Grantville, Thanksgiving, 1634
Estil Congden flicked an imaginary piece of lint off the sleeve of his white dinner jacket and looked around the room. Business was good tonight. The place was full, but still spacious. The customers were well-dressed and the women’s jewelry glittered in the soft lighting. Ah. There. One of the wait staff’s shoes weren’t polished. Estil headed toward him . . .
There was a loud clack of balls and a shout of, “Ou eee, Dog, you just hit hard and hope, don’t you? Talk about getting lucky. Shee-it.”
“Estil, get your head out of the clouds and get me a beer.”
Oh, hell, Estil thought. Back to the real world.
Month after month, year after year, Estil’s mind listened to the murmur of the background conversation and the soft clatter of carefully controlled billiard balls.
The fantasy, though, was a private matter. Estil never talked about it. His sincere belief was that if you talked about something you wanted to do, someone would either make fun of you, make fun of the fantasy, treat you like dirt to drag you down, or otherwise screw with your life.
They always did. Mom had. Dad, such as he was, had. And that damned Odetta, well, she’d run off to Magdeburg. But it didn’t matter. He’d never told her anything, anyway.
When someone asked about his aspirations in life, and insisted on getting an answer, Estil would say, “My goal in life is to be shot by the jealous husband of a young wife when I’m sixty five.” And that was all the answer he would ever give. Because he knew if he ever so much as shared his dream with anyone, it would be lost as a dream. It would become an ambition or—worse—a goal.
A customer leaned up against the bar, “Estil, shot of whiskey, make it a double, and this time make sure the glass is clean.”
Estil grabbed a shot glass from under the bar and made a production of holding it up to the light then polishing it with the bar rag.
“Shit, Estil, just give me the damned whiskey.”
Estil knew that if he ever talked about the dream, he’d be laughed at. If he talked about it, it would become an unobtainable heartbreak instead of a refuge from reality. Estil had enough unrewarded genius, enough unrequited loves, enough unfulfilled great expectations to last two lifetimes, if not three. Estil’s poetry, outside of the one poem picked up in a contest collection when he was a sophomore, could not find a market. His chosen profession, poet, was closed. The love of his life went off to college and married someone else. He never did win the lottery.
“Estil, ‘you know who’ wants a brandy,” the waitress said, setting her tray on the bar. One man in the whole clan of Club 250 regulars drank brandy. Ken kept some cheap stuff in stock for that one customer and the rare occasion someone else might ask for it.
Estil dreamed of brandy. Not the cheap stuff. The real thing. An aged, mellow, deep-amber liquid, in a real snifter. Not, alas, brandy as a pair of jugs, half exposed to the world by a push-up bra, in a Daisy Mae tied up over a sprayed on pair of hot pants.
“Estil,” Ken said, “quit your daydreaming and help clear the tables.”
Estil knew it never would—never could—happen in Grantville, back then or now, even if there was still a lottery. You could build it but they would not come. New York no longer existed. Estil’s dream of being the owner and occasional, casual bartender of an up-scale classy cocktail lounge was safe. He had never once shared it with anyone. The closest he came was the time he got caught reading his second hand copy of a bartender’s bible. It told how to make any drink ever conceived of, from a simple classic fifty/fifty Martini to a Rusty Nail or a Hairy Navel. He read every page and remembered every step of every drink, especially those which had ingredients he had never even heard of, much less seen.
Someone once saw him reading it and asked, “What in the world are you reading that thing for?”
He answered, “I’m a bartender. I should know these things.”
“Est, all you need to know; is whether the beer is cold and whether the shot glass is clean.”
“And if someone asks for a Manhattan ?”
“It ain’t goin’ to happen.”
“Yeah, well maybe I’ll go to New York and open a place of my own.”
“When hell freezes over, Est.”
In the real world Estil got promoted from bus boy, to waiter, to bartender, and—eventually—to bum. Now, magically, another brave new world was here. It was three hundred years older and three hundred years uglier. Estil wanted nothing to do with it.
