Chapter 24, NEW YEAR'S EVE - EASTERN AND WESTERN PROMISES
The noisy Griboyedov club in St. Petersburg erupted in celebratory chaos as the clock countdown struck midnight and announced the 'old year' was history. While hundreds of revelers hugged and danced in the New Year, a group of men huddled around a table in a private room at the rear of the former air-raid shelter that had been turned into a nightclub several years earlier.
The kilo tin of Beluga caviar had been depleted of its expensive contents. Stripped bare. It listlessly floated in the water-filled crystal bowl - the ice had almost completely melted. The linen under the Baccarat vessel was littered with the remains of chopped egg, sour cream and cold bilinis. Strewn around the table were empty bottles of Putinka vodka, Dom Perignon Champagne and glassware of various shapes.
"The old year has been shit," said Kiril, as he raised his glass. "Here's one final salute to our comrades who are no longer with us." Some habits were hard to change. Kiril was more capitalist than the 'capitalist pigs' that the old Communist diehards used to bray about.
"And to a better year ahead," another man replied with a slight slur. He held his glass of vodka in front of him and waited for the other four men to do the same.
"Once burned by milk you will blow on cold water. Or vodka." Kiril nodded and tilted back his head for the first drink of the New Year. He still smarted from the loss of his business associates. Moscow, London, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All scenes of devastating carnage. "It was a mistake to underestimate the American and his organization. Next time will be different. Our Chukotka friend in London was not amused. "
"Yes, Kiril, we must be more diligent in the future. You cannot pull a fish out of a pond without labor."
"Nor does a tiger change his stripes." He almost choked on the words of this old Chinese proverb. There was enough evidence to suggest that members of Shanghai's Tu family were duplicitous on the 'hits' to his Moscow operations. "I'm sure Gallian is still in charge...no matter how it's disguised." Kiril picked up a gold foil filter Black Sobranie, put it in his mouth and waited to be serviced. He didn't have to wait long - three lighters were immediately flicked for a flame. Kiril grunted, took one of the man's hands holding the nearest lighter and brought the fire to the end of his cigarette.
The men silently shook their heads in unison while the faint beat of disco music and cheering continued in the background.
Eight hours later, three men, all dressed in dark suits, commanded a prime table at Daniel, the award-winning restaurant on E. 65th Street in Manhattan. Mr. Gallian had asked Lou and Spike to join him for a quiet New Year's Eve dinner at this famed restaurant. 'Dining with my youngest and his new friend is a fitting way to usher in the New Year. Spike seems to be right for Lou,' he thought as he sliced into the sea bass, 'both as a loyal friend and a bright guy.'
"Dad, I think it's time to bring in the New Year," Lou said. He nodded to the sommelier and silently mouthed, "Champagne".
"In three minutes," Spike replied as he looked at his watch. He gripped Lou's hand and smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Gallian for including me tonight."
'Thank you for indulging me. This room brings back fond memories." Daniel had been his wife's favorite restaurant. Mr. Gallian looked up as the sommelier quietly set out three champagne flutes. When the Roederer Cristal, 2000, was presented, he said, "Please pour."
"She's resting in peace and looking over us." Lou continued to hold Spike's hand while he reached for his dad's hand with the other.
"And she'll help guide us through a much happier year ahead." Father and son held their hands quietly for a moment. Then, Mr. Gallian stretched his arm across the table and smiled at Spike. "Take hold and complete the circle of life." His son's partner had an equally firm and warm clasp. 'This is a good sign,' he decided. Also a good sign was an overseas phone call he had taken earlier that evening from a Gallant Security detail in St. Petersburg. 'If those bastards even think about making another move, they'll be toast.'
Three hours later, Bette Midler was finishing her scripted and choreographed performance in the Aragon showroom. After racing through the song, "If You're Crackin' Up from a Lack o' Shackin' Up," she had the crowd laughing uncontrollably with her 'Soph and Ernie' jokes.
