Submitted Date 02/21/2023


Not My Cup of Tea


Even before the busboy dropped a tub full of silverware and dinner plates on the hardwood floor, Evan Stratus thought it was loud in Thelma's Diner. The dirty linoleum floors click-clacked under the heels of his waitress' high heeled stilettos. The Toby Keith music blaring drowned out the sound of whatever conversation might be happening more than three feet from him. The lacquered hardwood booths that made up the seating seemed to intensify whatever sound they picked up.

The crash of the tub startled Evan out of his fixation on the texts he was scanning and onto the teacup now rolling from the tub in his direction. He reached down to scoop it up just as it started rolling out of his reach. The pimply-faced busboy strolled his way. Evan extended his arm long enough to drop the cup into his hand.

"Not my cup of tea," he quipped. The kid's flat expression didn't reveal any appreciation for the joke. "Tell Thelma, she might want to make noise-canceling earbuds part of the menu here," he continued, his eyebrows raising to indicate an attempt at humor.

The kid blushed and smiled back, "Dude, Thelma ain't real. It's just a made up name, but I'll tell Lloyd whatya said. He owns this place."

"Ok, duuude," Evan shot back. He returned his gaze to the screen as the kid headed toward the kitchen. Then a large middle aged white man in a white tee-shirt covered by a food stained apron came waddling toward him. He held a dish towel and scowled like he had a bad case of indigestion.

He stopped at Evan's booth, grabbing the towel with his other hand, twisting it like he might be about to whack Evan with it. "The help says you got a problem with the noise in here?" he blurted loudly, continuing to twist the towel.

Evan looked up quizzically and cocked his head, allowing his grin to grow crooked. "Nah, actually I kinda like it, it's the main reason why I come in here, I was just trying to lighten the mood for the kid, ya know, he was embarrassed about droppin' that tub full of dishes."

The large man was taken back, "You like the noise in here?'" he said, crinkling a grin of his own.

"I'm a lawyer, and sometimes I need a place to meet people that don't want to be seen going into a lawyer's office, but I gotta make sure what I say is confidential, so all the noise is perfect."

The big guy shook his head, "Well, Lord knows we got plenty of that! I hadn't thought of that as a marketing plan, Hmm, "Come feel the noise at Thelma's, Gillette County's noisiest diner!"; How's that sound counselor?"

"Ah, well if your target audience is lawyers it might work, but the bar in this town isn't all that big, so I dunno, you might wanta work on it."

"I'll do that, but lunch is on me today, bud, you give me somethin' to think 'bout."

"Thanks, Thelma!," Stratus joked, extending his hand. The big man frowned but shook his hand anyway. "It's Lloyd," he said, "I thought Thelmas sounded like somebody's grandma that would know how to cook. Ya know, wouldn't you rather have Thelma fryin' yer eggs than Lloyd."

"I see your point, Lloyd, Stratus continued, keeping his comments about the quality of the eggs in Thelma's to himself.

Just then the front door opened. In walked a man in a bright emerald green sport jacket and just as bright yellow polyester pants. He sported a straw woven fedora hat cocked to one side. Gold aviator sunglasses hid his eyes as he quickly surveyed the interior of Thelmas. When his gaze landed on Evan Stratus, Stratus raised his index finger in recognition. He nodded and swung the fake alligator skin briefcase he carried in Evan's direction as he headed toward his booth.

Evan thought it must be his contact, the person he was to meet who demanded that it be in a public place. It seemed like a strange request to Evan, given the nature of the task he had agreed to do.

His client was Bubble Gum Investments, Inc., a vintage sports memorabilia company. And his task was a little out of the ordinary. He was to meet with the contact, one Renaldo Gonzalez, and to verify that Gonzalez was who he said he was. He would then provide proof of ownership to Gonzalez of a rare Topps Chewing Gum Company issue of a Norton Nicholas rookie card from 1950. It featured a photo of a New York Yankee batboy posing as Nicholas. The batboy looked enough like Nicholas, who was then an unknown rookie, still three years away from becoming a household name, to fool Topps into issuing the card. Topps found out the photo was a fake shortly after the card was released and pulled it,but about a thousand had made their way into bubble gum packs.

His client advised Stratus that there were only 21 known copies of the card still in existence, and the latest Sotheby's auction of one of them had fetched $850,000.

The fedora wearing man slid into the booth across and from Stratus and extended his hand. "Mr. Stratus I presume?," he said.

"Yessir," Stratus fired back, "and you would be Renaldo Gonzalez?" he continued.

