In Hot Water Pt. 06

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Flopping Cock

Author’s note:

Some mostly off-screen violence in this part.

All characters over eighteen.

Part 6 of 6.

~~~~~~

CHAPTER 27

I’m squinting, hiding behind my palm as I rush down the steps to the lower level of the square.

The stairs swoosh like amphitheater seating around one whole corner of a city block. On the west side, a coffee shop hunches back into the steps, with its roof at street level. A flag pole shoots above the shop, with two triangular pennants, one tied several feet higher than the other. The bottom flag sports the logo of the coffee shop, while the top one flies a black bird over a blue background. The flags ripple and snap above several people standing at an exterior counter, next to a railing over a waterfall pouring into a rectangular pool. A mass of lunch-time travelers crisscrosses wet red bricks, keeping a wide distance around a group of protestors huddled together in the middle of the plaza.

A familiar pale man in a stars-and-stripes t-shirt stands on a stool, shouting distorted decrees into a red, white, and blue megaphone. His long brown dreadlocks shake and wobble across his slender back, as he points the bullhorn back and forth. Several dozen people surround him, and answer with a call and response rhythm. The man shouts. The crowd hollers. The man shouts something else. The crowd answers that. I can’t really understand what he’s saying, and I try to ignore him. I’m looking for my dad, who is likely dressed for work, meaning some kind of business casual, but all are see greys and blacks of the Northwest Uniform, save for bits of yellow and camo on a few protesters.

I hug the south side of the plaza, keeping away from the noise, and when I get around the crowd, an arc of police officers blocks my path. More cops than I can count on both my hands, all of them topped with helmets, face shields, batons. Each wears a vest adorned with additional tools of the trade, plus their belts sport the usual handgun, cuffs, pepper spray, and more items I can’t make out.

The cops watch over the protest from the north east corner of the square. Batons wiggle, and shake in their hands, as they stand around, waiting. I cross the red bricks, keeping my distance from the crowd, while trying not to look suspicious. When I get past the protestors, a horn sounds behind me, and I jump. I turn to see the man on the stool holding the megaphone over his head. He then resumes his amplified mantra into the air. I watch his performance for a moment, and glance over at the cops, but then something red catches my eye on the other side of the crowd. A woman in a business suit stands with her back to me, facing the reflecting pool. She focuses her attention on what she cradles in her hand.

My phone buzzes in my pocket.

“By the waterfall.” — Dad

But that’s not my dad. I don’t know if he’s showing up or not, so I start the audio recording app, and wonder how long seven percent will last. The phone tends to shut off abruptly when it’s that low. I pocket my phone, and watch the red curls as I backtrack over the bricks, which are a more muted version of her hair color. I keep the protest as far to my side as I can.

When I get back to the steps, I look up to find another group of police in full face shield gear marching straight down at me. One of them hunches lower than the others, shouting commands at his comrades. His gut bulges out under the vest gripping his chest, and three stripes arc over the side of his arm he’s using to gesture at the protest. Each of the officers slides a baton off their belt, and holds it in hand. I pivot to the right, and make a straight line toward the waterfall.

It’s always red with her, and always a little too red. Shades not found in nature. Bushy curls flow down to her shoulders, atop the pads of a gunmetal grey pinstripe suit jacket. A matching tight pencil skirt runs to her knees, over shiny pointed black heels that put her at eye level with me. When I’m several paces away, she turns and looks up, then drops the phone into a black leather purse strung over her shoulder. Her skin glows an immaculate amber.

“Nice hair, Alex,” says the Red Haired Lady.

I can’t tell if she’s serious, or she’s mocking me. Her voice stretches over the noisy crowd behind me, and I realize I’ve stopped some distance away. I close the distance until a couple steps separate us.

“Why do you have my dad’s phone?”

“That’s what we need to– What’s on your face? Jesus. Let’s get out of this mess.” Donna holds out her hand, offering for me to lead the way to the hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant next to the coffee shop. I’d never noticed it there before.

“Is this safe, with all that?” I gesture at the mob behind me.

“It’ll have to be. I’m out of time.” Donna continues pointing at the restaurant.

When we reach the entryway, a siren blasts from the middle of the plaza, and Donna jumps, as she reaches for the metal door handle. More shouting bellows yalova escort from the fat voice I know to have three stripes on his shoulder. Donna regains her composure and we’re greeted by a woman holding menus.

