HARRISON STUMBLED INTO CENTRAL PARK CLUTCHING THE SILVER BRIEFCASE, HIS BODY SHAKING FROM BEING HUNTED. Clouds clogged the sky. The trees seemed like towering creatures . He turned around to see the man in the Humphrey Bogart mask running toward the entrance, a gun bulging from the guy ’ s inside pocket. The man ’ s cold eyes scanned the park, then zero ed in. Harrison took off down a dirt path until he was alone with only the wind ringing in his ears.
He wanted to collapse; he begged him self to just give in. Nature would destroy him soon anyway, and his shins were starting to feel like they ’ d been repeatedly stabbed. He coughed up an excess of blood and mucus that spilled down a rock. Now he ’ d gone so far down the trail that he couldn ’ t s ee where he entered. The sound of footsteps came from all directions. A distorted laugh caused all the nearby pigeons to shoot toward the sky. The laugh was followed by an eerie whistle that became louder and louder as he spun around , expecting to see his pursuer.
A shadow passed behind a tree, bigger than any animal. He propped himself up against a rock, too exhausted to move any farther, closing his eyes and waiting to die. He could see tomorrow ’ s headlines declaring his death as a mugging gone wrong.
“ Gracie, ” he cried, trembling. “ Brent, my boy … oh God. ”
He had pissed himself now, the urine hot and sticky as it trickled down his pants leg. He still held the silver briefcase
close to his chest, resolving not to let it go without a f ight.
The man in the Bogart mask emerged from behind a tree holding a gun.
“ Just hand it over, Mr. Stockton, ” the man said. The voice box attached to his mouth made him sound robotic, weirdly calm. “ You don ’ t want this to get any more complicated than it already has. ”
The man made a grab for the briefcase, but Harrison held on tight.
“ You ’ ll kill me anyway, ” Harr ison yelled, spooking any pigeons that hadn ’ t already flown away.
“ Only if you force me to do so. ”
The man kicked Harrison in the shin, causing him to nearly buckle over. Harrison was thrown to the ground, the man pinning him down. He still managed to hol d onto the briefcase as if it was fused to his hand.
“ The b oss doesn ’ t know about what you ’ ve done yet, ” the man said, hitting Harrison ’ s head against the hard dirt. “ Do you understand what that means? That means you can still live. And he ’ ll never find out as long as we get what we ’ re owed. ”
“ Why would you do that for me? ” he asked, seeing four masked men spinning around.
The man stepped back and pointed the gun between Harrison ’ s eyes.
“ The b oss doesn ’ t like when things don ’ t go according to plan. I could be in as much trouble as you for letting this slip - up happen. So let ’ s make this easy for both of us. ”
Harrison got on one elbow and hoisted himself up.
“ Do I have your word? ”
The man nodded.
“ And my family? My wife … my kids? I wouldn ’ t have to worry about them being hurt? ”
“ As much as you might think that you are our sole concern, we have an entire organization to run beyond your pitiful life. Now I will count to ten and if you don ’ t hand over the briefcase, I ’ ll put a bullet between your eyes. ”
Harrison thought about what his life had really amounted to. All the hours he ’ d slaved at Sanford & Co., making rich people boatloads richer. Getting into the office before dawn and often heading home in the middle of the night. Sacri ficing his family, his youth, his sanity. How it had made him into a drinker, a serial gorger of all vices, just so he could forget about what he was losing. After all of that, what did he have left to show?
“… eight … nine … ten , ” the man said, about to pull the trigger.
“ All right, all right. ”
Harrison handed over the briefcase. The man opened it up and appeared to be satisfied, a smirk visible through his mask.
“ I ’ ll leave you with this nugget of wisdom, ” he said, w ithout putting the gun away. “ If what you did manages to compromise us in any way, if there are any rippl es, be prepared to come across the b oss. He ’ s known to wear a Clark Gable mask. ” The man ’ s smirk had disappeared. “ He only appears when he ’ s ready to bloody his hands. Good day, Mr. Stockton. ”
“ Who are you people? Under the masks , who are you really? ”
The man raised the gun over Harrison ’ s head.
“ I doubt you ’ ll ever find out, ” he said, and struck Harrison on the forehead with the handle.
A trickle of blood spilled down Harrison ’ s nose and felt cold on his tongue. He slunk down and rested his cheek against the dirt, watching the man in the mask take off through the trees, the s ilver briefcase shining like a beam of light snaking through the leaves. And then the man finally disappeared — as if he was nothing more than a nightmare brought to life and extinguished once the fitful dreamer finally woke.
