Last Christmas Party 01: Tom

Acme Enterprises is the same company used in "Justice Ch. 02: Ghost Riders" and "The Camp Ch. 03: The Coward." And yes, it is just as dastardly as it is in those two stories...

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It was 3:15 pm on the day of the company holiday party, what many people might think of as a "Christmas" party or a "year-end" party. In 45 minutes, everyone in the office would be leaving to change for the annual dinner and dance as they had done for years. Tom Johnson sat at his desk, holding the picture he kept of his family. Linda, his wife of 17 years, looked even better to him now than she did when he first met her 19 years ago in college. The twins, Leah and Liam, looked happy as they smiled into the camera. At the time this picture was taken, they were 13 going on 14. The three of them were his rock, his reason for living.

As he looked at the picture, he reminisced about their lives together. He first met Linda when he went back to school to finish his business degree. It was June 2001 and he had just finished a four-year stint in the Army as an artilleryman, the last year on the DMZ in South Korea.

He had taken college courses during his time in the service, and had two years to go before getting his bachelor's degree. He enrolled as soon as he got back home and met Linda, the great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants. He normally didn't believe in love at first sight, but was instantly taken by her smile, her long red hair and green eyes. They dated, fell in love and got married after graduating from college.

She got pregnant a year after their wedding and gave birth to twins, which they named after Linda's great-grandparents. Tom didn't mind -- he liked the names anyway and thought they fit the children perfectly.

After college, Tom accepted a position with Tyndall Holdings after a grueling interview with Bill Tyndall, the man who ran the family-owned company. Bill was a hard taskmaster, but a fair man. He had Tom work in a number of positions during his first five years in order to give him a better view of the company as a whole. Bill's goal was to make Tom an executive within 10 years, and he felt this would make him more effective.

Bill was right, of course, and by the time Tom reached his current position as a mid-level manager, he understood every aspect of the company's operations. Linda, meanwhile, stayed home until the children started school. Not wanting to putter around the house all day by herself, she accepted a position with a real estate company. Tom understood her needs and gave his full support without any argument whatsoever.

Between the two of them, they made very good money, so they bought a two-story house in a nice neighborhood and saved for the children's education. All in all, things were well in the Johnson household. As far as Tom was concerned, life was good. Until just recently, that is.

The last ten months had been a bit challenging, to say the least. Bill died of a stroke a little more than a year ago, leaving the company to his two sons, Mike and Ron. Unfortunately, neither of them shared their father's long-term vision for the company and began shopping around, looking for a buyer with deep pockets.

The buyer came along, and ten months ago, Tyndall Holdings was merged with Acme Enterprises, a somewhat shadowy multinational conglomerate that had its hands in almost everything. As is so often the case, everyone was concerned about their positions. The executive transition team from Acme assured everyone that while there would be changes, most everyone below the top two or three tiers of management would stay on board.

As Tom feared, the entire top level of management was gone within a few weeks, and most of the managers directly below them were replaced a few weeks after that. One by one, he saw old friends pack up their offices and leave for greener pastures. He had known these people for years and hated to see them go. His immediate boss, Ryan Witmer, a 62-year-old man whose wife passed away from cancer a year ago, left back in March. Ryan stopped by Tom's office on his way out to say goodbye.

"Et tu, Ryan?" Tom asked. Ryan nodded his head and sat down in a chair across from Tom's desk.

"'Fraid so, Tom," he said. "Listen, if you're smart, you'll get the hell out of Dodge as soon as you can."

"Why?" Tom asked. "What's going on?"

"Let's just say there's some serious changes coming down the pike, and I don't think you're going to like them," Ryan said.

"What kind of changes?" Tom asked.

"I can't get into it," Ryan said. Tom understood. Most of the managers who left had signed nondisclosure agreements and he was pretty certain Ryan had as well. "I know how loyal you were to old man Tyndall, but for your sake and for your family's sake, don't let that loyalty cloud your judgment. Tyndall is gone, and I'm afraid his dream is as well. You're a young man, young enough to get a job with a good company. If you need it, I'll give you a good reference. Just get out as fast as you can."

"What are you going to do?" Tom asked.

