Josh stumbled to the bathroom and turned on the shower. For a good five minutes, he stood with his eyes closed, willing the hot water to wash away the restless night. He felt blindly for the soap, expecting to knock over one of the fifteen or so bottles that usually surrounded it. When his hand found nothing but a bar of Irish Spring, he opened his eyes. Something was seriously wrong.
Last week, Josh started shaving his head to save money on haircuts and shampoo. His wife, however, insisted on maintaining a strict beauty regiment of conditioners, shampoos, body washes, and lotions. Now, all of it was gone. Reality dawned on Josh. Ellen had left him.
Panic took over as he turned off the faucet and nearly fell out of the shower. Leaving a trail of water in his wake, he tore into the bedroom and pulled the ends of his towel together.
“Ellen,” he yelled. The room was empty. Six months after losing his job, Josh had now lost his wife.
“Honey?” the voice called from the closet.
Josh jumped, dropping his towel in the process.
“Easy there, big fella.” Ellen laughed at her naked husband as she walked into the room. She put in her earrings, oblivious to the relief on Josh’s face.
For a moment, he couldn’t speak. At thirty-seven, Ellen was as gorgeous as she had been on the day of their wedding ten years ago.
“I thought you left,” he finally managed.
“No,” she said. “I’m here. And you’re there, naked and dripping water on our carpet.”
“Oh, sorry.” Josh grabbed his towel from the floor and stepped into the bathroom to dry off. After a moment, he returned. “You wouldn’t leave, would you?”
Ellen’s brow furrowed before resolving in understanding. “You mean leave you? Josh, honey. No.” She walked to him and might have intended to wrap her arms around him. Instead, she elected to simply touch his arm, perhaps not wanting to put her new business suit next to his damp body. “Why would you say that?”
He hung his head. “No more severance. No more savings. I just worry.”
“Well, don’t. Okay? I believe in you. And besides, this job is exactly what I needed. I haven’t felt this good in years.”
Josh faked a smile, knowing she probably didn’t mean that the way it sounded.
“When Neil brought it up, I was apprehensive. But this has really been good for me.” She lifted his chin and looked into his eyes. In her heels, she was an inch taller than he was. “And good for us.”
“Good ole’ Neil,” Josh said with a trace of sarcasm.
“We owe him a lot, Josh.”
Neil, Ellen’s best friend from college, was some kind of accountant wonder boy. He managed his own firm and made enough money to keep them in shampoo for decades. It was Neil who connected Ellen to the big marketing firm for which she now worked. It was Neil who floated the couple a loan so they could keep their house. Josh knew he should be grateful, but he hated Neil.
“When you get dressed,” she said, “could you take that down for me?” She nodded toward a large suitcase by the door.
“Wait. I thought you said there wouldn’t be any travel with this job?”
“Well, here’s the thing.” Ellen smiled and put her hands on her hips. “I got promoted.”
“Again? That’s the second time in three months?”
“I know, right?” She giggled like a school girl. “They called me in last night after that long meeting — sorry about dinner, by the way — and asked me to fly to San Francisco today. They’re giving me the entire western region.”
“Wow,” Josh said, trying to sound happy. “You’re a rock star.”
“And that’s not even the best part.”
Josh raised his eyebrows. Go on, they said.
“My new salary is almost twice what you were making before. Can you believe it?”
Josh could not.
“And, well, if I’m going to travel more, I’d be fine if you wanted to hang here for a while, you know? Maybe take care of the house and stuff? I mean, there’s no real hurry now.”
Was she asking Josh to be a house husband? He wanted to kick Neil in the face. “Let’s talk about it when you get back,” he said.
“Of course. I’ll just be gone a few days. Could you?” She pointed again to the suitcase.
A cab was waiting downstairs. As his wife headed west, Josh planned his day. Sip coffee. Watch “The View.” Post resumes. Finish laundry. He needed a job, and fast.
“So, I read this article,” Casey said. “Did you know that being out of work for six months is the emotional equivalent of losing a spouse?”
“Thanks, Casey. This is great. Very helpful.”
Casey’s face fell as he tried to remove his foot from his mouth. He fidgeted with his plastic name badge, the same kind of badge Josh turned in before he was escorted out. “So,” Casey asked. “What happened to your hair?”
