by Michael Guillebeau
I only took this job to get fired, and now this, Josh thought, standing there in his cute little bank teller window wearing his straight guy oxford blue shirt and the tie with the blue diamonds, both from the church thrift store, with his hands in the air. The two guys had come out of nowhere, no real memory of them walking in the front door to his left or maybe from the hall just inside that led to the manager’s offices, but there they were in white lab suits, pointing guns aimlessly around the bank lobby. The tall one was doing the talking, telling them this was a robbery, as if they needed a program for that, telling them to open their cash drawers and put their hands up. The short one reached up and pushed the video camera by the door up so that it saw only the ceiling.
They started down the long row of tellers, starting at the end away from him in the big bank. He watched them, curious about how they did it, had never seen a robbery before, at least not a big time bank robbery like this. The tall guy was doing all the talking, but looking at the short, silent one for something. There: that was it. The silent one shook his head, and the tall one skipped a teller. The silent one knew something; he’s skipping the tellers that have dye packs.He admired them for pulling this off, and he admired the details: the paper lab suits were a good touch. No one would remember anything later, just the white suits with hoods, like ghosts. Probably buy them cheap, a couple of bucks apiece at some med supply place; add a white ski mask and you can wear anything you like underneath.
Except for the shoes. That was a mistake, he thought. The tall one, the noisy one, had flashy basketball shoes, kind that would demand some respect on the street, what you’d expect from a robber. But the silent guy had a pair of black Ferragamos, rich businessman shoes, probably $200 new, but these weren’t new, not even close. The kind of guy who would buy these shoes either has money or works in a job where he has to fit in with guys with money and wouldn’t keep shoes this long. It offended Josh. Josh was a pro, in his own way, and he respected pros. You’ve got to get the details right.
The movements of the two guys were the same way: pro, but with a flaw. They looked casual, even random, but he could tell it was rehearsed. No one but him would remember that later. Pro, well done. But the body language was wrong. The tall one moved like a bank robber in a movie, all swagger and attitude, waving the gun around, yelling at anything, scary. The silent guy faded into the background, and that was good, what you wanted, but the pose was wrong. He was hunched over, slight, shuffling like a kicked dog. This wasn’t a man used to demanding other people’s money; he begged them for it every day, probably hated it, but did it to pay the rent and now he was getting his payback.
See, that was the tell, the one detail that would betray all your hard work because it was too much a part of you for you to even know it was there. Josh was a pro, knew how to stay in character. Even now, when he wanted to shake his head, grab the guys and tell them to start over, come through the doors this way not that, even now he just stood there impassively with his hands in the air. Be a pro, he thought, talking to himself and them both. Be a pro, or be burned.
Sorry guys, he thought. “A” for effort, but that’s all. He reached over, one arm quick, and took the dye pack from Kelly’s open drawer, one of the old style packs with a timer. He pressed the timer button and put it in his own drawer.
Sorry guys, he thought, I can’t let you mess this up anymore than you have. You’ve already cost me one job. I’ll have to quit tomorrow, tell them the robbery shook me up so bad I can’t come back, then start looking for the next one. I can’t let San Francisco’s finest start looking at the personnel records and asking questions, the kind of questions these companies should ask before they hire someone but never do, never do their homework because they secretly feel contempt for the little guys who really make up the companies. And that’s why he hated these companies, hated so much of the world: be a pro, treat people and your job with respect, or get out. Josh? He got out.
Maybe the next job would be easy again, like the last one. He remembered sitting in the conference room of the big environmental company, just him, the company lawyer and his boss, all in jeans and shirts from all-natural materials to show how much they respected the earth. But they didn’t, didn’t respect anything either, including him, so here they were.
“So, do you prefer Mr. Smooth Water, or Joshua?” said the lawyer, smiling, try to be his friend so it would cost the company less.
“It’s pronounced ‘Ya-wa’,” Josh said. “Joshua is just the white spelling. And Smooth Water is my formal Chippewa name, from my mother’s tribe. It should not be used by whites.” Let him know Josh wasn’t his friend, and this would cost the company more. The lawyer looked at him and thought, maybe he’s native American, maybe not. Josh had the kind of light-dark look that could be Hispanic, Middle Eastern, white, black, whatever he needed to be. In any case, the lawyer knew he couldn’t challenge him on it.
