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Excerpt: The Society


Marcia Rising tilted back in her chair just enough so that neither her chief financial officer Leonard Smith, seated to her right, nor Executive VP Dan Elder to her left could see what she was writing on her legal pad. She was expected to take some notes at these meetings, anyhow. After all, she was the boss. Smiling inwardly, she added an ornate dollar sign in front of the 4. At the far end of the broad mahogany table, Vice President Joe Levinson droned on. Levinson was the cost-containment officer for Eastern Quality Health, and as such was responsible more than anyone except Marcia, herself, for the managed-care company’s strong financial picture. But as a speaker, he was as animated and vibrant as drying paint.

“. . . We took last quarter’s slumping numbers as a strident warning—a shot across our financial bow, if you will—that we had to renew incentives among our employees and physicians in the area of cost containment. The in-house contest we ran was most successful in this regard. Almost immediately there was a twenty-one percent increase in claims rejected outright, and a thirteen percent increase in those surgical claims that were bundled for payment together with at least one other claim. There were some complaints from doctors, but nothing Bill’s physician-relations people couldn’t handle. . . .”

Four million . . . thirteen thousand . . . eight hundred . . . sixty-four.

Marcia wrote the numbers out longhand, then she added touches of calligraphy to figure, which was her salary for the preceding twelve months. Factor in her eight million in unexercised stock options, and she was well into the upper echelons of female executives in the country. The numbers had a delightful rhythm to them, she mused, perhaps a conga. She imagined a kick line of her nineteen hundred employees, snaking its way through the building.

Four mill-ion thir-teen kick! . . .

Marcia was more than pleased with the way her officers had responded to the recent dip in corporate profits. Her philosophy of one set of premiums and coverages for companies with younger, healthier employees and another for those who might have a more risky, older crew was infallible.

“If they don’t get sick, they can’t cost us,” she had preached over and over again to her minions.

Let some other company cover those who are running out of time or won’t take care of themselves. Every dollar spent researching the demographic makeup of a company (blacks get more hypertension, diabetes, and kidney failure; Asians are ridiculous hypochondriacs; Hispanics have too much alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness; thirty-somethings are okay, forty-somethings are not) would return hundreds in the form of payouts that Eastern Quality Health wouldn’t have to make.

Eight hun-dred sixty-four kick! . . .

“. . . And so, as I see it, our company has weathered a passing financial squall,” Levinson was saying, “but there are major storm clouds on the horizon for the entire industry. Still, our ship will remain seaworthy so long as we never lose sight of the fact that our business is all about health—that is, the health of Eastern Quality.”

To laughter at his rare humor, and a smattering of applause, Levinson bowed slightly and took his seat. The meeting was, to all intents, over. Marcia stood and encouraged her officers to maintain their vigilance, to bring problems and ideas to her attention sooner rather than later, and never to lose sight of the goals of Eastern Quality Health—not to be the biggest HMO, but rather to be the most efficient. Then she crossed to the door of her suite and shook the hand of each of them as they left. Finally, she settled in behind her desk and gazed out at the reflecting basin and double fountain that graced EQH’s fifteen-acre campus on Route 128, eighteen miles north and west of Boston. The setting sun had already dipped below the tree line, yielding to a still, cloudless evening. Arranged neatly in labeled wire bins on her desk was two or three hours of work she expected to complete before going home. Seldom was she not the last EQH employee out of the building.

Marcia brushed a minuscule crumb from her Armani jacket and started with a review of reports from the team of attorneys handling one of several suits pending against the company—this one centered on confusion over whether or not a particular policyholder had the coverage for a bone marrow transplant. EQH’s position was, of course, that she did not, although, as of the woman’s death six months ago, the question had become moot. Still, her annoying husband’s unwillingness to accept the truth was prolonging a resolution. Marcia dictated a carefully worded letter demanding that the lawyers stand firm at a settlement of $50,000 with no admission of culpability. It was to be that, or nothing.

Outside her third-floor window night settled in as she reached for the next set of reports. Finally, at nine, she gathered her things in the Moschino briefcase her husband had given her, straightened her desk, then her skirt, and headed out to the elevator. Floor two of the garage, to so-called officer’s parking lot, was accessed only via the elevator, and only with the aid of a pass card. Marcia pulled her overcoat tightly about her and stepped out into the raw March night. She knew what vehicle each of her upper-management officers drove, and took pains to encourage them to choose automobiles reflecting their personal success and, through that, the success of EQH. Besides her Mercedes SL500 Silver Arrow convertible, there were still two cars in the lot—utilization management director Sarah Brett’s Infiniti, and chief of physician relations Bill Donoho’s Lexus. Marcia made a mental note to reward them both for their diligence.

She was nearing her car when she felt more than heard the presence of someone else in the lot. She whirled at the sound of footsteps. A man, fedora brim pulled down to the bridge of his nose, hands in his trench-coat pockets, had left the shadows and was approaching her.

How in the hell had he gotten out here? she wondered angrily. This was absolutely the last screwup for Joe O’Donnell. If you couldn’t trust your security chief, who in the hell could you trust? First thing in the morning, O’Donnell was history, and none of his whining about five children was going to save him this time.

Marcia’s pulse shot up at the sight of the man, then slowed as she took in the situation with the quick, analytical thinking that had become her trademark. There was a security camera sweeping the lot from just above the doors to the elevator foyer, so maybe one of the two guards on duty would spot the stranger. Managed care was at times a controversial and emotional business. Her executive officers were encouraged to have a legally registered handgun. Hers was locked in the glove compartment of the Silver Arrow, but if this was trouble, there was no way she could reach the car in time. She peered through the gloom trying to get a fix on the man’s eyes.

Dammit, O’Donnell!

Less than ten feet away, the intruder stopped. By now, Marcia was certain that this was no one associated with EQH.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you get out here?”

“Mrs. Rising, I have something for you.”

A woman! Marcia felt her pulse surge once more.

“Who are you?” she said again, her voice breaking.

The woman—slender with a narrow face and eyes still shielded by her hat—withdrew her left hand and passed over an envelope. Her calmness and the coldness in her voice tied a knot of fear in Marcia’s chest. She stared down at the envelope, which she now held.

“Go ahead,” the woman urged. “Open it.”

Marcia fumbled the envelope open and withdrew two cards, each three inches square. On one, carefully printed with some sort of marker, was the unadorned, block letter R. On the other was a T.

“What is this? What’s this all about?”

She stumbled backward toward the Mercedes, the letters and envelope still reflexively clutched in her hand.

Before her, the woman calmly withdrew a pistol from her coat pocket, its muzzle covered by what looked like a rubber nipple.

“My God, no!” Marcia cried. “Don’t do this! I have money. Lots of money. I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“This won’t hurt as much as it should,” the woman said, firing from four feet away into the center of Marcia’s chest.

The CEO was reeling backward when a second shot, fired almost from the hip, caught her squarely in the throat.

The woman slid the silenced pistol back into her trench-coat pocket and turned toward the door.

“Sleep tight,” she whispered.

Excerpted from The Society by Michael Palmer Copyright © 2004 by Michael Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.