"I'm finished," Ryan said. "My days are over. I've decided to take an early retirement. With Wendy gone, there's nothing to keep me here. I've already sold the house and I'm moving to Florida to be close to the kids and the grandkids. I've got my investments and my 401K, so I'll be fine." He pulled out a card and handed it to Tom. "Feel free to contact me if you need to. Goodbye, old friend. It's been an honor working with you." Tom took the card and gave the older man a hug. He felt as though he was losing his father -- again.

"Goodbye, Ryan," he said. "It's been an honor working with you as well. Take care of yourself. Do you need help with any of this?"

"I can get it. Thanks, son," Ryan said. He took a last look around the office and left. Tom thought he saw a tear forming in the older man's eye. He wondered what kind of changes Ryan was talking about, but didn't dwell on it too long. With Ryan gone, Tom knew he was the most senior person left from the old Tyndall team. He talked to Linda about it that night after dinner.

"Ryan left today," he said after the kids had gone to their rooms. Linda seemed shocked at the news.

"Oh?" she asked. "That means you're the most senior manager left from the old crew. Do you think you're next?"

"I don't know," he said. "I think I'll start updating my resume and see what's out there."

"I think that would be wise," she said. "I don't want you to worry about a thing, sweetheart. We've got plenty saved up so if something does happen to your job, we'll be okay for a while."

"I know," Tom said. "I'd just hate to dip into our savings."

"Me too," she said. "But at least I'm still working, so we'll be okay. I don't expect you to just accept the first thing that comes along. I want you to be happy, and there's nothing worse than taking a job you won't like."

"Truer words were never spoken. Ryan said there's going to be some changes coming along soon that I'm not going to like," he said.

"What kind of changes?" she asked.

"I don't know," he told her. "The question is, do I want to stick it out just to see what's going to happen?"

"Whatever you decide, dear, I'll support you," she said.

"Thanks, babe, that means more to me than you know," Tom said, kissing her hand.

The next day, Tom met Ryan's replacement, Jake Wheeler. Jake was much younger -- and more energetic -- than Ryan. He came across as a very confident, self-assured man with the world at his fingers. He wore expensive suits and spoke with a thick New York accent. Tom was on his guard the moment Jake barged into his office.

"You must be Tom Johnson," Jake said as he came in. "I'm Jake Wheeler, your new boss," he added, extending a hand. Tom stood and shook the man's hand.

"Good to meet you, Jake," Tom said.

"That's 'Mr. Wheeler,' if you don't mind," Jake said. "At least until we get to know each other a bit better. You know the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt."

"I'm aware of it," Tom said. Jake looked at Tom, his eyebrows raised. "Mr. Wheeler," Tom added, prompting Jake to nod his head. He looked at Tom's desk and saw the family picture. He picked it up and looked at it for a few moments before saying anything.

"Nice family you have here," Jake said. Tom almost expected him to say something like, 'be a shame if anything happened to it.' "Wife and kids, I take it?" Jake asked.

"Yes," Tom said. Jake nodded his head and put the picture back down.

"I want to meet your wife as soon as possible," Jake said. "Tomorrow at 9:00 am, sharp. You're invited as well." He saw the question on Tom's face and continued. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

"You may be my boss, Mr. Wheeler," Tom said, irritation in his voice. "But my wife does not come and go by your leave."

"Of course not," he said. "My apologies. I like to know the spouses of those who work under me. It helps me connect with my employees. I'd appreciate it if she can come by in the morning."

"I'll ask her tonight," Tom said. "She has a job of her own and may not be able to get away."

"This isn't a simple request, Johnson," Jake said. "Do what it takes. Make it happen. 9:00 am. My office. Be there." Jake's expression had changed with that last exchange and Tom didn't like what he saw. He also didn't appreciate the condescending tone Jake used. "Are we clear, Johnson?" Jake asked after a few uncomfortable moments of silence.

"Crystal, Mr. Wheeler," Tom responded, a bit more abrupt than he originally intended. Jake looked at him for a few moments, examining Tom's expression. After a while, he nodded his head, turned and walked out of Tom's office. Tom was furious -- how dare this jerk think he can just waltz into his office and order his wife around like that! Linda wasn't very happy when he told her about it that night.

