Chapter 1: LIV
At 4:37 p.m. on Friday, after weeks of dread and just when I’ve convinced myself I’ve been spared, a dossier bearing the title Jamaica lands on my desk. Tucker had probably been aiming for my in-basket, but since he’s standing in my doorway and the basket is overflowing, the folder tips over the edge and continues its horizontal motion. It comes to rest on the refinery drawings I’ve been marking up, the right lower edge touching a pump that needs modernization.
When I find my voice I say, “You’re kidding me.”
Tucker’s smile is his signature blend of cynicism and amusement. “If you pull yourself together and need to talk, I’ll be in my office for another five minutes.” He pivots on a well-shod foot and vanishes from sight.
I turn the pencil in my hand and use the eraser to tease out the top sheaf of paper, willing this to be one of his practical jokes. Easy enough to put a label on a folder and pack it with documents destined for the shredder. Then to stand in the hall just out of sight, ready to pop in with a, Haha, Liv, got you good this time.
Alas, this evening brings no such luck. For there in black and white, issued in the name of one Olivia Prosser, is an e-ticket for this coming Monday morning. I’m flying from Columbus to Kingston, via Atlanta.
I use the pencil to extract the next sheaf. Apparently the resort and I have corresponded, most recently when I confirmed an ocean-facing, non-smoking room with a king-sized bed.
At least I was smart enough to avoid having a roommate.
I close my eyes and bend forward to clunk my head repeatedly on my desk. Having seen fellow staffers open their envelopes, I don’t need to examine the rest of the paperwork to know what it contains. There will be a shiny brochure on the all-inclusive resort’s amenities. (Seven pools! Six restaurants featuring international cuisine! Unlimited soft drinks and booze in your room’s mini-fridge!) There will be a listing of optional paid activities, both inside the resort and on the island. Finally, there will be the handout delineating the source of my dry mouth and blossoming headache.
I don’t need to look at the handout but…I stop banging my head and do it anyway, because some masochistic impulses can’t be resisted.
Three months ago, the company I work for, HMZ Consulting, was purchased by Wakefield Enterprises. When I say “purchased,” I really mean “swallowed whole.” We were the krill to Wakefield’s blue whale. Now the time has come for us to “harmonize our corporate cultures.” Accordingly, for the past several months, select employees within my office have been receiving invitations to the upcoming retreat in Jamaica. Once trained in the ways of the mothership, they—and I guess that includes me now—will return as ambassadors to the home office, where we will spread the ways of enlightenment.
Most of the five-day retreat will be run by Wakefield’s second-in-command, Yolanda Perez. The brochure photo shows a woman in her early forties with tight black braids and a confident smile. She’s a psychologist, reportedly half-crazy in her own right, and the rumors about her outdoor group exercises are downright intimidating.
Then there’s the CEO, Finnegan Wakefield. I don’t know if his photo has been retouched, but thirty-four looks good on him. Even better than twenty-four did, if that’s possible.
Finn is giving the Tuesday noon keynote—one hour is his full commitment for the entire program. Depending upon how he receives me, that one hour could be all it takes to upend my life.
I seize the dossier and jam all the papers back inside, then locate my shoes under the desk.
Tucker looks up when I enter his office. He has already put away all his paperwork and is shrugging on his suit jacket.
“How long have you had this?” I ask, brandishing the file.
“It came the same day as mine.”
So six weeks then. You bastard is the phrase that springs to mind, but since Tucker is sensitive to that particular wording, I restrain myself to a growl. “How did you get it?”
I’m at work a good hour before he arrives in the morning, and easily another hour after he leaves for the day. Since he darn well didn’t take the dossier from my desk, that means he’ll have co-opted one of the clerical staff in his scheme—perky, blonde Katrina in the mailroom, if I had to guess.
Before he can reply, I throw up a hand. “Never mind. I don’t want to hear it.” Where Tucker’s concerned, it’s often better not to be too inquisitive. “Anyway, you waited too long to tell me. I can’t go. There’s the Fairchild meeting next week.”
