Getting the Praise

 

‘Goodmorning, ladies and gentlemen, this is the 7 o’clock news of 3 June 2010, today’s weather forec…’

Morris gave the alarm clock a short whack, then groped for his spectacles because he was nothing without them. Ugh, today! He fought the urge to put the glasses down and shut his eyes again but decided against it. The morning blur gone, he turned around to watch his wife Eleanor waking up. She was rubbing her eyes, about to move over for their morning kiss just like every other morning of the past 32 years. But this morning Morris quickly got out of bed and sped to the adjoining bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, he gazed at his reflection but for once didn’t inspect his stubbly beard or the increasing creases around his mouth. He just stared in his grey eyes behind the horned spectacles, registering the onset of panic in them.

                ‘Tomorrow this time I may not be alive,’ the thought shot through his head like a bullet, “I can’t kiss Ellie when she may need to find another husband in a year’s time.’

                “Honey, you’re alright?” That was Ellie with her darned sixth sense. Why are wives equipped with these senses at the wrongest of times?

                “Yep, sweetheart, just shaving,” Morris shouted back opening the tap and splashing more water than necessary. The next moment she was behind him, tying the sash of her dressing gown and putting her arms around him. She smelled of sleep and Ellieness.

                “You forgot to kiss me, Mor, but here, “ she planted a kiss on his back and left the bathroom to go downstairs, where she would set about making his tea and toast. While still in the bathroom, Morris’s mobile buzzed.

                “Good morning, Mr Chevalier, chief inspector Black here, you are the notary for the Van Gall auction this afternoon, aren’t you?”

                “I am,” Morris suppressed the tremble in his voice and kicked his foot against the laundry basket. It toppled over spilling white knickers and black socks. He instantly scorned himself for his worry, there seemed to be no need, the entire event had been planned with meticulous care.

                “Can I meet you at your office around 9 o’clock, sir? I’d like to discuss the latest instructions with you?” Black’s voice sounded rusty, he must be a heavy smoker.

                “Fine!” Morris ended the call. Time to dress. Why take extra care choosing a shirt and tie for that bunch of Van Gall losers? Still, Morris wouldn’t change his daily habit just because he disliked the entourage of his dead client. So, with precision he chose thin white-blue stripes and a modest burgundy tie. Red for assertive, right? On his way down the stairs he took a deep breath. Bring on this agony day, bring it on!  

               While he was manoeuvring his Audi A8 into his private parking space on the Rokin in Amsterdam, he had another phone call, this time from Estella, his secretary. She sounded very upset:

                “Oh, Mr Morris, where are you? Are you already on your way. Oh-oh-oh?”

                “Easy, Estella, I’m almost there. What’s the matter?”

                “Oh-oh-oh, sir, some villain has thrown a huge stone through the window, and there is glass everywhere, sir, and he has written on the stone: “You’re one dead man, Chevalier!”

                “Don’t worry, Estella, just call security and leave everything lying as it is right now. I have an appointment with chief inspector Black at 9. He’ll sort it out for us and tell us what to do. Just don’t go near the window.” It sounded far more assured than he inwardly felt. Morris’s heart was thumping in his throat and the steering wheel suddenly felt very slippery. He had to dry his hands on his trench coat before he could park the car properly. Hopefully Estella hadn’t noticed his agitation. Women!

                Morris’s Slough of Despond had started two months before, the day after Jerry van Gall had been liquidated by a hitman while he was sitting in his Ferrari waiting at the traffic lights near the Leidseplein. The next day, the crowds started to tumble into Morris Chevalier’s luxurious office at Chevalier & Winston Notaries: the Public Prosecutor, black widow Olivia van Gall, police officers, the press, even a selection of Van Gall’s underworld friends. A complete melting pot of Amsterdam’s criminal world and its persecutors, a parade that first had amused Morris, but – when the size of Van Galls conglomeration started to sink in and the outlook of his task in it – the situation had lost all its black humour. It was down and right threatening. Both sides showed an appalling lack of heart. Nobody had loved Jerry van Gall, certainly not his wife and Morris felt almost sorry for the guy. Still, his life had been all about drug deals, sex industry and real estate, wrapped up in the hallelujah of laundering. Friends don’t seem to exist in that world, just temporary partners-in-crime. But in death Jerry van Gall had made sure to link his fate with that of decent, respectable notary Morris Chevalier, so that today he was in charge of selling ten pieces of the dead man’s real estate with the figurative trigger of both parties against his balding head: the property had to be sold today, at any price! 

                On entering his office, he saw glass strewn across the parquet floor and a huge star-like hole in the floor-to-ceiling window. Estella, shivering like a castaway poodle, clenching and unclenching her reddened hands, was waiting for him in the corridor. She greeted him with an unusual squeak in her voice:

                “Mr Black is already waiting for you in the waiting room, Mr Morris, shall…shall, I get you gentlemen a coffee?”

                “Yes, thank you, Estella. Are you alright?”

                “Better, sir, I’m glad the police is here.”

