Author's note: References to violence. Sexual innuendos.
I was sitting at my desk at work, twiddling my thumbs. It was a time when New York seemed to have won the battle against COVID and the rules for working in the office had been relaxed somewhat so I came in a few days a week. To be truthful, I was getting bored and fed up at home. My wife had decided to change the family rules of who was responsible for what in terms of chores so the quality of my life there had seriously diminished. I had not previously viewed my office as a refuge but that was the current state of affairs. I’m Jack Sprague, by the way.
My company, Karlco, was based in Germany and manufactured large generators for power plants around the world. I was head of sales in the U.S. None of our equipment had been shipped in six months because none was being manufactured. You all know why -- logistics problems and shortages of parts from suppliers.
My annual salary was $175K, not exactly trivial, but I was just keeping my head above water. New York, you know. My wife was complaining non-stop about the price of food at the grocery store but I didn’t see her cancelling her visits to her hair stylist or her nail salon. I could personally have saved money on my lunch but I didn’t have time to pack one in the morning.
You may be wondering why I was still an employee of Karlco given that there was no product to sell? Good question! Part of the answer was the goal of the home office in Hamburg to keep the company leadership intact until the end of the plague. At any rate, I have been trying to demonstrate my value to the company by making calls to my contacts in the large utilities. I was also spending considerable time attending to the “needs” of my boss, Max Wagner.
Max, of course, was German and a longstanding and respected employee of Karlco. Being the CEO of the American subsidiary was a fairly big deal. Office gossip was that he would serve in the position for about five years and then move up in the company hierarchy back in Germany. His wife Helga had chosen to stay back there to care for her ailing parents. This proved to be a problem for him. Bottom line was that Max was a lonely dude and was trying to bring some joy into his life but the pandemic was getting in the way. Probably none of my business, though.
One more thing you need to know. My job as a generator salesman was in jeopardy for reasons other than the pandemic. Just look at the facts. There are only a limited number of manufacturers of them in the world. The utilities that purchase them would pick the best product at the lowest price based on detailed engineering specs. I would travel and play golf with purchasing agents for these companies but this had little to do with their buy decisions. The truth was that Karlco did not need the likes of me.
To be truthful, I had very few demonstrable skills. I needed to “go up” or I would “go out” at Karlco. The CEO slot in the U.S. was appealing but that was impossible for me given that I was not German and thus not a member of the inner “family.” I began to wonder whether there was anything I could to make Max look a little weaker in the company. Nothing occurred to me -- he did not seem to have any failings.
As was my habit during the pandemic, I checked in with Max via cell phone that morning. He was lounging in his large condo, provided by the company. “Max, how are you? I am at work and but not much going on here,” I said. “Have you checked in with Hamburg recently? Have they raised any issues that I need to beware of?”
“No issues that they shared,” he responded. Of course, more business will depend on the pandemic easing world-wide. And of course, they are concerned, as before, with the competition from green energy. We’re not a player in that line of business. They would like to get a toe-hold on wind turbines but have decided that they can’t compete with the likes of companies like Siemens Gamesa in Spain”
“Is there anything that I can do for you today in particular, Max?” I inquired.
“As a matter of fact, there is Jack. I have a problem that I would like for you to hold in confidence. As I told you before, I am getting even lonelier than before and my occasional calls to Helga are not helping. All she talks about is our children and grandchildren and how unhappy she feels, not being able to leave the house. Never a question about how I’m feeling.”
“I think that I may be able to solve your problem, Max. You may not know her but Hildegarde is a young German woman who just came over and was placed in HR. Very attractive. Good body. Looks like she just stepped out of “The Sound of Music.” I know for certain that she’s not dating much and has actually been disappointed with the American men she’s met. Found then immature and materialistic. She will be happier with a European.”
“She is ambitious but also, on the social side, looking for some fun.
Perhaps I could set up a call between you two. I will explain to her that you had noticed her in the office and would like to know her better in a more relaxed environment. Perhaps the two of you would be able to chat about some work issues or her career.”
“Jack, I may not be making myself clear here,” Mas responded. “I really am not seeking a discussion about work issues here. I was thinking a relationship more on the personal side.”
“Hold your horses, Max. I understand where you’re coming from. Chat her up a few times over the phone with a discussion of work. Tell her our head of HR may be leaving soon and that you would be inclined to bring in some fresh blood, particularly someone German who would have a better feel for the company culture. Invite her over to your place for dinner that you can have delivered. Tell her that both of you would need to be COVID tested before any such meet. No risk in that department.”
“How would I behave when she comes over for dinner. My parts are a little rusty, as you Americans say.”
“Look, Max. She will know that she’s not coming to your place to play parcheesi. Make small talk over dinner. Then escort her into your beautiful living room with the incredible view of Manhattan. Pour some champagne. Sit next to her on the sofa. Tell her that you are anxious to know her much better and could help her career. And then see what happens. My bet is fireworks. I will let her know that things may get a little steamy with you. Got to make sure that she is ready and willing for some action.”
