The taxi slows and Ray Jensen lowers his arm, sighing with relief at the exact moment the girl’s screams erupt behind him.
The first thought that pops into his head at that moment is why are people always screaming about something in this damn city? He figures it’s a side effect of stacking millions of citizens on top of one another in a city the size of a department store. But a cab…a cab is nearly impossible to catch on this side of town. Over here, yellow Crown Vic’s are like sparks from a dead lighter: here and gone in a second. And Ray’s late for his interview.
With the echo of the girl’s scream still in his ear, Ray pops the last piece of onion bagel in his mouth and checks his watch once again, reaching up absently to loosen his tie and finding instead a napkin tucked in his collar. Ray balls the paper up and throws it in the gutter as the cab stops, and he doesn’t want to look back but he does, turning and seeing the girl in the alley that runs alongside the bagel shop, her face drawn and pale, cheeks scarred with mascara. In front and behind her stand two men, tossing a red purse back and forth to each other over her head. The men cackle, flashing yellowed teeth and eyes.
Ray curses and moves to duck into the taxi, turning his head a second after the girl turns hers so that their eyes just barely meet, like strangers passing on opposite sides of a window.
“Buddy, meter’s running,” the cabbie says. “You getting in?”
Ray looks at the man then looks back again, the girl standing between the two men; junkies, he assumes by their diseased appearance. They continue to play hot potato with the girl’s purse but the game is growing listless.
“Hey, guy,” the cabbie says.
Ray edges towards the inside of the cab and the girl backs up against the wall behind her. The junkies rummage through her purse, throwing glares at her whenever she moves.
“Don’t you see this?” Ray turns and asks the driver.
The cabbie gets a better line of sight and raises a single bushy eyebrow.
“Ain’t my problem,” he says. “You getting in?”
Ray scoffs, watching one of the junkies tuck the girl’s purse into his back pocket. Their faces contort, no longer playful. The girl wears a catholic school uniform, the hem of her skirt stopping an inch below her knees, her white shirt smudged with spots of mud. Her tormenters move in slowly, clenching and unclenching their fists.
“Yo,” the driver yells.
“Yeah,” Ray says. “Yeah, sorry.”
Ray quickly climbs in and slams the door, placing his briefcase next to him and glancing over just in time to see one of the junkies grab the girl’s arm and then they’re gone, replaced by storefronts and a few oblivious pedestrians. Ray sits back, mystified.
“You don’t think we should’ve helped her?” he asks.
The cabbie glances at him in the rearview mirror.
“Buddy,” the man says. “I’m working.”
Ray stares absently at the man’s face in the mirror then smiles, a gesture that turns into a chuckle as he shakes his head and sticks a piece of gum in his mouth. The cabbie drives another block before asking Ray where he’s going. By then, Ray’s briefcase is sitting on his lap, his necktie retightened.
* * *
They sit in an office at the end of the hallway—the largest office on the Morton & Stanley Firm’s floor—and Ray waits silently as Morton takes his time eating. Morton swallows his last bite and throws a plastic bag and fork in a trashcan near the front door, pouring himself a glass of water before settling his large frame back into the office chair behind his desk, the chair whining for relief. Ray sits opposite him with his briefcase next to his leg, jiggling wildly though his face is calm. He smiles as Morton opens the folder on his desk.
“So,” Morton says in a low, cryptic voice, flipping through the papers in the folder. “Résumé’s impressive, Jensen. Real impressive. Good credentials.”
Ray thanks him and Morton begins naming off the items that please him the most. Ray keeps a smile pinned between his cheeks, nodding and raising his eyebrows occasionally, as if surprised by his own achievements. When Morton’s voice begins to drone, Ray looks away, towards his own reflection in the large window behind Morton’s head. He wonders if the junkies hurt the girl, and his smile disappears.
“Jensen,” Morton says loudly. “Eyes over here.”
Ray quickly shifts his gaze from the window to Morton’s face.
“Sorry,” he says.
“I see a lot of words that describe your background to me, Jensen,” Morton says. “A lot of paperwork but nothing substantial to back it up. No sense of character.”
Morton’s the type that likes to emphasize the words he thinks are key points, and in his eyes, emphasizing is synonymous with yelling. Morton closes the folder in front of him with a faint slap, placing his hands flat on the desk.
“Why do you think you deserve to work for Morton and Stanley?”
Ray sits with glazed eyes, staring out the window again. Morton clears his throat and Ray jumps.
“Yes, uh…” he says, his voice cracking. He coughs and shifts around in his seat. “I’m sorry. What was the question?”
Morton frowns deeply and grunts.
“I asked you, Jensen,” he says. “Why we should make you a part of our staff?”
Ray blinks rapidly for a moment then opens his eyes wide, forcing a smile back on his face.
“Well, sir,” he says, feigning thoughtfulness. “I would say that dedication is my ultimate motive in everything I do. And there’s nothing I’m more dedicated to than the legal process. I’ve worked long and hard for a chance to sit in this room and throw you a convincing argument in favor of myself, and I must admit that my… enthusiasm has got me a bit flustered. I am a Morton and Stanley man, sir, always have been.”
“Yes,” Morton says. “But why?”
Ray pauses and—for just a second—panics. He can’t remember what he’s meant to say, the speech he prepared and practiced for weeks. Morton’s face is stoic, expectant, and Ray swallows, takes a deep breath, repeats the mantra in his head: this is his for the taking, he is bred for this position, this is his future and his past, the path he’s been guided down since birth, through every twist and turn always with the inevitability of being dropped here, in this office. With this obese man. Ray opens his mouth to deliver his speech and sees the girl’s face floating next to his in the window reflection behind Morton’s head.
Ray tries to ignore the image and speak anyways but his words catch somewhere between his chest and his throat and he suddenly lurches forward, thrown into a coughing fit. It grips him unexpectedly and viciously and he immediately gasps for control. Morton waits for it to pass, staring at Ray the entire time with a slack expression. In a daze, Ray imagines he’s choking to death, and wonders if he did whether or not Morton would get up from his chair or just page his secretary to call maintenance.
The thought angers him, and he manages to catch his breath long enough to face Morton with a glowering expression on his flushed face. Morton smiles.
“Okay,” he says simply. “We’ll call you.”
The words are so short and impassive that Ray sits and stares at the man for half a minute before he realizes what’s just happened. By time he opens his mouth to backpedal though, Morton’s already dropped his head, scribbling notes on a legal pad with his right hand and holding out Ray’s folder with the other. Ray stares at the man and stands slowly. He takes the folder and Morton’s hand retreats back to the desk with whip-like speed. Ray waits, racking his brain for something to shift the mood. Morton refuses to raise his head though and Ray finally sighs, trundling out of the office and down the hallway. In the elevator he takes a single, longing look back as Morton’s office door closes with a faint click, the elevator doors following suit and shutting Morton & Stanley away.
* * *
The cab’s just passing by the alley next to the bagel shop when Ray jumps forward, grabbing the passenger seat in front of him.
“Stop!” he yells, and the taxi’s tires screech to a halt. Ray throws some money at the disgruntled driver and quickly hops out of the car with his briefcase in hand.
Darkness creeps up from various corners as the city prepares for night, but the alley is still visible enough for Ray to see the two junkies sitting by a garbage can, scratching and twitching as they each eat something from separate wads of aluminum foil. Ray steps slowly into the opening and is almost on top of them before he speaks, the two men unaware they’re no longer alone. Ray racks his brain for some sort of introduction, but can think of no reason to be here other than the truth.
“What did you do to her?” Ray asks, his heart racing.
The one closest to Ray, a deeply tanned man with shaggy, disheveled hair licks his fingers and squints up, unfazed.
“Fuck’d you say?”
“What did you do to her?” Ray repeats, taking a step forward. “The girl?”
The man turns to his partner, a bald pale-skinned man who leans against the brick wall and continues to eat his food as if Ray isn’t even there.
“You seen any girls around here, Jerry?” the Hispanic man asks.
The bald one he calls Jerry stirs slowly then sits straight up, crumpling the aluminum foil in his hands and throwing it over his shoulder.
“No girls ‘round here,” Jerry says. He gives Ray an abrupt nod. “Keep it moving, shitface.”
His partner smirks.
“The girl you robbed today,” Ray says, gritting his teeth and pushing forward. “Did you hurt her?”
The two men stand slowly next to each other, a few feet in front of Ray. They stretch their shoulders and their necks and Ray hears the cracks of their bones, sees the shape of their lean junkie bodies beneath their ragged clothes. He takes a step back, simultaneously realizing and wondering what he is doing. He remembers getting out of the taxi moments ago, and he remembers the righteousness he felt as he marched into the alley. He thinks now, though, that the man who made that move was a stupid man. A very, very stupid man indeed.
“We said there ain’t no girl,” the partner says, swaying a little.
“And what you tryin’ to say, asshole?” Jerry asks, cracking his knuckles. “We ain’t rob nobody.”
“C’mon guys,” Ray says, chuckling. “This isn’t that type of—” Ray pauses, glancing from one man to the other. “I’m not a cop.”
“What’s it to you then?” Jerry says, sneering. “This ain’t no superhero comic book, brother.”
“I just want to know if you guys hurt her.”
“We told you,” Jerry growls. “Ain’t no girl. Weren’t no robbery.”
Ray stays silent and tense as Jerry begins to circle around to his right side.
“You know,” Jerry says, licking his lips and flashing his yellowed hyena-like teeth. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other. “You got some nerve coming ‘round here accusing us a things.”
“Yeah,” the partner says. “Some nerve.”
“Listen, fellas,” Ray stammers. “I don’t want any trouble.” He catches himself taking another step back, away from Jerry’s circling footsteps, and stops, forcing himself to stand straight, chest puffed out. “I just want the girl’s purse back.”
