Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cry for Tomorrow Excerpt - Chapter III: The Candy

Mark Reardon, an advertising executive in New York City, has just received the employment offer of a lifetime from a mysterious religious group, The Society for Truth. His task is to produce a series of advertisements announcing the world's impending doom. Mark doesn't take the Society seriously, but is certainly interested in the money - and the financial independence it would provide him and his family. Before he accepts, however, Mark takes some steps to verify the Society's offer...

Mark first went to the bank to make sure the money was there. In his mind, the money was all that mattered. If the money wasn’t in the deposit box, then there would be no need to visit his lawyer’s office or resign from Schulman and Foster. He would go back to work for the rest of the afternoon and still have an interesting story to tell his drinking buddies at the bar that evening.
The bank was an old money institution, concurrently emanating a sense of detachment and suffocation. Marble covered every surface--floors, walls, columns, bathroom stalls, ceilings. The fixtures were of solid brass and appeared to possess the heft appropriate for such a somber environment. A row of mahogany-paneled offices to the right of the entrance was visible through large plate-glass windows. People spoke in hushed tones and no one addressed anyone by first name. Mark imagined the employees would adhere to extreme formality, even if on friendly terms.
"Good morning, Mr. Stokes."
"Good morning, Ms. Clary."
"I enjoyed our lovemaking last night, Mr. Stokes."
"I too, Ms. Clary."
If they didn’t know your name, they always addressed you as "sir" or "madame."
"May I help you, sir?"
"Yes, I have a ticket for a box," Mark said as he strode up to the reception desk--which approximated the size and weight of a mid-sized automobile.
"Yes, sir. Please follow me."
The girl led Mark to another large desk further back with a man seated behind it.
"Mr. Stokes, this man would like access to a safety deposit box."
"Thank you, Ms. Clary."
"Sir, I’ll need to see some form of identification along with the ticket," Stokes said.
"Sure," Mark said as he handed the ticket over and pulled his wallet out of his suit-coat pocket. He found his driver’s license and handed it to Stokes.
"Please sit down, Mr. Reardon. I’ll just be a minute."
Rising from his seat, Stokes walked away and disappeared into a portico, which undoubtedly led to more offices. Mark sank into a large leather chair in front of Stokes’s desk and waited.
No introductions. No handshakes. No smiles. Just business. As he looked around the room's basilica-like interior, Mark surmised only a bank with a large number of commercial accounts and an abundance of old money could afford to be so cold with new customers. He also thought it strange there were few people inside the bank at all. Aside from an occasional shuffle of papers or the ding of an elevator bell, the bank had the ambience of a mausoleum. He glanced at Stokes’s desk. Nothing was on it. Stokes was either extremely organized or extremely idle.
"What does this guy do all day?" Mark wondered. "Sit and get paid. Do it long enough and you get to retire. Forty years of boredom for a pension. That’s all some people want in life, if you could call it that."
Not Mark--he was anything but bored at his job. Always faced with intense deadlines and an enormous workload, he spent more time at work than anything else, including his marriage. He worked long hours for his clients and then spent more long hours recuperating at bars with his friends, who were also from work. There were many nights when he didn’t return home until it was time to get up and go back to work. Gina didn’t seem to mind, though, as long as the money kept rolling in. She seemed to have an infinite capacity to spend whatever he made. So, he worked like a madman, hoping to squirrel away enough for retirement and college tuition for their daughter, Elise. Like so many others, Mark found the American dream was more like a recurring nightmare, and he hoped it would end at some point.
Perhaps it had. It seemed his life was about to change forever, the dream of extreme wealth finally replacing his nightmare of high living and high debt. He could see the prize van everyone hopes to show up in the driveway with a million-dollar check coming right at him. The proverbial brass ring, but for him it was made of gold. Mark expected to work for it, though. He wasn’t the type to slough off because of a big payday. He’d worked his way through college and had worked his tail off for ten years at Schulman and Foster to reach VP. Now he was going to work his tail off for another ten and retire rich to the Hamptons--or maybe Newport. He hadn’t worked out all the details since the lunch meeting, but Mark felt confident he could sock away a decent nest-egg with $3 billion to work with--if he could stop Gina from spending it.
