by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 6: I Get Around
part 2 of 2
They joined Interstate 15 just south of Victorville, and pressed on up towards Barstow. Maelene would have liked to penetrate still further north, maybe even as far as Baker, but Toni was still regularly drifting off again, and she had to admit the scenery had become rather unchanging for a non-geologist. It was already approaching three o’clock. Time for another break. She took the Barstow exit and pulled up at the first roadside diner.
‘Fancy a beer, Toni?’
He was awake in a flash and leading the way.
‘Well, what do you think of it so far?’
Toni took another draw from the bottle and considered his answer carefully.
‘I still just think it’s very big.’
‘Is that it?’
‘Probably. I can’t get my head around it. I’m used to little old Bilbao. I expect the mesetas of central Spain are a bit like this, but I’ve never seen them, except from flights in and out of Madrid.’
‘So you don’t fancy shacking up with me next door and running a cheap motel for the rest of our lives?’
Toni looked at her in horror, then got the message, and smacked her hard on the butt. ‘Come on, let’s start heading back. I want to find somewhere civilised for dinner.’
‘Pasadena’s on our route. Guide book says it has some good music bars and all ...’
‘Say no more!’
* * *
‘So, this is Victorville ... again. You missed it the first time. And now we’re running down towards San Bernardino. Glad to see you’re staying awake at last.’
‘I’m looking forward to the night ahead.’
‘Well, you can think about something else first. Do you really prefer towns and cities to all of this?’
‘Oh, do we have to get serious again?’
‘Toni! This is the real world, and everything the human race is doing is steadily destroying it. The Brazilian rain forests will be deserts themselves one day, just so you can keep eating your double hamburgers and then keel over with heart disease. The refrigerators that keep your beer nice and cool have been burning huge holes in the atmosphere, and you’re gonna be drinking much warmer beer one day soon. If Bilbao hasn’t already become another Atlantis, that is. Makes a whole lot of sense, doesn’t it?’
‘What do you expect me to do about any of that?’
‘Well, you could try thinking a bit harder, for starters.’
‘I don’t need this, honey. Sing me a song instead ...’
Not for the first time that week, Maelene recalled similar frustrations with the attitudes of pesky Salvatore Pirone, and decided to lapse into another long silence. Toni exploited the situation to the full, with another nice little nap.
* * *
Their average speed dropped dramatically as they approached the outskirts of LA, but at least they were heading into rather than out of town, and they reached the centre of Pasadena soon after six.
The place was almost all it was cracked up to be. They managed drinks in both Lucky Baldwins and The 35er Bar before deciding they wanted to eat Chinese. The Wokcano was perfect, and Toni pronounced its Honey Walnut Shrimp to be one of the best meals he had ever eaten. And then they found their music, first at McMurphy’s and later at the nearby Old Towne Pub.
By the time she had driven them back down to Santa Monica, after allowing herself just a couple of small glasses of wine at the very start of the evening, Maelene had covered nearly 350 touring miles — with no nice little naps — and was extremely tired. So Toni, now full of beer and anticipation, was disappointed for the second night in a row. But this time he allowed it to show, and they ended their lovely day out with another silly little argument.
* * *
Earlier that evening, once the in-home caterers had departed, Steven Shenner had poured three generous glasses of finest malt, and some more water for himself.
‘So, two steps forward, one step back. Nick and I only picked up one more mark today, and that was more of a girl thing. Good for Lia and Trish! But you two are getting nowhere fast, again — even with the ladies to help you.’
‘I’m still not finding this easy, Steve.’
‘I know, Walt. That’s what we’re here to fix.’
‘But it’s not natural ...’
‘Quit whining, Phil, and start listening. We all have to change our style. The smooth-talking works, sometimes, but the money works better, and simple embarrassment is often their weakest point. We’ve seen their reactions to blunt threats — they don’t get us very far, or not straight off anyway, and we’re running out of time. Still only seven down, and nineteen to go.
‘So we need an irresistible cocktail of flattery, cash bribes and appeals to their high-society pride. Now let’s face it, guys — Nick, Lia and I are a whole lot better at that game than you two. And you really need to score with both your targets tomorrow. So here’s a little lesson in negotiating skills ...’
