by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 20, part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 20: Los Angeles, California
part 1 of 2
Twenty-four hours earlier, after finishing his Saturday lunch in the Columbia hotel bar, Toni had paid his room bill, said goodbye to the sympathetic hotel reception staff, hobbled out with his suitcase, and slid gingerly and uncomfortably into the back of the waiting cab. Once they were on the road, he had pulled out his phone and keyed in Maelene’s number ...
His faithful Homeland Security agent tailed him to the airport, watched him through departures and onto the plane, and then established, through a polite little chat with the check-in clerk, the final destination of their Spanish passenger. The news was duly passed on, and this particular observer could now finally stand down from his four-day task.
Toni’s first short Delta flight departed on time just after three o’clock, and he then had an hour to wait in the lounge at Atlanta before boarding the onward connection.
Carla had been looking for the ideal opportunity for their next essential briefing session. This was just right. She materialised in a quiet corner and sidled up to him.
‘This seat taken, sir?’
‘Ha! Always full of surprises, Carla. No, I think you can safely sit down.’
‘Thank you. Now, it’s time for a bit of joint planning, OK?
‘We need to agree our tactics for the engagement of Professor Humphrey Bond. We have an old phone number for him, which may or may not still be valid. For now, let us presume it is.
‘We have a solid view of what you, Toni, will need to say to him, in very practical terms, when you call him for us. And I’ll make sure you know your script by heart before I disappear again. But we know next to nothing about the man himself. So once more we find ourselves in need of your invaluable illumination, to smooth our forward path.
‘You know, by now, the conditions we typically need for a successful engagement. Can you offer any suggestions?’
‘Well, I’ll try. But I’m not very good at this sort of thing!’
‘Oh yes you are, when gently encouraged. Take your time ...’
‘All right then, Carla. You always try to pick up on things that people are strongly interested in or concerned about, don’t you? But you also aim to have their favourite music involved in some way, if you possibly can ...’
‘OK. The Professor works in Los Angeles. That’s as good as saying Hollywood. The movie centre of the world! And his name is Bond. Do you get my drift?’
‘We have a very big database on you and many other things, Toni, but it would be much easier if you could spell it out ...’
‘The James Bond films! Lots of them. Everybody knows them. Most people like them, for one reason or another. I’ve seen several of them myself. And people in Los Angeles must have joked to Humphrey about his famous surname, many times.’
‘OK. And ...’
‘Well, each film has a famous theme song. Why don’t I find out his favourite Bond film when I call him, and if we’re lucky, I’ll know its song ...’
‘That’s perfect, carísimo! And if we’re unlucky, well, you’ll just have to bend his ear towards one you do know ...’
‘Ha ha! OK — I’ll do whatever’s needed.
‘And Carla ... do you remember what I said, back in the hospital — that there was something I really wanted to ask you about?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Well — I’ve been wondering, for a long time now, exactly ... well, exactly what you really look like.’
‘Toni, I strongly recommend you do not concern yourself with such things.’
‘But I can’t help it. I’m very confused. I know you are not truly the Carla I can see. In my mind’s eye, I imagine you as equally beautiful — and yet I cannot picture you at all ...’
‘It would be impossible, and futile or worse, to try and describe myself to you, Toni. And what might be a valid point of comparison? You mind is quite naturally fixed on images of human female beauty. How would you cope if I were to use words that suggested I resemble a rock, or an orang-utan, or a jellyfish, or a dolphin, or a hummingbird, or a slug? It would be very unlikely that I, or any Doman, could match or exceed your very tight demands ...’
‘That sounds like a complete evasion of an extremely fair question!’
‘Are looks so very important to you, Toni?’
‘Where are you and I going tonight?’
‘To Los Angeles ...’
‘Which you automatically think of as Hollywood?’
‘And what is probably the most important possession for an actor or actress who aspires to jump the very first hurdle in the race to silver screen stardom?’
‘An attractive photograph, I expect!’
‘Precisely. And how real is the end product which is shipped out of Hollywood?’
* * *
Toni’s second flight sped him, over the next five hours — most of them passed drifting in and out of uncomfortable sleep — direct to Los Angeles International. And another cab took him smoothly to his Downtown hotel.
As his newest human close observer was obtaining the usual promise of co-operation from the duty manager, Toni was finally flopping onto his welcoming bed, his bruised body seriously grumbling and its clock reminding him that, as far as it was concerned, it was now nearly midnight.
But the clock on the wall was insisting it was still nine in the evening, Pacific Time, and he knew it would be only one hour later for Maelene up in Montana. He made the promised call, and absorbed a good dose of loving sympathy for his aches and pains. Then he discovered she was just back from her evening out with Salvatore, and he started to say all the wrong things ...
By ten o’clock he was still very annoyed, minimally unpacked, and nearly asleep, and a Doman guardian angel was watching over him as Carla took her own very welcome break.
* * *
Toni left his hotel at eight o’clock on Sunday morning, and took a taxi to the last known address of Brighter Vale, not far away on the edge of the business district.
The Mater’s luck was in. As Toni walked discreetly past the entrance door of the side-street building, its elegant golden name-plate confirmed the company as one of the four commercial occupants. And there was thankfully no sign of life in the reception lobby beyond.
He turned left at the next block, stopped completely out of sight of anyone who might be inside, and waited. Moments later, Carla appeared around another corner and swiftly joined him. They agreed that everything was so far going as well as could possibly be hoped. So he pulled out his phone, took a very deep breath and keyed their precious, all-or-nothing number ...
‘Good morning. My name is Soames. You and I have not spoken before. I am one of the financiers of Brighter Vale.’
‘I’m afraid I’ve never heard of you, sir. I’m not sure ...’
‘Professor, you should not run the risk of annoying me. I very much like not to be annoyed. Please simply listen ...’
‘No, sir. If you value your position in our little operation, you will make no further interruptions.’ ... ‘Good. Now, I have an urgent need to consult some of our early records relating to the Mojave site purchase. They are stored securely in the LA office, in a hidden safe for which I have the only key. But my other colleagues are unavailable today, and I do not, for very personal reasons, hold my own key to the building. I fact, I have only ever visited it once, and then in a most effective disguise.
‘So today, my dear Professor, you are my salvation! I am very pleased I retained the phone number I was given for you in those famous early days, and that you are still using it. You will meet me outside the office as soon as possible.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that without carrying out some further checks, Mr Soames.’
‘Oh yes, you can, Mr Bond. Oh yes, you can. Because if you do not, you will regret it for a very long time.’
‘No, I really ...’
‘Professor — do you have any concept of the true identity of Mr Jones?’
‘Mr Jones? The name on the purchase contract? Well, no, I don’t ...’
‘If you did, Professor, believe me, you would not still be hesitating. You would be quaking in your boots, and worse. So I trust this additional scrap of intelligence is enough to persuade you to give me your full co-operation — at once.’
‘Well — then I suppose I must, Mr ... er ... Soames.’
‘Ah, that is better, sir! I much prefer to deal pleasantly with my colleagues, rather than in any other fashion. And now that we are friends again, I must tell you — I do hope you won’t be offended — that whenever I think of your name, I cannot help recalling those wonderful James Bond movies. Do you enjoy them as much as I do?’
‘Well, yes, Mr Soames, they are all very fine ...’
‘My all-time favourite is Moonraker, Professor. And which is yours?’
‘Mine? You really want to know? Well, I always had a soft spot for Pussy Galore. So I guess it has to be Goldfinger.’
‘Another classic! A very good choice! Now, back to business. I shall be in disguise when we meet, and wearing a yellow rose. You will join me at the front door, at precisely nine-thirty.’
‘I really can’t make it that fast, Mr Soames. I’m in San Bernardino — I’ll need at least ninety minutes!’
‘Very well. Ten o’clock, on the dot. Please simply move more quickly than normal. Do not waste any more time thinking.’
Carla signalled ‘Cut!’ and her own dutiful supporter closed the call without waiting for further argument from Mr Bond.
‘Toni, that was a superb performance. Thank you!
‘And we can see you’re very familiar with the theme song from Goldfinger. You must sing a little of it to me, con brio, here and now.’
He did his level best.
‘Bravo! So, in a moment I must leave the stage to get changed for the next act. But in readiness for the one after that, we first need to capture your most memorable visual image of Miss Pussy Galore. Hold still, now ...’
* * *
Humphrey Bond parked his car and hurried to the front entrance of his office block, three minutes late and feeling very insecure.
Beside the door stood a lone figure in a long grey overcoat. A homburg was tilted elegantly over his forehead, and in his lapel sat a single yellow rose. Smiling broadly at his approaching colleague, he suddenly started to belt out Goldfinger at the top of his voice.
‘Mr Soames? I’m Professor Bond.’
The singing ceased as abruptly as it had begun. ‘Delighted to meet you at last,’ enthused Carla’s latest incarnation, opening its arms for an expansive and comradely bear-hug, but adjusting suddenly to a mild and very brief head-hold, and allowing Quo free rein.
Just a few simple instructions for the moment, Professor. Please forget Mr Soames. He has gone forever. A young man is now standing by your side. Unlock the door, escort him directly to your office, and introduce yourself once you are there.
And I shall present myself properly to you soon ...
‘The name’s Bond. James Bond. Well, that’s my middle name, in fact. First name’s Humphrey. Mom and Pop loved the movies, you see. But most people call me Dirk. It’s a little surnames joke.’
Toni was less of a movie buff than most Californians. He looked around for inspiration from Carla, but she was still not back in sight. He thought hard, and then extemporised.
‘Right, Professor. Well, I’m Toni. I certainly enjoyed Casablanca — and Death in Venice, of course. And I do love the Bond films ...’
