unfair advantage

Unfair Advantage

Issue 45 by Daniel Chawner

Unfair Advantage

“He’s screwing up,” said the voice in Eileen’s ear. “He’s going to lose the mark.”

Eileen frantically typed send apps now on her iPad. A server appeared from the compact kitchen and placed a bowl of roasted cauliflower and a plate of sliced cheeses with olives and honeycomb on a wine barrel table.

“Gentlemen, let me tell you about our starters.” Eileen watched from her seat at the bar as the black-haired, wide-hipped server launched into a description of the food. Bright midday sunlight filled the small, high-ceilinged wine bar. Eileen shifted slightly on the barstool to block the light and remove the glare from the iPad screen. One half of the screen displayed a video feed of Punit glancing at his phone, the other half a chat window.

“Okay Roger, settle down. Let the server talk about the apps. This is all part of the plan,” said the voice in Eileen’s ear. Punit loved these appetizers. They knew a lot about him; his favorite music, opinions on business matters, family details, and psych profile. Eileen and her partner had been studying Punit for the last week.

Have him talk about his kids, college, Eileen typed into the chat. Roger needed to establish common ground.

A few seconds later Chen said, “Roger, next bring up your kids and where they want to go to school.” Chen was a few blocks away at CityPlace, in their office. He was the coach on this gig, the person who talked to Roger.

The video feed shook as Roger touched his ear. They had rehearsed this meeting for hours. One of the first rules was to never touch your ear. They weren’t Secret Service agents.

This phase of the conversation was critical. Punit prided himself on reading people quickly, so Roger needed to make a good impression now.

“Ah, last night, I was talking with my daughter about college . . .” Roger launched into his prepared bit about his kids. Eileen looked up from her iPad and watched Punit. The large-bellied Indian with thick, black hair, lively eyes, and a bright-yellow Oxford shirt listened to Roger as he popped hunks of cauliflower into his mouth. When Roger mentioned NYU, Punit smiled and leaned forward.

Got him, Eileen typed to Chen.

Yes, but Roger is nervous. His vitals are high.

Eileen toggled her screen to read Roger’s vitals. Roger wore a hidden video camera on his chest, an earpiece, and a watch that measured his heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. His heart rate and blood pressure were twenty percent above normal.

Give him some love, texted Eileen. She brushed back her chestnut hair from her face. This was Roger and Punit’s first in-person meeting—referred to as the Hook Meeting. They wanted Punit to like Roger, enough to get him to set up a second meeting. Roger had hired Eileen and Chen to help him get a high-paying job at Punit’s wealth management company.

Chen spoke soothingly to Roger. Eileen toggled back to the video feed and watched Punit smile and laugh. So far, so good. Eileen took a sip of her pinot noir and thought about where the conversation should go next and when to play Punit’s favorite music.

Then Chen texted Eileen, Where is he going with this?!!!

Eileen concentrated on Roger’s speech. He made his employment pitch to Punit.

Switching chat windows, Eileen typed Wine, now!

The server quickly returned. On the video screen, Punit’s smile disappeared. He leaned back in his chair and listened to the server explain the wine selection.

“Roger, slow down. Don’t mention business yet. Our next topic is—”

“No,” said Roger. Punit and the server looked at him.

The server said, “I’m sorry, sir. Is this not the wine you were interested in?”

Chen, with an edge in his voice, said, “Roger, you can’t talk to us. And you can’t talk about business. Trust us. His MO is that he needs to trust you.”

Punit and the server stared at Roger. Chen said, “Smile at them and say, ‘No, I love the wine.’”

Roger slowly repeated his line. The server poured the wine and chatted about the vineyard. Punit continued to look at Roger with a blank expression, his body rigid and upright.

We are losing Punit. Talk him through this. Start with the wine shtick.

Roger recited what Chen said. Punit smiled again, sipped his Sonoma County blend and relaxed his shoulders.

This happened often with new clients, Eileen reminded herself. They were stubborn and didn’t take instruction well. Half of her job was nudging them back on course.

The rest of the conversation went as planned. They shared two small plates—Cuban sandwich and grilled cheese—and talked themselves into a third glass of wine. Chen provided constant feedback and prompts to Roger, who became more comfortable as the lunch progressed. After Roger settled the bill, they shook hands and Punit offered to have him come by the office next week. Punit stepped out of The Blind Monk wine bar into the midday Florida sun and waddled to his black Mercedes.

Roger lingered in the bar and pretended to look at his phone. After Punit pulled away, Roger glanced over at Eileen and shrugged. She mouthed “Go,” and made a pushing motion with her hand. Roger nodded and went out through the door.

Eileen smiled at the server behind the bar. “Thanks again Rachel, everything was great. As usual.”

“You got it, hon. Love to help,” said Rachel.

Eileen finished the pinot, pulled out her earpiece, and grabbed her iPad. “See you later,” she said and headed for the door.

Rachel waved goodbye and palmed the two $100 bills left under Eileen’s glass.