"If this is all for real," he thought, still struggling to accept the reality of the situation.
Stokes returned just as Mark began mentally calculating how rich he would be in ten years.
"Well, Mr. Reardon, everything seems to be in order. There’s just one more check we need to perform before granting access."
Stokes pulled out a small electronic device from his desk and placed it on the desktop in front of Mark.
"This is a scanner for your thumb print. It will verify your identity by checking your thumbprint against the state’s electronic file. Just put your right thumb on the pad."
Mark extended his right arm and pressed his thumb down on the pad.
"Alright, Mr. Reardon. You can take your thumb off now. This only takes a few seconds to verify. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?"
"What’s that?"
"How they can have everything linked up like this. It makes everything much safer."
"Yes, I suppose it does," Mark said, not really caring for the smalltalk.
"Ah, there we are," Stokes said, looking at his computer monitor. "You’re all set."
"Follow me, please."
They walked back through the same portico Stokes had entered previously. To the left was a guard seated on a stool in front of a grate of steel bars running across the hallway from floor to ceiling. Between the guard and the gated entry was another scanner suspended waist high on a rod jutting up from the floor. Mark always wondered what would happen if someone were to trip and impale himself on such a contraption. He was certain it could happen at any time. He wondered why he didn’t regularly hear about accidental impalings in the news. He envisioned the headlines: "Woman impales self on fingerprint scanner." "Man impales self on mop handle." He was sure it happened all the time.
"You have to scan again, I’m afraid," Stokes said as they reached the gate.
"No problem," Mark replied and stuck his thumb on the pad. After a few seconds a light at the top of the pad turned green. The guard nodded and Mark followed Stokes through the gate.
The marble-lined area behind the gate had one set of elevator doors. Stokes slid an access card into a slot in the wall and the doors opened. They stepped into a richly appointed car lined in mahogany and brass. Mark noticed only one button on the control panel as the doors shut.
He felt the elevator rapidly ascend and after a few seconds the doors reopened into another marble-lined chamber. As he stepped out, he saw two guards fronting another steel-barred grate running across the room, also from floor to ceiling. Behind the grate, rows of safety deposit boxes lined the left and back walls of the room. To the right were mahogany booths with frosted glass windows where the boxes could be opened privately. Down the center of the vault ran a row of tables, also of mahogany.
"You have to scan again to open the box," Stokes said as they approached the gate. As they passed through, one of the guards followed.
The scanner was located on top of another rod rising from the floor and centered at the end of the first table. Mark scanned his thumb again and heard a beep from somewhere in the vault. About halfway down the room, on the bottom row, he saw a large box jutting out from the wall. Then another box slid out. Then another. And another.
"I’ll get the cart," said the guard and he disappeared around a corner in the back of the room.
"Hey, is this right?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Reardon. There were four boxes assigned to you," Stokes replied.
The guard returned with the cart, rolling it up to the boxes.
"Hey, Stan. Give me a hand here," he called to the other guard.
"Sure thing," Stan said, walking back to the first guard.
"Geez! These are heavy," Stan grunted while putting the boxes on the cart.
Presently, they wheeled the cart to one of the booths, where it was just small enough to fit through the door. The guards went back to the front of the vault and Mark stepped inside the booth.
"I’ll just be outside here," Stokes said.
Mark shut the door and paused to look down at the boxes. Whatever was in them, it wasn’t just a cashier’s check and a plane ticket. He reached down and lifted the cover to one of the boxes and exhaled abruptly in disbelief. Quickly, he opened the remaining boxes and laughed quietly to himself.
Even in New York City there are things one doesn’t see every day and most of those aren’t anything one would want to see. What Mark found in the boxes was an exception. The prize van coming up the driveway to him didn’t have a check in it at all. It was loaded up with 100-ounce bars of gold.
Gold--perhaps the oldest and most coveted medium of exchange in the world. People died to mine it. Wars were fought for it. For those who possessed it, gold emanated a sense of wealth and security like nothing else. It was power to sway the hearts of men and gain favor with kings. As he stared down at the gold bars, the light from overhead reflecting in a yellow gleam on his face, Mark's heart was definitely swayed.
