Barry's benediction from the Harvard management consultant left him nearly incoherent with self-satisfaction. It coursed through him like a hormone, making his limbs taut with a muscular vainglory. Every cell in his body deeply admired and respected every other cell.
WHIP was shaping up better than he had dared to hope. He could feel the wave of market opportunity moving in from the depths, mounting with every moment until the day he rode it to victory, the day that Seattle Bill would kiss his ring, confirming Barry's historical triumph as Mogul Maximus. None could stand in his way. None would resist his advance.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
It was in this delirium of self-esteem that he found Liz in his office, depositing a stack of glossy marketing tracts on his desk. She turned to greet him.
"I've got some first drafts of the Comdex WHIP technology packets ready for your review, when you have the time," she said smartly.
Maybe a little too smartly at that. She didn't recognize herself these days, she reflected. She was sounding so awfully professional and mechanical. She softened a little, and tried for a more human tone.
"How'd the meeting go? Did you whip those management consulting boys into shape?"
It had been three months since Liz had come up to work for Barry, and she was beginning to let go of her jumpiness in his presence. She had awarded him the benefit of the doubt over her misgivings that his interest was more than professional. Lately she had been speaking to him more as a peer, sometimes even a little casually. After all, it was difficult not to develop a little human interest in your co-workers -- even a high-strung, volatile and demanding co-worker like Barry. Maybe she had just misunderstood him all along.
"You're witnessing the start of something big," Barry gleamed, standing in the doorway. "Very big. I'm feeling like celebrating."
"Oh, I'm so glad. This means a lot to you, I'm sure. You've been working so hard." She was genuinely happy for him. It was good to see him in such high spirits. "Well, I was just about to call it a day. I've got a yoga class at 7:30."
She turned to leave.
He spoke as she passed him in the doorway. "Have dinner with me tonight."
Liz froze. She couldn't believe she was hearing what she was hearing.
"What was that?" she said timidly.
"Dinner. You, me. Tonight. Think of it as an intimate corporate retreat." He
smiled like a Rottweiler.
"That would be a bad idea, I think. No, thank you," Liz said as gracefully as she could possibly contrive.
Barry eyed her skeptically. "Don't give me that act. Nobody ever turns me down."
"I'm your employee, Mr. Dominic. It would be unprof-"
Barry's tongue was in her mouth, massing for an assault on her tonsils. Liz
recoiled, astonished, but he pinned her for a moment against the jamb.
"Oh, come on -- I'm King of the World. Don't tell me you don't like it."
Liz pushed him away, locking eyes with him for an instant, teetering on
the edge of tears, then ran down the hallway.
She turned the corner into her office. Standing over her desk, she leaned
on her hands for a few moments, catching her breath. Just as she had begun
to feel comfortable in this job ... She should have known. Trusting a man like Barry was stupid. She should have listened to her instincts. And she knew where this was going, which was exactly nowhere.
She dumped the remainder of the Comdex presentations from the Kinko's box and hastily filled it with her personal things: A coffee cup, a half-dozen Power Bars, Angus, a mousepad, a gel-filled wrist rest, a thesaurus.
She thought she heard Barry in the hallway. She threw her purse in the box, picked it up and made a break for the elevator.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Paul stood in the lobby waiting for the Caltrain shuttle. Bay Area commuter rail -- awkward and clunky as it was -- beat the 60 minutes of stop-and-go it would take him to drive the 22 miles home.
He absent-mindedly stared at the bank of elevators. Three doors, like the old "Let's Make a Deal" show. He imagined the prizes that might wait behind each: a washer-dryer combo, a new car, Turtle Wax.
He hadn't picked yet, but door No. 2 opened anyway. It was a lovely woman, holding a box. But it wasn't Carol Merrill; it was Liz Toulouse. He smiled, glad to see her. He liked this game show. She stepped out of the elevator. He stepped forward to greet her.
But something was wrong. Liz was making a beeline for the parking lot door. She didn't seem to see him. And the box she carried resembled the classic cardboard "escape pod" of personal effects of the newly terminated. There were tears running down her cheeks. He ran after her.
He caught up with her in the parking lot.
"Liz, Liz, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
She turned and looked at him through watery eyes. "Yes. I'm fine. I've got to go."
Paul was suspicious. "Really? Are you sure?"
Though they had worked together on and off these few months, Paul was unsure about how much he could gracefully intrude. But she clearly seemed upset. Though he wished it were otherwise, he hesitated to insist on helping, unsure of the boundaries.
"Yes. Really. It was nice working with you." She managed a sad smile. "Please, I need to go."
The shuttle pulled into the circle with its usual blast on the horn. He would need to hurry if he was to make his train.
Helpless, he watched her walk away for a few moments, then ran the other way.