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May 122011
 

by Keith Laufenberg


-1-

THE ASSASSIN

Assassin: a murderer esp. for hire or fanatical reasons.

—Webster’s New American Dictionary.

The Assassin drove his ‘96 light-blue Mercedes 600SL convertible to the security gate at the exclusive St. Andrews Country Club, in Boca Raton, Florida.  He nodded at the security guard, who smiled and rasped, “Mister Firestone, how are you today, sir?”

“Fine, my boy,” he replied.  “You won’t be seeing me around for awhile, Al—got another assignment.”

Well, where to this time, if you don’t mind me asking, sir.”

“Sunray—up to their headquarters in New York, hey gotta roll now Al,” he said and sped off towards his seven-thousand-square-foot, seven- bedroom-six-bath contemporary that was set down on a two acre lot.

Set down on seven-hundred-plus acres of man-made lakes, landscaped lawns, shopping complexes, sports and recreation pavilions that included an eighteen-hole golf course, that required a membership fee of seventy-five grand, double that of the annual income of the average American worker, and a twenty-four-hour security patrol, St. Andrews was a virtual self-contained enclave that was literally sealed off from everyone save the spectacularly wealthy.  Terry and Judy Firestone, both in their late 50’s, and childless by choice, naturally enjoyed the atmosphere, populated mainly by others of their ilk.  Alex Firestone was a man who loved and respected only two things, money and power, and he had ample quantities of both, having proved himself three years in the past at the huge Pat Paper Company, when he went in on a thirty-six-month contract that would pay him $2.5 million in annual salary and bonuses, with a clause that would pay him in spades—dependent only on when and how clean he got the job done.  The Assassin had lived up to his nickname, completing the job in only thirty-one months—paying off the huge $2.3-billion-dollar debt the company had racked up—and made many new friends on Wall Street.  As he had planned, The Assassin had collected his reward, over a hundred million in cash bonuses and stock options.  He had cut the work force in half, nearly fifteen thousand employees, then closed three plants by shipping their production centers to Honduras and Costa Rica, where the labor costs were a tenth of what they paid in the United States and, since the passage of NAFTA—in late 1993—proffered by then President Carlos Salinas, a crooked politician in a long line of them, Pat Paper had opened a huge factory in Mexico, where the average worker was paid less for a week’s work than Pat Paper paid their workers in an hour. The Assassin had his own political action committee and had put enough candidates in office to assure the outcome on any bill he had them introduce.

The Assassin smiled, as he pulled into his driveway and the garage door opened.  He would have a leisurely lunch with his wife before going over the files on Sunray, an enormous corporation with over a hundred factories around the nation.  He already knew what he was going to do—he was going to fire half of the corporation’s sixty-thousand workers and ship all the commodity production to South America.  He would pay-off the conglomerate’s nearly 1.5-billion-dollar debt and walk away—within his forty-eight month contract-time—with an estimated $125 million in salary and stock options.  The Assassin strolled into his mansion, as Anna, their live-in maid, who Firestone paid a hundred-fifty bucks a week, began serving lunch and he sat down to a plate of escargots in basil sauce, an appetizer he relished.  Of course, the main course was steak his favorite, filet mignon, medium rare and it had better be perfect.  He had fired a live-in once for an over-cooked steak, as was his right, after all, he paid her more than most of his friends in St Andrews, paid their maids.

-2-

THE WORKERS

Can anybody remember when the times were not hard, and the money not scarce.

—Emerson, Socieiy and Solitude: Works and Days.

Mary Bridges spread peanut butter across a slice of plain white bread and smiled.  She had just finished making three lunches—two for her kids and one for herself.  She was tired from having put in a full-day at work and getting her twin, seven-year-old boys to bed.  It was nine p.m. and she had to be up at six a.m. in the morning, to get her two boys in school.  This was her time to relax and she usually made herself a cup of Decaf and watched television.  She put a cup of tap water in her microwave and pushed the start button.  She was just putting a spoonful of Decaf in the boiling water when the phone rang.  It was Della—her best friend—they had both graduated from high school together and both had worked at Sunray since then.  Della had a seven-year-old son and had been divorced almost that long, while Mary Bridges was now heading in that direction, having been separated for almost a year.

“Mary, you know the talk about closing the plant?”

“Yeah, sure, who don’t, Del’?”

“Well, John says it’s gonna happen on Monday.”

“Come on, Del’, John couldn’t know that, could he?”

“Mare, his brother’s a plant manager—in New York.”

“He talked to his brother then?”

