1: How I got boned
It was developing into one of those hot San Diego days… and it was only 6am. It was hot enough for me to open the balcony door, to allow some of the last of the cool breeze to blow into Pete’s dining room, otherwise known these days as my Borg alcove, and at least attempt to cool off my Toughbook, the various and sundry electronic gear attached to it, and me. It wasn’t working well, though.
Despite the relative uncomfortable feel to the air (at least it was a dry heat… hey, I had to say it), I wasn’t going to stop working. I’d had an inspiration at about three in the morning. Actually, it was one of those cases when you have a dream, and it makes perfect sense to you during the dream, but the moment you wake up in the middle of the night, you realize it is complete crap. But before I fell back asleep, I realized the dream had hinted at something I hadn’t yet done in my investigations into the little incident I like to call “How I got boned.”
So I’d gotten up, booted up the Borg alcove, and started working. It had been a little over two months since I’d been fired from my IT job in Baltimore under mysterious, spooky, and altogether ooky circumstances, and so far, the only hint I’d manage to dredge up from the other side of the continent was a few references to something called “Merc.” The exact nature of “Merc” had so far eluded me, though… and I’ll admit, my efforts probably weren’t helped by the regular distractions I experienced during my research. That is, if you can call an occasional opportunity to help out my girlfriend’s friends when they get into an IT-related jam, in-between running off with her and having the Best Sex Of My Life, a distraction. But back, reluctantly, to business… the inspiration from my non-sequitor dream was starting to look as if it might actually pay off.
But as I worked, my attention started to waver, and I had to stop to figure out why. Was it the heat? No, it wasn’t that bad, yet. Getting tired? No… I might need an early run to Starbucks soon, but I wasn’t that tired yet. Finally I realized what was wrong: The noise from my brother’s room had abruptly stopped.
I know this doesn’t sound like much of a distraction, but you don’t hang at my crib. My brother and his squeeze, Reilly, can and frequently will have at each other for hours. The only couple I know that is capable of out-performing those two, in fact, is me and my squeeze, Gail… who, coincidentally, used to be my brother’s squeeze before I got here, though I’m not entirely sure why she wasn’t anymore, and… but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, between Pete and Reilly, and me and Gail when we are here, we make enough noise during sex that it’s amazing the neighbors haven’t called the police on us yet. (Or Hustler.) While I’ve been staying here at my brother’s place, I’d gotten good at tuning out the noise… it really is like getting used to traffic. But when it abruptly stops, like when the TV gets turned off in the middle of an action program… well, it can be distracting.
At about the time all of this was occurring to me, the door to Pete’s bedroom opened. Out came Reilly, dressed from the waist down but still pulling her top over her head, heading for the door. Reilly has a big bag for a purse, and it looked like there was at least one piece of clothing dangling from it… I probably didn’t want to know which. She threw a quick glance at me in the alcove, but neither of us spoke. Then she had her top in place, yanked open the front door, and headed out.
About a minute later, Pete came out of the bedroom. He had pulled on some shorts, and he looked wired, maybe a little angry, as he shuffled towards the front door. Then he glanced at the dining room and saw me, peering back from behind my gear. Pete stopped, glanced at the front door, back at me… then shook his head, changed direction, and headed into the kitchen. A moment later, I heard the telltale sound of a beer bottle being opened. And the next moment, Pete shuffled out of the kitchen and approached the dining room.
“What are you doing up?” Pete asked, sliding himself into a chair opposite mine. “Got a pen pal in the Outback?”
“What’s wrong with Reilly?” I asked, not that I was dodging the question.
Pete’s eyes quickly disappeared under beetling brows, and he threw back his beer. After a moment, he replied, “I, uh… hell… I said Gail’s name while—”
“Oh, for the love of,” I started. “Pete, you are certifiable! First you do… whatever you did… to drive Gail away, then you actually utter her name while doing it with a girl who pretty much worships the ground you walk on…”
“I know, I know!” Pete said. “Man, I guy just can’t get a break!” He took another hit from his beer. “It’s okay… I’ll patch it up with Reilly. After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin your Starbucks connection, would we?”
“So, c’mon, what’re you doing here, anyhow?” Pete asked, not that he wasn’t dodging the subject. Because he was.
After a moment, I shrugged. “Had an idea last night. I’ve been tapping into server logs at one of my old client’s offices. It occurred to me that I might be able to isolate this Merc thing by running some advanced search algorithms to find any connections between references to Merc, and any other documents on the servers. Then you create an inter-relational digraph—”
“Whoa, flag on play!” Pete interrupted. “Unnecessary geekiness, five-yard penalty!”
“You’re such a dude, bro,” I said lightly. After an appropriate sigh, I explained in non-geek terms, “I thought Merc might be some type of secret document or strategy that Byers & Mig, my ex-client, might be planning. So I’m trying to find references to a document that’s been moved around on their server logs… sort of a back-door way to find documents.”
“Could’a just said that,” Pete nodded, and took another hit from the beer. I glanced at my watch significantly. Yes, it was only six-ten in the morning. Pete, missing (or pretending to miss) my silent admonishment, continued: “And is it working?”
“Making progress,” I replied, “but nothing concrete yet.”
“Ah,” Pete said with little feigned interest. “Well, I’m gonna go back to bed… try not to make too much noise out here, ‘kay?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said, turning back to my work.
I looked up. Pete had stopped halfway to the bedroom, and was looking at me. “Is it really so bad here that you can’t imagine anything but going back to Baltimore?”
After a moment, I said, “Good night, bro.”
Pete turned back to the bedroom. Over his shoulder, he said, “Good morning.”
Once I’d gotten that recap of my present situation out of the way, I was able to get back to work. The Byers & Mig (whom I often thought of as B&M or, not-so-inappropriately, simply BM) server logs had been providing me with some clues, which I was still trying to make sense of… it may have been my need for coffee that was making it difficult to understand what I was looking at. And I repeatedly went back to the e-mail logs, hoping that someone would let something slip that would give me a vital clue as to what Merc was. As it is, my mind was constantly trying to think of synonyms, antonyms, acronyms, and any silly thing that might lead me in the right direction. But the only thing that stayed in my mind was the word “mercury,” or maybe “mercurial,” which made me think of fast, or chaotic, or angry. To me, that described American business in its totality, but didn’t suggest anything more specific.
When, by almost eight, I seemed to have hit another brick wall, I decided to take a break. I was ready for my trademark grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room from Starbucks, but after this morning, I had serious doubts that I’d be seeing Reilly coming back with a few drinks for her favorite Schitzeiss brothers. So, I had the perfect excuse to get out, stretch my legs, and grab a drink for myself. So I went back to my bedroom in order to throw on some baggies and a shirt over my shorts, slip into some walking sandals, grabbed my personalized cup on my way out, and left the apartment.
