The ceiling lights of the seventh floor were arranged in the most artful way. They were tennis ball-sized holes in the ceiling in which hot, halogen micro-lamps were set. But these recessed lights looked as if the architect had walked around the entire floor, before any walls were constructed, and randomly shot a paintball gun at the ceiling and wherever the paintballs struck, there he placed a light. The arrangement of the lights reminded one of stars in the midnight firmament. But despite their seemingly organic and random design, the ceiling lights perfectly illuminated niches holding sculptures, paintings hanging in hallways, floor plants in corners of rooms, planter boxes perched atop half-walls, coffee tables in sitting areas, as well as entryways, signage, drinking fountains and so forth, including the ultramodern fountain, fashioned out of slabs of black stone, that stood in the center of the lobby. Everything about the seventh floor was plush and tasteful.
Matuka & Moore, LLC, occupied the seventh floor of the stylish, new Mercantile Building, located in downtown Clemden. Matuka & Moore was a brokerage firm which specialized in multimillion-dollar mergers between, mostly, heavy equipment or agribusiness clients. Hunter Carr was M and M’s top broker and was, at that moment, in the firm’s main conference room, hammering out the final agreement in the biggest deal of his career.
If the deal went through, Hunter stood to earn close to a half-million dollars on its commission. But if you could have been there and watched him work from outside the thick, glass walls of the conference room, you might have assumed he was leading a creative, brainstorming session rather than a high-stakes negotiation. You would have assumed this because he appeared very relaxed and smiled as he spoke and even cracked humorous remarks at which the other stern faces around the table smiled tautly. He was the only animated figure among the group of fifteen dark-suited men and women assembled in that room.
Hunter wore a well-tailored, black suit which looked both perfectly pressed and, at the same time, soft. He wore an expensive white shirt of Indian cotton and a smart blue tie which had a geometric design of intertwined, monochromatic boxes which conveyed an understated texture. Mandy Carr always bought her husband a new tie as a good luck charm for occasions such as this and, in Hunter’s case, the charms seemed to work since he was the most successful broker at his firm.
The big-deal meeting ended without flourish. One minute, they were all sitting stoically as Hunter spoke; then a person on one side of the table commented briefly; then a person on the other side of the table commented briefly; then Hunter made another short remark; then all of the participants began standing. Some shook hands and nodded to each other hurriedly as they gathered pens, laptops, and cell phones. All began stowing files and devices in briefcases and, when finished, filed out of the conference room like students leaving a classroom after a bell and in a hurry to be somewhere else. Three attendees made it a point to shake Hunter’s hand before leaving, but in five minutes, everything was done and Hunter himself left the conference room headed for the men’s executive lavatory, located a short distance down the hall.
On his way to the restroom, carrying his briefcase in one hand, with his free hand he withdrew a cell phone from the inside pocket of his suit coat and pressed the button that turned it on. The smooth, glass face of the phone lit up.
The men’s executive restroom was gray marble everywhere—floor, walls, and sinks—and gleaming chrome fixtures. It also had a leather-topped table for holding briefcases, an expanse of mirrors behind the sinks, and an open closet with padded wooden hangers where a CEO or Vice President could hang his coat. Hunter placed his briefcase on the table then dialed Mandy at home. Mandy answered the phone:
“I guess we can’t win ‘em all,” said Hunter tiredly.
“Oh sweetie, really? What went wrong?”
“So is that it? Is the whole thing off?”
“Not quite,” said Hunter “Actually, I’m punking you.”
“What!” Mandy screamed.
“The deal’s done,” said Hunter. “Mandy, it’s a company record.”
“What? What? I can’t believe it,” she said incredulously.
“This was the big one, Man. The tie worked. We sign everything next week. Close to a half-million in commission.”
Hunter held the phone away from his ear as Mandy squealed with delight.
“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it,” she said breathlessly. “Honey, sweetie, can you come home now?”
“Not this minute,” said Hunter. “I still have calls to make.”
“Okay, it’s three o’clock now. Can you leave by four? Please?”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“Good because I’ve got an intimate celebration party planned. I’ve made a reservation at the Combine for eight o’clock.”
“That was a tad presumptuous, don’t you think, booking a fancy restaurant before the deal’s final?”
“You tell me, Mister Record-Breaker, was there ever any doubt?” said Mandy, a smile in her voice. “Oh, now I have to go. I’ve got to let everyone know.”
“I thought you said: ‘intimate’?” said Hunter.
“I did. And it is. Only four couples besides us. That’s intimate. Okay, sweetie, going to run now. Be home at four, no later. Comprende?”
The phone in Hunter’s hand, he held pressed to his ear, went dead.
