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Rated: 18+ · Other · Sci-fi · #2022980
Jeff's job is in danger, but he has a backup plan.
Approximately 3000  words.

The Time of His Life
Chapter One

         Jeff caught his breath when a liveried chauffeur pushed an elderly man in a wheelchair into the gleaming, post-modern lobby.  The driver stopped while the man's nurse adjusted his oxygen mask and IV.  Just the kind of customer Lifetime Partners targeted: sick, helpless, and filthy rich. 

         Jeff ran his fingers across his spikey crew cut, straightened his Armani tie, and prepared to greet them.  It was almost closing, but there was still time for a sale.  So what if it made him feel lousy?  He had to make a living somehow, didn't he?

         He snatched up a glossy brochure and trotted up to the entourage.  He gripped the old man's hand and flashed his sure-to-be-dazzling smile, the one he practiced every morning after polishing his teeth.  "Welcome to Lifetime Partners, sir.  My name is Jeff, and I'm here to help you." 

         The poor guy's breath wheezed under his oxygen mask.  His fingers were like sticks in Jeff's grip, and his skin was dry as a cactus in Death Valley. 

         Never mind that.  He was rich and obviously at death's door.  Jeff reminded himself that was all that mattered.

         The chauffeur sneered.  "Mr. Hightower has an appointment with Mr. Preston.  Perhaps you could notify him?"

         Preston. That SOB. It wasn't like he needed another sale.  Maybe Jeff could somehow still get credit.  God knows, he needed it.  "I'll be glad to help Mr. Hightower.  If I knew his condition, I could assist him in choosing the Lifetime Partner's contract that best fits his situation."  His condition and his bank balance, of course.  Jeff tried not to think about how ruthless the company was about sucking up the assets of its customers. 

         The nurse sniffed at him.  "We already told everything to your Mr. Preston." She leaned forward and whispered, "He's got terminal pancreatic cancer, you know.  Maybe another week or two left. Suspended animation is his only hope."

         A week or two to live.  Jeff knew what the mortality and morbidity tables said.  In his condition, Hightower had less than a one percent chance of surviving the cold sleep for even a year, let alone long enough for medical science to discover a miracle cure.  The regulations on informed consent required Jeff to tell him.  "I see.  If you'll step into my office, we can discuss the pros and cons of seeking our services--"

         His supervisor, Charlotte Corbett, picked that instant to summon him.  Her nasal voice interrupted the serene Muzak that infused the room and echoed against the chrome-and-glass decor.  "Mr. Jeff Clement, to the office, please."

         Damn it, what did the Dragon Lady want now?  He glanced back Hightower.  The man's eyes gazed up at him above hollowed cheeks.  Hope flickered there.  Jeff's job depended on getting a signed contract, no matter the odds of the man's survival.  He hadn't made a sale in over a month, and now the manager wanted him in the office just when the best prospect in weeks showed up.  Now?

         That slimy Oscar Preston was already headed this way.  The loudspeaker sounded again.  "Mr. Clement to the office.  Urgent."

         Jeff's shoulders slumped.  Oscar arrived and took hold of the old man's palsied hand. A reptilian grin twisted his features. "Mr. Hightower, so good to see you in person. I'll be assisting you through the suspended animation process."  He looked up at Jeff and narrowed his eyes.  "Our Mr. Clement has other duties in the main office." 

         The bastard.  Jeff knew from past experience that Oscar would skim over with the required notices if he bothered with them at all.   

         Oscar nodded to the chauffeur.  "If you'll follow me to my office, we can start the paperwork.  I sent you copies of the contracts, along with the codicils, this morning."

         Jeff watched while disgust roiled his stomach.  Codicils.  That meant Oscar had written a kickback into the contracts for the chauffeur, and maybe the nurse, too.  No wonder they insisted on talking to Oscar.

         The chauffeur and the nurse exchanged furtive glances before following Oscar, pushing the hapless Hightower in his chair.

         Jeff heaved a sigh.  There was nothing he could do.  He headed to Corbett's office. 

