At Wit’s End will be available for a free download from Amazon tomorrow which is Thursday, April 17. This post is based on the link and I’m including Chapter 1 here in the body. Please to enjoy!
Bradley “Wit” Witson was on a hot streak. He took a look at the closing numbers, did some quick math in his head and nearly chuckled at how easy it could be to make six figures. He shut down his work station and slid his laptop into a satchel. He wrapped the strap around his shoulder, shut off the lights in his office and walked with a definite bounce in his step to the elevator.
He whistled lightly while he waited for the slow car and thought about the night ahead. Some of his friends had come into town for a conference and they had a night of debauchery planned. It would start at one of the local nightclubs and could go practically anywhere from there. The last time they’d gotten together they’d had the bright idea to rent kayaks for the weekend and had ended up on a nameless island with no electricity or cell phone reception. The hang over had lasted 3 days.
Wit checked his appearance in the elevator’s mirrored wall. His dark tie was slightly askew and he’d unbuttoned his collar several hours ago. The dark Italian suit draped his body perfectly and with the slight five o’clock stubble and mussed hair he humbly thought he might just do for some lucky lady tonight. With a smirk he put on his dark rimmed glasses and considered the end product irresistible.
With his laptop locked in a special compartment in his trunk Wit savoured the growl of his sports car as it made quick work of the 6:00 Friday rush hour traffic. His lucky streak continued and he found a parking spot within shouting distance of the bar, something unheard of in New York. He could have used valet but having watched Ferris Buehler’s Day Off a few too many times he knew what valets could do with a car like this. Uh-uh, no way.
The bar was dark and the jukebox played something mellow at a tolerable level. Wit knew that wouldn’t last. In a couple of hours the place would be packed and a DJ would be spinning records in an attempt to make something original out of songs that had been played before. He hated it and loved it at the same time.
The waitress came through with a tray and Wit was reminded to order something for dinner. He’d skipped lunch to catch a meeting and hadn’t found time to make amends to the void in his stomach. James was seated in a corner booth, arms spread across the back and wearing a smile that could never match the brightness of his shirt. The man had dressed like a pimp since high school and no one had the heart to tell him to stop. The gang chose to make fun of him instead.
Wit slid into the booth and nudged the leg James tried to thrust in his way. He smiled at his friend’s loopy grin. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to get to know the bartender,” James replied and pointed to the three empty bottles in front of him.
“That’s just like you, making friends everywhere you go,” Wit grinned and gestured for a beer when the bartender looked his way. “How’s the job, man?”
“Same old. Got the boss crawling up my butt for something his kid was supposed to do and didn’t,” James groused. “Somehow it became my problem.”
“You’ve got to be your own boss. That’s the only way to get away from that,” Wit told him.
“Not all of us can do what we love on commission or contract or any other number of options,” James reminded him. “My kinds of skills do not translate well to high finance or offices in buildings more than four stories tall.”
“What’s up, gentlemen?” Kevin nudged James further into the booth and sat down. He loosened his tie and looked over to Wit. “Did you see those closing numbers?”
Wit grinned. “Did I? I might be upgrading the car,” he laughed.
“Jesus, trust you to be on the right side of a minor economic collapse,” Kevin winced and it was obvious he’d taken a beating on the day’s purchase and sales.
“I warned you last week the high wouldn’t last. It was a bubble based on the announcement by the Fed.”
“Yeah, yeah and I spread everything around like you suggested. My boss micro-managed. He needs to remember the commission check he’s playing with is mine,” Kevin shook his head.
Wit shook his head in commiseration. “You’re never going to get ahead playing conservatively.”
“Are you two about done?” James interrupted. “I came here to drink away my woes, not hear about how much money you two made or didn’t make today.”
Wit’s pocket vibrated and he pushed a button to send the call to voicemail. He had the weekend off and it was his time to enjoy. Everyone he wanted to talk to was here or on their way and that was good enough for him. His beer arrived at the same time as Ed and Will Lippert, identical twins who worked together for the software company that had sent them to New York for the conference.
The five friends had several beers and worked on getting caught up with each other’s lives. The bar filled up and the crowd grew noisier, along with the music. The DJ was standing behind the mixer and was about to start his opening spiel when Wit’s phone vibrated again. In annoyance he looked at it and saw it was his boss’s boss. With a wince he rose and walked to the door, pointing to his phone when his friends looked askance.
