The Future of Christmas
IT WAS ALMOST two-thirty and Elizabeth already had a headache. Glancing around the boardroom table to her senior executives, she recalled which of them had families and which were single, like herself. About half and half, she realized, which was why there was no consensus about the new initiative. She should have considered that before she proposed eliminating the Christmas holidays to maintain production. Perhaps she should have sweetened the pot, somehow, given that she was about to close several factories and an entire chain of retail stores by New Years in order to improve the company’s bottom line in time for the annual shareholder meeting.
Not that she needed to please the shareholders, given that she owned the majority of the stock.
Nor did she want to coddle her employees. By no means. Her father had taught her that a woman must be even tougher and stronger than a man if she expected to run a corporation like Torrence Industries.
“People will trample you into the dust, if they can,” Bob Torrence had drummed into her. “Never give them an inch or they’ll take a mile.” It was his favourite saying, along with “Never let them see you sweat.”
Still, the iron fist must be covered by a velvet glove, from time to time. That much she had figured out for herself.
She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly in hope of unobtrusively easing the tension in her neck and shoulders. Finally, as Jack Belcher’s voice started to rise and Sue Patterson’s eyes took on that gleam that indicated she would start shouting any second now, Elizabeth stood up from her tall, leather-clad seat at the end of table, under the towering portrait of her late father. Instantly, silence descended and all eyes turned to her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she declared, her voice quiet but her tone peremptory, “we’ll table this discussion for our next meeting.” She looked to her secretary. “Dee, for the record, the last item on today’s agenda will be the first order of business on Friday.”
The grey-haired matron responded, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Elizabeth panned the faces of her staff. “Make no mistake,” she stated coolly, “we will maintain peak production one way or another. Am I making myself clear?”
Sixteen heads bobbed their chastened understanding.
“Good day,” said the Chief Executive Officer of Torrence Industries. She folded the file before her and stalked out of the boardroom to cross the hall to her office.
ELIZABETH FLUNG OPEN the door to the large corner suite that comprised panoramic views of the city, a full bath with walk-in closet for those occasions she must go directly to a formal function, and a well-stocked bar hidden behind a rolling panel. She wanted an aspirin and a chaser of scotch.
To her shock, she found a man’s blue-jeaned butt waving at her on the far side of her desk.
There were few things in the world that Elizabeth Victoria Torrence hated more than surprises. Instantly vexed, she demanded, “Who are you and what the hell are you doing here?”
The lanky figure unfolded languidly and turned to give her an assessing gaze before he answered, “Tom MacKinnon’s the name. And I’m fixin’ your wiring.”
Her jaw tightened at his lack of deference. Employees usually trod softly around her, but his manner bordered on insolence. At least, that was what she told herself as she took in his broad brow, chiselled features, brown eyes, well-muscled physique, and small black-on-white nametag affixed to his light-blue shirt..
“What’s wrong with it?” she snapped, determined to reinforce her authority.
Ignoring her tone, he replied, “There’s a short. I’m lookin’ for the cause so you don’t burn the building down next time you plug something in.”
She puckered her mouth irritably. “Very well. How long will it take?”
He snorted, a sound that sent her blood toward the boil, before he said, “It’ll take as long as it takes, Miss. Till I know where it’s comin’ from, I can’t even make a guess how long it’ll take to fix it.”
She opened her mouth to retort, but he cut her off. “But I’ll make it as quick as I can. I won’t be dawdlin’. I’ve got Christmas shopping to do, same as everybody else.”
With that, he turned his back and bent again to examine the outlet.
Feeling dismissed, but simultaneously aware that the man from Maintenance must do his job as a matter of safety, Elizabeth tossed her file onto the coffee table in the nearby sitting area, whirled, and strode to her private bath. There, she opened the medicine cabinet beside the sink, grabbed the bottle of ASA, shook out a couple of pills, and popped them into her mouth to wash them down with several gulps of water.
Finally, she returned to her office and sat in the centre of the brown-leather sofa. Leaning back, she closed her eyes and tried to relax.
She heard Dee puttering around in the outer reception room, opening filing cabinets and answering phone calls. The woman’s footfalls pattered to the doorway and Elizabeth could visualize her peering in at her boss before she turned back and sat to her desk.
To the side, peculiar scratches and scrapes evinced the ongoing search for the “short,” and Elizabeth wondered exactly what a short was.
SOMETIME LATER, when she noticed that the pain in her head had eased and the Maintenance worker had left, she sat up and retrieved her file to leaf through the documents she had compiled for the meeting. She perused each one again, finding nothing from her executives that would contradict her assessment of the company’s financial position or the options available for its management.
Cuts were necessary. As her father had regularly proclaimed, such business decisions were unpopular, but that was life.
“I’ll be going now, Ms. Torrence.”
Elizabeth glanced up to Dee Friesen and nodded acknowledgement. Immediately, she returned her gaze to the reports on her lap as the inner door closed, followed soon after by the sound of the outer door locking.
Eventually, she straightened the papers, closed the file, and rose to set it on her desk. The city’s lights beckoned, and she ambled to the window overlooking the entertainment district to watch stoplights turn green and traffic flow despite the snowfall that had increased since she last looked outside.
With a sigh, she turned away and stepped to her closet to choose a warm coat in which to go home to her condo.
THE ELEVATOR OPENED on the ground level and Elizabeth walked out to the marble-floored lobby. But she slowed and stopped at recognition of the man ahead of her, waiting by the glass door set in a wide swath of glazed wall. MacKinnon, she recalled. She wondered what the man was waiting for.
The answer came when a grey-blue car pulled up at the curb. A smile of pleasure curved the man’s lips, the image reflected by the fenestration, and Elizabeth suddenly felt like a voyeur as she watched him.
He pushed out to the sidewalk, where a young child ran to greet him and he scooped the tot into his arms to give her a hug. His arm reached around the parka-clad woman who joined them, and a sharp jolt shot into Elizabeth’s chest at the tableau that reminded her she had no one. No family, now that her father and grandfather had passed. And no friends, truth be told. Oh, she had acquaintances, yes. The list of movers and shakers who invited her to parties and who attended the events she hosted was long, indeed. But not one could she truly call a friend.
She swallowed, trying to push down the sense of emptiness that had unexpectedly opened within her.
As Tom MacKinnon drove away with his family, she stepped out into the cold and hailed a cab.
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