The firm of Underberg & Lamm, P.C. occupied the twentieth floor of a building in midtown. From a partner’s corner office one could see the park behind the library, where in the summer the grassy expanse was daily colonized by readers and sunbathers and others who didn’t need to be anywhere else. It was no longer summer, but it wasn’t yet winter enough for the temporary ice skating rink to go up. It was merely fall: gray and crisp.
The twentieth floor of the building in midtown near the park behind the library was not very large, though it was sufficient to serve the personnel and accoutrements of the firm, which was small. A single corridor ran through the center of the regular, rectangular space, with the elevator opening directly onto the corridor and opposite the small reception area. The lawyers’ individual offices were all on one side of the corridor—the reception side; the paralegals’ and secretaries’ cubicles were on the other. Each restroom was on the elevator side as well, though with the elevator between them, for some reason. So it was that when Mason Blank—not a partner of the firm, just an associate of the partners, albeit their senior associate—exited the men’s room to return to his office, past the reception area, about two-thirds of the way to the other end of the corridor, he saw a woman—tall, black—who was not an employee of the firm walking toward him. They passed in the corridor. Mason Blank stepped into his office, sat in his chair, then stood and left his office again, walking to the reception desk.
“Chevelle,” he asked the firm’s receptionist, a voluptuous young woman who was pleasant enough but whose habit of including an unnecessary “actually” in almost everything she told anyone made it plain to Mason that her continued employment was more due to her décolletage than to her demeanor, “who was that woman?”
“Who?” Chevelle asked Mason.
“Tall black woman,” Mason described, with a practiced patience. He wasn’t looking for an extended exchange with the receptionist; he was looking for a simple answer to a simple question. The woman in question wasn’t an existing client, Mason knew. She could have been a new client, or a prospective one, in which case she would be just then meeting with Mr. Underberg, if she wasn’t in one of the chairs in reception... but Mason himself was usually in those initial meetings as well, being that he was the one who was going to do most of the work for the client.
“She actually just left.”
“That’s fine,” Mason said, realizing then that he had heard the bell of the elevator chime when he’d returned to his office just before, after having passed the woman in the corridor. “But who was she?” He had been practicing patience with receptionists as long as he’d been practicing law, about ten years.
“I actually don’t know,” Chevelle said. “She asked to use our ladies’ room.”
And she could have just come out of the women’s room when Mason had seen her, sure... but she also could have just come out of his office, which was indirectly opposite the women’s room on the hallway. And who goes to an office on the twentieth floor of a building to ask to use a bathroom?
Mason dashed to his office, closed his office door enough to be able to get to his overcoat, reached into the inside breast pocket of his coat, where he kept his wallet, and found the pocket empty. His wallet was gone. It wasn’t where he believed he’d left it, anyway.... Mason went to his desk, to make sure he hadn’t put his wallet there—or anywhere else in the room—then checked the other pockets of his coat. He forced himself to recall having in fact seen his wallet that morning—and he remembered that indeed he had: He’d ridden the train into work, and his train pass was in his wallet, always... but had he dropped it on the train, perhaps? No—he’d bought breakfast before coming up to the office. So finally he returned to the reception desk and told Chevelle, “I think the woman who asked to use the ladies’ room stole my wallet.”
“What?” Chevelle asked Mason.
Pay attention! Mason thought. He said: “Call the lobby. Tell them to stop the woman if she hasn’t yet left the building. She’s tall, black, late thirties or early forties. And also ask why they let her up here in the first place. Aren’t they supposed to call you before they let anyone come up?”
“They actually didn’t,” Chevelle asserted.
“Fine. You call them now.”
Mason Blank needed his wallet back, and much more than he knew he would be wise to let on, at the office or anywhere. For Mason’s wallet contained not just things that he’d have preferred not to have to replace but also something not quite replaceable. Something he’d gotten just the night before, as it happened, and something he’d known he shouldn’t keep in his wallet. And he’d had every intention of not keeping it in his wallet, of putting it somewhere very safe, maybe even in an actual safe. But he hadn’t right away, and now it was gone, with everything else in his wallet—and his wallet itself—all of the rest of which, compared to that one thing, was just so much commonplace, unremarkable stuff.
Godfuckingdamnit, Mason thought. Not even twenty-four hours—not even one whole fucking day—and this happens.
An hour later, Mason Blank was describing the unfamiliar woman to a pair of uniformed police officers from the Midtown South Precinct in the firm’s conference room-cum-library.
