Metal exploded all around them. Glass shattered. The shards impaled the unaware, smearing the afternoon sun with the devastating splotches of torrential loss. The screams of an implausible collection of souls erupted from those sitting in front and behind… not one sounded the same. Not one cried out the same words or prayed the same scripture. It was the most fear she had ever experienced. It was the most painful moment she had ever endured… and it became clear to her in that instant... she would not survive.
She held her daughter as closely as possible, cushioning her head from the oncoming blow, trying to remain calm. She added soft tones to her voice so as not to scare the small child. "Please God, just make it end quickly," was all she could manage her voice to whisper.
As she kissed her limp daughter for the last time, she watched the jagged cavern wall outside the window collide with the two cars in front of her, then fly past her tear-filled eyes with storm-fury. Water began to flood the compartment. And then... searing pain and perfect dark.
“Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” ~Groucho Marx
Nathan got a text to meet Paige at the marina at three o'clock, Wednesday afternoon. He was a little apprehensive. When summoned to the boat, there was never a hint of what would come of it. Sometimes, it was just a sail around the harbor. Sometimes, it was a job–sometimes sinister, sometimes not. But you never knew… and you never refused. The intimidation of not knowing was like walking a tightrope... forever a little off balance with some influence but no control. That was precisely the point. It was important for Paige to remain in control... always in control… despite everything else.
Nathan accepted the invitation to the meeting with a simple “yes” reply and inhaled tentatively. He looked at his watch. She wanted to see him at five o'clock; that would give him time to finish his current project, catch the blue line to Lewis Warf, and still have time to grab a quick bite. What could she want now?
During their association, which started long before her parents’ death, Paige asked much of Nathan. Much of it could have been morally disputed, though guided by the perfect dash of incentivizing guilt and a lot of pacifying cash. The rest were primarily menial tasks far below his pay grade. He sensed it was an excuse to keep him close. Her paranoia ran deep and spoke softly. He was sensitive to its whispers.
Nathan was one of the few people who recognized Paige from both sides of the mask. He saw the controlled, sophisticated woman the rest of the world encountered, forever maintaining and building her father’s legacy in ways that would make him proud. He also saw the inverse echo… the tumultuous teenager who hid from the mistakes of a past she could not control, at times lashing out with emotions she did not understand. Nathan knew the confusion and frustration of her life but had no explanation for it. Her habitually complex behavior didn’t track, considering her comfortable childhood. But, he accepted it and became the curator of her safety, as her father requested. Acceptance didn’t make meeting with her at the marina–or anywhere, for that matter, stress-free, though.
Nathan’s watch read 4:58pm as he reached the finger dock aside Wing om Wing. Punctuality was definitely a thing with Paige, and he knew better than to be insolent with tardiness. Paige was already there... sipping something defiant from a glass held high to refract the early evening sunlight. She watched him walk down the dock but said nothing. It was not her habit to bring attention to herself here. She preferred to be disguised... just another average, although financially comfortable, sailor in the fleet. Marinas were a nice blend of the sophisticated and sublime. Being ignored here was simple. No one took offense to those who were indifferent to their dock mates. Seclusion with all the amenities. She thought it merely nice, and she liked nice.
As he came within three feet of the boat, Nathan waved a hand and called out, "Ahoy! Permission to come aboard?" Nathan wasn’t much into the pretension of the lifestyle she chose to inherit, but here, she demanded it, and since she also signed his paycheck, he indulged her.
"Permission Granted!" Paige called back with an air of playfulness and a genuine smile that she only indulged in this place.
As he grabbed the stanchion and swung his leg on the deck, he thought about how many times he'd been here. There are only three that I can remember... and each time, my life changed. The first time was just after her father and the Board voted to promote her to CEO. Paige invited Nathan out for a day sail, along with a few of the other minions. He discovered on this trip that she selected him as one of her "chosen few." He was equally pleased and petrified. He recalled that it felt much like becoming a "made man" in the Patriarca crime family. An honor and a curse simultaneously.
The second opportunity came four years ago when she celebrated his promotion to resources manager with dinner and a night sail with a few of the Board members. Now a sergeant in the "family," he was tasked with protecting innovative revenue-generating projects and her personal secrets. It was a weighty assignment, keeping the Figureheads and the Potentate at equilateral distances yet proportionately well-informed. It took all the shrewd negotiations he could devise to avoid creating cracks in the gentle façade of either the company or the woman. It cost me more than a little sleep to get it right.
Nathan’s third visit to the harbor brought the devastating news of her parents’ passing, three years ago. He'd taken over the funeral arrangements and ensured that her image was not compromised during the grieving. Her father’s dying wish was that she be well protected, and Nathan planned to do his best to fulfill that wish. He’d been Mr. Lambert’s part-time, evening valet for several years and was very fond of the man. He was strong, clever, and compassionate. Those traits, plus the astounding skills he possessed in the business world, made him a difficult man to deny.
