A professional young woman is given the responsibility of deciding the fate of not only a generous organization but also that of an old friend.
Katie MacDougall pressed a manicured fingertip to the icon on her touchscreen. She drew the file around the tablet in an expanding circular motion. She paused over the trash can in the corner, then reversed in ever-tightening rotations. Returning to the original spot, she released it, French tip hovering. So much power lay in a simple screen tap. Click, click, click. Open. Scroll. Accept. Could she do it? Should she do it? With a sudden jab to the power button, she folded the case and shoved the iPad Air into her bag.
“Katie!” a friendly voice called from across the bistro.
“MerriLee,” she said, rising. The women embraced, fawned over each other’s vacation tanned skin and ‘natural’ highlights, then settled in at the table.
“You know I want to say you look great,” MerriLee Jacobs began, “but…”
Katie sighed. “I know. I loved my trip to Gulf Shores with Cliff. We needed a getaway from the city and Alabama was the perfect escape. But I’m paying for that time away now. I’ve been slammed since we returned. Plus, I have a big…project.”
“I’ll drink to that.” MerriLee motioned the server to their table. “Two Ruinart Blanc de Blancs peach mimosas.”
“How was Fiji?”
“Fi-jabulous. I could go on for hours about the silky sand beaches, crystal waters, and hot guys. But we don’t have hours.” MerriLee cast a knowing eye to her friend. “You don’t have hours. Have you made a decision?”
Katie’s brows rose. “A decision? You know?”
“Of course I know. My gossip-mongering mother’s third and current husband is on the foundation board of directors.”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“Sure you can. I think you need to.”
Katie hesitated, contemplating. “Five members and I’m the trustee with the deciding vote.” Subconsciously, she ran her finger in a circular motion on the tabletop.
MerriLee nodded and plucked the peach garnish from the rim of her glass, sucked the juice from the slice, then popped it into her mouth.
“I was honored by the appointment to the Board of Trustees for the One Family Foundation. It’s a wonderful non-profit. They help a lot of people get back on their feet after tragedy. I can’t help but wonder if they assume that because I’m new to this I will bow to their pressure regarding investments.” Katie paused. “I don’t know if I can comply with the rules and expectations.”
“Bureaucratic bosh.” MerriLee waved her hand dismissively. “Just submit your ‘yes’ vote and be done with it.”
Katie considered the lives that would be affected by her ‘yes’ vote. Those that would benefit from the investment into Mercy Distribution LLC…and those who might ultimately suffer. She sipped her mimosa, savoring the liquid as it rolled smoothly across her tongue. There was no bite like the five-buck bottles of Martini & Rossi she’d rung in New Years with during her college days, no burn with the swallow. How far she’d come since earning her master’s a mere two years ago. “Or I could let the offer time out, make no decision.”
“No decision is still a decision.”
Was it Katie’s imagination or did there seem to be an edge to her friend’s tone? The iPhone pinged in her purse.
“You going to get that?”
“Pretty sure they’re just checking up on me. Both sides.” She shook her head, short bob swaying. “I’d like to believe they selected me because I’m unconnected not unqualified. I have nothing to personally gain from trustee votes. I’m capable of making the right decision on this deal based on facts and financials. I hope. Who did you go to Fiji with?” she asked, shifting subjects.
MerriLee chortled lightly but before she could answer, the waiter approached, enquiring if they were ready to order. “I’ll have the puntarelle Vaucluse trout with crispy frites.”
Rather than risk embarrassment at unknown entrees or mispronunciation, Katie handed over the menu and requested the same. This fancy frite world was still new to her.
MerriLee looked at Katie. “If only your vote was as easy as ordering lunch. It could be,” she added.
“Did your stepdad put you up to this?”
“Roger Ol’Codger?” MerriLee laughed. “Of course not. I hardly ever see him and when I do, we barely speak the same language.”
Katie’s phone dinged again. She ignored it.
“A bunch of us took Cyrus James’ jet. To Fiji. You know Cy? No? Anyway, we stayed at the Royal Duvai Island Resort. Sweet digs.” MerriLee drained her drink and gestured for another. Tutting, she continued, “I had to fly home commercial. The rest headed to New Zealand to finish up the month.”
“Why didn’t you continue on with them?”
MerriLee’s narrow shoulders slumped dramatically. “I was needed stateside.” She rolled her heavily lashed eyes. “Duty called.”
“Duty?” Katie chuckled. “That is not a word I would associate with you.”
“I know, right?” MerriLee accepted the fresh drink from the server. “Vinaka,” she said, offering thanks in Fijian.
Considering duties, Katie again struggled with her decision. Protection, fidelity, and respect were the obligations of a trustee. How could she best serve the principles in this situation? What would be in the greatest interest of the trust? She’d combed over the provided data reports for the new deal. Weighed the pros and cons. The numbers seemed too good to be true. Her analytical mind tossed out charts and graphs, gains and losses, and benefits and detriments. If the investment paid off, it could substantially improve the fiscal status of the foundation. It was possible that affirming the vote could be mutually advantageous, yet uncertainty kept her endorsement at bay. What to do?
