“GOOD MORNING, Mr. Graham,” Edna said quietly, without her usual enthusiasm.
Martin paused on his way past the desk to his office. “What are you doing here this early?” It was about six thirty, his usual time of arrival, and most mornings he was alone. He used that first hour to catch up on his email and messages, as well as to plan his day.
“Kelly quit last night,” Edna explained, exasperation coloring her voice. “That’s the third assistant in four months. These kids don’t have what it takes to stick it out for anything.” She paused in her typing. “I thought I’d come in early to make sure everything was up to date before I went back down to HR.”
The chair squeaked as Edna leaned back. Martin knew that squeak; he heard it every time his assistant moved in that chair. They complained about it, but that sound was one of the constants in his life, an audible clue that told him something about the mostly shadowed world around him.
“Can you find me another assistant?” he asked, suppressing a sigh. “Maybe one who doesn’t spend her days humming some ridiculous tune or tapping a damn pen whenever she gets nervous, which seemed to be all the dang time.” He clenched the hand not holding his briefcase.
The chair squeaked again, and he turned his head toward the sound. Her hands thunked on the desk, and Martin resisted the urge to lean in closer to try to see her better. He already knew it wasn’t of any use. To him, she was little more than an outline against the light from the windows and her desk lamp, a moving specter from one of the old black-and-white films he used to watch as a kid.
“Can I be frank, Martin?”
“You can be anyone you want to be,” he quipped in his best Groucho Marx imitation. It garnered stone-cold silence for a few beats.
“Martin, I don’t honestly know if I can find another, but I’ll try. The entire office has heard how hard it is to work for you. I could double the salary of the position and no one would apply, and you know it.”
“They hate me that much?” Martin asked, his anger rising.
She sighed extra loudly, clearly wanting him to hear it. “No, they don’t. This is a good company. The people who work here respect you. They’ve seen what you’ve built. You’ve created an incredibly open and nurturing environment for everyone. Opinions are respected and listened to, you value and reward diligence, and we have flexible schedules as much as possible. And our turnover is incredibly low, except for one particular position—the one who sits at this desk.”
Martin humphed, walking past the desk to go into his office.
“Stop,” Edna said after he opened the door. “I haven’t gone in there yet.” The chair squawked loudly as she got up, and her hand patted his arm as she went by.
“What is it?” Martin asked, as though he couldn’t guess.
“She rearranged your things,” Edna said. “Give me a few minutes.”
He peered in through the open door and sighed at the outline of the furniture against the increasing light coming from the windows. He had done his office in dark furniture with light walls and carpet to allow him to see the contents a little better. Martin groaned, searching for one of his chairs with his hand. He found it and lowered himself into it.
Edna grunted as she moved things back into the right spots. “I think that’s much better. At least you aren’t going to hurt yourself.” Still, she took his arm and gently guided him to his desk, where Martin felt the top and then his chair before sitting down.
Fuck it all, he hated feeling like a stranger fumbling in the dark in his own environment.
“Just get me another assistant, and this time make sure they can follow directions,” Martin snapped. “That’s all I ask. Someone who won’t decide their desk would be better closer to the window and shift it before I come in, so I nearly trip over the damn thing. Maybe someone who can figure out that moving all of my files to the top cabinet drawers so they don’t have to bend down is not a good idea. I need things to be where I expect them to be, not rearranged for their own convenience.” He made a fist and pounded the desk. “Someone who realizes that I’m paying them to actually help me, rather than painting their nails, thinking that because I can’t see means I can’t smell. And on top of it, I have a goddamned allergic reaction.” He jumped to his feet and somehow managed not to bang his knees on the desk. “Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ll try,” Edna said in her usual unflappable tone.
“I’m not angry with you,” Martin said as his frustration melted away.
“I know that, Martin, and I’ll do my very best to find someone. I’m going to try a different route this time, and it’s undoubtedly going to cost more to fill the position.” He felt rather than heard retreating footsteps moving toward his door, their reverberations getting softer under his feet.
“I don’t care. Just find someone who will actually act like my assistant.” He sat back down. “I really need some help, Edna. This Cartwright Global deal is going to make us a force to be reckoned with, but it’s taking more and more of my time.” He was stretched thin as it was, and without an assistant, he was going to get further and further behind.
“I understand. I’ll send Carol over for a few hours this morning to help you out. Be good to her.” He could hear her smile.
“I like Carol,” Martin said.
“I do too. But remember, she’s my assistant, and I do my very best to make sure she’s happy.”
Edna and Carol had worked together ever since Martin had started Graham Consolidated Financial ten years ago. They made a formidable team, and more than once Martin had thought of trying to steal Carol away but resisted. He knew that when a truly great team formed, one should nurture it. Besides, he wasn’t that selfish.
“Of course.” Martin smiled. “And, Edna, thank you for all your help.” He properly positioned and then opened his computer, glad it was still reasonably where he liked it. Using voice commands, he started reviewing his email.
The door clicked closed, and Martin sighed as his program read him the first email.
He spent an hour answering messages, forwarding some to the appropriate departments. Once he was done, he listened to his phone messages and made some calls to try to head off issues before they got too big.
The Cartwright Global deal was the pinnacle of everything he’d envisioned when he’d started his company right out of graduate school. He’d always figured there had to be a better way for people and smaller institutions to invest, and he’d first had the idea for a subscription service in school. The idea of dollar-cost averaging—investing small, consistent amounts over time—was well known and proven. Martin had taken it further and encouraged clients to open an account with as little as twenty-five dollars a month. The amount increased as time went on, becoming thirty-five and then fifty dollars a month over time. His subscribers found they didn’t miss the money and, within a few years, had a nice—and increasing—nest egg. It hadn’t hurt that Martin had a gift for picking companies poised for growth. The company grew, he made money, they made money, and in a decade, Martin was set to become a major player in the world of finance. Cartwright, with their access to international markets, was the final piece of the puzzle, the culmination of Martin’s vision, and it was within his grasp.
