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The $3,000,000 Turnover
by Richard Curtis

Category: Mystery/Crime
Description: "Officially, I'm an agent. I represent professional athletes in basketball, football, tennis, golf. You name it; if money is paid for any athletic performance short of copulation, I take a commission on it. I say 'officially.' Unofficially, I've backed into another job: troubleshooting for the management of professional sports leagues--a kind of undercover operator. And it was this Richie Sadler case that got me into it. Aside from a hairline fracture of my cheekbone, temporary blindness, a scrotumful of somebody's knee and the loss of the most promising marital prospect since my divorce, I didn't get anything out of this case but the right to keep a staggering commission that really belonged to me. But, now, when people in the sports world need someone to help unglue the fixes, wrestle with the drug problems, the gangsterism and the sex scandals, they call on Dave Bolt."
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1974
eBookwise Release Date: July 2001

eBookeBook

12 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [258 KB]
Words: 57460
Reading time: 164-229 min.


CHAPTER I

Call me Ishmael if you want, but I answer to the name Dave Bolt. Officially I'm an agent. I represent professional athletes--baseball players, football players, hockey players, tennis pros, golfers. You name it: if money is paid for any athletic performance short of copulation, I take a commission on it. I represent athletes during negotiations, handle their contracts, line up personal appearances, speeches, and commercial endorsements, advance them money, advance them more money and, when that's gone, advance them still more money. My outfit is called the Red Dog Players Management Agency, which was cute when I had three clients but has become a liability now that I have many more. But you've got to admit it's a name that sticks in your mind.

I say "officially" I'm an agent because in the last couple of years I seem to have backed into another job, an unofficial moonlighting gig and one I'd be just as happy not to have, but its one of those things where I seem to be the only person qualified to do it. I'm a troubleshooter for a number of pro sports organizations, a kind of undercover operator if you will. Nothing as glorious and glamorous as a private eye; on the contrary, I haven't undertaken a job yet that was anything but a fat pain in the ass. But there are some satisfactions--and some rewards. I help keep the lid on some of the sordid scandals that threaten to wriggle into the public eye and trail slime over what is essentially a decent and noble and beautiful human enterprise. Fixes, drug problems, gangsterism, sex scandals--I try to keep them in the family before the media boys descend and expose some of the uglier seams of professional sports for the world to see. In exchange, the various sports commissions compensate me: a cash bonus here, a referral of a new client there, or some other kind of favor. Sometimes all I get is "Thank You," and sometimes "Thank You" is enough.

"Thank you," for instance, is all I got for finding Richie Sadler, and that didn't quite make up for the hairline fracture of my cheekbone, temporary blindness, a scrotumful of somebody's knee, and the loss of the most promising marital prospect I've run across since my divorce. Oh, I did get the right to keep what already belonged to me: a commission of staggering proportions; and as this was my first "case" I also got the reputation for competence among men very high in the sports establishment. But I think that when you hang the whole mess out to dry and take a good look at it, you come up with a great big Who Needed It?

It started early in May with Trish rattling this note under my nose while I was talking to George Allen. Needless to say, I could have brained her. It's hard enough to negotiate with George Allen without having your secretary wave a piece of paper in your face. I made a brushing-away gesture, which any imbecile would have known meant "Get lost!" but she only sighed loudly, put her hands on her hips in profound annoyance, and stuck the note under my nose again.

"George, can you hold on one second?" I said into the phone. "I have an inexperienced secretary who thinks there is something more important than talking to you." I punched the "hold" button and glared.

"Inexperienced!" Trish snorted. "I like that!"

"Didn't I say no phone calls?"

"You didn't say absolutely no phone calls. I thought you'd want to know about this one."

I looked at the scrawl on the memo pad: "Davis Sadler on 41."

If looks could fire, Trish would have been transported that very second to some shabby employment agency waiting room. "This better be good," I said. "Who's Davis Sadler?"

She looked at me triumphantly. "Richie Sadler's father."

I blinked. It was, as Trish had guessed, perhaps the only call that would justify interrupting a conversation with George Allen. I gazed at the lighted "41" button on my phone panel. Trish did too and said, "That, Mr. Bolt, is a beacon illuminating your destiny."

I tended to agree with her, but a principle is a principle and you've got to keep secretaries in their place. If they think they can bust in on important phone calls, the next thing you know they'll be taking five minutes extra on their lunch hours. "Tell Sadler to call back."

Her blue eyes reflected horror. "Are you crazy?"

I rose from my chair. "Do you want to eat your danish with a full set of teeth?" Shaking her head and muttering, she retreated to her desk with long, saucy strides. As I reached for the "40" button on which Allen was holding, I heard her say breathlessly, "Would you mind holding just one more second, Mr. Sadler? Mr. Bolt is just wrapping up a critical negotiation with George Allen, the George Allen of the Washington Redskins ... Oh you are? Me too. How do you think we look for next fall?" I muttered a silent benediction over Trish's blonde head: she was worth every penny I sometimes paid her.

"Well?" Allen asked. "Was it?"

"Pardon me?"

"Was it more important than talking to me?"

"It could be pretty important," I admitted. "Richie Sadler's father is on the other line."

"Then why don't you take the call?"

"But George..."

"We can wrap this thing up this afternoon. To tell you the truth, I'm curious myself. If it's what I think, it could be quite a feather in your cap."

"A feather? George, I could line my nest with feathers if it's what I think."

I hung up and looked at the yellow 41 button for a minute, trying to get my head together. I told myself: Keep cool, Sadler may not be calling to ask you to represent Richie. Why should he? But then I asked myself if there were any other reasons that Sadler might want to talk to me. I couldn't think of one.

You didn't have to be a basketball nut to know that Richie Sadler was the hottest professional prospect since UCLA's Bill Walton. In his three varsity years at Illinois he'd racked up an almost unbelievable 3,200-plus points, averaging 33 points per game, making 66 percent of his field goal attempts, tallying seven 60-point games, and snaring forty zillion rebounds. He'd established an Illinois "dynasty" for the three years he was there, leading the team to a string of victories marred only by a fluke loss to Ohio State in his junior year--fluky because an overly ambitious guard knocked him unconscious with an elbow to the temple early in the third period.

Needless to say he'd spearheaded the team to three straight NCAA titles and was the All-east American since Dr. Naismith hoisted two peach baskets ten feet above the ground in 1891. By his junior year sportswriters had run out of superlatives, and by the time he was a senior they had ceased comparing him to such classical greats as Mikan and Cousy and Dolph Schayes or white superstars of more recent vintage like Rick Barry and Jerry West and Walton. He was that much in a class by himself. The best the pundits could do was describe him as a "tall" Bill Walton or a "good" Rick Barry. Mostly they called him "Wings" because he seemed to spend more time in the air than on the court, and he had that unearthly ability to hang suspended in the midst of a jump shot for longer than the law of gravity says you're supposed to have.

I'd seen Sadler play on a number of occasions at Madison Square Garden and had to confess that in all the time I'd followed the game, I never saw anyone control the ball and dominate the court quite the way he did. For sheer size and bulk he was almost a freak--7'4" and 285 pounds. But he was anything but a clumsy giant. He had a quickness and grace and dazzling speed that made you wonder if he wasn't a fugitive from some extraterrestrial league, the Martian Maulers or the Jupiter Jets or something.

And now Richie Sadler was graduating, and was the subject of every conceivable scheme, legal, illegal, and uncategorizable, that could be contrived by teams to both the NBA and ABA to snare him. The salary figures tossed around made your head swim and rattled the composure of even the most cold-blooded players' agents. I was probably the only one of the lot who didn't lose his head, for the simple reason that I didn't have an ice cube's chance in a pizza oven of getting a crack at representing Sadler. Not that I wasn't as good as guys like Al Ross and Bob Woolf and Mark McCormack, but my agency was young, small, under financed, understaffed, and underheard of. At that time I didn't have enough clients, especially of the big-name variety, to match my competitors' clout with management or attract other biggies like Sadler. What I did have, at least according to those of my clients who swore by me (when they weren't swearing at me), were the following: an intimate inside knowledge of sports, an irrepressible love of athletes, a good head for business, a certain amount of charm and poise and savoir faire--which really boils down to a rich repertory of filthy jokes--and a reputation among management for fairness. In fact, some of my boys felt I was a management man, that I leaned over backwards to please the owners. I will admit to a strong desire to be on good terms with the people who have the money; I'll even admit to having some compassion for them. Having worked in the front office of the Dallas Cowboys for a couple of years, I am convinced that owners are only 85 percent as monstrous as most players say they are. So while I never give an owner an even break, I occasionally stop short of their jugulars.

Now, these may be admirable qualities per se, but they are not the kind that attract Richie Sadlers. I'm a southern gentleman by upbringing and it's simply not in my nature to go lusting after prospects like a whore in wintertime, phoning them, propositioning them, bothering them at all hours, promising them anything, hustling them, begging them, and even threatening them, like some other members of my fraternity I could name. Dignity, for better or for worse, is my long suit. Unfortunately, dignity isn't worth rat shit when there's a Richie Sadler at stake. So when the sharks started swimming around him, I just stood back and watched with detached amusement and made snide comments about human greed and venality. Trish called them sour grapes.

And now Richie Sadler's father was calling me. Me!

I pressed the button and listened for a minute to Trish's astute analysis of the relative merits of Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, while Davis Sadler made chauvinistic grunts about how knowledgeable she was for a girl. Knowing how Trish gets on that topic, I spoke into the phone. "Um, that'll be fine, Trish. I've got it."

"That you, Bolt?" Sadler's voice was gruff but genial. "Hey, leave that gal on the line. She knows more about sports than Howard Cosell."

Trish threw me a glance over her shoulder and, observing the menacing gesture I was making, begged off and hung up. I threw her a kiss. She could not have buttered him up better if she'd been a Scovill Joe Namath corn popper.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Sadler?" I said.

"I'm bringing the family to New York for a couple of days and thought we'd meet a few people we haven't met."

"You haven't met enough agents?"

"Met too goddam many of them, and that's the problem. I don't trust any of them. They don't give two shits about my son. They just want to get fat off him. I heard you're, well, more of a low-key person. I also heard you were very good."

I thought a little candor wouldn't hurt. "I've got to tell you, Mr. Sadler, I wouldn't mind getting fat on your son's commissions."

"Ah hell, Bolt, I don't begrudge a man his commissions, but I do begrudge him a piece of a kid's soul, do you see my distinction? These other clowns--you wouldn't believe what they've offered us."

"You sound like a sensible man, Mr. Sadler. Who told you about me?"

"Lonnie Seaforth, for one. Lonnie was Richie's idol when Richie was a kid. Now Richie may be playing in the same league with him. You've done a great job for Lonnie, and he hasn't become a phony like some other players who've hit it big. Lonnie told Richie you smack him down whenever he starts putting on airs. That impressed us."

I made a mental note to do something extravagant for Lonnie, and said, "Well, Mr. Sadler, the temptations at the pro level are mighty powerful. Someone has to maintain his sense of proportion." Trish looked up from her files and performed a digging pantomime number, leaving no doubt in my mind as to what was on the shovel. But I really wasn't mouthing pieties: I've seen too many good kids ruined by instant stardom.

"We're taking a late afternoon flight out of Chicago," Sadler said. "Are you free for dinner tonight?"

"Dinner?" I rattled the pages of my blank appointment calendar. "I've got a tentative engagement, but I can move it up to another evening."

"Fine, if that doesn't inconvenience you. Say, do you mind if I bring my wife and daughter along? They want to do their spring shipping in the Big Apple."

"You mean bring them along to dinner? Sure!" I said wincing. Two reminder letters from the Diner's Club bearing huge red-ink warnings of dire action stared me in the face even as I spoke.

"And say, you must bring that gal of yours along too. She's a charmer."

"Trish? I'm not sure she's free." You can imagine Trish's reaction to that. Then I thought about it and decided she might be just the extra special ingredient to consummate the deal. "No, she says she can make it," I said picturing the night's tab soaring deep into the three-digit stratosphere. "Would you prefer someplace quiet or noisy?"

"It doesn't matter," Sadler said with an air of resignation. "We're going to be recognized wherever we go. You can't exactly hide Richie. Just pick a good place. We'll phone you when we get in."

I hung up and looked at Trish. "How'd you like to be my date tonight?"

"Only if it includes sleeping with you."

She was hunkered down putting some papers in a low file drawer. Her skirt rode up high on her thighs, exposing the moons of her tight little buttocks rimmed with blue panties. I stared, and she knew I stared, and I felt the same tingle of desire I'd had for her on the average of five times a week for the last year. She had smashingly long legs and loved to show them off with mini-skirts--even though "sensible" lengths had been the proper mode for the past five years. She had small high breasts and loved to show them off with bra-less sweaters, semi-sheer blouses, and clingy jersey halters. She had this steady boyfriend, Marvin or Melvin or some name like that, who she slept with regularly, but that didn't seem to make much difference to her. Had I given her so much as an eye-flick of encouragement, she'd have gone to bed with me, or even to floor or to desk.

And eventually I'd have had to fire her, which is why I hadn't given her so much as an eye-flick of encouragement.

"Sorry, sweetheart," I said, averting my eyes at last. "I told you what my daddy used to say."

She sighed. "I know: 'Son, never shit where you eat.'"

"That's right. Not that it wouldn't be a pleasure..."

"...and a privilege to spend the night with me, right? Oh, these courtly southerners," she groaned... "Where shall I make the reservation?"

"How about Maxwell's Plum?"

"Well, if they don't care about being seen, that's perfect."

Maxwell's Plum is one of my favorite restaurants in New York City. It sprang up on First Avenue and 64th Street in the midst of the explosive migration of young people to the Upper East Side and became one of the most popular spots along that fabulous row of singles bars, discos, and restaurants familiarly known as "The Strip." Then the chic people discovered it and the management revamped its cuisine and service (and prices, of course) to cater to the carriage trade. But it still retains its attraction for hungry young bachelors and single girls, and the mixture of fat cats dining on the upper level and colorful commoners conducting their courtship rites around the bar below is what makes Maxwell's as close to a fashionable Paris boite as New York can claim.

Trish and I arrived five minutes before our 7:30 reservation and waited on the stairs to the upper level for the maitre d' to usher us to our table. Trish primped before the mirrored wall and I couldn't help thinking what a nice couple we made. She was 23, but a mature 23, and I was 35 but could pass for 34 in a dimly lit room. She was fairly tall, about 5 feet 7, so she didn't make my 6-feet, 3-inches stature look excessively awkward. She was pretty--that night she was positively scintillating in a scoop-necked jobbie that fell away from her white breasts whenever she (or I) turned this way or that--and I, to be perfectly immodest, wasn't half bad if you like rugged looks and are not too particular about noses that appear to have been broken six times but set only five. Trish was blonde and I was blond, except her hair was long and straight and mine tightly curled--almost kinky, if you will.

It's a funny thing about my almost kinky hair. Portraits of my forebears--and the Bolts go back a long, long way--show the traditional straight blond hair and fair complexion of the classical Anglo-Saxon. Then my great-great-grandfather pops up with kinky hair and a swarthy complexion. Interesting, wot? Could it have anything to do with the fact that my great-great-grandfather's daddy owned a dozen slaves?

It's my speculation, therefore, that one-drop of blood out of every 32 that courses through my veins is not Caucasian. Which may account for a lot of otherwise inexplicable things about me, such as how I'm able to be on scandalously chummy terms with black people.

The maitre d' led us to a big table by the railing separating the balconied dining area from the bar, and while we waited for our guests we indulged in daydreams about what it would be like to land Richie Sadler as a client. Some of these were pretty fantastic, yet when we thought about them some more they seemed perfectly capable of realization. For Richie Sadler was potentially a pivotal--no pun intended--figure in modern basketball history. Some said he held the key to its future, and that key was worth millions.

From the birth in 1967 of the American Basketball Association in rivalry with the "establishment" National Basketball Association the two leagues had been conducting a costly and sometimes vicious salary war. Ethics, such as they were, went completely down the crapper as owners flaunted eligibility rules, conducted illegal drafts, and stole, seduced, bought, and all but shanghaied each other's stars. Veteran players jumped leagues and hot collegiate prospects finessed astronomical bonuses and salaries. High school and even pre-high school kids were wined and dined five or even ten years ahead of eligibility, and whenever they shook hands with a pro scout they always seemed to come away with money stuck mysteriously to their palms.

Merger had been proposed as a solution, the owners generally favoring it because it would deflate salaries and kill the price war, the players opposing it for the same reason. The question of merger also foundered on the shoals of prestige: the NBA didn't feel the ABA was good enough. And big television money backed up NBA's snobbery. The NBA had a network contract, the ABA did not, and that really hurt.

Everybody agreed, therefore, that it would probably take a superstar, the basketball equivalent of a Joe Namath, to make a merger feasible. It had almost happened in 1969, when Lew Alcindor was drafted by the teams with the poorest records in both the NBA and ABA, the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Nets respectively. Alcindor restricted the bidding to one offer each and actually hoped the Nets would get him because he loved New York. But the Bucks came through with the higher bid, $1.4 million, and merger talk immediately faded. But a few years later it began building to a crescendo again, with superstars like Julius Erring ramrodding ABA teams that were every bit as good as anything the NBA could field. By the time Richie Sadler came along, merger fever was once more in the air.

I forgave myself for letting my imagination carry me away.

At about 7:40 a collective gasp from the "plummies" crowded around the bar heralded the arrival of my would-be meal ticket. His murmured name rippled through the restaurant as the giant was quickly identified. I must say I was as awed as anybody in the room. It's one thing to see a basketball player on the court with other basketball players; it's quite another to see him lumber into an environment populated by mere mortals. I've been out to dinner with some pretty lofty men. Among my clients are four basketball players 6-foot-6 or bigger, and several football behemoths easily mistakable for Reo tractor-trailers. But Richie had a dimension all his own, and as he approached our table, trailed by his parents and sister, I knew what the Titanic's captain must have felt when a certain iceberg loomed over his beam.

Richie's retinue was no collection of midgets by any means. Richie's father, himself a former collegiate basketball player of some note, was well above 6-feet tall, though a substantial paunch detracted from the overall impression. The mother, a floridly dressed, brassy-looking broad with Midwest Nouveau Riche stamped across her hard face, was close to 6-feet tall herself. Sis was the shortest of the lot at about 5-9. She was also the biggest surprise. For some reason, I'd expected the traditional pigtailed kid sister, but she was older than Richie by, I'd say, three or four years. More significantly, she was a very attractive young lady. She wore a modest but tasteful linen pantsuit with a ruffled blouse, but it couldn't conceal a willowy figure that seemed to drift over the carpet as if shock absorbers were implanted in her joints. Her face was oval with high cheekbones. Her hair was dark, her eyes green and observant. Unfortunately, the mouth spoiled it, not because it wasn't pretty but because it was puckered in a resentful pout. She looked like a girl with a chip on her shoulder.

All eyes focused on me as I stood to welcome the Sadler's. We shook hands and made our introductions and, with some difficulty, settled into our seats. Seating Richie Sadler, to use another maritime simile, is like berthing an ocean liner. Either his knees lift the table clear off the floor or his outstretched feet create major disruptions within a five-foot radius. But after a minute or two of musical ankles, we finally got settled. Predictably, some jerk, a leering, flower-shirted dude in his forties who should have known better, sidled up to the railing and asked the inevitable: "How's the weather up there, Wings?"

Trish, God bless her, dipped her fingers into her water and flicked a spray of droplets into the guy's face. "Inclement, you little schmuck," she snapped. The place dissolved in laughter as he skulked back to the bar.

"I told you she was a charmer," Davis Sadler beamed at his family. He studied Trish in a distinctly unfatherly way.

I took drink orders with my usual urbanity while sizing the Sadler clan up out of the corner of my eye.

Davis and Bea Sadler looked like typical well-to-do Midwesterners on the surface, open-faced, friendly, a little loud and vulgar, bewildered and flattered by the prodigious attention bestowed on them ever since Richie's genetic messengers had fucked up an order to stop his growth at 6-1. I guess you could describe the Sadler's as Babbitt's. But then the Babbitt's, if I recollect my Sinclair Lewis rightly, were no simps, and like their literary counterparts these two had shrewd, hawk-like eyes, the eyes of opportunists, and between happy-go-lucky twinkles they examined me with clinical severity. I reminded myself that I was not there to entertain, whatever I reported officially to the Internal Revenue Service, and though I laughed a lot and loudly I kept my guard high against probing jabs that might catch me flatfooted.

Richie was one of those kids you like right off the bat, a tousle-haired titan with soft friendly eyes and a voice and manner that proclaimed sincerity with every word and gesture. He seemed (and in the next couple of hours would prove) to be courteous, modest, well-spoken, and intelligent. He confirmed everything I had read and heard about him, and in the previous few hours I had read and heard a great deal.

