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~

a novella

~

by costa koutsoutis

© 2016

Shakespir edition

~

Find out more at [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to my amazing and wonderful girlfriend, for continuing to support this weird hobby of mine. I’d have burned out ages ago if not for her. Thanks to the cat Scully, whose terrible behavior kept me from being as involved with this as I wanted. I hate you, cat, with a fiery passion, and now will only scratch you between the ears and under your chin in protest. Also, a special thanks to Jack Feerick. Writer, poet, critic, and social media buddy who suggested the opening lines of this mess.

 

Costa Koutsoutis, January 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

01

 

This was not my shirt, I realized, as I tried to get dressed for the client meeting.

 

It was black, with a left-side breast pocket, button-up, long-sleeved. Back in graduate school I’d have considered it a “dress shirt.” Now, as I was struggling to look halfway decent for a video conference with a client about a project, it was officially downgraded to “a clean shirt.”

 

Regardless, it was definitely not mine.

 

I patted down the front, feeling something in the breast pocket, something that crumpled when I drew it out. Pink, thin, fragile, some sort of receipt?

The computer dinged.

 

Shit, call time. I stumbled over the at to the open laptop, buttoning up the shirt as I sat the desk. Freelance copyediting and research wasn’t a bad gig, but it’d gotten me into the habit of forgetting how to be social. Also, how to dress.

 

It dinged again.

 

The screen flared to life as my webcam automatically turned on, and as my own face came into view on half the screen, my phone pinged at me. It was a message from the client.

 

COMP WEIRD CANT VIDEO NOW NO CAMERA

Well, shit.

 

I jotted on the phone back and forth with him through text messaging, which I hated, about what we needed to talk about. I closed the laptop. So much for putting on a clean shirt.

 

I looked at the pink piece of paper I’d gotten from the shirt pocket, crumpled on the desk next to the laptop. Seriously, where had it come from?

 

When was the last time I’d worn this shirt? I tried to remember, when I could have worn it, taken it off, and then accidentally put another near-identical one on without noticing.

 

“Shit!” I almost tripped again over the cat, wrapping herself around my ankles like a hairy mewing boa constrictor. I’d gotten the cat as a housewarming gift from my mother, who’d gotten concerned I’d “be too much of an inside person” if I didn’t get married, a pet, or some other reason to wake up in the morning.

 

The party.

 

I’d gone to a party, I remembered. A few weeks ago, a friend had thrown a housewarming party in the Bronx to celebrate adding a new addition to their little place. I’d brought a bottle of wine, put on one of my “good shirts,” and gone out into the cool October New York City night. Rob and Kathy threw decent parties and this one had been no exception. There’d been food, a lot of people, music, and a lot of booze.

 

There’d also been her.

 

I’d gone home with someone. We went back to her place that night, or at least, I think it was her place. She hadn’t been too familiar with where anything was, though to be fair we were both drunk as the skunks that end up in that “drunk as a skunk” phrase, so who knows. I’d poured so much gin down my throat I’d probably been walking on my knuckles, as the poets said. I did remember a loft apartment and then the next morning…

 

…I remember picking up a black button-up shirt off the floor where I’d sworn I’d left it, putting it on in the early predawn grey, her watching me. She’d been telling me something, but my already-spotty memory was nothing but impressions of that night.

 

I did remember that we’d talked, we’d talked about cats, about monster movies, and about my job. I remember talking a lot, which as my too-few friends like to point out, is usually a good sign that I’m drunk.

 

Jane? Jill? I was fairly certain she’d said her name was Jane. It’d been one of those bland boring-sounding names, I knew that much, and more and more of that night came back to me slowly. I might have said that bit about the boring names out loud, because i had a clear memory of her standing there, laughing, and saying “Yeah, probably.”

 

I smoothed out the thin pink piece of paper. It was a pawnshop stub, with a Midtown address and a nondescript name. Under the name, it said “Jane Kimball.” Under the item description, it just said “jewelry, misc”.

 

I was right about the name at least.

 

Generally though, finding out something of actual value went through pawn makes you realize just how fast and bad someone needed that cash, compared to selling it some other way, even through friends.

 

I put the receipt down on the desk, and unbuttoned the shirt. I draped it over the back of the chair, and figured later on I’d call Rob or Kathy and get her contact information so I could return the slip and the shirt. It was the least I could do, especially since I didn’t remember telling her that I’d call…or even my full name.

 

Fair turnaround, I guess.

 

Over in the kitchen, I could hear the cat mewing, sitting proudly on the floor.

 

She’d shit right next to the letterbox.

 

-

02

 

“Hey Lee, what’s up?”

 

Rob and I had met in college. He went on to a nice office job, a wife, a car. I had a cat and an apartment and worked from home in gym shorts most days, eating leftover Thai food. Ultimately, I felt as if I’d won out by a hair.

 

“So lemme run something by you. Remember your little housewarming jam?”