“I shaved it. It’s cheaper than Great Clips.”
“It’s kind of cool. Makes you look tough, you know?”
Josh rubbed his slick head. He wasn’t going for “tough guy.” But the idea had merit. He might even grow a soul patch or a Fu Manchu. “You heard anything new? Anything at all?”
“Like I said before,” Casey explained. “Everybody’s going to cloud-based storage. I’m sure you know your technology — “
“I’m an expert.”
“Right. You’re an expert. But your market is shrinking. No one wants hardware anymore. We just can’t sell the stuff.”
Josh took a sip from his Americano. This was not good news. He watched an attractive woman in a skirt and heels talking on her cell phone. He thought of Ellen and her meteoric ascent to the executive suite. How long before she lost patience with Josh and his shrinking market?
“Look, man.” Casey dropped the badge on the table. “A few years ago, when I was in-between jobs, I met this guy.” As if sharing a government secret, Casey lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “He has this — business. He takes care of things for people.”
“You mean like errands?” Josh asked.
Casey nodded from side to side. “Sure. Errands. Thing is, he’s always looking for guys he can trust, you know? Guys who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.”
“So he does landscaping?”
“Just give him a call.” Casey wrote down the number on a napkin.
“What, you have his number memorized?”
“Josh, we’ve been meeting here every week for six months. I came prepared. It’s not network sales. But it’ll get you out of the house.”
Josh took the number and said goodbye to Casey. He would wait and call when he got home. It was time for the last load of clothes to come out of the dryer.
Ellen’s flight was due in at 5:00 PM. Josh promised to pick her up and take her out to dinner. Well, technically she would be taking him out. But he tried not to dwell on that. His bigger concern was the clock. Casey’s friend was late. If he didn’t show soon, Josh would have to punt on the potential income. Checking his watch once more, Josh turned and walked back to his car. When he shut the door, he heard the man speak.
“You Casey’s friend?”
Josh cursed out loud. He turned to find a man sitting in the backseat of his supposedly locked car. The guy was bald with beady, crystal blue eyes. He was about 270, wore a Pepsi t-shirt and a black Member’s Only jacket, the kind Josh had in the fifth grade.
“What’s wrong? Did I scare you?”
“No,” Josh said, obviously lying.
The man laughed out loud. “Right. Call me Amp. Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”
Amp kept things intentionally vague. Josh knew there was probably a good reason for that. Ordinarily, this job was the last thing a network salesman from Marietta would want to get mixed up in. But the prospect of living on the edge seemed very anti-Neil. Plus, Josh would make money, his money. If Amp thought he could hack it, he was willing to try.
“I like you,” Amp said, finally. “You’re a little jumpy. But we can work on that. Plus, you’ve got the right look.”
Just like that, Josh had a job.
Later that night, Ellen talked non-stop about her trip and her new role. After they finished their meal, the waiter interrupted her. “Would you like to see our dessert menu?”
Ellen declined, but Josh had other plans.
“Actually,” he said. “We’d like a bottle of Champagne, please.”
Ellen’s eyes brightened. “What a great idea,” she said. “I actually have news to share.”
“Well, so do I. You go first.”
“Okay,” she said. “So, this morning, I wrap up all my meetings with the team, right?”
Josh nodded patiently.
“And Mr. Price calls me into his office. He’s the main partner who started the firm on the west coast.”
The waiter arrived with the Champagne and began to uncork the bottle.
“He said if I was able to resurrect this division inside of a year, I could potentially make partner!”
As if on cue, the cork popped loose, echoing through the room and sending bubbly foam into the air. Ellen clapped, either for the Champagne or for herself. Josh wasn’t sure.
“Now, your turn. What’s your big news, Mr. We’d-like-a-bottle-of-Champagne-please?” She mocked him by dropping her voice and her IQ, the way women do when they try to sound like men.
“Well, I got a job.”
“Oh, honey, that is so great. See? I told you it would happen. So, tell me about it.”
What was Josh going to say? Well, dear, I’m now gainfully employed performing odd jobs of a potentially nefarious nature for a guy who calls himself Amp and wears a Members Only jacket. His wife was on the edge of making partner. He was on the edge of breaking bad. He needed to think fast.
“It’s not in sales, which is fine with me.”