“Thank you, Joshua,” the lawyer said, pronouncing it “Ya-wa” like Josh had asked, smiling. Josh didn’t smile back, sat there with his arms crossed, like the picture of Sitting Bull he had seen, offended but impassive. “It’s my understanding that Mr. Johnson here, acting in his position as your supervisor, has terminated you from your position here at California Green Industry. He believes he had cause, you believe he did not. Is that a fair statement of the situation?”
Josh looked at him, steady, playing out the part of a proud, offended man forced to describe a painful insult. “I came to this company because it said it would help protect the land of my fathers, clean up the streams and take the white man’s poisons out of the air. In the week I have been here, I have been insulted and shamed, despite doing my best.”
“The jerk hasn’t done a lick of work since the day he came in,” said Johnson. “Just sits on that cheap blanket drinking company coffee, explaining that each day is some sacred day of some kind that won’t let him do this job or that.”
The lawyer held up his hand to Johnson, but Josh saw an opening.
“Coffee is a sacred drink to my people. It is the water of life for me, the source of all movement. We have proudly shared it with the white man.”
“I thought you people preferred something stronger,” said Johnson, and the lawyer shook his head furiously but too late. Josh’s price had gone up.
“And now this racism,” Josh said calmly. “The true source of our problem here.”
“The problem is you won’t work,” said Johnson, standing up. “The problem is I’ve got a boatload of jobs that need to be done, and you’re just dragging us down…” The lawyer held up his hand and interrupted.
“None of which you’ve documented, Mr. Johnson.” He turned to Josh, smiling again. Amazing the problems that can be solved if we all just smile. Smile, and offer money. “Joshua, I think we all have the same interests here. We all want to see that the values shared by this company and your forefathers are not damaged by a pointless, bitter, public struggle. Clearly, we no longer have a position available at this company, but clearly we want to treat you fairly. Would $2000 help you find a position more suited to your talents?”
They settled on $5000, Johnson taken out of the room still complaining. Sometimes Josh got more, sometimes less, for a week or so’s half-assed work at a company that would rather pay him off than fight publicly. A couple of companies waited him out, just letting him drone on like the rest of the company, until he had to quit and move on to a more promising situation. Once, only once, a guy who ran his own company threw him out. Josh went into the job in a wheelchair, thinking the handicapped scam would work here because the owner was handicapped and would be sympathetic. But it ended a few days later with Josh flying across the shop floor in his wheelchair, rolling the thing as fast as he could go, looking back at the owner in his own wheelchair, coming after him, red-faced, waving one of the axe handles the company made. Josh was lucky to get out alive, but he stayed in character, made it out the door and onto the street before he ditched the wheelchair.
So now Josh walked out the door of the environmental company with the check, threw the sacred blanket in the trash by the big Fred Meyer’s, and headed back to the Western World.
Mayor was behind the bar, three in the afternoon still morning in the bar, too early to have a hired bartender, not to mention that Mayor was way too cheap to pay somebody to just sit behind his own bar and watch sports reruns, which was all Mayor ever did anyway. He looked up at Josh like he was another channel on the old RCA.
“Thought I might not see you this time. Make a score, keep going someplace better. Become a citizen,” said Mayor.
Josh looked at him, sorry again to bring the disappointment to Mayor’s eyes, Mayor and the skinny girl who danced here his only real links to the world, but that was it, too: this was the only world he could really stand anymore.
“Hey, you know you’d miss me.” But Mayor just stared, not joining in the joke, not willing to keep it light and make it easier on Josh.
“I’ve got three grand,” said Josh, pulling out a stack of bills, not explaining where the other two thousand had gone. “How long will that carry me?”
Mayor looked at Josh, thought about saying no this time, shrugged. No time to get sentimental. The money clock ran slow here; most drinks were paid for with wadded-up dollar bills and change counted slow from dirty pockets. A pile of crisp hundred dollar bills was rare, except for Josh. Mayor looked at the calendar, studied it like the football coach on the TV studying his playbook.
“Let’s say the end of March. Same deal as always: sleep in the back room, sweep up at night, drink only the cheap stuff, only enough to stay drunk. Eat from the lunch buffet, though you never eat much anyway. Don’t cause trouble, though you never cause trouble. You can be everybody’s buddy, but you can’t buy them drinks ‘cause you got no money and I ain’t fronting you any.
