A Meeting With Tom
copyright 1997 by Pat Powers
A few weeks after I'd started back to work, I got a call from Tom, the former editor of LBB. He said he had some interesting information for me, and would I meet him for lunch.
I agreed, of course. You can't turn down a request from a recently fired co-worker, especially one you liked, without feeling like a heel. Everybody in journalism knows how tenacious their hold on employment is, and that knowledge gives us the same kind of solidarity that prisoners have. Any one of us could be singled out and disappear, at any time.
I told Tom I was brown-bagging and suggested a meeting in the park near work. Tom said, no, he'd rather treat me at Pilatano's a nearby Italian restaurant that LBB staffers, sometimes frequented. We settled on going Dutch there. The place was really too ritzy for someone on my salary, but my new raise would let me go there once a month, if I made minor adjustments elsewhere.
Tom was looking chipper but worn when I met him at Pilatano's. We both had the chicken parmagiani. Naturally, I asked how he'd been doing.
"Well, it's been rough," said Tom. "I've managed to hang onto my house and one car, so far. We had to sell the Corolla I used to come to work in, and we used the money to pay off the balance on the minivan. The hardest thing is making the mortgage on our house. We may have to sell it and move to an apartment, which will be hell on the kids -- not to mention me, since we can't afford to hire movers. I'll have to carry it all myself, and I've never been much for physical exercise. Fortunately, Marie's job and my unemployment provides enough money to keep us in food."
"Any luck finding work?" I asked.
"Nothing full-time," Tom said. "It's the usual problem -- there's lots of low-end service jobs I could get -- you know, selling clothes in some mall or something like that. But they don't pay much at all. I can do better eking along on the freelance assignments I've been getting from some of the people I knew when I was editor, and looking for work. Money's about the same, and you have more time for job-hunting. You know how it is in this field -- you spent four years looking for your first job. I don't expect to take four years. But I would be very pleased and a little surprised if it takes less than a year. And we may very well have to move out of the state. Gotta go where the jobs are. Marie can always find work as an accountant, but editing jobs ..."
I knew exactly what Tom was talking about. Thank god he had married an accountant and not someone in a field as tough as journalism. An editor married to an actress, or a singer, or an artist, is in a mighty precarious position, especially if they have kids.
"So, what's this exciting news you have for me?" I asked. Over the salad, I caught Tom up on the mundane goings-on at the office. They were pretty mundane, compared to Tom's situation.
"I don't know that 'exciting,' is the word for it," Tom said. "It's more in the category of thought-provoking. You recall the error that Abernathy used as a pretext for firing me. It was a serious error, and it would be a reasonable justification for firing me if such problems occurred with any frequency at all. But the problem was, I just couldn't figure out how it happened. True, the names were similar, but the difference in spelling wasn't the sort you'd make naturally in a typo -- "v" is left hand index middle finger bottom key, and "l" is a third finger home key. They two keys aren't close enough to be hit easily by a misstrike.
"Of course, it might have been scanned copy, which would have explained the "i" for "l" substitution that occurred," said Tom, "that happens all the time. But "v" for "l" from a scanner? I don't think so."
This all made sense to me, but I began to wonder if Tom wasn't obsessing over his lost job.
"The big thing is, how did we miss it in proofing?" Tom asked. "You haven't been around as long as I have, so it's understandable that you might have missed it. It's not understandable that I would miss it, and I always read all the copy in the magazine before it goes to press. I guarantee you, if I'd seen it, I would have noticed it. Seeing his name identified with a competitor's firm would have set off alarms all over my brain. There's NO WAY I could have missed it. Yet it showed up in the magazine.
"After racking my brains thinking of a way the error could have slipped through, I decided to pursue another tack," Tom said. "I decided to assume that it had been put in there deliberately by someone. I just had to figure out how, and why."
"Come on, Tom," I said. "Why would anyone do something like that?"
"Oh, anyone who was sufficiently mad at me could have done it," Tom said. "Or maybe you or Cindy might have wanted my job. All sorts of motives. I know you think this is unproductive obsessing, but bear with me a bit. It gets interesting."
"OK," I said. I was willing to hear him out. After my experience with Abernathy, I wasn't likely to be surprised at any depth of depravity.
"I thought about how I'd go about slipping in a damaging typo if I wanted to sabotage an issue," Tom said. "The answer was obvious. Send in a last-minute change just before the issue goes to press. If I wanted to do it secretly, I'd probably call it in, so there wouldn't be any kind of paper trail.
"I called Marbury Press and talked to the pressmen, and sure enough, someone had called in a last-minute change on LBB just before it went to press. Some little typo or something. They couldn't remember exactly what. Now, I never called in any last-minute changes on LBB. Did you?"?
"No," I answered.
"I didn't think so," said Tom. "And Cindy has assured me that she never called in any changes, either. Yet, someone did. But who else would have been able to?"
