Better Late Than Never (excerpt)
Chapter 12 – Hell on Earth
As we left the plane and walked to customs many hugs were shared among the passengers. Nervous apprehension surrounded me as we left customs and headed into the airport to find the promoter. I wasn’t expecting to see TV cameras and journalists in the greeting area to interview people from the “lost flight”. There were even a couple of entertainment writers waiting to talk with the Americans.
“Sir, what would have to say to the president of the airline who is standing over there?” I was asked.
“I’d ask him if Mickey or Donald was helping run the airline.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the entire situation was handled in a Mickey Mouse way. We were left in the dark. It was cartoonish.”
The promoter grabbed me by the arm and hastily pulled all three of us into a waiting car.
“Was it that bad?” his cute assistant asked.
“It was far worse that that. I’ll tell you over drinks later.”
“I look forward to it.” she said with a big smile.
The promoter pointed to sights along the way and lots of nice buildings and big homes. Conversely there were mostly older cars and people wore out-of-date clothes. The few black people we saw really looked bad. On the other side of the freeway were weather-beaten dwellings. There wasn’t much going on over there.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s Soweto. It’s not as bad as you’ve been told.”
“Well, it looks pretty bad to me.”
“Our blacks have it better than anywhere else in Africa.”
“You said we were going to be able to use black and white musicians and singers. Is that still happening?”
“Yes. You’ll meet some of them tonight at Alfie’s club.”
“Alfie’s club has the best music and great food.” his assistant offered.
Greg piped in, “I’m looking forward to meeting the people who will be helping us.”
“You’ll be impressed,” the promoter said proudly. “We’re almost at the hotel.”
The area we were entering resembled Westwood Village in Los Angeles. Lots of trees, nice shops and apartment buildings dotted the streets. As we pulled up to the hotel, two black bellmen came out with a white guy. The white guy led us into the lobby. The General Manager and his assistant waited for us at the desk.
The GM came over, “Welcome to the Claridge. I am Klaus Verhooven. I am the General Manager. If there is anything at all you need while you are here, please let me know.”
“Thank you, Mr. Verhooven.”
“Please call me Klaus.” He said as he led us to the desk. “This is Anton, my assistant.
Katie is our Front Desk Manager. They are here to help you as well.”
Katie was beautiful, tall slender and amazing eyes. She organized all the paperwork we needed to sign to check-in, “Mr. Karlsruher, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Please call me Rick and thank you.”
“Everything gets billed to me. In fact, have them all checked-in under my name,” the promoter told Katie.
“Certainly.” Anton said as he handed the promoter all the paperwork.
It took the promoter and his assistant Anya a few minutes to fill out all registration documents. I guessed they wanted to keep our names off the books to avoid any potential problems or keep the press away. After they did, I asked, “Katie could you get me a copy of everything for my records.”
“I’ll have it done in about fifteen minutes, if that’s soon enough. I’ll have it all in an envelope for you here at the desk.”
Klaus and Anton joined Anya and the promoter in the elevator with us. There was plenty of room for the bellmen to ride up with us, but they were forced to take another elevator. They got to our floor before we did. One took Greg and Betty to their room. The other came with Klaus, Anya and me to my room. A few steps from the room, one of bags slipped off the cart. Instinctively, I reached to pick it up.
Klaus looked stunned, “Please no. That’s what we have those people for sir.”
I was stunned. Yeah, if blacks were treated better than we heard as the promoter kept telling us, this didn’t show it. Klaus opened the door and showed into the room. The bellman put my bags into the closet leaving the small one on a bench by the bed. I reached to tip him and saw a bizarre custom we would see from now on in South Africa. The bellman grasped his wrist with one hand as his other hand opened and his head was tilted down so as not to look directly at me. I intentionally over tipped the bellman to overcome the slight paid him on the way to the room. Klaus opened the drapes to show a panoramic view of the entire city.
“Is everything to your liking?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Then I’ll be going.” Klaus said as he left and closed the door.
Anya smiled. “I guess I’ll be leaving, too. This looks very comfortable.”
“Yes, it does. Tonight should be fun.”
“I think it will be.” She said moving closer to me. She put her arm around my waist, leaned over and kissed me. She moved away, then back to me and kissed me again. “It does look comfortable.”
As I walked her to the door, she turned and we kissed again this time with tongues. Tonight was looking very good indeed. She left.
I unpacked a bit and went down to the front desk to get my copies of the check-in materials. Arriving at the desk, Katie came out motioning me to have a seat in the lobby.
“I wanted to explain everything to you,” she said as we sat. She spread the papers on the table.
“It doesn’t sound like you are from South Africa.”
“I’m from Kenya, but there isn’t much opportunity for me there.”
“As nice and smart as you seem to be, I find that hard to believe.”
She blushed, “Thank you so much, but we don’t have many hotels in Nairobi where I'd have the possibility for advancement.”
“I like your ambition.”
Her smile and her eyes lit up the room as she explained all the sign-in materials.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you came a long way alone. You’re not married?” she asked with a smile.
“No, and I think my girlfriend broke up with me just before we left.”
“She’s not very bright.”
I was blushing, “Thank you.”
Yes, we were flirting. It was innocent, but it was also great. I think she noticed I was puzzled.
“It looks like you have a fan in Anya.”
“I might, but I don’t get it. We barely said three words. To be honest, I am a little uncomfortable. I hope she’s not setting me up. That could pose problems.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
Several people walked in together from a minivan. There was only one other person behind the desk.
“It looks like your friend might need your help.”
She shrugged, “I guess so.”
She was amazing and so nice. I knew there was great potential for headaches here. How to navigate these obviously treacherous waters baffled me. Anya wanted me and if I screwed this up she could make my stay extremely uncomfortable. Why did Katie have to show up?
Anya picked us up at about 8 PM. Katie had left by then. Anya came directly to my room. She did look really good. We spent about half an hour fooling around before going to get Greg and Betty. I felt really bad about that. I was thinking about Katie.
