ADVENTURE THE 54TH: BURNT OFFERINGS
For those unfamiliar with the posting structure of a blog: postings appear in the order they are made by their author, not necessarily in the order that would most benefit an ongoing series such as the one you are about to read. Since the purpose of this blog is to be an ongoing thriller, simply removing the previous chapter to alleviate confusion is not an option – since no one coming to the series after the first chapter had been removed would be able to follow the story line.
Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
For those savvy to the blog world – this disclaimer may seem redundant, and for that no apology is made. This disclaimer is meant to better acquaint new readers in how the entries in this blog will be posted and how best to follow the series from this point on. And now…
ADVENTURE THE 54TH:
On the morning of November 21, 1980 Las Vegas experienced a tragic blaze such as it had never known; a ravaging firestorm second only in scope and loss of life to Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel disaster of 1946. The MGM Grand - brainchild of wily Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian - become a tinderbox, only in part due to an electrical fire started in the popular, though unoccupied, restaurant - The Deli.
What was perhaps overlooked at the time of the fire, and, certainly forgotten today, was the fact that several of the casino's more astute staff had smelled the embers and spotted a whiff or two of thin black smoke escaping from between The Deli's bolted doors well before the final inferno burst forth, spreading through the gargantuan cut glass and plastic mirrored gaming area at a rate of roughly nineteen feet per second.
In the ensuing panic and subsequent rally to extinguish the fire, no one really bothered to take into account that one of the 75 lives lost inside his posh eighteenth story suite was Bobby Valenz. A self made millionaire, Valenz' fortune was not to be found inside the bank vaults of Vegas' Fifth National when the widow Valenz arrived a scant three days after the fire to collect what she thought would be her escape funds out of the country.
Prior to his death, Bobby Valenz had made rather a bad enemy of Milford Peters; the then President of Nevada's Gaming Commission. Thereafter, he quietly incurred the wrath of the Commissioner's underground mob bosses who, despite Vegas' increasing outward display in reshaping their glittering empires of corruption into more family friendly oases, continued to operate lucratively through various unchecked loopholes that no one - least of all the Gaming Commission - seemed terribly interested in putting an end to.
But on the morning of November 21, none of this back story garnered attention from the press, who seemed more interested at pointing their fingers of blame at Kirk Kerkorian's lack in foresight. He had, after all, used less than stellar building materials to construct the lion's share of his gambling empire. PVC piping, glue, plastic tiles and wallpaper all came under scrutiny in the resulting police and fire investigation. Never mind that every other casino in Vegas was guilty of employing such cheaply manufactured accoutrements to adorn their pleasure palaces.
Never mind that the hotel's structural rating had miraculously been downgraded to that of a wood building just hours before the entire complex went up in a puff of smoke on that fateful morn.
Never mind the Kerkorian had been forewarned earlier in the week by some rival interests that he was playing hard ball with some very thuggish investors.
No, the public demanded an open and shut case - a simple snap analysis that put faulty wiring and a daft air conditioning system at the heart of matter. That's what the public wanted and that is precisely what they were fed in regurgitated sound bytes from weary survivors on the nightly news, proliferated by the reigning cultural mandarins of network news over at NBC, CBS and ABC.
Also fraudulent was the final verdict made by the fire investigators; that the blaze had been started by an electrical ground fault inside a wall soffit near The Deli's refrigeration units.
But even more glaringly ignored was the fact that Bobby Valenz had not died of carbon monoxide poisoning like the rest of the unfortunates trapped inside their hotel rooms. In fact, he had been chloroformed in his bed while lying blissfully asleep some thirty minutes before the blaze.
Shortly thereafter, Valenz was injected with a lethal dose of cyanide between his toes; quietly dressed and posed near an open vent to suggest inhalation of the toxic fumes that would soon be traveling up the air shafts and into his hotel room. Written off as just another regrettable corpse along with 74 others who had legitimately succumbed to smoke, Valenz body was quietly wheeled into the morgue.
The widow Valenz request for immediate cremation of her husband's remains put a period to the discovery of Bobby's true cause of death; cause for a noted sigh of relief from the widow until she arrived three days later at the bank to abscond with her husband's riches, only to discover that they had already been liquidated.
That the widow had probably confronted those she obviously assumed were responsible for her husband's murder became even more apparent two days after when she was discovered floating face down in a bathtub full of suds at the Valenz fashionable estate; presumably heart-stricken with grief over the loss of her beloved Bobby - whom she had never regarded as anything more than a cash cow in life - and, leaving behind a flowery suicide note that not even the widow's sister, Isabelle Travertin believed.
Retrieving the note for her own records, and to satisfy an itching curiosity, Isabelle put the paper to the test of a handwriting expert whose shop unfortunately suffered a horrendous gas explosion that very afternoon with both the letter and the expert inside - leaving little to identify either, prove or disprove Isabelle's theory; that a bizarre cover up was underway. Hence, what became of Bobby Valenz' millions was a Vegas legend that refused to die.
Over the next several years Isabelle made valiant attempts to learn the truth, but the general word from her revolving door of private investigators was always nil. It seems the money trail stopped with Valenz' son, twenty-five year old Alonzo.
Spoiled to a fault and accustomed to squiring wealthy jet setters from both sides of the fence in his own age bracket, Alonzo had chartered a boat with his then girlfriend, Carilynda . The two planned a whirlwind cruise around the Cape, but somewhere between ports their yacht sank in a violent storm. Neither the wreckage nor any bodies were ever recovered.
But even more perplexing than Alonzo's death was an incident two days before he and Carilynda left their dock in Maine. There, local authorities - on allegations made by Isabelle - made an impromptu search of Alonzo's yacht, the Maiden Piper only to discover no great quantities of wealth stashed anywhere on board.
Worse for the investigators was the fact that a quiet background check of Alonzo's private funds indicated that he had squandered all of his meager allowance - paid to him while Bobby was alive - to charter the Maiden Piper. No deposit of $140 million had been made to either Alonzo or Carilynda's accounts.
At a dead end and without probable cause, the police were forced to step aside and quietly watch as the Maiden Piper made her turn along the rocky embankment just beyond the marina, bound for open waters from which neither she nor her crew would ever return.
I think about Bobby Valenz from time to time, think about what good or evil his money is up to. Because, you see, when you substantiate a personal fortune of $140 million and dine with heads of state on a regular basis, someone at the top always notices when you're not there. Or perhaps, more to the point, they notice when your money's not around to grease a few palms.
Now, Wendell H. Bridesman; here was a separate story - one as far removed from culture as any, and, so quaintly American that it hurt. Born to Maude and Clyde Bridesman in 1955, two penniless drifters with more debt than brain power, Wendell had run away from home to join the circus at the age of eleven. What developed rapidly hereafter is the stuff of dreams, legends and liars. The unschooled urchin put his hard earned wages to work for him on a series of sound stock investments that grew almost as quickly as the gawky Bridesman did.
Quitting the circus to devote full time to 'playing' with his money, by the spring of 1980, Wendell Bridesman was Time Magazine's man of the year, a celebrated wunderkind of bottled energy with an uncanny knack for picking winners without even giving the race much consideration. Incrementally, Bridesman had taken $700.00 in 1964 and turned it into $4.7 million by 1982. During this fledgling period, there wasn't much he touched that didn't instantly turn into platinum or, at the very least, 24 karat gold.
As the 'greed is good' decade prepared to kickoff, Bridesman played fast and loose with a series of real estate investments that quadrupled his cash flow, making him Manhattan's titan of property development - second only to Donald Trump. A lawsuit in 1986 alleging that Bridesman was something of a slum lord did little to tarnish his reputation. However, if one had looked a little deeper, they would have stumbled across a little known fact; that Bridesman's development company had been instrumental in providing building materials for the old MGM Grand.
But the central curiosity herein lay not so much with Bridesman's exponential growth as a wily wheeler/dealer, but in how so much of his back story remained an enigma to the outside world. Lack of coverage was blamed on Maude and Clyde - both having died in a house fire in 1962 and therefore not around to take charge of their son's documentation for posterity. Photographically, the record of young Wendell's social development stopped somewhere just before the end of grammar school.
A graduation photo of the misshapen child with an impossible uni-brow and perpetual scowl was about the only childhood trace that Bridesman had in fact even existed; then a gap of some fifteen years and finally, the reappearance of a rather shy, modestly slimmer man about town with two eye brows and a more fully developed body, who nevertheless shunned media coverage at any and every turn.
Though he attended elegant parties, Bridesman's profile was relatively low key. Indeed, one attending these social gatherings would be hard pressed to say that they had dined with Wendell H. Bridesman or watched him bounce on a pogo stick through the open buffet, had it not been that his invitations were claimed at the front desk by a nondescript man claiming to be Wendell H. Bridesman.
But then a funny thing happened. Wendell came into his own - or perhaps he was deliberately pushed. He arrived home from a six month trip to New Zealand with an elegant cocoa skinned native girl on his arm who proudly advertised herself as Mrs. Bridesman by flashing a bauble roughly the size of the Hope Diamond on her ring finger and spending Wendell's money as though it simply fell from the sky to her liking.
In point of fact, it probably did - for upon closer inspection there were minor hiccups in Wendell's fiscal gains that suggested other avenues of investment. What these were, remained open for discussion. All that was for certain was that behind the prim laced legitimacy of Wendell's public investments there were minor pockets of hidden wealth that occasionally surfaced to help keep the spit and polish of Wendell's public life very much sparkling and alive.
These hidden investments might never have garnered attention had Ausiwaga Bridesman not come into the picture - requiring Wendell to dig deeper than he ever had into his already deep pockets to satisfy his wife's cravings for flash, bling and the good life. This blissful pillage ought to have gone on indefinitely or at least until Wendell was penniless and cast off by Ausiwaga for the much younger pool boy it was rumored she was having an affair with.
However, on November 21, 2001 Ausiwaga Bridesman lost control of her tan Mercedes off the Big Sur, plummeting to her untimely death down a rocky embankment into the sea. Publicly, Wendell played the part of the dutiful grieving widower beautifully. He wore his black respectfully until year's end and even after then, had his chauffeur regularly place a dozen white roses - Ausiwaga's favorite - on her headstone as a sign that her memory had not died with her.
Privately, however, it was rumored that he had been more than mildly relieved - an observation that continued as his political career kicked off the following Spring with a hearty endorsement from the previous mayor of San Francisco.
But now the winds of change had turned once again, and Bridesman's reputation as a solid venture capitalist, with his eye firmly on the arena of politics for personal power, seemed to overshadow whatever secrets his monies had kept safely tucked away.
I think about Wendell H. Bridesman a lot because I don't believe for a second he is who he says he is. In fact, I think he might - just might - be somebody else. I think he might be Alonzo Valenz.
None of this speculation do I plan to share as I prepare to dine with my old pal, Captain Mallory. There's no point. Besides, he might be playing for the other side.
I am acutely aware of my own apprehensions as I dress for the evening. Somewhere between the last of September and the first of the big 'O', Mother Nature had a brain fart or crawled into bed with Ol' Man Winter only to wake up the next morning with a nasty case of frost bite in all the wrong places. It's cold and barely a week before Halloween I find myself bundling up like the Pilsbury Doughboy.
"You're gettin' older," Mallory explains when I confide as much to him standing on the massive front stoop of his palatial digs on Knob Hill.
I barely recognize him, with his remaining hairs slicked into a wicked frenzy by some heavy pomade; wearing a paisley smoking jacket cut from some expensive silken cloth and sporting a pair of gaudy slippers that probably cost more than all the seven pairs of shoes I own to my name. As Mal' ushers me into a gargantuan lobby with marble tiled mosaics meticulously cut into the floor and deep cranberry drapes effortlessly clinging before cut glass windows, I get the distinct sense that I'm not in Kansas anymore. He's cleaned up, like the Wizard of Oz and just as much of a charlatan - doing his best to conceal the man behind the curtain while he preens majestically for visiting onlookers.
"Well, I never thought I'd see the day," I admit.
"Neither did I," Mal' confesses, "Actually, I almost didn't. But then I convinced our new mayor to see reason."
"Wendell took your cue?" I suggest.
"It was either a cue or a number..." Mal' admits, "You know the kind. Stamped on a nice plate hung around his neck. Sets you apart from the other inmates in the big house."
"Can't know the players without a score card," I suggest.
So, that's the game. Wendell Bridesman would rather be mayor than some fat hillbilly's wet dream. Curious though, how he gave up a private reaming for a very public one in the brawling arena of cutthroat politics. I don't envy him that. If I had to take mine, I wouldn't want the rest of the world to know about it.
Oh well, I suppose membership has its privileges; chauffeur driven limo, cushy office chair, public adoration (when they're not busy scrutinizing the hell out'a you) and that shiny hunk of gold metal strapped around the wrist - just a reminder by the hour where all the easily resurrected wreckage you contributed to over the years is buried.
I don't go further down that garden path with Mallory. After all, friendship extends only so far. And he's not the kind to give away all the candy in the store - especially if he's currently the chief stockholder at Cavity Central. Besides, he's sold a piece of his own to the Willy Wonka I'm after. It's no secret. Nobody of merit gets to be this cushy without selling off something in the process - by way of a bargaining chip sandwiched between reputation and self preservation.
