You sure you know where you're going?"
The man in back of the cab tells the driver yes, then
says take the next right. The road ends at a cul-de-sac.
"Right here is fine," says the passenger.
The driver turns and glares back at him, squinting at
the light gray uniform and the badge that reads Mardell
Services. "What're you gonna do here?"
"I'm meeting someone."
Twenty dollars takes care of the fare. Once the taxi
purrs away, its orange glare fading into darkness, the
uniformed man turns on a flashlight and begins to sprint
through the woods that edge the dead-end road.
In fifteen minutes, he is standing on the north lawn
of a sprawling six-story office building. The modern
structure appears to be made entirely out of glass, as if a
strategically hurled rock could shatter it. The lit parking
lot is empty save a van parked at the front of the
He slows his breathing and takes off his cap, wiping
the sweat from his forehead. He readjusts his glasses as
he slips back on the cap and walks toward the entrance
of the building.
He taps on the glass doors for a couple of minutes. A
round man in his fifties finally moves behind the front
desk and ambles over to open the door.
"Yeah?" he asks in a sluggish tone as the door slides
"Missed my ride," the uniformed man says, pointing
to the van.
"With the cleaners?"
The man nods, showing him the photo badge he wears.
"They came in about fifteen minutes ago."
"I'll find them."
The uninterested security man lets him pass and
takes his place back on his cushioned chair.
The uniformed man rubs his weekend's worth of dark
beard and finds the elevator.
* * *
The metal doors open to darkness, and Tom Ledger
steps out to commit a felony. He doesn't look around,
doesn't hesitate, doesn't notice any irregularities in his
breathing. His tennis shoes, wet from the damp grass
outside, brush the office carpet without sound. It takes
him just a couple of minutes to find the cubicle close to
the men's room against the south side. Sitting in the
chair, he reaches down and turns on the computer.
The monitor sheds light on the drab and tidy holding
cell, illuminating the nameplate on the desk next to a Star
Wars action figure: Calvin Morris. While the operating
system loads, he locates Calvin's stash of high-capacity
zip disks and slips one of the disks into the appropriate
The computer asks for a password, and he types it in
He waits until the screen icons are all in place, ready
for action. Then he accesses the file system and searches.
The files he wants are labeled Coverter 45-78, 79, 80,
and 81. He saves them onto the disk as Vacations #1, 2,
3, and 4, then slips the disk into his shirt pocket.
He shuts down the computer and heads back for the
elevator. He can hear the cleaning crew in the distance,
but he ignores the voices as he presses the Up button
The sixth floor is as dark as the fourth floor was, but
Tom doesn't need a light. A thousand mornings he's
walked this route and can do it blindfolded. With illuminated
crimson exit boxes creating the only shadows, he
skirts another maze of cubicles to enter the western corner
He reaches in his pants pocket and takes out a mint,
finishing it in two quick bites.
A quick glance at his watch tells him it's quarter after
two, three or four hours before the first morning brown-noser
starts the first office pot of coffee. He himself generally
arrives around nine, leaving anywhere from six to
nine or ten, depending on how many stupid meetings
kept him from doing any actual work.
He taps his shirt pocket as he crosses to the desk and
opens his Sony laptop. No more meetings after tonight.
This will be his last hour at Hammett-Korning Technologies.
The Sony flickers through its start-up ritual, and
Tom glances around the office he hopes never to lay eyes
on again. In the cold glow of the LCD's light, he surveys
the surroundings of half a decade past and feels nothing.
He sees the outline of his head and shoulders on the
framed poster on the wall in front of him, a picture of a
climber ascending a mountain with the slogan in glorious
bold urging all to "Seize the Day!"
He hates this poster and the other fifty like it that litter
the various floors of Hammett-Korning. To him, they've
always symbolized a human resources department not
doing its job. Motivating jingles don't compensate for
corporate indifference and executive incompetence.
How's this for seizing the day? Tom thinks.
He gets into his email system and finds the carefully
worded email he's already prepared. He rereads it before
clicking to send it off. The message is satisfying and succinct:
"Dear Bob. I quit."
