Roy Bloom, Bit Player: Chapter 11

On Dangerous Ground

“When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”— Mae West

Even though Roy and Claire had been working together for three months, renting bungalows on an annual basis created friction between them. Not because Ken was less than enthusiastic, but because Roy was proceeding carelessly. Claire insisted on following genuinely accepted rental protocols; Roy was happy to do whatever was necessary to get the units rented on a longer-term basis.

“I don’t know, Roy. You haven’t really vetted either one of them. That’s not how it’s done you know,” Claire announced, clearly annoyed with Roy’s cavalier attitude. Making light of legitimate concerns was Roy’s favored method of dismissing them. In Claire’s case, however, it didn’t seem to be working.

“Christ, Claire, I know them both. Not especially well anymore, I’ll grant you that. But so what? They’re willing to rent on a year-round basis. That’s what’s important. And their finances look fine.”

“On paper, Roy.”

“On paper is good enough for me. You’re just pissed because you promised the last two units to other people on a seasonal basis and now you have to go back on your word.”

Claire stopped walking and gave Roy a long, hard stare. He’d stepped over the line and he knew it. Claire’s boundaries, while generous, were no mystery to him. He needed to respect them or suffer the consequences. On more than one occasion, an ill-timed remark had left him on his own to deal with a difficult situation.

“Roy, you know damn well that’s not the case,” Claire fired back. “I’ve had virtually no trouble with my renters over the years because I knew who I was renting to, and I knew they weren’t going to create problems. See how successful you are shooting first and asking questions later.”

Damn, Roy thought. Claire’s reluctance to deviate from her long-standing rental procedures was getting on his nerves. He had suggested this walk on the beach to finalize the few remaining issues related to the upcoming season at The Bungalows. The upgrades had cost less than expected, were close to completion, and looked great. But now he was getting pushback from Claire about annual tenancies. He didn’t need it.

“I told you, Claire, no reference letters. These guys would be insulted. Besides, anybody can get a good reference from someone these days.”

“Background checks, Roy. I’m talking about background checks. Spend a few bucks. Buy yourself a little peace of mind.”

But peace of mind wasn’t Roy’s main objective. His primary interest was the increased income from year-round rentals. Although the first two full-time tenants would be acquaintances of Roy’s, the large number of inquiries he’d received to date made him believe year-rounders would be the rule—not the exception—in the future. Claire, however, thought he was cutting corners to further the effort and wasn’t shy with her opinion. She was becoming unusually stubborn and Roy wondered if something else was bothering her.

“Not going to happen,” Roy said. “No background checks.”

“Fine, Roy. You want to chance it, go ahead. You’re the boss.”

“Gee, thanks, Claire. I thought for a minute there I had to clear things with you.”

“You should, but you don’t,” Claire sneered before turning away from Roy and stalking up the beach.

Roy dug his bare feet into the sand as he watched her walk away. He hadn’t meant to piss Claire off, but she’d get over it. She always did. He knew perfectly well, though, that she was right. He just didn’t want to spend the time—or the money—to do it her way. He was anxious to get these deals signed. And he really didn’t think he was taking a chance. Claire missed the point. The importance of advancing the year-round tenant program far outweighed the need to follow some stodgy renting protocols. God, he hated real estate.

As annoying as Claire could be at times, Roy congratulated himself for having kept her in the loop. She was a supportive and knowledgeable advisor with a vested interest. What was good for The Bungalows was good for Claire. Besides, he usually enjoyed her company. For her part, Claire would have liked to enjoy more than just Roy’s company, but that wasn’t going to happen. Roy had met her husband once and had no desire to meet him again under potentially less desirable circumstances. Claire was also a business partner of sorts and it was never smart to engage in extracurricular activities with a colleague. More importantly, though, Roy had become involved with Carolyn. They’d succumbed to a mutual attraction and were surprised to discover they actually liked each other. At sixty, Roy considered himself lucky to have romance back in his life; he wasn’t going to play games.

Thinking about taking a swim, Roy walked to the shoreline. He tested the water: cold, but not unbearable. Then he surveyed the sky: overcast, but not threatening. The strength and speed of the advancing storm, however, remained uncertain. Forecasters weren’t sure Buxton would take a direct hit. Besides, this wasn’t hurricane season so how bad could it be? Swimming was out, though. Carolyn could probably handle it. She’d been a competitive swimmer in college, although you wouldn’t have known it from looking at her. But Roy wasn’t an athlete, and the surf was rough. Maybe he’d just head back to his bungalow, write for a few hours, and return with Carolyn to watch the storm develop—if it developed at all.

Running to catch up with Claire, Roy apologized. He’d been unnecessarily difficult, nervous, no doubt, that his plans for The Bungalows could easily go awry. He and Claire usually worked well together. He needed to keep it that way.

“How’s the writing coming?” Claire asked, interested only in changing the subject.

“Fine. Might even be better if I wasn’t distracted arguing about how to manage The Bungalows.”

Claire feigned hurt, but remained undeterred in her effort to move the conversation away from their professional relationship.

“You haven’t showed me anything lately. Unhappy with your progress?”

Roy glanced at Claire. Sensitive about his work, Roy easily became defensive. He’d waited four decades to find the courage to start writing. Now he was attempting to cram all those missed years into whatever time he had left.

“No, not really. When I have something to share, I will,” Roy said, in a rather perfunctory tone.

“Hey, I was just asking.”

“I know. But you’re right. I’m not making the kind of progress I would like.”

Regardless of how Roy might have felt, the isolation of the Outer Banks had been a huge gift. He’d found a discipline he’d never known. And while still a novice, he understood that discipline was more important than inspiration. Although without a modicum of talent, neither mattered. Roy often wondered how much talent he actually had.

“Carolyn suggested I send some of my stories to a publisher. She thinks they’re good enough to attract some interest. I’m skeptical, but she insisted. So I did.”

“Carolyn, huh?”

“She’s smart, Claire. She’s a good reader. I trust her opinion.”

“How about my opinion? Do you trust my opinion, Roy?” Claire asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I trust your opinion. Christ, Claire, didn’t I retain Danny solely on your recommendation? You said he was a hard worker, capable, worked cheap. And you were right.”

“I meant about your writing, Roy, and you know it.”

Roy looked at Claire. They both knew his response had been a lame attempt to avoid a direct answer. When it came to his writing, Claire was an unabashed cheerleader. Not much help there. Roy preferred Carolyn’s brutal honesty. Painful though it was at times, it was far more valuable. When Claire didn’t offer him a convenient way out, he tried downplaying her concern.

“Don’t go getting paranoid on me. Of course I appreciate your feedback. I’ve told you that before.”

Claire wasn’t buying it, though, and Roy could tell. It certainly wasn’t the ringing endorsement she would have liked. It didn’t deter her, however, from making her next comment—one far afield from Roy’s writing.

“You know, there’s nothing pulling me back to Norfolk tonight.”

Roy stopped walking and again stared at Claire.

“It ain’t happening,” Roy said, as gently as he could. But rejection never sounded kind. “It’s appealing. I’ve told you that. It’s just not in the cards.” Roy wondered when Claire would finally accept that. Maybe never.

He continued walking up the beach, hoping she wouldn’t pursue the issue. No such luck. He also wanted a cigarette. In his half-hearted effort to cut back on his drinking, he’d started smoking again.

Claire watched him reach into his pocket and come up empty. “Want one of these?” she called after him, extending a pack of Marlboro Lights in Roy’s direction. He stopped, came back, and took one.

“Jesus, Roy. You don’t make it easy, do you? You think asking’s fun? Are you really just not attracted to me?”

“That has nothing to do with it,” he said, lighting his cigarette, and then Claire’s.

Roy was attracted to Claire. She knew it and she knew Roy knew she knew it. And it ate away at her like a slow-acting poison. But for once in his life, Roy didn’t feel compelled to act on it.

“Okay, what is it then?”

“Not wanting to get shot by Frank, your husband. Remember him?” Roy joked.

“Be serious for a change, Roy. Answer the question.”

“I’ve tried more than once, but subtlety doesn’t seem to work with you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Claire, you want me to just come out and say it?”

“That’d be nice.”

“Carolyn Ashley. Okay? I like her, and she likes me. The relationship’s good for both of us. Satisfied?”

Claire stiffened. To avoid her glare, Roy looked out over the ocean. The surf was churning harder. He thought he saw lightning in the distance. Maybe the storm was headed his way. When he turned back to Claire, it had already arrived.

“Satisfied, I don’t think so. I just can’t believe you chose her over me.”

“It wasn’t a choice, Claire. It just happened.”

“Things don’t just happen. What? You were an innocent bystander? She pulled you in off the street and you just happened to wind up in her bed?”

“Claire, c’mon.”

“Really, Roy. You sure you didn’t just say to yourself, ‘Jeez, Claire might be problematic. Frank scares the shit out of me. Maybe I should just go for the girl next door. I mean the bungalow next door. It sure would be a lot more convenient.’”

Roy tried to interrupt, but Claire was on a roll.

“I get it, Roy. You preferred to stick with your own kind—safer that way. Didn’t want to stray too far from home. So you settled for skin and bones while a wholesome, good-time country girl waited. You’re a fool, Roy Bloom. That’s what you are. But it’s a free country. Do whatever the hell you want.”

