“I want to speak to the bank’s CEO,” the newcomer says in an aggressive tone. His protruding chest is a posture that shows exasperation and defiance.
“Good morning, sir. Mr. McGovern is in a meeting out of the bank. He won’t be back until around ten-thirty.”
“I’ll wait for him here then, and I hope you’ve spoken the truth,” says the stout, suntanned man. He has a large forehead and is of below-average height, but still has harmonic features.
“Did you schedule a meeting with him? I’m his secretary and I’m seeing no appointments.”
“No, I just came here, and I want to talk to him,” he says sharply.
“If you can tell me more about the nature of your matter, maybe another person could help you.”
“I’m not leaving here until I speak to McGovern,” he decisively replies.
“Okay then, sit down. Can I offer you a glass of water, a cup of coffee?”
Sullenly, he says, “I want nothing.”
Grace types on her computer. ‘Brenda, I think we have a problem here. A furious person is waiting for Mr. McGovern. Tell security and call Mr. McGovern to warn him.’
‘Isn’t Humphrey, the security guy, there?’ Brenda replies online.
‘He’s stepping out of the elevator now.’
Brenda calls Omar McGovern.
“I’ll be a little late,” he says. “But Elena will arrive soon. Don’t let him talk to her. Her pregnancy has become turbulent and she’s already suffered many strong emotions lately, so it’s better to spare her. See if Ralph can meet his needs.”
Omar enters a classically styled nine-story building with huge rose marble lobbies and Corinthian columns in a darker pink tone. It’s a place where only wealthy investors come, looking for a satisfying return on their money. He’s a handsome man with social empathy, who in his business life rarely shows anger or anxiety, has problem-solving abilities, is a straightforward, firm negotiator and a control freak. As he ascends to the ninth floor of the McGovern Bank, his figure impresses. Framed by the strong light of the elevator, his athletic bearing, and the perfect design of his face stands out.
“Good morning!” he says as he strides toward the door of his office and opens it. When he places his jacket on the chair, he realizes he isn’t alone. Grace and a man he doesn’t know have followed him in.
“Mr. McGovern, this is…” Grace says, looking inquisitively at the man.
“Jeff Murray,” the man says with affectation.
“Mr. Murray’s been waiting to talk to you for quite some time.”
“Did we schedule something with Mr. Murray, Grace?”
“Sit down, Mr. Murray. How can I help you?”
“I didn’t come here to be helped, but to help you. To make that happen, you need to refund me the money I lost on your awkward investments,” he states, and in his voice one can read a personal antagonism.
“How long have you been a client?”
“A year. You’ll ask if I also made some money during this year. Yes, I did. But the loss I had last month outweighed past earnings. I deposited and invested here the value of the stock I had in other banks and the value of a fifty-foot yacht I sold. I am a man of the sea. I put my money in safe investments because I don’t want to have to worry about them.”
“I understand, Mr. Murray. But the stock market is volatile. We invest the money entrusted to us in companies with only the best profit-to-risk ratios. However, sudden political changes in some countries recently surprised the markets. This bank and many others, and several investment firms as well, also lost. We intend to reverse these losses, but it will require time,” Omar says, relying on commercial logic.
“McGovern, time also means money.” This is a man with a definite purpose – he wants to intimidate and confront Omar McGovern. He’s prepared his offensive for the last four months, and the current market instability gave him his awaited opportunity.
“I know, Mr. Murray.”
“I’ll tell you one more thing before I leave, McGovern. I want my principal deposited back into my checking account within a month. I’m threatening you with something worse than death, which is the destruction of all your businesses, including those of your family in Saudi Arabia. Your family has secrets, and the price of me not revealing them will be an additional fifty percent of the assets you consider yours. Think carefully, and keep in mind that it could be worse.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Murray.”
“Have a good day, Mr. McGovern, and consult your oracles.”
He gets up and leaves.
It was a more aggressive than elucidating discussion. Omar is left with little more than a strong distaste for this client.
What does this man know that I don’t know? He must be bluffing. Well-designed contracts always precede investments and make clear the risks that the money applied runs. Why did he mention my family?
“Grace, see if Ralph can come in here,” I say as I press the intercom button.
After a brief knock, the door opens and Ralph Sanders, the COO of the MGB, enters.
“Ralph, I want you to help me understand a puzzle.”
“You look dismayed.”
“I received an intriguing threat, because of those losses with VVPO.”
“A death threat?”
