Crabtree – Ghost Light – Part 1

The house lights were on in the converted barn of a theater and a lone spotlight lit the edge of the stage.  A young man from the restaurant and bar that was connected to the theater struggled with a case of heavy glass bottles.  As he lugged his load to the high store room up in the rafters, he tried not to think about how creepy the empty theater felt between shows,

“‘Put the extra booze in the stage storage’ he says.  Like that’s nothing at all.”  The young man mumbled to himself.  “I bet he couldn’t even get up here hauling his own fat butt, much less a case of high grade hangover.”  He got to the top of the stairs and walked along the tenuous catwalk to the storage area for things that hung from the trusses that hid in the shadows above the stage.  Adding a case of Jim Beam to the rusted can lights and discarded sets, the young bar back sat down for a break.

From his vantage point just outside the storage room, he could see it all.  The stage was raised, but an orchestra pit sank into the floor just in front of it.  Two wide stairways angled out on either side just in front of the left and right curtains that hid the small backstage wings. He could see the scuff on the worn floorboards where the curtain hit, separating the bit that was always visible from the bit that could be hidden.

At his level, there were decades of ropes, trusses, and cables among the catwalks.  Up here were all the things that made the stage actually work. He’d helped with a few production set ups and knew that the real work happened up here and that the actors, for all their top billing, were just the outer most coat of paint, the finishing touch on lots of grubby work.

As he watched, the theater’s manager came through the back door, trailing two others across the stage.  “So, Mr. Crabtree, do you think you can help us?”

“It’s Raymond, please,” the man said.  “I’ll certainly try.”

A soft, Swedish-accented voice added, “This really is a lovely theater.”

“Yes, but performers are a superstitious lot.”  The group walked down the stage steps and made their way to the side door. The fading voice added, “There are a number of people who simply refuse to work here.  It’s getting hard to stage a play.  We just wound down our summer ‘Experimental Experience Theater’ for the students from Penn State. Without the kids, any thoughts of a fall season are right out the window.  Professionals avoid this place because of the haunting, you see.”

The indifferent bar back shrugged and dropped off his case.  Turning to go back down stairs, he felt a rope going around his head.

“Jesus!”  He jumped back, startled.  The end of the rope was tied in a noose and left at just the right height.  “Who puts something like this here?  Almost walked into it ‘n killed myself!”  He swatted the rope and made it swing.

From below, the overly artsy stage manager continued talking. “The strange occurrences were one thing, but they’ve lately gotten downright dangerous.  A theater is no place for things to be … well … out of place.

Suddenly, it stopped swinging, as if in the grip of an invisible person.  He stared, mesmerized.  As he watched, the knot of the noose slid up and the loop widened.  Another rope snaked over and pushed a bend through the noose.

Frozen by the strange sight, the young man didn’t notice a third rope snaking across the floor, positioning itself in a circle behind his feet.  The rope tied itself into a slip knot. Lost in the shadows, the ballast at the rope’s other end teetered on a section of the lighting rig.

“Professionals like myself, you see, will tolerate much, but safe working conditions are simply a given.  Without that the show cannot go on.”

The bend of rope began to take shape in the noose. The scene mesmerized the startled bar back.  It looked like the outline of a person’s head and moved in the same halting motion as a man condemned.  The knot slammed down.  The noose squeezed around the rope head with deadly violence and the figure struggled in its grip.  As the astonished young man watched, the head outline flailed and went limp.

Too stunned to think, he stepped back from the sight, putting his foot in the rope trap.  The ballast bag fell down toward the stage.  The rope pulled, tightening around the young man’s ankle.  The force continued to pull, yanking the scared young man off balance and wrenching him into space above the stage.

When it was over, he was upside down, dangling in the air, and white as a ghost.

“Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

 

****

 

“I quit!”  The well-built Swede’s nostrils flared as she screamed in Raymond’s face.  While middle age had not robbed the blonde of her exceptional looks, her angry face certainly did. She wheeled around on one heel, swinging her stuffed luggage around the oak-paneled front hall.  All the while, muttered Swedish curses fell from the makeup mask of her face.

Raymond gave chase.  “Hey, uh, you can’t quit now Ines, we’ve got an investigation!”

“Like hell I can’t.”  Her English halted but her anger pressed on.  “I caught your pervert brother peeking on me in the shower.”  She turned to Billy and pointed a finger.  “AGAIN!”

Billy tucked his greasy blonde locks behind his ear.  “It’s not my fault you didn’t lock the door.”