Hunter and Mandy Carr’s home in Waterford was a Frank Lloyd Wright “Prairie Style” knockoff but a very good one. It was constructed of flagstone and smooth beams; it had a low-pitched roof and open-beam ceilings; the mood of the interior of the house could be described as airy. Lots of cedar and glass and a “peek-through” fireplace which heated living room and dining room simultaneously when it was used. Of course, Mandy Carr had a natural talent for interior design and the Carr residence showcased that gift quite well. The house was surrounded by mature landscaping of various kinds of flowering shrubbery, a few dwarf deciduous trees as accents, and islands of spruce and fir, placed strategically, to shield the residence from the rest of the world. It was a nice house at the edge of town. Hunter and Mandy lived with their daughter, Greta, who was one year away from entering college.
It was seven o’clock. The Carrs were in the master bedroom, finishing dressing for the party at eight. The master bedroom was a large room which featured one entire wall of exposed flagstone, at the center of which were situated a fireplace and mantelpiece and, in front of these, a cozy sitting area. Also, Hunter and Mandy each had their own dressing closet and separate bathroom at opposite ends of the master bedroom. Hunter emerged from his dressing closet.
“How do I look?” he asked his wife.
“You look exactly how I meant for you to look when I laid out your clothes,” said Mandy. “You look gorgeous and very, very successful.”
Hunter was a handsome man in his late forties. He wore his straight, sand-colored hair combed back which showed off the graceful braces of his enviable hairline. That evening, Mandy had laid out for him brown, gaberdine slacks, a starched oxford shirt, a yellow silk tie, a tweed sports jacket, and his Italian, tasseled penny loafers. He was a work of art and Mandy was the artist.
Mandy had put on her black pantyhose and bra and had finished her hair and makeup but had yet to slip into her black dress, shoes, and bracelet. She wore her most expensive perfume.
“I’m going out to the pool,” said Hunter. He had made himself a bourbon and water from the liquor cabinet and wet bar which occupied one corner of their room.
“That’s fine. I won’t be minute,” said Mandy.
She looked at her husband admiringly.
“Wait. Come here a second,” she added.
As they came together Mandy wrapped her arms seductively around Hunter’s neck. She also hooked one leg around his and cantilevered her lower body tightly into his as he stood holding his drink.
“I would kiss you very hard but I don’t want to mess up my lipstick. You’ll just have to wait till later for that,” she purred in his ear then grinned at him, her white teeth sparkling.
“Mm-huh,” agreed Hunter.
He caressed her derrière with his free hand.
“Hunter, Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m perfectly okay. Why?”
“Hmm,” she shrugged. “I don’t know; you just seem a little tense, maybe.”
“That’s why I’ve got this,” said Hunter and held up his glass.
“Don’t start too early, okay?”
“This is a pretty big day, you know; I feel like celebrating a little,” said Hunter.
“A little is fine,” said Mandy. “Besides, I’m expecting a blockbuster performance out of you, Mr. Carr, when we get home tonight.”
“So who have you invited to this intimate shindig, party thing?” Hunter asked.
“Well, there’s Kimberley and Sean, Robin and Nick, Karrie and Brandon, and Shelby and Bryan.”
“You invited Shelby and Bryan?”
“Yes, of course,” she said while inspecting her earrings in the mirror.
“They’re not going to have any fun, you know; they’re so damned competitive. The whole night they’ll be gritting their teeth with envy while fake-fawning over our good fortune.”
“Why do you suppose I invited them, dear?” said Mandy grinning.
“You’re the Devil.”
“No, I’m just devilish. Besides, if I didn’t invite them, they’d be even more upset.”
“I suppose so,” said Hunter. “Listen, I’m going to catch a breath of air before we leave; I’ll see you when you’re ready.”
“Okay Mr. Carr. I’ll be there soon.”
Hunter refreshed his bourbon and water; Mandy went to her closet to put on her dress. He was about to leave the bedroom.
“Oh, what about Greta?” asked Hunter.
“What about Greta?” said Mandy.
“Well, I mean, where is she tonight?”
“She’s at Naomi’s right now. But she said something about her and Naomi coming back here for a swim, later. I think they like skinny-dipping in the pool after we’ve gone to bed.”
“Maybe we should join them,” joked Hunter.
“Now I know why your daughter thinks you’re weird.”
“I was joking!”
“Greta thinks I’m weird?”
“Yes, but that’s normal for girls her age; they think all older men are weird. You shouldn’t worry about it. Get some air. I’ll be ready soon,” said Mandy nonchalantly.
“I’m an ‘older man’ now?” objected Hunter.
