The Symbiotic Club
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents
are either the product of the author's imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events
or locales is entirely coincidental.
This work contains adult themes and is not intended for children.
Chapter 17 - The Big Bluff
The summer of 1975 moved slowly in the small Georgia town. Freddy and his crew recruited and initiated one new member into the Circle of Stars. Seldom were there games upstairs. No word coming out of the D. A.'s office about any search of the Martin hunting cabin. Still, as slow as the summer passed, it was August before I knew it.
I went to the club as usual that Monday. As I entered the lounge, Kati was cleaning tables. As I looked at her, she looked angry, except she had teary eyes. I stopped as she walked toward me.
"Russ, Jim fired me."
"He said I'd been short changing the customers. He the same as accused me of pocketing quarters. I've never stolen anything in my life. If I was going to start, I'll be damned if it'd be piddling shit."
I shook my head in disbelief. Of all the negative traits I had associated with Kati, thievery was not among them. I was sure it was all a matter of misunderstanding.
She continued, "Why, just the other day, a member left his billfold on the bar. He was polluted. I could have taken all his money and pitched the billfold; he would have never known the diff, but I put it up for him and gave it to him the next day. I'm no thief!"
"I know you're not. Let me talk to some people and see what I can do. I'm sure it will all come out fine."
"You think so?"
I went to look for Clyde, but he wasn't in the club. I called his home.
"Did you know that Kati was going to be fired?"
"No! Golden fired her?"
"Do you know why?"
"I can tell you what she told me. He accused her of short changing the customers."
"Darn, Darn, Darn! Another controversy in the making! That is just what we need! I better check into it."
"Call me and let me know, would you?"
When Clyde called, he told me, "Jim said he had several complaints of Kati overcharging and short changing the customers."
"Did he take it upon himself to fire her?"
"He says not. He said that he got clearance from Freddy and, he assumed, the Executive Committee, but it was never discussed in committee. However, under his contract, he is responsible for hiring and firing bar workers."
"Is there anything that can be done to get her job back?"
"I don't think so. I'm not so sure that we want her back anyway, are you?"
"Personally, no. But, she's no thief and she has made friends with the players upstairs."
"Yes, but her coarseness alienated several drinkers downstairs, particularly the women, I take it. Our bar business has only now begun to return. Jim acted to placate the downstairs customers. He handled it badly, firing her just before school starts back, and for stealing, for heaven's sakes! He could have told her business didn't justify retaining her. He had no obligation to tell her anything, just that we didn't need her services anymore. But, now that the act has happened, all we can do is control the damage."
"Then, is it a matter of smoothing over the bad feelings upstairs."
"I guess that might be a consideration. The few gamblers who have stayed during these past two years aren't going to stop over this. The bottom line is they are not the power in the club. You'll note that Freddy, Henry and I are the only players who hold offices. They want to exert influence without doing anything of significance in the day to day work of managing the club. It just doesn't work that way. For years, Dale Chase did all the work, kept all the records, made sure that everything ran smoothly. Obviously, he gained power. He shaped events. Charles Lansburg, Richard Warren, and others gained power in the same way. Unfortunately it went to their heads. Anyway, the people who like Kati don't do anything but complain."
"Now, Clyde, you know that Buster Sampson helped to keep this place together after the ban."
"Perhaps. On the other hand, he probably started it. It is the type ruckus he likes to start."
"Ah, you're just upset that none of the players took a Position in the election."
"I could use the help. Henry and I could. O Henry! Hasn't he been a blessing as Secretary?"
"Yes, exactly, and that is exactly the type worker this place has to have."
"It has helped him, too. Given him something to think about besides Rose Ann and whether Drake's going to get that locket."
"You didn't tell him we found the locket, did you?"
"Of course, I told him. He has a right to know."
At its meeting that Thursday, the Executive Committee voted to support Jim in his decision to dismiss Kati although it disagreed with his method. Then, it voted to write Kati a letter of appreciation for the service she had provided to the club and to assure her that she would receive a positive recommendation from the Committee. Professor Miller was to write the letter in such a way as not to admit any wrong or apologize in any way for her dismissal.
