The call did not come at a good time for Brad. He had just walked six blocks to get home from In-and-Out, where his car, a 1989 Buick, had decided to die while he sat in line waiting for his cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake. Two young men, who were probably high school seniors or recent graduates, flew out with paper hats on to shove his car into the parking lot as if this were a daily occurrence only somewhat more amusing than working like cogs in a small box.
The cheeseburger was cold, the fries tasted rubbery and the shake was strawberry and not vanilla. He sat on a sofa, munching his lunch and wondering what to do about his car, a clanky, coughing rust bucket monstrosity of a money pit that had already left him so much in debt for repairs that he didn’t have the money for a new car or even a serviceable used one.
On the coffee table in front of him were a neat stack of bills in little white envelopes that made his body from the waist down feel like a sack of stones sitting on quicksand. Gas, electricity, automobile insurance, mortgage, telephone, four nearly maxed-out credit cards. On a good month-and this was not one of them-he had anywhere from two to three hundred dollars left in his titter tottering checking account. And almost every month, like vicious clockwork, he had to cough up even more money to the bank for his overdraft protection.
The DVD player on the television had recently jammed so that he could no longer rent movies, a loss keenly felt by a man who had just given up basic cable to keep costs down. His old electric razor had nipped him this morning so he knew he had to buy a new screen for it. Two lights in the living room were burned out, the carpet was so threadbare that he was ashamed to have anyone come over, his pants were starting to shred at the cuffs, he didn’t have one pair of socks that didn’t have a hole at the heel and when it rained he had to put a plastic bucket in the middle of the kitchen to catch the water.
In all of his 44 years he had never been so poor. As a chauffer he had made pretty good money, and when Brenda, a Rite Aid manager, had lived with him cash was always at hand for eating out, taking trips and paying bills. Then Hi-Life, the company that had employed him for the past 13 years, died as quickly as his Buick; and Brenda left him almost as suddenly, saying that she wanted to get married-just not to him.
He had often thought of packing up a few things and just leaving, maybe for another state, and letting the bank take the house and everything else. But he liked the house. His mother had lived there for the last 11 years of her life and so it reminded him of the house he had grown up in so many happy years ago in Tarzana. She had left it to him, along with the $100,080 mortgage which, he knew, was small in comparison to what most people owed for the roof over their head.
“I should be able to make do,” he had started muttering to himself on occasion.
Brad finished his lunch, then stuffed balled up napkins and wrappers into the white paper bag it had come in. He thought about taking a hot shower and then remembered that he had to do something about his car. After pulling out a half dozen pieces of paper, an old library card and his driver’s license, he finally found his Southern California Automobile Club card and saw that, mercifully, it had not yet expired.
There was still a God.
He turned it over in his hands, read the number on the back and then picked up a slim, sliver cordless phone Brenda had brought back once from Rite Aid.
It was at that instant that the phone rang right in the palm of his hand.
For a split second he thought that maybe it was the triple A, calling him.
Hey Brad, is your car okay?
Well, that would be service.
“Hello,” he said.
“Is this Mister Loomis?” a man’s voice said.
“That would be me,” Brad said heavily, wondering what charitable organization was about to ask him for money. Boy, did they have the wrong number!
“Yes sir, that would be me,” Brad repeated.
“Well, Mister Loomis, you probably don’t remember me. My name is Chad Davis. You drove me to LAX several times. I tried calling Hi Life but was told they’re no longer in business.”
“I remember you, of course,” Brad said. “But if you’re looking for a driver…”
“No, no, I’m calling for an entirely different reason. I’m calling on behalf of a client of mine. I think you remember that I’m a lawyer?”
Brad remembered and gripped the phone hard. Great. Now what, he was being sued? Of course, the end of a perfect day.
“Anyway,” Chad Davis, attorney-at-law, continued. “As I said, I’m calling on behalf of one of my clients. Is this a good time to talk?”
“Well,” Brad breathed into the speaker. “I suppose. What’s this about?”
“I have a client who asked me to, well, select a suitable candidate. A business proposition, you might say. For some reason you came to mind. I think that it might be to your advantage to meet with him. Are you still there?”
“I’m here,” Brad said, feeling his pulse quicken. He still had his chauffeur’s license. Maybe things were starting to look up. A job driving some rich guy could be a good gig. He had always liked driving and was tired of working at a hardware store run by a fat, hot-tempered Greek with hair coming out of the back of his shirt like a thousand short fuses.
“Good, good. I’m not at liberty to tell you the name of my client over the phone but I thought that we might get together for dinner. Are you free tonight?”
“I am,” Brad said.
“Excellent,” Chad Davis said. “What about, say, six?”
Brad said that six would be fine and then gave the lawyer his address.
“Fine, fine. You decide which restaurant and I’ll meet you at six.”
Brad sat looking at the phone in his hand for so long that it started to beep. He pressed the off key and took a deep breath.
Well, that was weird. Opportunity had come knocking when he least expected it. Sometimes, he knew, things just worked out that way, although he had come close to giving up hope. As someone on the radio once said, if you know how to ask the universe will provide. Maybe without even knowing it he had asked.
Chad Davis was a young looking man with short, white hair that stood straight up on his head. He had a large mouth that smiled easily and often. His face was long and his gray eyes were close together, giving him a look that was intense but not uncomfortably penetrating. When he spoke his head moved from side to side as if everything he said could be taken with a pinch of well intended irony. He wore a navy blue sports jacket, a white, pin stripped shirt and a tie with the faint outline of little birds flying into each other and merging. His blue slacks looked crisp, as if they had been ironed an hour ago and he had on soft looking white shoes that sparkled.
Brad sat across from him in Domenico’s, an Italian restaurant, feeling like a chunk of carnival fudge next to an elegant, four star hotel dessert. He had on his best white shirt with no tie and a pair of gray slacks that felt like strips of tired cloth. His dull, heavy brown shoes must look, he thought, as if they had just come from the set of a Frankenstein movie.
“I must have sounded like a man of mystery over the phone,” Chad said, displaying rows of perfect, white teeth.
Brad shrugged. A waiter who looked as if he had spent a lifetime eating pasta was coming their way. He looked at the prices on the menu with some alarm, hoping the good lawyer would pick up the tab, telling himself not to give himself away by ordering the cheapest dish he could find.
“Well,” he said. “It did strike me as more than a little strange to tell you the truth. What’s this all about?”
Chad shrugged in turn, continuing to smile, and said, “Why don’t we order and then I’ll spill the little bag of beans I have.”
They ate in silence for the first few minutes of their meal. Brad had ordered linguini in white clam sauce and was surprised to see that it came with whole clams still in the shell. He sipped at his red wine, wishing that he had stuck to his guns and ordered a beer instead of going along with what Chad had suggested. Although he didn’t normally drink wine he did have to admit, though, that this particular red wasn’t bad.
“I have a client you may have heard of,” Chad said, winding pasta onto his fork with a spoon.
Brad looked up, nodded. He took a sip of his ice water, trying not to look either impressed or sullen. He had spent the day telling himself not to expect anything but he nonetheless couldn’t help a feeling of keen anticipation. It wasn’t everyday, after all, that a lawyer called him up out of the blue to invite him to dinner.
Brad set his glass down. In the background Dean Martin sang about the moon hitting you in the eye like a big pizza pie. He had always wondered what it would be like to be hit in the eye with a pizza. And why would a pizza be called a pie? It wasn’t anything like a pie.
“You mean,” Brad said, expecting to be told, ‘no, of course not’, “the Raymond Rutherford?”
“Exactly,” Chad said, setting down his fork as if it were a fragile piece of jewelry. “The Raymond Rutherford.”
“Raymond Rutherford,” Brad said, feeling his eyes widen to owl proportions. “Is your client?”
“Well, let me put it this way,” Chad said, picking up his wine glass by the stem. “I’ve done some consulting work for some of his firms. So you can be impressed but not too impressed.”
“He’s one of the richest men…” Brad started to say.
“Actually, according to reliable sources, he is the richest man on the entire face of the planet,” Chad said, looking straight into Brad’s eyes.
“You ever meet him?” Brad said.
“No. But I have spoken to him by phone. He wants to meet you.”
