The Job

by

Douglas Kennedy

DOUGLAS KENNEDY

LITTLE. BROWN AND COMPANY

A Little Brown, Book First published in Great Britain by Little, Brown

and Company 1998 Copyright (c) Douglas Kennedy 1998 The moral right of

the author has been asserted.

All characters in this publication other than those clearly in the

public domain are fictitional and any resemblance to real persons,

living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be

otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in

which it is published and without a similar condition including this

condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British

Library.

ISBN: 0316 643831 (HB)

1 t Typeset in Caslon 540 by M Rules Printed and bound in Great Britain

by Clays Ltd, St. Ives pie Little, Brown and Company (UK) Brettenham

House Lancaster Place T,nnHnn

7RN

For my father, Thomas J. Kennedy, and for my brother Roger

The true way leads along a tightrope, which is not stretched aloft but

just above the ground. It seems more designed to trip one than to be

walked upon.

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point is to be

reached.

-Franz Kafka

ONE

Business was good today. I wheeled, I dealed, I schmoozed, I closed.

By seven in the evening-before calling it quits for the night-I

followed a piece of advice given to me by my first boss, and listed the

major things accomplished in the past ten hours. There were three

highlights: (1)1 nailed down a double-page spread with Multi-Micro, (2)

I finally managed to score a meeting next Friday with the head of

marketing at Icon, and (3) Ivan Dolinsky, my main outside sales guy for

the tri state area, called me from Stamford in a state of high

excitement, saying that GBS was about to commit to a major multipage

insert-a deal I'd been pressing him to conclude for weeks.

Like I said, not a bad day's work-and one which leaves me on target to

hit my April quota a full nine weeks ahead of schedule. Of course,

there are a lot of variables at work here. Will Ed Fisher, chief

marketing god of Icon, finally buy my act and start throwing some

serious business my way? Will Ivan really be able to wrap up this GBS

sale-or is this going to be another of his also-rans? (He's had three

back-to-back, and it's getting me worried.) And though I did talk AdTel

into a premium position spread for their new Sat Pad DL notebook, I was

a bit disappointed when their media sales honcho, Don Dowling, would

only green-light a single display. Especially as most of our phone

calls consisted of me dangling bait, incentives, sweeteners-anything to

get him to agree to more space.

"Don. it's Ned Allen here."

"Bad timing, Ned," he answered in his thick Canarsie whine.

"I'm heading out the door."

"Then I'll cut to the chase."

"I'm telling you, I'm running-" "Don, you know that at ninety-five

grand for a back-of-the-book double-pager we're still thirty percent

cheaper than the competition.. .."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. But their circulation is thirty-five higher than

yours."

"Only if you believe their figures. You see the ABC stats last month?

Our circulation was up seven percent for the third straight month in a

row...."

"They still got one point two million versus your seven-eighty- which,

for my money, is a sizable circulation gap."

"Look, Don, you know as well as I do that when it comes to niche

marketing, numbers like that mean nada. I mean, so what if they've got

one point two? For a high-end product like the Sat Pad DL, you need

the sort of mid- to high-market site that we can offer. You just go it

alone with them, you're strictly aiming for the bargain basement. Okay,

okay, I know they've got the stats, but so do the Chinese. A billion

people. Too bad only a thousand of them can afford to buy anything

more than a bucket of rice. Same situation here."

Don Dowling sighed loudly and said, "Ned, you tried this song and dance

on me last month.. .."

"And last month you wouldn't bite. But now we're doing business. A

double spreader. A great start to our relationship."

"How many times do I have to tell you-it's not a relationship ... it's

a one-night stand."

"I know, I know-but all relationships start as one-night stands. You

finally talk her into bed, next thing you know, it's love and marriage.

And when you see the results you get from the back of our book-" "Then

maybe we'll do another one. But I'm not committing us to anything

more."

"Even with an offer of a twenty-five percent discount and a guaranteed

premium position for the entire spring quarter?"

"We're covering old ground here. Your guy Ivan offered me the same

deal last week."

"Ivan offered you twenty percent. But as his boss I can-" "What?

Flatter my ass with an additional five percent sweetener? Get a

life."

"Do the math, Don. We're talking nearly twenty-two grand that you'll

be saving on prime display space."

"I've done the maths, Ned. I've made a decision."

"Tell you what: We'll throw in a four-color bleed for the April

issue."

"Ned, this conversation's history."

"How 'bout lunch next week? You in the city?"

"Dallas."

"Week after?"

"Ned .. ."

"You like French, we can do Lutece .. ."

"Since when has CompuWorld been able to afford Lutece?"

"Since we became players."

"You're still in third place."

"We try harder, Don. So how about a week from next Friday?"

"You're a pain in the ass, Ned."

"But an effective one. Next Friday?"

Another elongated sigh from Don Dowling.

"Call my secretary," he said, and hung up.

Got 'em! Well, sort of. Like I said, we're talking variables here.

"Call my secretary" is about the oldest kiss-off line in the book. But

in the case of Don Dowling, I think it means he's finally willing to

sit down with me. No doubt the prospect of stuffing his face at Lutece

is also something of an incentive. After all, lunch at a

him-dred-buck-a-head restaurant-surrounded by the city's heaviest

hitters-can't help but make a guy from Canarsie feel like he's finally

hit the big leagues (hell, I'm a poster boy for upward mobility myself,

having grown up in a shit-kicker corner of Maine). But Dowling also

knows that there's a price attached to accepting my invitation. By

agreeing to break overpriced bread with me, he's signaled the fact that

a barrier has come down-and that a new game could be played between us.

Whether he decides to play this game will depend entirely on the

success of the lunch.

Selling, you see, all comes down to one word: persuasion. And by

consenting to lunch, Dowling has also indicated that he's willing to

sit through a display of my persuasiveness-and find out if I can talk

him into an ongoing commercial commitment. He'll want to see how I

schmooze him, check out my style. Am I the shrewd shark who gets him

talking about everything but business until the coffee arrives? Or

will I be the overanxious type who starts hustling him before the bread

hits the table? He'll gauge whether I'm the sort of salesman who's

willing to peddle his elderly mother to the Arabs if it means getting

results ... or some grace-and-favor merchant who's deigning to do

business with a dweeb. Most tellingly, he'll be assessing the way I

approach him. Too much deference and he'll hate me for overplaying my

hand. Too little, and hell think I consider him nothing more than a

Brooklyn nouveau.

Again, it all comes down to a bunch of variables. Variables are what

keep the game interesting. And variables are also what keep me awake

at three in the morning, worried about whether tomorrow's the day when

it all starts to implode-when my well-honed pitch would finally lose

its kick, stopped dead in its tracks by the one word I dread most in

life: No.

So far (and I've only been in this business for four years), I've

managed to dodge that nightmare that every salesman fears: the loss of

his persuasive powers. My boss, Chuck Zanussi, summed it all up

beautifully:

"You know, Ned," he'd said to me over lunch around eighteen months ago,

"every goddamn bookshop in this country is crammed with volume after

volume about how to close that deal and be the biggest swinging dick in

your division. But forget all the business-guru,

'channel-into-your-influence-zones' crap. At the end of the day,

selling is about just one thing: getting someone else to say yes.

That's it. That's the object of the exercise, the bottom fucking line.

Yes. Success is yes; failure is no. It's that simple. In fact, the

way I see it, everything in life comes down to talking people into

giving you a yes. Unless you're into date rape, you don't get laid

without a yes. You don't get married without a yes. You don't get a

mortgage for a house without a yes. You don't get a job without a yes.

And you certainly don't keep a job without a shitload of yesses.

"Y'see. that's what you do every day: You procure yesses for this

company. And you do it pretty well, I might add .. . which is why I'm

bumping you up a notch."

And that's when he offered me the job of Northeast regional sales

manager for the third biggest computer magazine in America.

The magazine is called CompuWorld, and the only reason we're in third

place is because we're the new kids in town. Just five years old, but

without question the real comer in a crowded market. Don't take my

word for it. Just consider these numbers: The two titles ahead of

us-PC Globe and Computer America-have each shed a total of 34 percent

market share since we showed up on the block in '92. Of course, back

then, every industry analyst was predicting we'd be on our way to the

morgue within eighteen months. We're talking 2 million readers already

for the established titles, who needs a third? No room for an

upstart-blah, blah, blah.

O ye of little faith. Look at us now. Circulation of seven-eighty, a

mere fifty thousand behind the number-two boys, Computer America. Hell,

two years ago, there was half a million separating us. Now they're

bleeding faster than a hemophiliac, and we're the title in the

ascendant. You see that story on us in Ad Week "The CompuWorld

Phenomenon"-the basic gist of which pointed to our magazine as the

beneficiary of the biggest readership defection in the past ten years.

Want to know why? Editorial quality and pure visual class. I mean,

when it comes to the caliber of layout and graphics, we're the Vanity

Fair of consumer magazines. Okay, I take Don Dowling's point: We're

still a sizable distance behind PC Globe in terms of circulation. But,

like I told him, they're Filene's Basement to our Saks Fifth Avenue. I

mean, if you're only interested in low-end mass market clientele, by

all means blow most of your media budget on a couple of big PC Globe

spreads. But if you're trying to reach the more sophisticated

corporate and personal consumer .. . Well, let's face it, there's only

one choice in the marketplace, and that's .. .

Sorry, sorry-I'm pushing a little too hard here. As my wife, Lizzie,

likes to tell me, sometimes I forget that there are hours of the day

when I don't have to be chasing a yes. It's kind of an obsessive

business-sales-and one which demands nonstop results. Just consider my

monthly and annual quotas. CompuWorld publishes twelve issues a year.

The averaee size of the book is around

320 pages-of which I am responsible for seventy pages of advertising

copy. On average, we sell a page for $35,000 (though premium

positions, like the back cover, can cost up to 30 percent more). Now

35k times 70 equals $2.45 million. My monthly quota. Multiply that

figure by twelve and you come up with $29.4 million-a figure that

scares the shit out of me every time I think about it.

Thankfully, I'm not the only person in our office who lives in terror

of that $29.4 million mountain. As regional sales manager for the

Northeast, I'm in charge of a staff of ten, all of whom have to hit

their own individual sales targets every month. There are a half dozen

tele sales operators who spend every day working the phones, trying to

close small deals. They're my bread-and-butter people. They hustle

small retailers, modest-size software companies, and all those

penny-ante operators who fill the Classified section at the back of the

book. A lot of the uppity schmucks in Editorial make fun of the

outfits we snag for Classified-mom-and-pop businesses that peddle

discount bar code scanners, or software pawnbrokers who offer "Cash for

Your Old Memory." But, believe me, all those little eighth-of-a-pagers

are an essential component of the overall sales strategy. And they

account for 20 percent of the space we have to fill each month.

My Telesales team works closely with my four outside sales reps-Ivan

Dolinsky in tri state Phil Sirio in the five boroughs, Dave Maduro in

Massachusetts (the Boston area is probably the key software

manufacturing market in the Northeast), and Doug Bluehorn covering the

rest of New England. The pressure is on these guys nonstop to score

the big half- and full-pagers, and to network heavily with all the

media sales and marketing people for the major players in our region:

AdTel, Icon, InfoCom, and the monster GBS (Global Business Systems, the

biggest computer hardware manufacturer on the planet-of which we all

wanted a piece).

Strictly speaking, I don't have to sell a single page of

advertising-though I do get involved when a guy like Don Dowling

refuses to play ball with one of my reps. My job is to be the

strategizer. I'm the coach, they're the players. I coordinate all the

campaigns we run; I monitor the advances of my sales team. I

encourage, galvanize, threaten. Because if they don't hit their

quotas, then I take an even bieeer hit. And I'm not just talking about

set tine my ear bent by Chuck Zanussi-I'm also talking about a

financial hit, since my bonus is pegged to how much business my

division brings in. My salary is a basic sixty thousand a

year-near-poverty-line executive wages in New York. If my team scales

that $29.4-million mountain, then I'm due another sixty at the end of

the year (the members of the sales force also receive incentive bonuses

for every dollar of business they bring in). However, if we achieve

less than the designated annual quota, then the bonus figure shrinks

accordingly.

But ever since I took over as regional sales manager eighteen months

ago, we've yet to have a quota shortfall. And when the Christmas

bonuses are handed out Friday, December 12 (a date I starred in my

diary), I fully expect to see the words SIXTY THOUSAND DOLLARS written

across the check .. . which will help me sleep better, as I'm currently

living on hot air. I owe something like $20,000 on my five credit

cards. I'm clocking up $325 a month interest on a $25,000 bridge loan

I took out five months ago. I'm now a month overdue on my annual $795

membership at the New York Health and Racquet Club. I've just booked

us on a seven-day Christmas-week package to the Four Seasons Hotel in

Nevis (a staggering $5,600 for room and airfare only-but, as I keep

telling Lizzie, it's the first vacation we've had in three years). And

Barney Gordon, D.D.S." informed me last week that I'm looking at

$3,200 to replace an old bridge that has finally overstayed its welcome

after twenty-one years (the result of a bicycle accident at the age of

eleven, which cost me my upper front tooth). Unfortunately, bridge

work isn't covered under the company medical plan. And though three

grand plus in dental work is, financially speaking, about the last

thing I need right now, Doc Gordon says I have no choice but to get the

new bridge (the old one is so dangerously loose it's bound to pop out

at any moment-like in the middle of a Lutece lunch with Don Dowling).

In other words, I'm going to see little change from that sixty-grand

bonus check. But at least I'll be in the clear for the first time in

three years. And my one big New Year's resolution for 1998 is: Never

get your ass in such a bad financial position again.

The phone on my desk buzzed. I looked up from my list of the day's

accomplishments and hit the speaker button.

"Ned Allen here."

"How much money you make for me today, Allen?" It was my boss, Chuck

Zanussi.

"Plenty, but I've blown it all."

"Oh yeah? On what?"

"Life's little essentials: a new Ferrari, a Learjet, courtside season

tickets for the Knicks .. ."

"Do I get one of the tickets?" Chuck asked.

"I thought you were a Nets fan."

"You know, some bosses would fire you for that comment."

"But you've got a great sense of humor, Chuck."

"You need one in this business." He dropped the bantering tone.

"So tell me .. ."

The line began to crackle.

"Where are you?" I asked.

"Midair between Chicago and La Guardia."

"I didn't know you were hitting Chicago today. I thought you were

flying straight back from Seattle."

"So did I-until I got a call asking me to stop by Chicago ..."

"A call from whom?"

"We'll get to that. So tell me-" "I think I might have finally

convinced that Big Buddha, Don Dowling, to come to the table."

"Anything firm?"

"A single-pager for April."

"That's it?"

"But he's willing to do lunch the week after next."

"Guess that's something."

"It's more than something, Chuck. It's a real breakthrough. Ad-Tel's

been dodging us ever since Dowling stepped into the job eight months

ago. And Ivan's been chasing him like hell."

"But you closed it-not Ivan."

"Ivan's all right."

"He's worrying me. He hasn't scored anything in months."

"Two months, that's all."

"That's long enough," Chuck said.

"We're still hitting the quota."

"Only because everyone else is covering for him."

"Ivan's been a winner before, he'll be a winner again. And he's on the

verge of closing a big spread with GBS.. .."

"I'll believe it when I see the ink on the contract."

"Come on, you know what the guy's been through...."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

"I love a compassionate publisher."

"I covered his ass when he went through a cold streak like this two

years ago."

"And he pulled through then. Even surpassed his quota by twenty-two

percent. The guy's going to pull through again."

"I'm touched by your faith in humanity, Ned. It's so fucking

uplifting."

"So why the side trip to Chicago?"

"Tomorrow."

"What?"

"I'll tell you tomorrow. At breakfast. Eight A.M." the Waldorf."

"Something up?"

"Tomorrow."

"So something is up?"

"Maybe."

"What d'you mean, maybe?"

"Maybe means maybe, that's all."

"It's bad, right?"

"Ned, we'll deal with this-" "It's got to be bad."

"It's not bad."

"Then what is it?"

"It's .. . interesting."

"Oh, great."

"All will be revealed at breakfast. Be there."

I put down the phone. I drummed my fingers on my desk. I chewed my

lower lip. I craved a cigarette-and regretted having kicked the habit

six months earlier. Interesting. I didn't like the sound of that. It

could only mean one thing: change. And change- especially in a big

multinational organization like this one-was usually a synonym for

trouble.

You see, CompuWorld is just one of a dozen international titles owned

by the Getz-Braun Group. They're an American-founded company who owns

a string of audio, video, and computer magazines in Germany, the U.K..

France, and Japan, as well as the U.S.

They also have a very successful division that plans and runs major

computer trade shows around the globe. It's a lean, no-frills

multinational-and intensely corporate. Once you join the "Getz-Braun

Family," you're a protected member of the organization as long as

you're a "producer."

"Let me give you the official and the unofficial schtick about

Getz-Braun," Chuck Zanussi said during my job interview in 1993. "The

official line is this: You're joining one of the most lucrative

publishing companies in the world. You want to know how lucrative? Get

this: Thirteen months ago, Bear-Steams purchased the entire worldwide

organization for one point seven billion, then, seven months later,

sold it to our current Japanese owners, Yoki-mura, for two point three

billion. Not a bad chunk of change for half a year's interim

ownership.

"Now the unofficial line on this place, the way you either survive or

die here comes down to two simple questions: Can you conform, and can

you perform? You might be a loose cannon when it comes to schmoozing

customers, but around the office you've got to be a team player. If

you start playing 'my dick's bigger than yours," you'll be out the door

before you have time to zip up your fly. Point two: As long as you

keep making the company money, your ass is secure. It all comes down

to productivity and whether you can keep hitting the quota month after

month."

Ever since I joined CompuWorld, I've always hit the quota-and have been

rewarded with steady promotions through the ranks. Hell, during my

first two years in Telesales, I was the magazine's number-one

rainmaker, bringing in 18 percent more business than any other sales

rep. And since being named a regional sales manager, my team had

consistently out paced all other regional divisions when it comes to

generating advertising revenue.

So why should things suddenly be ... interesting? And why was

Chuck-Mr. Shoot from the Hip-being so goddamn cryptic about what went

down in Chicago?

I stood up and looked through the glass walls of my office. It's not

really an office-more of an eight-by-eight cubicle stuck in the rear of

a charm less white brick 1960s office building on Third Avenue and

Forty-sixth Street. At least I have a window, which affords me a

panoramic view of a grimy transient hotel on Lexington Avenue (the sort

of down-at-the-heels joint that attracts package tourists from eastern

Europe). Through the glass walls of my office, I can keep an eye on

the action: a tiny rabbit warren of cubicles, in which my Telesales

people remain umbilically attached to the telephone for the prescribed

eight hours a day. Except, of course, for the office achiever, Debbie

Suarez, who was, as always, still there after 7:00 P.M." jabbering a

mile a minute into her headset as she hustled some poor unsuspecting

schmuck who'd made the mistake of letting her unleash her sales

pitch.

Around CompuWorld, Debbie's known as "Tommy Gun" Suarez because of her

ability to talk faster than anyone else on the planet. She's also a

spy extraordinaire, who knows everything there is to know about

everyone at the magazine. The fact that she's the size of a kewpie

doll-around four foot ten, short, dark curly hair, big green eyes, the

build of a flyweight boxer-makes her Niagara of words even more

startling.

As I left my office and approached her cubicle, I could hear her going

at full throttle.

"I know I know I know I know, but loo kit where do you think you gonna

find a better outlet? Nah nah nah nah. They tell you that but then

you end up with nothin'. And I'm talkin' nothin' nothin'. You think

I'm telling you all this seven P.M. on a Tuesday night-I could be home

with my kid-if I didn't think I could do something for you? Whadda I

mean, do something? Six quarter-pagers for six months. I can give you

the deal of the week. Fifty-two five. Sure sure sure, it's

thirty-five a page. A full page. But quarters are ten a pop. Why?

You ask why? Get outta here-you know why. No quarter-pagers are ever,

ever one fourth the price of a full page. You're always gonna pay ten

percent more ... except right now, where I'm offering you six quarters

for exactly what you're asking. That's eight seventy-five per

issue-and you're saving .. . hey, you're fast with the calculations.

But now hit 'times six' on that calculator of yours. That's right,

we're talking seven-five you still got in your pocket. I mean, is that

a discount or what? Yeah, yeah, yeah, 'course we give you final

approval on position. But loo kit this isn't an offer you can sleep

on. I've got three other standbys for that page.. .. You what? I

give you a promise, it's a promise. How d'you know it's a promise? Get

outta here.. .."

I hovered by an adjacent cubicle, listening with pleasure to this manic

spiel. Debbie has been my great discovery-the undisputed CompuWorld

sales star of the year. I hired her to fill the Telesales space

vacated by me after I got the promotion. There were other suitable

candidates, but what really sold me on Debbie was not just her

explosive motor-mouth hunger for the position ("You give me the job,

Mr. Allen, you'll have no regrets. And when I say no regrets, I mean,

like, no no no regrets"). It was also her back story-the darker

details of her life that she didn't list on her resume but that, with a

little gentle probing from me, she divulged. Like how she grew up in

an East New York project. And how her daddy did a permanent bunk back

to San Juan when she was four. And how she was pregnant at seventeen

and widowed at nineteen, after her low-life husband irritated his

drug-dealing employers by pocketing the proceeds of a coke deal. And

how she went back to high school and landed a secretarial job and

finally found a way out of East New York, via a tiny one-bedroom in

Stuyvesant Town where she now lived with her elderly mother and young

son, Raul. And how she knew she could sell anybody anything-all she

needed was someone like me to give her a shot.

"... So are we doin' this or what? Like I said, it's seven-eighteen

now, shop here's about to close. And come tomorrow .. . yeah, right,

uh-huh, sure, sure, sure, no other competitors near you, copy approval,

fifty-two five .. . We on the same page here?"

I watched as all the muscles in her face went taut and her eyes snapped

shut, like someone unable to watch a lottery draw. Then, suddenly, her

shoulders slackened, and her face slipped into an expression of weary

relief.

"Okay, Mr. Godfrey, you got it. I'll call tomorrow, we'll deal with

all the fine print then. Have a nice night."

She pulled off her headset and pressed her forehead into her palms.

"You close?" I asked.

"I closed," she said, sounding as exhausted as a sprinter who'd just

hit the tape.

"Who was it?"

Dust Bust "America's Favorite Computer Dustshield Equipment."

" She shook her head, then looked up and gave me a jaded smile. I knew

what she was thinking. kill myself, I shred my vocal cords, I act as

if this is a life-or-death matter. And what's the payoff? Landing a

lousy quarter-page ad by some guy who makes slipcovers for computer

screens.

I shrugged back as if to say, Welcome to sales. But God, how I knew

that post-closing feeling-the sense of depletion, of loss. You've won

.. . and yet, what have you won? You're someone who sells space in a

magazine. In the great spectrum of human endeavor, what you do is

negligible, maybe even worthless. But, as I always tell any new sales

staff I hire, the real object of the exercise-the reason you expend all

that effort cajoling and flattering and wheedling the client-is

self-validation. Because when you close-when you get that yes-there is

a flicker of triumph. You've talked someone into something. Your

point of view has prevailed. You've verified your worth. For that

day, anyway.

"Nothing wrong with Dust Bust I said.

"They've been around for ten, twelve years. Good product, good

distribution network, not much in the way of competition. They should

be a nice steady customer for you. Way to go, Debbie."

She beamed at me.

"Thanks, Mr. Allen."

"You ever going to call me Ned?"

"When you're not my boss anymore."

"You mean, when you're running the show around here."

"Not gonna happen in this life."

"Rule Number One of sales, Debbie: Don't shortchange yourself. How's

your mom?"

"Up and down. The angina's been really bad for the last week. Still,

if she can keep from having to go to the hospital until January fifth

.. ."

January 5 was Debbie's first anniversary with CompuWorld- and also the

day that, according to the rules of the company insurance policy, she

could (in addition to any children and a spouse) add one more dependent

family member to her health plan. I knew that she was ticking off the

days until her uninsured mom (who'd been sick, off and on, for the past

year) was finally protected by the company safety net.

"She still baby-sitting Raul after school?"

"We've got no choice," Debbie said.

"I'm not going to be paying a nanny on my salary .. . and, at six, he's

too old for day care. Y'know he's been accepted for the first grade at

Faber Academy?" she said, mentioning one of the best private day

schools in the city (and just a three-block walk from her apartment in

Stuyvesant Town).

"Yeah, I'd heard. That's fantastic news. He must be a gifted kid."

"He's the best. They're even gonna let him enter this January instead

of making him wait until September. Which is okay by me, 'cause that

kindergarten he's in right now is guano.

"Course, first grade at Faber is nine thousand a year-and they haven't

been able to get him a scholarship. So that bonus check's real

necessary."

"You should have more than nine grand coming to you, shouldn't you?"

"Thirteen thousand, four hundred dollars," she said.

"I worked it out the other day."

"No kidding?" We both laughed.

"They really gonna pay us the bonus next Friday?" she asked.

"Debbie, that's the third time you've asked me that."

"Sorry."

"No need to be. Just try to stop worrying about it. As I told you

before, this is no nickel-and-dime operation, and Yokimura really does

honor its commitments. Especially to its employees. They're Japanese,

for Christ's sake. They'd rather disembowel themselves than fail to

pay you your bonus. Trust me here."

"I do, Mr. Allen. It's just, like, it's my first year here, and that

bonus, it's gonna make the difference ..."

"Tell you what. When I see Chuck Zanussi for breakfast tomorrow, I'll

ask him to verify that-what was the figure you mentioned again."

"Thirteen-four."

"Right-that thirteen-four is the exact amount you'll be receiving on

the twelfth. He usually has all the bonus figures for the sales

divisions around now."

"You're having breakfast with Mr. Zanussi? I thought he was still in

Seattle, clearing up that problem with Mr. Roland."

She really did deserve a job in the CIA. Word had been filtering back

to Chuck that Bill Roland, regional sales director for the Pacific

Northwest, had become excessivelv acquainted with a certain

Mr. Jack Daniel's. And there was an unsubstantiated rumor going

around that, having finally secured a lunch meeting with the marketing

director of Microcom, he drank himself into incoherence before dessert.

Not a good sales strategy, especially in such a crucial market as

Seattle-which is why Chuck had flown out there, though of course Chuck

told everyone around the office that he was simply paying the Seattle

office his usual quarterly visit. That was a typical bit of Chuck

strategy: Act as if nothing is wrong, then deal with the "problem"

before anyone finds out there was a real problem.

"You hear how things went in Seattle?" I asked.

Debbie regarded her nails, currently painted a shade that was probably

called Drag Queen Pink.

"Bill Roland's history," she said.

I emitted a low whistle.

"When did this happen?"

"Yesterday morning."

"He go quietly?"

"I think he was actually real relieved. Especially since Mr. Za-nussi

offered him six months' salary and eight weeks in some rehab place if

he resigned on the spot. Which he did. Kind of real decent of Mr.

Zanussi, don't you think? I mean, this drinking thing .. . seems it

had been going on for months. Mr. Roland's marriage's supposed to

have gone real bad, his daughter-think she's around sixteen-just ran

off with this biker creep, and, y'know, the pressure's always on at the

Seattle office.... So Mr. Roland started hitting the whiskey first

thing in the morning, sneaking it into his coffee .. ."

I looked at her with amazement.

"How the hell do you know all this stuff?"

"I've got my sources."

"You wouldn't happen to have a mole in our Chicago office, would

you?"

Another glance at those electric-pink nails.

"I might," she said.

"Then how about giving them a ring now and finding out why Chuck

Zanussi was called to a meeting there today."

Now it was Debbie's turn to look shocked.

"He was sent to Chicago?"

"XT- r* Yen.

"But I thought he was flying straight back from Seattle ..."

"So did I. But he called me midair between O'Hare and La Guardia,

saying that he'd been asked to stop by the Chicago office for the

afternoon. Wouldn't say why. Wouldn't say who called the meeting-but

you can bet it's someone pretty upper echelon in Getz-Braun or

Yokimura."

"Mr. Zanussi didn't say anything about what happened in the

meeting?"

"Just that it was interesting."

"Mierda."

Debbie also understood that, in corporate life, interesting was a

highly charged word-and one that never boded well for the future.

Putting her headset back on, she nervously punched in a ten-digit

number.

"Lemme talk to Maria Szabo, please," she said. While waiting to be

transferred, Debbie chewed on the headset wire.

"Maria .. . Debbie in New York. How ya doin"? Yeah, yeah, yeah ...

business as usual. But listen, you see our publisher, Mr. Zanussi,

around your office today? He was? .. . Who else was there? .. .

You're kidding me, right? All of 'em? Shit... You're telling me,

something's up ... but nobody spilled nothing, huh? Not even his

secretary? Okay, okay. But listen, you hear anything else you call me

pronto. Ditto if I get some news here. Got me? Thanks, hon ..."

She pulled off the headset and gave me one of her anxious looks.

"That was my friend Maria, Telesales Chicago. Mr. Zanussi arrived at

their office around lunchtime today, went straight into a meeting with

Mr. Hertzberg, Mr. Getz, Mr. Watanabe .. ."

"Jesus," I said.

"Jesus Christ." Moss Hertzberg was Getz-Braun's CEO. Bob Getz was the

chairman of the board. And Hideo Watanabe was head samurai at our

parent company, Yokimura. You couldn't ask for a more formidable

collection of corporate heavy hitters.

"Did your friend Maria mention if anyone else was there?"

"Yeah. Some Euro guy with two flunkies."

"What did she mean, 'a Euro guy'?"

"I dunno. Said he looked like, well, uh, Euro."

"You mean, not American."

"Guess so."

"Did Maria say if he spoke English?"

"Yeah .. . but with this kind of accent."

"A European accent?"

"Think so."

"And the two flunkies with him? Were they bodyguards?"

"She said they were carrying briefcases."

"Lawyers," I said.

"What's going on, Mr. Allen?"

I had a good idea, but I knew if I told her she might not sleep

tonight. So instead I flashed her my best salesman's smile, that

"don't-worry-you're-safe-with-me" smile that hopefully engenders trust

yet masks the fact that, like everybody else you pass on the street

these days, you really don't know if the ground beneath you is solid

anymore.

"Put it this way, Debbie," I said.

"It is going to be interesting."

TWO

By the time I left the office it was 7:30, an hour in New York when the

sight of an available taxicab is about as commonplace as that of a

stray moose on Third Avenue, when frantically late theatergoers and

exhausted executives throw themselves in the path of any oncoming

yellow car, begging all those off-duty drivers to make one final detour

for them.

A light snow was falling, which meant that the prospect of finding a

cab had been reduced from no chance to less than no chance. So,

turning up the collar of my overcoat, I headed north on Third for nine

blocks, then swung west on Fifty-fifth Street. On my way I managed to

chase down Dave Maduro (outside sales- Massachusetts) on my cellular.

He was somewhere on 1-290 south of Worcester.

"My master calls," Maduro said when he heard my voice.

"Only because you didn't call me, Dave," I responded calmly.

"You knew I was in with Jack Drabble at InfoCom all afternoon."

"And?"

A long sigh.

"We're not there yet."

"The problem?"

"He still won't commit to that multipage insert for June."

I immediately understood why Dave sounded so touchy. A multipage

insert is a special six-page advertising section that we try to feature

in every issue. As it was worth (at top whack) 210 thousand in

advertising revenue, it was considered the ultimate score by our sales

team-and Dave had been stalking InfoCom for months.

"What's making him balk?" I asked.

"He won't go above one-eighty .. ."

"We can live with that."

".. . and he's also demanding a four-color bleed on all pages."

"Thief. You want some help here?"

"I was so certain I was going to close the sonofabitch today. And

then, he pulls this four-color-bleed shit.. ."

"Dave-DO YOU WANT SOME HELP HERE?"

A long, reluctant pause.

"Yeah," Dave finally said.

"Give me his direct line," I said. After telling Dave I'd get back to

him tomorrow, I immediately punched in Jack Drabble's number. Poor

Dave-he always hated asking me for a favor, just as he also can't stand

the fact that, at thirty-two, I was six years younger than him .. . and

I was his boss. And, like any salesman, he oozed despair when he

couldn't close.

The phone rang four times. I didn't want to speak directly to Jack

Drabble right then-and I was gambling on the fact that he'd already

gone home. I gambled right-I was connected to his voice mail.

"Jack, Ned Allen from CompuWorld here. Haven't seen you since the Am

Com convention in October, but I hear great things. Listen, about this

multipage insert-I've got GreenAp Computers vying for this spot.. ..

You can check with your counterpart at GreenAp if you like ... but I

really, truly want to give it to you. Now, one-eighty is fine-and you

know you're saving thirty off our rack rate. But a four-color bleed on

every page? No can do. The math just doesn't work. But-and this is

more than we were offering the GreenAp boys-we will do the bleed on the

first and back pages of your insert. And, of course, you'll be getting

the space that GreenAp wants. Then there's that little matter of our

annual winter sales event. It's Vail this year, Jack. February

thirteenth through sixteenth. We pay, you ski, and the wife comes,

too. But I need an answer by nine A.M. tomorrow. See you on the

slopes, Jack."

Pocketing the phone, I felt that narcotic buzz that always hits me

after making a good pitch. See you on the slopes, Jack.

"Struc

22 DODGIAS KENNED!

ture every pitch like a movie script," Chuck Zanussi once advised me.

"Hit them with some fast exposition, hook their interest, give them

cause to worry about where things are heading, then nail 'em with a

surprise ending. Remember: Like writing, it's a craft. Maybe even an

art."

The snow was falling heavily as I reached Park Avenue. Having spent a

good part of my adolescence in northern New England, I am happy

trudging through the snow. I like the silence it imposes on

Manhattan's usual snarl; the way it magically empties the streets of

people and makes you feel as solitary as someone tramping through the

Maine woods.

Don't get me wrong-I'm not nostalgic for those deep "down east"

winters. I don't long for flannel shirts and L.L. Bean boots and a

deerstalker hat with flaps. By the time I was sixteen, all I could

think about was that road marked "South" out of Maine. It took another

six years before I finally made it down that road. That was almost a

decade ago-and never once since leaving have I felt an urge to return

and heed some "Call of the Wild." I'm a city boy now-and after ten

years in New York I still find myself addicted to its manic rhythms-its

power, its arrogance, its air of lofty indifference.

Crossing Park Avenue, I stood in the middle of one of its little

traffic islands and stared south at that epic canyon of office

buildings-the Christmas cross in the Helmsley Building offering a

silent benediction to all those who compete in this playpen of

ambition. It was my favorite New York vista, this view down Park.

Because it underscored the fact: I was finally where I wanted to be.

I continued west on Fifty-fifth, then ducked into the St. Regis Hotel

and headed across a plushly carpeted lobby. At the cloakroom I handed

over my overcoat and proceeded to the men's room, where an elderly

attendant with hunched shoulders turned on the sink taps while I

emptied my bladder. After I finished rinsing my hands, he

ceremoniously handed me a towel. There was a tray of aftershaves and

colognes between two sinks. I splashed on some Armani Pour Homme. I

read somewhere once (probably GQ) that this aftershave "exudes an aura

of sophisticated power." I know, I know-it's a real smarmy kind of

sales Ditch. But Ditches like that move product. Especially if you're

aiming at the aspiring-young-executive end of the market-in other

words, guys like me.

The elderly attendant, an Italian immigrant with permanently rheumy

eyes and a tiny turtlelike head tucked down between his shoulders,

handed me a comb and a brush. I ran the comb through my hair (still

damp from the melting snow), then turned around and craned my head in

an attempt to inspect a tiny patch of thinning hair at the top of my

skull. When I say tiny, I mean tiny-the bald patch is no bigger than a

dime. Still, it serves as a reminder that I am beginning that

ever-rapid descent toward middle age. Everybody tells me that I still

look like a kid in his mid-twenties- possibly because I'm built like a

reasonably healthy scarecrow (six foot two, 166 pounds, a

thirty-four-inch waist). So far, I've displayed no visible signs of

aging (except that minuscule patch of thinning hair). Compared to just

about every other guy I know in sales, I'm a walking advertisement for

clean living. Anytime the national CompuWorld sales team gets together

for its biannual conference-or I attend one of the big international

computer exhibitions that the Getz-Braun group stages-I am amazed at

just how toxic and hyper-tense everyone else looks. The outside sales

rep guys are inevitably thirty pounds overweight (from an on-the-road

diet of fast food .. . and the discovery that a double-dip milkshake or

a half dozen beers can provide temporary high-carbohydrate relief

whenever you fail to make a deal). The Telesales women, on the other

hand, appear to be dabbling in anorexia, or are the sort of fanatical

keep-fit junkies who work off all their stress and disappointment in

the health club-they sport biceps that would shame G.I. Joe. And the

regional sales managers are either dedicated nicotine fiends, or

compulsive pencil chewers, or PWNs (People Without Nails).

No doubt about it, the sales game can have a nasty impact on your

health, unless you work out a strategy for coping with its burdens.

Like playing tennis twice a week. And maintaining a low-fat,

low-sodium diet. And never drinking during lunch (unless, of course,

you're with one of several clients who will only throw six figures'

worth of business your way if you get smashed with them. And learning

how to shrug off stress-that "convert-it-into-positive-energy you

always read about in assorted "business management books .. . which

essentially means landing a new deal whenever you're feeling

excessively anxious.

In fact, I had most of the "excesses" in my life under control- with

one big exception: I'd yet to figure out how to stop spending excessive

amounts of money.

The bathroom attendant pulled out a little wooden box from beneath the

sink. Sliding it next to me, he stepped on top and began to de-lint my

pinstriped shoulders with a brush.

"Nice suit, sir," he said.

It certainly should be-considering that it's a $1,200 Cerutti. If you

peeked into my closet, you'd assume that suits are a weakness of mine.

I own close to a dozen-and they're all designer. I also buy

top-of-the-line English shoes and the usual expensive accessories. But

I'm not a style junkie, or the sort of go-getting executive who

actually believes that an expensive suit turns you into a corporate

warrior. To me, looking sharp is simply an intrinsic part of the sales

game. It always gives you an edge with a client, and also gets you

noticed by the senior management guys. But it's nothing more than

that. I meet guys all the time who bragged about their

accoutrements-pulling back their French cuffs to reveal their $5,000

Ro-lexes, or boring me about how they knew they had arrived on the day

they bought themselves a Porsche 911. I act dutifully impressed, but

secretly think: Winners aren't measured by their five-grand watches.

Winners are measured by just one thing: their ability to close.

I handed the attendant ten bucks-a hefty tip, I know .. . but can you

imagine working a toilet? I've always felt guilty about anyone who's

been reduced to a menial position. Maybe that's because, deep down,

I've always feared such lowly status-having spent two summers during

college working at a fast-food joint; a brain-dead job in which I spent

the day reiterating the question You want fries with the shake?

The attendant blinked with shock when he saw the ten bucks. Then,

slipping it into his breast pocket, he said, "You have a real good

night, sir."

I moved on to the bar. It was all black marble and large silver

mirrors, with a long, curved, zinc counter and opulent deco chairs. The

mare was narkerl -with suits-mostly men in their thirties and forties,

members of the deal-making executive class, all immaculately groomed,

poking the air with their cigars to make their points.

I found a quiet corner table and had just ordered a martini straight up

when my phone rang. I answered it quickly.

"It's me." I could barely make out Lizzie's voice over the line's

static.

"You on your way?" I asked, glancing at my watch and noticing that she

was late.

"Still stuck in a meeting at the Royalton."

"Who are you with?"

"A prospective client. Miller, Beadle, and Smart. Midsize Wall Street

brokerage house, trying to raise their profile."

"Sounds fun."

"If you like dealing with aging preppies."

"Want me to walk down and meet you there? It's, what... only ten

blocks."

"That's okay-I should have things wrapped up here in half an hour. And

then ..."

"Yeah?"

"Well, I have big news," she said in a mock-dramatic voice.

"How big?" I said, playing along.

"Earth-shatteringly big. Stop-the-presses big."

"The suspense is killing me."

She paused for effect.

"I managed to get us a table at Patroon."

"Isn't that the place I read about in New York last week?"

"No, that's the place I told you you should read about in New York..

.."

"Some kind of hash house, right? With great cheeseburgers?"

"

"The new favorite watering hole of Manhattan's power brokers," if you

believe everything you read."

"I never believe anything I read in New York. But Geena does. Was

this her idea?"

You score an A for perceptiveness. Of course, according to Geena,

Ian's also been dying to eat there, too."

Geena worked with Lizzie at Mosman & Keating, a midsize Public

relations firm. Her husband, Ian, wrote an "Around Town" column for

the Daily News. They were also members of the New

York fast lane-and, much to our mutual amusement, liked to flash their

glitzy credentials whenever possible.

"They're joining us at Patroon after dropping in at a gallery opening

in SoHo of some fabulous show by this fabulous Aboriginal finger

painter .. ."

"And I bet the gallery's going to be full of fabulous people. Lou

Reed's going to be there, right?"

"Sure. Along with Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. And Gore Vidal

might drop in."

"Not to mention John F. Kennedy, Jr...."

"Sharon Stone ..."

"And that old standby, the fabulous Dalai Lama."

We laughed.

"Anyway, Geena is in awe," Lizzie said.

"Because Patroon ostensibly has a five-week waiting list for a table ..

. which I just managed to circumvent thirty minutes ago."

"Dare I ask how?"

"I'm the cleverest PR woman in New York, that's how."

"Can't disagree with that."

"Listen, I've got to fly back into this meeting. Patroon is one-sixty

East Forty-sixth. The table's reserved for nine-fifteen. Bye."

And she was gone.

Leave it to Lizzie to snag a table for four at the hottest restaurant

in town. Then again, if Lizzie puts her mind to something, she

inevitably achieves results. Because, like me, she is the sort of

person for whom results mean everything.

She, too, is a hick from the sticks. Ever heard of the town of Utica,

New York? Smack dab in the middle of the snowbelt. The sort of place

where there's a virtual whiteout six months a year, and where the best

civic amenity is the road out of town. Her dad was a sergeant on the

local police force, a depressive prone to pitch-black moods that he

drowned with cheap Utica Club beer. Her mom was the sort of Suzy

Homemaker type who always had a smile on her face as she busied herself

with a thousand and one domestic details, yet also chased Valium with

Bailey's Irish Cream.

"We weren't exactly the happiest of families," she confessed shortly

after we met.

"Once I hit seventeen, all I could think about was eettine the hell out

of Dodge."

I certainly understood such sentiments-I hadn't been back home once

since leaving Brunswick in the fall of '87. Not that there was any

home to go back to. By then my dad was newly dead, my mom had

remarried a golf pro and moved to Arizona, and my older brother Rob had

lost his heart to a Filipina bar girl named Mamie while stationed with

the navy at Subic Bay.

We weren't exactly the happiest of families. No-that really wasn't us.

We were the sort of folks who seemed reasonably content, never

acknowledging any difficulties on the home front My dad was a military

lifer-a guy from Indianapolis who saw the navy as his way out of the

landlocked Midwest. He enlisted at the age of eighteen-and until his

death twenty-nine years later, the navy was his Great White Father, who

provided him with direction and dealt with all his essential

necessities. Having been something of a screw up in high school (as he

was fond of telling us), he got "discipline" and "focus" and "pride"

from the navy. He rose quickly to ensign, then spent four years in

training as a mechanical engineer. Two years into his Uncle Sam-backed

studies at San Jose State, he met my mom (she was an English major)-so,

as he was also fond of telling us, the navy found him a wife as well.

They were married a week after graduating in 1962. Rob arrived the

next summer; I showed up in January of '65. Our childhood was a string

of tract houses in assorted naval air stations around the country: San

Diego, Key West, Pensacola, and finally eleven years in Brunswick,

Maine, where my dad was in charge of maintenance for "airborne

operations." It turned out to be his last posting. He died on January

2, 1987. He was only forty-seven, a victim of a lifelong attachment to

cigarettes.

Just as I can't picture my father without a Winston gripped between his

teeth, I can never recall my parents fighting with each other. You

see, my dad really bought into the idea of living a "shipshape" life.

"You play the game well, and the game will always treat you

well"-another of his pet expressions, and one that summed up his belief

that the team player, the good guy, was always rewarded for his loyalty

and service. But besides being a good officer, he also worked hard at

being a good father and provider. Of course, from the time I hit my

teens I began to sense that there was a certain

going-throuph-the-motions" qualitv to my narenlV marriaap-that my mom

wasn't exactly thrilled with her permanent housewife status, that she

found base life confining, and that she and my dad had possibly fallen

out of love with each other years ago. But my old man's "code of duty"

meant that the family had to be held together. It also meant that he

could never show favoritism toward any one son .. . though it was

pretty clear to me that Rob was his golden boy, not only because he

followed my dad into the navy right after leaving high school, but also

because, unlike me, he didn't seem to be dreaming of a world far

removed from the Kmart realities of naval-base life.

When I was sixteen, my dad came into my room one night and found me

reading Esquire in bed.

"You want Playboy I'll get it for you at the PX," he said.

"But, Esquire .. . Christ, it's nothing but fancy-assed writing and

fancy-assed suits."

Which, of course, is why I loved it. It represented the metropolitan

world to which I aspired. I saw myself living the New York life,

eating in those designer restaurants that Esquire featured, dressing in

those $600 suits that adorned their fashion pages, talking the urban

buzz talk that seemed second nature to their writers. Not because I

craved these actual things-but because they struck me as essential

components of true success.

Of course my dad knew this-just as he also knew that my mom encouraged

me to have ambitions beyond Brunswick and the U.S. Navy.

"Take it from me," she said when I was struggling through my college

applications.

"There's only one person in the whole wide world who will ever stop you

from getting to where you want to be-and that's yourself."

And so, I aimed high and applied to Bowdoin, an elite liberal arts

college located a mere mile down the road from the naval air station.

Growing up in Brunswick, Bowdoin represented yet another select realm

that I yearned to enter, but from which I was excluded.

"It's the waiting list," I said, showing my father the admissions

letter from Bowdoin in the spring of 1983. He could hear the

disappointment in my voice.

"It's still not an acceptance, Dad. And according to Mr.

Challenor..."

"Who's this Mr. Challenor?"

"My college advisor. Anyway, he said I probably would've gotten in if

I hadn't needed financial aid."

I instantly regretted my thoughtlessness. My father looked at me as if

I'd inadvertently kneed him in the balls. Discipline... focus ...

pride-my dad's credo. And without realizing it, I had punctured that

complex, defensive dignity-and his sense of duty to his son.

"How much is a year at Bowdoin?" he asked quietly.

"It doesn't matter, Dad."

"How much?"

"With room and board, around seventeen.. .."

He emitted a low whistle and regarded the yellowing linoleum on our

kitchen floor.

"That's a hell of a chunk of change," he finally said, lighting up a

Winston.

"I know, Dad."

"But the math doesn't work, son. You understand that?"

"Of course I understand," I lied.

"Like I said, it doesn't matter."

"That's bullshit, son," he said, his face suddenly a mask of defeat.

"It matters. You know it, I know it. It really matters."

And that's how I ended up at a very affordable, very second-rate branch

of the University of Maine at Presque Isle-where I was just about the

only student on campus not majoring in agricultural science. Of

course, I hated being stuck in this nowhere town, surrounded by people

doing graduate work on brucellosis (believe me, after Presque Isle,

Brunswick seemed downright cosmopolitan). Whenever I saw my dad,

however, I never let on just how much I loathed that hick university,

or how I continued to rue the fact that lack of money had essentially

barred me from Bowdoin ... and the world it represented.

But he knew. Any time I was home for the weekend and Mom raised the

question, "How's school?" Dad would get that whipped look on his face

and light another cigarette. In his mind, he had failed me-and his own

convoluted sense of pride made it impossible for him to see that I

didn't think less of him because he was on a new man's pay. So a

painful distance-a stiff reserve-began to creep into our relationship.

Even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer (at the end of my junior

year), he dodged my attempts to get close to him again.

"The hell you crying about, son?" he demanded one night toward the end

of his illness. When my tears subsided, I tried to sound an optimistic

note. It rang hollow.

"Listen, when you get better-" He cut me off.

"Not gonna happen," he said, his tone deliberately "right stuff."

"So let's not dwell on the inevitable, okay? Anyway, a couple of

months from now, after you've graduated, you're gonna be so far gone

out of Maine, it's not gonna matter if I'm alive or dead.. .."

"That's not true...."

"I know you, Ned. I know what you want... and what you think you gotta

prove. And for that reason I also know that, unlike me, the math is

gonna work for you."

He understood me better than I realized. Just as he also knew that the

math defines us. Provides us with our sense of worth. Fuels our

ambitions, Feeds our insecurities. Fucks us up. Forces us out of bed

in the morning. Gives us a reason to fight our way through the day.

My martini arrived. I raised the glass, touched the frosty rim to my

lips, and let the gin trickle down my throat. Just as it was numbing

my vocal cords, my phone rang again.

"Ned Allen here."

"Do you ever stop working?" the voice on the line said.

"Jack Drabble?"

"Perhaps."

"As my father used to say, Only the winner goes to dinner. You still

at the office, Jack?"

"Yep. Just stepped away from my desk when you called."

"Eight-fifteen. You are a credit to InfoCom."

"And you're trying to lick my rectum."

"No need, my man. I'm sitting here in the bar of the St. Regis,

sipping a bone-dry martini, about to meet my very beautiful wife for

dinner, and I have GreenAp ready to grab that multipage insert at

ninp-ol-i-five tnmnrrnw mornine if we don't get into bed before them.

So-no offense, Jack-but who needs to even look at your rectum when life

is so sweet?"

"One-seven-five."

"Now you insult my intelligence. One-eighty is the deal.. . and we

throw in the two bleeds as a door prize."

"Plus the weekend at Vail, right?"

Got 'em!

"Only at one-eighty."

"What's five grand?"

"The difference between you squinting at the Colorado sun or sitting on

your can in beautiful downtown Worcester, Mass. One-eighty. Take it

or leave it."

"I'll call you tomorrow."

"No sale. You called tonight, you deal tonight. One-eighty. Going,

going .. ."

"Okay, okay, okay. I'm in."

"Smart move, Jack," I said, taking a long swig of the martini. And as

I put the glass down, I found myself thinking, You're right, Dad. The

math has worked for me.

And God, how I love to sell.

THREE

"Wsn't that Ralph Lauren seated over there?" Lizzie asked.

"Good catch," Geena said.

"And do you see those two guys in the comer?" Ian said, motioning all

of us forward and nodding toward a pair of well-dressed men schmoozing

at a discreetly prominent table.

"The substantial one in the chalk-stripe suit. That's Graydon

Carter."

"The Graydon Carter?" Lizzie asked.

"The one and only," Ian said.

"Have you ever written for Vanity Fair?" I asked Ian.

"I wish," Ian said, then added, "And the guy with Graydon is the famous

David Halberstam."

Geena nodded knowingly, but Lizzie looked puzzled.

"Who's David Halberstam?"

She instantly regretted her honesty, as Ian put on a mock-haughty

voice.

"Lizzie, if you live in this city you've simply got to know who David

Halberstam is."

My wife tugged on a lock of her hair-a dead giveaway (but only to me)

that she was feeling self-conscious.

"I've heard his name," she said.

"He only happens to be one of the most important journalists of the

last thirty years," Ian said, continuing to tease her.

"Ex-A few York Times, author of The Best and the Brightest and The

Fifties .. ."

".. . and a fabulous guy," I said, flashing lana big smile.

"Let me guess you met him at a party at Tina Brown's weekend place in

the Hamptons, where you were also talking foreign policy with Joan

Didion.. .."

"Actually," Ian said, "I was talking Middle East politics with Tony

Robbins-who told me he was a very close personal friend of yours."

Even I laughed.

"How's life at the paper?" Lizzie asked.

"A bit like living through the French Revolution," Ian said.

"Every day, the new editor sends someone else to the guillotine. Still,

he doesn't seem to want my head. Yet."

"That's because you're one of their big stars," Geena said.

"You're biased," Ian said.

"Anyone who can string a sentence together and schmooze celebs can

write a gossip column."

"You feeling all right?" I asked.

"I mean, these sudden attacks of modesty can be dangerous to your

health...."

Ian threw his eyes heavenward.

"With friends like these .. ."

"Anyway, you're not going to be a gossip columnist for much longer,"

Geena said. Then turning to Lizzie and me, she added, "Did you hear

that GQ offered Ian this amazing freelance contract?"

"How amazing?" I asked.

"It's not bad," Ian said.

"Not bad?" Geena said.

"It's fifty thousand dollars for six profiles."

"Wow," Lizzie said.

"You humble bastard," I said, raising my glass tolan

"That is fantastic news."

"Well, it's still not the New Yorker," Ian said.

"In time," Geena said, "in time."

"Who's your first subject?" Lizzie asked.

"The poet laureate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-Tom Clancy."

"Very popular guy, Mr. Clancy," I said.

"Yeah, salesmen love him," lanadded with a wink.

"Not to mention tabloid journalists," I countered with a smile.

Geena looked at Lizzie and said, "Do you ever feel as if we're kind of

superfluous here?"

"Boys will be boys," Lizzie said drily.

"Salesmen are never competitive," I said.

"Until you face them across a tennis court," Ian said.

"I tell you, Lizzie, your husband's got a killer instinct."

"I guess that's because I honed my game on public courts, not Daddy's

country club."

I instantly regretted the wisecrack. Lizzie shot me a look that said,

"Apologize fast." Which is exactly what I did.

"Just joking, pal," I said.

But, of course, I wasn't totally joking. Because there was a part of

me that did envy Ian's rich-kid credentials. Like his wife, he exuded

an aura of supreme confidence-the sort of self-assurance that, at

times, was borderline arrogance. Then again, la nand Geena had both

been raised in an elite Manhattan world. They went to schools like

Chapin and Collegiate. They grew up using Mommy's charge card at

Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue. They were sent off to summer

camps in Vermont and New Hampshire. They had daddies who were senior

partners at white-shoe law firms or Wall Street brokerage houses, and

could easily pay their tuition to Brown and Smith. They spent their

junior years in Dublin and Florence. They returned to the city after

college, fully secure in the knowledge that they would have a

relatively easy entree into any professional field they chose. Because

not only did they have all the right connections, they also had that

most prized of native Manhattanite possessions: an entitlement

complex-the belief that they had been anointed as two of life's

winners, and that success was their natural domain.

Let's face it: As much as Ian derided his status as a Daily News gossip

hack, he landed that highly visible job at the precocious age of

twenty-six. Now, at thirty, he was effortlessly making the move into

magazine journalism. No doubt, he'd crack Vanity Fair and the New

Yorker within a few years. Book deals would follow. He'd become a

celebrated writer-a member of the literary establishment, profiled in

the New York Times, interviewed by Charlie Rose, sharing that corner

table with David Halberstam and Graydon Carter. Because, naturally,

Ian saw such success as his due, his inalienable right-whereas I always

felt as if the corner table, like success, had to be fought for. Just

as I also found myself wondering: Once I finally made it to the table,

would I ever feel secure enough to sit

That's the problem with being a small-town kid in New York: No matter

how well you do in Gotham, deep down you always consider yourself a

fraud. Still looking up in amazement at "all them tall buildings,"

desperately trying to exude high-gloss sophistication, constantly

wondering if your urbane act is as transparent as Plexiglas.

"Look who's sitting in the left-hand corner," Geena said, in an attempt

to move the conversation on after my impolitic comment.

Ian glanced over in that direction, then said, "Oh yeah. Him." Then

shooting me an ironic grin, he added, "Now there's a guy who owns his

own tennis court."

"Edgar Bronfman, Jr.?" Lizzie asked.

"You are good at this," Geena said.

"She's the best," I said.

Lizzie shrugged.

"I just read the gossip columns, like everyone else."

I smiled-because that comment was pure Lizzie. Though she was an adept

player of the Manhattan "in-the-know" game, it really didn't define

her. She saw the game for what it was: nothing more than a basic

component of her work. Information was the central currency she traded

in.

Shortly after we first met, she explained her job to me.

"In public relations, only two things count: who you know .. . and who

you know."

"Don't you have to land the deals as well?"

She ran her finger across the top of my hand and gave me a sly smile.

"You close," she said.

"I influence."

Talk about a seductive sales pitch. No wonder I was instantly

bewitched. And looking back on it now, meeting Lizzie came around the

same time (spring of '93) when my New York luck finally began to

change. Up until that point I was scratching out a living as a

"recruitment executive" at a big commercial employment agency in

midtown. It was one of a string of dead-end jobs I'd landed since

first hitting the city six years earlier. Professionally speaking, I

was starting to feel like a loser-unable to graduate beyond the sort of

dreary career prospects offered in the back employment pages of the New

York Times. At first, just getting myself established in the city

seemed like a real triumph. I found a shabby, railroad-style

one-bedroom apartment for $850 a month on Seventy-fifth between First

and York (complete with that ultimate low-rent touch: a bathtub in the

kitchen). Then I grabbed the first job I could land ("telephone sales

associate" for Brooks Brothers-i.e." the guy who takes your chinos

order on the phone). I didn't exactly have defined career objectives.

I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. All I did know was:

New York was the center of the cosmos. A place that anyone like me

(armed with both boundless ambition and boundless workaholism) could

eventually conquer.

Boy, was I in for a kick up my Horatio Alger ass. As I quickly

discovered, a kid from Maine with a degree from a third-rate state

university and no connections didn't exactly take Manhattan overnight.

Sure, I tried to make inroads on Wall Street-but the competition for

jobs was brutal, and those "in the loop," or from the good schools,

always won out. Guys like me, on the other hand, were trapped in

mid-level employment hell.

Though I was desperate to find something "executive," I kept bouncing

from lowly position to lowly position, always hoping that it might lead

to a promotion. Even when I was taking phone orders for Brooks

Brothers, I kept trying to find a way into the management division of

the organization-only to be told that, given my piss-poor entry-level

status, I would have to put in several years' service before being

considered for advancement.

But I didn't want to spend three years wired to a headset, asking

customers questions like, "And do you want the crew or the V-neck cream

Shetland?" I knew I had a skill, a talent-something that would

eventually allow me to flourish in New York. The problem was, I still

hadn't figured out what that talent might be.

So I continued to drift, exchanging that mind-numbing job for a series

of others, including a lackluster post in the Saks Fifth Avenue

publications department. After seven dull months writing lingerie

copy, I moved on, becoming a "placement officer" at a midtown

employment agency. About three months into this electrifying job, I

met Chuck Zanussi. He'd asked the agency to find him a new secretary,

I was assigned the task, and we spent about a week talking regularly on

the phone as he vetted assorted candidates.

I must have imnressed him with my so-getting style-because,

during our last call, he said, "What's a sharp guy like you doing

working in such a no-hope job?"

"Looking for a way out. Fast."

"Do you think you could sell?"

"Believe me," I lied, "I can sell."

"Then come in and see me."

Within a week of joining CompuWorld, however, I came to realize that

that absurdly cocky assertion was actually true. From the moment I

tied up my first deal (an eighth-of-a-pager from a software privacy

prevention company called Lock-It-Up), I knew I had found my "calling."

Every sale, I discovered, was a small victory, an accomplishment (not

to mention another couple of dollars in my pocket). The more space I

peddled, the more I began to learn the nuances of salesmanship: how to

schmooze, sweet-talk, snare.

"Think of every sale as a seduction," Chuck Zanussi advised me shortly

after I joined CompuWorld.

"The goal is to get the client into bed-but to do it in such a way that

they don't realize they're having their clothes torn off. You get too

heavy-handed, you start slobbering on their neck, they're gonna tell

you to buzz off. Remember: The operative word in seduction is

finesse."

I recalled that advice two weeks later when I was wandering around the

Javits Convention Center. I was attending my first industry trade

show-SOFT US-the national schmoozeathon for the software industry.

Cruising through the thousand or so stalls spread around the main

convention floor, I noticed a stand for a company called

MicroManage-which had been high on a hit list of companies that Chuck

Zanussi assigned me shortly after I joined the company.

"These MicroManage guys have got a great product called the Disc

Liberator," Chuck had said.

"But they've also got a hesitancy problem when it comes to advertising

with us. Read up as much as you can on the Disc Liberator and land the

fuckers."

To date, MicroManage had refused to return my calls. Which is I was so

pleased to stumble upon their sales stand-and to notice that their

representative was a knockout. Mid-twenties. Long legs. High

cheekbones. Jet-black hair cut fashionably short. Decked cut in a

smart black suit. Very preoccupied with the phone as I approached her

stand.

"Hi there," she said, ending the call and proffering her hand.

"Lizzie Howard. How can I help?"

The handshake was firm, no-nonsense, the voice suggesting a slight hint

of upstate New York behind the sophisticated veneer.

"Ned Allen, CompuWorld," I said.

"You know our magazine?"

"Maybe," she said with a teasing glint in her eye.

"If you're in software, you've got to know us. We're one of the

biggest computer magazines in America."

"The third biggest," she said.

"So you do know us?"

Another of her sharp, impish smiles.

"Maybe."

"Well, I certainly know all about you."

"Do you really?"

"Oh yes," I said, trying to ignore the tinge of sarcasm.

"Micro-Manage: makers of the Disc Liberator. The no-sweat way to

liberate your hard drive of unnecessary files."

"Very impressive," Lizzie said.

"In fact," I continued on, "Disc Liberator is safer than any other

Windows cleanup utility. More thorough than an application's own

de-installer. And faster than .. ."

"So, you really have read our advertising copy."

"Part of my job. And it's also my job to get you to advertise with

CompuWorld."

"But PC Globe is the main player in the market-and we already have a

relationship with them."

"You know, Lizzie, the problem with main players is that they always

believe they're the only game in town-that they don't owe the customer

a little respect.. .."

"Just respect?"

"And, of course, a discount."

"What kind of a discount?"

"Put it this way, our rack rate for a full-pager, middle of the book,

is thirty-five. But with a new customer like MicroManage, we'd be in a

position to give it away at-" "Thirty," she said.

"Wish I could, but I can't shave twelve percent off the-"

"That's still a ten percent shave. Thirty-two-five, on the other

hand-" "Sold."

"What?" I asked, taken aback.

"Sold," she said.

"What's, uh, 'sold'?" I sputtered.

"The MicroManage ad. A full-pager. Your July issue, if that's

possible.. .."

"I'll personally ensure that it runs then."

"Good. Just one thing: Though we're not after a premium position, if

you bury us near Classified, we don't talk again."

"That won't happen."

"Glad to hear it."

"Because, uh .. . well, it would be nice to talk again."

"Would it really?" she said, avoiding my gaze and straightening

brochures.

"Yes. It would. If, uh, you were interested ..."

"Maybe," she said, handing me her card before returning to the business

of tidying up the stand.

"Mosman and Keating Public Relations," I said, studying the company

name on the card.

"What's your relationship with Micro-Manage?"

"I'm their PR representative."

"But who handles their advertising?"

"Bruce Halpern at Ogilvy and Mather. But he usually authorizes any

advertising recommendation I give him. Of course, if you want to speak

with him directly ..."

"No, no, I wasn't suggesting-" "I mean, if you're worried about dealing

with a lowly press rep .. ."

"I've offended you, haven't I?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I'll live."

"I'm sorry."

"Apology accepted. You're kind of new at this game, aren't you?"

"Is it that obvious?" I said.

"Rule Number One: Never overplay your hand. Especially when the other

nartv has sienaled that they've boueht your spiel."

"So you will talk to me again?"

A slight arching of her eyebrows.

"Maybe."

During the next week, I called her three times at her office. She was

always "in a meeting." The fourth time around, she deigned to

answer.

"You're kind of persistent, aren't you?" she said after taking the

call.

"And you're very good at playing hard to get."

"Oh, I get it. If a woman doesn't call you right back, it must be some

sort of flirty game she's playing. It has nothing to do with the fact

that she might just have a high-pressure job."

"So I suppose dinner tomorrow is out of the question?"

"I guess I could spend an evening listening to your sales pitch."

Now that's what I call attitude-of the sort that most guys would find a

little too hot to handle. But I was charmed by Lizzie's

self-assurance. Behind the flirtatious bravado, I sensed that she was

a fellow urban hopeful-someone who was also trying to gain a foothold

in the big bad city.

"You close. I influence."

I remember the moment when she said that line and stroked my hand with

her index finger. It was during that first dinner together. It was

late, the plates had been cleared away, we'd polished off a martini

each and a bottle of zinfandel, and had just asked the waiter for two

more glasses of wine to keep the alcohol flowing. Maybe it was excess

intake of booze, or maybe it was the soft lighting that made her seem

even more radiant than when we first met. Or maybe it was the fact

that, ever since sitting down together two hours earlier, there hadn't

been a nanosecond's lull in the conversation. I knew that we had

clicked. Whatever the reason, I suddenly looked up at her and blurted

out:

"You know, I'm going to marry you."

After this dumb revelation, there was a very long silence- during which

I really did pray for the floor beneath my feet to open up and swallow

me whole. But Lizzie didn't seem even remotely nonplussed by my

drunken proposal. Instead, she kept running her finger across the top

of my hand, while working hard to control her

Finally she graced me with a tipsy smile and said, "You really do have

a lot to learn about salesmanship."

"Sorry, sorry, sorry. That was the all-time stupidest comment in

recorded history...."

"Shut up and kiss me," she said.

Much later that night, at her tiny studio apartment on Nineteenth and

Second, she turned to me in bed and said, "You see, persistence does

pay off."

"So does playing hard to get."

"Wise guy," she said with a laugh.

"I give as good as I get."

"You mean, just like me."

"Old Irish saying: There's a pair of us in it."

"Oh, is there?"

I put my arms around her and drew her close.

"I think so," I said.

She snuggled against me.

"Well see."

It had been four and a half years since that first drunken night

together, and there was still "a pair of us in it." Don't get me

wrong-I've never been one of those smug clowns who waxes lyrical about

how he has the "perfect partnership." We are, after all, different

people. Lizzie has a very black-and-white view of the world, a belief

that the line between right and wrong is a clearly defined one. And

though I also like to consider myself an ethical guy, I tend to see

several angles lurking behind every situation.

So, though we'd been all but inseparable since that initial dinner (and

were married in 1994), we had hit the inevitable bouts of turbulence ..

. and just the month before we had negotiated our way through a rough

passage that (had it been allowed to fester) could have swamped us. But

what marriage hasn't weathered bad weather, right? And, at heart, I

knew we were in it for the long haul because .. . well, put it this

way: Words like don't or you can't or I won't allow it had never passed

between us. We don't compete professionally, or play mind-fuck games

of one-upmanship. We actually like each other. More tellingly, we

still have the capacity to amuse each other. And how many couples can

say that after nearly five years together?

Of course, we do have differences of opinion. Like on the matter flan

and Geena. I like Geena, and enjoy lan in small doses. Of course, I

like to banter with him. But whereas Lizzie takes his name-dropping in

stride, I always find myself competing with the guy. Maybe that's

because, at heart, I am secretly impressed by the fact that he went to

the same school as John F. Kennedy, Jr." had recently written a

lengthy profile of Peter Jennings for Mirabella, and seemed to know

everybody of journalistic and literary importance in New York.

That's a fundamental difference between Lizzie and myself- she doesn't

get overawed by everything cutting edge-that world, according to New

York magazine, that dictates what you should be eating, drinking,

watching, reading, or talking about. Of course, she thrives on "being

in the know" and occupying the inside metropolitan track, which is such

an elemental part of public relations work. But unlike me, she never

fears the loss of her power to convince. Nor does she feel the need to

prove her credentials as a heavy-hitter by always flashing the AMEX

Gold Card.

"We'll take care of that," I offered as the check arrived.

Lizzie's lips tightened, but she said nothing.

"Ned, it's a fortune here," Geena said.

"At least let us split it."

I fingered open the half-folded bill that the waiter had placed in

front of me. Three hundred and eighteen dollars. Ouch.

"You guys can do the next one," I said, tossing my American Express

card down on the little tray and praying hard that it would be accepted

(I'd gotten a letter from AMEX earlier in the week, all but threatening

me with grievous bodily harm if I didn't pay up my overdue bill).

"I must say," Geena said, "for once, all the hype was true. Those ri

sotto cakes were truly amazing."

"And at least they didn't charge us for the high celeb quotient,"

Lizzie added.

"Speaking of which," Ian said, "look who's walking in right now."

Along with everyone else in the main dining room, we all briefly craned

our heads to watch the entrance of an exceptionally tall, powerfully

built man in his early fifties. Everything about him exuded

authoritative ease. At six foot four, he towered over the room. There

was not an ounce of flab on his domineering frame. His face was

Derma-tanned. His suit and shirt looked Savile Row. His blue gray

eyes were clear and hard. But what really struck me were his hands.

They were as immense as bear paws. The grab-all hands of a grab-all

man.

"Well, well," Ian said, "the Great Motivator arrives."

The Great Motivator. Better known as Jack Ballantine. If you've been

alive and cognizant for the past twenty years, you've undoubtedly read

all about the Jack Ballantine story. How he grew up as a steelworker's

son in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, discovered a talent for football in

high school, won a full scholarship to Michigan State, became the most

renowned college quarterback of the mid-sixties, then led the Dallas

Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories during his high-profile

professional career.

Jack Ballantine wasn't just an ace quarterback, however. He was also a

glitz-freak, someone who drove 150 miles per hour in the fast lane.

During his decade with the Cowboys, he cultivated a reputation as a

full-fledged convert to the Playboy worldview. A string of Ferraris. A

string of Hollywood actress girlfriends. A string of designer bachelor

pads in New York, the Hollywood Hills, Vail, and Dallas. And a

propensity for trouble-for picking fights in bars, punching out nosy

journalists, and allegedly hanging out with guys whose names were well

known to federal law enforcement agencies.

Everyone expected Ballantine to end up as an archetypal screwed-up

jock, someone who, upon retiring from the NFL, would blow most of his

fortune on nose candy, rapacious women, and bad investments. Instead,

he surprised the world by moving to New York in 1975 and becoming a

self-styled real-estate developer. The cynics laughed-and predicted

he'd be in bankruptcy court within twelve months. But Ballantine

turned out to be a shrewd businessman. Starting with a series of small

property acquisitions in the outer boroughs, he gradually moved into

the Manhattan marketplace, cutting a series of big-news deals in the

early '80s that guaranteed him a multimillionaire lifestyle and the

status of a player.

But Ballantine being Ballantine, he wasn't satisfied with the humdrum

role of multimillionaire developer. Rather, he had to transform

himself into the Master Builder-Mr. High-rise, who, during the height

of Reaganomics, imprinted his very own stamp on the Manhattan

citvscaDe. Bie buildiners. Bier deals. Two heavilv publicized

marriages. Two heavily publicized divorces. A man who sold himself to

the public as the great entrepreneurial patriot of his time:

Capitalism's Great Quarterback.

Of course, there were endless rumors that much of Ballantine's empire

was built on sand-that he was constantly on the brink of financial

collapse. Just as there were loud whispers that he played fast and

loose in business-that he was a man with a flexible set of scruples.

Then, in 1991, it finally all went wrong. A casino deal in Atlantic

City fell apart. A huge high-rise development in Battery Park City

spiraled way over budget. Ballantine's corporate cash flow dried up.

He was $200 million in debt. His bankers decided that he was no longer

worth the gamble. So they pulled the plug. And the Ballantine

building empire crashed and burned.

It was a widely publicized downfall. And the public loved it. To many

people, there was something deeply satisfying about watching the

Waterloo of such a towering testament to self-admiration. We may

worship success in America, but we are also riveted by failure.

Especially when the individual in question has committed the sin of

hubris. Pride goeth before a fall, after all. Particularly in the

City of New York.

Though his business may have gone to the wall, Ballantine wasn't

exactly reduced to selling pencils in front of Bloomingdale's, as he

managed to hang on to most of his substantial personal assets. But

after filing for bankruptcy, he did slip out of the public gaze for

around three years. The man whose face once dominated the New York

media simply vanished from view-and all sorts of gossip began to fly

about how he'd had a nervous breakdown, and had become a Howard

Hughes-type recluse on some obscure Caribbean island.

As it turned out, Ballantine used his three-year sabbatical to kick

back and consider his next move. Because when he emerged during 1994

and again found the spotlight it was under the guise of his newfound

persona. Mr. High-rise had become the Great Motivator-and he started

cleaning up on the lecture circuit, giving uplifting, preachy talks

about his win-win philosophy of life, and how it had given him the

strength to reinvent himself after watching his

He also started churning out personal empowerment books. To date, he'd

written three. They were all national best-sellers. They had titles

like The Success Zone and The "You" Conquest. They were brimming with

gridiron metaphors, and they all trumpeted Ballan-tine's basic

worldview: Though the skillful tactician may travel far down the

playing field, the guy who hits hardest actually scores the

touchdown.

So, having fallen from grace, Ballantine was now firmly back in the

public eye-appearing regularly on talk shows, filling

three-thousand-seat conference halls, his face staring out at you from

every bookstore window you passed. Of course, there was still much

derision among the metropolitan elite about his comeback. Regardless

of his mixed press, the fact was, the guy could still walk into a

heavy-hitting joint like Patroon and cause it to momentarily fall

silent. And that, to me, was real power.

Ballantine arrived with two men in black suits. One carried a

briefcase and looked as if he was the Great Motivator's personal

assistant. The other was evidently some sort of security goon, his

eyes scanning every diner in the room. Ballantine made a brief stop at

Edgar Bronfman's table-the Seagram heir already on his feet by the time

they arrived and greeting Ballantine with a two-handed shake.

"See the guy with the briefcase?" Ian said.

"I bet Ballantine's going to make him go from table to table and hawk

his motivational tapes."

"Ian, your voice," Geena said, whispering.

"What's he going to do? Come over here and rearrange my face?"

As if on cue, the black-suited man approached our table. Ian turned a

chalky shade of white. But the guy wasn't interested in him. He was

staring at me.

"Ned Allen?" he asked.

I nodded slowly. He was around my age, with a chiseled jaw. I was

certain I had seen his face somewhere before. He proffered his hand.

"Jerry Schubert," he said.

"Brunswick High, class of eighty-three."

"Jesus," I said, standing up and clasping his hand.

"Jesus Christ. I don't believe this."

"Small world. How long you been in the city?"

"Since leaving college. You?"

"Ditto. I've been Mr. Ballantine's personal assistant for the past

three years."

"You've done well."

Noticing that Lizzie had her hand on the back of my chair, he gave her

an approving nod.

"So have you."

"Sorry. My wife, Lizzie."

Lizzie smiled thinly.

"And la nand Geena Deane."

"Hang on, are you the guy who writes that column in the News?"

Ian looked a little edgy.

"Yeah, that's me."

"Mr. Ballantine really appreciated the mention you gave him last

week."

lana voided Jerry's unamused gaze.

"It was just a gag."

"You have an interesting sense of humor, Mr. Deane." His expression

lightened.

"But Mr. Ballantine knows how to take a joke."

He glanced over at his boss. Ballantine was just leaving Bronf-man's

table, and the security goon was making discreet little head motions,

letting it be known Jerry was wanted, pronto.

"Listen, got to go," he said, reaching into the breast pocket of his

jacket and handing me a card.

"It would be great to catch up. Talk some Maine talk."

"You still playing hockey?" I asked, slipping him one of my business

cards.

"Only in my dreams." He glanced at my card.

"Regional sales director. Impressive. Listen, nice meeting

everyone-even you, Mr. Deane. Call me, okay?"

"Okay," I said.

"I mean it."

As soon as he was out of earshot, Geena said, "Well, I'm impressed."

"What the hell did you say about Ballantine in your column?" I asked

Ian.

"I just made a io key little aside about Ballantine's new book,

saying it was full of great tips about how to go bankrupt but still

hold on to your yacht."

"A laugh a minute, my husband," Geena said.

"Hell, it was the truth," Ian said.

"Ballantine's business collapsed like the Fall of Rome, but he kept on

living like Donald Trump. And now he's risen from the dead again. The

man's so indestructible he makes Rasputin look like a wimp."

"Did you know that Jerry guy well in high school?" Lizzie asked.

"We were in the same homeroom, we hung out a bit during sophomore

year-but then Jerry got to be a big-deal player on the hockey team, so

he became part of the jock crowd." Had Ian not been at the table, I

would have also mentioned the fact that, besides being a killer on the

ice, Jerry Schubert also had something of an infamous reputation at

Brunswick High. Because, during his senior year, he was involved in a

small local scandal, when he was accused (along with two other players)

of helping throw a crucial statewide championship hockey game.

Allegations flew that he had links to some local bookies who'd bet

heavily on the game-but a police investigation turned up no hard

evidence, and he was eventually exonerated. It was all ancient history

now-but there's no such thing as an old story to a gossipmonger like

Ian. He'd have the tale in print the next day ("Word around town has

it that Jack Ballantine's personal assistant may have once been

involved in a small town betting scandal.. .."). And I would

rightfully stand accused of dredging up dirt about an old friend. So I

said nothing, except, "I read in some local paper that Jerry tried out

for the NHL after college. Guess he didn't make it."

