Damage Control

A contest gone awry …

A corporate executive who stops at nothing to save his company.

A reporter with a chip on his shoulder.
A retired homicide cop with a mission.
A secretary who knows too much.
Result: A wild ride into murder and chaotic attempts at damage control.

 

Darrell Kline wants out of his stifling news beat in the worst way. Too busy playing newsroom politics to chase real news, he wants that big barnburner news story. When he gets it, he puts his job and his life on the line to develop it.

Retired homicide cop Michael Dugan closed out his career at an all-time low. Still haunted by the death of his wife, he inadvertently gave up an informant. He wants a do-over while he still has his cop’s instincts.

Lee Saunders can’t resist a challenge. This one’s a big one. He’s tasked to find answers that may save his company from going broke. He’s willing to go to any lengths to meet that challenge. Including murder?

Executive secretary Denise Ingram was raised to revere the truth and live by her principles. But she’s forced to choose between her standards and her company’s survival.

They’re caught in a web of murder, mayhem and chaotic attempts at damage control.

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Excerpt from Damage Control:

It was a no-action Tuesday night in the city room of The West Covina Banner as reporters plumbed their phone lists and old notes for anything that could be hammered into a news story. Even the police scanner on reporter Darrell Kline’s desk was strangely silent and his computer terminal had a clear screen.

Kline hated days like this. His thirst for action led him into newspaper work in the first place, and it helped give him the reputation as the best police reporter in Los Angeles County.

He hunkered behind his computer and watched as city editor Paul Grady made his newsroom rounds, exchanging a few words with each reporter and giving them a few press releases to rewrite. In the old days, Darrell respected the short, gray-haired Grady. He remembered him as a top-notch reporter and writer, a combination you don’t often see in the same person. Darrell knew his own reporting was far ahead of his writing, but that’s more common in a newspaperman. 

In recent years Grady became too chummy with the front office types at The Banner and spent his time passing out press releases to his troops and passing story ideas from on high. Somewhere along the line the newspaper also lost its edge, and Darrell was getting more and more frustrated. 

Usually, when Grady made his circuit around the newsroom the reporters tried to look busy. This time he didn’t even bother.Anything developing?” Grady asked as he peeled a few releases from his stack.Nothing exciting,” Darrell responded and immediately he wished he hadn’t. “Slow night in the crime department. Just your usual he-ing and she-ing.”These might liven things up,” the unsmiling editor said as he dropped a few releases on his desk. “Have fun.” Thanks. I think.”Here’s one you might find interesting. Local guy won the grand prize in the soft drink contest. That doesn’t happen often. You might want to give him a call.”We’re that hard up for news?”Nice feature. This could go for page one, below the fold. Give him a call.”

Darrell inspected the letterhead. The Mr. Fizz soft drink company. Locally owned, doing heavy advertising in southern California. Bought frequent ads in the Banner and maintained a soda machine in the newsroom. Kline seldom used the machine. He thought the soda tasted like horse urine and preferred to get his soft drinks at a nearby convenience store where he paid a little more but they had a recognizable brand name.

Recently, Mr. Fizz put out a promotion where customers could make a whole ton of money for life by spelling out the company’s advertising pitch with specially-marked bottle caps. He didn’t think any more about it. No one ever wins those things anyway.

This really might make a halfway decent story, he realized. But what was the rush? Why wasn’t it given to the business reporter or a feature writer? Something like this could have even been palmed off on one of the eager young stringers who wouldn’t mind doing some boring assignments for a few bucks. The stringers were into it for the exposure, and would gladly cover the snoozer stuff like school board meetings. 

Oh well, Darrell thought. Might as well make it good even if it is boring. His professionalism clicked on as he turned toward his editor. We could probably use a picture of him. Got a shooter available, or should I dig out my camera?”Are you kidding?” Grady asked. I’m up to here in photographers tonight. They’re sitting around doing nothing, much as you are. Set up a shoot tonight or tomorrow, okay?”Thanks a lot.”

