Today is the best day of my life.
I know people say that, and they mean it, but they don’t mean this. My best day is better than anyone else’s. Trust me.
I’m sitting at a table at Essentialz, a five-star restaurant in San Francisco. Everyone at the table watches me as I tuck the signed paperwork away in my black Bottega Veneta woven leather brief bag.
I, Hastings Monahan, just signed a nine-figure investment deal on behalf of the venture capital firm I work for.
Full partner, here I come.
Of course, lawyers will handle the majority of this. The signatures are symbolic as much as they are legal. But the fellow diners at my carefully crafted table will go back to China with an exciting opportunity for their company, Zhangwa Telecommunications, to enter the North American market with climate-change technology projecting yields that are the best aphrodisiac ever.
As I sip from my glass of Montrachet Grand Cru, I catch the eye of Ming Bannerton, a consultant with Zhangwa whose father is a high-ranking U.S State Department official in China, a woman who has a hunger for financial success that I can spot in anyone in three seconds flat. There’s something special about a fellow hustler–and when I use the word hustler, I don’t mean it pejoratively.
People who hustle get things done.
We connect. We network. We pattern match. We ruthlessly apply what we intuitively feel to what we operationally know in order to produce optimal outcomes.
In short–we hustle.
And we win.
But in competition, there can only be one winner.
Tonight, I’m it.
Her smile mirrors mine, red lips stretched over perfectly white teeth that are as straight as a new picket fence. The smile doesn’t reach her eyes, but an intensity infuses her. She’s about five years younger than me, with a knowing eye that tells me we need to stay in touch. Someday soon, she may shoot past me, and that’s where all the legwork pays off.
In this business, you network down as well as you network up, if you want to get anywhere.
And the manila folder resting in my brief bag, the one that feels like a warm gold ingot pressed against my lips? That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get somewhere.
“Where is Burke?” Mr. Zhao Bai asks, his head at a slight tilt, a gesture of genuine curiosity as his eyes survey me, looking for information that doesn’t come directly from my mouth. He’s the youngest of the four men at the table, a fast talker who looks around the room like he’s a mob boss. Negotiating with him took a steady hand I didn’t know I possessed, but now I understand.
Burke is part of the deal, and I didn’t realize it.
The contracts are signed, though. That makes my husband an off-the-books addendum. No matter what, this is my accomplishment.
My husband, Burke Oonaj, is one of the hottest market makers in finance right now. Even he will have no choice but to be impressed by the deal I’ve just put together.
But the inquiry about my husband makes my uterus fall.
And it’s not like he’s around to catch it.
“Good question,” I say before taking another sip of wine, needing to buy myself a smidgen of space and time. I only need a split second.
For some reason that I can’t explain, my emotions are tangling in my mind, and that’s an unpredictable variable I have to weed out.
My heart feels strangely heavy in my chest, a sense of dread filling me that has no right to be here. This is MY night, I tell that sense of dread. This is MY deal. This is my culmination of six years of careful work, all coming together, right now.
Go away, dread.
But Mr. Zhao’s question is a good one, because Burke isn’t answering any of my texts or emails or phone calls, and hasn’t for the last three days.
My husband has disappeared.
Not literally, of course, because husbands don’t just do that. Business travel can be intense. Plenty of stretches of time have gone by without hearing from him. They involved twenty-four hours or less, though.
Not eighty-one hours and thirteen minutes.
Not that I’m counting.
I can’t admit any of this to anyone at this table, of course, so instead, I give what my pattern-matching brain tells me is the optimal answer, designed to make me look good.
“Burke’s fine,” I say with a grin, the glass of wine still full enough to make more sips look like an appropriate response. “He sends his best regards. He would have been here tonight, but… you know.”
Two of the men share a look I don’t like. It’s a fleeting glance, the type that is practiced and meant to look like nothing. You think I’m paranoid, that I’m inventing it all?
I’m in a state of hyperarousal.
No, not the sexual kind. Haven’t felt that in a long time, at least not with Burke. My hyperarousal is based around the stress hormones pumping through me from the excitement of what I just accomplished.
Me. Myself. Alone.
Independent of Burke.
As workday smiles stretch to become the more casual, intimate grins of people enjoying bottle after bottle of excellent wine, I loosen up. The answer I gave them sufficed. We can move on.
My body feels numb and excited at the same time. I’m on top of the world. The pinnacle.
I am Peak Hastings.
Which is why, when the maître d’ approaches my side, I don’t pick up on the gravity of his whisper. No one would. Because learning that my credit card has been declined for this business dinner is definitely not part of the plan, and the areas of my brain assigned to processing language literally can’t comprehend it.
“It’s what?” I whisper, standing carefully, legs still steady, my alcohol consumption measured, even if my tablemates have made their way through more wine than an entire wedding party back home.
The maître d’, José, gives me a wide-eyed but polite look. “I’m sorry, Ms. Monahan. This has never happened before when you’ve dined with us. But the credit card company was very firm. You cannot use this one.”
Mr. Zhao gives me an inquiring look. My stomach sinks. Did he overhear?
“Will you all excuse me?” I tell them, hating the disruption, my legs turning into two steel beams covered in chilled skin.
“Something must be wrong with the credit card processor,” I snap at the maître d’ as I hurry away from my group. I want to get the taint of this failure out of the way and get back to my stellar success.
Once we’re out of sight of my table, I rifle through my purse and find another business credit card. “Use this one. And let me be very clear, to you and to your boss, that this is absolutely, abjectly unacceptable.”
He inserts the card, chip side in. “I realize this, Ms. Monahan, but we cannot…”
He stares at the credit card terminal.
I read the display upside down. “Declined!” I hiss. “This is impossible! That card has no limit!”
“Perhaps you’ve had your identity stolen, or there are fraud alerts on your account? Perhaps you’re the victim of a financial crime?” José suggests.
“I can’t be the victim of a financial crime!” I snap at him. “I’m a financial expert! This doesn’t happen to people like me. Here!” I shove a third company card at him. This one better work.
I only have one more.
My mind races ahead, conjuring contingency plans, even as my cheeks burn with shame.
Why would I feel shame for someone else’s mistake? And yet, there it is, and I have to override it fast. Because if I don’t, it gets a toehold.
And that is the fastest way to lose your edge.
José closes his eyes and lets out a sigh through his nose, a split second before the display terminal beeps.
“Your computer system is down,” I declare, pulling out the fourth card and my phone, texting my office manager. Maybe something went wrong. Maybe José is right. Maybe we were hacked. But this is surreal enough to let the dread come inside me and have a seat, as it decides whether to become an overnight guest.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m staring at a mid-four-figure bill that I owe, right now, and have no way to settle.
This cannot be happening.
As he runs the fourth card, the main door opens. My spine straightens, calves stretching tall, and not just from the five-inch heels I’m wearing.
I know that man.
I hate that man.
And he’s the last person on Earth I want to see in the middle of this debacle.
Ian McCrory cannot see me like this.