by April Kelly
I screwed up. Big time. In my defense, the end of quarter sales figures were about to be tallied and that dick Cromwell was poised to be named Soul Man of the Month for the third straight time. I was bringing in business as fast as I could, hoping to squeak past him at the finish line, so I may not have properly vetted the girl. But how in the here could I have known she’d uncover a loophole in a contract that hasn’t changed in thousands of years?
I’m reluctant to send the email that will notify management of the problem because my boss is going to kill me. Well, not kill; that’s one of the few things he can’t do. No, I was killed by a cab driver in 1982. Buck Sullivan didn’t run me down in traffic or cause me to die in a fiery crash, he shot me eight times. Twice in the head, four times in the back, once in the thigh and once where the sun don’t shine. Bucky and I laugh about it over a beer every now and then, but he wasn’t laughing the day he came home early and emptied his Glock into me while I was ménage à troising his second wife and the grown daughter from his first marriage.
Anyway, I can’t technically be killed, but the guy I work for is famous for coming up with creative ways of making people wish they were dead. Send.
Subject Contract No. F-358.13.21-34
May have hit a little snag on this one. Would like
some face time with you to explore options before
a copy goes to the client. Lunch?
Little snag is an undersell, but I can massage the details better in a sitdown with him. I’ve already asked one of the lawyers to do some research on the down-low, see if we have any wiggle room on this thing.
I was in a dead heat with Cromwell less than an hour before the quarterly filing cutoff when I spotted Michelle eating her pathetic cheese sandwich lunch on a bench in Central Park. Yeah, I could go anywhere in the world to find clients, but what can I say? I heart New York and it’s a target-rich environment.
She was perfect, which is to say a hot mess. Michelle Lachnegar was around thirty. That’s years old and pounds overweight. If you called her hair mousey, rodents would flip you off. Her clothes were thrift shop couture and she had the defeated look of a virgin ten years past her Best If Used By date. Just the kind of girl who can’t say no to me.
Taking up a position at the other end of the bench, I draped my left leg over my right, turning my body slightly so it looked natural when I stretched out my right arm along the bench back. My fingertips were twelve inches from her left shoulder, close enough to tickle the penumbra of her personal space and make her aware of my presence, but far enough away to preclude her freaking out.
“What would you say if I told you I have the power to give you everything you ever wanted?”
Her slow turn was studied, as if she had expected me to chat her up, and she seemed less impressed by my charcoal Armani suit and crisp lilac Versace tie than I had expected.
“What makes you think I don’t already have everything I ever wanted?”
That caught me off guard, but in a good way. There is a sameness to this job, and I watch incredulity transition predictably to avarice a dozen times a week. Michelle was refreshing, a sprightly force that inspired me to up my game.
“Touché.” I gave her a look of admiration, then soft-launched into my pitch, closing from the first word.
Several misconceptions exist about the deal we offer, so let me clarify for you, as I did for Michelle. The signature on the dotted line does not have to be in blood, the client’s, mine or anyone else’s. And yes, my firm has the power to grant a “wish” (though corporate paperwork defines it as a customer petition) but management authorizes sales personnel to give away as many as three of these to prospective clients who might balk at a signing over their soul for only one of the big gets: love, money, fame, power and beauty. To ensure a quick close I put the trifecta on the table right up front.
Michelle listened to my spiel, an eyebrow cocked skeptically, and with a smile that could only be described as sardonic. Although the afternoon was cool I could feel dampness in my armpits, the kind you get after a good workout. I rested my case and hovered for the yes.
“Let me make sure I understand this,” she purred. “In return for my immortal soul, the entity you work for will acquiesce to three demands of mine.”
Her word choice should have red-flagged me. Most clients call them wishes. Sometimes dreams. Demand was a new one for me, but then I’ve only been at this for three decades. And acquiesce ? Who talks like that?
Checking my Rolex, knowing I was coming down to the wire, I hastily reviewed the specifics: she could make three requests. Each had to be laid out in a single, grammatically correct sentence. (We do this to intimidate people into keeping it simple. Rather than risk making a boo-boo and losing it all, clients normally stick to the basics: I want to be rich; I would like to be beautiful; I want so-and-so to fall in love with me.) She would enter those requests on the second page of the contract in her own handwriting, then we would initial the entries and sign at the bottom of page three.
“At that point we’re locked in, right? No backsies?”
