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First impression


 

 

“Fuck!”

Being late for his job interview would be bad. In a hurry, Leo, his blue tie still crooked, hastily grabbed his cappuccino. How could he have guessed this Starbucks would be so crowded with customers, while the baristas were so few and so slow? His appointment for the interview was at 10:00 a.m., which was ten minutes from now. He could not have guessed that the trip in the subway from Brooklyn to central Manhattan would take that long. He should have checked this before or asked April. Damn. The panel of bosses waiting for him would be indulgent because he had only been in the city for 48 hours.

He could not afford to fuck this up, not after going all the way from Washington to New York and having an epic fight with his father. He was on his own now, and the only comfort he could hope for was from April. But there were limits to what you could ask from an ex-girlfriend. She had already managed to direct her boss’s attention to Leo’s resume. For a guy having left his job to avoid favored by nepotism, it was already too much.

April was not only his ex, but she was also still his best friend. In fact, she was the only friend he had. She had a habit of putting him back together that began when her friendly face greeted him at his new prep school in Boston. At the time, he was a mess.  He had left Arlington for the first time with a shattered heart and a body bruised by beatings and humiliation. He was a newcomer, with a half-healed burst lip and a black eye, and she had befriended him immediately. Knowing her now, after 14 years, including a romantic relationship of almost eight years, she probably did it out of pity. But still, Leo did not want to shame her by being late to this job interview.

And if he didn’t get the job, what would he do in an unknown city? He could not bear a petty ‘ I told you so’ from his father. Anyway, it was not the time to get nervous. He knew he had what the position needed. He remembered the requirements. A Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, a proven track record of persuasive writing, and experience doing investigative reporting. He had all of that and more. He had a Masters in Journalism and a Bachelors in Political Science. He also had a great deal of experience in writing in the newspaper. Plus, he was willing to work any of a 24/7 shift. Long hours, and weekends with short notice didn’t bother him.

It was not like Leo had a partner to care for.

The studio of Channel 6 was there, two blocks from the Starbucks in front of the subway station. He did not have time to daydream or gape like a tourist at the skyscrapers. After a quick sip to strike his tired-out body with a little caffeine, he started to run, trying not to splash milky coffee on his new gray suit or bump into all the people on the boardwalk. He had always been a good runner, thanks to his long legs. All of New York was so choked with people. He hoped that the long metro ride, piled in with the others, and the run, had not made him smell bad from sweat. He should have put on some cologne, even if he hated heavy perfume.

A quick glance at his Rolex watch showed that he had made it.

9:55 a.m.

While coming into the building through the carousel door, he thought about removing his watch. He had put it on absentmindedly, having worn it daily for almost four years. However, walking around with a $35,000 watch would not make him any friends among the crew of reporters and camera operators.

He looked around him with appreciation. The building had been built in New York’s golden age, to boost the economy after the Great Depression. Admiringly, he stared at the glass artwork and the gorgeous Tamara Lempicka painting. Even if it was now old-fashioned, it was still a masterwork, in Leo’s opinion. Art was one of his passions, but he did not have the time to daydream in front of beautiful architecture. That would wait for the next time.

Just below the painting was the front desk. The cute redhead receptionist reminded Leo of April, but younger. She flashed him a toothy smile. Leo deciphered it as a repressed laugh, and he guessed that the running must have messed his hair up even worse. With a nervous hand, he tried to brush it smooth, but it had always seemed like his dark brown hair had a mind of its own, always undisciplined.

“I am Leo Chanler. I have an appointment for a job interview at ten,” he explained, trying to look calm and composed but failing miserably, shaking so hard that he put down his coffee to prevent it from spilling.

She consulted a notebook briefly in front of her and nodded, still smiling.

“You are expected in meeting room B on the 28th floor. You can take this elevator,” she said, pointing to the golden elevator doors. “Good luck,” she added, still with a teasing smile, and anxious, Leo tried to fix his tie again. Why, after all those times in a formal suit, did he still suck at this?

She called him back because he forgot his cappuccino, but he dismissed her call, on pins and needles as he pressed the button for the elevator, and got in with a few people. He was almost late.

9:58 a.m.

