PAPER HEROES COMPLETE FIRST CHAPTER
4:32 pm, Wednesday, March 6th
A familiar urge rose inside Stewart, begging him to plunge his ball-point
pen into Doug Peters' eye socket. Through force of will, he pushed the
thought back into his subconscious. Stewart had never considered himself
a particularly violent person, but something about his supervisor made him
want to lash out in thoughtless barbarism.
“Mr. Mitchell, do you understand what I’m saying?” Doug asked.
Again, Stewart overcame the urge to use his pen as an offensive weapon.
“Yes, Doug. I understand you want to lay off two of my team members,” Stewart said. “But they're my team, not yours.”
“May I remind you I don’t need your permission?” Doug countered.
Stewart glanced out his third-story window to avoid the statement's infuriating reality. 31st Street bustled with people scurrying along the sidewalk on their way to life's destinations; cars crawled past in the afternoon traffic. He imagined the view of New York from Doug’s office on the 86th floor to be far less pedestrian. From that height, Doug probably couldn't see individual people at all --- which made sense considering he rarely saw them as people when they stood right in front of him.
The thought didn’t help Stewart regain his composure. “Is this a board decision or are you on a firing kick?” he asked. “We're one of your most successful ad teams.”
“The board doesn't see it that way.”
“Or you don't see it that way?” Stewart pointed. “We've never been on the same page Doug, but I can't believe you'd come in here, smile at Sandy on your way past her desk, and then tell me I have to let her, and three other people go.” He dropped his hand, allowing his muscles to relax so Doug wouldn't see his fingers shaking.
“Oh, you just love making me the bad guy, don't you? You just love it!”
He wanted to challenge Doug, shout, rail against him in front of the other executives hiding in their boardroom, but the man's status as 'Most Unloved Employee of the Month' throughout the company balanced evenly with him being sickeningly good at his job. He and Stewart had never gotten along, and while they rarely worked together, Doug did supervise the various marketing teams at R&D Industries. Going head-to-head with him wouldn’t end in Stewart’s favor. At the same time, he couldn’t roll over and allow his people to be sacrificed on the altar of corporate profitability.
“I need to meet with the board myself before I fire anyone,” Stewart said. “I'm not going off your word alone.”
“Believe it or not, this came down from higher than even me.” Doug continued, motioning toward the ceiling. “Somebody up top wants this, and honestly I'd be more than happy to tell them you're not on-board with it and need to be replaced.”
“You realize if you fire Stewart the entire department will walk, right?”
The arguing men shot their eyes toward the now open door. Neither had noticed any movement.
Mike Jackson took a bite out of a green apple. “It just seems like bad business to me, but what do I know? I'm just a computer tech.”
Stewart suppressed a laugh. Of course, Mike would show up at that moment, eating a snack like it was the most natural thing in the world. They'd been defending each other since their high school calculus class; why would corporate America be any different? It couldn't be a coincidence either. Mike had to have heard something from a board member or a whisper of layoffs somewhere; he always had his ear to the ground.
“Oh, for god's sake,” Doug spat, “You don't even work in this department, Jackson.”
“It's okay, Mike. I got this,” Stewart said.
“I'm just saying I've seen these guys follow Stewart through thick and thin. They'll follow him out the door if that's the route you decide to go.”
“This is a private conversation, Jackson,” Doug said. “Please leave us to it.”
“Can I say something?” a mousy voice asked from behind Mike. Stewart recognized it as his slightly built office manager Sandy. She poked her head around Mike's left side, eyes magnified through her glasses.
“Sandy,” Stewart said. “I'll discuss all of this with the team later.”
“Yeah, now get out,” Doug added.
Stewart's eyes narrowed. He pointed at his department manager again, this time not needing to steady his hand. “You don't talk to her that way.” For the first time since their argument began, Doug's eyes darted to the side in bashful concession.
“I was just going to agree with Mr. Jackson,” Sandy said, turning away.
“Told you,” Mike reinforced, taking another bite of his apple. “Only offering my opinion.” He winked at Stewart and closed the door behind him.
