To Play on Grass Fields
Chapter One—An Unlikely Beginning
Ryan Rafik Byrne mentally shoved a gag into the mouth of the pretentious ass whose ass he was simultaneously having to not necessarily kiss, but at least be attentive to until he could unload him onto someone with more patience.
“Ah Miranda, how good to see you,” he said with enthusiasm and as the perfect way to deflect the yammering of the idiot he wished to hand off.
The man whose year-round tan came from his perpetual vacationing in exclusive resorts and private villas smiled with a look Ryan knew Miranda had learned how to manipulate long ago. “I don’t think that I’ve had the pleasure.”
She recognized him of course and had no doubt insisted he be included on the guest list. She pitched her voice in the huskier tone that meant she hadn’t received a promise of a donation from him yet. “It is indeed a pleasure, Mr. Solsby. I’m Miranda Nalbert, but most people call me Randi.”
She was arguably the most effective fundraiser in the city and had not lost the poise she had developed during her modeling days. Ryan suspected the silky gold dress that left one shoulder bare was a residual benefit of that career. Her honey blonde hair was swept up this evening and at five-foot ten, her green eyes were staring directly into the brown ones of the youngest Solsby son who hadn’t the faintest idea of how the business empire that built his trust fund functioned.
Solsby was predictably reacting to the purred Randi, and Ryan made his escape with, “I’ll let you two get acquainted.”
He accepted a crab-topped canapé from a silver tray offered by a waiter dressed in requisite black trousers, crisply white shirt, and crimson bowtie. He scanned the room where islands of people chatted to the sound of a string quartet that was available when the symphony’s performance schedule allowed it. Large chandeliers cast light through glittering teardrop prisms onto older women favoring higher-necked gowns unless they were showing off the work of the trendiest cosmetic surgeon or their personal trainer.
At least he would be trapped only through the reception. In extracting Ryan’s agreement to fill in, his boss had solemnly promised to arrive for the dinner and auction. Local politicians, regional television personalities, retired athletes whose names could still bring a nod of acknowledgement, several academic heads he held in utter contempt, and a slice of Fortune 100 executives kept the conversations flowing. Some of them were waiting to meet the celebrity draw who was shooting part of his latest action thriller in and around Baltimore Harbor. He had yet to make an appearance with his entourage. The influential individuals who were immune to Hollywood’s appeal were striking or at least probing for deals that were in constant motion in such settings.
“Ryan, I’m surprised to see you. Shall I assume you, too, are ensnared by obligation?”
Ryan knew the voice and turned slightly to his left, to see Professor Isaac Steinmetz with his right hand outstretched. A tumbler of what would be vodka tonic was in his left hand. He, whether through preference or his droll sense of humor, generally wore a tweed jacket with patch elbows over gray or black slacks, a V-neck sweater added during winter months. The tuxedo he was outfitted in for tonight wasn’t new and looked well-worn. His blunt fingers were tobacco stained, his grip still firm for a man who’d spent five decades within academic halls, content to remain lower in the hierarchy without the ambition of many of his peers. Tenured and not vying for a dean’s position had served to mostly insulate him from the intrigue of campus politics.
Ryan smiled as he usually did in Isaac’s presence. “Antwone is supposed to rescue me shortly. I don’t suppose you’ll be so lucky?”
The pudgy, balding man who barely reached Ryan’s shoulders gestured to the doors leading to the banquet room. “Esther is in the midst of an admiring cluster, as she should be, and has no intention of us leaving before she has charmed at least three new donors. These are after all, the compromises of which a good marriage is made.”
“Is that a historical quote?”
“Depends on how you count my father,” the professor said. “He certainly lived through a lot of history. Speaking of fathers, how are your parents?”
“They’re good,” Ryan said, catching the eye of the waiter with the tray of beef Carpaccio on toast points. He’d had one earlier and the thin topping of pickled onions had the right balance of acid and natural sweetness with a cracked pepper that had a smoky taste. “In fact, Dad is better than good on the professional side. You know Annabelle Rively passed away a few months ago?”
Isaac nodded as he took two of the savory tidbits, popped one in his mouth and chewed in appreciation. “Yes, God rest her soul. She lived a long and mostly happy life. She left books for your father? I would imagine that didn’t please Peter, Junior.”
Ryan grinned at the version of the conversation his father had told him about. “It would have been easier if he hadn’t had them appraised. Most weren’t valuable from a dollar amount, but Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity and the Lewis and Clark History of the Expedition Under the Command had him squirming.”
