Beth is recruited by Manny Hardin for the Enterprise.
|The Unexpected Interview
It seemed like yesterday... not five years ago. Beth recalled the morning she had walked out of the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. She distinctly remembered looking about for a cab and not seeing one started back inside. Then she noticed the limousine. The uniformed figure of a chauffeur stood by the curb holding a sign. He looked in her direction, expectantly. In his hand was a piece of cardboard with the Name BETH written in marker pen.
She recollected thinking, He can't be expecting me, and was turning back towards the lobby when she noticed the driver beckoning emphatically with his sign.
Hmmm, Beth wondered, believing it a case of mistaken identity. She looked from side to side expecting to see someone else with the name walking towards the Limo. Not seeing any prospects, she pointed to herself, inquiringly. The chauffeur nodded in affirmitive. She walked slowly in his direction trailing her suitcase.
He looked like a Chipendale, one of those muscled hunks that dance in the strip clubs. He had blond curls poking from beneath a preppy little hat.
"We meet at last Ms. Hamilton." said the Chauffer, Inclining his head. With a florish he opened the door..
“You know me? she asked.
“Are you Lionel Hamilton's daughter?"
“I thought I saw the resemblance."
"What you saw was the "High Yellow."
"That too... but you have his eyes."
"How about his lips and nostrils."
"A bit of that...."
“Where did you know him from?" she inquired.
“I drove him around on occassion."
“He passed away earlier this year…."
“I know, we were all saddened by the news.”
“How did you know I was in town?“
“Mr. Hardin told me. He wants a word with you…" The driver smiled, “It won’t take long and then I’m at your disposal for the weekend."
“Who's Mr. Hardin?”
“An old associate of your father.”
Beth was intrigued… What could this Mr. Hardin want with her? Father had passed away penniless, indeed their family owned real estate agency was facing foreclosure. Her mother, accustomed to an affluent life was destitute and beginning to act suicidal. They were temporarily living at their lake home, which would soon join the Agency on the auction block. Ducking her head Beth entered the stretched out Lincoln Town Car. The Chauffer closed the door and walked around to the drivers side and settled into his seat. A glass partition separated the rear portion and his voice crackled over the intercom.
“It’ll be a ten minute drive. Mr. Hardin is expecting you."
Beth sunk down into the seat. The interior was rich Corinthian leather and there was the slightest scent of expensive perfume beneath an odor of cigar smoke. She sat quietly, wondering what this unexpected meeting was all about. The drive into the heart of the city was uneventful and they stopped just beyond a busy intersection. The street outside soared with tall buildings and the avenue carried a bustling crowd. She looked up at the sky scrapers from the frosted windows inside. The driver hustled around and opened the door. Stepping out, she saw a big man, walking down the sidewalk. He smiled, extended his hand, and guided her to the pavement.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Manny Hardin, an acquaintance of you father. Please accept my condolences.”
Beth gave him the once over. This “Hardin” guy had a tough look, with slicked down hair, parted in the middle. His complexion was swarthy like an Italian. His suit was dark and custom made. It seemed a bit out of proportion, let out several sizes, to accommodate his chest and shoulders. Not that he was fat…indeed not. He was just powerfully built, all muscle and no nonsense. His presence was commanding, if not downright intimidating.
“Were you a friend of my father, Mr. Hardin? "
Beth knew little of her father’s dealings outside of Wautoma. Only that he'd made frequent forays into Madison and the Milwaukee metropolitan areas. This was a puzzling aspect of his life style that her Dad never discussed. She had expected, when the will was read, to at last acquire a broader understanding her father’s outside activities. It was a disappointment when their lawyer revealed nothing she didn't know already.
“We had a business relationship,” Hardin replied, “but rather than discuss it here..." he looked furtively about, "...let’s go up the penthouse where we can relax and talk in a more secure setting."
What could he have to say that can't be said on the street? she wondered.
He extended his arm and she took it. He stepped out and they walked through the glass door into a Hotel lobby. The elevator was waiting and it carried them up to the twenty-seventh floor. They stepped into a corridor facing a massive oak portal. He buzzed and the door opened. An attractive young woman in a bunny costume, greeted them. She had a spiked collar around her neck. She kept her eyes averted and took Beth’s coat.
