By Michael Guillebeau
Everything can be blamed on money, hangovers, or sex. Figure out which one, and you’ll know what to do to make it go away. I glared at the black phone clanging in front of me like a five-alarm fire bell and tried to find something to blame to make it go away.
Sex. Since sex with Arnie in the back room would be as appealing as sex with a toad, but without the toad’s long tongue, that left the other two.
The phone clanged louder and I looked around my broom-closet-sized office for an excuse not to answer. A three-legged desk facing a dirty window, hiding behind stacks of rat poison, ant poison and skunk traps so rusty they had a bad habit of snapping on their own just as I settled into my nap. I couldn’t afford to ignore the phone because of money.
That left hangover. Yeah. Now I knew how to approach the problem.
I snatched up the phone and screamed “Shut the hell up” only I didn’t say “hell” and I barely heard myself over the pounding in my head. As I was slamming the phone down, it said, “I like you.”
My headache eased and I brought the phone back up and tried my grown-up voice. “Humane Trapping and Safe Removal Pest Service.”
“I got a pest. From your attitude, you might be able to handle him.”
Maybe the trouble here was money. “We can handle any pest, sir. What species? The price depends on the species.”
I took a deep breath. “Can you repeat that? I can’t hear you over the pounding in my head—I mean, it’s a noisy office. With all of our highly professional staff working high profile cases.”
“Human,” the phone said. “Like it says on your truck.”
“No…sir. That’s ‘humane’”
“Pronounce it any fancy way you want, but come get him. He’s name’s Steve Pescito, and I want him gone. Name your price.”
The voice didn’t sound like a kid with a joke but I ain’t a kid, either.
“Ten grand,” I said to put an end to this. I started to slam the phone down.
“Cheap,” said the phone.
I put the phone back to my ear to tell the joker where to go but the voice said, “I’ll send a messenger over with cash and the details.”
Then the bastard hung up on me while I was trying to find the right swear word. Some people are just rude.
“Arnie,” I yelled at the closed plywood door behind me.
“Put down Miss Hiroshima and come here.”
There was a muttered curse, a hiss of air, and the door cracked open. I could see Arnie had his shirt off. Behind him was a black-haired naked vinyl woman with her head bobbing down obscenely as the air drained out of her.
“I’m the boss. You come here.”
I told him what he was and told him to put his shirt on and come here and he said he couldn’t hear me. I whispered, “Fine. If you want to turn down ten grand…”
He stuck his big head out the opening.
“Why am I listening?” The hope in his eyes faded to his usual disappointed and dejected scowl. “You ain’t got two cents.”
“I don’t, thanks to my last two paychecks bouncing. But the guy who just called said he had ten thousand for a disposal.”
He looked like a big, hungry rat, his head poking a few inches out of his rat hole, eyeing the big piece of cheese but twitching as he looked for the even bigger trap.
“Jesus. I’d remove my grandmother for ten grand.”
“Your grandmother named Steve?”
I told him about the call.
Quoting one of his few heroes, Arnie said, “We could do that, but it would be wrong.”
He repeated, “We could do that…”
Then he sighed. “We can’t do that. Got to be a setup. Call him back and say no.”
“He didn’t leave a number. Or a name.”
Arnie thought about it and made that noise he makes when all of the hope drains out of him like the air from his bride.
“Got to be a joke. Don’t disturb me again. I’m working on Accounts Receivable.”
“Tell Miss Receivable I ain’t patching her Japanese vinyl hide again. At least not until I get paid.”
“She’s night security. I put her in a chair by the window with a blue shirt and a hat. We got to keep her inflated.”
“Sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do, again. No. And if you keep making those noises, I’m going out.”
He ducked back inside and I went back to thumbing through an old magazine until the noises started. I took the magazine and went around the corner to my sister’s nail salon for a new magazine and some old-fashioned peace and quiet. When I got back, there was a fat Manilla envelope on top of the unpaid bills on my desk.
I squeezed past the traps and looked at it without touching it. Picked up a ruler and poked it like I expected a rat to come out. Nothing. I opened the flap and peeked inside at a jumble of wadded-up bills shoved in like used Kleenex. One of them had Ben Franklin’s picture on it. I poked in with the ruler and pulled out more Franklins and Grants. There were a few lonely Jacksons cowering like poor relatives at a marriage of cousins.
