Entry 5 – Bellevue Blues
The heat of a late summer afternoon hit me as I was exiting the shop where what turned out to be a lengthy interview took place. I closed my eyes and soaked in the warmth, the smells and the sounds, all blending into one familiar experience. This was my scene now despite the love and hate relationship I was successfully fostering.
The whole day as well as the responsibility of the upcoming hours suddenly weighed heavy on me, as if the rifle in my hands (which the store owner reminded me to pick up) had the mass ten time its size. I sighed heavily. It was time to get to work.
First, the suit. I was staring at a nondescript black bundle in the trunk of my car. I had no idea how it got there – the lock was untouched. Yet it was undeniably lying in front of me, mocking my deductive skills and the car's security measures both. Unzipping the plastic cover revealed high-quality fabric that I definitely would not be able to afford. I had to resist the urge to run my fingers over it, reminding myself that it might do the suit quite a disservice in my sweaty tired state. There would be enough time for that later, once I took a shower.
And a shower was what I sorely needed. I quickly checked my cellphone – good, I was going to make it on time. Hotel Bellevue... here I come.
A few hours later, I was standing in front of a massive edifice of steel and glass housing a high-end restaurant and an even higher-end hotel and I was feeling very much out of place. In fact, this was pretty much the polar opposite of a place where I'd feel comfortable – the kind where a guard calls the cops on you at the earliest opportunity.
The parking lot in front was small – you don't need a big one when you have a valet and underground garages with only one well-dressed elderly couple handing their BMW keys to a valet, who was already eying my Chevelle with suspicion.
Despite a quick shuteye earlier and long shower followed by an even longer attempt to make myself presentable, I was feeling incredibly nervous and out of place, although certainly not for the lack of attire. It turned out that the suit in my trunk was impeccable and tailored, bearing no brands. Where did they get the measures I had (once again) no idea, but it fitted me like a glove. The whole experience felt oddly surreal, as if I was being driven to some goal by a force outside of my perception and all the choices made be me in the past led to this point.
I quickly checked my reflection in the glass wall, nodded and threw the keys to the valet, who caught them with a smirk. At that point, I realized I had seen the old couple give him a fiver along with theirs but the idea of awkwardly fumbling to find my wallet within the suit's silk-smooth depths dissuaded me from attempting to do the same. I just waved at the guy and almost ran inside. A few seconds later, I realized that mistreating a person that was about to drive my car wasn't perhaps the best idea either, but the deed was already done. No way but forward. Checking my reflection once again, I nodded and braced myself. This was it, the career-making moment of my life.
I headed through the lobby to my left, to the restaurant entrance. The hostess behind a small table was already watching me, her expression utterly blank save for a polite, insincere smile. I nodded to her, approaching the stand with faked confidence.
"Good evening. I'm here for a meeting with..."
"With whom, sir?"
I just realized I had no idea and was about to look very, very foolish. My brain froze for a moment, imagining all the potential terrible consequences of this humiliating situation, but before I could get to the part where I run away screaming, the hostess smiled, this time seemingly sincerely.
"Ah, apologies. You must be Mr. Thorpe, correct?"
I managed to nod, my face flushed with embarrassment.
"Right this way, sir!"
She beckoned me to follow and led me through several rows of mostly occupied tables. I noticed that few people present even raised their eyes to acknowledge me passing by – this place clearly was big on privacy.
We made our way towards the back of the room and the old feeling of unease once again rose to the surface. The room was well-lit but I felt as if there was some kind of gloom surrounding one particular area where a number of tables were left vacant in order to provide the occupants of the sole remaining one with an extra layer of privacy. Nobody could overhear any conversations coming from it but, more importantly, the act of separation alone spoke of the power and wealth the two persons sitting at it wielded. Even in the rich man's world, this was a gesture and its meaning was clear.
The hostess ushered me to the table and promptly left, leaving me standing in front of the two people present. One was a man in his early sixties with sharp features, piercing blue eyes and short grey hair. His face was dominated by a somewhat hawkish nose, his expression firm and strict. But it was his gaze that made him stand out in any company – the kind that bores right through you, through your soul, exposing it and judging it. The man's lips curled into a slight smile as he rose to his feet, offering me a firm handshake.
