By Robert Downs
Publisher: Black Opal Books
Publication Date: November 17, 2018
Lynette Sommer ends her carefully calculated PowerPoint presentation in the Hancock Tower with a pink slip shoved across her desk and a standing order to vacate the premises immediately.
Richard Lancaster, III, races through The Pru with a tie stuffed down the front of his khakis and an overzealous security guard hot on his trail.
At the Boston Public Library, Carl Razer finds himself in the midst of a manic encounter from a teenage book enthusiast who has let the glitter and glamour of Twilight destroy what is left of his brain cells.
And then it gets progressively worse, as three homegrown terrorists—Matthew, Mark, and John—destroy three vital Boston landmarks—The Hancock Tower, the Pru, and the Boston Public Library—with the drop of a backpack and the flick of a switch…
Lynette Sommer stood before a sea of familiar faces. Male faces. Each one had turned his attention directly toward her. She clicked through the PowerPoint slides, each one culminating, building on the one before it. Most of the eyes were glazed over, or at least turned in the opposite direction. Hunched over bodies covered leather seats. A few yawns filled the crowd. No hands shot up to stop her, but not a soul seemed intrigued by what she had to say. Even her boss, sitting at the head of the table who had seemed to support her and told her she was a star pupil within the firm, seemed to have backed off. Of course, he hadn’t seen her presentation ahead of time. No pre-brief. She had given him some of the finer points and run a few ideas by him before she delved in and sprinted toward the finish.
She still had a dozen slides to go, and more than twenty minutes left in her presentation. The seconds ticked by on a clock at the opposite end of the room.
Cold air pumped through the floor, and she shivered. Lynette gripped the remote in her hand tighter, emphasized a few pertinent points, and then walked to the other side of the screen, careful to avoid the projector light. Her wool skirt rubbed her thighs as she walked. The conference table was long and black, nearly the full size of the room, and the leather chairs swiveled. The men’s eyes focused on empty notepads, or on the reception area behind the glass wall. The glass reflected multiple smartphones.
She didn’t like losing.
She’d lost before: softball games and soccer matches. Lynette left it all on the field, sprinting toward the net or around the bases, her arms like pistons at her sides. She’d always been quick, a natural runner. The track coach had tried to recruit her, after watching her sprint around the soccer field like a tornado searching for land. But her heart lived in fields of green and seas of dirt, square white bags and wide nets, in polyester shorts and shirts.
The faces in front of her now, though, felt dirty, used up. The men cold and dead, lines and creases fully formed on their faces with mouths closed in silent trepidation. The one at the head of the table scrolled through his phone with the flick of his index finger.
She’d practiced the presentation over and over, used a mirror, and whatever else she could think of, as she hit the high points and skirted past the low ones. She’d gone over the finer details of the slides, point by point, with her head held high and her mouth opened wide. Yet, she didn’t feel at ease. Instead, Lynette felt tightly wound, on edge, the carpet nearly catching a heel, her lips nearly numb, and her face almost there as well. The air shot up through the vents and smacked her face with each turn of her heel. She’d given presentations in this conference room for literally four years, and each had gone better than this calamity. She’d seen faces turned up toward her, eager faces, happy, with a smile of encouragement here, or a polite nod there. But not now. Now she felt as though there were seventeen guns pointed in her direction, and all she needed was one itchy trigger finger.
Sweat cascaded down her fingers and smacked the blue carpet. Lynette clicked to the next slide.
“This company is hiding money, plain and simple, gentlemen. It’s cooking the books to deliver consistently successful quarters. Each quarter one to three cents ahead of projections. And it’s fraud. Hidden beneath these numbers is another Enron or Worldcom. A disaster awaiting the right financial auditor. When this one tanks, you don’t want to be floundering for one of the life rafts.”
She’d shown them charts, numbers, and graphs to back up her data. A specific line on Xanthic’s balance sheet and income statement—the same line, in fact—was off each time. She wasn’t sure how anyone could have missed it. It had taken her less than a day to discover the error of Xanthic’s ways. The executives were slick and polished and aided by slippery politicians with fat bank accounts and college mistresses, salesmen who talked one game and delivered another. Instead of running a company, they should have been running for office. Congress. A place where golden parachutes were passed around like umbrellas before a spring rain.
Not being able to account for every dollar bothered her. Having the trail of gold shoved right under her nose made her fists clench and her heart race.
“Thank you, Lynette.”
“But I’m not finished. I have—”
Her boss bowed his head. “You most certainly are.”
He’d seen the tie in a Bergdorf’s catalog. Not this exact same tie but similar. It had a slightly different hue, but the pattern and colors were the same. He’d walked through the Pru looking for the perfect tie, waiting for his wife who was with her friends, and most likely garnering her own slice of turtle cheesecake rather than sharing, her small fork poised over the smattering of whipped cream and caramel. But he couldn’t blame her. Richard Lancaster III had a mouth full of sweet teeth.