A veritable presidents’ club, except for poor ole Ben. You gotta wonder why he never got to be president. You would think a slogan like, “Vote for me, I’m on the hundred-dollar bill” would have been enough.
Maybe he was afflicted by hangovers, too.
There was a piece of plain white paper. I drug it out with the ruler. It had a name, Steve Pescito, and the words Smilin’ Parrot Bar underneath, all in block letters.
I was looking into the envelope wondering how much to take before telling Arnie when the door behind me opened and Arnie’s head poked out again, this time red-faced and sweaty.
“I need the patch kit again,” he said. Then he saw the envelope. He stepped out (dressed, thank God) when he saw something green hanging out of the envelope. He bent down, peered into the envelope, and looked back at me. He picked up the envelope.
He took the envelope back into his office. I followed him and saluted my half-deflated naked co-worker on the ratty couch. He dumped the envelope on his desk. Green bills fluttered down like dirty snow on the desk and floor. I looked at it. So much money you could put it in your pocket and have some left at the end of the day. Or month, even.
I was breathing hard. Arnie looked up at me from the money. His eyes gleamed.
“Are you as turned on as I am?”
Later, I turned to Miss Receivable and said, “Well, he was better than a toad.”
Her head nodded with a hiss of escaping air and I took that as agreement. Sisterhood is powerful.
I brought the note in and put it on top of the now-sweaty money on his desk.
“Put your pants on so I don’t have to look at that, and then you look at this note.”
He blessedly pulled up his pants and turned the note over to the blank side.
“This is all either of us saw,” he said. “We never saw the other side.” He started shoving bills into his pocket. He objected when I started grabbing my own money, but me and Miss Receivable outvoted him.
Arnie may be dumb but I’m not. About the time I’d filled my pants, I looked back at him and said, “We can’t do this.”
His face fell, but he didn’t turn loose of the money or whatever it was he was holding in his pants. Just kind of whimpered, and I hoped it was money he was sad to turn loose of.
“We can’t do this,” I repeated. “We have to find the guy who sent the money and give it back to him.”
More whimpering, then he brightened. He stood up straight with as much dignity as a man can have with his pants unzipped.
“That would be wrong. We’re a business.” Big smile. “See, business ethics are different from people ethics. People ethics, you do the right thing. Business ethics, you protect the shareholders—which is us, or me—and the customer. We have a sacred obligation to fulfill our contract.”
“You think you’re so smart, but you’re just slimy.”
He beamed at the compliment. I was about to say something when the door opened behind me. I turned and saw a bundle of twigs and leaves walk in, propelled by two short human legs. And preceded by the odor of a true hunter who refused to shower. Wild Bill. There was no animal that he hadn’t successfully trapped and relocated for us. No questions asked, by him or us.
Until now. “What’s that?” He pointed at the paper in Arnie’s hands. Not the money sticking out of our pants, but the paper.
Arnie smiled and held out the paper. “Your next assignment.”
“What is it?” Wild Bill said.
“We don’t know,” we said in unison.
Wild Bill brushed back a cedar branch from his leaves and squinted at the paper and I started to tell him I had nothing to do with this, despite the federal-green adult diaper I was wearing at the moment.
He dropped the branch and said, “This’ll cost extra.”
Arnie beamed at me. “See, I told you. Easy.”
He reached into his pants and pulled out a handful of bills and shoved them at Wild Bill. Anyone but Wild Bill would have been squeamish in more ways than one. He shoved the bills past a pine branch and said, “Tomorrow,” turned and walked out the door leaving a pine cone and God-knows-how-many ticks behind on the floor.
I let Arnie talk me into going home with him to celebrate and, if I’m being honest, see if his toad factor improved with practice.
It didn’t. I guess, since I’m being honest, I should say that I’ve never actually had sex with a toad. But I do know slime.
In the morning, I said, “I quit, Arnie. I’m not going to jail for my share of ten thousand dollars.” I started throwing my pile of money at him and noticed that part of it had crept away while I slept.
