Bobby Ballena doesn’t look like he’s spending time worrying about melanoma. His skin’s the color of a pair of huaraches and his thick curls are streaked from sunshine. We grew up in the same neighborhood and ran together for awhile, but this is the first I’ve seen him since he lit out for Baja three years ago.
“What happen, you mistake saddlesoap for sunblock?” I say.
Bobby looks up from the couch where he’s sitting with my wife’s feet on his lap and flashes a Halloween grin. “Who died?”
I’m just getting home from the office, but don’t bother explaining the suit’s because I’d been in a court room all day trying to stop a crew of programmers fresh out of Stanford from muscling in on my app. Bobby wouldn’t understand. The closest he’s ever had to a straight job was back in high school selling popcorn at the theater. He lasted a week before they realized he was skimming all the little salt packets and pushing them to shut-ins at the old folks home.
Bobby’s rubbing Katie’s arches and she has the same look on her face as she does when she’s having sex or eating crème brulee. I notice she’s wearing the purple Pashmina scarf we got in Kathmandu. But it can’t be. Last time I saw it the scarf was stuffed in the mouth of a tongueless monk the night Bobby and I snatched a solid gold Buddha from a temple.
“Bobby bring you a little bread-and-butter gift?”
Katie nods, all wide-eyed and baby blues. “He remembered how much I liked the one I lost in Nepal. Isn’t he sweet?”
“As Himalayan honey.”
Katie spreads her toes and settles deeper into the leather cushions as Bobby starts working her heels. The reflexology chart says they’re connected to your pelvis. I know that because she’s got a life-size body map pinned to the bedroom wall. It looks like the Africa page in an atlas with all these colored patches on the shoulders, back, and feet. Katie’s big on massage therapy. Acupuncture, too. Don’t get me started on astrology.
“Bobby’s been telling me about the school he runs in Cabo,” she says, her voice going up and down with her eyelids as he works her soles. “He teaches kiteboarding and lives in a house on the most beautiful beach in the whole wide world.”
“Second most,” Bobby says. “First is the one you’re always looking for.”
Vintage Bobby. He’s always been smooth with the lines. It’s how I met Katie. Bobby and I were in Kathmandu for a meet with this antiquities trafficker who chain-smokes Kents and dresses in a jumpsuit and sunglasses like a North Korean dictator when we see Katie and her best friend Laura in a teahouse. They were on some New Age spiritual quest led by a pudgy phony out of Marin County. Bobby sees right through him and decides to cut them from the herd. He tells Katie and Laura his last name means whale in Español and he’s on a pilgrimage to get in touch with his soul from a previous life when he was a humpback. It’s like sprinkling fish food on a koi pond. The next thing you know the four of us are sitting cross-legged on hand-loomed pillows sipping chai. That’s when the fat phony tries to reel in the girls, reminding them he’s holding their passports and return tickets and there are absolutely, positively no refunds. Bobby pulls out a kukri he traded a counterfeit iPhone for and starts slicing a mango. Doesn’t say a word. Doesn’t need to. The wannabe guru’s eyes never leave that big curved silver blade. By the time Bobby finishes with the mango the girls’ passports and tickets are stacked next to the teapot. Bobby gives the pudge one of his looks and suddenly it’s autumn. Blue and pink rupee notes, green Benjamins, even a couple of traveler checks – they all come fluttering down.
I figure it’s no coincidence Bobby shows up bringing a Pashmina like the one I used to silence the monk. Okay, for starters, I didn’t know he didn’t have a tongue so it wasn’t like I could have known he wasn’t going to call for help when I tied him up. Turns out all the monks snip theirs. Goes along with never getting laid and eating nothing but mung beans. Still, you’re in the moment you go with your instincts – bind and gag first, check for tongues second. Trust your gut, that’s my motto. Like right now. I know the scarf is going to cost me. The question is, how much.
“I’ll make drinks,” I say.
I’ve had a long week and nothing is getting between me and martini Friday. That’s the way it is now. Once I was without a care in the world, traveling wherever the next opportunity lay and a hot credit card would take me. Now I have to have days with special names to make them stand out. Like ‘date night.’ I can’t even remember when Katie started calling it that. It was probably Laura who came up with it. She’s always telling Katie about these articles on how to make your man feel special. It’s a full-time job for Laura now that she’s married to one of the richest venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, her part of his wardrobe along with his Woodside mansion, Tesla Roadster, and standing invitation on Larry Ellison’s yacht.
I check my phone while walking to the bedroom. Even though I don’t expect an email from my lawyer telling me the Stanford punks have settled so soon I’m still a little disappointed. Running a high tech business? There’s always disappointments. Angel investors throwing their weight around. Employees jumping ship taking your customers with them. Banks calling in your note. Even with online banking there’s always another report to print out, a tax form to submit. You’re not careful, it’s death by a thousand paper cuts.
I hanger my suit and look for my oldest pair of jeans. I pull on a T shirt with a picture of Bob Marley on it and check the full-length mirror. I yank it off and button up a Tommy Bahama instead. Solid black, no palm trees, no hula dancers. It’s more comfortable, plus it covers the extra 10, 15 I put on. Price of working 12 hour days where breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks afterward is always a business meeting. It’s been like that ever since I invested everything old Kents and Sunglasses paid us for Little Buddha in two brothers from Bangalore and their algorithm for rating and booking international gentlemen’s clubs and escort services, made it through the first couple of rounds of private funding without having to give away the store, then before I can go IPO along come these Stanford geeks with an app that has more social media interfaces and a frequent swinger rewards program to boot. I’m telling you, it’s the Wild Wild West in the Valley. There’s more honor among thieves than high tech CEOs, and the stress level has you popping beta blockers by the handful. At least with stealing and fencing artifacts you know who’s trying to stab you in the back.
I go to the kitchen and whip up a pitcher of margaritas. As the blender whirs I dump this pink sea salt Katie says is more cardio-friendly onto a paper towel, wet the rims of three thick tumblers, turn them upside down and twist them into low-sodium drifts the color of pale roses.
The engraved serving tray that was a gift from Katie’s parents when we got married in Vegas between turns at the craps table doesn’t get past Bobby.
“You’ve come up in the world,” he says with a tone. “No more swilling chhaang out of a wooden bowl?”
That gets Katie sitting up with a dreamy smile. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a taste of Himalayan homebrew. Those were the days. Waking up to first light hitting the mountains? The smell of incense in the temples? The prayer flags fluttering? It was all so magical.” I hand her a margarita and she takes a sip, leaving a yellow caterpillar inching across her lip. “Let’s go back right now. Just jump on a plane. No more excuses.”
Bobby and I exchange glances over pink-rimmed tumblers. To head him off from saying something cute about how that would land us eating rice for the next 20 years I remind Katie about the lumpy beds in the teahouses, the bug bites, the squat toilets. She arches her brows. They make me think of a pair of minks getting ready to pounce.
“Always Mr. Negativity now.” She puts a hand on Bobby’s knee. “He’s been like that ever since he started his stupid little business. All Mr. Serious all the time. I’ve always wanted to go back, but time, well, things just got in the way. You know what I mean?”
Bobby pats her hand. “Time doesn’t stand still. People do.”
Katie oohs again and now she’s nodding like he’s some kind of navel twiddler. I take a big drink, wishing I’d doubled up on the tequila.
Bobby makes a show of playing with the purple fringe on Katie’s scarf. It’s made out of wool spun from goats that live on Everest. Hardy little buggers. She’s peppering him with questions, like does he still do Tai Chi every morning, but Bobby keeps it vague, his answers slippery as sushi as he gets her talking about herself. Katie’s off and running and I remember the first time we slept together. She admitted she was jealous that Bobby had singled out Laura. Lying together on a musty futon she kept going on about how Bobby really knew how to talk to women, how she and Laura were lucky to have met him, a world-wise traveler who could help them find what they were searching for. The look on her face now tells me she still believes all that crap about there being a true path. It’s all I can do to keep from telling her the truth about Bobby, the only thing stopping me is then I’d have to tell her about me.
I check my phone. Still no email from lawyer-boy. “What about dinner?” I say, feeling the tequila starting to nibble at my stomach lining, wishing I’d remembered to transfer the roll of Tums from my suit pocket. “I could fire up the Weber.”