"Okay, what now?" he thought. The Society could certainly pay the retainer, but what about the rest of the $3 billion? He reasoned he could walk away if they didn’t meet their obligations. The retainer was so large it would keep him and whoever he hired financed for quite some time.
Then, for the first time since his lunch meeting, he considered the logistics of setting up a business. He needed office space, equipment, and people. People were the hardest to find of any resource. He could take a few with him from Schulman and Foster, but he would need more. Even by New York standards, things were happening a little too quickly. Mark closed his eyes and rubbed them with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He was getting a headache.
He opened his eyes and looked at the gold again. How was he going to handle getting it out of the bank? Mark guessed there were roughly 100 bars in the four boxes on the cart. Not only was it impossible to carry them around Manhattan, he wasn’t foolish enough to even try taking one bar with him. He typically carried little cash as a matter of safety--he couldn’t imagine walking around with roughly $100,000 in his hands.
Mark opened the door to the booth and motioned for Stokes to come over.
"How can I help you, Mr. Reardon?" Stokes asked, walking over.
"I need to convert this into a cash account. Can you do that here?"
"Of course. You’ll just have to sign a few forms."
"Right. Don’t you need to see what I’ve got here?"
"No. We have a manifest."
"I see. Hmm. How long will it take?"
"Just long enough for you to sign the papers. They’re already drawn up for you."
"Really? Alright, then."
"If you’ll come with me, we can take care of it right away--and don't forget your plane ticket," Stokes reminded Mark as he was about to exit the booth.
"Oh. Right."
Once Mark had the ticket and had closed up the boxes again, Stokes called the guards over to wheel the containers back to their places in the wall. Mark watched as they slid the boxes back into their slots. He wasn’t sure what bothered him more--Stokes knowing what was in the boxes or the fact someone had anticipated his desire to cash-in the gold. Thinking of the time, he decided not to let it worry him and followed Stokes back down to the lobby.
The papers were already laid out on Stokes's desk when they got there. Mark didn’t remember seeing anything on the desk before, but figured Stokes must have called down to an assistant while he was in the booth.
"Nice trick."
"Having the papers already down here ready for me. I mean, how did you know?"
"Why, Mr. Reardon, you asked to open an account yourself."
"Yeah, but...Oh, never mind. Where do I sign?"
"Here, here, and here," Stokes said, pointing out the blanks labeled Applicant on the papers.
Mark signed with the pen lying on Stokes’s desk. When he finished, Stokes took up the papers and placed them in a drawer. He then pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to Mark.
"Here is your receipt. Is there anything else I can do for you today, Mr. Reardon?"
"Umm, no. I think I’m good."
"Now, if you need to transfer any funds, just let us know."
"Right. Thanks."
"No. Thank you, Mr. Reardon. Have a wonderful afternoon."
Leaving the bank, Mark had the queer feeling of being wide awake in a dream. He saw himself unexpectedly involved in events unfolding around him he could not control. It reminded him of once being a passenger in a car wreck, waiting for the impact as the vehicle spun violently; but he believed the outcome of his deal would be more positive. Intuitively, he knew something had been set in motion by his visit to the bank. The end of civilization? Mark had no idea, but he did know getting paid with $10 million in gold was a special event.
Standing on the sidewalk outside the bank, Mark checked his watch. He was already late for his afternoon meeting with Foster. Reaching for his cell phone, Mark abruptly changed his mind. He decided it was better to call Foster after making sure the contract checked out with his attorney. Not having received a phone call, Mark reasoned his boss was most likely tied up with other work anyway.
Mark hailed a taxi, which came to a screeching halt in front of him. He disliked cabs--they inevitably smelled of mildew, the drivers spoke fluently in any language but English, and the air conditioning never worked. Mark caught the faint aroma of body odor as he climbed into the back seat and gave the driver the address. Most likely, his Armani suit would need cleaning the next day just to remove the cab's smell. However, walking across town to his attorney's office in the August heat was even less desirable.