Immediately after his father phoned I'd done some crash research on Richie. I didn't merely want facts and statistics but color, so I could formulate a three-dimensional picture of his personality and know what breed of cat I was dealing with. What emerged sounded approximately like a page out of Lives of the Saints. If I had what he had, I'd have become more egocentric than Caligula. He attracted money and power like a bull does heifers in season, and where there's that much money and power you'll always see greed and corruption billowing around it. Yet he had not been tainted. While he was still in high school some three hundred colleges had offered him every inducement you can name: scholarships, loans, cars, broads, even boats and airplanes. But he had walked away from all of them. At length he chose to go to Illinois, his father's alma mater. "I like its academic and athletic tradition," Sport quoted him as saying, "and I feel a strong loyalty to the state I was born and raised in." The article went on to catalogue Richie's virtues, which included but were not limited to humility, maturity, fairness, patriotism, and piety.

The title of the Sport piece was, "Is This Kid for Real?"

That was the question I'd asked Lonnie Seaforth when I phoned him in Cleveland to thank him for the recommendation and asked him what he thought of Richie. "Oh yes, he's for real, Dave. As upright as an oak and slightly taller."

"Come on, Lonnie. Surely somewhere along the way he accepted a dime for a phone call?"

"Uh-uh."

"A car? A motorcycle? A trike?"

"Nope."

"A little stinky-pinky with some homecoming queen?"

"Dave, you don't understand: the kid has all that. His father's regional director of an insurance company and pulls down close to six figures. Richie wants a car, Richie gets a car. Richie wants a motorboat, Richie gets a motorboat. Scholarships? What does he need them for? He's got the brains to make any college he wants on his own hook--and his old man has the tuition. He sends scholarship offers back saying they should go to the kids who really need them. And girls? Baby, he just has to wrinkle his nose and he has twenty pussies presenting to him! Look, man, Richie isn't some poor, ignorant ghetto cat who goes berserk when he lays his hands on some big league bread. We're talking about an upper-middle-class WASP with every privilege a kid could want."

I shook my head in disbelief. "Surely he must have a flaw or a problem or a vice or something, Lonnie. I mean, even the Messiah had a few hang-ups."

My client paused and thought about it. "Well, Richie does have one serious problem."

"Aha! What's that?"

"He only hits 82 percent of his free throws."

"I knew he was too good to be true," I grinned. Then I fingered a New York Daily News clipping that had provoked my curiosity. "What about this Kentucky thing?"

"You mean The Non-Game of the Decade? Oh, God," Lonnie moaned, "You're not going to bring that up."

"It sounded pretty fantastic to me," I admitted.

"Fantastic? The News is lucky Richie didn't sue them off the face of the planet."

I looked at the clipping again. It was an item by a writer named Harry Leggett whose articles were no more inaccurate than those of most other sportswriters, which is to say it was a mélange of rumors, guesses, hunches, hopes, dreams, inventions, and occasionally, a correctly spelled name.

It was about last winter's NCAA tournament final, and as bizarre a mismatch as you're ever likely to see. Richie's Illini deserved to be there, of course, but the Kentucky Wildcats had reached the final rung on the wings of incredible luck. One of their opponents simply came out shooting cold, another was smitten with the flu, the next lost its star forward when he cracked a wrist bone slipping in his bathtub, etc. But alas, the Cinderella story seemed to be about to come to a shattering halt the night of the final. The Illini was healthy, up for the game, and, if their warmup was any indication, a lead-pipe cinch to make off with the title by at least twenty points. The official point spread, determined by The Greek in Vegas, was fifteen. And guess what? Illinois creamed Kentucky, 88-51. Forty-eight of the winning points were scored by Richie Sadler.

No surprise, right? Well, it seems that a gambler named Manny Ricci had put up a ton of money, much of it belonging to an underworld syndicate, on Kentucky, taking the 15-point spread. And he had lost every last red cent. Thereupon he howled that he'd "gotten" to Richie Sadler and Richie was, for a consideration, supposed to shave points and keep the spread below 15. Richie had, in other words, double-crossed him.

