The Money Masquerade

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Chapter 8


Sausalito, California

January 2020

SEAN

“Are you ready?” She stood at the threshold clinging to the doorframe. I opened my arms. Too bold?

Breaking into nervous giggles she stepped toward me, her embrace warm and exciting. “What a nice icebreaker, Sean,” she said while biting her lip.

“I figured a hug is better than an awkward handshake.” I’m into my forties and as jittery as a sixteen-year-old with acne on a first date—which is strange since we’ve been getting to know each other over the course of half a year. Flirting over texts messages like a couple of teenagers, sending each other smiley and heart icons.

“I hadn’t dated for years— and those dating apps seem frightening,” she said, tossing her thick scarlet hair over her shoulder. I admired the shimmery reflections when sunlight hit her strawberry blonde highlights. “Which is why I’ve never used them.”

It embarrassed me to admit I hadn’t dated in years either, but I’m not afraid of looking for love online. Work had consumed my life, giving me no time for a woman. I’d spent the past five years making love to money.

All work and no play make Sean Coleman a dull man. A dull wealthy man, I thought. Obviously, money isn’t buying me happiness. I’d even considered using one of those “tech-rich but clueless” dating sites for a lonely Tech CEO like me.

Taking her arm in mine, I mustered up a smile and said, “for our fifth date, milady, we’re going to The Mountain Winery. I have tickets to One Night of Queen by Gary Mullen and ‘The Works.’”

Julie’s pale blue eyes widened. “Fabulous, thanks! It’s so sweet you remembered the music I like. I haven’t been to the Mountain Winery in years. I love that place.”

Relief washed over me. “I figured you would. It has an amazing atmosphere, views of the valley, and excellent food and wine. We’ll grab a bite to eat at the show.”

Her smile was coy as she tilted her head and asked, “Did you refer to me as ‘milady’? Said by a man with means as I live in a shoebox.”

Her humble humor warmed my heart.

A peek through her entranceway offered a reminder of the classic decor with a raised hardwood floor and beautiful statues, plants, and colors. “A chic shoebox,” I added.

Julie turned to lock her door. “Thanks, I like it, although it’s hard to save for a house with the high rent. If you drove all the way from the South Bay, do you need to use the little boy’s room?”

“No thanks, I came in from the city. I’ve been staying at one of my apartment complexes.”

She jiggled her key up and down muttering expletives about the lock forever getting stuck. “You have so much property it’s hard to keep track. Tell me again where you own homes?”

Is the woman I’m falling in love with a gold digger? Feeling somewhat vulnerable, I responded, “well, there’s my ski cabin in Tahoe, the three apartment complexes in the city, and my house in Los Altos Hills.” I left out the vacation rental property I was planning to buy in Kauai.

I appreciated Julie’s outfit. She wore fitted jeans hugging her curves, a white blouse with enough cleavage to show ample bosom, tastefully paired with silver jewelry and natural makeup.

As we walked to my Tesla, I complimented her, “The way you put yourself together is striking. You look lovely.”

“Thanks, you look dapper yourself, and so fit!” She flexed her bicep as if to show me mine were strong. Both of us dressed casually. I sported dark black jeans paired with a short-sleeved collared shirt.

It was an unseasonably warm day in January, about sixty degrees with a balmy breeze. Perfect for an outdoor concert.

We passed a human-sized parrot suspended by a rope in the trees off the side of Julie’s apartment, its wings spread as if in flight. “What’s up with the pretty bird flying in the forest?” I asked, pointing to the bright orange, yellow and blue sculpture.

Julie stopped short, looking as if she’d burst into tears. “It was a gift from friends after my Feisty was murdered.”

“Your Feisty murdered... who’s Feisty?”

“My pet parakeet. He was murdered,” Julie said matter-of-factly.

“Who the heck would kill your parakeet?”

“The same people behind the slaughter of native Americans, building our nation upon the bondage of slavery and wars still raging nonstop today: the federal government.”

What?”

“You heard me,” Julie insisted as I opened the door for her, and she climbed into the passenger seat.

I hopped behind the steering wheel and started the car. “Are you claiming the feds killed your bird?”

“They killed my bird, without a doubt.” Julie looked at my dashboard clock. “What time does the show start? I’m wondering why you wanted to pick me up so early.”

Is she trying to change the topic? “It starts at 7:30, we have four hours. I figured we’d drive into the city and I’ll show you what I’ve done to one of my property’s there, a major remodel. But please, I can’t let this bird-story go, tell me more!”

