Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 24

Chapter 24

This time, Stephen jogged away from Richard’s office, deeper into the CouldBU maze.  If he was running more quickly than before, he told himself that it was because he felt a sense of urgency to bring this crisis to a close, not because he was running away from… anything.  Every sense was alert now, every nerve frayed.  The sight of Mary had shaken him far more than the news reports painting Stu as a mushroom-crazed eco-terrorist, but he had to stay focused.

He rounded a corner just in time to see a flash of green and brown fabric disappearing at the end of the next hallway.  He leapt back and peered around the edge of the wall, but no one else appeared.  Proceeding more cautiously now, he crept past several closed and locked doors, gently trying each handle as he passed.  If someone was in one of those rooms, there was nothing he could do about it, so he chose not to worry about the possibility of leaving another person behind to sneak up on him.  His only path lay forward now.  As he approached the end of the corridor, he heard a loud clatter, followed by muffled cursing and the thump of swiftly retreating steps.  Whoever was trying to hide from him wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

He jumped around the next corner, hoping to surprise the other person, but just as he arrived the lights went out.  Wonderful, they’ve cut the power, he thought, because this wasn't difficult enough already.  His quick movement had been partially successful, though:  another distant crash announced that his fellow hall-runner had been moving when the lights went out and discovered an unseen wall with his face.  Moments later, the emergency lights came on, their dim, widely spaced pools of light only serving to deepen the darkness between them.  Stephen began moving again before his eyes had completely adjusted to the dimness, following the soft rustle of clothing and trailing his hand along the wall to maintain his balance.  His time in the glass-walled New York office served him in good stead now, as he trusted senses other than sight to guide him around obstacles.

He moved swiftly across several intersections and around more corners, gaining steadily on his as-yet-unseen opponent, who seemed to be having more trouble in the darkness than he was.  He was certain that he wasn’t chasing Stu by now:  the tread was too heavy, the movements too clumsy.  Even when learning his way through this maze on his first visit, Stu had moved smoothly and confidently, his solid connection to the earth beneath him unaltered by the bewildering walls around him.  He was fairly sure that it wasn’t a member of the LA SWAT team, either, though the thought had occurred to him, too late, after he had peered back around the corner after catching his first glimpse of the other person.  If this person were SWAT, Stephen likely would never have known he was there, or else would have found out rather abruptly when he was ordered to hit the floor.  He had decided not to think about a third scenario, where the hypothetical SWAT team member decided he was a threat.  Like having a bat in the house, it was easier to go on if he assumed that the other person was more afraid of him than he was of them.

They were deep in the heart of the building now and had left the CouldBU offices behind.  Stephen was struck again by the how deserted the rest of the building was.  Richard has some serious explaining to do, he thought grimly.  He increased his speed, eager to end this game of cat and mouse so that he could get back to finding Stu.  He was close enough now to hear the other person’s labored breathing, but he still hadn’t caught sight of him.  The corridors were short here, with a turn or intersection every ten paces or so, the product of years of subletting and remodeling.  Whoever this guy is, he knows this place at least as well as I do, Stephen thought, panting slightly himself.

A little later, the hallway began to look familiar again and Stephen realized that they had turned around and were heading back toward CouldBU’s part of the building.  A few minutes after that, Stephen found himself sprinting back down the same hallway where he had first glimpsed his quarry.  I sincerely hope that this is the bell lap, he thought, putting on another burst of speed.  Even though he had started jogging again, he wasn’t in shape for an indoor cross-country race, so he could only hope that the other person was as tired as he was and would go to ground soon.

As though sensing his thoughts, the other person stopped running, the sudden cessation of pounding feet echoing down the hallway.  Stephen charged around one last corner, just in time to see a camouflaged leg disappearing through an office door.  The door slammed shut with finality, followed by a loud click as it was locked.  Stephen stumbled to a stop outside the door and leaned against it, gasping for breath.  He could just barely hear the other person doing the same on the other side.

"You can’t hide in there forever!" he called.  "Why don’t you just come out and tell me what you’re up to?"

"No!" a man’s muffled voice answered.  He sounded familiar, but Stephen couldn’t hear well enough past the blood roaring in his ears to recognize it.

"Fine," he gasped.  "I’ll wait."  He stood up and moved to the other side of the corridor to lean on the opposite wall and watch the door.  Just as his back touched the wall, the door next to him opened abruptly and a grizzled head poked out, startling him so badly that he let out a small squeak.

"Stephen?" Stu rasped.  "I’m glad you’re here, but why are you yelling at me?  I’d rather not have everyone know where I am right now."

"Stu?" Stephen swallowed hard to force his heart out of his throat and back in his chest where it belonged.  "Not you.  Someone else.  I didn’t know you were here."

"Well, why didn’t you?  I told you where I was when I called."  Stu gestured to the sign on the wall next to him, and Stephen read:  Janitor’s Closet Conference Room J.

"Oh.  Now that you mention it, I don’t think I actually knew where this room was.  I mean, who keeps track of where the janitor’s closets are?"

"Janitors?"

"Besides them."

"Um, do you mind if we talk inside?  I’m not really comfortable in the hallway right now."

"Oh, sure."  Stephen glanced at the other door, watching for signs of movement as he slipped into the makeshift conference room behind Stu.  "Do you mind if I leave the door open a crack, though?"  He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  "Just in case he tries to bolt."

Stu shrugged.  "I suppose.  Just keep your voice down, please."

Stu walked slowly to the other side of a small conference table that looked as though it had been recently used to test various brands of furniture polish and cleaner.  The names of the brands were written in indelible pen all over the table, above circular patches of discoloration where each product had been applied.  As he settled into a chair near the door, Stephen noted several products that he used at home and made a mental note to change brands.  Stu squeezed past a wooden bookshelf full of cleaning supplies and sat in front of one label that read Simply Green.  Then he whispered, "Why were you chasing that person, anyway?  Did you think it was me?"

"Well, no, not really," Stephen answered, unconsciously lowering his tone to match Stu’s.  "I mean, it occurred to me at one point that this definitely wasn’t you, but I was already chasing him by that point."

"Then why were you chasing him?"

Stephen shrugged.  "I don’t know.  It might have been because I was mad that someone else was sneaking around the halls when everyone was supposed to have either left or stayed in their offices, or maybe because I thought he knew something that could help me."  He shook his head, then shrugged again.  "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

"Well, maybe it was.  After all, that’s how you found me.  I’m just glad that you did it before anyone else did."

"No one’s looked in here?" Stephen asked, surprised.

"Someone opened the door and peeked in once, but I hid under the table and they went away.  I think it might have been Richard, because I heard him yelling down the hallway a little while later."

 "Yeah, he seems to have been doing a lot of that today."  Stephen’s smile was quickly replaced by a worried frown.  "Stu, he told the police that he saw you with plastic explosives.  You don’t have a bomb, do you?"

"Of course not!  Do I look like the kind of person who would blow up a building just because he had to work weekends?"  Stu noticed Stephen’s hesitation.  "Fine, I’ll rephrase that.  From what you know of me, do you think that I would knowingly hurt anyone, especially people with whom I have worked closely?"

Stephen answered slowly, choosing his words carefully.  "From what I know of you, no, I don’t think that you would hurt anyone.  But people have secret lives, Stu, you see it on the news all the time…"

"I wouldn’t know.  I don’t watch the news."  Now Stu was frowning, but not necessarily with worry.

"Well, trust me, it’s on there all the time.  The quiet, slightly different guy -- I didn’t say ‘strange,’ I said different -- who turns out to have the bodies of the last five temps stored in his basement in a big freezer chest."  Stu’s frown deepened as Stephen hurried on. "My point is, I don’t think you would hurt anyone, but seeing those old photographs and hearing about this ‘Sons of Peace’ group, well, it planted a little seed of doubt."  Stephen waited, hoping that Stu would assuage his fears, but ready to flip the table over on top of him if he made any sudden moves.

