Hamilton Wylie - Gifts
Wilson Sprague heeded the call and weaved between round dining tables, giving the occasional friendly pat on the back to one of his slightly inebriated employees, on his way to the podium. He didn't want to stand behind the podium, and removed the microphone from it's bracket, but only after a clumsy effort from which he milked some physical comedy. His employees seemed to appreciate it. An open bar did wonders for their sense of humor.
“Uh,” he said into the microphone before an awkward pause that drew some chuckles.
“The economy sucks,” he said. “It sucks, has sucked and, by all indications, will suck. Despite that, Sprague Investments has had a very good year.”
There was applause punctuated with a raucous “we rock!”
“So, how did we do that? We did it by being exactly what our clients need in times like these; someone they can trust, someone who cares about their investment almost as much as they do. I'm talking about character. Character is the bedrock of this company. Where does that character come from? Frankly, it comes from you characters.”
Wilson paused for laughter, which his lame joke received mostly due to the open bar, but also due to the love and respect the employees had for their boss.
“This year was good for us, and next year will be better. We've wooed some new clients and we're going to give them the same great service that is our hallmark, but that's something we can worry about later. Right now I just want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah... where's Phil? Happy Saturnalia, Phil.”
Phil chuckled and gave a thumbs up.
“Did we miss anyone? Festivus? Sure, why not. Happy Festivus, everybody. Enjoy the rest of the evening. You deserve it. We have the room until midnight, then maybe they'll make us leave. We'll see about that. Good job, everyone. Good job.”
Wilson made a comical show of clumsily returning the microphone to it's bracket, and then he made his way around the tables, shaking hands, thanking people individually, complimenting the spouses and remembering the names of everyone's children. Everyone seemed to be having a great time except Steven who was nervously trying to get Wilson's attention.
“Hey, Steve,” Wilson said as he slung his arm around the man's shoulders. “What's up, buddy? You don't like the party?”
“No, of course... I mean, good party, but I need to talk to you about some of our accounts.”
“I appreciate your dedication, Steve. I really do, but I'm sure this can wait until Monday. Kick back. Have some fun.”
“I don't think this can wait. There's money missing. Lots of money.”
“Aw, come on. Accounting errors come with the territory. We'll look into it and we'll find the money. We always do.”
“No, this isn't some routine math error. This is systematic. Money is missing across the board. Lots of money. Millions.”
Wilson took Steven by the arm and led him out of hearing distance of the other guests. “What are you saying. Somebody's embezzling?”
“Yeah, whoever it is did a good job covering their tracks, but I followed a discrepancy and the more I pulled at that string the more everything came apart.”
“You're sure of this?”
“Yeah, I have numbers I'd like to show you.”
“Jesus Christ!” Wilson ran his fingers through his hair. “Okay, I want you to meet me tomorrow morning at the office, early, and show me what you found. I'm really hoping you're wrong, but if you're right... If you're right we do this by the book. A whitewash would only make us look bad. Agreed?”
“Okay, I'm pretty wigged out about this, and I don't want to give off any weird vibes, so I'm going to take off soon. I mean, let everyone enjoy tonight, because it might be the last bit of fun this company has in a while. You know what I mean?”
“Okay. See you tomorrow, Steve. You're a good man.”
Wilson said goodnight to his personal assistant Joanne and to his business partner Bill, claiming sudden flu-like symptoms, and asked them to keep the party going. On the way out of the party he made small talk to a few people, and accepted a gift from one of them. He didn't recognize the person, and that shamed him. He was usually so good with names and faces. He accepted the gift graciously.
He left the party, made his way to his car, and along the way he stopped thinking of himself as Wilson Sprague. He was done with that identity thanks to Steven. Who could have figured he'd have the wit to figure this out? This scam was supposed to go for another year, but he would have to make due with the millions he had put in the Caimans and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash he had inside the doors of his car.
Once he was in his car he reached below his seat and pulled out the emergency kit, a manila envelope containing a new social security number, a new drivers license and a new name. Hamilton Wylie.