Brad put his hands under the table to see if his legs were still there. He suddenly felt as if he couldn’t hear anything even though he could hear the other diners, Dean Martin and the thudding of his own heart. A sickening feeling of weakness flowed through him and he had to resist the urge to giggle. The whole thing had to be a joke, a gag, but why? Was he sitting across from a man who was actually insane? He could not have heard that right.
“…so this is the deal, if you’re still with me,” Chad said after he had said something else Brad hadn’t caught. “If you agree to meet with him personally a driver will pick you up Saturday morning, take you to the airport. On arrival another driver will take you to Rutherford’s estate. After the meeting you’ll spend the night there, then fly back. All you have to do is say yes.”
“Why in hell would Raymond Rutherford want to see a man like me!”
“Brad,” Chad said, smoothing the napkin on his lap. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know. All I do know for sure is that it might be in your interest to see him. If nothing comes of it you have nothing to lose. You will have at least, I’m sure, a pleasant weekend with all expenses paid and a pretty good story to tell. So. It’s up to you. I’ll leave you my number if you want to think about it.”
“I don’t know what there is to think about,” Brad said. He knew that he was sitting in a restaurant and that his dead car, towed by a driver who spoke Polish on a cell phone, waited for him like a rotting carcass in his driveway. He knew that he had to wait for his next pay check to have enough money for the mortgage. He knew that his life, however sad and ridiculous, made a certain amount of sense. But this didn’t make any sense and every trustworthy cell in his brain told him to run and run far away.
“I mean, are you messing with me?”
Chad didn’t laugh, smile, shake his head or look away. He looked levelly into Brad’s eyes and said, “No.”
“You’re telling me something but you’re not telling me anything,” Brad said.
Chad picked up his napkin and then wiped his lips. His face suddenly seemed to fill up the room. When he spoke his voice was lower, as if coming from the center of his chest.
“I want to tell you something. You look at me and see, what? A suit? A big shot lawyer? When I was a freshman in college all I wanted to do was drink beer and hang out with friends who wanted to do the same. My parents didn’t think I’d amount to anything and I was determined to prove them right. One day I found out that I had just gotten a D in American history, so I thought that I’d go out and celebrate. I went to a bar. I thought that I’d have a few drinks and then go home and tell my parents that I was through with college. My big plan was to go to sea or deal cards in Las Vegas. In other words, I didn’t have a clue. And then, when I was sitting there with my beer, my whole life flashed in front of me, like I was drowning, and I felt this incredible despair. It felt like I had spent my life telling a joke that was no long funny. Then this guy at the other end of the bar starts talking to the bartender. He’s telling a story about getting into a fight with his neighbor, how it turned into a fist fight and how this lawyer kept him from going to jail. Just like that something clicked in my brain. I suddenly had a vision of what I could do. If I hadn’t gone to that particular bar at that exact time in my state of confusion, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Call it coincidence, call it an act of divine intervention, all I know is that sometimes we are at the right place at the right moment and the question is, what do we do next.
“Raymond Rutherford asked me to write out a list of names. I don’t know for sure why I wrote yours. When you drove me to LAX once I remember getting into a conversation about health and you told me that you really were one of those rare people who have never been sick a day in his life. For some reason that stuck in my mind. And as for not getting sick, it’s true. We checked. Don’t be so alarmed. No one has much privacy these days. I know that others were asked to make lists, too. For some reason you were picked. So. Here we are. The question is, what are you going to do?”
Like a magician performing a trick, Chad produced an envelope as if from thin air.
“This is for you,” he said, extending his arm. “You can keep it regardless of your decision.”
A half hour later Brad sat on his bed with the envelope resting on his lap. There was a large gold seal on the flap which filled Brad with a strange sense of dread, as if it were something that, once broken, could not be undone.
He stretched out on his back, closed his eyes and put the envelope on his chest. Visions of his parents swam up from a dark depth in his mind. They had both died relatively young, one of heart disease and the other of cancer. And yet he himself had never been sick a day in his life. Not even mumps, whooping cough, measles, flu or even the common cold. Why? And what did it have to do with Raymond Rutherford?
“I’ll wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a scar on my abdomen,” he said to himself and then shuddered instead of laughed.
Leaving the envelope with its gold seal face up on the bed, he took a long, hot shower. While lathering his face from a sliver of soap the joke about waking up in a tub of ice triggered a massive realization that left him stupefied. He could hardly believe that during his entire time with Chad he had failed to remember what had been in the headline news.