 

There was a pause at the other end of the line, a shuffling of something, like papers. “Yeah? Sorry, trying to clean up while talking to you.” Rob’s house was a mess of blues paraphernalia, records and posters and boxes of tapes and photos all over. The only way that I knew Kathy put up with it was that she was a hoarder too, so I guess there is always someone out there for someone else.

 

“Do, uh…do you remember who I left with?” i Felt stupid even saying it out loud.

 

“You left with someone? Go Lee,” Rob said, somewhat distracted.

 

“Short brown hair, nose ring, name of Jane Kimball?”

 

Rob laughed. “I don’t know, Kath invited a couple of people from her job, and some people brought friends and dates, so I didn’t know everyone there.” That was true I realized, the little house had been packed to the gills with people that night. “Why’re you asking now?”

 

“Long story, I’ll bug Kathy.”

 

“Alright, no problem. You coming over for Thanksgiving?”

 

My own lack of anything resembling a real life or family had me floating around a lot for holidays, so my sad little social calendar was actually quite lively at times. “I’ll let you know,” I said, putting the phone done as I hung up.

 

I started at the phone on the desk, debated how badly I wanted to be invested in this today. I loved Kathy, but in that respectful from-a-distance-friend’s-wife sort of way. Phone calls with her tended to be awkward.

 

Not to mention that I actually had real job work to do, for money. Two clients needed drafts looked at by next week, I had emails to return to get more jobs nailed down, and I was a week behind on a big project.

 

Fuck it.

 

“Lee!”

 

“Hey Kath, Rob said I should go to you on this, since it was…”

 

“Jane.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Rob texted me, told me what you asked. Jane Kimball, she came to the party with that lesbian couple I work with, Dianne and Elle.”

 

Again, I had a vague memory trigger, an image in my mind of the two of them sitting on one couch, chatting and checking cell phones, drinks in hands and hair immaculately-done to match their fake-50’s house dresses like Archie Comics characters.

 

“I didn’t talk to her that much, like I said, don’t know her. Listen, I got a meeting, but I can ask Elle later for a number, she’s in the office today.”

 

I thanked Kathy and got off the phone before she also asked me to Thanksgiving, or want dot tell me about her latest collectible Maori figurine or whatever. She and Rob, hoarders-in-arms together and in love.

 

I threw myself into some client work over the next few days, the pawn slip and black shirt sitting on my desk, more or less ignored.

 

More or less.

 

I poked around on the Internet for a bit to look up this Jane girl, but didn’t find anything. Nothing wrong with that, though, considering how annoying the Internet could be. I found Elle and Diane on their social media accounts though, looked around at pictures. I figured if this Jane was close enough to one of them to come to the party, was was close enough to be in Facebook pictures.

 

Like I said, more or less ignored.

 

The Internet has a funny way of sucking you in. I looked up at the time, and two hours had somehow passed while I’d wasted them looking at photos. It made me feel a little sad, looking at their happy lives together with friends and family and loved ones.

 

I clicked over to the last one, looking away fro a second as the cat starting bugging me again, another little turd by the desk leg.

 

“Godda…”

 

There. I stared at the computer screen, and in the last photo, dated four years ago. Her hair was different, longer, and I could tell it was older and pre-good cell phone cameras, probably an old digital camera image or a scanned physical photo. It was her, Jane.

 

I looked at the caption for a tag or link or whatever to lead me to her profile. There was nothing though, not even a descriptive caption for the picture, unlike most of the other ones I’d been scrolling through, some of which had whole paragraphs describing everything in mind-numbing num-nut detail.

 

Right then, my phone chirped. It was a text message from Kathy, telling me that she’d asked Elle, who apparently “lost” Jane’s number and that Jane was bad news anyway, and refused to elaborate more. The phone chirped again, with Kathy telling me that maybe I shouldn’t drink so much and then go home with random girls who I knew nothing about, because apparently Elle was a very good judge of character. 

 

Interesting.

 

-

03

Actually, as interesting as the situation might seem, it really wasn’t in the long run. Maybe Kathy and Elle didn’t want me talking to this girl because of something she said I’d done or said that night. Maybe Elle really was a good judge of character and that this girl was bad news, someone for an innocent soul like me to stay away from. 

 

While normally you’d feel a little hurt as a man thinking that a night of gin-fueled passion would be blown off that easily, I had to remind myself that not only was it gin-fueled, but even as my memories of that party and night slowly floated through the filter back into my head, I still couldn’t remember much about her or it. Clearly the universe had decided I just wasn’t meant to remember, understand, or enjoy the mental images

 

I went back to my desk, staring at the Jane girl’s picture on the computer screen. She was smiling broadly, the kind of look a summer day would bring out. I vaguely remembered her different, the eyes a little less bright, a little less openness in that face, in the smile. Time changes people.

 

She didn’t have the nose ring in this picture and her hair was longer. The background was of a city, I could see, and she was sitting outside at a restaurant or coffee shop. Whoever took the photo was right across from her.