"So now he carries the Great Motivator's briefcase," Ian said.

"You know what I love about you, darling?" Geena said.

"Your warm, all-embracing love of humanity."

"How can you expect humanity from a journalist?" I said, flashing lana

smile.

"Ned's right," lananswered.

"It's like expecting subtlety from a salesman."

I managed a hollow little laugh. Yet again, the bastard had gotten the

last word.

In the taxi back to our apartment, Lizzie said, "I really wish you

Would stop trying to outdo lana ll the time."

48 DODGLiS IEIIEDT "It's just banter."

"To him, yeah. But to you, it's serious."

"No, it's not.. .."

"Ned, as I've told you again and again-you don't have to compete with

anyone, or keep proving that you are a success. You are a success.

"T'.

I'm not trying to prove anything."

"Then why did you pick up the check tonight?"

"Don't worry about the cost of the dinner...."

"I am worried about the cost of the dinner. We are incredibly

overextended."

"No, we're not."

"Sixty grand in the red isn't overextended?"

"In two weeks, my bonus check rolls in and well be back in the

black."

"Until you start spending again."

"So 111 stop spending," I said.

"No, you won't. Because you need to spend. It makes you feel on top

of things."

I needed to end this conversation fast.

"Spending is fun," I said.

"Especially with you."

She took my face in her hands and gave me a wry smile.

"That's what I call a romantic evasion."

Our apartment was located on Twentieth Street between Fifth and Sixth,

the so-called Flatiron district-better known as "SoHo Nouveau," if you

believe what you read in the magazines. New warehouse apartments. New

restaurants and bars. Trendy shopping (Emporio Armani, Paul Smith,

even the de rigueur outposts of the Gap, J. Crew, and Banana Republic).

And staggeringly high rents. Our one-bedroom loft (bleached parquet

floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, state-of-the-art kitchen) ran us

$2,200 a month-with the landlord threatening a 15 percent increase when

the lease ended in February.

The message light was blinking on our answering machine. I hit the

"playback" button and heard the voice of Ivan Dolinsky. He'd applied a

coat of upbeat confidence to his voice, but it couldn't mask the

precarious shakiness-the aura of damaged goods- which had. of late,

become his defining trait.

"Boss, Ivan here. Listen, sorry, real sorry to call you at home. Was

gonna call you on your cellphone, but then thought, hey, the guy's got

a life, right? Don't need to be hearing live from me in the late P.M.

So that's why I decided to try your land line. Everything's great,

just great, like real great with the GBS spread. Closing tomorrow,

high noon-after which, pardner, I'm gonna feel like the biggest

gunslinger in the West. But, listen, the point of bothering you at

home .. . word on the street has it that Chuckie Zanussi made an

unscheduled stopover in the "Big C'.. .."

Shit. Shit. Shit. The jungle drums were beating at CompuWorld. And

I knew who was hitting the bongos the loudest. Debbie Suarez. Great

hustler. Big mouth.

".. . Anyway, you know me, Mr. Heebie-jeebies. The glass isn't just

half empty, it's also the last drop of water on earth.. .. What I'm

saying here is: We got a problem? A little Jap problem, perhaps? Don't

get me wrong: Yokimura's been good to me. But when a Jap wants to fuck

you over ..."

I hit the "pause" button. Lizzie rolled her eyes.

"Charming," she said.

"Well, he is a Vietnam vet."

"I didn't realize we were fighting the Japanese in Vietnam," Lizzie

said, heading into the bedroom. I clicked the machine back on.

"... So, boss, if you wouldn't mind, gimme a fast call when you get

back tonight, just so I can sleep soundly and not worry about having my

butt downsized. Ring me anytime. Doesn't matter how late it is-just

please give me that call and help me put my anxieties on hold."

Great. Just great. Dealing with Ivan Dolinsky-my onetime numero-uno

rainmaker, for Christ's sake-had become like Psych 101. "Gimme a fast

call when you get back tonight, just so I can sleep soundly .. ." The

poor bastard hadn't slept soundly in over two years-ever since his only

child, Nancy, had died of meningitis. She was just three-and the

center of Ivan's life. Especially as she was an in vitro baby-the

miracle (as Ivan called her) who arrived after five long years of

trying for a child. The fact that he was forty-six when she was born

(and that it was his first child after two failed marriages) made

Nancy's arrival all the more emotional .. . and her death a sorrow

beyond comprehension. Within months of losing her, his marriage was

history. His concentration went south. He started missing

appointments. And he stopped closing.

Chuck had wanted to fire him a year ago, after he lost us a major Tech

World multipage insert that was essentially in the bag (until Ivan

missed four straight meetings). But I successfully plea-bargained his

case with Chuck, then forced Ivan to see a grief counselor and started

feeding him some easy accounts to gently ease him back into selling

mode. And, within the past couple of months, he had started to deliver

the goods again-to the point where I'd trusted him to land a big GBS

spread. But the guy still needed nonstop TLC. And he had developed

this unfortunate habit of talking your ear off whenever he phoned-a

straightforward business call turning into a twenty-minute monologue.

Which is why I wasn't up for phoning him tonight. So, heading over to

my desktop computer (which we keep in a little home-office alcove

adjacent to our kitchen), I banged out a fast e-mail, short and

sedate.

Ivan:

No need to lose sleep over small potatoes. I'm not. Because

nothing-repeat, nothing-sinister is in the air. Break a leg with GBS

tomorrow. And do yourself a favor: Chill.

Ned I reread the message and thought: God, how I'd love to believe my

own bullshit. Then I hit the "Send Now" button and went to bed.

Lizzie was already curled up in her corner of the bed, reading a copy

of Vanity Fair. She put the magazine down and looked at me.

"Why didn't you tell me about Chuck Zanussi's trip to Chicago?" she

asked.

"Never got around to it, that's all," I said.

"Something big going on?"

"Not that I know of."

"Then why was Ivan calling here, sounding like he was in need of

Prozac?"

"Because he is in need of Prozac, all the time."

"You would tell me "

"What?"

"If something was up at work."

No, frankly, I wouldn't. Because I was educated in the idea that fear

or anxiety was something you didn't share with those nearest and

dearest to you. As my dad used to tell me: Never let anyone know if

you're about to shit in your pants. The fact that you're scared will

spook your family and please the hell out of your enemies.

Instead, you were supposed to internalize fear. Keep it out of sight..

. and, in the process, out of mind. Or, at least, that was my dad's

theory-and one which I'd tried to follow over the years- much to the

profound exasperation of my wife, who, during very occasional moments

of hostility, has accused me of refusing to admit that I might just

have a vulnerable bone or two in my body.

"Of course I'd tell you," I said.

"Bullshit."

"It's not bullshit. It's just.. ."

"You don't want to worry me."

"Exactly."

"Which means there's something to worry about."

"There is nothing to worry about. Chuck got called to a meeting in

Chicago, that's all."

"An important meeting?"

"I'm not worried."

"So something is going on."

"At this point, all I know is it-^vas just a meeting. And over

breakfast tomorrow-" "Oh, boy.. .."

"Lizzie ..."

"Chuck's hauling you in for breakfast?"

"We have breakfast together a lot."

"No, you don't."

"Okay, you're right. It's the first time in, I don't know..."

"Try ever. Chuck hates 'doing' breakfast."

"How'd you know that?"

"You told me."

"I guess I did. But hey, it's just a breakfast, right?"

"I really wish you weren't so damn secretive."

"I'm not secretive. Just coy."

"You are impossible, you know that?" I slid into bed next to her.

"But you love me all the same," I said.

"Unfortunately, yes."

I pulled her toward me. Immediately, she began to move away.

"Ned .. . no," she said. An awkward silence.

"It's been almost three weeks," I said quietly.

"I know," she said, her voice barely a whisper.

"But the doctor said it could take up to twenty-one days before ..."

"Whatever. I'm not trying to push you ..."

"I know you're not. And I do, will want to again soon. But just right

now not.. .

"Fine, fine," I said, stroking her hair.

"There's no rush. But you are feeling, uh, okay about... ?"

"Sure," she said flatly.

Another awkward silence-one which we found difficult to fill. Recently,

there had been too many of these silences. And they all related to the

same thing: Lizzie's miscarriage three weeks earlier.

The pregnancy had been a total accident, a "mechanical failure,"

perpetrated (we discovered later) by a microscopic tear in Lizzie's

diaphragm. As such, the news that we were parents to be came as a

massive two-thousand-watt jolt. After the initial shock, Lizzie was

delighted with the news. But when the home pregnancy test turned a

bright shade of pink, I went gray.

"Come on, sweetheart," Lizzie said after registering my high anxiety.

"We always knew we wanted children eventually. So this is just

nature's way of saying that eventually has arrived sooner than

expected."

"Nature had nothing to do with it," I said grimly.

"You're scared of this, aren't you?"

"Not scared-just worried."

"Don't you want this child?" she asked, absently touching her

stomach.

"Of course I do," I lied.

"It's just .. . well, it's not exactly the right moment, is it?

Especially considering the professional pressure we're both under."

"It's never going to be 'the right moment." There will always be some

pressing deadline, some deal going down. That's how life works. Okay,

a kid will make things a little more complicated. But he or she will

also be the best thing that ever happened to us."

"I'm sure you're right," I said.

She withdrew her hand and looked at me with care.

"I wish you were happier about this news."

"I wish I was, too."

To be straight about it, I was never comfortable with the idea of

parenthood. In fact, it was an event I was hoping to indefinitely

postpone. To me, the notion of children has always been terrifying,

because I know I'd be the sort of father who would live in fear of

getting it wrong, who would obsess endlessly about my children's

welfare. And because I remembered that look of profound disappointment

in my father's eyes whenever he felt he had failed me.

Anyway, I rationalized, why create unnecessary havoc in your

life-especially at a time when you have, professionally speaking, hit

your stride? Things were going far too well right now for us. One day

we'd be ready for a third party. But only when we could afford to give

the kid the best.

So, I panicked. Lizzie's dismay at my hesitation was obvious. And

though I tried to make up for it by being extremely attentive when she

was hit with morning sickness, she was a little wary. That's the thing

about Lizzie-she's nobody's fool. She comes equipped with an

extra-sensitive bullshit meter that can always discern whether what I'm

saying is what I'm actually thinking.

Still, after around eight weeks, I began to convince myself that I

should calm down and embrace the news. Lizzie was right: Having a

child would be the best thing that ever happened to us. Because, after

all, she was the best thing that ever happened to me.

And then, one afternoon I received a call at the office. It was Geena.

Her tone of voice immediately disturbed me. It was so controlled, so

steady.

"Ned," she said, "I don't want you to panic, but.. ."

I instantly panicked.

"What's happened to Lizzie?"

"Lizzie is going to be just fine. But we had to rush her to New York

Hospital, she had started to bleed heavily.. .."

I eulned.

"The baby?"

"Ned, I'm really sorry.. .."

I was at New York Hospital fifteen minutes later. The attending E.R.

resident told me that Lizzie had miscarried, and had been whisked up to

surgery for a fast DC.

"She's going to be very weak when she comes around, not to mention a

little traumatized when the loss of the baby sinks in. But from what I

could determine, the miscarriage was a very straightforward one-so

there's no reason why she shouldn't conceive again."

It was over three hours before I was allowed to see her. She was

tucked in bed, attached to a drip, her face ashen from the loss of

blood. But what immediately struck me were her eyes. They were

shell-shocked.

I sat down and clasped her hand tightly.

"I suppose you're relieved," she said quietly.

I felt as if I had been slapped across the face.

"You know that's not true."

Suddenly she leaned forward, buried her head in my shoulder, and began

to sob uncontrollably. I held her until the crying subsided.

"It'll be fine next time," I finally said.

"I don't want to talk about this," she said.

So the subject was dropped for the night. The next day, when I

returned to the hospital to take her home, I made the mistake of faking

an upbeat tone.

"As soon as you're better, we really should try again."

She stared at the floor and said nothing. So I took the hint and

didn't raise the subject of the miscarriage again. For the first week

her anguish was palpable-yet so was her equally strong desire not to

discuss the matter with me. As she tried to cope with her grief, she

erected a temporary wall between us. And though I respected her need

for that thing called "space," I couldn't help but fear that a distance

had opened up between us-that, for the first time since we met, an aura

of doubt about me had been raised. And I kept privately kicking myself

for having greeted her pregnancy with gloom, for letting my own

anxieties and self-doubt cloud what should have been a great moment

between us.

But after that first week her mood seemed to lift, and with relief

I watched the gap between us begin to close. I didn't mention the

failed pregnancy again. Nor did Lizzie-until tonight, when we had yet

another of those silences that now seem to occasionally descend onus.

But hey-this is probably par for the course after a miscarriage. Most

of the time neither of us is exactly taciturn. We're still happy as

hell together. It's just a phase, something that we'll get beyond in

time. By which I mean soon. Real soon.

"I'm going to try to sleep," Lizzie said, turning to kiss me.

"Don't worry about anything. That's my job."

She turned off her light, embraced her pillow, and was unconscious

within seconds. I stared at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to arrive.

And telling myself, There really is nothing to worry about. Because

you're a winner, right? And only the winner goes to dinner.

FOUR

Dan Sugarman was serving for the set when he began to have doubts.

Having broken my serve in the sixth game, he was now up five-three,

thirty-love, just two more points to win in order to clinch the set.

But then he double-faulted, slamming down a blistering second serve

that went way east of the box.

Thirty-fifteen.

I glanced at my watch. 6:41 A.M. Nineteen minutes to go in our

designated hour on court. Sixty-four minutes before my breakfast with

Chuck Zanussi. Don't think about it, don't think about it, I told

myself. Just concentrate on the next point.

Sugar-man's first serve was another slam-dunk attempt at an ace-and one

that I just managed to get my racket on, sending it airborne. It was a

shallow lob and Dan came racing in, ready to perform the coup de grace.

But taking his eye off the ball, he volleyed it right into the net.

Thirty-all.

Now he tried a change-of-pace serve: low velocity, yet with

considerable tops ping But I managed to position myself properly and

hit a clean forehand winner right down the line.

Thirty-forty.

As Dan returned to the baseline, he shook his head, muttering something

inaudible. Then he glanced up quickly at me-a look of ambivalence and

uncertainty, of hesitancy and lack of belief. The look only lasted a

second-but it said it all. I knew that I was going to win the set.

A ferocious first serve, just wide of the center line. Then an

ultra-cautious "shit-it's-break-point" second serve that plopped right

down in the middle of the box. I moved forward, racket way back,

ostensibly poised to hit a deep shot. But as Dan hovered behind the

baseline, I switched tactics and chipped a little drop shot right over

the net. Dan scrambled to reach it, but it was into its second bounce

by the time he was within its vicinity.

"SONOFABITCH!" he screamed as ran straight into the net-but then he

raised his hand in instant apology. Tennis is a gentleman's game,

after all. Until you start having doubts and begin to make mistakes.

Then it suddenly becomes a do-or-die battle. With yourself.

Dan Sugarman was always having this sort of battle with himself. From

all accounts, he was an attack dog of a metals trader, a guy who gave

nervous breakdowns to all his underlings and stalked the futures pits

of the commodities exchange like a psychotic general. Or, at least

that's what I'd heard around the locker room at the New York Health and

Racquet Club, where Sugarman and I played at 6:00 A.M. twice a week.

Having faced the guy over a net for the past three months (we were put

together by the club's resident pro after I mentioned I was in the

market for a regular early-morning game), I still knew nothing much

about Sugarman's background- except that he was in his early forties,

was worth big bucks, lived on Sutton Place, was married to a shopaholic

named Mitzi whom he worked hard at rarely seeing ... and had this habit

of slamming his 375-dollar Wilson graphite racket into the court

whenever he blew a point.

Yeah, Sugarman was a real type-A, I-gut-the-competition specimen-for

whom life was an ongoing combat zone. And, of course, being five foot

four, he also had his Napoleonic thing on constant auto-drive-a real

little man's need to assert himself at all costs. That s the thing

about tennis-after you've played against a guy a few times, you get to

see all his limitations, his fears and self-doubt. Because winning on

the court is only partially dependent upon your skill and your physical

stamina. What ultimately determines the outcome of a match (especially

when you and your opponent a^e evenly matched) is whether you can

maintain the advantage when it comes your way. Can you convert it into

success? Do you really want to win that badly? Or is there some

nagging, latent uncertainty regarding your ability to pull it off?

This was Sugarman's problem. Every time we played, he'd grab an early

advantage-and then inevitably screw it up by becoming agitated. Maybe

that's because, on the court, he's so nakedly determined. I'm the sort

of competitive player who simply worries about winning the next

point-and, as such, looks upon a match as a string of little victories.

Sugarman, on the other hand, is a maniacally ambitious player-for whom

every match is a war in which he simply has to triumph. But whenever

the guy has victory in his sights-wham-a couple of aggressive bad shots

and he starts to fall apart.

Serving at four-five, I quickly won the game, thanks to his series of

unforced errors. But at five-all, his first serve came back to life.

He aced me twice, then placed a brilliantly executed lob that totally

wrong-footed me. Suddenly he was up forty-love, serving for the game,

smiling smugly at me. A smile that said, And you think you're a

winner.

That's when I went on the offensive, punishing his tentative first

serve by dropping it right at his feet. Then, on the next point, I hit

a clean forehand straight down the line.

Thirty-forty.

His next serve arrived with plenty of tops ping but I managed a

cross-court backhand that was unreachable.

Deuce.

He had an attack of nerves and double-faulted. And then, having

delivered a shallow volley at the net, I was suddenly up six-five and

serving for the set.

Sugarman was no longer smiling-because he knew I was determined to end

this thing fast.

Two aces, followed by a vengeful overhead smash, and it was set point.

I tossed the ball up and slammed a clean winner down the center line.

Sugarman dived for the serve, but it shot past him and he stumbled

across the court like a drunk.

"SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!" he screamed. With that, a bell chimed on the

club's loudspeaker, announcing that our hour on the court was up.

Sugarman wearily approached the net. I followed suit. We shook

hands.

"My mind's elsewhere this morning," he said.

"Yeah, so's mine."

"Didn't look that way to me. You were judge, jury, and executioner out

there. A comeback like that, you're set up for a good day, pal."

"Your lips to God's ear," I said.

Within fifteen minutes of leaving the court I was showered, suited, and

barreling uptown in a cab. Just south of Forty-ninth Street we drove

directly into a massive gridlock. For a quarter of an hour we sat

there without moving a yard.

"Anything you can do?" I finally asked the driver.

"I ain't a helicopter," he said.

Seven-thirty-seven. There was no way I was going to make the Waldorf

in fifteen minutes. So I tossed ten bucks at the driver, threw open

the door, and said, "Thanks, I'm outta here." Then, to the

accompaniment of three dozen wailing car horns, I started weaving my

way through the bottleneck. Heading toward Fifty-first Street I

charged across the overpass. Seven-forty-one. And Fifty-first going

west was just as bad as the Drive: one long coronary occlusion of

traffic. I began to jog, dodging pedestrians, bicyclists, dachshunds

on leashes, and kamikaze D'Agostino delivery boys. First Avenue .. .

Why are cross town blocks so long? .. . Second. Third.

"Watch where you're running, jerkoff," snapped an elderly woman after I

nearly collided with her. Lexington. Park. Fast turning south.

Seven-forty-eight. Look out for the guy with the takeout tray of

Starbucks coffee. The Waldorf was now in sight. Five, four, three,

two, one ... I burst through the front doors and leaned against a wall,

panting. Though it was barely twenty degrees outside, my shirt was

soaked and my face saturated with sweat. I wanted to retreat to the

men's room and clean up, but I was already five minutes late. So I

turned to the bellhop standing by the door and asked for a

handkerchief.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of Kleenex. I

ripped it open, grabbed the wad of tissues, and quickly mopped face.

Then I handed the empty plastic back to him, along with dollar.

"Thanks-that should buy you another one," I said.

"You okay now, sir?"

I straightened myself out, un kinked my shoulders, and took a deep,

steadying breath.

"I'm great. Just great."

Chuck Zanussi was sitting at a corner table that faced into an alcove.

Anyone glancing into the Peacock Alley Restaurant would have noticed

Chuckie right away. Because-at six foot three and two hundred and

seventy pounds, and with a treble chin, two bear claws for hands, and

the belly of a Sumo wrestler-he was a guy who, like Mount Rushmore,

commanded attention. As I approached the table I noticed a steaming

stack of pancakes at his place. They were drenched in a small

reservoir of maple syrup.

"Sorry I'm a bit late," I said.

"Traffic on the Drive was fucking impossible.. .."

Chuck cleared his throat and nodded uncomfortably across the table at a

man in his thirties, hidden from view in the alcove recess. Tall, rail

thin, with slicked-back hair (jet black), dressed in a well-cut

charcoal gray suit, white spread-collar shirt, and a discreet polka-dot

tie. Definitely a "Euro." And from the way he was now pointedly

studying his fingertips, a guy who could be instantly filed away under

Trouble.

"Sorry, sorry," I said, still sounding breathless.

"I didn't realize ..."

The Euro gave me a nonchalant shrug, followed by an unctuous little

smile.

Chuck said, "Ned, I want you to meet Klaus Kreplin."

"I have heard much about you," Kreplin said, his English frighteningly

precise.

"Have you really?" I said, shooting Chuckie a look that essentially

said, Who is this joker?

"Of course I have heard of Ned Allen," Kreplin said, motioning for me

to sit down.

"You ask anyone at CompuWorld, Who is the number one regional manager,

the advertising wizard-and it is your name which they say."

"That's, uh, nice to know," I said, sliding into the chair and giving

Chuck another bemused glance. But Chuckie kept his eyes firmly fixed

on his mate of nan cakes Kreolin keot talk ins

"Naturally, in our company, we are always keen to let talent prosper..

."

Our company. My pulse jumped a notch or two.

".. . and we believe in rewarding the supernormal .. . sorry, sorry,

my English .. . the cut above, the superior. Men like yourself."

I addressed the next question to Chuck Zanussi.

"He's bought the magazine?"

Kreplin led out a strained laugh.

"No, no, no, it is not I who has bought CompuWorld, much as I would

find such a prospect amusing. It is my company that has purchased your

magazine."

"And every other title in the Getz-Braun group," Chuck added.

"Klaus is with Kiang-Sanderling."

"You have heard of us?" Kreplin asked.

They were only one of the biggest infotainment multinationals in

Europe-and a major player in the expanding communications markets of

Asia and South America.

"Who hasn't?" I said.

Another smarmy smile from Klaus Kreplin.

"We have been looking for a North American platform for some time,"

Kreplin said.

"And we saw Getz-Braun as the perfect milieu in which to reside on this

side of the Atlantic."

The perfect milieu. Kiang-Sanderling probably gobbled up Getz-Braun

for over $3 billion, but Kreplin made it sound as if they'd just

changed interior decorators.

"And what's your role in this new milieu?" I asked.

"Klaus is our new publisher," Chuck said.

"No, no, no," Klaus said.

"As I told you, Chuck-you are still the publisher of CompuWorld. I am

simply the wfoer-publisher of all Getz-Braun audio and computer titles.

But..."

He addressed me directly now.

"... please let me assure you: The individual sovereignty of each

magazine will be respected. This is what I told Chuck on the plane

back from Chicago yesterday evening.. .."

"When you called me," I said to Chuck. Kreplin jumped in again.

"When I asked Chuck to call you and set up this meeting. And the

reason why I wanted to meet you without delay, Ned, is because

Kiang-Sanderling puts great faith in the idea of ordered continuity. We

have great experience of this sort of transitional corporate situation,

and we pride ourselves on causing as little interference as possible in

the ongoing affairs of a viable title such as your own."

"You mean, I can tell everybody on my team that their job is safe?" I

asked.

"Without question. And, by the way, I admire a manager who is

protective of his underlings."

"They are not underlings, Mr. Kreplin."

I felt a shoe hit my shin. Chuck's way of telling me to back off.

"Of course, of course. My English again.

"Colleagues," yes?"

"You've got it. And the best sales team in the business."

"Well, again, let me assure you, your team will remain your team. And

please-my name is Klaus, okay?"

"Sure," I said.

"Mind if I get some coffee here?"

"My God," Kreplin said, "how rude of me." He snapped his fingers at

the waiter.

"Coffee and .. ."

"Just coffee," I said.

"Surely you must eat some breakfast?" Kreplin said.

"I'm not hungry."

"Chuck?"

He stared down at his stack of pancakes.

"I'm doing fine, Klaus."

Kreplin consulted his watch, then pulled a small cellular phone from

his briefcase.

"I must call the head office in Hamburg. You will excuse me for a

minute?"

We both nodded and he headed out to the lobby. There was a long

silence, during which Chuck continued to stir his lagoon of maple

syrup. After Kreplin was well out of sight, Chuck motioned me forward

and whispered, "What sort of aggressive asshole behavior was that?"

"Asshole? Asshole?" I hissed back.

"You're the total asshole here, Chuckie. Dropping me in this without a

warning."

"You think I find this fun? I only got crash-landed with this scenario

at five last night.

"Hey, Chuckie, how 'bout stopping by Chicago on your way back from

Seattle for a little late lunch?" And then, bad da-bing, bad da-boom,

here are a couple of heavy-hitting Krauts, announcing they're running

the show now."

"You still should've called me .. ."

"Cut me some slack here, huh? I had Mr.

"Master Race' Kreplin baby-sitting me all the way back to La

Guardia-and as soon as we land, he has to hit the town. All I want to

do is catch the airport limo to Larchmont and call it a night, but the

guy's insistent. And since he is suddenly my boss, what am I gonna do?

Tell him to go blow a chicken? Sonofabitch keeps me out until

one-thirty. Insists on dragging me to some strip joint on Seventh and

Forty-ninth where the champagne's one-fifty a pop. Ever see a girl

with a glass eye twirl a couple of tit tassles counterclockwise?

Kreplin's idea of a good time. Didn't get home until nearly three, two

and a half hours' sleep and I'm back into this crap again. Wondering

whether Kreplin is leveling with us, or speaking with forked tongue."

"You think we're toast here?"

"Put it this way: I'm scared .. . but not shitless."

"Terrific."

"Look, Neddie-I want to believe the Kiang-Sanderling line that we're

gonna remain one big happy family .. . but, hey, when was the last time

you ever believed any shit from a suit?"

"

"Transitional corporate situation .. . supernormal." The guy's a

goddamn Nazi."

"Lower the volume, huh? Kreplin hears you, you'll be shining shoes at

Grand Central."

"

"Ve respect individual sovereignty." Wasn't that the same line Hitler

used on the Czechs in thirty-nine?"

"Neddie, Neddie, listen to me-we've got a situation here. A no-win

situation-because, let's face it, Kiang-Sanderling now holds all the

cards. So getting all hot under the collar against Kreplin ..."

"I wasn't getting hot under the collar."

"You were flirting with sarcasm-which is probably not the most politic

of moves right now. Especially since we know that our new

'uber-publisher can toss us both on the street in a heartbeat."

He had a point. I shrugged in weary agreement.

"Listen, Neddie-you know you're our top guy on the sales front. You

could charm the shit out of Saddam Hussein. Now all you have to do

here is make Kreplin like you. I mean, he's heard all the good buzz

about you around the company. And I think he's a smart enough cookie

to realize that, by and large, CompuWorld is a lean, mean operation-so

why install a new regime when this one delivers the goods? Just sell

yourself to the asshole, okay?"

"All right, all right," I said.

"The charm offensive starts now."

"Smart guy. And believe me, I'm in shock, too. I mean, with three

kids to support, a mother of a mortgage, bills up the wa zoo and the

annual Christmas spending spree about to kick in, this little turn of

events is making me more than a little nervous."

"Does anyone else know about the change of ownership?"

"Not yet-but you can bet that the grapevine is already humming. So

when we get back to the office, I want you to get on the horn and

personally inform everyone on your team of what's happened-and try to

reassure them that it's simply business as usual."

I thought about my late-night message from Ivan Dolinsky. The poor guy

was going to be mainlining Prozac when he heard the news.

"Another thing you'll have to explain to them ... ," Chuck said, his

voice tense once again, "... is the way their bonuses are going to be

paid out from now on."

"Oh, Jesus," I said, inadvertently raising my voice, "don't tell me

they're going to fuck with our bonuses."

"We would never do such a thing."

I looked up. Klaus Kreplin was back at our table, beaming with

pleasure at my gaffe.

"I do apologize, Mr. Kreplin," I said, attempting to sound contrite.

"Please, you must call me Klaus."

"I didn't mean any offense, Klaus."

"None taken, Ned."

"But please do understand ..."

"I know, I know. You think you have just been landed in a danger zone.

New management, a new corporate order. And you naturally worry, "Will

they terminate us all?"

I stopped myself from responding with a "Ja" (kill the sarcasm, Ned),

and simply nodded.

"These concerns I understand," Kreplin continued, "and respect. Because

they reflect wider concerns about the future of those who work with

you. But, please-you have my assurance: As long as the productivity of

your division remains high, there will be no terminations."

"I appreciate that," I said.

"And as to the matter of the Christmas bonus: Everyone will be paid

exactly what they are entitled. Our problem-and it is not precisely a

problem, more a small accounting detail-is that Kiang-Sanderling's end

of fiscal year is January thirty-first, and we never pay bonuses until

this time. However, respecting the American tradition of the bonus

before Christmas, what we propose is this: fifty percent of the bonus

on the last Friday before Christmas, and the remaining fifty percent of

the bonus on thirty-first January. A good arrangement, yes?"

No, it wasn't. Especially to someone as deep in debt as me. Or to

Debbie Suarez, who was counting on all the bonus cash before the New

Year to pay for her kid's tuition. Or to Dave Maduro, who was juggling

two alimonies. Or to just about everyone else I could think of in

Northeast sales, all of whom were paragons of fiscal irresponsibility

(Well, you show me a salesman who lives within his means). So, sorry,

Herr Kreplin-but this is a totally shitty arrangement.

I glanced over at Chuck. His eyes said it all: Don't argue with the

bastard. We have no leverage here. I mustered a workmanlike smile.

"It sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise to me."

"Wonderful," he said, happy to have "terminated" that piece of grim

business.

"Now, if your schedule will allow it, Ned, I would like you to

accompany me to dinner tonight. And then, maybe you can show me this

SoHo and Tribeca scene we have read so much about in the German

press."

I felt Chuck's shoe rap my shin again.

"Sure, Klaus. I'll just have to call my wife and-" "Excellent. I will

make reservations at eight-thirty for this amusing new restaurant I

have read about on Lafayette Street."

"You mean Pravda?" I asked.

"Most impressive," Kreplin said.

"And do you also know what pravda means in English?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Truth."

Krenlin excused himself to work the transatlantic nh one lines in his

suite upstairs at the Waldorf Towers. Chuck and I headed back to the

office. It was only a five-minute walk. We said nothing until we

reached Third Avenue and Forty-eighth, where a Salvation Army Santa was

ringing his bell and shouting "Happy holidays" in a reedy voice.

"I think I've just lost my Christmas spirit," Chuck said.

"Like you said .. . Why should he waste us when he knows that we're

more than meeting the bottom line?"

"I keep telling myself, Don't panic. And I'm finding it real hard to

follow my own advice. But listen: When we get to the office, the two

of us have got to break the news nice and calmly. It's business as

usual. Right?"

However, when we walked into the office, calm was not exactly the order

of the day. Chuck was immediately cornered by his secretary, Louise.

She looked stricken.

"Mr. Zanussi, the phone hasn't stopped ringing. I've got about twenty

urgent messages for you. You've gotta tell me: Do I still have a job

here?"

"Louise, there is nothing, nothing to worry about," he said,

shepherding her into his office and mouthing Good luck to me as he shut

the door.

I turned and headed down the corridor toward Northeast sales. I didn't

get very far. A frantic Debbie Suarez blocked my path.

"They're not paying us our bonus?" she said, raw fear in her voice.

Trust Debbie to be first with the late-breaking news.

"Debbie..."

"That's what they told me this morning...."

"Who told you?"

"People."

"What people?"

"People in the know. And they said some Germans bought us, and that

they're gonna throw us out on the street. And ..."

"Hang on now ..."

"They're gonna pocket my goddamn bonus, the assholes."

Everyone with an office along this corridor was now standing at the

doorway, watching this outburst. They all looked apprehensive.

"Debbie, please. Easy."

"I've got to have that money, Mr. Allen."

"I know you do," I said quietly as I steered her back toward her

cubicle.

"And you will get it."

She stopped and looked at me.

"You're on the level here?"

"Believe me, I am. And your job's secure, too."

"You're not saying that just to shut me up?"

I managed a laugh.

"Listen, why don't you get everyone from Telesales together now in my

office, and I'll explain exactly what's going on."

"Mr. Dolinsky's in your office."

I glanced over at my little glass-fronted work space. There indeed was

Ivan Dolinsky, standing by the window, gazing blankly out at the

street.

"He say what was going on?"

"Nothing-except he said he had to see you, pronto. He looked real bad

to me, Mr. Allen."

He was probably just as shaken as everybody else. Or, at least, that

was my best case scenario. I needed Ivan right now like I needed a

colostomy. So I asked Debbie to get him a cup of coffee (and three

Valiums, if she had any handy) and say I'd be with him in ten

minutes-after I briefed all the Telesales people in the conference

room.

Eight very scared women filed into the windowless room that CompuWorld

uses for meetings. They didn't sit down. They stood in a semicircle

while I perched on the edge of the conference table and essentially did

a song and dance to the tune of "We have nothing to fear but fear

itself." Kiang-Sanderling, I assured them, was no fly-by-night outfit.

They wanted to play ball with the same team. No personnel changes.

We're going to remain one big profitable family- blah, blah, blah.

Then I got to the business about the bonuses-and the conference room's

decibel level suddenly went into the red zone.

"They can't do that to us, Mr. Allen," Debbie said.

"Yes, they can," I said.

"It's their company now. They can do whatever they want."

"You think this is fair?" shouted Hildy Hyman, one of the CompuWorld

oldtimers-sixty-three, never married, still living with her very

geriatic mother in Kew Gardens, and just two years away from her

pension.

"Of course it's not fair, Hildy," I said.

"But we don't exactly live in a kind and gentle corporate world

anymore. If someone has the cash to take you over, they're perfectly

entitled to do so."

"Especially if they're Germans," Hildy said.

"You should talk to my mother. Burned down her father's pharmacy in

Munich in nineteen thirty-two .. ."

"Hildy," I said, "I know what happened to your mother. And it's

terrible .. ."

"They destroyed my family's business then. They are destroying our

business now."

"No, they are not. They're keeping us together, even though they don't

have to. And yeah, I know waiting an extra month for half your bonus

is lousy-but at least we'll be getting the bonus. I mean, they could

have told us to take a hike. And, from what I can gather, there'll be

no change in terms of health benefits, IRAs, the works. I really think

they're trying to be honorable about this."

"Honorable Germans," Hildy said dismissively.

"That is an oxymoron."

"What the fuck's an oxymoron?" Debbie Suarez asked.

By the end of this impromptu meeting, I'd managed to assuage most of my

Telesales team's worst fears-though they were not exactly the happiest

collection of campers as they returned to their desks. And who could

blame them? A takeover is an invasion. You suddenly find yourself

swallowed up by a superpower. They now make life-or-death decisions

about your future. All you can hope for is that your new masters don't

turn out to be graduates from the Joseph Stalin School of Management.

As I headed back to my office, I found Debbie loitering with intent in

the corridor. She radiated stress.

"Look, Mr. Allen," she said, pulling me into a side hallway.

"I gotta say something here. I'm still real worried about this bonus

thing. I mean, I gotta pay Raul's tuition by January first. And they

also make you pay a one-term deposit, which you don't get back till

your kid graduates or leaves. That's three terms I gotta pay them:

nine thousand bucks. But if I'm only gonna get sixty-seven hundred,

how am I gonna make it? And then there's the heart drugs for my mama,

and the money I owe MasterCard, and all the stuff I gotta do for

Christmas. I'm not gonna make it.. .."

"Tell you what I'll do," I said.

"Find out the name of the money guy at Raul's school and I'll talk to

him. Explain what's going on, schmooze him into letting you pay half

the money now, and the other half when the second bonus check arrives

at the end of January. It's Faber Academy, right?"

"Yeah. Real nice Quaker school."

"Then they shouldn't be jerks about money."

"Thanks, Mr. Allen."

"Piece of advice: It's new management, not the street. So just get on

with your job. Because-trust me-I think it's all going to work out

just fine."

"I do trust you, Mr. Allen."

Then God help you-because, personally, I didn't believe a word I was

uttering. But I was willing to say anything reassuring if it

maintained calm among the troops.

With Debbie's fears now eased, it was on to the next personal crisis.

Ivan Dolinsky. He was still standing by my window as I entered my

office, and seemed so preoccupied that he didn't hear me until I

spoke:

"I thought you were supposed to be up with GBS in Stamford this

morning."

"Meeting's postponed," he said, not turning around to look at me.

"Till when?"

"Later."

"You okay, Ivan?"

He finally turned and faced me. Skin the color of paper. Deep shadows

beneath his eyes. A drab navy blue suit with wide lapels, which-thanks

to the drastic amount of weight that Ivan had lost- gave him a sort of

scarecrow-mormon-missionary look. His nails were nonexistent, his

cuticles red and scabbed. Though we spoke almost every day on the

phone, he was always on the road, so I hadn't seen him in over two

months. And I had to work hard at hiding how disturbed I was by his

appearance. I wondered if he still seeing the grief counselor I'd

found for him.

"Guess you heard the news." I said.

He nodded and turned back toward the window.

"When I sent you that e-mail last night, I really didn't know what was

going on. And I didn't want you to be worrying all-" Ivan had started

to cry. Softly at first-a strangled sob which he fought to control,

yet which quickly escalated. I kicked my office door shut, quickly

lowered the blinds on the glass-fronted wall that looked out on the

Telesales cubicles, and eased Ivan into my chair. I grabbed the phone

and told Lily at the switchboard to hold all calls. Then I sat down

opposite Ivan and waited until his crying jag ended.

"Tell me," I said.

He stared down at the desk and said, "I just lost the GBS account."

FIVE

It was like a right to the jaw. I flinched. And Ivan saw me flinch.

"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, you don't know how sorry .. ."

His voice started to get shaky again. I tried to sound very sedate,

very composed.

"What exactly happened?"

"How should I know? The past two, three months I've been building a

relationship with this Ted Peterson guy in their media sales

department, we shake hands yesterday on this six-page insert for April,

I'm heading north to Stamford on 1-95 this morning, paperwork in my bag

for Peterson to sign, somewhere near Rye he calls me: "Listen, sorry,

but we've changed marketing strategies for late winter. So, no sale

right now." Nearly ran my car off the road."

"And that was it?"

"

"Course it wasn't it, Ned. I mean, it's my balls on the chopping block

here. I've invested three months romancing the cocksucker, WE HAD

FUCKING CLOSED YESTERDAY ... so do you really, really think I was just

gonna go, "Oh, hey, that's kind of disappointing ... but into every

life a little rain must fall?"

" He was yelling. I held both hands up.

"Ivan. Chill. I am not angry." (Lie.) "I am not upset." (Bigger

lie.) "I just need to know the facts."

"Sorry, sorry .. . I'm really adrift here, Ned. It's just, like, with

what's been going on, this bad news was ..."

"I hear you." And I did. His kid. His marriage. His professional

worth. Loss. Loss. And more loss. But though one side of my brain

was sympathizing with his fragile state, the other sector was sending

out red alert signals. Because, with the GBS multipage insert suddenly

gone, there were now six empty pages in the April issue (due to go to

press this Friday). And six blank pages meant $210,000 in lost

advertising revenue. Talk about handing our heads to Kiang-Sanderling

on a platter. If they were looking for a way to ease a bunch of us

out, this would give them the perfect excuse.

"What price was GBS paying for the multipage insert?" I asked.

"One-eighty-nine. The standard ten percent discount."

"Did he give you any hint about a possible budget squeeze? Or maybe

one of the competition edging us out?"

"Ned, like I told you, he just said 'no dice' and hung up. I tried to

call him back, I don't know, five, six times in the next hour. Driving

back into the city, I must've called him every ten miles. The asshole

was always 'in a meeting."" "Okay, look, it's a setback .. ."

"It's a fucking car crash, Ned. You know it, I know it.. .."

I put a finger to my lips.

"It's a situation. And we've got to deal with it-but in a way that

won't have everyone in the company talking. Word gets out about this,

and the situation turns into a critical situation-something we

definitely don't want with new management looking over our shoulder. So

the thing to do at the moment is examine our options here. You got

anything else on the go?"

"I don't know... NMI was talking about a possible double-page spread

for their Powerplan Desktop series in May."

"Can you talk them into jumping forward a month?"

"Worth a shot."

"Then do it now. Offer 'em twenty percent off, and tell 'em that the

four-color bleeds are on the house. Meanwhile, I'm sure we can get the

Telesales girls to cover the other four pages."

"It's gonna look like crap, though-a lot of shitty eighth-of-a-pagers

in a prime location. And everyone's going to know it was my space..

.."

"Ivan, the bottom line here is: If the pages are paid for, everybody's

happy."

"It won't happen again, Ned. You've got my word.. .."

"It's a bad hand, Ivan. The jerk dealt from the bottom of the deck.

Don't blame yourself."

"Easier said-" "You still going for your sessions with the counselor...

what's-her-name?"

"Dr. Goldfarb. I stopped two weeks ago."

"She no good?"

"She was great. Really helpful. But the company health plan only

covered a year... ."

"I'll make a few phone calls to Blue Cross, see what I can do."

"Thanks. I owe you."

He stood up, rubbing his eyes with his sleeve.

"You sure you're gonna be okay?" I asked.

"Not if I keep blowing it...."

"You've been doing fine, Ivan," I lied.

"Like I said: It's a bum deal, not Armageddon. Now go close NMI. And

remember: You're good at this."

He nodded and headed out the door. As soon as it closed behind him, I

put my head in my hands. Shit. Shit. Shit. This was Armageddon. My

Armagedon. Unless ... Rule Number One in a crisis: Be systematic.

Explore every option for burrowing your way out of the dead end into

which you've been dropped. I picked up the phone and called Joel

Schmidt, CompuWorld's production manager. When I asked him if I could

have a couple of extra days' grace on the GBS copy, he went

ballistic.

"You nuts, Ned? Ten minutes ago some German ice maiden walks into the

office, introduces herself as Utte something, says she's the production

supervisor for all Kiang-Sanderling titles, and wants to know

everything about the way we work. She also said she knew the magazine

was going to bed on Friday-which, according to her calculations, was

four days behind schedule. Which, in turn, was costing the company,

blah, blah, blah. Get the picture?"

"Kind of a chilly customer?"

"Chilly? This babe was without heat. And I can already tell that she

s determined to supervise me into the ground. So there is absolutely

no way I can cut you any slack. Final ad copy Friday, or it's your

cojones."

So much for buying myself some more time. I picked up the Phone and

called Ted Peterson's office at GBS. His secretary was a real charmer.

As soon as she heard the name CompuWorld, she informed me that Mr.

Peterson was in a meeting and would probably remain in said meeting for

the next five years. Or, at least, that's the sort of brush-off vibe I

was getting from her.

"If I could just have five minutes of his time."

"He doesn't have five minutes today, Mr. Allen," she said crisply.

"Everyone has five minutes."

"I will tell him you called. I can do no more." And she hung up.

Ted Peterson. I'd met him last year at one of Getz-Braun's big sales

shows. Your typical corporate stain. Age thirty-two and determined to

snag that executive vice presidency by the time birthday number

thirty-five rolls around. A real play-to-win type.

"I heard you're a helluva tennis player," he said at a cocktail party

thrown by Brighton Technology Inc. ("Data storaging you can trust.")

"I played a little in college. But now .. . I'm just a serious

amateur."

"What school you play for?"

"U. Maine, Presque Isle."

I could see his lips twitching into a little smile.

"Don't think we ever played you."

"Where'd you go?"

"Princeton."

Having won that point, the conversation somehow drifted on to the

subject of our all-time favorite players.

"Stefan Edberg, hands down," I said.

"A gentleman on the court-but with a real deadly sting. And you?"

"Ivan Lendl. The living embodiment of ruthless efficiency."

No doubt Peterson thought he was being ruthlessly efficient when he

dumped Ivan overboard... even though the bastard surely knew all about

Ivan's ongoing series of tragedies. I love a Samaritan.

The five lights on my phone were flashing madly. I hit the

speakerphone

"A few messages, Lily?" I asked.

"You must have two dozen messages here, Mr. Allen."

"Great. Give me the big ones."

"All the outside sales reps. The media sales guys from AdTel, Icom,

InfoCom, Microcom .. . It's a really long list."

Worse and worse. The word about the takeover had evidently spread

through the industry like cancer-and every major Compu-World advertiser

had phoned in, obviously to find out if we were still in business.

"Would you mind e-mailing me the entire list of calls, Lily?"

"No problem, Mr. Allen. Oh-one last thing-your wife called, said

she'd heard the news. She wanted to talk to you right away."

"Is she holding right now?"

"No-you got Mr. Maduro on line one, Mr. Sirio on line two, Mr.

Bluehorn on line three .. ."

All my main guys in the field. All understandably worried about

whether they still had a job.

"I'll talk to Sirio. Tell the others I'll call them right back."

"You got it, Mr. Allen. One last thing: Should I start looking in the

want ads?"

"Put it this way, Lily: I'm not worried."

"I hear ya, Mr. Allen."

I punched button two on my phone.

"Yo, Phil," I said.

"Sorry to keep you dangling like that."

"Fugedaboudit, Ned. Sounds like it's some kind of screwed-up day

there."

Good old Phil. Mr. Laconic. And a rock-solid good guy. Of all my

sales team, Phil was, without question, the easiest to deal with. Early

forties, unapologetically fleshy, Queens born and bred, still a

resident of the 'hood (Ozone Park, to be exact), a snappy dresser who

liked mother-of-pearl-gray double-breasted suits, and had zero

tolerance for bullshit. Ever since Ivan Dolinsky's eclipse, Phil had

been our number-one man. I'd never seen a smoother operator in my

life. All the guy had to do was pick up a phone, and he closed. His

client list was watertight-no sudden jumping ship to the opposition (I

often wondered if it was Phil's "Mr. Big" demeanor that kept his

customers in line). And, unlike my other guys in the field, he never

groaned, wept, or wailed about business. He got on with the job.

"So you heard the news?" I asked.

"Yeah. I heard. Germans. They gonna work with us?"

"That's what they say."

"Then that's okay. I heard about the bonus biz as well. Not exactly

my idea of a good time."

"Nor mine."

"They gonna deliver the goods?"

"They've given me assurances .. ."

"Then that's okay, too."

I loved this guy. No angst. No crap.

"Listen, Phil. I've got to ask you a favor."

"Tell me."

So I explained about the GBS crisis-and how we were now looking at six

blank pages in the April issue.

"That pig fucker Peterson pulled this stunt?" Phil asked.

"I'm afraid so."

"Guys like that, I wanna castrate 'em with a chain saw. You want me to

talk to him?"

"He's not taking any phone calls. Believe me, I've tried."

"Yeah, but Peterson would take my call."

"Why's that?"

"Because I know stuff."

"What sort of stuff?"

"Stuff about Peterson."

"Such as ... ?"

"Remember last year's winter sales event at Grand Cayman? Well, the

final night we're there, I'm leaving the hotel, thinking about taking a

little stroll down the beach, when all of a sudden Joan Glaston comes

tearing down the street, looking spooked as shit, totally shook up. You

know Joan, don't you?"

"Telesales Chicago?"

"Yeah, that's her. Hell of a sharp operator, and great legs. Anyway,

she runs right into me outside the hotel, hysterical. I lead her

inside, bring her to a quiet table in the bar, feed her a whiskey, calm

her down a little. Turns out she had been at this GBS reception down

the beach at the Grand Hyatt, and she got talking to Peterson. When

she decided to leave, Ted, being such a nice guy, offered to escort her

back to her hotel. Halfway there, they stopped to look at the water.

Next thing Joan knew, Peterson was all over her. But when she told Mr.

Family Values to back off, instead of taking the hint, Peterson pulled

her down onto the sand and tried to spread her legs.

"That's when Joan caught him between his legs with her knee, and

managed to hightail it outta there-which is when she ran into me."

"Jesus Christ," I said.

"Did she report him to the police?"

"I wanted to march her down to the nearest precinct-but she was scared

about Peterson inventing some bullshit story for the cops. So I said,

"Okay, to hell with the Cayman cops. Go directly to his superiors at

GBS, tell them exactly what happened, and force them to sack the sick

fuck." But again, she got all frightened about how, even if GBS

believed her, they would never deal with her again. And since she was

dependent on GBS-related products for fifty percent of her monthly

quota, she was terrified of blowing her relationship with the

company.

"Anyway, I told her not to be intimidated by Peterson or by GBS. She

said she'd sleep on it, give it all some thought. The next morning,

I'm checking in at the airport, and who should I find standing behind

me but Mr. Romantic himself. I say "How ya doin", Ted?" and he

starts imitating my accent. Preppy sonofabitch thinks he's a comedian.

Real hysterical stuff like Tm doin' good, Philie. How's the

family-and I mean that with a capital F."

"Now I've only met this clown maybe once or twice in my life- and I do

not like being the object of fun. So I lean over and whisper into his

ear, "At least I wasn't trying to rape someone on the beach last night.

The way I hear, the only way Joan could stop you was by kicking a field

goal below your belt. Man, I'd love to see the look on your wife's

face when she checks out your bruised equipment."

"Well, the blood drained so fast from Peterson's face, it looked like

he'd been bitten by Count Dracula."

"Did he say anything to you?"

"Bastard was too stunned to speak. Then, around two days later, I got

a call from Joan. She was back in Chicago, and wanted to thank me for

giving her a shoulder to cry on. But no, she wasn't going to be

pressing charges against Peterson. Because the day after she got home

from Grand Cayman, she got a call from one of Peterson's underlings,

saving how his boss so liked meeting her in Grand Cayman he wanted to

offer her a GBS full-pager for the next six months. Joan did her math,

worked out the commission, and said yes ... even though she knew she

was taking the easy way out. But at least the sonofabitch knew that

she now had something on him."

"I don't believe this," I said.

"Hang on-it gets better. Around an hour after I finish talking with

Joan, I get a call from some GBS sales rep out in Queens, saying the

company wants me to have one of their new top-of-the-line laptops. The

804FE. Street price: Fifty-three hundred."

I was speechless. GBS was such a conservative, play-it-by-the-book,

now-wash-your-hands organization. If they knew one of their executives

had tried to buy silence (after committing a sexual assault), they'd

fire him in a heartbeat.

"You didn't take it, did you?" I said.

"Ned, Ned-you think I was born stupid?

"Course I didn't take it-though, I gotta tell ya, I was tempted for

about a minute, 'cause that is one sexy laptop. But what I did do is

this: I told the rep guy to personally thank Mr. Peterson for his

generous offer, and to inform him that he was in my thoughts ... all

the time."

"Jesus," I said.

"Jesus Christ."

"Lord's only son. So there you go. Ted Peterson now kind of owes me a

favor. I pick up the phone. He does me the favor. You get your

six-page multipage insert for April. Ivan gets to close this sucker.

We all walk away happy."

I shut my eyes. I could feel my hands turn clammy-that same old sticky

dampness that always hit whenever I became nervous. And I was really

nervous now. Because .. . Oh God, how easy this would be. All I had

to do was tell Phil, "Make the call" and the problem would be solved.

But. But. But. Once you've sanctioned a call like that, what next? A

fiddle here, a fiddle there, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, I'm lookin' the

other way, pal. And, of course, Phil would have something on me now.

Not, of course, that Phil would ever dream of using that "something."

Unless he needed to. Information is power, after all.

"Ned, you still there?" Phil asked.

"I'm here."

"So you want me to make the call?"

Another long silence. There is no thrill in doing the right thing, is

there? Especially since there is something so enticing about the

illicit, the deceitful. It's there in all of us, the need to toy with

danger. The problem is, doing the wrong thing rarely has an escape

clause. And you have to live with the consequences.

"I really appreciate your offer, Phil," I said.

"And though it would solve a hell of a lot of problems .. ."

"I hear ya, pal."

"I just can't work that way."

"You sure you're not a Catholic?"

I laughed.

"Just a guy from Maine."

"So what are you gonna do about the six pages?"

"Any chance you could sweet-talk a client or two of yours into buying

some additional space, pronto?"

"When's the copy deadline?"

"First thing Friday morning."

"How 'bout I say a novena to Our Lady of Fatima while I'm at it?"

"You think it's gonna be that impossible?"

"Unless I offer the space at bargain-basement rates."

"Do it," I said.

"We'll deal with the bottom line later."

"Okay, boss. I'll see what I can cook up."

After Phil hung up, I sat at my desk, drumming my fingers on the table,

watching the dancing lights on my telephone. That was close. So

close. Make that call. Three words. Say them and your hands are

permanently dirty. Draw the line at saying them and you're an ethical

jerk, still facing a major business crisis. Moral dilemmas are never

black and white. They're always an ugly shade of gray.

I speed-dialed Dave Maduro's number. He did not sound happy.

"I must have left you four messages," he said.

"Thanks for making me feel like the lowest asshole on the totem

pole."

"Dave, sorry, all hell's been breaking loose this morning. But look-"

"No fancy bullshit, Ned. Just some straight talk: Do I still have a

job?"

It was the question each of my outside sales guys asked first. And I

spent most of the morning calming them down, stroking their egos,

giving them the usual reassuring spiel, and begging them to somehow

immediately cough up an extra page's worth of advertising. As planned,

I also put the word out to the Telesales team that I needed some major

space filled by the day after tomorrow. This was a high-risk strategy,

insofar as news was bound to start leaking around the company that

Northeast sales had a little "empty space crisis" on their hands. But

I had no other option. There was no doubt that Chuck would hear about

Ivan's disaster with GBS-but I was gambling on the fact that he was so

preoccupied with the takeover that word of the emergency wouldn't reach

him for at least thirty-six hours, by which time, Allah willing, the

pages would be filled. I just hoped to God that Ivan closed something

with NMI. Otherwise, Chuck really was going to demand his head this

time.

The day evaporated around me. As soon as I finished soothing my sales

guys, I had to deal with the eighteen or so calls from all our major

advertisers. I treated them all to the same song and dance:

We're now even bigger and better thanks to our new owners,

Kiang-Sanderling. And, let's face it, those Germans aren't in the

habit of backing losers. Just watch how we increase our market share

in the next quarter. Computer America now knows its days as number two

are numbered. Because it's Kiang-Sanderling s avowed battle plan to

blow them out of the water. And to inaugurate their new ownership,

they want me to offer you a six-page multipage insert in our April

issue at twenty-five percent off the usual rate. Now demand is so

heavy for this space that we've set a deadline of five P.M. today..

..

Of course, there were no takers. Not that I expected anyone to bite.

The big guns in the computer business always have their advertising

strategy mapped out months beforehand-so the odds of someone agreeing

to a last-minute multipage insert (and supplying us with the copy in

less than thirty-six hours) were up there with my chances of flying on

the NASA space shuttle next month.

Still, it was worth a shot. Anything right now was worth a shot.

By five I'd finished with the last name on my call list, and made my

eighth (and, I decided, final) call to Ted Peterson's office. I hadn't

eaten all day, hadn't moved from my desk, and was borderline

brain-dead. Then Debbie popped her head in my office and said that the

combined Telesales force had struck out on the last-minute advertising

front.

"Everyone I call, they keep asking, "Ya still in business?" So, like,

it was kinda hard convincing them to do a last-minute

eighth-of-a-pager. And, I've gotta tell ya this, Hildy and the others

are worried that we're comin' across kinda desperate, scrambling for

all this last-minute ad space. I mean, we're already working on May ..

."

"I hear ya, Debbie."

"Don't get me wrong, we're bustin' ass here. Especially 'cause we all

know Mr. Dolinsky's job is on the line."

Unbelievable. My office must be bugged.

"So whatcha want us to do, Mr. Allen?"

I sighed. Loudly.

"Concentrate on the May issue. I'm sure one of the outside sales guys

will come through."

But that didn't happen. Ten minutes later, as I was returning with my

twelfth cup of coffee of the afternoon, the lights on my desk phone

began to blaze again. First Dave Maduro, then Doug Bluehorn, followed

by Phil Sirio. And they all had the same answer for me: None of their

clients was in a position to commit to more space on such short

notice.

"I don't have to tell you the name of the problem here," Phil Sirio

said.

"It's called Christmas. Everyone's budget is shot to shit and nobody's

interested in complicating their life right now. Believe me, I pulled

every hustle I could think of. No dice."

"Thanks anyway for trying, Phil."

"So how you gonna solve this?"

"Don't know what I can do-except ritually disembowel myself in front of

the Germans."

"Boss, let me call Ted Peterson."

"It's blackmail."

"Get outta here. It's persuasion, nothing more. Like, the guy told

Ivan he was gonna close the deal. All I'm gonna do is remind him that

a verbal contract is worth the paper it's written on."

I leaned my head against my hand. Finally I said:

"I'll sleep on it."

Six-ten. I glanced at my fingernails. For the first time in about ten

years, they were bitten to the quick. Just like Ivan's. Another day

like this one and I'd start considering the medicinal benefits of

cigarettes.

Another phone light was blinking. What next? I reluctantly punched

it.

"Where the hell have you been?"

It was Lizzie. A very agitated Lizzie-and for good reason, as I hadn't

returned one of the half dozen messages she'd left today.

"Lizzie, hon, sorry, sorry, I can't tell you what it's been like-"

"What were you thinking? You had me so worried. I mean, I walk into

the office this morning, and everyone's running up to me, saying that

Kiang-Sanderling just bought Getz-Braun. And then, when I didn't hear

from you ..."

"Look, it's been crisis a-go-go around here. I didn't have a minute..

."

"Everyone has a minute," she said, echoing my sarcastic exchange with

Ted Peterson's secretary hours earlier.

"Especially for their spouse."

"Lizzie, don't be angry. I didn't mean ..."

"I'm not angry. Just a little hurt. And naturally worried. For you."

Her voice softened.

"You okay?"

"Not really."

"They showed you the door?"

"No-but by Friday morning, they most certainly will."

I told her everything that had happened since I'd walked into that

breakfast with Chuck Zanussi. Everything except Phil Sirio's offer to

blackmail Ted Peterson.

When I finished, she said, "Oh, sweetheart-that is one shitty day."

I managed a laugh.

"The shittiest imaginable. And it ain't over yet. I mean, I really

don't know how I'm going to fill those six pages-except with nude

photos of Chuck Zanussi."

"Tell you what-give me an hour, and I'll take you out for a drunken

dinner.. .."

"No can do. That creep Kreplin's already snagged me for dinner."

"Terrific."

"Believe me, I'd cancel if I could. But there's no way out of this.

Especially as Kreplin is the new fuhrer around here."

"Understood, understood." But I could tell from her tone of voice that

she was disappointed .. . and worried.

"You're upset."

"I'm just feeling a bit marginalized again. I mean, last night, you

sort of knew a takeover was imminent-but you didn't want to say

anything."

"Like I told you, why share the worry?"

"Because we're married, that's why. Because being married means we're

supposed to share stuff like that. And because I feel a little

patronized when you don't.. ."

"I would never, ever patronize you."

"Maybe not intentionally. But, to me, this

'don't-want-to-worry-your-little-head-dear' crap is definitely

patronizing .. ."

"Lizzie, please .. ."

"... and if the shoe had been on the other foot-if our company had been

suddenly bought out-you would have been the first person I called."

I put my head in my hands. A little marital tension was just what I

needed right now. Best to say nothing, except.. .

"Guilty as charged."

"I'm not accusing you of anything. And I'm not trying to give you

grief-especially after what you've been through today. It's just .. .

You don't have to keep playing the salesman with me. Always acting as

if you're on a perpetual winning streak-" She was stopped by Lily's

voice on my speakerphone.

"Mr. Allen, really sorry to interrupt, but I've got Mr. Dolinsky on

line two. He says it's urgent."

"Say I'll be with him in a sec."

"I'll let you go," Lizzie said.

"Sorry, but Ivan's heading up my intensive care list right now."

"Stop apologizing, Ned. I do appreciate what's going on."

"You're a star."

"Are you going to be late?"

"Very, I'm afraid. Kreplin's hinted he wants to hit the town,

big-time."

"Then I won't wait up. And look-if it all falls apart, we'll still be

just fine. Remember that."

"I will."

"Love you."

"You, too," I said, then punched line two. Over the static of his car

phone, I heard the curiously buoyant voice of Ivan Dolinsky.

"Ned, have I got news for you .. ."

"You close NMI?"

"You bet I did. Not only that, they agreed to a full six-page

multipage insert for their new Powerplan series."

"Fan-fucking-tastic," I said, punching the air with my fist. Crisis

averted.

".. . and I even drove over to their headquarters in Paterson to make

certain they signed the contract. Just got out of the meeting, heading

back to the city right now."

"It's great news."

"There's only one small problem .. ."

Oh, God... "They're adamant that it goes into the May issue."

I exhaled. Loudly.

"Ivan.. ."

"I know, I know-and, believe me, I was all but licking the guy's shoes,

begging him to move it forward to April. But May's when they're

launching the new Powerplan models.. .."

Do you have any idea of the career-threatening shit you've dropped me

in? I wanted to shout. But I knew such a temper tantrum was

pointless. Phil was right: Having agreed to the multipage insert, then

pulling out of the deal, Peterson had reamed Ivan. Okay, Ivan

should've forced him to sign a contract there and then- but you expect

a GBS executive to abide by his Scout's-honor word. It wasn't Ivan's

fault. And he had just closed a biggie. Not the biggie I needed right

now-but a biggie nonetheless. I tried to sound up-beat.

"You did great, Ivan," I said.

"What are we gonna do about April?"

"I think we might have sorted it out," I lied.

"Go buy yourself a beer. You deserve it."

I hung up before my Mr. Nice act cracked. Fucking Ivan. I felt for

the guy, but simultaneously wanted to punch out his lights. His timing

for disaster was impeccable.

Six-forty. I stared at the phone, willing it to ring and to discover

Ted Peterson on the line, with the news that-after a surprise

late-afternoon visit by the Ghost of Christmas Future in the GBS

executive washroom-he'd been wracked by conscience, and had not only

decided to immediately green-light the April M.P.I." but was also

setting up a soup kitchen for the homeless.. ..

Fat chance.

Six-forty-one. My gaze hadn't moved from the phone. It had always

been my conduit out of any difficult business situations. When

verbally cruising along at full throttle, I felt I could talk anybody

into just about everything. But, for the first time in my life, I

couldn't think of a single call that could save my ass. The phone was

no longer my ally.

Six-forty-two. There was a sharp knock on my office door. Without

waiting for me to shout "Come in," Chuck Zanussi entered, glowering. I

knew immediately that he'd heard about Ivan's fiasco.

"Your first day here-what was it, four years ago?-and what did I say

Rule Number One of working with me was?"

"Chuck, let me explain-" "Rule Number One. I'm sure you remember it..

.."

"I'm telling you, the situation's under control-" "What was Rule

Number-fucking-One, Ned?"

I swallowed hard and said, "If there's a problem, you want to know

immediately."

"Very good. You have excellent powers of retention. Now, would you

not agree that the loss of a GBS multipage insert-a mere two days

before copy deadline-constitutes a problem?"

"There have been a lot of problems today, Chuck ..."

"No shit, Sherlock."

".. . and that's why I didn't call you."

"Bullshit. The reason you didn't call me was because you were covering

Ivan's ass. Trying to guarantee your canonization as the Patron Saint

of Salesmen Who Fuck Up."

"I simply figured you had enough crap on your plate without-" "You

figured wrong."

"The situation's under control .. ."

"More bullshit. From what I hear, you might as well have issued an

all-points bulletin announcing the GBS debacle. So now- thanks to your

brilliant strategy-not only is everyone in the industry speculating

about whether Kiang-Sanderling is going to vaporize the entire

CompuWorld staff; they're also gossiping about how we're desperate to

fill a handful of pages in the April issue. And desperation-as I've

told you over and over again-is the cardinal sin of salesmanship. But

you temporarily forgot that, Ned, so our credibility rating right is

now subzero. Congratulations."

"I take full responsibility .. ."

"Damn right you do. Especially since those pages must be filled.

Otherwise you're out of here. Understand?"

Ever been kicked in the stomach? As you gasp for breath, the world

suddenly turns watery in front of your eyes. Everything blurs.

"You hearing me, Ned?" Chuck asked.

"I hear you," I muttered.

"You know, making this kind of threat-it gives me no pleasure. But it

was your call to sit on this all day-so it's your neck the ax is gonna

fall on. Believe me, I want you to get out of this ..."

"I will get out of it."

"How? Through prayer?"

I shrugged.

"I'll do it. Just watch."

"I will. Closely. Another thing you're gonna have to do ..."

"Yeah?"

"Fire Dolinsky."

"Hang on now, Chuck..."

"No arguments here, Ned. He is the root cause of this major screw

up."

"Ted Peterson is the real villain in this story.. .."

"That may be, but Dolinsky delayed the contractual niceties, allowing

that thief Peterson a way out of the deal. Look, you know I have cut

Ivan one helluva lot of slack since Nancy's death. And, like you, I've

covered his ass when he couldn't get it together- because I really,

truly pity the bastard. But, let's face it, two years later and the

guy still doesn't have his eye on the ball anymore. And now, his

incompetence is threatening both our asses.. .."

"Ivan is not incomnetent. He just closed a maior six-Dace insert with

NMI this afternoon. The May issue. And he's got signed contracts to

prove it."

"I'll make sure he gets the commission from the sale tagged on to his

severance pay."

"Come on, Chuck. Be reasonable here."

"The decision's made. He's history."

The voice of Phil Sirio hummed in my head.

"It's persuasion, nothing more.. .. All I'm gonna do is remind him

that a verbal contract is worth the paper it's written on."

"Say I manage to get the multipage insert back from GBS.. .."

"You won't. Dream on."

"But just say I did convince Ted Peterson to come around...."

"I'd call you a miracle worker, and I'd still insist that Ivan goes."

"That's not fair.. .."

"Fuck fair. The man's all over the place. Okay, he scored a big one

with NMI. The first big one in two years ..."

"It's a comeback."

"It's a lucky break. NMI are pushing their Powerplan series

everywhere. Donald Duck could've closed that deal. And you know as

well as I do that it's only a matter of time before Ivan drops us in

deep doo-doo again. Sorry, Ned. He's out of here. And if you don't

fire him by noon tomorrow, then I will."

"You mean, right before you fire me."

"If you solve the problem, you still have a job. That's the bottom

line. Got it?"

I nodded. Chuck opened the door-and quietly said, "Don't make me fire

you, Ned. Please."

I sat immobile in my desk chair for a very long time, staring out at

the snow-filled night. There was only one solution to the problem,

only one way of saving my skin.

"Boss, please let me call Ted Peterson." Tomorrow morning, first

thing, I'd instruct Phil Sirio to do just that. To hell with the

consequences. This was now life or death.

Once again, the heavy snow meant that all New York City cabs had gone

into hibernation. So I walked over to Grand Central and jumped the

downtown six train. The subway car was empty and overheated. At

Fourteenth Street I was joined by your typical urban $200 Nikes, plenty

of attitude. He plopped himself down opposite me and locked me in a

malevolent stare. I eyeballed him right back. Read my lips, jerkoff.

I'm about to authorize a serious blackmailing. So who's the real

badass here?

"The fuck you looking at?" the punk said.

My stare hardened.

"The fuck you looking at?" I shot back.

"You trying to make trouble?"

"Only if you are," I said, casually slipping my hand beneath my

overcoat, as if I might be packing a gun. At that precise moment, he

broke his stare.

"I ain't interested in no trouble," he said.

"That makes two of us," I said.

We rode on in silence. The train pulled into Lafayette Street and I

stood up to leave.

"Yo," said the punk.

"What?" I said.

"Merry Christmas, man."

"You, too," I said and found myself smiling for the first time all

day.

I trekked through now blizzard conditions down Lafayette Street to

Pravda. Klaus Kreplin was already seated at a prominent table when I

arrived. He greeted me with a snaky smile, motioned for me to sit

down, then scooped a pack of Dunhill cigarettes up off the table and

fired one up with an elegant silver lighter.

"Do you know why I chose this restaurant?" he asked.

"Caviar and cigarettes. It is one of the few places left in this

health-neurotic city where one can smoke and not risk arrest."

All the waitresses wore low-cut slinky black dresses. One of them was

approaching our table, tray in hand. Kreplin watched her intently.

"And, of course, the ambiance is charming, would you not agree?"

The waitress lowered the tray, which held a block of ice and two small,

exquisitely designed stainless steel racks. Each rack contained six

small glasses, brimming with clear liquid. She placed one in front of

each of us.

"I hope you do not mind," Kreplin said, "but I took the liberty

"Six shots of vodka?" I said.

"It is their special Vodka sampler. Accompanied by caviar, of course,"

he said as the waitress set the block of ice down between us. Embedded

within was a hefty jar of Beluga. I dreaded to think of the cost.

Kreplin raised the first glass from the rack. I followed suit.

"Prost," he said, clicking my glass, then throwing his back in one

gulp. I downed mine, the frozen vodka anesthetizing the back of my

throat. Immediately I felt its tranquilizing benefits.

"You were in need of vodka, I think," Kreplin said.

"It has not been an easy day," I said.

"But I think you know all about that, don't you?"

"I have heard you have found yourself in a dangerous predicament. Will

you solve this?"

"Absolutely," I said.

"Then we must drink to this good news," Kreplin said. We both hoisted

the second glass of vodka. Click. Down the hatch.

"Do you know why I knew we would work well together?" Kreplin said,

spooning a dollop of caviar onto a blini, then devouring it in one

gulp.

"Because you were a bit cool to me when we first met. A bit

confrontational. I like this style-a good company man, a good captain

to his troops-sorry!-'colleagues'-but someone who does not immediately

agree with everything his superiors say. I respect a man who can

balance corporate allegiance with an independent outlook. Unlike Chuck

Zanussi."

"Chuck's a good guy."

"Do you want my opinion on your boss? Chuck Zanussi is very fat. And

scared to death of me. Which is one of the reasons I have no respect

for him. That-and the fact that his physical grossness hints at a

complete absence of discipline."

"He might eat too many doughnuts, but if the magazine's a success, it's

due to Chuck. He's really a top-notch publisher, and he knows the

computer business inside out."

"I am impressed, Edward. Such loyalty to the man who, just an hour

ago, threatened to terminate you if you did not solve the GBS

crisis."

"JTnw rlirl vnn know that'1"

"Because I instructed Chuck Zanussi to terminate you if you didn't find

a solution to this problem."

"Thanks."

Kreplin managed a muted chuckle.

"It is a test. And one which I know you will pass. Brilliantly. So

Chuck Zanussi will not be firing you, will he?"

Phil, make the call.

"No, Klaus. He won't."

"Excellent. Because after the crisis-and indeed after Christmas-has

passed, I will be firing Chuck Zanussi. Personally."

I fingered the third glass of vodka-and tried to appear calm.

"You serious?" I asked.

"In business I am always serious, Edward."

"I'm sure you are," I said.

"So serious that I already know who Chuck's successor will be."

"And who's the lucky guy?"

"You."

I blinked.

"Me?"

"Yes, you."

"No way."

"It is all decided. Come January second, if you want it, we will

appoint you the new publisher of CompuWorld. Congratulations."

Without thinking, I raised the vodka glass and drained it.

"Uh ... thanks."

SIX

I couldn't sleep. For an hour I stared up at the dancing shadows on

our bedroom ceiling. The illuminated alarm clock by our bed said 3:12

A.M. I'd been home since two, having finally extracted myself from the

clutches of Klaus Kreplin. After dropping that little bombshell about

offering me Chuck's job, he then quizzed me about my ideas for the

magazine. I attempted to rise to the occasion, explaining how we could

strengthen editorial content through provocative consumer guides,

innovative features, and also increase our advertising market share

(especially in the crucial Pacific Northwest battleground).

Around the fifth shot of vodka, I'd found myself saying, "There is no

reason why-with proper marketing strategy-we can't become number two in

the business within twelve months. Computer America talks a good game,

but they're neither as low-rent as PC Globe nor as upscale as us. My

approach would be to keep the overall visual style of the magazine up

market but gradually broaden its appeal, focusing on the crucial home

computing sector. And, of course, it wouldn't hurt to go for a more

cutting-edge visual approach.

"I mean, I'm not spouting anything original here. Just good old

common-sense salesmanship. And if I do take the job-" "You are taking

the job," Kreplin said.

By the sixth shot of vodka, I was saying, "I've got to tell you, Klaus,

I'm kind of freaking a bit.. .."

"Freaking?" he said, rolling the word around his tongue.

"Nervous. Scared. Guilty."

"Nervous and scared I can understand," he said.

"It is a normal human reaction to any great career advancement. But

'guilty'? Edward, please. This is business."

"Chuck is my boss."

"And I am Chuck's boss. And Dietrich Sanderling is my boss. And the

shareholders are, ultimately, Herr Sanderling's bosses. We all must

answer to someone. And if that someone is displeased with us-" "He

brought me into the company, he gave me my start.. .."

"As I said before, I greatly admire your belief in loyalty. But it is

not you who are terminating him. And it is not as if you have schemed

to provoke his downfall. I want him out because, to my mind, he is

flabby. Flabby in weight, flabby in business. But if you think that

by not taking this post you will save Chuck, you are wrong. He is

finished here. Kaput."

After we had worked our way through dinner and a $55 bottle of cabernet

sauvignon, Kreplin shifted the conversation back to business.

"You have not once asked me about the money," he said.

"Why is that?"

"We've been eating."

"Very civil of you. Would you like to know the figure involved?"

"Absolutely."

Kreplin gave one of his low little chuckles.

"Well, it is quite an attractive package. The basic salary is one

hundred and fifty thousand dollars per annum, but you should be able to

double that figure with profit participation and bonuses."

I gulped.

"Of course, in addition to the standard IRA and full medical insurance

plans, we will also provide you with a company car- your choice of

vehicle, worth up to, say, fifty thousand. And we will pay for all

garage costs. And if you are a member of a sports club .. . You are a

tennis player, no?"

"You've done your research."

"Naturally. Anyway, we will also cover the cost of the tennis club.

Kiang-Sanderling likes its executives to be-how do you say

it?--Infallible"

He called for the check, then said, "So .. . you approve of this

package?"

I had hit the jackpot. Won the lottery. Broken the bank. Well, not

exactly .. . but, Christ, three hundred grand a year? It was

breathtaking. I was about to enter the major leagues.

"Klaus, I definitely approve." Though as soon as I said that, I

thought,.. . but I'm going to hate myself for betraying Chuck.

As the snow was too heavy for a drinking tour of SoHo, he insisted that

I return with him to his suite at the Waldorf Towers for a nightcap. In

the cab uptown, he turned to me.

"I must ask one favor of you."

"Sure, Klaus."

"It's not a favor, actually. More of a mandate, I'm afraid. And it is

this: You must not discuss this job offer with anyone."

"I assumed as much."

"By anyone, I mean you must not even raise the matter with your

wife."

"Well, she's got to know. I mean, it is big news."

"Agreed. And she will know. On Friday, January second. The day you

return from your holiday in the West Indies."

"Have you had someone tailing me, too?" I joked. Kreplin managed a

smile.

"When we began considering the purchase of Getz-Braun a few months ago,

I naturally began to examine the dossiers of the senior people in the

titles I would be overseeing. And Chuck Zanussi was so enthusiastic in

his praise of you, I began to investigate .. ."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"Hang on," I said, "are you telling me that Chuck knew about you buying

the company months ago?"

"No-all he knew was that we were interested in Getz-Braun, and that, in

September, we engaged in a feasability study, which included meeting

with its top executives and examining the records of existing

personnel. But then he heard nothing more about the sale until

yesterday, when he was asked to stop by Chicago. In a takeover

situation, secrecy is crucial."

"He was certainly secretive about Kiang-Sanderling's interest in us."

"That is because he was instructed to remain silent ahoiit nur

exploratory meetings. He didn't know if the takeover would happen-and

he was kept out of the communication loop until it was a fait accompli.

What he did know, however, was that if he informed anyone about our

interest in Getz-Braun, his future in the company would be nonexistent.

So he wisely decided to keep his lip buttoned."

"But now he's still getting fired."

"That, my friend, is the ebb and flow of corporate life. Do not

fear-he will be handed a very handsome parachute before being pushed

out of the plane. And we will not terminate him before

Christmas-which, after all, would ruin his holiday. But there is an

even more pressing reason why you must remain absolutely silent about

your promotion. Our market surveyors fear that it might rattle

CompuWorld's advertisers, were word to get out before the New Year that

we were installing a new publisher. At Kiang-Sanderling, we are very

systematic about such matters. We plan them meticulously to minimize

potential commercial damage, and to ensure the smoothest transition of

power."

