If you’ve never killed someone, you really can’t imagine what it’s like. You don’t want to know. It leaves you with something hard and leaden in the pit of your stomach, something that never dissolves.
Most of us, I’m convinced, just aren’t wired to take a human life. I’m not talking about some stone-cold sniper with a thousand-yard stare, or one of those psychos who come back from the war and tell you that killing guys was like squishing ants. I’m talking about normal people.
I remember reading once how, during World War II – the Good War, right? – maybe 85% of the soldiers never even fired at the enemy. These were heroes, not cowards, yet they couldn’t bring themselves to aim at a fellow human being and pull the trigger.
I understand that now.
But what if you don’t have a choice?
I was standing at the end of a splintery wooden dock in the pale moonlight, the turbulent ocean at my back, blue-black and flecked with gray foam. On either side of me was rock-strewn beach.
And less than ten feet away, a man was pointing a gun at me, a matte-black SIG Sauer nine millimeter.
“Boy, you’re full of surprises, aren’t you?” he said.
I just looked at him.
He shook his head slowly. “Nowhere to run, you know.”
He was right, of course. There really was nowhere to run. There was nowhere to swim, either. And I had no doubt that, the moment I made a move to jump, he’d pull the trigger.
I took a long, slow breath. “Who says I want to run?”
I could smell the seaweed, the tang of salt in the air, the faint rot of dead fish.
“Just put your hands up, Jake,” he said, “and come back inside. I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t.”
I was surprised he knew my name, and I was even more surprised by the gentleness in his voice, almost an intimacy.
But I simply looked at him, didn’t answer, didn’t move.
“Come on, now, let’s go,” he said. “Hands up, Jake, and you won’t get hurt, I promise.” The crash of the waves on the shore was so loud I had to strain to make out his words.
I nodded, but I knew he was lying. My eyes strayed to the left, and then I saw the crumpled body on the sand. I felt a jolt, felt my chest constrict, but I tried to conceal it. I knew he’d killed the guy, and that if it were up to him, I’d be next.
It wasn’t up to him, though.
I don’t want to do this, I thought. Don’t make me do this.
He saw my eyes move. There was no point in trying to stall for time anymore: he knew what I’d just seen. And he knew I didn’t believe him.
Don’t make me kill you.
“Jake,” he said, in his lulling, reasonable voice. “You see, you really don’t have a choice.”
“No,” I agreed, and I felt that hard lump forming in the pit of my stomach. “I really don’t.”
I turned around in my cubicle, almost did a double take. A beautiful woman was standing there, looking angry.
Did I mention she was beautiful? Big green eyes, auburn hair. Small and slender. Really cute. Her arms were folded across her chest.
“I’m Alison Hillman. From HR.”
“Oh—right. I thought you wanted me to—“
“I had to be here anyway and I thought I’d track you down.”
I spun my chair around. Stood up, trying to be polite.
An Alison from HR had sent me an irate e-mail, told me to come see her in the headquarters building immediately. I hadn’t expected her to just show up.
I also hadn’t expected her to look like this. “You wanted to see me for something?”
She looked up at me, her head cocked to one side. The light caught her eyes. Golden flecks in her irises. Sunflowers, I thought.They look like sunflowers.
“Your name is on Ken Spivak’s ERT form as the hiring manager.” An accusation, not an observation.
I hesitated for a second. “Oh, right, the transfer form.” I usually didn’t do that kind of paperwork, was unfamiliar with the acronyms. “There a problem?”
“A problem?” She looked incredulous. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull off, but a Cat C ERT has to be filed with the Hourly Workforce Administration as well as the QTTP and LTD administrators.”
“Do you speak any English?”
She stared at me for a few seconds, shook her head. I wasn’t sure, but it looked to me like she was trying to suppress a smile, a real one. “You put through a lateral transfer on this machinist, from the Palmdale plant to the El Segundo assembly plant, is that correct?”
“You can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way.”
I tried to look innocent. “What doesn’t work that way?”
