MATCH PLAY by Blair Babylon SNEAK PEEK! – Blair Babylon blairbabylon.com
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MATCH PLAY by Blair Babylon SNEAK PEEK!

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New Year’s Day

Mitchell “Match” Saltonstall

Tinny clangs of metal crashed, piercing his eardrums and skewering his brain.

Bad, was his first thought. Very bad.

Opening his eyes was worse. Glaring sheets of light rained sand into his eyes, and his eyelids scraped his corneas as he tried to open them.

Very, very bad.

Mitchell “Match” Saltonstall ran one hand over his face, his morning beard rough on his palm. It didn’t hurt too much except for a wrenching pain in his shoulder.

That wasn’t new.

His skin seemed intact, if grimy and overly sensitive. With that information, it seemed unlikely he’d been set on fire last night, which had been one of his first theories about why he felt so awful.

Had he gotten so plastered the night before that he’d enlisted in some foreign military, somewhere with intense desert sunlight like a nuclear bomb that had filled his eyes with blowing sand? Radiation poisoning might explain the hydrochloric acid gurgling in his stomach and the taste of metal and puke in his mouth.

The glare resolved into prisms, and the room around him slowly took shape.

Mitchell had been passed out—yeah, probably passed out—on one of the leather couches of the Narragansett Country Club, and the three other possibly not-dead bodies draped over the other furniture were his three best friends from boarding school, where they’d grown up.

New Year’s Eve decorations hung from the rafters far above. The sunlight was reflecting off the snow outside and blasting in through the floor-to-vaulted ceiling windows like the heavenly glare of vengeful angels.

Angry, vengeful angels.

Mitchell shielded his sore eyes from the beams with his hand.

The fireplace that looked like King Henry the Eighth could have roasted an entire boar in it was deep with cold ashes. Last night, a bonfire had raged in there against the bitter chill outside.

Twenty or more bottles of liquor littered the coffee table and must have been the cause of his destruction. Mitchell rolled to his side, nearly falling off the damn couch when his hand slipped off the leather cushion as he squinted at the bottles.

Tito’s. Macallan. Pappy Van Winkle. Cristal.

They’d poisoned themselves with the good stuff. Mitchell wasn’t sure if that would improve or worsen their hangovers, but he suspected it had irreparably damaged their bank accounts.

He grabbed a mostly empty Pappy bottle and drained the last few sips. Hair of the dog, man. He needed some sort of goddamned anesthesia. A poison pufferfish was bloating and farting inside his skull to the rhythm of his pulse.

Between the liquor bottles and empty glasses in the center of the coffee table, a thick stack of paper stood like a pristine block shining amongst the rubble.

Mitchell flopped back on the couch for a moment, breathing hard from the exertion, and swallowed the sick in his throat.

He did not do this anymore. He wasn’t a damn high school student in Swiss dorms sneaking hooch to take the edge off the homesickness and stress. Mitchell was a grown man with a venture capital company he co-owned with his aforementioned three best friends, who were currently splayed over the couches and chairs around him.

He hoped they weren’t dead.

Mitchell was the alcohol heavyweight of the group. If they’d tried to keep up with him last night, Mitchell might have become the sole proprietor of Last Chance, Inc. this morning.

Except that Jericho Parr was snoring.

And Morrissey Sand winced when he tried to open his eyes.

Kingston Moore might be dead, that great lump.

Okay, good. Mitchell probably wasn’t going to end up running Last Chance by himself. They’d all poured their sweat and tears into the company, though Mitchell was the blood-and-guts businessman of the group. He was the one who drove the hardest bargains. He was the one who made the savviest deals. Last Chance wouldn’t be alive and solvent without him.

And it was solvent. The four of them had gone from recent college grads to wealthy within only a few years. They were well on their way to becoming part of the world’s billionaire elite, as their boarding school had trained them to be.

Part of Mitchell’s business acumen was noticing when things in a business seemed out of place. His instinct had saved them from buying some real lemons, and it had guided him to see the diamonds in the rough that had returned their investment hundreds of times over within only a few years.

And right then, his intuition had locked onto that neat stack of paper, shining in the center of the alcoholic debris from the New Year’s Eve party the night before.

What the hell was that?

He crawled over the edge of the couch and table and reached to slap the paper. Empty bottles rolled over the table’s edge and thudded to the floor.

The other Last Chance guys stirred.

