By Anthony Ventre
Fabian and Joe Bottom just left. They split, both of them, a few minutes ago. A couple of creeps! Sniff! Sniff! Fabian’s cheap cologne permeates the curtains, my clothing, the entire cottage.
Joe Bottom stood right over there by the china closet, lips slightly parted, baring his keyboard ivory teeth. Beside him, Fabian leaned against the wall cross-legged, his arm perched on the fireplace mantel. The flames from the fireplace cast a ghoulish light on his features.
They’d come uninvited as they always did, just as I’d settled in for the night. I wanted them to hurry, to say whatever it was they’d come to say and then leave me alone.
“You getting warm, Fabian?” I prodded. “You’re going to burn your ass you stand by the fireplace any longer!”
Joe Bottom seemed to think this was the funniest thing in the world. He clapped me on the back a little too hard for me to think he was being friendly. “You got a mirror, kid? Something flat, smooth? Maybe a dish. Are you with us, kid?” he said, rapping me lightly on the cheek with the knuckles of his fat hand.
“In the kitchen,” I said. “What do you want a dish for?”
Above the jagged Halloween pumpkin smile on Fabian’s lips, his eyes rolled in their sockets. “We thought you might need a little something to assist with your packing, kid! To speed things up a little,” he added.
“Packing? Me? Why would I be packing?” I went to the kitchen and brought out a dish from the cupboard. He gave me another one of his friendly knuckle shots. “Atta’ boy,” Joe Bottom said, fishing an ounce bag from the inside pocket of his jacket. He poured half the contents into the dish, chopping at some rocks with the razor blade he’d pulled from the hatband of his fedora. Then he rolled a hundred dollar bill into a straw and handed it to me.
I’m not going to lie, the snowfall emboldened me. I felt suddenly as if a platoon of tiny tough soldiers were marching across my tongue. “Alright, Fabian, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Fabian shot a quick glance at Joe Bottom. “ Joe! You see that? You see what kind of attitude this kid has?”
Joe Bottom arched his eyebrows in a show of indignation as fake as his knockoff Rolex. The only things real about the two creeps were the big burners carried Mexican style in their waistbands. Fabian was strapped up with a Sig .40 caliber, which he liked to flash around to impress me. Joe Bottom was more discreet, kept his .45 tucked into his belt Mexican carry at the back of his pants.
I’d heard them arguing once about whose was better. Fabian preferred the higher velocities of the .40. Joe Bottom liked the heft of a 230-grain hollow-point. Blah-blah! There’s not a human being alive who had outrun either one.
“Jamie, I’m not so sure I like your tone,” Joe Bottom picked up where Fabian left off. “We care about your well-being. That’s why we’re here.”
“And don’t think I don’t appreciate it,” I said evasively. Things weren’t going better with coke. I was hanging on a cliff-edge of Big Rock Candy Mountain. My temples were numbed out, my head felt like a block of ice.
Fabian’s face was solemn as he stepped off from the wall. “Listen to us, Jamie. You’ve got to pack your stuff and be out of here by daybreak. That’s just the way it is.
”How had it all come to this? My head ached, my temples throbbed. I was light-headed and needed to lie down. Passed out. When I opened my eyes again, Fabian and Joe Bottom were gone. The soldiers on my tongue had marched off to fight other battles. But wait, I need to explain! I don’t want them to have the last word:
It started while I was doing my show at the radio station. Late night talk radio. That’s where program directors like to park the crazies — out of the way, in the dark, heard only by their fellow night creatures.
Somehow I’d become a minor celebrity in small-market California radio. Harry was one of my listeners, an odd sort, well-to-do, highly educated, a scientist. Not my typical customer of drag queens, night stranglers, meth freaks, a few college kids, drug dealers, and not a few cops.
I can talk my head off about anything even without the marching powders. People listened, I don’t know why. It didn’t seem to matter if I was right or wrong. If I didn’t know something, I made it up. I was getting paid for having fun. And things were going smoothly until the Marinelli Cheese Factory murders.