Wit ducked outside and welcomed the cool air. It had grown stuffy inside. He took several deep breaths and answered the phone while watching the line of people who waited to get inside. The music blasted out the open door and Wit couldn’t hear the man on the other end who was currently freaking out about… something. Wit didn’t get the gist before the music blared out.
He plugged a finger into his open ear and moved toward his car. The farther he walked from the bar the clearer the voice became and Wit assured his boss he would take care of that via email in 10 minutes, thank you, sir. As he paced around his car he noted a small man darting around the edge of the crowd. Wit didn’t know what made him watch the guy but he couldn’t take his eyes off of him.
He tried to figure out what was bothering him while he listened to his phone with half an ear. The man’s jeans were too new, too tight and shiny. The shirt looked like it had wrinkles in it from the wrap at the store. The muddy combat boots were an interesting touch. Wit wondered where someone found mud in New York City and if one had to pay for it. The guy needed a shower or at least a comb for his hair. It stood out in every direction like the cartoons of people who’d been electrocuted. Wit’s nose twitched and he just knew the man would smell like body odour if he were nearby.
There was a large green satchel over the man’s shoulder and he clutched at it possessively. A young lady dancing in line bumped into him and the man snarled at her and jerked the bag away. That kept Wit’s interest. As the man moved around the building Wit lost sight of him and he moved slowly down the street until he saw the guy again in the alley.
The man darted looks over each shoulder and then banged on the access door twice. Wit wasn’t sure which door it was but he knew it went into the bar. He wondered if this man had a way in without having to go through the bouncer and kept watching. He enjoyed learning new things and, though he didn’t mind paying the cover, sometimes he hated waiting in lines.
Nothing happened for a moment and the man banged on the door again. It was pushed open and another man, one who could have been the first one’s smaller and younger brother, poked his head out and looked around. He grabbed the bag from the man, held a finger up to his lips in a shushing motion and pushed the first man away from the door. He pulled it closed and the man ran off down the alley to street at the other end.
Wit tuned back into the conversation and was reassuring his boss one last time when his entire world exploded. The blast of the bomb pushed Wit into the street. His head hit the concrete hard enough to cause stars but he didn’t lose consciousness. He realized he was lying behind his own car and it was blocking debris from crashing into him. The car sat low but Wit did his best to crawl underneath it all the same.
He found out the next day that two bombs had gone off in the bar as an act of domestic terrorism. The owner of the bar happened to be of Middle Eastern descent and for some idiots that was reason enough to blow up innocent people.
Three days after the blast he went to the quadruple funeral and came to the harsh realization that every person he loved in this world was dead, four of them on the same day. Though he didn’t know why he’d been saved he knew what he was going to do with his time. The day after the funeral Wit left for Jamaica. He started drinking rum and walking beaches and he didn’t look back. He kept his passport and laptop with him and every time he started to think too much he hopped a plane and found new scenery.
Six months later
Marie Chase was officially approved for her loan. C U There, the party planning/catering company she’d been dreaming of for three years was about to become a reality. Marie couldn’t believe it. She dropped her cell phone into her purse, pulled her dirty apron off and did a fast dance.
She strode out the door of the steakhouse she was currently doing time in and started thinking about when to put in her notice. Now that her loan was approved it could take up to a month to square away all the paperwork. She would have some supplies to purchase and it was definitely time to start marketing.
She could put together small affairs in her current kitchen but she was looking forward to renting her own space and having a professional kitchen with all the implements. And an office, she nearly sighed at the pleasure of having an office instead of using her coffee table.
Marie decided she’d talk to Robert in two weeks and she’d give notice for two weeks. Then she would have a month to help train the new sous chef. Her boss had known she’d applied for the loan and had given her his blessing so she wasn’t worried about disappointing the man who’d given her the first – and hopefully last – restaurant job she’d had.
Her phone gave its electronic jingle from her bag and she pulled it out. A smile crossed her face at the display. Marie had been dating Michael for nearly 6 months and she was sure she was falling in love though she didn’t want to rush anything.
“You’ll never believe what happened today,” she answered the call.
“Tell me,” Michael replied, a smile in his voice.
“A tiny purple elephant jumped out of a birthday cake and played The William Tell Overture on a fiddle while riding a unicycle,” she told him. “She was the luckiest just turned four year old in history.”
“Pictures or it didn’t happen,” he told her and they laughed. “What’s your real news?” he asked.