Jericho’s snores were interrupted by a groan and a throaty cough.

Mitchell grabbed the top sheet of the paper stack and dragged it toward him.

A sheaf of paper came with the top sheet because they were stapled together in the top corner.

Weird.

Mitchell squinted at the paper, his eyes still raw, and began to read. The sunlight bounced off the white paper and made it glow like a star in his hands, hurting his eyes and tightening the steel band around his temples.

A Contract between Mr. Gabriel Fish and—here, it listed the four inebriates currently half-deceased on the country club’s couches.

Gabriel Fish?

Gabriel goddamn Fish?

What the hell had Gabriel Fish been doing at the goddamn Narragansett Country Club last night? Mitchell didn’t remember Fish even being at the party. A country club party wasn’t Gabriel’s shtick. It wasn’t even Mitchell’s shtick, but he’d gone home to his parents’ house for the holidays to spend time with them and his siblings, especially his sister, Emily. A guy like Gabriel Fish should’ve been strutting around some nightclub in Singapore or a Russian oligarch’s mansion with a model on each arm, bragging about his latest business conquests on any given New Year’s Eve.

Oh, Jesus.

Mitchell shouldn’t have gotten drunk with Gabriel Fish in the room.

He struggled to a sitting position and rubbed his face as he read the rest of the contract.

And it was a goddamned contract.

As Mitchell reached the clauses that specified the asinine bet that they four idiots had made with Gabriel goddamn Fish the night before, he gasped, “What did we do?”

That woke Jericho up, who half-curled from his couch, wincing and blinking in the glaring sunlight. He squinted so much that his blue eyes were barely visible as he looked around. “I say, Match, what have you got there?”

Every damned line was worse than the last as he read. “We’re in trouble.”

“What could we have done that is so horrible?” Morrissey grated out from where he was trying to rise.

Morrissey Sand was the cautious one of their little band of brothers, literally voted the least likely to be involved in something that would live forever on the internet in high school. He grumbled, “We spent New Year’s Eve at an exclusive country club in Rhode Island, not at the casino in Monte Carlo. Surely, we haven’t gotten ourselves involved with international arms trafficking or Bitcoin speculating at one of the oldest, stodgiest, most boring parties on the face of the planet.”

Mitchell covered his mouth with his hand, literally shushing himself, as he continued reading the sheer hell in the document. Finally, when he couldn’t stand the crazy anymore, he flipped to the end page and saw worse. “Jesus, it’s notarized. How did he get somebody to notarize this thing in the wee hours of the morning at a country club New Year’s Eve party?”

“Considering the types of business deals that have been closed in this room over the past century, I imagine several of the staff are also notaries public so that contracts can be finalized and deposited before the signatories have a chance to rethink and back out,” Kingston Moore said. He stretched his muscular arms over his head. Waking shivers ran through his broad shoulders and thick arms that looked like he was a bodybuilder. Kingston had begun working out at the gym in high school before the rest of them had realized girls liked that kind of thing. Thus, Kingston had gotten tagged with the nickname “Skins” because he’d been the first to strip off his shirt at every pickup basketball game to display his gym results to the girls. “What did we sign?”

Mitchell was flipping through the document, unsure where to begin explaining the trap they were all in.

Jericho asked, “What did we sign, Match?”

“It’s a bet,” Mitchell finally said. “Was Gabriel Fish here last night?”

Jericho Parr rubbed his face. Jericho was the regular guy of their group, the one who didn’t have his head up his ass most of the time. He was the steady-Eddie who got the job done, day after day, and made sure the businesses that Last Chance had invested in met their quarterly goals. His spreadsheets ran to dozens of pages and thousands of lines. “I saw him early in the evening. He had a model fresh from fashion week in Milan on his arm and said he was in town because his grandfather was tottering near the edge of his grave. Was The Shark in on the bet?”

Mitchell cringed at Gabriel’s school nickname. Yeah, Gabriel Fish had picked up the nickname “The Shark” because he could swim into any situation and, staring at you with those dead, black eyes of his, eat your lunch.

Everyone considered him an apex predator.

Gabriel reveled in it.

Mitchell nodded as he continued to read the horrid contract, admitting that they had indeed wagered with a guy who had a nickname like The Shark.

Jericho asked, “Who was stupid enough to make a bet with The Shark?”

Mitchell swallowed the sick in his throat. “All of us.”

Jericho sprang up and wrenched himself around to stare at Mitchell. “What?”

