Termination Man: a corporate workplace thriller

Sex, lies, and corporate conspiracies!
Craig Walker is known in industry circles as the ‘Termination Man’.
For a fee, he can make a company’s problem employees go away…fire themselves.
Craig will use any weapon—from sex and drugs to complex role-playing —in order to accomplish his aims.
But will he resort to murder?

Prologue: 1996

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. 

Chapter 1

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.”

Chapter 2

Before we exited the bar, I discreetly reached into my pocket and speed-dialed Claire Turner on my cell phone, then immediately disconnected the call. This was Claire’s signal to call me in thirty minutes—more than enough time to get the job done with Kevin.

There was a wooded area behind the Backstop Bar & Grill that was shielded from view by trees and a pair of dumpsters. Needless to say, I had already staked out the area in advance. I didn’t believe that we would be interrupted here, and I hadn’t noticed any police cars in the vicinity. This was a working-class, but relatively low-crime area of Cleveland. Even if someone happened to see us walking back into the woods, our presence by itself was unlikely to trigger any red flags. And from a distance, it would look like we were sharing an ordinary cigarette.

I led him back to a clearing, where the lights of the bar were barely visible through the sparse mid-November foliage. Only the pines were green this late in the season. It had rained the previous night, and the ground was still damp and muddy.

I removed the joint from my pocket and held it up for him. “Damn good stuff,” I said.

“It looks good,” he replied. “So what did you say your name was?”

“I’m not sure I did. My name’s Ben.”

“My name’s Kevin.”

“Good to meet you, Kevin.”

I placed the joint between my lips and pulled a lighter from my pants pocket. Drugs never were my thing—I’m not even much of a drinker. However, the occasional hit on a joint is an occupational requirement for my line of work. Pot is as far as I go, though. And I don’t do any more of it than is absolutely necessary to establish my credibility when I’m undercover.

“So you’re a welder?” Kevin asked, though we had already covered this point in the bar.

“That’s right. I’m a welder.” Then I gave him my pre-rehearsed biographical sketch: “I’m from Toledo. My wife and I moved here about a month ago after I got laid off. We’re staying with her brother on a temporary basis. I’m looking for work in the area.”

“Ah, so you’re married,” he said.

“Yep.” I couldn’t really tell if his face registered disappointment or not. The exact nature of Kevin Lang’s sexual orientation was no longer even relevant. Right now, I only wanted him to smoke as much of that joint as possible. I handed it to him. “How’s the local job market?”

“Sucks,” he said, taking a hit. “Places closing everyday. Places that aren’t closing are downsizing.”

He handed the burning stick of leaves and paper wrapper to me and I took a very shallow hit before handing it right back.

“Say,” I said. I decided that I had established enough rapport with him to allow me to broach the subject of his job at Great Lakes Fuels Systems. And for some reason, I was curious. “Why do you think that your employer has it out for you?”

“I know they do,” Kevin said.

“Think you could be a little more specific?”

“Well,” Kevin paused and took an extra puff on the joint. I didn’t hold my hand out for it. He was lost in his own thoughts, so he kept smoking it. Maybe he was already a little buzzed by this time, too. As I had promised him, the Citral was pretty strong stuff.

“I’m what you’d call an agitator,” he finally said. “At least that’s the way my employer sees it.”

“You mean a union agitator? I couldn’t help noticing that you’re wearing a UAW tee shirt.”

“Naw, not really. I mean, if the union can get us better working conditions, fine. But I realize that the union has drawbacks, too. Three years ago you’d have asked me, and I would have told you that I’d never support a union in a million years. I was happy at my job.”

“So what changed?” I asked. I was keeping him talking and keeping him smoking.

“For nine years I was a production line operator at this fuel pump company. Great Lakes Fuel Systems. It was originally a family-owned company. Great place to work. The president of the company, Joe Mentzel, was the grandson of the original founder. He was an old German named Klaus Mentzel. Good man.”

“Joe or Klaus?”

“Both of them. Of course I never knew the old man. Klaus Mentzel founded the company back in like 1952 or 1953. Been dead for years. His grandson, Joe, though, he was a prince to work for. Cared about his employees. Knew each one of us by name. He used to walk the factory floor, stopping here and there to ask questions. Yeah, he cared about the bottom line. He also cared about making sure that Great Lakes Fuel Systems was the sort of company where people would want to work.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming here.” 

