“I’d like to speak with your supervisor.”
There was an edge to Mr. Johannes’s voice, which hadn’t been blunted from years of cigars and brandy. The type of voice which belonged to a man who wore diamond cuff links and smelled of savory oils massaged into the skin by Thai hands; he was a man who knew the difference between Ossetra and Sevruga.
“Please give me one minute, Mr. Johannes.”
Neil put the phone down. He’d been serving as Mr. Johannes’s concierge for a little over six months, and this was the first time there’d been any displeasure. Neil had prided himself on always being able to deliver: a private jet, ten-thousand dollar plate fundraisers, house seats for a show sold out for two years ahead of time. Neil had an ability to negotiate and call in markers. His father had been a Gin Rummy champion, and Neil had inherited his gifts of sizing people up. Still, this current request gave him cause to question his scruples.
He quickly hit the direct line to his supervisor.
Neil pictured Ellen sitting at her oak desk; a purple orchid and a terrarium that housed a golden knee tarantula at opposite corners. Surrounded by opulence and glass plaques for years of service, Ellen was the number one concierge for the last six years.
“How may I be of service?” she said.
King Minos watches his goblet fill with more wine. The mined ore and jewels which adorn his chalice come from lands within the far reaches of his empire. He drinks hoping to eradicate any memory of the day’s events in which he bore witness to the fourteen victims being dragged to their doom. Seven boys and girls are wailing at their mathematical misfortune. It never ceases to phase him how they devolve into dumb beasts unable to string together coherent words anymore. One by one, they disappear into the lightless catacomb as the portcullis lowers sealing their fates. He chews the sediment between his stained teeth. The Great Hall has long since emptied out of his guests leaving him in solitude. He knows these emotions of guilt will leave him as they did when he banished his two brothers when he betrayed Poseidon; when his wife birthed an abomination.
“Mr. Johannes wants to have somebody killed.”
Neil was, of course, admitting to criminal conspiracy, but it was par for the course. Praetorian level members received every amenity imaginable. While some actions were certainly illegal, he was told they, the company, paid a hefty sum to keep counsel on retainer.
Sure, they could try to subpoena the recordings, (Praetorian still monitored the calls for training purposes) but they’d be mired in red tape. They being the Justice Department. Also, the phone lines were scrambled, cooked, and bounced off multiple satellites and through servers around the world. Members of an activist hacker group did pro bono work keeping the security system functional and top of the line. They were libertarians; the activist group, not The Justice Department.
“Please don’t use the passive voice,” Ellen said.
Neil felt emasculated, and his throat constricted. He could picture her standing now staring out the window speaking into the wireless headset which she never removed.
“Uh.” Neil tried to correct his mistake, but she cut him off.
“Never mind. And?”
When he didn’t immediately answer, she added
“Be specific, does he want to send a message? Does he want to frame someone or should it be untraceable? Would he like to commit the act himself?
She paused, then let out a sigh.
“Please don’t tell me you still have him on hold.”
Ajax stares at the sword blade protruding from the sand. He’s washed his hands, bathed his entire body in the ocean, yet the crimson stains cannot be fully cleansed. The blood has soaked into his skin. The rage at losing Achilles’ armor to Odysseus has long since subsided, now replaced by shock. The shock of waking from a spiritual stupor to find his hands wrapped around the neck of a sheep whose eyes are protruding and tongue distended has reduced him to a state of guilt and depression. Fifteen cloven-hoofed animals lie strewn about the ground bludgeoned or stabbed. He marvels at the ocean again resigning himself to the act which must now occur to preserve his honor. The sword blade glints in the sun, a gift from Hector, his mortal enemy. He steels himself for a moment, then falls forward, thinking only about the cruel mistress Time; how she has switched the alignment of his enemies and friends and upended his world.
Neil flicked the edge of the business card with his index finger. The edge had furred from years of use. He took another sip of coffee; it was his fourth. He’d been a Classics major in college. Loved it in fact, but his advisor’s counsel had relegated him to a future of uncertainty. He’d need to get a Ph.D., publish frequently, spend hours and days scrutinizing translations. That in and of itself didn’t seem bad, but there was no promise of a career at the end. He could dedicate himself over the next six years toward a life of smoking a meerschaum and wearing tweed coats, with patches on the elbows and have no tenured position to show for it. Despondent, he sought refuge in his books.
Praetorian found him. He never knew how.
In the beginning, he’d been salaried, but after a year, he’d worked on commission. The money working for Praetorian was incomparable. His first day, Roger showed him around the office and got him set up.
“Alright, so listen,” Roger began when they were having lunch later. Roger wore a navy blue pin stripe suit with knife-edge creases, Oliver Peoples Tortoise Shell glasses, and an Alexander Olch tie.
He took a bite of pate.
“That’s the key. You acquire and assuage.”
Neil stared at the pate.
“Bison liver,” Roger said, “I pour duck fat over it to congeal.”
“Duck fat?” Neil said.
“You’ll do fine here, just remember to have a certain moral flexibility.”
Roger paused and put down his fork, then touched the points of his fingers together, so they formed a pyramid.
“You obviously have potential; otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But, this isn’t for everyone. You’ll have every opportunity you could imagine, but you have to ask yourself, “Is this what I want, and what am I prepared to do to get it?”
Neil took to the job almost immediately. Cordial, pleasant, supportive. His initial tasks were easy to complete, and the clients were satisfied with his performance. He felt good about himself for the first time in a while, like he had a purpose. His first review with Ellen went smoothly.
“You’ve done well,” she offered, holding the tarantula in the palm of her hand, flipping her palm over as the creature crawled along the ridge.
