A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals ...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chapter 7

The knowledge that I was going to be making my first sortie into the public environs of Macundo (and potentially enemy territory) on a political reconnaissance mission meant that I should make an attempt to find a way to blend in. Since it also appeared that I was going to be here for a while, and since I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I had to, I needed to get garments more in keeping with the local fashion and custom. Nothing will make people clam up quicker than someone in their midst who looks like they don’t fit. This would have the added benefit of me becoming dependent on the services of the magical laundry every night (which I was still rather suspicious of), and provided me at least the hope of making the clothes that I had arrived in last a bit longer. I had after all, shown up here with nothing but the clothes on my back.

I therefore resolved to spend a good bit of the day taking advantage of the services of some of the local shopkeepers. If I were being completely honest about it, I would also have to admit that I was also hoping to regain some of the ground that I had lost earlier in the day by impressing Angela with such sartorial splendor as I could manage. The fact that had never achieved this at any other time in my life with any other woman that I had known deterred me in its pursuit only slightly. What the heck, this was a completely different world. Maybe my luck would change. Right ...

The fashions of Macundo aren't much different from our own, but they tended to what appeared to my untrained eye to have more of a European cut (which I knew about after once buying a jacket in Toronto and having someone explain the difference to me). I was able to obtain a sport coat and a couple of pairs of trousers off of the rack that fit well with only minor alterations, performed instantaneously and by a process that I neither noticed nor questioned. With the addition of a few shirts, ties to match; and with socks and suitable undergarments, I felt that I was ready to face the world. 


I thought about getting something in the local style of shoe (or even boot), but I hate breaking shoes in. The pain that always seemed to be involved in this process seemed like it would be more effort than it would be worth. In my never-ending quest to avoid painful situations whenever possible, this seemed like the wisest and most expedient choice. (Looking back on it now, why it never occurred to me that such a process wouldn't be required if the shoes were anything like the other clothes.) I figured that as long as I took reasonable precautions to prevent damage to my own shoes, and kept them shined properly (as I spoke of before), perhaps I could function adequately without becoming an embarrassment to either my cohorts or myself. I was even able to have all of my selections delivered back to the Manor, a situation which seemed more than expedient, since I had walked a distance that I felt to be on the edge of too far to get into the city in the first place. It’s not that I object to exercise as I have said before and the walk was a pleasant one if a trifle long. A return trip of similar length with a couple of arm loads of packages however, was not something that I was looking forward to.

It might have occurred to you to wonder where the money for this new wardrobe might be coming from (being unrepentant capitalists), and if I had to 'put the arm' on the prince before making my selections. The answer to this simple and logical question is in fact, no. The cash for all of this was coming out of the government PAC account, as was the cost of the evening’s festivities. Phillip had assured me that this was all within the scope of my responsibilities as the manager of the campaign, and therefore a justifiable expense. I was given an engraved metal tag before I left that day, that I was to present to any and all for payment. The bills would be sent on to the Manor House and settled at the end of each month. The system seemed elegantly simple, but I was shocked to find out that no backup paperwork was required for any of this spending. I wondered naturally, if the system had ever seen any abuse in the past, as I am sure that it would have in my own world. Even in this world of mostly upstanding people and limited political experience, the potential for abuse seemed both real and probable if I knew anything about our friends Randall and Christy. 


The other reason that this had so surprised me is that I had been operating in the world of expense accounts for a number of years. I thought that I was well versed in the intricacies of the process, and trying to make sure that everything I did and spent was well justified and documented. I did this for two reasons:
  1. It was the only way that I could remember all of the things that I did and spent money upon, and
  2. It was the only way that I could keep from cheating myself out of money that I was due to be reimbursed for by the company that I was working for.

I am sure that most people would wonder about the idea of someone on an expense account cheating themselves. Most I'm sure, think that an expense account is a license to steal; but they are usually only those who have never had to live on one (or of course, a politician, who lives off of other people's expense accounts). The rules pertaining to the use of expense accounts allows most people to live free of charge only if they want to live in a style that no one would like to become accustomed to. Meal allowances are designed to allow for three meals a day only if two of the meals are fast food. Healthy or more palatable cuisine is only possible if a person:
  1. Pays some part of the bill themselves, entertains clients for that given meal, or
  2. Lies like a rug while submitting something that resembles a proper receipt with an expense report (hence the politician remark). 

Like most other things in my life, I had always been given to a large degree of honesty while traveling, and therefore was constantly operating at a loss in relation to the expense reports I submitted. I wrote this off, saying that I was compensated by not having to buy groceries while traveling, and that not taking advantage of those that I worked for allowed me to sleep at night with a clear conscience; but it was often small consolation at the end of the month when the bills came due.

In spite of the fact that this wasn’t my world, it was nevertheless my intention to follow the rules that I always had in my life. I would at least make an attempt to be as scrupulously honest as I could with the trust that I had been given by Phillip and these people. The concept that this might be a truly unique experience in the arena of politics, having already singled that group out for abusive behavior, only occurs to me now. As for whether the thought that there might be dire consequences for abusing the system in this world, the thought never crossed my mind. Right again ...

