Ghosts Of Christmas Future
Stephanie glanced up from her drink across the bar. There was a guy there she had had her eye on for the last while. He was hot, that was a definite. She figured him for his early thirties, but it was obvious he’d kept in shape. He seemed to be brooding over something. He’d done nothing but sat and stared into his drink for the last hour or so. At first she’d thought he was a typical barfly, but after a bit more observation, she’d concluded he definitely did not fit that particular profile.
For a start, he was excellently dressed. She knew a bit about clothes, and that suit he was wearing was definitely tailored. It was not an off the rack job. Also, on the rare occasions he did glance up, there was a definite gleam of intelligence in his eyes. And the close cropped hair and beard did give him an air of dignity. She loved that.
Stephanie took a deep breath, and decided to bite the bullet. She picked up her drink, and walked over to him.
“Hey,” she said. “Anyone sitting here?”
The man glanced up in surprise. “No.”
“Mind if I...?”
He waved at the seat. “Go right ahead.”
She did so, and sat down. “Sorry to interrupt...”
“You aren’t, trust me.”
“...But you looked so lonely, and I hate to see a good looking guy lonely on a Saturday night.”
“That’s even worse.”
That got a grin from him. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Mack.”
She took it. “Stephanie. What’s your story, Mack?”
“I was dragged here by my best friend. He thought I was moping too much, and needed to cheer me up.” He raised his glass, and for the first time, Stephanie saw the wedding ring on his left hand.
“Damn it,” she said, almost to herself.
“What?” Mack glanced and saw the ring. “Oh, that. That’s the reason I need cheering up, I think.”
“Because of your wife?” Stephanie didn’t like the way this was going. She didn’t have any intention of being the other woman.
“Ex-wife,” he said, with a sad grin.
“Oh. How long?”
She raised an eyebrow. “And you still wear the ring, why?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.” He changed the subject. “So what do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.” She sipped her drink again. “And you?”
“I’m a businessman.”
“Ooh. What type?”
“I own an ice cream company.”
“I love ice cream. Anything I’d know?”
“Ever heard of Bro & QB?”
She nodded. “That’s you?” She took a closer look. “I knew you looked familiar.”
He smiled. “That’s why I grew the beard.”
“I think I can guess which one you are,” she said, smiling. “The Bro, right?”
He smiled back. There was some raucous laughter and giggling from behind them suddenly. Stephanie glanced behind her. There was a goofily handsome guy some distance behind them, with what looked like two bimbos hanging onto his every word. He appeared to be describing some amazing feat of athletic prowess.
She frowned. “Crap. There’s this really obnoxious guy in here, and he’s been acting like a loud jerk all night.”
Mack smiled slightly. “Yes, I know.”
She looked at him. “You know him?”
“He’s the QB.”
“It’s okay.” He got up suddenly. “But I think we had better be going.”
He indicated his loud friend. “Before I get barred from this bar for life. I like this place.”
“So I might see you again here?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know.” He walked over to his annoying friend, said something to him, and they walked out of the bar.
Stephanie watched them go. She’d hoped that that guy - Mack - would have been willing to stay a little longer. She knew that she could be pretty tempting when she wanted to be. Oh well, maybe it just wasn’t going to happen. She walked back to the bar, and ordered another drink.
Outside the bar, Mack led Kevin in the direction of their car, trudging through the snow, in the cold Washington DC air.
“Why do we have to leave so early?” whined Kevin, trying not to put too much weight on his knee.
“You’re smashed, Kevin. You need to get home, and go to bed.” Mack glanced down at his knee. “Remember, don’t put too much weight on that knee. You know what happens then.”
Kevin nodded sadly. “I know, man. I know. Damn it...”
Mack sighed. “Come on, Kevin. Let’s go home.”
“But those chicks, man. Those chicks were totally digging me.”
“I know, Kevin.” Of course, they were smashed too.
“Do you feel better?” asked Kevin, groggily.
Mack bundled him into the car. “After what?”
“We were going out to have fun, Mack. You need to have fun. You’re so miserable all the time. Like me.”
Mack couldn’t argue with that. But he was in no mood to talk about it right now. “Yes, I had a good time,” he lied. “It was a wonderful idea of yours,” he lied further. Any minute now, my nose is going to get longer.
“Good. You’re my best friend, you know that?” said Kevin woozily. “I want you to be happy. Happier than me, anyway.”
Then he passed out.
Mack sighed heavily. He’d thought this was a bad idea from the start. It was true that Kevin and he had needed a bit of cheering up, but with all that had gone on, who could blame them?
He got in the car, and started it. He’d known Kevin would more than likely drink too much and pass out, so he’d stuck to soda all night. Kevin was a person of extremes. Always had been, always would be, probably. If he wasn’t goofily happy all the time, he was insanely depressed all the time. Lately, it had been more of the latter, and Mack couldn’t really blame him. They needed an upswing in their fortunes, and hopefully that meeting tomorrow would solve some of their more immediate problems.
Daria sighed a little in resignation. Jane glanced over, and gave her a sympathetic look. They were sitting in the middle of a television studio, on a fairly typical talk-show set. There was a guileless-looking blonde man sitting beside them. Daria fixed an insincere grin on her face, and turned to him.
The man, who still had a similar (though more sincere) grin on his face, turned to the nearest camera and held up a small cardboard box. “What we have here,” he said, indicating the box to the camera, “is one of the most interesting examples of gum I’ve found...”
“Gum again?” asked Jane, leaning forward in her chair. “You don’t have anything else?”
The man looked at her. “No! You see, we can learn so much from this sample. It could revolutionize the world of gum as we know it.”
“Well, that’s impressive,” said Jane, trying to sound impressed, but not succeeding
“It’s just,” said Daria, “that you’ve been on this show about ten times, and each time you’ve gone on about gum. I thought you were supposed to be a renowned scientist, or something.”
“I am,” said the man. “Gum is my field of study.”
“Professor, lose the gum thing. It’s becoming a cliche.”
“Daria,” said Jane, in a gently chiding voice. “Try to sound a bit more enthusiastic.”
“Sorry. You’re right.” Daria turned to the camera. “This guy’s got an amazing gum find, everyone. I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled. In fact, I think he’s a God. I worship him. I love only him. My family, my friends? They mean nothing to me now. I revere only him.”
Jane put her hand over her face.
The professor frowned for a second, then beamed. “That was sarcasm, right?”
Daria sighed. “I’m sorry. I was out of line. Sorry, everyone.” She glanced over at Jane. “Think we’d better go with a rerun tonight?”
A few minutes later, they were both sitting in their producer’s office. Jane was trying to look nonchalant, and Daria was scowling. Their producer leant back in his chair, and sighed. “What are we going to do with you two?”
“Give us a raise?” Jane smiled as sincerely as she could. “You know we’re worth it, Bob.”
“You - maybe.” He glanced at Daria. “Maybe I could re-jig the show with only one anchor.”
“Well,” said Jane. “I don’t think it really works as a one person show. You know, with the banter and everything.”
“We have banter,” said Jane unconvincingly.
“I agree, though. We do need two people. Have any bubbly friends?”
Daria snorted. Bob shot her a look. “What’s wrong with you, anyway, Daria? You used to be so serious and dedicated. Now you act like a bitch to everyone, and you insult the guests.”
“We have sucky guests anyway.”
“Maybe it’s because of your rep.”
“What rep?” Daria frowned.
“You’re difficult,” said Bob.
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are, Kathie Lee.”
Daria got up to leave. “I don’t have to take this.”
Jane grabbed her arm. “Daria, come on. Sit down.”
“I don’t have to listen to him.”
“Then listen to this,” said Bob. “Ratings are plummeting. Guests don’t want to come on the show. The crew hates your guts. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t shitcan your ass.”
Daria didn’t say anything.
“Give us another chance,” said Jane.
“I don’t need to give you another chance, Jane. I like you.”
“We’re a team, Bob. Give us one more chance.”
He sighed. “Okay. Soon, though, right?”
Jane nodded. Daria walked out of the room, not bothering to say goodbye. Jane shrugged at Bob, and followed.
Daria and Jane walked out of the studio, into the crisp New York winter air. Daria shivered, and drew her coat up around her face.
“I hate Christmas,” she said miserably.
“Humbug,” said Jane. “Don’t you even look forward to taping our wonderful Christmas special?”
Daria gave her a look, and began walking towards the subway station. Jane grinned, and began walking after her.
“Come on, Daria. What’s wrong? What happened today?”
Daria turned to Jane, a sheepish grin on her face. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. Our producer might not think so, but...” She tailed off.
Daria shrugged. “You know me. Sometimes I just act like a bitch for no reason.”
“Well, that’s true.”
Daria shot her a look.
“You shouldn’t say stuff like that if you don’t want me to agree with you, you know.” Jane smiled. “But I think I know what’s wrong.”
“You’re in the process of getting all melancholy and introspective about where things went wrong.”
“How do you know?”
Jane’s smile faded a little. “Because I’m getting there myself.”
They reached the subway, and got on their train. Daria looked at Jane. “Okay. You’re right. But let’s face it, we hardly ended up where we wanted to.”
Jane shrugged. “Maybe I didn’t. But you are a published author.”
Daria grimaced. “I thought you weren’t going to tell anyone about that.”
“I’m not. You still cash the checks, though.”
“It’s not like I have much of a choice.” Daria sighed. “Don’t mind me. I always get mopey around Christmas.”
“What’s your excuse the rest of the year?” Jane grinned.
Daria shot her a rude gesture. “Plus the fact that by the new year, I might be out of a job.”
“That’s not going to happen,” said Jane.
Jane shrugged. “Can’t you at least pretend to be committed anymore?”
Daria was silent for a bit. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe...” She tailed off, and walked down the street a little faster.
Jane sighed and followed her.
Quinn stared at the graph behind her. She could almost hear the nervous silence behind her, as everyone tried to figure out what she was going to say and do. She smiled a little to herself, as she anticipated everyone’s reactions. She knew exactly how long she was going to stare at this chart - how much time would provoke the best reaction. It might be a little cruel, but it was definitely effective.
She took a deep breath, affected her scariest facial expression (gleaned from her mother), and turned around.
“This is totally unacceptable,” she said firmly, indicating the falling curve on the graph. “Our market research indicated this product would sell exceptionally well, and yet it’s failing. Anyone want to tell me why?”
There was a series of stutters and false starts, but no-one seemed to want to answer the question. Quinn had expected this. No-one wanted to take the fall for it, and she didn’t really want anyone to. Of course, if people assumed she was going to ride their asses for failures, they would probably work a lot better. There really wasn’t anything like fear to motivate people.
Quinn glanced down at all the cowering people at the table. “You can all leave now,” she said quietly. “But I don’t want this to happen again. Do you understand me?”
There was a nervous silence.
Quinn took a deep breath. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” she screamed at the top of her voice.
Everyone nodded in terror. Quinn looked at them all.
“Good. Get out.”
Everyone filed out of the room as quickly as they could, looking like they were all very glad to be leaving. Quinn grinned and sat down at the head of the table. It was good to keep people on the edge of their seats. She didn’t want anyone becoming too complacent. She knew that when she’d become vice-president of sales, a lot of people had said she’d been too young, and she had not wanted to prove them right. She hadn’t. Since she’d started, profits had soared, and all of her innovations had been great successes. The few failures she had had, she had used as warnings to the staff. Warnings that she wasn’t going to tolerate a lot of failure.
Quinn sat back in the chair, and checked her watch. She sighed. Time to go home. She got up and headed out.
She reached her apartment, nodded to the doorman, and went inside. Once she got in, she dumped her stuff on the floor, and headed straight to the bedroom. She kicked off her shoes, and pulled off her business suit. That thing got pretty constricting after all day at the office. She opened her closet, and pulled out some clothes. Before putting them on, she caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror. She smiled, and walked over for a closer view.
Examining herself, Quinn was definitely pleased. So she’d passed thirty. She was still as stunning as ever, and she knew it. Maybe even a little bit better looking - she didn’t think she was quite as thin as she used to be, and she liked the increased curves it gave her.
Now if only she had someone to show it off to. Oh, there were plenty of guys asking her out, but it was a problem of quality, not quantity. There wasn’t anybody she’d really clicked with. Maybe she was just too demanding. She sighed a little at that thought, and picked up the clothes. Some sweat pants, and an old t-shirt.
Back in school, she wouldn’t have been caught dead in those sorts of clothes, even around the house. Now, she liked the luxury of unwinding in something defiantly unfashionable. She put some Tony Bennett on the CD player, grabbed some ice cream, and flopped down on the couch.
She smiled to herself as she slowly ate the ice cream. If only the rest of the Fashion Club could see her now - sitting on a couch in sweat pants, eating ice cream, and listening to wildly unfashionable music. Oh well, things had changed. For all the former members. They still kept in touch, but it was hard to get them all together these days. They lived all across the country, and only stopped by Lawndale once in a while. Quinn was glad they had kept in touch, though. For all the disagreements and problems they’d had, they were still her best friends.
She checked the answering machine. Three new messages.
“Hi Quinn. It’s Sandi. I’m going to be out of the country for the next few weeks. I’ll call when I get back. Bye.”
“Hello, Quinn. It’s Mom. Your father and I were wondering if you were coming up to the cabin for New Years? Call me, okay?”
“Heyyy, Quinnn. It’s Tiffany.” Long pause. “I can’t remember why I called. Bye.”
Quinn smiled. Some things never changed. She took a large spoonful of ice cream, and stretched out to relax more. She needed this. It was far too wearying being ‘on’ all the time. With her job, she needed some major downtime to handle the stress.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone to come home to, either.
Quinn sighed as she thought about that. Sometimes, she did wish that she had a few more people in her life. She didn’t have a lot of friends in Lawndale - everyone that she’d known had moved away, and none of her recent dates had been very productive. Sure, she was still getting as many offers as before, but none of the guys seemed very worthwhile.
She thought about her mother. She hadn’t seemed to have a lot of friends either, but she did have her father to come home to. Not that that seemed like a great thing most of the time, but at least he was there.
Suddenly struck by a wave of loneliness, Quinn picked up the phone, and began dialing Daria’s number. They had become pretty close over the years, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they lived in two fairly distant cities. The phone rang and rang, but no-one picked up.
Quinn sighed, put the phone back on the cradle, and tucked back into the ice cream with gusto. She’d probably better get a good night’s rest anyway. She had that meeting in the morning. She got comfortable, and let the soothing music wash over her.
Daria and Jane walked into their apartment to hear the phone ringing. Jane rushed for it, but didn’t get it in time. She picked it up and did a *69.
“Well?” said Daria.
“Unlisted number,” said Jane.
“Probably Quinn,” said Daria, throwing her bag onto the couch.
“You want me to call her back?”
Daria shook her head. “Nah. I’m not in the mood. Did you get the mail?”
Jane sat down on the couch. “You are in a mood today. Is our pathetic Christmas tree...” she indicated a fairly miserable looking tree, “...getting you down?”