His phone rang, and Martin pressed the Speaker button. “Morning, Carol.”
“I have Mr. Cartwright on line one for you,” she said.
Martin thanked her and took the call. He spent the next hour trying to finalize some of the details of the merger, but Cartwright seemed to be going in circles and they didn’t get very far. Martin wasn’t sure what the issue was.
“Chester, what’s going on? You don’t beat around the bush, so what is it that has you worried?” Martin realized he should have asked an hour ago and saved himself and Chester a lot of time.
“You and I have a lot in common, Martin,” Chester answered, and Martin knew this was going to be a long, drawn-out answer. He usually wasn’t a patient man and tended to want to get to the bottom line on things, but Martin knew he needed to let Chester have his say. “I started this company myself and poured a lot into it over the years, built it from nothing.”
“I understand that. It’s part of why this is a good fit for both of us,” Martin explained. “You and I will be partners going forward. I’m going to need your expertise in world markets, just like you’re getting mine in the domestic ones. It’s the perfect fit for both of us.” Martin had told him so a number of times already.
“I know all that. But it’s hard giving up your life’s work, putting it in the hands of someone else. It feels like I’m letting go of one of my children all over again, and as Beverly will tell you, that was difficult for both of us.” Chester paused, and Martin had to pull on his reserves of patience and skills in deal-making to keep quiet and let Chester come to his point. “I want to meet you and talk over these details face-to-face. I need to look you in the eyes and see the kind of man you are. Our people have talked, and as you know, we have a tentative agreement, but this needs to be more than that.”
Martin’s stomach roiled. He’d done many deals before, but always through his team. Martin never met directly with the reps from the companies he’d acquired. Navigating the world with his sight loss was hard. Compensating by using his other senses and having others run interference for him was how he’d managed to continue moving his business forward with very few people actually knowing the true extent of his challenges. The thought of Chester Cartwright sitting across the table from him to look him in his eyes was frightening because Chester wasn’t going to see very much, just like Martin saw a fraction of what people with normal vision could see.
“I…,” Martin began, trying to tamp down the fear that threatened. “That’s fine,” he forced himself to say. It was clear that unless he and Chester sat down together, the entire deal was going to fall flat on its face. Cartwright Global was more to Chester than just a company, and Martin was going to have to go that extra mile, even do things he wasn’t comfortable with, in order to see the deal through. What he wanted was so close that he could taste it, and Martin was not going to let something like his own sight loss stand in his way. “I’ll speak with my assistant and have them call your office to arrange a time for you to come visit.”
“Actually, I’d really like you to come here, meet our folks, get a feel for us and the operation, sit at the financial order desk, and judge the pulse of the place. I need to know that you feel as passionately for the business as I do.”
The unsaid portion of that statement hung in the air around Martin, clouding away the last of his vision until all was dark. He blinked, and things returned to normal, except for the dread in the pit of his stomach.
“Very well. I can do that. Let me have my assistant check my calendar, and we can set up a few days that will work for both of us.”
“Good man,” Chester said, much more happily. “I have wanted to meet the person behind Graham Consolidated for years now.” He sounded a little like a kid in a candy store. “We’ll have our assistants talk, and we can get together in the next few weeks. You’re going to love Milwaukee. There’s a lot to see here. Talk to you soon.” Chester ended the call, and Martin dialed Edna.
“I need that assistant as soon as possible.” God, he was even more frightened knowing he was going to have to travel to a strange place. “Actually, scratch that. Cartwright wants to meet me, and it looks like I’m going to need to travel. I’m going to want Carol to go with me.” That thought alone settled his roiling belly.
“Martin,” Edna said gently. “Carol can’t fly right now. I know you probably can’t tell, but she’s going to have a baby.”
Martin humphed. “Pregnant women travel all the time.”
“I can’t go into anything more with you or anyone, but she can’t travel and that’s all there is to it.” Edna sighed. “I’ve gone through some candidates we screened from the last talent search, and I’ve made a few calls. I know you don’t like to, but given the way things have turned out this afternoon, I feel meeting directly with qualified people is the way to go. Carol has blocked out a few hours this afternoon so you can meet with potential assistants. It won’t take long, and hopefully we can find someone soon and get them up to speed.”
“All right.” Martin didn’t feel like he had much choice in the matter, given the situation. “Let’s do what we have to.” He ended the call.
This trip had the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions. Just when he needed a competent assistant the most, as he was trying to navigate the biggest deal of his life, he was without one.
“Mr. Graham,” Carol said from his doorway.
“Yes, Carol. What do you have for me?” He sat back and did his best to get his head in the day-to-day business.
“You have a conference call with the senior brokers in fifteen minutes, and then your senior management meeting in an hour. After that, you have lunch with the employee of the month—I scheduled it in the executive conference room. This afternoon there are meetings with potential assistants, and at two you have a conference with the Los Angeles office. I added everything to your calendar and made sure it’s linked to your phone and smartwatch. They’ll buzz to alert you at ten minutes as well as five minutes before each appointment.”
“Thank you, Carol. That’s great. Go on back to your regular desk. I appreciate your help.”
“I’ve got your phone set to ring there so I can help screen your calls, and I’ll monitor your email for you as well.”
Martin nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
“No problem, sir.” She closed the office door with a soft click, and Martin went back to reviewing his morning reports, wondering what else the world could throw at him today.