 

Where was this taken? You couldn’t see anything in the background that could be recognized, besides the general layout of street to the side and some kind of buildings in the background. The tableware was vaguely visible, the usual white generic restaurant stuff. It could have happened anywhere, taken any time. The digital Facebook timestamp said it was three years ago, but it had to be a little older than that.

 

There was a note in the time stamp, light grey letters saying the photo had been edited a year and a half ago.

 

Alright, maybe that was interesting? Maybe someone had deleted something associated with the picture. In general, social media photos tend to be inundated with comments and connections, hotbeds of links to other places and people. Thinking on it, it seemed odd now that there was nothing, no automatic facial recognition or whatever pseudo-Orwellian thing that would go on with a photo like this in an Internet hole designed to connect and identify as many people as possible. No link or tag, nothing. 

 

I looked at the pawn slip again, shoved it into the pocket of the shirt before I folded up the shirt and put it in a cardboard box under the desk. Just one of of those things, I guess.

 

The phone rang again. I swiped to answer. “Hello?”

 

“Hey, is this Lee…Ka, Kaporis?”

 

“Speaking.” Usually when a voice couldn’t say the name, it meant they were new clients, so I’d taught myself to keep the eye rolling and sighing to a minimum on the phone.

 

“I’ve uh, got a manuscript I was hoping to get looked at?” The tone was weird, and it threw me off, rubbed me the wrong way. It was the sound of someone trying to come off as more formal than they should, with a higher voice tone, a masquerade of education and responsibility.

 

“What agency are you at?” I went through the motions anyway, even though I had a feeling I knew where the call was going just on the voice alone.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Agency, you’re someone’s agent, right?”

 

“Oh uhm, yeah, yes, I’m with a  new agency, just started up.” There, the crack in the mask again, and I allowed myself a sigh.

 

I had a little website on the Internet, advertising my proofreading, editing, and researching services, but for the most part my clients either came through the proofreader services and from word-of-mouth from publishers and book agents and website or magazine editors. Once in a while though, new and aspiring writers would find my contact information and try to reach out, thinking I could help fast-track them in some way towards literary stardom.

 

“Look man, just give up on this line, alright? I’m not buying it.”

 

“Sorry? Look, do you want my business or what?”

 

“Two hundred bucks a day, minimum three days’ worth of work for a novel, which I’m assuming this is,” I said in a flat tone. The numbers are what usually scare off the rank amateurs.

 

“No problem,” he said immediately. “So, when do we meet for…for me to drop off the, uh, the book?”

 

“Just email it to me, we’ll correspond on there, and I’ll call you back.”

 

“No, it’s uh, I mean, it’s a physical copy? I can’t mail it to you. Can you meet me in person? Today?”

 

At this point, there were enough alarm bells going off in my head to make me feel like a human smoke detector store right next to a burning building. Something was up with this. “You know what, sir? I’m sorry, I’m looking at my calendar, and I’m booked up.”

 

“What?”

 

“I can’t help you, but if you want I know a few good proofing agencies that you can…”

 

“This is bullshit! Are you kiddin’ me!” Now, the mask was totally gone, the tone deeper, the raging asshole right on the surface. I hung up as he was getting into whatever rant and rave he was starting up, put the phone down, and walked into the kitchen, kicking the coffeemaker into gear after dumping in a few scoops of some new stuff a friend had given me, tea and cocoa mixed into the coffee grounds. Whatever it was, I thought as the coffee brewed and I paced around, it smelled fucking amazing almost instantly. The cat had gotten up onto the little breakfast nook table I’d inherited and used as a catchall kitchen/front hall table, and was staring at me.  No turds this time.

 

“Well, wasn’t that fucking weird?” I asked her, realizing how insane it sounded to speak out loud to her. She leapt down onto the floor and pounced like a kitten at my leg, trying to climb up my pants like a bear up a tree.

 

Most “aspiring writers” who managed to find me with that “look at my manuscript” shtick tended to be spineless nerds, so I was a little curious about this one. I jotted down the phone number and then put in a call to an old buddy, Pete Brooks.

 

Brooks was a writer, mostly cop and true-crime airport fare. Out of all the guys I went to college with trying to be writers, he was the least odious and the most successful.

 

“Lee?” Holy shit man, how are ya?” I probably hadn’t seen him in seven or eight years, but Brooks was one of those types who never let that bother them. I probably looked the same I did in college in his mind. More importantly, Brooks had actual connections. The last time we talked, I sort of remembered him bragging about cop and private eye acquaintances he used for research. I figured I could turn a “catching up” call into a “favor” one, so we took twenty minutes to see what the other was doing with life.

 

“Look, Pete, I’m wondering since I got you on the phone, do you know anyone who could help me out? Like, with running phone numbers?”

 

He laughed, a deep honest laugh that I appreciated. He never laughed much when we were in school to ether, but when he did it was always a good sound. “Trying to stalk some girl?”