Why the hell he had bothered to get a coffee? He would now probably have bad breath, and he couldn’t brush his teeth. He was already nervous, and it was not like he had the time. He had not slept the night before. He was anxious and horny as always, tossing in his bed, and it was not like coffee could fix him.

Leo was a mess who could not be fixed so easily.

Anyway, he wondered why the fuck he was thinking about a $5.00 coffee, when the number 28 flashed and the elevator door opened.

With long strides he hurried out of the elevator, heading left, when he bumped into a hard chest.

“Look where you’re going, you bastard!” a man spat angrily, looking defiantly at his now coffee-stained white shirt, red tie, and crushed cardboard Starbucks cup.

Leo opened his blue eyes wide, desolate.

“I'm sorry! I was late, and…” he stammered.

“To hell with your apologies!” the tall stranger bellowed. “I have to lead a fucking annoying interview and now I have a dirty shirt, thank you!”

“I will pay for the cleaning,” Leo promised, very apologetic, ”I just have an interview to do and…”

He left his sentence unfinished, as the stranger’s comment sank in and he swallowed a curse. His bad luck had struck again. This man was probably the guy doing his interview. Maybe not, he still hoped, and in a shaken voice he asked where meeting room B was.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Are you the guy applying for a job? My 10:00 a.m. appointment?”

Rigid, Leo nodded and awkwardly stretched out a hand.

“I'm Leo Chanler,” he said quietly, despite the feeling of doom invading him. “I'm applying as an investigative reporter.”

The man did not shake his head, seeming puzzled.

“Are you one of the Virginia Chanlers?” he asked slowly, now all business and serious.

Leo flushed, ashamed. He had kind of hoped nobody would be able to link him to his father. Maybe in a media business, it was foolish to believe that a press magnate like his father, the golf buddy of the president, was unknown, even in another state.

“I'm nothing like my father,” Leo said while the man was still staring at him, making him feel self-conscious. The guy had a piercing green glare and Leo felt uneasy under the close observation. Obviously, the interviewer had something on his mind.

“Move your ass,” the man with the coffee-stained shirt commanded, suddenly, like he had been kicked out from his train of thought. “We are already late because of your clumsiness. She’s gonna be pissed.”

He turned his back and walked away. Leo told himself that even if he had bumped into the man and made him spill his coffee, this was unnecessarily rude. And who was ‘she’?

He followed the man, who had still not introduced himself, to a door with a plate engraved with ‘Meeting Room B’.

It was a small room, probably especially used for private interviews or informal meetings. A long, walnut desk faced the door, just in front of a large window. The sunlight could not filter into the room, as a heavy curtain covered much of the surface. Artificial light filled the room, the cold glow turning the walls a sickly green.

Two other people were sitting behind the desk, another man in his late 50's, bald and jaded looking, and an Asian woman in her early 40's, with a severe expression on her narrow features. Next to them was an empty spot, probably meant for the man Leo had bumped into.

“Here’s the guy for ten o’clock,” the man said carelessly. “The little fucker was in such a hurry, he made me spill my coffee. We have to move forward quickly, I need to change!” he barked, looking at himself with disgust.

Ashamed, Leo stayed standing, his cheeks burning. What an introduction the guy had just made for him. Now he could just take the next flight to Arlington, tail between his legs. There no way he had made a good first impression.

The man sat down and took some sheets of paper from the desk, giving them a critical glance. Leo supposed it was his resume. His face was damn serious, and Leo felt his insides churning from the stress.

The woman gestured, inviting Leo to sit down on the little chair facing them. Leo felt like he was on trial, and in some ways he was. His hands clenched his grey pants, helpless to make him feel better.

“I’m Miss Oroku. I'm the executive director,” the woman said, her voice clipped. “I will lead this interview with Mr. Wilson, the news director,” she explained, gesturing toward the older man, “and Mr. Payne, the investigative producer, who will be your immediate superior in case of hiring,” she said, pointing with her chin to the man with the stained shirt.

So, this was the name of the rude man. Mr. Payne. And to take the damn cake, he would be his superior. How this day could be greater, Leo mused with sarcasm.

“In case,” Mr. Payne repeated behind his clenched teeth, his whole body stiff. Leo cursed his bad luck even more, sinking his nails into his thighs.

There was no way he would get the job now. This ‘Mr. Payne’ already hated him, like every bulky guy did. It was not only because of the coffee incident. It was personal.

