Sunday, May 15, 2011

And Back

Neil was still high from the victory, but he wasn’t pumped up enough to go ‘bad’. Rather than being tempted to flaunt the shotgun, his thoughts were consumed by hiding it without letting go of his responsibility to hold it. He settled on jamming the butt down on the floor near his left foot, and propping the subtly gunpowder-tinged barrel on his chest like it were the seat belt’s shoulder strap. It didn’t make for a good fit, but a glance would convey the impression that he was buckled up.

Dylan’s face was still hard, and his mind was ticking over. Part of him scanned for sirens or flashing lights. Seeing none, he began wondering what he would do – and what Neil could do. The boy was not only unlicensed but also hadn’t driven at all. He couldn’t get behind the wheel and let Dylan cradle the shotgun. Moreover, Neil had never handled a gun – and it showed. He didn’t know how to compensate for the recoil; that was for sure. Any shot he got off, if he were successful at getting one off, would go wild. Forgetting his distant cousin’s knowledge of the city, and born-and-raised social skills that fit Freham, Dylan was well on his way to concluding that Neil was little better than a spare wheel.

Still wrapped up in adrenaline, Dylan had to tell himself not to boot down Unity Avenue. Uncharacteristically for him, he drove in the right lane at a steady speed only a little above the limit. He stifled his annoyance at seeing most of the cars on the road pass him. The important point was: he had to look like a different truck. After making his getaway from the parking lot, booting it forward and ending with a hard right turn right onto the street, a common-sensical pursuer would assume he was hoofing it down Unity. He had had lots of luck with his truck, particularly with the lack of traffic when he made his hard right. Had he hit a vehicle on the way out, or had one hit him, it would have been game over. Even if he could have driven away, he would have been flagged for leaving the scene of an accident. The cops took that seriously; he would have been hauled in.

The traffic along Unity was light, but he had still taken a risk. Had his hindsight been foresight, he would have shown Neil how to shoot instead of how to make mead. He would have also gotten a nap – though he was very far from tired right now – and started off at midnight. Absorbed in his retro-planning, he completely forgot that Harold Renfrew would almost certainly have been asleep by the time he arrived. He only cared about Unity having lighter traffic between 2 and 3 AM and the restaurant having fewer witnesses. At that time, they’d all be trashy types too. The cops might not even believe them.

Because he was wound up, he started when Neil pointed out the turn-off. Deliberately slowing down to make the right, turning on his signal light a little early, he turned onto Scolie Street with an odd grace. He didn’t know that no-one had called the cops, although everyone had shot the news to Twitter and several social-network Websites. That networking assured that the police would find out about it, although not immediately.

After five blocks on Scolie, this time exactly at the speed limit, Neil told him to turn left on Farlieu. Seven blocks and another left got them to winding Wellton Street. The lots were enormous, enough to impress Neil, but Dylan didn’t care. Now more relaxed, he was preparing to meet this Renfrew fellow. Wellton dead-ended two blocks before it would have hit Unity: a public park sealed off the plush part from the plebeian roadway.

One-and-a-half more blocks were good enough to get to 97 Wellton. The front lights were on. As Dylan carefully turned right, into the driveway, floodlights came on. Momentarily, a beefy figure peered out at them from the main-floor picture window after pushing the curtain aside. The curtain falling back, both boys saw the two-car garage door open. Getting the hint, Dylan didn’t slow down; he drove right in to the left-side bay. The right side had Renfrew’s 2020 S-500 Mercedes. The man himself was there to greet then in the garage. As soon as they stopped, he hit the switch and the garage door sunk.

Almost forty years ago, Harold Renfew had played on the Yancey Grove football team right up to senior year. He had only been defensive tackle, but he was good with his hits. Not good enough to qualify for the university football team, but he had been close. Seeing his football days at an end, he had suppressed them and had cultivated a detached tone for his nose-filled voice. It made him sound charmless, but he didn’t care. Better to sound effete than come across as a growling ape.

Now, caught up in the moment, his long-lost growl had returned. Yes, he had kept track of the boys; he had even made three phone calls to Albert. The last one had been made a half-hour prior to now, a little after he was expecting them to arrive at his mansion. The prior call had been placed just before they had driven through Arkdale, and ten minutes before they had stopped to commiserate with the stranded and disrespected truck driver. Until that last call, Renfrew didn’t know what had happened to them.

