By – W.S. Holderby
Lionel Gravier sat at his desk, finishing his morning paper. He had also just finished his usual breakfast of fresh strawberries, Eggs Benedict with caviar, and a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. As he finished reading the last page, he rang his secretary. “Charlotte, get in here and take these dishes away. You know I can’t stand a mess. I’ve been done for at least five minutes.”
Charlotte, his long-suffering secretary, quickly hurried in to remove the offending platter. “Mr. Gravier, your broker is on line one. That’s who I was talking to. He knows he’s not supposed to disturb you before nine o’clock, but he says it’s an emergency.”
“That’s no excuse, Charlotte. Don’t let it happen again,” Gravier said, gruffly.
He answered the phone as Charlotte slipped out with the tray. Depositing the tray in the sink, she quickly washed the dishes and filled a coffee cup with freshly brewed coffee, pouring in exactly one ounce of fresh cream and two level teaspoons of sugar. She grabbed a large saucer and scurried back in to Gravier’s office, placing the cup onto the saucer and just to the right of his desk phone.
She checked over his work area one more time, making certain that nothing from breakfast remained to soil his desk. Finding nothing offensive, she left as quickly as she had entered. Arriving back at her desk, she greeted her co-worker, Maria, who was just coming in.
“How’s the miserable son of a bitch this morning, Charlotte?” Maria asked, jettisoning her overcoat and umbrella.
“It’s not his best day,” Charlotte answered, charitably.
“Why not, you mean he’s fired you already this morning? I tell you, if he expects me to chase around after him like a goddamn maid, he better re-think getting rid of you,” Maria said, sitting down at her desk.
“You can say that. After all, you don’t work for him,” Charlotte moaned.
“And you shouldn’t, either. He’s the most obnoxious bastard in a town full of obnoxious bastards. Did he have his gourmet breakfast?” Maria laughed.
“Certainly, along with his freshly ground coffee and his freshly squeezed juice. He actually had a tough morning, I didn’t remove his dirty dishes quickly enough and he had to look down and see them. Can you imagine that?” Charlotte laughed back. Maria was good for her. She tended to put everything into a more palatable perspective.
“Charlotte,” boomed the voice over the intercom.
“He’s probably got to pee and you’ll have to dry him off afterwards,” Maria whispered sipping her morning coffee.
“The king’s broker just called and I’m sure he’s finished with his coffee,” Charlotte said hopping up from her desk and disappearing into Gravier’s office.
In a few minutes, Charlotte came back out, carrying an empty coffee cup. “My king says your king is out for the day and that you’re his resource until tomorrow. How’s that for a great start to the week?” Charlotte laughed as though it was the funniest thing in the world.
“You’re shitting me, girl. Don wouldn’t do that to me. Loaning me out to Gravier, I’d rather he’d fire me,” Maria sputtered.
“That might happen before the day is over. Right now though, he wants to personally assign you today’s duties.” Charlotte was still laughing as Maria entered Gravier’s office.
“Yes, Mr. Gravier?” Maria asked, biting her lip.
“Ms. Hernandez, as I’m sure you know, Don is out today, and he’s kindly loaned you to me. I’m sure you won’t mind helping Charlotte and me finish up the quarterlies, and our portion of the annual report. I know you don’t consider yourself to be a secretary,” Gravier said, leering at Maria’s ample chest, “but that’s life in this company.”
Maria knew Gravier’s leering eyes only too well. He’d been in her department prior to his promotion to Director. His reputation was well known by the women in the company, not only for being a son of a bitch, but also the biggest letch. Maria had initially thought him attractive and had considered playing along with him. After all, if it could help advance her career, why not? But that idea vanished as soon as she’d gotten to know him better. Now, the very thought of it made her shudder.
As she sat there taking notes, she gave him the once over with her eyes. What had ever attracted her to this man, she wondered, as he carefully stipulated each and every detail of the tasks she was expected to perform. No, she wasn’t going to get out of the office today on time and no, she shouldn’t really expect lunch, as he needed every minute of her day.
He was just launching into the afternoon’s plans when Charlotte interrupted with a package. Gravier stopped speaking and looked up angrily. “Charlotte, I don’t expect to be interrupted. You know I hate interruptions when I’m assigning tasks. Now, don’t you?”
“Yes sir, but I thought you might want this package. It’s marked urgent,” Charlotte explained. She placed the parcel on Gravier’s desk and quickly exited the room. As she passed Maria, she winked and smiled. Maria just glared at her.
Gravier removed the outer shipping wrapper and noticed two envelopes. The first envelope was marked ‘Open Now’ and the second was marked ‘Open Only When Alone’. “What the hell is this?” Gravier asked, rhetorically.
“Is there something I can do, Mr. Gravier?” Maria asked, hoping to find an excuse to leave the office.
“No, just sit there and wait,” Gravier snapped, irritated at the interruption.
He read the package label again and opened the one marked ‘Open Now’. Inside were half a dozen pictures of him, taken from various angles and at various places. Each photograph had a circle and a set of crosshairs embossed on his face. He looked carefully at each picture, studying the photos, trying to identify where they were taken.
The phone rang, but Gravier ignored the sound, his eyes glued to the photographs.
“Mr. Gravier, you have a phone call. The caller won’t give me his name. He says he needs to talk to you, right now,” Charlotte said from the doorway.
“If he won’t tell you his name, he can go to hell,” Gravier stated, still preoccupied with the photographs.
“He also asked me to find out how you like the pictures?” Charlotte continued.
“What?” he growled.
“He wonders how you …… “
”Never mind, I’ll take the call.” He seemed to stay in a continuous state of annoyance. “Hello?” Gravier answered as soon as he saw the line light up.
“Mr. Gravier, I wanted to say how much I appreciate you taking the time to speak to me. I know how busy you are, so I’ll just take a moment to introduce myself and tell you what I have to offer you,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. The speaker seemed sure of himself, not typical of most of the sales people doing cold-call marketing these days.
“What the hell are you selling? You’re right, I am a busy man and you’re interrupting an important meeting,” Gravier remarked, the pictures still in his hand.
“Yes, I can see that you’re occupied with that very attractive young lady. But, this will only take a minute. What you have in front of you are six pictures I’ve taken of you, at various locations and times. If you look carefully at each photograph, and I can see that you are, you will find a set of cross hairs on your face. I will get to that in a minute,” the voice continued.
“What the hell do you mean? Are you watching me? Gravier angrily spun his chair toward the windows that formed the entire back wall of his lavish office. His view of downtown New Orleans from the twenty-fifth floor stretched from the busy Mississippi River in one direction, to Lake Ponchartrain in the other.
Rising from his chair, he walked over to the window and scanned the hundreds of offices for some sign of a person standing at the window. However, during the day, the tinted windows in the buildings across from him prevented any sort of view. He could see no one.
“I don’t believe you can see me. Besides, who the hell are you? And why would you take these ridiculous pictures?” Gravier asked angrily, but with a trace of concern in his voice.
“Now, you’re trying to figure out how I can see you when you’re unable to see me. That is a mystery, isn’t it, Mr. Gravier, or may I call you Lionel?” the voice continued.
“No, you may not. I’m hanging up, right now.” Gravier started toward the desk to replace the phone in its cradle.
“I wouldn’t do that, Lionel. If we’re going to start this relationship off on the right foot, we have to agree to mutually respect each other. I have a proposition for you that I think you will find fascinating. Aren’t you interested, just the slightest bit?” the voice on the phone asked.
“Good bye,” Gravier said as he hung up the phone. Having done that, he looked over at Maria and saw the slightest trace of a smile on her face. “Ms Hernandez, you can go for now. I’ll call you in a few minutes. Right now, I have some personal business to take care of,” he said.
“Yes Sir,” Maria answered and made a hasty exit from the office.
“Damn, who was that on the phone, Charlotte? I think, whoever it was, scared the shit out of Gravier,” Maria said, returning to the office she shared with Charlotte.
“I don’t know,” Charlotte replied. “I’ve never heard the voice before. He wouldn’t give me his name, just that he’d sent a package to Lionel and he had to speak to him right away. Since I had just taken the package to his office, I figured maybe there was a problem with it.”
“Well, whatever it was, it sure scared him. I could see his face starting to get red. I’ll bet the bastard has high blood pressure,” Maria said, with a laugh.
The phone rang again and Charlotte reached to pick it up. She raised the receiver to her ear just as Gravier’s voice sounded, “Hello”.
“I’d asked you not to hang up on me, Lionel. I’m calling you to discuss a proposition that I think you will find very compelling. Please, for your own sake, don’t hang up again,” the same voice resumed.
“Listen, you persistent son of a bitch. I don’t like having my privacy violated, or being watched from wherever the hell you are. Am I making myself clear?” Gravier asked angrily.
“Oh, I can appreciate you’re concern, Lionel,” the voice purred. “However, I think you’re missing the point. I have gone to great lengths to take those pictures. It involved my giving up several days of my life to bring them to you. Do you understand what I’m saying?” the voice threatened.
Charlotte pressed her finger to her lips and slowly put the phone into its cradle. At the same time, she pressed the ‘Hands Off’ button. Gravier’s phone conversation could now be shared with Maria. They both listened carefully.
“Just who in the hell are you? If we’re going to talk, I need a name,” Lionel said.
“That’s fair enough, especially since I know so much about you. You can call me Fred,” the voice said. “I always liked that name. That’s all you need to know for right now.”
“Okay, Fred, I’m curious. What do you want from me? I didn’t ask you to send me these pictures. I don’t want any pictures, and I’m not going to pay you for them. Do you understand me?” Gravier asked, his voice moderating. He was still angry, but something about Fred spoke of danger.