Harrison pressed against his rib cage and felt for his engorged liver. Cursed at it. Wanted to tear it from his stomach. He ’ d been poisoned from within for too long, his unending punishment for all of his crimes. Blood zigzagged
into his eyes as the wound on his forehead opened up even m ore. With his other hand he reached into his pocket and removed his wallet. A thin metallic card fell from out of a sleeve and sat in a puddle of blood that had collected in the dirt.
THE DESIRE CARD
Any wish fulfilled for the right price.
PRESS below to inquire.
He crumpled it up in his fist since it was responsible for letting these psychopaths into his life. He knew he ’ d never feel completely settled again, always worried that they might come after him and his family. The Desire Card had cause d him to seek out gruesome and despicable wishes. From the instant this devil ’ s temptation had been placed in his hands, his moral compass never stood a chance. So he chucked it into the air and watched it sail over the rocks for some other fool to find.
“ I ’ m sorry, Helene, ” he mumbled to the wind. He knew he ’ d have to come clean about everything. His head throbbed, and he recalled a memory from twenty - five years ago. Spying her in the quad at Chilton College drinking a cherry Coke, tan and shapely from f ield hockey, the entire campus becoming muted except for her. He took a chance by flirting miserably and changing the course of their lives.
She would ’ ve been better off if they had never met. In such a short amount of time, he ’ d fallen so far. Now becaus e of him , people had been sliced up, left for dead, and soon he ’ d follow them to his own grave. As he drifted off into unconsciousness, he remembered that it all began to spiral out of control on his last day at Sanford & Co. over a month ago, this treacherous path he embarked on, his dark and dried - up destiny.
Pa rt I
HARRISON SAT OUTSIDE THE OFFICE OF THE MANAGING DIRECTOR AWAITING HIS FATE. The end of the month meant slash - and - burn time, but he had successfully avoided the axe for twelve months now. Something told him this wasn ’ t going to be lucky number thirteen. After almost twenty years of dedication, he swore he wouldn ’ t beg, wouldn ’ t give that fucker Thom Bartlett any satisfaction in letting him go. Thom, with his faux British accent even though he lived in the U S since h e was two, his nose up the CEO ’ s ass at every chance, his chastising of Harrison ’ s “ extracurricular activities, ” even though Thom was guilty of similar vices. Harrison stared at this fucker ’ s door, as if by monitoring he could will it to stay close d and ensure that he ’ d forever remain a part of Sanford & Co. ’ s Mergers and Acquisitions team.
A sharp pain in his abdomen caused him to pitch forward. His stomach churned as a flood of bile crept up his throat. Thom ’ s door now appeared so out of focus th at for a second Harrison forgot where he was.
“ Bad lunch? ” his buddy Whit whispered, from a nearby seat.
Thom ’ s ancient secretary glanced up at them from her fury of typing and went back to punishing the keys.
Harrison clutched his stomach and let out a stifled belch. The air now smelled like he ’ d been dining on garbage. His chronic halitosis had only been getting worse. He could barely recall the last time he ’ d kissed Helene like when they were young with an appetite to devour. At most he received a peck
while she held her breath. It ’ s not like her body hadn ’ t also changed, and yet he still found her a knockout: whip - smart and sophisticated, alluring whenever she was in deep thought and chewed on the earpiece of her reading glasses. Only once had he participated in a particular “ extracurricular activity ” outside of their marriage. It was something he instantly regretted — but she had been treating him like a pariah in the bedroom for almost a year, and he found himself in the arms of another. So now he let her give those little digs about his hygiene, one of the small pleasures she seemed to have during the scant few hours a day when he was home.
Whit seemed to inch his chair away from Harrison ’ s death burp and occupied himself with the new Breitling ha nging from his wrist. Here the two were about to be sliced up and gutted and Whit had spent last weekend dropping ten K on a watch. Sure Harrison indulged in more luxuries than most and hated his old Tag enough to go splurging, but unlike Whit, he had t wo kids in uptown private schools to worry about.
“ Drinks at Mobeley ’ s later tonight? ” Whit asked, placing his hand on Harrison ’ s shoulder. “ Whatever the outcome of this summons might be? ”
Harrison nodded with tired eyes.
“ You ’ re a VP here, Harry. Higher up on the rung than me. You ’ ve got a better chance of surviving. ”
Whit ’ s hand still massaged Harrison ’ s shoulder, but his encouragement was not convincing. He had probably expected a similar consoling reply, except the room was spinning too much for Harrison to care.
