Tired. If you had to describe him in one word, that was it.
London sat at the far end of the conference table, a half-empty tumbler full of lukewarm water sitting in front of him. A crisp leather-bound portfolio sat next to the water, an old heirloom pen tucked up against it. His thumb drummed against its spine, his arm resting in such a way to avoid creasing his seersucker suit against the table.
He’d tilt his head this way and that, nodding at the other nameless businessmen in the room with him. For the most part, they ignored him. Why would they pay attention to him? He was nothing. An officer for some other part of the company they didn’t really care about, here to dawdle and act like he gave a shit — like he was really part of the team. In reality, the only thing that had his attention was his Submariner, which he’d been eye-fucking for the last five minutes, watching the second hand rip and claw its way to the top of the hour.
The minute hand would follow soon behind, and as soon as it crossed the threshold, he’d fly out of there. He’d shuffle off with the rest of them, acting like he had another meeting to oh-so-urgently march on over to. In reality he’d just head to his car, throw the radio on and dream of Bermuda, or somewhere else he imagined rich white people flocked to.
He let out a deep breath, fidgeting with his watch band. Folks outside of the business world always tend to think fancy watches are a show piece. A shouty, $8,000 “look how fucking special I am” beacon. That was bullshit. No, it was just because when you hit a certain point in life, all you really want to do is count the seconds until you don’t have to anymore. So why not look at something pretty?
And, you know, a little bit of that showpiece stuff. Everything is for show, after all. Never forget that.
“… and that’s where we’ll end for today,” an extraordinarily tall man at the opposite side of the room said. He reached over to grab his briefcase, snapping up some documents and piling them all in.
A murmuring buzz of voices all thanked him, with varying degrees of sincerity.
“Yes, yes,” was all London could get out. He was long past his days of shoveling other people’s shit into his mouth. Besides, far back here no one would notice him anyway, just like he’d like it.
He stood up, giving a courtesy nod to a woman that’d been sitting next to him. It was as tepid as his water, truthfully. That he could even muster it was a testament to the decade he spent carefully practicing puffing out his chest, painting a can-do smile across his lips, and getting his knees ready to meet the glazed-over linoleum.
London reached a hand over his head, stretching his neck to the side. Fucking office chairs. He had to resist cursing under his breath as he yanked his muscles back into place.
One by one they filtered out of the room, a line of ducks crossing the proverbial lake to nowhere. Or a promotion. He’d paid so little attention to the presentation he wasn’t sure if he should be happy or worried. Eh. He’d skim his email later and figure it out, anyway.
Soon enough, he was one of the last in the room. That was intentional. There was a unit in the Army — or Marines? Who cares — that had “First in, last out,” as a motto.
London figured it was as good as any to emblazon on his psyche. It’s amazing how much extra respect you can mine out of people when all you’re really doing is trying to get the best seat in the room — and when you’re trying to use your current meeting as an excuse to be late to your next one.
Right as he was about to pass through the threshold of glass and stainless steel at the border of the conference room, an olive-skinned, somewhat short man ducked into the room, immediately closing the door behind him. The motion was smooth. Practiced. He stood in front of London with a smile, gesturing to the seat like this exchange was planned, as if this had been scheduled weeks ago.
For a moment, London’s heart double-tapped against his collar, jostling at the potential possibility. Did he double book a meeting? No, that wasn’t like him.
“Please, Mr. Charles is it?”
He looked at the man’s friendly — and eager — eyes, scanning his face, trying to remember a name.
“Just call me London, thanks.”
“London, then. Please, London. Sit.”
And so he did, without really thinking about it. He couldn’t remember this man’s name, or even if he had met him before. Whatever. That wasn’t new. Not around here. There was always high turnover, and lord knows he’d been pulled into more than one meeting out of nowhere before. Hell, he even had decent practice at only looking mildly irritated as his time was sucked from his body.
“What is this about?”
The man peered an eye out toward the glass door he’d passed through for a second, immediately snapping back to London. “This is about a big choice you are going to have to make, my friend.”
The man reached into his suit jacket, pulling out a piece of folded paper. He pressed it into the wooden conference table, smoothing it out and pushing it over to London. London slid it a bit further, crooking his neck to look at it.
In front of him was a spreadsheet, and on it, was every password for every officer in the organization, in alphabetical order. Suddenly, he wasn’t so tired anymore. His heart beat again against his collar, enough that he swore he could feel his tie twitch against his chest.
“Do you know what this is?”
“Yes,” he said.
The man’s finger tapped a name, third from the top.
“You’re going to — if you want to, that is — you’re going to log in to this man’s computer,” he paused for a beat, sticking his hand back into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a small tan thumb drive, no larger than a thumbnail. “And you’re going to stick this in it. It’ll do the rest. But you’re going to go up to his office and do that.”
London didn’t know to laugh. Or to scream? Or to do anything? He always thought himself a bit of a coward, but now he was sure of it. He’d always wanted to believe he’d think of some way to stick up for himself in a situation like this, some brave thing he could say to defuse the situation. But his brain was empty. A void. Filled with nothing but a dull drumming against his skull. He couldn’t even think of what he should be doing with his eyes. Or his hands? He shuffled, looking more like a lost puppy than someone that was being asked to commit, what he imagined, was some sort of crime.
The man blew a puff of air out his nose.
“That’s not for you to know.”
The man’s brow furrowed, black lines knitting together.
“It is not about what will happen if you don’t, it’s about what will happen if you do.”
“If you do this, Mr. Charles, you will discover a cache of one-hundred thousand dollars on your porch tomorrow morning in an Amazon box. The cash will be yours, and will be in various sizes of bills, from various banks. Untraceable, truly. You will then be questioned about the why. And then you will not tell them about the money. You will only tell them about this meeting. You will tell them that I told you, very clearly, that if you did not do it, you would be killed.”
“Yes,” the main said.
“That you would be killed, your parents would be found dead an hour later, and that they would discover an unsettling amount of interesting files on your hard drive.”
London was positive of it now. He could feel his tie twitch against his chest. Every bead of sweat down his neck felt like lead.
“To be clear, Mr. Charles, I am not going to kill you. Even if you say no.”
London tried to swallow, but just found more spit pooling in his mouth.
“Why,” he said again, the word more of a gurgle than anything else.
“Because I am not in the business of killing people, nor is my employer. But we are in the business of making things right in the world, and if you don’t do this, someone else will. You will not get in trouble, but you will end up richer. You will end up richer and no one will fault you for it.”
London looked down at his hands. For whatever reason, while every other part of his body wanted to escape, they were calm. Just sitting there, bordering the spreadsheet. Too big, dumb lumps of cowardly flesh. The ultimate framing device of his entire existence.
“So I can refuse?”
The man’s grin was unsettling. It seemed so earnest — like was greeting an old friend. Yet he was positive he was going to die. He knew, without question, that if his next word wasn’t yes, that he would never make it to his car. And who would believe him? No one would. And so what, if he got a little money out of it? That’s blood money. It’s money for emotional damages.
The man gave him a nod, tapping his index and middle finger against the paper.
“Stick the drive in the men’s bathroom on the fourth floor, under the paper towels on the sink. Make sure it’s there between 3:10 and 3:15.”
“That’s 20 minutes from now, I won’t ever make –”
“Shh,” the man said. “Go now, then.”
He did as he was told, leaving the conference room. He saw his reflection in the glass, but he didn’t recognize it. Or the building. Or anything.
He still wasn’t sure why he was alive, or if he would be. He just knew that his body was taking itself to the fourth floor.