An homage to the classic film “Bringing Up Baby”
Adapted from the screenplay “Hot Potato”
By Phyllis Zimbler Miller and Mitchell R. Miller
Los Angeles —
Walter Stearns squirmed on the counter stool. He knew the shit was about to hit the fan.
He forced himself to smile in order give his voice a lift. Then he said into his cell, “Look, Sid, I’m sorry the interfaces didn’t work on U.S. current. My partner will get you an acceptable substitute. I’ll transfer you over.”
Flashing a smile at Charlie, the counterman at the Los Angeles diner where Walter conducted his entrepreneurial businesses, Walter now spoke in a woman’s voice with an Indian accent. “Please hold, sir, while I transfer you.”
A moment later Walter continued in the woman’s voice: “Mr. Patel isn’t in. May I give you his voice mail?”
When Walter ended the call, Charlie wiped his hands on his apron and shook his head at Walter. “How you gonna get out of that?”
Walter grinned at Charlie. “I bought enough time to think of something.”
Charlie again shook his head at Walter and marched down to the end of the counter to take the order of a new arrival.
What to do? Walter needed to find another opportunity and soon. His last few endeavors had not been what one would call salutary. Not salutary at all.
He gulped his cold coffee, considering whether he would finally have to get a real job. He had successfully avoided this option for so long. Why now were his efforts — okay, schemes — failing?
He opened The Wall Street Journal folded next to his cell and skimmed the front page headlines. Today even the humorous article on the front page did not amuse him. If the article couldn’t supply him with revenue, he could care less.
Then on one of the international news pages he found it!
Walter waved Charlie over. “The Russians are sending their gold to Swiss banks!”
Charlie leaned in towards Walter. “Yeah, what for?”
Walter laughed and tapped his finger on the article. “They’re having trouble with their cash flow. They’re sending the gold as collateral for new loans.”
Now Charlie tapped the newspaper. “I’m having a little trouble wit’ my own cash flow. Think I can get me some of that dough?”
Walter ignored Charlie’s comment. Instead Walter explained to Charlie what the deal was. “With the Swiss banks the Russians won’t get much interest. Now if they would invest with me, we’re talking 20, 25% annual return.”
Charlie shot Walter a look. Walter knew that look — it meant “Here goes the bullshitter again.” But this time Walter would be successful.
Bernard Milow sat in his office at the University of Southern California studying a large map on his computer screen. He squinted at the intricate train routes, considering which route would be the most efficient shipping for the products of a company that had hired him as a transportation consultant.
Computers might be able to suggest the best route. But computers didn’t take into consideration the actual on-the-ground conditions, conditions that Bernard had spent years studying.
At that moment trouble blew into his office. His good-for-nothing brother-in-law Walter Stearns descended on him without even bothering to knock.
Before Walter had the chance to open his mouth, Bernard said, “How much do you want this time?”
Instead of Walter answering, he knocked a stack of books off the visitor chair and plopped down.
“Why do you always think I’ve come to borrow money?” Walter said.
Bernard threw up both his hands. “Borrow is not exactly the operative word, Walter.”
Walter flashed a smile — a smile Bernard had come to know as extremely deceptive. “All I want is your expertise,” Walter said.
Bernard considered responding, but knew there was no stopping this particular steam engine once it got chugging along. He simply waited.
“If — hypothetically — the Russians were to ship some of their gold reserves to Switzerland, how would they do it?” Walter said.
Russians? Gold? Switzerland? What the hell?
“What are you talking about, Walter?” Bernard said.
Bernard was treated to another Walter Stearns smile. “Could you just answer this hypothetical question, please?” Walter said.
A direct answer would cost him nothing. “By train,” Bernard said.
“Why not by air?”
“Their airline safety record isn’t so good. And gold isn’t something that lends itself to air shipping.”
Walter sat for a moment without speaking. Bernard knew from previous unfortunate experiences that the devious wheels of Walter’s mind were spinning at an incredible rate.
“What route would the gold take?”
Bernard couldn’t help it. He had promised himself he wouldn’t react to Walter, but this was too much!
“You’re involved in some scheme to steal Russian gold!”
“This is strictly legit!”
Bernard took a large gulp of his coffee. He reminded himself he need not provide any information.
“I will not participate in one of your schemes,” Bernard said.