“No, those I’m used to. A threat of pecuniary loss and bankruptcy.”
“Based on what?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Just a bluff, McGovern.”
“Do you know the man? One Murray, Jeff Murray.”
“I’ve talked to him a few times over the phone. He struck me as a balanced person.”
“This isn’t good. Send me all the information we have about him. Prioritize this, please, Ralph, and say nothing to anyone. I don’t want to worry Elena or my father.”
There’s a light knock on the door, and the face of a beautiful woman, with bright, intense blue eyes that look like two immense sapphires and long silky dark brown hair, appears in the slightly ajar door.
“Just arrived, Omar. Good morning, Ralph.” The door is immediately closed.
“Good morning, Elena,” Ralph replies to the closed door. “She’s quick. Well, I’ll assign someone to collect and send the information you requested,” Ralph says on his way out.
Just before lunchtime, I receive a message from Murray, “I’ve checked my account. You didn’t act according to my instructions. You now have twenty-nine days and twenty-two hours.”
I examine Jeff Murray’s data. There isn’t much more than numbers. I call an investigation agency I trust and forward them Murray’s data.
“My main interest is a report on his private life, and an overview of his friends and contacts. His businesses details I have here in front of me.”
“All right, Mr. McGovern,” says Fleck, the agency’s owner.
“As soon as possible, please, Fleck.”
“As usual, Mr. McGovern.”
My intercom rings. “Yes, Grace?”
“Elena wants to know if you want to have lunch with her now.”
“It’s not a good time. Tell her I have a business lunch. After she leaves, please order something for me to eat in the office.”
I have to think a little more about all this, and if we have lunch together, she’ll notice my concern.
Late in the afternoon, Mark, my driver, takes us to the penthouse.
Elena tells me details of her meeting with Mira, the two-year-old girl we’re adopting. The adoption procedure, however, isn’t yet complete, so we visit her often at the treatment home for children with cancer, which I support. Child Protective Services registered her as an orphan and her condition was initially worrisome, but the doctors reversed it. We want her to get used to us and to feel comforted by our visits. We visit her on a weekly basis and whenever possible, Elena also visits her mid-week.
“She asked me about my tummy, Omar. I said there was a baby in there.”
“Did she like the idea?”
This is the only sentence I utter all the way. Murray and his threats don’t leave my thoughts, and nor does the unfortunate moment in which I chose those shares. Murray used the right tactics, the unknown and the ambiguous, and captured my soul. ‘Nothing can be worse than what you imagine.’
“She said nothing. Do you think she felt threatened? There are things I can’t tell her. A child of her age doesn’t understand time well. I can’t say that she’ll live with us in a future that I know will happen, but not when.”
We arrive at the immense penthouse of the Vasoy Belgravia Hotel, where we live. The McGovern Bank – MGB – financed its construction and I personally am one of the main shareholders of the venture and its management. It has a spectacular view of London, and was architected according to a project I approved and decorated to my needs and tastes. All hotel services are at our disposal.
I used to use the penthouse as just a place to spend a few hours a day, a place to sleep. I didn’t call it ‘home’ until Elena and her colorful vitality moved in with me. Since then, my life has turned upside down. Friends go in and out, my parents come once in a while from Riyadh to visit us, Elena’s parents moved to an apartment near us and are always around, we’re expecting our first son, Louis, and Mira’s legal adoption will soon be completed. Finally, and most importantly, we got married. We’re looking for a nanny and a general services woman… And now the penthouse has become a home.
Elena asks me, “Any problems? You had your head in the clouds all the way here.”
“Nothing but ordinary problems. But today I’ll have two Scotches to relax.” I end up having three.
When I check my phone the next day, I find two messages signed by Murray, “You haven’t made the required deposit. You are losing precious time.” A later one reads, “I’m preparing myself to take over your chair.”
I ask Ralph to replace me at my morning appointment and cancel those in the afternoon. I’m not in the mood for business conversations, especially those that aren’t urgent. Jeff Murray must be insane, but I feel a bitterness and have a lump in my throat. I’m depressed by the London and New York MGBs’ clients’ losses. The clients of the Arab MGBs suffered no losses because my father, the head of the corporation, didn’t believe in those shares and he was right. Profit and loss in this unstable market are common, and it’s not the first time we’ve lost, but this time I blame myself.
I get a call from the investigative agency.
“Mr. McGovern, we just emailed you our first report on Mr. Murray.”
“Okay, I’ll read it and tell you if I need more information.”
