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Free – CHAPTER 1 – Enjoy!
Battered by alternating waves of guilt and elation, Justin Thatcher leaned back in his desk chair, looked for patterns in the Oriental rugs on the floor of his office, at the two Renoirs displayed against walnut paneling and, on the other wall, at the forty-nine silver-framed “tombstones” announcing his business triumphs.
He fished the river stone from his pocket and rubbed its smooth patina. He remembered that evening before leaving the ranch twenty-eight years ago. He had walked the riverbank below the cabin to avoid another argument. Sunlight angled low from behind shadowed mountain peaks, penetrating the river’s blue waters, highlighting the stone. Intrigued by its color, he’d plucked it from the ice-cold river. He’d studied the stone, turning it in the sun’s last rays, watching the subtle change in the stone’s color, fingers caressing its smooth surface. He’d slipped the river stone into his pocket as a reminder to never return, hoping it would become a talisman to protect him from the memories of that place.
And he remembered the next morning, walking down the cabin steps and past the shed with his belongings packed in a black cardboard suitcase, watching his old man rake up fresh horse manure between the cabin and Old Tan where Cody sat behind the steering wheel to drive him to the bus stop. Blocking his way for one last confrontation. Arguing. Showing his father the stone, saying it would be a reminder to never return. That’s what triggered what had happened next.
He shook that memory from his head and thought about what Cody had said about their father’s death – a suspicious accident.
Even so, Justin told his brother he would not return for the funeral. After twenty-eight years, he would not break his vow.
He heard laughter from his assistant’s office.
It was during the second phone call, the conversation with the attorney in Montana, when he agreed to go back, but he didn’t tell Cody. He felt both responsible for tending to things, but at the same time surprisingly free of having to take care of anything at all. How could he explain that to Cody?
His assistant appeared in his doorway and said it was time for the meeting. A few minutes later, surrounded by associates and assistants, he sat at the conference room table across from three men who represented a buyer for one of the companies he controlled. He touched the river stone in his pocket for good luck as he pretended to read a thick sale document while he watched the men through his peripheral vision. Like predators before a kill, they leaned forward, watched and waited.
Even after all those years of silence, he’d recognized Cody’s voice, tinged with apprehension and emotion. Their father gone, carrying away the nightmares, he hoped.
He flipped to the signature page, reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a fountain pen engraved with his initials. The men glanced at each other and grinned, predators about to become prey.
He put the pen down, flipped back a page, and then read a paragraph about the seller’s representations and warrants. The buyers glanced at each other. He asked them to explain a clause. The lawyer began to justify the language in a rush of complex words and sentences that everyone in the room knew was elegant bullshit. That’s why he earned a thousand bucks an hour. Carried by the torrent of words, the stench of his cigar breath spewed across the table. He could smell the lawyer’s sour fear of losing the deal.
Justin loved this part of a negotiation, loved playing with buyers like a cat with a mouse. Nodding agreement, he picked up the fountain pen with his right hand and then used his thumb and forefinger to twist off the cap. He dropped the cap on the table, the sound sharp. The predators exchanged glances. When he lowered the pen toward the signature line, the attorney leaned forward, elbows on the table. Justin raised the pen and heard them hold their breath. He smiled and then signed the sale agreement.
The buyers exhaled. They laughed. They high-fived. One muttered, “Gotcha!”
Justin slid the document across the table to the leader, who checked Justin’s signature and then gloated. “You had no idea how valuable that company was.”
Justin stood and buttoned his coat. “I’m glad you’re happy. So am I. You just paid seventy million more than anyone else offered.”
Their smiles died.
“It was good to do business with you, gentlemen. My assistant will show you out.” Justin walked from the conference room to his office. His ex-father-in-law and senior partner Thomas Farnsworth, a silver-haired man with a patrician face, waited for him.
“Close the deal?”
“Yes,” Justin said. “It’s finished.”
The smile faded from Farnsworth’s face as the full implication sank in. “Now you’ll have enough fees to pay off your loan.”
“Just before your usurious penalty clause would have kicked in.”
“I wouldn’t have enforced it.”
“Of course not,” Justin said.
“Do you plan to stay?”
“We’ll talk about that when I get back from my trip.”
The right corner of Farnsworth’s mouth twitched, the fleeting tic that appeared when he lost, a rare event. He nodded and then walked out of Justin’s office.
Justin could add another silver framed tombstone that announced this last deal, now fifty. Each one held a story of a special tactic he had utilized. The first time he had walked into this office, he had felt intimidated. Now this was his home. And now that his fees could pay off Farnsworth’s loan, he would no longer have to serve the man like an indentured servant. He would be free. And yet the implications of his father’s death cast a pall over this most recent victory.
