John Birch was an infantry officer in the British Army for eight years. He then spent 38 years carrying out corporate communications assignments in more than 30 countries. Since the 1950s, he has published short fiction, news and feature articles in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia. John is now writing a second suspense novel, A Corpse Called Icarus, set in Cyprus. He worked in the U.S. for 25 years, and lives in Manhattan with his wife, Lynn.
he was reading a book at the kitchen table when Frank came back.
“Who was it? I didn’t recognize his voice,” she said, without looking up.
She made a face. “Burt Vogel? That crook? You haven’t heard from him for years, what did he
“Wants me to go in to New York and have lunch with him next Tuesday. He’s got a problem, needs advice.”
“What sort of advice?”
“You should’ve asked him,” she said. “Why are you grinning? What’s so damn funny?”
“Well, don’t you think it’s weird? He could hardly wait to see me out the door on my
sixty-fifth birthday, and now he wants my advice!”
“And you’re going, I suppose.”
“Sure I am. Why not?”
“Because the man’s a prick, that’s why. You owe him squat.”
She’d been like this for quite a while, with her snarky little put-downs,
|"She was wrong about his hating the place. Maybe he’d complained sometimes,
but over the past few years he’d yearned for the familiar routine, the challenges, the friendships. He’d
even enjoyed the daily commute in the train, when he could read the paper or take a nap if he liked."
like a big sister to a kid brother. Lately she’d actually seemed to dislike him, and this made him uneasy. Frank
didn’t tell her he was flattered by the invitation. Nor did he say that for years he’d felt rejected and shut out
by Vogel, who’d never once called or written since he retired. This trip back to the office might be a chance to
re-connect, to make up. Reconcile, was that the right word?
“I want to go if only to see how much the place has changed, meet a few friendly
faces maybe, have a free lunch with Vogel’s new management team.”
She raised one eyebrow in that way she did. “Come on, there’s no such thing as a
free lunch, remember? You’ve forgotten what the guy’s like, he’s a user. Wants something – want to bet?”
“Well, I’m going anyway.”
She seemed not to have heard him, with her head back in her book. She’d always
been a big reader. In the last few months she’d been reading two or three books a week from the library in
Ossining. Frank wasn’t much of a reader himself, though before he retired he’d told everyone he couldn’t
wait to catch up with his reading. But somehow he’d never got around to it. One day he would.
She snapped her book shut and frowned up at him. “You’ll have to wear a suit
and tie, you know. You haven’t done that for yonks, not since your mom’s funeral.”
“They don’t dress up these days,” Frank said, “not unless they’re meeting a client.
But may be you’re right, he has visitors all the time. Maybe I should dress up a bit.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this!” she said. “You’ve been out of that place for years.
You always told me you hated it . . . couldn’t wait to retire. You know what? I think you’re still scared of that jerk.”
* * *
Frank had been in his workshop in the basement when Vogel called, making a love
seat for the yard. He spent more and more time down there on projects for the grandchildren, a rocking horse,
a see-saw, a couple of doll-houses, a dog kennel. He was most at ease here. He could do what he wanted, when he
wanted, the way he wanted. His wife knew nothing about woodwork, so she didn’t criticize him.
He heard her yell down to him when the phone rang. “Someone for you.”
“Who is it?”
“No idea. Pick it up, will you?”
Vogel’s voice was friendly, almost affectionate. He said something about
staffing problems. Could it possibly be that he wanted him to come back? That he’d realized over the years
what a contribution his older, more experienced colleague had made – could still make? If that was it,
he’d do it like a shot.
She was wrong about his hating the place. Maybe he’d complained sometimes,
but over the past few years he’d yearned for the familiar routine, the challenges, the friendships. He’d
even enjoyed the daily commute in the train, when he could read the paper or take a nap if he liked. True,
he’d be seventy-four in a couple of months, but he had experience, more than the lot of them put together.
He’d be back in the swing of it in no time.
* * *
When Frank dressed in his room on Tuesday morning his collar was a little tight,
and so was the waistband of his pants. But then he put on his red suspenders and the jacket of his charcoal
suit and made a rare trip into his wife’s bedroom, standing for a full minute in front of the mirror. He
smiled to himself. Not bad, he thought.
Nowadays, on the few occasions when they went to the city they drove,
parking the car in a fenced lot in the mid-50s, off the West Side Highway. But today, fearful that
there might be some traffic delay, he took the train from Croton-Harmon.