#

Eileen stepped into the blistering Florida sun. She had lived in West Palm Beach for the last six months but still hadn’t adjusted to the heat. The last gulp of pinot, long sleeves, and pants didn’t help. She put on her oversized sunglasses and headed off to the debrief session.

Eileen had set up her business, Unfair Advantage, six months ago. The proximity to affluent families and companies in Palm Beach, along with the low state taxes and rapid urban expansion made it ideal. The lack of a winter helped too. Eileen always hated the winter’s low grey sun in New Jersey, leading to months trapped indoors, and the inevitable weight gain.

Eileen’s iPhone vibrated in her back pants pocket. It was Chen.

Roger is here. Should we wait for you to start?

Yes, will be there in ten. Give him some water.

Eileen wished that she and Chen didn’t have to do the minor tasks like coordinate schedules and retrieve water. But there were only two of them. UA headquartered out of her small two-bedroom condo. Her bedroom and en-suite bathroom were her private space; the kitchen, living room, and sitting room served as a small but workable office space. The smaller bedroom doubled as storage and equipment prep.

As Eileen turned onto South Olive, she walked past the foundation for another new high rise. The hammering of heavy equipment and the beeping of trucks reversing filled the street. Eileen thought ahead to the debrief with Roger and Chen. Her first instinct was to lay into Roger for going off script and ignoring almost everything they had prepped him on. She mouthed “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you do what we told you? You paid us for our expertise, use it!”

Eileen exhaled and closed her eyes. She couldn’t say these things to a client, but it felt great to vent, if only to herself.

Instead, she would compliment him and say everything went according to plan. If Roger brought up his mistakes, she and Chen would tell him most clients struggle at first.

Eileen needed this gig to go well. When she broke off from her former employer, Black Edge, she hadn’t expected how hard it would be to find clients. Roger Harris was only their second client, and the first one to pay the rate she expected.

#

After Chen reviewed the lunch meeting, Roger asked, “So what happens next? How do we get him to hire me?”

Eileen and Chen answered at the same time. Chen closed his mouth and gestured at Eileen. “We don’t get him to hire you, remember? We set up the environment to be as optimized as possible. So, we know that Punit is a morning person, as long as he gets his coffee. He makes a lot of positive decisions in the morning and argues more in the afternoon. We’ll make sure, when you get invited next week to his office, that you are his first appointment.”

Roger looked at Eileen and scowled. “It will take more than a caffeine buzz to get me the job.”

Eileen gestured back to Chen, who said, “I’ll be in your ear. We know what he wants... he wants to tell his clients he is upgrading his tech, but he doesn't want to worry about it. And, he wants to do it on the cheap. So we’ll hit his sweet spots.”

Roger swiveled his gaze between Chen and Eileen. “I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like you're doing enough, for the money. Can’t you hack him or some shit?”

“No,” said Eileen, while she stared intently at Roger. “We don’t do that. There are some in our, uh, industry that operate in the margins. We don’t. We do public info, data analysis, some old-school intel on coworkers. Combined with our expertise in negotiation and influence, of course.”

“I heard Black Edge can hack and create problems....” Roger searched their faces for any trace of cooperation.

“You know we used to work there. Neither of us ever did anything like that.”

“Yeah, okay. It’s just that I need this job. And I need it to pay something like I used to make,” said Roger.

Chen swiped on his iPad. “Looks like you used to make one million, all in?”

Roger nodded.

“Punit won’t do more than $600K. Anything more and you’d be the highest-paid person at his firm. Remember, part of our play is how you will save him money.”

Roger shook his head. “$600K will be tough, I have support and alimony now. I’ll barely afford a place to live.”

“Chen is a master negotiator. And he has an advanced psych profile on Punit. He will get you the best offer possible. Although it may take more lunches,” said Eileen.

“Okay,” said Roger, as he leaned back and yawned. “We good?”

#

Chen closed the door behind Roger. Looking back at Eileen, he rolled his eyes. “What a piece of work.”

“Yeah,” said Eileen. “He is definitely high maintenance. We would have charged him extra when we were swimming with the sharks.”

“Well, Black Edge wouldn’t have even taken the gig. Too small for them. They didn’t touch anything under half a million. Everything they did was high-end. I loved flying business class and getting black cars,” said Chen.

“Yeah, well.” Eileen grabbed a water bottle out of the refrigerator. “That is the goal.”

She took a sip and leaned against the black marble countertop. “When I joined Black Edge, they already had that aura, that exclusive feel. I don’t know how Alistair built that up. I wish I did.”

Chen smiled. “We’ll be like that soon, yeah? High-end, with an aura?”

“The aura part would be nice,” said Eileen. “I want us to keep it above the belt, though. Roger was asking about that black ops stuff, I heard about that as well. Rumor was that bitch Hayley’s elite team ran them.”

“Still mad at her?”

“She told me I’d never make the elite team, that I was only there because I was Alistair’s pet. Part of the reason I left.” Eileen chugged the rest of her bottle of water.

“Any more leads?” asked Chen. “We’ll be done with Roger in a few days, maybe a week.”

