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RETURNS AND EXCHANGES
By Yuri Kruman
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Yuri Kruman
All rights reserved.
"Tell me about yourself, Conrad."
Dianne had cynical, impatient eyes, which managed to remain attractive despite age.
"Grew up in Texas—Lubbock. Born in St. Paul, in Minnesota. Just graduated Duke, I'm sure you saw. Did History and Poly Sci. Planning to go to law school in the fall."
"Smart guy. Why law school?"
"I want to end up doing public service of some sort. I think a law degree would really help."
"Uhhuh." Her tone was unconvinced. She'd heard it all before. "So why New York? How come not Dallas, Charlotte or Chicago, or back home?"
"I like it here. I always had the urge to live here, in New York. There's a good chance I'll end up here for school." He was freestyling well through teeth.
"Columbia or NYU?"
"Applied to both, we'll see."
"Have you heard back from anywhere?"
"From Harvard, yes. They said I'm in."
Nodding her head, she let him in the realm of possibility. "Of course you're going, right?"
"Not sure. New York's my preference over Boston."
"Come on. You don't say no to Harvard. Plus, you'll end up back here in three years, for the summers. No big deal."
"We'll see. But yes, refusing would be hard."
"So, why this job? What do you hope to gain from this? You know it's part-time, right? $15 an hour."
"Just fine by me. I have another part-time job lined up—Kimball campaign."
"Old Richard Lionheart. Well done. What do they have you doing there?"
"Mostly outreach to campus orgs, campaign events, coordination. You know, control the message, mobilize the troops. Then spray and pray."
"So once again, what's in it here for you?"
"I have a lot to learn from you, Miss Colton. You work with some amazing people and I'd love to help you with whatever projects that you need. I'm very good with research and I write well. Plus, I'm resourceful and quite quick to learn. I'm used to deadlines and high pressure from my internships in Congress."
"One moment, let me get more coffee. Mari-Elena! Un café!"
The woman came around from kitchen with a tray—an older, seasoned hand, dressed in an apron, with a stern expression. Humor's no object here, he saw. There was Dianne herself, an iron lady by demeanor, in her early fifties, in a pantsuit. Her hair was short, splayed out like angled brushes. Somewhere online he'd read she managed to beat cancer. She was tough.
What did he want with working here? He could B.S. all day—and well—but what was there to gain? She had advised two mayors and two governors, while based here on Fifth Avenue, was all. There would be special projects, errands, research, writing. All that's great. But would she give him entry—hell, a look—at rich and famous lives in this fantastic zoo of wealth and influence? He'd have to stick around and see.
"All right, Conrad. I'm liking what I hear. You have the job. House rules. I'm a demanding boss. Deadlines are sharp. My clients always get the highest quality of work, and I expect no less. When I give out a project, write instructions down. I don't care to repeat myself. My expectation is for you to ask your questions at the start, not all throughout. I'm harsh, but fair. I do think you will learn a lot. I need you close to twenty hours a week. Is that fine?"
"It is. Thanks for the chance, Miss Colton. Monday through Thursday, I'm in Jersey City one-six, so I would have to leave at noon. On Friday morning, there's a meeting until ten, so I can be here at eleven. So nine to twelve, four days, eleven to whatever-suits-you, Fridays. That's eighteen-nineteen hours."
"Fine, that would work. Now, do you have your laptop with you?" "Yes, let me take it out."
"Can you start now? I have a letter I need drafted right away. Here, sit at the dining table. Take off your jacket, have a seat."
She wasn't one to waste much time. Out came his trusty Asus, on. He rushed and clicked on Word.
"I want you to write up a letter on behalf of Straight Texas Poker, Limited—they're based in the UK, my client. Address it to 'Commissioner.' Research the gambling laws of Singapore. Say STP has done a lot of tournaments around the world. They'll follow all the laws—X, Y and Z. The point is that my friend Michel Guttmann-two n's-who runs the company now wants to organize a tournament in Singapore. He needs my help to do it. Off you go."
She got up and proceeded to her desk, which was within earshot, across the living room. Conrad was on his own, without much sense to navigate left-right. What was this bullshit with a poker tournament? What kind of shady legal consultation was this, anyway? And who-what-in the hell was she? Not quite a lawyer, a consultant, speaker, strategist, a confidante to bigwigs? What a whirlwind.
