Whatever: a short story of lust, greed, and envy

“Half of everything? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Greg Hensley had made the same observation any number of times during the past twenty-four hours or so, ever since he had received the latest poison correspondence from Monica’s lawyer. Monica’s attorney was a chain-smoking harridan who, he was quite sure, literally wished him dead.

He was sitting at his desk, killing the last ten minutes of his lunch hour. The purchasing department of Apex Machinery was filtering in from the nearby fast food places and the company cafeteria. Colleagues prodded each other with last-minute lunchtime banter. Others rushed to complete quick personal phone calls before one o’clock.

They could afford such frivolities; they were not being shafted for half of their net worth.

Greg tried not to look at Jessica Tanner as she arrived, but she seemed to draw his gaze like a magnet. He could not deny himself the indulgence of at least a brief glance—although he despised himself for this weakness.

Jessica sauntered in as if she owned the world, carefree in every way that he was not. Her summertime dress clung to her taut abdomen and slender curves while she walked. Each step seemed precisely calibrated to torture him.

How many hours does she spend in the gym each week? Or is it simply good genes? Greg wondered, not for the first time. He had not seen the inside of a gym himself for at least twelve years.

Greg furtively watched her take her seat, his gaze lingering on her suntan. He was careful; Jessica sometimes seemed to know when he was observing her. This made his compulsion to observe her all the more maddening.

Back to work, he thought. Greg was the manager of the die cast components purchasing group at Apex Machinery. Despite his title, his power was diluted by a management structure that included two purchasing general managers and a vice president of purchasing. He wasn’t exactly Lee Iacocca and he knew it. Greg’s authority was mostly limited to day-to-day procedural matters.

He did not even have much input into hiring decisions. Otherwise, the company would not have hired Jessica Tanner six months ago, he thought ruefully.

Greg’s manager title did confer a certain real estate advantage, though: he had a desk at the front of the room, where he could monitor the three purchasing agents who occupied the boxes beneath his on the company organization chart. He also had a full view of the long window that ran the length of the office—a mundane but enviable perk on a bright summer day like today.

The pages from Monica’s attorney lay amid the wrappers of the two Pizza Hut six-inch pizzas that he had devoured for lunch. The pizzas should have made him feel guilty but they did not. His doctor had recently told him to lay off the pizza, the ice cream, and the chocolates.

Greg, you’re reaching an age where your cholesterol is going to start catching up with you, the doctor had said. A forty-two-year-old man can’t eat like a twenty-year-old, you know.

At the moment, however, Greg believed that women and lawyers (or possibly a female lawyer) were far more likely to kill him than the fat content contained in a Pizza Hut box. Did his doctor really want to save his life? Then the good M.D. ought to start shooting lawyers—beginning with the one employed by his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Not that his own attorney—a counselor named Hal Greene—was much more helpful than Monica’s hired gun.   

“We live in a community property state,“ Hal Greene had explained. “Community property means that once you sign the marriage certificate, you each own half of the other’s assets. The fact that you came into the marriage with more assets than Monica had doesn’t mean jack, Greg. Monica’s side is asking for half—and that’s what they’re likely to get.”

Three years of marriage and she takes half my stuff? We didn’t even have any kids, Greg thought sourly.

“Hey, Greg.”

That’s what I get for having a sex drive. I ought to do Greg Hensley and the world a favor, and simply neuter myself now.

“Hey, Greg. I don’t want to shout at you.”

Greg did not need to open his eyes to know that the voice belonged to Jessica.  Moreover, he did not want to look at her, not up close, like this. He only felt safe looking at her from a distance. And even that could be dangerous.

Nevertheless, he had to talk to Jessica. According to the company organization chart, she was his subordinate, after all.

“Yes, Jessica.”

Jessica stood before his desk. He was taller than her when standing; but she towered over him now.

She is looking down on me, he thought. In more ways than one.

Greg exercised discipline so that his eyes would not wander. Jessica’s skirt was an inch shorter than it should have been and a bit too tight for the office.

Just get through it, he told himself.

“You’re cheating,” she preempted.

Greg was tongue-tied at Jessica’s latest ambush.

“What do you mean? I—”

“You’re cheating,” she repeated.

The specific nature of his infraction was obvious; it was spread out on the desk before him. Greg regarded the pile of greasy Pizza Hut wrappings and legal correspondence, noting that he felt suddenly guilty about the two Personal Pan Pizzas. He had practically reveled in his indulgence only a few minutes ago.

The scent of Jessica’s perfume mingled with the cheesy smell of the pizza boxes. The mixture both aroused and nauseated him.

She was his subordinate; and here she was addressing him as if he were a child. He knew that he would be within his rights to reprimand her; but that was beyond his capabilities at the moment.

“That’s right, Jessica. I’m eating pizza. Or to put it more accurately, I ate pizza.”

The tomato sauce smeared on the cardboard and cellophane wrapping looked vaguely bloodlike. His desktop might have been a murder scene.

“You don’t need to be defensive. I’m only doing what you asked,” she said.  “You told us in staff meeting that you had to lose weight. You said it was an order from your doctor.”

Indeed it was. And in a foolish moment of misplaced camaraderie, he had confided this information to his three buyers. A brief lapse of caution that was coming back to bite him now.

“And you said that we should help you,” she added. “So that’s what I’m doing. But if you’re going to bite my head off then tell me and I won’t ever mention it again.”

Greg sighed. Whatever pleasure he had experienced from the two pizzas was gone. They formed a wet, leaden ball in the pit of his stomach. He could practically feel raw triglycerides and cholesterol surging into his veins.

“And anyway, you can’t lose weight eating pizza. Everyone knows that.”

His belt pinched his waistline like an iron band. Was he actually growing fatter as Jessica talked?

