Means (Office Roulette, Book One)
“I couldn’t bring myself to end it.”
Laurel Calanthe pulled open the pristine glass door that led to the offices of Manon Investments. The well-established hedge fund catered only to high net worth individuals and select business partnerships. The expensive décor was designed with those clients in mind.
In all honesty, even the air smelled of the same linen used in the manufacturing of U.S. currency. The heavy fragrance hanging in the air never failed to bring a smile to Laurel’s lips.
The fact that the door was unlocked meant someone was still burning the midnight oil, but that wasn’t unusual in their line of business. Brad Manon was fanatically selective in who he chose to add to the employment at his firm, most often ensuring the analysts understood loyalty and the importance of total commitment. Such marked dedication went the whole nine yards when it came to bonus time.
It was going on one o’clock in the morning on a Friday night, but that didn’t matter in the financial world. One of the world’s markets was always open, trading, and willing to take money from the fund’s capital holdings.
“You’ve worked too hard to give up your success for Smith Gallo,” Grace reprimanded, her voice of reason coming through loud and clear over the cell phone. Unfortunately, no advice she offered now could take back the fact that Laurel had just spent the last three glorious hours in Smith’s bed. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a personal life, but does it have to be Smith? You’re both up for partnership. How’s it going to look if word gets out that the two of you are sleeping together?”
“That I’ve got tremendous taste?” Laurel asked halfheartedly, recognizing that she’d only put off the inevitable. It wasn’t good for her career to get involved with her competition nor was it wise to dip one’s quill in company ink. Oh, Smith had definitely dipped his quill in company ink. She’d even questioned if the partnership wasn’t why Smith had propositioned her to begin with, though their attraction had started long before either of them were up for promotion. Did he believe he could ruin her chances if Brad discovered their indiscretions? “I know, I know. I’ll tell him tomorrow that we should take things down a notch or two.”
Soft backlighting accentuated the empty reception area, though she didn’t pause on her way across the tiled entrance. She had one last destination in mind for the workday, and that was her private office where she’d left some files she’d planned to take home with her this weekend. Her black high heels clicked on the marble tile with each step she took until she reached the plush carpet of the private hallway.
“A notch or two?” Grace wasn’t being fooled in the least. “I was at today’s morning meeting, Laurel. The papers in your hand almost combusted from the way Smith was staring at you. Taking it down a notch isn’t going to cut it, not even close.”
“You only noticed that because you already know about the two of us.”
Laurel continued to walk down the hallway, noticing that a dim light was coming from Brad’s office. His private domain was located at the end of the corridor. The spacious corner office overlooked the beautiful city of Minneapolis, but he wasn’t the type to have an open-door policy. Quite the opposite. It hadn’t always been that way, but his demeanor had changed in the past few years…and not for the better.
It seemed it was in her favor to have stopped by for the files she needed, even at this time of the night when her boss was still here. Her presence in the office so late on a Friday would look good come next week when a final decision was to be made regarding the partnership slot.
Her chance at turning the fates was in the making.
“Look, Smith has a reputation for business and with women.” Grace muffled a yawn, reminding Laurel of the time. “Mixing the two together is just a recipe for disaster. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Laurel rested her tongue against the back of her teeth in an effort to counter that sentiment. Smith only allowed the world to see what he wanted them to see, and nothing more. He’d been born into one of the most prestigious families in the city, but he’d worked hard to make a name for himself based on his contribution to society. He was an enigma to most of the people he interacted with on a daily basis. He was nothing like his spoiled siblings who lived off their trust funds while traipsing around the world with the jet set crowd.
“I’m not going to get hurt,” Laurel argued, not truly believing her own contradiction. She had no idea where she stood with Smith, other than the sex was scorching hot. “Listen, I can’t talk about this now.”
She reached around the wall of her office and flipped on the overhead light. She hung the strap of her purse on the door handle before continuing down the corridor. Her heels sunk into the plush carpet as she got closer to Brad’s office door. It would ultimately benefit her if she dropped by and checked in, letting him see that she took her work seriously.
“Brad’s working late,” Laurel said, lowering her voice so that it didn’t carry through the empty hall. “I should say hello so that he knows I’ve been by.”
Laurel waited for Grace to acknowledge her bid at goodbye, not bothering to stop outside the doorway. She took a step into Brad’s office. The upcoming moment was mapped out in her head like a gambit in a game of chess.
She’d finish her phone conversation, not letting on that it was a personal call. He didn’t need to know that she wasn’t speaking with the London office. Such an appearance could only assist her in the meeting by the board in regard to the partnership, in which Brad’s opinion weighed heavily with the other partners.
Unfortunately, her night just went from bad to worse.
“…got an early breakfast with my mom,” Grace explained with disdain, not having the best relationship with her mother. Grace had no idea of the gravity of horror Laurel had just discovered. “Give me a call when—”
“I think…I think he’s dead.”