"Understood-but, really, my wife won't talk .. ."

"She is in public relations? No offense, but it is the nature of PR

people to talk. Maybe she tells, in confidence, her closest colleague

about your promotion. The closest colleague then tells, in confidence,

her husband, who just happens to be the lawyer for a client who is

purchasing a major network system from GBS. He mentions in passing to

the client that he hears CompuWorld is getting a new publisher, the

client casually drops this information during his next meeting with

GBS, and before we know it-" "With due respect, Klaus-I really think

you're being a little overcautious."

"With due respect, Edward-that is my prerogative, and one which I must

ask you to honor. Because if word leaks out prior to your appointment,

it may jeopardize things. Your wife will have a wonderful New Year's

surprise when you are made publisher on the second of January. All you

will have to do is call her from the office on that day and act as if

you have just been given the news. You are, from all accounts, a

brilliant salesman. Which means you are also an actor. Surely, you

will be able to act astonished and overwhelmed."

"I suppose so.. .."

"So I do have your word that you will share this with no one?"

"Because if word leaks out prior to your appointment, it may jeopardize

things."

Three hundred grand. I nodded. Kreplin slapped me on the back.

"Excellent," he said.

"The matter is settled."

He had a corner suite on the seventeenth floor of the Waldorf Towers.

It commanded a formidable view of the midtown skyline. The living room

was the size of a football field. There were two bedrooms and a

full-size kitchen.

"Quite a space," I said.

"They like Kiang-Sanderling at the Waldorf, so they always upgrade us.

Champagne?"

"Why not?"

He picked up the phone, called room service, and ordered a bottle of

Krug. If he was trying to impress me with his "money-is-no-object"

attitude, he was succeeding. About a minute later there was a knock on

the door.

"Our guests have arrived," Klaus said, moving toward the door.

"Guests?" I said.

"I didn't know you were expecting .. ."

I didn't get to finish that sentence, as in walked two very tall, very

blonde, very heavily made up women. They were both in their

mid-twenties. Handing Klaus their coats, they revealed near-matching

little black dresses which fit them like surgical gloves. True escort

agency material. I suddenly felt uneasy.

"Ladies," Kreplin said, ushering them into the living room, "I would

like you to meet my associate, Mr. Allen. Edward, this is Angelica,

and this is Monique."

"How ya doin", hon?" said Monique, her strident vowels making it very

clear that, despite her name, she was by no means French born and bred.

They both arranged themselves on the sofa. Kreplin gave me one of his

sharklike smiles-and I quickly understood that this was a test, a way

for Kreplin to gauge my loyalty. If I played up my indignation about

being set up with a couple of hookers (and this was definitely a

well-planned set-up) he would dismiss me as self-righteous. If,

however, I slept with Monique or Angelica, he'd have something on me ..

. and he'd know that I was. at heart.

weak-someone who was willing to compromise his marriage in order to

advance his career.

As Monique and Angelica fired up their cigarettes, Kreplin sidled up to

me and whispered, "I hope you don't mind this surprise."

I chose my words carefully.

"It certainly is a surprise, Klaus."

"But an amusing one, yes? A little Christmas treat from

Kiang-Sanderling. Have you thoughts on which one you prefer?"

Angelica was chewing gum while puffing heavily on a Salem. Monique-God

help her-looked like a slightly more up market version of those working

girls you used to see on Eighth Avenue (but instead of wearing purple

hot pants she was squeezed into a tight black number).

"Tell you what," I whispered, "I'm going to take a leak. When I get

back, we'll decide. Okay?"

"Excellent," he said.

The bathroom was massive-an acre of marble flooring, a sunken bathtub,

gold taps. I sat on the edge of the tub, pondering my next move. The

bastard had really dropped me into a tricky situation-to see how I'd

react to its obvious pressures, no doubt. I couldn't simply up and

leave-that would be considered tactless and clumsy. But there was no

way I was going to stay for the fireworks. I stood and absently patted

the breast pocket of my jacket, touching my cell phone in the process.

Bingo. Turning on the taps, I punched in one-five-one, a digital

answering service that also could be programmed to give you wake-up

calls. I checked my watch. 1:17.1 quickly tapped in 1:21 A.M."

pressed the star key twice, and then re pocketed the phone.

When I returned to the living room, the champagne had arrived. A room

service waiter was popping the cork. Kreplin was sitting between

Angelica and Monique, making small talk and trailing his left index

finger up and down Angelica's black-stockinged thigh. The two women

both seemed supremely bored. No doubt they just wanted to get on with

the job, get their money, and get on home to bed. But Kreplin was

determined to be festive. As soon as the champagne was poured, he saw

the waiter off with a $10 tip, then handed a glass to each of the

women.

"You are familiar with Krug, ladies?" he asked.

"It's got bubbles and it's French, right?" asked Angelica.

"You know your champagne," Kreplin said. Handing me a glass, he

whispered in my ear, "Have you made your choice?"

I watched as Angelica spat her gum out into an ashtray before sipping

the champagne. Why hadn't the phone started ringing? Stalling for

time, I said, "I'm going to let you make that decision, Klaus."

"No, no, no. I am the host-so I must insist that you have first

choice."

"Where did you find these girls?"

"An agency we often use for 'entertainment' whenever we are in New

York. A very reliable agency, so there are never any worries about

disease."

"That's nice to know."

"So, Edward, please-the meter is running. Your choice .. ."

I took a deep breath.

"Well.. ."

And then, thank God, my cell phone rang. Kreplin and the two women

looked startled. I had to work at masking my relief.

"Yeah?" I said as I answered it. A digitalized voice said: "This is

your one-twenty-one alarm clock call.. . This is your one-twenty-one

alarm clock call." I hugged the headset to my ear in an attempt to

keep it inaudible to anyone but me.

"Oh, Lizzie," I said into the receiver, then covered it and mouthed to

Kreplin, my wife. He rolled his eyes heavenward. I continued talking

into the receiver.

"Yeah, yeah .. . I'm up at Klaus Kreplin's suite at the Waldorf.. ..

What? .. . Oh, Christ, no. When? .. . How bad does it look? .. .

Okay, okay, I'll be right there. The E.R. at Roosevelt? Give me ten

minutes."

I hung up and immediately grabbed my coat.

"There is a problem?" Kreplin asked.

"That was my wife, Lizzie. Her father, who's staying with us for a

couple of days, is having severe chest pains. They've rushed him to

Roosevelt Hospital.. .."

I now had my overcoat on.

"Listen, Klaus .. . sorry to do this, but.. ."

He shrugged.

"You must do what you must do," he said.

"Thanks for a great evening," I said, pumping his hand.

"We'll tulk tomorrow." I waved a fast good-bye toward the two hookers.

They didn't wave back.

As I opened the door, Kreplin said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm:

"My best wishes to your lovely wife."

Thirty minutes later I was sliding into bed next to my lovely but very

comatose wife. I leaned over for a kiss, to which she reacted with an

incoherent groan before rolling away from me. I pulled a pillow toward

me and shut my eyes in the futile hope that sleep would knock me out

cold. I wanted to erase this day, to pull the plug on all that had

transpired, and catch a five-hour vacation from assorted ethical

dilemmas. Like, Could I look Chuck Zanussi in the eye tomorrow,

knowing full well that he was, comp anywise a condemned man-and that I

would step over his corpse to take his job? And should I really keep

silent on this entire matter with Lizzie- especially after the little

stunt that Kreplin pulled tonight? Then again, might Kreplin now

reconsider my promotion after I wangled out of his little Christmas

festivities with the two hookers? And, of course, if Phil Sirio's

strong-arm tactics with Ted Peterson ever became known, not only would

I be permanently unemployable, but the Manhattan D.A. would probably be

making my acquaintance.. ..

My eyes jumped open again. And for the next hour, I lay rigid with

dread; a severe case of the middle-of-the-night willies. Only unlike

the usual free-floating, four-in-the-morning fears, these were

tangible, substantive, genuinely dangerous.

Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and quietly snuck out of bed.

Collapsing onto the deep white sofa in the living room, I stared out at

the dim flicker of the sleeping city. Make the call, Phil. Five hours

from now I'd utter that phrase. And then ... ? No doubt we'd probably

get away with it. Peterson would be so scared of exposure, he'd

capitulate and authorize the multipage insert. My ass would be saved.

Come the second of January I'd be the new publisher of CompuWorld, and

rolling in the dough. End of story.

Except, of course, there'd be plenty more nights like this one- when

I'd wake at three and wonder, Do you ever really get away with

anything? Can you be involved in a moral car crash and actually walk

away unscathed? Or will some little voice creep up on you at

vulnerable moments like this one, and whisper, There is no free lunch..

.. There is no zip less fuck.. ..

My goddamn father Mr. F.thiral Someone who rammer! home again and

again, his central credo of life: You always pay a price when you make

a wrong call. But, sometimes, the wrong call is the only call, isn't

it? Especially in a situation where there is no way out-except, of

course, to fall graciously on your sword ... and, in the process, blow

the defining promotion of your career.

Ted Major Asshole Peterson. Probably sound asleep right now at home in

Connecticut, unaware of the fact that his flippant decision to cancel

one lousy ad had put careers on the line. Typical amoral yuppie. Fucks

around in business, fucks around on his wife. Faithful to no one but

his own penny-ante ambition. I remember that sales event in Grand

Cayman-how the day before Ted had attacked Joan, he was at the bar of

the Hyatt, showing off pictures of his new house in Connecticut. Right

on the water in a town called Old Greenwich. $1.4 million worth of

house, he had insisted on informing me. Big deck overlooking the

Sound. Five minutes by car to the train station. Forty-five minutes

to Grand Central. Great schools. And the only nonwhite face you ever

saw belonged to domestic help.

Old Greenwich, Connecticut. You probably had to be called Brad or Chip

or Ames or Edward Arlington Peterson, Jr." to live there.

Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Forty-five minutes by train. An hour by

car. Probably less at this time of night.

I picked up the phone. I punched in the number for directory

assistance for the Old Greenwich area code. The operator informed me

that there were two listings under the name of E. Peterson in the

area.

"It's the E. Peterson with the waterfront-sounding address," I said.

"You mean, Shore Road?"

"The very one. Number forty-four, isn't it?"

"Ninety-six Shore Road. Please wait for your number.. .."

Having finagled Peterson's address, I now turned on my computer, went

on-line, connected myself to the Yahoo search engine, and asked them to

find a map of Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Within ten seconds, a prompt

appeared on the screen, asking for the exact address in Old Greenwich.

I tvoed 96 Shore Road, hit

"Search," and ... bingo: I downloaded a fully detailed map of

Peter-son's section of Old Greenwich.

As I printed out the map, I reached for the phone again and called Avis

Rent-A-Car. Was there a twenty-four-hour agency in Manhattan?

Forty-third between Second and Third? Perfect. And did they have a

car they could rent me tonight? A Chevy Cutlass? That'll work. I

glanced at my watch. 3:43. I told them I'd be there to pick it up at

4:30.

I showered, I shaved. I put on a suit and tie. I made myself a fast

mug of instant coffee, popped five Raw Energy vitamins, and left Lizzie

a note:

Sweetheart:

Couldn't sleep. And I need to make an early morning business trip to

Connecticut. Call me when you get up, and I'll explain all.

You're the best... I grabbed the map of Old Greenwich. I tossed my

overcoat over my arm. I let myself out of the apartment as quietly as

possible. I hailed a cab on the street and was at the Avis office

within ten minutes. By 5:00 A.M." I was cruising north on the FDR

Drive, veering right onto the Triboro Bridge, then following the signs

for 1-95 North to Connecticut.

I had decided to brave Peterson. Face-to-face, on his doorstep. It

was the only way to force his hand. I was going to appeal to his

decency-and sell him on the idea of doing the right thing. But if he

refused, if he told me to drop dead, then I'd bring out the tactical

nuclear weapons. I'd let Phil make that call.

I reached Old Greenwich by 5:50. Using the map, I easily found my way

to Shore Road. It was still dark and I had to drive slowly down the

narrow two-lane road, squinting at house numbers on mailboxes. Chez

Peterson was located at the end of a long driveway. It was even more

impressive than the photos Ted had shown me-a rambling Cape Codder on

about a quarter acre of land Peterson wasn't lying when he said it

fronted the Sound; the house was equipped with a wraparound deck that

jutted out over the water

TIE JOB lOt and even had its own boat dock. I now knew why it came

with a $ 1.4 million price tag.

I cut my headlights and pulled into the driveway, parking right behind

Ted's BMW and a Ford Explorer earmarked for the wife and kids. It was

cold outside-around ten degrees Fahrenheit, according to the

temperature gauge in the Chevy-so I kept the engine running. I wished

to hell I had grabbed a newspaper and a cup of coffee en route. Now

all I could do was play WINS 1010 and hope to hell that Ted wasn't a

late riser. I tilted back the driver's seat, cranked up the heat (my

toes were beginning to go numb), and tried to fight off a surge of

fatigue by concentrating on the news.

"WINS ten-ten. All news, all the time. You give us twenty minutes,

we'll give you the world."

I settled back into my seat and felt another ripple of exhaustion drift

across my brain.

"WINS news time..."

Suddenly there was a sharp rapping sound-metal hitting glass. I

blinked and found myself squinting into bright winter sunlight. is now

seven-ten A.M.

Damn. Damn. Damn. Jolted awake, I found myself staring at a

pert-nosed woman in her early thirties, dressed in a black down parka

and white turtleneck, a black hair band holding her shiny blonde hair

in place. Behind her stood two well-groomed children. They were both

carrying school bags and looking bewildered as their mommy used her

wedding ring to tap against the window of a car they'd never seen

before-containing a sleeping man they'd also never seen before-which

was now blocking their driveway.

"Sir, sir, SIR," shouted the woman. I jumped out of the car, the blast

of cold air snapping me into instant alertness.

"Sorry. Really sorry," I said, rubbing my eyes.

"Fell asleep .. ."

She took a step back from me in alarm.

"You've been asleep in our driveway all night?"

"No, just over an hour. Does Ted Peterson live here?"

"I'm his wife, Meg."

"Good to meet you, Meg. I'm-" "Ned Allen?" said a shocked voice.

I looked up. There was Ted at the front door-in his best charcoal gray

Brooks Brothers overcoat and his shined wins-tins and his

102 DOOGUS IEIREDT

black Coach briefcase and his unlined patrician face now taut with

unease. He came walking slowly toward me.

"Well, this is a surprise," he said carefully as he shook my hand.

Though he was understandably astounded to find me in his driveway at

7:10 A.M." he was also shrewdly maintaining a polite front until he

knew why I was there. The guy was a consummate actor.

"Morning, Ted," I said, trying to remain very steady, very calm.

"Sorry to drop in like this, but-" "I know, I know," he said, now all

friendly.

"You're on a tight deadline, and you couldn't get through to me at the

office yesterday about that multipage insert, right?"

"Absolutely right," I said, amazed by his affable tone.

"And I really hate landing on your doorstep like this, but we do have a

small crisis on our hands."

"I totally understand," he said, giving my shoulder a reassuring tap.

"Hey, sorry, I haven't introduced you to my wife. Meg, this is Ned

Allen from CompuWorld..."

"We've already met," Meg Peterson said.

"And my kids, Will and Sarah."

"Hi, guys," I said, but they both continued to regard me with

suspicion.

"Meg, darling," Peterson said, "if you wouldn't mind ... I just need to

do three minutes of fast business with Ned...."

"You know Sarah's got to be at school by seven forty-five this

morning." Then, turning to me, she said, "It's her class field trip to

Mystic Seaport today."

"Three minutes, tops," Ted assured her.

"No longer, please," Meg said, then herded the children back into the

house. Ted motioned for me to follow him to the end of the driveway.

Once we were safely away from the house, he turned toward me. His

smile had vanished.

"You low-life piece of shit.. . ," he hissed.

"Ted, hear me out.. . ," I whispered back.

"How dare you pull a stunt like this .. ."

"I am only here because Ivan Dolinsky is going to be fired at noon

today."

"That's not my problem. Now fuck off."

"That's your problem Ted because you agreed to that ad.. .."

"I agreed to shit. The deal was never finalized, and then we decided

to switch marketing strategy for April. End of story."

"Ivan assures me you gave him your word.. .."

"Ivan's a flake, a loser. He'd say anything to save his sorry ass."

"I've worked with the guy for four years. He's totally straight when

it comes to business."

"The fact remains: There's no signed contract, so there's no deal. Case

closed. Now you have one minute to clear out of my driveway."

"He'll lose his job because of this."

"Shit happens."

"You know what the guy has been through. And he really will go under

if he's fired. So be a good guy. Approve the deal. It won't break

the bank. It's Christmas, for God's sake."

"This conversation's finished," he said, and started walking back

toward his house.

That's when I decided it was time to play my ace. Glancing up at his

home, I shouted after him, "You know, it really is quite a piece of

property, Ted. Even nicer than those photos you showed me and Phil

Sirio at Grand Cayman last year."

He froze. After a moment, he turned back toward me. His eyes were

filled with apprehension.

"Just get out of here," he said quietly.

As he marched toward his front door, I was about to shout Joan Glaston

sends her regards. But I stopped myself and instead said:

"Noon today, Peterson."

Jumping into the Chevy, I slammed it into reverse and got the hell out

of there.

Five minutes down the road my hands were shaking so hard I had to pull

off. Had I just committed blackmail? Peterson certainly got a shock

when I dropped that Phil Sirio/Grand Cayman mention. -. but still, I

hadn't made that blatant reference to the Joan Glaston business. So,

though I did feel a little sleazy, I really couldn't be accused of

coercion, could I?

But, given his shithead reaction to my appeal, I really didn't know if

Peterson would budge on the Ivan issue. Which meant that, if I wanted

to save my ass, I might still have to resort to blackmail before noon

that day.

I got back on the road and pointed myself in the direction of 1-95

South. When I was safely on the highway, my cellphone rang and I

jumped. I hit the answer button.

"This had better be good," Lizzie said, "or I might not talk to you for

a while."

I gave her a blow-by-blow account of the scene in Peterson's driveway,

but didn't mention the Grand Cayman business. When I finished, she

whistled.

"You are insane," she said.

"This is true. And probably out of a job."

"You don't know that."

"He's a ruthless operator. And I'm worried I might have overplayed my

hand."

"Sounds like all you did was ask him to do the honorable-" "The asshole

has no honor."

"But the fact is, you do. And that's what counts."

If only you knew about your honorable husband's blackmail plans,

Lizzie.

"Listen," she said, "I've got an eight o'clock breakfast meeting, so I

better run. Are we still on for dinner tonight?"

"Definitely. Only, with me being out of a job, you're probably going

to have to pick up the tab."

"Done deal. How was the evening with this Kreplin guy?"

It wasn't the moment to get into what had gone on last night. Because

as much as I wanted to tell her, I kept hearing Kreplin's voice in my

head, promising me a fatal dose of bad karma if word of my promotion

leaked out before the second of January. And as to saying anything

about that stage-managed encounter with the two hookers ... to quote

Phil Sirio: Fugedaboudit.

"It was just a getting-to-know-you thing."

"A kind of into-the-night getting-to-know-you thing."

"Tell me about it. The guy likes to booze. Late."

"As long as that's all he likes to do late."

Why do women always have this instinctual ability to sniff out the

aroma of near or actual infidelity? Even when they're just talking to

you on the phone?

"Put it this way," I said, "that's all I like to do late."

"filarl to hfar it "

"Unless you're around, of course."

"Y'know, sometimes I think you have a Ph.D. in romantic bullshit...."

"You've finally worked that one out."

"Later, toots. Keep your nerve. And call me as soon as you have some

news from GBS."

"I promise," I said.

Thanks to the maniacal rush-hour traffic, it took almost two hours to

reach Manhattan. My cellphone was on the seat next to me. It didn't

ring once. At nine I called the office to say I'd be late, and to

check my messages. No word from Ted Peterson. By the time I dropped

the car off at Avis and grabbed a taxi downtown, it was close to ten.

Just as the cab was pulling up to my office, the phone went off. My

hands were trembling as I answered it. It was Phil Sirio.

"How ya doin', boss?" he asked.

"I now know what those kamikaze pilots must have felt like when they

were told it was their turn to fly a plane."

"So you made the decision on Peterson?"

"Not yet."

"Just say the word and I'll pick up the phone."

I glanced again at my watch.

"Give me two hours," I said.

There was a slew of messages waiting for me on my desk. But none from

GBS. I told Lily to interrupt any and all calls for Ted Peterson.

"Is Mr. Zanussi around this morning?" I asked.

"He's at a meeting-and won't be back till after lunch," Lily said.

Thank God for that. It might give me an extra hour or two to play

with. Think. Think. Think. I powered up my computer and once again

reviewed our client list, in the vain hope that I had overlooked

someone-anyone-who could cough up a major spread by tomorrow. No

possibilities. Though I knew this was a total long shot, I tracked

down CompuWorld's regional sales managers in Seattle, Chicago, Houston,

and Silicon Valley, wondering if they might have a spare multipage

insert going. Coast to coast, they all gave me the answer I was

expecting:

"Are you nuts?" Bob Brubaker-my counterpart in Palo Alto and probably

the most competitive guy in our company-actually turned nasty.

"You pull a stunt like this the day after we're taken over ... and then

you expect me to save your ass?"

"It's not a 'stunt," Bob. We were badly burned by a client."

"And this 'letdown' is going to impact all of us. To Kiang-Sanderling,

six blank pages in the April issue will make the entire national sales

force look like a bunch of born losers."

"Look, I'm the fall guy here. Okay? It's me they'll be bumping off,

not you."

"I promise you, pal, if I go down with you .. ."

"Bob, please, I know this is a difficult time for everyone."

"I've got two alimonies and two kids in college. So don't give me this

'calm down' shit.. .."

"They're not going to fire you because of my screw up."

"Yeah? Well, if they do, you're dead. Understand me, Allen? Dead."

I hung up. Loudly. Just what I needed this morning. A death threat.

Psychotic sonofabitch. But I was stupid to have called him. Brubaker

was Mr. Hair Trigger-one of those guys who was always two seconds away

from detonation. And he was simply articulating what we were all

feeling: pure, undistilled fear.

At 11:30, Ivan Dolinsky called. I was feeling so frayed that I told

Lily to inform him I was in a meeting. If I spoke to him, I might have

lost all control.

At 11:47, Chuck Zanussi called. Again I told Lily to say I was busy,

but she came back on the line, informing me that Mr. Zanussi had

stepped out of his meeting to make this call and was insistent we

speak. I punched line one.

"Well?" said Chuck.

"We're nearly there," I said.

"Horseshit."

"I'm expecting a call from Peterson any moment.. .."

"You've got thirteen minutes."

"It might be after lunch.. .."

"Thirteen minutes, Ned."

"For Christ's sake, Chuckle-don't turn this into some death row scene.

Will the governor call with a reprieve before they give him the juice

.. ."

"For the next thirteen minutes, I'm still your boss. So I'll do

whatever I like."

"Please, Chuckie, I'm begging here, just a little more time ..."

"Request denied," he said. And the line went dead.

Now I knew what free fall was all about.

"Mr. Sirio on line three ..."

I looked at my watch. 11:53.1 grabbed the receiver.

"So, what gives?" Phil asked.

"Still no word from Peterson."

"Nearly high noon, boss."

"I am very aware of this."

"So what's it gonna be?"

My eyes were closed tight, my pulse sprinting. I replayed the scene in

Peterson's driveway. On the verge of blackmail, I'd slammed on the

brakes. Could I really go through with it now? Choose, dammit.

Choose.

"Sorry, Phil. No sale."

He let out a sigh.

"Your funeral."

"In about six minutes' time."

"Can I say something here?"

"Shoot."

"You never get anywhere in life being honorable with an asshole."

"Sounds like a good epitaph for me. Thanks anyway, Phil."

"Good luck, boss."

Eleven-fifty-five. So that was that. Game. Set. Match. I leaned

back in my office chair. Numb. I had just thrown it all away. Four

long years scaling the corporate ladder. All the persuading, the

schmoozing, the need to close. You expect it to lead somewhere. You

actually get in sight of that place. Ten feet from the summit. And

then your footing slips, the ground gives way, and .. . bye-bye.

You play the game. You think you know the rules. But then, one day,

you wake up and discover it's the game that plays you.

There was a frantic knock on my door. It flew open and Debbie 3uarez

came storming in.

"Mr. Allen. I cot-"

108 DODGLAS KENNEDY

"Debbie," I said, holding up my hand, "not now, huh?"

"But I've got to show you-" "No offense, but I've just lost my job

and-" "Will you puh-leeze lemme tell you-" "I'm not your boss anymore.

Go bother Chuck Zanussi with-" She slammed her fist down on my desk-an

action so startling that I was momentarily speechless.

"Got your attention now?" she asked. I nodded.

"Then read this."

She tossed a piece of paper in front of me.

"It just came in by fax. Lily asked me to give it to you."

I stared down at the paper. I saw the letterhead. It contained three

letters: GBS. And below this:

Mr. Edward Allen Regional Manager, Northeast Sales CompuWorld Inc.

Getz-Braun Publications via facsimile Dear Mr. Allen:

I am pleased to inform you that GBS will be proceeding with the

multipage insert for their Minerva computer in the April issue of your

magazine.

Please have your production department contact our art department to

arrange immediate copy transfer.

Sincerely yours, Ted Peterson I read it once. It didn't sink in. I

read it twice. I still wasn't entirely convinced. I was reading it a

third time when Debbie Suarez said, "Whadja do, Mr. Allen? Make him

an offer he couldn't refuse?"

As I looked up at her, my eyes were brimming. She noticed, and

saueezed my arm.

"You closed, Mr. Allen," she said.

"You closed."

The phone suddenly detonated again.

"Mr. Zanussi on line one ..."

"Lily," I said, "ask him to give you a fax number for wherever he is

right now."

"He's adamant that he talk-" "Tell him I want to talk to him, too. But

only after he looks at a document you're going to fax him. Debbie's

bringing it to reception right now."

I hung up and turned to Debbie.

"Chuck's going to fire me in two minutes if he doesn't see that fax-so

.. ."

"I'm not walking, I'm running."

I dialed Ted Peterson's office. His secretary recognized my voice

immediately.

"Mr. Allen," she said, sounding as glacial as ever, "Mr. Peterson is

in a meeting."

"Sure he is. And I'm the ghost of Elvis. Look-put me through. I just

want to say a fast thanks .. ."

She put me on hold. After a moment, he came on the line.

"Peterson here."

"Ted, I can't thank you enough. And I just wanted to say how grateful

I was, and hope there are no hard feelings.. .."

"Cut to the chase, Allen. Where's this going? Or should I say, what

are your terms?"

"My terms? You've met my terms. You honored the deal with Ivan..

.."

"Let's drop the coy crap, okay? You want to play, let's play. I'm

sure we can figure out a way to work together on this, and keep

everyone happy." I was suddenly lost.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Ted."

"Yeah, right. Well, I guess it was only a matter of time.. .."

"A matter of time before what? You really have me baffled here,

Ted."

There was a long silence. When Peterson spoke again, his voice had

lost its acrimony.

"Allen, what exactly is it you know?"

"Only what I heard."

"Which is what?"

I chose my words with care.

"Just that you got into some rough stuff with Joan Glaston."

There was another long silence.

"That's it?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah."

"Jesus Christ," he suddenly shouted.

"You cheap, sneaky little shit. That cock tease was more than happy to

make a deal-so don't even think you can milk me for more, you bush

league motherfucker."

Then the line went dead.

I frantically redialed Peterson's number. His secretary cut me off

before I could finish saying my name.

"I'm glad you called, Mr. Allen. Mr. Peterson asked me to convey a

message if you did call back."

"Which is?"

"He wanted to inform you that, though he has authorized the current

insert, he will never do business with you again. Nor will he

entertain any approaches from your associates. GBS's association with

CompuWorld is finished."

"Hang on, now..."

"There is nothing else to say, Mr. Allen. Except good-bye."

She hung up. And I thought, Phil was right. You never get anywhere in

life being honorable with an asshole. Especially a dangerous

asshole-with something to hide.

SEVEN

"He was probably bluffing," Lizzie said.

"The guy is no bluffer," I said.

"He's into power, right?"

"Thrives on it. Needs it-like a junkie needs crack."

"Well, this is just Ted Peterson's way of letting you know who, in his

mind, has the bigger dick."

"If the magazine loses the entire GBS account, and I'm held responsible

.. ."

"You're not going to lose GBS. You're an essential outlet for their

product. They need you as much as-" "He's a vindictive sonofabitch,

Lizzie."

"I promise you, after Christmas, once he's cooled down a bit, he's

going to have no choice but to do business with you again. I mean, if

he does boycott CompuWorld, his superiors at GBS will eventually begin

to notice that they're not advertising in your magazine. And when they

bring it up, what's he going to say?

"Oh, I reneged on a contract with CompuWorld, so that nasty Ned Allen

showed up on my doorstep and embarrassed me into doing the deal. But I

got him back by deciding that we should stop advertising in his

magazine." Even Peterson knows that if he gives them a story like

that, GBS will ship him back to kindergarten."

She took my hand in hers.

"So stop worrying about the schmuck."

Had Lizzie known about the Joan Glaston business-and the positively

peculiar way Peterson behaved during our last phone call- she might

have been very worried. But I chose not to tell her that part of the

story, because I knew she would have been appalled to learn that I had

even considered blackmail. But that still didn't lessen my own

spiraling anxiety-not just about losing GBS, but about the way Peterson

hung up on me. He was definitely hiding something. I mean, the guy

actually seemed relieved to confirm that I knew about the Joan Glaston

incident. So there had to be something else going on here. Something

a lot dirtier. And I sensed that the bastard wasn't going to let the

whole thing drop. He had regained the advantage, and would now make me

pay a ferocious price for tangling with him.

"You forced him to do the right thing," Lizzie said, raising her glass

to me.

"You won. Be happy. Drink another martini."

"Good idea," I said, raising my hand for the waiter. We were sitting

in Circo's, an absurdly extravagant nouveau Italian restaurant on West

Fifty-fifth. It was a real expense account place-and we never walked

out of there for less than a hundred and fifty bucks. But the food was

terrific and the drinks were served in the cocktail-bar equivalent of a

fire bucket. Which was fine by me. Especially tonight. Because,

after the events of the last sleepless thirty-six hours, all I wanted

to do was get drunk. Very drunk.

"At least Chuck Zanussi must have been pleased with the news," Lizzie

said.

"Chuck Zanussi showed his true colors today... ."

"Always happens when people are under pressure. He was scared, so you

became his convenient fall guy."

"He was out for blood."

Not just my blood, but Ivan Dolinsky's. Immediately after he had

received the letter from GBS, he called my office.

"This isn't some kind of hoax you dreamed up?" he asked.

"Thanks for the warm words of congratulations, Chuck," I said.

"I'm just asking."

"No, it's totally legit. You don't believe me, get on the horn and

call Peterson."

"How the hell did you pull it off?"

"I appealed to his basic Christian morality."

"That guy's got about as much Christian morality as Colonel Gadhafi."

"At least he doesn't tell his subordinates that if a deal isn't closed

in thirteen minutes, they're history."

"You know why I had to pressure you like that.. .."

"To save your own ass." (And, I could have added, because Kreplin told

you to.) "Ned-i really wouldn't get into this if I were you. And lose

the aggressive tone while you're at it. You cut it fine, but you

closed. Congrats. Okay?"

"So I still have a job here?"

"For Christ's sake, of course you do. Forget a day of bad shit between

us. You're still my best guy."

And I'm about to plunge a knife in your back.

"Listen," I said, "since we pulled off the GBS deal, am I correct in

assuming Ivan Dolinsky can keep his job?"

"What I said yesterday still stands: He's out."

"Chuck, that's simply not fair."

"Fair, shmair. You pulled this one out of the hat, not Ivan. You've

been carrying him for a year. Face facts: He's lost it, Ned. And,

given our new circumstances, and the way Kiang-Sanderling is going to

be monitoring us like we're in the cardiac ward, we just can't afford

excess baggage.. .."

"Give him one more shot."

"He almost cost us our jobs, Ned. The answer is no. And I'm not

budging on this one. But look, I'll be pretty generous when it comes

to his severance package. Six months' pay, and I'll keep him on

medical for twelve months. He can't ask for more than that."

"Tell you what," I said.

"I know he's going out to Michigan to see some family over Christmas.

The guy's still so fragile that if we sack him before the holidays,

he'll totally go under. So let's do it when he gets back, on January

fifth."

"You're back from vacation on the second. Do it then."

"Not on my first day back, Chuck. I mean, I don't exactly want to kick

off the New Year by telling someone they're toast. Monday, January

fifth-Ivan goes. Okay?"

Chuck grumbled a lot about how this three-week reprieve was going to

cost the company money. So I tried a different tactic, Pointing out

that it would be lousy for staff morale if Ivan was terminated before

Christmas.

"They see Ivan get the bullet, all they're gonna be thinking is, Who's

next? And that's going to distract them from their work. Which is

exactly what we don't want-given that we need everyone to exceed their

targets for the next couple of issues and impress the shit out of

Kiang-Sanderling.. .."

"All right, all right," Chuck said wearily.

"He goes on January fifth. And meanwhile, I want you to start scouting

around for someone to fill his shoes. On the quiet, natch."

Natch, Chuck-but here's a hot off-the-record tip: You yourself might be

interested in applying for the job.... Of course, I didn't mention to

Chuck anything about Peterson's war whoop-or my fears that we might

have permanently lost GBS. And when I recounted for Lizzie my

conversation with Chuck, I also conveniently failed to elaborate on why

I really fought to keep Ivan on staff until January 5.

I was on the verge of telling her the news many times, but my mind kept

jumping back to a conversation I'd had with Klaus Kreplin earlier that

day.

He called just after lunch. No greeting, no small talk, he didn't even

say hello. Just:

"Your father-in-law died in 1991."

I worked hard at stifling a laugh. I failed.

"You think this is funny?"

"Yes, Klaus. I actually do."

"Funny, no. Mildly entertaining, yes. And very imaginative."

"I just had to get on home, Klaus. I was dead tired."

"No, you were in a situation you didn't like. And you found a way of

removing yourself from that situation which caused no offense to

anyone. A clever stratagem. This kind of resourceful lateral thinking

I like. Just as I admire your fidelity to your wife-though, during my

abbreviated experience of marriage, I personally reached the conclusion

that faithfulness is a useless and thankless concept. Still, one must

respect such virtue.. .."

"I'm not that virtuous, Klaus."

"This I know-otherwise you would never have found a solution to the GBS

problem."

"I certainly didn't do anything unethical to pet the ad back.. .."

"Of course you didn't. I imagine you were simply... resourceful. My

sincere congratulations."

Sincere? Try smarmy.

"So, now that we do not have to terminate you, you are ready to assume

the role of publisher on January second?"

I took a deep breath.

"I'm ready."

"May I remind you once again that the appointment is conditional on

your secrecy. Not a word to anyone."

Jawohl, mein commandant. As the second round of martinis arrived, I

decided I simply had to follow Kreplin's orders. Telling Lizzie now, I

convinced myself, wasn't crucial. The situation at work was too

delicate. Hell, it wasn't as if I was keeping a life-or-death

situation from her (bar the fact that I was betraying Chuck Zanussi).

It was good news, after all. And there was nothing intrinsically wrong

about putting good news on hold. Especially as it was only for a few

weeks.

"Do you really think you'll have to get rid of Ivan as soon as we're

back from vacation?" Lizzie asked.

I thought back to the call I made to Ivan sometime after lunch- how he

started to sob when I told him that Peterson had capitulated. But as

he rattled on, promising to be the company's biggest earner next year,

I found myself thinking, You better start delivering the goods, pal.

Because if you pull another stunt like this one, I won't be able to

save you again.

"I'm hoping that the delay might work to Ivan's advantage," I told

Lizzie.

"If he can score another couple of big deals between now and early

January, I might just be able to win him a reprieve. But I really

don't want to think about that until January second...."

After the last thirty-six hours, I frankly didn't want to think about

anything to do with business, let alone the fact that I was trying to

tap-dance my way through a moral minefield. I kept telling myself, As

long as no confidences are blown, life will become considerably less

complicated after the second of January. Chuck will go. You will

pretend-to both him and Lizzie-that you knew nothing in advance about

his demise and your sudden promotion. Ivan will keep his job. After

some ass-kissing diplomacy (over a lunch at Le Cirque, perhavs)

Peterson will come to his senses and resume advertising in the

magazine. Kreplin will forget about the near loss of our biggest

account.

And nobody will ever know the elaborate network of fibs, obfuscations,

and near illegal behavior I had woven in order to save my butt.

As it turned out, life at CompuWorld did return to its normal

semi-manic state rather quickly. And though we now had to put up with

a steady stream of corporate visitors from our new head office in

Hamburg (anal-retentive manager types who were dispatched across the

Atlantic to teach us the Kiang-Sanderling way of "organizing efficient

interoffice communications"), we all adapted quickly to the demands of

our new owners. And they, in turn, never became heavy-handed in their

dealings with us. Kreplin kept his word about the staff remaining

intact. There was no blood on the floor, no heavy-handed flexing of

Teutonic muscles, no sudden terminations. Kreplin and his cronies were

perfect models of corporate efficiency and diplomacy. And on the

Friday before Christmas-the day that the first installment of the bonus

checks was handed out- they even threw an after-work cocktail party for

the entire staff.

It was held in a large function room on the twenty-ninth floor of the

Regal U.N. Plaza Hotel-and, in true Kreplin style, it was extravagantly

catered. An endless supply of Moe't et Chandon. Elaborate finger food

(raw sirloin on pumpernickel, mini-sushi, quail egg tart lets and-this

was quite a stylish touch-a gift of a Mont Blanc ballpoint pen for each

of the eighty guests. Kreplin made a little speech, in which he

actually sounded warm and human, welcoming us into the Kiang-Sanderling

"family" and assuring us of his certainty that the Mont Blancs would be

put to good use in the coming year, making the deals that would

transform CompuWorld into the second biggest periodical in the American

computer market.

Extended drunken cheering greeted that last comment, because it

reinforced something we all wanted to believe: Kiang-Sanderling was

behind us all the way.

"I don't need a fancy pen," Debbie Suarez complained when I ran into

her at the bar after Kreplin's speech.

"I just need all my bonus money."

"So do we all, Debbie," I said, reflecting that my $25,000 bridge loan

would now not be paid off until the beginning of February. At least I

had been able to solve one of Debbie's money problems a few days

earlier, when, as promised, I had a little conversation with the bursar

at Faber Academy. After much wheeling and dealing, and playing of the

liberal compassion card, I finally got this fine, upstanding Quaker to

reluctantly agree to defer half of Raul's tuition until the end of

January.

"I am, of course, sympathetic to Ms. Suarez's situation," the bursar

said, "and to the fact that she is a single parent who is also looking

after her elderly mother. But we still must have some assurance ..

."

I said, "Look, our new owners, Kiang-Sanderling, are the fourth-biggest

publishing conglomerate on the planet.. .."

"All I'm asking for, Mr. Allen, is a letter on company stationery,

signed by you as Ms. Suarez's superior, guaranteeing that the

forty-five-hundred-dollar tuition balance owed to Faber Academy will be

paid by the first of February."

"You've got it," I said, though-as I was faxing the letter over to the

school-I did momentarily reflect on the fact that, until the second of

January, I was in no position to guarantee anything. But hell .. . who

was going to know about this letter anyway?

"I spoke to that mar icon bursar at Faber this morning," Debbie said,

handing me another glass of champagne.

"He said he got your letter, and that he was really makin' an exception

here-'cause it's usually money up front or no school. But he told me

that it was your phone call that swung it.

"Your boss, he's some sonofabitch salesman."" I laughed.

"I'm sure he didn't use 'sonofabitch," Debbie."

"I owe you big, Mr. Allen."

"All part of the job, Debbie."

She leaned into me and kissed me fully on the lips. I was a little

startled by this spontaneous show of affection, but at least had the

presence of mind to keep my lips shut. Debbie herself was even more

flustered. Taking a giant step back from me, she blushed deeply.

"Oops," she said.

"Yeah." I said.

"OODS."

"Oh, Mr. Allen, I am such a jerk...."

"Don't worry about it," I said.

"Too much champagne," she said.

"It is a common excuse, no?"

Debbie spun around and there was Klaus Kreplin, beaming broadly at

us.

"Nice speech, Klaus," I said, trying to remain composed.

"I am not interrupting anything?" he asked, his eyebrows arching

slyly.

"Nothing at all," I said.

"Klaus, I'd like you to meet Debbie Suarez."

"Ah, yes," he said, "the brilliant Telesales star you always tell me

about."

Now it was my turn to blush. Trust Kreplin to maximize our

embarrassment. He took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed

it.

"Charmed," he said. Judging from her what-the-fuck-is-this? reaction,

I doubted very much if anyone had ever kissed Debbie's hand before.

"Yeah, uh, likewise," she said, at a loss for words.

"Will you guys excuse me?"

And she hurried off across the room.

"A delightful young lady," Kreplin said, "as you obviously agree."

"It was a kiss, Klaus. Nothing more."

"Oh yes, I forgot. You are, of course, the 'prince of virtue."" I

smiled thinly.

"But we are all tempted by misconduct, aren't we?" Kreplin said.

"Life is nonstop temptation," I said.

"Ah, you are a philosopher as well. But one, I hope, who understands

the value of silence."

"I've said nothing to anyone, if that's what you mean. I do follow

orders."

"Edward?" he said, slapping me on the shoulder.

"We will make excellent colleagues-of this I am certain."

He reached into the breast pocket of his suit, pulled out a business

card, and shoved it into my pocket.

"I am off back to Hamburg- tomorrow evening," he said.

"On this card you will find my phone numbers at the head office, at my

home, and for my cellular phone. You must call me if there is the

slightest problem."

"There will be no problem. I'm in the office Monday and Tuesday, then

Lizzie and I fly to Nevis on the twenty-sixth. We're at the Four

Seasons there if you need me. Otherwise ..." I proffered my hand. "..

. see you back in New York on January second."

"I shall be there, Herr Publisher," Kreplin said in a whisper. As he

turned to leave, I noticed that Chuck was on the far side of the room,

watching us. I gave him a quick wave, a facile smile, wondering if I

was looking particularly guilty. Then I strolled over and said,

"Helluva party."

"What did Kreplin have to say for himself?" he asked abruptly, the

words slurring ever so slightly (well, we had all drunk a lot of

champagne).

"Usual Kraut horse shit. And he was congratulating me on the GBS biz.

You tell him something?"

"Yeah-I mentioned we had a problem and that you solved it."

I gulped.

"That was decent of you, Chuck."

"Yeah, well, I always was a sap."

I remained very composed.

"A sap? You? Get outta here. I don't know what you're talking

about."

"Don't you?" he asked.

I shook my head, shrugging my shoulders.

"You're not bullshitting me?"

"About what, exactly?"

His mood seemed to lighten.

"I think I'm getting paranoid in my advanced middle age."

"I think we've all been through a lot in the last two weeks."

"You can say that again." He stuck out his fleshy right paw.

"Despite all the crap that went down, we're still buddies, right?"

"You bet," I said, reaching for his hand. But suddenly I found myself

in the middle of an M.B.A. (Male Bonding Alert) as Chuck gave me a

drunken, fraternal hug. I was glad he couldn't see my face-for what he

would have glimpsed was guilt. Okay, I hadn't sold him out. It was

Kreplin's call. But, returning his embrace, I still felt like Joe

Judas.

"I've got to get on home," he said.

"We're off to Mary Ann folks in Buffalo tomorrow. Back at the office

on the twenty-sixth, if you need me. I envy you the Caribbean, guy.

Catch some rays for me."

"I'll see what I can do, boss."

As he headed off in search of his coat, I began to dread January 2-and

the appalling scene that would unfold when he got the news.

But I tried to put such thoughts on hold. And for the next few days-in

an attempt to get into the holiday spirit-"Herr Publisher" went out and

spent money. A lot of money. The way I figured it, half my debts were

settled, all my credit cards were now back to zero, the remaining bonus

check would cancel out my bank loan. Then, as of January 2 ... So why

not blow a little dough? It was Christmas, after all. And Dr. Barney

Gordon was more than happy to install my new front tooth on short

notice (especially since he'd made up the bridge months earlier and had

been sending me increasingly testy reminder notices).

"About time you showed up, Mr. Allen," Doc Gordon said when I trooped

into his office on the morning of the twenty-third.

"We were starting to wonder if you'd left the country."

"I was just incredibly busy."

"Well," Doc Gordon said, "I'm glad you found time for this. But, just

in case you get so busy in the New Year that you forget about our bill,

our practice now accepts Visa or MasterCard-so you can settle up with

the receptionist on the way out. Now, open wide...."

Thirty-two hundred bucks for that little stint in the dentist's chair

(though, I have to admit, the new bridgework is a considerable

improvement on the battered old false tooth that was shoved into my

mouth by some navy dentist twenty years ago).

Anyway, $3,200 for a new front tooth seemed cheap when compared with

the $3,400 I splurged on a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch for Lizzie. Okay,

okay-without question, an over-the-top extravagance. But I knew she'd

been admiring that watch for years. As Herr Publisher I could afford

it. Just like I could also afford to FedEx my mom a $2,000 set of

Callaway titanium golf clubs- because I felt guilty about not staying

in closer touch with her.

And. as Herr Publisher. I could also afford to upgrade Lizzie and

myself to first class on our December twenty-sixth American Airlines

flight to St. Kitts/Nevis.

"Are you deranged?" Lizzie asked as I shepherded her toward the first

class check-in at JFK.

"I mean, the watch was a big enough shock."

She had been dumbstruck when, on the previous morning, she opened the

elegantly wrapped gift box and found herself staring at the

Jaeger-LeCoultre she'd always coveted.

"You're insane, you're totally insane," she said, not sounding at all

happy.

"It's just a watch," I said.

"Sure-and the Concorde's just an airplane."

"Then you do like it?"

"It's .. . wonderful. Beyond wonderful. But it scares me. Because we

can't afford it."

Now, as we waited behind one other passenger at the first class desk,

Lizzie turned to me and asked, "Are you keeping something from me?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know. But the way you're spending money ... either

something's going on, or you've become pathologically self-destructive.

I just don't understand this recklessness.. .."

"It's just money."

"I know how much one of these watches costs. We're talking too much

money."

"I can handle it."

"I wish I could believe that," she said.

I kissed her.

"Relax. I haven't broken the bank."

We drank champagne all the way to San Juan, then switched to a small

sixty-seat aircraft for the fast forty-minute puddle jump to St. Kitts.

On this last leg of the journey, Lizzie nodded off for around ten

minutes. Watching her sleep, I couldn't block out that Persistent

little voice which inevitably begins to haunt your inner ear after

you've made a dumb call. You're blowing it here. She knows

something's up. You're out of the country now-so to hell with

K^eplin's obsessive need for secrecy. She's your wife, for Christ's

sake. It s time for a complete about-face. Get it over with. Tell

her.

And I resolved to do just that as soon as we checked into our room.

We landed at St. Kitts, where the mercury was punching ninety and the

air had that heady, fragrant kick of cheap rum punch. A Four Seasons

minibus picked us up at the airport and drove us past whitewashed

shacks to a jetty where we were whisked aboard an inter-island motor

launch. The engines revved, we gently cruised out of the harbor, then

the captain opened up the throttle and we shot across the narrow bay

that separated St. Kitts from Nevis. The sun was incandescent, the

water was as level as plate glass, and-I couldn't believe this-looming

up ahead was this vast mountain plopped down in the middle of the

Atlantic. The top of this mountain was covered in a fine, white dust,

making it appear to be frosted with snow. As we approached, I could

see that its slopes flattened out and were covered by a deep green

tangle of tropical foliage. The foliage stretched out, north to south,

for around ten miles, and was bisected by one paved road. Below this

made-for-Tarzan habitat was a narrow, pristine strip of pure white sand

that appeared to encircle the entire island.

"That's Nevis?" I asked one of the crewmen.

"The one and only, mon."

Lizzie gave me a radiant smile.

"I approve of paradise."

Our room was at one end of the resort, far from its noisy epicenter.

And it fronted the beach, giving us a wide-screen view of the

Atlantic.

As we stood on the little verandah that faced the water, Lizzie asked

quietly, "Didn't we originally rule out an ocean view because it was an

extra thousand bucks for the week?"

"I thought I'd surprise you."

"You're full of surprises, Ned."

"You've got to admit, it's one hell of a view."

"I suppose the bottle of Dom Perignon was another of your surprises?"

she said, motioning toward the ice-bucketed champagne that had been

waiting for us on our arrival.

"Sweetheart, it's Christmas," I said, picking up the bottle and tugging

on the cork.

"And you're acting like Donald Trump. What gives, Ned? I want to

know."

I pulled the cork, I poured two glasses, I handed her one. And said,

"On January second, I'm becoming the new publisher of CompuWorld."

She flinched as if I'd slapped her. It was not the reaction I was

hoping for.

"I've been meaning to tell you...."

"For what?" she interrupted.

"Days? Weeks?"

"A little while," I said, sounding sheepish.

"Nothing was confirmed until-" "So you have known about this for quite

a while."

"I didn't want to say anything until I was absolutely certain...."

"I don't believe this."

"Klaus Kreplin swore me to secrecy."

As soon as I uttered that sentence, I regretted it. Lizzie's reaction

was glacial.

"Secrecy-even from me?" she said.

"Take it easy.. .."

"I will not take it easy. You do this all the time."

"Do what?"

"Lie to me."

"This is hardly a lie, Lizzie. All right, I admit it, I was wrong. I

should have told you."

"No-what you should have done was trusted me to keep a secret."

"I do trust you, darling.. .."

"No, you don't. Nor do you take me seriously enough to want to share

anything important in your life."

"You know that's not true."

"Don't you dare talk to me about truth."

"I was just being cautious."

"You were shutting me out, as usual."

"I don't shut you out.. .."

Go fuck yourself," she said, throwing her champagne glass on the

terra-cotta floor and storming off down the beach. My first instinct

was to pursue her. But I held back-in part because I knew from

experience of previous domestic skirmishes that it was best to stay

clear of Lizzie while she was still fuming, and also because.

after that verbal brawl, I needed to give myself ten minutes to calm

down.

Jerk. Jerk. Jerk. You never learn, do you?

I drained the glass of champagne, wishing it was something more nerve

bracing, like vodka. Then, grabbing the bottle and two fresh glasses,

I left the verandah and started strolling along the beach. Past my

pale, fleshy compatriots courting skin cancer in the merciless West

Indies sun. And the waiters carrying trays of pina coladas. And two

little kids throwing wet sand at each other. Past the shack where you

could rent sailboards. Past the eastern wing of the hotel. Past the

line of demarcation that marked the end of the Four Seasons beachfront.

Past a place where local dudes with dreadlocks sold lobsters on the

beach. And then onto a stretch of beach where there was nothing but

water, sand, and a lush thicket of palms.

It was empty-except for my wife. She was sitting by the water's edge,

staring out at the deep blue bay. I walked over and sat down beside

her. She didn't acknowledge my arrival. She kept her gaze firmly

fixed on the horizon.

"Drink?" I said, holding up the bottle. She said nothing. I poured

two glasses and placed one in front of her on the sand.

"Merry Christmas," I said, raising my glass.

"Don't humor me, Ned."

"I'm sorry."

"That's not good enough."

"I'm very sorry."

"Do you really want this marriage?" she asked.

"Of course I do. You are everything-" "Oh, please .. ."

"I mean it."

"I don't know if you do mean it, Ned. You never act like this is a

partnership. You run up crazy bills but keep telling me not to worry

about it. You keep crucial stuff from me-which leads me to believe

that you can't trust me with a secret. You seem to be so totally

absorbed in making it all the time-in proving to the world you're 'a

player'-that you forget there are two of us in this marriage. In it

together."

"I don't forget that," I said.

"You do. All the time. And then, when I found out I was pregnant..

."

I avoided her accusatory gaze. And felt shame.

"I was scared," I finally said.

"You were a selfish asshole, thinking only of yourself and your

precious job. And you made me feel very alone."

"It wasn't just the job.... I was wrong."

"You're going to lose me, Ned."

I reached for her hand. She didn't push me away.

"I don't want to lose you."

"Then make me believe that."

She picked up the champagne glass from the sand and downed it in one

gulp.

"Merry Christmas, Publisher," she said cheerlessly.

By the end of the day an uneasy armistice had been established between

us. Over dinner that night, I told her everything about the job offer,

assuring her that I didn't scheme against Chuck, that it was Kreplin's

decision. She didn't seem entirely convinced. She worried about how

Chuck would take the news, and whether I would be perceived within the

company as a conniving, backstabbing shit. Then I mentioned the salary

and she looked both electrified and concerned.

"That's crazy money," she said.

"We'll be rich."

"We'll be comfortable."

"Very comfortable. And you know what they say about money-it gives you

options. If we want to buy a co-op, rent a weekend place in the

Hamptons, have a kid-" She cut me off.

"One thing at a time, Ned."

Careful here. I kissed her, then put my arm around her shoulders,

pulling her toward me.

"You're right," I said.

"One thing at a time."

The sunstruck indolence of Nevis eventually forced us to kick back, to

slide into low gear for the rest of the week, never waking before ten,

breakfasting on the verandah, taking extended hikes on the beach,

spending the late afternoons in bed, dodging the company of our fellow

compatriots at the resort by eating at one of the run ky local lobster

shacks on the beach. The days effortlessly merged into one another. My

nails grew back, my overloaded nervous system began to decompress.

Though everyone at the office had my number, the phone never rang once.

Domestic calm had been reestablished-but several times I caught Lizzie

glancing at me with concern.

And then the week was over. We saluted the arrival of the New Year

with a bottle of champagne and a drunken stroll along the beach,

collapsing into the sand and letting the warm water of the bay wash

over us. It drenched our clothes. We didn't care. Instead, we lay on

our backs and stared up at the floor show in the sky. After a long

silence, Lizzie said:

"Say we didn't go back."

"Yeah, sure .. ."

"I'm serious. Say we just said 'fuck it." To hell with the career,

the pressure, the endless ass-kissing, the nights made sleepless with

worry, accumulating all this stuff we don't need .. ."

"What would you suggest? Finding an island like this one, and moving

into a grass hut?"

"It's a nice dream, isn't it?"

"Sure, but.. ."

"Yeah?"

"We'd be bored to death within a week."

"You really need it, don't you?" she said.

"Need what?"

"The city. The pressure. The deal."

"Yeah, I need it. Don't you?"

"I used to think so," she said.

"Now, I'm not so sure. Anyway ... so much for my tropical fantasy."

"It's nice in theory. But..."

"I know. Back we go.. .."

"Yeah. Back we go."

And early the next morning, back we went-trading the sun-dappled haze

of the West Indies for an ashen Manhattan sky. It was sleeting when we

landed. We hit traffic on the BQE and crept slowly into the city, as

if we were part of a funeral cortege. The frozen rain kept dripping

down. The taxi was overheated, the radio blared Estonian pop tunes,

and I was suddenly seized by edgy anxiety. Lizzie-sensing my

apprehension-squeezed my hand.

"Thinking about tomorrow?" she asked.

I nodded.

"It's a big day."

"You'll be just fine. But remember: It's just a job, Ned."

Sleep eluded me for most of that New Year's night. When dawn broke, I

was slouched on our sofa, staring out at the brightening skyline. I

showered, I shaved, I put on a dark gray double-breasted suit, I

retreated to the bedroom, where Lizzie was stirring.

"You look like a man in charge," she said, kissing me lightly on the

cheek.

"Good luck."

It was just seven when I left the apartment. The streets were empty. I

didn't want to get to the office until around ten. Kreplin had

mentioned prior to Christmas that he was going to "do the deed" as soon

as Chuck walked in at nine, so it was best if I showed up an hour or so

after he had been ushered off the premises.

This gave me three hours to kill. It was a radiantly clear morning-the

sky cloudless, the chill bracing yet manageable if you kept moving. So

I meandered slowly up Fifth Avenue, grabbed a New York Times, ate

breakfast in a coffee shop near Grand Central, walked all the way east

to the river, then finally ambled back to Third and Forty-sixth. I

checked my watch. 9:55. Right. It was time.

I entered our building. I took the elevator up to the 11th floor. The

door opened and .. .

There was Debbie Suarez. She was distraught. Her eyes were red and

swollen, as if she had been crying for hours. Next to her stood Hildy

Hyman. Her face was a mask of shock. They were both carrying

cardboard boxes. Between them was a large, muscular woman with a face

like prison bread. She was dressed in a navy-blue uniform and wore a

policeman-style cap with a logo-CORP SECURE-below the visor.

"Debbie? Hildy?" I said.

"What's going .. ."

Debbie began to sob.

"The assholes. The fucking assholes .. ."

The security guard nudged them both forward into the elevator.

"They did it to us, Mr. Allen," Hildy said.

"Just like I said, those German bastards-" The elevator doors slid shut

and they were gone. I turned around. In front of me were two male

members of Corp Secure standing guard by the main doors to the

CompuWorld office. A woman guard was seated behind the reception desk.

Through the glass windows separating the reception area I could see

several members of my Telesales team being escorted down the corridor

by other Corp Secure heavies. I was stunned. Speechless. Rooted to

the spot.

Eventually the guard behind the desk said, "May I help you?"

"I work here."

"You are an employee of CompuWorld Inc.?"

"I'm the regional sales director for-" The guard snapped her fingers

impatiently and said, "Employee I.D."

I pulled out my wallet and handed over the laminated plastic card with

the metallic stripe that worked as a key to the CompuWorld offices. The

guard placed the card next to a clipboard and traveled down a list of

names until she found mine. Then she nodded to one of the armed guards

by the door.

"Right, Mr. Allen-Lorenzo here will escort you up to Human

Resources."

Fear hit. Human Resources was death row-the corporate division which

specialized in new hires and terminations.

"Can I see my boss, Mr. Zanussi?" I asked.

"Mr. Zanussi no longer works here," the guard said.

"Well, how about Klaus Kreplin?"

"Mr. Allen, if you will just accompany Lorenzo to Human Resources-" My

voice became shrill.

"I'm not going anywhere until I see goddamn Klaus-" Lorenzo came

forward and stood in front of me. He was six foot four, very pumped,

with a menacing scowl on his face that said one word: Behave. When he

spoke, his voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear him.

"I advise you to accompany me upstairs, sir." Tapping me on the

shoulder, he pointed toward the elevator.

"What about my I.D.?" I asked.

"We'll hold on to that," Lorenzo said.

We rode in silence to the eighteenth floor. Lorenzo escorted me down a

long, narrow corridor of small offices with frosted glass doors. He

knocked on one, stuck his head inside, then motioned for me to enter.

He shut the door behind me. The office was tiny just big enough for a

metal chair facing a functional metal desk. After a moment the door

swung open and in came a nondescript man in his forties. Suit, tie,

horn-rims, a row of pens in his shirt pocket, sandy hair streaked with

gray.

"Sorry to have kept you, Mr. Allen," he said, seating himself behind

the desk.

"Bill Freundlich, Human Resources. Please, take a seat."

He didn't offer his hand in greeting; he didn't make contact with my

eyes. Instead he opened the large, thick folder that he was carrying.

My photo was pinned to one corner of it. My file.

"You're probably wondering what's going on here," he said in a voice

that had been trained to betray no emotion.

"I'm being fired, that's what's going on."

"Not exactly. What has happened is this: CompuWorld Inc. has been

sold-" "They sold us?"

I was shouting. The door flew open and Lorenzo stuck his head

inside.

"We're fine here," Bill Freundlich said to him, then looked at me

coolly.

"Aren't we?"

I sank back into the chair and stared at the floor. Bill Freundlich

continued speaking.

"I know this is a shock-but, please, it will be easier for both of us

if you just let me explain the sequence of events that are about to

unfold."

He waited for me to respond-but I remained silent, firmly directing my

gaze down toward the grubby linoleum.

"As I said, CompuWorld Inc. has been sold as of the start of business

this morning, and all employees of the company are hereby terminated.

However, the parent company, Kiang-Sanderling, will abide by all the

standard New York State provisions for employee termination. You will

be paid two weeks' salary for every year's service to the company. You

will continue to enjoy company medical insurance for the first quarter

of this year. After that, you will be entitled to extended coverage

for eighteen months, according to COBRA law, but will be responsible

for monthly payments. And, as ar executive with CompuWorld Inc." you

will be enrolled in an eight-week executive out placement

program-which, put baldly, is there to help you find a position

commensurate with your current corporate standing."

His delivery was anemic, devoid of sympathy. The words washed over me

like dirty water. Did blood actually flow through this asshole's

veins?

"Now, you will be pleased to know that the out placement agency to

which you've been assigned-Gerard Flynn Associates- is, to my mind, one

of the truly topflight specialists in executive reinstatement, with a

results-oriented approach that, statistically speaking, has yielded

first-rate results-" I stopped looking at the linoleum and interrupted

him.

"What about our bonuses?"

He paused ever so slightly .. . but a pause nonetheless.

"I will be covering that issue after I deal with-" "Cover it now," I

said.

"I would rather-" "We're due fifty percent of our bonus money on

January thirty-first.. .."

"Correction: When your parent company was Kiang-Sanderling, you were

due half of last year's bonus on the thirty-first. But now, as your

parent company is Spencer-Rudman ..."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Spencer-Rudman was the

multinational that owned our number-one competitor, PC Globe.

"I thought we were being closed down. But now you're saying we're

owned by Spencer-Rudman?"

"It's very simple," Bill Freundlich said.

"Kiang-Sanderling has sold CompuWorld Inc. to Spencer-Rudman who, in

turn, has decided that CompuWorld will cease to exist."

"You can't be serious."

"I'm afraid I'm very serious, Mr. Allen. But it's probably best if

someone from Spencer-Rudman explained this fully to you."

Freundlich lifted the phone, dialed three numbers, muttered, "He's

here," then hung up.

"In fact, the gentleman in question asked me to buzz him when you were

in my office."

A knock on the door. And in walked Chuck Zanussi.

"Hi, Ned," he said breezily as Freundlich slipped out of the office,

closing the door behind him.

"Guess you didn't expect to see me this morning."

I'd lost the ability to speak.

"Cat got your tongue, "Herr Publisher'?"

I wanted to run out of the room.

"If you're surprised, you can't even begin to imagine how I felt when,

the day before Christmas, a friend of mine at Spencer-Rud-man tracked

me down in Buffalo to tell me that they were about to buy the

CompuWorld title. Guess we were all doing too good a job of invading

PC Globe's market share-because, according to my friend, the guys at

Spencer-Rudman were getting worried about the way we were nipping at

their heels, and how the 'commercial arena' wasn't really big enough

for three computer magazines. So that's when they decided to buy us

up, close us down. And you want to know the really funny thing about

all this? It seems they approached Kiang-Sanderling about the sale in

the middle of December. Around the same time you were conspiring with

Klaus Kreplin to take my job."

He paused to let that last comment sink in.

I said, "Chuck, believe me, I did not conspire with Kreplin. He wanted

you out.. ."

".. . and offered you my job, right?"

"I told him .. ."

"Oh, I can guess what you told him.

"Chuck brought me into the company. Chuck taught me everything I know

about sales. Chuck is my friend .. ."

" He gave me a dark, sour smile.

"Fortunately, my friend at Spencer-Rudman really is my friend. Because

he offered me a job. Supervising the closure of CompuWorld, then

assuming the role of group publisher for all software and computer

magazines at Spencer-Rudman. He even said I could hire a deputy.

Naturally, I thought of you-until he gave me a blow-by-blow account of

a conversation he had with Kreplin a couple of days ago, after

Kiang-Sanderling agreed to the sale.

"Chuck Zanussi, he is a very fortunate man to be hired by you. Because

he was to be terminated next week, and Ned Allen had agreed to be his

successor."

" Another uncomfortable pause.

"Well, Ned. as I'm sure you can appreciate. I was just a tad troubled

to hear that you were planning to, professionally speaking, have me

whacked...."

"Please listen to me. I was not planning-" "I will not listen to you.

Because nothing you say matters anymore." He stood up and leaned over

the desk.

"But know this: If I have my way, you will never, ever work in this

business again."

He walked to the door and shot me a final lethal smile.

"Happy New Year, Ned."

The door closed. I sank back into my chair. I was in a hall of

mirrors. A labyrinth without an exit. And the implications-both

professional and financial-of what had just gone down were only

starting to register in my brain. The world was spinning out of

control-and I was so stupefied that I hardly noticed the reentrance of

Bill Freundlich. He sat down again and continued his bloodless

drone-but I was so far away by that point that I only caught the

occasional phrase. Your final paycheck will be mailed .. . Gerald

Flynn Associates will be expecting you on ... We do regret the sudden

nature of this .. .

Then Freundlich stood up and Lorenzo entered the room, announcing that

he would accompany me to my office, where I would be given fifteen

minutes to clear it out. I was so unsteady on my feet that Lorenzo

kept one hand under my left elbow as we walked back down the corridor

and entered the elevator.

"Y'okay?" he asked as the doors slid closed.

"No," I managed to say.

We plummeted to the eleventh floor. The doors opened. And there,

standing in front of me, was Klaus Kreplin. Initially he recoiled in

surprise when he saw me. But then he gave me ache sard, sara shrug, a

thin, weaselly smile spreading across his lips.

"What can I say, Edward? Except, sorry, it's busi-" He never got to

finish that sentence. I caught him in the mouth with my right fist,

then punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over. I slammed my

fist into his face again. As he hit the floor, I lost all control,

kicking him in his chest, his head, his teeth. The entire assault was

a mad, delusional rush, lasting no more than five seconds. The Corp

Secure guards came rushing forward, and Lorenzo suddenly had my left

arm bent upward in a half nelson.

But I was oddly detached from all that was going on around me. It was

as if I was hovering above this scene, watching it unfold, an innocent

bystander. Until I un flexed my right fist and felt an electric jolt

of pain race up my arm. Suddenly I was back on earth, howling in

agony.

Then I looked down at the floor. Klaus Kreplin was lying in a pool of

blood. And he wasn't moving.

TWO

ONE

Nancy Auerbach's office was spare, utilitarian, institutional. She had

a firm handshake and a steady, piercing gaze-the sort of gaze that made

you feel as if you were being instantly assessed and evaluated. Which,

of course, you were-as it was her job to form a professional opinion

about you.

She was all business. Five minutes earlier, when I first walked into

her office, she greeted me with a crisp staccato monologue that almost

sounded rehearsed.

"Mr. Allen, hello there, I can call you Ned, can't I? ... I'm Nancy

Auerbach, your out placement facilitator. Find us okay this morning?

... So here we are, and we're going to be working together for-how long

is your program?-right, here it is, eight weeks. Well, we're certainly

going to be getting to know each other over the next two months. Can I

get you anything, Ned? Tea? Coffee?"

"Could I have a glass of water, please? I need to take some pills."

"Water's no problem," she said.

"Water we can do." Swirling around in her desk chair, she reached for

a bottle of Perrier and a glass, located on a tray. She swung back and

set them in front of me.

"Need a hand?" she asked, glancing down at my right arm. The wrist

and the top of the hand were mummified in white surgical tape. My

fingers protruded from this medical wrap, but the third, fourth, and

fifth ones had been bound together with an elastic bandage.

"No pun intended."

"I can manage," I said, using my thumb and forefinger to unscrew the

top of the Perrier bottle, then pouring myself a glass with my left

hand.

"God, those fingers of yours are really black and blue."

"More black than blue," I said, reaching into my suit pocket for two

bottles of pills, flipping them open, and popping one tab from each

into my mouth.

"You on painkillers?" Nancy Auerbach asked as I washed them down with

water.

"Yeah, and anti-inflammatories."

"That must have been some accident."

"It wasn't an accident, Ms. Auerbach."

She looked me straight in the eye.

"I am aware of that."

"You know what happened?"

"I know exactly what happened."

She cleared her throat.

"Now what we have to look at, Ned, is the professional complexity of

your case and how it may impact your future prospects. But first, I

think we should begin by identifying your career objectives and

discussing how to maximize program benefits to your advantage."

Career objectives .. . maximizing program benefits .. . professional

complexity. Nancy Auerbach spoke a new language: Outplacement-spiel. A

language I would have to master quickly.

The phone rang.

"Mind if I take this, Ned?" She grabbed the receiver and was deep in

conversation within seconds.

".. . Now all we've got to do here, Matt, is lose Banker's Trust from

your resume."

As she rattled on, I studied Nancy Auerbach with care. Tall,

fifty-something, clean-limbed, long, elegant fingers (no wedding ring,

pictures of her two teenage children on her desk-a divorcee), a gray

herringbone suit. Definitely East Coast. Probably born and bred in

Fairfield County, spent summers at the Greenwich Country Club, went on

from Rosemary Hall to Smith or Skidmore, hooked up with some jerk

lawyer named Brad, did the raise-the-kids-in-the-suburbs thing until

the marriage went down in flames, whereupon she hit the job market

again and established a born-again career counseling the downsized

victims of corporate America.

".. . Matt, you know their P.O.V.... Of course, I hear you, and, yeah,

moving to Rochester isn't my idea of a good time either. But that's

the deal. It's re-lo or no-go.. .."

I could see her occasionally stealing a glance in my direction- her

gaze constantly returning to my damaged hand, my blotchy fingers. It

was almost as if she was keeping an eye on me. Wondering if I was some

kind of hair-trigger psycho in a designer suit-the sort of maniac who

was destined one day to walk into a McDonald's carrying an AK-47 and

announce to the assembled diners, "After I finish this Big Mac, I'm

taking you all with me."

You know what happened?

I know exactly what happened.

No doubt, so did everyone in the computer magazine business. The

curious saga that led to the demise of CompuWorld had made all the

papers; the Wall Street Journal, the Times, even Newsday, reporting in

their business pages how we were tossed like a hot potato from

Getz-Braun to Kiang-Sanderling to Spencer-Rudman, only to be bumped off

like some upstart street punk who'd dared to take on Mr. Big. Though

the Times report was only three paragraphs long, the Journal devoted

half a column to the story. With a real whopper of a final

paragraph:

According to sources within CompuWorld, the shocking news of the

title's demise provoked considerable consternation among the magazine's

employees- especially since, prior to the Christmas holiday, they were

assured of CompuWorld's future by Mr. Klaus Kreplin, group publishing

director of Kiang-Sanderling. The resentment felt toward Mr. Kreplin

was vented by one CompuWorld manager, Edward Allen, the magazine's

regional sales director for the Northeast. On being told of his

termination, he physically assaulted Mr. Kreplin. No charges were

filed against him.

Yes, that was true. But what the Journal (thankfully) failed to

mention was that, after I attacked Kreplin, there followed a terrible

two-minute period when I thought I had actually killed him. Lying

motionless on the floor, blood cascading from his nose and mouth (now

missing a front tooth), Kreplin was immediately surrounded by two of

the Corp Secure staff. Quickly determining that he was unconscious,

they attempted to revive him using crude methods. They slapped his

face, they shook him hard by the shoulder, they shouted into his left

ear. Then one of the women guards felt for a pulse.

"Oh Jesus, he's arrested!" she screamed, and began administering CPR

by slamming her fist into Kreplin's chest. There was a loud groan as

Kreplin snapped back into consciousness and reacted with displeasure to

having a couple of ribs broken.

The cops were called. While we waited for them to arrive, Lorenzo

handcuffed me to a chair (at least he had the decency not to use my

freshly fractured right hand). Two ambulance men arrived first.

Kreplin kept groaning loudly as they loaded him onto a stretcher and

carted him off. After Kreplin was gone, I asked Lorenzo if he could un

cuff me.

"Sorry, my man. Just doing my job." Then he leaned forward and

whispered, "But lemme give you a little tip. Next time you want to

clock a guy, use the heel of your hand. Causes maximum damage to him,

minimal to you. You take a swing at someone with a clenched fist,

you're both gonna be heading to the ER."

The police finally showed up. They took me uptown in a squad car.

At the station house I was booked for assault. I was also given the

opportunity to make one phone call. Thank God, Lizzie was at her desk.

When I told her where I was-and what had landed me there-she let out a

gasp. But she was at the precinct in less than thirty minutes. Walking

into the squad room where I was being held, she hugged me, then said

that a lawyer was on his way.

The officer who booked me was on the phone. When he put it down he

turned to us and said:

"Cancel the lawyer. I've got good news for you on all fronts. Your

victim's okay. He's badly bruised and missing a front tooth,

but there are no internal injuries, except for a couple of busted ribs.

Anyway, the lawyer told me they won't be pressing charges against you.

As far as I'm concerned, you're outta here, guy."

As Lizzie helped me to my feet, the cop said, "Free piece of advice.

Next time you thump someone, don't be a jerk and use a clenched fist..

.."

My hand was now feeling like a bag of flesh stuffed with broken glass.

In the cab en route to Lenox Hill Hospital, shock finally descended.

Lizzie, sensing just how bad I was, squeezed my operable hand and

whispered, "Hang in there, darling."

And then the lights in my brain went off.

When I came to, I was stretched out on a hospital trolley in the

emergency room. Standing by me was a doctor in a white coat. He was

holding up an X ray.

"Welcome back," he said.

"Want to see what you've done to your hand?"

He lifted the X ray above my face and pointed to some delicate bones in

three of my fingers. Still adjusting to the hospital glare, I had to

squint to see them.

"You fractured the fourth metacarpal on the third, fourth, and fifth

fingers. First time I've ever seen a metacarpal hat trick like that.

You must have used a clenched fist."

"Is it serious, Dr.. .. ?"

"Harding. Jeff Harding. I'm the resident E.R. orthopedist here at

Lenox Hill. If you were a concert pianist, your career might be over.

In your case, it's just going to be eight to ten weeks in an elastic

bandage ..."

Eight to ten weeks. Terrific. Just when I'd be interviewing for a new

job. That is, if anyone would now dare hire me. And even if they

somehow didn't know about the assault before the interview, they'd sure

as hell ask about my black-and-blue fingers during it.

" .. so the long-term prognosis is excellent."

Only from where you're sitting, Doc.

The hospital released me an hour later. In the cab downtown I told

Lizzie, "No one will ever hire me again .. ."

That's not true. Everyone in the industry knows how successful you

were. And they also know that you were screwed. Trust me:

People will sympathize with you. You went crazy for a moment, that's

all. It was sort of understandable, given the circumstances. And it's

not like you have a record of violent assaults."

"The money thing's scaring the crap out of me. I mean, without the

second half of the bonus .. ."

"Don't even think about that now."

"... and the bank will be putting the thumb screws on me when they

learn ..."

"Ned, please. You're in shock, they've got you doped up with

painkillers, so everything's going to seem a little scary right now.

But it will work out."

Lizzie was right. The pills had me so doped that the weekend vanished

in a blur. There were occasional moments of lucidity, during which I

obsessed out loud about my ruined career, and Lizzie had to keep

reassuring me that all would be fine. And on Sunday evening I did

manage to take two phone calls. The first was from Phil Sirio.

"Boss, I know you're at home recuperating-but word got around about

what you did, and I just had to tell you: It was a beaut."

"Thanks, Phil."

"

"Course you shouldn't have used a clenched-" "I know, I know. How're

you taking the news?"

"I'm kind of pissed off, you know. Especially about the bonus biz.

Leaves me a bit light."

"How much you out?"

"Fourteen."

"Ouch."

"Everyone got burned. But they owe me."

"So what are you going to do now?"

"This and that. I got friends. I'll be okay. And you, boss?"

"I don't know. After what I pulled, the only job I'm probably suited

for is as a bouncer."

"You'll land, boss. Don't sweat it. And remember: When you socked

that Kraut fuck, you were doin' it on behalf of all of us. So Phil

here owes you one. You ever got a problem, I'm here. Understand?"

"You're a class act, Phil."

"Later, boss."

The second call was from Debbie Suarez. As usual, she sounded as if

she was on speed.

"I gotta tell ya, I just gotta tell ya, it made my day when I heard you

popped him. You're my hero, Mr. Allen. I mean, I know you broke your

hand, but it was worth it, right?"

"I'm not too sure about that, Debbie."

"I know what you're thinkin', but they're gonna be linin' up to give

you work. I mean, you're the best."

All this talk about how I was a shoe-in for a big new job was making me

nervous. It was terminal-ward talk-everyone being far too cheerful to

the guy with two months to live.

Trying to change the subject, I asked Debbie how she was going to

manage financially. She grew quiet and said, "I already got a job."

"That was fast."

"Yeah, well, it's Chuck Zanussi who offered it to me."

"I see," I said.

"I know, I know-he's an asshole. But he called me at home yesterday,

asked me to be part of the Telesales team at PC Globe. And I kinda had

no choice.. .."

"It's great news, Debbie."

"Honest-I really wanted to tell him "No way, Jose." But I was

desperate.. .."

"You don't have to explain.. .."

"You know what really makes me want to kick that German in the

cojones-if they hadn't sold the company until tomorrow, my mom would

have just made it on to my insurance. It's totally unfair, y'know?"

"Believe me, Debbie. I know."

"But this is great, you'll love this-I called the money guy at Faber

Academy on Friday after I got the news, all upset, telling him I wasn't

gonna be able to pay him the additional four-five I owed the school at

the end of January. Guess what he told me: Because my boss had written

him a letter on company stationery guaranteeing the money. the company

would have to cover it."

For the first time in days, I managed a small smile. According to the

standard corporate takeover rules, when Spencer-Rudman bought

CompuWorld, they also agreed to honor all commitments to its creditors

(even though they were immediately killing off the title). Thanks to

my letter, Raul Suarez's third-semester tuition at Faber was now going

to be paid by Debbie's new employers.

"Like I told you at the party," Debbie said, "I owe you a lot."

"Keep in touch, Debbie."

The next morning, Monday, heavy snow returned to Manhattan. Lizzie had

to go to the office-and I sat up in bed, watching in silence as she

dressed. That's when it hit home. She was in a suit, I was in

pajamas. She had a future, I didn't.

Sensing my gloom she said, "Do yourself a favor. Take a couple of days

before calling the out placement people. When you go in there, you

want to give a confident impression.. .."

"You're saying I look like a disaster?"

Lizzie was taken aback by my angry tone-but her voice remained

considerate, soothing.

"I'm just saying, you're still probably suffering from a bit of

trauma.. .."

"What are you, my goddamn shrink?"

She looked at me, stunned by what I had just said. So was I.

Immediately, I was on my feet, burying my head in her shoulder.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She disengaged herself, and took my

face in her hands.

"Don't do this, Ned. Please."

"I really didn't mean .. ."

"I am on your side. Remember that."

"I do."

She gently kissed my forehead.

"I've got to go. I'll call you later, see how you're doing."

As soon as she was gone, I collapsed back into bed, pulled the sheets

over my head. How-why-could I have turned on her so viciously?

Attacking the only real ally I had in life. She was right: I was

suffering from aftershock. And I was in no state to put on a happy

face in front of an out placement counselor. I needed to stay indoors

until my equilibrium was restored.

I reached for the phone. I called our local florist and arranged for a

big bouquet of roses to be sent to Lizzie's office. I asked them to

enclose a card with the following message:

I am so sorry. I love you.

For the next few hours I lay slumped on our sofa, staring out at the

snow. My hand was still hurting like hell. I popped more painkillers.

I dozed off, and woke an hour later to the sound of our intercom

buzzer. Stumbling over to it, I hit the speaker button and heard a

static-laden voice:

"This Edward Allen?"

"Uh-huh."

"Crosstown Messenger Service. Got a letter here for you."

I buzzed him in and waited by the door until he got off the elevator.

He wore knee-high black boots.

"They make you do deliveries in a blizzard?" I asked.

"Yeah," came the voice from inside the helmet.

"They do."

I signed for the letter, gave him a $5 tip, then ruefully thought, You

really can't be so loose with cash anymore. With a nod, he turned and

clumped down the hallway, as if powered by batteries.

The envelope was embossed with Spencer-Rudman's letterhead. Nervously,

I tore it open. And read:

Edward Allen 16 West 20th Street New York, NY 10011 Dear Mr. Allen:

As you know, CompuWorld ceased to exist as a title on January 2, 1998.

Having been employed by the magazine since 1994, you are entitled, as

part of the standard severance package, to two weeks pay per year of

employment, plus any unpaid vacation time.

You are also entitled, under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget

Reconciliation Act), to continue your corporate medical insurance for

eighteen months (i.e." July 2, 1999). Your monthly premium was

$326.90. Should you wish to enjoy continued coverage, please send us a

check for this amount by February 1. Please ensure that all future Blue

Cross payments reach us by the first day of each month.

According to our records, you took your allotted two weeks of vacation

time during 1997. You are due eight weeks of pay (4 years X 2

weeks).

Your annual salary was $60,000, or $1,153.84 per week. This means that

your eight weeks' pay comes to $9,230.76.

We note that on December 20, 1997, you wrote a letter on CompuWorld

stationery to a Mr. Joseph Myers, the bursar at Faber Academy School,

guaranteeing that a $4,500 tuition fee owed by a Miss Deborah Suarez, a

former employee of CompuWorld, would be paid by the company. Our Legal

Department informs us your former position at CompuWorld did not give

you the authority to write such a letter, let alone guarantee such

payment. By doing so, however, you have legally bound the company to

honor this financial liability.

Our Legal Department informs us that we could file suit against you for

impersonation. Given your recent loss of employment-and to spare you

the costs involved in defending such a case-we have deducted the $4,500

sum involved from your final payment of $9,230.76. A check for

$4,730.76 is enclosed.

Please be informed that, should you wish to contest this course of

action, we will have no option but to file suit against you.

Should you have any further questions about this matter, please address

your enquiries to Ms. Heather Nussbaum at Human Resources,

Spencer-Rudman.

Sincerely, Michael Krusiger Director, Human Resources Spencer-Rudman I

balled up the letter and tossed it at my window. Then I staggered

over, picked it up, un balled it, and carefully removed the check that

had been stapled to one corner. I couldn't afford to be throwing money

away.

I fell back on the sofa, absently smoothing out the crumpled check on

my knee. The bastards. Spencer-Rudman was a massive multinational

corporation with an annual turnover well beyond the $3 billion mark. To

them, 45 hundred bucks was chump change, the price of a pack of Juicy

Fruit gum. To a guy like me-suddenly unemployed, in deep, serious

debt-it was a small fortune. And yet, the vindictive shits insisted on

sticking me with the bill, even though they knew I was only helping out

Debbie. What does doing a good deed get you? Nada.

Given your recent loss of employment-and to spare you the costs

involved in defending such a case .. . Such humane, charitable people!

And then there was the business of my medical insurance. That

spineless bastard at Human Resources told me I would "enjoy" company

medical coverage for the next eighteen months. What he failed to

mention was that I'd have to pay for it. $326.90 a month! First they

rob you of your bonus. Then-to really kick you in the teeth when they

know you're desperate-they nickel-and-dime you out of a miserable few

thousand bucks.

The phone rang. I reached for it.

"Ivan here."

He sounded beyond despondent.

"I was going to call you today," I said.

"I was planning to visit you at the hospital, but when I called on

Saturday they said you checked out. You still in pain?"

"Definitely. And how are you doing?"

"Considering bankruptcy court. My ass depended on that second bonus

check. Eight-nine they owed me. And all of it was already spent."

"Tell me about it."

"And did you hear what happened over the weekend?"

"Do I want to?"

"I just got off the phone with Phil Sirio. Seems Chuck Zanussi called

everyone on the Northeast outside sales team-Maduro, Bluehorn, and

Phil-offering them jobs at PC Globe. Everyone, that is, except me."

I was on the verge of balling up that check again, but I stopped

myself.

"I don't believe it. Anyway, when Phil called me last night, he didn't

mention he had a job offer."

"That's because Phil only got the call an hour ago. Then he phoned

around, found out that Zanussi had called Maduro and Bluehorn

yesterday, and wondered if I'd been offered anything."

"So they're all going to be licking Zanussi's ass at PC Globe?"

"Maduro and Bluehorn grabbed it, but Phil called Zanussi a scumbag and

told him he'd rather work for the Department of Sanitation."

"He is a great man, Phil."

"Anyway, I spent the last hour trying to get through to Zanussi at his

new office. Ten minutes ago, his secretary calls back: "Mr. Zanussi

wishes to inform you that there is no position for you with PC Globe or

any other Spencer-Rudman publication."

" "I'm really sorry, Ivan."

"I'm fucked, Ned. Finished."

"Ivan, it's just been seventy-two hours since all this went down. They

put you in a program, right?"

"Yeah, some out placement company called Gerard Flynn Associates."

"Same as me. Well, look, the bottom line is, they're there to get you

a job. And they will find you something new. You'll land. I don't

worry about you, pal."

This was a total lie. Our industry was a small one-and word would leak

out that Ivan was the only member of the CompuWorld outside sales team

not to be offered a job by Chuck Zanussi. Even if he did eventually

find something, when his prospective employer called Chuck for the

lowdown on Ivan, I doubted the vindictive sonofabitch would give him

rave reviews. To Zanussi, Ivan and I were the two guys who nearly cost

him his job. And he was going to make us both pay heavily for it.

"Thanks for the encouraging words," Ivan said.

"I need them. You doing anything for lunch today?"

"Between the snow and my hand, I'm not really planning to leave the

apartment."

"Tell you what," Ivan said.

"You know I live right near Zabar's. I could pick up some cold cuts, a

bunch of cheeses, a bottle of red, jump the subway, be down at your

place within the hour."

I had enough reasons right then to stick my head in an oven.

"The pills they've got me on have really left me kind of zonked,

T "

Ivan.

"Understood, understood."

"See you at out placement I said.

"And stop worrying."

"Man, I wish I had your calm."

But I was anything but calm. As soon as Ivan was off the phone, I

reached for a legal pad and began filling it up with numbers. I was

doing the math. And it didn't look encouraging:

ASSETS

CompuWorld settlement $ 4,730 Savings 8,000 Stocks, bonds 5,000 401k

9,600

$27,330 DEBTS

f& Chase (bridge loan) $25,000 Credit cards:

American Express (incl. Nevis vacation) 9,100 Diners (incl. Xmas

gifts, etc.) 6,255 MasterCard 940 Visa (Dr. Gordon) 3,200 New York

Health and Racquet Club (annual fee) 795 Barneys store card 1,250

$46,540

MINIMUM MONTHLY OUT GOINGS

Rent (my share) $ 1,750 Medical insurance 326 Con Ed say 50 Phone say

75 Food say 320 Cable 30 Insurance: home, contents, etc (excl. health)

125 Eating out entertainment (my share) 800 $ 3,476 If I cut out

restaurants, bars, buying new clothes, books, and CDs, going to the

movies, or even dropping $3 on this month's GQ-if, in short, I never

left the apartment-I could probably eke out a very rudimentary living

on $2,676 a month. That's $32,"2 a year after taxes-which meant

(factoring in federal, city, and state) I would still have to earn well

over $55,000 per annum. Unbelievable. And that fifty-five grand was

based on dividing the costs evenly between Lizzie and myself. One

hundred thousand bucks a year for a minimal New York existence. No

wonder I had landed myself in such debt. No wonder my stomach was now

feeling ulcerated. If I liquidated the modest amounts of stocks,

bonds, and savings I had put aside, I would still have to find $19,210

to clear the remaining debt.

If only I had been a little more prudent during my CompuWorld years and

built up some sort of financial fuck-up fund, earmarked for a bad time

like this. But I was a high roller-Mr. Fast Lane- who considered

himself Teflon tough, resistant to all corporate harm or damage, always

able to produce the goods when the heat was on.

But then I threw those punches. And .. .

Don't panic, don't panic. Maybe Lizzie was right: Prospective

employers would look at my overall record and not judge me solely on

one irrational act. In an interview I could convince them that I had

been reacting to extraordinary circumstances,

extraordinary pressures. And that-given the chance-I'd be the biggest

moneymaker their company had ever seen. I mean, did you see how

CompuWorld came out of nowhere to surpass Computer America as the

number-two computer magazine in the country? Now I'm not trying to

take credit for its market-share resurgence, but-put it this way-in the

course of the sixteen months I was running Northeast, our regional

advertising revenues tripled. And the relationships I forged with the

biggest names in our industry .. .

Once a salesman, always a ... But now I was a desperate salesman.

$19,210 worth of desperation. I couldn't afford a long convalescence.

I needed to get back into the game. Now.

So I reached for the phone and called Gerard Flynn Associates, and made

an appointment with my out placement facilitator for the next

morning.

Which is how I came to be sitting opposite Ms. Nancy Auerbach on this

still-snowy Tuesday morning, listening to her finish her telephone

conversation with some poor sucker who didn't want to "re-lo" to

Rochester, watching her sneak looks at my bandaged hand, and wondering

if she had already filed me away under Hopeless Cases.

"... I said it once, Matt, I said it before-it's your call. You don't

want the position, you pass on it, and we go back to the drawing board.

But I wouldn't write Rochester off completely.. .. Okay, okay, it's

not Paris.. .. Look, we'll have to wrap it up here, I'm in with a

client... . This time tomorrow is just fine."

She hung up and turned back to me with a forced professional smile.

"Sorry about that, Ned. How's the hand?"

"Still broken."

"A sense of humor. I like it. Humor's really important at a time like

this. So is perspective. And-just to kick things off, to start

broadly identifying areas of mutual concern-I'd like to ask YOU this:

What is the single biggest concern in your mind right now?"

I met her eaze and said.

"Will anyone ever hire me aeain?"

Her eyes glanced down yet again at my ink-colored fingers. Then she

nodded several times, absently biting her lower lip. And in her most

logical, rational, I'm-going-to-choose-my-words-carefully tone of

voice, she said, "That strikes me as a very sensible concern."

TWO

There were ten of us seated around a table. Eight men, two women. We

all wore suits. Age distribution: thirty to mid-fifties. Educational

level: minimum, bachelor's degree. Previous mean income: around

$75,000. Professional level: middle-management to senior executive.

Current job status: all unemployed.

It was 8:30 in the morning on day eight of The Program, and I was about

to attend my first seminar on interview techniques. On days six and

seven, I sat through classes on subjects like "Getting the Resume

Right" and "Reinventing Yourself in the Information Age" and

"Maximizing Personal Strengths After Downsizing." I hadn't wanted to

attend any of these "workshops." In fact, earlier the previous

week-around day two-I thought that my days on The Program were happily

numbered. Because, out of the blue, a job dropped right into my lap.

It happened on Wednesday morning-the day after my first meeting with

Nancy Auerbach. The meeting where we identified "career destination

goals," and "optimum landing places," and discussed "crafting an

advantageous exit statement." The meeting where she admitted that my

search for a new position was going to be "a challenging quest."

It was also the meeting where I began to decipher some of her language.

To land-in out placement-spiel-meant to find a job. The exit statement

was the explanation you'd give on your resume (and, eventually, in an

interview) as to why you'd been shown the door by your previous

employers.

Now if, off the ton of my head. I were to craft an exit statement for

you," she said, "I'd probably write something like, "Having spent four

years as the Northeast's regional sales manager-during which time my

division increased its market share by 300 percent-I was downsized when

Spencer-Rudman bought the title and decided to close it down." Short

and sweet. Pointing out that you were a success at your job, while

also highlighting the fact that your termination came as a result of a

corporate takeover, rather than anything of a negative performance

nature."

"You mean, like assaulting the group publishing director."

A pinched smile from Nancy Auerbach.

"I like that sense of humor," she said.

"But that is going to be a stumbling block, isn't it?"

"It does create certain impediments.. .."

"Which are going to make it downright impossible for me to get hired

anywhere."

She paused and looked carefully at me.

"You obviously don't want me to sugar the pill?"

I nodded.

"You want it straight?"

I nodded again.

"Okay, I'll give it to you straight. You're in big fucking trouble."

I winced-not because of her prognosis, but because I never expected the

very patrician Ms. Auerbach to use bad language. She saw that and

gave me a small, mischievous grin.

"I do gather, however, that the man you assaulted was a suitable

candidate for a fat lip. What we have to do is make a prospective

employer understand that. And also understand that, if they hire you,

they won't need extra dental insurance."

"Sounds like an uphill task."

"Let me put it this way: If I can get you to land, then I have scored

one of the biggest against-the-odds wins of my career."

The next morning-just as I was knotting my tie (no easy thing with

three fractured fingers) and preparing myself for day two of The

Program-the phone rang. It was Nancy Auerbach.

"Do I have news for you. Ever heard of a guy called Phil Goodwin?"

"Sure. He's the oublisher of Comvuter America. I met him a couple of

times at trade shows. Pretty nice guy, considering that he was our

main competitor in the marketplace."

"Well, he certainly remembers you. More important, he rates if you.

This was news.

"Really?" I said.

"That's what he said when he called me this morning, wondering if you

were still in the market for a job."

I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline.

"Are you serious?"

"Completely. His exact words were "Ned Allen is one of the ball-siest

sales guys in the industry. If he's free, I want him."

" I felt a very pleasant second surge of adrenaline. Followed by a

wave of worry.

"But he doesn't know about the Kreplin business, does he?"

"Ned-everyone in your industry now knows about that incident. You've

become the stuff of legend. But when I raised the matter with Goodwin,

he actually seemed more amused about it than anything else. Said

something like, I respect a sales guy who can throw a right." Anyway,

there's an opening at his magazine for a group sales director,

overseeing all regional sales departments, coast to coast. Eighty

thousand basic pay. Profit participation. Usual medical benefits.

Interested?"

Group sales director of Computer America? It wasn't just a fantastic

upward career move; it was also a kick in the ass to Chuck Zanussi. It

would restore my professional credibility overnight.

"When can I see Goodwin?" I asked.

"He was wondering if you were free today at lunchtime."

We met at the Union Square Cafe, right around the corner from the

Computer America offices on Park Avenue South. Phil Good-win wasn't

your typical corporate man. On the contrary, he had something of a

swashbuckling reputation. Fifty-five, a shoot-from-the-hip mouth, a

fondness for booze, a walrus mustache, bold chalk-stripe suits, and

about the surest touch of any publisher in the computer marketplace.

As I approached his table, he mockingly put his hands up in front of

his face, as if shielding himself from a blow. Then he pointed to the

half-empty martini glass in front of him and asked, "You drink

these?"

"Definitely."

"Then we might be able to work together. I hate designer-water

wimps."

I sat down. He motioned to the waiter for two more martinis.

"So let me ask you something: Did Kreplin even see it coming?"

"No. It was pretty instantaneous. Even surprised me."

"I met the guy once or twice. Oily little Hun. Think you won yourself

some friends when you punched out his lights-that is, as long as you

don't make a habit of slugging any of your other bosses in the

future."

The martinis arrived.

"Here's to fisticuffs," Goodwin said. He took a long, deep sip,

flipped open the menu, and told the waiter, "We'll order right now."

Then, turning to me, he said, "As soon as this guy disappears with our

order, you start talking-and tell me exactly why I should give you this

job. But as soon as he's back here with the appetizer, your sales

pitch is over. Understand?"

After the waiter disappeared, I sprang into action, giving Good-win my

own spin on the state of the computer magazine market, now that

CompuWorld was dead. Then I explained how, through subtle

repositioning, Computer America could not only claim the high-end

advertisers and readership (once held by CompuWorld), but could also

start to elbow in on PC Globe's virtual domination of the middle

market. It was a variation on the same spiel I had given to Kreplin

when he offered me the publisher's job-only carefully tailored to

Computer America's requirements, and free of any self-glorifying

bullshit. Because I knew full well that Phil Goodwin hated pretension

of any variety. Just as I was wrapping things up, our waiter

positioned himself in such a way to indicate to me that he was about to

arrive with our appetizers. So, knowing how Good-win also liked to

think of business as a contact sport, I decided to end with a

flourish:

"I don't want to maintain the status quo-because now we're in a

head-to-head situation with PC Globe. It's war. And believe me- given

what's gone down over the last couple of days-I want to win that war.

It's personal."

The appetizers arrived. Goodwin tossed back the dregs of his martini

and called for the wine list.

"Okay," he finally said to me.

"You're hired."

"I was dumbfounded.

"Just like that?" I asked.

"It's my company, my magazine, I can do whatever the hell I like. So

if I say you're onboard, then you're onboard. You start Monday. Now

what are we going to drink with the food?"

I left the Union Square Cafe at 3:00 P.M." elated. I was also feeling

a little otherworldly. This wasn't due to the amount of booze I'd had,

but the way the alcohol and my painkillers had begun to interact. Just

around the time I said good-bye to Phil Goodwin and began walking west,

a fog descended on my brain, making the world seem dark, murky, full of

strange shadows. Though my apartment was just five blocks away, I

jumped in a cab. I made it home just as my stomach began to palpitate

and swell, the damp claw of nausea grabbed me by the throat, and a

projectile torrent of vomit baptized our very white sofa.

Staggering into the bedroom, I pitched forward, collapsing in a heap on

the bed. The plug was pulled-and the next thing I knew. Lizzie was

yelling in my ear, shaking me hard.

"Ned, Ned, Ned .. ."

I groaned and rolled over. The sheets were drenched with sweat, and my

mouth tasted like a toxic waste dump. I managed a couple of words.

"Sick. I got sick.. .."

"I'm calling a doctor," she said, reaching for the phone.

"Don't bother. The worst's over."

"What the hell happened?"

"I think the painkillers didn't mix with booze."

"You were sitting here, drinking on your own?" she said, aghast.

"I had a lunch. Phil Goodwin, publisher of Computer America. He likes

to drink. I wasn't thinking."

"You idiot. You could have died."

"I'm sorry, I'm real.. ."

"I'm calling Dr. Morgan...."

"Don't, please," I said, knowing that I didn't want a

barbiturates-and-booze incident on my medical records.

"I just need a shower."

I wobbled my way into the bathroom, threw off my soiled clothes, and

stood under a very cold downpour of water until some reeling of

coherence returned. Then I brushed my teeth, following that with an

extended, two-minute gargle with Listerine which finally expunged that

delightful aftertaste of vomit from my mouth. Picking up my clothes, I

dumped them in the laundry bin, put on a white terry cloth robe, and

prepared to face the music.

The sodden sheets were already stripped from the bed. Lizzie was in

the living room, her hands covered with kitchen gloves, trying to clean

the vomit-covered sofa with paper towels.

"I'll do that," I said.

"Don't bother," she said, not looking up at me.

"It's ruined."

"I'll have it re-covered."

"How?"

"I've got a new job. Group sales director at Computer America. That's

what the lunch was all about."

"Congratulations," she said flatly.

"You don't sound pleased."

She pointed to the stained sofa.

"You have one hell of a way of celebrating your success."

"I wasn't thinking."

"You've not been doing a lot of thinking the past few days."

"I'm sorry."

"And you've been using that word far too much recently."

"I'm sorI stopped myself and smiled at her.

"Point taken."

"You worry me sometimes."

"It's just been a bad couple of days."

"I hope so."

"And things are on the up-and-up. I've landed."

She glanced back at the sofa.

"In more ways than one."

The next morning, after Lizzie went to work, I called Nancy Auerbach

and told her the great news.

"What can I say?" she said.

"Except, you do surprise me, Ned."

"There's one less downsizing victim for your books. Thanks for playing

the go-between."

"You pulled it off, Ned. Not me."

I worked the phones and found an upholsterer who could have our sofa

re-covered in the same white canvas fabric within a few weeks. Miracle

of miracles, he also had a spare van on hand that afternoon and could

pick the couch up at 2:00 P.M The price of the total job: a thousand

bucks. It made me wince. That had been a very expensive blown

lunch.

I ran down to my local grocery store, picked up the recent editions of

PC Globe and Computer America, then spent the morning comparing and

contrasting their editorial and advertising content, while also

checking my CompuWorld database for solid accounts I could probably

seduce over to my new title. I worked steadily all afternoon, breaking

only once to help the workmen remove the sofa. By five I had written

the first draft of a marketing strategy for Computer America-a plan

which I hoped to messenger over to Phil Goodwin first thing the next

morning, just to let him know that I was hitting the ground running.

Then the phone rang.

"Ned Allen?" asked the woman on the line.

"Please hold for a call from Mr. Goodwin."

"Phil," I said when he came on, "I was just sitting here, working on a

battle plan for the ..."

"Ned," he said, "sorry to piss on your parade, but we've got a problem

here."

My fractured fingers suddenly began to throb.

"Problem? What problem?"

"You know a shithead named Ted Peterson?"

Oh, no... "I know him."

"He called me today on some other related matter, and during the course

of the conversation, I mentioned that you were going to be taking over

here as group sales director. Within five seqqnds, the guy went

ballistic. Telling me how you were a deceitful sdnofabitch whom he

refused to work with ..."

"Me, deceitful?" I said.

"The only reason that guy has it in for me is because I forced him to

honor a deal he made with one of our sales people; a deal on which he

tried to renege-" "Whatever," Phil Goodwin said, cutting me off.

"The bottom line, Ned, is this: Peterson made it very clear that if you

came aboard here, he'd switch the focus of the GBS account to PC Globe

and other print media."

"He's talking garbage. GBS just can't walk away from a major outlet

like Computer America."

"That may be. but what's troubling me is that he also said that he'd

been talking to his fellow media sales guys at NMI, AdTel, Icon, et

cetera, et cetera .. . and none of them will now have anything to do

with you."

This was the abyss.

"Phil, please, listen. Peterson wasn't dealing kosher, so I played a

moral card and forced him .. ."

"I don't care if he dresses up as his mother for kicks. The fact

remains: GBS is our biggest advertiser. Believe me, I think Peterson

is a punk. But my magazine's commercial health depends on his ad

input. So-while I don't like giving in to threats-I still have to take

onboard his concerns.. .."

"I'm sure that in a very short time I could easily establish some sort

of detente with him.. .."

"How short a time? Two, three, four months? Sorry, Ned-it's a tough

marketplace, I'm still an independent, and I can't afford to lose that

amount of revenue."

"We can cover that.. .."

"Not if the guys at NMI, AdTel, et cetera don't want to do business

with you...."

"I know these guys. They'll come around."

"Ned, I just can't take the risk."

"At least give me the chance to .. ."

"This gives me no pleasure-because I really think you're a winner.

But-I'm promoting a guy from within the organization as group sales

director. He's not in your league-but at least he doesn't have your

enemies. Sorry, Ned. And good luck to you. I'm sure you'll land."

The line went dead.

I furiously dialed Nancy Auerbach's direct line. She was still at the

office.

"Now, first things first," she said after I gave her a distraught

account of my conversation with Phil Goodwin.

"Try to calm down."

"That fuck Peterson is ruining me, and you're telling me to be calm!" I

was screaming.

There was a very long silence on the phone; a silence which I finally

broke.

"I anoloeize .. ."

"No need. I get screamed at by clients all the time. Part of the

territory. You calmer now?"

"A little, yeah."

"Then I think you better face up to something right away. Between the

Kreplin business and this guy Peterson, you have no future in the

computer magazine business. That phase of your career is over."

I swallowed hard. It was like being told you were being deported from

the country in which you planned to spend the rest of your life. Nancy

Auerbach sensed my despondency.

"I know this is hard, a real blow. And totally unfair. But that's the

way it is. It's a crisis. But remember: In Chinese, the character for

'crisis' means two things-danger and opportunity. Try to think of this

as a time of opportunity. And come see me tomorrow."

Later that night, as I sat across the dinner table from Lizzie, I said,

"You know what gets me most about this whole business? The fact that

it was a dumb little chain of events that set it off. And I keep

thinking, if only the company hadn't been sold ... if only Ivan hadn't

lost the GBS account ... if only Kreplin hadn't offered me the job ...

if only I'd been totally straight with Chuck .. ."

"It's the way things work," Lizzie said gently, taking my hand.

"Everyone's a victim of circumstance. And hindsight is just a

convenient way of beating yourself up. Your out placement counsellor

is right: Consider this a moment of opportunity. And please stop

drinking. I really don't want a repeat of yesterday's episode."

I reached for the bottle of red wine in the middle of the table and

refilled my glass.

"I've stopped taking the painkillers."

"It's your fifth glass tonight."

"It's only my third. And it never used to trouble you before."

She gave me a sad stare.

"Well, it's troubling me now."

I went to see Nancy Auerbach the next morning.

"We're back to ground zero," she said.

"And we have to rethink your objectives. If I were to ask you, What's

your one true talent? what would you reply?"

"I'm a born salesman."

"Then sales it is."

As I quickly discovered, the Gerard Flynn Associates weren't

responsible for getting you a job. Like all out placement agencies,

they acted as a resource center, a place which was plugged into the job

market and knew which company was looking for what sort of executive at

any given time. They tried their best to match up its clients with

corporate employers-but, as Nancy Auerbach reminded me from the outset,

it was the client who inevitably found himself a new job.

"We can give you tips on positions that are open, you can use our huge

employer database to make contacts, we can teach you how to rewrite

your resume and knock 'em dead in an interview, but, in the end, it's

you who has to land. And remember: You only have eight weeks with us.

That's forty working days. So make each day count."

Having squandered the first week-courtesy of the Computer America

disaster-I went into high gear. I spent the mornings in seminars, the

afternoons and early evenings working my way through the agency's job

database and polishing up my resume. And on day eight, I sat at that

conference table with seven other out-of-work managers, listening to an

executive retrainer named Mel Tucker take us through the advanced

basics of interview techniques.

Mel Tucker was in his early fifties, balding, built like a cue ball,

with a hangdog mustache and a deadpan comedian's delivery.

"Okay, folks-let's get things rolling," he said, standing in front of a

chalkboard at one end of the conference room.

"Now, at the start, I want to make one thing clear: I'm not here to

talk about the theory of interviewing, because there is only one theory

of interviewing: It's all about you getting the information across.

"The good interviewers are lazy. The bad interviewers are worse.

"So, tell me about yourself." .. . "So, Ken, if you were a car, what

sort of car would you be?"... "If you could be anywhere in the world

right now, where would you be?".. . You're going to be asked all sorts

of dumb questions. But remember this: It's not always the most

qualified person who wins in an interview situation; it's the

best-prepared person. And so here's a simple no-brainer for all of you

to keep in mind before going in for that interview: Do research.

"Get to know the job-and I do not mean the title. Sell to the need of

the buyer. Don't go in there and tell the guy.

"I do ten things because he'll turn around and say to you, "I don't

need ten things-I just need three things, none of which you've got."

"In this marketplace today, it's not what you think they need. It's

what they need."

He looked out at the eight of us, then pointed to me.

"Okay, you're my first victim, Mr.. .."

I introduced myself.

"Right, Mr. Allen. Here's a question you're bound to be asked in an

interview: Why were you fired?"

I shifted nervously in my seat.

"Bad body language," Mel Tucker said.

"You scream nervousness."

I immediately sat still, looked him straight in the eye, and said:

"I was a victim of downsizing."

"

"A victim of downsizing,"" Mel Tucker said loudly.

"Sounds like a bunch of guys in ski masks broke into your house and

downsized you."

Even I found myself laughing.

"The point here is: Be clinical. Be unemotional about an emotional

event.

"They went through A ... then B happened." Get on and off the subject

as fast as possible. It's like that other great stupid interview

question: "What are your weak points?" Believe it or not, people ask

it. With one question, we go from an interview to a therapy session.

One client I had-and I'm not joking around- said, "I'm a spitter. I

spit a lot when I talk. And because I'm apprehensive about spitting, I

get stressed." Know what the interviewer must have thought?

"Oh, great-a spitter who probably turns violent."

" On saying the word violent, Mel Tucker stared for the briefest of

moments at my bandaged hand. And I thought, He knows. They all

know.

"And say you come up against that dumber-than-dumb question, "Define

yourself in three words." Remember: "Armed and dangerous' is not an

option."

More raucous laughter from the class. Was he scoring points off me? Or

was I just being paranoid?

At noon we took a break for lunch. Hey, Mr. Allen." Mel Tucker said

as I was leaving the room.

"hope you didn't mind me teasing you about the Victim-of-downsizing'

comment."

"I am not violent," I found myself saying.

"No matter what you think, I really don't go around punching people."

He looked at me wide-eyed. That's when I knew I was really being

paranoid.

"I take your word for it, Mr. Allen. If you say you're not violent,

I'm sure you're not. The thing is, the thought never crossed my mind

that you were violent."

I now felt beyond embarrassed.

"Glad to hear it," I mumbled, and left the room quickly.

It's the shock, I told myself as I walked down the corridor toward the

elevator. You're like a man who's just stumbled into an empty elevator

shaft. You're dropping down so fast you can't believe what is

happening to you. And you're desperately trying to clutch at

something, anything, that will break your fall.

I pressed the "down" button and waited for the elevator to arrive. As

the door opened, Ivan Dolinsky walked out. He was a changed man. His

grief-laden eyes were bright and animated. His shoulders were no

longer slumped. He even had a smile on his face.

"Ned, great to see you," he said, throwing an arm around me and giving

me a big hug.

"Afternoon, Ivan. You feeling okay?"

"Never better. In fact, today I've decided something: There is a

God."

"Glad to hear it," I said.

"What gives?"

His smile was now incandescent.

"I've landed," he said.

THREE

leave it to Ivan. Just when the guy looked like he was about to drive

off the cliff, he suddenly slammed on the brakes, reversed gears, and

pulled off something of a coup.

"I've landed."

The job wasn't exactly glamorous-but at least it was a job. Over lunch

at a little Italian place on Thirty-sixth and Madison where Ivan

insisted on dragging me ("My treat, Ned"), he told me that he was now

the new Instate sales guy for Home Computer Monthly, a new mid-market

glossy aimed solely at the suburban domestic market.

"Let's face it," Ivan said, "we're not talking about a magazine in the

same league as CompuWorld. And the job means a re-lo to Hartford."

"Insurance capital of America."

"Yeah-and not exactly the city that never sleeps. Still, I'm going to

be on the road most of the time, the cost of living up there is about a

third less than in this town, and what's great about the job is that

it's helping build something from the ground floor up."

"Who's backing the title?"

"Transcontinental Communications. Ever heard of them?"

Yep. A bargain-basement outfit. Publishers of such cutting-edge

titles as Supermarket Today and International Dental Technology and VCR

Choice. Not exactly Conde Nast-and notoriously cheap when it came to

remunerating its employees.

"Who hasn't heard of Transcontinental?" I said.

"Is the package decent?"

"Like I said, it's not the major leagues."

"Forty?"

"Thirty-five. Plus seven percent commission on all sales. Major

medical after six months. And a three-grand re-lo fee which will pay

off a couple of bills."

Just as I thought-a substandard deal, only attractive to the truly

desperate. Like Ivan. Or me.

"I've heard of worse packages," I said, trying to sound upbeat.

"Believe me, I'm not fooling myself into thinking that this is a

Rolls-Royce deal. And to make the math work, I'm going to have to

close at least five hundred thousand a year. But, hey, at least it's a

job. Some kind of a future."

He raised his glass of house Chianti and clinked it against mine.

"Good times ahead for both of us, Ned."

I felt like asking him, what good times? Just as I also felt like

verbally assaulting him for setting off the chain of events that cost

me the Computer America job. But, as always with Ivan, I stopped

myself from going on the warpath. It was my call to challenge Peterson

on his doorstep-to intimate I had something on him-and I paid one heavy

price. Anyway, this was the first time since the death of Nancy that

I'd seen Ivan looking even remotely pleased with life, and I certainly

wasn't going to ruin his day.

"Are you close to landing yet?" he asked me.

"There are a couple of things brewing," I said.

"I'm not worried."

Naturally, I was lying like a rug. And over the next four weeks, my

alarm intensified. Because not only was I failing to land, I wasn't

getting even a single whiff of employment possibilities. Not that I

wasn't trying. I was at Gerard Flynn Associates from 8:30 every

morning until they finally closed up shop at 7:00 P.M. I had my own

little workstation in their database section, and (when I wasn't

learning how to sell my ass in the workshop sessions) I spent much of

the day surfing the Net in search of job prospects. I must have sent

out over a hundred resumes, to everything from the big magazine

companies (Hearst, Conde Nast, and Murdoch all wrote back, saying there

were no sales positions open at present), to the glossies that

specialized in audio/video/cameras/electronics, to around two dozen big

marketing agencies. Again, no dice-though the sales director at Stereo

Review at least had the decency to call me up at my so-called office

(my workstation had a direct line) to tell me that he was impressed

with my credentials.

"You're exactly the sort of guy we're after," said Mr. Stereo

Review.

"Perfect sales background for the kind of high-end thing we do here.

The problem is, Ned-and it's the reason I decided to phone you-I called

the personnel department at Spencer-Rud-man, since they were the last

owners of CompuWorld. Now, the guy there told me that you assaulted a

superior, and were subsequently arrested for the attack. Please tell

me this isn't true."

"The charges were dropped. And the reason I hit the guy-" "So you

actually did assault someone on the job?"

"There were extenuating circumstances.. .."

"I don't care what sort of circumstances there were, Ned. I just can't

hire anybody with that sort of blot on their record."

"If I could just explain-" "Sorry, Ned. Impressive resume, but...

who's to say you won't strike someone again?"

It was pretty obvious why I wasn't getting beyond a

"sorry-no-vacancies" letter from any of the hundred companies to whom

I'd written. Whenever a personnel director ran ac heck on my

employment record, Spencer-Rudman told them the same thing: Don't go

near him if you value your teeth. Of course, I knew that this was

going to happen-but I'd been hoping against hope that someone might

just forget to run that check.

At the end of week five of The Program, I asked Nancy Auer-bach, "Is

there any way that I could stop employers from calling

Spencer-Rudman?"

"Only if you completely excise CompuWorld from your resume."

"Sounds like a good idea to me."

"Then how are you going to explain away the last four years? A stint

in the French foreign legion?"

"I could say I was ... I don't know .. . studying, traveling ..." That

makes you look like some aging flower child-not a savvy

thirty-something professional. Anyway, say someone did hire you on the

basis of a resume that didn't include CompuWorld, and then subsequently

found out that you'd spent four years with them? You'd be out on your

fanny before you had a chance to breathe. Sorry, Ned-like I told you

on day one, this is going to be a tough call. But can I give you a

piece of advice?"

I shrugged.

"Stop chasing everything in the tri state area. Start thinking about

re-lo. The way I figure it, a smaller organization in a second-or

third-tier city might overlook the Kreplin business in order to snag

someone with big-time experience like yourself. Especially if you can

convince them you were under extreme pressure at the time."

"My wife's career is totally New York-based," I said.

"She wouldn't want to leave."

"How can you know that," Nancy Auerbach said, "until you ask her?"

But I didn't want to ask her-because, to me, the idea of finding

employment outside of New York was an admission of defeat. It would be

like a demotion to the minor leagues after an extended stint with the

Yankees-and I wasn't willing to consider such a regressive step yet.

What's more, circumstances between Lizzie and me were definitely not

"right enough" to even consider broaching the issue of a potential move

away from Manhattan. Within a week of being fired, my severance

package was gone-eaten up by minor necessities like my share of

January's rent, the recent telephone bill, and the bank deposit I'd

made to pay my health insurance premiums over the next twelve months.

That was over a month earlier. Since that time I had become a kept

man-financially reliant on Lizzie for everything.

And everything meant everything. When Chase Manhattan Bank began to

make "we-have-run-out-of-patience" noises in late January and

threatened legal action to recover their $25,000 bridge loan (well, I

had missed six payments in a row), I made a radical decision. I

liquidated all my remaining assets (stocks, savings, the remnants of my

401k) and paid off the debt in one go. But this meant that I was still

$19,000 in the hole to a variety of plastic money folk. More

troubling, I had no cash of my own. It was the Chase Manhattan debt.

She had always been horrified by my reliance on bridge loans to finance

my heavy spending habits.

"The important thing right now," she said, "is that you clear up as

many financial obligations as possible-and not get yourself further in

the red. Don't worry-I can keep us going until you find something."

Public relations has never been one of the most high-paying businesses.

And though Lizzie was a high-flyer at her firm, her take-home pay was

around $800 a week. Not bad when we were both working-but having been

transformed into a single-income family, we didn't get very far on her

$3,200 per month. The $2,200 tab on our apartment left us just a

thousand bucks a month to feed, clothe, and heat ourselves. Eating out

became a thing of the past, cabs a total luxury. I divested myself of

such superfluous items as my cellular phone (it went back to the

company from which I leased it). A movie a week became our night out

(unless, of course, Lizzie was entertaining clients on the corporate

account). And every Monday morning she left me $100 spending money for

the week.

To her infinite credit, she never once complained about our diminished

financial circumstances. Whereas I, on the other hand, felt

increasingly guilty about my dependency.

One Saturday, around five weeks into The Program, Lizzie and I were

taking a stroll through SoHo and paused to stare at a women's sleek

black suit in the window of Agnes B. "Overpriced Parisian chic," Lizzie

said.

"It would look great on you," I said.

"Sure it would," she said with a laugh.

"Let's buy it now," I suddenly said.

"I was just joking.. .."

"Come on," I said, gently pushing her toward the door.

"Let's get it."

I don't need it. I don't want it. And anyway, we can't afford it."

I've got some room on my MasterCard."

"Don't be crazy. It's probably a thousand bucks.. .."

"I can buy you this," I said angrily.

"Why are you doing this?"

"You want the suit. I want-" "Ned, please ... Let's just keep

walking."

"Why won't you let me ... ?"

"You know why. Now stop." Her tone was testy.

My shoulders slumped.

"Okay," I said quietly.

She linked her arm with mine.

"Let's get a coffee somewhere."

We ended up at the News Cafe, two blocks south on West Broadway.

Nonstop CNN on the video monitors. The usual gaggle of

bridge-and-tunnel folk pretending they're downtown trendies for the

weekend. I bet every one of you bastards has a job. I bet you can buy

your squeeze whatever the hell you want.

"Tell you what," I said to Lizzie, "as soon as I'm back at work, that

suit's yours."

She sighed loudly and shook her head.

"You can't stop, can you?"

"Stop what?"

"Stop obsessing about the fact that I'm supporting you."

"I just don't want to be dependent.. ."

"On me?"

"Yes."

"Great. Just great."

"What have I said wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing .. ."

"I'm turning into a burden and it's worrying me...."

"You are definitely not a burden."

"We're broke-because of me."

"It's only for a little while. You'll find something. But what you

have to do, meanwhile, is just accept things as they are. I now pay

the bills. I'm happy to pay the bills. Just like I'm happy to clear

some of your debts."

"No way will I let you .. ."

"Well, I already have."

I looked at her with alarm.

"You did what?"

"I paid off some of your Diners Club bill yesterday."

"How much, exactly?"

She met my angry gaze.

"Five thousand dollars."

"Five pranrP Are vnn nuts?"

She reached for my hand, but I pulled it away.

"Please ...," she said.

"How dare you ... ?"

"I was just trying to help. I mean, I know how much the watch and the

vacation cost you. And I had a little extra cash in my money market

account, so .. ."

"My debts are my problem, not yours."

"If you're in trouble, then it is my problem. And I'm happy to help

you.. .."

"I don't want your fucking help," I blurted out.

There was a long silence. Lizzie looked at me with total despair. In

a near whisper, she finally said:

"Did you hear what you just said?"

"I didn't mean .. ."

She stared out the window of the cafe, biting hard on her lip.

"Forget it, Ned," she finally said.

"Just forget it."

That Monday morning a letter arrived from American Express informing me

that my "membership entitlements" were suspended until I settled the

outstanding debt of $9,100-which, now being two months overdue, was

also subject to a 2.5 percent interest fee per month. In the same mail

was a kiss-off note from the New York Health and Racquet Club, ending

my membership due to my ongoing failure to fork over the $795 annual

fee. I tossed this letter immediately in my "circular file." My right

hand was still in bad shape. I had trouble gripping a pen, let alone a

racquet. Considering my other problems, being expelled from the New

York Health and Racquet Club was something I could live with.

I knew that the American Express letter was just the first in a series

of threatening dispatches soon to land on my doormat from MasterCard,

Visa, and Barneys. I also knew that-thanks to the usurious rates

charged by the plastic money companies-my 17 grand worth of credit-card

debt would increase by $425 per month. If I wasn't in a position to

clear that debt over the next twelve months .. . presto-it would

magically swell to nearly $23,000, growing like cancer at nearly $600 a

month.

I had to find some way of getting out of this hole. Fast.

So I finally took Nancy Auerbach's advice and spent much of week six of

The Program sending resumes to around a dozen sales and marketing

companies outside the tri state area. I restricted myself to

corporations within an hour's flight time of New York, thinking that

maybe I could commute home on the weekends ... or, better yet, that I

could become the New York-based representative of some out-of-town

firm. Within days, a dozen letters arrived care of Gerard Flynn

Associates, informing me that none of the companies were in the market

for sales personnel at the moment, but they would keep my resume on

file, blah, blah, blah.

"I'm getting very worried," I told Nancy Auerbach at the beginning of

week seven.

"I can appreciate that," she said.

"I'm totally broke. I need something ASAP."

"Like I said at the outset of the program, we're not miracle workers.

We simply function in a consulting capacity. And you know the major

obstacle that is impeding you. As I've told you over and over again,

we can't wave a magic wand and expunge that from your record. It's

always going to be there. You'll simply have to work with the

problem."

"In other words, accept that I'm unemployable."

"You're saying that, Ned. Not me."

That night, while Lizzie was out with a client and I was about to

squander a portion of my week's money on an $ 11 pepperoni pizza

ordered in from Domino's, Nancy called.

"Your luck may be changing," she said.

"Late this afternoon, I got a phone call from a guy I know named Dave

Judelson. Used to be a big-deal headhunter in Atlanta. Around two

years ago, he got lured to Charlotte, North Carolina, to start up a

major headhunting firm there. Anyway, one of the companies he

represents, Info Systems USA, is in the market for a senior guy to take

charge of media sales for their company. Now I know this would mean

going to the other side of the desk-but, hell, wouldn't you rather be a

buyer for a while?"

"Not in Charlotte, North Carolina," I said.

"Last week, you were sending resumes out to Boston, Philly, Baltimore,

Washington .. ."

"Yeah-but there's a big difference between Boston and Charlotte."

"Hans on: Charlotte's a real boom town One of the fastest growing

banking centers in the country, and also a new favorite among midsize

software and information technology companies looking for a

cost-effective base without crippling overheads. Now, okay, I haven't

been there, but from what my spies tell me, the QOL is really first

rate.. .."

"QOL?"

"Quality of Life. They've got their own NFL and NBA teams, a couple of

theaters, a symphony orchestra, good restaurants ..."

"You know what I said about re-lo. I mean, if I had landed something

in Boston or Philly .. . but move to some third-tier city like

Charlotte? No way."

"Just hear me out. I faxed Judelson your resume, and gave you this

really big buildup, talking about how you're a born operator, a

straight shooter, Mr. One-hundred-ten percent .. . and someone who had

an out-of-character experience with his former German employer. Well,

ten minutes ago he called back, having spoken to the Info System

people, and they want to fly you down the day after tomorrow for an

interview. So why don't you talk it over with your wife.. .."

"Like I told you before, my wife's career is here in New York."

She gave me a skeptical laugh.

"That's your excuse and you're sticking to it, right?"

"Leaving New York just isn't in my game plan."

"Ned, as I've told you before, you are in no position to let pride

cloud your judgment. And, who knows? Your wife might really like the

idea of leaving the Manhattan circus for a while. There are plenty of

public relations opportunities in Charlotte.

"Ask her, for Christ's sake. And, while you're at it, tell her that

the base salary is fifty-five thousand, with a generous profit

participation plan, a company car, major medical, four months free

housing until you find a place, and-here's the real icing on the

cake-an incentive fee of twenty grand for the lucky guy who lands the

job."

Twenty grand. I would be debt free.

"Are there any strings attached to that incentive fee?" I asked.

"So you are interested," Nancy Auerbach said with a laugh.

"I'm just asking."

"They want a minimum twenty-four-month commitment. But should they

decide to part company with you before then, you keep it all."

"Sounds pretty reasonable. Too bad it's two years in North

Carolina."

"Welcome to Life .. . where you never get what you want. But, given

your circumstances, I don't think you can afford to be too contemptuous

of Charlotte. Go on, ask Lizzie. Tonight. And call me first thing in

the morning."

Twenty grand. Twenty grand. Twenty grand. Two months ago- when

Kreplin was dangling that three-hundred-grand package in front of

me-twenty grand seemed like nothing. Now it was crucial. Nancy was

right: I was in no position to be arrogant about a job possibility in

Dixie. All right, it was like being temporarily demoted to the second

division. But it was an opportunity. A chance to clear my financial

slate, jump-start my stalled career, and hopefully eradicate that

misdemeanor from my record. And Lizzie-who had always hinted that she

wasn't tied to New York-would probably jump at the chance of moving to

somewhere like Charlotte, where we could set up house in a rural

retreat (within easy driving time of the city). And raise a couple of

kids. And invite the neighbors over for weekend barbecues. And join

the local country club. And learn to play golf. And start to wear

cardigans. And switch our political allegiance to the Republican

Party. And tell everybody how leaving the big bad city for little ol'

Charlotte was the best thing that ever happened to us ... while, all

the time, I would secretly rue the fact that I was now exiled from the

professional major leagues, and permanently trapped in a cozy

cul-de-sac of my own making.

Fuck Charlotte. It would kill me. Dead. I powered up my computer and

punched out a fast e-mail to greet Nancy on her arrival at the office

in the morning.

Nancy:

After much serious consideration, I simply cannot see myself relocating

to Charlotte. Please extend my thanks to David Judelson and Info

Systems USA for their interest in me.

Let's talk this morning and see where we go from here.

Best, Ned Short and sweet. No doubt Nancy would think I was

squandering one of the few career possibilities that were open to me

right now. But were Lizzie to find out about this job prospect, she'd

insist I go for it. And if I went for it, I'd probably get it. And if

I got it, she'd have us packed and moved to Charlotte in a heartbeat.

And then .. .

I moved the cursor to the "Send Now" e-mail button and clicked it. The

pizza arrived. I washed it down with a few glasses of cheap Australian

Shiraz. Then, bottle in hand, I moved on to the bedroom. Sprawling

across our bed, I poured myself another large glass of wine, drank it

down, then turned on the little Sony television and stared mindlessly

at some prime-time junk while upending the rest of the bottle into my

empty glass.

The next thing I knew the phone was ringing. I opened one eye. Morning

light was flooding the room through a crack in the curtains. My head

felt the after-effects of all that low-grade wine. The empty bottle

was now on the bedside table, next to our radio alarm clock, which read

9:03 A.M. I could hear Lizzie answering the phone in our kitchen. I

made it to my feet, fell into the bathroom, emptied my bladder, and

plunged my head into a sink of cold water. Then I wandered into the

living room, blinking with surprise when I saw that a duvet and a

pillow now adorned our foldout guest cot. Lizzie finished her

conversation and joined me in the living room. She was already dressed

for work. From the despondent look on her face I could tell that I was

in serious trouble.

"Didn't hear you come in last night," I said.

She didn't reply. She just gave me a long, hard stare.

"Did we have a visitor?" I said, nodding toward the cot.

"No, I slept there," she said.

"Why?"

"Because I found you asleep with an empty bottle of wine in your arms.

And I don't like sharing my bed with a drunk."

"It was just a little wine."

"You mean, like it was just a little job offer in Charlotte?"

I sat down on the cot. I ran my hand through my hair. I tried to stay

calm.

"How did you know .. .," I finally said.

"That was your out placement counselor, Nancy Auerbach, on the phone.

As soon as I answered, she said: "Oh, Mrs. Allen, I'm really sorry to

hear that you and Ned decided not to explore the Charlotte option."

When I politely asked her to explain, she told me. Everything."

"I was going to discuss this with you last night.. .."

"But you drank yourself into unconsciousness instead."

"Uh, yeah."

She stared at the floor and shook her head.

"Why are you lying to me?" she whispered.

I stood up.

"Darling, I'm not..."

"For Christ's sake, Ned, she just told me you sent her an e-mail late

yesterday, turning down the job. So what's this

"I-was-going-to-talk-about-it-with-you-last-night' crap

"I just knew this was not the right move.. .."

"You still should have discussed it with me."

"Okay," I said sheepishly, "I was wrong."

"That's not good enough, Ned. Once again, you've shut me out.. .."

"I'm not shutting you out.. .."

"Well, that's what it feels like. Because by shutting me out, you've

also made it very clear that you really don't want me in your life."

She was crying.

"Lizzie, please .. ."

"Well, do you want to know something? I don't think I want you in my

life anymore."

She grabbed her coat and stormed out.

I put my head in my hands. I really was in a nosedive. Plummeting

toward the ground. Willing myself to crash. And simultaneously

wondering, Why was I piloting myself on this self-destructive arc?

I grabbed the phone and called Nancy Auerbach. Kim, her assistant,

told me I had just missed her, and that she was out of the office for

the rest of the mornine. I asked if there was any way she could get a

message to her, informing her that I'd had a change of heart and was

still interested in the Charlotte job. Kim said she'd do her best.

Then I punched in the number of Lizzie's cell phone. When she heard my

voice her tone became cool.

"Listen, darling," I said, "I know I've been acting like an

out-of-control idiot-" "Ned, I really don't feel like talking with you

right now."

"Lizzie, please .. . You don't know how bad I feel.. .."

"I don't care how bad you feel."

"Look, I've just called Nancy Auerbach, and I've decided to go for the

Charlotte interview."

"You do whatever you want, Ned. You always do."

"Hang on, don't you want me to do the interview?"

"If you want to move to Charlotte, that's your business. But I won't

be coming with you."

"Lizzie, don't say that.. .."

She hung up. When I tried to phone her back, I received a recorded

message informing me that the cellular phone I was trying to reach had

been switched off. Lizzie never turned off her phone. This scared the

shit out of me-as did her sudden attack of emotional hypothermia.

Wondering what to do next, I drifted into the kitchen and made myself a

cup of coffee. I stared out the window. A cold, ashen day. For the

first time since quitting I suddenly had a huge, overwhelming need for

a cigarette. Without stopping to contemplate the stupidity of what I

was about to do, I threw on my black parka, ran over to our local

grocery store, bought a pack of Winstons, returned home, found an

ashtray hidden behind some espresso cups, tore open the top of the

cigarette pack, screwed one between my lips, lit it up, inhaled deeply,

and felt that warm, benevolent caress of nicotine wash through my

bloodstream.

Within three minutes I had sucked down my first cigarette. It tasted

wonderful. I finished the coffee. I reached for the pack, lit

another. Then Nancy Auerbach called. From the static on the line, it

was obvious she was on her cellphone.

"So Kim gave me your message," she said.

"That's great news you've changed your mind about the Charlotte job."

I took a deep, steadying drag on my cigarette-and said, "Nancy, the

situation's changed again. I'm going to have to pass on the

interview."

"You're joking?"

"I wish I was."

"What happened?"

"You know what happened. You told Lizzie about me turning down the

Info Systems interview."

"But I only told her because I presumed you had talked it over with

her."

"Well, I hadn't."

Despite the static on the line I could hear Nancy sigh loudly.

"Ned, this is not a game...."

"I know, I know."

"And from talking to Lizzie, I can't believe that she objected so

strenuously to the possibility of a Charlotte re-lo."

"It's my decision."

"I really wish you'd at least fly down there and size up the

opportunity."

"It won't work for us."

"You know, with your record, an opening like this shouldn't be rejected

so lightly...."

"I am aware of that."

"Okay, Ned. It's your call. But remember: There are only six more

days left on your program. And your options aren't exactly

overwhelming."

After I finished speaking with Nancy I lit another cigarette. And

called Lizzie at her office. She was "in a meeting." I called back an

hour later. She was still in that meeting. Thirty minutes afterward I

called again.

"Sorry, Mr. Allen...," her assistant said. So I phoned again half an

hour later. And a half hour after that. Just before 1:00 P.M." I

finally got through to her.

"Are you trying to embarrass me, Ned?" she said quietly.

"Look, I simply had to talk to you.. .."

"And I simply didn't have time to speak with you this morning. Not

that I particularly wanted to .. ."

"Lizzie, sweetheart, I know I've been a jerk-" "Ned. I've cot some

news."

My heart skipped four beats.

"I just found out that I have to go to Los Angeles this evening," she

said.

"Sherry Loebman, who runs our West Coast office, ended up in the

hospital last night with a burst appendix. She'll probably be out of

commission for at least a couple of weeks and they want me to mind the

store while she's recuperating."

"I see," I said.

"Maybe I could hop ac heap flight over the weekend.. .."

"Ned, I really think what we need ... what I certainly need right now

... is space."

Space. The most dreaded word in the marital lexicon.

"Space?" I said.

"Why do you need space?"

"You know why."

"I don't."

"Things aren't right."

"Wouldn't it be better if, at least, we tried to talk through ..."

"Yes. Of course. But after I'm back from L.A. I really think the time

away will do us some good. Clear the air. Give us a little critical

distance."

"I don't want to lose you."

She fell silent. All I could hear was the slight hum of the phone

line. Finally she said, "I don't know what I want right now, Ned. A

lot of stuff has been building up.. .."

"I know, I know, it's been a fucking awful couple of weeks...."

"Not weeks, Ned. We haven't been connecting for months. Way before

you got fired."

"I don't get this."

"That's part of the problem.. .."

"Define the problem. Please."

There was a difficult silence. Then she said, "I simply don't trust

you right now, Ned. Because I'm not exactly certain who I'm dealing

with anymore."

Long, stunned silence.

"Oh, Lizzie, Jesus .. ."

"Look, I've got to go back into another meeting. I'm catching the six

P.M. American flight."

"Can I at least take you to the airport?"

"I'm really tied up all day-I'm sending one of our interns over with my

key to pack a few things for me. Her name's Sally, she'll be dropping

by in about an hour. And I'll be leaving straight from the office for

Kennedy."

"I'm going to call you in L.A. Every day. Where are you staying?"

"Ned, let me call you."

"Where are you staying," It was no longer a question.

She sighed with resignation.

"I'll be at the Mondrian."

"Lizzie .. ."

"Got to go.

"Bye."

I sat there, holding the receiver, feeling lost. I finally put down

the phone. After a moment I picked it up again, index finger poised

over the numbers. But I didn't know who to call. For the first time

in my life, I didn't really know what to do next.

"I'm not exactly certain who I'm dealing with anymore."

Nor was I.

FOUR

Hi there, Mrs. Ruth Edelstein? It's Ned Allen here, from PC

Solutions. I hope this is a convenient time to talk.. .."

Mrs. Ruth Edelstein sounded around ninety years old.

"What-cha say your name was?"

"Ned Allen. PC Solutions. Now, I note from our records that you

bought a GBS Powerplan computer from us in September of nineteen

ninety-five.. .."

"It was my son."

"Sorry?"

"My son Lester, he bought the computer."

I glanced up at the monitor in front of me.

"But, according to our information, the computer was registered in your

name."

"That's 'cause Lester bought it for me."

"Then it is your computer?"

"Never use it. Sits gathering dust on the breakfront. Total waste of

money."

"Well, surely, your son bought you the computer so you could use it."

"Nah. Lester bought it 'cause he and that cheap wife of his moved out

to Phoenix, and he had this numbskull idea that he could keep in touch

with me using this .. . whatchacallit?"

"E-mail, perhaps?"

"That's it. I tell him, I'm seventy-seven years old, I've got

arthritis, you expect me to type you a hello every morning? You feel

guilty about not bringing me to Phoenix, drop a dime, pick up the

phone.""

"Well, e-mail is probably the most cost-efficient way of

communicating...."

"Lester is a big-deal dermatologist, he doesn't need to worry about a

two-buck phone call."

"Well, say you did start using the computer. Wouldn't you want the

most up-to-date software package available? Because that's what PC

Solutions is offering you this month. An incredible software bundle,

including Windows 95, Netscape Navigator, Visual Basic, Power C, the

new nineteen ninety-eight Grolier Encyclopedia, Al Unser, Jr." Arcade

Racing-" "Al Unser, the racing car guy?"

"The very one. And I have to tell you, Mrs. Edelstein, once you start

playing this game, you'll never want to-" "Me, a racing car driver?

That's your idea of a joke?"

I kept plowing ahead with my spiel.

"Now, were you to buy all this software separately, it would cost you

over a thousand dollars. But PC Solutions is offering you this

fantastic bundle for just three twenty-nine, ninety-five, including

next-day FedEx delivery."

"Young man, did you hear me the first time? Never once have I touched

that dumb computer.. .."

"Don't you think it's time to learn?"

"No." And she hung up.

I let out a tired sigh, readjusted my headset, moved the cursor down to

the next name and phone number on my screen, clicked on dial, and

waited for the ringing phone to be answered.

"Hi there, Mr. Tony Gottschalk? It's Ned Allen here from PC

Solutions. Hope this is a convenient time to talk.. .."

It was the Wednesday after my program had ended, and I was on day three

of my new job. Check that: my new temporary job. After turning down

the potential media-sales gig in Charlotte, I'd spent the last six days

of The Program trying to find something, anything, that might tide me

over while I continued to hunt for a permanent position.

"Now I know you're going to cringe when I mention it," Nancy Auerbach

said.

"Try me," I said.

"Have you, maybe. considered something in tele sales

I cringed.

"I know, I know," Nancy Auerbach said.

"After being a sales manager, it's kind of a comedown. But you said

you needed the money. So ..."

"Tell me the name of the company."

And that's how I ended up at PC Solutions: "The At-home Computer

Superstore." The guy who hired me, Burt Rubinek, was a class-A geek:

bad skin, Coke-bottle glasses, a polyester short-sleeve shirt (even

though it was early March), a plastic pen holder in his breast pocket.

Our interview was a virtual non-event. I entered his little cubicle of

an office, where he was bent over his wastepaper basket, cutting his

fingernails. When he polished off his pinky he acknowledged my

presence with a brief nod, silently flipped through my resume, and then

said, "If you're willing to do this job, times must be tough."

I gave him my rehearsed reply: "I'm in a transitional phase at the

moment. But, believe me, I can sell."

He stared down at my resume and muttered, "We'll see about that." Then

he told me the terms of the job. I was going to be placed in "the

software section," initially pitching a $329 software bundle package.

The pay would be five bucks an hour, forty hours a week, no overtime,

no medical. But I'd get a 10 percent commission for every bundle I

sold. The minimum quota was fifteen units a week. If I failed to

reach that quota, I would be out, no exceptions to the rule.

"Fifteen sales a week shouldn't be hard," I said.

He chewed on a cuticle.

"I like an optimist," he said.

"You start Monday."

So, finally, after eight weeks of out placement counseling, I had

landed. In a job that I already despised-even before I had started

work there.

"Think of it as a stopgap," Nancy Auerbach had said during our final

"formal" conversation together.

"And even though, officially, your program is over at the end of today,

I'll keep my ear to the ground for anything in senior sales that might

suit you."

"So," I said, "I suppose I really blew it, not following up on the

Charlotte job."

"It's your marriage not mine--although in my marital experience,

talking things through with your spouse usually avoids a lot of grief.

But I hope things work out, Ned. On all fronts."

From my daily conversations with Lizzie, I couldn't really tell how

things were working between us. For the first week of her absence she

maintained the ill-at-ease-with-me tone that she'd adopted prior to her

departure. But when I called her on the day my program finished-and

told her about landing the tele sales gig-she thawed for a minute or

two.

"You really don't have to take a demeaning job like that."

"I need the money.. .."

"As I've said, over and over again, I'm happy to support us.. .."

"I need to be doing something," I said, lighting up a cigarette.

"I'm bored shitless. And I miss you."

She ignored that last comment and said, "I've got some news." My heart

now skipped five beats.

"Sherry Loebman-the woman I've been sitting in for-has had all sorts of

complications since her appendectomy. And I've volunteered to continue

filling in for her."

"For how long?"

"I'm going to be here for at least another two weeks."

"I see," I said.

"Am I still an embargoed person in L.A." or can I come visit?"

"You've got a new job, remember?"

"I get the hint," I said.

Another awkward silence, during which I puffed heavily.

"Are you smoking?" she asked.

I certainly was smoking again. After two weeks back on the habit, I

was now inhaling a pack a day, and developing a nice phlegmy cough.

Re-embracing cigarettes was like rediscovering-in the midst of bad

times-a dangerous but chummy old friend, someone who'd gladly help me

through this current crisis ... at a price. But I wasn't thinking

about the long-term risks to my cardiovascular system, or the dangers

of lung cancer, or the fact that my dad was a corpse at forty-seven,

thanks to the killer weed. I wanted, craved the disreputable company

of cigarettes. Just like I also wanted and craved all the junk food I

could stomach. And sleep was now only possible after downing a

six-pack of Busch (chosen for its unapologetic cheapness) every

night.

Of course I knew that I was now on a hiph-trash hist but I

didn't care. Professionally and personally, I was now a full-fledged

fuckup. With the zeal of a convert, I had abandoned all discipline,

rejected moderation, embraced the disaster that was me. Three months

ago I was a paragon of ambition and high-performance drive, my

trajectory level stratospheric. A reckless moment, a couple of bad

breaks, a bit of major inattention on the domestic front, and suddenly

.. .

"Allen! What time is designated as start of business in this

company?"

This was Burt Rubinek talking. Check that: This was Burt Rubi-nek

bellowing. It was my fourth day on the job-and as I was quickly

discovering, Rubinek's passive nerd act was total camouflage. Lurking

behind that geek exterior was the soul of a sadist: someone who needed

to give everyone around him nonstop grief.

"Did you hear me, Allen?" Rubinek boomed again. I looked up from my

computer terminal. Rubinek was standing ten feet away from me, smack

dab in the middle of a room that was known as the cattle car. It was

the size of half a football field, crammed with cubicle-like

workstations. Each workstation had a computer terminal, a desk chair,

a headset. There were 120 workstations in the cattle car, divided into

six subdivisions, each of which was assigned to tele market specific PC

Solutions products. Computers and software was the biggest division

(with over eighty tele sales operators working the phones), while the

remaining forty employees handled direct sales of faxes, printers,

modems, and exciting accessories like customized mouse pads ("Send us a

photo of any loved one, and we'll have it made up as a laminated

computer mouse pad within seven working days!").

Burt Rubinek was constantly prowling the corridors and alleyways of the

cattle car. Like a Marine Corps drill sergeant, he saw it as his duty

to threaten and castigate his underlings, reminding them that, in the

great scheme of things, they were worthless pieces of shit. Watching

him at work, I couldn't help but think that he was getting his revenge

for some really awful years on the school Playground.

Allen? Are you deaf, or are you simply on a different astral plane

this morning?"

I poked my head out of my cubicle. All around me my coworkers were

staring straight ahead at their terminals-a habit we all fell into

whenever Rubinek decided to berate someone, out of fear that he might

catch our eye and turn his poisonous attention to us.

"I didn't hear the question, Burt," I said.

"So you are deaf."

"I was just preoccupied with-" "I WILL REPEAT THE QUESTION ONCE AGAIN:

What time is designated as start of business in this company?"

"Eight-thirty," I said quietly.

"Very good. Very good. Eight-three-oh. We are at our desks at

eight-thirty, ready to make our first calls at eight-forty-five. And

what time did you walk in this morning?"

"Around eight-thirty."

"Wrong! You arrived here at eight-thirty-six. How many minutes late

were you?"

"There was a delay in the subway. Someone jumped under a train at

Thirty-fourth Street. I think he used to work here."

Nervous titters from a few of my neighboring coworkers. When they saw

Rubinek's face go crimson (a sure sign he was about to declare war),

they immediately refocused their eyes on their computer screens. He

approached my cubicle and lowered his voice to a near whisper.

"A comedian, huh?"

"I was just trying to lighten things up, Burt."

"My name is Mr. Rubinek. You were six minutes late this morning. And

you were insubordinate."

"It was a joke, Mr. Rubinek."

"I didn't hire you to do stand-up. I hired you to push the product.

And to show up not around eight-thirty, but at eight-thirty. Your

quota this week is now eighteen units."

"Oh, for Christ's sake .. ."

"You don't like it, there's the door." He glanced at the big digital

clock that hung on the main wall of the cattle car. 8:44:52. Everyone

else in the cattle car fell silent, watching the seconds tick down.

"Right, people .. . ," Burt Rubinek shouted. The clock turned 8:45. A

loud bell sounded. The selling day had begun. Suddenly the room

erupted into babble, as all 120 tele sales operators began chasing the

first sale of the day. everyone fearfully conscious of the weekly

quota they needed to reach in order to report back to work next

Monday.

Rubinek turned back to me and said: "Eighteen units by close of

business tomorrow, or you're out of here."

"That's not fair, and you know it," I said.

He gave me a wall-to-wall smirk.

"You're right. It's not fair. I do know it. And I don't care."

As he sauntered away in search of another target, I felt like ripping

off my headset, upending my computer terminal, and marching to the

nearest elevator. But I managed to muster the last remnants of my

self-control and instead gripped the sides of my desk so tightly I

thought I was about to snap my tendons.

Careful, careful. He obviously knows you were once a sales manager.

Just as he has also checked into your background and found out about

the Kreplin assault. And he's such a twisted bully, he now wants to

see if he can inspire you to detonate again.

So I inhaled my pride, turned my attention to my computer screen, lined

the cursor up with the first phone number of the day, and .. .

"Hi there, Ms. Susan Silcox? It's Ned Allen here, from PC Solutions.

Hope this is a convenient time to talk.. .."

It was a convenient time to speak with Ms. Silcox. As she explained,

she was a housewife in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and she had just done that

post feminist thing of giving up work to look after her five-month-old

son, Michael. She surfed the Net whenever she had a free moment ("It

makes me believe I'm still connected to the outside world and not

imprisoned in baby land all the time"), so, sure, she'd be happy to

upgrade to our $329 software bundle.

"Hang on, I'll just get my credit card...."

Got her. Not that she needed much persuasion. This sort of

tele-home-marketing" was aimed directly at the domestically

incarcerated-people like Ms. Silcox, who were stuck at home, felt

bored, lonely, sequestered, and looked upon the tele sales rep as a

temporary friend, someone who was happy to listen to their complaints

about a husband who was on the road four days a week. Or a daughter

who was a big-deal executive at one of the Hollywood studios, but

hadn't bothered to call her widowed mother in St. Louis for the past

three months. Or the husband in Sacramento forced into early

retirement at fifty-seven, who was now spending nine hours a day in

cyberspace because he didn't really know what else to do with his time.

Or ... As I quickly discovered, the trick to tele-home-marketing was to

come across as a sympathetic voice in the telephonic wilderness. Unlike

the sort of tele sales we used to practice at CompuWorld, we weren't

dealing with a large, established company client base. At PC

Solutions, we hustled individual consumers-99 percent of whom certainly

didn't need what we were plugging. So what you had to peddle them was

fellowship. Within the space of a few short minutes, you had to become

their buddy, their ally, their confidant. You didn't sell them a

product; you sold them a sense of personal affiliation, the subtext of

which was: We have a relationship here. It didn't matter that this

relationship would last only for the duration of the phone call. The

object of the exercise was to connect. Once you connected, you

closed.

The problem was: Only one in twenty customers was willing to let you

make that connection. Most of the time your call was greeted with an

immediate dismissal-which was still infinitely preferable to the sort

of bored schmuck who took up twenty minutes of your time, hemming and

hawing, making you repeat your sales pitch two or three times, then

finally telling you, "Nah, it's not for me."

Clowns like that were commonplace within the PC Solutions customer

base. My average working day involved seventy calls, fifty of which

were of the "instant hangup" variety. Of the remaining twenty, at

least fifteen of these customers had no intention of buying anything

from you .. . but were delighted at the opportunity to talk at your

expense. (During my second day on the job, for example, I spent twenty

minutes playing grief counselor to a woman in Myrtle Beach, Florida,

who had just lost her pet Pekinese. When I finally got her back to the

issue of the software bundle, she then informed me, "Oh, I sold my

computer to a friend a year ago.") In the end, there were only five

calls a day where you had the chance of closing. And since the weekly

quota was fifteen sales, it's no wonder that there was such a desperate

atmosphere in the cattle car. Remember those old turn-of-the-century

photos, showing hundreds of hollow-eyed workers hunched over sewing

machines in a factory, desperate to fulfill their daily allotment of

thirty potato sacks? There were times during the working day when I'd

stand up for a moment from my terminal, stretch my hyper tense

shoulders, look out on the frantic, heads-down landscape of the cattle

car, and think, This is the sweatshop of the future. A place

where-like some Union Square shirt factory in 1900s New York-the

workers survive or perish, depending on whether they meet their quotas.

Cyberspace meets the bottom line.

Having closed the sale to Ms. Susan Silcox of Shaker Heights, Ohio, I

had now moved thirteen units this week. Considering that it was only

9:05 on Thursday morning, I wouldn't have worried terribly about

reaching the quota of fifteen units by 4:45 on Friday afternoon. But

thanks to Rubinek's punitive action against me, I was forced to find an

additional three sales within the next two days. Not impossible, but..

.

The rest of the morning was a total strikeout. Every number I tried

didn't answer or was an instant "no sale." At 11:45 I took a

fifteen-minute lunch break: five minutes gobbling a soggy egg salad

sandwich bought at the snack bar situated on the ground floor of our

office building, the final ten minutes spent standing outside the main

entrance in the bracing cold, wolfing down two Winstons in the company

of a dozen other nicotine addicts from the cattle car.

"Heard you gave the Jellyfish some lip this morning," said a

Latino-looking guy who introduced himself as Jamie Sanchez (and who

devoured four Salems in the same time that I smoked my two cancer

sticks).

"You call Rubinek the "Jellyfish'?"

"Yeah-'cause the guy's a blob with nasty tentacles that sting. How

many extra units did he give you?"

"Three."

"You gonna make it?"

"I have no choice. Does he pull this shit often?"

"Man, the Jellyfish lives to pull everybody's chain. There was this

guy, Charlie Larsson, thirty-something, real educated and respectable,

used to be some kind of a trader at Kidder, Peabody before some big

layoff.... Anyway, the Jellyfish hated his button-down ass, aud was on

his case day in, day out. Kept finding reasons to up his quota, kept

canine him "Mr. Die Shot Wall Street." One afternoon.

Charlie couldn't take it no longer, and suddenly, out of nowhere, he

put his fist right through his terminal screen. Poor bastard had to be

rushed to Roosevelt Hospital with his hand still inside the monitor.

Didn't see him ever again."

"Why the hell does PC Solutions allow Rubinek to behave this way?"

"Simple: He makes them money, so they love him. Anytime someone

complains to management, they tell the Jellyfish, who immediately

doubles their quota for the week, which means they're, like,

automatically dead. Life in the cattle car is kind of cut and dry: You

don't like how the game is played-tough. Problem is, where are you

gonna go after you walk out the door?"

I didn't want to consider such a question, so I hurried back up to my

workstation and made call number twenty-two of the day.

"Hi there, Mr. Richard Masur? It's Ned Allen here, from PC Solutions.

I hope this is a convenient time to talk.. .."

"PC Solutions? I've been hoping to hear from you people for a while.

Got a problem with my Windows 95 CD-Rom drive. It doesn't run the disk

automatically anymore.. .."

Bingo.

"Well, that's officially a problem for Microsoft. And since you bought

your computer from us in February 'ninety-six, I'm afraid that your

software warranty is long expired. However, the good news is that

we're offering brand-new cutting-edge software in a phenomenal bundle

for only ..."

Sold. Ninety minutes later, I closed unit number fifteen. Thank you,

Ms. Sherry Stouffer, a self-employed yoga instructor from Cambridge,

Mass. Eighty-two minutes after that (the "order dispatch software" on

our server logs the exact time of the sale), I sold unit sixteen to a

Mr. A. D. Hart, a freelance writer in San Jose, California. And then,

at 4:31-a mere fourteen minutes before quitting time-I scored the final

coup of the day, as units seventeen and eighteen were bought by the

reverend Scott Davis, a Unitarian minister in Indianapolis, who was

planning to install the bundle in his church computer and make a gift

of the second bundle to an inner-city poverty project in which he was

involved.

I was on a winning streak-one of those gold-dust moments in sales where

everything suddenly changes gears, and the music of change is on your

side. Five sales in five hours. It was a windfall beyond my dreams.

My increased quota for the week already reached-a full day before the

Friday deadline. As I stood up from my terminal at 4:45 P.M." I

couldn't help but feel that luck might just be returning to my

corner.

As I headed toward the elevator, Rubinek blocked my path. He already

had the printout of today's sales figures in his hand. Staring down at

the accordion-like pages, he said, "Get desperate and call a couple of

friends, Allen?"

I maintained a mildly befuddled tone.

"What was that, Mr. Rubinek?"

"Five sales in one afternoon, that's what. Which makes me wonder if

you might have resorted to friends or family to save your bacon."

"I just had a good day, that's all."

As I tried to walk away he blocked my path again.

"If you're such a goddamn sales whiz, maybe I should increase your

quota to eighteen units every week."

I suddenly felt that surge of intrepid ness which always hit whenever

someone underestimated my ability.

"Mr. Rubinek, I will achieve whatever quota you set."

"Six more units by close of business tomorrow, or you're history."

He walked away, then turned back and said, "I don't like you, Allen. I

don't like you at all."

He liked me even less when, by 1:14 on Friday afternoon, those six new

units were closed. I was the Golden Boy, I could do no wrong. Or, at

least, that's how I felt as I headed off for the weekend. As I walked

by the Jellyfish's office, he gave me the petulant scowl of a bully who

had been shown up. For today, anyway.

I didn't do anything stupid with my paycheck-because the recovered sofa

showed up just after I arrived home from work that afternoon and the

delivery guy had a COD invoice, which (as the acronym indicates) had to

be paid on the spot, forcing me to write ac heck for funds I didn't

have in my account (but which would be on deposit Monday morning when

the first week's money from PC Solutions hit my account). The sofa

looked whiter than white. Lizzie would be happy.

As he Was leaving the guy said, "Your wife has left, hasn't she?"

"How'd you know that?" I asked.

"You kidding me?" he said as he scanned the apartment. Stacks of

empty fast-food cartons, brimming ashtrays, crushed beer cans, a half

dozen dishes with congealed food stacked high in the sink, an

overflowing garbage can.

"Piece of advice, bud," the delivery guy said.

"If you don't want to make the acquaintance of a divorce lawyer, I'd

get a maid in here before your wife comes home."

He was right: The apartment currently looked like a stretch of

industrial wasteland. I resolved to spend the rest of the evening

thoroughly cleaning it. Just as I also resolved to disassociate myself

from cigarettes and eat nothing but sushi for the next two weeks, as

(according to our bathroom scales this morning) my weight had

ballooned-by twelve pounds-to 187, and I was having major difficulty

squeezing into my pants.

But before I commenced this weekend of clean-living virtue, I decided

to have one final cigarette, chased with my last can of Busch, while

listening to my phone messages. There was only one. It was from

Lizzie. She sounded pleasant in a distant sort of way.

"Hi there, it's just me. It's around nine A.M. L.A. time, so you won't

be hearing this until you get home from work tonight. I've got to fly

to San Francisco this morning to see a client, then I'm rendezvousing

with a bunch of people from the office at this hotel near Carmel. Kind

of a last-minute thing, but I've never been along that section of the

Pacific Coast Highway, so .. ."

I sank down on the couch.

"Rendezvousing with a bunch of people from the office at this hotel

near Carmel." What bunch of people? And why didn't you leave me the

name of the goddamn hotel?

".. . since I probably won't be back at the Mondrian till after

midnight on Sunday, it's probably best if you reach me at the office on

Monday. And I do want to talk to you on Monday because .. ."

Please don't say I've got some news.

".. . well, you should know, there's some talk around the office about

me possibly extending my stay out here for, maybe, four to six

months...."

The cigarette shook in my hand. Ash fell onto the whiter-than-white

sofa. I stared at it.

"Anyway, nothing's definite or decided. But call me Monday and we'll

talk it all through.

"Bye."

Click.

I sat on the sofa for a long time, unable to move, the cigarette

burning down to the filter, forcing me to douse it in the can of Busch.

One thought blanketed my mind: I've lost her. Even if this weekend in

Carmel was just an innocent outing with a bunch of work mates she still

didn't want me to have the name and number of the hotel. And if it

wasn't innocent.. .

Jealousy was a word that never entered my domestic vocabulary. Nor was

infidelity. I played the monogamous game-and, to the best of my

knowledge, so did Lizzie (I would have been astonished to discover

otherwise). But now .. .

Stop it, stop it. You have no evidence that she's suddenly up to no

good. She just doesn't want to hear the sound of your voice right now.

On the scale of marital disasters, not wanting to talk to your spouse

ranks pretty high-but at least she's not screwing some other guy.

Still, the realization hit: If her company was planning to extend her

stay at the L.A. office by at least four months, and if she remained

unenthusiastic about the idea of my joining her on the Coast, then our

future prospects together were nothing short of dismal.

I grabbed the phone, punched in the 310 area code followed by the

number for Lizzie's West Coast office. I asked to be put through to

her secretary.

"Ms. Howard is away until Monday. May I ask who's calling?"

"Her husband."

"Oh."

"She didn't leave a number where she can be reached over the

weekend?"

"I'm not allowed to give out that information."

"Like I said, I am her husband."

"I'm sure you are, but I still can't give out that number...."

"Can you at least get a message to her?"

"I can try. Is it urgent?"

I wanted to say it was an emergency to ensure that Lizzie did call me

back. But I figured that she'd be amazed to discover that the

emergency" was simply a ruse to make her phone me. And I didn't need

any further black marks against my name in Lizzie's book. So all I

said was, "Just tell her, if she wants to talk, I'll be home all

weekend."

"I'll make sure she gets the message."

By Sunday afternoon, I was wondering if Lizzie did get the message.

Because she hadn't called me yet. As my anxiety grew, so, too, did my

obsessive need to tidy up my life. So I became relentlessly

preoccupied with neatness. I purged the refrigerator of all

high-calorie crap. I rid the apartment of junk-food boxes, brimming

garbage bags, and all other trash. I emptied ashtrays, and cleaned the

bathtub, and scrubbed sinks, and vacuumed carpets, and dusted with

Pledge. I laundered sheets and washed windows, and even rearranged my

sock drawer. I made a visit to my local D'Agostino's and came back

with six bottles of mineral water and two bags brimming with fresh

fruit. I stuck to a fruit-and-water diet all weekend, and shed three

pounds by Sunday. Though I didn't manage to go cold turkey on the

cigarette habit, I still restricted myself to three a day. And on

Sunday afternoon, in an attempt to work off some excess flab (and major

stress), I grabbed my tennis racket and a couple of balls, and headed

over to a playground off Twentieth Street and Ninth Avenue, where there

was a handball court that worked just fine as a backboard.

It was a cold, gray afternoon, and I had the playground to myself. As

I slammed the ball against the wall-practicing my ground strokes,

sharpening my backhand, and musing on the fact that this was not

exactly the New York Health and Racquet Club-I suddenly heard a voice

behind me.

"Preparing for the Open, Allen?"

I turned around and found myself looking at Jerry Schubert. He was

standing with a very tall, very thin blonde woman in her early

twenties. Without question, a model.

"Is this your local club?" Jerry asked as I shook his hand.

"Yeah, and I'm its only member. Do you live around here?"

"No, I'm down in SoHo. But Cindy here is the Chelsea-ite."

He introduced us. Cindy Mason had a deep southern drawl.

"Where are you from, Cindy?"

"Little ol' town called Charlotte, North Carolina."

"I've heard of it," I said.

"You're awful good with a racket," she said.

"D'you play professionally?"

"If I did, I wouldn't be on this playground."

"I saw the piece in the Journal about the CompuWorld business," Jerry

said, then added with a smile, "and about the way you improved

German-American relations."

"Yeah-that was my fifteen minutes of fame."

"Do you know what Mr. Ballantine said after reading the story?

"That guy has done something that ninety percent of the American

workforce dream about."" "Oh, everyone was really impressed-except any

and all future employers."

"Are things tough now?"

"You could say that-computer software tele sales isn't exactly my idea

of a good time."

"I did tele sales for a week when I first came to New York," Cindy

said.

"It was the pits."

"Believe me, it still is. But I'm sure I'll find something better by

the time I'm forty. How are things with the Great Motivator?"

"Booming. He's got a new book out in midsummer, followed by a

thirty-five-city promotional tour. And we've also been diversifying a

bit. Setting up a couple of interesting investment projects. Give me

a call sometime. I'll buy you lunch and tell you all about them. You

still have my number?"

I nodded. And accepted Jerry's outstretched hand.

"Don't be a stranger," he said.

"Real nice meeting you," Cindy said.

"Hope you find a better tennis partner than that ol' wall."

As they headed off down the street, Jerry put his arm around Cindy's

narrow waist and she leaned her head against his shoulder. And I felt

a desperate stab of envy. He had a career, a woman, a future.

Everything I once had. Until the mistakes were made, and that life was

suddenly gone.

I kept pounding tennis balls against the wall until the onset of

evening forced me to return to the empty apartment. I maintained my

fruit-and-water diet, I smoked my designated evening cigarette, I

squandered a few more hours in front of the television, I went to bed

and couldn't sleep. At midnight, I tried Lizzie's hotel room in

L.A. No answer. I popped some melatonin tablets and drank a mug of

chamomile tea. At one, I called L.A. again.

"Sorry, Ms. Howard is still out." I channel-surfed, and ended up

gazing mindlessly at an infomercial for a revolutionary teeth-whitening

system. At two, I gave the Mondrian Hotel one last call. Lizzie was

still out. So I left a message asking her to call me anytime. Then,

resisting the temptation to drink a sleep-inducing beer, I fell back

into bed, taking with me the latest Tom Clancy novel. It had the

desired effect. After fifteen minutes my brain finally closed down.

And then it was morning. And the phone was ringing. I squinted at the

clock radio, remembering that I had forgotten to set it. 8:03. Shit.

Shit. Shit. I'd never make the eight-thirty punch-in time at PC

Solutions. The Jellyfish would be delighted; it would allow him to

double my quota for the week. I'd blown it. Yet again.

I sat up in bed, my head still fogged in with sleep. The phone kept

ringing. I managed to pick it up and mumble a "Yeah?"

"Am I speaking to a Mr. Ned Allen?" asked a brisk-sounding woman. A

telemarketer, no doubt.

"Are you selling something?" I asked.

The woman was annoyed.

"I am not selling anything. I am simply trying to find a Mr. Ned

Allen. Is this Mr. Allen?"

"Yeah, that's me."

"My name is Detective Debra Kaster...."

Now I was totally confused.

"I'm talking to a cop?"

"You are talking to a detective from the Hartford, Connecticut, P.O."

Hartford? Why the hell would a cop be calling me from Hartford?

"I'm sorry," I said, "I'm kind of half awake. And late for work. Could

you maybe call me back?"

She ignored that request and said, "Do you know a Mr. Ivan

Dolinsky?"

I was suddenly very awake.

"Ivan? Sure I know him."

"What's your relationship to him?"

"Has something happened?"

"Please answer the question, Mr. Allen."

"I was his boss for two years. Is he okay?"

"He left your name and number in his note.. .."

"Note? What note?"

There was a long silence. And I was suddenly shuddering. Because I

knew what she was going to tell me.

"I regret to inform you that Mr. Dolinsky took his life last night."

She was waiting for me at the station. Late forties. Five foot two.

Silver hair. A navy-blue pantsuit that accentuated her slight

chunkiness. A bulge on her hip where her service revolver was

not-so-discreetly hidden beneath her blazer. A handshake that

temporarily blocked all circulation to my fingers.

"Ned Allen?" she asked as she approached me on the station platform.

"Detective Kaster."

"Nice of you to pick me up," I said.

"All part of the service. Thanks for getting up here this morning. We

like to settle these matters as quickly as possible. Was your boss

okay about you taking the day off?"

No.

"Oh, he's one of those, is he?"

"Understatement of the year."

"You want, I can call him myself, explain why we needed you here."

"Thanks, but it wouldn't do much good. The guy scores zero on the

sympathy front."

In fact, when I had called the Jellyfish right after getting the call

from Detective Kaster-and explained that I was needed at the Hartford

morgue to identify a body-he asked, "Was the deceased a family

member?"

"No, a guy I used to work with, but-" "If it was a family member, you'd

be entitled to three days off on full pay. But if he was just a guy

you used to work with-" "Look, he's pot no real next of kin so."

" "That's his problem. You gotta go up to Hartford, you lose your pay

for today. If you're not here tomorrow, you lose Tuesday's and your

quota jumps by three. Got me?"

"I'll be there tomorrow," I said, and then hung up before I said

something that might get me fired.

We got into Raster's unmarked Ford Escort. She fastened her seat belt,

turned the key in the ignition, reached into the glove compartment, and

pulled out a pack of Merit cigarettes.

"Hope you also don't object to these?"

I dug around in one of my overcoat pockets until I found my Winstons.

"Fellow addict," I said, inserting a cigarette between my lips.

"We're going to get along just fine," Detective Kaster said, pushing in

the car's cigarette lighter.

We pulled out into traffic and followed the signs for downtown.

"This is going to be a three-stop trip. First the morgue, which is in

a suburb called Farmington, around ten minutes from here. After you

make the identification, then we'll move on to Mr. Dolinsky's

apartment before heading over to his office at Home Computer Monthly.

His boss .. . ," she flipped open a little black notebook, "... a Mr.

Duane Hellman, asked if he could see you. I think he's kind of upset

about what happened."

"What exactly did happen?"

"Mr. Dolinsky went up the pipe."

"He what ?"

"Gassed himself. In his car." She reached for the notebook again,

flipped it open, read from her notes as she drove.

"A nineteen eighty-seven Toyota Corolla, found in Elizabeth Park at

two-thirty-three A.M. last night by a patrol car on a routine nighttime

beat. The deceased had parked in a wooded area near a little lake. The

two officers found a garden hose taped to the exhaust pipe, the other

end of the hose inserted into the right front passenger window, all car

windows taped shut, the engine running, the car filled with fumes ...

In other words, your classic 'up-the-pipe' suicide. Must get one of

these a month."

I sucked hard on my cigarette and stared out the window. Judging by

the preparations Mr. Dolinsky made, this was no cry for help. The

officers found a receipt from a WalMart on the front seat. From the

time on the receipt"-another glance at the notebook-"five-thirty-eight

P.M. yesterday, it seems Mr. Dolinsky bought the the tape and the

garden hose at the WalMart in nearby New Britain, then drove straight

to Elizabeth Park."

5:38. On a dark, bleak, winter night. If, on the way to that WalMart,

Ivan had been delayed by just twenty-two minutes, then the store would

have been closed by the time he arrived. Forcing him, perhaps, to put

off his death for another day. And maybe, come morning, the

all-encompassing sense of hopelessness would have passed.

"Bet I know what you're thinking," Detective Kaster said. "

"If only he'd called me. If only I'd known just how bad he was. If

only .. ." Am I right?"

I shrugged.

"Worst thing about suicides is the way it punishes those who were left

behind. But.. . can I be blunt here? He obviously wanted to go.

Because we found a bottle of whiskey and an empty bottle of Valium on

the seat next to him. It was his own prescription, which makes me

wonder, Did he have a history of depression?"

I explained about the death of his daughter, the collapse of his

marriage, the problems at work, the way CompuWorld was suddenly killed

off.

"Sounds like Mr. Dolinsky was juggling some pretty big problems,"

Detective Kaster said.

"What gets me is that six, seven weeks ago, Ivan was in the best shape

I'd seen him for years. He'd just landed this new job, he was really

upbeat about the future .. ."

"You speak to him since that time?"

"Nah, I've been kind of preoccupied. Did he leave any note, any

explanation?"

Back to the notebook.

"There was a letter on the dashboard. Short and sweet: your name and

phone number, and a personal message for you: "Tell Ned I'm sorry for

making him tidy up after me again." That was it."

I exhaled loudly, and felt my throat contract as it stifled a sob.

"Was he erratic on the job?" Detective Kaster asked quietly.

"After the death of his daughter, yes."

"And you had to cover for him a lot?"

"I suppose so."

"Then he considered you his friend."

My eyes began to well up.

"Yes. I was his friend."

We entered the town of Farmington, then drove on to the campus of the

University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Dentistry. The office

of the Hartford medical examiner was located in an off-white concrete

building. We parked the car. As we approached the front entrance an

ambulance swung by us, heading toward the rear of the building.

"The back is where they make the deliveries," Kaster said quietly. Then

she added, "We're going to make this as fast and simple as possible.

The Hartford M.E. prides itself on its streamlined service."

Inside the building a uniformed cop was talking with the morgue's

receptionist. Detective Kaster approached the front desk, flipped open

her badge, pointed in my direction. Then she nodded for me to follow

her into the "family room." Simple, functional furniture. A coffee

machine. A notice on one of the walls giving the extension numbers for

assorted hospital chaplains.

Without thinking, I had pulled out a cigarette and had it at the ready

between my fingers. So had Kaster.

"No smoking in the hospital, please," said the white-coated official

who entered the family room. He glanced at a clipboard.

"Mr. Allen, we're ready for you now."

I expected the usual cop-show morgue scene. The meat-locker room with

a wall full of shiny metal doors. Some Peter Loire-type attendant

pulling open one of the refrigerated compartments. A blast of cold air

hitting me in the face as the attendant grabs a handle and pulls out a

slab on which a body lies covered in a white sheet. Then, after asking

me if I'm ready, he slowly uncovers the face.. ..

But the Hartford M.E. had sanitized the experience of identifying a

body. We were brought into what appeared to be a lounge- with a blue

couch and two chairs, and a video monitor (its screen draped with a

white cloth) positioned on a small table. The official introduced

himself as Dr. Levon and said that he had conducted the postmortem

examination on Ivan. He asked if I had any questions before the

identification began. I shook my head. He approached the set. I

couldn't help thinking, This is like a sales conference, and the guy in

the white coat is going to use some audiovisual materials to make his

pitch. He asked me to sit down. I found a chair, stared straight

ahead at the monitor.

"Ready?" Dr. Levon asked. I nodded. He lifted off the cloth. The

set was already on-and I found myself staring at the ashen face of Ivan

Dolinsky.

The shot was a closeup. The harsh lights gave Ivan's blue-gray skin a

spectral glow. Unlike the face of my cancer-victim dad-who looked like

some Amazonian shrunken head by the time he died- Ivan's features

hadn't been ravaged by the carbon monoxide and Valium cocktail that

killed him. He looked at rest, his haunted, burdened face finally free

of the multiple torments that had stalked him in the last few years. I

found myself stifling another sob. We all try to plan our lives so

carefully, don't we? We're like kids with a set of building

blocks-methodically putting one brick atop another. The job, the home,

the family, the crap we buy-brick upon brick, we pile it high, praying

that this is a stable, lasting construction. But if adult life teaches

you anything, it's this: Nothing is fixed, solid, durable. And it

doesn't even take a cataclysm for the entire edifice to come crashing

down on you. Just one small jolt will do.

Dr. Levon asked, "Is that Mr. Ivan Dolinsky?"

I nodded. And felt like adding, You want to know the real cause of

death? Failure to close. That's what killed him. Closing was the

yardstick by which he measured his personal worth. After the death of

Nancy, after his divorce, his ability to sell was the one thing that

kept him afloat. It was his trade, his craft, the thing he was good

at. Until that skill abandoned him as well. And then .. . maybe, it

was just a matter of time.

Catastrophe is such a random business, isn't it? Ivan was a hostage to

happenstance. Like the rest of us.

Referring back to his clipboard, the doctor asked a few general

questions. He then informed me that the body would be ready for

release to a funeral home at nine the next morning, and did I know to

whom Mr. Dolinsky's remains should be sent? I said that, to the best

of my knowledge, there was no family-only an ex-wife, now living (if my

memory served me well) somewhere near Naples, Florida.

"Would you mind getting in touch with her and finding out what sort of

arrangements she wants to make?" the doctor asked.

"We'll give her a call from my office," Detective Kaster said, then

sharply asked, "Does that wrap it up, Doc?"

"Uh, yeah," he said, handing me the clipboard to sign the official

identification. Then he hit the off button on the remote control, and

Ivan Dolinsky faded to black.

On the drive over to Ivan's office Detective Kaster said, "You hanging

in there?"

"It's kind of a strange experience, isn't it? Seeing it on TV."

"Yeah," she said, lighting up a cigarette, "you almost expect them to

cut away for commercials. We'll be right back with the body after this

message from ..."

Ivan's final home was a tiny one-bedroom unit in a 1960s motel-like

building off a gasoline alley in a grubby corner of West Hartford.

Having earlier retrieved the key from the landlord, Detective Kaster

let us in. The apartment was just two cramped rooms-a living room with

a galley kitchen, a metal table and chairs and a cane sofa with smudged

floral cushions; the bedroom with nothing but a queen-size bed with a

floral headboard, ac heap white veneered chest of drawers, a

pocket-size bathroom, badly tiled, with an avocado-colored sink and

toilet. There was Woolworth's art on the apartment walls. A stack of

cheap paperback thrillers by the bed. Aside from a couple of suits and

shirts hanging up in the closet, the only personal touch that Ivan had

brought to this dump was a half dozen framed photos of Nancy,

positioned throughout the apartment so she'd always be in his sight.

The detective turned to me.

"Any idea where he'd like his personal possessions to go?"

Personal possessions. When he moved to Hartford, he sold what little

furniture he had in his West Eighty-third Street studio. So now, the

sum worth of Ivan Dolinsky was two suitcases full of clothes, a pile of

Tom Clancy and Ken Follett novels, the ten-year-old Toyota in which he

took his life, and a half dozen pictures of his dead child.

"Give everything to charity," I said, gathering up the framed photos.

"I'll get these to his wife."

We made a lengthy pit stop at the Hartford precinct where Detective

Kaster had a desk. It was a two-step cinch to find the phone number of

Ivan's ex-wife, Kirsty, in Florida. She was listed under her married

name in Naples. I let Detective Kaster break the news to her. About

three minutes into the conversation, Kaster put the call on hold and

said, "She wants to speak with you."

I'd only met Kirsty Dolinsky twice before: once at some Compu-World

family outing by a lake in the Poconos around four years ago; the

second time at her daughter's funeral. I tried to conjure up my

initial impression of Kirsty-a small, angular woman, around ten years

younger than Ivan (making her now close to forty), highly strung, and

super-anxious about keeping an eye on Nancy, especially whenever she

wandered near the lakefront.

When Detective Kaster handed me the phone, Kirsty was sobbing.

"Oh, Jesus, Ned. Lie to me. Say he didn't.. ."

"I'm sorry, Kirsty. I'm so sorry."

Her sobbing escalated. When she got a grip on herself, she said,

"How'd he do it?"

I told her about the car. This prompted another long torrent of tears.

As quietly as possible, I said, "There are a couple of, uh, practical

matters we need to discuss." And then, through gentle interrogation, I

found out that Ivan wanted to be cremated, that he'd probably like his

ashes sprinkled on the Gulf of Mexico (where they often vacationed

during the early years of their marriage), and could I get them sent on

to her (I scribbled down her address), because, no, she wouldn't be

coming north for the funeral.

"I have this new job here-receptionist at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples.

Not exactly glamorous, but it pays the rent. I'm on nights the next

three days, so it would be kind of hard to take the time off.. .."

She broke off again, crying.

"You know what I keep thinking?" she said.

"If Nancy had lived, if that fucking meningitis hadn't shown up .. ."

She couldn't finish that sentence. Her sobbing was now out of

control.

"Kirsty," I said, "is there anyone there to look after you right now?

Your husband, maybe .. ." I'd heard from Ivan that she'd married a

local tennis pro shortly after moving to Naples.

"That ended ten months ago," she said, her voice now steely, semi

controlled

"I've got no one."

I didn't know what to say. She knew that.

"I've gotta go, Ned. Thanks for dealing with everything."

Click. She was gone.

As I turned to explain the gist of that conversation to Detective

Kaster, it struck me that I'd probably never speak to Kirsty Dolinsky

again. She would now vanish from my existence. A blip. Like so much

in life.

Detective Kaster sprang into action. Within fifteen minutes she found

a funeral home that would take the body and prepare it for incineration

the next day. The first available slot was 3:30 P.M. at a crematorium

on the outskirts of Hartford. They'd also provide a reverend to say a

few words.

"Ask them to get a rabbi," I said, remembering that Nancy was buried at

a Jewish cemetery in Queens.

"Are you going to be the only mourner?" she asked.

I picked up the phone, found the number for PC Globe in Manhattan, and

asked to be put through to Debbie Suarez.

"Mr. Allen! This is incredible! I was gonna call you today. See if

you was free for lunch or something'. How ya doin"?"

"Could be better. They treating you right at PC Globe?"

"It's not like old times with you, but hey, a girl's gotta make a

living, right? You okay, Mr. A.? You don't sound okay."

I told her exactly why I wasn't okay. For perhaps the first time in

her life, Debbie Suarez was at a loss for words. After around thirty

seconds of silence, I asked, "You still there, Debbie?"

"Just about," she said, her voice barely audible.

"Why?"

"I don't know. Maybe he never really got over the Nancy business.

Maybe he just gave up. I just don't know."

I could hear her swallowing hard.

"When's the funeral?"

"Tomorrow. Three-thirty. In Hartford." I gave her the address of the

crematorium.

"You think you could maybe take half a day (tm), grab the train up

here? Otherwise it's just going to be me in attendance."

"I'm gonna do my best to get there, Mr. A. Promise. And I'll also

call the old gang-Dave, Doug, Phil, Hildy. See if they can make it,

too. We all liked him.. .."

She started to sob.

"One last favor," I said.

"Anything."

"As soon as you get off the phone, I want you to march into Chuck

Zanussi's office, and tell him exactly what happened. And make sure he

understands it was a suicide."

"I'm on my way now."

It was just a ten-minute drive from the precinct to the offices of Home

Computer Monthly. They were located in a small industrial park

bordering 1-93-and judging from the prefab building in which they

occupied the first floor, the magazine looked like the nickel-and-dime

operation I had suspected.

There were a lot of nervous glances at the detective and me as we were

escorted through a corridor of desks to the office of the publisher,

Duane Hellman. He was around thirty-two-a big mop of greasy black

hair, a shiny blue suit, a wet, weak handshake. He was visibly anxious

in our presence.

"You asked to see Mr. Allen?" Detective Kaster said as we sat down.

Duane Hellman picked up a pencil and began to absently tap it against

his desk.

"Can I get you folks anything? Tea? Coffee? Diet Coke?"

"You can get to the point, Mr. Hellman," Detective Kaster said.

"We don't have all day."

He kept tapping that damn pencil against the desk.

"Ivan told me all about you. Said you were just about the best damn

boss a salesman could have. Really built you up as some kind of

amazing-" I didn't want to hear this, so I cut him off.

"Do you have any idea why he killed himself?" I said.

The pencil-tapping now escalated to double time.

"I've got to tell you, I was just shocked as heck. I mean, Ivan was

only with us six or so weeks, but everyone liked him. And he seemed to

be in pretty good spirits-"

"Please answer the man's question," Detective Raster said, sounding

peeved.

"Why do you think he killed himself?"

Hellman swallowed hard, averted his gaze, tossed the pencil aside. When

he finally spoke, his voice was nothing more than a croak.

"I let him go on Friday."

It took a moment to register.

"You what?"

"Friday was his last day here," he said.

"Because you fired him?"

"I didn't want to .. ."

"Answer the goddamn question."

"Easy, Mr. Allen," Detective Kaster said.

Duane Hellman was now the color of talcum powder. And he looked

genuinely frightened of me.

"I liked him, he'd already closed a couple of small things, I really

didn't want to let him go. But.. ."

"What do you mean, you didn't want to let him go?" I said.

"You were his boss-so it was your decision whether he stayed or

went."

Hellman picked up the pencil again. Tap-tap-tap.

"He'd become a liability," he said.

"What do you mean by that?" I challenged.

"I mean ... he was going to cost us if he continued working here."

"If he'd already closed a few things, if you actually did like him,

then how the hell could you call him a liability?"

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

"What happened was this," Hellman said, trying to sound composed.

"One of our main advertisers informed me that they would cancel all

future spreads with us if Ivan continued on in his job."

"What advertiser said that?" I demanded.

Hellman leaned his forehead against the palm of his hand and stared

down at his much-doodled-upon desk blotter.

"GBS."

I went numb, rigid.

"Ted Peterson?"

Hellman, still focusing on his blotter, nodded slowly.

"And you bought his threat?"

"I tried to argue his case, but Peterson was adamant."

"And so you kicked Ivan's ass out, no questions asked."

"They're GBS, for God's sake. We depend on them...."

"And Ivan Dolinsky depended on you."

Hellman had begun to sweat, two large watery globules cascading down

his beefy face.

"Look, if I knew .. ."

"Did he plead .. . ?"

"I can't tell you how upset-" "Did Ivan plead with you .. ."

"It wasn't my call.. ."

"DID IVAN FUCKING PLEAD WITH YOU FOR HIS JOB?"

I was hovering over Hellman's desk, yelling. With gentle firmness,

Detective Kaster took my right arm and led me back to the chair.

Hellman had both hands over his head, as if he'd expected me to punch

him. I could hear him whimpering.

"Yeah," he said.

"He pleaded."

A long silence. Finally broken by me.

"Murderer."

SIX

It was pointless to return to Manhattan that night. Anyway, after that

scene in Duane Hellman's office, I needed several stiff drinks- and

Kaster, now officially off duty, was only too happy to keep me

company.

Which is how we ended up at an old-style steak joint called Kappy's in

a residential corner of West Hartford-where, over the next four hours,

Kaster and I bought each other rounds of bourbon and beer, devoured a

London broil apiece, and eventually started trading secrets. Hers was

a biggie: Just last month, after over twenty-five years in the closet,

she had come out as a lesbian.

"It kind of surprised me how everyone in the department took it in

their stride. Especially when I showed up at a departmental party with

my squeeze, Beth Anne

"What's she do?"

"A plumber."

Having shared this revelation with me, it was my turn (according to the

unwritten rules of "strangers drinking together") to divulge a

confidence or two. So I told Kaster about the business with Kreplin,

and my assorted professional and marital troubles since then.

"You're lucky you didn't slug that nerd Hellman," she said, tossing

back her bourbon, " 'cause this time you would've been booked for

assault. Have you always been a hair-trigger kind of guy?"

"Only since all this shit started."

"Well, I'd stop it. Like now. And since I'm handing out loads of free

advice tonight"-she gave me a tipsy smile-"here's another pearl of

wisdom from the dyke detective. I'd give your wife as much space as

she needs right now. Know what women hate more than anything in guys?

Neediness. You come across desperate to her, you can forget about

winning her back."

I kept that advice in mind when I checked into a nearby Marriott motel,

which the detective recommended. It was 10:00 P.M. I slumped on the

bed and checked my messages at home. No word from Lizzie. So I called

her office in L.A. Her secretary, Juliet, was working late.

"I passed on your message from Friday, Mr. Allen. But Lizzie never

returned to L.A. yesterday-she had to go straight from Carmel to San

Francisco today for a last-minute business thing. Now she's caught up

there in a dinner, so we don't expect her back in L.A. until tomorrow.

Another message?"

"That's okay."

Instead, I called the Mondrian and asked to be put through to Lizzie's

voice mail. I left a simple, straightforward message, in which I

explained about Ivan's suicide, how I had ended up identifying the body

and arranging the funeral, and wouldn't be back in the city until late

Tuesday night. I didn't get emotional. I didn't leave a number in

Hartford where she could reach me. I didn't come across as beseeching.

As Kaster recommended, I played it cool and sounded very much in

control. Whereas I was feeling anything but controlled. And I wanted

to scream into the phone, I'm going crazy.. .. I miss you.. ..

Please, please, let me jump a plane to the Coast and try to sort things

out.

Why is it that, if we say what we actually feel to the most important

person in our lives, we often risk losing that person altogether?

I pondered that question again at three-thirty the next afternoon as I

stood outside the crematorium with Detective Kaster, puffing away on a

cigarette. A taxi drew up outside the crematorium. The door opened

and Debbie stepped out, accompanied by Phil Sirio. I went running over

and threw my arms around both of them. I could tell they both looked a

little startled by my newly accumulated weight, and by the cigarette

clutched between my fingers.

"Thank you," I said.

"Thank you so much. I thought I would have to do this alone."

"No problem, boss," Phil said.

"Workin" for my brother in the restaurant supply game these days, so I

can come and go as I please."

"Yeah, and Mr. Zanussi had no problem giving me the afternoon off,"

Debbie said.

"How'd he take the news?"

"He went all quiet. I hope the man felt shame. You doin' okay?"

"Could be better."

"What's with the cigarette?" Debbie asked.

"Just a temporary lapse."

"You crazy, Mr. A.? That shit'll kill you.. .."

"Only if he really works at it," Detective Kaster said, wandering over

to join us. I introduced her. But we were interrupted by the oily,

black-suited funeral director, clipboard in hand, glancing at his watch

like a time and motion analyst.

"I think we should start," he said. Under her breath, Detective Kaster

added:

"Because the next customer shows up in half an hour."

The chapel was a plain, simple room. White brick walls, a sandstone

floor, varnished pine benches, an imitation marble bier upon which sat

the simple wooden coffin I had chosen for Ivan. As they entered,

Debbie and Phil did a double take at the sight of the coffin. Not that

they didn't expect to see it-but there's always something deeply

disquieting about the sight of that box. Because you know that, inside

it is someone who, up until a day or so ago, was as alive as you are

now. And because you also know that box is your destiny, too.

We all sat together in the front row. The rabbi entered. Early

sixties. Black suit, black tie, black yarmulke. We'd spoken on the

phone earlier that morning, after I'd had a chat with the funeral home

about final arrangements. The rabbi asked what I wanted for the

service. Keep it simple, I said. Prayers-but no eulogy. The idea of

a stranger extolling Ivan's essential decency and goodness to an empty

funeral chapel was just too much to bear.

The rabbi stood to the right of the coffin and began to intone some

prayers in Hebrew, his eyes clenched shut, his body gently swaying back

and forth like a tree branch in the wind. Then, in

English, he said that he would now say the Kaddish-the prayer for the

dead-for our departed brother, Ivan.

At first, his voice was almost imperceptible. But very quickly it

swelled into a deep, haunting baritone-fervent, potent, profoundly

tragic. And though none of us understood a word of what he was in

canting the emphatic force of those prayers said it all. A man had

died. A life had ended. Attention must be paid.

Debbie had covered her face with one hand and was weeping quietly. Phil

stared stonily at the coffin, doing his best to control his emotions

amid the full-frontal assault of the Kaddish. Even Detective Kaster

seemed curiously moved by the terrible loneliness of this service. And

me? I just felt... adrift. My bearings lost. Wondering why an

ethical man like Ivan went under, while an unscrupulous shit like Ted

Peterson flourished. And thinking just how easy it was for everything

to come unhinged.

Abruptly the Kaddish ended, the final baritone chords reverberating

against the chapel walls. Then, after a moment's silence, there was

the hum of machinery as the coffin slowly descended from view. The

rabbi approached and shook hands with each of us. The unctuous

crematorium supervisor ushered us out into the light. I glanced at my

watch. The entire service had taken ten minutes.

Detective Kaster had to head back to the precinct. She gave me her

card, a peck on the cheek, and told me if I ever needed a plumber I

should call Beth Anne I thanked her for everything.

"Go easy," she said.

"Especially on yourself."

The funeral director called us a cab. He also discreetly asked me for

a credit card ("We accept everything except American Express and

Diners"). We declined his offer to wait in "the family lounge." The

sun was still bright, the March cold tolerable. I lit up a cigarette

and received reproachful looks from Debbie and Phil. But they said

nothing. Because the service had rendered us all mute. And because we

were all staring at the now smoking chimney.

The funeral director returned with an invoice and a credit card slip

for me to sign. I looked down at the price: $3,100, including basic

embalming, coffin, transportation, the service, the incineration. Death

was not cheap. I also noticed that the charge slip had been made by

one of those old-style, by-hand imprint machines.

Thank God for that. Had it been a new, instant-verification machine,

my MasterCard would have been instantly declined .. . though I don't

know exactly what the oily undertaker could have done about it. Except,

maybe, pulling the plug on the furnace before the job was fully done.

"You haven't told me where I should dispatch the ashes," the supervisor

said. I handed him the piece of paper on which I had written Kirsty

Dolinsky's name and address.

"Included in the charge," he said, "is second-class postage anywhere in

the U.S. We can, however, FedEx the ashes for an additional charge of

twenty dollars. Guaranteed next-day delivery, of course."

Phil Sirio said, "I don't want Ivan goin' second class." Then,

whipping out a large roll of money, he peeled off a twenty, scrunched

it up into a ball, and dropped it right at the director's feet.

"There's your extra twenty," he said with unconcealed contempt.

"And if I hear that Ivan ain't in Florida tomorrow, you are gonna hear

from me."

We caught the 4:20 Amtrak express back to Penn Station. We sat in the

bar car. Phil nursed a beer, I threw back a bourbon on the rocks,

Debbie quickly killed a rum and Coke, then started to cry. Loudly.

We drank all the way back to New York. Phil kept plying me with

bourbon, and I found myself unable to stop talking-the whole god-awful

story of the past ten weeks spilling out in a torrent of words. It

really was like an extended stint in the confessional box. And though

Phil and Debbie couldn't offer me absolution, they were, at least, two

pairs of sympathetic ears.

"Man, what's your wife doin', running away from you at a time like

this?" Debbie said.

"What's been happening is not exactly her fault," I said.

"I mean, it takes two to blow a marriage, doesn't it? And I haven't

exactly been the easiest guy to be around recently."

Thankfully, we didn't dwell too long on the state of my marriage, as

Phil really wanted to vent a lot of rage about Mr. Ted Pc-tcrson.

"That white-bread, preppy piece of shit," he said.

"The guy comes across all Mr. Brooks Brothers, Mr.

Fairfield-fucking-County-but at heart he's just some vengeful goombah.

I know hit men who've got more morals than this clown. I don't like

saying it, boss, but you should've-" "I know, I know. I was trying to

do the right thing."

"What did I tell you at the time? You can't play nice and noble with

an unethical fuckhead. You should've let me make that call."

Debbie asked, "What are you talking about?"

"Fugedaboudit," Phil said and dropped the subject. When we reached

Grand Central, Phil insisted on dragging us to the bar of the adjoining

Grand Hyatt Hotel for a final drink. Four hours later-when, underneath

the table, Debbie began to stroke my thigh with her hand-I decided it

was time to call it a night. So I stood up and said, "Listen, folks, I

got to go. Again, I can't thank you enough for making it up to

Hartford.. .."

Debbie staggered to her feet.

"If you're goin', I'm goin'. I gotta get home to Raul."

I reached into my pocket for my wallet.

"Phil, lemme help out with the damage...."

"Your money's no good here," he said. Then, scribbling a couple of

numbers on a paper cocktail napkin, he said, "Here's my number at my

brother's office. You need me, you know where to find me."

Standing up, he gave me a hug and shoved the napkin into the breast

pocket of my jacket. Outside the hotel I hailed a cab. As I was

opening the door for Debbie she grabbed me by the arm, giving me a

tipsy smile. "

"Ride downtown with me," she said.

"I'm wasted, Debbie. Beyond wasted."

"Drop me home, it's not out of your way, then you can take the cab

'cross town. I've got some stuff I wanna say."

Reluctantly I climbed in after her, determined to remove her hand from

my thigh if she began to stroke it again. I had enough problems right

now.

Debbie gave the driver her address and we headed south. Then, reaching

into her purse, she pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to

me.

"This is for you," she said.

I opened up the paper. It was ac heck Made out to me. For forty-five

hundred dollars.

"What the hell is this, Debbie?" I asked.

"You know what it is."

The check swam in front of me. I was drunk.

"Really, I don't."

"The money you gave Faber Academy for Raul's tuition...."

"I didn't give the school money. It was CompuWorld...."

"Mr. Allen .. ."

"You really can call me-" "Okay, okay, Ned. A couple of nights ago I

was at the school. Some parent-teacher thing. And I got talkin' to

the bursar, who's actually an all-right guy. Anyway, he told me that

Spencer-Rudman called him up a couple months ago, making this big stink

about the letter you signed saying CompuWorld would guarantee the money

I owed the school. And when he told them a guarantee's a guarantee,

they said, yeah, yeah, yeah, they were gonna honor it, but you had no

authority to write that letter. And you were gonna get stuck with the

bill. The shits did stick you with the forty-five hundred, didn'

they?"

"Debbie .. ."

"I know they did .. . 'cause I got this new friend, Paula, up in

accounts. Yesterday morning, before you called, I got her to pull your

file, look up your payout. I got to tell ya, Mr. Allen ... Ned ... I

cried when she snuck me the letter they wrote you."

I stared down at the check.

"It wasn't exactly me playing fairy godfather, Debbie. They decided I

was going to be Mr. Charitable."

"Yeah .. . but the thing is, you didn't fight it. And you didn't make

me feel bad by letting me know.. .."

"Not my style."

She put her hand over mine.

"I like your style."

I gently removed my hand and tore the check in two.

"I knew you were gonna do that," she said, then added with a laugh,

"But that's not why I wrote it."

We fell silent. Then Debbie said, "Thank you."

As directed, the cab stopped at Nineteenth and First, right near one of

the dark entrances to that 1950s Lego-labyrinth of middle-income

housing called Stuyvesant Town. There were a couple of seedy-looking

characters loitering on the street.

"How far's your building?" I asked Debbie.

"Halfway to the river," she said.

That settled the matter. I pushed some money through the cabbie's

window.

"I'll walk you to your door."

We said nothing as we headed into Stuyvesant Town. When we reached the

door, she said, "Come inside, see Raul.. .."

"I'm really fried.. .."

She dug out the key from her purse and opened the front door.

"It'll just take a minute. Anyway, don't you want to see where your

money's going?"

"Just a minute, then," I said-but I was really talking to myself.

The apartment was on the ground floor. It was very cramped, very

thrown together. Old sagging charity shop furniture. Foldout drying

racks filled with freshly washed clothes. An elderly television and

VCR. Raul's school paintings Scotch-taped to the walls.

There was a tiny alcove off the living room, furnished with a bunk bed.

On the top bunk lay the snoring figure of Debbie's mother. Raul was

asleep in the lower bunk. Long, curly black hair, perfect unblemished

skin, a slight hint of a smile as he slept. An angelic innocent.

"He's beautiful," I whispered. Debbie nodded in agreement.

"Time to go," I said. We stepped away from the alcove. I moved to

kiss her good night on the cheek. But suddenly we were all over each

other, my hands in her hair, on her breasts, up her skirt, the two of

us stumbling backward toward a doorway, collapsing on her bed, my brain

sending out danger signals, the signals being drowned out, her hands

grabbing my shirt, a final faint admonishing voice inside my head: This

is insane .. .

Fade to black.

Daylight. A shaft of daylight, to be exact, sneaking through a tiny

gap in the blinds. I opened one eye. A serious mistake. The light

hit the optic nerve, sending an electrical charge of pain into the deep

recesses of my skull. I opened the second eye. Bang. Crack. Wallop.

Now my head felt as if it had been cleaved by an ice pick. My mouth

was Sahara-dry. My eyes felt puffy, my face bloated and greasy. And,

for a moment or two, I found myself wondering, Where the hell have I

crash-landed?

And then I noticed that I was naked, lying next to an equally naked

Debbie Suarez. She was comatose, snoring deeply. I felt that

free-floating horror, known to every man or woman who has woken up, on

the morning after, to discover themselves in a place they shouldn't be,

lying next to someone they shouldn't be lying next to. And though I

could try to blame the booze, the lateness of the hour, the emotional

burden of Ivan's death, the heat of the moment, and any other excuse

you care to mention, the fact remained: This was a fuckup of my own

making.

I glanced at my watch: 7:12 A.M. I had to get out. Fast. I sat up in

bed and, as quietly as possible, lowered my feet to the floor. As my

toe touched the frayed carpet, I noticed (with immense relief) a spent

condom on the floor-and, with a bit of mental effort, vaguely

remembered Debbie interrupting the impassioned proceedings to dig

around in the drawer of her bedside table for a Trojan.

The used condom was the good news. The bad news was revealed to me by

the mirror on the wall next to her bed. There was a small but

unmistakable hickey on the right side of my neck, and a few discernible

scratches near my throat. Thank God Lizzie was still in L.A." and

would be there for at least another week. Because it was pretty clear

what activity had led to these scars.

My clothes were in a crumpled pile by the bed. I scooped them up and

slinked into the bathroom. My suit looked as if it had been balled up

and used for an impromptu basketball game. I dressed quickly, spread

an inch of toothpaste on my forefinger and rubbed it around my gums in

an attempt to rid my mouth of its rank morning-after taste. Then I

snuck back into the bedroom. Debbie was still down for the count, and

I was deeply relieved. Quite frankly, I didn't know what to say to

her. Except oops.

I slowly crept to the bedroom door, gently opened it, then shut it

behind me. Only ten steps separated me from the front door of the

apartment. I heard Grandma's thunderous snoring coming from the top

bunk. Like a thief terrified of setting off a hidden burglar alarm, I

tiptoed my way across the living room. Then I heard a voice:

"Can you spell discovery, please?"

I spun around and there, sitting in the apartment's little breakfast

nook, was Raul. He was dressed in Power Rangers pajamas,

digging into a bowl of Sugar Pops. He had a schoolbook opened, and was

doing some homework with a small stub of a pencil. He was a big kid

for a six-year-old. I put my finger to my lips and approached him.

"What was the word?" I asked.

"Discovery," he said loudly.

"Let's not wake your grandma."

"Discovery," he whispered.

"I've got to fill in the sentence, Thomas made an interesting..."

He mouthed each letter as he wrote them into his workbook.

"What discovery did Thomas make?" I asked.

Raul stared down intently at the workbook again, and read, "

"Thomas was going on a.... How do you spell journey?"

"How do you think you spell journey?"

"J-O-R .. ."

"J-O-U-R .. ."

"J-O-U-R-N-E-Y."

"Good spelling," I said, squeezing his shoulder.

"I've got to go.-.."

"Are you Mommy's friend?"

"Yeah, I'm a friend of your mom's."

"Are you going on a J-O-U-R-N-E-Y?"

"I'm going to work. Please tell your mom I'll be in touch."

"My name is Raul. That's R-A-U-L. How do you spell your name?"

"N-E-D."

He gave me a shy smile.

"Later, Ned."

"Later, Raul."

I hopped a cab across town. It was 7:48 by the time I reached my

building. A fast shower and shave, a change of clothes, a cup of

coffee, a handful of Raw Energy vitamins, and then a sprint uptown in

time for the eight-thirty punch-in at PC Solutions. I dreaded to think

about the greeting I would get from the Jellyfish. Eighteen units was

the punishment for missing work on Tuesday (not to mention being docked

a second day's pay). I'd have to do a lot of closing between now and

Friday afternoon if I wanted to have a job next week

I turned the key in our door and was surprised to discover that it

wasn't double-locked. When I swung the door open, I heard the sound of

running water from the kitchen. Then, with a growing sense of alarm, I

saw a small overnight bag to the immediate right of the door.

Lizzie was back.

My first instinct was to run-to quietly back out the door, hit the fire

stairs, and vanish from view until my war wounds healed. But in my

panic, I stepped away from the door and it slammed behind me.

The kitchen tap suddenly went silent.

"Ned?" Lizzie yelled from the other room. I reached for the door, but

before I could open it, she was standing in front of me. She was

wearing a business suit, having obviously just arrived off the red-eye

from L.A. She seemed bewildered as to why, having just arrived, I was

now clutching at the door handle. Then I turned fully around and her

face suddenly tightened-initially with shock, then anger, then

desperate hurt.

I watched as she caught sight of the scratches and the dime-sized

hickey on my neck. But most of all, I saw her register my terrible

guilt.

She closed her eyes and shuddered. Then she opened them again-and the

look on her face was now one of pure despair.

"You asshole," she whispered.

"Lizzie, please .. ."

"Fuck you," she said and marched into the bedroom. I raced after her,

but the door slammed shut in my face. She locked it. I rattled the

handle, banged the door with my fist, begging her to open it, telling

her I could explain everything .. . even though I knew there was no

explanation for what I did. Except complete and total stupidity.

After about three minutes of banging and pleading, I slumped to the

floor, feeling spent and genuinely scared. The bedroom door suddenly

opened. Instantly I was back on my feet.

"Lizzie, you've got to let me try and .. ."

Then I saw that she had a suitcase in each hand.

"Sweetheart," I said, "please don't leave."

She dropped the suitcases at my feet.

"I'm not leaving," she said.

"You are."

"Hang on a minute.. .."

"I pay the rent now; I pick up all the bills, so if this marriage is

ending, I don't see why I should leave.. .."

"This marriage is not ending."

"You're right. I was using the wrong tense. It's over."

"Darling .. . ," I said, trying to touch her shoulder. She swatted me

away as if I were a wasp.

"Don't you goddamn touch me.. .."

"Okay, okay," I said, trying to lower the emotional temperature.

"Could we just sit down and talk-" "Talk? TALK?" she screamed.

"You screw someone else and then you want to talk about it?"

She went storming into the living room. I followed.

"It wasn't like that. Nothing happened."

"Nothing happened? You can actually stand there-covered in

evidence-and tell me nothing happened? Get out of my life."

I began to sob.

"I was drunk, I was stupid, I was all over the place after the business

with Ivan, I didn't mean-" "I don't want to hear your bullshit excuses,

Ned.. .."

"At least give me the chance-" t "Give you the chance? After I got

your message about Ivan, I dropped everything and flew cross-country

all night-because I thought, "Okay, he deserves the chance .. . we

deserve the chance." And what do I discover?-that my piece-of-shit

husband doesn't even have the aptitude to tell his floozie not to bite

his neck."

"She's not 'my floozie'.. .."

"I don't give a shit who she is, what she is. We are finished."

"You can't just end it-" "I can't? Who are you to say I can't?"

"I made a mistake. A terrible mistake."

I sank down onto the sofa and put my head in my hands. Lizzie stood

and watched me cry. As my weeping intensified, she didn't move, didn't

soften, didn't stop staring at me with dispassionate contempt. When I

quieted down, she spoke.

"I made a mistake, too," she said, "thinking there was a chance of

putting this all back together again."

Her voice broke, her eyes began to fog with tears.

"How could you? How fucking could you .. . ?"

"I didn't mean-" "Who cares what you 'meant Ned. You did it. Knowing

full well our marriage was on shaky ground, you still went ahead and

did it. And there's no excusing that."

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Then, picking up the two

suitcases, she walked to the front door, opened it, and deposited the

bags in the hallway.

"You're going now," she said.

I didn't move.

"Did you hear me? I want you out of here," she said.

"Please, Lizzie .. ."

"There is nothing more to say."

"There is everything to say.. .."

"I'll be talking to a lawyer today."

"Say I refuse to go."

"Then I'll get the lawyer to make you go. With an injunction. You

want an ugly scene, Ned? I'll give you an ugly scene."

I was in a no-win situation. I'd blown it-and no amount of arguing or

begging would bring her around. So I stood up and walked to the door.

My hand on the knob, I turned and was about to launch into one final

plea. But before I could say a word, she cut me off.

"I don't want to know," she said.

She walked into the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

Silence. Then I heard her crying.

I approached the closed door.

"Lizzie .. . ," I said softly.

Her crying abruptly stopped.

"Fuck off and die," she said.

I remained paralyzed to the spot. I scanned the apartment frantically,

as if there were something there-a wedding photo, a vacation memento, a

dumb little trinket we bought together on a whim-that would make

everything better, end the crisis, bring us back together again. But

all I saw was sleek interior design and polished wood floors and bie

bright windows that framed the mid town skyline with all its vertical

promise. And I thought, There's nothing of us here. Nothing at all.

Then, as instructed, I walked to the front door. I opened it. Is this

how a marriage ends? An opening and a shutting of a door? Is that

what it all comes down to?

The door closed behind me. With a thud.

SEVEN

I had $7.65 in my pocket. And it was raining. Not a mild little

drizzle, but a near monsoon. I lugged my bags through this downpour to

Sixth Avenue and spent ten minutes trying to find a cab. No luck. I

checked my watch. 8:18 A.M. Even if I hauled my suitcases over to the

subway, there was no way I was going to make the 8:30 A.M. punch-in

time at P.C. Solutions. So I found a phone booth and called the

Jellyfish. Before I had a chance to say I'd be late, he interrupted

me.

"Why weren't you at work yesterday?" he asked.

"When I called on Monday, I warned you that I might have to stay in

Hartford for another day."

"No, you just said you'd be out Monday. Then I told you that if you

did miss Tuesday, you'd be docked a day's pay, and your week's quota

would rise to eighteen units. But I didn't give you permission to be

absent for the day."

"I must have misunderstood you, Mr. Rubinek," I said, trying to sound

calm.

"But, as I told you, a good friend of mine died."

"That's not my problem. Your quota is now twenty-two units. And an

additional three units on top of that if you're not here at

eight-thirty. You've got nine minutes."

I suddenly heard myself saying, "Fuck you, you sadistic geek." Then I

slammed down the phone-after which I thought, I have just resigned.

Having finally told that pathetic monster what I thought of him, I felt

a buzz of triumphant satisfaction. That lasted about a nanosecond-at

which point I remembered that I was homeless and jobless, and that my

worldly assets now totaled $7.40.

I considered my limited options. I could try to check into a hotel,

but none of my credits cards would permit such an extravagance (and if

I wrote a personal check for the room it would bounce like a

basketball, allowing the bank to prosecute me under federal law). So I

needed to throw myself on the mercy of a friend. But who? After last

night's insanity I really didn't want to make contact with Debbie

Suarez because I was terrified that she might interpret my call as an

expression of ongoing romantic interest. She was a widow with a kid,

after all. If she found out that Lizzie had left me, she'd probably

zoom in on me like a heat-seeking missile. Right now I was about the

worst catch imaginable. I was trouble-and she, of all people, didn't

deserve trouble.

There was, of course, la nand Geena-but I could already hear Lizzie's

rage when Geena called her in L.A. to say that I'd scrounged a bed for

a couple of nights. And I was certain la nand Geena would feel rather

used when Lizzie informed them of the real reason why I was locked out

of my apartment. Who else? Phil Sirio. Bingo.

I dug out my wallet in search of the cocktail napkin on which he'd

scribbled his phone numbers. But as I shuffled through assorted wallet

debris (credit card slips, taxi receipts, old business cards) I found

myself staring at Jerry Schubert's card. He'd asked me to call him

("Don't be a stranger")-and, unlike Phil, he did live in Manhattan.

Surely he'd help out an old Brunswick High pal for a few days. I fed a

quarter into the phone and nervously punched in his office number.

After keeping me on hold for a moment, his secretary put me through.

"Ned!" he said, sounding pleased to hear from me.

"I was hoping you'd call. Sounds like you're on the street.. .."

"You could say that."

"Where you calling from right now? Your West Twentieth Street tennis

club?"

"I'm in a phone booth at Nineteenth and Sixth...."

I must have sounded a little shaky, as Jerry asked, "Everything okay,

Ned?"

"Not really. I'm in a bit of trouble, Jerry."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Big trouble-as in, I don't know where I'm going to sleep tonight."

"That sounds serious." With a laugh, he added, "Don't tell me your

wife threw you out?"

"I'm afraid she actually did."

"Hey, I'm sorry."

"Shit happens," I said weakly.

"Yeah-especially in marriage. Listen, I've got to run into a meeting

with Mr. B. Get up to my office-it's 502 Madison Avenue, between

Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth-and we'll take it from there, okay?"

The rain was still torrential. There were no cabs on Sixth Avenue. And

when I tried to get cash on every credit and ATM card in my wallet, the

machine kept flashing the same message: INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. So I

dragged my bags down into the depths of the subway, bought a token, and

squeezed onto a packed uptown car. My bulky suitcases did not win me

friends among my fellow passengers. Especially after I accidentally

dropped one bag on the toes of the woman executive standing next to

me.

"Watch it!" she said sharply as the bag hit her feet.

"I'm really sorry," I said.

She shook her head with disdain. Under her breath, she muttered the

ultimate New York insult:

"Tourist."

I closed my eyes and wished this day were over.

I got off at Fifty-third and Fifth. After dragging the bags upstairs

to the street, my shoulders felt as if they were on the verge of

dislocation. The downpour had been transformed into a steady drizzle.

I struggled east for two blocks, and all but fell into 502 Madison

Avenue.

The offices of Ballantine Industries were located in a sleek 1950s

skyscraper-one of those proud, vertical testaments to postwar optimism

and corporate confidence. There was a security man posted near the

elevators. He took one look at my drenched, disheveled state (and my

two large suitcases) and immediately filed me away under Trouble. He

blocked my path.

"Who are you visiting, sir?"

"Jerry Schubert at Ballantine Industries." *

He motioned me toward a cluster of chairs.

"You can wait there while I call him."

"But he's expecting me."

"I'm sure he is," the guard said, returning to his desk.

"Please sit down."

I planted myself on a chair. My overcoat was sodden, my shoes

waterlogged, and I felt an internal chill coming on. The guard hung up

the phone and said, "Mr. Schubert is on his way down to see you."

Jerry showed up two minutes later, dressed in his overcoat, briefcase

in hand.

"You look like a drowned rat," he said with a smile.

"Having a bad day?"

"The worst."

"Come on," he said, picking up one of my bags.

"There's a car waiting outside."

A Lincoln Town Car was parked at the curb. The uniformed driver

relieved us of the two bags and put them in the trunk. We climbed into

the backseat. Jerry told the driver, "First stop is 115 Wooster

Street, then I'm heading to 111 Broadway, at the intersection of

Broadway and Wall Street."

Turning toward me, Jerry said, "I'm off to a meeting with some

financial guys, but I'll drop you off at my place on the way."

"Listen, if this is an inconvenience, just loan me a hundred bucks and

I can find some cheap hotel for a night or two."

Jerry rubbed his right thumb and forefinger together.

"Know what this is?" he said.

"The world's smallest violin. Cut the self-pitying shit. Allen. It

doesn't wash with me."

"Sorry."

"If you want a bed, I've got a spare room in my loft."

"Sold," I said.

"And I really can't thank you ..."

He held up his hand.

"Gratitude accepted. What the hell is that on your neck?"

"A hickey."

"Courtesy of your wife?"

"I wish."

He laughed.

"So that's the problem?"

"It's a long story. Everything's a long story."

In the cab going downtown, I told him the entire god-awful tale-from

the moment Getz-Braun was sold, to being evicted by Lizzie. When I

finished talking, Jerry let out a long whistle.

"That's some epic," he said.

"And it's not over yet-considering that I'm now homeless.. .."

"Rule Number One of the Jack Ballantine philosophy of life: If you want

to bounce back, you will bounce back."

"I want to believe that," I said.

Jerry's apartment was between Prince and Spring. It was stark and

empty. Bleached floors, plain white walls, a large black leather

couch, a television, a stereo, a long steel table and chairs. The

guest bedroom was tiny. It accommodated nothing more a double futon

and a clothes rack. To call it austere was an understatement-it seemed

devoid of any signs of actual life.

"Quite a place," I said.

"I'm hardly ever here," he said, "except for the six hours a night I'm

asleep. As long as you're tidy, you can stay here indefinitely."

"I'm very tidy," I said.

"And very grateful."

"Do you have any idea what your next move might be?" he asked.

"I'm in the market for anything," I said.

"Especially since I'm about to be named Debtor of the Month."

"How deep you in for?"

"Around seventeen thousand."

"Impressive."

"That's one way of looking at it."

"Anyway, first things first. Make yourself at home. Hang your stuff

up in the spare room, order in any food you want, 'cause there's

nothing but beer in the fridge. You okay for cash?"

"Fine," I said.

"Bullshit." He pulled out his money clip, peeled off two $50 bills,

and handed them to me.

"Jerry, I can't accept your charity.. .."

He stuffed the bills into the breast pocket of my suit. Yeah, well,

that dumb-ass Maine pride doesn't wash with me. I'm going to be out

late tonight...."

"Business?"

"Pleasure," he said.

"The beautiful Cindy?"

"Nah-she's history."

"Jesus, that was fast."

"It usually is with me. Listen, I've got to get to this meeting. We'll

talk in the morning. But here's a small piece of advice, Ned. Try to

kick back today, and not worry about tomorrow. Because life's going to

look a lot better after you've gotten twelve hours' sleep."

"You're a good guy."

"Shut the fuck up," he said with a smile.

"Catch you later."

I unpacked my bags, stripped out of my wet clothes, took a long hot

shower, changed into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and made a pot of

coffee. I began to feel vaguely human again-until I thought about

Lizzie, and how badly I'd blown it. I checked my watch. It was just

before noon. I knew what I was going to have to do. Call her at work,

beg her to meet me, apologize profusely, and (if necessary) get down on

my hands and knees and plead with her for another chance.

I picked up the phone and punched in Lizzie's office number. Her

assistant, Polly, answered. She obviously knew what was going on,

because her tone with me was nervously cool.

"You just missed Lizzie," she said.

"She had a couple of meetings this morning, and then caught the noon

American flight back to L.A. You know, she's still in charge of our

office out there."

So she really had dropped everything and flown cross-country to try to

reconcile with me. Oh you dumb, stupid asshole, Allen. You walked

right into the oncoming headlights.

Polly continued talking. She sounded extremely jittery.

"Uh, Ned, I don't know how to say this .. . but Lizzie also asked me to

inform you that she ... uh ... asked the landlord to sublet the

apartment. She also told him that you were not living there anymore,

and asked him to arrange for everything to go into storage. So if you

need to get any of your stuff, you should call-" "I have the landlord's

name and number," I said.

"Of course you do," she said quietly.

"Please tell Lizzie I'm staying with a friend in SoHo, and that I can

be reached at 555-7894."

"Anything else, Ned?"

"Just tell her how sorry I am."

I hung up quickly so she wouldn't hear me burst into tears. It took

about ten minutes for me to calm down. Had my father seen me now, he

would have been appalled.

"When you make a mistake, acknowledge the mistake," my father once told

me, "then take your lumps in silence. Allen men don't cry."

Nor do they fuck up as badly as I had fucked up.

I resisted the temptation to steady my nerves with several shots of

Jerry's malt whiskey. And when I felt myself in need of a cigarette, I

walked over to the kitchen, turned on the sink tap, and doused my pack

of Winstons. No more booze, no more tobacco, and I was going to start

jogging tomorrow morning. I thought about Jerry's quotation from the

collected sayings of Chairman Ballantine: "If you want to bounce back,

you will bounce back." True. The problem was: Would Lizzie ever give

me the chance to bounce back again?

I spent the afternoon on Jerry's sofa, browsing through the complete

works of Jack Ballantine (which were displayed prominently on Jerry's

thinly populated bookshelves). You needed a serious sense of irony to

wade through these self-empowerment gospels. Knee-deep in football

metaphors, they appeared tailor-made for the guy I used to be-the

slick, on-the-make salesman who wanted to believe that there was an

actual recipe for success, a strategic formula you could use in order

to maximize your goals and achieve optimum results.

But though I laughed at Ballantine's endless gridiron references, I did

find myself wincing when I read the following passage in the Great

Motivator's current best-seller, The Success Zone:

In business, we define ourselves by our ethical posture. The profit

motive is a great motive-but it becomes an even greater motive when

commingled with scrupulousness. The business arena is a tough one-so

when you're making a forward charge, always be sure to back it up with

a strong zone defense. But believe me: If that forward charge is not

played according to the rules-if you, as the quarterback, attempt to

gain ground through illegal maneuvers-then any touchdowns you make will

always seem like false triumphs. Because secretly you'll know that one

day, someone will figure out just how you scored those points.

At CompuWorld, I'd always tried to abide by the rules, to maintain an

ethical posture. Until that bastard Kreplin offered me Chuck's job,

and Peterson pulled the rug out from under Ivan, after which I began to

play things fast and loose. Legally speaking, I hadn't been

"unethical." I'd never overtly blackmailed Peterson, and I was sworn

to secrecy by Kreplin about my "promotion" to publisher. But I knew I

had let my scruples slide. Once you dabble in the amoral, you lose

your bearings. And drift. Right out to sea.

I only left the loft once that afternoon, to hike down to the local

grocery store and stock up on fruit, vegetables, and fizzy water. By

nine that night, after a hearty rabbit-food dinner, exhaustion set in.

I climbed into the futon and conked right out.

I was out cold for eleven hours. When I finally awoke and made it to

the kitchen, I caught sight of a note left for me on the steel dining

table. Next to it was a crisp $100 bill.

Hombre:

Hope you slept. Here's some extra cash, in case you need to buy

yourself a new toothbrush. But try to hang by the phone this morning,

just in case we need to speak with you.

Later, Jerry.

I read the note several times over, wondering what the hell Jerry meant

by that just-in-case-we-need-to-speak-to-you line. Unless, of course,

working for the Great Motivator had turned Jerry hoity-toity, and he

was now using the royal "we."

I pocketed the cash, feeling faintly embarrassed about accepting

Jerry's charity. Then I drank a glass of orange juice and went out for

a run.

My plan was to jog straight up West Broadway and then do a fast circuit

around Washington Square Park before heading south again. I got as far

as the intersection of West Broadway and Houston (in other words,

around five blocks) before I doubled over with a sudden sharp stitch in

my chest.

No, it wasn't a coronary. Just a stern reminder from my cardiovascular

system that I was seriously out of shape .. . and that cigarettes are

wonderful for your health.

I killed the rest of the morning cleaning the loft. It was something

to do-and it also helped ease the guilt I felt at accepting my host's

charity. Around noon the phone rang. It was Jerry's secretary.

"Mr. Schubert is tied up in meetings all day. But he'd like you to

meet him for dinner at Bouley Bakery at nine. The address is-" "I know

where it is," I said, remembering that Lizzie and I had eaten there

once, and that it was absurdly overpriced.

"He was also wondering if you wouldn't mind picking up a couple of his

suits at G & G Dry Cleaners, behind the SoHo Grand Hotel."

"No problem. Any other errands he needs run for him?" I wondered if

she heard the eager-to-please nervousness in my voice. Because, at

this juncture, Jerry was the only thing standing between me and the

street-and I was willing to do just about any reasonable task he

requested to stay in his good books.

"That's all he mentioned," she said.

"He'll see you at nine."

Bouley Bakery was located in Tribeca-a mere ten-minute walk from

Jerry's loft. I arrived at nine. There were only ten tables in the

restaurant. I was shown to the one booked under the name of Schubert.

At 9:15 there was still no sign of Jerry, and I kept dodging the

persistently pleasant waiter's question, "A pre-dinner drink, sir?"

because, after dropping $30 on groceries and paying $22 to the dry

cleaners for Jerry's suits, my entire worldly net worth was $148, and

ten bucks for a martini would have reduced said worth by 6 percent.

Since I didn't know where the next $200 might be coming from, I had to

be prudent.

So I politely informed the waiter that I'd hold on for my friend's

arrival. I kept my head buried in the menu to avoid eye contact with

the maitre d'-because if Jerry didn't arrive, I'd be forced into the

embarassing position of telling him that we wouldn't be needing one of

his ultra-precious, five-week-waiting-list (unless you're Ballantine

Industries) tables for the night.

Or I could save face and order dinner.

With appetizers starting at $14, entrees at $29, and four bucks minimum

for a bottle of water, I might just make it out of there for $65,

including tip and tax. God, $65 a head for dinner was nothing to me a

couple of months ago. I'd toss down a credit card as if it were a

negligible $2 poker chip-and not think about the financial

consequences. When it came to money, I wasn't simply reckless, I was

totally inattentive. I raced through cash; I never bothered to think

about the implications. I never really saw beyond the next deal, the

next designer suit, the next designer meal in an over-hyped restaurant.

Here's the true definition of a fool: somebody who is so busy

struggling to get somewhere that he loses the very thing that gives his

struggle some meaning.

"Looking sad, Ned."

I glanced up from the menu and saw that Jerry had arrived.

"Just pensive, that's all," I said.

He sat down, called for some drinks, then asked, "This

pensiveness-might it be due to your wife?"

"It might."

"Are you missing her badly?"

"Beyond badly. It's killing me."

"Then do something about it."

"Like what?"

"Like get back on your feet. I promise you: Once you haul yourself

together, she'll return."

"Not after what I pulled."

"Was that the first time you got caught?"

"It was the first time I ever did anything like that."

"Jesus-are you a Boy Scout?"

"I love my wife."

"Congratulations. But hey, such fidelity is pretty impressive, I

guess. And believe me, she definitely knows just how much you love

her.. .."

"After what I did, I don't think that matters."

"Look, all women know that men can be jerks. Especially in that

department. And, hell, it was a one night stand after a friend's

funeral, and while the two of you were separated. I promise you- once

you get yourself together again, you'll win her back."

The drinks arrived. I lifted my glass of Perrier.

"Jerry, I really can't thank you-" "Allen, please-ease up on the

indebtedness. You're making me feel like Saint Jude."

"Okay, okay-but I will say this: You are saving my ass."

"You're going to save your own ass, Allen. Know why? Because you're a

natural born salesman. And guys like you always come out on top."

"Even with someone trying to kill your career?"

"I wouldn't worry too much about this Ted Peterson guy."

"Jerry-he's like the Terminator. He won't quit until I'm history."

"Did you say he works for GBS?"

"Yeah-he's head of their media sales department."

"Want me to get him off your case?"

"I want him dead."

Jerry laughed darkly.

"That service we can't provide. But I'm sure Mr. Ballantine knows

somebody in the GBS management structure. Mr. B. knows somebody

everywhere. Anyway, after a call from us to the right person, I'm

certain Peterson would be ordered to back down. In fact, I bet GBS

doesn't even know what he's really up to."

"Thanks for the offer, but I think the damage he's caused is

irreversible. I mean, Ivan's dead, and so am I, vis-a-vis the computer

business."

Jerry stared down at the glossy surface of his martini and asked, "What

do you like most about selling?"

"Talking somebody into a yes."

"Does what you're selling matter much to you?"

"Not at all. The selling game isn't about the commodity-it's about

convincing. So, yeah, as long as the product in question isn't

illegal, I can sell it."

"That's good to know."

"Why?"

"Because what I want you to sell for us is hardly illeeal. In fact-as

anyone on Wall Street will tell you-it's pretty cutting-edge stuff..

.."

"Sorry," I said, interrupting him, "but I think you've lost me

somewhere."

He looked up from his drink-and gave me a sardonic grin.

"You're not following me?"

"Not exactly."

"Okay, I'll cut to the chase. Would you be interested in a job?"

EIGHT

Perry Schubert was a master of suspense. After dropping that little

bombshell about offering me a job, he then informed me that he never

discussed business until after dessert. It was a cruel but shrewd

stratagem, a way for Jerry to gauge whether I was someone who, when

desperate, overplayed his hand-and would instantly make a grab for the

dangled carrot.

I certainly was desperate-but I also realized that this was a test.

Having spent much of the previous afternoon immersed in Ballantine's

self-empowerment gospels, I remembered several paragraphs from The

Success Zone, in which the Great Motivator let it be known that he

considered desperation to be a weakness, a cardinal business sin.

Never show the other guy that you think you're fighting a lost cause.

Consider this no-hope situation: There's only twenty seconds remaining

in the fourth quarter, it's the third down, and you're behind 14-10 on

your own 30-yard line. Do you panic, do you give in to fear? Only if

you want to lose. The true winner is the guy who eyeballs fear and

doesn't blink. Instead, he comes out of that huddle knowing that the

next pass he throws is going to be a touchdown.

No doubt, Jerry also subscribed to this philosophy. So I didn't commit

the blunder of appearing overanxious. Instead, I let Jerry dictate the

conversational agenda. When he mentioned that we'd talk turkey when

the coffee arrived, I casually nodded in agreement. So, over three

courses and a bottle of Cloudy Bay chardonnay, we spent the next hour

catching up on each other's lives. After I supplied him with the

fast-forward edition of my last fifteen years, Jerry finally got around

to giving me a few telling details about his time after Brunswick High

(though not mentioning anything about the "thrown game" scandal for

which he was eventually cleared). Following graduation, he'd won a

full ice hockey scholarship to St. Lawrence University-but couldn't

hack it scholastically, and jumped at the opportunity to join a

minor-league Canadian pro team in Alberta.

"I was just twenty at the time, and figured I had the world by the

scrotum because I was a big swinging-dick pro hockey player. And even

though I was only making three-fifty a week, I felt like Wayne Gretzky.

Next stop: a million-dollar contract with the NHL."

Of course, the million-dollar contract (and the move upward to the

world of major-league hockey) never materialized. Instead, Jerry

remained stuck on this nowhere Alberta team, playing against bumpkins,

in front of crowds of bumpkins, in bumpkin towns like Sault Sainte

Marie, Yellowknife, and Medicine Hat. Six years evaporated in a flash.

So, too, did a marriage to a journalist in Alberta- which, according to

Jerry, lasted all of about five minutes. Suddenly he was twenty-six.

He was now being paid a whopping $600 a week to be head-butted by bozos

on skates. His knees were starting to get wobbly, and the team doctor

was predicting major orthopedic problems ahead if Jerry didn't retire.

Fast.

So he drifted down back across the American border, landing in Detroit,

where an ex-player he knew from the Canadian minor leagues was now

running a small corporate security agency.

"I was seriously bust, I didn't have a college degree, and nada in the

way of prospects. Though I didn't exactly relish the idea of working

as a freelance security goon in Motown, the money wasn't bad. And I

was desperate."

For around a year Jerry played bodyguard to a variety of

semi-high-level automobile executives-guys who lived in fear of getting

whacked by some dubious union boss, or who had the usual kidnapping

paranoias. Occasionally he would also be hired out to watch over a

visiting bigwig, like Jack Ballantine. who spent ten days in Detroit

during 1990. He was investigating a potential shopping complex project

near Grosse Point, and wanted to be guarded by a local guy who knew the

territory. Jerry hit it off with Capitalism's Great Quarterback ("I

think he liked my hockey credentials"), and about a week after Mr.

High-rise returned to New York he received a call from somebody in the

Ballantine organization, informing him that Mr. B. was in the market

for a new bodyguard. Would he like the job?

"I was on the plane to New York within seconds of putting down the

phone. That was seven years ago, and I've never looked back. Because

Mr. B. runs his business on a very simple premise: If you look after

him, he looks after you. I mean, even after his whole real estate

empire went to the wall, he still kept me on the payroll. Know why?

Because, as he said to me at the time, "When a quarterback gets

tackled, he needs his best defensive guard by his side to make sure he

doesn't get sacked again."

" Ballantine also knew that Jerry had professional aspirations beyond

the role of security goon. So when he decided to reinvent himself as a

self-empowerment guru, he promoted Jerry to the role of

middleman-letting him liaise with his publishers, his literary agent,

and the lecture tour company that initially booked Ballan-tine's

speaking engagements.

"After Mr. B's first book, The "You Conquest, became a major national

best-seller, he allowed me to do a lot of the running on the deal side.

I mean, the first book sold for three hundred thousand, the second for

one point eight million, the third for two point six million, and he

can now command around fifty grand per lecture. Last year alone, he

did something like two hundred motivational talks-which adds up to some

pretty impressive math, wouldn't you agree?"

I nodded. Many times.

"Now, of course, the Great Motivator is such a one-man industry that

I've hired a team of three coordinators to handle all his touring

logistics. Which is fine by me-because, to be frank with you, I was

starting to get a little bored with the entire self-empowerment biz.

Having helped make it such a success, there was kind of a 'been there,

done that' feeling to it. Since Mr. B. is also somebody who doesn't

like to stand still-and is always thin kine about the potential for

business expansion-he agreed that it was time we consider other

entrepreneurial prospects. And after studying assorted investment

possibilities, we decided to embark on something rather adventurous,

yet potentially very lucrative. Ever heard of private equity funds,

Ned?"

The coffee had just arrived at the table. So, too, had the pitch. I

sat up straight and made certain I was looking focused.

"Are they like mutual funds?" I asked.

"Not exactly. Mutual funds are a very restrictive, conservative form

of investment. They're what Mr. B. calls the Missionary Position

School of High Finance-because, though effective, they're not exactly

the sexiest way of making financial whoopee. You see, mutual funds are

heavily regulated. You can only invest in listed companies, you're

very restricted in terms of the investments you're allowed to make, and

you're also operating in an incredibly crowded marketplace. Do you

know that the American public invests fourteen billion a month in

mutual funds? And the pool of money tied up in these funds is so

large, the return on the investment is only what the market sector has

to offer-at the absolute most, twenty percent in a truly fantastic

year. Which-if you're a play-it-safe kind of guy-probably works for

you.

"But, when it comes to money and everything else in life, Jack

Ballantine is definitely not a 'safety first' type of guy. Neither am

I. Which is why we decided to avoid the entire mutual fund business.

But then we discovered this thing called private equity funds- which

turned out to be a whole different speculative ball game. And perfect

for anyone with a gambler's streak."

The way Jerry described it, running a private equity fund was a bit

like betting on some very untried horses. It was a collective

investment scheme in which a group of speculators bought stakes in

companies that were not yet established (or listed on the stock

exchange), and that needed capital in order to expand.

"Essentially, the game works like this," Jerry said.

"We, as the operators of the fund, approach financial institutions and

wealthy private individuals, encouraging them to invest in our equity

partnership. Then we seek out new businesses that are developing

potentially hot new products. If we think the business in question is

an excitine investment, we use some of the fund's money to buy an

equity stake in the company. When it goes public, we already possess a

very lucrative chunk of its stock. If we choose the right company, the

investment returns can be fantastic.

"Say, for example, we've backed a tiny software company that has

developed a new cutting-edge Internet browser. In exchange for one

million dollars' worth of capitalization, we now own half of its

shares. Then a couple of midsize Net providers decide to incorporate

this new browser into their software. Suddenly our little Internet

browser company is a hot investment prospect. After an initial public

offering, it's floated on the stock exchange for thirty million. We've

earned fifteen million on our one-million-dollar investment. And

that's just the start of our profitability. Because if its stock price

climbs higher, we could be on our way to making a small fortune."

I came in here.

"In other words, the object of the exercise is to spot the next

Microsoft when it's still just a burgeoning little company."

"I knew you'd pick up on this quickly," Jerry said.

"Microsoft is exactly the sort of dream investment that every private

equity fund would like to make. Say, back in the late 1970s, you met

these two computer gee ks named Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who were

just developing this weird thing called DOS, and were looking for some

urgent capitalization to move their business forward. And say you

threw them two million in exchange for a five percent equity stake in

their little company. Do you know what that stake would be worth

today, had you held on to the stock?"

"Several hundred million?"

"Try billions. Of course, stumbling across the new Microsoft is our

ultimate fantasy. By and large, however, we're looking for intriguing

small companies that could yield us a minimum initial return of fifteen

to twenty percent when they go public, and that could, of course, be

worth far more, should their stock prices continue to rise.

"It is a gambler's kind of investment. But if you talk to any fund

manager on Wall Street, he'll tell you that private equity funds are

the hottest investment possibility going. And there are plenty of

institutions and well-heeled individuals out there who are willing to

put around ten percent of their investment funds into the hands of

private equity managers. Because everyone knows that, if you bet on

the right company, the payoff can be huge."

My excitement was growing by the minute. This was exactly the sort of

professional arena I'd always dreamed of entering-the arena of high

finance, a realm which made selling space in a computer magazine seem

negligible, declasse. It would be a huge career jump. I'd finally be

playing in the major leagues.

Jerry motioned for the waiter to replenish our coffee, then said, "Now

you're probably wondering about our own private equity fund, and how

you might fit into its general structure."

"I'm listening," I said.

The fund was called Excalibur. It specialized entirely in new

technology. It had been operating for six months. It currently

consisted of private investors, most of whom had past business dealings

with Jack Ballantine. However, given his newfound fame as the Great

Motivator, Ballantine's name was not directly attached to the fund.

Ever since his real estate business went to the wall, Mr. B. had

become deeply sensitive about having himself identified with any form

of overt financial speculation, given the press's penchant for mocking

him whenever possible. So-for sound public relations reasons (and to

avoid any conflict of interest with Ballantine's self-empowerment

empire)-the fund was "an autonomous entity," registered offshore to a

holding company that was owned by a subsidiary of Ballantine

Industries. But, of course, the IRS was aware of the fund's

existence.

"Officially speaking, offshore funds aren't subject to American tax.

However, the Internal Revenue Service expects any American with

offshore interests to come forward on a 'good citizen' basis and report

his involvement in such a fund. Which, of course, we have done.

Because the IRS can turn nasty if they discover you're duping them." He

arched his eyebrows.

"And because we're such good citizens."

To date, the fund had invested in just one single info-technology

operation in eastern Europe. What it now needed was new investment

possibilities. And Jerry wanted me to use my extensive network of

info-tech and software contacts to "talent-spot" emerging companies

that might make exciting investments.

"Yon have to find us that erroun of eeeks ODeratins out of a ca rage in

Palo Alto who have just worked out a way of tripling the speed of the

Pentium chip. Or that three-man operation in Spokane that has

developed a new, improved, emergency recovery utility for software

programs. And if you succeed in both selling the fund and scouting out

lucrative new companies, you could end up a very well-off guy."

He then explained the package. Because the fund was still very new and

not yet profitable, he could "only" pay me a basic salary of $60,000.

However, I'd receive a 3 percent equity stake in any companies I

talent-spotted, and in which the fund ultimately decided to invest.

"Think about it. Say you convince us to buy a two-million-dollar,

fifty percent equity stake in that Spokane software company. It floats

on the exchange for forty million. That's an instant twenty-million

gain for us, and you own three percent of that stock. In other words,

an immediate six hundred thousand. Pick us just two winners like that

every year, and you're going to be, financially speaking, nicely set

up."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This wasn't just a job-it was a

pursuit that could potentially transform my entire professional life. I

would be able to eradicate all my debt, build up some capital, regain a

little self-respect. And, in the process, hopefully win Lizzie back.

"So what do you think, Ned?"

"I think this is exactly what I've been looking for."

"Well, life is all about timing. Because I've been scouting around for

someone like you, with your sales and computer business background. And

when you called me yesterday, I couldn't help but think, so that's what

they mean by synchronicity."

"There's only one small logistical problem," I said.

"I'm going to need to take advantage of your spare bed for a few more

days while I look for a new apartment."

"Why go to the expense of finding a new place? You stay as long as you

like at the loft. Like I said to you yesterday, I'm hardly ever

there."

I couldn't believe my luck. Not having to worry about rent for the

immediate future meant I could pay off my debts pronto.

"By the way," Jerry said, "though I appreciate the gesture, there's

really no need to clean the place yourself-I've got a woman who conics

in twice a week to do that for me."

"Hey, I've got to do something to ease my guilt.. .."

"As far as I'm concerned, you're not a freeloader-you're an investment.

Somebody who is going to make us a lot of money."

"That's what I'd like to do," I said.

"That's what you will do."

"So when do I start?" I asked.

"After you play tennis with Jack Ballantine."

Initially I thought this was Jerry's idea of a joke. But he was

absolutely serious.

"I told Mr. B. that, besides being a first-rate salesman, you were

also a monster tennis jock. Know what he said?

"Well, before we hire the guy, let's see if he can kick my butt on the

court."

" I was suddenly nervous.

"Do you mean that the job is contingent on whether or not I beat

him?"

"No," Jerry said.

"The job is dependent on whether or not he likes the way you play the

game."

I tried to protest that I was really out of shape, and not the

behind-the-baseline gunslinger of high school. But Jerry just shrugged

and said that Ballantine was expecting me at nine the next morning at

the Health and Racquet Club, and if I wanted the job I'd better be

there.

"Does it have to be the Health and Racquet Club?" I asked.

"It's where Mr. B. always plays. In fact, he was one of its founding

members."

"I was a member there, too," I said.

"But not anymore?"

"I kind of let my membership lapse."

Jerry smiled knowingly.

"How much do you owe them?"

"It really doesn't matter.. .."

"How much, Ned?"

"Eight hundred," I said with an embarrassed gulp.

"That's nothing," Jerry said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out

a substantial wad of cash.

"Jerry, you really don't have to do this.. .."

"All I'm doing," he said, counting off eight $100 bills, "is making

certain your same with Mr. Ballantine tomorrow goes off without a

hitch. So get there early and make certain the club management have

this money in their hot little hands before Mr. B. shows up. We don't

want an embarrassing scene."

"How will I pay you back?"

"From your first equity stake."

"But say I don't get the job?"

"You will get the job. Just remember one thing. When you're out there

on the court with Ballantine, play to win. It's the only game he

understands."

I tried to remember that advice the next morning when I found myself

waiting nervously in the lobby of the New York Health and Racquet Club,

anxiously awaiting the arrival of Jack Ballantine. As Jerry suggested,

I had shown up twenty minutes beforehand to deal with the little matter

of my overdue annual fee. The club manager, a petite, pumped woman in

her forties named Zelda, wasn't exactly effusive when I walked in the

door.

"Ah, Mr. Allen," she said dryly, "we'd thought you'd left the

country."

"I have been out of town a bit," I lied, "but you've been on my

conscience."

With that I handed her an envelope, filled with eight $100 bills.

"This should bring us up to date."

"Better late than never, I suppose-even if we did have to send you six

letters.. .."

"Like I said, I've been away a lot. But I do apologize.. .."

"You do realize, of course, that this simply cancels out last year's

overdue fees. Your membership, however, still remains lapsed. So if

you want to play here again, you'll have to reapply."

"Well, I'm a guest today."

"And I suppose whomever you're playing with is a fully paid-up club

member?" she asked with blatant sarcasm.

"He is," said a nearby voice.

Zelda looked up and was stunned to find herself staring at Jack

Ballantine. He was standing right behind me, dressed in a gray Ralph

Lauren tracksuit and carrying a tan leather tennis bag.

Morning, Zelda," Ballantine said, flashing her a big white smile. She

became instantly obsequious.

"Oh, Mr. Ballantine, how nice to-" "You giving my guest a hard time,

Zelda?"

"Of course not, Mr. Ballantine."

"Sounded that way to me."

"There was just a little confusion about an old membership matter."

"But that's settled now, right? And my friend won't have to re-apply

again for membership, will he?"

"Absolutely not, Mr. Ballantine. We'll reinstate him right away. And

I do apologize to you, Mr. Allen.. .."

"Apology accepted," Ballantine said on my behalf. Then, tapping me on

the shoulder, he said, "Come on, kid," and I followed him toward the

locker room.

As soon as we were out of earshot, Ballantine turned to me and said,

"Isn't power a joke?" Then he proffered his hand.

"Nice to meet you, Ned."

"Mr. Ballantine, I'm really sorry you had to get involved back there..

.."

"Why the hell should you be sorry? How much did you owe the club?"

"Eight hundred. But I did pay it off.. .."

"Just so you could play tennis with me?"

"Well, uh, yes."

"Kid, that's both smart and dumb. Smart because you have impressed me.

But dumb because you must never, never get all cowed and kiss-assy

about a debt as trivial as eight hundred bucks. Remember, you're

talking to a guy who was two hundred million in the hole five years

ago-so, to me, eight hundred is not even chump change. Now get your

ass into that locker room and then out to Court Four. Our hour starts

in three minutes."

I was changed and on the court within two minutes. Ballantine had

taken off his tracksuit and was wearing a pristine white Ralph Lauren

polo shirt and matching white tennis shorts. Standing in the middle of

the court, he was doing some rather conspicuous stretching exercises

and enjoying the fact that everyone on the adjoining courts was

noticing him.

"Over here, kid," Ballantine said, motioning me to where he was

standing.

"Jerry tells me you're quite a killer on the court."

"Maybe once upon a time. Now. I'm just average."

"Never call yourself average. Especially when you have the ability to

kick ass. You can still kick ass, can't you, Ned?"

"Uh, sure, I guess."

He tossed me a tennis ball.

"Well, let's see you try to kick mine."

Within five minutes, it was pretty damn clear to me that Jack

Ballantine really did play to win. As I hadn't been on a tennis court

for several months-and also felt somewhat tentative about coming out

fighting (despite his "let's-see-if-you-can-kick-my-ass"

exhortation)-he won both his service games to love and broke me during

a cliffhanger game that went to deuce five times.

Suddenly he was up 3-0 and shooting me quizzical,

why-aren't-you-trying-here? looks from across the court. That's when

I suddenly stepped up my game and began making him run for every point.

Ballantine was a classic serve-and-volley player. He tried to ace you

off the court. If that failed, he'd hit deep, then race to the net. To

him, a point was to be won with a few quick punishing shots. Like a

heavyweight boxer, he wanted to finish you off fast. But like most

heavyweights, he began to falter when forced into a lengthy brawl. And

I gave him a very lengthy brawl, turning as many points as possible

into extended rallies that had him dashing all over the court. I also

began to crack his high-velocity first serve, which, though brimming

with brute force, didn't have the necessary tops ping or sneaky angle

to make it unplayable. That was the thing about Ballantine's tennis-it

was forceful and dynamic, but it lacked finesse. By keeping him on the

move, I was able to exploit the twenty-year age gap between us.

Before he knew it, I'd broken back twice and held service twice, and

was now up 4-3. There was a tense eighth game that Ballantine just

managed to take on a lucky net cord at forty-thirty. But I powered

ahead, winning the next service game to love. And then Ballantine lost

the plot, hitting two double faults and a wild lob, which suddenly

handed me three set points. Facing loss, Ballantine never once

radiated fear or concern. He simply hit back hard, reeling off a trio

of aces that brought us to deuce. Then I made an unforced backhand

error into net, and blew the game with a bad volley that ricocheted way

out of court.

Now it was 5-5, and I knew that I was going to let him win. It wasn't

that the fight had gone out of me. Rather, having come back from a 3-0

deficit to holding three set points, I'd shown him I was a battler. But

I also knew that, having let Ballantine back into the set, it would be

a strategic error to suddenly decimate him. This man was the only

thing standing between me and unemployment. I needed to hand him the

win-and, in doing so, show him I knew who was boss.

And thanks to a few unforced errors, and a couple of less-than-blatant

double faults, Jack Ballantine beat me 7-5. The club buzzer sounded,

ending our hour on court. I approached the net, hand outstretched. But

before he took it, Ballantine gave me a stern stare.

"Why'd you throw the set?" he asked.

From his sharp tone I realized this was not the moment to trade in

you-won-fair-and-square bullshit. So I returned his stare and said,

"Because I really want the job you're offering me. And because, as you

yourself said in The Success Zone, there are times in life when it is

strategically advantageous to lose a game or two."

Ballantine allowed himself a small smile. Then, finally shaking my

hand, he said, "Welcome to the team."

NINE

My office was tiny. It was an eight-by-eight closet, furnished with

nothing more than a steel desk, a steel straight-backed chair, and a

phone. This cubicle was situated in the backwater of the skyscraper

that housed Ballantine Industries. Whereas the hub of Ballantine's

empire was located in a large, stylish suite of offices on the

eighteenth floor of the building, I found myself at the extreme rear of

the third floor. This was the low-rent district of the office

building-a long, dingy corridor lit by fluorescent tubes, with twenty

or so frosted doors behind which worked JOHN MACE: PRIVATE

INVESTIGATOR, THE BENTHEIM COLLECTION AGENCY ("No Debt Is TOO Small"),

and MAN SOUR & SONS: INT'L RUG MERCHANTS. My cubbyhole was at the end

of this corridor. Its minuscule window afforded me a panoramic view of

a neighboring air shaft. Besides being deficient in natural light, the

office also lacked all basic business amenities. It depressed the hell

out of me.

"I know, I know," Jerry said when he saw my stunned reaction, "it's not

exactly a lavish setup.. .."

"That's the understatement of the year," I said.

"Couldn't you find me something up there with all of you on the

eighteenth floor?"

"As I told you before, we really are a lean operation. So our space is

at a premium-to the point where two secretaries share the same office.

Anyway, as you know, the fund has to be kept separate from Ballantine

Industries. I tell you, they love to hate Mr. B. in this town-and

they really can't stand the fact that he's bounced back as a

best-selling author. So the moment some goddamn financial journalist

or gossip columnist finds out about Mr. B."s connection to Excalibur,

we're going to start seeing all sorts of bad press disparaging the

fund. And once a private equity fund's image is tainted, it's dead.

And you can kiss your job good-bye."

I certainly didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize the

fund-because, after all, it was my lifeline, the means by which I would

pick myself up again. But I still felt deeply let down by this

office-and said so.

"Okay, I agree with you," Jerry said.

"It is definitely not ideal. But, hey-as Mr. B. probably told you

yesterday-yours is a real pioneering kind of job. You're helping build

something from the ground up. And if it works as well as we think it

should, then we'll be able to rent you a penthouse here."

Indeed, Mr. Ballantine did hit me with the same sales pitch. After

our tennis game, we headed to the club's lounge, where the Great

Motivator gave me a demonstration of his formidable self-empowerment

skills. Like any canny guru, he had the ability of making me feel as

if I were the most important person he had ever met-and that he saw in

me the potential for .. . well, greatness.

"You know what I like about your tennis game, Ned?" he said, sipping a

glass of orange juice.

"The fact that it's tough but tactical. I saw what you were doing out

there. You were trying to wear this old guy down. But you didn't

attempt to slam-dunk me off the court. You played a very consistent

game, and you didn't mind waiting a while before winning a point.

"Now, to me, that sort of strategy is the key to true salesmanship. You

displayed steadiness and diligence, you never overplayed your hand, but

knew exactly when to move in for the coup de grace. And that's why I'm

certain you will not only succeed brilliantly with Excalibur .. . but

you also might get rich in the process. Because, my friend, what I see

in you is exactly what I also see in this brave new world of private

equity funds: unlimited potential."

Okay, maybe Ballantine was laying it on a little thick. But, having

been on a downward curve for the past few months, I was more than

receptive to such ego stroking. He obviously knew what I had been

through-because everything he said was designed to rehabilitate my

battered self-confidence.

"You're not just a fighter, Ned. You're also a survivor. Takes one to

know one, kid. I've gone to the wall, too-and, believe me, I

understand just how bad it hurts. Especially when it's not just your

professional dreams that are destroyed, but your personal ones as well.

And I'll let you in on a little secret, Ned. On the pain meter, the

collapse of my second marriage made the collapse of my real estate

business seem like nothing more than a sprained ankle. I'd never felt

agony like that in my life."

My eyes fogged over. I turned away from Ballantine, not wanting him to

see my distress.

"Sorry," I said, rubbing my eyes.

"I really don't know why I'm .. ."

"Don't ever fucking apologize for feeling, Ned," Ballantine said.

"Feeling is good. Feeling is right. Feeling means you understand loss

and regret. And unless you understand loss, you will never experience

growth. Growth leads to positive change. And positive change always

results in success. That's the upward trajectory you're now on, Ned.

So every time you feel that overpowering sense of loss about the

collapse of your marriage, tell yourself this: "By acknowledging the

pain, I am beginning the journey back to success."

" It's funny how, when you are at your most vulnerable and needy, you

lose all sense of irony-and take comfort in sentiments that you would

normally find laughable. Of course I knew that Jack Ballantine was

talking psychobabble. But in my emotionally raw state, it was exactly

what I wanted to hear. Because he innately understood that I now felt

like a very abandoned, very scared little boy-suddenly all alone in the

big bad world and desperate for a daddy. And he was going to fill that

role. He was going to be the father of my dreams-the guy who totally

believed in me and would nurture me back to self-respect.

And if, in exchange for such nurturing, I had to put up with a shoe box

office, so be it. It was a small price to pay for the faith that Jack

Ballantine had in me.

"All right, I'll live with the office," I told Jerry, "but can I at

least buy a few crucial things to make it functional?"

"No problem," Jerry said-and later than afternoon handed me an envelope

with $5,000 in cash.

Will that be enough to get you started?" he asked.

"More than," I said.

"I'll make certain you have receipts for everything I buy."

"Sure, sure," Jerry said absently.

"Just remember: If you're getting anything delivered, don't have it

sent care of Ballantine Industries. It should go to you directly at

the Excalibur Fund."

"You mean, just in case the sales guy at Comp USA turns out to be a

reporter from the New York Times?"

"Very funny," Jerry said with a grimace.

Comp USA on Thirty-eighth and Fifth, was the first stop on my shopping

expedition. I bought a desktop IBM Aptiva, a fax modem a laser

printer, an answering machine, and an Office Software Suite. The

salesman worked hard at appearing New York blase when he saw me whip

out a fat roll of $100 bills-but his eyes betrayed him.

"Where do you want it delivered?" he asked.

I printed the Excalibur Fund's office address. Glancing down he asked,

"What kind of fund do you work for?"

"The kind of fund that makes people money," I said.

He glanced again at the wad of cash in my hand.

"I can see that," he said.

Leaving Comp USA I walked one block east to an office furniture shop on

Madison and Thirty-seventh, where I found a stylish secondhand beech

wood veneer desk, a black-and-chrome desk chair, and a high-tech Tizio

desk lamp-all for just under $1,200. The manager of the shop let me

use his phone. I called the phone company and arranged for a separate

fax modem line to be installed in my office on Monday, and also asked

that they deliver a modern Touch-Tone phone. Then I walked up to

Forty-second Street and Lexington and shelled out $199 for a cellular

phone at one of those cheapo electronic goods emporiums that crowd the

eastern side of Grand Central station.

I had one final errand on my shopping run. I dropped by Kin-ko's on

Fifty-fourth between Madison and Fifth and placed an order for

Excalibur Fund stationery and a thousand business cards with my name

and title-FUND EXECUTIVE-situated in the lower right-hand corner.

After helping me choose an elegant light gray paper for the stationery,

the Kinko's printing clerk asked, "Do you have a company logo or

typeface you'd like us to copy?"

I handed over a very glossy, well-produced brochure. THE EXCALIBUR

FUND was embossed in silver letters on the cover.

"Could you use the same typeface for the stationery and the cards?" I

asked.

"No problem," he said, flicking through the pages of the prospectus.

"Is this your baby?"

"Sort of."

"Pretty impressive. Will it make you rich?"

"That's the idea."

Or, at least, that's what I wanted to believe. The fact was, I really

didn't know how (or if) the fund would work. All I knew was what Jerry

told me over dinner. To date, the fund was made up of a half dozen

private investors (FOB's-Friends of Ballantine), each of whom had

entrusted $1 million to the fund. So far the fund had backed one small

company, Micromagna, which had just gone public.

"We did pretty well out of the initial public offering on Micromagna,"

Jerry said.

"Anyway, it's now up to you to use owr contacts to find us the hot new

companies of the future."

The Excalibur Fund sales brochure was the key document in the search

for new investors. Jerry had shown it to me when we returned to the

loft after the Bouley Bakery dinner.

"We recently had this printed," he said, opening his briefcase and

handing me the sales brochure.

"I wrote it myself. I'll disappear for a half hour, grab a shower.

Read it through, see what you think."

During the next half hour I read this document several times (I wanted

to be well up on the workings of the fund before I played tennis with

Ballantine the next morning). It was an exceedingly smooth piece of

salesmanship, opening with a "mission statement":

In today's dynamically charged financial world, where the serious

investor has a myriad of potential investment opportunities, a

well-balanced portfolio is a crucial commodity. Opt for maximum safety

and you will never achieve any substantial return on your capital. Opt

for maximum risk, and you can end up playing a dangerous game of

financial roulette.

This is why most fund managers today suggest a sensibly diversified

portfolio, in which secure low-yield investments are offset against

more speculative ventures. But even those investors with a venturesome

spirit do not want to engage in reckless gambles. They want a

financial investment that is designed to maximize profitability, yet

provide potential long-term stability.

In short, they are looking for the exciting, yet discerning, investment

opportunities that THE EXCALIBUR FUND can provide.

The sales brochure then went on to explain the "dynamic potential" of

private equity funds-how, if properly skippered and managed, they could

provide the serious investor with an equity stake in some of today's

hottest new companies on the brink of "going public."

Of course, your investment counselor may point you in the direction of

many private equity funds that promise high return, but whose

investment strategy is uncertain. After all, the key to all high-yield

investments is choosing the right venture to back-which is why you need

the expertise of the Excalibur Fund.

Excalibur, according to the brochure, had its finger on the pulse of

the most vibrant, lucrative industry today: information technology.

Through its in-depth knowledge of the software and computer businesses,

the fund was able to target emerging new companies with cutting-edge

credentials. The brochure then detailed the sole enterprise it had

backed to date: Micromagna, an American-owned, Budapest-based software

manufacturing company that had "achieved phenomenal success" selling

low-cost, high-grade word processing programs within the emerging

eastern European market.

There were graphs and charts explaining how the fund operator! There

was a detailed examination of the fund's structure-how it was

registered offshore, and divided into three active divisions: the North

American (incorporated in Bermuda), the European (registered in

Luxembourg), and the South American fund (incorporated in Nassau, the

Bahamas). Each division had a talent spotter (based in New York,

Luxembourg, and Sao Paolo), an "international investment specialist"

who was actively engaged in discovering the best in new information

technology enterprises.

"You didn't tell me you already had people working for the fund in

Europe and South America," I said to Jerry when he walked back into the

living room after his shower.

"They're strictly freelance talent spotters. But if they start finding

us solid investment possibilities, I'll probably hire them both full

time. And, I'm telling you, if the returns we've seen on Micro-magna

are a barometer of the future, by this time next year you won't just be

in a bigger office-you'll also be employing a couple of assistants."

Naturally I bombarded Jerry with questions. I was a little concerned

about the complex structure of the fund-the way it was registered in

three different offshore locales.

"Believe me, it's a standard setup when you're dealing with a

geographically diversified fund," Jerry said reassuringly. Wouldn't an

emerging American info-tech business worry about having unknown Latin

American or European investors buying up equity in their company?

"Only if they allow those investors to take a fifty-one percent

controlling stake in their business. The fact is, Ned, a bunch of

struggling computer nerds in a basement aren't going to give a damn

who's giving them the money. As long as the cash is helping them

develop their product, they're going to be happy. Especially since

they know that Excalibur is going to make them rich once we take them

public."

I then articulated my most pressing worry: How in the hell was I going

to find exciting new companies in the first place?

"Well, you've got a lot of contacts in the computer business, right?"

"Yeah, but most of them are on the media sales side of the business."

"Well, what you're going to have to do, I'm afraid, is start from

scratch and research potential investment possibilities. Track down

the names of the people running the product search divisions at every

computer company worth dealing with. Hit them with a sales brochure

and an introductory letter, then talk your way into a meeting with

them, pump them for information, and find out what emerging companies

are worth betting on. I know it's not the easiest sort of talent

spotting ..."

"Not easy?" I said.

"Jerry, what you're asking me to do is the toughest thing imaginable.

Especially as the Excalibur Fund has no track record, and no

identifiable names attached to it. At least if I could mention that

Mr. Ballantine has given the fund his imprimatur-" "You know that's

impossible. And I'm going to need your assurance that you will never

mention his name in connection with-" "Jerry, I get the message. Jack

Ballantine has nothing to do with Excalibur. All I'm saying here is

this: I want to do a good job for you. I want .. . need to make this a

success. But, quite frankly, I'm scared shitless about the prospect of

cold-calling even minor computer companies, trying to sniff out hot new

investment prospects."

"I hear-and appreciate-what you're saying. You want to do well. We

want you to do well, too. And we also don't expect you to be an

overnight miracle worker who's going to discover us the next Netscape

by the end of next week. We know that this sort of intelligence

gathering is a gradual operation. Just like we also know that once

you've found your investment for us, the force will be with you-and

you'll find yourself on a roll.

"But, trust me here, we really are taking a long-term view on

Excalibur. As far as Mr. Ballantine and I are concerned, you've got

six months to feel your way into this business and score your first

significant investment contract. In the meantime, you're assured of

your base salary-that's eleven-fifty a week-and free rent. Not a bad

deal, if I say so myself."

No, it wasn't a bad deal at all, considering that my other employment

prospects amounted to zilch. And I was reassured by the fact that

Jerry and Ballantine both understood that this really was a

start-from-scratch operation.

Of course, I still had major apprehensions and misgivings about this

nebulous, embryonic product. But when you're desperate, you will

certainly try anything, no matter how dangerous it might seem.

Especially if the man dangling the carrot is the legendary Jack

Ballantine. So every time I questioned my ability to sell Excalibur, I

remembered that Ballantine himself created a real estate empire out of

nothing.

So I decided to put all my reservations regarding Excalibur on hold and

go to work, telling myself-in true Ballantinian style- that the only

thing standing between me and success was my own sense of doubt.

And nothing-not even that god-awful toilet of an office-was now going

to dent my belief in the fund. Because it was my potential

salvation.

So I hit the ground running. After leaving Kinko's I returned to my

office, called Janovic Paint on West Seventy-second Street, and asked

them to deliver three gallons of off-white emulsion, a half gallon of

white gloss, a roller and tray, two brushes, a can of turpentine, and

some drop cloths. When they demanded a credit card, I convinced them

to accept payment COD.

The paint arrived at four that afternoon. It was Friday, and since I

wanted to have the office painted by first thing Monday, I picked up

the phone and called Jerry, explaining about' the paint job and asking

him if I might be able to get a building key from him for the

weekend.

"No problem," he said.

"I'll call the super and ask him to drop one by you. But it's one hell

of a way to spend your weekend, Allen."

"It's cheaper than hiring someone to do it. And you know what they say

about a fresh coat of paint.. .."

"Let me guess. It makes everything seem brighter?"

"And it allegedly covers all the cracks."

"Believe me, there's only one thing that really covers all the cracks,

and that's money. Something you should be making a pile of soon

enough."

"Speaking of money ... if I have any business expenses .. ."

"Just put them on your own credit card and then we'll reimburse you."

"Well, there's a small problem with my credit cards," I said.

Jerry needed no further explanation.

"How much do you need?" he asked.

"A thousand would liberate my MasterCard."

"Done," he said.

"I'll leave the cash at reception on my way out."

"Are you going to be around for a beer later tonight?"

"No can do. Mr. B. just told me he wants me to fly to L.A. tonight

and sort out some problems we have with the West Coast segment of his

upcoming book tour."

"I wish I was en route to Los Angeles," I said absently.

"Don't think about her, Ned."

"Easier said than done. Have a good weekend."

"You, too. Try not to paint too hard."

But, of course, I did paint hard, because I was hoping that work would

somehow keep my mind off Lizzie. So I threw myself into redecorating

the office. I arrived at eight o'clock Saturday morning and left at

ten that night. On Sunday I put in a thirteen-hour day- and by the

time I headed out into the night, my little room appeared twice its

size, thanks to a fresh coat of white paint. The following morning my

new desk and chair arrived, along with all the Comp USA equipment-and

my office suddenly looked like a stylishly small business operation. I

got down to business. Working my way through my address book, I made

around three dozen calls to assorted contacts in a wide range of

computer companies around the country. Every call was a strikeout.

Either my contact was "in a meeting,"

"out of town," or simply "unavailable right now."

Trying not to be dismayed, I got my IBM computer up and running and

went on-line, using Yahoo to find the names of every computer company

in the country. Amazingly, there were over 12,500 listings. Over the

next three days, I systematically worked my way through this list,

narrowing down the field to around six hundred companies that might be

worth pursuing. Another three days were spent phoning each of these

companies to find out the name of the individual in charge of research

and development. Once this task was completed, I spent the next two

days sending out over six hundred sales brochures, each with a cover

letter (on the new Excalibur Fund stationery) in which I introduced

myself and Excalibur, informed the recipient that we were on the

lookout for exciting new info-tech investment prospects, and said that

I'd be calling to set up a one-to-one meeting shortly.

It was slow, tedious work-but at least it did make me feel pro wanted

it to do: block out all thoughts of Lizzie. I was still missing her

terribly. It had been nearly two weeks since she had flown back to the

coast, and I had been phoning Los Angeles daily, calling both her

office and her hotel room. But she wouldn't take my calls. At first

her secretary, Juliet, kept telling me the same thing: She was in a

permanent meeting. After a few days of this "otherwise engaged" crap,

Juliet finally came clean: Lizzie didn't want to speak with me, and was

also screening all her calls at the Mondrian to make certain she didn't

inadvertently get connected to me.

This freeze-out treatment didn't stop me from faxing her a long,

pleading letter-in which I essentially called myself a jerk, told her

she was the best thing that had ever happened to me, said I couldn't

live without her, and comprehensively begged for forgiveness.

The letter had been sent over a week ago. To date, Lizzie's answer had

been a devastating one: total silence. A silence which let me know

that she wasn't in the market for a reconciliation.

With typical salesman's persistence, I kept up the barrage of phone

calls-hoping against hope that, in time, the Berlin Wall she had

constructed between us would finally crumble. Now it was late Friday

afternoon, I had just returned to the office after sending out the last

one hundred Excalibur sales brochures to assorted companies, and

decided it was time to steel myself for the daily call to L.A.

"Hello, Lizzie Howard's office."

"Hi, Juliet, it's-" "Oh .. . Mr. Allen." Her tone said it all: Leave

me alone, you loser.

"Is she in?" I asked.

"No-she's gone out of town for a few days. But she did-" "She's away

on business?"

"Of course."

"Where, exactly?"

"Mr. Allen, I am not in a position to say .. ."

"Okay, okay. Could you just give her a message that-" "You're at

212-555-7894, and during office hours your number is 212-555-9001."

That stopped me short.

"Yeah. Those are the numbers. And please. please tell her that all I

want is five minutes on the phone."

"I do have a message from Lizzie for you."

"You do?"

"Yes, that's what I was trying to tell you.. .."

"So tell me now."

I could hear her reaching for a notepad. Her voice assumed that

official intonation, much beloved of court stenographers.

"Lizzie asked me to inform you that she's been appointed acting head of

the L.A. office for the next six months, and that you will be hearing

from the law firm of Platt and McHenry regarding your legal

reparation.. .."

"What legal separation?"

Juliet suddenly sounded sheepish.

"Mr. Allen, I'm just reading what she dictated to me. Platt and

McHenry will be contacting you about drawing up a legal separation

agreement between you, so your lawyer should contact-" "I don't have a

lawyer," I said, and slammed down the phone.

I fought the urge for a cigarette. I fought the need for a drink. I

simply put my head in my hands. Then the phone rang. I picked it up,

said hello, and heard a blast of Spanish-inflected English in my ear.

"The fuck you been, Ned?"

Oh, God. Debbie Suarez. Since that night I hadn't plucked up the

courage to call her again .. . even though I knew she had been trying

to contact me, as she'd left about five messages on my old home phone

number. The sub letters hadn't moved in yet, so I was still able to

access the voice mail at my former apartment. Just yesterday I'd

finally gotten around to changing the message, leaving the number at

Jerry's loft and my new office for anyone trying to reach me. Yeah, it

was slimeball form to dodge Debbie's calls. But not only was I still

deeply embarrassed about ending up in her bed, I was also a little

preoccupied by the fact that our one-night fling had triggered the end

of my marriage.

"Hi, Debbie," I said, sounding anxious.

"The fuck is wrong with you?" she said.

"You share my bed, then you disappear?"

"It's a long story.. .."

"And then you never call me, even though I phone you over and

"It's a really long story."

"I want to hear it."

"Debbie, please .. . This has not been an easy time for me."

"You don't want to see me."

"I do, but... life has been really complicated lately."

"You sayin' I'm gonna complicate your life?" She sounded hurt.

"Of course not. It's just.. . I'm all over the place."

"A cup of coffee, that's all I'm asking."

"Okay, okay."

And we arranged to meet at a Starbucks on Fifty-third and Park at

6:00

P.M.

But when I walked into Starbucks sixty minutes later, it became quickly

apparent that Debbie was interested in more than a quick latte. She

kissed me fully on the lips, holding me close. She ran her fingers

through my hair and gave me a big love-struck smile. As we sat down at

a small table, she took my hand and squeezed it tightly. She scared

the shit out of me.

"I gotta tell ya, I figured you'd left town or something'," she said.

I gently withdrew my hand from hers.

"Things got a little complicated after Ivan's funeral." And I

explained about my eviction from the apartment and from the tele sales

job. She suddenly had my hand in hers again.

"Oh, Mr. A.... Ned ... I feel terrible. How'd your wife find out?"

"I was, uh, kind of marked by the experience."

She let out a nervous giggle.

"I know, I know ... all my fault. But that's the problem with you

being so irresistible.. .."

"Debbie .. ."

"Now I know why you've been so hard to find. Where you stayin'?"

"A place belonging to a guy I went to school with."

"You know, you need a place, you can always stay with me. Raul asks

about you every day. Says you helped him with his homework. I tell

ya, he really, really likes you. Keeps asking me when he's gonna see

you.. .."

I said nothing. I simply avoided her gaze and stared at the table,

feeling truly awful. Suddenly, Debbie put the brakes on her manic

monologue, her eyes moist.

"I'm embarrassing you." she said.

"I'm embarrassing me."

"You're not embarrassing anyone... ."

"If I was you, I'd be thinking, this woman sounds desperate...."

"I don't think that."

"Well I think that.

"Cause ever since that piece-of-shit husband of mine got his ass shot

off three years ago, there's been nobody in my life, nobody in my bed.

Not even for one night. Until you. And you know .. ."

Her voice grew quiet, little.

".. . I've always carried this big fucking torch for you. That night

at the Christmas party ... it wasn't because I was drunk. It's how I

felt. I'd wanted to kiss you for-" "Debbie .. . Don't."

"... and so when you came back to my place, I thought, hoped, prayed

that maybe this would be the start of ... especially after Raul told me

how much he liked you."

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

"Don't apologize, man. I don't need your sympathy. I just need .. .

you. Or, at least, that was my bullshit dream. You. Me. Raul. Some

fairy tale .. ."

"Debbie ... I love my wife."

"Your wife's left you."

"I know. I blew it. Sleeping with you was-" "Don't say it."

I nodded. We lapsed into silence. Debbie covered my hand again with

hers.

"She's gone, Ned. I'm here."

As gently as possible, I said, "You know that's not how it works. I

wish it were. But..."

"Shut up," she whispered.

"Okay," I said.

She withdrew her hand, reached into her bag for a little packet of

Kleenex, extracted a tissue, and quickly dabbed at her wet eyes.

"You know what I was thinkin' today?" she said.

"Just how damn tired I am. How everything is one big, long struggle.

Never enough money. Never enough time with your kid. Nonstop worry-

about the rent, the tuition, the medical bills, and paying Con Ed, and

whether you'll have a fuckin' job next week. You keep hoping

So, when you get down to it, all this struggle only makes sense if

there's one basic thing in your life: someone waiting for you when you

get home at night."

"At least you've got Raul," I said.

"Tell me about it. Sometimes I think he's the only reason I get up in

the mornin', spend the day screaming down a phone, selling bullshit."

She took a deep, steadying breath. And stood up.

"I gotta go, Mr. Allen."

"I'm Ned-She shook her head.

"See you around, Debbie."

"No, you won't," she said, and headed for the door.

I walked over to the Lexington Avenue subway and caught the downtown

local. When it stopped at Fourteenth Street, I had to fight the urge

to jump off, dash three blocks east to Stuyvesant Town, knock on

Debbie's door, fall into her arms, embrace Raul as my newfound son,

make a teary speech about family values being the only values, and then

lead the three of us, arm in arm, off into the sunset.

If only life could be scripted by Hollywood.

Instead, I stayed on the train to Canal Street, walked north to Jerry's

place, and checked the phone for messages. There was just one-from, of

all people, Ian Deane.

"Well, hello there, stranger. Geena and I were wondering where the

hell you were. Then, when I was talking to Lizzie yesterday ..."

I didn't wait to hear the rest of the message. I rapidly punched in

Ian's number and hoped to God he was home. He was.

"So what did Lizzie say?" I asked as soon as he picked up the phone.

"And a good evening to you, Mr. Allen," Ian said with a laugh.

"Sorry, sorry. It's just.. ."

"Understood. How are things?"

"I've been better."

"Then why the hell haven't you called?"

"You know why, Ian. And I'm sure Lizzie told you why."

"Yeah, she did say something to Geena about.. ."

"How I fucked up."

"It happens."

"I was so stupid.. .."

"Okay, okay, it was a dumb call. But we all make dumb calls from time

to time."

"Not that dumb."

"You still should have gotten in touch with us, Ned."

"I really thought you wouldn't want to talk to me...."

"For fuck's sake, Ned. We're your friends. And we're not going to

take sides here."

"Not even Geena?"

"All right, I have to admit that she has been leaning a bit toward

Lizzie. Especially because of the ... uh ..."

"Yeah, I hear you.. .."

"But hey, don't expect me to get all righteous with you. I mean, stuff

like that... It was kind of a drunken accident, right?"

"Yeah, I drank too much, then tripped and ended up naked in another

woman's bed.. .."

"You got unlucky, that's all."

"You mean, I got caught."

After a pause, Ian said, "Yeah, I guess that's what I mean. But hey,

it's not a war crime."

"No-but my marriage is dead because of it. She's not coming back, is

she, Ian?"

"Well, from what I could gather, Lizzie's still pretty upset about

things. And, yeah, I think you've got an uphill battle ahead of you..

.."

"Right."

"And I also sense that she needs some space right now.. .."

Space. That fucking word again.

"But, who knows?" Ian said.

"Given time, she might not.. ."

"What? Hate me so much?"

In the background I could hear Geena calling Ian.

"Listen, we're about to eat. And tomorrow we're off to Bermuda for a

week. But we're back next Sunday. So I'm going to expect a call,

understand? Take care. And remember: You've got an ally here."

As I put down the phone, I couldn't help but think what a jerk I had

been to file Ian away under Manhattan Bank.

Again, my Maine-boy envy-my need to compete at all costs-had made me

overlook a glaringly obvious truth: Ian Deane considered himself my

friend.

And though I wanted to take his friendly advice-and temporarily desist

in my campaign to win Lizzie back-I left five messages for her over the

weekend.

Then, on Tuesday morning, a letter arrived (via Federal Express) at the

loft.

Ned:

I'm not trying to play hard to get, or be a bitch. But after what

happened, I just think it's best if we cut each other a bit of slack

right now, and keep some distance until we both cool down.

Juliet told me about your reaction to my message. In retrospect I do

think it was wrong of me to call in lawyers so soon-and I apologize for

that. But I would appreciate it if you would please stop phoning. It's

not helping the situation.

I'll be in touch when I'm ready to be in in touch-i.e." when I know

what my next move will be.

Lizzie Searching around Jerry's apartment, I found a yellow legal pad

and a pen. Sitting down at the dining room table, I wrote:

Dear Lizzie:

Hindsight is always 20/20, isn't it? I cannot change what

happened-though, Christ, I'd pay just about any price to do so.

I blew it. I blew it. I blew it. And I miss you more than I can

say.

But.. . okay, if you don't want me to call anymore, I will honor your

request.

Know this, though: Every time the phone rings, I will be hoping it is

you. I love you.

Ned On the way to work I dropped the letter into a mailbox, and

thought, It's her move now. And if she chooses not to respond to this,

then I'd better start accepting that it is truly dead between us.

Two weeks later I still hadn't had a response from Lizzie, and was

lurching into total despair. Not just because it was clear that my

wife really didn't want anything more to do with me-but also because

I'd yet to have one positive response to my mailing of Excalibur sales

brochures. Check that: After making over two hundred calls, not one

product manager had deigned to even speak with me.

"Sorry, we're just not interested" was the message I kept receiving

over and over again from secretaries, personal assistants, and other

species of underling. Jerry was out of town on business for most of

this time, so I didn't have to supply him with an ongoing progress

report, or feed him some spiel about how everything was coming up

roses.

But I knew that, if I kept striking out on the sales front, I would

eventually have to come clean with Jerry and admit this simply wasn't

working. And why wasn't it working? If you're a good salesman, there

is only one real reason why you can't peddle something: because people

don't like the product.

Still, I kept on phoning, contacting around fifty companies a day on my

list.

"Sorry, we're not looking for private investment right now." .. .

"Sorry, we already have other equity funds interested in us." .. .

But then I had a lucky break. A guy named Dwight Capel called me one

afternoon. He told me he was an MIT grad, running a small company in

Medford, Massachusetts, that was currently developing a new

state-of-the-art graphics board (the hardware component that allows

computers to run full-motion video programs).

"We've got a real cutting-edge product, but we've got no budget to get

the damn thing marketed properly. So when your brochure and letter

arrived I thought maybe this is the sort of investment we've been

looking for."

When I asked if I could come up and see him in Medford, however, he

informed me that he'd like me to meet his financial advisor, who also

just happened to be his brother. His name was Elliot Capel. He was a

senior fund manager at Federal & State, a Boston-based pension fund

company, and Dwight had given him the Excalibur material the night

before.

"So give Elliot a call-and if he's enthusiastic about what you're

offering, then I guess we might just do some business together."

Getting through to Elliot Capel was no easy task. For two straight

days he was busy. Finally, in desperation, I called him at 6:30 P.M.

on the third day-and he picked up the phone himself.

"Well, this is some fluky coincidence," he said after I introduced

myself, "because I finally got around to reading the Excalibur sales

brochure this afternoon."

I was suddenly animated.

"Fluky coincidences are the way some of the best business deals get

started," I said.

"And I'd really love to build on this coincidence, and come see you to

discuss how your brother's company could benefit from Excalibur

investment."

"Have you been with the fund long, Mr. Allen?"

"Ned-please. But the answer to your question is no. Just a few weeks,

to be exact. But, of course, I am incredibly excited by Excalibur's

overall potential and-" "So you had nothing to do with structuring the

fund or writing the sales brochure?"

"Like I said, I've just been hired by the fund."

"And have you ever worked in the private equity fund business

before?"

"Uh, no. This is a career change for me. But look, Mr. Capel, if you

could find a window in your schedule during the next few days, I'd be

delighted to fly up to Boston and meet you."

"How about tomorrow, say around eleven A.M."

Got 'em! Finally, the first breakthrough meeting.

"Eleven works fine for me, Mr. Capel. And if you have time to do

lunch, I'd love to take you.. .."

"Lunch is out. And I can only give you. at most, twenty minutes of my

time. But if you still want to come up here and see me, that

twenty-minute window is yours."

"I'll be there, sir."

"Only I have to tell you, Mr. Allen-the only reason why I'm willing to

see you is because you come across as a sound guy who doesn't seem to

realize that he's selling a very unsound proposition.

My hands were suddenly sweaty.

"I don't exactly follow you, Mr. Capel."

"Okay-I'll give it to you straight, Mr. Allen. There is absolutely no

way that I would let my brother take even a dime from your fund. And

the reason is a simple one. To my professional eye, the Excalibur Fund

is complete and total bullshit."

TEN

Hot Capel was a man of his word. He gave me exactly twenty minutes of

his time, then politely showed me the door. The meeting was over

before I knew it. I left Capel's office on Copley Square and walked

down to Boston Common. Though it was a stunning day-a cloudless sky, a

soft breeze-I wasn't exactly taking it in. Nor was I paying much

attention to the manicured pleasures of the Common, or the hint of

brine in the moist air, or the amazing abundance of leggy women in

short skirts. I was too preoccupied, too lost in troubled thought, to

notice anything.

"So tell me," Elliot Capel had said as soon as I sat down opposite him,

"who exactly is behind the Excalibur Fund?"

I chose my words with care.

"It's made up of a consortium of businessmen-" "Obfuscation," he said,

cutting me off.

"Sorry?" I said.

"You're obfuscating, Mr. Allen. Better known as trading in

bullshit."

His voice was temperate, cool, vaguely academic. With his gray worsted

suit, his button-down Oxford shirt, his striped bow tie, and his

horn-rimmed glasses, Elliot Capel did look the professorial type. He

tapped his fingertips together as he spoke, and kept his pale blue eyes

focused on me with such intensity that I felt as if I was under

interrogation. Which, essentially, I was.

"I'm really not obfuscating here, Mr. Capel," I said.

"Like I said, Excalibur is an umbrella organization, made up of three

companies-"

"Three shell companies, Mr. Allen."

"Shell companies?"

"That's what I said, Mr. Allen. You sound surprised."

"I was just under the impression .. ."

"What?"

".. . that the three companies that made up the fund were ..."

"Legitimate, perhaps?"

"Well, yes."

"They might be. Because there are plenty of offshore companies that

are thoroughly legitimate. Then again, why would a legitimate company

have a board of directors made up of a Bahamian lawyer and his

secretary?"

"I'm not exactly following you.. .."

"I had one of my assistants run a company check on the so-called South

American division of your fund, Excalibur S.A." incorporated in the

Bahamas. Its chairman is a Nassau lawyer named Winston Parkhill, and

there's only one other member of its board: a woman named Celia Markey

.. . who, we discovered after a few phone calls, happens to be Mr.

Parkhill's secretary.

"Now this bit of news intrigued me, so I asked my assistant to check up

on the European and North American divisions of the fund-registered, if

I'm not mistaken, in Luxembourg and Bermuda respectively. Guess what

he found out? In both instances, the company's structures were exactly

the same: a local attorney, his secretary, and no other board members.

Of course, this is not an unusual setup for certain offshore companies.

But what it does indicate-to me, anyway-is that the individual or set

of individuals behind your fund do not want to have their names

directly attached to Excalibur. Once again, there may be a perfectly

valid, tenable reason for their secrecy...."

I had to stop myself from saying, Yes, there is. Jack Ballantine is

worried about all the potential negative press that might hit Excalibur

were he revealed to be the man behind the fund. Elliot Capel

continued.

"Then again, there may be a perfectly valid, yet unlawful reason as to

why no names are attached to the fund. That's the thing about offshore

shell companies. You can never tell exactly who or what is behind

them. I mean, do you personally know the people behind the fund?"

Trying to keep my nervousness in check, I gave him the answer that

Jerry told me to give if this question arose during pitch meetings.

"As you know, Mr. Capel, the names of the principals behind many

private equity funds often remain confidential. But as you undoubtedly

saw in our prospectus, Excalibur has the backing of such leading

financial institutions as the Luxembourg Trust Company, the Bahamian

Bank of Commerce-" "Leading financial institutions? Who are you trying

to kid here? The Luxembourg Trust Company is an insignificant private

bank ... though compared to the Bahamian Bank of Commerce, it looks

like Chase Manhattan."

Avoiding his gaze, I said, "I really wasn't aware that those banks were

so small-" "You don't seem to be aware of a great many things about the

fund you're selling."

"Like I said yesterday, I'm kind of new to this business."

"Clearly. So what did you do before you landed yourself in this

game?"

I gave him an abbreviated version of my resume. He listened with

interest, especially when I explained how I stumbled into the Excalibur

Fund after hitting the skids.

"So this was, in truth, an TU-take-anything' kind of job?" he asked.

"Well, I was pretty desperate-but I also thought it might be a stepping

stone-" "To what? A career as a white-collar criminal?"

"You're not serious, are you?"

"Put it this way, Mr. Allen-if I were in your shoes I'd be very wary

of my employers, and would probably check out their background with

care."

"Believe me, they're extremely legitimate people," I said.

"Well, if they are legitimate, then why is Micromagna such a dubious

operation?"

I tried not to aooear stunned. Micromagna was the centerpiece of the

fund. I chose my words carefully.

"What do you mean by 'dubious operation," Mr. Capel?"

"I mean, quite simply, that Micromagna doesn't exist."

My cellular phone rang. I was jolted out of my reverie. Elliot

Capel's voice abruptly stopped replaying in my head, and I found myself

back on a park bench at Boston Common, staring blankly at a well-pruned

bed of roses. I reached into my briefcase and answered the phone. It

was Jerry's secretary.

"Mr. Allen, I have a message for you from Mr. Schubert.. .."

"May I speak with him myself?"

"I'm afraid he's out at meetings all day, but he did ask me-" "It's

kind of important," I said.

"He's with Mr. Ballantine, and he left strict instructions not to be

disturbed, but he does want to see you tonight."

"That makes two of us."

"He's planning to attend a SOFT US reception at the Parker Meridien

Hotel on West Fifty-seventh Street this evening, and was hoping you

might meet him there at six."

"Tell him I'll be there."

And-I felt like adding-tell him that I've also just met a mutual fund

manager named Elliot Capel who has been scrutinizing our fund. And he

discovered that Excalibur is nothing but three very empty shell

companies, all of which have the alleged endorsement of three tiny,

questionable financial institutions. Not only that-Mr. Capel then

told me that he had his assistant call International Directory

Assistance and ask for the number for Micromagna in Budapest. Want to

hear something hilarious, Jerry? Micromagna has an unlisted number.

Who the hell has ever heard of a business having an unlisted phone

number? In short, Mr. Capel reached the conclusion that Micromagna

might not be an authentic, functioning enterprise. Which, in turn, has

led me to wonder, What the fuck is going on here?

All the way back to New York I rehearsed the speech with which I was

going to confront Jerry this evening-a speech in which I would demand

to know why the structure of the fund was so damn suspect. And if he

didn't give me the answers I wanted, I'd ... What? Quit? And then

find myself a nice cardboard box which now would mean instant

destitution, total disaster. I needed this job. I needed to make it

work. Surely there must be some very plausible reason why the company

was structured in such a cryptic way, and why Micromagna didn't have a

listed phone number. I mean, this fund was ultimately Jack

Ballantine's baby. Though he might not want his name attached to it,

it could ultimately be traced back to him. So-given that the press

were still circling him like famished vultures-there's no way he'd be

up to anything shady. No way at all.

I was back in Manhattan by five and hopped a cab straight to the Parker

Meridien. I wasn't thrilled about rendezvousing with Jerry at the SOFT

US reception. After all, this annual convention of American software

manufacturers had always been a key business event during my years at

CompuWorld. It was also the place where I had first met Lizzie. So

attending this reception would be yet another reminder of how badly I

had screwed up my life. I wanted to dodge it-but I needed to see Jerry

urgently and get some answers to some difficult questions.

"Holy shit, it's Ned Allen."

As soon as I walked through the doors of the Parker Meridien ballroom I

felt as if I was on a trip down memory lane, in which my entire former

history in the computer magazine business passed before me. The "holy

shit" comment came from Don Dow-ling-the circumferentially challenged

media sales honcho of AdTel. Offering me his outstreched paw he took a

melodramatic step backward before I could shake it.

"Not planning to punch me, are you, Ned?"

I managed a smile.

"Very funny, Don," I said, grabbing a glass of water from a passing

waiter's tray.

"What the hell brings you here?" he asked.

"I'd heard you left the business."

"Yeah-but I'm now in a related business. High finance, to be exact. A

private equity fund dealing exclusively in new technology. And, you

know, Don, I'd love to do lunch sometime. Especially as we're on the

lookout for young new companies that might need some capitalization..

.."

Don Dowling was already looking past my shoulder, hoping to catch

someone else's eye.

"I don't believe it... Bill Janes!" he shouted to someone in the near

distance. Then, turning back to me, he said, "Great seeing you, Ned.

Hope whatever you're doing works out...."

"About that lunch idea I was mentioning .. . ?"

"Call my secretary," he said, then swiftly headed toward the other side

of the ballroom.

A minute later I bumped into Dave Maduro, my former outside sales guy

for Massachusetts.

"Dave!" I shouted.

"How the hell are you?"

He seemed startled to see me-as if I were someone who, having been

presumed dead, was suddenly back stalking the living.

"Oh, Ned," he said.

"This is quite a surprise."

"You're looking good, Dave. How's PC Globe treating you?"

"Fine, fine ...," he said distractedly.

"Any of the old gang here tonight?" I asked.

"Saw Doug Bluehorn around somewhere. But Chuck's out of town,

schmoozing some potential new advertisers in San Jose."

Well, that was a relief. I'd been dreading the prospect of

encountering Chuck.

"Family good, Dave?"

"Yeah, great .. . ," he said, and (like Don Dowling) his eyes started

looking for someone who could rescue him from me.

"Listen," I said, trying to keep the conversation going, "I get up to

Boston from time to time and would love to pick your brain about new

software outfits.. .."

"Sure thing, Ned," he said.

"You know my number.. .."

Everywhere I turned inside the Parker Meridien ballroom I was greeted

with uneasy diffidence by former business associates. Or I noticed

someone whispering something into the ear of a colleague-who, in turn,

would steal a quick glance in my direction. I could just imagine what

was being muttered.

See that guy over there? Ned Allen. Used to be a player when he

worked for CompuWorld. Then he punched out his German boss.. .. Yeah,

he was the guy .. . and from what I hear now, the poor sucker can't

even get arrested.. ..

It was obvious that I terrified my former colleagues. Because I was

the sum of all their fears: the fuckup they all dreaded becoming. I

was unable to find Jerry among this packed throng, I decided it was

time to head for the door. But then I heard his voice.

"Ned, Ned .. . over here," Jerry shouted.

I spun around and saw him standing in a distant corner of the room. He

waved hello and motioned me to approach him.

But then I saw who was standing next to Jerry. And I suddenly froze.

It was Ted Peterson.

Peterson himself appeared shocked to see me as well. But when he tried

to walk off, Jerry grabbed him by one shoulder. Then, pointing a

finger in his face, he appeared to harshly reprimand him. Peterson

turned ashen. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

"Ned!" Jerry shouted at me again. I had no choice but to approach

him. He was now all smiles.

"I just wanted you to meet an old friend, Ned," Jerry said.

"You do know each other, don't you?"

"Yeah," Peterson said, "we know each other." He proffered his hand.

"How're you doing, Ned?"

I kept my hands behind my back.

"How am I doing?" I asked.

"Go fuck yourself-that's how I'm doing."

"Easy now, Ned," Jerry said.

"Easy? Easy?" I said, my voice becoming loud.

"This piece of shit doesn't deserve easy."

"That's all in the past now," Peterson said quietly.

"The past! The past! You destroy my career and kill Ivan Dolinsky,

and now you want bygones to be bygones?"

I was yelling. The room had grown quiet. Everyone was staring at us.

Jerry put a steadying hand on my arm.

"Ned, knock it off now."

I angrily shrugged him off.

"This fucker should be prosecuted. Not just for driving Ivan to his

death, but for attempted rape."

"You are way out of line, mister," Peterson yelled.

"Why? Because I'm telling the truth about how you did a little

unwanted crotch-grabbing last year at Grand Cayman-" "All right. all

right." Jerry said, tryine to intervene.

"You have no proof," Ted yelled.

"Her name was Joan Glaston .. ."

"You know shit."

".. . and the only reason she didn't bring charges was because you

bribed her .. ."

"You watch it."

".. . but only after she kicked you in the balls."

That's when he went for me, lashing out with both fists. But before he

could connect, Jerry jumped between us, grabbing Peter-son's arms in

the sort of ferocious grip that he used to employ on the ice.

"I want you out of here," Jerry barked at me.

"With pleasure," I said, then turned and threw my drink in Peterson's

face.

"That's for Ivan."

"YOU'RE A DEAD MAN," Peterson screamed, struggling to break free of

Jerry's grip.

"Out, NOW," Jerry yelled-and the crowd of onlookers parted as I made a

dash for the door.

Outside the hotel, I had to lean against a lamppost until I calmed

down. Then, once I regained my equilibrium, I began to walk. Heading

south on Sixth Avenue, I was so distracted by what had just gone down

that I didn't realize how much ground I was rapidly covering until I

looked up and realized I was at Twenty-third Street. I wanted to

collapse into a bar and soothe my jangled nerves with half a bottle of

Jack Daniel's. But I was still adhering to my clean-and-sober

regimen-so I just kept going farther south. Through the Village, past

SoHo, into Tribeca, across Wall Street, then finally hitting the end of

the line: Battery Park. I wasn't aware of time, or of the distance

involved-because my brain was trying to make sense of everything that

had happened today. I could find no logic to what I'd seen and

heard.

All I could come up with were questions. Such as: What the hell was

Jerry doing, talking to Ted Peterson? .. . Why did he reprimand him so

fiercely? .. . Knowing my checkered history with the asshole, why did

Jerry never mention the fact that he knew Peterson? ... What, in

short, was going on between them?

And when I finished pondering these questions, then I had to.

I headed north from Battery Park, walked back through the empty canyons

of the financial district, cut east through Chinatown and Little Italy,

then finally wended my way back to Wooster Street. Heading down the

east side of the block, I could see that the lights were on in the

loft. For the first time in around a month, Jerry was home before

midnight. I wasn't surprised. After what I'd pulled in the Parker

Meridien, he was obviously lying in wait for me-and planning, no doubt,

to fire my ass.

I wanted to dodge this confrontation-to keep on walking through the

night in the hope that, come morning, the gravity of my situation might

have possibly improved. But I knew that, according to the Ballantinian

Principles of Business Management, eluding responsibility (especially

after committing an error of judgment) was considered a major mortal

sin (almost up there with scoring a touchdown for the other side).

"Always face the music, own up to the mistake, take your lumps," Jack

Ballantine advised in The Success Zone, "because when we acknowledge

fumbles with manful dignity, we learn."

There was no getting around it. I would have to "acknowledge the

fumble" and then embrace homelessness with manful dignity.

Jerry was seated on the sofa when I entered the loft. He was deep in

conversation on the phone, so I headed into my room and began to pack

my clothes. After five minutes Jerry walked in. Noticing the open bag

on the futon, he asked, "What the hell are you doing?"

"Leaving."

"Why, for Christ's sake?"

"I figured, after what happened at the Meridien ..."

"What you did was dumb. Totally dumb. But .. . part of the blame lies

with me. Because I should have told you that Peterson was working with

us."

"What?" I managed to say.

"You sound shocked," Jerry said.

"I am shocked."

"It's a recent development. And anyway, he's just helping us in an

advisory capacity. Keeping his ear to the ground for new companies

that the fund might want to consider for investment."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because, knowing your past with the guy, I figured you might have

taken the news badly."

"You figured right. I mean ... I can't believe this, Jerry. The guy

is my nemesis. Arch Enemy Number One. Not to mention a completely

evil fuck. And now you want to work with him?"

"He's an important player at GBS. He could be very useful to us. And

when I met him three weeks ago-" "This has been going on for three

weeks'?"

"Ned, cut the betrayed-spouse routine. We're talking business here. I

was introduced to Peterson through a couple of business contacts, he

seemed like a smart operator with his finger on the pulse of the

industry, so I offered him a consultancy deal with us- which, strictly

speaking, is not in line with GBS rules, but all we're talking about is

me taking him out once a month for lunch and picking his brain about

new companies. Anyway, knowing how much you loathe Peterson ..."

"With good reason."

"Right, okay, he acted appallingly toward you.. .. So, knowing {|

that, I really didn't want to get you upset about what was, is, nothing

more than a consultancy situation which doesn't really concern * you.

Having said that, what happened tonight changes things a bit."

"In what way?"

"That was Mr. Ballantine on the phone when you came in. Word's

already gotten back to him about the scene in the ballroom. Know what

he told me?

"You've got to admire Ned for tearing a strip or two off the bastard.

But it was still an asinine call."

" I shrugged and said, "Guilty as charged. I'm sorry."

"Apology accepted. And unpack your clothes while you're at it.

Nobody's firing you."

"Thanks, Jerry."

"But we still have a situation on our hands here. GBS is the biggest

global player in the computer industry. Ted Peterson is our conduit to

them. He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch. We don't

want to lose him. So here's what Mr. Ballantine suggests: You take

him out to dinner and smooth things over with him.. .."

"No fucking way!"

"Ned, when Mr. B. 'suggests' something, it is tantamount to an

order."

"Does he understand my history with Peterson?"

"Completely. And, of course, he is on your side. But, like I said

earlier, this is business-and, as Mr. B. is fond of remarking, in

business you often have to sleep with assholes. Anyway, he thinks it

would be character building for you to confront Peterson man-to-man

over dinner, and reach some sort of detente with the guy."

"I still don't like it."

"C'est la fucking vie, Ned."

"Say I refuse."

"Then, I'm afraid, you will be packing your bags."

It was the response I was expecting. And dreading. I threw my hands

up in the air-the universally recognized gesture of capitulation.

"Okay, okay, I'll meet the guy."

"Attaboy."

"But say he refuses to meet me? Especially after the shit I said about

him in public?"

"He won't refuse to meet you."

"How can you be so certain?"

"Because I know he wants this consultancy. Badly. In fact, he really

needs it."

"But why? He's a big swinging dick at GBS."

"A big, swinging, overextended dick. With the usual upper-middle-class

money problems. Trying to make ends meet on three hundred grand a

year. It seems Ted just can't do it for less than three-seventy-five.

Which means he's got a mounting debt dilemma. A dilemma that could

easily be solved by playing swami to our fund."

The phone rang. Jerry reached for it. He had a fast, hushed

conversation with the person on the other end of the line, then hung

up.

"That was my date for tonight. My seriously pissed-off date, who I was

supposed to have met at the Odeon thirty minutes ago."

"You can blame me."

"Believe me, I will. You free tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, I suppose so."

"I'm going to try to set up this dinner with Peterson for then.

Probably near his office in Stamford. It's best to get this all behind

us as quickly as possible. How was Boston, by the way?"

"I wanted to talk to you about that. The guy I was seeing at Federal

and State-" "It's great you got to see someone there. They're real

comers in the mutual fund game.. .."

"Yeah, but the guy I saw .. . Well, he had, uh, a few questions about

Excalibur...."

"Look, I really don't have time to deal with this now."

"How about tomorrow over breakfast?"

"I'm doing breakfast in Philly. And then I'm off to Wilmington and

Baltimore for back-to-back meetings. Won't hit the city until around

ten. But hey, I'll meet you here at ten-thirty, we'll catch a drink

somewhere, and you can tell me all about what happened in Boston and

how you sorted things out with Peterson. I'll get Peggy to set the

dinner up with his secretary-and she'll call you as soon as she has

details of when and where."

Sure enough, at eleven the next morning the phone rang in my office.

Jerry's secretary, Peggy, came on the line to say that dinner with Mr.

Peterson had been arranged for seven that evening in Connecticut in the

atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, located on the Post Road in Old

Greenwich.

"Mr. Peterson will be driving to the Hyatt directly from his office,"

Peggy said.

"But if you catch the six-oh-four Metro-North train from Grand Central,

you'll be in Old Greenwich by six-forty-eight. And then it's just a

ten-minute cab ride to the restaurant. So the two of you should meet

right on time."

That is exactly what should have happened, had the 6:04 from Grand

Central not ground to a halt outside of Port Chester for nearly a half

hour, thanks to a major signal failure. Using my cell phone I called

the restaurant and said I would be late. Already dreading this

face-to-face with Peterson, I now felt my apprehension level

skyrocket.

At Old Greenwich station I called a cab. It took ten minutes to

arrive-which meant that I didn't reach the Hyatt Regency until nearly

7:45 P.M. The atrium had a themed decor: a suburban Garden of Eden,

with a stream, gravel paths, and semitropical trees.

Peterson was seated at a corner table. He looked terrible. His skin

was pasty, there were deep black circles of fatigue under his eyes, his

fingernails were ravaged. He had the aura of someone who hadn't slept

for days and was in a state of ongoing trepidation. And he was

drinking. Heavily. As I sat down at the table, a waitress was placing

a fresh Scotch on the rocks in front of him. He already reeked of

Johnnie Walker.

"Thanks for being prompt," he said.

"Didn't they give you my message? The train .. ."

"Yeah, I got it. Drink? I'm about three ahead of you."

"A Perrier, please," I said to the waitress.

"What are you, a Mormon?"

"I'm just not drinking, Ted."

"Well, that makes one of us," he said, taking a deep swig of his

Scotch.

"Believe me," I said, "I don't want to be here, either."

"That was some fucking show you put on at the Parker Meri-then last

night. I really want to thank you for that."

"You deserved nothing less."

"You're really out to get me, aren't you?"

"Oh, please. Who made the phone calls to that dweeb at Home Computer

Monthly, threatening to pull the GBS account if they didn't fire Ivan?

Who pulled the same shit with Phil Goodwin to keep me out of a job?"

"And who forced my hand on that advertising spread for CompuWorld?"

"You reneged on the deal, remember?"

"And you tried to play hardball with me .. . which kind of got my back

up."

"Oh, I get it. You're one of those business is war jerks. If somebody

gets your back up, that entitles you to destroy their career...."

"I operate according to a very basic principle: You fuck me, I fuck

you. I think it's called the 'law of the jungle."

" "No-it's the law of immoral assholes like you.. .."

The drinks arrived, forcing me to bite off that sentence in midstream.

As the waitress placed the fresh Scotch in front of Ted, he drained his

previous glass.

"Are you going to be ordering dinner?" she asked.

"I'm not hungry," Ted said.

"Me, neither," I added.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Ted hissed, "Want to know a little

secret? I really don't give two shits what you think about me. And I

really wouldn't start playing the moral card with me. Especially since

I know what you're up to."

"I'm up to nothing."

"Of course you'd say that. But I know ..."

"What?"

".. . the game you're playing."

"What goddamn game?"

"Don't go all naive on me, pal. You don't think I catch the drift, the

subtext of this meeting? Believe me, you can tell your boss, Jerry, I

get the point. Loud and clear."

I stared at him, mystified.

"You've lost me here."

"Have I now?" he said, emitting an acrimonious little laugh.

"Man, you're better than I thought at the bullshit-spinning game. Then

again, I'd expect no less from a true disciple of Jack

Ballan-tine's."

I felt a jolt of fear. Ted saw it and smiled. He also snapped his

fingers at the waitress and pointed to his now empty glass.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.

"Did Jerry program you to say that?"

"Nobody programs me ..."

"Sorry, sorry. I forgot you're not a Moonie-just a convert to the

Church of the Great Motivator."

"I don't work for Jack Ballantine."

"Yes, you do. Because I work for Jack Ballantine, too."

"Now I'm really lost," I said.

"Sure you are. You 'know nothing." Nothing at all."

"Really I don't.. ."

"Then what are you doing here tonight?"

"Jerry wanted me to see you ..."

"There you go."

".. . in the hope that we could, maybe, sort things out."

"Well, you can tell him that I do not automatically bend over when

threatened."

"I am not threatening you."

"This whole fucking thing is a threat," he said loudly. Then, noticing

that he had attracted the stares of a few nearby diners, he leaned

forward and whispered, "Tell Jerry my position hasn't changed. Two

hundred grand up front, an eight percent taste on all future deals.

Otherwise .. ."

His Scotch arrived. He drained it in one gulp.

"Otherwise what?" I asked.

"Otherwise ... well, put it this way: Knowledge is power."

"I still don't get what you're talking about," I said.

He looked at me with drunken admiration.

"You're good. You're real good. I now see why they hired you. You're

perfect.. .."

"Perfect for what?"

He stood up.

"I really have nothing more to say on the subject. Except this: You're

going to get found out. You, Jerry, Mr.-Fucking-High-rise. It's one

of the only rules of life. We all get found it. It's just a matter of

time."

With that, he turned and staggered away. He didn't get very far, as

the six whiskeys he'd thrown back suddenly kicked in and he stumbled

right into a waiter carrying a tray of food. The tray smashed to the

floor, the waiter skidded into a table, and Peterson ended up collapsed

against a banquet table. Within seconds the maitre d' was on the

scene. Helping Peterson up, he caught a whiff of his breath and began

to frog-march him toward the door. I threw some money down on the

table and caught up with them in the lobby. The maitre d' was holding

Peterson by the arm in an attempt to keep him vertical.

"Can I give you a hand there?" I asked the maitre d'.

"Is he with you?" the maitre d' asked me.

"I'm afraid so."

"Well, he's drunk and I want him out of here, now. You okay to

drive?"

"I was only drinking Perrier-you can check with your waiter."

"Then I'm making it your responsibility to get him home. And when he

sobers up tomorrow, tell him he's barred from here. Permanently."

He handed Peterson over to me. Grasping him by the arm, I led him out

the door and into the parking lot.

"Where are your car keys?"

"Fuck you," he said, the words slurring.

I tightened my grip on his arm and, with my free hand, quickly frisked

him. Then I reached into the left pocket of his suit jacket and

removed his keys. They were attached to a ring with a BMW logo.

"What color is your car?" I asked.

"Black."

"Where'd you park it?"

He pointed to a distant corner of the parking lot.

"There," he said.

"Great," I said and led him off in search of the BMW.

The sun had just set, the lot was surprisingly large, and there wasn't

much in the way of street lighting-so the hunt for the black BMW was a

tiresome business, especially as I was having to maneuver a drunk at

the same time. Peterson had now veered into incoherence, and kept

bumping into fenders and hoods. Scraping his shin against a parked

Volvo, he muttered a threat: "You do that again, I'll hit you back."

"Come on, come on," I said, taking hold of him by the back of his

belt.

"The sooner we get to the car, the sooner you get home."

After five minutes of lurching through this obstacle course of parked

cars, we finally reached the BMW. But as I leaned Peterson up against

the passenger door and bent down to unlock it, I heard a voice behind

me.

"Tell you what, pardner-say we all give him a lift back."

Keeping a grip on Peterson, I spun around. There, standing behind me,

were two dark, heavyset guys. They were both wearing baseball caps and

sunglasses. They were both carrying guns. Within seconds they had

converged on us. When I tried to scream, I felt something cold and

metallic nuzzle the side of my head. It was a small nine-millimeter

pistol placed directly against my left temple.

"I'd shut the fuck up if I was you," Thug Number One said, a hint of

Dixie in his voice. Grabbing the car keys from me, he tossed them to

Thug Number Two. He had his gun held against Peterson's heart-but the

whiskey had muddled Ted's brain so badly that he wasn't really

cognizant of what was happening. Thug Number Two unlocked the rear

door, shoved Peterson inside, then joined him in the backseat and threw

the keys back to Thug Number One. He led me to the driver's door,

opened it, and told me to get inside. As Thug Number Two covered me

with his gun, Thug Number One ran around to the front passenger door

and climbed in. Then, dropping the keys into my lap, he said:

"Drive."

"You want my money, take my money," I said.

"Just let us-" I didn't get to finish that sentence. Thug Number One

rammed the barrel of the gun against the side of my head again-only

this time he made certain I felt some pain.

"You want instant brain surgery, you keep talking."

"Okay, okay," I muttered, terrified.

"Now drive the fucking car."

I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine fired on the

first try. I slapped the gear stick into first and headed toward the

lot's exit. As soon as we were moving, Thug Number One removed his gun

from my head, but kept it ready in his lap. Glancing into the rearview

mirror, I could see that Thug Number Two had also lowered his pistol.

Not that he really needed it-Peterson was now sprawled across the

backseat, deep in an alcoholic stupor.

"Okay," Thug Number One said.

"Here's how this is gonna work. You're gonna do exactly what I tell

you to do, drive exactly where I tell you to drive. You open your

mouth, you get shot. You try to get help, you get shot. You run a red

light, you get shot. You reading me here?"

"I'll do whatever you-" He jabbed me in the leg with the gun.

"I said, no fucking talking. Now turn right."

We headed north along the Post Road, then took a right under the

interstate and headed downhill toward Old Greenwich. My hands were

sweating so badly they kept slipping down the wheel. And my eyes were

watering with pure, undistilled fear, because I was certain that they

were going to kill us.

Pulling onto the main drag of Old Greenwich, Thug Number One ordered me

to make a sharp right underneath the railway bridge, followed by a fast

left down a road that ran parallel with the tracks. After fifty yards.

we reached a railway crossing with safety gates on either side of the

tracks. Thug Number One turned back to his colleague and asked, "This

the place?"

Thug Number Two nodded. He told me to pull the car off the road and

cut the headlights.

We sat there for a minute or two, the silence punctuated by Peterson's

snores. Then, in the distance, we heard the faint rumbling of an

approaching train, followed by the bells and flashing lights of the

descending safety gates.

"Now," said Thug Number One. Immediately, Thug Number Two was pulling

Peterson out of the car, getting him on his feet and walking him,

double time, toward the crossing. The gates started to descend. Thug

Number Two squeezed Peterson and himself under the descending gate just

before it fell into place. They were now inches away from the railway

tracks. And I suddenly knew what was about to happen.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," I said.

"You can't, you-" "Just sit tight," Thug Number One said softly, his

gun back up against my forehead.

I stared numbly ahead, watching as Thug Number Two led Peterson between

the two rails. Peterson was swaying back and forth, oblivious to where

he was or what was about to happen. Suddenly they were both caught in

the full spectral glow of the train's headlights. The engine driver

frantically began to blow the whistle, brakes shrieking. Thug Number

Two let go of Peterson and made a dash off the tracks. The driver's

whistle was now screeching nonstop. Peterson appeared almost bemused

by this sound, and turned toward the train, blinking in the light.

Then, suddenly, he realized where he was. His mouth opened wide. The

whistle drowned out any scream. Thug Number Two had climbed over the

gates and was running toward the car. Peterson attempted to jump to

safety, but he tripped, his head landing on a rail, just as the train

.. .

I covered my face with my hands. For an instant, the world fell

silent. Then Thug Number One turned to me and smiled.

"Looks like you just committed a murder," he said.

THREE

ONE

They ordered me to drive back toward Old Greenwich station. Halfway

there, Thug Number One directed me to stop on a narrow, darkened road

near a large park, and to cut the headlights. The road was empty of

traffic-though I did notice a car parked in the near distance.

"We're getting out," Thug Number One said.

"Now this is how we're gonna end our little collaboration. You're

gonna sit here for five minutes while we drive away. Then you're gonna

drive to Old Greenwich station, park the car, and take the next train

into the city. Jerry's expecting you back at his place."

"Jerry?" I said hoarsely.

"Yeah, Jerry. Now before we say good-bye, I just want you to be aware

of one little thing. If you think you're gonna get out of this by

going to the police, you are very wrong. Because all you'll be doing

is indicting yourself for first-degree murder. Of course you might be

considering another alternative-like maybe pulling a disappearing act.

Well, if you do vanish, then we will make certain that the police get a

tip-off about you being the number-one prime suspect in this case. And

the Feds will be chasing your ass by tomorrow morning.

"So do the smart thing-and do nothing, except, of course, get yourself

back to Jerry's place. And I'd be prompt if I was you- because he

wanted you to know that, if you're not there by midnight, he'll make

that call to the cops. You've got just under three hours to make it to

Manhattan, so I wouldn't stop anywhere for a drink if I was you.

Understand?"

I nodded.

"You got any questions?"

I shook my head.

"Glad to hear it. Now we've got one last piece of housekeeping to deal

with. My friend and I are gonna give the car a nice little rubdown of

anywhere we might have touched. Of course, should you try to drive

away before this domestic chore is completed ..."

"I won't try to drive away."

"You know something? I'm beginning to like you more and more."

"I'm pleased," I muttered.

"Now sit tight, 'cause this'll just take a sec."

With that, they both got out of the car, pulled out handkerchiefs, and

comprehensively polished every surface. It took about five minutes. I

sat there, a cold sweat streaking down my back, my fingers gripping the

steering wheel tightly. It was the only thing keeping me steady right

then. When they finished, Thug Number One motioned for me to roll down

my window.

"Well, here's where we say adios. And remember-once we drive away, you

wait five minutes before heading back to the station. And believe me,

we'll know if you duck away earlier. Real nice working with you,

pardner."

I watched as they walked the hundred yards to their car. It was parked

far enough away from the BMW-and on a pitch-black stretch of road-to

make it impossible for me to recognize its make and model. Driving

away, they kept their lights off until they turned a corner and

vanished from my view, ensuring that I wouldn't be able to note its

license plate number. Their meticulousness was frightening-because it

meant that Peterson's murder (and my role in it) had been planned with

painstaking care.

