Trying something a little new here, sports fans, and I look forward to your feedback. While crime uber agent Stacia Decker continues to pimp my first novel, Unto Ceasar, I’m plowing ahead on the next in the series, The Gravity of Mammon. And what I’ve decided to do is plow ahead in public. So I’ll be running it here on the ol’ blog serial fashion, a chapter or so at a time, with new installments popping up every few days. If nothing else, it will keep my ass in the chair so I don’t run out of inventory. So, without further ado, our story begins . . .
The Gravity of Mammon — Chapter One
Nick Hardin never thought his first Hollywood party would be in a big-assed tent on the Chad-Sudan border, but here he was, nursing a gin and tonic, hoping he’d set things up far enough west that he was out of RPG range in case some Janjaweed punk got a bug up his ass. Fucking Mooney and his do-gooder shit.
Hardin had run into Jerry Mooney in Khartoum almost a year back. Darfur was heating up as the PR play of choice for socially conscious Hollywood types looking to bump up their Q scores. Hardin was heading out on his usual fixer gig for one of the networks. Same gig he’d been running since he got out of the Foreign Legion back in 1996 – logistics on a file footage job. Camera guy, sound guy, some former BBC face with the right kind of public school accent and safari guide outfit. Get 10 or 15 minutes in the can from the hell hole of the week so Nightline’s got something for a slow news day. Run the film, then cut back to the studio where the talking heads and maybe someone from Medicines sans Frontiers or some Foggy Bottom undersecretary could cluck their tongues between beer commercials. A little of the self-flagellation that a goodly portion of the folks that actually watch Nightline like to engage in before bed – helps them sleep better. Hardin’s job? Line up some transport and some security that, when you bought them for a couple of days, stayed bought. Point the talent at the right locations, pay off the right warlords, make sure the face gets his interview without getting his throat cut and the crew gets out without having to buy back their equipment at ten bucks on the dollar.
The face in this case being Nigel Fox. Hardin liked Nigel, and Nigel liked gin. That’s why he was spending his twilight years stringing the massacre circuit when he used to cover No. 10 Downing Street for BBC 1. Hardin had done Somalia with Nigel, Liberia back in the Taylor days. Kinshasha, Rawanda. The beginnings of a beautiful friendship. Hardin waited at the Khartoum airport by the Twin Otter he’d chartered as Nigel walked across the tarmac with his crew, a couple of stoner Italian adrenaline junkies. And with Jerry Mooney.
Hardin had heard of Mooney, of course. Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor. Square-jawed leading man in a maybe dozen chart-topping flicks. Probably more than a dozen – Hardin figured a few had come out that hadn’t made it to the flea-bag cinema down the street from his place in Accra.
“Nick Hardin,” said Nigel, “meet Jerry Mooney.”
“Jerry,” said Hardin, shaking hands. He turned to Nigel. “We still shooting news or are we making a movie?”
“Little of both, old boy,” Nigel said. “Ran into Jerry here at the Hilton night before last. Splendid chap. Shared a bottle of Boodles, and let me have more than half. Anyway, he was headed down to Darfur for a look-see, some video-blog thing for his web site. Marvelously technical, beyond me of course. But his fixer bolted on him, left the poor man stranded. All for one and one for all, of course, so I told him he could pack along with us.”
“Nice of you spend my nickel, Nigel,” said Hardin.
“Hey, Nick,” said Mooney, “Look, I know I’m imposing, and I know you’ve got to make a living. The guy I was supposed to meet up with, he’d said $500 a day, American, plus expenses. Nigel tells me we’re back tomorrow night, so that’s two days. Suppose we say $2500, is that fair?”
Usury is what it was, but Mooney threw out the number. Mooney was starting to smell like the gravy train. With a capital G and a capital train.
“Yeah, OK,” said Hardin.
Mooney smiled. Big, dimpled movie star smile. “All right. Off to the heart of darkness.”
Hardin caught the little smirk from Nigel. They always do that, the first timers. Drop the Conrad on you. But the darkness wasn’t concentrated in a heart anywhere. It had metasticzed into hundreds of tumors. Some, like Darfur, were a thousand miles wide. But most of them were about the size of a qat-chewing 13-year-old with an AK-47.
Nigel waved the Italians back to the truck. “You’ve forgot the bloody gin.”