“Tall, black, late thirties or early forties,” Mason told them. “Large coat.” It only made sense that she’d been wearing a large coat, Mason realized, if she was stealing wallets. “I didn’t get a good look at her,” he admitted. Mason was calm. He appeared calm, anyway. He had nothing to hide from the police. Nothing more than what he was hiding from everyone, that is, but the police had no reason to suspect him of being anything other than a victim of petty theft.
“Office creeper,” one of the cops told Mason, teaching him a new term, though one he’d have been happier to learn under different circumstances. “She goes from building to building,” the officer explained, “asks to use the restroom, steals wallets and purses and whatever else she can find and take quickly. Your wallet was where?”
“In my coat,” Mason answered. “On the back of my office door.”
“That’s a riskier grab than most office creepers are willing to go for,” one cop mentioned.
“Cancel your credit cards,” the other cop recommended. Well, of course, Mason thought. They’re not going to find the woman. Even if they do, she won’t have my wallet.
As if he knew what Mason was thinking, the first cop affirmed as much: “It’s very unlikely that we’ll locate the suspect. We believe she’d already left the building by the time the lobby desk was made aware of her presence. We’re going to sweep each floor anyway, just to be sure, but don’t get your hopes up.”
“These things happen, unfortunately,” the first cop added. “It’s inconvenient, but at the end of the day it’s just money. I can’t even tell you to be more careful in the future. It’s just a lousy circumstance.” Mason appreciated the attempt at... well, whatever the cop was attempting. He thanked the officers for their help, but he knew they had much bigger fish to fry—this was New York City, after all. Manhattan alone had a population of some 1.5 million persons, each of them now potentially in a little bit more danger than they’d been just earlier that morning.
The guard on duty in the lobby and the building manager had already apologized to Martin Underberg, the man who paid the rent for the twentieth floor (and expected not to have his firm’s office robbed). Chevelle (actually) felt awful about having let the tall, black woman in the large coat—unknown to her and with no apparent business with the firm—use the ladies’ room; Chevelle would not lose her job, though.
And Mr. Underberg generously offered to replace—immediately, from the office petty cash fund—whatever money had been in his senior associate’s wallet, which Mason estimated was seventy-five bucks, although Mason knew it might have been less than that much. It also might have been more, but less was likelier than more—a thought Mason kept to himself.
“That’s really nice of you,” Mason told his boss. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Having your wallet stolen from your office is a pretty shitty thing,” Martin Underberg opined. “If you can’t feel safe at work, where can you?”
“Right,” Mason agreed.
“Make sure you cancel your credit cards.”
“Already done,” Mason said.
“And get new condoms.”
Mason laughed with his boss and hoped that he was (still) doing a good job of (still) giving the appearance of being just the right amount of upset. Not that anyone would believe him, probably, if they knew why he was in reality much more upset about the incident than he was pretending to be, for everyone’s benefit. And, if he was to be honest with himself, if anyone knew why he was so upset—if anyone were to believe him, if he were to come clean, as it were—he’d probably lose his job. But at Underberg & Lamm, Mason Blank had finally found a job he liked and wanted to keep. Office cultures typically rubbed him very much the wrong way, but there he felt comfortable. His colleagues were—if not quite family, at least friends. Theo Lamm was mostly a myth, a name partner who was rarely seen at the office of the firm, but the junior partner, Jane Lockwood, was always willing to help Mason decipher Martin Underberg’s sometimes less-than-clear-or-consistent directives. Mason often socialized—during work hours, anyway—with the other two associates, Steve and Rachel, neither of whom presented a threat to Mason professionally, both of whom accepted assignments from him unbegrudgingly. And Mason had nothing bad to say about any of the staffers; he even liked one paralegal enough to have slept with her more than once and never have told anyone.
So, for the sake of harmony in the workplace at least, Mason was more than happy to let everyone continue to believe that he’d merely lost what anyone would lose if his wallet had been stolen. The usual things. Nothing strange. Nothing dangerous. Nothing unholy. Nothing like that.
But even before he’d called to cancel his credit cards and report various other cards stolen, he’d called to make an appointment to see someone in person, to tell her that he’d lost what she’d given him just the previous evening. Because he’d had to leave a message with an intermediary, he hadn’t gone into any detail, though. He’d just said it was important and that time was of the essence.