“I’m actually consulting for an independent brokerage out of Atlanta. It’s a senior position. The money is good, and the schedule is flexible.”
Ellen raised her glass. “To us.”
“To us.” Josh emptied his glass and filled it again.
The back room of the bar had only one way in and one way out. Larry Pelham was more than a little buzzed, but he knew he was in major trouble.
Amp stood in front of a wooden desk next to a seated Larry. He held a Louisville slugger in his right hand, tapping it in the palm of his left. “Larry, Larry. I’m disappointed. I thought we covered this last time.”
Larry rubbed his hands together as if to rid himself of some imaginary stain. He sniffed. “Come on, Amp. You know I’ll get the money. I just need more time.”
Amp laughed. “Why does everyone say that?” He looked at Josh. “It’s like they’re reading from a TV script.”
Josh stood behind Larry in case his fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and he got a little crazy.
“Tell you what, Larry. I’ll forget about the whole thing and just take that Hummer H3 out in the parking lot. What do you think?”
Larry scoffed. “That Hummer is worth three times what I owe.”
Amp looked back at Josh. “Can you believe that? How did he do that math so fast.”
“This guy must be a freaking genius. Are you a genius, Larry?”
Larry cracked a sardonic grin that Josh didn’t like. It made him nervous. He drew closer.
“‘Cause if you’re so smart,” Amp yelled, “why are we still having this conversation!” Amp raised the bat and slammed it on the desk.
Larry’s instinct finally kicked in. He chose “fight,” skipping “crazy” and heading straight for “ape.” He jolted from his chair and slammed the crown of his head into Josh’s nose. As Josh reeled from the pain, Larry lunged forward and threw himself into Amp. The two men fell to the ground, fists flailing.
Josh recovered just in time to see Larry pull a gun from the holster at his ankle. “Amp! Look out!” Without thinking, Josh seized the bat from the floor and swung. Larry heaved upward with the impact.
Before the gunman had a chance to recover, Josh fell on him and found his own instinct, a rabid rage that had brewed for months. Larry suddenly looked like Neil, like the loan officer at the bank, like the piece of crap sales manager that told Josh to pack up his office and get out. Josh didn’t realize he’d been pelting away at Larry’s face the whole time until Amp yelled his name.
“Josh. That’s enough. Let’s go.”
Josh looked at his bloody hands. His knuckles were busted. But very little of the blood was his.
Amp had his own gun out and pointed it at Larry. “Get his keys. We need to get out of here.” They left Larry on the floor, mumbling incoherently.
Later that night, the two of them rendezvoused near the airport where they first met. Josh’s hands were less swollen and his nose had stopped bleeding.
“Sorry about that,” Josh said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Hey.” Amp stopped him. “Forget it. Sometimes you just have to do what you just have to do.” He pulled a small revolver from his jacket.
“What’s that?” Josh pulled back instinctively.
“It’s a gun. What do you think it is? It’s old, a snubnose. But it’s all I got at the moment.”
“I’m not sure I want it.”
“Look. You keep working for me, you may need it. Hope not. But just in case.”
Josh felt the weight of the gun. His hands ached as he tested the grip. Perhaps Amp was right, and he would never need it. But he tucked it away, like Amp said, just in case.
Josh arrived at the art gala an hour late. As he wandered from room to room, he was not surprised to find his favorite painting, “Dogs Playing Poker,” was not on display. Instead, giant canvases featured bright colors splattered in random patterns. It was as if someone had connected a paint sprayer to the sprinkler system and had a ball.
Ellen found him by the cheese tray. “Where have you been?”
“I got held up,” Josh said, avoiding her eyes. “Nice place.”
Ellen sighed in exasperation. “Come on. We’re over here.”
Josh followed her across the room where he found Mr. Price, some new guy named Brantley, and, of course, their good friend, Neil. He shook hands with each of them, trying not to grimace from the pain.
“Josh, great to see you again,” Neil said. “Love the new look, especially the Fu Manchu. Very Walter White.”
If you only knew, Josh thought.
“Ellen tells me you’re still with that firm in Atlanta,” Mr. Price said as he lifted a glass of Champagne from the tray of a passing waiter.
“That’s right,” said Josh. “They’re small, but they know how to take what’s in front of them. Turns out the market isn’t shrinking like some people thought.”