Anticipating trouble, he had monitored Twitter and kept a regular eye on the local social network for anything to do with two boys in a truck. After seeing nothing for twenty minutes, he witnessed an explosion of stories and tales - some tall - about a new gang that broke into the area. The story was: there were a face thug and shotgun thug. The face thug softened up the rival gang members, while the shotgun thug rustled them. One tweet said, “Face thug is HOT! Dm nr got BJ in pkg lot from gang girl! Total surrender!!! HOTHOTHOT.” Tracking down ‘face thug’ got sketchy descriptions that roughly corresponded to young Neil. Now that he had seen Dylan, what he remembered from the descriptions of ‘shotgun thug’ roughly correlated too.

From what he could piece together, the poor boys came close to being swarmed by those seven young criminals. Seven to two was bad enough, but open robbery was worse. Renfrew was inclined to think of them as righteous underdogs and something akin to heroes. So naturally, he was more than accommodating when it came to hiding them. Now that the chips were down, those seven miscreants would likely be seen as getting what they deserved. Certainly, they ought to. However, prudence demanded that precautions be taken. The police shared the general sentiment of the local community – no sense in getting involved as long as they were preying upon each other – but that standoffishness was far from a guarantee. Hence Renfrew’s opening of the garage door as soon as he saw them pull in: it looked like they belonged in the neighbourhood, so anyone noticing a truck coming down his street would assume that the ‘Mossberg Two’ were in a similar but different vehicle. Needless to say, Renfrew was so far away from the thugging world that he considered it exotic. Had he made a jerk of himself by pretending to gang-bang, he would have been laughed at, jovially kidded, or else rebuked for being an undignified ass. No one – not anyone – would take his exhibitionism seriously. He was sure that, once under his roof and protection, no police would ever make the connection even if they bothered to track the duo down. The gang members, though, were another matter. If they came cruising around this neighbourhood incognito, they might put two and two together. That old truck in no way fit in with the neighbourhood vehicles.

Now, it didn’t matter. Everything was in place.

Renfrew felt the testosterone pumping when he saw the boys got out. Neil, he recognized. The boy looked shy, as when they met beforehand, but there was a subtly wild look in his eyes as he withdrew the shotgun from the truck and placed it on the back seats. The other boy, who must be Dylan Feeney, had a hardened look as if he were a combat soldier in-country. Renfrew could almost smell the testosterone in the air as his own rose. He could almost feel the memory of him wearing his football equipment.

The two boys saw a rotund but husky man, well into middle age, whose belly seemed to migrate to his chest as he looked at them with a bright-eyed grin. He actually had silk pyjamas complemented by a silk nightcoat with Oriental dragons on it. Forgetting his usual demeanour, his now-gravelly voice boomed out. “Come on in, boys. I hear you’ve got a story to tell.” Cued by his tone and voice, they did so.

“And welcome!”

Letting his aplomb slip even further, he ushered them into the kitchen. “I’d like to offer you a man’s drink, as you certainly acted like men tonight, but one of you is driving and offering only one strikes me as unfair. I do, however, have coffee that comes directly from Jamaican beans. I have them roasted here,” he added with a wink of his eyes to Neil. Despite his father being a parvenu, Neil had gone to the same school Renfrew himself had until recently. The fact that he withdrew made absolutely no difference to the older man, as he had done so to support his father’s mission. “Would you like some?”

Displaying the unconscious egalitarianism of the independent warrior, Dylan assented. Neil did so too, but more formally due to the school tie. Happily, Renfrew busied himself grinding the beans. The cigarettes in his pocket making his thigh uncomfortable, Neil put them on the thick-darkwood square kitchen table.

Seeing them after putting the grounds in the coffee maker and searching for cinnamon sticks, Renfrew smiled. “Smoker now, are you? Well, feel free.”

Neil, uncomfortably, said that he wasn’t. “It was a gift from someone we met on the road.”

“Oh, at that restaurant?”

Momentarily confused, Neil thought he had meant the gas station with the wary owner. “No – it was a truck driver.”

Seeing the inconsistency, Renfrew added, “It sounds like you have another story to tell.”

Turning the tasteful if plain-appearing chair around, and sitting with the back to his stomach and chest, he continued. “Now as far as I’m concerned, you boys are heroes – agents of the social order. Those gangsters disrupted the social order, and the social order disrupted them back. In your person, justice was done.” Neil was impressed, but Dylan’s world excluded formality outside of church. He wondered why he was being given a quasi-sermon for just being on the ball.