 

That hit a little too close to home, though I did try to laugh at it. “Well, more like some weirdo posing as a client giving me shit. You remember what a client is? Those of us with regular jobs have them.”

 

I hung up after Brooks got his laughs in and said he’d run the number by a cop friend. Sometimes, I helped to still talk to old friends from college who got successful.

 

After a few hours’ work, I fell down on the couch face-first. One of my current clients was an academia vanity press so the work was infinitely wordy. The other client was an ad agency and their word requirements, while on the other end of the spectrum, were just as insane. I lay there enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to stare at a computer screen or a printout for a minute. Even then though, I couldn’t let go of the call.

 

Yeah, it might have been weird that I’d gotten that one call right after trying to figure out the thing with this Jane. Or was it? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell. I rolled over on the couch to stare at the ceiling. What was I, a PI from one of Brooks’ novels? If I’d learned anything, it was that there was never a pattern, a hidden thing, contrary to whatever it was that airport literature told us. I rubbed my eyes hard enough to see spots for a brief minute, and sat up.

 

Fuck it.

 

I grabbed the slip out of the shirt’s pocket from the box, stuffed it into my pocket, and put on a jacket. I poured water in the cat’s bowl, grabbed my keys, and headed out the door.

 

-

04

 

I didn’t know what I was thinking. I thought somewhere between my Queens apartment and the subway, I’d change my mind and stop myself. Then as I sat on the train, I thought somewhere between there and the midtown address, I’d stop myself and change my route, go downtown for a drink or something.

 

Then I found myself a block away, hands in my jacket pockets holding the slip, walking slowly but steadily towards the pawn shop.

 

I didn’t know what I was doing, nor why I’d spontaneously decided to do thi. For all I knew, they wouldn’t let me in, wouldn’t let me use the ticket since it wasn’t me on it. Honestly, it wasn’t any of my fucking business. Clearly, the universe didn’t want me to get back in touch with this girl.

 

Before I could stop myself, I was pushing the buzzer to get let into the store. Despite the midtown address, it was still that kind of place apparently.

 

“Yeah?” the girl behind the counter ask as I slid the slip towards her. I’d pretty much only seen pawn shops on reality TV and in movies about gangsters, so what did I know about how it worked. “You want your item back?” she asked, smacking gum like so many stereotypes rolled into one.

 

“Yeah, hum, yes, thanks.” I’d assumed there would be more ceremony, someone would ask for ID or something, but I guess not. “Your girlfriend’s stuff?” the girl asked, returning from the back with a small cloth sack she dumped onto the counter.

 

I tried to laugh and play along, hoping my nerves wouldn’t show. “Yeah, just picking it up.” I looked at my wallet. “You have an ATM here?”

 

-

05

 

I was curious how I was going to explain this to my accountant, three hundred buck blown. I hadn’t even looked a the sack yet.

 

I threw myself into some client work instead when I got home, made a few deadlines a couple of hours early, paid some bills, and then walked into my kitchen to make some dinner. The apartment’s kitchen was small but still spacious, worked well, was mostly attached to the rest of the apartment, separated from the living room by a breakfast bar. The realtor had been big on selling that to me, and well, it’d worked.

 

I diced up some spicy greet and sweet red peppers, toss them with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. I’d had a chicken breast marinating in barbaque sauce a client’s daughter gave me in appreciation for helping her old man with a book of his. It was potent stuff, so I usually had to dilute it down a touch.

 

The chicken breast, after a daylong cool and soak in the sauce, got diced up and tossed into a pan with the peppers and half an onion. Took me forty minutes, tops, to make, and it also left me with leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

 

I’d been doing the freelance thing from home for a little while before my current proofreading agency hired me, so at this point I did almost all of my work at home in my dinky little Queens apartment. Cooking was what I’d started to keep the monotony at bay, trying new things I’d see on TV or read about. It helped make my days more interesting.

 

I put the radio on my laptop, listening to some yuck-yuck duo talk about movies, and sat down at the desk to eat. It was something basic, but it was good, and I jotted it down in the little notebook marked “Food” on my  I still hadn’t looked in the bag I’d gotten from the pawn shop, it was just sitting there next to me.

 

“Been here a while,” the girl behind the counter had said, spitting her gum out and replacing it with a fresh piece. “Most times after ninety days it’s ours unless it’s something big, ‘cause then the owner and the person leaving it work it out personally. This had a note to hold it indefinitely. Whatever, glad you got it back for her.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Why the hell did I do that? That was strange, and it hadn’t even occurs to me that Why did I take it from the store? Something had possessed me to care about this Jane Kimball girl and the receipt, go to the store, see what it was, this girl that clearly either didn’t want ‘em to find her…or that my friends didn’t want me to talk to.

 

I put my plates in the sink to get to later, fed the cat, and came back to the desk. The velvet bag was staring at me. I undid the drawstring, and dumped a bracelet out onto the surface of the desk next to the computer.

