Chapter One

3137 Words
Chapter OneLynn finished blow drying her hair and put on a gray suit, the long, pleated skirt reaching mid-calf. The jacket's wide lapels lay neatly over a navy blouse. Mona stood on the bed screaming for her breakfast. Lynn gave herself a final glance in the mirror, smoothed her jacket and gave her reflection a satisfied nod. She made her way to the kitchen cupboard that was home to Mona's food, and the screams got louder. “All right, all right,” Lynn said to her impatient companion. When she had the box in hand, Lynn pushed Mona's head out of her food bowl long enough to fill it with dry food. She ran out the front door and climbed behind the wheel of her five-year-old Ford Taurus, which had once been called hunter blue, but was now a faded bluish-gray. Lynn pulled into the Prestige Company parking lot at seven a.m. She unlocked the door and looked around the empty office, taking comfort in these familiar surroundings. As usual, she was the first to arrive, and would probably be one of the last to leave. She liked this early morning time, before the phone started to ring and the day's problems surfaced. It was some of the most productive time in the day. Lynn shivered in the forty-five-degree morning temperature, as she waited for the heat to kick in and the coffee to finish brewing. It was a cold one for San Diego, where the weather seldom left her fifty-five to eighty-degree comfort range. Lynn heard the clicking sounds of the fax machine, located next to the receptionist's desk. She cupped her hands and blew smoke into them, then rubbed them together to encourage circulation. She walked over to the fax machine, which made a thumping sound as it spit out a finished page, and then a series of beeps to announce its readiness to start again. Lynn picked up the fax. It was an airline form, confirming a flight to Mexico City for someone named Terry Shepherd. No one who worked at Prestige. She examined the sheet further. Shepherd was to leave Los Angeles International Airport tomorrow. She shook her head, feeling compelled to tell the airline they had blown it so that Terry Shepherd, whoever he might be, could actually receive his confirmation before he boarded his flight in twenty-four hours. Lynn picked up the telephone on the receptionist's desk and dialed the airline number on the fax cover sheet. It rang until a woman's high-pitched voice perfunctorily recited, “American Airlines, this is Janice, how may I help you?” The tone suggested that this greeting was uttered by rote and without much real desire to help. “This is Lynn Kelly, General Manager with Prestige Company. We just received a fax from you confirming a reservation for tomorrow for a Terry Shepherd.” “Yes ma'am. I'm glad you got it,” the woman offered, her tone suggesting she was now ready to hang up. “We don't have any Terry Shepherd, or any other Shepherd that works here,” Lynn said. “Just a moment,” Janice said with marked disinterest. Lynn shook her head, wishing she had filled her coffee cup before she got involved in this call and reminding herself that no good deed goes unpunished. It was about three minutes before Janice returned to the phone. “We sent it to the right number, ma'am,” she said impatiently. Lynn frowned. “But there is no Shepherd here, Janice.” “Well, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe someone made these reservations for a friend or family member. I don't know, all I know is this is the number we were given, so there's nowhere else I can send it.” “I understand,” Lynn said resignedly. Enough was enough. Time to get to the coffee pot. “You might check one more time though, just to make sure.” “Yes ma'am,” Janice said in a way that suggested she had no intention of doing anything further. “Have a good day.” “Yeah, you too,” Lynn said, placing the phone back into its cradle. Lynn took off her coat and walked over to the closet hidden under the stairs in the back of the building. Use of the closet was discouraged by its door, which always stuck in a closed position, as well as its inconvenient location. For the first six months of her employment, Lynn thought the closet was kept locked. Since learning it was just stubborn, she had kept its secret, and was the only one who used it. She drew a hanger from the closet and hung up her coat among the two other garments that were unclaimed, permanent residents of the closet. She stepped forward and extended her arm to reach for a hanger. As she did, her foot kicked something. She finished hanging up the coat, and then bent down to take a look. Pushing the other hanging garments out of the way, Lynn saw the protruding end of a leather bag she had never seen before. She pulled it out and examined it. Its small brown handles seemed undersized for the large leather duffel. The bag was bulky and obviously full. She pushed it back into the closet and turned to go. Then she stopped, suddenly giving in to curiosity, and pulled the bag from the closet. Pulling the handles apart revealed a zipper that ran the length of the bag. She looked around to assure herself that she was still alone. Seeing no one, she tugged on the zipper. Her eyes widened in disbelief. The bag was full of neatly stacked hundred dollar bills. She drew a deep breath, and then looked around furtively to see if anyone was watching. She slid the bag back into the closet, pushed the ever-stiff door tightly closed, and made her way back to the coffee pot. As she walked through the office, she looked around for any sign that others had arrived. The office was silent. She checked offices and cubicles, all of which were empty. She was still alone. As Lynn poured coffee into her cup and lifted it up to her lips, she wondered about the money. Whose was it and what was it doing there? It hadn't been there yesterday when she left the office, but there had still a number of employees around, because she had made a point of leaving by six thirty for the family dinner. Lynn returned to her office with her cup of coffee, trying unsuccessfully to turn her thoughts from the money to the work that waited. She sat down at her desk and glanced at the stacks of paper awaiting her attention, and then lifted her eyes to appreciate the deserted environment of the early hour. The large open area outside of her office contained eleven desks, all belonging to people Lynn supervised. Lynn's office had a glass wall that looked out into the open area, implying that she was to keep an eye on all eleven people, while she phoned, faxed and attended to the perpetually full in-box on her desk. By eight o'clock, the noises of the busy office were all around Lynn. Telephones were ringing in every corner of the office. Computer keyboards made their contribution to the chorus, as did the raised voices and shuffled pages of invoices, order forms and reports. Periodically, heads belonging to office and warehouse employees appeared at her door to pose questions or seek instructions. She would quickly dispatch them with direction, and then return her attention to the mountain of paper on her desk. Lynn watched with amusement as Bob Silver, the company's Chief Financial Officer, walked over to the reception area and stared at the fax machine like it was an alien spacecraft. Here was a man who could recite Prestige's profit and loss statements for the last eight years, but had no idea of how to make a two-sided copy, send a fax or add paper to either machine. Lynn watched with mild amusement as Silver stared for several moments before pointing to the fax machine and mouthing some inaudible question to Annie, the receptionist, who responded with a smile and came around her desk to provide an answer. Like so many of the executives she had known, his brilliance did not extend to the practical. Without their minions to translate their thoughts into action, their world would come to a grinding halt. Lynn stepped outside of her office and walked toward Annie's desk. As she approached, she heard Annie say, “Like I told you before, no fax came in from an airline this morning.” Lynn stopped in her tracks and listened, feigning interest in something on Annie's credenza. Annie continued, “If you want me to, I'll call the airline and get another confirmation sent.” “No,” Silver said, “I'll call them myself,” he said with annoyance. As he turned to go, Lynn said, “There was a fax from an airline this morning, but not for anyone who worked here. A guy named Terry Shepherd. You know him?” Silver hesitated, staring at her for a few moments before saying, “Yeah, Shepherd is a friend of mine.” Lynn said, “No problem.” She walked into her office and emerged with the fax. She handed it to Silver, and his face immediately showed relief. “Thanks,” he offered, “I appreciate it.” He turned his attention to Annie. “I'm sorry I got so excited.” She nodded, and said, “Okay,” but it was clear from her tone that she wasn't okay. He had come on too strong and she was pissed off. Lynn noted that Silver was oblivious, and it would be up to her to say the right things to get Annie past it. At nine o'clock, Dan Marshall appeared at her office door and summoned her with a wave. She followed him down the long hall to the spacious corner office he occupied away from the chaos that surrounded her. He walked around his desk and stared out the exterior window at the expanse of greenbelt the city had required when he built the factory. He turned slowly back toward Lynn, and with one more wave, gestured her to sit in one of his visitor chairs. She complied, and then waited for him to speak. Marshall's expression was unusually severe. As he sat down behind the desk, he removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and index finger. It was a common habit of those who wore glasses, but it always seemed to Lynn that the glasses must have been too tight or in place for years without interruption, in order to have such an effect. “So what's up, boss. You're looking pretty serious. What's all the high drama?” Marshall blew out some air and cupped his hands around his mouth. “This is not an easy thing for me, Lynn; I want you to know that.” She regarded him curiously and waited. He spoke softly, saying, “You know I've always liked you.” He stopped, searching for words, then continued in an uncomfortable tone that signaled bad news. “You did a lot for the company, Lynn. You helped me get this place up and running.” He paused to rub a hand over his mouth. “And?” she asked, feeling like she had joined the conversation in the middle and had no idea what was happening, but knew that it couldn't be good. “And, because of your past contributions, I'm not going to pursue any criminal charges against you. We'll just part company and let it go. It's just so damned disappointing that you would do this.” He looked away from her and took a deep breath. Lynn felt like she had been hit with a mallet. “What do you mean, Dan? What are you accusing me of?” He shook his head. “I don't want to do this the hard way. Let's just not pretend, all right?” She shook her head. “I have no idea what you're talking about.” “Okay, have it your way.” He leaned forward in his chair. “The shipments that have been disappearing for the last six months. It took us a long time to put the pieces together…” He let his voice trail off. “You think I had something to do with that?” She asked incredulously. “Please, Lynn, we're beyond the denials here.” She had been convicted before she had even learned she was a suspect. She was suddenly angry. “What are talking about? I never took anything. Why do you think I did?” He leaned back in his chair, a pained expression on his face. “Five witnesses in the shipping department, all pointing to you.” “The same five that I told you were probably the ones stealing the merchandise, right? All of them good friends covering for