When the rain stopped it left the wind behind, pushing waves high onto the beach. Rudy strained to hear, his iPhone pressed to his ear the way a boy might hold a seashell to wonder at the sound of the ocean trapped inside it.
He closed his eyes. Twenty-five years earlier he stood in precisely the same position on the same stretch of beach doing just that. He’d been nine years old when he found the worn conch shell in the shallows. The memory of the cool, smooth conch in his small hands, the murmuring of the sea in his ear, was as clear now as then.
He’d wanted to show his father but Rudolph Hardwick Sr. sat in his Plymouth Reliant listening to the baseball game on the radio. The scorching asphalt between the sand and the car made the trip impossible for his bare feet. He retraced his steps to where his mother waited.
“We’ll draw a picture of it while the game ends,” his mother told him. She got paper and pencils and placed the shell on the tide-packed sand in front of their beach chair. They sat together, sketching out the spire, spikes and aperture. Ever attentive to detail, Rudy shaded in the areas where algae clung to it. When they declared it finished they sat back to rest their necks and the watch birds foraging on the wet sand. A gust of wind snatched up the drawing, lifting it high and out of reach. Rudy chased it but the gust carried it into the water. He brought it back, soaked, the pencil marks smudged irreparably.
He’d cried as his mother held the limp paper up against the sunlight. She pasted it flat onto the top of a picnic table while he gathered a dozen small stones to hold it down. The evaporating water raised the texture on the paper, pocked it with craters and peaks, softened the lines of the drawing into a dream of itself. It was beautiful. Sometimes, she told him, a thing had to be destroyed to become perfect.
Rudy inspected it, thinking about what it meant to be perfect, feeling he could never be destroyed. He didn’t know a storm was coming and bringing waves. Or that before the day ended he’d know the meaning of destruction with no hope of perfection.
When he opened his eyes he was back. This afternoon twenty-five years later the ocean rolled with cresting and breaking waves. The tide should have been out and the water low. Instead the sea piled up on the beach, pressed along by a strong southwest wind that played a fair game of keep-away with the pull of the moon.
The wind and water etched and grooved the hard-packed sand where he stood. The contours of the gritty surface sent an old message into the souls of his feet, up through his lean body and into his already racing brain.
Welcome back, boy. One down. One to go. Finish your quest and let the tide carry your shoes away. Play on the sand until your skin is tight from the ocean and sun. Chase a crab. Dig a hole. Drift into sleep listening to the stumble and fall of the swells as they finally run out their lives against me.
Except he wasn’t listening to the beach. He’d stopped listening to it that day twenty-five years earlier. He was listening to Joe Titreano in Atlanta. Or trying to anyway.
“You’ll have to speak up,” Rudy yelled over the surf.
Joe must have sounded silly shouting back from his quiet office 600 miles to the north. Rudy imagined he could be heard all over the 18th floor.
“Top line is in the tank,” Joe said. “They need us to bridge the gap.”
“What do you mean in the tank? We’re past target.”
“That was before the Navy moved delivery of the new jammers out to November.”
It took a moment to digest the words.
“The Navy,” Rudy said. “When did this happen?”
“We just hung up with them.”
“I spoke with Slick on the way to the airport. He said we were all good.”
“So I guess this news would be since then.”
Rudy’s statement to Augustine not five hours earlier echoed in his head. We’ll ship the jammers this week. Full speed ahead. For the Q4 and fiscal year projections, the Wall Street reporting and the stock price, it meant one thing. The Pax-Jupiter Corporation would miss both its top line and bottom line projection. Never mind that they were still wildly profitable. The missed expectation would not just send a negative message to the Street. It would also send another message. To Manford Augustine. His bank account would not swell as expected.
“Where the hell are you?” Joe asked.
“A long way from anywhere.”
“Who the hell goes a long way from anywhere these days?”
Rudy checked up and down the beach. No shelter. No car to shut himself in. He’d taken an Uber ride from the airport. He’d planned it this way. Had arrived just in time.
“Maybe you could have stuck around a few hours,” Joe said.
“No.” There was no way to explain so he didn’t try. “I couldn’t.”
“We’ll talk about that later. What do we do now?”
“Two options. One, we take it up the kazoo. We miss the target. Tell the Street we can’t do anything about the Navy’s schedule. That the sale is only deferred and not lost so it isn’t bad news, just news.”
“How do you expect that to go down?”
“Like a razor blade taco.”