During the process of garment acquisition, I also began my education as to the nature of the local society through the simple process of gossiping with the shopkeepers and their assistants, without really knowing or understanding that they were indeed furthering my education. Shopkeepers can't help but gossip about their friends and neighbors. They are almost as bad as barbers and hairdressers. I was pleased to find out that much like the clothing, life here wasn’t much different from what I was used to. Sure they were operating under a peculiarly modified version of a monarchy, but most forms of government are peculiar in one way or another, and most people don’t notice or care much about government except when they feel that they are being taxed too greatly (which is most of the time, admittedly); or during an election, when they are constantly being annoyed with information about people that they really don’t care about. 


The tax situation here in Macundo was not overly burdensome, since while they had nominal share of social programs, none of them appeared to be the sources of graft and corruption that we are far too willing to put up with; and no one seemed willing to accept the loss of reputation that goes along with 'living on the dole'. This was further aided by the fact that their military budget consisted only of the pay of the officers. With no wars to be fought, the dogs of war did not need to be fed. The defense expenditure in this place included no planes, tanks, ships, long-range guns, or bombs. The lack of what is normally a huge part of a military budget made it a good deal more difficult to stimulate the economy through the purchase of arms (or tack on the graft that always seems to accompany such purchases), but their economy had adjusted to this long ago. It also may have had some impact on the fact that their level of technology was a little behind our own.

War always seems to be a wonderful spur in the development of new technology (at least in our own world), and might the only thing that could hope to justify the murder and devastation that such technology represents is the suffering and misery that is later relieved by it, almost as a careless by-product. The people of Macundo didn’t seem to notice or mind what they were both gaining and missing on either side of this equation, so I guess it didn’t matter in the end. I won’t go into any detail on this, as it would only prove useful to scientists and economists, and neither of them would accept my unprofessional opinions on the subject anyway. If the truth were known, even if I had they recognized my expertise on these subjects, I would probably tell them to pound sand, as I couldn't care less about helping people that tend to bore me to insensibility.


The people here were by and large prosperous, happy, and unusually polite (remember the whole dueling thing). They ate, slept, made love, and raised babies like everyone everywhere else. They got most of their information from newspapers and movie newsreels, for while these two forms of media existed, there was no such thing as television here. This was difficult for me to get used to at first. I don’t much care for the inane situation comedies that network televisions seem to pawn off on the public, and with the way that my life had been going the last few years, the thought of watching what was laughingly called a reality show was not high on my list. I always enjoyed a good movie however, and the convenience of watching them at home on a television was one near and dear to my heart. The greatest benefit to me of the whole concept of satellite or cable television systems was that they allowed me access to more movies, more of the time.

Both the newspapers and the newsreels came in two forms, as they did in our world: those from what are known as legitimate news organizations who tried to tell the truth as much as they could while burdened with editorial and ownership agendas and the pressures that they received from their advertisers; and tabloid organizations who looked for shock value and consumer titillation, while trying not to let the facts get too much in the way too often. The second group had no scruples at all about editorial oversight as long as it sold product and kept them out of the courts, and therefore had a much easier time with their advertisers.

Of course, most of the so-called 'reputable' news organizations of our world have long since abandoned most of the principles that they espouse and adapted those of their more scurrilous cousins, in a final attempt at the survival of an information dinosaur. Somehow lost in the dilemma of whether to be award winning organizations that occasionally make a profit, or profitable organizations that occasionally win awards, they now seem little able to do either well. It's a shame, since though the technology of sharing information is quickly changing, the need for accurate, unbiased information is a never-ending constant. If the trend continues and no new model is found for their return to journalistic integrity, while maintaining at least some level of profitability, I fear the world will be a far more ignorant, and if it's possible, scarier place.


Most of the people I spoke to were looking forward to the next ninety days, not as a momentous point in their history or a glimpse of the glorious potentials of their future; but as some real entertainment in enliven their normally dull lives. There were a few old-timers who remembered the last time that this had happened and how Randall’s group had run its campaign, and thought that if that was to be any judge of the present situation, it promised very interesting times, at least for a brief period.

There seemed to be no overt favoritism for Phillip, in spite of the fact that his father had done well in his reign and had offended no one especially. There also seemed no overt antagonism towards Christy, in spite of the fact that no one particularly liked either him or his father. I heard one comment that Christy had a better chance at running a marathon, than he did at running a country. (That wasn’t the term that he used, as that particular piece of Greek history had never occurred in this world; but the word’s use most easily conveyed the flavor of the event mentioned after I had it explained it to me.) Not that anyone expected that Christy would ever get the chance. Everyone simply assumed that if Christy won, it was more than likely that the ‘old man’ would hold the reigns of the country, as Christy had more than enough work to do just holding up his pants. I even laughingly heard it said that if Christy were made king, at least he might have the funds to pay off his overdue bills.


Fair enough. This was starting to look like world that I was at least going to be able to understand and work with, in spite of the fact that this wasn’t my world, or my normal work. I wasn’t particularly confident of my abilities in this kind of job by any means, but I at least felt like there was a chance that I could do a reasonable job in the position without completely undermining the trust placed in me and the society that I had been dropped into.

Some hours later, cleaned up again from my day's exercise and properly attired in some of my newly acquired finery, I sat quietly in the hallway at the manor entrance awaiting Angela. We had agreed to meet at five o’clock, so as to be able to eat early, then get to a number of places with the prospect of tracking down Christy. I had arrived about fifteen minutes early, as been a habit of mine most of my adult life, and Arturo trotted down the hall to meet me exactly on the hour.

