Editor’s note: Corrected a few grammatical errors that slipped through on December 7th 2020
“Why are you the right person for this job?” Truth be told, I’m not; bears are stronger and more imposing than me, a dog will follow orders and be loyal, a chimpanzee appeals to those VIP human clients. They already know this too; the real question is “why are you here?” My honest answer would be that I am here because I’m tired of barely surviving and I want the class upgrade that they got through the fins on their backs. I want my fur to be soft as velvet and not spend most of my time doing two-bit cons just to get double-crossed and overpowered. But you don’t provoke sharks like that; if there’s one thing that will piss a shark off, its stereotyping it as the big, mean, killing machine it is by nature and ignoring the centuries of culture and modern sensibilities they have developed alongside everyone else. I sometimes think that is why they worked so hard and achieved so much in the banking system; eating some annoying domestic animal who thinks they are better because they drink coffee from a bamboo straw, sometimes feels like the soft punishment, so instead they keep them enslaved in a system that only works for them and only cares about them. For a second, I feel self-doubt and anxious, which I hope is a normal reaction to being in the position you worked hard to be in and everything hinges on the next few minutes; I practiced my lines in front of the mirror over and over again, made sure my makeup was thick enough to conceal the recently bruised eye and cuts, but feel as natural and normal as it can be. “I am here, because I think I am the right person for this job; I’m smart, sociable, humans think I’m cute and cuddly, but I also have claws and I am a survivor. I’m fast on my feet and always land on them too, but most of all I know all the tricks in the book, nothing gets past me unless I want it to. Above all, I am the right person for this job, because I can, without a shadow of doubt in your minds, convince you that statement is true.”
The worst thing about this job was the boredom; waking up at 6 am is a change, but do it enough times and change becomes routine. You get on the same busses that come at the same time, but eventually every annoying thing becomes part of the day; not the boredom. Sitting behind the counter, doing the same things over and over again, with a smile on your face because you are within eyesight of your manager. He’s staring, because that’s his entertainment for his boring job; staring at those below him and trying to find something they are doing wrong. There are perks though; the chaos of the city in 6 am is transfixing, like a monster slowly waking up from its slumber, ready to feast upon the unlucky prey that wanders in its cave. “When did you start smoking again?”, my brother asks as he enters the house. “You’re back early. Those pigs finally let you leave on time?” I ask as stub my cig out on the balcony rail. “You know, for someone trying really hard to go against her breed’s stereotypes, you are giving a prime example of why everyone thinks cats are overtly jealous”. I scoff sarcastically at him, as I enter the kitchen and start pouring two cups of coffee; “at least I don’t work in dumps and shit most of the day”, I say as I head towards him, handing him a cup. “It’s good, honest living and we have fun for the most part; what’s there not to like? Besides, do you know how much money we make on the side by using their nose for anything of value and my brains to fix it? I’m telling you, one of these days we are going to hit the motherload!” he says with genuine confidence that what he says is going to come true. “Well, don’t forget about me, when you join the undersea creatures and have afternoon tea with your pet lion”, I say as I close the door and head out.
On the bus, as I drink my coffee and start day-dreaming, something disrupts my routine; more accurately, someone. I’m not sure how to feel about it though; on the one hand, I’m glad that this scumbag is searching for me, because it means he has a scheme, and with the betrayal of last time being the reason I spent my first adult years in prison, he’s taking a big risk, which means it’s a damn good one as well; on the other, I did fantasize most of my time in jail about seeing him again, him begging for forgiveness, while I slowly cut off his balls or something to that effect.
- Hey Tess, listen I…
- Cut it and pitch me the plan. If I like it, I’ll think about it, if not I’ll go to my job and never see you again.
He’s surprised by my reaction; his face was all tense before I cut him off, like he was expecting a slap or something. It still amazes me how little he knows me after so many years…
- Okay. First off, I want to say I had no idea – he notices the stare I give him and stops in his tracks – right, I get it, just business. We got a mark, a real white whale; well not a real one, but you know what I mean. Rich, single, too protected by parents and has no idea how the actual world works, and recently an orphan, who now controls all of daddy’s and mommy’s property and bank accounts. The con’s the same as always, you’re the best at it and it won’t work without you, so what do you say?
- After all this time, you’re gonna “introduce” me to him like a friend and hope he suspects nothing?! That’s still your plan?! HA!
- Pft! No…well kind of; he has seen me before and we’ve been introduced so, we are going for a more roundabout way. I introduce him to Johnny-boy, he shows him a good time, gains his trust, you bump into him, and give his “stranger” friend that mesmerizing stare that freezes men solid – not the one you gave before where you wanted to hurt me – the other one that made me fall for you. Once you do that, Claude does his hacking, stealthing thing, tells you what he needs and you provide it to him as always, we split it four ways and go on a nice long holiday with a one-way ticket out of here.
- Sounds easy.
- Piece of cake.
- Why do you need me, then?
- You’re purrfect for the role!
- My stop is fast approaching and I’m still feeling more like hurting you badly rather than trusting you again; are you sure you wanna get on my nerves?
- Guy’s a fucking millionare, this isn’t pocket change we’re stealing here; we need the best of the best and the one who will keep her cool if shit hits the fan. We need you, so we either do this with you or we don’t do it at all and we all keep rotting in this fucking shithole. This is your stop.
- I’ll think about it.
As I stand up to leave, I press my heel hard on the edge of his shoe; his eyes water and that gives me some satisfaction. “Your toe is broken, that is only the beginning” I say as I am leaving; “does that mean you’re in?” he asks. I don’t stop to answer, I’m out of the bus and start walking towards the job; at the very least I know what to think about as I sleep with my eyes open on the job.
The truth is though, he only really needed to say that he has a con and that was enough for me; I love my brother and I hated seeing that look on his face, when he came to visit me during time, but I fucking hate boredom. Working a normal job, getting payed peanuts, to live a boring and tiring life, that is a nightmare. I know he’ll do more than be disappointed this time; he’ll loathe me and cut me off, but probably that’s for the best – at least for him – and that’s if we get caught. When Ted says that this guy is a white whale, I believe him; I still don’t trust him and will have to be careful, but despite all his faults, that freaking deer is a professional and serious con artist. Fuck it, I’ll bite.
I knew where Ted would be; there’s a bar in his childhood neighborhood he always hangs out in. For someone trying to run away from the past, you can’t really keep him away from it. I meet with Ted and he already pisses me off without even uttering a word; he had this effect on me when we were together, but I thought he would die for me back then, so it felt kind of cute at the time. Now, I just want to punch him in his smug face and use one of his horns to poke his eyes out. He knew I would take the job, because he’s been renting the place above the bar as a headquarters of sort, since the day he came up to me; he knew I would accept and is being smug about it. Johnny-boy and Claude are there waiting for us to join them and talk about the details; I know what you’re thinking and the answer to that question is “maybe”. He even has a fake ID that says “First Name: Johnny Last Name: Boy” and he swears its his real name, but I simply don’t know; Johnny-boy isn’t known for being the most reliable crow around, but he’s certainly the most fun. Usually, he’s a bit part player in the scheme, a role that makes the whole thing seem real; jealous ex, creepy stalker, thief robbing my place as soon as I walked in, etc. The part of him being a crow really helped with that back in the day, but now I think he’ll enjoy the role of just being himself and showing the whale a good time. Claude, on the other hand, I have no idea why he’s anywhere near us; he’s got more brains than everyone in this room combined and is the only breed that kind of affirms their stereotypes. He’s genuinely a smart, wise owl and he decided that all his wisdom and smarts are to be used in being the tech guy for small time con-artists.
And while Ted and Johnny have been going on about how they are going to organically introduce themselves – and me – in the mark’s life, I’m waiting for them to shut up so I can finally hear the actual details that matter; how is Claude going to steal the millions and what does he need from me? Turns out smarts and wisdom don’t lose their sharpness with time. Claude has step one already taken care of and only thing he needs is identification of the account (either real name of holder or the actual number of the account), a serial number, and fingerprints from his index finger and thumb; “that’s it? Surely there’s a catch!” I say baffled. Ted explains that besides the bank being a state of the art fortress with “lasers and sensors and shit”, the serial number is only known to him, uttered to him by his dying parents; “it’s not written down, not stored somewhere, there are no hints or clues, he just remembers it by heart”, says Ted finally getting serious. “So, let’s hatch a plan and steal this guy’s money”.