“Cut it out, Claire. For openers, I’d hardly call you wholesome. And second, yes, you are better looking than Carolyn. That’s not the point. You also happen to be married to a redneck who loves guns and keeps one in his glove compartment.”

“He’s not going to shoot you.”

“Probably not, but I don’t feel like taking the chance.

“So you’re afraid to sleep with me?”

“I’m not afraid, Claire,” Roy insisted, although he was. “I’m just not stupid. Besides, I wasn’t sure you were serious anyway.”

“I told you the day we met I wanted to.”

“I thought you were just joking around—you said so yourself.” But Roy had sensed at the time she hadn’t been.

“Well, asshole, I wasn’t.”

Claire moved away from Roy and continued walking. He waited for a minute to give her time to calm down then ran to catch up with her. Roy thought she was overreacting, but what he thought didn’t matter. Claire forced her hands into the pockets of her skin-tight jeans. They looked good on her.

“I feel like strangling you, Roy,” Claire said, angrily. “We should be the ones having the affair and you know it.”

So much for Claire calming down, Roy thought.

“You don’t really think life’s fair, do you, Claire? You’re smarter than that. And as unscrupulous as I may appear at times, I don’t sleep with married women.”

“Very noble of you. I guess Gretchen doesn’t count.”

“Matter of fact, Gretchen doesn’t count. I shouldn’t have slept with her, but we’d been lovers, remember. Besides, according to Gretchen, Tommy had already checked out of her bedroom by then.”

“Big of you to help out.”

Claire lit a second cigarette from the butt of her first.

Roy couldn’t win and he knew it. He had nothing more to say, so he waited for Claire to continue. All Roy wanted was to end the conversation amicably—if possible—and head back to his bungalow. Eventually, Claire acknowledged she’d suspected for a while he’d been sleeping with Carolyn. She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.

“What can I say, Roy? You ruined my fantasy.”

Claire wasn’t looking for a response. Good thing. Roy didn’t have one.

“It’s tough, you know, being married to someone you don’t like, someone you don’t even want touching you. Dammit it, Roy. I’m horny. Is that a crime? I’m horny and I’m picky. A tough combination to satisfy.”

“I don’t understand why you’ve stayed with him all these years.”

“We’ve been through that before, Roy.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m a slow learner.”

“I’m not going through it again.”

“Okay, Claire. Have it your way.”

“God, you can be irritating,” she said, less annoyed than resigned. Strangely, Claire’s comment provided both of them an excuse to smile for the first time since the conversation had turned contentious. “Let’s just drop it.”

“Fine by me.”

“Good. Now I have to go. It’d be nice to beat the rain back to Norfolk.”

*****

In spite of the deteriorating weather conditions, Roy lingered on the beach. Although the storm—unusual for that time of year—could pose a threat to The Bungalows, Roy always liked it when Mother Nature flexed her muscle. But when the winds picked up significantly, Roy headed to Carolyn’s. His conversation with Claire had killed his motivation to write.

Carolyn had initiated their romance. Roy would never have made the first move. But he had enthusiastically acquiesced despite compelling reasons—and his earlier promise to himself—to do otherwise. Roy liked to blame his inability to say “no” (although he’d just managed it with Claire) on an unfortunate string of early rejections, but he knew there was more to it. Still, the sting of romantic failure continued to influence his behavior some forty years later.

As he walked to Carolyn’s, kicking up sand as he went, Danny appeared out of nowhere. He looked harried, having run the length of the beach to find Roy.

“What’s up?” Roy asked abruptly, not particularly in the mood for Danny. He liked the kid well enough, but Danny was often a bit too needy for Roy’s taste.

“The hurricane shutters on number eleven won’t close. The hinges are stuck. You know, Roy, this isn’t hurricane season. We’re not even dealing with a tropical storm here. Maybe we don’t need them?”

“Dream on,” Roy said, sharply. “It could be a bad storm, regardless. Even if it peters out, we need to be prepared. What happened to the system we devised to prevent last minute problems like this?” Roy asked, shaking his head and eyeing Danny. “You’ve been checking them regularly, right?” But Roy suspected he hadn’t.

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean ‘sort of’? It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, Danny.”

“I skipped the last couple of weeks. I’ve been busy.”

“Jesus, checking them regularly was the whole point. Now, when we don’t have time for this shit, we have to deal with it.”

“I know, Roy. I’m really sorry.”

Roy looked at Danny. The kid did seem genuinely contrite.

“You know I need to be able to rely on you, don’t you?”

Not waiting for answer, Roy continued. “Do we have plywood on hand?”

“Plenty.”

Danny was relieved. He’d expected Roy to come down harder on him. His boss’s approval meant a lot to him and it wasn’t easy to get.

“Too busy doing what?” Roy asked, as they headed toward the maintenance shed. “You got another job on the side?”

“No, of course not.”

“So what’s going on? You’re usually very reliable.”

“I’ve been in town a lot.”

“Doing what?”

“Just kicking around.”

“Danny, nobody goes to Buxton just to kick around. There’s nothing there to kick around. Even I know that and I’ve only been here three months. Using your fake ID to get a drink at Bubba’s Tavern?”

“I wasn’t in town drinking.”

“Okay. Well, that narrows it down. You have a girlfriend you’re not telling me about?”

“Not really a girlfriend.”

“Not really a girlfriend, huh? A boyfriend?”

“Fuck you, Roy.”

“Just asking. I didn’t think so, but you never know. It’s fine if you did.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“Okay. So now we’re back to square one. What’s happening in town that’s keeping you from your appointed rounds?” Roy joked.

But Danny didn’t laugh. For a minute Roy felt a confession might be on its way, but it never materialized.

“Okay if we just drop the subject?” Danny asked.

“Sure, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“I’m not uncomfortable, Roy,” Danny insisted, but everything about him said otherwise. “Let’s just get number eleven boarded up. I feel bad I fucked up.”

Roy was disappointed that Danny hadn’t confided in him. Not because Danny’s secret life in Buxton interested him—if, in fact, there was a secret life—but because it bothered Roy to be seen as too intimidating to trust. He wasn’t going to push, though. He helped carry the plywood to number eleven, surveyed the job briefly, and left Danny to do the work.

It would be months before Roy learned of Danny’s relationship with a married woman twice his age. Danny had been apprehensive about telling Roy; afraid he wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Not an unreasonable fear. Roy had a history of failing to take things seriously. When Danny did confess, they’d actually had a few laughs about it until Roy realized that it was an ongoing affair. He urged Danny to walk away, knowing full well that had he been in Danny’s shoes he wouldn’t have. Danny defended his involvement by insisting Peggy’s husband was a heavy drinker and a philanderer, adding that it wasn’t just about the sex. That only made Roy more concerned. For Danny, at nineteen, the consequences of his behavior were too remote to have much influence on him. For Roy, at sixty, the same shouldn’t have been the case. But it often was.

…to be continued…

Roy Bloom, Bit Player: Chapter 10

Risky Business

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” — Mark Twain.

Roy put down his scotch and answered the door. Not expecting anyone, he wasn’t inclined toward company. It’d been a difficult flight, a long drive, Claire was interesting but not easy, and Alan was more of a pain in the ass on the phone than in person. Perhaps Claire was too tired after all for the drive to Norfolk, or Carolyn had decided to be neighborly.

But it was neither Carolyn nor Claire. Instead, a young couple—a man and a woman— had stopped at Roy’s bungalow on their regular weekly recruiting mission. They stood—as if at attention—clutching their bibles, deferential smiles on otherwise empty faces and introduced themselves as members of the Apostolic Church of the Pentecost. As church congregants, they wanted to welcome Roy to Buxton and invite him to the following Sunday’s service. Roy wasn’t overjoyed to see strangers, but did his best to be friendly. It wasn’t easy. He wasn’t in the mood for God.

But they were. Peddling a harsh, grim version of the gospel, they began their harangue without invitation. Roy let the couple ramble on just long enough to be polite. Then he lowered the boom. They were wasting their time. He was an avowed atheist and likely to stay that way short of an act of God, which, of course, his uninvited guests insisted this was. Roy begged to differ, but not before learning they made frequent visits to The Bungalows. That, he told them, needed to stop. They might be in the business of saving souls but he was in the business of renting beachfront properties; his tenants paid handsomely for their privacy. So, unless God intended to lease a bungalow, their conversation was over.

Having amused only himself, Roy was about to close the door when he heard a friendly-sounding hello in the distance. He glanced down the walkway. A smartly dressed woman was headed his way. When she reached Roy’s doorstep, they shook hands.

“Carolyn Ashley, I presume,” Roy joked.

The woman smiled.

“Roy Bloom, I presume,” Carolyn said, mimicking Roy and adding, “Did they recruit you?”

“They never had a chance.”

At five-six and unusually slender, Carolyn had deep-set blue eyes, short, dirty blonde hair, thin lips, and a small, slightly upturned nose. She was, frankly, plain looking. If Roy had been expecting a female version of Ken, he hadn’t gotten it. No physical feature dominated or captivated, but Carolyn didn’t want for style. Overdressed for the off-season in Buxton—or any season for that matter—Carolyn wore a pair of tight black leather pants, a loose-fitting white cashmere sweater, and a silk scarf. Although she appeared young, Roy knew she had to be in her late forties.

