Nat called home, “I’ve got some game film to watch,” then got behind the wheel of his M’ Benz GLC and drove to Bentleigh, down a laneway behind some shops, parked near a small aging warehouse.
He tapped a keypad at the back door, spoke to the doorman via a screened slot then was admitted to the Cigar Club. He loved the Cigar Club, a surprisingly comfortable place for such a drab exterior. Once a week, to sit down and not have to worry about anything for a few hours, to talk with men and women of power and influence about a vast range of subjects, anything but one’s work, it was thoroughly relaxing.
A waiter approached him with a tray bearing several cigars and strips of wood.
“Good evening, sir. Your taste this evening?”
Nat studied the selection.
“Cohibo Esplendido with mahogany, thanks Laurie.”
Laurie selected the cigar, cut it clean and sharp, gave it to Nat. He lit a mahogany splint in the fireplace. Nat held the cigar close to the heat, avoided the flame, slowly rotated the cigar for an even ignition. He took a few slow, steady draws, got a smooth light, leaned back against the buttoned leather and felt the stress and tension drain away. He looked up and grinned:
“Thank you, Laurie.”
“Happy to help, sir. Would you like a drink?”
“Nip of Bushmills 21 in a small glass, thanks.”
Nat settled back to enjoy the first blissful inhalations. He sat there for a few minutes and again reflected on the wonderful ambience of the Cigar Club. It was a respectful place, no-one bothered you but were happy to talk if you were.
He stood up – yes, the knees weren’t doing too bad – and strolled over to watch a chess match. He’d often been challenged but always politely declined. He joined a conversation, dropped a deft comment about Kant’s analytic propositions, caught Dick Flaherty’s laser blue eye, smiled in greeting.
For all the fame, the money, the glory, nothing beat an evening in the Cigar Club.
Some miles north, a long black limousine drew up before a lavish mansion. Jad slipped out in his best tracksuit, bopped to the door with the nimble gait of an athlete too young to have ruined his knees properly. He knocked, a portly gentleman in a very nice suit greeted him.
“Hey Ed, how’s it hanging, mate!”
Jad followed Ed into a loungeroom, several greying men in suits were sitting about, sipping warm water. A white haired bloke sat in a straight-backed chair, stroking his moustache.
“Glad you could make it, Jad.” “Thanks for being here, Jad.” They all stood up, smiled, shook his hand. He sat down in the comfiest of couches, a surly kid placed a glass of water on the ‘coffee’ table before him. Bloody hell, a limo to get here and I don’t even get a beer?
Ed looked about distractedly before taking a seat on one of the longer couches. These were very deep couches. Everyone’s knees were almost level with their shoulders. Aside from the white-haired bloke. Ed tried a businesslike look.
“We’ve a lot of important issues to discuss, Jad. Ahh – does something amuse you?”
“Haha, yeah, that’s Jed’s look. Oh man…”
“Well, if we may be serious for a moment. We are being serious, aren’t we?”
“The club is facing an intrinsical paradigm shift…” Jad couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s classic man, Jim was always talking about paradigms.” He noticed that the men in suits were all staring at him with much intent. “Yeah, okay, Ed, what’s it with the, y’know, paradigm shift and all that?”
Ed took a moment to compose himself. He cleared his throat.
“We are, as some would put it, seventeen percent into the twenty-first century. The world of football has changed and will continue to change. We at The Club are prepared to meet those changes head-on, we are prepared to leap ahead of our foes…” Ed’s face reddened… “We will leap forward to the twenty-thirties before the twenty-twenties begin!”
Jad wondered where the surly kid had gotten to and if he could get himself a bourbon along with the beer.
“The Club will not be left behind! We have been in close contact with the cutting edge of Palo Alto and we have… The Algorithm!”
Nat was feeling reasonably relaxed, ordered a second Bushmills 21, engaged in a spirited debate about nihilism in the works of Dashiell Hammett. The Cohibo had an almost floral woody taste to start, became sweeter as he smoked it, with an undertaste of pepper. A wonderful cigar. A very quiet voice by his elbow…
“Ah, oh, Mr Flaherty!” Dick rarely spoke.
“Nat. Excuse my bluntness, what do you want to be doing?”
“The Algorithm will set up The Club to dominate the twenty first century! The greatest minds in the hinterland of San Francisco have been working on this and we are proud to reveal it. It is locked in! It will start after Round Six! There is no, I repeat NO, turning back!”
The men in suits nodded in assent. The white-haired bloke stroked his moustache. Jad thought about how he might wipe Ed’s spittle off his T-shirt.
“The details have been hammered, the Kay Pee Eyes, the One-Percenters. Smothers, you want smothers?! We have them graded on a triangular thirty-six point scale! The future of this club has been subjected to the most rigourous of cyber-science, the modelling required a warehouse full of servers, it will begin, oh, so soon!”
Ed’s eyes were bulging, his face scarlet, his hands trembling.
“Jad, this is your moment. The modelling has run far and wide, sampling innumerable sportsmanlike qualities. Jad, The Algorithm tells us that you are the man to lead us into this brilliant, beautiful future!”
Bloody hell, even the preacher in Miami wasn’t like this. Where’s that surly kid? I’d love to be playing touch footy in a suburban park right now.
“Nat, what matters?”
“Winning. Always wanted to win, be the best.”
“Brownlow, Norm Smith, no-one will argue that.” Dick looked into his glass, swirled the XO Borderies cognac, looked at Nat with what may have been perception or a wry glance, then walked over the the darts area and wrote DF on the chalkboard.
“So, you want me in the midfield, eh Ed?”
“Jad, we want you for captain-coach!” The men in suits nodded, thoughtfully, as it were.
“Ohh… yeah, I coud do that. What happened to the last captain-coach?”
Ed wiped his neck inside his tightly buttoned collar with an anxious index finger.
“Jad, it’s all about The Algorithm. It’s locked in.”
“Do you have a coach now?”
“Would you like to hear some music, Jad?” The men in suits settled into the couches with a sense of resignation. Ed jabbed at a remote, pointed it in several directions. Clashing strings leapt out.
“It’s outa tune, mate.”
“It’s fucking Stravinsky, you dolt!”
The white-haired bloke stroked his moustache. The men in suits shuffled papers.
“Look, thanks Ed for asking me over here and all – and could I get a double bourbon and a beer mate? – who’s the captain, Ed?”
“Jad, you will be captain coach! By Round nine, we hope.”
Jad looked at the silver and orange sneakers he’d bought at the airport.
“Ed, my cousin Tony, he’s a mean bastard. Like, if you did the wrong thing, he’d kill you, but if you, if you’re okay, he’d do anything for you. Well, like, back in local footy he’d always tell me off if I was being a smartarse. And when I quit the Niners and I was gonna play for Fiji Sevens…” Jad shuffled around in his comfy couch, then looked at Ed.
“Tony came up to me in the backyard at me aunty’s and says you’re taking a job from a man who deserves it and I said what and he gave me a fucking beauty in the jaw, yeah. So, thanks but I don’t want to steal some dude’s job.”
Nat enjoyed a third 21 sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Cigar Club. He looked at the sky and mused.