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The Other Coast isn’t a restaurant to be seen at. It’s a restaurant to be glimpsed at. Patrons want their names in the mix of the “connected,” but it’s certainly bad business to show off how you’re connected. Names just swirl together until a chain of them links together the people who want a certain thing with the people who can provide a certain thing. And it’s a rare thing that those two links in the chain are ever directly connected. I’d been to the Other Coast before, but sitting down with Senator Forsythe and his people is what called for the high road celebration and the stolen sedan.
After Walt parked us in the underground garage, alongside a dozen other nondescript dark sedans, he stood by while I checked my suit in the window’s reflection. The well-tailored lines spoke of more money than I had in my accounts. A doorman stood discreetly by the entrance, pretending we were invisible until we crossed some imaginary line of his area of responsibility. Then he swept the door aside with a crisp, “Good evening, Mr. Cooper.”
I returned a polite nod as I walked by and into the foyer, where the exhaust and oil smell of the garage was already gone. A second door man opened the inner door, just as the previous door slipped shut with the slightest thump. With a deferential smile, the other doorman motioned me towards the thin, black podium where the hostess stood ready. “Good evening, Mr. Cooper. A meeting this evening?”
“Yes. A private room.” The restaurant was constructed around privacy and patrons were carefully corralled by crisply dressed doormen and formal, yet understated reception areas. Other than a single barroom, there were no public spaces to mingle. It defeated the purpose.
“Of course, Mr. Cooper. Let me just make sure that everything is ready for you.” There was no doubt that everything was ready for me, just the same way there was no doubt about who I was there to meet. The senator’s people arranged everything with the restaurant, and the hostess was merely allowing the slate on the podium time to pull up the biometric information on Walt and me. “Ahh, and there we are. It seems the other members of your party have already arrived. Just follow Chloe, if you would please.”
Chloe appeared through the frosted glass doors that led deeper into the restaurant the moment the hostess had finished speaking. Over the four years since my first visit, the nameless hostess had remained the same. And, for an equal length of time, the role of Chloe was always played by a new woman. In fact, I would be the only person she would escort to a dining room for the entire night and, presumably, ever.
A local executive I met at the restaurant claimed that management hired one girl per expected guest each night. She assumed the girls were flown in from elsewhere, dosed with modified serotonin compounds, and paid exceedingly well for a night of permanently hazy phantom memories. I maintained a doubtful stance at the time, believing such efforts to be prohibitively expensive. But I also believed that I had seen all there was to see of the Other Coast. Looking back to a time when I swelled with greed, I realize now that I had no inkling of the levels of wealth and excess that were truly possible in America.
Chloe led us down the hallway along a carpet of crimson and gold. Wooden doors interrupted the cream colored walls at intervals. Pausing at one of them, there was only a moment’s pause as she waited for the click of the locks to be triggered remotely from elsewhere in the restaurant. With a broad smile, she swung the door into the private dining room. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Cooper.”
The senator held court in a smaller sitting room to the side of the dining room. He stood, glass in hand, surrounded by four other men in suits. Beyond him, a Secret Service agent lurked by the door used by the waitstaff. I noted Walt settling into a similar posture by the door we came in through as I walked toward the Senator and his entourage. Dominic smiled and raised a glass in my direction, “And here he is now, senator.”
As I stepped into the circle, the senator reached out his hand and we exchanged a solid grip. “Dom’s told me a great deal about you, Mr. Cooper.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, senator, but I’m sure Dom’s done no such thing.” I kept a playful smile on my face and watched the faces of the other three suits, and Dom’s as well, fall in shock. “But, I promise, it’s for the best.”
The suits looked to the senator for their cues. The senator’s pale blue eyes spent a minute searching my face, his jaw stayed rigid. The ice in his glass shifted with a tiny clinking sound. Then his handshake hand came back up, hard, and clapped my shoulder. Then, with a firm hold, he gave a slight shake. His chuckle restored the sycophant grins to the other suits after a slight pause. “True enough, Mr. Cooper. In fact, I was just threatening Dom with some genuinely terrible prospects if he didn’t start filling me in some. Isn’t that right?”
“You’re too much, Jack.” Dom gave a polite laugh. But I saw the anxiety on his face dissolved into relief now that I was the new object under scrutiny. And Dom, the Rockville Rat, was on a first name basis with the senator; I saw that, too. It was quite the surprise. I knew I’d have to reevaluate my opinion of the small-time hustler when I was done here. Seeing him quickly edged out of the circle as I joined, however, reestablished the foundations of my opinion of Dom.
“Mr. Cooper, this is one of my advisors, Chao.” The broad-faced Chinese man offered up a handshake similar to his boss’ firm grip but said nothing. “And this is Mr. Card.”
Another handshake, bony and trying too hard, came from the lean, balding suit. He had brown eyes that darted not so much over me, as over my suit. He wore high end data-specs with a light blue tint to them, and he dipped his head a little to make sure I could see he was getting feeds even though he was meeting with a senator. I had his number before he opened his mouth. “Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
“Nope.” I let it hang in the air like a challenge. I knew exactly who he was. I wasn’t about to walk into a meet like this and not have an inkling of who the senator was working with. But this guy could get his ego stroked elsewhere. A smile might have played across Jack’s lips at that point. He wasn’t the kind of guy to miss much.
“And this is a business associate.” He indicated the last suit, a much older man who gave a double-handed shake, like he was confiding something and trusting you with it. Jack didn’t give him a name. He didn’t offer it. He remained the business associate. Apparently, a lot of senators have them.
“A pleasure, gentlemen.” I nodded my head towards the senator and his advisor, then separately to the business associate. I gently pivoted on one heel to put Card in the same neglected quadrant as Dom. “And I apologize, senator, for having you at such a disadvantage. Although there’s not much of me out there, you are certainly not concealed from the public eye.”
“Life of public office, Mr. Cooper. Always in the limelight.” He took a hearty tug off his drink and motioned at the close space of the sitting room. “Except when I choose not to be, I suppose.”
A waitress opened the door near the Secret Service agent. He remained stock still as she carried her small silver tray over. She exchanged one glass on the tray for the one that was nearly finished in the senator’s hand, offered a glass of red wine to the business associate, and something layered to Card. Chao had a glass of wine, as well, but he never drank from it. And Dom had apparently reached his one drink limit, and she deftly plucked his glass of melted ice without providing a replacement. She proffered a stylized mason jar, “And a house whiskey for you, Mr. Cooper.”
“Thank you, dear.” The odor was sharp, but inviting. Jack eyed me with an inquisitive look, but it was Card who couldn’t resist.
“Apparently, it’s true. You can take the man out of the substreets, but—”
“But you should never take a boy outside the Beltway,” I finished. I raised the jar. “To progress, gentlemen.”
“Progress and profit,” the business associate seconded.
“Cheers, gentlemen.” The senator already seemed pleased as we toasted.
Card was the last to chime in but it was only overshadowed by Dom’s uncertainty of what to do without a drink in his hand. He settled on taking an interest in the crystal chandelier above the dining room table.
“I have to ask, Mr. Cooper, is that,” Card indicated Walt, “going to loom over us during our meal?”
“Walter can await my return at the car if he frightens you.” I turned my back toward Card and nodded to Walt. “I feel perfectly safe here. Thank you, Walter.”
As Walt let himself out, a feigned an apologetic tone. “Very sorry, senator. As the astute Mr. Card noticed, my substreet upbringing can sometimes get the best of me.”
“It’s a shame what happens to them. I have to say, it genuinely hurts me inside to know what’s become of our boys overseas. But they can rest assured –and you go ahead and tell your boy Walt this– we’re doing everything we can to develop an effective battery of treatments so we can bring ‘em all home.” The senator waved a dismissive hand. “And his secret’s safe here. I think it’s a testament to his love of his country that he found a way back. And, frankly, I know keeping him like you do isn’t cheap. You’re a patriot to me, Cooper!”
He clapped my shoulder again and I started to grind my teeth behind my tight smile. Then I remembered that this was all part of the climb, and Walt wanted to be a part of it, too. The business associate cleared his throat, and once he started talking, I picked up on the oil country accent. “If you don’t mind me sayin’, you let your security man leave you here pretty easily.”
“Well, sir, I’ve learned that if powerful men want to hurt you, there’s not much you can do to keep that from happening. It will just turn into a matter of time.” I indicated the agent in the corner. “The Secret Service puts the best in the world around our leaders. I’m not going to squander Walt on a fight he can’t win.”
“So you give up easy, huh?” Card was smirking into his drink.
“No, I just have to retain my value. Or, failing that, I have to carry a cost.” I sipped at my own drink, savoring that burn down my throat that exploded in my stomach.
“How so?” The business associate leaned closer.
“Well, I’d like to think I have value to the senator. But I also think he doesn’t care about me enough to need to rid me of my security and do something unpleasant, let alone do it in person. I hope I’m right, sir.” I looked at Jack who wore a thoughtful look and twirled his finger, encouraging me to continue. “Mr. Card, though. He’s the one who wanted me to get rid of Walt. And I don’t have any value to you, do I?”
A smug look crossed his face as he saw the opportunity to parrot my tone from earlier. “Nope.”
“That’s why I also come with a cost. If Mr. Card gets any untoward ideas in his head and he acts on them, he feels safe in the knowledge that the Secret Service agent will take care of him. And, I’m sure, rightfully so.” If it was true, the agent gave no outward indication when I glanced his way. “Instead, I need Mr. Card to know what it will cost him, if he acts out of line.”
“Interesting, Cooper,” quipped Jack, his voice shifting towards doubt. “But, Mr. Card has worked with me a great deal in the past. He’s been paid well. Cost is much less of a concern for him than I think you believe it is.”
“Of course, he’s well paid, sir. That’s the very reason I’m here, in fact.” I spared him a quick smile. “No, I’m talking about a personal cost. Walt’s not going to wait in the parking lot for me. I’m taking a hired cab home this evening. Walt should already be on his way to the Columbia Enclave. He’s a bit of a lead foot, so he may already be on foot in full tactical mode by the time we finish our discussion.”
I watched Card’s eyes narrow slightly. He tapped at the sensors on his data-specs. He was probably trying to get a view of the parking garage, but there was no way he had easy access to the Other Coast’s security data.
“The personal cost to Mr. Card, would be Carol, along with little June and April.” His mouth worked, open but without any words yet. “Go ahead and bring up your home feeds, but you might want to turn them off before things get serious.”
“Fucker!” He lunged at me and his one hand flailed over my arm, knocking my drink to the floor. My sleeve got soaked as I brought my other hand up to shield my head from another wild blow.
Then the agent was there. The concrete gray of his jacket sleeve wrapped under Card’s neck faster than I could see. The blue data-specs fell to the floor while his face ran a deepening spectrum of red. I looked at my damp sleeve with mock surprise before turning to the stony-faced senator. “That’s what I would do, anyway. If I thought Mr. Card had any reason to want to do me harm, I mean. But we’re all civilized men, here, talking hypothetically before we talk real world business. Preparing for the worst case doesn’t mean those are at all the sorts of things I expect from our upcoming endeavors. There’s little money in violence, senator, that’s why I’m here.”
Card was choked unconscious before he could hear me making my point out loud.
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