“Sweetheart, I need space.”
“Older man my ass,” grumbled Hunter as he left the room.
On the main floor, towards the back of the house, the beginning of stone pavers delineated the end of the living room and kitchen and the beginning of a recessed patio which extended from inside the house, out to the swimming pool in the backyard. The retractable partition, used only when the Carrs were not at home or during the winter, had already been closed and locked so Hunter had to use the kitchen door to get to the alcove and the pool outside. Potted citrus bushes—lemons, limes, and mandarin oranges—an arbor, overgrown with grape vines and bordered with lavender and sage, and rattan lounge furniture on the patio, lent the alcove a Tuscan flavor. When the partition was open, as it usually was, the transition between house and garden was seamless.
In the alcove Hunter inhaled deeply the warm July air of the evening. The pool was perfectly placid, not a ripple. The interior of the pool had tiled walls and recessed flood lights which illuminated its crystal water during the evening and at night. How the clean, calm water so fascinated him Hunter did not understand completely. But he loved to be near it and to look into its depths. It soothed him, gave him tranquility, offered him relief from his normal pace of life.
Hunter strolled to the pool’s edge then surveyed its length. There were no stray air mattresses or pool toys floating on its surface; everything was in order the way he liked it. He could hear the quiet hum of the filter pump working and inhaled the clean smell of chlorine wafting up from the water.
He walked to the platform of the diving board and up its steps. In his leather-soled penny loafers he carefully skated to the end of the board, squatted, set down his bourbon and water, then sat himself down on the very end of the board and, finally, picked up his drink again. He sipped the drink, letting his feet dangle free, above the water’s surface, and stared down at the drain grid, below him at the bottom of the deep end. Getting off the diving board without falling into the water would take a bit more skill than getting on, but he had done it so many times before that, by then, he was expert at it.
“Hunter, sweetheart, what are you doing?” said Mandy quizzically. She stood on the patio in her black dress and heels with an orange, blue, and pink wrap of silk draped over her slender shoulders. She was stunningly elegant.
“I’m relaxing,” said Hunter.
“Well, my love, I’m ready now. Please don’t fall in.”
“I’ll try,” he said. He stood and began waving his arms like a maniacal high-wire performer, pretending to lose his balance.
“Whoa-whoa-oa!” he shouted, feigning jeopardy.
“Oh god!” cried Mandy who instinctively started wobbling towards the swimming pool in her high heels at which point Hunter chortled and strolled off the board and down the platform steps to meet her. He laughed as he reached out to embrace his scowling wife.
“Humph!” she grunted as she slugged her husband’s arm sharply.
“Ouch!” said Hunter, rubbing his arm but continued snickering at Mandy’s reaction. “That hurt,” he laughed.
“That’s for scaring me,” she said. But then she chuckled at herself and took his arm in hers as they made their way to the garage.
A minute or two later the couple were riding comfortably in the cabin of their silver-gray sport utility vehicle, driving White Chapel Drive in Waterford, on their way to Clemden where they would meet their friends for dinner. Mandy had tuned the radio to a classical station which, at the moment, featured selections by Beethoven. They drove eastward so the setting sun threw streaks of orange and violet into the sky behind them.
“Why do you do that?” asked Mandy after a minute.
“Do what?” said Hunter.
“Walk the plank: you know, the thing with the diving board? What’s with that?”
“It makes me feel good?” His answer was a question.
“But why does it make you feel good?”
“I don’t know,” said Hunter. “I guess because the water’s clean; I can see the bottom.”
Mandy shook her head as she turned to look out the passenger window and watch the landscape pass.
They rode quietly for a few minutes, listening to Beethoven.
“Greta’s right, you know,” said Mandy finally, “you are weird.”
Two couples paused on the pavement in front of the Combine. The party had ended and they traded small talk as they prepared to part and head home. The hour was late.
“So what are you guys going to do with all that moola?” asked Shelby.
“Ah, well, we haven’t even thought about it yet,” stammered Mandy as she traded looks with Hunter.
“Probably pay off the mortgage,” said Hunter.
The four of them laughed. They stood outside the Combine in the pleasant night air.
“What? No exotic vacation to Kathmandu or the Amazon rainforest?” added Bryan.
“No, see, we never allow ourselves to count our chickens before they hatch so, truthfully, we haven’t even spitballed the possibilities, yet,” said Hunter. “But we will, I assure you, as soon as the ink is dry on the contract.”
“Well, we should let you guys go,” said Bryan, his arm draped over Shelby’s shoulder. “Thank you for dinner and drinks tonight. We had a great time.”
“Our pleasure,” said Hunter.
Bryan turned to Shelby. “Well, babe, shall we?”
