Reads: 97

BEGINNINGS RETURN

A Novel

Nicholas Cochran

Chapter Two

 

Attaching himself to groups, gliding easily around and between couples, he concentrated on staying close to the shadows by the railing opposite the moonlight. He smiled when fractured conversations reached his ears, forcing him to try to reconstruct them. He could only guess at their meanings. He knew his language skills were wanting. He made a mental note to address that deficiency.

His smile was not so much warm as inviting. His jaw was set in a solid way without seeming heavy. His lips were rather thin and spoke of accumulated truths, morphed into active wisdom.

His smile appeared again when he mused about the recent events following their dumping him off. He wondered if they thought he would give up. The recollection of his arrival, as well as the reasons for his abandonment, caused his dark brown eyes to glow momentarily, before retreating to a color that approximated an angry black.

The garish light from the Casino yacht bobbed and undulated on the waves before vanishing into the darkening deep of the sea. From the smokers, came curled patterns of both beautiful and grotesque designs, designs that lingered on the shoulder of a sea breeze before unseen zephyrs carried them off.  

*

The notional nature of the HVAC unit was creating a substantial sweat for Harry Byrd. He added it to the many crosses he lugged along during the current heat wave. The unit was an ancient Rube Goldberg contraption, pieced together with little thought and less proficiency. At the moment, it was in a punitive phase because some dumbass neglected to oil its sensitive parts. ‘ And where the hell is Francesca?’  

After finally wrenching the rusting fan from his office closet—and finding an outlet—he put up his feet. With a minor seating adjustment, he aimed the buzzing blades squarely on his reddening round face and occasional bits of brown hair still peopling his head like homeless tufts of chaff.

Almost fifty, six feet tall, slightly skeletal, and usually laughing or cajoling, Harry was just about what you’d expect in a determined editor of a barely-surviving weekly tabloid in L.A.: wise and witty, sure—but also incredibly smart. He launched his weekly after burning through every department of the L.A. Times before his forty-fifth birthday. Harry was a natural. The Home Department applauded his abilities, as did the Crime Section; also Cooking and Sports. All of them did until Harry got bored. Politely—and very reluctantly, but finally—Harry turned down every plea from the printers to the publishers to stay with them..

 He and his wife, Helen, spent a month on a world cruise. Moments after the ship’s crew secured the halyards, Harry, with Helen in tow, searched out digs for Harry’s next venture. They found a walk-up office near downtown. Helen helped furnish. Harry advertised for staff: one secretary, male or female, and one reporter, again, gender fluid. He ended up with Jake as his secretary and Francesca as his reporter. It took three weeks of interviews to find Jake; six weeks to find Francesca. Harry had time and knew exactly what he was looking for in each position.

He believed Jake and Francesca were the only two people in Southern California capable of carrying out his mandates.

Harry was the embodiment of the cliché, ‘people person’. Everyone was a story to him. Every person had a back-story wrapped inside a riddle, handcuffed to the past, buried beneath mantles of mystery. The Alert became Harry’s instrument for telling the world about amazing individuals. Each edition usually featured three people, but often two (rarely only one) fascinating persons that a hundred pages could not completely reveal. Of course, ads took up many columns; ads, formerly on three pages, now occupied six. After five years, Harry’s talents were in full bloom.

*

“See . . .  right there.” The heavyset man with black hair, horribly creased ears, and several facial scars, straightened up, hands on hips, nodding toward the color screen of a security camera on board the Palace Casino. “There, that big good-looking guy in the goofy jacket . . . with the red wine.” He removed a hand from a hip and gestured to both the screen and his boss, a small pinched man with brown hair that looked like wet sand plastered on his head. He had thin lips and wore rimless glasses.

 “Well, I can’t see anything. Of course I see the man you’re talking about, but  . . . what? How’s he cheating?”

 "He’s not cheating; that’s the point; he’s beating us legally” another wave from the other hand toward the screen and a chuckle of appreciation.

  “Well what am I supposed to do about it?” pausing, “what can any of us do . . . if he’s legit; if he’s legal?”

Scarface gave a great sigh.

“Nothing; but that’s the beauty of it, see?; we can just watch and admire . . . and envy . . . a guy that lucky must have one hell of a life . . . or a woman; yeah, guys with that kind of luck always have some great kind of woman.” He paused to peer closer at the screen. “Jesus, he just lost . . . big timewow, that’s about a hundred grand he just gave back to us” 

 “So maybe he’s not so lucky after all,” minced skinny dude, with not quite a crow; more like a loud cheep, directed at scarface. It looked like scarface was rooting for the player. (Which he was, even if he didn’t realize it).

Scarface was ignoring skinny dude’s remarks as scarface almost placed his nose on the screen. “Ohhhhh, shit! . . .  he just bet his whole wad; and why do I feel like we’re about to get hammered?”

*

Jake was almost everything but a secretary. He tapped a killer email now and then; sharpened the # 2 pencils now and then; and brewed up some excellent joe, now and then—when asked. Ninety-percent of his days and several nights, consisted of mining data bases, flicking through Facebook, scouring old newspapers online, speed reading every current national newspaper, as well as super-speed reading most of the people, scandal mags, and tabloids. He squeezed every source that permitted squeezing—all of this to find the almost unbelievable character whom every reader just had to know about. They had to be available within a five hundred dollar round trip airfare. Luckily, Harry was a past master at convincing prime subjects for his paper to drive—even fly—to Harry’s chosen locale to commune with Francesca.

Francesca would attack, capture, interview, and record the hell out of the subject and write up a scintillating exposition. Harry barely read these before asking for rewrites; “and get some more facts; and then put some real zap into it.” Following the completion of all his commands, Harry went over the piece with Francesca to edit, polish, and only then: print.

Harry was very good with egos. His E quotient was off the scale. He couldn’t resist treating Francesca like his daughter. She both loved and hated him; which was perfect for both of them because they had a genuine father daughter relationship. This worked out for everyone, and the Alert was the better publication for it.

*

When he went to cash in his chips at the security cage, neither of the two men behind the bulletproof glass gave him more than a glance. His manner was relaxed and reassuring; his demeanor calm and confident, despite his height, peculiar pants, and weathered mismatched sandals. 

 One of the three women in the back room felt a strong peculiar attraction to him. She was an older woman who began working at the Casino when it opened some years ago.  Although well past retirement age, she knew her life in the Casino kept her alive and in tune with the Eilat zeitgeist. She shared this feeling with those who know that staying in the oasis is preferable to an uncertain and perilous life in the desert, particularly the Negev.

She beamed at this stranger, revealing her uneven teeth in a beatific smile. He immediately looked up from his hands full of money and captured her gaze. He smiled back at her, and nodded. She responded with a raised eyebrow and a wider smile, transmitting understanding and joy.

*

Francesca materialized before dark. She found Jake and Harry puzzling over a monitor where Al Jezeera was burbling on about something happening in the Negev desert.

“Hi guys; what do we have?” Both men gave genuine “Oh hi Francesca”s and remained enthralled by whatever was going on almost exactly half way around the world—and a couple of thousand dollars above the five hundred dollar Harry-cap. Francesca left them mumbling to each other and made for her desk.

 She felt revitalized and pumped by her run. She felt her blood quickening as she sat and lifted Harry’s dossier on her new assignment. She quickly riffled through the first ten pages of data from Jake. By page twelve, her reading sagged to a speed where she was not seeing more than a couple of words at a glance. She placed the file flat on her desk, put her elbows on top of the file, rested her chin in her palms, and thought.

Before she could figure out where the story was, Harry and Jake burst in with loud greetings as well as short but sincere apologies for ignoring her entrance. They both adored Francesca from their respective ages and life-styles. Neither, in his own manner, could imagine anyone doing anything to upset her. All of this was very unusual. Francesca could never quite come up with the proper approach—or one-liner—to convince them she was not a goddess—or however they viewed her. She only wanted to be treated . . . well, normally; like an older sister and an adolescent daughter, but . . .

“Thanks guys; it’s fine, fine . . . you don’t have to,” breathing out a large breath, nodding her head gently sideways, “you know . . . just treat me normally, okay? And where’s the story you were telling me about Harry? I haven’t seen anything but Jake’s statistics and I’m already on page thirteen; what am I missing?”

*

The Casino was good enough to hold most of his winnings in an account. They signed and swore oaths that all his money would be in a bank account in Eilat before noon the next day. He shoved the receipt and signed oaths into a jacket pocket, making a mental note to return if their oaths—both written and verbal—were sham—and to hammer some afflictive justice upon the casino and their perjurers.

Outside, the midnight sky overflowed with winking stars. Undulating waves of laughter from the gaming rooms mingled with his immediate thoughts as he began to work on the next step in his plan. He chose a water taxi for the return to land where he asked about hotels. Summarily, a land taxi delivered him to Herod’s Vitalis Spa.

*

Long ago, the hotel desk personnel consigned to oblivion what a normal customer should look like, yet his guy was definitely pushing the envelope. He was extraordinarily tall and lean with the build of a decathlete; moving with an air of quiet authority.

But where did he get those clothes? Are those really pants—or a large woolen shawl? . .  . or just what?’

The young man and two young women secretly hoped this guy had cash.  He did. All three smiled politely while he explained that although he was in Eilat, both his luggage and all his I.D.—as well as credit cards and his passport—were on a plane to Elliot, some lake in Canada. He was  assured everything would be returned to him in Jerusalem, it being the largest nearby city in Israel.

Upon viewing the large plug of bills, the three young cynics declined to ask if he had worn this–these things—on the plane; or had he just wound up a low-class camel tour. Their faces truly beamed when he began to unpeel the night’s tariff. They maintained their beaming even after the beaming young man escorted him to his room on the top floor. They continued to beam until the young man returned. He too was beaming, sporting a face plastered with delight. His sweaty little hands clutched three one hundred dollar bills, two of which he gave to his beaming workmates.

As one, they remembered the guy’s presence, height, and charisma—and his huge bankroll—that managed to afflict each of them with a dreamlike vagary. They forgot to get a name. After a short discussion, the senior clerk—one of the women—decided to enter the name, Mr. Mazel, opposite his room number.

 

End of Chapter Two


Submitted: March 30, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Nicholas Cochran. All rights reserved.

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