Monday, November 21, 2005

Chapter Ten: The First Part of the Plan; or, Trying For Cheap Ratings With a Surprise Ending!

After I received the telephone call on Tuesday night, I prepared mentally for the task ahead. Wanda had set up a meeting with Octavian Bench's representative, and lawyer named Kobyashi, and I was going to be there. Although they knew I had the book, Wanda wanted them to believe that I was ready to give it to the Children of Rufus. I told her on Saturday that it was a stupid idea, and she said it was simply the first part of the plan. After she told me the rest of it, I agreed to go along, but I was still uncomfortable. I thought I had an ace in the hole, though - I had hidden the book, even from Wanda.

The meeting was at a small coffeehouse just to the east of downtown. Kobyashi wanted to meet at the Forum, but neither Wanda nor I wanted to head into that lion's den. We insisted on a public place that was more intimate and less likely to lead to violence. Kobyashi reluctantly agreed.

I deliberately arrived late, as per Wanda's instructions. She wanted Kobyashi to be impatient and vexed, but when I got there, he seemed cool and calm - not surprising, as he was lawyer. He sat with his back to the wall, sipping a cappucino. Wanda was already there. I sat next to her, my back to the front door. I didn't like that. I ordered green tea. The waitress smirked at me, as if the order was beneath her considerable skills. Kobyashi didn't say hello. He looked at me as if I was an insect and he was an iguana. He looked vaguely like a lizard - smooth skin, gray hair slicked back, pencil-thin mustache, and baleful eyes. This was not someone who would be easy to fool.

"Mr. Shaw," he said, and the lizard comparison became more pronounced - his voice was quiet and sounded slightly like a hiss. "You have the book in your possession. Mr. Bench would like to acquire that book. Money is no object." I felt dirty after he spoke. Wanda, I could tell, felt it too.

"Mr. Kobyashi," I said, trying and failing to smile, "Mr. Bench is not exactly the kind of person I want to possess this book."

"Whyever not?" he said, a broad, non-threatening smile crossing his face that nonetheless said I will cut your throat and then have filet mignon and never give you a second thought. "Mr. Bench is a philanthropist. He is a champion for this city. He wishes only to attach his name to the book when he completes the Museum of Antiquities in downtown New Alexandria later this year. He is a philanthropist, but he is also vain. The book will not help you in any way. You are, if you'll pardon my bluntness, a nobody."

"That's all very true, Mr. Kobyashi," I said, "but the book doesn't belong to Octavian. It doesn't even belong to me. I can't give or sell something that doesn't belong to me."

"To whom does it belong?"

"The Children of Rufus. I've already agreed to give the book to them."

That flustered him for only a minute; the veneer slipped almost imperceptibly, then came back more unflappable than before. "You are aware that the group of which you speak is a collection of thugs and killers. They are unworthy of the book. They have given up their right to it by, among other things, poisoning Ms. Yolanda Thrackton. You would give the book back to those reprobates?"

I stood up. "No matter what they have done, they are technically the rightful owners of the book. Therefore, I don't see where I have much of a choice. Also, if they are as ruthless as you say they are, my keeping the book from them or giving it to Octavian Bench may bring their wrath down on me. I don't want that."

"Sit down, Mr. Shaw." He said it calmly, as if ordering another coffee. I felt the steel in his voice, however. I hadn't planned on leaving anyway, but his tone made me sit.

"Mr. Shaw, you are a quaint annoyance in the life of Mr. Bench. I feel that I can speak thusly to you because you are quite aware that you are a quaint annoyance in the life of Mr. Bench. Furthermore, I believe you are proud of the fact that you are a quaint annoyance in the life of Mr. Bench. Were it not for your visit to the Winchester Hotel and Ms. Thrackton's subsequent demise, I doubt very much whether Mr. Bench would ever care to become aware of your existence. However, you were lucky. Not only did you convince Ms. Thrackton to give you the book - something Mr. Bench, despite numerous attempts, never did - but you were unlucky enough to be present at her murder. If Mr. Bench were a vindictive man -" I suppressed a chuckle, because I knew more about Octavian, through Pax, then he guessed I did, and I knew Bench was very vindictive, "- he could easily let the police know exactly where you were at two o'clock in the afternoon one week ago. They do not currently possess that knowledge, nor should they suspect they would need it. However, it could come into their sphere of knowledge, so to speak, if you are willing to go against Mr. Bench's wishes."

I looked at Wanda. She looked at me. "Boy, that sounds impressive, Mr. Kobyashi," I said. "Very much so. Why on earth would I give you the book if you threaten me? And why on earth would you ever find the book if you had me arrested - I assume you know certain cops who would be willing to overlook the staggering lack of evidence against me. I'm very disappointed in your scheme."