Daria flopped down beside her. “No. It’s just...”
“You know how I am. I obsess over everything. And at the minute I’m obsessing over our current situation.”
“Ah.” Jane smiled. “So being international TV stars doesn’t float your boat?”
“We aren’t international TV stars, Jane. We star on a public access talk show in New York. And I’m going to get fired, probably.”
“Pays the bills, right?”
“Come on, Jane. Is this really where you saw yourself?”
Jane sighed. “No. But I’ll be honest. It did give me something to fall back on when my art wasn’t doing so well. Which was all the time, now that I think about it.”
“And my writing wasn’t doing so good either.”
“Yes, yes,” said Daria quickly. “We’re not going to talk about that, remember?”
Jane grinned. “Okay. Of course, it was your writing that got us into this, remember? You wrote that article, the producers saw it...”
Daria waved a hand. “Don’t remind me.”
“Plus you have our amazing Christmas special to look forward to. We’re taping that tomorrow, remember?”
“And who are the guests again?”
“Carrot Top for one,” said Jane sheepishly.
“He’s dead,” said Daria with a scowl.
“Oh, I know. We have this guy who claims he can talk to the dead. Has a channel to Carrot Top.”
“Jane, that’s more than pathetic. We need to fire our talent bookers. How do you know this guy’s on the level?”
“He got me in touch with Dad.”
Daria raised an eyebrow.
“He did!” Jane insisted. “I knew it was Dad cause he told me to stay away from the bathroom-slash-darkroom, and then asked me who I was.”
Daria shot her a look. “Now I know you’re joking. Your Dad’s not dead.”
“Well, he might be,” said Jane. “I know no-one’s seen him for the last five years.” She sighed. “Mark it down as a failed attempt to cheer you up.”
Jane nodded. “I know exactly how you feel, Daria. I saw myself as a reasonably successful artist by now. Instead, I’m a mediocre TV sensation. Sensation in quote marks, of course.”
Daria tried to smile. “I appreciate the effort, though. Hey, what’s in the mail?”
Jane sifted through it. “Lots of bills. Damn! I knew we should have claimed we were married. We would have gotten so many tax breaks that way.”
“Oh yes. It would have done wonders for our love lives too. Hi, I’m Daria and this is Jane. We’re not lesbians, but we pretend to be to scam the IRS.”
Jane looked thoughtful. “I still think it would actually attract guys.”
“Yeah, guys who want to see me and you make out.”
“Better than nothing,” said Jane hopefully.
“That’s where I draw the line, Jane.”
“Well, my line’s getting further and further back all the time. In fact, it’s been so long, I think parts of my body are starting to grow back.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” said Daria.
“Come on! Aren’t you a little frustrated by now?”
“The only thing that gets me frustrated, Jane, is the noises coming from your room after you think I’ve gone to sleep.”
Jane grinned. “Well, at least I’m taking matters into my own hands.”
“Quite literally,” said Daria, smiling wryly.
“Maybe if you weren’t so hostile to potential dates, I’d get more offers.”
“I am not hostile,” said Daria defensively.
Jane just looked at her.
Daria scowled. “Is there anything in there that isn’t a bill?” She got up to go over to the kitchen. “I’m going to get dinner ready.”
Jane flicked through the envelopes again. “Nope. Hey, wait.”
Daria glanced over at her. “What?”
“There’s one that’s addressed to you here. Handwritten, too. That’s why I figure it isn’t a bill.”
Daria wandered over, and took a look at it. “Hmm. You know, I hope it isn’t a fan letter.”
“You remember the last one we got?”
Jane thought for a second. “Oh yes. The one where the guy sent you a lock of hair. I thought that was fairly sweet.”
“It wasn’t hair from his head, Jane.”
Jane shrugged. “It’s the thought that counts.”
“Uh-huh. Put that one to the side. I’ll open it in the morning. I’m not in the mood for weirdness tonight.”
Jane tossed it to the side, got up, and walked into the kitchen. “So what is for dinner?”
Daria glanced through the cabinets and fridge. “Hmm. Why don’t we order pizza?”
Jane grinned. “Why break a lifelong habit, huh?”
Mack pulled his car up in front of the tall office building and got out. A uniformed man walked up and took the keys. “Don’t scratch it,” said Mack, slipping him a fifty. The man nodded, and drove off to park it. Mack glanced up at the imposing structure and walked inside. As he walked towards the elevator, he pulled out his cell and dialed.
The familiar voice came out of the phone. “Mackenzie Enterprises. How may I direct your call?”
“It’s me,” said Mack. “Patch me through.”
After a short pause, another voice came onto the phone. “Mack?”
“How’s it going?”
“Haven’t got there yet. On my way up. Just called to see how things are going.”
“Fine. You know, we can get by without you for two days.”
Mack smiled. “I know. How’s Kevin?”
“Chairing a meeting in his own inimitable style.”
“And you’re following my advice, right?”
“Don’t do anything he says? Of course.”
“Kevin’s a great ideas person, but his organizational skills leave a lot to be desired,” said Mack, smiling.
“Adequate?” said Mack.
“Okay,” said Mack. “Barely competent.” He reached the elevator, and went inside.
Renee’s voice grew more serious. “Mack, what’s going to happen? I mean, I know things are kind of grim.”
“I know, trust me. The last thing I want is for us to go under. I’m hoping I can work something out with my gracious host.”
“I know. Keep things together till I get back.”
“Have I ever let you down?”
“Renee,” said Mack, “what would I do without you?”
“You’d probably find a new personal assistant, and your life would fall to pieces.”
“I see you haven’t got an ego problem.”
The elevator doors opened, and Mack found himself looking out on the top floor. “I’m here. Renee, I’ll call you after the meeting.”
“Okay. Good luck.” The line went dead.
Mack took a deep breath and walked down the corridor. He reached the familiar door and walked on through. Inside the room was a giant window that stretched across the whole back of the room, and a large, ornate desk, behind which sat a familiar face.
“Hello Mack,” said Tom.
“Mister Sloane,” said Mack, trying to keep his voice neutral.
“Tom, please. We’re all friends here.”
“Friends? Tom raised an eyebrow. “I can’t remember us ever being what you’d call friends.”
Tom shrugged. “Have a seat.”
Mack sat down. Tom leant back in his chair, and placed his hands on the table.
“Let’s get down to business,” said Tom. “You’re this close to bankruptcy, Mack. You do realize that, don’t you?”
“Very well,” said Mack.
“I don’t know why. You’ve run your company very well, ever since you started it back in your twenties. For someone who apparently was terrible at managing his money back in high school, you certainly have done very well. Until a few years ago, in fact. Which, by my reckoning, is exactly when you hired your old school friend, Kevin Thompson. Ever since then, your company has been on the down and out. See a connection?”
Mack didn’t say anything.
“So,” continued Tom. “I think the answer is obvious. I’m prepared to buy your company. It’s very popular in the ice cream market, and if you hadn’t made that horrible mistake of hiring him, I think you would be in a very enviable position right now.”
Mack sighed. “What’s your point?”
“I want to buy your company. I’m even prepared to keep you as CEO. But I want Kevin out, understand? It’s bad for business.”
“And if I don’t want to get rid of him?”
“Then I’ll still buy your company. But I’ll get rid of both of you then.”
Mack was silent for a bit.
“Come on,” said Tom. “You know I’m right. It was mistake to hire him, and you know it.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re very preachy?”
“Most people. But you know I’m right.”
Mack didn’t say anything again.
Tom leaned forward. “You know what your problem is? I think you’re too wrapped up in the past. That’s why you hired Kevin, even though you knew it was a bad idea. That’s why you married Jodie...”
Mack cut in. “That’s not any of your business. Let’s stick to the point here.”
“Anything that cuts into profit is my business.”
“I fail to see what my ex-wife, a woman I haven’t spoken to in eight years, has to do with profit.”
“Touchy.” Tom got up and began walking towards Mack. He stopped behind him. “You really should try to keep personal feelings out of business.”
“I do,” said Mack. Tom was standing right behind him now, and he knew he was trying to make him feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t going to let it.
“Okay,” said Tom. “You have my terms. You know that before too long, you’re going to go into Chapter Eleven. Only, there isn’t really much chance of you becoming profitable again after that, so you go into Chapter Seven. And then it’s all over. A lot of very annoyed creditors in that case, and your chances of making it in the business world ever again get very slim. Do you really want that?” He leant down and said the last part right into Mack’s face.
Mack looked at him, not showing any sign of being uncomfortable. “I need a few days to think it over.”
“I’d like an answer now,” said Tom, putting a slight accent on the “now”.
Mack stared him straight in the eye. He wasn’t going to let Tom push him about. “I said a few days.”
“Fine. But I’ll need an answer by the Christmas Party.”
“Christmas Party,” said Tom. “I know I sent you an invitation. It’s in two days, on the twenty-fourth. All my clients are going to be there. All my friends, too.”
You have friends? thought Mack. Instead, he said “I’ll be there.” He got up and walked out.
Tom sat back in his chair, and watched Mack leave. He didn’t like being that way, but he knew he was right. He usually was. He spun round, and looked out onto the window onto Lawndale. This hadn’t exactly how he’d planned his life being. But when his father had died, he’d had no choice but to take over his position. There wasn’t really anyone else qualified to do so. He’d been young, too.
When he was younger, he’d acted like his wealth and position of privilege had been an embarrassment to him. The truth was, he’d always liked it, but it had made him feel a little uncomfortable. When his father had died, and the task of taking over the company had come to him, he’d tried to run away. As far as he could get. But you can’t hide from who you really are. Eventually he’d come back, and realized something. This was where he was meant to be. He’d known that after a short while in power. He loved it. The Sloanes were definitely near the top of the tree in Lawndale, and he reveled in it.
Of course, one of the responsibilities of his position was helping people less fortunate than himself. Mack Mackenzie was one of those types. His company could be doing so well, if only he’d get rid of that ballast he was dragging along. He realized that Kevin Thompson was his friend, but friendships had no place in business.
Mack was probably a little too sentimental, he mused to himself. In a way, he hoped that Mack would refuse to get rid of Kevin. That way, he could get rid of Mack too, and get a CEO that was a little less sentimental, and a lot more professional. That would probably help Mack, too. Make him realize he needed to be a bit more ruthless in his business dealings.
Tom turned round in his seat again. He liked helping people in that way. Sometimes people really didn’t know what was best for them. It was lucky there was people like him around to help them. He glanced at the clock on the desk. His next appointment should be here in a few minutes.
Filling the time, he flicked through some of his messages, and mentally kicked himself. He’d invited two different women to the party. He was always doing that. He had so many, it was difficult to keep track. Oh well, he mused. He could always pay one off, to keep her from getting too upset. Maybe a million dollar piece of jewelry, or something. He’d have one of his assistants pick it out later.
The elevator doors opened on the ground floor, and Mack stepped out. He walked through to the lobby, and paused there. He needed to sit down. He found the nearest chair and sat down. He checked the time. It was too late to drive back to DC tonight. He’d have to get a hotel for the night. That was probably for the best. He needed the time alone to think.
Mack sighed heavily. Things were not going well at all. He had three choices.
One - let his company go under, and let all those good people lose their jobs.
Two - let Tom buy the company without him, and then watch as Tom proceeds to fire all those same good people.
Three - fire Kevin, let Tom buy the company, and retain control.
Put like that, there really was only one choice. He was going to have to think very hard about getting rid of Kevin. He didn’t want to, though. Deep down, he knew that Kevin was probably dragging things down, but at the same time, if he fired him, what would he do? He remembered how Kevin had been when Mack had first hired him. He couldn’t let him go back to that way. He just couldn’t.
Kevin might be a jerk sometimes, and he might be annoying, but deep down, underneath it all he was a good guy. Mack knew that - that’s why they’d remained friends all those years. He cared about Kevin, and he didn’t want to see his life go down in flames. When he’d first got back in touch with him all those years ago, he’d been surprised at how desolate he’d seemed. All of his dreams had crashed and burned, and his family was barely talking to him. He’d done the only decent thing he could have and given him a job.
In retrospect, that probably hadn’t been the best of ideas. Kevin was enthusiastic and he had a lot of ideas, but they weren’t always good ones. Mack soon realized he had no business aptitude at all and was hopeless at dealing with monetary matters. After a while, Kevin began to adversely affect the business. It had gotten to the point now where he had instructed his staff to just humor Kevin and not do anything he said. The company was still going under, though.
Mack rubbed his eyes in frustration. There was going to be some hard decisions made, and he didn’t really want to make any of them.
He glanced at his watch. He’d been sitting here for almost an hour. Getting up, he made his way to the doors. Time to find a hotel for the night.
“Michael Mackenzie? Mack?”
Mack turned as he heard the voice calling his name. It was coming from a woman standing in front of the elevators. She was, Mack admitted to himself, stunning. She was a redhead in a blue business suit that seemed to cling to her body. Her hair was styled elegantly on top of her head, in a way that just seemed to compliment the shape of her head. She had the most piercing green eyes he had ever seen. Her whole appearance seemed tailor-made to fit her like a glove. Mack was sure he didn’t know her. If he’d met her, he would have remembered.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” she said. The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
Mack shook his head, and walked over to her. “I’m sorry, but I don’t. You seem to know me, though.”
The redhead smiled. “And I thought I was unforgettable. We didn’t really know each other, but I do know who you are.”
Mack tilted his head to one side. The answer seemed to be right on the edge of his brain, but he couldn’t get to it.
“Quinn Morgendorffer,” she said, holding out her hand.
Mack took it, and shook it. “Quinn...?” Realization hit him. “Daria’s sister, right?”
“Or cousin,” she said, with a smile.
“What? Oh wait, I get it.”
“So what brings you back to Lawndale?” she asked, a slight smile playing on her lips.
Mack was still trying to reconcile the image he had of a whiny, self-absorbed fashion princess back in high school, with the beautiful, mature, self-assured woman standing in front of him. “Business dealings.”
“Ah,” she said. “You’ve got dealings with Tom too.”
“You have as well?” asked Mack. He knew he’d recognized her voice from somewhere. Of course, back in high school it had been whiny and very nasal. Now it had deepened considerably, and was actually quite...
Mack shook himself out of his reverie. What was he thinking about? He had more important things to think about than a woman he’d barely known back in high school, and had coincidentally run into now. He realized suddenly that Quinn was still talking to him.
“...Just some minor business deals, really. Nothing too important. I’m VP of sales for one of the larger cosmetics companies in the country. How about you?”
“What?” Mack smiled in an embarrassed way. “I zoned there. Sorry. I have a lot on my mind.”
“You look like it,” said Quinn. “I was wondering what business you have with Tom?”
“He’s buying my company, probably.”
“Ouch. You have that ice cream company, right?”
“It’s good stuff,” she said sincerely. “Did you know I never ate ice cream until after I left high school? God, if I’d known what I was missing...” She looked at him. “I guess you grew the beard, so people wouldn’t guess you were the guy on the packet.”
