Premiered – 1 May 2004 (Beltane)
Arthur Lyle Cusman had made a rather serious error, an error equivalent to inadvertently walking in on Medusa in her boudoir, an act traditionally thought of as a bad idea. Admittedly, Arthur was not without his resources -- although they were principally arrogance and egomania -- and in fact, he carried his own version of a shield. The essence of his protection was that he simply ignored the feelings and opinions of other people whenever such attributes interfered with his own preferences. It was the old concept whereby the best way to win an argument was to ignore the other person's viewpoint. Just keep blaring forth with an opinion, and, theoretically, the other person will eventually agree if only to end the ordeal of having to converse with such ego mania.
As a stockbroker and the principal partner in his brokerage firm, Cusman had used this technique to great advantage. Of course it didn't always work, but statistically he was way ahead of the averages. Unfortunately, he was now attempting to breach the defenses of Tina, a powerful and intelligent woman. His inability to read Tina's mind was indeed fortunate for this man whom both his friends, neither of which was a family member, liked to call, "Lyle".
Lyle was lucky because internally Tina was frowning. Rather heavily, as a matter of fact. As he droned on, Tina kept thinking, 'Why do so many men seem incapable of getting to the point? Why this run-around, this presentation of every imaginable fact, this sermonizing before the main event? Why not a simple, objective presentation of the facts without all the fanfare and deeply emotional attempts to sway another person? Is it because his sole audience is a female? Is he not quite sure just how to handle a woman, especially one who's confident and powerful? Is he perhaps simply intimidated by me? Probably,' she thought.
Externally, Tina's face was impossible to read, as if she were being tested for her skills in diplomacy as she watched her guest continue to ramble. This broker, head of his brokerage firm and more importantly an old business associate of Tina's father, was challenging the very core of Tina's fabric. He had already cashed in most of his IOUs to gain this audience, and was rapidly burning the remainder of his credits with Tina as she listened for nearly twenty minutes, while he described in glorious detail the incredible success of what Tina knew to be his floundering brokerage firm. 'How long can this go on?' Tina frowned to herself. 'How long will I allow it to go on? Particularly, considering the state of affairs in the world?'
From Tina's perspective, the rash of stock market crashes, mini-crashes, maxi-crashes, "inexplicable-crashes", and crashes when it appeared to be a bull market but wasn't had loss much of its power to garner the attention even of the news media. There were simply too many competing news events, what with the variety of Middle Eastern wars, the numerous ancillary "non-war" wars, the famines and droughts, the continuing and extensive environmental debacles from around the world (aided and abetted by the sitting governments), the never-ending exposes of greed, corruption and immorality in politics, business, and academia (i.e. business as usual), and since 2000, the obvious, but still unofficial recognition of the fact that the world was continuing its slide into the worst economic depression in history. Major new lows in the Dow Jones, commodity indexes, and the like could hardly produce much more than a bored yawn -- except of course from the ranks those stockbrokers who had survived so far, and/or couldn't imagine any other line of work.
From the broker's view point, moreover, the cumulative effect of three major crashes (with a fourth and final one imminent) had put more than a small dent in brokerage firms' egos. It had done extensive damage to their pocketbooks as well. In fact, the fake rallies/routs since 1987, spurred by sporadic, overlapping wars, and the "Debacle of '93" had pretty well made the stock market history. 'Surely,' Tina thought, 'this man does not expect me to buy stock!! For heaven's sake, it's almost time for the next crash!'
'So why am I listening to him? For entertainment!? For Daddy's sake?' Tina mentally shook her head. She had already made it crystal clear she was not interested in buying stocks, bonds, or anything else, either for Worldwide Enterprises or for her own account. Cusman, in return, had assured her he certainly wasn't there to sell her stock. And yet, everything since then had sounded very much like a sales pitch. 'It would be typical of Cusman,' Tina thought, 'The antithetical used car salesman, to simply ignore an absolute decree that one would not buy stock, and nevertheless make his pitch in some devious fashion. But surely he must know I'm not someone to be trifled with. Surely, he knows of my reputation!'