You couldn’t say enough about my brother’s apartment: Located on Coronado Island, with a great view of San Diego across the bay, and hot-and-cold-running honeys all over the place, it was always enjoyable just to walk around and enjoy the sights. Especially the sights that exposed a lot of flesh. And as hot as it was developing today, there was no doubt that there would be plenty of flesh to see today. I ambled down the street, only a three-block walk to the nearest Starbucks, with plenty of eye-candy between here and there to keep the walk interesting. Speaking of eyes: A few caught mine as I walked by, and after the frustrating morning I’d had so far, the attention I was getting made me glad I was a man, which perked me up a bit and instilled me with fresh confidence. I’d get this Merc thing figured out. Just you wait.
I arrived at Starbucks and headed for the counter, only then remembering that this was the same Starbucks that Reilly worked at. But before I had time to consider whether it might be a better idea to go find another place to nab a drink, I heard a familiar voice say, “Grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, in a personal cup.” I looked up, and there was Reilly, reaching across the bar to accept my cup and get my drink started. I smiled awkwardly and handed it over, reflecting that Reilly had always been a very cool chick, and I had no reason to suspect she’d take an argument, between her and Pete, out on me.
I walked over to the cashier, and handed her my card. Then I waited. The place happened to be empty at the moment—an unusual moment for a weekday morning, but it happens—and quiet, so there was no way to get lost in the crowd or behind the noise. I just stood by, and let Reilly work, not knowing what to say. When Reilly had finished my drink, she came over and placed it on the receiving bar for me. “Thanks,” I muttered, sliding it off the bar quietly.
“Nothing for Pete today,” Reilly said, breaking her usual habit of paying for a drink for one of us. She added, without rancor, “I think he’ll understand.”
I was sorry for Reilly, and for Pete, because I thought the two of them were a good couple. Maybe a great couple. “Are you guys gonna by okay?” I asked finally.
Reilly nodded. “I just need a break, that’s all.” Then she smiled, an embarrassed, apologetic smile if I ever saw one. “It’s no big. Have a great day, Mike.”
“Yeah, you too,” I said, and turned away with my drink.
I left the Starbucks in the general direction of the apartment, or maybe the beach if I decided to take a detour along the way. I was still seeing the occasional approving glance as I walked along, but this time each glance only made me think of Pete and Reilly, and the hope that they’d be able to patch things up. And of course, thinking of Pete’s relationships naturally made me think of Gail, and how my brother could have possibly done anything to drive away a girl as incredible as her… not to mention how I could be so lucky to get her on the rebound. I had a feeling that, if those questions weren’t answered soon, there’d be Hell to pay somewhere… for someone… and I was pretty sure I knew for who… uh, whom.
I finally decided to go hang on the beach for a while, not feeling ready to resume my research, but hoping a change of scenery, and maybe even another dream, might give me new inspiration. There was an area of Centennial Park that sported a number of benches facing the beach, and I headed for that, and the expectation of a nice spot to relax and enjoy the day. Unfortunately, I was surprised when the area came within view, to discover that it had already been taken over by a fairly extensive party shooting wedding photos… at a pretty early time of the day. They must have gotten married at sunrise, I presumed… and looking at them, I was not surprised: They were all young, with that trademark brown skintone and islander features that suggested they had most of their fun during the day; and the bride and groom were so incredibly beautiful that it would be a crying shame to deny these kids as much time in the light as humanly possible.
Unfortunately, this crowd was taking up all the available space and benches… and worse, they made me think of Pete and Reilly, and Gail, and me, all over again. And my thoughts weren’t all that happy.
“You’re looking at a wedding party. How can your thoughts not be happy?”
Thought-leakage. Thank God. That meant this story should finally be getting underway! I turned around to see Gail behind me, smiling brightly as she regarded me in a business suit and bare feet.
3: Seeing Gail off
“Gail! Where’d you come from?”
“I happened to see you as I drove up to the apartment,” Gail replied. “I had to hurry and park, because I wasn’t sure where you were going.” I looked down at her hands, one of which held the three-inch heels that matched her suit. “Do you know the wedding party?”
“Hm?” I glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, no. I just came over to find a bench to hang out on. But these guys have them all taken up.”
“That’s okay,” Gail shrugged. “C’mon, let’s head for Ferry Landing, and find a place to hang out there.”
We headed along the bikeway, which was medium-heavy with traffic that morning, and stayed on the beachward side to as not to be surprised by bikers whizzing up from behind. “Why are you out and about at this time of day?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to work?”
“I was,” Gail replied. She had put her heels back on, which she insisted was more comfortable for walking along a concrete pad than in her bare feet, and she was attracting plenty of looks as she sashayed leisurely down the path. “Then I got a call telling me I have to fly out of town for a business meeting today. They gave me the morning off to get my stuff together before my flight.”
“Where are you going?”
“San Francisco. I’ll be back by Thursday.” She wrapped her arms around mine. “Are you gonna miss me?”
“You know it,” I said.
“I don’t believe you, you know,” she said mock-seriously. “You’re just going to have to prove it to me, then. We have until—” she glanced at her watch “—two thirty. Think you’re up to it?”
I mock-sighed. “No rest for the wicked.”
“You can rest when you’re dead,” Gail responded. “Right now, you’re mine.”
So we hung out for a while, just walking along and doing the sweet nothings bit, before we eventually went back to the apartment. A quick glance confirmed that Pete had apparently gone out—to smooth things out with Reilly, I hoped—leaving the place to ourselves. And we took full advantage, quickly getting naked and frolicking (as it were) here and there in the apartment… even in my Borg alcove, though I was duly distracted by all the beeping and blinking electronics around us, not to mention the chance of smashing something caught in an orgasmic crossfire. We ended up in the shower, sort of killing two birds with one stone, and when we were done, I think Gail was convinced that I was indeed gonna miss her while she was gone.
Before we knew it, we were dressing again, Gail a bit more rushed than me. “I probably should’ve said two,” she mused as she straightened her skirt and pulled on her jacket. “I’m actually cutting it a bit close, here. Still have to park the car…”
“Don’t worry about that,” I said. “I’ll drive you over, and bring back the car to pick you up when you get back.”
Gail looked at me. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Oh, no problem,” I said. “I’ll have a car to drive for a few days, you won’t have to pay for parking, and you won’t be rushed to get to your plane.”
Gail, who had slipped back into her heels, came over to me. “Schitz brothers are the best,” she said, giving me a loving kiss on the mouth. For a moment, she seemed likely to change her mind, and start undressing us all over again. Then she pulled back, showing a healthy dose of self-control, and said, “Oh, God, let’s just get going, please.”
I let Gail drive to the airport, since she still knew the San Diego streets better than I, and showed no reluctance to attack them at top speed whenever possible. We were there in a time that I simply couldn’t believe, and she was still only twenty minutes from her flight’s leaving. So she drove up to the departure area, brought it to a stop near the Southwest terminal, and hopped out quickly.
“Take your time, you’ll make it,” I said as I helped her pull her already-packed suitcase and work satchel out of the trunk. Once the suitcase was upright, handle extended, and satchel firmly attached, Gail turned to me, handed me the keys to the Eclipse, and took advantage of the moment to pull me close and give me a nice, burning goodbye kiss.
“See you soon, lover,” she said finally, before she turned and strode off into the terminal, and at full speed in those high heels, presented a sight that would have caused serious accidents if she had been in sight of air traffic control. I watched her go, the kiss still lingering on my mouth, the view of her firm backside receding into the depths of the airport, and wishing I was going with her… for obvious reasons.
Then I happened to notice a skycap nearby, who was also watching her as she headed inside. He looked at me, with obvious envy, and said, “Ah, wherever she’s goin’, you oughtta be goin’ too.”
Now that was a thought-leak I’d never argue with. “Amen, homes,” I said before turning and getting back into the car.
4: Back to work
By the time I got back to the apartment, Pete was back, hanging on the balcony with a beer in his hand. He turned when he heard me come in. “Hey, bro! Where you been all day?”
“Me?” I closed the door, stopped in the kitchen for a beer, and joined him on the balcony. “You’re the one who was out most of the day! I just went out to hit—” I started to say “Starbucks,” then thought I’d duck that one for now “—the store, then Gail came by, and we hung out here until I took her to the airport.”
Pete nodded. “I thought the place had a familiar smell to it. Where’s Gail going?”
“San Francisco,” I replied, sitting down and pointedly deciding to ignore the “smell” crack. (Oh, that was probably not the best way to put that…) “A business meeting.”
Pete nodded again. “Never liked it when they sent her on those business meetings. I always felt like… well.” He took a pull on his beer. “Listen, I’m going to take Reilly out tonight for dinner, and we may end up back here afterward. You know, depending on how things go.”
“Good for you,” I said.
“Can you make yourself scarce, if we do come back here? I’ll call you if we’re on the way.”
“No problem,” I replied. “I’ll either hide in my room, or go find some all-night action somewhere.” I said that, knowing that I hadn’t even stopped to try to find any kind of “all-night action” since I’d come to San Diego. I’m an IT guy. An IT guy’s idea of all-night action was usually a session of WoW with a few friends spread across a few dozen time zones. And in fact, meeting Gail had turned out to be all the all-night action I ever needed. I realized I might really miss her tonight. All the same, I said, “Good luck, bro. Hope you get everything… fixed up.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t say ‘straightened out’,” Pete grinned.
Boy, even the comments I didn’t internally verbalize were leaking now. I really need to get that checked.
After we’d hung out and talked for a while, I went back to my alcove, while Pete got himself duded up for a night on the town. I was fresh enough to dive back into my research, though I still didn’t really know where to go next. But I had a feeling I was getting close to some answers. I sure hoped I was getting somewhere: So far this particular episode (uh… of my life, of course… heh…) was running pretty weak.
About two hours came and went, during which Pete left, a pizza I’d ordered arrived, and I got pretty much nowhere with my server logs strategy. One of the logs chased me back into the e-mail database, trying to find a correlation between them, and before I knew it, I was poring through the e-mails yet again, and wishing I could think of somewhere else to waste my time.
Then I got a surprise, which I’d almost missed: An e-mail from two weeks back, mentioning that a certain Mel Cooley, a senior account executive of BM, was going to be in Los Angeles in a day, on business. I say “a certain Mel Cooley,” because I didn’t want this Mel Cooley to be confused with the selfsame Mel Cooley who was a fictional executive on a certain old sitcom… and because this particular Mel Cooley just happened to be involved in the “Merc” thing, whatever it was.
If this had been television, my eyes would’ve been twinkling right then. I instantly imagined finding this Mel Cooley and finding a way to get the details out of him. I might be able to do it clandestinely, too, since I was pretty sure I hadn’t met this guy. Even better… I had a car! So I could drive to L.A. overnight, and be there to grill the guy over lunch! Yes! The plot thickens! The game’s afoot! And it only took four chapters!
Hurriedly I started packing up my gear and loading it into my gear bag, stopping only to gnaw on another slice of pizza, before I closed the box. Then I went into my room to collect a few articles of clothing for the trip. I wanted to take the most professional-looking clothes I had with me, which actually didn’t amount to anything professional-looking at all; in fact, my “professional” clothes essentially included a pair of long jeans and polo shirt that I’d worn when I came to San Diego. I quickly ran into Pete’s room, to see if he had maybe a sportcoat I could take with me. To my delight (and surprise), I found one that didn’t clash with the jeans and shirt, and brought it back to my bag. I finished my packing, and returned to the Borg alcove, now looking noticeably un-Borg-like with most of my gear packed up. I started to sweep up the gear bag and pizza box… and stopped, deciding to leave a note for Pete. It took me a minute to find something to write on, finally finding a subscription coupon from one of his magazines with enough whitespace for a note. I jotted down:
Gone to L.A. for a few days.
Hope things went well!
They might with me, too.
I left the note on the dining room table, which Pete was sure to notice was visible again, and resumed collecting my stuff. With the overnight bag, gear bag, and pizza box, I looked like I was ready for a road trip. And to be sure, I was ready… the possibility of getting closer to this mystery had me wired, and I felt like I could’ve run to L.A. on pure adrenaline alone. I left the apartment, turning off all the lights and locking the door on the way out, and made my way down to the parking garage, and Gail’s car. I put the overnight bag in the trunk, my gearbag on the floor of the passenger’s side, and the pizza box on the passenger’s seat. A second later, I removed the pizza box from the passenger seat, went back to the trunk, and dug around until I found a small plastic bag to place between the seat and the box. Hey, this is a nice car, okay?
Once set, I drove out of the parking garage, ready to head for the highway… with one detour. I drove the three blocks to the Starbucks, and for the first time, drove up to the drive-in window around the side.
“Grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, in a personal cup,” I told the microphone. “And step on it!”
The speaker said, “We don’t have your personal cup in here.”
“Oh… right,” I said sheepishly. “Let me pull up and give it to you…”
5: On the road again
My shattered dramatic moment outside of the Starbucks was soon forgotten once I was on the highway north to L.A. Fortunately, the trip would only be about two hours and change, thanks to the lateness of the day, leaving me time to grab a cheap motel for the night, and then try to figure out my next move. I was assuming, of course, that I’d be able to figure out how to find Mel Cooley in L.A. without his itinerary… but I hadn’t gone through all of his e-mails yet, so I hoped I’d find some clues in there.
Then I had to figure out exactly how I was going to con the information I needed out of him. Not being a con man, I naturally searched my memory of the closest approximations I had of the doings of con men… which would be television. Visions of screwy PIs, city slickers and sitcom annoyances began dancing through my head… but unfortunately, I had been born too late to enjoy what my brother Pete liked to refer to as the “heyday” of con artist shows… Baretta, The Rockford Files, Simon and Simon, Switch, etc, etc… I’d never even sat through an entire showing of The Sting. So I was working from a serious disadvantage there.
Fortunately, I had one thing on my side: Anger. Anger and an overriding need to know… okay, two things. Anger. An overriding need to know. And determination… yes, three things, anger, an overriding need to know, and determination, well, determination should probably come before an overriding need to know… let me start again: I had anger, determination, and an overriding need to know; and I expected that to be helpful in allowing me to bull my way to the truth. Also, he wasn’t expecting me, so I had surprise on my side— damn! Four things: Anger; determination; an overriding, wait, next should be surprise; then an overriding need to know… oh, bloody ‘ell.
Yeah, yeah, I know. But it sure helped to pass the time on a two-hour drive.
A few quick calls as I approached the city directed me to a motel in mid-town that had passably-reasonable prices and passable internet access. It was pretty close to eleven when I got there, which was perfect for me: I could get settled in, get a bit of sleep, then work out my day’s strategy… wait, I should probably do that the other way around, just in case… anyway, I was covered. So I checked in, moved in, and set up my gear on the dining-tray-sized work table that every motel gives you… and on the floor next to it. Soon I was online and exploring again.
Right off, I found the e-mail that detailed Cooley’s travel plans, and I saw that he was staying at a pretty swank downtown hotel. He had the place for two more days, so I had some time to prepare. What I couldn’t find were details on the business Cooley had in L.A., so I didn’t know if it was related to Merc, to something else, or to some personal “business.” That could complicate things, if he happened to be travelling with someone from BM who might know me, though that seemed unlikely. The other thing that complicated was when I would actually catch him at the hotel, and if I couldn’t work that out, I’d have to prepare to hang out like a gumshoe and wait for him to appear in the lobby. Boredom quotient aside, that would suck.
Presently, I figured out a plan to find him and get to him, in a fairly innocuous but mildly devious manner. As it required little in the way of preparation, other than looking up the nearest post office, I decided to go on to bed, confident that I’d be able to pull off my plan tomorrow.
I’d set an alarm on my watch, but as it happened, I was keyed up enough to wake up on my own beforehand, just before seven. I used to wake up at 6am daily, to go to work, but these days, getting up this early was like waking up in the wrong country, it seemed so abnormal. All the same, I got dressed, gathered up my gear, and headed out for my hopeful appointment with destiny.
First stop: The post office. There just happened to be a drugstore a few doors down from the post office, which was perfect for my needs: I promptly went in and bought a half-dozen assorted magazines. Then I took these to the post office, where I purchased a box large enough to hold the magazines, and some wrapping supplies. I wrapped the package while at the post office, so I imagine there were some funny looks as I walked back out of the post office carrying my package. It wasn’t meant for them. This was designated for hand-delivery only.
From there, I drove over to Cooley’s hotel, and found a place to park within view of the front entrances. Grabbing my cellphone, I called the hotel lobby. As I waited for someone to pick up, I began thinking of Burgess Meredith’s Mick voice from Rocky, and prepared for a sore throat.
“Good morning, this is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, may we help you?”
“Yeah, Bona-venchire? Dis is Frankie at Arrow Courier. We gotta package fer a Mel Cooley, an’ we was givin’ dis address to drop it off. Is Cooley stayin’ there now?”
“Hold on, sir, let me check,” the voice said. I rolled my eyes at the very idea that this was working, but sometimes— “Yes, sir, we have a Mel Cooley staying here.”
“Hokay, great! I’m gonna have a guy right over dere. We wuz told to do a hand delivery, straight to da guy. What’s his room number?”
“Mister Cooley is staying in room 517.”
“Great. T’anks loads, kid!”
“Yea, whut-evva.” I hung up, and considered how long I could afford to wait to make my entrance convincing. Glancing around, I happened to spy a nearby building in my rearview which happened to be sporting a Starbucks on the ground floor. Well, I did need to fix my sore throat, I considered wryly. So I popped out of the car, headed over to the Starbucks, and ordered my grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room. (I hadn’t brought my personal cup, as I didn’t want to be too conspicuous.) I hung out in the Starbucks for about fifteen minutes, which I figured was less obvious than sitting in Gail’s car on the street. Then, fully caffeinated and rarin’ for action, I returned to the car, retrieved my package, and headed into the hotel.
I walked leisurely past the counter, only half-expecting to be challenged… none of these guys looked that interested. But one of them challenged me anyway. “Can I help you, sir?”
I smiled politely. “I’m from Arrow Courier, doing a delivery to Mr. Cooley in 517. ‘Kay?”
The guy at the counter smiled back. “Yeah, I just talked to your boss.” He nodded his okay, and I started off, when the guy added, “Anyone ever tell your boss he sounds just like the old trainer guy in Rocky?”
“Not to his face,” I replied casually, and continued on.
Riding the elevator up to five, I got out and found Cooley’s room. I checked the small tape recorder I had in my pocket, and made sure it was on and running. Then, tucking the now-pointless box under my arm, I knocked on the door. I heard a muffled voice on the other side, and said, “Hey, it’s Frank.”
I heard a muffled “Who?” and presently the door opened. An older guy looked back at me through the crack in the door. “Who?”
“You Mel Cooley?” I asked, now trying to channel my best informal private eye impersonation… Pete always said, when in doubt, always go with Jim Rockford.
“Yeah,” Cooley replied.
“Good,” I said, pushing my way inside. “I was about to be mad. First the guy at the front desk sends me to the wrong room, and the lady there chews me out, and I had to go all the way back downstairs to get the right room.” I closed his door behind me. I was looking forward to the next part: I had come across the name of one of BM’s direct competitors in Baltimore, and one that had been mentioned at least once in the e-mails in connection to Merc… specifically, to make sure they never, ever heard about it. I wanted to see what Cooley would do when I tossed their name at him.
“Cooley, I’m from Lohimar.” Then I dropped my box on the floor… to get his attention.
“We need to talk,” I continued. “About Merc.”
Have you ever seen the color drain out of someone’s face… I mean really, right in front of you? Trust me, it’s a sight to see.
6: The confession
Cooley took a step back from me. “M-merc?” he said. Yeah, he actually stammered! This was going well.
“You have a problem, Cooley,” I said, taking a step towards him. “Merc is your problem.”
“What are..?” he looked around the room, presumably for something to hide behind or hit me with… but he wasn’t finding anything, which made him even more frightened. (Of me… an IT guy. What a hoot.) “I… I don’t know you—”
“Of course you don’t know me!” I snapped. “I work for the other guys, don’t I? And we know about Merc now. We also know about your problem.”
“My… problem? What are you talking about?”
“Cooley, you stooge,” I shook my head. “BM changed their plans on you—”
“We never call it ‘BM’,” Cooley actually interjected. “It’s always B&M, or Byers & Mig—”
“Whatever! BM is planning to kick off Merc while you’re out of town, and arrange things to implicate you with it.”
“W-what!” Cooley’s eyes popped, equal parts shock and anger. “T-they wouldn’t! They couldn’t!”
“They are,” I said smoothly. “Fortunately, we found you first. Which means we can turn the tables on BM… you can alert the authorities and stop them, while you’re out here, absolving you of guilt while they get locked up.”
Cooley seemed to like that idea… for about a second. Then he started thinking… not a good sign for me, because I was close to exhausted of my con artistry skills. “But… why set me up?”
“They decided they needed a patsy, obviously.”
“But we had a patsy from the last time! Some contractor’s IT guy.”
