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Thirty-four Hours Earlier
Vincent was the last to arrive. His dark overcoat flared behind him as he strode through the lobby. The other three were standing in an informal huddle by a leather sofa. They didn’t notice Vincent come in. They were on their phones, with their backs to the entrance, preoccupied with emails and silent contemplation as to why they had been called to a last-minute meeting on a Friday night at an out-of-the-way office building in the South Bronx.
Vincent observed them from a distance as he walked across the lobby toward them. Over the years, the four of them had spent more time together than apart. Vincent knew them almost better than he knew himself. He knew their secrets, and their lies. There were times when he could honestly say that he’d never despised anyone more than these three people. He suspected they all shared the sentiment. Yet they needed one another. Their fates had been joined together long before.
Sylvie’s face bore its usual expression, a few degrees short of a resting-bitch face. With her cover-girl looks and dark blond hair pinned in a topknot that drew attention to her green eyes, Sylvie looked like the catwalk model that she’d been when she was a teenager. She was irritated by being called to an unscheduled meeting when she had to pack for Paris, but she didn’t let it show on her face. She studiously kept a faint upward tilt to her lips. It was a practice drummed into her over many years working in a male-dominated profession. Men could snarl or look angry with impunity; women had to smile serenely regardless of the provocation.
To her right stood Sam, wearing a charcoal suit with a white shirt and a black tie. His stubble matched the dark blond of his closely cropped hair. His jaw twitched from the knot of anxiety in his guts. He’d felt stabbing pains ever since his wife, Kim, telephoned during the drive over. She was furious that he wouldn’t make the flight to Antigua because he was attending an unscheduled meeting. She hated the fact that his work always took precedence over her and the girls.
Jules stood slightly away from the other two, sucking on a peppermint candy to disguise the alcohol on his breath. He wore a suave burgundy-and-navy silk tie that made his Gypsy eyes burn with intensity. His dark hair was brushed back in the style of a fifties movie star. He usually drank vodka because it was odorless and didn’t make his face flush, but now his cheeks were ruddy in a tell-tale sign he’d been drinking. The minibar in his chauffeured car was out of vodka, so he’d had to make do with whiskey on the ride over. The empty bottles were still rattling around in his briefcase.
As they waited for their meeting, they all had the same paranoid notion that they’d been brought to a satellite office to be retrenched. Their careers would be assassinated silently, away from the watercooler gossips at the head office.
It was how they would have done it if the positions were reversed. A Friday-evening meeting at an out-of-the-way office, concluding with a retrenchment package and a nondisclosure agreement signed and sealed.
The firm was considering unprecedented layoffs, and they were acutely aware they had red targets on their backs. They said none of this to one another. They kept their eyes downcast as they worked on their phones, unaware they were the only ones in the lobby. Just as they hadn’t paid much mind to the cranes and construction fencing on their way in.
Sam checked his bank account while he waited. The negative balance made him queasy. He’d wiped out all the cash in his account that morning paying Kim’s credit-card bill. If he lost his job, then the floodgates would open. He could survive two to three months without work; after that, he’d have to sell assets. That alone would destroy him financially. He was leveraged to the hilt. Some of his assets were worth less now than when he’d bought them.
The last time Sam had received a credit-card bill that huge, he’d immediately lowered Kim’s credit limit. Kim found out when her payment for an eleven-thousand-dollar Hermès handbag was rejected at the Madison Avenue store in front of her friends. She was mortified. They had a huge blowup that night, and he reluctantly restored her credit limit. Now he paid all her bills without a word of complaint. Even if it meant taking out bridging loans. Even if it meant constantly feeling on the verge of a heart attack.
Sam knew that Kim spent money as much for attention as out of boredom. She complained that Sam was never around to help with the twins. He’d had to point out that they’d hired a maid to give her all the help she needed. Three maids, to be truthful. Three within the space of two years. The third had walked out in tears a week ago due to Kim’s erratic temper.
Kim was never satisfied with anything. If Sam gave Kim a platinum necklace, she wanted it in gold. If he took her to London, she wanted Paris. If he bought her a BMW, she wanted a Porsche.
Satisfying her unceasing demands was doable when his job prospects were good, but the firm had lost a major account, and since Christmas word had spread of an impending restructure. Everyone knew that was a euphemism for layoffs.
Sam never doubted that Kim would leave him if he couldn’t support her lifestyle anymore. She’d demand full custody of the girls and she’d raise them to hate him. Kim forgave most of his transgressions, she could even live with his infidelities, but she never forgave failure.
It was Sam who first heard the footsteps sounding through the vast lobby. The long, hurried strides of a man running late to a meeting. Sam swung around as their boss arrived. Vincent’s square jaw was tight and his broad shoulders were tense as he joined them without saying a word.
“You almost didn’t make it,” observed Sylvie.
“The traffic was terrible.” Vincent ran his hand over his overcoat pocket in the habit of a man who had recently stopped smoking. Instead of cigarettes, he took out a pair of glasses, which he put on to examine the message on his phone. “Are you all aware of the purpose of this meeting?”
“The email invite from HR wasn’t exactly brimming with information,” said Sam. “You said in your text message it was compulsory for us to attend. That it took precedence over everything else. Well, we’re all here. So maybe now you can enlighten us, Vincent. What’s so important that I had to delay my trip to Antigua?”
“Who here has done an escape-room challenge before?” Vincent asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Sam said. “I abandoned my wife on her dream vacation to participate in a team-building activity! This is bullshit, Vincent. It’s goddamn bullshit and you know it.”
“It will take an hour,” said Vincent calmly. “Next Friday is bonus day. I’m sure that we all agree that it’s smart to be on our best behavior before bonus day, especially in the current climate.”
“Let’s do it,” said Sylvie, sighing. Her flight to Paris was at midnight. She still had plenty of time to get home and pack. Vincent led them to a brightly lit elevator with its doors wide open. Inside were mirrored walls and an alabaster marble floor.
They stepped inside. The steel doors shut behind them before they could turn around.
Copyright © 2018 by Megan Goldin