Mason ate lunch in his office—a selection from the pay-by-weight hot and cold buffets in the restaurant off the lobby of the building he worked in, a boon on inclement days, if a bit pricey—then made himself a fresh cup of coffee in the office kitchenette, despite that he was very much on edge. He returned to his desk to find a While You Were Out note waiting there—though he’d been “out” all of two minutes—from Chevelle. The message was “See me,” which was odd, at least in that receptionists typically did not word requests of that nature in that fashion to senior associates. But Mason didn’t dwell on it; he simply went to see Chevelle.
“You just got a call,” Chevelle said, “about your wallet.”
That didn’t surprise Mason. One or another of his credit card companies probably needed him to confirm something or——
“Someone found it.”
“What?” Mason asked. “Seriously? Someone”—here Mason cringed internally, but pressed on—”actually found it?” And Chevelle couldn’t have come looking for him...?
Chevelle handed him a scrap of copier paper. On it was an address, just blocks away, and a name: Dan.
“The caller said that one of his employees found your wallet in a garbage can near the bus station. You can pick it up at that address anytime.”
Mason presumed that “anytime” meant during business hours, Monday through Friday, but it didn’t matter. “I’m going right now,” he told Chevelle. “Let Martin know.”
Mason put on his coat and got on the elevator.
Ten minutes later Mason was in a wholesale fabric store—more like a small warehouse with an office to one side—being handed his wallet by the man who had called Mason’s office, Dan, and being told by Dan what Dan had told Chevelle: “One of my guys found it in a garbage can by the bus station. I didn’t ask him why he was looking in garbage cans, by the bus station or anywhere. I assume you also don’t care.”
“I sure don’t,” Mason told Dan. “Is... your guy here?” Mason wasn’t looking at Dan; rather, he was looking through his returned wallet. Ostensibly, the damage was minimal: Only the cash—including the two-dollar bill Mason had kept stashed in a compartment where cash isn’t traditionally kept, though not because he thought it was lucky or otherwise particularly special, but just because he didn’t want to be tempted to spend it in a pinch—and his subway pass were missing. But the other thing that Mason was afraid he’d lost with his wallet, unfortunately, also was gone—unfortunately and curiously, because it was nothing with any obvious value, as the cash and subway pass were. Yet he’d have traded all of what he’d just gotten back, against all odds, for that item.... “I’d like to thank him,” Mason finished what he’d started to say.
“He went out again,” Dan said. “On a delivery. I’ll let him know.”
“I’ll stop by again later. With something for his trouble.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that,” Dan said of his guy.
“Thank you,” Mason said to Dan. “This is... no small thing.”
“You bet,” Dan said.
But there was a small thing that was very important. Or, rather, not important so much as... better—much better—in Mason’s possession than out of it, and without any question better in his hands than in anyone else’s. He knew that getting it back was now beyond unlikely, though. If the office creeper had taken it, then it was gone, wholly lost to Mason. There was some consolation to that likelihood, though: The item had the potential to be of much more trouble than use to the thief, which might result in an appropriate ending to the scenario, after a fashion. The wrinkle was that the office creeper might not keep the thing for herself, in which case it might cause trouble for someone who didn’t deserve it, because he or she hadn’t been the one who’d stolen Mason’s wallet.
There was another possibility, though, and it was that Dan’s guy—whose name Mason realized he’d not gotten from Dan, so Mason had to keep thinking of him in that relative, unintentionally demeaning way—had taken the item, but that seemed so much less likely. Even knowing nothing about Dan’s guy, Mason figured that the thing would not attract that man’s interest.
Mason’s suspicion in that regard, at least, was borne out when he finally did meet Mason’s employee—Luis—first thing the next morning, when Mason thanked him personally for not just finding Mason’s wallet but turning it in to his boss, gave him twenty dollars as a token of his gratitude—Mason had gotten his ATM card back!—and asked Luis, without prevarication, whether he had happened to notice in Mason’s wallet, or in or near the trash can where the wallet had been, the thing Mason was still hoping against hope to recover. Luis said that he had not, and Mason believed him.
And that was that. All that was left for Mason to do then was keep the meeting he’d eventually been able, the previous afternoon, to arrange and hope that the old woman could do something—though Mason had no idea if she would be able to. It wasn’t something they’d discussed the first time they’d met, because losing what he’d originally arranged to see her to obtain—immediately or even eventually—was barely conscionable.
