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10

OF ALL HIS CLIENTS, Flip Morriscone thought Monroe Hall was by far the one he hated the most. Oh, he hated them all, of course, flabby flatulent creatures, no self-discipline at all, expecting him to sweat for them, expecting his magic hour once a day or even once a week would make up for all the rest of their self-indulgent lives.

But of them all, Monroe Hall was the worst. Big self-involved baby, just too precious for words. And look at the security around La Manse Monroeas though a movie star lived there, at the very least. But who would want to get close to Monroe Hall? As far as Flip was concerned, people would pay good money to stay away from the man. But no. So here we go again.

Flip drove his forest green Subaru Forester along the county road in the afternoon spring sunshine, perfectly on time for his three oclock with Horrible Hall, turned in at the entrance and stopped before the iron bar, as he did three times a week, next to the guardshack.

And as also happened three times a week, every week, thirty-some weeks and counting, the sullen-faced guard came out, pretended hed never seen Flip before in his life, checked his name off on the clipboard he carried like a tiny shield, and demanded identification. At one point, seven or eight weeks into the relationship, Flip had tried jollity, saying, Surely you remember me? From two days ago? But the expressionless guard had merely said, Gotta see ID before you come in. So since then Flip had merely flipped the Neanderthal a quick close-up of his drivers license, and thus gained entry.

Well, it wasnt quite that easy. First the clipboard, then the identification, then the call to the Master to confirm that yes, Flip Morriscone did have his usual appointment with the Big Cheese, all done with great solemnity, the required ritual, like a religious event or something.

But then at last, also as usual, the guard raised the metal boom and Flip could zip on in and up the long two-lane blacktop to the Big House, which is the way he thought of the sprawling white mansion that dominated the view within the compound. Drive up, follow the right fork of the blacktop to the parking area beside the house, then grab his long canvas bag from the back and carry it around to the front door. Heavy bag it was, flipped onto Flips shoulder, the knuckles of his right hand as he gripped the two cloth handles resting on his trapezius, flexing both the pecs and the ceps.

The first two weeks hed had this client, thered been an angry man waiting for him at the front of the house, dressed in a uniform something like a United Parcel deliveryperson, to take the Forester from Flip and park it, but the third week United Parcel was gone and instead the butler called to him from the open front door, Park it around the side there, thats a good fellow.

Good fellow. Hed lasted only a couple more months himself, the butler, and now it was Monroe Hall who opened the front door of the Big House to Flip three times a week. Staff seemed to be thinning out around the Big House.

Could Hall be getting a bit light in the coffers? It seemed unlikely, with evidence of the mans wealth everywhere you looked (though in Flips experience that could be misleading, too), but in any case Flip was always paid promptly. And in cash, as well; no point getting the IRS mixed up in the transaction.

Once again, Hall himself stood in the open doorway, beaming out at him. How ridiculously happy the clients were to see him, as though he could possibly effect any real change at all in their lap-of-luxury lives. They all wanted to look like him, is what it was, so when they smiled him a greeting they were actually saying hello to the fantasy selves in their own minds.

The reality was considerably worse. Hall, for instance, was a moderately large man, probably a welterweight in his youth, now covered with flab like a duck waiting to be roasted. To make matters worse, every time he had a session with Flip, Hall wore yet another of his matching sets of sweats; todays were electric blue, with gold stripes up the arms and legs. Why he so wanted to look like a New Jersey mobster Flip would never understand.

Good afternoon, Mr. Hall, he called breezily, as he came up the walk.

A beautiful afternoon, Flip, Hall told him, beaming all over his fat face. A pity to be indoors.

Oh, but its time to work.

I know, I know.

Hall closed the door, his smile turning sad, then immediately happy again. One of these days, Flip, he said, you and I must go riding. Great exercise. In the great outdoors.

They were walking toward, then up, the broad central staircase. Flip said, Riding? Riding what, Mr. Hall?

Horses, of course! Hall beamed like a man whod just ridden a horse all the way from Monument Valley.

Really? Surprised (he didnt like the clients to surprise him), Flip said, I didnt know you rode horses, Mr. Hall.

Im learning, Hall said. As they reached the second floor and moved down the wide corridor, he gestured vaguely off to the right. Got a couple sweet-dispositioned mares in a stable over there, he said. Fixed up one of the barns for them.