Greg experienced a surprise twinge of appreciation for his soon-to-be-ex-wife. At least Monica had never pestered him about his eating habits. But then, Monica was on the plump and frumpy side herself. She looked nothing like Jessica.

“Yes, Jessica, that’s correct. I’m not supposed to eat pizza. And I don’t have as much willpower as I should. So shoot me; I’m weak. And yes, I do remember saying something like that in staff meeting. But I’m sure that’s not what you really want to talk about.”

“No.”

“So what is it?”

“I wanted to tell you that I have to leave at two-thirty this afternoon.”

“You left early yesterday. And one day last week.”

“And?”

“And I can’t let you leave early so often. Not unless you schedule vacation time.”

“Why does it matter how long I stay if I get my work done?”

“Did you finish the bid analysis I asked for?” he shot back, hoping to trip her up.

She answered him by dropping a small stack of papers onto his desk, barely missing one of the Pizza Hut boxes.

“Take a look. It’s all there,” she said.

Greg picked up the pages of the bid analysis and began to flip through the 8.5” x 11” sheets.

“There’s no way I can approve this while you’re standing here, Jessica, you’ll have to—“

He was stopped cold by a single page that was hidden in the middle of the stack: a copy of the Apex Machinery’s Substance Abuse Policy.

It protruded at him like an accusatory finger.

“What the heck is this?” he stammered, his voice cracking on the last word.

He cringed as he realized that he had practically shouted. Several heads bobbed up from their desks. Curious faces assessed him as if he were mildly insane.

“What is this?” he asked, in a lower voice this time.

The Substance Abuse Policy enumerated its regulations at him in bold 12- and 14-point font:

(“Alcoholic beverages and intoxicating substances are strictly forbidden on company property.”)

“What are you talking about, Greg?”

(“Any violation of this policy may be grounds for immediate dismissal.”)

Jessica smiled ever so subtly. Was that a knowing smile?  Or was his imagination going into hyperdrive again?

He tried to assess the situation rationally. She might not even realize that the Substance Abuse Policy was wedged within the pages of the bid analysis. The printer was a communal resource for the entire purchasing group. She could have picked up another person’s printout by mistake. It was certainly possible; that sort of thing happened all the time.

Yes, but what are the chances? And why would anyone else print out the company’s Substance Abuse Policy?

“Nothing,” he replied. “Not a thing.” He pretended to peruse the bid analysis.

“Is it okay, then?”

He noticed that his hands were shaking, and he decided to extricate himself from this conversation in the easiest way possible.

“Okay, Jessica, you can leave at two-thirty today; but please try and keep this sort of thing to a minimum.”

She returned to her desk without acknowledging his permission or his admonition. But he would have expected as much.

Once Jessica was safely gone, Greg discreetly slid open his bottom right-hand desk drawer. The flask was hidden beneath a stack of manila folders. Right where he had left it.

No one had access to Greg’s desk—as far as he knew. He locked it before leaving each night, and he had the only key.

The flask of bourbon had made its appearance in the desk drawer only recently—after the divorce proceedings with Monica had grown nasty. He intended to terminate his reliance on it by the end of the summer. The flask was nothing more than a crutch to help him through a difficult period.

Could Jessica actually know about the flask? This was highly unlikely. Come on, Greg, old boy. Get a grip on yourself.

He removed the Substance Abuse Policy from the bid analysis and fed it into the shredder that sat behind his desk.

When he turned back around Jessica was seated before her computer, her back arched in a yogalike stretch that accentuated the curvature of her cleavage. Her breasts were firm, round, exquisite, and jutting. The scene was simply too much for him to resist.

He risked an open stare, like a kleptomaniac might heedlessly risk placing a hand in an unattended cash register. He was still gawking when her head swung suddenly around and she locked her eyes onto his. He realized at once that a trap had been sprung. And he had fallen into it, like a complete idiot.

Greg looked down without even attempting to appear casual, outsmarted again. What a fool he was. Her next bid analysis would no doubt contain a printout of the company’s Sexual Harassment Policy.

You’re letting her psyche you out, he thought. What’s wrong with you?

But that question was too open-ended. Greg knew that plenty was wrong with him.

***

Greg was in his kitchen, popping the cap of his third beer of the evening when his cell phone rang. It was a call from his attorney.

“Hey, Hal. What’s up?”

“I should be asking you that, Greg. Why didn’t you tell me you had an offshore bank account?”

“How did you find out about that?”

“Monica’s lawyer told me, Greg. You declared the interest from the account on your taxes last year. Did you really think you were going to keep that a secret?”

Greg took a large gulp from a bottle of Michelob before answering Hal Greene.

“Hal, you’ve got to be kidding me! That account predates my marriage to Monica by three years. Jeez—I didn’t even know Monica when I put the money into that account. That money came from some old stock investments, and some money that I’d inherited from my grandparents. How can she ask for half of that?”

“Greg, we’ve been over this before. Half means half. It means half of everything.”

“How did they find out about that?!”

“’They’ can find out about anything nowadays. Wherever there’s an electronic trail leading back to you—from anywhere in the world.”

Greg finished off beer number three. He dropped the empty bottle into the garbage can and removed two full ones from the refrigerator.

“It isn’t fair, Hal. It just isn’t fair.”

“Greg, the law is the law. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think it’s fair. But if you continue to hide things like this, you are only going to dig a deeper hole for yourself. Remember what Shakespeare said: ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.’”

“Actually Hal, Sir Walter Scott said that—not Shakespeare. And what do you mean by ‘a deeper hole’?”

“Monica’s attorney is going to go for punitive damages.”

“NO!”

Greg threw one of the full bottles against the living room wall. It exploded in a shower of glass and foam. He let forth a torrent of curses at the resultant mess and at Monica.

