by Sean Garcia  /  fiction  /  1 Jul 2007
I paid the men and shut the door. Dealing with swine to earn a living doesn't put me at ease in their company. Along with the chair, the moving men left a scent like the street where I lived, one I didn't want to stick around. My executive chair cost an arm and a leg, or would another guy's anyway, and already the new leather smell was being replaced by body odor. Nothing reeks as bad as work.
I try not to. Take my job. I'm always being bugged: at two o'clock, I was getting ready to take a nap on the softest veal chop known to man when the phone rang. I thought about not answering, but then they'd just send someone in the flesh. I took the call standing up.
"Am I speaking to Nixon Arguile?" a voice said.
"Depends," I said. "Are you cuckolded, blackmailed, or just plain perverted?"
"None of those," said the voice.
"Then why are you calling?"
A pause, long enough to mean business.
"I need you to find a friend."
"I don't do missing people," I said.
"They said you were precisely the man for this job."
"When I see Mr. Arguile, I'll let him know."
"Who are you?"
"For less than twenty thousand, I'm his secretary."
"Then tell him twenty want his ear."
"At that rate, I'm his personal assistant," I said, "And I take home half."
"So double it." Money is no object to my clients, whatever else they care about.
"Now we're talking."
"I'm sending the information over now."
"They told you how this works?"
"Yes," the voice said, "They did."
My belly started rumbling. The bastard won't quit: there are days I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, but it never leaves me alone. If not for the fact that I wouldn't be able to eat afterward, I'd have my stomach stapled shut.
"There are two things nobody wants to see made," said the voice. "Laws—"
I hung up. Turning to my computer I punched in my access code. A name popped up on screen: it was all I'd been given. Robert would be earning his wages on this one. After dashing off a message to a hacker in Budapest looking for employment, and another telling Robert to meet me for lunch, I left.
Downstairs, a man I'd never seen before held the door open for me.
"So they finally got rid of Raol," I said.
"Pardon me, sir?" he said, pretending not to understand.
Pretending not to hear him, I went out. The sidewalks were packed with bodies like live sardines, flopping about and bumping into each other trying to avoid contact. People mumbled apologies to those hit, and swerved to keep from being hit themselves. Most shuffled along head down, glancing up at expensive things in windows and back at their shoes. Poor bastards.
I cut straight through the middle, staring ahead of instead of at whoever happened to be in front of me. It's the only way I've found to walk in a city without getting trampled. And it works: nobody touched me, much less bumped me. I made six blocks without stopping and would have gone the whole way if I hadn't almost lost my appetite on the spot.
There was a hot dog vendor on the corner. Streetmen look like what they sell the way pets resemble their masters and these vendors are all the same, like hot dogs, pink plump and sweaty. Most are sour, but this dude thought his cheap work pretty sweet: his eyes practically watered as he spread relish. Taking his customers' crumpled small bills, he handed them back change and grinned and chatted up the crowd standing around openly stuffing their faces. When he told a joke, everyone laughed and the food in their mouths was plain to see. After they finished, the people wiped their chins with the backs of their hands and tossed coins into an aluminum jar on the counter and went away.
I shouted down a taxi.
"Where to?" the driver asked as I got in. He could have been one of the moving men.
"Menard's," I said.
"Fancy place, huh?" he said. "I hear they don't even put prices on the menu."
"You know what they say," I said. "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."
"Buddy of mine tried going there once; guy at the front wouldn't let him in. You got reservations?"
"No," I said. Not that I needed any. I'd eaten at seventeen different restaurants in seventeen different cities. My name, how often I'd dined and when, with whom and why and what I ordered, were all logged in the system network. They never forget who's paying.
The cabbie chortled and spat.
"Good luck, pal," he said. "Type of guys eat there drop ten grand on ashtrays, fifty on toilet seats, know what I mean? Mattresses stuffed with cash."
"Must be a comfortable chair," I said.
"My ass ain't worth that much," he said. "Watch what you're doing!" he shouted, and threw his middle finger out the window. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Guy almost hit me. Anyway, what I wanna know is what makes it so expensive. It's just food, for fuck's sake. You're hungry; you eat; you don't think about it."
"Ever try sterlet caviar?"