Leo looked down, distraught. Why did these kinds of men, like Payne, despise Leo so much at first glance? Was it because of his spoiled-son watch, he wondered, hiding it nervously by pulling on his shirtsleeve. The palms of his hands were moist with sweat from the stress. Did he have an aura of a victim, easy to intimidate? What was wrong with him? Since birth, people could not be neutral to him. Leo did not know what was wrong with him. He was polite and tried to be kind to everyone. He had always performed at school, but not so much as to be a nerd. Even in sports, he had been the star of the judo team and the best sprinter. Physically, he was okay, and he knew he was a more than a competent journalist. He was a loyal, hard-working person, too. Why did men like Mr. Payne have such contempt for him before knowing him?

There was one time he had lowered his guard with a guy like that, and it had ended pretty badly for Leo. He was used to avoiding that types of man. At least, women had always liked him, God knows why, he told himself, looking expectantly at the woman behind the desk. She was his only hope. If he was hired, he would have to work under the rule of this rude man, anyway. Even if he was competent and capable, Leo instinctively knew he would have a hard time with his superior. So, he could just stand up and walk away from this office. There were other newspapers and TV stations in New York, some not controlled by his father, thank God. No, despite April's insistence, this place was bad news.

Payne had finished flipping through his resume, and with a sharp move, he slapped the wooden table.

“So, you can see this guy’s resume just as well as me,” he declared to the directors. “He has the education. He has the background, he has all the damn qualifications. Can we hire him already so I can change my shirt?”

Leo looked up, surprised, as the woman uttered a “tsss” of disapproval. Why was this man suddenly for him? What did he see on Leo’s resume that made him change his mind about him?

“Can’t you act like a professional for once?” she pestered Payne, “Don’t make me regret promoting you two years ago.”

While the man in the middle, the News Director, stayed silent, Payne talked back.

“I’m fucking busy, and you are too. Stop pretending that he is not the perfect candidate, and hand him the hiring papers, Karai!”

Miss Oroku did not seem to appreciate to be called by her first name.

“I’m the one in charge. Just sit and watch,” she hissed, narrowing her eyes, and Mr. Payne snorted derisively.

Leo frowned in front of all this lack of professionalism. It was not the way the directors had talked in front of the employees in any previous job, even less a future employee. Maybe Leo, being the only heir of the Chanler media empire even if he was a mere journalist, did not get to see their real faces.

He was so used to people faking polite caring for him.

The fist hitting the table startled him.

“He is the friggin’ heir of Chanler! You know them? The largest newspaper and magazine business in the damn world since World War One!” Payne roared, like he was reading Leo’s mind. “When they built this fucking building we are in now, his great-great father was already fucking rich and buddy-buddy with Roosevelt! He could sit his ass at a director’s desk like you in his father’s station! So don’t indulge in a power trip!”

Ashamed, Leo bit his lips. All of this was indeed true. If he wanted to be the man his father wanted, he could lead a golden life with a director's title and spend his days on a golf course or sipping martinis on his yacht at Fort Lauderdale. Leo could not do that. His conscience and his pride forbade him. Leo needed a job where he could be useful, and where he could show his real self. Channel 6, very well known for their fearless reporters, sharp enough to see the government’s flaws and the secret scandals in powerful men’s lives, was right up Leo’s alley.

April had told him how she felt like she worked with family, each person of the staff very dedicated to their job, glad to tell the truth to people watching the news. It was not the most lucrative job, but denouncing the shameful secrets of the rich and powerful was very gratifying, according to April. It made people put passion into their work. This had attracted Leo's interest, and he had always had full confidence in April's judgment.

And now, he was sure not to get the job because of what the producer just said about Leo’s origins. Channel 6 belonged to a rival company with democratic sympathies, while his father’s chain was more Republican-friendly, making Leo's presence unusual. How in the world did this Payne do the math so quickly only with his name? There were other Chanlers in the damn country! He could have been just a distant relative. It was not because he looked like his father. His father had a tanned golfer's complexion and brown eyes. His hair had been gray for about twenty years, but as a young man, he was ginger. Nothing like Leo's pale skin, blue eyes and dark hair. He looked more like his late mother. So, how did Mr. Payne land a bullseye on his identity?