“Greg, I think you need some time to cool off, okay, buddy? Why don’t you give me a call back tomorrow or the next day. We’ll regroup and re-strategize.”

“Sure.” Greg hit the cell phone’s disconnect button. Then he twisted open the cap of the bottle of Michelob that remained in his hand—the twin of the one that was now soaking into his living room carpet.

Hal had obviously been disturbed by his display of emotion. The lawyer had the luxury of looking at this situation from the distance that objectivity afforded. Hal wasn’t the one who was getting screwed. Easy for him to talk about regrouping this and re-strategizing that, as if they were at a meeting in a corporate boardroom. Hal Greene wasn’t the one whose life was imploding.

***

Greg was seated at his desk at Apex Machinery at around ten a.m. when the first wave of nausea struck. Earlier that morning he had consumed a light breakfast of toast, orange juice, and yogurt.

As recently as a few months ago, Greg had been a devotee of the so-called “country breakfast”; but his new relationship with alcohol precluded a morning repast of bacon and eggs. His alcohol-pickled stomach rebelled against such fare.

Juice, toast, and yogurt usually went down okay; but now—

He heard and felt the contents of his stomach gurgle, and he knew that he was going to “hurl”—as that character in Wayne’s World had been so fond of saying. He arose from his desk and pointed himself in the direction of the men’s room. Walk quickly but calmly, he told himself.

He was running by the time he made it to the toilet stall. The contents of his stomach—though sparse some three hours after breakfast—were expelled in a projectilelike fashion. He flushed the toilet, and then the spasms wracked him again. He ended up flushing two more times.

When it was over, he rinsed his mouth out as thoroughly as he could and doused his face with cold water. The skin of his face felt hot and prickly. He would skip lunch today—just to be on the safe side. And maybe he would try to cut back on the drinking. The bottle was metamorphosing into a full-blown monkey on his back. He knew that the monkey would eventually bite him. In fact, it was biting him already.

He was thankful, at least, that there was no one in the hallway. With luck, he would be able to compose himself before he returned to his desk.

“You look horrible,” a female voice said.

“I feel horrible,” he responded reflexively, before he realized who the voice belonged to.

And there was Jessica, standing just outside the little room that housed the copy machines.

“You shouldn’t drink alone, you know. That’s how a person becomes an alcoholic.”

“I wasn’t drinking,” he said.

“Mmm-hmm.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A person could smell it on you, you know. And I should know. My father was an alcoholic.”

“I’m sorry about your father; but that has nothing to do with—”

She stepped closer to him and he had to stop himself from jumping backward. Now he did not want to hear about her father or her childhood. Now she was not an attractive young woman that he desired, but an inquisitional nun from St. Henry’s—the Catholic primary school that he had attended a lifetime ago. Like Jessica, the nuns had always seemed to be one step ahead of him.

“You smell like a drunk, Greg. Exactly like he always did.”

“You’re flirting with insubordination, you know,” Greg said.

“Interesting choice of words.”

Greg’s stomach suddenly lurched toward his throat. He feared that he might vomit again. She was accusing him of sexual harassment, wasn’t she? A clear shot across the bow.

“It’s just an expression,” he croaked. “Don’t play games with me. You know what I mean.”

“I do know, Greg. I know more than you think.”

He was tempted to ask her for an explanation of her last statement. In truth, though, he was momentarily afraid to know the answer.

He stammered out an incoherent reply.

“Are we finished here, Greg?” Her tongue flicked out briefly across her lower lip. It was a gesture that might have been accidental and meaningless. She could have easily denied that she had done anything at all, and nineteen out of twenty people would have believed her.

But Greg knew better.

She is openly mocking my desire for her. She knows that I want her and she’s rubbing my face in it—letting me know that she knows, letting me know that she sees everything.

Greg remained silent. Several replies came to mind; but they were all either pathetic or self-incriminating.

Then Jessica closed his window of opportunity. He was now looking at her from behind; she was walking back toward the purchasing department, muscular thighs and tight buttocks receding away from him.

Greg’s stomach lurched again, and he rushed back into the men’s room.

***

The two of them were alone in the meeting room, seated on opposite sides of the table. Only Greg and Jessica, and the ticking clock on the wall above them. Greg had a hangover. His throat was parched and he had a throbbing headache. His stomach might have been coated with battery acid.

The second hand moved in tiny increments between the three and the four, and then from the four to the five. Each tick sounded like a hammer coming down on a two-by-four.

He should not have tied one on last night. But how could he help himself, after that bombshell that Hal had dropped just a few nights before? He had thought that the offshore account would be safe; but Monica was going to sink her hooks into that, too. And they still had to sort out the issue of “punitive damages.”

It was as if there was a conspiracy against him—a conspiracy of women and lawyers and probably others as well.

“You said you wanted to talk to me?” Jessica asked, breaking the silence.  She leaned back and crossed her legs.

Get right to the point, he thought. Don’t give her any room to maneuver.

“Yes. We have a problem. I mean I have a problem with the way you talk to me.”

Jessica said nothing.

“Don’t play innocent, Jessica. I’m talking about all those questions of yours—questions that are really accusations.”

“I should never ask a question, then.”

“No, Jessica. Of course it’s okay to ask questions. Don’t mince logic with me. That tactic is as transparent as glass.”

She remained silent, and so he blundered on.

“I’m talking about the obvious disdain you have for me, your supervisor. It’s a feeling I get whenever you talk to me. Whenever you look at me.”

“We’re talking about feelings now, Greg?”

Greg felt a drop of perspiration gather in his armpit and slide down his flank.

Most employees would be at least a little rattled by a sit-down reprimand meeting with their supervisor. But not Jessica. Jessica was as cool as a cucumber. As cool as ice.