Coffee ready, Renfrew got back up and turned to pouring, putting in sugar, rich cream and the cinnamon sticks. He didn’t ask how they took it, and they didn’t object.

Setting down the mugs, including one for him, he then said “About those cigarettes. Would you mind if I had one?”

Neil, blinking, said “You can take as many as you want, Mr. Renfrew.”

Hearing the honorific snapped him to. He briefly considered whether or not he had let the excitement of the moment get to him.

“Thank you, Neil. Dylan: do you smoke?”

Now looking like he was playing with a deck of cards or a mini cell phone in his hands, Dylan just answered “No, sir.”

Seeing the moment lost, Renfrew shifted course. “Boys, I haven’t smoked in thirty years – not since I was engaged.” Looking regretful, he concluded that he could go for one more day without.

Neil, seeing disappointment in the old man, then changed his mind. “Sir, if you don’t mind, I’ll start now.”

Renfrew’s face lit up. “Okay, then; I’ll be joining you.” Walking over to the dish closet, he pulled out a serviceable saucer. Thankfully, the gold-laced china was in the dining room hutch by the formal dinner table. Putting the plain white saucer on the table between him and Neil, he announced that he was going to nip over to the fireplace for a light. He brought back elongated matchsticks in a green, circular cardboard container: perfect for the fire log. A sandpapery striking-surface ribbon was below the place where the cap fit on.

Waiting until Neil took out a cigarette, he lit the match. “Your privilege, sir,” Renfrew said with a wink in his eyes.

Neil, remembering that he had forgotten to offer his host one, held still as the lit match touched the cigarette, which smelled distinctly of tobacco. Neil, thinking that a new smoker was the same as an experienced one, took a long drag.

The cigarette nearly fell from his mouth as his lungs choked on the smoke. Grabbing it, with thumb and forefinger, he half-coughed the smoke out. He felt funny, mildly dizzy. Standing on his feet, he had the distinct sensation of being in an elevator going up. It was as if he had gained thirty pounds.

Looking mischievous, Renfrew asked him how it was.

Flushing, and not just because of the smoke, Neil offered him one. Dylan just sat, sipping his coffee, and watched. The smoke didn’t bother him, and he was amused at what his cousin was going through. Renfrew accepted the cigarette with the same ironic courtesy. Having waved out the first match, he got a second one out and struck it.

Mostly to Neil, he said as he moved the back of the chair up to the table: “Thirty years. I have it on good authority that it’s much easier to quit when old than when young. I think this gathering is well worth a month of cravings. Well worth it!”

As their host proclaimed his true feeling, Neil was giving the cigarette a second try. This time, feeling the pinch in his lungs again, he exhaled a horizontal contrail in an extended cough. Again, he felt light headed – but he also felt more alert, which the strong, luxurious coffee added to.

He remembered to tap the cigarette ash on the saucer as Renfrew, with a practiced movements, inhaled his own. He too felt mildly dizzy and light-headed, but less so. His new habit yielded to his old one.

“So boys,” he added jovially, “how about the details?”

By the time they had finished, it was 1 AM. Their storytelling, and Renfrew’s prompting, was interrupted by a call from a very important person. Ulrich Denneger, who went by Rick, was a member of the Police Services Board amongst other council memberships; all were appointive. Worried about the city, he had kept a special eye out on the youth gang problem afflicting Freham. He was the third generation of trust-fund heirs who had turned their lack of business calling into involvement in city government. Long eclipsed in wealth by Freham’s parvenus, he didn’t mind because his comparison between high and low was a blunt instrument. By mutual unspoken agreement, he left the charitable work to the parvenus and they left the civic responsibilities to him and his peers. Raised to be modest, he would never say “I own this city” even if he were detox drunk. But had he, quite a few people would believe him.

“Harry, this is Rick.”

“Yes, Rick. What can I do for you?” His attempt to switch to charmless was only half-successful.

“Cripes, man, you sound like you’ve gone back to football practice.” Letting the disguised rebuke sink in for a moment, Denniger continued.