"Abernathy," I said. As I said it, a cold feeling began to grow in the pit of my stomach.
"Exactly," Tom said. "Old Abernasty himself. Do you have any idea why Abernasty would have deliberately introduced an error into his magazine that cost him $9,000?"
"I have a suspicion," I said, as the cold feeling slowly congealed and formed a lump in my breast. Tom had figured it out. How much did he know?"
"I have my suspicions, too," said Tom. "I think old Abernathy set me up. But he really wasn't after me -- I was like some chess piece he sacrificed in order to achieve his real objective, which was you. What do you think of that idea?"
"I think you might be right," I said, hoping I didn't burst into tears or anything.
"This isn't without precedent, you see," Tom said. "About a year before you came on board at LBB, there was a young graphic designer working for us, named Myra Kilgore. Does the name ring any bells?"
"Vaguely," I said.
"Well, Myra was a looker -- almost as attractive as you are," said Tom. "She was tall, had flaming red hair, a nice figure, a pretty face. She seemed to be working out. She was good at her job. Then, after she'd been with us about six months, she just quit. She'd been acting kind of distracted prior to quitting, and we tried to get her to tell us what was bothering her, but she wouldn't. Then one day, she came into work late, stormed into Abernathy's office and they had an argument. We couldn't make out what was being said, but we could tell Myra was upset about something. Then she flew out of the office, crying and sobbing.
"Abernathy held a brief meeting that afternoon and said Myra had quit, because she was having some personal problems. Everybody pretty much accepted that. It seemed credible. Nobody attached any importance to the fact that it was Abernathy that Myra talked to before she quit. After all, he's the person you talk to if you're going to quit. But now I wonder. Do you have any idea why Myra might have gone to see Abernathy in particular?"
I spent a moment considering whether or not I should tell Tom about Abernathy. Part of me said to keep it quiet and deal with it myself. Another part suggested that here might be an ally, someone who had been hurt by Abernathy, too -- hurt in a different way, but still deeply hurt. I went with the ally notion.
"I think I might know," I said. "After you left, Abernathy called me into his office and not-so-subtly let me know he'd fire me, too, if I didn't show up for a meeting with him in a hotel room that night. I suppose he didn't give you any such option when he talked to you?"
"Not really," Tom said. "Just, 'sorry I have to let you go, but I can't let a mistake like that slide by,' and I was out."
"Well, I don't think you would have cared for the deal anyway," I said, taking a deep breath. "I'm glad you know how long it took me to find this job, because I think it will help you understand how badly I want to keep it. Because I did show up at that hotel room. Abernathy proposed a deal -- I do what he wanted -- he called it 'atoning' -- and I could keep my job. What he wanted was to do ... some... things that were kinky. I did them."
"I figured something like that," Tom said. "I didn't figure kinky, but I did figure sex. Has he bothered you any since?"
"Well, that's it," Tom said. "We gotta stop this. He's turning into a monster. Not that he was ever very human. You realize he canned me just to get to you, don't you? Just flicked me out of a job, the way you or I would flick a piece of lint off a jacket. Not because he was in any way unhappy or even interested in something I had done or not done. He just wanted to get his hands on you. When I think of all the agonizing and soul-searching I'd done over that 'error,' when all the time it was a set-up that wasn't even aimed at me. Ellen's going to want to kill him."
"I would enjoy killing him myself," I said. I forced a smile. "I imagine Ellen will have to get in line to kill Mr. Abernathy."
"Well, we have to nail him," Tom said. "He'll make a sex slave out of you if you let him."
"I would say that he already has," I said. "I would also say that he has planned this out pretty carefully. I get the impression that he's good at things like that. He hasn't done or said anything that could incriminate him in public. It would be his word against mine. The only thing I have is my word. He's got his word. Of course, there's the tapes, the photos and the computer files, but I don't know that they'd prove anything criminal."
"Tapes?" Tom asked. "Photos? Computer files?"
I realized at that moment that I was going to have to either shut up and leave, or tell Tom everything, and risk the loss of his respect. But if I shut up and left, I'd probably lose whatever chance I had of getting out from under Abernathy's thumb. And I wanted that more than anything else in the world.
"Look, when I went to Abernathy's hotel room, I did a bunch of sexual things I'd rather not talk about right now," I said. "What I didn't know at the time was that he had several concealed videocams taping the whole thing, from start to finish. A week or so later, he called me into his office and showed me a picture of myself ... doing something sexual. My face was clearly visible. He had it on the screen of his computer. He showed me some other pictures of the same kind. Said he'd sell them to every men's magazine he could think of, and that he'd sell the tapes to porno film distributors, and distribute them on the Internet if no one would buy them, if I didn't show up for another meeting in a hotel. Said he'd make sure my family saw the films and photos, too. I couldn't bear that, so I did what he wanted. He was real open about the video cameras that time -- and every week or so since the same thing has happened. He has me trapped."