“End of March, skinny girl and I will wake you up. Last two weeks, no booze, nothing but coffee and the buffet, sober up and go back, jack, do it again. Wheels turning round and round, find some scam or an actual job until you show up here again. Or not. Cash aside, won’t break my heart if someday you get stuck in the real world and don’t make it back here.”
“Deal,” said Josh. He shoved the stack of bills across the bar. “Let’s get started.” The mayor reached under the bar, pulled out the plastic tumbler that was Josh’s cup, pulled out the gallon jug of the cheap stuff he used to top up the expensive bottles behind the bar, no need for pretense with Josh. He filled the tumbler half full, no need for the pretense of dishing this out one shot at a time, either.
Josh picked up the glass and emptied it. He picked up the paper sack he’d brought and headed to the back.
“Think I’ll take my luggage to the Presidential Suite. I’ll join you in the Main Ballroom for happy hour after I’ve freshened up.”
“What you do back there, anyway?” said Mayor, turning back to the TV.
“I’m a writer.”
“Need any paper?”
“I don’t write anything down.”
The next thing he remembered, clearly, was Mayor and the skinny girl shaking him awake at the end of March, the coffee cup in front of him looking like a swimming pool he was supposed to drink. Mayor just looking at him like he was another mess at the bar he had to clean up, but the skinny girl was saying to Mayor: “You don’t know. I talked to a guy, knew him on the outside, he’s somebody. Used to be somebody, anyway.”
“He’s a cork in a bottle,” said Mayor. “And you’re a professional heartbreak. Don’t waste it on this one.”
And Josh remembered, less clear: the skinny girl, sometime in the middle, holding his head, saying, “Oh Josh baby, oh Josh baby. You could do it for me, Josh baby.” He couldn’t remember if the words came during one of the times she had shown him a kindness, or just one of the times when he was too drunk to get to his room without help. But she said it, he was sure, and now he wondered what to do with it.
The tall robber came to his window now and he scooped up his cash, dye pack, too, and dumped it in the bag. The robbers finished, told them all to lie down on the floor, facing away from the door. Then they were gone and the bank was silent until the police crashed in, heroes here to save the day now that the day had walked away. Now they were all milling around while the detectives asked all the wrong questions. They were each given numbers, like they were in a deli or something, waiting to be served but they were waiting their turn to be brought into the conference room to have their formal interview. His number was nine; they were on seven. He looked at the clock and knew it was running against him. Once they pulled his record, checked him out, it was over for him. He went to a detective, guy standing around drinking free bank coffee and texting on a cell phone, tried to tell him about the silent robber, the one who knew what he was doing. Josh had recognized the walk, knew it had to be the assistant manager. Let the cops nail him and get out of here before they pulled his record and talked to him. But no, the detective waved him back, take your turn, sir, follow procedure, sir, we’re not really interested in solving the crime, sir, just doing our jobs, sir.
He saw the manager leaning on one of the desks in the middle of it all, impassive, could have been watching guys mow his lawn for all the interest he showed. Josh went over to him.
“Mr. Bono, sir?” he said. The manager looked up, squinted a minute, then it came to him.
“Joe Chan?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” said Josh. “Though it’s pronounced “yow.” It’s a traditional Chinese name, taken from my honorable grandfather who first came to this country. I’m honored that you know my name, sir.”
The manager shrugged. His father, who owned the bank, above the line, and more, below the line, told him he had to know his employee’s names. Didn’t have to actually talk to them, but the old man would sometimes come to the bank and point at someone. The manager would give his father a name and the old man would leave, proud of his son’s professionalism and confident the bank was in good hands. So every week the manager memorized the faces on the new badges before they were handed out and then went back to his real job, the one he loved, the job of skimming money from the bank for political contributions to protect his father’s other businesses.
“Sir,” said Josh, polite and deferential. “I’ve tried to talk to the detectives, but they seem to be busy. I believe I have information that might be helpful.”
“So? What do you want me to do? Crash over there; tell them Charlie Chan here has solved the case, saved the day? The bank’s got insurance, son. Let it go.”
“Sir, did you notice the way the shorter robber walked? Look at the assistant manager, over there?”
