Friday, February 22, 2013

and the Benefits Suck.


"I can take care of this just as easily as you can!" Jenny protested, but handed him the airline tickets anyway.  The flight was out of Reagan in 55 minutes and she doubted even Harry could hustle that quickly.  So they were just so much paper now.

"It’s my prerogative. Anyway, you're not off probation yet so arguing doesn't help your cause."

“Which probationary period are you talking about, seems I’ve had a few years at this with you?”

That much was true, but she hadn't been with Equestrian Quarterly a full three months.

“I’m still managing editor.  You’re still the newbie.”

Jenny rolled her eyes.  He loved when she did that.

 Harrison and Jenny were working together again and that was fine with him.  What was better was that they were mostly colleagues at crafting magazines.  That was what he and Jenny, years apart, had initially gone to school for.  She finally got into media after having taken a short detour doing marketing for a local golf course.  Harry’s detour had been a little longer and more involved but at some point they wound up at the same publisher.  He edited sports and fitness books, she worked at the health and lifestyle magazine down the hall as an associate editor.  They knew each other from the community lunch table.  Harry would tell bad jokes and Jenny would roll her eyes.  But she’d smile nonetheless.  They passed in the hall.  Sometimes they stopped to talk for a few seconds.  He once told her a joke, she said she liked his sense of humor, it reminded her of her dad.  Harry groaned but felt that he had had that coming and they were both in the right place, relative to each other.

E-books spooked their publisher.  The great recession scared the shit out of her.  She cut staff pre-emptively and hunkered down.  Books were a luxury buy so Harry was pink-slipped first.  Magazines, it was felt, provided an inexpensive continuity to the customer base so Jenny stayed on until the publisher felt that moving the whole show from the country to New York City would not only attract the top notch journalistic talent to stay afloat and relevant, it would grow the rate base who would now respect a home address that tripled expenses.  Jenny got to keep her job but refused.  She wasn’t a city girl.  She liked farms and cats and cars that went too fast.  So she showed up at Harry’s office door.  He had gotten the gig at American Equine publishing on his sports writing merits.  Truth was he hated horses, but he could write like hell and he was a masterful organizer of order out of chaos.  That was a skill he acquired during his career detour but nobody knew.  So the health magazine’s loss was Harry’s gain.  He hired her.  He’d have to keep abreast of the trade papers to see how the relocation was working.

Right now he leveraged his prerogative at being top dog into dumping the tickets into the hotel’s restaurant dumpster. He hoped that nobody would go poking around three day old rotting food, but if they did come up with them, at least he could explain being mugged and not wanting to worry his hosts for a replacement pair.  Thanks all the same, I guess we’ll take the train home.

The advantages of taking the Acela home were many and varied. You actually got something like leg room.  Union Station was a grand place to have a quick lunch in. There were no cabin pressure changes from a 49 minute flight that would have ears popping until the weekend.  Then there was that thing about not having to walk through metal detectors.

In fact, properly registered, Amtrak even allowed unloaded firearms aboard their trains.   Too bad there wasn’t time to fill in and file all the right paperwork.

"There, all done." Harry said, coming out of the alley. "If you're going to sully those pretty riding boots, I'd rather you do it in a stable and not on last night's foie gras. Or is that even still legal in this town."

"You're thinking of Chicago."

"You're right. I wonder if the last of their snow has melted yet."

"It’s June."

"What's your point?"

Jenny rolled her eyes and sighed and for a moment she was a twenty four year old kid. It stopped Harry.  He looked at her.  Her riding boots that were the hot fashion item with older women this year.  Jenny naturally wore them because her beat was a bunch of horse farms.  A denim jacket, a Senator’s cap with her hair in a ponytail, poking out the back.  Man, what have I gotten this kid into?

It was about a mile walk to the station but they took it down Avenue K where all the lobbyists kept their offices.  For fun, they peppered the street verbally with lobbies they made up.

"Won-Ton Folders Alliance."

"Coalition for Citizenship for Cats"

"Ah, the old CCC."

The train left at 10.20.  There was time to pick up a sandwich at Le Bon Pain.  It might be first class Acela but it still couldn’t get away from offering rubber hot dogs that cost the railroad nine bucks more than they took in for them.   At least the train was on time, another benefit of a railroad that shunted aside everything else on the tracks to let their premier product through. But Amtrak was still Amtrak and a conductor summarily lectured the car that if anyone wasn't carrying first class tickets, they would be removed from the train, no matter what.  Does everybody understand?

"You know what would happen if she presented that on an American flight?" Harry asked Jenny.

"We'd fly United home?"

"I have trained you well, Grasshopper."

"Harry, who were those two last night, Ike and Tina?"

"You don't want to know."

"We've done this enough, I do."

"I don't know who they were.  I know their names and I'm not going to tell you. I don't know what they did and I don't care. Remember, I'm only a contractor.  I get called out to do specific jobs, then I go home.  Sometimes I need help so I sub-contract to you.  Beyond that I don’t have skin in the game, just a skill set that’s in short supply so they call me.   And I wish it didn’t involve you.”

The train pulled out.  They’d be home in about two hours.

"I don't think you had a choice."

She was right, three years ago now, not showing up with a plausible female would likely have gotten him buried in some cornfield.

It was a dinner date.  He didn’t know them, they were ostensibly meeting him so he could tell them what the local market for purebred Arabians looked like.  They thought they could make a few dollars and they were right.  What Harry did know was those few dollars would funnel into al Qaeda.  So he’d be happy to dine, give them benefit of his expertise and sometime during dinner take possession of the flash drive that laid out their organization.  There was a mole on their side and he would be at dinner.  For all the risk of physically transferring an object right under the noses of the targets, it was far less dangerous than getting the mole off alone to make the drop.  It might work, but there needed to be a distraction.  That meant a woman.  Of course Harry, the decadent westerner would keep company with a female.  But she couldn’t be his date.  That would be rubbing their noses into it.  So he came up with the idea of his niece.  Young, ambitious and ready to follow her uncle into journalism.  All he needed now was a twenty something recruit his employers would come up with and he was set.  Nice try.  Nobody at head office could come up with anyone they didn’t feel would shit themselves before appetizers were done with.  Dinner was tomorrow night.  He called his old employer and asked for Jenny.

"How'd you like a free dinner, pretend we're related and say as little as possible for two hours?"

"That's probably one of the better pickup lines I've ever heard. But go on."

"Ok, I know we just met a few weeks ago, but there are some horse buyers in town.  I tried to put them off into next week, but they insisted.  I told them my niece was visiting so of course they said to bring you, um, her along.  Could you join us and play the part?  It’s just kind of embarrassing now.”


"Niece. Something tells me that's been used before."

"Ha. Ha. Ha. Look, if you join us, all you need to do is smile, answer questions politely and tell everyone as little about yourself as possible."

"You sound like you’re in a fix.  What's in it for you if I do this?"

Oh, I don’t know, nobody shoots me Soviet style.  "Maybe I get a letter of thanks and a crystal bowl for my coffee table for opening up a new market for their steeds?”

"Wow. That must mean a lot to you." Jenny was right. Something wasn't adding up and she was on to it. There were two options: drop her immediately or come clean, to a point. Harry made a rash decision.

"Ok, here's the deal. I write articles about horses. That's what I do. But I also do some freelance work for someone I used to work for. And that's what I’m doing here. This involves lying and pretending I’m someone I’m entirely not.  You fill in the picture and make the difference between possible liar and likely guy who is what he says.  It’s not dangerous unless I screw something up which is why I’m calling.  I don’t’ screw things up.  But I’m in a fix and I need to come up with a warm body in your gender and age group or else I’m going to be asked some questions I really don’t have the answer to.  What do you say?”

"What's your sister's name?"

"Marlene. And you have her eyes."

"Who do you work for?"

"The one you'd expect."

"Doesn't answer my question. CIA? NSA? FBI? DHS? ATF?"

"Alcohol, tobacco and firearms, I'll bring the chips and we've got a party."

"You're not telling me, are you?"

"No."

Harry showed up with his niece Jennifer.  Everybody smiled and ordered tea.  Harry thought that stallions would reach their pre-2007 price points in a little over a year.  They were fine animals, too fine to auction off to a market that wouldn’t reach seller’s minimum.  Jenny made small talk about how proud she was of her uncle and how she’d like to follow his path.

"So you are joining your uncle?"

"I'm hoping to."

"Horses are a fine subject. Majestic, complex. How do come to write about horses? Have you written about horses before?"

"No.”

"No? Then how do you come about this?”

“Well, Uncle Harry will teach me about horses.  I already know how to write.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, I’m already a columnist.  Weekly.”

“And you write about?”

“Sex and relationships for the Express Times.  You’ve probably never heard of it.  It’s local.”

At this point in the conversation, a gun will be drawn and used, Harry thought.

“I see.”

The drive was in Harry’s pocket and was dropped the next morning, not blood-stained and gory at all.  How that happened, Harry still couldn’t explain.

 

“Ok.  So three years ago you stuck your neck out.  You saved my life that night and in the long term you saved somebody else’s life.  Thank you.  I owe you.  But that doesn’t mean access.  It means I watch out for you.  Make sure you have a job or at least an opportunity.  Writing.  Working in our trade.  Nothing more.  You’ve helped me out a couple of times but this is my game.  Not yours.  Get it?”

Jenny drooled spit out of the edge of her mouth.  Harry wiped it up with his sleeve.  Then he kissed her forehead and leaned back himself.

There is an iron rail bridge that crosses the Susquehanna just west of Havre du Grace, Maryland.  Metal on metal, a train crossing  it makes a satisfying sound and with the sun shining on Jenny, her head on Harry’s shoulder, he felt satisfied indeed.

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