 

-

06

 

It was silver, broad, a plain band with a big rock on one side, something like jade a grey-green smooth stone.

 

I was drinking a beer and tossing a little fish toy around with the cat, a day later after I’d picked up the bracelet. I wanted to give myself some time to think about what the hell I had done, looking at the piece of jewelry I’d basically lied to get my hands on since it belonged to a girl I’d met and slept with exactly once.

 

Sounded insane.

 

Kath had called me to ask again about Thanksgiving, and didn’t say anything about Jane.

 

I didn’t ask, and vaguely assured her I’d be at Thanksgiving dinner and bring something besides booze. The cat was trying to bypass the toy and nipped at my hand, making me almost drop my beer. She’d started this once I’d finally changed the litter in the letterbox. Her move from shitting on the floor to constantly trying to bite had me convinced that she was somehow punishment from my mother for something I had done as a small and stupid child.

 

Brooks still hadn’t gotten back to me about that weird yelling phone call from the guy trying to be a client, so when the phone rang i snatched it up I was a little disappointed to see it was a number I didn’t recognize. While I was swiping the touchscreen the cat got into my feet and she got a good chomp through my socks.

 

“Fucking shit!”

 

“…OK, cool, I guess?”

 

I’d been acquaintances with Steve on and off for a decade. Once upon a time, my friends and I had been running round, young kids in New York City going to and putting on punk rock and heavy metal concerts, little club shows and park shows and house parties. Steve was younger and on the far tail end of it. Somehow incredibly annoying, he’d made himself appear helpful to various people around, and last I heard he had a real job as someone’s personal assistant.

 

“Hi Steve.”

 

“Hey man, what’s up?”

 

“Well, you called me? Also, how did you get my number?”

 

“Oh, Kath gave it to me. Listen, I was wondering…” I sighed, knowing what was coming.

 

“So I’ve got this idea for a book? I was wondering if…”

 

“Sure, yeah.” I picked the cat up off the desk chair and plopped down. “Hit me up later when actually have something, and I’ll tell you my rates.” Harsh, but if there was one really good thing about Steve, it was that he was sort of oblivious to when he was being insulted.

 

“Awww come on,” he said, “no discount for Metal Underground buddy?”

 

“Metal Underground” was a name none besides Steve used to describe our little scene of friends, and he was hell-bent on trying hard, still, to make it a thing. “Man, I got bills to pay,” I said, at this pony only half-paying attention to the phone. I was playing with the bracelet, scrolling mindlessly through the Internet on my computer.

 

“Alright man, it’s cool, I feel you.”

 

Whatever that meant. “Yeah.” I was pretty sure I’d never hear about this book idea ever again, Steve tended to go from project to project a lot, and I was fairly certain the vinyl-only record label he’d wanted to do had never happened.

 

“So uh, how are things with you and that Jane girl?”

 

“What? You know her?” I’d been rocking back and forht in my chair, and as I slammed back down, I think the cat had been asleep at my feet. The THUMP made her leap up, hiss, and take off across the apartment, smashing into the beer I’d left on the coffee table.

 

“What was that?”

 

“Nothing, attack of the Lilliputians. So wait, you know her? Jane?”

 

“Yeah, that you left with from Kathy’s party. At the last sow, she was there, I met her there.” I strained to think back to the last “Metal Underground” show that my book agent friends threw, it had to have been at least four months ago. “Yeah, she was selling a ton of band gear, asking around if anyone wanted any of it,” Steve said. “I took if off her hands. Then I saw her at the party and I thanked her, because I just used some of it with a band for my label…”

 

Well, there was that. “Do you know where she is these days? I gotta return something she left at my place and my phone wiped a ton of numbers, including hers.” The lie slipped real easy out, something I was vaguely aware of.

 

“You, uh, just want her number? I still have it, though I know she was living in Brooklyn back when I bought the gear.”

 

“Yeah actually, that’d be rad.”

 

This was going somewhere.

 

-

07

 

Obviously, the phone number was disconnected.

 

I ordered a pizza.

 

-

08

 

“I guess that’s it,” I told the cat while she sat on the floor by my feet and watched me toss two eggs, diced teriyaki Spam, pepper, salt, and a finely-cut green pepper into a big bowl, stirred and beat it together, and then stepped over her to throw the mixture into the hot pan. She rolled over onto her back and looked at me oddly, as if she understood but was telling me “Well, what did you expect?”

 

Brooks had gotten back to me, not actually bothering to call because, like real writers with important things to do, he was touring airport bookstores signing stuff and shaking hands. He’d sent me a text message with the answer to my who-called-me query about that weird call.

 

It was a throwaway phone, the kinda cell phones you buy that, according to him, cops called burners, but other people called cheap knockoff iPhones. It had come from a store in Times Square, it was a year old, and there was no name.

