BOOK ONE: CHAPTER 1

Chapter 1

Charlotte Winters smiled.

She watched blood drop onto the floor of the adjacent stall. Someone groaned; someone in grey, checkered Armani pants and alligator loafers from (what was that?) Tom Ford. It was a brilliant and innovative pairing, one she’d never seen on a typical employee of the firm. The blood then, dripped on his shoe, echoing in the porcelain chamber.

“You must’ve had a long day,” she said. The groaning came to a halt.

“Who’s there?”

Charlotte looked at her watch. 2:43am.

“Are you cutting your wrists in there? Is it fatal? This is something I have to know in the next minute or so, before you bleed out. You’ve given us no time to waste.”

“When did you get in here?”

She stepped outside the stall and two seconds later, he followed.

Outside, everything moved around them in the hot, sweltering air of the New York summer, but in the bathroom, time stood still in frameless space, a room awaiting death. The gentleman who exited the stall was none other than Maximillian Holt, CEO of Holt Enterprises, the giant who reigned from the thirty-seventh floor on Madison Avenue. A man of twenty-nine, he had eyes blank and clear like still water and a strong mouth with mischievous corners. His back, his legs, his hands, arms, and shoulders were as strong as the chin that buckled handsomely when his jaw tightened. No one had ever known his softness. A spectacle would be to see him fidget. But tonight, Maximillian was unnaturally pale with blood dripping down his arm that he held with an iron grip.

“What’s happening to you Mr. Holt?” Charlotte asked. Her heartbeat was in her ears as their eyes met. His glance was filled with dread and disillusion, feelings that usually peaked at odd hours on random nights when one is alone and pondering.

Max wasn’t quite sure who the woman was, but he’d known he’d seen her before even among the dizziness…maybe on the elevator on the way up the skyscraper or in the hallway on a lower floor. Then, he looked down at her shoes and remembered her instantly – the KMART clogs, ugly and somehow senile in their manner. The boys in the office have mentioned it before. Since when did a woman who worked on Madison Avenue have the nerve to wear clogs? How incredibly hideous of her. This was something discussed behind closed doors, making the mornings of Holt and other executives eventful. Among the discussion of expenditures, marketing strategies, and sales figures, they guffawed as they pictured the two-dollar shoes splackingon the Canterbury marble floors on the way up to the office.

Unable to think through the pain, he said, “I-I-I…” Surprised at his stuttering, something he’d never done, he shut his mouth. The cut wasn’t too deep, but deep enough to be alarming.

“How about we bandage you up? I think everything is going to be okay.”

He stared at her clogs and nodded, unable to remove his eyes from the floor.

Charlotte grabbed her bookbag, which she’d left on the sink, wrapped her hands around his wrist, and brought him to his office, passing empty cubicles and the conference office, the coffee shop with bagels shining in a display, and into his office. The light buzz of the office lights was the only sound between the two, but Charlotte was trying to silence the thumps of her heartbeat. She couldn’t make sense of the rapture, the excitement she felt.

Charlotte removed her bookbag and extracted a mini first aid kit. While blood smeared all over Max’s brawny arm, it barely got on Charlotte.

“Do you have any Advil?” he asked.

“I think it’s best that you don’t take a blood thinner while you’re bleeding so much.”
He said nothing. The past few weeks had been tough, having to fire staff for their lack of efficiency and creativity, dealing with needy clients who wanted to suck them dry, and somehow demanding more work even in their budget. Sure, it was about the clients, that much was understood. But Max became indifferent with his career – everything was cliché and incredibly too easy. Every woman bowed in his presence and every client desired attention over a game a golf which he found entirely boring and a waste of time. He cared nothing of anyone’s ideas – they weren’t his. He wasn’t interested in merging companies, but somehow these executives still tried. He shook his head: how they dare to tempt me. Deep inside, he found it to be amusing. The simple human requires power by looking externally among the prospects they allow to rule them. He’d thought one day he found them all to be pathetic, but he never thought about them much to come to that conclusion. It was uninteresting; it had nothing to do with him, but now in this moment, he decided they were pigs. The pig is the animal that accepted anything.

That feeling of dread surfaced and spread like weeds. Tonight, he’d let the sadness sink into his shoulders and allowed his brain to reek of depression and surrender. His facial features, usually symmetrical and chiseled, moped in all its corners. When he went into the bathroom after a long day and an even longer night, he hadn’t seen anyone in any of the stalls – he’d checked. When Charlotte made herself known, he wasn’t shocked so much that there was someone in there, but that it had been a woman and the woman – unfortunately – that had the taste of a peasant.

Charlotte wiped the cut with an alcohol pad and began to prep the needle and thread.

“So you were really going to take your life tonight.”

The air smelled of dry pine, and the idea of it became idiotic as he sat on the corner of his desk.

“I suppose that is what I was aiming for.”

For a while, she said nothing.

“With a corporation as big as this, it seems quite selfish for you to take yourself on account of you being under stress.”

“I suggest you mind your business. You’re entitled to your opinion – barely, in those clogs – but I have no respect for your opinion as I have none for any others’.”

“I don’t know what work you think you’ve been doing,” Charlotte said, “but you’re work with Life Breeding Co. was mediocre. I don’t intend to pull you from the clouds, but try redistributing your vision throughout the hierarchy a little more – ”

“I believe I made myself clear.”

