by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 9: Los Angeles, California
part 2 of 3
Their long lunch at George’s At The Cove was very good indeed, and they discussed the wonderful views with studied politesse. Maelene recalled the similarly cautious conversation over dinner on their first date back in Columbia (which had of course ended in rather more abandon). She smiled sweetly, twice, at the very attentive waiter, primarily to encourage Toni, and eventually graced the boy himself with a cheeky little grin, when he at last complimented her on the flimsy yellow skirt she had purchased especially for this trip.
At three o’clock, she declared it was time to move, and they hit the road for Tijuana.
‘It says here you should definitely leave rental cars in the lot on the U.S. side, and walk across the border.’
‘Fair enough. Probably not insured for Mexico.’
* * *
‘Well, that was easy. Two sets of turnstiles, not a border guard in sight, and we’re in a foreign land.’
‘Not that foreign.’
‘I think you’ll change your mind ...’
But they were both right. It was already nearly four-thirty, and they had decided to stay just inside the frontier at San Ysidro and not penetrate further into Tijuana itself. So they saw a very American-flavoured version of Mexico. Hustle and bustle as the locals harried the tourists with offers of cabs and much more. Plenty of traffic in the busy streets, colourful buildings, and lots of healthy-looking trees. But those buildings looked tired and rather flimsy, the sidewalks and the roads were in poor shape, and the people, even in this tourist trap, looked poorer still.
Toni was happy to let Maelene take the lead again as she wandered around, observing much but saying little. But he did graciously offer to help on several occasions, as she tried out her rusty Spanish in the kerbside bars and ragged little stores. And once she had bought a few small souvenirs, and they’d had a quiet drink in the shade, they agreed to call it a day.
It took them a lot longer to return to the USA. The line for the busiest land border crossing in the world stretched out of the transit building and way back down the street, but at least it was reasonably fast-moving. Maelene’s passport was waved through without a second glance. But when Toni presented his, the inspector scratched his head, typed a few numbers on his computer terminal, and scratched his head again.
‘Where are you going now, sir?’
‘Back to our car. We’ve only been here an hour or so.’
‘And where then?’
‘Back to Santa Monica.’
The officer scratched his head yet again, looked at the line already building up for his particular booth, sighed, and snapped the passport shut.
‘Have a good day.’
This time it was a roundabout walk back to the parking lot, but they were finally on the freeway by seven o’clock and speeding away north.
‘It’s so sad, isn’t it?’
‘The poverty down there. And we didn’t see the half of it. Compare that with the riches all around us here ...’
‘It’s the way of the world, Maelene. You can’t have perfect equality everywhere.’
‘Because. And the people of Mexico are probably a lot better off than millions ... no, billions of others in this world.’
‘Yeah, you’re right there. But look at all of this ... thousands of gallons of gasoline going up in smoke every minute ... millions of dollars on road building every week, so even more of us can sit in rush-hour parking lots ... everyone centred on themselves and still chasing the American Dream ... Arms and Oil Industries pulling out all the political stops to make sure there’s always lots of wars for America to fight, even when the people don’t want it ...’
‘You’re in the same fast lane as everyone else, Maelene.’
‘Yeah. And it makes me cry.’
They did not stop on the long journey back, but went straight into the hotel bistro for a light meal. Then they hit the sack, too tired for anything else.
‘But we definitely don’t have to get up early tomorrow!’
‘I’ll drink to that!’
‘Thanks for a nice day, honey.’
‘You too, baby.’
* * *
By lunchtime on that Friday, Raymond was packed and ready for the drive to Houston Airport.
He consulted the list of numbers given to him eight days earlier at the Starblaze Hotel, and picked up his phone. Carla prepared to listen in un-made and on the side.
‘So, have you made good progress, Mr Shenner?’
‘We’re getting there, Raymond. Still some mopping up to do ...’
‘I understand. I won’t press you for any more details ahead of the deadline. I know just how aggravating that can be for any project manager. Always 95% complete, right?’
‘Something like that. It’s there or thereabouts ...’
‘Very well. Now we need to arrange Sunday’s meeting. Are any of your colleagues using a hotel in LA?’ ... ‘That’s fine. Why don’t the four of you meet up there for a little breakfast, and then adjourn to one of their bedrooms at nine? We’ll be right behind you, even if you don’t spot us.’
‘That seems quite sensible.’
‘Good. Please inform the others directly yourself. That will minimise any further risk to me. And I hope I do not need to warn you, Steven, of the implications of trying to trace me or set me up in any way ...’
‘Don’t worry, Raymond. It pains us all to say it, but we got the messages loud and clear last week. We’re doing this as well as we can for you, and yes, you can trust us.’
Graves pocketed his phone, and strode out to his car and back into the unreal world.
His flight left Houston on schedule, soon after five, and touched down in Los Angeles at seven o’clock local time. Carla had enjoyed another solo and invisible cross-country trip in its wake, and would continue to stick to her man like glue.
