The Finger Trap
A Tony Flaner Mystery
By Johnny Worthen
Jolly Fish Press Copyright © 2015 Johnny Worthen
All rights reserved.
I sat down beside her on the little bed. I stole a glance at her shapely thighs and stroked her hair over her ear, preparing to plant the tenderest of kisses there.
She was cold. Low body fat had its drawbacks, I thought. I reached to pull the bedspread over her and brushed against her neck. It was cold. I put my hand on her thigh. It was cold too.
I rolled her over. She flopped like a stringless marionette. Half her face was pale as the nearby lace curtains, the other was a bruised plum.
I caught my breath like I'd stepped in an ice bath. I told myself not to jump to conclusions. Don't jump. Don't conclude. You're jumpy Tony, I said to myself. I often call myself Tony when I talk to myself. It's my name, so it works out.
I took a deep breath and returned to the room from my scattered brain.
Her eyes were open, her mouth agape. I touched her neck feeling for a pulse like I'd seen in the movies, but didn't know how or where to do it. I grabbed her wrist and felt nothing but more deathly chill. Finally, I pushed my aching head against her chest and listened. Hearing nothing, I pulled up her sweatshirt and saw a pink bra over her bruised body. I pushed my ear against her ribcage and listened for a long time — a long, dark time. She was still and lifeless and the cold crept out of her body and into my cheek.
The throbbing in my skull beat fast and sharp, hangover and heart-stopping stress, but with each beat came a healthy dose of adrenaline, which sobered me up fast. I sat on the floor collecting my wits, driving them into order from the nooks and corners of my mind where they'd gone to hide.
"Oh no. No. No no no no. This is trouble," I murmured. I often say the most obvious things in such low tones. "Yeah. Trouble."
In my underwear, on the floor of a dead girl's apartment, I traced this moment back to a group of Kubrickian widescreen Technicolor monkeys throwing bones at a black monolith. It was an inspiring and thought-provoking image but did little to help place me in my current situation. I fast-forwarded to a more recent moment, one I'd actually been a part of, one that hadn't won an Oscar. One that could serve as a starting point of my current misfortune. It had to do with marine life and luggage. Doesn't it always?
ABOUT A WEEK PREVIOUS
She looked like a fish.
"Thirty dollars is too much," she said.
I said, "I agree."
People don't usually look like fish. It takes a certain kind of physiognomy to pull it off. Very unique. In Mrs. Hall's case, she needed to have parents with recessive face-pinching genes, a touch of jaundice, collagen-engorged lips caked in burgundy lipstick, wild, enraged eyes — which my company, Fly Away, could take credit for — and a hair dresser with a sense of humor to perfectly flare the dyed blond hair bob to mimic fins. Plant that handsome head over a seafoam business suit and you'll find few wage slaves willing to take her seriously.
"But I have six bags," she said, trying to impress me with her math skills.
In fact, she had eight bags.
"That's why the extra charge is one hundred ninety-five dollars," I said, dazzling her with my math.
She stared at me, made to make a sound, but only opened and closed her mouth in sync to some unseen current. She clutched a purse the size of U-Haul trailer, occupied by a bug-eyed, panting mascot rat-dog surely burdened with some name like "Fluffy," "Little Darling," or "Kill Me Please." It shook and lunged at me from its depths. She also had the obligatory carry-on makeup case, which I knew had more industrial strength chemicals than a shoe bomb. I'd let the folks at security deal with those.
"But shouldn't it be one hundred-sixty dollars?" she said. It was a regular algebra quiz today.
"There're tax and fees associated with the transaction," I said, glancing at the line behind her. It snaked around crotch-high chrome pillars between nylon strap lanes, like the queue to the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Wait time from this point, forty-five minutes and growing. Pregnant women and people with a heart condition are advised to step away.
"This is outrageous," she said.
"Yes, I agree," I said, but Mrs. Hall thought I was patronizing her. I was, but not as much as she thought. I really thought the bag fee was a cheap move by Corporate, a bad idea stolen from a bigger bad airline that could afford to lose customers because bankruptcies and bailouts were part of their business plan. When the last Mrs. Hall refused to bend over and pay the ticket counter ransom, their shares would soar like the silver pencils in their commercials. And so, by the schoolyard business rules of follow-the-leader, dodgeball, and kick the can, bad service had become standard industry practice, naturally adopted by forward-thinking Fly Away Airlines — "Fly away with Fly Away." I didn't have to like the policy to get paid to dole it out. And, as far as I'd found, I didn't even have to keep my dislike of it to myself.
"Tony," she read my name from my badge, squinting down her nose in the antique gesture of condescension and nearsightedness oft abandoned today in favor of outright rudeness and hostility. Oh, the good ol' days.
