All the widower George du Plessis wants to do is sit out on his California beachfront porch, daydream about his late wife Izzie, and not make a hash of raising their two beautiful daughters Gisela and Adelaide. Yet for that plan to work, George would need a far less violent and convoluted family history.
That history comes back to haunt the trio, when George lets a nasty tug of war between the seedy German businessman Richard Habermann and the wholesome, if pushy American agent Sam Abercrombie, propel him to Paris, Lugano, New Orleans, London, and mysterious points in between.
One thing George knows for certain—he’ll be damned if the sins of these fathers and mothers will be visited upon his innocent children. And so he might.
Before we get started here, let’s get one thing straight. I’ve never intentionally caused the death of a human being.
And while we’re at it, I had nothing to do with my daughter’s obsession with football.
I. Under the Sun
To make a short story shorter…
Green is Adelaide’s favorite color. By the time she crashes through the sixteen-year-old line, we’ve lived most of her life off Alamitos Bay in the City of Long Beach, California. Somehow, in Adelaide’s adolescent imagination, Green and Bay short-circuit into her idolizing a gang of half-crazed homicidal maniacs called the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay already sports enough teenage girls on its roster, so Adelaide has to settle for the Alamitos High School Gators. My younger daughter is long and skinny and clearly a female. Even in our enlightened times, Coach Belavaqua takes one look at her flowing tresses and invisible biceps and tosses her onto the reject pile.
Adelaide’s older sister and self-appointed protector Gisela refuses to stand for this. The scourge of loafing teenagers and incompetent fathers alike, Gisela has spent the eight years since her mother passed away drumming her version of discipline—read obstinacy—into her half-wild sibling. Gisela surmises that a black belt and blinding speed will make hash out of any linebacker foolish enough to chase my little one down the field.
“He’ll just have to play her at wide receiver.”
Coaching advice from an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Lest I cave in to the Masculine Protection Network, Gisela handles legal and promotional advice as well. She hounds me out of my natural torpor to threaten Coach Belavaqua, Principal Melvin Blank, Alamitos Bay High School, and the Long Beach Unified School District with a lawsuit none of us can afford. The local newspapers and advertising rags respond to her none-too-subtle, none-too-anonymous tips with more interest than I might wish. In the end, Gisela gives up on her father and crosses the bay in her skiff—picture the other George crossing the Delaware, only this girl isn’t about to retreat from anyone—to accost the Mayor.
There’s a reason Mayor Betty Edmonds wins one re-election after another. Besides being one sweet and thoughtful human being, she’s enough of a politician to recognize the inevitable.
“Face it, George,” she suggests one afternoon over the clumps of her rosemary that we’re weeding. “You didn’t buy them a whole lot of dolls.”
Mayor Betty and I might share an occasional gardening tip, but we’ll never see eye-to-eye on salt air, sandy soil, and rosemary. She insists that, with enough love, you can grow anything. I remain doggedly pessimistic, not that it matters—Betty owns the only garden in this part of town, and I’d vote for her anyway. She can be a real resource when it comes to the catastrophes of child rearing.
“Izzie would have a fit.” I might actually be whining.
Betty glances up from her plastic kneepads and rolls her eyes halfway around her head. She knows how, as a teenager, my late wife Izzie dragged her family past the thugs of Myanmar and the brothels of Bangkok into an Australian container bound for the Golden Mountain. Half of the refugees in the container died of exposure, but the family under Isabel Hu’s slave-driving lash emerged intact.
“It would’ve taken half of my cops to pull your wife off that silly coach!” Herzzonor opines.
“But Adelaide’s a girl, for Christ’s sake!”
“And girls are different these days, George. Although it’s not your fault you’re so behind the times.”
Once in a while, someone might croon a bar of praise. I drop a handful of doomed weeds into Betty’s bucket and back onto my haunches. “What is it about me that I can’t find a passive woman? Just once, I’d like five minutes with a genuine wallflower.”
Mayor Betty suspects I’m joking, but, just in case, shows me a few teeth in her laugh. “From what you’ve told me, you wouldn’t know what to do with her. Wasn’t your mother some species of intercontinental tycoon?”
Some species indeed. My greatest fear is I’ve passed on that collection of violently defective—or defectively violent—genes to my innocent daughters. I know nothing about this football, but if Adelaide plays it the way her European grandmother steered her business empire, the other team will need a brigade of stretcher-bearers.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I haven’t always been the world-class father you’ll find mildly promoting himself in these pages.
In the early days, long before Izzie passed away, it seemed like all I did was travel. Drab little towns across Europe and the Americas offered ridiculous incentives to technology companies to relocate their plants, and those plants gorged themselves on the control systems I sold for a cranky old genius named Abe Redstone. Abe definitely appreciated a salesman with languages. In his concentrated mind, every minute wasted in my more-or-less English-speaking home was a puzzle.
And who were the Duplessis to disagree? Izzie was a wonderful mother, and I was a faithful husband and doting father, whose telephone voice put Daddy’s baby girls to sleep at least five nights a week. It was all about the money and the food on the table in the leaky house on the bay we’d always dreamed of—as far as I could recall, anyway. And then, in 1984, a trademark Redstone tantrum coincided with a pretend truce with my younger brother Luc.