"What?" she asked. "He wants to see me, and thinks I can just show up when he demands it?"

"Apparently," Tom said.

"Well, fortunately, I have an appointment with the eye doctor tomorrow morning at 10:00 and Rhonda gave me the morning off, so I can be there," she said. "And I intend to give him a piece of my mind tomorrow morning. Don't worry, I'll keep my temper under control." Tom knew what she could be like when she gets pissed off and smiled.

"Thanks, dear," he said. "I appreciate that."

The next morning, Linda showed up at Tom's office just a few minutes before nine. They kissed, then headed upstairs to Jake's office together. Jessie, Jake's secretary, ushered them inside when they arrived. Jake stood up and extended a hand to Linda.

"Ah, Mrs. Johnson," he said. "I'm glad you could make it in this morning. Please, have a seat, both of you. Would you care for a cup of coffee or tea?"

"No, thank you," she said, taking her seat. "I have a doctor's appointment this morning, so I was able to squeeze this in. You know I have a job as well and I can't just take off when you demand it."

"I understand and appreciate that," Jake said. Tom could see Jake eyeing his wife. At 38, Linda was in great shape and took care of herself. "You're probably wondering why I asked to see you."

"Yes, I am," she said.

"Well, I like to meet the spouses of my employees," he said. "It gives me a better insight into the people who work for me. May I call you Linda?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "As long as I can call you Jake. So, what do you want to know?"

"Well," Jake said. "For starters, I'd like to know a bit about you. How long have you been married, that sort of thing."

"Tom and I will be celebrating our 17th anniversary in July," she said. "We have two children, twins, a boy and a girl, both in high school. Tom and I are very happy together and we intend to stay that way. We both support and love each other very much and intend to spend the rest of our lives together. Is there anything else you wish to know?"

"I think you've pretty much summed it up, Linda," he said. "Please don't misunderstand. Acme -- the umbrella company that now controls Tyndall -- likes to know as much about the spouses of its employees, especially the managers, as possible. We sometimes take that into account when it comes time for things like promotions and evaluations. Tell me about where you work, if you could please."

"I work for Harmon Real Estate," she said. "I've been there for about 10 years now. Most of the time, I work in the office, but I also do some outside sales as well."

"I see," Jake said. "Sounds interesting. I'd like to hear more about it sometime. Perhaps over dinner. Would you be open to having me by your place for dinner sometime soon? Perhaps this Saturday?"

"I'll have to look at my schedule," Linda said. "Tom and I normally reserve Saturdays for ourselves."

"So the two of you still go out on dates?" Jake asked. "Even after nearly 17 years?"

"Yes," Linda said. "Tom and I have a very vibrant relationship and we like to keep the home fires burning. Especially after nearly 17 years." Jake nodded his head and looked at Tom with a smirk.

"You're a very lucky man, Johnson," he told Tom.

"You have no idea," Tom said. Jake and Linda picked up on Tom's hostility.

"So, is Saturday good for dinner, then?" he asked. Tom and Linda looked at each other for a moment. Linda slowly nodded her head. Tom looked at Jake.

"Saturday is fine," Tom said. "Be there at 6:00 pm. Sharp."

"Very well," Jake said. "6:00 it is then. Should I bring something?"

"Only your appetite," Linda said. "Will you be coming with someone? A Mrs. Wheeler, perhaps?"

"There's no Mrs. Wheeler," Jake said. "But I would like to bring someone with me, if that's okay."

"That's fine," Tom said. "Is there anything else?" Jake thought for a moment, then shook his head.

"That's all for now," he said, standing. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Linda," he added, extending his hand.

"Likewise," Linda said, taking his hand in hers. "Just don't expect me to come running at your beck and call, though. I'm not one of your employees, and I have a job and a life of my own," she added with an edge in her voice. Tom recognized the tone she used and knew she was not happy.

"Of course not," Jake said. "And I apologize if I came across as being presumptuous. I look forward to seeing you on Saturday."

"Saturday," Linda said. She turned to leave and Tom saw the fire in her eyes. Tom nodded at Jake and followed his wife out of the office. He could almost see smoke coming from her ears. They walked together to her car.

