, including “The Vampires of Wallachia” and “Thanatos Postponed”.

For a full index of all the stuff you can read for FREE on this site (including plenty of thriller/horror fiction) see my Online Stories and Features page.

***

For those of you who are members of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service, you can read The Consultant or Venetian Springs for FREE as part of that program.

For the rest of you: I’ve marked down most of my fiction titles to a maximum price of $3.99. They’ll stay there for the duration of this crisis. I know that money is tight. I can’t make every title free, but I’m going to make every title as cheap as I possibly can. (And you can read most of my Amazon titles for FREE as part of your Kindle Unlimited membership, anyway .)

Here’s my advice: Don’t immerse yourself in the news too much. It can become a rabbit hole that you can’t pull out of. Don’t drift over to Twitter (that cesspool of negativity), and don’t spend all of your time scrolling through mindless updates on Facebook. Say hi to everyone once per day, and then get off Mark Zuckerberg’s manipulative, privacy-invading platform.

Go for a walk. Demonstrate support and affection for your friends and family (from a safe distance, of course). Count your blessings.

Oh, and keep checking back here. Because I’ll be putting lots more content up to help you pass the time while the world is on pause.

Peace out!