Sitting behind the wheel, staring at the clock on the dash, waiting for

the five minutes to expire, I was suddenly sick. I stumbled out of the

front seat and collapsed to my knees just as a cascade of vomit poured

out of my throat. I kept retching until I nearly convulsed.

I'd been set up, primed to take the fall. And Jerry had been the

author of this clot.

"This whole fucking thing is a threat," Peterson had shouted at me in

the restaurant.

But I'd said nothing threatening. In fact, the dinner was supposed to

be a stab at reconciliation. So why the hell did Peterson act as if I

was there to put the thumbscrews on him? Unless, of course, Jerry told

him in advance that I was going to play the heavy, and demand .. .

Demand what?

"Tell Jerry my position hasn't changed. Two hundred grand up front, an

eight percent taste on all future deals. Otherwise .. . well, put it

this way: Knowledge is power."

What did Peterson know that gave him such alleged "power"? A power

that evidently so threatened Jerry that he'd had him thrown under a

train? Granted, Peterson had figured out that Ballantine was behind

the fund-but was that a reason for whacking the guy? Did it have

something to do with the two hundred grand he was demanding?

"You're going to get found out. You, Jerry, Mr.-fucking-High-rise.

It's one of the only rules of life. We all get found out. It's just a

matter of time."

Those final comments-his last words-kept reverberating in my head. A

murder had been committed. The police would be looking for a suspect.

And I was, without question, the man they'd come searching for, because

everything, everything pointed to me.

I was going to get found out.

I would have to run. But if I ran, Jerry would hand me to the cops on

a platter. Anyway, running away took work, planning, cash, time-and

time was definitely not on my side. In fact, if I wasn't back at

Jerry's loft in ... I glanced at my watch. The five-minute detention

had passed. It was now 9:15. And given the way he so carefully

plotted Peterson's death, I was certain that, unless I was at his loft

by midnight, Jerry would act on his threat to turn me in.

So I got myself up off my knees, slid back into the car, and shakily

drove the five minutes to Old Greenwich station.

I left the car in a distant corner of the parking lot. Using the tail

nf my shirt I wiped down the steering wheel the door handle and

anything else I might have touched. Then I tossed the keys into a

drain and boarded the 9:27 back to the city.

The train was almost empty. There were only two other passengers in my

car, and they glanced over at me with interest-noticing, no doubt, the

shirttail hanging out of my trousers, the rumpled state of my suit, the

residue of vomit on my lips, the fear etched into my face. After I

took a seat at the rear of the car, the conductor came onboard and

announced, "Looks like there's been some sort of accident up ahead, so

we're not going anywhere for a little while."

I stiffened-and wondered if anybody noticed.

"D'you know what's going on?" asked one of the passengers.

"Seems there's a body on the tracks around a mile south of here. I

believe it's on the northbound side, but the cops have temporarily

closed the line in both directions."

The next few minutes were the longest of my life. I had to resist the

immediate temptation to dash off the train, grab a cab, and order the

driver to take me to Manhattan. That would have meant calling

attention to myself. The people on the train and the driver would

remember me as someone who seemed both jumpy and desperate to get out

of town. But I was also worried about being stuck for so long that I

might just miss Jerry's midnight deadline. So I resolved to bail out

and find a taxi if the train wasn't moving within forty-five minutes.

Happily, the train jerked into motion after only ten minutes had

passed. Initially, we crept along the tracks. It only took a minute

to reach the scene of the "accident." There were four cop cars, an

ambulance, and a slew of official-looking folk crowding alongside the

tracks. The rear of the ambulance door was open, and I could see the

shape of a corpse through a white plastic body bag. A uniformed cop

stared up at the train. Instinctually, I lowered my head, then

thought, Did he see that? .. . Is he reaching for his walkie-talkie

right now and radioing the cops at the next station to pick up a

potential suspect on the southbound Metro-North train?

"Real pretty scene, huh?"

I jumped and found myself staring at the conductor. He observed my

overreaction with amusement.

"Scare va? Sorry."

"Didn't see you coming," I said.

"I was just..."

I pointed to the window.

"Yeah, it's a real mess. And when we were sitting at Old Greenwich,

waiting for 'em to clear the line, word came through that the driver of

the train saw two men on the line. But they only found one body."

"No kidding?" I said.

"Yep-it's all kind of suspicious, if you ask me. You going straight

through to Grand Central?"

I nodded and handed him a $20 bill. He punched a ticket and returned

it to me with the change.

"Have a good one, sir."

No chance of that.

Thankfully, after the train inched by the accident scene it picked up

speed. I spent the journey staring out the window at the dark void of

night, my brain swamped by images of Peterson's final moments on the

railway tracks. And then I saw myself seated on that park bench in

Boston Common the day before, mulling over Elliot Capel's suspicions

about the fund. My instincts had told me to abandon ship, to quit the

job on the spot. But I stayed put. Just as I stayed put after I first

read the Excalibur prospectus and felt uneasy about the legitimacy of

the fund. Just as I pleaded for this job without ever considering what

I might be actually called upon to do.

And now each of those decisions suddenly seemed huge, monumental,

life-defining, whereas earlier I must have spent no more than a few

seconds formulating them. Is that all it takes to make a wrong choice?

A few anxious milliseconds-when you're so desperate, you'll grab at

almost anything offered?

We reached Grand Central just after eleven. I hailed a cab and was at

the loft forty minutes before the midnight deadline. Jerry was seated

at the kitchen table, talking, as usual, on the phone. He hung up as

soon as I entered.

"So how was the dinner with Peterson?" he asked pleasantly.

"You know exactly how it went, you sonofabitch."

"Sorry-I don't."

"Oh, really?" I said.

"Well then I'll tell you. After dinner, two euvs with eruns hustled us

into Peterson's car. made, me drive to a quiet little spot near the

Old Greenwich train station, and watch while they threw Peterson under

an oncoming New Haven express. So that's how my goddamn evening went,

Jerry...."

"I'd lose that unpleasant tone of voice if I were you," he said,

standing up and opening a kitchen cabinet.

"I'll give you any 'tone' I want. Especially since the two guys who

killed Peterson let it be known that you were the brains behind this

operation."

"Did they really say that?" he asked mildly. Then, holding up a

bottle of Scotch and two glasses, he asked: "Feel like a whiskey? I

think you can use one after what you've been through."

"Fuck your whiskey."

He shrugged.

"Suit yourself," he said, pouring himself a shot.

"Why did you order Peterson to be killed?"

"What are you talking about? I didn't kill Peterson. You did. There's

nothing connecting me to the crime whatsoever. I mean, all I told you

to do was take him out for dinner. Next thing I hear, he's fallen

under a train. Nasty way of ending someone's life. Allen."

I sank down into the sofa and put my head in my hands. He came over

and crouched down beside me, and continued to speak in an easy,

matter-of-fact tone.

"Think about it. Everyone knows you despised Ted Peterson because he

destroyed your career. And everyone who attended the SOFT US reception

last night would be able to testify to the level of your hatred, thanks

to that shouting match. I bet you were also the last person to be seen

with him-as, no doubt, the maitre d' at the Hyatt Regency would also

tell the cops. You left together, too, didn't you? And, from what my

associates just told me, he was totally smashed at the time, and you

appeared to be entrusted with the job of getting him home.

"Now let's face it, Ned, the scenario I'm describing will be music to

the ears of the local district attorney for Fairfield County. Not only

does he have you at the scene of the crime, he also has a motive, to

boot. What's more, only a few minutes after killing him, you boarded a

train. Surely, there must have been a conductor on duty who saw you.

Just as I bet there were a couple of passengers in the same car who

could easily pick you out of a line-up."

I felt another wave of nausea-but there was nothing left to bring up.

"Now I know that, under police interrogation, you'd probably weave some

story about working for Ballantine, and how the Excalibur Fund was

owned by us. Well, there's absolutely no record of your ever being

employed by us-and the fund, as I already told you, is divvied up

between three offshore-registered companies. Yes, we do pay taxes on

the fund's revenue-we are good citizens, after all-but the holding is

constructed in such a way that, on paper, it can never be traced back

to Ballantine Industries. In fact, there's no way that the actual

company owner's identity can be divulged. Under U.S. law this

information is also confidential.

"So, you see, Ned-we are clean, and you are .. . well, a murderer."

I hit Jerry. With the open heel of my right hand. Catching him right

on the nose. He fell to one side, his hands covering his face. I

grabbed a heavy glass ashtray off the table, and was about to bring it

down on his head.

"Go on," Jerry taunted, "do it. And get indicted for two murders while

you're at it."

I froze, the ashtray raised above my head. Then I let it drop on the

sofa. I followed, slumping back down into the cushions. Jerry picked

himself up off the floor, walked over to the kitchen, opened the

fridge, filled a dish towel with ice cubes, and held it against his

bloodied nose.

"That was dumb, Allen," he said.

"Very dumb."

I forced myself up from the sofa.

"I'm out of here," I said.

"I'm afraid you're not going anywhere. If you do, then the police will

be tipped off that you are the man they are looking for."

I said nothing.

Jerry removed the ice pack from his nose, studied the dish towel for

blood, shrugged, and tossed it into the sink.

"You don't even throw a good punch," he said.

"What do you want?"

"Want? Me? I want nothing, Allen. Nothing except your loyalty.

Because the scenario I've been describing will only be played out if

you do something rash. Like blab to the newspapers. Or go on the run.

Or try to leave the job."

"The police will be on to me very fast."

"No way. Sure, there will be talk in the papers about some guy having

been seen with Peterson-but, unless the cops are tipped off, who will

know it's you? I mean, before meeting him at SOFT US when was the last

time you made contact with Peterson?"

"Before Christmas."

"There you go. Anyway, if, for some accidental reason, you were

fingered, I'd help you with an alibi. Sure you were seen arguing with

Peterson at the Parker Meridien. But on the night he died, you were

out of town on business."

"How will I ever prove that?"

"Give me one of your credit cards." When I hesitated, he barked,

"NOW."

I dug out my wallet and handed over my MasterCard (the only one that

was usable).

"You had to fly to Miami for the day on fund business. You stayed at

the house of a Victor Romano...."

"Who's he?"

"One of the original investors in the fund. An FOB. Anyway, he'll

vouch for you. And by this time tomorrow, using your MasterCard, I'll

have a New York-Miami airline ticket dated for today in your name. I'll

also arrange for a rental car receipt, just to make things look really

convincing."

"Isn't that illegal?"

"Only if you get caught. And believe me, you won't get caught. Because

it will all be authentic documentation."

"How the hell will you arrange that?"

"I know people.. .."

"I'm sure you do."

He objected to the tone of that last comment.

"You want an alibi or not?"

"What I want is to be out of this situation."

"Well, that's not going to happen. So a solid alibi is your only shot

at beating the rap."

"You know, even -with the manufactured alibi, it's not going to be that

clear cut. The cops are obviously going to question Peter-son's

secretary. And they'll find out that I had dinner with him."

"No, they won't."

"But you had Peggy call his secretary to set up the dinner."

"Well, actually, I called him directly, myself."

"But surely, he told his secretary about the dinner. Or wrote it down

in his business diary."

"Believe me, he didn't."

"You can't know that.. .."

"I do know that. Because the dinner with you was not something he

would've wanted anyone to know about."

"Stop talking in fucking riddles, Jerry. Why would he have been so

secretive about meeting me?"

"It doesn't concern you."

"Of course it concerns me, Jerry. It's my ass on the line."

"Ned, as long as you don't eat at the Hyatt Regency again, you are not

going to have any problems. No one will ever place you at the

scene-and, in the wholly unlikely event that they do, well, you'll have

the Miami alibi to fall back on. So, you see, you're in the clear. In

fact, if I were you, I'd go out and celebrate. Buy yourself a new

suit. I hear there's a sale on at Armani.. .."

"How can you fucking stand there, joking with me about buying a suit,

after authorizing a whack... ."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. As the great Ronald Reagan once said, "There you go

again." But, okay, I will attempt an explanation. There was a problem

in that Mr. Ted Peterson was trying to harm our fund- and, in the

process, the reputation of Mr. Ballantine. It seems his personal

financial problems were so acute that he had no choice but to resort to

blackmail-he had begun to threaten us, saying he'd spread

misinformation about Excalibur unless a substantial payoff was

forthcoming."

I was about to say, You mean, the information that the fund is bogus?

But I stopped myself. Knowledge might be power .. . but it also can be

dangerous to your health.

"But though the alleged intelligence he had on the fund was completely

spurious, the fact remains: Mud sticks-something Mr. Ballantine knows

all too well. Had Peterson played the blackmail card, that little shit

could have undermined the credibility of everything connected to

Ballantine Industries-including your job. Would he have played that

card? It's doubtful. But, if you've read The Success Zone, you'll

know that one of the great Ballantinian business strategies is this:

Doubt breeds apprehension. So go on the offensive and shut down all

avenues of doubt. That's all I did. I shut down Peterson. And then I

closed off any avenue of doubt I might have about you by ensuring your

ongoing allegiance to me."

"You trapped me."

"That's one interpretation. If I were you, however, I'd look upon this

situation as an opportunity. As long as you maintain your silence and

do your job, you will flourish. We really do reward loyalty-and, as I

know you're an ambitious guy, I'm sure you'll rise quickly up the

organizational ladder. Especially when I report back to Mr. Ballantine

that (a) you carried out a very unpleasant task with tremendous

efficiency, and (b) you can be trusted."

He looked at me with a grin that was verging on the triumphant.

"Can you be trusted, Allen?"

I swallowed hard.

"I can be trusted." Because you've got me. And because there's no way

out.

TWO

I spent a long night staring at the ceiling, sinking deeper into

despair, not wanting to close my eyes for fear of seeing Ted

Peter-son's head being pulverized on that railway track yet again. My

mind kept running through the entire scenario, looking for an angle, a

slant, a loophole, an escape clause .. . anything that might spring me

from this entrapment. I found nothing. Jerry had me cornered, boxed

in. He now controlled my life. If I displeased him-or refused to do

as ordered-he could snatch that freedom away from me with one anonymous

phone call to the police. Besides eliminating the Peterson problem,

this entire frame-up had been designed to ambush me; to make me

entirely reliant on Jerry for my life. And he, in turn, now had a

dependent pawn who would do his bidding.

Lizzie. Lizzie. Lizzie. I wanted to race to the phone, call L.A."

tell her everything. But if I did I would lose her forever. Once she

heard how I had been ensnared (correction: how, through bad judgment,

lack of acumen, and desperation, I had allowed myself to be trapped),

she would write me off permanently.

Sleep eventually hit me around five. Two hours later, there was a loud

pounding on my bedroom door.

"Get out here," Jerry shouted.

"Ted Peterson's the talk of the town."

I threw on a bathrobe and headed into the living room. Jerry was

already showered and dressed for work. He was standing near the

television, coffee cup in hand, watching the news on a local cable

station called New York One. He turned up the volume as I entered, in

time for the 7:15 news summary. The Peterson story was the top item.

The square-jawed anchorman, Fred Fletcher, looked gravely into the

camera.

"Connecticut police are today investigating the suspicious death of an

Old Greenwich computer executive who was struck by a Metro-North train

around nine last night. New York One's Mary Shipley is live at the

scene at Old Greenwich. Mary?"

As the camera jump-cut to that train crossing in Old Greenwich, I

sucked in my breath. Mary Shipley, an angular woman in her thirties,

was standing in front of several police cars, with about a dozen

plainclothes and uniformed cops looking busy in the background.

"Fred, the Connecticut State Police are baffled as to how Edward

Peterson, a thirty-three-year-old executive with Global Business

Systems in Stamford, met his death when he fell under a New Haven-bound

express train at 8:41 last night. From what the police can ascertain

so far, Mr. Peterson, a resident of Old Greenwich, told his wife that

he would be returning home late from work. His car was later found

parked at the Old Greenwich Metro North station, but the police cannot

figure out how his body ended up at this crossing, which is located

almost a half mile away from the station, and is in the opposite

direction of his house. And there are unconfirmed reports that the

train's engineer informed the police that he saw two men on the

tracks.

"It's quite a mystery, Fred-and one in which the police are definitely

not ruling out foul play. Reporting from Old Greenwich, this is Mary

Shipley for New York One."

Jerry hit the "off" button and the picture dissolved.

"

"It's quite a mystery, Fred,"" Jerry said, mimicking Mary Shipley's

voice.

"Don't you love this country? Human tragedy reduced to a snappy sound

bite. Next thing you know, Peterson's death will be a Movie of the

Week. Or an episode of Miss Marple."

"They're going to figure out it was me.. .."

"Will you please relax? They will not find out because I will not let

them find out. You're on the team. And I protect my players."

He jumped up from the couch.

"Better get my ass in gear," he said, heading toward his bedroom. Then

he turned back to me and said, "Oh, one small thing I meant to ask you.

I need you to fly

"Fund business?" I asked tentatively.

"Absolutely. You're going to meet with a representative of Victor

Romano. I mentioned him to you last night...."

"The man who's supplying me with the Miami alibi?"

"You have an excellent memory. Anyway, Mr. Romano is making a new

contribution to the fund-so it's been arranged that you'll collect it

at noon tomorrow, from his representative at the bar of the Delano

Hotel, then catch the two P.M. flight to Nassau and deposit his

contribution in the fund's account at the Bahamian Bank of Commerce."

I suddenly felt very nervous.

"Mr. Romano makes cash contributions to the fund?" I asked.

"He has highly diversified interests, especially in his construction

and hauling businesses-and much of it is done in cash."

"Isn't it illegal to transport cash from American soil to an offshore

bank?"

A sly smile from Jerry.

"Only if you get caught. According to federal law, if you take over

ten thousand dollars out of the country you're supposed fill out a

customs form declaring the amount. But, quite frankly, that defeats

the idea of moving money to an offshore bank-because once you fill out

that customs form, you've set up a paper trail. And before you can say

audit, the IRS is knocking on your front door."

"But say some customs guy does stop me. How am I going to explain a

briefcase filled with cash?"

"Ned, since you don't look like a member of the Call drug cartel, the

odds are about ten thousand to one against some customs guy stopping

you before you board the plane. Because they have bigger fish to fry.

And because it's only money."

"But won't the airport X-ray machine pick up the money bricks?"

"Not if the cash is spread out across the top and bottom linings of a

computer bag. We're talking about an inch and a half of padding on

each side-which means a hell of a lot of money can be stuffed into one

case .. . especially if it's in large denominations. And as long as

it's packed flat and loose, it won't be detected when it goes through

the X-ray machine."

"You don't mind if I check the bag to make certain there's nothing

illicit or contraband-" He cut me off.

"Ned, if I say that it's only money, then it's only money. Do you read

me?"

"Yeah, I read you."

He glared at me.

"You are going to carry out this assignment, aren't you?"

His tone said it all. This is an order. And you follow orders, or

face the consequences. I sucked in my breath.

"I'll do whatever you ask," I said quietly.

"That's what I like to hear," he said.

"I'll get someone to drop the tickets off at your office later

today."

As he headed out the door, he turned back to me and said, "Allen,

you're being smart. And I like smart."

Thirty minutes later I took the same route uptown. It was an

unseasonably warm morning-but I was indifferent to the humidity, the

sun, the din of jackhammers digging up the street near the Canal Street

subway station. I was in a room of my own, shut off from everything

around me. Then again, why should I even be cognizant of life when I

didn't have one anymore?

When I reached my office I fell into my chair and threw my feet onto

the desk, kicking away a pile of Excalibur sales brochures. They

scattered to the floor. I saw no reason why I should pick them up.

Instead I found myself staring at their glossy covers. They looked so

official. So professional. So greedily promising. Instead they were

the reason a man was dead, and I had been transformed into an

indentured servant. They were the cornerstone of the shiny trap that

had been laid for me. And now I knew why Jerry had stuck me in such a

tiny office. He was giving me a taste of my future as his prisoner.

Around noon there was a knock at the door. Still slouched in my chair,

I craned my head and shouted, "Yeah?"

The door opened. And then I heard a voice I knew.

"Howdy, pardner."

I stiffened-and found myself staring at a dark, heavyset guy dressed in

an oversized black suit.

"You wouldn't happen to be Ned Allen, would you?"

I didn't need to tell him. I'd last seen him wearing a baseball cap

and sunglasses, I knew immediately that our previous encounter had been

in the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency last night, when he held a gun

to my head.

This was Thug Number One.

"Cat got your tongue?" he asked me.

"Yeah, uh, I'm Ned Allen. And who are you?"

"I'm From Upstairs, that's who I am. Got something here for you.

He handed me a large, padded manila envelope.

"Here's your plane ticket for tomorrow. You're booked on the seven-ten

A.M. American flight from La Guardia, you land in Miami at ten-fifteen,

and then grab a cab to the Delano Hotel. You're meeting a Mr. Burt

Chasen in the bar of the hotel-try one of their pina coladas, by the

way .. . they're killers-and then it's a cab straight back to Miami

International for the one-fifty American Eagle flight to Nassau. You're

in Nassau at two-fifty-five, you take a cab directly to the Bahamian

Bank of Commerce. The manager, Oliver MacGuire, is expecting you.

You're booked back on the five-forty-five P.M. flight to Miami, you

change planes, and you jump the seven-twenty-five P.M. American flight

back to New York. You got all that?"

"I think so."

"Know so."

I wasn't exactly surprised to hear this. Jerry was ultra cautious

about leaving any sort of paper trail that could link me to Ballan-tine

Industries. I was paid in cash; I was reimbursed for my expenses in

cash. No doubt my office and my plane tickets were paid for out of an

Excalibur Fund account that had no link whatsoever to Ballantine. And

from the first day I began work there, I had essentially been barred

from showing my face at Ballantine Enterprises on the eighteenth floor.

Jerry was right: Even if I went to the cops or the newspapers and spun

a tale about dubious offshore equity funds that were run by my

employer, Jack Ballantine, they wouldn't find a damn shred of evidence

to associate me with him.

"You'll also find four hundred bucks in cash, which should cover all

the cabs you'll be taking to and from the airports. If there's

anything left over, buy yourself a good dinner."

"You're very efficient," I said.

"That's; my middle name."

"Ah, so that's what I'm supposed to call you-"Mr. Blank.||

Efficient-Blank."" ** He narrowed his eyes.

"Is that your idea of a joke?"

I met his stare, and did my best to check my nervousness.

"Haven't we met somewhere before?" I asked.

He didn't blink.

"I've never seen you before in my life."

"You sure?"

"I'm real sure. And I'm sure you're real sure, too."

It was time to end this line of questioning. Fast.

"I must have mixed you up with someone else," I said.

"Yes, you must have." He opened the door.

"Have a nice time in Miami. You obviously like going there a lot."

"I've never been to Miami."

"Yes, you have. You were there yesterday, remember?"

His eyes were still rigidly focused on me. I finally blinked.

"Of course," I said.

"Yesterday, indeed, I was in Miami."

"That's right. You were there. And in that envelope you're holding,

you'll find a couple of things to refresh your memory. Pleasure

meeting you."

The door closed behind him. I immediately ripped open the envelope.

Inside was the ticket for my upcoming trip-and another ticket to Miami

in my name, dated the day before, with the outbound inbound coupons

torn out to give the appearance that it had actually been used. There

was also a receipt, with an attached credit card slip, from Alamo,

showing that I had rented a Mustang convertible the day before at Miami

International Airport. My MasterCard fell out of the envelope-as did

three photographs- evidently taken with special high-speed night film,

clearly showing me guiding a visibly drunken Ted Peterson out of the

Hyatt Regency.

I stared at those pictures for a very long time. Then I reached into

the envelope and removed the last item. It was a tiny dictaphone.

Through the little plastic window, I could see there was a tape already

in the machine. I pressed the "play" button. The recording quality

was poor-especially as the clatter of silverware dominated the tape.

But despite the background noise, you could still hear what was being

said:

"I wouldn't worm too much about this Ted Peterson euv."

"Jerry-he's like the Terminator. He won't quit until I'm history."

"Didyou say he works for GBS?"

"Yeah-he's head of their media sales department."

"Want me to get him off your case?"

"I want him dead."

"That service we can't provide."

I hit the "stop" button and put my head in my hands. The evil

sonofabitch had taped us during that dinner at Bouley Bakery-the dinner

where he had pitched me the job. Jerry probably couldn't believe his

luck when he heard me mention Ted Peterson the previous day, when

Lizzie kicked me out and I threw myself at his mercy. And, supreme

strategist that he was, he suddenly saw a way of dealing with his

Peterson problem, while simultaneously checkmating me.

But what exactly was the Peterson problem? What did Peterson have on

Jerry, on Ballantine, on the fund? And what wrong card did he play

that made Jerry "shut him down"?

I tore the photographs into little pieces. I removed the tape from the

dictaphone and crushed it under the heel of my shoe. I scooped the

debris into the empty manila envelope. Then I picked up the phone and

called Jerry.

"Thank you for crudely reminding me how blackmail works."

"I'm not blackmailing you," he said, sounding amused.

"Okay... semantically speaking, you're right. It's not blackmail, it's

coercion. A show of brute force. A reminder of who's boss."

"Sorry, sorry-I really was being crude. Point taken, and my humble

apologies. I guess I do overplay my hand from time to time."

An example of which being the way you arranged for Peterson to be

decapitated by a New Haven-bound express.

I chose my words carefully.

"I do know what my position is, Jerry."

"I was just checking, that's all. Just making certain you were onboard

with us."

"I am onboard, Jerry."

"Then the matter won't be raised again."

"And you'll stop taping all our conversations?"

"I haven't taped all our conversations, Ned. Just selected ones." And

he hung up.

I grabbed the manila envelope and left the office. As I headed down

Madison, I saw a garbage truck parked two blocks south, on the corner

of Fifty-first Street, and tossed the envelope into its swirl of trash.

Then I stopped by a newsstand and bought an actual piece of garbage-the

New York Post. The story I was looking for covered the top half of

page three.

COMPUTER EXEC MEETS MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN FALL

UNDER TRAIN

The Post devoted over twelve paragraphs to the story (which, by tabloid

standards, made it War and Peace length). It essentially covered the

same ground as the report on New York One, with two exceptions. The

Post managed to get a quote from the engineer, Howard Bubriski, in

which he confirmed that there were two men on the line right before the

impact, ".. . and one of them appeared to get out of the way just in

time." The second new item came from an "undisclosed source," which

stated, "According to business colleagues at GBS, Peterson had seemed

troubled and depressed recently, and was evidently preoccupied by some

private problem.. .."

Better known as rubbing Jack Ballantine the wrong way.

I drifted further downtown, stopping at a New World Coffee on

Forty-third Street for a sandwich and an iced latte. Sitting there, I

read the Post story several times over, relieved to note that, so far,

no one had placed Peterson at the Hyatt Regency prior to his "little

accident." As I was perusing it for the fourth time, my cell phone

rang.

"Boss, did you see the fuckin' Post?"

"Phil?"

"The one and only. How ya doin"? You must be doin' pretty good after

Mr. Ted "Asshole' Peterson took a little dive under that train."

"Phil, can I call you straight back on a land line?"

"No problem," he said, and gave me a 718 number in Queens.

I put few coins in the slot, I quickly punched in Phil's number. He

answered after one ring.

"Something wrong, boss?" he asked immediately.

"Yeah, there is. First things first: Is this a secure line?"

"Absolutely."

"Good."

"You in trouble?"

"Big trouble."

"How big?"

"As big as it gets."

He paused for a moment.

"Don't tell me, boss .. . It's the Peter-son thing?"

"You sure this is a secure line?"

"On my mother's life .. ."

"Okay, okay," I said.

"You have something to do with him getting whacked?"

"Not exactly, but... I'd better not say."

"Understood. How can I help, boss?"

"You know 'people," don't you?"

"Sure. I know people who know people who know people ... if you catch

my drift."

"Well, I need some information."

"You got it."

"Ever heard of a guy called Victor Romano?"

"Nope. Is he a made guy?"

"Haven't a clue. All I know is, he's got a construction and hauling

business in Miami. But I have a feeling that's not his only line of

work...."

"I'll make a couple of calls, get back to you."

"No-let me get back to you."

"You've got me worried, boss."

"I've got me worried, too."

But as worried as I was, there was no way I could dodge my trip to

Miami. And so, at 7:10 the next morning, I found myself at the rear of

an American Airlines Boeing 757, heading south. Flying me economy

class wasn't just Jerry's way of reinforcing my indentured status, it

was also to ensure that I remained nice and anonymous. After all,

unless you're obstreperous, air hostesses rarely remember the faces of

people in the back of the plane.

The temperature in Miami was a cool hundred. But I didn't have much

direct contact with the heat. Hopping an air-conditioned cab to the

Hotel Delano in South Beach, I walked straight into the air-conditioned

lobby. The bar was empty. I climbed on a stool, ordered a Perrier,

and waited. After five minutes a string bean-thin man with a pencil

mustache, thinning hair, and ac heap ill-fitting light blue suit came

in. He looked like an accountant. He was carrying a black computer

case. He sat on the stool next to mine and put the case down between

us. He raised his finger toward the barman and asked for a Coke. Then,

keeping his eyes focused straight ahead, he said, "Ned Allen?"

When I turned to face him, he said, "No need to look at me. Just

answer one simple question: What's my name?"

"Burt Chasen."

"You pass the test. The case is at your feet. There's three hundred

and fifty grand inside, along with the little document the bank needs.

Don't pick it up until after I've left the bar. And tell Mr. Schubert

we might want to make another deposit next week."

He downed his Coke and put five bucks on the bar.

"I'll take care of the drink," I said.

"We're not together, remember?"

With that, he turned and left. Still nursing my mineral water, I moved

my foot to the right and hooked it under the handle of the case. I

kept it there until I finished my drink. Then, tossing down a couple

of dollars on the bar, I picked up the case, retreated to the nearest

bathroom, locked myself in a toilet stall, and opened it.

Inside was a Toshiba laptop computer. I lifted its cover, hit the

power switch, watched as the screen flickered into life, then turned it

off. On top of the computer was an envelope. Inside was an

official-looking invoice-from Exeter Industrial Equipment Inc. (with

an address in Tampa, Florida) to a company called the Veritas

Demolition Corp. The invoice contained an extensive list of machinery

bought by Veritas for the sum of $350,000. It was stamped PAID.

The computer rested on a layer of thick shockproof padding, designed to

cushion the machine against any accidental jolts. I removed the

lanton. ran my finsrers alone the interior edees of the case, and

discovered that the padding was held in place by Velcro. I carefully

pulled down a small corner of the padding. Sticking two fingers up

underneath, I managed to pry out two $500 bills. Turning to the

padding at the top of the case, I disengaged the Velcro and discovered

that the shockproof stuffing here was made up of $ 1,000 bills. Pushing

the padding back into place, I ran my fingers down every inch of the

case, making certain that there was nothing else secreted inside it.

When I was satisfied that it was clean, I repacked the computer.

Zipping the case closed, I headed for the front door of the hotel and

grabbed a cab straight back to the airport.

It was eleven-forty-five by the time I was back at Miami

International-a mere ninety minutes after I had landed from New York.

Noticing that I was just carrying hand luggage, the check-in clerk at

American Eagle asked if I wanted to rush for the earlier twelve-fifteen

flight to Nassau.

"Absolutely," I said, and, boarding pass in hand, went charging for the

gate. There was one rather nerve-wracking moment, when I had to hand

over the case to a security officer who then tossed it on the conveyor

belt for the X-ray machine. As I passed through the metal detector, I

tracked the case's progress, hoping that Jerry was right about

flattened money not registering a suspicious outline on an X-ray

screen.

The case passed inspection and slid down to the end of the ramp. A

well-dressed elderly gentleman accidentally made a grab for it. Within

seconds, my hand was gripping his arm.

"I think you've picked up the wrong case, sir," I said.

He looked down at the black computer case in his hand.

"Oh, hey, you're absolutely right, son. Real sorry about that."

He passed me the bag and then reached for a vaguely similar black case

at the bottom of the conveyor belt. I decided that he had made a

legitimate mistake.

"No problem," I said.

The sixty-seat puddle-jumper took just forty minutes to leapfrog over

to the Bahamas. I still had another uneasy few minutes while waiting

to clear Bahamian customs. But the uniformed officer waved me through,

and I flagged a broken-down taxi outside the terminal. We passed

through the outskirts of Nassau. Once downtown, we cruised down Bay

Street (Naussau's Fifth Avenue, according to the driver), then turned

rieht and narked outside a small, squat concrete building, painted

pink. A brass plate to the right of the door announced that I had

arrived at the Bahamian Bank of Commerce. I stepped inside, and

entered a large open-plan room with bad florescent lighting, peeling

blue walls, and scuffed linoleum. An elderly air-conditioning system

wheezed like a consumptive. Scattered around this room were a

half-dozen steel desks at which a half-dozen rather matronly Bahamian

women were sitting. If there hadn't been IBM computers on every desk,

I could have sworn I had just walked into a 1960s Caribbean time warp.

At the rear of this room were two glassed-in offices, both painted in

what could only be described as electric green, furnished with the sort

of cheap cane furniture you expect to see in a down-at-the-heels

Hawaiian resort. Elliot Capel was right: the Bahamian Bank of Commerce

didn't exactly inspire confidence.

"Hello there, Mr. Allen," said the woman at the desk nearest the front

door.

"Uh, hello," I said, taken aback that she knew my name.

"Mr. MacGuire told us you were coming, and to keep an eye out for you.

Go straight on back-he's expecting you."

Oliver MacGuire was a Bahamian gentleman around forty. He was nearly

six foot four and had that seriously pumped look of someone who worked

hard at fending off a middle-age spread. There was a framed portrait

of Queen Elizabeth on his wall, next to one showing a younger version

of himself in cricket whites. He was wearing white today, too: white

cotton trousers, a white linen shirt open at the neck, and white canvas

shoes. Not exactly the Wall Street banker look.

"It's so nice to meet a foreign depositor for a change," he said,

shaking my hand.

"You've never met anyone from our fund before?" I asked.

He gestured for me to sit in the cane chair facing his desk.

"I don't get to meet most of my offshore clients. They are, by and

large, invisible."

"So who opened the Excalibur account here?"

"That sort of information is confidential, but your Bahamian lawyer,

Winston Parkhill, handled all the paperwork. Have you met Winston

Parkhill?"

"I only joined the fund around a month or so ago. But don't you need

an individual name attached to the account?"

"Under Bahamian law, if a company is incorporated here, there is no

need for an individual's name to be affixed to the account. All we

need is the name of a local agent, like your lawyer, Mr. Parkhill. If,

however, you yourself wanted to open an account with us, we would be

legally obliged to open it in your name-though, of course, if your

Internal Revenue Service ever came knocking on our door, we would not

feel under even the slightest obligation to let them know whether or

not you had an account with us." He smiled.

"Welcome to the world of offshore banking-where you can actually tell

the U.S. government to go to hell."

"I should open an account with you," I said.

"Just for the pleasure of thumbing my nose at the IRS."

"By all means," Mr. MacGuire said, reaching into a side drawer and

pulling out two printed forms.

"We'd love to have you as a customer. All we require is some proof of

identification-a passport would do-and your signature on these forms.

We usually demand some reference from another financial institution,

but seeing how you're already 'associated' with an existing account, we

could waive that requirement."

I took the forms, folded them, and slid them into the inside pocket of

my jacket.

I'll think about it," I said. The $1,150 a week I was being paid by

Ballantine Industries didn't exactly give me the wherewithal to explore

offshore banking options.

Mr. MacGuire focused his attention on the case beside my chair.

"I gather you are making a deposit today," he said.

I placed the case on his desk, opened it, and removed the laptop. Then

I yanked off the top padding. Money came cascading down into the

center of the case: a waterfall of $500 and $1,000 bills. I turned the

case over and released the other padding, sparking off another downpour

of cash. Mr. MacGuire didn't bat an eye.

"There's three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in there," I said.

"And you also have the 'source of funds' documentation?"

"There's an invoice in the case, if that's what you're talking

about."

"That's what I'm talking about," he said.

"Under our new anti-money-laundering legislation, Bahamian banks cannot

accept deposits over $10,000 without written proof of its origins."

He paused for a moment, and absently tapped his left index finger

against my bag.

"Of course, that doesn't mean that we must carefully investigate

whether such documentation is legitimate .. . or, for that matter, ask

questions about the intriguing means by which the money arrives on our

shores. It's a lovely case, Mr. Allen. Beautiful leather. Where'd

you buy it, if you don't mind me asking?"

"It was a gift."

"Of course it was," he said, standing up.

"I'll just have someone count this."

He headed out into the front office with the case. He returned a

minute later.

"Shouldn't take too long," he said.

"We're used to dealing with cash around here."

"How did the earlier deposits for the fund arrive?" I asked.

"Through a third party. But, to date, your deposits are only ...

what..." He tapped a few numbers into his computer, then squinted at

the screen. ".. . six million, two hundred eighty-four thousand, five

hundred and thirty-two dollars." He looked at me carefully.

"If you don't mind my saying so, that is not a substantial amount for a

private equity fund. I mean, two hundred million is, in my experience,

a more typical amount, though usually that's based on fifty million in

cash, with the rest leveraged up. And, of course, when you're talking

about a fund of that dimension, there are usually just three to four

major institutional investors involved."

"You seem to know a great deal about this sort of thing."

"You mean, for a Bahamian banker?" he said dryly.

"No offense intended."

"None taken. The reason I know so much about equity funds is that I

spent twelve years working in London for a little company called

Lehmann Brothers."

If his aim had been to embarrass me he'd succeeded.

"What made you decide to give it all up...?"

"And exchange it for this ramshackle little bank? Have you ever been

through a January in London, Mr. Allen?"

"I've never been to London."

"After twelve Januarys in London, you'd happily take a cut in pay and

conditions in exchange for a glimpse of the sky. Anyway, I'm a

Bahamian. This is my country. I wanted to come home. And the

offshore banking business here is constantly amusing- especially as it

affords me the opportunity to meet colorful businessmen like

yourself."

"I'm not 'colorful," Mr. MacGuire."

"Mr. Allen, anyone who shows up at my office carrying a computer case

containing three hundred and fifty thousand dollars is, in my book, a

colorful character."

The phone on his desk rang. He answered it, spoke a dozen or so words,

hung up, and looked back up at me.

"Your three hundred and fifty thousand dollars are all present and

accounted for."

He pulled a large buff-colored receipt book toward him, picked up a

pen, filled in the receipt and the stub, grabbed a stamp, inked it,

slammed it down twice in his book, then tore off the receipt and handed

it to me.

"Now it's official," he said.

"You can pick your case up at reception. And, of course, don't forget

your laptop."

I stood up, tucked the Toshiba under one arm, then thanked him for his

assistance.

"I'm sure I'll be seeing you again soon," he said.

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On how fast our fund investment grows."

He gave me a conspiratorial smile.

"Or on how many cash-filled computer cases you can carry at one time,"

he said.

I said, "I'm not a courier, Mr. MacGuire." But, of course, I knew

that I was now whatever Jerry Schubert wanted me to be.

A puddle-jumper to Miami, a fast connection to New York, and I was back

at La Guardia by 10:20 that night. On my way out of the terminal I

picked up a copy of the Post. The Ted Peterson story may have been

relegated to page five, but the headline still made me shudder.

COMPUTER EXEC IN RESTAURANT CLASH HOURS BEFORE DEATH

As I had feared, the maitre d' at the Hyatt Regency restaurant, Martin

Algar, had (according to the Post) come forward and informed the police

that Peterson had been in his establishment on the evening that he met

his death under that Metro-North train. Algar told the cops that

Peterson was not alone in the restaurant, but was seen having a heated

discussion with a fellow suit at a corner table-a discussion that

eventually erupted into a frequently loud argument.

The final paragraph of the story really made my day:

Connecticut State Police are now eager to question the white male seen

leaving the hotel with Peterson. He has been described as being in his

early thirties, around six feet tall, of medium build, with sandy hair,

and wearing a light gray suit.

No doubt a police artist was currently sitting across a table from Mr.

Algar, creating a composite sketch of the alleged person. No doubt as

well, several of Peterson's GBS colleagues were being interviewed by

the police.

"Did he have any known enemies?" they'd be asked. And they'd all say

the same thing.

"Well, this guy called Ned Allen had a real ugly shouting match with

Ted the night before he died."

As I slid into a Manhattan-bound cab, my phone rang. As soon as I

answered, Jerry asked, "How did it go?"

"No hitches," I said.

"Glad to hear it."

"Did you see tonight's Post?"

"I always read the Post," he said in a tone that indicated I shouldn't

bring up such matters during an easily traceable call.

"It's a wonderful newspaper. Full of interesting tales. Are you in a

cab right now?"

"Yeah."

"Then meet me at Fanelli's. I'll buy us a late dinner."

Fanelli's was the neighborhood watering hole-possibly the only

old-style bar and grill still left in SoHo. There was no traffic on

the BQE, so I arrived there just before eleven. Jerry was already

seated at a table in the little dining area beyond the bar. It was a

slow night. We were the only customers in the back room.

"Rule Number One of modern life," Jerry said after I sat down.

"Never, never discuss anything of a sensitive nature on a cellular

phone."

"I'm scared shitless, Jerry."

"Why? Because some fucking hotel maitre d' says he saw Peter-son with

a suit?"

He pulled my copy of the Post off the table, turned to page five, and

read out loud: "Early thirties, around six feet tall, of medium build,

with sandy hair, and wearing a light gray suit. The guy could be

talking about half the male population of Fairfield County."

I spoke in a near whisper.

"But say somebody tells the police about my confrontation with Peterson

at the SOFT US reception? And say they ask me to take part in a lineup

for the restaurant manager?"

"You are being totally paranoid here. To begin with, so what if you

were seen arguing with Peterson? If the cops ask around GBS, they'll

probably find half a dozen other people who had screaming matches with

the guy. Because he was the sort of asshole who went through life

picking fights with everybody. Second, if the cops do come to question

you, you've got the Miami alibi. And once they see you have legitimate

proof that you were elsewhere when the murder was committed, they're

not going to be hauling you up to Connecticut."

I said, "I really wish you'd give me some sort of clue as to why

Peterson was so dangerous to you."

"Ever heard of the old American expression, What you don't know won't

hurt you? I'd follow that advice if I were you. But know this: If,

for some extraordinary reason, the heat starts taking a real interest

in you. we'll take action to null you out of jeopardy. I said it

yesterday, I'll say it again: As long as you're on our team, you have

nothing to worry about."

I almost found myself thanking him. Then I thought, This is what they

call the Stockholm syndrome-when the hostage suddenly begins to look

upon his captor as his protector. So I said nothing, and simply

acknowledged his last comment with a nod.

"Now we have a little business to discuss," he said.

"I need you to fly to Atlanta on Monday, and see another new fund

client. Bill Simeone. He's also making a cash investment in

Excalibur.. .."

"And, let me guess, you want me to collect it, then jump a flight to

Nassau, and deposit it in our account."

"You are a very clever guy."

Jerry reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope.

"Here are your tickets. I'm afraid it's a six A.M. start. And, after

your meeting at the airport with one of Mr. Simeone's representatives,

you'll then have to fly on to Miami before changing planes for Nassau-"

"I need to know something."

"No, you won't be carrying anything contraband. And yes, Mr. Simeone

is a completely legitimate businessman, who runs one of the biggest

food processing plants in the South."

"That only answers part of my question."

"What's the other part?" he asked equitably.

"Has my job description changed?"

He had to struggle to control a smile.

"Let's say it has evolved. Because, over the past few days, we have

made a corporate decision to transform Excalibur into a fund that is

wholly made up of private investors. Which, I'm afraid, means that-"

"I'm now the fund's courier-its bag man."

He ignored my harsh tone.

"Given the large volume of cash investments I have recently managed to

acquire for the fund, I'm afraid that we do need you to perform this

courier function. I know it's not what we hired you for. And I also

know that it's not utilizing your formidable talents as a salesman.

However, once we have achieved the fund's twenty-two-million-dollar

investment objective-" "Twenty-two million! I'm going to be on that

plane to Nassau day in. day out."

Jerry's voice remained as smooth as ever.

"I'm afraid that, for the next few months, you will be racking up the

miles. However, once we've reached our objective-" "What? You'll

start having me run coke out of Colombia? Or are you going to start

exploring the possibilities of weapons sales to Iraq?"

A long pause. Jerry drummed his fingers on the table, then looked back

up at me.

"I will say this just once: If you do not like the work I am offering

you, you are free to leave. But do understand what the consequences of

that action will be."

"You'd planned this all along, hadn't you? From the moment I showed up

at your office, you thought, Here's the perfect stooge."

"You credit me with far too much advance planning and guile. I'm no

different from most reasonably successful businessmen: When I see an

opportunity I simply take it."

He extended the airplane tickets toward me.

"So, tell me: Are you flying to Atlanta or not?"

Now it was my turn to drum my fingers on the table. But after a

moment, I reached up and snatched the envelope from his hand.

He gave me an approving nod.

"I promise you, this entire courier operation will only take a few

weeks. And, believe me, it usually takes them several months before

the customs guys decide to target a frequent flyer. So there's

absolutely nothing to worry about."

I said nothing.

"Okay, then-let's order," Jerry said.

"I've lost my appetite."

Jerry used my lack of hunger as an excuse to rendezvous with his new

woman of the week. As soon as he left, I went to the restaurant's pay

phone and dialed Queens.

"Yo, boss," Phil said.

"How's it going?"

"Worse and worse. Ever heard of a character named Bill Si-me one

"Nah-but I do have some info on that Victor Romano guy you were asking

about."

"Is he a Boy Scout?"

"An Eagle Scout. Yeah, he does have a legitimate construction and

hauling business-but he's also been investigated by the Feds for

everything from gun-running to drug stuff and two murders of so-called

former associates. But the Feds couldn't make anything stick."

"Jesus," I said.

"You working with this Eagle Scout?"

"Sort of."

"Is that wise?"

"Let me put it this way: I don't have much choice in the matter."

THREE

Bill Simeone's representative turned out to be a chauffeur. He was

dressed in a dark blue blazer and wore a classic black peaked driver's

hat with a shiny black visor. As arranged, I met him in the arrivals

area. He held a sign with my name on it. When I approached him he

asked me to follow him to his vehicle. Once inside I found a computer

case on the backseat. I opened it up. It was empty. I squeezed the

top and bottom padding. It felt well-upholstered.

"Two hundred and eighty thousand, sir," he said.

"You'll also find an envelope with the necessary paperwork."

"Fine," I said.

"Are you staying with Delta for your next flight?"

"No, American."

As he drove me over to the American Airlines terminal, I opened the

nylon duffel I had brought with me. I pulled out the laptop and a few

file folders and packed them into the computer case. Folded, the

duffel fit easily into an inside pocket of the case. I scanned the

enclosed paperwork. It was an invoice from Fay & Sons (a Dallas-based

management consultancy firm) to a San Antonio company called

Cooper-Mullin for $285,000 in fees. The document looked legitimate. I

doubted whether Cooper-Mullin was.

The driver pulled up in front of the American terminal.

"Have a good flight, sir."

One hundred minutes to Miami. A sixty-minute stopover. An hour to

Nassau. And a knowing smile from Oliver MacGuire as I entered the

hank.

"And you said you wouldn't be back so soon," he said, shaking my

hand.

"I was wrong."

"How much do you have today?"

"Two hundred and eighty thousand," I said, handing him the case.

He arched his eyebrows slightly.

"Your fund is evidently taking off."

"Evidently."

The bag was handed over to a cashier named Muriel. We waited for her

to count the money in MacGuire's office, sipping Cokes. I handed him

the invoice that accompanied the cash. He gave it a cursory glance,

then tossed it into a basket full of papers on his desk.

"So tell me, Mr. Allen .. . exactly what sort of business ventures is

your fund investing in?"

"By and large, new information technology companies."

"And your investors-they are, by and large, individuals with cash-based

businesses?"

"I'm just the courier-so I don't know any of them personally."

"Of course you don't," he said pleasantly.

"And why should you? Ignorance is bliss, after all." He beamed at me,

enjoying my discomfort.

"Like I said, Mr. MacGuire. I'm just the errand boy. I pick the

money up, I bring it to you, I return to New York with the receipt. I

ask no questions, I keep my head down, I do as I am told."

"Do you want to be doing this job?"

"What do you think?"

He looked at me with concern.

"If I were in your position I would be very careful, that's what I

think."

I met his gaze.

"And why do you say that?"

"Well.. . look what happened to poor Ted Peterson."

I nearly fell off my chair.

"You knew Ted Peterson?" I asked.

"Yes, I knew Mr. Peterson."

"As a client?"

"Yes, he did have an account with us. Terribly unfortunate thing that

happened to him wasn't it?"

"His death made the papers here?"

"No, but we do get the New York Times in Nassau. As you can imagine, I

was shocked when I read of his accident... if, of course, it was an

accident. The police haven't ruled out foul play as yet, have they?"

"No, they haven't," I said quietly.

"Evidently you were also acquainted with Mr. Peterson."

"I used to be in the computer business-so, yeah, we'd met a few

times."

"And that was the extent of your association?"

"Yes," I said carefully, "just the occasional professional encounter

over the years."

He gave me another amused look.

"Then you didn't know .. ."

"What?"

"... that Ted Peterson was the gentleman who actually opened the

Excalibur Fund account with us?"

Now I was completely lost. Before I could do anything except register

shock, the phone on MacGuire's desk began to ring. He answered it,

mumbled a few words, then hung up and pulled the receipt book toward

him.

"Two hundred and eighty thousand dollars exactly," he said, writing out

a receipt.

"Why didn't you mention the Peterson connection yesterday?" I asked.

"Because I wanted to get to know you first," he said casually.

"Hang on-didn't you say that the fund's local lawyer opened the

account?"

"No-you misunderstood me. The lawyer simply handled the paperwork. But

it was Peterson who showed up here with the opening Excalibur deposit

last year."

His stamp came crashing down on the receipt.

"Of course, he opened his own personal account with us at the same

time."

"Did he have much in it?"

"That's confidential. But, let me put it this way: It wasn't

insubstantial. And though I know he's only been dead a few days, the

lawyers for his estate haven't been in touch with us about it."

"Do you think nobody knows that the account exists?"

"It's still too early to say."

"I don't understand something: If he opened his own personal account by

mail, then why didn't he make his deposits by mail?"

"Because they were all in cash-and because, like many of our customers,

he probably didn't want a paper trail linking him to this account."

If, as Jerry alleged, Ted Peterson had been in serious financial

trouble, then how had he been able to make cash deposits to an offshore

account in his name? After all, a major multinational like GBS didn't

exactly pay its executives in cash. And according to Jerry, Ballantine

Industries only started paying him a consultancy fee three to four

weeks ago. So where was he getting the money?

"Did Mr. Peterson ever tell you who was behind the Excalibur Fund?" I

asked.

"What an absurd idea," MacGuire said, handing me the receipt.

"Of course he didn't say a word about the names of his associates. And

even if he had informed me, I wouldn't tell you. A Bahamian banker is

like a priest: He cannot reveal anything that has been confessed to

him." With a laugh, he added, "But he can't offer absolution. All he

can do is bank someone's money-and tender investment advice, if

requested. So I asked Mr. Peterson no questions about anything to do

with his accounts here. Nor about the individuals behind the fund. Nor

about the origin of the six million dollars with which he opened the

Excalibur account."

I blinked.

"Peterson showed up here with six million in cash?" I said.

"How the hell did he carry it?"

"He hopped a cruise boat from Miami, if I remember correctly. And came

ashore with five duffel bags, stuffed with money. It took four of my

staff an entire day to count it all. Six million is a lot of cash."

"Did he make any further deposits to the account afterward?"

"No. The account received no additional funds until yesterday, when

you showed up-which, I suppose, makes you Mr. Peterson's successor."

He glanced at his watch.

"You must now excuse me. I'm due to play tennis with our finance

minister in less than half an hour."

"One final matter."

" Mr. MacGuire stood up.

"You must be brief. If I'm late, the minister may raise our base rate

of interest."

"Why did you tell me to be careful?"

He shrugged his shoulders, then said, "Because couriers are always

expendable, that's why."

All the way back to New York, I kept thinking, So Peterson was my

predecessor as the fund's bag man-which meant that he had been in

cahoots with Jerry and Ballantine for longer than three weeks. Which,

in turn, also meant.. .

My brain switched into rewind mode. I suddenly remembered the

telephone conversation I had had with Peterson right after he

capitulated on the CompuWorld advertising spread. When I said that I

knew all about the Joan Glaston incident, he actually sounded

relieved-as if that was a penny-ante misdemeanor compared to ... What?

My mind reeled backward to that morning I drove north to Old Greenwich

and confronted Peterson in his driveway. He had frozen when I

mentioned Grand Cayman, then turned back toward me, his eyes filled

with apprehension.

Grand Cayman. Something had gone down during that visit to Grand

Cayman, which had set in motion .. .

Hang on. Maybe it was in Grand Cayman that he found out.. . what?

Found out something that made his encounter with that Metro-North

express an inevitability?

Peterson had looked so jittery and high-strung when talking to Jerry at

the SOFT US reception. Had Jerry been threatening him the way he

subsequently threatened me? Maybe he'd been trying to turn Peterson

into his stooge-and having failed, decided I was the perfect candidate.

Jerry had cleverly stage-managed my "accidental" encounter with

Peterson at the SOFT US reception. And then he pulled off a master

stroke when he insisted that I meet Peterson at the Hyatt Regency..

..

Talk about a perfectly executed double play. Peterson silenced, me

trapped-and all it took was a little devious planning. And I would now

remain permanently trapped. Unless .. .

Here's where I drew a blank. Because I still couldn't figure a way out

of this situation. All I could think was, Couriers are always

expendable.

And I was the new courier.

I was back in New York by five that afternoon. I headed home to the

loft, checked my messages (none), threw on a pair of jeans and a

T-shirt, and decided to take myself out for an early dinner in the

Village. But as I approached Bleecker Street, my cellular phone

rang.

"Ned?"

It took a moment for the voice to register.

"Lizzie?"

"Hi, there." Her tone was pleasant, polite.

"This is a surprise," I said, then quickly added, "a nice surprise."

"I called your office, but your voice mail told me to try your

cellphone."

"Yeah-I was out of town on business this morning. Just got back.

Where're you calling from?"

"My office."

"In L.A.?"

"No-here in New York."

"You're in town?" I asked, trying not to sound excited.

"I've been here since Thursday on business. Staying with la nand

Geena-the apartment's still sublet."

Maintain a casual tone.

"And when are you heading back to the Coast?"

"First thing tomorrow morning," she said.

"I see," I said quietly.

"Listen ... uh ... my schedule's been really jammed .. . and I've got

this dinner thing tonight...."

Her nervousness was palpable. She hadn't wanted to make this phone

call.

"I understand, Lizzie," I said.

"It's just really nice to-" "Look," she said, "could you meet me

somewhere in midtown in about a half hour? I won't have much time,

but.. ."

"Name the place. I'll be there."

"The Oak Bar at the Plaza."

"I'm not really dressed .. ."

"Don't worry about that. Listen, I've got to take another call. A

half hour, okay?"

I ran to the subway-and actually managed to arrive at the Plaza on

time.

Lizzie had already found us a corner table in the Oak Bar.

"Hope you haven't been waiting long," I said, leaning across the table

to kiss her. She pivoted her face and let my lips land on her cheek.

Not a good start.

"I just arrived a minute before you." She gave her watch the fastest

of glances.

"I'm afraid I've only got twenty minutes."

"You look great," I said.

Actually, she looked wonderful. Her face was tanned. She was sleek.

She looked like she slept eight hours a night and ate her greens. She

had evidently adapted well to southern California.

"You look good, too, Ned."

I tugged on the T-shirt.

"If there'd been more time, I would have dressed for the occasion."

She shrugged.

"My fault. I shouldn't have sprung this on you at the last minute."

"I'm glad you did."

We fell silent for a moment. She gave me a tight, nervous smile, then

drummed her fingers on the table and said, "Shall we order?"

"Sure." I raised my hand. A waiter was on the scene immediately. I

pointed to Lizzie.

"A martini," she said.

"Straight up, with a twist. And you?"

"A mineral water," I said.

The waiter nodded and left.

"Just mineral water?" she said.

"It's become my staple drink these days. Haven't touched anything

alcoholic in ... well, since just after you left."

"I'm surprised. You loved your booze."

"I loved a lot of things." I looked her straight in the eyes.

"I still do."

She stared down at the table. I quickly changed the subject.

"What brings you back to the city?"

"A couple of big meetings. The company offered me two choices: either

become the full-time head of the L.A. office or return to New York as a

junior vice president."

"Nice options. What's it going to be?"

"I'm coming back. L.A. was fun for a couple of months, but there's too

much sun."

"Yeah, that would get on my nerves, too. When do you move back?"

"Monday morning. I'd rather not head back to L.A. right now, but I've

got a few last-minute pieces of business to finish up."

"Why do they need you here so fast?"

"Because we've just landed a big new account. Ballantine

Industries."

I gulped.

"That is a big account," I said.

"Yeah-and a handful, I imagine. According to his much flaunted

reputation, Jack Ballantine is a total piece of work. Still, it's an

incredibly lucrative account, and quite a challenge- especially since

the first piece of business I've got to handle is his new

self-empowerment book."

"You mean, The Best Defense Is Offense?" I blurted out.

"Very impressive."

"Well, uh, you know my connection with Jerry Schubert.. .."

"Yeah, I was actually speaking with Jerry on the phone today. We're

going to be doing a lot of liaising together on the book project. I

didn't realize you'd been living with him."

"Yeah, he offered me his guest room after we ...," I said, trying to

sound cool.

"Right," she said.

"Anyway, I finally get to meet the great man tonight. We have a dinner

date. At Le Cirque, his choice of venue- which is why I've only got a

few minutes to spare."

"Is Jerry going to be there?"

"No, he's been called out of town."

Well, that was a small mercy.

"Anyway," she continued, "I think Ballantine wanted to make it dinner a

deux. I gather he's a major ladies' man."

"I'm sure you can handle yourself."

"Believe me, I can."

"Anyway, congratulations on landing the account," I said.

"It's great news."

"I'm not hat sure. From what I've heard Ballantine doesn't have

nervous breakdowns-he gives them. Still, it'll keep me busy-which is

the main thing these days."

I didn't meet her cheerless gaze.

"You working?" she asked.

"Sort of."

"For whom?"

I had to be cautious here. I had to lie.

"Well, after I lost the tele sales job ..."

"I didn't know. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Every day there was taking a year off my life. Anyway,

once that ended, I got desperate, walked into an employment agency, and

asked them to find me anything going. And they placed me in a job with

a financial services company. They're Seattle-based, and I'm

essentially running their New York office. It's sort of a

'communications' job. Tracking the movement of funds, arranging

courier services for clients, that kind of thing. Funny thing is, my

office is in the same building as Ballantine Industries."

"Do you like the work?"

"It isn't really my kind of thing."

"Then quit."

"I need the job. I owe money."

"To whom?"

"AMEX, Visa, Barneys-the usual suspects. I think I'm still on their

"Ten Most Wanted' list."

"If you need money, I can help."

"That's really sweet, but.. ."

"You're still paying off our week in Nevis, aren't you? And my watch.

And ..."

"It's my problem. Anyway, you gave me that loan, remember?"

"It wasn't a loan. It was a gift."

"Whatever it was, I'm slowly beginning to sort things out on the money

front."

"You're still making me feel guilty."

"Why? My debt is not your fault, Lizzie."

"I was seeing someone else."

The sentence landed in front of me like a lobbed hand grenade. I tried

not to wince. I looked down. Her index finger was etching circles

inside the empty ashtray on our table. I said nothing.

"Did you hear what I said?" she asked softly.

"Yes. I heard. And?"

"He was serious. I decided I wasn't."

"TJ." *v It s over."I She nodded.

"Yeah. Just. He was nice. Solid. Dependable. Dull."

"A lawyer?"

"How did you guess?"

"I didn't. It was just a shot in the dark."

"You met him once, a few years ago. Peter Buckley."

"Isn't he Mosman's in-house counsel?"

She nodded.

"He's based here, right?" I asked.

"He does a lot of business on the Coast. So he was back and forth a

lot.. .."

"And you? Were you back and forth a lot?"

Inadvertently, she covered her mouth with her hand.

"A bit," she said.

"I'm sorry."

The drinks arrived. We did not raise glasses. She took a large gulp

of her martini, her eyes blinking rapidly as the alcohol hit. I envied

her that jolt.

"I want you to know something," she said, "and you must believe me:

This didn't start until after we separated."

"Okay," I said.

"I was so fucking angry with you."

"And now?"

"I don't know."

"I miss you. I cannot tell you how much I miss " "I'd rather not hear

this."

"It was a dumb, drunken mistake."

"It doesn't excuse it.. .."

"I'm not trying to make excuses." , "It wasn't just the fact that you

cheated on me. You pushed me away. I wanted to help you. You hated

me for trying."

"I have never hated you."

"You didn't want a child with me."

This stopped me short.

"I was scared, that's all. I" "Why didn't you say that?"

"I..."

"You could never really talk to me, could you? Especially when it came

to 'the big stuff." Never show any weakness, any fear."

"No, I couldn't. And I now know I should have said a lot of things."

"Me, too. We dodged ..."

"Everything," I said.

"And I really regret.. ."

"I regret how things turned out, too."

She took a long sip of her martini, draining half the glass.

"Anyway .. . ," she said.

I covered her hand with mine.

"Come back," I said.

She withdrew her hand.

"I saw a lawyer yesterday," she said.

"I see."

"It'll all be pretty straightforward, if you don't contest the

divorce."

I stared into my glass.

"Do you really want to end it?"

"I think so."

"Think?"

"Yeah, think."

"If you're not sure ..."

She glanced at her watch.

"Ned, not now."

"It's just... I find this really hard, Lizzie. I just wish ..."

"I've got to go," she said.

"Can I see you when you're back?"

She stood up.

"I don't know. I find this hard, too."

She quickly squeezed my hand and dashed off before anything else could

be said. I wanted to go after her, but knew better. So I forced

myself to remain seated, staring at Lizzie's half-finished martini. I

reached for it, pulled it close to my lips, but then set it back down.

I didn't feel virtuous. Just depressed. I asked for the check.

Eighteen bucks for a martini and a mineral water. Jesus. Reluctantly,

I dropped a twenty on the table. I headed off.

Suddenly a waiter came out of the bar holding my $20 bill.

"Sir," he said, thrusting the money back into my hand, "your guest took

care of the bill on her way out."

My throat tightened. I blinked and felt tears.

"Thanks," I said.

I headed back to the loft. I didn't know what to do, so I watched

television. But I couldn't concentrate on the screen. Lizzie and

Ballantine. Lizzie and Peter Buckley. Lizzie and fucking Jerry

Schubert. Without question, it was his brainstorm to get Mosman &

Keating to take over Ballantine's public relations. And I'm certain he

requested that Lizzie Howard handle the account personally. Having

snared me, now he was going to pull her into his ever-spreading web-to

really make sure that I wasn't going anywhere.

I tried to sleep. I failed. Around 4:00 A.M." after hours of

ceiling-gazing, I decided what I was going to do. It was a

"bet-the-farm" gamble-but one that had to be made. I got out of bed. I

showered, I left the loft and walked uptown to Twentieth Street, then

headed west to Eighth Avenue. It was now 4:45 A.M. With just over a

half hour to kill, I sat in an all-night coffee shop, drinking around

three pints of fully caffeinated black Java. I kept thinking that now

was, without question, the moment to re-embrace cigarettes-yet I

somehow managed to resist that temptation.

Then, shortly after 5:15, I walked half a block west on Twentieth,

parked myself opposite a well-maintained brownstone, and waited.

At 5:20 A.M. a long, black, Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of 234

West Twentieth Street. Five minutes later Lizzie emerged from la nand

Geena's apartment. As she walked toward the car, she looked up and saw

me crossing the street, approaching her. Her face registered

incredulity, then dismay.

"Oh, Christ, Ned. Why ...?"

But then she stopped and saw what only your most intimate ally can see:

real fear.

"What has happened?"

"Please," I said.

"Let me ride with you to the airport."

She hesitated for a split second, but then gave me a fast nod.

As the car pulled away I noticed that the glass partition between the

driver and the rear seat was down. As if reading my mind, she asked

the driver if we could have a little privacy.

A motor hummed as the glass partition slid up into place. When it was

closed, she looked at me.

"So .. . ," she said.

"So .. . ," I said. And began to talk. Taking her step by step

through everything that had happened since Jerry bailed me out of jail.

I spared her no details. I made no apologies for my bad judgment. It

all came spilling out. Though she said nothing, her eyes grew

wide-especially when I detailed the events in Old Greenwich earlier

that week, and explained how Jerry was now my jailer.

She didn't interrupt me once, though I knew what she was thinking: I'm

about to work for these people?

When I finally finished, there was a long silence. I reached for her

hand. I expected her to pull back or push me away. But she took it.

And held it for a moment. Tightly.

FOUR

He offered me money. She offered me a plane ticket to the destination

of my choice. She said I should disappear, escape into the great

American nowhere, assume a new identity, and hope that my vanishing act

would convince Jerry that I planned to remain silent. I could even

drop him a note, outlining my position: You leave me alone, I'll leave

you alone.

"He doesn't work that way," I said.

"You're either on his team or you're the enemy. And all enemies are to

be annihilated. I promise you, if I leave town, he'll have me on the

FBI's Most Wanted List in a heartbeat."

"Then you've got to go to the police."

"And do what? Come on like some deranged conspiracy theorist? The

story I'd tell them would sound so unhinged, they'd shove me into a

rubber room at Bellevue-and then book me for murder one after Jerry

tipped them off. All the cops would have to do is get the restaurant

manager to I.D. me. And once they took statements from any of the two

hundred witnesses who saw my screaming match with Peterson, everything

else would fall right into place, and I'd be doing a life stretch at

Bridgeport-or wherever the hell Connecticut has their maximum security

prison."

"I can't believe it's that desperate."

"Believe me, it's completely desperate."

She squeezed the palms of her hands against her eyes.

"You idiot. You stupid idiot. How, why did you take the job?

Especially when it smelled so bad?"

"I had no money. I had no home. I had no prospects. And it was Jack

Ballantine. Do the math."

She pulled her hands away from her face.

"Do you blame me?" she asked quietly.

"No way."

"I blame me."

"Don't."

"I was unforgiving."

"You were hurt."

"Yeah, and I wanted to punish you for that. And, oh, Christ, did I

ever."

"I made the bad calls, not you."

"I gave you no choice."

"I panicked myself into believing this was my only option. And once

you panic, you lose all judgment."

We pulled into Kennedy Airport, and drove up the ramp to the American

Airlines terminal. The driver opened the trunk and placed Lizzie's bag

by the curb.

"I don't know how to help you," she said.

"Can I at least call you?"

"I guess so," she said flatly. Then she got out of the car, grabbed

her bag, and hurried into the terminal. She did not look back.

The car drove me back into the city. As we approached SoHo, I asked

the driver to let me out on Broadway and Spring. It was just after

7:00 A.M. I found a telephone. I dialed Queens.

"Sorry to get you so early, Phil."

"No problem, boss. You still sound like a gun's at your head."

"Believe me, it is. You find anything about this Simeone guy?"

"Yeah. Runs a couple of big food processing plants in Georgia, South

Carolina, and Alabama. But he also has a couple of businesses south of

the border."

"What kind of businesses?"

"A ketchup factory in Mexico City, a couple of sweatshops in Bogota and

Medellin .. ."

"Medellin?" I said.

"Isn't that the coke capital of the world?"

"You read your National Geographic, boss. Anyway, nobody I spoke with

said that he's in any way connected to the white powder biz. But

there's no doubt that he knows people down there who are in that game.

You doing any business with this joker?"

"Just transporting some of his cash to an offshore bank."

"Nice work," he said sardonically.

"I have no choice."

"You are in some serious shit."

"I need a straightforward yes or no, Phil. In your considered opinion,

do you think the money I'm carrying could be from south of the

border?"

"In my considered opinion, abso-fucking-lutely. I mean, the white

powder business is about as cash based as you can get. And the money

has got to be lodged somewhere, capeesh?"

I sucked in my breath.

"Thanks for the opinion."

"Boss, get out of this."

"I would if I could."

Back at the loft, I sat down on my bed. Within seconds I was

asleep-and when I woke again, it was late afternoon and the phone was

ringing.

"Where the hell have you been?" Jerry asked when I finally got around

to picking up the phone.

"I'm still in L.A.-but I must have tried your office and cellphone half

a dozen times."

"I had a bad night. Couldn't sleep. So I was making up for it now."

"You're supposed to be working for us, remember? Which means keeping

regular office hours."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Jerry-bag men don't keep office hours."

"If I say I want you here .. ."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"You're going to Dallas tomorrow."

"Great."

"It's another airport rendezvous. You'll be meeting a representative

of a fund client named Chuck Battersby. And then you'll be heading

straight on to Nassau via Miami. I'll have the tickets messengered

down to you at the loft."

"Fine," I said tonelessly.

"Mr. Ballantine said that he had a delightful dinner with your wife

last night. Sorry: your estranged wife.

"An absolute charmer' is what he called her.

"Bright, beautiful, funny as hell-Allen must have screwed up royally to

lose her." His exact words, Ned."

Between clenched teeth I said, "Is there a point to this, Jerry?"

"None whatsoever. Though I guess you should know that we've engaged

Mosman & Keating to handle Mr. Ballantine's PR-and I personally

requested that Lizzie take charge of the account."

I didn't want to intimate that I had seen Lizzie yesterday-or had

previous knowledge of this development. So all I said was, "You're a

very clever guy, Jerry. First me, now Lizzie."

"It's called 'keeping it in the family," Ned. And you know what a

family-oriented business we are-and how we look after each other.

Speaking of which, I understand your picture's in the papers, and on

television."

"What?" I managed to say.

"Not a picture, actually. More of an artist's sketch. Anyway, got to

fly. Have fun in Dallas."

As soon as he hung up I grabbed the television remote and turned on New

York One. I had to wait ten minutes for the headlines. The Peterson

story was the third item. The anchorman spoke of "intriguing new

developments in the death of Ted Peterson, the GBS computer executive

killed Wednesday night after being hit by a northbound Metro-North

train at a railway crossing in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. On the

scene at Old Greenwich is New York One's Mary Shipley. Mary .. ."

Jump-cut to Mary Shipley. Still looking angular and serious. Still

standing in front of that train crossing in Old Greenwich-the sight of

which had my heart thumping at double time.

"Fred," Mary Shipley said, "the mystery surrounding the death of

computer executive Ted Peterson is growing daily, with Connecticut

state police now saying that coroner reports show that Mr. Peterson

was severely intoxicated when he fell under a New Haven-bound

Metro-North train on Wednesday. According to the Stamford coroner's

office, the level of alcohol in Mr. Peterson's blood was nearly ten

times over the legal limit. It still isn't clear whether Mr. Peterson

had been driving that evening. He was seen earlier that night leaving

the Hyatt Regency Hotel with this man .. ."

The camera cut away and showed a police sketch of a thirty-something

guy with tired eyes, terse lips, and the usual sullen,

"wanted murderer" expression. A tie and jacket were sketched in below

his neck. I'd seen better likenesses of myself-and was relieved that

it wasn't so identifiably me.

"... whom police are seeking for questioning. He's a white male in his

early to mid-thirties with sandy hair, around six feet tall, and of

medium build. He was dressed in a suit the night of Ted Peter-son's

death. This same man was allegedly spotted by a Metro-North conductor

boarding a Grand Central-bound train at Old Greenwich within an hour of

Peterson's death. Connecticut state police are speculating that this

was the same individual who was seen by the engineer on the tracks

right before the accident."

The camera cut back to Mary Shipley.

"Reporting for New York One .. ."

I hit the "off" button, and thought, As soon as I leave the loft, I run

the risk of being nabbed. That police sketch will have made this

afternoon's edition of the Post. And it will also be shown on Live at

Five, Eyewitness News, and every other local television news program.

And even if the police portrait left a lot to be desired, someone

somewhere is bound to spot the resemblance.

I checked my office voice mail. I received the following message:

"Hi, it's Lizzie, and I'm calling you from thirty-three thousand feet.

I'm sorry I haven't returned your phone calls recently, but I really

did need the space. Anyway, I do think it's time we began to speak

about finalizing things-so if you want to call me, I can be reached at

my L.A. office today anytime after one o'clock Pacific time."

At first the message baffled me. Then I instantly understood. She was

covering for me-making it seem as if we hadn't met yesterday, just in

case Jerry was hacking into my voice mail or had my phone tapped (two

likely possibilities, given his need to control everything and

everyone). And fearing that he also might be recording conversations

on the loft phone (and not wanting to risk saying anything confidential

on my cellular), I had no choice but to use a pay phone. I threw on a

pair of dark glasses and a baseball cap before venturing out-just in

case somebody happened to be glancing at the Post as I passed by.

I walked west, stopping at a Korean grocer to get five dollars in

change. Then, finding a phone booth on a quiet end of King Street, I

punched in Lizzie's number in L.A." and deposited $3.75 in quarters

when prompted. After putting me on hold for around sixty seconds, her

secretary put me through.

"Can you call me back?" I asked.

"I've only got two minutes."

"This will only take a few seconds. When are you next in Nassau?"

"Tomorrow."

"Making another deposit?"

"Of course."

"Well, while you're at the bank, I really think you should open an

account in Jerry Schubert's name."

"Are you serious?"

"Very. And we're now down to ninety seconds. So, for once in your

life, please shut up and listen to me."

I listened. Then, after ninety seconds, Lizzie hung up-and I went back

to the loft in search of Jerry's passport.

It was easy to find-he kept it in his unlocked desk drawer. I flipped

through it. There were recent entry stamps for Colombia, Ecuador,

Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Luxembourg .. . but not the Bahamas. I

studied his signature on the inside flap. I expected Jerry to have an

extravagant, bold autograph-but it turned out to be a tight, spindly

scrawl. After around twenty attempts on a blank sheet of paper (which

I then shredded and flushed down the toilet), I was able to produce a

reasonable facsimile of his John Hancock on the two forms required for

opening an account at the Bahamian Bank of Commerce. Then I filled in

the remainder of the application, using his passport to provide details

like his date and place of birth. I also circled No on the corner of

the form that asked if the applicant wanted bank statements sent to his

home address.

I presented these forms to Oliver MacGuire the following afternoon.

"So your friend Mr. Schubert wants to open an account with us?"

MacGuire asked.

"Well, just between ourselves," I said, tossing Jerry's passport onto

MacGuire's desk, "he's actually my boss. The fund is his baby-and he

wants a secure offshore home for his twenty percent commission from all

deposits."

"Twenty percent?" MacGuire said, studying me carefully.

"That is a sizable commission."

I reached down beside me, hoisting up the computer case stuffed with

the cash I had collected that morning at Dallas Airport. I placed it

on MacGuire's desk.

"Yeah, it's a hefty cut-but look at the money he's bringing into the

fund."

"How much today?"

"Four hundred and ten thousand."

"Of which"-he scribbled a few figures on his desk blotter" exactly

eighty-two thousand should be deposited in Mr. Schubert's account?"

"Absolutely."

He studied the forms at length. Finally he shrugged.

"Well, it's not as if you're opening the account in your own name. And

you do have his passport. And his signature on the form matches that

in his passport, which leads me to conclude that either this is

perfectly legitimate, or you are dangerously clever."

Before I had a chance to protest my innocence, he raised a finger.

"Do me a favor, Mr. Allen, and refrain from answering that question.

Because it's not my business to know such things. And-I really do not

want to know. One small thing, however-Mr. Schubert should have

supplied you with a reference from a financial institution with which

he has an account. But given that he is your boss-and therefore

involved with the fund-I think we can waive that requirement."

"He'll be very grateful."

He disappeared with the computer case. When he returned fifteen

minutes later he was carrying a small deposit book. He handed it to

me. It was made out in the name of Jerome D. Schubert.

"The account is officially opened."

I handed him back the book.

"You can keep this on file here," I said.

"You mean, Mr. Schubert won't want to see a record of his deposits?"

"He trusts me."

"Of course he does," Mr. MacGuire said, beginning to write out the

receipts.

"I mean, I'll be turning over the deposit receipts to him."

"Of course you will."

"I've been meaning to ask you something. Doesn't Jerry Schubert get

Excalibur Fund statements sent to him?"

He gave me a withering glance.

"Excalibur is not his account, Mr. Allen."

"Of course," I said, covering my gaffe.

"It's traceable to no single individual. And therefore, no one

receives its statements."

"Precisely. But .. ." He motioned me toward him. ".. . I'll let you

in on a little secret. The fund's lawyer, Mr. Parkhill, rings me here

every time you visit us with a deposit, just to make certain that the

money has arrived. And he always inquires as to the amount you have

deposited."

"And what will you tell him, now that the money is being spread between

two accounts?"