He took a deep breath. They needed to know. “We all signed this, all four of us, plus Gabriel Fish. It’s a five-way bet.”

Mitchell had all their attention now, and the other guys leaned forward with their elbows on their knees.

Morrissey said, “Well, it can’t be that bad. How much could we have bet?” But his blue eyes creased with concern.

Mitchell shook the paper he held. “A hundred million dollars each, winner take all. Whoever wins, the other four saps have to pay him a hundred million dollars each.”

Jericho leaped off the couch like someone had pinched his ass. “Are you serious?”

Kingston slapped his palms on the coffee table. “If the four of us lose, we’ll owe Gabriel Fish four hundred million dollars. That would bankrupt Last Chance, Inc.”

Yeah, he was right. Liquidating four hundred million dollars’ worth of investments from Last Chance at whatever price they could immediately get would destroy the company.

And even a fire sale to sell off all their properties wouldn’t raise nearly enough. Each of them would be millions of dollars in debt, too.

Morrissey shook his head, his dark hair falling over his forehead. “We were drunk. We were not of sound mind when we signed that contract. It’s not enforceable.”

A sliver of hope sliced through Mitchell’s despair. Morrissey would know. He’d gone to law school and passed the New York State bar. Morrissey could get them out of this stupid sucker bet.

Except that he couldn’t.

Mitchell shook the paper at him. “It’s got two notarized sections. One is us agreeing to the contract. The other one states that we were of sound mind and body. Ten witnesses co-signed and attested to it, including Justice Marissa Otis.”

Morrissey grabbed another copy of the contract from the stack on the coffee table and started going through it.

Jericho raised his hands as if they were being held up, which they were. “Gabriel got a Supreme Court justice to witness the document stating that we were of sound mind and body when I can’t even remember what happened?”

Morrissey combed the dark waves of his hair away from his face with his fingers as he read. “It’ll take years in litigation to break this contract, and I don’t know if we could ever do it with Otis as one of the signatories.” He flipped to the back. “Who else?”

Mitchell might as well tell them the bad news, and he dropped the contract on the table. “AG Lydia Dickman witnessed it, and so did Senator Harkness.”

Jericho sat back down on the couch like his knees had given out. The other guys were all leaning back and staring at the ceiling. Jericho asked, “The Shark got a Supreme Court justice, a sitting senator, and the Attorney General of the United States to witness his contract with us?”

Yeah, that’s what the damned paper in Mitchell’s hands said. They were never going to be able to break that contract. The best they could do would be to tie it up in the courts for a decade or more, making themselves the laughingstock of all their friends and probably getting them thrown out of every club and business group they were in, and then they would bankrupt themselves fighting it.

It wasn’t going to work.

Jericho asked, “What the hell was the bet?”

Mitchell flipped back to the beginning and read from the document. “It says, ‘The five wagerers will each purchase a golf venture and strive to increase its value. The golf venture with the highest net percent increase of value will win the bet, and each of the four losers will pay the one winner one hundred million dollars each.’”

Kingston rubbed his hand across the heavy chest muscle over his heart. “This is a cinch. Only one of us has to beat him. We can write a side contract amongst ourselves to work together. I mean, jeez, guys. We own and run a successful venture capital firm. This is what we do. We can outplay The Shark if we work together.”

“Nope,” Match ground out through his clenched teeth as he continued to read. “The contract states that ‘No wagerers may work together, nor give aid, comfort, advice, or information to the other wagerers upon pain of forfeit.’”

“So, we can’t work together,” Morrissey said, “and we can’t help each other. We can’t even tell each other how we’re doing.”

Match continued reading to them, “‘The wager will end one year from this date on New Year’s Eve when the four wagerers will meet back here at the Narragansett Club with financial evaluations of the golf ventures.’ And then he specifies financial firms and accounting standards because The Shark wouldn’t leave that to chance.”

Cold sweat popped out of Mitchell’s pores. This was goddamn it. They were going to lose everything and more.

“And we’ve only got one year to do this,” Jericho restated. “Most of our developments don’t start to pay out for a least two. We’re not a pump-and-dump firm. Did he put something in the tequila? Is that why we were all so stupid as to sign this?”

Kingston was swiping through his cell phone with his thumb. “Oh, no. I have a video.”

Mitchell hauled his hurting body to his feet, and they crowded around Kingston’s phone.