Or maybe not. Cusman was blithely charging in where even moderately wise men fear to tread. "As I'm sure you're aware, Ms. Gilan... (Why did the "Ms." seem to Tina to be so over-emphasized?) …Worldwide Enterprises is pre-eminently situated, perfectly positioned, and ideally suited, precisely at the right place at the right time, with a corporate cash flow the envy of every knowledgeable industrialist in the nation... Nay the world! A bold leader in every form of innovation, creatively managed, decisively led, buttressed by a brilliant and loyal staff, the kind every corporate leader, every true entrepreneur aspires to have... Only with this type of real, hard-core, top-of-the-line, absolutely genuine, quality leadership could Worldwide Enterprises have achieved its astounding success, its enviable leadership position, and accordingly be selected from a host of excellent prospects for such an opportunity! I am personally very excited and genuinely thrilled, nay honored and with a real sense of total genuineness and pride... Blah, blah, blah... I have so long admired... Blah, blah... Worldwide's initiative and thorough-going... Blah, blah, blah...”
Tina could feel her mind going into blah-overload. It was no longer possible to either listen to or to gain any useful information from Arthur Lyle Cusman. His long-standing business relationship with Tina's father and its corresponding credit had just been dissipated. Plus which, the droning was starting to give Tina a headache. 'It was time shut down this little... What's this?' Tina suddenly took note of Cusman's monologue.
"The kind of addition to Worldwide Enterprises that I am envisioning is the kind that will set your competition back on their ears as never before. Think of it! An extension..."
Suddenly Tina was picking up on something. She reared slightly, as the information finally began to break through the well-constructed verbal barrage that Cusman had laid before it. And the reaction that Tina felt entering her mind was not a pleasant one.
Suddenly, Cusman said, "WEBS!! A mind-boggling concept! Worldwide Enterprises Brokerage Services!!! It certainly gets my vote, my whole-hearted support, my one thousand percent backing... Additional blah, blah..."
Tina felt her dander rise. No, forget dander. Try anger or rage, maybe fury. Wrath might be an even better description. 'Obviously,' Tina thought, 'this man does not really know me. He's actually here to sell Worldwide his lousy brokerage house, his failing financial empire, cash in, and run like the wind! He actually thinks I'm stupid enough to risk Worldwide...' Tina suddenly felt her anger, and clamped down. 'One does not become emotional on such trivia,' she thought. 'We don't lose our heads at affronts, however insidious. On the contrary, we quite rationally consider all the alternatives, gather a bit more information, and then carefully plan for the perpetrators demise! Maybe a little boiling in oil! The rack was always a good idea.'
As Cusman continued his now vain quest, Tina considered possible means of politely telling the brokerage house broker that WE wasn't interested. Telling him in such a way as to quickly make her point, be extremely diplomatic, and yet cause enough sheer terror and lasting trauma that no other brokerage house on the face of the earth would henceforth ever think about selling their failing houses to Worldwide! The fact that Cusman had been pretty thick with Zak at one time, might suggest something more than a simple tossing him out the twenty-fourth floor window -- the only window in the tower capable of being opened. Still...
Tina smiled to herself slightly, as her mind considered the possibilities. For retribution to be truly delicious, she might want to enlist Herman's able assistance, his inventive, clever and absolutely outrageous way of decapitating people! Which reminded her, 'Where the hell is Herman!? I know he's in the building, probably on his way to Zak's office. But there's no chance that Zak will see him now! So where is he? And where the hell is Gordon!? He should have waylaid Herman by now and have had him here in my office! What's going on?'
Gordon had in fact tried to waylay Herman. He was just running a little behind today. Herman, meanwhile, was running the lower part of the Labyrinth and its accompanying maze of corridors which had been specifically designed to confuse and distort any would-be intruders from ever reaching the executive suites of Worldwide Enterprises.
These were the corridors with ingenious roadblocks expressly provided to eliminate unsolicited visits from salesmen, auditors, and all government agents (IRS, CIA, FBI, EPA, ETC.), as well as competitors, terrorists, mutant teenage ninja turtles, and so forth. As such, it had been highly effective. It had also cost Herman an extra ten minutes, inasmuch as he had made one wrong turn and had to backtrack before finally arriving at the bank of three, very private elevators. Fortunately, Herman remembered the code which told him which of the three elevators was operational and capable of taking him to his desired destination for the hour and day of his arrival. Soon it was whisking him skyward, in true corporate-career fantasy fashion.
It was when the doors opened at their appropriate location that Gordon met his quarry. Herman recognized him immediately. "Ah yes, Mr. Medson. Somehow I knew I'd be running into you. Just like old times."
"Good morning, Mr. Travers," Gordon replied. "It's a very great pleasure to see you again. I hope your flight went well."
"I've arrived. For the moment, that's sufficient."
"And a bit late, I'm afraid," Gordon observed, smiling in a very civil manner. "I hope you didn't take a wrong turn downstairs."
"Actually, Gordon, I took a wrong turn some forty-odd years ago when I said, 'Da da'. All the wrong turns since then have been comparatively minor."
"Of course, Sir," Gordon returned. "As you say. And may I accompany you to Ms. Gilan's office?"
Herman smiled and started off in a different direction. "Actually, Gordon, I'm not here to see your lovely boss. I'm here to see the big guy."
"I've taken the liberty of checking on Mr. Gilan's availability, and I'm afraid that there will be a short wait. Ms. Gilan, being aware of this, has suggested that you might wish to spend the intervening time in her office."
"Naturally," Herman replied, not swerving even slightly from his intended course. "But despite the fact that you work for Ms. Gilan..."
"On the contrary, sir, I work for Worldwide Enterprises. We all do."
Herman continued, barely pausing for the gentle interruption, "…that does not necessarily imply that I work for you."
"I would never have assumed, sir..."
"Ease off, Gordon," Herman said, with considerably more emphasis. "I'll do my own intelligence gathering." When Gordon immediately backed off, Herman relented slightly. "But feel free to tag along with me. I wouldn't want you to have to arrange for a dozen or so 'chance meetings'. I know how tough those things can be in such a small area."
Gordon smiled, but said nothing. He simply followed Herman.
The two continued down the very wide hall, with its occasional window dressings of very attractive but absolutely proper ladies and smiling gentlemen, doing various forms of corporate doings that no audit, however extensive, had ever unearthed the exact nature of (there are some things that audits were never meant to comprehend!). These same highly prized members of the corporate culture, apparently, did not notice the entourage passing by their stations. Herman led the convoy, with Gordon following in the respectful, but not necessarily subservient position. Then as the corridor became even more ornate, they arrived at their destination: what was often referred to as “The Land of Joy.”
Ah, yes. It was such an appropriate name. Joy Danielle was, in a word, gorgeous. She was also magnificent, beautiful, delightful, brilliantly witty, and with a personality that demanded every male's attention within three city blocks. And yet, she was also very clearly not available to the common man. Despite this minor setback, any male would nevertheless give up small ransoms, all manner of worldly goods, and any number of hereditary kingdoms just for the opportunity to spend a little time with Joy -- if only to merely fantasize in her presence; take a short visit to the Land of Joy, so to speak. Unfortunately, Joy was unavailable, and in some strange manner, "under the protection" of Zak.
Herman of course, had already made numerous, well-considered attempts to spend some private time with Joy. He had also been singularly unsuccessful. While he had never quite given up on his quest, his current tactics involved pretended indifference. "Good morning, Joy," he said. "Is what's-his-name in?"
"Good morning, Mr. Travers," Joy replied. "I believe he's across the street in the French Vietnamese Egg Roll and Pizza Palace ."
Herman was stunned. "Are you kidding!!? Zak hates egg rolls!!"
"Oh! You were asking after Mr. Gilan?" Joy smiled, knowingly. "I just assumed you were asking for our janitor."