"Absolutely not!," the gentleman stated bluntly. "My name is Preston Guterreirra. I'm an investigator in the employment of the Estate of Norton Nicholas. My employer caught wind that you were meeting today with Gonzales. They asked me to catch you before you did and warn you that your client and, I suppose, you also are at risk of being implicated in a fraud scheme of immense proportions that has already cost sports card investors millions of dollars and may result in legal actions including criminal charges and civil liability.

Guterreirra reached into the band of his fedora and pulled out a business card identifying him as a private investigator. He continued. "Renaldo Gonzales is a Mexican national who played for the Yankees briefly in the late 1970s. He worked for the Yankees in public relations for a while after retirement and then started his own sports memorabilia company when that became a worthwhile investment in the late 1980s."

"He met Bernie Palozola, the former Yankee bat boy who claims to have posed for the 1950 Topps rookie card at a sports card show and noticed he looked a lot like The Nick. They had some old photos of Paozola airbrushed to make him look even more like Nicholas, then they called a press conference and started the big lie that Norton had let the kid pose for him. Then they found this Bob Franks guy, who worked for Topps. They convinced him to go along with the scheme and sign an affidavit saying Topps investigated this back in 1950 and found out it was true.Franks died like two weeks after he signed the damned thing so nobody could inquire further of him, and he was the last living Topps exec around from 1950."

"The thing is, Mr. Stratus, not a word of its true. I've got an affidavit from the school district Palozola attended in Long Island showing he had perfect attendance during Spring Training that year, which is when Topps always did the photo shoots for their cards. I got another one from the photographer who did the shoot saying it didn't happen."

"What about Topps?," Stratus injected, "seems like they could put it to rest by releasing the old investigation records, if they exist?"

Guiterriera rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yeah, you're absolutely right, but they've been stonewalling us. Won't meet with me, had their lawyers fire off a snotty letter basically saying don't ask for records, they're subject to proprietary secrets privilege, whatever the hell that means. I'm guessing they just decided it's better for business if this lie keeps getting told, gins up more interest in their product and there's really no harm to them. They sink a lot of money into these sport card shows and conventions and I guess they think the bottom lines gonna hurt if people stop going to garage sales and estate auctions looking for the fake Nicholas rookie card."

"Got it," Stratus nodded. "But why does your client care? What's so important to the estate that they're paying you to track me down?"

"Norton's family is just tired of people disrespecting his good name. If you follow baseball you know he liked to party and drank too much, but what they don't know is he was dealing with terrible back pain his whole life. He suffered terribly from real physical problems. He was self medicating, it wasn't all partying. These fake stories that bolster that party boy image isn't something his kids and grandkids want to live with. The estate's been fighting false paternity claims, bogus debt schemes and you name it for the past thirty years. They are tired of it and won't tolerate it anymore."

"Ok, so I guess I understand that," Stratus offered, " I'm supposed to determine if this Gonzales guy is who he says he is and show him my client's proof of ownership, any reason to think he's somebody other than what he claims?"

"Oh, he's the guy, we don't question that, and he'll give your client good money for the card. But your client needs to know if they sell it knowing he's going to advertise it as a fake, we're gonna sue. It's no fake, the thing is as real as the nose on my face. Norton Nicholas posed for that card and his picture is on it. I'd stake my right arm on that counselor. "

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go before Mr. Gonzalez is scheduled," Gutierreirra finished.

No sooner had he exited the door, than Stratus looked out the front window and saw yet another fedora wearing man. This one in a canary yellow sports jacket and emerald green pants. He too hid his eyes with a pair of sunglasses, his being Raybans. He appeared to be in deep conversation with the gentleman at his side, a portly, grey haired, aged man, whose posture was considerably bent and whose pace was slowing down the man in the sunglasses.

The man in the sunglasses opened the door as the aged man shuffled in. He was carrying a thin black briefcase. Once again Stratus held up his index finger and the man nodded.

After helping the older man into the booth, the man in the yellow jacket removed his fedora and announced, "I'm Renaldo, my friend, you would be Mr. Stratus, I'm guessing?"

"Yes," Stratus offered weakly.

"Allow me to introduce Mr. Bernie Palozola, formerly of the New York Yankees, and lately my business partner in Gonzo's Sports Cards." The older man nodded, flashing a broad smile at Stratus, who then noticed what a striking resemblance he bore to an age progressed Norton Nicholas.

Palozola extended his hand, and in a slight drawl said ,"Howdy, pardner, nice to meet ya." Stratus was impressed with how he had managed to incorporate voice imitation into his Nicholas impression.

"I'm advised that Bubble Gum hired you to verify my identity and so you could show me proof of its ownership of the merchandise in question, as well as draft the bill of sale that will legalize the transaction. Am I correct in this my friend?"

