The Mercenary

by Ares Demertzis (July 2007)

(i)

  

Monday, March 09. 

It’s eight forty nine in the morning when José and I arrive by taxi at the International Hotel.  From the grey sky, a robust, moist vapor is devouring the air; an oppressive breeze promising the imminent tempest.  Long, muffled rolls of thunder advance from the far distance.

The impeccable white gloved hand of a uniformed doorman yanks an ornate brass fixture, opening the dark mahogany, beveled glass door leading to the extravagant lobby.  Thousands of times each day, during his shift, this doorman opens an access he himself is not permitted to cross, his entrance being around the corner, at the rear of the building.

The hotel is considered either a five star, or a seven star, perhaps even a ten star accommodation, depending on the idiosyncratic evaluation of the country where the franchise is allowed to operate.  Here, this hotel is considered to merit five stars; it’s an architecturally flamboyant structure, providing refuge to a nouveau riche clientele of elite guests.  Nevertheless, a brief walk from the spacious, tree lined, sculpture laden avenue lurks the fetid squalor of a shanty town.  Hovels constructed of cardboard walls with rusty corrugated tin roofs are erected unsteadily over the hard packed earth.  Filthy children in torn and soiled garments run through its narrow, rubbish and rat infested alleys.

Conventional wisdom has it that democracy is a synonym for freedom and egalitarianism; that democratic societies are charitable toward their citizens, and tolerant of other nations.  However, to comprehend the fallacy in this historically flawed argument, one has to simply recall that the German people elected Hitler and the Nazi Party, provoking the most infamous war of the twentieth century amongst democratic governments.  And it was the people who elected the brutally authoritarian government of the terrorist organization Hamas, with its insistent dedication to the annihilation of another democracy. The literal translation of  “democracy” from the Greek is “a nation of the people,” and the past has proven that people can be cruel and dishonest assassins when it suits their purpose.

Many of my colleagues, political consultants all, subscribe to the democracy hypothesis; it may have something to do with their vigorous promotion of the profession.  The final third of the twentieth century produced considerable international demand for consulting services.  The elite political class from the euphemistically identified “democratic” nations of the world were eager to enlist the aid of pricey Americans in their bid to successfully penetrate the lucrative global business of running a country; a curious phenomenon given the significant cultural differences between the United States and those other contrasting societies.  Generally, American political consultants are ignorant of deep rooted cultural imperatives, and inept in the language of the state where they are providing their services; nonetheless they pretend to possess absent skills capable of convincing the citizens of foreign countries to vote for their client.  They argue that professionally conducted surveys afford all the necessary information needed in order to understand the electorate and influence the balloting.  From my experience, individuals surviving under even moderately repressive regimes never answer any survey question truthfully, because in addition to entrenched cultural considerations that vary from community to community, they are astutely suspect and refuse to aid those who would use the accumulated data to further exploit them.

“I may be uneducated, bro, but I ain´t stupid,” to quote the eloquent response of one survey candidate.

When my family immigrated to the United States, my mother would caution me never to respond truthfully to any question posed by the authorities. “They will only use the information to hurt you,” she advised prudently.  The memory of Odysseus surviving the savage Cyclops through mendacity continues to be a vivid lesson passed along to subsequent generations:  “I am called Nobody.”  

Aware of the strict limitations inherent in conventional surveys, when I am employed in unfamiliar countries, I consistently seek accommodation in a second class hotel, travel on third class transportation, and take my meals with the local population in inexpensive restaurants. I share the neighborhood conversation and immerse myself in their frequently surprising, and at times disconcerting cultural discrepancies; a successful stealth tactic for comprehending the values of Their Street.  My research concluded, I find asylum and recompense by enjoying all those profligate amenities lavished on the wealthy – and in my case, paid for by the generous expense account provided by my client. 

In truth, I suspect political consultants are hired by foreign politicians because they are eager to learn the elusive and guarded formula of that envied American political system which has so effectively imposed the unquestioned authority of government on a docile and obedient citizenry.

I have always maintained that there are two unequaled businesses in the world: one is to be the owner of a country; the other of a religion.  It is far more rewarding to be the owner of a religion, given that the maximum penalty a dictator can impose for your transgression is the forfeiting of your life, whereas a religious leader can punish you for eternity.  Islam has cunningly combined the two, allowing for government and religion to be indistinguishable.

 

 

(ii)

 

The solemn dark suits and black laced shoes are all sitting at a table in a discreet corner of the hotel’s most exclusive restaurant.  José and I shake hands all around.  I take the opportunity to glance at the fabric and cut of each suit extending his hand.  They are, without exception, all made of inexpensive material, modestly tailored, and definitely not recently cleaned and pressed.  There is nothing that gives the lie to an executive’s pretended importance than a wrinkled jacket and pants that have lost their pressed razor edged crease.  I give José a quick look, which I know he will understand to mean: “what the fuck am I doing here with these losers?”