Jesus, the picture showed them laughing while they each crouched over that very coffee table, with all those booze bottles, to sign each one of the five copies of the contract the night before. The immense windows above them looking out over the snow and ocean had been black with the night outside.

The black-tie crowd clustered around them was laughing and toasting their wager.

Mitchell’s own mother had raised a glass of champagne and laughed, though his father was frowning. His dad had even flinched forward at one point like he might pluck the pen from Mitchell’s hand as he signed, but Senator Longbottom had pulled him back.

Jericho said, “At least it looks like we held our liquor pretty well.”

Morrissey nodded. “One of the benefits of going to boarding school for thirteen years is an iron liver and an impressive ability to hide how drunk you are, especially during class.”

Jericho sighed. “I think my liver’s gotten flabby. I’m not doing well this morning.”

Mitchell sat down on the couch and held his aching head between his hands.

Kingston, who was better at managing pain than the rest of them, or maybe his overbuilt musculature had metabolized the alcohol better than the rest of them, shuffled over to one of the staff members and asked for four glasses of ginger ale and if it was possible to get some dry toast. The staff person trotted into the kitchen at the back.

Mitchell shook his head, and his brain sloshed around in there while he tried to form words. “You guys know that Gabriel Fish is going to win this, right? He never makes a bet that he doesn’t know he’s going to win. The Shark is going to tear us to pieces, and Last Chance, Inc. is going to sleep with the fishes.”

Jericho squeezed his eyes shut. “There are four of us and only one of him. We have an eighty percent chance of winning this.”

Mitchell shook his head, remembering one horrible semester of high school. “I took macroeconomics at Le Rosey with that guy. You guys were in the other semester. He won the Weimar Republic Simulation.”

That made them all shut up.

Le Rosey’s extensive business curriculum included a semester of macroeconomics during their junior year of high school. Every semester, that sadistic econ instructor designed a new unwinnable scenario designed to test the students’ steely character and the ice-cold nerves required to recover at least some assets in an impossible situation. Their year had been dealt the Weimar Republic Simulation, a scenario that still lived in infamy at the boarding school as a particularly fiendish test, but the professor hadn’t called it that, of course. She’d made up some stupid name for her fictional country, so they hadn’t known it was based on Germany after World War I.

Morrissey asked, “How the hell did The Shark do that? It’s not on a computer, so you can’t reprogram it and cheat.”

The details of that semester flooded back. “Gabriel knew his history better than the rest of us. Dr. Barney came up with something devious every year, but the Weimar Republic year was the worst. At the very beginning, the rest of us hadn’t figured out that the fake country of Sardoninnica was actually the Weimar Republic, and our savings and capital were about to die a horrible death in the grip of hyperinflation. We thought she was doing the 1929 US stock market, so we put our money in bonds and lent it at interest, which is what you do in a bear market. The Shark borrowed money at set interest rates from everybody else and bought gold. When everybody’s notes came due at the end, he sold ten percent of his gold and paid them back with the worthless, inflated money. Basically, he borrowed a hundred dollars when a hundred dollars was worth something, invested it in stuff that inflated along with the market, and then paid everybody back a hundred and five dollars each but kept millions. He was the Weimar Republic, paying First World War reparations to France and England with hyperinflated dollars that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on, and the rest of us were German citizens who got suckered into using our retirement savings to buy a loaf of bread.”

And good God, The Shark was going to do it again, but this time with real money. Mitchell said, “If we work together, we lose. If we don’t work together, he’ll beat us. He’s as ruthless and relentless as a tiger shark, and he just suckered us all.”

Morrissey stood up and clenched his fist. “We are going to lose if we just roll over and take it. We may not be able to work together, but we can at least consult on each other’s ventures and make sure we maximize each one of them. Surely, one of us can beat him.”

Mitchell shook his head. “You didn’t see him in that macro class. He made us all think that we were the smart ones, loaning him money at a guaranteed interest rate because we all thought it was the 1930s stock market crash like it had been the year before.”

“So that means he’s a con man,” Jericho said, scratching his beard. “Swindlers make you think you are stealing from them. If you play the game with ethics and morals, they can’t hustle you. You can’t trick an honest person. So that’s how we’ll play it. Each of us will go out and buy a ‘golf venture,’ and we’re going to run it to the best of our abilities. We’re going to invest and create value, and we’re going to be the best damn businessmen we can be. We’ve got a great track record with Last Chance, Inc. We’ve taken five companies from deep red balance sheets to profitability in the five years we’ve been running it. There’s no reason why one of us can’t win.”