The old woman wouldn’t be able to see Mason until that evening, though, so he continued on to work, hoping—praying—that nothing terrible would happen while he was keeping himself busy—and distracted—drafting motion papers and researching case law and taking care of whatever else was on his plate. It would not be easy, he had no doubt, to keep his mind from entertaining thoughts of an innocent person being inadvertently hurt, or worse–and, really, it would be worse, Mason knew—just because he’d left something in his wallet that he shouldn’t have left there... but he would have to try, because there was just nothing else he could do to improve the circumstance himself.
It was ten-thirty before it had occurred to Mason: Dan. Dan might not be innocent. Helpful, yes, but those aren’t mutually exclusive. Luis had turned Mason’s wallet over to Dan. Dan had called Mason’s office. Dan had gotten the phone number for Underberg & Lamm, P.C. from one of Mason’s business cards in Mason’s wallet. Dan had been in Mason’s wallet, and—now that Mason thought about it—the thing Mason wanted most to recover was something that might in fact appeal to Dan. So Mason found a number for the fabric wholesale warehouse/store he’d visited twice the previous day, called, and got Dan on the phone.
“It’s Mason Blank. The wallet guy. Listen, Dan, I’ve got to ask you straight: Did you take anything out of my wallet before you gave it back to me? Anything at all? There’s something I’m trying to find, and it’s just not something that the original thief would have taken, I’m almost positive.” Mason was immediately sorry that he’d said the original thief, implying that Dan was himself a criminal, but Mason didn’t try to fix that mistake. “There was this card...”
“I took it,” Dan admitted readily. “Yeah. I’m sorry about that, but when I saw it, it cracked me up, and I figured that if you had one, you probably had lots more, and you wouldn’t miss that one. And you might not even remember that you hadn’t given that one to someone yourself.”
Mason was relieved in the extreme—not at all angry, he discovered, just pleased, and hopeful. “Do you still have it?” he asked Dan.
“I don’t,” Dan said, and Mason was abruptly relieved of his hope. But Dan continued: “I had a drink with a buddy last night, after work, and when he got up to go to the can, I put it on the bar next to his beer. When he came back and saw it, he laughed his head off. So I told him he could keep it. I’d had my fun with it, at his expense, so I figured it was only fair to let him have the next laugh. Say, where do you get those, anyway?”
In fact, Mason had had just the one—an ivory-colored card, slightly smaller than the standard business card, that read, simply, YOU&RSQUO;RE AN ASSHOLE in black ink and a serious typeface. It was a novelty item, of course, that Mason had himself been given by a colleague. Mason didn’t know offhand where one could buy them in quantity, but he knew he could find them readily online, so he just said, “Internet,” and Dan said, “Ah.”
“Listen, Dan, I don’t care that you took the card. I’d probably have done the same thing,” Mason lied. “But as it happens there was some information on the back of the card that I need. You didn’t by any chance turn the card over and see what was written there, did you?”
“I’m sorry to say that I didn’t,” Dan said. “I didn’t think to flip it over.” Of course not, Mason thought. No such luck.
“Do you think your friend still has the card?” Mason asked.
“Unless he’s given it away already, he must,” Dan said, stating what Mason thought was the obvious.
“Could you do me a huge favor,” Mason asked Dan, knowing that what he was going to ask further was the very least Dan could do for Mason, after having swiped Mason’s property, “could you call your friend, right now, and have him read you what’s written on the back of the card? And, Dan,” Mason continued, not giving the other man the chance to say that he couldn’t do as Mason was asking, “this is very, very important: Ask your buddy to read the letters not as words but one by one. That’s crucial, so that you’ll be sure to get each letter correct. Then just call me when you’ve got the letters. Okay, Dan?”
“Okay,” Dan said. “I’ll do that for you.”
“Thank you,” Mason said.
While Mason waited for Dan to call him back, he let his mind recall the meeting two evenings earlier when the letters had first been written on the back of that card.
