Manuscript Excerpt by Melvin Sterne.
Three men in black suits lounged smoking cigarettes beside a classic black, 1954 Rolls Royce limousine. The limousine was parked at the foot of a pier that extended several hundred feet out over the harbor from the grounds of a meticulously groomed and fenced estate. A chauffeur sat alone in the car with a newspaper open in front of him, reading, occasionally pausing to shake the paper and fold to a new place or page, or to take a sip of coffee from an old steel thermos. It was not yet eight o’clock and already the tropical sun burned off what remained of the nighttime’s cool ocean haze. Not even the faintest breeze stirred to relieve the oppressive humidity. The flag hung limp from the flagpole at the edge of the pier. Behind the men, on the grounds of the estate, a gardener and two of the house-kitchen servants knelt and inspected the blades of a balky, push-type grass cutter.
In front of the three men in black suits, out on the water, a sleek, white yacht slowly approached the pier, bells ringing, engine churning, smoke belching from her stacks, preparing to dock. The yacht was long and sleek and graceful, with a half-dozen decks stacked above the waterline, an island cruiser, her hull and bulkheads brightly lacquered and scrubbed, her brass and teakwood trim polished to a mirror finish. From her mast fluttered the flag of the Island Republic (a white clamshell on a blue and red field with four small white stars, three gold crosses, a black anchor, and a green mermaid arranged in a semi-circle around the clamshell), and another flag (a gold mermaid on a blue field), which E1 Presidente had selected as his own personal standard. On board the yacht was the president of the island republic. The yacht was his, and the dock towards which the boat maneuvered. The dock extended several hundred yards out over the water from his beach-front vacation home, one of his three estates.
From where they stood, the three waiting men could see white-uniformed sailors swarming about the deck like insects, ready to leap to shore and secure the lines. But there seemed to be some confusion among them, for they ran this way, then paused and reversed themselves, anger evident in the captain’s voice as he shouted his orders; the import of the commands, if not the exact words, carrying all the way to the three men in suits, standing by the car on the shore. While the three men watched, the boat surged forward, then back, the engine laboring under the sudden starts and stops, the crew apparently unable to position it correctly for docking. One of the crewmen fell overboard, his short, shrill cry of alarm cut off when he hit the water. The rest paid him no mind.
The three men lounging on the dock were, by name and title: Raul Portafino, the island republic’s Minister of Health; Annuncio Fernandes, the Minister of Finance; and the Vice President, Eduard Bols. Their presence was not required at El President’s return, per se. The island is small and, though it boasted a bustling capital city, taken as a whole, it was lightly populated. There being little real work for the ministers to do, their positions were largely ceremonial, and meeting the president was a matter of prestige, not necessity. To be seen with El Presidente, to ride with him in his limousine, elevated their status in the island’s pecking order. For weeks thereafter they could make faux-confidential references at cocktail parties to anyone who would listen about the conversation they had with El Presidente in his limousine immediately following his return from America.
From time to time the three passed shifty glances from one to the other. The rivalry between them was not subtle, and they carefully leveraged every word, excuse, and opportunity, towards some perceived advantage. They had each had climbed the political ladder by virtue of this gamesmanship; gleaning bits of potentially useful information, spreading rumors, forging impulsive alliances, and betraying one another with equal caprice—without cause or conscience. Their aspirations had produced that morning a curiously civil, but subtly hypocritical conversation. They bickered among themselves as they waited for E1 Presidente, punctuating their banter long periods of quiet during which they individually evaluated their score and analyzed and silently criticized one another. They had been in one such pause for several minutes when Anuncio abruptly dropped his unfinished cigarette, crushed it out in the grass, and said, “If he has returned empty-handed again, there is going to be hell to pay in the departments.”
“You worry too much, Anuncio,” Raul replied.
“The Americans have a vested interest in the security of our island. Even he cannot screw this thing up now.”
“What do the Americans care for our Island?” Anuncio retorted. “Nothing! That’s what. We could fall into the sea and drown for all they care.”
“Since when have you become an expert on American policy, Raul?” Eduard said, taking a bent cigar from his coat pocket and biting the end off and straightening it before striking a match to light it. “I don’t believe you have even been there.”
“I was there…when I went to medical school.”
“I thought you went to some school in the Bahamas.”
“I did, but I made several visits to Miami, and once to New Orleans.”
There was a long, earthy groan and the sound of splintering boards as the boat ground against the wooden pilings of the pier. The racket dragged on for several seconds before the boat came to rest, and crewmen with ropes leaped like monkeys from the boat to the pier, securing the lines to the ties.
Eduard shook his head and said, “Not again.”
“So” Anuncio continued, “you are eminently qualified to speak about nothing, except perhaps girls and bars.”
“Not at all! I, at least, have been to college, and to medical school. I studied a great many things, and I earned my degree. What have you done to qualify as Minister of Finance?”
“Besides having money, nothing. But one must first have money of their own before they can manage someone else’s.”
“Agreed,” Eduard said.
“Good,” Raul replied. “Since you have money enough to burn, we can begin by cutting budget in your department.”
“My department? Why if it wasn’t for me, there would be no you. You could forget about that pathetic little excuse of a hospital. You wouldn’t have a shack in tortillatown and two bandaids to lock up in it! The hospital was better off when the nuns ran it.” “It was not my idea to privatize!” Raul snapped. “If your department did not siphon off so much money for your own bloated budget, we could have the finest medical facility this side of Havana.” “Shhh!” the Vice President hissed, “Here he comes!”
E1 Presidente stumbled sideways, scampering crablike down the gangway, finally leaping awkwardly onto the pier. He paused for a moment, tugging at his uniform jacket to make sure it was in order. Satisfied, he walked quickly down the pier to the limousine, only tripping once on a loose board. “Good Morning, gentlemen!” he exclaimed. “Buenos dias!” Then clapping his hands together and pointing to the car he said, “Vamanos! Let’s go.”
Eduard held the door open while E1 Presidente and the others climbed in. Once inside, E1 Presidente addressed the driver: “Omar, to the capital, please, and hurry!”
Omar folded his newspaper, then carefully screwed the plug back into his thermos and the cup over the plug. He took a napkin from his pocket and wiped the thermos dry, then wedged the thermos carefully between the seat and the driver’s side door. He searched all of his pockets for the keys before finding them in the ignition. He turned the key and the motor grunted feebly, then expired. He tried again, but the second time nothing happened at all—the car was dead. Omar climbed out and raised the hood, working on the engine for several minutes before coming back to crank the ignition again. The limousine sputtered to life. Omar jumped out and closed the hood, but before he could get back in the car the engine died.“Hijo la!” he exclaimed.
“Omar?” E1 Presidente asked, “What the hell are you doing? What have you done to my car?”
Omar tried the ignition again. It cranked once, weakly, then twice, then again, and finally, after coughing up a thick cloud of black smoke, it turned over and settled into a rough idle. “It is the spark plug wires, sir.” Omar replied. “They are old and worn. I have ordered replacements, but it may take weeks before they arrive. It is only a minor inconvenience, sir. She is a good machine, very reliable. I just have to baby her sometimes.”
“Never mind,” E1 Presidente said. “Just drive.”
Published 24th April, 2023.