ADVENTURE THE 55TH: LIFE'S WORK
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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.
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ADVENTURE THE 55th: LIFE'S WORK
Death has always been billed as the great unknown mystery, but it's actually life that grows more curious and unexplained as the years roll on. An unhappy set of circumstances can sometimes pave the way for some spectacular windfall.
It can work in the reverse too or come together in rigorous fits and sparks of life trying to bang itself out of nothing at all, only to wind up with a bloody fist and batter soul as the outcome from that proverbial road with good intensions gone utterly bad. I think about my own path - the one taken, the one I wished I had and the others I've never contemplated until now.
Outside, the sunny days seem to have relocated to points more south of the border. There's gray and rain and a lot of it mixed with heavy fog. Deluca Square looks more like the Deluca Street I left behind; its open market vendors scattered to the wind - replaced by some lonely remnants of the bored, the tired and the downtrodden milling from store front to store front without any reprieve from their credit cards.
Irma Bombeck once said that the saddest thing in the world was to wake up on Christmas morning and realize that you weren't a child anymore; that you hadn't been a child for some time and that you suddenly realized all the magic and allure of childhood had vacated your heart - probably forever. I understand her sentiment today - a week from that jolliest of holiday with only a warm, but empty apartment to comfort me.
Captain Mallory's unexpected invite to the Govenor's Christmas Ball looms large on my social calendar; a chance to hobnob with the political goblins. Providing that I keep my nose and language clean and steered clear of any controversy for which I seem to be so famous for, I agreed to this invite and rented a tux from the local tailor just around the corner.
"You sure clean up nicely," Martinique tells me as I modeled my duds in front of a full length mirror in my apartment, "Going stag?"
She's spread like jam across my comforter in her painted on pants suit...of little comfort these days to a guy whose all but sworn off the fairer sex for anything even close to a fair shake. Still, Martinique's been good to me these past few weeks. She helped me fix the place up and even brought me dinner a few times; always with the unspoken understanding that we weren't on our way to rekindling old home fires.
"I would have invited you, only..." I awkwardly start.
"Yeah, sure," Martinique interrupts, "An ex-hooker at the Governor's place...well, it's not like I haven't been there once or twice before."
I speculate for a brief moment that she's probably been a lot of places 'once or twice before'. It's not a pretty picture to think about. No man likes to speculate about the woman he's been with, especially as a sexual turn-style with billions served. It ruins the mystique associated with our stud factor. If we're not important to the plaything of our choice it wrecks us - for a bit. But in this case, she's not even recognizable in recent memory.
"You're not as good a liar as I remember," Martinique cuts in, "Maybe I'm just not as naive."
I turn away from the mirror to get a more direct read on her. After all, mirror's don't tell the truth. They're only an image of truth in reverse.
Martinique looks more tired in the flesh...but not bitter; accurate in her assessment of how life's been rotten and how she's mistreated herself to get back at it, only to be the one getting licked from both ends.
As I approach, she looks down at the comforter straddled between her legs. I take her chin in my hand and tenderly pull her face upwards towards mine.
"We've been a cross purposes for too long," I suggest, "Toughen up, baby. The slut's sob story doesn't become you."
She gives me a half smile, knowing that even as I say the words I don't really believe them.
"My eyes are dry," she tells me, taking my hand in hers off her chin and leaning into it with a soft kiss. "If I could just air out my heart, I'd be okay."
There's a long awkward pause between us. I know I should probably kiss her, but can't seem to work myself up to playing the part of the dutiful suitor.
"I have to make a phone call," Martinique tells me, disappearing down the hall and out of my apartment to go back to her own.
And a good thing it is too, because we'll have to develop this later - if there is a later for either of us. I'm late for a party.
. . .
I arrive in a taxi, my first mistake of the evening. A yellow cab amongst all those rained on shiny black limousines draws about as much attention as a nuclear bomb going off in front of Macy's during the Thanksgiving Day parade. There's honor, or at least undue pomp amongst the chauffeur class who gaze condescendingly as I step out of my rented coach. To set the record straight, I tip my cabbie a crisp fifty. He's grateful as hell - probably enough to take the Misses out to dinner or rent one of the local playthings for a little bondage in the backseat. Either way, I've made him happy. I've also made myself look good in front of the hired help.
Mistake number two occurs almost from the moment I step into the governor's posh digs. We're talking serious riches, here - a palatial estate, overpaid with too much tax monies that would have better benefited the sick children's ward and war veteran's memorial fund instead of lining the pockets of a single corrupt politico. Then again, maybe 'single' is the wrong digit to use.
