I was just finishing dinner with a woman I wanted to impress when I embarrassed myself in the worst way. Margot and I were eating stylish Italian food in Noe Valley, deconstructed ravioli on oblong plates, and I was running out of time to do what I’d come there to do, which was to offer her a job. She was my best strategist—she’d just casually solved a client problem over dinner—but she insisted on working freelance and had rejected the series of increasingly serious offers I had made to her. But this time I had something new.
The stonefaced waiter brought us coffee and removed our plates. All around us the most beautiful and successful people in San Francisco were enjoying their wonderful lives and I was just pretending to fit in while inside I was a jangle of nerves.
“Margot, let’s talk about the future,” I said.
It was something of a joke, and she laughed as she reached for her coffee. The phrase, let’s talk about the future, was our standard opening in sales pitches for my communications firm Thought Experiment. It was the headline on our website. We say this to a client and then true to our name we guide them through a thought experiment about their company, or their technology, or whatever they’re selling, showing them all the ways that our firm can help them become who they want to be. We ask about the future to invite someone’s most ambitious dreams.
Margot blew on her coffee and looked at me across the ribbons of steam bending toward me. She took a sip, still looking at me, and then she smiled and said, “Nick, you know I love you, but you couldn’t pay me to do a thought experiment with you right now. I’m too full.”
I realized I’d been too pushy, so I gave my coffee some attention while I mimed laughing.
Then very sweetly, with just a dash of mockery, Margot said, “But if you want to offer me a job, I’m listening.”
I laughed out loud at that, and said, “I know better than that by now.”
Margot was a few years older than me, maybe 38, and much smarter, with dark brown eyes that were black in the restaurant, and thin lips stretched into a broad smile. She’d worked with every ad agency in the city, charged a fortune, and I was flattered that she kept wanting to work with me. We had the easy rapport that comes from working closely together, and most of the time I felt like I could hold my own with her, but she didn’t suffer fools gladly and this was no time for me to play one.
“Allow me to summarize our most recent positions,” I said. “You prefer the flexibility of freelancing over the stability of being on staff, and no amount of vacation time will convince you that coming onto the payroll isn’t the same as a prison sentence.”
She nodded and said, “Plus I like to fire clients, and if I work for someone I won’t be able to fire clients anymore.”
“That is true, we don’t allow staff to fire clients. But partners can always fire clients if they want. I’ve fired one client and Daniel has fired two. Although I didn’t find the experience as enjoyable as you seem to.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” she said.
The waiter appeared with our bill, a black plastic tray held in both hands, and I put my corporate credit card onto it before he could set it down.
When the waiter left I said, “But if you came on as a partner, you could fire all the clients you want.”
Margot paused with her mug halfway to her mouth, pre-sip, then set it back down and flattened her lips as she looked at me, her eyes narrowed with a slight smile at the edges. I didn’t often stump her, and I enjoyed watching her gears turn. For a moment I felt like I had moved the tides in my favor, had put myself into a commanding position in the negotiation. And then she said, “Has Daniel approved this?”
Daniel was my business partner and the majority owner of Thought Experiment, currently on a long hike in the High Sierra. And as much as I had authority and influence in the company, the decision to take on a new partner would fall to Daniel. I was an owner, and I was the boss, and I loved to talk about my company this and my company that, but the truth was it was Daniel’s company, and I was just a junior partner. For all my bluster with Margot, she knew who held the power, and in classic Margot style she cut straight to that fundamental point.
“We discussed it,” I said.
Which was true. Daniel and I discussed this over dinner before his trip, at least in the abstract, and he had more or less agreed we needed another partner. But we hadn’t gotten more specific than that, and I didn’t want this conversation to get any more specific either.
“What kind of equity position are you envisioning?” she asked.
“So you’re interested?” I said, deflecting the question. In fact, I hadn’t talked with Daniel about percentages, hadn’t fully thought it through myself, but I didn’t want Margot to know that so I played coy. Except that Margot was too smart for that and she saw coy for the weakness it was, and she sat back and shrugged.
“Meh,” she said. “Could be ok.”
That was as close to a yes as I was likely to get, but it felt like pity to me, so against my own instincts I responded with swagger. “I will say it’s enjoyable to be a partner in a successful firm. It’s gratifying to be able to pick and choose the work, and the people, and have control of your own destiny.”
She scrunched her nose suggesting I’d gotten too salesy, so as the waiter returned with the credit card receipt to sign, I brought it back down to earth. “Plus, the company pays for all the fancy meals you can talk business over.”
I looked up at the waiter, whose face now suggested he was in the early stages of passing a kidney stone. He leaned over the table discretely, the black plastic tray still held in both hands, and then spoke loudly enough for the surrounding tables to hear him.
“I’m sorry sir, but your card has been declined.”
Margot thought this was just the funniest thing. The waiter ran the tab on my personal card, and I sat with a wilted smile while Margot tortured me in half a dozen ways. I’d been tempted to blame our accountant, Alan, for not paying the credit card bill, but instead I made a joke about how he must have cut me off for too many extravagant meals that happened to include a little talk about clients. Alan had warned me, so that part was true, and it let me make light of the whole thing. But Margot and I didn’t talk about the partnership offer again, and I left the restaurant feeling unsure where we stood and mostly just wanting to flee.
Outside, the air was cool and damp and I looked up the hill to see if it was capped in fog but it wasn’t.
Margot said, “You need a few bucks for gas or anything?”
I laughed again and said I was going to hitchhike, but my insides had solidified into a permanent wince and my cheeks hurt from the fake smile I’d been holding. I grew up poor and always viewed my success as tentative somehow, as if I didn’t really deserve it, so when the waiter told me my card was declined it sounded more like he said you don’t belong here. But that was all in my head, and I’d never in a million years let Margot know about that if I could help it, so I propped up my fake smile once more and then we went our separate ways.
I walked way the hell up 25th street to where I’d parked, up where I’d thought there’d be fog, feeling the shame of the evening dissipate with each plodding step, because after all a little embarrassment wasn’t the end of the world. Despite her joking, Margot had seemed interested enough, and the credit card was just an accounting snafu, so I decided to call the evening a success. Plus, with all the work we’d gotten done I would definitely charge the meal to the client, and Alan could suck it.
Accounting issues aside, Thought Experiment was a successful agency and I reminded myself that Margot was getting an incredible offer to come on board. We’d started about ten years earlier, when my college friend and sometimes roommate, Daniel, convinced someone he knew at a medical decide company to develop a communications strategy for their new product launch. Daniel was a mediocre student and didn’t retain much of his education, but he had an incredible knack for sales and one Tuesday evening, after two beer-pitcher hours with a product manager who had no clue how launch a product in a regulated market, Daniel closed his first deal. He called me as he walked out of the bar to say he’d started a company and he wanted me to join, and we’ve been hustling together ever since.
Daniel and I were in the same communications program in college. I’d studied the theory and practice diligently and in detail, but Daniel only ever seemed to know just enough to slide by and the rest he made up with his charm, which was not insignificant, and his good looks, which were frankly obnoxious. He had a talent for being the center of any crowd, the guy people gravitated toward, and he had a casual intimacy that endeared him to people. In college he used this to his great social advantage, but once we started working his talent for personal persuasion kept us very busy. But while Daniel could talk a good game over beers he was weak on the particulars, which is why when he bagged his first client he called me. I had developed a working theory about a new approach to marketing communications, and I jumped at the chance to put it into practice. And then because neither of us had anything to lose, Daniel and I put together a daring strategy that smashed everyone’s modest hopes, and Thought Experiment’s reputation was established.
I finally reached my nearly antique car at the top of 25th at the only spot I’d been able to find, my front tires angled into the curb and my rear bumper just barely blocking a hopefully understanding person’s driveway. I pushed open my door, tossed my bag on the passenger seat, and slid into my seat quickly enough to let gravity slam the door for me. I turned around to head downhill, and then cut over to 24th which I took down toward Noe Avenue, past the dinner crowds and the bar drinkers smoking around doorways, under the mist gathering around the streetlights. Traffic was light and I enjoyed the silence and solitude after a long day, one that started before dawn. Thought Experiment was successful, which meant that I was extremely busy, busier than I had ever been, with a half-dozen active clients with major initiatives my strategies were driving, all of which required my attention, and some of which I simply couldn’t delegate. I expected a late night.
At an endless stoplight turning left onto Mission, I pulled out my phone and sent Alan an email with just a subject line: why was my credit card declined tonight? As a partner, I expected a prompt response from him, even though he ran his own firm and was only our CFO/bookkeeper on a contract basis. We were a big chunk of his business and he’d undoubtedly be embarrassed about dropping the ball like this, so I decided to be magnanimous about the whole thing. Ordinarily I didn’t even deal with Alan, had nothing to do with company finances, but Daniel was halfway up a mountain for a few more days.
I cut across Cortland Avenue and watched the neighborhood continue its transition from the upscale Noe Valley where I’d had dinner to the decidedly downscale Portola neighborhood, which I called home. I’d rented the top apartment of a run-down Victorian duplex after graduating college because it was cheap, and once Thought Experiment took off I never got around to moving to a nicer place, just like I never got around to getting a nicer car. For one thing, I was frugal by nature, and the place had everything I needed. For another thing, I was a creature of habit and enjoyed having this oasis of drab sameness to come home to each night after the flash and hustle of my clients’ worlds, the lobby espressos and sparkling cars. After all the high stakes riches of my work life, my dumpy little apartment felt like home. And lurking at the bottom of my rationales, which I chose to ignore, was my fear of getting too comfortable in the event Thought Experiment ever went under.
One more factor, which I saw as I pulled up, was my downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Zammit, an aging transplant from Malta with whom I’d become unexpectedly close in the last several years. When I moved in, she was living there with her grown son, but after he died unexpectedly of an aneurism she stayed there by herself, which is when I started to get to know her. She was about five foot ten, spoke choppy English with a thick accent, and seemed to have nothing but good intentions. I took out her trashcans and helped her around the house, and sometimes she made me sit at her little kitchen table and eat a bowl of kapunata while we watched game shows and she berated the contestants in broken English. I didn’t have grandparents myself, never had that experience growing up, and over the years she’d come to play that role for me. I couldn’t move on her now: who would change her light bulbs?
As I parked up the block from my house I could see Mrs. Zammit looking out the window so I knew something was up, that she needed something from a high shelf or that she’d baked some kind of pastry she wanted me to eat while she watched my enjoyment. It had been a long day, but I was happy to see what was on her mind, and as I stepped out of my car her head disappeared and I knew she was headed toward her front door, which was next to mine. I pulled my phone from my pocket and absently opened my email as I trudged down the sidewalk. When I got to my front step her door opened, and I felt my phone buzz in my hand.
“Oh, Nick, it is terrible what happened. How will we survive?”
I should also mention that Alessia Zammit tended to be a bit dramatic.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not all that bad,” I said, looking down at my phone.
It was my email to Alan, bounced back.
Undeliverable email: no such user.
I stared at my phone long past expecting it to give me any new information, stared at it until it became an alien object somehow resting in my hand. Meanwhile Mrs. Zammit spoke at me in rapid and unintelligible English, a soundtrack of confusion for my confusion, and I didn’t take a single moment to admire the poetic beauty of it. I felt a wash of vertigo, the phone fell away from me, but remained in my hand, and I knew I needed to get a grip.
“Is the letter, you must help Nicky, please to me, I will die with no home, you must help with the letter, I promise you I will die, it is nothing I can do—”
She clutched my forearm in one hand while brandishing a piece of paper in the other. I saw her wrinkled fingers against my sleeve, and it snapped me back to earth. I glanced at the paper, saw that it was government letterhead.
“It’s ok, Mrs. Zammit, I’m sure whatever it is we can sort it out, please.”
“—is nowhere else, nowhere to go, where they think? After Marco I have nobody, Nicky, and my old friend are died off, and I don’t know—”
She continued for some time and I did my best to calm her down, or at least get her to stop talking, but she was quite worked up and I was impatient to look at that bounced email so I’m afraid to say I decided to make a break for it. I got my front door open while nodding empathetically and then I tossed my laptop bag on top of the pile of mail on my floor, and then held up my hand which immediately stopped her talking.
“Mrs. Zammit, I need to go inside for a little while, but I promise I will come back tonight and talk to you about what is going to happen with this letter. But right now I have a work emergency and I need to take care of that, so thank you, I will be back.”
And I hated to do it, but I actually shut the door on her. And then I stood in the silence of my stairwell, knowing she was standing there, distraught, on the other side of my door. I loved her dearly, but I had a simmering panic in my gut that could only be addressed by calling Alan, so I picked up my bag and my mail and walked up the stairs into my apartment.
The building I shared with Mrs. Zammit was originally built as a single family home, but it had been converted to a duplex with the apartment on the top floor featuring a tiny galley kitchen in what had once been an expansive linen closet, a small bedroom in the back, and small living room up front. Over the decade I’d been there I’d filled it with the remnants of my college furniture, my initial attempts at adult furniture, and two or three good pieces that I liked, making it look like a 2nd hand store that hadn’t figured out its target market yet. I tossed my bag and the mail onto my snap-together coffee table and called Alan. He answered on the second ring.
“What the hell do you want?”
This was not what I expected, and for a moment I didn’t reply.
“Sorry, Nick,” Alan said. “I don’t mean to take it out on you. But Daniel can go suck a raw turnip and since you’re his partner you can too.”
“Alan, hang on. I have no idea what’s going on,” I said. “I called you about something else, something—wait, what the hell is going on? What’s the matter with Daniel?”
The phone suddenly felt hot against my ear.
“You should talk to your partner, Nick.”
It sounded like he was going to hang up, so I said, “Wait, wait, wait— please, Alan. Please just tell me what happened, because I have no clue at all. Please.”
Alan and his small accounting firm had been with us almost from the beginning and he had no reason not to trust me, regardless of whatever had happened with Daniel. I didn’t have much interaction with him because Daniel managed the financial side of the business along with Alan, but he and I had always had a good relationship, as far as I knew. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to cause this break, which had to have happened after I last saw Daniel, since he hadn’t mentioned it.
Alan was quiet, but I could hear him breathing.
To get him talking I said, “I have a feeling I’m about to be as mad at Daniel as you are,” and as the words came out of my mouth I realized they were true.
“Daniel severed our contract. Fired me.”
“When did this happen?”
“I don’t know. Four, five days ago.”
“Alan, something must have happened between you.”
“I said, nothing. He sent me an email end of last week telling me that our services were no longer required and thank you for our years of service. Very fucking professional, and just about the most vicious thing I’ve ever experienced. I mean, I sweated along with you guys on this thing, Nick, and he fired me for no reason. Over email. I don’t deserve that.”
“No,” I said. “You don’t.”
I knew there must be something very wrong. Daniel must have found something highly improper to do this, something beyond the pale. It was the only explanation, and with no other information I felt I had to take Daniel’s side, whatever it was.
“I haven’t talked to Daniel since last week, and he gave me no clue about this,” I said. “And I’m sorry that whatever happened had to happen this way. You’ve always been straight up with me.”
“Well, must be nice to have someone to do the dirty work, so you can keep your hands nice and clean. Must be really nice, Nick.”
And that was enough of that, so I hung up.
I had dinner with Daniel on Thursday night, and he left for the mountains Friday morning. And somehow between those two events, Daniel fired Alan and didn’t bother to tell me. I knew for certain his phone was off, which is how I resisted the urge to call him after I hung up with Alan and leave a long message asking him what the hell was going on. I wondered what Daniel could have discovered about Alan that would cause that response, and I wondered why he didn’t tell me about it before he left on his trip. I realized he must have cancelled the credit card because Alan was on the account, and this was just the first time I used it. It would all make perfect sense, except that he hadn’t told me.
I stepped into my tiny kitchen for no reason, opened the fridge and closed it again without noticing what was in it. I looked at my empty dish rack, the cereal bowl in the sink, the sponge in the wire rack next to the faucet. They were all just objects, had no meaning while my mind turned in circles. Why hadn’t he told me?
What made me nervous was that I was not only flying blind, but lacked any real means of figuring out what was going on. Daniel and I played very distinct roles in the running of the company and the whole financial side of the business was basically a mystery to me. Daniel ran sales and finance, and I ran client strategy. He brought in the clients and sweet-talked them out of their money, and I delivered the ideas that would make them successful. Together we made a perfect team, since neither of us could really do what the other could do. But with Daniel incommunicado and strange things happening I was now painfully aware how little I knew about the financial operations of the business. I was listed on the bank account, but I had never interacted with our bank except to get monthly deposits for my owner’s salary on the first of every month. Which was yesterday.