Laurel closed her eyes in disbelief, ignoring the hot sensation that practically singed her lashes. She hadn’t been sleeping well lately, and with the amount of overtime she’d been putting in at the office and additional hours she shouldn’t have spared in Smith’s bed, it was obvious she was having an acute panic attack.
The grisly sight before her didn’t change when she blinked her eyes multiple times. She tried to curtail her rapid breathing, afraid she would hyperventilate on one of the gasps in the back of her throat. She leaned back against the doorframe of her boss’ office and did her best to stop retching. She attempted to recover, seeking the support of her best friend, along with a dose of realism.
“Grace, I think he’s dead,” Laurel managed to say once again, her voice no louder than a whisper as she struggled to maintain what little composure she could muster.
Brad Manon couldn’t be dead.
Things like this didn’t happen in her life. That belief was what made her think that this was nothing more than a sick joke. That was plausible, right? After all, Brad used to pull pranks all the time, not that they were all that funny. She remembered when he’d feigned getting his fingers stuck in the large paper shredder in the copy room, causing Blair to spill her coffee all over the Xerox machine.
Of course, that had been back in the days when Brad had mingled with his employees, claiming he wanted low employee turnover and for his analysts and traders to know they meant something to the company. It was when this place was run like they were all family, and not the standard financial organization where everyone became cutthroat with one another trying to climb over the other’s dead body.
“Who’s dead?” Grace asked skeptically over the phone line in her usual calm demeanor. She wasn’t the type to lose control over a situation. “And why are you whispering?”
“I think Brad’s dead.” Laurel pushed out those horrid words around her constricted throat and clenched stomach. She looked back over her shoulder toward the foyer, but no one came out of their offices laughing like they were pulling off some sick joke with Brad. “Come to the office now. I’m going to call 911.”
“Brad? Our Brad?” Grace laughed in that soft angelic manner everyone had come to love here at Manon Investments. She was one of three employees who settled the trades implemented during market hours, quite content with her role at the company. “Are you sure Josh isn’t hiding behind a door somewhere? He or Stan are probably catching this on video right this moment. You’re so going viral by morning. You’d better get yourself together.”
Laurel’s gaze was still glued to Brad, whose body was currently leaning back in his chair with his head to one side. The gaping wound across his neck didn’t look painted on or stuck to his skin, like one of those Halloween rubber embellishments. It cut impossibly deep.
This wasn’t any kind of joke.
It was then that reality started to dawn on her that she might not be alone in the many offices that could provide a hiding spot for the guilty party. She didn’t want to take a step even a millimeter closer to Brad, but she was afraid to walk back down the hallway for fear that someone would try to do the same thing to her as they had done to Brad.
“Grace, get your fucking ass here now,” Laurel practically spat through her clenched teeth, doing her best to remain calm. “Brad’s been murdered. He’s dead, as in dead dead. I’m calling the police.”
Laurel quickly disconnected the line, though her trembling fingers made it almost impossible to switch her cell phone’s screen over to the dial pad. She succeeded after a few times, finally pressing the three important numbers that would bring help immediately.
Oh, my God.
Brad was dead.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“My boss is dead,” Laurel blurted out, cringing when she took another tentative step forward. She didn’t want to get too close to the body, but she didn’t want to stand too close to the door, either. “He’s been… He’s been…”
Laurel couldn’t bring herself to say aloud that Brad had been murdered or that his throat had been slit down to the bone. Her stomach began to revolt every time her gaze landed on the gruesome sight.
This can’t be happening.
“Ma’am, what is your name?”
“L-Laurel Calanthe.” She tried to breathe through her nose, but it was then that the scent of the coppery smelling blood became somewhat overwhelming. She briefly wondered if she was going to throw up the remains of her dinner. To quell the urge, she began talking and couldn’t seem to stop. “My boss is dead. Literally. He’s sitting at his desk with his throat slit almost all the way through, and I’m at the office alone. At least, I think I’m alone. Oh, my God. What if someone’s here? I didn’t look in any of the other offices. Whoever did this could still be here. Wait. You need an address. We’re at…”
Laurel rattled off the address, finally managing to get to the corner of Brad’s office so she could lean against the window. She went from wanting to cry to fighting the need to laugh hysterically at the ludicrous situation she’d found herself in all because she’d wanted to take home some files.
“Laurel, I’m sending units to your location now. Stay on the phone with me until…”
The 911 operator didn’t have to worry about Laurel hanging up, because she needed someone to keep her somewhat sane. Her grip on the phone would probably leave an indentation. She was here in the same room with a dead body. And it was someone she knew well, and almost too well at that.
One would think she would be crying, but then again, she was still in shock. She kept waiting for someone to jump out from one of the offices down the long corridor and tell her that this was nothing more than some sick joke.
He was the man responsible for the entire trajectory of her career. He’d taken her on right out of college as a retail analyst, and she’d been working for Manon Investments for the last six years. She was making low six figures, with an opportunity to make more based on an offering of the upcoming partnership offer.
Oh, my God. I’m going to hell.
