A Plague of Scoundrels - Excerpts

"A Plague of Scoundrels"





Three days after I had moved my stuff into Bockman’s San Francisco apartment, I retrieved a voice message from my worthless agent. His fake bonhomie instructed me to get some new material, something funny, and report for a four-week gig at the What’s Up? Comedy Club. I would be one of several second-string comedians that rounded out the bill. Hippo Hyman was the headliner.

Working with Hippo was fine with me. Our professional careers had crisscrossed for years. We ran the same race, but he was the track favorite, while I was the dark horse. I considered him sort of an overstuffed mentor. He admitted to weighing three hundred fifty pounds. Hippo would quip he achieved the results by adhering to a strict vegan diet. I liked his humor, and he liked me. He referred to our comedic friendship as Fatman and Robin.

* * *

“Elliot, my man,” Hippo bellowed at me when he appeared backstage after the final Saturday night show. “You murdered them tonight.” Hippo was dripping sweat onto the floor. “Best performance I’ve heard you do in a year. You had tonight’s audience by their privates. Let’s celebrate with a case of beer.”

“I have nothing against drinking except my empty wallet.” I turned my pants pockets inside out and let them dangle. “No filthy money soils my artistic integrity.”

“My treat.”

Hippo made good money and had a quick hand for the check. This rare combination of traits endeared him to me. We walked a half-block to his favorite bar. To put a fine point on it, I walked, Hippo waddled. He rationed his walking, but not his consumption. I admired his priorities.

* * *

Later that night, I counted it a major victory to have found the right Chinatown alley, considering my inebriated state. Wing Fu’s neon sign was out of focus, and my feet had developed a tendency to stray, both consequences of Hippo’s generous bar tab. I executed a precise ninety-degree turn and marched down to my new pad in Bockman’s basement apartment.

My landlord hadn’t turned on the welcome-home light, and the reflected glow from Wing’s beacon did a poor job of illuminating the apartment entrance. The stairwell was an inky black hole. Toes down, I searched for each step edge and made it unscathed to my door. Wonder of wonders, I inserted the key in the lock on my first try.

The living room ceiling fixture cast a feeble glow. Shadows pushed back at the gloom—dark color where the furniture squatted, light gray in the open spaces. I vowed to replace the underachieving light bulb with the highest wattage I could screw into the overhead socket. After all, the electric bill was my landlord’s problem.

Then there it was—the box. Bockman’s wooden crate rested against his locked door. The box had disappeared the same day as Bockman. I hadn’t heard from him since he had left that day to meet Lady Greyhurst, whoever she really was. Probably nothing more than a computer-generated girlfriend for that lonely nerd.

I detoured over to the box and pressed one ear against Bockman’s door, listening for any sound. Nothing. Did some secret delivery service have a key to the apartment? I did a cursory search of the kitchen, bathroom, and my bedroom. Nothing seemed missing or amiss. Not that I had anything worth stealing, but the thought was disquieting.

The top cover of the box looked a bit charred around the edges. I lifted the lid, more out of duty than anticipation, and stirred my hand around the inside of the box without hitting anything. Then my fingertips touched something on the bottom.

I fished out a rolled-up scroll neatly tied with a black ribbon. A glob of red wax secured the message. A circle of etched roses surrounding the initials EB was pressed into the seal—Edward Bockman, my landlord.

I retreated to my bedroom and flopped on the sagging mattress, broke the seal and unrolled the letter.

Mr. Vail:
I must share my adventure. Missed my stop and found myself in the English countryside by mistake. A local peasant woman assisted me in getting to London, where I have leased a quaint wooden house in the teeming city. It is from these dwellings that I venture forth to meet Lady Greyhurst. Exciting times. The trip was a bit rough on the body. Send a large bottle of extra-strength aspirin via the box.
Your humble servant,
E. Bockman.