“He sho’ did, girl.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do, Mare?  I been there for nine years.  It’s the only job I’ve ever had.  Mare, we’re not going to get another job payin’ us twelve bucks an hour—not in Arlington and not with medical?”

“But Sunray’s makin’ money?  Why would they close it?”

“Who knows, gotta go Mare’.  See you tomorrow.”

Mary Bridges rang off and put her coffee cup down.  She didn’t get to sleep that night until nearly three a.m.

-3-

THE MANAGERS

The good but pine; the order of the day

Is—prey on others, or become a prey.

—Howard Fish, The Wrongs of Man. (1819)

The two dozen senior executives sipped at their coffee’s gingerly.  This senior staff meeting had been called for nine a.m. and it was now nine-thirty.  They still awaited the arrival of the new CEO of Sunray Corporation.  They all knew who he was and what he specialized in, corporate makeovers, also known as downsizing.  It had begun in the 1960s but hadn’t become as brutal as it now appeared to be, in the upside down sixties, the nineties, for now it appeared that not even senior management was safe, especially when The Assassin was called in—as was now the case.

Todd Grunwald, head of the information services department, cleared his throat and nodded at his compatriots around the table.  Grunwald had been with the company over two decades and had been instrumental in breaking long-time unionizing efforts.  He knew a few of those around the table had been with Sunray less than five years and weren’t nearly as important as he knew he was.  He nodded at Bill Shipley, a production manager and barked, “What do you think, Bill?”

Shipley frowned and lit a cigarette.  The room was so full of cigarette and cigar smoke it looked like an indoor barbecue-pit.  “They say the Assassin is brutal—all bottom line.”

“Yeah but we’re management.  He’d better think twice if he thinks he’s comin’ in here and get rid of what kept this company afloat for the past twenty-five years.”

“C’mon John, we’re in trouble—the company’s been awash in red ink for years—and we all know what he did at Pat Paper—he fired half the work-force, including my brother, who was senior management there for two decades.  This guy ain’t got a heart.”

John Pecorino shook his head and frowned; he had been with the company sixteen years and had regularly worked sixteen and sometimes eighteen-hour days, including many weekends.  He had two daughters and had missed most of their formative years.  The thought of him losing his job, after all the work, the sweat and the brown-nosing he had done, incensed him to the point that his nostrils now flared at the very thought of it.  He began talking to Shipley in a low monotone, as the majority of those in the room were now doing.  One exception was David Ross, who sat at the head of the large conference table.  He had been one of the last to make it into the meeting and figured if anybody deserved to be fired, it was him, for he had been late on more than one occasion and had only been in management less than a year, having worked himself up from the assembly line.  He hated the stress of not knowing if he had a job or not, with a wife and four kids, it was imperative that he be working and the company had been near bankruptcy for almost three years.  Suddenly, the small discussion groups broke up and silence reigned; as the door flew open and none other than The Assassin himself strolled in, a wolfish grin masking his face.  He stood at the head of the table; looking remarkably like a lion about to make a kill and roared, “I won’t waste your time gentlemen.” He put his hand on David Ross’ shoulder.  “What’s your name?”

“David … ah David Ross … ah … I jus’ …”

The Assassin squeezed Ross’ shoulder and growled, “Ross here stays—but the rest of you in this room are fired.

Ross, I’ll expect you in my office in ten minutes.  Gentlemen,” The Assassin said and walked out of the room, leaving twenty-three startled ex-executives and one employed but who was too bewildered to even speak.

-4-

TIME

Time will run back and fetch the age of gold.

—Milton, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, 1. 135.