Raymond Rutherford, the 87-year-old reclusive billionaire, was dying.
Brad dried off quickly, put on an old pair of stripped pajamas and a thin blue robe his ex had given him for Christmas two years ago. He paced back and forth, looking at the envelope as if it were a bomb. Damn! Just a few hours ago all he had to worry about was his car and now this. He took out a pack of Swisher Sweet cigars but then put them back. The seal twinkled at him like a large gold eye. I see you it seemed to say.
What are you going to do?
He sat down next to the envelope, picked it up and then flapped it against the palm of his hand. All I have to do, he told himself, is open it; but when he tried his heart began to thud in his chest like a rubber hammer.
“Well, it’s here, I have it so I might as well,” he said.
The seal popped open easily. Feeling himself start to sweat all over he slid out the contents and then sat there staring with a mixture of terror, delight and awe. In his hand were a note and five crisp one hundred dollar bills.
“Dear Mr. Loomis, I hope to make your acquaintance in the next few days. Please accept this small token of my gratitude in exchange for whatever inconveniences my solicitation may have caused you.
“Jesus H Christ.” Brad, a good Catholic who rarely took the Lord’s name in vain, said.
He tried to watch television but turned it off after only a few seconds. After sitting cross legged on his bed for what seemed like hours he finally took off his robe and crawled into bed. With the light still on he stared up at the ceiling. The last time he had felt this way, he thought, was when he was four or five and afraid of monsters under his bed. He had five hundred dollars for doing, what? Getting a free meal? Having been a driver once for one of his lawyers?
It was around 3 in the morning before he fell into a restless sleep. He was in the old house in Tarzana, wandering room to room as if he were a disembodied ghost. His mother, wearing a Hawaiian print mu-mu over her large frame, took something on fire out of the oven. He floated into the living room, which quickly turned dark, and then he was outside in the driveway, looking at his dad. The old man stood in his faded blue jeans, looking up at the black sky. His salt and pepper hair was tied back in its familiar ponytail; and his body looked skeletal, as if there were not enough muscles to keep it from collapsing in on itself. He wasn’t talking but seemed to whisper directly into his son’s mind.
you know what they say, boy
money buys everything
It was called a waiting room but it was the largest waiting room he had ever seen in his life. The floor looked like a great, flowing mosaic of black, charcoal and pearl white marble. The windows were enormous, out of which Brad could see what looked like a private forest. Black sofas and chairs were arranged in a semi-circle on a huge Persian rug, bookcases made of gleaming gold colored wood lined one wall and a black grand piano slept in a corner, letting light pool and slip off its smooth ivory keys.
Brad sank into one of the sofas, looked at the new clothes he had bought with part of his new found wealth, and then looked again at his watch. After spending four hours in one plane, 45 minutes on another and then riding in a limousine for an hour and a half, he had been kept waiting in this room for over two hours and felt tired, achy and light-headed. Every 30 minutes, like clock-work, a young woman with short blonde hair and a skirt that came all the way to her ankles came in to ask him, with an apologetic smile on her bright little face, if he wanted coffee, tea or something to eat.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Brad said the last time she came in.
“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. “If you want, I could turn on a radio or a television for you.”
“I don’t think so but thank you,” Brad said, trying to hide his nervousness.
“Well, if you need anything just pick up the phone over there on the table,” she said, pointing.
“Okay,” Brad said, wondering what she would say to him once she knew that this had all been a mistake, that he had no business being there in the first place.
Oh dear, um, I’m afraid we have to ask you to leave now
There were magazines on the table but they were all Golf Digest and Southern Living. He thought that if they knew so much about him why they hadn’t bothered to leave a few football or car magazines around. Well, he was in the world of the rich now, and apparently the rich cared only about golf and gracious living on the plantation.
With every passing minute he felt more like an unwelcome guest who arrived late and now won’t leave. He got up, stretched, and then walked around the room for the eighth or ninth time, stopping to look out the window at enormous fir trees a hiker could walk around on wide, well-tended paths.
