Posts Tagged ‘thermos


Fate Pays The rent (Sixteenth Installment)

“Well, you can sure tell who your supposed friends are and who’s being paid to talk to you. My lawyer was here hours ago. Where were you? Out eating lunch? You know what I had for lunch?” They were sitting in a light-blue room the size of a guest bedroom. Clement and Buzz were on one side of the table, Jeff was across from them. All three of them had coffee and Jeff’s agitation, the slight tremor in his hands, and the half-dozen paper cups empty and discarded at his feet clearly showed this was not his first of the day. Buzz nodded at Clement.
“Yeah, funny thing about that, Jeff, because we wanted to talk to you about food. Well, food and Aaron.”
Jeff thumped the table and some of the coffee sloshed from his cup. “I’m tired of talking about Aaron. Do you realize all I’ve done all day is talk about Aaron? I’ve never talked about anybody so much in my life. And, like I said before, where the hell were you? Where’s Mari?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is she okay? Is she dead somewhere too?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, don’t you think somebody ought to find out? Like maybe me since I’m her boyfriend? I am still her boyfriend, right?”
“Yes. If you haven’t heard from her then just assume everything’s okay between the two of you.”
“Oh no no. You know better than that. Even you know better than that. You can’t just assume that because a woman hasn’t said there’s something wrong then there’s nothing wrong.”
Buzz leaned forward. “Jeff, I understand you’re probably very tired of talking about Aaron Whittaker-“
“You got that right.”
“But we need to talk about him a little more. Just a little and then we’ll leave you alone and we’ll put some people to work looking for your girlfriend.”
“I don’t want some people to go looking for her. I need to do the looking because I’m the one that knows her. She’s my girlfriend. I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do anything while I’m in here. I can’t find Mari. I can’t sell any chicken strips. Who am I kidding? I wasn’t selling chicken strips anyway. My life is a black abyss and it’s just spiraling downwards.” He sat down at the table again, folded his arms and laid his head down on them. Buzz nodded at Clement.
“Jeff, I know you wanna get out of here but the thing is right now this is the safest place for you to be.”
“Oh yeah, and why is that?” Jeff lifted his head and glared at Clement.
“Well, to put it bluntly, they think you killed Aaron. You said you were in his office-“ He held up a hand to quiet Jeff and continued, “I know what you’re gonna say, ‘he was alive’. That means you were probably the last person to see him that way except for the person who killed him.”
“I didn’t see him alive or dead because I wasn’t in his office last night.”
“Your car was spotted in the parking lot about ten,” Buzz said.
“Yeah, I went over there. I parked in the parking lot. I walked around the building.”
“Because I thought about how I felt when I told you we didn’t have to worry about the pictures and the truth is I felt really good. I thought maybe I actually could go over and talk to him and ask him to leave us alone.”
“You didn’t like him still talking to Mari all the time, you were the last one in his office and you could easily have made a copy of the key before you gave one to me.”
“I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even go in. I started to go in but everything was dark and I got scared and left.”
“I hear you but you being there at ten makes you the likeliest suspect. What you also have to understand is that makes you the likeliest target.”
“Target for what?”
Buzz stood up, walked to the wall, and walked back to the table. “Let’s assume you didn’t kill Aaron Whittaker.”
“Yeah, let’s assume that since it happens to be true.”
“If you didn’t kill him then somebody else did since even someone with a migraine would have a hard time committing suicide by decapitating himself with a shovel.”
“As long as we’re focusing on you then the person who really killed him thinks they’re gonna be okay.”
“And if they think they’re gonna be okay then they’ll go out and do something stupid and then you can catch them. I watch TV, ya know. There’s a problem with your plan though.”
“Jeff is right. There is a problem.”
“Thank you, Clement. I thought maybe having lunch with this guy made you go clear over to the other side.”
“Shut up, Jeff. The problem is something like that only works if the person who was murdered got killed for the insurance. They figure someone else got busted for the crime and they wait a little while and think they’re home free and then they start spending the money and bam!” Clement hit the table and Jeff startled. “But there’s no indication anybody killed Aaron for the insurance. We don’t even know if he had insurance. We don’t even know why anyone killed him or would want to kill him.”