Stu sighed heavily and slid down further in his chair, pressed down by the weight of the day.  "You know, as strange as my habits may seem to you, there’s a method to my madness."  Stephen winced.  "Sorry, poor choice of words.  One reason I’m glad not to watch the news is because they either fill your head with information you can’t use or distort the information you really need.  Yes, I was part of a group called the Sons of Peace, but we weren’t -- what did they call us?"

"Eco-terrorists."

"Right, eco-terrorists."  Stu emitted a short, seal-like bark, the closest he could come to a bitter laugh.  "Well, it’s better than ‘Ultra-Green Berets,’ or ‘Non-Toxic Avengers,’ I suppose.  That’s what the media called us back then.  We liked the attention, even though they never really understood what we were doing, or why.  All they ever reported were the pipe pluggings and the tree spikings.  They were never around when we nailed a polluter to the wall with a little piece of paper, a soil report or a pH test.  Too technical, I suppose, or not in keeping with the times.  It was all about profits and trickle-down economics then, and if a few carcinogens trickled down along with those profits, well, nobody wanted to think about that while they were eating dinner, did they?"

"So, you were, what, environmental activists?  Like Greenpeace, or something?"

"Greenpeace?  Pfft!"  Stu snorted dismissively.  "Bunch of sissies, crying for the whales while their neighbors got cancer from their drinking water.  And what good did they do, racing around in their little dinghies and getting shot at by Japanese whalers?  We fought the battle right here at home, on our own turf!  We took on the big chemical companies and manufacturers, finding their hidden outflow pipes and plugging them with whatever we had at hand.  We caught the timber companies logging in the wildlife reserves, right under the noses of the BLM, and we stopped them.  What could they do?  It’s not like they could call the cops and say, ‘Excuse me, while I was poaching timber over here, some guys stole all of my saw blades.’  I’ll admit that our methods weren’t always strictly legal, but we were outlaws fighting bandits.  Sometimes you have to use the tools of the devil to stop the spread of his works.  But we never hurt anyone, Stephen, never!  Not knowingly, at least."

Throughout this speech, Stu’s voice had grown stronger as passion replaced fear.  By the end, he was nearly shouting.  Stephen thought that he heard stirrings across the hallway as he raised his hands in what he hoped would be taken as a placating gesture.  "OK, Stu, let’s try to stay calm, OK?  If the news folks have the story wrong, then I’m sure you’ll have your chance to straighten things out.  You don’t need to convince me, I believe you.  The only people you really have to convince are the police outside, and I’m sure that they’ll listen to the facts, not to some media half-truths."

Stu snorted.  "Are you kidding me?  This is Los Angeles, Stephen, where fantasy is reality.  The one person who has to be afraid of a trial here is the man who’s actually innocent, and the LAPD don’t exactly have a sterling record of thinking things through before they open fire."

Stephen had to concede that point.  "Fair enough.  So how do you propose that we get you out of this without any shooting?"

Stu slumped, the anger leaking out of him.  "If I’d figured that out, do you think I’d still be sitting in an old janitor’s closet?"

They sat for a moment in silence, then Stephen commented, "I’m surprised that you’re still here, actually.  Why haven’t you moved somewhere a little more out of the way?"

Stu gestured above his head vaguely.  "No cameras.  They didn’t bother, since no one was using the room anymore."

Stephen nodded.  "Ah, good thinking."  They lapsed into silence again, punctuated by their soft breathing, the quiet buzz of the emergency lighting, and the occasional rustling from across the hall.  In the quiet, it almost sounded as though it were coming from within the room.

After several minutes, Stu stirred.  "Hey, do you want to see my ‘bomb?’"  He leaned down suddenly, the movement punctuated by a sharp squeak from somewhere on his side of the room.

Stephen tensed again and reached out, ready to flip the table.  "Excuse me?"

"My bomb.  The thing that started all of this.  Do you want to see it?"  Stu’s head was still below the table, so Stephen took the opportunity to see if there was anything within reach that he could grab quickly and swing to incapacitate his friend.  A mop that had been leaning against the bookshelf suddenly toppled toward him and he leaned forward to grab it just as Stu sat up again holding a small cardboard box.  Stephen froze, mop in hand, and tried to look harmless when Stu looked up at him.  "Thanks for catching that.  The darn things fall on me whenever I bend down to pick this up.  I’ve wedged them in there a couple of times, but they just keep working their way loose."  He set the box on the table, holding the flaps back to afford a clear view.  Stephen stared at it for a moment and sighed deeply before putting the mop back and returning to his side of the table.