In the dimly lit apartment of a woman he’d been sent to see, for a not insubstantial price that woman provided Mason the means to accomplish in secret what he would never even consider attempting to accomplish otherwise. The woman—an old woman, with myriad connections herself, not all of them mundane, Mason was given to believe—gave Mason the means to summon something dangerous—dangerous and unpredictable, unless one had the means to control it as well. The old woman gave Mason, in exchange for no small amount of money, both. The means of summoning the thing—called an umbryj, if Mason had heard the old woman correctly—he’d had the woman write on the back of a novelty card that he kept in his wallet, and which writing he’d hadn’t looked at—and planned never to look at prematurely or precipitously—for fear that he might remember the words and speak them without first speaking the protective formulation, the other set of words the woman had given Mason, which set he’d immediately committed to memory. A very smart arrangement, if Mason said so himself—and the very reason why having the conjuring recitation out of his hands, available to be read aloud by whomever held the card, was so dangerous—to that one person, anyway. For the old woman had also explained that summoning an uncontrolled umbryj would be only temporarily, though especially, dangerous. An uncontrolled umbryj would lash out lethally at whomever had selfishly disturbed it, then return whence it was summoned...
The old woman had inquired of Mason’s motives, but merely to satisfy what Mason could tell was nothing more than curiosity. Why did he need—or even just want—such a thing at his disposal? Because from his first day of practicing law, Mason had heard time and again, from every partner he’d ever worked for and at every seminar he’d attended, that litigation is a chess game and the good litigator is always thinking several moves ahead. And some even believed that not just litigation but life itself is like that. In any event, Mason—well, as he’d have been the first to admit, Mason just wasn’t any good at chess. So he wanted to keep an ace up his sleeve. You just never knew when a difficult problem could be solved simply by having someone made dead, and in a way that no one would ever—or could ever—trace back to him...
Mason might need to take out a “bad” guy, so to speak. He could even imagine a scenario in which a good guy might need to be removed from an equation, permanently... for the good of the equation, as it were... but probably it would be a bad guy. And then Mason Blank’s thoughts turned to some of the times that someone or other—a professional adversary, often, but not always—a bad guy had put one over on him, or even just tried to... the numerous times that he’d been taken advantage of, that someone had pegged him for a pushover. Even after ten years as a litigator, it still happened from time to time. In fact, the last person who had treated him, or something that belonged to him, with too little respect... well, if he wasn’t going to play favorites, then Mason had to admit that it was the man who had helped himself to something from Mason’s wallet. For even good guys were bad sometimes, in some ways...
“Mason?” Chevelle’s voice came over the speaker in his office phone, jarring him back into the present. “You have a call. It’s Dan. He says you’ll know what it’s about.”
Mason grabbed the handset. “Dan! Did you get the information?”
“I got it.”
Mason exhaled audibly. “Your friend was...”—well, obviously Dan’s friend was all right—“...helpful,” Mason finished awkwardly, and he would have felt silly about it but found that he couldn’t feel anything but elation. No, that wasn’t quite accurate, he realized. Mason felt elation commingled with... something else. Something he’d never before felt when dealing with someone who had taken advantage of him.
“Yup,” Dan said. “He read me each letter, one at a time, just like you wanted.”
“Perfect,” Mason said. “That’s perfect. Did he by any chance tell you where each word ended and the next began?” Mason wished he’d asked Dan to have his friend indicate where the spaces between the words were, which Mason wasn’t sure he’d be able to determine, and which he’d of course never seen, having not once looked at the back of the card after the old woman had written on it. He’d just slid the card into his wallet...
“He did,” Dan said. “It looks like there are three words. I’ll start giving you the letters now. You got a pen?”
But Mason didn’t have a pen. And he wouldn’t need one.
“Actually,” he told Dan, “go ahead and read the words to me, as words.”
“Yeah?” Dan asked.
Mason paused, thought twice about what he had decided to do, then finally said, “Yeah.”
And Dan did as Mason asked, and although Mason had no way of knowing just how the uncontrolled creature that Dan in that way summoned destroyed Dan, from what Mason heard over the phone he could tell that Dan’s evisceration was extremely painful, but mercifully brief. Then silence. Mason finally hung up his phone. The punishment didn’t quite fit the crime, as it were, Mason thought, but the ends justified the means, so to speak. And, after all, helpful as he’d been, Dan had stolen something from Mason.
Mason did not envy the person who would find Dan’s remains, and he only hoped that it would not be Luis, to whom Mason remained genuinely grateful. And he supposed that he also hoped that Dan’s buddy would enjoy the novelty card in his possession, which was now just that and nothing more sinister. And even though he had, in the end, managed to defuse the situation himself, Mason Blank figured he might as well keep his new appointment with the old woman all the same. He’d end up spending another significant amount of money, but he could afford it. He was paid a decent salary by the firm, for which he consistently did good work.
“Office Creeper” appeared in The Fog Horn, January 2014.