Ancient instinct took to the air as a pyre only to gravitate back with feckless abandon. Nocturnal insects, chasing photon stimuli on reflex, hurled their exoskeletons at the artificial incandescence illuminating the establishment’s evening exterior. Cycling off the spotlight like quaint quantum particles, the corporal forms shimmered a glowing resolve seared alive for its trouble.
The arthropod bonfire burned through the night until rays of truth peaked over the horizon, the speed of its fusion signaling a solar cue to shutter off the hotel’s evening aura. Orange filament dulled to nil and invertebrate genetics scorched of fruitful purpose soldiered off burnt plastic cover. A restful plight awaited. Drowning in the sprinkler’s morning deluge, the battled bodies seasoned a sacrificial stew for whetted beaks too late, lazy or learned for the worm.
Dawn’s embrace unveiled another sleeker body moving with the night. Realizing its destination under the building’s porte-cochère, the limousine’s fiberglass exterior winked off the morning’s rush. The driver’s door yawned open and out poured its chauffeur. Tugging his eggshell gloves tight, he rolled over to his cargo and released it with the chromed pull of a metallic handle.
“Ahem,” he cracked. “We have arrived.”
Fixing the Indian hair on her nylon-netted scalp, she sifted past the complementary glass of mimosa molding in its flute, flattened out the frills in her orange satin skirt, and carefully climbed out from climate-controlled comfort. The air was dry and dusty.
Quick ginger heels stepped by the doorman’s uniform and a calfskin handbag stayed fastened as electronic doors parted—there would be nothing extra for the effort. Without so much as a second’s thought, she was inside the lobby. Ceiling fans circulated pungent patchouli deodorizer while synthesized muzak hummed from hidden ceiling speakers. The front desk was built of a faux granite laminate, and a painted Victorian face with ticking hands pointed gravely at bad news. She was terribly early.
Panicked steps walked off incredulity in the direction of the ballroom, her ruby stilettos picking up their clickity-clack over the posh marble wood pastiche. They stopped. In their stead rang the jubilee of quadrupeds—baroque chairs being set in parallel rows, their golden frames taut with velvet cushions bursting with burgundy. The empty anticipation organized before an elevated stage. Claret curtains were curled on both sides, leaving out a lonely rostrum demarking the separation at the center—a crooked front tooth in a cruel red smile.
Steeling herself to the patient responsibility of the moment, she turned and returned to the manufactured comfort of the lobby. Settling on reclusive cranny in the adjacent bar and grill, she silently took her seat in a corner shadow, awash in the glow of television screens and keno. In her daze of waiting for her time to shine to pass and go, she noticed the help too late.
“Hello, my name is Maria,” a Hispanic woman in her thirties reported in a Tex-Mex drawl. She began the daily routine of placing flatware over a paper napkin. “Would you like to see a menu?”
The customary question sank like loose-lipped ship. The woman’s blank look offered no reply. An awkward bead of perspiration on a client’s phony hairline did provide an answer.
“Maybe a glass of water?” Maria politely persisted.
The woman nodded.
“Excellent. Any food?”
The woman reverted to her blank stare.
Unsure on how to proceed, Maria turned and shrugged to her manager behind the bar. He rolled his eyes and scowled for her to endure.
“Miss,” Maria prodded as professionally as possible. “I apologize for the directness, but I am afraid you can’t just sit there. You’re going to have to buy something.”
The woman’s blank stare did not shift and her lips remained sealed, but her hands moved swiftly into her Saffiano leather handbag. Unhooking the palladium clasp, she slipped a $100 bill from her purse and slammed it on the marble table. Her hand immediately straightened out, the extended palm pushing down from her chest towards the woman, as if moving the moment aside.
“Thank you,” Maria blushed. She turned to her manager and showed the currency, her two hands straightening the folded paper on either end with a double tug. “She’s good.”
“You bet she is,” he replied, managing a wry smile. “I hope they’re all like this.”
“I don’t,” she countered, sliding the bill across the bar.
“Sure you do,” he countered. “Now cough it up.”
She reluctantly watched her superior open the register, pull out the drawer and place the note in the space between. He then plucked a worn five and gave it to his employee. Her shoulders slumped.