“I got my loan approval!” she nearly shouted it and looked around self-consciously. No one paid her a second glance, nor were they likely to in this town.
“Honey, that’s great! We should celebrate. How about if I open a bottle of wine and we start planning on ways to spend the loot?”
“That’s an idea. There’s veal on special at the market, I think I’ll stop and pick some up. I’ve had a recipe burbling in the back of my head for most of today,” she suggested.
“You know I love being your guinea pig. I’ll see you soon.”
They disconnected and Marie couldn’t help herself, she danced a jig right on the street corner. This time a teenager riding by on a skateboard spotted her and gave her a thumbs-up. It made her smile all the more and Marie realized the world seemed brighter today. Things were definitely on an upswing.
Marie spent the next several days in a fog of disbelief. She used the time she wasn’t working at the restaurant to check out local storefronts that were for rent. She found it amazingly difficult to pick where her new company would live. She wouldn’t just be cooking there, though that would be the primary function, she’d also be meeting clients so it would have to look professional and be comfortable for long consults. Her head spun with the details of the properties she’d already looked at and those that were on her list for her next available day off.
Before she knew it a couple of weeks had passed. She signed on repeated lines to lease a place that had been a Mexican restaurant. The former proprietors had left behind most of their kitchen equipment and she had to decide if she wanted to risk using theirs or if she should buy new. She was leaning toward new.
She swung into the loft apartment she was essentially sharing with Michael. After their third month of dating he had been staying at her place so often she gave up precious drawer and closet space. Marie couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept or even checked in at his own apartment. It wasn’t something she thought about often and she’d been ridiculously busy the past few weeks.
Marie dropped her purse on the table just inside the door and called out for Michael as she took her jacket off and hung it on the hook she’d installed when she’d first moved in. She was still proud of her handiwork. When she didn’t receive an answer Marie moved through the apartment, cleaning up the few dishes they’d left out from the night before. She reached automatically for the dirty socks Michael always left in front of the couch and was bent almost to the floor when she realized they weren’t there.
“Huh, weird,” she muttered. From the first time he’d stayed overnight at her place he’d left his socks in the same spot. It annoyed her but she also found the trait oddly endearing. Shrugging it off she moved to drop the dishes in the sink and realized something looked off. She stared at the counter for a moment before it hit her.
Where did the coffeemaker go? Michael had brought a machine over that brewed one cup at a time and relegated hers to beneath the counter. That counter space was currently empty. With an odd fluttering in her heart Marie made her way up the small flight of steps to the bedroom.
She cautiously opened the mirrored closet door and reality gave her a punch in the stomach. All of Michael’s clothes were gone. She whipped open the drawer he’d been using and it, too, was empty. Marie’s heart plunged to her toes.
She flew down the steps and went back to the kitchen area to check the counter for notes. There wasn’t one. With a small feeling of alarm she went to the coffee table and opened her laptop. Michael had been known to leave sticky notes on the screen. She didn’t find one and booted up the laptop. Maybe he’d left her an email.
Marie loaded the email program and didn’t find any messages from Michael but there were several from her bank. She opened the first and couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a pro forma letter telling her that her checking account was dangerously low in funds, please deposit money to cover any debits or checks currently outstanding.
The next email informed her that the automatic refill from her savings to her checking account had failed as the funds in that account were dangerously low, please deposit money, etc. With her heart in her throat Marie opened the web browser and went to her bank’s site. There she discovered that not only were her checking and saving accounts empty but somehow her brand new business loan had disappeared as well.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. Immediately she hit the account history link and saw that all of the money had been transferred that morning to an account number she didn’t recognize. She grabbed her cell phone and, after fighting her way through countless computer voices, was able to reach a human being who told her there was nothing they could do and she’d have to fill out an incident report and someone would investigate when they had an opportunity. The snarky voice on the other end of the phone mentioned making passwords difficult to figure out and, if she needed to write them down, to secure them in a safe location.
Marie threw the phone across the room and almost hoped it would shatter. It didn’t which she supposed was actually a good thing. She was officially broke and had no way to replace it. Forget the phone, Marie realized she didn’t have money for food or rent much less the checks she’d just issued to cover C U There’s new debts. Her stomach did a slow roll and she sprinted for the bathroom where she lost everything she’d ingested that day.
When her head finally stopped spinning Marie started to think through what she needed to do, what she could do and what she really, really wanted to do to Michael. She put the list in order of priority and went back to her cell phone. She immediately called the lawyer who had helped her with the business paperwork. He referred her to another attorney and she started the official process of dealing with pretty much everything.
