K. Francis Ryan

The Assistant - Chapter One (partial)

The office building on Water Street sat vacant except for security personnel, the cleaning crews, and those who couldn’t afford to be disturbed.

Banks of overhead lights illuminated the hallways on every other floor. Otherwise, the building remained drenched in darkness and silence. In a private office on the thirtieth floor a single desk lamp burned. The leather armchair in front of a large carved mahogany desk creaked beneath the weight of an older man.

His accented English was clear but difficult to place. The growl in his voice was unmistakable. “Withdraw your application. It is not in our interests to attract attention to ourselves.”

“I can’t do that,” a slight, pale man stated with a bravado he didn’t feel as he paced behind the desk. “We are being considered for an initial public offering by one of the senior investment banking houses in the country. To withdraw now would only attract more attention. Besides, the IPO will guarantee we will all make a fortune,” the pale man said.

“Don’t lose sight of our objective,” the large man rumbled. Again the chair groaned as he leaned forward. “Enriching ourselves along the way, well, that is a bonus, but is not the reason for our being here.”

A wiry man who sat silently throughout the late-night meeting commented.  “I saw a sign today. It said ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find.’ Let us hope what you find does not expose our mission.”

He continued and stood along with his companion “I will give you another quote,” the wiry man said as he turned to leave. “‘Death solves all problems. No man – no problem’. Greed satisfies no one Mr. Scripts. Don’t make us remind you of that again.”

***

Elizabeth Forbes felt the weight of too many long days and sleepless nights press down on her. Rolling over in bed, she lashed out at the alarm clock before it could jar her fully awake.

Days that are too long and nights that are too short. She yawned and stretched away the stiffness. The sun might not be up, but Elizabeth was.

Reaching into her closet she removed what she considered her uniform. A dark business suit like all the others next to it, conservative tending toward dowdy. Not really suited for a woman of forty but the look was expected, required even. She ran a comb through an asymmetrical hairstyle that sharpened, rather than softened, her attractive features.

She was a no-nonsense investment banker right down to her Rolex watch.

What Elizabeth was careful to hide from the world was the pressure. Pressure to strive, to overcome, to advance, to perform, the pressure to succeed regardless of personal cost. She picked up her briefcase and keys, but paused and looked out the window of her apartment into the darkness beyond. She touched at her reflection. The glass was cold and she looked into herself with a hollow longing.

Elizabeth’s sigh was deep and weary. “It won’t always be this way,” she said to her empty apartment for the thousandth time. That persistent thought furrowed her forehead but retreated as she put on her executive face, the one that gave nothing away.

The sun was just stirring the city to life.

***

Elizabeth stopped for her morning coffee where she usually did on her way into the office at 100 Wall Street. Sammy’s was painfully bright and awash in the smell of coffee brewing.

It bustled with financial types trying to get a jump on the worldwide markets. A man stood in line behind Elizabeth and watched her. Something about the way she held her head, the way she carried herself, called out to him. Her figure attracted his attention, but her bearing riveted him.

She stepped to the counter and didn’t so much request as command, “Coffee, black, three sugars.” Reaching up, she paid and snatched her coffee off the counter. Turning, she bumped into the man, ricocheted off his arm and left the shop. Tall, well dressed, nice tie – that was all that Elizabeth registered.

The man watched her leave Sammy’s and grinned when she stopped outside. Elizabeth said something to the homeless man who stood in front of the coffee shop day and night for as long as anyone could remember. Balancing purse and coffee, she reached awkwardly into her briefcase and handed the man a bundle of new socks.

He nodded his thanks and held a neatly lettered sign that read:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find.” (Mathew 7:7)

He smiled a warm smile, pointed to his sign, and winked at her.

“Too bad it isn’t that easy,” Elizabeth grumbled. The message changed every day, but seldom the man’s sincere smile or his knowing wink.

***