The assistant had a list she kept in her small, black planner, the one with the little gold lock and key. On top of the list was the cellist’s name – he was the best candidate, for a multitude of reasons. She didn’t mind keeping track of the cellist. He was easy on the eyes, and totally oblivious of her attention.
She hid in her rental car, some bland, beige thing, rented with a fake driver’s license. She took her duty seriously. She’d signed the NDA without batting an eye. Anything for the team. The assistant had grown up in a staunchly middle-class life. Everything about it had been thoroughly average – her father was a dentist, her mother a housewife who took Zumba lessons and cooked casseroles. She grew up in a fly-over state in a no-name shit town and knew from the get-go that she needed to be somewhere better. She busted her ass day in and day out, took all the right extracurriculars, got the best test scores and grades, and applied for scholarships. She got into one of the Ivy Leagues, but it wasn’t Harvard or Yale, so who really cares?
After all was said and done, she got the assistant job at the company. This was big-time stuff, even if she was just grabbing coffees and taking lunch orders. This was how you broke through to the other side – because if there was one thing she knew, it was that there were winners and losers in this world. Most people are losers. Most winners are born that way. But if you try very hard, and step on anyone who gets in your way, you can tear your way to the top. You can look down from your throne, in your place with the other winners and smile. Never eat another TV dinner again. It’s filet mignon every night, baby.
Her stomach grumbled. It was probably best not to think about food right now, when she hadn’t had any in almost twelve hours. The clock was ticking, and she needed to keep track of the cellist. She’d have to toss some almonds down her gullet and think about the future – one where she got the nice office, the fancy desk, the eager assistants, and the nine-figure salary. She yawned and stretched. It was going to be another long day.
The cellist woke up in his rumpled, burgundy sheets. He had been dreaming about flying. It was a good dream, the kind that made you feel hopeful about the day ahead. He dragged himself out of bed. He loved his loft – the high ceilings, exposed brick, hardwood floors. It had taken him months to get the décor right, but it was finally starting to feel like home. His boyfriend, the flautist, was making coffee in the kitchen. They hadn’t been together that long – just a couple years so far, but he was starting to feel like home too. They had a rhythm that seemed to work.
The cellist sat on his leather sofa and checked his emails. There was a message from his ex-wife, the environmental lawyer. Their divorce hadn’t exactly been amicable, but after the initial heartbreak they had fallen into a friendship that was stronger than their marriage had ever been. She was married again, and she seemed happy. Their two kids spent most of their time with her and their stepdad. The email had a picture of the kids – goofy smiles like hers, curly, dark hair like his. She wrote about some CEO of a company she was at odds with – one of those evil conglomerates that were destroying the earth. She asked about his symphony.
Oh, it was a silly dream of his. The cellist wished to one day be known as the composer. He was shy about his work. It was one thing to play the songs of the masters; it was quite another to write your own song as if it could compete. He bit his inner lip. Best not to respond to her yet – not until he’d gotten his morning jog in. He wasn’t fully awake yet.
The flautist brought him his coffee and draped a delicate arm around him. Sometimes the cellist liked to imagine the flautist as the Greek god Pan, flowers wreathed in his golden hair as he played a pipe and frolicked in the forest. It was a silly little daydream. They were miles away from any woodlands.
“I could go for a croissant right now,” said the flautist. “Should I get you anything?”
The cellist gave him a tender kiss on the cheek. “I should run first,” he said. “Make yourself at home.”
The cellist changed into his gray shirt and black shorts. He thought again about that wonderful dream. He put earbuds in his ears. It was a Vivaldi kind of morning. He stretched his calves, going through a mental checklist of the things he’d need to do today. He knew he would end up doing half of the checklist, at most, but it was still fun to imagine himself as someone who Got Things Done.
He took one more look at the flautist before running out the door. The flautist was sitting on the couch, his legs outstretched, and his lips pursed as he read a book. He marveled once more at the beauty of his lover. The cellist walked out the door.
The mogul sat in his study, surrounded by his many trophies and accolades. His study was a tribute to high-bred masculinity – a mounted head of a stag, his degrees from Harvard and Yale, dusty old leather-bound books he never read, golf clubs, and whiskey. He was lighting up his morning cigar – the best of the best, flown straight in from Cuba, embargo be damned.
He was thinking of last night’s dinner with the judge, the senator, and the lobbyist. Thick, juicy steaks with wine and whiskey. They had talked late into the morning. The mogul was no spring chicken anymore. He had a dull headache, just a light hangover, really. His doctor would be none too pleased to hear about his activity the night previous.
“No red meat, no cigars, no alcohol, and for Pete’s sake, please try to exercise,” the doctor had told him six months ago. But the mogul was not one of those fancy boys in California who jogged, ate avocados, and meditated like their balls had shriveled away from them. What was the point in being alive if you couldn’t indulge in the best that life had to offer?
The mogul had plans. He had a fail-safe. He would be fine.
The assistant watched as the cellist left his apartment building. She took a sip of lukewarm coffee and turned the keys in the ignition. She followed the cellist, admiring his strong, muscular legs as they did their work.
The mogul felt something strangely familiar. His left arm was numb. He tried to move it. Had he been immobile for too long, lost in thought? No, it was something else. Something worse. Something sharp. He shook his head. It was probably just indigestion. He really should have taken some Tums. He opened the top drawer in his desk. Didn’t he keep antacid in here?
