“Is it the copper or the flour? … Or it was those stockings. Nah.” Jamie muttered, purging silence with rankled thoughts.
Slight of frame, dressed in maroon jeans and faded brown tee, Jamie had a turncoat smile and thin dark smoker’s lips that creased with the question. His red hair bore the brunt, again, short cut frazzled despite multiple claps of styling paste. That was how he did it, literally clapped the paste into a web before application, more for the sound than efficacy. He lived alone.
He wanted to smoke badly, let the action linger as he settled clamoring thoughts into slots but he quit on account of hitting thirty. Though a casual observer (would any other type do?) wouldn’t have guessed it from his build and ruddy cheeks.
“Must be the copper. It’s Dobson. It has got to be Dobson.”
Reduced to being aghast, he looked down at a live bullet on his table. Its gleaming brass case stared back with a wink. It captured the sun retreating behind slits of vertical blinds from a wall length glass window behind him. He had zero idea which spreadsheet the bullet belonged to. Well, he had plenty of speculations but none stuck as concrete, all dribbled spatter.
Seated, Jamie arched his spine and stretched his arms upwards, tiptoeing the office chair on its dark frame far back as he dared, the latter accommodating without strain nor sound. No sound came from his worn knuckles. Shadows teased his profile. Who could have done such a thing?
Jamie had always known that a tangled spreadsheet comes with a wily price. Fretfully sober and smokeless for months, he had been able to evade the heavier toll. It was easy to shake off if you kick the can down the road. That Saturday morning he could not shuck the can, overflowing with worms, far enough.
The subtle sound of a stand fan defied the clutter and suddenly broke through, resting static on his mind. The steady energy insulted his blank deductions. Should have used the A/C but damn those tiny batteries and off day admin. Can’t be bothered now.
“Which one is this? Damn it.”
He got up and abandon the wooden perch, a fanciful nickname he once called his desk. The name stuck. He discarded his preferred veil from behind two computer screens decked with asphalt. Twin winding roads against gorgeous dark mountains. Leaning against a bare sliver of wall, he gave up.
He stared, a deep inhaling rounded stare, at his cramped office. Shades drawn, a pall loomed over the whitewashed room packed with tidy piles of small boxes to the right and metal cabinets to the left, its upper reaches neatly stacked with muscle car models; variations of dark blue on sky-tinge metal and plastic. A light wooden door stood guard in the middle, locking him inside with the quandary.
Pacing the room, hinged worry ebbed to full blown panic. He racked his memory for thugs and speculated as he breathed in and out. The steady motion reduced his anxiety. He has had helpings of stuffed envelopes. Each one preyed on his dread.
It couldn’t be those stockings, heck that was borderline legal. It must be the copper sludge. He sighed then gulped at the prospect of a verbal joust with a criminal. Running his hands through his hair, he buried the thought.
Jamie closed his eyes first, lips second then tensed his jaw in lost moments for courage to manifest in his trembling fingers as he forced himself to approach his table. He moved a grey phone towards him and dialed. The ringing in his ear sapped his eggshell composure as he gripped the receiver. Pick it up. Pick it up.
“Is that Mr. Dobson?” Jamie asked. Deep voice bordering on a quiver.
“Ah, Jamie. My number one cruncher,” a gruff voice answered, each word a cross between a bellow and a rebuke. “Where is your manner boy? Good morning comes first.”
Jamie swallowed his rage, the man insistent on manners was a crook. For public consumption, a harmless recycling baron, orange silk tie perpetually tucked into a grey waistcoat, overseeing plants and turfs throughout the city. In private, a louche equals to the waiting palms he greased.
The accounting firm Jamie worked for managed Dobson’s accounts with silent gusto. Fees tend to be generous when you overlook balancing. They served Dobson’s numerous fronts with nods and gentle pats between partners for the underlings to be cowed. Cascading emails often swooped from above with covert threats in terse sentences for acquiescence.
It was a relationship laced with pandering politicians and local council pups. All wagging at Dobson’s feet. Now it is my turn. One hell of a turn. Servicing the newest iteration of a medium scale enterprise, proxies in the same field thrice. Leeches for loan capital. Lips stiff, Jamie finally croaked: “Good morning Mr. Dobson. Sir.”
“That is better. Polite.”