         She sat behind a glass desk, holding Jeff's personnel file in her spider-like fingers.  The ebony flooring and white walls matched the austere decor of the showroom.  Her window looked out on the manicured garden at the center of Utica Square.  She nodded to chair in front of her desk.  "Have a seat."

         Jeff collapsed into the soft, white leather and waited.  Sometimes he wondered if Corbett was a space alien, or maybe a ghoul surviving from medieval times.  Her skin was pasty-white, and she kept her black hair in a tight bun that stretched behind her head. She always wore severe, tailored gray suits that accentuated her wraith-like body.  The only spots of color in her office were her blood-red fingernails.  They glistened in the fluorescent lighting, as though the polish were still liquid. 

         She leafed through his file in silence.  She turned a page, gave a soundless snort, and made a notation. 

         Jeff squirmed.  How long was this going to last before she spoke?

         Finally, she closed the file, tented her fingers in front of her, and asked, "Have you liked working here, Mr. Clement?"

         Jeff wondered if she used real blood on her nails.  "Uh, yes, ma'am.  It's a good job."

         "Oh, so you realize this is a job, then?" 

         "Yes.  Of course."  Why didn't she just get it over with?  Jeff could stand being chewed out, but this was sadistic.

         "Your sales record doesn't provide much evidence of that, Mr. Clement."  She tapped on the folder on her desk.

         "I admit it's been slow lately--"

         "It's been nonexistent, lately."  Her eyes bored into him.  "I have to say you've just not lived up to your potential.  Not at all like Mr. Preston.  Really, you should strive to be more like him.  Take Mr. Hightower.  Oscar had already guaranteed the sale by arranging a small consulting fee for the client's caregivers."

         Jeff's face heated and before he could stop himself he snapped, "A bribe, you mean.  I thought so.  Is Oscar even going to advise him of the risks?  He'll never survive long enough in suspended animation to be cured."

         "Now, we don't know that, do we?  Besides, his caregivers have already done the required notices.  Who better? He trusts them, especially his nurse, and they know how to best explain things to him." A tiny smile trifled with her lips, and she moved his file a millimeter to the left.  "Best of all, their consulting fee is part of his contract.  We'll pass the expense through to the client."

         This was too much.  "That's just slimy."  He took a deep breath.  "You know what?  I quit.  I can't work for this scum bucket of a company anymore."

         Her smile grew broader.  "Strange that you should say that, Mr. Clement. You've spared me the necessity of firing you.  Best of all, since you've resigned, there won't be any messy details like unemployment benefits."  Her tongue flicked over her lips, and she lounged back in her chair.

         A frigid ball of panic gripped Jeff's belly.  Maybe he'd been hasty.  Lord only knew how he'd live without a paycheck.

         She must have read something in his expression, because she said, "Don't get any ideas about backing out.  I have your resignation on tape."  She favored him with a brilliant smile, and Jeff wondered if her face my break into icicles.  "You may use me as a reference, if you wish.  I promise to speak favorably of your, shall we say, ethics.  Your only real problem is that you need to learn to make lemonade when life hands you lemons.  Maybe this development will help you learn that lesson."  She stood and looked at the door.

         Peachy.  The only lesson he'd learned from this was that his soul wasn't for sale.  Or at least, not at the wages Lifetime Partners offered.  He left without another word.

         Jeff stumbled into the parking lot of Utica Square.  Sweet Jesus, he'd done it.  No turning back now.  What to do?  His phone buzzed and he checked the screen.  Phillip.  Great.  He liked Phil, but he probably had some hairbrained get-rich-quick scheme, or wanted to mooch dinner, or something. 

         On the other hand, Phil knew people. Rich people. Like that guy last month who was interested in the history of Tulsa.  What was his name?  Sandy?  Andy?  Something like that.  When he'd learned Jeff had a degree in history, he'd even tried to hire him.  Just like a rich person, figuring he could buy anything he wanted, including Jeff's time.

         Except now Jeff had a lot of time, and even more bills. 

         "Hey, Phil.  What's up?"

         "Jeff, baby.  How's it hanging?"

         Jeff snorted.  "Great.  Couldn't be better.  I just quit my job."

