THE TWIST, Now Available from Siren-BookStrand Publishing

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(Chapter One)

Zane’s eyes glazed over as he stared at the “Coca Cola” advertisement above the window on the opposite side of the aisle, hypnotized by the drone of the bus’s diesel engine. Foregoing his usual newspaper, it was all he could do to keep from falling asleep.

He relished the 38-minute ride to his office. He had taken on so much extra work lately trying to keep up with their bills, it was the only time in the day he had for himself. Ever since Zane had admitted to himself how deep they were in debt, it was impossible to sleep at night. He frowned. It was bad enough it consumed his days.

“Excuse me. Excuse me!” the woman seated next to him huffed. “Sir, I need to get off here.”

Her voice snapped him back to reality. “I’m really sorry, ma’am. What stop is this?”

“123rd Street.”

That was his station. At least he hadn’t missed the stop again.

Zane’s cheeks tingled from the sting of the cold winter air as he stepped off the bus, his head buzzing from the smell of diesel mixing with the fresh morning air. He stared at the dreary morning sky and shivered. “Cold as a witch’s titty.”

He pulled his collar up around his neck. The brim of his hat tilted over his eyes, he shoved his hands deep into his pockets, walking briskly through the light mixture of snow and rain.

Zane glanced at the elevator and headed for the stairwell. The closest thing to a trip to the gym he would get for the day, he hoped the jog up the steps might get the blood flowing and help to wake him up.

The lights were already on as he walked down the short hall to his office. He opened the door to find Pat hard at work at her desk. An experienced executive secretary in her early fifties, Zane didn’t know what he’d do without her.

She looked up with a concerned smile. “Did you miss your stop again?”

He reached for the jelly donut in her hand and took a bite. “Actually, I didn’t. What are you doing here so early?”

“Zane, it’s 9:40.”

He stuffed the rest of the donut in his mouth, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and picked up her coffee mug. “Shit. I must have taken the bus full circle and gotten off on the way back! Any calls?”

“Just one. A gentleman named Chorde. He called first thing.”

Pat reached for the cup in Zane’s hand. “You weren’t here, so I figured you must have missed your stop. You usually get in about an hour after me when you do that. Anyway, I told him to call back in half an hour.”

“Are you that observant or am I late that often?”

Her smile was her answer. “He called again about ten minutes ago.”

“Did you get his number?”

She pressed a sticky yellow “Post It” note on his forehead.

“You’re the best, Pat. Remind me to give you a raise.”

The phone rang. “Tollison Consulting.” She rolled her eyes. “Why, yes, Mr. Chorde, as a matter of fact, he just walked in. Let me transfer you.” She put her hand over the mouthpiece and pointed to the receiver.

Zane rushed into his office and scampered to his chair, clearing his throat as he reached for the phone. “Tollison here.”

“Mr. Tollison, so good to finally reach you. Jonathon Chorde, from Clearwater Tobacco. I was hoping you could assist us with a survey.”

He leaned back in his chair. “A survey? Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I normally get involved with. Sorry, can’t help you.”

Zane was about to hang up the phone when he heard the magic words that always got his attention.

“Clearwater is willing pay you twelve million dollars for a week of your time.”

He sat up sharply, fumbling in his desk drawer for something to write with. “Excuse me, what did you say your name was again?”

“Chorde, Jonathon Chorde, from Clearwater Tobacco.”

Zane grinned as he printed the name in large letters on his desk blotter. “And I suppose you also have a bridge and a large statue in New York City I might be interested in.”

Chorde chuckled. “I see I’ve managed to get your attention. Actually, I had the good fortune of meeting your wife at a dinner party some time back. Elise mentioned that you were a consultant, so I decided to do a little checking. Your reputation certainly precedes you.”

“Twelve million dollars is a lot of money. Who is it you’d like me to kill for you, Mr. Chorde?”

“We are under a tremendous amount of pressure from the anti-smoking coalitions who seem to feel we are adding substances to our tobacco products that make them particularly addictive to females. We only ask for your help to dispel these accusations by assisting us with a controlled survey.”

Zane propped his elbows on the desk, his chin resting in his palm. “OK, we’re not talking illegal or immoral. So why me? There must be a hundred firms that could do a better job at this kind of work than—”

“With elections around the corner, it’s important for Clearwater to show our commitment as a friend to small business. Given your glowing references and since you are neither a Clearwater employee, a woman, or a smoker, you seem to be the perfect man for the job.”

Zane cocked his head, rolling the tip of his mustache between his fingers. The bills his wife had racked up in their three short years of marriage were staggering. Aside from her jewelry box of twinkly stones and a townhouse full of artwork that could have been duplicated by failing kindergartener, they had nothing to show for a little over four million dollars of debt.

The chair squeaked as he leaned back in his seat and propped his feet on his desk. “And the exorbitant fee for my services?”

“Please, call me Jonathon. Time is of the essence. It was simply an offer we felt you could not refuse.” Chorde paused. “Mr. Tollison, we have more money than God.”

A smile spread across his lips. And God answers prayers. “For twelve million dollars, Jonathon, you can count on Tollison Consulting to get the job done.”

* * * *
“Oh yeah!” Zane got up from behind his desk, doing a cross between the Snoopy dance and the end-zone rumba in the middle of his office. “We’re in the money. We’re in the money!”

Pat poked her head into his office. “What on earth is going on in here?”

Zane wrapped his arms around his secretary’s shoulders. “I finally hit the big one.” He picked the matronly woman up off the floor and swung her in a circle. “I got a chance at a twelve million dollar contract with Chorde!”

“Have you gone mad? Put me down!”

Zane set her on her heels, a hearty laugh rolling from his belly. “I’m gonna be rich!”

She straightened her sleeves and leaned forward to preen the front of her skirt. “Well, that certainly is wonderful but, mind you, you’re not rich yet. Might I suggest you call Mrs. Tollison to tell her the good news?”

“Pat, I love ya.” Zane grabbed his secretary’s cheeks and planted a big kiss on her lips. “What would I do without you?”

She waved her arms as she stormed back to the front desk. “You have gone mad!”

Zane picked up the receiver and dialed his wife’s cell phone. “Elise, great news! Some guy you met at a dinner party just called. I just got a chance at a twelve million dollar contract.”

“Oooh, sweetie, that is good news! Now we can finally hire some help to take care of everything I hafta do around the house.” She giggled. “And I can throw out all these old rags and buy some nice things to wear.”

“Whatever, Elise.”

Flirting in a sing-song schoolgirl chant, she continued. “Maybe if ya can come home from the office early tonight, we can …celebrate.”

“Gee, that would be terrific! I have a ton of stuff to do to get ready for the meeting with Chorde tomorrow, but I’m sure I can be home by five.”

He could have heard a pin drop.

“That early? I mean, I like don’t have a thing to wear and I’ll have to order dinner, and…and everything!”

“Why don’t you just call me when you’re ready for me to come home?”

“Ooh, sweetie, you’re so smart!”

“That’s why I get the big money.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned.

“Well, I better get goin’. I like have so much to do to get ready for tonight! Hugs and kisses.”

Zane hated when his wife said that but knew the expected response. “Hugs and kis—” It was too late. Elise had already hung up.

* * * *
The coffee and adrenaline were quickly wearing off. Leaning against his office door, he glanced out at his secretary. With all the energy he could muster, he asked, “Could you please make plane reservations for me for tomorrow morning?”

“Will you be needing a rental car?”

Zane yawned. “Oh, excuse me. No, I can catch a cab when I get into town.”

“How about a hotel?”

“No, I probably shouldn’t spend the money in case this thing falls through. Just get me a red-eye home tomorrow night. I can sleep in the airport. As you were so quick to point out, I don’t have that contract yet.”

He reached into his back pocket for his wallet and handed her a fiftydollar bill. “Would you mind picking me up a dozen roses when you go out for lunch?”

“For Mrs. Tollison, I hope?”

“You don’t need to be so nosey, but yes, they are for Elise.” Zane hesitated. “And Pat, I’m not taking any calls today.”

His secretary nodded. “Would you like me to bring you back something to eat, or should I just knock on your door when I get ready to leave for the day?”

“A knock would be fine. But please, please don’t let me miss that call from Elise.”

* * * *
Zane closed his door and loosened his necktie. He could hear the faint sound of Christmas carols on his secretary’s portable radio as he settled down on his office couch.

“…Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree, For me. I've been an awful good girl, Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight.”

His mind floated. The honeymoon ended the night of their wedding. After three years of marriage, his wife’s cute little quirks had become unbearable.

Zane had met Elise rather accidentally, at a dinner party given by a large package handling equipment company. Her Daddy, who turned out to be the CEO, dangled the offer of a sizeable contract and was quick to encourage a relationship between Zane and “Leesie.”

She was a blonde-haired blue-eyed brick house. Never married and fresh out of some stuffy English private school, her incredible looks, youthful charm, and light sense of humor made him laugh and feel younger than he had in years. With Elise on his arm, Zane was the envy of all his friends.

Whether it had been prudent use of birth control or simply dumb luck, it was never her weekend to have the kids, a welcome change from the stuffy “30 something” professional women Zane had dated. Ten years his younger, Elise fucked like a rabbit and the sex would make your eyeballs roll back in your head.

Wedding plans were made, with Daddy taking care of all the bills. A country club reception and a trip to the French Riviera later, Elise was all his. Daddy must have seen him coming.