Herman grimaced. "Very clever. You're such a… joy to deal with."
"I try to be."
"So how about telling the big guy that I'm here?" With all appropriate majesty, Herman added the clincher, "I have been commanded to present myself, and I'm sure that you wouldn't want to stand between us!" To which he quickly added, "Although I, personally, would be delighted for you to do so."
"Mr. Gilan is not available right this moment," Joy answered, her gentle and soothing voice caressing her listener, even while ignoring his crude attempt at fraternization.
"Oh?" Herman's attitude was one of complete mystification, as if it hardly seemed possible that Zak would not drop everything just in order to see his favorite bastard son.
Joy gently explained. "Inasmuch as you were flying common carrier, we naturally assumed that you would in all likelihood be arriving later in the day. Consequently, you've come a trifle prematurely. Probably a lifelong trait." Herman smarted but pretended to ignore Joy's slight, joking taunt. "I will, of course, be happy to flag Mr. Gilan's console of your arrival, and then let you know when he's available." When Herman only looked thwarted, Joy glanced at Gordon and added, "I take it you'll be in Ms. Gilan's office?"
Herman glanced at Gordon while Gordon gave him his best return smile. "Looks that way," Herman replied.
Then as the two men turned to go, Joy asked, "I assume you have your passport with you, and that it's up to date, with appropriate notations..."
Herman did not bother to turn back, as he said, "Naturally. Wouldn't leave home without it. And it's my diplomatic passport, with all appropriate notations."
As they walked away, Herman wondered if Joy did a little moonlighting for Tina as well. It was pretty well established that Tina's spy network within Worldwide Enterprises was one of the best intelligence gathering organizations in the world. Virtually everyone worked for her in some form or another. Why not Joy as well?
Tina's network was so superior, in fact, that Herman sometimes wondered if Tina had ever advised the CIA. Certainly, she had been aware ahead of time of last month's three overthrown governments, the news of which had rather stunned the feds. Again. Obviously, Tina Gilan could show the CIA a great deal about the ins and outs of intelligence gathering.
When Herman and Gordon arrived at Tina's office, there was no hesitation with Tina's handsome, male secretary, Bill. Herman was to be shown into her office immediately, without even the hint of a delay or concession to decorum. Not only was Herman expected, but Tina was primed to unload the persistent Mr. Cusman and was thinking to use Herman's presence to expedite the process. A polite expediting, of course -- Tina had always been very businesslike in her dealings. Even in throwing people out of her office.
As Herman entered, Cusman was still in the midst of his blah discourse. Tina ignored whatever it was that he was saying, and greeted Herman. "Hi, Herm. Nice flight?"
Herman frowned. "I flew common carrier."
Tina's smile immediately vanished. With great compassion, she said, "Oh. Sorry about that." Then she gestured to Cusman. "You remember Arthur Cusman, don't you Herm? An old friend of Daddy's?" Herman smiled and acknowledged Cusman, who made a slight attempt to rise from the couch, failed, and smiled instead. "Arthur's been attempting to unload his failing brokerage house on us."
Cusman was horrified. "Failing!!? Don't be absurd! We're in top-flight condition! In the pink! Major profit increases this year!"
Smiling, Tina added. "Considering last year's profits, that should have been easy."
Cusman switched from horrified to indignant -- or some facsimile inasmuch as Cusman had failed to have experienced a genuine emotion during the last four decades. His indignation was controlled, however, just as any eternal optimist with his back to the firing squad wall and hope for a last minute rescue could have maintained it. "On the contrary, we're in great shape! Absolutely, top of the line! Number one! Oh sure, you've read in the papers where brokerage houses are failing all over the country! But that's primarily because so many of my former colleagues have been indicted and convicted for everything from insider trading to grand theft auto. But not us!! No sir!! Not a single charge has stuck! And with Zak's money and brains behind us, we could take advantage of the current situation and absolutely crush the competition. Totally obliterate them!!"