He went to the bathroom, shut the door and looked at himself in the large, gold framed mirror. Nerves tingled from the base of his spine all the way up to the back of his neck. A billionaire wanted to see him. A dying billionaire. He studied his face. A friend in high school had once said that he looked like a sleepy hippo. With his heavy cheeks, small eyes, little ears and large forehead, he supposed that he did look like a sleepy, rather stupid hippo.
“What in the hell have you gotten yourself into,” he said.
He washed his hands with soap that smelled of lavender and then dried them with the softest towel he had ever felt. When he opened the door he was afraid that the little blonde girl would be standing there, but the big room was empty. Outside, the sun tossed medallions of gold on the trunks of the trees. By his watch it was four o’clock, or at least it was four in California.
The golf magazines were as boring as he had expected. He wanted this to be over but he also wished that nothing would happen and that he would just go home. It was like the time he had joined the navy, sitting on a bus that would take him to San Diego. During the entire trip he silently prayed that the bus would never stop, that he could sit there forever and never face the horrors of boot camp.
“Well, I’m here, so I might as well get through it,” he said, tossing a magazine to the table and then looking with trepidation at the phone. What if it rang and was the automobile club?
Hey, Brad. Triple A here. We just wanted to know what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into.
Almost an hour went by before the little blonde girl came back in. For a moment he couldn’t remember her name but knew that it reminded him of a musical. Annie, that was it. Like the orphan girl with the blank, spooky eyes.
“Mister Loomis,” she said, holding her hands together in front of her stomach. “Mister Rutherford will see you now.”
Brad stood up, wishing he had taken her offer earlier of something to eat. But then his stomach clenched and he thought better of it.
“Okay,” he said with a dry mouth and dry lips that felt sticky.
He followed her into the hallway and was greeted by a young man who was also thin and blond.
“Thank you, Annie,” the man said. “Hi, Mister Loomis. Why don’t you follow me?”
Brad began to walk, wonder when he had been called mister so many times in one day. The young man wore a powder blue coat that matched the outfit Annie wore. He wondered if it was a kind of uniform.
“Sorry for the long wait,” the man said. “You have a good flight?”
“I ate some pretty good food,” Brad said. “But I’d already seen the movies.”
The young man responded with a genuine, good-natured laugh.
“Flying first class is pretty nice, uh?”
“That it is,” Brad had to admit. “And the bar in the limo was well stocked.”
“Well, I’ll show you on in,” the man said, opening a door that looked as if it were made of solid oak. “My name is Alfred, by the way. When you’re ready to come out you can eat in your room or we’ll have someone take you to one of our local restaurants. Any thing you want.”
“That sounds fine,” Brad said. “Thank you.”
He walked into the room expecting to find it dark, gloomily furnished, full of medical equipment and permeated with the smell of medicine and sickness. Instead, he walked into a large, warm but airy room filled with bright greens and comforting yellows. A glass door at one end displayed like a picture frame an outdoor courtyard with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Large, luminous landscapes hung on the walls. A few strange, Egyptian looking sculptures stood like polished black sentinels in the corners. A fire had been lit in the fireplace. There was a hint of disinfectant but more of leather and vanilla candles.
The great man himself was not in bed, as Brad had feared, but was sitting in a chair dressed in a white sweater, white slacks and a pair of brown slippers. His small head was entirely hairless. Brad had seen that kind of baldness before as he watched his father die. It said radiation and chemo. Small translucent tubes were attached to his nose on one end and a blue tank on the other. His skin was gray and slack but the eyes were bright, blue and lively.
“Please come in, Mister Loomis,” Raymond Rutherford said in a voice that was small and weak but not unpleasant. It reminded Brad of someone who had once made television programs for children.
Brad approached on carpet that felt soft and deep enough to sleep on. His hands hung at his sides, clenched and sweaty. So this is it, he thought. Rich man, poor man. Should he bow or get on his knees?
As if reading his mind the old man pointed to a chair next to him. “Have a seat, please. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Strength is our only true wealth, I’ve always thought, and mine must be carefully conserved these days.”
Brad sat down. He put his hands on his knees and tried to smile with a face that felt like a rubber mask.
“I’m so happy to meet you at last,” the old man said.
“Thank you,” Brad said in a voice he hoped was not too stiff.