“Yeah.  Lock the door.  Funny.  Raymond, tell him to shut up.”

“Billy, shut up.”  Raymond rubbed his temples.  With a sigh, he summoned all his patience and persuasiveness.  “Now come on.  Think about your professionalism.  You can’t back out now just when things were getting good.  You can’t just…”  His summoning ran out and his lost words gave way to a fluttering mass of hands.

“No.  I can just…”  Her hands mocked him, flying around.  “… and I will.  Find yourself another psychic.”  Looking at Billy she said, “I’ve had it with this child.”  She threw open the door and pulled her bags out behind her.  With furious grace, she walked down the stone steps to a waiting cab.

Billy yelled.  “Yeah, well it’s not like we need you!”  He turned to Raymond.  “Is it?”

Inside the stately manor house, Raymond scratched his graying temple and rubbed his shallow chin. He watched the Taxi disappear.  “Hm.  We’re going to need to find a new medium.”  Raymond retreated from the wide stone archway and shut the massive wood and wrought iron door behind him.

 

****

 

The two men looked at the resume before them and down the table at the mid-fifties white woman with the grey and caramel afro.

“So,” he glanced at the sheet through his reading glasses.  “Professor Nastria, um…what are you a professor of again?”

“I hold two PHD’s.  One in Numerology and another in Parapsycology.”

“Ah, very good.”

Billy leaned over and said into his ear, “Good?  That’s got quack written all over it.  She couldn’t be more of a quack if she got up on the table right now and shot out an egg.”

“Wait,” she said. “There is a presence.”

“What kind of presence?”

“I sense… a little girl.”  She searched Raymond’s eyes.  “Yes.  She’s angry.”

The blonde young man threw his hands up.  “I’d be angry too, if I didn’t exist.  Come on, Ray, she’s a scammer.”

“Hm,” Raymond said, half way between an actual sound and clearing his throat.  “So… Professor, can I ask what made you interested in our enterprise?”

“You don’t want to know of this girl?”

Raymond gave a patient smile.  “In a bit. The dead have plenty of time on their hands.  We’re here to talk about you.”  The woman abandoned her far-off stare and Raymond continued.  “You see, our investigations into the paranormal, while we take them very seriously, are a sideline to the primary business here.  This is a working farm and though you won’t be asked to pick fruit, squash grapes, or bake pies, I will need someone to help me keep the books straight and handle the guests we receive for the various wine making retreats we sponsor through the summer.  In short, you’d be dealing with the living more than the dead on a day to day basis.”

She looked around at the dining room.  “That’s … I had assumed that there would be more call for my… unique skillset in this position.”

“Hm.  While the highlands region is steeped in spirits, they are notoriously light on funds.  The people we assist with their encounters are likewise not always rolling in dough.  We sometimes are otherwise compensated, I’m never short of hands at harvest times, but for room, board, healthcare and additional monetary compensation, I will need someone who will participate in all aspects of our concern.”

Billy leaned in and said, “Forget spooks, this lady is afraid of anything that sound like work.”

“Yes,” the woman said from across the table.  “I suppose I can see the boundaries of the position a little more clearly.  I suppose I can help with the books and such, though the girl in your house may require soothing before I feel comfortable welcoming people into this environment.”

“Of course.  We can make that a priority if you like.  And while we’re on the topic, do you sense anything else?”

“Book keeping?  I sense a con artist.  Here, gimmie.”  Billy grabbed the resume and the pen.

“Billy, this is hardly helpful,” Raymond whispered, trying to grab back his pen.  The two fought, but Billy could still write.

Billy fended off Raymond’s tug at the pen and wrote under experience, “Con Artist” and under other abilities, “Being an ugly cow to boot.”

From across the table, The Professor’s jaw dropped.  “I don’t know what you are playing at, but I’m not going to sit here and let you interrogate me while simultaneously insulting me.”  She got up, raised her nose and trotted away.  From the dining room, they could both hear the front door slam.

“Damn, she’s one hell of a grifter.  She was able to read that all the way over there, and upside down!  I bet numerology is a euphemism for bank fraud.”

“Hm.  We are no closer to finding a medium and the professor there was the last of the bunch.  All charlatans.  You being a jackass didn’t help.  We’ll have to find someone.”

“Yeah, well… Maybe we should hit the bars?”

“I got one last idea, Billy.  You hold down the fort.”

 

****

 

A small bell rang as the door opened.  The curio shop was stuffed and stuffy.  Light didn’t get to travel far before getting swallowed by the many things that lined the many shelves in the expansive space.  Raymond stepped in from a cool, early fall afternoon and let the shadows take him in.