Yeah, but they’d vetted hundreds of companies and picked five. And they hadn’t been limited with the type of businesses they’d selected.

And jeez, of all industries, The Shark had picked fricking golf.

Mitchell grumbled, “Golf. Why does it always have to be golf?”

Le Rosey boarding school prepares its students, the heirs of billionaires, to be ready to make a deal anywhere, from the ski slopes of Gstaad to the golf courses of California. Every graduate was respectable at several important sports. Mitchell could drive a Formula One race car like a freaking pro, but tennis was his sport. He was devastating at tennis. That’s how he got his nickname, Match, because he won the Le Rosey intramural tennis tournament for five years running: game, set, and Match.

But golf?

Goddammit.

Morrissey said, “Jericho’s right. This is what we’re going to do. We’ve been practicing for five years while we’ve been running Last Chance. If anybody can beat The Shark at this game, it’s one of us. And only one of us has to beat him. We can sign a side contract between the four of us that if one of us wins, the holdings stay within Last Chance, Inc. And if one of us wins, Last Chance gets an infusion of a hundred million dollars of capital from Gabriel Fish. That way, we can save the company we’ve been pouring our blood and sweat into. We can do this.”

Kingston slapped his knees and stood up. “Deal. I’ll call Last Chance’s contract attorney and have them draw up a side contract for the four of us. We can keep working on Last Chance as usual, and then each of us will have the side project to make sure that at least one of us beats The Shark.”

They all shook hands, but Mitchell wiped the cold fear-sweat off his palm before he sealed the deal.

Yeah, the four of them would work their asses off trying to win the bet, but they all knew it was going to come down to Mitchell’s project to save them. He was the one who found the screaming-deal companies that had good bones but poor management and were just about to go under, and Last Chance, Inc. picked them up for pennies on the dollar. Mitchell was the one who hammered out the deals that returned many times on their investments.

The other guys were good businessmen. Everyone had their strengths, and the four of them worked together like a high-performance race car engine.

But the sideways glances from the other guys told the real story.

They were going to do their best, of course.

But if Last Chance, Inc. could be saved from the maws of The Shark, it was up to Mitchell “Match” Saltonstall to do it.

He was up for it. He would freaking win this bet: game, set, and Match.

Grim determination settled over him.

This was his job.

Hell yeah, Mitchell could do this.

And he had to.

Match Play

Arielle

Arielle trotted through the front door and into work at Match Play, heading for her desk in the human resources department and hitching her oversized purse farther up over her shoulder.

Her heavy satchel was stuffed with pens, notepads, snacks, feminine hygiene products, and whatever else somebody might need.

Her wallet and cell phone were in there, too, somewhere.

She hadn’t planned on being the office’s junk drawer. It had just kind of happened.

She was also carrying two grocery bags stuffed full of supplies.

As she pushed the front door open, it played happy chimes, so forty-eight people sitting at desks between the cubicles glanced up to see who was two hours late getting to work.

Yeah, just the owner’s daughter. But she’d brought snacks.

As Arielle walked five steps in the front door, Joanne called out, “Hey, Arielle!”

“Hey!” she called back over the chatter of the office cubicle farm. “How’s Rory?”

Rory was Joanne’s son, whose cystic fibrosis took up a majority of her time outside of work. He’d ended up in the hospital the week before, so Joann had called Arielle at the HR office to explain why she wouldn’t be in for a while. Arielle had shuffled other people’s duties so she wouldn’t have to worry and had been checking in with her ever since.

“Better! It always astonishes me how he comes through these things and doesn’t even seem worse for the wear.”

“Great! I’m glad he’s better.”

Arielle took three more steps.

“Hey, Arielle,” Lola said, popping her head up over the padded gray-blue walls that divided the cubicles. “I need to book my vacation time for July.”

Yep, it was the first day of March and thus the first official day that people could start reserving time for summer vacations. “Sure! Shoot me an email, and I’ll get it on the schedule,” Ariel said as she walked backward toward the break room, doing her best not to trip over the trash cans on the floor outside of the cubicles.

Computer keyboards clicked as half the office was reminded that March first was the official opening day of the vacation reservation free-for-all, and Arielle could practically hear two dozen emails thud in her inbox.

Well, that was her job. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours to sort out. She trained all year for this, like it was her Superbowl.

