Momma said a woman had a right to get ahead. I agreed. After all, it’s the Nineties and a hardworking woman deserves recognition. Momma became an executive in the hospitality industry, she worked hard and traveled all over the country. I was amazed at her work ethic and the way she provided for me after daddy died in a hunting accident when I was just two years old. Now I had graduated college with a business major and looked for a job, any job, as long as the entry level might lead somewhere. When Momma’s friend Izzy found what looked like a good opportunity for me in a Washington, D.C. business, I jumped at it and got the job. They said I would start at the bottom but could move up quickly if I paid attention and worked hard.
Nesborn and Associates was in the entertainment and hospitality industry and my job would be in the front office on the 12th Floor. Izzy said the customers would like me there because I was “smart and perky and had that golden blonde thing going on.” I just smiled. Momma had taught me to be careful. She said I had to be “nice but guarded” as an attractive young woman.
Lucky for me, it turned out that Nesborn’s corporate headquarters were at 17th & K Street NW in the main part of DC’s business district. Our Cleveland Park condominium was just minutes away by subway or cab. The Nesborn office was all men, big guys, all of them in their thirties or more. They were always dressed to the nines, fresh in well-pressed double- breasted suits and monogramed shirts with cufflinks. Several even had rings with jewels on their little fingers. They were very polite, and I felt cared for and safe. It was a little corny, but soon my unofficial office name was “Doll.” I asked Momma about it and she said that name meant they liked me. That was fine by me.
Mr. Nesborn’s office was way in back, well decorated with low light except for little spotlights trained on some oil paintings. I had only been in there a few times, like when he welcomed me to the company. He was genuinely nice, a pleasant, quiet man in a carefully tailored suit with well-styled hair and a pencil mustache. Whenever I saw Mr. Nesborn, he spoke in a whisper and held a cat that wore an expensive looking jeweled collar. They called the cat Alan Dulles, and I got the sense that his name was part of some old joke that nobody had let me in on.
From my first day at the office, all the men told me what a great guy Momma’s friend Izzy was, and how nice it was to have me there. I think they were afraid of Izzy, but I didn’t know why. In any event, the job was a synch. All I had to do in the job was greet visitors, call back to Mr. Nesborn’s assistant Mo, or to Charlie if Mo was out, and give the name of the person or persons. If the visitors had to wait, I could offer them coffee or take their coats. Thing is, nobody ever wanted coffee and they never left their coats or bags. They never had time to. I took that in stride and got my day-to-day direction from Mo. He also became my buddy and confidant. Mo shared with me that Mr. Nesborn lived in a Chevy Chase mansion surrounded by a tall iron fence with a gatehouse. His driver, a really big man named Ivan, brought Mr. Nesborn and Alan Dulles to work in a large car. Ivan’s identical twin brother Boris worked at the mansion gatehouse and had to approve each visitor from a list before they could enter the property, which Mo called a “compound.”
Mr. Nesborn saw dozens of people a day, sometimes individually and sometimes in a group. When the people from the political campaigns for one side came by, I heard that Mr. Nesborn wrote them a big check, and when the people from the other side came by, I heard that he wrote them a big check too. Mo said this was because Nesborn and Associates supported everybody and wanted to get along with whoever won. That is the only time I ever heard anything about what happened in those meetings—and then it was because word had come down that they wanted this explanation to be publicized.
No matter who the visitor was, they always went in with Mo and Charlie and sometimes others too, and they were always out quick. Some people came out looking happy or at least okay, but some came out looking worried. Two or three times a week people needed Joe and Charlie’s help to make it to the front door. A few times, they needed to call a cab and help the visitor downstairs to get in.
I’d been at Nesborn & Associates for a little over three months when my job took a couple of odd turns. One evening I got back to our place to find a telegram from Las Vegas telling me that Momma and Izzy had eloped! Most people couldn’t have imagined that. They would say, like, isn’t it supposed to be the other way around where it’s the kid that elopes? But with my momma, I had come to expect the unexpected. She was what you would call a force of nature. So, I took her in stride and took my new stepfather the same way. What I didn’t expect was the dozen red roses and box of candy waiting for me on my desk the next morning with best wishes from Nesborn & Associates to a “treasured new family member.” And what followed the next day was even more unexpected.
I’d been doing my normal routine all day, meeting and greeting, making friendly small talk and trying not to notice them watching me walk as I led them back to Mo and Charlie. It was a quiet day, and no one had come out looking sad or needing help—which I liked. Then at five o’clock that evening, Mo and Charlie came out together. Charlie locked the front double doors and engaged the deadbolts into the floor and ceiling for both doors and Mo walked over to my desk.
“Something has come up, so please follow me back. We need to have a word with Mr. Nesborn.” Mo spoke in his ever-friendly manner. I followed he and Charlie in towards Mr. Nesborn’s office. We sat down in elegant overstuffed leather chairs facing Mr. Nesborn’s huge desk. Mr. Nesborn was nowhere to be seen but once we sat, he seemed to appear from nowhere, holding his cat close to him and scratching the base of its ears. He sat down and faced us.
“We have an associate visiting from New York, a Mr. Brown, and the woman who normally meets people like him was called out of town.” Mr. Nesborn spoke so quietly you’d think he was whispering. “My associates and I would just like you to meet him at The Grandmasters’ Star over on M Street in Georgetown around 8:00 pm this evening. Just be pleasant and have a drink. No fuss, no muss. Think you can do that?”
“I think I can.” I said reflexively. But could I? What would momma think?
“Any questions?” Mr. Nesborn smiled as he reached over and placed Alan Dulles on the desk and adjusted the cat’s jeweled collar.
“Is there anything special I need to know or do?” I was instantly appalled at myself for the question. “I mean the Grandmasters’ Star is one of the most exclusive—”
“Don’t you worry about a thing.” Mr. Nesborn interrupted. “They know us very well there, and Mo has it all set up. You won’t even have to sign a tab. Plus, we want to give you one of our special Nesborn document bags to carry things so that if the man leaves you with anything, you can carry it. And we also want you to have some walking around cash for your trouble.”
Mo reached to the side of his chair and picked up a big bag with strong handles a gold zipper on the top. It was a shiny black and they told me it was alligator skin. As I watched, Mo unzipped the bags compartment and I gasped as he pulled out a stack of bills held by a thick rubber band. He handed them to me. They looked to all be twenties.
“I don’t know what to say.” I began. “You are really, really—”
“Mo will give you the rest of the details.” Mr. Nesborn stood there, petting Alan Dulles. “Everything okay?”
“You’re very generous.” I said.
“Not at all.” Mr. Nesborn smiled and winked as he stood up. “Trust me, it’s all about the business and you will certainly earn your keep by sharing your lovely self with this fortunate visitor.”
Everyone smiled. The deal was on. Mr. Nesborn went back behind his big chair and seemed to disappear into the wall.
Mo went over the plan for the evening again but really didn’t add anything. He said I was to meet Mr. Brown for a social drink at the Grandmasters’ Star, and he showed me a photo of the man. I told Mo I could do this, though Mr. Brown looked to me more like the actor Sylvester Stallone if he had stayed in bed for a year and snarfed down spaghetti and meatballs three times a day. At least I could outrun Mr. Brown if he got fresh. Sensing my discomfort, Mo leaned over to me as we were walking back to the front office and he whispered “don’t worry Doll. Mr. Brown and his people know that if he laid a finger on you, we would cut that finger off and make him eat it, and then his real pain would begin!”
I nodded calmly, but these words did not inspire confidence. What kind of man was Mr. Brown? For that matter, what kind of man was Mo for saying what he had just said? What had I gotten myself into?
I splurged to take a cab home from work that night. As I rode home, I had a gnawing fear that somebody bad was about to happen. Sure, I was told I didn’t have to do anything improper. Once I got home, I was shocked when I counted the twenty-dollar bills inside the rubber band. They had given me ten thousand dollars! What would I do to earn that much? This was the real world, located on a real place called Earth, a place where there are no free lunches—or dinners. What would I do to earn mine?
I tried to shrug it off. I had rarely gone to clubs let alone to a private club like the Grandmasters’ Star. I only knew about it through an article about Old Georgetown that I read in high school. It was built as a private mansion in the Nineteenth Century in the shape of Solomon’s Seal by an eccentric robber baron. The man dabbled in the occult and was a friend of Albert Pike, the guy Pike’s Peak was named for. The article said that during the Great Depression the family lost its fortune, and the mansion was turned into a private club called the Grandmasters’ Star. Now I was to see the inside of this club.
I was concerned about awaited me that evening but in the end my ambition won out over fear. I took a cab to Georgetown and at 8:00 o’clock and I grabbed my new Nesborn briefcase and passed under the wrought iron arch onto the Club’s grounds. I was checked in and cleared at the gatehouse. Walking past flickering gas torches and up a few steps into the Grandmasters’ Star.
I wore a special dress that momma surprised me with at graduation, one with a black sheen that fit me perfectly and highlighted my blond hair. The man I met, the Mr. Smith from New York, lived up to his photograph. He was gross, well-dressed but bulging out. Plus, he had thick black hair and an oily kind of look. The parade of nasties that was Mr. Brown also came with a rank-smelling cologne, something like straw mixed with manure and glazed sugar which I instantly dubbed Odore de Donkey’ Hee Haw. Just the same, I gave him my most friendly smile and grasped his bloated paw to shake.
The Grandmasters’ Star itself was lovely. We sat at a nice, secluded table; in fact all the tables were in secluded, darkened alcoves. We had our drink and talked about a whole lot of nothing. I didn’t know what he expected, and I didn’t care. This man had the intellect and charisma of a gerbil except he was even less because at least gerbils were cute. Mr. Brown was not cute. So, all in all, I was biding my time to make for the exit. But then it happened. The feared thing, the expected unexpected ten-thousand-dollar-earning-thing, that is what happened.
At “The Star”, as it was called, they didn’t have wall pay phones and followed a quaint custom where diners were reached, if at all, by rotary telephones rolled on a cart to the table. I didn’t know this until a young man in a red porter’s jacket wearing an old-fashioned red flat cap rolled the cart to my table and told me I had a call from a “Mr. Mo.” I held up a finger to dear Mr. Brown, letting him know his enchanting story about his New York City bowling club would have to be paused. I leaned over to the rotary phone, picked the receiver up off the cradle and punched the blinking button.
“Something came up, Doll.” Mo Whispered. “Keep smiling and don’t let on. Okay?”
“You don’t say!” I held up the finger again and smiled at Brown as though letting him in on a joke.
“Do as I say.” More whispering. “Our people saw Brown’s picture and know him from someplace else and there is a debt to pay. You got to get Brown out of there and tell him you’re bringing him back to Nesborn Headquarters to meet with senior management. Okay?
“Will that party know what the trip is for?” More smiles to Brown. He sat impassively with his dead fish stare, lower lip drooping to make a blubbery purple Vee.
“He’ll go, Doll. It’s business. He knows why he’s here, why you are there, and he’ll go. Just tell him what I said, and whatever happens, keep your cool.” The line went dead.
Keep my cool? What cool? Where was that cool I was to keep? I felt like that blonde on “I Love Lucy” would feel after three cups of expresso. Nonetheless I could see only one course of action to take. So, I sat back up, leaned over to Brown, and affected a friendly, confidential, and frank manner.
“That was the main office, Mr. Brown.” I smiled mysteriously and winked as I tossed back a platinum strand. “You apparently have impressed the right people and we have been summoned back to my headquarters. I suggest we get a cab.”
“Check!” Brown blurted like a croaking toad as he cranked up his right arm from the elbow to summon the waitress.
“We got you covered big fella.” I winked again and stood, quickly grasping that no more need be said. After Brown made a bathroom stop, we left.
We walked out the front door, and across cobbled steps lit by burning torches, and through the wrought iron gate onto M Street. I no sooner held up my hand when a large black Chevy Suburban with darkened side and back windows appeared. It stopped abruptly in front of us, and a uniformed driver jumped out and came around to open the side door and pointed to Brown. He indicated that I should enter on the other side.
As I walked around the back of the van, everything went into a fugue state that I remember like something in a dream. With dizzying speed, Brown stooped over to get in the back seat and when he did the driver leaned closed and I saw a flash and heard a crackle that I later learned was the sound of a taser. Hands from another person quickly helped the driver push Brown inside the Suburban. I heard electronic locks click shut and noticed a black shade was drawn down in back of the driver’s row. Then I head and electronic buzzing sound in the vehicle.
“I need to borrow that, young lady.” The driver pointed to my new alligator leather bag.
“The bag, please.” He took it from me. “Just get in the vehicle behind you and wait with them.” I turned to see a second black Chevy Suburban pull up with Mo and Charley in the front seat. They were wearing chauffeur uniforms and hats. I was part confused, part terrified, hoped there was no taser waiting with Mo for me.
“You’re doing great, Doll.” Mo said as I opened the back door. “Jump in the third row back there and hold on a second.”
“Why not the sec—”
“We got a little trip to make here. By putting you back there and by virtue of our chauffeur’s licenses–which are very real–if we were stopped by the police for any reason you would still be my passenger in a commercial vehicle for hire. No matter what, they couldn’t search your briefcase. Capiche?”
“Going back to the third row.” I laughed, but I gathered this was no laughing matter. Moments later, the driver from the first Suburban ran back and knocked on the window.
“You left your bag, mam.” He spoke politely through the backdoor window and handed me the bag. As we drove away, I realized there was something inside.
I recalled Mr. Nesborn saying that they gave me the bag just in case Mr. Brown left something with me. I unzipped the case and found that Mr. Brown had indeed left me something. He left his head! Still dull but now bodiless, the lifeless eyes looked up at me.
The Suburban drove North up Wisconsin Avenue then right onto R Street and passed the big mansion where the Washington Post owner Kaye Graham lived. We pulled into the driveway of another mansion further east and followed it up to and passed the big house to a big, well-lit garage with open front doors. As we pulled in, I noticed that the windows were completely covered with black fabric and board. The big doors shut behind us. We came to a stop beside a large dark blue Lincoln Town Car with two men waiting in the front seat, one young man in a driver’s uniform with a cap and the other somewhat older man in a nice dark suit.
The man in the driver’s uniform came back and took the black bag from me, and the well-dressed man got into the back seat of the Lincoln. The driver put the bag in a metal box inside the Town Car’s trunk, locked it, then got into the car as the doors opened and quickly drove out. As the two left, I heard the Chevy Suburban’s car phone rang. Mo talked with the caller for a second, then leaned back to hand me the headset, saying “somebody important wants to talk to you.”
With trepidation I took the handset and held it up to me ear.
“Is this Momma’s girl?” The voice said.
“Momma!” I was stunned. “How did you know to—”
“I’m having a lovely time out here in Vegas.” She said. “Izzy and I are visiting some old friends in the casino industry.”
“Mamma, did you know that—”
“A little surprised but we had some business that Izzy and I thought you were grown up enough to help with. From what I heard you have been a quick study, young lady.”
“Momma did you . . . how did you know where to call me?”
I heard laughter over the telephone, then seconds past as I waited for her answer. “Welcome to adulthood my dear. I knew where to call you because Izzy Nesborn gave his brother a cat named Alan Dulles and that cat lets us in on everything. Isn’t he the cutest? The little microphone in his collar helps everyone with their job back home and we listened into your meeting this morning.”
“Oh, my God.” My head spun.
“You just helped us deliver justice to the monster who murdered your father. Mr. Brown will be waiting in our competitor’s pillow tomorrow morning to deliver our message in person. I call that life’s poetry and I call that justice. Like I’ve always said, a woman has a right—”
“To get ahead.” I finished her sentence. “But Mama, there’s just one thing.”
“What is it, honey?” She asked quietly.
“When you said a woman had a right to get ahead, I thought you meant two words—not three!”