Part 1, where I’m swept of my feet, is here.
Part 2, where my feet are cut from under me, is here.
Of course I checked everywhere. Twice at least. I’d done my own packing but hadn’t scrutinized everything. And we had wrapped up in Italy in a rush. But I couldn’t believe I’d have overlooked key documents. I had to tell Marcel.
It’s a funny feeling readying oneself to own up to something when you weren’t sure how it happened. Or what happened. And suspecting that the owning up will be before an unsympathetic audience doesn’t make it easier. But it had to be done.
Marcel looked suitably grave. He was two days away from a six week vacation (he worked under French rules) and grumbled that he’d discuss it further on his return. A reprieve, no, more like a stay of execution. I’d considered offering to contact the Italians with whom I’d worked but no. That would mean our department confessing fallibility. Out of the question.
Meanwhile I was scheduled to work in Athens during the summer. Tamara had planned a southern Europe vacation that just might take her through Greece. A couple of days before my departure I found there’d been a switch. I’d been shifted to Iceland where I’d be working with Albert, a veteran Frenchman I didn’t know well. And Chuck would be in charge of the project.
I got on fine with Albert despite his being a racist disciple of le Pen. He was the least stylish Frenchman I’d ever known. Two of his favourite jackets were solid mauve and golfer’s green. Short, stout, blind in one eye, a beefy moustache and prematurely balding. Aside from blacks, he hated the Brits and I gathered that extended to the Yanks too. But as our employer was an American firm, he stifled himself before too much could escape. On the other hand he worked hard, was knowledgeable about history and appreciated someone who could keep up with his drinking. Our first weekend there we rented a car and toured around the island. Had a great time. And our work was turning out to be much more than the routine bit we’d expected.
Albert went back to Paris the second weekend. I got the call early Sunday morning. He wouldn’t be returning. Car accident. Drunk. Hospitalized.
No one was in our Paris office. Marcel was on a world tour. I suspected Priscilla may have been too. “Away” our secretary trilled. Zeke, the senior Director was also away. All the European co-workers were on vacation. Chuck and Tamara had returned to the U.S. I had no idea of their whereabouts so I called Tamara’s mother. Tamara wasn’t there. Mom was very reluctant to give out the phone number. But I impressed that it was an emergency, car accident etc.
I called. Chuck answered. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Another explanation. Chuck would be arriving in Iceland in the day after tomorrow. Next evening Tamara called. She was playful and insinuated I must have some Icelandic lovely in my room. Insisted that I call out “I love you Tamara” in a loud voice to prove I didn’t. Eventually offered up some convoluted explanation as to how Chuck came to be in her room, answering the phone at the number her mother had given me. I played along as things had gotten beyond confrontation. I no longer took her at her word and told myself I was over her. Fool.
Chuck showed up at the office on schedule. He was more than satisfied with the work, though it was easy to see he was stifling his enthusiasm. He stayed on a couple of days. We didn’t see each other outside the office. He was returning to Paris where he’d meet with Zeke.
A week later Chuck was back. The work had gotten even better. My own stuff was going great and I’d spotted a small but significant error in Albert’s and fixed it. But we didn’t spend much time on that.
“Abra, we’re going to have to end your assignment after Iceland. Those Italian filings…”
I looked at him and he looked right back. I’d seen this bluff poker face from my side of the table before. Coming right at me it was impressive. Whether or not he had a hand in the missing papers, I couldn’t be sure. And he was revealing nothing in the gaze-off. But he did start to look uncomfortable and turned as though to consult some notes.
I knew it was possible it would come to this but nonetheless it was a great shock. I’d been counting on three or four years of working out of Paris, I had nothing in particular to go home to; I’d been recruited for God’s sake and had been given a splashy send-off less than a year ago. Now it would all end. Prematurely and humiliatingly.
Chuck left early the next morning. I tried working through a stunned haze and kept it up for a few days. The last couple I just stayed in my office; chain-smoked and pondered.
Tamara called the night after Chuck left. Seemed awfully curious about how the visit had gone. I shrugged it off with business talk. She persisted. I assumed she knew but neither of us ventured to take the first step. We must have been assessing whose loyalties lay where though on my part it was played by instinct.
“So what did he say?”
“I just brought him up to speed on the project. He seemed OK with it.”
“Is that all he said?”
“We basically kept it to business.”
Whether she was sounding me out about possible disclosures of their getaway, or whether it was about my assignment status and the missing papers, I couldn’t tell. It could have been either or both.