Yeah, right, he thought balefully as he watched Grady leave. In Darrell’s book, press releases were at the bottom of the news barrel. Nothing but scraps of information furnished by whoever had an agenda to fill such as a corporation, politician or nonprofit group. Those worth a reporter’s time needed to be fleshed out with a few phone calls, trimmed of the fluff and made into something readable. Occasionally one could be developed into a semi-newsworthy story like this one, but that was a long shot and basically meant throwing the whole thing out and starting from scratch.

Despite his misgivings, he usually knocked off his press releases faster than the other reporters in the newsroom. He’d been doing this at The Banner for 15 years, and he felt getting rid of them as quickly as possible gave him more time to chase real news.

* * *

Most days, there was enough police activity to keep Kline busy. The West Covina Banner covered several cities in Los Angeles County, and that alone brought plenty of crime what with the number of gang-bangers and losers in that small geographical area. Kline earned his reputation. He had contacts with several law enforcement agencies that no one else had, but wasn’t afraid to challenge any of these sources to get to the real story.

But this wasn’t one of those times, he thought as he scanned the press releases. Might as well get it over with. The name of the winner in the soft-drink contest didn’t ring a bell – John Longfield – and sure enough there was no phone number for him on the press release. Like Darrell was supposed to take the company’s word for it or something.Idiots,” he mumbled as he looked up the number in his own battered phone book. Fortunately, there was only one John Longfield in the directory. He jotted the number on the press release.

Whoever this Longfield guy was, he apparently won $2,000 a week for life in this contest, a decent chunk of change. Darrell ran some numbers through his calculator to figure out how decent a chunk this was. He figured Longfield would make $104,000 per year – a whole lot more than what he was making at the paper.

Just for grins, Darrell ran some more numbers. He himself was 48, and he expected he’d probably make it to 80 – a nice round figure that didn’t consider his personal habits that he figured would shorten that time considerably. Still, paid out over the assumed 32 years he had left, that came out to $3,328,000. Nice piece o’change, he thought as he let out a low whistle.

He looked at his watch. Five minutes to six. Another five hours of this mind-numbing crap. Why couldn’t he be as lucky as this Longfield guy?Screw it,” he mumbled, getting up from his desk. He shuffled to the newsroom’s surprisingly small bathroom and leaned against the cool sink for a moment. His pounding headache showed no signs of letting up. He didn’t know whether it came from the dozen beers he drank last night, the turned-around hours, his fast-food diet or the stress that came with the job. Even after years of chasing nightside crime he never got used to living like a bat. His first ex-wife swore he left piles of guano all over the house.

At least I can still see myself in the mirror, he thought. He never bothered to look anymore. He didn’t need reminders of what aging did to him. He didn’t want to see that thickening pouch of flesh under his chin that even his goatee couldn’t cover. Gross. He was never one to carry extra weight, and that pouch bothered him. So did those raccoon eyes. He never minded the spot of gray in the middle of his goatee, but the more his hairline receded the more it bothered him.Ah, well,” he mumbled, stepping back from the sink. “Might as well get that story in while I’ve still got my stuff.”

* * *

After pouring himself some coffee that had been sitting in the pot and looked like roofing tar, he took a trip outside to smoke a cigarette. Couldn’t do that in the newsroom any more. California’s politically-correct anti-smoking attitude killed the old-style smoky newsroom as surely as computers. They came together, he knew. 

