A Meeting With The Crimson Cavalier
In the dangerous world of organized crime, there is always someone more dangerous yet.
Marvin Jennings gazed at the magnificent Spanish-style mansion hidden among two-hundred acres of richly cultivated landscape as the car rolled up the sweeping drive. Just how much money must a guy be swimming in before he felt the need to blow it on a place like this, he wondered. The upkeep alone would run well into the tens of thousands, not to mention the small army of servants you’d need. This was the kind of place a guy bought only to show that he could.
Officially, he knew – for he had examined the records thoroughly – it was owned by Lance Caldecott, the shipping magnate. He certainly could afford it, of course, but then, he was almost never there. Had his own place in the city, plus villas overseas. Apparently, he owned it just so that the Crimson Cavalier could live in it.
Jennings frowned to himself. That was one of the things that didn’t seem to make any sense about this whole setup. There had to be a reason Caldecott was spending that kind of dough on a place like this only to rent it out to someone else. The obvious idea was that the Cavalier had something on him. But Jennings hadn’t been able to find anything. From all appearances, the guy and his company were clean. Nothing but the same minor customs fraud that everyone in the business got into; no drugs, no real smuggling, no signs of anything seriously criminal. And his private life was pretty much the same; clean, but not unnaturally so. Just what you’d expect from a basically honest, basically decent ordinary sap.
That left the idea that the Cavalier was paying him off. But the money involved in that case...well, it was frightening.
It troubled Jennings that he couldn’t figure it out, since he usually was very good at that. It was why old man Mayler had brought him on as a kid, paid his way through law school, and helped him set up his practice. The idea was that he would be the legal arm of the organization, as well as a diplomat in dealing with other syndicates. And he’d done very well in that capacity; his law firm was one of the most prestigious in California, and there was talk of him going to Congress in a few years. On the other side of things, he’d successfully negotiated with everyone from the Yakuza to the Cartels to the East Coast, and wall the while made quite a nice little nest for himself.
The Mayler Syndicate had been the work of a lifetime for the old man and was well established by this point. With people in the DA’s office and the Police Department, they were pretty well safe from prosecution, and a few more years at this rate would make them just about untouchable. Anyone who wanted to do business in the L.A. metropolitan area had to reckon with them….
Or so they’d thought. That’s when they’d started getting word of the man who called himself the Crimson Cavalier; a theatrical figure who suddenly seemed to have his hands in everything and who, by all accounts, terrified people even more than the Syndicate did.
So it was that Jennings had been tasked with setting up a meeting with this elusive mastermind, ostensibly to see if they two sides couldn’t do business together, but in truth to try to get a read on what kind of a man he was. After all, everyone had a weak-spot, if only you could figure them out.
The party were met at the front door of the mansion by a severe-looking manservant in a red uniform of the kind you saw in movies set back in the Victorian Days. Jennings had to exercise a lot of self-control to keep from laughing at the sight as the man asked for their card and retreated to inform his ‘master’ of who had just arrived. It struck him at once as theatrical, affected; like a giant pose.
Though there was nothing affected about the tough, heavily armed guards who stood by the door. Ex-Military for sure, and very tough hombres, he judged, despite their equally old-fashioned uniforms, which even included swords riding their hips in addition to their assault rifles.
The servant returned and bid them enter. The interior of the house impressed Jennings even more with the immense wealth on display; marble floors, famous paintings that must have each cost in the millions, friezes, antique furniture, money, money everywhere. In spite of his lifetime among those who had oceans of wealth pouring in from drugs, kickbacks, and other such businesses, Jennings was staggered by the sheer opulence before him. This was money on a scale even he hadn’t encountered.
They led him through into a front parlour, the sun streaming in on furniture and carpets that ought to have been in a museum. And seated in a magnificent armchair before a spectacularly designed marble fireplace was the Crimson Cavalier
He did not rise to greet them, but remained as he was, one hand resting on the top of an ebony cane with a silver head. Like his servants, he was dressed in a style more suited for the Europe of a century or two past, rather than the California of the 1980s: all in black and deep red, surmounted by a cloak of the richest crimson. A sword hung at his side, and he wore a wide-brimmed red hat topped with a white plume. Beneath this hat was a silvery mask in the abstract likeness of a skull and that bowed out over the mouth.
“Welcome, gentlemen, to my home,” he said in a low, rhythmical kind of voice, rich in timbre. “Please, sit down. Andre, some refreshments for our guests.”
Jennings and his two guards took their seats on the velvety sofa, which was a perfect balance of firmness and softness. He noted, as he did so, that the Cavalier was alone; no bodyguards. That meant either he was extremely trusting or perfectly confident that he didn’t need them. The fact that he had men with guns at his back while his opponent didn’t should have given Jennings confidence. Instead it was as though an ice cube had slid down into his stomach, and for the first time in many years he felt a little unsure of his own position.
This annoyed him, and he sought to compensate by an aggressive opening move.
“What’s with the mask?” he asked. “You know, when I negotiate with someone, I prefer to look them in the face.”
