Chapter SIX by John Nimick
Allenby burst through the doors of the Copacabana Squash Club shouting at the top of his considerable lungs, “If you’re double X and planning to qualify, get on the fucking bus…now!”
Shelley Anderson had moved in lock step with Allenby through the doors. His voice was still ringing in her ears from moments ago at the hotel. “Get down to the lobby now! We’ve got a chance.”
Shelley took the stairs from the 8th floor of the Copacabana Palace Hotel two at a time with a jump into each landing. She didn’t break a sweat. Allenby was standing face to face with the concierge, his finger pointing out the glass front of the hotel “No, that one, the big shuttle! And put it on the room. Make it happen!”
He grabbed Anderson’s arm as she skittered across the floor from the main stairwell and took off for the front door, the concierge on the run behind the two of them.
Allenby and Anderson leapt into the open double wide doors of the hotel’s primary convention group shuttle as the concierge shouted in Portuguese to the driver to take them to the Copacabana Squash Club. Dutifully, the driver floored it.
“Shelley, some kid on Perez’s flight from Miami tried to inhale the snack almonds and they’re putting down briefly in Caracas to evac him. TAM 163 is now posted for 9:30am arrival Rio.”
“What are we doing?”
“Just back me up on this when we get to the club. I know the rules.”
Someone in the club cracked the seal on a fermented Nutra Water and the hiss of escaping gas settled in the otherwise complete silence.
“OK, listen up. He’s within his rights to do this as the tournament promoter.” Shelley still wasn’t quite sure but they both needed Florencia Perez in the event in a major way.
“Both WSA and PSA rules are clear that the time for the Qualifying Call cannot be changed after its designation nor can the venue, but there is nothing in the rules about moving the room.” But what if the room moves? Ah, hell…she could finesse that.
Emily Weaver used the butt of her racquet to prod Julia Brown, who at least had a little experience in WSA Qualifying. “Freaking stop!” whispered Julia, but she tentatively put up her hand, “Excuse me. Umm, I don’t know who’s the rep here, but, like, what room are we going to?”
“We’re moving the Women’s Call to the tournament’s temporary shuttle bus out there in the parking lot. Now let’s go.” And then we’re taking a little tour, Allenby thought to himself.
Allenby whirled on Paulo and put his hands on the nervous club manager’s shoulder.
“Carlos, you’re going to handle the men’s Qualifying Call here. You know how to do it.…keep it on schedule. Shelley will stay in case there are any problems,” he said as soothingly as possible.
“What are you doing with the girls?” he asked incredulously.
“We’re going to Galeao Airport.”
As the Copa’s lounge emptied of WSA Qualifiers the guys burst out in a babel of incredulous banter and high fives. Fingers were flying over keys and keypads…it was hashtag city.
“Don’t lose your minds Gentlemen,” Carlos shouted over the din, certain now that the whole event was in the crapper. “Forty minutes.”
Allenby had thirty-one WSA Qualifiers checked in and on the bus and no time to lose.
Even before the last player sat down, Allenby belted, “Driver! Aeroporto rapidez!”
The bus was soon swimming upstream on Avenida Isabel, but at least it was a Sunday so traffic was only really heavy. Galeao was 15 kilometers from the club. Fortunately an entrance to the high speed connector built for the 2104 World Cup and the Games was only a few blocks on the other side of the tunnel through the Copacabana hills. The young Brazilian driver knew the roads well and seemed to handle all the panic with a smile. Allenby liked that about the Brazilians he had known through the years; enthusiastic and not too worried about the result.
Allenby settled into a seat near the front.
As the bus accelerated up the on ramp to the new Pele Highway, Erika Hoskin came up from the back of the bus and sat down in an empty seat next to him.
Erika looked Allenby in the eyes. The petite, diamond-chinned squash coach with hazel eyes and short blond bangs was not hard to look at.
“Thank you for doing this,” she said.
Allenby knew Hoskin well. Their own pro squash years had overlapped a little, but it was enough. Even though the tours were pretty much separate back then, as two top Americans butting heads with the internationals in their respective draws, even a few years apart, they’d shared a few drinks, dinners and more. He had heard her tactical skills had landed her in New York as a coach.
“Don’t thank me, and next time get your girl on an earlier flight.”
“I will. But first, I’ll make this up to you. Like old times.”
Allenby smiled, for this first time in what seemed like a week.
Fortunately there still weren’t that many agents and coaches yet for the players in the no. 40-70 range of the World Rankings so the crap kicking Allenby got on the way to the airport by the players wasn’t all that bad. Shouts of “pagal” in Urdu, “thumbs up, mate” from a veteran Aussie, and the ever straightforward “tosser” and “wanker” from the Brits were as bad as it got. He thought Julia Bown’s “Next time, get your own room” was at least clever.
As the 50-passenger shuttle lurched to the curb outside of International Arrivals, Allenby handed the driver enough cash to make sure it was right in the same spot when they came back. He and Erika hit the pavement running.
“She’s here!” shouted Erika looking at her phone. Allenby looked at his Rolex. They were in the middle of the cavernous Arrivals Hall with thousands of travelers.
“9:55am Erika. Where is here?”
“Right there, John.” Erika pointed to the exit doors as Florencia Perez, tall, broad shouldered and dark, strode out of Customs and Immigration. No iPod, no ear buds, no four wheeler…just a bulging racquet bag slung over one shoulder and a backpack over the other. Florencia’s eyes scanned the huge hall like a hawk. Erika jumped up and waved catching her attention and the Argentinian sensation sprinted to meet them.
Florencia and Erika hugged. “Flo, this the event promoter John Allenby.”
“No time…” he started to say, but before he could grab them both and turn for the door, Florencia Perez tucked her ravenesque black hair behind an ear holding a single cobalt stud, held out her hand and smiled.
“Oh, my god,” said Allenby clearly. He hadn’t ever seen her in person. Fumbling to look at his watch again, he shunted, “It’s about fucking time.” They ran for the bus.
Allenby called the roll on the bus at 10:01am, as per regulations, and had a full 32 draw.
Qualifying play started as scheduled at Noon at the Copa Club. The place was packed. Allenby spent a little time schmoozing with coaches, agents and even some of the main draw players who liked to check in on friends and teammates, but he soon headed for a courtesy car and the short ride to the glass court site on the beach.
His temporary office was in a construction trailer within the perimeter of the event grounds. It was a crappy place to work but at least it was private and had a decent amount of work space and a conference table.
Allenby turned on his Mac and immediately heard an alert that his google filter had picked up some event news. He clicked the link and found himself on smashingballs.com. The outsized headline read Girls Get a Real Allen-Wrenching in Rio.
Great. Now Buckler was spreading the love. Allenby couldn’t help himself and started to read the first insulting paragraph, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. Probably his site supervisor Phil Peters.
“Come!” he shouted, to be heard above the trailer’s industrial sized air conditioning unit.
He turned back to his Mac, “Sorry Phil…be with you in one second…just finishing some crap by Buckler.”
“Ohhh, I bet it’s about us.” That was definitely not the voice of Phil Peters. Erika Hoskin was wearing a beach towel, flip flops, an orchid behind one ear and, apparently, nothing else. She had a frozen drink in a plastic cup in one hand and was closing the trailer door with the other.
“It’s really cool the hotel and the pool are right across Avenida Atlantico from the arena. Nice job, Boss Promoter. Hope you don’t mind me popping in?”
Erika pointed to the Mac. “Is it some trash about the airport run? That was close.”
“Look Erika, this tournament is teetering on disaster and getting Flo to the church on time is just one little bouquet of sunshine. I have two glass panels for the court held hostage somewhere and I have a bull headed, potentially juiced old Aussie stud either up on charges or on the run, I can’t tell which.”
Hoskin steadied her gaze on Allenby for the second time that day. “Flo isn’t scheduled to play her first round match until 19:00 so I have some free time. Want some help blowing hot sand or rescuing squash players?”
Erika clenched the orchid between her teeth and dropped the towel.
Allenby stepped in to the elevator and straightened his tie. He’d hated to leave Erika napping on the conference table, but this was a very important appointment to keep. As the doors closed, he remembered that the last time he had worn a tie had been at a funeral back home in Brooklyn.
He punched 52, the top floor.
The elevator rose swiftly to the top of the Copa Trade Tower on Rua Ribeiro, at 52 stories the tallest building by one floor in all of Brazil. All of Allenby’s dealings with SombraSoft had been at arm’s length; emails, pdfs, electronic transfers and electronic signatures. He’d made several trips to Rio to develop the event, but always just met the firm’s lawyers and marketing VPs. Unlike most of his sponsorships, which started with prospect lists, cold calls, third party recommendations and a lot of grunt work, this one had appeared from the heavens. He remembered the call.
“Halo, I wish to speak to Juan Allenby.”