Enjoying the night air tinged with his Marlboro, he scrawled out a few questions he might ask. Preparation.Showtime,” he mumbled as he went back inside. He quickly arranged his desk, put his phone on his shoulder and dialed.Hello?” The voice on the other end sounded accommodating. Just wait until he starts hearing from long-lost school buddies offering surefire investments in hairless chinchillas and ne’er-do-well relatives wanting a touch, Darrell thought.Mr. Longfield?”This is me.”Hi. I’m Darrell Kline, a reporter with the West Covina Banner. I understand you had a bit of luck in some soft drink contest. Want to tell me about it?”Sure ... I guess. I’ve never talked to a reporter before.”Nothing to it. We like to be fed, and we don’t bite unless we have to. It’s just like talking to anyone else. What do you do for a living?I work with the Miller Brewing Company.”The one in Irwindale?”Yeah. On the bottling line.Will you still be on the bottling line tomorrow?”

Longfield laughed. Kline took this as a sign he was loosening up a bit. He’ll talk.I don’t know,” Longfield finally said. “I mean it’s real tempting to quit and all, spend more time with the kids. But I never minded going out and working. Tell you the truth, it’s way too early to think about quitting.”Makes sense. How old are you?”I just turned 31,” Longfield said.You’re right. Little early to think about retiring,” Kline said. Yeah. I guess work is all I know.”How did you win?”I’ve been saving those Mr. Fizz bottle tops for some time. You know, the ones that have a letter on each one. Had all my kids save them. Took a month, but I had all of them except the B.”

Kline remembered seeing want ads in The Banner, with people offering money for an official Mr. Fizz bottle top with a B on it. Last he looked, the ante was up to $1,000 – chump change considering the winnings.Did you ever think you’d find one?” Kline asked.No. Not much chance, but for $2,000 a week you take that chance – and keep on drinking those sodas.”Are you going to keep drinking Mr. Fizz?”Do you want the truth?” Longfield asked. Couldn’t hurt.”Please don’t put this in the story, but we only drank it because of the contest, and because I can’t afford to get Pepsi all the time. You know how much pop three kids can drink?”

Kline chuckled. “I’ll be nice. I won’t put that in.” Actually, he really wanted to, but he knew it would be bad form and he would definitely piss off Mr. Fizz and the geek who sold ad space to that company. Besides, he liked Longfield. Seemed like a pretty good guy. 

He asked a few more questions about Longfield’s three children and his wife, who worked nights at a convenience store. In a few more minutes he had the interview completed and the photo shoot set up.When will this be in the paper?” Longfield asked.I don’t know. We’re trying for day after tomorrow, but you never know about this goofy business.” At least that was the truth. Something big could break in the next few hours and bump this story, but Kline doubted that would happen.Oh.” Longfield sounded disappointed, Kline thought.I appreciate your time. If I have any more questions I’ll get back to you. Good luck, John.” He meant it.Thank you.”

***

Rivera and Spinks

Angel Rivera stretched out on the stained sofa, remote control in his hand as he watched the latest parade of dysfunctional souls on TV. He liked watching Tyra Banks and Ellen DeGeneres because some of their guests reminded him that his own life wasn’t so screwed up after all.

He took to the daytime TV habit three months ago, after Southern California’s failing economy kept sticking knives into the construction business. He used to count on working every day as a do-everything laborer, taking home a fat pay envelope every week. Not bad for an ex-wetback able to stay in the states only through marrying a citizen. But that was past. His wife, who worked at a hospital in West Covina, supported him and their five children in the past few months and complained at him nonstop to find a real job.

Today she was especially ticked that Angel stayed in bed while she got ready for work. She told him that he’d better get the lead out of his pants and hustle, but he rolled over another time and began snoring. Useless, she thought. If it wasn’t for the kids I’d have left that lazy beaner long ago. 

I deserve a vacation, he thought as he flipped through the channels. I’ve been busting my tail for 15 years, never missing a day, never being late. I’ve never had a vacation before.

He settled on Channel 7, with a soap opera he’d been following since losing his job. More screwed-up people, but at least they’re screwed-up rich people. He wouldn’t mind being rich, but then realized that compared to life in his old colonia back in Mexico, he was rich. 