As the cab bounced along, Mark called ahead to announce his arrival.
"Lawrence Cohn’s office. Your business is our business," a female receptionist answered.
"Hello, this is Mark Reardon. I’d like to speak with Mr. Cohn, please."
"Oh, hello, Mr. Reardon. Hold one moment, please."
The receptionist’s voice was replaced with some tinny, easy-listening music Mark thought inappropriate. After a few seconds, a man’s voice came on the line.
"Lawrence Cohn."
"Larry, it's Mark. I’m coming over to see you about a contract."
"Mark, can't you just fax it over? I’m in the middle of some other things."
"I need to go over this with you in person. Today. Believe me, it’s very important."
"Well, I’ve got a client with me right now. I shouldn’t even be taking your call."
"Larry, don’t make me tell your girlfriend about that fishing trip," Mark threatened jokingly.
"Mark, you dirty bastard! Just wait until I tell your wife."
"Ha! You’ve got nothing on me, pal. Seriously, get rid of your client. We need to talk."
"Look, old chum," Larry said, adopting a British accent, "I’ll see what I can do, but you might have to wait a while."
"That's okay. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes."
"Fine. But, this better be something big--not a fitness center contract or anything like that."
"Don’t worry, this is much bigger."
"Alright. I'll see you in a few."
The Law Offices of Lawrence A. Cohn, where "Your business is our business," would not normally let anyone interrupt Mr. Cohn’s conference with another client. However, Mark and Larry had become friends while attending Columbia University and had maintained their friendship over the years since. Larry had been best man in Mark's wedding. They took "guy" trips together as work and family permitted. For two men who habitually worked over 100 hours a week, they were as close as they could be. In other words, not very close; but Larry was as good a friend as Mark had in the world. So, when Mark called and said something was important, Larry did what he could to make time for him.
The cabbie found the address without much trouble, and moments later, Mark was seated in one of the leather armchairs in Larry’s reception area. Mark could tell his friend was doing quite well with his clients by looking around. From the posh, Italian leather furniture to the antique Persian rugs lying on walnut-accented hardwood floors, the d├ęcor of the office subtly conveyed unsurpassed attention to style and detail. This was no cut-rate lawyer from the Bronx--this was Lawrence A. Cohn from Manhattan. Only the privileged few breathing the rarified air of the city's executive suites, sipping bottles of Perrier at lunch followed by snifters of 100-year-old Hennessy, could afford to hire Mr. Cohn as legal counsel. Mark had no way of knowing which CEO’s meeting he had interrupted, but he assumed it was someone with more money than he had--at least before his lunch with the Society.
Although Larry had been meeting with someone, Mark never saw anyone leave because all clients discreetly exited through another door leading to a private elevator. Larry did his utmost to maintain the highest level of confidentiality with his clients, which included never letting one client see another arriving or leaving the office. To accomplish such extreme discretion, Larry spread out his appointments during the day so no two clients ever waited in the reception area simultaneously. The arrangement suited Mark, since he was certain he and Larry shared clients from time to time.
Mark waited alone in the reception area perhaps fifteen minutes. The receptionist offered him a bottle of sparkling water, but he declined. He was intent on mentally reviewing his options, trying to determine if he was making a smart move or if he was getting ahead of himself. He found it difficult to maintain his objectivity once he knew the $10 million retainer was real. Mark scanned through the contract, but was too excited to focus on anything as complex as a legal document. He kept flipping back and forth through the pages without actually absorbing the slightest bit of meaning. It was why Mark had come to Larry; he knew he wouldn’t be able to sift through the contract with a clear head with so much at stake. He was still thumbing the pages when Larry entered the reception area.
"Mark! How are you?" Larry said, extending his hand.
"Good, Larry. Thanks for squeezing me in," Mark returned, rising and grasping Larry’s hand in one motion.
"Hey, anything for you, my friend. Just wait until you have to return the favor," Larry said jokingly. "Whattaya got?"
"I need you to look this over for me," Mark said and handed Larry the contract.
"Right. Why don’t we go back to my office?"