Unexpectedly, the Maitre´d deferentially escorts a short guy dressed in blue jeans and a demin shirt to our table.  The dark suits appear to snap to attention; all that’s absent is their salute.  Blue Jeans barely acknowledges their presence, greeting me directly and shaking my hand before abruptly sitting down.  I feel better.  His disdain for those at the table leads me to suspect that this must be the guy who signs the checks.  Also, in this society, you don’t attend a meeting out of uniform, as he is obviously doing, unless you can.  José, the local party hack, is also dressed in a dark suit, but I’m wearing a blue blazer and grey pants.  No black laced shoes either; mine are Johnston & Murphy hand stitched loafers.  Ox blood.  I also flaunt my status with a brazen pink shirt without a tie.  The French cuffs are held together with gold links embossed with the Seal of the United States, a gift from a grateful Senator for shepherding him to victory through a difficult campaign.  I know the cuff links will not go unnoticed, nor will the solid gold Rolex on my wrist, although no one will make an indiscreet remark about them.

Sartorial elegance and accessorial integrity are subjectively determined; one must provide sufficient evidence that there is a level of expected recompense proportionate to the pretentious consumerism displayed, while avoiding the fatal error of exaggerating the ostentation.  On the other hand, being modest will only result in significantly reduced compensation, or most likely no job at all.

Everyone orders from the menu except Blue Jeans, who gives the waiter very detailed instructions as to what and how he wants the chef to specifically prepare for his breakfast.  He has initiated the game of one-upsmanship, but I am uninterested in engaging him; I don’t want to be his competition.  I allow Blue Jeans this privilege; two fighting cocks should never be placed in the same cage.  So I also order from the menu: grapefruit juice and a cheese omelet aux fines herbs that I know I won’t have the opportunity to eat.  When this meeting is finished, I’ll go to the nearest greasy spoon and order some bacon and eggs with slippery fried potatoes.  Lotsa ketchup.  Never varies; these events for me always duplicate the same scenario, and always leave me hungry.

One of my ex-wives bitterly complained: “I pay your credit cards, so I know all the fancy places you go to; gallivanting all over the world, while I’m just hanging out here at home with the kids!”

“Sure, sweetie, but has it ever occurred to you that if I had a choice, not only wouldn’t I break bread with these individuals, I wouldn’t even waste my time holding a conversation with them?”  But she was a Cordon Bleu graduate, and lived in her kitchen; she never understood I was just a basic meat and potatoes guy. 

My reason for being here is fundamentally economic; I want to be selected as the media consultant for the governor’s campaign.  I know their candidate is in difficulty; his election at this point precarious, to say the least.  This abnormality in a country habituated to the automatic election of the ruling party’s candidates is a direct result of the implosion of the USSR. After the perceived demise of the Communist threat to the West, the United States attempted to cleanse its own body politic of the necessary ethical stain that had held the country morally hostage since the end of the Second World War.  The American government abruptly informed those allies pretending to be democracies through the expedient of allowing their citizens to vote, that rigged elections would no longer be tolerated; neither would benevolent dictatorships and political assassinations.  It was a monumental decision, one that could possibly historically dwarf the fragmenting of the USSR; a decision in the international political game whose consequences for the survival of the United States as a democratic, capitalist system remains to be determined.

I was invited to present my strategy for the governor’s political campaign during breakfast at this hotel; here it is considered an accepted venue for conducting business.  The lights dim, a single spot shines down on me, and I focus my attention on the short guy in blue jeans.    I initiate my soft shoe boogie, shuffling carefully back and forth across the stage, intent on appraising Blue Jean’s reaction.  He appears to like the performance, so I risk a little improvisation and switch into a tap routine that gets more complicated as my show progresses and continues to be well received.  Blue Jeans takes out his cel phone; I strain to pick up a few stray words as I continue with my act.

“…I think it’s important for you to see him…”

Tap.  Tap.  Tappety/Tap.

“…Yes, it’s very interesting…”

Tappety/Tap.  Tappety/Tap.

“…Given our time constraints, I recommend a meeting as soon as possible…”

“…Tappety/Tap/Tap…Tappety/Tap/Tap…”

Blue Jeans hangs up and generously waits for me to complete the final twirls that end my presentation.

“I just called the Governor.  He will receive you in his office today.”  Blue Jeans looks hastily at his watch, a half million dollar Constantin Vascheron identical to the one worn by the millionaire Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.  President Putin, the ex KGB apparatchik, wears an austere Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar timepiece whose cost is sixty thousand dollars; a sum equal to his current annual salary.

“The last flight is in two hours, so you will need to go to the airport right away.”  Blue Jeans stands up and shakes my hand tersely before exiting to board his waiting chauffeured limo.  The dark suits likewise scatter, I imagine to the bus stop; perhaps the subway.  The waiter removes the remaining plates from the table, including my untouched omelet.

José looks at me, enthused.  “Great!  You had them eating out of your hand.”

“Shit!  We have to leave for the airport right now if we’re gonna make the flight.”

A taxi leaves us at the curb.  The rain isn’t a misty vapor anymore; unrelenting cataracts of heavy water are plummeting from a lowered, black sky.  We run under the canopy and walk swiftly into the terminal, straight to the airline counter.  “Do you have cash or a credit card?  I left my wallet at home,” says José flippantly, unimpeded by the knowledge that I am very much aware of the disreputable and untrustworthy business transactions practiced in his country, and that I am not a naïve American – and therefore don’t believe him.

“The campaign is picking up this flight and expenses, right?”

“Of course.  But this meeting was arranged so quickly, you have to pay now and get reimbursed later.”

“I don’t cross the street unless a client picks up the tab, José.  If they hire me, they have to sign a contract and shell out fifty percent up front.”

“No problema.  But I need your credit card to pay for the flight.”

 

 

(iii)

  

The Governor is a big man.  Overweight.  Being an elected representative, he doesn’t display Blue Jean’s categorical disdain of those about him; this guy’s a politician, and he’s into his act.  I can see from his wrist that he understands the political tragedy that has overtaken the government since manipulated elections have become difficult to systematize.  He wears an inexpensive, twenty dollar black plastic Casio watch, similar to Bill Clinton’s and Carlos Salinas de Gortari´s political timepieces.  The press captured those two presidents during a photo-op admiring each others synthetic watches, openly exhibiting their implied frugality for public consumption.  A politician’s luxurious acquisitions can be hidden from the electorate; a watch is something that everybody can see.  At the time, both Clinton and Salinas were engaged in hearty laughter regarding a private comment one of them made; what was so reciprocally funny about their public flaunting of inexpensive watches may never be known, but can be surmised. 

The Governor is affable; he jokes and pretends an inexistent camaraderie.  I look into his eyes and perceive the shrewdness disguised behind a convivial façade.  He is rapidly forming an opinion about me, all the while attempting to lull me into a sense of security by promoting an imaginary friendship.

As for me, I’m obliged to construct this scenario differently than the breakfast presentation.  I have to rape the Governor, with his permission, of course.  No different really than what he does to the citizens of his state, so my conscience is clear.  Here, in his office, the governor is my date, and I have to convince him to jump into bed and have sex with me.  Right now.  Not unlike when I was a young man and it was my determined, albeit immature policy to fornicate with whatever young lady happened to be with me on that first date.  It was a juvenile challenge that I invented for myself, and which, to my surprise and enjoyment, consistently proved successful.  Women are interesting, and not really the complex, reticent creatures they pretend and are considered to be, but that’s a subject better left for another story.

It’s almost midnight by the time the Governor is convinced.  He picks up the phone on his desk and dials a number.

“Listen, Sandy, I’ve been talking to a media guy in my office for the last couple of hours and I think you should see him.  Yes.  Tonight.  I’ll send him over.”  The Governor hangs up and looks at me.  “The candidate is waiting for you at campaign headquarters.”

On the way out the door, the Governor wraps his arms around me, giving me an affectionate hug; I anticipate a sloppy kiss that fortunately never arrives.  If I didn’t know better, I might possibly suspect he’s sincere.  “I must’ve really done´im good,” I joke to myself. 

“Thank you for coming.  I want you to know that we have to win this election.  Sandy has to be the next Governor, because if he isn’t, I have to leave the country.  That son of a bitch running against him claims he can prove I’m a thief, and he’s promising to put me in jail for corruption after he’s elected.” 

The Governor laughs nervously, “My family is ready, we have our bags packed, but I don’t want to use them, understand?”

“Governor, I have no doubt Sandy will win.”

 

 

(iv)

 

Tuesday, March 10.

It’s almost four o’clock in the morning when Sandy and I say goodbye.  Everything has been arranged; given the time imperative, I have to start preparations immediately on returning to the Capitol tomorrow.

Five o’clock in the morning.  I’m lying in bed in my hotel suite; the TV is on with the sound turned off.  I’m finishing my second snifter of the two double XO, Hors d'Age I ordered from room service when I was checking in.  I hope the cognac will warmly suffuse my still energized nervous system, relaxing me enough to sleep for the three hours of rest I desperately need before I have to be at the airport for the first flight out. 

 

Wednesday, March 11

Thursday, March 12.

Back in the Capitol.  Grey days, but at least its not raining anymore.