When Odetta dumped him he was demoted from bum back to bartender. The number of patrons in Club 250 was shrinking. Some were in the army, others were working out of town. So his hours were getting cut. As things got worse, Estil had more time to dream.
On the day after Thanksgiving, in the year of Our Lord 1634, Lyndon Johnson showed up at the bar in Club 250.
“Estil, how would you like a short term job?”
“There’s been a request from Magdeburg. Someone with more money than sense saw one too many movies while staying at the Higgins Hotel when they were in town. They want to throw an American party and need a cocktail expert.”
“I can’t do something like that.”
“Sure you can. You do a good job organizing wedding receptions. I know you do; I was the best man at two of them. If you can do that, you can run a cocktail party. And, I happen to know you enjoy doing it. You still have that copy of the Bartender’s Bible, don’t you? Well, make sure you pack it. Look at it this way, you get an all expense-paid trip to Magdeburg, a basic stipend and tips while the government loans out your services.”
“I don’t want to go out of town. Besides, I’d have to miss work.”
“Hey, It’s just Magdeburg. That’s just a train ride away. And Ken said it would be all right with him if you missed a few days, as slow as things are.
“And,” Lyndon repeated the important point, “it really will pay well.”
Estil hesitated, “I’d rather not.”
“Estil, think about it. It’s a good paying gig, doing something I know you enjoy doing. Besides, Ken says you’re free so you’ve got the time off work. Why not do it?”
“Are you sure Ken said it was okay?”
“I really don’t want to leave town.” Estil hesitated again.
“Hey, it’s just to Magdeburg and just for a little bit. One party. How long could that take? And it pays well.”
Estil hesitated a third time. “Well, I could use the money.”
Lyndon jumped on it. “Good! Then it’s settled. I’ll pick you up in the morning at eight to get you to the train station on time.”
The ever-louder, early-morning rapping on the door of the cramped little ancient camper he rented from Ken was followed by a long, slow train ride to Magdeburg to report to Herr von Something-or-other.
By and by, Estil read the words Community Relations on the door. Inside he was greeted with one word by the mandatory “up-and-coming bright young man” behind the desk. “Yes?” The tone unmistakably said, “Why are you bothering me? You are in the wrong place. Go away.”
“Shit,” Estil said under his breath. He really did not want to deal with a bright young man, especially one with attitude. “My name is Estil Congden. I’m looking for—”
The bright young man’s demeanor changed like an avalanche. He was out of his seat, with a handshake ready on his right side, and a suitcase grab ready on his left. “Mr. Congden, do please come in. My name is Victor Hermann. Here, let me take that. Would you like to sit down? Can I get you a cup of coffee? Or would you prefer a nip of brandy to ward off the cold? Forgive me for not recognizing you. You are not quite—” He glanced at Estil’s threadbare jeans and worn field jacket. “—what I was expecting.”
“Yeah, you were expecting a tuxedo. It’s in the suitcase.” Before Estil dropped out of high school rather than repeat his senior year due to the suspension arising from the senior prank, the tuxedo was already purchased. His mother had asked him what he would like as a graduation present. He announced he wanted to go to the prom in a tuxedo he owned. He figured he would need one to attend publishing banquets and award ceremonies someday, so he might as well own one. He wore it to work the bar at weddings over the years. He was a bit vain about it still fitting. “It doesn’t travel well, so it gets carried instead of worn.”
“Oh, certainly, of course,” Victor agreed.
The bright young man wanted something. Estil saw no reason to be diplomatic about it, and it certainly seemed that this particular kid was pretty good with English and hillbillies, so he said, “Okay, kid. What do you want?”
“Well, Count von Leiningen-Westerburg has requested an expert on the twentieth-century custom of a cocktail party. His new wife wants to hold one and it seems the count is willing to give her anything she wants.”
“That is all very interesting, but it ain’t what I meant. Cut the bullshit. What do you want? Not your boss, not some damn uppity muck. What do you want?”
“Well—” Victor could not quite get it out. “That is I was hoping . . . . Oh, never mind. Please have a seat.”
Estil stood there with his arms folded over his chest. His body language clearly saying, “We are not going to get anything else done until this is taken care of.”