He contemplated the conversation to come. The executive conference room. Rudy, Joe, Fitch, Quentin, Mr. Augustine. And most importantly, Slick. They’d talk through a ‘before’ slide with the jammer shipment in it. Then, inevitably, would come the ‘after’ slide with the jammer shipment removed. The math here was clear as it was brutal. It reduced Augustine’s bonus payout by half, to $4.67 million or $4,669,250 if you were in the mood for accuracy. The ensuing discussion was unimaginable. Augustine would sit on one side of the table with Quentin and Fitch flanking him, demanding to know how the game was lost at the buzzer. He’d want a head. Fortunately, that’s what Slick would be there to provide. Rudy had to make sure he was in the room to hem and haw over the failure by sales and take the bullet. Augustine already had an appetite for blaming the commercial team.
Joe broke the silence. “What’s option two?”
“Two? We think of some way to bridge the loss in sales.”
“Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”
The sarcasm didn’t help. “You just dropped this on me. I have to think.”
“How about that inventory revaluation you came up with last year?”
“That rabbit is out of the hat. It only works once.”
“Fine. What else?”
“Like I said, I need time to think.”
“You can think on the plane. We need you back here pronto. They’re calling it the most important quarter in the history of the company.”
The most important quarter in the history of the company. He heard the phrase at some point in every quarter for forty-eight quarters in a row. He’d said it to his own staff more than once.
“Fitch wanted the three of us to meet on it,” Joe said.
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him the truth. You took a few vacation days.”
“He grinned like a crocodile and walked out of my office.”
No doubt beating a path to Augustine’s office. It wouldn’t bother Fitch to have Rudy in the cross-hairs. As the most obvious successor to Fitch, damage he sustained from this could neutralize any idea Augustine might have of promoting Rudy for at least another year. Or worse. Smaller problems than this killed group controllers with regularity. But he did have Slick as a shield. You never went into battle without your armor.
Being absent at the end of the most important quarter in the history of the company would raise eyebrows. Never mind that the accountants typically provided little to nothing in the final week before the period closed. This time he’d guaranteed it, directly to Augustine. He had the sale in his model. Still, the loss of the sale constituted the crux of the issue and again, that road led to Slick.
“It’s a big problem,” Joe went on. “We need to take it seriously.”
Rudy suppressed the sudden upwelling of irritation. He wanted say, You’re describing the size of the issue? To me? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? If I didn’t dumb down the financials into one-page idiot sheets, Fitch wouldn’t have any idea how big the turd is to begin with. And if I didn’t get on a plane to come straighten out the mess created when Augustine ignored my advice two months ago to leave the sale in Q1 as risk avoidance, you would all be standing in front of the fan when the turd hit. We’d be FUCKED on our sixty percent. We probably are anyway.
He didn’t say that. He said—
“I understand the size of the issue, Joe. I just have a thing going on here. It’s hard to explain.”
“Tell you what will be hard to explain. Missing bonus. That will be hard to explain.”
To this Rudy made no reply.
“You pull this rabbit out of your hat,” he heard Joe say. “And I could be taking orders from you in a few months.”
Joe wasn’t stupid. His encouragement served a dual purpose. Stroke Rudy now for a solution. Cover himself later as a supporter when Rudy made the leap. In his position, Rudy would hedge his bet in exactly the same manner.
“We can work tomorrow,” Joe went on, “and have something to present tomorrow night.” “I swear to God,” Rudy said, almost under his breath. “Sometimes I don’t know why I do this shit.”
“I know why you do it. You love being the hero. We wrap you in chains, lock you in a trunk and dump you in the river. Three minutes later you’re standing behind us smoking a cigar. The Great Rudini. A natural. A monster. A born killer. And on top of it, we hand you a big stack of cash.”
Rudy pulled the phone away from his ear to see the time. He needed to get rid of Joe. He hadn’t just waited twenty-five years to stand on this beach. He’d waited twenty-four years, three hundred sixty-four days, twenty-three hours and fifty-four minutes. In six minutes it would be precisely twenty-five years. The Timex watch in his pocket testified to it. Nothing could be allowed to interfere. Not even this.
“I’ll be on the first plane in the morning,” Rudy said.
“You know, it seems like just this morning that I delivered a billion dollars to the bottom line.”
“This morning was a long time ago. And the jammers make the insurance win a moot point.”
Rudy tapped the screen to disconnect the call, dropped the phone into his shirt pocket and checked the sky. Full sun had swept away the rain clouds, drying the beach as if it had never been wet. He took a knee, resting a hand on the bronze urn he’d corkscrewed into the sand. The 210 cubic inch capacity of the vessel matched exactly with the 210 pounds of the person reduced to ashes inside it. His father in a nutshell. He’d waited half his life for the math to be so perfect. Nothing would spoil it now.