[short story, by Sha’Tara – part 6]
“Someone wants to read the story”
Wonder Woman fell asleep at her typewriter, overslept her start time and went down to Mrs. Gray’s place to make a phone call. (Mrs. Gray is part-time caretaker of the apartment complex with her brother Antoine.) And Wonder Woman didn’t smell that good either. Super heroes can be too human. I called the paper, explained my problem, got yelled at and told to get on over as soon as possible and expect to have to stay late to make up. Par for the course, except that I’d never been late on a job before. Things were cranking up speed and I was running uphill to keep up. Then I realized I was trying to do two jobs at the same time. Moonlighting, so to speak.
After splashing water on my face, running a quick brush through my hair and brushing my teeth, I ran out to the bus stop. I forgot what time it was and predictably took the wrong bus, got confused, lost. I was standing on the street wondering what to do next when a tall, slim man in a grey suit, standing by a dark shiny and new car waved and motioned for me to come over. I approached him, ready to say, “No!” to whatever except that he asked if I knew how to drive. I was taken a bit off stride with that one but of course, I said “Yes.”
“Can you drive me to my office? That’s my car,” points to the shiny new Mercedes, “and I’m drunk and I’m already looking at one impaired, don’t need another, can’t leave that car here and I can’t wait for a tow truck. You look like the kind of kid can be trusted. Help me, there’s a hunnerd in it for you.”
The slurred speech and my need for a ride bought my willingness but drunk… at ten o’clock in the morning? It sounded contrived, fishy, but I took the bait – I needed that money. He gave me directions and I drove him to his office which lucky for me, was only a couple of blocks from the paper. He gave me the hundred dollars – I could scarcely believe it when I saw it! – and his card. “Like to see you again, call me. Wait! He grabs the card and initials it. This’ll get you to my office. Please don’t forget.” Hm. Joseph. P. Lonin. JPL… Jet Propulsion Labs? I smiled at my own joke, and ran like the White Rabbit for the paper.
Good ol’ Stan was waiting to pounce on me.
“What’s going on with you? You know we’re on a deadline and we need your proofs. You should’ve been here two hours ago.”
“They’re done,” I said, “here.” and I reached in “my” desk and pulled out a stack of sheets.
“Why didn’t you tell me on the phone?”
“I forgot in the confusion. Then I took the wrong bus but some suit gave me a hundred dollars to drive his Mercedes to his office. Here’s his card. Stan studied the card and said, “holy shit.” and yelled,
“Hey George, come see this! She’s got a card from Joe.” He eyed me quizzically, asked me to sit and George came over, looked at the card and went, “I don’t believe this.” Then he looks at me and says in typical George,
“Do you shit gold bricks too?”
Stan: “Jesus H Christ, George…!”
“Ok guys, what’s the deal? Who’s this guy anyway?”
“Lonin? He owns about a quarter of the town, including this paper. This is the boss. The head honcho, the Big Kahuna.” He rolls his eyes to the ceiling and holding up the card finishes his rant with,
“You, girl had an encounter with God!” He dragged it out like “gawd.”
“God? That explains a whole lot of theological points my catechism failed to make all those years back. Thanks for the update, I didn’t know God drove a Mercedes in Montreal and got drunk on occasion and early in the morning. I wonder if he drives a Cadillac in New York? A ‘Vette in Hollywood? A Ferrari in Rome? Enough clowning, I’ve got to get to work.”
“Hell with the work” says Stan. “You say this guy wants to see you again? Go see him, tell him you decided to take the day off… hell no, the week off. No, tell him we gave it to you ‘cause we’re so damned impressed with your work, which we are by the way and I was going to mention it soon. Put in a few good words for us…but for Chrissake don’t tell him we put you up to it, huh? This is the way up for all of us Helen. This is gold. Don’t blow this.”
Full of serious misgivings I cleaned up as best I could, put on the one dress I kept in a back closet for emergencies (like being asked to go for lunch with a client and take notes) and a matching pair of decent heels, fixed my lipstick and brushed my hair, deciding to let it hang freely. If you asked me I had no idea what I was doing, or why. I was just doing it. When I grabbed my briefcase George tried to stop me.
“You won’t need that; makes you look too serious and out of place. Doesn’t go with the dress.”
“It’s not meant to. I’m wearing my coat, it’s cold out there.”
“Coat makes you look frumpy. Take a taxi, here’s some money.” And he handed me a ten dollar bill.
“That’s crazy, I don’t need that much.”
“It’s not a loan, it’s… let’s say it’s a bonus. Just go.”
“I need that case and I’m not leaving without it.”
“Fine, but forget the coat. You look hot in that dress.”
“I’m not going on a date, George, I’m going to see an old man in his office.”
“Yeah, right. Fat lot you know about it. If I know anything about Lonin, you’ll be going on a date.” My misgivings rate just shot up ten points on the Richter scale.
I hate taxis and Montreal taxi drivers seem to all think they’re God’s gift to women, especially cute young ones and rich old ones. I fit the first category and my dress made a perfect bull’s eye on the target.
“Anglais où français? (English or French?)
“N’importe” (Don’t matter)
“Alors, ou veut-tu aller, la belle? (So, where to, Babe?)
“Juste un couple de blocs – pas loin.” (Just a couple of blocks – not far)
“Ok, you could have walked it but I’m not complainin’. Sit back and relax. And he checks his rear-view constantly – from his eyes to the mirror to my cleavage, or my knees and legs. Being in the back seat makes me feel almost safe yet I experience intense relief when I get out, pay and turn away from his ravening look. Sex deprivation seems to be a rampant problem among city males. I repeated that to myself to see if it would help me paste the obligatory smile on. It didn’t.
I entered the building where I’d left the car earlier, and asked the doorman the number of Joseph Lonin’s office. He eyed me with that knowing look and said, “Penthouse” but you’ll need a pass and someone has to accompany you up. Do you have an appointment?” I showed him my card. “There’s no elevator to the top floor, just a locked stairway. Just stay here, I’ll get a guard.
We went up, 84 floors, exited the elevator. The guard unlocked the stairs doors and I was ushered up and into the penthouse. I was shown to a plush couch and offered a drink. I declined the wine, accepted a lemonade and sipped slowly. Muted conversation between the guard and a woman I guessed was an assistant to Lonin. Sly looks my way, knowing smiles, more looks. I pretended to shuffle my notes in my briefcase and demurely bending my legs to one side, pulled my dress down over my knees, finished the lemonade and set the glass down on a glass-topped table that was probably worth a year of my wages.
I waited, re-reading my notes and shuffling the half-dozen pathetic yellow pages detailing my late night experiences, making changes, inserting marginal notes. I pulled out a fresh sheet and was about to start a new page when I was approached by the “assistant” who looked me over with a bit of a frown, then smiled, introduced herself as Lana, Mr. Lonin’s private secretary, and asked me to follow her.
Into the inner sanctum of the God. I should have been quaking in my boots but I wasn’t wearing boots and I was way past the times of quaking. I was tense, yes, but I was also angry. Anger helped me prepare for whatever ordeal the next Alpha wolf in the pack was going to pull on me, and I already knew enough about Lonin to be beyond “on guard.” I was ready and in full attack mode. Just give me one reason, just one.
Lana: “You seem a bit tense miss… sorry, we didn’t get your name…?”
“I’m sorry. My name is Helen Kristofson.” Cut and dry.
“Interesting name.” More than just a comment, asking for a response.
“My father’s from Montana. His parents came from Norway.” I’m really into my new fictional identity now.
“Ah, can I get you anything while you wait for Mr. Lonin? Are you hungry? A salad perhaps, or croissant and a coffee?”
“Oh no, thank you, I’m quite fine.” So phoney, after mocking me within eyesight. But there was probably a time when miss Private Secretary was the one on her back on the office’s plush carpet, or leaning on the mini fridge and moaning her fake pleasure. I reached for my notes once again, reading and frowning at all the typos and missing key information. What a mess I’d made of those notes. I was tired. Not an excuse, just a fact.
A sliding door snicked open suddenly and the man himself stood behind the opening. He looked and didn’t recognize me. Frowned. “Yes? You wanted to see me and you have some credentials, an invitation, I’m told? Do we know each other?”
“Yes sir. I drove you to work this morning in your Mercedes. I’m Helen.”
“Ah well, of course.” Peremptorily: “Come in.”
