Comeuppance

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Josh sipped his coffee and tried to calm down, squinting behind his sunglasses at the hotel towers looming across the street.  Despite the shade, beads of sweat clung to his temples.  His pits felt damp, his socks soggy.  It was October for God’s sake, what business did Florida have being so hot?  His skin might blend in with the Latin people around him, but the heat affected him in ways which they seemed capable of ignoring.  He was like the hotel, sticking out among the surrounding cookie-cutter businesses like a peacock among grackles.

The Grand Coral Hotel had been dying a slow death by neglect.  The previous owner bought the hotel on a whim after staying there a single night.  People speculated on what Octavio Romas’ absentee ownership would do to the once proud Grand Coral.  Unfortunately, what appeared to be the eccentricities of a wealthy European were actually the beginnings of a long slide into madness.  Now the headlines shouted his name.  He strangled his wife, forty years his junior, leaving her in a coma.  Depending on the day he was asked, Romas either said she was the Devil, God, or a lizard that looked human but wasn’t.  The OaR Corporation had already taken control of all of Romas’ accounts and business interests.

With the fights between Romas’ lawyers and the OaR Corporation all over the news, it felt like God was sanctioning Josh’s plans for revenge.  Avery popped up to claim the Grand Coral, and Josh found him.

Avery had probably been in shadows for a while, helping OaR with its plans for a coup.  Since Romas started crashing race cars on his private track, maybe, or after he accused an American action star of fondling him at a Paris premiere.  Certainly since he ripped a bolted seat from its base and tossed it out the open door of his private plane.  Avery announced that it was time to “develop” the Grand Coral, and his relationship with OaR finally became public.  .

In preparation for his trip, Josh had read everything he could find on the Grand Coral.  Internet searches.  Chapters in Great Hotels of the 20th Century, Haunted Florida, and a long out-of-print Unique Places to Stay in Florida (“Standing alone on the tawny beaches of Florida’s Atlantic coast, the Grand Coral is a hidden treasure well worth the drive… lush landscape architecture designed by George Henry Keen, a much-respected colleague of Frederick Law Olmsted… the rock coral edifice is reminiscent of a medieval cathedral, with a courtyard and a pool standing in for the great hall and a restaurant behind the rose window… the rooms atop the Coral’s twin towers command sweeping views on all sides, with creature comforts fit for royalty…”).  The Coral had stood for a hundred years, seen hurricanes and fires, watched the manmade gardens and native vegetation plowed under as commercial development turned the hotel from a lone figure into part of a skyline, but it looked like the modern corporation might finally kill her.  If OaR couldn’t leverage profit out of it, it might as well not exist.  History didn’t matter to a guy like Avery.  Why refurbish and preserve something unique for less money when you could knock it down and build it bigger, newer, and generic for more?

Part of Josh wondered if money was the whole reason.  People fear history.  Looking at the Coral, he couldn’t help but think of all the secrets it held.  Even if the secrets are banal – nose picking, ordering porn on the TV, stealing towels – they’re still secrets, and they’re guarded jealously.  If the secrets are large, if the person you just checked in with isn’t your spouse, despite your wedding ring… if you’re looking at the café across the road through a rifle sight, the trigger in one hand and your penis in the other, dry-firing the rifle as your hand fills with semen… if you’ve found a manuscript with the author who slit her wrists in room 240, and you read the note she left and crumple it and put it in your pocket, and the manuscript becomes yours and you’ll never wear a uniform again… well, if you have those kinds of secrets, then standing next to a place like the Grand Coral doesn’t humble you with the sweep of history and your insignificance in it, the way standing before any edifice like it should.  You’re confronted with yourself, with the secrets you don’t want to face.  The wide doorways are an open mouth, a confession, and they must be silenced.

Arnold Avery had those kinds of secrets, and Josh knew all about them.  Well, one of them anyway.  The one involving his father.

Josh paid his tab and moved across the street.  The sun pounded his face and shoulders as he stood on the sidewalk, looking at a sign taped inside the plate glass window.  It wasn’t soaped over or covered in heavy paper, just dark and empty.  Inside, Josh saw ripped-out electric fixtures and broken tile floors.  The corpse of a building, a vandalized shell, nothing more.

The sign was a public notice.  The citizens of Hollywood, Florida, were trying to get the Grand Coral declared a historic landmark.  Going against them, they had the OaR Corporation and its attendant fleet of lawyers.  Trying to arbitrate the dispute was the firm of Avery and Associates.

Looking at that name, Josh’s peripheral vision darkened like he was looking through a telescope.  On and off for sixteen years, starting in high school, moving through both colleges he’d never graduated from and the four long-time girlfriends he’d never married and the jobs he’d never enjoyed, Avery had always been there.  A sometime hobby, a sometime obsession.

In many ways, Avery had stopped being a man years ago.  He’d become a symbol for everything that had ever gone wrong for Josh and his family.

And it was time to put it right.

 

 

The lobby was small; a low coffee table, a potted plant, two chairs, a door to the inner offices, and a frosted glass window.  Avery & Associates rented space in a commercial complex with dozens of other businesses, locals next to branch offices of national companies like Intel and Comcast.  Easy to rent, easy to dump.  Not like the office Avery had been building with Josh’s father in upstate New York.  Things there had permanence.  Down here, if a hurricane blew your office out, you just rented a different space.  Josh thought there was a metaphor in there somewhere.  His father, solid, like the brick and oak used to build.  Arnold Avery, volatile and dangerous, like the hurricane that tore things down.

Josh wore the one suit he owned, a black three piece he’d bought at Men’s Warehouse for weddings and funerals.  Despite feeling like he was in costume, he sat completely still.  Some people, the more nervous they got, the more they moved.  Josh grew more settled.  He’d wanted and worked for this moment for too long to blow it now.

Avery’s secretary had to call him a second time before he responded.  He stood, smiled, reached for his folder, and tried to look like a man ready to do some business.

The secretary led him through a cubicled hell.  Looking at the suits manning and womanning the phones, chatting each other up over mugs of coffee, Josh felt a bit of life sucked out of him.  Of course, if they saw some choice customer calling Josh a stupid, useless, apron-wearing asshole before dumping hot cappuccino on him because the foam was too airy, the office folk would probably question his career choices, too.

He tried to imagine working here, leaning against his neighbor’s desk, sipping coffee, shooting the shit.  With the right boss he guessed it could be a sweet deal.  He hoped Avery was a better boss than he was a business partner.

The secretary brought him to the only area with ceiling to floor walls, an office and a conference room side by side.  The secretary wished him luck and indicated the office door.  He stepped through and saw Avery sitting at his desk, making a few notes.  Avery stood to greet him.  Avery, tall, weathered, slim, coming around the desk, looking sharp in an olive suit and a blue shirt without a tie, extending a hand, smiling, salt and pepper hair gleaming, teeth bright and even, shoes polished, Avery with his shoulders squared off, his nails manicured and his palms calloused, Arnold Avery at last.

“Mr. Dobbs?”

The moment Josh knocked Avery’s hand aside, slammed a fist into his face, grabbed him by the collar and threw him across the desk felt so real that he couldn’t respond.  He wondered if any of it showed on his face.  Avery’s smile never faltered so Josh thought he must be okay.

            Probably just thinks I’m nervous, Josh told himself.

            He’d be right, his mind whispered back.

“Yes.”

“Arnold Avery.”

They clasped hands and Josh found himself in the middle of a bizarre pissing contest.  Josh gave his usual polite, firm grip and prepared to let go, but Avery held firm.  He didn’t pump his hand up and down, he just squeezed, his hard, grey eyes locked on Josh’s.  His grip went from pleasant to crushing in almost no time.  Josh was forced to squeeze back or have his hand turned into mash.  What the hell was going on?  This was how this guy actually conducted his business?  Josh squinted into Avery eyes, trying to find some measure of him.  Avery’s smile hardened into a slanted grin.  He seemed to take Josh’s expression as a wince of pain.

Avery was wrong.  From when he was thirteen until he left the reservation for college, Josh used to punch trees.  He wasn’t sure why he did this.  Sometimes the run of his thoughts simply spiraled up and up until his head could no longer contain them.  They traveled to his fists and he starting punching.  He liked trees because they were rough and hard.  They listened to his curses without judgment and they were always ready for another round, even after Josh’s knuckles were bloody and swollen, the skin hanging in shreds.  Josh wasn’t sure what he found soothing or enjoyable about these sessions but they were much more satisfying than beating a pillow with a wiffle ball bat, like his counselor had suggested, or playing football, like his father had suggested, or getting into fights with people, like their stupidity had demanded.  It had been years since he’d done anything like that but the memory remained in his flesh.  The motivations for Avery’s grip were much more interesting to Josh than any pain.

Still, Avery’s slate eyes shone with satisfaction as he released Josh’s hand.  The whole thing had lasted maybe six seconds.  Now that it was over, Josh shook his head a little.  It was so bizarre he wanted to laugh.  He also wanted to channel his emotions through his hands again, pummeling Arnold Avery until his face and Josh’s knuckles were the same bloody mess.