Mary Bridges put the handkerchief to her nose and blew.  Why couldn’t Della have called her?  Why did she have to go and do this to herself?  She hugged her twin twelve-year-old sons to her bosom then glanced at twelve-year-old Donald Dawkins, Della’s now motherless son.  He had never known his father and had been staying at Mary’s house for nearly a month but that couldn’t go on much longer.  The State had already sent a worker to her house—worrying her now about losing her own children, for Mary Bridges was seldom home, having to work three different jobs just to stay afloat, in 2002.  It was just two days before Christmas and the usual capitalist geniuses had so clogged the airwaves with the usual frenzied marketing of various toys and games that it had finally gotten to her; for Mary Bridges’ children were not unlike any others, they wanted and desired the gimmicky toys, as much as any other child did.  She had been paying a baby sitter with little more than promises, for almost a week, when one day she had failed to show up, inopportunely, on the same day that a State worker had paid a visit.  Mary realized it was 5:00 p.m. now, meaning she was late for her job at Jo’s Video.  She walked over to get Donald, who had been staring down at the open casket for almost five minutes, hypnotized by the almost life-like figure of his mother, who had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.  She was as beautiful in death as she had been in life.  Mary had seen her try to cope for five years of working three jobs, just to make ends meet.  She had been despondent for months; especially when she was fired from her last job at a supermarket for stealing food and food that the store would have thrown out, anyway.  Del’ had gotten her medical benefits from the store and when she realized they would be cancelled, she had, for only the second time in her life, stolen something besides food, a bottle of sleeping pills, which she had chugged down with a diet coke.  Bridges gathered her children and slipped her arm around a sobbing Donald Dawkins.  She was in a hurry to get home and get ready for work and hurried them outside to her car.  As she turned the ignition key, she said a silent prayer that the demon that had gotten control of her best friend’s mind didn’t get hers.  God only knew, he had visited her countless times in the past five years and Bridges had been close to the brink, on more than one occasion.  She had experienced hopelessness and prayed it would never visit her again.  The secret for her was to stay busy and, currently, she was too busy to kill herself because she was too busy to think.

****

John Pecorino put his head in his hands and sobbed.  He couldn’t believe his life was such a waste.  He hadn’t been able to obtain any gainful employment for almost five years.  It was Christmas Eve and he hadn’t even been able to buy his two teenage daughters any presents, having declared credit card bankruptcy the previous month, he could no longer even charge anything.  He couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s, being told he was over-qualified.  His home had been foreclosed on, as had John Shipley’s, his best friend at Sunray.  When they had first been fired they had gone out drinking together and had joked that Shipley’s job had been shipped and Pecorino’s had been purveyed, off to South America, and they had laughed about it.  Pecorino couldn’t remember ever having laughed since.  He sat in his car now, in the parking lot of a liquor store where he had gone to apply for a job.  Instead, he had bought a quart of whiskey and now sat inebriated.  Suddenly, he pulled out a .22 revolver he kept in the glove compartment, ‘if only I could shoot The Assassin, assassinate The Assassin,’ he whispered to himself.  He smiled momentarily but thirty seconds later, he lie slumped over the steering wheel of his car—dead—from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

-5-

THE PRIEST

God is the poet, men are but the actors.

—Honore DE Balzac, Christian Socrates.

Father Nunzio Benedetto made the sign of the cross and moved to the side of the casket.  Everyone at the funeral was a parishioner in his small church, in upstate New York.  The town was small enough that a suicide made front-page headlines, yet large enough to have the New York Times and Daily News in newspaper dispensers around town.  Just a two-hour train ride from Manhattan, many now made that commute daily; ever since the town’s number one employer, Sunray, had closed down its corporate headquarters, in 1997.  The priest now assured Sally Pecorino and her children that he would be available to them any time they needed comforting, and he had meant it.  John Pecorino had been his friend; they had grown up together, attending the same school and church.  Pecorino had been the quarterback for his high school’s varsity football team and Benedetto had been a star halfback.  As the family and mourners made their way out of the church, Nunzio Benedetto quickly fled to his room in the back of the church.  His eyes overflowed with tears and he felt he must pray, alone in solitude.  He had already prayed for John Pecorino’s soul, now he felt he must pray for his own; for Benedetto had been paid a visit by another childhood friend, Pietro Spada, five years in the past and he was reliving that visit now, in his mind’s-eye.  Pete Spada was the nephew of the Don, the head of the most powerful Mafia family on the East Coast, and he had come to the priest to make an attempt to repay a childhood favor.  Spada had been only seventeen when he had made his bones and Nunzio Benedetto had—inadvertently—been a witness to the murder.  He had also been the alibi that Spada had needed to keep him out of the penitentiary.  The Don himself had promised the priest that he would not forget; and so, in early 1997, when the rumors of the Sunray plant’s closure had become a reality Spada had taken the priest to lunch and Benedetto would never forget that meeting.  They had gone to Dante’s Pizzaria & Ristorante, an Italian eatery with as fine of food as any in all of New York City—and that was owned by Carmine Silone, an underboss in the Don’s family.  As he dropped to his knees, Nunzio Benedetto prayed for his own soul, for his soul cried out to him that if he could relive the past he would have accepted Spada’s offer.  He tried to block it from his mind but it came to him now, in the back of his own rectory, for Satan never slept and he fought the Most High everywhere—even in his own house.  As his eyes closed, Joe O’Malley, another childhood friend and classmate, appeared in his mind’s eye.  He was standing in front of Dante’s, as he had been that day in the early spring of 1997.  O’Malley had been on the production line ever since he had graduated from high school and had worked his way up to the top pay scale of fifteen-fifty an hour.  He had been offered a job in management but had turned it down.  He had also been instrumental in turning back numerous unionizing attempts over the years, feeling that the company would never abandon them.  He was drunk, as usual, and as Benedetto and Spada entered the eatery, O’Malley had grabbed the priest by the arm.  “Faddah Nunzio—my pally—Nun-zee, why are they doin’ this to us, why?  They-umb ‘onna down-umb-size us allah-ub way tah freakin’ Meh-he-co,” he mumbled.

