Authors: Mick James
“Thank you, Mr. Custer,”
Marci said. He had just handed a clipboard back to her with the firm’s contractor form filled out and a copy of the insurance card he’d dummied up on the library computer.
“Please, call me Bobby.”
Marci smiled in a way that suggested she wouldn’t dream of it.
“Is Noah Denton available, I’d like to touch base with him if he has a couple of minutes.”
He sat in the lobby for another twenty minutes rereading the same Sports Illustrated from a week ago before she called him.
“Mr. Custer, Mr. Denton will see you now. I believe you know the way?” Marci said, then smiled as if to suggest she couldn’t wait to get him out of her lobby.
He walked into Denton’s office and greeted him with, “Hi Noah, thanks for taking me on. I appreciate the opportunity.”
Denton looked up from a file and motioned him forward. He laid his pen down, took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose as he collected his thoughts and waited for a long moment before he spoke.
“Please, don’t bother to sit down. Let’s get something straight. From here on in, I’m Mr. Denton. Not that you have to really remember that, because I can’t foresee the occasion where we would need to interact. You are a contract employee which means you are employed for a very finite amount of time. You’ll fulfill the terms of your specific contract and then vacate our premises. While under contract you’ll receive your marching orders from Marci, at the front desk. I have difficulty envisioning the need for you to venture anywhere beyond Marci’s desk. Should you need a restroom there is one down in the first floor lobby.”
“I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity, Noah. That’s all.”
“So noted, and it’s Mr. Denton.”
“No, you’ve made it pretty clear.”
“Then get out of my office,” Denton said and motioned toward the door with his chin dismissing Bobby.
The following morning Bobby
was shuttling individuals to and from the firm’s office for depositions. Two geriatric men were his morning passengers. One of them had a cane he kept pounding on the floor of the back seat just as he reached the punch line in a long list of non-stop jokes.
Bobby was allowed forty-five minutes for lunch so he high-tailed it back to the McDonald’s across from Fast Eddie’s. The oil light came on just as he was leaving the drive-thru and he ended up eating his cheeseburger while he watched two quarts of oil pour into the engine.
He picked up a woman named Maxine at one-fifteen. She looked twenty years older than he suspected she actually was. Her skin seemed weathered, maybe too much time laying in the sun or working outdoors. Her hair had been dyed a sort of dishwater blonde sometime back and now sported a good inch of substantially darker roots. Her clothing, a pants suit even Bobby realized had been out of style for a few years, was tight, but not in an attractive way. He guessed she had possibly grown two or three sizes larger since she’d purchased the outfit.
She didn’t ask to smoke. She just lit up and then fired up another four successive cigarettes after that from the butt of the previous one as he made his way down to the law office. Along the way she barked a phlegmy smoker’s hack about every three blocks.
He pulled in front of the building, turned and peered at her through the cloud of smoke.
“Just inside, take any elevator up to the twelfth floor. I’ll be waiting for you in the lobby when you’re finished.”
“You ain’t taking me up there? You telling me I have to find my own damn way?” she said, then sucked about a half inch off her current cigarette.
“You can see the elevators right there, through the lobby window. Just get on one and press twelve. The elevator opens right into the office. I’ve got to park this and then walk all the way back here.”
The threat of a possible walk seemed to halt any further discussion. “I suppose,” she groaned, then slowly slid across the back seat and climbed out onto the curb.
He found himself wishing he’d dropped her off at the wrong building. She fired up another cigarette on the curb, rubbed the old butt out against the side of his car and headed toward the building. He could only hope she’d be in with Noah Denton.
“Oh dear,” Marci said as he cooled his heels up in the twelfth floor lobby. “I’m afraid our last deposition of the day, this Kate Clarken may have forgotten. I’m not getting an answer when I call. I had a feeling she might be a problem from day one,” she said more to herself than anyone else.
Maxine suddenly came into view. Actually the phlegmy cough announced her approach before she came around the corner. She moved like a two-ton truck toward Marci seated behind the receptionist counter. You could hear her thighs swishing against one another with each step.
“When do I get paid?” she half shouted, then wheezed and coughed.
“We’ll be issuing checks on Tuesday, you should see your payment forty-eight hours after that,” Marci said leaning back as far as possible while still remaining in her chair.
“You’re shitting me, that’ll make it next Thursday before I can cash the check,” Maxine groaned, then reached in her purse and fired up a cigarette.
“That was the original agreement, ma’am. And, I’m sorry ma’am, this is a no smoking area. Actually, the entire building is smoke free.” Marci smiled and looked happy to suggest this might be good news to Maxine.
