Sunday, November 15, 2009
Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
7:38 PM. In an urban neighborhood of multi-million dollar townhomes, Mrs. Cheung, the family’s live-in housekeeper, pushes the left door to the first floor study all the way open. The woman of the house sits behind the antique kitchen table she uses as a desk, her laptop open, papers strewn about with little semblance of order. Her husband is slumped in the corner of their leather sofa, his tie and shirt loose about his neck, his hair, what was left of it, flopping as if it hadn’t been combed since he’d showered that morning, because it hadn’t, his feet up on the ottoman he’d rolled over from the matching chair a few feet away…
“Can I get either of you anything before we close the kitchen for the evening?”
Rubbing her face with the whole of her hand, she thought for only a moment before responding. “No thank you, Delores. I’ll get a yogurt or something before I go up. ..Long day for all of us. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night then,” she said, smiling politely.
The man on the couch waved at her, but was too tired or preoccupied to say anything.
“What are we going to do, Jack. …I’m worried.” She leaned forward, her head down, her right hand rubbing the back of her neck.
“Yeah, yeah.” He sounded exhausted. “Me, too.”
“Not all that many years ago, all we had to do was hire a babysitter. What do we do now?”
Silence, and then he sat up slowly. “I may know somebody. One of our people hired someone a while ago when his daughter was having problems. I’ll talk to him.”
“I’m getting some wine,” she said, rolling back and standing up.
“I thought you were having yogurt?”
“Delores made some Sangria.”
“Don’t tell me, another one of her Korean family recipes?”
“Give her a break. She’s our housekeeper, not the cook. I thought it was nice of her to fill-in while Marie’s on vacation. Want some, or don’t you?”
Saturday afternoon, 8 months later…
Marlowe’s head was over the edge of the third floor balcony, his left and right arms wrapped around the railing bars on either side, his eyes scanning the people around the pool. Sound uncomfortable? Not if you’re a cat. You’d think he’d have been too warm with all that fur, but he wasn’t or else he wouldn’t have been hanging around outside, would he, because Marlowe was nobody’s dummy.
Phillip was sitting behind him, on the edge of the folding lounge chair he’d laid out flat, using binoculars to take a closer look at the situation. He had three of his “Bikini Girls” working the pool that weekend. They didn’t live in the new, sprawling apartment complex. They were bait, there to attract the young men in their twenties and thirties who picked up quest passes at the some of the local clubs, and who would rent apartments lured by the prospects of hanging out with beautiful young women willing to share the local brew management was giving away that afternoon – a promotion Phillip had arranged. Phillip’s company was well paid for its services by a grateful development company that had been renting its over-priced units at a record pace. The studio apartment was a loner they were using as a temporary operations center for “Conroy Marketing and Security.”
His Bikini Girls were not only hot, they we’re smart, savvy college students and recent graduates who could take care of themselves. Minimum GPA, 3.6/4.0. Athletic. Ongoing enrollment in self-defense courses, at Phillip’s expense, but he liked to stay close, just in case. He kept them rotating so none of the guys who tried to pick them up would get too attached. And if they did, a well timed call from a fake boy friend would usually be all it took to bring a budding romance to an abrupt halt.
“Hey, Bobbie,” he called down to the brunette in the orange two-piece. “Yeah. It’s 5. Time to wrap it up with these two and call it a day.”
“Sure, honey. I’ll be right up.” She made her excuses and left the two men who had corralled her poolside to suck up their drool and move on with their lives. He still had two more girls on the job until 6, but he needed Bobbie for a special job that evening, and she’d have to be there early.
There was a rapping at the door. The little knockers that came with the apartment were unusually loud for their size. “Hey.” (Phillip always treated him like one of the team.) Marlowe lifted his head slightly and turned to look up over his shoulder. “Hey! We’re working. Go see who that is.” A gesture of Phillip’s head toward the door, and Marlowe got the point, got up, moved spritely through the open sliding glass door across the room, past the compact kitchen to smell the seam along the latch side of the door. Sniffing once, then again before he ran back to where Phillip was still sitting, put his tush on the rope mat that covered the balcony floor, arms at his side, looked up and “Grrrrr”d his approval.