“Sorry about the noise,” says the hostess. She leads us to a table for two, which might have once offered a view of the crowd, but painted green and white letters in reverse coat the window with the restaurant’s name, advertising to the square outside. “They’ve been at it all morning. Can I get you something else to drink?” She sets down a glass of water in front of each of us.

“I’m fine.” Donna lifts her glass and takes a big pull.

“I’m good,” I say.

“Okay, well here you go.” The hostess sets down a tray with a slip of paper listing sushi items to mark, and hands each of us a menu, then leaves us alone.

I check my phone. Four percent battery, but it’s still recording. Shouts and a bang bleed through the painted window to my side.

“Phone away,” says Donna. She unfolds a piece of handwritten paper, and crosses something off a list. “This is crucial.”

“I’m just checking my face.” I turn on the front camera and discover a golden brown smear across my lips and cheek. I’d worn that all the way to work and back. I pull a napkin out of the dispenser, and give my face a forceful wipe, then I pocket my phone.

Donna rolls her eyes. “Get whatever you want.” She lifts a plastic saucer off the stack by the napkins. “I don’t suppose you have any money right now, do you?”

“No.”

“That was your father’s little addition. He did that on his own, and didn’t set it up correctly. Charity work is tax free, as long as you don’t get caught. I think that was the limit of his analysis. It would have been safer to just keep things in the existing channel I had. Now you have no bank account. And the police are all over you. We can fix that, but you need to do something for me.”

“I need to?”

“Yes.” Donna splits her wooden chopsticks, and scrapes one down the side of the other, carving away tiny splinters. She pushes the sushi slip across the table to me, with the accompanying pen. She’s marked out a couple rolls.

“Where’s my dad?” I tick the salmon nigari box, though I’m not hungry.

“He’s been picked up and is currently awaiting a hearing. He was arrested Friday, with her.” Donna’s voice curls over the last word.

“Friday,” I say. “Jessica was supposed to meet you for lunch.”

“Yes, plans change once the cuffs start going on.”

“Why do you have Dad’s phone, and–“

The Red Haired Lady holds up her palm, and I stop.

“Your father’s careless ambitions have me working overtime. To answer your question, I had his phone at the time he was picked up.”

“Why?”

“I suspected something might happen, and I needed to do some cleaning. We normally talk by a secure channel, at my insistence, but that line is only as safe as each end is. It was only dumb luck that he was picked up while I had his phone, though even if I hadn’t chosen then to do my house cleaning, it’s equally likely he’d have forgotten it at home.”

“What are you cleaning?”

“His mess.”

“So are you here today to bail him out, or what?”

“Yes, though I would have been here anyway.” Donna takes a sip of water. “My company was acquired by another staffing firm a while back, and I’ve been helping synergize the merge. I’m here a couple times a week. You got to go for a little ride yesterday, correct?”

“Yeah, cops wanted to know about my job and the checks from my dad.”

“And what did you tell them?”

“Not much, just that I get those checks once a month, and it’s for school.”

“Good.”

The waitress returns, and takes the sushi menu from the Red Haired Lady’s hand, then vanishes again into the kitchen. Behind the painted window, out in the plaza, the protestors are shouting.

“There’s a man you work with, who I don’t believe you’ve met.”

“Todd.”

“That’s the one.”

“Who is he?”

“He, uh.” Donna smirks and turns her head to the side. “He’s a young man who lives in Miami. Or at least he used to. He has excellent credit, though he’s likely oblivious to that fact.”

“He doesn’t live here?”

“He doesn’t actually matter. He’s been let go from his contract. What matters is that you tell the police you saw him at work, and that he quit and moved. You don’t need to give any details, just drop it in somewhere.”

“You want me to lie to the cops about some guy I’ve never met just to help you?”

Donna sighs. She spoons a bit of green wasabi paste into the soy sauce in the dish, and stirs it with her chopsticks. “This Oregon expansion is causing problems, in large part due to your father’s laziness in hiring you, and the aforementioned greedy desire for a charitable tax cut.”

“What do I have to do with Todd?”

“Todd was supposed to go completely under the radar, which he probably would have, except your father put in for yalova escort bayan his start date to be the same day as yours, and some of the associated paperwork had your boss as his superior. I think he just made a copy of yours. A type of internal audit triggered, and people started digging. They pulled a bunch of information over the weekend. I don’t know all the details, but if he’d followed the way we did it in Seattle, things would likely be fine. We had them set up to be each other’s superiors. Your father, and her. That was my idea.” Donna winces. “Without the audit, and the side project, we would have gone unnoticed here too.”

“You could have just texted me this.”

“I’m trying not to leave a paper trail, as you might imagine.” Donna’s hard brown glare burns into me. “They haven’t traced it back to me yet. I’m not sure they’ve connected all the dots. But they will.”

I ask, “Why would I help you?”

“This is in your best interest. We can get your bank stuff sorted, and your work, and school, and everything else. You’ll be okay.”

“I can do all that on my own.”

“I doubt that. The money is not going to be a thing until this is straightened out. And with your father getting caught, it might take a while for me to fix it.”

“What if I don’t want any part of this?”

“You have a way to pay for school? Your job doesn’t come close to covering that.”

“I’ll figure it out. I’ll get loans.”

“You’ll have those things forever.”

“Okay, then I’ll pay them off forever.”

Outside the restaurant, a bullhorn screeches, then a voice barks garbled orders over a loudspeaker. Sirens wail in the distance.

Donna sighs. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but think of your sister too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? And what was with all those questions you were asking her yesterday? You weren’t all ‘no phones’ secret about that stuff.”

“I was… fishing. All that information is already compromised. Your sister’s school is in jeopardy too.”

“She knows. We’ve talked about it.”

“Yes,” says the Red Haired Lady, with a hint of a smile. “I imagine you have.”

My stepmother reaches into her purse and retrieves a dark blue business card. Crimson nail polish slides the card across the table, with the raised embossed text facing me. In front of three horizontal black bars, a bird ducks in silhouette. Donna’s name is etched across the card below the lowest bar, with the title, “Vice President of Recruiting.”

Cadbury Mini Eggs, Sixlets, Sugar Daddies.

The waitress returns with two arcs of sliced rolls for my stepmother, and four pieces of salmon draped over white rice for me. Donna watches the waitress refill her water glass, and I slide my phone part way out of my pocket as subtly as I can manage. Two percent battery. I push it back in.

“The company we merged with here in Portland,” says Donna, “is across the street from your university.” She pinches a slice of one roll with chopsticks, and dips it into the soy sauce cocktail. “It’s actually right by the anthropology department.”

Tootsie Rolls, Blow Pops, Chocolate Bunnies.

“Over the past few months, I’ve been doing quite a bit of work in that facility.” She bites the dripping disk between her chopsticks, and chews.

“What does–“

Donna holds up her hand. She swallows. “The office is on the second floor of the building, over a mattress shop and a cell phone store.” The Red Haired Lady dips a second slice of the roll. “I’ve spent a number of mornings there. It’s got a nice view out over the street, and the school. And the transit stop is right below, across from our new sign.”

Pixy Stix, Jordan Almonds, Kinder Eggs.

Donna holds the dripping slice of sushi in front of her, while keeping me locked in her stare. Shouting comes from outside the window, but I can’t see anything through the painted sign. Something strikes the ground nearby, and the table vibrates under my arm.

“I’m almost impressed. In public, like that.”

For the first time since we sat down, I hope my phone is dead.

Donna eats the bite of sushi, and wistfully turns her head to the painted window, as though she were admiring a landscape. “Do you know how I found out about them?”

I picture her behind the glass wall of the building by the bus stop, red hair glaring down on a sacred moment.

“This shit.” Donna springs my dad’s phone from her purse, and waves it back and forth. She grips it so hard the bronze tan of her knuckles fades to white. “Your father. Is. Not. Careful. And neither are his children, it would seem. I actually called him when I found out. Or that night, rather. I’d stumbled upon their text conversation in his phone that morning before he left.” Donna winces, then grinds another piece of sushi between her teeth. “He was down here on one of his ‘business trips’.” She laughs as she chews. “It was a Friday night, and they were out on some sort of date at a park. I’m still surprised escort yalova he had the balls to cheat on me. And then he answered my call, like everything was fine.”

“Didn’t he cheat on my mother with you?”

The Red Haired woman studies me. “I seem to recall you had a girlfriend before this preternatural adventure of yours. What was her name?”

“Rachel. We broke up.”