Alfie’s club was on a bizarre street. The street was surrounded by walled homes. Part of the sidewalk was a boardwalk similar to the one in Atlantic City. The rest was very old cement. The stores were old and rundown. Through the windows, you could see empty shelves. What was for sale appeared old and patched together. The outside world’s economic sanctions were choking South Africa.
Alfie’s place was tired and dingy. The bar was more of a counter-top than a real bar. Each table was different than the next and no two chairs seemed to match. The clientele was mixed which shocked me. What was more surprising were the pictures on the walls. They included Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Hugh Masekela and many others hung in the dusty room. This was long before Photoshop. I couldn’t believe all those superstars would be able to find this hole in the wall.
As I looked around, the steaks looked good, but It didn’t look like they had more than one bottle of each kind of booze, a few bottles of wine and a refrigerator containing a couple of cases of beer. There were lots of people here. Was Alfie going to run out of booze? I was very confused. Alfie’s didn’t seem to have enough product for this big a crowd.
Shortly after we sat down, the promoter leaned over to me, “You’ve had a tough trip. I think you should take two days off to get your bearings and get over the jet lag.”
“Do we have the time?”
“It’s better to wait a couple of days than to do it over.”
“That sounds good. Thanks.”
A young black kid and an older white guy went up on stage with guitars. The white guy started playing some tasty, jazzy blues riffs. He was so smooth. The kid couldn’t have been more than 16-18 or so. I figured it was teacher and student. The kid mirrored the older guy’s riffs but with a little more rock flavor. The kid slowed down and looked at his guitar. He tapped with his fingers. He tapped the strings. Then he stretched them a little. I don’t know what he did next but instantaneously his guitar soared. The place erupted. He went higher and higher. The old guy started playing co-lead. It was beyond amazing.
I looked at the promoter, “Please tell me these guys are going to play with us.”
He smiled, “The night after tomorrow you’ll hear your drummer, bass and horns.”
“Are they this good?”
I was very happy. A large black man came over to the table with an Indian woman. The promoter stood up and greeted him. “Rick, this is my friend Lefty. He went to university in America.”
“Nice to meet you, Lefty. Where did you go to school?”
“I got an MBA from Harvard.”
“Would you mind if I asked you a question?”
He started laughing, “I’ll answer it before you ask it. I came home to train the next generation of blacks so that some of us will be ready when apartheid ends.”
“Doesn’t that make you a marked man?”
“Well, I represent several white companies who want to do business in the townships.”
“Do your employers or the police know what else you do?”
“I keep the two separate and I make the distilleries I represent a lot of money. Would you like to come to Soweto tomorrow night?”
“Is it safe for me?”
“I’ll call the hotel and meet you in the lobby.”
He saw my nervousness,” I don’t know how to put this...”
“How can a black man get into your hotel if he isn’t an employee?”
“Are you psychic?”
Lefty laughed. “Believe it or not, I’m not black.”
I think Lefty was the blackest person I have ever met, “What?”
“You see, I have two white great grandmothers. That makes me colored.”
Anya, the promoter, Lefty and his girlfriend were all laughing at my confusion.
His girlfriend tried to explain, “Indians and coloreds have rights Africans don’t. Lefty and I can travel if we are willing to wait.”
Lefty entered, “Hospitals and schools are much better for coloreds than for Africans.”
“Do I even want to know how people know the difference?”
“Being American you won’t like it,” Lefty explained, “It’s on your birth certificate and identity papers. It follows you all your life and you can’t change it. People try to buy colored birth certificates. It also lets you live in better places.”
I was shaking my head. “Aren’t there about ten times as many blacks as whites in South Africa?”
Lefty laughed, “Now you are making yourself a target. They have all the guns and we can’t vote…yet. So, would you like to join me and see how the other part of South Africa lives?”
The promoter wasn’t happy about this turn of events, but I had to do it. If it were very dangerous or if I could get into trouble, wouldn’t the promoter or Anya jump in to stop me?
“I’d like to do that Lefty.”
Lefty nodded respectfully to me. That made my night.
The steak was wonderful, and the music continued to be great. Several other people sat in and a wonderful black lady sang. It was an incredible night.
As it got later, Anya’s hands found several parts of me. One under the table, the other had her fingers running through my hair. Normally, I’d be loving it knowing what was inevitably about to happen. I didn’t know how to stop it short of faking being sick.
Was I really falling for Katie? How could I explain this to her tomorrow? Katie saw what was going on with Anya and seemed to try to understand. But would she understand me coming back to the hotel the next morning or Anya leaving when Katie was working? It’s one thing to talk about something like this in the abstract. Even a great person would have significant challenges to be accepting of activities like the ones that were about to happen if they would see them up close.
Was the good part of me finding its way through the fear and despair? Could I break through the fog that was enveloping me?
I can’t make any excuses for spending the night with Anya. I did it. That’s what happened. She had to be at work early and dropped me off at the hotel before Katie got to work. I went to my room, took a shower and went to sleep. A few hours later I woke up and called Greg’s room. He wasn’t there. I had to go through the lobby on the way to the pool to find him. As I got there, Katie was going on a break. She motioned for me to meet her outside.
We met on the street on the street a couple of doors down. Her smile was brilliant. I had trouble looking her in the eye. She leaned over and held my hand.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. It’s scary down here. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
I held her hand tighter and laughed, “Would going to Soweto tonight with a black guy fall into that category?”
“Please be careful. But you want to see it for yourself, don’t you?”
“I’ve got to get back to work. Please be careful.” She leaned over and we kissed sweetly and briefly.
Chapter 13 – Seeing The Real South Africa
“You aren’t actually dumb enough to go to Soweto are you?” Greg asked.
“Yes, Lefty is coming by in a couple of minutes.”
“My uncle can’t protect you there.”
“You don’t think we have protection down here.”
“I’m not sure. This isn’t like California or New York or even Europe.”
This was the first time I had seen Greg off his game. I kept thinking about how odd it was. Greg took off.
Within a couple of minutes, Lefty came into the lobby to get me.
“Are you sure you want to join me tonight?”
“I won’t think any less of you if you don’t.”
“I gave you my word.”
“You don’t have to be macho. You will hear things and see things you’ve never seen. You’ve got a good heart. Some of this will hurt you. I’m here if you need me.”
That frightened and soothed me. What was I about to see and hear? There was a three-year-old top-of-the-line BMW out front.
“Is that yours?”
“One of mine.” Lefty said chuckling.
“I went to Harvard,” he said slapping me on the back.
We got into the car and started our drive.
“You like her, don’t you?”
Thinking he was talking about, Anya I responded, “Not really. I can’t figure out how not to be involved with her.”
“Not the girl from last night; the one who works at the hotel.”
“How the hell did you know that?”
“It was in her eyes as you left. I understand your dilemma. Your secret is safe with me.”
“Remind me never to play poker with you.”
“Get ready. We are about to enter our hell. Remember hell is a location, not the people who are forced to be in that location.”
He was being very serious. He truly loved the people of Soweto. It’s the only explanation of why he stays when he doesn’t have to. Within less than a mile we went from world-class freeway to potholed streets and ending on an uneven gravel and dirt road. How could this happen so quickly? If this were the overt face of the community, what could be lurking out of sight?
There were burned out cars and junk on the street. We went past hovels. I felt myself getting ill. Lefty saw my face and body language. He patted me on the back.
“It will get better, but there is worse.”
“Worse than this?”
“Much worse. You couldn’t handle it. The world knows but doesn't want to tell the whole truth.”
He cut me off, “There are evil people. Like it or not, there are many of them in this country.”
We turned off onto a semi-paved road. Soon there were small but basically clean yards. Clean in comparison to the hell we had just seen. These people tried.
Lefty turned into a driveway. There were lots of people in the yard. I heard laughter and music. Getting out of the car, I saw a lady sitting at a card table with a cigarette box taking money.
“The government won’t allow us to have bars in our own townships. This is what we call a shebeen. It’s like a moving club or party. The person whose home we use charges a small fee to pay for the food and liquor. Hopefully, they will make a small profit. Every penny is huge here.”
“The government won’t even let you have your own bars?”
“They are doing everything they can to keep us from building an African middle class. The government understands how dangerous that could be.”
Lefty paid our fee. We went into the living room. People were eating, drinking and having fun. My presence startled a lot of them. Lefty laughed.
“This is my friend from America. His name is Rick. He bravely wanted to see our township for himself rather than listening to the Dutch tell him how phenomenal it is.”
There were cheers, which made me very self-conscious. An older man brought me a drink and welcomed me to his son’s house.
A man about thirty approached, “Are you the American from the paper?”
“What are you talking about, sir?”
A lady said, “You were on the front page of the Joburg newspaper with your comments about your flight. It’s was very funny.”
Lefty was laughing, “I didn’t know I was bringing a star. What did you say?”
“Given the fact it took three days to fly from Brussels to Joburg, I asked if Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck happened to be running the airline.”
Lefty was laughing loudly, “You may have to watch your back. The Dutch don’t like people talking to them the way you did.”
A couple of other people clapped. Others stopped by to welcome me and tell me they would look after me. I was really touched. Some of these people clearly had little to nothing but they were willing to help a stranger.
“It’s not a game, young man,” an elegantly mannered old man said to me. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“Understand what, sir?”
“For instance, calling me “sir” would make you a target to any white who heard you.”
Lefty looked over. He was quite serious, “Jambo is right. Forget compassion, forget manners, and for your own safety you must think more like they do. We will understand.”
“You can do more quietly listening and taking our stories home with you. Tell them to all who will listen.”
“But I’m a nobody back home.”
“We are nobodies here. Who better to tell our story?” A very old lady said quietly.
Soon the party was breaking up. I received lots of hugs and wishes of good luck. Lefty and I got into the car to head back to the hotel.
“You can’t let anyone see you like this ever while you are here.”
“It won’t be safe. Your story while in South Africa is that you went with me to my cousin’s house for dinner and a few drinks.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to do this. You can’t even tell the kid you brought with you. The reality is I’d bet at least one person in the shebeen was a paid Security Police informant.”
“You are talking crazy.”
Lefty pulled the over to the side of the road. “Not listening to me is crazy. You may have been active in all sorts of protests in college in the US. If you did one here, you could end up dead. Please Rick, listen to me. I know asking you to do this is wrong. But you are my friend. Please let me look out for you while you are in my country.”
This scared me more than anything I had ever heard. I was trembling. “I went to your cousin’s house. We had dinner and drinks.”
It was still early when we got back to the hotel. I followed the company line at breakfast the next morning with Greg, Betty, the promoter and Anya. It was difficult, but I did it.
A little while later Greg and I decided to walk the few blocks to downtown. All of a sudden, I heard the screeching of tires and brakes. Then there was the unmistakable thud of a car hitting a person, then another person, then a light pole. I looked up to see a minivan wrapped around a pole. Two white people were on the ground. Several cops appeared out of nowhere. They helped those two victims. A black lady was on the ground bleeding. Three cops surrounded her. They didn’t help her. Ambulances helped the white people and the driver. The black lady was bleeding and crying.
“Aren’t you going to help her? She might die. Make a tourniquet at least.”
“Move along, kaffir lover. You don’t expect me to touch that, do you?”
I was on the verge of attacking the cops. Greg grabbed me and pulled me as hard as he could. I was sick. I was trembling. I pushed him away and ran. I just ran.
I had seen the pure evil all those people told me about last night. They told me so matter-of-factly that it seemed surreal. We were living in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This couldn’t be happening.