“Ventures.” And then Walter smiled again. “The sooner you help me, the sooner I’ll leave.”
He clicked some buttons on his computer and turned the screen so Walter could see.
“The most direct route from their gold mines to Switzerland is right through Poland into the Czech Republic.”
Walter studied the screen. “Where would a train like that stop?”
“At Brest — they’ll have to change trains there.”
“Russian trains use a different gauge track. They can’t run on European tracks.”
Bernard stood. Hopefully Walter would now leave. Or perhaps adding a little more information would help get Walter out the door.
Bernard said, “Those trains won’t stop for anything except to change trains for the different gauge tracks. They’ll be heavily guarded.”
Walter stood too. “It’s only hypothetical.”
Bernard grabbed Walter’s forearm. “Walter, if you embarrass your sister one more time, I’m going to rip your heart out.”
Walter shook off Bernard’s hand. “Now, Bernard.”
Bernard said, “That is, if someone doesn’t beat me to it.”
With that the black cloud of Walter Stearns exited the office without even a thank you.
Bernard decided he had better not tell his wife about this newest scheme. She might not be able to take any more anxiety when it came to news of her younger brother.
Instead Bernard returned to studying train routes for his paying client. And he determined to think no more about what his brother-in-law might — or might not — be up to.
Brest, Poland —
Susan Thornton eyed the men in high-ranking military uniforms standing around her. She knew that she herself — in an expensive tailored silk shirt and matching pants — attracted them. But she wanted to attract them with the missile launcher.
She hefted it to her shoulder and said, “Please clear the back-blast area, gentlemen. About 15 meters to the rear and 10 meters to the sides.”
Watching the men scurry out of the way, she said, “Now note that the line-of-sight to the target is actually obscured by that clump of trees.”
The men all looked downrange towards a tank hull peeking out from behind a grove of trees. As they watched, the tank driver backed up the tank until it was totally obscured. Then the tank driver scrambled out of the tank and dashed to a safe position.
“Target medium tank — front!” she said. “Identify! Fire! On the way!”
Flame roared out of the launcher and a dot hurtled towards the target. Susan turned her back on the target and removed the launcher from her shoulder. She smiled, knowing how delighted the men would be at the result of her demonstration.
The dot traveled downrange, popped up over the tress, then dove down behind the trees and hit the target with a bang and a flash of light.
Around her the uniformed men clapped and stamped their feet. Susan gestured at the officer standing closest to her.
“Now, General Crenski, you try it.”
The general’s chest seemed to visually expand as he took the missile launcher Susan held out to him. She smiled again. Yes, this was going to be a good sales day.
Los Angeles —
Walter typed in a question on his phone and waited for the answer. He clicked on the first link and scanned the information.
“Bingo!” he said.
“What’d you find out?” Charlie asked, coming over to Walter’s end of the counter.
Walter dialed a number and then, speaking with a Texas accent, said, “Swiss Federal Bank? I want to speak to the international credit department.”
Charlie said, “The Swiss are going to lend you money?”
Walter waved his arm for Charlie to be quiet.
“My name is James Witherspoon of International Continental Dynamics. We have an account with your bank.”
Walter listened to the reply, then said, “No, I won’t tell you the number over the phone. Don’t you know what bank secrecy means? Just check your computer — you’ll see we’re a major client.”
When he got confirmation of the account, Walter went on, “We have a small problem.”
He ignored Charlie hissing the word “Small?”
“We shipped 30 of our plutonium isolators to the Russians six months ago. We haven’t been paid and you guaranteed the loan. When are we going to get our money?”
Walter waved his arm to shush Charlie before he said anything else.
“You haven’t been paid either,” Walter said. “What are you doing about it?”
Walter spun on his counter stool while listening to the response. “You expect this additional collateral when?
In three days?”
Pumping his arm in a victory salute, Walter next said, “We have a first lien — in the county recorder’s office of Terrell County, Texas. That’s in Sanderson. Stop by for the Chuck Wagon Cook Off, why don’t you?”
Moments later Walter disconnected his call and yelled at Charlie, “Hey, Charlie, I have a plane to catch.”
Charlie shook his head. “Don’t ya call me from jail.”
Walter smiled. “Oh ye of little faith,” he said.
