Chapter 18 A/B
post auction, leaving for Hong Kong (Up In The Air)
There’s more pigs in China than the rest of the world combined. But there’s only one I’m after—Mr. Skin in Hong Kong—the King Pig of the China skin trade.
After Cartwright corralled me and bored me to tears with his tough guy interrogation, I found out from Laura that her former employer won back the Black Pearl Necklace. Hiding her slender form behind some security goons, she carefully observed the proceedings, and described Big Ben’s auction as fixed.
I am so surprised.
Meanwhile, Brent’s deader than a day-old donut (my favorites ‘cause they’re free!), yet we didn’t blink twice. We were headed back to Hong Kong to re-steal the Black Pearl Necklace. Under Laura’s spell, or serving the secret design of the centuries-old necklace? Either way, everything was unfolding like a dream. If the going got too rough, all I had to do was wake up. Right?!
Brent’s dad was a retired Marine colonel. Laura had spoken to him before—as her alter, Gabriella—and formed a delicate toehold she now exploited. She told, Gary, Brent’s bull dog dad that I had witnessed the ninja-like agents, probably sent in by Mr. Skin to secure the necklace, or tell them where it was. Furthermore, it was north of likely that Brent immediately fought back, former Army Ranger Delta Force that he was, as there was no way the kidnap/hit squad would have killed him quicker than a cat.
“We’re hot on the Hong Kong crime lord’s tail,” Laura, as Gabriella, poured her delectable self into the phone. “I’ve got help—a top flight detective who specializes in these kinds of things, and has experience in Hong Kong.”
I practically blushed. Aww.
Gary told her he would help finance our mission. He had a contact in Singapore who did off-book work for the company. We had to agree to work with him and sign off on Gary’s terms. His guy, John, would be the equivalent of Gary being on the ground there. John would handle wet work. We would recover the necklace. Using John’s connections, not ours, the necklace would be fenced and split right down the middle. My share came out of Gabriella’s half. We were already into Gary for about five grand for the Cathay Pacific first class tickets, all that we could get last minute. Mr. Skin had his own jet, so…
Of course, she agreed to all of it. We couldn’t get to Hong Kong on her looks alone. I knew the girl was really out for herself. She could manipulate any guy—even the father of the now-deceased guy she was sort of dating, or using to steal a priceless necklace form a crime lord. Chance are, Old John had never seen a piece of work like Laura. Furthermore, her intimate knowledge of Mr. Skin and the booming skin trade in Hong Kong was, in all likelihood, greater than Gary’s man, John.
All of this suited me fine. I was accustomed to being the one you grossly underestimated. The only thing that bothered me was I would be missing out on Bond’s pursuit of The Record in my own backyard.
Oh well. Duty called.
Once we reacquired the necklace, we would play along with Gary’s plan. And head for the hills. I would pretend to be on Laura’s side for the sake of my own greed or the love of her smoldering brown eyes.
She had no idea I was commanded by the object she most coveted itself.
We’d have passports, disposable phones, surveillance equipment, accommodations and more once we were on the ground in Hong Kong.
We were flying commercial—Gary was too far gone from service to arrange any kind of military transport—so Laura got to work on our disguises. We would use one identity to fly into China, and another once we hooked up with the retired Secret Service Agent, John.
It was all too exciting for words. The safe sane choice of quitting while I was still in one piece never occurred to me.
As we boarded Cathay Pacific, and snuggled into our first class seats, I relished our new roles, even though we would abandon them shortly after we touched down well into tomorrow in Hong Kong. I was a serious American engineer and builder, specializing in high rise, of course, Allen Wright. I wore an Armani, conservative gray, to match my salt and pepper wig and even saltier goatee pressed around my mouth like a bird’s nest.
Laura, who had aspired to the Beverly Acting Academy, made all the right phone calls to make it happen. Using the cash Gary wired us, over two bricks-worth!, she had hair and wardrobe people running in circles for us. Laura was acting as my personal secretary, using her leftover identity she had first sprung on me—Laura Nicholl. The first name was real, I had found out from Brent before he punched his ticket to the Big Mystery, and the last one, well, who knows. Point was, Mr. Skin knew her as Gabriella, so . . .
We settled into our seat, Laura blowing my mind with her blonde, flowing wig, thick as a mop head, caramel skin, and spidery, frameless designer glasses. Her charcoal gray suit was all business—except in the places where it was not.
It seemed like we hadn’t really talked in ages. When was there time! Now we’d have nothing but time. For the next fourteen hours we’d be up in the air. But who wanted to talk, as I slid my hand over her nude pantyhose thigh and tried to get high.
“Al! You’re supposed to be my boss,” pushing my hand away.
“So, I’m abusing my power.”
“Really,” looking out her window to the right.
“I mean, who are you going to report me to? My own company?”
“I’m your only company, buddy,” she smiled, “and the only one who would even want your sorry company,” she laughed.
“I’ll say,” looking back down the aisle towards the service and bathroom area. “You just like me as another body to stop bullets meant for you.”
“You’re to skinny to stop any bullets, but too slow to get out of the way,” she nudged me.
“I’m a trained martial artist. Aikido, courtesy of Jimmy Chu, the teacher, not the shoe.”
“And I’ve been nominated for an Academy Award,” she dripped sarcastically.
“I believe that—best performance by a femme fatale taking advantage of a broken-down detective.”
“You let me take advantage. Should have seen me coming for miles,” she nudged again.
“I was too desperate.”
“You want to go back to your hotel office, look at skin mags, drink Greek coffee, and eat day-old donuts? “ she went for the kill.
“Those were the days.”
Stewardess leaned in. “Please fasten your seatbelts.” Her name tag, Kirsten, sort of clashed with her Eurasian looks. Maybe half Japanese, but all American in her speech and demeanor.
We buckled up.
Laura continued throwing raw meat at her toothless Lion. “You know that was counterfeit I was feeding you?”
“Um, yeah. I am a private detective, you know. Licensed in the State of California and everything,” I quipped, as the plane started to taxi towards its queue on the runway.
“But you don’t have a gun, do you?” she said, suddenly grabbing me right where it counted the most.
“No,” nonchalant. “But I used to have a Conn.”
“’64 Conn alto sax. Didn’t make it to the Silvergate pawn shop to keep her in on account of I was getting screwed by you for the very first time, “ I lied for some strange reason.
“Hey, don’t blame me for your heroin habit,” hot in my ear as she pulled her hand out of my lap.
The sudden draft of cool air on my privates made me shiver. She brings the heat all right. “All right. I won’t.”
“Speaking of which, I hope you didn’t spend the bad cash on anything but H?”
“I didn’t, except for some Nat’s, food cart Gyros, and bus fare.”
“Good boy,” squeezing my thigh. “Are you high now?”
“Just on you.”
As we reached the runway, we could hear the tower clearing our captain, as the cockpit door on the stylish 777 was popped open. “Cathay Pacific, you are clear for take off. Have a nice day.”
The twin engines growled to life, forcing the huge tires to gobble up runway faster and faster, while the extra Gs made me heavy out. The weight felt like heaven. I’d been floating around, looking for somewhere to land ever since Laura walked though my door.
A second later, we lifted off the runway and my fate jumped up in my throat. I’ve always liked the raw power of take off. Not this time. I didn’t know what the Black Pearl Necklace had planned. But I had a strong suspicion its fate really didn’t care if I lived or died.
Somewhere over the Pacific, about halfway to China, my mind really caught up with me. All this time it never occurred to me I was a criminal wanna-be just waiting for my set-up man. A Boss. You know, a real honest to god criminal to use me proper, tell me what to do, giving me just enough pieces of the Big Picture to keep me going. I suspected this all along, but dared not unwrap this package because of what was inside. No Big Boss man would ever have anything to do with a loser like me. They would have to look beneath the surface of my obvious failures, and peer into my glorious potential.
“Why, he’s not hapless and inept after all,” they would conclude. “He’s just unlucky. Goes left when he ought to go right. He has talent. It just needs to be directed.”
Yeah. That is what they might see in me. And then, finally, I would have a Big Boss, a set-up man to use me and all my cleverness, lying fallow, to achieve their lofty criminal goal—stealing back the Black Pearl Necklace from one of the nastiest crime lords in Hong Kong.
At long last my set-up man had found me. And he was a she. Laura. She could send out sex signals like a TV broadcast. But that wasn’t why I was with her. It was a question of control and all my denial about that.
You see, we all start out thinking we can control it. The H. And Laura’s hold on me was no different than any other drug.