Herman turned at Tina, puzzled. "Why in the world would we want to do something like that?"
Tina grinned back. "Obliterate the competition or get indicted?"
Herman swung his arms wide. "Either one."
Cusman, having encountered hard sells before, made an immediate assessment that the conversation was not moving in the most desirable direction for his purposes. So he attempted a quick diversion. "I think it's particularly relevant, and something each of you should take careful notice of: Zak has done extremely well in the stock market these last several years. He has anticipated every single crash and mini-crash since the first one in '87. And in the process, he has made an absolute bundle on put options and selling short. Several bundles, in fact. He also went to a total cash position at the best possible moment. If anyone can make it in this market, Zak Gilan can. He's proved it! He's been absolutely brilliant the way he's anticipated every major stock market move. Selling off everything at the market peaks and buying on a grand scale at the market bottoms. I tell you, the man's become a legend on the Street! And with Cusman, Blinds and Robbs' resources, we could all make a killing!!"
Herman smiled, mischievously. "How are your partners, by the way?"
Cusman dismissed the question with a curt, "They'll be out in three years."
"I will admit," Tina conceded, "That Zak has done quite well in the last several years. In fact, I've been quite amazed myself. He had never been that much of a trader until just before the '87 crash."
"Precisely!" Cusman fairly glowed at his momentary victory.
"Tell me, Mr. Cusman," Herman added, "The latest market crash seemed to be a bit more than a bottom... More like the final swan song of the market."
Back on the defensive, Cusman waved his hands in an attempted dismissal. "Absolutely not!! We very nearly reduced the losses in the previous years to virtually nothing. Particularly in the blue chips!"
"Ah yes," Tina countered. "But it also became rather apparent that the feds had pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the market, just in order to save it and keep it viable through the subsequent presidential elections -- for what were, I trust, obvious reasons."
Herman, smiling his best Cheshire Cat smile, added, "Not to mention the Middle Eastern wars we leapt into, supposedly to prevent oil from going to $65 a barrel! Which it did eventually, anyway!"
Cusman laughed -- the guy was phenomenal in failing to correlate his outward expressions with his actual feelings. "Don't be silly! The money channeled into the stock market was entirely loans and loan-guarantees."
"Loans without collateral could be construed as virtual grants," Tina observed.
"I should point out…" Cusman smiled bravely, "The federal government has always supported the stock market and free enterprise."
"How can it be free enterprise when it costs so much?" Herman asked, turning to Tina -- inasmuch as a legitimate answer from Cusman was exceedingly unlikely.
Cusman's long-standing, apparent confidence blazoned forth. "There is no question in my mind that every penny, every single, solitary dime of those loans and guarantees will be repaid.”
"Mr. Cusman," Tina said, with a knowing smile, the kind of smile one absolutely hates to encounter, "The reality is that there has been extensive securities fraud throughout the industry. Corrupt corporate directors and officers have violated every concept of fiduciary duty to their stockholders. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been unbelievably ineffective in dealing with any of the problems..."
"Like the guy who stole two billion," Herman sighed, "The feds made him pay back half of it to the government. Whereupon the crook walked -- with a billion dollars in his pockets."
Tina had barely paused for breath. "Not only has the U. S. government ended up holding the bag, the national debt now ballooning to well over eight trillion, but pension funds are going down the drain on a grand scale, institutions have lost massive amounts to the point of going insolvent, we're continuing a slide into the worst depression..."
Cusman was beginning to feel a deathly internal cold. He could hardly tolerate the continuing attack. Primarily by reflex, and gagging only slightly, he interrupted with, "I would be the first to admit that there have been some problems. But even with all that, there is still money to be made. If one just looks at the technical indicators instead of all of those out-of-date fundamentals like Price-Earnings Ratios..."