Murray seems to be a person who moves around everywhere. He’s always present at dinners, charity parties, and worldly meetings. He’s the co-author of a couple of travel books which he wrote as a hobby and were successful. But his main business is as a boat dealer. I observe that he has many contacts among media people. This is surely the instrument he’d use against me, but what could his threat be based on?
According to the agency, none of his activities relate to the Arab world. Another piece of information says he’s turned up in some messy business dealings that weren’t exactly honest, but the authorities never pressed charges against him.
He must have threatened people as he did with me, I think.
Grace knocks at my door with a small envelope in her hand. “A strange mailing, Mr. McGovern. It came in with the usual office correspondence, but it’s addressed specifically to you, and the word ‘personal’ is outlined on the envelope. It doesn’t indicate who the sender is.” She lays it on my desk and leaves, closing the door behind her.
I open the envelope, to find an unsigned handwritten note.
“This is to remind you that the day of settling our scores is near. You denied me the means to develop my business. My knowledge of the atrocious facts will be impossible to restrain. Your family’s comfortable and harmonious life will soon end. James will have to face justice for the young girl’s life. Every life is precious, and he took hers. The time will come he may pay for it with his own. Saudi Arabian justice can be merciless with murderers. Suffer with the uncertainty until the facts to come to light, if you must. I’m not in a rush.”
I closely scrutinize the envelope. It was posted near the bank, in Victoria Street. What does it mean? Is it just Murray feeding his shadow? This is a vague and absurd threat. I’ll let keep it to myself rather than worry my father for no good reason which must be the sender’s aim.
A moment before leaving, I receive another message. “You have a beautiful family. It’s a pity you aren’t at all concerned about them. Murray.”
At home I again overdo the Scotch. I want to get anesthetized and forget the threat that torments me. My father always considered me too tough and business-driven, but since Murray’s visit my mind only whirls around the threat I received. I know however that in my line of business, I have to accept customers’ quirks without sentimentality. What I should to do is report Murray’s extortion attempt to the police. That’s not normally my way of facing my problems, as my style is that of a negotiator. But he’s exceeding my limits. That note in the envelope sounded strange. It was a threat to subject my father to Saudi justice for the murder of a girl. But these things are incompatible. Besides, I know my father, and it’s totally absurd.
My father is English, but my mother’s family is Saudi and has friendly connections to the royal family. I’ve received many threats and suffered more than one kidnapping. Elena and I have already found ourselves on the verge of being killed by terrorists and gangsters, but I was never so obsessed with a threat as I am now. When the Albanian Mafia kidnapped Elena, a former MI6 agent, I worried about her, but I could act in her defense. I translated my concern into concrete actions and followed her clues through various countries. I found her and released her. Now I don’t even know what Murray’s threat is. And that other threat concerning a girl’s death? Is it Murray trying to create more conflict for me, or is it someone else? Could becoming a father have awakened in me a greater sense of responsibility and family preservation?
“What’s happening with you, Omar?” Elena questions me.
“You’re not sleeping well, you have a problem and don’t want to tell me about it, you’re introspective, and you’re drinking too much. You aren’t like that. I know it must be either something about business, or something very personal. That last possibility frightens me.”
I giggle and say, “Nothing to worry about there, girl.” Why do both threats involve my family? I’ve lived this kind of nightmare before, but I always knew the ‘who’ and ‘why’. Religious fundamentalists and terrorists have always threatened us because, as bankers, we deal with other people’s money. But this isn’t the case with Murray. The note’s content makes me believe that its author had previous contact with the bank. Maybe we denied him or her a loan. I’m sure I’m not covering all the possibilities in either case. We’ll surely have to strengthen our security.
I go to the office of our apartment and check the contents of the safe. Here I keep money, documents, Elena’s special undergarments that I occasionally ask her to use in our bedroom, and two guns. They’re her guns. The former agent keeps some souvenirs. I take one of them and check to see if it’s loaded. Elena enters the office.
“Omar, what do you want with this gun? This one is loaded, don’t touch it. Play with the other one,” she says to tease me. She loves teasing me.
“I’m not playing, Elena. I’m just checking. And stop being my shadow. If we need to defend ourselves, I have to know which one to use.”
“Why would we need to defend ourselves, Omar, and against whom?”
“No one, Elena, no one,” I say, with a deep breath. I place the gun back inside, close the safe, and go to the sitting room to have another Scotch. What do these people really want from me? What are they planning?
