Seth Griffin is forced to live out his wildest dreams at the expense of his best friend, the man he loves.
Seth Griffin's life was basically on track. Attend Cornell, double major in Mechanical Engineering and Astronomy, play basketball, and room with his best friend, Kevin. So what if he had a hopeless crush on his gorgeous, straight friend.
When Maynard Frederick Winthrop IV buys all of Seth's family's debt and threatens to foreclose, everything Seth has worked for is in jeopardy. Winthrop offers Seth a deal: spend a week at his mansion, a place that seems to defy logic and violate the laws of physics, performing challenges of Winthrop's choosing. If Seth succeeds, all will be forgiven.
But can Seth do as Winthrop asks, especially when Kevin is the one who will pay the price?
Monday, March 27, 5:41 P.M.
Equations danced on the page of Seth Griffin’s Astronomy 4410 textbook. He pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. Where was his roommate? He and Kevin usually went to dinner around this time, and Seth could use a break. Hanging with Kevin always recharged him, even if his best friend was straight and could never return Seth’s well-hidden crush.
A large, manila envelope slid under his dorm room door with a scratchy hiss, catching on the corner of the cheap, blue rug remnant that covered the linoleum floor.
Curious, he placed his laptop and textbook beside him on his bed and rolled to his feet. A couple short steps and he stooped to pick up the envelope and flipped it over. His name, scrawled in fine calligraphy across the front, had smudged with dust. Who would hand-deliver something to his room? Cracking the door, he found the hallway deserted.
He opened the envelope and removed the papers it contained.
The first item was an invitation printed on pristine, white card stock with a picture of a playing card, the King of Hearts, at the top:
The honor of your presence is requested this Wednesday, March 29th, at the Statler Hotel at 7:00 P.M. to discuss your family’s unfortunate situation. A business proposition will be presented that should alleviate the current difficulties.
When you arrive, report to the hotel check-in desk.
Dinner will be served.
No RSVP necessary.
Maynard Frederick Winthrop IV
What unfortunate situation? Who the hell was Maynard Frederick Winthrop the Fourth? Seth’s chest tightened for a moment. He took a deep breath. No reason to assume the worst.
The next sheet was a signed and notarized paper showing Maynard F. Winthrop owned his parents’ mortgage. After that was a document showing the same man owned their second mortgage. Wait, his parents had a second mortgage? His stomach flipped.
The fourth showed he owned their credit card debt. Was that even possible? Could an individual buy another individual’s credit card debt? The bile rose in his throat.
The stack went on and on, his student loans, his brother Carl’s student loans, car loans, everything. The last piece showed that Winthrop recently purchased ShoreStream Software, the company his dad worked for. His dad had spent a year unemployed, pounding the pavement before he finally landed that job.
A handwritten note on the bottom said: It’s good to hold all the cards.
Seth rubbed his hand across his stomach, trying to calm the meteor storm inside. What did this man want with him and his family?
Money had been tight, but if these documents were real and accurate, then he had not known even half the difficulties his parents faced.
His education at Cornell stretched them even before Dad lost his job. They hadn’t qualified for need-based scholarships and had no savings. Several student loans covered the steep tuition, but the money was still owed someday. And apparently, it was all owed to one man.
Seth lay back on his bed, staring at a mobile of the solar system hanging from his ceiling. He shook his head. Focus. First, he needed to scope out the issue. If there were problems with the family finances, his parents would have more information.
After all, this could be an elaborate prank. Would his teammates really screw with him like this? This seemed over the top even for Regi, the freshman prankster who had driven him crazy all season.
Speculating wouldn’t help. He needed information first.
After dialing the phone, Seth pushed his glasses tighter on his face and ran his hand through his bushy, brown hair.
“Seth, honey, it’s great to hear from you.” His mother’s voice bubbled out of the phone.
“Hi, Mom.” Seth hadn’t planned what to say, so the silence stretched.
“To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?” she teased.
He called his parents. Lots. When had been the last time? He couldn’t remember. “What? A guy can’t call home?”
“Of course. I just wish you did more.”
Why? When she wasted half the conversation making him feel guilty for not calling.
He opened his mouth to say something, hopefully coherent, when his mom spoke.
“Is everything all right?”
An opening. Thank you, Mom. “You tell me.”
“What do you mean?” Something was off about his mom’s voice. She squeaked by the end. “Things are fine here.”
Nope, not buying it. Time to go for the detail. Would she deny it? “Do you know Maynard Winthrop?”
“Um… Why would you ask that?”
Not a denial, a deflection for sure. “He contacted me. He showed me some… documents.”
“Documents?” His mother’s voice quavered.
“Yeah. Like my student loans belong to him.”
“Oh, honey.” He imagined his mom, shaking her head with her eyes closed. “We’re not sure what happened. He does own your loans.”
Seth fell back against his pillow at the head of the bed. “And the mortgage?”
A pause. “And the mortgage.”