one another.” He nodded. “Yeah. You did tell me about them before. And I believed you, Lynn. That's what hurts. I almost fired all five of them.” She was confused and her head was beginning to hurt. She said nothing. “Until this,” Marshall said, his tone conveying dismay. He produced a purchase order bearing what appeared at a glance to be her signature. “One of the missing shipments you authorized for delivery to a company that doesn't exist.” She suddenly had trouble getting air. None of this made any sense. She looked closely at the signature and realized it was a forgery, but a good one. “This is not my signature,” she said. “It's forged.” He stared at her with a look that said he didn't believe her. “That's it, Lynn. No more.” She felt tears welling up but refused to cry. “Clean out your desk,” he said quietly. “Dan, how can you believe this? You know me. I would never steal from this company, or from anybody.” She could see that her desperate plea had no effect. “Just like that? After what I've given to this company. Without any hearing?” His look became more determined. “Let's not make it any worse. Like I said, no criminal charges…” he paused, and then added, “but don't use me as a reference.” I'm not going to tell some poor bastard trying to make a living that you should be trusted. And don't apply for unemployment. We'd have to fight that because you brought this on yourself.” She stood up and hit his desk with a closed fist, momentarily startling Marshall. “You son of a b***h. I never stole a rubber band from this company. I just can't believe…” He held up both hands in a halting motion. “Tirades won't help, Lynn. It's over. Now pack up and get out. Bob Silver will escort you off the premises as soon as you've had a few minutes to gather up your things.” He pointed to Bob Silver, who now stood in the doorway. “Make sure you only take what's yours–nothing belonging to the company.” These last words of disbelief and abrupt dismissal tore through her and she found herself fighting to suppress tears. She looked at him with eyes that flashed anger. She wanted to strike out at him, feeling betrayed by the only thing in her life that had kept her going. Lynn caught a glimpse of the coffee cup on the desk, in front of her, Marshall and his wife pictured with warm, content smiles. In a momentary impulse, she grabbed the coffee cup from of his desk and hurled it through the window behind him. She took in his shocked expression, then turned and walked from the room, with the sounds of shattering glass still ringing in her ears. Bob Silver stepped out of the way and let her pass, then followed at a distance. She walked to her desk and began packing her photos and belongings into a nearby cardboard box. She was fighting a losing battle to hold back tears as she filled the carton and walked out of the office. She stopped at her office door and looked back. Everything that made this office a part of her life was in one small box. That's all there was of the long hours, lost weekends and sweat she had given over the last four years. And now the office looked like it could belong to anyone, or to no one. She walked to the front door carrying the box. Looking behind her, she saw Silver silently follow her into the front hallway, then turn and walk away. He was just doing his job she told herself. Just like she had been doing, until now. She pushed on the front door, and then stopped, realizing she had forgotten her coat. She debated whether to return. Maybe she should come back later, when she was in control. No, she would do it now, so that she would never have to return to this place again. She put her box of belongings by the front door, and then walked back into the building. Lynn made her way back to the closet under the stairwell. She looked around, feeling hopeless and humiliated. She expected to draw stares, but no one seemed to be watching her. Lynn arrived at the closet and pulled hard on the resistant door while lifting the handle. On the second try, it opened. She reached inside and grabbed her coat. Her foot hit something. Instantly, she remembered. Without hesitation, she bent down and picked up the brown leather satchel. She laid her coat over her arm that carried the satchel, and made her way toward the front door. She suddenly felt a sense of terror that she had never experienced before. “Jesus, what am I doing?” she asked herself, but she kept on walking. Each footfall was surreal. Movement was in slow motion, and the front door seemed miles away. She expected to be grabbed from behind at any moment, but no one grabbed her. No one even seemed to notice. Lynn reached the front door and picked up her box of belongings. With the box, her coat, and the leather satchel, she walked quickly to her car. She threw everything in the back seat and climbed behind the wheel of the Taurus. She rummaged through her purse and pulled out the keys, her hands visibly shaking as she searched for the ignition key from the six keys on the ring. She found it and started the car. From behind her there was a loud male voice. “Hey, wait a minute.” She thought of speeding out of the parking lot, but didn't move. The man approached her driver's side window. “Lynn, hold it.” She froze, staring out at the face of Bob Silver. The expression on his face was concern, or maybe sympathy, not anger or accusation. She drew a breath. He smiled warmly and spoke with compassion. “I just couldn't let you leave without telling you that I'm sorry. You're good people, Lynn, and I don't think you did it.” She forced a smile. “Thanks Bob. That really does help to know that someone still believes in me.” He gave her arm a squeeze then turned to go. She watched him walk away, took several deep breaths in an attempt to reduce her pulse to somewhere near normal, and then drove away with the satchel safely in the back seat.
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