Benedetto could still remember Spada telling him that he could keep the plant in operation and that it only required the removal of one man.

“I tell youse Nun-zee, the Don knows how important this is to the town and he guarantees he will keep the plant open, it only requires the ah-rum, shall we say disposal of a man they call The Assassin.”

“But Petey, they’ll just replace him with another man?”

“Nunzio, you have the Don’s word on this. He has investigated this matter personally and if there was any other way he would not hesitate to employ it.”

“And, the plant will stay open?”

The priest still remembered the smile on Spada’s face.  “All the plants will remain open.  The Assassin, he won’t lis’en tah reason.  He’s the only one.  Nunzio, diz guy stands tah make a hun’red mil’ plus.”

“Wha’ … what, Petey—is this true?”

Pietro Spada raised his right hand and crossed himself.  “I swear on my own soul.  I done some bad t’ings Nunzio but diz guy has a black spot where ‘is soul belongs, he’s worse-sin a freakin’ lawyah.”

The words reverberated in his ears as his body shook with recriminations—and his soul cried out while his heart said if one man’s death could have prevented so much pain, than it should have been.  Then his body stopped shaking and a peace only a few humans ever experience enveloped him, as the spirit came into his own house and the demons could no longer reside there.  The telephone rang and Benedetto grabbed it.  It was Sharon O’Malley; it seemed her husband was drunk and threatening to search the world over until he found The Assassin, whereupon he would become an assassin himself.  The priest felt a tingle down his spine as the spirit moved back in control.  He told Mrs. O’Malley to just calm him down—that he would be right over.  Father Nunzio walked towards his car and the thoughts of violence and revenge, that had been so hard to put out of his mind, now disappeared like a piece of bread on a hungry man’s plate, for he now had help, help unlike any other, for, if you were willing, it was a power that could move a mountain or drain an ocean.  He opened the door to his ‘91 Ford Ranger and smiled, as he had work to do.

-6-

FATE

Fate laughs at probabilities.

—Bulwer-Lytton, Eugene Aram. Bk. I, ch. 10.

Tommy Jackson smiled at the head cook, Jackie Bryant, and lit a cigarette, then smiled.  “Hey Jackie, where y’all wants diz meat’n’stuff … I mean … where you want it?”

“I said put it in ah kitchen.  C’mon, I’ll show yah.” Bryant took Jackson back to the kitchen.  “Jez put it anywhere’s bro’, I bees right back.” Bryant strolled into the dining room then headed for the bathroom, where he bumped into his boss.

“Jackie, go down and help Aretha with the tables.”

“Boss, I’m off in fifteen minutes and I gots kitchen work?”

“Don’t worry about that.  I’ll handle it.  Just go down and help Aretha, you’ll get paid for it.”

“But yah said we cain’t git over fo-tee ‘ours a week on ah clock, Boss.  Dey don’t wants tah pay no ovah tahm.”

“Jackie, stop arguin’—you’ll get the overtime—now, go!”

Bryant left and his boss stopped the deliveryman in the hallway and told him to make sure the meat was put in the refrigerator.  He then fled downstairs to more important work; he hated to be around whenever there was any work to be done, especially when it involved any type of heavy lifting.

In the meantime, Tommy Jackson unloaded ten dozen steaks and fish, and pork, onto a large counter, then transferred them into a large upright refrigerator that was standing between the counter and several ovens and stoves.  He was walking towards his truck when Jose Mendez, a new helper, walked up to him.

“Hey, how bout dese steaks, wha’ you wan’ me do weez eet?”

“Put it back in the kitchen and let’s get outta here.  We got another delivery and we’re late.

Mendez hurried to the kitchen, where he laid the package of six steaks on the counter and hurried out to the truck; he had just moved to Florida from New Jersey and couldn’t afford to lose this job.