In his private bathroom, he stripped off his shirt, washed his upper body and then rolled on deodorant. He opened his closet and counted the new shirts hanging from the bar. His assistant would have to order two dozen more. He took a shirt from the hanger, raised its fabric to his nose and inhaled its fresh starchiness. That scent reminded him how far he’d come. Everything would be all right. He smiled, slipped on the shirt and then buttoned it up.
A few minutes later, Justin’s assistant walked into his office and told him there was an emergency. Ashley demanded they meet at once. He swore under his breath. Everything with Ashley was an emergency. He told his assistant to push back his next appointment one hour.
He arrived at the Harvard Club, surprised to see their eleven-year-old son with Ashley. William, wearing his school blazer, should have been at Collegiate. As always, Ashley looked perfect. She glanced at her watch, shook her head and then, without a word, marched to the center of the deserted Hall, orchestrating one of her drama-queen scenes he knew only too well.
They followed her. William had once told him Harvard Hall, with the elephant’s head protruding from the wall, ears spread wide, trunk extended, and the room’s three-story ceiling, dark beams, and molding-hung tapestries, looked like Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s School. Now he saw it the same way.
Still in full drama-queen mode, she sat in the middle of a red tufted leather couch, arranging herself, back rigid, legs crossed, fingers laced, forcing him to sit on an opposing couch next to William. His son shook the bangs away from his eyes, looked at his mother and then at him. Justin couldn’t read anything in his look — a pure blank slate. The boy scooted back in the deep seat, and then jammed his heels on the edge.
“Take your feet off the seat,” he said.
William slouched and then swung his feet back and forth, heels bumping against the leather.
Justin gritted his teeth — now was not the time to push the boy further. William began playing a video game on his portable player.
Ashley’s hair was perfect, the result of a daily session with her personal stylist. She favored outfits by top designers who personally draped her slim figure. She kept her hemlines a bit shorter than current fashion to show off her legs. She wore matching bright multi-colored high heels.
Justin thought of her shoes as her “fuck-me pumps.” When men looked her over, he’d noticed, their eyes started with the shoes, slithered up her legs and under her skirt to an imagined moist nirvana, except that he knew she was a cold bitch, in bed and out.
But that was harsh. Those where the things that first attracted him — the girls where he grew up sometimes combed their hair back into a ponytail, not for looks but utility — to keep it out of the way when they did chores, rode or roped. There, Wranglers were women’s standard fare, starched when they dressed up. Worlds apart. He suspected he’d been an innocent on her playing field.
Ashley had been schooled in the feminine graces and she was an expert at turning on the charm — like that Thanksgiving when her brother invited him from Harvard to spend the holiday weekend. Shortly after they were introduced, she decided she wanted Justin. She applied a full court press of charm that made her sexy and warm like a bonfire is warm, always making him gauge how close to get.
He wasn’t sure if he’d fallen in love with her or her manicured guise — either way, he’d fallen hard. He had also been impressed that her father, Thomas Farnsworth, owned the oldest family investment firm on Wall Street. Marriage hadn’t been what either one expected. Ashley had asked for the divorce and he hadn’t fought it. He had continued to work with Farnsworth, who valued a moneymaking junior partner more than a son-in-law.
Sometimes he missed having her accompany him to charity events — a woman who looked perfect and acted gracious — but other times like this, when she acted imperious and judgmental, he couldn’t stand to be near her.
Ashley poised on the edge of the couch, foot pumping. She smiled her tight-lipped little way and said, “I’ve been promoted to head the International Division of Lightner Advertising.”
“That’s wonderful,” he said, and he meant it. Even during their marriage, she’d always wanted to prove to her father that she could be a “Farnsworth” type of businessperson.
Her smile turned serious. “My promotion means I’ll be traveling most of the time. I’m opening an office in London. William will have to stay with you all summer, at least.”
“No problem, he’s enrolled in summer camp.”
William cut him an alarmed glance.
Ashley’s lips formed her I’m-so-sorry-smile.
“I have one more bit of news about your son.”
William was her son when he did something she could brag about. Justin braced himself.
The boy’s thumbs stopped tapping.
Ashley leaned forward as if the empty Hall had ears. It was not unlike the first time they’d kissed, she moving in with a determined, now in retrospect, conquering expression on her face, lips parting. But this time instead of the thrill of a mouth to explore, she spoke. “Your son has been expelled from Collegiate!”
“Expelled?” He looked at William. The boy stared across the hall at a massive fireplace.
“And from the school’s summer camp!”
“He made a bomb.”
Justin turned to the boy. “A bomb?”
William retreated to the video game.
