Snow was falling in Gateway City when he arrived at the Club. I was down in the gym teaching a judo class when I saw him through the front windows. He went in the front door and shortly afterwards appeared in the gym. He was patient, waiting until I dismissed the class, then he beckoned me over to him.
“Can I help you?” I asked, wiping perspiration from my face with a towel.
“I’m sure you can. Miss Sloane, I need to talk to you privately. Could we go down to your office? Or perhaps use one of the meeting rooms?” His voice was a rich baritone, perfectly suited to the tall, broadly built body and smiling, Jamaican-looking face.
I was caught off-guard. Not many people know that I have my office in the basement. I always felt that the top floor was better used as a museum of the Fair Play Club’s success stories than as a corporate office, so when I took over management of the organization, I moved all of the offices down to the basement.
“I haven’t seen you around here before. Have you ever been active with the Club?” I snagged my equipment and started down the hall. He fell into step beside me.
“Actually, not since I was twelve, but I’d like to help out now if possible.” I kept an eye on his face, watching his expressions as he talked. Judging character is something of a hobby of mine, but I was getting really mixed signals from this one. Something in the expression on his face gave me the impression that he was very nervous and confused about being here. But his words and tone of voice bespoke confidence.
“The Fair Play Clubs are always looking for volunteers. If you are looking for a paid position, I happen to know that the Metropolis Club is in need of a new manager, and Chicago just lost their head coach.” Thinking as I strode down the steps, I recalled the new effort that we had underway, which I was afraid we would have real trouble staffing. “Oh, and we are in the process of setting up a data center here to computerize all of our records and such. That’s going to need some full-time staffers.”
“I may be able to help out there. I’ve spent the past eight years developing accounting programs.”
I smiled as we turned into my office. “That’s worth considering, then.” I tossed my bag in a corner, then turned to face the stranger. “Now we have the privacy you requested. What can I do for you, Mister…?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, Miss Sloane.” He held out a hand to me. “My name is Michael. Michael Holt.”
I took the hand in mine, shook it. “Nice to meet you, Michael. But please, call me Geri.”
I motioned for Michael to sit as I slid into the worn wooden chair at my desk. He chose to remain standing, pacing as he told me his story.
“Geri, as I mentioned, I’ve been working as a computer programmer for the last six years. I built a company, Compu-Ware, from the ground up. I started out by myself, hired two other programmers, decided that I didn’t like managing others who do the same work that I do, and hired a business manager to handle all of the administrative stuff. With his help, the company grew to thirty people, most of them programmers. We created business management software for some of the biggest companies in Gateway City. Meanwhile, I met, dated, and married Hillary Banks, one of the loveliest ladies to ever hit the Gateway City airwaves.”
“Sounds like you led an enviable life, Michael.”
“I did. I was on top of the world until the day last month when my business manager didn’t show up. I went to check one of the company’s bank accounts and found that it had been closed out — along with all of our other accounts. Jeff Conrad had wiped out all of the company’s liquid assets. I found evidence confirming his embezzlement, and I was on my way to the police when he tried to kill me.”
While I couldn’t see what Mr. Holt’s story had to do with me, I admit that I was intrigued. “What did he do?”
“Hillary and I were driving to the precinct house when he forced us off the road. It was up on the Thirteen Curves, coming down from the Heights. He underestimated the trickiness of the road up there, and he followed us over the edge. His truck hit the side of our car, and both Jeff and Hillary were killed.”
“I’m very sorry to hear of your loss.”
“Thank you. To be honest with you, even though the police recognized right off that Conrad was to blame for the accident, I still blamed myself. The night of Hillary’s funeral, I found myself on the Gateway Bridge in the freezing rain. Hillary was gone, the company was gone, and I didn’t have much of anything left. I’ll admit it, I jumped. My body hit that frigid water, and I didn’t feel anything more. Not until I woke up on the shore of the river. The police said it was some kind of miracle that I survived.”
“Well, I’m glad you survived the plunge, too, Michael, but I don’t see what this has to do with me.”
“I guess you’d say I had an epiphany, Geri. I realized that I needed to do something that made a difference, to help others out who never had the chance I did. That’s when I thought of the Fair Play Club.”
I’m not usually too slow on the uptake, but I simply couldn’t follow the leap of logic that Michael Holt had just made.
“Let me get this straight: you lost your wife and business, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, then decided that you need to come work for the Fair Play Club?”
“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.” He finally took a seat, leaning forward a bit to gaze at me intently as he spoke. “Conrad didn’t touch my personal assets, so I’m not without means. But the company is gone, and, quite frankly, I have no interest in starting another. So… I thought that I could bring my expertise to bear here.”
“Not that I’m ungrateful, but why not the Allied Way or the Red Cross? They’re much bigger than we are.”
“They’re already further along the path to automating their business practices. I know; my company worked with them. But I was a Fair Play kid growing up in Philadelphia, and I decided that if I didn’t need to work to support myself, I could work for the Club.”