Mack smiled. “Didn’t work, did it?”
“If I hadn’t known who you were, I never would have guessed.” She indicated the beard. “Suits you though.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“Oh no, I’m very blunt. You probably noticed that about our family.”
Mack thought back, and grinned. “Well, Daria certainly was.”
“You know,” said Quinn. “You seem in a pretty bad mood. You need something to eat.”
“Well, maybe, but...”
“Good. It’s settled then. Where do you want to go?”
“What?” said Mack, a little lost.
“We should go together, shouldn’t we?” Quinn smiled. “I mean, we can catch up on all that we’ve been doing.”
“Well, we didn’t really know each other in high school,” said Mack. “I mean...”
“That’s even better, right? This way, we have so much more to find out than if we had known each other.” She smiled. It was a very nice smile.
Mack thought about this. He did have to go get something to eat, and he did have to stay in Lawndale tonight. He might as well take the opportunity to go right now. Besides, Quinn Morgendorffer was a very different person from what he remembered, and that intrigued him. “You have a place in mind?” he asked finally.
Quinn smiled beguilingly. “Of course. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to sample the restaurants here. You won’t be disappointed.”
They left the Sloane building and went to dinner.
Daria decided that it was about time that she got up to put the pizza boxes away. She cleared them off the kitchen table, and as she was doing so, her eyes fell across that hand-written letter she had discarded earlier. She picked it up, and looked at it intently.
As she was doing that, Jane walked in in a bathrobe. “I’m finished with the shower. You can feel safe in going to the bathroom now.”
“You know it is odd that you only take showers when I need to pee.”
Jane flopped down on the sofa. “Oh Daria, if you think that I do that to torture you in order to glean a little measure of amusement from my life...” she paused. “You’d be right. Damn, my life is boring.”
Daria shot her a look, and Jane just grinned.
“Hey, is that that letter?” said Jane curiously. Daria nodded. “Well, open it. I’m curious.”
“Oh yeah, I was going to steam it open while you were on the toilet. That’s how curious I am.”
Daria sighed and opened the letter. She pulled out the pages, and raised an eyebrow. “No bodily waste. That’s always a plus.” She began reading it, and suddenly her eyes went wide.
“What?” said Jane. “What is it?”
“It’s about Tom.”
“Tom? Tom Sloane, our ex?”
“Yes, Jane. I know who he is.”
“Forgive my exposition. So what happened? Did he die and leave you all that cash?”
Jane shrugged. “A girl can dream, can’t she?”
Daria held out the pages. “It’s information. About Tom and Sloane Industries.”
Jane took the pages. “What kind?”
Jane’s eyes went wide as well. “Daria, do you know what this is?”’
“I can read, Jane. Info on all the illegal stuff he’s supposedly been doing. Insider trading, monopolistic actions, withholding patents for medical discoveries, forcing mergers, and worse.”
“He could get so busted for this if it were to go public.” Jane glanced up at Daria. “Who sent you this?”
“Tricia Gupty. The girl I used to baby sit. She’s an accountant for Tom’s company now.”
“How’d she get this information?”
“Beats me.” Daria sat back. “This is terrible. I mean, we have to go public with this. We just can’t sit on it. This is bad stuff. Shit. I think Quinn was doing some stuff with his company, and him. This isn’t good.”
Jane continued flicking through the pages. “This is big, Daria. Really big.” She paused briefly. “You know what I’m thinking?”
“If you really wanted to boost your writing career, this would be one hell of a scoop. Papers would be falling over themselves for this story.”
“I doubt it.”
“Come on! Sloane Industries is in the Forbes 500. Not too low, either. This is big stuff.”
“If it’s true. There isn’t a shred of proof in any of this.”
“If it’s true, evidence has to exist somewhere.”
Daria frowned. “I think I can see where you going with this, and I don’t like it.”
“We can find the proof!” Jane was getting really excited now. “This is so cool! We can go to his evil stronghold, sneak in, and hoist him from his own petard!”
“What?” said Daria, an incredulous look on her face. “By the way, I think you got that quote wrong.”
Jane was buzzing now. “Come on, we have a few days off after tomorrow. We could drive down to Lawndale, catch up on some family members, indict ex-boyfriends, that sort of thing.”
“Why are you so keen on this? I didn’t think you harbored any grudges. And I know I sure haven’t. In fact, I haven’t thought of him at all for the last ten years.”
“Well, you should have,” said Jane. “You remember how he dumped you?”
“No, Tom, no!” cried Daria in a pleading tone. “I love you so much, Tom. Don’t leave me.”
“I’m afraid,” said Tom in a rich, evil voice, “that I’ve used you as my sex toy for much too long now. I seek fresh fields to defile.”
“You...you monster!” said Jane, who was standing off to the side. “I should have known about you when I came home and found you in bed with both of my sisters.”
“You had your turn,” said Tom, laughing maniacally. “And you were pretty mediocre. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have orphanages to close, and puppies to kick.” He laughed evilly some more for good measure.
Daria dropped to her knees. “Tom, don’t leave me! I’m pregnant! With your child!”
Tom paused and thought about this for a moment. “Wow. That happens to me a lot. I guess I should really think about protection, what with my chronic herpes, and all.” He glanced at Daria one more time. “It makes no difference. I’m leaving now, and you’ll just have to be content with the fact that you made it into my top two hundred. At two hundred.” He looked at Jane again. “You weren’t even in the top four hundred. Oh, and Daria? One more thing. I’ve done your sister. And your Aunts. And your Mom. Bye now.” He strode off.
Daria threw her hands in the air. “Noooo! Whyyyyy!?!?”
Daria gave Jane a look. “That isn’t quite what happened, Jane.”
“Well, was I close?”
“Not very. I dumped him, remember?”
“Oh yes.” Jane shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t there, remember?”
“I know. It was very civilized. I haven’t got any animosity towards Tom. I don’t have anything towards Tom, in fact. That was back in high school. It’s not relevant to my life now.”
“Except for the fact that we are sitting on some information that he’s doing some pretty nasty things. We can‘t let this sit.” Jane raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have any animosity towards him, either, and God knows I have more of a reason. That’s why we should do this. You’ve read those pages. The stuff he’s doing...”
“Allegedly doing. That stuff is pretty nasty. We have a duty.”
“A duty which would coincidentally revive our careers.”
“Hey, come on. We have a chance to do some good here. And resuscitate our lives. What’s not to like?” She glanced at Daria. “Remember that whole threat from the producer thing?”
“Except that the person we’d be busting is an ex-boyfriend of both of us.” Daria sighed. “You don’t think that sounds a little cheesy?”
“If this stuff is true, no-one will even question that.”
Daria. glanced down at the floor. “I don’t know, Jane. I need to think about this.” She got up. “I’m going to bed.”
“It’s still early.”
“I’m tired, Jane.” She began to walk to her bedroom. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“Night.” Jane picked up the letter again, and began to form a plan. .
“So, I can either get rid of Kevin, or face the fact that my company will be taken over, and a lot of my staff, who I like very much, will probably be fired.” Mack sighed, and took another sip of his wine.
“That’s not good,” said Quinn gently.
“I don’t know, maybe Tom’s right in a way.”
“He’s a weird one.”
Quinn nodded. “He strikes me as a little creepy sometimes. He acts like he always seems to know everything.”
“You think so too?”
“Oh yes. And does he ever leave that building? No one I’ve spoken to has seen him outside for the last few years.”
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Next thing you know he’ll be asking for Mormon blood transfusions.”
Quinn smiled. “Tell me about it. He wasn’t this weird when he was dating Daria.”
They were both sitting in the more exclusive dining area of Governor's Park. Quinn had suggested the location. It turned out that she was a regular here, and was capable of getting the finest service they had. The meal was going excellently. Quinn was an excellent dinner partner. Mack couldn’t remember a time that he’d had as good of a time. She was smart, she was funny, she was sexy as hell...
Mack shook his head. Where had that come from? He barely knew her. She was an acquaintance, if even that, from fifteen years ago. This was going to be a fun dinner, nothing more.
The food was, of course, excellent. Mack had never had the opportunity to eat here while he was living in Lawndale, due to a large lack of funds at any given time. Taking Jodie to Chez Pierre drained most of his cash for a couple of weeks back then, and this place was far above Chez Pierre. Thinking about Jodie made his face fall, and Quinn noticed.
“Thinking about work?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he lied. Deciding to change the subject, he did so. “So, you seem to have done pretty well for yourself.”
“I guess,” said Quinn. “I mean, fashion was always a great passion of mine, so it was only natural I’d make a living from it. All it took was for me to take all that energy I put into being popular, and redirect it. I mean, I’m sure you remember how I was in high school.”
Mack nodded, and smiled wryly. “You were pretty different back then.”
“Let’s be honest. I was a brat.” She grinned. “I’m surprised anyone ever wanted to go out with me. I much prefer how I am now.”
“So do I,” said Mack, without thinking.
Quinn smiled at him. Mack found himself smiling back. It was a very nice smile.
Changing the subject again, he said: “Speaking of going out with you, you remember Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie?”
Quinn looked confused. “I never knew anyone called Jamie.”
Mack frowned in confusion.
Quinn laughed. “I’m kidding. I remember them. I always used to tease poor Jamie about his name. I thought it was hilarious at the time. Mind you, he probably didn’t think so.”
“They were always fighting about which one of them was finally going to get you. You should have seen the fights they had in the locker rooms.” Mack shook his head. “Man, I haven’t seen those guys in years. I wonder what they’re up to.” He smiled at Quinn. “Wonder if they still think one of them is going to get you?”
“One of them did,” said Quinn quietly, “for a night, at least.” She took a sip of her wine, smiled, and waited for the response.
Mack’s eyes grew wide. Then he pointed at her. “You’re kidding. Right?”
Quinn smiled secretively, and shook her head.
“It was at the ten-year reunion. We got talking, and you know how things go.”
Mack leaned forward. “Which one?” he asked conspiratorially.
“I can’t tell you that,” she said lightly. “If one of the other two found out, they’d kill him.”
“Come on. You can tell me. I won’t tell, I promise.”
Quinn raised an eyebrow, then shifted her chair a little towards Mack. She leaned forward, and whispered the name in his ear. Her soft, warm breath against his ear, and the fact that she was suddenly so close, made Mack feel very uncomfortable. In a good way, that is.
She leaned back, and smiled.
“Well,” said Mack, suddenly feeling rather hot. “I should have guessed. It figures it would have been him.”
“That’s what he said.” She gave him a look over her wine glass.
Mack returned the look, and they both found themselves looking at each other for a couple of seconds. Mack suddenly realized what he was doing, and glanced back down at his plate self-consciously.
“So,” said Quinn, changing the subject. “What are you going to do about Kevin?”
Mack shrugged. “I really don’t know. I don’t want to fire him. I mean, sometimes I get the feeling I’m his last chance.”
“I can believe that.”
“I don’t know what he’d do without me. You know what Kevin was like. He has a hard time functioning in the real world.”
“Oh yes.” Quinn laughed. “Did you know I tried to go out with him once?”
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Oh yes. He was over at the house doing some stupid science project with Daria, and I tried everything I could. Wearing a short skirt, even cooking. He managed to resist me, though.” She put an air of self-depreciation in the word ‘resist‘.
“Weird. He wasn’t watching football at the time, was he?”
“You never stood a chance, then. Brittany always used to complain about that.”
“Lucky me, I guess.”
Mack gave a wry grin, and took another sip of wine.
“I have an idea.” Quinn leaned forward slightly. “We didn’t really know each other in high school, right?”
“Then let’s get to know each other now.” She smiled. “I’ll ask you a question, you answer it totally honestly, and then you get to ask me a question of your own.”
“What type of question?” asked Mack, intrigued.
“Deal. You first.”
Quinn thought about it. “Song that makes you cry.”
Mack thought about it. “What a wonderful world - the Louis Armstrong version.”
“Good choice. Your turn.”
“Hmm.” Mack scratched his head. “Part of your body you like most?”
“My eyes.” Quinn thought. “Superhero you’d like to be?”
“Hmm. Luke Cage.”
“Big hair. Tiara. Yellow puffy shirt.”
“Ew!” Quinn grimaced. “If you looked like that, there’s no way we’d be at dinner.”
“Don’t worry. If I dressed that way, I’d be too embarrassed to go outside.” Mack thought for a second. Favorite relative.”
“Daria. First girlfriend?”
“Jodie. Person you hated most in high school?”
“Sandi Griffin. Best friend?”
“Kevin. Person you liked most in high school?”
“Sandi Griffin.” She saw the expression on his face. “Don’t ask. Your first?”
“Oh. Jodie.” Mack looked at her. “Your first?”
“You wouldn’t have known him,” said Quinn. “It was in college. His name was David.”
Quinn thought. “Person you’d most want to go on a date with?”
“I’m with her.”
Quinn smiled. “Flatterer.”
After dinner, Mack and Quinn found themselves standing outside, waiting for their cars.
“Thanks for dinner,” said Quinn.
“Chalk it up to my chivalrous side.”
“When are you leaving Lawndale?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, probably.”
“Good.” Quinn’s car pulled up, and the valet got out. Quinn tipped him, and began to get into the car. “I’ll see you tomorrow for lunch, then?”
“Great.” Quinn smiled. “I’ll see you at two. How about The Settlement? They have a great atmosphere.”
Mack shrugged. “Sure.”
Quinn gave him a little wave, and drove off. Mack watched the car disappear round the corner, and took a deep breath. That was something he hadn’t bargained on in this trip. Quinn Morgendorffer, as well as not being quite what he remembered, was definitely an intriguing woman.
Daria couldn’t sleep. She was tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable. It wasn’t going to work. She could never sleep if she had something on her mind.
The Tom thing had kind of thrown her for a loop. Jane was right. They were sitting on something big here. It was bad stuff. Stuff that people had a right to know about. Yes, it might help her revive her writing career, but that wasn’t the main reason why she was thinking about doing it. She didn’t know what that reason was, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t it.
So why was she sitting on it? She didn’t have any animosity towards Tom, but at the same time, she didn’t have really good feeling towards him either. So she shouldn’t have a reason for letting him off the hook. Normally, her social conscience would be telling her to go for it. This was bad stuff. If it was true, she had a duty to publicize it. If. Big if.
Daria sighed. She knew what she had to do.
She got up, and walked out to the living room. Jane was still sitting on the couch, flicking through channels. She looked up. “What are you still doing up?”
“I’ve reached a decision.”
“Oh Daria, I know this is rough, but any minute now an angel will be along to tell you how great your life is.”
Daria shot her a look. “About Tom, Jane. I tried to call Tricia, but her voice mail says she’s on vacation. Which seems odd for her. I don’t know if this is genuine. But I guess we have to check.”
Jane righted herself on the couch. “Aha! I knew you’d see reason.” She reached under the couch, and pulled out a notebook. “Two days from now, Sloane Industries is having a big-ass Christmas party. I figure if we disguise ourselves, we can sneak in...”