"That’s a first for me," he commented as he took his seat.  "I’ve heard the phrase, ‘angry enough to spit nails,’ but never ‘nervous enough to eat plastique.’"  He nudged the box with one hand, pushing aside some napkins and scraps of paper to reveal the contents more clearly.  Inside, he saw a collection of wires, bike cables, and gears, along with two rectangular blocks tightly wrapped in white wax paper.  One was still wrapped and labeled C-4.  The other, half-eaten, lay in the remains of its wrapper, the label C-5 still visible on the top.  Some crumbs and flakes of crusty bread could be seen on the bottom of the box.  The pungent odor of cheese filled the room, making his mouth water.  "It could be considered tampering with evidence at this point, but may I try a taste?"

"Help yourself," said Stu, handing him a large pocketknife.  Stephen leaned forward to cut off a hunk and stuff it in his mouth.  As he leaned back, grunting appreciatively, he asked, "You make this yourself?"

"Yes, though this is the first batch that turned out well.  The first two were terrible.  Something’s different about the milk here.  I don’t know if it’s different breeds of cow, or whether the guy who sold it to me was actually giving me goat’s milk, or what.  I finally got the curd right this time, though."

"Yes, it’s quite good," Stephen said around another mouthful.  His stomach gurgled appreciatively.  "Third batch, you said?  I don’t suppose these are the fourth and fifth blocks that you cut?"

Stu smiled through his beard.  "You figured out my labeling system."

"It’s too bad Richard couldn’t."

Stu sobered again.  "Very much so."  A loud gurgling sound came from his side of the room, and Stephen hurriedly put the cheese down.

"You’re not ill, are you?  I thought you said that this batch turned out well."

Stu shook his head slowly.  "That wasn’t me."  Another small squeak issued from the vicinity of the supply shelf.

Cautiously, Stephen rose and slid around the table while Stu quietly rolled out of his way without getting up from his chair.  Still holding the pocketknife in his left hand, Stephen grabbed the mop with his right and used it to poke behind the bookshelf.  "You know," Stephen said conversationally, punctuating every other word with another jab of the mop handle, "I’ve been doing a mental roll call ever since I got inside the building, trying to figure out who was missing.  Assuming that Brad and Robert don’t come into the office anymore, there are only two people who should be here but haven’t appeared yet:  Richard…" he reared back and gave an extra long stab with the mop, reaching in with his arm until he hit the far wall, then swiping the handle downward until he was rewarded with a satisfying thwack and a loud yelp.  "… and Dan."

After a moment or two or rustling and scraping, Dan’s tousled head appeared behind the converted bookshelf, bits of lint and dirt stuck in his hair.  "Hi guys!" he said nervously, showing his teeth in an ingratiating smile.  "Imagine us all choosing the same hiding place!"  He crawled out behind the shelf and made a half-hearted attempt to brush himself off before giving it up.  He leaned around Stephen, who still hadn’t put down the mop and looked as though he weren’t done using it, and asked Stu, "Hey, do you mind if I grab a bite of that cheese, too?  It sure smells good, and it’s at least an hour past lunchtime now, isn’t it?  I don’t suppose the caterers will be coming in today."  He looked so forlorn that Stephen relented, backing away and putting the mop back in its corner.

"Help yourself," Stu offered, "but please don’t touch the other package.  I have a feeling that I’ll need to present that to someone outside, assuming that I’m not shot in the process."  Dan gratefully dug in while Stephen and Stu watched, their thoughts turning dark again.

"What were you doing in here, anyway, Dan?" Stephen asked when he could take no more of the consultant’s eating habits.

"Thinking about the go-to-market strategy," Dan answered around a mouthful of cheese.  Noting Stephen’s skeptical glare, he revised his answer.  "Fine, sleeping!  Ever since my other nest in the big conference room was discovered, I’ve been looking for a good place for my naps."  He waved a hunk of cheese at Stu and then at the ceiling before speaking around another bite.  "I chose this room for the same reason you did:  no cameras."

"That explains why I kept finding nibbles taken out of my lunch," grunted Stu.  He glared at Dan, who affected a look of injured innocence.  "I thought we had mice.  That’s why I double-wrapped everything."

"Why were you hiding your lunch all the way down here?" Stephen asked.  "In fact, why bother to bring lunch at all when it’s catered every day?"

"A man can only eat so much tofu, Stephen," Stu said, with Dan nodding fervently beside him.  "I was hiding it here to keep it away from Frank.  He gets hungry around eleven every day and starts poking around for a snack.  He found my food no matter where I hid it in the office, and I don’t believe in refusing to feed a hungry man.  So he kept eating my lunch."

"It’s wrong to deny a hungry man food, but it’s OK to hide it from him?" Stephen observed.

"Admittedly, it’s a gray area, but sometimes it’s just easier to avoid the ethical conundrum.  Especially when it involves Frank.  I thought I’d found a place that no one else knew about, so I started hiding my lunch here, along with the occasional bike project.  It’s very soothing to take a break in the middle of the day and work with your hands in peace and quiet for a little while."

"Yeah, they pretty much forgot that this place existed after they moved you guys out of it and into Thomas’ office," Dan said, popping the last piece of cheese into his mouth and licking his fingers.  "It’s a perfect hidey-hole."

"You seem to have a talent for finding them," observed Stephen sardonically.  "I don’t suppose that you know of a secret passage out of the building, do you?"

"No, but wouldn’t that be cool?  You could go for a latte whenever you felt like it!"

"Like now, for instance?"

"Yeah, I could really go for a mocha…" Dan trailed off.  "Oh, I see what you mean.  Nope, the only way out of here is through the LAPD."

"Bang," Stu said.

"I wish you’d stop saying that," Stephen said.

"I don’t know why it bothers you.  You’re not the one with a big target plastered on his forehead."

"There has to be some way to get you out of here.  What if we had someone create a diversion and snuck you out the back door?" Stephen offered weakly.

"A diversion?  Like telling them there’s a bomb somewhere else?  They think I’m holding my coworkers hostage, Stephen.  They’re not going to just go away if we shout, ‘Hey, look over there!  Something shiny!’  Richard has them convinced that I’m a complete psychotic."

"Richard," Stephen muttered, leaning back to peek through the cracked door.  He stood up.  "I’d forgotten about him.  He has some explaining to do, and it’s about time he started."  He swung the door open and left the room.

Dan looked at Stu.  "How does he know that’s Richard?"

Stu shrugged.  "He’s the only one left."  They rose and followed.

Stepping across the hallway, Stephen pounded on the door, a loud and continued thudding that reverberated through the darkened hallways.  "Open the door Richard!" he shouted.  "I know you’re in there!"

"Step away from the door!"  Richard called from within.  "I’m armed!  I don’t want to shoot you, but I will defend myself with lethal force if I must!"

Stephen shook his head and pounded on the door again.  "You’re not armed, Richard!  Now open this door before I kick it in and send you the bill!"

They waited for a long moment before Richard answered sulkily, "I could be armed."

"OPEN THIS DOOR, DICKIE!" Stephen roared, and was answered almost immediately by the gratifying snick of the lock releasing.

The door opened slowly and Richard’s dirty face peered out.  He was wearing camouflage pants and a tight olive-green T-shirt, and looked as though he might have been crying.  "Hello, gentlemen, how are you?  Mr. Connelly, I see that you’ve managed to get your rogue employee under control, so why don’t we just step outside and let the proper authorities take it from here…."

"If you don’t stop talking right now, Richard, I’m going to beat you like your mother should have," Stephen said quietly.

Richard’s mouth snapped shut, but then his lower lip began trembling as tears leaked from his eyes.  After a moment of quivering silence, he burst out, "I didn’t mean to cause all of this trouble, I swear.  I just panicked when I saw the bomb, and then I was afraid we’d lose a day of work because of all the fuss.  I didn’t want to have to explain it all to Poppy.  I was afraid he’d fire me again, and then Miriam would divorce me like she threatened to do last time.  I’m sorry, really sorry, and I won’t let it happen again!"  He subsided into gasping sobs, leaning against the doorjamb for support.