“Everybody's got a goddamn opinion,” Doug said under his breath.
“That doesn't mean he's wrong,” Stewart replied.
“It would be an empty threat. They won't leave with the economy tanking like it is. They'd be stupid.”
An image of Sandy panhandling in front of the building flashed in Stewart's brain. He shrugged it off, telling himself he wouldn't let anything like that happen. “Maybe they have more loyalty than you think,” he said.
“We'll find out.” Doug stretched his neck to the right, pulling his muscles tight like a prize fighter. “All I’ve needed is an excuse, Mitchell. I want you gone.”
“Too bad you can’t unilaterally make that decision,” Stewart said. The temperature in the room had risen ten degrees, and Stewart wished he could open one of the permanently locked windows to let in some air.
“I'm going to the board with my recommendation we just shut down your entire team. How about that?”
“And when I stand in front of the board, I'll make sure they know what a petty and counterproductive decision that is, and how it makes sense you'd be the one to make it.”
Stewart held Doug's gaze firmly.
The moment stretched, seconds masquerading as minutes, until Doug turned and stormed out like a thirteen-year-old girl after a break-up. He tried to slam the door for affect, but the hydraulic hinge slowed it behind him, neutralizing his effort.
Stewart sat down heavily, his office chair bouncing against his lithe frame. The ad campaign artwork that ten minutes before had seemed so important now cluttered his desk like discarded news clippings. Their big Summer Tech Extravaganza blitz didn't matter against the people about to lose their jobs.
Stewart pushed the papers aside and looked across his desk at the family photo displayed next to his computer monitor. There he smiled with his beautiful wife and two infant daughters. The picture, less than two months old, had been taken in Central Park on a chilly, blue-skied Saturday in January. He longed to return to that moment and stay there forever, frozen with an eternal smile. A shadow fell across the photo as a cloud cut off the sunlight pouring through his office window. The sudden gloom made the room feel smaller.
The thought of going home after being fired made him sick to his stomach, yet simultaneously euphoric. He could never admit it to his wife, but part of him longed to leave his job, despite New York's current economic insecurity.
Spending his life creating meaningless advertisements for a technology firm seemed like a wasted existence. Every time they added a new button to a phone or changed the color of their operating system screen, Stewart went to work convincing people to open their wallets.
The hollowness of the job had made him contemplate running away many times, but whenever he longed to escape, his daughters looked up from the photo. Those pure little girls counted on him to put food on the table and pay the rent on their small two-bedroom apartment. He would endure for them and hope someday he could do work that made his family proud.
A vibration in his pocket interrupted his self-reflection. He pulled out his cell phone and swiped the screen, revealing a text message from his wife. “MEET ME AT THE BISTRO ON 9TH AT 5PM. I HAVE A SURPRISE FOR YOU.”
Stewart smiled. She never sent messages in all caps, so whatever her mystery entailed, it had to be good. For a moment, all his troubles at work receded at the prospect of eating a good meal with Becky and laughing with her about Mike defending him with a mouthful of apple.
His fingers tapped hurriedly across the screen. “UR a lifesaver. Be there at 5 sharp.” Stewart returned the phone to his pocket and made his way toward the door.
“Sandy,” he said, stepping out of his office. “I'm leaving a bit early. Make sure Tyler remembers to have his artwork on my desk first thing in the morning and remind Darren we have that meeting tomorrow afternoon with the video guys.”
“I will,” the office manager responded. “Do you want me to schedule something with the crew to discuss what Mr. Peters had to say?”
Stewart forced a smile. “Don't worry about it for right now. Please keep it to yourself. That wasn't the last word on the situation. I'm not going to roll over on this one, and it's a terrible business decision anyway. We're going to be fine.”