"Mister Thorpe, I presume. A pleasure to meet you. David Murdoch."
The lady sitting next to him rose to her feet, her smile far more pleasant than that of her boss. She was a dark-skinned woman with long braided hair in her late twenties or early thirties and I hesitated for a split second, taken aback by her stunning beauty. She noticed, of course – her gaze was as piercing as that of her boss. Even though I was the only person in the room with actual combat experience (or so I thought at the time), for some reason I felt like a lamb in front of two wolves with ravenous hunger in their eyes. But the feeling passed and I remembered how to be a gentleman, shaking her soft hand carefully.
"Norah Ferguson, at your service."
I nodded, smiling back.
"You must be Miss Norah that got Hector sh....," I stopped just short of impropriety and remembered, once again, my manners.
"Scared a lot you mean, I suppose," she retorted.
"Yes," I nodded. "Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
We all sat down and a waiter appeared out of nowhere, handing me the menu.
"Don't be shy," smiled Murdoch. "It's, as they say, on the house. Owning this place has a few perks."
The menu was almost entirely in French and I had two most influential people in this place – or perhaps in this city – watching me, clearly interested in seeing me solve the awkward situation. Alright. Ah what the hell. Might as well be me.
"I'll have steak. Medium rare, please. With a side dish of steak fries. And a beer. Make it... hmmm..."
I thought for a second. Might as well go full redneck, right?
The waiter didn't move a muscle as he wrote it down and hurried to fulfill my order. Murdoch and Ferguson seemed satisfied with what they saw – and if they weren't, I couldn't tell anyway. Murdoch in particular appeared completely relaxed, reclining in his chair and sipping from a glass of red wine, which occupied his attention for a brief moment as he was savoring its taste. Ferguson, on the other hand, appeared tense. From her plain business suit, she was clearly a subordinate of his, but a high placed one.
You'd be surprised how much do clothes tell. Your preferences, your opinions, even your desires – it's all there in the weave. You can fake your position to a degree, buy yourself a tailored suit like she had (like I had, I corrected myself), but this will only get you so far. There's tailored and there's Tailored.
Murdoch's suit was the latter, the kind of attire you can't buy with wealth. To look like this, you need Wealth with a capital W – and influence. Lots of influence. Some things just aren't meant for mortals like me. I clasped my hands together.
"Right then... Mister Murdoch, sir. I assume you haven't invited me to a dinner..."
"Food first," he interrupted me, lifting his finger half-jokingly, "business later. It's bad manners to talk shop with a hungry guest."
With my stomach almost growling, I nodded solemnly. After a few failed attempts at small-talk with the lady (yes, the weather's nice and yes, some rain would be nice), we passed what time remained to the meal in silence. After that, we ate – the steak was rather good, but what on earth is wag-you? And I couldn't even guess what those two were having – I think I saw a tentacle there somewhere, hard to say, not being much into ethnic food.
An hour later, with the table clean and us enjoying a tea of some kind (after downing that beer in a few gulps, a cup felt surprisingly refreshing), Murdoch finally began.
"To the matter at hand then..."
Clasped hands, fingers touching lips and a short pause. Very dramatic.
"First things first. Do you know who I am?"
I nodded. The truth was, I hadn't known up until roughly two hours before the meeting, but I had internet access and one simple search of the name told me everything I needed to know. David Murdoch, one of the legendary investors of our time, a real prodigy. His ability to choose projects that would become a huge success allowed him to amass incredible amounts of resources, which he kept re-investing. He was one of the most powerful men in Chicago, rubbing elbows with the very cream of the crop.
And yet, few knew anything about him as a person and even the all-knowing Wikipedia only had one old photo that kept being used over and over whenever the news mentioned another acquisition of his. I couldn't find anything that would give me an edge, but, more importantly, for such a powerful man to meet a merc in person and in public – that wasn't rare, that was unheard of and, more importantly, made no sense. I was suspecting a charade of some sort – and yet, the man in front of me clearly was the person from the picture, no mistake there. This, of course, led to a million questions. For now, however, I had to be content with letting him speak and wait for my turn.
He nodded back, almost absent-mindedly. "Good. That makes things considerably easier. I wasn't sure if old Ezra... anyway."
He cocked his head ever so slightly.
