He did his best. He tried. Though he hadn't started out as the proverbial Dickensian apprentice, hauling his way up the Fischer-Morrow corporate ladder— for one thing, his father was an expedient man who saw no inherent value in unfocused skill-sets, in work for work's sake; for another, family dignity wouldn't permit Maurice Fischer's heir to log time in the call center or customer service— Robert Fischer worked hard for what he was, that is to say a semi-involuntary son of privilege. He'd obtained the proper university degrees at the proper universities. He attended meetings, acted in project groups, took hard-hatted trips to the company's refineries and reactors worldwide, studied figures and data, wrote reports. He attended meetings without dozing; he asked well-thought-out questions of the research staff; he listened attentively to the answers.
He was working late tonight, but he wasn't alone in the gaping expanse of his office. Under a brass reading lamp a good twenty feet from his desk (which, Fischer thought, could, with minimal modification, double as a regulation-size pool table), Peter Browning, slouched on a black butter-leather sofa, was peering through his half-frame reading glasses at the data pad propped between shirt-buttons on his stomach.
"I think he's gone," Browning said, not looking up. In the room's perfect soundproofing, the words hung as if imprinted on the still air.
Fischer glanced away from the trio of monitors on his desk, blinked from his tired eyes the glowing ghosts of the screens. "What's that, Uncle Peter?"
"I think Joey just left. That's what you were waiting for, wasn't it?" As he spoke, Browning looked across the room at him. He'd been a handsome man once; now, having passed through dissolution to middle age, Browning could hide a smile in the leather of his face.
Not from his godson, though. Fischer, caught out, smiled back. "Yeah."
He saved his spreadsheets, pass-locked his MegaMac, took his suit jacket from the upholstered chair, a sibling of the sofa on which Browning was slumped, that stood within a jacket-toss of the desk. Joseph Bartel, as shambling but as quick and muscular in his hide as an old California grizzly, was Fischer's personal chief of security: every night, or nearly so, Fischer would tell him he was working late and that he'd close up; in lieu of questioning Maurice Fischer's son's orders, Bartel would find things to do for an hour or so, hovering, listening, walking the halls, re-checking the lavatories and the conference rooms, before finally conceding the waiting game and going home.
"You could just tell the bastard to pack it in. You can do that, you know," Browning said.
Fischer flinched as he shrugged into his suit jacket. "He's only doing his job, Uncle Peter."
"You're too soft, Bobby. Where're you off to tonight?"
"I don't know yet—"
"Just want to get out on your own, drive around?"
"Yes." How exotic that sounded, how ridiculously daring: the simple prospect of wandering off, at very likely legal speeds, into the night. He hesitated, frowning. "Isn't it strange—"
"Jesus, you're not going to get all philosophical now, are you?"
"— how we can be where we are— be who we are—"
"I'll assume you're using the royal 'we.'"
Something he would never have dared to say to his father: "—and still feel trapped?"
Browning yawned. "Direct proportions, Robert." He looked back at his data pad. "Power-to-persecution-complex, something like that."
"I was just thinking—"
"Don't. I mean it: don't. I'll have my people in accounting run the actual ratios for you, if it'll make you happy." Browning chuckled. "Now shut up and get the hell out of here before I call Joey back."
So as not to hear the helpful words "I'll call for your driver, Mr. Fischer," he bypassed the main elevator bank, the lobby, and Bartel's compatriots at the ground-level security desk. Unknotting and pocketing his tie, he rode one of the back elevators down to the underground car-park, where waited, in the near corner on the spotlessly clean concrete floor, a black Jaguar XF, glistening in the low light like a drop of oil. Shiny enough for the driver's-side door to reflect him as he approached: in two dimensions on the Jag's clearcoated skin moved a young man with a compact frame, a slender build unwarped in the depth of the black paint, wearing a charcoal-gray double-breasted suit. Reddish-brown hair combed back off a modestly squared forehead, lips a touch too full to be fully masculine, high cheekbones. No amount of hand-waxing, though, could coax from the Jaguar's finish the light freckling on those cheekbones, or the bottle-glass blue of Fischer's wideset eyes, which some, Fischer's closest acquaintances and corporate rivals alike, found disconcertingly pale. The company's publicists told him he was good-looking. Fischer tended to take such assessments with a slight smile and a hint of skepticism.
It was a rainy cold July night. He got the Jag out on Highway One and drove. No sound from the stereo. Nothing but the whisper-and-tick of the windshield wipers, the soft buzz of the tires on the wet pavement, the throaty purr of the engine. When he realized the car was as much as driving itself, when the pattern of the raindrops in the light from the headlamps had become hypnotic, he turned back toward town. He ended up at Gilliam's, a bar in Surry Hills.
