Mr. Tompkins took his seat in the very last row of Baldrige-One,
the main auditorium at the Big Telephone and Telecommunications Company's Penelope,
New Jersey, facility. He'd spent a lot of time in this auditorium during the past
few weeks, attending out-placement lectures. Mr. T., along with a few thousand
other professional and middle management employees, was being given the boot.
Oh, that wasn't the term they used. They preferred to call it "made redundant"
or "downsized" or "right-sized" or "streamlined"
or "managed down" or, best of all, "Released to Seek Opportunities
Elsewhere." They'd even made an acronym out of that one: ReSOE. Tompkins
was a ReSOE.
Today's event was yet another in
the series called "Opportunity Knocking." This five-week program, according
to the posted notice, was to be "more than 100 hours of inspirational training,
skits, musical interludes, and celebration of ReSOE status." The still-employed
Human Resources people who put on the various sessions seemed pretty convinced
that ReSOE was a blessing in disguise. They made it clear that they would have
dearly loved to be ReSOEs themselves. They really would. But no such luck. No
sir, they would just have to soldier on, bearing the burdens of salary and benefits
as best they could. Up on the stage now, they were trying to put on a brave front.
The last few rows of the auditorium were in what
the acoustic engineers called a "null area." For some reason (no one
had even a good theory about this), almost no sound from the stage could be heard
in these rows. It made it a perfect place for a snooze. Tompkins always sat here.
He put down today's ton of handouts on the
seat in front of him. Two fat loose-leaf notebooks and the usual assortment of
favors were packed into a new canvas bag with its printed logo: "Our Company
Is Thinning Down So the Rest of the World Can Fatten Up." At the top of the
bag was a baseball cap embroidered "ReSOE and Proud of It!" Tompkins
put the hat on, pulled it down over his face and, within a few minutes, drifted
off to sleep.
* * *
A long chorus line of HR people on the stage was singing
"Opportunity Knocking: Okay!" The audience was supposed to clap the
rhythm and join in at the chorus, shouting out "Okay!" as loud as they
could. At the left side of the stage was a man with a megaphone, exhorting the
audience with cries of "Louder! Louder!" A few people in the crowd were
clapping softly, but no one was shouting. Still, the noise, even the little bit
that penetrated the null area, was enough to rouse Mr. T.
yawned and straightened up in his chair. The first thing he noticed was that someone
else was sitting there in the quiet zone, only one seat away. The second thing
he noticed was that she was lovely. She seemed to be in her early thirties, dark
and rather exotic-looking: mid-length black hair in a Dutch cut, very dark eyes.
She was looking up at the muted stage act and smiling very slightly. It was not
exactly a smile of approval. He thought he might have seen her somewhere before.
"Did I miss anything?" he asked.
kept her eyes on the stage. "Only some very important stuff."
you net it out for me?"
you to go away but not change your long-distance account over to MCI."
. . . let's see, you've been asleep for about an hour. Was there anything else
during that hour? No, I guess not. Some songs."
see. A typically triumphant morning for HR."
Mr. Tompkins has awakened, how shall we say it? in a slightly bilious mood."
"I see you have the advantage over me,"
Mr. T. said, offering his hand.
"Hoolihan," she said, shaking his hand.
Her eyes, as she turned to face him, were not just dark, but almost black. It
felt good looking into them. Mr. Tompkins found himself blushing slightly.
"Umm . . . first name, Webster. Webster Tompkins."
"It's an old Balkan name. From
"But Hoolihan . . . ?"
"Mmm. A girlish indiscretion on my mother's
part. He was Irish, a deckhand on a freighter. A rather cute deckhand, I understand.
Mother always had a weakness for sailors." She smiled at him lopsidedly.
Tompkins felt a sudden extra beat in his heart.
he said, cleverly.
met, I think." He meant it as a question.
She didn't go on.