“Hamilton Wylie. Hamilton Wylie,” he said to himself. “Hi, I'm Hamilton Wylie. Please, call me Ham.”
As he exited the parking lot, he decided he didn't like the new name, but he never did. The name itself was not nearly as important as the way it was used. He had to own it. He had to think of himself as Hamilton Wylie. He was Hamilton Wylie. Wilson Sprague was dead and buried along with Scott Thompson, Alexander Pike, Frank Rooseveldt (with a D, not like the president), and all the other names he had gone by including Jim Knox, his birth name. That name meant no more to him than the ones he invented.
He knew that Wilson Sprague's disappearance would be incriminating, but Bill would almost certainly go to jail. The goons from the government liked to have someone to parade in front of the cameras, and Bill would best serve that role. He should probably feel bad about that, and about leaving his employees to deal with the awful mess, but mostly he knew he should feel bad about ripping off his investors. He had met most of them. Nice folks for the most part. Yes, he should feel bad, but he didn't, not even a little bit.
The doctors diagnosed him as a sociopath as if that were some kind of weakness. Bullshit. It made him stronger. It was compassion that should be thought of as an illness. It burdened and weakened all who were inflicted with it. Foolishness.
Hamilton Wylie noticed the gift sitting in his passenger seat. He had forgotten about it. He lowered the driver's side window, the sudden chill wind was bracing, and nearly threw the gift out the window until curiosity got the better of him. Hamilton could afford damn near anything he wanted to buy, but the gift could still be something good. He rolled the window back up and carefully opened the gift, keeping one eye on the road...
It was raining. A cold, nasty rain mixed with sleet that bit deep, under a sky the color of ash. Hamilton Wylie was sitting on a shattered asphalt road, a car that might have been his rusted out a dozen feet away, shoved up against the grassy hillock that lined the road. The windows were shattered, the tires rotted, and all along the drivers side the metal of the body had been buffed to a dull gleaming gray. It looked like it had been sitting here on South Canal for years. Weeds had even managed to twine through the dark red-orange rims.
The seat of his pants was getting wet. In his right hand he still held the present, the half-torn paper fluttering in the chilly breeze and slowly getting soaked as grimy raindrops fell onto it. Onto them both.
It had been evening, and now it was a sort of slate-grey afternoon. The trees that had lined the roadway were nothing but charred leafless posts with twigs stuck on, where they still managed to stand. Most that Hamilton could see were lying flat, as though some giant wind had blown them down. Clouds scuttled overhead, moving fast as they unleashed their moisture onto him, and his present, and his burned out, rusted car.
Don't panic. That was the first rule for mastering any situation. Don't panic, even when not one damned thing makes sense anymore. Like, when you're in the middle of one of the largest cities in North America and there is absolutely nobody else around. As much as the sight of his brand new, rusted out, weed entangled Lexus bothered him, being alone bothered him more. Hamilton belonged among people. That was where he excelled. With people to... manage... he could accomplish great things. Alone, not so much.
He noticed the present in his hand. He wanted to blame it for his circumstance, but that didn't make any damned sense either, which in this situation turned it around so that it did make sense, but flipping it around like that didn't make any damned sense, which...
Don't panic. Be cool. You're the man. You're in charge. Smile. You have a nice smile, a smile that makes things happen. Take a breath... Let it out... Much better.
Hamilton turned his attention back to the present. He may as well finish opening it. It seemed to be the only possession he had left. He pulled slightly at the wrapping paper, and then a thought came to him. The money! He dropped the present in the street and ran back to his car. There was money in the doors, thousands and thousands of dollars.
He opened the driver's side door and it made a screech that made his teeth hurt. Now he needed to pry the door open. He pulled the trunk release, and he could hear the trunk latch disengage, but the trunk remained closed. He tugged on the trunk, but it didn't want to yield.
Try smiling at it, dumb ass.
With a mighty effort the trunk sprang open. Hamilton grabbed a pry bar, returned to the driver's side door, and wrenched it open. He had the money in sealed plastic bags. They should be okay. He peeked inside. The plastic had melted around the bills, so effectively he was left with several large bricks. Like an M&M - crunchy on the outside, but inside full of chocolatey lucre. Whatever had been in the doors was long gone, either through theft or fire, who knew?