“I think you understand,” he said. “Sometimes a person’s intentions are revealed through their tone and manner. And I can sense it.”

“Do you want to know what I sense? What I feel?” she asked.

Greg did not really want to know; but he had to answer in the affirmative nevertheless.

“I feel that when you look at me you’re actually thinking about doing things to me. You’re thinking about ripping my clothes off and—”

“Stop!” he shouted.

“So transparent,” she added, throwing his own words back at him. Then a knowing smile.

Greg felt the blood rush to his cheeks. I have to be more careful. She knows. She has known all along.

And for an instant he was awash in self-loathing—because as unlikely as it seemed, she had accurately recited his thoughts. How many times had he fantasized about ripping her clothes off, and well—?

But there was still an angle that he could work. She did not have anything concrete on him.   

“Jessica, don’t play the sexual harassment card with me, just because I’m a forty-something man and you’re an attractive young woman. I’ve done nothing—I repeat—nothing that falls under the rubric of sexual harassment.”

“But sometimes I get the feeling that you’re thinking about me that way.”

Greg had an urge to pound on the table. Her argument was ludicrous. How sensitive did he have to be? And how could his own thoughts—as long as he kept them to himself—possibly influence her emotions?

She was claiming the right to exercise a form of psychological surveillance over him. If he could be indicted for his thoughts, then he would have no freedom at all anymore. 

“Your feelings aren’t a sufficient basis for making that sort of accusation!” he burst out.

And then he stopped. He suddenly realized how she had backed him into a corner.

Jessica merely smiled again when he failed to continue. Then she pressed her advantage in another, more disturbing direction.

“What are you hiding, Greg?”

“Hiding?” Greg said. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You hide lots of things. ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive’.” she recited in a singsong voice.

Greg froze, recalling his conversation with Hal Greene.

“Didn’t Sir Walter Scott say that?” she asked. “Let me see. Or was it Shakespeare?”

Has she somehow tapped my cell phone? he wondered. There was a very real possibility that she had, as crazy as that sounded. He wanted to accuse her right there. But if he accused her wrongly….

“What makes you think that I would know whether it was Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott?” he finally said.

But Jessica did not rise to that particular bait.

“Whatever, Greg.”

She stood up.

“Where are you going? I didn’t say that this meeting was over.”

“I didn’t ask for your permission.”

“Sit down or I’ll write you up.”

“Why don’t you do that, Greg?” They both knew that he would do no such thing.

With a considerable degree of effort, he restrained himself as she exited the room.

***

Anne Holloway was the director of human resources at a company called Rockland Alliance Services. Greg didn’t know much about them; they were brokers of industrial liability insurance—an area far outside his own bailiwick. For his purposes today, there was only one relevant fact regarding the company: Rockland Alliance Services was the former employer of Jessica Tanner.

Anne took a sip of her coffee as she pushed away the remains of a grilled chicken salad. When the waiter brought the check, she reached for her purse and Greg shook his head emphatically. “No, this one’s on me, Anne,” he insisted. She smiled warmly in response and assured him that she would pay the next time.

Greg didn’t intend to schedule a next time; but nothing would be accomplished by letting Anne know that. He had met Anne Holloway at a local time management seminar for business professionals a few months ago. She was about four years his senior; and Greg had immediately pegged her as an aging divorcee on the prowl. He had exchanged business cards with her after she struck up a conversation with him during the seminar’s afternoon break. He hadn’t intended to ever call her; in his opinion Anne needed to lose about twenty pounds before she would be sack-worthy. But he had pocketed her contact information nonetheless, as an ego-booster and an exercise to keep his pick-up skills sharp.

And now Anne Holloway was turning out to be useful to him after all. He decided that he had waited long enough to broach the real purpose of his lunch invitation.

“Anne, I’d like to ask you something,” he began. “Sort of off the record.”

She leaned forward on her elbows and regarded him earnestly. Greg guessed that she was hoping for an invitation to go out on a proper date the following weekend. “Absolutely. What happens at lunch stays at lunch, as they say.”

“I appreciate that,” said Greg. “As this is a somewhat sensitive matter. I have a new employee working under me. Unfortunately, she is turning out to be something of a problem.”

“What’s her name?”

Greg told her and her expression darkened. He knew immediately that he had hit pay dirt.

“Oh yes,” said Anne. “I remember Jessica Tanner. I remember her very well. And I don’t mind telling you that I’m glad she is no longer employed at Rockland.”

“I see. Well, any bit of information you could share would be greatly appreciated. I’m at my wits end, you see.”

“Okay. But you have to promise me that this conversation will remain one hundred percent confidential. If this ever got out, I would be exposing Rockland to—”

“I know, a lawsuit.” Greg nodded and, using his finger, drew an imaginary “X” across his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die. Not a word to anyone.”

“Alright then. Jessica Tanner was one of the most intelligent employees ever to pass through the front doors of Rockland Alliance Services. I don’t mean “intelligent” the conventional sense. She possesses what you might call a dark street smarts.”

“Meaning?”

“She knows how to get her way. And she knows how to crush people who get in her way.”

Greg shuddered. He sensed that Anne was about to confirm his deepest fears about Jessica:  On the surface she appeared to be merely a haughty young woman with a mean streak. However, his intuition told him that Jessica was much more.

“Well,” Anne began. “It started with one of Jessica’s coworkers—another young woman named Susan. She and Jessica simply didn’t get along at all. I never did learn what was behind it. They were about the same age, and both very pretty, so it may have been some sort of competition. You know—who’s going to be the lead princess of the department.”

“Sure.”

“Anyway, one day everyone in the entire department gets an email from an anonymous email address. The email address was an alphanumeric combination at Yahoo, the sort of thing that anyone could set up. Normally an email from an unknown Yahoo account would be ignored and deleted as spam, but this one caught people’s attention.”