One of Donna’s thin eyebrows floats higher. “Was she not exciting enough? Clearly Jessica shares your taste for exhibitionism.” She takes a tall drink of her water. “You’re not going to deny it?”

“I don’t see the point.”

“Hah.” Donna roars back, and her lips carve a smile of pristine ivory. “You own it, I’ll give you that. Now I see why she likes you. Though, if that’s what you two do in public, I shudder to think what your domestic escapades entail.”

Sirens pierce my ears from right outside the restaurant.

I look at my dad’s phone, held tight in Donna’s fist. “What are you going to do with that?”

“It depends. You can help me, and go back to whatever sort of life you’re living. Go hang out with Rachel, or–” She stops herself. “Whoever.”

“Or?” I say.

“Or, a court reporter transcribes all the sordid details of your life.” The Red Haired Lady rests her chopsticks across the tray in front of her. “What do you want to do?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Oh, the phone?” Donna shrugs. “It’s got a lot of details of our Seattle work on it, so it’s got to go. Originally, I was going to try to clean it out, but that was before your father got arrested. So I’ll probably back over it and toss the pieces in the Willamette River.”

Hot Tamales, Milk Duds, Cadbury Creme Eggs…

Jessica was biting down on a Creme Egg when I tried to yank the Easter basket out of her hand. The egg filling spurted out and ran over her lips down her chin, but she gripped the basket tight. I wanted to taste the Creme Egg, along with the rest of the candy she had. So I licked some of the sweet sticky filling off her cheek. When I pulled my face back, the basket came free of her hand. She screamed at me, but Mom made her clean her hands before she ran after me into the garden. Now I make other things drip down my sister’s chin.

I snap myself away from the phone in Donna’s hand, and ease back into her stare. “You’d really talk about Jessica and me like that to cover this up?”

“I’ll describe what I’ve seen,” says my stepmother, “And I’ve seen a lot more than I wish I had. I’m trying to fix this for you, for all of us. I prefer solutions to extortion, but I’ll do what I have to.”

“So, I say I’ve seen this Todd guy around, and then what? You forget all about Jessica and me? How’s this work?”

“More or less, yes.” Donna gestures with my dad’s phone while she speaks. She nods while chewing a bite of sushi, and her red curls bounce up and down.

If I had that phone, I’d have some bargaining power. I briefly entertain the idea of wresting it away from her, and running outside to the police dealing with the protest. But that seems like a good way to get tazed. I can see the headline. “Disheveled teenager robs woman in sushi bar, charges at peace officers.”

I watch her bouncing hair above the pads in her jacket shoulders, then there’s a loud bang from out in the plaza. More beeping from the megaphone, and a new call I haven’t heard before. Shouting from the crowd follows.

I’m trying to unpack the levels of publicity about my sister and me, but everything is far too recent to have any perspective. Jane knows. The Red Haired Lady knows. The rest of the world might know soon, sworn under oath in formal courtroom proceedings. I’d all but taunted the city with my display at the MAX station.

“Can I get you anything else?” The waitress reappears. She begins refilling Donna’s glass of water, but before the water reaches the top, a screeching siren pours in from the plaza. The waitress jumps, and jerks the water pitcher away, pouring a long stream of ice water down my stepmother’s jacket, and onto her skirt.

Donna screams, and drops everything she’s holding. The chopsticks disappear somewhere under her chair, and the phone rattles to a stop on top of the table between us. Before I give myself a chance to decide what to do, I swipe up my Dad’s phone, and hold it tight to my chest. Donna mops up the water with napkin after napkin, and the waitress scurries away to get a towel.

My stepmother makes a pile of wet napkins, then the waitress returns with a white dish towel, and begins apologizing profusely. Donna pushes the woman away, saying she’s fine. Eventually the waitress backs off, and leaves the Red Haired Lady to regain her composure.

Donna looks at me.

Then at my hand against my chest. The wheels begin to turn.

“Alex, can I have that, please?”

I breathe deep, and push my untouched fish into the middle of the table. I grab the business card, and stand up, sliding back my chair.

I take out my phone and it’s dead.

“Alex.” The brown wheels jerk back and forth. “Please give me that. What are you doing with your phone?”

“I was recording us, but it’s dead now.”

All the color drains from my stepmother’s tanned face, and may as well have taken some of the red out of her hair.

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