“Thank you,” Neil said, although his insides felt like he’d swallowed white hot razor blades. His arachnophobia was palpable; something Ellen probably knew.
After the first few months, though, he noticed strange things at work. Everyone drank or ingested copious amounts of depressants. His colleagues were immaculately dressed, as per company policy, but they were dead behind the eyes. People left the company, sure, and there was no reprisal. Praetorian had leverage since everyone had in some way participated in a criminal act. It was frowned upon to fraternize with anyone once they left the company.
Roger had departed as well. His last day, Neil found him a fractured mess. A security officer escorted Roger, and when they passed by, Neil heard Roger mutter, “To do that to a child.”
Neil hadn’t been obtuse about the situation working for Praetorian. He hadn’t been asked to enable anything abhorrent, but part of him didn’t want to know what happened over those phone lines.
He flicked the edge of the card again then put it in his pocket, shut down his computer, and left the office.
Outside, the cold bit into him, and he pulled his camel hair coat tight around his neck. He walked the few blocks to the subway. Later, he stood outside of her apartment. He debated if he should talk to her, and, in fact, crossed the street toward the entrance, only to turn around and find solace in a darkened doorway.
Almost on cue, she appeared at the front door of the building with a computer bag. Neil watched her negotiate the garbage cans in front of the building and cross the street directly in front of him. Long auburn hair hung past her neck; cheeks made iridescently red from the cold. Purple earmuffs poked out like mushroom caps.
She entered the diner on the corner, and he followed. She took a booth in the back corner, and he grabbed an empty stool at the counter. He ordered coffee. She drank tea, while toast and jam waited untouched next to her. Without craning his neck, he saw she’d shed her outer garments, removed a sheaf of papers from her back, and had begun making notations. Grading them, he thought. She taught English.
He stared ahead at his reflection in the mirror which ran parallel to the counter.
Neil longed to speak with her. Find out how her classes were going, see what she was teaching. He wished he could confide in her his existential despair, make crass remarks about nihilists, and drink so much coffee the veins in his eyes would become permanent latticework.
He removed the business card from his pocket and marveled at the eggshell coloring and Romalian type.
Taking the last sip of his coffee, he swiveled his stool to get a good look. She was buried in work; her lower lip pushed out to the side like a piece of chewed bubblegum. Probably, she was in the midst of deciding whether to award this particular student an A- or B+. She was careful, dedicated, the sort of teacher who consulted a rubric; someone who pushed her students to strive for excellence but also had a firm grasp of their capabilities. Neil wondered whether he might have been a similar teacher had he stayed on track. If one subscribed to the concept of a multiverse, then he was out there; some version of him, tweed sports coat and all, smoking Borkum Riff and dispensing with Greek and Latin phraseology.
He lingered, caught up at the moment when he realized he was staring. He swiveled off the stool and fled.
Outside, he found a payphone, one of the few still in existence he thought. Neil wouldn’t chance making the call on his cell phone; he did not put anything out of the realm of possibilities when it came to Praetorian.
Roger answered on the fourth ring.
“Hey, it’s Neil.”
There was a moment.
“What do you want?” Roger said slurring his words together.
“I don’t know,” Neil said.
Neil stared at the receiver for a moment, then fished out the card from his pocket.
He was about to ask Roger for his advice but realized too late that Roger had already hung up the phone. Neil placed the handset back, paused for a moment, dialed the number and waited.
“Mr. Shaw, I’m looking to have my couch reupholstered; it’s red leather.”
It was code. At the moment that followed, Neil was certain Mr. Shaw was initiating an encryption system.
“How can I help you?”
Shaw had worked for Praetorian as an independent contractor; his background was murky, but chatter around the office suggested he’d carried out Black Ops and done wet work throughout every continent. He was also an upholsterer and ran a successful business in the suburbs.
“The target’s name is Pamela Carter; she’s a high school English teacher.” Neil continued to reveal how Mr. Johannes’ son was failing her English class, and Johannes wanted her killed as a reprisal. They were reading Mrs. Dalloway. Johannes wanted her thrown out the window. It could be made to look like a suicide, but that was up to Mr. Shaw.
“Out the window, huh,” Shaw repeated.
“She’s at a diner near her house right now.”
“It won’t be tonight,” Shaw said, “Within the week.”
Neil paused, placed the mouthpiece to his forehead, then spoke.
“Thank you,” Neil said and hung up the phone.
He removed the pill bottle from his jacket and took two, crunching them between his teeth. Before long, he felt the pressure within his body collapse upon itself like an imploding star. He wandered the streets, uncertain of where he was heading until he got there. The reflection of the water rippled white in the moonlight as Neil stared out onto the river, the currents flowing twenty feet beneath him.
Aeneas stands in front of his men. They are weary with exhaustion. For a brief moment, they are allowed to soak in the present, free from toil or warfare. The ships are in the distance, and they realize, soon, they’ll have to board them again and set sail to seek the promised land. Aeneas knows he must speak to raise their spirits and keep them motivated, though, he is finding it hard to summon the courage. He gets their attention and reminds them of previous transgressions in which they bested fierce creatures, escaped from perilous circumstances. He speaks of a future in which they will rebuild and find solace. The men’s faces are suddenly animated at the prospect of a bright future. Aeneas smiles, though he knows they face incredible hardships still. He says in a tone undecipherable
“Someday, perhaps, remembering even this will be a pleasure.”
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. Currently, he teaches in Virginia. His work can be read in Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, The South Dakota Review, and FLAPPERHOUSE among others. His website: asdavie.wordpress.com
© 2017, Andrew Davie