The manager tried to look bored, but looked at the assistant manager at the other end of the bank and smiled. “You weasel,” he said, watching the assistant manager, talking to the assistant manager and ignoring Josh. “Good for you. Finally grew a pair and stopped begging for it.” He turned back to Josh. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Cops already said they got one witness outside the bank, saw one guy, tall guy, come out alone. Not wearing a white suit. Not carrying a bag. So they’re looking inside already. Probably got him in their sights already. I’ll go tell them for you; let you get the credit. You got good eyes.”
A detective came out of the interview room, calling out for number eight; the manager waved him over, snapping his fingers like he wanted another glass of water. Josh grabbed the manager’s sleeve and the manager shook him off.
“Sir, please leave me out of this,” said Josh. “I don’t wish to be a witness.”
The detective walked over, stood impassively waiting for orders, knew he couldn’t offend the manager. Didn’t like being ordered around, either, so he stood there, refusing to be the first to talk.
The manager talked to the detective, not taking his eyes off Josh while he did. “Just wanted to know how the investigation’s going.”
The detective shrugged, irritated. This rich jerk called him over for that, a personal status report?
“You’ll know as soon as we do, sir.” He drew “sir” out to about five syllables, and left.
“So.” The manager turned back to Josh. “You work in a bank where there’s just been a robbery, but you want to stay below the cop’s radar?”
Josh looked up, saw the detective looking for another witness now, skipping number eight and looking for Josh. Josh saw the manager looking at him and he needed a story, needed something now.
“Yes, sir. I’m really a private investigator, sir. I took this job because I need the money.”
“Got a license you can show me?”
“No, sir, I’m kind of unofficial. That’s why I’d prefer to stay anonymous.”
“Yeah, I bet. Unlicensed private detective who can’t pay the bills, and is afraid of the cops. Good luck with that. I think we’ll just let the police do their job.” He turned away, said back over his shoulder, “Good eye, just the same.”
Josh looked around, nervous, screwed now, no help. The detective is looking for him; somebody else in another room is probably pulling his application even now. He thinks about running, a calculated risk sure to draw attention but if he can get through the door, maybe even get to another city, find another bar, maybe he can start over. It’s more than he can handle, just thinking about it.
Bang. There’s an explosion in the assistant manager’s office. The texting detective, leaning in the office door, looks in and sees red paint everywhere and a hole in the ceiling. He pulls his gun but there’s no threat there, no one in the office, just an answer or the start of an answer anyway. The dye pack has gone off, finally, where the money and clothes and guns were stashed in the ceiling. The assistant manager makes a break for the door but everyone is on edge now and they wrestle him to the ground. Maybe running wasn’t such a good idea.
The investigation’s over and he’s safe now. They’ll stop bringing in witnesses, stop collecting employee records. The detectives have an easy job now, and Josh has an easy out. Stay quiet, they’ll send people home. Call in tomorrow too traumatized to come back to work. May even make some money here. He eases towards the door.
“Charlie Chan?” The manager has come up behind him. He thinks about correcting him, decides, no, get this over with fast.
“Thinking about what you said.”
Josh just stared at him politely, his feet already pointed to the door.
“You know, I could use a detective, an unlicensed detective sort of, do jobs other people can’t.”
Josh still stared, looking at the door. He needed to fail this job interview.
“What you charge?” asked the manager.
“Five hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.” There, that ought to do it. He had seen that on Mayor’s TV, thought it was absurd then and sounded even more like a joke now, coming out of his mouth. No straight citizen would pay that. But the manager just looked back like he’d told him the price of a hamburger.
“Sounds about right. Look, my brother’s got an eighteen year old daughter disappeared three days ago. Cops aren’t interested, say she probably just ran off. Plus they don’t like my brother too much. So my brother’s got a couple of his guys looking into it, but they’re bozos, plus they’re not going to tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear because they’ll get hurt cause that’s what my brother does for my dad, hurts people.
“Come up with an address for her by the end of the week, and I’ll pay your five hundred a day. Actually get my niece back home, and I’ll double it.” He handed Josh a card. “Deal with my brother’s wife; it’ll be better for you.” He started to walk away and then came back.
“Oh, you get any ideas about blowing this off, know this: you don’t get back to me, with an address, by the end of the week, I’m taking your whole fishy story to the cops.” He smiled at Josh, big chamber of commerce smile now between partners.
“Enjoy your new job. Get fired up, do a good job, they’ll be more,” he said. “Course, you don’t do a good job, we got something for that, too. Welcome to the real world.”