Ashley continued, “The headmaster evacuated the school and called the police. A SWAT team and bomb disposal squad swooped down upon them. William was accused and expelled. It will be so embarrassing for me.”
“I can’t take him,” Justin said.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m going to Cora in the morning.”
Her laugh became hysterical. “Don’t tell me you’re going to break your promise never to go back? Your father won.”
“My father died.”
“Oh! I can picture it now. The grieving son.” She laughed again. “There must be money involved.”
He felt his jaw twitch.
“William will enjoy seeing where you grew up.” She looked at her watch and stood up. “If I don’t hurry, I’ll be late for my mani-pedi. I’ll have to drop William off at my place so he can pack. Juanita will take him to your condo. He’ll be there when you get home from the party tonight. See you there.”
No doubt about it, the woman had bitch down to an art. Worst of all, she always got what she wanted. He might as well have not been in the conversation. He sat there like a fool watching her march out of Harvard Hall with William in tow.
Much later that night, Justin opened his eyes and stared into a void as black as the inside of a buried casket. He listened to his ragged breathing and the distant wail of a siren as he struggled to quell his rising panic at not being sure where he was.
There was a burst of red light. He tried to discern anything solid to anchor himself to reality. The light went out and his world plunged into black. Three seconds later, the light flooded back. A reddish glow and then a black void, on and off, red and black, black and red, a rhythm that matched his heartbeat.
His eyes began to focus.
A beam of light burst through a gap in closed drapes. He made out the corner of a ceiling and a dresser. A fractured face stared at him — a grotesque Dali print. This was no place that he knew, had ever known.
The room dropped into a black void that conjured up voices from the past, each a strand of a spider’s silk sticking to him until he was trapped in its web, about to be dragged back to that god-forsaken place.
Seconds later, another spurt of light revealed tangled clothes strewn across the floor — a tuxedo shirt, bow tie, pants, and, near the door, a woman’s black thong tangled in a high heeled shoe.
During the next blackout, splintered memories flooded his mind. His mother’s eyes staring at him through a hole she’d wiped in the frost on the window above the kitchen sink. Her disappearing. The shed. His father.
Relief and regret pulsed with the reddish neon glow blinking outside the window, feeding his loneliness.
The next beam of light revealed a bed sheet crumpled against the footboard. Next to him, a woman lay on her back, snoring softly. Her lips quivered as she exhaled night breath. The neon glow made her red hair look black. Pyramid-shaped nipples topped cantaloupe-hard breasts. He wondered what they had looked like before surgery.
He inhaled her scent, a blend of dried sweat and stale perfume. As with all the others, even Ashley, he knew, maybe had always known something was wrong, that she was wrong, that she smelled wrong, that she moved wrong and tasted wrong. He could never stop comparing the way it was with other women to the way it had been with his first love, but perhaps she had become a fantasy created by a long-ago memory.
The woman’s snoring grew louder. He could not remember her name. He struggled to gather the right facts. This afternoon Ashley had chained an anchor to his leg, a burden he would have to drag with him tomorrow when he returned to his childhood home — if home was the right word. And then, at the MOMA charity dinner, Ashley had introduced him to this woman. He shook his head now at the irony of it all. After all these years, the marriage, the child, everything, he hadn’t a clue as to what ran Ashley’s chilly heart.
He now remembered he had called the woman “Red.” She hadn’t objected. He didn’t want to know her real name, didn’t want to go through the pretense of exchanging cell numbers, didn’t want to play the two-faced game of saying it had been great, he’d call soon. He wanted to flee.
He slipped out of bed, picked up his clothes, dressed and then tiptoed out the door. He took the elevator down to the lobby and pushed through the door into cold air laced with a faint sewer stench. Steam rose from sidewalk grates, lost souls rising into the night.
He walked through shadows, heels striking a sharp sound that echoed hollow from brick walls. He turned the corner into the pulsing neon light. He looked at an electric billboard mounted high on the wall of a Salvation Army building that hummed: JESUS SAVES.
He watched the sign blink on and off: JESUS SAVES. JESUS SAVES.
He stared at Red’s seventh floor window and then at the pulsing sign. He felt lonelier than ever before. He touched the river stone in his pocket.
Washed by the blood red light, he spread his arms wide as if nailed to a cross, lowered his head and prayed — something he didn’t do often. He waited. Nothing.
He glanced at his watch — nearly two in the morning. He had to get back to the condo, where his son would still be up, playing his damned computer games. He needed to get the boy to bed, pack their suitcases and then try to get some sleep. He ran his fingers through his hair, not sure why he’d chosen this night to do this, this night before going back to where it had begun. He pulled up his collar, jammed his hands in his pockets and shuffled through an empty night.
Copyright 2011, JB Winsor
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