Elena follows me. “Omar, I know you’re anxious about something and you don’t want to tell me, or you can’t. You’re too grumpy, jumpy, and at the bank people are commenting. You’re drinking too much, a thing you never did. I’ve noticed you walking through the house at night, you look like a zombie. I’ll no longer ask you to tell me what it is, but I’ll ask something else. Go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Go to Dr. Chandler, whom you know. You don’t have to tell him anything you don’t want to, just tell him about how you’re feeling and reacting to events. You don’t have to face it all alone. Sometimes a simple anxiety control medication can help you see the world differently.”
“My problem has nothing to do with Dr. Chandler.”
I get upset and my heartbeat accelerates and pumps more blood to my face. Nobody leaves me alone. They don’t understand how I feel. I don’t care that much about the big investors, but I care about the little ones. We’ve been delivering good results, and many bank employees have invested their meager savings in the bank. I can’t put up with myself lately, and Murray further stresses me every day. Now there’s that note threatening my father with a law suit. Wherever I turn, I see the dark shape of a sword pointed at my head.
I feel like throwing up, so I go to the bathroom. Then I lock the door, look at myself in the mirror, and punch it several times. I punch it and punch it until I smash it to small pieces. I go into the shower stall, flatten my hands against the wall, and fully dressed turn on the shower. A thread of blood coming from my right hand mixes with the water and goes down the drain. I hear Elena knocking on the locked door. The trained ex-agent knows some tricks, and she opens it.
Fully dressed as well, she enters the stall, too, and hugs me from behind. I turn to face her and hug her back. My abdomen feels the bulge in her belly, which is Louis inside her. I don’t want him to sense his father like this. Unaware of all my worries, Elena thinks I’m just feeling cornered.
“I’ll go to Chandler if it makes you happy, bunny.” My problems are real, not psychological. Nevertheless, I want to appease her.
“Can I go too? He won’t say anything about your conversation, but he’ll calm me down. You’re scaring me, and you know I don’t get scared easily.”
Only Elena knows my deep essence, but I cannot share this intense discomfort.
“Of course. I’ll call him tomorrow. Do we have a painkiller for a headache and something for nausea?”
“Yes, we do, but you’ll take the pills with water and I’ll bandage your hand.”
Chandler sees us the next day during his lunch hour. We show up in his waiting room together. I talk with him for half an hour, and then he asks Elena to come in.
“Elena, Omar’s blood pressure is high. He should see a cardiologist, who will certainly recommend him an electrocardiogram. But no matter how the clinical results turn out, there’s the psychological aspect as well. I’d like the three of us to talk and reach an agreement on the best treatment for him.”
“I want to do what’s best for him.”
“I’ll get right to the point. Omar is having a nervous breakdown. He’s chastising himself for not being a superman,” he laughs. “He worried a lot about you when the mobsters kidnapped you, and it was a long kidnapping that emotionally exhausted him. Now he has business problems that have caught him at his most vulnerable and triggered a mental health crisis.”
“The signs of a nervous breakdown include feelings of depression, anxiety or being overwhelmed, mood swings and emotional outbursts, declining performance at work, missing responsibilities and appointments, and using unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as angry outbursts or drinking to excess. Lack of sleep is the most predictive of mental stress, especially severe stress. It leads to depression and a lack of emotional reserves for even common daily stresses and its restoration is a centerpiece of our therapy.”
“Sleep is the most natural way for the human body and mind to find peace and recovery. In the sleep process, there are stages to achieve to restore the mind and body. Stages 3 (N3) and 4 (REM) are the times in which your physical components get repaired. Your immune system, such as your white blood cells, gets highly active. If you can’t reach the REM stage, you can develop severe stress issues because your brain cannot adapt to new informational input. Alcohol inhibits this process.”
“So what should we do?”
“Omar wants a treatment with fast results. The human mind is unpredictable, but I’ll give you the options and you can decide which to follow. My proposal is for him to stay at a clinic for DST — deep sleep therapy — for a minimum of seventy-two hours, and then get away from business and from London alone. Preferably, seek contact with Nature and choose the surroundings of a peaceful small town. Initially, this time alone would be for a week. Then, stay there for two more weeks, during which time you may have someone’s company, such as you, Elena. Take a vacation. My option B is medication and group therapy, but I don’t know for how long and there would probably be only slow improvement.”
“I prefer option B,” I say, knowing I wouldn’t find time for group therapy.