“ You ’ re not looking well, ” Whit said. Thom ’ s secretary seemed to glance up from her typing again to nod in agreement. The two of them caught each other ’ s eye, as if they were conspiring against him. Well, we couldn ’ t all look like Whit. Just a few years younger but still with a full head of thick black hair only slightly graying at the temples, something that made him appear even more distinguished. Pecs and abs that he never shut up about. A terror on the racquetball courts who slaughter ed Harrison every time. The son of a well - known
surgeon at N Y U Medical with a hot Japanese wife barely out of her twenties whose goal in life was to be at his beck and call. Whit had been made an a ssociate two years earlier than Harrison and was able to maintain a rapport with the higher ups that Harrison could never manage: calling the CEO Dougie to his face instead of Mr. Sanford and still having a job the next day.
The secretary picked up the ph one on her desk while still typing away.
“ Certainly, Mr. Bartlett, ” she chirped into the receiver, then turned her disapproving gaze to Harrison. “ Mr. Bartlett will see you now, Mr. Stockton. ”
Harrison gathered up his briefcase and overcoat. He had to hold onto the seat as he stood, his feet pivoting and almost sending him to the ground.
“ Gotta watch those martini lunches, ” Whit said, slapping Harrison on the back and pushing him toward his doom.
Harrison put one foot in front of the other slowly, avo iding Thom ’ s inevitable decision for as long as possible.
Even if he wound up being let go today, an outsider looking in might assume that his life was still going well: two decades of marriage, healthy kids, and a fantastic New York apartment , but he felt like he ’ d been going through the motions for too long. A major chunk had been missing, a spark of excitement, adventure, and meaning. He couldn ’ t put his finger on what it was, just that he desperately longed for it to exist.
As he put his hand on the doorknob and turned, he tried to think of what would make him happy, something he wanted more than anything that would cause him to shoot out of bed every morning with a smile.
He squeezed his eyes shut, willing this desired vision to appe ar, but all he saw was darkness.
Who in their right mind didn ’ t covet Thom Bartlett ’ s office? High floor with downtown skyline views, fluffy clouds outside of the windows, a wet bar that Harrison eyed. Some good Scotch had already been opened. Harrison ha d forced himself
to keep sober during a gobbled lunch of an Italian sub without his trusty flask to chase it down. Now his hands trembled at the thought of that Scotch burning his throat.
“ Can I offer you something? ” Thom asked, indicating the bar with a g rand sweep of his arm, as if to say, Y es, I have a bar in my office, which you, dear sir, never had here and regrettably never will.
“ I might as well, ” Harrison coughed, scooting over and pouring two shots ’ worth into a glass. He sat across from Thom and put the comforting drink to his lips.
Thom fiddled with a stack of papers in a folder on his desk. He looked up at Harrison through the thick frames he kept low on his sloping nose, almost touching his top lip.
“ So Sanford & Co. has become swollen lately. We ’ re too big for our own good right now and need to restructure — ”
“ Just spit it out, ” Harrison said, knocking back half the glass of Scotch.
“ I ’ m sorry, Harrison. We ’ re going to have to let you go, effective today. ”
Thom delivered this news while fixing his Windsor knot, which Harrison figured had taken him numerous tries that morning to perfect. Harrison wanted to grab him by that knot and choke his tiny little bird head until it popped off.
“ I ’ ve given practically twenty years to this firm, ” he s aid, running his hands through his thinning hair. “ I sleep here, I eat here. I barely exist at home anymore. ”
“ It ’ s the same for all of us, mate. ”
“ I ’ m not your fucking mate, ” Harrison said, finishing the rest of the Scotch and starting to sway.
“ Old boy, I am not the villain here. Every firm on the Street has been feeling this strain since the economy collapsed. Now we ’ re offering you a solid severance package, which I think is more than generous. I ’ ll also save you the spectacle of having security escor t you out. ”
“ What was Sanford ’ s reason? ” Harrison asked quietly, not wanting to hear the answer but knowing he ’ d be unable to leave without one.
Thom had already started pushing the folder across the
desk, shutting Harrison up, getting this over with. His face looked exhausted from delivering executions.
“ We ’ ve heard from some clients, ” he said, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose.
“ Heard what … ? ”
“ Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately, huh, Harry? ” he asked, his voice rising to the level of an uncomfortable squeal. “ Your skin, mate … sorry, but you ’ re looking rather yellow, and your eyes, well there ’ s this permanent creaminess to them … I ’ m just using the client ’ s words — ”
“ Which client? ”
“ Which one hasn ’ t mentioned this is more like it. ”
Harrison went to respond but now Thom was on a roll.
