ADVENTURE THE 32ND: TRAITOR HOOKS
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ADVENTURE THE 33rd: TRAITOR HOOKS
People with money have always fascinated me – perhaps, in part because I’ve had so little to go on myself. That’s not jealousy talking; just a queer sort of fascination for all the backroom ‘means’ that went into justifying such grandiose ‘ends’. Because when someone like Don Pedro amasses this much wealth there’s always a considerable price to be paid – and not everything winds up on the ledgers.
No. If I had to peg him, I’d say the Don was about as dirty underneath that starched collar as a ten dollar whore after the local Shriner’s Convention; pressed and polished maybe, but with grit and a few drops of someone else’s blood still fresh under his finger nails. It’s a genuine pity these guys know how to pull a Dorian Gray on the rest of us. It puts truth and justice at a decided disadvantage.
After a brief cook’s tour of the grounds, we’re whisked into the Don’s stately dining hall where the wine of a few fragrant flowers flows liberally. Bryan takes his seat next to Migrya – smart guy…maybe. He’s got geography on his side, but sitting across from her I have the advantage. I get to look her straight in the eye without appearing obvious.
The Don takes his seat at the head of table.
“You have come at a most fortuitous time, gentlemen,” Don Alvarez explains.
“How’s that?” I suggest.
“Tomorrow night I am giving my annual masquerade here at Palma Dante,” he explains.
“…and I haven’t a thing to wear,” I tease.
“That has already been provided,” Migrya suggest with a smile.
“As have your suites,” the Don adds, “I believe we have a mutual friend among the guests…a Michael Trent.”
Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in some time…and an unwelcome one at that. How that son of a bitch rates an invite to this posh resort is a genuine mystery…even bigger than the one I’m supposed to unravel.
“I believe you are well acquainted with Mr. Trent,” the Don punctuates, turning to me.
“Only slightly,” I reply, “His mother and my mother were both bitches.”
The Don gives me a polite smirk. He knows I’m lying, but has the good sense to keep everything on an even keel for the sake of propriety.
“Then you know that Mr. Trent is also after the list,” he reasons.
“Yeah,” I say, bravado swelling, “Only I suspect he’s playing us both for a fool. I don’t wear the mask of a clown well.”
“But you wear it just the same,” Migrya teases with a soft smile.
I decide to call her on that one.
“For you, angel…I’d wear a lot less…maybe just my smile…but I doubt it!”
I hate mind games – especially when everyone else seems to be playing them with the luxury of E.S.P. I can tell Bryan’s confused. He doesn’t hide that well. Someday it’ll be the death of him.
I wear my heart on my sleeve – that’s my fatal flaw.
“We are also going to have the man I believe to be Mr. Trent’s contact in Baden Baden,” the Don explains, refocusing the conversation away from our sexual tension, “Herr Franz Kriegler. Father was a Nazi during the war.”
Bryan’s ears perk up.
“How far did the apple fall from the tree?” he asks the Don.
There’s a sinister little grin that permeates the Don’s stoic puss – all polite, but most telling.
“Herr Kriegler has gone on ‘public’ record with his rebuke on the Nazi party,” Don Alvarez admits.
He punctuates, and almost chokes on the word public.
“Don’t they all when they’re not on the winning side,” I suggest.
Don Alvarez nods politely. We speak a similar language. I’m just at the remedial level but we’re on the same page.
“How will I know him…this Kriegler?” I inquire.
“He wears a ring on his left hand,” Bryan interjects, “Like Sommersets.”
“Members of the same lodge,” I suggest, “Chummy group to hang with…or be hanged by.”
I haven’t quite figured out what Don Alvarez’s is…but don’t worry. He’s got his rough spots same as everyone else. Picking the right scab…that’s the hallmark of a probing surgeon to the human condition…and don’t kid yourself…when I take to scraping around, I leave the antibacterial soap at home.
I decide then and there to scour clean that nasty little bit of my past that might surface later on. It’ll make things easier if the Don thinks I’ve no secrets – at least, none that I want kept hidden. Maybe he’ll even slip a little and place his trust in me.
“Michael Trent,” I explain for the benefit of the room, “What a helpful chap. Set me up to help him find what he already had or knew where to get. Used me as a decoy, actually. Only I’m not the same unsuspecting dupe I used to be. In fact, I’m down right full’a conjecture.”
Bryan gives me the once over. He’s sweatin’ a bit. Looks good on him. Everyone needs a good squirm now and then. Reaffirms that we’re all fallible.
“Purely speculative,” I add, turning to Migrya, “…I find I make out better when my head’s screwed on properly.”
I let the next comment drop like an anvil on crushed glass.
“….as I recall, he had a pretty fine looking daughter too.”
I let my eyes rove a bit – for effect and my own gratification.