“Nothing solid yet. I’m shaking the trees,” said Eileen. She looked away from Chen. Their situation was precarious. They needed this gig to go well and to find another high-paying client.

“Got it. Did you want to hang out tonight?”

Eileen paused as she considered what to say next. She knew that Chen didn’t have many friends in West Palm. He was socially awkward, especially around women. They had bonded at Black Edge. That bond, paired with his unique skill set, was the reason she had asked him to join her. Lately, though, she had picked up on a different vibe from him. She caught him looking at her and making offers to get together, especially after work.

“Ah, I have to get on a call with some contacts. Maybe we can grab a late breakfast tomorrow, before working on Roger’s next move?”

“Okay, tomorrow morning then,” said Chen, gathering his laptop and notebook into a worn L.L.Bean backpack.

As Chen walked out the door, Eileen grabbed the empty water bottles and paper plates strewn throughout the office section of her apartment. Chen was good at his job but he was a slob. Piles of debris followed him wherever he went. She definitely didn’t hire him for his cleaning skills. He was a psych major with a poker habit—a brilliant combination for the role of coach.

As she tidied up, Eileen considered how to spend the rest of the day. She should probably work through her limited set of contacts again to see if there were any fresh leads. Unfair Advantage had started with her $50,000 bonus from Black Edge and $100,000 from her dad. The idea was to run a lower-cost version of Black Edge. Now she was about a month away from some hard decisions unless she found a new gig.

#

Eileen stretched and decided to run. It was still hot at 4 p.m., but bearable. Her favorite spot to run was up and down Lake Worth. She could see the storms off the coast, airplanes descend, and feel the ocean breeze. Starting at the Royal Park Bridge, she did a quick set of soccer-style active warm-ups and began a slow run southward.

Halfway to her turnaround point, Eileen approached two burly twenty-something men jogging in the opposite direction. They eyed her and turned to follow.

“Hey, great legs. Can we run with you?” one of the men shouted up to Eileen.

She quickened her pace.

The men stayed right behind her. She was in the open, on a wide concrete sidewalk with Lake Worth on one side and busy Flagler Drive on the other. In a few minutes, the path would veer away from the lagoon into a wooded area and she didn't want to lead them there. She abruptly stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass. As the men slowed, Eileen turned and sprinted in the opposite direction, back toward the bridge and her condo. She counted backward from thirty and tried to hold her maximum pace. She hoped the men couldn’t match her speed.

Eileen thought about what to do if they followed her. She had been a third-degree black belt in Korean Taekwondo, but it had been years since she trained, and she didn't want to test her rusty skills.

After the sprint, she slowed and looked over her shoulder. She couldn’t see the men. As Eileen struggled to take a breath, she slowed to a walk and wondered if she had overreacted. Maybe they were flirting, being bros. Despite knowing herself and trusting her gut, Eileen still doubted men’s intentions when directed at her. She cut her run in half.

Back in her condo, Eileen tried to transfer her workout from her watch to her phone via Bluetooth. When she tried to sync, the Garmin app showed two spinning arrows and never finished.

“Oh, what the fuck. This too?” she shouted as she threw her watch across the kitchen.

Eileen took a quick shower and decided to spend the rest of the night with a glass of wine and a movie. As she dried her hair she checked her phone for messages. One was from Alison, her old college friend who worked for a headhunter. Alison had connected her with Roger. The other message was from Roger.

This isn’t working for me. We’re done.

“No, no, no,” yelled Eileen. “He can’t fire us now.”

She thought back to the contract she had in place with Roger. It wasn’t as locked in as the ones Black Edge used. To save money she had copied a boilerplate consulting contract. Either party had the ability to walk away at any stage. So far Roger had paid a fee of $10,000 upfront and $15,000 for the first meeting. The remaining $25,000 was due after the final meetings with Punit.

She tried to get hold of Roger but her call immediately went to voicemail.

“Shit, shit, no,” said Eileen in her empty apartment. She sat down heavily on the couch and stared out the window. Eileen knew the contract left too much wiggle room for clients. Getting the contract tightened up was high on her list of things to do, but she had hoped to have more clients before putting a lawyer on retainer.

Eileen watched the traffic on Okeechobee crawl by, the sun setting slowly over the flat Florida horizon.

As the last rays disappeared, Eileen remembered the text from Alison. She picked up on the first ring.

“Hey Ally, it’s Ei. What’s up?”

“Nothing bitch, how about you?”

“Ugh, trying to survive the day. It’s been shitty so far. Looks like it may not work out with Roger,” said Eileen.

“Well, I had an interesting call today. There’s another guy looking for your type of services.”

Eileen sat up on the couch, wet hair dangling in front of her face. “Another rich guy looking for a job?”

“I’m actually not sure what this guy is looking for, but he seemed super loaded. He was working with my boss on recruiting some data scientists or something. Then he started talking about how to set up meetings and interviews and how he needed help. My boss referred him to me.”

“That’s great. Thank you for thinking of me. Where did you leave it with this dude?”