“Alas that we cannot always have our preferences in this world,” the Cavalier answered with a careless wave of his hand. “I do not reveal my face while conducting business. I find it is much the safest course.”
“That’s not a good start,” said Jennings. “Sounds like there isn’t much trust on either side.”
“And yet, good ends can be made from bad beginnings,” answered the Cavalier. “By those with the right will.”
The drinks were brought, and they were a match for everything else; nothing but the finest, that left you pleasantly elevated, but with a clear head. Jennings took care not to drink too much, and the Cavalier did not press them. His mask, they discovered, was so made that he could drink without removing it.
From there, the negotiations began in earnest. They started by discussing the most recent clashes between their forces, then moved on to their respective business holdings. The Cavalier, Jennings found, was remarkably well-informed. Indeed, much too well-informed about the Syndicate in general and his own firm in particular. This annoyed Jennings, but even more so it alarmed him. Evidently, the Cavalier held more cards than they had given him credit for. Worse still, he seemed to have no qualms about making this fact known. That meant he probably knew even more than he said. At the same time, he seemed to have a gift for giving very little away of his own people and holdings while nevertheless conveying something of their daunting immensity.
Where the hell did this guy come from? Jennings wondered.
“My people,” the Cavalier explained following one such allusion. “Are not employees or agents; they are servants and vassals. We are bound not by mere payment, but by debts of loyalty.”
Jennings knew what that was worth, and at last he thought he was seeing a chink in the armour. Just like the Cavalier hid his face behind a mask and a theatrical costume, so he disguised the real nature of his control through talk of personal loyalty and fanciful ideas of devotion. But the very stage that he chose to present this play gave the lie to his claims; with this amount of money involved, loyalty need not enter into it. Then perhaps, he thought, the show and the sense of power and wealth was what the man was really after. He smiled inside as he put the pieces together the uneasy feeling relaxed.
When they had talked for nearly an hour, they at last reached something like an understanding; the Cavalier expressed interest in an alliance with the Syndicate, and Jennings was now firmly convinced that such an alliance would be in their best interest, at least at present until they could discover more of the true nature of the Cavalier’s organization, and especially of his wealth. For once they could lay hold of exactly how rich he really was, they might be able to blow the gaff and show the world that the Crimson Cavalier was nothing but an ordinary man playing dress-up.
“There is one more thing,” the Cavalier said at the conclusion of their talk. “I have something for you, Mr. Jennings. A kind of good-will offering. If you will accompany me to the library.”
Jennings was perfectly willing, of course, and they rose and followed the Cavalier down yet another truly magnificent corridor to one of the wings of the house. Here, behind a set of double-doors, was a large, ornate room of many shelves, fine furniture, tables, and glorious paintings of classical subjects illuminated by sunlight spilling through vast windows. It was like a room out of some royal palace.
And as a jarring, discordant note of brutality, on one of the sofas there lay a young woman with chestnut-coloured hair, a woman who was dressed in smart, professional clothes and bound from head to foot in tight cords. As soon as they entered she flinched and began what could only be pleas for mercy that were rendered incomprehensible by the gag sealing her lips.
“Ah,” said the Cavalier in a low voice, pausing in the doorway. “I am deeply sorry you had to see this, gentlemen. It is an unpardonable mistake.”
He pressed a button by the door and a bell rang somewhere in the mansion.
“Hold on,” said Jennings as the girl fixed her desperate eyes on him and seemed to beg for help. “I know her. This is Miss Marsh, Julia Marsh; she works at my office!”
“Indeed,” said the Cavalier. “And in that capacity, she has been serving as a mole for the authorities for some time. Surely you knew that.”
Jennings could not disguise his surprise as he stared from the masked figure at his side to the frantic victim on the sofa.
“What do you mean? How do you know?”
The Cavalier cocked his head slightly to one side as he returned Jennings’ stare.
“It concerns me to find you so surprised,” he said. “I had the impression that your organization was better informed. But it is enough that I know. I have my own sources, as I’m sure you do as well. I should not have interfered in your internal affairs, of course, except that my source discovered that she knew of our meeting today. That, naturally, I could not allow, so I had my people collect her. We finished with her this morning.”
“Conversing with her, let us say.”
The tall servant entered.
“You rang, sir?”
“Yes,” said the Cavalier, a faintly dangerous note in his voice. “I am surprised at you, Andre. I see that you neglected to feed the alligators this morning. The poor beasts must be starving.”
Andre turned an unflinching eye on the bound girl, who had frozen with shock at her captor’s words and looked as though her brain were resisting understanding.
“I am truly sorry for the mistake, sir,” he said with a bow to his master. “I shall see to it immediately, and it shall not happen again.”
The girl began once more to struggle and to scream with redoubled force. Her hair flew as she frantically shook her head, futilely pleading in a last, despairing effort to save herself. But none of it had the least impact upon either the Crimson Cavalier or his servant, who strode implacably to the miserable captive, slung her over his shoulder with remarkable strength, and bore her from the room. Jennings found himself suddenly face-to-face with the girl’s tear-streaked visage as she was carried from the room. Then she was gone, her wails and sobs fading into the distance down the hall, until the double doors closed and silence resumed.