“Let me guess,” Greg said. He had heard of this maneuver before. “This anonymous email contained a bunch of personal insults, calling this Susan a bitch and whatnot.”

Anne shook her head. “No. That would have been bad enough, but random insults like that only cut so deep. Most of us have been on the receiving end of all the major four-letter words at least once, right?”

“I suppose.”

“The email contained something far more damaging,” Anne continued. “It claimed that this Susan had had an affair with one of her professors in college.”

“But that could be nothing but cheap talk as well. Correct?”

Anne shook her head. “The email contained a link to the professor’s home page at Susan’s alma mater. That added some credibility. But here’s the real clincher: There was also a link to an anonymous Facebook account. The profile photo for the account was a snapshot of Susan and the professor. It wasn’t completely incriminating; but he had his arm around her.”

“Wait a minute,” Greg interrupted. “You’re saying that Jessica—or whoever did this—acquired a private photo of this woman and her professor?”

“Yes,” Anne said. “It isn’t so fantastic when you think about it. A lot of people have posed for pictures that come back to haunt them later. Every other week we hear about another celebrity whose career gets torpedoed by an old nude photo, or some sort of shenanigan on Facebook. Young people nowadays have huge online digital footprints, with all those social networking sites and blogs out there. If someone wants to find some dirt on one of them—”

“The dirt is out there.”

“Yes. Provided, of course, that someone is sufficiently motivated to dig it up.”

“I see,” Greg said. Luckily, he had never paid much attention to the online world—apart from CNN.com and an occasional use of Google. He didn’t even do his banking online. And he certainly didn’t have a Facebook account.

If Jessica chose to duplicate her previous tactic against him, she could of course email allegations about his drinking and his increasingly nasty divorce…Maybe even a hint or two about sexual harassment. But there would be no online smoking gun for her to find.

“And there’s more,” Anne said.

“More?”

“Yes. Apparently Susan and her older lover weren’t as careful as they should have been. It seems that Susan got pregnant and ended up having an abortion.”

“This was alleged in the email?”

“More than alleged. The email contained an attachment: a jpeg of Susan’s release form from the clinic where the procedure was performed.”

Greg whistled and shook his head. Was it even possible to find an old release form from an abortion clinic online? Apparently it was.

“Incredible,” he said, shaking his head. “And horrible, too.”

“Isn’t it? And it gets even worse.”

“I somehow thought you would say that.”

“The email wasn’t sent only to Susan’s colleagues at Rockland. It was also sent to Susan’s parents—who were devout Catholics and would have been very upset about the abortion. And Susan was engaged at the time. Susan’s fiancé was also included on the cc list.”

“Ouch,” Greg said. Ouch, indeed.

“Yeah,” Anne agreed. “So that morning Susan leaves the office in tears—and as it turned out, she would never come back again. Within a few hours her parents were calling her. Then the fiancé broke off the engagement.”

“All that from one little email?”

“All that from one little email. Susan tried to commit suicide by swallowing a jar full of sleeping pills and a half a bottle of wine. They pumped her stomach and revived her at the hospital. Six months later she did it again.”

“More pills?”

“No. By that time she had moved back in with her parents. She used her father’s shotgun this time. Needless to say, her second suicide attempt was successful.”

Greg was dumbstruck by Anne Holloway’s story. “I don’t know what to say. That’s horrible.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Well, the obvious question is: How did you know that Jessica was behind it all?”

“I was never able to prove it—not conclusively, at least. The day after the infamous email we questioned each of Susan’s coworkers.”

“Did Jessica admit to it?”

“Of course not. The girl’s not stupid, I tell you. But she left no doubt in my mind that she was the one behind it.”

“How did you know?” Greg pressed.

“During the entire discussion in my office, Jessica wore this odd half-smile on her face, like she was barely able to restrain her glee. When I challenged her, she said, ‘It looks like Susan’s secrets came back to haunt her. What do you want me to do about it?’ I suggested that she could start by showing a bit of compassion toward her colleague. But Jessica just looked at me coolly and said, ‘Whatever’.”

“Whatever,” Greg repeated with a chill. “Miss Tanner’s favorite word. Did you at least fire her?”

“No. How could we? There was no concrete evidence linking Jessica to any of it.”

“And how did it go with her at Rockland after that? Were there other—incidents?”

“About one year after the email incident Jessica had an affair with her married supervisor. The two apparently had a falling out when he failed to recommend her for a promotion.”

Greg felt a stab of jealousy as he absorbed this little tidbit. Jessica was out to blackmail him in some way—that much was clear—but sleeping with him obviously wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, she had gone out of her way to show him scorn in that regard.

“Based on what you’ve told me, there must have been fallout. What happened to the supervisor?”

“His wife received an anonymous envelope that contained pictures of Jessica and him together at various locations—in restaurants, exiting hotel rooms, et cetera, et cetera. It was made to look like the work of a private investigator; but the guy’s wife hadn’t hired a private investigator.”

“Jeez. He didn’t kill himself too, did he?”

“No. He didn’t commit suicide—at least he hasn’t yet—but his wife divorced him.”

Greg had heard enough. He needed to put together a strategy of his own for dealing with Jessica.

“Thanks for telling me all this, Anne. It appears that I have a bigger problem on my hands than I thought.”

Anne reached across the table and laid her hand on his. This was a startlingly intimate act; but her subsequent tone suggested that there was no mere flirtatiousness behind it.

“I want you to be careful with Jessica Tanner,” Anne said. “Your best course of action is to simply get away from her if you can. Arrange to get yourself transferred—or have her transferred. Don’t confront her any more than you already have.”