“Well, he asked a lot of questions, about what Unfair Advantage did, how I knew you, stuff like that.”

“Was he impressed with our five clean sheets during our championship season?” Eileen had been the keeper and Alison had been a fullback on The College of New Jersey soccer team. They were Division III champs their junior year.

“Yeah, maybe? He asked a ton about you... way more than Roger ever did. We talked for like thirty minutes. Anyway, he wants to meet you.”

“Ally, that’s amazing. Thank you so much, this is perfect timing. Can you give me his info? I’ll reach out to him tonight.”

Allison paused. “That’s the other weird thing. He wants to meet you tonight to discuss. At Buccan, at eight.”

“What? That’s in an hour! And he asked you to do this . . .”

“He didn’t really ask me to do anything. He sorta just said he would meet you tonight at eight at Buccan. Didn’t really ask if it was okay, or want to talk to you, or anything. I got the feeling he is used to making demands and people jumping.”

“Hmm, I don’t like being told to jump.”

“You don’t have to go. I can get his info from my boss and maybe you can—”

“Nah, I’ll go. I was just going to sit around and feel sorry for myself tonight, anyway. And I like the food there. Hopefully, this dude plans on picking up the check. So, what is his name, his company?”

“I never got his company name. When I looked him up on our system at work, they marked his information as private. His name is Rial Sita.”

“Okay then, I guess I got to get moving. Thanks again, Ally. I owe you two drinks now.”

“You better believe it. And good luck Ei.”

#

As Eileen printed out a color copy of her company’s promotional deck, she reflected on how much she hated sales. As the founder and leader of this two-person company, she had to find and land clients. She felt like she had to put on a fake persona during sales meetings. Clients liked to hear about success and she needed to help them envision how her unique services could help them.

On the Uber ride to Buccan, Eileen played through her normal shtick. Unfair Advantage would sit with a client and understand the problem and their desired outcome. They did copious amounts of research on the “mark,” tried to understand their likes, their moods, and any bias or weakness that could be exploited. Her team set up meetings in places the mark would feel open and relaxed, and the team would prep and walk the client through what to say. They backed their work with the latest technology and psych research.

In the black Mercedes S-Class, Eileen developed a knot in her stomach.

“Goddamn nerves,” she muttered to herself.

Usually, she combatted nerves with a lot of preparation. Midway through college, after years of struggling with school, she had learned that over-preparing for class, papers, and tests removed a lot of the anxiety and led to better results. But she didn’t have that luxury today. She would have to wing this presentation.

The Uber pulled up in front of Buccan at 8 p.m. She got out and walked past the valets and the small crowd of Palm Beach elite swirling around the sidewalk.

It was the typical Palm Beach high-society mix of men and women in their seventies. The men had suspiciously full white or brown hair, bright shirts with the top three buttons undone, and white capped smiles. The women looked like they were clones of one other, with the same blondish-gray hair permed above the shoulder, black dresses, thin frames, clunky gold jewelry, and frozen expressions stuck on high cheekbones. Eileen resisted the urge to stare and ask if they were all sisters.

She stepped up to the hostess station. It was an open, spacious restaurant with a small bar to the left. The dining area was high-ceilinged and loud. An open kitchen, a blur of stainless steel, flames, and smoke, dominated the far end. The hostess, a gaunt nineteen-year-old in a short blue dress, smiled. “Are you Eileen?”

Eileen looked at the waif. She knew a lot of the restaurant staff in West Palm and here in Palm Beach, but she didn’t recognize this hostess. Eileen smiled tightly and nodded.

The waif gestured for her to follow and walked into the crowded dining room. Eileen, with a tight grip on her presentation deck, followed. They snaked through a set of crammed tables and stopped in the center of the restaurant at a large table with a lone male diner.

“Mr. Sita, your guest is here.”

#

Eileen looked at Mr. Sita and stopped midstride.

He was thin with thick salt-and-pepper hair, pulled back into a small bun. He wore a black, slim-fit suit with a white shirt open at the collar. His thick-rimmed, tinted glasses looked back at Eileen.

“Please, join me. I’m very interested to see what your presentation—”

“Alistair?”

He smiled. “It is very nice to see you again, Eileen. You look well.”

Eileen exhaled and wobbled. She caught herself, thankful she wore loose pants and flats, rather than a skirt and heels.

“Rial Sita?”

“Yes. Why?”

Eileen had thought Rial Sita sounded exotic. Maybe Alistair was trying to pass himself off as a mysterious businessman. Then she smiled and said, “It’s an anagram of Alistair.”

“Very good,” he said. “Please, sit down.”

Eileen responded, “What the hell is this? Why are you here?”

Alistair extended his arm toward the empty seat across from him. “Please.”

Eileen sat down.

“Thank you. How are you? How long has it been?” asked Alistair.

“It’s been almost half a year.”

“Half a year since you left Black Edge,” he said. “But closer to a year since we’ve seen each other.”

Eileen had worked small gigs during her last six months at Black Edge. Alistair hadn’t been around for those; he only showed up for the multimillion gigs.