Bette got a huge response from one of the final jokes. She paused at the center of the stage, impishly grinned and said, "I will never forget it you know? It was on the occasion of Ernie's eightieth birthday. He rang me up and said, 'Soph! Soph! I just married myself a twenty-year old girl. What do you think of that?' I said to him, 'Ernie, when I am eighty I shall marry me a twenty-year old boy. And let me tell you something Ernie: Twenty goes into eighty a heckova lot more than eighty goes into twenty'."
Drew watched Cray and Michael as their expressions changed from puzzlement to broad grins to shared laugher. Bob nudged Drew and they nodded. 'Our boy is definitely growing up,' Drew thought as the lights lowered and a single spot focused on the star.
The orchestration led into the opening bars of "Friends" and Bette instantly changed the mood in the showroom. All of her fans knew this was the concluding number and no one moved. Several held hands as she made her way through the lyrics. The final stanzas left several with moist eyes:
And I'm standing at the end of a real long road
And I'm waiting for my new friends to come.
I don't care if I'm hungry or freezin' cold,
I'm gonna get me some of them.
'Cause you gotta have friends,
That's right, friends, friends.
I gotta me my, I gotta me my, I gotta me my,
Look around and see all of my friends.
Oh, friends, that's right, friends, friends,
Friends, friends, friends, friends, oh,
Friends, you gotta have friends . . .
Silence. Complete silence as the stage went dark. Spontaneously, applause started and swelled throughout the room. The lighting suddenly was brought up and the orchestra played an upbeat, brassy arrangement of "Friends" as the entire ensemble of the entertainers came on stage for several bows. Finally, a diminutive Bette, now wearing a sequined cocktail dress and tall high-heels, trotted out in a baby-step shuffle to a standing ovation. Flowers were tossed and several men walked up to the lip of the stage with bouquets. She graciously bowed and received each floral arrangement.
Before leaving the stage, she reminded everyone that the service staff would be "schlepping" glasses of champagne for everyone in the audience and cautioned them not to leave. "We're planning on a big bang of a welcome for the New Year here at the Barcelona. Honey, just like this hotel, we do everything big." She grinned, wiggled her eyebrows and added, "We'll be back on stage in a few minutes when the clock strikes midnight to sing a final song." She took a few bows with her Harlettes backup group and slipped behind the curtains as the orchestra played Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
"Guys, I hope you don't mind that I asked for us to be served sparkling cider," Drew said as the waiters started down the aisles with trays of champagne and cider. "We can have the real thing at home tomorrow for brunch." He didn't think having alcoholic beverages at the hotel was a good idea because of the importance of the evening. 'If I had to get involved with a guest problem,' he reasoned, 'having had anything to drink would be a liability.'
"Sitting here with my two dads and my hot boyfriend is great enough," Cray replied. "At this point, I'd settle for a bottle of water." He playfully patted Drew on the back and added, "I'm just happy that you could join us on this busy night."
"I wish I could have had dinner with you guys but I needed to float around." Drew had the flexibility to move around the resort and check in with Bob, Cray and Michael throughout the evening. As it was, he missed half the show. "I saw your dad, Michael. He's busy minting gold at the slots but looks forward to coming over for brunch." The plan was for Michael to stay overnight at their house and Bud Turner would join them in the morning with his new friend from UNLV.
"That's cool." Michael casually placed his arm around Cray's shoulder. Their secluded box seats gave the guys a little privacy. "Guess it's kinda like all the in-laws getting together. Dad's really looking forward to you meeting the professor. It's getting serious and I think Cray may have another father-in-law."
Cray just beamed and looked at Michael. The waiter offered each guy a glass of sparkling cider and walked away. Cray brushed his cheek and said, "These are happy tears. Thanks to all of you for making this the best New Year's Eve of my life."
"Bud, this is probably my best New Year's Eve, too." Bob put his hand on Drew's leg for a moment and squeezed it.