“Amy’ll cancel and reschedule.” He opens his corner wardrobe to extract his overcoat. “It’s not like they were flying in.”
“Hello?” I tap my wristwatch. “She’s gone for the weekend. Everybody’s gone.”
He smirks as he shrugs on the coat. “Guess you’ll cancel it then. His assistant should be reachable if you hustle.”
“What about the Barker project? No way I can make the deadline if I’m away for a business week.”
“The resort has WiFi.”
Meaning that I’ll spend all day in the rah-rah false intimacy of team-building exercises, and my nights on office work. Super.
I turn my back on him with a huff and fold my arms over my chest. Two stories below, my fellow Buckeyes shiver and shuffle through the falling snow, getting an early start to the weekend. I wish I were among them.
Tucker comes up behind me. When he settles his hands on my shoulders, I shrug them off. “Look, Liv, if I could have spared you, I would’ve. You know that, right? And it’s not like we haven’t worked out a strategy to deal with this all.”
This is true. Tucker has his own reasons to be worried about his job. In the summer we three spent together, he and Finn got along like proverbial oil and water. We had decided the best plan was for Tucker to attend the retreat, but become the Jamaican equivalent of beige wallpaper.
“Besides, let’s be honest, you’d have been a mess if you’d known this was coming.”
I set my jaw and feed him a look over my shoulder.
“You wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on the Handel account—”
“What a horror,” I say dryly.
“—and the fractionator would have fallen through the cracks.”
I raise a finger and make a small twirling motion.
“Plus you’d have been starving yourself to try to lose the fifteen pounds.”
I swing around and glare at him. “Sometimes I really hate you.”
“Only sometimes?” he says mildly. “I’m getting lax.” He winds a powder-blue scarf around his neck. Rebecca in HR once said she liked how it brought out the color of his eyes, and it has been a perennial favorite since. “Besides, you know you’re going to see him eventually—Mr. Bigshot Corporate Raider in his custom-made suit—though I’ll always remember he looked and smelled just like me after shoveling cow shit.”
Tucker’s bitterness has such a fresh edge I wonder if I’ve missed something. “Have you seen him, then?” As an engineer, Tucker attends all manner of high-level meetings that a technologist wouldn’t be invited to.
He chucks me under the chin. “I’d have told you if I had. I was referring to the pictures on the company’s website. It’s obvious Finn drops a bundle on his clothes.”
By biting my tongue I refrain from pointing out that Tucker has been known to indulge in sartorial elegance himself, his coat being the latest example.
As for the larger argument, a corner of me knows he’s right. If I’m to continue to work for Wakefield—and with my situation I simply have to—it’s only a matter of time until I run into Finn. Better to rip off the Band-aid in a time and place of my choosing rather than wait on tenterhooks for months, or possibly years.
“Okay. I’ll make it work.”
Tucker nods approvingly. “That’s the spirit, Kibble.”
But as I let myself back into my office and start packing up the drawings I’ll need to take, the enormity of the task seems overwhelming. I’m going to have to pull off the balancing act of a lifetime.
I’m going to have to come across as smart and competent, but not to the point Finn looks too closely at my employment record, or my position within the company. I’ll need to be cool and collected, but not to the point he’ll take my reserve as a challenge. Again.
I’ll have to figure out how not to become the pawn in a power struggle between Finn and Tucker. Like that’s going to happen.
But carry it off… Oh, carry it off, and the potential rewards are huge. Maybe I can repair some of the damage I did the last time we saw one another. Imagine that—Finn able to look at me without revulsion.
The very thought has my throat tightening and my eyes prickling.
And if I’m exceedingly fortunate, not only can we be civil to one another in passing, but I’ll work in an opportunity to show him a photo of my apartment. I think Finn would approve of it. I think he’d be impressed with all its white, pet-free serenity.
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