“That will be all, Ms. Collins." said Hardin dismissively. "If we have further need of your services, I’ll ring.”
Beth was surprised. More accurately, at a complete loss for words. This was hardly something she could have anticipated and the scene put her off stride, not that anyone would have noticed.
“Who’s the servant girl?” she asked.
The question distracted Mr. Hardin from whatever he was thinking about.
"Her?" He asked, gesturing with his thumb, "The rabbit?"
"The one with the big long ears," said Beth a bit sarcastically.
He paused, choosing his words carefully. "She's a candidate serving an internship,” As if this were explanation enough, he ushered Beth into a conference room.
"Come over here my dear and take a seat. Can I get you something to drink?"
Beth wasn't sure she liked the "my dear" part but let it pass. "Some Coke will be fine."
He gestured to an ornately carved chair with clawed feet. When she hesitated, he continued. "If you want to freshen up there's facilities down the hall to the right."
“I’m fine,” Beth replied, taking a seat.
He poured himself a drink and placed hers on the table.
“Was that a dog collar the maid was wearing?” Beth Inquired?
Hardin, chuckled. "There are some things we just take for granted around here... Sometimes I forget the effect our hostess has on visitors. It's a uniform of sorts and the collar is part of the ensemble. Do you find it troubling?"
"I find it demeaning."
"The rabbit costume or the collar?"
"Well it serves a purpose. The rabbit part reminds the trainee that they are an intern. The collar reminds them of the importance of servitude and tracks them during the internship. We try and make it unobtrusive but concealment was never a criteria."
"I've never seen anything quite like it," she said, "not to imply I like the look of it."
"We have them made at Tiffney’s in New York. There's a platium leash that goes with it.
“Mercy,” she replied.
“Would you like to try one on?”
A sense of foreboding stirred, and a chill ran through her body.
“I’ll pass. Thanks anyway… It's just not the sort of thing I see every day..."
"I suppose not."
"Now, please Mr. Hardin," Beth continued. "What can you tell me about my father’s dealings? You see, his bank account currently shows a zero balance and our family is in dire financial straits.”
“That I can well imagine," replied the big man with a sigh. "And in that regard I must be the bearer of sad tidings. I’m afraid his situation here in Madison is no better off.
Beth shook her head in discouragement.
"At the time of his death, Lionel carried considerable debt and his credit was badly overextended. I'm sure that the stress he was suffering, in these bleak economic times, contributed to his heart attack.”
This was more of the same old disheartening news, that had continued unabated since her father's death. This latest revelation opened one more kettle of worms.
“If you’re one of those creditors, Mr. Hardin..."
"Manny…you’re going to have to wait in line. Everything the family has is currently tied up in the courts. I was looking to find some assets here in Madison or Milwaukee, but there is nothing but debt associated with Father's name and Social Security Number. I was hoping to find something for my Mom, before the sheriff shows up with an eviction notice.”
“Too bad…. So sad,” said Manny stroking his chin. He pressed a button and a screen descended from the wall on the far side of the room.
“There's a video your father made for us, just prior to his death. I want you to see it.”
The room darkened and onto the screen flashed the image of her father seated at the table they now occupied. He had a haggard look and spoke in an uncharacteristically stressful voice. The audio cut in as Beth's father winced and began to speak.
Beth honey, I’ve fallen onto some very tough times. I hope to soon recoup the money I 'm borrowing and parley it into something to keep the Wautoma Office open. The problem is that I have no surety for the loan. It is common practice in the circles I travel, to use a family member as a last recourse. If you are shown this tape please realize that I love you and deeply regret what I've had to do… If there were any other way I would never put you through this but there isn't. I'm bonding you for the loan. I’m so sorry Sweetheart… I hope you never have to see this tape…
The video shut down with a click! Beth’s jaw hung slack in disbelief.
“No! No!” she protested… “This is the United States of America… My father had no legal right to use me as collateral."
Manny exhaled with a sigh, stretching out his arms and interlocking his fingers. His knuckles cracked.
"Ms. Hamilton, allow me to disabuse that notion. You see, the Enterprise, operates outside the law. Myself and my associates are in a category commonly referred to as CRIMINALS.
Beth was stunned... The implications raced through her imagination.
"Oh my GAWD! I get it, the maid with the collar on. This is about prostitution. You want to put my ass to working on some street corner…Well it's not going to happen. “
If we so decide to use your talents, thats exactly what we'll do." He stood and looked menacing. "Prostitution is after all, a sideline of our work."
He walked around where she was sitting, undressing her with his eyes, giving a quick assessment of her physical attributes. She was after all quite attractive....slender with well sculpted breasts and a mulatto complexion that was simply georgeous. Manny cleared his throat and continued...
"I have little doubt that you can make good on your father's loan.
She gave a defiant look....
"However, what you are afraid of, is not the option we are here to discuss."
"Option? You mean I have a say in all this?"
“Spare me the indignation," continued Hardin…"and don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. The woman with the long ears, who has so captured your imagination, is someone we're considering for entry into our enterprise. Our Interns are all volunteers.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“We INVITED you here because we like your credentials. You fit the profile for the type of young woman we like to employ. Your father served many years in the Enterprise. As a graduate with a degree in Marketing and Business Management, you have exactly the prerequsites and training we’re looking for.”
“What are you getting at...?"
"If you'll put your assumptions aside we can cut to the chase."
"Yes, please! Lay it out for me."
"I showed you the video to make clear that we already have an option on "YOUR ASS" which, by the way, we might decide to forgive if you happen to work out."
"...Go on." she replied, taking interest.
He took a deep breath. “We source our candidates from many backgrounds. Whenever we can we like to hire from inside the family. Your father, like I said, was a long time and valued employee. Believe it or not he was the one who hired and trained me."
"Think of me as a talent scout."
"My Dad hired you?"
"He was my mentor."
“For what purpose?”
"As I mentioned earlier we are a criminal enterprise. Beyond that I'm really not at liberty to say much except we have a branch run exclusively by females. We go to great lengths to insure they’re well suited for the job.”
“And the Bunny Girl is a candidate?”
“Not a hooker?''
“Prostitution my dear, is the least of her concerns.“
“And you’re offering me a job as management trainee?”
“Not exactly, but close…” said Manny, clapping his hands in mock applause..
“What does the internship pay?”
“$120,000. It will last a year..”
“…And if I decide it isn’t for me?”
“Then by all means quit. As a matter of fact we encourage it…every step of the way. We want to find out if you have the right stuff and the litmus test is your willingness to do what you’re told. If at any point you want out, we gladly pay a severance on the prorated salary. There’s no hard feelings, but in your case, you'll have to work some sweat job, until your father's debt is repaid.”
"Maybe a brass pole for starters and then something more upscale."
"What if I tell you to go fuck yourself."
"We can be very persuasive."
"Yeah, I suspect you can."
"Your father understood the implications when he bonded you out."
"What does this Internship Involve?"
"It'll be the greatest trial of your life."
"...and If I complete it."
"Your father's note will be retired. You'll become a manager."
"...Tell you what....I'll go one better... Say we acquire some of the Wautoma holdings and see your mother taken care of?"
“Can you do that?" said Beth in dismay.
Mr. Hardin chuckled. "If I can, are you interested?"
They stared hard at one another. Extending his hand he said, "Deal?"
Beth took it. "When do you want to see me again?"
He held up a minila envelop. "Here's an advance on your salary. Our lawyers will be tidying things up in Wautoma and finding a suitable arrangement for your mother."
She exhaled. "I really don't know what to think. This is all so disconcerting."
Manny smiled. "It'll grow on you... Try it and maybe you'll like it." He raised his glass and toasted. "To a long and prosperous relationship." Resting the glass he continued. "Here’s my card and number…See you on Monday... Here, at 9 O'clock sharp.”
Beth stood and put the card in her purse.
“Ms. Collins!” The bunny girl stepped out with Beth’s coat. As Manny put on his gloves she gave Beth a sympathetic look. Her ears drooped as she averted her eyes and opened the door.
"After you,” said Mr. Hardin, and they walked into the hall together.