“I’m not going to run away from her,” Greg scoffed. “She’s like what—twenty-six or twenty-seven years old?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Anne insisted. “Jessica always scared me, in a way that no other employee ever has. And I’ve been working in HR for going on twenty-five years now. She’s made of ice, I’m telling you. I honestly believe that she’s a sociopath.”

“Really?”

“I once read that something like one out of every twenty people is a clinical sociopath. Not every sociopath actually becomes a killer, but they all share certain traits: They don’t have a sense of guilt. They cannot empathize with the pain and suffering of others.”

“Let’s not blow this out of proportion,” Greg said. “Jessica Tanner is a conniving schemer—no doubt about that. But she isn’t physically dangerous. She can’t be.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Anne said. “I don’t meet many women who I believe would be capable of murder. But I believe that Jessica actually could kill someone if it furthered her aims. And she would do it without batting an eye.”

***

Greg drove back to the office in a fugue, his mind awhirl with the disturbing implications contained in Anne Holloway’s story. If the account Anne had given him was true—and he had no reason to doubt its veracity at this point—then Jessica Tanner was in fact dangerous. And she was certainly out to get him.

He sat at his desk and tried not to look at Jessica. Anything but Jessica.

He launched Lotus Notes, the software application that Apex Machinery used for email. The first thing he noticed was an email from Hal Greene: More details about the pound of flesh that Monica’s lawyer wanted to extract. Hal wrote that he needed to talk to Greg and determine their response.

Then he noticed another unread email. This one was work-related: A meeting invitation for tomorrow morning. When he read the subject header his heart sank: Tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. was the quarterly management meeting.

This was serious. The quarterly management meeting was a forum in which the company’s managers reported on their results over the previous three months. It was an event that received a lot of “visibility,” as one said in corporatespeak. The company’s senior executives religiously attended these functions, and they expected each departmental manager to put on a dog-and-pony show. That usually meant lots of graphs, charts, and long-winded explanations about all the wonderful things they were each doing to add to the bottom line.

Most departmental managers therefore spent weeks preparing for this event. They delegated preparatory tasks to their subordinates, sweated lots of mind-numbing details, and then spent additional hours tweaking and rehearsing their presentations.

Greg had done absolutely nothing. Between his preoccupation with his divorce and his battles with Jessica, the quarterly management conference had completely slipped his mind. (Spending half his time drunk or half-drunk hadn’t helped either, of course.)

Now he would have to scramble to put something together. He would have to rely on his subordinates, which would mean another conversation with Jessica. Perhaps Anne Holloway was right. His best course of action might be to arrange a transfer. He could pull a few strings with the Apex HR folks, maybe.

But today he needed her.

Greg checked the online calendars of his subordinates. In addition to Jessica, there were also Mark and Regina. It occurred to him that he had been practically ignoring Mark and Regina in recent weeks, due to his obsession with Jessica Tanner.

Mark was on vacation today. Regina was on a business trip and would not return until tomorrow afternoon.

That meant that he would have to rely entirely on Jessica. He groaned to himself. She would no doubt pick up on the fact that he had waited until the last minute; and this would become yet one more piece of ammunition that she could use against him.

Well, he could not worry about that now. The quarterly management meeting would take place in less than twenty-four hours. If he didn’t prepare something, he might not have a job at all by this time tomorrow.

He decided that he could at least avoid talking to her. Ah, the conveniences of the electronic age. Greg addressed a bullet-point memo to Jessica in Lotus Notes. He detailed the items that he would need for the quarterly management meeting—and a long list that turned out to be.

At the end he included a few brief sentences of apology for the late notice and the rush request. Then he reconsidered and deleted these lines. Conciliatory gestures would serve no purpose with Jessica. She would merely interpret these as signs of vulnerability. She would smell blood and find a way to go for his jugular vein.

He pressed the send button. A few minutes later Jessica looked up from her computer, glanced in his direction, and then turned her attention back to her own computer screen. She began typing.

Greg was braced for an argument. But Jessica emailed back a terse response of acknowledgement: OK. Whatever.

Greg sighed, and allowed himself to hope that a near-crisis had been averted. Jessica was being flippant, of course; but she seemed to indicate that she would fulfill his instructions. It would mean a late night for her; and she wouldn’t be a happy camper about that. But then, Greg hadn’t been a very happy camper himself recently.

Jessica was of course stewing in the “unfairness” of it all. After all, her supervisor had forgotten about the quarterly management conference. That hadn’t been her fault. It had been his own blunder, though Jessica would have to work late to remedy it. Technically speaking, this situation wasn’t fair.

Well, it might be a good lesson for her. Everyone had to cope with adversity and a bit of unfairness. Greg was saddled with a subordinate who fought him at every turn. His soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer were intent on crucifying him. There was plenty of unfairness to go around.

***

Greg began drinking almost as soon as he closed his front door behind him. He went straight to the refrigerator, and it was luckily well-stocked with booze: a full case of beer, most of a bottle of wine. There was even a bottle of peach schnapps, just in case he wanted to mix things up a little. Variety was, as they said, the spice of life.

His condominium now looked like a frat house on Sunday morning—rather than the abode of an early middle-aged man. The kitchen garbage can overflowed with empty beer cans and bottles. Dirty dishes had accumulated in the sink, whence they emanated a rancid odor. The entire place badly needed the service of a broom, a mop, and a vacuum cleaner.

Look at the animal state they’ve driven me to, he thought, pulling the tab on a can of Coors. And indeed he did feel like a cornered animal. A wild animal that just might bite if given half a chance. 

The beginnings of a headache closed around his temples. He shut his eyes and he saw Monica’s face. She morphed into Jessica, and then back again.

He set the can of Coors on the kitchen table and retrieved a bottle of Jim Beam from the cabinet above the microwave. Beer was good but whiskey was faster. 