I pulled out my phone and opened my banking app, my hand shaking slightly as I worked my thumb. I logged in and scrolled down and then I think I stopped breathing.
My paycheck hadn’t been deposited.
My gut clenched and I shook my head in my empty apartment and silently I said, “No, no, no!”
Fear begets panic, and I wanted to avoid that so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and took another breath. I forced myself to relax, felt my gut unclench slightly. I simply didn’t have time to rave at cruel fate or waste time gibbering, I needed to act. I was still standing in my closet kitchen with my phone in my hand, so I went back to my living room just to have something to do. I put my phone down on the coffee table and picked up the stack of mail. I studied the circulars casually while taking slow, deep breaths, noting the upcoming sales on consumer electronics at a well-known local retailer and the price of ham at the market. I considered the economics of lima beans, which were also on sale, while feeling my neck and shoulders relax. So many things for sale, and I looked at them all, still feeling a tight knot in my gut.
I had a cable bill, some junk mail, and something from City Hall that had been addressed with a typewriter.
I tore the envelope with my finger and pulled out the single sheet of paper.
It was the same letter Mrs. Zammit had had in her hand.
An order from something called the Office of Property Transfer.
Notice of Eviction.
I immediately picked my computer and looked up the Office of Property Transfer, which was actually a real thing and not just something somebody made up as a way to prank me and my elderly neighbor. I had a hard time believing that this could be real, since everybody knows San Francisco is run by communists and that renters have more rights than God himself. I’ve heard of perfectly valid evictions requiring years to execute, and if a tenant has a valid lease and years of residence it’s nearly impossible to kick them out. Except that I had a letter in my hand saying otherwise.
The Office of Property Transfer kept a low profile, with no website and no official presence, but an unnamed spokesman popped up in a news article about buildings being demolished by the waterfront, which apparently involved the city threatening eminent domain to purchase property. But I lived in a row house in the middle of a neighborhood of row houses, and unless the city was planning to expand McLaren Park several blocks east this didn’t make any sense. The letter said I had seven business days to file some sort of objection in person, but it failed to provide a phone number or suite. It wasn’t signed by a person and was written on generic City Hall stationary.
I crumbled the letter in my fist just as Mrs. Zammit had done and I walked circles in my living room as I tried to hold my thoughts together. One of my professional strengths was my ability to focus my attention on any given task at hand and to shut out everything extraneous, no matter how alarming, and with this in mind I did a quick sort of my problems. Most pressing was that I hadn’t been paid and my business partner was making momentous decisions without me. Next on the list was the possibility of being evicted in a month’s time. After that were the several work projects I’d been planning to do, but which simply had to be put off. This left me to deal with my most pressing issue, the fact that I had not been paid.
I went into my bedroom and changed into a fresh set of clothes that more or less matched the ones I took off, chinos, a button down shirt, and a quarter-zip wool pullover. I splashed some water on my face, gave myself a reassuring look in the bathroom mirror, and headed back down the stairs with my laptop bag on my arm. I wouldn’t be able to reach anyone until morning, but if nothing else I should be able to access the corporate accounts and make sure that, other than my paycheck and possibly the credit card bill, everything else was as it should be. In my desk at work I had some files that the corporate banker had left with me when we changed banks five or six years earlier, and I’d had to sign everything to be named on the account. This was done in the unlikely event Daniel got hit by a truck, and I never thought I’d need that leather folder, but as I closed my front door I realized it was the most important thing in my life at that moment.
I remembered Mrs. Zammit, felt like a jerk, and then knocked on her front door. She answered so quickly I knew she’d been sitting right there waiting for me.
This time she didn’t speak, she just looked up at me hopefully with one hand clutching her house robe, and then I really felt like a jerk. It was only in that moment that I finally realized what a catastrophe eviction would be for Mrs. Zammit, thrown out from the only place she’d known for more decades than I’d been alive. I could go rent a new apartment anywhere in the city, but Mrs. Zammit had limited means and limited options. In that moment I resolved that this eviction was an injustice that I could not allow to stand.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Zammit, I got the same letter as you, and I’m going down there in the morning to straighten this all out. I don’t think they can do this to us, I don’t think it is legal, and I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.”