So Mooney gets the Darfur bug bad. Started harping on Congressmen, hanging out with Martin Sheen, the whole nine yards. Mooney’s buddies start turning up, and Hardin ends up with damn near a full time gig as the Darfur Tour Guide to the Stars. And the stars pay way better than the networks. Then Mooney gets his big idea. Dollars for Darfur – a Live Aid type deal, but right here on site. Mooney signed up half a dozen big-name bands, got a mess of Hollywood types to commit. Huge buzz in the media.
Hardin had to admit it made sense from Mooney’s perspective. For once, the press would have more cameras looking at Darfur than it had looking up Paris Hilton’s skirt. But from Hardin’s perspective, it was a nightmare — staging a rock concert on the Darfur border was like building a golf course in Antarctica.
Hardin paid the bribes, pulled the strings, got the generators and tents and food and booze shipped in. And he did the other stuff that he couldn’t tell Mooney about – like talking to his contact at the Chinese embassy in Khartoum, explaining how, while this liberal love-fest is likely to piss of the masters in Beijing no end, it’s still in the PRC’s best interest to lean on the Sudanese and make sure they keep the Janjaweed on their leash for a few weeks. Suddenly you got almost as many publicists in Darfur as you got starving people, and they’re making sure every A-list name in town for the show has a camera on them every second. Janjaweed goes on a rampage within a light year of the place, the PRC’s going to have to deal with gang-rapes and mass murder live and covered from more camera angles than a Super Bowl.
And Hardin was 24 hours from pulling it off. The night before the big show, Hardin was standing in the corner of the party tent, sipping a gin and tonic with actual ice in it, and watching all the size one blondes strut around. Drink tasted good, which it should, because when you built in the logistics, it probably cost more per ounce than cocaine. The tent was full of movie stars, rocks stars, a couple of the right kind of politicians, handful of network news guys – and not the second-string talent that usually got shunted off to Africa either. Couple of print guys, but only the big-time names with hot blogs and book deals. Rest of the print media was outside with the other refugees and the aid workers.
Now Shamus Fenn was working on fucking up Hardin’ pay day. Fenn had the Hollywood radical gene bad, always ready to play footsie with anybody who wanted to bad mouth the US. But he also had an alpha male problem – had to know more and be a badder ass than anyone else around. When he got off the chopper that morning with what’s her face, some actress Hardin still couldn’t quite place, he was in full macho mode. Chopper had spooked a mole viper out of it hole, the snake scurrying off for cover. Actress chick evidently had a snake problem, because she screamed, so Fenn had to get all manly, make a move to grab the snake.
“I’d leave that alone,” said Hardin. “Poisonous.”
“That little worm?” said Fenn. Mole vipers don’t look like much, short little black things, harmless if you don’t fuck with them. Fenn started walking after the snake. When his shadow fell over it, the snake stopped crawling and coiled up. Last thing Hardin needed was Fenn getting himself bit on his watch. So Hardin shot the snake.
“What the fuck you do that for? Just wanted to get a look at it,” Fenn said, puffing up.
“They coil like that, they’re going to strike. I doubt if we have any anti-venom here. You might have survived the chopper ride out, but you definitely would have missed the party.”
The actress was over her snake phobia now that it was dead, and also didn’t want her screaming fit as the last image in the minds of the press guys who’d gotten off the chopper with them. “Shamus, we’ve come to save Africa, not to help destroy it,” she said, stomping off. A minute ago, Fenn was halfway into her pants, now she’s marching over to Mooney.
Fenn walked over to Hardin. Hardin was 5’9”, 175 pounds. Fenn had four inches and twenty pounds on him. Fenn got in real close. “I don’t know who you are, cowboy, but I don’t like you already.”
Mooney broke things up. “Shamus, this is Nick Hardin. You haven’t been out here before or you’d know him. He was just looking out for you.”
“I’ve looked out for myself in worse places than this, not afraid of some pissant snake.” said Fenn.
“Of course not. Come on, let’s get you settled in, get you up to speed on the program.” Mooney got an arm around Fenn’s shoulders, turned him away from Hardin, walked him off.
Within two hours, the story of Shamus Fenn’s arrival in Darfur was up on one of the press Blogs, complete with video, and nobody was missing a chance to put the needle in with Fenn. And now Fenn was stalking Hardin around the party. Fenn was liquored up, had been hitting it hard for a couple of hours. Every time he saw Hardin, he’d start angling toward him, but Hardin would move off, and somebody would grab Fenn and start chatting him up.