In the end, the young bureaucrat spat it out. “Sir, I was hoping . . . ” After one last false start, Victor finally said, “Ah . . . do you think you might be able to get me an invitation to the party?”
Estil’s face cracked. Having leverage was not something he was used to. The smile in his voice echoed the smile on his face. “Kid, if I’ve got the power to hand out invitations, then you’re in.”
Victor’s boss, Herr von Whatever, was less impressed. “Victor, take Herr Congdon down to the tailors. They are expecting him.”
After Victor translated, Estil asked, “A tailor? What for?”
“Some new clothes, of course.”
“I don’t need new clothes.”
Herr von Something-or-other looked Estil down and up then sneered. “Yes, you do,” Victor translated.
“I can’t pay for a dammed tailor.”
“It’s covered. His Majesty’s government’s expert on up-time culture must look the part to be taken seriously. I do not wish to deal with the embarrassment. So you will be provided with a new wardrobe. You can pick your old one up on your way home.”
Estil was picked up by a coach and six, trimmed in genuine gold leaf, the buttons on the coats of the coachman and footmen and the metal work on the harness were made of silver. The taste, bouquet and texture of the brandy waiting in the carriage said Napoleon, which it could not be for obvious reasons. It had been aged well past five years. A distilled wine must be aged two years to be brandy, and three years to be special and over five to be very special old pale. V.S.O.P. was not something Estil bought with his pocket change, other than in his dreams.
Estil’s first glance identified Countess von Leiningen-Westerburg as a trophy wife. It seemed a crying shame for such a beautiful young girl to be married to such a dried-up old man. There was the better part of a half century separating their ages. The count did not have time to stay past the briefest of introductions. Estil was left alone with the countess and several servants.
“Mr. Congden, so good of you to come.”
Estil could see her taking his measure, even with his surprise at her English skills. I’m a bit older than she pictured, but I look younger than I am. I’m dressed the part to a tee. I’m tall, slim, (at this he smiled) dark-haired, and handsome.
“Watch it boy,” his id told his ego, “you’re getting plenty cocky. Your mother always said, ‘pride goeth before a fall.'”
“Oh shut up,” his ego replied.
“You have been told what we wish?” The young countess, Maria, asked.
“An up-time cocktail party.”
“This is the first party we are giving since our wedding, which was on the estate. It is very important to me personally. Everything must go well! It is to be a New Years Eve costume party. The theme is a cocktail party in the year 2000, so the guests should come in Grantville formal dress. There will be a dinner and dancing in the ballroom. You will need to talk to the kitchen staff about the details, but the menu has been researched and is in place. We have hired musicians who are ready and able to play up-time dance music. You will instruct the wine steward and his staff in the art of making cocktails. You will look over our preparations, tell us what to change and then make everything run smoothly. The seamstress is hard at work on the sewing machine making new period clothes for the servants.”
“Yes, I see,” Estil said, then looked over as one of the servants stepped closer.
“Mister Congden, this is Heinrich, our chief steward. He will give you a tour of the facilities and run over the preparations we have already made. Then this evening . . . ”
She was almost shy, as if she was doing something a bit naughty. She continued, “Since the count is away, why don’t you join me for dinner and we can discuss where we are with the preparations and what we need to do next.”
When Estil and Heinrich were out of sight, Marie turned to her personal maid and confidant. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I think you had better watch yourself around that one. I saw the way he was looking at you. At least he looks enough like the count to be his brother and he also looks nearly young enough to be his son.”
“Anna, you know what this party means to me.” This was effectively Marie’s coming-out party. She was the younger daughter of someone just barely noble enough to be tolerated. If this went badly, when the count died she might as well find a comfortable convent, unless she managed to give the old man the one thing he wanted: a son.
“Yes, I do,” Anna said. “And I know that man has enough brass to be a bell. He looks much like the count. He’s a charming devil, certainly. You mark my words, be careful around that one.”
Heinrich looked at Estil with a face carefully schooled to show nothing at all. Estil’s first thought was, Don’t play poker with this guy. He’ll take the shirt right off your back.
“Shall we start with the kitchen?” Heinrich asked.
“No. I ain’t going nowhere’s near the kitchen except to scrounge something to eat. The kitchen and the rest of the house and servants is your job and I am going to leave it to you. If you’ve got any questions, I’ll answer them if I can. But mostly I am going to say ‘I don’t know, ask the expert,’ and then I’m going to send them to you.”
Bingo, Estil thought. He ain’t at all happy about being upstaged.
“Sir,” Heinrich said, “She has made it quite clear. You are in charge.”
“I’m in charge?”
“Fine. I just delegated the kitchen and the staff to you.”
“Look, Heinrich. You know the house and the staff. I don’t. My German is just barely passable. If I try to run this shindig, it will fail miserably. So I am delegating what I cannot do to someone who can. When this party is over, I’m gone. When it is all said and done, what do you think I am going to tell the countess?” Heinrich lost his poker face. Estil could see the wheels turning. “Don’t bother guessing. I am going to tell her I relied on her staff, mostly on you. I will take my fee and run. You will get the glory.” Estil paused. “Or the blame. So, can we get over the pissing contest and work together instead of against each other?” Estil stuck out his hand.
Heinrich smiled and shook hands.
“Now, if that is settled, how can I help?” Estil asked.
At dinner, with three servers in earshot, Estil said, “You have an excellent staff. They have everything in hand. But there are some things we need to discuss. The instructions they have been given just do not fit the party you are trying to have.”
“How so?” Maria asked.
“Let’s start with the menu and the service. You’ve told them you want chili in paper bowls followed by hamburgers wrapped in paper and french fries in paper bags. I had a sample at lunch and the cook has it down pat.” This was less than completely true. The fries were soggy, and it was clear they had never seen a hamburger. It needed help. The bun was toasted on both sides not just grilled on the face. The meat was overdone, as well. “This is the wrong menu for a formal dinner.”
“But this is an authentic up-time menu,” she objected. “And we’ve already purchased the place service.”
“Come summer, have a barbeque picnic and use them then. Have your guests come in casual dress. Hamburgers and fries are finger foods. You don’t use silverware. You pick it up with your hands, like fried chicken. For a formal dinner you want silverware. I suggest you start with french onion soup. Come as close as you can to a green salad, it will probably be coleslaw unless you can find some good lettuce. Have your potatoes baked or mashed, depending upon the meat. Beef Wellington is a good choice, or beef stroganoff. If you have the beef Wellington, you can have a linguini pasta dish with it.”
“But,” the young countess replied, “what you have named is French and English and Russian or Italian. This is supposed to be an American party.”
“Madam, let me tell you a secret. There is no such thing as American cuisine. Culturally, Americans are great thieves. It comes with the language. It all came from somewhere else.”
“But, then, it is just another party! “
“Being dressed up in unusual clothes is going to be odd enough. Let them have comfortable food. If you want an American desert, have ice cream sundaes. You still have time to rent a couple of ice cream makers from Grantville. We can get into something really strange after dinner with the cocktails and the mixed drinks. The same thing goes with the dancing. Well over half of the music needs to be things people are used to. You can have a few exotic dances, but don’t expect people to enjoy strange new dances they don’t know. They will just stand around and watch while a few young people make fools of themselves. You can play a waltz, but if people don’t know how to dance it, they won’t do it. We have time to teach three or four young couples how to waltz. Settle for that this time, and have the rest of the dancing be familiar. The waltz will catch on. Actually, it is catching on elsewhere already, so you will be remembered as the first to introduce it locally. It might even get you in the history books.”
“The waltz is an American dance?”
“As much as any dance is. It came from Vienna in the seventeen hundreds and swept the world. Trust me, you can’t go wrong with a waltz. Get me half-a-dozen young couples and I will put your name in the middle of a dance fad that will be around long after you’re gone. With any luck and a good publicity campaign, this can go down in history as the party that introduced the waltz to the world.”
“Square dancing?” a dumbfounded Estil asked the chief musician. “Where in the hell did you ever find out about square dancing?”
“Well I went to the library in Grantville and—”
Estil cut him off. “It don’t matter. I can’t teach it, and, no, I can’t call it. Besides, no one wants to learn square dancing anyway. Go and buy some waltz music. It might take several days, but we’ve got time.”
Estil started teaching the waltz to three couples, which grew to six, including the count and countess, and then ten couples by the time New Year’s rolled around. Along the way, Estil spent a fair amount of time with the count in the billiards room.
“You see, sir,” Estil said, as he screwed together the two halves of his pool cue. It was in his suitcase. Everything he owned was in the suitcase. A good pool cue, like his own tux, was something Estil insisted on having. “About a hundred years from now people will stop using clubs completely. This is a cue stick.”
The count interrupted. “You mean like using the queue of the mace when the ball is too close to the bank?”
“Queue?” Estil asked.
“Ah, at last! An American who is willing to admit he does not know everything. I was beginning to think such did not exist. Queue is French for tail. It is what we call the small end of the mace.”
“Oh, that makes sense. You see, I can get a lot more control out of a cue stick than you can out of a mace.”
“Young man, I am quite good at billiards. Would you care to place a wager on a game? I should, in fairness, tell you I have only lost one game in the last year.”
“How much do you want to lose?” Estil asked.
“How much can you afford?” came the reply.
“Everything you were planning on paying me!”
“Set them up.”
Lady Luck smiled on Estil as she had never smiled on him before.
“So, whose idea was it to hold a cocktail party?”
“Marie’s,” the count told Estil, “She saw a cocktail party in a movie at the Higgins Hotel on our honeymoon. I took my first and my second wife on a trip to Rome. I offered to take Marie to Rome, too. She said she’d rather see Grantville. To tell you the truth, at my age I didn’t want to make the journey to Rome, anyway. Grantville was new and exciting for both of us.”
Estil’s first turn was the longest run in his life. Near the end of the game he was looking at a nearly impossible shot. He called it and asked, “Double or nothing?”
The count nodded.
Estil made the shot and made it look easy.
“Heinrich!” The count bellowed. “Somebody, find the chief steward immediately.”
When the man arrived, out of breath, the count was screwing Estil’s stick back together. “Of course, it only needs to be in two pieces for traveling,” Estil was saying.
“Ah, Heinrich, take Herr Congden to the wood turner first thing tomorrow and have a dozen queue sticks made up.”
The clacking of billiard balls lingered into the darkest hours of the night before the count was ready to call an end to the lesson. At dawn, after only three hours of sleep, Heinrich was shaking Estil awake.
“Leave me alone.”
“But, Herr Congden, the count said we were to go to the wood turner first thing this morning.”
“Fine, come back while it is still morning at, say, eleven thirty.”
“Eleven thirty would not be the first thing in the morning. The count will want to see the new sticks after he breakfasts.”
In the coach on the way back to the town house after taking the first turned and waxed stick to a harness shop to be tipped, with arrangements for eleven more to follow, Estil told Heinrich, “I will never, ever bet against the count on a game of pool again. After one night, he is as good as I am and I’ve been shooting pool for years. With some practice he will be the next national champion.”
In the early afternoon, right after breakfast, the count was back in the billiards room getting a feel for his new cue stick. “Ah, Herr Congden, how much shall we wager today?”
“One dollar per game is my limit.”
“But last night you were willing to risk it all?”
“Last night I had never seen you shoot pool. I asked you how much you were willing to lose. Well, I am willing to lose one dollar. So one dollar is all I am going to bet, because just as sure as the felt is flat, I am going to lose.”
“You are not being fair. I deserve a chance to win it back.”
“Sir, when I put my winnings in my suitcase, everything I have in the world will be in that one bag. Is it fair you were born rich and I wasn’t? You are a count, I am a bartender.”
“Yes, I often forget you American’s are peasants. You just don’t act like peasants are supposed to. Well, what are you going to do with the money you won?”
“I don’t even know how much it is. I was never told what the gig paid. There is only one thing I’ve wanted for years now, and I doubt I won enough to cover it.”
“Oh? And what is that?” the count asked in a friendly way as he leaned over the table to take a shot.
This is when Estil made his first big mistake. “A pool hall of my own, with a cocktail bar.” Estil said starting with what he knew the count was interested in. “Now, stop and chalk the tip. You slipped on the last stroke. Then, when you shoot the next shot, cue it low so you get back spin. You want to come back out to set up the shot after that.”
The old man had a soft touch and excellent control.
“Good. Now, what’s your next shot after this one?”
“I want to come back down the table,” the count said, pointing at the far end of the table.
“That will work,” Estil said.
“Your own pool hall? You will need an estate house to have a pool hall.”
“Naw. You would need someplace in a big town, say, Magdeburg. You would want at least three tables. Six would be better.”
“Three?” But you can only play on one at a time.”
“Oh, the tables are for the customers.”
“You would put billiards in a common inn?”
“Of course not! It would be a most uncommon inn. First it would be members only, or by invitation. And the membership would be limited to gentlemen. You would have a wine cellar the envy of all Europe and a superlative kitchen. You would want a half-dozen permanent chess tables for long running games and extra boards for short play. It would be a quiet place where gentlemen could gather and socialize without planning or hosting an event. There would be half-a-dozen rooms available for those nights a man stayed late and didn’t want to make the trip home, or planned overnight stays for men who do not keep a residence in Magdeburg and are in town alone without any family in tow for a night or two.”
“These rooms for overnight guests, would you be staffing them?”
“Yes, but if you mean would we be providing female companionship, then the answer is no. I don’t care to run a whorehouse. If a gentleman has need of such, then he can go elsewhere. The club would be a place of civilized companionship between gentlemen. There are times the ladies are just a distraction—not that I don’t fully appreciate being distracted, mind you—but everything in its place, after all. The Lord created Eve to be a distraction and look where that got us. No, the staff would all be male.”
The count chuckled. “Well said, young man.” With the rising prominence of the lower house of the legislature, and with Gustav pandering to the masses, the idea of a club for cultured gentlemen—limited to such by the very stiff fees it would take to keep such an establishment running—appealed to the count.
The party was a smashing success. The waltz was watched closely and invitations like “why don’t you plan on coming a few days early to my next party so you can teach a few of us,” were widely offered to Estil and to the young dancers, who were suddenly very popular people. Several more people asked Estil where their staff could reach him in the future.
The night of the party, when the count was not trying to sample every new drink on the menu or waltzing with his young wife, he could be found in the billiard room demonstrating the use of a pool cue. Anytime he was in the billiard room, he was talking about a capital city gentleman’s club. Estil was asked repeated question about what the club would entail. Everyone who asked a question assumed Estil would oversee its founding and running. One person did ask outright if he was willing to do so.
Estil smiled and said, “Sure, why not.” He had, after all, hit the lottery in a big way.
Along about dawn, when the last of the guests were on their way home or put to bed and the old count was out for the count, a teenaged girl slipped into Estil’s bedroom and bed. Estil had been concentrating on his dream all night long. He found himself quite ready for a distraction.
This was Estil’s second big mistake.
On the third of January 1635, Estil stepped out of a gold-trimmed coach in front of the building used by the State Department in Magdeburg. He stopped in the office with the words Community Relations painted on the door to pick up the wardrobe he had been forced to leave there.
“Estil, thank you for the invitation to the party. My wife was very impressed. Do you think you could teach us to waltz?”
“Victor, I could, I guess, but when and where? I’m heading back to Grantville now that the party is over.”
“Oh? Why? You’ll just have to turn around and come back.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’ve got you scheduled to consult for a party on January twenty-third and they want you there as soon as you can make it. Then there’s two more in late February. They’re only a week apart, but they’re both here in town so you can manage both. We have four requests in March and you’ll only be able to do one of them so we haven’t decided yet—”
“You what? You scheduled me? How dare you?”
“We were going to wait until you got here. But someone from Grantville stopped by to ask how things went. This was just after the first request arrived. He told us to go ahead and schedule you. He said to tell you Ken, whoever he is, figured out he doesn’t need bar help, so you need a job.”
“You can just take a flying leap at the moon. I don’t care if I need a job or not. I’m going home.”
“I was told to tell you that Ken has rented out your trailer while you were gone.”
“Damn! That ain’t fair. Now I’m going to have to find another place to stay.”
“Oh, we’ve got you booked into a boarding house the navy is using. I was told to tell you that if you objected, to get used to it.”
Estil put his suitcase down, closed his eyes and pushed his eyebrows together so hard Victor was sure it had to hurt. “So I was hoping you could get the wife and me into the waltz classes you will be teaching here in town in February.”
Estil let his breath out slowly and so loudly it was practically a groan. “Yes, Victor. If I can get you into a dance class, then I will.”
“That would be great. My wife will be so happy.” The bright young man was practically beaming.
“So, where do I go next? When do I leave? Is there time to get my clothes laundered?”
“Someone has opened up a Grantville dry cleaning shop here in town, so getting your clothes cleaned and pressed is a snap.” Victor was on top of all of the latest buzz words. “They’ve made arrangements with a livery stable to have a coach ready for you. So, when is now—or at least as soon as we can get your clothes back from the dry cleaners. It’s expensive, but don’t worry. The office will pick up the tab. Let me get a page in here and get your clothes off to the dry cleaners and then I’ll take you to lunch.”
Before leaving town Estil stopped at the Abrabanel Bank office. He didn’t like carrying a bag of gold around. The pay had been generous even before he bet it all and then went double or nothing.
In February, Count and Countess von Leiningen-Westerburg were still residing in their newly-finished Magdeburg residence in order to attend both of the waltz parties. She had been distant and he had been cold to Estil at the first party. Estil shrugged it off almost without noticing. He really was quite busy before, during and after the party.
But it was not possible to shrug off the six armed men who interrupted one of the several waltz classes Estil was conducting in the week between the two parties.
“Estil Congden, you will come with us.”
“I’d rather not,” Estil said.
Two of the six grabbed Estil and preceded to frog march him toward the door.
“What is the meaning of this?” Victor demanded.
“It is a private matter,” the head of the party said very curtly. “It is none of your concern.”
“Mister Congden’s services are contracted through our office at the State Department. So it clearly is my concern! He does not wish to accompany you. I demand you release him immediately.”
Without a word, one of the men, who did not have Estil in hand and was not holding a door open or being addressed by a young bureaucrat who was showing more spunk than good sense, expertly clipped the bright young man on the back of the head, dropping him onto the floor. He would wake up with a headache to shame any self respecting hangover.
Estil was hustled out of the ballroom, out of the house, without his overcoat, and into a coach while Victor’s wife got blood all over her dress and filled the ballroom with loud tears.
It wasn’t long before the horse stopped in a coach yard. The armed men pulled a reluctant Estil out of the coach to usher him into a kitchen, through the butler’s pantry, a dining room and finally into a sitting room where a decrepit old man waited in a massive chair before a roaring fire.
Estil had to look twice to recognize Count von Leiningen-Westerburg. The man looked as if he had aged twenty years in the last two months.
“Leave us,” the count said.
“But, sir, is it safe?”
The old man snorted a laugh. “What is he going to do? Kill me? Get out!”
When they were alone the old man stared at the younger man for what seemed like an eternity. “When you were a guest in my house, did you sleep alone?”
“Well . . . that is . . . “
The old man slammed his palm down on the arm of the chair with what seemed like a thunderclap and roared with a voice which made the plaster thankful it was new. “Don’t lie to me, young man! I happen to know for a fact, after the second night under my roof, you did not sleep alone. Some nights you would start with one and finish with another.”
“Sir, they came willingly.”
“That is not the point!”
“And the point is?” Estil asked.
The count almost seemed to crumble. “My wife is expecting.”
“Congrat . . . and you think it’s . . . but she would never . . . if you were home she slept with you and when you weren’t home, a maid slept in your bed with her.”
“Except for the night of the party,” the count said in a quiet voice. “I danced like a man half my age and drank like a man half that. I fell asleep and slept the sleep of the damned. My wife was there when I went to bed and when I woke up. I have no idea where she was in between. You had guests in the night. Did you sleep with my wife?”
“Have you asked her?”
“No. I have not and I will not. She would say she did not, whether she did or not. Did!” Slam. “You!” Slam. “Sleep!” Slam. “With my wife?”
Estil grew very calm. He was quite sure the count would detect any lie, no matter how slight, so he knew he had to absolutely believe what he said next. His father once told him, “Son, whether it is right or whether it is wrong does not matter as long as you believed what you are saying is true. It does not have to be true; you just have to believe it is. Just remember, the human capacity to believe the unbelievable is almost bottomless.”
It was time to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as it needed to be under the current circumstances. Estil made hard eye contact with the count and solemnly said, “I did n—”
Estil stopped in mid-word. He found himself looking down the bore of a new, expensive, beautifully crafted, petite, break action, single shot pistol which could chamber either a.45 or a.410 shell.
Estil found himself thinking, Can’t I get anything right? He’s the jealous husband of a young wife but I’m the one who’s supposed to be sixty-five.
As he watched, the count slowly began to squeeze the trigger.
“It can’t be mine. I can’t have kids. It’s true. When I was a child I got sick and my balls swelled up to the size of your fist. I’m infertile,” Estil shouted.
The count hesitated.
“It’s true. It can’t be mine. It’s possible I slept with your wife. I don’t know that I did. But I don’t know that I didn’t, either. Whether I did or I didn’t doesn’t matter. The child is not mine!”
The old man eased off of the trigger. He looked at Estil with a penetrating glare that could teach ice a thing or two about being cold. “I want to believe you. If it is not yours, then it is mine, as unlikely as that seems. I must have managed while I was drunk and I do not clearly remember. I thought it was a dream.
“I want to believe you.” The gun wavered. “I think I do. But I will always have my doubts. Let us say I do believe you. Still, I never want to lay eyes on you again. I will attend no party you are advising. And, while the gentleman’s club is still a good idea, you will have nothing to do with it!
“Attend me,” the count called out.
The door opened and the men who had been waiting outside came into the room.
“Throw this vagabond into the street!”
As they grabbed Estil, the old man said, “I don’t care what did or didn’t happen. If I ever lay eyes on you again, you’re a dead man.”
Before the police were finished asking questions at the dance class, Estil was back for his overcoat.
“No it wasn’t a kidnapping. It was just a misunderstanding.”
Victor would be several days recovering his wits. When he was finally clearheaded, Estil was long gone. When he knew who was suspected of the kidnapping and assault, he did not press charges. Doing so would not have been a good career move.
A year later . . .
Cesare Bartoli, dressed to the nines in a well-made, high-quality set of clothes cut out of the finest cloth, in the new style called lefferto, plopped himself into a bar stool and asked his bartender and co-owner, “How’s business?”
The Café Americain was one of the newest taverns in Venice. First, the name sounded exotic and second, they served a variety of strange and unusual drinks such as the upper class were beginning to drink these days, not that any upper class clients ever came into the bar.
“Not bad,” Estil replied, flicking an imaginary speck of lint off the sleeve of his white dinner jacket. It was a good thing that Cesare spoke German, since Estil was still having trouble learning Italian.
“Not bad?” Cesare snorted. “The man says, ‘not bad.’ I’ve seen this month’s receipts. Estil, we’re past the opening rush and through the slump. My man,we are over the top. I’ve got to admit I had my doubts about the idea of opening a high-end bar. And, if you hadn’t come up with half the money, I never would have gone for the idea. It was just too strange.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t believe you when you said you were responsible for the crazy drinks the muckity-mucks are drinking up in Germany. I still don’t know if I believe you. But you can make them as far as anyone can tell. And people are coming in to drink them.
“Smile, my man, we are going to survive.”
“Surviving is good.”
“Estil, I swear, you won’t get excited about anything. It’s as if you’re afraid the moment you get excited about something, it will dry up and blow away.”
“You never know,” Estil said, putting his arm around the obviously pregnant blonde beside him. He looked into her eyes. “Of all the gin joints in all the world . . . “
She grinned up at him. “I had to walk into yours . . . “