“Well,” I reason with a raised eyebrow, “Not quite.”
Migrya raises her glass and drinks to my half-ass toast. Vanity – that’s her fatal flaw. Typical.
“Don’t let the gray hair fool you when you meet him,” I warn Don Alvarez, “Ol’ Mike’s got more cards up his sleeve than David Copperfield and he’s not afraid to pull the Ace of Spades when the chips are down.”
“I fear no one, Mr. Mars,” the Don explains, “I find I live longer that way. Besides – we have the element of surprise. No one knows you are here.”
. . .
After a few more polite drinks, Don Alvarez leads Bryan and me to the suites we are to occupy while in his care. They’re absurdly lavish. I have a tub that Mark Spitz could do the fifty meter in, but I do alright without my water-wings.
Afterward, I look around the room with gauze-like perception, my four poster mahogany framed by a wall of French doors leading to a private terrace. The whole place is probably wired for sound. Too bad, because the way my legs are starting to wobble, all that the Don is going to get out of me tonight is a loud snore.
I cast off the soft terry robe that’s been provided and slip in the raw between a set of silken sheets and thick comforter that feel ticklish and soothing across my fresh skin. I am amazed at how quickly I slip into dreamland. Hope the Don digs my pitch.
I wonder briefly whether it’s the wine or two and a half days at sea that has me in this relaxed coma before eleven. Then – it’s lights out.
. . .
The party at Palma Dante gets underway at a half past six the next evening – and a good thing it is. I couldn’t stand a minute more of that insane pre-party clatter that goes with pulling off a shindig this extravagant.
The tent and awning people were at it first, driving stakes into the heart of the Don’s fertile soil at six thirty in the morning and erecting a makeshift bar, dance floor and bandstand by nine. Then came the riggers, hoisting huge bundles of cable and trucking in a sound system with enough wattage to host a comeback tour. They were followed by an army of florists, draping silk bunting, sprigs, ropes and laurels of freshly woven ivy and hibiscus around anything that would stand still. The caterers weren’t far behind.
I came down around eleven to observe the model of efficiency behind these entourages hand-picked by Ms. Manners. Upwards of a hundred backstage personnel milled about for the rest of the afternoon, furnishing a new place card here and there and planting a stylish gold and glitz center piece on every table. By the time the first stretch limo rolled into the Don’s circular drive at five-thirty that evening, Palma Dante had been transformed into a trendy European nightclub.
At six-fifteen, ‘ol buddy Franz arrives with the expected amount of bling and booty call draped across his arm. He’s a blonde, spiky-haired Arian bad boy, easily the most eye-catching and superficial metrosexual in the bunch. His girlfriend has enough collagen stuck between her set of perfect caps to make a Holstein blush. She’s not bad for effect, but I’d hate to have her high maintenance clinging to my hip.
I don’t rate the star treatment at this event – which is exactly the way I want it: low key. I prefer to make my own introductions.
But there’s something about Bryan that bothers me tonight. I don’t know what it is - exactly. Earlier, as the first guests were filtering through the estate, I came up to his room, knocked, was told to enter, only to find him practicing some Tai Bo in the raw.
“Hadn’t you better get dressed,” I suggested.
“In a minute,” Bryan replied…then promptly spent another ten or so practicing.
Too much buddy-buddy bonding for me. So I stepped onto his balcony overlooking the whole gaudy affair. It’s from this vantage that I first spotted Mike Trent – casual cool, looking as respectable as a Swiss banker. He came alone.
Then again, two’s a crowd – a rule of thumb my man Franz seems to forget. His plaything follows him around like a bad case of the Clap. I can’t make out if she’s just haughty and disdainful or are the injections gone into her permanently scowl. Either way, she’s a trifle more into herself than anyone – including Franz – might ever hope to be.
‘Grow up, girlie’ – I say to myself, ‘you’re not the whole show…unless we’re rating freaks.’
As Bryan and I descend from the second floor into this den of thieves, I tell him that I think it would be best if we stick together. He agrees, then promptly does his best – and succeeds – at getting lost in the crowd. It’s probably for the best, since I suddenly spot my old pal, Mike chumming it up with a couple of cutthroats at the other end of the bar.
“Hey,” I call over to the bartender, barely audible above the Latin rhythm section that’s begun to beat their brains out, “See that guy over there?”
I point to Mike. The burly young brute squeezed into his server’s uniform nods. He looks more like a hit man than a bartender.
“What’s he drinking?” I inquire.
“Cosmopolitan,” the bartender replies.
“Well, send another down the pipeline with my compliments,” I say, “Tell him, old habits die hard.”
The bartender nods, mixing up a drink.
“Oh…” I add politely, “Put a little stinger in it. Something noticeable to mark the occasion.”