“That brings us back to you,” Buzz said. “You’re the only one with a motive. A bunch of people- definitely more than I’d like- had the opportunity and the means was right there in the office. You are the only one who’d be better off because you wouldn’t have to worry about sharing or losing your girlfriend.”
“But I wasn’t worried. She’d been talking to Aaron all along so why would I get worried and kill him now?”
“Wait a minute! We don’t know if there was any insurance but there is somebody who might have had a reason to kill him for money.”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t know about any-“
Clement stood up and leaned over to Buzz. “I’ve got an idea but if I just spring it on Jeff without giving him any warning first he’ll come unglued.”
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Is there any way you can leave us alone for just a minute and then come back in? Maybe get us some more coffee?”
“You’re that sure about him?” Clement nodded. Buzz sighed and said, “I could use another cup right about now. Anybody else?”
“I might have had enough,” Jeff said.
“I second that. My eyeballs are about to start floating.”
“All right, coffee for one.”
Clement sat down at the table and Jeff grabbed his arm. “Where’s Mari?”
“I told you I don’t know.”
“Do you know why she left?”
“I don’t know anything except Buzz is gonna come back in a minute and I’m going to have to tell him something you don’t want to hear.”
“It’s about Mari, isn’t it?”
“You think she killed Aaron.”
“I don’t think anything. I’ve got no idea if she killed him or if she didn’t.”
“How can you say that? You know her. You’ve been with us for hours. You can’t tell me that in all the time we spent together you saw anything that would make you think she’d cut someone’s head off with a shovel. She’s not even that big.”
“You can do anything if you get enough leverage. If there really was money involved that’s even more reason.” Buzz had returned with his coffee.
“I don’t want to believe that Mari killed him any more than you do but if you didn’t kill him and she had a good reason then we have to look at everything.”
Buzz sat down and sipped his coffee. “Tell me about this money. It’s not insurance?”
“Mari, wouldn’t get any insurance. They weren’t even together any more.”
“No, this isn’t guaranteed like that; it’s more of a gamble than anything. Jeff, you remember the pieces of paper we’ve been finding?”
“Yeah, there was one of a beehive and one of a cat and then the one I found yesterday.”
“Right. When I had lunch with those two boys yesterday the older one explained what we were looking at.”
“How did he do that?”
“Because he’s a really smart kid who’s insufficiently challenged. If I ever get out of here I’m gonna go see his teacher and the principal and maybe we can get things fixed. Anyway, he explained what was on the paper and he told me about something called the Millennium Prize.”
“What the hell is that?”
Buzz whistled. “It’s a million dollars and international fame.”
“For doing what?”
“Solving one of the six math problems on the list.”
“Math problems? Like what?”
Clement reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a sheet of paper folded lengthwise. “Proving or disproving the hypothesis that all nontrivial zeros of the Riemann zeta function have a real part of ½.”
“And you think Mari had something to do with that?”
“There’s no way in hell.”
“She’s the one who was working on the other things we found. Those pieces of paper were notes she jotted down.”
“She got those from Aaron Whittaker. She had to have gotten them from him.”
“Because Mari wasn’t that smart. She isn’t that smart. I guess I should watch how I say things. After all, I’m already in here for one murder.”
“How do you know she wasn’t very smart? Did you ask her?”
“Did I ask her? I didn’t have to ask her. If it wasn’t on Oprah, Dr. Phil, or ‘Entertainment Tonight’, she didn’t know about it. She could barely walk and carry on a conversation at the same time. I told you how she nearly blinded me with the perfume.”
“You just knew, huh? Or maybe you assumed like everybody assumed Aaron was married. He wasn’t, by the way.”
“Okay, so he wasn’t really married. Why am I on trial here?”
“There were no pictures either, Jeff.”
“Well, if you knew there weren’t any pictures how come you spent so much time trying to get me to go in and get them back?”