“You’ve got me all wrong,” Fred cooed. “I don’t expect you to pay for any of the pictures I’ve sent you. You’re going to pay me to let you continue living in the style you’ve become accustomed to. Let’s face it, you’ve got a pretty cushy life there, Lionel. All you do is eat, give orders and sit behind that desk of yours, day after day. As I see it, you collect a substantial amount of money for merely occupying space in God’s world,” Fred said, calmly and carefully. “Now, simply put, it’s time for you to pay for that privilege.”
Hearing the threat, Charlotte pressed the recorder button on the phone console.
“What is this, some kind of extortion racket? I’m not married, Fred. So you screwed up, big time. I can’t be threatened, because I have nobody to answer to,” Gravier answered, forcefully now.
“Oh, but you do, Lionel. You have humanity to answer to. You are nothing but a wart on the ass of mankind. You are also in error about being impervious to threats. I can threaten you, and you will do as I ask. Or, I’m afraid you will suffer the consequences. Now, do you want to hear what my proposition is, or not, Lionel?”
“Sure, I have all day to listen to your jackass schemes. How can I be threatened?” Gravier asked, disbelievingly.
“First, I’m sure you’ll agree that we need to establish some ground rules. Rule number 1 is no police. If I hear, or find out, that you have contacted the police, I will cease to communicate with you. I will then exact a price that you will neither be able to refuse, nor be willing to pay. Rule number 2, I expect you to keep everything I say completely private. Do not tell anyone of our business or I will exact the same payment. Do you understand?” Fred asked in a carefully controlled voice.
“I understand, all right. But I think it’s time you understood my ground rules for telephone freaks. I do not threaten, nor do I pay anything to anybody. It works the other way around. In my world, I do the collecting,” Gravier huffed.
In the other room, Maria stifled a laugh. But Charlotte was becoming increasingly alarmed by the stranger’s words.
“This is what I want, Lionel. I want you to go to your bank and withdraw one hundred thousand dollars, in unmarked small bills, of course. After you’ve done that, and I will know when you have complied with my orders, I will call you and tell you where I want you to deliver the money. Do you understand what I’m saying, Lionel?”
“A hundred grand for what, Fred. Just for the privilege of talking to you. I don’t think so,” Gravier snickered, his voice confident.
“You don’t understand what I’m saying, Lionel. If you don’t comply with my orders, I will cause you to lose that beautiful life that you’ve come to enjoy. I am asking for only a small part of the more than one million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars you collected last year for doing nothing. Did I get that figure right?” Fred asked.
“What the…..! How do you know ….. ,” Gravier blustered, his confidence shaken.
“I told you, Lionel, I know a great deal about you. I know that, strictly speaking, that amount of money wasn’t entirely above board and it wasn’t all paid as salary. In fact, you only reported three quarters of that to our good friends at the IRS. I also know where you skimmed another one hundred and twenty five thousand this year from your company. Now, with all that money, you don’t begrudge me a paltry hundred thousand, do you? Especially when it will mean so much to you?”
Gravier was shaken by the man’s knowledge of his carefully hidden finances. It had taken Lionel years to learn how to surreptitiously skim money from his employers. Now this stranger, a voice he’d never heard before, was giving him a chapter and verse accounting of his illicit finances. “Who are you really, Fred? I’ve never heard your voice before. So, either you’re playing some kind of trick by changing your voice or you know somebody inside this company.”
“Relax, Lionel, I’m not one of your cronies. I am an independent contractor, so to speak. I receive money for services. That’s why we’re talking right now,” Fred said, carefully.
“Well, you know what? I don’t think you can produce any proof, Fred old boy. In fact, I think you’re guessing. I’m not going to pay to prevent you from bringing lies to this firm. The management here will stand behind me one hundred percent.” Gravier was feeling braver, now. “I guess you could say I’m calling your bluff.”
“Now, see,” Fred sighed, “you’re just not paying attention. I’m not asking you to pay me not to tell your company that you’re stealing from them. You’ve got me totally wrong. I’m asking you to pay to prevent me from hurting you so badly that you’ll wish I’d have killed you.”
“This is crazy. The money angle didn’t work, so now you’re physically threatening me? Go to hell, Fred, or whatever your name is,” Gravier shouted.
“I don’t know why some people are so stubborn when it comes to their health,” Fred continued in a patient voice. “I guess I’ll have to show you. Just walk over to your private bathroom and look inside the shower. I think you’ll gain a much better appreciation of my point.”
Gravier walked across the room and opened the door to his private bath. He looked inside and, seeing nothing, turned the light on. “Fred, I think you’re just one of the bullshit artists that plague this town,” Gravier announced, after carefully inspecting the empty bathroom. Even the toilet had a sanitary ribbon on it.
At that instant, a loud roar filled the air. The concussion caused the bathroom door to slam shut as the room quickly filled with rancid smoke. Gravier sunk to the floor, his face white with fear.
“Poor Lionel, I’m afraid your beautiful office is now badly in need of redecorating and it’s all your fault for being so stubborn. I will call you again and give you directions on where to leave the money. Remember those ground rules we talked about? You could have been sitting at that desk when the package exploded. If you call the police, God help you, Lionel. And by the way, Charlotte, you and Maria can stop listening now. I’m finished.”