Never get accustomed to defeat. That’s what I told myself every morning since that day—the worst career day of my life. I call it the worst career day because it certainly wasn’t the worst day of my life. It’s important to know the difference. That day in the office, I was blindsided—it was a complete ambush.
I was working diligently on a client memo after a particularly steamy session with Hayden Towne, the agency siren. That day we had a two-hour lunch that involved a bottle of Dom and a long drive up The Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu. Her scent still enveloped me when I returned to the office, despite numerous hand-washings and teeth-brushings.
Someone was knocking on my door with persistence. “Come in, Cassandra,” I called to my assistant, not even paying attention to the sound of the door opening and closing. I continued to tap away at my keyboard until the curious silence taunted me enough to stop typing and turn around. There stood Hayden near the door, in the same royal blue dress that I had gathered up around her waist only an hour earlier.
“What’s up?” I said, getting to my feet and stepping cautiously around my desk. There was an insouciant smirk on her face as she moved closer—so close I felt my nostrils flare at the smell of her perfume, which still lingered faintly in my mouth. I placed my hand on her waist with familiarity, thinking I was in no mood to see her so soon after our mid-day frolic. “You back for more?”
She swatted my hand away. “You wish. You’re going to want to sit down for this, Craig,” she announced, shooting me a smug grin with those perfect teeth. She moved sideways around me and flounced over to the white leather couch in my office sitting area. It was opposite the fireplace, above which my most treasured Chagall painting hung. Hayden always jokingly referred to the area as my casting couch because we had done it there so many times. Hayden patted the seat next to her like she was managing partner of my advertising agency, not the other way around.
I slowly approached her, wracking my brain for the reason she wanted this impromptu tête-à-tête. It was obviously not about sex. When I reached the couch, she tossed her bleached blonde hair and gazed up at me with those heavily mascaraed tanzanite eyes. “Sit,” she offered, patting the seat again.
I relented and parked myself next to her. “What’s going on, Hayden? Did we lose a client? Just come out with whatever it is.” I hated guessing games and I didn’t trust the way she was looking at me, the tone of her voice, or anything about her demeanor at that moment.
She erupted in a wicked laugh. “You’re about to lose a lot more than a client.” She handed me a folded letter, sat back, and observed me, hands crossed over her chest with a purple-lipped sneer.
All I read was the first line, “Please accept this as my letter of resignation,” before tossing the letter on the coffee table. I glared at her. “You can’t resign. You have a contract and it’s not up for another year.”
“A contract without a non-compete,” she gleefully reminded me. “Which makes it worthless.” I recalled her insistence that I omit the non-compete clause. I didn’t argue because I was doing Don a favor—Donovan C. Keller, my father—by hiring her. Her father was Stephan Towne, California’s District Attorney and, because Don had won a lifetime of cases defending well-known mobsters in our hometown of San Francisco, the relationship between the two men had always been adversarial. Don ordered me two years ago to hire Stephan’s daughter when a vice president of accounts position became available. It was his attempt to ease their relations.
“What are you saying, Hayden … did you get another offer? Whatever it is, I’ll match it.” There was no way I would allow her to walk out the door, no matter how talentless she was. Don would strangle me.
She cocked her head to one side and drew her platinum locks behind one ear with two fully extended fingertips. Hayden always wore red nail polish. I pictured those shiny red nails slithering around my pants just an hour ago.
“Being the sexist pig that you are, I knew you’d think that; but actually, I’m starting my own agency.”
Sexist pig? I had to hold back my anger at that swipe. “How are you going to start an agency with no clients?” I scoffed, rising from the couch just to put distance between us. “That’s a bad move, Hayden. Anyone will tell you that.”
She immediately stood and straightened to her full height, shoulders back. Hayden was just under six feet tall, and today she was wearing five-inch heels, which put her at my height. “Oh, I’ll have plenty of clients—in fact, I already do.”
That’s when the nickel finally dropped. She was leaving my agency and starting her own—with my clients.
The year following that unpleasant day had been painful—so painful that I was considering laying off half my employees. My pride wouldn’t allow it; however, and I didn’t want word to get out that I was struggling, even though the rumor mill was already churning. I ended up breaking down and begging Don for the cash to keep my company afloat another year. He reluctantly gave in, but the transaction earned him license to further humiliate me with lectures about ‘learning when to keep it in my pants,’ ‘thinking with the wrong head,’ and ‘being asleep at the switch.’
The biggest irony was that I started my agency, Keller Whitman Group, much the way Hayden started hers—only I stole clients from my former mentor, Warren Mitchell, about a decade earlier. It took many long walks on the beach in deep meditation to discover the law of Karma. Hayden had beaten me at my own game. She got me where she knew it would really hurt. And why? At first, I thought it was for money and power—the same reasons I killed Warren’s business. But I found out later it had more to do with helping her father take down the Keller family. She cleverly executed her plan the day she started working for me—and consensual sex was her way of keeping me oblivious to her behind-the-scenes maneuvers. I never got why people said Hayden was the female version of me until that day in my office.