“I didn’t say I knew there weren’t any pictures. You just told me there weren’t any pictures and I said, ‘Okay’ as in ‘That’s very interesting. Thank you for enlightening me. When can I get the hell out of here?’ Like that.”
Buzz turned his chair around and straddled it. “I understand this may be a hard thing for you to think about but is there any way you can imagine- no matter how dense you think she may be- your girlfriend killing Aaron Whittaker?”
“No, of course not.”
“Not for a million dollars?”
“No! She wasn’t very smart but she wasn’t stupid enough to think she could get away with murder.”
“Jeff, did you know Aaron was a diabetic?”
“No. How the hell would I know that?”
“Mari told you what TV shows he liked and when he got his hair cut so I thought maybe she told you that too.”
“Well, she didn’t.”
Buzz stood and put his palms on the table. “Did she tell you he was afraid of needles?”
“No, she didn’t. Where is this coming from? Why does it matter if he was diabetic and afraid of needles? Did somebody take a big syringe in first and scare him to death before they cut off his head?”
“Not that we know of but we’re checking into everything.” Buzz looked at his watch then at Clement. “You’ve got another appointment this afternoon, don’t you?”
“What is it? Are you meeting Mari? You really do know where she is?”
“No, it’s not with Mari and I really don’t know where she is. Buzz here is going to get some people to help us find her though.”
“Absolutely. The more I hear about her the more I can’t wait to sit down for a chat with her myself.”
“I can’t believe you think she’d kill Aaron. She had no reason to kill him. She didn’t care about money.”
“Jeff, look. In order to get in and kill him the person had to either have a key or be somebody he knew well enough to let in or to leave the door open and tell them to come in. Mr. Gomez the custodial supervisor and his people had a key. Dolores worked down the hall and she had a key. I had a key that I got from you. Mari had made a copy from the original. Maybe you made a copy before you gave the one to me.”
“Mari gave the copy to me and I-“
Buzz put his hands over his ears. “This is something I don’t need to hear right now. I have a couple of things to check into and I think you two should get some rest.”
Jeff held his hand out to Clement who shook it then allowed himself to be pulled into a hug. “You’ll find Mari?”
“I’ll try.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“I hear you.”
“You’ll come back?”
“As often as they’ll let me.” Jeff extended his hand to Buzz who also shook it but did not embrace him. Buzz knocked on the wall and two of the men left by one door and the third by a different one.


Fate Pays The Rent (Thirteenth Installment)

“Why do you work here?” Clement placed a bottle of Diet Coke and a can of Red Bull on the counter. The Bi-Lo Market was the quietest he had seen it. There were no cars outside and besides himself and the cashier there was only the young man drinking a Liquid Charge against the ice-cream case. Clement had been asking the cashier, wearing a faded “Barkley” jersey over a black hoodie, but it was his friend with the drink who answered.
“Why you wanna know? You looking for a job?”
“Maybe I am. Is this a good one? Why do people work here?” He selected a candle with a painting of Saint Jude on it and put it on the counter beside his own drinks.
“What you gonna do with the votary, man?”
“I’m going to light it for someone who needs it.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“That’s kind of personal, isn’t it?”
“Because if you’re not Catholic then you should put that back. You can’t just walk in and buy stuff and start pretending.”
“God doesn’t listen if you’re not Catholic?”
“No, because he knows if you’re not Catholic then you got other stuff you should be doing. You can’t just take our way of doing something and do it too.”
“Why are you here?”
“This is where my friend is.”
“Right. He works here. Why are you here? Why are you drinking that in the middle of the day?”
“What? Are you my mother? How come you’re not at work?”
“Because I was at work and now I’m out looking for a different job. Do you have a job? Maybe I’d like the one you have.”
“Yeah, man, I got a job.”
“It looks pretty good. I think I’d like to stand around drinking caffeinated beer all day. What do you do at this job?”
“I do whatever needs to be done, man. I help people out. Why you jamming me up about the beer? You see a car out there? No, you don’t. Because I didn’t drive here. I walked here and I’m going to walk home.”
