I. Donato Casbah
Very simply, I’d had enough of Sharon’s machinations. I’d endured her many injuries for many years, as she was the child of my parents’ best friends; a "play-cousin," as it were. I stopped caring the way play-cousins do decades ago and merely tolerated Sharon as was expected of me by my family. And I, I would not have gone out of the way to hurt Mother and Father by any means whatsoever when they were alive. All of Sharon’s slights over the years—imagined, she may think them to be—ranged from the very trivial to that of great effect; damage to my carefully constructed reputation. I was born of two families of great strength; the Taniths and the Drakes, and I relied on that strength that kept me straight and unblinking as Sharon’s intrigues grew more and more devious. Why she made sport of me I can’t say, other than jealousy…but over what? She always had the nicer clothes, the better toys, the car at 16, the parties, the attention, the looks, the style, the grace, the flash, the bang…but why she made such great effort to undermine me I will never know.
Sharon is a connoisseur of as much of a hedonistic lifestyle as she can afford. Unfortunately, in spite of her gifts and support system, she could glean only the outerskirt of such a sybaritic existence. When I invited her out to dinner at Donato Casbah, the most expensive restaurant in the city—to celebrate, I said—she agreed so fast that I doubted she heard anything beyond the word “Casbah.” The restaurant was located in an area of town where my family owned a great deal of property. Sharon was not aware of the fact that Donato Casbah was also owned by me; the knowledge would have had her at the restaurant on a daily basis. The evening had a chill, and I told Sharon that I would send a car to pick her up. She did not resist, as I had also told her to wear what she considered her best outfit. I, too, would dress, but my manner of attiring myself had always been reserved and classic; I was superbly sensible, as Father always said. Sharon and I, we would look and see the world we knew when we were both seven-year old girls sporting kinky plaits and scarred knees.
As expected, Sharon was fashionably late, but it did not matter because I planned for it. I sipped water and dined on tabbouleh and apple salad while waiting for her to arrive. It gave me time to inundate myself with bitter reminders of why I was adamant in my course of action. Donato Casbah has a magnificent diverse cuisine; on Thursday nights, the executive chef ran a Brazilian menu. Sharon always overindulged whenever she had the chance—rare, they were—to partake of Donato Casbah’s cuisine. There was a bottle of Querciabella Chianti breathing on the table. When Sharon arrived, she looked like a supermodel; she was every bit of gorgeous, stunning, a beautiful decoration that would look flawless on someone’s arm or couch. That she had not managed to use her wits or wiles to ensure her future thusly spoke of her lack of cunning. The maître d’ took Sharon’s floor-length chinchilla and she held out black-gloved arms to hug me. We had not laid eyes on each other for quite some time; a deliberate action on my part. I rose and embraced her quickly, brushing my cheek against hers, as was our custom since childhood; though the act lost meaning for me somewhere back in the deep recesses of ninth grade.
“Dear Octavia! Octavia Tanith Drake…I haven’t seen you since Auntie’s funeral!”
I closed my eyes briefly in a moment of pain. “Auntie” was my mother, Cora Tanith Drake, two years in the ground and not nearly long enough for the memory to be painless. “Hello Sharon. You are looking well.”
She did a quick pirouette and sat down, grinning. Sharon was already tipsy, and for once, I was not annoyed. She looked around. “Haven’t been here since…ah damn, can’t remember…at least a year or two, before Auntie Cora died. See them gauchos be fine as ever…” She winked at one who confidently strode by holding a skewer of bacon-wrapped chicken tenderloins. “Thought the place was going out of business.”
I smiled a smile that did not meet my eyes. “It was about to, but I have plans to revitalize this whole area.”
Sharon stared at me. Her eyes were already glossy and she wore far too much makeup. It made her look tacky. “Apparently, reading all them books came in handy, ‘Tavia.” There was an annoyed slant to her voice as she reached for the Querciabella and poured two servings into her stem.
I ignored the veiled insult and turned my card from green to red and Sharon did likewise. The servers immediately began laying food out on the table: polenta, cheese popovers, succulent mashed potatoes, caramelized bananas. The gauchos came by in succession, serving rib-eye, parmesan-encrusted pork loin, top sirloin, filet mignon, swordfish, lamb shanks, sausages, bacon beef rolls. Sharon was too lazy to go to the salad bar, so an attendant brought her a plate of salad and sides to go with the meat. She removed her gloves and began to eat and drink as if she’d been starving for days.
I accepted some filet mignon, top sirloin and bacon-wrapped chicken to go with my polenta, popovers and potatoes.
“That’s all you eating, Octavia?”
“I’ve been nibbling since I got here, Sharon. You’re late, and there’s more to do after dinner.”
“Really? I thought you was watching your weight.”
I ignored the insult. “Watching it do what, exactly? Besides, we are going to take a walk. I want to show you my vision, what I hope to do with the rest of the land my investment group purchased.”
Suddenly her words were sharp. “Group of rich bitches, you mean.”
“Was there a need to insult me, Sharon?”