Being on time is something of a compulsion with me, and while I tend to be a little over the top on this behavior (and probably many other things as well) I nevertheless believe that it should be important for more people. I had been operating in a service industry for a number of years, and therefore realized that the time of my clients was precious. Being late would not only be rude, but could have serious financial repercussions for me if a client felt that I had wasted any of the time that I was billing for. I had once read something about Vince Lombardi, a football coach for the Green Bay Packers of the early days of the National Football League literally setting his watch fifteen minutes ahead so as to always be early. Though I hadn’t taken it that far I always made it a point to be early for everything.

It was now almost 5:30, but I knew better than to question the lady’s whereabouts. Women have a different sense of time, especially when they are preparing for an evening. Men can do nothing to affect this mechanism, but can and will drive themselves to distraction if they allow this sense of time to get to them. They can also incur the wrath of the woman in question if they choose to point out any form of tardiness from a woman who is probably already stressed out from her efforts in making sure that that her appearance is perfect. Patience is in fact, the only refuge left to any man who wishes to retain any shred of his own sanity and avoid any bruising (to his ego, if not his body). When she finally did arrive soon after however, her appearance was sufficiently distracting so as to keep me from noticing either the time that she had arrived, or the fact that I had been forced to wait for her.


This was the first time that I had seen Angela in anything other than one of her uniforms, and the difference was both striking and significant. She was wearing a calf-length dress of sea green that set off her skin and hair color in the most startling fashion. Of course the effect might likewise have had something to do with the fact that was deliciously form fitting without being in any way tight. The front of the dress was scalloped rather modestly, but as I was to find out later, the back was cut much more steeply, to about halfway down her back. She was wearing tiny earrings of a matching color and white open toed shoes with a raised heel. The look of astonishment and admiration on my face must have said it all, because I got a big smile as she approached more closely. Arturo’s tail was wagging furiously, his approval as evident as it was silent. I found myself with nothing either gallant or clever to say, so I merely offered the woman my arm and escorted her out the door.

There was a vehicle waiting for us, which was something that I wished I had known was available for my earlier trip (at least the one coming home). Unfortunately I had only discovered the ability to hire such transportation upon my return. The form of this particular type of hired vehicle was, as everything else had been, both familiar and unique. In fact, it resembled nothing more or less than the horsed-drawn London cabs I had seen drawings and pictures of in books of the nineteenth century in our world. A large seating compartment was surrounded with four large wheels which looked like wagon wheels, but had some kind of a cushioned tire attached to a rim. The cabbie appeared to have some kind of steering bar that allowed him to guide the conveyance from a position in the rear.


There was a small but significant difference between the vehicles of my memory and this one however, in that there were no horses and no matter where I looked, I could discover nothing that looked like it would facilitate the locomotion of this conveyance. Shrugging and adding this to the list of things that I was either not able, or perhaps not supposed to understand, I filed the problem away. I contented myself instead with guiding my companion for the evening into the vehicle and getting the two of us settled into the back seat, Arturo appeared quite capable of leaping up into the seat across from us and facing, and quickly settled himself as well.

Where to sir?” came the request through a top trap door.

Since I thought that we had a number of stops to make that evening, I decided trust to local knowledge and to buy myself into the good graces of our driver at the earliest opportunity. “The three of us would like to get a true flavor of the city tonight driver. I would be most grateful for your recommendation on a good place to dine to start with.”

Very good indeed sir! The Main Street Tavern it is,” he replied without hesitation, and set off towards the city.

The trip to the city was only a few minutes (unlike my earlier pedestrian journey) and the road, though unpaved, was in very good condition. Either that, or there was some kind of suspension system of an equally magical nature which kept us riding in comfort. Those few minutes passed in silence as the locomotive method produced no discernible sound, and my normal shyness in the presence of a beautiful woman reasserted itself with a vengeance. Fortunately for all of us, Arturo came to my rescue.


What’s the plan then Sean?” he asked.

I can’t entirely say,” I replied, trying not to appear obvious in looking at Angela’s exposed knees. “I need to understand everything I can about the people here. My earlier visits today were a good start, but I am still woefully in the dark as to who you people are and how things work around here. I know that both of you have been here all of your lives and know these people without thinking about it. Their wants, needs, and preferences might seem like second nature to you, but tonight I'm going to need you to look around you with fresh eyes, and tell me what you see and hear. If I'm going to have any hope of being of assistance, I need to get an idea of what the people care or don’t care about, like or dislike about anything and everything. As I said earlier today, if we get a little lucky, I'm also hoping that we can bump into our prospective opponent and get close enough tonight that we can get a sense of who he is and what he might be up to.”

Whatever he’s up to, I can guarantee you that it has to be no good,” Angela put in.

Probably,” I replied, “but let’s go ahead and see if we can find out whatever we can about whatever it is. At the very least, I would like to get an idea of his attitude and level of confidence about the campaign. I am even thinking that may want to go to the extent of baiting him in some way if we are lucky enough to run into him. For that my dear young lady, you may prove very important to this occasion. The fairer sex has often been known to put a man off of his guard, and have him saying things in public that he normally wouldn’t dare, in order to impress her. Tonight Angela, you look like the kind of a woman that any man would like to impress and I hope to take advantage of that. And while I am on that subject Angela, I must tell you how particularly lovely you look tonight. I had no idea that you looked this good out of uniform.”