Stewart slowly moved past Sandy to extricate himself from the conversation. “If there's a client emergency or something, I'll have my cell. I'll be with Becky at Rare N' Ripe over on 9th for an early dinner.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“You don't need to worry. Just tell Tyler to get me that artwork.” He turned the corner before she could say anything else and made his way straight to the stairs. The elevator would take too long to descend from the heights above, and Stewart wanted out of the building like it was on fire.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Sandy's words echoed in his head as he took the steps two at a time. He didn't know how to truthfully answer her question, or the dozens of others he would have to deal with in the next 24 hours. By tomorrow, word of his argument would shotgun through the department, and he'd be on damage control for the rest of the week. That thought propelled him toward the exit.
Cold air filled his lungs as he stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the impressive R&D Industries tower. Ninety-eight floors of glass and steel cast its shadow over the area as a crowd of people moved past like an ocean current. He sidled his way into the mass and headed west toward 9th, looking for gaps in the herd so he could break away and move a bit faster. He breathed deeply, tasting the mixture of exhaust, urine, and burnt pretzels that welcomed the senses along 31st Street. The smell of New York. He loved it.
The crowd thinned as he moved past Penn Station. Stewart began jogging, putting even more distance between himself and the R&D Building.
Free at last.
A police siren startled him out of his thoughts. Flashing lights whirled past, tires screeching as the cruiser turned sharply in front of him onto 9th Avenue. A second police car followed, and Stewart wondered if he'd get to watch a dramatic arrest unfold as he ate a brisket sandwich.
Rounding the corner, he saw the black and white squad cars halfway down the block, parked in the middle of the street. Their sirens echoed loudly along the urban canyon. Stewart's interest piqued when one of the officers bolted toward a shop across the avenue, gun drawn ready to fire. The cop shouted something and ran back toward the cruisers.
Oh man, Stewart thought. That's right across from the restaurant, I think. If Becky beat me here, she might be seeing...
A flash of light lit up the street, followed by a deafening explosion. Even from half a block away a wave of heat washed over Stewart. He stumbled back, watching helplessly as the police dove for cover behind their cars. Debris rained down on the street; people screamed and scattered. What seconds before had been an upscale boutique now gaped open like a ghoulish skeletal mouth, belching smoke. The reek of burning plastic and ozone assaulted Stewart's nostrils. A woman down the block stumbled toward a bakery, face streaked crimson as she tried to stem the blood flow from a head wound.
Stewart took refuge behind a parked car. His hands began to shake, perspiration seeping through his pours. Was it a terrorist attack? Were there other bombs along the street? Was Becky okay? Had she made it to the bistro before him? He needed to get over to the restaurant.
Police officers shouted for civilians to run, but their admonitions were drowned out by a series of strange piercing bursts. The high-pitched squeals reminded Stewart vaguely of something from an old Star Trek episode.
He turned south and peeked over the trunk to gain a better vantage point. Blue streaks of energy shot through the air like glowing streams of water. Stewart tried to process what he saw but couldn't find a comparable frame of reference. Were they sparks of some kind? Electrical discharges?
One of the energy beams hit a police officer in the chest and sent him flying back ten feet. The deputy impacted the pavement hard and didn't get back up.
Stewart's eyes followed the strange azure blasts back to their source.
Four men now stood in front of the damaged storefront. Partially obscured by the smoke, the attackers wore shiny black unitards, full face masks, and white trench coats. Each held a large silver rifle, like a weapon out of Men in Black or some other dated sci-fi movie. Their appearance seemed almost comical against the charred debris around them. For a second Stewart wondered if he’d stumbled onto a film set; even looking around briefly for cameras and catering trucks. No movie crews or special effects artists manifested before his eyes though, only the injured police officer on the asphalt and the terrified people running past.
Stewart bolted from behind the car, determined to find his wife in the chaos. He ran toward the bistro almost knocking over a frantic old man charging headlong in the opposite direction. Rare N’ Ripe was only three businesses down from where he had stopped, but it felt like an eternity to reach.
“Becky!” he screamed, scanning the faces of people huddled behind tables in the outdoor pavilion. “Becky!”
Another policeman fell to the ground, impacted by the assault of blue voltage. A parked car across the street exploded, sending more fire and smoke toward the sky.