 

Another dead end. I tossed the egg and pepper and meat in the pan around, making a nice little omelet, slid it onto the plate with the bagel waiting, topping off my homemade egg sandwich with a drizzling of sriracha. I wasn’t too concerned about the phone number either, mostly because I hadn’t heard anything from that guy since. It wasn’t entirely out of this world for you to get a weird random screaming phone call, especially when you lived in New York, as cliche as it seemed.

 

The phone started to ring somewhere, right as I was sitting down at the couch to watch a Mothman “documentary.” I put the plate down, stalking around the apartment. A variety of girlfriends always noted that I had a habit of putting a plain black slab of metal and glass face-down and forgetting about where it was when all my furniture was also black, and they weren’t completely wrong. It took me almost a full minute to find it in the bedroom when I answered, not bothering to look at the screen. “Yeah?”

“Hello, Mister Fo..Foteeoh?”

 

“Fotiou, yeah.” If there was one thing that I had gotten tired of more than the jokes about breaking plates, it was people who tried even when they couldn’t pronounce my name. Achilles Fotiou.

 

No wonder people just said “Lee” most f the time.

 

“Hi, this is Darrell Reese? Over at Buck’s?”

 

“Oh, hi, how are you?” Buck’s was one of the bigger publishing houses I worked with regularly, feel-good light books that made a decent return so they were churning them out regularly. I’d established a decent relationship with them and become an unofficial official proofer for first passes of their new potential manuscripts. Darrell was the guy who emailed me work and confirmed I was getting paid. I don’t think I’d actually ever talked to him over the phone or in person.

 

“Good good, just wanted to run a few things by you. First off, we’re gonna have two potential ‘scripts for you sometime next week, if that’s OK. I’ll email you the contracts and specifics tomorrow.”

 

“Alright, no problem. Is that it?” Usually they didn’t call, email had basically made the publishing industry into one that could function almost entirely without phones. I was curious what had made them call me. There was some hesitation on the other end for a couple of seconds.

 

“Well…we got a call, and it was weird? Someone called to check a reference and dropped your name.”

 

“What?”

 

“Yeah, someone called and said they were confirming a work reference, and said that you had recommended this person to them. I didn’t know what they were talking about, and then they asked for an address or email for you so they could then confirm something since they’d lost your contact information.”

 

I was getting a chill, a weird uncomfortable feeling. “Darrell, I have no goddamn idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“I didn’t think you would, so I gave them some runaround. He got real mad then, started yelling.” This was starting to sound uncomfortably familiar.

“Do you know someone named Jane Kimball?”

 

-

09

 

From what I could tell, someone had been calling around, using my name indirectly to be able to get information on what I knew about this Jane girl. Clearly, someone knew something about her that I didn’t but thought I did know it, if not more.

 

But what did I know.

 

Darrell had been smart enough to recognize that something was wrong, given whoever it was the runaround before he’d started yelling. Sounded familiar. I thanked him, made some unrelated work arrangements, and hung up.

 

That, combined with the burner phone news that Brooks had told me, was making me more than a little paranoid that something was going on with this girl. I took a breath, and scrolled through my phone for a number. I tapped out a quick text message, and figured in a day or two I’d hear something back. I didn’t really want to talk to her, but right now it seemed like the best option.

 

Somewhere in the apartment, something crashed, and I looked over at the cat sitting on a pile of books she’d knocked off the coffee table. I grabbed my wallet and coat and, on an impulse, headed out the door. It felt like a So Hop sort of lunch day.

 

So Hop was a weird little place in Queens, nestled between an apartment building and a building that seemed to never really have any sort of permanent usage, having been a small bank, a restaurant, a succession of bars, and then moving on to be a lounge and back to a restaurant before, once again, going empty. It was an old-school Chinese food restaurant with more than just French fries and General Tso’s chicken on the menu, and it was almost always crowded. I’d been going for years since I found it not that far from my apartment, somewhere not that close to where most of the Chinese food joints in the neighborhood tended to be, which made me a little suspicious as to how it had been open and successful for so long. I’d always had a suspicion the place was a mob front, but that just felt like something sort of racist to think.

 

Then one night at a party with some relatives I’d casually mentioned this to someone after a few beers and their eyes widened. “No, seriously re, it totally is! Your cousin Stelio says they do laundry from him, the napkins, always paying with cash, malaka!”  Most of my cousins and semi-attached relatives tended to lapse into Gringlish, the modern Greek-English patois you saw and heard a lot around New York City, especially among the Greek communities in Queens. It was a hallmark of the growth of a weird little immigrant community that was forcing the culture around them into the square hole of their lives, rather than reshaping for the round peg. Or something like that.

 

Regardless, the dumplings and spicy chicken were aces with all the rice you could eat, and I could sit and work sometimes on slow days and eat and nobody would bother me. The fact that I didn’t hog tables with an order of rice and tea for hours but shoveled food into my face, not to mention paying in cash, tended to make me a favorite customer.

 

Today was perfect, with an open table and the fried pork dumplings fresh and hot coming out of the kitchen not long after I sat down. I started scrolling through my phone again, messaging back and forth with one or two people. Brooks warned me to be careful, that someone who went out of his way to keep a burner private and hustle to get info on me and on this girl was probably dangerous.