“Ah, Mr. Crabtree-how-good-it-is-to-see-you.”

The voice was unmistakable and Raymond relaxed. “Hi Marta.  How is business?”

“Better-I-dare-say, than yours.  Ines was such a talented and lovely girl.  You should have tried harder to keep her.”  Following the voice, Raymond found her body in the left most isle, inspecting the goods. “Good help is hard to find-you-know.”

“Hm.  That is why I’m here,” he said, walking to her, a box now clearly visible in his hands.

A swift turn brought her ashen face up to his.  “Trying to cherry pick the talent eh?”  Her face saddened as she returned to rummaging through the stuff.  “Thought you had at least a small sense of decorum.” She found what she was looking for and walked away from him.

“I did, or actually, I do. Look, I’m really in a bit of a bind here.”  Raymond stammered and struggled to keep up with the tiny old lady dashing through the narrow spaces of the curio shop.  His package making him juggle in spots. “Do you know of any talent that I could, I don’t know, borrow?  I’m working on a case, a total milk run for a pro.  I’ve got most of it, I think, but I need a sensitive medium to help me crack it open and seal the deal.  You know… rather than just going in and being…” He rounded the corner and found himself face to face with the snarling face of a stuffed bear head.  “…spooked.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t know, Raymond.  I try to keep my network away from prying eyes.”

“Hm,” he said, backing up from the taxidermy. “Shame.  The orchard has been pretty good to us this year.  The apples, especially.”

“Really?”  Her tone changed, just slightly. “So, what are you getting at here?”

“Just that for a valued customer who just happens to be looking for a home for a freshly baked apple pie, you might bend the rules a tad?” He looked at her with a smile and opened the box he was carrying.  Immediately, the smell of cinnamon and apples wafted through the dust and leather smell of the store.  He snapped the lid closed, still grinning.

She froze.  “This is bribery-you-know.”

“As naked as it gets.”  He broke into pleading.  “Come on Marta.  I just need some help.  Maybe an up-and-comer looking to make a name for themselves.”

Trying to look disinterested, she passed by the middle aged man.  “I might have someone.  I’ll make some phone calls.”

“Thanks Marta, you are a sweetheart.”

“Yes, well…”  She shot a glance over her shoulder.  “leave the pie on your way out-would-you-young-man?”

 

*****

 

A tiny blue hatchback turned off the sleepy state road just past the ornate sign that read “Crabtree Farm” in big red letters.  It crunched down the pea gravel lane, past the rows and rows of chrysanthemums that made an orange front lawn for the multi-roofed main house.  The gravel widened out in front of the house, forming a large flat reception area.  Benches hid among the low hedges while a whitewashed gazebo sat at the edge of the curve.  The car stopped and

Raymond put down his book.  Leaving it on the gazebo’s bench, he walked out to greet his visitor.  “Hi.  You must be Lisa.”

The woman shut her door and smiled.  “I must be.  Yeah.  Raymond Crabtree?”

“In the flesh.”  He smiled.  Faced with the young girl, he found himself with nothing to say.  For an uncomfortable moment, his sweater vest became a straight-jacket.

The young lady was looking around and didn’t seem to notice.  “You have quite a house here, Mr. Crabtree.  What do you do out here?”

“Raymond, please.”  He smiled.  “The farm does a variety of things.  Flowers, apples… Hm.  I give classes on winemaking, weekends.  The hipsters who take the wine class do most of the work for their own vanity vintage.”

“That’s quite the racket.”  She smiled.

“Well, everyone’s happy.  For me, I get to keep the house and left over grapes.  Would you like a sample of this years’ jelly?”

“Sure!”

 

****

 

The young brunette walked towards the left at Raymond’s direction.  “If you could take a seat in the study, tea service will be right out.”

Billy sat on the kitchen’s old stone counter as his brother busied himself making a tray.  “Tea service?  Is this an interview or a social call?”

“I’d like you to hear me, Billy,” Raymond sighed. “Please just listen outside the study and be quiet.  I’m conducting the interview, ok?”  He took the tray, with its homemade jam and hot tea, through the kitchen door.

Billy called after him, “Fine, but I saw her.  Bright, young.  Are you interviewing for a medium or a girlfriend?”

Crabtree – Ghost Light – Part 2

Help Wanted

Help Wanted:

Young, burgeoning universe seeks omniscient creator. No prior experience necessary or even possible, for that matter.