I blinked back some tears, tried to keep a straight face, but they just kept coming, so I looked down and pretended to be real interested in my pasta.
"The bastard," Tom said softly. "I didn't know he'd gone so far. I'm very sorry. You don't deserve to be treated like that -- no one does. If anybody ever treats my daughter like Abernathy is treating you when she grows up, I'll kill him."
We sat for a few moments, Tom staring stonily at his plate while I quietly blubbered over mine.
"My brother would kill Abernathy if he knew," I said when I had recovered enough to talk. "He really would. But I don't want my brother in jail for murder. What I have to do is find something short of murder that will stop him."
"We," said Tom. "What we have to do. I'm not going to let Abernathy get away with this. What he did to me was wrong and unethical. But what he's doing to you is ... evil. I'm going to do whatever I can do to help you."
I instinctively slid across the seat and hugged Tom. I could tell from the way he spoke that he meant what he said. He was a real man, not like Abernathy, who was an evil-minded 13-year-old boy posing as a man.
Tom broke off the hug -- maybe a little embarrassed, and smiled at me.
"I do have an idea," I said. "Abernathy makes tapes every time I meet with him. What if after the tapes start rolling, I was to suddenly have second thoughts about going through with it? What if I was to start talking about how he'd forced me into it? What do you suppose he'd do?"
"He'd try to talk you into going through with it," Tom said.
"Right," I said with a sharp little smile. "So he's got me there all ready for action, he's all ready for action, and suddenly we're having an argument about whether or not things will proceed ... think he'd have the presence of mind to turn off the tapes?"
"No?" Tom guessed.
"No," I said firmly. "Abernathy was a cold-blooded scumbag, but he is human. He'd just edit tapes later. So we'd wind up with a tape that incriminates him ... a real nice piece of turnabout, eh? Because so far as I can see, if we can get him to admit what he's done on tape, we've got grounds for charging him with blackmail, serial rape ... a whole host of things really. We're talking serious prison time here."
"If we can get the tapes from him," Larry said. "What are you thinking of doing, jumping him in the parking lot when he leaves the room?"
"Not really," I said. "I think what you need to do is break Abernathy, and the time to do that is when he's most vulnerable -- right at the moment when he realizes he's been had."
"You mean break in on the hotel room while you're doing it?" Tom asked.
"That would be best, if we can manage it," I agreed.
"Doesn't he lock the door?" Tom asked.
"Oh, he does, but he gives me a key before I come over -- one of those plastic thingies with holes drilled in them. Could you maybe make a copy of it real quickly?"
"I could certainly give it a shot," Tom said. "I've got a friend who edits a publication on security devices who could probably give me some good leads on how to go about it."
"So, what do we do?" Tom asked.
"As for what we'll do, we'll take everything he's got that he really cares for," Tom said. "His access to you. His money. His job at the magazine. We'll leave him his wife and kids -- but that's all. And of course, we'll humiliate him deeply in the process."
I had thought about Abernathy groveling naked while we extracted everything he had -- a lot. It was deeply satisfying.
"The problem is, Abernathy won't let us do it," I said. "He'll fight, physically, for the tape. I'm not strong enough to make him give it up, and I can't really ask anyone else to."
"Sure you can," Tom said. "We'll get some muscle to persuade him to come along -- there are quite a few people who'd love the chance to punch Abernathy out. How about Larry? He dislikes Abernathy, and Abernathy dislikes him. I don't think Abernathy would be dumb enough to tangle with him."
I thought about Larry. He would do. Tall. Broad shoulders. Riding that bicycle every day. Abernathy was an average-sized guy, and I knew from experience that his physique wasn't exactly overwhelmed with muscles, though he was fit enough. Abernathy wasn't likely to try anything with Larry, and if he did, Larry would be able to put an end to it.
Then I had a flash of myself kneeling naked in front of Abernathy with my hands bound, my face in his lap. I realized that that was what they'd see if they burst into the room on us. Because they wouldn't want to bust in until the tapes were rolling, and Abernathy was too worked up to be thinking clearly. And that wasn't going to happen while I was dressed, or before we did anything to get him excited. I'd have to start the argument after things got rolling but before he gagged me -- which meant, during the blowjob -- that was the way Abernathy liked to get started.
The thrumming suddenly throbbed within me. It liked the idea of Larry seeing me with Abernathy like that. It would. But I didn't like the idea of ANYBODY seeing me like that.
Still, someone had to. Abernathy wasn't going to give up the tape without a fight unless it was very clear he wouldn't win the fight.
"OK, Larry will do," I said. "But I don't want anybody else. Because I'm going to have to get Abernathy worked up, if this plan is going to succeed. You understand? It's going to be embarrassing."
"It's going to be a little embarrassment shared among friends, for us," Tom said, his eyes gleaming. "But for Abernathy, it's going to be total humiliation, total pain, a real disaster. And I can't think of anyone who deserves it more. And I've had one other thought. We need to talk to Myra."
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