Laurel put a trembling hand over her mouth, wondering where her sense of compassion had gone in these last few minutes. Her boss, her mentor, had been killed in a horrible manner that she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Yet her thoughts had somehow drifted toward how this situation would impact her employment.
Yes, I’m going straight to hell.
“Laurel, are you still there?”
“Yes.” She had to clear her throat a couple of times before she could get the word out, but it was as if she’d opened a dam. “I-I need to contact Paul. He’s going to need to know what happened. So are the others. How am I going to explain any of this? How do I say Brad has been murdered? No one is going to believe me.”
“Laurel, you can do all of that after the police arrive,” the operator reassured her in a confident manner. It did nothing to alleviate the nausea that had taken up residence in her stomach. “Are you still in a position where you can see down the hallway? Is the door unlocked?”
“Yes,” Laurel replied, furtively glancing down the dimly lit corridor. Her office provided most of the illumination, but there was track lighting that was left on during the evening hours. “I still don’t see anyone, but I don’t know how much longer I can stay—”
The echo of the glass door opening, followed by rapid footsteps, traveled down the still empty hallway. She gripped her cell phone harder to quell the fear bubbling up inside of her, only to sigh audibly with relief when she saw two men in uniform round the corner.
“The police are here,” Laurel told the 911 operator in a rush, grateful that someone was here to take care of…Brad. She’d been trying her best not to look his way, but she was on the losing end of what she hoped was human nature. She would never get that sight out of her mind. “Thank you so much for staying on the line with me.”
Laurel wasn’t sure what the operator said in return, for she was focused on the two police officers coming through the door. One of them ushered her out of the office and escorted her to the reception area. She didn’t challenge the direction, but the questions he began asking were somewhat overwhelming.
“Ma’am, are you Laurel Calanthe?” the officer asked, pulling out a small notebook. There was also a one-sided conversation being carried out in Brad’s office, presumably the other officer reporting in to his station. “Are you the one who reported the body?”
The police officer meant Brad.
Laurel closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, trying to cull her erratic emotions. She was a career woman and could handle anything thrown her way. She repeated that several times in her mind, though she was pretty sure her daily mantra didn’t extend to finding dead people.
“Okay,” Laurel stated mostly to herself, somewhat better now that she was away from all the blood. She still couldn’t prevent the shaking in her hands, but that was nothing a stiff shot of bourbon couldn’t handle. Okay, a glass. Or two. “Yes, I’m Laurel Calanthe.”
“Can you walk me through what happened?”
“I don’t know what happened.” Laurel was surprised to see two paramedics walk through the glass door. Her line of sight followed them down the hallway. For a brief moment, she wondered if they thought Brad was alive. The vision of his throat slit came back in vivid colors, reminding her that wasn’t the case. “Um, I came in to pick up some files and—”
“And what time was that?”
“Around one?” Laurel wasn’t sure why she’d worded her statement as a question, considering she’d glanced at her watch in the elevator. She still had a death grip on her phone, so she pressed the home button. The display read one twenty-three. How had everything happened in the span on twenty-three minutes? “I saw Brad’s light on in his office. I went to say hello and—”
“Was anyone with you?”
“No. I was on the phone with a colleague,” Laurel replied, wishing he’d allow her to finish her sentences. She was feeling slightly better now that the copper smell wasn’t so strong, and there was quite a lot she needed to do. Being busy would help her regain her equilibrium, as well. She glanced at his nametag. “Officer Dodds, I really need to contact Brad’s partner. Paul needs to know what—”
“You said you were stopping by the office for some files.” Officer Dodds nodded to another gentleman wearing an official-looking blazer who’d gotten off the elevator and was fixing the door so that it stayed open. A woman and another man followed closely behind, one with a black bag of some sort and another with a large camera. “Where were you this evening?”
The question had Laurel snapping her teeth together and closing her lips while she experienced a hot flash that was equal to being covered in lava.
This couldn’t be happening.
First, Brad was brutally murdered. That in and of itself was going to send shockwaves through the company. At the foundation of every hedge fund was the portfolio manager. It was through his or her reputation that brought in the high net worth individuals. Brad’s death could potentially mean the doors closing on Manon Investments.
But to throw in that she’d spent her evening in bed with the man who she was competing with for a partnership in said business would essentially be ending her career. She could have included Smith’s career in that sentiment, but his family name and wealth would essentially wipe away any smear that could possibly stain his reputation.
Doubts began to swirl in the chaotic thoughts that had yet to settle down since she’d found Brad dead at his desk. What if Smith denied being with her this evening? What if he refused to give her an alibi? Should the company somehow survive if Paul took over as portfolio manager, or they brought someone new on board who had numbers to back up his or her performance, Smith would be a shoo-in for partnership while she’d be sitting behind bars wearing an orange jumpsuit.
“Ma’am?” Officer Dodds lifted the pen off the small pad of paper as he peered at her questioningly. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”
“No,” Laurel whispered, shaking her head to emphasize her answer. “No, I’m not okay.”