"I'm a frequent flyer — over a hundred thousand miles — this is ridiculous."
I searched the blue computer monitor recessed in my desk. That thing had to be older than me. Did they even make monochrome displays anymore?
"I don't show any miles with Fly Away, Mrs. Hall," I said.
She stared at me with dull aquatic eyes, her lower lip quivering to either frame another objection or strain krill. I knew what she was going to say, and if the denizens of the line hadn't been looking around for the Angry Mob Outfitters kiosk, I would have let her bring the conversation around herself. As it was, I knew that a third of the line would miss their flight just because that's how things didn't work around here. If I really tried, and got lucky with the complaints, I might be able to get that down to a fourth.
"Mrs. Hall," I said. "If you'd read your mail, watched TV, or left your aquarium for more than an hour in the last year, you'd know that Escape Travel went belly-up like a dynamited trout. Your miles were with them. That company was bought out by Fly Away during bankruptcy. I'm afraid your miles didn't transfer, but your credit card number did. Your options are to either check your bags with me, leave them, or try your luck at the UPS kiosk in terminal four. They're cheaper but it could take a couple of days to get your bags. Also, that tribble there in your bag will need special treatment." I spoke softly in caring tones and hoped the speech didn't sound too rehearsed, too familiar. I punctuated it with my warmest, most understanding, most sympathetic face I'd perfected in my latest acting class.
"Fuck you," she said.
She produced a checkbook from beneath the rat and scribbled out the payment. She was so angry, she shook. Her hair flares bobbed and twitched in station-keeping oscillations. Her big, blank eyes stared death into the paper and her mouth moved in its soothing rhythm as she silently mouthed each word she wrote. She slapped the check on the counter and then put away her checkbook before I could ask for a check-guarantee card. But I did anyway.
"Are you serious?"
"Not usually," I said, but she wasn't listening. She could feel the pitchforks and torches massing behind her. After another minute of seething silence, I wished her a good flight and watched her swim away into the flow of humanity along the concourse.
I'd worked for Fly Away for six months. I applied for a job with Escape Travel, was interviewed during its bankruptcy and hired by Fly Away. My first day, they fingerprinted me, gave me an eighty-page manual on company policy and a sky-blue tie, and fitted me for a yellow sports coat. I never read the manual, I spilled curry on the tie three days in, but the sports coat was magic and I treasured it. It got me past security with a wave, allowed me access to the employee cafeteria and bar (a wonderful throwback to the Dean Martin days of travel), and couldn't be stained by tar or wrinkled with an iron. I'd had it dry-cleaned once and they'd starched it. For a week I felt like the tin man while I reworked the joints, calling for an oil can out of the corner of my mouth every hour or so, much to the irritation of my coworkers. Now when I need it cleaned, I just throw it in with my socks and wash it at home. I once tried to translate the Chinese label to divine what type of polycarbonate super plastic my jacket was forged from, but gave up after figuring the first three characters meant "fondling frogs to much joy." I suspect my translation was faulty.
I sympathize with modern travelers. People like me vex them, frustrate them, and humiliate them. We search them, screen them, rob them, and then, if they didn't complain, we'll identify them as suspicious and bring out the guys with the big fingers and blue rubber gloves just to see how far we can take it. There is a good reason weapons aren't allowed in airports; any sane person would use them after going through the post-9/11 hell of American air travel.
Mrs. Hall reminded me that I was coming up on my seven months. Seven months is the average time I stay at a job. Nancy, my wife, calculated it after five years of marriage. She went through my pay stubs and laid out a spreadsheet. She even had graphs, income variances, and some other statistical jargon I could only nod at. She was right. I didn't know it was seven months, but I knew my tolerances and suspected I displayed some biannual biorhythmic need for change. Seven months sounded good. I like seven. Most people like seven. It's the most common lucky number; the roulette number never left bare; the number of chakras, dwarves, and sins. And besides, it's prime. Wonderful. It measured me and my ability to tolerate what once I wanted.
I've had lots of jobs. Seldom has money been the reason for taking a job or leaving it. I just get disinterested in what I'm doing and build up a new interest somewhere else. I leap from job to job as my moods take me, fondling frogs to much joy. Before manning the complaint desk/ticketing counter at Fly Away, I carved headstones with a sandblaster. Before that, I drove deliveries for a consortium of businesses too small to warrant their own truck. Before that, I learned all I could about coffee and was a barista at a drive-through kiosk on Highland Drive. Each job was fun for a while. The barista was about four months. The headstone carver was about five. I drove for over a year though. I liked the time alone in the truck. I got through a huge backlog of books by listening to them while I drove. All in all, according to Nancy, I'd averaged seven months a job, while my marriage to her is fourteen years four months exactly, tomorrow. And scheduled for divorce.
