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Authors: Z.L. Arkadie

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“Are you on your way to the office?” I would ask in a tone that indicates there’s no motive behind that crucial question.

If she says yes, then I’d be forced to take her number and decide whether it’s beneficial to call her later—in this case, it would not be. If she says no, then I would ask her for a cup of coffee and conversation. She’d play hesitant, but after one good head-to-toe look at me, she’d give in to my minimal powers of persuasion.

Most men couldn’t pull off picking up a woman so easily, but I could. My suit is Brioni. My shoes are Mezzomi, a little-known but brilliant Italian designer who handcrafts each shoe. Basically, I look and smell expensive. The woman has already fantasized about introducing me to her single friends, making them jealous in the process. And this chick is no Pollyanna. She can tell a good fuck when she sees one, and she’s already sussed me out. Engaging with this attractive woman is certainly one way to go.

However, I see myself standing alone, facing down the fork in the road. One path leads to self-destruction, and the blonde is the first person I’ll encounter.

The blonde and I pass each other. The glimmer in her eyes and the tiny smile make it clear she’s trying to seduce me. But I nod and look forward. I have no fucking idea what’s down the other path, but I choose to walk it even though it scares the hell out of me. I have forsaken the pussy. That’s definitely a road that I’ve never taken, but now that I’m on it, I can say that it feels like the path to salvation.

The End of An Era

Y
esterday
, after I crossed the street, I went home. I spent the rest of the day and night sitting on the sofa in my living room, staring out over the city lights. Even when I became sleepy, I forced my eyes to stay open and my brain to keep thinking. I needed answers. I needed to make changes, life-altering ones, which meant I had to break through some serious mental barriers. Sweat drenched my skin. At times, I got up and paced until what felt like hours had passed. I fought the urge to sift through my contact list within the STAT (Sure Thing—stat) folder and call up a nice piece of ass.

I fuck a lot. I like to fuck. But when the fucking is over, I’m alone, and I’m not sure if I’m the guy who likes being alone.

However, I’d pushed through, battling my fears, anxiety, and shit like that. If Vince had enabled me, then I needed to empower myself. By daybreak, the answer was as clear as a light at the end of the tunnel.

I rub my eyes; they’re tired and burning. I want to crash, but I have work to do. I call Gabe Zenith and let him know that I want to divest myself of A&Rt Media. According to my contract, I’m obligated to offer Vince the opportunity to purchase my interest in the company for fifty percent of the value of my shares, and I need Gabe to orchestrate the transfer.

Gabe’s silent for a while. “Are you sure?”

I had pondered the answer to that question until I was blue in the face. My friendship with Vince has always been dysfunctional as hell, but it didn’t have to end up this way. I’m the one at fault. I remember that spiel Maggie gave me about wanting to play with Vince’s toys, not because his toys were shinier or prettier but because Vince had enjoyed them. I pictured myself as a ruddy-faced kid, the biggest brat on the planet, stealing my best friend’s shit. Deep inside, all this kid wants is to steal his brother’s happiness. My fucking envy made me commit the biggest infraction against my friend. And what the hell did I get out of fucking Maggie? The sex wasn’t even as memorable as I thought it would be. Point blank, I don’t want to be that kid anymore. If Vince ever forgives me, and I know one day he will, then I want him to do it looking me in the eyes, man to man, not fucking brat to man.

“I’m positive,” I say.

Gabe takes a long sigh. “Once you do this, there’s no going back.”

“I said I’m positive.”

I can hear the warning in his silence. The friction between Vince and me has hit Gabe over the head like a wrecking ball. Gabe is another person who believes I’ll end up pissed in an alley if Vince stops babysitting me.

“Gabe, I’ll be fine,” I say.

“Okay, then. I’ll be in touch.”

The call ends. I close my eyes and feel the weight of what I just did. Gabe was right—there’s no going back. And even if I want to run and hide under Vince’s wing, he’ll just crush me unless I prove to him that I’m incapable of crossing him ever again. I get up and stretch. It’s finally time to shit, shower, and shave, and hopefully get enough sleep to get rid of this throbbing headache.

S
even Hours Later

I
’m back
in my midtown office, waiting for Vince and Gabe to show up with the finalized contracts. They’ll be here soon. The sale price is 2.3 billion dollars. Vince has already transferred the balance to my bank account. He’s not fucking around. He’s glad I’m out, and that hurts like hell. Once this is over, I’ll fly to Tahiti or somewhere to lick my wounds and plan my next step.

There’s a rap on the door. I sit up straight. My heart pounds like a jackhammer. “Come in.” I’m surprised to see Jack Lord walk into my office.

“Glad I caught you before you left,” he says.

I relax my shoulders. “Then you heard.”

He puts a hand on the back of the chair across from mine. “May I?”

“Please.” I’m not surprised Jack Lord asked if he could sit. Most men of his stature wouldn’t, but he’s a rare mix of civility and shrewdness. Vince knows the business of media, but Jack? He writes the rules on the business of business.

“Of course I heard,” Jack says.

I press my lips together.

“So what next?” he asks.

That’s the question I toiled over until the day broke and the answer came. I throw up my hands casually. “I think I’ll try my hand at architecture. It’s what I know more about than this.”

Jack crosses his legs and grins as he nods.

I narrow an eye curiously. “What is it?”

“I was hoping you’d say that. You’ve been looking at blueprints for my projects and revising them for the longest time. You’ve given me valuable advice, Rob.”

I shrug indifferently. “I didn’t consider it anything more than a favor.”

“It was more than a favor. I paid those fuckers a lot of cash to have you fix their fuck-ups.”

I don’t know how to respond to that. I haven’t been praised for my work since my three-year apprenticeship under Barney Arsenault of Customize Designs. For some fucking reason, after graduating from college with a dual degree in architecture and marketing, I came to the conclusion that architecture wasn’t prestigious enough. Now that I look back, I was competing with Vince, who had plans to build a media empire with or without me. With all the money he was destined to make, I didn’t want him to leave me in the dust, so I exhausted the earnings from my trust fund and invested in Vince’s dreams.

Jack ruffles his eyebrows. “You’re licensed, aren’t you?”

“Passed the test on the first take.” I’m pretty proud about that. Not many pass the test the first time and with flying colors.

“Then it’s time for me to pay you back,” he says.

I frown inquisitively.

“I know you’ve heard of Ralph Kennedy,” Belmont says.

The mention of that name makes me sit up and throw all of my attention at Jack. “He owns a firm in San Francisco. It was one of the top architecture firms in the eighties and nineties.”

“He’s selling. Are you interested?”

“He’s selling? Why?”

Jack shrugs. “I think it’s money issues, but they won’t confirm it. Instead they’re saying he’s ready to retire.”

“And you don’t buy it?”

“No. The shit doesn’t add up.”

I tap my fingers on my soon-to-be-old desk as I consider Jack’s suggestion. Running my own firm would be scary as hell. But what are the odds that this opportunity would present itself at this point in time? I never believed fate could work on my behalf, but it feels like it probably has.

I lean against the back of my office chair. Finally I feel as though I can fit its executive-size largeness. “Hell, I’m interested.”

Jack winks. “Good.”

I keep a confident look on my face even though I’m losing my shit. “Thanks, Jack.”

He leaps to his feet. “Don’t thank me yet, Tango. Kennedy is being selective about who he sells his company to, but I have the inside line.”

I stand to shake his hand, struggling to maintain my confidence. Why in the hell would Kennedy sell his baby to a man with no working experience in the field? I wouldn’t sell to me. Jack seems to be reading my mind, but just as he’s about to say something, Vince and Gabe walk into my office. Vince regards me with a stern expression then quickly looks at Jack.

“Are you sitting in on this?” he asks Jack.

Jack waves dismissively. “What for?”

Vince flops down in the seat Jack just abandoned. “Then we’ll talk later.”

Jack reminds me to expect a call later. Vince seems mildly curious, but he doesn’t relax that frown. He wants me to experience the chill, and he doesn’t have to worry, because I feel every inch of it. Gabe pulls up an extra chair to sit beside Vince. He takes the contract out of his messenger bag, puts the stack on my desk, and goes right into explaining the particulars of the sale.

The tension in the room is suffocating as hell. I loosen my tie as I try to look Vince in the eyes, but he’s avoiding mine. Although it was my idea to sell him my interest in the company, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t try to talk me out of it. He used to love me, but now he fucking hates me. Things haven’t been good between us for months. Vince is the king of delayed reactions. In the back of my mind, I knew he would never forgive me if I fucked Maggie, but I did it anyway. I can’t imagine why I went through with banging her. I probably need a shrink to figure it out, but what’s done is done.

Gabe presses his finger against a plastic tab. “Sign here, Robert.”

I pause to give Vince the chance to stop me. I wouldn’t change my mind, but it would be nice to know he gave a damn. But he makes it clear that I won’t get what I want, so I sign. Gabe flips through the thick stack of documents, directing me where to put my John Hancock. Each scribble makes me feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me. In about ten seconds, I’ll be 2.3 billion dollars richer but one friend, my best friend, poorer.

“And here,” Gabe says.

We reach the final page. My eyes meet Vince’s glare. Shit, I think I’m heartbroken. I’m waiting for him to say, “Stop, don’t, let’s talk this out.” The longer we stare into each other’s eyes, the more evident it becomes that I’m dead to him. He looks as if he’s viewing my cold dead body lying still in a coffin. I sign.

Gabe swipes up the papers. “That’s it. Deal done.”

Vince stands. “Good luck, Rob.” He turns his back and walks out before I can stand to meet him.

Gabe looks from Vince to me with a frown. He seems very aware that our friendship, which spanned so many years that I stopped counting them, is dead. Finally Gabe hangs his messenger bag on his shoulder. “Good luck, Robert. Call me if you ever need anything.”

“Thank you, I will,” I say, although I know he doesn’t really mean it. It’s as if Vince and I have just gotten a divorce and he gets Gabe in the settlement, but we shake anyway.

Gabe purses his lips and walks out with tension in his mouth. I’m alone, and the solitude comes crashing down on me like a raging tidal wave. I frown at my desk. It dawns on me that this is it. It’s over, and I’m a free agent.

My cell phone sounds in my pocket, momentarily dissolving the loneliness. “Hello?”

“Listen, I just spoke to Kennedy. He wants to meet with you tomorrow morning at nine thirty at his office.” It’s Jack.

I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “In San Francisco?”

“Yes.”

That was fast. I’m overwhelmed by the possibility that Kennedy might sell his operation to someone like me.

Then two men walk into my office with a gray cart. The tall gangly one pulls the cart from the front and the short one with glasses guides it from the back. I’ve heard about these two guys. Around here, they’re called the FU-Crew. Vince sends them out after someone has been fired, let go, or quits to collect the newly departed person’s computer and telephone so that they can look at the history of use. They also clear files out of the dearly departed’s desk and filing cabinets. It’s Vince’s way of checking to see if his former employees have been consorting with A&Rt Media’s competition. It finally dawns on me that Vince is treating me like he does everyone else. If I had any hope that he would ring me up one day in the near future and say, “Hey, Rob, things are going great with Mags and me, so let’s let bygones be bygones,” well, it’s all gone now.

“I’ll be there,” I say to Jack.

I end the call and give the FU-Crew entrance into the office to allow Vince and his henchman to officially F-Me.

The Proposition

I
arrived
in San Francisco last night. After I left A&Rt Media, I went home, packed a suitcase, and took the first available flight from Kennedy to SFO. I have a home in Napa Valley, so I rented a car for one week and told the rep that I’d rent it for longer if need be. Then I put my suitcase in the car and made the hour and a half drive to Napa. When I arrived, I expected to see cobwebs hanging on the walls and dust piled on the roof, but everything was just as I’d left it. I sent a message to my regular cleaning service and thanked them for staying on top of things.