“Yeah, we need to go. I told the babysitter we’d be home an hour ago. We love you guys,” said Shelby.
“We love you too,” said Mandy. “Goodnight!”
“Hey, you guys have to come over for a cookout, okay, before summer’s over. Can we do that?” asked Shelby.
Shelby and Bryan were already walking away, into the shadows, towards the corner of the parking lot where their car was parked.
“Anytime!” called Hunter.
“Goodnight!” said Mandy, once more.
Bryan waved before the couple turned and stepped from the curb into the parking lot. Mandy laced her arm into Hunter’s and they headed the opposite direction to find their car.
“That turned out better than I thought. I really had fun tonight,” said Hunter.
“Yes, you did,” said Mandy.
Just then, Hunter and Mandy stepped from the sidewalk onto the parking lot asphalt. Hunter’s knee buckled and he staggered sideways but Mandy tugged on his arm and righted him so he caught his balance.
“Thanks,” said Hunter, “I wasn’t expecting that step.”
“Maybe I should drive home,” suggested Mandy.
“Don’t be silly. I’m fine. It’s dark. I missed the step; no big deal. Really, I’m okay. Besides, it’s only a ten minute drive home.”
“It’s twenty minutes or I’m taking the keys,” said Mandy.
“Okay, twenty minutes. I will drive like the old man my daughter thinks I am. Will that satisfy you, my dear?”
“Yes, it will.”
Like a gentleman, Hunter helped Mandy into her side of the car.
“Thank you, Mr. Carr,” said Mandy.
“You’re welcome, M’dame.” Hunter bowed like a chauffeur. He was feeling quite good.
At the traffic signal on Cherry Street, Hunter made a left turn instead of going straight.
“Ah, sweetheart,” said Mandy calmly, “are we lost?”
“You might be but I’m not,” said Hunter.
“Where are we going?”
“Home. Haven’t you ever been this way?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“It’s a shortcut.”
“Hunter, please, let’s just go the normal way.”
“I go this way all the time. It’s at least five minutes faster. No traffic signals and all that.”
“I prefer traffic signals and street lamps over dark backroads, especially at night. Please, can we go the other way?” pleaded Mandy.
“Where’s your sense of adventure, Man? Maybe we’ll find a dark farm road and park a while and make out and I’ll feel you up and give you a hickey, or something. How does that sound?”
“It sounds sophomoric. And don’t call me ‘Man’”.
“You’re shaving my buzz, man.”
“I said, don’t call me Man.”
“I wasn’t. I was, like, talking hippie lingo, man. You know, like, Cheech and Chong?” Hunter mimicked Tommy Chong’s stoner voice.
“Ha, ha,” Mandy deadpanned. “Now shut up, Chong, and watch the road.”
They bounced over a railroad track and entered an unlit backroad which was brushy and narrow and bounded on both sides by deep drainage ditches and barbed wire fences. Into the car entered the pungent odor of cow manure through the ventilation system.
“Oh my god!” cried Mandy, who turned up the fan to full blast which only gave the odor more strength.
“It’ll clear out in a minute,” said Hunter.
But no sooner had he said it than the eye-watering stench of skunk overtook the cow dung and caused both riders to curse.
“It’s going to ruin our clothes,” said Mandy.
Hunter pressed the accelerator to run away from the skunk and shot down the backroad through the moonlit countryside. In a few minutes, they reached the twisted segment of road which led down to the silver bridge and the Old River.
“Hunter, this looks dangerous. Would you please slow down?” asked Mandy.
“No one’s out here, Man—dy. I’ll bet you thought I was going to say ‘Man’ again, didn’t you.”
“Just slow down! You’re making my toes curl in my shoes!”
They angled left around a bend then straightened out. Hunter took his foot off of the accelerator and the car began to slow.
“See, no problem. There’s the bridge now. We’ll be home in five minutes,” said Hunter patronizingly.
The road narrowed as they reached the iron bridge which had been painted silver. Hunter cruised across it. He glanced over at his wife who sat stiffly hugging the passenger-side door.
“Mandy, I was just having fun—” Hunter started to explain.
“LOOK OUT!” Mandy screamed as she jumped up straight in her seat and pointed at something through the windshield.
Hunter snapped his head forward in time to see that the car had drifted right and there before them stood what looked like a ghost. It was a man, all white, caught in the headlights, eyes wide with terror, holding out one hand towards the car to brace himself for impact and, in the other, holding a fishing pole.
Mandy screamed and Hunter jerked the steering wheel left. As he did, the ghost slapped the hood of their car as it swerved hard and missed him.
“AHHHH!” screamed Mandy again. Then a loud thud as the car hit something on the passenger side. Hunter instinctively sped up to escape whatever trouble he had caused.
“STOP THE CAR!” cried Mandy. “Stop! You have to stop!”
“Did I hit the old man?” yelled Hunter.
“No! You hit the dog!”
Hunter continued racing up Clemden Road towards Waterford village.
“Dog?! There was no dog, just a man with a fishing pole. Did I hit the man?”
“No. You missed the man. There was a dog too—”
“I didn’t see any dog!”
“A black and white dog; it ran into the road. You hit it!”
“No! That bang was the man hitting the hood of our car with his fist. I saw him do it as we went by. He was mad,” roared Hunter.
Hunter exhaled. Perspiration suddenly soaked his collar. He hooked a finger behind the knot of his necktie and tugged it loose.
“Hunter, you know we have to go back,” said Mandy.
“No, we don’t. Why would some idiot walk his dog on a road like this in the middle of the night, anyway? It’s insane and it’s not my fault if his dog got—hit. Besides, you said yourself the dog ran into the road: In cases of animal verses car, the automobile always has the right of way. Legally, I’m not even supposed to swerve—for a dog, I mean.”
“Please, Hunter, we have to go back.”
“And do what? Pay the coot for his damned dog?”
“No. To make sure he’s all right. And to offer assistance if he needs any.”
“All that would accomplish would be to open a legal can of worms.”
“We’re not talking about legalities. We’re talking about right and wrong, Hunter, and I know you know the difference,” said Mandy emphatically. “We need to do the right thing.”
But Hunter did not turn around. They rode a minute without speaking.
“You’re sure I didn’t hit the man or another person?” he asked.
“You hit a black and white dog. It looked like a collie.”
“I don’t think collies are black and white.”
“I don’t know what it was,” said Mandy exasperated. “It had long hair like a collie. It was shaped like a collie. It was black and white in color. If you don’t go back, I’m not going to forgive you and you’re going to ruin our night.”
“Our night’s already been ruined by some stupid person who walks his damned dog in the country at night,” said Hunter.
That’s where the matter ended for the rest of the ride home.
Once home, Mandy told Hunter she was exhausted, needed a shower, and was going to bed.
“Besides,” she added, “you’re drunk and I don’t like drunks.”
“I am not drunk,” he protested. “I know when I’ve had too many. I wish you wouldn’t let whatever happened at the bridge ruin everything. It’s not fair to me. Not tonight!”
“You should have stopped,” she stated once more for the record.
“I need a double,” he replied.
“No walking the plank, not tonight! Do you hear me? It’s not safe, Hunter.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Hunter.
“Good night, then,” said Mandy who took off her heels and headed upstairs to the bedroom.
Hunter found a large bottle of bourbon in the maple liquor cabinet in the living room and carried it to the kitchen. He mixed himself a double bourbon and water and drank it quickly then made second. Right away the liquor went to his head and he felt better.
The unfortunate event of that evening faded quickly from his thoughts. Being alone, at last, he was able, for the first time since that afternoon when the meeting ended, to congratulate himself for the deal he had pulled off. It had been a complex one. The clients were not just competitors but also enemies with a hostile history between them and, yet, Hunter had somehow gotten them to recognize they needed each other and that their bottom lines needed the deal he proposed. Even if the commission had not been the company record that it was, Hunter would have felt great pride in this particular deal. He knew that very few in his profession would even attempt what he had accomplished that day. He was extremely proud of that fact.
“Here’s to you, Hunter,” he said and raised his glass, “You pulled off the shleeming, the seeming imposs—ible. You’re the best.” He emptied his glass with the toast. His eyes began to close involuntarily. “One more,” he said to himself.
He felt excellent and, intuitively, was drawn to the swimming pool, its bright, clear water, the siren of his soul.
The midsummer night air had cooled considerably. The stars sparkled brightly. The spruce and fir trees, bordering the yard, scented the breeze. The swimming pool lay like a giant television screen, projecting bright, blue light up into the night. Hunter, a bit unsteady, nonetheless, managed walking the plank successfully without even spilling his drink. He sat down on the end of the diving board, reached back, picked up his bourbon and water, then smiled at the perfectly still and glowing water and marveled at its beauty. Though not a religious man, Hunter, at that moment, felt close to God.
His glass had slipped from his hand and fell into the deep end of the swimming pool, staining the water as it sank. His eyes had closed. His torso began rotating ever so slightly and his head tilted, little by little, towards his chest. An expression of serenity altered his face into that of an innocent child, sleeping. He had passed out sitting on the end of diving board. Mandy had already gone to bed.