Tina leaned forward in her chair, aiming her full power in the direction of Cusman. "The technical indicators show a tidal wave pointing straight down! The Kondratieff Wave has crested and is heading for the bottom! Elliott's Grand SuperCycle Wave indicates the worst economics since the dark ages! Even the market for U. S. Treasury Bonds is taking a nose dive, based on the fact that the federal government -- not to mention state and local governments -- are now obviously bankrupt. Obvious to virtually anyone who can think! Even voters!!"
Herman smiled mischievously, "Which, if you think about it, makes it pretty obvious!"
Tina, however, was not finished. "The stock market's demise, when added to the massive food price escalation of recent years, the extensive droughts that keep showing up year after year, and the very weird weather we've been having for God knows how long... There's not a lot of hope for anything but continuing, massive, devastating, worldwide depression!! Which, if the truth be known, we are already well into, despite the federal government's continuing and blithering denials!"
Cusman managed to pull one last attempted-smile out of his bag of tricks. "Hey! There's money to be made in a down market!" Unfortunately for Cusman and the only other optimist in the universe, this last attempt failed, fell to the floor in disarray, and promptly dissipated itself for sheer lack of interest. A mini ice age descended upon Cusman as both Tina and Herman gave him looks of total disgust and loathing. The interview was over! For several, eternal moments, Cusman felt himself unable to move. When he did, he had help.
With impeccable timing Gordon arrived to escort Cusman to his rented limo -- just prior to the limo's repossession -- and bid him farewell. Cusman's survival instinct had been sufficient to avoid resisting (one never wanted to confront Gordon!), but he did manage to drop, just before he left, pathetically and parenthetically, one notable shocker on Tina and Herman.
For not only had Zak sold out every stock he had ever owned, liquidated every bond he or Worldwide had kept in reserve (including those of the federal government ), divorced himself from every financial asset formerly considered cash-equivalents; but he had transferred total control of several key foreign subsidiaries of Worldwide Enterprises to his brothers, Paul and Hal. The "sales" were particularly devastating to Tina inasmuch as she had considered herself the chief executive officer for two of the departing corporate subsidiaries.
With the defeated Cusman out the door, Tina let her calm persona collapse and turned to Herman, a controlled rage all over her face. "What the hell was that all about!!?"
"What? Zak selling companies?"
"Selling Worldwide!! Didn't you hear what he said!?"
"It's still in the family, Tina. He's just letting Uncle Paul and Uncle Hal do their own thing. Besides, he's reduced their controlling interest in Worldwide to zero in the process."
"Herm," Tina explained, "Paul and Hal never had any control of Worldwide. Zak has always maintained absolute control. What's the point of totally severing them from everything else? Is he splitting up Worldwide!?"
"Isn't selling companies pretty much in vogue right now? Even foreign subsidiaries?"
"Look, Herm! It's more than that!! Zak has an extremely large cash position, has for years now, one which is far beyond anything imaginable prior to now. Our leverage is completely gone, including long term loans! We don't owe anybody anything, including the Greek and Italian connections, and we've got cash to burn! So why in the world would Zak start selling profitable divisions? Where in the world is he planning to put all that cash!?"
"Maybe he's planning himself a big 69th birthday party..."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"Look! Isn't it pretty normal for a company to divest itself of subsidiaries from time to time? Even if they're profitable! That just means they'll fetch a better price. He probably got a helluva deal from both Paul and Hal. He's always managed to take advantage of them."
"But why? Where's he going to invest all the cash? Where's he heading? What's going on?"
"Don't you know?" Herman was incredulous. "Doesn't Zak tell his favorite child -- the absolute apple of his eye -- everything !?"
"Apparently not any more!" Tina looked thoroughly disgusted. Then her spirit revived slightly. "But I'm damn sure going to find out!"
Herman smiled, a little uncomfortably. "That I have no doubt about!"
Tina hardly noticed the indirect compliment. Instead her eyes were blazing. "I'm this corporation's chief financial officer and if Zak doesn't have the simple courtesy to tell me what's going on..." For a moment her anger swelled, only to crest and slowly subside. Quietly, she said to herself, "Sometimes, that man really goes too far."