“Is it Bobbie?”
Marlowe sat perfectly still, except for his head which Phillip had taught him to move left to right if the answer was “No.” Impressive, even though it took him 6 months to learn.
“Mrrrp.” (That was a “Yes.”)
“Marlowe, tell Philip it’s me,” came the familiar and impatient voice from behind the door.
“Okay, I’ll let her in.” Phillip got up and walked to the door.
“Hey.” And she walked him, as close as she could without actually brushing up against him, on her way to the chair next to the table on the balcony, across from where Phillip had been sitting. Loose fitting jeans covering legs too perfect to be real. T-shirt. One of those no bra bras. Short, light brown hair that had a mind of its own. Electric blue green eyes. “Miss me?” It was a drive-by question she asked without bothering to look or wait for a response.
“Can’t live without… you.” He watched her walking away, and then let go of the door and did his best to catch up. “What’s it been, 4 hours?” They’d run into each other that morning at the upscale grocery store where she shopped on a regular basis, and where he went to pick up something he could microwave when he was working nearby. A few months earlier, he’d picked her up, or she’d picked him up. It wasn’t clear who’d done what to whom. Let’s say it was a mutual thing at a beach front grill where they both hung out on the weekends. Whatever her grandfather did for a living, it meant that she didn’t have to, so Alice, who had ulterior motives, became an unofficial, unpaid “operative,” as she liked to call herself, for Phillip’s odd little business. Not expecting an answer, he resumed his position, behind Marlowe, Phillip’s eyes looking at the pool again through the small pair of binoculars he always had with him,
“Five what?” Whatever was happening around the pool, it was clearly more interesting.
“Five hour… Who cares? How’s the job going?”
There was another knock on the door.
“One of your girls?” Alice asked, pretending to be perturbed, but when Phillip didn’t react, “Don’t bother. I’ll get it.”
Checking the peep hole to be sure, Alice opened the door, eyeball to eyeball with Bobbie, bikini, bare feet, a towel over her shoulder, sunglasses up in her bleached blonde hair, a large soft straw beach bag over her shoulder. “Hey, Alice.” None of the girls knew exactly what to make of Alice. For someone who wasn’t exactly Phillip’s girlfriend, she sure seemed to be around a lot, but there was no competition. Phillip had a strict policy against dating anyone who worked with him. As beautiful as they all were, he treated them with respect, and they returned the favor. Besides, the pay was really good, and the hours and venues even better.
“Hey. Com’on in. ..He’s on the balcony.”
“Hey, Phillip. I need to change and get out of here.” Without waiting for him to answer – He’d put down his glasses and was typing something on his laptop. – Bobbie walked over to the couch and unzipped the backpack that she’d left there that morning. Her back to the room, she pulled the string bow and let her top fall off. Without rushing, she took out a bra, put it on and a t-shirt after that.
Alice couldn’t watch, and went back to the balcony. “She couldn’t get dressed in the bathroom?”
“What’s the point? I’m not watching.
Meanwhile, Marlowe trotted over and hopped on the couch for a better view.
“You know,” Alice watched him go, “Sometimes I think Marlowe is more of a guy than you are. You never had him neutered, did you?
Phillip looked over at her, pretending to be annoyed, and then resumed typing. “Just thinking about it made my balls feel weird. Besides, I need him at the top of his game.”
“Hi, Marlowe,” Bobbie reached over to stroke the top of his head which he scrunched down a bit, and then lifted to let her scratch under his chin. “How you been?” Back to changing, she dropped and stepped out of her bikini bottom, put on low cut Jockeys and jeans on top of them, and then sat next to Marlowe to slip on a pair of Nikes that were already tied.
“There are checks for you and Jennifer next to the sink,” Phillip called out to her without turning around.
“I’ll get ‘em.”
“…with a package for tonight’s job.”
“We’ll see you there, Phillip.” Zipping up her backpack, Bobbie threw it over one shoulder, picking up her bag by its handles with the other hand… “See you ‘round, Marlowe.”