Assured that with time – and a hefty retainer for the lawyer – they’d get everything worked out. Marie then called Robert and explained what had happened. To layer on bad news Robert informed her that the replacement sous chef had started and he couldn’t possibly fire him on his first day.
“I’d be happy to offer you a loan, though. What do you need?” Robert’s kind offer almost brought tears to Marie’s eyes.
“I can’t take a loan, Robert, I have no way of paying you back.”
“Maybe not at the moment but I know you’ll work this out. You figure Michael took it?” Robert’s Brooklyn accent was thicker when he was upset and Marie could barely understand him.
“I didn’t want to think about it but that’s the only thing that makes sense,” she acknowledged.
“Where do you suppose that scumbag is hiding out?”
“I would assume he’s at his apartment,” Marie answered. “I tried his phone but it was disconnected.”
“So why don’t I meet you over there and we’ll get your money back?” Robert asked.
Marie hesitated. She had no desire to admit this. “I don’t know where he lives.”
“You what?” Robert was stunned.
“We always came to my place. I figured he lived in some roach motel.” Marie couldn’t believe how naïve she’d been. “I called information, did an internet search, called the few numbers I have for him and it’s like he never existed,” she told him.
“Have you considered that?”
“What, that he never actually existed? How foolish would I have to be to fall for that?”
“Honey, it happens to a lot of people. Read a newspaper.”
“You honestly think he lived an alternate identity for 6 months all in the hopes of scamming me out of money? That seems vaguely incredulous,” Marie told Robert. She was pacing around her apartment and doing her best not to think about how badly she’d been scammed. “I hadn’t even officially applied for the loan when we met.”
“Yeah well anyone who’d talked to you would have known you were going to. You talked about your plans for C U There all the time,” Robert reminded her. “They were good plans, don’t get me wrong. I wish I could have invested but my money’s tied up in the stock market right now.”
“That’s sweet, Robert. I’m going to figure this out. Can I rain check the loan for living expenses? I have a few ideas yet.”
“Of course. You keep in touch, let me know what’s going on. My door is always open for you, Marie.” Robert paused before his usual exit line and Marie waited. “You know my kid is really into computers, right?”
Robert’s 16 year old son Teddy spent an inordinate amount of time playing on his computer, something Robert had lamented since Marie had known him. He would have been far happier had Teddy played sports. “He set up the system at the restaurant, right?”
“Among other things. He’s been teaching me some and we talk a bit,” Robert was proud of his newfound abilities on the computer, a device which had confounded him for years. He was even more proud of his new relationship with the son he hadn’t been able to connect with. “He’s been telling me about this guy, one of the best programmers Teddy has ever known, he says. For the right amount of money the guy will hack the Pentagon.”
“That’s insane! And a great way to end up in prison,” Marie commented.
“That or working for the CIA. Anyway, maybe this guy could help you out somehow.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can do anything on the internet these days,” Robert said. “Maybe he could trace the money or find Michael or something, I don’t know. There’s gotta be something that can be done though, right?”
Marie thought it over. “It couldn’t do any more damage,” she told him. “How do I get in touch with this mercenary?”
“I’ll have Teddy send him a message and give him your number and email address. Hopefully, if the problem is interesting enough, he’ll help you out.”
“Fuhgeddaboutit.” Marie could imagine him winking as he hung up the phone.
Wit unlocked the dead bolt and opened the door to his high rise apartment. He had taken the late flight out of Miami and all he wanted was his bed. The sight of the apartment stopped him in his tracks and he dropped his carry-on bag to the floor. He hadn’t been here in six months yet everything looked the exact same.
The curtains were open and revealed New York’s late night skyline, a sight he’d never grown used to. The bottle of liquor he’d been drinking from before leaving for his first flight still sat on one of the Louis Something-or-Other end tables. He sighed at the waste of time and money it had been when he’d had the decorator class his place up. He’d dropped a pretty dime on this ornate nightmare and it didn’t mean a damn thing.
He wondered if the suit he’d worn to the funerals was still lying on the bedroom floor. Creepy. Wit went into the living room and fell onto the creamy leather couch. He grabbed the bottle of scotch sitting next to the remote and took a long swig while the big screen TV went through its version of a boot up.
