Spoilers: Through 3x19 for Community
Word Count: 2,791 (of 18,470)
Disclaimer/Notes: See Prologue for disclaimer and general notes. Thanks to maltmadness.com and drinkhacker.com for their whiskey and vodka reviews respectively.
Part IV: Colorado Mountain College, Aspen Campus
In which Jeff earns an unusual tip
"Yo, Big J!"
In the great room adjacent, a tall, skinny kid with an infectious smile looked at the two men standing in the foyer and held up an index finger. Barron Barton, the man who had yelled, slapped a meaty hand on the shoulder of his much smaller companion, Philip Freeman, who winced slightly at the impact. "You aren't gonna regret this, buddy. Jeff runs the best game in town."
"I appreciate you letting me know about this, Bart," Phil said. "I love Christmas in Aspen, but that trip to Tahoe over the summer got me hooked on high-stakes poker."
"I hear ya, buddy, I hear ya," Barton said. "Looks like a nice place he found this time out. He moves around a lot."
Phil looked around, taking in the tastefully decorated foyer. "I imagine he'd have to."
"Ya never know what he's gonna be able to find. A model home, a condo, a vacant rental…"
"Do you suppose the owner of this place knows we're here?"
Barton shrugged. "Beats me. Don't ask, don't tell." He inhaled sharply as a buxom blonde in a tightly fitted white blouse and a short black skirt walked into the room. "Jesus. Would ya look at that."
"She's a peach," Phil said agreeably, though the tuxedo-clad young man making his way across the room was more to his tastes.
"More like a couple of— Jeff!" Barton said loudly as the young man came up to greet them. "Tell me how ya do it. Where do ya find these beautiful girls?"
"Sorry, Bart," Jeff said, shaking the man's hand. "Trade secret."
"I'll get it outta ya one day!" Barton said. "Jeff Winger, lemme introduce me to an old friend, Phil Freeman. Phil and me, we went to different schools together." The man laughed uproariously at his own joke.
"I have no idea what that means," Jeff said, extending his hand toward Phil, "but if you're a friend of Bart, you're welcome here."
"We went to different colleges," Phil said, shaking Jeff's hand, "but saw each other all the time at speech tournaments—"
"—And then I ended up at Colorado Law while he was at Mines."
"Jesus, Phil, he doesn't need your life story," Barton said. "Are we gonna play cards or what?"
Phil shook his head. "Bart, you have the social graces of a hog."
"You would know, farm boy!" Barton said, laughing and throwing an elbow into Phil's side, knocking the smaller man off-balance. "I'm gonna hit the head. Jeff, how about the table near the bar, OK?"
"You got it, Bart," Jeff said. As Barton disappeared into the powder room nearby, Jeff turned to Phil. "Did he tell you about how this works?"
"He mostly told me about the women and the bar."
Jeff smirked. "Of course he did. The bar's open. Drink what you like, but I reserve the right to cut you off. As for the girls, look but don't touch, unless you're looking to get thrown out and banned."
"Once the game starts, the girls will get your drinks, and they'll be passing hot appetizers throughout the night. The game's seven-card stud. Two tables of five, final table of four. You play 'til you're out. Winner take all."
Phil whistled. "Cash game?"
"The girls will collect the buy-in and entry fee and distribute chips in a little while."
"Your entry fee is pretty high," Phil said conversationally. "In Tahoe—"
"In Tahoe it's legal," Jeff said. "It's a riskier proposition here. And all this costs money, you know."
"Sure, I get that. Believe me, with my clientèle, I've learned a lot about risk versus reward."
"And the booze is amazing," Barton said, rejoining the conversation. "The bourbon alone is worth the money."
"Spoken like a true Kentuckian," Phil said. "What do you have for people who like something more refined than corn squeezings?"
Jeff raised his voice a little to be heard above Barton's loud guffaw. "We've got the usual higher-end liquors at the bar, Gray Goose, Black Label, Hendrick's, but what Bart's talking about is the ultra-premium stuff. Single-cask whiskeys, fifty-year-old cognacs, wooden pot-stilled rums, boutique vodkas, that sort of thing. A different selection every time. We've got a nice 10-year-old Blanton's tonight," he said to Barton. "Straight from the Barrel, only available overseas."
"Sold!" Bart slapped Jeff on the shoulder and headed into the great room, making a beeline for the bar.
"And I've got things I need to take care of before the game starts," Jeff said, "so enjoy yourself. And good luck tonight."
Phil's luck turned out to be good but not great; he made it to the final table, but was the first man eliminated from it. Nevertheless, the company had been good and the vodka outstanding, so he considered the money he'd lost well spent.