The executive director did not seem to be impressed a bit by Payne’s ruckus, and after a sip from the cup next to her, she looked intensely at Leo, diving into his soul.

“Did you tell Mr. Payne about your family as the first introduction?” she asked Leo, and he shook his head. Of course, he would never have boasted about it. He had fled his family. He wouldn't show them off.

“No, I didn’t.” 

“He doesn't look at all like that kind of guy,” she said, looking now at Payne. “I remember your family is from Virginia.” She looked at the sheet of paper in front of her. “Arlington, like where you came from. Do you know him, perhaps?” she asked the producer, her voice heavy with intent.

Leo stared anxiously at Payne, who now seemed embarrassed. He did not have good memories of Virginia, at all, even if it was where he came from. The guy did not remind him of anybody and Payne was a very common family name around Arlington. He was tall, taller than Leo’s 6 feet, and bulky. The producer had brown hair, maybe four shades lighter than Leo’s himself, with a beard covering his square jaw. He was older by at least three years, so it was unlikely they had known each other. Virginia was wide and Leo had never been very chummy with this kind of guys.

Except once.

The producer shrugged.

“No. I wasn’t a rich enough son of a bitch to meddle with the elite. I just guessed it. Must be the journalist instinct kicking in,” he denied.

Miss Oroku threw him a look heavy with suspicion before giving her attention back to Leo.

“If it is true, tell me,” she said seriously, and Leo knew what would come next. “Why are you not standing behind a desk at whatever station or newspaper office your family owns? The Chanler mass media and business information conglomerate run almost 50% of the newspapers, magazines, television channels and television stations of the country. You have the choice. Why Channel 6?”

It was a relevant question, and Leo knew he could not dodge it. Anyway, he had always been too honest and straightforward for his own good.

“My father and I have our differences. We don't share common points of view,” he explained matter-of-factly, not wanting to linger for too long on this matter. “I don't want to owe him anything.”

“This a shame, since your father is such a successful businessman,” the woman replied and Leo could not tell if he was hearing admiration or contempt in her voice. “So tell us about your qualifications and experiences.”

Leo explained his studies briefly. He had a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Journalism from Emerson College, and had worked for the Boston Post for six months as a journalist, before being summoned by his father. He had then pursued his studies to get a degree in political science, too, while working as a journalist for the Washington Today part-time.

“You really completed all these studies? You look barely 25 years old,” she asked.

It was a dumb question, but Leo replied politely, anyway. It was not the first time he had heard this comment. April told him often that he had a baby face. He hated that, even if he knew April didn’t mean it in a bad way.

“Maybe, but I assure you that I’m thirty,” he said, composed. “My birthday is on my resume. I was born in 1987.”

She did not comment and scrupulously examined his resume.

“I see you worked for several other newspapers,” she noted. “Mainly in Massachusetts.”

“I worked freelance for other newspapers, but used a pen name,” he confessed, and Karai nodded, getting what Leo meant. To be taken seriously, he had hidden his real name.

“Why orienting yourself toward television if all your experience is with writing press?” she asked, while the old man in the middle was attempting to hide a yawn over how bored he was.

“The challenge,” Leo answered, and Karai snorted derisively at this cliché answer. Leo admitted it sounded simple, but it was true.

“I guess with all the daddy issues you have, it is only a childish way to provoke him and get some attention,” she said.

Leo felt his cheeks burning. Yes, he wanted to show his father how he was able to succeed without him and show that he had nothing in common with him. But Miss Oroku was wrong about the attention craving. It was quite the other way around. If his father could forget about him, he would be rather glad.

“I also have a friend working here,” he replied calmly, not wanting to show how hurt he was by the executive director’s comment. “She is a reporter too, and she told me she likes the Channel 6 crew. April O’Neil.”

“Is she your girlfriend?” Mr. Payne asked bluntly and Leo, startled, looked at him, feeling dazed. He had almost forgotten about the producer, with Karai’s sharp eyes on him. Why this out of the blue question?

“She was,” he answered honestly, while Karai was offended by the intimacy of the question, expressing her displeasure to the producer, “but we broke up like five years ago. We are still friends.”

“Are you in a relationship with someone?” Payne asked again, insisting, but Karai cut Leo off before he could answer, her voice dripping with venom.

