Kross was due back that Monday. I'd assumed he would return towards the evening, given the time difference between Toronto and Vancouver. When night had fallen for good and he still hadn't showed up, I checked for phone messages. I had maybe twenty fresh enquiries about the stuff I'd just sold to James. At least a couple had an I-definitely-want-something quality, and I briefly regretted selling everything so fast. But then I had to do it, I was in a rush – in four days' time I would be flying over the Atlantic.
Kross's message was last. He still had trouble laying his hands on Greenbottle's book; he made a reference to a message left earlier, which I must had erased along with Donna's instalment drama. He proposed to stay in Vancouver till Monday; he was sure the book would be in his hands by then. He hoped that I wouldn't fail to put up my share of the money for our African trip: his Vancouver visit was getting expensive.
I was feeling like shit from the vaccine. I spent most of Sunday thinking about money, the money I still had to raise. I just had to score with Hercules, squeeze a refund from the manager: I definitely wasn't going to ask my old man to cash a bond. The Hercules manager would probably be owner or part-owner of the whole storage enterprise. Getting a refund wasn't going to be easy. I racked my brain for ways and means and remembered Stuart Jerome Stuart's words of wisdom: that appearances are important.
That reminded me I still had keys to the BMW. I fancied that if I asked Donna, she would've gladly let me use it as needed; she wouldn't have missed such an opportunity to prove her moral superiority. And this was exactly why I chose to do things differently on Monday.
On Monday, I began by dressing with care. I unwrapped a new shirt I'd been saving for the interview that never came, and spent ten minutes looking for my best black shoes. I put on the only suit I still had - a versatile black Italian number that fit funerals, parties, and job interviews equally well. I tied a narrow black tie, repeatedly combed my hair, applied aftershave, and generally primped myself like a courtesan before a tryst with the king. I just had to prevail over the Hercules manager. Without the refund, I was sunk.
I arrived at Donna's office building at twenty past ten. The big ground floor lobby was deserted - there were just two junior exec types standing by the elevator doors. One of them threw me a suspicious glance when I pressed the 'down' button; they were waiting to go up. I hoped he wasn't employed at Donna's law firm. Their elevator arrived first, and I was temporarily left standing alone. The security guard who was pacing back and forth near the entrance threw me a couple of curious looks: it could have been my snazzy suit, but most likely he was trying to work out whether he'd seen me before.
I rode down to the second level of the underground parking lot - I thought I knew Donna's parking spot, I'd been there with her, but I forgot she'd been promoted in the meantime. I spent several anxious minutes before I located the BMW. It looked very modest in its new neighborhood, which consisted of a Mercedes, two Porsches, and a Maserati.
I got into the car, put the key into the ignition and then spent a minute sitting still and getting used to the situation. The car smelled differently than I remembered it: I fancied I caught a faint whiff of an unfamiliar but distinctly male aftershave. I grimaced and started the engine and drove to the exit with an owner's dash and confidence.
It worked. The attendant guarding the exit had started to raise the barrier almost as soon as I swung into view. I gave the gas pedal a final prod before taking my foot off, and the car coasted past the steel and glass kiosk with a throaty burble. I caught a glimpse of a pale, startled face that tried and failed to match me with the car. Then I was accelerating up the ramp to the street, and darting into the mid-morning traffic.
It was nearing eleven when I parked right in front of the Hercules reception building window. There was a different guy moving around inside the Hercules office - short and stout, bald, fiftyish, with gold wire-framed glasses that flashed ominously when he threw a look in my direction. It was a managerial glance, all right: my presence was noted, then dismissed in the space of a second.
I straightened my tie and I went in. The manager was now seated at the desk, pretending to be totally immersed in a document. I had to say good morning twice just to get him to look up at me. It made me angry. I remembered what the pony-tailed James had told me: you've got to show them you mean it.
"Are you the manager?" I asked sharply, letting a note of incredulity creep into my voice. He got all puffed up so suddenly that he just had to stand up. He was wearing a dark blue blazer with the Hercules/Hermes logo and a pair of dusty black slacks. He said:
"I am the owner."
"I'm one of your customers," I said. This put him on automatic, and he actually walked up to the counter. He had a very stately walk.
