A silver-plated shovel plunged into dirt, piercing the top layer and sliding through the rich soil underneath, the hole surrounded by perfectly arranged red velvet.
Applause bled through the air.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to take a moment to personally thank our generous benefactor, Tom Milford. Without his fifty-million-dollar donation to the future Marshall School of Business Milford Library, we wouldn’t be here today,” a voice said through a tinny, metallic-sounding microphone. “Tom, please.” The dapper host for the evening stepped aside and opened his arms to the guest of honor.
Compared to the gray-haired administrators and trustees around him, Tom stood out. His blond hair was slicked to the side, and his sharp blue eyes popped under the flash bulbs. With a calculated smile as sharp as his slim-cut suit, he knew how to command a red carpet.
“Fifty million? Is it too late to cancel the check?” he joked, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow. “In all sincerity, I started HappyCash.com right after leaving this fine institution. I was just a young entrepreneur with a dream—a dream of prospering. The Milford Library will be the most extensive business library in the country, and my hope is that it will help other young entrepreneurs achieve the same success I’ve had, giving them a leg up on their own path to wealth. Fight On, USC!” After the standing ovation died down, Tom teased, “Rumor has it they scrounged up some food for this evening. Can somebody confirm? Anybody?” A collective chuckle greeted him, along with warm smiles. “But seriously, let’s eat!”
The huge white tent burst to life as swing music popped from a live band on stage. The black-tie affair spared no expense. Dozens of white-clad staff paraded out of the kitchen carrying giant lobster tails garnished with a slaw of micro greens and clarified butter. Guests gradually found their seats at elaborately set tables adorned with huge sprays of orchids.
Near the ground breaking, Tom held the shovel for photos with a long line of senior administrators. The line seemed never-ending. Just like this event, he thought, although his smile expertly concealed his boredom. HappyCash may have needed the good press, as did Tom, but the real highlight of the evening would come later. His mind was already in the limo scrolling through the guest list for the grand opening of STATUS, an exclusive Hollywood nightclub. With any luck, he’d be able to steer clear of awkward encounters with the small army of starlets he’d slept with in the past few months and find someone . . . novel. He checked his iPhone. Jesus. How is it only 8:03?
He checked his texts. Twelve new messages. The first from Desereé. A photo of huge, naked tits. Coming tonight? He swiped to the next message, from Clair. A pair of lips getting a coat of candy apple red lipstick. This is all I’m wearing later. Tom rolled his eyes and deleted the text. Lips? Too tame.
Reality slapped him in the back, reality by the name of Levine, his most trusted advisor and the PR maestro who had set up the whole donation ploy. “Cheer up, Tom.” The short, balding man chuckled. “You need only grace us with your presence for a few minutes longer.” Tom tucked his phone in his pocket and sighed. “What do I always tell you?” Levine said. “Pretend to have a heart.”
Pretend to have a heart. The saying annoyed the shit out of Tom, but he strapped the cheerful mask back on and posed for more pictures.
To really satisfy Levine, he grabbed an elderly woman inching around the dance floor and spun her like she was twenty again. The woman gasped with the widest of smiles.
“How did I get the pleasure of dancing with the sexiest lady in the room?” he asked.
Outside the tent, Tom dug through his pack of cigarettes. One left. From here, the music inside was muffled, the party a world away from the Los Angeles that surrounded the campus. But even the school gates weren’t tall enough to keep out the yellow haze that hovered over the city. Tom snapped his lighter. It sparked but there was no flame.
“Those things will kill you,” Levine said, having followed him outside.
“Not if this event gets me first.” Snap. He shook the lighter.
“We need you inside, Tom. The cameras missed your dance with Mrs. Daisy. While you’re in there, meet some of the students. Listen to their shitty ideas . . . actually listen. The business needs this. So do you.”
Tom nodded distantly. HappyCash.com was catching more heat than his cigarette for its less than ethical business practices these days. That, combined with Tom’s unpopular views on economic policy and his late-night party boy episodes, had put his company’s stock in a tailspin. Snap. He shook the lighter harder. “It’s all bullshit. Just another witch hunt.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Levine said.
“I just gave away fifty million dollars. It matters.”
“Well, if HappyCash becomes the poster child for predatory lending, you won’t have to worry about what to do with your next fifty million.”
Tom tossed the lighter to the side and spit the cigarette at Levine’s feet like a thirty-two-year-old toddler.
Levine was unfazed.
The urge to apologize tried to find space in the part of Tom that immediately attempted to rationalize the outburst. But Levine wasn’t wrong.
If giving away fifty million dollars didn’t patch up his company’s image, what would?
“Levine,” Tom said, on the verge of something rare but then stopping himself. Men of power never say they’re sorry, his father had taught him at a young age. “Just give me five minutes”
Across the southwest corner of Vermont Ave., Tom spotted a convenience store. He slipped out an open security gate and waited for a gap in the cars that roared by.
He remembered why he never crossed Vermont back when he was school at USC. Behind him stood ornate brick buildings surrounded by well-manicured lawns and fifty thousand well-off USC students from good families around the world. On the other side of Vermont, laundry dried on the fences of scrubby dirt yards and dogs barked at the end of their chains. South Central Los Angeles.