I beg your pardon sir!” she said with the color rising to her face and a dark expression on her face. “You have no idea what I look like out of uniform, nor shall you ever! If this kind of behavior is all that I can expect from my escort, I can only image the kind of abuse that I will undoubtedly be forced to suffer from that cretin, Christy”, she said sending what appeared to be a menacing glare in my direction by way of a sidelong glance.

No, no … I mean your dress looks lovely, and those are very becoming shoes,” I stammered in apology.

My mother always told me that it is a good idea to compliment a woman on her shoes. I think is has to do with that whole man/woman/shoe thing that I talked about earlier, but I was floundering in deep waters and I knew it. I was searching desperately for some way to ameliorate the situation when I saw the smile begin to crack her face. She tried to maintain some level of composure, but it was obvious that she was doing all that she could to keep from laughing out loud, and I knew that I had been had again.

Am I that easy a target?” I asked.

Apparently,” she giggled as the cab pulled to a stop.

Arturo was chuckling too, and I and wondered how many times I would manage to commit social suicide in front of this woman before the evening was over. I hopped out of the cab on my side quickly to cover my humiliation, and walked around to the curbside of the vehicle to let Angela down. Arturo followed quickly behind. The cabbie at least, seemed only slightly more successful as he made a valiant attempt to stifle his own humor at the overheard conversation as he leaned over.


Here you are sir, and don’t worry about finding a cab when you’re ready to leave, I’ll be close by and waiting for you,” he said through a hand covered smile. “I haven’t this much fun with a customer in some time, and I’m damned if I will share the experience with another driver.”

Thanks,” I mumbled, grateful at knowing that we were covered for the evening, though I wasn't sure whether I was being complimented or made fun of. It was too late to worry about it though, so I didn’t.

We entered the Main Street Tavern, and I couldn’t help but notice right off that it was a bit more than its name implied. There was indeed a tavern here, and one in the grand tradition of such places. The bar was long enough for a good number of people to belly up to (or to sit at the stools of course), and was all of a highly polished wood that one would expect. In addition to the seats at the bar, there were about twelve tables in this area (some of them booths), all somewhat dimly but not uncomfortably lit. The working area behind the bar was uncluttered and made of the same material as the bar itself, with three levels of shelves containing what had to be this world’s version of distilled spirits. I could see four tap handles for what I assumed were the local brews at a convenient reach. A wine rack was not immediately apparent, but I had a gut feeling that one was around somewhere close by.

There was the traditional etched mirror behind the bar, but there were three additional mirrors at the bar as well, and they were curiously placed. They were above the main mirror and close to the ceiling. As I later discovered in fact, they were placed in such a way and at such an angle so as to allow those sitting at the bar to see up into the tables that were placed behind, and give those at the tables a view of those at the bar or at other tables. I didn’t understand the logic of it at the time, but it was curiously reassuring at first glance. There was a more formal dining room beyond a curtained doorway at the back of the bar, but it appeared to still be in the process of being set up for the evening and none of the tables were occupied yet. While I didn’t walk back for a closer look, I couldn’t help but notice the white cloth tablecloths and napkins; and the arrayed glassware that pointed to a more elaborate eating experience.


Since it was still early, the place was only lightly filled, but something about the general appearance and the unhurried urgency with which the staff conducted themselves left the impression that such was not long to be the case. Angela pointed towards a couple of places at one end of the bar near a corner of the room, and I agreed. Arturo managed to settle into that corner near us without any apparent effort. The lack of comment that came from his entrance in the first place surprised me a little, but different places, different customs and all that. Angela took an empty seat to my right, but I remained standing. There always seemed to me to be something more gentlemanly about standing in the presence of a lady in such situations, but that was not the only reason that I did so. I had discovered years ago that bar stools are the second most uncomfortable pieces of furniture ever invented (coach class airline seats being the first). It doesn’t matter whether they are round or squared off, padded, solid wood or metal. The requisite height of these particular torture devices is such that the stools must be tall enough for one to sit and still enjoy the bar’s use as a table. This means that for most of us (less than eight feet tall) our feet will never reach the floor, a position that leaves you fumbling and helpless in any number of situations (some of which can prove dangerous).

In addition to the height, there is something about the length of the seat that cuts the circulation off to either my butt or my feet after using one for any length of time. The height of the normal bar seems designed so as to allow a bartender to comfortably work on his or her feet behind it, and it always seemed to me that the best way to be served was the same. With a fair amount of experience behind me, I had long ago learned to be more comfortable on my feet than sitting in these devices of subtle and not inconsiderable torture as a consequence. The stools in question were of solid wood, and even had backs to them to lean back upon, but this was of no matter to me. My well-shined shoes would need to carry the load for this part of the evening. On the other hand, one of the most beautiful things in the world is the sight of a woman in a dress sitting on a bar stool. I don’t know what it is, but I know that every man will agree with me on this one. Angela, dressed as she was, was capable of playing her part in this to perfection.