                “Can we use your office for the time being?”

                “Sure, sir, shall I go and sit with Miranda then?”

                “Do that.” Miranda was Alexander Winston’s secretary, Morris partner and best friend. “Oh, and send in Mr Black right away,“ Morris added. He cast a last glance at the debris in his office and went into the small adjoining room. When he heard the inspector arrive, metal soles scraping across the tiled floor, he turned to greet him, erecting his 5 f’6 length to face the uniformed officer who was at least two heads taller. When they shook hands, Morris noticed that his were clammy again.  The inspector smelled of tobacco and Eau de Cologne. Morris took an instant dislike to him. It was their first meeting as Black had just been appointed to the post of chief inspector with an eye to smoothening the ruffles of the Van Gall legacy. Black was a former Interpol guy, hard and ruthless, with light cheerless eyes and a beak-like face flanked by side whiskers to camouflage its extreme narrowness. His head constantly moved with little jerks to the right and left following the all-seeing eyes. Under a long neck, his body was all wires and muscles. Not a man to scoff at.

                “Show me the mess these scavengers made,” he barked after a clipped greeting. Morris nodded and led Black to his office.

                “Well, this fits the picture alright. We’re dealing with big-time crooks, you’re well aware of that, aren’t you, Mr Chevalier?” Morris nodded again, detesting the derogatory intonation in the man’s husky voice. “Based on this assault, I have taken some extra precautions for the auction this afternoon,” he continued, ignoring Estella who was lingering on the threshold with their coffee. Black took stock of the room as if he wanted to inhabit it himself, before he took his time studying the note on the stone. When Morris moved towards Estella to take the cups from her, Black glanced in her direction:

                “Leave the damn cups somewhere, lady, and be gone, “ he growled and dismissed her with another impatient movement of his head as if she was his secretary. Morris quickly followed her and with an apologetic face asked her to leave the coffee on her desk.

                “I will personally escort you to Felix Meritus on the Keizersgracht, “ Black continued, “as from 1 o’ clock I’ll have twenty officers on the spot, most of them undercover. Now my team is waiting downstairs to take samples of this incident here.” He waved his arm around. “I’d like you leave your office so they can do their job. It will take an hour or so.” He briefly shook Morris’s hand and departed towards the elevator. The disdain could be felt slicing the air between them.  The man obviously had a strong dislike of the legal profession. Well, the dislike was mutual and the pact only lasted for one more afternoon. With the lift door closed and Black gone, Morris sat down at Estella’s desk and sipped his half-cold coffee staring blankly at the other full cup. While he heard the policemen coming up the stairs, his thoughts drifted off to Eleanor. Would he see her again tonight? This job, for certain, was sheer madness. 

                After Black’s men had done their business, the office was cleared by the security team who also boarded up the window. A thin layer of normality settled like fine dust on the office. Noon was approaching fast. Morris stomach started to rumble although he was far from hungry but to stop the distracting noise in his intestines, he forced down two bites of the ham sandwich his wife had prepared him. He kept getting up, peering out of the one undamaged window to scrutinize the folk strolling along the Rokin in the early June sunshine. His eyes not only sought a potential killer, but also his escort, despicable as he might be, Black was pivotal to his survival today. Every time the phone in Estella’s office rang, Morris jumped in his seat.  He swore to himself he’d take early retirement if the day would just be gentle to his life. Eleanor would get her cruise and he would take up golf. Why not? Thoroughly displeased with his fidgetiness, he pushed his fingers against his temples and tried to shut out all thoughts of death from his mind. This mood was so very unlike him, as if in the thirty years he’d been a notary, he hadn’t been in tight spots before. Like the Broeser inheritance when the two Broeser brothers had started fighting in his office and one had drawn a knife, and then there was the famous Latiffe divorce when the entire family had shown up and Samuel Latiffe, the clan’s godfather had threatened to burn down his office, holding the lighted Zippo already in one fat, beringed hand and grabbing a handful of documents with the other. But these had been sudden events, flaring up in the heat of the moment, nothing a notary could prepare himself for. This Van Gall business was totally different with its slow build-up to today’s climax. Two months of constant media attention made the city shake on its subliminal foundations.

                The ride in Joe Black’s Volvo was unpleasant and short. Morris sat next to Black, while Estella huddled herself up in the back, clamping the briefcase with the official documents against her modest bosom. With one hand on the wheel, Black steered the car along the tramlines. He used the siren off and on, also when it wasn’t necessary. The sound was so overbearing that small talk was practically impossible, not that either of them felt a need for it. To Morris’s horror, Black lighted a cigarette without even asking if they minded. After a few minutes he flipped the butt out of the window, meanwhile scolding a cyclist who didn’t move out of the way fast enough.

                ‘It’s a good thing I’m disliking the guy so much,’ Morris realised, ‘it keeps my mind off the real business at hand.’

                But they arrived at the business location soon enough. Black parked right in front of the building with screeching tires and quickly got out. He ushered them both out of the car. Two police officers rushed up, one took hold of Estella’s arm and the other took place in the Volvo and drove off. Black gripped Morris by the elbow and steered him through the entrance hall of the Felix Meritus’s building as if he was a wilful child. When he tried to free his arm, Black’s grip only tightened:

                “Better stay close to me, Mr Chevalier,” he muttered under his breath, “you don’t look like you have a black belt in Karate, now do you?” The chuckle was nasty and rather misplaced. Morris was an accomplished and strong swimmer but he didn’t feel like informing his chaperone about this feat.

                When they entered the large room where the auction was going to take place, what struck Morris most was that the fifty or so people that filled the room sat there in absolute silence, row after row, upright and mute. The room was dimly lit and the curtains were drawn. In another situation it might have looked like they were waiting for a show to take place.

                 ‘Well, that’s exactly what this is, a bad play acted by B-actors and I’m the director of this lot, Holy Mother what has this world come to?’ Morris thought as he took his place on the platform and accepted the briefcase from Estella. She sat down at a small desk next to the lectern and opened her laptop. Morris gave her a reassuring wink before he started sorting his papers. The two statues standing behind them close to the velvet curtains were certainly live men but this only showed in the movement of their eyeballs and their microphone whispers. Morris avoided glancing at the audience but was very aware of Black’s presence without actually seeing him.

                ‘Creep,’ he thought, ‘you’re all tarred with the same brush, although you find yourself high and mighty because you’ve got the law on your side.’

                When he was done with his papers, he couldn’t refrain any longer from looking at the audience, so he raised his eyes. With astonishment his gaze fell on the people in the first row. In full regalia was there widow Olivia, with a towering platinum hairdo, very dark Dior sunglasses and a strawberry-pink Chanel suit, black pumps with extraordinary high heels. She was flanked by three of Van Gall’s buddies on each side of her, heavily tattooed men, well heavy in every possible respect. Olivia sat motionless, ten manicured fingers clasping a minuscule black lacquered purse, head high, expression unfathomable due to the glasses. But her menfolk were on the alert and registered every person in the room. Now Morris understood the silence, it came from the utter threat they radiated. One bidding on a piece of the property and you were registered and your life was no longer safe. A strange calm came over Morris, as if he could transfer his responsibility from him to them. They would take care of the buyers, his lot was probably safe, his role played. But the stone? Had it just been a warning, no more?

                Outside his own will, Morris scraped his throat and the company on the first row reacted by focusing all their attention on him. The rest of the room followed. It was clear that the show had started. Morris switched on the microphone and greeted everyone with a steady voice. He instantly understood.

                Black had done his homework. All ten buildings were sold, seven luxurious canal-side houses, two large office blocks and one immense warehouse. Morris’s experienced eyes recognised all the bidders as high-ranking officials from the municipality with a copper at their side. And even that wouldn’t have been necessary. The thin smiles that played around the mouths of Van Gall’s envoys showed how content they were with this state of affairs. There would be no killings, not today for Mrs Van Gall nodded invisibly.     

One year later

                “Mr Morris?” Estella put her face around the door of his office, “your wife is waiting downstairs for you.”

                “Oh yes, I promised to go to shopping with her this afternoon. Would you ask her to come up for a minute, please? I must finish reading this mortgage deed.” With hopeful eyes Morris looked at the elevator, anticipating Ellie’s sweet face. It was so seldom she came to his work spot, so he simply loved the idea of her being here.  The door swung open and out strode Olivia Van Gall, tagging along with her one of her tattooed hunks. No sunglasses this time and clad in very skinny jeans and high-heeled boots, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt pulled tight over her fake boobs. ‘Puss in Boots,’ was Morris’s instant reaction. She strutted towards him, all smiles, stretching out a long arm with an excessive amount of tingling bracelets. Morris felt himself shrink back, more in astonishment than out of fright. Estella stood frozen on the threshold of her office, anxiously peering from Olivia to her boss.

                “My dear Mr Chevalier,” Olivia’s voice was laden with placation, “I am so please to meet you again.”

                That moment the lift opened again and Eleanor appeared, dressed in a simple green cotton dress and flat loafers, carrying a shopping bag. She looked around in puzzlement, unsure whether she had arrived too early and was interrupting her husband’s business. Suddenly, Morris flicked his bewilderment away and took control.

                “Mrs Van Gall, nice to meet you again, but I don’t think we had an appointment, did we? Kindly make an appointment with my secretary, will you? You see, this is my wife Eleanor and I had promised to go shopping with her this afternoon. So if you’ll excuse us…” With one quick glance Olivia took Eleanor’s measure and greeted her with the best smile she could muster. She turned to Morris again and waved her arm by way of excuse:

                “I am so sorry, Mr Chevalier, I should have phoned you, I know, but I wanted to tell you this in person. I …we… um.., Bruce and I are getting married and I was so pleased with the way you handled my late husband’s affairs, so now I am here to ask you to draw up my marriage settlement.”

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