“Yeah. I feel the same about you, too,” she said, looking him in the eyes for a few seconds before she walked to the balcony and around Phillip’s chair, sitting down next to him. “See the pasty character with the plaid shorts and cross around his neck?” she asked him, pointing over the balcony.
Phillip picked up his binoculars again, and took a look. “Yeah, I’ve been watching him.”
“He calls himself “Ronnie.” Wanted to know if I needed anything. When I blew him off, he gave me his card. Just a phone number.”
Phillip put down his glasses and turned toward her. “Thanks, Bobbie. Good work. We’ll talk to the Police and get him out of here. ..See you tonight.”
Putting her hand on his shoulder, Bobbie pushed herself up, rapped goodbye to Alice on the table without looking at her, and left.
“You don’t happen to know anyone in Narcotics, do you?” Phillip was hoping she did. Working with the Police wasn’t his favorite thing to do.
“I dated a guy once when he was in the Police academy. He’ll know who to call.”
“Thanks. I’ll make sure the developer knows. Could mean more business for us.”
Alice waited until she heard the front door close. “Is that why we never go out? ..because we work together?”
“We do go out.”
“I mean on a date. You know, dinner followed by hot sex.”
“Would we have to be naked? Because I don’t like going out to dinner naked.”
“Yes, but we could turn out the lights. ..Besides, we’ve already seen each other naked.”
“My point exactly. ..Besides,” Phillip loved talking to Alice like this, “that was a skunk emergency.”
“Hey, we were watching that women be unfaithful to her husband in the woods, and you made me go for sandwiches!”
“I get paid to watch that stuff. You get paid to go for food.”
“I get paid?”
“I paid for the sandwiches, didn’t I?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“You know, even the skunk thought you were annoying.”
“Those Cub Scouts sure took their time helping me out of creek. They didn’t seem all that annoyed.”
“You were probably the first naked woman they ever saw.” Phillip shut down his laptop and stood up, picking up his yellow pad from the table and the cheap bold point pens that were his favorite. “In the meantime, I could have drowned for all they cared.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re still standing there.” Alice stood, her chair getting stuck for a moment on the rope beneath it.
“I gave you a ride home.”
“We were both naked in the woods, no clothes we could wear and only one car. I didn’t realize calling a cab was an option.”
“So if we run into another skunk, I promise to take you out to dinner.” Mumbling under his breath, “I smelled so bad it took a week of showering before Marlowe would hang out with me again.” Marlowe had rolled over on his back, waiting hopelessly for someone to rub him. Hearing his name, he looked over his stomach at Phillip. “Let’s go, Marlowe.”
Enough chit chat. Phillip needed to call Rachel, one of the two Bikini Girls still at the pool. “Hey. We’re leaving to get ready for tonight. Use the key I gave you, and be sure to lock up when you’re done. …Yeah. Good work. E-mail me your notes, while they’re still fresh, later tonight if you have time. There are checks for you and Beth on the kitchen counter,” and then he chuckled to whatever she said. “One of the guys you were talking to works for me. ..Sure. ‘Danny.’ That’s the one. He’s all yours. Consider him a bonus. …Bye.”
“Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be late.” Phillip zipped his briefcase and threw the strap over his shoulder. “Marlowe, get in your case.”
On the floor, against the wall next to the kitchen, there was a special case Phillip had a friend make for him. Not much larger than Marlowe, but with enough room for him to turn around, it had plastic screening that allowed him to see all around, with handles and a strap in case Phillip needed his hands free. Marlowe got in, turned around and reached out with his claws to close the door behind him. (It had a spring latch so he could push the door open in an emergency.) Alice held the door for the two of them, jiggling the handle to make sure the door was locked, and then followed the two men in her life on their way down the hall to the garage.
“What do you think I should wear tonight?”
“I thought you wouldn’t want me to attract attention.”
“I don’t, but I like it when you dress slutty?”
“You think I dress slutty?”
Phillip knew a trick question when he heard one, and decided to change the subject.
8:30 PM that evening. The noise in the converted factory wasn’t quite as loud as it would be later that night when the live bands would be there and the beer and cheap wine had started having their effect. Alice and Phillip had arrived separately, but were talking together, their backs to the bar so they could watch the floor. Bobbie was waiting tables, and had walked up to the two of them on her way to place an order with the bar.