"Please tell me that you weren’t actually in the Marines," Stephen said sadly.

Richard slowly got himself under control, pulling his shirt up to wipe his eyes.  "ROTC for two years in college.  I quit when I heard we might go to war with Iraq.  That’s where I met Miriam.  She was my drill sergeant."

"Still is, apparently," observed Stu, who could be excused for feeling less than charitable at the moment.

Richard looked hurt.  "I said I was sorry!"

"Yes, well, sorry doesn’t get the laser sights off of my forehead, does it?" Stu roared back.  "You’re going to get me killed, Dick!"

"All right, calm down," said Stephen.  It unnerved him to hear Stu, the icon of calm, snapping like this, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep everyone together if they didn’t leave the building soon.  Now that the air conditioning had been off for over an hour, it was becoming uncomfortably stuffy, which wasn’t helping anyone’s tempers.  "No one is going to get shot."  He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair.  "And if you give me a minute, I’ll figure out how to make sure of that."

During this entire conversation, Dan had been staring at Richard’s pants.  He had been doing so for long enough now that it began to make everyone uncomfortable.  Suddenly he snapped his fingers.  "I’ve got it!" he cried.

"Got what?" Richard asked, reaching down surreptitiously to cover his genitals.  "And what are you planning to do with it?"

"The way out!  I figured out how to get all of us out of here without it turning into the OK Corral!"

"I’m open to any suggestions," Stephen said, not adding, even from you.

"It all comes down to the first two rules of consulting," said Dan excitedly.  "I learned this in my online MBA courses, and I can’t believe that it took me this long to remember them!"  He turned to Stephen.  "It was a great course.  You could really benefit from it.  It was the University of Barbados, online campus.  Great professors.  At least, I assume they were professors.  They typed really well…."

"You were telling us how to get out of here without getting me killed, remember?" Stu said, his voice tinged with hysteria.

"Oh, right.  Sorry.  The first two rules of consulting.  One:  always blend in with the crowd, and two:  as long as you’re carrying something in your hands, you’re safe."  Dan looked triumphantly at the others, receiving blank stares in return.  "Oh come on, don’t you get it?" he raised his hands in frustration and began ticking points off on his fingers.  "We need to get the box of cheese to the police as quickly as possible, so they can see that this has all been a mistake.  Stu can’t walk out there all by himself holding a box without being targeted by snipers and probably taken down before he goes three steps."  Stu gulped audibly at this point.  "They already think that he’s holding hostages, so the thing that’s most likely to relax their guard is to see people being released from the building.  Plus, they’re not going to do anything to risk setting off mass murder in front of the TV cameras."

Dan waited again to see if they had caught up with him yet.  To Stephen’s relief, Richard was the first to say, "I still don’t get what you want us to do."

"Do I have to spell this all out for you?"  Dan rolled his eyes theatrically, though it was clear that he was enjoying being the one with the answers for once.  "Fine.  We gather up everyone who’s left in the office and we get a bunch of boxes, one for each person.  Stu brings his cheese box, but puts it inside a bigger one so it looks the same as everyone else’s.  Then we all walk out the front door carrying the boxes.  The police can’t start shooting because they don’t know who’s carrying what.  They have to give us time to get out there, and then you," he pointed at Richard, "can go over and explain things to them."

"Me?" Richard squealed, looking as though he might start crying again.

"Yes, you," Stephen answered, warming to the idea.  "You started this, so now you can finish it."

"But they’ll probably arrest me for calling in a hoax!"

"Then you can call Poppy and have him send over a team of his high-priced lawyers," Stephen replied remorselessly.  "In this town, you’ll be out of jail within a couple of hours."