"I don't like that man," she said when they got to her car. "Not one bit. And I don't trust him."

"I don't think too highly of him either," Tom said.

"I especially don't like the way he inserted himself into our lives," she said. "Who the hell does he think he is? Saturdays are supposed to be for us."

"I don't like it, either," he said.

"You know I'll support you no matter what," she said. "But I will NOT have him or this company interfering in our lives. We'll do this one dinner, but that's it. Are you with me?"

"Of course I am," Tom said. "So, what are we gonna do about Saturday?"

"Maybe you could grill some steaks on the barbecue," she said. "I'll whip up some mashed potatoes and vegetables. Would that be okay?" Tom nodded his head.

"Yeah," he said. They kissed each other and she got in her car. "Thanks for coming, sweetheart," he said.

"You're welcome," she said. "I love you."

"I love you, too," he told her right before closing her door. He watched as she left and headed back inside the building. Jake was waiting for him when he got back to his office.

"Quite a woman you have there, Johnson," he said.

"I think so," Tom said.

"I guess what they say about redheads is true," Jake added.

"Why's that?" Tom asked.

"I was beginning to think she was going to rip my face off for a minute there," Jake said.

"I can't imagine why," Tom said with an edge in his voice. Jake picked up on it and his tone suddenly changed.

"Well, I'm sorry if I came across as an asshole," Jake said. "Blame it on my upbringing if you want. So, what's for dinner Saturday?"

"I'm going to grill some steaks," Tom said.

"Good," Jake said. "I like mine medium rare."

"One medium rare," Tom said. "Got it." Jake regarded him for a few moments before continuing.

"Look, Johnson," he said. "Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot. I've looked at your record, and I like what I see. All of your previous managers had great things to say about you. Personally, I think you could go far in this company. How far you go is pretty much up to you. Remember, Acme is a huge company with interests all over the world. All I'm asking is that you work with us a bit. Give us a chance. I think you may come to appreciate what we have to offer."

"I'll keep that in mind," Tom said. Jake nodded his head and left.

On Saturday, Tom fired up the grill, rubbed the steaks down with seasoning and began cooking the meat as Linda prepared the mashed potatoes and vegetables. The doorbell rang at 5:50, ten minutes before dinnertime. Having just finished the steaks, Tom answered the door and saw Jake with a somewhat older attractive woman and ushered them inside.

"Something smells good," Jake said.

"Thanks," Tom said. By then, Linda had placed the food on the table, removed her apron and came into the living room. Jake turned to the woman with him.

"Brenda, this is Tom and Linda Johnson," he said. "Tom, Linda, this is Brenda Carson." They all shook hands and Tom invited them to the dinner table, where they all sat down. Tom dished out the steaks, giving Jake one cooked medium rare as Linda served up the potatoes, gravy and vegetables.

"So, Brenda," Linda said as she poured them a glass of red wine. "Are you and Jake a couple?" She smiled and shook her head.

"Oh no," she said. "I work for Acme. I'm part of the Executive Morale Team."

"Executive Morale Team?" Linda asked. "I've never heard of anything like that before. What is it you do, exactly?"

"As the name implies, it's my job to see to the morale of our executives," she said. "You have to understand, Acme is a multinational company with interests around the world. We usually promote our executives internally as they are already somewhat familiar with our corporate culture, which, I'm proud to say, is quite... unique."

"In what way?" Tom asked.

"Let's just say our executives, and their spouses, enjoy certain benefits not normally available to executives in other firms," she said. "These benefits go a long way to ensuring the stability and loyalty of those who choose Acme as their employer of choice. Do you realize that among our executives, we have a 99.9 percent retention rate?"

"I didn't know that," Tom said.

"That's because of the effort we put into keeping our executives happy," she said. "Those benefits extend to the spouses as well. You know the old saying, 'happy wife, happy life?' We take that to heart at Acme, and strive to keep our executives, and their wives, happy and content."

"I... see," Tom said, curious about what she meant. "And how do you go about doing that?" Brenda smiled and waved a finger.

"Not yet," she said. "Remember, we normally don't keep executives at your level in most of the companies we acquire. Not without a thorough evaluation."