In politics, the veneer and the earth you tread on are very thin. The sycophants feed for their own flavor, but the constituents chronically put you under a microscope - convinced, in the comfort of their armchairs far removed from the manure pile, that they could do better.
If there's a stink to Mal's place, I don't sense it except in the faint hint of fresh floor wax probably laid by some illegal peon earlier in the day for the benefit of tonight's visit.
Mallory takes my coat and hangs it in the a large walk in that could probably substitute for half the main living space of my current apartment.
I'm ushered into a lavishly appointed games room with mahogany paneling and vaulted ceilings. In the center of this imposing room is a large pool table with its intricately carved wooden legs supporting seventeen hundred pounds of imported Italian slate and impeccably sheathed in traditional velvety green.
"You play?" he asks me as he saunters over to a rack of cue sticks.
"Never on any green as nice as this," I admit, "But I think I can manage."
We go a few rounds - mostly in silent - every once in a while pausing for some idle banter about the weather, sports and the women he's seen but never touched since Gracie gave him the old heave-ho.
"I hear you're shackin' it up with a certain proprietor of a certain psychic shop," Mallory tells me just before sinking a clean shot in the corner pocket.
"News travels fast," I suggest.
"I had a car tail you after I left the square," Mallory explains.
"You're concern's overwhelming, dad" I placate, "Don't bother on tips with the fairer sex. As far as they go I'm the one who could give you a few pointers. Besides, I didn't know spying was in the city budget."
"There's a lot in the city budget that nobody knows about," Mallory confides, "You didn't really think we drop four hundred on toilet seats and hammers did you?"
"Don't worry about me, Father Goose," I explain, "Women may reach their sexual peak at forty, but guys pop their wad the best around eighteen. Some system. We start to move into our Ovaltine years at just around the time they start thinking about getting onto business with the grounds keeper."
Mallory smiles. He has to. At his age, a smile's all that's left.
"Know a lot about keeping up the hedges, do you?" he asks.
"Let's just say, I've done a fair bit of prunin' in my day."
"I'll bet you got some dandies," Mallory admits.
"So do you, I'll bet," I suggest as I make my shot with all the precision of a pro whose never left the competition. There are some things you never forget.
We don't talk after that, though. In fact, Mallory's fairly clothed mouth. I guess he can only concentrate on playing one game at a time.
The hands of the clock pass the hour painlessly enough. I decide to let them. Then I make a tactical move that brings the conversation back to me. I figure, this is a game I can't win on past merit alone. I need to show Mallory mine before he thinks about showing me his.
"So you know about Martinique Chezwyck," I say.
"Know her? I busted her sweet fanny for prostitution a half dozen times," Mal' explains, "Plus she's made a headline or two."
"Running true to form," I playfully suggest, "Trading one set of sheets for another."
"Oldest profession, still the most fun after all these years," Mal' admits with a twinkle in his eye.
"...and billions and billions served," I tack on for good measure.
They're all cheap shots at a reformed hooker but I decide to run with it in the hopes that some of the blood'll rush to Mal's other head, giving me the opportunity to tweak the more pragmatic of the two for some quick facts about our new mayor.
"I don't figure," Mal' admits, "You and her. Now that's a tailgating party with an unhappy ending."
"So, it never happened. You dropped her cold on that tight little package of hers and she spent a decade pulling herself up the hard way until she finally scraped something together to buy the building she's currently occupying."
"I'm a progressive romantic at heart," I muse, going for the kill shot on the eight ball but fowling it up at the last possible minute.
"How's that?" Malory asks.
"Well, I believe a woman's place is wherever she thinks it is," I explain, "But I also like my gals to only have eyes for me. Not me and the milk man."
"So she played you?"
"Like a fiddle," I lie, "Only I finally took back my bow and went for a plucking someplace else."
"Some set up," Mallory admits.
He flubs his kill shot too, only I sense that he's taking pity on my for other things with his conciliatory sloppiness.
"Don't give me too much of an opening," I say, making my shot count this time with no mercy and total disregard for how Mal' might feel at having his player's privilege revoked.
"Yeah," he mutters, slightly miffed that I've taken advantage of his hospitality, "I forgot what a bugger you are."
"At least I'm not a cheat," I suggest.
"Nobody ever said you were," Mal' replies.
He can sense that the mood in the room has changed. I'm not here on a social call. In fact, the sight of him standing there, with the world on a string that God only know how many unlucky bastards have paid for with their honest sweat, suddenly turns the pit of my stomach. He disgusts me. I pray to God he doesn't know it.
EDDIE MARS will return on Dec.18, 2009 in his next adventure.
@Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).