“You’re kidding, right? You don’t have the power to just—just move an hourly employee from one division to another. You can’t hire outside the candidate pool. There’s a whole posting process that’s mandated by the union collective bargaining agreement. There are extensive protocols that have to be followed. So, I’m sorry, but I have to cancel this transfer. He’s going back to Palmdale.”
“Moment of candor, please?”
She looked puzzled. “Yes?”
“You and I both know that we’re about to sell the Palmdale division to some buyout firm, only the news hasn’t been made public yet. Which means this guy’s going to be laid off.”
“Along with everyone else who works at the Palmdale plant,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “And most of those workers will find other jobs.”
“Not him. He’s too old. He’s fifty-seven, he’s been with Hammond for almost forty years, and he’s a good man and a hard worker.”
A half-smile. “Moment of candor? We make it hard for a reason. It’s about doing things the right way.”
“Yeah, well, Ken Spivak has five kids, and his wife died last year, and he’s all they’ve got. And it’s Jake.”
Now she seemed to be avoiding my eyes. “I—I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I really don’t have a choice here. Do you realize what kind of legal nightmare we’re going to face when the word gets out in Palmdale that one lucky guy got a transfer and everyone else gets laid off—including people with higher performance ratings? The union’s going to be all over us.”
I said quietly, “You know what kind of legal trouble you’re going to be in if you revoke his job?”
She stared at me for a few seconds, didn’t reply. She knew I was right.
I went on: “Don’t transfer him back. Don’t you do it.”
“It’s about doing things the right way,” she repeated quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” I said. “It’s about doing the right thing.”
She didn’t say anything.
“You have lunch yet?” I said.
As I cruised down the 405 freeway to Van Nuys, making unusually good time, a police cruiser came out of nowhere: blue strobe lights whirling, siren whooping. My stomach clenched. Damn it, was I speeding? Sure; who wasn’t?
But then the cop raced on past me, chasing down some other poor sucker, leaving me with only an afterimage burned on my retina and a memory of a time I rarely thought about anymore.
The bailiff took me into the courtroom in handcuffs.
I wore a white button-down dress shirt, which was too big on me—sixteen years old, lanky, not yet broad-shouldered—and the label made my neck itch. The bailiff, a squat, pot-bellied man who reminded me of a frog, brought me over to the long wooden table next to the public defender who’d been assigned to me. He waited until I sat down before he removed the cuffs, then took a seat behind me.
The courtroom was stuffy and overheated, smelled of mildew and perspiration and cleaning fluid. I glanced at the attorney, a well-meaning but scattered woman with a tangle of frizzy brown hair. She gave me a quick, sympathetic look that told me she wasn’t hopeful. I noticed the file on the table in front of her wasn’t my case: she’d already moved on to the next one.
My heart was pounding. The judge was a fearsome black woman who wore tortoise-shell reading glasses on a chain around her neck. She was whispering to the clerk. I stared at the plastic wood-grain nameplate in front of her: THE HONORABLE FLORENCE ALTON-WILLIAMS engraved in white block letters.
One of the fluorescent lights was buzzing, flickering. The huge radiators were making knocking sounds. Voices echoed from the hall outside the courtroom.
Finally the judge turned toward me, peered over the tops of her half-glasses. She cleared her throat. “Mr. Landry,” she said. “There’s an old Cherokee legend about a young man who keeps getting into trouble because of his aggressive tendencies.” She spoke in a stern contralto. “The young man goes to see his grandfather and says ‘Sometimes I feel such anger that I can’t help it—I can’t stop myself.’ And his grandfather, who’s a tribal elder and a wise man, says ‘I understand. I used to be the same way. You see, inside of you are two wolves. One is good and kind and peaceful, and the other is evil and mean and angry. The mean wolf is always fighting the good wolf.’ The boy thought about it for a moment and then said, ‘But Grandfather, which wolf will win?’ and the old man said, ‘The one you feed.’”
She picked up a manila folder, flipped it open. Cleared her throat. A minute went by. My mouth had gone dry, and I was finding it hard to swallow.
Excerpted from POWER PLAY © Copyright 2011 by Joseph Finder. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.