“Once again, please excuse this lapse in housekeeping,” said the Cavalier.
Jennings found he was breathing rather hard. Sure, he was used to violence, to people being dealt with, but he didn’t usually find himself this close to it. More than that, there was a callousness here that shocked him. He hadn’t, somehow, thought that this man, with his outrageous costume and fancy house was the kind to practice this sort of brutality, let alone treating it so...so simply.
The idea he had formed of the Cavalier as someone who was all bark and no bite suddenly didn’t seem so convincing.
“Is something troubling you?”
“Ah...no, no,” said Jennings. “You do what you have to do, right? I guess I just...I need to do some cleaning when I get back.”
“Yes,” said the Cavalier. “That, in fact, is the good-will offering I spoke of.”
He moved to the great claw-footed desk beside the window, unlocked it, and produced a thick folder full of papers.
“These are all the documents my people found in her apartment,” he said. “I’m sure you will find it useful in fixing your plumbing.”
Jennings took the folder and flipped through. As he did so, the shock faded and his insides blazed. These were his private, confidential documents!
How’d the little slut get at these? He wondered. Damn, now I’m glad she’s getting eaten!
Meanwhile that masked being in red stood beside the desk, watching him inscrutably.
“You will, of course, notice that it is unlikely Miss March could have gained access to these alone,” he commented. “That she must have had an accomplice, one with far greater access to your papers.”
Jennings looked up sharply.
“Of course,” he said, hastily trying to cover his alarm. “That struck me at once.”
His hands shook a little on the papers. He was not only angry, but beginning to be fearful. A different, more immediate kind of fear from what he had felt earlier All this had happened under his nose, and this outsider had discovered it. Had he been slipping? Getting complacent? Things would have to change when he got back, and change fast….
But first, he grasped at the one advantage he saw to try to regain some control over the negotiations.
“So,” he said, indicating the file. “This is how you know so much about us.”
The Cavalier merely cocked his head again, as though finding this conclusion both interesting and unexpected. Jennings inwardly cursed himself; why had he said that? It played right into the guy’s hand! Better to have let it pass and followed up on his own later.
“You gentlemen must take lunch with me,” the Cavalier said after a moment. “Let us break bread together in honour of our future arrangements. Though I must say, before anything can be finalized, I will expect you to clean up these unfortunate lapses.”
“Of course,” said Jennings, forcing himself to grin.
Lunch was served on the back veranda, where they could gaze out upon acres of the finest landscaping. The food was finely-cut chops, which must have been delicious, but neither Jennings nor his men had any appetite. For just beyond where they ate, and in full view of the table, lay the alligator pond. The great reptiles – at least three of them – were still crunching the last remains of their own lunch, whose shredded clothing floated in the red-stained water.
As if that weren’t enough, halfway through the meal a servant came out and began matter-of-factly fishing the bloody garments out with a long pole.
Watching this, Jennings concluded that it was not just money that held people bound to the Cavalier, nor was it personal loyalty, nor the theatrical show of his personality; it was fear. Here was a man, he thought, who would do absolutely anything to those who displeased him, without hesitation and without remorse, and who had the power and the reach to make it happen.
He wanted nothing more than to be out of his presence.
The Cavalier sent his guests on their way with much to think about, as he had intended. After bidding them farewell, he stood at the bannister of the veranda, looking down at his pets and tossing them the chops that his guests had left nearly untouched. A few minutes later, Andre joined him.
“They have gone, sir,” he said. “And looked quite glad to be going.
The Cavalier nodded, then leaving the alligators, he passed along the veranda until he came to an unobtrusive door that led into a small, comfortable room behind shaded blinds that cast the interior in shadow.
“I trust you are unhurt, Miss Marsh?”
The young brunette, now dressed in borrowed jeans and a tee-shirt, rose respectfully from where she had been waiting.
“No, sir,” she said, rubbing her slightly bruised wrists. “Nothing worth mentioning.”
“I would that we could have spared you that discomfort, but I must say you played your part admirably.”
She smiled and shrugged. “I did come out here hoping to be an actress. Guess that’s out of the cards now. And, if you don’t mind my asking, what did you feed them?”
“A pig,” said the Cavalier. “Andre wrapped it in your clothes after you had changed.”
“Your new identity and location have all been prepared,” he went on. “One of my vassals who lives in the area shall be by shortly to take you there. I have instructed him to watch over you, so please do not hesitate to go to him if you are ever in need.”
“I still don’t know how to thank you for this,” she said. “When I realized I couldn’t go to the police….”
“No thanks are necessary,” he said with a bow. “I am always glad to aid beauty in distress.”
She blushed and smiled, then looked suddenly serious.
“And what about Mr. Jennings and the Mayler Syndicate?” she asked. “Are they really going down?”
“You have done your part in that,” he said. “I have copies of the documents you recovered and they shall find their way to the right people. And if I judge aright, Mr. Jennings will soon be pouring coals upon his own head. As for the rest,” he laid a hand on his sword hilt. “You may leave them to me.”