He left home a few minutes later than he’d planned, and it wasn’t
until he came off Route 9 and was approaching the permit-holders’ lot that it struck him – he didn’t
have a permit anymore. Hadn’t done for years. He searched for a meter, and glanced at his watch while
he circled the adjacent lot. He had about four minutes, and there were no empty spaces. Soon he was
driving farther and farther away from the stairway up to the station until he found a vacant meter
on the farthest edge of the park. To pay, he’d have to run a good hundred yards back to the attendant’s
hut, and another two hundred yards from there to the steps.
He locked the car, started to jog toward the hut and was already out
of breath by the time he reached it. He almost threw the bills at the attendant and turned to lollop
down the paved road past the taxi rank toward the station. Panting, with his mouth hanging open, he
labored up the steep staircase. At the top he leaned against the window by the ticket booth only to
see that the 10:06 was approaching Platform 2. He snatched his ticket from the agent and, wheezing
now, stumbled down the other stairway to the platform, steadying himself on the hand-rail, and with
a final effort leaped into the car only seconds before the doors slammed shut behind him. He heaved
in great gulps of air and flopped back in his seat, his head lolling.
Through the window to his right the Hudson began to glide by.
He’d brought The Times
from home, but was too tense and unsettled to read. His mind was a blank
while he recovered his breath and composure. He gazed out at the passing jumble of sheds and
warehouses, rusting, neglected machinery, and then the Tappan Zee Bridge and later, as the line
drew farther away from the river, dense trees and sudden glimpses of tidy villages with half-empty streets.
The train stopped only at 125th Street. After that it was minutes before
it rumbled through the shadowy underground passages on the last few hundred yards of track outside Grand
Central, the lights in the car flashing on and off. People were already standing up, reaching for their
When the train drew into the platform a sudden fear gripped him in the
chest. This thing wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t possibly go back to that place. He’d be an
anachronism, a dinosaur. Vogel was nearly thirty years his junior, and most of the staff would be
half his age. The daily routines had changed since he was in business. Communications were hugely
more electronic. He’d never used a cell phone and knew nothing about things like e-mail, networking
and video conferencing that his young neighbors talked about incessantly. There’d be new buzzwords,
unfamiliar jargon. How could he possibly keep up?
But after he walked up the slope through the archway and came out
into the airy concourse he felt much better. He gazed up into the newly renovated galaxy in the
ceiling, awed by the transfiguration that had taken place since he was last here. It was almost
like a spiritual awakening. Now, in contrast with the clutter of scaffolding, the ear-shattering
machine-gun fire of jackhammers and pneumatic drills, it seemed in a way like some consecrated
place, with its polished marble walls and lofty majestic windows. A cathedral, even.
He was in perfect time. More relaxed now, he emerged from the
station onto the wet sidewalk of 42nd Street under a black, overcast sky, heading up to Madison
Avenue and down a block or two to the office. There were new faces behind the security desk in
the echoing entrance hall. A dozen years ago they hailed him by name with a grin of recognition.
Today there was only a mumbled request to sign the register.
Alone in the elevator he smoothed his hair and straightened his tie.
Things had changed on the 46th floor. Gone was the Regency wallpaper he’d chosen, in harmony with a
reproduction Louis XVI reception desk with its matching chairs. The style was now minimalist. A
young woman seated behind a cantilevered steel and glass table smiled up at him. A tiny black
bud microphone like an astronaut’s seemed to hover near her lips.
She beamed at him. “You’ll be Mr. Bradford, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’m seeing Mr. Vogel at eleven.”
“He’s expecting you.” She touched a button. “Mr. Bradford’s here
to see Burt . . .”
The receptionist seemed to be listening for a few seconds and then
turned to him.
“He’ll be a minute or two.”
The minute or two passed and the young woman turned to him
again and smiled. “I’m afraid Burt’s, like, behind schedule. His assistant asked me if you’d
mind waiting for a few moments. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
He thanked her, but declined. These days he was careful not
to drink much coffee or tea, since he tended to have problems finding a bathroom when he was
away from home. He’d be embarrassed if he had to leave the room while he was talking with
There were papers and magazines on the coffee table, but he
was still too much on edge to read them. Instead, Frank stood up, hands in pockets, and
paced about the reception area.
He looked up at eight spot-lit clocks on the wall, marked
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Sydney.
They hadn’t been there in his day. It had always been Burt’s ambition to have a network
of wholly-owned offices, and it looked as though he's getting there. When Frank retired,
the name of the firm had been Focus Public Relations, but now it was Focus Worldwide in
ultramarine neon. On another wall were framed awards and, in showcases, Oscar-like trophies,
including a cluster of Silver Anvils and some awards he didn’t recognize.
Presently a handsome gray-haired woman in a black pants suit
appeared through a glass door and shook his hand, introducing herself as Suzanne, Vogel’s assistant.