“You got that right. One day Joe Mentzel has a stroke. He’s sixty-four years old and he has to retire, all of a sudden like. His only child is a married daughter who lives in another state. So he has to sell the company to this big conglomerate. At least that’s what he ended up doing.”

I nodded. I couldn’t tell Kevin that I knew all about the “big conglomerate” that had purchased the family-run business where he had worked for most of a decade.

“And how are things going under the conglomerate?”

Kevin took a deep hit on the joint, then laughed as he exhaled, coughing halfway through.

“You alright, man?” I asked.

He waved me away. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He righted himself and smoked some more Citral. “Things have totally changed under the conglomerate.”

How have they changed?”

“Well, on the very first day that the new ownership became official, the new management called us into a meeting. They told us outright that the company that the Mentzels had run for sixty years was a thing of the past.”

“They said that?”

“In so many words. They said that now Great Lakes Fuel Systems was a part of a much larger company, one that was responsible to stockholders. So that meant that margins would have to improve.”

“Wasn’t the company profitable under the Mentzels?”

I knew the answer to this question, needless to say. GLFS had been a moderately profitable operation when it was a family-run concern. The company couldn’t have stayed in business since the Eisenhower years if it had been losing money, after all.

But there is a difference between profitability at the family-run company level, and profitability at the publicly traded, Fortune 500 level. Under independent management, the company is the company. Under Fortune 500 management, the company is the balance sheet. Fortune 500 managers earn their six- and seven-figure salaries based on their abilities to maximize share prices and shareholder earnings. They have to measure profitability against every other company in their industries—including companies that pay workers a dollar an hour in Mexico or China. “Good enough” becomes no longer good enough. That is just the nature of global big business in the twenty-first century.

Don’t like it? Then don’t work for a big company—or for a smaller company that has been acquired by one.

“It wasn’t profitable enough for TP Automotive,” Kevin said.

“Is that the name of the conglomerate that bought out your employer?”

Kevin nodded and passed the joint to me. I held it without inhaling as I listened to him respond. I didn’t have to bother smoking it any further. Kevin wasn’t even looking at me: he was staring out into the steel-grey sky, in the direction of Lake Erie. We were only a few miles from the water, and its dampness permeated the air. Kevin shivered as he began to speak.

“They brought in a team of what they called ‘efficiency experts,’” Kevin began. “People who had never even worked in a factory before. They were from one of the big consulting firms like—McKinney and Company—or something like that.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that the correct name of the consulting firm was McKinsey & Company. Ben the Welder wouldn’t have that sort of knowledge at his mental fingertips.

“And what did the efficiency experts do?” I asked, prompting him to continue.

“They created a spreadsheet that told them how many workers should be at each station, and how much production should flow through each workstation in a shift. Then they proceeded to cut our manpower and increase our production quotas.”


“And then we started having all sorts of quality problems. Some of us who had been around for a while complained to the new management team. We knew damn well that this would never have happened under Joe Mentzel. But they wouldn’t listen. One of the new suits asked me point-blank if I had an MBA. And I said of course I didn’t—would I be working on a production line if I had some fancy degree? But I also pointed out that the hot-shot MBA who recalculated our manpower and our production quotas had probably never spent a single hour working on a production line.”

“Sounds like a productive conversation,” I said, smiling at my impromptu pun in spite of myself.

Kevin looked at me. “You get the picture, right? I walked out of that office of theirs, seeing that they weren’t even remotely interested in listening to reason.”

“What did you do then?”

Kevin shrugged. “I went back to the production line. What else could I do?”

“And you think they want to fire you just because of that?”

“No,” he said. “Not just because to that. Things changed again, after Eileen Cosgrove—one of my coworkers—got hurt.”

I was going to prompt him to tell me about Eileen Cosgrove’s accident. This was another piece of background information that TP Automotive had given me. Eileen Cosgrove was a production worker who had suffered a crushed hand when her sleeve became caught in a press-fitting machine.