“No one’s going to jail.” He was catching money and shoving it under his pillow where, presumably, I wouldn’t find it. Men are so dumb. “Look, we pay Wild Bill a lot of money to capture animals and relocate them to a happy home in the woods somewhere. That’s all that’s going to happen.”
I rolled my eyes. “Think about that. Even if you’re right, and Wild Bill takes the guy way out in the woods, the guy’s just going to walk out and call the police. He’s not a raccoon, you know. We’re the one’s going to the big trap with iron bars downtown. We got to find the guy that hired us, give him his money back, and call off Wild Bill.”
“We don’t even know the guy who hired us.”
“We know the bar where the victim works at. We can go there, warn him, and find out who put the hit on him.”
He gave a long sigh, kind of like Miss Receivable, and said, “This isn’t going to end well.”
I put my hand on my hip. “As long as it ends.”
I had the money—most of it, well, some of it—in an unmarked paper bag when we pulled up to the Smilin’ Parrot Bar in the truck with “Humane Trapping and Safe Removal” stenciled on the side. Inside, we found two old men who looked like plaster garden trolls balanced on bar stools.
The red troll laughed at us. “Anything you want’s free today.” He pointed to a man in an apron asleep behind the bar. The blue troll leaned across the bar and topped his beer off.
I said, “We’re looking for—”
“Shh,” said Red. “Keep your voice down.”
Blue laughed. “Don’t worry. Nothing wakes Steve. He sleeps all the time. Why we come in here. Why the boss hates him.”
“Steve?” said Arnie.
“Steve Pesca-something. Only employee the owner can afford. Brother-in-law. Owner’s wife won’t let him fire Steve. Owner bitches all the time.”
“But if the owner’s not here, free beer.” They laughed, clinked glasses and then motioned for each other to keep quiet.
“Where’s the owner now?” I said.
“Not here,” said Red. “Should be here by now. Never goes anywhere but here and home. His wife called a little while ago, wanted to know where he was. Said he didn’t come home last night. Said to tell him to stay wherever he was and not come home. Said she was going to kill him if she saw him. I told her she’d have to stand in line. Everybody hates him.”
I looked at Arnie and was about to say something, but the door opened and the place was filled with a familiar aroma. I turned and saw Wild Bill in the door. He burped and I noticed his big belly was even bigger than usual, and covered with grease.
He waddled over and sat down next to me. Lucky me. As Wild Bill leaned over to draw himself a beer, Arnie hissed in his ear, “Good thing we got here in time to call you off. That’s Steve there.”
Wild Bill leaned back and poured the beer past a couple of leaves where his face might have been. “That’s not Steve.”
The trolls corrected him.
“Then who was the fat guy, bald head, only guy in the place last night?”
Blue troll said, “The owner, probably cleaning up one of Steve’s messes.”
The brush pile turned to Arnie. “Ain’t my fault.”
“What have you done?”
“Did the job you told me to do. Came in last night, picked up the guy that was here and took him to the woods. You never told me what he looked like. All rats look alike to the rat catcher. Your fault.”
Arnie was red, trying to lean past me and whisper when he wanted to shout. “You took the owner out to the woods? What the hell you think’s going to happen after he gets back from your wildlife preserve?”
Bill leaned back and patted his stomach.
“That ain’t the way I work. Momma always told me: waste not, want not. If your job give you good eating like free racoons and squirrels, take it. Much better than just letting those animals loose in the woods where they might get hurt. Once you learn to like the taste of skunk, you can eat anything.”
“Anything?” I said.
“Anything.” He smiled. “If you want to be cool, you got to run on any, any fuel. Besides, there’s no evidence left this way. Good business practice: high income, no waste to clean up.”
Arnie was staring at the wall and muttering to himself. I finally stood up, grabbed his arm and pulled. “C’mon. We got to get you out of here.”
He came to life a little on the way out, back to the usual Arnie. When we got to the truck, some juvenile delinquent had painted over the “E” in “HUMANE” as a joke.
“Damned kids got no respect for American business,” I said. I pulled a tissue out of my purse and started to rub the fresh paint off. Arnie took my hand.