The reproach rang in Jamie’s ear. “Did you happen to ah send me … a package?” His eyes darted over a wastebasket with a single profane content, thick envelope with an emptied box.
“Now, now. Aren’t we being crass with a phone call?”
“Jus—please answer. Did you send me anything … ah I should know of?”
“You have asked for documents and I have obliged.”
“I have done what you wanted. Why?” Jamie’s shoulders sagged with the tacit admission.
“I always look out for my friends. Especially a close one under review.” Naked malice laced his emphasis.
“That’s the norm. It’s company policy, nothing to worry about Mr. Dobson.” Let all this be a fluke.
“Is it now? Can you guarantee ‘nothing to worry about’?”
Dobson’s imitation got under his skin. Jamie stuttered: “I—ah. Well, it’s—
“I am waiting.”
“Fine day for a drive. You should take that orange Cuda with the black spoiler out for a spin.”
Jamie’s face fell. He just got himself a restored 67 Plymouth Barracuda. With pride, he thought of it as a confidential indulgence. Up to that busted point. “Ah, ya. Yup I mean. Yes Sir Mr. Dobson. Good day … Sir.”
Admit it. You walked into this one. The receiver felt heavier as he fumbled to return it to the phone.
Conscience was an elusive but careful vice he toyed with, its voice easily subdued. It had a soft shrill quality like his mother’s hiss whenever rage got the better of her gentle demeanor. He tried changing the surrogate voice twice by adopting his own baritone but nature is wont to inherent renewal.
His conscience was screaming at him, full force with his mother’s pudgy face in tow. Admit it. No turning back.
He paced the room, treading a carpet worn path between door and desk as he imagined the shape of a black revolver forming around the bullet on his table. His fist trembled even as he boxed an invisible enemy, left hook and clumsy punch on target.
Decided, he reached for his desk phone and pressed the speaker. The single toot of the functional device somehow comforted him, at a touch, pliant to serve. Numbers keyed, he waited, one finger reflexively tracing his lower lip.
“Suzanne. I need your help.”
“What is it now? I am only here till three max. Three.”
“Not that. I won’t bother your weekend. You know me better than that.” “Say it already. I need to get back to catching up.”
A grin appeared as he chose his words. He could be wrong about this. “That new scrap metal account, who is reviewing my work? Who has seen the file?”
“Dobson Eco Enterprises?” “Yes. That’s the one.”
“That is p and c. … wait, isn’t that your account? What did you do?”
He looked up then closed his eyes. That was fast, he did not expect an accusation that early. Jamie thought of admitting to client ownership but that was moot, the only thing sacrosanct around the office was the bonus quantum. His turncoat smile flashed into a sneer.
Time to barge in: “I forgot to check the market price Sue. Had to rush for my block leave two months back. Remember? The maple leaf magnet I gave you. Canada.”
“Huh … market price?” Her silence hung over Jamie. “Oh. That was dumb Jamie. Under or over?”
“I just need to explain. That’s all.” He flagrantly ignored her question on the oversight. Beads of sweat stuck to his shirt. Dumb? What do you think paid for the holiday? I had to see the Cuda. He rushed to his chair, dark faux leather making an embarrassing sound as his gaunt frame leaned forward.
“Can’t help you there,” Sue said. “Chase might know. But you wouldn’t want me to message him. Right?”
He could smell the rat straight way, she needed consent to spill. “You had lunch with him what … twice, three times last week? And you are telling me this never came up?”
A secular prayer, silent and manic appeared on his lips: Come on Sue, we are friends Sue. He genuinely adored her company.
“Help me out. Please Sue. Just this one time.”
Silence at the other end rattled as he frantically tapped his right temple. Both hands held his face, palm on flushed cheeks as he willed himself from stammering.
“You owe me big time. Big time. Farah is on the case.”
Farah. Didn’t ring any bells. Farah. Oh Farah. Calculative Farah with the sugar-loaded cupcakes and three kids, another one coming. The smile returned, confidence rising as he straightened his back and recalled the layout of the office. A senior staff, Farah had a big cubicle, partially out in the open.
“Thank you Sue. Let’s have that lunch, new Italian place. On me.” “You didn’t hear it from me.”
“Yes, lips sealed. Disclaimers on top. Lifesaver Sue.” Literally, big time. “Yeah, yeah. How’s your mom doing? Still not settled in?”