There was more than a little bit of controversy regarding the root cause of her injury. TP Automotive had told me that Eileen Cosgrove was careless, and had been written up for poor safety practices even before the new lean and mean regimen had been implemented. I knew that Kevin Lang would have a different interpretation, of course.

But I never got to hear Kevin’s side of it—not that day, at least. My cell phone began chirping in my pocket before Kevin could speak.

I pulled my phone from my pocket.

“Where the hell are you, honey?” Claire asked. If her voice carried to Kevin at all, he would have entirely missed the slight tinge of irony in her tone.

“I’ll be home in about fifteen minutes,” I said, sounding like a henpecked husband who had once again lingered too long in the bar after work. “Bye.” I pushed the call termination button and returned the phone to my pocket.

Kevin gave me an inquiring look. I shrugged.

“The wife,” I said. “Got to get going.”

“Okay,” he replied. He held the joint up. We—mostly he—had smoked it down to a tiny fraction of its original length. “Not much left on this thing, anyway. You want to take the roach with you?”

“You keep it,” I said. “I’m going to be lucky if my old lady doesn’t get suspicious as it is.”

“All right. Thanks, Ben.” He dug into his back pocket for his wallet. He removed a crisp ten-dollar bill and handed it over to me. “Take care,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Kevin didn’t know how prophetic that statement was.

Once back in my rented car, I sent a text message to Beth Fisk. Beth was the HR manager whom TP Automotive had placed at GLFS on a provisional basis. She was their traveling human resources rep, the one whom they usually dispatched to newly acquired companies.

From what I had gathered, Beth had done time at a slew of acquired companies in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This meant that she had to move every three to twelve months, depending on the duration of each assignment. It wasn’t much of a life, shifting from one sleepy rural town or rustbelt backwater to another. (Automotive components plants are seldom located in glamorous or picturesque places.) But I had immediately recognized Beth as a climber. I was sure that she had a long-term plan to make all of this sacrifice pay off. 

My communications with Beth were always efficient and to the point. Once or twice I had attempted to establish a rapport with her by cracking a few jokes, asking her how her weekend went—that sort of thing. I might as well have tried to establish a rapport with a KGB agent in the former Soviet Union. Beth probably had a personality buried somewhere underneath all that corporate protocol, but she wasn’t going to reveal it for my benefit. Typical HR at a big company.

The text message that I sent to Beth Fisk was even shorter than most, not to mention cryptic. My consulting work seldom required me to step too far outside the law; but plenty of my activities—if revealed to the wrong people—would make my clients and me liable for civil actions. This realization necessitated an extra level of caution. I didn’t want to get caught with my pants down someday, holding on to a batch of incriminating emails or text messages.

For the sake of plausible deniability in the event that our phone records were ever subpoenaed, I sent my message to Beth in code: “The market is up,” it read. If Kevin had failed to take the bait, I would have sent the message: “The market is down.” Simple. And idiot-proof.

Beth would now know to arrange a drug test for Kevin Lang first thing the following morning. His system would be full of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical footprint of marijuana use. After passing the test two times, Kevin would fail the third one.

What I had told Kevin had been correct: A third passing result would put him in a position for some sort of harassment lawsuit. At that point it would be easy for even a halfway competent attorney to build the case that Kevin’s employer was going out of its way to entrap an innocent man. But a positive test result would change everything. A positive test result would mean that he wasn’t an innocent man anymore.

If all this sounds complicated, well—that’s because it is. But so are the politically correct, overly litigated times in which we live. Demand for my services exists because employment law has become such a minefield. Every year private-sector employers spend billions of dollars combating wrongful termination lawsuits. Despite the doctrine of employment-at-will in corporate America, a discharged employee can still create problems for his or her former employer.

And in the Internet Age, a lawsuit might be only the beginning. Sometimes disgruntled ex-employees also take to the Internet, telling their tales of real or imagined mistreatment to anyone who will listen. This not only encourages add-on and class action lawsuits, it can also cost a company millions in lost revenues from sympathetic consumers.

Thanks to that joint we smoked in the woods, TP Automotive would be able to eliminate a real threat to its operations. Kevin would survive and land on his feet, I told myself. We all do what we have to do.

End of preview…

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