“Maria,” he softened, filling a glass with water topped with ice. “Be thankful.”
Juan moved from behind the bar and brought the glass to the woman, carefully placing it on a cork coaster. The woman quickly seized the glass and pressed it to her upper lip, letting cool condensation trickle over chapped collagen. Juan, confused, turned to leave the client alone with her refreshment.
A crash of glass sent shudders down his spine.
He turned to see the woman wincing. Off the table and to the ground were the shattered shards of her relief, slipped from frictionless fingers to a fractured pool on the floor.
“Are you alright?” Juan asked.
Playing coy, the woman merely shook her head and flicked her hand as if it were shooing away nonsense. Juan bent his knee and removed the bar towel from his back pocket to consolidate the spill. The woman, in turn, stood and left in a huff. Her face grimaced with acrimony.
“Hey Maria,” Juan sniffed. “Go and see if she’s ok.”
With a nod, Maria walked after the client, following her to the center of the lobby. She stood confused and lost. Maria placed her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
The woman cringed at the touch, calming upon realizing it was feminine. Reaching into her bag she grabbed a small electronic box. She pressed the vocalizer to her throat and a tonal cough thundered through the lobby, turning upset heads. The suddenness soured Maria’s face with fear. The woman dialed down the volume.
“Portuguese,” it voiced.
“Español,” Maria whispered back, shaking her head.
“Lavatoire,” said the static of the electronic.
With a pointed finger, Maria showed the woman the way. Her client cricketed off in the direction, finding the door and pushing through. Maria in turn returned to work, her face befuddled with apathy.
“Is she alright?” Juan asked, dumping the broken vessel into the trash with a glassy crash.
“I think so,” Maria said, gathering herself. She offered a small smile. “Hey, can we try that new tequila?”
“Now? It’s barely noon. Do you even like tequila Maria?”
“No,” she said, before quickly qualifying, “But I like trying new things.”
“Okay,” he relented. “Of course, Maria.”
Between the thin walls of the restroom stall, the woman unzipped the hem of her skirt and lifted her blouse to expose a cylindrical shard of plastic sticking from her gut. It was a pinky’s length above her bloated bellybutton, and like a metronome on tilt it swayed ache into her soul, the frantic rhythm of her heartbeat rocking the cylinder at a pace that tested the tensility of her surrounding scar tissue. A coarse gash ran from her the top of her sternum to the quivering gobs of tummy fat laced around her waist.
Trained fingers traced over the plastic clasp of her feeding tube and unlocked the port cover. Trapped gas immediately evacuated in an unflattering and putrid whoosh. Her abdomen was no longer on the verge of bursting. Instead, the malodorous stench of fermented formula cloaked her relief. The shame brought a tear to her eye.
“You’ve been given so much,” she reminded herself, ripping off a panel of toilet paper to wipe the gelatinous protein buildup discharged from the nozzle. “You have so much to be thankful for.”
She discarded the paper into the bowl then hung her head in silent prayer. A calm slumber descend upon her.
Tranquil nerves found solace until a beeper interrupted with a buzz from her bag. Her calm face seized and her shoulders slunk. Her eyes eventually shown resolute. She stamped the sleep from her leg muscles and attempted to stand. Straightening out her clothes and fixing her wig, she flushed the toilet and stepped out into the powder room.
A uniformed bathroom attendant resting her eyes startled upright at the woman’s sudden appearance. Her quizzical look hastily turned to a trained welcome, her hands offering a designer paper towel at the ready. The woman accepted the gesture, wiping her hands dry before turning to leave.
“Ahem,” coughed the attendant.
With an eye roll, the woman reached for the velveteen pouch in her handbag and removed a courtesy bill. Pressing it into the woman’s palm, she forced her lips to curl up before pushing the door into hotel’s lobby.
She picked up her stride on her way to the ballroom, passing the barman and Maria. A snobbish crowd had gathered, with many taking note of their waitresses’ flushed cheeks. Maria finished her drink and paid them no mind.
“Add one to that one,” she slurred. “Then add another, Juan.”
“We have an order Maria,” Juan replied in a hushed tone. “Avocado on toast.”
“Aaavaacaaaaaaado. That’s you. That’s what you sound like.”
“That’s what I said.”
“It annoys me because it’s wrong. Av-O-ca-Do. It’s right there in the spelling. It’s simple. Avocado.”
“Maria, the toast.”
“Fine,” she said, raising her glass. “To you, Juan.”
Meanwhile, at the front desk at the door of the ballroom, the woman was finally ready for her moment. She removed finally removed a card from her handbag, along with a $100 bill. The attendant nodded and gave her a paddle with the number 11. With it in hand, the woman walked into the room once again, finding a marooned seat just in time for the next item for bid.
“Our next asset up is sadly not with us today,” said the tie and vested auctioneer at the rostrum. “At nearly half a square mile and with a population of 114, it far exceeds the confines of our humble hotel. We do have a presentation that we hope whets your palate.
“May I present the town of Willow, Oklahoma. Once an old farming outpost, the city subsisted on supporting a nearby underground missile silo built in the fifties. It’s was decommissioned eight years ago and lies adjacent to the property. Unable to reimburse a loan that paid for the town’s water supply, the city’s debt currently stands at $500,000. That will be our starting number.”
The man banged his gavel to begin the auction.
“Do we have any takers?”
The room fell silent. She lifted her paddle.
“No one?” asked the man. The woman sighed and reached into her bag.
“Ahem,” she buzzed. Rubbernecks painfully cringed in unison at the sound of her voice. “Five hundred. Thousand. Dollars.” It echoed in the room.
“I have five hundred grand. No other bids?” asked the man. “Going once, going twice.” He paused to size up the woman who finally found a smile on her face.
“Sold to the robot in a marmalade skirt.”
The humidity of the afternoon stuck to Lester like a ten-cent stamp on a gossamer letter. He pushed forward to the west end of Jackson Square, finding a two-story stucco building with a black parapet cresting over yellow-brick walls at the corner of Royal and Conti. Lester stepped down into the entrance, ducking through a recessed threshold before opening heavy doors. They hinged beneath black and gold lettering, welcoming him to ‘The Old Bank of Louisiana.’
Dimly lit and cool to the skin, the interior quietly fogged up his corner store glasses. He wiped them clean with his damp shirt, placed them back on the bridge of his nose, and walked towards two women behind a teller’s desk.
White cake frosting collected on the upper lip of the one standing over the other, her fork-in-hand and held as if she might use it as a weapon. The other dressed svelte for the summer afternoon, a lemon shawl around her storefront shoulders. Both were more or less focused on a borrowed library book.
“You know you shouldn’t be reading that,” spongy mouthfuls said. “Not on company time.”
“But then I would have to spend time with the company,” the other woman replied, turning the page.
“Now don’t get snippy with me,” the other shot back. “Don’t think those doe-eyes of yours will save you from the wrath of Mr. Huntoia once I tell him what you’ve been up to.”
“And what have I been up to Maddie? What gossip-mongering are you going to conjure up today?”
“How do you think I got to where I am? I can send you right out for insubordination, theft of property time, and general malfeasance. Don’t get me started.”
“I’ve heard about people like you,” Lester’s voice cut-in like cutlass through canvas. “Ruining reputations for the sake of conversation.”
“What?” Maddie shrieked, more surprised than clear on what had been said.
“People talk so much and do so little,” Lester continued. “You made talking seem important.”
Maddie reconstituted herself.
“Sir, can I help you?”
“You talk theories and you talk hearsay, talking just to pretend like you did something with your day. My goodness. Alas, who am I to judge. As the good 16th said, “God must love the simple mind, he made so many of them.”
“How dare you,” Maddie scolded. “I have probable cause to report you to my manager.”
“Be a dear and do that for me,” Lester countered. “Just like a hen cluck-cluck-clucking on its plump feathered-bottom, you discovered the pecking power of rumor and just gobbled it up. And look where it got you! Well-fed and ready for the manager.”
Maddie dropped her paper plate of crumbs and left in a huff. Lester scoffed.
“I’m sorry, was that too much of eating your cake and having it too?” he called after her.
“It’s the other way around,” the other woman said.
“It’s having your cake and eating it, too. You said it the other way around.”
“Is that a fact?” Lester looked down and read the spine wrapped in leather. “‘And Then There Were None.’ Agatha Christie?”
“The one and only. Are you a fan?”
“Because you are, Mrs.—?”
“Ms.” She replied. “Caitlin.”
“Come now, Ms. Caitlin. Don’t be that way. I know your type.”
“And what’s that?”
“Not worth the effort. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.”
“What an unappealing come-on,” Caitlin made a face. “I bet you think you’re really smart.”
“Is that a trick question?”
“However do you mean?”
“If I say yes I’m conceited and full of myself. If I say no I’m using the cover of modesty to deceptively manipulate. Even worse, I might not be confident enough to be honest.”
“So your answer?”
“I have my moments I guess.”
“What brings you to the Old Bank of Louisiana, Mr. I-Have-My-Moments?”
Lester smiled, playing coy.
“What, did you forget?” she said, willing to play.
“It must have slipped my mind.”
“It’ll come back if it’s true.”
“So that explains the Alzheimer’s.”
She turned away, a sour look on her face.
“Something I said? Wasn’t it Agatha Christie who wrote, ‘Elephants can remember, but mercifully human beings may forget’? Maybe it’s ok not to remember.”
“My grandmother has Alzheimer’s.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She closed her book. The moment hung awkward.
“Do you,” she stated, punctuating her words with authority, “have a reason to be here today, sir? Or are you just going to say what other people write?”
“My grandmother used to say, ‘Old sins draw long shadows.’ Does that count?”
“Are you crazy?”
“I’ve dabbled with paranoid schizophrenia,” Lester replied matter-of-factly. “But then I realized the only thoughts that matter are the ones we tie ourselves together in—whatever justifies the suffering. It’s my survival tactic. My rat king. That and a sense of humor, I guess.”
“A sense of humor? It’s this wonderful thing, you should try it sometime.”
“No,” she replied, “a rat king.”
“Oh, never mind that, a slip of the tongue,” Lester said. “A terrible bunch of tales impossibly knotted by the muck that binds.”
He saw the large woman in the corner of his eye point at him, pressing her chest together as she jabbed at the suited elbow of another man.
“Speaking of whom, would that be the bank clerk?”
“A bank clerk?” Caitlin turned around to see. “That’s my boss. Around here we call him a financial manager.”
“And here I am with some financials to manage. What should I know about him?”
“Him? If jacking-off were in the Special Olympics, he’d be committed.”
Lester smiled. “Fun chat. Hope we can do it again sometime.”
“Wouldn’t that be a slice of heaven?” she replied, her eyes slightly rolling before shifting towards her superior standing behind Lester.
“Hello Mr. Huntoia.”
“Hello Caitlin,” Mr. Huntoia replied in a tired and wary voice. “In the future, if you could keep the comments to Maddie to a minimum.”
“But sir, I—”
“Just the man I was hoping to see,” interrupted Lester.
“Hello and welcome to the Old Bank of Louisiana,” Mr. Huntoia said, reaching out his hand. Lester shook it with the vigor of a man looking for a job. Mr. Huntoia quickly retrieved his appendage. “How may we be of service?”
Lester opened his suitcase to reveal a stack of brown envelopes. Each had a red string tied around its clasp, desperately trying to keep the swollen contents of its worn paper pocket confined within. Lester removed one, unfurled the thread and showcased the paper treasure inside: war bonds, decades old.
“I found these when I was cleaning up my dusty attic,” Lester said. “I was wondering if they were worth anything.”
“Of course,” Mr. Huntoia said. “Right this way.”
He began to escort Lester to his office. They passed Maddie on the way, her face puckered at Lester with directed discord.
“Don’t mind her,” Mr. Huntoia said. “It was a colleague’s birthday today. She waited until now to have her slice of cake. You know how women are—never knowing what they want, always hungry for what’s wanted.”
“Seems like quite a handful.”
Mr. Huntoia smiled.
“Oh, she’s definitely a handful or two,” he said, the timbre of his voice providing a colossal wink. “But you know what the state drink of Louisiana is, don’t you?”
Lester forced chuckle as he took a seat in a leather chair in front of Mr. Huntoia’s desk. The hefty man closed the door to his office then sat in his looming armchair on the opposite end, the upholstery letting out a gasp as he sank in.
“So, let’s see what we’ve got here.”
