Existing structures are only demolished when there is no hope of repair, which seldom happens. The Venetians can renovate almost anything and have developed highly specialized construction techniques to contend with a city so old. Buildings are saved at enormous cost. Costs that drained the economy beyond explanation but the government always found the money somehow, usually through unpredictable and sometimes monthly tax increases. As for the new buildings that occasionally are built over the sites of those demolished, the list of Venetians waiting for these is long and one could wait for years, decades really. Andrea had added his family’s name to such a list just before Angelina was born but would probably not hear anything more until after she was grown and maybe not even then. Graft is rampant in Venice. If one had sufficient money to bribe an official, there would be a home in a few years but Andrea did not have the thousands required for the morbida, the ‘soft’ that a bribe would cost. Besides, even if he were told today that a home was ready for them, Gianna would refuse to move. Mestre was not, by Italy’s mores, an attractive city but she would rather live there and put up with the rising crime rate than move to Venice and contend with all the special problems of a city that served as a cultural, historical and architectural Mecca to the world. After all, Mestre was relatively new. The city had been all but destroyed by allied bombing during world war two and as with all things new, there are fewer problems, malfunctions and repairs required. He could not remember the last time he had to call a repairman for anything in their apartment but the same could not be said of his friends and acquaintances in Venice. It seemed every time he spoke with them over coffee in the Osteria that they were moaning about yet another repair cost to their homes in Venice. As much as he hated Mestre, he had to admit that their lives were that much easier for living there. One took a bus, or sometimes a car to do the shopping. In Venice one took a boat or walked and usually both, hauling groceries and purchases along like a beleaguered pack mule. And the bridges! At last count there were more than three hundred and fifty of them in a city barely the size of Manhattan! One could scarcely walk a meter without having to climb the stairs of yet another bridge. Mothers with strollers and the infirm, the feeble in wheel chairs lived a thoroughly difficult life in Venice. Venice, a dream yes, but an impossible one for anyone not born there.
“You’ll miss your bus.” Gianna reminded him, breaking his train of thought.
Andrea glanced at the clock. Yes, he was going to be late if he did not hurry. Not that it mattered tremendously; he was his own boss. He owned a small corner shop a short distance from Saint Marco’s square where he sold men’s ties, ascots, gloves; ladies fine lace shawls and other elegant accessories for the well dressed Italian and the occasional tourist with enough taste to dress fashionably. He was to receive a salesman this morning from the island of Burano who would bring with him a small shipment of exquisite hand woven lace. It would cost him greatly and if he marked it to the standard, only a few would purchase it so his profit would be small. He could do like so many others, like his wife had urged him and buy cheap lace from places like Taiwan, mark it up three or four times and then sell it as embroidery from Burano but Andrea Morucchio, the little fucking man of Venice was an ethical and principled businessman. If the tag said ‘Burano’ then it was the product of ‘Burano’! He might starve to death, but he would do so as an honest retailer.
He rose from the table, kissed his wife and then when her back was turned, stuck his tongue out at his daughter once again before kissing her as well. He grabbed his briefcase and strode confidently out of the door to the elevator. The walk to the bus station was a short one and the early October air brisk. The sky held the ominous signs of the season’s first rains and he knew that before the week was over, maybe even the day, he would need one of his own scarves and umbrellas. Maybe business would be good after all. The first rain always brought the unprepared into the street without wraps, proper gloves and hats or umbrellas that were broken and invariably, they ducked into his shop to purchase new ones.
He stepped into the enclosure at the bus stop and shivered slightly as his breath condensed into a small white cloud. All around him the city was coming to life. He could hear apartment shutters banging open, the metal gates over shop doors being thrown up. The smell of espresso and brioche, of freshly baked bread and confections hung in the still air like the heavy sausages in the butcher shop windows. It made him happy. Andrea was a happy man and why not? His life was good. There were no serious problems to speak of. Oh yes, he complained of business to his wife and anyone that would listen but that was the Italian way.
The truth was that although he was not a rich man, he was a wealthy man. He was the owner of a successful business that provided him a very comfortable life and a certain respected standing among his fellow merchants. He had one employee to supervise and did so without malice. He took at least a month’s vacation every year and he, his wife and daughter had been all over the world, even to America. His life was good and he knew it. If the worst of it was worrying that the Lire was up or down; that the high water may have damaged the lower rung on a rack of ties, then he had no real worries at all.
He would invite the salesman from Burano to coffee and they would argue prices but not too stringently. Andrea felt generous today. He would even offer the cost of the espresso and bread! He had a feeling that business would be good this winter.
The sound of an angry horn startled Martin out of his thoughts. A quick glance in his mirror revealed a motorist who, like him not three minutes before, was not content to follow a driver who was not paying attention; who was going to strand himself and the line of cars behind him at a light that was going to turn red far too quickly. Martin muttered to himself and then glided through the intersection of Lafayette and Central Expressway.
He and Bill had, had that conversation more than a month ago and how he wished now that his only problem was one of perspective. Bill had been right, of course. He would still have his business after it was all over. He would still be a comfortably wealthy man. More comfortable than he had ever dreamed he would be when he had started his one horse bottled-water company some fifteen years earlier. He was going to glean thirty million on the sale of CRYSTAL SPRINGS WATER COMPANY, INC. to NORCAL WATER. Everything aside from his business was expendable. With the money that he was going to make, he could replace any of the possessions that he was losing, except Elizabeth and he had stopped caring about losing her years before.