"Damn it, damn it, damn it."
Hamilton kicked the door a couple of times, just out of spite. Then he returned to the present, picked it up, and tore off the wrapping paper.
"Merry God Damned Christmas!"
"And a happy New Year to you too, Mr. Grinch," came a jocular voice from off to Hamilton's left. "Or should I say Mr. Wylie? Or Mr. Sprague? Oh wait! I know, it's Mr. Thompson! No, no, that's not right, it's Mr. Pike, isn't it! I've such a poor memory for names, you must think me daft as an old hen!"
Shit, probably a cop. Hamilton smiled pleasantly and spoke as he turned toward the voice. "I'm sure you have me confused with someone else. I have one of those..." He saw that his companion had the palest skin, maniacal eyes and a matching grin. "...faces."
"You'd be surprised just how much I can relate to that, Sunny Jim," came the droll if amused reply of the man who hadn't been there just moments ago. "So tell me, what were you planning on doing with your hard earned cash in today's thriving economy," the man asked, leaning up against a pickup truck that looked like it had been sandblasted, set on fire, then twisted from one end to the other like a piece of taffy. "Really, it's a bearish market these days, and I could use a tip."
Don't panic. Smile. Be charming.
"I like you," Hamilton said. "You get right to the point and you seem to have all the answers, and that makes you just the man I want to talk to. Think maybe you could clue me in? I mean, things just changed in a big way on me here."
The man threw his head back and laughed, a harsh baying sound that was too loud, and too long. "Oh dearie dearie me. You aren't trying that on ME, are you? Trying to establish a rapport, are we? Trying to work the situation? Sparky, let me tell you something," the man was at Hamilton's side, arm around his shoulder. Just: there... The teeth were huge, and flashed white in the sun as he spoke. "You are going to be famous. You are going to be THE most sought after mutherfucker this side of the Rockies. Oh yes you are, yes you are indeed. You'll be the prettiest princess at EVERY party, and your dance ticket will be as full as a south Texas whorehouse on payday." He gave Hamilton a little squeeze, then walked around the car and peered in the gap where the drivers side window used to be, bending at the waist and clasping his hands behind his back. "Nice ride," he commented. "Roomy."
"Uh... thanks. Tell you what, you can have it." He tossed the man his keys. "Okay, you're on to me. I get that, so let me talk plain. Could you please tell me what in the fuckety fuck FUCK is going on here?" The keys bounced off the strange mans leg and fell to the ground. He straightened and regarded Hamilton very seriously. Smiling. Smiling. "Open your present, Mr. Knox. It's Christmas, after all."
"In for a penny," Hamilton said. "In for a pound."
He opened the present.
Inside was a slender black box. A jewelry case, or perhaps a pen? He opened it, and saw a necklace gleaming on a bed of dark purple velvet. It was made of fine platinum links, tiny things, most cunningly wrought. Dangling from it, about the size of a penny, was a silver caduceus. The level of detail was amazing: Hamilton could just make out each individual scale on the snakes, and even what could be the grain of the wood on the tiny staff. It was beautiful. Hamilton wondered how much he could get for it.
"Sweet necklace, buddy. Sorry I didn't get anything for you."
"You're mère présence hère is lift enough for me, you old fraud," replied the stranger. "Put it on, James. Put it on and make a wish."
"You know what? Sure. Why not. I mean it's Christmas for Christ's sake." As he slipped the chain over his head he said, "and, please, call me Ham."
The moment the little caduceus settled upon his neck, the very moment, everything went black. There was in insane sense of vertigo, as though he had been dangled over an impossibly high ledge over an chasm whose depths had swallowed suns. His stomach dropped into his shoes, then rammed nearly up into his throat, and he had to swallow bile as his hands flailed around, seeking anything to hold onto. And then his ass hit a chair, the darkness cleared, and he found himself sitting at a pentagonal wooden table in a five-sided room...
(end of scene)