He took out Lester’s folders. He paged through the contents of one then another, whistling as he slowly wrote down and added up the sum.
“Do you know how many you have in each folder?
“I counted about nine hundred in one of the folders, more than a thousand in another. They’re of all sorts of different denominations. I was hoping they hadn’t expired.”
“Well,” Mr. Huntoia said, shifting his weight as he gauged the perspicacity of the man who had wandered into this late afternoon, “it’s not so much that they expire that they stop accruing interest after a few decades.”
“Is that bad?”
Mr. Huntoia smiled.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Do you know if the taxes have been paid on these?”
“I’m not sure,” Lester replied.
“Not to worry, I’ll have one of my girls check into it.” Mr. Huntoia reached for his phone. He hit the number and placed the receiver to his ear. “Hi Caitlin, do you mind coming in here for a moment? Great, thanks.”
After placed the plastic back on its mount, then turned to Lester.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to ask your name.”
“Do you happen to have any identification?”
“Of course,” Lester said, reaching in to his coat pocket for his passport and driver’s license before handing them to Mr. Huntoia. “I wouldn’t want you to make the mistake of thinking I was an imposter.”
“A mere formality, I assure you.”
Caitlin knocked before entering the office.
“Hi Caitlin, do me a favor and run through Mr. Albright’s security portfolio.” Mr. Huntoia gestured to Lester’s assets. “It’s a stack of old War Bonds. We’re looking to see how much they are worth. Also, see if the taxes on them have been paid using the serial numbers. Here’s his ID to confirm the match.”
“Of course,” Caitlin responded, slowly walking over to recover the documents. Her body was stiff and robotic, each movement deliberate and cold. Her self-conscious behavior did little to deter her superior from eyeing her up and down. The fifteen-second interaction forced Lester to swallow audibly. Caitlin felt uncomfortably horrible.
“Could you leave that last folder?” Lester asked. With tired eyes she complied, leaving it on Mr. Huntoia’s desk before departing, the door not closing fast enough.
“I would love to play some catch with some of her,” Mr. Huntoia said loudly to no one in particular. “You’d think the other girls would have talked some sense into her by now. Sooner or later—”
“What’s your name?” Lester interrupted. “Your first name?”
Mr. Huntoia broke out of his trance.
“Mike, I couldn’t help but notice—are you wearing a thousand dollar suit?”
A self-assured grin widened across Mr. Huntoia’s face.
“You have a good eye. I forgot the brand but it’s a tailored mix of wool, goat, and rabbit hair. And it’s two thousand, actually, if you include the shoes,” Mr. Huntoia showcased his alligator skin penny loafers. “Pure Louisiana hide, right there.”
“Would you look at those,” Lester cooed. “You have impeccable taste my friend.”
“Someone has to appreciate the finer things in life, am I right?”
“Right you are. Hey, do you think you could I ask you a question?”
“Does your bank have someone who can process stock certificates?”
“As this branch’s transfer agent, I am the person to talk to in all such investment regards.”
“Excellent. I was wondering if you could help me with a few old allotments,” Lester said, pushing the folder towards his counterpart.
Mr. Huntoia’s eyes narrowed with skepticism but he ultimately obeyed Lester’s request. He slid open the envelope and allowed the papers within to pile neatly upon his desk. With dates harkening back to a time before his birth, it took a moment for him to register what they were.
“Look at you,” Mr. Huntoia laughed, his face turning red as he side-eyed Lester. “And here I thought you were just cashing in on your dead grand-dad’s payroll deductions. You have actual stocks, in your name no less.” Mr. Huntoia rummaged through the certificates. “How can…these municipal bonds haven’t been touched in decades,” he replied, his voice meek with astonishment. “This IPO was issued in 1956 from the Ford Motor Company. The rest of these are from banks that don’t exist anymore: The First National City Bank, The First Union National Bank of North Carolina, and the American Trust Company?”
“You are correct,” replied Lester, removing a notepad from his pocked. “I believe they merged with the following banks over the years, Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, respectively.”
“The compound interest on these must be astounding. How did this happen?”
A sly smile crept across Lester’s face.
“Do you know how chocolate chip cookies were made, Mike?”
The non sequitur socked Mr. Huntoia across the face with its pretentiousness.