To this day, I still cannot fathom the level of their indoctrinated madness and evil. It was incomprehensible to anyone with a soul.
I had to be perfect. My first test was upon me. Katie was working. I tried to hide my pain and revulsion.
“Hi.” She was beaming. Then she looked at me, ran from behind the counter and dragged me into an office. “What happened?”
I couldn’t say anything. I tried, but nothing came out of my mouth.
“You saw the accident.”
She hugged me. I could feel her tears on my neck.
I remember my body giving way as we hugged. To this day, I break into a cold sweat thinking about that morning. I still can’t comprehend the level of inhumanity I saw that morning.
Better Late Than Never
Reality, memoir ties in with with another fiction title
Trident represents many true life stories that show the world to readers and include famous people in them.
The hook is life is truly stranger than fiction – another hook is you can get another book that is naturally paired with this one that is about a very hot topic in the world that is 100% opposite of this book. We can pair an outrageously humorous book with this terrifying true story.
A Story Almost Told tells of my real life odyssey trying to get a movie made. It starts out innocently and has many famous people innocently involved. Included in the story are stories that are individually amazing, but taken, in toto, defy any logic or rationality. From the beginning, it is amazing. The IRS and FBI use my dream as bait in a sting. We get to see the true horrors of apartheid in South Africa and immediately thereafter the opulence of Monte Carlo and even being arrested in New Orleans. There is much more.
The Target audience is anyone who enjoys excitement, seeing different places and real life.
I’d say the age group is 21+.
I have had an interesting life. I have done writing, music producing and international marketing. I even started a website to help new/undiscovered authors that has had over 6,000,000 page views.
As a platform, I have about 1700 Twitter followers, an email list of about 8000. I am an amazing interview. With Trident’s access and the publisher’s web, we’ll make both books major hits and likely get movie deals.
I have a degree in communications from Wake Forest University.
My style is conversational. I draw people into the story and make them think they are there. I’ve been told my personality is a bigger than life.
I love sports, movies, comedy, reading, music and being with people.
I live in Huntington Beach, CA.
Chapter 2 - Stumbling into History (follows entry to S&S Challenge)
A Few Months Earlier
How could I know I was about to change the history of the twentieth century? How could so many people keep such a huge secret for decades, even into the twenty-first century?
I’ve always believed the crazier a story is, the more likely it is to be true. But this? Let me explain how I stumbled, and I mean stumbled, into history.
I’m Mark Stern. I started writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer right after college and was the golden boy at the Inky within a few years. Hell, I was mentioned as one of the Thirty Under Thirty to watch in Philadelphia. The general feeling was I was a buttoned-down, serious reporter who looked for the story behind the story. Most people, especially women, found me boring. This, no doubt, prompted Charlie, my boss, to pick me for the biggest interview of my life.
I was on my way to interview UN Secretary General-Elect Mbangu, which would put me into the big leagues of political reporting. I could develop contacts worldwide rather than just in Philly and Harrisburg. I had no idea how big a deal it would be or how little in my life would remain buttoned down. Like one of my favorite singers, Jackson Browne, once said, “I’m just a happy idiot, struggling for the legal tender.”
My newspaper’s office was a two-block walk to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a city of parks, rivers and beautiful historical sites, my path to the classic station included an old office building, tacky parking lots and an overhead train trestle. The juxtaposition of the route with the magnificence of the building was not lost on me. People gave me strange looks as I passed, and I had to admit I looked a bit like a hobo juggling an overnight bag, laptop, digital recorder, and a news camera. In bygone years, I’d have an entire crew accompanying me, but with the way newspapers were cutting back, it was now normal to be a one-man production crew. In some ways, I’m grateful. I never would have been chosen to tell this story if I had other people with me.
After fumbling my way through the terminal, I boarded my train and flopped into my seat, grateful my circus act was over. I always found traveling on Amtrak trains relaxing, especially the over-sized seats. Even when all the seats were filled there wasn’t much noise. It was almost peaceful. I used the time to go over my questions. I must have changed them and the themes a dozen times in the first sixty minutes. It wasn’t until we passed Princeton Station that I had settled on which line of inquiry I would use. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t sure I’d get any of my questions out in an intelligent manner, since Mbangu was the rock star of political rock stars, and I was just a scrub reporter from Philly. I couldn’t believe I’d scored half-an-hour with Secretary General Mbangu. Fifteen minutes was the norm, and then, his time was reserved for reporters with household names. It never occurred to me that there could be an ulterior motive for this bounty of access.
The reality of meeting the Secretary General of the United Nations hit me after I disembarked, doing a reprise of my juggling act and riding the escalator up to street level at Penn Station. Time felt like it had slowed down, and I became acutely aware of everything and everyone. It was almost as if I knew on an instinctual level something life-changing was about to happen.
I wove my way up the staircase from the platform into the main terminal. Knowing that I had a schedule to keep, I plowed through the throngs of people to the escalator to the street and strode to the curb to hail a cab, puffing my chest out and standing straighter than normal. As usual, lots of cabs passed before one stopped, but there was no way I going to take the subway that day. I wanted to get there in one piece with all my equipment intact and not having been peed on.
“Where to, sir?” the cabbie said with a thick African accent when I piled into the back seat of the car.
“UN Millennium Hotel, please.”
“Security is incredibly tight over there today. Might be better to wait.” He gave me a politely concerned look in the rear-view mirror.
“I don’t have a choice. I have an interview there.”
“For a job?”
“No, with the new Secretary General of the UN,” I said. I couldn’t contain my pride, and my chest puffed out like one of those birds of paradise on National Geographic.
The cabbie kept driving but turned his head to look at me. He managed not to kill us, but I swallowed the lump in my throat, wondering if he had cabbie ESP that somehow kept him in our lane. “You are mighty young to be speaking with The Great Man.”
I fished my notepad out of a pocket along with a pen. “I’m older than I look. What do you know about Secretary Mbangu?”
“My home country is very near his. When they had great success, he shared it with our people.”
“Why did you leave?”
“The war. It was many years before his marvelous success, but because of Mbangu, my wife and children could join me in America. I owe him everything. I will get you as close as possible.” His expression took on the resolution of a soldier, and he looked back at the road. I jotted down what he’d said, thinking it would make a good addition to my article.
My new friend was true to his word. I wasn’t entirely sure a couple of the alleys we took were wide enough for the cab – or legal – but he found a way to get me near the building. Definitely ESP.
The cabbie refused payment. When I put the money out again, he pushed it back towards me and looked hurt. I sighed. “I don’t want you to have to pay for my fare.”
“Please thank His Excellency for me. This is a great honor for me to pass him a message. It’s a day I will never forget. Thank you, sir.” A tear rolled down his cheek, though he was smiling so wide I was convinced his face might crack apart.
His reaction threw me off. Maybe Mbangu truly was a saint. The cabbie certainly thought so. My thoughts wandered to how I’d bring this encounter up to the Secretary General-Elect. I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I felt obliged to deliver the message. I told the cabbie I’d relay his gratitude and stepped out of the cab and onto the street chuckling to myself that I had to be careful or I’d become the part of the story.
I used my foot to open the cab’s door as I fumbled to collect all my gear and suitcase. I pushed much of it onto the curb. As I kicked the door to close it, I put the laptop case over my shoulder, strapped the camera around my neck, pulled the suitcase. and started walking.
As I turned the corner, I saw police barricades blocking off the street in front of the hotel in a veritable sea of blue. Cops nearly stood on top of each other. An angry-faced, middle-aged officer approached me as I pushed the barricade to the side. My ebullience faded, tempered with a healthy amount of concern. Was I going to make to my appointment in one piece?
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” the portly, balding cop barked.
I plastered a smile on my face, not sure how he’d react. “I’ve got an appointment to interview Secretary General Mbangu. Here’s my ID,” I said, handing him my press credentials.
“Let me call it in.” He gave me a suspicious look, his eyes narrow. He lifted his radio and spoke into it, turning away from me, though he watched me out of the corner of his eye.
It took forever for whoever was at the station to answer him. He glared at me and put a hand on his holstered gun as he waited. I thought he might be fucking with me, but better safe than shot.
When the answer finally came, he nodded and pointed toward the doors. “Go on around front. You will be searched when you enter.”
“Thanks.” A huge weight lifted off me, and I took a deep breath.
“Next time, ask before you try to go through a police barricade. The next cop you run into may shoot first and ask questions later. I just don’t want to have to fill out the damn paperwork.”
We both chuckled, and he patted me on the back as I walked into the hotel. Two more cops and two UN guards waited inside the door. They waved a metal-detector wand over me. Then, they searched my overnight bag, turned my computer on and checked everything I had on me. Finally, they put it all through a metal detector.
After I retrieved my stuff, one of the UN guards took me by the arm, led me to a private elevator, and pressed the only button. We rose and were totally silent. The door opened. I got out.
An elegantly-dressed black man met me at the elevator. “Mr. Stern, I am Jinare. His Excellency President Mbangu is looking forward to meeting you. Please follow me.”
“I’m very grateful that he’s willing to talk to me.” My heart pounded in my ribs as nervous energy washed over me.
We walked down the hallway until we came to a set of twelve-foot-high mahogany doors. Jinare opened one, and we entered a magnificent suite. White marble floors shone with recent polish, and dark wood paneling, matching the mahogany doors, covered the walls. Elegant furniture, artfully arranged into several seating areas, filled the room. Each area was a little different. One had overstuffed leather sofas, chairs and inlaid tables. The next had tasteful, antique cloth-covered furniture. It was elegant and understated. This is where President Mbangu sat on a large sofa. A peaceful aura surrounded him, and I’d never met anyone with a presence like his. He gave me an easy smile, full of confidence and gentle strength. His peace washed over me, and some of the knots in my stomach released. Despite the size of his presence, Mbangu himself was not a large man, maybe 5’10” and one hundred-sixty pounds. In the prime of middle age, he had a smile lines around his mouth and eyes that were soft but strong. A smattering of white touched his dark hair.
“Your Excellency, may I present Mr. Mark Stern,” Jinare said, bowing to President Mbangu.
Mbangu rose and walked towards me, offering me a hand. “Thank you, Jinare. Mr. Stern, it’s a great honor to meet you. I read your series about improving education in Philadelphia. They were excellent. I implemented some of your ideas in our country and I am pleased to say that they worked.”
I almost fainted and shook his hand. The soon-to-be Secretary General of the UN had read my work. I understood the cabbie’s reverence. Some people are just powerful, but Mbangu fit his moniker, The Great Man. “Thank you, Mr. Secretary General.”
“I am not yet Secretary General, but you are most welcome.” His eyes glittered with laughter.
Jinare turned to leave the room, and they shared a grin. Mbangu winked. I had the feeling they knew something I didn’t, but I wasn’t afraid. For some reason, I was more excited than terrified. “Come, let us sit.” President Mbangu gestured to one of the clusters of seats.
“Mr. President, the cabbie who drove me here asked me to thank you for helping create peace in his nation, which led to his wife and children being able to come to America.”
As we sat down, President Mbangu smiled, his expression almost shy. I could have sworn a tear came to his eyes as he listened. “Mr. Stern, that was very kind of you. I will always remember your kindness. How shall we start?”
I pulled out my notepad, turned on my recorder and took a breath, diving right in. “When did you first decide to get into politics?”
His smile widened and took on a nostalgic note. “My father left our family when I was a young boy. I watched how my mother took care of my brothers and me with so very little. She was a teacher and mother to all in our village. I saw our country and realized that they were all my brothers and sisters, and they had no one to care for them. I decided someone needed to take care of them, so I have.”