A lull in traffic allowed Tom to negotiate his way across the avenue. As he got closer to the double glass doors, several homeless people around the entrance made him forget his nicotine craving. The poor worried him. What did they know about the law? What did they have to lose? What would stop them from robbing him?
One of the deadbeats held out a hat. Without stopping, Tom slid by and into the safety of the store. Bells clanked loudly as the door slammed.
Like the cracks in the parking lot, dirty linoleum tiles were peeling off the floor. The hard sole of Tom’s three-thousand-dollar Bettanin & Venturi loafers clicked on the rough surface with each step, crisp and deliberate.
The Middle Eastern cashier, straight-faced, eyed Tom.
The only other patron, a student in tight yoga pants by the beverage refrigerator, glanced over her shoulder. She and Tom made eye contact for a split second. A USC sweatshirt draped over half of her butt, leaving just the soft curve of perfection hanging out.
As an ass guy, Tom decided to grab something to drink. Each sharp click of his leather heels announced his arrival. “Any recommendations?” he asked.
“This place is known for their Diet Coke,” she responded, sharp yet inviting. Somehow the harsh refrigerator light gently hugged her cocoa neck.
“Shoot, I’m more of a Red Bull kind of guy.”
“You’re in luck. I know a place up the street that does an amazing Red Bull,” the girl shot back, finally checking out the stranger by her side. Her gaze lingered on him for longer than expected. Up close, his boyish blue eyes held her attention. Tom, an alpha, never broke contact first.
“Gwen.” A brief pause. “My father told me never to trust a man in a suit.”
“My father told me to always go for the things you want.”
Either college girls had come a long way in the past eight years or Gwen was different. Regardless, the energy between them pulled blood to his skin’s surface, the same sensation he got when angling to close a big deal. “This might be too forward, but what are you doing later?” he asked.
Women typically acquiesced to his advances or approached Tom first. So, when Gwen raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips, he waited. The fluorescent lights buzzed. “It is forward, and I’m studying for a midterm. Thanks, though.”
The bells clanked loudly at the front of the store as the door crashed open. Tom flinched, checked over his shoulder. A teenaged boy was heading straight for the candy aisle. The cashier eyed him and reached one hand below the counter.
“Those things are loud,” Gwen said.
“Not used to that,” Tom replied. “Well, the least I can do is grab you a drink.” He playfully reached for the refrigerator door. “Someone told me the Diet Coke here is to die for.” As he tugged, the metal handle snapped with a loud crack and his hand slid over the jagged steel edge. “Fuck,” he said wincing.
The cashier spun to the sound, never lifting his hand above the counter. “You pay for that. Cameras everywhere.”
Tom kept his hand in a tight fist, his skin burning as if he were holding onto an exhaust pipe. And the cashier was threatening him?
“Let me see,” Gwen said. Tom opened his hand; blood was already pooling. “I guess the Diet Coke really is to die for,” she said, grabbing a roll of paper towels from a shelf.
“Some things are worth it. So . . . What’s this midterm?”
“Entrepreneurial finance,” she answered. “Which reminds me . . . I have to get back to the books. Make a fist and squeeze tight for a few minutes.” She let Tom grasp the makeshift bandage and grabbed two Diet Cokes before heading for the register. “Got one for you.”
Tom followed her. “You know, oddly enough, I happen to be an entrepreneur, so going out with me tonight would technically count as studying.”
“If your persistence is any indication, you must be a pretty good businessman.” Gwen chuckled and shook her head.
“I don’t starve. Let me at least get your Coke.” Tom angled his wallet toward Gwen as he thumbed through a thick stack of hundreds until he found a twenty and tossed the crisp bill on the counter.
“You break my refrigerator also. One hundred dollars,” the cashier said.
“I’ll give you a choice,” Tom said. “You can take this twenty dollars and apologize for injuring a customer, or have the hundred and a phone call from my lawyers.”
The cashier took the twenty. “Anything else?” he grumbled.
Tom’s brand of cigarettes rested temptingly on the rack behind the counter, but Gwen didn’t seem like the smoking type, and even though she’d already rejected him, Tom felt compelled to take one more shot.
“Just the sodas and the lady’s phone number.”
Gwen burst out laughing just as the door flew open. A voice yelled, “Put your motherfucking hands up!”
The cashier tensed, his hand grasping for whatever he’d kept it close to under the counter. Tom was too slow to process. No time to run.
The shock pulsed through him. One hard thump of his heart. Then another. In a fit of confusion, he tried to process everything: Three Hispanic men. Blue bandanas over their faces. Guns. Tom instinctively backed away from the small barrel staring him in the eye, a dark cavernous pipe that housed a steel monster ready to jump out and kill.
“Bitch freeze,” the biggest man yelled.
The teenager back in the candy aisle yelped. Tom stumbled into Gwen.
“Stop. Don’t move,” she said, her hand pressed into the center of his back, keeping him in place. As he slowly put his hands in the air, his wallet and the paper towel plummeted to the floor.
The oldest-looking guy turned to the youngest in their crew, a skinny kid who was aiming a shiny gun at the cashier. “Do it, Scooby. Smoke the motherfucker.”