That was why today was so important. If I blew this meeting, I would have no other recourse but to close my agency and start over—but doing what? All I ever knew was being an ad guy. At forty, I was too young to consult and too old to work for anyone else. I was too notorious in the industry to be anything but the boss. I pictured myself sitting at home, unemployed, crafting my memoir, pitifully savoring the fragments of my life when things were different—when I had everything because I was Craig Axel Keller. My nickname in town was ‘The Axe,’ because I was brilliant at cutting deals. I pitched and won the biggest clients, had the highest reported revenue of any competing ad agency. My weeks were overflowing with power lunches in L.A.’s trendiest restaurants. Women crawled all over me—wanting a tiny slice of what I had, no matter how I demeaned them. But life was different now. I was teetering on the edge of obscurity. This meeting had to be perfect.
I pulled on the silk olive-green robe that hung near the shower, and sifted through my long, rectangular walk-in closet. I passed my hand along the vast assortment of custom-made Italian suits, color-sorted from dark to light. As I did this, the tassel cord belt on my robe kept coming untied, causing the robe to gap open. Each time this happened, I would yank the two ends of the cord, pull them together and tie them in a knot. The cord situation was getting on my nerves, which were already frazzled. The robe was a frivolous purchase from my last trip to Rome. I always loved the way Italians dressed. It was what originally attracted me to my ex-wife, Alessandra. She was born in Rome and had the innate sensibilities and taste in fashion that imbued most Italians from an early age.
I took the time every morning to go through my suits one by one to determine which conspired with the plans on my calendar. Once I selected the suit, I moved to the ties, then to the shirts, shoes and, finally, belts. The shoes determined the belt, so belts were always last.
It was important I select the right combination today because I was meeting with Warren for the first time in at least two years—since I bought out his agency. I was going to have to prostrate myself to sell him on an idea. I needed to wear something that was understated yet elegant; confident but not arrogant. A dark navy suit said class but still demanded attention. The tie was another story altogether. I went through the display of silk ties, a wall of shelves with infinite tiny square compartments cradling each individual tie, again arranged by color, so I could easily move to the palette of choice. Red would scream power, but it was such a cliché. I wouldn’t own a red tie unless it had some sort of pattern. Solid red ties were for wannabe politicians and car salesmen. I moved to the blue section and found one that only whispered power, because it was pale blue with a tiny thread of red woven inconspicuously into the fabric. This was the right one.
Once I was fully dressed, I gave myself a once-over in the full-length mirror. Not bad, I thought. I had inherited Don’s looks, which was both a help and a hindrance. It subjected me to labels like ‘pretty boy,’ and ‘girly’ when I was younger. People immediately focused on my light jade eyes and the long lashes that any woman would die for. I had to work harder to prove my masculinity. By college, the braces that had rendered me a complete nerd in high school gave me teeth that rivaled a toothpaste model. I discovered my looks were an asset in every way, both in school with female professors and out of school when applying for jobs.
I leaned into the sink and washed my hands one last time. It was the seventh time I had washed them since getting out of bed, not including my morning shower.
As soon as I was satisfied that I looked the part to win Warren over, I sauntered toward the front door of my Malibu home. I glanced at my living room, which was just off the entryway, and noticed one of the black pillows on my massive crème-colored suede sectional was not evenly spaced with the other pillows. I sighed and advanced to the offending pillow, almost tripping over one of a trio of zebra-print ottomans. After I moved the pillow to the appropriate place, I realized the dimmer switch on the chandelier was left on—it was barely lit. The chandelier was a hold-over from my old apartment in Brentwood. It was custom designed, made of Murano glass and imported from Venice. It was the centerpiece of my living room, with its long octopus-like rolling limbs, extending outward as though holding up flame-lit tips. While it was a bitch to move, I wanted it for my new home. I located the light switch and pushed it into the off position.
Before I passed the entryway to the front door, I stopped and picked up a framed photo of my older brother, Donovan James Keller, or DJ, as we called him. I did this every morning—and felt the same tingling in my hands—the crippling sensation of knowing I would never see him again. I started the photo ritual many years ago—it was something Alessandra had scolded me for. She thought it was masochism—an act of ‘emotional cutting’ as she always accused.
I quickly replaced the photo and exited my home to find the black Bentley convertible. I took a long look at it and ran my fingers along the side of the door before opening it and peering inside, immediately smelling the clean car scent. It was my home away from home. I eased in, scanned the rearview mirror as the colossal wrought iron gate slid open. Then I backed out of the driveway and headed east toward Santa Monica. It was only around eighteen miles—a twenty-five-minute drive in light traffic, which seemed to be flowing at a fast pace today. I didn’t want to show up at Warren’s office with disheveled hair, so I skipped putting the top down.
In the good old days, when business was flourishing and a certain euphoria radiated through my soul, I would put the top down as soon as I was off the freeway, and play a little game, counting how many women’s heads I could turn. My usual projection was around ten, but sometimes it was lower. It depended on where I was.
I noted the change to the building’s façade as soon as I pulled into the parking lot of Mitchell Vance & Mercer. It used to be Warren Mitchell & Partners before I took them over and forced Warren out. He formed Mitchell Vance & Mercer about a year after that. Warren hadn’t taken defeat sitting down. He had pretended to go into retirement, all the while accumulating clients so that he could open his new agency and hire back two of his original executives—both partners now. Warren had even managed to buy his old building back.
I parked and immediately pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer from my console, squeezing a glob into my hands and thoroughly rubbing them together. It felt cold and gooey. The pungent scent of alcohol filled the car as thickly as my vulnerability.
The possibility of rejection gnawed relentlessly at my gut.
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