Tom scans the list of unread emails that have accumulated
and feels a sense of relief at never having to read
any more memos on testing standards and new procedures
and endless, technological rhetoric he never
wanted to have anything to do with in the first place.
This job had always been about one thing: money. And
he finally realized a while ago that there was no pot of
gold at the end of the Hammett-Korning rainbow.
Except possibly on the disk in his pocket. He
attaches an external drive to the laptop, slips in the disk
from Calvin's office, and verifies that the vacation documents
are still there. Still tucked away on the disk as
Vacations 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Thank you, Calvin.
It doesn't take long to upload the files to the laptop,
download them again to the tiny memory stick in his
Sony's media slot, then wipe them from the disk and the
laptop's hard drive.
He slips out the memory stick. It's a little over an
inch long and almost half as wide. Tom tucks the slender
device into his wallet like a memento and feels no difference
when he slides the wallet back in his pants pocket.
Then he unplugs the zip drive and powers down the laptop.
Glancing around, making sure he collects everything
he needs, Tom notices the frame on the edge of his desk.
He picks it up and stares at it, the picture hard to see in
the dim light. He can picture it in his sleep, however. It's
a photo of Allegra. For a while he kept it as a front, a picture
to portray a life he didn't lead. He can admit to himself
that he kept it for other reasons too. He is not one to
wallow in the past or to get sentimental over could-have-beens.
The photo is simply a reminder of a different
time. Proof that a brighter day existed.
He slips the photo out of the frame and into his
pocket. Then, without a further thought, he exits the
office and heads for the stairs.
* * *
The first-floor lights are on and the cleaning crew
noise is louder, but nobody sees Tom as he pushes open
a door and steps out to the shipping area at the back of
the Hammett-Korning building. This is where they send
and receive mail, packages, shipments-anything that's
coming or going. He was down here earlier in the day,
looking around, scoping out the territory. As he walked
around here in blue slacks and a yellow tie, looking corporate
and professional, he wondered how many people
even knew who he was. Just another suit, one employee
out of a thousand.
More important, he wondered if anyone had a cluewhat he was going to do. He's pretty sure no one even
The exit door next to the trucking bays has one of
those push bars that let people out but not in. Tom has
already checked that exiting here doesn't trigger an
alarm. The door barely makes a noise as it closes behind
Emerging under the clear night sky, he realizes he's
done it. Just as simple as he thought it would be. Nobody
knows. Not even good ol' Bob.
He thinks of Hammett-Korning-the company he's
leaving behind, the company he's stealing from-and
feels nothing. How will a little corporate theft make any
difference? The company has three more offices in the
surrounding area. Tens of thousands of employees. A
monstrous megacompany run by a CEO who's been
showing up in the news. A CEO who might be in jail
before too long.
He emerges from the building's shadow and walks
down the street for about half a mile. In another deserted
parking lot outside a two-story office building, a lone car
waits for him. The black Porsche Boxster parked next to
a streetlamp reflects his form as he nears.
Inside the car, he flips open a cell phone and makes a
call. He knows it will go straight to voice mail.
"It's done. See you tonight at six sharp."
* * *
If you knew you were about to die and could call
me, what would your final words be?"
Tom looks across the room at the lanky blonde who
asked the question. Her short hair is wet from the
shower. She's watching some sort of TV newscast.
He grins and goes back to reading the paper, standing
at the island of the condo's kitchen.
"What was that look for?" she asks, no longer focusing
on the television.
"That's a big assumption."
"What? That you'd die?"
"That I'd call you."
She makes a face at him but he just smiles, rubs his
freshly shaven face, then finishes the glass of grapefruit
juice and places it in the kitchen sink.
Janine turns back to the story about a man in California
who called his wife from the scene of a bank robbery
moments before he was shot to death.
"Isn't that awful?" she asks.
"So you wouldn't call me?"
"I don't think I'd want to draw attention to myself
during a bank robbery."
"But what would you say if you could?"
Tom Ledger looks at the morning beauty in the white
terry-cloth robe, shakes his head, and crosses the room
to give her a good-bye kiss on the neck. She is used to his
not answering questions such as this.