“Not now, it ain’t,” Maxine growled back and barked her cough a couple of times. “That damn check better not be any later than Thursday or I’m gonna come back here and kick your uptight ass, bitch. You,” she pointed her cigarette in Bobby’s direction. “Get me the hell out of here.”
She walked to the bank of elevators and pushed the down button. Just before the door opened she sucked her cigarette, exhaled a massive blue cloud back into the office lobby, then stepped onto the elevator barking her cough.
Bobby followed politely behind.
He parked across the
street from the address on his list. Kate Clarken’s residence was in the four hundred block of Thomas Ave. in the middle of Frog Town. It had never been the best area in the city, but debatably was no longer the worst. That didn’t suggest things had begun to improve in Frog Town, it merely meant another part of town had fallen on even harder times.
Frog Town was an area Bobby had never had a reason to be in until now. Kate Clarken’s residence seemed to symbolize many of the reasons why. The building was a peeling white clapboard structure that had been unattractive since the day it was built over a century ago. It had originally been erected as a single family home although for the past fifty years it had sported a half-dozen cheap mail boxes haphazardly hung to the right of the front door.
Leaded glass panels on either side of the front door had long ago been replaced by sections of plywood clumsily nailed in place. The address was 411, although the middle “one” was missing so it read 4 1. Two large, unwashed picture windows were on either side of the front of the house with the front door positioned in the middle. The stained glass window that would normally rest above the picture windows had been removed or stolen at some point in the distant past.
A chain link fence surrounded the front yard and served to collect a fair amount of the shopping circulars and plastic bags blowing up and down the street. The pounded dirt area enclosed by the cyclone fence theoretically once supported a lawn. The front gate hung askew, wedged against the edge of the sidewalk and looking like it hadn’t been closed in years.
Bobby climbed the three wooden steps onto the porch that ran across the front of the house. The broken bits of turned porch railing seemed reminiscent of the toothless grin on a Halloween pumpkin. A worn, overstuffed couch sat beneath one of the picture windows and from a distance of ten feet he could smell the mold on the fabric and stuffing. Empty beer cans and an empty half-pint of vodka were scattered around the couch. There was a hole in the trim around the front door where the doorbell used to be with two cloth-covered copper wires hanging out. The front door was unlocked so he turned the knob and stepped inside.
Kate resided in unit 5, up three flights of stairs to what was originally an attic. Bobby had to stoop slightly due to the roof line ceiling when he knocked on her door.
He knocked a second time and waited. A quick examination suggested the door had been kicked in more than once. The trim around the door was broken and had been half-heartedly repositioned. There were a couple of large footprints on the door just next to the wobbly knob. Each footprint sported a different tread mark. Bobby unconsciously wiped his hands clean on the back of his trousers.
A low voice from behind the door growled, “What you want?”
“I’m here for Kate Clarken.”
“She ain’t here.”
“I was supposed to pick her up.”
“What did she do now?”
“She has an appointment that she’ll get paid for. She’s not in any trouble.”
What sounded like two locks unsnapped and the door opened partway until the chain on the inside stretched taut. A flushed face peeked out, though Bobby couldn’t determine if the individual was male or female. Hard to say how old, but if he had to guess he would have pegged the creature at maybe fifty.
The face was bleary-eyed with a red nose heading toward purple. The hair was short, unkempt and looked like it was trimmed by someone wearing a blindfold. Sporadic facial hair coated the upper lip and chins.
“She’ll get paid?” the voice growled still partially hiding behind the door. The individual was barefoot and wore faded jeans without a belt and a too-small grey T-shirt that partially covered a beer belly with stretch marks. The shirt was soiled with the remnants of various meals, although it was difficult to tell if they’d been on the way in or back out.
“Yes. I’m supposed to pick her up and then give her a ride back. Do you know where I can find her?”
“What are they gonna pay her for?”
“I don’t know, exactly, it’s for some legal stuff. Look, I need to get her downtown so she can be interviewed. If I can’t find her she won’t get paid. Simple as that.”
“She’s either drunk at Moonies, drunk at Foxies or drunk at Sexton’s, except Sexton’s is still closed on account of that trouble a while back.”
“So, Moonies or Foxies?”
“I’ll check there. If I can’t find her I’ll come back here, if she shows up please have her stay put.”
“Yeah, sure, that’ll work,” the creature gave a hoarse laugh, then apparently couldn’t be bothered anymore and closed the door.
Bobby knew of both
places though he’d never been in either one. Moonies sat on a corner, it was probably a typical local neighborhood bar seventy years ago although he wasn’t sure what you’d call it now. Rough and shitty were two words that sprang to mind, parking was on the street.
