His linebacker-sized body, all 6 foot-4 inches of it, perched uncomfortably on the dainty, antique scroll-back, kitchen nook chair, George Gwinnett looked out over the green, lush backyard in his Savannah mansion. Sipped his first cup of steaming hot coffee of the day. Smiled softly. The steaming coffee reminded him of his grandfather’s import-export business warehouses stuffed with 80-pound burlap bags of coffee beans.
The coffee in front of him smelled exactly as the old man said it should – a rich, full-bodied grade of high mountain Central American coffee with a soft, fruity fragrance.
He’d grown up in this house after his father had died, had felt the city slow down and gasp for life in the heat around it, much like his father had likely died out on that Middle Eastern desert.
But he’d never seen the city this hot, this early in the morning. Memories of his grandmother being embarrassed by her moist brow during formal dinners played, unbidden, in his mind. He smiled at the memory of her formal life that only relaxed when the two of them sat on the couch, while she read stories of Southern heroism and bravery to him. He could still hear her voice as they ate lunch together at this tiny table. He fit it then.
She had the massive brass barometer installed on the back window after a discussion of the weather. She insisted on him writing down the temperature, barometer readings and weather every day for an entire year as a science project. Forty five years later, that memory warmed him as much as the outside temperature and he could still read a barometer better than most pilots – and certainly all weather predictors on the various vid feeds. The original massive brass screws still held that barometer to the windowsill and a quick glance showed a blistering 95F. It would be yet another hot, rainless day.
Stress levels inside the city, and with his staff would go up again and he didn’t need that; not right now.
At this moment, he wished he’d learned to like his coffee cold.
Gwinnett took a second sip. The view out his kitchen window showed a green oasis surrounded by a 10-foot tall stone wall. The four-foot tall boxwood hedges were still square and completely green with no dead leaves in the semi-protection of the square-cut limestone block walls surrounding the yard.
His grandmother had the sculptured, concrete pond occupying the entire end of the formal garden built because she loved the sound of splashing water. She said it reminded her of carefree summer days on the beaches on Tybee Island. The old eight-bedroom, white-painted beach house had been lost a few years ago when a storm surge overran the island. Memories of that house and of walking barefoot along the warm, damp sand with that wonderful woman always softened his face and mood. Even now, he felt himself relax. He smiled as the memories of her gracious soul played against the pond’s music.
This morning. the water sparkled and reflected early sunshine kaleidoscope patterns on the walls. The sound of splashing water was the only sound this morning; the bird songs he’d grown up with were missing. All the birds had gone north three years ago and hadn’t returned to the deep South. Between the heat and the lack of birds, insect problems had exploded.
The grass was well manicured and dark green in the extra sunlight released by the leafless, dead live oaks that used to protect the garden and house from the Southern summer heat. The stone patio where they used to entertain visiting dignitaries, between the pond and house, was a perfect grey contrast to the small green world surrounding it within the walls.
He knew it was an extravagant to keep the fountain full and irrigate the lawn but Charlotte couldn’t stand the thought of letting it go dry. And what Charlotte wanted…
Savannah, one of the true painted ladies of the deep South, had seen it all. From the sweating Irishmen cursing the heat and humidity as they loaded the hundreds of thousands of back-breaking, 500-pound cotton bales shipped to Europe every year, to the war between the states, when Sherman burned a 90-mile swath down from Atlanta but refused to destroy the city.
Now the heat and oak midges were reducing Savannah to the bone. Gwinnett sighed loudly. Shook his head. Listened to the small voice in the back of his head that had always given him great advice. He had a habit of talking back to the voice; and he called it his muse even though he didn’t consider himself an artist. “Yeah, I know'” he said in a soft voice, “I know.” There was nobody else in the room to listen or require an explanation.
The politicians of thirty years ago gerrymandering their way to power ensured this future would come sooner rather than later. Gwinnett thought about it for a moment. Prolonging anything sick, something in agony, from dying is never a great idea. Shoot it and get it over with.
He snorted out loud as the memory of his training sergeant explaining why his rifle was the love of his life and why, if he wanted to pass the army sniper school, he’d better think that way as well.
George pretended that way for the rest of his military career, but Charlotte knew the truth. That rifle had been important, indeed was still important to one part of him.
But Charlotte was in a class all by herself. He shoved down the rising warm feeling. Keep your mind on the target Gwinnett, he admonished himself.
Shaking his head, now fully alert as the caffeine worked its magic, he brought his old-fashioned rimless glasses to life by gently touching the arm in front of his ear. Corneal implants would have been more convenient, all the younger troops had them, but he refused. He had no trouble shooting a man, but he couldn’t stand the thought of having his eyeballs cut and chips installed. A shiver started in his groin and ran up his back at the thought of having a doctor take a scalpel to his eyeballs. He winced, grunted.
Checked his schedule in the glasses heads up display. Nodded his head. No emergency showed so he smiled. Step one is underway this morning, he thought.
He grinned and untangling his legs from under the dainty table stood upright. Stretched to unknot. Picked up his dirty mug and put it in the dishwasher as Charlotte had trained him to do thirty years ago.