“I’m really sorry for the delay, Mr. Bradford. Burt’s been having
a bad day, but he’ll be out very soon.”
He sat down again. The clock marked New York said twenty
after eleven. The receptionist caught his eye and smiled at him reassuringly, showing faultless,
seemingly incandescent teeth.
“What happened to Aleesha Brown?” he said.
“Aleesha? Oh, she left way back. She’s had three babies . . . brought
them all in a few days ago. Cute kids.”
“So you took her place?”
The young woman laughed. “No way! There were two other girls
after her. I’ve only been here a few months.”
She shrugged. “Sure, like, it’s a job. Know what I’m saying?”
|"He didn’t fix the lunch date with Suzanne.
Instead he nodded a friendly enough goodbye and sat down for a minute or
two in the reception area...He had to admit it, he’d been a ninny. It was all a big
mistake. His wife had been right about Vogel, he was a user and a jerk, and of course Frank had always
known that stuff about free lunches."
Frank sat down again, and waited.
What the hell was Vogel up to? A few more minutes passed, and then the
glass doors burst open. Burt Vogel stood, his arms raised in greeting.
“Frank Bradford, you old bastard! Good to see ya’!”
Vogel hadn’t changed much. The crew cut, the shifty eyes,
the oddly pointy face. No wonder the staff called him ‘the ferret.’ He wore what Frank’s
younger neighbors would have called casual chic – an open neck under a Polo sweater, tailored
chinos and loafers. He bounded forward and grasped Frank firmly by both shoulders, and Frank
couldn’t help wondering whether Vogel was about to kiss him.
“Dunno what you’re doin’ to keep in trim, Frankie, but keep doin’ it.
You're’ lookin' great! Come on in.”
They settled in armchairs, facing each other in a corner of Vogel’s office.
“So how’s business?” Frank asked.
“Pretty damn good. Mind you, it’s very different now.”
“We, like, changed course a couple of times. No more of that
consumer crap. Not much corporate, neither. We’re really into healthcare and medical these days.
A lot of product and issue-oriented public affairs stuff.”
There it was, the jargon. Well, he could cope with that.
“We – that is, you – were moving into hi-tech,” Frank said, “What
happened to all that? It was big.”
Did he imagine it, or did Vogel flinch?
“Most of that went down the drain last year. All those fuckin’
dot-coms. Yeah, that hit us pretty hard. We had to let quite a few people go. You probably heard
Frank said no, he hadn’t.
“Bad scene,” Vogel said.
Frank wondered when he’d get to the point. But then Vogel changed
the subject. “It’s a long time,” he said. “Remind me. How long is it since you retired?”
“Nearly nine years.”
Vogel whistled. “Enjoyin’ it?”
“Most of the time, I guess.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
Frank had decided he wouldn’t tell Vogel he'd give anything
to be back at his desk. Not yet, anyway. He’d watch what he said, with no hint of the aimlessness
of his life at home, his wife’s abusiveness, his bad back, the prostate thing, the memory lapses.
“Well, I confess I get a little bit restless up there,” he said. “I
don’t get quite enough to keep my mind active and, well, I do rather miss the old days at Focus.”
“Don’t think we haven’t missed you too, Frankie,” Vogel said. “They
don’t make ‘em like you anymore, old pal.” He paused, leaned forward and patted Frank on the knee.
“I’ll be honest, if we have a problem here it’s finding senior people with the skills you brought
to the place – energy, creativity, loyalty, integrity. Trouble is, everyone’s been promoted too
goddamn fast. It’s the Peter Principle run amok. They’ve no real experience, you see. No precedents
to apply to other clients’ problems. What we need is more experienced people.”
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
Vogel’s face brightened. “Yeah, you guessed it. I was broodin’
over this at home last week and I had an idea. In fact I nearly called you.”
He was sure of it, but was Burt Vogel going to ask him for
help. Maybe full-time, or at least as a consultant of some kind. Frank’s tension of the
last hour or two had dissolved and given way to a surge of self-assurance.
“Tell me more about your idea.”
Vogel leaned back in his chair. “Ok, listen. I’ll cut the
bullshit. Fact is, we’ve lost a whole bunch of good people. A lot of them have done well
and moved up the totem pole. Here’s the idea – how about we hatch a plan to win ‘em back?”
“Good question. Suppose we had a party,” Vogel said, “in some
cool night spot we’d take over for the night. We’d ask the lot of ‘em, knowing the ones who
hate our guts wouldn’t turn up anyway.”
“I get it,” Frank said, “you’d finish up with alumni from
Focus at every level who still have a residual good feeling about us.”