Herman tried to lighten things. "Maybe he's been busy... Perhaps he's been meaning to tell you, and just couldn't find the..."
"Bullshit!" Tina interrupted. "This is too major. Hell, it's more than major! It's... It's Everything! It's a bloody palace coup by the king himself!"
"Sort of a presidentially inspired revolution?" Herman meekly suggested.
"Except that governments don't normally initiate their own revolutions."
"Mao did. Of course, it didn't really work out all that well..."
Ignoring his last statement, Tina looked intently at Herman. She paused just long enough to get Herman's full and seriously undivided attention. "He's also been initiating the kind of actions one does when they're ready to turn over the keys to the kingdom to someone else."
Herman felt a sudden surge of interest as he watched Tina. Quietly, he asked, "Really?"
Tina coolly appraised her younger brother, gauging the extent to which she would trust him. "Something's going on, Herm, and I intend to find out what!" Herman smiled slightly, as Tina said, "Now... What brings you to town?"
Herman dodged the issue. "Certainly not a corporate jet!" Then he tried to take the offensive, "Why is that? Who else is flying in Worldwide's planes?"
Tina answered directly. "Delbert Pine has been flying number one. I think that it's rather obvious now, just why! The negotiations between Uncle Paul and Zak would require that kind of macho presentation."
"And number two?" Herman didn't add that it had been number two that he had seen at JFK which the attractive, unknown lady had boarded.
Tina eased slightly, gauging Herman's intentions. "It's checked out to my mother. Why do you ask?"
Herman was now amazed. "You're kidding!?"
"No," she answered. "Supposedly Zak owes her a favor or something."
"But that wasn't your mother I saw!"
Tina looked up questioningly. "What are you talking about?"
"The woman in all the colors!" When Tina only looked bewildered, Herman began to tell her of the woman he had seen at the airport, describing her in as much detail as possible. Part of the elaborate description was based on the idea that if anyone could find out who the lady was, Tina could. At the same time, Herman neglected to tell Tina that he also found the woman at the airport particularly attractive, and would not object to meeting her again.
Tina simply looked bewildered through the whole thing. "I have no idea who you're talking about. Doesn't sound like anyone I know. It must be a friend of my mother's."
"I do think she's worth investigating, however. She might give us some clues. Perhaps you'd better get on it and let me know what you find."
"I doubt it," Tina replied, her manner changing to a more calculated style. "Might be merely a red herring." When Herman failed to take the bait, she added, "It seems more relevant to inquire as to exactly why you're in town.”
Herman shrugged slightly. "I'm sure you know more about it than I do."
"Naturally. I always have. But I'm always curious as to what you think you know. That in fact can be quite entertaining."
Herman turned to squint his disapproval of Tina's indirect taunt. For just a moment, he tried to gauge her intent. Sensing that it was more of a gentle spoof than an actual attack, he let it go. "What can I say? It's just another command performance. Zak would not come to the mountain, so Herman of the mountain has come to Zak. As to why, who knows? I don't usually even bother to ask."
" Nepal , perhaps?" Tina asked, already knowing the answer.
Herman decided not to wage wits with her. "That's my guess."
"You've been running mail pouches between Aunt Ester and Zak for years now. What's going on? What are they saying to each other?"
Herman acted almost offended. "What makes you think I know anything? I'm just the courier. I don't read the mail. You know the rules: “Through rain and sleet and snow and unpicked up garbage..."
"You're telling me you've never checked the contents..." Tina was obviously not buying Herman's dutiful stance.
"It's all under lock and key, Tina!" Herman threw up his hands. "Zak and Aunt Ester don't even so much as open the case in my presence. They lock it on my wrist and they take it off. I'm just a body, a weight for the case to be attached to." Suddenly, Herman's mock and overly dramatic emotions welled up. "I'm being used, Tina! Used!!"
"You're full of shit, Herm! Full of shit!"
Herman shrugged, noncommittally. "Possibly."
Tina leaned back. "But you must know something!! You must have made some guesses. You're simply not that stupid!!"