I get comfy on a stool and wait for the element of surprise to kick in as Mike leans in and gets my message second hand. He looks up. I can see the firecrackers going off inside his head. But he’s good. He’s very good. He doesn’t flinch or even raise a curious eyebrow. Instead, he nods in my direction, raises his glass and takes a few sips. I give him a slight nod back – something to show that the moment hasn’t been wasted.
But my eye-line is pulled by a sudden bright puff of red darting about the dance floor. Franz’s gal pal knows how to sell a pair of Prada, her supple limbs rising in artful thrusts amidst a sea of rumba-stricken hopefuls stuck in their amateur night. I’m so caught up in her kicks that it takes me a moment to focus in on her partner – Bryan. He’s a man of hidden talents. I’ll give him that. I wonder what she’s willing to give him instead.
I scope the room for ‘ol buddy Franz. This blitzkrieg of glossy public display can’t be going over well, and pissing off the competition is the last thing I wanna do before I get to know Herr Kreigler socially. But there’s not a single outcropping of that vial spiked blonde cactus crop bouncing in this sea of otherwise dark-haired debutantes and their swarthy black-domed lotharios. Maybe my luck’ll hold out.
“And how is it that you rate an invitation to this black tie affair?” I hear a familiar voice ask me, so soft and close that I can feel warm breath on my lobe and collar.
It’s Mike. He’s somehow managed to teleport to the next stool without me noticing and raising the drink I sent him in my honor and direction.
I better get my priorities straight. The variables are in motion and I can’t afford to lose one in the crowd.
“Oh,” I reply coolly, turning to face him, “I’m moving up in the world – socially.”
“I didn’t think that was possible.”
He’s a rat in Armani – just a thug-killer pretending at being a gentleman.
“There’s nothing that money can’t buy,” I suggest with a carrot at the end, “…except, perhaps – the list.”
Mike just smiles.
“Everything’s for sale, Mr. Mars,” he tells me, “The price just has to be right.”
“Yeah,” I agree, “Although I was never particularly good at that game. ‘Name that Tune’ was more up my alley.”
“Musical?” Mike inquires.”
“Maybe,” I tell him, more directly, “For instance, I can name that blonde Nazi-stooge you came to meet here tonight in…oh, say five notes…starting in the key of F-major.”
Mike’s shirt collar just shrank by two sizes, because I can trace a thin grain of reddening corpuscles rising from his chin into his cheeks. It only takes a few moments before his whole head takes on the shading of a dinner special at Red Lobster. I am about to name my tune when a drum roll interrupts.
The house lights dim and we’re thrust into darkness with a single arch spot hitting center stage. Don Alvarez appears from amidst the crowded shadows to celebrated applause.
“Ladies and gentleman…” he begins, “My friends…we have with us this evening one of the most celebrated dance teams in Europe. And they have consented to entertain us. I give you, Tonya and Steen.”
An anorexic couple in glaring white tuxedo and ball gown take to the floor amidst thunderous applause and cheers. Evidently, this crowd knows the names and the faces, because their ovation lasts well into the first few bars and theatrics, as this pair dart about the inlaid parquet, glowing like two elegant peace doves influx. The orchestra strikes up impassioned rhythms, deep base echoes vibrating beneath my feet as the room succumbs to a paralytic awe. I’m a guy with two left feet – but even I get the notion that what I’m seeing isn’t so much dancing as it is art.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to do a bit of business,” I hear Mike whisper quietly into my ear.
“Maybe,” I tease, “Only I’m distracted…just now.”
I aim to make him sweat it out, even if it’s only for a few moments. But my timing couldn’t be more off, and I find out by just how much as Tonya and Steen wrap up their hoofin.’ As the houselights come up, I turn to face Mike, but suddenly notice that he seems to be leaning heavy on the bar. His eyes have that vaguely glazed look that I know too well from Friday night to Sunday morning.
“Hey, Mikey,” I tease, “It isn’t last call yet.”
But it turns out I’m wrong again, as I give the arm that’s supporting him a subtle nudge and discover that it was only rigor mortis of the right shoulder keeping Mike’s face from hitting the pavement. His body melts like a tub of butter in sunlight, his head smacking skull heavy against the top of the bar; legs turned to jelly at the knee. He folds like a punctured squeeze box in a heap on the floor, creating a minor disturbance that grows incrementally as the crowd around us begins to clue in to the reality of the situation.
Then, somewhere in all that hushed disbelief a woman screams. One always does – and her inarticulate shrillness is enough to part the cluster of party guests like the Red Sea. I reach for Mike’s half empty glass left on the bar, tracing the contours with my finger and sniffing for the remnants of poison. Cyanide! Now, that’s some stinger!
Surely you jest!
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure
– COLD RECEPTION on Sept. 21, 2007.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).