John Parker’s end-of-year function was in full swing by the time I got there. I stepped out of the lift and whistled under my breath as I took in how the top-story entertainment space had been transformed.
“Archer, you beautiful bastard,” my client called when he saw me, weaving his way through the crowd made up of his smiling employees to get to me. “I’m glad you could make it.”
He gripped my hand politely when I reached out to shake his. He was tall, broad, and greying, a distinguished-looking but intimidating man to most. Not to me, though. I had known him for too long and knew far too much to be intimidated by him.
My mouth curved into a smile as I released his hand. “So am I. You’ve certainly pulled out all the stops this year. I’m impressed. I’m not sure I’d have recognized the space if I hadn’t climbed into the lift downstairs myself and knew that I was in the right building.”
A satisfied grin spread on his lips as he reached up to clasp my shoulder. “I’m glad you like it, considering that it wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
Earlier this year, I had advised him to invest in buying the modern office building we were standing in. It was situated in a part of the Sydney Central Business District otherwise known as CBD that was front and centre to all the various renewal efforts but had been on the market for a steal at the time.
To increase the appeal to him as the CEO of a hospitality company who had to entertain their clients often, the renovated top story was a quintessentially sophisticated event space. All wooden tones, crisp white walls, and towering ceilings with windows stretching to them from the floor.
It was late afternoon, and in the distance, I could still see the water of the bay glittering under the last of the sun’s rays. The room itself had been completely transformed though, taking the already excellent space and turning it into something to be marvelled at.
Thousands of specks of light appeared to drift near the ceiling, and even though logically I knew they were likely only fairy lights, the way they had been hung made them look like they weren’t really strung together at all.
A brass band was playing off to one side of the spacious room and smartly dressed waiters carrying silver platters circulated without causing any interruption to the flow of the party. There was a long bar set up in the back, every type of alcohol I could think of on display on the makeshift shelves behind it.
“Don’t be modest.” I felt a smirk twitching at the corners of my lips. “You should give yourself some credit. After all, you followed the advice I gave you.”
He rolled his shrewd brown eyes and motioned me toward the bar. “Let’s go grab a cold one. There are a couple of people I’d like to introduce you to.”
Although I was technically on duty, I wasn’t going to turn down a beer on a day like today. It was so hot outside that it was like there was nothing but a rusted fence separating Sydney from the fires of hell.
While so many parts of the rest of the world geared up for their precious white Christmas, we did things a little differently here in the Southern Hemisphere. The weather in Sydney was balmy and hot as we entered November and it would only get better—or worse, depending on a person’s own preferences—as the summer months wore on.
Personally, I would have appreciated the heat a hell of a lot more if I could have taken Millie to the beach today, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. I supposed it wouldn’t have been anyway, given that it was a Friday and Millie had started primary school in January.
Which meant no more daytime excursions for my daughter and me during the week, not even on the rare occasions when I could sneak away from the office during working hours. This afternoon was definitely an exception, but even if I wasn’t in the office, I was still on duty. Not so on duty as to be obliged to turn the drink down, though.
“Yes, please,” I agreed, following him to the bar. John stopped to introduce me to a few people on our way, but we didn’t linger with anyone for too long.
The crowd parted for him like he was a hot knife and they were butter, making it easy to grab two spots beside the crowded bar.
The bartenders were practically flying through orders and John handed over my beer much faster than I’d have expected him to.
Once again, I appreciated how much more adept the servers at this party were than the last few of these I’d been to. Before I could say anything to him about it, John raised his bottle and clinked the neck against mine.
“Thank you for coming, Archer,” he said, a meaningful look creeping into his eyes as he inclined his head at the packed room. “I meant it when I said none of this would have been possible without you. I wanted you here to celebrate with us what a great year this has been.”
“Of course.” I grinned and held his gaze as I took a sip of the amber fluid in my bottle. “What else would I have been doing on this gorgeous summer’s day?”
“Well, you could have been too busy making either myself or someone else another couple of hundred thousand dollars?” he suggested before his smile turned lascivious and he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Or rooting the missus, perhaps?”
I nearly choked on my beer. In all the time I’d known him, he’d never said anything like that to me. But we were at a party and it wasn’t like I was a prude. Sadly, however, there was no one for me to have spent the afternoon fucking.
“All my clients have had their money for the year made, and as for the other thing, it might have been fun but there is no missus at the moment.” There hadn’t been anyone close to being my girlfriend—God forbid anything more than that—since Millie’s mother decided to make a single father out of me.
The one woman I’d made a real go of it with for the sake of our unborn baby, and she’d walked away from us pretty much right after we left the delivery room.
What had gone down in my personal life was a well-kept secret, though. One that my notoriety in certain circles hadn’t compromised as of yet. I intended on keeping it that way.
John arched a grey eyebrow to make his disbelief clear. “You’re one of the most successful, influential investment managers in the city, and you own the company that took the top spot in your industry, and if I’m not mistaken, I remember reading something about you being one of Australia’s most eligible bachelors. Do you really expect me to believe there’s no one you could have been rooting on this fine afternoon?”
Oh god, I groaned internally. That infernal fucking article again. “The reporter who wrote that must have been off her face on a shitty Cab Sav when she decided to add me to that list.”
I had no idea why John was suddenly so interested in who I was fucking. The only reason I could think of was because he was technically off the clock and he didn’t only want to talk business.
Unfortunately, that was about as much as I was willing to share with him about my personal life. Shaking off the unpleasant memories brought about by the mere thought of my ex, I changed the topic back to less personal territory as I watched the bartenders make quick work of the crowd waiting on them.
“This party is put together really well. How did you do it?”
“I didn’t,” he replied, waving his hand around in a dismissive motion. “Can you really imagine me hanging all this on the bloody ceiling?”
“Not really,” I admitted, although it was a pretty amusing mental picture to conjure up. I imagined it wouldn’t have been as amusing to whomever would have been working alongside him to string so many fairy lights. John could be an asshole of the first order when he wanted to be, and it wouldn’t even have taken one to know one in this instance.
But since I freely admitted to being an asshole of the first order to everyone but mum and Millie, it was true either way. I leaned in a little. “Who did it, then? Have you hired a party committee you haven’t told me about?”
John pursed his lips, reached into his suit jacket, and produced an old-school business-card holder from an inner pocket. Thumbing through them, he plucked one out and held it out to me. “I hired this company to organize it all. They sent a party planner to work out all the details with us. It took a couple of weeks to bang out the details, but here we are.”
“Whoever they are, they’re good.” I barely glanced down at the card as I took it, stowing it away in my own inside pocket. “Very good. I imagine the time it took was worth it.”
John grinned as he nodded. “Very good, yes, but expensive too. I must agree that it was worth it, though. This is exactly the type of event my people deserved after a year like this one and I’m glad I could give it to them.”
He made a half turn to signal the bartender for another drink, then faced me again. “You might not have a missus to get home to later, but I do, so I better get to the mingling part of the festivities. She’ll be mad as a cut snake if I’m not home by eight. Stay and enjoy yourself. You deserve it as much as anyone else after this year, Archer.”
I raised my beer and tipped it at him before taking another sip. “Cheers, mate.”
“Cheers.” He picked up the new drink that had been set down beside his elbow and disappeared into the crowd.
A man I didn’t recognize almost instantly slipped into the space John had vacated next to me. “Did he just call you Archer? I know who you are. You’re the finance guy.”
His words were slurred and his eyes glassy. Obviously, he was on the piss. Gritting my teeth against the annoyance simmering in my gut, I gave him a curt nod. “I am the finance guy. Good on you for knowing who I am, but you’ll have to excuse me—”
“You need to make me some money too, mate,” the stranger insisted, grabbing onto my sleeve when I tried to walk away. “I know how much you’ve made for Parker this year and I read all about you. You’re going to be my new guy.”
“No, I’m not.” I put my hand over his and pried his sweaty fingers off my jacket, but he didn’t seem to get the hint.
Stumbling a little, he caught himself on the bar before reaching out to me again. “I need money and you make people money for a living. Therefore, I’m your newest client. Don’t you know who I am?”
He squeezed my shoulder a touch too hard, his lips slanted into a sneer. My fists clenched at my sides as the annoyance bubbled over and spread like blood in my veins. “I don’t give a fuck who you are, but it’s not my new client. Walk away, mate.”
For a moment, our gazes locked, and I saw the defiance in his, but then he relented after his eyes released mine to sweep down my frame all the way to my feet and back up again. I wasn’t a small guy at six-three, and I guessed that, combined with the fact that he knew who I was, deterred him from taking the matter any further.
After he walked away from me, he slung his arm around another colleague’s shoulders and within seconds, was sucking down a shot of tequila. Satisfied that he wouldn’t be bothering me again, I drained what was left of my beer and stayed for another couple of hours before I could duck out.
When I got home, a stab of disappointment speared me when I saw that Millie was already asleep. She was curled up on her bed with my mum snoring softly beside her.
Contrary to popular belief created by the few finance journalists in the city who found me interesting enough to keep writing about, I did have a softer side. There was more to me than being—to quote the journos—brilliant but ruthless, but generally only Mum and Millie got that side of me.
The thought of waking Mum up to let her know I was home flickered across my mind, but I dismissed it. There was no need for her to be woken up to go back to her place when she was sleeping so soundly.
A lilac-backed quilt that she had made for Millie out of her baby clothes lay at their feet. Gently covering them with it, I made sure she had a cup of water on her round bedside table and then went to my bedroom.
After undressing, pulling on an old pair of shorts, and brushing my teeth, I fell back on my bed and hooked my arms behind my head. Staring at my ceiling in the darkness, I wondered what those reporters would say if they were to see me now.
It was before nine on a Friday evening and I was in my bed alone, with my mother just down the hallway. Yeah, guys. This right here? This is living the fucking high life.
I snorted into the darkness and played with the idea of leaking the story myself.
Maybe then they would finally leave me alone.