Julie shook her head, “I can’t talk about Feisty yet, give me time. It’s too painful. I’d rather talk about you, the man with a plan! You put so much effort into our time together. I’m impressed. But I wonder…some friends took the ferry into the city. Can we meet them for a drink at the Mona Lisa restaurant?”

“I know that restaurant, it’s not near my property and we’ll hit traffic on the way to the concert so—”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume you’d want to meet my friends. We can stick to your plan. I’d love to see your apartment buildings. Who knows, maybe I’ll even move into one if you’re not increasing the rent,” Julie teased.

“Ah… of course I’ll be increasing the rent, that’s the whole point. I’m renovating for rental income.”

“Forget it then, I’ll stay in my overpriced apartment.”

We rolled through the scenic Sausalito waterfront, making our way toward the Golden Gate Bridge. A few serious bikers sped past as we gazed at the Mediterranean-like water and sophisticated shops. I wondered why Julie would even consider moving from this place.

“I appreciate how driven you are, I do,” she said, “but don’t you make enough money already? Maybe you could offer affordable housing, give kids out of college a break or something.”

My eyebrows arched in surprise. My head jutted back. “Well, by almost any definition I’m successful. I realize I’m wealthy, but I don’t feel rich. I’ve only been able to bank two million.”

“You can’t be serious!” cried Julie.

“Oh, but I am,” I replied.

“You own all that property and have a couple mil in the bank, yet don’t feel rich. How much money do you need?”

Good question, I thought. “I can’t ease up, a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to in the valley. I don’t make the tens of millions many other chief executives do—”

“Who cares! Don’t compare. I live paycheck to paycheck working for a nonprofit,” she sulked.

“And I’m impressed with what you do, preserving Sausalito’s history.”

I looked out the window as we crept over the Golden Gate Bridge, the late afternoon traffic heavy. I forever marvel at the enormity of the cables and spectacular views. We went through the toll and I changed the topic, “A quick drink with your friends sounds great, forget about my property.”

For a moment Julie looked almost sorry, then said, “I’ll text Anna and let her know we’re coming.” Her fingers whizzed around her phone. “Tell me about your tech-startup. Why all the secrecy?”

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, thinking of what I could say. “Dazzle! is pre-IPO and non-disclosure—yet there’s plenty I can tell you. We focus on virtual reality. My software aims to keep the CIA at the cutting edge of IT. Its proprietary technology used in disaster recovery, and eventually for military operations.” I felt pride in my work and devoted to our nation’s security. “My technology can search, map and navigate even in underground spaces.”

Julie stiffened beside me. “You mean spying on innocent civilians, and keeping our war machine going, spilling out to me nearly getting killed with an AR-15 in a peaceful coffee shop?”

My hand gripped the wheel as her words gripped my pride. A handful of dates can reveal things about one’s life we may not wish to know. Things she didn’t divulge over our past dates and texting binge. Things that didn’t factor in with my growing admiration and feelings for her.

“Okay… your bird was murdered, you nearly got shot, and your brother was accused of being a terrorist.” I glanced at the pretty redhead sitting in my passenger seat and tried to make a humorous statement. “Am I dating the daughter of the Irish-Mafia or something?”

Julie didn’t seem to think this funny, as she shook her head. “The Mafia isn’t the problem… our nation’s obsession with the military is. You remind me of my father.”

I hoped this meant a good thing, and she sees me as a superhero. “So, your dad was charming and good-looking and driven. He held the door open for women and—”

“All the above yes. My father was a good man… an amazing provider, husband, and parent. But…”

“But…?”

“You make a living from the war effort like he did. He built Liberty ships during World War Two.”

“And that’s a bad thing because?”

“Because… I finally see that building up all this ‘liberty’ through violence is what’s breaking down American civil liberties today—including people sipping coffee in a gourmet café by the Bay and getting shot.”

What to say to that? Yup, I’m a super-villain rather than a hero. “Well, the Silicon Valley winners in this modern-day Gold Rush might find it hard to face these ugly… truths,” I replied. “For the record, I nearly got killed on a business trip to China trying to negotiate the export of rare metals.”

Julie’s eyes became tender. “I’m sorry, sounds like we both nearly got killed due to battles over technology dominance. Now we’re fighting over precious rare earth metals to use for bombs and batteries!”

I opened my mouth, then shut it before I spoke. I’ve fallen for an anti-capitalist. I had been afraid of dating someone that would love what’s in my wallet rather than my heart. What does she see in me? Money? I started fretting she wouldn’t appreciate the necklace and its sentimental value. The necklace I tormented over about giving to this woman who infatuates me beyond her mature beauty.

