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0 Comments | Dec 07, 2015

Tuesday Morning

NJ_Transit_Arrow_III_MU_1327The 6:00 a.m. alarm tears through Drew Benton’s dream, and he sits up in bed, heart racing, unsurprised to find himself alone. Kelly has always been a hard-core morning person, typically out of bed and dealing with the kids at least an hour before her husband’s alarm goes off. More often than not, she’s gotten in a full workout and eaten breakfast before undertaking the daily drama of getting their son and daughter up and ready for school. But this morning is different. When Drew, yawning loudly, walks out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, instead of a family of three seated at the breakfast table, there is only his daughter Kimberley, quietly eating a bowl of cereal and watching a cartoon on the small kitchen television. She glances up as he walks in. A thin dribble of milk creeps down the left side of her lip.

“Morning, daddy,” she says through a mouthful of Frosted Flakes.

“Morning, honey bunny,” he replies. He reaches for a paper towel and wipes the corner of her mouth dry. “Where’s your mom and Taylor?”

She swallows her cereal and points toward the childrens’ bedrooms.

“Taylor yakked this morning and mommy is taking his temperature.”

“Seriously,” Drew responds. “Well, that’s not good. I better go check it out.” He leaves her at the table and walks toward his son’s bedroom. Inside, as Kimberley has indicated, his wife is sitting on the side of the bed and their ten-year-old son Taylor lies buried beneath a layer of covers, a thermometer protruding from his mouth.

“You okay, sport?” he says, stepping to the bedside. “Your sister says you yakked.”

“Oh yes,” Kelly replies with a wan tired smile. “There was yakkage.” She gestures with her chin toward a moist spot on the carpet of the boy’s bedroom near the closet. Kelly has not gotten up early this morning to work out and start her day. She has gotten up early to deal with a sick child and to clean vomit from a shag carpet.

Drew, a recently elected partner at consulting firm Marsh and McLennan, has an important client presentation scheduled for nine thirty this morning and it is quickly occurring to him that the exigencies of domestic life are about to threaten the chances of him making it to the meeting on time. Under normal circumstances, Drew would shower, eat a token breakfast, and be out the door and headed to the New Jersey Transit station by 6:45. The combination of the commuter train and the Number Two subway in Manhattan, would have him reliably at his desk by 8:30 – 8:40, assuming no unforeseen delays. He has scheduled the presentation for 9:30 to give his clients time to get into the city from Long Island, and himself an hour or so to collect his thoughts before going into the two-hour presentation whose end result, if everything goes according to plan, will be a lucrative consulting contract extension with one of the firm’s largest clients.

The team has done a masterful job of assembling the presentation on short notice, work that has included three long nights of research, analysis, and rush PowerPoint work. The research and analysis have been handled largely by two second-year associates, relatively new consultants, fresh out of business school, who routinely work a ceaseless schedule in the hopes of one day being elected partner themselves. The associates—Peter Fletcher and Barbara Janssen—have been assisted in their efforts by a recently added Business Analyst, Rita Glover, a Stanford graduate with a BA in Economics, who, if she works diligently and gets to know just the right people in the office, stands a decent chance of having Marsh send her to business school next autumn, following which she is virtually guaranteed an Associate position like Peter and Barbara. The deal, as with any management consulting firm, is an explicit one—work your ass off for the firm for several years, and receive, in return, a decent chance for a lucrative partnership or, worst case, a great job with one of your client companies. It’s pretty much the same deal offered to young attorneys and accountants at all the big reputable firms.

Drew had reviewed the nearly-final presentation the evening before, and had left the office by around seven, with his team remaining behind to handle the last batch of edits and analytical enhancements. Part of the final hour Drew has allowed himself this morning is so that he can have one final look at the finished product before going up in front of his client firm’s three senior vice presidents.

Drew opens his mouth and begins to comment on the importance of this morning’s meeting, but Kelly is focused on reading the thermometer she has extracted from Taylor’s mouth. The boy is clearly not going to school this morning, and that simple fact is about to set off a sequence of events that will almost certainly ensure that he doesn’t get into the city on time. The sequence, which he knows all too well because this is by no means the first such occurrence, is that because Taylor cannot go to school, and because Taylor always accompanies his younger sister to the bus stop, and because Kelly will want to remain behind and tend to Taylor, Drew will be called upon to accompany his daughter to the bus, which doesn’t come until a full hour after he would otherwise be boarding the train for New York. All of which means that, best case, he makes it into the office by ten, since the frequency of the trains slows somewhat once morning rush is over.