You must love all creatures great and small, watch them grow, prosper and bloom. Guide them through life’s trials and tribulations.

And then kill them.

Other duties include:

Listen to the whining and bitching of entire planets full of beings and return to them endless love.

Plan down to the finest detail every single element of everyone and everything’s every day and have a plan for it all and give every action, no matter how insignificant a true and poetic meaning.

Occasionally visit wrath resulting in the deaths of entire civilizations, just to keep things novel. Lesser, more personal smitings are also performed for much the same reason.

Watch without interfering as beings create ever more effective ways to kill each other in your name.

Perks include receiving “Props” from rap artists and athletes, worship in various forms and the occasional human barbeque. Telework available. Flexible dress code.

Anyone with the skill set to prosper in this job already knows how to contact us. Please bring resume and two forms of ID.

Idle Hands – Episode 2 – Temporary Assignment

As Jay plopped down on the couch for lunch, a twinge of guilt hit him. On the coffee table, that morning’s want ads and internet searches sat, unmarked and unread. After three weeks out of the job, the joy of quitting and the adventure of looking for new work had become an anxiety-filled grind.

Lifting the remote, he turned up his TV’s surround sound. Anxiety festered and grew, unattended, in the back of Jay’s mind as poorly dubbed anime filled the messy living room.

An unexpected knock invaded Jay’s sanctuary, followed by another and another. Finally annoyed into action, Jay left the couch and the unread papers and answered the door.

The heat and light from the blinding and hot south Texas day rushed into the air-conditioned townhouse. While Jay started to sweat in his shorts, the man on his doorstep seemed perfectly comfortable in a deep red suit.

“Can I help you?”

With the door open, the man confidently walked into Jay’s townhouse. Turning, he said, “No, but I can help you.” The man looked around the disheveled house, stroking his goatee. “Nice place.”

“Uh, thanks.” Closing the door, Jay became less incensed by the man’s forwardness, and more intrigued, though he couldn’t put a finger on why. “Just who the hell are you?”

The odd man smiled. “Ah. Well chosen words. But really, Jay, I’m here to help you out. My card.”

He extended his hand and red smoke coalesced into a business card. Jay took the card and saw that it was from ‘Idle Hands, Inc.’

A horrible realization washed over the young man and he blurted, “Wait a second! Are you the…”

“Ah ah!” The strange man suddenly raised his finger and shook it at Jay. “No, I’m not the Big D, who prefers not to have his bell rung too many times, lest he have to appear, you know.” He put his hand to his chest and bowed. “I am merely a humble servant. And right now, I’m part of our outreach program. The head of it, actually.”

“Excuse me? Outreach program?” Jay’s scruffy blonde hair tussled as he scratched his head. This guy had an easy and disarming way about him and though intimidated, he found himself drawn in by the man’s words.

“Yes, outreach program. You see, people of your generation don’t feel like doing much of anything anymore. Forget sin, you all aren’t even engaged enough to be tempted. So, the Big man said, ‘Let’s get these people moving again. Get them off their hinnies.’”

“Somehow I can’t see the big D saying the word ‘hinnies.’”

He flashed a smile at Jay. “It’s the PG version. You want to hear this or not?”

“It’s not every day I get visitors from Hell. So please, continue.”

“Thanks.” He waved his arms in the air, mocking his evil master. “‘Get them off their couches and into an exercise program or something. We need to get the wheels of fate spinning again. More than that; get these people jobs!’ So out of concern, he’s allowed me to set up a little concern to give some of those Idle Hands something to do.”

Jay rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me. You’re a head hunter?”

“We prefer to be called Employment Placement Specialists. After all, Political Correctness came from our Department of Insidious and Ill-conceived Double Speak. But yes, I’m here to help you find a gig. You did send me your resume, after all. Remember?”

“I’ve sent out a lot of resumes.” Jay stared at the man blank faced for a second, then burst out laughing. “HA! Here, I thought you were some harbinger of doom and you’re a… a… ‘Job Getter’ or whatever the hell you called it. I really thought I was in trouble there for a second.”

“You see! That’s what I’m talking about. We get this unfounded bad rap! Those inbred evangelicals have been kicking us around for a while and we need to be able to reach out to people like you. Let you know that there is a choice.”

“Well… You know, I always thought there really wasn’t a choice. It was either, ‘be good and try not to suck’, or you wind up … Uh.”

“Yes. You wind up with us poor suckers.” He waved his hand in the air, as if conjuring up images. “Drowning in a lake of burning sulfur for all eternity. Little men in red jumpsuits with built in tails, constantly skewering you with pitchforks.” Again, he looked over his glasses and mocked, “Really, Jay, does that sound like any way to run things?

“First off, where are we going to get enough sulfur for an endlessly burning lake? You know how much that costs? Do I look like someone who has nothing better to do than poke people? We just want to help you and outline the alternatives.”

“I don’t understand. You keep mentioning choices. What does this have to do with Hell?”

The strange man looked around the unkempt apartment and slid into a well-rehearsed pitch. “Well, free will is where we get our people from. The ones that exercise it are our constituency.

“You see, the man upstairs could have just made everything run like clockwork here on earth so everyone got into heaven, but he didn’t care to. He wanted you all to have free will to be tempted and misbehave. Kind of a rotten deal, if you ask me, and I should know.

“As a result, he gave us all the people who liked to bend the rules. Really early on we got around the whole ‘suffer for all eternity’ thing that was in our charter, so now it’s a regular party down there. Sure, we have to have SOME torture, but really, it’s just a formality.”

Jay’s brow creased. “Even if I was buying this, what does this have to do with getting a job?”

“Everything,” the odd man said. “Choices come from action, and there are always jobs that need doing. We have all kinds of opportunities here. Want to take a look?”

Three weeks worth of frustration at looking in vain for a job broke through and Jay found himself saying, “Ok, sure. I’ll bite.”

“Again, nice choice of words. You, my friend, have a way about you that I like.” The red of the man’s suit seemed to radiate a thick smoke. The wall of Jay’s apartment dissolved and a red and black office appeared. The walls had framed works of ‘Good Girl’ pinup art and a stuffed devil doll sat happily in the black high back desk chair.

Jay was mystified but impressed. “Nice doll. Nice office.”

“Thanks! The doll was a gift from a client.” He grinned, as he moved the stuffed toy and took his seat. “Ok, Jay, let’s get started. If you could do anything, what would it be?”

Taking a seat, Jay said, “Well, I guess I’d like to help people. I want to use…”

The strange man waved his hands in surrender, making Jay stop. “Hold on.” He sighed. “Don’t try to bullshit a bullshitter, Jay. I work for the Lord of Lies, remember? I’m not some chick you are trying to pick up at a bar.”

He sat back in his chair and laced his fingers. “Let’s try this again. What do you really want to do, Jay?”

The red vinyl seat stuck to the backs of Jay’s legs where his shorts quit. He looked at the desk and squirmed. “Well, I don’t want to work very hard. I want to have authority over people, but I don’t want to make any hard decisions or manage anyone. And I don’t really care how people live as long as it doesn’t affect me. I like money, that’s a given. It would be nice to help people because I want to be perceived as being a good guy. And I don’t want to do anything truly evil.” Jay swatted at the air. “That’s where I draw the line. And no contracts in blood or anything. I get to keep my soul.”

The man waved his hand in the air, batting away Jay’s concerns. “We stopped doing the contract thing a long time ago. People got hip to it and we couldn’t close them anymore. But, so I know what kind of job to look for, are you afraid to be evil, Jay?”

“Well, sure. It’s rather extreme, isn’t it? I mean… we’re messing with people’s lives here.”

The man kicked back in his chair. “But you want to be in authority. How do you reconcile that?”

“Well, that’s different. I just want to be in control of the situation, especially at work. I’m sick of people bossing me around. Every job I’ve had, someone telling me what to do. I want to be in control for once.”

“And you don’t want to work hard.” The man scribbled notes on a red notepad.

Jay shrank a little bit as if he had asked for too much. “Well, no.” He leaned forward. “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Oh, hell no! Just let me work here.” The man held out his hand and deep red smoke coalesced into a small red book. “Ok, I’ve got plenty of openings in our larceny department. Very lucrative for short term work.”

Jay shook his head. “I don’t think so. Just the thought of prison scares me.”

He flipped the book’s pages. “Here you go, how about a politician. They hardly ever go to jail! There is a lifetime commitment though.”

“I thought you didn’t do ‘sell your soul’ type contracts anymore”

“For those guys, we make exceptions. They’re mostly lawyers and sneaky little bastards to boot so we gotta nail them down. Here’s one that doesn’t require a commitment. Political Pundit!”

The young man chuckled. “Wow, I can’t think of anything more evil!”

The man smiled. “You and me both, but I thought I’d give it a shot.” He muttered under his breath, “That one has been a bitch to fill.”