Carolyn handed Roy a bottle of expensive Champagne. Apparently all Ashleys—even the poor ones—had money. Roy invited her in.

“I saw Claire giving you a tour and thought I’d stop by and say hello. It’s lonely around here in the off-season. Besides, we have something in common.”

“Really. What’s that?”

“Ken Ashley.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Okay,” Roy said, willing—for the moment—to let Carolyn’s cryptic remark pass without comment.

“There’s another year-round tenant here. You don’t socialize?”

“You mean Olivia?”

“Right. Olivia.”

“To be honest, I try to avoid her.”

“Why’s that?”

“Didn’t Claire give you the lowdown?” Carolyn asked, pointedly.

“Not really,” Roy responded, motioning to the couch, a large, ugly, L-shaped unit. Roy hadn’t yet had a chance to survey his new home or its furnishings. The couch was a monstrosity. It would have to go.

“Thanks,” Carolyn said, as she sat down and crossed her legs. “But I can only stay a minute.”

“No Champagne?” Roy said, holding up the bottle.

“I’d love some, but not now.”

“Fine. I’ll save it then.”

Disappointed, Roy put the bottle down and sat directly across from Carolyn in an expensive Eames chair. The Eames chair, he liked.

“Okay if I ask you about Olivia?”

“Sure. What do you want to know?”

“Who is she?”

“A widowed socialite—eccentric, and very wealthy. She’d have to be, to live here year-round. Her husband died of AIDS almost seventeen years ago and she didn’t feel like sticking around Richmond. Too much talk, too much innuendo. I think she moved here with her two-year-old son Danny because she found it easier to cope in an out of the way place like Buxton. Danny’s been working for Claire. I imagine he’ll work for you now. Olivia’s just a lost soul, but she can be abrasive at times. Not what I need.”

“Her husband died of AIDS?”

“Sorry, that’s all I know. I don’t have any of the details. That’s just what Danny told me. He seemed hesitant to say even that much.”

“And what’s Danny’s story?”

“He’s nice enough, a little young for his age perhaps. Very good-looking, though,” Carolyn added approvingly. “A bit of a loner, I think. Definitely knows his mother’s odd.”

“If mom’s so wealthy, why does Danny have to work?”

“He doesn’t. I think it just gets him out of the house and away from her.”

“So avoid her if I can. That’s your advice?”

“For what it’s worth,” Carolyn said. “Funny, though, Ken took a liking to Danny. Felt sorry for him, I suspect. Always made a point of seeing him when he was down here. I think the kid was grateful for any male bonding he could get. Besides, Ken and his wife couldn’t have children and Ken always wanted a son. So I guess they each served some kind of purpose for the other.”

Danny’s relationship with Ken didn’t interest Roy, but Carolyn’s did.

“You visit Ken in New York often?”

“I don’t. Actually, I don’t travel.”

Roy was reminded of Alan’s earlier comment. Carolyn had moved to Buxton five years ago and never left. Roy hadn’t realized that never left meant never left.

“So what did Ken tell you about me?” Roy asked. “Or about our arrangement?”

“Not much. Ken and I are close, but he doesn’t talk business with me. I’m very much indebted to him for setting me up here—and keeping me set up. He doesn’t need me asking questions, so I don’t. He did advise me not to get overly friendly with the new management.”

“I see you don’t listen.”

“Don’t be so sure. As I said, I just stopped by to introduce myself before we bumped into each other on the walkway or on the beach.”

“You sure I can’t convince you to stay for some Champagne?”

“You probably could, but I need to get going. I’m due in town in a little while.”

With that, Carolyn uncrossed her legs and stood up. Roy followed suit.

“Another time, then. Before you leave, though, could I ask a small favor? I need to lease a car in Buxton. Can I impose on you for a ride into town sometime?”

“Sure, I waitress at Charley’s Crab…”

“Charley’s Crab?” Roy said, amused by the name.

“Trust me. It’s more upscale than it sounds. Tomorrow, my shift starts at four. I could drop you off at three-thirty, but you’d have to find your own way home.”

“That’s fine. Thanks. Hopefully, I’ll drive myself back.”

“Hopefully, you will.”

Nodding to Roy, Carolyn smiled, and walked out into the surprisingly cold Buxton winter without a coat and little in the way of a goodbye. Roy watched her disappear down the walkway. She was an odd combination, alternately forthright and reticent. As for Ken’s preference that Roy keep his distance he couldn’t have cared less. Roy had, however, already concluded that was probably the prudent course of action. No need to court trouble. Still, Roy was attracted.

*****

 Roy’s encounter with Carolyn motivated him to call Ken, not that he needed much motivation. Concerned the conversation could get confrontational Roy decided another scotch was in order. He’d stocked up on the drive south from Norfolk, so there was plenty of the good stuff in the kitchen. Still fully intending to cut back, Roy figured tomorrow might be a better day to start.

 Although it was almost dark, Roy wandered onto his porch and stared at a barely visible, turbulent-sounding ocean before dialing Ken’s number.

“Good to hear your voice, Roy. I guess Claire got you to Buxton okay.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“What did you think of her?”

“Seems perfectly competent.”

“And your accommodations?”

“No complaints.”

Roy’s answers were perfunctory, and his voice expressionless.

“What’s up, Roy? You don’t sound like yourself.”

“Funny, Alan said the same thing. Did you just get off the phone with him?”

“No. Why?”

“Just a hunch. Not important,” Roy said, although it clearly was.

“Important enough to ask.”

Roy ignored Ken’s response. Instead, without bothering with any preliminaries, he began his inquest.

“Ken, any reason you neglected to tell me Tommy Thompson still owns the property adjacent to The Bungalows? Or that he owned The Bungalows until you bought them from him? Did it just slip your mind? Didn’t think it was relevant, maybe?”

Ken sighed audibly and Roy knew immediately he wasn’t pleased to have to dance around the Tommy issue so soon after Roy’s arrival.

“Alan and I didn’t tell you because we didn’t want it to adversely affect your decision. It’s not really relevant, despite what you might think.”

“Come off it, Ken. Adversely affect my decision, my ass. I wouldn’t have even considered the deal if I known about Tommy, and you know it.”

“My point exactly, Roy. And you would have been making a big mistake.”

“Thanks for the concern. What else was in the investigator’s report that you’re conveniently not telling me? Alan claims you didn’t show it to him, but I’m not buying that.”

“I didn’t show it to him.”

“Sure, Ken.” But Roy didn’t believe him, and he didn’t make it sound like he believed him.

Roy walked back inside looking for a refill. The freezer gave him trouble again. As he struggled with the ice, he reminded himself that angering Ken wouldn’t make his situation any better.

“Okay, have it your way,” Roy said, trying hard to sound conciliatory. “But I think we’d all be a lot better off if we were straight with each other.”

After a prolonged silence, Ken surprised Roy. “All right, let’s try that. See how well it works. I hadn’t planned on sharing this, but you want straight, I’ll give you straight,” Ken said, calmly. He paused again to maximize the impact of his next remark. “You weren’t our first choice for The Bungalows.”

Roy was taken aback. He had foolishly assumed the deal had been structured with him in mind. His arrogance had blinded him. He was no more than a convenient solution to Ken’s problem, and apparently not the most convenient. Caught off guard, Roy chose not to respond. He was curious, though, why he was being told this now. Had Ken just seized the opportunity to make Roy realize he wasn’t indispensable? But the deal was done. What value could there be in making Roy uncomfortable?

“Sorry to say, Roy, you were third in line. There were two other ‘Roys’ ahead of you. Regrettably, neither worked out. Originally you were first, but Alan demoted you to third. He was worried you might be too independent. He wasn’t sure you’d stick around if things didn’t go your way. We needed someone we could trust for the long haul. When the other Roys didn’t pan out, we were in a bind. Especially after the investigator’s report turned up your unfortunate connection to Tommy. I seriously considered passing, even though we were short on time. But, in the end, we were both afraid we’d never find anyone quite as incentivized. So we rolled the dice. A manageable risk, Alan and I agreed. But it made me nervous. Still does.”

“Gee, Ken, I hate to think I make you nervous,” Roy said sarcastically, avoiding a more meaningful response.

“Okay, so we didn’t level with you. Don’t act so offended, Roy. That’s the way life works sometimes. You know, maybe your career’s been something of a bust because you weren’t willing to do what was necessary to succeed. If we’d practiced full disclosure, you’d still be in New York, still pining for a lost love, and still in financial difficulty. Instead, you’re on your way to easy street.”

“Nice how my interests seem to align so neatly with yours.”

“Isn’t it though,” Ken said. Roy could almost feel the smirk on Ken’s face.

Having freed the ice from its tray and poured himself another drink, Roy had returned to the porch just prior to Ken’s disclosure of the other Roys. Now, more intent than ever on corralling his emotions, he decided to seek some assurances.

