BY J. D. WAYE
A version of this short story was previously posted on-line on Kelley Armstrong’s Writers’ Forum, in April of 2011. It was also posted on J. D. Waye’s WordPress blog, in July of 2011. Copyright is held by the author.
MY LANDLORD troubled me every time our paths crossed and today would be no exception. With an urgent wave, he ushered me into his foyer again. He seemed like a nice guy at first, solitary, quiet and shy, but I got the distinct feeling that my very presence — even the act of breathing — was annoying him. He complained about my music — not the volume, the choice. He complained about the spicy smell of my foreign cooking that wafted down the hallway. What was it going to be this time?
“Those boots of yours make a lot of noise on the stairs.”
“Sorry Mr D.” Girls didn’t wear Doc Martins in the old days. “Why don’t you come by tonight, and have a nice dinner? On me?”
“If I have time.”
He always seemed to have plenty of time to complain. I have no idea what he spent his days doing. His apartment was piled sky-high with stacks of dusty yellowed file folders. A huge modern computer system, looking very neglected and out-of-place, perched on an antique roll-top desk. I sighed at the sight of all that technology going to waste.
“Gotta go,” I said. “Don’t want to be late for work.” I shoved my headphones into my ears — my concession to him over the music issue — and tried not to thump down the front steps.
I never expected him to show up at the restaurant. “Hello, Mr D,” I said as the bell over the door tinkled.
He slid onto a stool and propped his ancient elbows on the counter. I poured him a coffee. He gave me a sly smile, pleased that I noticed. How could I not? His apartment was right on the way out, and always smelled of fresh coffee at strange hours.
“Why do you work here?” he asked.
Great. It was bad enough that I had to endure him at home, now he was criticizing my career choice. It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided to be a waitress in a greasy spoon. It just worked out that way. I saw the Help Wanted sign in the window, and desperately needed a job.
“Got bills to pay,” I said. “Like rent. Now what’s for dinner?”
“You got meatloaf?”
“Oh, Mr D,” I whispered. “You don’t want the meatloaf.”
“Then what do you suggest? These dentures aren’t feeling adventurous.”
“You like spicy? How about some tai noodles? With shrimp. Do you like shrimp?”
“Is that what I smell you cooking all the time? Tai noodles?”
“Sorry if it bothers you. I just like to cook.”
“It doesn’t bother me. It makes me hungry. But an old man like me can’t do more than microwave some Lean Cuisine, and call it a day.”
“You need to lay off that frozen food. Try something fresh, something that still remembers what it feels like to be alive.”
He laughed. “Shrimp and noodles it is.”
Maybe he wasn’t a cranky old man after all. Maybe he was just lonely. He devoured his hot plate with gusto, barely raising his head as he shovelled it in. “Good,” he mumbled.
“You want pie, too? Come on, everybody likes pie.”
“Can’t do the crust.”
“Then just eat the filling.”
He raised an eyebrow. Apparently this idea had never occurred to him. I sat with him during my break and had a piece of pie, too.
“You know anything about computers?” he asked.
“Sure do, Mr D.”
“Can you type, fax, convert and scan documents?
“Sure can. You need some help?”
“I’ll see what I can do for you.”
“Thanks for the meal. You be careful now, walking home. You need a safer job.”
That was true. My shift ended at two in the morning. The walk home took me past a half-way house, several derelict old homes, and a graveyard. The local bum was already sleeping next to his favourite headstone. I put down a paper bag full of today’s leftovers and shoved an extra green garbage bag under his body. He would wear it as a jacket, the next time it rained.
I didn’t like my life, but things could be worse. A lot worse.
The hobo didn’t scare me, but the guy following me home sure did. Footsteps crackled in the leaves, echoing my own. I ducked behind a tree and waited for him to pass by. He didn’t. I held my breath and slipped my headphones into my pocket. They were the only thing valuable on me, that and a couple of bucks worth of tips. Damned if I was going to lose either without a fight. I ran for the next tree, my heart pounding like a hammer, and listened for the longest time. Nothing.
When I finally stepped out, there he was, blocking my way.
“Leave me alone,” I shouted.
He lunged at me, taking me down by the feet. I tripped and rolled, pummelling him with my fists as I screamed. His hands reached for my throat, choking off the noise. I couldn’t breathe; my vision went all spotty. Maybe I should have spent my hard-earned money on that self-defence course instead of the headphones.
The creep suddenly flew off me so hard he crashed into the tree. Leaves rained down from the impact.
“Scumbag,” Mr D said. “Consider your contract void.”
My assailant grunted and tried to get up. Mr D smashed him in the face with some crazy karate strike, and his eyes rolled up in his head. He looked like he was dead, but I didn’t know for sure. I’d never seen a dead person before.
“Shouldn’t we call the cops?” I said.
“Why? Over some junkie? They’ll just drag you down to headquarters, make you wait in a room full of hookers and crack-heads, waste your time, and for what? To tell you not to walk in your own neighbourhood? Not to go to work? You got bills to pay, right?”
Mr D brushed the leaves off a jacket too big for his fragile old frame, and helped me to my shaky feet.
“Mr D, you got some serious old man strength thing going for you.”
He just grunted. We walked the rest of the way home in silence.
“You want coffee?” he asked.
I was tired after my 10-hour shift, but there was no way I would be able to sleep after what happened. “Sure. And thanks for saving my ass.”
He led the way into the old building and opened the door to his apartment on the first floor. The streetlights played with the stained-glass window, scattering colours across a bizarre collection of crosses on the wall over the fireplace. Gothic and detailed, they looked absolutely ancient — a museum collection. I looked them over, fascinated, while he fussed in the kitchen.
Mr D shoved aside a stack of file folders on the coffee table and put down two steaming mugs. Starbucks beans, fresh ground, so much better than what I served him. Something else I could never afford. He plunked down a plate of cookies — stale Girl Guides, but I loved those cookies.
“Mr D, why do you have all these files?”
“You really want to know?”
I pulled apart two cookies, one chocolate and one vanilla, and mashed the frosting sides together. “Contracts for what?”
I choked on my custom-made cookie. Then I laughed. But his face remained very serious. Great. I was broke, working at a greasy spoon in the run-down side of downtown, and my landlord was demented.
He handed me a stack of files. It was all there inside, signed contracts for people’s souls — names and addresses, birthdates.
“I don’t believe in the Devil.” I dropped my cookie and rose to leave.
“You should.” He raised his arms, like spreading wings. The room went dark. Outside, the streetlights flickered and extinguished. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled. A swarm of bats flooded though the chimney flu and flapped off to God knows where.
“Okay. I believe you. But my soul is not for sale.”
He lowered his arms and sighed. “I don’t want your soul. I’ve got plenty of those, already. Centuries’ worth of souls. The weight of them all burdens me. Somebody wants to strike a deal and poof! I drop everything and run. Never have time for a nice meal.”
“Then what do you want with me?”
“What I need is a bookkeeper, somebody to sort things out. Maybe scan all this stuff into computer files, so I can actually find what I need.”
“You sure there isn’t some secret contract in there, like I read the fine print and find out, too late, you own me?”
“I’m too old for trickery. Couldn’t care less, either. I always get the blame. You want the job? You could start by sorting the files into short stacks, A to D, E to G.”
“Oh, Mr D. You don’t need to sort anything first. The computer will sort them for you, after I scan them in.”
“Really? That’s amazing.”
“Let me show you.”
“Can you do me a favour dear, and get yourself some nice quiet shoes with your first paycheque? Sneakers or something? Instead of those stompy boots?”
As far as jobs went, this wasn’t so bad. No toilets to clean. No walking home at late hours. All the Starbucks I could drink. Cookies, too.
Mr D was a pretty nice guy, after all. Just quiet and shy, and lonely.