“Oh, Nicky, thank you,” she said quietly, and then she took my hands between hers, soft as silk, and gave me a smile and a nod. Her pale blue eyes shone in the halogen porch lamp.
“We gonna stop this shit,” she said, and we both laughed.
“Yes, we are gonna stop this shit,” I said, but as I walked to my car I knew that it might be empty bluster.
I didn’t want to get on the freeway, so I cut down to 3rd Avenue and made my way along the bay to our office building, located in an industrial part of town known as the Dogpatch. We had been able to claim what was essentially half of an old warehouse and had been there for almost ten years, even as the neighborhood slowly gentrified around us. The other half of the warehouse was occupied by Dead Reckoning, a company that was both our client and our partner, and was arguably the best gamble Daniel and I had ever made. Back when Dead Reckoning was a bootstrapped startup Daniel made a deal to take them on as a client in exchange for equity, which the CEO, Sayid, gladly accepted because he had no cash to pay us and desperately needed our help. These days he was the bad boy of biotech about to take Dead Reckoning public, and that bet we placed was about to pay off handsomely.
I used the remote to open the barbed wire gate around our parking lot and pulled into my spot next to the door as the gate slowly rolled shut behind me. The building had a wide grey façade and our front door was up a few steps on the far right side next to a sheet metal plate bolted to the wall and etched with the TE logo. I turned the deadbolt and pushed into the dark office, entered the alarm code on the small panel on the wall, then flipped on the lights. Even in a state of semi-panic I took satisfaction in seeing my beautiful office. The space was open to ceiling, a massive, rectangular cave. At the far end was a large glass conference room, almost as wide as the building itself, freestanding on twelve-foot stilts and two curved staircases leading up to doors on either side. Beneath the conference room were several freestanding offices, including mine in the middle and Daniel’s on the end. The main floor of the office was taken up with various work groupings, desks for working and conversational spaces for collaboration, punctuated by explosions of abstract sculpture we’d hired a metalworker to create, giving the space the kind of aggressively creative feel that our strait-laced clients loved.
I walked to my office and sat at my desk, looking around at what I sometimes couldn’t believe was mine, and I found myself suddenly scared that it could all go away. I didn’t want to believe that this life I had managed to get ahold of could slip out of my hands like it was never mine to begin with. I shook the thought from my head, adjusting the toys on my desk as a distraction, the figurines and chattering teeth, and I squared off the folders on the side of the desk as if the angles were critical. I cleared my mind as I put my various novelty pens back in the jars lined up on the desk, the one with the lady whose bikini comes off when you turn it over, and the one with a recorder hidden in the cap, the one that opened as a full-sized an umbrella. I sat back and looked at everything in its place, and I found myself getting emotional. Even if I didn’t deserve this life, I didn’t want to lose it.
I went into the filing cabinet I used for anything I planned to never look at again, and I rooted around until I found the leather folder that the nice lady at the bank had left with me when she told me that if I ever needed anything her number was right there on the card. I even remembered her circling the number with a blue pen, which seemed redundant at the time, but I understood she was going out of her way to be nice to a big client. I flipped the folder open on my desk and there was her card, just as I remembered it, the circle of blue ballpoint, along with a bunch of boilerplate account terms and conditions, a nicely printed overview of my accounts, useful numbers and contact instructions. And, as I’d remembered, they even had a sheet explaining how I could get online access.
Fifteen minutes and one two-factor authentication later, I was logging into our corporate bank accounts. We had two accounts: a main checking account where most of our money passed through, from which my paychecks came, and a money market account for holding onto cash for things like anticipated tax bills and our retained earnings, and which earned us money at a higher rate. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but knowing our average client billings, I was expecting to see something on the order of $500,000 in the main account and something over $1M in the retained earnings account.
My hands were shaking as I logged in and waited for the screen to load.
Welcome, Nick! Click to access your accounts.
I did click, and I did access my accounts, and what I saw made so little sense that I looked again several times before I believed it.
The accounts were empty.
