The call came early in the morning, impossibly, ungodly, early, with the sudden shrill ringing of the phone first echoing in my dream, whatever I was dreaming about, and then shattering the stillness of the bedroom. I opened my eyes, blinked to focus, to see Ashley sound asleep next to me – sometimes I thought she could sleep through anything – lying on her side in one of the frilly lace nightgowns she had brought over to my condo, along with shopping bags and suitcases of her other clothes and belongings, make-up, toiletries, various lotions and ointments and powders, so many shoes, and things I didn’t even know what they were or what they did, secret, unexplainable, women’s things I dared not ask about, that she kept spread out on the counter and shelves in the bathroom and stacked away in the bedroom closet and stuffed into my dresser since she refused to take the dresser in the spare bedroom for whatever reason, I guessed because she wanted to feel like she belonged, and she did. Ashley still rented a house near the park with three of her girlfriends, but she was at my condo more than she was there, and that was okay with me, this middle ground between fully committing and having fun with no strings attached, although there were strings attached, and we both knew it, we just didn’t admit to it, at least not yet, but I was getting closer. I had made a few more trips to the jewelry store of Eddie’s Derby ticket scalper, only without Eddie these other times because I needed to concentrate, I needed to think. I needed to do this on my own. And I was getting closer.
It had been a month since the incident at Stan’s party. Ashley and I had made up, even if it was difficult for me to totally forget that night, and it was not just about the pot smoking. I had been around pot smoking before. I wasn’t some innocent. I had had roommates in grad school who smoked pot, who would pass the bong around to each other every night while we watched old movies on TV. I tried it once, but the debilitating headache that followed persuaded me to never smoke pot after that, and I never did. So I forgave Ashley for the indiscretion, and she promised it was only a onetime deal, and would not happen again, and I believed her. Stan even apologized to me at work that Monday, as he must have sensed something going on between me and Ashley despite my attempt to mask my displeasure when we left the party. He corroborated Ashley’s version that it was mostly only a contact buzz, and blamed the rest on the night staff secretaries’ boyfriends, said they had knives and he was afraid they would cut him if he didn’t smoke with them. But it wasn’t just about the pot smoking. I could live with the pot smoking if that was all it was, if not for the shock of seeing Ashley in that condition, high and giggling like a stoned idiot in a child’s playhouse which, despite the whimsical decor, or perhaps because of that, looked like the sleaziest place on earth, with low lighting and a miasma of marijuana and strangers milling about in the shadows. It was like stumbling upon someone I had not seen before, like walking in on an entirely different person from the one I knew, and that was the toughest part to get out of my head, with all of these fears and uncertainties that swept over me, and the stupid thing Al had said about Stan and “that girl in Marketing” that would not leave me be.
I never raised it with Ashley, what Al had said to me, because I had assured myself that it was utter bull shit, and it had to have been, and I wanted to believe that it was not true, that it absolutely was not true, and I had no reason to believe otherwise. I still felt I could read people, and Ashley had never said or done anything to make me distrustful of her, to make me suspect that she and Stan had any kind of a history together – even with the playhouse, she said she had just wandered in there looking for me, and Stan confirmed that as well – and I didn’t want to push her on it, I didn’t want to cross-examine her, I didn’t want to examine her at all. I wanted this to work with Ashley, and I wanted to trust Ashley, and I wanted to avoid the issues I had had with every other woman I ever dated, so many issues that I often questioned if maybe I was the one with the issues. Perhaps I would need to call that therapist. I refused to allow anything to get between me and Ashley, especially some outlandish off-the-cuff remark made by a boorish client.