“What if you get a call and somebody needs you to work?”
“You know what, man?” He set down the can and moved toward Clement. “Maybe you own this country but you don’t own this store. You’re not the manager here. This isn’t your business. You’re a customer just like me.” He jerked his head at the counter. “Only sometimes he lets his friends be here, too. You don’t seem like a friend.” The silent cashier put Clement’s items into a brown paper bag and held out his hand. Clement gave him the money, dropped a quarter into the Humane Society jar, and put the rest of the change into his pants pocket.
“You’re right; it’s none of my business. You gentlemen have a nice afternoon.” He unlocked his car and set the bag on the passenger seat. He placed the can and bottle on their sides on either side of the candle to keep it from falling over.

The clock tower downtown was striking eight and Clement should have heard it. If he had been downtown, he would not have been opening the door of the third floor center office that belonged to Aaron Whittaker. The lights were off, the room was silent, and he knew from Dolores that Aaron would be gone at least one more day.
“Come in, close the door very quietly, and sit in the chair to the right of the door. If you turn on the lights or make any sudden or noisy moves, I will shoot you through the heart even though it would probably kill me too.”
Clement did as he was told. The voice, deep and melodious despite its violent warning, seemed to come from the floor behind the desk. “I thought you were gone.”
“You thought wrong or you were given incorrect information.”
“You’re Aaron?”
“This is Aaron’s office and I am lying on its floor. From this we can surmise that either I am the owner of this office or I am another wandering soul who broke in before you did and was knocked unconscious and am just coming to or I arrived early, found nothing of value and decided to steal forty winks instead.”
“I didn’t break in here.”
“No, that’s right. You have a key. Maybe you’re Aaron Whittaker and this is your office and I broke in. In which case, I should probably apologize.”
“Do you really have a gun? Would you really shoot me through the heart? Shall we turn on the lights and find out?”
“You’re much crueler than I was led to believe.” The location of the voice had moved as if the speaker was now sitting up. “Geez, that was a bad idea. I hope that if I have to break off our conversation to vomit, you will take advantage of my absence to remove yourself and whatever it was you came in here to get.”
“Why are you here?”
“I heard from Dolores- among others- that someone was keeping an eye on my office and I decided to find out why. You didn’t really expect her to buy that story about checking with the tenants to see how they liked the cleaning service?”
“Somebody told me I shouldn’t just come in here and I needed to have a shtick.”
“That somebody would probably be Jeff. I’m not saying it was bad in theory and it might have worked with someone less zealous about protecting minority rights than Dolores.”
“She’s a real terrier about it.”
“Yes, she is. Mr. Gomez should be glad to have her on his side. His team’s work is competent but not spectacular which is a good thing as we’ll never have anyone better for the job so long as Dolores has a space in this building.” Clement heard sounds of stretching then a thump. “Oh god. This is better and worse than I thought.”
“What is?”
“I know you’re probably going to kill me although I’m not sure why you haven’t done it already. It’s probably part of that cruel streak I’m discovering. I know I’m seriously inconveniencing you by being here when I wasn’t supposed to be. That’s probably a cruel streak of mine. But seeing as how we’re both here and both still alive, could you do me a favor and by that I mean do exactly as I ask you to?”
“Why not?”
“Stand up and take three large steps to the right. Take care not to mistake your left for your right or you will knock over my father’s coal-mining shovel and we’ll be back to the bullet through the heart scenario. Walk forward until you reach the wall. You can see the merest amount of light around the edge of the blinds and that should help. On the left-hand side of the blinds is a hard plastic rod hanging vertically. Grasp the rod, turn it smoothly but quickly to the left so that the slats pass through the evenly horizontal position and are tilted upwards. That will give you enough light, without rendering me prostrate with pain again, to locate a thermos on the desk. Please pass the thermos to me and return to your seat by the door.”
“Why would I do this?”