I leaned back as far as the old office chair would let me, steepling my fingers in front of me. “I certainly can’t argue with that. Of course, the decision isn’t entirely mine; something at that level is decided by the Board of Directors. But with your credentials and history, I don’t see much of a problem there.”
Within the first month of hiring Michael Holt, I knew that I had made the right choice. He caught on to all of our procedures as if he had developed them himself and automated them far faster than anyone expected it to be done. He did it without cutting any staff members, as well. People whose jobs were taken over by the computers were quickly assigned to other tasks, allowing the Fair Play Clubs to provide more and better services. I figured that, somewhere, Daddy was looking down on us and smiling.
Michael and I became good friends. Ever since I resumed the Director’s position last year, I’ve spent at least seventy hours a week on Club business. Add to that the odd hour or twenty that I spend each week out working as Miss Terrific, and it should be easy to see that I don’t have much of a social life. I think he recognized that, because just as soon as I turned over the mailing lists for our fundraising to the data center, he started insisting that I leave the office no later than six each evening. He backed it up a few times by taking me to the Starfish Diner, a nice little place about midway between the Club and my home.
It was during one of those dinners that Michael’s troubles returned.
We were sitting in the diner, enjoying a slice of cheesecake and coffee after our meal. I had come to enjoy his company a lot, since we had a lot of common interests. Never anything romantic, mind you, though I wouldn’t have minded if he had made a move on me. But we were more like old friends, the kind who had grown up together and experienced much of their lives together.
This evening we were talking about how our families had celebrated birthdays. His family didn’t make a big deal out of them, where my folks threw me birthday parties that were major events. I had just told him about the year my father staged a one-man circus for my birthday party, when a group of four men burst in the front door of the diner with guns drawn.
“All right! Everybody just put your hands on the tables in front of you where we can see them. Nobody makes any funny moves, and nobody gets hurt!” The speaker was a big man, easily six foot, seven inches. He had broad shoulders under the long, black coat. His eyes were just visible through the ski mask he wore, and they were dark brown.
A second man stepped behind the counter and glanced down to make sure nobody was crouched behind it before making his way into the kitchen. I didn’t get much of a look at him, but I could hear the sounds of pans and dishes being dropped as he rounded up the staff and urged them into the dining area.
The other two looked identical, right down to their pale blue eyes. One moved right past us down to the end of the aisle that separated the two rows of booths in the narrow diner. The other stayed by the door.
“OK, here’s the drill. When I step up to your table, you drop your wallets, your watches, your jewelry, your keys — anything of value into the bag. I think you’re holding anything back, I’ll shoot you. Make any moves, I’ll shoot you. Say anything, I’ll shoot you. Any questions?” He looked around at the dozen or so people seated in the booths.
“What about–” BLAM! I jumped as the leader fired at the man seated behind Michael. From my viewpoint, I knew that he was killed instantly.
“I said, say anything, I’ll shoot you.” He moved to the first table and held a bag open with one hand. The other held a pistol pointed at one of the patrons at that table. They quickly moved to empty their pockets.
At first I thought Michael was fidgeting nervously under the table. Then I realized that he was tapping my ankle with his foot on purpose. The tapping was Morse code.
I tapped back:
The leader moved up to our table, looking down at Michael. “Well, looky here. We got us a colored boy with a white girl. Ought to put a bullet in this one and save her father the trouble.” The racist comment made my stomach turn, even knowing that my father’s feeling would be totally removed from this creep’s opinions. Still, I held my tongue, and when he signaled to us to add our contribution to the bag, I started by reaching for my watch. I let my hand slide under the wrist and grabbed for the pepper shaker. Using my thumb to unscrew the metal top as I brought it back under my palm, I flipped the open container up into his face before he could react. I already had my next move planned as he flinched back and started to sneeze.
I quickly snatched up the knife and fork that were still on the table before me and dived into the aisle. I flipped the knife upward in a long arc down the aisle with my left hand as my right hand sent the fork hurtling in the opposite direction. The only problem was, Michael was right there, doing the same thing. Thankfully, my toss with the knife went over him, but his low toss with the fork sent it right at me. The heavy wool coat that I had left draped over my lap against the draft saved me from a row of punctures.
“Yeeow!” cried one gunman as my fork embedded itself in his thigh. His twin at the other end didn’t say a thing as he fell, the victim of the blunt end of a knife hitting him in the temple. I’m still not sure whose knife did the deed.
“Can you handle this one?” Michael asked, indicating the sneezing gunman slumped over our table. I nodded, and he jumped up on a table and started running over the tops of the booths toward the counter. I grabbed one of the heavy china plates from the booth across from ours and brought it down forcefully on the crook’s head. His sneezing stopped as he collapsed on the table. With my other hand, I flung my plate of cheesecake at the gunman, who was pulling my fork from his leg. My aim was as good as ever, and the dessert plate struck the bridge of his nose. He fell to the floor, and I turned to see what Michael was up to.