* * *
Toni and Maelene spent much of Saturday morning in bed — initially both still fast asleep, but later becoming very good friends again, now acutely aware that their special week of freedom was fast concluding.
Maelene was still very tired after the previous day’s long drive, but was delighted to find that Toni had at last decided to take a few initiatives of his own. She even learnt a couple of new tricks herself.
They eventually dressed and went down for a modest and intentionally alcohol-free brunch. Then they drove across to Downtown LA, parked up in the same lot as before, and took a cab to what turned out to be a huge and lavish hotel.
They approached the marbled desk rather cautiously.
‘We’re here to see Mr Graves, please.’
The receptionist gave them a studied look. ‘Ah, yes. You are expected. Room 1342. The elevators are over to the right, sir, madam. Have a nice day.’
Carla was also part of the welcoming committee, but she remained unseen and unheard, and concentrated on ensuring that the couple were in no way accosted or followed during their transit up, up and back to the Doman cause.
Lucia was already waiting in the 13th floor corridor, and also still in radimote spirit alone. But she and Carla materialised into their old familiar forms behind Toni and Maelene, just as they were about to tap on the door.
‘Don’t forget to leave it open for us, guys!’
By the time Raymond had checked them all out through the peephole, the rest of his reconstituted team were smiling warmly to each other like long-lost school friends.
As soon as Toni had closed the door, and their various polite hello-agains were complete, Carla took the stage. But it was clearly Quo who was speaking to them now ...
‘So, a fulsome welcome back to the fray, my friends.’
Raymond just frowned as gently as he could. Toni was still smiling at the pretty radimotes and hanging very loose, and Maelene at once had ‘a couple questions for you, Quo ...’
‘A little later, please Maelene. Let us get down to the regular business first. And this need not be a long meeting. Its main purpose, of course, is to bring us all together again, and allow Lucia to take up a new and protective watch over yourself and Toni as you continue to support us. Yes, I’m afraid your privacy will not be as complete as in recent days, but I promise you she will respect it as fully as circumstances permit.’
‘Well, I think it was very good of you to give us that lovely week off, Quo,’ said Toni. ‘Thank you. And I’m sure, Lucia, that you will do a thoroughly professional job.’
Maelene shot him a glance that said ‘Don’t go over the top, man! They’re still the ones exploiting us here!’ But she continued to hold her tongue. She would need to choose her moments for argument carefully, and this was clearly not one of them.
‘So, Raymond — for the benefit of the full team, your immediate plans, please.’
‘Certainly, Quo. I shall be holding my meeting with the Brighter Vale people in another downtown hotel, at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. I am led to believe they have made some progress. Well, we shall see. We may well need to encourage further rapid completion work, immediately following that session.’
‘Understood and agreed, sir. Carla and I will of course be with you there throughout. Do you see any need for either Toni or Maelene to join us?’
‘Not at this time. But Maelene’s contribution was very effective in our last session with them. So yes, Quo, it could be good to have her standing by ...’
‘I agree. Maelene, please be ready to respond if requested. Raymond will give you the address. I suggest a nearby coffee shop ...’
‘How can I possibly refuse?’
‘But what about me, Mr Graves?’
‘I don’t think so, Toni. You’ve played your roles superbly for Quo in the past, but I still don’t think this particular situation is appropriate for you. Is that all right?’
Toni shrugged. ‘I don’t mind.’
‘Excellent,’ said Quo-as-Carla. ‘So, phones always-on, please — you do have both their numbers, Raymond? — and Lucia will also be always-there with you. Now, may we move on to the main event?’
‘Yes. The initial government summit will be held at noon on Monday, in Las Vegas. But from what I’ve heard of their preparations, first from you and then from Kristy, I don’t hold out much hope of an early result ...’
‘We have come to much the same conclusion. So we must simply wait and see. We can agree our final tactics quietly together once the Brighter Vale show is over.’
‘Fine by me. In which case I’ll take the rest of the day off and watch a ball game. I was hoping to catch the Dodgers, but it turns out they’re in Montreal this weekend ...’
‘Then maybe you’ll find the Angels at home, Raymond. And those names would both be rather appropriate for our own little teams, wouldn’t they?’
‘Right. Now, Maelene, you have “a couple questions” for me?’
‘They can wait, Quo. They can wait.’
‘Very well. Toni?’
‘I’m happy to go back out and gather me some more rosebuds ...’
* * *
‘So, back to the beach?’
‘Fancy a jet-ski ride?’
‘We could go together on a two-seater, and we’d both be wearing life-jackets. It’s time I did some driving!’
‘Well ... maybe ...’
To Maelene’s great relief, they did not spot a jet-ski rental place in their last few hours on the beach. But Toni felt he’d made a little breakthrough, at least. And Lucia, now looking on unseen, slowly began to pick up the general vibe.
They spent the evening back at McCabe’s, and the music was as good as it had been the previous Saturday night.
But they would need to get up very early the next morning, to be firmly in place at that LA coffee shop by nine o’clock.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd