March 25, 2007
Mike’s telephone could not have started beeping at a worse time for him, but of course I don’t know this yet. I answer the telephone frantically, ignoring my angry boss behind me; of course, it is too late.
“I will get someone else to help me with the Chandler case if you are, um, too busy,” the attorney says, sounding exactly like the boss from Office Space.
“I am not busy,” I say, now desperately curious about the “Chandler case.” Can this really be about my friend Mike Chandler?
Apparently so. The attorney reiterates the gossip I heard from his secretary earlier: Mike Chandler is the unreliable son of his best friend, the firm represented Mike’s father in a private matter when Mike was kidnapped several years ago, Mike has disappeared again, the firm has been asked to privately look into the matter before anyone contacts the police.
“Is it true that you know Mike Chandler and his fiancee?” my boss asks.
I nod, unwilling to give away more information than I have to.
“I am sorry to have to tell you this, but it appears that his fiancee was murdered yesterday morning. As we understand it, the main suspect is a girl named Sonia who works at a local card club. Would you be able to help us find her?”
I look blankly at my cellular telephone, now on vibrate. I have four missed calls from my home telephone number. Sonia. As I slide my telephone into my pocket, the phone vibrates again.
“I will do my best,” I reply, suddenly very tired. “Can I get back to you tomorrow?”
March 25, 2007
While I prepare his file information sheet and gossip with random secretaries, my friend Mike Chandler is bound, gagged, drugged, and heading for Mexico as fast as the cargo train will go. His two assailants are sitting on bales of hay, pointing guns at his head. They have bandannas over their faces, like Jesse James and his posse. Like Jesse James’ victims, Mike knows exactly who they are anyway.
“Where is Sonia?” asks the one on the left. Mike knows he should not say anything because he is drugged and disoriented and barely holding it together. It is a good thing he has experience feeling this way, Mike thinks incoherently. The thought of Sonia makes him smile a little bit.
It is at this moment that Mike crumples against a bale of hay and loses consciousness. He lands on his back pocket, hitting his cell phone in the process. It dials his most recently received telephone call.
My telephone rings in the file room, just as an attorney walks in. “Turn it off,” says the attorney, patronizingly, “and we can talk about what I want you to do for the Chandler case and I can pretend like I did not hear anything.” Just as I do so, I look down at the caller ID: Mike Chandler.
February 25, 2007
By the next afternoon, however, I am cautiously optimistic. It was sort of nice to chat with Sonia over breakfast; maybe too easy and pleasant, because it started reminding my of last year, when it was all nice and companionable before all the trouble started. In any event, after coffee, Sonia raced off to school and my painstakingly boring daily routine went off as planned. At 7:57 a.m., I got on the same bus I always take to work. I read all of the local news in the San Francisco Chronicle in the same order as I always read it on the bus. By 8:30 a.m., I had arrived at my beloved most boring job in the world
I am a file clerk at a law firm. I am really good at this because I have a superior command over the alphabet and have always had a weird love of sorting things. Nobody ever talks to the file clerks: they just leave files for me in a big stack that I deal with alone in the file room all day every day. Sometimes they have me do really basic research, like any high school kid could do for a paper. It is nice and quiet and provides just enough busy work that I am never really left alone with my thoughts.
After lunch, though, it all starts going to hell. First, a secretary comes in to talk to me. Nobody ever talks to me, so this seems all wrong. “I need you to start a new file,” she says. “Chandler.”
I frown, because this is my missing friend Mike’s last name. It’s a common name, I guess. “Is Chandler the plaintiff or defendant?” I ask, starting to fill out a new file information sheet.
The secretary sits down, eager to gossip. “Oh, you haven’t heard? Mr. Chandler is the best friend of one of the senior partners. He is super rich and we helped him after his son got kidnapped a long time ago.”
This can’t be my friend Mike’s father because I 1) wouldn’t I know if Mike were really rich? and 2) if Mike had ever gotten kidnapped, I would never hear the end of heroic tales about it when he got drunk. Still, I am starting to feel kind of weird about this whole thing. “So what’s the deal with the new Chandler file?” I ask.
“Here’s the thing. No one knows. The partners won’t even let us in the room when they are talking about it.”
“Okay,” I say, ready to stop gossiping. “Well, I guess that’s less work for us.”
The secretary giggles. “One more thing,” she says. “They asked me to have you order background checks on Mr. Chandler’s two sons, Sam and Mike, and to also look for information regarding either of them in the files back here.” She closes the door quietly behind her.
Mike Chandler, heir and ex-kidnapping victim. I’ll be damned. I head over to the filing cabinet.
February 19, 2007
Geo. Kayes is a divey little bar, populated by a mix of old alcoholics from the neighborhood and local art students. Because I am clearly in the first category, I arrive a little early to have a drink before Sonia arrives. I sit in my usual seat, the one right by the window. When I first started coming here, there was a sign above this stool that said “Reserved for Wendell” and I once got kicked out when Wendell, a sweet little white-haired man from the neighborhood, showed up. But then Wendell died, and we were all very sad in the bar, and I have been sitting at his stool recently.
The bartender brings me a Maker’s Mark manhattan before I say anything. One thing about this bar: if the bartender likes you, he will bring you a shaker full of your drink along with the glass, like they do with ice cream sodas at some old diners. Sonia is late and she keeps looking over my shoulder at the window when she finally shows up, like she expects to see someone who she doesn’t like walking down the hill towards the bar.
I sip my drink and wait for her to say something. I think about whether I have been drinking too much whiskey. Someone once told me it would give me wrinkles.
“I know where he is,” she finally says. “But I can’t tell you.”
“I can’t go home,” she continues. “They’ll get to me. Can I stay at your apartment tonight?”
As she talks and talks about how she would never normally ask a favor like this and how she will pay me back etcetera etcetera, I can see the boring life I’ve painstakingly built for myself over the last year fading away. I miss it already. I am almost nostalgic thinking about waking up in the morning, filing papers all day (the most boring job I could find), going to bed, and doing it all again.
I suppose it was too good to last. I finally nod in assent, like she knows I will. I always seem to, when people like her show up to ruin my life.
February 10, 2007
When Sonia started playing cards after work, it turned out that she had not learned as much by watching customers as she thought she had. Also it turned out that she was a born gambling addict, and it did not take her long to lose all her vacation savings. After she ran out of money, a middle-aged card dealer at the club let her play on credit. Eventually, Sonia spent all her time driving the middle-aged card dealer around and running his errands, supposedly to work off her gambling debts. She found that she rarely had time to attend her classes. The errands became increasingly sinister, and more likely to involve driving around with silent, sullen men who appeared to be criminals.
Sonia felt that her life had gotten so horrible so fast that she was like a person outside of it all watching a bad after-school special on the danger of gambling. She was too embarassed to ask anyone for help. That is when my friend Mike, the friendly card club customer, became a little worried about her. He shared meals with her a few times and, without asking any embarrassing questions, told her about other job openings he heard of, in other towns or other states. He encouraged her to get out of the business.
Sonia knew that Mike was engaged to someone else, but she could not help falling in love with the only nice person in her life. When they started eating dinner together regularly during her break, she looked forward to it all day. It was also around this time that the middle-aged card dealer noticed the new man in her life, and that is when Sonia thinks the trouble started.
February 10, 2007
I would learn later that there was no problem with the card club girl’s English. Sonia had lived in California since she was twelve and was a semester away from a degree from Berkeley in English literature. Our communication problem was that she was in love with my missing friend and, having caught a fleeting glance of me getting in or out of his car, mistaken me for his fiancee.
As it turned out, Sonia had known my missing friend Mike for a long time. He was a regular customer at the card club and one of the few customers that was not obviously dangerous or on death’s door for one reason or another, and gradually they became friends.
Working at the card club was a good job for a college student, she thought at first. She could work at night and take classes during the day, and there was plenty of slow time at work to sit and do her reading for school. Sonia had vague thoughts of being a writer when she graduated and figured that all of the weird characters who hung out at the card club would be good fodder for a book someday.