He has two choices at this juncture. He can either wait for Kelly to suggest this course of action, following which he can object because of work demands and then feel bad when she points out to him how this is yet another example of him putting his career before his family, or he can take the initiative and proactively suggest taking Kimberley to the bus stop, which is what’s going to end up happening anyway. The choice is between being late and having a pissed off spouse at home, or being late and at least seizing the opportunity to demonstrate to Kelly (who has put up with more than her fair share of one-sided parenting during his eight-year pursuit of partnership) that his priorities are precisely where they ought to be.

“Tell you what, champ,” he says to Taylor. “You and your mom stay here and mind the fort and I’ll get your sister to the bus this morning. How’s that for a plan?”

Kelly smiles tiredly. She knows the demands of his job and she knows, as well, precisely the thought process that has gotten her husband to make this genuine sounding offer. Still, despite the calculation that has been required to get him to this moment, and despite her knowledge of how he actually feels about the situation, she nevertheless loves him for it.

“Taylor, tell your dad that he’s awesome,” Kelly said without looking away from her son.

“You’re awesome, dad,” his son obliges with a genuinely sick-sounding voice.

Drew places a hand on his son’s forehead, frowns with mock concern, then turns toward the kitchen. He has a decision to make, though, in truth, he knows it is not really a decision at all. If there’s a good news aspect to this morning’s situation, it is that he doesn’t need to get Kimberley out the door until almost a full hour later than he would normally leave for work. Which means he has time to think about his best course for the morning. There are two choices, and fortunately he has thought through and discussed with the team both of these before leaving the previous evening. One of the cardinal rules of consulting—with its incessant travel, delays, and unpredictable client schedules—is to always have a Plan B. When you rely on commuter rail each day to get from the New Jersey suburbs into Manhattan, there are enough bad things that can happen along the way to cause you to become quite skillful at developing Plan B’s.

Drew has two options—postpone the presentation or rely on one of his associates to deliver it. And there is really only one option, for while the associates are excellent presenters, and while it would be an excellent developmental opportunity to put such an enormous challenge before them, the brutal fact of the matter is that clients expect to see the partner on the engagement. He will need to postpone, and he will need to make the call before they’ve had a chance to begin their own commute into the city from Long Island. He will also need to conjure up a better excuse for the postponement than the illness of a child. This too is a skill Drew has developed to perfection during his long journey to partnership.

By 7:50 he is standing at the bus stop with Kimberley, the girl bearing a backpack, and Drew a briefcase. His revised plan is to see his daughter safely onto the bus and then drive directly to the New Jersey Transit station, with luck in time to catch the 8:15 express to Penn Station. Kelly will spend the day tending to Taylor, and there should be little or no domestic turmoil attending the day’s events, due largely, he believes, to the thoughtful manner in which he has handled the morning’s unforeseen travails. Interception of his client has gone nearly as well as had hoped, though not quite to perfection. He has reached Bill Stuyvesant as he was pulling out of the garage of his Massapequa home en route to the Long Island Railroad station. Conjuring a story about some complex international financial dilemma, he has promised Stuyvesant that they can reschedule the formal presentation for the following morning, leaving the VP to go instead to his office, and also to pass the word to one of the two other VPs with whom he was meaning to attend the meeting.

However, the third Vice President, Preston deVille, has been a bit more of a challenge. It turns out he has spent the previous night in the city and has made his way already to Drew’s building well in advance of the scheduled meeting. Reached by cell phone concerning the postponement, he has replied that rather than waste the trip, he will simply take the liberty of waiting for Drew’s arrival, however tardy it may be, and during which interval he will make his way up to Drew’s ninety-fourth floor office and have a casual chat with Barbara, whom he knows well from all of the work the team has done on the engagement thus far. DeVille has indicated that he has no problem with an informal discussion while waiting, and he is comfortable that Drew’s associate can ably bring him up to speed on some of the details of what will be formally discussed the following day. There are several potential problems with this impromptu arrangement, beginning with the fact that Drew cannot, in any plausible way, refuse DeVille’s request. Also, Barbara has no idea he is coming. Which is why, as he stands at the bus stop with Kimberley, his ear is pressed hard against his cell phone.