With just a few more shout-outs as she was crossing the office, Arielle reached the coffee break room. With a few deft movements, she assembled the hopper of the espresso machine—an honest-to-God Italian model that brewed the best coffee ever—and pulled an espresso shot into warm frothed milk in one of the pretty ceramic mugs she’d bought for the office last year.

People joked that the free coffee perks were the main reason they worked at Match Play. The company’s only product was a mobile phone app that helped golfers book tee times at golf courses in their neighborhoods and around the world. Their app, Match Play, had been innovative when it had come out five years before because it had a golf course-matching questionnaire that helped golfers find appropriate courses for them, but the app had been getting stale lately.

For the last few months, though, some of the golf courses they worked with had been getting stingy with the tee times they offered Match Play. A global golf business conglomerate had created a competing app three months before, offering a higher kickback to the golf courses.

But that wasn’t Ariel’s problem. She was just a human resources admin who took care of the people who worked at Match Play.

The employees who joked about the free coffee perks were just kidding, of course. Match Play’s benefits package was a lot better than just the free coffee.

As she sipped, Arielle had to admit the coffee was excellent.

Now that she had her caffeine for the morning, Arielle unpacked the grocery bags she’d brought and restocked the refrigerator with skim milk, whole milk, and cream. She filled the snack drawers and shelves with chips and cookies, and then she put a couple of fresh bottles of salad dressing and condiments in the fridge. It wasn’t exactly HR’s job to refill everything, but her dad liked it when she did it because Arielle knew not to nickel and dime the snack room.

When Arielle’s father had opened Match Play five years before, he’d insisted that employee retention should be at the top of HR’s agenda. Hiring and training new employees always cost more than keeping trained people happy.

That had been Arielle’s job since she’d graduated from high school and taken a few business classes at the local community college. She kept Match Play’s employees happy.

When someone had a problem with their health insurance, when they were going to take a vacation, or when they needed a go-between to help with a vendor, Arielle was the person who could get them the accurate information and take care of the problem. As the HR admin, she’d taken on a lot of responsibilities.

The director of human resources, Arielle’s aunt Molly Carter, got anxious about a lot of things. The unspoken rule in the office was that Molly took care of the paperwork while Arielle took care of the humans.

That wasn’t a slam. Dealing with the insurance companies and the IRS generated a lot of paperwork. Aunt Molly had plenty to do.

Holding her coffee and lugging her oversized purse, Arielle meandered toward her cubicle, stopping every few steps and talking with half the people in the room because Match Play was a chatty place to work. She checked on Marguerite’s sick cat, listened to Frances complain about her kid’s high school physics teacher, and wrote herself a note to double-check Joanne’s medical savings account to see if they needed to top it up because Rory had been in the hospital again.

It didn’t always take Arielle forty-five minutes to get from the front door to her desk in the morning.

Sometimes, it took an hour.

Arielle didn’t think of herself as popular because that wasn’t really the case. It was more like she was useful. She did the other stuff so that the other employees could do their jobs.

Just as Arielle dropped her purse on her desk, Carlyn, who sat in the cubicle next to her, prairie-dogged up to look over the cubicle divider. “What’s up with your dad?”

Arielle fished her cell phone out of her purse from where it was hiding under the Advil bottle and a bag of butterscotch candy, and she looked up at Carlyn. “I don’t know. He was fine last night. Is something wrong with him?”

She stood and peered over the cubicle divider with Carlyn, looking toward her dad’s office.

His door was closed.

That was weird.

“How long has his door been closed?” she asked Carlyn.

Carlyn sucked in her lips like she was thinking hard. “Ever since I got here two and a half hours ago.”

“Are you sure he’s in his office? Maybe he didn’t even come in.”

“Oh, he’s in there. First of all, and not to upset you, but if he didn’t come into work today, we would all assume he died in his sleep last night. But if that were the case, your mom would’ve called and told everybody. And his light is on. Also, we’ve seen him pacing back and forth through the windows.”

Tall windows flanked her dad’s office door.

Now that Arielle was squinting at the windows, she saw the blurred shape that was her father stomp past the glass, holding his cell phone to his ear.

That wasn’t good.

Carlyn said, “He looks really pissed.”

Arielle bit her lip. “I just hope that another one of the big golf courses isn’t dropping us.”