So I let it go, and Ashley and I had made up, and I tried every day to shove the memories of that one night back further into the recesses of my mind, and we were getting along and going on as normal. We had been out, with our group of friends, to a black tie event, a charitable gala to benefit the heart association or childhood obesity or something like that, then the obligatory after-party, drinks and dancing at a jazz club on Bardstown Road where the trumpet player, a smarmy guy with a waxed mustache, coaxed Ashley up on stage, finishing with Bloody Mary’s at the Outlook Inn and cabbing it back to my condo, and had not been in bed for very long when the phone rang, and I looked over top of where Ashley was sound asleep next to me, to the glowing red lights of the alarm clock that illuminated four-thirty-seven in the morning, impossibly, ungodly, early, particularly after such a late night.
The phone continued ringing, in patent defiance of me trying to ignore it. Whoever was calling would let the phone ring until the answering machine clicked on, then would hang up, without leaving a message, and would call again, right away, the phone ringing and ringing, at four-thirty-seven, and four-thirty-eight, and then four-thirty-nine in the morning. It was never going to end, refused to allow me to sleep through it or to ignore it or to wish it away. The phone continued ringing, demanding my attention, insisting that I pick it up, screaming at me until I picked it up, and finally with a “fuck” and a “dammit,” I gave in and stretched my arm out to the night stand to answer it, as Ashley rolled over onto her other side, burying herself beneath the comforter, black ribbon from last night still, barely, by a strand, in her hair.
“What,” I could scarcely get the word out, my throat like gravel, the taste of stale beer and cigarettes.
“Jim,” the voice on the other end whispered, with an urgency, “you awake?”
“Jesus,” I mumbled, annoyed at such a question, at four-thirty-nine, four-forty, in the morning. “Who is this?”
“It’s Stan. I’m in a bit of a bind, bud, need your help.”
I lifted my head, slowly, heavy, peeked over at Ashley, still asleep, deep, then went back to the phone, to Stan, in my own urgent whisper. “What is it?”
“Now pay attention,” he continued, and I strained to listen, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “Remember that female limo driver in Seattle I told you about?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to remember, trying to discern between the various stories Stan would tell about the business trips he took without me, his “road reports” as he labeled them, which we billed the clients for, part of our “case discussions.”
“The hot Russian one,” he added, before I could respond.
“Um, yeah,” I stuttered, and then I did remember Stan telling me about a Russian limo driver when he went to Seattle last month for depositions, when I was in Boston for a hearing, how she took him from the airport to the hotel, and they hit it off so well, “that accent of hers” he said, that she returned later that evening and drove him around the city, to show him the sights, landmarks and tourist spots and whatnot. Although he was his usual excited self when he recounted that to me, Stan had been oddly vague on some of the details, and I thought then that there might have been more to the story, and I had a feeling now that maybe there was.
“Well she’s married to a Russian mobster and he’s pissed at me.”
And there was.
“What for?” I asked, more urgent, more awake.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” he said abruptly, as if he were expecting me to ask that, and why the hell wouldn’t I, but he sounded like he was in a hurry, could not be bothered with such minutiae. “Right now I just need your help.”
“Sure, what do you need?” I quietly slipped out of bed, and went into the other room, sat down at the desk in my study, rummaged around for a pen and paper.
“I need fifty thousand dollars or else this fucker is going to cut off my head.”
I dropped the pen.
“What?” I said in my loudest whisper, the loudest possible whisper without waking Ashley in the next room.
“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up, believe me I know,” Stan said, a touch of panic evident in his voice, “but we’ve got the money,” and when he said that, when he used “we” like that, it made my stomach knot and the muscles in my lower back clench up, just at the thought of me being somehow included in this, whatever this was, whatever was going on with him, which did not seem good. “You need to get it for me and bring it out here.”
“What? How?” I asked, picking the pen back up and steadying myself to write, regretting ever having answered the phone, longing to be in bed with Ashley sound asleep next to me, buried under the comforter with her.