Then Hardin lost his concentration. The actress from the snake scene earlier came over, been at the booze herself some, wanting to apologize for the whole scene, hitting on Hardin pretty hard, making it clear that, if he wanted to stop by her trailer after the party, she’d be waiting. And Hardin was definitely thinking about it. You get up in your forties, you don’t have a lot of hard-body twenty somethings throwing themselves at you. And getting laid was one of the downsides of an Africa career nowadays. Condoms or not, with the AIDs rates, you had to think real hard before you dipped your wick anywhere. So this chick is stroking his arm, leaning forward so that her loose and not-very-buttoned blouse kept falling open, and Hardin had his mind on something other than Fenn long enough for Fenn to get right up next to him.
“You a star-fucker, Hardin, that your deal?”
Hardin turned, and Fenn was right behind him, face red, smelling of Bombay and testosterone.
“I was just thanking Mr. Hardin for saving your life earlier, Shamus,” said the girl, putting some real bite into it, and all of a sudden Hardin got it. Some kind of history between these two, and she’d come over here to tee Hardin up, get Fenn over, make some scene, get some more face time on You Tube. Hardin thinking how his pecker could still get him in trouble.
Which was when Fenn threw the right. Shitty right. Movie right. Big, long, looping telegraphed punch Hardin could have slipped twice. But Hardin stood in, just turning with it at the last minute, let it glance off his head, made a show of going down.
“Whoa, nice shot,” Hardin said from his knees, showing his ass, still looking for an out. “Look, I guess I had that coming, OK? Just let me get out of here.”
But when Fenn went to put a boot in while Hardin was getting up, Hardin lost it. He grabbed the leg, flipped Fenn over onto the bar table, and gave him a good right to the nose. Just one, but the right kind, straight, short, starting from the legs, hips turning with it. Fenn’s nose got way broken, and pieces of the highball glass he landed on ended up stuck in his back.
“Oh, Shamus!” the blonde, all concern, now, leaning over the semi-conscious actor.
“Better get him to the doc,” said Hardin trying to pull her aside so he could get a look.
She reared up and slapped him hard across the face. “Get your hands off of me. You thug. This whole continent is full of thugs.” She stomped off, exactly the same carriage as earlier, after the snake. Her exit stomp, Hardin figured. Must have that one down.
That derailed the gravy train, right there. Mooney kept him on through the concert, and he was cool about it after. Everyone knows Fenn’s an ass, especially when he drinks, said Mooney. But the Darfur story is bigger than us, said Mooney. Can’t afford to let it be about some movie star brawl, said Mooney. Need to let you go to get you and Fenn off the front page, make this about the people again, said Mooney. You’ll always be a hero of mine, said Mooney. Here’s another ten grand.
Hardin knew there was more to it. The whole Hollywood PR machine was cranked up around Dollars for Darfur, their chance to prove what a big heart the industry had, take everyone’s mind off the brainless crap they put out, the no-panty starlets and the revolving doors at the rehab clinics. And now, instead of Darfur leading the news, they had video of a drunk actor acting like, well, a drunk actor.
Hardin tried to get back into the network gigs, but suddenly no one returned his calls. After a couple months, he ran into a producer he went back with a ways, and the guy told him he’d been blackballed. Word had gone out from the agents and PR flacks — any news team working with Hardin gets zero play with their people. And the same media conglomerates that owned the movie studios owned the news networks. The movie studios made way more money.
Hardin figured he’d had a good run in Africa. But he was pushing 50, and, after almost 20 years schlepping around the Sahel, 50 was pushing back. It was time for an exit strategy. And he had one. Hardin hadn’t always been a glorified gofer. He’d spent eight years in the Marines, Scout/Sniper back in Gulf War I. And when a beef back home meant he needed a get-out-of-jail-free card, he spent another decade in the French Foreign Legion, 1st Coy, 2nd Para regiment, pretty much the baddest asses in a bad-ass crowd.
Hardin always had a couple story ideas brewing so he’d have something for the networks when they called. Before he’d gotten detoured into the Dafur shit, he’d been looking into the old West African blood diamond business. Cooled off after Charles Taylor and his RUF animals finally got run to ground, but there’d always been a Lebanese connection to diamond trade in West Africa, and Hardin heard the Hezbullah had muscled in on that, and then Bin Laden and the boys had muscled in on Hezbullah, and now Al Queda was using diamonds as a way to move capital sub rosa since the US was putting the freeze on any above-ground cash flow. So Hardin had done a little recon, and what he’d found was that sometimes their security wasn’t what it ought to be.
And that’s how Hardin ended up on the Air France flight to Chicago with 18 ounces of uncut stones hidden in his bag. Time to talk to Stein.