 

I was in the middle of texting him back, because Brooks’ mind ws now that of a tech-savvy teenager, when the phone rang and a familiar face showed up on the screen with the caller ID. It was a face I hadn’t seen in a while, and when I swiped the screen to answer, it was a voice I hadn’t heard for even longer.

 

“Hey, Sara.”

 

“What’s up, Lee?”

 

Everyone knew Sara. We’d all known each other when we were young and stupid and hanging out at concerts and basements and house parties, doing stupid things and putting awful stuff into our bodies.

 

Sara put more into her than us, and for that, over time, she paid a price. Disappearing for a year or two, a few rehab stays, drifting off with strings of shitty guys, abusive guys. She lived with a woman one year I know, some older hick lesbian that was a friend of her mom’s, then with some friends who weren’t really friends…so it went.

 

Like just about every guy in our teen and 20-something social circle, we’d dated for a shirt amount of time before I realized how terrible it was. Sara was flakey, she was a recovering opiate addict who still drank like a fish, she was a blackout drunk who fought constantly.

 

Sara was a mess who had few problems dragging you int whatever sort of interpersonal drama she was currently engrossed in with whatever current or former friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, family member, or whatever.

 

Sarah knew everything and everybody.

 

-

10

 

“Hiii,” Sara said, “Lee! What’s up!” She was, to a fault and almost automatically, flirtatious, same as ever, though a part of me could tell she sounded…tired. Like life, the life we’d all lived to an extent and she’d pursued infinitely harder and faster, was starting to, if not catch up, then weigh her down a little bit.

 

“I’m good, what’s up?” I cursed at myself for that one, the lamest way to reconnect with someone and ultimately, realizing it was an invitation for Sara to start dragging me back into whatever sort of drama she had going on in her life.

 

“Nothing, just hanging out, the usual,” I breathed a sigh of relief as she continued. “Hanging out, having a drink. What’s going on, huh?”

 

“Actually,” I said, as my food came, “I had a question to ask you, about someone.”

 

“OK,” I could hear her shifting around, the sounds of a TV, of a clinking glass, someone talking, low. “Is it a girl, hmm?”

 

“Sort of, actually. Do you maybe know a girl named Jane? Jane Kimball?”

 

There was a pause. “How do you know her?” Sara’s tone had changed, a little on the defensive, but at the same time I could tell she was interested. I filled her in on the basics, and after another pause, she sighed. “Yeah, whatever. So, I sorta knew her? It was before you came around mostly, like we were always at shows, and I know that Terry and Anita knew her in school.”

 

I could hear Sara on the other end moving around. “Hold on, gotta refresh.”

 

I took it as an opportunity to start shoveling my own food in my face with one free hand, the other holding my phone still. If there was one thing I refused to do with my phone was get some hands-free nonsense. I guess I liked the idea of being able to broadcast that I was on the phone and not just an idiot with headphones.

 

“Back!” she chirped while I was stuffing a whole dumpling in my mouth, chewing vigorously and gasping at just how hot it was. I tried to respond in a cheery response in kind, but all that came out was a weird breathy gasp in pain. “Nice,” Sara said, settling herself back down. “Anyway, yeah, at one point I heard she had some asshole boyfriend who was a complete controlling dick.”

 

“Controlling dick, huh.” Things were starting to slowly line up now. “Like, track her down if she left controlling?”

 

“I guess,” Sara said, sipping whatever she was drinking. “It was that guy, Greg DiTero, I think you knew him, actually. He was in, uhm, some band with John Franco. Everyone sorta knows him, he always asks about her, so I guess she’s not with him? I saw him out here last month with John when they came to visit.”

 

That’s right, Sara lived in some tiny town in New Jersey in the middle of nowhere now, taking care of her mother. Enough trips back and forth to rehab and the hospital and fights with everyone you know will drive you to places away from everything you know triggers that kind of behavior, I thought. “So what, he was asking about her? Talking about her?”

 

“Not really, not this time, but he was hanging out with Vicki and Joe.”

 

“Joe? Joe from DGIS?”

 

“Yeah, they were up here visiting.”

 

DGIS had been, when we were all younger, the biggest band in the scene, and Joe, the singer with the big shock of hair that had a big skunk stripe painted through it, probably the most popular guy around. He’d seemed nice enough to me in the way one was to someone you didn’t know but your friends did, but I didn’t know too much about him and Vicki Scirocco outside of old punk circles.

 

On the other hand, I knew even less about John Franco and his old band, other than they had been a drunken mess who didn’t do much besides attract people like my friend Ivan, who did a lot of drugs, into their fanbase. My head was hurting, all of a sudden this whole thing was opening up a big can of worms from what I considered a fairly-uneventful, albeit fun, chapter of my life.

 

Greg DiTero.