Yes! Confession on-air! My day was made… but I needed more. “They hoped you’d go to Club Fed while they all floated away to their little island retirement paradises.” Or was it paradi?…
“No… I can’t believe it,” Cooley was muttering. He suddenly extracted his cellphone from a pocket. “I’m gonna call—”
I slapped the phone right out of his hand. “Are you deranged? You want to tip their hand, so they can go ahead and frame you? Listen, Cooley! We’re trying to help you out, here! We don’t want Merc to happen. If it just went away, that would be one solution… but if your people were exposed, BM would be wiped out… which would be that much better, to us!” I stepped forward again, and lowered my voice conspiratorially. “And if you cooperate with us, we can make sure you stay clean, while they get put away. Is that clear enough for you?”
Cooley thought about it a moment. He looked at me, while I did my best to throw him a “You are so dead if you don’t cooperate” look right back. Finally, I saw his shoulders sag, and he dropped his head. “What do you want me to do?”
I had him. I wanted to exult, but I wasn’t finished. There was still a teeny, tiny little matter to deal with: I still didn’t know exactly what Merc was. I dug back into my rehearsed routine and started prodding him. “All right,” I said, giving me a moment to frame my thoughts. “We don’t know enough about Merc’s details. How can they kick it off, and still frame you while you’re out of town?”
“Uh.” Cooley’s eyes went blank. Uh-oh. That was not a good sign. Did he really know that little about this secret plan of theirs? “Um…”
“C’mon, Cooley!” I prompted. “You must have some idea!”
“Well…” Cooley thought about it, and I thought I saw a glimmer of an idea in there. “Well, they were going to send it from an isolated computer… but if they sent it from mine, that might be enough to implicate me after the fact.”
“After the fact?” I repeated, thinking furiously about what he’d already said.
“Well, yes,” Cooley continued. “Because it all happens too fast for anyone to react, once it starts.”
Cooley nodded. “Once they execute it.”
“That was it! Merc was a program!”
“Of course Merc is a program!” Cooley replied. “What did you think we were talking about?”
“Oh,” I said. “Did I say that aloud?” At least it wasn’t leakage…
I watched as Cooley’s face drained again. He pointed an accusing finger. “You didn’t know! You didn’t know what Merc was! You tricked me, you bastard!”
“Yeah, and now I do know,” I said, refusing to back down. “In fact, I know enough to have you put away for a long, long time, Cooley! So: Now that the cards are all on the table, you might as well tell me what Merc actually does.”
Cooley shrank back, clearly reluctant to speak. I took out my cellphone. “Or I make a few calls to a few friends in places with letters for names.” I reflected a moment on how incredibly stupid that sounded. “C’mon, Cooley: States’ evidence… or states’ bitch?”
I didn’t think his shoulders could slump any more than they already had. He plopped down into a sofa, and stared at the floor.
7: The plan
“Remember Black Monday?” Cooley asked me.
“Sure,” I replied. “Stock market crash of, what? ‘85?”
“‘87. The crash was partially caused by automatic programs that weren’t programmed to react sensibly to the initial downturns, and went ape-shit selling stocks off to compensate, driving everything into the cellar.”
I looked at Cooley dubiously. “I know BM isn’t planning to crash the stock market. That would be more stupid than diabolical.”
“Of course not,” Cooley said. “But the crash taught somebody a lot about how to better write those stock-handling programs, and even take some shortcuts around the NASDAQ protective protocols… and B&M worked as the accounting firm for one of those companies. The company was in dire straits, we bought them out… and we learned about this software. Someone realized what we could do with it, right away.”
“Which was what?”
“To manipulate certain stocks at programming speed, which would allow us to buy up stocks at a low price almost immediately, drive the prices back up, and dump the stocks at the top… making a hefty profit in about nine seconds, before anyone knew what happened.”
“Whoa. Neat trick, if it’d work.” Then something clicked in my head. “You tried it once,” I said. “It didn’t work.”
“Yeah,” Cooley nodded. “It was programmed to go after various mercantile stocks—”
“Mercantile?…” I slapped a hand to my head. “That’s ‘Merc’!…”
“Yeah, sure. But it crashed our system, and almost left a clear trail from NASDAQ back to B&M. The execs had our IT guys make it look like we’d been attacked, to throw the trail off of us.”
The DOS attack. “And you blamed a contractor’s employee for leaving you wide open for it. A guy named—” I brought my cellphone up to my face, to perpetrate like I was reading off the screen. “—Mike Schitzeiss.”
“Yeah, somebody,” Cooley nodded again. “I dunno who, I wasn’t that deep into it.” He dropped his head and shook it sadly. “Man, I knew it was a bad idea. I knew it was gonna blow up in everyone’s face. This is why I just wanted to get out of it…”
I was experiencing a wild ride of emotions right then. Part of me was incensed to find out the truth behind the ruination of my career… and another part of me was triumphant at discovering the truth on my own, not to mention getting a confession that would clear my name. Even at finding out what ‘Merc’ actually stood for. But the angry part of me was disappointed, because it sounded like Cooley was too far down the chain to satisfy any urge of physical retribution I may have had… and yeah, right now I could have killed this guy with my bare hands if I’d thought he’d been more directly responsible… and then, the last thing he’d said—
Waitaminit. What’d he say?
“Waitaminit. What’d you say?”
“I said, I just wanted to get out of all this,” Cooley repeated. “After the first screw-up, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I came out here to apply for another job, to get away. Hopefully before they tried to re-use that program, and get us all arrested.” He gestured at the door. “I thought you were my appointment, here early…”
“You were trying to get out? Why didn’t you just go to the feds and tell them about Merc?”
“Because it would only implicate me, too!” Cooley replied. “And I’d be in jail too! No… I wanted out! All the way out! I figured if I just put enough distance between us and kept quiet, I wouldn’t be implicated!”
“Cooley…” I had to admit, there was a point, there… though how often does it work out that way, except in TV shows and cheap (even free) detective stories? Still, I admired his desire to get away from the corruption of BM… and as I thought about it, I realized there might be a way to help each other.
I sat on the sofa next to Cooley. “Listen, man: You’ve done me a big favor, here. And I’d like to return the favor. I appreciate your wanting to get out, but it’s rarely that simple. Even from here, you could be dragged back into it and thrown to the wolves. But I might be able to do something that would not only help you… but give me some personal satisfaction, as well.”
Cooley looked at me. “I don’t understand. What satisfaction would you get out of this?”
“I’m Mike Schitzeiss,” I said.
Cooley’s eyes popped, and he leaned away from me on the sofa. “Y-you’re the—the guy? The guy they framed for the first screw-up?”
“That’s me,” I nodded. “And now that I know what it’s all about, there’s nothing I’d like more than to make sure they pay for their actions. But there’s paying… and there’s paying. And I’d like to see them pay… my way.”
“As only an IT guy can make them pay.” Don’t ask me how, but my voice sounded particularly menacing, even to me. Which probably means I’ve been in this business waay too long.
Cooley smirked. “You’ve been in this business waay too long, if you think any of the higher-ups at B&M will be scared of an IT guy.”
I smiled. Thought leakage. A real good sign. “That’s because they don’t know M.D. Schitz.”