Daria threw up her hands. “How long have you been doing that?”
“Since you went to bed. Hey, there wasn’t anything good on TV.” She looked a little sheepish. “I called Bob with this.”
“I ran it past him. He likes it. This is good stuff, Daria. Could save your career.”
“Daria, come on. I’m trying to help you.”
Daria sighed. “Okay, show me what you have.”
Jane grinned, and began to show Daria the notebook.
The following morning, Mack got up, and took a shower. As the hot water cascaded down over his body, his mind ran through the events of the past few days. He had that Kevin thing to take care of. And now, he had met this fascinating, beautiful woman he’d barely known years ago, and she was inviting him out to dinner, and then lunch. Mack wondered if she wanted this to go anywhere. Then he wondered if he wanted it to go anywhere. He didn’t have an answer.
Checking out of the hotel, he drove to downtown Lawndale. He knew the place that Quinn had mentioned. It was a small (but exclusive) restaurant with a heavy jazz theme to it. Mack loved it. He’d wondered if Quinn had known that, or had just made an incredibly accurate guess.
He walked in, and looked for her. There she was, over by the piano in the corner. She was less formally dressed than last night, but she still managed to look impeccably stylish. He walked over, and sat down. Quinn smiled in greeting.
“How is it,” he asked, “that you always look so stylish whenever anyone sees you?”
“It’s a gift,” she said. “I could ask the same of you. You know, I never would have figured you for a clothes horse back in high school, but you wear a suit so well.”
“Well, now that we’ve had our mutual admiration society, how about lunch?” She smiled.
Mack smiled back. “After you.”
They ordered lunch, made polite conversation, and enjoyed each other’s company. As the dessert table arrived, Quinn leaned forward. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Quinn pointed to his hand. “You’re not married, I assume, otherwise you wouldn’t be having dinner with such an attractive woman as myself, but you are wearing a wedding ring.” She looked at him expectantly.
Mack tried to stay jovial. “I might be a total swine who likes cheating on his wife on business trips.”
“Unless you really have changed since high school, I doubt it.”
Mack sighed. “You got me. Okay, I was married, but it was a long time ago.”
“To Jodie?” asked Quinn quietly. She suddenly held her hand up. “I’m sorry. I’m being far too nosey.”
“It’s okay,” said Mack. “I mean, we have had dinner together twice. You deserve to know if I’m married or not.” He took a deep breath. “Well, you know about me and her. We dated through most of our school lives.”
“Well, even from when I started Lawndale High, it was always you two.”
Mack nodded. “We dated for years before that. I don’t really know how we got started.”
“You don’t remember? Not even eyes across a busy room or anything like that?”
Mack shrugged. “No. I guess that should have been my first hint. We dated for all those years. We never really fought, we never argued...”
“That’s good, right?”
“I guess. But the downside was that there was no passion. We were like brother and sister, really.”
“But weren’t you two, you know...?”
Mack gave her a cock-eyed glance. “How did you know that?”
“Everyone knew. Kevin told Joey and company, and they told me. He probably told most people.”
Mack laughed. “I should have known. Not a great idea to tell him.” He paused. “Yeah, we were...intimate, but it was...” He tailed off. Like having sex with your sister, he thought.
Quinn seemed to get the gist of things. “I understand.”
“Then we both went to college, and we both agreed to stay faithful...”
“Hold on,” said Quinn. “You stayed faithful for four years?”
Mack smiled wryly, and nodded. “Yes.”
“Tell me about it. We stayed in touch, and then when we graduated...we got married.” Mack sighed again. “I don’t know why. I guess we both felt like we should because of all we’d done for each other, but you can’t build a marriage based on that.”
“So it didn’t work out?”
“No,” said Mack sadly. “It didn’t. We had a pretty big bust-up, and I haven’t seen her in years.”
“I’m sorry,” said Quinn. She reached across the table, and took his hand. Mack jerked it back - a little quicker than he had meant to - and then looked surprised that he had done it.
“Sorry,” he said.
“That’s okay,” said Quinn, just as surprised.
There was an awkward moment for a few seconds.
“So,” said Quinn finally. “You must miss her.”
Mack nodded. “Yeah. As a friend, really, not as anything else. She was one of the best friends I ever had.”
“I know how that is.”
Lunch finished, and Mack settled the bill. They walked outside, and stood in the cold winter air for a moment.
“I had a really nice time. Again,” said Quinn.
“We should do this again,” said Quinn, a hinting tone in her voice.
“I don’t know,” Mack found himself saying. “I won’t be in Lawndale again for a while.”
Quinn blinked in surprise, a disappointed look on her face. “Oh.”
“But thanks for two very nice times,” said Mack, feeling rather awkward.
“Yes,” said Quinn distantly. “I guess I’ll see you at the Sloane Christmas party, though?”
Mack had forgotten about that. “Sure. I’ll see you there.” He reached his car, got in, and drove away.
Quinn walked around to get her car, feeling a pit of depression growing in her stomach. That had been going so well, and then...
She wondered what had happened. It couldn’t have been anything that she said, could it? Quinn sighed. For all that she had dated, she still had no luck with serious relationships. Of course, this hadn’t been a serious relationship, but there had been potential there. Mack Mackenzie was smart, a good guy, and pretty hot. She’d had a lot of fun with him both times, and had hoped they would continue to see each other. Oh well, it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.
Mack drove out of Lawndale, and started to make his way home. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel in frustration. What had he been thinking? He had been at lunch with a wonderful woman, who had said that she wanted to see him again, and he had totally shot her down. What was wrong with him?
He saw the gleam of metal on his left hand. The wedding ring. Was he still hung up over Jodie? Was she still hoping against hope that she’d come back, like Kevin did with Brittany?
No, that wasn’t it. He wasn’t that pathetic just yet. He knew what the problem was. He was feeling like a pretty big failure right now. His business was failing, and his marriage had failed all those years ago. If he got into another relationship right now, it would probably fail as well. Quinn was a really nice person, or at least she was these days. He didn’t want to screw up her life by getting involved with her. She deserved someone better. She was special.
Wait -where did that come from?
He’d only been on two dates with her...
Not dates. It was dinner.
He’d been to dinner twice, and now he was acting like she was special?
Although he had really enjoyed both of them. He had thought she was very hot. He had thought that she was someone he might like to know better.
Why did he wear the ring still? It had been eight years. No-one wore rings for that long after a divorce. No-one but him. Deep down, he knew why he wore it. There were two reasons. One was to make sure that no other women approached him, and the other was always to remind him of the failures he had had with Jodie. This ay, it would always be in his head. He’d always remember. Mack sighed. How screwed up was that? Eight years, and he hadn’t had as much as a date. That was messed up.
Mack frowned, and tried to concentrate on the road. This was all stuff that could wait until he had sorted out his business troubles. It had to.
Las Vegas. City of hopes and dreams. Throughout the city, people were gambling, getting married, and doing far more questionable activities. People were pulling slot machines, spinning the wheel, and betting everything on the turn of a card in the biggest, glitziest houses in town.
Of course, nowhere was bigger or glitzier than Landon Towers. Jodie walked through the lobby, taking a look at how business was going that night. Everything seemed to be going as well as usual. Big stakes, big clients, and the house always wins. She schmoozed with a few big names, making sure they’d keep dumping huge wads of cash in her casinos. Two reporters scurried along after her, tape recorders and cameras held out.
“Ms Landon, how does it feel to be the owner of the biggest casinos in Vegas?”
“You’re one of the youngest owners in Vegas history. What do you have to say about your amazing success?”
Jodie grinned. “I’m a pragmatist. I do what needs to be done.”
“Wasn’t there resistance to you coming in?”
“There was. Next question.”
They passed by one of her main acts. Jodie paused for a photo op.
“Wayne,” she said cheerfully. “Still packing them in at seventy-five?”
“What can I say, baby?”
Jodie smiled, and continued to through the casino. The reporters kept following.
“Ms Landon, what’s next?”
“Expansion. I hate to rest on my laurels.” She glanced over at two gaudily dressed men. “Guys! If that damn tiger craps on my casino floor again, I’m not going to be happy, okay?” They nodded.
“Isn’t this a huge workload for you, especially at so young?”
Jodie looked at the reporters and raised an eyebrow. “Compared to high school, guys, this is nothing.” With a final wink, she left the reporters behind.
She got to the elevator, and pressed the button for the penthouse. Through the sides of the glass elevator, she could see the lights of Las Vegas stretch out in front of her. She smiled to herself, as she thought about the past. If you had told her in high school that she would one day be the head of two major casinos in Las Vegas, she would have laughed at you. Now, though, it seemed only too normal. A little stressful at times, but still normal. It was kind of ironic, really. She’d only gotten into this business to piss off her father, and she had turned out to be a natural at it. Her smile dropped a little as she thought of the other things she’d done to piss off her father. Oh well, maybe one day he’d swallow his pride and talk to her. At least her mom still kept in touch.
Plus she had someone special to keep her company in all this. That helped a lot.
The elevator reached the penthouse, and she got out. Pulling her hair free from on top of her head, she sat down in the nearest chair, and tried her hardest to relax. Her eyes caught the pile of envelopes sitting on the table beside her. New mail.
She flicked through them, discarding all the unimportant ones. Only one caught her eyes. It bore the Sloane Industries logo on it. She opened it, and began reading.
She heard the door open, and turned around.
“I thought you were out in California?” she said, smiling when she saw who it was.
“Nope! Filming finished early, so here I am!”
Jodie smiled, and gave a quick hug. “Good to see you.”
Jodie broke free, and held up the letter. “Look at this. I got invited to the Sloane Christmas party.”
Jodie turned the invitation around. “Look here. It says that Mack will be there.”
“I think someone’s trying to get us back together.”
“But we are going,” added Jodie.
“I’d like to see Mack again.”
“I just would,” said Jodie firmly.
“Okay! Um, there’s people there that I, you know, won’t want to see.”
“I know. Trust me, okay?”
They exchanged smiles, and Jodie started to plan the trip.
Daria finished lugging the rest of the luggage through the snow into the car. Jane walked out of their apartment building carrying a large bundle of papers.
“What’s that?” asked Daria.
“That half-finished novel you think I don’t know about. I figured I’d read it on the trip. Quite a long drive to Lawndale, you know.”
“I hate you,” said Daria.
“I know. Come on, I’m your best critic. I even did the final proof-reading on...”
“Yes, yes. If I let you read that, will you never mention that ever again?”
“Of course.” Jane smiled evilly. “For the next few days, anyway. Then we can renegotiate.”
Daria shot her a look, slammed the trunk, and got into the driving seat. “Come on, before I change my mind.”
Jane grinned. “Just think back to our TV careers to date, and I’m sure you won’t change your mind.”
“Don’t remind me. I now officially have no dignity.”
Jane got in, and closed the door. “Okay. To Lawndale!”
“Just when I thought I was out,” muttered Daria.
She started the car, and they sped down the streets of New York.
Mack reached his apartment building, and parked the car. He idly wondered what Kevin had been up to these past few days without him. Probably dug deep into his porn collection. He shuddered at the thought, and went inside.
In the apartment, all the lights were off. At first, Mack thought that Kevin had gone out for the night, but then he saw one light coming from the living room. He went there.
As he went in, he saw Kevin sitting in front of the TV. The TV was the only light source in the room. Kevin hadn’t even heard him come in. Mack moved a little closer to see what he was watching.
It was a tape of one of the Lawndale High football games. Mack couldn’t place exactly which one it was, but it did seem familiar. It was one in which Kevin had been named MVP. On the screen, the younger Kevin was being cheered on by his teammates. The game had just ended, with Lawndale victorious. Kevin was basking in the glory. A younger Mack appeared on the screen.
“Great game, Mack Daddy!” said young Kevin.
“Don’t call me that,” said young Mack, in an annoyed tone.
A younger Brittany rushed up and kissed Kevin with great passion. “Oh babe! You were great!”
“Oh babe, it was nothing,” said young Kevin, with false modesty.
Young Kevin filled the screen now, basking in all of the glory, looking like he was king of the world.
Kevin suddenly became aware of Mack standing behind him. “Those were the days, huh, Mack?”
Mack nodded. “Pretty good.”
“Sometimes,” said Kevin. “I wish that I was still there. You know? Everything seemed so simple back then.”
“I know.” Mack sat down beside him. “Trust me, Kevin. I know.”
Kevin sighed heavily, and ejected the disk from the player.
“DVD?” said Mack, trying to lighten the mood. “Isn’t that kind of out of date? I do remember spending quite a bit of cash on a new entertainment center.”
Kevin didn’t say anything.
Mack looked at him. He got like this every once in a while. Kevin was a person of extremes. Either he was amazingly happy, or terribly depressed. Lately, the depressed part had been coming up more.
Kevin looked at him kind of awkwardly. “I wanted to thank you again.” He rubbed his knee gingerly. “I mean, after the injury and everything...I didn’t know what I was going to do. You took me in, man. You gave me a job, and a purpose. I can’t thank you enough.”
Mack’s smile froze. “What are friends for?”
“Right! You and me, pal. Bro and QB! Together forever!”
Mack felt distinctly unwell all of a sudden. “That’s right, Kevin.”
Kevin seemed to be cheering up a bit. His moods went in a perpetual see-saw. “So how was your trip to Lawndale?”
“Fine,” lied Mack. “All of our problems are sorted out.”
“Cool! Run into anyone I know?”
“Actually, yes. Quinn Morgendorffer.”
Kevin shook his head. “Never heard of her.”
Kevin still looked lost. “Who?”
“You remember. Green jacket. Miserable all the time. Really smart.”
Kevin beamed. “I remember Daria now. Man, she had a thing for me!”
“I don’t think so,” said Mack confidently.
“Oh yeah. She asked me to a dance once, when Brittany had dumped me.” At the mention of Brittany, Kevin’s face fell again.
Damn, thought Mack. He always gets like this when he thinks of her.
“I keep thinking about her, man. You know, wishing she’d come back. When she was with me, my life was so cool. Now...” Kevin tailed off. He reached down and picked up a box from the floor. “I even rented her latest movie.”
Mack took the case from his grasp, and took a look at it. Looked like a fairly typical horror movie. It didn’t look like it was going to win any Oscars either. Plus the screenshots displayed a lot more of Brittany than Mack was comfortable seeing. He put it down. “Kevin, you have to let this go, man. It’s been almost fifteen years since high school. It was a high school romance, and most of them never go beyond high school. With good reason.”
“You married Jodie,” said Kevin.
“And look how that turned out. Kevin, don’t take me as your example. Let her go, okay?”
Kevin didn’t say anything.
Mack walked towards his bedroom. “I’m going to bed. Don’t forget, we have that Christmas party to go to tomorrow. We’ll be leaving for Lawndale around noon.” He reached his bedroom, pulled off his clothes, and slipped into bed.