I glanced her way noticing she was looking out the window at the city sights. “You’re not the first person to question what I do for work,” I mentioned. My thoughts trailed back to words a woman who worked with me in Silicon Valley said over a decade ago: Sean, get the heck out of the Federal Division while you can, it’s keeping our nation in perpetual war mode. At the time, I was Worldwide Channel Manager handling global accounts for the Pentagon.

“Sean… I am impressed with who you are as a person. Your sweet personality doesn’t match being a war hawk.”

An awkward silence fell upon us, and we traveled without saying a word for at least five minutes.

A war hawk? More soul-crushing memories of what that woman working in the valley had said went through my mind: Israel and China have a huge presence on Wall Street and are Silicon Valley’s biggest competitors.

I looked over at her again, this fiery redhead that has captured my heart quicker than any woman in my life. For whatever reason, rather than be insulted by what she said about my war profiteering career, it challenged me in ways I needed. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m hoping to tie up an IPO with a pretty bow. My business means a lot to me,” I said. We came to an intersection on Washington Avenue and stopped at a red light.

Julie placed her hand under my chin, turning my face toward her. “You’re a good guy Sean, I can see it in your smile—in every little thing you do, including sending me flowers just because.” She hesitated, her hand showing a light tremor. “I’ve come to view people beyond their life’s work.” Her eyes moved to the center console. “Speaking of pretty bows, I’ve been wondering; what’s in the box?”

“It’s… for you. We’re at Columbus Avenue. I see a spot close to the restaurant. Let’s park, I want you to open it before we go in.” I pulled over to the curb, the Transamerica Pyramid’s ultramodern design rising ahead of us, the red awning of the Mona Lisa within a block.

“You bought me a gift for our fifth date?”

I couldn’t figure out if she felt flattered or frightened.

“Well, we’ve known each other for nearly seven months. Only my business travels have gotten in the way of more dates.” Holding her eyes with mine—eyes I realized at that moment are at least a decade older than my own—I handed her the black gift box wrapped in shiny silver ribbon. Age doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m smitten. With trembling hands, she flipped up the square velvet lid and gasped when she saw the necklace—an elegant diamond pendant hanging from a delicate silver chain.

“It’s beautiful,” she said in a tremulous whisper. “But you don’t need to spend money on me—”

“It was my mother’s.”

Recognition dawned over her features. We had mentioned on our first date neither of our parents is alive. How was I to tell her she reminded me of the maternal love I lost?

She placed her hand on the diamond. “Are you sure?”

I place my hand over hers, suddenly knowing. “Yes. Now let’s go in, it’s time I meet your friends.”

We stepped into the Renaissance-inspired restaurant that looked more like a mini-Louvre museum with its colorful art-filled walls and sculptures. Julie spied her girlfriends, introducing me to four chatty women whose names I immediately forgot except for one who stood out, Anna, who said, “Help yourselves to the food, it’s meant to be shared.” Anna spoke with a slight French accent, pronouncing the word “shared” as shahred. She was stunning and dressed Parisian chic style, with a scarf, skinny jeans, and a black fur beret.

The table was full of Italian dishes including cioppino, ravioli, an assortment of shellfish and bottles of top wine of which we were each offered a glass. Excellent, this will be a quick stop, then we’re off to the show.

Anna lifted her glass and toasted, her eyes slightly narrowed as if she was wondering if she’d seen me before. “Here’s to the pleasure of meeting you, Sean.” Our glasses clinked, and we sipped as Anna glanced behind me. “Oh, here’s someone you haven’t met yet.”

Turning around, I almost spit out my sip of wine. Julie was quick to fill in, “Hey Caryssa, this is—”

“Sean Coleman! Well, what a small world,” said Caryssa.

A surprised expression formed on Julie’s face. “You two know each other?”

Caryssa picked up her wineglass, and raised it to Sean, “We go way back… to my Silicon Valley days. We worked for the same company.”

I tapped Caryssa’s glass, while inwardly wincing at what she said so long ago. Words that pierced my soul daily: If each of us little fish tried to fry the big fish, we’d see positive change, Sean. Get out of federal contracts for the Pentagon while you can!

Anna burst into laughter and announced, “Well this ought to prove an interesting triad.”

Julie seemed to sense the underlying tension beneath the banter, compelled to tell Caryssa how we met. “Sean attended a community fundraiser in Sausalito that I organized. It was at the Historical Society.”

Wishing to show Caryssa I’m not such a bad guy, I piped in, “It was a disaster aid campaign to support firefighters and the victims of California’s wildfires.”

Caryssa looked directly into my eyes, a slim smile forming on her lips. “You’ve always had a good soul, Sean.”

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