Carlyn nodded. “The advertising has been getting harder to sell the last few months. I think the advertisers are noticing that there aren’t as many golf courses offering tee times and our user base is going down.”

Arielle swallowed hard. She knew that was the case, but talking about it wouldn’t make it any better. “I guess we’re just going to have to hustle harder.”

Her heart was trembling. Her dad, Frank Carter, had been a high school teacher most of his working life, but he’d retired when they’d offered senior teachers an early retirement package because enrollment at the local schools was declining.

And then he’d taken his entire retirement savings package and sunk it into Match Play because he’d always wanted to work in the golf industry.

While Arielle and Carlyn were staring at her dad’s office, the door swung open.

Frank Carter marched out.

Arielle and Carlyn both dropped, hiding so they wouldn’t be caught staring.

Through the partition between their desks, Arielle could hear Carlyn giggling because they’d almost gotten caught.

Her dad was a private kind of guy. He didn’t like people talking about him, let alone staring at his office door.

From across the wide office space, Arielle heard her father shout, “Everybody! I need you to gather around and listen. I have an announcement.”

Everyone’s head whipped around at Frank Carter’s high school-teacher voice, and then everyone stood and walked toward him.

Aunt Molly came out of her office and glanced around. “What’s going on?”

Arielle and Carlyn rose to look over their dividers and stared at her dad. When Arielle sneaked a glance at her friend, her eyes were wide open, scared.

Frank Carter was standing by his office door and waving people toward him. He’d rolled up his sleeves, baring his forearms, which was another weird thing. Her dad wore long sleeves and kept those cuffs buttoned. He considered it part of the office dress code of being the owner-boss after all those years of being a teacher.

His briefcase stood on the floor beside his shined dress shoes.

Arielle threaded between the desks and cubicle walls as the crowd of forty-plus employees flowed toward his office. When everyone was gathered, she wiggled through the crowd until she stood at the front.

The veins on her father’s neck and the side of his face stood out, swollen like bluish vines had wrapped around his forearms, slid up his neck, pulsed over his temples, and bloomed into red tendrils in the whites of his eyes. His jaw bulged like he was chewing the vines invading his mouth. “Listen up? Everybody, listen up!”

The crowd simmered down.

“I have some bad news, and I have some good news,” Frank Carter announced, staring over everyone’s heads at the back wall where the clock was nailed.

The crowd swayed like tall wheat in the wind and muttered.

Arielle watched them as much as she watched her dad because the employees were HR’s concern.

Frank Carter sighed, and then he said, “Let’s start with the bad news to get it over with. Over the last six months, we’ve lost half of the golf courses that were working with us, which means we’ve lost half our referral fee income. Our advertising income is way down through no fault of our advertising department. Advertising spend is purely determined by the number of eyeballs on our app and the number of times the fingers attached to those eyeballs click an ad, and I found out last weekend that our user base has dropped by seventy-five percent over the last two months. There just aren’t enough eyeballs looking and fingers clicking on Match Play anymore. Everybody has started using the new Golf Wow app put out by the Infinite Golf conglomerate because they’ve been able to negotiate steeper discounts than we ever could. They undercut us a lot, and that’s why Match Play has failed. I can’t justify keeping it going any longer. I’ve spent all the money I had trying to save it. That’s why I just sold Match Play to a venture capital firm called Last Chance, Inc.”

Everyone in the crowd had grabbed onto the person or desk or wall nearest to them.

Aunt Molly sank into a chair with her face in her hands.

Arielle did likewise as the gut-punch of those numbers drove the air from her lungs.

Match Play was her dad’s whole retirement.

She swallowed the sick in the back of her throat as she watched her father’s dream and his retirement savings flush down the toilet.

Frank Carter continued, “The good news is that the guy who’s coming into run Match Play will be retaining all employees for the time being. There probably will be some staff cuts at some point, so I highly recommend everybody start looking for a new job. I’ll give you the best referrals I can write. You guys are the best, and you’ve done an amazing job. It was just the business climate. The big conglomerates are taking over and running small mom-and-pop operations like Match Play out of business. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t make it work.”

Everyone was shocked-still silent as Frank Carter picked up his briefcase and walked toward the front door, but he turned around at the last minute and said, “But those of you who stay will need to be ready for some changes. Match Play isn’t going to be a tee-times app anymore.”

That news got a rumble from the gathered employees.

Arielle waited, her stomach fluttering.

Frank Carter snarled, “He’s turning it into a dating app.”