Why use this particular box for delivery? That was weird, but then, everything about Bockman had been off-kilter. I held his note up to the light. The message was written on vellum, not paper. From the appearance of the ink script, Bockman could have scrawled the note with a quill pen. The guy was really into authentic trappings. Where did one go nowadays to buy sheepskin parchment and quill pens? I rolled the message back into a tight cylinder and retied it. Bockman had forgotten to ask me to buy a screwdriver to fix his loose screws.

I splurged for a super-sized container of aspirin for my first delivery to Bockman. It looked kind of lonely in the box, so I added a bottle of Ibuprofen as a bonus. I scooted the box over against Bockman’s door. When I returned after the show, someone’s nighttime delivery service had picked up the box from inside my locked apartment.

* * *

A week after it disappeared, the box showed up again outside Bockman’s door. Enclosed was another request list of everyday items that he could have bought for himself at any drugstore. My landlord must be hanging out in the boonies.

That afternoon at the Club, I showed Bockman’s list to Hippo and tried to interest him in my mystery. But he made jokes out of everything I said about the absent Bockman and his Robin Hood costume. Hippo had no respect for my story. He considered the whole event as a new comedy routine I was trying out on him.

“You want merry men? Try the Leather Lounge in SoMa,” he said. “I want to be Friar Tuck. Now, where did I put my monk’s robe?”

I gave up and went shopping at the local drugstore. Six rolls of double-ply toilet paper, three large bars of strongly scented soap, and ointment for head lice. I returned to the apartment, tossed the purchased items into the box, and knocked on Bockman’s door. No one answered.

I kicked off my shoes and lay back on the bed to grab a nap before heading over to the What’s Up? Club for my evening performance. Questions about Bockman jumped all over my attempts to snooze, like horses in a steeplechase. Bockman’s box defied logic by shuttling back and forth without evidence of anyone’s intervention. Something goofy, other than Bockman, was going on.

* * *

Thanks to good reviews and the month-long gig at the Club, my career as a comedian was picking up. My agent managed to book me into some comedy clubs in Reno and Las Vegas. Truth be told, by the time I got home from my travels and performances, my sole interest was to sleep in a familiar bed with my head nestled in a goose-down pillow.

Bockman and I continued to play box-tag on and off for three weeks, always following the same routine: check the list, buy the stuff, and send it off. Bockman neither wrote an explanation of why he wanted an item nor any personal details. Then, a few days after fulfilling his latest order, the box returned, looking more beat-up than usual.

Bockman had reinforced the corners with iron straps, held in place with handmade square nails. He had also penned a letter. The greeting had become more personal. Maybe he was getting homesick.

Elliot, my dear friend:
Reality intrudes on romance. When in love, one must take the bad with the good. Send the following: 1. Room air freshener. Solid. No aerosol spray.
2. Rat traps. Four.
3. Two large tubes of anti-yeast-infection medicine. Maximum strength. (King Charles II may have had a good reason to secure a new mistress.) I am annoyed to discover the hotheaded Lord Weston believes he has a prior claim on Lady Greyhurst’s affections. Sorting this all out. London streets so narrow my house almost touches the neighbor’s. Might return home sooner than planned. Bockman.
PS: Send a dozen rolls of breath mints.

I estimated what it would cost to fill his latest order and came up short. I handwrote a brief note requesting additional funds, doubling the amount so I wouldn’t have to fuss with money issues anytime soon. Bockman was already dealing with bad news. A little more wouldn’t hurt.

* * *

No snooze alarm for me. I depended on overpowering urges for bladder relief as my alarm clock in the morning. Imprecise but reliable.

I emerged from the bathroom and headed to the kitchen to switch on the coffee pot. I was in the midst of my morning routine—combing my hair with my hand, rubbing my eyes, stretching and scratching—when I noticed Bockman’s box had returned sometime during the night. The stealthy delivery service was up to its old tricks.

Fortified with caffeine, I opened the crate. A linen-wrapped bundle lay on the bottom. The package’s weight surprised me. I moved to the kitchen countertop and unfolded the cloth, spreading it out on the surface. I’m no expert on old-time lingerie, but the garment sure looked like a woman’s petticoat, slip, shift, or whatever ladies used to wear under their long skirts. This garment didn’t look like underclothing my ex-wife or female friends wore.