"I second the motion." Drew looked at Cray and thought, 'Wonder where his real dad is tonight. He walked away from quite a gift.'
Further north on Las Vegas Boulevard, Mario was stretched out on a large sofa with his head resting in the lap of a gorgeous blond woman. They had been part of a small, catered dinner party at Mighty Joe Strollo's penthouse at the Pompeii Towers. The dessert and final toast had been served in time for most of the group to move over to New Year's Eve festivities at The Hilton showroom. It was not lost on the guests - including Vince Ditello, Sr. - that Mighty Joe had asked Mario to remain at the penthouse.
"Veronica, could you let me borrow Mario for a few minutes?" Joe asked buxom model in a rhetorical manner. "I need to discuss a few things with him in the den." Joe turned on the large plasma television screen that hung over the fireplace. "You can watch Dick Clark and that 'figone frocio', Ryan Seacrest, do the countdown from Times Square." he added with a laugh. "Just joking about Seacrest."
"Hey, give ole Ryan a break. He's a metrosexual." Mario smiled as he moved around and stood up. He knew that Joe accepted his complex lifestyle and was just 'pulling chain'. "I'll be back in a few minutes and we can go to the show at the Hilton or to your suite," he said to his date. She had come over from Los Angeles for the long weekend and was staying at the Bellagio.
"Honey, I've seen Barry Manilow plenty of times," Veronica replied. "Let's enjoy that yummy suite you set up for me."
"Then the suite, it is." Mario took her hand, kissed her fingers and winked as he followed Joe out of the living room. 'She is tasty,' he thought as he walked down the hallway, 'but I was tempted by the stud waiter who helped serve dinner.' He patted the business card in his pocket and smiled. The waiter had slipped it to him when the dinner plates were being cleared. 'I may have to interview him next week and see if he's ready for a career change.'
"Cigar?" Joe asked when they sat down on a leather couch in the ebony wood-paneled den. He opened the humidor on the coffee table and pulled out a 'Churchill' cigar from Cuba.
"I'll pass on the cigar. Veronica doesn't like the taste of tobacco when we smooch." Mario wiggled his eyebrows a couple of times and added, "But I'll have a little Cognac if you don't mind." He waited for Joe to nod approval before he picked up the crystal decanter and poured the aged, amber-gold liquid into a balloon snifter.
"Just wanted to run over a few things to wrap up the old year." Joe held a flame below the end of the cigar and carefully lit the tobacco. He was satisfied when the ash glowed red and he slowly inhaled the smoke. After he was finished with the ritual, he reached into his pocket and brought out an envelope. "This is for you with gratitude from our associates in Detroit. They were more than pleased that none of the late Mr. Brownstein's personal papers and PDA fell into the hands of the police."
Mario finished a sip of Cognac and set down the snifter. "Our famous Mr. Brown was a gentleman," he said as he took the envelope and opened it. He smiled and nodded as he read the amount of the cashier's check made out to "Cash". The $125,000 was indeed a nice 'thank you'. "I think I mentioned that the young man who took care of that was given ten grand as a retirement bonus." He had deposited the money in Spike's bank account last week and sent a personal note to be read when Spike returned from New York.
"Good. You think fast on your feet and I appreciate that. In fact, that's the more important reason I've taken you away from Veronica for a few minutes. Ah, bona." Joe kissed his fingers as an exclamation before taking another puff of his cigar. "Things are going to be a little different starting right now. I'll be spending more time back East as part of a re-organization. Therefore, the 'board' and I would like you to move into my spot as head of the day-to-day operations in Vegas. Capisce?"
"Joe, I'm honored. Wow." Mario picked up the snifter, swirled it under his nose and inhaled as he thought about the offer. He knew that it was not his choice to decline but there was always room to clarify and negotiate. "Where would I live and how should I handle the escort operations? It's not a bad lifestyle."
