Chapter One – Paul Mason and Brian Gallagher
Brian Gallagher stood at the open door to Paul Mason’s office looking around to assure that the lights in the surrounding offices had been turned off, and the occupants were no longer lingering. The building was dark and empty as far as the eye could see. He looked back at Paul and said, “So, are we going through with this?”
“I’m not talking here. Let’s go outside and take a walk.”
The two men took the elevator down to the ground floor, staying silent throughout the ride. There was no one else in the elevator and very few people seemed to inhabit the building. They signed out at the guard desk and slid their personal access cards through the reader at 9:20 p.m. They walked outside to the street to find that the almost perpetual Los Angeles rush hour was slowing and the traffic was about as light as it was going to get. There was a slight drizzle, noteworthy because any rain was rare in Los Angeles. As they walked down the street toward Mulligan’s Brewery, Paul Mason ran a hand through his short black hair and said, “I don’t know, man. It is a big risk.” Paul was six foot, two inches and slender, with the body of a rider in the Tour de France. He wore wire-rimmed glasses over penetrating blue eyes. Brian was two inches shorter and muscular, his regular workouts keeping his body almost as fit as it had been when he played linebacker at Stanford. His brown hair was longer than Paul’s, and matched a well-trimmed beard that showed little gray.
Brian shook his head. “We’ve been planning this for three months. I thought you got past the hesitation.”
Paul replied, “Yeah, but this is a big fucking deal. This is not just career ending, it is prison time.” He shook his head. “And we agreed that unless we were all on board, we kill this plan, right?”
“We did and I agree that we need to be fully committed. So if you’re not, we need to walk away from this project now,” Brian said. “We’ve already put countless hours into this project and if we’re still not committed, we never will be,” Brian added, sounding frustrated.
Paul sat down on a bench outside the watering hole. “Look, we know that they will figure out what happened. That’s a given. There will be some lag time before they catch on, but after that, they will start tracking everyone who could have pulled it off and I keep thinking that could somehow lead back to us. That’s when I start thinking that maybe we should walk away.”
Brian nodded. “I get it, man, I do. And at some point we might be among the suspects, but how do they get back to us? They won’t be able to prove anything.”
Paul shook his head. “I don’t know. This is like betting your future at the crap table.”
“Déjà vu. We have had this conversation. And if you want to, we walk away. But if not, let’s commit. Role the bones, man.”
“Don’t you have any second thoughts? I mean, we both have kids under ten. Don’t you get nervous that you just might leave Alison and the kids to do a long prison sentence? That’s the part that unnerves me. I believe in what we are doing, but I don’t want to leave Ann to spend time in a cage with nothing to do but replay my regrets.”
“I get it,” Brian said. He smiled. “Like I said, we can walk if you want, Paul. I’m not in if you’re not, so it all ends here if you choose. What keeps me in is the thought of what a couple of guys might be able to accomplish in terms of the immediate results, and the message we get to send. And if we do it right, maybe no one learns who sent the message. I just think…”
At that moment, Brian’s phone rang. He hit a button and said, “Brian Gallagher.” After a moment, Brian said, “Pretty timely call. I was just talking to Paul about the project.” He paused and then asked, “What’s the news?” There were a few more moments of silence and then Brian said, “Okay. See you tomorrow night.”
Paul said, “I take it he’s in?”
“Yep, he’s in.”
“I guess I’m not surprised,” Paul replied. “He’s almost as outraged by all this as you are and he’s single.”
“And you’re not as outraged as we are?” Brian asked.
“Yeah, I am.” He thought for a moment and then added, “I’m just not convinced that three guys can fix this.”
“We can’t fix it, but that’s not the plan. What we can do is send the message that they are vulnerable, too.”
Paul furrowed his brow. “Do you ever have visions of the FBI surrounding your house and dragging you away in cuffs? Have you considered that part of the downside? I mean, if we get caught, we are totally fucked. We will likely know some of the people in on the arrest.”
“Yeah, but it’ll be a heck of a book when you get paroled.” He grinned and then added, “Of course, you won’t be able to make any money on it because of the conviction, but we know a number of good causes ready for donations.”
"Funny stuff,” Paul said, shaking his head. “And I guess I’ll always have you to keep me amused.”
“Exactly, but more importantly, we are not going to get caught. We have this honed to perfection, man. It’s beautiful.”
They stood up and walked into Mulligan’s. They selected a twelve-dollar beer from one hundred and fifty on tap and then found a table in the back of the bar. They looked around at the tired figures in suits that populated the bar. Lawyers, politicians, lobbyists and investors, all capping the day at the watering hole. Some planned to persuade Congress to change laws for the benefit of corporate clients, while others worked on transactions to make them richer, while still others tried to find a way to escape a deal gone bad. There were big players here, but none of them dealing on the scale of what Paul and Brian were contemplating. There was an extended silence while they looked around at this world of behind the scenes business. After a time, Paul looked at Brian and said, “Okay, I’m in. Let’s roll the bones, my friend.”
Brian grinned and gave a satisfied nod. “I think we can make a difference.”
Chapter Two – Linda Caldwell
Linda Caldwell yelled up the stairs, “Come down for dinner you guys.”
“Just a minute, mom,” said a twelve-year-old voice from one of the bedrooms. “I just have one more life.”
“We only get one life and we don’t delay it or our dinner based on video games. Let’s go.”
“Okay, be right there.”
The front door opened and Brad stepped inside. “Hi, sweetheart,” he offered. “How was your day?”
She wiped at her brow and then shook her head. “Chasing kids all day. I feel like I’ve been trying to move frogs across a football field in an open wheelbarrow. I’m hoping we can do dinner, but apparently Jason can’t emerge until he uses up one more life.”