“Jack, I appreciate what you are doing for me and I will be very grateful. I would seriously consider nominating you for our global Karlco salesman of the year award.”
“No need for that, Max. After all, I actually haven’t sold any equipment, not one piece, in the last calendar year. Not deserving of any such award. I am doing all of this because I value your leadership and want to make sure that your life here during the pandemic is a happier one.”
“Hello. Is this Hildegarde? This is Jack Sprague. How are you this fine morning. It looks like both of us are working from home. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right Mr. Sprague. I have been on a couple of zoom calls already. We are working on a new set of COVID rules for our personnel based on new guidance just issued by the CDC.”
“That’s fine, fine. But I’m calling on another matter. I want to ask if you can do me a very big favor. It will mean a lot.”
“Sure,” she responded. “How can I help you?”
“Well, Hildegarde, it’s about the boss, Max. He’s in the dumps. As you know, his wife is back in Germany and he’s craving some company on the female side. I suggested that you might be willing to go over to his place for dinner one night. Seeing your young, smiling face might be just the medicine he needs to perk up.”
“Ummm,” she replied. “I would be happy to help in any way I could but I don’t think that I would be comfortable alone at night with a married man, even the CEO of the company that I work for.”
I quickly replied: “I understand your concern but Max is from the old school. He is just seeking some casual companionship. He is very lonely. Nothing will happen that would make you uncomfortable. I do need, however, to tell you something to put your mind at rest although I’m going out on a limb. Max is gay and his wife is sort of a prop to accompany him to dinners with other executives back in Germany. He will not be a problem for you in what I might call ‘intimate’ matters. Wrong side of the street as it were.”
“Well, OK,” Hildegarde responded. “You can tell him that I would not mind coming over to his place, even at night, for dinner and to discuss business matters.”
“Thanks for the favor,” I said. “I will pass on the news.”
Two days later at about 11:00 p.m., I received a FaceTime call at home on my cell. The screen showed it was from Hildegarde.
“Oh my God,” she screamed in a terrified tone. I don’t know what to do and you were the only person I thought could help me. This is terrible! I am in such trouble. This is awful!”
I responded in an urgent tone: “Try to calm down. Speak slowly. What’s the problem?”
“I am at Mr. Schuler’s condo. As you suggested, I came here for dinner and a discussion about my career.”
She began to take a series of short breaths, obviously in a panicked state.
“The evening was going well and we went into the living room and sat on the sofa. Without any warning, he put his arm around me and started to frantically paw at my breasts and kiss my lips.
I tried to push him away but I couldn’t at first. Finally, I was finally able to get away from him by standing up. I was feeling humiliated and started to scream at him, saying that I was going to call the police and tell them that he sexually assaulted me.”
“Hildegarde, I need for you to calm down. This is simple misunderstanding that we can fix. Please put Max on the phone. I think I can calm him down and we’ll get past all of this.”
“I don’t think that I can do that, Mr. Sprague. As soon as I started screaming at him, he stared at me briefly, walked over to his balcony door, opened it, walked out, and jumped over the railing. He didn’t say a word. His condo is on the 25th floor. I haven’t had the nerve to look down at the street.”
I quickly responded. “Keep calm, Hildegarde. I want you to hang up and immediately dial 911. Tell them that you were having a business dinner with Mr. Wagner. Say that he was drinking a lot and getting increasingly morose. Tell them that without any explanation, he got up from the table, walked out on the terrace, and jumped. You must not mention what happened on the sofa. Your job and career are at stake here. The reputation of Karlco must also remain intact. Now, make that call. I will be there in fifteen minutes to help you.”
I returned home after the police left Max’s condo and slept a few hours. Chaos reigned at the office in the morning when I worked with our PR consultants on a press release stating that Max Wagner was working under intense pressure due to the pandemic. No mention was made of Hildegarde who I had asked to stay at home for the week. I personally called Max’s wife in Germany, offered her my deepest sympathies, and told her what had happened.
Next, I got a call from Hamburg – the Karlco CEO. I repeated everything that had happened, similar to my call to Max’s wife, and then gave him a detailed report of the status of the business in the U.S. I did mention casually that Max had told me that he wished to nominate me for salesperson of the year award but that, given the circumstances, that would be on hold.
For the next week, I served as the de facto leader of the company in the U.S. The police shortly after issued a report describing Max’s death a suicide. I called Hildegarde who, under my advice, had returned to the office but never mentioned her presence at the scene. Likewise, the police report only referred to her as a dinner guest. I asked her to submit her resignation from the company but said that I would write a glowing reference letter and also offered her $10,000 in severance pay, which she accepted.
So, what have I learned from all of this? Somehow, I got innocently catapulted into a Wagnerian opera with Max and Hildegarde playing the major singing roles on stage. Somehow, I had become the conductor. I hate opera and will try to tone down my artistic ambitions in the future. One and done!