Having completed NaNoWriMo ’10, I’m going to share one section of my story here every Friday until you’ve read the whole thing. Hooray for easy update days! Enjoy.
Danny razzed her all the way back into town, but Jocelyn couldn’t honestly say she didn’t deserve it. She’d been so focused on confirming Ted or Tammy as having made the recent entries into the wine cellar’s log book that she’d completely disregarded the fact that the samples, themselves, might have value.
It was just as well, really; when she rang the number Laura Bell had given her, she was connected with a run-down hotel located right in between two enormous, smog-belching factories. They informed Jocelyn that a guest named Mitchroy had been booked there for three days, but had checked out three months ago without leaving any forwarding address. A dead end, but at least she didn’t have to waste part of the day traveling to an awful part of town to learn that.
The safe in Ted’s office hadn’t had any kind of identifying marks on it; Jocelyn would have certainly made note of them if it had, and there was no indication of such in her notebook. Now that she knew where it had come from, though, she had a new avenue of inspection to persue, and she had every intention of doing exactly that.
She couldn’t help but wonder if Ted, or Officer Barrett, or Detective Clark would have made the safe connection sooner.
Jocelyn admired the sign on the 44th Street office of the Swanson & Schneider Security Company. The logo was comprised of two ornate, interlocking Ss, which gave the reassuring sensation of two links of chain. She wondered if it’d be appropriate for her own sign to have an eye-catching logo, and if so, what it should be. Danny was always saying her yellow coat and hat made her look like a duckling, but that would have been absurd; without opposable thumbs, how could a duckling have managed to keep hold of a magnifying glass?
The office was tiny, and had no reception area to speak of, simply a chest-high counter separating Jocelyn from a door leading to the back area of the office. All along the walls were safes, locks and keys of varying shapes and sizes, offering potential customers a sampling of the Swanson & Schneider home security catalog.
The door to the back was slightly open, and through it Jocelyn could see a wide array of shelves, cabinets and cubbies, all overstuffed with files, ledgers, and an endless ocean of paperwork. On the counter were an ailing plant and a small silver bell. A sign hanging over the bell informed Jocelyn she should ring it for service. The section of the counter nearest to the outside wall had hinges, allowing it to fold up and grant access to the back area of the office.
The only sounds in the office were a radio in the back room calling out a baseball game, and someone snoring very faintly. Jocelyn was frustrated; this would be the perfect opportunity to do some uninterrupted snooping, so Jocelyn began examining some of the sample wall safes. She was trying to determine which of them might be the model sitting in the center of Ted’s office. The models on the wall weren’t actually safes, however, just safe doors, and since Ted’s safe was laying face down and impossible to move, Jocelyn still had no idea what that particular door looked like.
She rang the bell. The snoring was immediately replaced by the startled noises of someone flailing themselves awake in the next room, followed by crumpling paper and that same someone clearing his throat. After twenty seconds or so an absolutely enormous man squeezed his way through the door and stood behind the counter. His hair, what little of it there was, was puffed up humorously in the back. His eyes were drooped and had just been rubbed bloodshot. His shirt was partially untucked and had a rather noticeable ketchup stain on the front, but at least was buttoned all the way up.
All in all, Jocelyn had to say this man was the most unflinchingly round individual she had ever beheld.
“Can I help you?” asked the man sleepily.
“I’m interested in floor safe installation,” Jocelyn said. “I’m thinking about having one put in my office. What, exactly, does that entail?”
“That’s a new model, the Fortress A-12,” the round man explained. “It’s absolutely impossible to crack. It’s the picklenel of modern security design.”
“You mean the pinnacle,” Jocelyn corrected.
“That’s what I said.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
“I said ‘picklenel’ again, didn’t I?”
“You did, yes.”
The round man groaned, balled his fists angrily “Aw, shucks,” he swore, “listen, lady, do you mind if I start over? If I don’t get this down pat, the old man’s going to fire me, I just know it.”
It took Jocelyn a moment to be sure she’d heard the round man’s strange request correctly. “Um, sure. Go ahead.”
The round man clapped his hands together enthusiastically, straightened his posture somewhat, and then cleared his throat and began his sales pitch from the beginning. “The Fortress A-12 is a new model. It’s absolutely impossible to crack. It’s the pin-uh-cle of modern security design.”
Jocelyn smiled and nodded once to indicate he’d gotten the word right that time.
“So we send the boys out, and they hollow out a spot under your floor for the safe to slide into,” continued the round man. He was using hand gestures to help to better convey the process, but if there was a correlation between the process he was talking about and the motions his hands were making Jocelyn wasn’t able to see it. “They can conceal the safe either with a hinged door in your floorboards, or a slide-a-way panel. The slide-a-way is a little more expensive, but we do recommend it because it’s harder to detect. If you put a throw rug or a piece of furniture overtop the panel, it’s rendered completely indivisible.”
“So when the panel slides open, it divides in half?”
“What? No. It kind of… you know, all one piece. Like on a train.” The round man held up both hands, and slid one behind the other. “I just meant if you put a rug on top of it, you couldn’t see it.”