* * *
Harvey Kuhler had slept well in a good LA hotel bed after his long drive down from the mine on I-15 the previous evening, just a few hours behind Maelene and Toni as they returned from their own big day out.
Now he had a little more digging of his own to do, before flying north to meet the Congressman and his very select friends.
‘Professor Humphrey Bond?’
‘Who’s calling, please? ... this is a confidential number.’
‘The name’s Kuhler ... Harvey Kuhler, State Department INR.’
‘What on earth is that?’
‘If you don’t know, sir, then you don’t need to know. Now, I am empowered by federal statute to ask you some questions about the REE mine in the Mojave Desert. We can do this the hard way, in person and with my ID in hand, or we can get it over with nice and quick, here and now ...’
‘Who gave you this number?’
‘Mr David Evans, your manager at the mine.’
‘Describe him to me.’
‘Tall, long blond hair, faded Beach Boy ...’
‘What colour’s the front door of the office?’
‘The one way beyond the army cordon and not visible from the highway, sir? It’s dark green. With a small, recently painted, handwritten sign saying “Miners Do It With Good Vibrations.” And Mr Evans tells me people call you “Dirk” when they’ve gotten to know you well. Enough there for you, Dirk?’
‘Fair enough, Mr Kuhler. Frankly, I’ve been worried stiff since the first news reports appeared on Thursday. But something told me I should keep my head down ...’
‘I’ll bet it did, sir. Anyway ...’
‘So, are Dave and the lads OK?’
‘Yeah, no problems. They’re all laid off on full pay. Now, do I finally get to ask you some questions, Mr Bond?’
‘I suppose so.’
* * *
‘Mr Steven Shenner?’
‘Vice-President of Sales with ... one moment, please ... with the Brighter Vale company?’
‘Yes ... ....’
‘Harvey Kuhler, State Department INR. That simply means I’ll last longer than you if it comes to a fight. Now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop, five minutes’ walk from your HQ building. I’d appreciate it if you’d meet me there within the next hour.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t manage that ...’
‘Just do it, sir. I don’t give a damn about your little high-society drugs racket, but I do need some information about a real crime, out east in the mountains, if you get my drift. Co-operate with me fully, here and now, and I’ll leave you alone to finish picking up your own little pieces. If not ...’
‘Give me thirty minutes, Mr Kuhler. I’ll see you at the front door ...’
Fifty minutes later, Harvey left the Brighter Vale building, frustrated and none the wiser in matters of State than when he had arrived.
* * *
Toni and Maelene made their own Tuesday plans over a late breakfast. They would visit the whole Hollywood area. Because it was there ...
They took the never-ending Santa Monica Boulevard into West Hollywood and through to Route 101, and then, at Toni’s firm request, up to Universal City. But after one look at the uninviting parking lot, Maelene exercised her driver’s veto and pulled straight out again. Toni held his tongue. She took them instead along Ventura Boulevard, then turned back south into leafy Laurel Canyon, and cruised gracefully down through the beautiful wooded hills and onto Hollywood Boulevard. She found a parking meter and bought them all of fifty minutes.
‘We have to see the Walk of Fame, Maelene!’
‘If we must.’
They saw it and they walked it, and Toni felt fulfilled. Then they wandered down a couple of blocks onto Sunset Boulevard, and he consulted their map properly.
‘Ah, this is the wrong end for what I want, honey. Can we go back to the car and drive west? I’d like to see Sunset Strip, and something else in particular ...’
Maelene ran along with his wishes. At least he was enjoying himself today ...
‘That’s great ... let’s stop right here. OK, we’re halfway down the Strip — although it doesn’t look anything very special, after all.’
‘What a surprise!’
‘But what I’m really after is left at the next junction ... La Cienega Boulevard! That’s the title of one of Janis Ian’s songs ... one of my very favourites. It’s all about fun and cool times in the American city ... it’s full of life and fantasy, and music and dating and sunshine. I just have to see The Boulevard for myself!’
‘Sounds like the best idea you’ve had this week, Toni!’
But when they stood at the top of the hill and looked down the long wide stretch of tarmac and occasional trees and eventual high-rises, the magic was missing.
‘It’s not what I expected.’
‘I’m real sorry about that, baby. If I’m honest, I’m not at all surprised — again. But it’s a very long strip. Maybe there’s more of the feel you’re after somewhere further down. When was the song written?’
