by Brian Phillips · May 18, 2010
He found them across the hall from the banquet in a kind of small library or reading room. They’d crowded into leather chairs and sofas around a tiny glass-topped table the legs of which were carved to look like sphinxes. Jimmy got the feeling that they weren’t supposed to be here. The chandelier wasn’t lit. The only light in the room was the heavy slant falling in past the half-open door, which slashed across a broad-leafed fern in a Chinese vase, deep blue Oriental rugs, a few small tables, newspapers folded on the tables, and a heavy shadowy vanishing line of bookcases along the wall. Over the clatter of the party outside, a large clock loudly ticked. His teammates were huddled around the table, in the midst of some urgent, whispered conference, their unaccustomed white shirt-fronts glowing faintly in the dark. They looked like modern-day Knights of the Round Table, only they needed a bigger round table, Jimmy thought.
“We have to crush this here and now, boys,” Kinnaird rasped, grinding his huge fist into his palm, “and that means with prejudice. There’s slights we can take and there’s slights we cannot take. I spoke for myself in Aberdeen and I speak for myself in America. A man’s only as good as his word, boys. I’m Wilcox’s man. I know this and that about bosses. Know this and that about bringing them down a peg, too.”
Tap Taggart noticed Jimmy in the doorway and beckoned him closer. “Jimmy,” he said. “Good. You got a say in this too, kid. We’re planning what to do about this Wilcox mess. That big penguin thinks he can drive out our manager on the last day of the season? Well, we’ll see.” He glanced around the table, meeting the eyes of the men. Then he caught the look on Jimmy’s face and frowned. “Say, kid, what’s the matter?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Tap,” Jimmy murmured, sensing greater problems afoot and not wanting to be a distraction to the—he stopped himself before he thought “grown-ups.” But the curl of Grose’s lips dogged him and he gave way to a burst of indignation. “Only, how come I just bumped into Conrad Grose and Alastair Arnold at our big party? Who invited them here, anyway?”
“Little fella’s peeved about the shiner,” laughed Lacy.
“Sure I’m mad about it.” Jimmy was wounded. “Wouldn’t you be?”
“Jimmy,” said Moritz Wessely through his soft Austrian accent, making an expansive gesture with his hands, “of course those two are here. The Kelly team all is here, so that Beauclair can wow their bosses.”
“Can vow their buses?” Kinnaird scrunched up his face. “Say again, lad?”
“Can wow them, wow them. You know, wow, that was big fireworks.”
The Scotsman sniffed. “Man, I haven’t got a clue what you’re saying.”
“Jimmy, look,” Tap Taggart said conclusively. “Okay, they’re here. They’re part of this scheme, too, aren’t they? This lousy tour? Grose is a dirty rat, but just now we’ve got bigger leaks to plug. We’ll handle them later, all right?”
Scheme? Tour? Jimmy didn’t know what Taggart was talking about. He had a sense, as he often did, that he’d missed something. Nevertheless, he hastened to agree. “Sure, Tap. Anything you say.” Grimacing to himself, he wandered over to the window, where he nearly collided with a dark brown globe as tall as his waist. He gave it an idle spin and put his finger to the surface. The brown Arctic kept whizzing past.
“Thattaboy,” Taggart said. “Now, Otto, what’s the blueprint?”
Kinnaird swiveled his big head from side to side and motioned the men in closer. Jimmy had to crane his neck to hear him. “Boys, you’ve heard my line. I’ve been taking on bosses since I was a lad in cotton breeks. I know bosses, and I know men. And I’ve got the measure of this little portly boss of ours. It will not take much to destroy this little popinjay. We start by showing our unity with each other and our disunity with him. We walk out during his speech.”
The players looked around at one another, some nodding. Jimmy drifted back toward the circle and leaned against a sturdy side-table.
“Now, we’ve got to make this political without making it look political,” Kinnaird continued. He pinched his nose, sniffed, and regarded his audience with a satisfied smile. “Here’s a trick, lads. Here’s a wee method I recall from my shipyards days. Now, Jimmy, you’re with us, aye?”
Jimmy, wide-eyed, nodded.
“And how old are you, son? Nineteen?”
“Almost twenty,” said Jimmy, who had just turned eighteen.
“So, Master James is the youngest player amongst us. The bosses like him, and unless I miss my guess, there’s not a person sees him as political. Are you political, Master James?”
“I—well, I guess not, Otto,” Jimmy stammered.
“Tap, if one of us walks out, it’s political. If young Jimmy walks out, it’s a matter of high-minded morals. Jimmy’s our ticket to the golden fields of virtue. Understand?”
Tap Taggard nodded gravely. “How’s about it, Jimmy?” he said. “You ready to lead the way when we walk out on Beauclair’s speech? Think it over, now. You can say no.”
Jimmy felt dizzy, a sensation he attributed to the half-glass of punch he’d drunk earlier. His hurt eye throbbed. He looked down at the magazines on the table. The Compass, The New Yorker, Judge: no good ones. It occurred to him that he should ask for more information. He scowled at the magazines. Then, impulsively, he grinned and said, “Sure, Tap. If you think it’ll help, then sure I will.”
“When it’s time, I’ll give you the signal,” Tap Taggart said.
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