“ As a VP, this is a face - to - face business. I go for manicures, mate, you think I like it — it ’ s a requirement. Maybe if you cut back on the drink … . ”
“ I ’ ve advised some hu ge mergers here over the years. ” Harrison pointed at Thom with his empty glass. “ I didn ’ t realize this was only a pretty boy ’ s game. ”
“ You ’ ve let some messy pitchbooks slide through recently, as well. ”
“ Shouldn ’ t the analysts be blamed for creating them? ”
“ Don ’ t think they haven ’ t been dealt with, too. ”
“ So maybe I ’ ve gotten lax with a couple of pitchbooks for smaller clients, but never any of the big ones. ”
“ When was the last time you ’ ve been to a doctor, Harry? ”
“ Doctors, ” Harrison said, brushing them all away with a flick of his wrist. He had always believed that no matter what, doctors tried to find something wrong with you so you ’ d give them more business. And yeah, his skin had developed a yellowish hue as of late and s ometimes his gut felt like it was rotting. Varicose veins had multiplied along his thighs and there were moments when he ’ d lose balance and have to dry heave in an empty stall once no one else was around, but he was a professional drinker like his dad had been, and that son of a bitch had put back a liter of gin and a pack of smokes a
day up until the ripe old age of eighty - eight. Hell, who needed to live longer than that anyway? Life could be brutal, and if some booze, smokes , and pills provided a relief from the banality of it all, then screw any doctor who ’ d tell him otherwise.
Thom tapped on the folder to indicate it was time to wrap this up.
“ I have to make sure that you understand what ’ s in the package, ” he said, pushing it closer to Harrison until it practically fell off the desk.
Harrison opened it up and flipped through: six months ’ pay, benefits as well, blah, blah, blah. He closed it and went to throw it in his briefcase.
“ Tut tut, ” Thom said, w agging his finger. “ There ’ s something you missed that Mr. Sanford wanted to make sure you saw. ”
Harrison re opened the folder and spied a card clipped to the first page.
THE DESIRE CARD
Any wish fulfilled for the right price.
PRESS below to inquire.
“ What the hell is a Desire Card? ”
Thom reached over and un clipped the card.
“ You have been a valued employee here. Mr. Sanford wanted to make sure you understood that we ’ re not parting on bad terms. This is what ’ s best for everyone. ”
Thom handed him the card. Harrison turned it over and over with his stubby fingers.
“ It ’ s like … a phone or something too? ”
“ Of sorts, just to keep their network as secure and exclusive as possible. We didn ’ t include this in everyone ’ s package, so you know. This is an organization that Mr. Sanford has a long history with, very hush - hush obviously, very elite. If you want something , any thing , they have the power to make it happen. ”
“ Can they get me my job back? ”
“ Cute, Harrison, don ’ t ever lose that charm. ”
Thom reached over to take the empty glass away.
“ So tonight, Harry, instead of drowning your sorrows in a bottle, give the c ard a try and have them ring you up a girl I guarantee you ’ ll enjoy. Or whatever else you wish. We promise we ’ ll give a glowing rep ort to any future job prospects so consider this the start of a paid vacation. ”
Thom stuck out his hand to shake, the nails manicured, no rogue cuticles to speak of; but the hand was delicate and unassuming, not someone with the power to hold Harrison ’ s li fe in his palm , a meager messenger. Harrison slipped the Desire Card in his pocket and shook Thom ’ s hand, squeezing hard as Thom grimaced.
“ And see a doctor, ” Thom replied, giddy now that this ordeal was over.
“ Watch out, you ’ ll be gutted next, ” H arrison said, rising and feeling his legs give out. He collapsed back into the chair as Thom let out a spurt of a laugh.
“ You all right there, mate? ”
“ Piss on England. ”
Harrison gave standing up another try. He gripped Thom ’ s desk for support. Thom looked worried that Harrison might take the whole desk down with him, but Harrison was doing his best to maintain even though it felt like he was viewing Thom through the wrong end of a telescope.
“ You can go ahead and send Mr. Carmichael in, ” Thom said, fixing his Windsor knot again that had become slightly askew. “ Best to Helene and the children. ”
Harrison slung his coat over his arm and gripped his briefcase as he headed for the door. After a few steps, his vision became cloudier and he could feel the creamy t ears falling from his eyes. They stung his cheeks as he grappled with the doorknob and lurched into the hallway.
In the front office, Whit was leaning over the secretary ’ s desk; the two engaged in hushed words that stopped once Harrison emerged. Harrison ran his finger from one side of his neck to the other. Whit gave him a solemn nod back, but
Harrison couldn ’ t hold it in any longer and puked up the barely digested Scotch.
“ Oh my! ” he heard the secretary say.
He stared at his sickness bubbling o n the floor, a mix of half - chewed capicola and salami in an amber soup with specks of dark red blood throughout, the clots of blood so dark they looked like tar. He wiped his mouth and trudged past all the onlookers toward the elevators outside, glad that a part of him would remain embedded in Sanford & Co. ’ s carpet.
As the elevator arrived and he stepped inside, he wished for the undoing of everyone involved in his termination, knowing that only their collective downfall could get him to shoot out of bed with a smile.