“This is John,” Allenby said as he leaned back in his office chair, which squeaked as it always did when the 220-pounder unloaded on it. While not totally out of shape, years of road warring and an affinity for the beers of the world, often all at once, had rounded off the ex-pro squash player. He still was competitive on the hard ball doubles court…the huge doubles courts found in North America, not that multiple width soft ball version that ASB and the WSF kept inventing…but, just.
“Sir, my name is Renato Bulsara and I represent SombraSoft, one of Brazil’s biggest companies.”
Allenby had heard of SombraSoft. The South American tech giant with roots in the telephone business had grown rapidly into the leagues of Oracle, SAP and IBM in global business enterprise solutions and had recently announced major plans to launch consumer electronics. They were the real money behind Rio’s successful bid for the 2014 World Cup and were touted to have invested upwards of $100m USD in Brazilian football.
Allenby put down his stress ball and stood up, as was his habit when “big calls” were on the line.
“I know of the company. How can I help you?”
“SombraSoft believes deeply in the power of sports, as you may be aware, and our market analysis tells us that squash is going to be the next great global game. The boost next year from the Olympic coverage will be dramatic and we want to invest ahead of the curve.”
What a load of crap, thought Allenby. Squash had been voted in to the Games by the IOC in 2013 only because of the transgender scandal that had rocked heavy favorite Wushu days before the vote. The slot vacated surprisingly by the ouster of wrestling had to be filled and squash had the fewest enemies, so the miracle the sport longed for happened. True, the squash’s dominance by Egyptians and Malaysians was a plus for medal diversity but the outcry from Rockefeller Center when Comcast NBCUniversal learned their $4.3b USD bid for the broadcast rights to the 2020 Games had bought them…squash!…was still reverberating in Lausanne.
“Well,” said Allenby slowly as he started to pace around his office, which was papered with framed event posters covered in turn with working white boards festooned with sticky notes, “you’ve come to the right place. My company Squash Rocket offers fully integrated event marketing and management services in the sport and is the leading promoter of professional tournaments in the world.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. After his epic Neptune Open sank with the Costa Concordia a few years ago he’d basically sworn off working outside of the Americas.
“Oh, we’re well aware of your portfolio Mr. Allenby and we trust we’ve identified the right person to handle our business. And we do our homework, too. Now why don’t you sit back down at your desk and pick up that small globe you like to squeeze.”
WHAT the FUCK!!! Allenby whirled around and looked out his windows. His modest three room office in Brooklyn Heights faced Montague Street and its collection of quaint shops, eateries, low rise apartments and the famous, at least in the squash world, Heights Casino Club. Where to look?
“Don’t worry, Mr. Allenby, we’re not spying on you…now. Shall we get back to business?”
The elevator doors opened…
Bright light flooded Allenby’s eyes. He blinked and shuttered his lids as he stepped out of the elevator.
Surrounding him was a curved marble lobby with floor to ceiling windows. As his pupils adjusted, his jaw dropped. Almost everything Rio was in sight; the Corcovado, Sugarloaf, the bay, Galeao Airport and the beaches of the north shore. The purity of the color contrasts was almost photographic. It was a good day to be in Rio.
He heard the brisk click of dress shoes on the marble floor and turned as a small man wearing a pair of sleek Oakley Gascans and dressed in a black suit and black turtleneck extended a tablet to him.
“Thumb and index finger please Mr. Allenby.”
Allenby did has he was told. Rolling each digit slightly side to side on the screen. Embedded elegantly in a corner of the device was the famous SombraSoft cupuacu fruit logo with the spear through it. He hadn’t seen this device yet in New York, but he was sure he would soon. The tablet emitted a beep and a light on the screen turned from yellow to green.
The man in black removed his sunglasses, but did not extend a hand. “Nice to finally meet you…up close. I am Renato Bulsara. Please follow me.”
The two men walked around the elevator stack to the other side of the lobby. A wall of black obsidian spanned the width of the building. Bulsara walked up and put his own index finger in a scanner near the middle and a section of the wall swung open.
Stepping back, he said softly, “After you, Mr. Allenby.”
The opulent office was huge and apparently contained as many furnishings for entertaining as it did for working. Allenby’s eyes were immediately drawn to two artifacts in front of him on a deeply carved black credenza. One was an upright electric guitar with a red mahogany body. In flowing silver script on the body was a note. “From one very big man to another – Freddie Mercury. Jan 18, 1985.”
But the other item was much more familiar. The racquet rested upright on a plinth, as if ready in an instant for more hard work. The gut strings were frayed and the black leather handle was slick and scuffed on one side. The plaque on the plinth confirmed what Allenby knew: Unsquashable and Unbeaten – 5 years, 8 Months – Jahangir Khan. A handwritten note was flattened under glass on the plinth. “Thank you my Brazilian friend for taking care of my family. Shukria – JK ‘86”.