“What?” Jamie smiled, Sue remembered. “She has lucid moments. I’ll be seeing her tomorrow. New place, 24/7 care.”
“Forget lunch. Just get me a latte on Monday.”
Jamie kicked the underside of the table, he ignored the pain from his toes. He wanted to scream: “I can afford it Sue!” but he knew better. “Lunch. Let’s do lunch.”
He hesitated as his right hand hovered over the bullet. At that point, inexplicably, he thought of white on blue polka dot handkerchiefs favoured by the firm’s founding partner, Naseem. Always tucked to peek. Did he ever have to handle a live bullet for that regal arrow?
With unease as his palm swallowed the bullet, Jamie grabbed it and deposited it in his top drawer. He locked it as he bit his lower lip.
The mid-tier firm of Naseem & Rutherford occupied five floors of a steel and blue glass business district bet. Shamelessly squat, it was a tall wager handily won, the building was full to capacity.
A titillating jumble of anchor art welcomed clients to the firm’s expansive reception area. Derisively, staff deemed the lavish expanse as Rutherford’s limbo where shock pieces of abstract nudes, prided as loans from the senior partner, cavorted with upmarket minimalist paintings amid modernist cues.
Away from the client’s gaze, a sterile atmosphere of patronised distrust swelled Jamie’s fear. The firm had an unspoken, eagerly tapped policy of tattling for advancement. A rookie at outright theft, he dreaded what he was about to do.
Loose paper and file in hand, Jamie quashed his nervousness and entered Farah’s office wing.
He was out of luck, the floor decked end to end with shoulder high gray cubicles, dense on one side and rows of airy meeting rooms on the other, was a third full that weekend. Excuse literally in hand, he flashed lethargic smile after smile. Shoulder jerked upwards each time, lips and smile at work as he repeated his practiced lie: “Copier down. Toner.”
Each cubicle was staked, names in gold lettering on black for supervisors, plain white for subordinates. He could feel the names jumped at his fidgety gaze as he flashed lethargic grin after grin to colleagues he could barely recall.
He ignored Farah’s desk and walked straight on but glanced at the area for telltale signs of moving heads from frosted glass lined with twin transparent strips on the upper frames. Finally in luck, he breathed easier. There was no one at her row. His memory was spot on, her desk was last, one side against the wall.
He sauntered to a cabinet-lined wall, pose stammering as he reached a shared copier nook breaking two wings at a corner.
Farah’s cubicle beckoned with gaudy rows of toothy plush cows, soft ears and horns rising from a maze of broken cubicle lines littered with sporadic personality. She was not alone in being playful with bit decor. There was a queue of ceramic miniature turtles in between peeking flags raised in row, upwards then down and fabric balls in startling pink and fluorescent green on flimsy wire stilts.
Hands on the copier’s sturdy plastic, he contemplated the odds of a deserted floor. He returned nil as relief abandoned him. It would be less risky in the evening with fewer people but higher chances of being caught lurking by nosy colleagues. Sunday offered vague hope but the mid-sized firm had diehards he will have to contend with. Messing with workstations at night is a sure bet for dismissal and he had a bullet in his drawer.
Take your chances Jamie. Grab the bull by the horns. He smiled as he thought of stitched rounded horns hanging at Farah’s place. He jumped as he felt a tap on his shoulder.
A stout old man, shiny scalp dotted with straggling white hair, broke his thoughts with a curt: “Done?”
Jamie flashed a kneejerk smile. The old man made his mind up for him. Evening then, dinner time lull.
Returning to his office, he targeted seven o’clock. Safe in solitude, seconds rushed incommunicado with the minutes and hours as he avoided his desk and decided that the floor was comfy enough. Space was a premium, the pale blue carpet was blanketed with paper strewn all over.
Knees to his chest, he welcomed the sturdy feeling of the metal cabinet, firm and dependable as he leaned against it. It would have been metal cold to contact but the lack of air conditioner had a rambling stab at his consciousness. It didn’t register, he was unbothered. Even the fan was off on account of the lackadaisical tiles of paper.
The sound of his breath (sporadically deep) and shuffled paper tamed his apprehension. Combined, it was the appeasing noise of activity that leashed his mind.