A couple of nights later, Phil saw Jeff again, at an upscale bar at one of Aspen's most luxurious resorts. He was just as sharply dressed as he'd been at the poker game, though he'd traded the tux for a John Varvatos suit, gray, with a pale pink shirt and gray plaid tie. He definitely had an eye for fashion… and, unfortunately for Phil, for the ladies. He had been chatting up a petite brunette when Phil first spotted him, and over the course of the next forty-five minutes he had flirted with two other equally beautiful women, and collected phone numbers from all of them.
Jeff had noticed Phil while talking to the third woman, and surprised him by joining him at the bar after adding her number to his collection. "Hey, Phil, good to see you again," he said, signaling the bartender as he took the stool next to Phil.
"Jeff," Phil said, draining the last of his drink. "I'm flattered. I'm no more than 75% as good-looking as the women I've seen you with tonight."
"My drink was empty," Jeff said, smirking. To the bartender, he said, "Bunnahabhain, neat."
"That's not one I've heard of before," Phil said. "Scotch?"
"Yeah, from Islay. It's got incredible complexity for an 8-year-old Scotch. And it's not as peaty as a lot of Islay whiskeys—there's a bit of that smokiness, but nowhere near as much as that Lagavulin we had the other night. Did you try any of that?"
"No, I never really developed a taste for whiskey. Mostly I drank beer, but I did have some of that vintage Russian vodka—"
"Oh, the Kauffman. Yeah, that's good stuff. Expensive as hell, though." He paused to take a sip from the drink the bartender had just placed in front of him. "You drinking vodka tonight?" he asked, gesturing with his glass.
"Yeah. Ketel One."
"You know, they've got a really nice vodka here that you've probably never tried. Vermont Gold."
Phil shook his head. "Never heard of that, either. Vermont like the state?"
"It's distilled from maple sap, if you can believe that. But it's great, and this is the only place in Aspen that serves it. Tell you what, I'll sweet-talk Amy here—" He gestured at the bartender, who rolled her eyes. "—into letting you try a sip, and if you don't think it's better than your Ketel, the next round's on me, whatever you want."
"OK, I'm game," Phil said. The bartender walked off and soon returned with a shot glass filled with a colorless liquid, which she placed on the bar in front of Phil. He picked it up and held it up to the light, then held it under his nose and inhaled deeply. "Well, it looks like vodka," he joked. "Interesting aroma, though." He took a sip. "Wow, that is good. Really smooth, a little sweet. Almost as good as the Kauffman."
"And it won't set you back 250 bucks."
Phil drained the shot glass. "Nice crisp aftertaste too." He looked at Jeff. "Well, I'll admit it, you know your vodka." The bartender had remained nearby, so he said to her, "Make my next one one of those." As she walked off to fetch the drink, he said to Jeff, "No offense, but you strike me as pretty young to know so much about high-end liquor."
Jeff shrugged. "I started reading Esquire and GQ when I was a senior in high school, and their articles about liquor intrigued me. So when I came here after I graduated, I found a guy who was knowledgeable and morally flexible enough to teach a teenager what he knew. And when I turned 21 last year, I was ready to start exploring the subject in depth."
Phil was surprised. "You didn't go to college?"
"Nah. Technically, I'm a student at Colorado Mountain College, because having a student ID is useful sometimes, but I've never actually attended a class. After high school, I decided I'd had enough. I wasn't ready for another seven years of school."
"Yeah, well," Jeff said, looking embarrassed, "when I was a kid, I thought I'd be a lawyer. And you know, if I could've gone to law school without going to college first… But hey, I like what I do."
"The game, you mean? Or your day job?"
"Don't have one." He took a sip of his Scotch. "I'm actually at my other job right now."
"You work here?" Phil asked, puzzled.
"Not exactly. I work for a boutique wine and spirits distributor. They pay me to go to the bars they supply and promote their products to the other customers."
Phil looked at the glass in his hand. "Let me guess," he said, smiling, "they represent a certain distillery in New England." Jeff broke into a wide grin, obviously pleased with himself. "And I'll go out on a limb," Phil continued, "and say maybe you have a similar arrangement with a men's store?"
"Stern's of Brooklyn," Jeff said, reaching into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulling out a business card. "Now also in Aspen. The finest in men's couture."
Phil shook his head and laughed. "Jeff, if you had a law degree, I'd offer you a job on the spot." Jeff did a double-take, obviously taken by surprise. "I have a feeling you're the kind of man who'd be willing to do what it takes to win a case. And you obviously understand image."
"In criminal defense," Phil said "it's most important. Defendants go into court with at least one strike against them already, because people assume they wouldn't be on trial in the first place if they weren't guilty. And if they're Latino, like a lot of my clients, that's strike two. So they hire an all-American farm boy like me. I mean, would a charming, clean-cut young man like me work for a dirty rotten crook? Bam, benefit of the doubt restored."