“What is all this questioning about? If I did not know you to be a famous womanizer, I would think you played for the other team,” she sneered. “I can admit he is good-looking but knowing your taste, he lacks enough boobs,” she dropped with disdain and Leo, flushed, looked down. He could not believe what he had just heard from an executive director leading an interview.

“That has nothing to do with it!” Payne growled.”You know our schedules are crazy. A single man, with no whining girlfriend or kids waiting for him at home, would be better suited for us!” he denied fiercely. “I’m done with lovey-dovey guys not wanting to work on Valentine’s Day!”

The executive director was mad-dogging the producer, and Leo shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Payne did not seem to be bothered by her hard glance at all, looking at her boldly, and she shifted her attention to Leo, yielding to the staring contest.

“What about the salary?” she asked aggressively.

Leo frowned. It was the inverse of what usually happened to him. This woman seemed to be fiercely against him all of sudden when the macho man wanted him on his team. When he was a teenager, despite his ancestors and money, he was always picked the last in sports. Leo had always been slender, with just a little muscle thanks to judo and jogging, and he lacked competitive spirit in team sports. He had always preferred individual sports, or two-person sports like judo or tennis, for the fun of physical activity, that’s it. In high school, he was the best student in English, art and history classes. He was on the school journalism team and in the drama club, and very involved in the school life. Since judo was not as manly as football or basketball, jocks had always mocked him for his feminine interests, like there were only female actresses, female artists or female reporters. And what about all the teasing he had to bear in his teenage years about having a ‘cock sucking mouth’? He felt acid filling his stomach, remembering the bullying he had suffered at the time, all the stress he endured until the climax, that traumatic night.

“Money is not important to me,” he explained, without any passion. He just wanted to be dismissed, now. He had failed anyway, so why extend the interview?

Karai snorted and she flipped through the resume again, but Leo could tell she was not looking at it, only nervously pretending. This woman was about to cry, he realized, dumbfounded.

The bald man who had remained silent so far cleared his throat, and Leo’s eyes snapped back to him.

“Thank you. We will let you know of our decision,” he said idly and Leo felt relief. He had not been in a lot of interviews so far in his life, but he could tell this one was unusual. Thinking of his past had made him gloomy and edgy, and he only wanted to go home and drown his sorrows with ice cream.

Another feminine trait, he supposed.

Once dismissed, Leo stood up to shake hands.

The executive director Karai Oroku’s hand was cold but firm. She was still managing to hold back her tears, and looked Leo straight in the eyes, her lips in a thin, trembling line.

The news director Wilson’s hand was slack and clammy, his mind miles away and his look jaded and empty.

The producer Payne’s handshake was the more reluctant of them all, hesitant as if he was disgusted to touch Leo, but when their hands came together, he felt very warm. As for his eyes, Leo could not tell, unable to look at him.

“We will call you,” Miss Oroku said and Leo murmured thanks, even if he was sure as fuck to not get the job.

The door behind him was still closing when he heard Payne snap.

“I need a reporter NOW. Why the fuck are we delaying? This guy will do! I need another reporter!”

“Why do you want him so badly?” Karai wondered in a harsh tone, so loud that even with the door now closed Leo could hear her distinctly. “And since when do we hire people on impulse without looking at their references? We still have three other interviews to conduct! I’m sure as fuck not hiring him because he has a nice ass and cute eyes!”

He did not hear the reply from the elevator, twelve feet away. Flushed with anger, he pressed hard on the button. How in the world did a woman in Miss Oroku’s position dare make such comments on the physical appearance of a job applicant so bluntly? At first, she had been all business, but at some point, her mood had shifted. Leo didn't understand it

He couldn’t wait to tell April and make her share his indignation, but before the elevator door opened, the meeting room door did.

“I’m taking a fucking smoke break!” Payne roared before slamming the door of the meeting room.

Polite and still feeling uneasy, Leo pretended to not notice the raging producer, not wanting to antagonize him further, and waited by the elevator. Leo stared fixedly at the door, but Payne jerked him around to face him.

“Don’t you dare go applying anywhere else! You are mine! Go home and wait for our call!” he hissed, green eyes blazing, his hand like a vice grip on Leo’s upper arm.