“By accident,” Lester replied. “Now, as I understand it, all I have to do is provide you with a letter of intent to sell,”—Lester whisked-out this prepared document— “and then I sign on the back of the certificates like a check, right?”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Huntoia paused before stammering, “A sell-off like this would need a minimum of four business days to verify and transfer their net-worth.”
“Who’s to say I didn’t arrive Monday with agreed upon numbers?”
“These stocks are decades old. I can’t in good conscience process these.”
“Good conscious, you say?” replied Lester. “How much does a good conscious cost these days?”
Mr. Huntoia’s eyes lit up like Christmas.
“So we’re negotiating?”
The tell made Lester’s eyes widen. He paused, then smugly leaned back in his chair.
“So that’s how you work,” Lester said. “That’s your survival tactic.”
The hairs on Mr. Huntoia’s nape cracked up and goosebumps simmering over his skin. The warm flush of blood spooled in the confines of his jawbone, heating his cheeks to a radiating furnace. He tasted the alkaline moment of when momentum was lost.
“Have you ever hunted before?” Lester ignored. “I don’t mean these ferried charters with two-bit doped-up fowl for you to shoot shot at in between mimosas while lounging on your chauffeured luxury golf cart. I mean need-to-eat type of hunting. Like middle of the winter a few clicks below the tree line hunting. Every calorie matters hunting. Because in that environment, hunting is survival and shortcuts become traps.
“If I wanted to catch a squirrel to rabbit-off starvation, all I’d have to do is prop a branch against a tree so that it cuts the angle from ninety-degrees in half to forty-five. Tie a string noose near the stick’s end and that’s it. Check back in a little while and you’ll catch an emaciated rodent that hung itself out of the need to save the last of its energy.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Mr. Huntoia asked.
“Have you ever killed someone before, Mike? And I don’t mean cancel the payment on a respirator killed, I mean a good, solid, eye-to-eye slice.”
“No,” he swallowed before daring a stumbling look at man sitting next to him. “Have you?”
Lester took his time, savoring the nerves of his mark.
“Not in this life,” he said. Then he moved close enough to whisper. “But it’s still early.
“See, we people are ruled by our defense mechanisms and our survival tactics. And in regards to defense mechanisms, we’re all somewhere on that spectrum—whether it be denial or sublimation,” he said, as he played with the paper weight on Mike’s desk. “But survival tactics, those are something different. Some of hide. Some of us make traps. Some of freeze in the headlights, hoping it will pass without getting hit. And some of us act.
“Now, me personally, I think I would relish the knowledge that I had it in me. Now, I’m not saying I’m some sort of psychopath with a bloodlust against my fellow man. I’m just saying that knowing that the survival instinct, that gene that has kept us alive all of these eons was alive and well within me…well, knowing that would just make me swell with pride.”
Lester let the seconds shiver down Mike’s spine.
“But right now, we’re talking about you,” Lester continued. “You’re a canary in a coal mine. Have you ever heard of a canary in a coal mine? That’s you, whistling away a golden opportunity to escape because you don’t know you’re here to die. At least, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Right, Mike?
“You feel that? That’s the weight of the apex predator letting all of its evolved abilities to be sacrificed for the obsequious comfort of this drudgery. This maddening mundaneness, day after day of the same modern monotonous drone, I get it. I get why you distract yourself. That’s what insecure people do—they gather around in a circle and come up with ways to pat themselves on the back.
“That’s you, Mike. That’s what you do. You live the, ‘I can, but you can’t…I can. But you can’t’ lifestyle over some make believe reasons that grandly suit only you. So I get why you strut in your makeshift henhouse, fondling sycophants and picking at wallflowers to use and discard. Because you can.
“But while you get ahead by throwing everyone else under the bus, as far as the lie, cheat, steal, rape, kill totem pole goes, you are a bit out of your level. Because here,” Lester said, quieting his voice to a whisper, “in this reality, I can and you can’t do anything about it.”
Mr. Huntoia swallowed. The ball in in his throat swung defeat like a frog in the desert.
“So, what’s it going to be Mike? Are you the canary in the coal mine or are you going to give me my mother fucking money?”
Right then a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Lester sang.
