CHAPTER 5 - LET'S MAKE A DEAL
Let’s Make a Deal
To the child all is wonder,
Dangers appear as harmless games.
To the mother all is peril,
She sees the Reaper in the flames.
The morning after the investment dinner, Arlo Jofre woke from a deep and dreamless sleep at precisely 5:30 AM. He hadn’t needed an alarm clock, even though he went to bed just four hours earlier. He rose before the sun as a habit, his body never failing to wake him up at the same time. The Spaniard threw the covers off and began his morning routine. While his espresso was brewing on the stove, he did some calisthenics in the kitchen to get his blood pumping, starting with jumping jacks. Just as he finished a set of push-ups, the sound of steam pushing the high-octane liquid up through the brewer let him know his caffeine was ready. He grabbed an old ceramic mug from the cabinet above the sink and poured enough steaming espresso to fill the large mug to the brim. He did not add sugar, cream, or milk, as he liked the bitterness of espresso served black. Arlo took a breath and chugged the piping hot liquid down in one gulp as methodically as taking a dose of cough syrup. The heat of the espresso brought his mind to life and awakened his senses. After setting the empty coffee mug down into the sink, he moved on to his breakfast, which consisted of two hard-boiled eggs, one can of sardines, and two pieces of untoasted bread. Eating the eggs took two bites, one for each egg. Eating the can of sardines took only three bites. Arlo then used one piece of the bread to sop up all the juices and remnants from the sardine can. This took exactly four bites, as he took his time and enjoyed these bites the best. He rolled up the second piece of bread into a ball and popped it into his mouth. This took one bite. He washed it all down with room temperature tap water. All in all, breakfast had taken ten bites and two drinks…very efficient. He felt rejuvenated as he shirked off his pajamas and headed to the shower. The streams of water came out ice cold as they sprayed his face. Arlo shivered involuntarily as the shock of cold water on warm morning skin blasted the rest of the cobwebs from his weary body and mind. As usual, his shower lasted no longer than 3-4 minutes. The shortages of wartime had made him accustomed to hurried ice cold showers, and ever since then he had not been able to enjoy anything different.
Throughout his morning routine Arlo had been thinking of the problem with the Keyser property. Arlo had initially been tasked to head up research on the Ottakring property, and he had come to the same agreement as the rest of William’s investment partners...this was as close to a “sure thing” as you could get, and they had to act now. William trusted Arlo, and when Arlo said they had to move, then William got the ball rolling. William Ernst was in a very tight spot. He could not, under any circumstances, let any of his partners or investors know the deal was in jeopardy. Because of all the new players involved, especially Mr. Douglas Carpenter, there was a zero percent chance of William scrapping the project and coming out unscathed. Arlo had complete faith in his mentor and employer, but he sometimes wondered if William would do the truly ugly things that this kind of predicament demanded if there were to ever be a resolution. Arlo formulated a plan of action if things went south. He always had a plan.
Arlo dressed himself in a black tailored suit with subtle red pinstripes. He checked the suit meticulously for wrinkles and lint, and plucked a few strings off the lapel before it could pass inspection. He wore a white dress shirt and a thin black tie that matched his outfit. He put on black cufflinks lined in gold and a Swiss timepiece given to him as a gift by his employer. To complete the ensemble, Arlo grabbed his favorite accessories: one Walther P38 pistol, one silencer, and several rounds of extra ammunition. He placed the pistol and silencer into his shoulder holster. The shoulder holster had been custom made by one of Arlo’s ex-military friends with a special place for the pistol’s silencer attachment. The spare ammo had it’s own place in his jacket. He didn’t bother inspecting his equipment, as he knew it was clean, loaded, and ready for action. On the way out the door he slipped on his shiny black dress shoes and headed down to pickup Mr. Ernst at his residence.
William Ernst was up at the crack of dawn thinking of the Ottakring project. The project had started smoothly, but was now at a complete standstill. This stoppage was due to just one main issue, the current tenants on the property. Initially, four houses sat on four pieces of property that they needed to acquire. Three of the owners were very eager to sell and had been easy to work with. There was some negotiating involved, but nothing out of the ordinary. William’s group now controlled seventy-five percent of the land they desired. That left one house, one grimy, old, shack of a house that William detested. It was a sore spot on the landscape and needed to be razed years ago. As some type of bizarre irony, the house had come through unscathed in the occupation and bombings of WWII, but could easily have been mistaken for a casualty of the war. The house itself was not as important as where it was located. The old home sat on a key piece of land that was critical to the building plans. The current owners were the Keyser family. The house, along with the surrounding real estate acreage, had been passed down from a great grandfather or some such relation, and now Bruno and Carletta Keyser existed there with their 12-year old son, Charlie and their 6-year old daughter Marta. Marta suffered from a debilitating condition that left her unable to walk. William hated himself for thinking this way, but he saw little Marta as a sweet spot to convince the Keysers to sell. With the second round of funds raised, and all investors on board, William needed to pay the Keysers another visit personally to try and convince them to see common sense. This was not something he wanted Arlo to go and handle alone, as things could get...messy...when Arlo worked unsupervised. Besides, he was confident he could get Bruno and Carletta to see reason and take the money.
He made passing greetings to his wife and children eating breakfast in the kitchen. He could not have said exactly what he said or to whom he said it. His mind was working in overdrive formulating his plan for this morning. He grabbed a sausage off of his eldest daughter Bridgette’s plate and gathered his things. She said something to him that sounded like, “Sure, take it dad, I’m not hungry anyway.” But he didn’t pay much attention and kept walking. He acknowledged his wife with an obligatory smile and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Bye, dear! Goodbye kids!” he shouted back towards the kitchen as he walked towards the front door. He heard the murmured, unenthused replies from his teenagers, and a cheerful, “Bye Honey, have a good day.” from his wife. He was already halfway down the walk when Arlo pulled into the driveway. The Mercedes did a quick turn in the driveway and rolled to a stop in front of him.
“Good morning, sir.” Arlo, said as he hopped out of the driver’s seat to get the door for William. His eyes and ears assessed his boss’s mood and waited for a reply. William didn’t bother with eye contact as he slid into the backseat and pulled a folder out of his briefcase with details on the Keyser property. He sat down and waited for Arlo to get back in the car.
“Call me William when it’s just us, OK, Arlo? I get enough of the sir nonsense at the office. Let’s get going, please. I need to think. No talking, just drive. Take the long way, and let me know when we get close. And be careful pulling out this time, if you run over my wife’s flowers again she’ll kill us both.”
Arlo simply nodded and said, “You got it, boss.” He carefully steered out of the driveway and down the streets to get to the main streets of Vienna.
With Arlo at the wheel, William rode along in his vintage Mercedes Benz to the Keyser’s property. He allowed himself a few moments to daydream as they drove the streets of Vienna. The sights of the city blurred into visual mush as his mind began to think of what could be and what might have been. He had not been sleeping well, and he soon began to doze off to the symphony of sounds that one experiences when sitting in the back seat of a car. Last night he had meant to go to bed earlier, but he wanted to avoid Sophie’s questions, and so he pretended he had a very important call to make in his study. She went to bed, and he paced in the office until he was too tired to stand.
William’s mind would not rest on the way to the Keyser house. His thoughts started and stopped. Ideas came and went. Then it hit him. He sprang up in his seat. His father! His father could help. Of course he would have a great deal of convincing to do, but if today didn’t go as planned he could just go see his father. Hmmm…would it be too risky, too dangerous? Maybe things weren’t that dire after all.
“William? Sir? Everything alright?” Arlo was staring at William through the rearview mirror. Seeing William spring up in his seat had made the driver take notice. “Are you OK, sir?”
“I’m fine, Arlo.” William said with a smile. He breathed a bit easier and said to his talented young protégé, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
“Wait, what did you say? I’m sorry, I’m not getting…” Arlo gave a confused look back to his boss, who cut in mid-sentence.
“It’s Mozart, Arlo. Mozart said that. Of course, it’s absolutely true. I always get my best ideas in the car or while taking a walk. Think about it.” William stared out the window as if the subject was closed. They drove on for about five more minutes in silence.
Arlo’s accented voice brought him back to focus, “Sir, we’re just about here. You asked me to let you know.”
William yawned and stretched out his neck. “Yes, thank you. Right then, this is our stop.” Arlo began to slow and turned into the long, old-fashioned driveway. As William glanced around the yard he felt like everything had instantly become rusty, old, and dirty. The Keysers appeared worse off than he remembered. This was his third trip out to their home, and hopefully his last.
“Looks like old Bruno is waiting for us on the porch.” Arlo, looked on with interest and disgust as he pulled the car to a stop in front of the once elegant home.