I laughed. Most clients aren’t sharp enough to consider they might someday want out of the deal. They’re generally gullible enough to believe money or devastatingly good looks will solve all their problems and make them happy. When they learn differently they start whining about how they didn’t really understand the contract, how unfair it is for them to have to give up so much to get so little.
Michelle Lachnegar saw that possibility and was looking ahead for an escape clause. Or at least that’s what I thought she was doing. When I made it clear the deal would be binding once we both signed, she nodded and said she’d like to think about it. She asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer.
Shit. The first rule of sales is you don’t let the customer walk away to “think about it.” You close right then and there; let them second-guess themselves on their own time. How hard was her decision going to be? Guaranteed she’d ask for beauty, then true love; that’s what all the pudgy plain girls want. The third choice would be the wild card. Maybe money. Maybe perfect health. Despite what the pageant contestants say in the “See, I’m not like, you know, shallow” portion of the competition, no one ever wastes a thought for world peace or an end to hunger.
I poured on the old closer charm and Michelle finally caved, though not before snarking about “pushy” sales tactics. I handed her the contract and my Mont Blanc Meisterstück, then waited anxiously for her to write her choices in the space provided. It felt as if she wrote forever, but I figured that was only because I was in a drop-dead time crunch.
Uh-oh. Email from the boss.
To Renfrow<[email protected]ninecircles.com>
Are you fucking kidding me? This could bring down the
entire company. My office, ten minutes, and you’d
better have some fucking answers.
How did he find out the details? I haven’t put the hard copy into the system yet, and the only person I told was the lawyer who—. Cromwell! That bastard’s been on the job since 1658 and has spies everywhere. I should have known he’d rat me out.
Walking to the boss’s office I was sweating bullets. Which is technically possible, I suppose, as a couple of Buck Sullivan’s slugs are still on board.
“Renfrow! Get your ass in here!” The bellow was familiar, though it had rarely been directed at me, the Golden Boy who had consistently filled the reservations book of Hades with the promised souls of reality “stars” (who always ask for fame, but forget to ask for talent), pageant winners, heiresses and female politicians. For the record, Hillary turned me down flat, but I was able to sign an unknown governor in her stead.
The Prince of Darkness wasn’t alone. The rest of the sales team for my division sat nervously on the scattered couches, and a four-deep wall liner of lawyers—we have lots of them—made the huge space feel smaller, but no cozier.
I sat in front of the desk, a skull-rendered interp of a classic Le Corbusier design, and told my story, after which the boss picked up Michelle’s contract and read her first petition aloud.
“Any man who attempts to force himself sexually on a man, woman, child or animal, other than within the context of erotic play between mutually consenting adults, will, ten seconds prior to the possibility of penetration, experience the sensation of having been kicked in the testicles with enough force to elicit a scream and induce vomiting.”
I was fairly close to doing an upchuck myself when he laid the paper on the bony desktop and turned his penetrating gaze on me.
“Renfrow,” he said, softly, silkily.
“Are you aware that I have recently completed, at considerable expense, an eighty million-square-foot addition to Sector Bravo?”
“And would you mind telling everyone who I keep in Sector Bravo, packed in at the rate of three per square foot?”
“Uh, that would be men who have committed rape, sir.”
He was nodding and smiling at me, a father acknowledging his slow child has given the correct answer. But then the smile morphed into a look of fury and the voice rose from silk to shriek in twenty-three words.
“So, tell me, what am I going to do with eighty million square feet of warehouse space if I LOSE MY FUCKING RAPERS?!”
Even through the sulfur I could smell rhetorical, so I remained silent while he first seethed, then waxed sarcastic.
“Oh, I know what I can do. I can fill that space with the overflow of souls from Sector Foxtrot, the ones who have committed non-sexual acts of violence. Your war criminals, your murderers, your wife beaters, your child batterers. Plenty of them to go around, right, Renfrow?”
Swallowing hard, I watched him glance at the contract on his desk as if he didn’t already know Michelle’s second request.
“But I won’t be able to fill my shiny new accommodations with violent offenders of the non-sexual variety, will I? Tell the room why.”
Cromwell squirmed in his seat, barely able to suppress his grin. I was his first real competition in more than three hundred years and he was loving this.