Cooley drew a blank. “Who’s that?”
My face fell appropriately. “That’s me! —okay, look: What I told you about their planning to fire off Merc? I said that to fake you out. I don’t know when they’re planning to execute the program. But if you help me, we can be ready when they do, and… make sure they regret it. And at the same time, keep us in the clear.” I extended my hand. “Will you help me?”
Cooley thought about it for a moment, understandable given the circumstances. Then, I saw him decide in his eyes, and he started to raise his hand to mine.
That’s when a knock came at the door.
Cooley looked up. “Oh! That must be my job appointment!” He got up out of the sofa and started toward the door, then stopped and turned back to me. “You don’t mind, do you? I really need this job to get out from under, y’know?”
I was pretty sure I already had his cooperation. Though I had no idea how much time we had, I saw no reason he shouldn’t keep his appointment and get his job. “Go ahead,” I said. Cooley smiled gratefully and went to the door, opening it just after the second knock.
The door was blocking my view of the person outside the door, but I heard a female voice: “Mister Cooley? Are you ready for our interview?”
I was positive I knew that voice. I think the hairs on my entire body stood at attention at that moment; which was none too comfortable down my shorts, to put it politely. As I stood up and approached the door, suppressing the urge to scratch myself everywhere, the woman stepped into Cooley’s room. She had on a skirted business suit and three-inch heels, an outfit that closely walked the line between fashionably attractive and scandalously sexual, and blond hair framing an expertly-made-up face and taste-me-now lips. As she stepped into the room, she realized someone else was there… she turned her head, saw me, her exquisite eyebrows shot upward and got lost in her hairline, and those taste-me-now lips popped wide open.
“Gail!” I goggled. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Gail goggled back at me, and at once, said, “Oh, shit.”
“You’re supposed to be in San Francisco!”
“Well, you’re supposed to be in San Diego!”
“Don’t evade the question!” I snapped. “What’re you doing meeting this guy?”
“My job!” Gail snapped back. Abruptly she looked at me with a cocked eye. “Are you following me?”
“No! I came after him!” I said, leveling an arm at Cooley.
“You’re not supposed to be here!” Gail stamped at me. “You’re getting into my work! What did I tell you about that?”
“And just how is a guy who ruined my life part of your work, hah?”
“L-listen,” Cooley, stammered, “if it’s all the same to you guys—”
“Shut up!” we both shouted, and Cooley backed up, chastised. A second later, Gail realized what she’d done, and immediately, she looked at Cooley, and her face softened. She took a step towards Cooley, and to his credit, he continued to back away from her. She took a quicker step, and caught him by his arm.
“Mister Cooley! I’m so sorry about this! I don’t know why my… boyfriend… (and she said it with enough venom to paralyze an elephant, let me tell you) …chose this moment to intrude into my work space, but I assure you, it has no bearing on our business!” She tried to soothe him with her voice, steering him over to a nearby chair. “Tell you what: I’m just going to speak to him for a moment, and set things straight… and then you and I will get down to business. All right?” Cooley seemed hesitant, so Gail pressed the issue by pressing closer to him. “I promise… it’ll be okay. I just need a minute. Please?”
After another moment’s consideration, Cooley finally nodded. “All ri—”
But Gail was already moving, crossing the room, grabbing me by the front of my shirt, and dragging me outside of Cooley’s room and into the hallway. The door slammed loud enough that I’d bet Cooley jumped on the other side. And Gail slung me around until my back impacted with the wall on the other side of the hallway.
“You’ve got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, mister!” She pushed her face into mine, with a grimace that made it clear she had no interest in kissing me. “What the hell are you doing messing with my client?”
“Your client,” I replied, “happens to be part of the plot that got me fired and blacklisted in my home town! I came here to find out what he knew! Your turn,” I added before Gail could respond to that. “Why’d you tell me you were going to San Francisco?”
“Because I didn’t want you to come!” she hissed. “If you knew I was going two hours up the coast, you would have wanted to tag along!”
“Yeah, maybe I would!”
“Well, I didn’t want you to!”
“Because I didn’t want to hurt you!” Gail shouted.
That drew me up short. At first, I didn’t understand what she was saying… was she threatening me? Was she telling me she was going to break off our relationship… was she having an affair? No… wait… it was there in her eyes…
“You knew. You knew B&M was involved in my—”
“Of course I knew!” Gail replied, voice quieter again, so it wouldn’t carry all the way down the hall, but no less insistent.
“But how? I never told you—”
“You talk in your sleep, numb-nuts,” Gail said, finally touching me… in the form of bouncing the heel of her fist off my chest. “And I’ve only been sleeping with you for the past two months, haven’t I? I knew if you knew I was coming to interview a B&M employee for our firm, you’d do… something stupid.”
“It wasn’t stupid,” I defended myself. “In fact, it worked. Now I know what happened, and maybe I can do something about it—”
“Well, do it on your own time, mister! I’m on the clock, here! And if you make me screw up this gig, I swear to you, no suit in Baltimore will be a tenth as scary as me when I go down on your ass!” She shoved me sideways, towards the elevator. “Now, get lost! I’ll call you when I’m done.” I stood there a moment, hesitant, prompting her to wave at me like I was a bad puppy. “Shoo!”
I finally decided to go. But I said to her, “We’re not done with this…”
“Not by a long shot!” she agreed. Then, as I backed away, she smoothed out her hair, checked her suit, walked back to Cooley’s door, and knocked on it gingerly. “Mister Cooley? Hello?”
My cellphone went off once, at 2pm. Instead of Gail, it was Pete.
“Hey, bro! What’s going on? What’re you doing in L.A.?”
“Long story,” I said, “I’ll tell you when I get back. How did things go with you and Reilly?”
“Well, I’ll be eating shit for a while, but I think we’ll live,” Pete replied.
“Good, glad to hear it,” I said. “Listen, I’m waiting for Gail to call me, so—”
“No prob, bro. I’ll talk to you later. Let me know when you’re coming home.”
“You know it. ‘Bye, Pete.”
I hung up and put the phone down on the bed, where I was sitting up and facing the TV. “Some kind of long interview,” I muttered to myself… though I knew that important or particularly valuable prospective employees were often schmoozed for hours, given tours of the office and local sights, met multiple execs and workers, etc, etc… I mean, no one does that for an IT guy, but for a senior account executive, I guessed it was par for the course. For all I knew, I could be waiting until well after dinner.
I tried very hard not to think beyond that. I had, of course, noted Gail’s attire, designed to make any guy go weak at the knees in her proximity. She usually dressed like that when I saw her go to work… and she’d told me once that her firm did not know she had a social life. So why did she always dress up like she was the social life? Who was she trying to impress, looking like that? Could there be something going on in her firm… maybe some one in her firm… that she was dressing up for? And most importantly: Did it stop with the dressing up?
No, maybe more importantly: Was it my business?
