Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tell Tale Signs - Chapter 1: 2 December

Yesterday a man approached me about a game. It would be fun, he promised. He would show me that my reluctance was misplaced, and perhaps, even a bit childish. I am not a man for games; I simply do not have the time. There are much better ways to pass the day, and the thought of dragging metal toys across a slab of fold out cardboard nauseates me.

“You win,” I told him. I was even willing to kick in a few bucks just so he would leave me alone.

“It’s one of a kind,” he promised.

Cognizant of the eyes upon me, I relented, and took a seat opposite him. Since I was new in town, I did not want to make myself out to be more of a prick than was already suspected, so I entertained the old geezer and his endless prattle.

“I could be home right now,” I thought to myself as we took turns dividing up our armies and placing them on the board. When not composing I can be found pouring over my archives, or acquiring a new skill. The thought of playing a board game was absurd at best, yet here I found myself.

My mind wandered from the game at hand to the sandy white beaches of my vacation home in Napili. I had made an investment years ago for a condo overlooking the ocean for the astronomical price of $195,000 in the late ‘80s. I had only purchased it because I knew I could rent it out the other fifty weeks of the year while I was away. After the first six months the condo began paying for itself and providing extra cash for my annual visit. Twelve years later property values skyrocketed and my humble two-bedroom two-bath condo with lanai peaked at $1.2 million.

I had not planned on selling the unit until a gentleman approached me much like this balding, old prune. Determined to wait it out, I could not wait until the property value soared past two million.

“How long will that be? Another ten years?” he asked. “Surges like this are rare. It won’t be long before the market corrects itself and inflation cuts your profits in half.”

“But I have a place to live, in case something happens,” I argued.

“In an expensive location with few jobs,” he replied. “You seem like a smart guy. No doubt you’ve already paid it off.”

“Actually, I purchased it outright,” I corrected.

“So why are you concerned about the free vacation that comes with your investment property? If you were to cash in, and put the money in the bank, you could retire right now.”

“Sorry, what was that?” I shook my head.

“Which will it be?” The old man replied.  “I’ll take the old shoe. Worn down by the passage of time, so many miles I have treaded in it, and so many more to go. Always useful and reliable, this old shoe. The name’s Travis, Travis Shoemaker.” He picked up the silver trinket and smiled.

Certainly I could pick one out if I were so inclined, but with my attention waning, and frustration painting a red cast to my face, I had to force myself to swallow my words and shake off my wretched demeanor. “The lightening bolt.” I pointed. “Seems to suit me well, Mr. Shoemaker.”

“All right, you go first.” He took a sip of coffee.

I rolled the dice, and moved the silver bolt along the outer band of squares. The interior featured fictitious landmasses that we had already divided up and fortified. I drew a card, and it read: “Transfer up to 5 units between any territories.” Alarmed at the burgeoning mass on my southern border, I decided to move my forces there. He chuckled, attacked my weakened frontier, rolled the dice, and then attacked again. The crusty old bastard was determined to teach me a lesson or two about stratagem, clever inroads that he was sure I had not traveled.

But if had known me, he would not have invited me to his table. When provoked, I am ruthless and unscrupulous. A wolf among sheep, always poised to strike. This is how I carved out my niche in the world: when backed into a corner, sometimes the best way out is through the corner. And if he wanted to place a wager on his boasts, I would gladly take his money, rip out his heart, and toss it into the fire along with his petty game. “You shouldn’t play games,” I warned.

“Life’s a game. You just didn’t realize that you were a player.” The gray-haired man with a neatly-trimmed goatee and pineapple shirt smiled. “I’ll write you a check now, and you can have the money free and clear. You can buy yourself another home back in the states, perhaps a four-bedroom house overlooking the ocean. You’ll still have enough money from the remaining balance to go on vacations for the rest of your life.”

I scratched my chin. “Or I could do nothing and continue accumulating wealth.”

“And continue working.” The old man shook his head. “What is it worth to you? How much do you clear each month? $1,000? At the most, $3,000?”

“Less than $3,000,” I replied. In fact, it was much less.

“What if I gave you the next ten years of profit right here and now? The sum of $360,000 can be withdrawn from a bank in Lahaina, broken up as you see fit, and added to your luggage as an extra carry-on. Tax-free. No one would have to know about it, just you and I. This, on top of the $1.2 million.”

I remembered the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below, and how I could barely breathe. “Why are you doing this? Why me?” I managed.

“Sorry?” Travis adjusted his glasses, and polished off his cup of coffee.

“Why me? The other patrons hang around and play all day.” I spied a pair of men playing a game of chess a few tables over. “They’re the experts, not me.”