During a station break, he got up to use the bathroom. On the way back he stopped by the fridge to get an avocado and another soda. While he wasn’t working, he cut down on his beer consumption considerably. Didn’t want to give Emily more reason to get on his case. He’d knock back a six-pack of Mr. Fizz cola a day, especially when the neighborhood store had them on special for 99 cents.

Settling back on the sofa, he peeled the avocado and placed it on a napkin on the arm of the sofa, feeling slightly guilty because they were getting so expensive lately. He hoped the kids would be quiet when they came home; Ellen was his favorite talk show and he hated to miss any of it. Absently, he cracked open the bottle of Mr. Fizz and gazed inside the bottle cap. A “B.” 

Angel Rivera jumped up and ran back into the kitchen with the bottle cap. He jerked out the junk drawer, and a cascade of broken pencils, rubber bands and screwdrivers fell to the floor. Ignoring the rest of the mess, he plucked out the plastic bag stuffed full of bottle caps.

In a moment he had the bottle-cap message spelled out on the kitchen table: “WIN BIG WITH MR FIZZ.”

Angel Rivera snatched up his cell phone and dialed a number.

* * *

Nancy Spinks rode the bus home, tired after pulling a 12-hour shift at the Burger King in San Bernardino, and did some fast figuring. Rent. Child care. Utilities. Food. Not much left of her skimpy paycheck after all that. Much as she liked the independent feeling of working for a living, she did miss getting that monthly check and SNAP benefits. At least she didn’t have to worry about where the rent check was coming from back then. Since starting her job, she was also paying Socorro $50 a week to take care of her son.

The bus dropped her off in Rialto, four blocks from her apartment. She wanted out of that place in the worst way. She never did like blacks, and her apartment complex seemed to be full of them. It was also a major drug center in town, and she got tired of answering the door at 3 a.m. from some crackhead looking to score and pounding on the wrong door. She thought briefly about getting a gun, but knew it wasn’t an acceptable idea what with four-year-old Donn in the house. Besides, she hated guns. Her ex had plenty of those, and that was one of his more socially redeeming values.

On the way to Socorro’s house, she stopped by a convenience store to pick up some cigarettes and two sodas. It was a ritual she and Donn banked on every day – having a soft drink on the walk home. Donn was a sweet-tempered child, and a lot more intelligent than most kids his age. Although he was named after his father, he really didn’t remind her of that sorry bastard at all. Let Donn Sr. spend all day chasing after those biker sluts for all she cared. She got her son and that was all that mattered.Ready to go, honey?” she asked Donn when she arrived at Soccoro’s. Nancy didn’t understand what she said half the time, but she took good care of Donn and was cheap.Ready.”Let’s hit it. It’s a cool night, so put on your sweater.” She smiled as Donn obediently pulled it on. “Thank you, Socorro. We’ll see you tomorrow.”Aunt Socorro took me to the park,” Donn told her. “We fed the ducks.” Really?” Nancy felt nostalgic for a moment. She remembered doing the same thing at that age. Maybe Donn fed the very same ducks she did.Got something for you,” Nancy said, completing the daily ritual. She opened a Mr. Fizz and gave it to Donn, then opened her own. Before taking a sip, she checked the bottle caps. Never know what may happen with them.

The first one was a Z, which didn’t really surprise her. She had a million of them, it seemed. The second cap was a B.Hey!” She took another look at it to make sure. She was certain that was the one she needed to win the grand prize. The hell with Burger King. The hell with the firetrap she was staying at, with all those dopeheads hanging around. The hell with Senior, who paid child support only when he felt like it.

Don’t get too excited, she told herself. It’s only a game.

She and Donn ran the rest of the way home without speaking. When she reached her cluttered-but-clean kitchen, she emptied a paper bag onto the counter. Bottle caps spun all over the place. Her mom said she was nuts for saving them. She said they were nothing but junk and no one ever won those stupid things anyway. Swiftly, she lined the bottle tops up, and with the new game pieces she was able to spell it out: WIN BIG WITH MR FIZZ.