With a bad case of dry-mouth I explained Michelle’s second wish, which would cause any intended violence or pain, whether emotional or physical, to be experienced by the inflictor, rather than the potential victim. She had cleverly, if tortuously, phrased it so even a finger on the button that launched a drone for a kill-strike would result in the death of the button-pusher, not the target. Michelle had, in effect, figured out a way to end all war and human violence. That bitch.
“I lose my rapers, my war criminals. I even lose my beer Bubbas pounding the missus to a bloody pulp. What in the here were you thinking, Renfrow?” Without waiting for a response, the boss read out Michelle’s third petition, eliciting groans from the crowd.
I felt every stare in the room, each an accusation that my slipshod vetting was about to bring down, arguably, the most successful enterprise in history. Numero tres would dry up virtually all sources of revenue for us, as it ended the venerable tradition of screwing people over financially. Bankers—going all the way back to when they were simply moneylenders—had been our bread and butter forever. And, dude, we were really gonna miss Wall Street.
Once the room went quiet again, I heard Cromwell’s snort of enjoyment. Unable to lash out at my satanic accuser, I directed my frustration toward my rival.
“Shut up, Ollie. We’re trying to solve a problem, so be a professional, for Christ’s sake!”
I realized my error even before the crowd gasped; the Prince doesn’t tolerate any mention of the competition. Cromwell’s smile was triumphant, and I knew I should have ignored his disdain for now and chosen a private moment in the near future to advise you-know-who that Oliver’s nickname for him was the Prick of Darkness.
With bigger fish to fry, broil, torment and impale on a pitchfork, the boss let my profanity slide. Running his fingers wearily through his hair, deftly avoiding the twin protrusions, he turned to a professorial gent in the back of the room.
“Witkowski, any chance she made a mistake?”
“No sir. My guys went through it a dozen times. She’s wordy, but her grammar’s tighter than a snake’s anus.”
With his last possibility out skunked, the big guy sagged in his femur-and-fibula executive chair.
“Well, that’s it, then. We’re done.” He picked up the contract as though it were a turd. Or a rosary. “But when Michelle Lachnegar dies, I will spend eternity making her my bitch.”
The room went quiet again. Then, from behind the wall of lawyers, a clearing of the throat.
“Sir? I think I may have a way to get us out of this.”
The suits parted to let Sheinberg come to the fore. The Prince looked at the lawyer (did I mention we have a lot them?) without much expectation, but Sheinberg opened his mouth and blew us away with the simplicity of the solution.
“This company—your company, sir—was founded on a bedrock of lying and cheating. It’s who we are, what we stand for.”
Sure it was inspirational, but at that point I couldn’t tell where he was going with the rah-rah talk.
“Even our mission statement,” Sheinberg continued, “says ‘the customer is always screwed.’ Well, I say screw Miss Lachnegar.”
He paused to let that sink in, then went for the close. First, he pointed out, Michelle had no way to get in touch with me. Second, she had nothing in writing. And third, even if she had both, what could she do it we failed to honor the contract? Sue us?
Worried I might slither off the hook, Cromwell protested that such a course of action went against long tradition and might damage our brand.
“On the contrary,” crowed Sheinberg. “This only reinforces it. Look, everyone we approach already knows we’re scumbags. Do you think screwing the occasional client out of a deal is going to sully our good name?”
The air-quotes he put around his last two words brought the house down as relief surged through the room. The boss roared with delight, I was back-patted and kudos’d for helping kick our badass rep up a notch, and Cromwell the Douche slunk out of the office.
Once the crowd had cleared, though, the Prince warned me not to cross paths with Michelle Lachnegar again. Not even by accident. In fact, he suggested I delete New York from my cold call sheet for a century or so. Maybe grab some of that low-hanging fruit in Juarez. Or D.C.
Subject Almost Had Him
Missed again, but came really close this time. Will lay
low a few decades then try a different angle with a new
sales rep. As ever, I will sacrifice my own soul, if need
be, to protect you and the company.
I was born in New York to parents who would have preferred a new couch. After doing hard time at the University of South Florida I stormed Hollywood to write, produce and create way too many sitcoms, the last of which was BOY MEETS WORLD. Since escaping showbiz I have published four novels, sole author of WINGED and co-conspirator on MURDER IN ONE TAKE, MURDER: TAKE TWO and MURDER: TAKE THREE. My next book, THE LAST FIRST KISS: STORIES SHORT AND TWISTED, will be completed later this year unless I get distrac—…hey, look! A butterfly!