Clyde showed me the letter. He did a marvelous job of complimenting her without suggesting any desire to rehire her or implying any improprieties in her release. However, he told me, "I voted against writing it. Our friend, Henry, seemed to think it would appease her, thought her primary concern was the recommendation. But, despite the most careful wording, the very existence of the letter can be viewed as an admission of wrong on our part." Still, the letter was signed by each of the Board members and sent to Kati.
Clyde was correct. In days of mailing the letter, he told me she had retained Tom Bruce to represent her interests in the matter. "He called Freddy demanding that we reinstate her, reimburse her for hours missed, and, as if that was not enough, guarantee her job for the next five years!"
"What made him think you'd have to go along with that?"
"He threatened a million dollar suit. He told Freddy that he had a case that would win in court. Bruce assured Freddy that he had best take the matter seriously. Bruce stressed he had never lost a trial and he surely did not plan to lose this one. He put the fear of the law suit into Freddy. We are having a special Executive meeting tonight to discuss it."
The next evening, I went to the Millers, as usual on Wednesdays, for dinner. After dinner, Clyde told Mary and me of the previous night's meeting. "Mr. Bruce did arouse some anxiety! When a lawyer of his standing tells you that he doesn't want to force you to pay his client one million dollars, you do have to take him seriously, but some of those guys seemed to cave in under the pressure. Someone wanted to buy out the five years of salary. Seems there is a little bargain hunter in all of us. They were speculating on the minimum she would accept. Fello wanted us to eat crow and put her back to work today."
"Sampson's influence," I said.
"Anyway, I told them we'd best not do anything until we consulted a lawyer. But, Murphy Harrison is out of town this whole month. I spoke to his junior partner on the phone. He dismissed the issue out of hand. 'You have the right to hire and fire whoever you want, whenever you want,'"
"But, the issue isn't labor laws! It's libel," Mary proclaimed.
"I tried to stress that fact, but he dismissed it out of hand. Said libel only applied to athletes, movie stars, entertainers, people who have had their careers damaged."
"Lawyers can have their careers damaged also. I'd think that stealing on her record might be the death blow to her career." Mary said.
The Professor nodded his head, "Exactly, that is why I remain concerned."
I said, "If I remember my press law, to be libel, an untrue statement must be made public intentionally in such a way as to cause harm to a private person."
Clyde listened intensely to my reflection. "Yes, there are four criteria which must be met. As Mary said, the damaged one may be the easiest to fulfill, and even if they can establish only a small actual damage, they then could ask for staggering punitive damages. That is what frightened the boys on the committee. They recalled a recent accident case where a local jury granted a million in punitive damages when the actual damages had been in the low thousands."
Mary said, "They still have to win the case."
"In my opinion, what was said was untrue," I said.
"Perhaps," offered Clyde, "but Golden says he has people willing to testify that it is true. Another weakness in their case seems to be the publicizing of the firing. I believe that Kati, herself, has been the only source of the information to the public. I cautioned Jim and all the Executive Committed not to discuss the case publicly."
I asked, "Well, is that where the committee left it?"
"Yes. They seemed satisfied with the lawyer's assurances."
The next night, Mary and I availed ourselves of the Miller's house while her parents were away. When we heard Clyde's car pull into the drive, we dressed quickly and were decent by the time he made it downstairs.
I asked him, "You're not playing cards tonight?"
"No one is playing cards tonight. All the action was during the meeting." I frowned and he clarified, "The membership chose sides for and against Kati. I thought we would have a fight before it was over. One member said she had safeguarded money he had left on the bar. Another said she had mischarged him for drinks 'on more than one occasion.' Another said he found that hard to believe because she had always bent over backwards to be honest. The other said, 'You calling me a liar?' That when I thought fists were going to fly there in the meeting room. Anyway, one brother made a compelling point: we have some obligation to accept the word of our brothers before that of the hired help, at least officially. The other thing of significance was that four or five members contended that they had been overcharged or short changed by Kati. If they are willing to swear to the same in court, the truth criterion will win the case for the club."
On Friday, the local radio station carried the filing of a million dollar lawsuit against the club. The number was sufficient to gain public interest. The attention didn't assist the officers in their rebuilding efforts.