"There's something wrong with the world. You know that, don't you?"
A rhetorical question, I assumed.
"Things fall apart, things that shouldn't fall apart, ever. Our civilization is the epitome of stability. We've slain all the dragons, buried all the monsters. And yet..."
Again that absent-minded look, or a shadow of it – I couldn't tell, so short it was. He collected himself instantly, which made me wonder if this all was a well-rehearsed show. I decided it wasn't – I wasn't important enough for him to attempt to deceive me.
"I've decided to secure my assets in a more... shall we say, active manner. I am putting together a force of experienced and loyal troops with some heavy equipment. Thank you for your earlier recommendation, by the way, I've already tasked lovely Miss Norah here with making a few calls. The point is... I'd like you to lead it. You have experience and, more importantly, you've passed the tests and surpassed all other candidates."
He smiled again.
"You've got talent, Samuel. Hmm... can I call you Samuel?"
I nodded again. Of course the most powerful person in the room can call me Samuel. He could call me Lucy for all I cared because this whole thing meant one thing and one thing only. Fat paychecks.
"Good. Call me David then. Like I was saying, congratulations for passing the tests. Ezra picked you and he's never, ever wrong about people. That's how he got to live so long."
I wasn't sure if it was a joke. I strongly suspected it was not but I chuckled politely nonetheless.
At that point, the lady took over. For some reason, she was still incredibly tense. She looked as if he was reading notes, constantly lowering her eyes, yet there was nothing on the table – or anywhere else. Perhaps that's how she copes with stress, I thought, but the only eye contact she gave me were a few quick glances.
"You'll be joining our security forces. A platoon of armor and a company of soldiers. They all have experienced, competent officers, so please don't assume otherwise. You'll have to earn their respect as they have to earn yours. That is why..."
What the hell...
"Excuse me, Miss Ferguson," I blurted out.
She gave me a very annoyed look – clearly hates being interrupted. This time, however, I had to.
"If you have your own experienced officers, sorry, but what do you need me for?"
Ignoring my question, she continued.
"That is why..."
"We need an outsider's perspective, Samuel," Murdoch intervened.
"Sometimes, a street-smart person like you are can see things differently. I'm sorry, Norah. Please continue," he nodded at her, but this time, he also gave her a brief warning look. My feeling of unease returned with a vengeance. She pursed her lips, tucked her suit and continued, not looking at either of us.
"That is why you'll undergo training together with them at our facility in Arizona. You'll learn about them, they'll learn about you... a few weeks' worth, that's all. Please report to our local HQ tomorrow morning at 8 AM for a tour and the paperwork. Have a nice evening, Mister Thorpe."
They didn't even ask me if I wanted to sign up in the first place, so sure they were. Yes, I did, but the entire day felt so uncanny, so surreal that I started getting second thoughts. What if this was some sort of an elaborate set-up. People like me, we don't get this lucky. We don't get lucky at all.
"Oh yes, almost forgot, Samuel... seeing how you might require some... things before you commit to our cause, I've authorized an advance payment as a token of our gratitude."
I pulled out my cellphone and checked my bank account (never mind where they got the info...)
Jesus Christ... that's an advance? What doubts I had were pushed aside at the sight of several digits, nicely lined up and waiting to be admired. My head felt so dizzy I almost didn't hear Murdoch add "That will be all. Good night, Samuel."
A sign I was dismissed. I rose from the chair, thanked for the dinner and said my goodbyes. As I was walking away from the table, I felt their eyes on my back but when I turned around, I could only see both of them deep in conversation.
In the lobby, I stopped to take a breath and to get a fiver out of my pocket. I was sweating and it wasn't due to the unusually hot summer. I had to get out of there, collect my thoughts.
"You know, we made a bet how long it would take you to get thrown out by the cops."
The valet was outside, leaning against the wall and smoking a cig. There was no-one else in sight so the line was clearly addressed to me.
"And I lost. Good on you, brother."
I passed him the banknote, after which he took one last puff and exhaled the smoke through the nostrils while throwing away the rest. For the short while it took him to bring the car around, I decided to take his example and leaned against the wall, staring at the evening sky. A red star was shining brightly where I assumed the south must be. An omen perhaps? Time would tell.