“I prefer option A,” Elena says.
We stare at each other.
“I can’t leave the bank now, in the middle of this turmoil,” I protest.
“I’m looking at the bigger picture, and with more lucidity,” she says. “Louis and I need you back soon, Omar, and the MGB too. You can’t imagine how you’re behaving. I know what you’ve been through. Remember that no hero leaves a battlefield unscathed, and you’re no different. You acted like a hero when I needed it, but now I don’t need a hero, I need a husband. You’re super-sensitive and if you keep drinking like that, you’ll turn into an alcoholic, and that I could not bear.”
“Please, Elena, don’t threaten me. I’m already being threatened, and I’m not dealing well with it. I already said more than I intended to, so don’t ask me for more details.”
“Come on, baby. How about sleeping for three days and nights, traveling to a village in Spain at the confluence of several small cities we’d like to visit, and doing a little tourism along with the therapy, just the two of us?”
“This seems very radical, to immerse myself for so long in the dark and unknown. Chandler, could she be by my side when I enter the clinic and when I wake up?”
“Yes. And it’s only three days.”
“Could Elena and I talk on the phone every night or whenever I feel anxious or have chest tightness during this week I’ll be alone?”
“No problem. Also, you know the Spanish women are exquisite,” he says, gazing teasingly at Elena.
“You can be sure I’ll keep you under control,” she retorts.
“And all this time without talking about business, okay? That’s more important than sightseeing,” Chandler adds.
“I agree,” Elena says.
“Give me a few hours to think about it. I’ll call you this evening with an answer, Doctor.”
When I arrive in my office there’s a message from Murray to me, “FYI I’m drawing up a new leadership hierarchy for the MGB.” A photo of my parents is attached to it. The photo is torn, with the rip separating them. My brow furrows and I punch my desk. The water glass on it tips over, splashing liquid onto the carpet and scattering shards of crystal. I breathe heavily and try to restrain my anger.
At home I say, “Okay then. It’ll be a challenge, but I agree. I’ll call Chandler. Don’t tell anyone, Elena. I’d seem to be defenseless and my macho ego doesn’t like that idea. This includes my parents and yours. Now I have to consider how the MGB will be administered.” My intention is to cool down, get my nerves under control, and file a lawsuit against Murray while he still feels he has power. Meanwhile, Fleck will investigate the source of the power he thinks he has over me. Finally uncovering the core of the matter will make my steps easier.
“You’re the one who dictates the rules, Omar. Bringing Elliot from New York to work in London would call attention, something you want to avoid. For the first ten days, you can sketch out a way for Ralph to run the bank and share responsibilities with me if he feel overburdened. I’d be at his disposal to exchange ideas and help make decisions. Then when I travel to join you, it’ll all be up to him for those two weeks. He should never contact you. If in doubt, instruct him to first consult Elliot in New York and, as a last resort, your father in Riyadh. Help him by making a convincing excuse to explain your absence. About the threat you received, I can’t comment, but you can’t throw everything in the trash because of some bastard. For that circumstance, tell Ralph to ask for more time if necessary.”
Two days later at ten in the evening, we arrive at the clinic. I change into comfortable pajamas.
“If anything of great importance comes up, ask them to wake me up, Elena.”
“Aren’t you here to tame your superman mania?”
“It worked when I saved you, superwoman.”
We sit on the couch, and she curls into me while we wait for Dr. Chandler.
“Don’t overdo it, little girl. Take good care of Louis.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
A subtle knock on the door, and then Dr. Chandler and a nurse come in. “Hello, you two. We’ll attach the electrodes now for capturing and recording your neural signals, and some tubes too, Omar. Elena, leave the room for a few minutes. Go get a cup of coffee.”
To enter a black tunnel for seventy-two hours is a challenging situation. It triggers different sensations, fantasies, boredom, anxiety, and an indescribable need to slip away from it. Do I really have to put up with this shit? But I want my life back, so I need to restore my peace of mind and then face my tormentor’s moral quagmire.
Ten minutes later, Elena comes back.
“We were waiting for you before administering the sedatives.”
“A kiss, bunny. See you in three days.”
“I’ll come to check on you twice a day, baby.”
We kiss as a serum with numbing chemistry spreads through my blood. Dr. Chandler and the nurse leave the room. It’s just the two of us. I tightly hold her hand. In a few minutes I feel my hand relax. The last words I hear are, “Get well, baby. I want my naughty man back again soon.”