Angela quickly introduced me to our bartender Milton, which made it evident she had been here before and caused me some unreasonable, though probably unwarranted pangs of jealousy where he was concerned. He asked if we would like to see menus while taking our drink orders, and I continued to let Angela provide expert guidance here as I had last evening. I also kept silent when she said that we would prefer wait to look at a menu, and requested seating in one of the booths in a little bit. Milton took care to see that it was reserved for us as he went about taking care of the drinks. When they arrived shortly, I couldn’t help but notice immediately that there were none of those paper umbrella drinks for this girl. Angela had ordered both of us a whiskey (I guess that the term is universal). Hers was served with ice and a splash of water, mine with just the splash. When they arrived, I presented a toast.

To fighting the good fight,” I proposed. “And better still, to winning.”

She smiled and repeated it, and for just that moment all was right with the world. I was both pleased and surprised at both the fact that she knew what kind of drink that I would like and how I would like it served. I was even more pleased when I had had a chance to taste it. It reminded me of some the better single malt whiskeys that I had sampled in the past. I had acquired over the years, as well some education in wine, a taste for some of the better whiskeys of the world. (Isn’t continuing education a beautiful thing?) There were a number of single malt Scotches that had drawn my attention and affection over time, but I was even more fond of the Irish whiskeys. I don’t know if the fact that both cultures were Celtic in origin had anything to do with their ability to produce this nectar, or that my own genealogy gave me a predisposition for it. I only know that when such a thing was done properly, it was ambrosia.


This is wonderful!” I admitted to her and Milton gladly. “If this is any indication of the food, this should be a memorable evening. You know, where I come from, there is an old Irish toast that says that ‘God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from conquering the world’. I have any idea whether the saying had any truth to it or not, but to my knowledge, they hadn’t yet.”

This was in fact, a true statement. While the Irish are known as one of the more bellicose and belligerent races of the world, they have never attempted to conquer other lands. True, they have fought as paid soldiers in many wars, and unpaid patriots in many others; for themselves they have never sought anything but the freedom to govern themselves and their tiny island. What that had to do with the present situation, I had no idea. I threw it in because it sounded poetic and lyrical, and whiskey always made me feel that way. I think that it has something to do with the Irish temperament. I must admit that I also did it because I was was once again trying to impress the lady. Seeing the smile that remark had gotten from her, it was possible that I might succeed in doing so some day.

Thank you,” came her smiling reply, and going back to the first part of my statement. “I think that you will find the food here to be exceptional as well, but let’s remember that there is business that must be dealt with at hand.”

Of course,” I said. “But I see no reason in the world not to enjoy the journey, as well as the destination.”


Just her hint of a warning put enough of a damper on the moment to cause us to finish our drinks in something close to silence. The normal clatter of plates and glassware that make up the background noises of such an establishment filled in for the lack of conversation, and it gave me a chance to sit back (figuratively, of course) and soak up the atmosphere of the place. As it had more than once since my arrival, the thought ‘comfortable’ came to mind, and I wondered if this had something to do with what I could only call the “magic that was part of this world”, or if these people understood something about manipulating their surroundings that most of the rest of us weren't aware of. I was reminded of similar places that I had run into in my travels and to which I returned whenever I could. In parts of the United States that I had been fortunate to visit, and in a few places around the world (and in other worlds) that I found in some of my other travels, there were always those places that I just felt welcomed me. None of them looked the same, or served the same kind of food, so the reasons for this were always indefinable to me; but I knew it when I felt it, and I felt it here. Lost for the moment in some of the memories of those times and travels, I almost missed that a hostess had appeared at our elbow to guide us to the reserved booth. We found ourselves again in a corner, and this time Arturo quickly settled just next to the booth and leaned against a convenient wall.

I would love to be able to regale you with a detailed account of the food we ate, but the meal itself was a blur to me. I had let Angela continue to guide the entire experience, which is unusual for me. Taking the lead in this type of situation is something of a tradition with me and something that I in fact truly enjoyed. It can also be useful in impressing one's dining companion, and that misguided thought had not escaped me. Though the menu was in something that resembled English enough that I could easily read it (not completely a surprise, as the number of parallels between worlds had already struck me), it might as well have been in Greek (which I cannot read, and thank you for asking). I recognized neither the names of the foods, nor the way that in which they were prepared.


As for Angela, she appeared not only comfortable with this situation, but seemed to take the lead with a subtlety and easy grace that I found remarkable. Clearly in command of the situation, she nevertheless managed to protect the fragile male ego of her dining companion, looking up for my approval (as if I could have argued with either her knowledge of the situation or her beauty) as she confidently chose an appetizer, soup, and entree for each of us. No wasted time grazing on a salad for this girl, though I noticed a number of such dishes on the menu. She dealt with the wine list with similar confidence, and asked that it be served with the appetizer.

I can’t begin to begin to describe the flavors enjoyed during that meal. I could spend a great deal of time waxing poetically over the subtle differences between their food and ours, and some of you might even be fascinated. I fear however, that most of you would prefer that I go on with the story, so I will let at go at this. The appetizer was mildly spicy dumpling-like affair, which was very light. The soup reminded me of some of the finest bisque that I had ever sampled, but again there was a subtle and indescribable difference. The entree was a meat dish that had just hint of a ‘gamy’ flavor that was interesting rather than strange, and a marvelous texture that I just can’t describe. The wine that she had chosen managed to compliment each dish without overpowering any of their respective flavors. There, that wasn't too bad was it?

