Saturday, July 18, 2020

Enjoy Chapter Nine of The Blessings of Mr. Watson


Chapter Nine
Gordon Smiley

Mack had installed an old stereo in the Topaz so that customers could be greeted with pleasant music. His choice of music was bland, Ronan considered, but, admittedly, “business appropriate.” Usually it featured hits from the 80s and 90s. Ronan suggested that he hook the speakers up to the laptop in the manager’s office in the back and play a better selection from Spotify, but gave up when Mack responded with: “What’s a Spotify?”

   Ronan was working his last two days there, and was training his replacement, who turned out to be one of the boys from the gang who occasionally hung out at his apartment building. The kid’s name was Tommy. He was nineteen years old and trying to get his life turned around, having been in the system from everything from drug addiction to theft and vandalism. Mack initially laughed off his application until Ronan spoke to him about it.

   “He seems like a good kid,” he said, not really knowing if he was a good kid or not. But Tommy always greeted him whenever he saw him, and occasionally asked after Lee too, and even walked her home from the mini-mart one night to make sure she was all right.

   Mack laughed. “Seems? He looks like a marauder off the boat from Conanville!”

   “Yeah,” Ronan smiled. “The piercings, tattoos, dyed black and purple hair, and eyeliner are all pretty intimidating. But I think he’ll do all right by you.”

   “Well, I’ve always trusted your judgment, so I will one more time. Just don’t be surprised if I knock on your door in a rage when he robs the till and disappears into the night!”

   “I’ll help you hunt him down if that happens. You’ve got my word.”

   He had sent Tommy off to grab some burgers and chips for their lunch break (Ronan’s treat) when the news came on. He almost missed it, but rushed into the office and turned up the volume when he heard “Department of Finance” followed by what he thought was “Bernard Teack.” The newsreader broke to commercial, and he hurried back to the register to take care of customers, of which a small line had formed. By the time the commercials ended, the line was gone and the station quiet.

   “The Justice Branch this morning named Bernard Teack and Virginia Isolde, his direct supervisor, in a sweeping indictment of GG Mortgage and Lending for charges of racketeering. Reports filed this morning detail extraneous charges levied against more than sixty thousand Dubliners attempting to pay off their underwater mortgages over and against the Department of Finance’s agreed-to final balances. GG Mortgage attorneys have issued no comment in response to this report. Both the DFP and the Justice Branch have in the meantime promised consumers that a full investigation will be launched. More than a hundred thirty thousand Dubliners have their mortgages through GG Mortgage and Lending, and more than half a million in Ireland and the Republic.”

   Ronan slammed his fists on the counter. “YES! YEEEEEEEEES!”

   He stalked around the station pumping his fists into the air and jumping like a boxer who’d just won a prizefight. “YEEEEES! YEEEEEEES! YES! YES! YEEEEEEEEEEES!”

   The next customer to walk in gawked at him. “Are you quite all right, sir? You are quite flushed!”

   “I’m bloody wonderful!” he exclaimed, startling the man, who appeared very proper. “How can I help you today? You were pump four? Let’s get you rung up. Is there anything else we can do for you today?”

   “Well, no ... thank you. The petrol will be all....”

   The man paid, skittish to the last, hurried out to his Jaguar and was off. Ronan called Lee when it quietened down fifteen minutes later. Tommy had returned with the burgers and chips. Ronan left him alone at the register and went into Mack’s office to talk.

   “He warned them, Lee! And now they will probably be going to jail!”

   “Kinda scares the shit out of me, truth be known.”

   “Me too! But I have to say ... I’m really jacked up. We went through all that hell ... and now some of the bad guys who put us there are getting some back!”

   “We probably still would’ve lost the house ...”

   “I’m not so sure. I’ve been doing some quick calculations. It’s likely that those bogus charges bankrupted us six to eight months sooner. Six to eight months! Think of it! I probably would’ve found a job by then! You, too! We probably wouldn’t have had to leave Carlingford!”

   “Fuckers,” she murmured. “Are you going to your real job again after work?”

   “Yeah. I want to look at those files some more, and to do some research on the news and see what if anything Mr. Watson has had to say about it.”

   “I’ve been looking. Nothing so far. But—” she stopped.

   “But what?”

   She laughed. “Gaupos Goutlos himself was in the Rose Garden with none other than Donald Trump today. I did see that.”

   “You’re shittin’ me.”

   “Apparently, according to the BBC, Trump and Goutlos are ‘good friends.’ It was like looking at two pigs waddling down the corridor.”

   “Right, right. Those two are good friends. Why the hell does that not surprise me?”

   “I keep wondering what’s going on with Jordan. He goes to New York the same time as Goutlos shows up in America? Doesn’t seem coincidental to me.”

   “Me neither. Whatever’s going on, you can be sure of one thing.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Donald fucking Trump is not a friend of Karl Watson’s.”

Ronan exited the car after Stan opened the door. They were at the Marriott.

   “Thanks, Stan.”

   “Will you be long, Mr. Sutton?”

   “What time is it?”

   “Two twenty-eight,” replied Stan after glancing at his watch.


   “My wife called. Apparently our kitchen sink is plugged up. Would you mind—?”

   “No, no, of course not! I could help. I’m certainly dressed for it.”

   “No need,” said Stan, smiling. “I’ll be back in three hours.”

   “See you then.”

   Ronan walked into the lobby.

He was still dressed in his oil-stained petrol station blues, Topaz cap on his head. As with GG Mortgage, it was how he wanted people to see him. It was who he was, and always would be—a working stiff who just managed to get very, very lucky. He was no better than any person here, not even the janitor sweeping in a far corner.

   People were getting to know him, and had somehow learned that he was a person of importance, temporary or not, to Yank-Willow. Between the front doors and the elevator bank, he received no fewer than half a dozen “Good afternoon, Mr. Sutton”s as he made his way towards them. He responded to all greetings with his own, and when he knew the greeter by name, used it. As he did working at the Carlingford Inn, he looked everyone in their eyes and smiled. He entered the elevator; soon it was silently whisking him to Yank-Willow at the top. No one had gotten in with him.

   Gail greeted him when he stepped into the office. “Mr. Pomoma would like to see you at your earliest convenience.”

   “Now would be fine.”

   He followed her to Paolo Pomoma’s door and knocked, then entered. Paolo was seated at his desk and staring at the computer screen. When he spied Ronan, he smiled and came around the desk, hand outstretched. Ronan took it. “Some coffee for either of you?” offered Gail.

   Ronan shook his head, glancing over his shoulder at her. “Thanks, no.”

   “I’m fine. Thanks, Gail,” said Paolo.

   She closed the door. Ronan took a seat. Paolo, as he had during the interview, sat next to him, not across from him at his desk.

   “I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming in every day. How goes your research on our good Gaupos Goutlos?”

   “It’s ... heartbreaking,” murmured Ronan. “Outrageous.”

   “Yeah,” said Paolo, nodding somberly. “Yeah, it is.”

   “I have a question.”

   “If I can answer it, I will.”

   “Mr. Watson now owns a controlling stake in GG Mortgage, right?”

   “Right ...”

   “All right ... Since that’s the case, why not just clean house internally and quietly? Why send me to shut him down in what I’m guessing will be a very public fashion?”

   “Mr. Watson has helped millions across the globe, as you’ve no doubt learned by now. Everything from The Watson Foundation to The Charge to his countless stakes in medical and clean energy research. I know I sound like a commercial for him, but he really has gone above and beyond the call.”

   “Yeah. I’ve read it. I’ve even done searches trying to find negative press about him.”

   “And what did you find?”

   Ronan snorted. “Plenty! Every third article is a slam against him. He’s had all sorts of charges of double-dealing and back-street dealing and unethical behavior thrown at him. The Wall Street Journal published a hit piece about The Watson Foundation last year, basically accusing it of placating Zimbabwe’s dictator and questioning whether a dirty deal for native lands to build a battery factory wasn’t reached through the foundation, effectively hiding it from regulatory eyes.”

   “I saw it.”

   “Honestly,” murmured Ronan, “I don’t know what to believe. These people paint him as the cruelest and greediest of capitalists.”

   “There was a time when he was. He believed that was how one did business in today’s global environment—by being the cruelest and greediest. By undercutting and dirty dealing. I’m certain that some of what they say about him is true.”

   “The battery factory too?”

   “All bull. Fourteen separate agencies investigated those charges—at least half at the behest of Mr. Watson himself. The factory has been built, and not on indigenous lands; and it wasn’t a coincidence that Zimbabwe’s dictator, long known for his oppression and brutality, was soon overthrown once production there began. Interesting that you can’t find that in any major media publication, don’t you think?”

