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?"


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? Then how do you come about this?”

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


“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.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I'll Get Back to You on the Career Part

Jenny was halfway through her second martini and getting that faraway look in her eyes she got when she drank a few with him. Funny, when he had first met her she didn’t drink seconds and pretty much kept focused.  As they spent more time together, he at first thought it was the liquor.  But then, as a favor he had picked her up once or twice after girl's nights out.  She hadn't had it then either. She had just been silly and tipsy.

Oh well. He hoped the look didn't mean what he thought it meant. But it probably did.

Ike and Tina, the couple they were watching, paid the bill and left. Their names weren't really Ike and Tina of course.  He knew their real names but Jenny didn’t. That protected her. She knew what he did and when she was around, what her part was in it.  She just wasn't sure of whom he did it for, why and who he was doing it with. Unlike Harry, Jenny was a new features editor at Equestrian Quarterly whose other interests were writing and travel. He had been managing editor for a few years and his interests included surreptitiously taping other people's conversations in a bar then dropping the data chip into a safe box near a Doubletree hotel. That's where he had picked his gun up last night and that's where they were going now.

Oh, and of course travel.  Just not to destinations one would normally think of.

Harry pointed at the half empty glass. 

"You want to finish that? We're going out. Let me buy you a fresh one in a half hour and this time, I'll join you."

"I can hold out for that."

"You look spectacular."

"Not that that is going to help."

"No, it’s not. But you still look spectacular."

The doorman hailed a cab off of Massachusetts Avenue for them. It was late June and the summer heat had been slow to the city so the air conditioning wasn't blowing Antarctica into the back seat. He was glad to ride with the windows open.   It was how he drove in his car.

"I brought chalk." Jenny said as they passed Mt. Vernon Square.

"You think of everything. But I've got a piece too."

“Of course you do.”

The cab pulled up to the hotel and he paid.  Harry and Jenny made a scene of looking through pockets and purses, ostensibly for the hotel passkey.   The driver scanned the lobby and street, not seeing his  next fare, he melted into the traffic and was gone. They crossed the street to the mailbox. Harry dropped the chip in, chalked two quick hash marks midway down the left side of the box and they left. He knew the Bar Rouge was about a block away and they made a decent Manhattans. The water and vermouth combo had put him off martinis for tonight.

For all that it was a fairly pleasant June Thursday evening, there weren't a lot of other people out on the sidewalk.   That made Harry all the more certain something less than good was up when the droopy pants with hoodie kid,  jay walked across the street and positioned himself twenty feet behind, pacing them.

The kid quickened his pace and passed them, then spun abruptly. One hand was under the front of his hoodie.

"Hey, wonder if you can help me out?" the kid said.

"Depends. You lost?" Jenny said nothing but took his gentle nudge to step a little behind Harry.

"Nah, but I think you might have something I want. Just want you to help me."

"Now that wouldn't be a gun you've got there, would it?" he asked.

"What if it is?"

"Well, you could get into a lot of trouble. This town has some tough gun laws that protect innocent citizens. That’s why only bad guys have guns.  Unless you’re one of the good guys and I’m guessing not…” the Smith and Wesson was pointed at the kid's forehead now. "the clothes are all wrong."

"What you want?" he could see the kid start to shake.

"I want you to put your piece on the sidewalk. Then I want you to leave, very quickly. You're between me and a nightcap. Never a safe place."

What the kid put down was a rusty thirty eight with two shells in it. Probably wouldn't fire but just in case they cylinder wound up in a different concrete flower pot slash barrier than the frame. The shells would get flushed at the bar.

At the Bar Rouge, Harry and Jenny toasted, more to the eavesdrop than the mugging, but he could tell she was a little shaken.

"It would be nice to be able to hold you tonight. It would be comforting." She said.

"It might be, but a hug is all that's going to happen."

"So we're sleeping in separate beds again?"

"They're both queen size. Think of all the room you'd lose. Anyway, we're only pretending to be what we seem. Can't cross that line."

"Why not?"

"Because that would be too easy. We'd be a couple.  I'd fall in love with you.  Then I wouldn't be able to focus on the job and we’d get killed.”

“We wouldn’t get killed, we’re already better than that.”

“Can’t take that chance.”

"You're already in love with me."

"Well yes, but I can still plausibly deny it."

It's a Job

After dinner, Mike and Ned dropped him off at the hotel their company was paying for. He felt he had adequately repaid all their generosity at dinner too. He liked fish in aquariums as much as the next guy, but Christ, Ned took it a little too far, what with a two hour discussion of salinity, water temperature and knowing to blending which tropicals such that no hundred and fifty dollar fish gets eaten by a predatory species.

Speaking of predatory species, it was time to get to work.

He called up to the room. Jenny answered on the fourth ring, just as she had been told to.

"Join me for a drink?"

"About time. They don't do HBO here, I'm watching repeats of Real Housewives of somewhere and I'm ready to jump out the window."

"See you in the bar."

A couple of RIT classes gave him enough verbal ammunition to gun down his dinner companions. He was, to them, a managing editor who decided where the pages of his four quarterly horse fancier magazines got put together and printed. Digital Solutions had a good reputation for electronic prep work together so he fancied he'd split assembly from final production for once. Price-wise it was a better deal and it didn't hurt that they were headquartered on Avenue Q in Washington DC.  Lots of excuses for trips into town.

 But two hours bullshitting about fishes? Really?

The hotel was built in the twenties, he figured. Brick and heavy cast concrete. Permanent. Not like today’s glass and stucco-oh sorry-is the site more valuable with a Home Depot-no problem let's just tear it down-notels. It was next to the Cato Institute which was funny because when it was built, the free market didn’t need an advocate. Things just worked that way. The hotel bar was, in a word, classy. Edith Piaf played quietly so there was no leaning into your companion to be heard and incidentally noticing a developing tooth cavity. Electrical cords that fed the lights over the bar were wrapped in fabric. There wasn't a video screen, anywhere, period.  There were newspapers and the bartenders (mixologists) wore bowties. Great place.

Jenny fit right in. In a black cocktail dress, Aigner heels with no stockings even the gay lobbyists nursing red wine in a corner booth turned their heads as she walked in. Her hair was up, just as he had instructed. It made her look the part; a twenty four year old who was trying to graduate from the party girl scene to something more satisfying in the long term.  She looked beautiful and sophisticated but twenty four or so years old. He was twenty years her senior, looked it and acted it. That was what made it work.

"Martinis, please.  For the lady a Bombay Sapphire straight up, red vermouth, with an olive."  That was funny because he had just ordered his usual.

"Yes, sir." Steve smiled and put a glass of crushed ice in front of her.

"Do I get an umbrella?" Jenny giggled. Perfect.

"You remember me from last night?"

"Yes, sir. Philadelphia. Bluecoat, distilled in your hometown. I believe you were somewhat insistent."

"You're a good guy Mike. You remember."


"Yeah. Philly's home. Gotta support the locals."

Bluecoat actually lacked the juniper tartness of Bombay but at least he wouldn’t have to endure its flowery finish tonight.  Steve compliantly pulled out the blue bottle of local gin that Harry had brought to the bar this afternoon and began to mix in vermouth. That he was mixing vermouth in with tap water bothered Harry slightly because the thing would taste like shit and if you're going to drink in a place this nice, wouldn't it be nice to drink your well-crafted recipe and brands?

 Not now, there was work to be done.

So Jenny was served his drink while he toasted her with watery white vermouth.  She smiled and pecked him on the corner of his mouth. Two men in business suits at the other end of the bar looked up, looked Jenny over, pretending not to.  Wow, Harry could almost hear their thoughts since, switch places, that would sure be what he was thinking.   She was dressed well.  Too well to be a compensated companion. Harry and Jenny clearly weren't related either since his genes couldn't possibly contribute to someone as beautiful as she was. So there was one option;  here was a young woman who had latched onto the luckiest guy alive. Son of a bitch. The men went back to their drinks and conversations, which was the idea.  The couple that had just come in and passed them looked at them too as they looked at every other person in the bar.  A man and a woman, when neither registered a familiar face, they nodded quietly to each other and sat down.  Harry saw this.  No one else registered it.  Harry looked at Jenny and smiled as if to say “thanks for being my date.”  She smiled back, reached out and stroked his cheek.  Then she straightened his tie and with a quiet left turn of her wrist activated the digital recorder in his pocket.

The new couple were in the second booth from where he and Jenny sat. Harry hoped the post-recording audio filters were up to the challenge because moving any closer would have them pay for their drinks and leave.

In the meantime he seemed like just a middle aged asshole plying a barely legal girl with booze so he could fuck her later tonight, no matter if she was semi-conscious. That would be pretty apparent to everyone around who would lose interest and move on to their own business.  That was the point. It was like Harry wearing a Hollister t-shirt and ratty jeans in Berlin; you're a forty-something idiot wearing twenty-something clothes and nobody takes you seriously.  You’re a forgettable clown and they ignore you.  Just the way you want them to.

"How was your day?" What a horrible drink.

"I slept through most of it."  Ok, so there wasn't a lot to talk about. Sip your drink quietly and let the recorder pick up the conversations. Perfect.

They each sipped quietly, smiled at each other and would intermittently hold hands, then not.  Two people without a lot in common.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My Little Town Blues, An Awkward Love Letter

Spent Monday in what used to be my home town of New York City.  Well, for about a decade anyway until the meds wore off and like the proverbial deadhead who's pot stash is empty, realizes that this band sucks.

Not entirely, but New York today is a different place than the New York of my tenure.  Those days were rough, these days are better as New Yorkers have learned through experiences of '93, 9/11, Bloomberg, that a lot of people out there are gunning for them and the only way to fend them off is to hang together.  That's why when armed gangs were ransacking the jewelry stores of that pinnacle of civilization; Toronto during the 2003 blackout, New Yorkers were holding hands out and helping each other off darkened subway cars with a please and a thank you very much.

Its always nice to go back, but not in winter.  New York on a cold, wet, winter's day can suck the joy out of the Dalai Lama.

Oh and I started smoking again.  Not intentionally, but if you're ducking close to buildings to keep out of the rain, you really can't help yourself.  You guys ought to quit that habit and start running in the park.  New York will take you early anyway if you're not careful, you don't need to accelerate the process. 

So like most New Yorkers, I walked to where I needed to go.  Left Penn Subway Station and headed crosstown, stopping for a few seconds to look at one of the leftover eagles from the original station they took down in '63.  In the light drizzle, water was beading up on it and dropping like the occasional tear shed for having lost the palace only to now guard this steel and stucco architectural abortion.  The light rain was more of an impetus to walk since everybody else will jam themselves into subway cars, smelling like wet sheepdogs after a roll in dung.  Oh, and forget those yellow things at street level. They are made of sugar and melt away in rain.  And the cabs that are driving around are filled with grandads and grandkids from the Bronx who saved up a thousand dollars and are taking a three hour sightseeing ride around Manhattan.  It once took me three hours to get from the Plaza to an office on 27th and Park.  We stood on the curb trying to hail a cab for a half hour, then went into Harry's for a quick one, then hit the curb again, then another quick one at Harry's until we finally caught a bus and hoofed over three blocks from Fifth to Park.

Got a little damp on Monday but the worst part of getting anywhere in a New York rain are the umbrella rib tips that seem to beeline for your ocular organ.  Norm Abrams does safety videos where he warns "remember, the most important part of getting across town is wearing a pair of these safety glasses."

Grand Central is a magnificent 100 year old girl and a great place to wander and dry off for fifteen minutes before heading into any meeting.  There wasn't much time to do anything else this time around.  No glass of wine outdoors at Rock Center or drinks at Campbell apartments with a college roomate.  And the latter is probably a good thing 'cause my HELOC is maxed out.  He meant well with his suggestion but might I suggest you pick on someone in your income bracket?

And there you had it.  Another jaunt back to the hole in the ground that bills itself a train station.  A quick sandwich at Zabar's, watching people and wondering who outside of aged hippie peaceniks still wear protest buttons?  Aren't you supposed to wallpaper your Prius with meaningless slogans that summarize your personal philosophy in fifteen words or less these days? 

Took the premium train home where the conductor informed the paying customers that they were in the quiet car in a manner and tone that if she were an attendant on a Delta flight, you'd be sure to book your next trip on United.

There you have it.  Home in Fungus County, but I still retain certain New York sensibilities.  My good wife tells me the story of the date who announced he had picked her up easily at the corner of Fifth and Forty Second, laughing all the while, the implication being she was somewhat cheaper than most.  I told her that I'd pick her up there too, if I had a penchant for librarians.

And no, they didn't roar either.

Bunny on.

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