Jocelyn still wasn’t sure she understood. “But you said that – oh! Never mind, no, I get it.”
“Jiminy Christmas, what’d I say this time?”
“Nothing. Please go on. You’re doing a wonderful job.”
The round man adopted a suspicious glare, but decided to press on anyway. “We can also install a traditional lock on the panel itself, which provides an extra layer of security, but is a little harder to conceal. Makes a little bump in the rug.”
Jocelyn began showing interest in the sample safes hanging on the walls around the office. “Now, which of these is the A-12?”
The round man removed his cap and scratched his head. “The A-12? Now let’s see…” He walked to the corner of the room where a particularly large metal door was on display. From there, he side-stepped several paces back towards Jocelyn. She could hear him counting softly to himself. When he stopped, he was standing in front of a small metal door with a large, black dial in the center. He turned around triumphantly. “A-12. That’s this one here,” he said. It was another moment or two before he realized he was still standing in the way, blocking Jocelyn’s view, so he took another quick, nervous step to his right.
“Like I said, the A-12 is easy to conceal and 100% intrepenable. We guarantee it!”
Jocelyn quickly deciphered the meaning of the word “intrepenable”, but even so she wasn’t as interested in the safe’s strength as its size. “It’s smallish,” she said.
“I assure you, ma’am, the A-12 has room enough for your jewelry, and that of all the other ladies in your household. Why, the queen herself could fit her whole collection inside.”
“Which queen?” asked Jocelyn.
The round man scratched his head again. “Gee,” he said, “I don’t know. Nobody’s asked that before.”
“Because I imagine different queens have different amounts of jewels,” Jocelyn pointed out.
“I’d have to ask the old man,” admitted the round man.
“No, it’s okay. I don’t have as many jewels as a queen, anyway.” In point of fact, Jocelyn didn’t even have as many jewels as a Labrador retriever. “Let’s just say I want to lock up something larger. Much larger. Say I want to lock up a chair.”
“A chair?” asked the round man quizzically. “Why would you do a thing like that?”
“I don’t want to. It’s just an example.”
“Look lady, I’m not trying to be difficult or anything. I just don’t see why you’d lock up a chair.”
Abstract concepts were clearly beyond the poor man’s faculties, so Jocelyn switched gears. She pointed to the largest display in the room, an enormous iron door with hinges the size of Jocelyn’s fist. If one of the displays were Ted’s safe, it surely must have been that one. “That one there,” she said, “what if I want a floor safe of that size?”
“Gee whiz, I don’t know about that,” said the round man sheepishly. “Really, we’re supposed to stick with the A-12s.”
“That’s too bad,” said Jocelyn. She crossed her arms and tried to sound slighty accusatory. “A good friend of mine had one installed recently, and he said it was big enough that he could curl up inside it and take a nap.” Twist the knife, she heard Danny say.
The round man had started to sweat a little more profusely than he had been. “Are you sure it’s one of ours? The old man never sells floor safes except for the A-12. Something to do with… er… building codes, fire regulations, all that jazz.”
“You know, now that I think about it, maybe he did use another company. I’m so sorry to have bothered you, really.” Jocelyn made to leave, but the round man stopped her before she reached the door.
“Wait!” he called out. “Maybe the old man made a special exception, or something, you know? Or maybe I just got it mixed up. I could check our sales records. What did you say your friend’s name was?”
“Oh, golly, that sure would be helpful. His name’s Holdren, first name Ted. You’re such a doll.”
The round man smiled broadly and squeezed back into the back room, where Jocelyn could see him rummaging through some filing cabinets. Though she did an excellent job hiding it, Jocelyn was beaming inside about how she was able to manipulate this poor sap into doing her legwork for her, and making him believe it was his own idea to boot. Later, she would look back on this exchange and tell herself she should have batted her eyelashes at him.
The round man was gone for less than a minute. When he returned he was holding a piece of paper, and studying it quite intently. “This is strange,” he said. “It looks like your friend was supposed to have the inscreductable A-12 floor safe installed, but he called and canceled the order the day it was supposed to be installed. That was… huh… just two days ago.”
“Rats,” said Jocelyn, doing her very best to seem disappointed. “I guess he went with someone else after all.”
The round man stammered something about selling Jocelyn a wall safe instead, but he was so frazzled by suddenly losing his sale that he wasn’t able to find his bearings. Jocelyn felt bad for him, but not so bad that she felt it necessary to spend a sum of money she didn’t have on a safe she had no use for. She thanked the round man politely and turned to leave; at least he would be able to get back to his nap.
Just as Jocelyn was reaching for the knob, though, the front door of Swanson & Schneider Security Company burst open, and in stormed a man who, at first glance, Jocelyn mistook as being on fire on account of his head being entirely wreathed in bright orange hair. If his hair or his beard had ever seen a comb it must have immediately died of fright. He was small, only about Jocelyn’s height, but somewhat stocky, and he very nearly bowled Jocelyn over as he stomped across the office lobby.
