“Bait and Switch”
by Larry Brooks
All things considered, it was a great night to die. The requisite literary elements were in place – horizontal rain in the headlight beams, a deserted and utterly dark winding road, an impossibly late hour for a business meeting. And of course, motive. Without motive there would be no story. Without motive, all you had was an accident.
Funny, how four billion dollars splashes a dollop of paranoia onto the lens of one’s worldview. Which was why, like a fly repeatedly slamming against the window of his otherwise quiet accountant’s existence, his boss’s words buzzed in his mind as he drove through the storm to meet with the man.
Willing to bet the farm here, son? Your entire career? Mine?
Four days, and the words still echoed. The more he listened to them, the harder he thought about it, the more he suspected the fly was him.
Here’s the four billion dollar question – other than you and me, who knows about this?
On any other night on any other road he would be surfing his collection of MP3s on one of his Apply toys, a menagerie which ranged from alt rock to rap metal. His new girlfriend abhorred both – she preferred light jazz with a glass of chardonnay – but tonight his mind was filled with weightier issues, such as the end of life as he knew it.
Don’t show this to anyone, don’t mention it, don’t even hint at it. Code your files, shred any copies. A leak could kill us, not to mention our client. You tell me which is worse.
The serpentine highway leading west into the hills out of San Jose had claimed dozens of lives over the past two decades. Sure, there had been blown tires and alcohol and other pieces of morbid statistical trivia, but everyone knew it was because of The Road. It had been said that the architects of California State Highway 17 had graduated from the University of Six Flags, such were the pitch and frequency of the hairpin turns. If you didn’t lose your lunch, odds were you’d lose your cool, or worse if you were careless enough to glance down to change radio stations.
His boss – the asshole otherwise known as Boyd Gavin – had called that afternoon with instructions to meet him in Santa Cruz for a meeting with representatives of Arielle Systems, their largest client. A few suits from the State District Attorney’s office would be there, which told him all he needed to know: it was come-to-Jesus time. No explanation was offered regarding the strange hour – the meeting was scheduled for eleven – so he assumed they were tacking it onto an existing agenda that included dinner and pretentious cigars to get their stories straight. Strange he wasn’t invited for that, since he was the linchpin of the entire conversation.
Give me a few days. We play our cards right, we might get out of this with our asses and our year-end bonus intact.
The time had come to chuck the entire mess against the fan. The market would crash on the news, outraged anchors would wax eloquent on corporate greed, a remote truck from CNN would commandeer the parking lot, and he would be the guy they wanted to talk to. Unless – and this was more likely – Gavin assumed the role of come-clean spokesperson for the firm, keeping him in the background for what he would assure was in the best interests of his career. What a guy, Gavin.
He was halfway to Santa Cruz, cresting the hills with a series of turns that made Watkins Glen look like a Malibu track, when he noticed headlights coming up fast behind.
Within moments they were right on his ass, where, despite plenty of room to pass, they remained for nearly a mile. On any other night he’d write it off to the preponderance of type-A high tech marketing pukes who inhabited the area like deciduous trees. Maybe flip a finger, just for grins. But this was not any other night.
When was the last time, he asked himself, that the fly got out alive?
They were approaching a steep uphill grade when the SUV made its move. Odd, because of all the places one didn’t want to pass on Highway 17, this was it. Signs with flashing yellow lights warned of an impending curve while recommending a speed of thirty-five miles per hour, which local commuters knew was twenty too many.
Work with me here, okay? Haven’t shot a messenger yet, don’t plan to now.
Paranoia, my ass. Suddenly, motive had headlights.
The young man instinctively let up on the accelerator as the SUV pulled alongside. He glanced over in anger, his racing heart skipping a beat when he saw that the tinted passenger window was lowering. A man leaned out, with what appeared to be a gun in his hands.
He hit the brakes, but the SUV matched the move, closely enough for the gun to hold its mark. Strangely, it wasn’t pointing at his head, but toward the rear window. In the micro-second that followed, a part of his brain that wasn’t engaged in survival noted that the barrel looked odd, a bad prop from the Sci-Fi channel after midnight.
Amazing, how time slows in the moment of reckoning.
The gun fired, shattering the glass. The car filled instantly with an untraceable polypropylene vapor that would burn cleanly away in the aftermath. A second after that, the car’s interior erupted in flames.
The SUV braked and swung in behind the Mustang, which was now an inferno. Then it accelerated so its after-market front impact guards were banging the Mustang’s rear bumper, pushing it into the guardrail ahead. Within milliseconds his throat had involuntarily closed and the skin over his corneas burned away, as had his eardrums, so he didn’t see or hear a thing as he crashed through the barrier precisely in the middle of the curve. The car tumbled through blackness for six hundred feet before impacting up-side-down upon a jagged outcropping of rock, an explosion no one would see.
In the fragment of spinning darkness before the quiet came, the young man in the Mustang retained two thoughts. One, he hadn’t shredded his copy of the file, as he’d been instructed. And two, someone else knew. Someone he trusted. Someone he might have even loved.
There wasn’t a body part or a shard of metal left that couldn’t be stuffed into a sandwich bag.
No one would recall seeing an SUV or any other vehicle in the area at the approximate time of the crash. Investigators would accurately conclude that the fuel tank had erupted on impact, though they would never discover that the bolts on the guardrail had been loosened earlier in the day. Without suspicion of foul play the cause of the accident would remain undetermined, and quickly written off as just another victim of the thrill ride known as Highway 17.
The annual fiscal audit of Arielle Systems would be finalized and published without a hitch, signed on behalf of the firm by Senior Partner Boyd Gavin, who, along with the deceased’s mother and girlfriend, wept at the memorial service the following week.
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