"Already handled. Our corporation has bought the house next to your place. With a little landscaping and a new wall, it'll be a nice compound. You'll have more privacy and space to set up a secure office. The only thing that you need to figure out is who might replace you as the stud in charge. Any thoughts?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do. Young guy by the name of Brad. He's a sharp guy who needs a little seasoning. Let me work on that." Mario's first choice, Spike, was now history...and it was for the best. His young friend had a very promising legitimate career ahead. "If that's all, Boss, I'm going to take Veronica over to her suite and fuck our brains out." He set down his snifter and stood up.
"Go for it." Joe joined Mario and brought him into a tight, bear hug. He kissed Mario on both cheeks and said, "This town ain't seen anything, yet."
"And a Happy New Year to you," Jack Gamble offered to the cheery, slightly inebriated couple as they left the Mistral dining room and walked over to the elevator. He was relieved that they were hotel guests and wouldn't be leaving the Loews Coronado Bay Resort Hotel until the next day. As the scheduled manager on duty for the New Year's holiday weekend, he was on the lookout for guests who needed a cab to drive them back across the bridge to San Diego.
He had volunteered to work this holiday so his colleagues who were married or had significant others could go out and party-in the New Year. Being Front Desk Manager at the hotel normally didn't entail late evenings so he observed the wind-down of New Year's Eve and the pooped participants with some amusement. His big excitement for the evening would be a Grand Slam breakfast when he got off work in a couple of hours. 'Life is good,' he thought while standing watch behind the marble desk. After a few stumbles and one major crash in his personal life, Jack had licked his wounds and pulled himself together. Professionally, he was determined to be a model manager and so far - with his file full of favorable reviews - he had been successful.
The 80's were now a hazy memory. He had returned to his hometown, Provo, after serving a four-year hitch in the Army and found a job at the Marriott as a bellman. His mom and dad had moved away several years before but he always had warm feelings for the mid-size Utah community. It was, he decided, a good place to re-enter the civilian world. The small apartment he found was actually a converted garage but had all the necessary conveniences. More importantly, it was something he could afford.
There was no incentive to go home in the evening and he found a cafe with a cozy bar along his route to and from work. After getting off his evening shift, it became a habit for Jack to stop in the place for a snack and a beer. This was where he met Edith Kramowski. She worked nights taking care of the tables and Jack considered her to be an attractive woman. Her sense of humor was always a little rough but the bawdy comments and innuendos didn't offend the veteran. He had heard worse while he was in boot camp. And later, while serving in the Army overseas, Jack's vocabulary became more diversified.
Wanking and shagging - slang that Jack picked up from the U.K. military forces during his tour in Afghanistan - were words with which Edith wasn't familiar. One night, he told her of his infrequent horny experiences with a British 'bloke' to relieve tension in their desert hellhole. "It was no big deal," was how he described it, "Just two guys getting off." There were seldom any available women and he had been open to the suggestion one night that he 'wank' with a Royal Artillery Regiment corporal with whom he'd become friendly. It was only a matter of time before the corporal offered his 'arse' to 'shag'.
"A hole was a hole," was how Jack had put it to Edith, "and a 20-year-old guy has needs." She just sloughed it off and referred to a guy screwing another guy as being creative in a time of war. What he didn't tell her was how good it was to also be on the receiving end - once his Brit fuck buddy had massaged and loosened him. He also didn't mention that 'blow jobs' were something else they had shared...several times. Nor did he reveal that the oral gratification reminded him of years earlier - when he was 16 - when he would go to a park near Brigham Young University and had become very friendly with some of the freshmen male students.
When Edith suggested he take her to his place to "get used to the real thing", he was happy to oblige. The late nights out and eventual sleepovers became a routine part of their lives and they both enjoyed the physical workouts. Sometimes, however, they drank a few beers too many and Jack wasn't always careful about taking the time to fumble for a rubber. The inevitable result was Edith's pregnancy, and because the woman fretted about the situation too long, abortion wasn't an option. When she finally revealed her status to the father-to-be, Jack took responsibility. He mumbled a proposal one night after a rather mechanical session in bed and they were off to Las Vegas the following weekend.