This time I actually screamed, alone in the office, a great howl of rage and disbelief that echoed out into the empty space and scratched up my throat. I paced in my tiny office for several turns and then went out into the open space, shaking my head and punching the air as I walked. I needed to put together a new picture of reality based on this new information but the combination of adrenalin and horror made this difficult. Obviously this was bad, but I clung to my assumption that Daniel was my friend and partner, and that there was a reasonable explanation for all of this. Somehow there had to be. Daniel and I had been friends for almost twenty years, my whole adult life, and he was going to get every benefit of the doubt I could muster. But it wasn’t easy.
Once I calmed down a little, I took comfort in my belief that Daniel would never throw away our company and our friendship over the kind of money that was missing. Yes, it was a lot, but Daniel was going to make many times that just with the IPO of Dead reckoning, not to mention the million bucks in profits we were forecasting for the coming three years. It simply didn’t add up. Thought Experiment was finally making real money for the two of us, and I refused to believe Daniel would trade that for a million bucks and a life on the run. I returned to my desk, nodding confidently, and tried to assemble a version of reality that didn’t include me losing my money, my friend, and probably my company in one fell swoop.
I was able to create one pretty easily, too. I imagined that Alan had somehow been playing with the books, got caught embezzling money. I didn’t know enough about the finances of the business to know if this was plausible, but I had to assume it was. Now, if Daniel discovered this he would certainly fire Alan immediately, as had happened, but he might also have needed to move accounts that Alan had access to, just as he must have cancelled the credit card for the same reason. Daniel would need to protect the business first and foremost, and these steps would have done the trick. The only part of this didn’t fit was the fact that he said nothing to me. He could have discovered all of this after our dinner, and made the changes in the morning, but why wouldn’t he have said anything to me?
I spun myself in circles for a while until an idea came into my head. Then I set it aside and did a couple of hours of work, preparing briefs for two strategists who worked for me and who would be walking through the door in eight or nine hours. Then I sent a few emails to buy me time with my other urgent projects, delegating and rescheduling, feeling my calendar get a little more open with each one. After I did these things I returned to the idea I’d had, which would allow me to resolve my current uncertainties, and I decided it was the right idea. Since the central variable in the situation was Daniel himself, and since I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest until I spoke with him, I decided to drive up into the mountains and speak with him directly.
This was not as absurd as it sounds. According to the itinerary he’d shared with me he was due to reach his car at the trailhead some time that morning, and was planning to be home by dinner time. Leaving the city at about 1am, I figured I would reach the trailhead parking lot at around sunrise and just wait for Daniel there. I still believed in him enough that I was imagining how much I’d yell at him for switching accounts without telling me, savoring the hell I would give him. Then we’d drive down the mountain to get breakfast and he’d tell me all about his walkabout and the things he was able to get clear in his mind.
I sped past downtown and crossed under the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, all black asphalt and fluorescent yellow, five lanes to myself. After my initial panic, this felt like progress, and I assured myself that it would all be alright. The struts blurred by as I tried to see the bay down below, but it was all black with just the lights in the distance of the cargo ships waiting to unload. I crossed the East Bay in the orange glow of the freeway lights and the traffic stretched far enough apart for me to feel like I was alone, and I struggled to keep it below 90 as I descended into the central valley.
I didn’t want to lose my company, even if Daniel had stolen the money. I was overworked and exhausted, maintaining a pace that I didn’t think was healthy or sustainable, and based on our conversations I knew that Daniel felt the same way, like we were like hamsters on a wheel. But, I wasn’t about to give it up, and I was eager to hear Daniel’s version which would clear everything up. As I glided through dark orchards I berated myself for giving Daniel too much control over operations, too much control over my livelihood, and as I started to move cautiously into the foothills I made a list of the things I’d need to fix after this little wake-up call. I loved Daniel like a brother, but I could not let him take me and my money for granted, even if I was a minority owner of the business. And even that point rankled me as I drove, the fact that he took a majority ownership when he invited me to join the company he’d just invented but that the two of us built together. Maybe we’d revisit that as well.
I lost cellular service a few times winding up the mountain, but I was able to keep my map running well enough and my speed slow enough that I made the turns I needed to make and reached the trailhead without incident. It was just before six in the morning when I turned into the parking lot and I could start to make out the outline of the trees as the sky started to glow behind it. My headlights cut across the cars as I made my slow way from one end to the other. It was not very full, but I turned around at the end and came back a second time to be sure.
No sign of Daniel’s car.