"I don't threaten, Mr. Shaw. I have no need to. I simply pass on information. Do you really think the Children of Rufus are more equipped to damage you than Mr. Bench is? He is a magnanimous man, but he also does not like to be defied, especially by someone as insignificant as you. He will pay any price you name for the book, while the Children of Rufus are headed by - I assure you this is true - a syphilitic albino with the IQ of a somewhat dumb opossum. Do you really want to choose that enemy over Octavian Bench? You could escape from the Children of Rufus even if you were as dumb as ... metaphors fail me ... a teacher at a community college!"

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Mr. Kobyashi, I understand how much this book means to Mr. Bench. I also understand that he is a very powerful force in this city. But despite the fact that the Children of Rufus are weak, they also have a better claim on this book. I have had some time to think about it, and I must admit that I would much rather have a syphilitic albino with the IQ of a dumb possum have his hands on it than Octavian Bench. You understand, I hope?" I stood up again.

Mr. Kobyashi didn't want me to see that he knew he had blown it, but I did. His façade cracked just enough, and I knew that the first part of the plan had worked. He was convinced that I was going to give the book to Bench's enemies. He held up his hand to stop me, and I paused as I was starting to turn.

"Mr. Shaw, I don't believe you can be such a fool. I don't believe you can't see what you are doing. Do you not remember Mayor MacChieze and how he thought he too could defy Mr. Bench? Do you not remember when the catamites in the state capital attempted to block Mr. Bench's construction of the casino at Ocean Side? Do you not remember when Ms. Roxxy Dixxon claimed she had photographs of Mr. Bench and the entire classroom of ninth-graders from Saint Catherine's Finishing School for Wayward Gypsy Girls engaging in certain acts with 'actresses' from the visiting adult entertainment convention and the two stallions from the circus? Do you not remember -"

"I know all about that, Mr. Kobyashi," I said, cutting him off before he reminded me of some of Bench's more perverted peccadilloes, "and I don't care. I honor my commitments."

I turned and stalked out. I knew Wanda was going to stay for a few minutes and try to calm the lawyer down and make protestations that she knew nothing about my intentions. She would try to convince Kobyashi that I was amenable to offers, but right now I was just confused and that she would convince me that selling to Bench was the best way to go. It was all part of her plan.

I waited for ten minutes down the street from the coffeehouse, and then Wanda came running up. She was grinning.

"This just might work," she said. "Just maybe. Did you see the fear in his eyes?"

"I'm not sure if it was fear. Concern, maybe. We got his attention."

"He's a tough one, that guy. We have run across him before. Why, in the Ergonomic Telemetry Debacle of -"

"You have no idea how much I don't want to hear your war stories, Wanda," I said. "Look. He's leaving."

Kobyashi had exited the coffeehouse and was glancing up and down the street. It was dark, and we were partially hidden behind an oleander bush, so he didn't see us. He began walking in the opposite direction.

"Okay," said Wanda. "Phase one is complete. We'll call you."

She kissed me before I could react and scampered off. I thought briefly about going home, but then decided I was tired of being jerked around. I hesitated only for a moment, then followed Kobyashi. He turned the corner at the next block and got on a Vespa. I panicked for a moment, since my El Camino was behind me, in front of the coffeehouse, but he swung the scooter around and headed back in the direction of my car. I hid behind a tree until he passed, then ran back to my cruck. I pulled away and easily picked him up again.

He drove into downtown and stopped at a traffic light. I idled two cars behind him, wondering where he was going. I also wondered what I was going to do if I kept following him. What was the point? Would I do anything? I didn't know, but I wanted to see where this guy was going.

He turned onto Saint Bonaventure Street. Saint Bonaventure is famed throughout the world for its comic book shops and hummus stands, but it also had a notorious reputation in the Alex as a place where you could find almost any flavor of Tootsie Pop ever made, even the little-known and little-enjoyed kohlrabi flavor. It had gone somewhat to seed, and I couldn't figure out why Kobyashi had driven down it. At the corner of Saint Bonaventure and King Alfonso XIII Avenue, he paused turning left, and I paused fifteen feet behind him. Suddenly I heard air escaping a tire and I looked out my window. Protruding from the rubber was a short spear. I blinked. Out of the shadows leapt six men wearing dungarees, flannel shirts, and black balaclavas. They all carried swords. I stepped on the gas, but a seventh man came out of nowhere and jumped onto the hood of my car, jamming his sword through the hood and into the engine. I opened my door and took one step before one of the men hit me over the head with something heavy. I went down hard. I didn't black out, but I was dazed. As I felt ropes binding my hands behind my back, I heard one of them say, "Shee-it, that was easier than shooting the eye outta a raccoon from the back porch while drinking Wild Turkey." I was in trouble.


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