‘Over thirty years ago.’
‘Hmm. Maybe you shouldn’t go hunting for it too hard ... you know, just treasure your own wonderful image of it forever.’
‘Yes, I expect you’re right, as usual ...’
So they walked instead a little further along Sunset Strip, and Maelene took Toni’s hand and squeezed it hard in tender, silent empathy with his obvious disappointment. Then she suddenly tensed and moved forward at a slightly faster pace.
‘Don’t look now, baby, but right across the street at those café tables are two of the financiers I met last week, sweet-talking an eighty-year old woman coming on fifty. Bet I know what they’re trying to sell her off ...’
They skirted back to the car via Alta Loma and Fountain, then headed on west until Toni called for a right turn, and they were at once absorbed into the winding, near-deserted little avenues of upper Beverly Hills.
‘Isn’t it pretty and tranquil here, Maelene! And so many very nice buildings ...’
‘Very nice prices, too. Most expensive real estate on the planet.’
‘Well, I suppose they’ve earned it ...’
‘Matter of opinion. And people like Kristy Toresito and those financiers have no qualms about grabbing it back from them. Whole thing makes me sick.’
‘I can’t see why you’re so hot under the collar about it all.’
‘I know you can’t. That disappoints me. And I’m disappointed in the Mater too. Seems to me they’ve been far too willing to compromise with those shysters ...’
‘You’re easily disappointed, Maelene.’
‘So were you, down on the Boulevard just now ...’
They drove silently back down to Sunset, and had a good light lunch at Baja Fresh. And Toni was still determined to do what had to be done here.
‘Honey, I didn’t make any fuss when you drove straight back out at Universal City. I know the whole thing’s completely untrue, but I do love so many of the Hollywood movies, especially the older ones. So I don’t really want to see behind the scenes, but I also really do. Does that make any sense?’
‘Not really. Well, not to this woman, at least. But you’re just a man, and I can see you’re fixated. OK, there are lots of studio tour leaflets in the rack over there. Let’s choose one of them, and just get it over with ...’
* * *
‘So, Maelene, did you enjoy that, after all?’
‘Not much. It proved the movies are even more of a sham than I’d been able to imagine. Come to think of it, that was quite an achievement. Just shows how powerful the whole crazy business is ...’
‘Hollywood makes a lot of people happy.’
‘So do chocolate and alcohol and nicotine.’
‘And none of them are good for body or soul.’
‘Sometimes, Maelene, I think you’re even more of a crusty old fart than I am.’
‘Thanks a bunch!’
‘You asked for it.’
‘Look, seriously, I think Hollywood’s missed a lot of opportunities. Ever since it started, it’s been focused on trivial entertainment. Why couldn’t it have tried to do something more positive?’
‘Because that wouldn’t have sold.’
‘Yes exactly. And whose fault is that — the seller’s, or the buyer’s?’
‘Is this Economics 101, Toni?’
‘Seems like you need it, missy. So what’s the solution? Castrate all the movie-makers, and brainwash all the consumers to demand only top quality documentaries?’
‘Hang on, sunshine — that sounds an awful lot like what you suggested about American TV when you called me from hospital in Columbia ...’
They crawled back to Santa Monica at the height of the rush hour, then got changed and walked down to the Pier for dinner and a long, romantic stroll. Toni kept his head down and his hopes high, and Maelene didn’t have the strength for even a light argument. So when they got back to their room, they were still very much in love, and they showed it.
* * *
By the time Phil Doreza placed the regular conference call that evening, Steven Shenner had already decided there was no need to muddy the waters with any mention of Harvey Kuhler’s little visit.
‘OK, Steve, we’re getting there. Walt, Anne and I got a result with both women.’
‘Hey, that’s great! Sounds like you’ve got the formula right at last.’
‘Yeah! But listen to this — down on Sunset Strip, we saw that woman Raymond dragged into the meeting last Thursday. She was wandering along like some dozy tourist, with a toy-boy in tow ...’
‘Pull yourself together, Phil. She’s a nobody. And you did better than us — we only managed to crack Harold. Never mind. Ten down, sixteen to go. And still ten women and one guy we haven’t yet approached with the new offer. So, we’ll hit all of them between Wednesday and Saturday noon. Run with the split of names we already agreed. Checkpoint call every evening ...’
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd