Champagne, chandeliers and coat tails, it made him smirk. He couldn’t help it. Greg made his way around the circuit, smiling his dazzling smile and shaking hands with the high-end society peoples. He went through his mental encyclopedia- John just remarried for the third time, his new wife who was 40-plus years his junior was named Claire… or Clarice? He tried the later, it took. Her young eyes sparkled at him and he could tell by the way she was eyeing his frame that the rumors about John’s virility were true. He shook the old man’s hand that much more vigorously. The old man laughed.
“What are we all so jolly about?” Chet said, sliding his way over to the trio with cheeks too red for his claims of moderation.
“Your stock portfolio after next Tuesday,” Greg laughed.
“Oh come now, I think you’ll find that going public is the best thing for our little start-up,” Chet said, smiling more than the response called for.
It was bullshit, Greg knew. He’d discovered the scheme well before it was fully hatched and secretly invested, knowing full well that when the company tanked they’d all make a bundle while the average suburban dad would lose his nest egg. What was that phrase? Something about dogs eating each other?
He excused himself, desperate to catch two seconds of quiet before the circus began. He’d planned it for years, now, this merger. All the strings he’d been pulling behind the scenes would tie together and he’d be the puppet master. A warm feeling in his chest overtook him at the thought but he pushed it back down, determined to stay focused on the next step.
Outside the cold air was a breath of life and he filled his lungs with it, flushing out the stench of cigars and suits. He looked out across the darkened lawn and reviewed the next step in his mind. The handshake, that’s what it was all about. Him and the CEO of the merging company smiling for the cameras and proclaiming a new era of fiscal responsibility. He closed his eyes and let the image fill his thoughts, securing it into place.
Then he heard the voice he’d convinced himself was only a dream and his heart stopped.
“Well, well. It seems like just yesterday I left you wandering in the muck and now here you are, rubbing elbows with nabobs of all shapes and sizes. How the words do make you.”
Greg turned to look at the man even though a voice in his head was screaming at him to run the other direction. He knew the form immediately- the sharp, angular chin, the raised temples. If he squinted he could almost see a plateau left from cleft horns still lingering under the surface of smoothed skin. “Get a hold of yourself, psycho” he chastised himself. “They’re just junkie dreams.”
“Excuse me?” Greg asked, trying hard to be polite even as he struggled to breath.
“Come now, Greg- don’t pretend. We understand each other better than that. You didn’t really think that all your failures came from those needles. Or that all of this-“ he waved a well-manicured hand towards the bright ballroom behind them, “came from just getting clean.” The man smiled at him, his dark eyes stripping away the last reassurances.
Greg felt the mask he’d been wearing for the past 7 years fall away and in an instant he was the razor sharp mercenary he had been. “What do you want?”
“Oh, Greg. Is that any way to greet an old friend?”
“You are not my friend.” He glared at him and did his best to be imposing. It was stupid, of course, but reflexive.
“True enough, I suppose- though I think these meaningless pleasantries are a dying art that should preserved, for the record. But the wise say that business partners cannot be friends and we do have business to attend to,” the man sighed.
“What business?” He kept his responses short lest the charlatan spin his words into a netting with which to catch him. He remembered that about the man, or whatever he was. The power with which he could manipulate the mind and turn impulsive thoughts into incontrovertible beliefs.
“The terms of our agreement,” the man said.
Greg said nothing but tried to remember. The memory floated up to him out of a fog. The cardboard bed in the darkened alleyway, the shape above him as he took what he thought would be his last breath… it was too blurry, his mind had been so dark. Then it came to him. The offer of a new life, all the power he’d always dreamed of, the words he had uttered…
“Ah, now you remember,” the man smiled. It was the smug, satisfied smile of a spider watching a fly struggle against tightening silk.
Greg turned and ran back into the party. Logic dictated that this wasn’t something he could escape from but panic had taken over. He nearly collided with a fat man that stank of old scotch and expensive cologne.
“There you are, we were just wondering where you’d gone off to. Here we go, right this way-“ he said as he forcefully ushered him up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the floor. Greg tried to fight him off, his mind cart wheeling as he searched the crowd behind them for the man. But the fat man pushed him upstairs with surprising strength and a second later he was waiting for the handshake he’d envisioned.
He forced himself to look behind him at the man the crowd below was applauding. It was him. It wasn’t, of course, it was the same man he’d sat with in that board room only a month ago. But somehow the eyes had changed, the smile was his- the man who’d come to collect. The man walked up to him with an unnatural confidence and took his hand in his.
“I think this will be a very fruitful partnership.”