I tried to stop these thoughts from intruding on my waiting. Unfortunately, since I had chosen a motel with a fairly minimal basic cable setup, there was little on during the day, and in my searching around for something to watch, kept coming back to various soaps, the intent of each being apparently to reinforce the viewer’s distrust in his fellow man, and especially in the opposite sex. Then the soaps went off, followed by talk shows which cemented man’s cruelty to his neighbor even more. Then the news, and more examples of man’s inhumanity to man. It was so not helping my mood.
When the phone finally rang, it caught me dozing, at eight o’clock. I fumbled for the cellphone, and checked the screen; it was Gail on the line. “Where are you?”
“In my motel, on the south side of… uh—”
“Never mind. You must have come in my car, so why don’t you meet me West Fifth and South Broadway? I’ll be on the north corner.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, and hung up. Grabbing the sportcoat I’d left behind in my earlier foray, I left the room, climbed into Gail’s car, and dialed up the address on my cellphone’s GPS app. It took me about forty minutes to get there, partially because of two wrong turns I made that put me on one-way streets going the wrong way. I finally reached South Broadway, and after driving a few blocks, I saw Gail standing on the corner to my right, just before Fifth street. She saw me coming, and when I pulled up to the curb, she ambled over. She stopped short of opening the car door, though… I found myself staring at her midsection through the passenger’s side window. Perplexed, I hit the window control on that side, and before I could ask what she was doing, Gail leaned down, planted her elbows on the top of the door, and looked in at me like she was a classy streetwalker in designer threads looking over a cheap John.
And actually said, “What can I do for you, sailor?”
“Huh. I know I can’t afford you.”
“Are you sure?”
I gave her a snide look. “Can we go somewhere to talk?”
“I have a better idea,” Gail replied, using a finger to point at a parking spot across the intersection. “Park it over there. I’ll be waiting here.”
I looked across the intersection, and back at her. “Fine.” I waited until she’d straightened up, then I put the car in gear and drove off. I parked the car, fed one of those block-meters, then came back and crossed the street to meet Gail.
Gail did not look particularly happy to see me. On the other hand, she didn’t look as though she planned to split my skull open with the nearest manhole, which was an improvement from her mood this morning. “I want to show you something,” she said. Follow me.”
She started walking; and I followed. We didn’t speak as we walked, which made it convenient that we didn’t go far. Just about half the block, in fact, before Gail turned and entered one of the buildings. We crossed the lobby, took an elevator to the fourth floor, and stepped out. Gail took a moment to orient herself, then started down the hallway. When we reached a door, she opened her purse and fished out a set of keys on a gold ring. She used one to open the door, and step inside. The lights came on automatically as we entered.
She walked through the office, which consisted of an open central space, with doors of frosted glass leading to each individual office. Most of the place was devoid of furniture, just a remaining chair here and there, and on the wall behind a receptionist’s counter, a name that had been painted or mounted on it, had been primed or plastered over. On the upper left, where the paint/plaster was thin, I could make out what looked like the word “Blue” and an “M,” but nothing else. At the far end of the office was a glass-walled conference room, that itself had a glass wall looking out over Los Angeles. L.A. being fairly flat in this area, I could see a wide expanse of lighted roadways and buildings continuing off into the distance.
“This,” Gail said, “was formerly a detective agency. It was owned by a fashion model as a tax shelter, but she fell on hard times: Her accountant embezzled just about every dime she had, leaving her with nothing but the agency. She tried to keep it afloat, but she was constantly fighting with her staff, especially the lead investigator, and the place closed down after three years under her control. Our firm is leasing the space now. We plan to set up a local branch here.”
I looked around. “Nice digs.”
Gail nodded non-committally. “We’ve been head-hunting for people to staff this location, all around the country. Mel Cooley was discovered putting covert feelers out for a new position, and his qualifications were perfect for us. I brought him up to see the space. He’ll probably be one of our senior staff members… assuming he takes the job, of course.”
Gail turned to me. “I wanted to make sure you knew I was doing my job, meeting him here, and spending the day with him.”
“What did you guys do all day?” I tried to frame it innocently, but I wasn’t sure if I’d pulled it off.
“Pretty much everything but sex,” she replied. She looked at me, and smiled wryly. “Which, for the record, is saying something.”
“No,” she stopped me. “No, we’re here now… you should know this.”
10: The confession
Gail led me into the glass-walled conference room, over to a large conference table that was the sole piece of furniture there, probably because it was too large to remove from the room without disassembling either it, or the glass wall. She casually hopped up and sat on its edge, and the table was so massive that it didn’t shift with her weight. “I was still with Pete when I started working for the company. At the time, I was a handful… full of myself, and especially of my power over men. I slept with the boss to get hired, and I slept with other execs to get further along. Pete knew this, of course… we didn’t have the kind of relationship that precluded that kind of thing.
“Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to become known as the company’s ‘secret weapon,’ willing and able to be deployed against any enemy… or to make a potential friend,” she went on, looking wistfully out the window at the L.A. skyline as she talked. “That was the kind of girl I was. You may have noticed, I’m something of a sex-crazed loon.”
She paused, and I didn’t reply.
“So,” she continued, “life went on… and the livin’ was easy. I was having fun, at home and at work. And somewhere along the line… it started to move past just sex.” I narrowed my eyes as she paused, and decided to take off her suit jacket. She laid it down on the table, and now that I could see her strapless top, I knew she had nothing on underneath it. “It started with a potential client who had… some extreme notions of fun. I went with it, because I wanted to land that client… and discovered I liked it. Then came another incident with a merger, a year later… then another, to settle a lawsuit out-of-court. I loved ‘em all. They turned me on like nothing I’d ever experienced. More, even, than… the U-bolt.”
“What?” The U-bolt was her nickname for one of her sex toys, which I had used on her one night, and… well, without getting graphic (too bad, perv), that thing made her a screaming lunatic! I personally don’t know how a human body could survive more pleasure than that thing gave her…
“No shit, Mike… more than that,” she said, having no trouble picking up on those leaking thoughts. “So I started to explore… the wilder stuff. With Pete. And he was game, at first, I mean he liked a lot of it. He liked the dress-up stuff… the bondage was cool… and the multi-setting unisex—”
“TMI, babe,” I said quickly.
“Yeah, well. Anyway, after a while, he started resisting. He wasn’t into it that much. I… started demanding. I needed… more. I was becoming a junkie, a wild-sex nymphomaniac.
“Then, one night, I went too far, and Pete just… snapped. He ran away from me and locked himself away in the guest room, and wouldn’t come out all night. The next morning, he told me he couldn’t do it anymore… he told me he wanted out.”
“Hold on,” I said. “You’re telling me that my brother couldn’t handle having wild sex with you? You’re telling me he broke it off?” Gail nodded. “Bullshit.”
Gail shrugged. “Pete’s a good man. He’s also got a healthy ego. The very idea that a woman was the sexual better of him really didn’t sit well with him, and I could tell. If anyone else we knew had found out…” She paused again, and I thought she was finally making an effort to maintain her composure. “So we concocted the whole thing about me leaving because of his ‘boyish irresponsibility’. Believe it or not, he was actually okay with that…”
“No,” I said, “I’m not believing this…” But even as I was saying it, I was remembering all the moments since I’d come to California… all the words between them… all the looks… all the posturing and attitudes and banter… and I thought of Reilly. Pete had said Gail’s name, in a moment of passion with Reilly. Even after what they’d gone through…
“He still loves you,” I said.