Former East Germany —
Lida pushed an umbrella stroller holding nine-month-old Peter. She glanced behind her at the old building whose sign in English and German read “American Sisters of Charity Orphanage.”
Checking that no one could overhear her, she said in English, the language she had been instructed to always speak on the grounds of the orphanage, “Are you comfortable, liebchen? Muti always takes good care of you.”
An elderly nun appeared on the path some distance ahead of Lida. For only a moment Lida considered fleeing in the opposite direction. Instead she continued pushing the stroller towards the nun.
The nun shook her head at Lida. “You should not have taken Peter for a walk. The people who want to adopt him are coming to visit this afternoon.”
Lida flashed her sweetest smile. “Muti knows Peter does not like to miss his afternoon walk.”
“Lida, you must give up this illusion of being the baby’s mother,” the nun said. “He will soon have a real mother.”
Lida gritted her teeth to prevent saying something nasty to a sister. The nun must have noticed this because she next said, “Perhaps if you weren’t so incorrigible you would have been adopted.”
The flare of anger inside her surprised Lida. By now she should have been accustomed to such comments. She had to get away from this sister!
Lida grabbed the handles of the stroller and pushed as fast as she could so the nun could not keep up. Over her shoulder Lida said, “I will take Peter back and wash him up to meet his new parents.”
Lida had no such intention — she would never let another mother take Peter. Now was finally the time for her escape plan.
She parked the stroller next to the building and leaned down to speak to the baby. “Peter, be quiet and I’ll be right back with your bottle.”
Inside the building Lida climbed the stairs to the second floor and entered a dormitory. She walked down the double row of beds each featuring a gray blanket tightly tucked into the metal bedframe. She stopped in front of one of the wood cabinets that stood next to each bed.
From the cabinet she took one set of pajamas, a sweater, three pairs of underpants and a hairbrush. She put the sweater on over the white blouse she wore above her navy uniform skirt. At least the sweater partially disguised that she wore a uniform.
Although she would have liked to take a change of clothes, the only other clothes she had consisted of an identical uniform, currently in the orphanage laundry.
Then she walked to the few cribs at the far end of the room. From one crib she took a blanket. Then she took a bottle, two baby one-piece outfits, a sweater, two cans of formula, and a box of disposable diapers from the cabinet next to the crib.
She dropped her items and Peter’s items into the blanket and tied the ends in a knot.
She took one more look around the dormitory, the only home she had ever known, and then ran down the stairs.
Outside again, she placed the tied-up blanket on the shelf underneath the stroller seat and set off in the direction of the road.
Lida pushed the stroller the short distance to the small train station that served this rural part of Germany. She said over and over to herself, “I am Peter’s muti. I cannot let strangers take him away like my own muti let happen to me.”
Lida sat down on a bench on the street side of the train station and rocked Peter back and forth in his stroller. The baby whimpered as an old woman approached. The woman leaned over the stroller and spoke in German to Lida, “Such a beautiful baby.”
Lida said, “He is hungry.”
“Why is that?” the old woman asked.
Lida rubbed her eyes as if she had been crying. “My mother will be very angry with me. She sent me to visit my sick grandmother. A man stopped me and stole all my money.”
The old woman shook her head. “Such things would never have happened in the old days. This is what the West has brought to us!”
Lida rubbed her eyes again. The woman patted Lida on the back.
“I will give you some money to get home. Will 10 Euros be enough?”
Lida kissed the hand that held out the money and the old woman walked away.
A few minutes later a second old woman approached Lida and Peter. This woman also bent over the stroller.
“What a pretty baby,” the second woman said.
“He is hungry.”
“Why?” asked the woman.
Lida rubbed her eyes.
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Copyright © 2013 Phyllis Zimbler Miller and Mitchell R. Miller
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is the author of other fiction books, including the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semifinalist MRS. LIEUTENANT, the military thriller LT. COMMANDER MOLLIE SANDERS written with Mitchell R. Miller, the romantic suspense spy thriller CIA FALL GUY, and the cozy mystery CAST THE FIRST STONE, as well as the author of nonfiction books, including the 3-book HOW TO SUCCEED series for teens and young adults.
Phyllis is a member of the Military Writers Society of America. Mitch is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, the National Military Intelligence Association, and the U.S. Naval Institute.