"Too rich for my blood."
"After you taste it there's no going back," I said. "How much do you make?"
The driver chewed an imaginary piece of fat between his teeth, squinting and scrunching his nose like a pig.
"Depends," he said. "But I'd say, on average, fifteen an hour. The money's not bad."
"I'll say. You're not worth more than five. Stop right here."
The cab stopped on a dime.
"What do I owe you?" I said.
"You son of a bitch," he said.
"What do I owe you?"
He glared at the meter.
I threw ten on the armrest and got out. He yelled something at me as I slammed the door and zoomed off, tires squealing. I walked the last block to Menard's. A waiter at the front desk greeted me as I came in. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him. Probably transferred from another location.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Nixon," he said.
Or not. They didn't make those kinds of mistakes.
"Arguile," I said.
"Pardon me, sir?"
"Nevermind," I said. "Robert Fischer in yet?"
"No one by that name works here," he said.
"He works for me," I said, "I'm meeting him. Guy about six three, lanky, dark hair, disheveled, smells like pussy. Can't miss him."
"I haven't seen anyone matching that description."
"When you do," I said, "Bring him to me."
He nodded. "Right this way," he said, and held out his arm with a ridiculous flourish.
The last time I saw Robert, he asked for a leave of absence. Needed to get out of town a while, to think, he said. I offered him five grand to blow in a bordello and clear his head. He took the money. Five large to retain Robert's services was getting off cheap. Failed piss tests in college, unauthorized porkpies, predilections for children: Robert sniffed them out like truffles, and the fruit of his labors put food on my table.
Thinking landed me on a counter facing the open kitchen before I knew where I was being led.
"What the hell?"
"These are the best seats in the house," he said. "From here, our guests can see exactly how their meals are prepared. Our chefs are willing to answer questions, and even modify dishes while cooking. I imagine you would appreciate that, Mr. Nixon."
I don't like to watch. My clients are another matter. "I want that table," I said, and pointed to one against the far corner.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's been reserved."
"I'm sorry, I'm not permitted to give out that information."
"Look up Nixon Arguile in your computer," I said. "I'll bet your job it's his. I know, because I'm Nixon fucking Arguile."
He tried to repress a chuckle. "Pardon me, sir," he said.
This time he laughed outright. I sat myself while he pulled himself together; it took a full minute for him to reach me and hand me a menu.
"What's your name?" I asked him.
"John," he said, still smiling.
"Send your boss over, John," I said. "I'm asking him to give you a raise."
He disappeared. Eventually another waiter hurried over, holding a glass and a pitcher full of red liquid.
"Where's the manager?" I said.
"Taking orders in the back office," he said. "Shall I ask him to stop by when he's free?"
"Tell him Nixon Arguile wants a minute," I said. "Any specials off the menu?"
"We have several items," he said. "First is macadamia crusted foie gras wrapped in prosciutto. The geese hail from Hudson Valley, one of only two places in this country suitable for farming. I highly recommend it. Did you know a law has been proposed to make the dish illegal?"
"Go on," I said.
"Some call it cruelty."
"I meant with the specials."
"My mistake. Next is a chilled four tomato soup over raspberry sorbet. Most people think of tomato soup hot, but it is a dish best served cold. The practice, I believe, originated in Russia under Ivan the Fourth."
"Is any tongue being offered?"
"I can inquire with the kitchen."
"Yours will be fine," I said. I had to prompt the waiter to continue after that.
"For frequent guests," he said finally, "We have quite a surprise: our famous duck salad."
"Sold," I said. "I'll take the duck and the foie gras, nix the ham. You can eat that."
"That's very kind of you, but I'm a vegetarian."
He walked away without pouring my drink. There was no water on the table either; I'd have someone's head on a platter when I saw the manager. I filled the glass myself and took a swig. It'd been a while since I'd had good sangria. Picked up a taste for the stuff in Spain. Best place in the world to work: all they care about there is food and sex.
They must have known I was coming. The foie gras arrived right on cue, five times the normal size. It tasted like no goose liver I'd ever had; however the birds were fed was fine by me. I wolfed the whole thing down in under a minute. The plate was cleared and a portly guy in a three piece suit approached my table. Judging from his proud silver moustache and the way his eyes surveyed the restaurant, ticking off places like items on a list, he was the manager.
