I leaned back in my comfy leather executive chair, the Bluetooth in my ear, keeping my hands free to do whatever. I was an active talker. I couldn’t just sit and listen while I was on the phone. I needed to be doing something.
I rubbed a hand over my face, scratching my jaw before getting to my feet and moving to stare out the window in my office. Not a single window, a bank of windows that overlooked the bustling city of Houston, Texas. My office was in one of the high-rise buildings that said a company made it. I was the right-hand man of the man behind the company, which always made me feel pretty damn special.
It was a hot day outside. I could see the heat radiating off the buildings and could practically feel the humidity clinging to my skin in my air-conditioned office. It was going to be a hot summer. At least that was what all the old-timers predicted. I was pretty sure they predicted the same thing every year. It was always a hot summer in Houston. I loved the fact the windows were heavily tinted, allowing me to see the world with no one seeing me. It kept out the heat of the sun and kept the room from feeling like a steel box.
“I understand, Joe,” I said to the voice coming from the speaker wedged in my ear. “We can do that for you.”
“My board is telling me this is not the way to move product,” Joe said. “I’m a little leery about taking a giant step backward.”
I closed my eyes, relying on my instincts to find a way to get the man to understand our train company was the better solution. “When you ship by rail, you are getting more bang for your buck. It’s cheaper, which means you are saving more on your bottom line. One rail car can transport twice as much as a single truck.” I might have been fudging a little, but it was pretty damn close.
“But what about getting the goods to our facility?” he asked.
“Freight from the railyard to your warehouse is nominal. You’ll still come out ahead because you are saving a fortune by shipping via train over using a series of long-haul-freight companies. You aren’t being forced to wait days and weeks. I know it’s old fashioned, but there is a reason railroad companies are still around. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The man chuckled and I knew I was making headway. It wasn’t easy to convince people to change what they had always been doing. It was easier if I could show them how much money they could save. Sadly, in our modern world, people saw trains as ancient methods of transportation. It wasn’t exactly a cart-and-buggy situation. We set up a meeting to go over specifics. I was going to be prepared with contracts as well.
“I’ll run this by my board,” he said with a small laugh. “You make a very convincing argument. I bet you are going to be hard to say no to in person.”
“I’m counting on it,” I said with a confident smile that he couldn’t see.
I ended the call and removed the Bluetooth from my ear, proud of my accomplishment. “And that’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
It was what I did for the company. I sought out customers and used my charm and knowledge of shipping to get them to give us their business. I wasn’t a college graduate. I didn’t know shit about spreadsheets, but I knew how to make money and how to convince people they wanted to make more money. I knew I was lucky to have my job, but it wasn’t luck alone. I had worked my ass off to get to where I was.
I saw movement and looked up to see Cora Mallet chatting with one of the account managers just outside my office. She was the daughter of the owner and had just recently started working for the company.
It was a shining example of nepotism. That was my ten-dollar word. I didn’t have a lot of fancy words, but I knew that one well.
I wasn’t entirely sure what her role was, and I didn’t care. She was nice to look at. Always had been. I took in the short black hair, cut in a sleek style that made her look youthful but powerful at the same time. I knew her eyes were a light green. I had stared into those eyes many times before.
I heard her laugh and wished I could see her face. I knew exactly what her full lips would look like as she smiled. Her eyes would crinkle just a bit at the corner if she was really smiling. If it was a fake smile, there would be no crinkling.
Cora was the kind of woman that only the trust-fund guys had a shot with. I was an old family friend. I was the boy that hung out with her big brother. She’d been the awkward kid with braces that annoyed the hell out of her brother and me.
She wasn’t awkward anymore. My eyes drifted down her body, taking in the top that was a little looser than what other women wore. She always dressed in slightly baggy clothing. She was convinced she was chunky.
Myself, her father, and her brother had told her a hundred times she was anything but. She was full and round and plump in all the right places. Full breasts, round hips, and a perfectly squeezable ass. She was the kind of woman that would be in the old black and white pinups.
She walked away, snapping me out of the dangerous line of thinking. I couldn’t think about the boss’s daughter like that. I wasn’t about to lose my job over something like that.
Cora was not for me and I could accept that. I wasn’t in her league. She would marry a man with as much money as her family had. Maybe more. I wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, but I didn’t have a pedigree.
I was anxious to tell Mr. Mallet, the CEO, that I had scored another client. Yes, I was looking for the proverbial pat on the head. I liked proving to him that I was a good choice. The man had taken a chance on an uneducated guy like me years ago. When no one else would give me the time of day, Ben had given me a chance. The man was like a father to me. When I did a good job, I got the benefit of pleasing my mentor, my boss, and my father figure. A man I respected more than any other person on the planet.