"I will continue to do what I have always done: inform him of the total

sum you deposited .. . and say nothing more. Unless, of course, he

demands to know the balance of the fund's account- which I will be

obliged to tell him."

"May I ask a favor?"

"Try me."

I chose my words carefully.

"If he does ask you for the overall balance, would you please call

me?"

He thought about this for a moment.

"Well ... I don't suppose a phone call would contravene bank

regulations. So .. ."

He pushed a pad toward me. I scribbled down the number of my cellular

phone. Then I stood up to leave.

"I really appreciate your help," I said.

He shook my hand.

"You are playing a very curious game, Mr. Allen. I hope there is some

strategy behind it."

No, I just make it all up as I go along.

Before leaving the bank I managed to execute a maneuver I had planned

while en route to Nassau. I stopped by the front counter to say hello

to Muriel, who always called me a cab after I concluded my business

with Mr. MacGuire. She was a thickset woman around fifty, with a

bouffant hairdo and heavily rouged lips. She was also a skillful

flirt. As I approached the counter, she said, "Hey there, rich man-how

much money did you give us today?"

"Not enough to win you over, Muriel," I replied.

"Damn right. I'm sure it's not enough-because I don't come cheap."

"I bet you don't."

"Cab to the airport, hon?"

"Please."

There was no phone behind the counter, so Muriel headed into a back

office. As soon as she was out of sight (and I had glanced around to

make certain no one was watching), I made a fast grab for two items on

the counter: an unused receipt book and an official bank stamp. The

entire theft couldn't have taken more than three seconds, and the booty

went straight into my case. When Muriel returned there was one nervous

moment when I thought she noticed the missing items-but it passed, and

she gave me a big smile.

"The taxi'll be here in a second, hon."

"Are you going to run away with me this time?" I asked.

"You pro positioning me?"

"Absolutely."

"Man, you are one fast worker."

"The fastest."

"Think I better talk things over with my husband first. He might not

like the idea-and I think you've got enough problems already, hon."

All the way back to Miami, Muriel's comment kept pestering me. Making

me wonder if I radiated worry-or if Mr. MacGuire and his colleagues

knew more about my little predicament than they let on. Surely they

were more than a little curious about the origins of the one million

dollars I had banked with them this week. I was rather curious as

well.

In the departure lounge at Miami Airport I broke a $5 bill, deposited

$3.75 when requested, and called Lizzie.

"Did you open the account?" she asked.

"I did."

"No nrohlems?"

"There were a few raised eyebrows-but then the manager, Mr. MacGuire,

saw the four hundred and ten grand I was depositing and decided he

could live with any doubts he might have about the account's

legitimacy."

"Anyway, it is a legitimate account-in Jerry Schubert's name. Did you

get both receipts?"

"Yes."

"Then you'd better find a safe place to hide the ones pertaining to

Jerry's account."

"I even scored a Bahamian Bank of Commerce receipt book and official

deposit stamp."

"Was that difficult?"

"It turns out I'm a natural as a shoplifter."

"Listen, I'll be flying to New York on Sunday. I just found out that

the company's found me a three-month sublet on Seventy-fourth and

Third."

"Can I meet you at the airport?"

"Ned, we're separated. We're staying separated."

"I just thought.. ."

"What?"

"You've been great, that's all."

"I'm just trying to help-because, God knows, you need help. But it's

nothing more than that. Understood?"

"Yeah-understood."

"Call me tomorrow with an update. Oh-and see if you can somehow break

into Jerry's computer. The only way you're going to get out of this is

if you find out exactly how the fund works, and what landed Peterson

under that train."

At a newspaper shop near the departure gate, I asked the clerk if they

stocked ink pads.

"The only one I've got comes with a complete set of Disney

characters."

"Sold."

The flight to New York was half full. I had two seats to myself. After

takeoff I opened my computer case, pulled out the receipt book, and

filled in a deposit slip in the name of the Excalibur Fund for the

amount of 410 thousand U.S. dollars. Then I retrieved the bank stamp,

opened the Disney ink pad, inked the bank stamp, and slammed it down on

the receipt-giving Jerry alleged proof that the entire Dallas deposit

was safe and sound in the fund's account.

I didn't reach New York until after ten that night. The lights were

off in the loft-but I was taking no chances. Before taking the

elevator upstairs, I left my case in a broom cupboard at the rear of

the little downstairs lobby. But Jerry wasn't lying in wait for me,

wondering why his passport was missing. The loft was empty. So I

returned his passport to his desk drawer, then powered up his computer.

Immediately, a prompt appeared:

ENTER PASSWORD.

Damn. Damn. Damn. But not unexpected, as Jerry was ultra-cautious on

the security front. I rummaged through his desk drawers, hoping that

he might have written down the password in an address book or on the

inside cover of his computer's instruction manual. But the very fact

that he left his desk unlocked told me what I already knew: Nothing of

a confidential nature was kept there. So I tried a variety of password

variations:

JERRY

JSCHUBERT

JERRY SCHUBERT

JS

J.S.

JERRYS

BALLANTINE

JB

BALLANTINE IND

BALI ND

EXCALIBUR

EXCALFUND

FUND

SUCCESS

SUCCESS ZONE

BRUNSWICK

HOCKEY GUY

HEAVY

BUSINESS IS WAR

When my inventiveness began to peter out I tried his date of birth. No

dice. So I reversed that number. Still no luck. But just as I dug

out his passport and was about to type in its number, I heard a

telltale clunk in the outside hallway. The elevator had stopped on our

floor. Frantically I shut the computer down, just managing to turn off

the monitor and dive onto the sofa as Jerry walked through the door.

"You're up late," he said, tossing his bag by the door.

"Everything go okay in Dallas?"

"Not a hitch," I said, trying to appear relaxed.

"And you made your connection to Nassau?"

"With a half hour to spare."

"You've got the receipt?"

"Yeah," I said, reaching into my shirt pocket and handing it over. He

glanced at it briefly, then slipped it into his wallet.

"How was L.A.?" I asked.

"Great trip. Plenty of interest in Mr. B."s new book on the Coast-and

I found a new client for the fund."

"I see."

"So it looks like you're off on Monday afternoon to the City of Angels.

I phoned our travel agent. She's got you on the three P.M. American

flight, you'll be at LAX by six, you'll have a couple of hours at the

airport to deal with all your 'business," then you're booked on the ten

P.M. red-eye to Miami, changing there for the seven A.M. flight to

Nassau."

"Whatever," I said, thinking that two transcontinental flights in a day

would give new meaning to the expression jet lag.

Jerry opened the fridge, pulled out a beer, screwed off the top, and

took a long swig.

"I need to ask you something, Ned. And understand: I'm doing it as a

courtesy."

"Yeah?"

He took another swig of beer.

"What would you think if I started going out with Lizzie?"

I tried to show no emotion.

"We're separated, remember? So it's not really my call who she

sees."

"We had lunch yesterday."

"What?" I said, sounding thrown.

"We had lunch yesterday in West Hollywood. Strictly business, of

course-there's a lot to talk about, vis-a-vis the launch of Mr. B."s

book. But, I've got to tell you-she is one exceptional woman."

"Yes, I'm aware of that."

"So, naturally I got to thinking about .. . well, how I'd like to start

seeing her. Especially since she's moving back here. And especially

since I definitely sensed that she's interested, too. Of course I

could be wrong, but.. ."

I stood up and headed toward the door.

"You could be right, too," I said.

"I'm going to get some air."

"I've upset you."

"Yes," I said.

"You have."

I didn't bother to wait for the elevator. I charged down the stairs,

grabbed the computer case out of the broom cupboard, marched out the

door and straight to the nearest pay phone. It was now midnight. As

it was her last day in the L.A. office, I gambled on Lizzie working

late. Before she could say hello, I yelled, "What the hell were you

doing having lunch with Jerry Schubert?"

"Talking business. And lower your voice, now."

"He said sparks were flying between you like a forest fire .. ."

"Oh, for Christ's sake ..."

"... and that he really felt you were giving off this big romantic

vibe."

"In his dreams. Now will you please grow up.. .."

"I miss you, goddammit. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you."

Silence. She waited until I stopped sobbing.

"Are you okay?" she finally asked.

"No."

"Ned, trust me here. I think Schubert is a total asshole."

"Okay."

"But I've got to work with him. And I do think it's worth flirting

with the guy. Because, like most men, he shoots his mouth off when he

thinks he might just have a chance. And yesterday afternoon ..."

"Yeah?"

"He asked me if we were ever friendly with Ted Peterson and his

wife."

"Yeah, he did."

"But why?"

"Well, trying to be really casual, he mentioned how he'd read about

Peterson's death in the paper, and how he knew you had a history with

the guy .. . and he was just also casually wondering if we'd ever met

Mrs. P. And was she somebody who was close to her husband, or knew

much about his work. I told him the truth: I'd never met either her or

her late jerk of a husband. But it got me thinking..."

A long pause. Finally I said, "He's worried that Mrs. Peterson might

have stumbled upon some sort of evidence that Ted left at home?"

"Bull's-eye, Sherlock."

FIVE

Two things stopped me from rushing up the next morning to meet Meg

Peterson in Old Greenwich. The first was a headline I saw in the New

York Times. It was on page three of the Metro section:

HOME OF DEAD COMPUTER EXECUTIVE RANSACKED DURING FUNERAL

Just over a week after Ted Peterson's death on the Metro-North line in

Old Greenwich, a new twist has been added to the case, which

Connecticut police have been calling "highly suspicious." Upon

returning home from his funeral service yesterday, Mr. Peterson's

family discovered that their house in Old Greenwich had been robbed.

According to Capt. James Hickey of the Greenwich police department,

"The perpetrators took very little of value from the house, yet still

ransacked it thoroughly."

The major thefts took place in Mr. Peterson's study and bedroom.

"Either these thieves were looking for something specific," Capt.

Hickey said in a prepared statement, "or they mistimed the break-in and

had to flee when they heard the mourners returning to the house.

Whatever the scenario, their actions are beneath contempt."

Fucking Jerry. The guy was beyond ruthless. He had no scruples

whatsoever. Lizzie's instincts had been right on the money. Worried

that Peterson might have kept some incriminating papers at home, he

decided to stage a break-in at chez Peterson, disguised to look like a

robbery. Only, of course, instead of grabbing jewelry and the family

silver, they nabbed Ted's desktop computer, his floppy disks, his

papers. And with impeccable, humane timing, Jerry organized the

robbery to take place while his family and so-called friends were

saying prayers over the guy's body.

So much for me getting to Mrs. Peterson first. Jerry had closed down

that possibility.

The second thing that stopped me from visiting Mrs. Peterson was the

police. Around 9:00 A.M. Monday morning-only a few hours before I was

due to fly to Los Angeles-I received a call at the office from a

Detective Tom Flynn of the Connecticut state police. He "just happened

to be in Manhattan today on business," and would greatly appreciate the

opportunity to stop by my office and ask me a few questions about Ted

Peterson. When I explained I was going to L.A. that afternoon, he

said, "No problem. I've just wrapped up an interview with someone on

East Forty-eighth Street. I could be at your office in half an

hour."

"Well, it's kind of a busy morning," I lied.

"I just need fifteen minutes of your time, no more," he said, then hung

up before I could say no.

Detective Tom Flynn was in his late forties. Short and wiry, he had

the build of a bantamweight boxer and a street kid's face-an aging

Jimmy Cagney, now marooned in the Connecticut suburbs.

"Appreciate the time," he said, sitting down in the chair opposite my

desk.

"No problem," I said, doing my best to avoid sounding nervous.

"Let me explain something from the outset, Mr. Allen. This isn't a

formal interrogation. Nor are you officially under suspicion. And

you're under no obligation to answer any of my questions. All this is,

is a chat."

"Thank you for the clarification."

"You work for yourself?" he asked, looking around my tiny office.

"Sort of. I'm the North American representative of an international

private equity fund."

"Private equity what?" he said, already taking notes in a little black

book.

I gave him a thumbnail sketch of how private equity funds worked, and

how I traveled the country, trying to interest clients in investment

prospects. He seemed to buy this lie.

"You used to be in the computer business, didn't you?"

"Computer magazines. I was the Northeast regional sales director for

CompuWorld."

"And that job ended when .. . ?"

"In early January. Our title was closed down."

He consulted his notebook.

"Which is when you assaulted your boss, a Mr. Klaus Kreplin?"

I felt a stab of fear. Detective Flynn had been investigating my

background carefully.

"Yes, there was an ... uh ... altercation with Mr. Kreplin after the

company was sold."

His eyes shifted back to the notebook.

"And he was hospitalized, and you were arrested?"

"The charges were dropped."

"I am aware of that, Mr. Allen. I am also aware of the fact that you

did not get along with the late Mr. Ted Peterson."

"He was not my favorite person on the face of the earth."

"Isn't that something of an understatement? According to his

secretary..."

Oh, God, that charmer.

".. . you had a major business dispute with him just before Christmas.

And a Detective Debra Kaster of the Hartford P.D. informed us that you

blamed Peterson for the suicide of a business colleague. Is that

right?"

Stop avoiding his eyes.

I stared straight at Detective Flynn and said, "Yes, that's right."

"And then, of course, there was your very public confrontation with Mr.

Peterson at a trade reception here in Manhattan on the night before he

died."

"Yes-that was the first time I had made contact with him since

Christmas."

"And despite the fact that quite a few months had passed, you still had

this major blowup."

"He had done a tremendous amount of professional damage- both to me and

to a deceased colleague of mine named Ivan Dolinsky."

Eyes back to the notebook.

"The gentleman who committed suicide in Hartford in March of this

year?"

I nodded.

"So you hated Peterson?"

Tread carefully here.

"Like I said, I didn't exactly love the guy ..."

"Then you were happy to see him dead?"

The question was asked in such a casual, throwaway style. But I still

cringed.

"No one deserved to go the way he did," I finally said.

"And I suppose you can vouch for your whereabouts on the night of the

murder?"

"Yes. I was in Miami. On business."

"Like I said at the outset, this is not a formal police conversation.

And there is no onus on you to supply me with evidence of your

whereabouts. But if you did have proof of your Miami trip, it would be

useful in eliminating you from-" "Happy to help," I said, interrupting

him. Pulling open a desk drawer, I rooted through a couple of files,

then pulled out the one marked Miami and handed over the plane ticket

and rental car receipt. Detective Flynn studied the documents, copied

down the necessary details in his notebook, then gave them back to

me.

"So you're on the road a lot?" he asked.

"A couple of times a week, but I'm never away for more than a night."

"So if I needed to contact you again ..."

"I'm here."

He stood up.

"Thanks for your time."

"My pleasure."

He turned to leave, then spun back toward me.

"One final thing," he said, reaching into his briefcase.

"Any idea who this guy might be?"

He held up the police artist's sketch of Peterson's last supper

companion.

"Never seen him before," I said.

"You're sure you can't place his face?"

"I must know a couple of dozen guys like that. They're a type."

He studied me closely.

"Yeah-they are," he said, and left.

That afternoon, before boarding the 3:00 P.M. flight to L.A." I called

Lizzie. It was her first day back at work in the Manhattan office, and

she sounded hassled.

"I really don't have much time to talk, Ned," she said.

"You know, I only arrived back in town last night."

"How's the apartment?"

"Sterile."

"When can I come up and see it?"

"You never really hear what I say, do you?"

"I heard exactly what you said. But don't expect me to let you go

without a fight."

"Ned, you don't have to let me go. I've gone. Face it."

I changed the subject. Quickly.

"Did you see the New York Times yesterday?" I asked.

"I couldn't believe it. Breaking into Peterson's house during his

funeral."

"Just as you predicted. Jerry was worried that Peterson was hoarding

something damaging. And now whatever evidence was there is gone."

"I'd still go see his wife."

"On what pretext?"

"She might be able to tell you something .. ."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. I've temporarily run out of brainstorms."

"That makes two of us. And, just to really complicate matters, the

cops were around to see me this morning."

She sounded concerned again.

"How did that go?"

"I got through it. And I did show him the false evidence of my alleged

trip to Miami on the night in question."

"Did he buy it?"

"Seemed to."

A loudspeaker near me announced that American Airlines flight eleven to

Los Angeles was now closing.

"Listen, that's my boarding call."

"You on courier duty today?"

"I'm afraid so."

"How the hell did you get yourself into this?"

"The way you always stumble into something-by not looking."

"Be careful," she said quietly.

I got off the plane at Los Angeles International. In the arrivals

hall, I handed my computer case to the representative of a Mr. Tariq

Issac. He disappeared for several minutes, then came back and sat down

on the bench next to me. He placed the case between us on the floor.

"Six hundred and twelve thousand," he whispered in my ear.

After he left, I killed almost four hours in the departure lounge

before boarding the red-eye for Miami. I fell asleep with my arms

wrapped around the case. We reached Miami by six the next morning. I

got on the 7:00 A.M. puddle-jumper to Nassau. The money was deposited

in the bank by nine-thirty ($122,400 deposited to the account of Jerome

D. Schubert, the remaining $489,600 to the Excalibur Fund), and I was

back in New York by four that afternoon. I grabbed a taxi to Wooster

Street and retrieved the case I was storing in the broom closet in the

downstairs lobby. Upstairs in the loft, I pulled out the assorted bank

paraphernalia, wrote out a deposit receipt for $612,000, labeled it

EXCALIBUR FUND, dated it, inked up the bank stamp, and slammed it down

on the receipt. Then I tore it out of the book and left it on the

kitchen table for Jerry.

Reaching back into the case, I added the two actual bank deposit

receipts to the envelope in which I was accumulating all the previous

slips. Then I repacked all the bank stuff, and decided against storing

the computer case back in the downstairs broom cupboard. It wasn't a

secure hiding place-and if the janitor ever found it and started

knocking on doors in search of its owner, my days on this earth might

be numbered.

So I took a cab uptown to a stationery shop on Forty-fifth and

Lexington where you could also rent a mailbox. I paid a $20 deposit

and $20 for the first month's rent on the box-and after being given a

key to box number 242, I locked away the contents of the computer case,

then dumped the now empty case in a trash can on the street.

As I entered my office building, Jack Ballantine came walking out, with

two heavies in attendance. I recognized one of them immediately. It

was "I'm From Upstairs."

"Hey, it's my tennis partner," Ballantine said, proffering his hand.

"Nice to see you, Mr. Ballantine," I said quietly.

"We should set up a game again soon."

"Whenever you like."

Inclining his head toward me, he said, "Jerry's been telling me about

all the great work you've been doing for the fund."

I glanced briefly at I'm From Upstairs. He looked away.

"I'm pleased he's pleased."

"I know it's not exactly what you had in mind.. .."

Another glance at I'm From Upstairs.

"Certain aspects of the work have ... uh ... taken me by surprise."

"Well, believe me, I know the effort you're putting into the job- and

once this book tour of mine is finished, you and I are going to go out

for a long lunch and talk about your future with us. How's that

sound?"

"I look forward to it, Mr. Ballantine."

"Oh, a little piece of advice: If I were you, I'd move heaven and earth

to get that wife of yours back. She is quite impressive. And .. ." He

leaned forward, whispering into my ear.

"... I know for certain there is someone actively on the chase, if you

take my meaning."

I nodded.

"By the way, Ned-you never mentioned anything to Lizzie about your, uh,

connection with us?"

"Of course not."

"Glad to hear it. Keep up the good work."

He gave me a coach's punch on the shoulder and headed out to his

waiting car. I'm From Upstairs looked through me as he went by.

"I know for certain there's someone actively on the chase." And since

that someone happened to be my all-controlling boss, he could also

convenientlv send me out of town for nearly two weeks as he actively

pursued my wife. Which is exactly what he did. The morning after I

bumped into Ballantine, Jerry handed me a stack of plane tickets and an

extensive verbal itinerary, which he asked me to copy down (so, of

course, no paper trail led back to him). It was an exhausting

schedule. Memphis, Dallas, L.A." Miami, Detroit, Miami, Denver, L.A."

Houston, New Orleans, Miami-with a stop-off at Nassau after each

city.

"Wouldn't it be cheaper to get FedEx to handle all this?" I asked

facetiously.

"Do you really expect our investors to entrust so much cash to a

courier company? Anyway, having you collect it personally is good

customer relations. What's more, you ensure that it reaches the

Bahamian Bank of Commerce without a hitch. So our investors know

they're in good hands with us."

Our investors. You had to hand it to Jerry-the guy acted as if he

believed his own bullshit. I really felt like telling him, Just

between ourselves, why don't we come clean about all this and admit

that you're playing banker for a bunch of deeply unsavory characters.

Because, courtesy of Phil and his friends, I was beginning to assemble

quite a dossier on our "investors."

"Okay, here's the lowdown on Tariq Issac," Phil said when I called him

from Miami Airport between flights.

"Lebanese-born, L.A. based, and a big noise in the clandestine weapons

game.. .."

A week later, when I phoned him from Denver, he had a report on our

Houston investor:

"Manny Rugoff-independent oil trader, with extensive business interests

in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Venezuela. And rumored to be on very tight

terms with assorted wise guys south of the border."

"Terrific," I said.

While on the road, I also stayed in regular contact with Lizzie. Jerry

really had been "pursuing her actively."

"My office is starting to look like a Mafia funeral," she said one

afternoon when I phoned from Miami Airport.

"How do you mean?"

"The daily bouquet of flowers from Mr. Schubert."

"Jesus .. ."

"Well, you've got to admire his persistence."

"Has he asked you out yet?"

"Only about two dozen times."

"And?"

"I finally gave in and agreed to have dinner with him tomorrow

night."

"Wonderful."

"Ingrate."

The next evening, when I was overnighting at the Dallas Airport hotel,

I called Lizzie at her new apartment.

"What are you, my father?" she said angrily.

"I was just concerned.. .."

"It's one in the morning, Ned."

"And you're alone?"

"I really should hang up on you."

"I simply wanted to make certain ..."

"What? That I didn't sleep with the guy?"

"Well.. ."

"You are a total jerk."

"A total concerned jerk."

I heard her stifle a laugh.

"Sleeping with Jerry Schubert would be a total taste crime."

"But he's a hunk."

"And a murderer-which, believe it or not, doesn't really make him my

type."

"Really? I'm surprised. Did he make a move?"

"He took me to a very nice restaurant...."

"Which one?"

"Jo-Jo's on East Sixty-fourth Street."

"We ate there once, didn't we?"

"Yes, we did. For our second anniversary."

"That was a very romantic night."

"I'm not getting into this."

"You know, there are two basic types of seduction technique. The first

is where the guy makes the woman laugh all night, and essentially jokes

his way right into her bed. The second is where the guy comes across

all sincere and touchy-feely, then moves in for the kill. Now I'd bet

anything that Jerry's an exponent of the second technique.. .."

She stifled another laugh.

"Good night, Ned," she said.

Three days later, while changing planes (per usual) in Miami, I managed

to catch her at work.

"I was hoping you'd call," she said.

"That sounds promising.. .."

"How fast can you get back here?"

"I've got two more days' worth of courier duties. Then-" "Have you

seen this morning's New York Times?"

"Not yet."

"Ted Peterson's house was broken into again."

"Jesus fucking Christ. Was anything taken?"

"Nothing major-though, according to the story, it was really torn

apart."

My mind began to race. Finally I said, "Jerry's people didn't find

what they wanted, right?"

"That's how it looks to me. Which means either Mrs. Peterson has

stashed whatever evidence they're after somewhere else. Or maybe ..

."

Bingo.

"Peterson himself stashed it somewhere safe," I said, finishing her

sentence.

"Safe and offshore, perhaps?" she asked.

"Perhaps, indeed," I said.

At the nearest newspaper stand I bought a New York Times. Then I ran

for my plane. Two hours later I walked into the Bahamian Bank of

Commerce.

"You know, you really have become our best customer," Mr. MacGuire

said, peering into the briefcase I placed on his desk.

"What can I say? Business is very satisfactory."

"Four point two million dollars' worth of deposits in just under two

weeks is more than satisfactory. Especially if, like Mr. Schubert,

you're getting a twenty percent commission."

"Yeah-he must have close to a cool million in his account by now."

"Are you envious?"

"He deserves it," I said frostily.

"I'm sure he does," Mr. MacGuire added, arching his eyebrows.

"So how much do you have for me today?"

"One hundred and forty-one thousand."

"Modest, by your standards."

Yeah, well-the "investor" in question (Bill Pearle, a big-time scrap

merchant in Denver) is probably just a minor-league racketeer.

The money was whisked off by Muriel for counting. I tossed the New

York Times on MacGuire's desk.

"Turn to section two, page five," I said.

"You mean, the story about the second break-in at Mr. Peter-son's

house?"

"You're way ahead of me."

"Shocking business, isn't it? What on earth do you think they're

looking for?"

"Don't you know?"

"Why should I know?"

"Because you were his offshore banker. And because not only did he

maintain an account with you, but a safety deposit box as well."

"You don't know that."

"No, but I'd stake a large sum of money on its existence. If I had any

money in the first place .. ."

"Mr. Allen, you know that, if such a box existed, I couldn't reveal

its existence to you."

"But you could reveal its existence to Mr. Peterson's widow, couldn't

you?"

"Provided she supplied me with certain documentation, yes, I could."

"So the box does exist."

He let out a sigh, then peered at me with amused annoyance.

"Remind me never to play poker with you, Mr. Allen."

"What documents would she need?"

"Their marriage certificate, his death certificate, and his probated

last will and testament, showing that he has left all his financial

assets to her."

"Is that it?"

"Yes .. . but we would appreciate it if, at your convenience, you would

return the stamp and the deposit book that you 'borrowed' from us."

"Give me a few more days," I said.

"You're lucky you're such a good customer."

I missed my connection in Miami that night, so I had to overnight in

the airport hotel. I called my office number and checked my messages.

There was only one.

"Detective Flynn here from the Greenwich P.D. Could you please call me

as soon as possible-either at my office or at home. My numbers are

..."

I glanced at my watch. It was just 9:15.1 punched in the detective's

home number.

"Hey, thanks for calling, Mr. Allen. You in New York?"

"Miami."

"When are you back in town, sir?"

"Not for another week," I lied.

"You can't get back here before then?"

"Not unless I want to lose my job."

"Well, I'm going to be blunt with you-we need to see you."

"Why?"

"We want you to take part in a lineup."

"A lineup?" I said, the word catching in my throat.

"But I thought you had eliminated me from-" "We had. Then we managed

to get hold of some photographs taken at the SOFT US reception. It

seems there was a photographer, hired by SOFT US who was roaming the

room to take public relations shots of all the guests-photos which, I

gather, they were going to use in their trade magazine. As it turns

out, there were several shots of you in 'discussion' with Mr. Peterson.

They are, it must be said, slightly blurred. Still, earlier today, we

showed the entire set of reception photographs to Mr. Martin Algar,

the maitre d' at the Hyatt Regency, in the long-shot hope that he might

spot the individual who left the restaurant with Peterson. Now I must

inform you, Mr. Allen, that he pointed to your picture and said that

he thought you might be the man."

I wanted to run out of the room. Instead I took a very deep breath and

tried to sound calm.

"But that's absurd. I was in Miami. I showed you proof that I was

there."

"I am aware of that. Just as I am also aware that the photo was

slightly blurred, and that Mr. Algar said he simply 'thought' you were

the man he saw with Peterson. And, of course, the fact that you called

me at home tonight also shows your willingness to cooperate with our

investigation."

"I am definitely not the man you're looking for."

"I am glad to hear that, sir. But given that Mr. Algar has, in

effect, given us some reason to question your assertion of innocence,

we're going to have to ask you to come in and take part in a lineup.

It'll get the whole business over with once and for all. And if he

doesn't identify you as the guy with Peterson, then you'll never hear

from us again. So when can you get back here?"

Stall for time, stall for time.

"Tuesday," I said.

"No way, Mr. Allen-that's almost a week from now."

"Like I said, I've got meetings set up all around the country this

week.. .."

"And I've got a murder investigation to run-an investigation in which

you are now a figure of considerable interest to us. I mean, if Algar

had given us a positive I.D." I'd have a warrant out for your arrest

right now. But, under the circumstances, I can give you forty-eight

hours from tomorrow morning to present yourself at my office. And if

you're not there at nine A.M. Friday morning, then a warrant will be

issued for your arrest. Is that clear?"

"Yes. It's very clear."

"One last thing-you might want legal counsel present at the lineup.

Just in case."

He hung up. I fell backward on the hotel bed, terrified. Then I

jumped up again and grabbed the phone, ready to call directory

assistance for Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and ask for the home number

of an Edward Peterson on Shore Road. But then I thought, If Jerry has

had his stooges break into his house on two occasions, desperately

searching for evidence, then there's every good chance he's also tapped

the phone. And, with just forty-eight hours to go, I was only going to

have one shot at getting this right, so ... I called Lizzie instead. As

soon as she answered I said, "Lizzie, I am in the biggest trouble..

.."

"Oh, I see.. .." She sounded very distracted.

"You okay?"

"Uh, sure. But... I can't really talk right now."

"What do you mean, you 'can't talk'? This is a crisis."

"I mean," she whispered.

"I can't talk."

My stomach did a somersault.

"Oh, Jesus.. .. ," I muttered.

"I've got to go.. .."

"He's there, isn't he?"

"Call me tomorrow."

"Jerry is there, isn't he?"

"Yeah."

"Great."

"Trust me," she whispered. And hung up.

SIX

It was on the dawn flight out of Miami. Before boarding I turned off

my phone. For the next twenty-four hours I needed to be un-reachable,

untraceable.

At La Guardia I made two return reservations to Nassau (via Miami) for

that afternoon, then rented a car. I hit Old Greenwich by ten. Driving

down its central drag, Sound Beach Avenue, I kept my head down, just in

case Detective Flynn might be in town ... or if Martin Algar of Hyatt

Regency renown happened to be crossing the main street.

Ten o'clock. If the insane plan I had concocted was going to work, Meg

Peterson would have to be home now. And if she wouldn't buy my story,

then I would have no choice but to go on the run. Because if I did

show up at the lineup, I was heading nowhere but jail.

I turned right at Shore Road. Halfway to the Peterson house a Ford

Explorer passed me, heading toward town. It took a moment to register,

then the realization hit: Meg Peterson had been behind the wheel of

that car. Slamming on the brakes, I did an instant U-turn.

For one brief terrible moment, I thought I had lost the Explorer. But

then I saw it turn right down a side street. I ran a stop sign and

managed to catch up with it as it cruised down a residential road

called Park Avenue. Then it crossed a narrow street and entered a

parking lot behind a bank. I pulled in just as Meg Peterson got out of

her vehicle. She looked world-weary, deprived of sleep. I screeched

to a halt and iumoed out of my car.

"Mrs. Peterson?" I shouted.

She turned around and regarded me with contempt.

"If you're from the press, I don't want to talk to you," she said

angrily.

I approached her, both hands held up, trying to appear conciliatory.

"Trust me, Mrs. Peterson-I am not from the press."

"Yeah, well that's what that bastard from the Post told me."

"We've met before."

"I've never laid eyes on you in my life."

"Last December in the driveway of your house, remember? I'm Ned Allen.

I used to work for a magazine called CompuWorld, and you found me

camped out behind the wheel of my car... ."

"Yeah, yeah, I remember. Ted said you were chasing him for some

advertising spread .. . and that he decided to help you out when it

turned out your job depended on this deal."

"That's right. Your husband really did a great thing by-" "Bullshit.

Ted never did a decent thing for anybody. It was against his religion.

Now if you will excuse me .. ."

"I really need to talk to you."

"Well, I really don't need to talk to you. I've spent the last couple

of weeks talking to the cops, the press, the lawyers, and most

especially to my very confused and distressed children. So I am truly

sick and tired of talking.. .."

She leaned against a parked car and tried to stifle a sob.

"Mrs. Peterson, please."

I made the mistake of putting a steadying hand on her arm.

"Don't you touch me.. .."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean-" "Get out of here, or I'll call the

cops."

"Mrs. Peterson, just listen."

"Get out!"

A few passersby in the parking lot stopped and stared. I had one final

shot at this meeting. I had to gamble.

"I know who killed your husband," I said in a near whisper.

At first, she didn't take it in.

"You .. . what?"

I kept my voice low.

"I know who killed your husband."

She studied me carefully, and with total distrust.

"And how do you know that?" she asked.

"Because I was there."

She stared at the ground.

"Listen," I said, "can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

"Go away," she said softly.

"I don't want to know...."

"I'll just take ten minutes of your time, no more."

"How do I know ..."

"What?"

".. . you're not them."

"Who's 'them'?"

"The men who ransacked my house. Twice."

"Because ... I work for them. And because they're trying to pin your

husband's murder on me."

She shuddered.

I said, "Ten minutes-that's all I'm asking. You name the place."

She looked away-and I could see she was desperately trying to make up

her mind.

"I'm going into the bank now," she said and started walking away from

me. After taking five steps, however, she turned back and said,

"There's a coffee shop on Sound Beach. Be there in five minutes."

Thank God, the coffee shop was empty. I settled into a booth right in

the back. Ten minutes came and went. I thought, She'll be showing up

here with a cop in tow.

But five minutes later, she walked in. Alone.

"There were long lines at the bank.. ..," she said, sitting down.

"I really appreciate-" "Mister, I don't know who the fuck you are-and

after what I've been through, I certainly don't trust you or anyone

else on this planet, with the exception of my kids. So you get to the

point. Now."

I started to talk. Step by step, I took her through the entire story.

I spared her no details. The crisis over the CompuWorld advertising

spread. The way Ted panicked when I played the Cayman Islands card-but

how he turned vindictive when he realized all I had on him was a

hushed-up case of attempted rape (her face visibly tightened when I

detailed the Joan Glaston incident). I explained how he cost me the

Computer America job. How he helped spark Ivan's suicide. How I hit

bottom and was rescued by my old pal Jerry Schubert, who just happened

to work for Jack Ballantine, and for whom her husband also happened to

working.

She interrupted me.

"Jack Ballantine?" she said in a whisper.

"The Jack Ballantine?"

I took her through the Excalibur Fund scam. How I discovered it was

bogus. How it was being used as a front for some sort of elaborate,

illegal scheme involving hefty amounts of dubious cash. How Ted was

somehow involved-and how Jerry set up our confrontation at the SOFT US

reception, followed by an alleged recon-cilia tory dinner at the Hyatt

Regency, after which .. .

She kept her head bowed during my description of the murder. She said

nothing when I explained how Jerry set me up as the fall guy, and

threatened to turn me in if I didn't transform myself into the bag man.

And how, in the course of carting all that highly suspect money to an

offshore Bahamian bank, I discovered that a certain Ted Peterson had

opened an account there. And how he also had a safe deposit box in the

same bank. And how I was certain that this box contained whatever the

thugs who ransacked her house were looking for. And how I was due to

take part in a lineup at the Greenwich Police Station in just under

forty-eight hours, and was certain to be put away unless .. .

"Unless what?" she said.

"Unless whatever's in that safety deposit box can clear me."

"And you need me to gain access to the box?"

"Absolutely. All they'd need at the bank is your marriage certificate,

Ted's probated will, his death certificate, your passport, of course ..

. You do have a passport.. . ?"

She cut me off.

"Are you out of your fucking mind?"

"I know it all sounds-" "You expect me to drop everything and get on a

plane with you? You-who may really be the guy who pushed that asshole

husband of mine under a train. You-who might just be one of the

charmers who tore up my house during my husband's funeral, and then

came back and did it again. You-who'll probably hit me over the head

the moment I get into your fucking car .. ."

She was getting dangerously loud.

"Mrs. Peterson, please .. ."

"I'm out of here."

"Just hear me ..."

"I've heard enough."

"You're in debt, aren't you?"

"What?"

"He left you in debt. Serious debt, didn't he?"

"That is none of your-" "Okay, true, point taken. But know this: There

is an account in your husband's name at the Bahamian Bank of Commerce.

I don't know how much is in it-but I think it's substantial. And if

you will just hear me out for two more minutes, I will explain how I

think you might also be entitled to a million dollars."

There was a very long pause.

"Two minutes," she said.

My explanation took about five minutes, but she didn't cut me off. When

I finished she said, "Do you have a phone number for this bank?"

I pulled out a notebook and wrote it down.

She reached into her bag and pulled out a cellular phone. I saw her

press zero, then ask for A T & T international directory assistance.

"Nassau, the Bahamas," she said into the phone.

"I need the number for the Bahamian Bank of Commerce.. .. You've got

it? Hang on...."

She pulled the notebook toward her, stared at the number I had written

down, and then touched each digit with her finger as the operator

verified its authenticity.

After she hung up, she looked back at me.

"Okay, there really is a Bahamian Bank of Commerce. Now what's the

manager's name?"

"Oliver MacGuire. But if you want to call him, I wouldn't use your

cellphone. Someone might be listening.. .."

"You'll just have to take that risk, won't you?" And she started

punching in the number.

"I'd like to speak to Mr. MacGuire, please.. .. Tell him it's Ted

Peterson's widow... and that a Mr. Ned Allen suggested I call him."

I put my head in my hands and wondered if Jerry really was monitoring

her calls.

"Mr. MacGuire?" she said, then suddenly stood up and walked to the

extreme rear of the coffee shop, out of my hearing range. She returned

five minutes later, sat down opposite, and tossed her phone back into

her bag.

"Mr. MacGuire said that, according to bank regulations, he could not

confirm or deny the existence of an account and a safety deposit box in

my husband's name .. . but that if I did show up at the bank with all

the documentation you mentioned, he would be able to 'help me." He

also said you were legitimate."

"I've got tickets for the one-thirty flight to Miami-which we could

just about make if-" "How do I know that MacGuire isn't being paid by

you to feed me some crap about an offshore account in order to lure me

out there?"

"You don't. It's your call."

She said nothing for almost a minute. Then she stood up.

"Wait here. I might be a while."

She left the coffee shop. It was 10:47. I was exhausted and

emotionally wasted and terrified. I was also starving, so I ordered a

large breakfast. Two scrambled eggs, sausages, home fries, toast. But

I could only manage to chew a little toast.

11:10. 11:18. 11:31. I kept glancing at the clock, and began to fear

the worst-that, on panicked reflection, she didn't buy my story, and

had placed a call to Detective Flynn.

11:38. And the door flew open and Meg Peterson rushed inside-carrying

a small overnight bag.

"We'd better move if we want to make that plane," she said.

We left the restaurant and walked quickly back to the parking lot,

where I'd left my rented car. Heading south on 1-95, I kept thinking I

was being tailed by a guy in a silver Cutlass, but then saw him drop

back into the traffic and decided my paranoia was in overdrive.

"I have to be back by noon tomorrow, no later," she said.

"You'll be back."

"What time do we get to Nassau tonight?"

"Just before six, if we make the connection."

"Won't the bank be closed?"

"If MacGuire knows we're coming, I think he'll be there."

She pulled the phone out of her bag, and hit the redial button.

"Mrs. Peterson, let's wait until we get to a pay phone... ."

"I'm not getting on that plane unless I know he'll see us tonight."

"They're probably listening.. .."

"They're not the CIA.. .. Hello? Yeah, Mr. MacGuire, please. Mrs.

Peterson here again.. .. Hello, Mr. MacGuire? Meg Peterson .. .

Listen, Mr. Allen and I will be arriving from Miami tonight at six.

Now I've got to be back in the States by noon tomorrow, so ... You sure

that won't be a problem? .. . Terrific. Okay, really appreciate

that.. .. See you then."

She turned off the phone.

"He said he'll be waiting for us at the bank around six. Sounds like a

very accommodating guy."

"I'm a good customer."

"I bet you are."

"Who'd you get to look after your kids?" I asked.

"My sister. She lives in Riverside. She'll pick them up at school,

and they'll stay at her place tonight."

"What did you tell her?"

"Just that the prime suspect in Ted's death was whisking me off to the

Bahamas for the night."

"I see."

"You have no sense of humor."

"I lost it on January second of this year."

"What went wrong on January second?"

"I went wrong."

"I know that feeling. My "I-went-wrong' date was July twenty-seventh,

nineteen eighty-seven."

"What happened then?"

"I married Ted Peterson."

She told me a little about herself-how she was raised just outside of

Philadelphia, attended Wheaton, went to New York after graduating, and

was doing rather nicely in advertising when she met wonderful Ted.

"He was Mr. Ivy-League charm. Mr. Corporate Big Shot. The shit I

was destined to marry."

"Why did you, then?"

"He reminded me exactly of my dad."

Within two years, she knew the marriage was bad news. But

Ted had been transferred to GBS's head office in Stamford, and Meg was

pregnant with Child Number One.

"So it was suburban nightmare, here we come," she said.

"And, at Ted's urging, I made the dumb mistake of giving up work."

"You could have resisted," I said.

"I guess I have a talent for unhappiness."

Child Number Two followed eighteen months after Child Number One. And

Meg found out about Ted's first affair.

"A barmaid at this dump in Stamford he used to drink at after work."

"Classy."

"His middle name."

"How'd you find out?"

"She called up the house, pissed, crying, boozed up, saying how Ted had

promised her the moon, the stars, and her very own trailer. Of course

he denied everything. Just like he denied investing two hundred grand

in some Bordeaux vineyard that went down the toilet. Or losing a

hundred and fifty thousand in some crazy hedge fund. Or taking a

second mortgage out on our house. Or landing us in such fucked-up

shape that I actually had to beg my dad for ten grand last month. And

now you tell me the bastard had money socked away the whole time. It

was probably going to be his running-away money-the disappearing act he

always hinted he might pull someday. Leaving me and the kids with all

his debts."

"Exactly how bad were his debts?"

"Try six hundred thousand dollars' worth of bad."

"Jesus."

"Yeah-at work Ted was considered Mr. Achiever, Mr. One Hundred and

Ten Percent. But, at heart, the guy had this totally reckless,

self-destructive streak. It was as if he kept trying to see just how

far out on a limb he could go. At least when he went under that train

I came into around three hundred thousands' worth of life insurance.

But there's still another three hundred grand to clear-and the house is

definitely destined for the auction block if this offshore account of

his doesn't save our ass."

"Trust me, it will."

"Never say those two words to me again."

"Sorry .. ."

"

"Trust me." That was Ted's endless mantra.

"Trust me, I'm not sleeping with anybody else.".. . I'm just screwing

them.

"Trust me, we're in terrific financial shape."... but do the kids

really need new shoes? Trust me, trust me, trust me .. ."

"Why did you stay?"

"Cowardice. Stupidity. Low self-esteem. The usual classic 'wifely'

reasons. But I did tell him around a month ago that I wanted out. Some

of my girlfriends knew that I'd mentioned the "D' word to him, and

wondered if he threw himself under the train because he was so

depressed about the prospect of me divorcing him. You know what I told

them?

"Ted would never kill himself over something so trivial as losing his

family."

" "But he was still pretty desperate about the debt he'd landed you

in."

"So desperate he got into bed with some pretty nasty characters-like

this Jerry Schubert guy."

"Take it from me, Mrs. Peterson: Desperation is a dangerous thing."

Just before we pulled into La Guardia Airport, I glanced in the

rearview mirror and thought I saw that silver Cutlass again. But then

it was gone.

We made the 1:30 Miami flight. We dashed for the 5:00 P.M.

puddle-jumper to Nassau. And Mr. MacGuire was waiting for us at the

bank. I could see Meg Peterson's amazement at the shabby funkiness of

this venerable offshore financial institution-but MacGuire's innate

graciousness instantly won her over. She presented him with the

requisite documents. He studied each carefully- especially Peterson's

probated will. Finally he asked to see Meg's passport. Then he passed

judgment.

"Mrs. Peterson, from the documentation you've shown me, I can confirm

that your late husband did have an account with this bank. And though

it is also clear that you are the beneficiary of this account, I cannot

allow you access to the funds in his account until we receive the

standard court order to allow their disbursement."

"I'll get in touch with my lawyer tomorrow."

"Once I receive their green light, the money is yours."

"And how much money might that be?"

Mr. MacGuire tapped a few keys on his desktop computer.

Then, squinting at the screen, he said, "One million, one hundred and

twenty-eight thousand, seven hundred and fifty dollars."

For a moment Meg Peterson froze. Finally she said, "Are you

serious?"

"I am very serious."

A small smile formed on her lips.

"Well, if you are very serious, then I am very, very pleased. Would

you mind repeating that figure again, Mr. MacGuire?"

He did.

"Thank you," she said.

"Now, in the matter of his safety deposit box," Mr. MacGuire

continued, "I do not think that we need worry about getting approval

from his estate for you to inspect its contents, as he did leave

written instructions that it should be opened by his beneficiary in the

event of his death. He also recently made the unusual provision of

posting a key to the box back to me for safekeeping."

He opened his top desk drawer and pulled out a large key ring as well

as a single tiny key with a tag marked B2i. We left his office and

walked down a narrow back corridor to a steel-reinforced door. It had

five locks, all of which MacGuire systematically opened. Inside the

small, dark room was a table and chairs and two walls of safety deposit

boxes. MacGuire put the tiny key into the box labeled B2i, then asked

Meg to turn the lock. The little door swung outward. Mr. MacGuire

pulled out the long steel box and placed it on the table.

"Now, if you would like privacy while you inspect it ... ," he said to

Meg.

"I'd like you both to stay," Meg said.

"Are you sure?" MacGuire asked.

"Safety in numbers," she said, and lifted the lid on the box. Inside

was a small microcassette recorder, twenty microcassette tapes, a

handful of documents, and a folded note. Meg opened it, read it, then

passed it on to me. It said:

If you're reading this, then they've gotten me. The tapes tell the

story. They knew I had the tapes. They just didn't know where. And

because I had opened the fund account for them here, they were certain

that I must have been stashing them elsewhere. After all, why keep

them right under their noses'?

This seemed like a legitimate enough proposition ; | when I first got

into it. But then, at Grand Cayman, I was " told the truth-even

though, deep down, I really knew the truth all along.

My last word: I thought I was a true asshole ... until I met Jerry

Schubert.

Edward Peterson I passed the letter on to MacGuire. When he finished

reading it, Meg said, "That son of a bitch. With what he had banked

here, he could have cleared our debts in a minute. This really was his

'running away' account."

"But why didn't he disappear if he was worried that Jerry might get

him?" I asked.

"I think we should listen to the tapes," Meg said.

It took us well over three hours to work our way through all of the

ten-minute micro cassettes It took us well over three hours to make

copies of the twenty micro cassettes using MacGuire's own Dictaphone

machine (and twenty spare blank cassettes he managed to unearth in the

bank's storage room). Then there was an hour's wait while MacGuire

drove us off into the night to the house of a lawyer friend named Caryl

Jenkins, who was also a notary public and formally witnessed Meg's

signature on a letter authorizing the bank to dispatch these tapes to

the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Manhattan branch) in the event of

either of our deaths. Then it was back to the bank, where the original

tapes were transferred out of Peterson's safety deposit box and into a

new box, now registered in the name of Megan Peterson.

Suddenly it was 7:00 A.M." the sun was rising-and Oliver MacGuire

insisted on driving us to the airport.

"Do not worry about Caryl Jenkins saying anything to the fund's lawyer,

Mr. Parkhill, regarding your business here tonight. I chose Caryl

because I know he can't stand Parkhill."

"I cannot thank you enough," Meg said, touching MacGuire's arm.

"It has been a most instructive night," he said.

"And do get the court order sent to me as soon as possible. Once it

arrives I can transfer the account into your name, and you can have

immediate access to its funds."

At the airport, I pumped MacGuire's hand, and asked him, "Why did you

let me get away with the stamp and the deposit book?"

"Because I figured that whatever you did with them wouldn't bring the

bank into disrepute."

"How could you be so sure?"

He shrugged.

"Instinct. Trust. And sympathy. Especially for someone in way over

his head."

"You helped. A lot."

He adopted a mock formal tone.

"As long as I am not asked to break any laws, I am always happy to

assist our customers in any way I can. Everything you requested me to

do was basically legal, "You're still a friend."

He smiled.

"Yes, but I'm also a banker."

Inside the terminal building, I didn't like the look of the ancient

X-ray machine they had for hand luggage, fearing that it might wipe the

tapes clean. So I asked the security officer on duty to inspect the

bag by hand.

"What's inside the bag?" he asked before opening it.

I glanced at Meg Peterson. And stopped myself from saying,

"Dynamite."

SEVEN

As soon as we stepped off the plane in Miami my phone rang.

"Ned, it's Oliver here at the bank."

"Didn't I just say good-bye to you?"

"I would have called you half an hour ago, but you were in the air at

the time."

He sounded uncharacteristically tense.

"Is something wrong?"

"Remember when you asked me to ring you if Excalibur's lawyer ever

called me to check on the balance of the fund?"

"Oh, Jesus ..."

"I'm sorry, Ned. But he phoned as soon as I arrived back at the bank.

And I had no choice but to give him the official balance. He does

represent the account, after all."

"Okay, Oliver-thanks for warning me."

"Watch yourself."

I turned to Meg and told her what had just transpired.

"So the lawyer will report to Schubert that the account is a million

dollars short?" she asked.

"That's right. And he'll think I've embezzled it myself...."

The phone rang again.

"Ned."

It was Lizzie. She didn't sound relaxed.

"Don't go home," she said.

"What?"

"Don't go back to the loft. They're waiting for you."

"Who's 'they'?"

"Jerry's goons. They know exactly who you're with and where you've

been, and they're after whatever it is you've got. And tell Mrs.

Peterson not to go home, either. There are people waiting there for

her as well."

"How do you know this?"

"Jerry told me."

"Did he sleep over?" I said, immediately regretting it.

"You are a total jerk."

"Sorry."

"Now listen to me, please. Jerry arrived unannounced to tell me that

he'd just heard some news: The Connecticut cops have a witness who will

finger you as the man who killed Peterson."

Oh Christ. It was Jerry who sent them the reception photos.

"Now it was pretty clear why he showed up on my doorstep to tell me

this news-he was hoping, in his own dumb-shit,

high-school-jock-romantic way, that I'd suddenly drop you and fall into

his arms. But I have never given up on you, Ned. Never. Even though,

Christ knows, I've wanted to.... "Anyway, I played along, acted like I

was almost relieved you were going to be busted, flirted with the jerk,

but pulled the 'time-of-the-month' routine when he started to think it

was his lucky night. And I would have called you back as soon as he

left if I knew where you were, or if your cellphone had been on. I was

absolutely frantic. Especially when he called me last night to say

you'd disappeared with Peterson's wife, and fed me some lie about how

the Connecticut cops had men posted at the loft and Mrs. Peterson's

house, waiting to pick you up. And how I should call him immediately

if you showed up here ..."

"Calm down, Lizzie. Calm down."

"I can't calm down-they're going to kill you."

"Here's what you do. Call Jerry back, say you heard from me, and that

I've decided to lay low in Miami for a few days. Tell him I've checked

into the Delano. Let him send a search party down here.. .."

"Okay, okay .. . what are you going to do?"

"Get to New York and sell my way out of this corner."

"Don't get hurt."

I hit the "off" button. Meg Peterson was looking at me, worried.

"Are your kids definitely at your sister's?" I asked.

She turned white.

"Oh Christ, don't tell me .. ."

"Jerry has posted a 'welcome-home' party outside your house. So get on

the phone to your sister and tell her not to go near your place .. .

and suggest she take a drive out of town with the kids today."

Meg scrambled inside her bag for her cellphone.

"A land line, Meg," I said, pointing to the pay phone on the wall of

the transit lounge.

"I read you."

Our flight to La Guardia was called. Meg was still on the phone when

the final boarding announcement was given. A flight attendant

approached us.

"Sir, ma'am, please-you must board now."

Meg ended her call and we were hustled aboard the plane.

"They're fine, thank God," she said as we walked down the jet-way.

"And they're all heading off to see a cousin of ours in Milford for the

day. Oh-I have to tell you: The local papers have been saying that the

police plan to arrest someone for Ted's murder by tomorrow."

"You mean, as soon as Mr. Hyatt Regency IDs me."

We found our seats at the extreme rear of the plane. Almost

immediately we pushed back from the gate and began to taxi toward the

runway. My phone rang.

"Here's what you do. Call Jerry back, say you heard from me, and that

I've decided to lay low in Miami for a few days."

I felt a deep chill run right through me as I heard Jerry mimic,

verbatim, my conversation of five minutes earlier.

"What did I tell you about cellular phones, Allen? I mean, if someone

can listen in on Prince Charles's cellphone, you don't think they can

tap yours? Not that you need to worry about stuff like phones anymore.

Because you're dead. As in D-E-A-D. And as for that duplicitous bitch

you call a wife .. ."

A stewardess came running up the aisle.

"Sir, turn that cellphone off now. They interfere with navigational

instruments."

I did as ordered. And whispered to Meg:

"We need to get off this plane before it takes off."

"What?"

"That was Jerry Schubert. He's been listening in. And I promise you,

he's going to have a greeting committee at La Guardia. So we've got to

..."

Suddenly the plane turned a corner and, without hesitation, shot down

the runway.

"Forget that idea," Meg said.

I noticed a credit card phone in the arm of my seat. I turned around

to where the air hostess was strapped into a jump seat.

"Can I use this?" I said, frantically pulling the receiver out of the

armrest.

She nodded her approval. I whipped out a credit card and slid it

through the little groove on the edge of the receiver. Nothing

happened. I slid it through again. A message appeared in the little

window on the receiver: INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

"Shit, shit, shit," I muttered. Meg Peterson tapped me on the shoulder

with her AMEX card.

"This might just work."

It did-and I reached Lizzie at her apartment.

"Get out of there now," I said.

"He's been listening in. He knows you've been leaking everything he's

said to me. And he's really pissed off."

"Oh, Jesus .. ."

"Don't go to the office. Don't go anywhere he might think of looking

for you. Just get out of there. And don't call me again. Go

somewhere safe.... a museum."

"Remember that benefit we were at in October?"

"Gotcha."

My next call was to Phil Sirio.

"You in a plane, boss?" he asked.

"I'm in deeper than deep shit."

"Tell me how I can help."

I explained the problem. He had an instant solution. He'd grab his

brother and his brother's car and meet us at La Guardia- whereupon

they'd whisk us off to the safety of Ozone Park for as long as

necessary.

"You can whisk Mrs. Peterson off. I've got some business in the

city."

"Whatever," Phil said.

"When do you land?"

"Just before eleven. We're on American flight eleven-thirty-two."

"We'll be there, boss."

I turned to Meg and informed her that we now had protection in the

shape of Phil Sirio and his brother. Then, talking in a near whisper,

I took her through the scenario I was going to enact as soon as I

reached Manhattan-and how I would call her when she was needed. She

scribbled down her number in my notebook. Then we lapsed into tense

silence. And stayed that way until we touched down at La Guardia.

We were last off the plane. Phil and his brother Vinnie (a squat bear

of a guy, with a silk open-neck shirt and several gold chains) were

waiting for us at the gate. As we waved in acknowledgment, I saw I'm

From Upstairs walking rapidly toward us. Just as he was about to grab

my arm, Vinnie tapped him on the shoulder. I'm From Upstairs pivoted

and instantly encountered Vinnie's fist. The blow landed between his

eyes, and he landed on the floor. People scattered. Vinnie then

quickly rammed his boot between the guy's legs, just to make certain he

really wasn't going to pursue us. And the four of us ran for the

street.

"Our car's just over there," Phil said, pointing to a gold Olds,

illegally parked near the taxi stand.

"We can run you into Manhattan."

"Just get Meg somewhere safe. I'll call you when I need you. And

Vinnie .. ."

"Yo."

"Nice meeting you."

I jumped into a cab.

"Forty-fifth and Lexington."

I collapsed across the backseat. I momentarily closed my eyes. When I

opened them again, we were in midtown Manhattan. It took a moment for

me to get my bearings. I paid off the cabbie. I entered the

stationery shop in which I had rented a mailbox. I dug out the key,

opened the box, and removed the envelope stuffed with Bahamian bank

receipts and the deposit stamp. Dropping everything into my briefcase,

I ran out to the street again, hailed another cab, and asked to be

dropped on Madison between 53rd and 54th.

I feared that Jerry might have a goon squad on the lookout for me in

the downstairs lobby-but the usual security guard was the only person

on duty, and he gave me a curt nod of hello. I rode the elevator up to

the eighteenth floor, expecting tough guys in the reception area of

Ballantine Industries. However, there was just a secretary. She

looked up at me through the glass security door, figured me to be a

well-dressed (if somewhat disheveled) executive, and buzzed me in.

"Can I help you?"

"Not really," I replied, passing her. She yelled after me-but I was

now running, my eyes focused on the door at the end of the corridor.

Made of massive mahogany, it screamed executive self-importance, and

could only belong to one man in this organization. I heard footsteps

racing behind me, but I knew I was going to reach this door first. And

throwing my weight against it, I spilled right into the office of Jack

Ballantine.

He was seated behind a huge Oval Office-style desk. But as soon as I

made my crash landing he was on his feet. So was Jerry Schubert, who

had apparently been seated in the chair opposite the desk. Jerry dived

for the phone.

"Jenny, get me Security.. .."

But Security was already here-in the form of Thug Number Two, of Hyatt

Regency parking lot fame. He had me in a half nelson. Ballantine

approached me, shaking his head.

"You disappoint me, Ned. Here I was, thinking you were a guy ready to

play pro ball. But, as it turns out, you're junior varsity- and way

out of your league."

"Get him into my office," Jerry ordered the thug.

"You made a classic mistake, Ned," Ballantine said.

"You forgot that non-team players always get trampled."

I reached into my jacket pocket with my free hand and pulled out a

microcassette recorder.

"Before you start trampling me, I think you should hear this first," I

said, pressing the "play" button, and spinning the volume dial up to

maximum.

"You're telling me that Jack Ballantine's behind this fund?"

"That's exactly what I'm telling you. Which is why, if you don't play

ball with us, you and your family are heading for harm. Because

Jack Ballantine is like an Old Testament god. Cross him and he smites

your ass. Permanently."

Jerry was heading toward me.

"Give me that fucking tape," he ordered.

"Not so fast," Ballantine said, approaching me.

"Play it again."

I hit the "rewind" button and then pressed "play."

Ballantine listened again. Jerry made another grab for the cassette

recorder. But Ballantine blocked his attempted swipe, seizing him by

the shirt.

"Back off, son," he said calmly, "or you might get hurt."

He pushed Jerry into a chair, then turned to me.

"Who's the other guy on the tape?" he asked.

"The late Ted Peterson. And if you look in my briefcase there, you'll

see there are twenty other tapes-all containing recorded conversations

between Mr. Peterson and Mr. Schubert, and all of a highly

incriminating nature."

Ballantine bent down, picked up the briefcase, and peered inside. I

continued talking.

"And I must inform you, Mr. Ballantine, that my associates are

expecting a phone call from me in just under fifteen minutes. If they

do not hear from me, they will presume the worst-and they will deliver

the originals of these tapes to the FBI."

"This is bullshit, Mr. B.," Jerry yelled.

I ignored Jerry and stared directly at Ballantine.

"I would advise you to take this situation seriously, sir. And I would

also ask you to get this fucking gorilla off me right now."

After a moment's consideration, Ballantine flicked his hand toward Thug

Number Two. He released me and stood guard by the door.

"May I now tell you a story?" I asked.

"This guy is a fucking blackmailer!" screamed Jerry.

"Jerry," Ballantine said, "I'll say this just once: Shut up."

He then nodded toward me.

"Okay, Allen. Talk."

"I'm not here to blackmail you, Mr. Ballantine. I'm here to sell you

an idea.

"All salesmanship is storytelling." Didn't you write that in The

Success Zone? Well, here's the story.

"Ted Peterson, GBS executive, asshole supreme, meets Jerry Schubert

just over a year ago at some cocktail party. Jerry gets talking about

this private equity fund idea he's cooking up, Ted gets

interested-because, though he's a high-flying executive, the guy's also

a jerk when it comes to managing his money, and he's a couple of

hundred grand in debt. They both see a mutual opportunity for fun and

profit-especially since Ted is a member of a highly confidential GBS

committee in which all the research and development people sit around

and talk about products they're considering buying from small software

companies that are about to go public.

"Before you can say 'insider information, Jerry's paying Ted five grand

a month for this highly confidential corporate info, which he then

disseminates among your wide circle of wealthy friends- who, in turn,

buy stock in these emerging companies, and turn a nice profit.

"So far so good. But, of course, Jerry has ambitions beyond mere

insider trading. He knows that your wealthy friends, Mr. Ballantine,

are looking for intriguing investment opportunities-and a way of

washing clean a lot of dirty money. So he sets up a private equity

fund called Excalibur and asks Ted if he'd like to be the chief talent

spotter for the fund. Ted is delighted-the five percent commission

could turn out to be a very lucrative sideline for him. And as an

additional bonus, Jerry asks Ted to fly around the country on a couple

of weekends and meet some of the well-heeled investors Jerry's bringing

into the fund. And much to Ted's surprise, these guys start handing

him briefcases full of money. He calls Jerry.

"What do I do with all this cash?" he asks.

"We've opened a fund account in Grand Cayman," Jerry says.

"Hop a plane and deposit it there."

"Ted agrees. And every weekend for a month, he does these little trips

around the country to rich friends of Jack Ballantine-who love his

private equity sales pitch so much they keep handing him suitcases of

money. And before jetting back to the bosom of his family on Sunday

night, Ted makes a quick stopover at a Grand Cayman bank, which happily

accepts deposits seven days a week.

"The fund grows to fifteen million in a matter of weeks. But then

Jerry drops a little bombshell on Ted. He doesn't plan to invest all

this money in new emerging companies-because the Excalibur Fund is

completely bogus. Instead, he wants him to work out a way of

laundering the money .. . because all the cash he's been handling is

dirty. Drug money dirty. Arms money dirty. Child pornography dirty.

Excuse the editorial aside, Mr. Ballantine, but you know some very

interesting entrepreneurs... ."

"Get back to the story, Allen."

"With pleasure. Ted freaks-because he's now being asked to engage in

some serious criminal activity. I mean, compared to laundering drug

and porn money, trading a little insider information is Boy Scout

stuff. So Ted says he wants out. But Jerry threatens to expose his

insider dealing stunts at GBS. Ted buys a tape recorder and begins to

record all his business discussions with Jerry. Eventually, after

multiple threats-like the one involving your name, Mr. Ballantine-Ted

capitulates. And, after a bit of research, he creates a bogus software

company in Budapest called Micromagna. They're allegedly selling word

processing programs to other countries in the Eastern Bloc. What

they're actually doing is sending empty boxes of disks to nonexistent,

one-man-in-a-phone-booth companies in Warsaw, Bucharest,

Bratislava-who, in turn, pay for these bogus goods with cash they've

received from the Excalibur Fund. It's the perfect money-laundering

scheme-dirty money gets used for alleged legitimate business deals.

Nobody actually pockets a penny. The money comes out smelling clean.

"The scheme works brilliantly-but alas, Ted is unhappy with the measly

twenty-thousand-dollar payoff he gets for all his hard work. Jerry

promises more the next time around-and sends Ted to collect a whopping

six point five million from a consortium of your entrepreneur friends

down Mexico way. This time they decide to try the banking facilities

of the Bahamas. Ted docks in Nassau with the six point five. He

engages the services of a local lawyer. The lawyer makes a call to the

Bahamian Bank of Commerce. Ted pays the bank a visit and opens an

Excalibur account. While he's there, the bank manager suggests he also

open a personal account for any commissions he gets from the fund. On

the spot, Ted decides he deserves a healthy commission this time, and

tells the banker to shove five point five million into the Excalibur

account, and a million into his own personal account.

"Well, Jerry gets a little perturbed when he hears about Ted's

commission, and threatens him and his family with grievous bodily harm

unless the money is returned. At this point, Ted plays his trump card.

He's got this extensive library of Ted and Jerry chats- which he will

make public unless he gets to keep the million. What's more, he wants

a retainer of fifteen thousand a month just to keep him sweet.

"You should listen to these guys intimidate each other, Mr. Ballantine.

They just can't help but trade threats and counter threats And, I've

got to tell you, I couldn't figure out why Ted didn't just take the

money and run-until, of course, I heard the tape in which Jerry assured

Ted that he'd do unspeakable stuff to his kids if he suddenly vanished.

Even an immoral scumbag like Ted Peterson had to give in to that

threat, and stay put in Old Greenwich."

Jerry was about to yell some disclaimer, but Ballantine silenced him

with a dangerous glare.

"So now Ted's got this big problem. Personally, he's still six hundred

grand in debt. And though he's got a million in this offshore account,

he knows that Jerry will kill him if he touches the cash. And Jerry,

too, has a big problem, as the million that Ted has embezzled belongs

to his so-called investors-and they are not the kind of gentlemen who

like to be stolen from.

"But then I show up on the scene, and Jerry sees a way of eliminating

the entire Ted crisis. Before you can say choo-choo, Ted is under that

train, I am Jerry's new delivery boy, and Peterson's house is twice

turned upside down by Jerry's stooges in search of the tapes-which, as

you now know, were kept elsewhere all the time."

I sat down.

"So that's the story, Mr. Ballantine-and one which is completely

corroborated by all twenty tapes in that briefcase. They really make

interesting listening, especially if you're a Fed.. .."

Jerry was on his feet.

"I want to say something here," he barked.

"I don't want to hear it," Ballantine said.

"Well, I'm going to fucking say it whether-" Ballantine's face turned

malevolent, but his voice remained hushed.

"No, you're not going to say anything. Now sit down."

Jerry looked at the door as if he was thinking about making a break for

it. Thug Number Two shook his head as if to say Don't even try. So he

sank back into his chair. Ballantine faced me again.

"So that's the entire story, Mr. Allen?"

I inadvertently smiled at his sudden, respectful inclusion of "Mr."

before my name.

"No, sir. As you yourself said in The "You' Defense, "In business

there is never one actual story. There are many stories." Now, were

those tapes to find their way to the police or the media, the story

would emerge as I have described it-with disastrous personal

consequences for you.

"However, there is a way of tailoring the story to avoid such a

'negative' outcome. And that is to cast Jerry here as the villain of

the piece. After all, there's no documentation linking Ballantine

Industries to either Excalibur or any of the offshore accounts. So

here's how you spin it. Jerry set up the Excalibur Fund himself. He

brought Ted on board. They opened the account in Grand Cayman. They

used Micromagna to launder the money. They had an ongoing dispute

about money. Jerry threw Ted under a train. End of story."

Once again, Jerry was on his feet. Ballantine simply pointed his

finger at him, and he sat back down.

"It's an interesting scenario," Ballantine said, "but won't the

investors in the Grand Cayman fund be exposed?"

"Why should they be? The money's laundered, there's no record of any

of their individual contributions, and even if Jerry here names names,

what proof does he have?"

"I like that," Ballantine said.

"But what about the current fund?"

"Now that presents you with a wholly different set of problems, all of

which are easily resolved. You go back to your investors and announce

that you are returning their money with ten percent interest, because

you have discovered that Jerry Schubert, your right-hand man, the guy

you treated like a son, has been embezzling a significant chunk of the

cash."

"That is such total bullshit," roared Jerry.

"Allen's the embezzler. And I have proof right here."

He stood up, dug into the inside pocket of his jacket, and pulled out a

sheet of paper, which he waved in front of Ballantine with maniacal

desperation.

"It's a fax from our lawyer in Nassau, showing that over one million

dollars of the money Allen was handling has disappeared from the

Excalibur account."

Ballantine grabbed the fax from Jerry's hand. After scanning it, he

turned to me and said:

"Is this true? One million?"

"Yes, sir-it's absolutely true. One million is missing from the

Excalibur account... but not unaccounted for, as it's all lodged in a

personal account in the name of Jerry Schubert."

Jerry lunged for me. But Thug Number Two got between us and quickly

had him restrained.

"Mr. B.-Jack-he's fucking lying, I never, never would dream of

stealing from you."

I reached into the briefcase and pulled out the envelope brimming with

deposit slips.

"Mr. Ballantine, he asked me to open the account in his name.. .."

"You piece of shit!" Jerry screamed.

"Inside here you'll find his bank account book, and copies of deposit

slips for everything he asked me to stash in his own personal account.

Just for the record, it was twenty percent of all funds. The good

news, however, is that I kept careful records of everything that your

investors paid in-every time I made a deposit, I ensured that the

investor's name was on the deposit slip. So you won't find it

difficult to refund their money. Just add twenty percent to everything

they're owed ... as well as the interest you're going to pay them, of

course."

"And what am I going to pay you, Mr. Allen?"

"We'll come to me in a moment. First there's the matter of Mrs.

Peterson. She's asked me to negotiate with you on her behalf. Now, as

you can appreciate, her life has suffered a considerable amount of

distress recently. The sole breadwinner in the family thrown under a

train. Her house torn apart twice. Nasty men prowling around her

kids. And, of course, she is in possession of evidence that could end

your freedom forever, sir.

"But take my word for it: All she wants is a quiet life. And a certain

amount of compensation for her losses. So here's the math-and I must

say it strikes me as quite reasonable. She gets to keep the million in

Peterson's offshore account-which will essentially get her family out

of the debt Peterson left them in and pay the first mortgage still

remaining on the house. Then she would also like an additional one

million, which she plans to invest in nice safe unit trusts and mutual

funds, to provide a reasonable annual income for herself and her two

children."

"And what about the tapes?" Ballantine asked.

"You get to keep this set. The originals stay locked away in a secure

place-with instructions to ship them to the Feds should either Mrs.

Peterson or myself meet a sinister end. But that's not going to

happen, is it?"

"How do I know you're never going to use those tapes as a bargaining

chip against me again?"

"Because, with all due respect, after today I never want to see you

again. And Mrs. Peterson simply never wants to meet you. So ..." I

pulled out my cellphone.

"Do we have a deal?"

"It's not cheap."

"Altogether, you're going to have to find around three million to cover

Mrs. Peterson's settlement and make up the shortfall to your

investors. But, hey, it's a small price to pay for your freedom, your

life. And anyway, what's three million to Jack Ballantine?"

He shook his head wearily.

"Give me the phone," he said.

"The number's already programmed in. You just have to press 'send.""

He did as instructed.

"Mrs. Peterson? Jack Ballantine here. I have been in extensive talks

with your negotiator, Mr. Allen. And I'm pleased to say that I agree

to your terms. I'll pass you over to Mr. Allen now."

He handed me back the phone.

"Hi, Meg."

She sounded dazed.

"He really agreed to everything?"

I looked over at him.

"He is a man of his word."

"You must be amazingly persuasive, Ned."

"I can only play with the cards I'm dealt. And you gave me four aces.

How are Phil and Vinnie treating you?"

"Great-but they're playing me old Al Martino albums."

"Well, there's a price for everything."

"I think they deserve a reward from my windfall. Would they accept ten

grand?"

"I doubt it-Phil's more ethical than he cares to admit. Listen, I've

got to go."

I turned the phone off.

"She's very pleased," I said.

"I'm sure she is," Ballantine said dryly.

"And now, sir-how can I please you? A million? A new job? Both?

What's the price?"

"I want just two things from you. The first is this: At nine tomorrow

morning, I'm due to present myself at the Greenwich police station to

take part in a lineup, where the maitre d' of the Hyatt Regency

restaurant-a Mr. Martin Algar-is certain to finger me as the guy last

seen with Peterson. I want you to persuade Mr. Algar- with some cold,

hard cash-to finger Schubert here instead."

Jerry tried to express his objection to my idea, but Thug Number Two

simply bent his arms further up his back.

"Schubert ordered Peterson's death," I said.

"Schubert killed Peterson by proxy. Schubert should take the fall."

"Done," Ballantine said.

Suddenly Jerry slammed his heel down hard on Thug Number Two's left

foot and broke free of his grip.

"I am not taking any fucking fall," he yelled and raced out the door.

Thug Number Two was about to pursue him, but Ballantine said, "Call

Security, let them find him."

Thug Number Two lifted the phone. I asked Ballantine, "Aren't you

worried he might get away?"

"Believe me, he'll never leave the building," he said matter of

factly.

"Now where were we, Mr. Allen?"

"We were about to discuss my final request," I said.

"Which is ... ?"

"I walk out of here, and you never come near me again."

"That's it?" Ballantine asked.

"Yes, that's it."

"And my offer of a million?"

"Is it legitimate?"

"As you yourself said, I am a man of my word. And in addition to the

money, I am now in the market for a new right-hand man. Two hundred

grand a year-and, needless to say, a lot of perks. All yours, Mr.

Allen."

"No thanks," I finally said.

"Don't tell me you're not even tempted."

"Of course I'm tempted."

"One million dollars and an impressive new job would solve a lot of

problems."

"And create some very large new ones. I cannot compete in your league,

Mr. Ballantine. I'm not enough of an asshole."

He smiled thinly.

"That's a real pity, Ned," he said.

"Because assholes always win. Anyway .. . it's your life."

"That's right. It is. And I'd like it back."

"Fine by me. What was the name of that maitre d' again?"

"Martin Algar. The Hyatt Regency Hotel, Old Greenwich."

"Did you get all that?" he asked Thug Number Two.

"I did."

"Offer him twenty-five grand, no more," Ballantine said.

"And find a picture of Schubert to bring with you. I'm sure you'll

have no problems with the guy."

"Piece of cake," Thug Number Two said, and left.

"So .. . ," Ballantine said, stretching his arms out in front of him,

"game, set, and match. A very impressive performance, Ned."

"Thank you. May I ask a question?"

"Shoot."

"Are you really going to be turning Jerry over to the cops?"

"What do you think?"

"So what will you do with him?"

"It won't be pleasant. But it will look accidental."

"Is that really necessary?"

"I'm an asshole, remember?"

"You're going to get hit with some very ugly publicity ..."

He cut me off.

"I'll survive it. I always do."

"I know that, Mr. Ballantine. In fact, everybody knows that."

He proffered his hand. I didn't take it. He shrugged, as if to say I

can live with your disapproval.

"So what next, Ned?"

"A walk."

"I mean, after that."

"I'm just thinking about the walk, Mr. Ballantine."

"Watch yourself," he said. I met his stare.

"You watch yourself, too."

I rode the elevator down to the first floor and stepped outside. When

I hit the street, I found a cab and asked the driver to take me to

Seventy-seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus.

"Remember that benefit we were at in October?"

I did. It was a black-tie charity thing, held in the dinosaur hall of

the Museum of Natural History.

When the cab pulled up in front of the museum, I ran inside, paid the

admission fee, then headed up the stairs to the dinosaur hall on the

fourth floor. But when I reached the entrance-and spotted Lizzie from

behind, standing near the Tyrannosaurus rex-I slammed on the brakes.

Careful now. Don't overplay your hand.

I stepped out of the hall. Pulling a notebook and a pen out of my

pocket, I scribbled Lizzie:

It was an eventful morning, but it looks like the coast is clear.

I have to run an errand now-but I'm planning to have a cup of coffee at

Nick's Burger Joint (76th and Broadway) in around half an hour. It

would be nice to see you. If, however, you don't show up, I will

understand.

Love, I scrawled my name at the bottom of the note, then tore the page

out of the book and found a museum guard standing nearby.

"Could you do me a favor?" I asked him.

"Depends," he said.

"See that woman standing over there by the T. rex? Would you mind

giving her this note?"

He looked at the note warily, as if it might be obscene.

"Read it if you like," I said.

"Anyway, I'm her husband."

"Sure you are, pal," he said, snatching the note out of my hand.

I watched as he walked over to where Lizzie was standing. As he handed

her the scrap of paper, I slipped away down the stairs and headed

toward the main entrance.

I turned west on Seventy-seventh Street, then north on Amster dam,

stopping at a stationery shop near the corner of Seventy-ninth

Street.

"Do you sell padded envelopes?" I asked the woman behind the

counter.

"Sure," she said.

"How big?"

I reached into my jacket pocket and removed the Bahamian Bank of

Commerce stamp.

"Big enough to fit this," I said.

She reached below the counter and handed me an eight-by-ten padded

envelope. I wrote Oliver MacGuire's name and address on its front,

then pulled out my notebook again and scribbled eight words:

Oliver:

I closed.

I owe you one.

Ned I tore out the note and placed it with the bank stamp inside the

envelope.

"You want, we can sell you the stamps and mail that for you," the woman

said.

"That would be great," I said, handing her some cash.

"The Bahamas, huh?" she said, staring at the address.

"I'll need to put a customs sticker on the front. How should I

describe the contents?"

I thought about this for a moment, then said, "A souvenir."

She looked at me with amusement.

"Of what, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Things past."

I stepped back outside. I started walking west. On my way, I hoped,

to a cup of coffee with the woman who might-or might not-still be my

wife. I tried not to think about what to say (if, indeed, she did show

up), or how to react, or what strategic pose to adopt. This wasn't a

pitch meeting. This was a cup of coffee. Nothing more. It might be a

pleasant cup of coffee. It might be a disastrous cup of coffee. It

would be what it would be-and I would deal with the outcome.

That's what selling teaches you: This is never an easy ride, and we

spend most of our lives scrambling. But once in a while, you can sit

down with somebody and have a cup of coffee.

And when you sit down with somebody over a cup of coffee ... well, it's

always a beginning.


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