As he marched down the picture-lined hallway, in critical review by the portraits of five generations of Gwinnetts, he knew today would be a good one.
George put on his white Panama hat, adjusted it to a jauntier angle, slipped on his summer-weight, blue blazer, twisted the silver, monographed button into its appropriate hole and smiled at himself in the mirror. Good-looking, silver-haired, he could have been a model for executive recruiting.
“You’re a handsome man, George Gwinnett,” he said to the person in the mirror. “And smart too.” A second later, he laughed at himself as he always did right after he’d completed the morning ritual he’d begun 40 years earlier. A ritual he’d learned from his grandfather. A gentle smile appeared at the memory of the old man doing exactly the same thing to the same mirror.
The glasses, with their full heads-up display, darkened as Gwinnett stepped out the navy-blue front door of the 3-story, red-brick, Jones Street home. The majestic live oak trees that used to cover the street, making it one of the most-photographed streets in the United States, now rotted in some dump. The small, so-called alternate tropical varieties struggled in the heat and humidity to gain a foothold in the lifeless soil.
He felt the sweat break out on his chest and underarms within a few seconds of reaching the antique paving bricks of the sidewalk. He ignored it knowing his shirt fabric and kevlar undershirt would absorb and mask the smell.
He turned off his news and email feeds to concentrate on the walk, to relax, and get his A-game together.
He knew his second morning coffee would be smooth and fragrant, but the company he’d be keeping would likely turn out to be bitter. It was time to deliver a clear message to the city gangs, one that could not be ignored and that likely wouldn’t go down well. Smiling to himself as he strolled down the empty street he hoped they’d understand the soft version of the message this morning.
A different smile, tighter and less welcoming, agreed with the momentary tightening of his eyes. Decorated sniper and president of the world’s largest security company, Gwinnett knew how to deliver one with a different definition of Southern charm. A well-hidden part of him clamoured to be released, but he ignored that voice for the moment.
Ten minutes later, he rounded the corner at Tattnall and Liberty Streets and saw Sayshan Roberts, the War-Commander of the East Side boys an equal distance from the shop coming in the opposite direction.
He smiled and watched Roberts, slight, deep black skin, head shaved, 5-foot, 10-inches tall, sunglasses pushed up to the top of his head, swagger towards the coffee shop as if he owned the street. Gwinnett didn’t increase his steady, relaxed marching pace. Roberts would notice that. But he did shorten his stride by an inch or two.
They met as if by prearranged signal at the front door of the shop. Gwinnett returned Roberts’ wry grin as they both appreciated that neither wanted to arrive first. Should have left a bit later he thought as he opened the door and waved Roberts through.
Gwinnett, built like the college linebacker he used to be, dwarfed the much shorter and slightly-built Roberts who immediately stepped to the side after he was through the door.
No you bastard, Gwinnett thought, I’m not after your back. Yet. Gwinnett pointed to his favorite table, but not because of the table with its scarred but brightly polished wood top. That table had the most comfortable seats in the shop tucked underneath it and was against a red brick wall. Gwinnett led the gang leader back into the shop. He took a padded, swivel black arm chair with his back to the wall. Roberts took the chair beside him, moved it slightly so his back was to the same wall. Neither was about to face away from an open door and neither would trust the other to watch his back.
George noticed the young woman putting cream in her coffee at the side counter glance towards them, snap a plastic lid onto her cup, and march to the door. As she walked in front of the shop, she turned to stare at the both of them through the floor to ceiling glass windows. She met George’s eyes and her pace quickened. Gwinnett’s face didn’t change as he turned back to Roberts.
Understood Roberts had tracked the woman as well. Noticed the slight bulge and weight causing Robert’s jacket to swing off center. Glanced meaningfully at it when Roberts met his eyes. Roberts gave George’s jacket underarm holster area the same look.
“Licensed,” said Gwinnett. “Yours too?”
Roberts face never shifted, didn’t acknowledge the question, but he met George’s eyes in a clear challenge.
George simply nodded. “Doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” he said.
Again, Roberts didn’t speak.
Gwinnett saw the server had kept her eyes on the two of them, waved a single finger, and said, “Jersey can we have a carafe please?”
George waited for the coffee to arrive and wondered if Roberts would speak. He thought for a second and considered how he might reduce the tension. And asked himself if he really wanted to. Thought about this last question for a moment and decided, honestly, probably not, but it didn’t matter either way.
The pause threatened to become embarrassing and unbreakable so Gwinnett opened. “Thanks for coming Mr. Roberts, I suspect we both have things to put onto the table and sort out. It would be a good thing if both of us could come away from this meeting happy with the outcome.”
Roberts didn’t reply right away as the manager appeared with a carafe and side plate of hot biscuits and butter.
Gwinnett hadn’t ordered the biscuits but then again, he no longer had to. All the staff knew to bring them because he always ordered them halfway through the first coffee.The manager poured the first cups and then retreated to her counter out of earshot. Neither said anything as they took the first tentative sips of the hot drink.