With H., I started off slow, like any addict, chipping away at my soul like a rat gnawing through an old rubber natural gas line. Little by little, though, the Black Pearl Necklace was taking the place of H. and performing its noble duties, like, how I needed it to get out of bed before noon, and to even bother with shaving. Let alone eating.
At first I tricked myself into thinking, Laura was my new high. Right? I’m chasing after the necklace for her. I knew that was nothing but a pant load. Still, I kept that story going in my head untill half way across the Pacific to Hong Kong, with no soft, bosomy pillow of H. in my veins for nearly 48 hours. And there was no withdrawal. Now, it could have been I was still chippy. But a long-term user like me always goes through some withdrawal after a few good spoonfuls. I was way over that line.
I had to consider with the utmost caution, fear, gratitude and awe—The Black Pearl Necklace was the fix and the cure. And I was her man who would do anything to lay hands on her.
Of course, unlike H., she would never ask me to do anything against nature, mine or hers. I would have to overcome myself and transcend my pathetic tragedy.
She assured me I was made for this job…
There was a bar down in the Tenderloin where I used to get filthy drunk called The Angle. Later, they changed its name to the Roxy Grill. No remodel, just a new sign done in Pepto dismal pink hanging out front. The place attracted a few gays looking for rough trade, but mostly it was the same lot who clutched their sad change like it’s the only thing they got left in the world. Guys like Bart Train Josh, whose name just got abbreviated to Train, who was actually a little guy who did his hustle under the bay on the Bart—picking wallets and picking up girls. He was good at both. Train and I would wonder out loud how the bartenders ever made any tips—for a half a second.
I was mostly there to sell, or to trade cash or drugs for cash or drugs.
Same as Train. I guess we figured the bartenders got tipped in drugs, or got their drugs at wholesale, and that sustained them at the Roxy Grill.
Of course, there’s no grill there and no food save the usual chips and pretzels, peanuts and pickled eggs, so why they added the word Grill is beyond me. Maybe they planned a remodel when they changed the name. But when they saw the same sad lot line up and down the bar like cows waiting to be slaughtered, they decided what’s the point.
Yeah. It was like that—a place for people who wore the question, What’s the point?, on their faces every damn day of their lives. People like me and Train.
And why would a priceless heirloom necklace want someone like that to get her back?
So, a lot of us non-gay types still called it The Angle because that’s what it was. Bar was built just after the Big One on an angle corner where the diagonal intersected the regular parallel streets, so it had a distorted but discernable tri-angle shape to it. Hence the name. Not going to tell exactly where because it was sort of my hide-out, and getaway for lot of others like Train. So, those of you who know the city can probably figure it out.
I liked to get drunk early on in the evening, when I wasn’t getting high, then stumble over to Ronnie’s after midnight to sober up on black coffee and eggs. Musicians would start dropping by after one a.m., or so. Hey, gigging is hard work .
Even though my band only got a handful of gigs in its six-months-long hey day, I still had a toe hold with some of these guys. Yeah. I blew alto with a garage rock band. We even had an E.P. out on vinyl, no less.
“Hey, man, you still got that sweet Conn?”
“Hell yeah,” I’d lie. Even though I was just driving cab, or a lousy bouncer at a strip club, or very occasionally a working P.I., I had some small standing with real musicians at Ronnie’s.
Maybe that’s what she saw in me? That ability to blend in and make a go of it, play a hand, push a hand, holding nothing but rags.
“James,” she assured me, “You were made for this job.”
“I’ve had my eye on you, grooming you. I knew this day would come. . . again. So, how are you going to get me back once we land in my favorite city in all of the far East?”
“Well, that’s easy peasy Japaneasy. First, Laura’s got to lure Mr. Skin out to a very public place. Then I go in and pretend to myself that I’m trying to make him for his stash, you know, like I’m jonesing and I’m trying to find his junk. Meanwhile, Laura’s playing the bad girl who wanted to come back and prove her worth to him. Of course, he’s planning on decapitating her with his favorite sword as soon as he gets her alone. No matter, me and the secret agent, John, will connive our way in and fight our way out with Mr. Skin’s prized stash—The Black Pearl Necklace.”