The two men give each other questioning looks.
“You serious?” Jerry asks.
“Yes,” Ray answers.
They smile, relaxing noticeably, studying his clothes and his briefcase.
“What you got for it?”
Ray pauses, indecisive. A moment passes where everybody stares at each other, and Ray realizes the longer he stands there without offering something, the closer everything gets to becoming irreversibly hostile. He threw the last of his cash at the cabbie on the way over here though. He shuffles his feet and switches his briefcase to his other hand.
“Alright,” Ray says, shrugging, as if giving in. “You guys can have whatever’s in the purse. I just want the girl’s ID and the purse itself. Nothing else.”
Jerry eyes Ray curiously then laughs. His partner joins in a moment later and soon, they’re both hysterical. Ray fidgets and peeks at the mouth of the alley and the street beyond.
“You throwing orders around?” Jerry asks, out of breath.
“No,” Ray says, holding up a hand. A fine mist of sweat appears on his forehead. “I just—” Both men take a step towards him, clenching and unclenching their fists the same way they did before grabbing the girl. Ray swallows thickly. “I just really need that purse,” he says sheepishly.
“What’s in the case?” Jerry asks.
Ray’s eyes widen, surprised, and he instinctively puts the briefcase behind his back.
“Nothing,” he says. “Papers.”
“Looks real expensive,” Jerry says.
“Could get a few bills for it over at Ronny’s,” the partner chimes in. “Looks designer.”
Ray searches for a response to put the idea to rest, but feels his already loose grip on the incident fall away completely.
“The purse for the case,” Jerry says, less of an offer than a demand.
Ray tightens his hand around the briefcase handle, imagines the girl silently pleading and, for some reason, Morton next to her with the small grin on his face, barking his words and rumbling around in his whining office chair.
“Ok,” Ray mumbles.
“Ok,” he repeats louder. “Just give me the purse.”
The two men stay quiet for a while then Jerry turns and walks over to the trash can, pulling out a tattered red purse. He hands it to his partner who walks over to Ray slowly, cautiously handing him the bag and snatching the briefcase from him. The partner examines it then turns to display it to Jerry.
“I’m leaving now,” Ray says, backing up slowly.
The men ignore him.
Ray turns and walks out of the alley, taking each step slowly, fully expecting the junkies to jump him from behind, almost wishing they would so he wouldn’t have to wait for it anymore. When he reaches the street without incident, he turns to see the men opening his briefcase and throwing his stuff into the trashcan next to them; folders with papers, important papers that he needs for his impending job search. A single renegade sheet floats up from the masses and drifts to the ground, landing in a puddle as the men walk away in the opposite direction, tossing the briefcase between each other.
The men exit out the other side of the alley and are gone, and Ray gazes into the deepening darkness for a moment before a taxi rounds the corner near him and he quickly holds a hand up. The car flies by without slowing and squeals around a corner a block or so down. Tucking the purse beneath his armpit, he ducks his head and starts off in the direction of his apartment.
* * *
Ray drops the purse on his dining room table and grabs a beer from the fridge, eyeing the purse’s red fabric, the sequined strap. He takes a large swig from the bottle and approaches the table. Inside, the girl’s bag is empty except for a red wallet which Ray pulls out and opens up, laying it in front of him on the table and sitting down. The girl’s ID is set in a holder on the front flap, her address typed in bold next to her smiling picture. The ID says she is fifteen; the picture says she is beautiful and naïve. Ray leans back in his chair, taking in the girl’s youthful joy, a smile creeping across his face. He wonders whether he should grab the phonebook and search for her parent’s number or go personally to the house, return the bag to the girl face to face, feel the momentary high of manufactured heroism as she thanks him.
Ray closes his eyes and sees himself standing on the steps outside of Morton and Stanley’s building, the girl standing by his side, her mascara expertly reapplied. The reporters stand crowded in front of him, smiling and holding their microphones in outstretched hands. He sees himself explaining to them how it was no big deal. Just doing his duty. Behind him, Morton sits in his office chair, beaming and reaching up to pat him on the back.
Suddenly, the image wavers and Ray frowns. When it comes clear again Ray sees the girl, only now her eyes are gleaming with tears as she leans in the doorway of her parent’s house with all her weight on one leg, holding an arm across her chest in that youthfully insecure mannerism that Ray himself just broke out of not too long ago. He feels her fake gratitude, her unasked questions for which he has no answer, her memories of standing in the alley fearing for her life as Ray jumped into the cab.
Thanks for your help, she says, without sarcasm, taking the purse slowly. I appreciate it.
And Ray imagines his briefcase, in the junkies’ groping hands. The new one he’ll have to buy. The papers he’ll have to replace, the wasted time.
Ray frowns and takes another swill of his beer and the taste nauseates him. He studies the girl’s picture until it’s burned in his memory—every strand of hair, every tooth in her smile—then stands and throws the beer bottle in the trash, along with the girl’s wallet and her red purse.