“Not you, Octavia, of course not you.” Sharon rolled her eyes dramatically and gulped down the Querciabella as if it were water, and then methodically poured another large glass while accepting more meat from the gauchos. “But you know you work with some stuck-up people. I mean, I could be a part of what you got goin’ on, and they won’t allow it.”
I casually sliced my filet mignon into two small portions and ate it along with a forkful of potatoes. It wasn’t them that wouldn’t allow it; it was Sharon herself who managed to keep herself from forming profitable connections with those who had abilities she lacked. She had a multi-dimensional reputation, the kind that rendered her parents unhappy in more ways than one.
“I was hoping to get you in on a single project, something you’d be good at.”
“Really, Octavia? Seriously? You’d do that for your oldest and dearest friend?” Her eyes shone. 52% of the gleam was hope and 48% of it was whatever she imbibed herself with prior to her arrival. “I could use a hookup; things haven’t been going so well for me lately.” She drank some more wine.
“I have recently acquired land with a building that I think will suit your particular interests. It is located a few blocks away from here. I think it would be an ideal location for you to turn into a boutique.”
Sharon looked at me in wonderment. “Octavia, reeeaally?”
“When the property came available, I went and examined it thoroughly. It has six floors. There is plenty of storage and showroom space for set pieces and mannequins, and the top floor could be reconfigured into an elegant apartment. I could not help but think of you, Sharon. Finish your meal and we will walk there together. The property is no more than a fifteen-minute walk away.”
“Ryo can’t drive us?”
“Ryo is normally off on Thursday nights. He did me a courtesy by picking you up and bringing you to Donato Casbah. My car is already there. I thought you might like to see the surrounding property.”
She loudly sucked meat out of her teeth and sighed dramatically, starting to slur her words. “’Tavia, I’m wearing six-inch heeeels. You may not be able to appreciate the utter walkin’ bit of fabulousity that I be, but I have zilcho interest in walking more than ten feet in deeese boots.”
Clearly, the wine was taking effect. I sipped my water and calmly met her bleary-eyed gaze. “Should I infer that you have lowered your standards in your selection of foot apparel?”
Sharon grabbed the wine bottle and poured the last of the Querciabella. “What?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Speak English,” she slurred. “Not everybody went to Cornell on sch-sch—skallarship…”
“Sharon, if walking fifteen minutes is what’s stopping you from owning your own boutique, then I will not be bothered with it. I thought that with this acquisition, you could finally have the shop you have always wanted since we were children. Mother would have wanted me to help you if I was ever in a position to do so.” In spite of Sharon’s vituperative perspective when it came to me and my particular gifts, my mother and father raised me to be a better woman and rise above such unsophisticated behavior. No matter how difficult it would be.
“Octavia, reeeaaally? You’d do that for me?” Her expression was an amalgam of emotions; confusion being the most prominent. I am certain that she was shocked that I would be so kind to her after her repeated attacks on my person, my character, and my reputation. But no weapon formed against me shall ever prosper, and in that, Mother was right.
“I can afford to, Sharon. I have made some very good investments over the years, and I am in a position to be generous. Come now, finish your meal and we will walk over there. You shall trade a fifteen-minute evening stroll for a swanky boutique in what will be a revitalized district booming in prosperity within five years.”
The greed gleamed in her dark eyes. “How much you theeenk I c’n make, ‘Tavia?”
“I have consulted with my investment group and called in some favors. Considering who I am planning to pull in for the project, you could conceivably become a millionaire within that same time span. But it will require discipline and a tight budget, cousin,” I explained. “My accountants will help you with that. I will loan you the operating capital you require, but it must be you who will do the work, Sharon. I have some acquaintances who will assist you, naturally, and you must listen to them, but you will have to do your part.”
One would get the impression that I placed the money directly on the table in front of her from the look on her face and the drunken mirth in her voice. “Of coooouurse, Octavia! Of coooouuurssssseee. I c’n do it, watch me do it! I’m smaaart too…”
I nodded my head in agreement and asked for the check while Sharon stuffed remaining bits of meat and bread in her mouth. I sincerely hoped she enjoyed the meal. The attendant handed me the bill and I discreetly placed my black American Express card in the folder.
Sharon looked around sadly. “No more wine?”
“I think you’ve had enough. The servers removed the bottle some time ago.” Donato Casbah’s staff was extremely efficient. “Besides, we are about leave.”
“You are soooo not my mama, ‘Tavia. I know you tryin’ to do me a favor an all, and to be honest, you is looooooong overdue for th’ shit, but you can’t tell me when I’ve had enuff to drank.” Sharon rolled her neck for emphasis.
I signed the bill and left a generous tip. “You are quite right, Sharon. But as I have just paid the bill, you are more than welcome to purchase as many bottles of wine as the restaurant will allow.”
“How much was that wine anyhoo?”
“Querciabella Chianti is $109 per bottle if you purchase it here.”
Her eyes widened but her voice grew small. “Oh.”
We stood up and walked towards the restaurant lobby. Soon we had our coats: Sharon, her outrageous chinchilla and opera gloves; me, my sensible wool and peccary leather ones. I smiled again; another toothy grin that refused to meet my eyes. “Come on, Sharon. Let’s go. Your future awaits.”