As I wrote notes, the door swung open. Before I could turn to look, I saw a huge, almost childlike smile on Mbangu’s face. He stood and walked over to the man who had entered. They were about the same age, though that’s where the similarity ended. The other man was bit taller, white, and had a regal air. He looked a bit like Cary Grant and the twinkle in his eyes lit up the room. They hugged.
“Mr. Stern, this is one of my oldest and dearest friends, Prince Claude of Luxenstein.”
Mbangu faced me and gestured to Prince Claude, his grin matching his friend’s.
“Any friend of Mbangu is a friend of mine,” Prince Claude said, grinning.
“Mr. Stern is here to interview me for the Philadelphia Inquirer.”
“May I stay?” the prince asked, looking in my direction with his brows arched and a hopeful expression on his face.
I shrugged. “That is up to President Mbangu.”
“Of course, you may stay, Claude. Join us.” Mbangu gestured to the seats and returned to the couch.
“This should be fun,” Claude strode over to where we sat and flopped carelessly into a chair, slouching a little.
I looked between the two men, struck by how different they were but at the same time, how very much alike. “May I ask Prince Claude a question, sir?”
“Absolutely. We are more than friends. We are brothers.”
“Why is that, Your Highness?”
“Mbangu and I met at Harvard,” Claude explained. “He took his studies far too seriously. I was way more interested in the local women. My father’s influence got me in, not my grades. We couldn’t be more different.”
“That may be why we got along so famously,” Mbangu said with a smile.
I scrawled notes across the page. “Have you stayed close throughout all these years?”
This caught them off guard. They looked puzzled and exchanged uncomfortable looks. Mbangu frowned at me. “That’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I’m still young, but I’ve already lost contact with many of the college friends I thought would be in my life forever.”
“Ah. That makes sense.” Prince Claude’s shoulders relaxed a little, and a smile covered his face again.
The thirty-minute appointment turned into nearly a sixty-minute marathon, covering a range of topics from politics and the state of the world to Mbangu’s plans as Secretary General of the UN. Mbangu was completely open, and he spoke easily and passionately about his country and his plans.
Conversely, Prince Claude was a player, but he looked out for his friend. At times, they finished each other’s sentences. They laughed often and shared jokes and memories. It felt more like a family dinner than an interview. Looking back on it, I was lucky to have met them in the time and manner I did. It gave me an insight into two of the most powerful men in the world in ways I never would have received otherwise.
Mbangu was as generous as he was graceful. But I could sense that he and Prince Claude were holding back and not telling me everything. My reporter’s sixth sense, a less exotic version of the Spidey Sense, was tingling, but none of the prodding questions I asked breached that gap.
After an hour or so, Jinare opened the door, his expression polite and apologetic. “Your Excellency, it is time for your next meeting...”
“I am sorry Mr. Stern, but my schedule is so tight. I have very much enjoyed speaking with you. It has been a pleasure.”
“Mr. President, thank you so much for your openness and wonderful details. Prince Claude, thank you for all your help. You have both given me great insight.”
Prince Claude smiled. “Thank you for putting up with this old man.”
We all laughed, and I left. I still felt a strong sense something was going on, but had no clue what it was.
I was in heaven. This interview was the most exciting experience of my life. World leaders had treated me like an old friend and given me perfect material for my article. I just about floated home from the hotel and spent the afternoon and evening working on my article over takeout Chinese.
There’s no way I slept more than two hours that night. I had already begun writing the column in my head. Hopefully, I could finish it in the morning. Maybe I could convince Charlie into making this a three- or even a five-part story? There was so much more than either of us expected.
Mbangu’s swearing-in and inauguration speech was to happen at 6 p.m. the day after the interview, in front of the General Assembly. I wasn’t sure if I had enough time to polish my first draft by then. I could feel the words exploding inside me.
My alarm went off at 8 a.m., and I got out of bed and headed into the shower. The hotel had a continental breakfast downstairs with my name on it.
Within seconds of getting out of the shower, the phone in my hotel room rang. A voice on the other end said, “Prince Claude respectfully requests your presence. Can you kindly meet his car in front of the hotel?”
Taken aback, it took me a second to answer. “Certainly, I’ll be down in just a few minutes.” I hung up the phone and stared at it like it might bite me. Was he afraid of what I might write? Regardless, I had to go. I dressed quickly, grabbed my gear and left my room, heading into the elevator and mashing the down arrow.
I discovered a large man wearing an expensive suit waiting for me in the lobby. “Mr. Stern, please come with me to His Highness’s car.”
I followed him to a stretch Rolls Royce. Boy, did this ride stand out! The car glided away from the curb, heading uptown to stop in front of a magnificent brownstone. The home looked like the others around it. Nothing marked it as different or unusual, yet there was a perimeter of security that encompassed more than an entire square block. This didn’t smell like it belonged to a playboy prince from a second-tier country.
One of the security people opened the limo door and gestured to me. I picked up my computer, pads and camera and prepared to step out.
“Please leave everything in the car. It will be safe,” he said, shaking his head.
“But, how will I do my interview?”
“Everything you need will be provided for you by His Highness. Please go inside.”
I was dumbfounded. Why the cloak-and-dagger routine? They’d been so open with me yesterday. What had changed? Had I somehow offended them?
I took a deep breath, climbed out of the limo, and went inside. A sleekly-dressed butler ushered me into a classic European-style library. The prince sat behind his desk. The fun-loving, amused attitude had shifted into a cool, serious expression. I almost didn’t recognize him. “Please sit down, Mr. Stern.”
I swallowed hard and took my place across from him. “Your Highness, is everything okay? Did I do something wrong?”
The silence in the air between us deafened me. I was about ready to speak again when Prince Claude spoke, his eyes assessing as he watched my face. “Can we trust you?”
“Of course,” I hesitated. “But who is we?” Despite my worry, my mind started preparing to write an addendum to the column I’d been working on since yesterday.
“If we tell you a story –” the Prince started to say.
At that moment, President Mbangu entered the room through a hidden door, disguised in the wood paneling and bookcases. “If we tell you this, we must control all your notes until we are ready for you to make it public. Is that agreeable to you?” Mbangu asked.
“Uh, I guess so. But I confess, I’m more than a little confused. What story?” I asked.
“Mbangu and I have about sixty percent of the greatest story of the past fifty years. However, we don’t know everything. That’s where you come in.”
I didn’t know if I should run for my life or listen. Damn my reporter’s heart. I stayed. “Alright. Well… what’s the story?”
“Can we trust you?” Claude asked again.
Mbangu walked over to my chair and put his arm around my shoulders in a companionable manner. “Mr. Stern can be trusted.”
Bolstered by Mbangu’s faith in me, I nodded. “You have my word.”
“Do you trust us?” The Prince said, the mischievous sparkle he’d worn when we first met returning to his eyes.
“Of course, Your Highness,” I said.
“If I hadn’t lived the story we are about to tell, I wouldn’t believe it. It is how my old friend Prince Claude and I ended the Cold War without realizing it until the war was almost over,” Mbangu interjected.
“What?” My jaw dropped.
Mbangu looked me in the eyes. “For nearly three decades, we couldn’t tell anyone. But now that I am in the public eye, we are afraid it will come out on its own. We need to know the entire story before that happens; we must control how that information makes its way into the world. In the wrong hands, the information could ruin us.”
“We just want you to find and tell the truth, wherever it happens to take you,” Prince Claude said with a chuckle.
“I wouldn’t do anything less.” I couldn’t say no. Journalism was in my DNA, and there was no way I could let a story like this prance on by without leaping on it.
“We will give you the pieces we have and protect you as best we can,” Mbangu said, patting my back.
“First, you must quit your job. We’ll set you up an account in one of my country’s private banks,” Claude said, his tone businesslike. He poured three glasses of an amber-colored liquor. It smelled strong, and strong was just what I needed.
I reached for my glass, taking a sip of the scotch within. My head spun. Was I about to become an unholy melding of Bob Woodward, Inspector Clouseau and James Bond?
“Second, you must believe whatever we tell you, no matter how outrageous it may sound. I promise, you will find proof of our tale, but when we begin, you must simply trust us,” Mbangu repeated. His voice struck me as being worried and reassuring at the same time.
Prince Claude smiled. “By the way, before you go, it wasn’t seven super models naked in my plane two months before my wedding. It was nine. It was an off night.”
I nearly choked on the drink Prince Claude had just poured for me. The grin on Claude’s face told me he enjoyed my reaction.
Mbangu smiled as well. “I think he’s ready to know the truth.”
Jinare entered the room. Horror crossed his face when he saw me, and he stopped dead in his tracks. Claude smiled broadly. Mbangu walked over and stood with his trusted aide.
“He knows,” Jinare said, his voice flat.
Claude’s amusement showed in his huge smile and twinkling eye. “He was told. I’m not sure he believes us.”
Mbangu put a fatherly arm around my shoulder. “We’ve given him more than enough to think about. Now, it’s up to him.”
A Story Almost Told
This is the story of a trying to make a dream of having my screenplay produced come true and how it turned into a nightmare that would haunt me for decades.
A blink of an eye that seemed to last a lifetime and touched so many lives. It was an odyssey that traversed three continents. The array of friends, politicians, stars, police, wannabes and crooks came together without being aware of their participation in it. As bizarre as it may seem later, all those named herein did knowingly or unknowingly play a role. Some were totally innocent others intentionally not.
I started innocently on a path to make a dream come true. Destiny played a series of sick tricks diverting my original path in unimaginable ways. I still don't understand how or why any of this happened.
So much was lost on the way to this day. More than a quarter of a century has passed, yet I am unsure whether this is ending a chapter in my life or creating a new highway from a winding path.
Are these words and pages cathartic or reopening deep and old wounds? Being honest, I don't know the answer to this question. Only finishing the task at hand can lead there. We'll all learn together.
Let me assure you, everything you are about to read really did happen. It happened to me and around me. As unlikely as it will seem, it is so. I wish I could be creative enough to lay out such a complex novel. This is non-fiction. I wish to hell it wasn't.
I had to decide whether to clean up the language and make this prettier than it was or is. I can't do that.
This tale was lived by the seats of my pants Buckle up, it's not for the faint of heart. Hell, there are times Stephen King would have screamed like a little girl.
Thanks for becoming part of my story.
Chapter 1 Miles From Nowhere (excerpt)
The clickety-clack of the Trans-Siberia Railway was equally hypnotic and torturous. I woke up half-naked in my compartment, with a throbbing, two-day, drug-induced headache and a note taped inside my briefcase that read, “If I can do this, think of what the FSB and CIA are capable of.” My thoughts ran to self-preservation rather than the mind-numbing sounds.
So much of my odyssey had been a living combination of Monty Python meets Dr. Strangelove that I had almost forgotten I was dealing with superpowers, real people, and telling a secret that would change the world. I entertained the notion that if I could concentrate, the migraine would dissipate.
I reached for my backpack and pulled out my notes. I spread them on the bed and tried to make some sense of what I learned on my journey thus far. After sorting through them aimlessly for a while, I decided there had to be a system: put each prong of the story in one pile rather than trying to make a single, convoluted epic from four diverse groups who had no idea any of what the others were trying to do. The participants sounded like a bad joke. What if the Soviet Union, the US, a small European prince and an angelic African leader were all trying to save their countries at the same time?
The first portion of the story came from the data I had collected about the Russians-Soviets, as they were known at the time. I’d uncovered a lot of information about the inner-circle of the Kremlin. I read it and re-read it, unable to believe what I knew from experience was true. There was no way these megalomaniacal buffoons and paranoid apparatchiks could have run an empire that spanned major parts of three continents.
