21
Feb
09

Fate Pays The Rent (Seventh Installment)

“Then let’s get going. If he’s leaving early, he should be out of there soon and the faster we get in there and get out the better I’ll feel.”
“That’s not what she said.” Jeff started the car again and rejoined the traffic. The few people who had stopped to watch the argument saw the show was over and started moving along the sidewalk again.
“I’m serious, Jeff. I’ve seen this neighborhood at night and I don’t want to do it again. Now what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to cruise through the parking lot and see if there are any other offices in that building.”
“Yes, there are.”
“So, what else is on the third floor?”
“Why are you asking me these questions? I know the answers; I’m just curious why you don’t know the answers. Did you check any of this out before you sent me over here last night?”
“Well-“
“You didn’t, did you? How do you know there is a parking lot?”
“Well, Mari told me.”
“Right. Mari gave you a key. Mari told you the guy’s schedule. Mari gave you the lay-out. How do you know Mari doesn’t want to kill this guy and she’s sending you over here or sending me over here so we’ll be the saps standing over the body when the cops get here?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? You accuse me of wanting to kill this guy and you badger me until I admit it and now you’re saying maybe my girlfriend is the one that wants to do it and then she wants to be able to pin it on me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m still full of adrenaline from last night or maybe it’s being over here again that’s making me squirrelly. I told you a kid threw grape jelly at me? I was standing at that bus stop we just passed.”
“How did he get that close?”
“What?”
“Why would you let someone get close enough to you to throw grape jelly?”
“He didn’t walk up, idiot. He was in a car. One of the other young men from the store was probably driving- although I didn’t really look at the car -and the passenger put the window down and threw one of those little plastic things of grape jelly at me.”
Jeff started laughing hard. “You were drive-by jellied. Oh my gosh, I can’t stand it.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have thought it was funny if it happened to you. You’d be whining about how it would never come out of your Air LeBron sneakers. I thought I’d gotten all the jelly off mine but-” Clement lifted his right foot and removed a scrap of paper from the bottom of his shoe. “This isn’t your writing.”
“Probably something Mari dropped. She’s always leaving stuff in the car. You know how women are. Ha. Ha. Ha.” He winked dramatically at Clement. “Let me see it.”
“You’re driving. We’re almost there; you can see it in the parking lot.”
“Describe it. What is it? A shopping list? Not a phone number?”
Clement turned the paper around in his hands. He slid his glasses down his nose then propped them on top of his head. “Is she building a beehive?”
“What?”
“Anybody in her family keep bees?”
“Why? Is this it?”
“The building? Yeah.”
“Good.”
“You really have never been here before, have you? I was right.”
“Are we starting that again? Because I thought we were getting along okay.”
“Park in one of these first spaces. Not the handicapped spot. Holy crap. Pull into number eight.”
Jeff did as he was told. He shut off the car, slid his seat back and turned to Clement. “Okay, let me see this beehive.” Clement handed the paper to Jeff. “It’s not a beehive; it’s a stop sign.”
Clement took the paper back and rotated it again. “No, it isn’t. A stop sign is an octagon. It has eight sides. This is a hexagon which means it has six sides. That’s why it looks like a beehive. What does this say?” He held the paper out to Jeff. “I don’t have my reading glasses.”
“I can read it but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just tell me what it says.”
“It says, ‘Must be greater than equilateral’. What the hell does that mean?”
“Well, if I remember it right ‘equilateral’ is a kind of triangle. That isn’t a triangle on that paper though.”
“I wonder why she copied this down? There’s some other lines on here too.”
“Just put it in your pocket. What time is it?”
“5:32. He should already have left to get his hair cut.”
“So, before we were so rudely interrupted by the fact that you’d never been here before and had no idea what it was like, we were discussing the plan. What are we going to do if I go in and he’s there because he decided his fingers were flexible enough and he wanted to adopt a slightly shaggier look? And, if I go in and he’s not there, where are we going to meet? And when?”
“Geez, don’t you ever read those Bernie Rhodenbarr novels~? You look at the directory to see what other places are on the third floor. You push the buzzer to get let in. If he answers, you say, ‘Oh gosh. I am so sorry to bother you. I thought I pushed the buzzer for Clarinda’s Flowers’.”
“You wouldn’t put a flower shop on the third floor. Flower shops depend on foot traffic and impulse buying. Nobody’s gonna see a bouquet and think they gotta have it if it’s on the third floor.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s what you say. ‘Oops.’”
“And what if there’s no buzzer to get in? What if he has the lights off because he’s just closing up or because he was up half the night riding the bus and decided he needed a nap before he went home?”
Jeff reached into the back seat. “I thought of that. I got you a little something.”
“Why, honey! How did you know I didn’t already have a pair of gray coveralls at home?”
“I took a chance.”
“What am I supposed to do with these?” Clement turned to look over the back of his seat. “I don’t see a mop and bucket back there. I’m assuming I’m supposed to look like a custodian. Although I haven’t seen many white, male custodians my age.”
“That’s the beauty part, man. You’ve got a tie on. You’re not a custodian. You’re a custodial supervisor. You’re going around to see what the needs of the tenants in this building are and whether or not they feel they’re being met.”
“This is too much. I’d rather just go up there, knock on the door, and ask what time ‘Pushing Daisies’ is on because the dog ate my TV Guide.”
“You gotta have a shtick. Bernie never goes in as just Bernie. He’s always a preppy or a businessman or a dog walker or an art collector. You should read those.”
“Yeah. I am not taking up burgling. Remember our conversation about that yesterday?”
“Yeah, I remember it. I just thought it might help you if you thought you were somebody else.”
“Method burgling.”
“Kind of. Yeah.”
Clement took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the backseat, putting the arms together and pressing a crease down the center of the spine. “Down the street about a quarter of a mile is a Piggly Wiggly~. Next to the Piggly Wiggly is Anna’s Burgers. If I go in and he isn’t there, I will meet you at Anna’s in forty-five minutes.” “The Piggly Wiggly is eight blocks from here.”
“Okay.”
“You said ‘a quarter of a mile’. That would only be five blocks but the Piggly Wiggly is really eight.”
“Do you know where the Piggly Wiggly is? You saw it on our way here?”
“Yeah.”
“Then it doesn’t really matter how many blocks you have to drive to get there, does it? What matters is that you get there and that as soon as I can- but hopefully in less than forty-five minutes- I will meet you next door to there at Anna’s. All right?”
“I guess. But what happens if you’re not there in forty-five minutes?”
“Then you wait forty-six minutes.”
“How long do I keep waiting? I mean, Mari’s gonna wonder where I am.”
“You’re doing this for Mari, remember?”
“Yeah.”
“Then you wait.”
“What if the cops show up?”
“Am I in the back of the car?”
“No.”
“Then you sit there and pretend like you’re eating a hamburger. Then you pretend like you’re drinking a milkshake and eating a sundae and however many other things they sell until I get there.”
“I’m really not very comfortable with this plan. It seems like I’m left just hanging out there. I’m all alone. Anyone at all could show up. Somebody could ask me what the hell I’m doing there.”
“You tell them you’re eating a hamburger. You wanna go in and look for the phantom pictures?”
“I can’t.”
“Then you go eat a hamburger. What the hell is this?” Clement had climbed into the backseat, where there was not much more room, to take off his jacket and slip on the coveralls.
“It’s a shovel.”
“I can see it’s a shovel. Maybe a better question would be ‘Why the hell is this?’ As in why the hell is there a shovel in the back seat of your car?”
“I dunno. A guy gave it to me.”
“When you were just driving around or you were stopped at a red light or what?”
“I was walking. It was lunchtime and I was walking by an office building where they were doing some landscaping. A guy was digging holes and putting bushes in and the handle on his shovel broke.”
“And instead of throwing it away-“
“He gave it to me. ‘Geez, the cheap crap they give me to work with! Hey you, you want a shovel?’ I said, ‘Sure’ and I put it in the car and it’s been there ever since.”
“Well, if you can’t bring yourself to throw it away at least don’t keep it in the back seat of the car.”
“Why not?”
“It’s bad luck.”
“Who says?”
“What do you mean? Everybody says. It’s one of those Old World superstitions. Besides, if I’d sat on it we’d be moving this whole party to the emergency room.” Clement stretched out on the front seat and zipped the coveralls to several inches below the knot of his tie.