“Because you’re filled with the milk of human kindness? Because you’re curious about why all this is happening? Because you want to get close enough to see if I really have a gun or if you should just knock me on the head with the thermos, ransack the place and leave? I haven’t actually seen you yet and couldn’t identify you to the police so really any of those answers is a viable one.” Clement did as he was told. Aaron opened the thermos, took several gulps, and offered it to Clement who shook his head. “Why did you do it?”
“Maybe I’m curious. Maybe I did want to see if you had a gun. I didn’t see one but it could be under the edge of the desk or in your jacket. I’m not familiar with your condition but from the noises you made when you were sitting up I can’t imagine you’d have anything you needed real far from you.”
“But the coffee was on the desk.”
“You wouldn’t want to take a chance of knocking it over. Maybe you set it on the desk and then the pain got worse and you couldn’t get up high enough to reach it. I guess you’re pretty lucky I came along.”
The two men sat in the almost darkness. Outside, the traffic swished by; Inside, the wall clock ticked and Aaron swallowed coffee from the thermos. He pulled a napkin from under the blotter and mopped at the rug where some of the coffee had run down the side of the thermos onto it. “You ever hear the story of David?”
“You mean in the Bible?”
“Yeah. There’s something I never got about that.”
“The whole David and Jonathan agape love story?”
“No, David and Saul. The story goes that Saul used to get these terrible moods. I think he had migraines. If they’d invented coffee sooner, his life would have been a whole lot better.”
“How do you figure?”
“Coffee constricts the blood vessels and prevents the pain from getting through.” He took several gulps from the thermos. “If that stupid goat had eaten those beans a little earlier then things might have been very different.”
“So, what happened?”
“The only person who could make him feel better was David. He used to do it by playing his harp and most of the time it worked pretty good. Every so often though, and this is what makes me think he had migraines, Saul would draw his arm back and try to bounce some furniture off of David’s head. He’d just throw a chair or whatever across the room and David would have to dodge it. I guess Saul could really bring it.”
“Must have gotten tedious.”
“You’d think so, huh? One night they’re out late hunting or maybe they had been hunting earlier in the day and had gotten lost. David finds his way home first then he goes out looking for Saul and he finds him. Here Saul is, the king of Israel, and he looks like a nearly drowned cat: He’s cold, he’s drenched to the skin, he’s starving. And here’s David who has been fed and is now appropriately dressed for the weather. It was just the two of them, mano a mano. Imagine David all alone with the guy who’s made his life such a hell for so long. He knew he was gonna be king after Saul.”
“He knew this how?”
“God told him. God had already told him that so he was basically just waiting till Saul got out of the way.”
“Here’s David who’s all dry and refreshed and feeling good and Saul who probably wished someone would kill him so nobody could see him plus I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had a migraine starting by then.”
“And nothing. David didn’t kill him. I’ve never gotten that. Saul didn’t get it either. ‘Why don’t you kill me? Why don’t you kill me?’ David could have done it right then and put Saul out of his misery and been king that much sooner but he didn’t do it. Why? Because he was cruel?”
“Maybe because Saul was a human being.”
“Is that why you haven’t killed me?”
“Why would I kill you?”
“You’d make a lot of people happier. I’d be happier because my head would stop hurting and the room would stop waving. My landlord would be happier because he could charge more rent. Mari would be happier because she wouldn’t have to split the money. Your friend, Jeff, would be happier because he’d never have to worry about me and Mari getting back together. By now, who knows if even you wouldn’t be happier if I was dead.”
“If Mari, didn’t have you she’d resign herself to life as an airhead. If Jeff didn’t have you, he’d find someone else who’d been with Mari to hate. If I kill you, I wouldn’t make anyone happier but you. I think you’re tired of this whole mess.”
“So you’re going to be like David.”
“Somebody probably will kill you but it’s not going to be me. It’s none of my business. I didn’t even know you’d be here today.”
“That’s the perfect time to kill me- when everyone thinks I’m out of town. They wouldn’t even be expecting to see me for at least another day.”
“I told you it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m not looking to kill anybody; I’m just here for the pictures of Mari.”
“The pictures?”