It was in all the papers for a whole month. A mobster goon caught the CFO and the CEO together leading a group of Chamber of Commerce types on a tour of a factory warehouse. Boom-bang! St. Valentine’s Day massacre déjà vu all over again. I got a tip and I told the story as it was told to me. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I used the word “alleged.” Apparently certain Marinelli family members didn’t appreciate free speech as much as you and I do. Did those goons even know the meaning of “alleged?”
Anyway, during my show one night, two uniformed cops rapped on the door of the radio station. “Any of your employees have a gray Porsche parked outside?” one of the officers asked.
I followed them to the mezzanine deck overlooking the mall’s parking lot. My car was ablaze, melted down to a skeleton, surrounded by fire trucks and a few police officers. “Do you have any enemies?” one of the officers asked.
I spent most of the night providing the police with a list of my enemies. About 5:00 a.m. with the sun coming up, I was back at my apartment trying unsuccessfully to sleep when my phone buzzed. “Next time it’ll be you in inside the car, get me?”
“Who is this?”
“Why don’t you guess? You’ve been lucky at guessing so far,” said a menacing voice.
KPEN Reporter Targeted by Mob. That was the gist of it. The station owner, worried that retaliation might be visited upon the station itself rather than on me, began to look for reasons to fire me. That wasn’t too hard, I’d given them plenty of reasons, including not showing up for work. Not showing up anywhere, in fact.
But that’s how I came to be living on Harry’s estate. He came to my rescue, so to speak. As head of the Department of Life Sciences at a prestigious west coast research institute, Harry was a special kind of person, determined to make his mark on the world. I’d interviewed him once for a news segment on stem cell research. We had coffee then and since.
Responding to my tale of woe, Harry said: “It sounds like you need a place to stay?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, I need someone to look after my place while I’m traveling.”
I was in no position to decline.
“Okay then, we’re a family,” Harry smiled.
It was a small family, consisting only of a Siamese cat and Harry’s wife Jade, a beautiful and charming woman, stunning in appearance, slender and athletic. “You’re the radio guy,” Jade said blithely, extending her hand.
Jade was a truly beautiful woman, and while I admit to an early attraction there, I fully understood it to be a one-way street. After swimming for eternal seconds in her gray-green eyes, I recovered enough to stammer out a greeting. She was aloof on first meeting and later seemed to have taken permanent residence in that attitude.
I took my meals alone in the cottage Harry provided rent-free but occasionally Harry would invite me to dinner in the main house. When it did happen to be the three of us, we would spend the time making polite and uncomfortable small talk. Given fair warning of my impending visits, Jade managed to be off somewhere — shopping or working on some project.
Avoiding Harry’s wife wasn’t always possible. She’d have to pass by my cottage when she parked her car and made her way to the main house where she lived with Harry and the cat. Typically, she’d give me her customary cold shoulder, rarely a cool nod of greeting. This one time she stopped, however, and spoke. “Harry will soon go away on one of his trips, Jamie. Has he mentioned it to you?”
“A trip? No. Not that I recall.”
My surprise gave her the opportunity for a jab. “I suggested he take you with him,” she said.
“Take me with him. Where?” I asked, dismayed.
“Let him tell you about it himself. He’s on the back deck.”
Jade continued on her way to the capacious home they had built together. I watched as she went up the hill, her figure slow, feline, graceful.
Harry was stretched out on a deck chair, staring up at the blue sky. I suspected he was again absorbed in contemplating how he could save mankind.
“What’s all this about a trip, Harry?”
Though I’d disturbed his reverie, Harry accepted my intrusion with his usual graciousness. “My research team just landed this great project. Ever hear of Plangenetics Pharmaceuticals? Big outfit, they put lots of money into biological research. Contract proposal was for four million. They approved a budget of three but still it’s a great project.” Harry saw the puzzled expression on my face and explained it had to do with plants.
“Wait a minute, Harry. You’re saying that company will pay you for digging up plants?”
” Ihuasca is one the drug companies are interest in. You ever hear of it?”
“Sorry, Harry. No. I don’t think so.”
“Ihuasca is just one among hundreds of medicinal plants found in the jungles of South America. Aborigine practitioners have used them in cures for years.”
“Aborigines? You mean witch doctors?”
