Without a Trace
Charles Vincent had been sitting in his office in Paris waiting to talk to his boss for more than two hours. It was Friday afternoon and he had promised his wife Isabelle that he’d leave the city early. He had a three-hour drive ahead of him, the last half on narrow, rough country roads along the coast of Normandy. They had houseguests at their château that weekend, friends of Isabelle’s, although he knew them too. He worked late so often, and traveled so much for work, that she had a fully developed social life without him. He didn’t mind. They had a wide circle of friends. She had her own, as well as a group of devoted women friends whose husbands worked as hard as Charlie, or were divorced, so Isabelle never lacked for company when Charlie was busy. She didn’t mind going to events or entertaining without him, but he had promised to be there that night. It was someone’s birthday, the husband of one of her friends. Isabelle had organized a weekend around them at the château. She was proud of their country home on a hill overlooking the rugged coastline and the sea. The château was beautiful. They had owned it for ten years.
Charles was the CEO of the biggest plastics manufacturer in France, Jansen Plastics. It was his second career, a reincarnation after an earlier life. The job at Jansen had saved him eleven years ago.
He was waiting to meet with the owner and founder, Jerome Jansen, eighty-two years old and still going strong. Jansen’s only son had moved to the States years before to seek his fortune, had married an American, and had no interest in the business, nor in coming back to France, or stepping into his father’s shoes. He was a U.S. citizen now, as were his wife and kids. France was ancient history to him. When his son had finally made that clear to him, after he made his own fortune in the fast food business in Los Angeles and Southern California, Jerome Jansen had set out to find a CEO who could help him run his business with intelligence and an iron hand.
Jerome Jansen owned the largest toy company in France, along with factories that made plastic products for other uses. It was a huge operation, and Charlie’s path had crossed with Jansen’s at the right time. Charlie’s father had been a writer of considerable literary acclaim in France but only modest commercial success, which had indirectly led Charlie into the publishing business right after college. He loved books and everything related to them except writing. His meteoric rise had been astonishing and impressive, and he found he loved the business. He had no talent for writing himself, and had struggled all his life for his father’s approval as an only son, which had been hard-earned and of short duration. Although proud of him, and stern, Charlie’s father had died two years after Charlie started working in publishing. His father’s wishes had been hard to live up to. His mother had been kinder and died when he was very young, and his father was a hard taskmaster. Driven and hardworking, Charlie had been educated in the best French schools. He loved his job and everything about it, except for Gilles Vermier, the tyrant who owned the business. He made Charlie’s life a living hell for all sixteen years he worked there. His consistent victories in spite of his boss won him the reputation of the Golden Boy of the publishing world. Although the publishing house had an impressive stable of authors before he arrived, Charlie had successfully lured both French and foreign writers of major reputation, and enhanced the house he worked for immeasurably. His forward-thinking instincts led them into digital books before anyone else. He used the American market as his model to try to add audiobooks to their list before any other publisher in France. He had a gift for marketing, and understood writers and their quirks, thanks to his own difficult father.
Within five years after he was hired, Charlie had a glowing reputation in publishing, and within ten he was a star. The owner of the house knew it, resented him personally, and fought Charlie on every improvement he wanted to make. Instead of giving up, Charlie fought harder for what he knew would sell. The owner’s only son had died in an accident, and Charlie became the golden boy of his business, bringing it into the future, and making it the greatest publishing house in France. His boss grudgingly acknowledged it, but disliked Charlie personally. Charlie often felt that Vermier bitterly held it against him because he was vital and alive, and his own son had died so young.
In the end, a point of honor unraveled Charlie’s career, as fast as his meteoric rise had catapulted him into publishing stardom before that. A small argument became a big one. It was about adding soft porn to their list for purely commercial reasons. The owner was for it, and Charlie opposed. The owner’s massive ego was challenged, and he hired an outsider over Charlie to control him, and force Charlie to endorse their position. What ensued were two years of battles, followed by a massive showdown, and a situation Charlie could no longer tolerate. They slowly squeezed him into a corner, and he had to either swallow his pride and give into them, or leave. He opted for the latter, after a bloody war. He quit in a blaze of pride and fury, and with the absolute certainty that he’d have no trouble finding a job he liked better, with a more reasonable owner at the helm, with values similar to his own.
He quit two weeks before his fortieth birthday, and he rapidly discovered that he was no longer viewed as the Golden Boy of publishing. His constant battles with the owner and the owner’s new hire had tarnished Charlie’s reputation. He knocked on every door in publishing, and found that he was considered “difficult,” and no one wanted to hire him. He had risen too high, had been paid too well, had used his own ego and principles to achieve autonomy, and had followed his own lead. It was a humbling and very hard lesson for him. He had assumed too much, and couldn’t land a new job.
The publishing house where he had worked promoted someone from the internal ranks to take his place, make fewer waves, and do exactly what the owner wanted with no resistance. They opened a whole category of soft porn, which didn’t do as well as they’d hoped and had been sure it would. The business suffered as a result, and several of the big authors he had brought to them left when Charlie did, but for two years Charlie was out of a job. His world crumbled around him, and his personal life went with it.
Isabelle, his wife, was fun and lively and spirited when they were young and just out of college. She had studied art history and was bright and well educated. She was from a respected family, attended the best French schools, worked briefly at the Louvre, chose not to work once they were married, and stayed home to raise their children. She had no real career ambitions. She took care of their son Olivier, and six years later Judith. Isabelle’s father owned several of the biggest luxury brands in France, a champagne label, high-end leather goods, and jewelry lines, all extremely profitable businesses. She had been brought up not for a career, but instead groomed to be the wife of a very successful man, someone like her father. She was used to the perks that went with first a father’s and then a husband’s success. She entertained lavishly, was fashionably elegant, intelligent, and the perfect wife for a head of industry, not for a failure, which was what Charlie became overnight. She made it clear to him every single day after he quit his job in publishing that she expected him to get back on top again, immediately.
Charlie had been brought up to respect and achieve intellectual excellence, and his writer father was puzzled by his interest in “commerce.” Charlie’s mother had died when he was in college. She had been a gentle woman, a college professor at the Sorbonne and a poet laureate. None of that meant anything to Isabelle. She was familiar with her father’s relatively ruthless success. Her three sisters had married prominent men, but none as successful as Charlie had been for sixteen years, and she was proud to be his wife then, and infinitely less so once he was unemployed.
Her father had seen the makings of greatness in Charlie in his youth, but after sixteen years in publishing, and two after that without a job, he told his daughter that the fire in Charlie’s belly had gone out. Charlie knew it too. He didn’t want to do battle anymore. He wanted a simpler job and a better life. He didn’t want to have to put himself on the line every day, like a commando, fighting wars he couldn’t win against unreasonable men with massive egos, who held all the cards. He was never going to be as successful as Isabelle’s father. Fighting for what he believed was right, on principle, he had burned his bridges in the publishing world. With his reputation for being stubborn, too independent, and difficult, he couldn’t find a single job in publishing for two long years, even in a lesser position. He was overqualified for every job he applied for, and unable to get hired.