Leo looked at him, stunned by the outburst. All the Channel 6 people were a bunch of weirdos, and this man was taking the cake. How April could recommend this place was beyond him. But the fact that the man was squeezing his arm annoyed him. Leo hated to be touched and he had the feeling that this man had ruined his job interview. Did he do it on purpose because Leo had spilled his coffee? He had no idea, but now he was pissed.

“I think it is not just your call,” he replied coldly, snapping out of the man’s grip. He wanted nothing to do with his father’s bootlickers and yes men, but Leo could not bear someone acting so rudely to him. And what about that ‘you are mine’ part? This guy was a nutcase. Why was the damn elevator stopping at all the damn floors before reaching the 28th? Leo just wanted to take back his cappuccino from the receptionist and get as away as possible from there.

“Don’t think this is over, Raphael!” the executive director bellowed, poking her head out of the meeting room. “I will teach you to respect me!” she added, snarling, pointing to him with a long, painted nail.

Raphael Payne pulled a cigarette holder out of his shirt pocket, and with less than a care in the world, he lit one.

“Fuck you, Karai. You're just pissed because I’m not warming your bed sheets anymore. Find another boy toy, would you?” he replied, taking a drag on the cigarette.

Leo gaped. These two bosses were lovers and this man had just admitted it so casually in front of him, a job applicant? The woman was probably older than the producer by ten years, but that was not that part that shocked Leo the most. How could you bed your superior? Was it the means Payne used to get this promotion Miss Oroku was referring to? And now that he had what he wanted, why did he not bother to be at least respectful to her? Also, the way he dared to smoke next to a ‘no smoking’ sign. Who did this man think he was?

Leo decided it was not his business, anyway, since he would not be working there.

Finally, the ‘ding’ of the elevator rang and the door opened. The bulky man forced Leo into the elevator with him.

“Get in!”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Leo asked, mad about being forced this way, disengaging himself after the producer Payne pressed the entry-level button. He took three steps away, the elevator being spacious enough to prevent him from being close to this man. He could now back talk as he wished, knowing he would not have the job.

“Did silver spoon boy just curse in front of his future boss?” Mr. Payne said, still smoking. “It sounds dirty from those pillow lips,” he said with a smirk.

Leo narrowed his eyes. He particularly hated comments about his mouth. April had complimented him about it many times, telling him how soft and inviting they were, but he could not stand another person doing it, let alone a man like Payne. The producer dared to make fun of him after spoiling his job interview.

“I don’t think so. Your superior seems to doubt my competencies. She has a say in this,” Leo retorted, with his most formal voice, without even looking at the man. He could not stand that smug grin of his.

“She'll come around. She always does,” Mr. Payne added, mocking. “Give her some time to convince herself it is her decision, not mine,” he said, blowing smoke in Leo’s face.

That was another thing Leo hated. The smoke. His face twisted with displeasure.

“Even if I guess I should be flattered by you wanting me to work with you, I’m afraid that even if Miss Oroku ‘came around’ I will, regretfully, refuse the job,” Leo replied icily. He was honest. After witnessing the ill-mannered behavior of the bosses from Channel 6, he did not want to work for such crude, unprofessional people. Too bad about not getting to work with April.

Suddenly, Raphael Payne invaded his space, pressing him to the wall of the elevator.

“Either Channel 6, with me, or with your papa,” he hissed. “Everybody knows me in New York. A single call and nobody would hire you, not television or the papers.” Smoke wafted out of Raphael’s mouth with the threat, his lips close, and Leo almost gagged with indignation.

“You are flattering yourself,” Leo spat, trying to hide his discomfort while the man pressed him hard into the elevator’s wall. He had lived through this many times in high school. He wouldn’t bear it again.

“You’re cute like an angry kitten when you are riled up, with your flashing blue eyes, but don't push your luck, kitty,” the producer whispered, almost nuzzling him, and Leo felt the man’s hand in his hair, pulling it lightly.

Leo’s heart pounded in his chest. He was not by any means afraid, but this flirtatious aggression was troubling him. This nickname ’kitty’ was making him feel something cold in the pit of his stomach, though he did not know why. He felt a warmness creeping into his body and his limbs felt numb. To hide how he was affected and to show he was a grown-up man, not easy to bully like he might have been before, Leo raised his chin in a daring manner.