Herman frowned. "Thanks for the compliment. But all that I get to see is a lot of scenery." Then another thought hit him, "Of course, the last time I got to meet the Dalai Lama." Tina raised her eyebrows in surprise, as Herman continued. "Apparently Aunt Ester is a big devotee of Dal Baby. And he seems to get along pretty well with her."
"Dal Baby!!?" Tina smiled slightly as she brushed her auburn hair across one ear.
"That's what I call him. Most everyone else calls him 'Your Holiness' or something like that. But I figured that he might appreciate a less pretentious title every now and then."
Tina was incredulous. "But he is the Dalai Lama."
Herman was not impressed. "So's the president of the local Delicatessen Association."
Tina guffawed, and shook her head. "You're hopeless!"
Herman smiled proudly. "It's been my life's quest."
Tina's tone changed subtly. "Hopeless and probably still not telling me everything." As Herman swallowed slightly, Tina added, "I'm going to get to the bottom of this, Herm! It's too important to just let lay."
"Why not use your spy network!?"
"My 'information' sources' haven't given me a clue. Whatever Zak is up to, he hasn't used anyone in Worldwide or for that matter any normal business contacts or associates."
"He couldn't be doing... whatever he's doing... all on his on?"
Tina's answer was particularly thoughtful. "I doubt it. It's too big. He's got to have help." For a moment the two just sat there, each trying to come up with an idea. Then Tina said, quietly, as if to gauge the credibility of the idea by voicing it, "Perhaps he's working with some other family members. That would be like Zak -- he's such a believer in blood ties."
Herman hardly heard Tina as he concentrated on his own idea. "I know that Zak keeps all of Ester's letters; I've seen the neatly tied bundles on his desk when I've picked up the case." Smiling, he looked at Tina. "Why not rifle the contents of his wall safe?"
Tina frowned. "Can't. One, I don't know the combination. And with the security system around Zak's office, I don't want to even think about cracking it." Her frown turned to chagrin, as she added, "Two... For just a second she hesitated. Then, in a sheepish voice she added, "I don't even know where his damn wall safe is!"
"You're kidding!" Herman was amazed. "With all your sources and your insatiable curiosity, you've haven't figured how to get into his safe!?"
Tina grimaced, a bit sheepishly. "No."
Herman grinned, suspecting he was on to something. "And you're telling me you've never tried?"
Tina smiled slightly, knowing she was caught. "Maybe once." When Herman continued to wait, Tina smiled a bit broader. "Several years ago, I decided I needed access to Zak's safe. So I went on this incredible quest, tracking down clues through the computer banks, searching the archives for leads, using every source at my disposal. Finally, I found the trail and followed it for weeks. It was a brilliantly, deviously clever trail. But I knew I was getting there. I could smell it! So I kept at it, until finally, I knew I was on the verge. It was in the archives, and the exact file was in my hands. I was excited as hell. I knew that this was what I was looking for. Then I opened it." Tina shook her head, laughing through her embarrassment.
"And!?" Herman prompted.
"It was a note from Zak. I still remember the exact wording: 'Tina, cease looking for the combination to my wall safe.' That son of a bitch had seen me coming!"
Herman watched Tina just long enough to convince himself she was serious, and then began laughing uproariously. Tina joined him, laughing at herself (a singularly rare event).
Looking directly at Herman, she added. "I often wondered about that note. It had all the earmarks of one of your jokes. Did you help Zak set me up?"
Herman's laugh eased slightly. "No, of course not!" Then as Tina continued to watch him, he began his own joke. "Well, maybe. In any case, I'll never tell. Unless of course, it's to trade information."
"If you do know anything, I'll eventually find out. You do know that, don't you?"
"Absolutely." Herman laughed again, watching Tina watch him with her intense, appraising eyes. Herman managed to avoid swallowing and admitting his vulnerability.
Chapter One – The Gauntlet
Chapter Three – Eldest Son
2003© Copyright Dan Sewell Ward, All Rights Reserved [Feedback]