A week later, Harrison Murphy returned to town and immediately asked to meet with the Executive Committee.
Professor Miller reported on the meeting, "The first thing he asked was did we have liability insurance. Ruth assured him that the National carried a multimillion dollar policy which covered us. After that he relaxed considerably. With insurance he knew that all the lawyers would win, it seemed. He asked Henry to verify that the policy would apply in this case. It does, but Henry had to call Dallas for the final word; he needed to call to notify them of the situation, anyway."
"Murphy didn't just dismiss the case out of hand the way his assistant did?" I asked.
"Yes, what did he say about the earlier advice his office had given you?"
"He shrugged it off. Spilled milk, I took it. Anyway, he had a copy of the suit as filed. I read it; it is serious. It is prima facie. They have narrowly defined their grounds, but if they could prove it all, they would have a case."
"Well, give us the particulars," Mary said.
"It contends Freddy told Jim Golden that Kati short changed a friend of Sampson. We know he will testify to Kati's complete honesty and deny that she ever cheated him. Thus, that establishes that an untruth was told. Whether Freddy's telling Jim makes it public is questionable, but it was certainly with the intent of doing her harm, it got her fired, and the damage only began at that point."
"That is the first I've heard of Freddy telling Golden anything about Kati," I said.
"Yes, that appears to be another distortion in their case. The case shouldn't stand up under scrutiny, but as you said, there are some big 'ifs.' The sad part is that the insurance company will probably settle it out of court. It does not want to risk losing a million in a jury trial. They would prefer to surrender fifty grand or so. They figure that it is just part of the overhead. They probably wouldn't even have to raise the premiums. It keeps the lawyers happy, I guess."
"I'd think Kati would be happy to get her share of $50,000," I said.
"I'd say," added Mary, "all that for simply causing a fuss. If she gets a dime it would be too much."
"It would be an injustice," said The Professor, "but, there is nothing we can do about it; it is out of our hands now."
As soon as the National Office verified that the policy covered libel suits, Murphy put his private investigator to work securing affidavits. Golden recruited a dozen people who agreed to swear they had been cheated by Kati. The investigator took all their testimony. Then, he began to interview all the officers. He questioned Miller last as a minor witness whose involvement was only after the firing.
"His analysis is the same as ours," Professor Miller told me after the interview. "They don't have a case. Freddy will testify that he never discussed Kati with Jim before Golden suggested that she be released. Jim will testify that it was his idea to dismiss her based on complains he heard. Then, we have all those people's word that she cheated them. You know what it comes down to is she was too earthy for the 'delicate sensitivities.'"
"Is that the end of it, then?" I asked.
"Who can say, but the investigator believes so. He thinks that once Harrison lets Tom know all the ammunition they have that Tom will back off. Oh, yes. In terms of damage which we allegedly caused her, the investigator has her in a lie. He said she was fired from another bar job when the owner learned we had fired her for stealing. The owner said she did not even know we had fired Kati until he contacted her. She let Kati go because she couldn't work at times the owner needed. The owner is willing to testify to that effect."
"Then, the insurance company won't have to settle out of court?"
"I would hope not. They did make her an offer before the investigation had gone far, but Bruce advised her not to take it!"
"I don't understand that. I thought that was what they were after."
"Yes, I thought so too. The investigator said Bruce was just out to get the Circle. He blames us for his defeat as Prosecutor."
"To hell with the interest of his client, huh?"
"The investigator also asked for my advice on another matter."
"O no! What now?"
"No, this was something totally different. He has the rights to the story from a murder trial that he wants to pitch to Hollywood. This young soldier was killed in the country outside of Atlanta. He was shot allegedly by his fiancé in what appeared to be a lover's spat. The couple had been sweethearts since childhood. When he went into the service, they broke up. She went into Atlanta to work while he gained some success as a paratrooper. She just happened to be at home when he returned on leave. They got back together, and planned to be married. She claimed he took her into the country to teach her to hunt. He was climbing a fence when the rifle discharged. The only problem was there were two bullets in his head. Her finger prints were on both rifles. Investigations showed she had been involved in prostitution during his absence. On the surface, the prosecution had a sound case. Somehow he found out about her illicit activities, they quarreled and she shot him. They offered her a deal on manslaughter if she would confess, but she refused, and so, they tried her for first degree murder. Since there were no witnesses, all the evidence was circumstantial, but her lawyer did a poor job in her defense. It was possible that he was being paid to help convict her."