MerriLee’s finger snap in front of her face stole Katie from her thoughts.
“Sorry,” Katie offered.
“I was telling you about how the Ratu rum kicked my butt. You know I’m no lightweight,” she bragged, sipping the dregs of her mimosa loudly while flagging service for a refill.
Katie moaned. “Remember how much rum I drank when we went to Jamaica for spring break sophomore year?” She swallowed hard with recall.
“Oh, please. Jamaican rum is like Kool-Aid compared to Fijian Ratu. It’s not a mixing rum. Can you imagine drinking Jamaican rum straight?” MerriLee’s face wrinkled in disdain. “Anyway,” she said, “what does Cliff say about your big…project?”
“Cliff?” Katie snorted. “First of all, I’m not supposed to discuss this very private and important business matter with anyone.” She filled the pause with a glare. “And neither should Roger O’Collier. Secondly, Cliff is a proudly nerdy programmer. I love him, but the man has zero business acumen. That may be why I love him.”
“Must be a great guy,” MerriLee mumbled, looking away, “because he’s certainly not rich.”
“MerriLee,” Katie slapped at her friend’s hand. “There is more to life than money.”
“Of course. Hey, was that your phone again?”
“Yes,” Katie conceded. Lunch arrived as she was reaching into her purse. Instead she picked up her fork.
“Mmm, so good, right? The bitter of the greens with the sweetness of the buttery glaze on the delicate fish.” MerriLee savored a few more bites before stating, “Not going to find this dish at any down south hole-in-the-wall diner.”
Katie nearly choked on a twice-fried potato stick. “True, but I highly doubt you’ll find a breaded pork tenderloin the size of your head at a place like this,” she countered.
“What?” MerriLee began. “Of course you would. We call it escalope porc aussi gros que ta tête and it costs the same as the down payment on your trailer.”
“You are so bad!”
“And money is so good!”
As Katie savored the mélange of delicious flavors, she was hard-pressed to deny her friend’s assertion.
Finished, MerriLee placed her silverware across the plate and sat back in the chair. “You should come with us next time. When we go to Fiji or France, or wherever. I’m sure Cy would be amenable.”
“I’m super busy,” Katie said, which translated to I can’t afford that. “I work a lot.”
“Somebody has to. Work, I mean.”
The server removed their plates and asked about dessert.
“No, thank you.” Then, “Speaking of work…” Katie exhaled deeply, big decisions heavy on her mind.
“Just the check.” Digging in her Saffiano mini bag, MerriLee handed over her credit card.
“Thanks for lunch. I was surprised when you invited me out,” Katie said. “Pleasantly surprised. Other than social media, what’s it been? Three years? Karina’s wedding?”
“Uh-huh.” MerriLee nodded.
The waiter returned with a sheepish look on his face. “I’m sorry, Ms. Jacobs, there seems to be a problem with your card. Perhaps you have another form of payment?”
Surprised, Katie met her friend’s embarrassed eyes. “Is everything all ri—” A cacophony of digital noises erupted from Katie’s bag alerting her of simultaneous calls, texts, and messages. “What in the world?” She checked her phone first to see an urgent message from Cliff.
“You have to vote yes.” MerriLee’s gaze was intense.
Attention focused on the small screen, Katie inhaled sharply. She turned the image toward her friend. “Is this true?” she asked of the Instagram photo that showed an ebullient MerriLee hugging a man Katie did not know in front of a hand-painted office sign. MerCy Distribution LLC it read in dripping blue letters. Someone had scrawled an ‘o’ between the painted L’s for the final punchline.
“You have to vote yes,” MerriLee repeated. “I need it.”
“Need it. Need what? Need the trust to hand over money to a fabricated company?” The fraudulent numbers of the financial report suddenly slid into obvious place. Shock silenced further comment.
A tear slid down one bronzed glowing cheek. MerriLee dropped her head, hiding her shame behind a wall of chemically straightened hair.
“Here,” Katie whipped out a credit card for the patient server and he departed.
MerriLee murmured under her breath. Her speech thick and wet.
Clearing her throat, straightening her posture, and swiping a tear, MerriLee repeated, “Cyrus said he would cover me until we got the funding. Then we’ll split it fifty-fifty.”
“The bid proposal is for a million dollar investment! The One Family Foundation can’t afford to lose that through a fictitious deal. This is not a game, MerriLee. People’s lives are directly impacted by the success—or failure—of our handling of the trust.”
“I’m one of the lives impacted!” she wailed. “You’re an outsider. You don’t know. This is how it works. You don’t understan—”
“No, you don’t understand.” The waiter returned and Katie scribbled her signature, adding a generous tip to the overpriced tab. Three hours of overtime might cover this expense. The phone on the table pinged once more. Katie picked it up, read the text, then removed her iPad from her bag. “Funny, Roger has never contacted me directly before, but here’s yet another reminder about the timeliness of my vote. I’m guessing he’s tired of supporting you as well. Shame on all of you.”
Katie powered up the tablet. She pressed a manicured fingertip to the icon on the touchscreen. Click, click, click. Open. Scroll. Reject. And it was done.