Let’s start with the easy stuff: Ted is an acquaintance, so our initial contact is already in place, but we need a reason to see him and a way for Johnny-boy to be introduced. “Well, he’s rich, so how about we meet for a business opportunity and Johnny is my partner?” Ted says. I don’t like that idea; as soon as they find out about the missing money, the first suspects will be people who wanted the money, aka the business guys with the bad opportunity who got close and also never saw again. “Any birthdays coming up? Is he currently in a relationship or has a favorite hangout?” I ask; “Not really. He’s birthday already happened, he’s not in a relationship as far as I know, and the only place he visits more than 3 times is his house”. “Well, that’s not actually true” says Claude, whose answer actually became the perfect meeting opportunity, “he has a reoccurring, yearly, payment for a football team and it is abnormally higher than standard season ticket prices, so I’m thinking VIP boxes. Fortunately for us, their security is not as tight as their defense so I got Ted a pass”. “I go in, pretending to have a pass gifted to me, I see him and approach him to watch the match together, offer to buy him a beer after the match, I let him chose the place and text Johnny where to go, that’s our play. Any questions or objections?” Everyone falls silent; its as good as a plan as we are going to get and its straightforward. “Great! Claude, I love you, you are a genius” Ted says, brimming with happiness, “now, Johnny-Boy is going to have to be at his best. He needs to trust you and like you enough to make him reach out to you, otherwise we are wanted men – and woman – the moment that money is gone”. “Don’t worry, I know exactly what to do; I searched the guy before coming here. First name Herman, last name Baah, breed turtle; has surprisingly cheap tastes and no real hobbies, besides football. He’s also a true lady’s man as he’s seen with another girl each week, so I’ll get my job done by drinking fast and talking football, but Tess you’re either under a deadline with him or need to make him fall in love with you; don’t know which one is worse.” Truth be told, me neither; but thankfully I just solved the other easy part of the plan: fingerprints. We have Claude dress as a bartender and sneak in the joint, take his glass and leave. “Which leaves us with the impossible task: The serial number. How do we get him to confide that information to you?” Claude rightfully asks. “Leave it up to me” I say confidently; I have no idea how, but an opportunity will present itself, it has to, it always does.
The opportunity has not shown up and I’m bumping into Johnny-Boy right now; everything went according to plan, which is not how plans are supposed to work, yet he has revealed nothing that suggests anything important to him. I give him the stare and its my best work so far; I can see it in his eyes, he’s under my spell. But it won’t do; I need to risk it, I need to make him beg me, reveal stuff to me to impress me. “Can I buy you a drink miss…?” he asks me and I refuse immediately; I can already feel the frustration of the gang, but this is the only way. “I was just leaving, so I just don’t have the time” I say hoping he bites, “so, when will you?” he says; time to reel him in. “I’m pretty busy with work and stuff, I usually don’t know when free time and fun are a spur of the moment thing for now”, I say to which he replies instantly “well then, here’s my number and I hope when you do have free time, I’ll be a part of it. You only need to ask, I’ll make time”.
The plan is going better than expected; we have the name, the fingerprints, and he’s enchanted by me, as well as gaining a few days to do some more research. In the back of my head are lingering questions and worries, but for the most part, right now, I’m optimistic; this could work and I can finally say goodbye to this miserable city and my rotting life. As is the case though, when life seems cheery that’s when the bitterness begins to creep in, to balance things out; Claude has that cliched moment of “you need to see/hear this” and, as is the cliché, it is never because of positive reasons. “I’d thought that with the name and extra time, I’d do some research on our mark and, I can’t find anything beyond what everyone already knows: He’s rich, single, parents’ dead, owns a lot of businesses and has nothing to do with most of them. Those who know him are either loyal employees of the family or dead from inconspicuous causes; that’s it. No other presence anywhere. Even weirder, those ladies he keeps changing every week, nowhere to be seen afterwards.” We are all silent, after Claude’s surprisingly unfruitful attempts at digging up information. “Could he be paying really well to keep people silent and happy?” Ted asks; “I would be very surprised if that wasn’t the case” I say troubled. That’s not what worries the gang though; if he has so many businesses, but no involvement in them, what does he actually do? He’s someone who likes cheap drinks and women, yet rarely parties; his only hobby is football, but he’s not an obsessive career freak.
Things start getting weird; after I called him and asked him out, he asks me to dinner at his home. This secretive millionaire for which information is limited, asks a lady he met a few days ago into his home within minutes? I accept obviously after playing coy for a bit, but this is most unusual and potentially dangerous. I know Johnny-Boy says he’s seen people following him around and we took it as him being paranoid, but I don’t know what to think now. I put on my best dress and I head over to his penthouse; his security team, which honestly look like professional boxers, run me through a rigorous search and then, let me use the elevator to the top of the building. As it rises, I realize that already, this is the highest I’ve managed to get, and the city, seems different when its so high; its not towering or a suffocating jungle of polluted air and metal. It’s got softer colors at night and its less overwhelming when you are above most buildings; floors upon floors of misery and barely getting by, they seem less real when you get to watch it from above, but the elevator just kept going. Now those buildings look like match boxes, those problems seem less “real”; like, the struggles I went through, they were an experience, but now I get to the actual reality. The doors open and he’s standing there, waiting for me; “please, come on in, I hope the security team didn’t give you too much trouble, they mean well”, he says always with a smile in his face.
Snap out of it, get your head in the game, start looking, observing, asking; you’re here for one thing and once you get that, you leave and you start leaving your own life. His apartment is empty: Paintings, probably expensive ones, but no portraits or photos of any kind, there’s a couch and a TV, but the couch is so far away and the TV is so small, I can’t think anyone is spending too much time there. Honestly, the only “normal” posh area in this filthy rich apartment is the balcony and the bar; everything else is surprisingly simple or suspiciously unwelcoming. No family to see and ask about, no personality; only drinks and a view to die for. Even dinner is served at the balcony, but Mr. Baah is proving tricky to open up; every question about family, business, personality, is rebuffed and shut down in favor of trivial small talk. I lead him towards the bar, that thing is the only one in here with a personality and I need to start loosening him up somehow.
- This is a good-looking bar; I would drink here every night if it was mine.
- One of my few guilty pleasures. What can I get you? What sort of drinks do you like?
- What’s your favorite one?
- Whiskey coke.
- Aw, come on! You have this whole bar in your penthouse and your use it to drink whiskey coke?!
- Well, I want something that I’ll only get from this bar. I’ve joined high society for tonight and I want the good stuff you get at the fancy parties!
- Well, I’m more of a “get whatever is on sale in a liquor store” kind of guy, but my parents were fancy, I’m sure they had something that will be of your tastes. Give me a second and I’ll be right back.
Quick; now’s my chance. Scan the bar, what do you see? Cheap drinks, glasses, an ice machine; start with the easy ones. Glasses seem normal and bought off a set, the ice machine only has ice inside, nothing abnormal about its operation like funny noises; I feel the case surrounding it and it is smooth and seemingly undisturbed. Okay, move on to drinks: Brands, he has all the cheap ones! The one with the bird, the foreign one, come on, something unusual anything I can leverage…wait Kid Comby that doesn’t ring a bell. It certainly looks cheap, but there’s something weird about it; it’s too…clean, like it never really gets handled. There is some missing from the bottle but, its like a glass or something, when every other bottle is either sealed or missing a lot more than a glass. I pick it up, turn it round, look at it…aha! There’s a date on it for when the bottle was created, but usually the dates for when whiskey was made are scratched on the bottle at the bottom; this is also a bizarre date. 10/18/1851 and there’s a time next to it? 20:58…wait, is this…no fucking way! Take a picture Tess, fast before he gets here!