It was all entirely marvelous and I sampled each of these dishes, but finished none in its entirety. For me, meals eaten in such an atmosphere are usually a compliment to the company that I'm keeping and the company here was already overwhelming my senses. I think that this type of occurrence is typical of the first meal that you have with someone that you think that you would like to get know better. There is a early level of intimacy to such a shared experience that is meant to be savored, and I couldn’t help but take full advantage of it.


It’s funny how relationships often go through three distinct levels, all of which can and usually do involve food. The first is that initial meeting, with a shared drink and maybe something to nibble on. This is the time where you find out if you are attracted to a person. Visually attracted initially, because you have nothing else to base it on, but everything has to start somewhere. Conversation follows, and a common ground is established. Some kind of connection is established, and a need or desire to find out more about that person is arrived at.

The second involves a shared meal in an equally public place. This not only provides the opportunity to explore the previously established attraction, but to do it a non-threatening and public atmosphere. It is in this step that additional common ground is hopefully discovered, and a mutual desire to continue to explore the relationship is reached. During either one of these first two steps, either party can back away from the situation with no loss of face or sense of rejection.

If both of these stages are successfully completed though, the third step can take place. That traditionally involves the preparation of a meal at one of the participants dwelling. This is a much more intimate situation, with a lot more on the line for each. For the visitor, it is a surrendering of some control of the situation. You are giving away both neutral ground and a potential home field advantage, and both know that by doing so you are showing a certain level of trust in your companion. On the other hand, it is without a doubt an opportunity to learn a great deal about the person hosting you. What do they like and dislike? What surroundings make them comfortable?


The peril and reward are equally there for the host. While the home field advantage certainly bolsters confidence, it carries a higher risk of rejection. What if the person entering your space doesn’t like what they see? What if the things that make you comfortable make them uncomfortable? What if the things the make your house a home repel them? Since there is a higher burden in being a host, there is certainly a concern that some part of the experience might fail to come off properly as well. It takes a great deal of bravery to make this step on either party’s part, but this increase in the level of intimacy is a necessary component of any ongoing relationship. That this third step will eventually have to happen twice, once at each participant’s dwelling place is a given, but the second part of this stage won’t happen if the first doesn’t come off well. That this is the nature of true intimacy in a relationship is undeniable. That such intimacy is the ultimate experience is unchallenged. That it sometimes manages to occur successfully is both astonishing and wonderful.

Some or all of this may have passed through my mind during dinner, but if it did, I was unaware of it. I was focused on the moment, the person herself, and on the things that Angela was telling me, attempting to file all of it away for later revisiting. The next thing that I was aware of was when the dinner plates were being cleared and I suddenly became conscious again of the room and the situation around me. I say suddenly, because I was jarred out of my light-headed reverie, by that familiar kick in the shins that Angela seemed to have come to employ to gain my attention. (At least this time she hit the other leg.)

What did I do?” I blundered out, completely disconcerted. “Did I burp after dinner? Am I supposed to?”


No silly,” she replied with a movement of her head. “Look over there.”

There was towards the front door. Three people had just entered, and by the size of the first one coming through this entrance, this could be none other than Christy. He was truly enormous in proportion, especially when taken in comparison to his sire. Christy was only about 5’10” tall, but he looked larger. It had to be what I guessed to be the over 350 pounds that he carried on that frame. His eyes were in shadow in the moderately lit room, but appeared tiny, overwhelmed by a ponderous brow ridge above and full puffy cheeks below. A complexion that even in this light looked like it had never gotten enough sun was framed by greasy black hair that was desperately in need of something (if not a trimming, an oil change).

There was nothing to notice about the two gentlemen (I use the term loosely) who entered with him. Exhibiting a practiced invisibility, they were nondescript in height and weight, sharing only what could be considered be a general feeling of menace in their demeanor. I saw Christy’s eyes lock for just the briefest instant with Angela’s, and the hint of a smile crossed his face. It was not a nice smile. He leaned towards the hostess briefly, and I saw her pale slightly and nod quickly. The next thing I knew, she had moved in our direction and had leaned over a couple that had just been seated at a table against the wall near us with a whisper and an apologetic tone. The couples glanced towards the door and nodded, stood stiffly, and were escorted to the formal dining room. The table they left behind was cleared and reset quickly, and Christy and his companions were seated there.


Neither Angela nor I had moved or even blinked while all of this was taking place, and I was torn between the need that I had to learn something of this character and his plans, and an overwhelming sense of dread that was gathering inside of me along with the accompanying urge to flee. For some reason, it was that moment that Angela took to grasp my hand on the table. I don’t know if the gesture was made as a sign of reassurance or a request for protection, but whatever it was it steadied me just enough. I put a smile on my face that I hoped was both brave and gallant (but knew was the same vacant one that a village idiot wore when on duty), and gave Angela’s hand a hint of a squeeze back to let her know that I understood (though what I thought I understood could have easily been called into question).

As all of this was running through my head at a mile a minute as I sat there. At my feet, I thought that I heard a low buzzing. It was Arturo, his hackles up, and a low steady growl coming from him. I had never seen anything like this behavior from him before, as he seemed the friendliest of animals; but I took it as a good judgment of the character of the men now close to us. Christy’s group moved across the room as if they owned it, and the three seated themselves at the table with him sitting with his back to the wall (much as I was) and the others in a flanking position. Our direct sight of each other was therefore blocked by one of his companions.

I gave the man at least one point for taking this defensive position automatically. My father always taught me to sit with my back to the wall, so that they couldn’t sneak up behind you. You may call it silly if you will, but Abraham Lincoln and Wild Bill Hickock sure aren’t laughing.

Looking up, I discovered that I could see Christy by looking into the mirrors at the top of the bar, and suddenly understood their positioning. I knew that such precise placement couldn’t have been accidental and wondered at the reasoning behind it; but not for long, as the game was on. The waitress brought them a bottle of what appeared to be a sparkling wine without being asked, and one of the companions offered a toast as soon as it had been served.


To King Christy, and the beginning of the best of times!” he boomed out loud enough for most of the room to hear, and sounding as if the entire thing were entirely rehearsed.

Now, now,” Christy chuckled, still loudly, but his tone taking the conversation level down at least one notch. “While I certainly appreciate the sentiment expressed, we have yet to even begin the process of campaigning here, let alone hold an election and declare a winner. Let us make it instead to Macundo. May the kingdom get the ruler that it truly deserves.”

Here, here!” they chimed in.

I noticed that a few other glasses were raised around the room at the sound of the toast, and as I nodded, Angela and I raised ours as well. It was a brazen bit of acting on his part, but that had always been a legitimate part of the political process, so who was I to argue. I found that with that toast we had finished the last of our bottle of wine. I asked Angela if she would like another, or something else.

Make it something stronger,” she said in a low voice with an edge to it. “I think I’m going to need it to get the bad taste out of my mouth before this night is over.”

The waitress was just then at our heels, having just served Christy and his party, and the half-smile on her face led me to believe that she had just heard the comment that Angela had made. She had her back to them however, and was able to cover this bit of indiscretion on her part quite well. After going through some possibilities with her, I decided at least to restrict the type as well as the number of poisons that we were ingesting for the evening, and had her bring us two more whiskeys, this time with large glasses of water on the side for each of us. (I needed to find a way to attempt to keep some kind of level head in this situation.)


This is an amazing place,” I said to Angela to try and take control of the conversation. “The food and the wine were exquisite, and the company, of course, is beyond perfection. Thank you Angela, for inviting me out this evening.”

Angela was too cool a customer to be taken by surprise by such a remark of course, and joined in the game immediately.

You’re quite welcome,” she replied with a smile and another slight squeeze of my hand. “It’s a real pleasure to be able to be out in public with a real man. Many of the ones around here are either poor imitations, or frightened little boys.”

Oh you can believe it,” she said, continuing down the path that she had chosen. “And there’s no telling where they will come from. Some are simply a type of leech, who never having known dignity or honor, have some excuse for their inability to exhibit any. Others attempt to hang on the coattails of what they consider to be a great man and derive what sustenance they can from such greatness real or imagined, but a few unfortunately seem to come from our finest families and have no excuse at all. The only way to truly know who and what they are is to identify them by the company that they keep. The worst in any society always seem to find each other.”


I thought that one or both of Christy’s companions was going to rise to the bait, and I even think that they were rising from their respective chairs. Christy would have none of it however, sensing that an incident in which he, but not his cousin was involved would not bode well for the kickoff of the campaign. He quickly grabbed the wrists within reach of each of his companions, and seemed to be holding them in place by sheer force of will. Silence had descended on the room, as those around us waited to see what became of a war of words that was heating up nicely. I was about to make some inane remark to Angela to break the silence surrounding us, when a rather forced laughter began again at the next table and interrupted me.

I hear that Phillip has brought in some kind of foreigner to run his campaign,” one of the companions remarked through what seemed like teeth that were almost gritted in pain. “Do you think it was a lack of intelligence in picking his friends and supporters that led him to such a bizarre decision, or was it that he just couldn’t trust any of them? I’ll admit that I always thought that Phillip would at least make a reasonable run for the job, even it he didn’t want it. I didn’t expect him to throw the campaign before it even got started though. Now I have to wonder if your victory won’t only be a foregone conclusion, but a landslide Christy?”

I don’t think that we can jump to any conclusions gentlemen,” the other said, and again I couldn’t help but feel that there was a script here that was being followed. “We know a great deal about most of Phillip’s companions, and the foolishness and weaknesses that they have shown over the years. We know nothing at all about this new person, whoever it is. Perhaps Phillip has shown his first bit of cleverness in going outside his normal circle. That's not for me to say. And while Phillip’s sentiments on assuming the throne have always been well known, it's always possible that things have changed. We must not and will not jump to conclusions. We will not underestimate our competition, nor overestimate our own abilities. The race goes not merely to the swift or the strong, but just as often to the clever. I am supremely confident that our strategy and the people who are guiding it will be successful; and I will not permit any assumption or miscalculation to stand in the way of that victory.”


I could see pupils of Christy’s eyes in the mirror above, and they were locked on me the entire time to read my reaction. I don’t count myself among the best poker players in the world, but I am at least good enough not to give that easy a ‘tell’ to an opponent on the opening hand. It appeared that I too was to be weighed and tested at this meeting. The contest had begun in earnest, and my mind began racing with the possibilities of the situation. Without even realizing how or why, I came to a snap decision and made my move.