“Now I heard a little bird tell me that you had something to do with a shotgun incident earlier this fine, peaceful evening.” His ‘little bird’ had been an educated guess, whose feedstock was a summary of social-network postings combined with information only he and a few others knew. He had heard about Renfrew’s hawaladar joyride, he knew about the sale of Albert’s place, and he found it easy to infer from what he had heard third-hand from a parvenu’s bragging, that the sale had been a gold deal. He knew instantly that one of the boys had been Neil because he remembered Albert’s retirement and decision to ride the same hobby-horse; Neil, of course, had been to Yancey Grove. Denneger had enough on the boys to get them arrested and charged. Had he been a regular law-and-order type, he would have.

But, regular law-and-order types never ascend to his rarefied height. They were the salt of the earth, vitally-needed solid citizens, but they didn’t have the necessary detachment that made for upper-class relativism. Denneger knew in his bones, as did Renfrew, that relativism of their sort was absolutely crucial to their position. Only a thoroughgoing relativist could offer the hope of giving every citizen a hearing.

So, the thought of turning the boys in didn’t even occur to Denneger. But, that didn’t mean he had no spine. He kept his backbone sheathed in subtlety, but he definitely had one.

“Rick,” Renfrew sighed, “it got complicated. There’s a good case to be made that those gang bangers got what they deserved. No-one innocent got hurt.”

“No, but a few got scared. What worries me, though, is that a lot of them got excited, Harry. One of the boys is a Yancey Grove man – still is, in the honorary sense, thanks to you - and you know what that means.”

“It’s all right, Rick.” The two boys stayed meekly out of the one-way conversation; they didn’t even sip their coffee. “I’m a well-known reprobate, a professional bad example. I got divorced, didn’t I? Never held down any position of real responsibility.” His tone was now leaden.

“You’re not going to be able to tuck away your nuts with this one, Harry. Now, you’ve done that a little too often. It’s not always believed. You’re still a role model, and you’d better remember that.

“Those gang bangers were from O’Gillan high school. That’s a school for professionals’ children. I know that it is not at the same level as Yancey and its complement, but it’s close enough to say that a few of its matriculants could have been Yancey boys - had their parents been willing and able to pay the fees. Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, yes; I understand.” His delight fully gone, Renfrew sounded like he was tiring out – or on the verge of a headache. “It’s closing in.”

“Yes, Harold, it is closing in. I do not want to see the gang-bang ethos infect Yancey. That stunt you had a hand in, regardless of its merits, is precisely the thing that Yancey boys will invoke if they decide to form a ‘mutual defence league’ or some such. I do not want them to turn into well-heeled vigilantes. Do you understand me now?”

“Certainly.” The call of duty had woken Renfrew up. “I can assure you that I will not go clubbing on the story. I can cover up to the extent that no-one will know except you and a few lucky guessers. I won’t recognize any that try,” he finished decisively.

“Good man,” Denneger concluded with less soft in his voice. “Harry” – he now sounded less formal – “this a time when you really have to go with God. Yes, your prizes did give a gang of little criminals the scaring they deserved. Yes, they did add to the social fabric of this town even though they did so in a manner that caused some alarm. Yes, they were a real credit to the city. And yes, you did have a hand in picking them.

“But you have to keep it to yourself, and let nobody but God and the participants know. God help us if it sets a precedent.”

The boys having wrapped up the storytelling, Renfrew was well-prepared to put them up for the night. Having his clubbing hopes dashed didn’t bother him; he had gotten some fun out of it, and that was enough. He had to think of the city, and how he could hurt it if he weren’t careful. Before and after the call, after which he lost his old footballer’s demeanour completely, he had smoked three of the cigarettes. Neil had only smoked a third of his one, and was left wondering if he should ever have another. The cravings, Renfrew would shoulder like a Yancey alum.

Shortly after he had picked the boys’ brains clean, he was mildly startled to hear the doorbell ring. Getting up to see who it was, he said to the boys that it was okay for them to stay where they were.

He opened the door, and was surprised to see Josie Widden at the door. She happened to be an executive vice president of a research shop, Aureous Capital Advisory, which had done very well for itself by its principals hooking themselves to the damned inflation star. She lived two doors down, and could afford to pay off her mortgage completely; had it not been fixed at a now-ridiculously low rate, she would have. A very successful woman – and it showed. Only the likes of Renfrew, and incorrigible country cousins, were not impressed by her.

Seeing another woman behind her, Renfrew recognized Janice Orland. She was the fund manager for Montfort Advisors’ flagship fund; she controlled tens of billions of dollars in assets. Josie, a dark haired woman normally polite and self-possessed, and Janice, a blond normally distant and self-possessed, were old friends and former classmates. Although they didn’t act like they were drunk, they did not act sober. Their Chanel suits looked oddly out of place. The pair looked slinky, and excited. Janice looked like she was almost ready to whisper something in Josie’s ear. Both of them were thirty-seven.

“I take it this is urgent,” Renfrew replied formally. The way Ms. Widden’s eyes lit up, she had urgency all right. She and her boony friend, they clearly had an urge.

Her normally authoritative voice now honeyed, Josie deftly applied a pinch that took down his guard. She was sure that Harold Renfrew was ordered to shut up about the incident that took place on Unity Avenue. Having a keen ear for the gossip, including the neighbourhood gossip, she had guessed where the shotgun duo was and who they were with. “We’ll take good care of them; I can assure you of it.”

Wondering why he was being leaned on to do a pimp’s job, he let them in.

Neil and Dylan nearly gasped when they saw the duo stride into the kitchen. The former boy was faced by a neatly-coiffed woman, wasp-waisted, with glowing satiny eyes and pursed lips that seemed to glow too. She had a very still smile on her face, and a look that would not be out of place on a doting aunt had it not been suffused with lust.

The latter boy saw a striking blond with medium-length hair, lean face and gray eyes. Her features finer than her friend’s, her eyes bore a hard and steady glow as she gazed on Dylan. Her much thinner lips were pursed too. They stood, looking at what would be the two prizes of the city in their circuit. What boys they were!

Neil felt a squishy feeling in his lower midriff, but he also felt like he was pinned down. Dylan felt confused, although also squishy. What these two high-powered financial professionals, power friends, had in mind was too obvious for the boys’ unconscious minds to ignore.

Jerkily standing up, Neil apologized as the sickness he had felt with Ralph’s friendly ‘advice’ returned. “I’m really sorry, but we have to get back right now. We’re supposed to be picking up a delivery and we really have to go.”

Both women looked at each other, clearly disappointed. Their attempts to coax their prizes came to naught, especially when Renfrew himself added his weighty foot to the boys’ decision. They were young; they could make it home in one piece. If need be, they could pull off to a deserted side road and nap. The risk of the gold being stolen, Renfrew was sure, was very low in the isolated countryside.

The two cougars having been hustled out, Renfrew got to the errand at hand. “Sorry about the time boys, but you gave your word and you’ll have to stick with it.”

It was 1:45 AM when the two pulled out of the Renfrew place. Neither of them was tired; the coffee helped. The three bars of gold, each weighing about twenty-seven pounds, were stored carefully under the small back seats of the cab. They were wrapped in shopping bags, and messed up to look like garbage or other leavings.

Although Dylan got owlish a half an hour into the trip, he kept himself alert by the ever-present fear of flashing lights and sirens. All it took to jolt him was seeing those police lights in his mind’s eye. Staying in the right lane, he took his time and didn’t speed that much. Thank to his logginess, he sometimes went a little below the speed limit. The traffic was very light, but cars and other trucks passed them recurrently. Dylan didn’t mind at all now.

The time they took was added to by two stops for coffee, but there were no incidents along the way. By the time the two got into Wakia, they both breathed a huge if yawny sigh of relief. It was now 4:20 AM; they would be home just after 4:30. The town was deserted, and so was the side road that took then to their place. Dylan started several times, and drifted a little on a few of the curves, but didn’t put him, Neil, the cargo, or his dad’s truck in jeopardy.

As Dylan half-expected, Evan and the jungle-juice kids were passed out in their respective vehicles. It was too cool for them to brave the clubhouse couch and stuffed chairs, despite the insulation in the small building’s walls and roof. No heating inside; there were heaters, if necessary, in the vehicles.

Sleepily, Neil offered the use of his own place. One of the several couches was a hide-a-bed. His parents wouldn’t mind. Dylan, seeing the practicality, accepted.

So, they exhaustedly turned back to the road, went the hundred yards down, and took the driveway to the cedar-decorated extended ranch house that was Neil’s new home. Making sure to get the gold, they exhaustedly put the bars in Neil’s bedroom. Dylan had gotten the third while Neil had pulled out the hide-a-bed and fetched pillows.

They didn’t wake up until 1 PM. Awaiting them was a nice brunch of cold fruits made up by Neil’s mom Susan, two 1/10 oz. gold coins, and two very proud parents - and relatives. The first gold run was a success.

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