"Yes, that's my reaction exactly. When she left Atlanta, it was not on friendly terms with her employers. They were out to teach her a lesson."
"The mob killed her fiancé to get back at her?" Mary said.
"You're getting ahead of the story. The coroner testified that two bullets entered from the front. It was looking fairly bad for our heroine when the soldier's parents contacted Murphy. Seems they knew a rail job when they saw it. The girl had been close to them and they wanted to know the truth about their son's death.
"When Murphy's investigator started, the physical evidence was cold. The coroner's records were poorly kept. They had difficulty securing police records. There was, however, buried in those reports, a mention of traces of the victim's skull lodged in the limbs of a tree. Limbs which were above the fence, seven feet above the fence, he had just climbed. The rifle also provided a valuable clue. Its firing pin had been adjusted to where it was almost an automatic. His parents agreed to have the body exhumed. Sure enough, the bullets had exited from the upper part of his skull."
"So, it was an accident just as she said."
"Yes, and Murphy was able to win the case. I don't know if I can help the investigator find a script writer. I'll try. But, the relevance for us is in how he got the police records. He threatened to expose some corruption in the police department. The threat was based on his suspicions. He had no evidence."
"So it was a big bluff on his part."
"Yes, very much as Kati and Bruce attempted on the Circle. And, more to the point, it may be as we'll need to try with Drake."
I had my misgivings when I called Wanda, but I had managed somewhat successfully with Mitch Martin. I decided that I had the best chance of success on the phone. Face to face, she'd be able to quickly see my uncertainty.
I was surprised at how quickly I made contact with her. Her voice matched the cheerfulness of her words, "Russ, I'm so glad you called. I've been hoping I'd see you at the club, but there hasn't been much going on out there."
"I thought I would've heard from you before now or even read about a police raid on the hunting cabin."
"Yes, I've given that considerable thought. You know, Russ, it's in both of our best interests to deal with this without being directly involved. If we can get him on with a pro team, he'd be out of here. If he's the person you think he is, he's going to slip up where the police aren't under the control of his family."
"I'm thinking the best way to deal with it is to be a deep throat and call the Constitution. They can send the investigators down."
"Now, Russell, you mustn't even think such thoughts, much less give voice to them. You know that their influence reaches to Atlanta. They own interest in a printing company up there. Indeed, you know they virtually own the bank where Mary works. Don't know if she's told you, but they're sending her up there in a few weeks for training."
I sat quietly. We hadn't even thought of Mary's career when we discussed making this call.
"On the other hand, Russ, they could be of help to you. Since you made them aware of the power of the press, they've been considering buying a small string of newspapers. I know they like you and see you as a potential asset when they make in that acquisition."
She paused. I felt numb.
"I'd suggest that you write that article you talked about with Mitchell. Do everything you can to help advance his career and represent a continuation of the friendship you demonstrated on the baseball outing. While Mary's in Atlanta, you and I and, of course, Rooster can go out some. He'll enjoy seeing us dance; he doesn't care to dance. You and I can enjoy ourselves. How does that sound?"
My mind was a blank. I didn't have high expectations for the call; but, was totally unprepared for this outcome. All that I could muster was, "That's a lot to consider. Let me think about it."
Three things happened the following week: Wanda's engagement picture appeared in the paper; Mary was informed of her training in Atlanta, and my editor asked me about the feature I was writing on M. M. Martin's profile as a person and potential pro player.
When Kati's case came to court, Tom Bruce asked for a continuance. The case stayed in continuance forever. In that way, Bruce was able to claim he had never lost a case. Of course, the claim no longer had political value. He would never be elected to another office.
Professor Miller told me that Kati never made it to law school. Rumor was that she became an undercover agent, although he had no way to know for sure. If true, she had to be an excellent one.