Leaning forward to try to read the book Jay said, “You’re sure you’ve got something for me?”

“Yeah. I’m not finished yet.” He flipped through his book with calm determination. “My people are very thorough. We’ll get you something. Here we go. I got a position at a local hospital as a patient intake clerk. There’s some interface with the public and some light filing. Not perfect, but how does that one sound? The pay is good, double your last gig.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad. You sure there’s no catch? Nothing to sign in blood or anything?”

“Nope,” the man smiled. “You just have to sign your time card. And we prefer black pen to blood.” Holding up a stack of time slips he said, “It faxes better.”

Jay looked at this strange man. The job seemed fine and he could use the money. Sure, the circumstances of the placement are a little odd, but the job itself was not about being evil, it was about filing paperwork. How bad could it be? “When do I start?”

“There is a shift tonight.”

Jay put up his hands. “Whoa, I don’t know. That’s kind of sudden. I was planning on doing stuff tonight. Plus, I don’t know squat about hospitals.”

“Come on Jay. You were watching cartoons. And we at Idle Hands, Inc. have an intensive training program.”

The man created a puff of smoke in his hand and slapped it into Jay’s forehead. Jay was stunned for a moment, and then said, “That’s amazing! I know all this wonky stuff about insurance and paperwork and stuff.”

The man grinned a sharp grin. “We aim to please. Don’t forget your timecards.”

***

The hospital’s corridors were bright and the linoleum floors made everyone’s shoes squeak. Jay sat alone in a row of three desks. People sat opposite him and filled out forms for his files. If everything was in order, he called the nurse over to guide them into the waiting room. Not that there were many people to help on this shift. Everything was going flawlessly until Bobby Rojas showed up at half past twelve.

The sweating Hispanic man pleaded in halting English. “Please sir, can I see a doctor now? My wife is delivering our baby.”

“Please, Mr. Rojas. Have a seat. I need you to fill out some paperwork.”

The man grabbed the chair and half sat down. “Ok, but she’s in the car and seems to be really uncomfortable. Can we just get her to…”

“I’m sorry, but the rules are pretty strict here. The hospital doesn’t have an emergency room so everyone has to have a file. Now, do you have your insurance card on you?”

“I’m sorry sir, we don’t have insurance. Smart-Mart, where I work, doesn’t offer it to low timers. But we have some cash!”

Jay looked at the man and his heart sank. “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. This is a for-profit hospital. If something really bad happens here it is going to cost you a lot of money. You are a working guy with no insurance. If it comes to it, they will ruin your life trying to get you to pay your bill and won’t take no for an answer. I know. I’m that guy making the calls.”

“But, my wife!”

“Yes, and your baby. Do you want that kind of thing hanging over your family? No, I don’t think so.” He looked at the man and tried to do the best thing he could for him. ” I’m going to give you a better option. Here, check out this map. We are here. St. Mary’s is here.”

“But that’s across town.” Mr. Rojas’s eyes went wide and his face went white.

“Yes, but there is a freeway and it’s the middle of the night. There will be no traffic. You can probably get there in, what, five minutes? They will take you in for free. Just, God, don’t mention your name or give them anything that can track you. They will think you are an illegal immigrant and all the bills will be chalked up as a bad debt.”

“You are turning me away? You want me to lie to the nuns at Saint Mary’s?”

“I’m not turning you away, but I’m telling you something for your own good. I don’t want to be responsible for the ruin of your family by letting you sign up for more debt than you can possibly pay back. This… Healthcare is a commodity like anything else. This place is like a Ferrai. You can only really afford a Ford. Please. Really, I can’t force you. I can take your information and admit your wife, but you really should go across town to St. M’s.”

The man’s face turned bleak and panicked but his voice was calm. “I understand sir.” Taking the map, he slowly turned around. “I hope, that this turns out as you say.”

“I’m sure it will, Mr. Rojas. Be careful and good luck.”

After the man departed, the nurse talked to him from her station. “It took a lot of patience to do that. It’s hard. These people just don’t realize how the system works.”

“Yea. I don’t know. The system seems to be kind of horrible at times. I hope they’re ok. He looked pretty spooked going out the door.”

“They’ll be ok. Like you said, the best place for them is just five minutes away.”

At that point, the doctor on call strolled by. “Anything new? What happened to the guy that was just here?”

The nurse said, “Another beaner. No insurance.”

He nodded to Jay and said, “How’d the new guy handle it?”

“Like a pro. The guy has a real touch.”