Katie goes with the arched brows again. “Didn’t you get my text? We’re going to Laura and Dexter’s.”
Okay, I admit it. I didn’t see that one coming. I glance at Bobby. He’s sitting there with the ends of the Pashmina wrapped around his fingers wearing a big smile and not saying a word because he knows if he opened his mouth I’d see all the feathers.
“Whose idea was that?”
“Mine, silly. I told her Bobby’s back in town. She’s dying to see him.”
Katie jumps up saying she’s going to get dressed. I turn on Bobby. “You can swallow Tweetie Bird now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“How long have you had it in the works?”
“Had what in what works?”
“Whatever it is you’re planning.”
“Who says I’m planning anything?”
“You think you can just show up after three years and I’ll suit up like old times? Wave that scarf around and threaten to tell Katie about sneaking out of the teahouse and hitting the temple, me taking her scarf in case I needed a mask, not thinking I’d have to gag a monk with it.”
Bobby waggles a finger. “Which, technically, you didn’t need to do.”
I slam my tumbler down. “I’m legit now. I got a mobile app business.”
Bobby shakes his head, his curls as thick as the President’s dog’s. “Katie’s right. You have become Señor Negativo.”
“Well, I’m positivo you got something planned. This isn’t about seeing your old girlfriend. It’s about her husband. Who Dexter is. More important, what he’s got.”
Bobby gives it a few beats, his eyes turning sly. “And from what I hear, it’s plenty.”
Like I said, Bobby’s always been slick with the lines.
Katie comes back. She’s wearing stilettos and a silk blouse that goes perfectly with the damn purple scarf. Bobby whistles and all I can do is go fetch the car. I drive a Prius now, another one of Katie’s ideas, she getting it after reading in People that Leo DiCaprio has one. It’s so quiet sometimes I got to check to make sure the engine’s on.
We get to Woodside and Dexter answers the door. He’s a little guy, about a foot shorter than me. Katie says he’s got a complex about it, why he’s always letting me know he went to Cambridge or Oxford or one of those stuffy colleges where stuck-up British kids go and how he made his first billion picking winners before they were even start-ups. I introduce Bobby not sure how it’s going to play, but Bobby sticks his hand out. “Thank you for honoring me with an invitation to your beautiful home. Now I know why I never stood a chance with Laura.” Then he bows like he’s the Dalai Lama. “He who wins and honors he who lost is the most honorable of all.”
Dexter beams and Katie oohs and I stifle a gag. Laura comes galloping across the limestone tiled entryway like a longshot stretching for the wire at Golden Gate Fields. “Bobby, baby,” she cries and throws her arms around him and plants a big wet one right on his lips. Dexter doesn’t seem to mind that it goes on for at least a minute, probably because he’s blinded by the crown Bobby just set on his pointy bald head. Katie takes Dexter’s overcooked penne of an arm and guides him back into the mansion. Bobby and Laura follow right behind. They’re walking shoulder to shoulder but I can see where his hand landed.
Katie told me Laura chose the interiors herself, but it’s clear she worked with a team of designers. The hallway’s the size of a hockey rink. Modern art splashes the walls. The living room looks like it was bought off the equivalent of a Buckingham Palace eBay site. The furniture is Gothic, the fireplace big enough to roast a water buffalo.
We sit on overstuffed couches as Dexter goes into this big show and tell opening a bottle of wine. Claret, he calls it, though it looks like a red to me. You’d think he was delivering a baby the way he coaxes the cork out then cradles the bottle. I mean, it takes him longer to extract that two-inch piece of bark than it does a doctor pulling a 9mm slug out of someone’s ass. Trust me, I know, having been on the receiving end on account the time Bobby and me got interrupted lifting an 18th century icon from an Old Believers museum in Latvia and the night watchman unloaded his Marakov at us. Luckily he was half blind from nipping vodka to keep himself warm in what passes for springtime in the Baltics, and even luckier still that we found a doctor who didn’t take much persuading to do the operating. Of course, maybe the speed in which he removed the lead from my butt was due to the fact that his usual patients didn’t voice many complaints, they being of the canine persuasion. I was in a lot of pain on the ferry ride back to Stockholm, but Bobby kept saying I should be thankful the doc didn’t neuter me while he had his scalpel out.