“The naked photos you took of her while she was asleep. Somebody told me you took them and they’re afraid you’re going to post them to be rated on the Internet.”
“That somebody would be Jeff again.”
“Having met you I don’t disbelieve him for a second. That seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do, anything to keep torturing him.”
“If you came here for the pictures, you’re in for a big disappointment because there aren’t any.” Clement took a step back. “You’re not surprised. You’ve had doubts from the beginning about whether or not there were any photos. Just like you’ve had doubts about how tightly-wrapped your friend Jeff is.”
“Let’s suppose you’re right. Why would he send me over here and why would I come?”
“Why he sent you over here should be obvious. So you’d be seen in the area, so people would recognize you, so if anyone did happen to kill me and the men in blue came around with your picture the neighbors would say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s been hanging around for weeks.’ Why you came may be less obvious- to you anyway. You came because you are that biggest of saps- a friend- and you are a person who wants to believe. You want to believe that everything works for the best in this best of all possible worlds and a cord of goodness runs through humanity. You want to believe that Mari would never deliberately hurt Jeff. You want to believe that Jeff is a little high-strung but not a psychopath. You want to believe that women, including Mari, are essentially decent but confused and that children are not evil but misunderstood and unchallenged.”
“You’re wrong.”
“What you don’t want to believe that is true is some children are misunderstood and unchallenged but others are born with a tendency to do bad things just like some people are born addicted to alcohol. Mari chooses to hurt Jeff. She does it because he leaves the cap off the toothpaste, because he drops wet towels on the floor, because he lets the $25 a bottle conditioner run down the drain, or does a million other bad things; most women don’t need the box score to see who’s up and who’s down. Jeff is not only high-strung, he’s one of those kids who was born ‘bad’. He’s high-functioning but nuts and it’s that unpredictability that keeps women like Mari interested.”
“What about you? What’s your secret?”
“My secret isn’t so much about me as it is about you. See, no matter how much you deny it- even to yourself- you’d like to kill me because I make you question one of your very biggest beliefs.”
“Which is?”
“You should know. You want to believe that people are either good or bad. Maybe you think I should die for my sins and maybe you don’t but you can’t convince me or yourself that I haven’t sinned. I’ve made the people you care about unhappy and that makes me bad. But you were right before: I give Mari someone to talk with about math and science and something other than the Hollywood gossip and that makes me good. If Jeff didn’t have me to keep track of, he’d spend a lot of energy and money looking for one of Mari’s previous boyfriends to watch. He might even lose his job because he was working so hard on this side project. I’m near by and I keep in touch with Mari which gives him a close target and easily accessible information. I’m keeping his mind active- no doubt contributing to the prevention of Alzheimer’s- and helping him stay employed and that also makes me good. Probably even Saddam Hussein once helped a little old lady cross the street.”
“I won’t believe that.”
“You claim to believe that hitting people with buttered rolls is wrong and yet you gave a roll to a child with a reputation for launching them.”
“How do you know that?”
“Jeff talks to Mari and Mari talks to me. You also say you want to get the photos for Jeff and Mari so they’ll have peace of mind when the real reason is you love Mari and you’re hoping if you do this she’ll get wise about Jeff and realize you’re a much better person.”
“That’s going too far!” Clement brought his fist down on the desk.
Aaron winced but continued to look Clement in the eye. “Really? So do something about it. Why don’t you kill me and make everyone happier and make the world a better place? Dolores says that’s everybody’s job, right?”
“You may be right about Jeff and Mari. Hell, maybe you’re even right about me but you’re the one who was born bad. If I kill you then you win and whoever put in all the work to set me up wins too. I refuse to die so the two of you can win especially when I don’t care about you enough to kill you.” Clement took his keys out of his pocket and walked to the door.
“You’re not as good as you think you are. Nobody is.”
“Maybe not. But I’m not bad either and I’m not a sap.” He gave the shovel beside the chair a hard kick. The handle slid down the wall until the blade clanged dully on the carpeted floor. Aaron chuckled and as Clement was pulling the door closed he heard the warm voice say, “We’ll see.”