The walls are lined in corruption of one sort or another. There's the usual flashy set of trophy wives with their silicon grills pressed tightly into cocktail frocks that should only be worn by women half their age and shoe size. There's also the gathering of the clan of well heeled business types, most of whom inherited their wealth from a rich uncle, father or father-in-law on the day the deed to his daughter was signed in blood, sweat and semen. How I hate the rich with a passion. Not jealousy, just disgust.
I spot Captain Mallory wedged between two relatively young women who look as though they've managed their invites on the promise of services yet to be rendered. He sees me too, raising a glass of champagne to my health - or hopefully lack of it in the long term.
I smile and wave back. The gal on Mallory's right takes an interest. It makes me feel good. After all, its' been a long haul. Thanks to hard work on a home gym, my limp's almost gone. I've been working out and getting back into shape for things to come. If I have to say so myself, Humpty-Dumpty's been put back together nicely, so long as I keep my clothes on and no one needs to see that I've an extra fifteen or twenty or a spare tire to shed before I can reclaim my status amongst the world of the anatomically gifted.
I'm suddenly bored with this mindless flirt from afar. I turn, almost knocking a pretty young waitress off her pencil thin heels. Her tray full of champagne cocktails teeters ever so slightly, but she recovers like the pro that she is.
"Oh!" she exclaims.
"My fault," I admit.
"That's okay," she tells me, "You're allowed."
"Why not? The customer's always right."
I decide to test her theory.
"Just 'how' right?" I tease, leaning in for a single champagne flute off her tray.
"Not right enough to make me lose this job," she admits with a thin coating of frost in her voice, before slinking off to another corner of the vast ballroom to serve the rest of her drinks.
I get tapped on my shoulder from behind.
"She's too young for you," Mallory exclaims with a greedy little smile.
He's without his rental babes and looking up close more like the Cheshire who swallowed a whole pet shop full of canaries.
"And yours aren't?" I reason.
"They don't count."
"They're the governor's daughters."
"The governor should have the good sense to lock them away until they're forty," I suggest, sipping down the cool champagne, "By the way...where is our host this evening?"
"With our mayor."
"Wendell..." I say, pausing for affect, "Uh, well, the old boy's moving up in the world. Where are they now?"
Mallory scans the room for a moment before directing me with his finger to the foyer just beyond the ballroom. I spot Wendell Bridesman and the governor shaking hands in the colorfully frenzied afterglow of a gigantic twinkling Christmas tree; master and mate in cahoots on some sweethearts deal. The honeymoon period has yet to come to an end.
"Remember what I told you about tonight," Mallory says.
"I promise," I tell him, "No funny stuff."
And I intend to hold true to that. What I have to say is going to be deadly serious.
"You're a good man, Charlie Brown," Mallory teases, swatting me on the shoulder and damn near knocking the champagne from my hand. The remaining bubbly sloshes about, spilling over the rim and down my hand.
Without further adieu, Mallory's off to find some other scab to pick. He's a boil with a lot of puss to squeeze, alright, and quite determined that no one else breaks out the bandages on his behalf.
"Here," I hear a voice call out to me from behind, "You need this."
It's the self same cocktail waitress, this time to my rescue with a crisp cloth napkin. I get a better look this time; fresh faced, firm and with a perfectly teased set of blonde ringlets cascading to frame her angel-white face on all sides. She's not so young, but enough to know her own heart even if she hasn't had time to comprehend her own mind.
"Thanks," I tell her, reaching for the napkin while she puts out her hand for my glass, "You know, you're timing's impeccable."
"So's my disposition," she shoots back.
She leans a little closer, her voice softer than before, her tone a little more serious and sustained.
"Slowly," she says while pretending to look the other way, "Turn around and stand next to me."
Her directness is a bit unsettling but I do as she asks.
I'd like to know who she's working for and why she's being so good to me just now, but don't ask the questions I should for fear of scaring her off or drawing too much attention to us from the rest of the crowd.
"See that guy over there, to my left - the buck with the square jaw and shoulders made out of granite?" she says quietly.
I scan the room for the guy she's referring to. He isn't hard to spot - muscled as though by chisel and masterfully tailored to boot. If I had to peg him, I'd say he was working security, except that he seems to be a guest at this affair.
"He's hot," the waitress tells me, "Now, see the guy to his right?"
I nod because I do; a tall tongue depressor of a human being with about as much spread in the hips as he has in his shoulders. He shouldn't be standing so close to the incredible hulk. It makes him look even more anorexic by comparison.
"He's not hot so much as he has a look about him. It's called early American duh! As basic material neither one's bad, though they'd both break your heart, and then maybe your legs for a few syllables."
I'm intrigued. This gal knows the layout like a pro.
"I'd like to buy a vowel, Vanna," I whisper back, "Who are you?"
"Doesn't matter right now," the waitress explains, "The point is I'm on your side."
A lucky thing too. I could use a friend.
"Your powers of observation do you credit," I admit, "Snap analysis is your thing."
"Men aren't that hard to figure out," she reasons handing back my drink, "Parlor tricks aside, I know what I'm talking about."
"So, what kind am I?"
The waitress turns to face me, her eyes flashing that confusing 'come hither but keep your distance' stare as she turns on the charm and a sinful smile that doesn't believe for a moment any guy's her intellectual equal.
"Mmm..." she muses, "Smart - a bit too much for your own good and trying too hard to disguise how rough you are around the edges. It's okay, though. It works. Not on everyone, but definitely on you. You're okay. There's a bit of the good ol' boy tucked deep inside somewhere though you don't always show it."
"Thanks," I mutter.
She has my number down pat - had it from the start and on speed dial.
"Don't mention it Tarzan," she flirts, "Any time you want to pull me by my hair back to your man cave, go right ahead. I won't scream - much."
As tempting as the offer is, I don't know how I'd explain her to Martinique, considering where we left off before the party.
"You know," I reason, "There's a misconception about guys who are fit."
"You don't say? What is it?"
"That we're about as sharp as a feather, good only for the heavy lifting and beasts of burden for the modern woman to use when she feels like it. But I'm coming to my point."
"And just where is your point to be made?" the waitress asks.
"About three inches south of my equator," I tell her bluntly, "...and about two and a half times longer than that."
Her eyes slide down just below the shiny buckle of my belt.
Without pause, I stick my fingers into the champagne glass and give a few light sprinkles of the bubbly across her open cleavage.
"You're getting me all wet!" she exclaims.
"I have that effect on women," I slyly reply, raising my glass to her and swallowing the rest of the bubbly for good measure.
She's trying too hard not to pretend that she's amused by the shift in our conversation.
"To the bone."
"I'm not even going there," she coolly replies.
"Good for you," I suggest, "A woman who knows what she wants. The only one living in captivity, I suspect."
"But you don't know for sure," the waitress reasons, "Sorry to shatter your misconceptions about women, but there's a lot more of us free thinkers out there than the boy's club gives us credit for."
"In left field, no doubt," I tell her, "Who knew left field could be so much fun?"
"You haven't played ball until you've been way out left," she replies.
There's a sudden shift in temperament and body language. I can almost see the hairs on the back of her neck curl.
"I have to get back," she tells me, "Do us both a favor. Go introduce yourself to Governor Mills and our illustrious mayor. Tell them you're having a swell-igant time but have to cut things short on account of a sick mother, dying sister or any other lame ass excuse you want to cover up with. Then excuse yourself from the party and meet me on the corner of Allison and Braymore in sixty minutes. I'll make it worth your while."
I believe she will too.
I'm about to tell her I'll do as she asks, but she's off in a flash to the kitchen and I find myself alone in a room full of people once again.
I work up the nerve to saunter with practice toward the Governor and the mayor. With each step I can feel the tender throb of my left knee and hip coming back. I've been standing too long on these feet today, but try to fake a picture of outward vigor and youth.
"Governor Mills," I call out when I've just about reached my target audience, extending my hand for a hearty handshake. "Mayor Bridesman, what a grand party it is."
The governor's understandably confused. Bridesman, however, doesn't look so much perplexed as surprised to see me. If we've met before I don't remember it, though he looks as if he might.
"I'm sorry," Mills begins, "I don't..."
"Edward Mars," I interrupt him, "A private eye in this fair city of ours."
"A pleasure, Mr. Mars," the governor says.
"Not for some time, though?" Bridesman reasons, "I mean, I seem to recall that you once had offices on the old Deluca Street."
He definitely knows me - but how?
"Well, after a hiatus of some years I'm looking to reestablish that business," I explain.
"Oh?" Mills exclaims, "Well, that's just fine. We can always use men with entrepreneurial spirit."
No doubt they both have and to no one's good effect but their own.
"I'm not so sure," Bridesman pipes up, "Mr. Mars, you'll forgive me, but I seem to recall that you didn't so much leave town as you were forced out when your apartment and offices were fire bombed."
So that's it.
"An angry client, no doubt," I politely say to Bridesman, "By the way, you have an excellent memory. That's almost three years ago. I can't imagine why such detail should stay active in your mind. Unless, of course...you were there?"
Bridesman's back arches slightly. What a vicious little cobra it is. He was the man driving the getaway car of those two thugs who torched my place that night. He had to be. He is Alonzo Valenz...Das Englander to his consortium - the puppet master and man behind the curtain, made as indistinguishably common and of the people by the diffusing afterglow of critically timed 'good public works'.
I now understand what the waitress meant when she pointed out the two men near the lobby. Muscles and toothpick were the men who burned my place to the ground and their presence here tonight suggests that the payroll they're on still has a running tab.
Mills continues to stare blindly past all of our innuendos. I almost believe his act. Could he really be the one innocent in a room full of vipers?
"Well, I hardly think that possible," Bridesman back peddles, "Your name just sounded familiar...sketchy...but familiar. Mars. Jupiter, Venus and Mars. The gods have smiled on you."
"No," I urge onward, "They haven't for some time. In fact, they left me for dead in Europe. I didn't know how or why before, but I see things more clearly these days. Near death does that to you. It puts the world into focus. Hit men are for rainy days. But fire's more than a hobby. It's something to specialize in. Whether it's a two story walk up or prominent Vegas gambling house, in a pinch it cleanses all the stains that a quick bullet in the forehead cannot."
Bridesman's had enough. He hasn't counted on my calling his bluff and I've opened a wound in rekindling memories of the MGM fire.
"Well," Mills stammers, his patience careworn, "I'm sure I don't know what to make of any of this? Wendell?"
"Governor," Bridesman replies to Mills, "I've overstayed. I'll say goodnight."
Turning to leave, I put my last hot poker into his back, determined that Wendell definitely remember me from tonight.
"Perhaps you'll look me up again," I tell Bridesman, "For old time's sake. I'll leave a light burning for you."
"Goodnight, Mr. Mars," Bridesman tells me before turning away for the last time.
He can barely contain his venom. He would have doused me in gasoline and lit a match on the spot only then he would have to admit what a shrieking fraud his entire life's work has been. The mantle of politics can cloak only so many malignancies and his tumors are fast approaching the point of critical mass.
. . .
I leave the party exorcized of my suspicions. A good thing, too, since what comes next introduces a whole new set that I could have never planned for.
. . .
The corner of Allison and Braymore is the heart of our fashionable downtown district for fine dining. By the time I arrive, the jet setters have already settled in for their appetizers, the twinkling pageantry of holiday lights dangling high above in row on row strands reflect like great glassy-eyed bowers across the newly wetted pavement. A thin drizzle has made the night air unexpectedly chilly and without a top coat, I feel as though my tux is paper thin.
After getting out of my cab, I stand on the corner - aimless and mildly frustrated for a few long moments.
"Well," I hear a soft feminine voice whisper from behind, "At least we know one thing about you. You can follow directions."
I turn to face the girl with all the answers - the waitress from earlier this evening...or is it? Gone are the drab frilly duds and Shirley Temple locks from just an hour ago; replaced by a close to the head French braid. She's been poured into a very slinky black cocktail dress that fits ever so snugly but just right in all the right places.
"Well," I tease back, "I've already seen your little French maid's outfit. Now this. Tell me, what have I to look forward to before our night is through?"
She smiles, coy but knowingly, taking me under my right arm and leading me into La Champs Bistro.
"I thought we'd grab a bite."
Inside, the atmosphere is appropriately festive and crowded, with large oval windows overlooking the street and making it appear even more as though we've all been jammed into a large fish bowl. The head waiter shows us to a tiny booth set apart from the tables, producing a bottle of Chateau Rothchild for my leading lady's approval. Wonder of wonders - she approves and so he pours a couple of glasses before vanishing into the kitchen.
"Tell me," I tease, "Who schooled you in the art of seduction?"
"Is that what you think this is?"
My lady catches the eye of a burly bartender who nods as though he knows what this is all about, producing a rather large attaché from just below the bar and fast approaching. When he's within a few feet, my lady takes the satchel from him and lays it flat across the table separating us, twisting the locks sideways and opening the first inside pouch to produce a set of officious looking documents.
"You're acquainted with one Don Domingo Alvarez?" my lady begins.
What is it about the past that it should so consistently delight to disturb my present and muck about with the future?
"I knew him," I admit, "Not well, though."
My lady raises a curious eyebrow.
"Apparently well enough," she tells me, "You see following the Don's untimely demise his last will and testament placed his trust in me as executor of his estate."
"Good for you," I tell her.
"Better still for you, Mr. Mars," she explains, "You've inherited the Don's estate."
"Not interested," I suggest, "Don't get me wrong. Sunny Spain holds a few fond memories - few being the operative word... but I have no interest in retiring to a vineyard."
My lady shakes her head.
"Maybe you didn't understand what I said, Mr. Mars," she explains, "The vineyard you are referring to, along with several other properties that the Don owned, were liquidated to pay for attorney's fees and my trip to this country."
"So, I've inherited nothing...is that it?"
"Those tangible assets were mere window dressing," my lady replies, raising her glass to me, "In round figures the Don's estate is currently worth fourteen billion dollars. As of this moment you're one of the wealthiest men in the world. Cheers!"
Unlikely, though Eddie Mars will remain on hiatus until 2010. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to my continuing readership.
@Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).