"I see." He still
couldn't remember where it might have been. He looked around the auditorium. There
wasn't another soul anywhere near enough to hear. They were sitting in a public
auditorium and yet were able to have a private conversation. He turned back to
his charming neighbor. "You're a ReSOE, I take it?"
"No? Staying on then?"
"I don't get it."
an employee at all. The truth is that I'm a spy."
laughed, thinking it a joke. "Do tell."
industrial spy. You've heard of such things?"
"You don't believe me."
"Well, . . . it's just that you don't look
She smiled that maddening smile
again. Of course, she did look the part. In fact, she looked like she was born
for the part.
"Not exactly, I mean."
She shook her head. "I can give you proof."
She unclipped her identity badge and passed it to him.
looked down at the badge. It was imprinted HOOLIHAN, Lahksa, over her photo. "Wait
a minute . . ." he said, looking more closely at the badge. On the surface
it looked okay, but there was something wrong with the lamination. In fact, it
wasn't a lamination at all; it was just plastic wrap. He peeled it back and the
photo came away from the badge. He saw there was another photo underneath, this
one of a middle-aged man. And now that he looked, her name was on a sticky label
pasted on the front of the badge. He lifted the label and saw the name STORGEL,
Walter, underneath. "Why, this is about the worst forgery I can imagine."
She sighed. "The resources available within
the Morovian KVJ are not what you'd call 'sophisticated.'"
really are . . . ?"
"Mmm. Going to
turn me in?"
"Uh . . ." A month
ago, of course, he would have done just that. But a lot of things can happen in
a month, things that change you. He thought about it for a moment. "No, I
don't think so." He handed her back the pieces of her badge, which she tucked
neatly into her purse.
some kind of a, well, a Communist country?" Tompkins asked her.
huh. Sort of."
"You worked for a Communist
"I guess you could say
He shook his head. "What's
the point? I mean, if the 1980's proved anything, it was that Communism is a bankrupt
"Mmm. The 1990's, of
course, are showing us that the alternative ain't too great either."
"Well, it is true that there have been a lot
"Only 3.3 million lost
jobs in the last nine months. Yours among them."
long pause as Mr. Tompkins digested that thought. Now it was he who said, "Mmm,"
and he thought, What a heavy conversation. He switched gears, artfully, "Tell
me, Ms. Hoolihan, what's it like to be a spy? I mean, I am in the market for a
"Oh no, Webster, you're
not the spy type," she snickered. "Not the type at all."
felt a bit miffed. "Well, I don't know about that."
a manager. A systems manager, and a good one."
people don't seem to think so. I've, after all, been ReSOEd."
people don't seem to think at all. Such people tend to become executives in large
companies like this one."
Anyway, just for my information, do tell me what's involved in being a spy. I
mean, I never got to meet one before."
you might expect, stealing corporate secrets, the odd kidnapping, maybe occasionally
bumping someone off."
"Oh, sure. All in a day's work."
that doesn't seem very respectable. You would actually kidnap people or even .
. . you know, kill them, just to gain commercial advantage?"
yawned. "I guess. Not just anybody, though. For bumping off, I mean. Whoever
it was would have to deserve it."
even so. I'm not at all sure I approve. I mean, I'm quite sure I don't approve.
What kind of a person would kidnap another human being-we just won't even talk
about the other-what kind of a person would do that?"
pretty clever person, I guess."
You have to be clever to do that?"
the actual act of kidnapping. That's fairly mechanical. No, the trick is, knowing
whom to kidnap." She bent down to her feet where there was a small refrigerator
bag from which she took a canned soft drink and opened it. "Could I offer
you a drink?"
"Um. No, thanks. I really
don't drink anything but . . ."
. . diet Dr. Pepper." She pulled out a cold can of diet Dr. Pepper.
Well, since you have one . . ."
the tab and passed it to him. "Cheers," she said, clunking her drink
"Cheers." He drank a
mouthful. "What's so hard about knowing whom to kidnap?"
me answer that question with a question. What's the hardest job in management?"