The phone rings; it startled me so badly, I almost dropped the bottle! I put it back and check the mirror; I’m flustered and look like I’ve seen a ghost. He’ll suspect something, quick think; pocket mirror, pretend to fix your make up. Just in the nick of time, he comes into the room and picks up the phone; he apologizes and excuses himself out of the room. I got what I came for, now I need to leave without raising suspicions. “Really? First attempt? Wow!” his voice suddenly shatters the silence; just wait and see how surprised you’ll be when you try to open your account a few days from now and find nothing inside. He’s back, “sorry about that just some business stuff. Now, where were we?”, which I remind him of wanting a fancy drink. “You know, I forgot about the best whiskey in this house! A relatively unknown brand called Kid Comby, you know it?”. I lose the ground beneath my feet; I don’t care how he knows, but he knows and I am in danger, I need to leave right now. I get up and run towards the door, I open it and then…I black out.
The dude who knocked me out, doesn’t just look like a professional boxer; he punches like one as well. I wake up with one black eye, a hurt ego, and scared shitless about what was going to happen next; there was a catch with him, we just didn’t know it. Two glasses of whisky are on the counter and he’s staring at me; “drink” he commands, “have your fancy drink”. “You have exactly one shot at having a chance to leave alive from this building. You will tell me how you figured out the bottle is special and then, you will tell me what you are looking for and why. If you answer those things correctly and immediately, I will then ask to know who you work for, and then, if your answers are truthful, you may leave on certain conditions”. I drink the whiskey; damn it actually is fancy. I look at him and nod; I have to think and to think, I need to stall him, so I’ll play along for now.
- Let’s start with the bottle. How did you know it was not an ordinary bottle?
- The brand…I didn’t recognize it, but all the others are well known.
- Anything else?
- It’s clearly not handled as regularly as the others and the liquid missing from inside is not consistent with the others.
- “Clever” he says as he looks at the glasses. “That won’t be a problem anymore will it? What were you looking for?”
- In a bottle of whiskey?
- Anything out of the ordinary to get tonight, after I drug you. Not much in the way of valuables in here, so I went to plan B and started looking for things sticking out to search for, hopefully finding your skeletons in the closet and blackmail you with them. My turn now: How did you know?
As soon as I finish that sentence, he smacks his whiskey glass on the side of my face.
- I ASK THE QUESTIONS HERE! I ask again, how would a whiskey bottle help you find skeletons in the closet?
- I was going to spike it and lead you to drink from it. One thing at a time, Herman; for my plan to work, I needed you to be asleep for a long time, and then I would have found something.
- What skeletons are you referring to?
- You don’t get to be as rich as you without making a few enemies, having screwed over people. You have something to hide and I was going to find it.
- You don’t know who I am do you? Tess, I have no skeletons in my closet; they are in the trunk of my car.
- I don’t understand…
- See, while you were away in prison, a gang war happened and my family won. I own the family business and I really love my job!
- How did you know…
- About prison? Well, while you were out, we looked you up, found your brother, your workplace, your record…the fake ID was pretty good, but honestly your past isn’t easy to hide! One photo of your face and you have a dozen former victims of yours identifying you and seeking revenge. Honestly, you were never leaving here alive before this, that’s why we didn’t really check up on you, but I guess that’s something we will have to do from now on, so thank you.
- You know how to thank me? How about you let me go?
- “We’ll see… for now you move on to the next phase” he says while looking at a security guy. “Who are you working for?”
- I work alone.
- No you don’t, I already told you I looked you up. I know about Ted and Johnny and Claude, my question is who do you work for, not with who!
- N-no one, honestly! Please, don’t hurt them they…
- Were the ones that gave you up last time, right? What happens if I pay a visit to that headquarters of yours and ask Ted, who he works for? Do you think he’ll be as noble as you?!
- It was Ted’s idea, but I don’t know if anyone gave him the info, I just know he had a new scheme and he needed me for it.
- I can see why, you made it further than anyone. You could be useful to me, but they…well not so much. Okay, here’s your shot: You call them to say you got everything, but there’s a new meeting point at the abandoned warehouse on Pequod street, because of…I don’t know figure something out! Do that, and go back to your life without looking back; don’t and at least you’ll die not being a snitch? Yeah, let’s go with that!
