eye of the storm – chapter one

for the record

Chapter One 

Biloxi, Mississippi 

Rory Mathis was a Swiss Army knife, a whirligig of moving parts and an inveterate thrower of dice. He corkscrewed into the hard crust of the world and scooped out the earth’s warm heart. A blunt instrument, he was coarse by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It cost him to put a lid on it. Rory raged in the night, then filed his teeth, cleaned his nails and folded himself up into a well-tailored pocket square for the corporate board room. 

Rory liked to get away from his Aunt Mary Alice and her loyal spies at Berringer Software at the home office in Asheville, North Carolina and go to Biloxi as often as he could. He liked to hop a big bird and fly to Vegas, too, but Biloxi was best. He was a big fish in a small pond there, and they treated him like some minor potentate. Or at least they had until Boots Manero started getting on his case for overdue markers. So far, Boots had only rattled privately. The staff still had orders to comp him on everything, even the big suite. He needed to wrap up this Berringer mess to be sure the joy ride continued. 

Anytime Rory got the urge, it took him less than an hour to call the Beau Rivage, throw a bag into his big black 2008 Lincoln Town Car, and head for the coast. Lincoln stopped making Town Cars in 2008 and so he pampered and petted his and planned to keep it forever. He stored a brand new 2008 clone of this one with zero mileage in an air-conditioned garage. He figured the two of them would last the duration. 

It was just breaking dawn when he left Waynesville. He cruised nearly straight south, a nine-hour slide from the Smoky Mountains down through the urban core of Atlanta, the sprawl of Montgomery and Mobile, to Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

He liked having time alone on a long drive to figure out his next move in the game he called “shark chess.” The goal: remove any and all remaining obstacles that might keep him from owning every single share of Berringer Software. 

He arrived at 3:30 and was pleased to see that the twenty-nine story Beau Rivage was looking impeccable as ever. He slowed to take in the huge bubbling fountain surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed with trimmed boxwoods, cone-shaped evergreens and thousands of hot pink pansies. A state-of-the-art computerized slideshow marquee assured him that he had indeed arrived at one of the major temples of the Good Life. 

He didn’t care that just across the street there was a closed, rusting out gas station, the roof over the pumps hanging at a crazy angle, a souvenir courtesy of Hurricane Ivan nearly twenty years ago. Or that next to it was a derelict apartment building, windblown trash collecting along one wall, the windows boarded up and a crooked for sale sign out front. 

Literature for the Beau Rivage Casino and Hotel boasted that it was where the “spirit and excitement of the French Riviera blend with the traditional elegance and comfort of the American South.” 

My ass, Rory thought as he pulled in under the wide portico. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory got out of his car holding a slim attaché case.  “Do you have an envelope for me?” 

“Yes sir.” 

He took the envelope from the kid, gave him ten dollars and stepped toward the entrance. “Park it and bring my bags up right away.” 

“Yes sir, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory approached the lobby threshold. Enormous glass doors silently slid open as he approached. He felt a whoosh of refrigerated, nicotine-scented air. Off to the right, he saw a growing throng of people standing stoically at a bank of check-in counters. 

He chuckled, glad to have the key to a penthouse suite in the envelope in his hand. The waiting crowd looked like a bunch of refugees from Central Casting. Rory had seen some version of them all before: a group of pudgy, middle-aged nurses checking in for a convention and some guys in polo shirts he immediately typecast as “golfers.” One fellow wore a bright tropical shirt, straw hat, and clenched an unlit cigar in his mouth. His nose was red, bulbous, his eyes bleary. And there were elderly folks, lots of them, grimly leaning on walkers and listing heavily to one side as they lurched slowly forward. 

He never went into the faux opulent shops, but derived a certain satisfaction from the subliminal messaging they delivered. The glitz of Bally, DKNY, The Jewel Box and Tommy Bahama sibilantly whispered, “This can all be yours. Step right up, my friends, step right up.” 

Guests were invited to patronize a gourmet coffee shop where any adult could amend their morning coffee with a shot or two, or three, of whiskey. The bonhomie streamed out like molasses, laid on thick with a feel-good trowel. 

The hotel elevators seamlessly linked the shops and the beating, smoking heart that drew him in: the casino itself. Before going up to his room, Rory passed through a gauntlet of purple-jacketed security officers who expertly checked him out, and nodded him into the casino. The dark lighting and edgy mood was an intravenous drug straight into his bloodstream. 

Rory took a lung-filling breath. He inhaled heady aromas of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat, emitting the distinctive pheromones of fear, excitement, and desperation. He was at home in the cavernous chamber filled with electronic slot machines, a twenty-first century version of the old one-armed bandit. Women and men sat trance-like, a thick stack of dollar bills in one hand, cigarette or glass of booze in the other, grimly punching buttons. Their fluorescent casino pallor labeled them as regulars. 

The constant weird noise was standard background in casinos everywhere. It was famed at the top by piped-in oldies soft rock, and underpinned by bubbling up layers of electronic game sounds. Rory cut figure eights through the slots and game tables, picking up on the loser smell. Feels like I’m on the set of a Star Trek the Next Generation set, one where The Borg have gotten people into pods for assimilation. 

Everywhere he looked, someone was looking back. The observers were equipped with headsets, wireless microphones and at least two cell phone/radio devices hooked onto belts and nestled in the small of their back. Are we having fun yet? 

The hive-like humming sound and the overabundance of glassy-eyed, road-kill faded blondes and old people dragging portable oxygen tanks around eventually made Rory claustrophobic, eager for the cool, quiet, intense atmosphere of the private, high-stakes glass-in room set into the walls at a higher level than the electronic pit. 

It was early, though, and the games and players he was interested in wouldn’t be gathering until later in the evening. Besides, he had some work to do first. 

Rory left the casino and took an elevator to his penthouse suite to plan his next move. He walked to the first phone in the opulent suite and dialed room service. 

“Yes, Mr. Mathis?” The server’s unctuous tone was gratifying. 

“My usual.” 

“Yes sir. On its way. Will there be anything else this evening?” 

“No. That’s it.” 

“Yes sir.” 

Rory closed the heavy drapes that opened onto a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico and sat back in a black leather club chair in the dark room to think about his strategy and wait for room service. 

Shark chess is a three-dimensional game. As sharks go, Rory was mid-size. His man, Bo Perlis, was small, but fast and lethal. Boots Manero, enforcer for the mob, was a Great White. Missteps were costly. 

He ticked items off one by one on the four fingers of his left hand. One: Uncle Troy’s out of the picture. Two: Aunt Mary Alice is almost in my pocket and has one foot on a banana peel, the old bitch. Three: My pathetic niece, Claire. She’s on the edge and about to topple over. Four: her daughter, Grace. That one could be trouble, but Perlis is on it. 

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