After a fast phone call to confirm the winning pieces, she took Donn aside with the news.Honey, guess what? We don’t have to worry about anything anymore!”

***

The Meeting

Company CEO Walter “Mac” McCarty’s mood swing was enough to scare the donuts out of his management team during his staff meeting. Of course, given the news around the shop it was completely warranted and everyone considered themselves fortunate he didn’t come in brandishing an Uzi.

Under normal circumstances the boss was easygoing and knew the birthdays and family lives of all his employees. He prided himself on not being the dictator his old man was.

Instead of his usual chatty self, though, McCarty was righteously ticked off. Cordlike veins stood out on his neck, and patches of red showed up on his cheeks as he stood at the head of the six-foot folding conference table and launched into his diatribe.Dammit!” he shouted at his department heads. “I really don’t know what happened, but this will break us. Our next staff meeting will be standing up in the unemployment line, all of us. You can bet your sorry asses on that.”

Several of the department heads sank deeper into their seats. They had never known McCarty to raise his voice or utter more than an occasional profanity.Has anybody figured out what happened yet?” asked marketing director Larry Philpot.Lee?” McCarty asked. His face was almost back to its normal color.

Lee Saunders, given the title of operating vice president but acting as troubleshooter, special projects manager and hatchet man, tried not to yawn during the tirade.It’s still murky,” Saunders said without emotion. “It seems there are a lot of “B” game pieces out there. These pieces were the key, you remember. Only a few were to be printed, and only under tight controls. They were not even supposed to go out, you remember. We were only to have enough for some photo shoots before destroying them. Which we did.”We already knew that,” longtime distribution director Mark Quillen shot back. “Tell us something new.”In a day or two I’ll have more to tell you,” Saunders said coolly. He shot a death stare at Quillen. Why didn’t he have him retired when he had the chance? “You must realize these things can happen when you have a contest such as this. It’s part of doing business.”Not 18 grand prize winners,” McCarty said acidly. “To tell you the truth, no one is really supposed to win these things, and you know it. A few instant winners, good for free sodas and movie tickets, are usually enough to keep people going.”That many?” Saunders asked. “I knew we had a few, but 18?” That was as of Friday,” McCarty pointed out. “There could be more by now. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”

Of course Saunders knew. In fact, he already gathered information on all 18 winners, plus six more that claimed the grand prize over the weekend. He knew names, addresses, work places and ages of all the kids, plus personal habits. He had all that stuff wired. While he didn’t play dumb very often, he could do it with the best. 

While the staff wondered where Saunders was coming from, he punched some numbers into his calculator. After a few seconds he looked up again.Off those numbers, we stand to lose $1,872,000 a year. That’s provided all winning pieces have been verified.” They have,” McCarty said. “By you. And by me. And our lawyer.”I knew this thing was screwed up from the jump.” Quillen cut Saunders another accusing glance. The distribution head started with the company as a teenager after impulsively moving to California. Old man McCarty hired Quillen as soon as he landed and gave him a department to run before he turned 20. The salty veteran had little patience for most of those whiz kids in the board room. He was okay with the younger McCarty but knew he couldn’t touch his daddy.

The younger McCarty was speaking now.Lee’s right. We printed only enough B’s for a photo shoot. We wanted to show they really exist. You know, line the caps up to show the winning configuration, have a few B’s in a pile, things like that. Then we cut them up.”Why didn’t you just Photoshop the damned things?” Quillen asked. His voice had too much edge to it; he didn’t bother with hiding his contempt for Saunders.If you’re half smart you can tell the difference,” Saunders said, looking straight at Quillen. What do the legal eagles say?” McCarty asked.Not a thing. I asked Laird, our guy on retainer, and he said that unless we can prove fraud, we’re screwed. We’ll have to pay. I also talked with the guys at Lenkowsky and Holcombe, and they say that unless an outbreak of cholera wipes out the winners, we’ll have to pay. No way out. Speaking of paying, expect to find a bill from Lenkowsky and Holcombe in the next few days. They charge a ton.”Thanks,” McCarty said. “No way around it, huh?”That’s right. We pay them $2,000 per week for life. Times 18.”

