Their eyes met over the display of chocolates at the mini-mart. Only $14.99 for a 14-ounce assortment of cream filled dark delectables in a souvenir metal box.
“Great for an evening alone with a video.”
Alice didn’t reply. She was a self-made woman and lived in a self-made bubble. No one penetrated without permission. Even the cashier had more permission than this man, despite his confident stare and air of authority.
“The chocolate covered almonds best. I save them for last.”
“Excuse me?” She stared coldly at the man. His confidence made her hesitate but it was the warmth of his smile and his conspiratorial look that aroused her interest. Alice was an attractive woman. She dressed well and carried herself with a finishing school poise. She was CEO of the Fortune 500 corporation. She expected deference.
Normally she walked with at least an aide or secretary and sometimes her driver. But her housekeeper had forgotten to buy cream and she couldn’t drink coffee without it. Hence the visit to the mini-mart on the ground floor of her building. Hence this man. Her first face-to-face encounter with a total stranger in years. This particular man with his us-against-them conspiracy. He was well dressed. Perhaps he lived in the building. She wondered, oddly, if he liked cream with his coffee.
It hadn’t taken long. There were several chance encounters, on the elevator, in the park where she sometimes ate lunch, even in the first class lounge at the airport. He was stalking her and she was flattered. She began to smile when he popped up unexpectedly. She began to scan faces in the crowd.
She had been alone too long. She needed a lover. Not a live-in relationship but a friend she felt comfortable with. Someone to watch movies with. On the couch.
She took more care than usual with her make-up one morning and dressed in her most feminine business attire. She made reservations at a fine restaurant and, at lunchtime, left her office alone. She was shown to her table and given a menu. The waitress brought coffee. She told her to bring another menu. She was expecting someone.
And there he was, being shown to a nearby table. He looked up and grinned, giving a little wave with his fingers. She couldn’t prevent the giddy smile that spread across her face the quick tilt of her head that invited him over.
His name was Dave and he liked to take his time. Over the next few weeks they walked all over the city, hand in hand, shopping at the craft market, eating ice cream on the street and once sneaking into a group of seniors as a tour guide led them around Citadel Hill. She liked his looks, the friendly way he had with shopkeepers, his intelligence, his sense of humour and his gentle way with her. She wondered if they’d ever make use of that couch.
They were walking back to her car when he cleared his throat. “There’s something I have to tell you”.
They settled into the heated leather seats. He turned to her:
“We seem to have a bit of a connection…”
“Yes”, she agreed.
“I’d like to take it further and maybe so would you but I’m afraid it won’t work.”
She didn’t move, just stared at him. In business she had learned that saying nothing often forces a client to talk just to break the silence. But that wasn’t the reason this time. She just couldn’t move. Had she done something wrong? Was there someone else? Had she lost her appeal?
He stared ahead, took a breath and looked at her. “I won’t be around much longer. I just learned I have a medical condition and it’s fatal. I’ll be in pretty good shape for the next few months but not much longer.”
Sweet relief: he was still attracted to her; he was just dying, that’s all. The perfect exit strategy. She reached for his hand and squeezed. She was a professional. She had walked away from temptations before. This was no different. But she seemed to have the sniffles. Her eyes misted up. There were tears forming. Whaddya mean, tears. I’m a pro, she thought.
She seemed to have trouble breathing. Her breath came in ragged gasps. This can’t be happening, she thought, I’ve walked away from better things than this. Her makeup was running and there was snot on her glasses. He handed her a handkerchief. Very professional, she thought, carrying a handkerchief. He put his arm around her. “I seem to have this effect on people,” he said, finding humour in the darkest part of his life. “Actually I’m flattered. I didn’t know this meant so much.”
He was more embarrassed than she was. “I wish it was cancer or heart disease. Or maybe an old war wound acting up. I’m afraid it’s early onset Alzheimers. I’ll be alright for a few months but after that I’ll forget your name. I don’t want it to go that far. I don’t want to forget you.”
They made plans. They’d go to Switzerland. Assisted suicide was easy there. But first they’d make memories. The next few months were a joyful whirlwind of travel, fine dining, dancing till midnight and passionate intimacy thereafter. She was entranced, giddy, living on a plane of pleasure. The office left frantic messages. Emails piled up. She didn’t care.
They returned, finally, from Paris to Halifax, slushy and cold under spring snow. They were exhausted but happy. It was cozy in her condo and at last they had time for that long-delayed movie on the couch and a generous box of chocolates.
He was in the shower. She’d slip out and buy that box of chocolates. They’d laugh over it. And if he was still in the shower, perhaps she’d join him.