***

The gleaming front hall of the hospital shined with emptiness as Jay leaned in his chair. He nodded to the nurse. “Is it always this big a party on this shift?”

The nurse smiled. “You must be used to those public hospitals where things start jumping after last call. Here, the doctors usually start showing up around four and the patients show up at five for the first round of six o’clock procedures.” She unwrapped a candy from its foil shell and popped it into her mouth. “The whole place runs like clockwork.”

“Yea, but,” he hesitated, “I can’t help but think what happened to that guy earlier. He seemed a bit freaked. I hope he got to St. M’s ok.” He stared off into the distance. “Think I should call them to check?”

“I think that’s the last thing you should do.” She pushed away from her desk and brushed the last of the chocolate from her hands. “If you do that, they will know that the guy was here first and the hospital will get in trouble. You did the best thing. People have babies all the time. It’s not like it was a heart attack or something. What’s five minutes?”

“I see your point. Still, I can’t help but wonder.”

“Wonder all you like, just don’t call.”

He looked at the desk in front of him. It was perfect. The glossy finish reflected the banks of florescent lights in the lobby ceiling.

‘I gotta wiz,’ Jay thought. “I’ll be back. You need any coffee?”

“Get me some Twinkies,” the overweight nurse responded. “Just don’t make any dumb phone calls, ok?”

“Nope. Just stretching my legs.”

“Ok,” she smirked. “If no one told you, the men’s stretching post is up the hall to your left.”

He grinned. “Thanks, I’m not used to all this coffee.”

The squeaking sound of Jay’s shoes echoed in the main hall. The nurse picked up the romance novel from her desk and continued to read. While she sat entranced in the ridiculously contrived bodice ripper, the wall behind her began to show the faint outline of her shadow. Moment by moment it became more pronounced. She looked up at the last possible second before the inconceivable happened.

Smash! Screech! Crash! An old pickup truck smashed through the glass double doors separating the lobby from the parking lot. As soon as the headlights hit the second of the two double doors they were completely smashed and the terrified nurse could see inside the cab.

In the passenger’s seat sat a woman, clearly dead. Her pale face was streaked with blood. The driver was Bobby Rojas, eyes wide with an unearthly rage. He wandered out of the car, carrying a pistol and a machete. “Where’s the prick?”

The nurse was aghast. “Oh my God! Oh my God, you can’t. You can’t just… Oh my God!”

“Never mind.” He lifted the pistol and said, “I’ll find him myself.” He fired. The round caught the woman square in her fat chest and knocked her back into her chair. Bobby threw the woman his keys. “Here, the hospital is only five minutes away, if you don’t get a FLAT TIRE AND RUN INTO A GUARD RAIL! SHE WAS ALREADY UNCOMFORTABLE WHEN I GOT HER HERE, BUT YOU DIDN’T WANT TO SEE HER! MY WIFE AND BABY DIED BECAUSE OF YOU PEOPLE!”

Filled with rage, Bobby walked down the hall. The glass continued to fall from the remains of the hospital’s front doors. The nurse struggled in vain to remove the bullet that had torn a hole in her heart. She couldn’t move anything but her left arm. The shock had frozen her face where it was when the bullet hit and as she slowly lost consciousness, she was powerless to move her eyes off the horribly blank face of Mrs. Rojas.

***

From the bathroom, Jay heard the thunderous return of Bobby Rojas. He heard the shot that killed the nurse. He heard Bobby Rojas scream his story. Now he could hear the sound of shoes squeaking in the hall getting closer. Adrenaline kicked in. He looked for another way out of the bathroom but found none. The only thing he could do was lock the door and hide in a stall.

From outside he could hear the doctor yell, “Hey! The police will be here any minute. Put the…” A meaty thudding sound echoed in the tile bathroom. “AAAAAAahhhhhh! My arm!” A shot rang out just outside the bathroom door. The doctor’s screams were replaced by a tense silence.

Perched on a toilet, Jay could almost hear himself sweat. He listened intently for this man who was thirsty for revenge and intent on killing him. ‘Maybe he will pass by,’ he thought. ‘Maybe the cops would come to the rescue. None of this is my fault! I only gave him the choice! He didn’t say that his wife was bleeding. If anything, it’s his fault for not telling me.’ Jay held his breath and cursed this man for dragging him into his wife’s medical problems.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Bump. The man outside tried to open the bathroom door.

Jay heard the squeak of shoes retreat down the hall, then silence. In spite of himself, he sighed in relief. He was safe, cowering in a corner.