Dexter finally gets the vino poured — pardon me, claret — and Katie and Laura are chatting like they haven’t seen each other in years and Bobby’s walking around the room, his eyes cataloging the paintings hanging on the walls, the bronze sculptures, the sterling candelabras on the piano that look like they used to belong to Elton John. I can all but hear his mental calculator clicking as he figures out the exchange rate on the black market.
To cover, I say, “So, tell me, Dex, what’s new on the far horizon?”
Little Lord Fauntleroy never lets you forget he’s landed on the cover of The Futurist more than once. He waves his goblet like a professor wielding a laser pointer and dives right into a lecture on self-vacuuming carpets, cell phones the size of earrings, and – get this — intelligent tv’s. I only catch about half of what he’s babbling about, trying to keep an eye on Bobby to make sure he isn’t pocketing a Picasso.
“What about you?” Dexter asks. “What is it you’re working on again? A children’s game?”
I do a good job of not snapping the stem off the wine glass. Right after he and Laura got married I told him about the app, hoping he’d go the second stage of funding, but he turned me down flat. Said he had all his investments already budgeted for the year. Guess that included the G350 he bought the next week and keeps at a private airstrip for high tech high rollers in San Carlos.
“It’s going great.”
“Really?” He pronounces it ‘Ruh-ley.’ “The word on Sand Hill Road is there is a bit of a sticky wicket with your patents.”
The fact he knows that sends my radar into DEFCON 3. Like I say, you got to trust your instincts. I go for casual. “You know how it is, Dex. The Valley has more rumors than Vegas has hookers. It’s just the usual sort of dotting the i’s crossing the t’s before we go IPO.” I show him some teeth. “I hope you put in a reservation with your broker.”
Dexter sports a wolfish grin as he takes another swish of fancy wine. I ratchet up to DEFCON 2 and start thinking up an excuse to go call lawyer-boy. Before I get a chance to say anything a tiny guy dressed in saffron robes and a third eye tip toes in. He’s even wearing traditional Nepalese slippers, the ones with the turned up toes. He makes a steeple with his palms. “Dinner, memsahib, is served.”
Katie and Laura start clapping and now Dexter looks like he’s the one sucking on a canary. Bobby whispers something to the guy in Español and gets a dark-eyed look back. He looks over at me and mouths, “Relax, he’s Guatemalan.”
We follow him to a room that’s done up like a tented teahouse, right down to the pounded brass tables and hand-loomed floor pillows. The place is lit by beeswax candles and smoky with incense. Lotus flowers float in glass bowls. A trio is jamming in the corner, one guy drumming a dholak, another clanging a pair of brass bells.
Katie gasps. “Oh my god, we’ve died and gone to Shangri-La.”
I shake my head. “I gotta hit the can.”
In a guest bath the size of my house I speed dial my lawyer. Surprise, surprise, all I get is voice mail, which he’ll bill me for anyway. “Call me back,” I hiss. “Something’s up, I can smell it. The only reason those Stanford pencil necks haven’t settled is because someone with pockets a helluva lot deeper than their protectors is bankrolling them, and I got a pretty good idea who.”
I head back to dinner, squeezing in beside Katie. Bobby’s laying the compliments on thicker than yak butter. Dexter, sitting on a fat pillow that gives him a higher perch than us, is beaming. “I am something of an Asiaphile,” he says, none too modestly. A tall geezer in a white turban with a ruby brooch pours our host a spot of wine. The little computer rajah takes a sip, swishes, and nods approvingly. “I do appreciate the many cultures of the Far East having traveled there so often. I own call centers in India, manufacturers in China, logistics in Seoul.”
“But you’re more cognoscenti than connoisseur,” Bobby says, trading the butter knife for a shovel now.
“One does get so much more out of life when one is informed,” Dexter sniffs.
“One does,” Bobby agrees, suddenly sounding as if he just stepped off a flight from Heathrow. “Knowledge is what separates a collector from a hobbyist. I’m referring to cultural artifacts, of course. Discovery and preservation are foremost. Appreciation of the actual form, well, it really is quite secondary. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Quite.” Dexter has his chin raised so high I start thinking of his Adam’s apple as a Titleist on a tee.
The turbaned one pours the rest of us wine. Bobby tries it, proclaims the vintage excellent, and says to our host, “Is there a particular religion or tribe you focus on?”
“There may be one or two,” Dexter responds coyly.
Bobby winks at me. And there it is. I should’ve guessed it all along. I don’t have time to whisper that whatever antiquity he’s planning to snatch from ol’ Dex is a bad idea because someone gongs a gong and a dozen servants dressed in gold silk pajamas troop in hoisting serving platters and bowls.
“Ah,” Bobby inhales deeply. “Curried goat. My favorite.”
No mention of a special collection is made over dinner. There’s no reason to. Bobby has read the water, picked the right fly, and made the perfect cast. Now all it takes is patience. Dessert is gunpowder green tea ice cream swirled with honey made by the world’s biggest bees who buzz around the headwaters of the Ganges.
As Katie digs in she gets an expression like someone’s working her heels with an egg beater. “Oh god. Oh god. Yes. Yes,” she moans over each spoonful.
After dinner Katie and Laura scramble from their hand-loomed pillows to head for the powder room. Dexter says, “Would you gentlemen care to join me in the library for an apre Cuban and cognac?”
“Lead the way.” Bobby gives me another wink.
I’m expecting dark paneling and leather bound books in floor-to-ceiling shelves as Dexter places his palm on a scanner that triggers the locks on a pair of doors that look like they could stop a Mongol Horde. I was wrong about the books. The shelves are filled with Asian antiquities: Ming vases, jade figurines, terra cotta sculptures, lacquer boxes, ivory animals. The hardwood floor is strewn with hand-woven tribal rugs that reflect more colors and countries than Katie’s body map.
“Exquisite.” Bobby whispers it the same way he does when we’re creeping a temple.
Dexter goes to an enormous desk, opens a humidor, and pulls out three cigars the size of the truncheons favored by Ghurkas. We get them going using a gold lighter with the initials CD engraved on it. It’s the logo of Dexter’s firm, Capital Dexterity. He flicks a switch and the smoke from our stogies forms into a whirling column as dark as a tornado and disappears into a ceiling vent.
“Specially designed centrifuge system,” Dexter boasts. “Removes smoke from anywhere in the room, thus eliminating the risk of nicotine staining the artifacts or odor permeating the fabrics.”
“Sucks it right up the air shaft and spits it out into the night sky, does it?” Bobby says eyeballing the grate which is about the width of his shoulders.
“Quite. My own design.”
“Brilliant.” Bobby puffs his cigar until the ember matches the gleam in his eye.
It may be three years since Bobby and I last worked a job together, but I can still read him like a blueprint to an underground vault filled with religious relics. I shake my head to tell him don’t even think about it, chances are he’d get stuck in the air shaft dropping down from the roof, that it’s sure to be alarmed with an armed response to go with it, but he can’t stop grinning. One thing about Bobby, once he gets an idea in that curly head of his, it’s like shine on gold.
With Dexter posing like he’s Winston Churchill, I take a stroll around. His collection is a couple of couch trips past obsession. There’s got to be at least $5 million worth and that’s just what a fence like old Kents and Sunglasses would pay before turning around and selling them for 10 times that to private collectors who don’t worry about where they came from or how they were gotten.
I circle back and find Bobby and Dexter sitting in wingchairs clutching crystal snifters that could fit a goldfish and a sunken ship and pour myself a generous slug. “Here’s to you, Dex,” I say, swallowing the cognac along with my envy. “Your collection’s bigger than the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s.”
“One does what one can. As Robert so eloquently stated, preservation of a culture is paramount. I would also add it is one’s duty.”
Bobby starts swirling his cognac until the amber liquid is mimicking a hypnotist’s spiral. He tilts the snifter so it catches the beam from one of the track lights. The crystal acts like a prism and Bobby makes the fractured lights dance. Dexter can’t take his eyes off them.
“Dexter, old chap,” he says soothingly. “I’m guessing there’s a special objet d’art that holds fascination above all others.”
