Block was troubled. He had blown through a quarter of his employees’ retirement account by gambling on penny stocks, commodities, currency futures, platinum mines, and other schemes recommended in proprietary investment newsletters. If the lost funds were not replenished in the next twelve months, auditors would discover the discrepancies and charge him with fraud, ignoring his fiduciary obligations, malfeasance, and gross negligence. He owed the retirement account more than his net worth, so the only solution was to make a bundle on another risky, high-paying investment.
He went to his home gym—a large, windowless room with mirrored walls, mats, and exercise machines—and changed to shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers. He did calisthenics for fifteen minutes, exercise bike for thirty, laps for fifteen, barbells for fifteen, then collapsed in a chair. He had sweated away his worries like raindrops on sand.
Rest for ten, then to the mirror: watery eyes and sagging skin. Closer, his entire face sagged. He checked his torso, not bad for fifty-seven, and his health was good, except the chronic constipation, hemorrhoids from overbearing down. He twisted his torso, a bodybuilder pose, checked his back—taut and stringily muscular—aging masculine beauty, and those lean, muscular legs. He smiled at himself, his handsome leader’s face, tough but fair.
Now to the shower, hot water pulsing from the luxoquadruple head, steam jets at shoulder height. Ah, wonderful! A sudden jolt of pain, like an electric shock, piles acting up, too long on the bike. Life was often painful, God’s tests, sometimes failed.
The steam filled his eyes, vision blurred, a feeling of faintness, his blind hand searching the wall, the valve, turn, deluge ends, silence. He swung the shower door open, grabbed a towel. A steamy bathroom, glass and metal surfaces fogged.
He wiped down dry, ran a palm across the mirror, an arc of clarity, his reflection: red face, soggy hair, fearful eyes. He cried out.
To the treadmill, he ran and ran, thoughtless, his mind a void. Running, running, running . . . Thirty minutes later, the timer bell rang.
He steadied himself on the handrails, felt his chest pounding, rapid breathing, faintness.
“Matt,” said a woman’s voice from his back. “Are you all right?”
He turned: Millie.
She drew in her breath. “Oh, my,” she said. “Oh, my God.”
“Get out of here,” he barked at her.
She stared at his nakedness, shocked at the sight, put a hand to her mouth, and backed, crablike, out the door.
He slammed it, set the lock.
Weeks passed, then months . . .
All week, Block had an ominous feeling something was not right. Last week, he consigned $19.8 million from the employee retirement fund he managed to Alex Hickock to invest in the Alpha fund. His fund transfer did not show on Alpha’s website last Friday, and on Sunday, Alpha’s website vanished from the Internet. He had thought at first it might be a weekend computer glitch, but when the site remained down on Monday, he called Hickock’s number and got a recorded message saying all Alpha’s accounts had been closed and requesting him to leave his name and phone number so auditors could contact him to resolve technical problems.
What technical problems? And who was auditing Alpha? He had $22.3 million invested there—$2.5 million of his own money and $19.8 million from the retirement fund, not including earnings. If all the money was in limbo, he was in deep financial shit, not to mention the legal peril of jeopardizing the retirement incomes of 421 former Block Tool employees. If the money was lost, he was broke, in hock to all those pensioners, and could be sent to prison.
Perhaps some nut had hacked Alpha’s website and phones to sabotage it. A disgruntled former employee might, but the only two Alpha employees he knew were happy and reasonable people.
On Wednesday, he drove to Alpha’s local storefront office to talk to someone, find out why they had not answered his calls and what was going on. At noon, the blinds were drawn and two white cars with government license plates were parked in Alpha’s reserved spaces. He went to the door, tried to open, but it was locked. He knocked. A young woman who looked like an office temp came to the door, said Alpha was closed, asked if he was an Alpha client. Block’s heart beat wildly, he panicked, shook his head, and left.
Art Farkas called him late Thursday evening, said he was having the same trouble with Alpha’s website and phones. “What’s with those folks?” he asked sarcastically. “I invested $6 million. They don’t deliver, no new church.”
“Your building fund?”
“Don’t matter what fund it was, Brother Motherfucker. Now fix it or I’ll send my Palace Guard to Montecito, they’ll Romanize you to a fucking tree.”
“Are you threatening me, Art?”
“A holy man like me, he ain’t meant to suffer, brother.”
End of call.
Trembling, Block dropped the cellphone, stared at it. He had never heard Art speak that way before, even privately.
On Friday, and all through the next week, people who Block had introduced to Hickock at the country club or on social occasions started calling. All had invested money in Alpha and now shared the same complaints—no communication and fear of financial loss. The phone warbled constantly as one after another caller wanted to know if Alpha was still in business and solvent.
At some point, callers’ tone changed, no longer merely curious, but suspicious. Subtly at first, but later more overtly, they suggested Block was in league with Hickock, called him con artist, swindler, thief. The callers often made the same accusations, like politicians with talking points. They were probably meeting, conferencing, jumping to conclusions, conspiring against him, savaging his reputation. They were all jealous, had been from the start. He was a simple, self-made man, not born to wealth like so many of them.
He could do nothing, only wait. He was a religious man, with faith. He would pray, wait for a better day. Meanwhile, he turned off his cellphone and put it in a drawer, told Millie he was taking time off from his usual schedule of social events and golfing to clear his mind of worldly concerns for a while. He requested her to leave him alone as he concentrated on getting closer to The Lord.
“Amen,” she said.
He went to his home gym, changed to shorts and sneakers, did callisthenics fifteen, bike thirty, laps fifteen, barbells fifteen, rest ten.
Up onto the treadmill, running, running, running . . . timer bell ring and stop.
Knees wobbly, he steadied himself on the handrails, chest pounding, rapid breathing, faintness.
Back to the bike, pedalling furiously for thirty.
Soaking wet with sweat, to the bathroom, disrobed, shower on, beneath a stream of scalding water flogging him with torrid liquid flay, self-mortification and—sudden rapture, physical pain, heart pounding, breathless, sweet penitence.
He smiled, a sudden chest pain, he cried out, then nothing.
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017). This story is adapted from material in the author’s novel, Princess Lily (Newgame, 2013).