“Make sure,” he says, turning his body sideways to block the breeze, “that you remove the financial pages from the deck before you sit down with de Ville. Just walk him through the project phases and deliverables. But for God’s sake don’t let him see the pricing tables.” He pauses, draws a breath. “Fuck, why couldn’t he just wait and come with the others.” He endeavors to strike a perfect balance of volume that will allow Barbara to hear him but not his daughter. “Hold on a sec,” he says as the school bus pulls up in front of them. He hugs Kimberley, plants a kiss on her forehead, and she enters the bus, waving back as she does so. “Shit,” he says into the phone, “I’ve got eleven minutes to make this train.”

Mercifully the morning rush hour is largely over, traffic is light by now, and Drew makes the train station and parks with a full three minutes to spare before the 8:15 punctually approaches the platform. On the way to the station, he has placed Barbara on hold for two minutes while he briefly calls his wife to check up on Taylor and to reassure her that their daughter is well and truly on her way to first grade. His duty done, he returns to Barbara and continues to heap more or less random advice on her, right up to the point when DeVille actually enters the foyer of the office and the receptionist calls to let Barbara know he has arrived.

“Gotta run, sweet cheeks!” Barbara enthuses, this last bit of gratuitous and unprofessional affection by no means the norm for communication between a young ambitious associate and the seasoned partner to whom she reports. It is, in truth, explained only by the fact that Drew and Barbara have, for the ensuing eight weeks, been engaged in a good deal more than a professional relationship, precipitated in large part by the close quarters in which they’ve been obliged to work and the incessant hours they’ve spent doing so. The affair has also been encouraged by a good bit of hero worship on Barbara’s part and more than a little dissatisfaction on Drew’s concerning his current domestic situation. As far as Drew can tell, Kelly has no idea about any of this, and he is, needless to say, keen to keep it that way, partly for the sake of the children, partly for Kelly’s sake, who he honestly believes at some level he still loves in the sort of permanent adult way that he can never love his twenty-six-year-old associate, and partly for the sake of his significant and rapidly growing bank account, its balance nicely augmented by the semi-annual profit sharing checks that are the primary income source of partners in professional service firms.

Drew knows well that he needs to bring this unprofessional business with Barbara to an end, and, though she is not yet aware of it, he means to do so by the expedient of shifting around the makeup of the engagement team once this latest scope expansion is agreed with Stuyvesant et al. This is a perfectly plausible thing to do, as consulting teams are routinely restructured in the interest of broadening the experience of the associates, the better to groom them for their own potential partnership bid someday. Drew has deeply enjoyed their time together—no question about that—and the affair has made their extensive travel schedule a good deal more bearable. His final instruction to Barbara has been to keep the conversation with DeVille professional and brief, and to call him back the moment the client departs the office, which she does precisely twenty-seven minutes later, just as Drew’s train is passing through the Short Hills station, still a good half hour out of Manhattan.

Throughout these twenty-seven minutes, Drew has sat in a rear-facing seat of the third car in a six-car train, trying to keep from falling asleep by reading a battered copy of the Wall Street Journal left behind by another commuter, and pondering how his life will change once he has broken things off with Barbara.

He is startled from an almost nap by the chirp of his cell phone. “So, how’d it go?” he asks, feigning insouciance while feeling great angst.

“Mister Benton,” she replied coyly, “you should have learned by now not to doubt me. The client has been duly informed, and he is very much looking forward to tomorrow’s formal presentation. The question you should be asking yourself is what on earth would you do without me.”

“I will assume, Miss Janssen, that you are safely ensconced in your office with the door closed if you mean to continue addressing your boss in this terribly unprofessional manner.”

The playful banter has characterized their private interactions for nearly the entire past two months, having begun only days after their first evening of intimacy during a conference trip to San Jose in early July. Though the entire engagement team of four typically traveled together, there had been plenty of occasions when Drew and Barbara had had occasion to be alone, over meals, discussing avenues of research, or assembling presentation materials well into the late hours of the night. They had drawn the line at indiscretion while home in New York, but took every opportunity on the road to enjoy each other’s company.

“Oh, and by the way,” she added in a throaty voice that she knew he loved, “I have prepared a detailed list of Mister DeVille’s questions and requested clarifications, all the better for you to be even more prepared for tomorrow.”

“Miss Janssen,” he said, “you are entirely correct. What would I do without you?” This last question, Drew suddenly realized, was not mere rhetoric.