“Great coffee. Thanks. Appreciate you showing respect this way.” The Southern accent was clear, but Sayshan used his talk-to-the-white-people voice and not his normal ghetto slang.
“My pleasure. Glad y’all like coffee. And yes, I want us to understand each other and be able to respect each other as we move forward,” said Gwinnett.
Gwinnett smiled and decided this would be a typical Southern meeting with a relaxed pace and the meanings and implications would be couched in the most delicate but respectful ways. The objective was to be smooth enough to sound agreeable but tough enough to force this young man to listen carefully.
He swivelled his chair slightly towards Roberts to get a better look at his face. Even though he doesn’t believe it, he’s a boy in a man’s game, Gwinnett thought.
He took a deep breath. Looked directly into Robert’s eyes.
He recognized the return challenging stare and thought, screw this polite stuff, let’s get this done quickly and move on. He isn’t going to change and I don’t want to waste my breath and time. Stupid bastard thinks he’s in control. Let’s get it over with and let me get to work George decided.
“Mr. Roberts, we seem to have a problem. In the last four weeks, your people assaulted nine of my employees while they were walking or partying in Savannah. Specifically it happened while they walked in an area of the historic or entertainment district you profess to control. This is a problem,” said Gwinnett.
The bastard wasn’t expecting that was he? Gwinnett thought. He kept his face frozen in a neutral stare.
Roberts’ face froze and his eyes tightened, but they never left George’s.
Idiot thinks he can intimidate me but I’ve been stared at by far worse than this punk Gwinnett thought. He dropped his eyes, took another sip of coffee, testing to see if it was cool enough to drink. It wasn’t worth the energy to even try to intimidate the young man. I know what’s going to happen so let’s get it over with, Gwinnett decided.
“I’ve told my people not to bother locals and to confine their partying to downtown. They won’t bother your members without severe penalties from me. I have a strict policy for this and there are no exceptions. I need you to respect this and ensure your members understand this. Neither of us wants our friends hurt,” said Gwinnett. His face never changed but he grinned inwardly at the confused look that, for a very brief moment, appeared on Roberts’ face. This wasn’t what he expected.
Combine Southern charm with a stone-dead message and you’ve got them running before they know it he thought.
Robert’s face tightened. He cocked his head slightly and said, “Mr. Gwinnett, these are our streets. Your employees walk on them with our blessing. But when they trash talk my people, there’s a matter of respect involved. Tell yours to show respect and there will be no problem.” He leaned back and folded his arms.
Gwinnett noted one of Robert’s hands shift closer to his underarm holster.
Gwinnett nodded. He’d expected something like this and hoped another tack might make it clear. And no you bastard, I won’t break eye contact first again, he thought.
“Mr. Roberts, we have the tapes of what happened and in every instance, your members started the problem. And in every instance, they overwhelmed my employees with numbers. We can provide those to you if you doubt my word. You are taking my troops down as a game, we understand this and we simply want you to end the game,” said Gwinnett.
Neither broke eye contact.
“Mr. Gwinnett, with all respect, you folks started the problems and no matter what your edited tapes will say, I decline your offer,” said Roberts. “This is our city now. If your people want to drink in our district, they should take better care and watch their mouths.” His hand again edged closer to his shoulder.
He didn’t get the message Gwinnett thought. One last try then. “Mr. Roberts. You do understand what my company does, don’t you?”
George casually moved his hand towards his own spring-loaded holster but stopped halfway. Saw Roberts eyes drop from his to take in the counter move, watched Roberts’ hand move back to his lap. George relaxed as well, leaned back in his chair but left his hand where it was.
Roberts snorted. “Oh yeah, I know. But all those guns and troops overseas ain’t gonna help you in my district. You can be the biggest badass you like over there, but here, these are our streets. Shit. You think I’m just another dumb, black ass you can push around? Not happenin’.”
Gwinnett leaned back in his chair. This meeting was obviously over except for the details and one last offer. “Mr. Roberts, thank you for the clarification. Is there anything I can do to change your mind so we can open serious negotiations and avoid any unpleasantness?”
“No Sir. I believe we understand each other,” said Roberts.
OK, he missed my signal. Or didn’t want to get it. OK, meeting over and let’s move on with my day, thought Gwinnett.
“Thank you for meeting with me Mr. Roberts. Can we pour you a cup of coffee to go?” Without hesitating or giving Roberts a chance to reply, Gwinnett caught the server’s attention and said, “Jersey, would you bring us to-go cups please.”
The young server brought two tall paper cups, emptied the carafe into them, pressed plastic tops and slid them in front of Sayshan.
“Enjoy your coffee Mr. Roberts. Should you change your mind, please call me and we can work something out,” said Gwinnett standing and offering a handshake. He was surprised when Roberts took it in a firm grip and noted Roberts’ hand was already hot and sticky this early in the morning.
“No Sir, I believe I’ve been clear and there’ll be no need to change my mind. But if you change yours, please call me,” said Roberts.
Gwinnett locked onto Robert’s eyes for a minute seeing nothing but contempt there. He wouldn’t be the first to miss my signals and underestimate the world of hurt QuellCorp carries. Won’t likely be the last either, he thought.