Freedom of Choice

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Chapter 2

Taking a bite of her second helping of banana cream pie, the verging-on-corpulent personal secretary sits alone in a crowded office building cafeteria. Year after year, one more pound added to the last, her life had rolled along a planned course leading to this very moment. 'Until today,' she thought, "the last day."

Without question her boss depended on her to keep the business humming. And, Heaven knew she had no complaints about her under-the-table second secret salary and obscenely generous bearer bonds bonuses the shareholders had no clue about. But a little recognition would've felt good from time to time.

Still, it was fun to imagine the utter chaos if anyone had ever learned that she, a plain looking chubby little business secretary, actually did the work managing nearly thirty-three billion in hedge fund fortunes. And that her boss, the purported boy genius chief executive officer at the helm of the second largest brokerage house in the city, couldn't run a lemonade stand without her.

It started thirteen years back when she, Francine Dillon, a poor but brilliant mathematician and business major meet a handsome but untalented spoiled rotten airhead, John Walters the third. If his father hadn't signed an endowment check large enough to buy a small country, the Ivy League school she was struggling to afford with two part-time jobs and a scholarship, would've kicked his empty headed ass out in a week. She kept that from happening.

What started out as a simple tutelage job soon blossomed into homework and term papers. This quickly grew until he was paying her to take his place in class. The professors never said a word. People getting paid frequently with envelopes stuffed with untraceable large denomination bills rarely do.

In the end, he graduated with flying colors and went on to inherit the family estate and vast stock market holdings. In the background, far from the newspaper photos, lavish parties, yachts, private jets, homes in a dozen countries, and gaggle of wannabe future trophy ex wives, she held his hand to make sure he didn't do anything too stupid.

It was a full time double life that left little room for her needs. The crumpled medical diagnosis she'd shredded this morning at her desk guaranteed those needs would never be satisfied.

Half a world away, the latest in a long line of specialists she'd consulted over the span of three weeks had been blunt and to the point: Your breast cancer is in a highly advanced metastatic condition and beyond treatment. Medication will soon be unable to maintain you in a functional state. Death is at most two or three months away.

Without anyone to stop his excesses, Walters would bring this great company to its knees in a month and into insolvency in less time that she had left to live. All the smiling co-workers walking and laughing around her would be thrown onto the street.

The catastrophic failure of this century-old brokerage house would send shock waves through the financial heart of the country. Tens of thousands of investors, large and small, would see their money, their hopes and dreams, evaporate into nothingness. All because the arrogant idiot they'd put their trust in would never demean himself to seek help after she was . . . gone.

It wasn't fair! She had needs, too! A loving husband! A house with a white picket fence in the suburbs! A home full of kids! The first hint of trouble came just after she put stage one of her long delayed plans into effect. Oh, God! Dearest, Dennis. Please forgive me. The wedding was scheduled for next month. Their families were so excited.

Yawning deeply, she raises her Grande iced double mocha with only half the normal amount of espresso, a little extra ice, a generous pinch of hazelnut, and topped with a large dab of whipped cream between both shaky hands for a noisy final sip. It's empty. The last chalky remnants of the twenty crushed high-potency Fentanyl tablets she'd dissolved in her favorite beverage were gone.

Seeing everything she'd sacrificed her life to achieve crumble to dust was more than she could bear. Far better to lay her head down on the table and go to sleep, forever, surrounded by the people she'd given her life to serve . . . what?

With eyes she could hardly keep open, she watches with a side-wise view as a swirling sphere of bright red and green fog slowly flows up through the concrete floor and engulfs much of cafeteria's sitting area. Feeling more detached and numb by the second as the powerful drug takes effect, she strains to focus with failing vision as those first touched by the fog begin to fall . . . to twitch . . . to clumsily raise . . . to look at themselves and others . . . and scream, and scream, and scream some more.

And then it's her turn.

For an instant that felt like an eternity all her senses switch off. 'Is this,' she thought as even the gnawing pain in her chest she'd endured for so long fades into nothingness, 'the light they say I've got to walk into? But isn't it supposed to be white? And why is everyone else seeing it, too?'

"Ouch! I broke a nail!"

Her unexpected view of the cafeteria's ceiling is momentarily interrupted as she instinctively lifts a throbbing fingertip to her mouth. The pain briefly halted, she examines the moist digit for damage while three thoughts instantly cross her mind, 'Why am I looking up at an air-conditioning vent? What's wrong with my voice? And when did Tiffany get the chance to put Panda face stickers on my nails?'

Of all the unpaid college interns to ever pass through the firm's doors, Tiffany Harris was easily the most entertaining. A near-genius young mind coupled with the attention span of a gold fish and the fashion sense of a circus clown, she was the center of attention wherever she went. A force of nature that could outshine the brightest people in the information technology department one day, and turn stomachs the next with her seemingly bottomless wardrobe of Salvation Army hand-me-down clothing.

Goth, vampire, princess, zombie, country hick, socialite, furry . . . it was an endless parade of jarring costumes and personas to match. Able to run rings around almost every computer geek in the firm at the age of nineteen, people either stood in awe of her mental prowess or laughed behind her back.

Today's outfit, a bra-less Japanese skin-tight schoolgirl uniform, day-glow pink wig, anime plastic cat girl ears, faux fur tiger tail and orange face paint to match, was far from the worst she'd ever worn to work. Needless to say, sales managers never allowed her to get within a hundred yards of a paying customer.

Putting those questions aside for the moment, Francine bends at the hips into a sitting position with a degree of ease her lack of physical fitness, and forty extra pounds, hadn't allowed her to achieve in many years. Turning her head from side to side to follow the path of terrified people running in near circles around her, her gaze eventually locks onto the fixed and half closed eyes of a familiar figure sitting utterly still nearby.

Panic simply isn't in her nature.

With an only slightly more significant additional exertion, she reaches up and grabs the table edge. Grunting in softly in effort, she struggles to stand upright on unfamiliar and comically tall fur covered high heels. With the same cool analytical mind that's driven her firm's business dealings to unprecedented success for close to a decade, she takes an unsteady step and guides several childishly decorated fingers outwards until they press gently atop what only a moment ago was her throat.

No pulse . . . No breath . . . Cooling already . . . Dead.

A million and one possible scenarios come and go at lightning speed within her racing mind. In the end, nothing matters more than a simple phrase her father had taught her at the tender age of five: never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Reaching deep inside the Gucci purse resting on the table, she removes a tiny well-worn thumb drive from a concealed compartment leaving cash, checkbooks, credit cards and jewelry undisturbed. Compared to the copies of heavily encrypted passwords and account numbers it contained, everything else was worthless and a potential liability. Within minutes of entering any Internet cafe in the city, she'd have anonymous access to any portion of the funds she had dispersed around the world.

She might not know what happened, or why, but she determined not to let this second chance at life to go to waste. Lowering her head in sadness, she mouths a silent prayer of gratitude towards the occupant of her former self and marches out of the chaotic cafeteria as fast as her uncomfortable footwear will allow.

Without doubt she would return to set things right, but for now tomorrow will be just another day.

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