I clutched at Angela’s hand. “Am I hearing this right?” I asked almost quietly, though certainly loud enough to be overheard and slumping in my chair as the question passed my lips and just the drinks arrived. “Great. This is just great. You better bring me another kind lady,” I said, signaling to the waitress before she could get away from the table, “and make the next one a double. I have a feeling that I am going to need it.”

Sean,” Angela said with a small look of genuine fear in her eyes as she squeezed my hand again. “There’s a lot that you still don’t know about this situation. There’s a lot that needs to be discussed, and certainly this isn't the time or place to do so. Please Sean, please be careful tonight.”

Too damn right, there’s a lot I don’t know,” I replied, raising my volume of my voice slightly without raising my eyes from my glass. “But that would be pretty easy, considering that I know absolutely nothing about what goes on around here!” And with that I lifted and poured down my drink in one long smooth swallow and a bit of a shudder. “Maybe if anyone had told me anything at all about what was really going on here at the start, I wouldn’t have gotten involved at all,” I continued, and as I set the first drink down. The second drink, having only now arrived, replaced it in my hand. I managed to get some part of it down fumbling, but spilled most of the rest as I set the glass back down.


Damn,” I remarked trying to mop up the mess before it got on my clothes with Angela’s help. “That’s a terrible waste of good whiskey.”

Angela looked a little bit at a loss with my apparent clumsiness, consternation, and currently disheveled state; but it was obvious that she was getting embarrassed and angry at my behavior nonetheless. She signaled for the check as I continued to mop at the table feebly with my napkin. “Perhaps its time we started getting back, she said.”

Yep,” I said, seeming to find that my words were slurred just a bit. “That’s where I’m going ... back.” With that, I slid out of the booth rather clumsily. “And though I don’t know where it is or how to get there from here, I am reasonably sure that I can't get there fast enough.”

With this remark, Angela looked even more hurt and angry as she too slid from the booth and the two of us got to our feet, but I couldn’t care. I was leaning on her a bit as we moved towards the door, but it seemed necessary to the moment (and I must admit that it was not an entirely unpleasant experience from my perspective). There was a general expression of shock and embarrassment all around us as I made my way with a slight stagger towards the entrance, occasionally glancing off of some of the other patrons and excusing myself as we made our way. We were about halfway to the door when I heard the remark from the table behind.

Thank God for you and your family Christy,” I heard from one of his companions, his voiced raised above the laughter that had obviously come from some previous remark. “Otherwise, I swear that those people would let the country go to the dogs.”


Shut up, you incompetent fool!” I could hear Christy shout, with a sudden and very real anger as he silenced his companion again with a vice-like grip on his arm. “Have I surrounded myself with no better than the drunks and fools Phillip has?”

Both of us heard it, though neither of us had reacted, nor turned at the remark as we continued forward. The front door was wide open, but I bounced against the frame as we exited, leaning against it briefly for whatever support it might provide. Angela sighed, continued through, and signaled our cab waiting across the street. It was quickly pulled around, and the driver had hopped down to pull the door open as we made our way towards it. I was pushed in rather brusquely I must say, and settled into the seat quietly as Arturo leaped up into the cab, his hackles still up and a low steady growl coming from his throat. Angela settled in last (hardly gentlemanly behavior on my part I know, but …) and dropped into her seat with a thump that indicated her current mood. Her posture and demeanor left little of her feelings to the imagination.

Where to Madame?” The cabbie asked, obviously assessing that control of the current situation had shifted.

Madame indeed,” I interrupted. “Sir, you will find us a suitable place for a night cap, and be quick about it.”

Sean,” Angela replied, with the anger and bitterness dripping from her tone. “Don’t you think that you have had just about enough for one evening?”


Nonsense,” I said taking her hand, and slowly beginning to smile. “I have not killed nearly enough brain cells for one evening. The night is young, the company agreeable, and the city awaits.” I straightened up in the seat completely now, and straightened out the remaining wrinkles form my rumpled appearance as well. “Come on now, you didn’t actually buy into that rather sad little performance that I made back there, did you?”

She leaned back and looked more closely at me now, and I saw a break in the storm that had settled on her features as quickly as it had appeared in the restaurant. “Of course not!” she said blushing. “You weren’t drunk at all!”

Can you say 'out of uniform'?” I asked, with a evil gleam in my eye, remembering my own earlier embarrassment when arriving at the restaurant. “No dear lady, I was not. As you have rightly determined, the entire thing was strictly a show for our friends. I saw no real reason back there to miss an opportunity to let our competition think poorly of me. In such underestimations are the seeds of victory sown.” I looked a little sternly at her now. “There are a few questions that we will need to answer with a great deal more information, but that’s for tomorrow. Tonight we met the enemy, and have drawn first blood from him whether he knows it or not. We are now free of that responsibility, and I’m going to enjoy what’s left of the evening with a beautiful lady and a faithful companion. With a little luck we might even manage to find the kind of a place where one could enjoy this perfect evening, what passes for a cigar in these parts, and another of those good whiskeys to replace the one so terribly wasted just a moment ago.”

I know just the place!” Arturo chimed in, his smile also returned and his tail wagging furiously. “Oh man, this is really going to be fun!”