“Excellent, James. You see now why I’ve been taking away the things and people you have loved so you would love only me. And get me back to the rightful stewards of my secret beauty…”
“James, I have to tell you, because you look a little sideways green, and you’ve been drinking Irish whiskey like a fish . . . so your stewardess has not bothered to inform you . . .”
“They have French Pastry on this non-stop flight.”
“Yes. That’s why I picked it for you. And they have…”
“No, they couldn’t.”
“Oh they do. They have–”
“I have actually died and gone to heaven?”
“Maybe, but when you wake up, go ahead and ask the stewardess. You’ll see . . . that they have plain croissant with French strawberry preserves, and almond croissant with real Marzipan filling, not some cheap custard . . .”
“I actually have died and gone to heaven.”
“”Well, James, we’re working on the heaven part. Kidding. And, last but not least, they have ham and Gruyere croissants.”
“With some strong black coffee . . .”
“I’ve got wood.”
“You’re just leading me on.”
“Of course I am. I want you to find me and return me to the family that has been my caretakers for over ten generations.”
“All that pastry is right here on this flight?”
“Yes. Oh, and John’s here, too. Colonel got him onboard last minute.”
“Thought he said John was already there in Singapore.”
“Well, gee, uh, he lied, James. Do not tell John about me, or Laura either, for that matter. Eventually, you can persuade John to help you get me back to my home. His job is mostly to bring swift and terrible justice to Mr. Skin.”
“So, he is like Arjuna?”
“Yes, James. You are really getting good at this!”
“And me. What about me? Who am I!
“Who am I”
I woke up to the beautiful face I followed no more, calling me by the wrong name . . . always a bad omen.
“You must have been having a dream,” Laura said, glancing around for the unseen audience. “You’ve been mumbling in your sleep something fierce for the last hour.”
Stewardess leaned in. “Sir, can I interest you in some coffee?”
“Yes. Please,” I practically begged.
As she turned to walk back to her station, I stopped her. “I heard tell you have French Pastry on this flight,” I almost demanded, like I was accusing her of something.
She smiled. “You heard right. Baked special for this non-stop flight by the finest French Bakery in San Francisco.”
“Oh, very much way.”
“Do you have ham and Gruyere croissants?”
“Of course. La special de la maison. I think we might even have one or two left. It’s only for first, and, as you can see, we didn’t’ sell out first today, so . . .”
“I’ll start with those. Then, what about almond croissant?”
“Absolutely positive we have some of those left, made with real Marzipan. And plain or chocolate croissant, plus—“
“No. You don’t have—“
“Yes,” I shouted.
“We do,” she shouted back.
“I swear, I was practically dreaming about it,” I salivated
“Well, let me get your coffee right away. We’ll go from there,” she finally turned down the aisle to her station in between first and coach.
“Such an appetite for my big strong architect,” Laura cooed
Ignoring her overture, “So, I have figured some things out.”
“Do tell,” leaning in.
“You’ve got to get Mr. Skin out into a bright, sunny public place, using your charm, feigning a thousand apologies routine, i.e., Brent forced you into it, etc. Then, using your map, so to speak, John and I will sneak in, Ninja-like, re-acquire the necklace—”
“You mean my necklace,” she cut in.
“And then fight our way out, while you keep Mr. Skin and his top man very pre-occupied.”
“Like a Trojan Horse thing,” she smiled.
“And I’m the Trojan.”
“You got it. And one more thing,” as Kirsten set my coffee down. I refused the cream and sugar on her tray, smiled, “Thank you,” and continued. “My gut says your dad’s Arjuna is on this plane.”
“Huh,” her eyebrow arched in that adorable way that made me want to do almost anything for her.
“John, your dad’s man, he’s on this plane with us.”
“When did you get all detectivey,” she beamed.
“Since I kicked 49 hours ago,” glancing at my Danish watch my mother gave me for my fortieth birthday. It was the only thing ofany value I had never pawned.
“And you’re okay?” She was genuinely concerned. Probably for her sake more than mine, but who cared.
“I was only chipping.”
She cocked her eyebrow again.
“Honestly, I feel like I could fly us to the moon, or Hong Kong, on my energy alone.”
Kirsten set a small plate covered by an ham and Gruyere croissant down in front of me. She had just barely heated it up.
Nice touch, I thought to myself. The drool practically dripped from my lips as I looked up. “Thank you.”
A bit of the paper-thin, salty sliced ham was oozing its way out of the puff pastry.