The only good thing to come from their union was his son, Cray. The woman who became his wife, at the end in name only, made life a living hell after the first couple of years together. Fortunately for their young son, she wasn't abusive and seemed to enjoy being around the child when it suited her. Edith eventually returned to working the evening shift at the cafe, which meant that Jack became the primary parent for the boy: he moved to a less-profitable day shift so he could watch over the infant in the late afternoon and evening. She immediately fell into a familiar pattern of coming home several hours after the dining room closed, which incubated some suspicions in his mind.
Between his working during the daytime and his wife's waitress job in the evening, they didn't have to be together very often. And having marital sex in their shared bed ranked somewhere between seldom and never. But as much as he disliked the activities of his wife and the sham of a marriage, his pride in raising Cray during those crucial early years was more than compensation. Jack accepted his fate and was determined to be the head of this dysfunctional family until his son was no longer a minor.
Edith, however, had other ideas. Jack found out later that among her dalliances was a man who had moved to Provo a few years earlier from Idaho. Gene Scarpino seemed to have a little money in addition to owning a decent house. Arguments led to an ultimatum from Edith that she wanted Jack out of her life - period. When Jack countered with the idea of divorce and taking Cray with him, she would not compromise. "You hit the road and I keep the kid...period," was how she put it in a particularly stormy confrontation. Apparently the new man in her life wanted to marry her and looked forward to being the father to a twelve-year-old boy - in fact, Gene insisted upon it. Jack could never understand why Scarpino was so anxious to be an instant father.
Finally, Edith threatened to go to the police and charge that Jack was molesting their son and allege that she had caught them in the act. His innocent story of getting it off with a British soldier now came back to bite him in the ass. He couldn't reason with the woman and knew her false charges would be treated very seriously. A child molester was the lowest form of a human being and he wouldn't stand a chance in the courts if it got that far. One day, they had a particular vicious argument and Edith told him to leave immediately or she would call the authorities to make good her threat and claim that he was a sexual predator of young boys, as well as "making it with other queers". He hastily packed his bags and was gone from their rented apartment before Cray returned from school. By midnight, his old but reliable VW Bug arrived in Los Angeles.
He sent one letter to Edith and asked her to reconsider the threats. A month later, Jack received 'no-contest' divorce documents with a note from her suggesting that, once they were officially divorced, Jack might be in contact with Cray. He reluctantly signed the papers with a notary and returned them promptly. Another month went by and he received his copy of the divorce decree. Then...nothing...period. Telephone calls to Cray resulted in hang-ups by Edith and mail to his son was never answered. Finally he gave up hope of seeing the boy and reluctantly concluded that the father-son relationship was permanently a part of his past. He loved his son and hoped that he had given Cray a solid enough foundation for the boy to successfully make it through the crazy teen years.
Jack found a bellman job at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel while he worked towards an associate degree at the community college. Three years later, he was offered a management trainee position with the company and transferred to San Diego and the resort in neighboring Coronado. And now he had been offered another transfer. The company had added the Las Vegas Resort to their roster and he had been asked to become the Assistant General Manager in charge of the rooms division. United Van Lines would be at his apartment next week to pack and move him. 'Wonder what living in Vegas will be like?' he thought as he said goodnight to another departing guest.
THE END...for now. May, 2008
The adventures will continue with Volume III, Shifting Sands, in the coming year.
A special acknowledgement to Drew for encouraging me to tell a better story through his edits and suggestions. And a big thanks to Brad for his patient proofreading and editing. Finally, a shout-out to Trab for the final tweaks to get the story 'just right.'
I enjoy receiving email comments. Give me a 'shout out' at email@example.com. My other stories can be found in Nifty's Prolific Authors listings and at www.GayAuthors.org.