Stan told me he had that much money, in cash, in a leather satchel in a drawer in his filing cabinet at the office, payment from a client, one of many, who only paid in cash. He wanted me to arrange with the Fentz travel office for the first flight out to Seattle, gave me the client code on how to bill it, then I was to go into the office, pick up the satchel, and bring it with me. As he was telling me this, explaining this as clearly and concisely as he would any other assignment, he was also a bit breathless, a bit harried, somewhat concerned, which I had never heard from Stan before – no matter what, he always seemed in control – and that made me understand that this was real, that this was serious. I told him okay, and that I would do it, trying my best to convince him, to convince me, and I would do it, because he was my boss and he was in trouble, and he obviously had no one else to turn to if he was asking me, but even so, what the fuck?
Once I received my instructions from Stan, I hung up the phone and tiptoed into the bedroom to get dressed in the dark, being careful not to disturb Ashley. As I made my way out, I whispered into her ear, lied, that Stan had forgotten something for court that he needed, and I was flying to Seattle to take it to him. She didn’t question it, didn’t ask for details, didn’t say anything, just reached up to put her lips to my cheek, a sleepwalker kiss goodbye, and fell back into bed, back to sleep. I grabbed my billfold, keys and cell phone from the night stand, then headed for the office. On the drive over, I called Fentz Travel, the twenty-four hotline, and booked my flight to Seattle, which left at seven and arrived around noon. It would be cutting it close, but I could make it if I hustled, and I hustled. I was wide awake now.
My ID badge got me into the building, and Stan had already given me a key to his office for emergencies – but I never thought he meant something like this, this kind of emergency. I unlocked the door, and pushed it open, guardedly to not make any noise although the floor was empty, the support staff and early arriving attorneys, mainly junior associates who had deadlines to meet, would not be in for at least another hour. I made a beeline to the corner of the room, to the black metal filing cabinet, and the bottom drawer, where Stan had told me to go, and pulled the drawer out to reveal a brown leather satchel, scratched and marred and crammed inside, barely fitting. I yanked at it, twisted and pried and maneuvered it, to eventually free the satchel from the drawer, and placed it on Stan’s desk to make sure I had the right one – I wondered, or maybe I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t, how many leather satchels full of cash Stan had stashed in his office. I could hear Eddie, as clear as if he were standing next to me, his hoarse laugh, cautioning me about who I hooked my wagon to. I unzipped the satchel and knew instantly that I had the right one, could see the stacks of money rubber banded together like green bricks.
I zipped it back up, and got out of there, closing the office door, locked, and down to the parking garage. At my Land Rover, I threw the satchel into my larger overnight bag, and sped off for the airport. My ticket was waiting for me at the counter. I checked in, easily enough, then rushed to security, but before I could marvel at how smoothly this was all going, I stopped short, instantly deflated, when I saw there was already a line, at this hour. I was hoping I could just scoot by, like it was nothing – wishful thinking. I could feel the moisture pool into the armpits of my white cotton Oxford as I stood waiting to pass through the metal detector and have my bag x-rayed. In those moments, those long and endless moments, I debated to myself if the bricks of cash would show up on the x-ray and, if so, what kind of red flags they would raise to the screener, what kind of a shit storm that would bring down upon me. Would I be whisked away to a separate room and interrogated and strip searched and then taken off to airport jail? Would they call the firm, the Partnership Committee? Would Stan back me up on this? Would Stan even still be alive? A single bead of sweat curled down the side of my face as I inched my way through the line, everyone around me oblivious to what I had in my bag, a bag full of money. What the fuck? What would my story be? How could I explain this? I was an attorney so I needed to have my defense prepared. But my mind went blank, all I could picture was Stan being held in some dank and musty room somewhere in Seattle, exposed bricks, leaking pipes, with a burly Russian mobster in a three-piece suit and crew cut sharpening an axe. What the fuck?
Time seemed to stand still, and I was becoming nauseous. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath, placed my bag on the conveyor, and focused straight ahead, without making eye contact with the security agent, without looking at anyone, just straight ahead, off into the distance, as I walked under the metal detector without incident, no beeping or buzzing or any indication that I was involved in questionable conduct, then waited for my bag. I could see it jutting out of the x-ray machine, so close that I could nearly lunge and take it and be on my way, and for a brief instant, with my pulse somewhat returning to normal, I felt I had done it, that I had gotten one over on them, that I had managed to pull this off, when, to my absolute disgust, the agent who had been staring at the x-ray screen made a face, dour and fretful, hunched over, squinted, and then reversed the conveyor to send my bag disappearing back inside the machine.