“Yes, at the off-site in Mexico.”

“And how are you enjoying West Palm?”

“It’s okay.”

Alistair leaned back in his chair and stared at Eileen, his pupils barely visible through his darkened lenses. He placed his elbows on the armrests of the chair and clasped his fingers together in front of his chest.

This was the classic Alistair pose. He liked to stare down at people in meetings. It forced the other party to squirm and talk, often revealing more than they had intended.

A waitress approached the table and launched into the standard greeting. Alistair kept his eyes on Eileen.

“Can I start you off with something to drink?” the waitress asked Alistair.

“Macallan 18, one cube,” he said.

The server turned toward Eileen. “And for you, ma’am?”

Eileen hated being referred to as ma’am. She was thirty, not seventy. Her reflexive reaction to the word snapped her out of the brain fog she was in since seeing Alistair.

“Can you run me through the wine options, per glass?”

“White or red?”

“Red,” said Eileen and turned away from Alistair to focus on the server.

As the server recited descriptions of the six different red wines, Eileen forced herself to go through a calming exercise. She took a few deep breaths and focused her attention on the server’s face. Specifically, on a large mole the server had on her cheek. It was brown and smooth, with a single dark hair protruding from the tip. As Eileen stared at the mole and breathed, her thoughts slowed down and she felt like she was in control again.

Eileen realized the server had stopped speaking and was looking at her.

“Ma’am?”

“Which glass is the most expensive?” asked Eileen.

“The Super Tuscan, it’s—”

“Yes,” said Eileen, “that one.”

The server nodded and walked away from the table. Eileen turned her attention back to Alistair. Why was he here?

Alistair continued to stare at Eileen.

“So, what brings you to Palm Beach? Work?” asked Eileen.

“Of course.”

“And you just thought you’d invent some story and get through to my recruiter contact? How did you know about Alison?”

“I wanted to see you,” said Alistair. “We need to talk.”

“Do we? You didn’t want to talk the last time I wanted to.”

“I didn’t know you were leaving,” said Alistair.

“I reached out to you many times. I wanted to explain what I was doing, and why,” said Eileen. “I was pissed off that you ignored me.” It was important for her to explain to him why she was leaving and what she wanted to build.

Alistair scowled, then quickly restored his blank expression. “Like I said, I didn’t know. Why don’t you show me what you’ve been up to?” Alistair reached out toward the presentation deck in front of Eileen.

“Sure,” said Eileen as she tossed the thin stack of printouts at Alistair.

Alistair grabbed the deck and leaned back in his chair. “Unfair Advantage. Cute.”

He turned past the cover page and focused on the overview slide. The server returned to the table.

“Your scotch, sir,” she said and placed a tumbler with light-brown scotch and a large ice cube in front of Alistair. She turned away and headed toward the kitchen.

Eileen had seen this act from Alistair before. He would dwell on some item in front of him. The Unfair Advantage deck only had a few sentences per page, there wasn’t much to study. He wanted Eileen to squirm.

#

Eileen didn’t squirm, but her hands shook. Her hand moved so much that her rings clattered against the table. Eileen reached into her pants pocket for her iPhone. She noted she wasn't getting any cell service. No Wi-Fi. Eileen couldn’t remember the last time she had trouble with cell service in Palm Beach.

“So, you are offering similar services to Black Edge?” asked Alistair as Eileen slid her phone back in her pocket. “We are in fact competitors now?”

“No. We aren’t competitors. I’m offering lower-cost services to clients who could never afford you. Simple stuff, gigs you wouldn’t consider,” said Eileen.

“Ah. That is not clear from your deck or your, ah, reputation.”

“What? My reputation? What is going on here, Alistair? First you act like you don’t know what I’ve been doing. Now you know about my reputation?” asked Eileen as she leaned forward and glared at Alistair.

The server reappeared. “Are you ready to order?”

Alistair looked up and said, “We’ll take two of the specials. Thank you.”

The server stepped away from the table. Eileen said loudly, “Excuse me, miss?”

“Yes?”

“I don't want whatever the special is. I’ll take the rib eye, medium rare. And I ordered a glass of wine?”

“Yes ma’am, right away.”

Eileen and Alistair stared at each other. Eileen resolved not to speak until Alistair explained himself. A heavy scent of grilled beef blasted out from the open kitchen. After a few minutes, Alistair smiled.

“You were always great at reading people. That’s one reason I valued you so highly.”

Eileen opened her mouth to reply but, upon reflection, let Alistair keep talking.

“You have an excellent feel for situations and people. An ability that can’t be taught. Which is why I was so disappointed when you left me.”

Alistair grabbed his tumbler of scotch. He swirled the shrinking cube around the glass, then placed it back down in front of him.

“I actually took it quite personally. We have an interesting history, you and I, going back to when I plucked you off of a ratty soccer field in New Jersey.”

Eileen had met Alistair while she was a keeper trainer for the Middlesex Soccer Club. Alistair had watched as Eileen lectured his nephew on how the keeper has to read the game, see situations evolve, and make real-time adjustments to their defense. Alistair, after that training session, had asked her to watch a game with him and his nephew and break down the plays in real time. She had stood beside the two of them and commentated a local high-school match.

A week later, Eileen received a package at her parents’ home. It was a job offer, business-class tickets to a company meeting the next day in Los Angeles, and a phone number to call with questions. The header on the envelope and stationary read Black Edge. The annual salary was $150,000 plus bonus, which was six times what she made as a soccer instructor and part-time bartender.

“Plucked? Really, Alistair?” said Eileen. “I’m not sure I was plucked.”

“What were you going to do, if I hadn’t found you? Coach twelve-year-old’s and tend bar at Applebee’s your whole life?”

“It was Houlihan’s, but whatever. I would have found something on my own. I was only a few months out of college.” Eileen tried not to sound defensive.

She had considered herself lucky, to have met Alistair. None of her other options, like going back to school or teaching, would have been as exciting or as lucrative.

“I was grooming you, you know,” he said. “You were going to be the next superstar on my team.”

“Grooming me? You didn’t see or talk to me for over a year.”

“Doesn’t mean I wasn't monitoring your progress. I didn’t intervene, which meant I was happy with your work and advancement.”

Eileen opened her mouth to respond, then forced it closed.

“I thought you were the next leader of the elite team.”

“Ha,” said Eileen. “That’s not how the elite team felt.”

Alistair raised his eyebrow. “How so?”

“At the Mexico off-site. Hayley said I’d never make the jump.”

Alistair chuckled. “Ah, Hayley doesn’t speak for Black Edge. And there is more than one elite team.”

“I just thought, since everyone on the elite team was from Ivy League schools or had super impressive backgrounds . . .”

“That is exactly why you would have been perfect for the role. You weren’t part of that crowd, you weren’t walking around like the world, or the client, owed you something. You could have smacked that team into shape. They are far from perfect.”

“Well, that would have been helpful to hear a year ago. It’s too late now.”

“Perhaps.” Alistair nodded his head toward the Unfair Advantage deck. “So how is business?”

“Good, great,” said Eileen. “Really picking up.”

“You know, for most of the last twenty years, Black Edge has been the only game in town. In fact, there isn’t an official category for the kind of business we do.”

Eileen nodded. When she had filled out the paperwork for her company, she listed the business type as “Consulting.”

“I had a competitor, once, about ten years ago. They tried a similar approach like yours. They focused on lower-end clients, jobs Black Edge didn’t want. But the service, the details, were the same.”

“I had no idea. It’s weird I haven’t heard about them.”

“You never heard about them,” said Alistair, “because they don’t exist anymore. I crushed them. Bankrupted them and made sure the founders never worked again.” He leaned forward and stuck out his chin. “There is only room for one company in this space. Mine.”

Eileen felt blood rush to her face. She reached for her water glass and found it empty. Her hand was shaking again and she placed it back on her lap. Alistair was a ruthless businessman. Eileen had witnessed him eviscerate misbehaving clients or partners for minor offenses. There were rumors in the company about him going after people he felt had wronged him. These stories always ended with the other parties penniless or in jail.

“Wait. I don’t want to compete with you. I wanted us to be symbiotic... We could take your small fish and refer bigger clients back to you.”

“You’re going to dictate how we work together?” Alistair leaned back in his chair.

Eileen felt pressure behind her eyes and her lip twitched. She wanted to run out of the restaurant, to scream and cry in the street. She pushed her chair back from the table. “Alistair, I don’t think you need to threaten me. This all seems like a series of misunderstandings, doesn’t it?” Eileen placed her hands on the table, ready to stand up.

A server appeared with a glass of wine.

“I have a rosé for the lady?”

Eileen laughed. “I didn’t order a rosé, it was a Super Tuscan. But I’ll take it. You know, usually your service here is very good. But tonight, you guys . . .” Eileen reached for the glass and took a sip of the chilled wine.

Buccan wasn’t one of her regular haunts but she had been there three or four times. The service was usually excellent. Tonight, though, it was terrible.

#

In the last few hours, a lot of things had gone wrong. Eileen had been harassed on her run, couldn’t sync her watch, was fired, her phone wasn’t working, and then she received bad service from Buccan. Followed by Alistair’s threats.

When she’d worked for Black Edge, Eileen had only worked on gigs for the mark to feel good. She had heard of operations where the elite team had manipulated marks. Forced them to feel scared or cornered so they would look to the client for help. Like she felt now. But what kind of help?

Alistair was doing the clasped-hands stare again. Eileen swirled her wine and scanned the restaurant behind him. She didn’t see anything out of place and returned Alistair’s stare.

“I thought you were about to walk out on me,” he said.

“No, I’m here to talk.” The twitching lip and pressure disappeared. “Although I will use the ladies’ room.”

Eileen stared into the restroom mirror. She dabbed away a dark hunk of mascara dripping down her cheek. On her way to the restroom, she had looked around the restaurant and bar for familiar faces. She also poked her head into a small closet and didn’t see anyone staring at laptops or iPads, whispering into microphones, or hovering around tables.

Maybe this wasn’t a black op. It could just be a terrible day. Roger was a flighty character. Bad service at a restaurant did not automatically imply a conspiracy. But the Alistair problem was real.

She ran cold water over her fingers and dragged them across her forehead. Unfair Advantage was already struggling. If Alistair put it in his sights, who knows if she’d ever find another client. She needed to find a way to smooth this over with Alistair and protect Chen, her dad’s investment, and her future.

A twenty-something blonde in a little black dress and high heels clomped out of a stall behind her. Eileen stepped away from the washbasin and instinctively reached for her cell phone. Still no service.

“Excuse me, are you having trouble getting signal here?” Eileen asked the woman who was rummaging through her small purse.

“Uh, no. I was just texting a second ago,” said the blonde.

“Thanks. I’ll try turning it off and on,” said Eileen. She stepped into the hallway between the restrooms and caught a quick glimpse inside the men’s room. Something looked off.

She silently pushed the door open. It had two stalls and a urinal facing a sink and mirror. One stall was in use. The occupant had one foot crossed over the other and a duffel bag lying to the side.

Eileen stepped in and let the door close behind her. She held her breath and waited. A voice from the stall said, “I don’t have her anywhere. Chris, do you have her?”

She stepped back and kicked the stall door open.

The door bounced off the opposite divider and shuddered back against the jamb. Eileen pushed it open. Chen stared back at her, slack jawed.

“Ei, I—”

She delivered a perfect front-kick to Chen’s chest. Her old master would have been proud. The slight man, who had been sitting on top of the closed, tankless toilet with a laptop and headset, slammed against the wall behind him. The laptop clattered to the ground, and he made a loud sucking sound.

“I don’t believe it,” said Eileen, breathing hard.

Before Chen could move, Eileen picked up the laptop. The screen had disconnected from the keyboard. Eileen turned in the tiny stall and slammed the laptop on the ground. Black plastic shards skidded across the floor.

As he clutched his chest, Chen gasped, “They were waiting outside of your apartment today. They threatened me . . .”

Eileen leaned down and put her face close to Chen’s. “Did they threaten to kick your ass? If not, you chose wrong.” She grabbed the dislodged headset boom from Chen’s shoulder and poked Chen in the chest with her free hand. “Give me the rest of it.”

Chen frowned and unhooked a small box from his belt. He tried to get up as he handed the controller box to Eileen.

“Stay right there, partner,” said Eileen pushing on his shoulder. Chen slumped back down on the toilet seat.

Eileen put the headset on. A woman’s voice said, “Check the front of the restaurant.” A male voice responded. Eileen clicked the headset off.

“You don’t understand,” said Chen with one hand covering his solar plexus. “There are things about my past, things you don’t know that Alistair threatened me with. He, he—”

“Shut up. I’ll deal with you later. Looks like they never upgraded the mic equipment, still using this cheap junk. How many people are working this op?”

“They didn’t tell me much. I only met with Alistair and one other guy. I think there are three more. I didn’t meet the director.”

Eileen paused and looked down at him. He looked up and rubbed his chest.

“What else can you tell me?”

“Not much. Alistair wanted to know how business was, who your clients were. And then he wanted me to listen and give him info during the meal.”

“You need to stay put for the next few minutes. Are we going to have a problem?”

Chen looked down. “No. Just don’t kick me again. Ei, believe me, they forced me to help them. I never would’ve…”

Eileen backed out of the stall and closed the door behind her.

Adrenaline pumped through her body, like the moment before a penalty kick with the game on the line.

#

Back at the table, she sat down in front of Alistair.

“I thought we lost you there,” he said.

“We? Nope, I’m right here.”

Dinner had been served. Two servings of grilled grouper over asparagus and sweet potatoes waited on the table.

“Ah, the special. Exactly what I didn’t order.”

Alistair smiled tightly. “I’m sure it’s fine. Why don’t we eat and then finish our discussion?”

Eileen, hands under the table, turned the headset on.

“What is it you think we’re discussing, Alistair?”

“Let’s talk about the future. Like I said, I don’t like competition. And I don’t like ex-employees leaving together.” He moved the grouper off the pile of vegetables and tubers with his fork.

“But I still think very highly of you and your abilities.” Alistair paused and looked at Eileen.

She returned his stare.

“So, what if you came back?”

Eileen leaned back in her chair. Since returning to the table, she had felt disconnected, like her head was floating above her body. Her hands stopped shaking. Instead, she tapped her heel. Alistair’s offer added to the odd sensation. “What? Come back to Black Edge?”

“Yes.”

“I left because there was no future, no path to move up or build something. And now I have a business and clients.”

“What if I created an elite team for you? Let you build it and funneled clients to you? You could focus on the work, not the sales. Which, let’s face it, is not your strong suit,” he said.

“Thanks for that.”

“You know it’s true. Your talent is in execution, leadership. Not sales.”

“But I have a business already. I can’t walk away from it. There are clients, employees...”