   “Not in today’s political hell. Though I did notice that the Journal’s writer was fired soon after.”

   “So let me ask the question you originally posed. Why are we sending you to shut down Goutlos in a very public fashion, as you put it? You’re right. We could do it very quietly. So why do it this way?”

   Ronan shook his head blankly. “Honestly, the only answer I can come up with is that Mr. Watson wants to send a message to his enemies—‘Watch out, I’m coming.’ Something like that.”

   His eyes widened at the same rate that Paolo’s smile widened.



   Paolo’s smile held, then vanished. “Mr. Watson’s largess spans the globe many times over. I’m sure you know this. Millions have been beneficiaries, either directly or indirectly.”

   “I’ve been impressed with all the charities and humanitarian work he has sponsored or taken part in, especially in the last ten years.”

   “He wants you to see the ‘real’ him. To that end he ordered the files you have been spending the past week on to be free of all ‘soft fluff and bullshit.’ He wants you to proceed with no illusions. Karl Watson is far from a perfect human being. When you walk into Gaupos Goutlos’ office in a few days, he wants you to be completely clear on whose behalf you’re working.”

   “I’m to be the public executioner of Mr. Watson’s judgment against beneficiaries of his generosity who went south? Forgive me, Paolo, but why not tell me from the off?”

   Paolo visibly inhaled as he stared at him. “Because, Ronan,” he exhaled quietly, “you are a beneficiary of his generosity.”

   “And I might go south.”

   “That remains to be seen.”

   Before he could protest, Paolo went on. “This is, hopefully, just the beginning for you. You won’t always be Mr. Watson’s hammer, as it were. Of course not. We really don’t want that for you. Mr. Watson thinks you might be very special, even extraordinary. He wants to nurture and grow that. But for now there are five individuals who are, to be colloquial, at the top of his shit list, and he wants you to be our public face as you bring them down. Gaupos Goutlos is the first.”

   He held up. “Still want the job? If you walk away, no harm done, and you keep the money, all of it.”

   Ronan hesitated. “What am I supposed to tell this Goutlos character?”

   Paolo shrugged. “Anything you want, I suppose. What would a man victimized by a predatory lender say to that lender if he had the chance to shut him down? How many times, I wonder, did you fantasize doing that when you were losing your home to those snakes?”

   When Ronan didn’t answer immediately, Paolo pressed. “No, seriously, Ronan—I want to know. How many times, do you think?”

   Ronan shook his head. “More times than I can count.”

   “And Lee?”

   “More times than I can count—squared.”

   “I find it interesting that you’ve been showing up every day after work at the station and spending three, four, sometimes seven and even eight hours looking over files, doing research, reading articles. It’s not required, you know. You don’t have to do any of it. When you get down to it, you’ve got everything you need already—those horrible experiences, all that heartbreak, all that helpless anger. You could be sitting at home right now eating bon-bons and watching Netflix. You’re not.”

   “So I’m supposed to walk in to Goutlos’ office in a few days and just say, ‘Hey, asshole, on behalf of Karl Watson I’m shutting you down’?”

   Paolo smiled. “Short, succinct, to the point. I like it.”

   “You’re serious.”

   “Oh, very.”

   “What if Goutlos tries to stop me? I mean, surely he must have some inkling of what’s coming, doesn’t he?”

   “Mr. Goutlos isn’t really an incisive fellow. But the risk is still quite real, only because he has surrounded himself with bloodthirsty sharks. To that end we have provided you with some back-up—which is the reason I called you in today. I want you to meet him. He’s already been assisting you and laying the groundwork, as it were, for your meeting.” He stood and went around his desk and pressed a key on the computer’s keyboard. “Gail? Would you mind sending Mr. Smiley in?”

   “I’ll let him know you’re ready,” returned Gail’s soft voice. Ronan inwardly chuckled at how Gail’s voice automatically kicked up a momentary wave of lust in him. She truly was a gorgeous woman—and he was genuinely grateful for the distraction. He again had found himself in completely bizarre circumstances.

   He had wanted to learn as much about Gaupos Goutlos these past few days, yes; and that was a primary reason for why he had come in to this plush office and sat in Jordan Page’s chair and worked. That was true.  But it wasn’t the top reason. The top reason was that he wanted to normalize all of this to whatever extent he could, to find a comfort zone of some kind, any kind. It was the main reason why he didn’t bother changing from his Topaz blues. He was comfortable at the Topaz. And he wanted to test these people. Were they really as committed to him as they claimed they were? Were they really willing to see him as he was?