"Yes," Stratus replied, "but there's another issue that's come up that I need to address with you. A representative of the estate of Mr. Nicholas has approached me and advised they believe that Mr. Palozolas appearing on the 1950 card is not true, the result of a fraud,and will result in litigation if pursued once this card is marketed as not containing Norton Nicholas' likeness."

Suddenly Palozola slammed his open palm down on the table. "Damn, that asshole Gutierreirra … he's at it again!" he shouted, turning his gaze to Gonzales.

Gonzales raised an open palm toward Palozola as if to quiet him. He spoke facing Stratus after a quick glare at his partner. "My friend, this is not the first time Mr. Gutierreirra has interfered with a business opportunity regarding the 1950 Topps. You need to know that he is not a trustworthy individual, not worthy of your trust, he is a convicted felon, some kind of money laundering for a drug cartel I believe, and he works for the estate of Norton Nicholas, Jr. not his famous father."

The aged Palozola continued to huff and puff beside him as Gonzales continued, his face gradually faded from its purple coloring to red and then back to the washed out state it had before Stratus' statement about the card. He mumbled under his breath as Gonzales continued. "I assure you my friend, that my partner's appearance on that card is not fake, you may ask him anything you wish about it, here he is, fire away, we have nothing to hide. And rest assured, this is not the first time Gutierreirra has slandered us with this accusation, our proofs have been sufficient to satisfy the rest of the family that what we say is true, it is only Norton Jr.'s children that insist on believing this slanderous lie."

"We are not privy to why they pursuit their false claim, but common sense tells us it has something to do with the fact that their father, and thus they as well, did not receive an equal share of the estate, and thus, sadly, it appears that they are in pursuit of a means to even the score, so to speak."

"Great," Stratus mumbled out loud, "This job just got a lot more complicated. I don't think it would be prudent for us to conduct the exchange today until I've had a chance to ask my client how they want to proceed."

"Understandable my friend, '' said Gonzales, "but let's not waste the whole afternoon. May I at least have a look at the card to see if it meets our standards for quality?"

Stratus hesitated to bring out the valuable merchandise from its location in the right hand side pocket of his suit jacket, given all that had transpired already.

"Let me text my client and see if they will authorize that."

Two minutes later he had received a yes, which rather surprised him, given the value of the merchandise and their location.

Stratus reached into his pocket and pulled out the small leather case his client had sent the card to him in. He sat it on the table and popped it open, revealing the single card encased in a glass frame, held together with tiny screws. Gonzales likewise fished into his breast pocket and pulled out a leather case, containing a tiny screwdriver and a gemologist's eyeglass, he popped the eyeglass into his right eye and looked up at Stratus.

"May I?" he asked, motioning at the card with his open right hand.

"Sure," Stratus said flatly.

"That's me pardner!" Palozola shouted, pointing at the image on the card as he broke into a broad smile.

Gonzales gently picked up the glass case and set it in front of him. He deftly removed the screws and carefully set the upper glass frame aside, exposing the card to the elements so he could closely inspect it. Then he bent down close to its surface with his eyeglass, staring hard at the subject like it was some priceless gemstone.

"Bernie, please get out your notebook and make some notes," he barked at Palozola. Bernie complied.

He slowly moved his right eye over the surface of the card from left to right, speaking in an almost mechanical cadence. "Upper surface is free of any noticeable defects, smudges or creases… the coloration of the photograph is clear and appropriate, centering is perfect…."

Stratus sat somewhat mesmerized with this process, not noticing that his waitress was approaching in her high heeled stilettos with a tray full of bowls of steaming chilli, several soft drinks, and a cup of hot tea, all on a tray she was balancing on one hand. The click clak of her heels finally drew his attention as she passed his booth. Meanwhile Gonzales continued his exam.

"The lettering is uniformly colored and all spelling is correct, the bottom right hand corner does contain one small dent unnoticable with the naked eye but visible with the eyeglass. No creases, no surface wear noticeable, colors are not faded whatsoever, overall the condition of this item is quite…"

Gonzales was interrupted by a shriek from the waitress as she stepped on a small puddle of tea on the floor just past Stratus' booth. Her feet went out from under her and she fell, losing control of the tray full of food and drink, which went backwards over her head and directly into Stratus' booth. Chili, soda and tea flying everywhere. One bowl of chili landed on Bernie Palozola's head, causing him to scream loudly, as it burned his face. Another showered Gonzales' fedora as it sat on the table. Coke rained down on Stratus. The teacup emptied its contents directly onto the card that Gonzales was inspecting, soaking it through completely.

The three sat stunned in the booth, staring at the now soaked, chili stained card. The busboy walked up on the scene and found the teacup still rolling around on the tabletop. He reached out and grabbed it before it came to a rest, then smiled at Stratus. "Guess this one's not your cup of tea either, huh Dude?"


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