His hand stroked the fabric, rubbing it up and down, lovingly like a dog named Bud. Not that he’d ever had a dog named Bud, or even owned a dog for that matter. He was allergic. Damn near blew away his nostrils every time one of those furry beasts pranced next to him, or stuffed its soft face in his crotch. Still, it hadn’t prevented him from petting every dog he saw and sneezing all over both hands and several T-shirts.
He did have trouble staying on point. That’s what his last evaluation had said. He hated his boss, the evil little man with the twitchy eye, a short man with a big personality and a large mole at the end of his nose that always said hello before he did. He might as well have been Rudolph, his boss, although the man probably wasn’t as smart or as surefooted as the furry reindeer. Not as smart as the tie was.
It stared at him, longingly, like some girlfriend he could no longer name. Like some college party he had attended years ago, where the festivities and women and booze ran together to the point that he could no longer separate one from another when he worshiped bikini tops and round bottoms. But he could still dream about drunk girls, keg stands, secondhand smoke, and eyes the size of paper plates from the marijuana intake.
He’d always had trouble with his eyes. He’d needed glasses for what was most of his natural life. That’s what he’d always told people. Bad eyes, bad teeth, and chubby hands. Of course, his candy habit attributed to the bad teeth, or what he liked to refer to as his lack of self-control. When bits of chocolate stained his lips, he thought he’d pass out from the sheer ecstasy of it. That’s what this tie was. Pure ecstasy. Sure, it wasn’t the original version, but it was a damn good second-place finisher, and he had just the spot for it in his closet.
Richard looked over his shoulder and then peered up into the corners. This was supposed to be some mid-range store, and there wasn’t a clerk in sight, except for one behind the counter, but he engaged in some conversation with a chatty gal with a too-wide smile and exaggerated movements that bordered on eccentric. Her clothes further enhanced her eccentricity with loud colors, mismatched between her top and bottom.
Her hands shot out in one direction, and then another, almost as if her arms were no longer a part of her body. She ran her hand through her hair too many times, and she liked to wiggle her ass whenever the mood suited her, which was about every six seconds. She had a nice ass, sure, but she didn’t need to flaunt it like some half-crazed Loony Tune. Her laugh resembled a hyena’s.
He hadn’t been helped. Not at all. And what he could really use right now was assistance and a second opinion. His wife told him he had a problem pulling the trigger. That he just needed to make a decision, instead of dancing around the subject, and analyzing every shopping outcome for fifteen minutes. She wasn’t going to be around for another forty minutes, if memory served him correctly.
Richard didn’t just want the tie: He needed it.
The other clerk remained in the back. He’d wandered in that direction ten minutes ago, doing God knows what. Or maybe the more accurate analogy was to God knows whom. Since a female of undetermined beauty—he couldn’t see her face, although she was another one with a nice rear end—followed him back there about a minute later and neither managed to reappear. She tried to be discreet about it, but she might as well have had a sign floating on top of her head, or some halo painted in black—certainly not a golden one—and held together with Scotch tape. She walked with nothing short of determination, her steps quick and forceful, and she hadn’t bothered to look back. Not once. To get to the back room, she had to walk across the entire store, circumnavigating racks, with other men around herded in small groups of one or two staring at this shirt or that pair of pants. But the herds weren’t there now, probably because neither clerk bothered to do a thing called work, and so they had left while Richard remained. It might as well have been a bar, or some game show called, Spot the Pretty Girl with the Nice Caboose.
Carl Razer had walked up and down these same aisles for five years. Narrow aisles. Some might even say cramped. Books of all sizes lined the shelves. Enough books to last a lifetime, even if you were an avid reader, which he was. He devoured books the way an alcoholic might devour cocktails in one of his weaker moments, with a girl on his arm and a glass in his hand. His hands shook with anticipation, from the sheer number of books and brightly-colored spines, and he pushed his cart in front of him. It, too, was stacked with books, and damn close to overflowing.
The pay wasn’t great (although the hours were), and if it wasn’t for sharing an apartment (or in this case a room the size of a closet in downtown Boston), there was no way he could afford the rent. As it was, Carl was nearly behind, every month. But the joy of books, and the sea of customers—all ages, shapes, sizes, and races—that traipsed through the Boston Public Library made it worthwhile, and made his days run together. Not having a car certainly made things easier. It was a beautiful thing, the freedom. Walking whenever and wherever he wanted, taking the T to Harvard Square or Porter, or out on the Green Line to Brookline. Boston and its immediate suburbs were at his disposal, as long as he had a plan and his Charlie Card.
Boston was one of the few cities left where a person didn’t need to own a car. He’d die in this walkable city, in his hole-in-the-wall apartment, where traffic noise often kept him up at night, or put him to sleep, with honking horns and sirens and screeching tires throughout the night and into the dawn. But at least Boston slept. He’d visited the city that never sleeps, where the bums ran free, and he’d decided it was not meant to be, after some errant field trip for some undetermined amount of time. Boston proved comfortable for him. He’d grown up here, still had a number of high school friends in the area, and he’d even bumped into Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner—not at the same time.