"And you think I could do that?" Jeff asked.
"Jeff, your job is talking people into buying expensive drinks, so clearly you know how to frame an argument. And you've got guys lining up to pay you two grand for the privilege of losing another three grand, and they love you for it. Trust me, you were born for this."
"Man." Jeff took a sip of his Scotch. "I wish I'd had you as a guidance counselor instead of Mrs. Graham." He took another sip. "On the other hand, I'd be taking a pretty significant pay cut in the short term. And I get laid a lot."
"College students and lawyers get laid plenty. Especially when they look like you. Just think it over," Phil said, digging a business card out of his wallet, "and call me if you need anything."
Jeff's head snapped toward the door at the sound of loud feminine laughter. A group of eight young women, one of whom wore a party hat, had just entered. "Oh, I know some of them," he said, his eyes shining. "It's always easier when you have an in."
"I'll bet you know just the right wine for a birthday celebration."
"I have a few ideas." Jeff took Phil's business card and slipped it into a jacket pocket. "I'll think about what you said." The two men shook hands. "Have a good one."
"By the way, is this really the only place in Aspen that serves Vermont Gold?"
Jeff responded with another wide grin, and headed toward the women near the door. Phil could only laugh. He kept his eyes on Jeff as he kissed the hand of the woman in the party hat, who blushed at the attention. When a server came to escort the group to a large booth in the back, Jeff went with them, his arm around the waist of the birthday girl. Phil shook his head in amazement at how easily Jeff had ingratiated himself with the group.
Phil decided it would be a tragedy if Jeff never had a chance to work his magic on a jury. He drained his drink, left enough money with the bartender to cover his tab and a couple of bottles of whatever wine Jeff would convince the women to order, and left the bar. He had some phone calls to make.
Two days and a public records search later, Phil found himself outside a luxury apartment building, an oversized FedEx envelope in his hand. He hoped he had guessed right about the kind of hours the young man kept. He keyed in the intercom code for Jeff's apartment, and a few moments later he heard Jeff's voice over the speaker. "Winger."
"Jeff, it's Phil Freeman," Phil said. "Mind if I come up?"
There was a short silence before Jeff replied. "Uh. Yeah, sure, I guess. Hold on." Another short silence followed, then a buzzer sounded and the lock disengaged. A minute later Phil was being ushered into Jeff's apartment, which was sparsely but tastefully furnished in blacks and grays. "Go ahead and have a seat," Jeff said, gesturing toward the living room. "Do you want a drink? I don't really have anything good, I wasn't expecting—"
"No, I'm good," Phil said, sitting down on a plush leather sofa. He waited until Jeff had settled into an armchair before saying, "Jeff, it occurs to me I didn't offer you a tip when the game broke up the other night."
"I wouldn't have taken it if you had. But if want me to pass along something to the bartender or the servers, I—"
"No, I took care of them. I may be a farm boy, but I wasn't raised in a barn. Well, if you won't take a tip," Phil said, passing Jeff the envelope, "I guess we'll have to call this a Christmas present." Jeff took it, looking at it curiously but making no move to open it. "Go ahead, it's not sealed. I think you'll like it."
Jeff slid an oversized sheet of parchment out of the envelope. "Jesus," he said, hardly willing to trust his eyes. "Is this what I think it is?"
"Yup. My clients, they have connections."
Jeff ran his fingers over the raised seal as he sounded out the Latin phrase emblazoned across the top of the parchment. "CVRATORES VNIVERSITATIS COLVMBIAE. Columbia University?"
"Their idea of a joke," Phil said. "There's some other stuff in there too. A copy of the transcript that found its way into a filing cabinet in the registrar's office, a letter of recommendation from a professor, another one from yours truly."
Jeff was still staring at the diploma. "It looks real."
Phil shrugged. "It probably is. Look, I remembered what you said, about how you would've gone to law school if you hadn't needed to get an undergrad degree first. So I got you an undergrad degree."
"I don't know," Jeff said. "Forgery's kind of a big deal."
"Do you remember," Phil said, leaning forward, "what I said the first night we met? About risk and reward? This is a low-risk, high-reward situation. Lying on a law school application will get your application thrown out, if they find out, but it's not illegal. And once you're admitted—and if you let me help you, you will be admitted to Colorado Law—no one cares about your undergrad degree. Hell, the law school doesn't even care that much. They just want to know you have one.
"And if it comes down to a question of money… well, Boulder isn't that far from Denver, and Bart and I know a lot of rich guys in Denver who like to play poker. So what do you say, Jeff?"
Jeff finally took his eyes off the diploma and looked at Phil. A smile spread slowly across his face. "Tell me what I need to do."
Prologue | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Epilogue