The bell above the diner door chimed and jingled when I entered Joey’s Burgers and Brew. I cast my gaze around the place until I spotted my companion, Jonah, sitting at the far-corner booth by the window. A cup of piping hot coffee sat in front of him, sending curls of steam upward as he pored over his open notebook, scribbling frantically.
Another brilliant novel idea, I assumed.
One of the servers popped out from behind the counter. She had curly blonde hair and a friendly smile, and she couldn’t have been older than twenty-one, just legal enough to be serving beer at a joint like this.
“Good morning, sir. Is it just you today, or is someone else joining you?”
I nodded across the diner at Jonah. “I’m meeting him. Thanks.”
“Can I bring you a coffee?” she offered, her cheeks turning a bit pink as her eyes wandered down the length of me. She seemed to catch herself checking me out and hurried to clear her throat and meet my gaze again. “Sorry. We don’t get many people dressed like that in here.”
I looked down at the dark navy suit that I’d paired with a gray pocket square and dark brown dress shoes. “I have to go to work after this, and yes, a coffee would be nice,” I said, explaining why I was dressed to the nines while the rest of the customers were in jeans and T-shirts.
One young woman was even wearing pajama pants.
A horrible affront to society, if you asked me. Put some real God damn pants on before you leave the house. A little effort never hurt anyone.
The waitress licked her lips and nodded. Apparently, she couldn’t think of anything to say to my response, so she simply stepped aside and motioned for me to go ahead and meet Jonah at his table.
I crossed the black and white checkered diner floor and stopped beside the table to shrug out of my suit jacket. While I hung it on the hook behind the booth and rolled up the sleeves of my black button-up shirt, Jonah didn’t even bother to look up at me.
“You’re late,” he said.
“By three minutes.”
“Still late.” He looked up, flashing me a cocky grin. “Let me revel in it for a minute, will you? I never arrive first.”
“Fair enough.” I slid into the booth across from him. The red plastic creaked and groaned beneath me until I found a comfortable place right in the middle where the asses of all the patrons that sat here before me had created a natural soft spot.
“What delayed you?” Jonah asked. He flipped his notebook closed and dropped his pen on top of it before leaning back against the booth and draping his arms over the top.
“I got a call from Ryan this morning. Looks like Simon Woodbury wants to talk to yours truly this afternoon.”
Jonah’s arms fell from the back of the booth, and he leaned forward. His tone was almost conspiratorial when he spoke. “Seriously? A one-on-one meeting with the big cheese? That’s a big deal, right? I mean, he doesn’t just invite anyone up to the top floor, unless…” He trailed off.
“Unless he’s firing them. Yeah.”
Jonah shook his head and waved dismissively. “Well, we both know he won’t be firing you. Not with the shit you’ve been pulling off for him. You’re closing deals left, right, and center. Obviously. Look at your fucking suit. How much did you spend on that shit?”
“None of your business.”
“So, a lot.”
I pushed my glasses higher up my nose. “Too much, probably.”
Jonah chuckled. “Fuck it. You earned it.”
“You know you could come work with me, right? Get yourself into a suit like this within a year. It’s not all that bad.”
“Too much hustle for me, man,” Jonah said. He put a hand on top of his notebook and gave it an affectionate pat. The silver braided rings on his fingers rapped against the hardcover. “You know I’m not made for that life. I like my freedom too much. Besides, I have issues with authority.”
I chuckled. “The truth comes out.”
“I appreciate the offer though.”
“It always stands.”
We were interrupted by the young blonde server who appeared beside our table with a pot of fresh coffee and a mug. She filled it to the brim and placed it down in front of me. Then she blinked, and her cheeks turned bright pink. “I’m sorry. Did you want room for cream? I totally wasn’t thinking. I just—”
I held up a hand. “Black is good. Thank you.”
She nodded and put the coffee pot down to pull a small notepad out of her apron pocket. She flipped it over and poised her pen over the paper. “What can I get for you two?”
Jonah folded his arms on the table and grinned up at her. “Your traditional breakfast platter, please. Extra bacon. Eggs over easy. Sourdough toast. Thanks, doll.”
She wrote down Jonah’s order and turned her attention toward me. She waited patiently as her cheeks faded back to their normal color.
“Just a breakfast sandwich for me.”
“Got it.” She smiled. Then she took the coffee pot away and went to the kitchen to put in our orders.
Jonah sighed. “She’s into you.”
I smiled. “Can you blame her? Look at my competition.” I gestured around the diner.
“Ass. Better watch yourself. Woodbury might fire your ass just to humble you up a bit.”
I laughed and leaned back in the booth. “If Woodbury fired me, he’d be costing himself profit. If he doesn’t know that, he’s not the businessman the world thinks he is.”
“Or he sees you as a threat.”
I shook my head. “Nah. That’s Ryan. Not Simon. If Ryan had his way, I’d have gotten the boot before I closed my last deal.”
Jonah took a sip of his coffee. “That’s because Ryan is a petty clown who doesn’t realize you’re lining his pockets as well as your own. Here’s to your meeting with Woodbury.” He lifted his coffee mug like it was a champagne flute. “A toast to good fortune.”
I lifted my coffee mug to my best friend’s. “And freedom.”