   There was a light knock on the door just before it opened. Gail stepped under the doorjamb. “Mr. Smiley.”

   “Thanks, Gail,” said Paolo, coming around the desk. Ronan stood as Gail stepped out and a very tall, bald, thin, bespectacled man stepped in.

   “Gordon Smiley,” said Paolo, “I’d like you to meet Ronan Sutton.”

   Ronan couldn’t help but gawk. Gordon Smiley couldn’t have been less than six-feet-eight. Ronan took his extended hand, which swallowed his own. “Mr. Sutton. A real pleasure.”

   He had an agreeable, sonorous voice, but not nearly as deep as Ronan thought it would be for a man as overwhelmingly large as he was. His round spectacles caught the soft yellow light of the office, occasionally hiding his dark eyes. His accent was American. He appeared to be Ronan’s age, or close to it, and was dressed in what Ronan knew was called “business casual black.”

   “Nice to meet you,” returned Ronan, only then becoming aware that he was staring.

   “Please, Gordon, Ronan, sit,” gestured Paolo as he walked to his desk chair and sat.

   Gordon and Ronan sat.

   “Ronan is just a few days out from heading to Berlin,” started Paolo. “He’s a bit nervous and unsure of himself, as I’m sure we can agree is completely expected in the circumstances. I wanted you to come in so that he could see that he has support beyond Yank-Willow’s offices, that someone was ‘out in the field,’ so to speak, and ready to help him at any time. Would you mind catching Ronan up on your work?”

   “Not at all,” said Gordon. He brought his gaze to bear on Ronan. “Mr. Sutton, my job is essentially to clear a path for you going forward. Mr. Goutlos employs quite dubious men and women whose job it is to protect him from, well, people who might get in his way—people like you. I’ve been busy in the background seeing to it that they won’t be a problem.”

   He smiled.

   What concerned Ronan wasn’t that Gordon Smiley did in an eccentric way look like a hit man, or that his smile, almost unnoticeably easy to form on his lips, didn’t appear tinged with the slightest giveaway that he really enjoyed his work, but the sudden, intense relief Ronan felt that he existed and was there for him.

   The necessary question had to be asked, but Ronan couldn’t bring himself to ask it. He gulped out, “Uh ...” and that was it.

   Gordon Smiley smiled again, and then he answered it for him. “I don’t kill or torture people, Mr. Sutton. Not to worry.”

   Paolo laughed. “He just makes them want to kill themselves when he finishes with them.”

   Soft yellow light reflected off Gordon’s glasses. “I use Mr. Watson’s considerable resources to dig up dirt on targets. With the kind of money we’re talking about, there is almost always dirt to find. I use that to force timely action from the target in a fashion that optimizes Mr. Watson’s interests and agenda.”

   Ronan stared. “You ...”

   “I blackmail bad rich people. Sometimes, as was the case of Bernard Teack and Virginia Isolde, they aren’t so rich. But that usually isn’t a problem either.”

   Ronan couldn’t suppress the chuckle. He glanced at Paolo, then back at Gordon Smiley, who added, “When the prosecutor found out just how extra greedy those two in particular were, he explicitly included their names on the indictment. I had spoken to both of them the night before you went in to settle the debt on your mortgage. The fact that they still refused to back down speaks volumes on that greed, and also on their fear of Mr. Goutlos, who almost certainly ordered them to charge you the extra fee.”

   “But that’s not all you do, is it, Gordon?” asked Paolo in a rhetorical fashion.

   Gordon shook his head. “I also work behind the scenes to help innocents who were harmed by Mr. Watson’s shall we say less-than-generous past. I find that work just as rewarding, if not more so.”

   He added after a brief moment of silence: “I would like to give you my direct number, if that is okay, Mr. Sutton.”

   Ronan cleared his throat. “Of ... of course.”

   “Should you decide to stay on with Yank-Willow, I will be at your direct service. That is by order of Mr. Watson. I can be on a plane anywhere in the world within an hour of your call.”

   Ronan glanced at Paolo, who smiled reassuringly. “Thanks,” he murmured, feeling both panic and relief war just under his rib cage. “That’s ... uh ... really appreciated. It’s good to know. Thanks.”

   Gordon Smiley smiled. “The way is clear for you and Mr. Page, Mr. Sutton. Gaupos Goutlos is yours to finish.”