At first Jocelyn thought the red-bearded man was a customer, but looking back at the round man instantly disavowed her of that notion. The look on his face told her he couldn’t decide whether to curl into a ball on the floor or burst straight into tears. Instead, he simply looked on in terror as the red-bearded man violently flung open hinged section of the counter and made for the back room.
The round man took a step back in order to give his red-bearded boss a wide berth, and it very well might have worked if something hadn’t caught his attention as he went by. The face behind the beard went through stages of disbelief, disgust, disappointment and outright fury so quickly that Jocelyn wondered if she missed one or two more by blinking in between.
“Billy,” said the red-bearded man, “bend down here.”
The round man did as he was told, but in a way that suggested he would rather not have, if he’d had any say in the matter. He stood a full head-and-a-half taller than the red-bearded man, so he had to stoop quite a bit, and he closed his eyes in dejected anticipation as he did so. As soon as the round man’s cap was within the red-bearded man’s grasp the latter’s hand darted out, snatched it off and used it to swat the former on the side of the face.
The red-beareded man pointed angrily at the stain on the round man’s shirt. “Billy, what’s that?”
“What’s what, boss?” replied the round man, still wincing from the swat he’d received.
“That. On your shirt, genius. Is that ketchup?”
As the round man looked down at the red glob on his shirt he looked positively mortified. “I had a bologna sandwich for lunch, boss,” he explained.
“What, just the one? You’re supposed to eat it, not wear it, fatso. What’s this here?” The red-bearded man plucked the paper from the round man’s hand, and spent a few moments skimming along it with his finger. “What’s this for?”
“That’s that canceled order from a few days ago. The detective guy, at 8th and Abernackle. That yellow lady over there was asking about it.”
The red-bearded boss looked over and noticed Jocelyn for the first time. She couldn’t decide in time whether to wave or do a little curtsey, so she did neither. The red-bearded boss looked back to the round man. “What, and you up and told her? Lah-dee-dah, just like that?”
The round man shrugged. “Sure, boss. What’s the harm?”
That earned him another swat. “The harm? You good-for-nothing lug, the harm is that we’re in the security business! What kind of security business are we if we hand out sensitive information to every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes waltzing through the door?”
“But boss! She’s not a Tom or a Dick or a Harry! And I almost sold her an A-12, boss, honest I did!”
Jocelyn had no idea what a swat was worth, but if they had any value this poor fellow would have been able to retire before too long. “You got bologna in your head, that’s the problem,” scolded the red-bearded boss. “What my daughter sees in you, I’ll never know. I oughtta disown the both of you and save me a world of grief. Haul yourself out of my sight, will ya? I’ll deal with you later.”
The round man delighted at the opportunity to leave the general vicinity, but didn’t scramble through the door quickly enough to avoid being called an “ignoramus” or getting a boot to his backside.
Once the round man’s girth had fully disappeared from view, the red-bearded boss turned his attention to Jocelyn. “Something I can help you with, Miss?”
Jocelyn could have fled, then and there, knowing something she hadn’t known before coming here. Instead, she decided to live dangerously. “You must be Mr. Swanson,” she declared.
“Yeah, that’s right. Mickey Swanson. I run the joint. Mind telling me why you’re in here asking about my other customers?”
Just like that, Jocelyn found herself back in the familiar position of being on the defensive. She tried to deflect the question and change the subject: “Actually, I was asking about your new floor safes. I was wondering if you had any larger models than—“
“Cut the malarkey, lady. What’s your name, eh?”
Jocelyn thought it would be smart to give Mr. Swanson a fake name. Unfortunately, she thought that several seconds after she heard her own voice say, “Jocelyn Beauregard.”
“Beauregard, huh? What are you, this mug’s girlfriend?”
Jocelyn was taken aback by the presumption. “Certainly not,” she replied. “I’m his… ah… business associate.”
“Well if you see this bum, you tell him I’m lookin’ for him. He orders a custom safe for his office, then cancels after the falutin’ thing is already constructed. He’s gonna pay up, like it or not, and the courts will back me up on it. See if they don’t.”
“Golly,” said Jocelyn, “I wasn’t aware of any of this.”
“’Course you weren’t, sweetheart. You probably also aren’t aware that no operator in town can connect me to his office, or how the place is constantly swarming with cops. I don’t know what kind of hot water that bozo’s gotten himself into, but you tell him if he ever smooths it all over, and even if he don’t, he’s still got Mickey Swanson to deal with. That clear?”
Jocelyn nodded warily. She was beginning to see why Mr. Swanson’s employees feared him so much.
“Good. Now if you’re not gonna buy a safe, you can just scat. I gotta to beat the sense back into my little girl’s hippopotamus back there.”
Jocelyn rarely felt relief the same way she felt it upon stepping onto the street outside of Swanson & Schneider Security Company. It was the second time this week she’d stepped out of a building wherein she’d felt like she’s been suffocating. She decided to walk back to Ted’s office; the fresh air would do her good.