"Enjoying your meal this afternoon, Mr. Arguile?"
At least he got my name right.
"Better than the service," I said.
"How may I be of assistance?"
"I want you to fire John. Little bugger took me to the wrong table, thought I was someone else, and took his sweet time seating me."
"This happened just now?"
"Worst experience I've ever had," I said.
The manager stroked his moustache. His brow furrowed, and he looked genuinely confused, as though it were impossible such a thing could have happened. Here was a man who knew his craft.
"As of today, John no longer works for us," he said.
"In that case, I'll be back. The sangria is excellent," I said. "What's the secret?"
"You'll have to ask whoever gave it to you," he said. "We don't sell sangria here."
"My waiter did."
The puzzled look returned. He was good. The manager's eyes darted off in search of my waiter, who came running without even having to look up.
"Where did you get this?" the manager said.
"A guest came in and asked if I would decant his drink," the waiter said. "I let him know we charge a corkage fee of twenty dollars for all spirits not purchased in house. He gave me a hundred dollar bill and told me to send the contents to the gentleman at the far corner table. No one was seated there at the time, but he insisted. I went to the cellar to comply with his request, and when I returned he was gone."
"You left the front door?" the manager asked.
"I had to find a decanter."
"He left you eighty dollars?" I said.
The waiter nodded.
"What did he look like?" I said.
"I can't remember," the waiter said.
"Eighty bucks to pour a drink and you don't remember?"
"You won't be in business very long," I said.
"You left the front door?" the manager said again.
"Yes," the waiter said.
"Did you ask another waiter to take your place while you were gone, or just leave the door unattended with nobody there to greet guests or seat them?"
The waiter said nothing.
"First or second?" the manager said.
"Don't get off base with me."
"Second," the waiter said. "But only for a minute."
"That's all," the manager said. "Go check on Mr. Arguile's order." He turned to me and shook his head. "I'm sorry you had to see that, sir," he said. "Your salad will be ready shortly."
Thirty minutes was too long to be kept waiting. Six months, and the day I invited him to lunch was the one Robert picked to be late. My belly was gnawing at me like a paper shredder. They must have heard it: no sooner did the thought cross my mind than a covered silver tray was set before me. Quickly, the waiter removed the lid and took a step back.
"Enjoy," he mumbled.
Robert will turn up, I thought, and grabbed a fork.
Something tasted funny, and not at all like duck. My belly figured out what it was before I did; I got nauseous and was sick all over the white tablecloth. Once the gagging stopped, I stood up and wiped my mouth with a napkin. The manager was already next to me, stroking his moustache and examining the plate, flicking his eyes over its contents: butter lettuce, endives, spring greens, sauteed shallots, cashews, goat cheese—and sausages.
"Are you all right, Mr. Arguile? I'll have this mess cleared up immediately, and the responsible party will find himself unemployed. We're buying your lunch today, of course. Let me replace your tablecloth. Would you like to sit down?"
"I've lost my appetite," I said.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Call me a cab. Nevermind; I can manage," I said, and saw myself out. There was no point in staying. Robert wasn't going to show.
Outside the street was a corpse. The lunchbreak crowd had returned to the office; the vendors had folded up their wagons and carted them off; even the cabbies were elsewhere. I couldn't catch one to save my life, so I walked. By the time I got back, I found I'd broken a pretty heavy sweat. No one was on duty in my building. They had to eat too, sooner or later.
My executive chair was calling me. I fell back into it planning to sleep for a few hours like the dead, and heard a knock. I didn't feel like answering, but they wouldn't stop.
"Come in," I said finally, "It isn't locked." I'd be damned if I got up.
The doorman came in and handed me a manila envelope.
"They told me to give you this, and to tell you there hasn't been a mistake. The extra twenty thousand is for Robert."
"Thanks, John," I said. I took a bill out of the package. "Here."
"Not necessary, Mr. Nixon," he said. "They pay me well enough."
And he left me with my hand out, still holding the money. Not that I needed it. This new-age private dick gig brings home some serious bacon. Only trouble is, good help is hard to find. I decided to book a flight to Hungary after my nap and offer Eumaeus a job.
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