At first, her little habits were easy to accept.

Whether it was indecision or she simply enjoyed the process, it took Elise three solid hours to get dressed every morning, and equally long again if they had plans for the evening. Doing and redoing her hair and make-up, she would change into an endless combination of outfits as she posed for an imaginary camera in her vanity mirror. Zane often wondered if that wasn’t what women did when they got too big to play with their Barbie dolls.

As the clock ticked past the point of fashionably late, it always ended the same. After pleading with her to hurry up, Elise would storm out of the bedroom and whine, “I just don’t have a thing to wear. You never care how I look!” He could count on the fact she wouldn’t say another word for the rest of the night.

Conversation beyond the casual banter they shared while they were dating and her eyes glazed over. “Sweetie, I don’t mean to interrupt, but…” Chin propped in his hands, Zane hid his yawns as his wife blabbered about the current trends in shoes or how she couldn’t possibly live another day without some fifty thousand dollar toy one of her rich bitch girlfriends had just gotten. Simply put, Elise had the IQ of a vine ripe tomato.

In defiant indignation, or a sheepish apology that she just couldn’t seem to get used to sharing a bed with him, they had started sleeping in separate rooms almost immediately after the wedding. Of course, the sex stopped too—at least with him.

Nowadays, Zane just stayed at work until he was sure his wife was asleep. The TV and sofa in his office had gotten lots of use the last six months. Having waited until the worldly age of 33 before getting married, he couldn’t believe he’d blown it so badly by falling for a 24-year-old, blonde-haired blue-eyed bimbo.

They had no marriage, but his wife was a walking wet dream. With Elise around his neck, Zane was the laughing stock of all his friends.

He glanced at the glamour shot she had taken for his birthday their first month together.

“Maybe we could work things out if I could land a contract like this every once in awhile.”

Zane fought the feelings that were building within him.

“Naw.” He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

* * * *
“Zane, it’s Elise.”

“Umm.” He wrapped his hands behind his neck and stretched. “What time is it?”

Pat poked her nose around the edge of Zane’s office door. “It’s a quarter past four.”

“Thanks. Put her through.”

“Hi, Elise. How’s it coming?”

“See, sweetie, I can get ready real quick when I want to,” she said giggling. “Hurry home. I’ll be waitin’ for ya. Hugs and kisses!”

“I’m on my way. Hugs and kisses.”

Zane walked into the reception area, instantly seeing a large white box on the credenza with a fifty-dollar bill taped to the top.

Pat picked up the box and handed it to him. “You just take your money and these flowers, and go home and make up with Mrs. Tollison.”

“You know, you’re a real sweetheart. Honest to God, if you were twenty years younger—”

“If I were twenty years younger, I’d have had more sense than to take a job working for you!”

Zane opened the box. He took out a flower and smiled at his secretary.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Pat pushed away his hand, turning as she wiped the corner of her eye. “I’m too old to get all teary-eyed about a rose. Especially when I paid for them. Your flight leaves at 6:05AM, Zane. American number 2511. Good luck tomorrow with Mr. Chorde.”

Pat reached for the rose and smiled. “And tonight, with Mrs. Tollison.”

* * * *
It had stopped raining, and the winter air was clear and crisp. Zane headed towards the bus station, a lively step to his walk as he whistled the tune to “Santa Baby.” There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he was going to miss his stop tonight.

The bus was crowded but he was in too good a mood to care. With a dozen roses and the ol’ Tollison charm, he even stood a pretty good chance of getting laid when he got home.

Zane stepped up to the front door of their townhouse. He fumbled with the lock but before he could turn the key, the door swung open.

Elise was wearing a sheer, floor-length gown with a side slit up to her waist. Her short, platinum blonde hair was moussed close to her head in sophisticated Evita style.

She put her hands behind her back, her gaze drifting towards the floor. “Do I look pretty?”

Zane spied her calf peeking through the folds of shimmery fabric, following the curves of his wife’s body as his eyes locked with hers. “Elise, you are absolutely stunning.”

He could tell by his wife’s puzzled expression that his compliment was lost on her. Zane smiled. “Yes, you look very pretty.”

Her eyes grew wide as she reached for the box in his arms. “For me?” Elise untied the ribbon. “Flowers! Oh Zane, they’re so pretty. Just like me.”

She set the box on the hallway table and draped her arms around his neck. “Sweetie, I’m sorry I’ve been a teeny bit grumpy lately. I just don’t know what’s got into me.”

Perching on one foot, she brought her calf up alongside his thigh, instantly commanding Zane’s undivided attention as she rubbed her silk covered leg against his wool trousers.

Her pretty face scrunched into a pout. “Do you forgive me?”

“I, I guess.”

She undid his necktie and pulled his face down to meet her lips. Static electricity sparked between their noses as they kissed.

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