My heart resumed its triple-time beating, and I feared I might hyperventilate. I looked about, mouth agape, eyes darting, precisely like a man who had something to hide, to plan my escape, spotting out exit signs and the escalators, figured I could make a run for it and let the chips fall where they may. I started to get lightheaded, bouncing at the knees to keep from passing out, twisting at the waist to limber up in case I really would need to hurdle over the rope barriers, all the while watching the agent peer intently at something on the x-ray screen. I was convinced beyond a doubt that I was fucked, that I was completely fucked, that this was it for me, that this was the end. I was going to prison and Stan was losing his head. I could imagine his wife Patty getting a call late at night, the Seattle police, that they had found Stan’s decapitated body in a ditch somewhere near the Space Needle, and she characteristically not reacting at all, her icy, distant self, just an “alright, well thanks.”
Then out of nowhere, shattering the tension in the air, an alarm bell went off that almost caused me to piss my pants, and chaos ensued several rows over in another security line. All attention turned to where someone was trying to break through that line with something. The agent who was examining my bag through the x-ray screen sprung up, poised in the direction of the commotion. He was plainly torn between what to do, what the proper protocol was, the gears in his brain churning, contemplating the potential outcomes for each impending problem, if he should see what I had going on, or rush to the more immediate security breach. Tick-tick-tick, thinking-thinking-thinking, and then with a shake of his head, and a bite down on his bottom lip, thwarted, he hit a button that moved the conveyor belt inches forward so that my bag reappeared and I was able to snatch it and leave right before he shut down the line and ran over to assist whatever was going on at that other line.
I moved through the airport determined, head up, shoulders back, full strides, with a defined purpose, holding on to my bag as tightly as I could, forcing myself to breathe, dabbing the perspiration from my face with the back of my hand. I maintained a consistent pace, walking rapidly but not too fast, not stopping, not turning around, not wanting to draw any attention to myself, nothing suspicious about me – just an attorney with fifty thousand dollars in cash on my way to Seattle to ransom my boss’ bald head. It was not until I got through the gate, and onto the plane, with my bag pushed safely under the seat in front of me, and the plane was in the air, the cityscape of Louisville replaced with nothing but soft billowing clouds out the window, that I could relax, somewhat, to at least dip below the redline of stress I had been operating at all morning, and what a long morning it had been already.
I drank a couple Amstel Lights on the plane, and poked at a breakfast of microwaved scrambled eggs and bacon that tasted like nothing and a stale English muffin with butter and grape jelly, all sorts of concerns swirling in my head – would I be an accessory to some crime Stan had committed and was hiding from me, was there really a pissed off Russian mobster and had I just become his next target, did any of the other associates at Fentz have to deal with shit like this? I asked myself if this was worth it, if any of this was worth it, and I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know anymore. I had my doubts. Maybe I needed to consider, to seriously consider, parting ways with Stan – something I had already been pondering lately. I was becoming more agitated the more I thought about everything, the circumstance I had found myself thrust into, and I knew I had to settle down or I would be no help to anyone. I watched the in-flight movie without the headset, some romantic comedy with Jennifer Anniston looking befuddled, and after another Amstel Light – and I was going to order one more after that but the flight attendant gave me the stink eye – I dozed off.