"Will you call?" she asks.
"Of course." He knows this is a lie.
"By the way . where'd you go last night?"
A suitcase and matching briefcase rest by the door to
Janine's one-bedroom condo.
"Just went out to get some air," he says. Another lie.
"Air? At like two in the morning?"
"Sure. Couldn't sleep, so I went out."
"I heard the garage door open around three. Is everything
He nods. Everything's perfect.
"You've been kinda on the moody side the last couple
days. Even last night-"
"The limo's here."
She pauses, and he knows that she knows better than
to push it.
"Have a great trip."
He picks up his bags and walks out the door. He has
known Janine for over two months. She's six years
younger than his thirty-four years and around a dozen
younger in terms of maturity. Some might question what
he is doing with her in the first place and exactly how
much maturity that shows, but Tom doesn't care.
He won't be seeing her again anyway.
* * *
He leans back in the leather seat of the Town Car as
it heads for O'Hare International Airport. He thinks of
"What would your final words be?"
If he could call anyone, who would he call anyway?
Not Janine. The obvious answer occurs to him. But he
knows Allegra wouldn't accept a call from him or allow
him to get out five words. And no one else comes to
Vacations 1, 2, 3, and 4 echo in his head. He thinks of
making the California trip a quick one, then maybe
going down to Florida and finally getting to see the Keys
and losing himself down there for a while. A month. A
year. He's not entirely sure.
The landscape of suburbia blurs by him. Street upon
street upon store upon subdivision. He passes the time
by comparing this northern suburb of Chicago with what
he knows of Key West. He knows the Keys are probably
not that different from Wood Grove or any other location.
It probably has its share of secrets, its ugly little
realities. And it also has its share of people trying to ease
the pain of living with their mistakes.
The difference is that, in a place like Key West, you
have ocean sunsets to make it all a little easier.
* * *
Tom waits in an airport bar drinking a club soda with
lime. Around him sit passengers who are either about to
board or just getting off a plane, most of them laughing
and drinking and having a good time. He finds locales
such as this comforting. He can sit alone, and as long as
he appears to be drinking something heavy and continues
to tip the bartender enough, he can remain unbothered.
The phone at his side vibrates.
"Yeah," Tom says again, recognizing the male voice.
"That easy, huh?"
"Told you. Been there long enough to know what it's
"Are you sure no one knows?"
"Very few people would even have a clue as to what is
really valuable inside. And how to get it."
"So you got everything?"
"You'll see it tonight."
"We'll have to celebrate. Dinner's on me."
"That won't be the only thing."
The man on the other end laughs, and Tom hangs up.
He sips his drink and stares to his right at the passengers
shuffling between gates. A family of four meanders
past, and he studies them. A man about his age with
light-brown hair and a well-worn sports coat. A pretty
but tired-looking wife in a conservative, flowing skirt and
a jeans vest over a white T-shirt. The woman holds a
baby against her shoulder while the man links hands
with a little girl, perhaps four or five.
Soon they're out of view, and Tom resumes being
invisible. His thoughts shift to pondering the type of
yacht he'll be purchasing in the next few weeks. He has
narrowed it down to three. The choice will be an important
* * *
Two aisles cut through the 767. Tom heads
down the one on his right after stepping onto the plane
and takes the aisle seat numbered 17B. He shoves his
briefcase into the overhead bin along with his sports
coat. The memory stick remains in his wallet. Looking
through the oval window, he sees the long, sleek wing
shining in the morning sunlight.
Normally Tom travels first class, but he normally
travels on business and books well ahead of time. This
was the only seat left on the 10:30 A.M. flight to San
Francisco when he called a few days ago. He finds himself
wishing for the space and privacy of the first-class
seats ahead of him. As strangers pass, he wonders who
will occupy the lone seat between him and the window.
A man laboring with a large suitcase stops next to
Tom's row. He struggles with his piece of luggage as he
tries to fit it in the overhead bin.
"Sorry," he says to the people behind him as he tries
to jam it in.