I quickly push my notes back in the case and walk through the door opening. It whooshes shut and whatever sounds existed and travelled through the building were instantly blanked out. Silence. Dead silence. Muted breathing. His voice:
“Please sit down, Helen. And tell me why you decided to follow up on my offer so promptly. It’s just half past one.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you why I’m here, so I’m going to tell you why I’m supposed to be here.” He chuckled at that.
“You work for “The Journal” and the boys down there recognized my card and signature. They saw an opportunity and sent you over to soften the front, so to speak?”
“Basically, yes. They gave me a week off, presumably a paid vacation week, or a week for me to do some investigating and reporting on my own, however you would prefer the concoction, and I was so eager to meet you in your office I just rushed on over here. What I’m not here for is to put in a good word for them.”
“Of course, that wouldn’t do at all, would it. Conflict of interest and all that. Let’s leave them out of this and talk about you instead. Why don’t you tell me who you are, a bit of your story and what you have in that case that seems so important to you? After all, you probably know by now that you already actually work for me so let’s hear how you like to spend your time.”
“Sure. On the clock time, or on my own, sir?”
“Call me Joe. I already know what brain-numbing job you have at “The Journal” so let’s talk about your own time. And do sit down.”
“Ok, here are my preliminary rough notes.” I pull out several dog-eared sheets of yellow paper and sat down in a very comfortable chair that doesn’t achieve the purpose of making me feel comfortable about my rough notes, so I quickly add,
“I’ve begun to write notes for a story, or series of article I don’t know quite how to manage, direct or finish. It’s a bit dangerous, and the notes are beyond rough. I hardly slept at all last night, I was out on the streets, watching, listening and recording. I want to write about the streets, the slums particularly, and about the kind of people who live there, and why they live there in such inhuman conditions. I was raised on a homestead, practically in the wilderness you see and knew nothing of any city until earlier this year when I ended up in Edmonton. And then, some colourful months later I’m here. In this City. And I know nothing about it. Because of that I thought I’d be the best investigative and descriptive reporter any paper could get. Totally open minded, somewhat naïve due to lack of knowledge and suitably credulous to engage in serious research. I’m tired of reading proofs: I want to become a reporter… sir, I mean Joe. So I’ve begun: last night I took an interesting first stroll in my story.”
I watched his eyes. He didn’t blink, or smirk or lower his gaze. He looked me straight in the eyes: “I think that’s an excellent idea, and that you should get a chance at becoming a real reporter. I like your style, your gutsiness, and your dangerous naivety, though I’m thinking that part is somewhat deceptive.” He smiled at that and added, probably to get my full attention, “I’ll let you know when my interest in your career wanes and has switched to studying your body. That by way of letting you know I can be just as candid as you, Helen.
“I want you to think about this: there are only two basic differences between us: one, I’m a man and you’re a woman. Two, I’m rich and you are poor. Between us is a very deep valley. Between us walks every aspect of humanity. Between us lies every human interest story ever lived.
“You’re a philosopher, Joe.”
“Perhaps…” Distant, pensive look, “I’ll read your notes, Helen. In fact I want to read them now, before they’re ruined by embellishments deemed necessary in making the story acceptable to a lukewarm mainstream media and its equally lukewarm readership.
“Now listen to me. I want you to continue investigating the slums, and to write your discoveries exactly as you perceive them. I want to read your opinions and I want you to slant your articles towards a comparison of the city streets to your own world back on the homestead; what you observed about nature. Differences and similarities, what each could learn from the other – like you and me. Time to put an end to stale reporting at ‘The Journal.’
“Show me you’re serious about this you’ll have an equally serious advance on your work, guaranteed as of this moment, and you’ll be assured of copyright protection before we leave this office today. One condition: you must find a safer method of investigating your story. I have some ideas on how to resolve that to our mutual satisfaction.” And as if he’d almost forgotten, he added,
“One more thing: when you see your Journal bosses tell them I want to see them. I’m going to make some changes over there and I have to win them over – I don’t want inter-office sniping or worse, an all out revolt. Get them excited, tell them I want to introduce colour in the format.
Finally he smiles at me with a hand under his chin, studying me. It’s a nice, warm smile I take to be sincere. I smile back at him, careful not to put in more than necessary to indicate agreement only. The games we must play with rules we grab from the air as we move along.
[end of part 6: Someone wants to read the story]