I make the call; I tell them I have everything we need and to meet me at the warehouse, because that is where I feel most comfortable meeting them, after last time when they doubled-crossed me. I hang up; I hope I sounded truthful enough so I can leave here, but suspicious enough so they won’t go. Get the best of both worlds sort of thing. I already know the ending though; I’m not leaving this place, so I hope the others are at least. His goons untie me; he gives me an ice pack for the eye. “I want that returned, but not before you wash it” he says, “now go and hope, for your sake, I never see you again”. I call a taxi “Pequod street, quickly please!”. It’s quiet, but it is the middle of the night, so that may not be worrying just yet; I ask the driver to stop before the warehouse and tell him to wait for me there. There are people here and…Ted’s car! I need to see, maybe I’m not too late; I sneak inside through the broken window on the side. I creep up the stairs, when suddenly I see them; they are dead, but what haunts me is the look on their faces. A look of surprise, of genuine terror, as they thought they were meeting me and a better life, but med a hail of bullets and their end. That smell though, its…gasoline! Fuck I need to go, I’m sorry guys.
From that day, everything went to shit; my brother loathes me and cut off ties with me, and my day job let me go since I was missing a lot of time running that scheme and even more after it, since I couldn’t sleep. Their faces haunted me, but what haunts me the most is the pointlessness of it all; I had everything we needed and the easiest thing to get was the one that eluded us. After the warehouse, I headed to HQ only to find it completely ransacked; everything was gone, the notes, the fingerprints. Then, one day, a box gets delivered on my doorstep; Claude, even from the grave you’re still smarter than anyone!! A “insurance policy” he called it; copies of everything in case he disappeared, but why me Claude? The only thing in the box besides all of that, is another note that says “I’m sorry”; me too, Claude. So, now back to present day…
“No need to convince us any further. You’re hired!” said the sharks, “welcome to the account management team, Mel!”. That’s how Claude was going to gain access to the bank’s account; by working for them and bugging the system to grant him supervision of the account. By the time they knew what hit them, we’d be long gone, and it is all that remains between me and leaving this city for ever; a job interview and the right opportunity to install a bug. By the time they knew it was me I’d be long gone. As I head home from the job interview, I think about calling my brother and trying to mend things, or how I could repay the gang in some way; but plans never work the way they are supposed to.
As soon as I open the door and see that turtle sitting there, I knew, and now having experience with being in a situation where certain death is part of it, I react accordingly. I tell him that I am acting alone this time; he seems to believe me. “I want to know one thing; was this the number?” I ask while showing him the photo. “It’s such a shame to lose such talent to greed and stupidity. You had to know I would be watching, or even if I wasn’t, that I would change the password!” he says, genuinely disappointed. “Not stupidity, despair. You’ve been to the underwater palaces and the ones with the fins accept you, but here the metal, the air, its suffocating. You risk it all to get out and be where you are with no fault of your own; looking down at this shithole, rotting fucking city or better yet as far away as possible, to not even look at it!”. He opens his mouth to release an affirming sound and then I see it; his tongue.
- You’re an alligator snapping turtle?
- You know your ancestors were actually part of a predator group called “ambush predators”? That’s why your tongue looks like a worm; to lure their preys in.
- How relevant with our situation…
- I guess I’ll leave this city after all.
- Depends on how you see it; you either leave it or you’ll eternally rot here as you’ve always feared.
He’s right you know; all these efforts, risks, losses, to leave this city, this life, and even at the end, it has everything I care for in its hands. He shoots me and I drop to the floor; my vision blurs, but I feel no pain yet. All I wonder right now is what will he do with my body; will it rot eternally at the bottom of a river; will he burn it like the others? Just like for a lot of other people, he holds our fates in his soft, scaly hands. Brother, I’m sorry, I was so close to leaving this and I know you did the right thing for cutting ties and working that fine job and having a normal life, but I couldn’t see what you saw and I needed to try.
One reply on “The rotting city”
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