I did recognize the contents, though. A silver teapot, a pewter charger and Bockman’s gold signet ring with the initials EB carved into its face. A rolled-up slip of parchment was inserted through the ring.

Vail, old buddy:
Sell these items. Keep half the money for expenses. Send my share in gold or silver bars. No coins or paper money.
Many parts of London are filthy and disease-ridden. The city is a disaster waiting to happen. It is far worse than I anticipated. One must be careful.

I toted Bockman’s treasures to the A-2-Z Pawnshop. The owner, Abe Zimmerman, had a reputation for screwing you fairly. Lots of out-of-work actors will testify to that fact as well as a few struggling comedians.

“Elliot.” Zimmerman looked up from his computer monitor with an earnest smile. “You don’t have to answer my questions if you prefer to play dumb.” He caressed the teapot with tenderness reserved for newborn babies. “My database of silver antiques shows a similar teapot at the Potter museum in London. This is seventeenth-century, Charles II, English silver. A rare find.”

“How about the charger and the signet ring?”

“Perhaps, Mr. Vail, we can do business,” Zimmerman said. He took out a silver polishing cloth and buffed the teapot with a gentle rub. The finish shone as if it were new. “God forbid I should ask questions about these items. And, if anybody asks, I have a bad memory.”

Zimmerman struggled to keep a poker face, but I sensed his excitement. Why else would he call me Mister? I kept glancing out the window, half expecting a cop to charge through the door in response to some silent alarm Zimmerman might have triggered.

“Well,” I said, “how much will you give me for them?”

“You have a choice,” he said in a fatherly voice. “I can give you a fair price, and we can do a lot of paperwork. You can answer questions on provenance . . .” He left the word hanging in the shop’s musty air.

“I thought Provence was in southern France,” I quipped. Zimmerman stayed business serious. “Okay,” I said, “I assume cash right now moves the price’s decimal point.”

“Of course.”

Zimmerman selected a pen from a coffee cup filled with a half-dozen cheap pens. The type retailers keep next to the cash register so customers can steal them without guilt. His choice was a bright-green pen with Foggy City Motel printed on the side.

I rubbed my thumb and index finger together, giving him the universal money gesture. He gave me his most reassuring-the-customer smile as he cupped his hand over a notepad. To shield his writing from the shop’s security camera mounted against the crown molding. I lifted his hand off the pad just enough to see the price he had written.

“And the charger?” Maybe it would be worth more than I thought. We did another round of dollar hide-and-peek. Zimmerman was winning this provenance game.

“Changed my mind,” I said. “The gold ring isn’t part of the deal.” Bockman’s signet ring had to have a special place in that little guy’s heart. My ex and I had been through the anguish of giving and getting rings back again.“It’s a family heirloom.”

My voice had an unexpected hard edge to it. I’d save the ring for Bockman. Besides, if he didn’t show up, I’d have a memento of Robin Hood and His Magic Box. Abe shrugged. He must have seen lots of raw emotion in the pawn business.

“This very minute is a good time to decide,” Zimmerman urged with palms uplifted.

“Okay. But the money has to be right now and in gold or silver ingots,” I said. “You got any squirreled in your safe?”

Abe didn’t blink an eye. Nodded as if all his customers wanted bullion instead of dollars. He probably melted down any unclaimed jewelry.

I tightened the waistband of my sweats to make sure my pants would stay in place and put my share of the small gold bars into one pocket, Bockman’s share into the other. The gold felt heavy, substantial, in my pocket. There was comfort in that feeling. Toting gold in my pants was a new experience.

Back in the apartment, I wrapped Bockman’s ingots in the petticoat and laid the bundle in the bedraggled box. I wanted to ring a bell or press a button to let Bockman know his stash was available. Instead, I headed out to the What’s Up? A man has to earn bread to eat.

© Copyright 2008 by Jon Cory

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