She was in her mid-twenties, by the look of her, average height, slender without being bone-thin, said slenderness being clothed in a short-sleeved peacock-blue dress whose modest cut bespoke either an internship or a quick drink on the way home from the office. She had long dark hair, and Fischer's peripherals told him she was confidently pretty, not beautiful. Lips just full enough, high cheekbones, blue eyes, features that erred slightly on the side of strength, not delicacy. She leaned in beside him, caught the patient eye of rawboned tall Bill Doherty, the bartender, and in a voice that hinted of applewood pipe-smoke and British leanings ordered a mojito. The light caught coppery seams in Doherty's hair as he smiled, nodded, and went off to work his alchemy.
Though not boisterous, Gilliam's was full. The last remaining stool, to Fischer's left, had until now been his buffer. As she eased onto it, the young woman said, as if by way of apology: "This place does a great muddled mojito."
Too-suddenly aware of her proximity, Fischer turned his glass by its cool rim between the fingertips of his right hand. Vodka tonic. One of two. His usual. He watched the light trapped and flashing in the the ice cubes and asked: "Are you working?"
Fischer snorted. Sure, he might have made a mistake in gravitating to one of his known haunts, but this was truly irritating, even by Maurice Fischer's standards of passive-aggressive parental control. "My father sent you, didn't he? The agency sent you."
"What agency? I don't understand what you're—"
"Never mind," Fischer said.
"Agency? What agency? What are you talking about?" She kept her voice low, but she seemed to be getting legitimately, even a little frighteningly, upset.
Looking at her, Fischer suddenly felt a sick, sinking mortification. He'd made a mistake, a terrible mistake. "I'm sorry," he said, as anger and incredulity flickered to life like blue flame in her eyes. "I shouldn't have assumed—"
"What? That I was a hooker?"
Doherty set her drink in front of her. She reached for her purse. "Please: allow me," Fischer said. He looked up at Doherty. "Bill, put that on my tab, would you?"
"Yes, Mr. Fischer."
Doherty moved away. Fischer turned back to the girl. "Really, I apologize."
She looked at him for a long moment. The anger left her expression, unsparked from her slate-blue eyes. "That's fine. Don't worry about it." Her shoulders untensed as she spoke. She smiled, reached for her drink. "Tell me: that suit. Ballpark guess. Sixteen hundred dollars American…?"
"Umm… nearer twenty-three. But that's not—"
"You must have a really good dry cleaner, then, am I right?"
Before Fischer could reply, she calmly poured the contents of her glass down the front of his shirt.
Between the surreality and the shock, Fischer's gasp at the chill of the liquor puddling suddenly in his lap and navel, and Doherty materializing with a horrified expression and a clean bar towel, she made good her escape. In five seconds, she was out the door and gone.
Doherty asked: "Should I have the bouncer bring her back, Mr. Fischer?"
"No. No, Bill, it's alright." Fischer rose, still mopping his torso. He handed the towel back to Doherty, unpocketed his wallet, left a twenty for a tip. He made his way to the door, stepped out into the midwinter air, sharper now and chillier not only because of the alcohol evaporating from his skin but for his having been sitting amidst the warmth of a crowd.
To his right, a cross-street and then nothing but sleeting rain, wind, lights from shops and restaurants making timorous headway against the winter dark. A handful of pedestrians, jacketed, their collars turned up, none of them her. Fischer went left, along the long axis of the block. Two-story clumps of businesses interspersed with flats, old but well-maintained houses standing in the night-shade of mature trees. He came to another intersection, paused. No one ahead of him, no one moving across the way, to his right. The sidewalk to his left led off into a deeper darkness, past a yard bordered by a black wrought-iron fence.
That way, maybe thirty feet off, he heard a scuffle. The scratching of shoe-soles on wet paving. A woman's panicked breathing, a man's ugly voice: "Don't fight me, you bitch."
The trees blocked the light from the streetlamps. Fischer's eyes adjusted as he walked, then jogged, toward the struggling pair.
Then, as he didn't stop, take out his phone, and call the police, Fischer thought he saw a flash of metal at what had to be the man's waist level.
"No— Don't—!" Fischer found himself now charging at the dark tangle of bodies. He got the man from behind, by the shoulders. The knife clattered on the sidewalk. Fischer spun the man around— no: actually, he was turning around on his own. The woman broke free— and it was her, the girl from Gilliam's— as a cinder-block fist collided with Fischer's right cheek. He could have sworn his skull rang like a bell. He staggered, and the man grabbed again for the woman. As black light flashed behind his retinas, Fischer saw her kick him in the right knee, stomp his instep. Saw her turn and run.
The man let her go. He turned his attentions back to Fischer, and his unkicked knee caught Fischer in the chin. A new burst of pain, a slash of salty, bloody warmth in his mouth as he bit his own lip, and Fischer felt himself lurch. He fell on his side on the cold wet sidewalk. A seesaw rushing filled his ears. He was vaguely aware of the man rifling through his pockets. He felt a tugging on his left wrist as the man took his watch. With his struck cheek pillowed on grit, he thought he could still see the girl, running off. He thought he could still hear her footsteps.
He heard, definitely, the sound of a police siren before he blacked out.