“Sorry, honey, sounds like a tough day. I’ll chase these guys.”
“Give me some lips before you disappear up those stairs, never to be seen or heard from again—I think that’s what happens to people who go up there.”
“I’ve heard that. Maybe we should tie a rope around my waist and you can hang on to one end.”
“Hey, guys, time to come down for dinner,” Brad said. Jason came racing out of the first door and started down the stairs two at a time. He wore a T-shirt and blue jeans with countless pockets. His hair was uncombed. Brad met him half way and hugged him. “Hi, buddy. What’s new?”
“Not much. What’s for dinner?”
“Liver salad and cod liver oil dressing.” Brad said, walking to the top of the stairs and pulling off his tie. “That hair of yours seen a comb lately? You look like you were dragged backwards through a hedge. And where’s Matt?” he asked the disappearing boy below.
The answer was screamed back. “He’s putting the lip lock on Claire at the back door.”
Brad thought that Matt was too young to be lip-locking anyone. He had just turned fifteen and he had another year before he was allowed to date.
Brad changed into jeans and went downstairs to the kitchen as Matt came in from the back porch. Brad grabbed silverware as Linda put chicken stir-fry onto plates.
“Hi, buddy,” he said to Matt.
“You and Claire spending a lot of time together these days?”
“Mom was just all over me about that. No big deal.”
“Looks serious to us when you’re kissing on the porch.”
Jason walked into the room and Matt glared at him. “Jason, you little jerk. Quit spying on me.”
Jason shrugged and sat down. “You do your thing on the porch, people are going to see it, he said, and then added, “We got any hot sauce?”
Linda put the plates on the table and sat down. She grinned widely at Brad. “The news is in,” she said.
“You got it?” he asked with wide eyes.
“Yep. I fly to Vegas in three weeks to be installed as the new Vice President of Human Resources.” She grinned widely.
“That is so good, honey. Congratulations!” He took her hand. “I’m going to open a bottle of wine and we are going to celebrate.”
She nodded. “You know, it feels good just to get the nod above all of the other applicants. There were some impressive characters applying.”
“Not as impressive as you. And that’s my objective opinion,” Brad replied with a smile.
“Can you get more time away from the office to keep an eye on these guys during the four days I’m there in meetings?” she asked.
“You can count on it.”
Matt shook his head. “We don’t need watching,” he said emphatically.
“Yeah,” Jason added, taking a big bite of the stir-fry. Hot sauce rolled down his chin and onto his shirt.
“Nice going, nerd,” Matt offered, shaking his head.
Brad looked at Linda and smiled widely. “That is so awesome.”
She grinned, basking in the moment.
“Should we come watch?” he asked.
“It’s an announcement, not a coronation.” She laughed and added, “Thank you for the thought, but it will be fifteen minutes of announcement and then off to four days of meetings.”
“Okay, but you’ve worked up to this for eight years and it is a big deal.”
“Thank you, sweetie.” She came around the table and kissed him.
“Please,” Matt responded, “I’m eating.”
Linda gave him a sideways look. “Seems like you should be the last one to complain about kissing these days. You’ve been trying out, what does your brother call it?--your lip lock on Claire.”
“Mom, stop,” Matt said, fighting embarrassment.
Linda kissed Brad again. “Thanks for being so supportive,” she said.
“I only wish we could all be there to see the promotion.” He looked at Matt and Jason. “Mom kicked butt, right guys?”
“Yep,” Jason said. “She is awesome!”
“How about you Matt?” Brad asked. “You have something to add?”
“If an HR executive is in everybody else’s business, she’s probably pretty good at it.”
Brad frowned. “That wasn’t nice.”
“Relax, Dad, just kidding.”
“It didn’t sound like a joke.”
Matt was a little fidgety, having painted himself into a corner. “Yeah, yeah. I know she’s really good at what she does.” He put down his fork. “Can I be excused?”
“What’s your plan for tonight?” Linda asked.
“Going to study at Claire’s.” Linda and Brad both looked at him and waited. “Relax, both her parents are home.”
“Okay,” Linda said, “be home at 9:00.”
“Going to study Claire you mean. More lip lock,” Jason said grinning.
“Shut up, you little twerp.”
“None of that kind of talk or you’ll both be grounded.”
Matt shook his head. “Why does he have to be such an asshole?”
Linda snarled, “We don’t talk like that around here. Next time you spit out something like that you can tell Claire you’re unavailable for the next week.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Matt said. “He’s just such a..”
“Quit while you’re ahead, Matt,” Brad directed.
He nodded and walked toward the door.
“You’re forgetting your homework,” Brad yelled in his direction. Matt grabbed his backpack from the living room and headed out the front door.
“Can I be excused, too?” Jason asked.
“Yeah. And you don’t need to stir it up all the time, young man,” Linda replied.
“Me?” Jason said indignantly. “I’m just stating facts.”
“Well, stop stating facts that are your brother’s business and you’ll get along much better.”
“All right. Can I go?”
“I said yeah,” Linda responded. “Go, before I change my mind.”
As he ran up the stairs Linda and Brad looked at one another and laughed. “This is how parenting is supposed to work, right?” she asked.
“Beats me. I’m faking it, just like you are.”
“Want to do dishes?” he asked.
“No.” He paused. “Want to have sex?”
She smiled and said, “Yeah, in the kitchen or in the car?”
“In any room we can keep kids out of. The downstairs bathroom’s free.”
“I’m in,” she said, smiling, “anywhere they can’t find us or call us.”