“Ken, aren’t you bothered in the least that Tommy’s wife and I lived together for four years and that she married him on the rebound? A marriage, by the way, that isn’t destined for greatness. If only half the stories I hear are true, Tommy’s a vindictive asshole. It’s one thing for me to know he owns the adjacent property; what if he finds out I’m his next door neighbor?”

“Not going to happen. Tommy has no reason to go back to Buxton. He was there several months ago to reconsider buying The Bungalows, but the changes he made to his bid were too minimal to matter. He said if I wasn’t satisfied with his offer, I was free to dispose of the property any way I wanted. It was Tommy’s arrogant way of telling me I wasn’t going to get a better deal. Instead, I went a different route—as you well know. That should be the end of it.”

“For both our sakes, I hope you’re right.”

“I am, Roy. I know him. He may be a difficult, unhappy human being, but he’s not stupid. Tommy has bigger fish to fry.”

“If you say so.”

“Listen, I’m sorry we couldn’t be honest with you. It was a chance we couldn’t afford to take. But for Christ’s sake relax. Tommy’s busy in New York. He couldn’t care less about the Carolinas.”

But Roy understood what Ken didn’t. If Tommy were to discover Roy “owned” The Bungalows he would care plenty about the Carolinas. Fortunately for Roy, Ken remained blissfully unaware of both Roy’s extramarital relationship with Gretchen, and Tommy’s knowledge of it. Had the investigator’s report contained that information, Ken would have immediately eliminated Roy from consideration for the Buxton assignment.

It’d been a long day. Roy was tired. He’d said his piece. Registered his concern. On the verge of ending the conversation, Roy remembered his idea about year-round renters. Probably best to leave it for another time, he told himself. But he couldn’t resist. Roy’s sense of timing was anything but impeccable.

He glanced at his glass, almost empty. If he was going to raise a new issue, he needed to fortify himself. This time he dispensed with the ice, and didn’t skimp on the scotch. Focused on refilling his drink, Roy realized he hadn’t been listening to Ken. He just caught the last part of what sounded like a final summation.

“What’s done is done, Roy. If I had told you to just suck it up, you would’ve gotten pissed off. You have a job to do. Do it.”

“I intend to,” Roy said. Then using Ken’s admonition, he segued to his own idea. “You ever consider year-round tenancies? Could make a lot more money and might even be easier to manage.”

“No,” Ken said, firmly and quickly. “Don’t try to fix what’s not broken. Seasonal rentals have worked fine all these years. Mixing seasonal and year-round renters could create problems. Leave well enough alone.”

Ken’s attitude surprised Roy.

“Come on, Ken. I thought you’d love the idea.”

“I’m not saying it isn’t an intriguing idea. I just don’t see the necessity of it right now.” Truth was Ken didn’t like the idea at all.

“Easy for you to say. You have what you want. The Bungalows are no longer a headache for you. I have only a limited number of years to squirrel away as much cash as I can. Besides, there’s really no additional work involved.”

“Not interested, Roy. Sorry. Wait a year. We’ll talk.”

“Now’s the time, Ken. I still have decent contacts. I don’t want to waste them.”

“Jesus, Roy. Leave it be. I respect your enthusiasm, just put it somewhere else please. Listen to Claire, will you? She’s been doing this for a long time and I have no problem with how she’s handled things. Besides, we’re trying to wind this business down over the next decade. Don’t make it more complicated.”

Roy could hear Ken’s frustration. He didn’t need Roy doing anything but managing a long-established operation. Roy didn’t quite see it that way. The extra income could be a significant windfall for him. He wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. Listen to Claire. Listen to Ken. Fuck that, he’d listen to Roy. Besides, how much more difficult could year-rounders be?

“Whatever you say, Ken,” Roy said, not meaning a word of it. After a quick goodbye, they hung up.

Roy felt the call had gone reasonably well and was less acrimonious than he expected. Ken hadn’t been evasive. He’d been decent and direct, if not exactly friendly. And while he hadn’t jumped at Roy’s idea of renting The Bungalows year-round, he hadn’t entirely shot it down. At least that was Roy’s self-serving interpretation. Tough and arrogant at their earlier meetings, Ken had been more subdued this time around. He didn’t need problems. Roy found them hard to avoid.

…to be continued…

 

Roy Bloom, Bit Player: Chapter 9

Forbidden Fruit

“In for a dime, in for a dollar.” — Proverb

Ken had purposely kept important information from Roy: Tommy still owned the land adjacent to The Bungalows. The investigator’s report Ken had commissioned before deciding to work with Roy disclosed the connection between Roy, Gretchen, and Tommy—but not all the details. Enough of them, though, that Ken feared Tommy’s presence—albeit as an absentee owner—might cause Roy to pass on his proposal. Something he was determined not to let happen. So he figured what Roy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Ultimately Roy would learn of Tommy’s involvement, but that was okay with Ken. It would be too late for Roy to reverse course.

What wouldn’t have been okay with Ken—had he known—was Roy’s involvement with Gretchen after her marriage to Tommy. Worse still would have been if Ken had been aware that Tommy knew of Gretchen’s infidelity. The report, however, was silent on both. Consequently, neither Ken nor Alan could properly assess the potential risk if Tommy became aware of Roy’s connection to The Bungalows. Fortunately, Roy believed that was unlikely. Tommy had no reason to check on the Bungalows’ ownership and Ken certainly wasn’t about to tell him. Roy was convinced, though, that had Ken been aware of all the facts regarding Gretchen’s betrayal, he would never have risked working with him. Ken may have been a gambler, but he wasn’t a fool. Besides, Alan wouldn’t have let him. Or would he have? Roy wasn’t so sure. Friends with split loyalties were unpredictable.

Meanwhile, Claire wasn’t surprised that Roy knew Tommy. After all, one was the current owner of The Bungalows and one a former owner. Or, at least, that was the way Claire understood it. She was mystified, though, by the extent of Roy’s concern over the ownership of the adjacent property. She asked a lot of questions, but Roy equivocated. Unlike Claire, he had no intention of sharing personal information with someone he’d just met. Tommy was simply the husband of an ex-girlfriend, Roy explained. “Ex-girlfriend” got Claire’s attention and Roy was happy to keep the focus on Gretchen. No need for Claire to see how concerned he was that neither Ken nor Alan had been honest with him.

Although it was too late to do anything about it, Roy now questioned his decision to work with Ken. Over the years, many of Roy’s decisions—personal and professional—had been shortsighted and had often resulted in unintended consequences. Things never quite turned out as Roy imagined. He hoped that wouldn’t be the case here. Struggling once again to leave his past behind, he wondered if he had the energy to re-invent himself one last time. But at sixty, Roy wasn’t ready to sit by and let time expire. He still hoped that posterity might actually have a reason to remember him.

The rain had subsided by the time Roy and Claire got back on the road. Three beers had given Roy a nice buzz. Claire’s speeding bothered him a lot less.

“How do you know so much about the situation?” Roy asked.

“Which situation?”

“The ownership of the property, the adjacent parcel, the erosion problem.”

“Ken’s a talker when he wants to be. He’s had to do a lot of it to keep me interested in being The Bungalows’ quasi manager from Norfolk. It hasn’t been easy. Without the money he’s thrown my way, I wouldn’t have done it.”

“I thought you said you didn’t mind the drive?”

“The drive’s the easy part, Roy.”

“How’s that?”

“Sorry, my turn for a question.”

“Fine,” Roy said. But if there were inherent problems in managing The Bungalows, he needed to know.

“First, why don’t you tell me why Tommy sold off just The Bungalows, but kept the much larger adjacent lot that lacked direct beach access.”

“Sure. But understand when I was told the story Ken cleverly omitted names. Until just now, I had no idea he was talking about Tommy Thompson.”

“Okay.”

“Good,” Roy said, pushing his seat back so he could comfortably stretch out.

“Here’s the story as it was told to me. More than a decade ago, Tommy needed cash for a real estate investment in New York. He had big plans. He wanted to leave North Carolina real estate behind. Ken did him a favor. He bought The Bungalows, but had no interest in the adjacent land. Tommy pushed Ken hard to buy it, but Ken refused. Actually, Ken wasn’t even interested in The Bungalows, but Tommy was an up-and-coming developer and Ken saw a chance to court favor.  Fast-forward to today. Tommy knows the parcel he was forced to retain isn’t worth much without the Bungalow piece and so he tries to buy it back—without success. He planned to tear down the bungalows, eliminating the erosion problem, and making the adjacent land beachfront property. The increase in land value would be significant. However, his offer was too low for Ken to even consider.”

“And Ken failed to mention Tommy by name because he was afraid it might have deterred you?”

“Not might have, would have.”

Claire, like Emma, was nobody’s fool. Clever, funny, and judicious when she wanted to be, she could give as well as take. Roy liked that about her.

“And who’s Alan?”

“An old college buddy of mine and a business associate of Ken’s. His loyalty, though, appears a bit suspect. I need to call them both when I get to Buxton.”

“Not fun conversations, I imagine.”

“Yeah, well, not everything can be fun. Right?”

“Right,” Claire agreed. Tempted to elaborate, she chose to remain silent.

Roy was angry, but needed to be smart. Tommy probably wasn’t going to be a problem, so there was nothing to be gained by alienating Ken. It would be a foolish way to start life in Buxton. Best, he thought, to call Alan first. Make it a warm-up call for Ken. Alan must have realized Roy would quickly learn that Tommy was his neighbor—an absentee neighbor, but a neighbor nonetheless. Did Alan just not care? Did he assume that once Roy had committed there would be no turning back? Hopefully, he believed as Roy did that Tommy wouldn’t be an issue, so let Roy just suck it up. Fuck both of them, Roy thought, and focused his attention elsewhere.

Since boarding his flight in New York, a question had been on Roy’s mind. Now seemed like a good time to explore it.

“Has anyone ever considered year-round rentals? The beach has an eerie beauty in winter—desolate, stark, raw. I’ve been here before in January. I loved it.”

“Just because you loved it doesn’t mean other people would.”

“Maybe,” Roy said, somewhat disappointed that Claire hadn’t reacted more positively.

“The bungalows have fireplaces, right?”

“Two each.”

“People enjoy getting away as much in winter as in summer. If you promoted the units to the right people, the annual income could be doubled.”

“Possibly. Then again, managing the place year-round could be a pain in the ass.”

“We should think about it,” Roy said, ignoring Claire’s comment.

“A pain in the ass, Roy, or didn’t you hear me?” Claire said, far less enamored of the idea than Roy. “You know The Bungalows aren’t all that well known outside of the Carolinas.”

“Well, there’s another mistake,” Roy insisted. They should be promoted as year-round second residences. The Bungalows may not be well known outside the state, but the Outer Banks sure are.”

Roy positioned his shoeless feet on the Caddy’s glove compartment. He liked the idea of year-round residences and didn’t care that Claire was dubious. Besides, it would give him something to discuss with Ken other than having been seriously misled.

“We’re going to be there in about twenty minutes. If the rain picks up again, I may wait a bit before heading back to Norfolk. I don’t need another two hours behind the wheel in a driving rain.”

“Fine. Rain or no rain, though, I need you to show me around.”

Exactly twenty minutes later, Roy and Claire reached the turnoff to The Bungalows. A long gravel road led to a well-landscaped parking lot, mostly hidden from view. Residents needed to walk from there to their units. Rather then head directly to the bungalows, however, Claire detoured to the far side of the parking lot to show Roy the adjacent property still owned by Tommy. It had been cleared of trees and shrubs some time ago. Now, weeds, sand, and trash laid claim to it for as far as Roy could see.

“You weren’t kidding when you said it was an eyesore.”

“When I’m kidding, Roy it’s generally easy to tell.”

With the seasonal tenants yet to arrive, Roy had an unrestrained opportunity to inspect the bungalows. Although located in tiny Buxton, North Carolina (year-round population 1,523), referring to them as bungalows was a misnomer. They were large imposing structures—hardly bungalows. Although partially hidden by high sand dunes, all twenty-five residences were relatively close to the water—some more so than others. Smart landscaping had maximized privacy, and thick, low-lying shrubs provided a dense ground cover. Wooden walkways allowed access between each unit and the beach. The Bungalow’s architect had modified Wright’s concept just enough to make the units appropriate for the grass-covered dunes of the Outer Banks.

At approximately twenty-five hundred square feet, each split-level bungalow had an open layout, large porch, two fireplaces, and an expansive ocean view. Although in good shape, the units hadn’t been upgraded. To continue to command high rent, work would need to be done and time was short. It was already January, and the season opened on the first of May—shortly before Roy’s sixty-first birthday.

Originally The Bungalows had presented a stark contrast to the much smaller, ramshackle structures that populated many areas along the coast. Over the years, however, the Outer Banks—like everywhere else—had succumbed to an onslaught of outsized, ostentatious residences that failed to blend well with their surroundings. Money, not taste, had invaded the wild, natural beauty of the area. The Bungalows no longer appeared out of place, as they had in the ’50s. Instead, they seemed almost quaint by comparison.

As they moved from bungalow to bungalow, Claire pointed out the two that were off limits.

“Year-round tenants,” she said. “So I can’t show you those.”

“Who lives there?”

“Carolyn Ashley lives in one and Olivia Davies and her son Danny in the other. He’s the kid I mentioned who does maintenance for me. Nothing major; we hire out for that. But he’s reliable and smart. That’s all I need him to be.”

“Carolyn Ashley?”

“Ken’s half-sister.”

“Right. Ken mentioned her. Said she had issues. Recommended I keep my distance. It sounded like more than a recommendation. I didn’t know if he was kidding or not. I didn’t ask questions.”

“Probably just as well.”

“Really?”

“Some other time, Roy. I need to be getting back to Norfolk. I’d just as soon not drive in the dark—or the rain.”

Roy was surprised. He’d expected Claire to stay for a while.

“You sure? I’d planned on buying you dinner. You could show me downtown Buxton. We might even finish the conversation we started.”

“Sorry, Roy. I really should get going. But I’ll take a rain check.”

Roy’s disappointment was evident. He’d felt sure that Claire had been flirting with him on the trip and he’d rather enjoyed it—despite questioning its appropriateness.

“Okay,” Roy said, a bit dejected. It would have been nice to have some company on his first night in town. He said goodbye to Claire and headed to his bungalow. Now he’d have to find something else to keep his mind off the very real possibility that he’d made a mistake by accepting Ken’s offer.

*****

“Alan.”

 “Hey, Roy,” Alan said, sounding unusually upbeat. “How you doing? You in Buxton yet?”

“Yeah, I got here today. I’m tired. It was a long trip.”

“So, why are you calling if you’re tired?”

“I have some questions that need answering, but I’d prefer Ken not know I’m asking. Can I trust you?”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“How sensitive the information is.”

“Just for once, Alan, do me a favor and tell me this doesn’t get back to Ken.”

“Ask away.”

“Does that mean I can trust you?”

“As much as you can ever trust anyone.”

“Jesus, Alan, it’s a simple question.”

“What, you want me to lie?”

“Not really,” Roy said, attempting to open a bottle of scotch without putting the phone down.

“Did you know Tommy Thompson owned The Bungalows before selling to Ken and that he still owns the adjacent lot? More importantly, did you see the investigator’s report?”

“Ken wouldn’t show me the report, but I know something in it disturbed him. I knew Tommy still owned property in the Carolinas, I didn’t know he owned the adjacent land.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You should.”

“Sorry, but it’s precisely the kind of thing Ken would share with you. He’d want to know how risky you thought it would be if Tommy learned The Bungalows had been deeded to me. Or, for that matter, how likely I might be to turn down Ken’s offer if I knew Tommy still owned the adjacent parcel.”

When Alan opted not to respond, Roy continued, sounding resigned. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter now. What’s done is done.”

Having filled his glass with scotch, Roy needed to add ice. In the kitchen, he struggled to remove an ice tray from the freezer. The refrigerator was old. Claire was right. Appliance upgrades were a must.

“Roy, you still there?”

Roy had to put down the phone for a minute, to wrestle some ice cubes from the tray.

“Yeah, sorry. Just trying to get organized here. Tell me what kind of problem you think Tommy presents for me?”

“Probably none. Tommy has no idea you’re the new ‘owner’ and he has no reason to visit anymore. And Ken’s certainly not going to share the information with him.”

Roy paused and sipped his scotch. He decided not to press the point.

“What else did you want to know?” Alan asked, looking to change the subject.

“What’s the story with Carolyn Ashley?”

“Who wants to know?” Alan joked.

“Just tell me so I don’t get blindsided again.”

“You want the whole story or just the highlights?”

“Do me a favor. Don’t play games. Just tell me what the hell she’s doing living at The Bungalows?”

“Okay. Fine.”

Surprisingly, Alan grew serious as he began an abbreviated profile of Carolyn Ashley.

“She’s Ken’s half-sister. Carolyn’s mother married Ken’s father after his first wife died. She’s her mother’s only child and is eight years younger than Ken and the youngest in a family of six children. Her siblings are all highly accomplished and were extremely competitive growing up. The family counts two doctors, two lawyers, and Ken. Carolyn tried to keep up, but it was always a struggle. She floundered after college, starting and failing at two businesses and a marriage. The divorce was ugly. Fortunately, there were no kids. Depressed and despondent, she had a nervous breakdown. She’d always been close to Ken, so after a short hospital stay he put her up at The Bungalows. That was five years ago. She’s never left.”

“Okay, thanks. Good on the history. What about now?”

“She works as a waitress at Buxton’s only upscale restaurant and Ken continues to pay her rent. She paints in her spare time. She’s unattached, which is what you really want to know, right? Careful though. According to Ken she experienced some kind of trauma as an adolescent, but he’s not sure what. He doesn’t think two failed businesses and a failed marriage would have been enough to cause her breakdown.”

“What? Some kind of abuse?”

“Unknown.”

“Okay. Thanks for bringing me up to date. I appreciate it. But you should have been straight with me about Tommy. I gotta tell you, Alan, I expected better from an old friend.”

“I wasn’t dishonest, Roy. Ken asked me not to say anything.”

“Pretty beholden to the guy, huh?”

“He’s made me a small fortune, Roy. You got a problem with that?”