         "No shit, Sherlock?  It's about time you got out of that soul-sucking place, boyfriend."  He paused.  "If you need a somewhere to hang, you can stay with me.  But you'll have to, you know, be scarce during business hours."

         Jeff's mouth twitched.  "Business hours" was Phil-speak for when he brought a trick home.  Phil wasn't a prostitute, not exactly.  But it wasn't coincidence that his lovers were rich and gave him expensive gifts or helped with the rent.  The guy had to get by somehow, and he was a loyal friend.  "Thanks, Phil. I appreciate it, but I don't need a pllace right now.  My rent's paid up for this month."

         "Well, you know you can count on me."

         "I do."  Jeff chewed his lip, then asked, "Phil, you remember the guy who was interested in the Tulsa underground?  Andrew something?"

         "Sure.  Xander Spellman.  I had dinner with him last night.  He asked about you."

         "He offered to hire me for background research on some screwball project, but I turned him down.  Do you think he might still be interested?"

         "I'm sure of it, man.  You want I should call him?"

         The 21st Street bus was a block away.  "Yeah.  Check with him and get back to me, okay?"

         "Sure.  But don't screw this up, man.  He makes more in one day off his trust fund than you made all year at that sucky job of yours.  I'll call right back."

         Phil broke the connection as the bus pulled up.  Jeff fed the meter and pushed to the rear where he found an empty seat.  Two stops later his phone buzzed and he answered. "Okay, Phil, talk to me."  This could be the solution to all his problems.  He didn't have much faith in this so-called job but you never knew.   

         "He's way eager to talk to you, man.  He wants to meet in the bar at the Mayo right now.  How soon can you get there?"

         The downtown bus stop was maybe two blocks from the Mayo.  "Fifteen, twenty minutes, tops."

         "Great.  You remember what he looks like?"

         "Kind of nerdy.  Overweight, pimply-faced, a little older than us.  Maybe about thirty or so.  Balding, with shoulder-length blonde hair."

         "That's him.  I'll tell him you're on your way."

         "Phil, wait."


         "Uh, he's not going to expect to sleep with me, is he?"  Shit, that sounded like he was dissing Phil.  "I mean, there's nothing wrong with that.  It's just--"

         "Yeah, yeah, I know.  Don-the-Devil ruined you forever for romance.  Screw romance.  I keep telling you, what you need is a good blow job to get over that bastard."  Phil sighed and Jeff could imagine him rolling his eyes.  "Anyway, I think Xander is post-sexual or something.  I've seen him ogling guys, but he never makes a move.  Kind of like you."

         "Thanks, Phil.  You're the best."

         "You, too, buddy.  Like I said, don't screw this up.  Xander could be the perfect sugar daddy for both of us.  Call me tomorrow."

         Phil broke the connection, and Jeff leaned back in the bus.  A sugar daddy might be nice, at that.  It could be fun to deepen his research into the tunnels under downtown, too.  He'd heard rumors about lost rooms and secret government bases dating back to World War II.  Conspiracy crap, but he might be able to string together some plausible bits if this Xander character was sufficiently gullible.

         It was still too early for the downtown business crowd when Jeff stepped into the gleaming Art Nuevo lobby of the Mayo.  With its ornate floors and grand staircase, it still looked like a luxury hotel from the 1920s, but the upper floors had long ago been remodeled into apartments for the wealthy.  He headed to the bar, where a woman in a black evening gown sat at a grand piano playing Gershwin.  I could use someone to watch over me, except he'd probably rip me off and cheat on me.  He scanned the room and instantly spotted Xander, sitting alone at the bar. 

         Jeff approached and stopped by his side. "Mr. Spellman?"

         Xander turned and gave him a gap-toothed smile.  "Jeff.  So nice to see you again."  He stuck out his hand.

         Jeff accepted the man's dishrag handshake and tried to ignore his halitosis.  "Pleased to meet you, sir."  He settled into the adjacent seat.

         "Please.  Call me Xander."  He snapped his fingers at the bartender. "What you like?  The martinis here are do die for."

         "I'll have what you're having."