He got up slowly from the chair, a high-end, plush affair before a glass-top table, light wood panels all around. The living room held stately couches, leather wing chairs. Under a fancy chandelier, she'd sit herself across from guest—just as she'd done with him—and make him feel important, taken care of. Between the bookshelves—cookbooks, biographies and photos, well arranged—were paintings from Japan, small landscapes, Cubist prints. Signed pictures with two presidents—the Bushes—stood solemn among tasteful souvenirs and such. Conrad slid off his jacket at the window and looked out. The morning sun was shining on the Park. Ladies with dogs and joggers running on the paths. The Met Museum was just up, a break in trees. So this was it, The Dream. One cutthroat, rushed and anxious dream. How would he manage two demanding tyrants and their stooges? He'd stepped into a giant cowpie, Conrad Falk. Now sink or swim, you fool. Welcome to Gotham.CHAPTER 2
Clutching his fifth and last, least pleasurable drink—a caipirinha, Lisandro tired from his salacious dance, a samba with two girls at once—brunettes from Rio, missing home. Blissful debauchery was standard for his birthdays. His rhythm of youth its most assured and virile, demigod of newly 24 years old had world at his disposal, not content with slow and steady bites. The week had brought an extra cause célèbre—the mandate of prestige and long awaited validation with a Goldman offer. Sandro could now resume his plan to learn the secrets of the best, eventually to open his own shop of quants.
The past two years, his first from college, on his own, had been silent humiliation. While Pablo started at the top, Lisandro had been left outside the pale, ending his awful jobless search at Ayers Rock Capital, when Papa got involved. Well, he had labored like a woman scorned, the grueling hours worth but $60k and change, but he'd outplayed them all, yes Sir. With every drinking contest and big O, he had outlasted and outfoxed his classmates with his hunger and sheer will. When on vacation, he was all too keen to lead conspiracy of his high-living friends in island-hopping, chasing skirts on patriotic holiday, living quite well, in all, outside his means. The standard tour of Monaco, Ibiza, Istanbul, Milan and London had been covered long ago; neither Marbella nor old St. Tropez, or Casablanca, Cannes yet quieted his solicitude. With Zara, Nico, Pablo and of course the ebony temptress, Cleo, they'd hit up Tel-Aviv and Goa, then Shanghai and Mother-of-All-Orgies, Moscow. This moment was but fitting vindication.
The thought of stunning women on the sea, picked for his pleasure, had already drawn his plans for the Memorial Day, two months away. The victor picks his prize, at last. Nico and Pablo can now watch and grind their teeth, but he would give up nothing.
The high of escalating drum-fuelled frenzy breathed its last. Damn, what a night! The sirens bursting out before him now demanded his attention as he looked around, accounting for his scattered guests. There was attrition, but one thing was sure—he was with hottest two in the establishment. Zara was with her childhood friend Aidan, green journalist for GNU, dispensing her charisma, dark-eyed charm. Pablo, the bastard, has of course long left for greener pastures, probably a club down block. Nico was off to catch his plane to boring old Geneva, where he did his shtick, scheming again in secret after some old fling, after another break-up.
Cleo! Now there she was, writhing her way into and out of some poor sucker's mental grasp. Wow, what a tease! There was a time in freshman year, when in the heat of strong delusion, Sandro tried to charm this cat out of her miniskirt, only to be apprised at moment critical in courtship that his skinny Roman ass had snowball's chance in hell to hope for pilgrimage to Cleo's shores. Said charge was leveled ever skillfully as guillotine onto ambitions, whispered into quivering ear as he leaned in for close exchange. Sandro was shocked, an animal well-trapped, but hardly overwhelmed. The least and most he hoped for after then was friendship of rare equals.
Unable to escape Brazil so easily (the taller one appeared to be an Italian stock; the shorter, a well-crafted native mix), he lingered in a French way with each beauty. He simply was unable to resist, in drunken haze, suspecting vaguely they'd mistaken him for movie star. He took down numbers without care, not focused on his phone, yet angling it away from each with deftness from the others' prying eyes. Beyond repair, he was drawn in again for their sweet torture. This was like college, even better. He tore himself away at last and lurched toward the other corner of the dance floor.
He breathed out in relief and narrowed eyes, locating Cleo's figure from behind. Getting a grip—Good Lord!—he sidled up and tapped her on the shoulder, pardoning himself. The hapless player with her had it coming, good or bad, depending on dear woman's mood. She pulled aside for him. They spoke in French, as always, just to square their sentiments on objects caught in their respective webs. Tonight, she was a hunter.
Her own concern regarding his condition was returned, stamped with dismissive expletive over the worry of a horny mother hen. He kissed her on the cheek adieu, confirming his great time, not least for her magnetic presence. They laughed at Pablo's shiftiness and Nico's dancing antics, still too good.
Sandro rang off toward the bar. Zara remained the last goodbye before a cab and prompt face down in bed. He lavished her with compliments, a kiss on cheek prolonged, and asked her friend Aidan if he'd enjoyed his evening, with a flash of charming host. Assured, he whispered into Zara's ear, the music starting up again, "My dear, I'm thrilled you came. The samba band did well, but your in-house DJ is better. Maybe he'll make the next-year's mix himself.
He looked into her almond eyes, those pools of darkness, warmth and mischief. Hers was a subtler beauty, yet still virile, her appetite for love subdued by need to have and hold and crush and tease. She was astute, reserved, even as Cleo gave up little in her wit and manhood-whipping charm. Both were too heavy for his blood, this way or that. With women such as these for friends, enjoyment came on easily, adventure all too easily obtained. He knew Zara would chat all night. He gave her brother's hug and bid good night to both, escorted by their serenade. No more a host, Sandro now left behind that nest of noise, fast through the portal into night, so oddly warm and free.