Before my flight, Jack’s assistant had emailed me the prospectus and financials for the last ten years on Kennedy Creative. I wasn’t sure how he’d gotten his hands on the documents, but I was glad he did. I started reading the material on the airplane before I fell asleep, when the lack of sleep from the previous night caught up to me.

In my house in Napa, I take my shoes off, make myself some coffee, and read some more. I replay the numbers in my head as I slog down the stairs to the subterranean level where one of the master bedrooms opens to a view of downtown. Not even two cups of strong black coffee can battle my fatigue. I take a deep breath and flop down at the head of the bed. The switch to open the automatic blinds is on the wall. I flip it, the blinds roll up, and the small town comes into view. I don’t know why, but it relaxes me. I unbutton my shirt, take it off, and kick off my shoes. As I get comfortable on the bed, exhaustion sets in. I close my eyes, and before I know it, I’m lying on my side, and the night beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows has changed to day.

I sit up. “Shit.”

I forgot to set an alarm. I pull my phone out of my pants pocket. It’s 7:37 a.m. My appointment with Ralph Kennedy is at nine thirty. An angel must be lounging on my shoulder because I didn’t oversleep, and at least for the moment, my head isn’t cluttered either.

I take a shower and try not to think about what’s to come. There’s a high probability that my reputation as Vince’s lapdog will convince Kennedy to sell to a more worthy buyer. Regardless, I dry off and suit up. There’s no food in the refrigerator, and I have no time to grab a bite to eat before the meeting. I figure I’ll have a ton of time to eat after Kennedy laughs me out the building. I’ll grab Indian food in the marina.

I want to ride the Harley I keep covered in the garage, but I don’t want to wrinkle my suit under my riding jacket, so I drive the car I rented. I’ll buy a new one for myself if I have to remain in the area. It’s a nice day in Napa. The air is so lax that I want to swim in it. Traffic on the 121 Freeway isn’t good, but I take in the rolling green hills, acres of grapevines, and the leaves of stout trees draped over lonely trails.

I haven’t been able to get the numbers from the financial reports out of my head. The asking price is six hundred million dollars, but they’ve only grossed 250 million in the last three years and less than that during previous years. Vince relegated me to the financials for A&Rt Media not only to give me something to do so that I could stay out of his way but also because I’ve always been good at connecting the dots. There’s a connection between man-hours, projects, and financial intake. I’m well aware that no one in their right mind would pay so much for a company that might go bust without Kennedy at the helm. My thoughts shift to the client list.

Traffic is sluggish across the Bay Bridge. I loosen my collar and glance at the clock. I have thirty minutes to get to Grant Avenue and the Embarcadero. I focus on the city rising in the horizon. The answer to the overinflated asking price is on the tip of my tongue. I keep chugging along, and I arrive at my destination with five minutes to spare. I find a parking space, cut the engine off, and sit still in order to collect my bearings. I’m still not sure I want to go through with this. I close my eyes, praying for a sign. Suddenly I’m jolted by the loud revving of a motorcycle engine. My eyes pop open. That did it. I hop out the car with a new spring in my step and head off to meet one of the world’s greatest architects.

T
he offices are
in a glass half-dome-shaped structure that sits on a square concrete block surrounded by four tall glass buildings. The structure is in the middle of a grass park and has the only ground view of the marina. I think Ralph Kennedy had a hand in designing the building back in the late eighties/early nineties. He was definitely a master of his era.

When I make it inside the building, there are no signs of life, other than the lingering smell of freshly brewed coffee. I walk down a long hallway that has a glass window on one side and a white wall on the other. Portraits of landmark buildings hang on the wall. One of them is a mounted copy of an expertly drafted blueprint; it’s signed by Ralph Kennedy. I make it to the end of the hallway and turn the corner. After a few feet of much the same, I end up in an open-air room full of people sitting at workstations comprised of high desks and chairs, each surrounded by five-foot-high white laminate cubes. Lots of eyes are on me. Normally I don’t mind being the center of attention, but not in this case. Glass-walled offices surround the room. I walk toward the back because I have no idea where the hell to go.

“Excuse me, sir,” a woman says from behind me.

I turn and look down at a tiny brunette with hazel eyes. She’s cute, and I automatically check whether or not she’s wearing a ring—she is.

“Are you Mr. Tango?” she asks.

“Yes, I am.”

She smiles, and her tiny face lights up. I would normally flirt with her at this point, ring or no ring, but I can’t forget what Maggie and Mavis think of me. I don’t want to be that guy. So instead of showing her my normal smile, I make it tight-lipped and professional.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Kennedy.” I dig the way I sounded. That came out perfectly.

“Yes,” she sings. “This way.”

She walks lightly on her toes as she leads me down a line of desks. I don’t look to see who’s watching me, but I know I’m still being examined. I feel as if an alien has invaded my body and changed my rules of engagement. The high tables and the smell of lead and drafting paper invigorate me. Many firms use a digital application called CAD for drafting, but I love smelling that many of the architects here are still doing it the old way as well—with a pencil, drafting paper, and a steady hand. Suddenly I want this more than I did before I walked into the building. I want to own this scene.

I lock eyes with Ralph Kennedy, who stands behind his desk. He’s just as I remembered him—a full head of white hair, tanned skin, and naturally scowling eyes. Regardless of his narrowed eyes, I’ve always known him to be an even-tempered guy who’s quicker to laugh than bark, but this morning, he’s watching me like a hawk. The young woman ushers me into the office.

“Thank you, Zoe,” Ralph says.

Zoe says, “You’re welcome,” and grins from ear to ear as she closes the door on her way out.

I extend my hand. “Good morning, Mr. Kennedy.” I smile without showing teeth. It’s important to maintain an air of shrewdness when negotiating business deals.

“Good morning, and just call me Ralph.” His handshake is as firm as mine. “How about we go over there and have a seat?”

“All right then, Ralph.” I follow his lead and sit in the black leather club chair across from him. I loosen my shoulders to relax.

His green khakis and plaid shirt are impeccable. Ralph crosses his legs. His brown shoes are a high grade of leather. “You come highly recommended by Jack Lord.”

I sit my foot on top of my knee in ploy to convince him that I’m just as confident as he is. “I’m grateful for it.”

He rubs his chin and watches me with narrowed eyes. “You should be, because when Jack Lord talks, I listen.”

He’s conveying an important message without saying a lot. I know Jack is their major client, and I get a sense that Ralph is hoping I fuck this up so that he can report to Jack that I’m clearly not the man to run his company. Ambivalence sets in. I drop my foot off my knee. I know what I want to say, but a young woman with short dark hair walks past the office carrying a motorcycle helmet. Our eyes meet, but she quickly looks away and picks up her pace. That felt like déjà vu, or maybe I’ve actually seen her before.

“Are you easily distracted?” Ralph asks.

Shit. My eyes shoot back to his face. It’s clear that my reputation has preceded me. Something about seeing that young woman dissolved my ambivalence, and I want the whole enchilada that Ralph is selling.

“No. I’m here because I want to buy your company,” I say.

“But why? You’re no one in my business.”

That sounded like a jab, but I don’t take it personally. “I have the cash.”

“All the prospective buyers have the cash, plus a lot more experience than you.”

I shrug cockily, but I’m putting on an act. “I can’t argue against either of those points. I’ve been reviewing and revising Jack’s blueprints for a while.” I shift in my seat to sit taller. “Remember the Howard Rogers building in Manhattan?”

Ralph shifts in his seat. He’s uncomfortable. His lips are moving, but no words come out. Kennedy Creative was hired to design the building, and the architect drafted a plan that would’ve never worked. Ralph nods in a way that says he’s taking ownership of the mistake. “That was one we missed.”

“One miss would’ve been all it had taken if that building had gone up as designed. The library wouldn’t have been able to support the weight of the sixteen floors above it.”

Ralph strokes his chin with his thumb. “Right…” He shoots to his feet. “Robert, what are you doing tonight?”

I’m caught off guard by his abrupt movement. I stand to meet him. In negotiations, one should never take the inferior position. “I have no plans.”

“How about you come over? My wife is having a gathering tonight.”

I fold my arms in front of me. “Are you planning on making it worth my while?”

He cracks a tiny smile—the first since we’ve shaken hands. “You smoke cigars?”

“If the occasion calls for it.”

“Then come. I’ll have a proposition for you.” He opens the door.

I stand still and extend my sense of hearing out the door. The hum of voices, clicking keyboards, pencils running across paper, and life in general flows into the office. It could all be mine—no partners, no Vince. This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt like an adult man—and it feels fucking incredible.

My lips pull into a slow-forming smile. “What’s the address?”

Ralph looks out the window and waves his fingers. Zoe jumps to her feet and prances over like a trained poodle. Her smile is so intense that her eyes narrow to slits.

“Mr. Tango needs details about dinner tonight,” Ralph says.

“Great,” Zoe says, still smiling. “Mr. Tango, can you please follow me?”

I nod as Ralph sits back down in his executive-size chair. Just for a second, I see him differently. Although his clothes are impeccable, he’s frail. Now that I’m in Zoe’s hands and he doesn’t have to perform for me, there’s a faraway look in his eyes.

I follow Zoe to her desk, and she hands me an invitation card. “This has the address, time, and dress code, but what you’re wearing now is fine.” She stares into my eyes as if she’s looking to discover some deep dark secret.

I smile lazily. “Thank you.”

We watch each other for a moment. She hasn’t relaxed her smile yet. Is she really that happy? I’m not envious and I’m not revolted either, but I surely can’t look at that pasted-on smile all day long. If I buy this company, then Zoe will be the first to be reassigned.

“Is that all?” I ask.

I didn’t think her smile could grow any wider, but it just did. “Yes!”

I snicker. “Thanks, Zoe.”

As soon as I turn to walk off, I catch sight of the woman who walked past Ralph’s office while carrying a motorcycle helmet. Her space is across the room, situated in a dark corner. She’s concentrating on whatever she’s doing at her desk.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Tango,” Zoe says.

I contemplate asking Zoe for the woman’s name but think better of it. I’m careful about the shit I do these days. I don’t want to be the same Robert Tango that Mavis and Maggie found so revolting. It’s not that I have a sexual attraction toward the motorcycle woman. Hell if I know what I find so alluring about her.

I show Zoe a thumbs-up and continue on my way.

Motorcycle woman doesn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to me, which is strange, because everyone else is paying the kind of attention one does to a possible new owner of the firm. Regardless, I head back to my car and drive downtown to the St. Regis hotel. I’d be a fool to drive an hour back to Napa only to return to the city during rush-hour traffic. Once I’m settled in a presidential suite, I take off my suit and call to have it pressed for this evening.

I stretch out on top of the bed and stare at the ceiling. I fight the urge to riffle through my contacts list and call up some company for tonight. For two nights, I’ve felt like shit and hadn’t been able to use sex to soothe me. I think about Zoe’s cute little ass, but the possibility of hearing her squeal doesn’t turn me on. Plus she’s married. Poor guy. Motorcycle woman had a nice ass too, but I don’t want to think about her in a sexual way. I don’t want to think about her at all.

I know four women I can call. Before, I would pick one and invite her over for dinner provided by room service. I would seduce her until we were fucking, and an hour before leaving for Ralph’s dinner party, I would tell her to leave and promise to call her tomorrow. That would be a lie. Most women needed the promise of something more in order to feel good about a fast fuck.

“Why the fuck do I need a body?” I whisper. Why can’t my fucking hand suffice?

I flip onto my side and stare out the large window at the view of the city. What the hell do I want out of life other than to purchase Kennedy Creative? Before my father died, I knew the answer. I was eleven years old and in sixth grade when the school principal called me out of class and into the nurse’s office. The nurse sat me on the examination table. I was scared as hell, wondering if I was going to get a shot or something, and if so, then what for? But she gave me a lollipop instead. The nurse kept patting me on the back and telling me that everything would be fine. When my mother arrived, as soon as she saw me, she started bawling and held me tightly.

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