From behind Humphrey came a languorous call: ‘Ah, dearest James, we’re alone at last!’
As previously arranged, Toni at once looked away and gazed out at the city through the large picture window. He knew he would not be needed for some time.
Bond, however, turned and found a vision of Pussy advancing desirously and unstoppably towards him, clad only in a short and very sixties nightdress, and crooning Goldfinger quite divinely. She took his head solidly in her hands and smothered him in a huge, theoretically wet kiss ...
Hello again, Professor. Oh, the ups and downs of the life of the silver screen!
‘Good morning to you, again. I have to admit to being extremely confused right now ...’
It is little wonder. I shall take much of the blame.
My own screen name is Quo, Mr Bond. And I detect that the title “Chief Scientist” is something of a misnomer.
‘Well, Quo, you need to have something eye-catching when the credits roll ...’
Very droll. Now, please explain precisely, sir, what it is you do for Brighter Vale.
‘I seem to be surprisingly unable to protest, Quo! Very well, since you insist ...
‘I ran a nice little refining operation out in the hills near Barstow for many years. Very secluded. Very specialised. Expensive raw materials, costly personnel, pricey final product, high-class clients down the length of the coast. I’m sure you understand.
‘Everything was fine, in fact business was booming. But there were one or two little upstarts threatening to put my margins under pressure. Perhaps that’s why I was willing to listen when “The Man” contacted me ...’
‘Yes. Not “The Man” himself, you understand. I’ve never met him. No — it was actually a woman called Kelly. Asked me if I would like to accept an exclusive new refining contract. For a ridiculously large up-front sum, and a huge monthly fee. But she said I would need to make a small change to the processing parameters ...’
In English, please, Professor.
‘She wanted me to stop my current operation completely, within seven days, and reconfigure the plant to start processing a high-grade variety of bastnaesite and producing fully packaged “Lutetium Salts” no more than four weeks later!’
Humphrey, I appreciate that you are an experienced geologist. But were you already familiar with that super-rich ore?
‘No, I was not.’
And what, may I ask, was the proposed application of these so-called Lutetium Salts?
‘She said it was the fountain of youth that people had been seeking since time began. I laughed out loud — and I asked her for the recipe! She didn’t laugh back. She just said it would actually be my job to perfect that recipe — once I’d accepted the contract. And she suggested that, since I now knew so much about it, it might be very unwise to decline ...
‘So I offered to meet “The Man” to discuss the details. “Oh no,” said Kelly, “that won’t be possible. You must take it or leave it, here and now, on the phone with me.”
‘I only had a few seconds to consider it. And I figured if it was that big a ballgame, I didn’t want to be some petty sub-contracted operator in the outfield. So I said “I’ll do it if you’ll pay exactly what you’ve offered, but also make me a vice-president with a separate guaranteed salary and a good profit share.”
‘She asked me to hold. Less than a minute later she was back with an “OK” and a very good deal. I accepted it, and off we went ...’
And from where, exactly, was this ore to be supplied?
‘Oh, a really clever little exploration outfit from South Carolina, name of Forretan, had discovered a special seam of Rare Earths on a small patch of land out in the Mojave Desert, not too far from my own plant. They’d found it was incredibly rich in easy-to-extract lutetium — and believe me, that really is something special. Seems like Brighter Vale had been watching this activity closely (don’t ask me how!) and they dived in with an amazing offer before anyone else knew about it. Forretan apparently accepted it the very same day.’
Well, that ties up nicely with our previous information. But how did the company move so quickly from that position to a full mining operation?
‘Easy. They’d bought off the entire Forretan exploration team — lock, stock and barrel — and given them all the cash they needed for development-scale tooling, and told them to begin a steady supply within two months. And that’s exactly what they did! And I met my own target too, and we started shipping the end-product a month after I got that very first call! And ever since, the share price of Brighter Vale has been steadily rising — sometimes in very big steps indeed ...’
Most impressive, Mr Bond. I thank you kindly. But I can see that this is where the immediate usefulness of your insight runs out. You do not appear to have any further knowledge of the company’s marketing operation, nor of its obviously very select clientele ...’
‘Quite right, Quo. Ignorance is bliss. I prefer a life largely without care. “The Man” clearly never wanted me to know about such things, and I certainly never chose to ask!’
But fortunately I see you are at least acquainted, for planning purposes only, with a Mr Steven Shenner, Brighter Vale’s Vice-President of Sales.
‘How poetic, Quo!’
Never mind the poetry, Humphrey — please concentrate on the matter in hand.
‘Of course. Well, I do need to have somebody to deal with, don’t I? Otherwise it would get extremely lonely around here!’
Yes. How awful that would indeed be for you. So, Mr Shenner is clearly our next port of call. I detect you have his number stored on your cell phone. Perhaps you would wait patiently for a few moments, while we decide exactly how to proceed ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd