“Disappointed? Hell, I’m disappointed,” said Ned Bolting.
It was 1985, and Huntington Meeks and his good friend Ned walked side by side along a dirt track behind the Meekses’ manor house and beyond the well-manicured gardens. “You were the senior US senator from Alabama, Ned. What brought you to San Francisco? Tell me again. I know you’ve told me this story before. And I’ve heard you tell it to others a time or two. But tell me again how you found the intellect and integrity of Amanda Charing to be. What did you call it? ‘Sexy?’ No. ‘Alluring,’ you said.”
“Yes, Huntington, I know what you are getting at. I should have known better, and I have disappointed you,” replied Ned, the man’s head sagging under the stress of his best friend’s inquiry.
Huntington clarified his words for his friend. “It is not so much disappointment as utter surprise. And a question of trust.”
Ned Bolting had been the pride of Alabama. He had been the state’s youngest US senator ever and the son of longtime senator Tom Bolting. Ned’s father was the senior senator of the state for three and a half decades before retiring to become his son’s campaign manager in a run for the very same office.
The only son of a wealthy Mobile family, a family with an extensive history in state and federal politics, Ned was a charismatic man whose destiny had been set at birth. No surprise to his parents, Ned was a natural in politics and won his first bid for election to the US Senate at the age of thirty-one. After Ned had achieved an easy victory to serve a second term, many of his loyal donors began to think of him as an excellent candidate to run for president one day.
“Ned, what brought you to California?” asked Huntington again. “I know, I know. What does that have to do with anything? But please, indulge me, sir.”
“It was love. Okay? You know why. I fell in love with Amanda—head over heels in love with her,” Ned explained, staring down at his own two feet.
“And you know I dearly loved my grandfather and love what he built here on this estate, what he so happily created for his heirs,” Huntington said with the honest pride he would always display when discussing his grandfather and the Meekses’ estate.
Ned finally capitulated. “I should never have told Breem what your grandfather had bequeathed to you, beyond this estate, I mean. ‘The collection,’ as your family calls it.” Ned answered his dear friend with a voice so quiet that Huntington could barely hear the man’s words.
Having no interest in making Ned grovel any further, Huntington did not insist that the man deliver his confession again or even more loudly. He knew his friend was struggling with his temporary, yet very rare, lack of judgment and the admission of his mistake. Ned’s words could neither turn back the clock nor change history. But Ned knew very well the value of Huntington’s grandfather’s collection and how much Huntington had loved and respected his grandfather. Ned also knew of his friend’s deep devotion to protecting everything his grandfather and father had built in and for the estate. That the collection amounted to millions of dollars of tangible assets only added weight to his friend’s already heavy burden.
“Okay, I’ve made my point, Ned. You love your wife, Amanda. You loved her so much that you retired from the Senate and moved across the country to California to be with her, much to the dismay of your family and many benefactors. I loved my grandfather, and it is my sole purpose in life to protect what he and my parents left to their future heirs. So you understand my position. I know you meant no harm in your actions. The deed is done. However, I would still like to know how you fell in with the likes of Walter Breem and what he has over you, if anything,” said Huntington.
“It ain’t like he had anything over me,” replied Ned. “You know how the man is; he’s just so good at worming his interests into other people’s… into y’all’s business. Amanda’s cousin Lucy introduced us, and Breem just did his thing.”
Huntington heard the stumble of his friend’s well-educated tongue, how he had slid back to his childhood days of playing with the servant kids, both black and white, on his family’s own vast estate on the outskirts of Mobile. He felt for the man, for his best friend. We all make mistakes, thought Huntington.
“He ingratiates himself with people who he feels are rich and powerful. I thought he was seeking respectability. Although I had read those newspaper articles about him and his business dealings and knew there must have been some truth to them, he still got to me. Go’n’ forward, though, I’ve made it quite clear to Breem that I want no more contact with him or any of his people. I knew there was fire under all that smoke, but he still learned what he wanted about y’all,” said Ned, lifting his face to bring credence to what he was telling his cherished friend.
Huntington looked his old friend in the eye and gave him a shoulder slap with one hand as he said, “Okay, my friend, we’ll get through this. No worries.” But Huntington could sense there was something more in what Ned was telling him. “Are you saying that Breem had some inkling about the collection beforehand?” he asked.
Ned’s face brightened. His friend was back, and he wanted more. “Yes! I don’t know how, but Breem seemed to know something; at least he had enough knowledge to ask the right questions and get me to open up.”
“Hmm, I wonder if…” Huntington’s voice trailed off with his thoughts.
“If what?” asked Ned.
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about this whole situation for a while. Someone on the staff, or a security contractor maybe…” The man’s voice trailed off again. Then with a more powerful tone, Huntington stated, “Give me some time, and we will talk some more later. Cora will want us back for dinner soon; we should head in.” Huntington had a distant look in his eyes that Ned considered to be the beginning of the rumination his friend had mentioned.
* * *
Cora met the two men as they approached the rear door into the servants’ corridor, a frown of disappointment on her otherwise beautiful face. “Why must you men always be late?” she asked rhetorically. She did not want an answer. She wanted them to show up on time. “Cook has everything on hold, as usual. We are all waiting in the parlor. Go get cleaned up, you two. Please hurry. Your guests are waiting, Mr. Meeks.”
Huntington had suggested the evening’s dinner party weeks prior, but here it was, and the timing was not good. The information Ned had given to him about Breem, and how the man may have known about the family’s collection earlier, was of deep concern to Huntington. He needed to consider his next actions, to start interviewing others about what they had known—and when. Moreover, he needed to call his security consultants as soon as possible.
Huntington preferred entering the manor through the rear, through what English aristocracy would have called “the downstairs.” The main entrance to the manor was designed to astonish its visitors, and Huntington appreciated that wow factor. Its carved granite columns, steeply pitched rooflines, massively tall chimneys, dark wood accents, and enormous mullioned windows did truly inspire others.
But Huntington would seldom enter the house through the front entrance, since doing so would involve a rather long walk, especially when coming from the stable yard or the sizable garage that had been added to the estate in the 1950s. Therefore, the men usually came into the house through the rear entry. They were often admonished by Cook or Mrs. Ada for being late, for dropping mud on the floor, and even for leaving behind their dirty or wet clothes. Huntington was in no mood for their reproofs today, so he made sure to pick up after himself and also asked Ned to do the same.
Making their way through the mudroom, into the servants’ corridor, and then past the kitchen doorway, Ned and Huntington could smell the evening’s meal in all its completed glory. Cora, Monica, and Mrs. Ada had spent weeks the previous summer selecting a new chef from Illinois, a young African American man who went by the name of Cook. His real name was Malcolm—after Malcolm X—Winfrey, though he was of no relation to the new host of the morning talk show AM Chicago, Cook was disappointed to say.
Malcolm Winfrey could certainly cook, but Huntington made the final decision to hire the young man after asking him one simple question: “You could earn Michelin stars in Europe, so why would you want to work here?”
Malcolm’s mature and honest answer instantly convinced Huntington to hire Malcolm on the spot. “I would rather be appreciated for every meal than for an occasional meal that some food critic happened to be in the right mood for,” Malcolm replied. “Who needs that?”
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