I decided that I was dealing with a small-potatoes millionaire. He was likely a real estate hustler who got some money together, and had had the brainwave that storing other people's things would provide an extra return on a land lot he already owned. He seemed to be a guy who needed to be protected by all the trained Dobermans he could get. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have any in his office.
"And what can I help you with," he sneered, and peered at me over his glasses with what he probably thought was a piercing gaze. He had dark, wet eyes, the eyes of a poseur.
"You can help me with plenty. Five days ago, my wife rented a cubicle here in my name for a full year, without my knowledge or consent. I don't need it. I'd like a refund." I put my receipt and the cubicle key on the counter. He picked up the receipt and studied it.
"Is this your signature?" he said. Damn Donna and her insistence on signing her full name, with an extra big, rounded D at the beginning (the H in Hansen is half the size. I guess a graphologist would draw conclusions). I said:
"I just finished telling you my wife rented the cubicle."
He nodded several times. He seemed to be enjoying the situation: he was enjoying it because he was about to exert his Herculean powers, and refuse to refund me the money. He said:
"I'm sorry. I can only discuss a refund with the person that actually signed the agreement. And in any case, this agreement constitutes a binding contract. Refunds through no fault of our own aren't part of our policy."
He put the receipt back on the counter. Then he walked back to his desk and sat down.
The counter reached my ribs but I was over it in a flash, as if I'd been vaulting counters all my life. I was by his chair before he had time to get up. I grabbed his lapels and dragged him out and, partly because I was about to lose my balance, swung him into the wall. He hit it with a satisfying double thump with both his back and his head; an alarmed file cabinet clattered briefly.
He tried to grab my wrists, and I used a tried and true schoolyard tactic: I kicked his shin. His face screwed up with pain and he dropped his arms to his sides. I released one lapel and took a handful of his shirt, pulling the collar tight. His glasses slid off and dangled by one earpiece. He had bad breath.
"Listen, you dumb asshole," I said, and saw my spittle landing on his face. "I told you I want a refund." I tightened my grip on the shirt.
"Eleven months' worth. You still get a full month's fee, and I'll go easy on you: you can give me an even thirteen hundred. And spare me any whining about the insurance premium: we both know you own the broker, too. Now get busy writing checks."
I swung him over and threw him at the desk. He offered no resistance at all. He nearly fell down and had to grab the desk for support, his glasses finally falling off.
"Get moving, you sad clown," I said. I took a step towards him and he got into his chair very quickly. He threw a glance at the telephone, opened a drawer - I tensed - and brought out a big corporate checkbook, one of those that have four check forms per page. He blinked, and I bent down and picked up and then tossed his glasses onto the desk.
"Get writing," I said. He did, and paused almost instantly. He asked:
"Who do I make this to?"
"Leave that blank. Just thirteen hundred dollars, and your signature. What the fuck are you waiting for?" I made a move as if to grab him and he got going. It took him three tugs to tear the check out; his hand was trembling.
I examined the check before folding it into my wallet. My wallet was a present from Donna, so it was fairly posh. She invariably bought me a new one each Christmas: a little bit of innocent black magic that failed to work. I let the defeated Hercules see my wallet; he was sure to know all about wallets and get the message. I said:
"I'll be back if there's any trouble with that check."
When I made it to the car, I had to use both hands to get the key into the ignition lock. My feet kept bouncing off pedals. I sat and waited for a while with the engine idling, looking at the owner of Hercules Security and Storage. He was sitting at his desk and doing his best to ignore my presence outside. He looked at the telephone on his desk several times, but didn't touch it. I had scared him badly, and when I realized that he was genuinely frightened I calmed down, and drove away.
I stopped as soon as I was out of sight and consulted the city map in the glove compartment. As I suspected, the bank branch on which the check was drawn was nearby, and fifteen minutes later I had the thirteen hundred in cash in my pocket.
I made it back to Donna's office building without trouble, turned down the ramp into the parking lot and stopped at the lowered barrier. The same attendant was sitting in the kiosk; we looked at each other. He couldn't have been much more than twenty, they probably asked him for ID in bars. He winked at me, and raised the barrier.
I put the car where it belonged: I left my keys in the ignition. Then I went straight to my bank. I made a big deposit and checked the exchange rate again; it had improved slightly, I easily had the money needed for my stake.
I went home and began waiting for Kross to arrive.
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