 

I tossed some bills on the table and motioned for a takeout container. I had a list of stuff to do for a client at home, and after that, more calls I realized I needed to make.

 

“Look, I gotta go, but thanks, alright? You gonna come back and visit anytime soon? I owe you Chinese food.”

 

-

11

 

Greg DiTero was nowhere to be found.

 

I’d asked Brooks if he could ask his real cop friends if they could look him up as a favor for me. I’d asked Steve if he knew where he was. I even called asked Sara if she could ask around, though that had meant I’d promised to come visit and I was already regretting agreeing to that. 

 

I was pacing around the apartment, from my desk where the real actual paying work I needed to do and the phone on the couch seeing if anyone was going to return my calls or text messages with some kind of answer. I didn’t know what had made me so interested in this, because every single clue along the way was more or less screaming “none of your business and over your head” in my ear. 

 

The phone rang, & I snatched it off the couch. It was Kathy.

 

The cat meowed, and I looked down at her at my feet. She was rubbing her face on my pant leg, and I realized she’d vomited, mewing proudly at her results.

 

-

12

 

I hung up. There was someone hitting the bell to get in, and I walked over to the buzzer. I clicked the mic symbol for hearing whoever it was downstairs. 

 

“…it’s me,” the female voice said.

 

It was Jane. 

 

 

-

13

 

“I brought your shirt.” She had blue hair now, heavy makeup, no nose ring, “I found it when I was looking for mine that morning, stuck it in the closet.” She laid my black button-up shirt on the couch, scratched the cat behind the ears when she hopped up onto the back of the couch to nose through it. “Cute cat.”

 

“She’s a little shit and only behaves when other people around, but thanks.” I walked over to the desk. “Kathy told me everything,” I said, sitting.

 

“Thanks. I got this, by the way,” I took the bracelet out of the desk drawer, handing it to her. “

 

“Greg? No clue. Probably up his ass into stuff. You know…heroin, oxys, whatever.” She wandered aimlessly around the apartment. 

 

“No shit?” I was surprised, but then again, I had a vague awareness of only being on the very edge of something, something I’d been flirting with the edges of and hadn’t really learned anything about.

 

She actually laughed, a short sound, but her face opened up and she smiled. “That was me, sorry. I was trying to figure out if you were legit. I…didn’t really remember much of that night, and I tend to be a little paranoid these days, force of habit.”

 

I thought a man called asking about it.”

 

“Yeah, a friend.”

 

“One of ours?”

 

She didn’t answer for a while. went into a coat pocket, pulling out a cellphone, checking the screen absent-mindedly before dropping it back into the pocket. “No, though I could be lying. Sorry for the whole yelling thing he did, he…he told me about that, trying to basically act tough.”

 

“Why?” 

 

She sighed and looked down at her hands while I put the coffee cups on the table. “Force of habit, hard to shake. Not like it’s a…a dangerous thing, you know, like you don’t need to know…but Greg was…Greg was real shitty. Like, I had a hard time with him, with getting any time alone, with him constantly hitting everyone I know up whenever I wasn’t around…” I could see her hands twitching, and I decided to drop it.

 

“So what brings you…well, brings you out here?” I didn’t really know how to go forward from here, Kathy had clued me in on what I really was too stupid to see, how my friends, before they knew me, knew someone else who was an abusive asshole to his girlfriend, and being a popular name and face in our scene of friends and acquaintances who everyone wanted to please, an effective stalker, so they basically all worked together to try to hide her, and the one time she comes out to come to a party, I meet her and I start worrying them that Greg is going to find her.

 

I felt stupid. Like, incredibly stupid, Probably even moreso than when I went and got the bracelet.

 

My phone beeped while Jane just sat there. It was Brooks texting me. Greg DiTero had turned up, dead in his mother’s house. The cops said it was an overdose. 

 

The cat meowed, and I handed Jane my phone while I picked up my wallet before opening up the closet. Jane picked the cat up and sat on the arm of the couch, looking at the text message. She looked up at me while I struggled into the coat before finding the scarf I’d stuffed into the sleeve and was keeping me from pulling my arm through. She continued, “I had fun that night, and…and thanks for the bracelet. I’d pawned it the night before the party, when Kath insisted that I come to her party. I needed some quick cash to get to Connecticut with a friend when I finally took off after Greg…well, after the last time. I didn’t really think about how much I’d miss it.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” I smirked, putting my coat on from the closet “You can make it up to me…maybe coffee?”


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Proofreader and researcher-for-hire Lee Kaporis put on a shirt one morning that turned out not to be his. This sends him around old friends looking for a girl with a nose ring that more likely than not has a reason to be hiding, digging up a piece of jewelry, and finding out why someone keeps calling all his clients and employers dropping his name. Every single step of this mystery screams "don't get involved," so why does Lee keep going into what is clearly a mystery that's over his head?

  • ISBN: 9781311093585
  • Author: Costa Koutsoutis
  • Published: 2016-02-07 22:05:07
  • Words: 8251
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