“Not exactly,” Harry said patiently. “But you have to realize that western medicine, advanced though it is in technological areas, is far behind the ancients in the healing arts. We have much to learn from the native knowledge of medicinal plants. Just think how mankind could benefit if we learned how to synthesize them. What we find in those deep, dark jungles could save thousands of lives.”
“I don’t know, Harry. It sounds a little crazy,” I said, thinking of the Marinelli Cheese Factory murders. The only life I was interested in saving was my own.
Harry gave me one of those serious long looks of his. He had a distinct moral advantage over me, I’ll admit, but I was surely his better at gut sense..
“In a few days, I’m meeting with two Plangenetics’ top executives — Danny Xavier and Timothy Schulgeiss. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of them?”
“No, I haven’t, Harry,” I mumbled. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Well, those two are Plangenetics’ CEO and CFO respectively. They’re going to be personally involved and will see to travel, financing, and even security,” he added proudly.
“Security?” I was puzzled.
“Yes, Mr. Fabian and Mr. Joe Bottom will attend to the security needs of the project from here while Misters Schulgeiss and Xavier are off with me. You’ll meet them soon enough.”
“Hmmm. I see. I see.”
I really didn’t see. But I guessed that the research Harry mentioned had something to do with the sheaves of handwritten notes scattered around his study. I had peeked at them more than once, deciding they were complex chemical formulas connected with his research.
That whole thing gave me the willies, to tell the truth. An expedition into South American jungles was not like a walk through Golden Gate Park. Colombia was the homeland of people like Pablo Escobar. Marxist rebels in Bolivia kidnapped foreigners and held them for ransom. Machu Picchu in Peru had a nice ring to it but I get nosebleeds at high altitude. Did they have Starbucks there?
“You might want to think about coming along, Jamie. It would be good for you.”
“I don’t think so, Harry,” I said.
“Think about it. You’ll be doing something meaningful for humanity.”
He had a point there. I’d done next to nothing for humanity. Oh, I thought at first that there was some noble purpose in journalism. Truth is beauty and all that, but after the Marinelli Cheese Factory Murders, I realized that, while truth might be beautiful, it was also dangerous and could easily get you killed.
People aren’t very much interested in truth anyway. Quite honestly, I’d lost interest in it myself. Not to mention that Harry’s plan smelled fishy from the start. “No, sorry, Harry,” I said, mustering my resolve. “I think I’ll stay here if you don’t mind.”
When I was invited to the main house to meet Harry’s new associates, Misters Schulgeiss and Xavier, later in the week, I didn’t hesitate to tell them of my concerns. We were outside on the huge back deck while Jade was preparing cocktails all around.
“I’m a bit worried about Harry on this trip thing.” I told them. “Isn’t it a bit dangerous to be running around in those jungles?”
“Oh, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about, Jamie. We’ve covered all the bases: currencies, transportation, guides, security,” Schulgeiss assured me.
He excused himself and tracked back into the house to grab a drink. Xavier remained, his face shadowy and grim in the fading light. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Harry,” he grinned, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder, “We love Harry. We’ll make sure nothing happens to him.”
A week later, they left, the four of them in a private plane: Harry, Schulgeiss, Xavier, and the pilot of the leased plane.
“Keep an eye on things for me, will you?” Harry said.
Harry was away for a long time. I heard nothing from him. The days grew into weeks and then a month and more. I kept to myself, reading, listening to music, going for long hikes in the woods.
Little seemed to have changed in Jade’s opinion of me. I was therefore plenty surprised when she knocked on the door of my cabin late one evening. She was “terribly worried” about Harry, she said. “I miss Harry so much!” Jade said. “And I’m so worried about him.”
“I’m worried too,” I commiserated. “You should have heard from him by now.”
“I should have gone with him,” she said.
“Better you didn’t! That could be rough traveling.”
“I could take it as well as any man,” she said.
Frankly, I began to wish Jade had gone along for it seemed, by her new habit of visiting me at the cottage, that the barrier between us had been lifted. Even more worrisome, she began to share bits of personal information.. First it was about her happy childhood. Then it was how she fell in love with Harry. Finally she confessed her deep sense of disappointment when she learned, after visits to her gynecologist, that she was unable to have children. When a woman feels close enough to tell you of her gyno visits, you can pretty much figure something’s changed.
I don’t remember exactly how this house of cards began to collapse. Jade’s nearness, Harry’s absence, my lack of moral compass — all contributed to the fall. It was like being swept along in an underground river you didn’t notice was there until one day you wake up and discover you’re drowning in it.
“Will you hand me a cigarette? Over there,” Jade pointed, narrowing her gaze to a laser-like intensity. .
I took a smoke from the pack at the bedside table, lit it, and placed it between her lips. She drew on it, blew two smoke circles, and tamped it out in the ashtray. We made love for a second time, and leveraged our guilt by not speaking afterward. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking of Harry, alternating between hoping for his return and hoping for his continued absence.
“I like Harry. He’s been a real friend. It’s really hard think you and I could have a future together.”
Jade burst out laughing. “A future together? You’ve got to be kidding, Jamie. I’ve never thought of having a future with anyone but Harry.”
This stunned me. Had I only imagined she had feelings for me? “You’re kidding, aren’t you, Jade?” I said, listening in vain for the answer I wanted.
“Kidding? “Oh, Jamie, you really are a simple creature.” she said. Her laughter had not subsided and, in fact, had become more mocking. “Such a child, Jamie. What do you think this is, for heaven’s sake? I’m just bored and don’t like being alone. That’s all this is.”
I got dressed without another word. Deeply offended, I went back to the cottage to brood. Next thing I knew the two thugs were banging on my cottage door.
Joe Bottom pushed me back inside when I tried to step out onto the porch. “It’s time to get to work, Jamie. You know that, don’t you?”
“Work? What work?
Fabian turned to Joe Bottom and shook his head. “Do you think it’s about time we clue him in?” Then he turned his attention back to me. “I thought you’d have it all figured out by now.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Time to grow up, Jamie. Put on your big boy pants. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
“Why don’t you guys stop beating around the bush? Spit it out. I’m tired of this! I’m not getting involved in any of it.”
“Oh but you’re already involved, Jaime. Time to pay the rent. Otherwise we’ll tell Harry how you’ve been looking after things. We’ve got pictures. You and Jade, the loving couple. ”
“Bastards. That’s blackmail!”
Joe Bottom turned to Fabian with a sardonic grin. “See, I told you the kid was smart. He says it’s blackmail.” Then to me: “Your job is to take Harry’s pickup, go down Yucca Canyon road to the bottom, wait for the drops.”
“Drops of what?” I didn’t really expect an answer, the less I knew the better off I’d be if the screws came around asking. The wisdom acquired by the Marinelli Cheese Factory murders had at least taught me that.
Joe Bottom continued: “When the drops come, you simply load the stuff into the truck and drive back here. We’ll take over from there. Couldn’t be easier.”
The plane would fly low, beneath the radar, a beefy Beech King Air 90 cargo plane. Shrink-wrapped bricks of cocaine, strapped together on lightweight wooden pallets, would float down amidst the brown hills and Manzanita on Harry’s estate.
I was nervous the first time but it got easier. I’d gone out several times more with the pickup, covered it over with a desert-camo tarp, then sat alone in the coastal hills waiting for the plane. The pilot would tip his wings to signal me drop was impending. Then the parachutes would bloom in the sky like rootless white flowers.
But you know. . . the best laid plans of mice and men? I first heard it from jade. She came to my door in a fit of hysterics to give me the news. Major catastrophe.Flying low to evade the radar, they’d forgotten about the mountains. Jade was half dressed, beside herself with grief: “Plane crash. No survivors,” she cried, “the news people said they’re dead, all three of them.”
She slumped onto a couch, head in her hands and bawling. I asked her again. “Three, you say? But there are four. You’re forgetting the pilot. He had to be flying the plane? Who were the two others?”
“I don’t know,” she wailed, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. “You think maybe Harry. . . “her voice trailed off.“There’s a chance,” I said, sitting down beside her and putting my arms around her shoulders.
There was better than a chance. Not twenty-four hours passed before I took a phone call from Harry, outraged that he, a respected American scientist, had been thrown into a La Paz prison and charged with narcotics smuggling.