Wit’s stomach twisted when he realized the TV was set to the same channel he’d been watching when he had left for the airport, one of the 24 hours news channels. He’d been watching the arrest of the two men who’d bombed the bar and killed his best friends. Now, as Wit drank deeply from the bottle, two talking heads were debating the current threat of a government shutdown. Great.
Wit turned the television back off. Restless, he grabbed his laptop and sat back on the couch with it. He double-checked his connection and followed his personal protocols to the Deep Net, the area beyond the regular internet where hackers and programmers socialized, bargained and bragged. He scrolled through a few message boards and didn’t see much that interested him.
He checked a few of his email drops and saw Byte420 had sent him a request. With the scotch warming his stomach he opened it and considered the words. He toggled a few screens and pulled up the phone company’s database. He searched the phone number Byte420 had included and from the billing information he took the full name of the woman and checked in at a government site. When her license came on the screen the bottle of expensive liquor stopped halfway to his lips and he whistled.
“Well, hello there, Marie Lee Chase,” he leaned back in his chair and stared at the picture for a moment. Wit went back to Byte420’s message. He had a hangover to end all hangovers from his multi-month binge and he felt like doing absolutely nothing at all yet he felt the first stirring of interest he’d had in ages.
Impulsively he hit reply and let Byte420 know that Zero was on the job. For his payment he had a small programming task for the young man, a problem with code he had been stuck on. He sent the needed information to Byte420 then went through the disconnect protocols and slapped the lid of the lightweight computer shut. With the last of his energy he went to the bedroom, knocked the unnecessary throw pillows to the floor and collapsed fully clothed onto his bed. He was lightly snoring within minutes.
Wit crawled out of bed at the crack of noon and wondered what had died in his mouth. He stumbled to the bathroom to take care of that and realized he wanted coffee in the worst way. His cupboards were bare, a nuisance task he had forgotten to have his housekeeper take care of. God forbid the woman show any initiative.
He changed clothes quickly and tried to remember if CoffeeBot was still open down the block. He jammed a hat on his head and made a mental note to schedule a haircut. He was about 5 months overdue. He grabbed the satchel that carried his laptop and his eye fell on the printout of Marie Chase’s license. Wit had forgotten he’d printed it. There was something about that face…
Wit grabbed the page and slid it into his laptop. He’d think about it over a cup of coffee. If he didn’t have caffeine within the next ten minutes he was going straight back to bed. He grumpily pushed the button for the elevator and stared at the doors like a zombie. He shook out of it and made a note to go grocery shopping. There was no way he was doing this every morning.
The young lady behind the counter surprised him by not having any tattoos or piercings. Wit nearly went back out the door to ensure he’d come to the right place but the overwhelming aroma of coffee checked that urge.
He ordered the largest size available, black, and took it to a small table where he promptly burned his mouth trying to drink half of the cup in one motion. The energy zinging through his veins almost made up for the blister he was sure he’d have on the roof of his mouth later. He set the rest of the hot drink aside to cool and set up camp. His laptop began booting up and he laid a notebook and several pens next to it. He plugged his earphones into his phone, scrolled to Mumford and Sons and hit play.
He opened the cover of the notebook and laid Marie’s picture over the top page. He tilted the book so no one walking by would see what he was looking at. He stared at the government head shot and contemplated what he found so appealing.
According to their information she was 5’ 7”, 130 pounds, brown hair with green eyes. That description encapsulated nothing of what he saw in the picture. The brown hair exploded in thick ringlets that fell at least to her shoulders. The green eyes sparkled with an inner drive and the lift of her nose gave her an air of mischief. Her bottom lip was full and he wondered what it would be like to tug that lip with his own.
A stirring of interest indeed. Wit laid the picture aside and started digging into Marie Lee Chase’s life. He checked all the social media sites and learned about her catering company. He discovered she had several friends if pictures were anything to judge by. She’d had great grades in school and had been a member of several after school clubs.
Marie Chase didn’t have much in the way of debt, or she hadn’t until recently. Wit raised his eyebrows at the amount to which she’d gone into the red recently. It broke pattern which was something that caught his attention. He wondered exactly what kind of help she needed; Byte420 hadn’t offered many details.
Wit started and deleted several emails. After he realized he was acting like some sort of high schooler with a crush he dropped his head into his hands. This shouldn’t be that difficult. Perhaps his nerve was shot after drinking himself into oblivion for six months.
He finished his coffee and started typing. When he hit Send it was with a small feeling of relief and satisfaction.