I called her the next night, close to 11:00 Paris time. If Chuck were there he was now waiting it out like I once had. We talked for almost an hour. Or $200 in hotel bill phone time. I gave her the full account, except for my suspicions of Chuck’s role. That she should have known. She was taken aback, or acted like it. Lots of half sentences and abandoned ones. Stammering too. “So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you’ll have to go back”
“Well, it looks like it but I guess I’ll have to have a talk with Zeke (the exit interview).”
“What are you going to say?”
“I’m not sure. But I have a few days to come up with something.”
Back in Paris the Iceland work was well received. I wasn’t. I had a week to finish those filings and then I’d have a final meeting with Zeke. Tamara invited me for dinner. Evading Chuck no longer seemed a concern. She was her old charming and sexy self. I lacked the character to spurn her.
Aside from the dinner with Tamara, I spent the rest of my evenings literally pacing the floor of my hotel room. I was chain smoking but to my own surprise, went completely on the wagon. Needed to keep a clear head. I’d never been stuck in such a predicament. I still couldn’t be sure what happened to the Italian documents. I spoke to a few old friends back home. Dewey, my lawyer pal, reminded me that had a crime taken place, an enemy of mine had both motive and opportunity.
I ruled out going home. I’d left with no small fanfare and to be sent back less than a year later? Per Sting, “I’m too full to swallow my pride”. I didn’t know what else I might do.
Years before Hayley (my ex-fiancée) and I had taken a walking vacation through the British Lakes District. On one of their small mountains I’d remarked on how easily an errant step could result in a fall to one’s death. For our honeymoon we’d planned on hiking through the Scottish mountains. Now Scotland called. It would provide enough isolation to think things through some more and if I decided to end it all, it would be easily done.
At the office Chuck began to talk about some administrative details of my return. It wasn’t official till Zeke said so but it was just as good as. I stopped him and remarked that while it might be true that my Paris assignment was over, it didn’t follow that I had to return home. He was taken aback. Couldn’t fathom that someone might walk out of the company. I repeated, “I’m not going back. I’ll have my say with Zeke”.
I didn’t know Zeke very well but didn’t much care for the small part I did know. He was short, somewhat round, and began a lot of sentences with “When I was…”. Chuck, Tamara, Marcel and Priscilla always had to have lunch with him. If he were delayed by a call, so were they. At my level he seemed far removed. Supposedly he was good at the corporate politicking.
Tamara called once at the hotel. Kept sounding me out about my upcoming meeting with Zeke. While my defences were habitually down with her, this time I kept the cards close to my vest. I told her what I’d told Chuck. That I was not going back. Maybe I’d take a volunteer job in Paris. She grew increasingly distraught but played it as though she was trying to help me say the right thing in my own best interests. As if she knew. As if I did. After two hours of irresolution we hung up.
It was weird at the office. The others suspected I was on my way out but nothing was confirmed. I was popular with my colleagues; everyone was polite and friendly but minimized chances of encounter, like I was contagious. The day before my meeting with Zeke, Chuck told me he was impressed with the Iceland work but that there’d be no reconsideration. He pointed out the advantages of continuing with the company (good pay, benefits and pension). I reiterated my decision not to return.
That night it was more pacing and cigarettes back at the hotel. Scotland it was to be. I’d decide there if I’d need a return ticket.
But what to say to Zeke? Part of me wanted to spill all. Tell the whole triangular saga. Disclose Chuck’s threats, vague as they were. Reveal Chuck’s and Tamara’s relationship, though I couldn’t be sure how well the circumstantial evidence would hold up. Or if I’d be given enough time to properly make my case. Explain how Chuck had motive and opportunity with the papers, if Zeke were still listening. As compelling as I found that side, I couldn’t see the way clear for getting it all out. And then what? From Zeke’s point of view, he already had one problem on his hands. Now I’d be offering three. What else?
My cautionary side counselled, well, caution. Confess to a grievous breach, emphasize my previous good record, promise no more fuck-ups (terminology to be tailored to the situation), and hey, look at Iceland. I hated this option.
Next morning I was on with Zeke at 10:30. Taking the metro I bemoaned the fact that all these Parisians were able to stay and work there while I had to leave. Absurd really but my mind was taking unaccustomed turns. I shuffled papers for a couple of hours while everyone avoided me. 10:00 rolled around. Odd that neither Chuck nor Tamara had yet arrived. 10:30. Still no Chuck and Tamara. I entered Zeke’s spacious office.