But now, everything was about to be taken away from him, including his business. He glanced to his left. Did the man in the hardhat listening to the country music that poured from the cab of his truck have a wife? Or did he have an ex-wife who was trying to bleed him dry, once a month? What about the woman in the tan Chevy in his rearview mirror? The one mindlessly adjusting her lipstick; did she have a husband? Or did she have an ex-husband? A shredded ex-husband whose life she gleefully savaged on a monthly basis?
Just when he thought everything was settled, it had happened. It took no longer than a few moments for his life to be brought down around his ears. Bill had done exactly as he was supposed to do. Put everything on the block except the business. Sacrifice it all, just save the business. Keep the business intact. All that was left to do, after all the back room wrangling, wrangling that was all smoke and mirrors designed to keep the opposition off balance and solely focused on only the inconsequential aspects of Martin’s fiscal life, was to sign the final settlement and take it to court. The Judge would look it over, ask if everyone was satisfied and then BANG… one gavel stroke and it would all be over except the shouting and the post game interviews. But that’s not the way it went. The court date had been September thirtieth. Martin and Bill were ready and waiting in the courtroom when the Judge asked if they were satisfied with the settlement. Bill had warned Martin to look contrite and to respond clearly.
“Yes your Honor,” Martin said humbly, looking fully like a man who had been taken advantage of, “I am.”
The Judge then asked the same exact question of Mrs. Elizabeth Shaw. She hesitated. She bit her lower lip and then looked doubtfully to her attorney.
Martin got a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Mrs. Shaw?” the Judge asked.
“Well your Honor,” Richard Landiss III, Attorney at Law for Mrs. Shaw began, “we were happy with the settlement as written, until about ten this morning when one of my aids brought some rather disturbing details to my attention concerning a substantial offer that is currently under consideration by Mr. Shaw and his attorney, for Mr. Shaw’s bottled water company, CRYSTAL SPRINGS WATER COMPANY, INC., located at 4480 Willow Street, Santa Clara, California, in which he stands to profit disproportionately, in contrast to the settlement that you now have in front of you. Under California statute, my client is entitled to half of the business or profits from the sale. As such, she should be granted half ownership of the company in order that she might insure the protection of her legal interests since her husband has shown a certain belligerent reticence in our dealings concerning their mutual property.”
It was as if someone put a gun to Martin’s head and pulled the trigger.
The Judge looked casually to Bill Matthews.
“Counselor?” he queried.
Bill was caught completely off guard. They had been sandbagged. Landiss had known from the start about the sale, had to. He had let Bill and Martin give them everything with the sole intention of an end run on the company at the last possible moment. He had let Bill think he was in the driver’s seat with an ace up his sleeve. Now Landiss was in the driver’s seat with the whole deck in his hands. With the business now on the chopping block, he had real bargaining power for his client. Elizabeth was going to walk away with every earthly possession of the Shaw marriage and a big chunk of thirty million. Landiss wouldn’t ask for half, he would bargain for just enough, and maybe a little more, to allow her to keep everything in the original settlement plus a tidy sum to ensure that she had no financial worries for the rest of her life. Landiss had used them and the beauty, the irony, the poetry, the sheer elegance of the move was that they hadn’t been lead at all; they had done the leading. Landiss simply pointed them in the right direction, dangled a carrot in front of them and let them take him exactly where he wanted them to go.
Landiss smiled a cruel smile; this was too easy! They had him right where he wanted them! Everything up to know had only been prefatory wrangling, even if they hadn’t known it. Now the real fun would begin and Landiss loved having fun.
“It’s not the winning,” he laughed to himself, “it’s winning ugly and then kicking them when they’re down.”
Shaw and his attorney had just been unceremoniously punched in the mouth but that was only the first fist in what was about to become an unrelenting and merciless lesson in back room pugilism. The trap had been sprung and no matter how they wriggled, fought, whined, cried and gnashed their teeth, they would pay, and that because Shaw was a greedy man. Landiss would push but not too hard. Greed will only go so far. He didn’t want an equitable settlement anymore than Martin did because that would mean his client would be half owner in a business that she had no intention of running. Hell, she didn’t want to work for a living, that was the whole point! She wanted to spend money not work for it. If Shaw queered the deal or if Norcal got wind that there was a legal problem, his whole gambit would be shot to hell but with careful manipulation, he would get everything in the original settlement plus another eight or ten million; it all depended on how smart the opposition was going to be. If they put up a fight, an intelligent one, they might be able to stanch the hemorrhage at a fairly reasonable price. It all wavered on how they viewed the beating they just took. Sometimes a good slap in the mouth is enough; sometimes that’s all it takes to get the bully to roll over and play dead. If that happened… well then it would be a toss up as to which Landiss was going to enjoy more, beating them or spending their money? Mrs. Shaw would be properly grateful of course and what a delectable treat that would be! She was going to prove to be almost as easy as the two blind deaf mutes he was raping in court! Not that he would keep her for very long, no. Landiss was smarter than that. He had wreaked too much havoc over the years in divorce court to ever fall into the trap himself. She would be good for about a week’s worth of fun and games before he dropped her like a bad debt, but not before collecting his fee, of course. All in all, this was going to be entertaining!
“Counselor?” the Judge repeated impatiently.
There was a far away look of fatal realization in Bill’s eyes. The same look a man who has been double-crossed gets just before his head falls into the basket under the lip of the guillotine.
“When the Lion Smiles” © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson
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