***

When the four men returned to Thomas’ office they found a similar, if sweatier, scene to the one Stephen had left.  Stephen quickly showed Stu’s cheese to everyone and explained Dan’s plan for getting them all out of the building.  When he was finished, Kelvin shrugged.  "It’s better than anything I’ve come up with, and your forecast of the police response fits within standard operating parameters in a situation like this."  At Stephen’s questioning glance, he explained, "I looked into our options on the small chance that you were able to talk Stu out of killing all of us."  He saw Stu behind Stephen and nodded.  "Hey, Stu."

"Hello."  Stu waved back, but quickly wrapped his arms around his box again.  He still looked nervous, though clearly relieved to be taking some action.

"We’re going to need to move soon," Kelvin observed, glancing at a live video feed on his laptop screen.  "They look like they’re gathering for some kind of charge."

"All right, everyone spread out," ordered Stephen.  "Connie, Tammy, Mar -- um, Mary:  you go get everyone else who’s left in the office and bring them up to the main reception area.  Everyone else, grab all the medium-sized boxes you can find.  There are a bunch of paper boxes in the copy room.  Open them up and dump out most of the paper, but leave a couple of reams in each one.  They can’t look like they’re empty."

Thomas raised his hand.  "I hurt my wrist doing pushups.  Can I go with the women to round everyone up instead of moving boxes?"

Stephen raked his fingers along his scalp so hard that he feared he might have drawn blood.  "Fine.  Just go quickly!"

Within fifteen minutes, everyone was gathered in the main reception area, standing in front of a stack of boxes that nearly hid the monolithic reception desk from view.  Since he still didn’t know half of the people there, Stephen deferred to Dan and Richard, who between them seemed to know everyone.  They quickly described the plan without fully explaining why it was necessary, only telling everyone that this was part of the police instructions for an orderly evacuation.  When they had finished giving their instructions, one of the women from HR raised her hand.

"Is this some sort of a new layoff strategy?" she asked suspiciously.  "Because if it is, then I just have to tell you that placing our severance packages into paper cases and forcing us to carry them out by ourselves is not a dignified approach to a mass reduction of staff.  As your head of Human Resources, I have to advise you against this course of action.  Plus," she sniffed, "I should have been involved in the planning."

Stephen acknowledged her input with a nod.  "When we get to the front door, you can go first."  Under his breath, he added, "just in case there is any shooting."

Everyone chose one box and filed through the hallways toward the building’s front entrance.  As they walked, Stephen could feel his hands forming damp palm prints on the sides of his box.  He glanced over at Stu, who had stayed by his side the entire time, to see how he was faring.  Stu walked slowly, staring straight ahead, a faint sheen of sweat visible on his forehead.  This is what a man walking to the gallows looks like, Stephen thought.  He leaned over and whispered, "Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.  I think Dan’s plan will work."

"If it doesn’t, make sure to kill him for me, OK?" Stu whispered back.

As they approached the front doors, a deep thrumming vibrated through the floor and in their chests.  "Helicopters," said Kelvin.  "They added two more since you came in."  They kept walking until they were within ten feet of the doors, just out of sight through the tinted glass.  They could hear police bullhorns and the roar of a crowd.  Peering out, Stephen could see that the police presence had more than doubled, as had the size of the crowd.  The entire group stood in silence for a moment, taking in the scene before them.

Frank broke the silence to ask, "Hey, do any of you guys ever wonder what people will say at your funeral?  I hope I get a nice eulogy."  He looked around in surprise at the stony glares directed his way.  "Not the right time to be thinking out loud?"

"Gee, you think?"  Stephen looked out through the glass doors one last time.  There was no point in waiting any longer.  He nodded to Richard, who signaled for the head of HR to lead the procession outside.  She and one of her cronies stepped forward and shouldered both doors open simultaneously, letting in a flood of Los Angeles sunlight and a whiff of smog.  Then they walked out, carrying their boxes, and were greeted by a roar from the crowd and a jumble of shouted orders from the police bullhorns.  After a moment, the rest of the CouldBU crowd, with Stu, Stephen and the rest of the ADD team in their midst, filed out carefully, blinking in the glaring afternoon sun.

"At least it stopped raining,” Stephen observed to Stu as they crossed the threshold.  Maybe I’ll get to enjoy that convertible after all."



Continue to Chapter 25 and THE END

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