It was just before ten in the morning when I rolled up to the second tallest skyscraper in Orlando, Florida. It towered above the other buildings laid out around it like a watchtower, and Simon Woodbury had the best view in his penthouse office.
I’d never stood in it before, and now, sitting in the waiting room outside his office doors across from his receptionist, I found my stomach fluttering with nerves.
That was a first for me in this business.
I’d been working for Woodbury’s land development company for close to five years. I’d started at the bottom when I was twenty-seven. At the time, I had no clue what I wanted. All I knew was that I needed to get out of my shitty sales job in telecommunications. Standing in a kiosk in the middle of a depressing and poorly lit mall selling cell phones was not a happy way for me to make a living.
Sure, I was good at it, but that was only because I could sell anything to anyone. My quick wit and silver tongue had opened a lot of doors for me, and when I was scouted by a recruiter who worked for Woodbury Enterprises, I’d been skeptical.
Why the hell would a company like that want a twenty-something-year-old sales guy to work for them?
Five years later, there I was, climbing the ladder and not looking back. My income had doubled three times over since I started with the company, and I had moved from the bottom floor to third from the top, where I worked now for a prick named Ryan Mogul. He had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Titanic, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, he’d had it out for me since I set foot in his office.
Maybe it was my good looks and charm that rubbed him the wrong way. Or the way the women in the office flocked around my desk during lunch. I couldn’t help that I was a chick magnet. Hell, even back in my cell phone selling days, the girls in the mall had wanted a piece of me. I used to write my name and personal number on business cards and drop one in their bags after the sale was processed.
I always got a call back.
Ryan was nothing more than a speed bump on my road to corporate success. I’d get where I wanted to be, and once I was there, I’d be the one looking down my nose at that pompous, arrogant, dishonest—
I looked up at Woodbury’s receptionist. Her name plate read “Rachel Hickory”, and she was middle aged and wore glasses with dramatic purple frames. They matched her bubbly personality, which contrasted with the seriousness of the company.
Standing up, I buttoned up my suit jacket.
“Mr. Woodbury will see you now.” Rachel smiled, nodding toward the double doors to his office.
This is it.
I kept my chin high and walked forward with confidence. It wasn’t fake, either. I felt it coursing through my bones as I pulled open the doors and stepped inside, letting them fall quietly closed behind me.
The office immediately made a man feel something in his core. Something primal. Visceral.
I want this, I thought as I looked around the massive, sprawling, open-concept office. The floors were pristine white marble. Off to my right was a spacious sitting area with plush white leather sofas set atop a white fur rug. There was an unlit fireplace there, and along the mantle were pictures that I assumed were of Woodbury and his family.
That was the only solid wall in the room. The others were floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a panoramic view of Orlando spread out down below like a massive green topographic map.
“Shit,” I breathed, soaking in the sight of it.
A deep voice spoke from over my left shoulder. “Like what you see?”
I turned to find Mr. Woodbury himself sitting at his desk.
Woodbury was a man who had aged well. Money did that for a guy. He was fit and of average height. His hair had started turning silver long ago and now had streaks of white appearing right at the hairline. He had a thick, perfectly shaped beard that moved when he grinned at me.
“Take a seat, Mr. Hammel.”
I stepped toward his desk, unbuttoned my jacket, and sat down in the comfortable chair across from the CEO of Woodbury Enterprises.
“This is an impressive place,” I told him.
Simon’s beard stretched as he grinned. “I think so, too. You should see my property in Belize. It would blow your mind, son.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Can I fix you a drink? Scotch? Whiskey? What sort of man are you?”
I paused, wondering if it was a test. “Maybe another time, sir. Thank you.”
Simon chuckled and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a crystal glass and an already-opened bottle of The Macallan Estate whiskey. As he poured, I tried to disguise my shock at the bottle on the table.
A bottle of Macallan cost an easy seventy grand.
And you thought you were in the money. I grimaced.
“You’re probably wondering why I wanted to see you this morning, Mr. Hammel.”
“Zach is fine, sir.”
“Very well, Zach.” He screwed the lid back on the whiskey and put the bottle back in his drawer. Then he swirled the amber liquid around in his glass before taking a sip. For some reason, it didn’t seem odd to me that he was drinking at ten in the morning.
When you have a net worth of billions, I supposed you could get away with things regular folk couldn’t and, for the most part, wouldn’t even consider.
Simon Woodbury set his glass down and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk. “I’ve had my eye on you, Zach. And I have to say, I’m impressed with the work you’re doing. I’m looking for men like you to bring into my inner circle of developers. There are a lot of big projects in this company’s future, and if you keep up the good work, you’re going to earn yourself a seat in a room with some very important people. Does this sound like something that might interest you?”
I cleared my throat. “It sounds great. You’re not making a mistake, sir. I’m here for the long haul. And if I’m being honest, that office downstairs is starting to feel a little cramped.”
Woodbury laughed. It was a warm, hearty sound, and as his laughter died, he leaned back in his chair. “I think I like you, Zach. You sure I can’t interest you in a glass?” He held up his whiskey.
I scratched the back of my neck. Who the fuck was I to turn down a six-thousand-dollar glass of whiskey?
“I know better than to say no twice,” I said.
Woodbury grinned. “Good man.”