Try as he might, though, he couldn’t get to sleep. Kevin’s words about him helping him so much kept ringing in his ears. It was true. He’d pulled Kevin out of the shits, and if he got rid of him now, what was going to happen to him? Kevin was a wreck, to be perfectly honest. Mack wasn’t sure he was able to handle himself on his own. All this was running through his mind, and he had to make a decision by tomorrow night. This was not helping his sleep.
Plus, he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about Quinn Morgendorffer.
Kevin sat in the almost darkness, thinking. Man, life had been so great back in high school. He’d had everything he ever wanted, the perfect girlfriend, everything. He’d been the QB! Now, he was nothing. Worse that that, he wondered if he was affecting Mack’s company. Mack had just denied it, but Kevin had heard whispers and rumors. He hadn’t understood any of them, sure, but he had still heard them.
Maybe he was being a burden. But if that was true, what should he do? Leave? And do what? Being a QB was all that he had ever been good at, he knew that.
Of course, there was that time he had coached those kids. He had been quite good at that. Maybe he could do something like that?
Kevin frowned. All this thinking was hurting. He didn’t know what to do. It would probably help if someone just told him.
Daria’s car sped through the night, heading towards Lawndale. Daria rubbed her eyes under her glasses wearily. “I thought we were supposed to get there before midnight?”
“Slight miscalculation,” said Jane, squinting at the pages of Daria’s unfinished novel. “At least it gave me time to go over this thing.”
“Don’t feel you have to give me a review.” Daria glanced at the CD player. The unmistakable sound of Vince Guaraldi came from it. “Do we have to listen to this?”
“It’s Christmas, Scrooge. Yes, we do. As for your novel, I like it,” said Jane. “With a few reservations.”
“Well, at the minute, I’m 10,682 words in, and nothing’s really happened yet. Bit slow, isn’t it?”
“Be patient, Jane. It’s building. You’ll see.”
Jane gave up trying to read in the half-light. “Why haven’t you finished it?”
“Same reason you haven’t been painting much anymore.”
Jane fell silent. She hadn’t been painting for a while, that was true. She just hadn’t seemed to be able to get much inspiration, which was odd for her. Normally, inspiration just seemed to come to her. Plus she was living in New York, one of the most interesting cities in America. If she couldn’t get inspiration there, then something must be wrong.
Of course, Daria couldn’t seem to find any either. Ever since she’d written that novel she didn’t want to talk about. Jane sighed to herself. They were both just stuck in a rut, that was the problem. She thought about what she had said back in New York, about the Tom situation. Was it really going to pull them out of the rut? Probably not, she mused. And that wasn’t really the reason they were doing it, was it?
Then why were they? There was the whole social conscience thing, that was true. But if that was only the case, they could have let someone else handle it. Jane thought about it. Was it resentment? Did she still have that much anger about something that happened almost sixteen years ago? Probably not. It was good to see Daria spurred into action by something, though. That was probably the main reason why she was doing it. She and Daria had been living together for years now, and Daria was definitely not her old self. In fact, with this Tom thing, that was probably the most animated she’d been in a while. It wasn’t always easy living with her, but she was Jane’s friend, and Jane wanted to see her life improve. Plus, there was the whole job thing. Jane didn’t want to see Daria out of a job, and she was trying to stop her from being fired. It would be a hell of a lot easier if Daria gave her at least a little bit of help, though.
After a short while, they passed over the hill, and Lawndale was revealed suddenly in front of them. Bathed in snow, it looked rather nice. Nostalgia did have a way of doing that, thought Jane.
“Home sweet home,” said Daria, with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
Jane looked at the view. “That’s the Sloane building,” she said, pointing to a large building of glass and steel, far taller than any of the others in Lawndale. “It was built just a few years back.”
“Well, at least we won’t have any trouble finding the place.”
They continued into Lawndale. Snow was on the ground everywhere, carol singers were on the streets, and there was a large Christmas tree in the center of town. Christmas was definitely in the air. They eventually pulled up at Casa Lane.
“I wonder how long it’s been since anyone used the place,” said Jane.
“I’m sure some of your family’s been in and out of the house over the past few years.”
Jane shrugged. “Ever since Trent went off to DC, I’m not sure anyone’s actually been living here. Maybe Mom, but I don’t really know. Oh well. Someone paid off the mortgage, that I do know.”
“I would have suggested staying at my old place, but Quinn sold it after Mom and Dad moved off to that cabin.”
“This is fine,” said Jane. “Come on. We’d better get some sleep. Long day tomorrow.”
“Long and insane probably,” muttered Daria, walking upstairs.
Jane paused at the bottom of the stairs. Whatever tomorrow was going to be, it would be interesting.
Morning dawned. Mack awoke and started packing for the trip to Lawndale. He decided that he was at least going to look good, if he was going to feel like crap for the whole time. Twelve hours. He had to make a decision about his company and his best friend’s livelihood in twelve hours. Plus, he had to go to a party he didn’t want to go to, talk with people he didn’t want to, and see a girl he had had two enjoyable dates with and then blown completely off because he was hung up about his ex-wife.
All this on Christmas Eve. Mack tried to smile. What was he going to do for New Years?
Kevin wandered in, without knocking. As usual. “Hey, Mack? Should I wear the blue tie or the green tie?”
“Does it matter?”
Kevin shrugged. “I don’t know. You know, I might meet someone there.” His face fell. “But that’s not likely.” He tried to cheer up again. “Hey, at least you got that problem sorted out. The one with Tom, I mean.”
“The one you had to go up and have a meeting for. Didn’t you say it was all sorted out?”
“Oh yes,” said Mack, feeling really bad all of a sudden.
“Cool. So you can enjoy yourself! At least one of us can...”
Kevin’s wildly zigzagging moods were kind of distracting sometimes.
“Come on,” said Mack uncomfortably. “We’ve got a lot of driving to do today.”
“Mack,” said Kevin suddenly. “I know I’m not that good at business stuff, and I know you are. Am I ever...you know, a problem?”
Mack tried to smile reassuringly. Sometimes Kevin could be a little too on the nail. “Come on. We really have to go.”
Mack walked out of the room. Kevin followed him, an odd expression on his face.
Jane and Daria sat in their car a few hundred yards away from the gates to the Sloane building, sipping coffee, and trying not to make too much of a mess with their breakfast.
“So, what’s your amazing plan?” asked Daria.
“Okay,” said Jane eagerly. “There’s a big-ass Christmas party on tonight. There’s going to be a ton of important guests and press people there.”
“So we pose as members of the press, sneak in, and we should be able to work our way up to his office, and expose him! Not literally, of course. I mean, I’ve already seen that, and I’m sure you did too...”
“I’m kidding.” Jane looked at her. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s insane. And illegal.”
“It’s not illegal,” said Jane. “We do have press IDs of a sort.”
“Not anyone’s who’s been invited to this party.”
“Look, what’s the worst that could happen? We get caught? Tom’s not going to press charges, is he?”
Daria shot her a look. “If he finds out that we know all this stuff, I don‘t know what he‘ll do.”
Jane looked incredulous. “Come on. This is Tom! He dated us.”
“That was fifteen years ago. Back then, I wouldn’t have assumed he was capable of this.” She indicated the papers they had. “So we don’t really know who he is any more.”
“Point taken. But you know we have to do this.”
“I know.” Daria sighed. “Why does this stuff always happen to me? I’m a crappy TV star in New York. Now I find myself back in my less-than beloved home town, trying to sneak into my ex-boyfriend’s impregnable fortress to expose him for crimes against humanity, accompanied by my best friend, who seems a little more insane every day. And it’s Christmas Eve!”
Jane tried to sound as nonplussed as possible. “Sounds about normal for us.”
Daria shot her a look. “Well, at least I get to spend Christmas with you.”
“Why, Daria. That was almost sentimental.”
Daria shot her a rude gesture.
Jane grinned. “The party starts at eight. Come on, we have to go get ready.”
Daria adopted a resigned look, and got up.
Quinn rummaged through her wardrobe, trying to find exactly the right dress for tonight. Normally she had no trouble trying to find the exact wardrobe for any situation, but she was uncharacteristically distracted tonight.
She sat down on the bed, and tried to concentrate. Whatever this was, it had to be pretty major to throw off her fashion sense like that.
Quinn sighed. She knew what it was. She was thinking about Mack. She had had a really good time on those dates - a better time than she’d had on one for a while. He seemed like a really great guy, and one she had been more than willing to get to know a little bit better. Then he’d freaked or something, and left in a hurry. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like he was still hung up over Jodie. Why else would he wear that ruing after all those years? The last thing she needed was to get involved with a man who still held a torch for a long-gone ex.
Maybe, Quinn thought, just maybe - he had just been upset about his business dealings, and would be a different person tonight, willing to get together with her again. Maybe.
Quinn took a deep breath, and got up. He would be at the party tonight. Maybe he would decide that he really did want to get to know her better, or (more likely) he would just avoid her, and she’d have to get used to that crushed feeling in the bottom of her stomach.
She finally found exactly the right outfit to wear, and stood up. She examined herself in the mirror. Perfect. She was going to knock everyone dead at the party tonight.
Although there was only one person she really wanted to impress tonight, and if he didn’t...
Quinn shook herself. She was acting like a love struck high schooler again. She was thirty-two years old. She was going to the party, and if everything did not got according to plan, she was not going to be crushed.
Jane and Daria drove past the gates, watching all the guests’ cars flock through.
“This is never going to work,” muttered Daria.
“Look,” said Jane. “We got dressed up. We look the part. We have vaguely credible ID. There’s no reason they won’t.”
“If you say so.”
“Have you always been such a downer? Oh wait, never mind.”
Daria drove up to the gate, and the guard asked to see their ID. She handed it over, and to her very great surprise, he handed it back, and waved them through.
“Told you so,” said Jane smugly.
“Well, color me shocked.”
They drove up, and a valet came to park for them. They got out, and looked each other over. Deciding to look the part, they had both picked out the nicest dresses they had. That way, they might not stand out so much. Daria was wearing a floor length green dress, while Jane was wearing a shorter blue one, with a much lower neckline.
“Nice cleavage,” said Daria.
“If anyone notices me, I might as well look good.”
“Mm-hmm.” Daria indicated the door. “Let’s go.”
They walked towards the elevator, and paused on the way to look at a directory on the wall. Reaching the elevator, they got in, and pushed the button for the top floor.
“Okay,” said Jane. “According to that directory I just saw - his office is attached to the big conference room on the top floor. We get up there, and try to find an alternate way in. Okay?”
Daria nodded unenthusiastically. “We are going to get so busted for this.”
“God, you’re depressing.”
“With good reason, most of the time.”
Jane grinned. “Relax. Have I ever let you down?”
Jane shot her a look, and the elevator continued to the top floor. As it rode up, Daria wondered what they were going to find up there. She didn’t know what she wanted to find. She and Jane had not discussed it, but Daria felt that they were not going there to try to become rich and famous, despite what they had previously said. In truth, she had no idea why she was doing this, and she suspected that Jane didn’t either.
Mack wandered over to the buffet table, and eyed the Foie Gras. Then he remembered what it was, felt a little sick, and settled for a cookie. So far, tonight was going swimmingly. He had about an hour or two to make a fairly fateful decision, Kevin had disappeared somewhere, and he was dreading the time when Quinn would show up. That was going to be awkward.
As if on cue, he spotted Quinn across the room. She looked even more stunning than usual. Her long red hair was styled down behind her back, and she was wearing an elaborate green dress that set off her eyes perfectly. The dress had obviously been tailored. It accented her figure brilliantly. She looked wonderful.
Mack caught her eyes briefly, then glanced away. He walked over to the other side of the room, and tried to disappear into the crowd.
Quinn watched him go. She wanted to think that he had not seen her, but she knew he had caught her eyes. It was obvious now that he didn’t want to see her again. She sighed sadly, and tried to ignore the feeling of crushing disappointment.
Daria and Jane sneaked inside an empty room, and closed the doors behind them.
“Isn’t this fun?” said Jane, trying to sound eager, and not really succeeding.
Daria scowled at her. We’re never going to find a back way into that room. I bet the only way into that room is through the hallway or the conference room. And we can’t just walk in by those ways. Someone will see us.”
“Damn. We should have gotten a floor plan before we did this.”
“Floor plan? Jane, this isn’t Mission: Impossible. We’re TV people, not spies.”
Daria grimaced, and checked behind another door.
Mack walked around the room, being very careful to keep away from the section that Quinn was in. He didn’t have a clue where Kevin had got to. He’d been in a terrible moping session all the way here, and he figured he’d probably just wandered off to find a dark room to be miserable in. He was like that more and more every day.
Mack couldn’t just let Kevin down like that. If he fired him, there was no way he could fend for himself. What kind of friend would he be if he did that? He’d just have to find Tom and tell him that if he wanted to get rid of Kevin, he’d have to get rid of him too. Maybe, just maybe, Tom would realize that getting rid of him would be bad for business.
He laughed hollowly to himself. Some hope. Tom would probably be glad to get rid of him. No pesky problems with old management.
He sighed, and took another large gulp of his drink. He was going to need a lot more of them before the night was over.
“Hello, Mack.” A very familiar voice suddenly appeared behind him. He turned, and his eyes went wide as he saw who it was.
And Jodie it was. A little older, the braids replaced with a more business like hair cut, but still definitely Jodie. His ex-wife.
She smiled. “You’re looking well.”
“You too,” said Mack, trying to get his bearings. “I...didn’t know you were coming.”
Jodie fished the invitation out of her pocket, and showed Mack the part that said he would be there. “Someone wanted us to meet.”
“I’ll bet it was Tom,” said Mack, in an annoyed tone. “Probably trying to get us back together.”
“Some hope,” said Jodie, not without a degree of humor.
“He always thinks he knows what’s best for people,” muttered Mack.
“I’m sure he meant well.”
“Or he was trying to distract me from the impending sale of my company.”
Jodie cocked her head to the side. “Oh?”
“Never mind.” Mack looked at Jodie, and smiled. “It is good to see you again.”
“You too, Mack.” Jodie glanced down at his hand. “Still wearing the ring?”
“That’s not healthy, Mack. Come on.” She indicated a room off to the side.
“Where are we going?”
“To have a talk we should have had eight years ago.”
Mack shrugged and followed her. It was a nondescript office, just a desk and a few chairs. They sat down and looked at each other for a few seconds.
“I’m sorry,” said Mack finally.
“Me too,” said Jodie, a sad smile on her face.
“We should never have gotten married, should we?”
Jodie shook her head. “I’m not sure we should even have dated. We just weren’t that compatible.”
“I didn’t try. In our marriage, I mean. I’m sorry. I never even tried to make it work when things got tough.”
“What about me? When things got bad, I just left. I moved three thousand miles way from you and tried to pretend I’d never known you.”
Mack held up the ring, and smiled morbidly. “I took the opposite approach. I’m so sorry.”
“You know, I was so mad at you for years after that. There were nights I lay in bed and just thought about how much I hated you. I tried to talk to you when we were married, and you blew me off. You wouldn’t listen.”