“Not at all. If this Buxton thing doesn’t pan out, I might have to hit you up for a loan.”

“No reason why it shouldn’t work out. Ball’s in your court.”

“What you mean is that the heavy lifting’s over. The liability is off Ken’s balance sheet. I’ve done my job. Now I’m a glorified babysitter. Behave myself and don’t make waves. Just manage The Bungalows. I was surprised, though, how quickly everything came together.”

“Don’t be naïve, Roy. Everything was already in place. The papers had been prepared; the lawyers were just waiting for a name. The loan had been secured long before you met with Ken. You were just the final piece of the puzzle.”

“Right. I kinda figured that.” But he hadn’t and Alan was kind enough to let Roy’s remark slide.

“Listen, Alan. I gotta go.”

“Hot date? Christ, you just got there. Meet someone on the plane? Maybe it’s that rental manager, Claire. I met her once, a hundred years ago. Roy, you can do better than that.”

“Well then, maybe I should introduce myself to Carolyn. What do you think?”

“Don’t be a jackass, Roy. Didn’t Ken tell you to keep your distance?”

“You and Ken talk about me a lot, do you?”

“You know you’re a hard man to help, Roy.”

“I’ll talk to you later. I need to shower and change.”

“You don’t think Ken’s talked to Carolyn about you? They talk regularly, you know. You want that constantly in the background? I wouldn’t imagine you do.”

“Enough already, Alan.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“Fine. Listen there is actually someone at the door. I need to go. You should consider coming down for a visit sometime. Maybe I can fix you up with Claire.”

“Fuck you, Roy.”

“You too.”

Roy hung up, looked toward the door, and wondered who was knocking.

…to be continued…

Roy Bloom, Bit Player: Chapter 8

Wheel of Fortune

“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” — George Carlin

Roy took only a few weeks to pull up stakes. Despite all the years he’d lived in New York, they didn’t go deep. With Alison gone and Three Partners Realty as depressing as ever, there was little to hold Roy. He’d miss his Bed-Stuy hideaway, but the Buxton deal was too enticing to turn down. Minimizing the questionable ethics involved while maximizing the possibility for adventure, Roy opted for change. Still, his decision hadn’t been easy. His principles had taken a hit, but they weren’t sacrosanct. Flexibility, he reminded himself, was required to survive unusual circumstances.

As Roy waited at Norfolk International Airport for his suitcases, he pictured them alone and unattended on the tarmac at LaGuardia. Paranoia came easy to Roy and the baggage handlers weren’t helping; they seemed to be taking forever.

Shifting his focus, Roy thought about his last phone conversation with Emma. He’d surprised himself by stopping by her apartment several times after their initial meeting to check on her. Now, on the verge of accepting Ken’s offer, he had called ostensibly to say goodbye. But Emma was nobody’s fool.

“I still haven’t heard from her, Roy. If I had, you would know.”

“No harm in checking.”

“There is, actually,” Emma said, in an uncharacteristically harsh tone. “You need to move on.”

“I know.”

“Sure you know. That’s why you called.”

Roy had grown to like Emma, liked her sarcasm. In a way, he considered her a kindred spirit.

“So, you’re doing okay?”

“Fine, under the circumstances. I’m expecting a visit from a home health aide in a few minutes and I’m out of cigarettes. I asked her to buy me some, but I’m not optimistic. How about you?”

“Okay, I guess. Wrestling with a job offer I just got.”

“Take it.”

“What do you mean ‘take it,’ Emma? You don’t even know what it is.”

“It doesn’t matter. Does it get you out of New York?”

“Actually it would. At least for a while, probably a long while.”

“Even better. And the money?”

“Theoretically pretty good.”

“What’s the problem then?”

“I’m not sure I trust the guy making the offer. I’m not sure the whole thing is on the up and up.”

“Unethical?”

“Probably.”

“Illegal?”

“I’m not really sure.”

“How likely is it to become a problem?”

“I don’t think very likely, but I don’t really know that either. I’m not even sure it’s knowable. But it does get me out of New York and it does eliminate my financial headaches.”

“Grab it, Roy,” Emma said, sounding as if she were issuing an order.

“Seriously?”

“What are your options? You hate your current job. You don’t have any other offers. You need money. Seems like a pretty simple decision to me.”

Emma’s certainty didn’t surprise Roy. She was a strong-willed, opinionated woman. She must have had real potential. Roy could only guess at what had derailed her success in life.

“You certainly can’t still be thinking Alison might show up one of these days.”

Roy didn’t respond.

“You got taken. Accept it. Get over it.”

Roy knew she was right.

“If I take the job, I’ll give you my new contact information before I leave.”

“So if Alison gets in touch, I can let you know?”

“Keep it up, Emma. You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

“I’m sure I will, sweetie. Loneliness knows no bounds.”

*****

Relieved to finally see his suitcases, Roy grabbed them and headed for the exit. Ken had arranged for Claire Coleman, The Bungalows longtime rental manager, to be his chauffeur for the two-hour trip to Buxton. Claire lived in Norfolk and was no stranger to the commute. She made the trip weekly. For the money Ken was paying, she would happily have made it daily. Holding a large, carefully lettered sign, reading “BLOOM,” Claire was easy to spot. But she seemed surprised by Roy’s appearance. Dressed in a pair of beat-up khakis, a black T-shirt, and a worn sport jacket, he didn’t fit the image she had of a New York real estate guy. But then Claire was already suspicious. Who would buy The Bungalows given their depreciating value?

Ken had told Claire only that the new owner was coming to inspect The Bungalows and to see to their management. He had assured her she would be kept on as rental manager—Roy was not about to search for tenants himself. He had hated doing it in New York, and he had no intention of doing it in Buxton.

Roy would need, of course, to approve all rentals, but he wasn’t about to let that consume a lot of his time. Ken had been quite clear, though. Roy was responsible for a successful operation. He needed him to be hands-on. Fine, Roy thought, but he could still leave the daily grind to Claire, and to others he would hire. He had no intention of becoming a slave to the business. He had other plans.

The torrential rain that had greeted Roy on his arrival continued unabated as he and Claire drove the coast road to Buxton in Claire’s late-model Cadillac. The longer they drove, though, the more remote the Outer Banks felt—more remote than Roy had remembered. He began to worry about adjusting to life so far from civilization. It was one thing to hide out for weeks on end in his Bed-Stuy apartment reading, writing, and drinking. It was quite another to be deprived of New York’s unique array of diversions.

Thoughts of Buxton’s remoteness eventually gave way to concern over Claire’s driving. Neither the windswept rain nor the narrow two-lane highway kept her from speeding. It made Roy nervous, but he didn’t say anything. Fortunately, Claire was a talker and that helped take Roy’s mind off hydroplaning. Besides, she was a wealth of information about the Outer Banks and The Bungalows. Some of it he actually needed to know.

“The Bungalows’ architect died the other day.”

“At The Bungalows?” Roy asked without thinking.

“No, of course not. Ted was one hundred and three. He was in a nursing home in Greenville. But The Bungalows were his signature achievement, even if he did adapt someone else’s design.”

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s,” Roy interjected.

“Right. Still, they were quite the accomplishment in 1955. There was nothing else on that spit of land back then.”

Roy was only vaguely interested in 1955. His focus was on the present.

“Are they fully rented for the upcoming season?”

“Pretty much. But it’s harder than it used to be.”

“Why’s that?”

“More competition—and Ken’s reluctance to upgrade the units. The bungalows are in immaculate condition, but the electric and plumbing are old, the appliances and security systems are out-of-date, and the Internet is unreliable. Ken tried as much as possible to avoid capital outlays, but it’s rapidly becoming a necessity.  Rustic is good. Too rustic is not. The people who can afford these bungalows aren’t willing to dispense with too many creature comforts. In the meantime, the erosion problem is all Ken talks about these days, but he’s very insistent that the issue not be discussed with anyone else—especially residents. He doesn’t need the regulars looking for rentals elsewhere.

Roy didn’t respond, so Claire glanced in his direction. He appeared to be listening.

“Nevertheless, The Bungalows are still in demand—just a little less than they used to be. Unfortunately the area around the bungalows is no longer pristine. Ugly new developments have sprung up and there’s an undeveloped piece of property behind them that’s an eyesore. Ken’s done his best to hide it from view, but there’s only so much you can do.”

“So there are enough people within striking distance who can afford the monthly rent?”

“Plenty. There’s more money in Raleigh, Richmond, and Charlotte than there used to be, not to mention Charleston.”

As Claire continued answering Roy’s questions, he found her knowledgeable and articulate. He was impressed with her understanding of the market, The Bungalows’ problems, and Ken’s priorities. And she was politic in discussing them with a stranger. Ken’s description of Claire as little more than competent baffled Roy. She certainly didn’t strike him that way.

“How difficult are the tenants?”

“Well, they’re older people, not a rowdy group. But they have money so they expect things. Depending on how hands-on you want to be…”

Roy cut her off immediately. “As little as possible.”

“Not exactly how Ken explained it to me,” Claire countered.

“Well, Ken’s not in charge anymore,” Roy said emphatically, knowing full well that wasn’t actually true.  “So we need solutions that work for us.”