“And you might be in a position to not consider anyone’s opinion but your own.” She knew she was insulting his intelligence. She didn’t care.

“Speak about it again and you’re fired.”

“Fire me. Maybe it was because you turned to your team and you thought their judgement better than yours. A man is no stronger than his weakest link, and Mr. Holt, you’ve got many.”

Their eyes met, and Max knew exactly what she was speaking of. Life Breeding Co., a dog breeding corporation that aimed to reach top tier of advertising and marketing, produced and sold full, bred dogs to all levels of social class. When PETA got hold of footage on their breeding systems and internal management, a scandal erupted, and Holt Enterprises had done their best to leverage the information and change the conversation of the media, what seemed impossible against the masses who fed on the scandal like vultures. Holt’s team was wild with cries: “Why, even the top marketing corporation in the world could not repair this!” She saw in his eyes a brief glimpse of disappointment, impersonal, there and then gone as he continued to look at her. She concluded that Max Holt was just an incompetent burnout waiting to be kicked to the curb by a superior. His superior was God.

Charlotte was gentle and slow with the needle and thread, her fingers moving cautiously over the wound. Max Holt allowed himself a dim thought: Her fingernails aren’t even painted. We’ve got Neanderthals working in mid-level.

“I see you’re rather comfortable for a day’s work,” he said. “Here at Holt, we are excellent in manner. This isn’t a blue-collar job throwing lumber in piles; we market our ads at the Superbowl, Buffets and Zuckerbergs wait on our phone lines, we have dinner at Pier La France…” He surveyed her quickly, “I no longer want to see you in those clogs Miss…”

“Winters. I work under Edward Dunder on the thirtieth floor.”

“I’m surprised he lets you get away with that mouth of yours. I’m also quite surprised he hasn’t harassed you out your shoes.”

“I don’t speak to him much.”

“Charming fellow, isn’t he?” He was anything but. On a good day, Dunder wasn’t entirely insufferable and didn’t smell of mothballs; he was a gross fellow, with stubby hands and a beer belly that hid the thousand-dollar snakeskin belt beneath. The reason corporate decided to keep him was due to the fact that he was scrupulous like a scientist and persevered through difficult and trying times for the company. His loyalty was admirable but he had no personality and this made him almost unimportant. If he hadn’t possessed such detail-oriented skill, his presence in the workplace would be superfluous. To his employees, he took up space, but Holt found him to be useful. There was no reason to keep around someone who wasn’t.

Charlotte tried her best to concentrate on sewing up Mr. Holt, but her mind was reeling.

“What is it you do in this building, Ms. Winters?”

“I am an account manager, sir.”

“And what accounts do you have under your belt at the moment?”

Charlotte said nothing. Maximillian noted her silence and even began to feel a little uncomfortable, something that nearly felt foreign to him.

“What are you doing here so late Ms. Winters? And what are you doing on the thirty seventh floor?”

Charlotte stopped what she was doing and noted the skepticism on his eyebrows. “Finishing up some work for Mr. Dunder.”

“On the thirty-seventh floor? Where you don’t work?”

Max watched as she tied the last of the thread to seal his wound and wiped it down

with the alcohol prep pad.

“Mr. Holt, I do believe this was an extreme inconvenience for both of us. I’d think it be

best if this never happened. We wouldn’t want any problems, would we? It’s been a very long night.”

That night, Maximillan walked into his apartment at approximately 3:30 in the morning. The cab ride was filled with a surreal silence after Charlotte insisted they take separate cabs. He’d looked back at her in the cab, standing along the curb. Max breathed; a clock missed a tick, a car stopped in the middle of a journey, a man in a coma opened his eyes. The city lights danced on his grey checkered slacks as they twinkled in the window on his way to Manhattan and he thought about Ms. Winter’s indifference toward his existence, her unbridled audacity in the face of authority, a silence he’d never shook hands with. Uninterested by his questions, she’d refused to answer them.

Crisp, biting air greeted him at the door and he’d forgotten to keep a light on for when he came home. His windows stretched to the ceiling, facing the city with a notable excellence and ego. The view had seemed so exclusive at first, but the longer he lived there, he realized how he’d shared it with everyone, every man and every woman who’d dreamed of the view of lights and skyscrapers among the commoners. No, he decided, I am different. I am not like them.

The cut on his wrist throbbed with no importance, just a reminder that he watched Charlotte undress his bravado. I should’ve demanded that she answer my questions. He thought about the clogs. And for the passing moment, it was all that he was concerned with.

He remembered Life Breeding Co. and shook his head, walking to the bar and pouring himself a drink. If he admitted it, it was a mediocre patch-up, so mediocre it was embarrassing but no one should had ever known it. He could blame every person in the office if he wanted to, but he knew, simply, that it was just him. He messed up. No one else. The company took what he gave them, but it was nothing compared to what he could’ve created. Tonight, he realized how incredibly tired he was with whining about the unfortunate bits of his life. When Max got hangry, his mother would tell him to calm down, and that there were people starving in Africa. And he’d respond, well, I’m starving right now.

The ice sharpened the bourbon and he ignored the cries of his bed. He looked at his watch. 4:01. All he knew was something’s gotta’ give.