His chest tightened. Oh no. He grabbed his phone, called the number on speed-dial, and rasped out the words, “Now. I need it now.”
The mogul doubled over. He thought of a summer long ago, when he was ten years old. His father, that famously cold prick, patting him on the back. “I’m proud of you, son,” the mogul’s father had said, drunken tears in his eyes. He’d caught a big fish. They’d had it for dinner. What kind of fish was it? He couldn’t remember. He could see his father, smiling. He could taste the fish now. Salt, pepper, and a little bit of lemon juice…seared to perfection. Had he ever taken his own son fishing? But no, he wasn’t this old man, barred from the joys of life anymore, he was ten years old, and happy, and he would like to stay here….
The assistant’s cell phone chimed – a text message. It was time. This is how she would prove herself. She drew in a deep breath. She thought of a future of unending wealth and opportunities. Her eyes darted around the street for potential witnesses. There were no other pedestrians, no cars close enough to become a problem. She stepped on the gas. She ignored the voice inside her head that screamed to stop.
The cellist was turning a corner. When he jogged, his mind was elsewhere – on the symphony he intended to write, his secret passion. He had reached an impasse creatively, and he couldn’t quite figure out how to keep going. Maybe it was time to give up on this one, he thought. Maybe he could come back to it sometime years later. Maybe he should focus on other projects instead.
There was the sound of tires screeching, an engine roaring. He was about to turn around to see what it was, when he realized he was in the air. He was flying. It was just like his wonderful dream last night. He felt for a moment that he would stay there, mid-air. He heard the most beautiful music, but his earbuds were no longer in. Where was the music coming from? It was perfect. This was the song that was going to make him famous. It was going to be the showstopper in his symphony. He couldn’t wait to play it for the flautist!
He was going to run home right now. He would pull the flautist into his arms and propose marriage on the spot. He was going to call the environmental lawyer and tell her and the kids the good news. He was going to write this symphony, and it was going to make him famous. Thousands of people would hear it, and cry openly at the theater, and think of all of the people they loved. They would clutch hands with lovers and friends and talk for hours after the show. They would feel fundamentally changed, and excited, and grateful to be alive, like the best art makes you feel. This was it. He had it. He finally had it.
But the cellist could not run. He could not do anything. I think my legs are broken, he thought. And then he didn’t think anymore.
The assistant’s heart pounded in her chest. She had to drive steadily enough not to get pulled over, but quick enough to make it on time. This was a time sensitive issue. She tried not to look in the back seat. When she made it to the hospital, she sighed with relief. She drove to the designated spot behind the building.
Her boss had donated so much money to this place and it’s vaulted, glass ceilings that they’d named a wing after him. She wondered briefly what the public would think if they knew what he had been planning. She remembered her own mother, who had died of cancer after months of treatments that left her father bitter and destitute.
The security guard knocked on her window, bringing the assistant back to the present day. “This is him?” he asked. The assistant nodded. The security guard and two other men took the body of the cellist out of the car and onto a gurney, then wheeled him into the hospital as if he was a regular patient.
She received another text: “Good job. You are going to make it far in this company.” Then, two seconds later: “You know what to do now.”
The assistant destroyed the cell phone and threw it in a trash receptacle outside of a strip mall. She drove the rental car down an old country road, doused it with gasoline, and lit a match. The assistant knew she wasn’t supposed to stay for too long, but she lingered for a moment, staring into the flames. She’d always been partial to fire. Then she walked to the closest gas station four miles away. She’d cased the place weeks ago – they still had a payphone outside. She loved that vintage feel. You never saw payphones anymore.
The assistant used the payphone to call a secure line, let them know the deed was done and that she needed a ride. It was twenty minutes later that she got into the backseat of a black SUV, driven by a man who asked no questions and took her straight home, to her dingy little apartment. It was humble, but soon enough she would be done with humble. She would be done with mediocrity altogether.
The environmental lawyer sat on her sofa, stunned. She hadn’t told the kids yet. She was working up to it, trying to find a way to explain what had happened. Her husband was at work and they had been exchanging text messages all morning. Then he told her to watch the news. He said, “I’ll be there in an hour. I just wanted you to know.”
The cellist had been a wonderful man, a man who wanted to give to others. She had always loved that charitable quality about him. The cellist’s heart had been transplanted into someone else’s body. He had saved a life.
Now she understood, in the dim light of the television, whose life he had saved. There on every news program was the face of the man she had been fighting in court for years. The heart of the cellist was now pumping the mogul’s blood.
She thought of the villagers that had been poisoned by the chemicals dumped in their water supply, so his company could save money. She thought of children riddled with tumors. She thought of the dead zone in the river, ever widening, the fish and wildlife decimated for the sake of a few dollars more. She thought of the moment she met eyes with the mogul across a courtroom and saw the look of naked malevolence on his face.
The environmental lawyer heard a sound like a siren, like the wind howling in the distance, like a dying animal. It took her a full minute before she realized that the sound was coming from her own mouth. She was screaming, her hands balled into tight, angry fists. Hot tears flowed down her cheeks. Her mind turned to the mogul. She imagined thrusting her hands into his chest and tearing the heart back out. Over and over, she saw this image in her mind – the pumping heart, her hands warm and wet with the mogul’s blood. The thought had a calming effect on her.
And then she got to work.