“They are both impressive, are they not? It was quite a time.”
The voice rumbled from the direction of the windows on the far side of the room. The view on this side of the building was equally breathtaking, with the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana receiving the endless blue waters of the great South Atlantic.
“Please, join me.” The sound again like from a giant animal.
Since that phone call back in Brooklyn, Allenby knew this meeting would take place today. Bulsara had laid out the deal and his subordinates subsequently took care of the details. Allenby was to launch a major pro tournament on the Copacabana Beach, ensure all the world’s best players participated and attract as much global media attention as possible. SombraSoft would pay one million dollars for the Title Sponsorship and one million for prize money to ensure it was the richest event ever in the world. They also wanted complete corporate exclusivity. No secondary sponsors. Allenby needed to make the whole event work for that fee plus whatever he could generate from underwriters and hospitality sales, ticket sales, merchandise and concessions. No logo other than that of the cupuacu and spear was to appear anywhere on event collateral, in the stadium or on TV.
A huge gamble for sure, but $2m at the top was like crack to Allenby. He was all in. SombraSoft would pay Allenby $1.0 million in advance towards the budget and $1.0 million when the event was underway. Indeed, two hours after finishing the deal in Rio a year ago, First National Bank texted him confirmation of the first deposit.
Now, the event was underway.
Allenby approached the desk by the windows, his eyes adjusting once more to the brightness.
The businessman known around the world as Mr. Fino stood up. Allenby could not remember seeing a man this large in a suit. He could not imagine anyone making a suit so large as to fit this man, either. It seemed as if one whole floor-to-ceiling window pane was blocked by his silhouette. Mr. Fino took one stride around the desk and extended his hand, “E um prazer ve-lo aqui. Welcome.” Allenby’s sizeable paw disappeared in Mr. Fino’s hand, but the shake itself was survivable.
“Come take a view.”
As Allenby rounded the big man’s desk he saw a photo in an elegant silver frame of the massive Fino arm in arm with a very handsome young man on a glass squash court, both sweaty with sloppy smiles and tangled hair.
Fino and Allenby stared down at the sprawl of Copacabana below them.
“See your tiny glass court down there on the beach? I built dis building, after how you say, some politicos here and there, to have that view. But it is really too far to enjoy the squash, no?” Allenby was sure it was not a question.
“No problem. I still get to take a look.”
Mr. Fino reached for a device on his desk. Easily the same size as Allenby’s TV remote back in the office, the device looked like a match box in Fino’s hand. He clicked and four large screens, fruit and spear included, emerged from the floor surrounding the other side of the desk. They blinked to life. Allenby gazed in turn at each one, unsurprised to see a live view of the court area in one, the stage and festival area in another and the main entranceway in the third. What did bother him was to see his event office in the fourth! Fortunately, Erika was gone.
Allenby began to protest the intrusion, but Fino cut him off, “Now, no harm, Mr. Allenby. Personal is personal, bizness es bizness. Rio still a dangerous place, no? Security es muy importante. You doing a very good job so far on SombraSoft
Brazilian Open. So, you need payment numero dos, non? A pleasure. Renato, please take Mr. Allenby to the elevator and complete the bizness.”
Allenby didn’t move. “Mr. Fino, you play this sport?”
“Mas e claro.”
“And you have an all glass court?”
“Si. I bought same court you put in tournament rider since two years. Por muy rancho. Of course.”
Allenby had his panels.
“No mas. Completo. You will see me for the final, Mr. Allenby. Talk to Renato as you need.”
Allenby stood up as Fino pushed buttons on the device. The screens descended. Miguel escorted Allenby to the door, which opened seemingly of its own accord, and out to the elevator. On the floor by the elevator doors was a very large black case with dual combination locks.
Instead of asking immediately about shanghai-ing some glass panels or Jahangir or the young player on the court, Allenby fell into that ridiculous habit of taking his eye off the ball. “Traveling Mr. Bulsara?”
“No. But you are in a way. Please pick up the case. Here are the combinations.”
Bulsara handed Allenby a business card, blank except for two series of numbers.
The doors opened behind Allenby.
“Mind the gap…and do count it. We wouldn’t want to have any business complications.”
Speechless, Allenby stepped back into the elevator for the fifty-one floor ride to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, with $1 million in cash.
Next Up: Chapter SEVEN by Will Gens