“What was that firm’s name again?” Neil asked.
“You wouldn’t know them,” Josh answered tersely.
“He travels almost as much as I do,” Ellen interjected. “I hardly see him anymore. Oh, honey, that reminds me.” To the others, she said, “Would you excuse us a moment.” She pulled him aside and whispered. “Would you cool it?”
She rolled her eyes. “I thought since you were working again you’d stop being so defensive.”
“Defensive? About what?” He waited a perfunctory second before continuing. “Oh, you mean the interrogation squad? Nah, I’m over it. So, Mr. Price looks happy. When’s your next promotion?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said, probably louder than she meant to.
“Now who’s being defensive?”
She glared at him with a coldness that was new to their relationship. Josh suspected it wasn’t the only change. He was also certain she and her friend Neil were growing suspicious of his phantom firm in Atlanta. It turned out he was right.
“Forget it.” Ellen said. “Listen. I need you to send Neil your company’s information so he can finish our taxes.”
“Taxes?” Josh asked. “Is it April already?”
“Doesn’t he own the company? That seems a little beneath him.”
“I don’t trust anyone but Neil. I can’t afford to make mistakes with this partnership thing.”
“No,” Josh said. “I guess you can’t.”
Ellen frowned. “Anyway, I told him we agreed to put all your paycheck back into our 401K. He said to send him the paperwork for the new fund and your W2. That’s all he needs.”
Josh seriously doubted that. “Good ole’ Neil.”
Ellen offered a sneer disguised as a smile. She walked back to her executive circle and found her place next to Neil.
Josh reached under his jacket and adjusted the pistol that rested in the small of his back. This tax thing was a real problem. Josh considered asking Amp for advice, but he already knew what his boss would say. Sometimes you just got to do what you just got to do.
The office building was almost empty. Only the most faithful employees worked late. Only partners worked this late. Josh crept past the security guard, a skill that was quickly becoming old hat. Cameras hung in all the major lobbies and corridors but not in the service areas and stairwells. He had been here before.
He climbed the stairs to the top floor and stepped into the darkness. Just over a year ago, he walked into his boss’s office to learn that his services, while valued, were no longer required. Now, Ellen had replaced him, too. Whether with Neil, her firm, or her own success, it didn’t matter. Once again, Josh’s services were valued, but no longer required. If six months was like losing a spouse, then a year was death. He loved his wife, but he had to do what he had to do.
Josh pulled the snubnose from his waist. A single lamp illuminated the desk, the paperwork, and the target. He steeled himself against the pain. Then he raised the pistol and fired.
Early the next morning, Josh knocked over a shampoo bottle as he reached for the soap. After he showered, he dried off and put on a t-shirt and shorts. Brokerage consultants didn’t work on Saturdays. He gathered clothes from the hamper and walked downstairs to put in a load. The smell of bacon and the sound of the television drifted from the kitchen.
“Good morning,” Josh said.
“Good morning.” Ellen was busy whisking eggs and didn’t look up.
“Hey, about last night. It was a long day. But you were right, I was being defensive. And stupid. I’m sorry.”
Ellen stopped whisking and looked at him. “Yeah. Me too.”
Josh put the toast and butter on the table. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“Like the dead.”
On the television, a talking head was recapping events from the past twenty-four hours.
“Oh, Josh. Don’t forget to get those tax documents to Neil.” She took the bacon off the eye.
“You bet,” he said. “First thing Monday morning.”
Ellen finished the eggs and raked them into a bowl.
“In other news,” the talking head announced, “police are investigating a shooting in Gwennett County. Neil Watterman, partner and co-founder of Watterman, Crane, and Associates, was found in his office this morning dead of an apparent gunshot wound. Investigators are calling it a homicide but admit they currently have no leads.”
Ellen dropped the bowl of eggs, letting it shatter on the floor. Josh stood and guided her as she fell into the chair. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Ellen, I’m so sorry,” he said as he took her hand. They sat there for a moment while the television droned on about saving money on car insurance.
“Who would — “ Ellen sobbed. “Who would want to kill Neil?”
“I know. It’s so senseless.” Josh let go and added two pieces of bacon to his plate. “Looks like we’ll have to file an extension on those taxes.”