“Excuse me,” Josh said, coughing into his hand.

“No problem, Mr. Dobbs.”

“Josh, please.  If we’re going into business together, it should be on a first name basis.”

“Well, that remains to be seen.”  Avery smiled but his eyes remained stone.

            A lot remains to be seen, Josh thought.  But he nodded slightly, conceding Avery’s point.  There was a silence which Josh hoped Avery found awkward.  He stared into Avery’s eyes.  Avery had crushing handshakes, Josh had his stare.

Looking at Avery’s eyes, the color of stone, and Josh’s eyes, the color of strong coffee, a casual observer may have thought Josh had no chance.  But the stoic stare has been handed down over generations of Indians.  Slavery forged the stare.  War deepened it, marches and massacres honed it.  The stare was hardened by bureaucracy and boarding schools, then weathered by poverty, suicide, alcoholism, abuse, loss, and finally set by a feeling of invisibility.  Josh’s family had nothing of the old ways left but they had given him the stare.  After Avery’s bizarre hand-crushing trick, Josh felt justified turning it on.  He thought about what this man had done to his father and made his face a mask.  Despite being at least twenty years older, successful, and powerful, Avery faltered.

“Can I get you anything, Josh?”  He leaned forward, finger poised over the intercom.

“You can get me my father’s money.”

Avery heard the change in Josh’s voice.  He pulled away from the intercom, eased back into his chair, folded his hands over his flat stomach.  His voice was soft.  “And who’s your father, Josh?”

“My name’s not Dobbs.  A little white lie.”  Not so subtly, Josh emphasized the word white.  “My name, my father’s name, is Tormont.”

Josh hadn’t expected it to go this way.  He wanted to put Avery at ease, come at him sideways.  Trouble was, he had no idea how to talk around the lump in his throat, to look past the rage thundering behind his eyes.  He had no head for intrigue.  He could only attack this head on.

Avery’s eyes clouded as he considered Josh’s words.  The name meant nothing to him.  Josh’s father had spent his life building up a retirement fund, then he’d quit his job and sunk it into a business partnership with Arnold Avery.  Avery had stolen Josh parents’ retirement, forced them to start from scratch without hope of getting ahead before they grew too old to stop working, and the name Tormont meant nothing to him.

In that instant of confusion, Avery came closest to being beaten quite badly.  Josh wouldn’t even have felt guilty.  Avery wasn’t some soft pencil pusher.  He looked like the type of guy who got up before sunrise to jog for miles before he started work, who spent time at his various construction sites not just barking orders but rolling up his sleeves, the type of guy who built his own additions, fixed his own roof, worked on his own car.  He had enough money not to do any of these things but he did them all and more because he had to use his hands or go crazy.

Josh empathized, only he didn’t want to be constructive.

Realization crept into Avery’s face.  His brows twitched as he considered Josh again.  Josh followed Avery’s gaze and saw that his knuckles were white, his hands clamped to the arms of his chair.  He breathed deeply and loosened his grip.  Josh realized if he’d had to tell Avery who his father was, he may have used the chair to underline his words.  He had expected to be angry, but not out of control.  He had to get a grip.

“I’m sorry,” Avery said, “I deal with so many people every week.  Hell, every day.”

Avery paused, waiting for Josh to give some sign that he sympathized or understood.  He continued when he realized Josh would give him nothing to make this easier.

“Tormont…”  He frowned, made a show if rubbing his lips with the palm of his hand.  “Tormont… I’m sorry, Josh.  I just don’t recognize the name.”

            Josh.  Avery had used his first name three times and they’d known each other maybe a minute and a half.  Josh hated that How To Succeed, Tony Robbins bullshit.  It was why he hated watching celebrity interviews; “Jennifer, what’s in the future for you and Justin?”  “Well, Matt, I’m glad you asked.”  Not to mention the fact that Avery was lying.  Josh had watched him grope his memory, seen the moment of recognition.  So he wanted Josh’s take on what had happened with his father all those years ago, he wanted to hear the story instead of owing up to it.  Josh decided on silence, his most comfortable state.  He looked at Avery for several moments and let his expression speak for him, let Avery know he didn’t believe him for a second.

Avery weighed his options.  Then he glanced at his watch.  “Look, Josh, this is all very amusing but I’m a very busy man-”

“Busy knocking down landmarks.  Busy putting luxury condos on history.”  It felt a little rehearsed to Josh – and it should’ve; he’d practiced it enough in his mind – but Avery’s lips pressed together, taking the blood out of them.

“I’m assuming you have a point coming here.  You have a minute to make it, then you’re leaving.”

            You gonna make me? Josh thought.  Aloud, he said that Avery knew his father.

“If you say so.”  Avery seemed to be enjoying himself.

            I want you to say it. But Avery wouldn’t.  So far, he hadn’t admitted anything.  Josh had no proof, nothing on paper.  Avery’s name didn’t appear on any document he’d left behind, and the company’s name was A&T.  If it had happened in the days of cellphones and email there’d be a trail, but Josh didn’t even have a business card with bogus contact information, not so much as a photo.  All he had was in this office, what happened with Avery now.

“You… are… lying.”  He laid each word precisely across Avery’s desk, keeping his voice calm and soft.  “I watched your face.  You sat there and went through a mental list of the people you’ve fucked over.  You realized you knew a Tormont.  You knew him well.  Think real hard.  Arnold.”

Avery held up one hand, palm toward Josh.  “I’m sorry, Josh.  I’m trying to see where this situation calls for profanity.”

Blood rose to Josh’s cheeks.  An automatic apology came to his lips and he bit it back.  He wasn’t here to play games.  “Put yourself in my place, Avery.  You’d see all kinds of profanity.”

“I’m sorry, your time is up.”

Josh hadn’t apologized, and so had given Avery permission to end the meeting.  The older man gathered up papers, dropping his gaze.

“Please show yourself out.”

Josh leaned back in his chair.  He laced his fingers together and rested them on his stomach, as Avery had done earlier.  He watched Avery open the top drawer of his desk, shake out a pair of reading glasses, and put them on.  Avery leaned over his papers and apparently lost himself.  Josh saw a coffee mug on Avery’s desk, huge and white, Avery & Associates written in blue, a wooden inbox overflowing with papers, a granite slab of ashtray.  Avery’s name plate said he was the CEO.  Between the ashtray and the nameplate, a glass lighter shaped like a Model-A Ford.  The fluid inside reminded Josh of those bottles of men’s cologne they used to make that were shaped like different cars and animals.  His father used to collect them.  Not anymore.  They sat on shelves covered in dust and cobwebs.

“Confession is good for the soul, Avery.”

“Please leave or I’ll call security.”

“Something on your mind, Avery?”

“Right.”  He reached out and pressed the intercom without looking up.  “Alison?  Get security in here to escort Mr. Dobbs to his car.”

“It’s not Dobbs, remember?”  Avery didn’t take the bait, so Josh kept talking.  “You have a speech coming up, right?  Community progress, job creation, all of that.”

“Shh, I’m trying to concentrate on this.”

“Ever get nervous in front of crowd?  Maybe slip and say the wrong thing?”

Avery held a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture.

The intercom beeped.

“Mr. Avery?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry, but Owen doesn’t answer.”

Anger made Avery’s lips disappear a second time.  “Keep trying.  He’s probably in the lavatory.”

Josh smiled.  Like so many apartment complexes and office parks around Miami, security here consisted of one lonely guy, old and doughy, riding around in a golf cart.  He could have been twin to the cart cop at the Oasis, Avery’s condo.  The guy couldn’t force Josh to leave, and Avery knew it.  Josh could wreak a lot of havoc before the police ever arrived.  And what would they do?  Josh would be gone, and all they had was his false name and the name of a business he had no connection with.  Avery couldn’t sic the cops on him without admitting he knew who Josh was.  The more he thought about it, the better it sounded.

Of course, no one but he and Avery knew he hadn’t come in and simply spilled his guts, so Avery could make up any story he liked.  But Josh didn’t want to think about it too much, and he was done talking about it.  He just wanted some vulnerability from Avery, a moment of panic, a shocked look, the realization that his actions had consequences.

He looked at the ashtray, the lighter, and at Avery’s face.  He thought of the Swiss Army Knife he kept clipped to his belt.

“Confession, Avery, is good for the soul.”

Avery sighed and finally looked up.  He pulled his half-glasses off and pointed them at Josh, something Josh had never seen outside of a movie.  “Listen to me very carefully, young man.  Whatever it is you hope to get out of coming here, let it go.  You’ve got nothing coming.”

“You’ll confess, Avery.  You’ll confess everything.”  Josh kept his voice calm, his words measured.  “But not now.  When I say.”

Josh rose with real violence in his eyes.  This time, he did nothing to hide it.  Avery saw it, and Josh saw the realization on the older man’s face, the realization that he couldn’t escape his past.

Josh unclipped the knife from his belt.

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