“God, I’m sorry. There wasn’t any passion. There wasn’t much love. All we had were problems from day one. Maybe I wanted it to fail.”
Jodie sighed. “I think I did too. I knew we weren’t suited to each other. I just tired to talk to you because I thought I should. Why didn’t we just talk to each other?”
Mack shrugged. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“My dad was actually happy when we divorced, you know? He never liked you. He said he was willing to accept my failure this time because I’d gotten rid of you.”
“What did you say?”
“I threw the phone out of the window and didn’t talk to him for six months. He didn‘t even ask why we divorced. He was just happy we had.”
“Ouch. I knew he didn’t like me. I know your Mom didn’t either.”
“They didn’t like the idea of you, not you personally. They didn’t like how my parents were multi-millionaires and your Dad was an auto mechanic. They didn‘t say anything at the wedding, but afterwards Dad was very honest about what he thought of you.”
“I can imagine.”
Jodie’s expression went a little sadder. “I heard about your Dad a few years ago. I’m sorry. I always liked him.”
“He liked you, too. Still didn’t think we should have gotten married.”
“Smart guy. You know what hurt me most about our divorce?”
“I lost my best friend. Every time in my life I was depressed or miserable, you were always there for me. You were the best friend I ever had.”
“You were too. That whole marriage thing really screwed up our friendship.”
Jodie smiled. “Who would have thought it?” Her expression went more serious. “Mack, I know why you still wear the ring. Trust me, I do. There’s been nights when I wake up next to someone, and I’m terrified I’ll fail in this relationship too. But you have to try, believe me. You’re a great guy, and you have to forgive yourself. We’ve forgiven each other, but you have to do that part yourself.”
Mack nodded. “So what did you do with your ring?”
Jodie shrugged. “I threw it as far as I could into the Lawndale river eight years ago. Still there, probably.”
Mack smiled. “You’re in a relationship?” he said, picking up on what she’d said.
Jodie smiled. “I’ll introduce you in a minute.”
Mack nodded. “Okay. You think we can still be friends?”
Jodie nodded. “I’d like that.”
They hugged briefly and tenderly. Mack smiled. “I guess this is a success for Tom, after all.”
“Don’t tell him,” said Jodie. “You’ll encourage him, and I don’t want to feed his God complex any more.”
“He is kind of out there, isn’t he?”
“I call him Howard Hughes III.” She smiled.
“To his face?”
“Of course. I’m just as rich as he is. I know it pisses him off, but there’s nothing he can do about it.” She looked at Mack. “You ever think he was trying to get us back together so I’d owe him something?”
“I thought he was doing it so I would agree to leave my company.”
“Can’t stop putting his nose in, can he?”
Mack shrugged. “Ten bucks says he never leaves this building for the rest of his life.”
“No bet.” Jodie grinned.
Mack smiled, and they walked back into the party.
Jane opened the door, and looked around. No-one there. She and Daria had split up, trying to find a back way into Tom’s office. She hadn’t had much luck yet. She doubted Daria had either.
Now that they were getting closer and closer to their goal, Jane felt nervous as hell. What were they going to find in there? What did she want to find in there?
Distracted by her thoughts, Jane totally failed to hear someone coming into the room behind her. She spun round in surprise, hoping that it wasn’t a security guard.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t think there was someone in here,” said a familiar voice. The figure stepped into the light, and Jane couldn’t believe who it was.
“Kevin? Kevin Thompson?” It was him all right. Fifteen years older, a little grayer, but him all right. He seemed to be limping, too. He was in a suit, and Jane had to admit he looked pretty good in it.
“Who are you?” Kevin squinted at her, trying to figure out who she was. His face lit up in recognition. “Jane! Jane Lane! I remember you! You’re Daria’s best friend.”
“Well done, Kevin. What the hell are you doing here?”
“I was invited. Me and Mack were.”
“Mack’s here too?” said Jane, in surprise.
“Oh yeah. Daria’s sister too. We’re all doing business with Tom.”
“You? Doing business?”
“I don’t really believe it either.” Kevin sat down, his face falling. “I mean, I think sometimes Mack keeps me around cause he feels sorry for me. He says he doesn’t, but I don’t know...”
Jane glanced around. She had to find a way out of here, and find Daria. Kevin would blab their presence here to everyone, including Tom. “Kevin, I can’t stay here. You can’t, either.”
“I can’t?” Kevin tried to think about this. “I guess I can’t. I mean, I should go, right?”
Jane opened a nearby door, and checked. No-one around. “I guess so,” she said absently.
“I can’t be a burden all of my life, can I?” Kevin furrowed his brow, thinking as hard as he could.
Jane figured she had to find Daria, and speed up their plan. “Whatever,” she said, not really listening.
“You know, now that I think about it, I have to take charge of my own life, right?”
Jane wondered where Daria was at this particular moment. They shouldn’t have split up. “Uh-huh,” she mumbled.
“I’m going to find Mack. I have to tell him.” Kevin grabbed Jane and hugged her tight. “Thanks, Jane! You’re a lot smarter than I remember.”
Jane tried to break free. She had no idea what he was talking about. All she wanted was to find Daria, and get this over with. “That’s all right, Kevin. Let go of me now.”
He did so, and limped out. “Thanks! Man, you’re a lot hotter than I remember, too.”
After he left, Jane shook her head. That had been surreal. Some people never changed. Although he had said she was hot, and it had been a while since a guy had said that...
Jane dispelled that thought almost at once, and set off to find Daria.
Mack suddenly heard a familiar squeak from behind him. Jodie smiled at his reaction. He turned around, and saw Brittany rushing up. She gave him a huge hug.
“Mack! It’s so good to see you again!”
“Hi, Brittany,” said Mack, more than a little surprised at all these familiar faces showing up. “It’s good to see you too.”
Brittany broke off from crushing him. “You look so good! How have you been?”
“Oh, fine,” said Mack. “You?”
“An actresses’ life is always busy. Have you seen any of my stuff?”
“One or two. Kevin likes them...” Mack tailed off, realizing he probably shouldn’t have mentioned him.
Brittany noticed his reaction. “It’s okay, Mack. We broke up a long time ago. My idea, remember? I barely think of him these days.”
“I wish I could say the same for him.”
“Oh.” Brittany’s face fell. “Still stuck on me?”
Jodie touched her shoulder. “We’d better leave. I don’t think it would go well if he saw you.”
“You’re the brains.”
Mack looked at them both. “Just curious, but why are you here, Brittany? I didn’t think Tom would invite you.”
“He didn’t,” said Jodie, smiling. “She’s my date.”
Mack glanced down, and saw that they were holding hands. “Wow,” he said finally. “Didn’t see that one coming.”
Jodie looked at Brittany, and smiled. “After you and I got divorced, Brittany and I got back in touch. She helped me get through it, and eventually, we got close.”
“Very close,” said Brittany, with a smirk. “Really surprised me.”
“I think it explains why you and I never really clicked,” said Jodie, smiling at Mack.
“I can see that.” Mack smiled, his mind still trying to reconcile this. “You two do make a cute couple,” he said, that being the first thing that sprung to mind.
“I know!” said Brittany cheerfully.
“She keeps me happy,” said Jodie. She took Mack’s hand again. “We’d better go.”
“Don’t go. The night’s still young.”
Jodie and Brittany looked at each other. “We really didn’t want to run into Kevin. He gets all miserable when he sees me,” said Brittany.
“I’ll talk to him,” said Mack. “We should catch up tonight. I’ve missed you guys. Tell you what, I’ll meet you in the lobby in about a half-hour or so. I’ve got a few more things to take care of here, and then we can go someplace to catch up.”
“Well,” said Brittany. “I did agree to give that Entertainment Tonight crew an exclusive on why I was here.”
“What?” said Mack.
Jodie pointed out the cameraman and the reporter in the corner. “Over there, next to the senator.”
“Ah.” Mack smiled. “My life’s never dull, I guess. I’ll see you after that?”
“Okay,” said Jodie, smiling. Brittany nodded in agreement enthusiastically. Jodie kissed Mack on the cheek. “I’m glad I came tonight.”
Brittany gave him an enthusiastic hug. “Bye for now, Mack!”
They walked off, hand in hand. Mack smiled. Life was always full of surprises. He turned to see Kevin limping up, a confused expression on his face.
“Was that Britt?” he asked finally.
Kevin moved to go after her, but then shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “There’s no point, is there?”
Mack shook his head. “Not really.”
“She’s never going to come back, is she?”
“To be honest,” said Mack. “Not a chance in hell.”
Kevin sighed. “Was she here with someone?”
Mack nodded. “Oh, yes.”
Kevin looked angry for a brief second, much like he had back in high school when someone had made a move for her. Then it faded. “Is she happy?” he asked finally.
Mack nodded. “Very happy. I couldn’t think of a better person for her.” He put his hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “I think they’ll be very happy together.”
Kevin nodded. “Good,” he said quietly. He sighed again. “Mack? I’m leaving the company.”
“What?” Mack looked him in the eyes. “Why?”
“I’m holding you back. I’m not a businessman. I know you only took me in because you’re my friend. But I can’t stay like that forever. I know I’m not that smart. I’ve realized that since high school.”
Kevin cut him off. “But I’m not that stupid. I can see what’s going on. I’m leaving the company. It’ll be better for both of us.”
There was a brief silence. Mack finally nodded. “Okay. But what’ll you do?”
Kevin shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll think of something. I mean, I’m still going to live at the apartment till I think of something, right?”
Mack smiled. “Of course. You know, Kevin. You surprise me. What brought this on?”
“I’ve been thinking about for months, man. But I met this chick there now, and she helped me to realize a few things. Chicks are like that, dude.”
Mack grinned. “I know.”
“It’d still be good to see Britt,” said Kevin quietly. “You know, for old times’ sake, and all that.”
“You will, Kevin. Give me a few minutes to take care of things, and then we’ll go, okay?”
He left Kevin, and looked around for Tom. There was a giant horn flourish, and angelic choral music began filtering into the room from somewhere. The window overlooking Lawndale slid open, and a helicopter flew up beside the window. A small platform extended from it to the open space, and Tom walked out into it, and into the building. The guests went wild, clapping with impressed vigor. The ET crew scrambled to get this all on disk, and Tom, naturally, bathed in the attention.
Mack shook his head. Despite all the reports he’d read about Tom’s love life, he still couldn’t believe that anyone could ever love him as much as he loved himself. Since he’d seen Tom in the building a few minutes ago, he guessed he’d gone to the roof, had himself flown down here, and pulled this stunt, just so people would talk about it. Talk about vain. He figured he’d give him a few minutes, then go to him. He was ready to sign that contract now.
Daria sneaked through the room, trying to be as quiet as she possibly could. She was running out of rooms to try. If this one didn’t pan out, there was no back entrance to Tom’s office. She doubted Jane had found one, so that meant they would have to abandon their plan.
Daria didn’t want to do that. She knew now why she wanted this so badly. Fame and fortune meant nothing to her. They weren’t factors in this. She really did not want to leave without completing their plan.
She reached the door, and cracked it open. She peeked through. It was Tom’s office.
Daria smiled to herself. Success. All she had to do was find Jane, and they could go in together.
She saw the door open on the other side of the room, and she closed her door almost all the way, leaving a small crack she could see through. Two figures walked into the office. Daria’s heart skipped a beat when she realized that one of them was Tom. He still looked much the same as he had done over ten years ago. Of course, now he was dressed in an expensive suit and his hair was done in a more professional style, but it was definitely him.
Daria squinted and tried to see who the other person was. It looked, for all the world, to be Michael Jordan Mackenzie. But what would he be doing here? It didn’t matter. Silently, she moved away from the door, and went to find Jane.
Tom pulled out the papers from his desk, and set them down on the table. “Here you are,” he said. “I see you finally got up the guts to fire Kevin.”
“I didn’t fire him,” said Mack. “He seems to have found his will to do things again.”
“We’ll see how long that lasts,” said Tom sardonically.
Mack bit his tongue, and signed the papers. “Seems like you couldn’t get rid of me after all.”
“Mmm.” Tom sounded a little disappointed. “Run into Jodie?”
Mack shot him a look. “Yes. I did.”
“And nothing.” Mack glanced round at the door back out to the party. “Excuse me, I’ve got to go do something.” He walked over to the door, and opened it. Through the throng of party guests, he could see Quinn. She was standing in the corner, chatting idly with someone he didn’t know. She looked up and saw him. He slipped his ring off his finger, and slipped it in his pocket, then walked across the room to her.
The person she was talking to walked away as he approached, and Quinn walked up to meet him halfway. There was a look of hope on her face.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi back.” She smiled. “Enjoying the party?”
“It’s been interesting.” Mack looked at her. “I’ve been a boor. I did want to see you again after that, but...”
“I know.” Quinn smiled seductively. “How could anyone resist me?”
Mack smiled. “You’re one of a kind, that’s for sure. I was being a fool. Stuck on the past. Exactly what I was getting at Kevin for.”
“It’s understandable.” She took his hands. He didn’t move away this time. “So what do we do about it?”
“I did...I mean, I do want to see you again.”
“I’ve got an idea. Tomorrow’s Christmas Day. I haven’t got any plans. My parents live way out of the way, and I haven’t got anyone to spend it with. I don’t want to spend it alone, and I’m sure you don’t either.”
Mack shrugged. “I don’t have anyone to spend it with, either.”
“How about it?”
Mack smiled. “I’d love to. Hey, you want to go someplace else right now? I’m meeting some old friends, and I’d love it if you’d come.”
“Sure.” Quinn smiled, but didn’t let go of his hands.
Daria and Jane waked into the office cautiously, and began looking around.
“Check the desk,” whispered Jane, her stomach churning. They were here. In a few minutes, they could find exactly what they were looking for.
Daria walked over to the desk stealthily, and checked if it was locked. It was.
“Damn,” she whispered, and looked around to see if there was a key anywhere.
“Daria?” said Jane cautiously. “I think we need to talk about this.”
“Now’s not a great time, Jane.”
“I know, but...” Jane glanced round to see if she could find any other things that might be useful. “I think that we haven’t really been honest with each other about this.”
“How do you mean?”
Jane paused in her searching. “I think that neither of us is doing this for the reasons we put forth. We’re not doing this just for your job, are we?”
“No,” Daria admitted.
“And the altruistic approach isn’t the main reason, either.”
“No.” Daria kept looking.
“Then why are we doing it? I think we haven’t talked about this, because if we did, we’d both realize what a terrible idea this is, and go back to New York.”
“Maybe.” Daria looked up at her. “Why are you doing it?”
Jane sighed heavily. “I think I’m doing it to get him out of my life once and for all. I mean, I know I haven’t got really any animosity towards him, but he did really screw up our lives at one point. You’re my best friend, and because of him...”
“And me. I kissed him too.”