“I’m about to think Director Oroku is right,” he sneered. “You want me working with you to flirt with me and stare at my ass all day long.”

Leo knew it was provocative nonsense. There no way a man like this Raphael Payne, all bulk and bark, could be attracted to a man like him. He was only touching him to make fun of him, and to call him a fag after, if Leo showed his unease. Maybe after seeing how Leo was unimpressed by this ridiculous hazing, the producer would leave him alone.

The elevator door opened at the entry level, and the producer stepped aside to let Leo go. The young man got out quickly, in a hurry to get away, glad the man seemed to have dropped the teasing.

“Yes. Maybe I do,” Payne retorted softly, leaning back on the elevator wall, the cigarette pinched between his lips. Leo turned his head, shock obvious on his features. He had probably not heard right.

Raphael Payne winked at him, and the door closed before Leo could ask what it meant.

**********

“Are you kidding me? You can’t refuse this job!” April exclaimed, putting her spoon down. ”Mr.Payne might have acted in a peculiar way with you, but he is the best at what he does! Don’t let your pride make you miss this opportunity!”

Leo was bewildered. He has been impatient to tell her about this messed-up interview and had asked April to meet with him for lunch. She had agreed, excited to know how Leo’s interview had gone. She has been eager to work again with him. Their last collaboration dated from just after their Masters, in a Boston newspaper. Then, they had broken up, by mutual agreeing and Leo’s father had summoned him back to Virginia. But Leo had good memories from working with his friend, and he knew April had as well. They got along so well. That was the reason they’d stayed friends.

She had proposed meeting in a trendy kind of sushi place, which she had promised would not be too crowded, near the studio. She had arrived, ten minutes after him, so cheerful and smiling, kissing him on the cheek and begging him to tell her all his interview. It was the reason he had fallen for her. She had this joy, this optimism he was so lacking.

Leo had expected April would agree with him about how he could not accept this job and now, she was telling him he was wrong! It’s had nothing to do with pride. He leaned toward her, over the table, repeating with more insistence.

“Were you listening?” he asked in a low voice, to not bother the other clients. ”This man and his boss had a lover’s argument while I was in an interview. I have never seen such a lack of professionalism! And this Payne was so rude! I don’t care if he's good or not. When he threatened to block my career, he was clearly exaggerating,” Leo stated.

April took her spoon, turning it thoughtfully in her miso soup.

“Well, I don’t think he was boasting that much. It’s true he is well-considered. You know he won the national investigative Emmy award two years in a row? Working for him would be a boost to your career.”

Leo sank into his chair, looking sullen. Sometimes, he felt like April was acting like his mom. It was one of the reasons their relationship had not worked out.

“Don’t pout!” she said, serious. ”You seem to forget, I’ve worked for Channel 6 for more than three years. I know Producer Payne. He is my boss, too. He has a reputation as a player, and there’s a lot of gossip about him, but he is all business. He could be flirtatious, but a coworker of mine was interested and he turned her down, not wanting to muddle sex and work. He might flirt, but he never touches, like some other producers have the reputation to do. I don’t ever remember one time he shocked me by his behavior. He is a heavy smoker, has a potty mouth and he is slightly a hothead, but besides that, he is a very professional man. And if you refuse, and no other media hire you, what you will do as a living?”

Leo looked gloomily to his ceviche salad, suddenly not hungry, anymore. It was indeed true, apart from Journalism, there was not so much potential career for him. He had come all the way from Washington to New York to work with April, and he was living with her to help her pay her bills. April didn’t have a wealthy family to have paid for her University studies. She had debt and she did not want to live with a stranger as a roommate. Leo was her best option since they got along very well. If he turns down Channel 6 job offer and Payne prevented him from working anywhere else, what he would do to help April with her bills? He had some savings and he could sell his watch at any pawn shop, but there would be no a long-term solution.

April was trustworthy and she was the only being who genuinely cared for him, so maybe he should trust her judgment. After all, she had worked for years with this man and she seemed to find him a competent boss. That was what was crucial, right? But, despite all this reasoning, he still felt unease.