As a pretty fresh-faced college girl in a room full of down-on-their-luck old men, she made excellent tips, even though the cusomers were not really supposed to tip anyone. Gradually she started working more and more hours with the idea of saving enough money for an actual vacation after graduation. Then she started playing cards, since she had learned a thing or two from watching all the customers. Then she got a little down on her luck, and that was when my friend Mike intervened.
January 28, 2007
The girl from the card club is like a displaced Ukranian model-actress, all long limbs and blonde hair and piercing eyes. I can’t figure out why should be working in a sleazy card club on San Pablo until she opens her mouth and I cannot understand a word she says. It is not just her indecipherable accent; she also seems completely unhinged. She must have mistaken me for someone else and she can’t seem to stop talking long enough for me to explain.
“I can’t believe it took you so long to come here,” she is saying right now. “Mike said you were coming in last week.”
Mike? Does she have me confused with Mike’s awful girlfriend? I open my mouth to try and explain but she of course starts talking again.
“I don’t want you to come here again,” she is saying now. “I get off at work at 11 pm. You live right by Geo Kaye’s, right?” This is a small, dark bar right across the street from my house, populated by art students and really old men from the neighborhood who show up around 2pm every day. I don’t even want to know why she seems to know where I live.
“That’s perfect,” she says. “Nobody will go there. I’ll see you at 11:30.” She runs back into the card club before I can say anything.
January 27, 2007
Lots of people think that Mike is hopeless, a disaster, the worst thing that ever happened to them. I personally think he just gets bored easily. Every few years, he gets to this point where he has a good job, an annoying but very pretty girl in a serious relationship with him, and a nice car — and this always dissolves all at once in a chaotic mix of restraining orders, unemployment, and God knows what else that leaves him living in his car for a little while before it starts all over again. I am sure that this is all that is happening now, so sure that my first move after the troubling encounter with the police is to head down to the card clubs around 40th and San Pablo. Of course, Mike adores gambling.
As I mentioned, I am a good girl. I have lived in Oakland for a hundred years and I have even noticed that some of the card clubs serve food 24 hours per day, but I have never set foot in any of them. That is why it is so weird when everyone at the card club turns around and nods at me when I come in, as though I am a regular.
I walk towards a counter to talk to a girl who is about my age. She looks horrified. “Not in here!” she says. The girl grabs my arm and takes me out back.
January 27, 2007
The police have never been in my house before. I am a rule follower, a good girl. I have no idea how to proceed.
“You have been identified as a person of interest in an investigation of a missing person,” the shorter cop says. Is he the good cop or the bad cop? Again, I have no idea.
“Am I under arrest?” I ask.
“Not yet, ma’am,” says the other cop. (“Ma’am? What, am I 60 years old? This has to be the bad cop.) “You have been identified as a person of interest and we would like to ask you a few questions in private.”
I assume this is my cue to kick Sarah out. “I will call you if I hear anything,” I say breezily to Sarah, who has totally forgotten about her missing fiancee and now looks like she is aching to get to a phone and tell all her friends about this new, disreputable turn of events. “Ta ta for now!”
I admit that now I am a little worried about my missing friend; also I am a little worried that I am about to be arrested for no reason.
January 27, 2007
Mike is one of those friends who disappears sometimes. We have been friends since third grade, but if you subtract his long absences from my life it is like we have been really good friends for about half of that time.
This is what I am trying to explain to his fiancee Sarah but, as always with girls like her, it is like I am speaking the wrong language. No doubt she has already decided that I am cold, heartless, not a real girl, and (they always get to this point with me eventually) A Husband Stealer.
“He has been gone for two days,” she is saying mournfully, smoothing her gauzy top over last year’s designer jeans. “He always calls.”
“Of course he does.”
“I just thought you, or one of the old crowd (which she always says with sinister emphasis), might have heard something. You don’t think he has cold feet about the wedding, do you?”
I am thinking: Yes, I think he does. I have had this conversation with two or three of my friends’ exes and it always turns out that they are fine, in the middle of a debauched long weekend, and have decided that that they are not quite ready to settle down.
This does not seem like the right thing to say to Sarah, however.
I am trying to figure out exactly what the right thing to say to her is when the doorbell rings and the police come in.