It was all true? “What about ShoreStream Software?”
“What about it?”
Was Mom purposely being dense? “Does Winthrop own the company?”
“He just bought it, out of the blue. It was a hostile takeover. He cancelled all of the company’s planned charitable donations and a few key projects.” It was worse than he thought. His mom was babbling. “Your dad says his coworkers are reeling.”
“Does Dad still have a job?”
“As far as we know. Mr. Winthrop hasn’t made his plans clear. Your dad’s put an updated resume online, just in case, but there isn’t much out there. In the meantime, no one’s seen Winthrop except the former CEO, Ted Hofstra. Ted went to a meeting with Mr. Winthrop and never came back. His office was cleaned out for him, and Winthrop sent an email that he was terminated.”
Seth’s skin pebbled like tiny, reverse moon craters. Terminated, as in fired, right? “And he has our credit card debt, our car loans.”
His mom sighed. “Yes. He does.”
“Do you know what he wants? Are we out on the street? Can we declare bankruptcy?” Seth’s heart beat faster and faster as he gripped the phone to his ear.
“He sent a letter saying he had a plan. That there was no cause for alarm, yet, but he would be in touch. We haven’t heard from him since. We tried to get another loan to pay him off, but our credit is shot. Oh, honey. We didn’t want to involve you in this.”
“Well, I’m involved now. He wants to meet me for dinner. Who the hell is this guy?”
“I wish I knew. Wait. He wants to have dinner with you?”
“Yes. He does. Did you Google him?”
“Yeah. There wasn’t much. He’s a bit of a mystery. Did he say why he wants to have dinner with you?” The quaver was back in her voice.
“He said, and I quote, ‘A business proposition will be presented that should alleviate the current difficulties.’”
“When?” Her voice strengthened. “Your dad and I will come up. We’ll reason with him.”
Part of him wanted to accept and be her little boy again. Let his parents handle this so he could focus on studying and hanging out with his friends, especially his roommate, Kevin. But he wasn’t a little boy anymore. His parents would never see that if he didn’t step up. Besides, Winthrop must have had a reason he specifically invited Seth.
“The invitation was sent to me. I think I should go alone,” Seth said.
“No.” His mother’s voice was firm. He knew that voice from a million turned-down requests for cookies. “Who knows what he’s going to ask you to do. He’s so rich. Maybe he’s a mobster. I don’t want my son being a drug mule.”
That was Mom, always imagining the worst. He was surprised she even knew what a drug mule was.
“Somehow, I doubt that. Look, I think this is the best way. I’m an adult. I can handle this.”
“I… I know. But this isn’t your problem. We got into this mess. You shouldn’t have to fix it.”
“It wasn’t your fault the economy sucked. I wish I’d known it was this bad. I could have taken a year off from school and gotten a job.”
“That’s exactly why we didn’t tell you. Your education is important. You need this degree to work for NASA.”
Seth yearned to explore the stars and would settle for nothing less than working for NASA. Originally, he planned to be a pilot, maybe go to the Air Force Academy to increase his chances of becoming an astronaut, but his need for strong glasses made that particular dream impossible. Not even the latest advances in laser surgery could correct his particular astigmatism.
It didn’t matter. As long as he made a contribution, moved the technology forward, he didn’t care, (well, mostly), if he actually went to space.
“And your friends on the basketball team. You don’t want to let them down.” Her tone changed, more teasing. “Especially not your roommate.”
No, Seth certainly didn’t want to disappoint Kevin. He would do anything for the man. “Mom, we’re just friends. You know he’s straight.”
“So? He’s still your best friend. You don’t want to disappoint him. Now, when is the meeting? We’re coming.”
“No. I’ll handle this.”
“Son, I heard what your mother said. We’re coming up.” His dad joined the conversation in that echoey way that meant the line had been switched to speaker phone.
“You two have taken care of me my entire life. I can help here. Let me scope this out and report back. I have to do this.”
The sound of the phone being covered by something scratched through. As the minutes passed, images of what Winthrop could want spun through his brain. Could the man be into something illegal like his mom thought? Holy shit. Seth had never even had a parking ticket.
“Promise you’ll report back?” his dad asked. “Don’t agree to anything without us.”
“Okay.” Seth wasn’t sure that was a promise he could keep. “Love you both.”
“Love you, too, Son. Be careful,” his mom added as the phone disconnected.
His stomach twisted into a knot. Maynard Winthrop would have his dinner guest. What could the man possibly ask him to do? It’s not like he had ninja hacking skills. His father was the computer programmer.
Why would Winthrop target his family? Their debt wouldn’t make a dent in his bottom line if he had the money to buy a profitable company like ShoreStream. Maybe that was why Winthrop did this. It was nothing to him, but he knew it would ruin them.
Maybe the man was merely inviting him to gloat? Sadistic bastard.
Whatever his motivation, Seth had a bad feeling about what the man had in store for him.