When I awoke we were landing on an unusually bright and sunny day in Seattle. I bolted off the plane and called Stan, who was clearly relieved when he heard that I had made it in with the cash, even joking, typically crude, about whether any of the stewardesses served “bearded clams on the flight.” He gave me an address, and I jumped in a cab, and when we pulled up to where Stan had directed, it was a strip club on the edge of town near the industrial section, and from the looks of it, not one of the “high end” strip clubs that Stan preferred, and I would not have even thought it was open, would not have been surprised to learn that it had been condemned by the health department, or the sanitation department, if Stan had not said he would be in there, and I triple-checked the address anyway. I paid the driver, asked him to wait for me, but as soon as I got out of the cab with my bag, he took off, tires squealing. I watched him drive away, accelerating through red lights, and with no other option on the deserted street, and I had come this far and what else was I going to do, I reluctantly stepped inside the club.
From the burst of daylight that streamed in when I opened the door, I found Stan seated alone at a table in the back, a few other tables occupied, with hardened men, probably having just come off their shifts, shifts somewhere, shifts of something, slumped over beers and smoking cigarettes, wrinkled dollar bills at the ready, but the place was mostly abandoned, early afternoon, dim and dismal and sad. There was a dancer, paunchy and sagging, in orange bikini bottoms and no top, on stage, just kind of moving her hips, back and forth, slack, disinterested, an empty gaze, with a DJ shouting something, indistinguishable, over the music, Motley Crue or Warrant, whoever sang “Cherry Pie.” Stan’s face brightened when he saw me, and he waved me over.
“Holy shit, you did it,” he said, as surprised I had made it as I was, beaming, with a greasy paper plate of fried chicken fingers drenched in hot sauce and a Styrofoam cup of water with no ice in front of him. “You got the satchel?”
“I got it,” I said, sitting down next to him, one of the legs on the wobbly wooden chair missing, balancing myself, still jittery from my adventure, the longest goddamn morning of my life, with no clue of what I had walked into.
“Great,” he said, then motioning with his hands, “gimme, gimme.”
I reached into my overnight bag, and pulled out the crumpled leather satchel, and handed it to Stan under the table. He unzipped it on his lap, peaked in, ruffled through it, then quickly zipped it back up. He laughed, then patted me on the back, harder than usual, like a man whose head had just been saved.
“Okay,” he said, “now get out of here – I don’t want you involved in this.”
What? Was he kidding me? Was that a joke? I fucking already was involved in this, whatever the hell this was. But before I could get angry, angrier, before I lost it with Stan, my rational side kicked in, and it occurred to me that Stan was right, and I did not want to be involved in this, not any more than I was. So without questioning it, without another word, I got up to leave, and when I did, any joy of liberation vanishing as quickly as it came, I heard someone shout out, “There he is, over there!” I turned, and it was a women, older, fiftyish maybe but who looked older, a lot older, worn and harsh, a mop of crimped bleached white hair with dark roots, spackled make-up that was both cracked and runny, barely dressed in a gold lamé half-shirt that provided no support and micro denim shorts, pockets longer than the shorts. She was scurrying out of the back, clumsy in high heels, pushing aside the faded and stained purple velvet curtain that separated the general public club area from who knew what went on behind the stage, presumably dressing rooms or heroin dens, with a large man, an outlaw biker type, greasy mohawk, goatee and shiny black leather jacket and black leather chaps over his blue jeans, who looked every bit the part of a strip club bouncer, behind her, pointing at Stan and hastening in our direction.
“Shit!” Stan leaped up, knocking his chair backwards to the floor with a crash, and clutched the satchel to his chest. “Let’s go!”
I stayed seated for a second or two, unable to move, unable to fully comprehend what was going on, not believing any of this was going on, the longest morning of my life that just fucking kept going, before I grasped the situation, and my overnight bag, and took off out of the club behind Stan, and down the street, the two of us running as fast as we could. I thought I heard a gunshot, although it could have been a car misfiring or a garbage can being knocked over, and I prayed it was only that. I didn’t check to see what it was. I just kept running, Stan and I, running down the street in some sketchy part of town, running as if our lives depended on it, and sadly they probably did, running block after block, passing dilapidated store fronts and vacant lots, running and running until we figured it was safe, safe enough, until the area around us seemed safe enough, at least safer than the area by the strip club, until we could tell there was nobody chasing us, no more heavy footsteps or scuttling about behind us, until we could no longer run like that, until we had to stop.