****

James Johnson glanced at his watch, seven-thirty p.m.  He opened the refrigerator and began removing packages of steaks, then noticed a package of six lying on the counter.  He could smell them from where he was standing and realized someone had left them out.  They had come in around noon and could have been sitting out since then.  He was about to toss them when Jason ‘J-Man’ Manning walked in, he was the chief cook on the night shift.  Johnson asked him about the steaks and Manning told him to put them in the frying pan and he would make sure they were cooked to a crisp, saying he would eat them himself, if no one else would.  Johnson turned on one of the burners and filled a pan with cooking oil.  Laying the six steaks in the pan, he saw they were really bad.  It was then that he got a phone call that his six-year-old son had not come home from school and had been missing since three p.m. Johnson clocked out and left just as J-Man was being sent to another kitchen in the hotel to oversee another party.  Dorah Roberts, another cook, was left in charge of the kitchen and when she came in, she noticed the six steaks sizzling in the pan and quickly turned the heat down to low.  It was then that the hotel manager came in.

“Dorah, I need two medium-rare filet mignons, right now.  And I mean you’d better be able to see red meat.”

“Yessuh, I makes two medium rares right now.” She glanced at the half-dozen steaks and cut out two—they were just about done—medium rare.

****

Alexander ‘The Assassin’ Firestone sat at the head of one of five oblong tables each table sitting twenty-five people.  A speaker’s podium, with a microphone attached to it, sat on an elevated platform at the front of the room.  It was an invitation only dinner at one of West Palm Beach’s finest hotels.  They were all there to praise Firestone and award him a large trophy for being the businessman of the year.  Firestone, for his part, didn’t bother himself too much with the ceremonies; he had been worshipped and praised many times before and had a trophy-case full of plaques and awards to prove it,  but his wife enjoyed an evening out and what’s a better way than at a dinner in your honor and a free meal.  Firestone had personally made sure the food was top-shelf, he would accept no other, and he had purposefully not eaten since early that morning.  It was just a few days before the New Year of 2003, and he would have a full day’s rest before celebrating.  It would be a stupendous celebration, for 2003 would be the year that a life-long dream would come true, for The Assassin.  He would officially become a billionaire, something he had pursued ever since his first successful downsizing in 1968.  The meal began with appetizers, then the main course.  The Assassin had ordered his favorite, filet mignon, medium rare, and he had ordered two of them.

****

The evening was almost over but Alex Firestone was not enjoying it.  He had an upset stomach and Alka-Seltzer hadn’t helped any.  He had been praised, honored, and awarded a large trophy-cup.  People were dancing and The Assassin’s wife wanted to join them.  When he complained that he wasn’t feeling well, Jonathon Spertz, head of one of the Big Three automakers, volunteered his services, but when the dance was over, Firestone told his wife it was time to go home, he wasn’t feeling well.  She begged to stay and, when Spertz offered to drive her home, to Boca Raton, Firestone agreed and left on his own.  He practically crawled into his sparkling, new 2003 Mercedes, feeling as if he had to vomit.  Bending forward, he got in and pulled out of the parking lot.  Pulling onto 1-95, he felt as if a red-hot steel rod was imbedded in his brain.  By the time he made it into his house, he felt as if he wanted to die.  He dialed 911 and then ran into the bathroom, where he dropped to his knees and began vomiting uncontrollably.

EPILOGUE

How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

—New Testament: Luke xviii, 24; Mark x, 24.

I bid all men watch life’s end.

—Solon, to Croesus.  (Kudus Septem Sapientum, 1 .  87.)

The paramedics worked feverishly on the man, who had had his head inside the toilet bowl, unconscious, when they arrived.  They realized who it was and calls were placed feverishly; every effort would be made to revive the man, for he was a man of considerable wealth and power.  But, all efforts would fail; no human could now rescue Firestone, no physician or clergyman, no attorney or businessman, no one, no amount of money, influence or earthly power could bring him back, for just as God loves his own, so Lucifer, the Devil, demanded his due, and he had The Assassin’s soul within his grasp—and refused to let go.

  3 Responses to “Downsized”

  1. This story is certainly relevant what with the economy as it is and I was almost heartened by the ending when that crook died. I think the characters really breathed life and really enjoyed the story.

  2. Hey, this is a really good story and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes reality-plus; especially considering today’s economy. I actually meet Keith inside a library and I read it online there.

  3. I picked this story being referred by a friend at a net cafe and didn’t regret reading it. Great story, good ending. Recommend it to serious readers.

    Big Nick