William didn’t reply, but instead took a deep breath, and opened up his door. He put on a smile, and as he stepped out he looked up at Bruno Keyser, who was sitting out front in an old chair with a beer already in hand. He was wearing some old worker’s pants and a faded undershirt that could no longer be described as any particular color. The shirt carried the same strains and stains of hard living as it’s owner. Both had certainly seen better days. William walked up to the front entrance of the house and greeted the weathered man, “Good day to you Bruno…”
Bruno cut him off and answered a little too loudly, “What do you want, William. I’m busy today, and I...uh...have things to do.”
“Of course, I apologize for the intrusion, it’s just that it’s very important, and I only need a few moments. Shall we go sit inside?”
“Ahhhh important huh? Very well. Let’s go into the kitchen. Bring your Spanish guard dog along. I could barely understand his gibberish when he called to let me know you were coming. Teach him how to speak like a local if he’s going to live here!” Bruno let out a gruff laugh and gestured to Arlo, who was leaning against the car smoking a cigarette.
Arlo knew better than to respond, so he took a long drag on his cigarette and then put it out with the bottom of his shoe in the driveway. In his mind, he pictured squashing that jerk into the gravel under his feet, and it made him smile.
The two men turned and walked into the Keyser’s house, followed by Arlo. After a few more forced pleasantries, William tried again to convince Bruno that selling his property was in his best interest. They were sitting in the kitchen, and William had the honor of sitting next to a half-eaten plate of cold sausages left on the table. The conversation was getting nowhere and William was getting flustered. He felt the stress boiling up in him and decided to turn up the heat. A wry smile came over his face and he looked directly into the bloodshot eyes of the man on the other side of the table.
“Listen to me, Bruno. I will give you double the fair market value of this house. I will buy all of the land as well, at a price you can not dream of! Think what you could do with the money! You could do anything, move anywhere!” William was sitting in the Keyser’s kitchen on an old chair that had seen far better days. Bruno was across from him shaking his head slowly and glaring back at William. As always, Bruno had his flask handy and took a long pull before speaking. It was windy outside and William could hear the old fashioned windows rattling in their panes. Arlo stood quietly in the corner, arms folded across his tailored suit. He watched everything and nothing, a fly on the wall, a viper ready to strike.
Tendrils of veins popped out across Bruno’s forehead as he snapped back at William; “I won’t listen to anymore of this, Ernst. I don’t need your filthy money and I will not sell! I can take care of my own family. My great grandfather built this house to stay in our family for generations. You may be rich but you do not own me. Besides why would I move? This is my home, and I know how much this land is worth. I’m not selling just so you can build whatever monstrosity it is that you’re planning!” Bruno was forty years old, but he looked closer to sixty, a combination of a hard life and even harder living. He had an unfortunate face that looked almost comical with constantly reddened cheeks and a bulbous nose. His voice was shaky and he had this way of speaking that made you think he was going to tire of exhaustion after every sentence. The words quivered from his chapped lips, “I have told you at least ten times that we will not sell. My land is all I have left and I will not concede…not for any price! Let us live in peace!”
At that moment Bruno’s wife, Carletta, walked in the kitchen carrying little Marta Keyser. Carletta took in the scene in front of her and stared intently at William and then at her husband. William forced a smile as he looked at the sad pair. Carletta looked ragged and exhausted. Little Marta’s legs looked like frail twigs. The skin on them was dry and cracked. Her blonde hair was tied up in a pretty red bow and she wore a red polka dot dress that looked to have been made from old curtains. Carletta did the best she could with what she had, but William knew that the Keysers could not afford the necessary treatments and therapy to help Marta live a somewhat normal life. The sweet little girl was nuzzled up to her mother’s shoulder and staring at the two men in her kitchen. “Momma, can you take me outside now? I want to go play and chase the birdies.”
When Marta spoke, Bruno turned and gave her a look and a weak smile. “Carletta, can you please leave us be? Our guests are going to be leaving in just a few minutes. Go now. Take Marta for some fresh air.” Carletta looked at her husband pleadingly and started to speak, but she just shook her head and walked out of the room and in the direction of the nearby park. William thought he caught a tear forming in the corner of her eye.
William felt he had the mother on his side now. The pieces were falling into place. It was now or never. He had to press the issue and get this done today. There was too much at stake for him to come up empty today. The men stared at each other, the tension boiling over between them. Bruno began to speak but William interrupted him. William stood up and pounded the table with his fists. Dust motes flew as he yelled at the man across the table. “Wake up, Bruno! Look at your daughter! My God, she needs help. This is no life for her! I will pay for everything, all her treatments, the best doctors...just sell me this land. I can pay you in cash today.”