He glanced at the time on his cell phone—quarter to nine and approaching Newark Broad Street Station, meaning with the train running more or less on schedule, he would make Manhattan by nine and could plan on being in the office half an hour thereafter.

“Barbara, be a dear and tell your fellow team members to plan on getting together in the conference room on ninety-six at ten so that we can review your meeting and put together a plan for tomorrow morning. I should be there in about forty-five minutes.”

“If I do,” she replied, “do you promise to love me forever?”

Drew had expressly avoided the use of the “L” word throughout the relationship, having concluded from the outset that there was no future in their arrangement and so nothing but increased difficulty associated with the use of the word. Barbara, however, having not nearly as much at stake as Drew, had gravitated to the term fairly early, and utilized it freely, which elicited in him a reaction that was an uncomfortable mix of endearment and trepidation, particularly since the infrequent instances in which he heard the term at home lately felt increasingly perfunctory. Perhaps she sensed that the end of the thing was nearing and was fighting back with every tool at her disposal short of blackmail, this latter of which risked her own career as much as Drew’s.

“How about my undying gratitude?” he offered in response.

“If that’s the best you can do,” she said, her voice in full pouting mode, “I guess I’ll have t—”

At which moment there came over the phone an odd wooshing sound followed by a loud instantaneous high-pitched shriek and then the triple beep of a disconnected cell phone call. Dropped cell calls on the train were a routine thing, and Drew thought little of it, so little in fact that he saw no need to call back, though he did find the sounds that had attended the call dropping to be unusual. Drew resolved to catch the briefest of naps during the final twenty minutes it would take to make it into Manhattan. He was, though, awakened only seconds after closing his eyes by the unexpected slowing of the train as it pulled into Broad Street, a station that the express train was supposed to pass through without stopping. The train drew to a stop at the platform, but the doors did not open as with an ordinary stop.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” came the conductor’s voice over the train’s intercom system, “we have been requested to stop here at Broad Street momentarily. We should be moving again shortly. Thank you for your patience.”

Unscheduled stops were certainly nothing unusual on New Jersey Transit trains, and Drew took the announcement as a chance to extend, however slightly, the length of his nap. His second and final nap attempt ended about two minutes later when the general level of noise and conversation in the train car rose suddenly and did not diminish. Nearly all the passengers in his car had risen from their seats and were pressed against the south-facing windows. There were several audible gasps, though Drew could not yet see whatever occurrence outside the train was eliciting this reaction from his fellow passengers. He reluctantly rose and joined everyone else on the other side of the car. There was much pointing and general exclaiming, and moments later several passengers had forced open the car doors and descended to the platform for a better view of whatever was going on. Drew promptly joined them and stood following their collective gaze down the Hudson River in the direction of lower Manhattan where there had arisen a dark and growing pall in the skies over the city. The degree of seeming emotion in the gesturing and conversation of the group was rising steadily and Drew asked someone with a radio what on earth was going on.

“The North Tower is on fire,” the man replied, his voice filled with an unexpected degree of agitation. “They’re saying a plane hit it or something.” He returned the earpiece to his ear. Drew did not know quite how to process this news. He withdrew his cell phone and again called Barbara’s number in the office. The phone rang a dozen times, which was six more than it should have rung before being routed to voicemail. He pressed the disconnect button and hit the speed dial button for home. Kelly was not a big morning TV watcher and she would probably still be sitting with Taylor. But it was possible she might be aware of whatever was happening and would be concerned for her husband. Without ringing even once, a recorded message came on:

“We’re sorry, but all lines are currently in use. Please try your call later.”

He hung up again and redialed the office, this time trying Peter’s cell phone. The number rang four times before the familiar Verizon voicemail message began playing. Drew began speaking into the phone, leaving a message for his younger associate, but his voice was drowned out by an airliner flying almost directly overhead. But unlike the planes that landed every few seconds at Newark airport, slow and with landing gear extended, this one was no more than five hundred up, its landing gear was stowed, and it was following the southward flow of the Hudson, traveling too fast … much too fast to be landing.



At 8:46 a.m., on Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001, Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 crashed the Boeing 767 into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board and hundreds inside the building. Marsh, Inc. was located on floors 93-100 of the North Tower, and 295 of its employees were killed instantly, as well as 60 clients and contractors.

The characters in this story are fictitious and bear no resemblance to any actual employees of Marsh and McLennan.

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