It was a tenuous line for Nathan to walk. He had to maintain professional decorum while simultaneously not painting Paige as an unemotional bilge rat. She didn't make it easy. After her parents’ death, she spent the next five months impersonating a bipolar diagnosis. In the beginning, she lost herself to misery living with the shades drawn tight, eating nearly nothing, and screaming at every opportunity. However, her jubilant responses to minuscule triumphs far exceeded the inappropriate once that storm passed. The household staff was replaced three times. Her paranoia of secrets becoming public manifested in outrageous anger, while a quarter-point jump in her stock portfolio brought on a champagne and caviar celebration. Paige’s phases between mania and depression kept Nathan continuously guessing and re-tooling. There had been no tell-tale signs of shifting winds, yet he managed to keep her reputation on an even keel.
These last few months were a bit more tranquil. He was comfortable with her displacement of confidence and defiance, in equal measure. The tide receded, and calm returned. Now, on this fourth harbor call without a horizon in sight, he wondered, what sweet chaos will try to capsize me this time?
"Welcome aboard," she said, offering her hand, which he took in his uneasily. "Have a seat, help yourself to a drink. We have much to discuss. Isn't the view beautiful here?"
"Indeed." Nathan learned early on that fewer words kept him without regret.
"Well, let's get right to it." Her eyes held a sparkle that set Nathan into worry mode. Her plans and schemes, which usually profited her happily, rarely worked out well for those on the periphery. He was wary of what was to come.
"As you know, I’ve been searching for some time for a more effective approach for our marketing program. Three months ago, I sent Aaren on a quest for a new social shaman to shepherd a resurrection of the company’s public persona. After quite a diligent search, she connected me, through several SKYPE sessions, with a brilliant gentleman named Thomas Laird," she said, picking up a page from an open file on the table next to her. "He comes highly recommended, a veteran writer with the Detroit Free Press. I'm told he was a wizard at reporting disasters. Even in the worst of times, he spins stories in ways that increase his audience rather than alienating them. That's exactly what we need here, don't you think? Our marketing program has grown stale... we need someone to jazz things up just a bit. We had a final Skype call two weeks ago, and everything seems in order. Legal checked his background. He starts on Friday. I want you to keep an eye on him. Make sure he understands the company... but also, make sure he understands the town. You know just as well as I do that in order to bring all our plans to fruition over the long haul, he will need to understand our business and our culture."
"I'm not quite sure what you're asking of me, ma'am. I mean, I get that he'll need a mentor to get through MouseTrax and its infrastructure... but I'm not sure what else I can do..." Nathan detected an eerily strong undertow in her request. He wanted to be certain of her intentions and her expectations. Getting it wrong could not only put his job–but his reputation–in jeopardy. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
"All right, Nathan, let me put it to you plainly. I need you to watch him. Make sure he is the man we want and need in this capacity. If he produces the kind of effects that have been insinuated to me, our profit margin could triple next year. Give him as much rope as he needs to string up others, but not enough to hang himself. Understand? I want to make sure he gets everything he needs to make waves and propel us into the next decade with our competitors cheering. Spare no expense... Spare no networking opportunities. Make what he wants to happen... happen. Oh, and keep this away from the Board. I don't need their infantile meddling complicating things. Am I clear?" Nathan silently nodded his comprehension.
Paige set down her drink, stood, and descended the galley ladder. When she returned, Nathan stood, and she handed him a noticeably padded, plain, white envelope. "This should make up for any inconvenience you may encounter."
"Of course, I'll take care of it," Nathan said reluctantly. He liked succinct directions; and this was far too vague for him. Thomas, this new guy, had just become Paige's latest pet project, and Nathan was now his keeper. This had every mark of not ending well... and yet, it would. Paige demanded it, and there was little she was ever denied.
"Are you hungry? We could go to the clubhouse and get a bite." Just that fast, Paige shifted gears again.
"No, thank you; I grabbed something before I came over, and I’m meeting up with friends in a little while for St. Paddy’s Day stuff." Although he had no choice in accepting her assignments, that didn't mean he had to spend his personal time with her. He knew there was more to this woman. He often felt she kept secrets, even from him. He suspected there was more to this particular assignment than she told him. He also knew that asking for more than she was willing to volunteer was dangerous water to navigate, fraught with unknown rapids and invisible reefs. He rationalized it was best to leave it alone for now, but it gnawed at his gut. It was too much uncertainty. He preferred gentle stability over impromptu risk indulgence.
"Suit yourself," she said, sitting back in her deck chair. She took up her drink once again. "I'll see you at the office on Monday. I'm out tomorrow and Friday. Call Aaren or my cell if there are any developments." It was over. He was dismissed.
"Very good. Thank you." Nathan said, quickly disembarking, heading back down the dock toward the security of the city streets.
Paige noticed the crimson and amber hue beginning to streak against the western sky. She recalled the old mariner's adage; "red sky at night, sailor's delight." She took it as a good omen. She let a wry smile sneak past her lips. My plan is beginning to take shape. Even Blackbeard would be proud.
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