“Don’t remind me. I don’t really want to see him ever again. I’m hoping we don’t find this stuff, because that means we can just leave, and never think about him. You understand? I mean, you do seem to have been obsessing over him for the past few days.”
Daria shot her a look.
“It’s true,” said Jane. “You’ve been swelling on this since we found out about it.”
Daria didn’t say anything.
Jane sighed, and looked at her. “And there’s another reason. Ever since we’ve been doing this, you’ve been different.”
“More active. More involved. You’ve been such a ghost the last few years, just drifting along, not caring about anything. I wanted to do this because it seemed to stir something inside of you. I’ve been trying to do that for years, and none of it’s worked. To be honest, living with you has been kind of draining.”
Daria was silent.
“Well, what about you, Daria? Do you want to find this stuff?”
Daria shook her head. “No. I’m hoping he’s innocent.”
“What’s your reasons, then?”
Daria suddenly held up a key. “Found it.” Ignoring Jane’s question, she began to unlock the desk drawers.
Mack realized Quinn was still holding onto his hands. He looked down at them, and then back up into her eyes. She was smiling at him, in a very pleasant way. Those eyes were entrancing, Mack thought.
She closed her eyes, and tilted her head to the side slightly. She leaned her head forward, and Mack leaned in to her as well. Their lips met...
Mack turned round abruptly. Quinn did the same. Kevin was there, grinning wildly.
“I was wondering where you were!” he said. “I forgot to tell you who that girl was that gave me all the great advice!”
Quinn and Mack let go of each other’s hands a little awkwardly. They glanced at each other for a few seconds, then back to Kevin. He seemed totally oblivious to what had been going between the two of them.
“Okay,” said Mack. “I’ll bite. Who was she?”
“Jane!” said Kevin excitedly. “Jane Lane!”
“What?” said Quinn. “Daria’s Jane?”
Kevin nodded excitedly. “That’s right.”
“Hold on,” said Mack, holding his hand up. “When was this?”
“About five minutes ago,” said Kevin.
“She’s here?” said Quinn.
Kevin nodded again.
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Is Daria here then?”
Kevin shrugged. Mack and Quinn looked at each other. Kevin suddenly pointed at Quinn. “You‘re Daria’s sister!”
Mack and Quinn both sighed heavily.
“Hurry up,” said Jane, glancing at the door nervously. “I’m nervous as hell that someone’s going to find us here.” She noticed that Daria had sidestepped her question, but didn’t think it was a good idea to bring it up again right now.
Daria fiddled with the key. None of the drawers wanted to open. “Damn it,” she muttered angrily.
Quinn turned to Mack. “If Jane’s here, it’s a good bet that Daria’s here too.”
“They live together. They have a little cable access TV show in New York.”
“Daria’s a TV star?” said Kevin. “What’s she got that I haven’t?”
“Not now, Kevin,” said Mack. “Think Tom knows about this?”
Mack turned around to see Tom standing behind them. “Nothing important,” he said.
“Daria’s here, man!” said Kevin. “Didn’t you two use to go out?”
“Thank you for that, Kevin,” muttered Quinn.
“Thank you for what?” Kevin was confused now.
“I know that she‘s here,” said Tom.
Mack and Quinn looked at each other, then back to Tom. “What?”
Daria finally got the key to work, and the drawer finally slid open. Daria peered in, and immediately her stomach fell.
“What’s in there?” said Jane nervously.
Daria put her hand into the drawer and pulled out a single piece of paper with one word printed on it.
The word was ’Surprise’.
“Someone knows we’re here,” said Daria quietly.
“Ah, crap,” said Jane.
“You invited her?” said Quinn. “I can’t imagine she’d come for that.”
“I didn’t invite her. But she’s here. Excuse me.” Tom turned away from them and pulled a small box from his pocket. “Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me.”
The guests looked round, hanging on his every word. Tom smiled, and pressed a button on the box. The wall of his office slid into the floor, revealing his office behind it.
And a very shocked-looking Daria and Jane.
Quinn and Mack stared at each other in shock. Tom didn’t seem particularly fazed. The rest of the party guests were gossiping amongst themselves. They didn’t seem to have been expecting this either.
Daria turned to Jane. “Looks like this is it.”
“I really didn’t want to go to prison, but I guess at least I’ll have you for company,” said Jane, trying to sound cheerful.
“Daria. Jane,” said Tom. “Welcome to the party.” He motioned a waiter over to them, and the waiter handed them both champagne. Jane downed hers in one gulp. Daria just held hers nervously. Tom walked over and put his arms around them both. “Enjoying the night so far?”
They smiled weakly at him. Daria glanced at the other guests. There were a few faces she recognized. “Hi Quinn. Mack. Kevin.”
“Hi,” said Quinn, in a daze.
Daria looked at Tom. “You knew we were here, didn’t you?”
“You sent us that stuff, didn’t you?” said Jane.
Tom nodded again.
“None of it was true?” asked Daria.
“Not a word.”
“What was this all about then?” asked Jane, a touch of anger creeping into her voice. “Was this all a big practical joke on your part?”
“Far from it,” said Tom. “Of course I knew you were here. How do you think you got in in the first place? Someone’s been watching you since you got here. I’ve been following your every movement.”
“Why?” said Jane, anger really entering her voice now, as she and Daria separated from Tom.
“Because of Daria,” said Tom.
“What about Tricia?” said Daria.
“She actually is on vacation. I had someone fake her handwriting. I figured you’d be suspicious, so it would be better coming from someone you trust.”
Daria frowned. “We need to talk, alone. Now.”
Tom looked at her strangely, then nodded. “Okay.” He raised the walls again, and stepped into the office with Daria.
Jane took a look at Daria, and left.
Tom stood and stared at her for a while.
“I know why you did this,” said Daria. “You want me back, don’t you? You planned all this to get me to come back here so that you could make a big statement of your love, right?”
Tom glanced at her in a funny way, and then burst out laughing. It was not a pleasant sound. “Why would I do that?”
Daria looked at him in surprise. “What? But then, why do this? Why all the trouble? I don’t understand.”
“It’s all for you, Daria. But not in the way you think.”
Daria shook her head in confusion. “Stop toying with me, Tom. Tell me what this is all about, now.”
“Look at you, Daria. You’re a shell of what you were. You don’t care about anything anymore. You hate your professional life. You aren’t doing anything you care about. Your personal life is a wreck.”
“How do you know all this? Who have you been talking to?”
Tom shook his head. “No-one. I’ve been watching you.”
“Watching me?” This was starting to get a little creepy.
“Oh yes. I watch a lot of people. People who need my help. Now that I’m a position to do that, I like to help as many people as I can.”
“Whether they want it or not?”
“Of course. People are stupid, Daria. You always used to say that. You were right. Give most people the chance, and they’ll deny anything is wrong.”
“You know better, though.”
Tom nodded. “Of course. I’m always right about that sort of thing.”
“I seem to remember something like that when we were dating.” Daria began stepping back involuntarily. This was all getting a little freaky for her taste.
“So I arranged all this to make you care again. To make you do something you could care about.”
“But there wasn’t anything to care about! At the heart of this, there’s a big fat nothing! How am I supposed to care now? Don’t you think that this sort of thing could make me even more jaded?”
Tom shook his head. “Not really. I know what I’m doing.”
“And you’re never wrong?”
Tom grinned. “Never.”
“Who are you?” asked Daria. “You’re like this grotesque parody of the guy I used to date.”
“Don’t bring in any former relationships to get some sort of moral high ground here, Daria. I’m trying to do you a favor. Besides, speaking of grotesque parodies, I read your novel...”
“Shut up,” said Daria furiously.
“Oh yes, and your journalistic talents are in full force tonight, aren’t they? There were big clues laid all the way up here, and you missed all of them. Talk about being blinded by the light.”
Daria glowered at him. Tom just smiled insufferably.
There was a knock at the office door, and a stunning blonde walked in. “Tom? Everyone’s wondering where you are.”
“I’ll be out in a minute.” He turned to Daria. “Daria, this is my date to the party. Sadly, I’ve forgotten her name, but she is very sweet.” He kissed her passionately, then turned back to Daria. “And as for who I am...I’m Tom Sloane, and I’m just being the person I was always meant to be.”
“I believe that,” said Daria. She turned and walked out of the room as fast as she could. She walked through the throng of guests, who were still giving her curious glances, and whispering amongst themselves, speculating who she could be, and what her connection to Tom was. She ignored them, and looked for Jane and the others.
She found them near the elevator, talking amongst themselves. Jane seemed to be explaining exactly what had brought them here. As she approached, Quinn turned round, and smiled. Daria ignored her, grabbed Jane, and began walking to the elevators. “We have to leave. Now.”
Jane struggled as the others looked on in surprise. “What? Why?”
“I can’t explain, Jane. We have to go.”
“Hold on.” Jane freed herself from Daria’s grip, guided her into a nearby room, and closed the door.
As the others wondered what the hell had just happened, Kevin scratched his head. “That was the weirdest reunion I’ve ever seen.”
Inside the room, Jane sat Daria down. “Calm down, Daria. What happened?”
Daria sighed heavily. “It’s Tom. He did all this because he said I’m a wreck. He manipulated us, all for nothing. He’s insane.”
“Talk about a God complex,” said Jane. “Daria, why are you taking this so hard? It’s Tom. Remember when you were dating? He tried to manipulate you all the time. He did the same shit to me.”
“But...” Daria paused. “You said I didn’t seem to care either. God, what if he’s right?”
“Daria...” Jane paused, looking for the right way to put this. “I admit it, you have been like a ghost lately. There’s no spark left in you. I’ll admit that. You have been a bit of a pain to live with over the last few years.”
“I can believe that,” said Daria, trying to smile.
“I told you, I went along with this because it seemed to be making you care again. But the shit Tom pulled...hell, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t try to do anything like this again, because it might also be a hoax.”
“What’s your point?” said Daria.
“Okay, I’m no good at inspirational speeches,” said Jane, grinning. “So sue me. My point is, don’t let this dishearten you. You can care again. You showed it. Don’t let this spark go out. Write again, so something you care about.” She gave her a look. “Besides, you really want to prove Tom right?”
Daria smiled slightly. “I guess not. Hey, why haven’t you been painting, anyway?”
Jane shrugged. “Living with you over the past few years has been kind of a drag, to be honest. Especially at work. It hasn‘t been easy trying to keep your job for you.”
Daria flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “Why did you stay?”
Jane smiled. “Because you’re my friend. I had to try to keep you company in your misery. I couldn‘t let you go under.”
Daria smiled. “Sorry.”
“Remember when we used to actually act like friends, Daria?”
Daria nodded. “Those were good times. Let’s try to get back to them.”
Jane smiled. “Let’s go find the others, and get out of here. Tom seems to be on a major power trip.”
“I was kind of obsessing over him, wasn’t I?”
Jane nodded. “I couldn’t figure why.”
“I don’t know. The road less traveled or something. Maybe I was kind of wondering what would have happened if I had stayed with him.”
“I think this shows it would have been bad.”
“I know.” Daria sighed. “Let’s get out of here, and forget we ever knew him.”
“Good idea. Oh, you might want to apologize to the others. You were kind of rude.”
“Seems to be a habit of mine.” She smiled. “It would be nice to see Quinn for Christmas.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Wouldn’t have heard you say that a while ago.”
“Well, I actually appreciate my sister now.” She smiled a little, and looked at Jane. “Both of them.”
Jane smiled. “Come on.”
They walked back out to the others. Quinn smiled as they approached.
“Well, Daria, you did the impossible. You finally managed to upstage me at a party.”
Daria smirked. “Never knew I had it in me, did you?”
“And you wore the same color dress. How gauche can you get?” Her expression went more serious. “What happened with Tom?”
“Not important right now. Quinn, we need to leave.”
“Actually,” said Quinn. “The three of us have been talking, and we’ve kind of decided something.”
“Oh?” Daria raised an eyebrow.
“It is Christmas Eve,” said Mack. “Be a shame to skip out on a party so early.”
“We can’t stay here,” said Daria. “Believe me, we can’t.”
“We’re going to make our own party!” said Kevin excitedly. “Come on, Daria, it’ll be fun!”
“There’s some more old friends in the lobby.”
“If it’s Upchuck, it’s a no.”
“It isn’t,” said Mack. “Jodie and Brittany are down there.”
Kevin glanced up at the mention of Brittany’s name.
“I don’t know,” said Daria hesitantly. She looked at the faces of the four people standing in front of her. It couldn’t hurt, could it? Honestly, what else would she be doing tonight, if not this? Going back to Jane’s house, and going to sleep? She hadn’t seen Quinn for a while, and Mack was a person she probably should have kept in touch with. Kevin was Kevin, but even so...
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The others smiled, and made their way to the elevator. As the doors were closing, Daria caught a final glance of Tom, looking out at her from the open door of his office. He took a final look at her, raised his glass, smiled, then disappeared back into his party.
Daria shivered a little, and tried to put him out of her mind.
They reached the lobby, and came across Jodie and Brittany. The two of them were surprised to see Daria and Jane amongst the crowd, and Daria said she’d explain the exact situation to them later. They decided to go to McGrundy’s pub, as it was the closest bar to them, have a few drinks, and reminisce. Normally, Daria would be totally against that sort of thing, but she was feeling oddly nostalgic tonight. It was probably the season, she mused to herself. They were a little overdressed for McGrundy’s, but no one seemed to mind.
After they arrived, they split up into smaller groups, and Daria went over to Quinn.
“Hey,” she said.
Quinn smiled. “You haven’t been returning my calls.”
“Sorry. I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
“Obviously. What did Tom have to say to you.”
Daria shrugged. “Not important. I doubt he’ll be calling me again.”
“Oh well. Keep your air of mystery.”
“I will.” Daria smirked. “So, talked to Mom and Dad lately?”
Quinn nodded. “I was going to go up and see them tomorrow, but with all this snow, there’s no way I could get up to the cabin.”
“I talked to them about two weeks ago. Seemed to be doing well.”
“Yeah. Who would have thought Mom enjoyed doing nothing.”
Daria looked at her keenly. “So what’s up with you and Mack?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Come on, Quinn. This is me. I’m a brain, remember?”
“Haven’t heard you say that since high school.”
“So I’m in a nostalgic mood. Don’t change the subject.”
Quinn smiled. “He is hot, isn’t he? A great guy, too. Can’t believe I never noticed him in high school.”
“I heard he and Jodie got married a few years back.”
“Didn’t work out.” Quinn glanced over to the other side of the bar, where Mack and Jodie were talking, like old friends. “I think they got over each other, though.”
“Hmm. I didn’t expect her and Brittany to, you know.”
Quinn nodded. “Me either. I think they make a cute couple. Brittany’s fashion sense has really improved over the years.”
Daria raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t changed.”
Quinn smiled. “I’ve improved, if you ask me.”
Mack and Jodie sat on the other side of the bar, talking to each other.
“I heard about your Dad a few years ago,” said Jodie. “I should have called.”
“It’s okay. There was still a lot of resentment on both of our parts, I think.”