“I am an inventor at heart. This is what I live for; I just haven’t been able to make a living at it yet. I love challenges, so I decided to design a board game this time round, and need feedback that is objective and untainted. The men that frequent these coffee shops are already locked into a particular mindset: predictable rules, wealth that is easily accumulated and maintained, the ability to dominate their peers…never concerned about acquiring insight or unique experiences when sitting down to play, where cooperation can breed surprising results. Every time I’ve asked for their help, they keep trying to get me to change my system to mirror their favorites. They are miraculously dim and unimaginative; besides, no one wants another knock off.

“I guess that’s the trouble with asking an expert. Familiarity stifles the adventurous spirit. They bemoan how the game is played, not judging it on its own merits, and grumbling when I do not heed their advice.” He gestured to a waitress to bring more coffee. “I’d rather an unbiased novice with a clear perspective who reacts genuinely so that I can see the flaws in the design.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to offend you, but I really just came for the coffee.” I slid my untouched cup aside.

“Bear with me a moment longer, I promise that it will be worthwhile.”

I stood there for a long moment, gazing at the neighboring island of Molokai, a short distance away. Surely if I sold off the condo I would never return. But the old man was right. What business did I have investing in such a venture where taxes and inflation were skyrocketing? A fool I was to think that I could find comfort in an economy where the cheapest burger was a dollar more than what I could purchase on the mainland, the local supermarkets included. Certainly I am a man of the islands; isolation doesn’t bother me in the least because there is no one left to be isolated from.

I could not believe how quickly the idea seized my imagination. Retire now: two words I would have never considered, especially at this stage of my life. I could take the money, board a plane, and start my new life immediately. Of course, what fun would it be without haggling?

“Then take her, she’s yours. Let me go inside and grab my things,” I said, watching a grin creep onto the old man’s face. “There’s just one condition.”

“Name it.” He could not hold back the smile any longer.

“Carrying a suitcase full of cash through airport security isn’t the brightest idea. It will arouse suspicion if not declared, and they might consider it drug money, locking it up in their evidence room, and forcing me through a long, protracted process to get it back.”

“So what do you have in mind?” He squirmed, sensing the wheels were just about to fall off the deal.

“Fly with me to LAX, and withdrawal the money there. That way I can drive away with the money ‘free and clear,’ just as you said. Though I live in Connecticut, I will not trouble you to make the journey. Surely you’ll want to get back to your new property immediately,” I said.

“That would be nice.” He scratched the stubble on his chin.

“All I ask is that you pay for my rental car. Besides the Northeast, I haven’t seen much of the U.S., and since I’ll be retired tomorrow, it would be a good time to catch up.”

“I can do better than that. I’ll buy you a car.  And judging by how well you’ve taken care of your condo, it’ll be the last car you’ll ever need. Deal?” He held out his hand.

“Deal.” I nodded my head, not wanting to touch his sweaty palm.

“Great.” Mr. Shoemaker sat back in his chair. “Your move. You can either roll the dice or pick up a card.”

I sat there a moment, marveling at the mountain of good luck that had befallen me over the past few days: meeting the entrepreneur in Maui, retiring the very next day, and purposefully getting myself lost as I made my way through El Paso, then up to Dallas and eastward to this funny little town called Mena. Finally I realized that it was time to stop relying on chance, so I avoided the dice, and I picked up a card instead.

I looked at it and choked. “Is this some kind of joke?” I showed the old man.

“What? What’s wrong?” Travis sat up.

“‘You just sold your vacation home in Maui for a loss?’ How did you know that I had a home in Maui?” I snapped.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He threw up his hands. “If you don’t like what it says, pick another.”

“No, that’s it. I’m done.” I stood. I slammed down the coffee in one gulp, and wiped the corners of my mouth with my napkin. “This should cover it.” I whipped out a hundred dollar bill, and tucked it between the salt and pepper shakers. Although it pained me to overpay a hundred times over, it was the smallest bill that I had. And I needed to get out of there as soon as possible before he began prodding me for more information. He seemed to have a knack for it, I had already disclosed more than intended. “Have a nice day.” I walked towards the door.

“Must have been the badge.” The old man grumbled behind me.

I glanced back, catching sight of the Travis’ shield as he tossed it onto the table. I had no reason to get excited; it wasn’t as if I had a dead body in the trunk of my car. Nonetheless, I found myself scampering towards the front door, afraid that the next thing I would see was the barrel of his gun.

I approached the door just as a family came in. Under normal circumstances I would have displayed more tact and let them pass first; but since I was in such a hurry, I pushed my way through them, an act that I would later regret. I paid their puzzled looks no heed as I got into my Jeep Grand Cherokee, and threw it into gear.

“Get me out of this hell hole.” I mumbled to myself, but God had other plans for me.

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