“Chad said some very nice things about you. I know you must have a great many questions and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can. It was very kind of you to respond to my invitation. There must be a part of you that has a sense of adventure. A strange message from someone you’ve never met. A journey into the unknown. What is it all about?”
Brad had to suppress a nervous giggle. “Well, sir,” he said. “I can’t imagine why you would want to meet me of all people.”
Raymond Rutherford put his head down. For a second Brad was afraid that he would fall asleep. Or die.
“Call it what you will,” his host said, lifting up a face that, Brad thought, must have been handsome once. ”Fate, coincidence, the working out of divine providence. I’m not the philosophical type. I grew up working in my father’s machine shop and never made it past high school. Some questions, I believe, are better left to others. If I need to know something I ask and if something works I leave it alone. Call it a simple formula for a successful life. For whatever reason you are here, here you are. To come straight to it, I’m prepared to offer you a deal.”
He said the word deal like ‘deel’, as if to emphasize its rhyme to steel. Or steal.
“You don’t have to sign any contracts,” Raymond Rutherford said. “Just hear me out, and if you say yes I will authorize the transfer of twelve million dollars into your bank account. Having said that, do you want me to continue?”
Brad felt something in his chest cave in. This was worse than what he had expected. He wasn’t being offered a job-how could he anyway since the man was dying?-but now he knew that what he was face to face with was some kind of dementia. Still, he thought, Chad had been right anyway. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
“I don’t understand,” Brad found himself saying slowly. “What is it you want?”
“Oh a great many things,” the old billionaire said with a look of resignation on his tired, gray face. “Some of which I can get, others not. The world is in one hell of a fix, don’t you agree? I don’t think that I’m indispensable but there are a few things of importance I’d like to see to completion. Time, in other words, is what I want. What you are really asking me is what I want from you, correct?’
“Yes,” Brad said.
The old man fixed him with his blue, lively eyes and said, “it’s very simple, Mister Loomis. I want you to die for me.”
Brad felt the tip of his nose and his lips turn numb. This was far beyond dementia. This was insanity.
“The money will be yours to do with as you wish for as long as you can,” Raymond Rutherford said calmly, as if he had just asked Brad to drive him to the airport.
“I don’t understand,” Brad said. “Are you…you want to kill me or something? Donate my heart or lungs?”
“Nothing of the kind, Mister Loomis. Nothing of the kind. No operation and no one will touch a hair on your head. All you have to do is say yes and then go home. A little agreement between us is all I’m asking. You won’t have to do a thing.”
Brad sat back in his chair and emptied his lungs through his open mouth. A part of him wanted to tell the decrepit bastard to go to hell but another part said, hell, why not humor the old goat? Sure, why not? The guy was nuts and he didn’t stand to see a penny of his money but what if he did say yes? What harm could it do? He spent money every week on the lottery. Maybe this had better odds.
“Okay, Mister Rutherford,” Brad said, looking at how the old man brightened like a magician who has just pulled off a trick he didn’t expect to work. “Yes. That’s my answer.”
Two weeks later Brad awakened at his usual time even though he no longer had a job to go to. The first time he had looked at his bank statement he had felt his knees turn to wet sand. Raymond Rutherford had been as good as his word. By merely saying yes to a man who was probably not in his right mind he had become a multi-millionaire.
At first he had been happy-euphoric, really, but then something seemed to catch up to him. He sat on the edge of the bed, looked down at the floor, thought of his parents and how much he still missed them and said with bitterness in the pit of his stomach, “No, dad. Money doesn’t buy everything.”
He thought about what he had planned that day and cheered up a little. First, he would go to a restaurant and have breakfast, buy a new car (his first new car ever), come back home, put on a pot of coffee, sit at the kitchen table and begin writing out his business plan for Loomis Limousine Service. He thought that it would keep him busy and provide jobs for a few people. Not a bad reason to start any new business, he thought.
As he shuffled to the bathroom to shave and brush his teeth he turned on the television. He washed his hands, took out his toothbrush and heard the news that Raymond Rutherford had been seen in public for the first time in months at the opening of a new art gallery.
“Good for him,” Brad said, thinking about his own new life. This was going to be some day. It would be a day in which he would discover a whole new relationship to money and time.
It would also be the day he discovered a small, strange lump on the back of his left shoulder.