It wasn’t Luc’s fault that he was a genius and a pinhead all rolled into the same unattractively tousled cranium. I might’ve tried to explain at one time or another that talking to girls counted for far more than inventing minor world-class software packages. But he wouldn’t have gotten it. How he’d emerged from the same womb as his talkative older brother was a mystery no one wanted to unravel.
But Luc did indeed come to me with his minor software package, and we did sign our fragile truce. And then, out of the already much-too-underpaying blue, the latest Abe Redstone tantrum prompted an impromptu Declaration of Independence. Not to worry. Another hyperactive travel schedule, coupled with shameless self-promotion and an interview in Wired Magazine, did the trick. If you used a personal computer between 1985 and 1990, you used the program that bore my Luc’s name.
Luc might’ve tried to start a conversation about the legal quirks and blemishes in all those dull-as-dishwater lines of code, but what did I care for such technicalities? By then, it was all about the blinding piles of cash. And fortunately for the Duplessis brothers, it didn’t matter anyway. The peripatetic fog lasted just long enough for an unsuspecting German software giant with more appetite than brains to swallow us up.
One Richard Habermann—yes, the very same current resident of Stammheim Federal Prison in the dreary city of Stuttgart, Germany—knew a sucker when he saw one. Richard pounced on a bleak Friday afternoon, when Wall Street and the London City had emptied their denizens into the Connecticut and Surrey countrysides. By Monday, Luc and I had succumbed to his unique blend of charm, slander, extortion, and rank stupidity.
Since then, by contract—and only by contract—I’m obligated to show up for an occasional trade show and media event. This leaves ample time for my main occupations, sitting on the porch waiting for my daughters to come home, and counting phony New Economy shares unloaded in the nick of time.
Clever? Oh yes, our boy could win one Olympic medal after another for clever. But intelligent? It would take an intelligent man to explain how you squeeze a decade of depression out of a life in paradise. And on that, I haven’t a clue. I’d ask the love of my life, only there are some topics too pointless and ethereal for Izzie’s much too practical and sadly deceased Asian tastes.
Years have elapsed since the Wired Magazine interview, and years more since I theoretically added to the digital productivity of the planet. Now there are these random phone calls from Mönchengladbach, an ugly Wirtschaftswunder town on the Ruhr River in Germany. Someone has been trying to reach me for weeks.
One of the mystery calls arrives on a Tuesday morning at a shocking three AM. The offending ring emanates from my office phone, the one no child is permitted to touch. Months have passed since I myself picked up the instrument. It only survives, in fact, as proof of a thoroughly hypothetical career.
“Daddy, pick up the phone!” Gisela agonizes through the house after the tenth or eleventh round. As usual, my office door is locked, and neither young lady owns a key. I’m preoccupied with an ancient re-run of a TV series called The Untouchables. Eliot Ness, the scourge of the booze-happy Chicago Mafia, can’t get the prehistoric two-piece telephone at his ear and mouth to take a call. He has my secret sympathies. He jiggles the hook repeatedly, then hands it off to sidekick Rico, the only Italian straight-man in the Windy City. We all have our telephone-wizardry sidekicks, and mine is supposed to be in bed asleep. Nevertheless, I wonder if Eliot spends as much time as I do worrying over the regret and insomniac genes cooking along into the next generation.
“Don’t worry, they’ll give up.” With so little interest in communication, I find the off-key jangle a minor inconvenience. The persistence is indeed remarkable, but if its authors really want me, they’ll send a carrier pigeon to drop a big one on the doorstep.
“No they won’t!” Gisela bellows. From her voice, I can tell she’s no longer in her room. She sounds far too awake and resolute. I vault out of the barca-lounger and into the hallway past the dusty line-up of teething certificates and genius-toddler awards. It turns out that I might’ve fallen asleep after all, and in mid-snack. A cloud of potato chip fragments parts magically to reveal an ambush of purported heiresses.
Gisela and Adelaide lie in wait at the paint-free office door. Gisela sports a pink, moth-eaten nun’s habit—aka nightgown—I’ve thrown away a half-dozen times. Adelaide’s gun-toting flannel cowboys have bunched up around her knees and elbows. Neither of my underprivileged beauties can afford a comb or a pair of slippers.
Gisela glances at me, then barks at Adelaide. “Do it!”
“The hell are you–”
I barely get out the words, before Adelaide spins around, lifts off the floor, brings up her right heel, and smashes the door open.
“Sorry, Daddy,” Adelaide smiles smugly. That girl has far too much kinetic energy for my taste. Gisela is already in the room and picking up the phone.
“Put the damn thing down!” Am I invisible?
“Eine Minute, bitte.” Gisela drops the phone onto the ragged clutter on the desktop. “Du hast versprochen nicht um uns zu schwören.”
I promised to stop swearing around them? Since when? “Who the hell is it?”
“Some guy named Richard Habermann.”