But the shower was empty when she got back. So was the kitchen, living room and den. For three months she had hardly been alone and the stillness was unmistakeable. She searched with quiet urgency, walking briskly up and down the hallways, taking the elevator to the lobby and pressing inquiries on the doorman and shopkeepers. No one had seen him. She knew he was gone.
Alzheimer’s? No. She’d watched him carefully the last three months and hadn’t seen one shred of memory loss. She’d stayed up late with her laptop reading everything she could find. Alzheimer’s didn’t kill a person in three months. It took years.
She sat on the couch alone and ate the entire box of chocolates smearing the gooey cream filling on her face and hands. Then she went to the bathroom, put her finger down her throat and threw it all up. It was over.
She got to the office by mid-morning. A young lady stared as she walked past the reception counter. Excuse me Ma’m do you have an appointment?
A new hire. She guessed things had changed. She brushed past the clerk with an air of authority and headed for her assistant’s office to catch up. It was quiet on the main floor. Normally there was banter and chat between dozens of cubicles. Secretaries scurried down the halls. There were couriers waiting for signatures, people complaining the printer didn’t work, phones beeping, salesmen streaming in from meetings.
Not this time. She walked towards the cubicles knowing what she would find. They were empty, every one of them. There were no signs of occupation, no family snapshots, no kid’s drawings, no forgotten memos. The surfaces were scrubbed clean.
She spotted movement in a corner office. Her assistant. At least he’d be able to explain things.
He was not her assistant, but he was thoughtful and kind for such a young man. And he certainly did explain things. There had been missed deadlines, quotes that were not competitive, products failing to meet specs and returned by the client unpaid. The CEO had gone AWOL. Rumours started to flow. A top salesman quit. Resumes were updated. “Your company needed someone to make decisions,” he’d said. But no one had been in charge. There had been an offer to buy, far less than the company was worth, but the only alternative was bankruptcy. The board recommended investors accept the deal. Share prices soared. Wage-earning employees were transferred to the new corporate offices. Others were walked to the door by security guards, carrying carboard boxes of family snapshots, kids drawings and potted plants.
She sat in the empty lobby while the receptionist polished her nails and checked Facebook on her phone. She felt bad for her former employees, but they’d recover. And so would she if the vision she had carried in her heart for so long bore fruit. She missed Dave. She needed to see him.
At that moment Dave was three blocks away and 300 feet above, debriefing his client. “That Alzheimer’s thing helped a lot,” he said, “she really took her eye off the ball.”
“Yup,” said the client, “that’s all we needed. Amazing how a bit of uncertainty can scare people. They jumped at our offer.” He produced a plastic banker’s card, issued by an offshore bank. You’ll find your final payment has been made, plus a bonus. He folded a sheet of paper around the card. “And here’s the password. Don’t lose it.”
“Not on your life.”
“Alright. We’ll probably be in touch again. You do good work.”
“Thanks, I enjoyed it,” said Dave.
The client’s eyes narrowed: “not too much, I hope.”
“Nah, I’m a pro. I’ve walked away from better things. I’ll never see her again.”
“Better not. Our security chief was against this from the beginning. All he needs is an excuse.”
Dave broke his promise five minutes later with a text message to Alice: “Paris,” read the message. “2 p.m. Sat. Cafe where u had yr big idea.”
It took two weeks for the lawyers to draw up a settlement offer for her back wages, expenses and benefits. It was mean, almost punitive, but Alice didn’t care. She had made a huge profit by driving her company to ruin over the last few months and then investing every dime just before the merger was announced.
Paris at last. Their little cafe. She gave a long, appraising stare at Dave, his lean frame shown off by his new attire: patched jeans and t-shirt with the de rigeur sports jacket. “Guess I did take my eyes off the ball,” she giggled. “But I had other things to look at. Or oggle, actually.”
“I’m still oggling your share prices. Geez Alice, that took guts. You planned that every step of the way. Aren’t you worried they’ll think of insider trading?”
“They’d have to prove that,” she said. “They might suspect it, but they need witnesses. Oh, I forgot! Remember these?” She held out small metal box.
“You remembered! I love those chocolates.” He dithered over his choice, finally settling on a cream-filled bonbon with white chocolate trim. She watched him toy with it in his mouth, letting the chocolate coating melt and the juices begin to flow. “Man, they’re good. They taste a bit like almonds. Wow!”
“That’s the cyanide, Dave. Sorry. Can’t have anybody talking about insider trading. Think you have time for another?”
Dave didn’t answer