“Right!” Vogel said. “There’ll be a few who are just plain curious,
but what the hell? We’ll give ‘em all a great time, lots to eat and drink, disco and stuff. Hey,
we could screen some great nostalgic videos, too!”
“And then, I guess, you’ll say a few well-chosen words.”
Vogel shook his head. “Nah! If we do that they’ll twig what
we’re up to – I’ll just make it a quickie. The real recruiting part comes after everyone’s
gone home, see? We’ll make our people really work the room, sure. But, a few days after the
party’s over we’ll sit round the table and compare notes. Then we can draw up a list of
people and approach ‘em one-on-one. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. Geddit?”
“Sounds great,” Frank said. “So what’s the next step?”
Vogel grinned. “Aha! This is where you come in.”
Yeah. Think about it, old buddy. Who knows more than you about
the history of this outfit?”
* * *
Wasn’t it a certainty by now? In a minute or two Vogel would
invite him to run this recruiting beano. After all, planning and running events was one of
his specialties. It was worth quite a few grand. And, as well as that, he’d get a foot in
the door again at Focus. Why didn’t Vogel just come out with it and pop the question?
“OK, Burt, tell me what you want me to do?”
Vogel was talking faster. “You were here for nearly thirty years,
and you’re a good judge of character. I bet you could put together a list of workmates as long
as your arm,” he said, “and what I really want is that list, underlining the names of the ones
that you personally think were hot operators, real pro’s. Will you do that for me?”
Was this all? Just a measly list of names of former
employees to ask to a damn party? Couldn’t he have asked for this in a five-minute
phone call, instead of dragging him all the way into New York?
He wanted to say ‘No! Stick it. I owe you nothing.
Find another poor stiff you’ve unloaded a few days after his sixty-fifth birthday.’
But he didn’t. He said, “Glad to,” and hated himself for it.
“Jeez, you're a real pal,” Vogel said, “I knew you’d do it!”
Then he added, “When would be a good time of the year to do it?”
“To do what?”
“The party, of course”.
“Let me think about that,” Frank said.
Vogel’s secretary stood in the doorway and caught her boss’s eye.
“What's up, Suzy?” Vogel asked.
Suzanne made a barely perceptible hitch of her head that said, ‘may we talk?’
Vogel excused himself and joined her in the doorway. A whispered
conversation followed, at the end of which Frank distinctly heard Vogel say "No problem, tell
‘em I'll be there.”
Vogel sat down again.
“Shit! Gotta problem, Frankie . . . client in real trouble . . . wants
me right now in his office on Fifth. Some kind of flap at the FDA.”
He patted Frank’s knee again. “I’m real sorry, I hoped we could
have a good lunch at Giovanni’s. Just you and me together, so’s we could catch up a bit.”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey, tell you what, let's do lunch some
other time. Give Suze a call and she'll fix it up. OK?”
Vogel was pulling on his raincoat and heading for the door,
calling instructions to Suzanne. His mind was already somewhere else. Seconds later he was
gone, leaving Frank stunned, standing in the middle of the room.
He didn’t fix the lunch date with Suzanne, who was all over
him with apologies. Instead he nodded a friendly enough goodbye and sat down for a minute or
two in the reception area, where the pert young woman had gone to lunch and been replaced by
someone else. He had to admit it, he’d been a ninny. It was all a big mistake. His wife had
been right about Vogel, he was a user and a jerk, and of course Frank had always known that
stuff about free lunches.
But what to do now? Frank weighed his options. The first
was to have a bite at Grand Central and go home to face a battery of monologues peppered with
sneery questions like ‘well, what did I tell you?’ – or ‘why don’t you listen to me?’ But when
a second option slipped into his mind he couldn’t suppress a little chuckle, though the stand-in
receptionist didn’t seem to notice. He’d play hooky – have a few hours on the loose in Manhattan!
There might not be free lunches but there were certainly free afternoons. Hell, he was retired
wasn’t he? He’d go to a movie at two o’clock in the afternoon – take in one of the great
independent pictures they never showed at their glitzy, plastic MovieMax at home.
Frank opened his newspaper and searched the listings in
the Arts section. This was going to be fun! He’d buy himself a damn great bag of popcorn
drenched in butter without her nagging him about cholesterol. Why hadn’t he treated himself
to a day in the city on his own before, letting his hair down, meeting old pals? A whole
new way of life was opening up to him.
Sure, he’d dredge up some names of former colleagues for
Vogel’s dumb list. But it would also be a great way to start checking out a list of long
He had his umbrella ready as he pushed through the glass
doors onto 40th Street, but when he stood on the sidewalk he peered up into the afternoon
sky. The clouds were clearing, and the sun was coming out.
* * *