Larry walked down the hallway to his office while Mark followed. The hall was lined with a variety of artwork reflecting an eclectic taste ranging from old masters to avant-garde. Mark found the paintings mostly innocuous except for one--a reproduction of van Dyck’s The Betrayal of Christ placed at the end of the hall. Not only did it seem out of place in a Jewish lawyer’s office, its prominent position seemed meant as an affront to the typical attitude of Larry’s boardroom clients. Mark had once asked him about the painting and why it was there.
"It reminds me that everyone’s guilty of something," Larry explained.
"Even Jesus?"
"Sure. I said ‘guilty,’ not ‘not innocent’--there’s a difference."
Mark had dismissed Larry's rationale. He chalked it up as another of his friend's many idiosyncrasies and forgot about it until visiting the office again. He never would have chosen a painting to convey a message--he wanted to just enjoy art, not think deeply about it or use it as a moral club. He spent his workdays articulating and delivering messages for large corporations. After figuring out how to tell millions of people which deodorant to buy, he didn’t have enough energy left to think critically about the direction of society, much less to convey his own personal viewpoints on life to his clients.
Ideology wasn’t the only difference between Mark and Larry. The two friends could hardly have been different in more ways. Physically, Mark towered over Larry by nearly a foot. Mark was tall, athletic; Larry short and overweight. Mark’s dark wavy hair made him look young; Larry’s light, thinning hair--he was nearly bald--made him look much older. Mark was naturally carefree; Larry was more concerned with being proper in every social setting. Mark could envision the big picture for his clients; Larry was meticulous regarding the most minute detail. Despite their differences, however, they enjoyed one another’s company when they had it.
As they entered the office, Larry shut the door behind them.
"Have a seat," Larry said, pointing to one of the chairs in front of his massive desk, which was covered in legal documents. Larry skirted around the desk and sat facing Mark.
"Let’s see what we have here," Larry said and quickly scanned over each page of the contract. With each successive page, he wrote a note on a legal pad. After a few moments silently reviewing the document, he put the pad down and tilted his glasses forward on his nose.
"So, this is pretty boilerplate. I mean, it’s very generic except for the compensation section, which is somewhat unique. Do you realize this contract states you’ll be paid in gold bullion?"
"I pretty much figured that out. I already accepted the advance," Mark replied.
"You should be talking to an accountant, then, not me."
"Well, I wanted to get an opinion on the contract. Does it seem fair?"
"Fair? That’s up to you. Look, the main thing is you’re responsible for putting the whole campaign together. They’re paying you a set amount--no extra for expenses or anything else. Plus there’s this section about indemnification you should understand. Basically, if anything adverse happens--including your death--it’s on you. They’re covered against any loss."
"My death?"
"Not to worry. They just want to make sure your family--Gina--doesn’t file a wrongful death suit against them if, for example, a production scaffold collapses and kills you."
"Got it."
"So, you already accepted the retainer. You can still back out, though, by returning it. We can even handle that for you, if you’d like."
"Umm. No, I think I’m ready to take this on. They expect me to be in Tulsa tomorrow."
"Really? Don’t waste any time, do they?"
"No, they were very insistent."
"Well, here," Larry said as he passed the contract and a pen over to Mark. "You may as well sign it and we can send it over to them and make you a copy."
Mark signed his name on the last page of the contract.
"You have the address?"
"Well, it’s right here on the cover page."
"Oh. Right."
Larry glanced at his watch.
"I’m afraid I have an appointment I have to prepare for now," Larry said as he got up and moved toward the door. Mark, taking the hint, got up and followed Larry back down the hall to the exit.
"Thanks, Larry. I feel much better about this now that you’ve looked over the contract."
"Don’t mention it," Larry smiled, shaking Mark’s hand again. "I'll have my secretary send the copy to you in the mail. You know the way out?"
"Sure. Hey, let’s try to get together soon--catch a Mets game."
"Yeah. I’ll let you know. Bye."
Mark was out the door and down the elevator. Larry returned to his office, picked up his phone's receiver, and quickly dialed a number.
"Yes." said a voice on the other end.
"This is Mr. Cohn. I have some information on the matter we discussed previously."

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