"People," Tompkins replied automatically.
He knew exactly where he stood on this subject. "Getting the right people
for the right job. That's what makes the difference between a good manager and
he remembered where it was he had seen her before. It was in that corporate management
class he'd taken almost half a year ago. She had been in the last row, only a
few seats away when he had stood up to contest the seminar leader on this very
point. Yes, now he remembered. They'd sent some guy named Kalbfuss, Edgar Kalbfuss,
to teach the course, a guy who was probably about twenty-five and had obviously
never managed anything or anyone. And he was there to teach management to people
like Tompkins, who'd been managing for half their lives. And the worst of it was,
he was prepared to teach a whole week with (judging from the agenda) not a single
thing to say about people management. Tompkins stood, told him off, and then walked
out. Life was too short for that kind of "training."
heard it that day, but now he told her again what he'd said to Kalbfuss: "Get
the right people. Then, no matter what all else you may do wrong after that, the
people will save you. That's what management is all about."
A long, significant silence.
Tompkins caught on at last. "You're suggesting that figuring out the right
people to kidnap is the same?"
You have to pick the ones who will give your side a meaningful advantage, and
whose loss will cripple your competitor. It's not easy knowing whom to pick."
"Well, I don't know. I suppose you could just
pick the most prominent person within an organization. Wouldn't it be as simple
"Get serious. If I really
wanted to harm this organization, for example, would I pick the most prominent
person? The CEO, for example?"
Well, certainly not in this case. I guess if you removed the CEO, the company's
stock would probably go up about twenty points."
This is what I call the Roger Smith Effect, after the past chairman of General
Motors. I was the one who decided to sabotage GM by not removing Smith."
"Oh. Good job."
if I did want to do some real damage to the Big Telephone and Telecommunications
Company, I'd know exactly which managers to pick."
would?" Tompkins had some ideas of his own about who was really indispensable
to the company.
"Sure. Want to see?"
She took a pad out of her purse and wrote down three names. Then, she considered
for a moment, and wrote down a fourth. She passed the pad to him.
stared at the list. "Ugh," Tompkins said. "This would be like bombing
the company back into the dark ages. You've picked exactly the four who . . .
Wait a minute, these people are friends of mine. They have spouses and kids. You're
not thinking of . . . ?"
Don't worry about them. As long as the company keeps its present executive level,
there is no need to sabotage it. Believe me, your soon-to-be-former employer is
going nowhere, with these four good managers or without. It's not them I'm here
for, Webster. It's you."
what? What use would the Morovian K-V- . . . whatever it is, have for me?"
"The KVJ. No, it's not the KVJ that needs you,
but the Nation State of Morovia."
"Well, our Nation's Noble
Leader, we call him NNL, for short, has proclaimed that Morovia will be first
in the world in export of shrink-wrapped software by the year 2000. It's our grand
plan for the future. We're building a world-class software factory. And we need
someone to manage it. It's as simple as that."
proposing to hire me?"
"Well, that's true enough."
Tompkins took another swig of his drink. He looked at her cagily. "Tell me
what you're offering."
"Oh, we can
discuss that later. When we're there."
laughed, incredulously. "There? You think I'm going off to Morovia with you
before we've even discussed terms."
"I find that a very dubious proposition.
I mean, given what I know about you and your inclination to use heavy-handed methods.
Who knows what you might do to me if I decided not to accept your offer?"
"Who knows indeed?"
be a very foolish fellow to go with you. . . ." He stopped, wondering what
he'd been going to say next. His tongue seemed a bit thick in his mouth, like
a dry rag.
"Very foolish. Yes," she
"I, uh . . ." Tompkins looked
down at the drink in his hand. "Say, you wouldn't have . . . ?"
"Mmm," she said, smiling her mysterious
"Urghhhhh. . . ."
moment later, Mr. Tompkins slid quietly down into his seat, quite unconscious.