The place was dark. It was a sunny mid-afternoon outside but you’d never know it from inside Moonies. It took Bobby a moment or two before his eyes adjusted and he could make his way to the bar. He appeared to be one of three guys in the place including the bartender. The two guys on the paying side of the bar sat a half dozen stools apart staring at empty shot glasses and half-finished beers. Neither one bothered to look as Bobby approached the bar.
The bartender walked down the length of the bar and gave him a look like Bobby was interrupting something important. He didn’t say anything and didn’t look too excited about new business.
“I’m looking for a woman, Kate Clarken. I was told she might be here.”
“You see her?” the bartender snorted.
Bobby held his gaze for a moment. He looked around the place. The four booths on the far wall were empty and no one sat at the tables. Unless she was passed out on the floor, she wasn’t here.
“Has she been in?”
“What’s she done now?” he asked.
“Nothing, I’m just giving her a lift downtown.”
The bartender shook his head like he didn’t believe him, then walked back down the length of the bar bringing an end to the conversation.
He headed three blocks west to Foxies. At least it had a parking lot, although he still parked on the street and went in the front door. It was a step up from Moonies, but not much of one. A little more crowded, maybe a half dozen guys none of whom were talking to one another, but then the business at Foxies was drinking and they were all attending to business as he approached the bar.
“What’ll it be?” The bartender barked. She was a heavy-set woman, maybe late sixties. A sort of swirled hairstyle left over from the Kennedy administration and pink frame glasses with little rhinestones in the upper ends where the frame came to a point. He could smell the cigarette smoke coming off her from across the bar.
“I’m looking for someone named Kate Clarken.”
“Kate? Thank God, would you mind getting her out of here? She’s been here for a couple of hours. I got the day shift crowd due in here shortly and I don’t need any problems, not tonight anyway.”
“Where is she?”
“Her usual booth, back there by the juke box,” she directed.
Two more customers had entered, but she didn’t pay any attention to them as they settled in on a couple of stools.
“You’ll take her out of here, right?” She sounded hopeful as she came around the bar and headed toward the juke box. Bobby followed her to a corner booth.
There in the darkest corner of the darkest booth sat Kate Clarken. Her eyes were half open, but she appeared comatose and looked to be drooling. There were three empty shot glasses on the table and a small glass with beer. The beer looked like it was warm and had gone flat.
“Kate, time to go,” the bartender said.
“Miss Clarken, I’m supposed to give you a ride downtown, for a deposition. They’re going to pay you.” Bobby added thinking that might instill some movement. It didn’t. He reached over to shake her shoulder.
“Careful,” the bartender cautioned.
“Kate, Miss Clarken?”
She slapped his hand away and attempted to focus on him. “Who the hell are you? I ain’t bothering anyone.”
“I know. I’m here to give you a ride, downtown.”
“You a cop?”
“No. You’re supposed to give a deposition, they’ll pay you, but I have to get you down there pretty soon, we’re already late.”
This seemed to register.
“And you’ll give me a ride?”
“Yeah, and a ride back home.”
“Give me a ride back here?”
“No,” the bartender said under her breath, then retreated to her new customers.
“Anywhere you want, but we have to leave now.”
“Let me pee first,” she said and began to slowly slide out of the booth. She got to her feet although she seemed a bit unsteady.
Bobby looked around for the restroom and saw the lighted sign that said ‘toilets’ just above a doorway.
“Come on Kate, let me give you a hand.” he said and helped to walk her back to the ladies room. What little conversation there was slowed, and some guy at the bar mumbled, “Jesus.” A number of people laughed.
“I’ll wait out here for you,” he said and pushed the door labeled LADIES open.
Kate sort of gave a half wave over her shoulder and staggered inside. He heard what sounded like a stall door creaking. A while after that the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting. Better here than in my car, he thought.
A few minutes later a guy walked past. He looked to be mid-twenties, dark curly hair. If Bobby had to guess he’d say a construction worker’s build, solid, thick and strong. He stepped around Bobby and was about to enter the ladies room.
“Wrong one,” Bobby said and pointed to the door labeled MEN.
He looked like he might argue the point. Some loud laughter drifted in from the barroom and he eventually nodded and said, “Yeah, thanks.”
Bobby waited, standing against the hallway wall for another five minutes. He was about to poke his head in and check when he heard what sounded like a stall door opening. A moment later he heard water running in a sink, then the towel dispenser being pulled. A minute or two after that the door finally opened and a pale-faced Kate Clarken shuffled out.
He took her by the arm and led her into the barroom headed for the front door. All conversation stopped. A couple of guys snickered.
“Thanks,” the swirl-haired bartender called.
“Lots a luck, don’t forget to wear protection,” some guy yelled and everyone laughed.