***

When Greg arrived at Apex Machinery the next morning, the little red message light on his desk phone was flashing. Hal Greene had left a terse message: Greg was to call him back immediately.

Greg was in no mood to talk to his lawyer—not when he had only a few minutes to prepare for the quarterly management meeting. On the other hand, though, he knew that he would only sabotage himself if he let the divorce proceedings slide.

He dialed Hal Greene’s number. The lawyer answered on the second ring.

“Hal? I got your message. We need to talk about our final proposal to Monica’s side. I simply can’t live with giving up half my 401K—half my portfolio—half of everything. But I’m in no condition to go into details now. We’ll have to schedule another time to talk later.”

“You have bigger problems than that, Greg.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just got a call from Monica’s attorney. Your ex-wife has gone missing.”

“Missing?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You mean she took off for the Bahamas again? I’m not surprised.”

“No, no, Greg. Foul play was apparently involved.”

Greg felt his heart skip a beat. “You mean she was—kidnapped?” He spoke with his hand cupped around the handset, so that no one around him could eavesdrop.

“Murdered, more likely,” Hal speculated. “One of her neighbors noticed a trail of blood leading from her front door early this morning.”

Blood? Monica’s blood? A series of images flitted into Greg’s mind; but he didn’t have time now to process them. This was too much to take in.

“The police are involved by now, I guess.”

“The police arrived a few hours ago and entered the apartment. They’ve cordoned off the place. I’ve got a friend on the local force who feeds me low-level information from time-to-time. He said there was a lot of blood inside. The walls and the carpet were practically soaked with it. No one could lose so much blood and survive, from what I understand.”

For a moment Greg found himself unable to speak. This changed the calculus of the entire situation.

The prospect of losing half his assets to his wife of three years had been a major source of trauma in his life. He had been secretly hoping for a deus ex machina of some sort. Throughout this entire experience, he had been holding out hope that there was a way out—that somehow, somewhere, the universe was preparing a loophole for him.

But he hadn’t wanted it to occur like this. No matter how much he resented Monica at present, she was still a person whom he had been married to. She was still a human being, for goodness sake.

He hadn’t wanted this. He hadn’t asked for it.

Or had he? In his darkest moments of wrathful fantasy, hadn’t he pictured her falling victim to a fortuitous accident? Of course, he always stopped himself when his mind began to meander down this pathway, but—

“Where were you last night, Greg?”

“What? You don’t think that I had anything to do with this, do you?”

“Of course not, Greg. But the police are going to start making a list of people who had a reason to do Monica harm. It would be ideal for you to be able to account for your whereabouts last night.”

“I was drinking,” Greg said simply.

“Was anyone with you?”

“No, I was drinking alone,” Greg involuntarily laughed. “Like the guy in that old George Thorogood song.“

“Greg, this is no laughing matter.”

“No. Of course it isn’t. Will the police be showing up soon to question me?”

“I would be very surprised if they didn’t.”

“So what are we going to do, Hal? I’ve never been a murder suspect before. We need to start working on this, don’t we?”

“Hold on a minute. I’m a divorce attorney, Greg. This sort of matter is beyond my expertise. You’re going to need a criminal lawyer for something like this.”

“Why should I need a criminal lawyer?” Greg whispered loudly into the phone. “I didn’t kill my ex-wife.”

Hal offered no encouragement or affirmation. What should he have expected? Most criminals claimed to be innocent of their crimes—at least initially. As the old cliché noted, the jails were full of the innocent.

“I can recommend several very competent criminal defense attorneys. Why don’t you call my secretary later this afternoon and she can give you their names and telephone numbers. Or we can email them to you, if you prefer.”

***

Greg scrambled to pull himself together for the quarterly management meeting. He was not ready; and there was no way that he was going to pull a last-minute rabbit out of the hat. The clock now read 8:53. He simply would have to wing it, relying on whatever Jessica had prepared for him.

And besides, the quarterly management meeting was arguably the least of his problems. He now had to contemplate the significance of larger events. Monica was missing—and it appeared that she had been murdered.

He was no lawyer—but he knew that his explanation would not buy him a free pass from suspicion. He had been drinking alone (just like Jessica Tanner, the little bitch, had warned him not to do), so there was no one who could vouch for his whereabouts last night. Because of the bitter divorce proceedings, he would be an obvious suspect; the most incompetent prosecutor in the country would have no trouble convincing a jury that he had a motive to kill Monica. And his recently solitary lifestyle would help to build the case that he had had an opportunity.

He knew that he would have to work on his alibi. He had drunk the better part of the bottle of Jim Beam and then passed out on his living room couch. The rest of the night was a complete blur.

The memory lapse was bad enough. But there was more. He had awoken this morning a little after seven. And he had then been lying not on the couch, but on the living room floor. And to make matters worse, his front door had been partially ajar. 

These circumstances—and the gap in his recollections frightened him more than a little. Was it possible that he really had gone out and done something horrible to Monica—perhaps even killed her?

On one hand, he didn’t believe himself capable of murder. On the other hand, he couldn’t remember not murdering his soon-to-be-ex-wife last night, either. 

No time to go down that road now. He had to focus on the quarterly management meeting. At least this would not require him to talk to Jessica Tanner. She had placed the data he requested on his desk inside a manila file folder. There was a little yellow Post-It note attached to the folder: “Quarterly management meeting” in Jessica’s handwriting.

Greg snatched up the folder without looking at its contents. He would both read and present on the fly. His presentation would be less than smooth; but he would muddle his way through it. Somehow.

By the time he arrived in the designated room, the meeting was already underway. Marla Fitch was the manager of accounts payable, and the moderator of the quarterly management conference this time. Marla gave Greg an icy smile. He took his seat at one of the tables that had been set up to form a giant square around the perimeter of the room.

“Now that our first presenter is here, let’s begin,” she said to the twenty-odd people who were sipping coffee and reviewing their own presentation notes.

Greg wanted to groan aloud. He wasn’t getting any breaks today, was he? He glanced up at the agenda that was projected onto the screen that covered the far wall. It indeed listed him as the first presenter of the morning. 

What the hell, he thought stoically. I’ll plunge in and get it over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

He opened the manila folder that Jessica had laid on his desk and thought: Hopefully Jessica came through for me. Just this once.

He threw open the manila file folder. He lifted the first page, then began flipping through the ten or twelve pages beneath it.

They were all completely blank.

Greg paused and looked helplessly around the room, as if one of the other managers was going to come to his rescue. Fat chance of that. They were all staring at him, in fact, relishing his tortured expression—which Greg needed no mirror to confirm.

Marla Fitch began tapping a pen on her day planner. Richard Gardner leaned back and folded his arms. Steven Murphy, a fellow manager who had always hated Greg’s guts, raised his eyebrows.

“J-just a moment,” Greg stammered through panic and the haze of his hangover. “I think that one of my purchasing agents handed me the wrong file.” He stood up and walked over to the internal phone in the corner of the room. He lifted the receiver and dialed Jessica’s extension on the keypad.

“Jessica? That file you gave me—it contains nothing but blank pages. What? What do you mean by that?”

Jessica’s question, unheard by the rest of the room, nearly floored Greg; but he recovered.

“Don’t argue with me. Get in here now, please.”

Greg returned to his seat and tried to evince a cool demeanor. “A little mix-up,” he said to Marla.

Marla wordlessly continued to tap her pen on her day planner.

Then the doorknob of the meeting room turned and a shadow appeared behind the translucent glass. Greg stood up to retrieve a replacement file from Jessica. Or he would publicly scold her for her incompetence. That would serve her right: Call her out on the carpet in front of the company’s entire management team.

But it wasn’t Jessica. The door opened, and Bill Conroy, the head of corporate security at Apex Machinery, entered the room.

Conroy faced a roomful of blank stares.

“Someone called security,” Conroy said. “Is there a problem here? What’s going on?”

“There’s nothing going on here!” Greg said sharply.

The door to the meeting room swung open again. Jessica entered the room.

“Jessica. There you are! I need the correct file from you now. You gave me a stack of blank pages!”

“Whatever, Greg.” Jessica barely acknowledged her boss.

Then she turned to Bill Conroy.

“What is it?” Conroy asked. “Do you know who called the security desk a few minutes ago?”

“I suspect something horrible,” Jessica said. She paused to give Greg a pointed stare.

“What are you looking at, Jessica?” Greg’s face had turned red. A vein was sticking out prominently on his forehead. “Where do you get off looking at me like that?”

The question that Jessica had spoken to him ever-so-casually but a few minutes ago echoed in his ears.

How’s Monica? Jessica had asked.

“Miss Tanner, what you are talking about?” Bill Conroy seemed on the verge of losing his patience. “Exactly what do you suspect?”

But she declined to elaborate for the moment. Jessica stood there silently, even as her boss stood up from his seat and headed in her direction.

Everyone watched Greg with rapt attention as he strode around the table with long, deliberate strides. By the time he closed the distance between Jessica and himself to a few yards, there was an unmistakable grimace of rage on his face.

Then he lunged for her; but another meeting attendee intervened. Mick Haller, the stocky, athletic manager of the service parts department, leapt up from his chair and restrained Greg in what appeared to be a wrestling hold.

The entire room was abuzz with gasps and whispered speculations. Nothing like this had ever happened at Apex Machinery before.

Bill Conroy reached for the walkie-talkie he wore on his belt. Before calling for backup, he addressed Jessica once more:

“Do you really know something Miss Tanner? Or is this a prank of some sort? What’s this all about?”

Jessica shook her head. “I can’t be sure. But I have reason to believe that someone has been murdered.”

Conroy raised his hands in a gesture of expectation.

A discreet, almost imperceptible smile curled the edges of Jessica’s lips. She quickly covered it with an expression of earnest concern.

“It’s a smell,” Jessica said. “A horrible smell.”

As he struggled against the unwanted embrace of Mick Haller, Greg recalled the words that Anne Holloway had spoken the other day.

“I believe that Jessica actually could kill someone if it furthered her aims. And she would do it without batting an eye.”

Then he considered the state in which he had awoken this morning. And his partially open front door. The memory was coming back to him; but he couldn’t remember everything.

Had he gone out? Or had someone else come in? Someone who might want to steal one of his belongings to plant at a murder scene, perhaps?

No, that would be impossible. There was no way that Jessica could have murdered Monica and framed him for the crime.

Unless she had help. Greg imagined Jessica coercing one of her previous blackmail victims into the task. Or maybe she had promised someone a reward of some sort. Some men would do plenty for a reward like that. After all, she had caused him to have those thoughts countless times—as much as he hated her.

And there was still another angle to consider. Maybe he actually had done something to Monica, and Jessica had simply witnessed it.

Maybe she had even encouraged him somehow. He imagined her whispering in his ear as he lay unconscious: “Monica’s going to take everything you own, Greg; and then I’m going to have your job. Unless you do something about it, that is.”

Would it still be his fault if Jessica had spoken to him while he was asleep, and therefore open to subliminal suggestions?

“Jessica!” Greg screamed. “What have you done?”

“The question is what have you done, Greg,” Jessica said. Then she turned to Bill Conroy.

“You need to go out to the parking lot,” she said quietly. “You need to check Greg’s car. And don’t forget to look in the trunk.”

THE END