Smash! The sound of a machete hitting the wood door split the silence and echoed off the tiles of the bathroom. Jay kept from screaming as he heard the man repeatedly throw his body against the now-yielding door. He still had the crazy notion that the man didn’t know that he was there.

‘This can’t be happening,’ he thought. ‘What did I do to deserve this?’

The door gave way with a terrific smashing noise and Bobby Rojas looked around the bathroom. “Oh, Mr. Prick man!” he said in a singing voice, taunting him. “I’ve got my paperwork!”

Jay’s thoughts were filled with horror. ‘Oh my god! He’s crazy. He’s going to kill me!’

The sounds of the man in the bathroom filled Jay’s ears as he tried in vain to pretend that he wasn’t there. Bobby was not fooled. “Since I’ve got you here, I’m going to tell you about complications in child birth. Complications are what you don’t want when your wife is giving birth by the side of the road and your car won’t move.”

Prayers flew from Jay’s mind. There was only fear.

Bobby continued. “Now if there is a Doctor there,” Bang! A deafening shot rang through the bathroom. He felt the bullet whiz past his kneecaps. Fragments of wood from the side of the toilet stall hit his hands. “He would tell the woman to stop pushing and do something else, something that would save her. But if the only person there by the side of the road is her stupid janitor of a husband,” Bang! Another shot made Jay jump. “Her husband would tell her to push, and push until the baby ripped her apart.”

Jay heard sobbing sounds from outside the stall. He thought maybe he would be saved if this man gave into his grief and collapsed under his personal pain. It was a pathetic thing to wish for. Jay felt horrible for what had happened. But it wasn’t his fault!

The door to the stall smashed open and Bobby Rojas stood with a machete in one hand and a gun in the other. “Hello Mr. Prick. Ready to meet the Devil?”

Suddenly red smoke came from nowhere and enveloped Jay. Before he could react, he was sitting in the office of his Employment Placement Counselor, the odd man in the red suit.

Shaken, disheveled but none the worse for wear, Jay stammered, “What happened?”

“Well, you see,” the man said, stroking his goatee, “We have a very strict policy about hostile work environments here at Idle Hands. I would say that your current position was about to get as hostile as they come, wouldn’t you?”

“Uh, uh.”

“Of course you would. Now I understand if you don’t want to go back…” Behind the desk, a display showed the words “Current Assignment.” Under “Them” was the number one and a half. The man looked at the display and as the number under “Us” went from two to three he added, “…even though the cops just got there and took care of it. Once you start to feel unhappy at work, the place just isn’t the same anymore.”

“Yeah. Not safe.”

He leaned forward with an understanding look and said, “Would you like some Tequila, Jay?”

“Yeah. Please”

The man produced two shot glasses emblazoned with the “Idle Hands” logo and filled them with Cuervo. “So, what did you think of that assignment? Too much filing?”

“Too much shooting!” Jay drank his shot and made a face.

He jotted down a note. “Yeah, next time, less shooting, that’s a given, but aside from that. Have a lemon.” He pointed to a plate of sliced lemons that appeared in front of Jay.

“I mean, what the hell happened? I didn’t do anything bad to anybody!”

“No, Jay, you didn’t.” He belted down his shot.

“I mean… I know how the system works. I told the guy that he really didn’t want to be at that hospital without insurance. He needed to be at St. M’s! He understood and left.”

“But, he came back.”

“Yes! Apparently, he didn’t make it and his wife and baby died.” The young man looked at his shoes. “But that’s not my fault! I gave him the choice and he took it! I mean, I feel bad for the guy, but he left of his own free will. And then blamed me for his choice! I’m not evil. I didn’t set up the system. I just laid out a choice for him!”

“Now, you see? That’s what I’m talking about! It’s a choice.” He sat back at his desk and pulled out an envelope. “Of course it’s not your fault. You were just helping him work through the system. It’s not your fault it didn’t work out for him.

“Tell you what. I understand that today has been a real shock for you but I think you did a great job. I couldn’t be more pleased. Here’s your first paycheck. We put a bonus in there, kind of our way of saying ‘Sorry. Here’s your hazard pay.'”

Jay took the envelope and opened it. “Ten thousand? Is this right?”

“We pay our people well here, Jay. Helps with retention, especially after an assignment like that.” He leaned back and smiled again. “Don’t worry about today, Jay. You relax and give me a call when you are ready to work again.” He smiled a grin that was bright and sharp. “We have plenty of work for people like you.”