Executive Secretary Denise Ingram strode into the board room carrying a clipboard. Everyone paid attention, but it wasn’t because of her long black hair or shapely legs. The entire staff respected Denise for her intelligence and knowledge of everything that went on with the company. When Denise spoke, everyone above the rank of crew leader dropped everything and listened. She usually attended staff meetings as an equal, but she sat this one out to research the problem further.New development,” Denise announced, stepping to the foot of the makeshift conference table. “As of this morning we have 26 claiming the grand prize. That’s eight new winners once everything is verified.”We’re dead.” That was McCarty, who suddenly looked very dead. All color left his now-rigid face.

Philpot raised himself from his laptop computer after punching a few keys. “That’s a total of $2,704,000 so far per year,” he announced.

No one really wanted to hear it.Damn!” Saunders’ involuntary reaction caught everyone by surprise, as he was known to have the coolest head of anyone in the company. Although Denise respected him and Philpot worshipped him, neither of them ever saw him show any signs that he was really a human being.Is everything okay, Mr. Saunders?” she asked. No one else could get away with asking the executive VP that.

Saunders hesitated. “Every new winner forces us to regroup some more, Ms. Ingram. As you know.”

Denise turned toward the door when Quillen stopped her.Any idea if there will be more?”Hard to say. No one seems to know how many B’s are out there. It’s not something I want to think about any more than you do.”Might it be in the hundreds, Miss Ingram?” McCarty asked softly.It could very well be,” she said. “At this point, no one really knows.”

That got him, Saunders thought. He shifted in his chair, which was never designed to hold his six-foot, nine-inch frame. “We knew there was a lash-up somewhere. What we don’t know is how big this lash-up is, or even where it happened. If it’s with the printer, then maybe hundreds is just too conservative a guess. Try thousands.”You don’t think some are just jumping on the bandwagon?” Quillen asked. “You know, word gets out about a few winners and you get more who think they are?”I don’t think so,” McCarty said. “We haven’t put any word out on this.”We don’t need to,” Saunders added. “You know how fast the street wire hums when something like this happens. I do doubt that bandwagon angle, though.”Any chance of a forgery?” Quillen asked. “You know, they can print just about anything up on a computer these days.”We considered that,” Saunders said. “Each bottle cap was coded. Each one comes with special markings that only I, Mac and Laird know about. Everything checked out. Plus, each cap is marked with the production run and will tell you what time it was bottled. Anyway, all the markings were there. No forgery. All three of us agreed to that.”Where did they end up going?” Quillen asked, though he really didn’t want to know.Most of them went to Baldwin Park, and some to Ontario and San Bernardino. That doesn’t mean much, though. What I found was interesting was that all the bottles with B’s on them were filled the same day, right here in our main plant, on the same production run.”That is interesting,” McCarty said.Helpful, too,” Saunders added. “At least we know the problem is restricted, and it may help us keep from getting many more winners out.”True,” Quillen said. “Doesn’t help us with the verified winners, though.”What we already know is a start,” Saunders said, thinking about what a convenient scapegoat Quillen would make when head-rolling time comes around.So there’s no way around this?” McCarty asked to no one in particular.None I can think of,” Saunders said. “We can always pray for cholera.” No one laughed.I’ve heard enough,” a weary McCarty said. “I’ll probably call another meeting in a day or two. Larry, Lee, stick around. I’ll want to talk to you.”

With that, the remaining department heads scurried out of the room.

***

Business as usual

Saunders knew McCarty would single himself and Philpot for another meeting right away, but he wondered what McCarty was going to say. The contest was originally Philpot’s baby, but the brass ran with it, thinking it was a great idea at the time. 