“The girl and her girlfriend are at table 12, behind me to your right. The fake IDs they used were perfect, the best big money can buy. ..Take a look, at the girls. Are you sure they’re only 16?”
“Jeeze, are those real,” Alice asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. “You know, I’ve heard about teens getting implan…”
Phillip didn’t care. “Has anybody been a problem?”
“The three guys drinking along the rail, two white, one maybe Hispanic, have been watching our girl and her friend since they got here, but haven’t made a move yet. As far as I can tell, they’re the only ones we need to worry about. One of them’s married. I don’t know about the other two.”
“Hey, boss. Can I get you a refill?”
“Oh, hey, Jennifer,” Alice was surprised to see her working the bar.
Phillip was all business. “What do you see?”
“Well, despite this kid’s size t-shirt they gave me, I’ve only been hit on twice,” she flashed a killer smile, “but bar business is up 20%. I should get a commission. Other than that, nothing, although your girl and her friend look bored.”
“Okay, let them sit there for a few minutes, then go over and give them a reason to leave without embarrassing them if you can. I don’t want them here when this place goes live.”
“Yeah, you know ‘Hot Nuts’ is performing at midnight. Some friends of mine are stopping by. Okay with you if I hang around after we’re done?”
“Of course not, but thanks for asking. Tell the lead guitar he’s a lucky guy.”
“How do you know about that?” Even in the low light around the bar you could tell she was blushing.
“I know all sorts of stuff. Actually, I know his brother. He told me you were dating. ..Look, my cousin Danny’s having a bunch of his high school friends over for a beach party. Here’s his address.” Phillip wrote it on the back of a napkin. “Send them over there. Danny’ll take good care of them.”
“Hey,” Alice, who was watching the floor, smacked Phillip with the back of her hand. “The Creepy Brothers are making their move.”
Phillip turned to see the three men, maybe in their mid-twenties, now surrounding the girls. One sat down, the other two were standing around and behind the small table where the girls were nervously nursing their drinks. The guy who sat down kept touching the other girl’s hand, while the other two men were busy looking down at them from above, brushing up against the back of their chairs and the shoulder of the one girl Phillip was there to protect.
“Even better,” Phillip thought to himself out loud. “If these guys don’t creep them out, nothing… ..Hey!” One of the ones standing had just reached under his girl’s arm, trying to lift her up to join him on the dance floor – a perfect opportunity for his friends to juice their drinks. The girl pulled away, but her move was more upset than angry. She and her friend looked trapped, and that was that.
Phillip pushed off the bar and walked quickly to the table, Alice circling around to come up from behind the two men who were standing. Putting his hands suddenly and hard on both shoulders of the one who was sitting, preventing him from even turning around, Phillip spoke directly to the girl he’d been hired to watch. “Hey,” he sounded as friendly as he could under the circumstances.” He could have used her name, but didn’t want her to know he knew it. “You ladies okay?”
The man in the chair started to get up again, but didn’t have the leverage, and then tried prying Phillip’s right hand off his shoulder. When he did, Phillip pressed hard with his fingers into the side of the man’s neck, whispering into his ear on that side, “You keep your hands on the table or I’ll put you to sleep. ..Do it now.” He did, and Phillip relaxed his grip, but not that much. Not yet.
Phillip looked at the girl again for an answer to his question. To her credit, his girl didn’t mince words or try to fake it. “Not really.”
“Actually,” the other girl was quick to volunteer, “we were just leaving.” That’s what she said, but the men were still standing behind them, and neither of the girls were going anywhere without Phillip’s help.
Feeling he had to show some balls, the jerk standing nearest Phillip got up the nerve to stutter, “What the fuck, asshole?!” and moved his arm to shove Phillip out of the way. Long on profanity, short on intelligence.