"Don't you see?" Lonnie said. "Ricci lost his huge bundle and needed a reason, any reason, why the mob shouldn't cut his heart out with a dull instrument, such as the heel of a shoe with a foot still in it. So Ricci invented this ... this breathtakingly terrible story about Richie Sadler. I guarantee you, the only reason Ricci is still alive is he's probably sworn to make the money good to his boss. As soon as he does, you'll read about a 'gangland fashion slaying' with Ricci turning up one part at a time on the Hackensack Meadows. Let me tell you something, Dave. We become so cynical, we don't recognize the genuine article when it turns up."

"Genuine article?"

"A good person, a decent human being. Richie Sadler is such a one. Treat him like one."

"I haven't got him yet."

"I think you will. You're a genuine article yourself."

"That's kind of you, Lonnie. What do you want?"

"Brut is looking for a basketball star to do a commercial. Can you get me a whaddyacallit, an audition?"

"Sure," I laughed.

"I never claimed to be the genuine article," Lonnie said.

The only Sadler who gave me a fuzzy reading was the sister, Sondra. What was behind that frown on her lips, and why did those heartbreaking green eyes appraise me so suspiciously? I had to find out before I blundered into some fatal error of diplomacy.

"And what do you think of all this brouhaha over your brother?" I asked her.

"You really want to know?"

"I don't ask questions capriciously," I said.

"I haven't heard you ask any other way," she replied.

I must have been an interesting sight, sitting there with this silly-ass grin frozen on my face.

Trish came to my rescue. Poking a cautionary toe into my shinbone, she said, "Oh, Mr. Bolt is simply in his 'charming host' bag tonight, Sondra. Deep down, he's a man who doesn't ask questions capriciously." That cracked the girl's frown slightly, and Trish followed up with, "You think this whole thing's a drag, don't you?"

"You don't know what we've been through with these agents, all day, all night--byechh." She actually shuddered. She looked at me with open hostility, and of course now I had her pegged. She obviously pictured herself as the one sane head in the family, the bearer of the torah of common sense in a world that had lost its head over her brother. This was Richie's protectress, his shield against corruption. And in her eyes, I was just as big a carrier of the contagion as every other agent she'd met.

Trish looked at Sondra sincerely and said, "You don't have any reason to believe this, but I want you to know Dave Bolt is not One of the byechhy agents."

I looked at Trish and said, "That's one of the nicest things anybody's ever said about me. I'm going to have it chiseled on my tombstone."

I caught Sondra smiling out of the corner of my eye and breathed easier. The first squall had passed, my boat had been rocked, but it hadn't shipped much water.

I ordered dinner and did my best not to flinch when the Sadlers asked for lobsters. Now, lobsters are so expensive these days that most restaurants are afraid to list the prices. I'd been reading the menu from right to left starting with the prices, but then decided what the hell, if I got Richie Sadler for a client, I'd buy the whole lobster industry and as much of the Atlantic Ocean as was necessary to sustain it. "Lobsters all around," I said with an artless flourish to the headwaiter. "And a couple of bottles of Piper-Heidseck, preferably 1967."

Over appetizers we passed the time of day with gossip. Few basketball personalities, agents, owners, salaries, and scandals were left unturned. I don't believe I scored too badly in this preliminary. Dinner was served and I kept conversation light, being of the school that says business is best conducted on a full stomach. Trish was wonderful, gabbing about the comparative merits of Bloomingdale's and Bonwit's and Bendel's, and finally offering to take the two women shopping the following day. I was pretty wonderful myself, telling some naughty anecdotes about my days as a Dallas Cowboy, and even managing to elicit some honest-to-goodness laughter from Sondra.

All this time I was inching up on The Big Question and taking further readings of wind direction and velocity. By dessert time it was clear it was blowing strongly out of Davis Sadler's seat. It seemed that every time I asked Richie a question of any importance, his father answered for him. Richie appeared to accept this situation complacently enough, and so more and more I found myself addressing his father. Sadler had slowly dropped the Babbitt routine and revealed himself to be an ambitious, calculating man guided--I might almost say driven--by a single-minded vision of his son as the quintessential basketball hero, the archetype by which all players past, present, and future would be measured; in short, the All-Time Greatest. It was kind of scary, how much he wanted for the boy. It was easy to see why so many other agents had fallen short of the mark, they'd only promised him the moon, and that wasn't good enough. My problem was, I couldn't make promises, except promises to try.

Dessert came, then coffee, and then we went onto after-dinner drinks and I wondered if we were ever going to get around to what we were all there for. But at last Sadler nudged the ash out of the Upmann I'd given him--I keep a small cache of contraband Cuban cigars for just such occasions--and said, "Well, Bolt what do you think?"

"Think?"

"About Richie? About what's the best thing to do?"

It was a straightforward enough question, but ringed with more traps than the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. If I blithely proposed the wrong best thing to do I could end up with six buttery lobster bibs and no client. "It depends on how Richie feels about it," I said evasively. "Let's review his options. He's been drafted by the Boston Bombers of the ABA and the Newark Nationals of the NBA. They were both terrible last year, but of course that was their first year as expansion teams. Whichever Richie plays for, he's going to turn it around."

"Like Kareem turned the Milwaukee Bucks around," Trish said. In his rookie year Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, took a team that had won only 27 games the year before and led them to 56 wins and second place in the Eastern division of the NBA.

Richie looked appreciatively at Trish, then shrugged. "I kind of prefer Boston to Newark. Even though Newark is closer to New York, Boston is much more beautiful and has so many cultural advantages."

"Don't forget," I said, "you don't have to play for either. If you wanted to play for another team, it wouldn't be hard for me to arrange for you to be traded."

I looked at Richie's father. He wore an impatient expression. "It's not the team, it's the league that counts, and I'd like to see him go with the ABA if we can get a good price." He puffed on his cigar, wreathed himself in blue smoke, and looked up at Maxwell's stunning stained-glass ceiling. "Wouldn't it be something if the leagues merged because of my son."

There it was: The Fantasy. Now I had my instructions and the path was clear. "They're almost there now. All it will take is--well, a Richie Sadler."

"Oh, this is doing wonders for his humility," Sis groaned.

It was too bad, but for the moment Sis would have to be sacrificed. "Darling," I said, "the day your kid brother dribbled his first basketball he sealed his fate. Unless he's prepared to give up the game completely, there's only one direction he can go, and that's to the pinnacle. If I get to be his agent I'll do all I can to keep his head from swelling, but I'm afraid you're going to have to get used to his attracting more attention than Pickett's charge at Gettysburg."

Sadler studied me respectfully. I had spoken in terms that fulfilled his astronomical aspirations. But his eyes were still clouded with indecision. "Let me ask you a plain question, Bolt. Why should you be Richie's agent instead of any of the fifty other people we've talked to?"

I'd been afraid he'd ask that. I looked into my brandy glass for an answer. I found brandy in it. "You know what, Mr. Sadler? I don't know why, myself. The best I can tell you is, I'm as good as anybody else."

There was an eerie silence, not just at the table but, it seemed, throughout the restaurant as if no one could believe I wouldn't lay on just a little bullshit to land this client. Then Trish slashed the air with her hand. "He's better than anybody else, Mr. Bolt. He can not only swing a deal as big as any of those other guys but he has something most of them don't even know the meaning of."

"What's that?" Sadler asked.

"Compassion."

I gulped. "Come on, Trish, nobody wants to hear about that."

She talked right over me. "Would you like to know why Dave isn't rolling in money? Because he gives most of it away. I can name ten of his clients who would be up the creek without a paddle if Dave hadn't advanced them money, or loaned it, or simply given it to them. He cares what happens to his boys, Mr. Sadler. That's something money can't buy."

Trish's peroration echoed in the well of silence that ensued, and I held my breath waiting for something to happen. Trish downed her brandy in one shot and looked at me nervously as Richie and mommy and daddy and sis exchanged searching glances and seemed to be determining something by that magical intuitive process that close families have.

At length Mrs. Sadler made the only non-shopping reference she'd expressed during the entire evening. "I think that's nice, that Mr. Bolt cares."

It was so ludicrous I almost laughed, but apparently it was an articulation of something much more profound than I had imagined, for the next thing I knew Davis Sadler was saying, "Is your office near here?"

Trying to maintain some semblance of cool, I said, "A short cab ride away."

"Maybe we should continue this discussion up there."

"I'll call for the check," I said, trying not to sound delirious.


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