Stewart desperately leapt over the metal railing that separated the restaurant from the sidewalk. He called again for his wife, but a booming voice drowned out the sound of her name. Amplified words bounced loudly through the air, resounding over the cacophony of sirens and screeches.
“A new age is dawning!” the voice bellowed, augmented by some unseen device. Stewart turned toward the sound. The four strange men stood at attention, but the words didn't originate from any of the masked individuals. A larger man addressed the crowd, arms outstretched dramatically like opening night at a theater performance. ‘Large’ didn't do this guy justice; ‘fat’ was far more appropriate. His bulbous body was draped in a long white trench coat similar to the other men, but no mask obscured his face; only a pair of chrome goggles acted as concealment.
The strangeness of the scene intensified as Stewart realized the obese orator sat in some type of rounded silver chair that didn’t touch the ground. He floated two feet off the pavement, hovering with a slight up and down motion. Again, Stewart expected to see film cameras, or wires suspending the man from a crane above, but no Hollywood magic could explain his view.
“I am Dmitri Dementor!” the flying fat man shouted. “Remember that name! This city belongs to me and my brothers. Retribution is coming! The old world will burn, and on its ashes, we’ll build a new one! Until then, we will take what we want when we want it and there is nothing you can do to stop us. Soon you will know the true meaning of retribution. This is only the beginning!”
The chair hummed as the man pivoted back and forth, the rounded bottom glowing orange as he floated higher in the air and rocketed north past Stewart, taking the man out of view around a street corner.
“What the hell?” Stewart whispered to himself.
Back at the storefront, the masked men had disappeared as well, leaving behind destruction and unease. One of the police officers lying in the street moaned and tried to roll over onto his side. Stewart felt the sudden urge to run to his aid but remembered his original quest and called for his wife again.
He ran inside the bistro but couldn't see anyone who looked like his spouse. People bolted for the doors or cried into their cell phones. His wife was not among them. Panicked, he pulled out his own phone and fumbled through his recent calls until he saw Becky's photo next to her number and pressed it. After two rings she answered.
“Hey babe,” her voice said happily.
“Are you okay?” he asked breathlessly. “Are you at Rare N' Ripe? Are you nearby?
“What are you talking about?”
“Where are you!?!” he shouted with more force than intended.
“I'm at home,” Becky replied, her confusion evident.
“Why are you at home?”
“Where else would I be?”
Stewart turned up the volume on his phone, hoping to hear more clearly over the sirens. “Did you say you're at home? Did I hear that right?”
“Yes, I'm at home. I'm here with the girls. What's going on?”
He looked around at the destruction; police running from one end of the block to the other, smoke wafting across his nose. A ripple of fear ran up his spine.
“Just stay at home,” he replied. “There's been an attack or something. I saw the whole thing.”
“Like a terrorist attack?”
“I guess, but it was really weird. I can't talk right now; there are more police and fire engines arriving and it's hard to hear. I'm alright and I'll come straight home. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, a hint of fear twinging her voice.
More sirens blared along the street, stifling all other noise. Six police cars converged on the scene, with ambulances and fire engines in-tow. Civilians ran in all directions, some filming on their cell phones, others shouting and pointing in the direction the floating man had fled. Stewart stepped onto the sidewalk and took it all in. The moment reminded him of war zone footage from failed states around the world, if those war zones had been superimposed over a bunch of retail stores in Midtown Manhattan. Even his memories of 9/11 and watching the Twin Towers fall on TV couldn't prepare him for this sight.
The guy had flown away in a magic chair. No, "magic" wasn't right. It had to be technology of some kind, but where it had come from Stewart couldn't fathom. He looked at his phone, realizing he should call Sandy at the office and tell her he was alright. Then he remembered the text that had brought him here in the first place.
Becky had been confused when he asked if she was at Rare N, Ripe. How could that be? She had sent him the message telling him to meet her there. He quickly scrolled to their exchange looking for her all-caps invitation.
The text was gone as if it had never existed.
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