He’d talked about the weather, the Sox, and whatever else crossed his mind for the couple minutes that he was in line. Not until later, after the clerk had a look of surprise painted on his face, did he realize that he had just spoken with a genuine celebrity and one-half of a powerful couple.
That’s who he dealt with now. Another powerful couple. The two had come out of nowhere, all legs and arms and sour expressions, with their heads tilted and their lips moving in unison and their hands jerking in an indeterminate pattern. Their eyes flittered around before settling on Carl, and his books: the cart wheels squeaking, the stack of books wobbling, his grip tightening. The two barreled toward him like two moving trucks in the middle of the downtown tunnel. He barely even had enough time to blink.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, you most certainly can,” the male said. “Where is the Twilight series?”
Carl removed his hands from the cart. “It’s currently checked out. Would you like to add your name to the waiting list?”
“What do you mean it’s checked out? You haven’t even looked it up on the computer.”
“I don’t need to look it up on the computer, sir.” The last word left his lips before he could stop it, even though the kid wasn’t a day over seventeen.
“Don’t call me sir,” the kid said. “Maybe you should check again.”
The girl snickered and then smacked her lips.
“I checked about half an hour ago for another customer,” Carl said.
“Well, I’d like for you to check now.” The kid turned and pointed his hand in every direction but the information desk. “What are you waiting for?”
A million thoughts flowed through Carl’s head. The most prominent of which being that these two should have been in school. That some teacher in some Boston public school missed the two of them, although the tall blond one was probably missed a bit less than the pixie-haired brunette with the full lips.
Richard Lancaster III breathed in and out, deeply, using his diaphragm. He’d learned the breathing technique through a yoga instructor, or ex-girlfriend, or an ex-girlfriend who just happened to be a yoga instructor. He’d stood around, maybe a bit too openly, and certainly a bit less naturally with his shoulders slumped slightly. Despite staring from afar at the tedious mating ritual and hovering ten feet away for approximately five minutes, he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. One clerk was still in the back, probably snogging with the dark-haired girl with the round bottom, and the other one still chatted away with a nonpaying customer like it was open mike night at Mickey’s.
The breathing thing didn’t help. He didn’t want to close his eyes, just in case he fell asleep standing up, which had happened to him once before. He took one last look over his shoulder, noticed that no one seemed to be paying attention to him—not the least bit surprising—not even the girl on the other side of the counter—standing next to her conquest even as her right hand dipped below the counter’s depths—who flirted rather openly with the less-than-friendly clerk with the long hair and squinty eyes. One more glance confirmed what he needed to know: He could bring in a jackhammer and no one would notice.
With a quick jerk of his hand, he swiped the tie from the open drawer.
Darting in the general direction of the main entrance, Richard Lancaster III took a slight detour around an elderly gentleman who strode through the threshold. Before he’d even hit the other side of the entrance, the alarm sounded in a monotone voice, mentioning that he should return to the counter, and something about a clerical error. The only error was the clerk who now looked up, eyes wide, forgetting the girl next to him, and the passionate exchange that had grown more and more animated.
“What the hell—” the kid yelled.
He skipped right over the whole motto about the customer always comes first, and he extracted himself from behind the counter and raised his voice when his first set of instructions didn’t take hold. But Richard was already in motion, running away from the crazy clerk who didn’t bother to pay attention earlier, but who now had an intense interest in the goings-on around him, and who moved about as well as an eel on dry land.
While the little shit slipped, Richard sprinted. He ran all out with his arms pumping at his sides, the tie carefully stuffed down the front of his trousers, and bouncing around like a Miracle-Gro plant, juking and jiving with each twist of his hip.
The kid continued yelling, his voice and intonation nasally, and a bunch of other people joined in. Richard couldn’t hear over the general uproar, the folks squawking on cell phones, the teenagers without inside voices talking and chattering over one another, and the voice inside of his head that helped him maneuver around the ever-curious crowd with open mouths.
A smaller kid—not the one who didn’t bother to pay attention, but a smaller version of the space-cadet employee—dove at his feet like he was sliding into second base just ahead of the throw of the catcher, and Richard went down hard against the tile. His hip struck home, and then his thigh and his side ached and screamed, or maybe it was the mom next to him who yelled loud enough to break glass.
Richard shoved both palms on the ground and bounced back up, both knees aching and his heart racing, slipped in between a crowd of soccer moms eight deep and three wide—not that he counted—who chattered and waved and pushed strollers. He elbowed one, three elbowed him, and then he passed through the melee and rushed around a corner.
He didn’t even bother to look behind him.
Robert Downs aspired to be a writer before he realized how difficult the writing process was. Fortunately, he’d already fallen in love with the craft, otherwise his tales might never have seen print. Originally from West Virginia, he has lived in Virginia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, California, and now resides in Colorado. When he’s not writing, Downs can be found reading, watching movies, traveling, or smiling. To find out more about his latest projects, or to reach out to him on the Internet, visit the author’s website.
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