Phone calls.  Interviews.  Renting equipment.  Hiring technicians.  Making airline reservations.  Confirming vehicle rentals.  Coordinating with the campaign.  Arranging for hotel accommodations.  Typing the contract and an invoice for the fifty percent advance.

Given the limited time frame in which to work before the election, I have decided to set up production facilities at Sandy’s campaign headquarters.  We will have all personnel, cameras, lights, audio, and editorial facilities housed there.  We will tape and edit the spots in situ, rushing them to the local television stations for air immediately on completion.

 

Friday, March 13.

There are many apocryphal anecdotes explaining why this day is considered unlucky.  I have never been one to avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks, walking under ladders, or crossing the path of black cats.  That said, I’m not an adamant disbeliever of the inauspicious speculation either.

The first group of production personnel and I fly out together.  Checking in at the local hotel, I discover the reservations haven’t been made by the campaign, so all the rooms, including all hotel expenses will be charged to my credit card.  We rent cars, also billed to my credit card, and travel to campaign headquarters to begin coordinating the candidate’s itinerary with our proposed taping schedule.

I meet the campaign manager, and criticize their hotel blunder; he apologizes profusely and assures me that the problem will be resolved.  I give him the contract.  He tells me he will sign it as soon as he finishes reading it, and will give it to me together with the fifty percent advance check tomorrow, Saturday. 

 

Saturday, March 14.

I inquire at campaign headquarters about my contract and check, to be told that the contract has not yet been signed because the campaign manager was called to the Capitol for a meeting; regarding the check, the campaign financial officer is unavailable.  There will be no contract and no fifty percent advance today, however tomorrow, Sunday, both will be given to me first thing in the morning.  Promise.  Not to worry.

No signed contract.  No check.  My production manager wants me to approve the video technician’s flight and hotel reservations for tomorrow.  Something isn’t right.  I say no, and postpone any further activity on the project.

 

Sunday, March 15.

The Ides of March.  In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar is no more, his crimson blood having trickled down the marble steps of the Senate because he disregarded the soothsayer’s warning .  As for me, still no signed contract; still no check. 

Everyone except me hangs out by the hotel pool, sucking up beer, wine, margaritas and scotch; charging everything to their rooms, which continue to be guaranteed with my credit card.

It’s seven o’clock in the evening.  I’m changing to go to dinner with my production staff.  There is a discreet knock on the door.  The one who was chosen by the campaign manager for the deed nervously tells me that the job has been cancelled, and we should all go back home in the morning.  Poor kid, he looks genuinely embarrassed.  Must be his first time participating in this country’s long-established, traditional deceit.  He’ll get better at it with time.

 

(v)

 

Monday, March 16.

Back in the Capital, the sun is making an unsuccessful attempt at bursting through the lowering clouds; before breakfast, I contact José.

“Well, everyone will deny it, but yesterday, the President, the Governor, and the opposition candidate had a clandestine meeting in the President’s Mansion.  The agreement reached is that the opposition candidate will win the election and be the new Governor of the state, in exchange for not pursuing any criminal action against the current Governor.  Since the outcome of the election has been decided, there is no further need for your services.”

“So Sandy’s screwed.”

“Not really.  The party will reward him with a lucrative niche.”

“What about recouping my expenses?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“So I’m screwed.”

“It’s the risk you take as an independent businessman, my friend.”

“Can we talk to Blue Jeans about it?”

“Blue Jeans is out of this campaign.  He was assigned to supervise the upcoming elections to Congress.”  There’s a pause and I think I hear someone whispering on the other end of the line.  “Oh, it just occurred to me, you may be able to recoup if I recommend you to handle the Congressional media campaign.”

“No thanks, José.  Unlike my government, I don’t have the resources to throw good money after bad.”  I hear an almost imperceptible giggle.  Someone is with José, monitoring our conversation.  It must be Blue Jeans!  I resist the temptation to tell them both to go fuck themselves; in politics, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally, and vice versa.

 

 

(vi)

 

I walk to the greasy spoon and order my bacon and eggs with slippery fried potatoes.  The skinny old man behind the counter with the stubby, calloused fingers and stained apron whispers to me:  “We need another revolution in this country.  Those thieving bastards in the government are never satisfied, no matter how much they steal!”

This isn’t the first time a low voice from The Street has cautiously expressed a similar resentment to me.

A guttural bellow of thunder, resembling the snarling grievance of a wounded animal discharges above the restaurant; the staccato crackling of lightning strikes nearby.

I look indifferently at a soiled photograph haphazardly torn from a newspaper and taped next to the exhaust fan above the griddle.  It’s of a uniformed military officer, his left chest supporting a square rainbow of decorations.  The thick globs of black grease drip down from the fan, past the photograph, to the hot surface below.  It’s only a question of time before they ignite in a savage conflagration.

 

 

END

 

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