Jeff nodded approvingly. “You look good. You could really pass for this guy. Bernie would be proud.”
“Let’s just do this already. You remember the plan?”
“Yeah yeah.”
Clement got out, smoothed down his coveralls and started walking to the building. A woman was just coming out the door and she smilingly held it open for him. Then she saw his tie, her eyes widened, and she pulled out her cell phone. By the time the doors of the elevator opened on the third floor, another woman came flying towards him. “Good evening, ma’am. I’m from the custodial company and I’m just checking in to see how you feel our company is addressing your needs for cleanliness.”
“No no no! Affirmative action! Affirmative action!”
“Excuse me?”
“This is not your building. Mr. Gomez has this building. Mr. Gomez bid for this building fair and square and he won it. You can’t take this building away from him! We won’t let you.”
“You don’t understand. I work for Mr. Gomez. I’m not taking the job away from him; I’m doing a job for him. I’m just going around to talk with our clients to see-“
“No no. Mr. Gomez didn’t hire anybody that looks like you. Mr. Gomez only hire the Mexican people. You are a spy. You’re trying to take the building away from Mr. Gomez.” Clement knew he should leave and preferably at a run but he was too far into the role and he now hated this unseen but heartily defended Mr. Gomez.”
“If Mr. Gomez wouldn’t hire anyone that looks like me then he shouldn’t have this building.”
“I knew it. You want to take his building away.”
“If he’s only hiring Mexicans, he’s practicing discrimination himself and that’s not affirmative action.”
“Yes, because the white people always get the jobs.”
“No, they don’t. Mr. Gomez refusing to hire white people is racist.”
“Mr. Gomez is not a racist. Mr. Gomez is a good man. His people keep our building very clean. They keep it cleaner than the people who did it before. Always I would find dust on top of the door frames and the wastebaskets were only emptied every other day. If someone puts a banana and a yogurt in the garbage and it sits there for two days you can’t get the smell out of the office.”
“No dust on the door frames and the wastebaskets smell great. Okay, thanks.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve learned what I needed to and now I can go back and report that Mr. Gomez and his workers are doing a bang-up job.”
“But you only talked to me.”
“That’s right.”
“You didn’t talk to anyone else on this floor.”
“No, I don’t need to talk to everyone. I just need a sampling of opinions and you think they’re doing a great job and that makes me very happy to hear.”
“I think you should talk to the man in this office over here.”
“Why?”
“Because he was here when I moved in and maybe he can tell you something more.”
“I don’t need anything more. They just wanted to know how things were going.” Clement backed a step toward the elevator.
“And you should talk to him because I don’t believe you.” She closed the gap Clement had opened and seized his left arm. “I think you are a spy who is trying to take away the building from Mr. Gomez. I want other people to see you so when I talk to Mr. Gomez and the people who give out contracts then they know I’m not crazy to think someone like you would do this.”
“It’s quite all right. I can go see this man on my own although I had heard he’d already left for the day. I’ve taken up enough of your time and I’m sure you’d like to be able to go back to your work and close up for the day.” Clement tugged at his arm but not very hard.
“My job is making sure the world stays a fair place for people like Mr. Gomez. That’s everybody’s job.”
“I’ve explained that and explained that.”
“I still don’t believe you.” Her constant pressure on his arm and her stubbornly forward steps had moved the two of them further down the hall.
Clement took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. They were now outside the door of “third floor center”. “You know there’s such a thing as kidnapping.”
“What?”
“Keeping someone against their will. Taking them somewhere they don’t want to go.”
“You want to call the police and file charges? I’ve got a phone in my office or I can ask someone to bring my cell phone out here in the hall.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to file charges. I just think you should know about it.”
“Okay, now I know.” She raised her hand to knock and Clement knew there was nothing further he could say that might be useful. Maybe Mari’s former boyfriend wouldn’t be in. Maybe he would be more trusting than this woman and would reassure her enough to let Clement go. Even if he wasn’t there was very little they could do this late in the day. He hadn’t broken into the building; he’d been let in. He hadn’t assaulted anyone. That kept the cops out of it. If they called the custodial company, they wouldn’t get an answer and by morning, when the voicemail was listened to and returned, he’d be miles away.

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