But now? Who knows? He knew there would be a lot of denials for the next few weeks.

The 42-year-old Saunders spent the last 10 years building a reputation as a first-rate troubleshooter and take-no-prisoners corporate turnaround artist in the Los Angeles area. It didn’t matter what the business was, he could still put it in the black. Saunders turned losing printing companies, land development firms and even hospitals into winners although he never stayed in one place for more than a year or two. This suited him. Once he felt he did his job, it was time to move on. This was part of his standard contract. His talents earned him a fat salary, but more importantly the freedom to go after any new challenges that interested him. 

He spent the last 18 months with Mr. Fizz, and it may have been his toughest client. He made the standard cutbacks right away and the company perked up. Growth was still sluggish, and his man Philpot took this as a sign to ratchet up the advertising. The contest was the culmination of his efforts and the company enjoyed decent gains since the first marked bottle caps rolled out. 

So far, so good. But this error – whatever it was – would be devastating. Saunders just knew it. 

Saunders was pure hatchet man – great at dealing with organizational charts and bottom lines, but he frightened people. This was a trait he cultivated. His standard contract gave him the power to hire and fire, and he always made it a point to send at least one person packing within the first 48 hours of every new assignment. This helped him establish position right away, which was important to him. Usually more than one would get fired because every ailing company had plenty of dead wood to trim out. 

As Saunders moved from company to company, he left healthy balanced sheets and acres of scorched earth in his wake.

Because of his reputation and his aloof manner, few attempted to get close to him or to read him. Even his key lieutenant Philpot was afraid of him and didn’t know why.

Saunders discovered Philpot, then barely into his 20s, on a turnaround job in a steel fabrication plant in nearby Fontana. Philpot, an office worker and occasional computer nerd, found a role putting together slick press releases and company newsletters, and he had the people skills Saunders lacked. Saunders saw to it that there was a place for the pale, neatly dressed young man with each new assignment. Including Mr. Fizz. 

* * *Gentlemen.”

McCarty was nearly back to his old self when he approached Saunders and Philpot.Larry,” he said to the marketing director. “As far as anyone is concerned, especially the media, this meeting never happened, okay?”

Philpot nodded. By all means tell them, yes, we have some winners. But don’t let on that there are any problems. Clear?”Clear. We’ll have no problems and staying solvent.”Is that the party line?” Saunders asked.As far as the media is concerned. We may have more to say about it later on, we’ll let you know. That’s what we tell them.”Anything else?”That’s all.” McCarty gave a look like he was trying to keep everyone’s confidence up. “Let’s get back to work, gentlemen. As far as I’m concerned it’s business as usual.”

* * *

Business as usual, Saunders thought as he made his way back to his office. Right.

He remembered saying something at the meeting, totally tongue in cheek. Something about praying for cholera. This was an offhanded response to the legal eagles’ advice.

When Philpot first came up with the contest idea and started putting it together, Mac McCarty thought it was a great idea that would put the company solidly in the public eye. The CEO threw all his resources into it, backed every step on the process, and sought input from his staff – even the guys in the warehouse and on the trucks. Saunders thought the whole idea bush-league, but he knew enough to go along because he wouldn’t be able to knock it down among all this enthusiasm. He knew when to pick his battles.

One day, though, an exuberant McCarty cornered him in the parking lot seeking ideas on how to pay any winners – knowing one or two would be an absolute worst-case scenario that would only crop up in their nightmares.Pay them a monthly amount for life,” Saunders suggested with a dismissive wave of the hand. “You set it for a certain term or a certain amount, you’ll be feeding their kids and grandkids. When the winner goes, so does the prize.”

McCarty smiled and went straight to Philpot’s office to draft out the Saunders Clause. Brilliant, the whole staff decided.

Brilliant, Saunders now thought on his way to his office. He saw the glimmer of a way out. The Saunders Clause would fix the problem. Mr. Fizz was safe.