Flip stood aside to let Hall precede him into the gym, as somewhere a cuckoo said, Cuckoo, thrice. That ones late, Flip said, and followed Hall through the doorway.

The petulance that was never gone from Halls face for long came storming back. Something else I cant get fixed, he said, as Flip put on the table his bag, filled with towels, liniments, small weights. Youd think people would want to fix things. Even sent it over with one of the guards, in mufti, claim it was his clock, but they knew. Recognized it, knew it was mine. He made a disgusted sweeping gesture. So it runs slow, thats all. Runs slow.

But we dont, Mr. Hall, Flip reminded him, and waved at the side-by-side treadmills. Shall we start with a little jog?

I suppose we must, Hall said, with the self-pitying sigh Flip knew all too well.

Be right with you, Flip said, and stripped down to his running shorts and tee.

Ive been meaning to ask you about that, Flip, Hall said, hanging back as Flip moved toward the treadmill.

Ask me about what? No stalling now, Mr. Hall.

Oh, no, certainly not. Hall approached, but did not get on, the machine. I was taking riding lessons, he said. But that fellow isntHe wont do it any more. I wondered, by any chance, do you know anybody who teaches riding?

Gee, I dont, Mr. Hall, Flip said. Most of my friends are human.

Hall made a little laugh, more a whinny, as though he were becoming a horse himself. Just a thought, he said.

Come on, Mr. Hall, step up here. Lets go for our jog.

So they did, bouncing along side by side among all the equipment. Halls gym was as complete as most professional spas, with the treadmill and Nautilus machines and barbells and anything your little jocks heart could desire. The machines were all several years old, though, and when Flip had first seen them they hadnt shown the slightest indication of any actual use. They were simply another of Halls endless collections, and why all of a sudden hed decided to use the health equipment, Flip neither knew nor cared. It was a job, thats all. The equipment was good, and he doubted it was ever used except when he was on the premises.

Hall could never do more than ten minutes on the treadmill, even with the dial set at barely more than a brisk walking pace. During that time, Flip observed himself in the mirror and, to a lesser extent, observed the client.

None of the clients wanted a mirror, but Flip insisted on it. You have to watch yourself, hed tell them. You have to see the progress youre making. You have to figure out where you need more work.

All of which was true, but Flip had other reasons as well, which he saw no reason to mention. For one thing, it was punishment to make the slobs view their own hopeless efforts, punishment they richly deserved. And for another, it gave Flip the opportunity to watch himself.

Flip Morriscone would rather watch himself than anyone else on the planet, man or woman, and that was because he was in the absolute peak of physical condition; rockhard abs, rockhard butt, legs like a centaurs, neck like a plinth. On the treadmill, on the machines, anywhere, what he was really doing was not training the slobs. What he was really doing was watching himself, and getting paid for it. (In his dreams, he often walked beside himself, holding hands.)

After the jog, with Hall gasping and weaving, Flip gave a period on the leglift machine, so Hall would have a little opportunity to sit. While he groaned over the strain of lifting those weights, just from the knees down, his face streaming, sweats already living up to their name, Hall said, Flip, this is horribly hard work, but do you know, I look forward to it?

Well, sure you do, Mr. Hall. It makes you feel better.

It makes me feel much worse, Flip. Hall emitted another groan, then managed a ghastly smile as he said, Do you know what does make me feel better, Flip?

Whats that, Mr. Hall?

You being here.

Thats what Im talking about, Mr. Hall.

No, not this torture, Flip. You being here. You.

Good God, Flip thought, is he throwing a pass at me? That did happen from time to time (why not, with such perfection as his?), and it was repulsive in the extreme, and usually ended with Flip saying farewell to that client, walking out on the you must have misunderstood malarkey. Was another client about to self-destruct?

I dont follow you, Mr. Hall, Flip said, watching Halls eyes like a panther watching a deer.

Ive learned over the years, Flip, Hall said, that friendship is a sometime thing. People I thought wereWell, doesnt matter. I know weve become good friends over the last few months, Flip, and I just want you to know I value that. Im glad were pals.

Pals, pronounced as though just learned from a foreign language. Flip smiled large in relief; it wasnt a pass after all. Of course were pals, Mr. Hall, he told the client.


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