“I know,” Gail replied quietly. “As much as I still love him. But I drove him away, Mike. I did it… not him. And I kick myself for it, every day.”
Gail went quiet, for a time. I tried to think of something, anything, to say, but I just couldn’t. I finally walked over to the table and sat down next to her on its edge.
After another few moments of silence, Gail said, “I decided I had developed a problem. I needed help. I’ve been trying to… curb my appetite. For the past two years.” She looked at me, and I returned her wry smile, thinking of all the things we usually did when we had sex… that was curbed? “Yes, this is me taking it easy on you,” she said. I must be a sieve today.
“I also started resisting the same temptations at work,” she continued. “That was hard. After so many years of being a total slut, going cold turkey was not popular with the fellas. They came close to firing me, more than once, when they realized I wasn’t going to earn my living on my back anymore. I had to work hard, to prove that I could still bring in clients, that I could still do a real job, pull my weight… without…” There was a pause, as if her mind was running ahead and her mouth wasn’t bothering to keep up with the details. “…a-and then Pete started seeing Reilly, and it was too late for me to…”
Her voice promptly folded up and keened away, her head dropped, and her hair cascaded forward, hiding her face from me. After a moment, she sniffed, once. When she raised her face to me again, I could see the lights of the city reflected in the tears running down her face. “I’ve been a good girl, Mike! I’m cutting out the crazy stuff! And I’ve been trying to change my rep, but it’s, it’s so hard!—”
“I know,” I said, shaking my head and putting an arm around her shoulder. “It’s hard to turn yourself into a new person. Especially when you didn’t think the old person was that bad.” And as I said the words, I couldn’t help but think of one other person I knew who could use that same advice. “Don’t worry, you haven’t done wrong by me.”
“Oh, thank you,” Gail said at once, and turned to me, stifling a sob. “Thank you…” She put her arms around me and kissed me gratefully… and passionately. After a moment, she pressed into me. Before I knew it, the warmth of sympathy over her vulnerability was turning into the heat of passion for same. She felt it, too, and momentarily, she started leaning backward, forcing me down to the tabletop.
In between her kisses, I tried to get a word in edgewise. “Gail—I—”
“Yes, we should.”
I was lounging in my underwear in Gail’s hotel room in the Millennium Biltmore, actually not far from Gail’s new office building… we had ended up here after “christening” her new office… twice (but that conference table wasn’t nearly as sturdy as it looked)… then cleaning ourselves up just enough to avoid getting arrested on the street, and rushing over to finish the night, and each other, off. In the morning, Gail had told me to stay here and wait for her call, then went off to meet Cooley again.
As a good 250 cable TV, numerous pay-per-view and porn channels presented themselves to me on her room’s TV, I gave them no mind at all. My whole world, at that moment, was Gail, and the truth about her and Pete. It made me fully realize how much they had been torturing themselves over the past few years, not just the months I’d been here… just thinking about it hurt me deeply.
Occasionally, my thoughts and feelings for them were interrupted by the reality of my own situation. I had been spending a lot of time trying to recover my lost life in Baltimore… and increasingly found myself asking “Why?” Not just because it was Baltimore, mind you… because there hadn’t been anything special in my life back there. Certainly nothing even remotely like… Gail. Were there any good reasons for me to go back, even if I could? As the days went by, those reasons numbered fewer and fewer, and now, I could scarcely think of a single one.
Well, maybe just one: Unfinished business.
I was also reflecting on the strangeness of finding the answer to my two biggest questions in life, on the same day. If you told me that would happen a week ago, I would’ve assumed that the space-time continuum would collapse an instant afterward. Yet, here it was. And now that I knew the answers, I had to figure out what I was gonna do with them.
It was about 2pm when my cellphone rang. I had put in a new ringtone that morning, a series of ten notes from the opening bars of an old R&B song. I’d be willing to bet that most people wouldn’t have been able to identify the song: Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel. (Go ahead… say “Awww.”) “Hey, babe.”
“We’re downstairs at La Bistecca,” Gail said. “Come meet us here.”
I dressed and came down to the hotel lobby. La Bistecca was one of two restaurants in the huge lobby space of the hotel, and at that time of day, it was easy to find Gail and Cooley at a table nestled against the far wall. I walked over casually, trying to present as upstanding a citizen as I could in such an ornate and expensive place. I smiled sheepishly at Cooley, and nodded at Gail. “Good afternoon.”
“Please, join us,” Gail said, and I took the chair opposite Cooley. I glanced his way, and was glad to see no sign of rancor on his face after my little con-job performance yesterday. In the meantime, Gail went on to say, “We have something to announce.”
I turned to her, momentarily unsure whether her “we” meant her and me, or her and Cooley. “Yes?” I said finally.
“Mel has accepted a position with our firm’s new L.A. offices,” Gail smiled.
“Oh! Well,” I said, extending my hand across the table to Cooley, “congratulations, Mr. Cooley. I’m sure you’ll be very happy here.”
“I’m sure I will be,” Cooley said, shaking my hand. “Gail can be very persuasive. I’m looking forward to it.”
A waiter showed up, and I ordered a drink to go with both of theirs. Once the waiter had moved away, Gail said, “Actually, there’s something else we want to discuss with you.” I looked at her expectantly. “Mel and I have talked about your situation. I explained everything to him.”
I turned to Cooley, who nodded. “Mister Schitzeiss… Mike… you got a raw deal at the hands of my employers… my former employers,” he added, pausing to smile at Gail. He turned back to me. “If I can, I’d like to help… along the lines you mentioned in my hotel.”
My eyes popped. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” Cooley said. “After Gail and I talked, I realized you might be right… simply waiting things out on the left coast might not be enough to prevent me from being implicated by any future use of Merc… especially after I deliver my resignation. You said that you’d like to do something that will not only make them pay, but clear your name and mine. If you can do that… I’m in.” He extended his hand across the table again. I took it gladly, and we shook across the table. We both glanced at Gail, who reached out and put her hand on top of ours.
When we pulled our hands back, I said, “Now, that’s something to consider: When you give your notice, B&M will immediately be concerned that your knowledge of Merc might compromise them. That might make them plan to act sooner than later… and since we didn’t know when they were going to act anyway, we might be able to take advantage of forcing their hand.”
“That’s true,” Cooley admitted.
“Well, if that’s so, we’re going to have to put a plan together that can react fast enough, and stop them. It’ll be tricky… and I can’t guarantee I can pull it off, at least, not until I know more about Merc.” I arched an eyebrow at Cooley. “Are you up for a challenge?”
“A challenge to get at my old bosses, before they screw me? Let me see…” Cooley said, lifting his eyes to the ceiling in mock-consideration, and prompting smiles from me and Gail. Then he dropped his eyes and said, “Hell, yes!”
At that moment, the waiter arrived with my drink, which I promptly lifted in the air. “In that case: I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship…”