Reaching out from behind, fast, the way someone quick and coordinated grabs a pen that rolls off her desk before it comes close to hitting the floor, Alice’s right hand grabbed the jerk’s risk before it made contact with Phillip. Pulling his arm toward her and behind his back, with the neck of his cloth shirt in her other hand, Alice had him face down in the beer soaked sawdust that covered the concrete floor. Leaning over him, she gave the jerk some advice. Calmly, with an almost romantic tone to her voice, “If you don’t want me to break your arm, you’ll just lie there like the idiot you’ve got know you are.” Enough said, but she still didn’t let go, pressing hard on the back of the jerk’s neck and up on his arm, while she looked up at Phillip, ready to take his lead.
Rachel, who had been in the back watching the cameras, Jennifer and Bobbie were at the table now, along with more than a few customers and staff. Phillip knew he had to move quickly to get the club’s crowd back to enjoying themselves and spending their money. He and his people were, after all, only there with the owner’s permission – who liked the extra security Phillip was providing, but expected them to leave with his club business more or less intact. Actually, Phillip was counting on all the attention to make sure none of these guys tried anything.
“Ladies, my friends,” he motioned to Rachel and Jennifer, but didn’t want to use their names in front of the men, “will see that you get to your car safely. The drinks are on the house.” This next part he said a bit louder for everyone to hear, “No one bothers any of our guests. We’ll take care of these gentlemen and make sure they don’t come here again.” Phillip flashed his best “not to worry” smile as if, notwithstanding the guy who was still face down in the sawdust, it was just part of the evening’s entertainment, something to talk and text their friends about, but not that big a deal.
“You,” Phillip was pointing at the one many who was till standing, “back up, but don’t go anywhere.” The two big guys in the dark blue club security shirts that had come over for moral support would make sure of that. (Phillip had stopped by to introduce himself the night before, and Rachel had called their earpieces when she saw things happening on one of their security screens. This wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to do without the right people knowing.)
“Thanks,” the one girl said, and they both got up quickly to leave, Rachel and Jennifer at their sides.
“Okay you, on the floor,” Phillip looked down, nodding his permission to Alice , “get up and sit down.” (Alice had to help him up and put the arm she’d twisted on the table for him, enjoying seeing him wince when she did it.) “…You, too, he said to the one that was still standing and who hadn’t said a word. “You,” he said to the man he’d been holding down,” you stay put.” Pulling up a chair from another table, Phillip decided to have a chat with the three of them.
“Take their wallets, and pat them down when you do, just in case.” Alice and Jennifer manhandled the three of them as they did. “First of all, I estimate the total tab at, what?” Raising his eyebrows, he looked to Bobbie for her advice.
Checking their wallets, Bobbie suggested, “$254, exactly”
“Thank you. That should cover the drinks and gratuities.”
Bobbie took out the money, all the cash they had on them.
“Pull their drivers licenses. .. John,” Phillip was talking to the Assistant Manager who had come over to the table when the ruckus started. He was wearing a nametag so customers would recognize his authority. “…would you please make three copies of these, one for you, one for me and one for the police, if we need to call them? And maybe a copy of tonight’s security tapes when you have time? (The ceiling was high and painted black, with floods that made it all but impossible to see the several cameras that were watching the crowd.) I can send someone over Monday to pick them up.”
“Sure thing,” and John left to make the copies.
Alice had already used her cell phone and taken separate headshots of each of the men.
“Okay, here’s the thing. Those girls had perfect ID, but someone recognized them and tells us they were barely 16. I know, I know, they seemed so mature. Bullshit, I just saved your collective asses. If I call the police, they’re going to search you and your car. I’m not calling, at least not yet, which is the second time I’ve saved your asses tonight.” Phillip showed down, his speech becoming more deliberate. “…If we see you near this place again, or those two girls, or any of our people, your faces and driver’s licenses…”
“And the security tapes,” Jennifer didn’t want them to forget. “Let’s not forget the tapes.”
“Whoa,” Bobbie couldn’t help herself. “Is that a wedding ring on your finger?” she asked, pointing to the quiet one. They all looked, and it was.
“Hmm. How ‘bout that?” Phillip pretended they didn’t know. “..Anyway, it’s all going to the police, guys. So do we have a deal?” No reaction. “…Gentlemen, do ..we ..have ..a deal?”
All of them shook their heads in the affirmative. The one who hadn’t said anything before managed an easy, “Yeah,” and seemed the least intimidated of the three. The other two were shaken. This guy was the only one who seemed pissed, and Phillip made a mental note to run background checks on the three of them.
“Good. Very good, gentlemen. I’m pleased.”
Rachel and Jennifer were back, and so was John with Phillip’s copies of the licenses, “Your wallets gentlemen. My associates,” including the two club security men, “will walk you to your cars.” Looking at Alice, “Would you please get a picture of the plates and whatever they’re driving. And they left, Rachel and Jennifer at their sides, Alice and the two blue t-shirts walking behind them.
Bobbie gave the $254 to John. “Thanks,” she smiled. A waiter came and cleaned up the table where new people were sitting a moment later. The music was loud and people stop caring, reabsorbed in their own lives in record time.
Late Sunday morning, on the balcony of the studio apartment, Alice and Phillip have just finished the plates of freshly made omelets and fruit they brought up from the tables set up around the crowded pool.
“Thanks for the brunch. Was that you’re idea, too?”
“Absolutely. Events like this rent apartments and keep the current tenants happy – even with the higher rents they’re paying.”
“You graduated with Ivy League honors in finance. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Look, I know detective work for twenty somethings isn’t exactly booming. In the meantime, there’s rent to pay. Some missing persons work her, divorce work there, special security for one or two colleges…”
“And you keep day trading to pay the bills.”
“Hey, give me break. I never thought “Conroy Marketing and Security” was something I’d build overnight. In the meantime, I’ve got plan, a nice RV on a piece of property that’ll be worth something someday, and loaner apartments in five developments around the city. …Besides, I thought you had too much money to care about it. At least,” Phillip realized it sounded harsh even while he was saying it, “I work for a living. …Sorry about that. I didn’t..”
“Forget it.” She knew he meant and didn’t want him to think he’d offended her. It was a rare awkward moment in an otherwise perfect relationship, one of those defining moments when you realize you have something important to lose. “…Got to go.” Alice pushed back her chair and started to get up.
“Was it something I said,” Phillip looked up at her, only half kidding.
“More like something you didn’t say. …Oh, I almost forgot.” Reaching into the canvas bag she was carrying, “I got you something. …Here.” It was a small gift bag, bright orange, to which she had attached a puffy white bow, the kind that reflects other collars depending upon how the light hits it.
Phillip was genuinely surprised. He didn’t get presents often, and this was his first from Alice. Standing up, he looked at her, at the little bag, and then back at her, smiling more every time – and she back at him. Spreading the handles, he peeked inside where he saw black and white fake fur. “Hmmm,” he said, reaching to take whatever it was out.
“It’s a skunk atomizer, filled with cologne I thought you’d like. …Well, that I like. You squeeze its body like this, ..’Puff.’” Phillip closed his eyes, waiving off the mist as quickly as he could. “..and it sprays out it’s tush.”
“Cute,” Phillip coughed slightly, and then tried to hold back his smile, but couldn’t.
“Leaning over to the side of Phillip’s face, Alice sniffed in the fragrance, her left hand touching his arm and staying with it as she moved slowly toward the open glass doors where she stopped and turned. “It’s in case you need another excuse to see me naked.” No smile this time. She just looked at him, and then down, turned and walked away.
A few minutes later, Alice was in her car pulling out of the apartment garage, her Bluetooth headset in her ear, having already given her cell phone a verbal command number to call.
“Hello, Conroy residence.”
And then a few seconds later, in the first floor study, “Thank you, Delores. ..Jack! It’s Alice.”
“I’ll be right there,” but his wife knew that from the sound of his shoes coming quickly down the front staircase. “Put her on the speaker.”
“Hi, Alice. Hold on, Mr. …”
“I’m here, I’m here. ..How’s Phillip doing?”
“He’s doing fine, Mr. and Mrs. Conroy.”
“That’s a relief to hear,” Ellen Conroy responded in the middle of a heartfelt sigh. “He hardly talks to us. I know he’s an adult. I know, but he’s still our son.”
“I understand,” Alice reassured her, “I really do. I’ve got some stuff to do, but I’ll e-mail you an update to the diary I’ve been keeping later this evening. And don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him.”
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