art by Shane M. Gavin
by A. J. Barr
***Editor's Warning: There is mature language in the story that follows***
It happened with annoying regularity, often enough to make it difficult to maintain a relationship.
This time, the answer and the compulsion hit me at a particularly inopportune moment. I jumped up to dial Kowalski, pacing impatiently as his phone rang, Lydia coming into view each time I turned: supine on the bed, mouth open in shock; sitting up, knees drawn to chest, lips forming a bloodless line of anger.
"Hello?" said Kowalski's voice, sleepy thick.
"This is Holder," I said. "I have your solution."
"Huh?" I heard the yawn around the sound. "Mr. Holder, do you know what time it is?"
"As per our contract," I said crisply, "I will remind you…"
Kowalski sighed. "Right. OK, let me get my bearings. You have the solution… to employee pilferage at our shoe factories in Burma and Bangladesh?"
"Yes," I said.
"Let me get a pen," he said.
"You won't need it," I said, still pacing. "Make right shoes in Burma, make left shoes in Bangladesh."
I made the next turn in time to see two shoes fly at my head. First right, then left. They were mine; Lydia was fully dressed by then, and at the door. She slammed it hard enough to rattle all the furniture in the room. There was a lot of furniture; it was a very expensive room.
"Mr. Holder!" Kowalski's voice was clear now. "What was that? Did someone just get killed?"
"Something did," I said. The budding romance. Gone the way of all the others. "Do you want me to repeat your solution?"
"Hell no," Kowalski said. "I wrote it down. I'll frame it--after I call the bank."
"My fee will wait till the morning," I said. "I'd hate to inconvenience you more than I have to."
"It's not like I'm going back to bed," he said. "I have five hours left to kick myself for not coming up with this on my own before I have to go back to the Board and tell them to start kicking themselves. Ten words, Mr. Holder. Your fee comes to exactly ten thousand dollars a word."
"I trust you'll find my services worth the expense, Mr. Kowalski."
I heard a sigh. "They are. Till someone else learns to think sideways. Someone working for me, I hope."
"Good night, Mr. Kowalski," I said.
"Good morning, Mr. Holder," he said and hung up.
I padded to the bathroom, turned the lights on. There was a cut just sideways of my eyebrow: one of my shoes had struck true. I dabbed it with a moist towel, stuck a dry tissue on top. No big deal.
All bleeding stops. Eventually.
I love to fly. Getting there is hell--security theatre, the worst show in any town. But once I'm up there, with thirty thousand feet of variably polluted atmosphere between my buzzing brain and terra firma, the buzz… goes away.
Gone. Any question you ask, any problem you want me to solve, as long as I'm in the air, I'm free. No compulsion. Just me, the hum of the engines, and the flight attendant's baffled stare when I ask for orange soda in my cola.
An hour into Flight 063 from DFW to LAX, I got the stare. I stared it down. I got my little plastic cup of ambrosia.
"Spezi!" a woman's voice said, across the aisle and back a row.
"Mezzo Mix!" I shot back without stopping to think.
"Oh, but it's so much better when you make your own," she said.
I was already half in love before I even turned. If she'd been a zaftig sixty traveling with her grandkids, it wouldn't have mattered.
She wasn't sixty. If she was soft, it was in all the right places. Those first moments, I noticed eyes, crinkled up at the corners, and a smile--just a little bit crooked, teeth just a little bit irregular: perfect.
Her name was Marjorie. She lived in the Valley, and she was not writing a screenplay. She'd spent six years teaching English in Munich, where Spezi and Mezzo Mix and Coke-and-Orangina were a way of life.
"What do you do now?" I asked, as one does.
"I find answers," she said.
That metaphor about an electric shock running through you? Not exaggerating. I had to remind myself to breathe--and not to squeak, "Me, too!"
At my security clearance, you don't say anything you don't strictly need to say, and it's strictly on a need-to-know basis. So I breathed, and nodded, and raised an eyebrow. "That's… interesting," I said.
She laughed. She'd had me at her smile, but the laugh finished me off. "That's what everyone says! But it's true. People ask questions. I track down the answers."
"Ah," I said as the disappointment took root and started to strangle my heart. "A research assistant."
She was still smiling without the slightest hint of frost. "I suppose you could say that. I find information that people can't find, in places they never think to look."
"Such as over Kansas, cruising at 30,000 feet?"
She had a dimple. I find them, in general, too adorable to stand, but hers was, like the rest of her, perfect. "Would you think to look there?"
I didn't have an answer to that, or any compulsion to come out with one. And that felt wonderful.
"My father," said Sanford Rhee, "started the first Korean advertising flyer in California."
"Also the first business directory," added Sanford. He had a cigarette in his right hand. It was already falling to pieces, but he continued to knead it.
"And now..." I prompted.
"And now there are ten B2B directories in Korean, and he's lost his edge. He wants it back, Mr. Holder."
"You know my conditions," I said.
"Workable solution, one hundred thousand dollars," he said. "I must take your call any time of day or night. No promise when the solution will be available, only that it will be simple to implement, and effective. Payment within 24 hours of solution."
"Goodbye, Mr. Rhee," I said and stretched out my hand.
He had a strong grip.
As I left his office massaging my hand, he flung the mangled, unsmoked cigarette into a trash bin with a movement that would have thrown a respectable fastball.
She was even more adorable, if possible, on the ground than she was in the air. She loved long walks on the beach and long drives in the country. She knew how to be quiet, but she had the best laugh, and the best timing for it, that I'd ever known.
I dreamed about finding ways to get to her side of the country, answers that needed answering and clients that needed clienting.
There was only one tiny little problem.
"I'm thinking of moving out here," I said.
"Mmm-hmm," she said.
We'd met for dinner at our new favorite place, this tiny little Mexican joint off Van Nuys that had drying racks on the roof for the carne seca--the first I'd seen outside of Tucson. I'd stretched my quick business trip to two weeks and was thinking about stretching it a week more, and never mind the phone ringing off the hook. Clients demanding answers--new ones to go with the old. Business was the best it had been in a year.
Except for the part where I held up my end of the deal.
I watched her spread spoonfuls of spicy beef on a tortilla, running a line of salsa verde over it and then a dollop of crema. She rolled it up carefully and tucked the ends in. Her hair hung down, half concealing her face. I happened to know it smelled like flowers.
"Did you hear me?" I said.
"Mmm-hmm," she said.
"Is that a 'yes' noise or a 'no' noise or an 'I don't care' noise?"