His breath appeared almost with gratitude in streetlight's glare. Sandro pulled on his jacket. His ears rang with a soundtrack from the zoo, euphoric embers and his moment ecstasies intact, but fading. Varied and wonderful, they filled him with a grinning mirth, untold hilarity. It was a brilliant coup to be alive and young on nights like this. The promise of the spring's return was swell, chastising winter's cruel intentions.
Lisandro felt a rush, a third wind, irresistible, infectious, bearing him aloft despite the voiding pull of dehydration, an ever-present poor relation in his quarters. He waved down, then dismissed, on second thought, a rare cab at this G-d-forsaken hour, even for New York. The clock would soon strike 5 AM, not quite dawn finish for the night's events. Dinner, his friends, their clever gifts, much roaring laughter, loud congratulations all retreated to the matrix recess of posterities.
Sandro walked east on Houston, then up Broadway toward Astor. Not sure why, he remembered winter nights in Oslo, sneaking out with his cousins Jan and Rich from their grandparents' house into the fields, the edge of town, to watch the Northern Lights, three troublemakers—two so blond, the other, an outlandish Roman sculpture with his dark and curly mane. In fact, the brothers only stopped their teasing at fifteen, when they got wind of his precocity with girls in school, through Kristian, who was bit older and respected. A mere four years between them, S&K, but they had grown apart as Kristo branched out with his own good friends and posse, moved to U.S. for school, asserted firmly his first child's strong-headedness. At one point he could not recall precisely, admiration left respect of age, then bare politeness on his part. The bastard called him still and wished him happy birthday. Kristo and Cassie, now his wife, would take him out for brunch to celebrate, affirming elder statesmanship, like every year.
Cassie was beautiful, a slender, tall brunette, precisely what the womanizer needed least, per protocol. She was a menace—smarter, sharper, even more to point than Kristo, ruthless with wit to point of broken balls. What a vaccine against Kristian's worse judgment! One somehow wondered, would it be enough, forever more? If Father Dearest was an indication, fresh talent would be pouring in some day into the den of conjugal belief. Yet even so, Kris must have had disgust at Father when the scandal broke with shapely secretary. That was the end of patience and humiliation for them all. Kristian was hardened for a time by messy break, the cynicism, betrayal into concrete poured, the wounds of broken trust patched up but later. Women were playthings suddenly at fifteen, nothing but dolls and objects to admire.
Cassie had changed him, straightened him and made him a philanderer no more, or so he claimed. He was now focused, working hard, VP at JP Morgan, full steam ahead to bigger, brighter things, no doubt. There must have been some love between them, one would guess. They looked quite good, those two, envy of friends and quite the power couple. He'd see them near their place tomorrow on West 12th, at noon for brunch.
Sandro exhaled. He crossed on Astor to 3rd Avenue. The streetlamp inspiration had now run its course. Fatigued, his eyelids drooped; his posture sagged. He gently slowed his gait. The throat felt dry and scratched uncomfortably when he swallowed. The last of the obnoxious student alcoholics trickled onto one and then another NYU construction. Pathetic little amateurs, he smirked, half-heartedly. He was himself not far enough removed from pitiful debauch, which lingered in his memory no more than t-shirt stain before a laundry run. He was too proud of context to compare himself and even then, too old to brag.
Sandro escaped the trap of hold-nose B&Ts, transvestites off the train from Williamsburg, and sauntered further up on 3rd. Two unsuccessful jocks chowed down on pizza, boasting of legendary female curves they'd never know, as they zigzagged irregularly home. One yelled out to Lisandro, questioning his skills to "hit that." The lad steered deftly to the side, leaving the drunken athlete in his place, dumfounded and incredulous, riled up and yelling threats. Dunkin was open to the shadiest of late-night hungries. A couple of police academy recruits managed to cross his path. What were they doing up so early on a Saturday morning? Didn't this f-ing place just sleep or close for business, ever?
He badly wanted peace, elusive quiet one could never find in this damn town. His pent-up winter energy was bursting forth this night, somewhere inside. To orient himself, he looked up at the moon. March 21st, it was the equinox! He was too tired—what had he learned about it in astronomy? A certain something warmed in mind, which energized Lisandro, piqued his curiosity about the spring night's sky. As he detected more such characters approaching from uptown, Sandro turned east on 25th, disgusted, needing an escape. At last, some quiet!
He exhaled lustily, diminished noise making his ears perk up like a wild cat's. He picked up speed, now turning sharply left onto the squalid Second Avenue. The denizen with speedy stealth, observing eastern side of avenue, detected shady characters all crowding under projects' rafters. This public housing was no place for white boys late at night.
Excerpted from RETURNS AND EXCHANGES by Yuri Kruman. Copyright © 2013 Yuri Kruman. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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