Excerpt From “The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits” by Dan Johnson

 

Alex Baker is underemployed and undermotivated, until a cop shows up at his door with strange news about his former housemate, Brent. This is a story of baseball cards, the Chinese Mafia, and many conversations over drinks. If John D. Macdonald and Chuck Klosterman had ever met in San Francisco and shared a few too many glasses of Plymouth, this is the novel they would have written together.

Excerpt:

Monday. My day to check in at Brent’s old workplace and see what I could turn up. They’d have missed him on Friday, and at least I’d let them know that his absence from work wasn’t an instance of slacking. He didn’t deserve to die and then get fired for lack of attendance. The company name looked like that of a law or accounting firm, so I’d have to get over there before the official close of the workday at five.

In order to do that, I’d have to get out of my job early. As I said before, this isn’t much of a problem. By three o’clock on Monday, most of the marketing department was catatonic. My cube neighbor Raymond had already changed into a bright-orange shirt and gym shorts in preparation for an ultimate frisbee game, and Valerie from across the hall was furiously writing a detailed blog entry about her weekend of debauchery. She was closing in on forty and three years post-divorce. I was too scared to go out drinking with her – the word “cougar” didn’t do her justice.

“What’s a synonym for ‘hammered’?” she asked.

“Smashed?” I said.

She shook her head. “That’s not quite what I’m looking for. I’m trying to illustrate more of a classy drunkenness.”

“So like slightly-swaying-old-man-drunk, rather than fratboy-vomit-in-a-garbage-can drunk,” I said.

“Bingo. That’s exactly it. We were at Top of the Mark on Saturday night and this guy who was like sixty-five kept hitting on us by telling us all about how he’d owned his place in Pacific Heights for like thirty years or whatever, and how he’d just installed a hot tub. Totally insinuating that we should come back and hang out in his hot tub.”

“Why didn’t you?”

She grinned. “Not because we would have minded hot-tubbing. But we probably would have had to look at him naked. Old. Gross.”

“Snockered,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Snockered. It’s an…”

“Right,” she said. “Perfect. An old-guy-drunk word.”

Our boss Phil showed up right then, doing his thing where he walked through the cubicle farm and asked what was going on. He wasn’t a Lumbergh – he dressed nicely but never wore those ridiculous colored-but-with-white-collar-and-sleeve-shirts – but he was still the guy who had to go through the painful half-year ritual where he told us that our performance had been average or just barely above, and that was why we were only getting two or three percent raises. Aside from that, he was a decent enough guy. He even put our drinks on the corporate credit card sometimes when we went out for Thursday evening happy hours. Still, when he came by, we all tried to look busy.

“What’s shaking?” he asked.

“The usual,” I said. “Just trying to get a few things out the door before I have to take off.”

“What? It’s only three.”

“Yeah,” I said, “But I have an appointment– remember, I e-mailed you about it a few weeks ago?”

“Oh,” he said. “Right.”

This was total bullshit. There was no e-mail. It didn’t matter because even if he looked for the e-mail (unlikely) and came back to me the next day with the point that he couldn’t find the early-leave-request-e-mail, I could always blame the e-mail system – a multiple-hacked version of Lotus Notes that seemed to think that the server was a Doberman and our messages were Snausages. He’d never go that far, though – if he came back to me and admitted that he hadn’t read the e-mail, that would be too close to admitting that he never read any of my e-mails, a fact that we both knew was absolutely true. But he knew that I knew that his calendar always showed that he was stuck in meetings from ten in the morning until the end of the workday on Fridays during ski season. It was kind of like the office version of Mutually Assured Destruction.

“So I’ll be gone in about twenty minutes,” I said.

“OK,” said Phil. “Anything serious?”

“Can’t really talk about it,” I said. That’s what I always said. If someone had been keeping track, they’d have noticed that I had more doctor’s appointments than a chronically incontinent hemophiliac. Nobody was keeping track.

“Well, break a leg,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”

See you tomorrow meant that Phil was going to go back to his office and not emerge until five fifteen, when he’d barrel straight from his door to the exit door in the hopes of not encountering his boss, Howard Maloney, who would sometimes demand progress reports or flow documents, which would mean that the rest of us would get panicked overnight e-mails from Phil demanding that we produce appropriately long PowerPoint presentations with enough jargon to satisfy Maloney. Marketing is weird. All we did was produce PowerPoints, and somehow that was all that we needed to do.

I headed north on Montgomery to Jackson, then crossed over to Sansome. 731 was a nondescript white building with glass doors and a copy shop on the first floor. The directory on the outside listed Jackson West Phillips and Cairney on the second floor. I dialed the code on the little phone pad.

“Jackson West Phillips Cairney,” said a female voice.

“Hi,” I said. “Um, I’m here to talk to someone about Brent…I mean, David Jones.”

“Oh, we were wondering about him,” she said. “Why don’t you come up?”

The door made a buzzing sound, and I pushed it open and walked to the elevator. It was a slow elevator, the kind that makes mysterious groaning sounds. When the doors opened, I walked into an office that looked almost exactly like mine, a gray-walled cubicle farm with a receptionist who looked vaguely like Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, sitting behind a frontless desk that showed where her lithe legs would have been if she hadn’t been wearing knee-high, heeled leather boots.

She looked up at me as I entered, and her gaze stopped me in my tracks. I stood there, stunned, for a few seconds, until the elevator tried to close on my shoulder bag. She smiled; obviously this had happened before.

“Hi,” she said. “Did you just buzz in?”

A tongue stud flashed when she talked.

“Yep,” I said. “I’m here about David Jones.”

“Right,” she said. “Let me get you Gabriel Beck. He’s David’s boss.”

“Was,” I said.

She cocked an eyebrow.

“Oh,” I said. “Um…yeah.”

“Huh,” she said, then bent her head to the phone. I couldn’t overhear what she was saying.

“Have a seat,” she said. “Gabriel will be right out.”

Gabriel kept me waiting for ten minutes, then appeared from a side door that was so flush with the wall I hadn’t noticed it before.

“Ah, you’re the one with news on our missing fellow,” he said. “Come into my office.”

I didn’t like Gabriel. He was like Pigpen from Peanuts, except instead of being surrounded by dirt, he was enveloped in a cloud of smarm. Gabriel wore a light blue Lumbergh shirt, no belt, and suspenders. His desk was littered with four to-go Starbucks cups, and he had a coffee-stained StressBustR squeeze ball next to his computer mouse. I sat down on the hard plastic chair across from him, and he folded his hands and smiled at me. One of his front teeth was fake; the gumline around it had turned dark from coffee and cigarettes. He closed the smile and started to talk.

“So,” he said. “What’s going on with David? Why isn’t he here explaining why he bailed out on a project that was on deadline for Monday, leaving me to cover for his lazy ass all weekend? Is he off in one of those rehab centers? He didn’t strike me as someone with a coke problem, but you just never know with you kids.” He ran a finger slowly down his gray-stubbled cheek. “And it really doesn’t speak well for him that he sent someone else to talk for him instead of just picking up the phone…when you see him, you can let him know that we’re seriously considering our other options as far as his employment status is concerned.”

“David’s dead,” I said. “He was hit by a car the other day after work.”

“Oh,” said Gabriel. He didn’t say anything, and I waited for a bit, then filled the silence.

“I’m one of his housemates,” I said. “But…”

“Well, I guess I won’t be firing him, then.” said Gabriel. He looked at me.

“Yes,” I said. “But…well, I need to get in touch with his parents. We don’t have their number, and, um…we didn’t know him as David Jones.”

“What was his name?” asked Gabriel.

“Brent,” I said. “Scalia. Brent Scalia.”

“Oh my God,” said Gabriel. “Do you know what this means?”

“That he was a strange guy?” I said.

“No,” he shook his head. “It means that we could get sued. If it comes out that we hired someone with fake documentation, we could be in huge trouble. We’re a financial institution. Have you told the newspapers about this yet? If you haven’t, don’t. One second.”

He punched a button on the phone. “Morgan? Can you pull David’s HR file and bring it over here, please? The whole thing. I know there are some things I’m not supposed to see; bring them anyway.”

Gabriel hit the button again and turned to me. “Do you understand what a revelation like this can do to a business like ours? I don’t think you do. Christ, I’ve got a case of the Mondays!” He started to twitch, and little half-moons of sweat had appeared under his arms. He started frantically typing, muttering as if I wasn’t there.

“He’s dead, so he won’t complain, and all we really have to do is get rid of some of his e-mails or assign some to my name, and we can say that we fired him before he kicked the bucket. All of mine asking where he was were to his work e-mail, and all we have to do is figure out when his last sent mail was and then manufacture a termination letter for that evening.” He looked at me, and his voice changed. “I’m sorry to say this, but David was fired right before his unfortunate passing. Perhaps it was a suicide.”

“Are you joking?” I said. “I’ve just heard you change his status right in front of me. You can’t do that.”

“Of course I can,” said Gabriel. “If you’d waited another week we would have recorded his hours for last week in payroll and it would have gone to the payroll company, but…that went out on Friday. There’s no record of this conversation. If it’s not on paper or in the database, it doesn’t exist. Of course, you’ll want to notify his parents. I’m having Morgan bring in his personnel records. Let’s just go out and get them.”

Gabriel grabbed me by the arm and took me over to the door. He bustled me across the office, never letting go of my elbow as he did so. The secretary from the front was kneeling in front of a file cabinet, a pile of manila folders stacked to her left.

“Did you find it?” asked Gabriel.

“Yep, here it is,” she said, handing over a folder. “Just got it now. Both copies that we had in the files.”

“Great!” he said. “You do good work, Morgan.”

Gabriel took the papers out of the folder and dropped them into the industrial-sized shredder. It hummed, whirred, and spit out a stream of paper spaghetti into a can filled with similar-lengths of paper spaghetti.

“There,” he said, smiling. For the first time, the smile reached his eyes.

“Did you just shred his employment records?”

“Shred what?” he said. “He demanded his records after we fired him. We gave him the originals, and these copies have been unfortunately lost. Morgan, can you please escort him out? All the way out.”

Morgan walked over and took my arm, leading me to the elevator. At some point she had undone two of the buttons of her white dress blouse, revealing a very smooth swath of pale upper-chest skin. It wasn’t cleavage or anything, but if that kind of thing is staring you in the face it’s kind of hard not to look. The door opened, we entered, and Morgan didn’t let go of my arm.

We walked out onto the street. Morgan reached inside her blouse and brought out a thin metallic case. She clicked it open and took out a thin cigarette and tiny lighter.

“I take smoke breaks every hour,” she said. “Although I don’t smoke, in case you were wondering.” Click. Flame. Inhale.

“I wasn’t,” I said. “Wondering, I mean. I don’t smoke either. But I don’t have problems with people who do. I mean, I don’t like smoke much, but I think people should be able to…”

My babbling was interrupted by the roaring of a diesel MUNI bus. She grinned at me again. I could feel the scorching waves coming off of my cheeks, and I could be pretty confident that I was now roughly the color of a Roma tomato. A real one, not the crap they sell in the grocery store in the winter.

“So…” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“I didn’t,” she said. “Do you have a name?”

“Alex,” I said.

“I’m Morgan,” she said, extending a hand.

“I got that,” I said. I’d left Roma tomato behind at this point and was now approaching ketchup.

“Um…” I said.

She raised her eyebrows in the way that mothers do to a three-year old who’s having trouble finding the right words.

“You need some help,” she said. “I might be able to help you.”

“How? He shredded everything.”

She snorted. “So?”

“What do you know?”

She snorted again. “Not here.”

We paused.

“So, do you…uh…maybe want to get a drink sometime?” I said.

Her eyebrows fell, and she smiled. “That’s more like it..”

“Great,” I said, reaching into the pocket of my shoulder bag and coming up with a battered black PaperMate. “I don’t think I have any paper.”

“You don’t need one,” she said. She drew a small card from her cigarette case and took a pen out from behind her ear.

“Here’s my number and my e-mail,” she said. “Call me any time.”

“OK,” I said. She smiled again when she handed me back the folder. “Nice to meet you, Alex.”

“Same,” I said. She turned around and walked back into the building, her heels click-clacking as she went.

***

Dan Johnson lives in San Francisco where he worked full-time in software and squeezed in writing when he could. He earned his MA in fiction writing from San Francisco State, is a co-founder of burritophile.com, and has written for numerous Web and print publications.

You can find out more about Dan at his website: perplexingproblem.com

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