         "Two more gin martinis, then, barkeep."  He gulped the last of the drink in front of him, spilling part of it onto his silk shirt.  "So, I know you must be busy, what with your career and all. Let's get right down to business.  I recall you're an expert on the tunnels under Tulsa and that you're a historian."

         "I have a degree in history, yes."  It wasn't clear how Mycenaean history would connect to tunnels built by jazz era oil barons underneath Tulsa, but there wasn't much point in adding that detail. 

         "Great."  Xander reached into a briefcase that rested next to his seat and pulled out a folded-up set of tattered blue prints.  "I was going through my great-uncle's things, and I found this.  It's a map of the tunnels underneath this very hotel."

         Jeff glanced at them.  The date was 1928.  "Interesting.  But these seem to be for the Philtower, not the Mayo."

         The bartender returned with their drinks, and Xander hid the blueprints under his hands.  "Can't be too careful," he muttered.  When they were alone again, he continued, "These tunnels, they're all connected.  More importantly, look at this."  He jabbed a finger at the plans.  "There's a hidden grotto underneath the hotel.  I also found my great-uncle's diary."  He pulled a leather book from his briefcase.  "It says here that Waite Phillips built an underground grotto to store gold and silver bullion.  I want you to find it."

         Jeff sighed.  Buried treasure underneath downtown Tulsa.  Right, that was credible. Still, he remembered Corbett's advice: make lemonade from lemons.  Screw her.  He turned his attention back to Xander. "Finding it will require original research. That will take a lot of time.  I'm not cheap.  Can you afford me?"

         "I'm sure that'll be no problem.  Just don't tell anyone about the gold, okay?  Not even Phil.  That'll be our little secret."

         Visions of contacts for Lifetime Partners danced in his head.  May as well go for broke.  "I'll need to cover my expenses, and of course there will be the matter of a retainer."

         "Phil mentioned that." He pushed an ATM MasterCard with Jeff's name on it across the bar.  "I took the liberty of setting this up when we first talked.  I was hoping you'd see the light and work with me.  This card taps into an account with fifty thousand in it.  Is that enough for starters?"

         Jeff's breath caught in his throat, but he kept his face impassive.  "That should do.  For now." He could do a happy little dance later when he was alone.  Phil deserved a cut, of course, but still, this was awesome.  "How soon would you like me to start?"

         "Why not tonight?  You've got the map.  There's no time like the present, right?"

         It wasn't like he had anything else to do.  "Sure.  I guess the first thing is to use the blueprints to explore the tunnels. Do you want to come along?"

         "Oh my, no."  Xander flapped a hand at him.  "I went down there last week, and they were filthy.  Full of dust and cobwebs.  Set off my asthma.  That's why I hired you."  He gulped down his martini. "Let me give you my business card.  You can keep me informed of what you find."

         Jeff nodded.  Just as well.  He was already looking forward to exploring again.  He'd walk home, change, and pick up his tunnel exploration gear and spend the night travelling back to the lost caverns of 1920s.  That was better--and more certain--than the trip to the future that Lifetime Partners planned for poor Mr. Hightower.

         At that moment, the ground shook and the bottles behind the bar rattled. The room fell silent and everyone tensed.  A glass fell to the tiled floor and shattered.  In seconds, the tremor passed.

         Xander's hands trembled.  "Oh my, another earthquake. That was worse than the one yesterday. You know, I think I'm going to spend the night at my ranch north of town.  The tenth floor here suddenly doesn't appeal to me."  He gathered his things.  "I'll expect you to phone me tonight and tell me what you find.  Don't worry about waking me--I'm a night owl."  He tottered out of the bar. 

         The barkeep sauntered up.  "You going to cover the tab, bud?" 

         Jeff gave a little start, then passed over the ATM card.  "Run it through this, okay?"

         The barkeep's eyebrows went up at the platinum card.  "You got it. sir."

         Jeff leaned back.  If the tenth floor wasn't safe, the tunnels had be even worse.  Cleary, Jeff's safety wasn't high on Xander's priority list.  He folded the map and contemplated entering the tunnels.  Earthquakes be damned. 

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