Slick’s firing, though inevitable, was poorly timed. It was too soon. Blame needed to build over the next few days, culminating in retribution after the end of the fiscal year. Rudy had seen it playing out in the first week of October, after Fitch’s finance team closed the books. Slick, Joe and the Trinity would sit down in the executive conference room and watch it play out through a PowerPoint presentation Rudy would meticulously construct to point the guns at Slick. He was the sacrifice. That’s how it needed to go. Firing him now not only stole that thunder, it quenched the blood thirst so quickly there would be time for the Trinity’s throat to dry again and ache for more.
Rudy’s phone screen came to life with another incoming call. Mom again, calling back to give him a piece of her mind. He punched the button.
“What the serious fuck, Mom?”
“I have Mr. Augustine for Mr. Hardwick.” Her formal tone let him know Augustine listened in the wings. Rudy cringed.
“Mr. Augustine,” he said.
“That’s how you answer your phone?” Augustine said.
“I apologize, sir. I got some bad news.”
“What a coincidence. So did I. What are we going to do about it?”
“About the quarter? Or about—”
“About the weather forecast,” Augustine snapped. “Yes, about the quarter. What the hell is the matter with you?”
“I’m working on it, sir.”
“You’re working on it. Which means you don’t know.”
“I’m leaving no stone unturned.”
“Don’t try to dazzle me with bullshit, goddam it. Yesterday you were cock sure. Now you’re not?”
“The jammers gave us a surprise, sir.”
Surprise. In his unsettled state he’d just used a word from the taboo list. The reaction was swift. Augustine’s volume doubled.
“You’re surprised about the jammers you assured me were shipping while you gargled on my four-thousand-dollar champagne?”
Normally Rudy’s nimble mind would pull up half a dozen possible options that seemed plausible. They would sound good, cloud the discussion and buy him time to work out a real solution. For the first time in his Pax-Jupiter career his wits failed him. He couldn’t see the numbers in his head. Couldn’t visualize the escape. What he could see, quite clearly, was Max’s lifeless body slumped over his steering wheel.
“You know or you don’t know?” Augustine demanded.
“I’m doing everything possible to optimize the result.” Optimize. Fuck. Another word from the list. He felt himself slipping.
“Are you trying to handle me?” Augustine spat.
“I have a graveyard full of guys like you.”
“I already put my faith in the wrong man once this year. He’s on the sidewalk. Don’t make me wonder if I should be doing it again.”
“You’ll show me the bridge to the target the minute you get in. Or you’re done.”
Rudy didn’t have to hang up. The line disconnected. In less than four hours he’d be in the executive conference room with Joe and the Trinity. With Slick already dispatched, Rudy was the new sacrifice. He was screwed.
Passengers with seats in coach converged on the gate. He watched them jockey for position in a thick, poorly defined mass with at least three tails funneling into a decision point. Once there, people pressed tightly into the person ahead of them to squeeze out the competing tail. What if Max stood at that convergence? There was no question. He would step back to allow other passengers to take the position ahead of him. He would do it with class. Rudy watched the pressing, calculating mob. It had been so long since he’d viewed it from this angle he’d forgotten all about it. It repulsed him.
His reflection regarded him from his dark phone screen. Tired. Haggard. A single grain of sand was wedged stubbornly between the top of the phone and the case. A remnant of his failed quest to the beach. He was still considering it when the lines cleared and the gate agent called for final boarding. Rudy picked up his bags.
The agent called over to him. “Sir, will you be boarding?”
“That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
She extended a hand toward the gate door. “It’s now or never.”
The woman from the beach said the same thing to him the day before.
“It’s that definite?” he asked.
The agent was getting amused at this. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
She was getting ready to close the door. The door back to Pax-Jupiter.
“It must be nice to have a job where things are so clear,” he said.
The agent showed the first signs of discomfort with the conversation. She let ten seconds pass before trying again.
“Sir?” she said. “This is your last chance. Really.”
She pushed the gate door back a couple of inches and kicked away the rubber wedge holding it open.
He took the handle to his bag and started walking away from the gate. Behind him, he heard the agent close the door to the jet bridge. Down the corridor beyond it he knew that an airline employee sealed the door to the jet.
In his mind he could see Max, motionless, his bloodstream brimming with carbon monoxide, the intercompany memo on his lap. The same Max he’d watched from his office window, making his way down the sidewalk back to the maintenance building, a bundle of fluorescent tubes under his arm. Max, with a bounce in his step, his spirits buoyed by the prospect of decency prevailing in the office suite high above him. Rudy watched him in his head. He could still taste the champagne on his tongue.
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