I was having a drink at the White Horse with my friend Jan last night, and we were trading stories about our crazy families when I noticed the woman sitting two tables away. “See her?” I said. “She’s got a book coming out on Tuesday. I think she’ll be at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in the next couple of weeks.”
Jan gave her the once over. “Why is she dressed like she’s going to the opera?”
“Maybe she just came from the opera. Speaking of which, I can now add ‘operetta’ to my annual report card. Did I tell you I saw Ruddigore last week?”
“Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore?”
I nodded and took a sip of beer. As I did, a waitress approached the author and asked, “What can I get you?”
“I didn’t see it on the menu,” the author said, “but I’d really love a cup of French Canadian bean soup.”
At which point I choked on my Guinness.
“You okay?” asked Jan.
I nodded while I waved my hands and coughed up a lung into my napkin, and risked a glance at the author. She was looking at me warily, like I was a book reviewer with a grudge.
“I’ll be damned,” I said, when I could finally talk.
“This we know,” said Jan. “Any particular reason tonight?”
There are certain disadvantages to having a dumb phone. “Do me a favor and look up the time difference between here and Egypt,” I said.
“Okay,” Jan drawled, and started working her iPhone. “Six hours.”
“Cool. Now what time is dawn on Monday morning in Alexandria?”
“Dawn . . . Monday morning . . . Alexandria . . . Dawn or sunrise?”
“About five-oh-nine AM.”
“Excellent. What are you doing at eleven-oh-nine PM tonight?”
“You mean about ninety minutes from now? I don’t know—watching Big Bang Theory reruns with my daughter?”
I shook my head. “No, my dear, you are going to do what John Wilkes Booth did two weeks before he shot Lincoln.”
It was Jan’s turn to look at me warily. “Is this a Players Club thing?”
I guffawed. “Hah—they wish,” I said. “No, it’s also what William Walker did before he invaded Nicaragua. And what Cornelius Vanderbilt did before he made sure Walker failed.”
Jan gave me an “And that would be . . . ?” look.
I smiled and waved our waitress over. “Uhm, we’d like another round, and also some food, I think. Chicken tenders for me, French fries for her, and, uhm, I didn’t see it on the menu, but if you have any left, we’d like two bowls of French Canadian bean soup.”
It was the author’s turn to choke on her beer, but to her credit, she did it delicately and with flair.
“I think we’re almost out,” said the waitress. “Let me check the kitchen.”
She turned away and almost bumped into the author’s waitress, who was delivering a small white bowl to the author’s table. They had a brief whispered conversation, and then our waitress turned back to me.
“You’re in luck,” she said, “we have two left.”
“Excellent; thank you,” I said, and off she went. “We’re really lucky,” I said to Jan, “there are always only twelve bowls a night.”
“One for each harbor,” I said in my best Isn’t-It-Obvious voice.
“No, Matthew—why are you ordering us soup that isn’t on the menu?”
“Because that’s the only way we’ll get to see it.”
“The thing that made Lucky Luciano lucky.”
Jan heaved a sigh so deep it could have been a subway tunnel. “So this is one of those crazy Manhattan things.”
“Jan, this is better than any crazy Manhattan thing you’ve ever done.”
“And are you gonna tell me about it before we do it, or is the surprise part of the surprise?”
“No. No it’s not. You won’t appreciate it unless you know what it really is. And I really shouldn’t be telling you here, of all places, especially tonight.”
“Then we’ll go somewhere else.”
“No, we have to stay here. It could start any time after we get our soup.”
“Because we’re the last two?”
“Because nobody’s ever on fucking time in this city. Scooch over,” I said.
We were in a booth near the Men’s Room, with me on a chair and Jan against the wall. I got up from the chair and squeezed in next to her. The author was studiously avoiding looking in our direction, which made it all the more obvious that she was hanging on every word I spoke.
“Voices low,” I said. “If you have any questions, whisper them.”
“This better be good, Wells.”
“Oh honey, you have no idea.”
“Actually that part of the story starts earlier. In 1901, to be exact. You’ve seen Butch Cassidy, right?” Jan nodded. “You know that he and the Sundance Kid came to New York before they sailed to Bolivia, right? Do you know why?”
“Because New York is where the ship sailed from?”
“Because they needed money. And money to them meant robbing something.”
“Like a bank?”
“Like a banker. They robbed JP Morgan of the one thing he could not do without.”
“Unmarked tens and twenties?”
“No,” I said. “The thing that made him lucky.”
Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells