(Welcome to week 12 of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-11, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Twelve. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, fireworks.)
The curtains in Meghan McKenzie’s apartment are dark and drawn, windows clamped shut to muffle any outside noise. There are no clocks on the walls. There are no flowers in the hall. The entire place feels like a fortress of solitude, fit for a bartender.
The bartender, it would seem, has been up for quite some time.
I can smell a pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen; can hear the sizzle and pop of bacon on the range.
My head is pulsing. My body shudders at the thought of sudden movement. My left eye is open. My right eye is closed. My legs are dangling like the tail-end of a trenchcoat over the arm of the couch. I am still wearing the same clothes from the night before – blue blazer draped over my shoulders, afghan-style.
Meghan McKenzie wanders into the living room, wearing a terry cloth bathrobe with the word “HILTON” stenciled on it in tiny blue letters. She is balancing two plates and a pair of coffee mugs. She sets the plates down on a nearby end table, then hands me a mug; runs back to grab utsensils.
I am sitting upright by the time Meghan returns, blue blazer still wrapped around my shoulders.
“Morning, Sunshine,” she says, leaning down to kiss me on the forehead.
“Mmmmm,” I say, offering a slight nod.
“How do you feel?” Meghan asks, apparently no worse for wear.
“Me?” I say. “I feel like an elephant used my head for a trampoline last night.
How ’bout you?”
“I feel pretty good, actually,” Meghan says. “Woke up around 11, drank some Gatorade, took some B-12. Then went back to sleep in my bedroom for an hour or two. I thought about asking you to come back and join me, but you looked so comforta …”
“Whoa,” I say, once the words begin to register. “What time is it?”
“It’s quarter of four,” Meghan says, chewing on a strip of bacon. “No worries, though. I don’t have to work until six tonight.”
My anxiety level is rising in direct proportion to my hangover.
As the veil of drunkenness slowly lifts, I find myself increasingly angry
with the whole Nathaniel-Laura situation, to the extent that I can barely focus
on anything Meghan McKenzie is saying.
I’m intimidated by the prospect of confronting Nathaniel Hawthorne head-on, especially given the fact I’m not at my best. Yet I realize this is a situation that requires swift and immediate action, which is why I’m digging through my wallet right now, trying to find the business card Nathaniel scribbled my finances on during our initial meeting at Bayou Billy’s.
I plan on going directly to Nathaniel’s office to discuss the situation face to face. I have no intention of calling ahead to schedule an appointment.
Nathaniel Hawthorne can consider me a walk-in.
I’m pretty sure I’ve earned it.
It is 20 of six at night by the time Meghan McKenzie and I leave her apartment.
Meghan places her head on my shoulder during the cab ride. She pulls my hand close, gently kissing my knuckles. She tells me to relax. She reminds me to keep my emotions in check when I meet with Nathaniel. She asks me if I need to rush back to Philadelphia tonight.
I tell her no, I do not need to rush back to Philadelphia tonight.
She hands me the keys to her apartment; tells me to head back there and make myself at home, once I’m done uptown.
“You better be awake when I get done,” Meghan says, as she’s hopping out of the cab. “We still have a lot of catching up to do. Oh, and pick up a couple of six packs if you can. I’ll see if I can grab some leftovers from Katz.”
Before I have a chance to say good bye, Meghan McKenzie slams the cab door shut and skips across three puddles in the rain. Then she disappears inside the Mercury Lounge.
“Where to, sir?” the cabdriver asks.
“Oh, right,” I say, still staring out into the rain. “Sorry … 135 E. 57th Street.”
There is an open-air gazebo in the courtyard out front of the building where Nathaniel Hawthorne’s office is located. This particular gazebo is made of polished marble, with 20-foot columns flanking each side. On top of these columns rests an open-air lens, an equal 20 feet in diameter. Looking up through this lens from ground level provides the same type of sensation a rat must feel when peering up through a manhole. It effectively shuts out the rest of the skyline, providing a stunning, 90-degree view of the sickle-shaped skyscraper behind it. The effect is such that it looks as if the entire structure is either climbing high into heaven, or sliding deep into hell.
Watching the rain cascade in thin sheets against the building’s facade, I am reminded of the penultimate chapter of Subhuman: Volume One. This is the chapter in which Subhuman finally tracks The Preacher back to his lair, located on the 10th floor of a boarded-up hotel called the Divine.
In the book, there’s a crucial moment when Subhuman lays eyes upon the Divine for the first time. He is underground at this point, peering up through an exposed manhole – thunder clapping all around him, a fine mist causing steam to rise from the streets.
That moment represented a quintessential dilemma for Subhuman: Was one man actually capable of turning back the tide? Was this crusade really worth risking his life over? Was death awaiting him on the 10th floor of the Divine Hotel?
These were the questions I wanted readers to be asking themselves as
Subhuman emerged from the sewers, prepared to do battle with his nemesis.
These were the questions I was asking myself as I stood outside a sickle-shaped skyscraper at the corner of 57th and Lexington.
The Divine Hotel was, of course, based upon the real-life Divine Lorraine Hotel – a 19th century high-rise located on the corner of Broad and Fairmount in North Philadelphia. I chose the building because of its ominous appearance. The Lorraine, as it was originally called, was designed as an elite Victorian apartment complex way back in the 1890s.
In 1948, the building was sold to Father Major Jealous Divine, founder of the Universal Peace Mission – a fringe religious sect that embraced conservative values. Father Divine renamed the hotel the Divine Lorraine, and eventually transformed it into Philadelphia’s first racially integrated boarding house. The building is currently abandoned, but remains intact, thanks in large part to its designation as a historic landmark.
In 2006, a local developer named Michael Treacy bought the Divine Lorraine in the hopes of converting the building into a high-end condominium complex. The structure itself, however, was in no mood to cooperate, and – as such – neither was the Department of Licenses and Inspection.
Now Michael Treacy has what you might call a Divine problem on his hands.
God help Michael Treacy.
God help the Divine.
The first-floor lobby of 135 E. 57th Street looks like the erstwhile gateway to Eden.
Both ends of the reception area boast colossal French murals comparing New York City to the ancient empires of Rome and Egypt. Marble sculptures line the walls – Achilles, Aphrodite, Augustus, Cleopatra. There is a pervading sense that I am standing in the very place where god and man became one … a modern-day Acropolis, if you will.
And then, just as quickly, the illusion is shattered.
“You need to sign in,” a pudgy black man behind the front desk says, pushing an open binder toward me.
I follow his instructions, hesitating for a moment when I reach the column labeled “Floor/Suite.” It dawns on me I have no earthly idea which floor Nathaniel Hawthorne’s office is located on. His business card doesn’t include any floor or suite number, and the directory posted on the wall doesn’t offer any leads.
“I’m looking for Nathaniel Hawthorne,” I say, holding up the business card.
“Last elevator on the right,” the pudgy black man says without looking up.
To the left of the reception desk is a narrow hallway, along which nine elevators are arranged in silo formation.
“Which floor is his office on?” I ask.
“Whose office?” the man asks, still looking down at his lap.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s,” I say.
“Only one floor that elevator goes to,” the man says, leaning forward to read my entry in the binder.
“Is there a suite number?” I ask, pen still in hand.
“Only one door on the one floor that elevator goes to,” the man says. “You’d have be a damned fool to miss it.”
“Got it,” I say, placing the pen back on his desk. “Thanks for your help.”
“You see that Hawthorne, you tell him he can to go straight to hell, y’hear?” the man calls after me, as I continue down the hallway.
“I fully intend to,” I call back. “I fully intend to.”
When I press the button for the last elevator on the right, the doors pop open immediately.
The fact that the elevator is waiting at ground level makes me wonder whether Nathaniel may have already left for the day, or whether he even bothered to show up for work in the first place.
He could be back at the penthouse, diddling my soon-to-be ex-wife on the same Persian rug where he and I used to play roughhouse. This is one of several images that runs through my mind as the elevator doors seal shut, and I feel the slight tug of inertia pulling me down.
The elevator doors open to reveal a dimly-lit hallway – 10 feet long, five feet wide.
Sure enough, there is only one door at the end of the hall.
I walk toward the door, passing a bucket full of stagnant water along the way.
The air smells sour. Bundles of wire hang down from an exposed ceiling fixture in the center of the walkway.
There is no window on the door, just a paper-thin placard with the word “HAWTHORNE” stenciled on it in big block letters. I knock on the door at the same time I am attempting to open it. I feel the doorknob jam almost immediately.
I pull back. I push forward.
“Hold on, hold on,” I hear Nathaniel Hawthorne say from somewhere on the
other side of the wall.
This is followed by several seconds of fumbling, after which the door opens slightly. Standing there – with one hand resting on the doorknob and the other holding the butt end of a steel folding chair – is Nathaniel.
“We have a meeting today?” Nathaniel asks, his hand still resting on the doorknob.
“No, no,” I say. “We sure don’t. But I happened to be in town on business and I was hoping maybe the two of us could sit down and discuss a few things.”
“OK,” Nathaniel says. “Just give me a second, and I’ll step out into the hallwa …”
“I was hoping we could talk inside of your office, actually,” I say. “This involves a personal matter.”
“Look around, kid,” Nathaniel says, poking his head out into the corridor. “Ain’t nobody besides you and I been down here since the Clinton Administration.”
“All the same,” I say, motioning toward the office. “I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we could just talk inside. You can double bill me for the time, if you like.”
“Have it your way,” Nathaniel says, leaning the folding chair up against a bookshelf. “I gotta warn you, though, the place is a bit of a pigsty. I wasn’t really expecting any company this afternoon, know what I mean?”
I do know what he means.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s office is wide and spacious, the walls lined with countless crates of paperwork, stacked ceiling-high. Toward the rear wall is a cherrywood desk, plagued with dust and coffee rings. Behind the desk hang various degrees and awards, each of them framed. On the far right side of the wall, partially obscured by a filing cabinet, is a 3-foot-by-2-foot poster of Ronald Reagan’s head superimposed on Sylvester Stallone’s body. Reagan is carrying a fully-loaded M-16, a nine-yard magazine of bullets draped across his chest in an X formation. The word “RONBO” is written in red, white and blue striped letters across the bottom of the poster.
The wall to my immediate left is covered with rows of sun-drenched photographs, each one featuring Nathaniel with a different New York luminary – George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, Steve Rubell, Joan Rivers, Larry King, John McEnroe, Leona Helmsley, Dennis Miller, Bill Parcells … the list goes on and on.
There are no family photos hanging on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s office wall.
There are no windows ventilating his office.
The steel chair Nathaniel was using to prop the door shut is the only piece of
furniture in the room, save for a brown leather bucket seat, located directly behind his desk.
“So this is where you have high tea with the good lord himself?” I say, looking about the place.
“This is where I come when I’m trying to get some work done,” Nathaniel says, as he plunges ass-first into the bucket seat. “I mean, who the fuck would think to come looking for me down here … except for you, of course?”
“Well, you oughta talk to your man at the front desk,” I say, pulling the steel folding chair toward me. “He’s under the impression this is your only office in the building.”
“You mean James?” Nathaniel says, lighting a cigar.
“I mean the shiny-headed guy sitting at the front desk,” I say. “I didn’t catch
“James,” Nathaniel says, confirming his own suspicion. “Let me tell you a little something about James – that boy don’t know his dickhole from a donut. The reason he doesn’t know what floor my real office is on is because I don’t want him to know what floor my real office is on. Christ, if that yahoo knew what floor my real office was on, I’d have every halfwit from here to Helsinki lining up outside my door.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to keep people from finding you,” I say.
“Don’t have much of a choice,” Nathaniel says, puffing on his cigar. “If I gave ample time to every would-be client who showed up on my doorstep, I’d never get a goddamned thing done. But seeing as how you managed to find me hiding out here in my basement bunker at 6:30 PM on a week night, what exactly is it I can do for you, Mr. Lee?”
“Just wondering how things are going with my settlement,” I say, searching Nathaniel’s face for any trace of recognition. “I know you encouraged me to let you handle it. But I haven’t seen much in the way of progress over the past few weeks, and yet you continue to bill me, so I was hoping the two of us could sit down and discuss where things stand and when I might be able to expect some type of resolution.”
“These things take time,” Nathaniel says, settling deep into his chair. “I can tell you with some degree of certainty that the way things are playing out, it looks like I’m in a position to get you everything you asked for … perhaps even more.”
“Great. When?” I say, flatly.
“As soon as I can push this damn thing through,” Nathaniel says, blowing smoke rings in mid-air.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
“Oh, y’know,” Nathaniel says, cigar smoke now hanging in elastic rhythms throughout the room, “It’s that goddamned Arnie Fischel.”
“Arnie Fischel?” I say.
“Arnie fucking Fischel,” Nathaniel says, as if the two of us are riffing on his name.
“How so?” I ask.
“Simple,” Nathaniel says, staring up at the ceiling. “He just keeps on dragging his feet, trying to gum up the process long enough to maximize his end … Don’t ever go into divorce law, kid. There’s some shameless shit going on out there. Some shameless shit, believe you me.”
“And what about Laura?” I say.
“What about her?” Nathaniel asks.
“Have you been dealing directly with Arnie Fischel this whole time, or have you been dealing with Laura as well?” I ask.
“A little bit of both,” Nathaniel says, leaning forward in his chair, placing his cigar on the edge of a rosewood ashtray. “Depends on the situation … Is this really what you came all the way over here to talk to me about, kid? Because it seems like I provide a pretty thorough breakdown of every hour I bill you for.”
“And how many hours will you be billing me for last night?” I ask.
“Last night?” Nathaniel says, seemingly unfazed. “Last night I went to some black-tie cocktail thing downtown.”
“Some black-tie cocktail thing?” I say.
“That’s right,” Nathaniel says, impatiently, “some black-tie cocktail thing. You mind telling me where the hell you’re headed with all this?”
“Did you take a date?” I ask.
Suddenly, it feels like all of the air has been sucked out of the room. Nathaniel’s brow turns deep with anguish. He folds his hands on the desk, knuckles clamped. For a moment, I understand exactly what Arnie Fischel – or any other lawyer, for that matter – must have felt, sitting directly across from Nathaniel Hawthorne, with every reason to believe he might very well reach across the table and rip their fucking throat out, assuming he was so inclined.
“If you’ve got a point,” Nathaniel says, slow and certain, eyes burning straight through me, “you sure as hell better make it.”
“I think you know what my point is,” I say.
“I’m a lawyer,” Nathaniel says, nostrils flaring. “I don’t assume shit unless I can prove it. So I suggest you either tell me what the fuck it is you’re getting at, or do an about face and march straight the fuck out of my office, same way you came.”
“JESUS CHRIST!” I say, unable to contain myself any longer. “Why does everything have to be this goddamned song and dance with you? I was there … Last night … Out front of your apartment … I saw you … WITH LAURA!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Nathaniel says, leaning back in his chair, relighting his cigar. “Is that what this is all about?”
“YES,” I say, as insulted by the question as I am by his nonchalance. “That’s exactly what this is all about. You want to tell me what the fuck my soon-to-be-ex-wife was doing with you at some black-tie cocktail thing downtown last night?”
“Look kid, I told you a long time ago, before I even agreed to take this thing on,” Nathaniel says, calmly, “if you wanted me to represent you, you’d need to remain 100% emotionally detached throughout the proceedings. Do you remember me saying that?”
“Are you fucking her?” I say, no longer interested in Nathaniel’s two-timing bullshit.
“WHOA,” Nathaniel says, raising his voice. “Easy, tiger. I’d be care …”
“ARE YOU FUCKING HER?” I say, slamming my fist down hard on Nathaniel’s desk.
“What fucking difference does it make if I am or not, so long as you get what you want?” Nathaniel says, as he rises to his feet, knocking the brown leather bucket seat against the back wall with the force of his thighs. “I’m doing my goddamned job. That’s all you need to know. If I fuck up and blow the settlement, you can come back and bitch all you want. Until then, you mind your business and I’ll mind mine. Are we straight?”
“You don’t think fucking your client’s soon-to-be-ex-wife represents a severe conflict of interest?” I ask.
“FUCK NO!,” Nathaniel says, meeting me eye-to-eye across the desk. “I think it represents a major goddamned tactical advantage, if you want my honest opinion.”
“What’s it represent in terms of integrity?” I say, refusing to back down.
“Did you just question my integrity?” Nathaniel asks, the white-knuckle barrel of his fist clenched tight at his side.
“Did you fuck my ex-wife?” I ask, now fully committed.
“WELL, OF COURSE I DID!” Nathaniel hollers back in a register so shrill and defiant it seems to rattle the walls. “And don’t you dare stand there in front of me and pretend for one fucking second that isn’t exactly what you expected me to do the entire goddamned time.”
“I don’t believe this,” I say, my voice now a quivering mix of aggravation and fear. “You’re out of your goddamned mind.”
“Am I?” Nathaniel says, making his way around the desk to stand toe to toe. “We both know the only reason you hired me was to get back at that dimwit son of mine, just as sure as we both knew that was the only reason I’d accept. You wanted someone who’d pursue this thing with a white-hot fucking vengeance and that’s exactly what you got. You got what you wanted. I got what I wanted. And now your stupid-ass ex-wife thinks she’s getting what she wanted. It’s a goddamn work of art is what it is. And yet, here you are, showing up on my doorstep unannounced like some whiny-ass fourth-grader, questioning my goddamned integrity? You can go fuck yourself, Bobby Lee. That’s what you can do. You can go fuck yourself, and then, if you’re so inclined, you can come back here on your goddamned knees and kiss my fucking ass.”
“You’re nothing but a con artist,” I say, the wind blown completely out of my sails.
“I’m a goddamned businessman,” Nathaniel says, defiantly. “At least I have the balls to be honest about it.”
“Honest?” I say, looking around the room, now completely enveloped in cigar smoke. “What’s so honest about hiding out in some basement bunker like Fox Mulder, pawning yourself off like you’re the Errol fucking Flynn of divorce lawyers?”
“That’s business, kid,” Nathaniel says, as if he’s letting down some post-grad job applicant. “The illusion IS the reality. You ever asked yourself whether you would’ve been so eager to hire me if you’d have known about this fallout shelter I call an office? You ever asked yourself whether Arnie fucking Fischel would’ve cowered in fear if he considered me a lonely old, washed-up piece of shit? You ever stopped to consider how a card-carrying member of the AARP could have possibly seduced that soon-to-be-ex-wife
of yours, had she not been 100% convinced he had a bankroll the size of Brazil?”
“So all that bullshit you toss around about your illustrious career and all the
high-profile cases,” I say, “it’s all just one long con meant to bilk your clients dry?”
“It wasn’t always that way, no,” Nathaniel says. “I worked my goddamned tail off way back in the seventies and eighties. I went entire fucking weeks without a lick of sleep. I kicked the shit out of every worthwhile divorce lawyer in town. But you can’t maintain that type of momentum forever, kid – especially when you’re racking up some major enemies along the way. I fucked up a few times … blew a few cases. Things got rough. But I hung in there and found a way to get back in the game … every fucking time, no matter what it took, I got … back … in … the … game.
“There’s a reason people like me rise to the top, kid. We were bred that way, so much so that we can’t even imagine what it would feel like to wake up one morning and find ourselves scraping rock bottom. It’s a whole lot easier to accept being a loser if you’ve never actually gotten a taste of what it feels like to win. You can believe me on that.”
“So it’s all just one big ball of bullshit, is that what you’re telling me?” I say.
“The whole goddamned world is one big ball of bullshit,” Nathaniel says, stamping out his cigar. “A million and one assholes – every single one of them just angling to get over. You don’t have to acknowledge it, kid. Just don’t stand there with that naive puss on your face, pretending you’re not every bit as guilty as the rest of us. I mean, Jesus Christ, you spent the last 12 years of your life drinking your way from one day to the next. Your whole fucking existence is a lie.”
“You’re nothing but a cut-rate hustler,” I say.
“I’m the wizard behind the goddamned curtain,” Nathaniel shoots back. “If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to find yourself another lawyer and be done with me. Just make sure you’ve considered all the consequences first. You see, kid, that’s the thing about being the goddamned wizard … As much as Dorothy might’ve resented that old bastard for holding out on her, in the end she knew he was the only one capable of getting her back to Kansas.”
“I think you might need to go back and watch that movie again,” I say, as I turn and walk toward the door.
“So that’s how you’re gonna carry it, huh?” Nathaniel says, an obvious sense of triumph in his voice. “You’re just gonna run away like a little bitch?”
“I want a final settlement agreement in my hands by the end of next week,” I say.
“I’ll have it for you by the end of business Thursday,” Nathaniel calls after me.
“And it better be fucking good,” I say, before rushing down the hallway into the elevator, same way I came.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Thirteen)