Unable to reach Jade, he called me. Would I relay a message to Jade? Tell her to call their lawyer, then contact the U.S. embassy in La Paz. “Those boys, Joe Bottom and Fabian? I would suggest you stay as far away from them as you can. I happen to believe they are in on a criminal conspiracy.”
“Oh, surprise! Who knew?
The plant research was a cover story. Plantagenetics Inc. was a shell company registered in Cartagena. Xavier and Schulgeiss had contacts who supplied them with enough cocaine to levitate Los Angeles. Harry had been duped, providing the smugglers with impeccable credentials, accolades, degrees, and public recognition.
“Dear God, Harry,” I said. “We thought you were killed. Do you know if it’s true about the plane? Were they all killed? Is it true?”
Harry didn’t know much. His biggest concern was that all of the plant specimens he’d gathered had been incinerated in the plane crash or destroyed by the federal police. His fantasy of saving mankind was up in smoke. I promised to convey Harry’s message to Jade.
I was rethinking my standing in this whole hot mess when, to make matters worse, Fabian and Joe Bottom come screeching into the driveway with their black souped-up BMW. They walked straight up to the cabin and when I opened the door, they pushed me inside. Joe Bottom poked a finger into my chest. “Pay strict attention now, lover boy. Jade told you what’s going on, didn’t she?” Fabian said with customary bluntness.
“Sort of.” By this time I knew the game was lost though I didn’t have the final score.
“You’ve got to take the fall for all this. It’s the only way. You don’t want to see your pal Harry rotting in a Colombian jail, do you? ”
“I’m not taking any fall. . . ”
Joe Bottom looked askance at Fabian. “You ever see anybody this stupid, Fabian?”
Fabian shook his head. “Not since the Trojans took in the wooden horse.”
Then he tried a softer approach. “It’s nothing personal, you understand. We’re still looking out for you, understand? It’s either you do what you’re told or we’re all going down for it.” He stuck a fat envelope into my hand. “You’ve got fifty grand here for your hard work. Here’s your British passport with your picture on it. You can go wherever you choose to fly,” Fabian said.
“But I’m not British!”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it?” said Fabian.
I was to go on the run so they’d have a patsy. To save Harry, Jade would rat me out to the feds. Inspired by her infidelity, she would betray me with joy in her heart. “Jamie’s a penniless moocher who tried to make himself rich at our expense. He’s the mastermind of this whole sordid deal. He lured Harry into it under false pretenses. While my husband was gone, he tried to force himself on me. I resisted, of course! When I tried to evict him, he refused to leave.”
Who would the authorities believe, me or Jade? Yes, that’s right. Easy question. Harry would get off with a wink and a nod. Everyone else takes a walk.
Plain as day Jade was in on the scheme. She had handed over the pictures Joe Bottom and Fabian used to blackmail me. She was in it for the money, sure, but what galled me is that she was willing to risk sending Harry along for the ride, never thinking of the dangers.
How’s this for epilogue? Fabian and Joe Bottom are in the wind. Xavier, Schulgeiss, and the pilot were all killed in the plane crash. Jade is flying to La Paz with a team of lawyers and a prominent international political figure to get Harry out of prison.
I am writing this as I gaze drowsily out the window of a fine British Airlines jet. I close my eyes and see the clouds outside the window forming into the shape of a beautiful, complicated woman, arms outstretched, beckoning me to her bed.
The captain’s voice over the intercom, advising passengers of the weather at Heathrow, brings me back to a harsh reality. Those are just clouds outside my window — billowing, meaningless, dull clouds. How could I expect them to be anything else?
(Bio: Anthony Ventre has a background in broadcast and print journalism. He turned to fiction for the freedom it provides but maintains a fondness for unadorned prose. His short fiction pieces have been published Helix Magazine, a publication of the University of Southern Connecticut. A short story titled “21 Guns, a Trumpet, a Fistful of Roses” was published in Military Experience and the Arts. He’s currently seeking agent representation for his novel “Indiscretions.” A self-described ‘gym rat,’ Mr. Ventre is a longtime devotee of the world’s cruelest sport — boxing — and has spent several years as a trainer. Crime fact and fiction continues to be one of his secret vices.)