Bruno just stared back at him becoming even more red faced and his hands trembling. He stared and seethed at the rich man. He spit on the floor as he rose to confront his aggressor. “Take your mountain of cash and GO TO HELL!” Bruno was mustering all the strength he had into that yell. He was on the verge of tears. He was...defiant.
The arrogance in the drunk’s tone pushed William over the edge. He was pacing now and stuck his finger in Bruno’s face. “Bruno, you fool! You LIVE in Hell! You CANNOT take care of your family. Look how you live in this squalor. Your daughter needs help, but she cannot get it because you spend every cent of money on your booze. Your wife looks ready to collapse if anything else is piled on her.” He let that sink in. After a pause, William softened his voice a bit and pleaded with Bruno, “Take my offer, Bruno. Please. Be a man and start over fresh. You need to do this. You need to listen to your wife. There is no shame in...”
“Enough! Enough! Enough!” Shouted Bruno as he cut William off and flipped over the kitchen table. Bruno moved towards William and flashed a small blade with a quickness William would not have believed he possessed. The little switchblade drew a drop of blood as he held it against the soft flesh under William’s chin. “You don’t tell me what I need to do! You don’t come in MY house and tell me how to take care of MY family! You think you can buy everyone with your filthy, stinking money.” The liquor on his breath smelled sour as it wafted through the short distance between them. “Get out and never come back here! I swear if I see you or your foreign goon here again I will kill you both!” Before Bruno could blink Arlo had pulled out a gun and was aiming it directly at Bruno’s forehead. The soft click as Arlo pulled back the hammer, seemed to echo throughout the room. Things were spinning into madness. William needed to get control of the situation.
“No, No, Arlo. He’s not worth it. Put the gun away, please.” Nothing. Arlo stared daggers into Bruno. William started again, “Put that gun down NOW, Arlo. Do it now.” William forced himself to take slow, deep breaths. He willed calm upon himself and stared at Bruno. “Let’s all calm down. That’s enough. Put down the knife now, Bruno. We’ll go. No one needs to get hurt, we’ll leave right now.”
Without a word, Arlo complied, and slipped the gun back into his jacket and his body into the background. William straightened his suit, brushed off the dust or God knows what had flown from the table onto his suit, and stared at Bruno. He spoke to Bruno in a low voice. He talked to him as a disappointed parent speaks to a petulant teenager. “You are a fool, Bruno. I won’t make this offer again, but I WILL have this land one way or another. Give my regards to Charlie. I am sure he is busy at his job, toiling away his youth to fund your addiction.” With that William stomped out and slammed the door leaving Bruno fuming in the kitchen. Bruno yelled some obscenities, but William didn’t listen as he made a beeline for the car.
Arlo caught up in time to open the door, and placed a hand on William’s shoulder. “Boss, let me take care of this. He threatened your life in there. I can put one between his eyes and shut him up for good. I’ll keep this clean and out of your hands. I swear I can…”
William turned and glared at Arlo, “Quiet Arlo, and not another word. Do you honestly think I am going to order cold-blooded murder? You sound like the Gestapo. I need a minute. Drive me somewhere to think. GO!”
Arlo let out a frustrated sigh, slammed the door, and drove the car down to a spot where William could watch the Danube and think in peace.
Young Charlie Keyser sat quietly at the top of the stairs, gripping the spindle until his knuckles turned white. He had watched the whole situation unfold and could not unglue himself from the spot. His father was an embarrassment. Their family was crumbling. He had to do something. Charlie let his tears dry and after five minutes he calmly walked down the stairs to find his father sitting on the kitchen floor drinking a bottle of wine. His head was tilted up at the ceiling and Charlie could see red puffy eyes and tear stained cheeks. His father looked like a wounded animal waiting to die. Charlie had no pity, and frankly it made him sick and he snapped. The wave of calm evaporated. It was time to stand up to the old man.
“Father, how could you do that? We need that money!” His father just started at the ceiling…lifeless and pathetic. Charlie took a few strides towards his old man and ripped the bottle out of his hands. “Hey! You selfish old drunk! Don’t you get it? We need that money for Marta! For me! How can I ever get out of this dump, if I don’t go to University? Hey! Are you even listening? Dad!” Charlie threw the bottle down and the shattering glass seemed to snap his father out of his trance.