As was always the case, the worker bees were the competent ones, brave and able to work under pressure. Much of my information had come from former KGB operatives who had been involved all those years ago,
Damn, I kept thinking during the five-thousand-mile journey each way from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, this can’t be true.
My piles of notes kept shifting with the movement of the train on antiquated tracks. I grumbled and stood, opening the door of my compartment to recapture the ones that slipped under the door.
A beautiful conductor bent over to help pick them up, and her skirt rode up to show spectacular legs. She smiled as she handed me the stack of papers. I struggled to remember my rudimentary Russian, finding her beauty distracting. “Are you writing a book?” she asked me with a brilliant smile.
Oh shit, had she read my notes? I swallowed against the sudden dryness in my throat. “No, I’m helping with some research for a university.”
“How interesting,” her eyes sparkled.
The train shimmied, and she fell into me. I wrapped an arm around her to steady her, or so I told myself. Her smile grew to almost feline proportions. Man, this was more of a test than any other I had thus far. I couldn’t cheat on my girlfriend. More importantly, no matter how cute she was, I couldn’t let this conductor see what I was doing. For all I knew, she could be FSB.
“Th-th-thanks. I need to get back to work,” I said, releasing her and clutching the notes to my chest.
“If I see your papers in the corridor again, I’ll knock on your door,” she smiled and walked away and into the next car.
I closed the door, sat on my small chair, and took a deep breath. Looking in the cabinet for water, I discovered only a bottle of vodka. I drank it straight from the bottle like a true Russian.
Fortified by the liquor, I returned to my review, starting on the next stack of notes: the scant of information referencing the United States. As I read through it, I couldn’t help but laugh. Doonesbury wasn’t a cartoon. It was a documentary.
I gagged on my next slug of cheap vodka. The idiots in charge of the United States were every bit as crazy as the Soviets.
I found that the American team left a land of Victoria’s Secret, Monday Night Football, and shopping malls for Russia, a country of perpetual gray skies, no hot water, and umbrella-wielding babushkas. The KGB was omnipresent, and the Americans could be shipped off to enjoy the Siberian winter if they were caught. Hell, if someone caught them, being sent to Siberia would have been downright lenient. I doubted any of the Americans would have made it to the next street corner. Stealing Soviet national secrets was understandable during the Cold War. But how could anyone have come up with this crazy plan?
I understood why the world’s superpowers were so frustrated and willing to try anything, but their plans weren’t what really ended the Cold War. In the geopolitical world, as in the real world, accidents often create the greatest results. I needed more vodka and sucked down a third of the bottle in one swig.
My notes blurred, and my head spun as I considered the two men central to my journey. The key players in this farce couldn’t be more different. No amount of vodka could possibly make this make any sense, but I had met them and knew all of this was real. Insane, wild, crazy, but real.
Of course, I had to change the names of countries other than America and the USSR. The names of the players had to change, also. For my own safety and the safety of everyone involved.
The next player in this mad story was President Mbangu of Madibu, who has often been considered a living saint. Hell, he’s known as The Great Man throughout the world. During a time when Africa suffered through brutal civil wars, dictatorships, corruption, and economic unrest, his idyllic island nation was poor and happy. He was a much better man than I ever could hope to be. However, his nation’s successes were waning and he had to come up with a way to turn Madibu’s fortunes quickly or chaos could ensue.
Although it was against his better angels, he tricked the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but no one lost, and his people benefitted greatly. How could he ever know that his beaches, hotels, a cargo/cruise ship port, rhesus monkeys and new-found libation production would help end the Cold War?
Mbangu’s friend, and polar opposite, was Prince Claude of Luxenstein. All anyone needed to know about him was his nickname: The Pied Piper of Pussy. As outrageous as it may sound, it was a gross understatement of his life. Casanova was a virgin compared to the Pied Piper, and the Pied Piper was real. He was a one-man good year for casinos around the world. But this time he had gone too far, he only had a short time to fix it or his fairytale nation would be gobbled up as a province of France or Belgium to protect the public from his excesses. His family’s five-century-old principality would be history. He couldn’t hold back. If he had to be dangerous and crazy, so be it. Who would take him seriously anyway? So, he jumped in full force, hoping he would succeed against all the odds.
The last notes I organized before putting them back in my briefcase for the evening were the perfect ending point for the night. They came from Petey, an eighty-five-year-old former pit boss in Vegas, who had seen the Pied Piper in his wildest days.
“You gotta promise me one thing,” Petey had told me.
“If you find out the real story before I die, you gotta tell me.”
A huge smile lit his wrinkled, ancient face, “When you come to tell me, make sure I give you my will first.”
“Because when I hear what he did, I’ll probably laugh my ass into the big one. It’ll be a helluva way to go. Die with a smile on my face. Man, I haven’t been this excited since that hooker in ’83. You’ve made this old man very happy. I’ve got something to look forward to now. Thank the Pied Piper for me.”
“You’ve got it, Petey,” I said with a snicker.
Perfect. I let the vodka and clickety-clack of the train put me to sleep. I smiled to myself with that one last thought.
When your kid asks, “How did the Cold War really end, daddy?” You can tell him, “This is how. Don’t believe what you read in the history books. Sit back and read the real story.”
Stranger than fiction
Humor, bizarre events/people happening regularly worldwide
What must they look like?
It's been said that Washington, DC politics is Hollywood for ugly people.
If DC is the big leagues for politics and is the home to people like James Carville, Mary Matalin and Bay Buchanan, how ugly must the politicians in Kansas, Montana and small towns all over the country be?
There are some wonderful entries so far. Please tell your friends to join in.
The weirdest dream I had was that I lived to see the end of this contest in sixty-eight years.
How did the Cold War end without a shot being fired? Over forty thousand nukes were online to be launched. Millions of troops were facing each other. But it all ended with a guy using a sledgehammer in Berlin. How did this happen?
I know....would you like to know? It's not what you think. The names will be changed to protect the stupid and inept.