Alistair made an odd noise. Eileen had never heard him laugh before. It was somewhere between a chuckle and a guffaw.

“Clients and employees? I’m sure you can release them in short order.”

“This is totally out of the blue. I need to think,” said Eileen. The offer could solve a lot of problems. “At a minimum, you need to buy me out of my company.”

“That’s a bold position for someone at a disadvantage. But I like it. We can discuss more once we agree. And, to be clear, I need your decision today. Before dessert.”

Eileen, hands still beneath the table, said, “You’re forcing me to make this huge decision now?”

Alistair nodded. Then, he grimaced, fumbled in his ear, and pulled out a flesh-colored earpiece. Behind him, a woman at an adjoining table with curly black hair did the same.

Eileen threw the headset on the table. “You haven’t updated your mic set. It still has terrible feedback when tapped against something hard, like the bottom of a table. I never really knew if black ops were a real thing with you, Alistair. And if they were real, I assumed they were carried out by the best. This gig was amateur hour.”

Alistair sat still, holding his earpiece in his fist.

“Why don’t you invite the director sitting behind you to join us? I’d like to meet her.”

Through clenched teeth, he said, “No need, you know her already.”

The woman behind him turned in her seat.

“Hayley. The spray-on tan and glasses are a nice touch,” said Eileen, loudly.

Alistair looked back at Hayley and said, “You can leave now.”

Hayley grabbed her oversized phone from the table and glared at Eileen as she walked toward the front of the restaurant. A man in a tan suit, leaning against the hostess station, walked up to her. Hayley raised her arm to dismiss him and walked out of Buccan.

Eileen resisted the urge to smile. Watching the elite team fail so spectacularly felt good, but she was still in a tight spot. Alistair had threatened to destroy her company and she believed he could.

As she focused back on him, she noticed he looked different. He always seemed supremely confident. Now, his shoulders slumped, his glasses sat crooked on his face, and he stared off to the side. He looked pitiful.

“So, back to our conversation. You were about to make an offer to buy UA?”

Alistair didn’t reply.

“I’ll need an offer tomorrow morning. And Roger should be persuaded to come back to us, we have unfinished business.”

Eileen tried to think of what else she wanted. Waking up tomorrow with a client and an offer to buy out the company wouldn’t be a bad turn of events.

Alistair straightened himself up and readjusted his glasses. He looked directly at Eileen and lifted one side of his narrow lips.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First off, congratulations. In the twenty-year history of Black Edge, no one has ever called out the man behind the curtain. Yes, we’ve had unsuccessful operations, but we’ve never been discovered.”

Eileen suppressed a smile.

“But, this changes very little. As of right now, you don’t have any clients. While you seem to run a lean shop, you need income. And, as I did with Roger, I can ensure that you won’t find any clients.”

Alistair shifted forward. “Also, if you somehow managed to get a client, who would be the coach? Surely not the nervous little man in the toilet, who just sold you out under the vaguest of threats?”

Eileen felt the adrenaline begin to drain out of her limbs. Her arms and legs began to feel heavy, listless. The triumphant feeling she had a few minutes ago gave way to a sinking sensation.

“Listen, Alistair, it seems like you need me. This op was a clown show. For an elite team to make mistakes like this—”

“Don’t read too much into their performance today. They had less than twenty-four hours to set this up. I only decided to fly down here on Tuesday night. And, to be frank, you are not the typical mark.”

“We’re done here then. You can take this meal and your offer and shove it up—”

“Careful, careful. How will you get home? Your phone doesn’t work. Who will you reach out to for help? Chen? No, we will escort him home. Alison, your friend from the staffing firm? She will need a job and a new place to live, starting tomorrow. And so will you, once CityPlace realizes you are running some sort of seedy business out of your apartment.”

Eileen sat back. Panic began to overtake her again. The large table in the airy restaurant felt confined, as if the wall of noise and surrounding tables were collapsing in on her. If it were just her, she’d throw her wine at Alistair and walk home. But she had to protect Alison. And, for some reason, Chen.

“Give me the weekend. And let Chen come with me. I may have, ah, beat him up a little.”

Alistair said, “We’ll speak again on Sunday morning. I will still be here in Palm Beach, at The Breakers. We can have brunch.”

Eileen nodded. “Sunday, then. I’m going to grab Chen and go home. Oh, and you need to unjam my phone.”

Alistair pulled out an oversized phone from his breast pocket and quickly typed with his index finger. “Chen will meet you at the front door. Reboot your phone.”

Eileen stood up and began to walk away from the table.

“It was wonderful to see you again, Eileen. I look forward to our brunch on Sunday.”

Eileen didn’t turn around and kept walking toward the front door. While Alistair was busy typing, she had calmed down enough to come up with a plan. Alistair didn’t hold all the cards, not yet.

About the Author

Daniel Chawner

Website

Daniel Chawner lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. He works as a Software Manager for a bank in New York City. While not writing or driving between soccer fields, Daniel enjoys biking, hiking and watching the Mets try to play baseball. You can find more of his writing at chawner.net.