Bruno took a labored deep breath and raised his eyes to look at this son towering above him. “Help your old man up, Charlie. I’ll explain.” Charlie bent down and took his father’s hand, pulling him onto his feet. Once he had a chance to steady himself he looked Charlie in the eyes and whispered, “Come closer, son, I need to explain. I need you to understand.” Charlie took a wary step towards the balding, paunchy man he used to respect. He calmed down a little and tried again...
“Father, I am sorry for yelling, I just don’t understand why you don’t…” The blow took Charlie completely off guard. With a sickening thud his father’s backhanded slap sent him reeling backwards into the cupboard. Dishes fell down around him like an avalanche and he could feel some blood trickling down the back of his neck and out of his nostrils.
“Stupid, stupid, Boy!” His father was screaming now, red faced and talking to no one and everyone at the same time. “You think you know better than me? Those people are no good! They think they can push us around because they have more money than they know what to do with. I work hard for my money, and I’m not going to take advice from a child who barely makes enough to buy the bread each week! If I could buy a new son who was worth a damn, I would take the offer gladly! Get out of my site you stupid, ungrateful brat!”
Charlie didn’t say anything. His face hurt too much. He glared at his father as he kept on ranting and raving, but Charlie wasn’t listening anymore. He had seen this whole song and dance before, and he had the bruises to prove it. He loved his mother and Marta, and he couldn’t let his father destroy their family like this. He didn’t make enough selling papers to do anything about it, so what was he going to do? He determined then, right there on the kitchen floor surrounded by broken plates, and with the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, that as soon as he had enough money for a train ticket he would sneak out his mother and Marta. They would jump on a train and never look back.
Two days later, on his way back to return his extra newspapers to the shop, Charlie took his usual shortcut through a back alley. His thoughts were in between the black eye he now wore, and adding up how much more money he needed to save to get three train tickets and leave Vienna. He already gave at least half of his paycheck each week to his mother for “groceries,” but he knew that meant father would spend it on booze first. He started calculating in his head, when all of the sudden his bicycle betrayed him and he went careening into some metal rubbish bins. He crawled onto his hands and knees and surveyed the damage. His arms and legs worked fine, but he had a pretty nasty cut running from his elbow to his wrist. The papers were a total loss. Some were covered in trash, and the rest were soaking up water from the storm drains. Upon further inspection of the scene, his worst fear was realized, “My wheel! It’s all bent out of shape. Oh God, and I have to pay for all of these papers now. They’re ruined! Father is going to kill me.”
“Not if you kill him first, Charlie.” A voice emerged from across the way, and Charlie snapped his head around to find a familiar face smiling at him. “Ha! Just teasing, kid! Get up.” The familiar face still held a metal rod in his hand. Charlie started to pull the pieces together.
“What’s your problem, you jerk! You could have broken my neck with a stupid stunt like that!” Charlie stood up to face his attacker.
“You’re that foreigner that pulled a gun on my Father!”
“Yes, Yes. And I should have pulled the trigger. Would’ve done you and your little sister some good.” Charlie was staring back at him with a bewildered look. “I’m KIDDING alright? Good grief, do you think I’m a killer? Don’t answer that. Ha!” Charlie let out a nervous chuckle. “I just want to talk. Stop looking at me like that. It’s a little scratch, not half as bad as that shiner your dad gave you, kid.” Arlo pointed to his car at the end of the alleyway. “Let’s take a little drive. We need to talk somewhere a little more private. I’ll even get that bike fixed for you. Throw it in the trunk.”
Charlie just stared, confused and curious, at this man who had shown up at his house with William Ernst. He realized he was trapped and that he had to go with this guy. He didn’t have the money to replace the bike or the papers. “OK. Fine, but where are we going? I can’t be gone too long. You obviously know how my dad is, and he’s not going to be happy if I drop off the face of the earth.”
“Don’t worry, I know how he is, and I don’t want to see you with another busted lip. We won’t be more than an hour or two. We just need a quiet place to chat.” Arlo took a breath and talked softly to Charlie, “Look kid, I have an idea that is going to solve all of your problems and my problems at the same time. No one’s gonna get hurt. You want to see your sister get some help right?” Charlie nodded and mouthed an agreement. “Right, so do I. Now let’s move before someone see us together. Don’t forget that bike. We’ll get it all fixed up. Let’s go.” Arlo turned and walked back to the car. He didn’t need to turn around to see if the Keyser boy followed, he knew he would.