Dexter keeps watching the spinning sparkles, but after a few moments puts his cognac down, and walks across the room. A narrow Japanese scroll depicting a samurai and geisha locked in a Kama Sutra clench hangs on the wall. He tugs it like an old-fashioned bell cord signaling a butler it’s time for tea. A motor whirs and a panel on the wall slides open. My crystal snifter shatters on the hardwood floor as our old friend, Little Buddha, shiny as he was the day we stole him, smiles back.
On the drive home Katie’s snores from the backseat are louder than the hybid’s engine. I jab a chin at Bobby. “How did you know Dexter had it?”
“Kim let me know when it changed hands last year.”
“Old Kents and Sunglasses. He still smoking three packs a day?”
“Like a Shanghai steel factory.”
“What happened to the original buyer, the Saudi prince or whatever he was?’
“Ran into cash flow problems. Guess the bet he made on launching the first Mid-Eastern online dating site didn’t work out so good.” Bobby’s grin is positively halogen. “I warned you when you put your half of the take into that app business high tech’s got a short shelf life. Today’s must-have gadget is tomorrow’s must-take to the recycling bin. Stick with antiquities, amigo, the older the better. They never go out of style.”
I know he’s right, but don’t want to admit it. “You’ll never get away with it, Bobby. Dexter’s got that place wired to the teeth.”
“Don’t you mean ‘we’?”
I slap the Prius’s steering wheel. “How many times I got to tell you? I’m legit now. Nothing’s going to make me risk prison and losing Katie.”
As smooth as Bobby’s lines are, they work even better when he doesn’t say anything at all. We ride the rest of the way in silence. Katie’s all but sleepwalking as I guide her down the hall and deposit her on the bed. My cell pings before I can brush my teeth. It’s a text from lawyer-boy: Confirm ur competition has major nu investor. Settlement a no go. Ur lawsuit a no go. BTW, need 2 resign as ur attorney. Conflict of Interest. I just signed Capital Dexterity as a client.
LOL. He didn’t sign off with that, but I know it’s what he’s thinking. Laugh at this, I say, and text back, FU.
I’m hot. There’s no denying it. I can see Dexter laughing it up back in his big old mansion. Laughing at me knowing the whole time at dinner my app business was heading for the crapper thanks to him, just another skidmark on the information superhighway. I storm out of the bedroom. I don’t bother knocking on the guestroom door. Bobby’s sitting on the bed checking over the items in his go bag: a black backpack that holds picks, wire cutters, a coil of rope, assorted climbing hardware, and his Beretta Nano Parabellum.
He looks up, expressionless. “You sure?”
“You know we do this thing, Dexter’ll know it was us.”
“I want him to. As long as all we snatch is Little Buddha there’s nothing he can do about it. He can’t report it because there’s no way he’s got any paper on it. No sales receipt. No customs declaration. No nada.”
Bobby nods. “You thought through the how?”
“We’ll take the Prius. He’ll never hear us coming.” I see myself belaying Bobby down the air shaft, hauling him back up with our little gold friend, getting away getting 54 miles to the gallon.
“What about spiriting Señor Buddha out of the country?”
I grin, feeling the old adrenaline kicking in. “Easy. I know where Dexter hangars his G350. We’ll fly it down to Panama and find a nightclub to meet Kim at where he can smoke all the Kents he wants.” I give it a couple of beats. “I got an app for that.”
Bobby’s smile is wider than the zipper on his go bag. “Hawk the statue and the hot plane, too. Score two for our side. It’s good to have you back, compadre. Why the sudden change of heart?”
“You remember that thing you were always talking about in Kathmandu?”
“You mean karmic destiny?”
“Yeah, what goes around comes around.” I pull the Pashmina from my pocket, picturing the look on Dexter’s face when he tugs the Japanese scroll and sees the scarf tied in a big purple bow around the pedestal where Little Buddha once sat. “Sometimes Karma’s a bitch.”
Dwight Holing is the author of “California Works” from Snake Nation Press. His short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Arts & Letters, Cold Mountain Review, Cutthroat, Los Angeles Times, Oregon Quarterly, Phoebe, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Reach him through his website, dwightholing.com.