Caitlin arrived with the latest calculations on Lester’s financials.
“It looks like you’ve accumulated quite a sum, Mr. Albright,” she said. “I counted sixty thousand total in your portfolio.”
She paused to hear the usual interrupting pitch from Mr. Huntoia. Upon hearing none she took a quick glance to see if he had heard her. His face had gone pale and silent.
“But even more good news,” Caitlin continued. “Because of the treasury rates of when they were purchased, the yield is much higher than the face value. According to my calculations, their worth double that.”
She paused again for Mr. Huntoia. Nothing came.
“One hundred and twenty thousand dollars?” Lester clarified.
“Yes, sir,” Caitlin answered. “But of course, there is the matter of the bank’s fees.”
“Of course. How about this, Mr. Huntoia,” Lester said, turning to the man who had frozen in his chair. “I will happily split this figure among all of your fine colleagues here, a celebratory token to the day. In addition, I will pay your handsome brokerage fee, all for moving along my certificates here.”
Lester felt an electric buzz on his thigh—his beeper. He checked the number. It was Bruna. She needed the money.
“How does that sound?” Lester said, a hint of desperation splintering his voice.
Mr. Huntoia mustered a blink. He startled to, the seconds finally ticking in his present.
“Of course it does,” Lester said, slapping his thigh. “Life is the luxury of learning from your mistakes, am I right? So what do I do, just sign on the back of the certificate. Like a check, right?”
“That’s right,” stammered Mr. Huntoia. “Like a check.”
“I’ve got to say, I always love coming to Louisiana,” Lester said, signing furiously. “New Orleans is the only place in America that’s come to grips with the soft underbelly.”
A pair of nostrils snorted in the night. The conditioned air weaved through overgrown nose hair and desiccated cobwebs spun from the stale mucus of scarred grey lungs.
A phone rang on the night table. Edgar stumbled awake and answered the line.
“Hello?” he grumbled.
“One moment please,” rang the tone. Then a click.
“Hello?” a gruff voice asked.
“Hello?” replied Edgar.
“Hello,” it continued. “This is Mr. Gold from Dr. Warren’s office looking for Edgar Sonder.”
“This is he,” yawned Edgar.
“Excellent. There’s been an incident with your bank account.”
“What?” sneered Edgar, his voice audibly agitated. “Which account?”
“The one you opened in 1964, under the name Martin Albright.”
“I don’t know anyone by that name. You said this concerned my account.”
“Well, a bank in Louisiana just processed the war bonds of a Mr. Martin Albright. You have written-off the taxes on them annually since 1969, have you not?”
“Who is this?”
“Mr. Gold,” the voice replied. “Of the Warren Group.”
Edgar hung up.
The phone rang again. Edgar answered.
“Now don’t hang-up,” Mr. Gold pleaded. “You don’t know me. I’ve been told there’s a bitter history. But right now you’re in a good spot.”
Edgar said nothing.
“Let me try to steer this conversation in another direction. Let’s say when I was young, I did something I thought was good that turned out very bad. But only for me. And so I escaped became someone else. This is America, that’s the idea. At least it was. Because one upon a day I repay a favor only for my whole life to fall apart. And now I find myself old. Alone. With a family that abandoned me for reasons I never understood. And now I wait, waiting to die.
“Does that sound familiar?” Mr. Gold asked.
“I don’t think I need to say anything,” Edgar said. “But I’m still listening.”
“Good. Because let’s say bygones are bygones. Because we have a mutual interest. A common enemy if you will. And I’m here to help. To provide a solution. Because as you know, I work for an important member of a family. A family with connections, resources, and power. The power to turn back time. The power to even give you it. What would you say to that?”
Edgar paused. “What do you want?” he asked.
“What do you know of Lester Deiss?”
“The phrase idiot savant comes to mind.”
Edgar could hear Mr. Gold’s smile over the phone.
“Music to my ears.”
“So, now that we’re chummy, anything I should know?”
“We’ll be in touch,” Mr. Gold replied, before a note of alarm rose in his voice. “You’re not traveling by plane in the next month or two?”
“Just don’t—well,” he hesitated, calming himself. “How willing are you to work with us?”
“That depends,” Edgar sighed. “How cruel are you willing to be to a miracle?”