I walked down the hall, nodding at his secretary and smiling. She was on the phone but waved me in. I felt privileged to have unfettered access to the king. Well, the king of our little world.
I knocked once and walked into the large office adorned in lots of rich mahogany furniture and maroon furnishings. It was a bit dated in décor, but it was what the old man liked.
“Have a seat,” he said as he studied his computer screen.
I sat down in one of the leather chairs and crossed my legs, waiting for him to finish what he was doing. The man worked hard. He had a shitload of money and could have retired years ago, but he kept on going.
He was very much like one of the locomotives he owned. He led the company into success and was determined to keep it at the top. One day, I hoped I would be stepping into his shoes or have my own company. He had taught me I could do just about anything if I put my mind to it.
He flinched once, pausing his typing before taking a sharp breath.
“Are you okay?” I asked him with concern.
He shook his head. “Fine.” He turned and faced me, giving me his full attention. “Just that breakfast burrito I had this morning coming back to haunt me.”
I chuckled, shaking my head. “I told you to quit eating from that food cart. That woman has never met a pepper she doesn’t like.”
He winced again. “I love the spice, but I think I’m getting too old for it.”
He looked, oddly enough, gray. I studied his features, wondering if he was sick, but I knew better than to ask him again. He was a tough man who hated coddling. I couldn’t resist. “Are you sure you’re okay? I can have Rose mix up one of those Alka-Seltzer drinks. She’s got a magic touch. Her drinks cure anything.”
“I’m fine. It’ll pass.”
“It’s going to fight the whole way down,” I warned him with a laugh.
He groaned, still looking like he was suffering. “Don’t I know it. Anyway, I was just finishing up with some maintenance issues forwarded by the manager at the yard. The maintenance team wants new cars. I’m weighing the cost and trying to see if I can justify the expense. I’ll send you the file with the new specs. I’d like to get your opinion. The newer cars are lighter—not by much, but some. The potential fuel savings might make it worth it.”
“I will definitely take a look,” I told him. I appreciated that he valued my opinion. “I have been getting a lot of calls and information lately on some new company that has just expanded their operations and will need to increase their shipping. It might be worth looking into. Plus, it will give us another selling point. Customers like the idea of shiny and new.”
He chuckled before grasping his chest. He lowered his hand and let out a breath. “You’re right. What brings you by?” His voice sounded strained.
I studied him closely. He looked miserable. I had eaten one of the breakfast burritos exactly one time. I didn’t understand how Ben could eat the things. It damn near killed me. I pushed away my worry and focused on the work. “I wanted to let you know I think I’ve landed a new account. I have a meeting set up, but it’s just going to be signing paperwork. I convinced him to switch over to us for his cross-country shipping needs.”
He winced, his hand going back to his chest. “Good to know,” he grunted.
“Ben, are you okay?” I asked, growing more concerned by the second. The man looked bad—ashen. I didn’t know what ashen was, but that was the word that came to mind as I took in his gray pallor. It seemed like more than just a spicy burrito rearing its ugly head.
He grunted before standing up, still clutching his chest. “I—”
“Ben?” I jumped up as well.
He slumped forward before falling to the floor.
“Ben!” I shouted and ran around the desk.
He was on the floor, his hand over his chest as he gasped for air. I knelt beside him, not knowing how to help him but wanting to offer some kind of comfort.
“Help!” I shouted, praying his secretary heard me. “Help! Hold on, Ben. Hold on. I’ll get you an ambulance.”
He was gasping, his lips turning a pale blue. I lifted his head, resting it on my thighs with my hand over his on his chest. The door opened and I looked up over the desk.
“What’s happening?” his secretary asked, her eyes wide with fear.
“Call nine one one! I think he’s having a heart attack!”
Her mouth dropped open. “Oh my god,” she exclaimed and rushed back out of the office.
“Hold on, Ben. Just hang in there. You’re going to be fine.”
The hand that had been slightly curled relaxed under my own and slowly slid off his chest. I watched as his mouth parted, his features relaxing. I shook my head in disbelief.
“No, no, no,” I whispered. “Ben, wait. Don’t you dare do this. Just hang on.”
I held the man I had come to love like a father as he slipped away. I cursed myself for not learning CPR.
I chanted over and over in my head and occasionally aloud, “Hold on, please, please, please, hold on.”