Every time he reached for his pocket or reflexively half traced his lips with a thumb, Jamie stopped himself from reverting to habit. The missing cigarette between his twitching fingers meant stepping out and he didn’t trust his instincts. In those long hours, he wasn’t convinced the world would remain idle as he chased a smoke.
The evening came and the same incongruous turtles, cows and flags greeted him but the plan was solid. Again, no Farah and the entire floor had stragglers but they were reliable loners glued to their screens. They bowed lower as he made his way. A sure sign that they have seen him and would balk at the responsibility of having seen him, a face familiar, and not act if anything does prop up.
Walking with an overdose of weekend lethargy to the copier corner, Jamie clutched another file in a surreptitious walk-past and scanned the surroundings. Done with the copier, he approached Farah’s cubicle like a vulture. Burning time to circle the quarry from other tables to gain proximity. He swallowed fear with confident strides.
Her cubicle was a big one announced by a rectangular strip of gold letters. They were traditional that way: the firm. In tune with the class of criminals they accommodated. Earthy.
Despite himself, he gave an imaginary Farah a raised eye and a slightly parted mouth – why? One of the three toy cows, hanging from grinning heads on the frame, had four chocolate coloured udders that jutted out and the one next to it had two pink compartments for bellies. They were mercifully empty. The last one, the most galling in his eye, had a high pocket with ‘Don’t be MOOdy!’ in popping yellow across it.
There were four plywood cabinets in total, white with a bleached veneer of veins. Three tall ones were consigned behind a wide desk and a shorter elongated one with four compartments accompanied the cows from below. Only the long cabinet had files on top he skimmed from printed names along their spine.
Tidy where it counted, Farah maintained a sharer’s desk with tacky magnets, several photos of kids and pets smiling and crying within plastic butterfly encrusted fluorescent frames.
He took to the search lightly. Being aggressive was last on his mind. Nothing draws more attention in Naseem & Rutherford than rummaging through a colleague’s place.
The new Dobson file: Where could you be? I am Farah, late nights, family commitments and two weeks review period. Where would I stash a working file? Where else? An idea popped: Under the table! Success!
“What are you doing at Farah’s desk?”
Jamie jumped from below the desk, eyes wide open. Chase! He looked up towards the dreaded voice. Don’t fumble – stay cool.
Greasy dark hair in a neat coif over a wide forehead above pale green eyes even at rest, Chase was dressed in daddy jeans and grey campus sweater. The drab clothes subtracted nothing from the sharp, exacting figure hiding a trim figure. Puzzled, he stood at the cubicle’s entrance.
Chase waited for eye contact then asked: “Why are you looking under Farah’s desk?” Glad for the soft tone, Jamie scrunched his eyes and nodded. Why?
“You are here on a Saturday … night. That’s a surprise.” Jamie blurted. He was glad for the desk, his foot was restlessly tapping the carpet.
Chase shrugged, bulging biceps in play as his shoulders fell. Jamie hated losing to those biceps. “Catching up. The usual. You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”
“I am looking for … this is embarrassing.” Jamie stalled with vacuous misplaced nods. Chin first with his head bobbing.
“What is it? You are acting really strange Jamie.” Perplexed, Chase stepped into the cubicle.
“No. Just that. Can I be honest? Just between us.” Jamie leaned forward over the table, both awkward and clumsy. Those cow eyes seemed to follow his head.
“Okay. What is it?”
“Coffee. I am looking for coffee. Foraging actually. For extra strong instant coffee.” Jamie nodded conspiratorially with the answer. Lips pursed with palms rubbing, he looked straight at Chase. “Had a really long one last night and it’s already Saturday night.”
“Wha— what?” Chase asked, thrown by Jamie’s admission.
“Why didn’t you get some on the way here?”
Chase was unaware of intense relief sweeping over Jamie. Wool in place. His tapping foot went still.
“Finished it. Two triple shots.” Jamie answered as he made a fist, thumb out to his face. “I need a good, fast one. Naseem is pressing me hard. Again. Quarterly review coming.”
“Ah huh.” Said Chase with a nod. “No wonder you seem edgy. So you wanted to steal instant coffee from my boss?”
“Not wanted. Want. Still need it.” Jamie insisted. Assured tone rising to the occasion. “Do you have any?”
“I have some at my place. Strong—
“Is it Colombian? The rest just …” Jamie made a swirling gesture over his stomach. “Oops sorry to cut you off.”