I took the Fly Away job for a purpose: I wanted travel perks. Faced with my pending life-changing event, I figured a little trip would be just the thing when it happened. So, planning ahead — a rare and untried behavior in my life — I applied to every airline I could and, for my sins, I made it here.
"Hey, Tony, you ready for a break?" Mittens was speaking to me. He was a strong, short, stocky man of unplaceable origin. He could have been Cajun or a tanned Irishman, a Cherokee or an Italian, depending on the light and the phase of the moon. He was the baggage swinger. He rose through the ranks of baggage handlers to be a "swinger," which meant he got to stay up in the terminal where it was warm and deal with bags there, but he kept the nickname he earned on the frozen tarmacs. He liked me because he knew me from the time he was run over by a conveyer belt truck and was laid up in Western Peaks Hospital where I was stretching my seven months into nine as an orderly/CNA. Mostly I scrubbed up vomit.
"Look at this line, Mittens," I said. "I can't." The line was hellishly long with sad, suffering commuters.
"Rhonda's got them covered," Mittens said. "You've been on your feet since you got here."
"After this rush," I said. I felt for the poor slobs out there. Before working for Fly Away, I had once flown on Escape Travel and the lines were the same. Their blazers had been green, though.
I tried to explain to a family of six that there were no assigned seats on the plane. Since they'd be lucky to make the flight as it was, chances were they would not be sitting together.
"You can ask when you get on the plane. Nice people are not unheard of, even here. Look for the halos. Someone might change seats for you."
Crestfallen, the father wracked his mind and searched the counter for something to say. He was close to finding something when he was pushed aside.
"What am I supposed to do with Rags?" The fish had forced her way back to me. I looked at the family and pointed to my watch indicating that they better get moving.
"What rag are you on about?" I said.
She plucked the rat-dog out of her purse and thrust it in my face. A pink tongue darted for my eyes with an inbred urgency that went beyond desperation. It lunged and squirmed and twisted to get closer. That dog had to lick me or it would explode. I cringed, bracing myself against incoming Pomeranian shrapnel.
"They won't let me take my dog past security," she said.
"That's because they're not going to let you bring it on the plane either," I said.
"But other people have dogs." The angry crowd had gone silent, all eyes on us.
"Show me a dog," I said.
She pointed down the concourse. The whole line turned to look. They saw about a thousand people rushing along the white tiled hall but no dog.
"Those are people," I said.
"There was one. I saw it."
"Could have been a service animal, Seeing Eye dog, or folks traveling by charter. If not, security will send the phantom dog and its mythical owner back the way they came."
"Why didn't you tell me they wouldn't let me bring my dog?" she said.
"He did!" said a chorus of people behind her.
She ignored them. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Fuck me," I said. The crowd laughed. Callbacks are always so satisfying. She burned beet red. For an instant, I thought of telling her to go to the back of the line and I'd deal with her later; she needed to be taught some manners. But I didn't. I'm not a total jerk, just mostly, as my friends tell me.
"Mittens?" I called. "Can you take care of Mrs. Fish's animal?"
"Mrs. Hall," she corrected.
"Come over here, Ma'am," he said.
"Will I miss my flight?" she asked.
I was about to say yes, when the flight board shuddered. "Delayed" flashed next to her flight and the one under it and the one under that. In a moment, every flight that could be listed on the board was "delayed."
"Looks like you'll make it," I said.
Later, I learned that one of the Tetris crew had driven a baggage cart into a United Airlines landing gear. The delay was only four hours, ten times longer than it should have taken, but a respectable time for these days. And so, for once, I got through my entire line confident that no one would miss their flight because of me. Then, of course, all morning flights were ultimately cancelled.
After lunch, I saw the same tired, angry faces as I had that morning, and I knew it was time to go. I should have walked out then and there, but I was determined to hold on a while longer. I had those travel plans coming up, and though I felt the familiar push to leave, there was no accompanying pull. I hadn't fallen into another interest yet. That was strange.
"You going to be at the Cellar this week?" Mittens asked, kicking a duffel onto the conveyer belt. The Cellar was the Comedy Cellar, a dive bar entertainment establishment for the hip and unshaved.
"Probably Friday," I said. "Wayne Matticks is performing. I'd like to see him."
"But not Wednesday?" Wednesday was open mic night. I sometimes did a set then.
"Nah. I got family stuff."
"Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting you're married," he said.
I almost corrected him, but I didn't feel like going into it. I could see the afternoon lines thickening, and I braced myself to see all the nice people from the morning again.
"God, not her again," I said as she swam up to my counter.
"Hello, Mrs. Hall," I said. "Good to see you again." Big smile.
"I hope you die," she said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Finger Trap by Johnny Worthen. Copyright © 2015 Johnny Worthen. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
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