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“Where’s James, you crafty devil?!” exclaimed Don Peters, the habitually skeptical tech mogul. He welcomed Richard Dawson with uncharacteristic warmth. Dawson took in the large dining hall with the tables of fine settings. He shook hands and followed Don Peters to their table. Dawson paused at the sight of the two empty seats. He sat down reservedly across from Don and his partners.

Don said, “Thanks to your Oil, Dawson, my revenues have been steadily climbing! You’ve completely reimagined our industries! Union disputes have all but resolved. Productivity has never been so high. Workers are actually happy to come to work!” He said this last statement with a sweeping gesture, taking in the other three men seated around the circular table. Dawson wanly greeted each powerful man in turn.

The stately George Mason- aging CEO of Stone Retail stores- followed Dawson’s subtle glance to his cigar, tapping ash into a tray. He thought he saw a flash of heaviness cross Dawson’s face. However, Dawson’s gaze then rose to meet Mason’s with a grim smile and a faintly hardened nod.

Kevin Walbash, of Insurance Conglomerates Inc., smiled and welcomed Dawson to the table, generously shaking his hand. Dawson knew him to be good natured, and a risk taker, making a fortune for himself in the world of gambling.

The final seat was occupied by the young Blaine Greene, heir to the largest automotive company in the world. He spared a glance from his portfolio with a vacant look and a lack of concern.

Don dismissed Greene’s disinterest, continuing his discussion. “When you and James first approached me with this idea, I thought you were crazy. But I’m sure glad you persisted!” Don dropped a small silver cylindrical container on the table, and pointed at it. “And all for free! I’m tempted to sign one of those little Contracts myself! I’m told it is quite the life changer. It has been for my company!”

Dawson took all this in, absently adjusting his glasses, allowing Don to continue along with his excited praise. As Don began winding down, the room quieted save for the reserved chatter of patrons dining at other tables. Calmly, Dawson gestured to a man who stood near the doorway. Two men approached the table to stand passively behind Dawson. They wore cheap suits and tried their best to appear at ease in the presence of the powerful men before them.

“Do not be alarmed at their presence, my friends.” Dawson said with a weary voice. “They are simply here to protect my interests and well-being.”

The two men stood indifferently behind Dawson as he produced four pieces of paper from his portfolio. “I am glad to hear my contract is working out so well. It truly has exceeded my own expectations. Also, Don, I appreciate your concern for James. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to join us tonight. Despite his absence, I would like to discuss future plans. These are for you.”

He slid a single piece of paper to each of the men at the table. They glanced at the pages, then at each other, realizing they had been given a Contract. Dawson continued, despite their quizzical looks. “Last time we met, James and I introduced the Contract to you for the first time. That was six months ago. In that time, you have seen my Contract’s undeniable effect on your employees’ lives and on your businesses. Even you, yourselves, are given to excitedly recount its value.” He gestured to Don, whose smile diminished to a familiar look of skepticism. “Your companies were the first to have partnered with us. You represent some of the largest companies in the world. I do appreciate you allowing me to piggy-back your supply lines. It has allowed for rapid expansion of my product’s reach. Since our original deal, countless other corporations have followed your lead. In exchange, I have since been able to offer my Oil free of charge.” He paused, momentarily, to ensure he had their complete attention.

Mason cleared his throat to interrupt. He raised his bushy eyebrows over keen eyes and tapped his cigar in the tray. Grumbling, he continued, “I’ve been waiting for you to push us to pay up, Richard. You always knew how great this product was. You never intended to keep it free to our companies.” He sneered with a nod of approval.

Dawson nodded and said, “You are correct in that the time has come to alter our previous arrangement. I assure you, despite James’ absence, he fully supports my next step…” He gathered his thoughts and continued. “Now is the time to step forward from these childish charts,” pointing to the growth charts on the table, “and into the future. With me.”

Silence clung to the air.

“What exactly are you trying to tell us, Dawson?” Don’s face was now a deep red, growing increasingly agitated.

Dawson held up a hand, as if to calm Don, collected himself and continued, “Now Don, you don’t have to sign my Contract. It is not my concern whether you do or not. It is purely your decision. One I believe would bring you immeasurable peace. But, then again, this is my own opinion. You have enumerated the benefits yourself.”

Don waved a dismissive hand at Dawson, “Do you realize who you’re talking to? Be careful where this conversation goes, Richard. Do you know what forces I can bring to bear if you decide to threaten me?”

“I am fully aware of what you are capable of doing, and I completely respect you personally, and professionally. I do, however, have a proposal- aside from the Contract.” He paused, allowing his listeners to prepare for his next words. “All included, what percentage of your employees, would you say, use my Oil?”

Stillness and silent understanding gripped the table.

“And what would happen if, say, all of them were to stop using my Oil? It’s clearly written in the Contract, as we all know.” With a motion towards their papers.

Silence tensed the air.

“It appears I already own a controlling majority of your companies, along with many others. The time has come to make it formal, in writing. I’ll have my lawyers visit with you on the particulars at another appointment, but I thought I would do you all the courtesy of informing you personally. As you did help make this all possible.”

Kevin Walbash slammed his fist on the table, laughing jovially. The tension broke. The young Greene and elderly Mason fled in haste, overwhelmed at the reality of this celebratory dinner.

Don fumed. “I will not be bent to your will. You don’t know what you’re doing! You think you can just sit there in your little tattered suit and just… just run over me!?” he sputtered. The rapid departure of the two men earlier had silenced the room.

Walbash, incredulous, said, “You have to admit, Don. He got us. If we don’t play ball, he’ll turn our companies against us. Well played, Rich!”

Dawson firmly, with an edge to his voice, said, “You can keep your wealth, Don. Not that it’ll do much for you very soon. I just want your business, if this is any consolation. But I will have your company. And all of theirs.” He picked up the silver container on the table between them. “I could never have done all this on my own. It is to the Oil you have lost. Your entire system only works as long as the people beneath it believe it is better than any alternative. The alternative is here.” He firmly held up the metallic tube in his hands.

Don shredded his Contract.

“You will just end up wrecking this whole thing.” Don said tensely, eyeing the aging Dawson across from him. “Everything we all worked for, you are going to take it from us, and it is going to fall apart in your hands. And for what? Someone will just take it away from you once you’ve failed miserably.”

Dawson’s measure of calm failed. He hardly restrained himself as he replied, “This is not about me.” He planted his fist on the table, gripping the silver vial tightly. “I’m going to wreck this system? I played your… tenuous joke of a system. I worked day in, and day out, to give my little girl more than I had. Because she deserved it! The hopelessness overwhelmed me. I worked and worked. Long hours. Weekends. And I lost it all… I still lost it all. I’d always been a casual drinker. But it was harder and harder to put it away each night. Just to cope with another day…”

He glanced with disgust at the smoke from Mason’s smoldering cigar. Then, more to himself than to the table, “I picked it up one last time, at home after putting my little girl to bed. I passed out on the back porch in my rocking chair. My wife was working late. They told me, after I sobered up in the hospital, that some ash from my cigarette had taken flame on the carpet... My wife never talked to me again.” He drew in a staggering breath. “I played your game.” His hands shook, pointing to Don’s spreadsheets, voice haggard, with bloodshot eyes. “I played. And lost. But now... Now I win… For them.”

He broke down in heavy heaves. His two concerned bodyguards hurried Dawson from the dismal celebration.

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