“No. It’s fine. I don’t know. Arabica I think. But strong.”
“Not my day then,” Jamie raised his palms and moved past Chase. He abruptly took his phone out from his pocket and glanced at the screen. A moment passed as he feigned an urgent message, a bloody important one with his immediate disregard of Chase.
“Sorry about this, have a call to return. My bad. Got to go. My bad.” Jamie mumbled as he strode past Chase and pretended a call. Eventually confident of being out his rival’s gaze, Jamie practically ran to his office.
Thoughts of food didn’t set in until the bullet stayed silent where it settled between vitamins pastilles and tossed coins. It assumed a litany of voices in his mind, loudest was Dobson’s threat: Can you guarantee nothing to worry about?
Thirst had first call, he quenched it until he realised that he lost track of the number of cups he had. Jamie swallowed the sobering thought, his throat was still prickly dry. He stared pointedly at an empty paper cup in his hand then called the first pizza delivery place on top of the search result.
He was famished until he had the first bite. Oven fresh, the sauce was sour then sweet, the dough crunchy with generous pepperoni slices but he nearly gagged. The bullet wasn’t silent after all.
Prominent smiley next to his name, Jamie stuck a yellow note with the offer to the brown box and left the pizza’s fate to the pantry. He had better luck with free cinnamon sticks that came with the order. He devoured them.
Third times the charm, Jamie hated the saying because it meant two preceding failures but it rang in his ears anyway as he made the same trip to Farah’s cubicle.
Jamie waited for two hours before he was certain that Chase had left with his car missing from the parking and workstation empty. He looked around and most of the stragglers were gone. A burned out young girl with black rim glasses looked up at him, half baffled and the other half curious but he just smiled instead. She closed her eyes hard, nose in the action, before staring down again to let the smile fade unrequited.
Jamie reckoned it was more for screen fatigue then his presence. He was right.
Practiced, he skipped the copier routine and went straight for the file. On his way out of the cubicle, he glared at ‘Don’t be MOOdy!’ and felt tired. He finally got what he wanted.
Satisfied, Jamie entered his blue Toyota sedan and heaved a sigh of relief. The car’s familiar dull interior save for a tangerine red air freshener shaped like a mustang was a welcome sight for his sore eyes. He started the engine before he slammed both palms hard on the steering wheel. A lacklustre honk resulted along with a cascade of swearing.
Jamie dashed back to his office and fumbled with the keys. As he rushed to his desk, he had no piles of paper to contend with, the floor was bare except for loose bits of removed staples.
He pocketed the brass bullet and nearly sprinted out of the office before he stopped dead in his tracks and turned back to retrieve the incriminating envelope from the wastebasket. Words failed his thoughts as he plopped himself in the Toyota. Sweating as he pressed his back against the car seat, the entire day waged a torrential comeback.
Dobson’s words and his own mingled every deep breath that he took. Gripping the steering wheel, he stared at the glove compartment for several minutes. Eventually, he calmed down without resorting to a secret box of cigarettes, stashed for such emergencies.
Jamie slept like a baby that night.
Upon returning from his regular visits, he did what he always do, meticulously filed the receipts for white orchids, his mother’s favourite, and advance payments. He cross checked the amounts twice, the largest he has ever paid.
For the most part, she was lucid that day and they quibbled over the lasagna Jamie picked for lunch but he couldn’t help but smile throughout. Unperturbed, he was in a jovial mood made more grateful by her constant fuss over small things. She was herself, her younger self.
He washed the already spotless Cuda twice that Sunday afternoon, paying close attention to the spoiler, grill and headlights as he wiped them dry. He loved it dearly enough to be content with watching it shine in the sun.
Jamie knew he had no business driving a manual car, he was far too clumsy for the gear changes and the Cuda was beyond him on busy roads so he admired it instead. The satisfaction he felt as he flecked imagined dust from the hood, glazed orange teased bolder with shifting clouds, bore a tinge of regret.
Ready and rested, it took him barely half an hour to research and gather the names and addresses: The Herald, The Tribune and for good measure – The Post. He lost count of Dobson’s many tentacles in law enforcement for the metal industry was heavily licensed but he explored it anyway. That took longer.
Admit it boy, admit it. He stared at the screen. He clicked send.
By Razif Nasardin from Malaysia