“Well, if it works for you, it works for me,” Claire said, unconvincingly. “What I was about to suggest is that you’ll need someone to handle regular maintenance and someone to deal with tenant issues. Again, these people are paying a lot of money, so they have high expectations. I recently started using the nineteen-year old son of one of the two full-time renters for basic maintenance and you should consider keeping him on. Danny’s a good kid, very capable, a little immature perhaps. He attends junior college up the coast, but has plenty of free time. A bit of a loner, but that’s his business. Watch out for mom, though. She’s a piece of work. As for tenant issues, I foolishly dealt with them myself. It proved to be very time-consuming and a big mistake.”

As Claire rambled on, she began adding excessive detail to her commentary. It sounded to Roy as if she were auditioning to keep a job that wasn’t in jeopardy. As a result, his attention wandered.  Initially, Roy had been dismissive of Claire’s appearance. She had a matronly style of dress and an unflattering haircut. But once past those obstacles, Roy now found her to be quite attractive. Claire was trim, of average height, with delicate features, bright, intelligent eyes, and a warm—albeit cagey—smile. Roy guessed she was in her mid-forties. Her complexion was a little too pale for Roy’s taste, but it was still January. A little summer sun might fix that.

But before Roy’s imagination could get out of control, the sight of an eighteen-wheeler barreling toward them brought him back to reality. Claire jerked the wheel to the right to avoid hitting the truck, but the car fishtailed. It was a miracle it stayed on the shoulder and didn’t plunge down the embankment. After returning safely to the road, Roy suggested they make a pit stop. Claire raised no objection.

A real bar would have been Roy’s preference, but they had to settle for a roadside diner. It was the first place they saw and neither was in the mood to be picky. As soon as they sat down, an older, uniformed waitress with a bouffant hairdo and inch-thick make-up appeared. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the place was empty.

“Just a cup of coffee for me,” Claire said.

Looking over his shoulder at the liquor displayed behind the counter, Roy’s disappointment registered on his face. Unknown brands. He opted for a Bud.

“Not what you wanted, I guess.”

“Not really. But I should cut back on the hard stuff anyway.”

Roy looked at Claire. He wondered if his comment required an explanation.

“So tell me, how do you—how did you—like working for Ken?”

“It was all right. He paid me well because he didn’t want to be bothered with anything. The drive from Norfolk is taxing, but there are worse things.”

“Like what?”

“My husband,” Claire said, smiling.

Her matter-of-fact tone surprised Roy.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Mind if I ask what he does for a living in Norfolk?”

“He doesn’t do it in Norfolk, thank God. He’s a long-haul trucker. That could have been his rig that almost hit us on the highway. Passing a slower vehicle at breakneck speed on a two-lane highway in poor visibility would be just like him.”

The waitress set down Claire’s coffee and Roy’s Budweiser. She asked him if he wanted a glass. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of love lost between the two of you, or am I wrong?”

Claire laughed.

“There was no love to be lost. He wasn’t the type to take ‘no’ for an answer. I was pregnant at seventeen, had two kids and a problem husband before I was twenty.”

Roy was struck by Claire’s bluntness. Although refreshing, it seemed out of place. Especially since they’d just met and he was essentially her new boss.

“Are you generally this forthright with strangers?”

“No, but I’m going to be working for you so you might as well know who I am and what I’m about. You will eventually anyway.”

Roy supposed she was right, but he still found her lack of reserve slightly unnerving.

“Am I making you uncomfortable? I have a bad habit of doing that.”

“Not really, but since you don’t seem to draw your personal boundaries too tightly, can I ask you something that’s none of my business?”

“Try me.”

“You stayed with your husband in spite of how you felt about him?”

“Yep. He was gone most of the time and I had two kids to raise. He made good money and I didn’t make any. We found a way to co-exist. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it worked.”

“Where are your kids now?”

“Fully grown, fairly estranged. Living in California.”

“So you’re free to leave at any time. What’s holding you back?”

“We’ll divorce one of these days, I guess. We just haven’t gotten around to it. Frank’s a real hothead. He can be serious trouble when he wants to be. I’m finishing up my GED and I don’t need Frank’s kind of trouble right now.”

Roy motioned to the waitress. She brought Roy another Bud and refilled Claire’s cup.

“I’ll tell you one thing, it’s good he can’t see me sitting here with you now.”

“Why? Does he disapprove of fraternizing with other men?”

“Pretty much. He’s what you’d call a redneck.”

“Really.”

“No, not really, but I have to be in the mood to do Frank justice and I’m not. Another time perhaps.”

“Okay. Fine.”

“You know we all make mistakes, Roy. Something tells me you weren’t living the high life in New York. It doesn’t seem like this is such a great opportunity. I was surprised when Ken told me he’d sold The Bungalows, especially since they aren’t even going to be around in another ten years.”

“Yeah, well, that’s also a story for another time. Ken didn’t even want to own them in the first place. You worked for the previous owner, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What was he like?”

“An asshole. Tommy was almost impossible to work with. He still owns the large lot behind The Bungalows.”

Roy sat up.

“Tommy?” He tried to make his question sound casual.

“Tommy Thompson.”

Roy choked a little on what was left of his beer.

“I say something wrong?” Claire asked.

“No. It’s just that I know the guy. Not personally. Never met him. But Ken should have told me he purchased The Bungalows from Tommy and that he still owns property down here.”

“Ken does what Ken wants. I never trusted the guy. And I never understood why Tommy sold Ken The Bungalows and not the adjacent lot as well.”

“Ken probably didn’t give him a choice.”

“See what I mean about Ken? Forewarned is forearmed.”

Roy chugged the remainder of his beer and motioned to the waitress for another.

…to be continued…

Roy Bloom, Bit Player: Chapter 7

The Art of the Deal

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” — H.L. Mencken

 Restlessly nursing his scotch, Roy sat opposite Ken waiting for his future to unfold. An enormous marble coffee table created an awkward distance between them. Ken seemed either not to notice or not to care. He was eager to begin an explanation of his company’s situation in Buxton. For Roy, it wasn’t the first time others would be instrumental in dealing the cards he would ultimately have to play.

“Alan assures me you’re financially sophisticated, Roy—and your background certainly implies it—but if something doesn’t sound right, say so.”

“I’m not shy, Ken. And we both know if you thought that I couldn’t follow whatever it is you’re about to propose I wouldn’t be here.”

Ken nodded as he watched Roy fidget in his chair.

“You seem uneasy Roy. Are you?”

“Not really.”

“It’d be understandable if you were. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill proposal and you have been told almost nothing about it. I could have had Alan prep you, but I preferred to do that myself. So you’re fine?”

“I’m fine, Ken. Just curious.”

“Good. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll like what you hear.”

“Maybe.” Roy laughed.

Finishing his scotch quickly, Roy set his glass on the table. Unsure what to make of Ken, he nevertheless decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ken was, after all, a friend of Alan’s. That didn’t mean Roy didn’t have concerns. He had been surprised to learn that Alan had had more substantial financial dealings with Ken than he’d realized. That wasn’t exactly a problem, but it again raised the specter that Alan—by arranging the meeting—was, first and foremost, doing Ken’s bidding. Roy’s friendship with Alan dated from their college days, so he trusted him. He would hear Ken out. But contrary to Ken’s comment, he wasn’t expecting to like what he heard. He suspected he was being set up.

To his credit, Alan had tried to prepare Roy for the meeting; not the easiest of tasks as Roy wasn’t the best listener. Ken, Alan told him, was a shrewd, experienced businessman and an expert negotiator. Don’t try to be smart. You’ll only look foolish. Just pay attention and make sure you understand the implications of the deal. Alan did, however, assure Roy that Ken had no desire to deceive him. He needed a willing partner.

“My turn to ask a favor,” Ken said.

“Sure.”

“Hear me out before you decide if you like what I have to offer.”

“Not a problem,” Roy said, although he’d already half made up his mind.”

Before launching into his proposal, Ken got up to refresh his drink. He offered to do the same for Roy, but Roy declined. He was already at a disadvantage; no need to make it worse.

“My company owns property in Buxton, North Carolina and it’s become a problem. I wish we didn’t own it anymore, but we do. I need someone smart, someone with a reasonable amount of financial acumen to get involved. But I also need someone who’s not afraid to bend the rules and who doesn’t see everything as either black or white.” Ken paused and looked directly at Roy. “And, of course, someone who needs money.”

Roy laughed.

“Sounds like the introduction to a bribe,” Roy joked. Unfortunately, his attempt at humor fell flat. Ken wasn’t amused.

“Let’s not get off to a bad start, Roy There’s an opportunity here for you if you want to hear it. If you don’t, that’s fine, too.”

“No, I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come today.” That wasn’t exactly true. He’d come, in large part, to get Alan off his back. But Roy also didn’t want to have made the trip for nothing. “I’m suspicious by nature. ‘Bending the rules’ opens up a lot of possibilities.”

Ken grew silent. He looked for a moment as if he were considering ending the conversation.

“You know, Roy, you’re welcome to leave at any time. No hard feelings. Alan’s job was to get you here; mine is to keep you here, if I can. There’s nothing I’m about to tell you that’s so privileged that it would present a problem for me if you chose not to participate.”

Ken paused, waiting for Roy to respond. He didn’t.

“I’ll continue then?”

“Yeah, sure.” But there was uncertainty in Roy’s voice. Part of him did want to leave.

“The property is on the Outer Banks. I acquired it somewhat by accident fifteen years ago. It’s directly on the ocean. There are twenty-five high-end bungalows, scattered over more than sixty acres. They’re almost exclusively seasonal rentals and they’re not cheap. Not even close.”

“How much?’

“Seventy-five hundred a month. Each unit is more than twenty-five hundred square feet spread over two levels with large outdoor porches and easy access to the beach. They were constructed in the 1950s. An enterprising local architect modified, without permission, a Frank Lloyd Wright design. They were built to last and have been meticulously maintained over the years. Considered architectural gems, they’re well-appointed and extremely comfortable living spaces—thus the price. But there’s a problem.”

“Which is?”

“They could easily not be there in another ten or twenty years. They’re too close to the water. Erosion wasn’t a big issue when they were built, but it is now. I acquired them as a favor to another developer. He needed cash. I didn’t really want to own land in North Carolina, but this guy was an up-and-comer in New York at the time, so I made an investment in him as much as in the property. There wasn’t any downside I could see at the time; clearly, I was short-sighted.”

“You mean they’re going to be worthless at some point.”

“At some point, they’re not going to exist. But the problem is actually larger and more immediate than that.”

“Really,” Roy said, vaguely entertained by Ken’s dilemma.

Ken leaned back and lit a cigarette, offering one to Roy. He declined.

“The value of the property—on our company’s books—is close to fifty million dollars. That was true once, but no longer. It’s now more like twenty million. Of course, I didn’t pay anywhere near that much, but still. Currently, The Bungalows generate almost two million in annual revenue. At best, if someone believed they’d last another twenty years I might get twenty million—but that’s a big ‘if’. So, how, you ask, can they be worth fifty million? Simple. They’re not.”

“So you need to write down your investment by thirty million dollars. And that, I presume, is a problem for you.” Roy had no idea of the size of Ken’s company so he was unable to determine exactly how big a loss that might represent.

“It would be a problem for anyone, Roy, but now is a particularly bad time for my company. I’m about to negotiate construction financing for an extremely expensive high-rise office building here in Manhattan. Wherever I borrow the necessary funds, significant due diligence will ensue. It won’t look good if they discover an asset worth twenty million—at best—listed at fifty. In short, I need to get the Buxton property off my balance sheet.”

“And writing it off isn’t an option?”

“Hardly. We can’t afford to show that kind of loss. Wouldn’t look good. Wouldn’t inspire confidence in potential creditors. If I wanted to do that, I already have an offer for the property, but it’s way too low to do me any good. Besides, I don’t like the guy. He’s a competitor and something of a jerk. No, I need to get the property off the company’s books without showing a loss.”

“Nice trick, if you can do it.”

“I can do it.”

“How?”

“With your help.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

He didn’t. Perplexed and a bit unnerved, Roy leaned forward and helped himself to a cigarette. He hadn’t smoked in a long while, but this situation seemed to warrant it as uncharted territory clearly lay ahead.

“I need someone to buy the property at a price I set. I thought maybe you might be interested. Are you, Roy? I could make a decent profit and an embarrassing liability will disappear from my balance sheet.”

Rattled, Roy quickly proceeded to do exactly what Alan had advised him not to.

“Sure. Great. Had I’d known a little more about your proposal beforehand, I would have brought my checkbook. Will a handshake do?”

Ken appreciated neither Roy’s sarcasm nor his cavalier attitude, but chose to overlook both for the moment.

“In a way, Roy, it will. What I really need is your permission, not your money. If you’re interested, attorneys will handle the transaction. No money need change hands. To be frank, I just need someone willing to put his name on the deed.”

“Sounds a bit preposterous.”

“I assure you, Roy, it’s not. Trust me. If it were, I wouldn’t be suggesting it. Actually, it’s not even a particularly novel method for removing troublesome assets from a company’s books. It’s been done many times before.

“You would know better than I. Perhaps I’m just not as sophisticated as we both might like, but it certainly sounds like I wasn’t that far off earlier. I have to say, Ken, the idea strikes me as crazy. It sounds more like the script for a bad B movie than a real opportunity.”

“Sorry you feel that way, Roy. Believe me, it’s not. We picked you for good reason—or rather Alan did. I hope he didn’t make a mistake. Should I continue?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Good. But if you’re really not interested please don’t waste my time.”

Roy nodded in agreement.

“As I said, this will be solely a paper transaction. But it will include a low interest loan procured on your behalf. A loan, I might add, secured by assets unrelated to you since you don’t have any assets. Or do you, Roy?”

Roy didn’t respond. There was no need. It wasn’t  a question.

“You’ll use the loan to buy the property, and then you’ll use the income from the property to make the interest and principal payments on the loan. A simple arrangement and, as I said, lawyers will handle the details. All you need to do is to lend your name and management expertise to the cause.”

“Who else is privy to this proposal? Alan?”

“Yes, Alan. But just enough to see if he knew anyone qualified who might also be interested. As luck would have it, he did.”

Roy wasn’t buying Ken’s explanation. He was sure Alan knew the details, but there was no reason to push the issue.

“I’ll remember to thank him.”

Sarcasm was Roy’s default mode, but his concern was real and it showed.

“Something bothering you, Roy?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“How legal is all this, really?”

“Legal enough.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, some people might have trouble with it. It does appear somewhat deceptive, but it’s really not. When all’s said and done, it could be very beneficial for both of us. Besides, nobody’s truly at risk here.”

“Unless someone happens to have occasion to look into the circumstances of the transaction.”

“That’s not going to happen, Roy. There’s not going to be any reason for anyone to do any checking. Due diligence will only turn up a sale of a property the company owned in North Carolina, one sale among many. No one will have any reason to assume anything unusual. You have no reason to worry.”

“Really. I should just take your word for it? And where is a loan that size coming from? You haven’t mentioned that.”

“That’s right. I haven’t.”

“And you’re not going to. Right?”

“Right.”

“And you’re comfortable telling me all this? Comfortable I’ll keep it to myself? We both know that if this isn’t fraud, it’s the next best thing.”

“I think that’s a harsh judgment, Roy. I’d be careful there if I were you. It’s not fraud. It’s creative accounting and it’s done all the time. And no, I’m not afraid you’re going to say anything. Frankly, Roy, I’m surprised you haven’t asked about what precisely is in it for you.”

“I knew you’d get around to it eventually,” Roy said, a bit arrogantly.

Ken handed Roy a spreadsheet. “Don’t look at the numbers now. Review them at home. When you’re ready, we’ll talk again. But don’t take too long. I need to get this done. Understand, though, that your share of the monthly income—even after loan payments—will be significantly more than anything you ever hoped to see. You need to think about that.”

Roy already was.

“There is one additional piece of the puzzle, though, you’ll want to consider. The loan at the heart of this transaction will be callable on six months notice. So, although your name—or actually the name of the LLC we’ll create—will be on the deed, I’m not exactly relinquishing control. The money you make will be yours, but I can stop the flow any time and, for that matter, reclaim the property. Or rather the loaning entity can.”

Finally the full implication of the deal became clear. Roy already understood he wasn’t being given the opportunity to own anything. He would be paid for the use of his name and his ability to keep things under control in Buxton. Now, though, it appeared the generous income stream his participation would garner could be precipitously withdrawn. The whole idea seemed increasingly absurd to Roy, albeit well thought out. All he needed to do now was sign off on it and pack his bags.

The discussion in Ken’s office continued for some time. Understandably, Roy had a lot of questions. But as soon as he was back in Bed-Stuy, he called Alan.

“Jesus, you could have prepared me a little better.”

“Ken asked me not to.”

“Why?”

“He wanted to sell you on the idea himself. He’s in more of a bind than he probably let on. He needs to get this Buxton business taken care of fairly soon.”

“Are you involved in any way?

“No. Ken just wanted to know if I knew of anyone who might be willing to take a little risk for a sizeable return. I thought of you.”

“You know, Alan, it all seems quite farfetched. If Alison were still around I doubt I would have even agreed to meet Ken, let alone consider leaving New York or engaging in an arrangement that, at the very least, strikes me as highly irregular. Ken may be comfortable minimizing the ethics of this. I’m not.”

“When did you get so high and mighty?

“Earlier tonight.”

“It’s an opportunity, Roy. Not without risk, but you’re never going to make any money in your current situation. Showing strangers apartments you’d never consider living in is not your idea of a good time. It’s not who you are, Roy. And remember, it was hard enough for you to find your current shithole of a job. Ken’s deal could eliminate your financial problems overnight. You’ve always said you wanted to live by the ocean. Here’s your chance. And, who knows, the change of scenery might even spur you to write—if you can find the discipline. How did you leave it with Ken?”

“He said take a few days, but not much longer.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t. One minute I think it’s idiotic and the next I’m buying a plane ticket.”

“Do yourself a favor, Roy. Buy the plane ticket and stop thinking about it.”

…to be continued…