“You know,” said Mack. “I never would have figured you to make it big in casinos.”
Jodie shrugged. “Neither would I, to tell you the truth. But after we divorced, I moved out west to try to get as far away from the situation. There’s a lot of opportunities there.”
“Oh. Wasn’t your Dad mad?”
“Furious. He didn’t want me doing that kind of stuff. He wouldn’t talk to me for the longest time after that. That was after I forgave him for what he said about you. Then he went really mad when he found out about Brittany.”
“Speaking of which,” Mack glanced over at Brittany, who was sitting over with Kevin and Jane. “How did that happen?”
“She was out west, too. Remember, she moved out to California after college. She heard about our divorce, and looked me up. I needed a friend, and we got close. Very close, as it happens.”
“Didn’t expect that.”
“Me either. But you know, we’re good for each other. She’s so much fun, and cheerful, and carefree. I needed someone like that. She’s smarter than she looks, too.”
“I think you guys will be happy together.” Mack looked at her. “Is your Dad still...?”
“Sort of. Mom finally convinced him that he couldn’t mold me into his wishes and wants, and he calmed down a bit. I still don’t think he’s happy about me and Brittany, though. We still haven‘t really spoken.”
“He’ll come around. Speaking of which, I don’t think Kevin’s quite got the idea yet.”
“He will.” Jodie looked more serious for a moment. “What’s he going to do now?”
Mack shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s determined to stop using me as a crutch, though. I hope he makes it.”
“Me too. He’s stopped trying to win Brittany back, at least.”
“He surprises me sometimes. I hope this is one of them.”
Jodie nodded. “ You know, I hope you find someone like I did.” She glanced over at Quinn and Daria. “Or have you already found someone?”
Mack smiled. “I don’t know. Quinn’s...intriguing. She’s not what I remember.”
“Are any of us?”
“I guess not.” Mack smiled.
Over at Kevin’s table, Kevin was loudly exclaiming to everyone how Jane had helped him get to a realization about himself.
“I still don’t think I did,” said Jane. “But, I guess you’re welcome.”
“You helped me to see how much I was leaning on Mack! How can I ever thank you?”
“I’ll think of something,” muttered Jane.
Brittany beamed. “Kevvy, I’m so glad you’re going to try and get your life back on track! You‘ve changed.”
Kevin shrugged. “I guess. Mack helped me too. He helped me realize I wasn’t going to get you back.”
“No. I just moved on.”
“I think I was sort of, living in the past, or something.”
“Deep,” said Jane.
“Thanks!” Kevin turned to Brittany. “So, who is he?”
“Mack said you had a guy who was really good for you, and that you were so happy. Can’t I at least find out who he is?”
Jane and Brittany exchanged glances. “Kevin,” said Jane. “Weren’t you listening in the lobby?”
“Yeah,” said Kevin. “Of course. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I live with Jodie,” said Brittany.
“They’re together,” said Jane.
“I don’t get it.”
“We’re in love,” said Brittany.
“Huh?” Kevin looked lost. Then he appeared to be thinking very hard. Then he looked shocked. Finally he looked happy. “Oh, okay.”
“She’s great,” said Brittany happily. “She’s so practical, and smart, and funny, and stuff. We’re so totally right for each other.”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” said Kevin.
Jane looked at him with surprise. “Kevin, you’re really shocking me tonight.”
“What did I do?”
Jane shook her head. “Never mind. You know, Kevin. You’ve changed.”
“Quite well, actually. You’re definitely not the brain-dead QB I remember.”
Kevin thought about this. “That’s a compliment, right?”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Yes, Kevin. That’s a compliment.”
“Oh. Thank you. I should probably give you one, right?”
“If you like.”
“You look really hot in that dress.”
“It does suit you,” said Brittany.
“Thank you, Kevin. Do you know how long it’s been since anyone complimented me on my appearance?”
Kevin thought about this for a long time. He opened his mouth to speak, and then thought some more. Then he thought harder. “No,” he said finally. “I wasn’t there, I don’t think.”
Jane sighed. “It was a rhetorical question, Kevin.”
“I don’t now what that is,” admitted Kevin.
“Neither do I,” said Brittany.
Jane covered her face with her hands, and sighed again.
Eventually, Jodie and Brittany had to leave. They said their goodbyes to the others, and Mack and walked outside with them.
“Keep in touch,” said Mack.
“Don’t worry,” Jodie said with a smile. “I’m not going to let another eight years go past.”
They hugged briefly, and Jodie walked over to Brittany, and they walked out, hand in hand. Mack watched them go, and walked over to Kevin, who was standing in the doorway, watching them go.
“Night of surprises, huh, Kevin?”
Kevin nodded. “I’m glad they’re both so happy.”
Mack smiled. “Me too. You know, Kevin. I think you’re finally growing up.”
“Thanks, Mack.” They began to walk back into the bar, and Kevin turned to Mack. “Would have been cool to see them kiss, though, right?”
Mack rolled his eyes. “And then again...”
They reached the others, who were chatting in amongst themselves. “Hey,” said Mack. “It’s late. I think we’re going to call it a night.”
Daria nodded. “Us too.”
Kevin glanced at them. “Are you guys going back to New York tonight?”
Jane shook her head. “No way. Far too late. We’ll head back in the morning.”
“Oh,” said Kevin.
“I’m going to head back to the hotel,” said Mack. He looked at Quinn and smiled. “I’ll see you in the morning?”
She smiled back, and nodded. “We can see Daria and Jane off first.”
“Good idea.” Mack turned to them both. “In that case, I’ll see you in the morning. Thanks for a fun night.”
“We had fun,” said Daria. “Now there’s something I don’t say very often.”
“Tell me about it,” muttered Jane. “Hey, I’m going to head back inside for a while. I think I saw someone I knew in there.”
“Okay,” said Daria, frowning a little.
Jane headed back into the bar, and Daria said her goodbyes, and headed back to Casa Lane.
Quinn looked at Mack. “I’m glad you changed your mind,” she said softly. “I’ll see you in the morning.” She walked off to her car.
Mack looked at Kevin, and was surprised to find that he had vanished back into the bar. Oh well, he thought. He probably saw a hot chick and chased in after her. He knows where the hotel is. He can catch up. He began walking back to the hotel.
Daria finished showering, and got dressed. She and Jane would have to drive back to New York today. It was Christmas Day. She couldn’t imagine that the roads would be that busy. She idly considered staying in Lawndale for a few more days, but rejected the idea. It would be nice to spend time with Quinn. They’d become a lot closer over the last few years, even if over the past few months Daria hadn’t been calling her as much as she could have been. But Quinn had her own plans for today, and she didn’t want to ruin them. If she stayed in Lawndale, she knew Quinn would feel funny about leaving her alone. Better to leave, and let her enjoy her day with Mack.
Daria smiled to herself as she thought about that. That was a couple she couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Of course, so were Jodie and Brittany. They all seemed to go well together.
Thinking of couples made her think of Tom, and she sighed to herself. That whole encounter had been weird.
She finished dressing, and got up. Time to see if Jane had awoken yet.
As she walked towards Jane’s room, she made a mental note to remember to call her parents later today to wish them a happy Christmas.
She reached Jane’s door, and pushed it open. “Jane, are you...” She tailed off.
Jane was in her bed, the covers pulled up to her chest, a guilty expression on her face. Beside her, still asleep, and looking very relaxed, was Kevin Thompson.
“My God,” said Daria, totally stunned. “How much did I have to drink last night?”
“You don’t drink,” said Jane, in a very embarrassed tone of voice.
Daria grabbed a chair, and sat down beside the bed. “Obviously, you two met up in the bar again last night after I went home, and then came home and decided, in a completely innocent way, to strip naked and go to sleep in the same bed. Happens all the time.”
“You’re close,” said Jane. “But we did a lot more than just sleep.”
Daria held a hand up. “Don’t feel like you have to spell things out for me.”
Jane smiled. Obviously, her embarrassment was fading. “Time to be honest. I went back into the bar last night to talk to him.”
“He was complimenting me big time. He was acting reasonably mature for a change. He was being kind of sweet and funny. And he looked really good in a suit. We got to talking, one thing led to another, and here we are.”
“Oh, Daria, don’t be such a prude.” Jane grinned. “You know, it turns out he really is better at things other than football.”
Daria grimaced. “You’re taking a perverse pleasure in tormenting me, aren’t you?”
Kevin stirred, and opened his eyes. “Morning! Man, Jane, last night was really something wasn’t it? You know I never figured you’d be such a tiger...”
“Excuse me,” said Daria. “I’m here. Hello.”
“Oh,” said Kevin. “Guess I’d better not start bragging then.”
“I’d better get dressed.” Kevin hopped out of bed, and limped nakedly over to the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
“Oh my God, I’ve gone blind,” said Daria.
“Hey, admit it, it wasn’t such a bad sight, was it?”
Daria shot her a glance. Jane smirked, and waved a hand at Daria. She turned around as Jane got out of bed, and began pulling her clothes on. “Neither of us are interested in a relationship. It was just a bit of fun before we went back to New York. You know, though, he’s different now. I can actually see him in a relationship now.”
Daria shrugged. “I’ll believe that. People do change, I guess.”
Kevin came out of the bathroom, clothed this time, and yawned. “Man, I’m hungry. Who wants some breakfast?”
After getting some breakfast, Daria and Jane began loading the car up for the trip back to New York. Quinn arrived after a short while, and began helping them. After another few minutes, Mack’s car pulled up.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, stepping out of the car. “I waited around for Kevin, but he never came back to the hotel.”
Kevin limped out of the house. “Morning, Mack!”
“Kevin?” Mack looked confused. “Where did you go last night?”
“He was here,” said Jane, grinning. “With me.”
Mack looked surprised for a minute, then shrugged. “Nothing surprises me any more these days.”
Kevin walked over to him. “Hey, Mack. I’m going to go see my folks today. I haven’t really talked to them for a while. I’ll catch up with you at the hotel, okay?”
Mack nodded. “Okay.”
Kevin went over to Jane, and grinned. “Thanks for last night.”
“Trust me,” said Jane. “The pleasure was all mine.”
Daria rolled her eyes.
Kevin gave Jane a quick kiss, and walked off down the street.
Mack stared after him for a while.
“What are you thinking?” asked Quinn.
“I’m just hoping he can remember where he used to live.” Mack smiled and turned to the others. “It was great to see you guys again.”
Jane nodded. “Hey, Daria. Maybe this will finally get you to start writing again. God knows, it was weird enough.”
“You write?” said Mack. “Ever had anything published?”
“No,” said Daria firmly.
“Yes,” said Jane and Quinn at the same time. Daria shot them a look. Quinn shrugged. “It’s just the four of us here, Daria, and me and Jane both know. You might as well tell Mack.”
Daria sighed. “Yes, I was published once.”
Mack looked curious. “Oh?”
“Under a pseudonym. I wrote a book called Passion Play.”
Mack thought for a moment. “Hold on, I remember that one. That cheesy Jilly Cooper thing?”
Daria sighed. “Yes, I wrote that. Trust me, I had no ambition to be the next Jilly Cooper.”
“She wrote it as a joke,” said Jane, “and submitted it.”
“I didn’t know they’d actually publish the damn thing.”
“Cheer up,” said Mack. “I never read it.”
“Sadly, quite a few other people did.”
“I know,” said Jane, trying to stifle a grin. “She felt his throbbing manhood though his pants, and tried to claim it with her womanhood...”
“Stop complaining,” said Quinn. “You cashed the checks, didn’t you?”
Daria began to move round to the car door. “I think, after this, I’ll try working on some things that I really care about.”
Me too,” said Jane. “I think I’ve neglected art for too long.”
Daria gave Quinn a quick hug, waved goodbye to Mack, and got into the car. Jane waved a quick goodbye, and did the same. The car started, and they began to drive out of Lawndale.
Jane turned to Daria. “Interesting trip, wouldn’t you say?”
Daria smiled slightly. “I think you got more out of it than I did.”
“True. Was good to see everyone again though, right?”
Daria nodded. “I know I hated high school at the time, but there were some pretty decent people I should have kept in touch with.”
“Gosh, you are being sentimental. Must be Christmas.”
Daria smiled. “I think I might even finish that novel now.”
“Whoa. Where did that come from?”
“Got some new ideas. We did have a pretty interesting few days.”
“True. I could probably get some pretty good art ideas from it too.”
They both smiled, and looked at each other.
“Come on,” said Daria. “Let’s go home.”
Their car sped on through the snow, back to New York.
Mack and Quinn watched the car drive off, and then they turned toward each other. Mack looked at Quinn. She really did look stunning in amongst the snow. Her red hair stood out, and those eyes...
“So, what now?” he said.
“I have a few ideas,” said Quinn, smiling.
Mack smiled back, and turned away for a second, looking towards Lawndale. “Been an interesting few days, hasn’t it?”
“Turned out well for most of us, I think,” said Quinn.
“Well, I made up with Jodie, and stopped living in the past.”
“Kevin found a reason to live again.”
“Daria and Jane got some energy back.”
“Brittany and Jodie found each other, and made up with old friends.”
“Tom...” Mack tailed off. Tom was Tom.
“And I...” Quinn tapered off. Mack turned round to see her smiling at him. “I had a very nice few days.”
Mack smiled back, and then his smile was cut off by a snowball suddenly hitting him in the face. He wiped it off, and turned to see Quinn grinning sheepishly at him.
“I couldn’t resist.”
“Neither can I,” said Mack, scooping up some snow, and lobbing it at her. It hit her square in the chest, and she laughed. A furious snow battle ensued, with Quinn eventually throwing up her hands in defeat. “I give. I give.”
Mack smiled and walked over to her. “I accept your gracious defeat.”
Quinn smiled. “There’s one thing we have to do before we do anything else today.” She slipped her arms around his neck.
Mack slipped his arms around her waist in return. “And what is that?”
“This is our fourth date, Mack.”
“And we haven’t even kissed yet.”
Mack smiled. “I see. Are you going to fix that?”
Quinn looked him in the eyes, and smiled. “We‘ll see.”
She leant in close and kissed him on the lips. He responded, and they kissed deeply for what seemed like a glorious eternity. They finally broke off. Mack grinned, and looked at Quinn. “Happy now?”
She smiled back. “I think we both are.”
They began to walk down the streets of Lawndale, hand-in-hand. “So,” said Mack. “What do we do now?”
Quinn smiled seductively. “The sky’s the limit, Mack.”
And they walked off into the snow...
Of course, this is partially based on the ‘future-egos’ at the end of IICY? Some of them, at least.
Thanks to my wife.
Thanks to my beta-readers: Brother Grimace, Roger Moore, Steven Galloway, Ben Breeck, MMan, EastVan, Robert Nowall, THM, Thea-Zara, and Brandon League.
Special thanks to Roger Moore and Brother Grimace for suggestions on improving the ending and the character motivations. It reads a lot better now.
Thanks to MTV.