“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Stan was yelling, part-laughing, part-astonished, bending forward, hands on his knees, panting, glancing back to make sure no one was coming. “That was crazy. Holy shit!”
I was bent over too, coughing, choking, trying not to throw up, my beers with breakfast. I dropped my overnight bag at my feet and put my head in my hands while I caught my breath. I could hear Stan continuing to laugh, and asking me how I was, and slapping at me, but I had my eyes closed, still bent over, wanting with whatever I had left to compose myself, wanting to be anywhere else, until I was able to say, after Stan’s persistent prodding, “I’m fine. I’m fine, Stan.”
“What the fuck, Jim,” he grabbed at me, and I looked at him, and he was back to his hyperkinetic self, not the worried near-victim of a beheading who had called me earlier when it was still night outside, when I was safely in bed with Ashley, which seemed like ages ago, a distant memory, a dream perhaps, and he was smiling, his body shaking the way it did, and he appeared practically ecstatic that this was happening. This was happening. “Was that just the craziest…”
“What’s going on, Stan?” I interrupted, in no mood for a celebration, in no mood for Stan.
He straightened up, wiped his face, his mouth, sniffed, ran a hand over his bald head, regained his demeanor, his boss to my employee demeanor that he would use when he had to, to let me know that he was still in charge.
“I want to keep you out of this, Jim,” he answered, stern, in the way he just switched it on and off like that.
“I’m kinda already in it, Stan,” I said, frustrated.
“I know, bud,” he nodded, held his hand out, trembling, “but trust me, the less you know, the better.” And then slower, and firmer, “I mean it.”
I let out a long exhale, and swallowed hard, and shook my head, and wiped away more sweat from my face, dripping from my hair, with both hands. I looked up towards the Seattle sky, which had turned to its more standard gray and ominous, and it began to rain, which felt refreshing in a way, to cool me as I was well overheated, in a lot of ways, and to maybe wash off some of the stench from that club and from everything else that had gone on this day. I closed my eyes, and paused like that, with the rain lightly hitting me, waiting, for something, for some kind of guidance, from somewhere.
“Fine,” I said, and picked up my bag. “Okay.”
“Thanks, Jim, I won’t forget this.” Stan grabbed my shoulder, as we moved on. “Trust me.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have anything to say. I just wanted to leave. I went with Stan, as he walked me to a nearby hotel where there were several waiting cabs. He opened the door of the first cab, and ushered me inside. He leaned in and told me not to mention this to anyone, which I wasn’t planning on doing, and who would believe me anyway, and said that he would see me back at the office in a few days, and that everything would be alright, and not to worry. And he kept repeating that last part, about how everything would be alright and not to worry, and I wasn’t sure if he was saying that for my benefit, or for his, but he kept repeating that. Then he tossed the driver a hundred dollar bill, and shut the door, and the cab pulled away, to the airport.
During the redeye flight home I tried to process what had happened, to make some sense out of any of it, but I couldn’t, no matter how much I replayed the events of the day over and over and over in my head, watching some romantic comedy without the headset, Kevin Costner looking perplexed. When I got into Louisville the next morning, I went straight to my condo, got undressed, got into bed, got under the covers and fell asleep, without any hesitation, without any tossing and turning, just fast asleep. Sometime later, several hours, Ashley came over, crept into bed with me, rested her head on my chest and put her arm across me, kind of like she knew, like she knew what I had been through, even though there was nothing to tell me that and I didn’t know how she could. It just seemed like she knew. But I didn’t think anymore about it, I was too tired, I was still too beat. I just fell back to sleep, effortlessly, hoping that maybe tomorrow would be a better day, that maybe tomorrow I would understand some of this.
About the Author: Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Juked, and Literary Orphans, among others, and featured on the podcast Second Hand Stories. More can be found at www.peterjstavros.wordpress.com