He had not told April how the producer had touched him, when she had just told him the man never did that, and he had not pointed out that for a man not meddling sex with work, Mr. Payne was seeming pretty intimate with Miss Oroku. Anyway, he wouldn’t get the job, so it was not worth having an argument with his best friend over.

“Well, all this discussion is irrelevant, Ape, since the executive director was very cold toward me. Mr. Payne might seem interested, but he is not the only one to decide.”

April looked at him straight in the eyes, determined. Leo had always liked how April, so cute and frail could have such energy. She had always been his strength.

“Maybe you are right, but often you don’t give yourself enough credit, Leo. You have serious self-esteem issues and so, have a wrong vision of the reality.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a pretty screwed-up personality. I’m aware of that! It’s not like I wanted to turn out this way, though!”

“What I mean,” April explained with her gentler voice, to calm him down, “is if Mr. Payne had bothered to start a fight with Miss Oroku over you, it’s mean he is very eager to have you. I don’t think she would dare contradict him. The station is the number one in the city since he’s been there.  Besides, you must admit that to be barely older than us and have this job, he has competencies. If I was you, I would be flattered of his interest.”

Leo sighed. He was done with this discussion about how this jerk was great.

“Let’s make a deal, April. If I get the job, I will accept it and try it at least a few weeks. If not, never mention this station or this man, to me again.”

She gave him a lovely smile and took his hand, squeezing it gently

“It’s a deal,” she said. “Now we have maybe a week or two to wait.”

There were still holding hand, when Leo’s phone, on the table, vibrated lowly.

Leo frowned while grabbing it. It was a private number. He answered the call anyway.

“Hello.”

“Leo? It’s me ,” a male voice said, huskily. “It’s settled. Have your ass at my office tomorrow at 9:00.”

Leo opened his eyes, shocked and April’s eyes locked with his, questioning.

“Who is this?” Leo asked, not sure he understood. And who was this person who was so familiar with him? “Which office?”

April took a pen from her purse and, with excitation, she wrote on the napkin, ‘You’d promised.’

“It’s Raphael Payne, big dummy! We met like two hours ago! Don’t pretend to not remember me,” the man on the phone snapped loudly. “I’m not a man you can so easily forget!” he growled. “So, don’t fuck with me!”

Leo had pulled the phone away from his ear and April, having heard and probably guessed who he was talking to, was beaming. Having a positive answer, so shortly after a catastrophic interview was very unusual. But it did not change the fact that the man was an arrogant prick.

“Mr. Payne,” Leo sighed, caught with his promise to April and not wanting to disappointed her when she seemed so happy for him, ”Are you serious? Miss Oroku had said she wanted to have an interview with other applicants as well,” he said, dispassionate.

You are the one I want, ” Payne said with a hoarse voice, the reply making Leo quiver. ”Mr. Payne is my father. Now that we work together, you can call me Raphael or even, Raph. Channel six is like a family,” the producer explained, to validate this fancy of him.

Raph. The sound of this name made him almost puke from anxiety. It was a name he had not heard in almost fifteen years, and one he would never say again. Not after having his heart broken and being humiliated that way when he was so naive and pure-hearted. This hateful name suited this awful man, he decided.

“I will be there on time, Mr. Payne,” Leo said, with a formal, cold tone. ”Thanks for your quick call back.”

Without waiting for an answer, he hung off, now pale. He had promised April to accept, but knew he wouldn’t keep the job long, so being impolite too was not a big deal.

“What did he say?”April questioned. “Didn’t you get the job? Why do you look like you just saw a ghost?”

“I got it,” Leo said, taking a sip of Long-Island iced tea, to clear his head. “He wants me in his office tomorrow morning. He summoned me in his rude way of his,” he spat angrily.

“But that’s great, Leo!” April exclaimed, grinning. “Why do you seem upset?”

His look lost in his tea, he did not answer right away.

“What do you and the other presenters or reporters call Mr. Payne?” he asked, his throat tight.

“What you mean? You want to know if he has a nickname or something?” April replied, not understanding.

Leo looked up, his blue eyes gleaming,

“Do you call him by his first name?”

April frowned.

“I call him Mr.Payne, like everybody, since he got promoted. Why?”

Leo did not answer her question. Instead, he chose to sit back and silently drink his tea while contemplating the events of his day. However, he could not enjoy his tea for it tasted as sour as the dread that consumed him.