“Those are much too modern for me as you know, but I can understand your father’s pleasure in them. In the realm of children not taking after their parents, Annabelle once told me that if personality was inherited, Peter, Junior’s came from his great-grandfather who I gather was a rigid Calvinist. Said she couldn’t recall having ever seen her grandfather smile. In the limited encounters I’ve had with young Peter, the description of him as jovial never came to mind.” Isaac gestured toward the bar. “I still have hopes Esther will one day accede to my wish list of a copy of Livius of Padua’s The Romane Historie. In the meantime though, I would be satisfied with another vodka tonic and more of those stuffed mushrooms if we can find them.”
With both goals accomplished the men enjoyed another few minutes of conversation before a signal from Esther reminded Isaac of his husbandly duties. He reluctantly said goodnight with a tentative agreement to meet for coffee the next week.
Ryan, stepping away from the bar to see if perhaps Antwone had slipped in with the wave of new arrivals, swerved too close to a quartet he would have otherwise avoided.
“Why Dr. Byrne, I don’t remember the last time we spoke,” Hillary Keary said in the nasal voice that was the least irritating aspect of her. “Do come say hello.”
“Certainly do,” her husband said. “Niles and I were just having a friendly argument and your opinion on the subject would be welcome.”
“I’m not entirely sure that’s true,” Ryan said evenly, grateful everyone’s full hands allowed for only nodding. Stephen (don’t even think of calling him Steve) rarely welcomed any opinion beyond his own. And while he and Niles Ramford might be debating syntax, there was little probability their views on anything differed significantly.
Stephen Keary laughed without real humor, his blue eyes faintly challenging Ryan as had been his habit during their brief professional overlap. At a full six feet tall, Ryan had an inch on him, although Stephen’s more narrow shoulders were clad in a far more expensive tailored tuxedo. With his finely chiseled features, he looked the part of the privileged life that led him to view much of the country’s population as lesser mortals.
Niles, a little shorter, a carefully trimmed beard compensating for his weak chin, raised his glass in acknowledgment. “This isn’t really a political issue, more philosophical in nature.” Light glinted from his gold wire rimmed glasses as he tilted his head toward his wife, Bettina, whose vacant smile indicated she might be aware the men were mocking whatever she had said. “Evil as a label has become essentially archaic, don’t you think?”
“With regard as to how useful the term is in today’s language, inappropriately judgmental is my choice of term rather than archaic,” Stephen said, unable to keep condescension from his tone. “In either case, it’s one of those words we should dispense with if we intend to move forward in understanding other cultures or people rather than attaching labels counterproductive to meaningful dialogue.”
“Perhaps your lack of understanding of the application of the term evil is because you’ve never watched the expression on men’s faces as they hack people to death with machetes.”
Bettina’s brown eyes grew wide as Hillary frowned. “Excuse me,” she managed.
No one had heard the man approach to Ryan’s left, his face neutral, followed by a shallow bow to the women. “My apologies for interrupting, especially if my comment disturbed you, but I would like to borrow Dr. Byrne if I may.”
He lightly grasped Ryan’s elbow and led him from the stunned group that would no doubt recover with a collective shake of their heads and the muttered question of, “Who the hell was that?”
“Shall I also apologize to you, Dr. Byrne?”
“How about an explanation instead?”
The man, a head shorter, had steered them to a relatively quiet space. He had no food or drink and amusement flickered in his dark eyes as he extended his hand. “I am Uladi Kalinde and to answer the next question, no we have never met. I am here, however, for the sole purpose of hoping to entice you away to speak with King Rubadana of Malathos, the man whom I serve.”
Ryan knew he hadn’t misunderstood and the man’s full lips stretched into a wide smile. He dropped his hand to his side, his voice still low. “I do apologize for such an unconventional introduction, but I can assure you if you agree to meet with us after your engagement here, it will be worth your while. Our trip to this country is very brief and that is why I have sought you out with this urgency.”
Ryan couldn’t place his accent and as his mind spun through questions, his cell phone buzzed with an incoming text. “Excuse me,” he said, holding up one finger as he took the phone from his inside pocket. Five minutes out. “I am predictably intrigued and in fact, my obligation here will end in approximately ten minutes.”
“There will be driver with a limousine downstairs for you and we are in Suite 1240,” Mr. Kalinde said with a deeper bow. “I thank you on behalf of the King and I am certain you will find the coming discussion to be most enlightening.”
With that, he turned and walked briskly away without looking back. Ryan emptied his glass wondering what the hell this could possibly be about. He began to skirt the crowd as he made his way toward the front doors, mentally searching for what he knew of the country of Malathos and keeping an eye out for Antwone. Of all the things he’d expected from the evening, this odd request was definitely not anything he had anticipated.
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