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Authors: Duane Swierczynski

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Severance Package

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ALSO BY
DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI
 

THE BLONDE

THE WHEELMAN

SECRET DEAD MEN

DAMN NEAR DEAD
(EDITOR)

DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI

 

SEVERANCE
PACKAGE

 

ILLUSTRATIONS BY
DENNIS CALERO

   
ST. MARTIN’S MINOTAUR   
   NEW YORK

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

SEVERANCE PACKAGE
. Copyright © 2008 by Duane Swierczynski. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

 

www.minotaurbooks.com

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Swierczynski, Duane.
Severance package / Duane Swierczynski.—1st St. Martin’s Minotaur ed.
   p. cm.
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34380-4
ISBN-10: 0-312-34380-9
I. Title.

PS3619.W53S48 2007

813’.6—dc22                                                     2007026527

First Edition: June 2008

 

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

 

TO
JAMES ROACH
,
WHO TAUGHT THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME

WAKE-UP CALL
 

Pleasure doing business with you.
—ANONYMOUS

 
His name was Paul Lewis …
 

… and he didn’t know he had seven minutes to live.

When he opened his eyes, his wife was already in the shower. Their bedroom shared a wall with their bathroom. He could hear the water pelt the tile full-blast. Paul thought about her in there. Naked. Soapy. Suds gliding over her nipples. Maybe he should step into the shower, surprise her. He hadn’t brushed his teeth, but that was fine. They wouldn’t have to kiss.

Then he remembered Molly’s morning meeting. He glanced at the clock. 7:15. She had to be in early. So much for a reckless Saturday morning.

Paul sat up and ran his tongue around his mouth. Dry and pasty. He needed a Diet Coke, stat.

The central air had been running all night, so the living room was dark and cool. On top of the entertainment center sat the two DVDs they’d rented last night: two ultraviolent Bruce Willis thrillers. Surprisingly, they had been Molly’s idea. She
usually didn’t like action movies. “But I have a crush on Bruce Willis,” she’d said sweetly. “Oh you do, do you?” Paul replied, smiling. “What’s he got that I don’t?” His wife ran her fingernails down his chest and said, “A broken nose.” That was the end of the DVD viewing for the evening, with about thirty minutes left to go on the first movie.

There were two boxes on the dining room table. One, Paul knew, was for Molly’s boss. What, the man couldn’t pick up his own mail? The second box was white cardboard and tied with string. Probably full of vanilla muffins or chocolate-filled cannoli, picked up from Reading Terminal Market on her way home last night. Molly was way too kind to those stuck-up jerks at the office, but Paul would never tell her different. That’s just who Molly was.

Paul turned the corner and walked into the kitchen. For a second, he was worried that he’d left the Chinese food containers on the counter, and their leftover fried rice and lo mein and Seven Stars Around the Moon had spoiled. But Molly had taken care of it. The white-and-red containers were neatly stacked on the fridge shelves, right below the row of Diet Cokes—he’d been on regular Coke until Molly had pointed out how much sugar he was drinking every morning—and above a white Tupperware container with a blue lid and yellow note taped to it:
FOR LUNCH ONLY!!! LOVE, MOLLY.

Oh, baby.

Paul lifted the edge of the lid, and the sweet aroma hit him in an instant. Molly’s potato salad. His favorite.

She’s made him potato salad, just for today.

God, he loved his wife.

Paul had grown up in a large Polish family—before it was Lewis, it was Lewinski, and boy was Paul glad they changed that name fifty years ago—so he ate the requisite Polish foods. His grandmother Stell was famous for a decidedly non-Polish dish:
potato salad, which had accompanied every holiday meal since Paul was a baby. But Grandma Stell died when Paul was thirteen, and since then, nobody could replicate the potato salad. Not Paul’s mother, or her sisters, or any second or third cousins. A few months after they started dating, Paul confided in Molly how much he missed Grandma Stell’s potato salad. She said little, just smiled at him and listened, which is what she usually did. But inside, she had been thinking. And in the weeks that followed, Molly Finnerty—later to become Molly Lewis—did some research.

The following Easter, Molly presented her fiancé with a Tupperware container. Inside was a potato salad that defied imagination. It tasted just like Grandma Stell’s, down to the sweetness of the mayonnaise and the sideways cut of the celery. This potato salad was a surprise hit among the Lewis family. Molly was cemented into their hearts, now and forever more.

Today she’d made it for him, apropos of nothing.

Paul reread the admonishment,
FOR LUNCH ONLY!!!
and smiled. Molly was grossed out whenever she woke up Christmas or Easter morning and caught her husband with a tablespoon inside the Tupperware container hours before company was due to arrive.

Ah, but today isn’t a holiday, Paul thought. No company coming.

He fished a tablespoon out of the drawer behind him, then helped himself to a mouthful of the most delicious food known to man. The moment the special mayonnaise blend touched his taste buds, a narcotic-like rush flooded his bloodstream. It was a taste that reminded him how lucky he had it, being married to a woman like Molly.

A moment later, Paul started choking.

It felt like an impossibly large chunk of potato had lodged in his throat. Paul thought he could just cough once and everything would be okay, but it was weird—he was unable to draw
any air. Panic replaced that warm-and-fuzzy potato salad feeling. He couldn’t breathe or talk or yell. Paul’s mouth flopped open, and half-chewed potato chunks tumbled out. What was going on? He hadn’t even swallowed the first bite.

His knees slammed against the linoleum.

His hands flew to his throat.

Upstairs, Molly Lewis was finishing up in the shower. The warm water felt good on her back. Just one more strip of flesh to shave on her leg, then a rinse, and the shower would be over. She wondered if Paul was still sleeping.

Paul’s legs kicked out wildly, as if he were running on an invisible treadmill knocked on its side. His trembling fingers scratched at the floor. No. This can’t be it. Not this incredibly stupid way to die. Not Molly’s potato salad.

Molly.

Molly could save him.

Up.

Must stand up.

Reach the top of the stove, grab the silver teakettle, and start banging. Something to get her attention.

Up.

Gray spots spun wildly in Paul’s vision. His palm adhered to the linoleum, and it was enough to pull him forward a few inches. Then his other palm, already damp with sweat. It slipped. Paul’s nose slammed into the floor. Pain exploded across his face. He would have screamed if he could.

He had only one thought now:

Kettle.

Reach the kettle.

 

He’d given the kettle to Molly for Christmas two years ago. She loved tea and hot cocoa. He’d found it at a Kitchen Kapers downtown. It was her favorite store.

Up.

Molly turned off the hot water first, then the cold about two seconds later, relishing the blast of icy water at the end. Nothing felt better in August. She then turned the knob that would drain the water from the shower pipes into the tub. The excess splashed her feet.

She opened the curtain and reached around the wall for her towel. As her hand grasped the terry cloth, she thought she heard something.

Something … clanging?

Paul slammed the teakettle on top of the stove one more time … but that was it. He had been deprived of oxygen far too long. His muscles were starving. They required immediate and constant gratification—oxygen all the time. Greedy bastards.

After he fell, and rolled toward the sink, Paul tried pounding his fist into his upper chest, but it was a futile gesture. He didn’t have the strength left.

A potato.

A little wedge of potato had caused his world to crash down around him.

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