A Plague of Scoundrels - Excerpts
CHAPTER 1 — THE MAN IN THE FEATHERED HAT
I had encountered some peculiar characters in the roommate-and-landlord maze of San Francisco apartments, but never a man dressed in a medieval costume. This man’s garish Robin Hood attire belonged in Merrie Old England in the time of lords and ladies, knights and kings. He postured before me in purple doublet, lime-colored tights, and a formless green hat adorned with a cock’s feather while I stood outside the open door of his Chinatown rental, striving to appear trustworthy.
“Sir,” he said, his stance that of a bantam barnyard rooster. “I assume you have responded to my Internet posting for a renter with discretion and a tolerance for the bizarre.” He tilted his head. “If so, come in.”
“Yeah,” I said. I needed a cheap apartment to fit my bare-bones budget. I would like to claim that I’m a successful stand-up comedian. One day I will be, but for the past twelve years my career ladder has had a few rungs missing. “Already sent back your renter’s questionnaire.”
I stepped inside but kept one hand on the doorknob behind me. The little oddball didn’t appear dangerous, probably a harmless eccentric. If he caused any trouble, my six-foot, two-hundred-pound physique would take care of matters. But I didn’t need any trouble with the local constabulary. A quick sprint up the outside steps would take me from this basement-level apartment back to the Chinatown alley off Grant Avenue.
“Welcome to my castle,” my potential landlord/roommate said.
He bowed and swept his hand in a flourish. Halloween was months away, so he was either a Shakespearian actor or just plain daft. No matter which. I needed an abode of my own, cheap and quick.
I gazed over the man’s shoulder, which wasn’t hard since he was about five feet tall. A living room filled the center space of a T-shaped apartment. An efficiency kitchen occupied one corner, with a bathroom on the other side. Through an open door, I could see an unused bedroom on the left. The closed door behind him must lead to another bedroom.
Thick velvet drapes covered all the apartment’s small basement windows, totally blocking all natural light and any outsider’s view into the place. A desire for privacy or a fear of sunlight? Maybe both, considering this odd little man’s sallow complexion and strange attire.
“I am Edward Bockman.” Bockman stroked his sandy-colored Van Dyke while inspecting me with darting glances. “Sir, God’s truth, I will offer low rent to the right person.”
Low rent, what did that mean? According to the application letterhead, Edward Bockman was the sole owner of PST Corporation. Whatever that was. I clasped my arms behind my back like an awkward kid meeting his distant relatives for the first time. Modern executive or medieval Robin Hood, I didn’t care. All I wanted was to have that vacant room at the lowest price.
“Pray tell me your name.”
“Vail, like the ski resort,” I said. “Elliot Vail.”
He joined his hands and nodded his head as if I had said something important. The cock feather in his hat made it hard to take his demeanor seriously. Where did his imaginary life take him? What far country? What distant year? In my hometown, gender confusion was one thing, but century confusion quite another.”
I’ve decided to offer you free rent,” he said, “for one bedroom plus use of the kitchen. Providing you agree to the strict conditions I impose.” He made no attempt to explain his outlandish attire or why he changed his mind. “Think of it. Free rent, Mr. Elliot Vail.”
“Free is good,” I said. “Seriously good.”
In fact, a perfect rent. My budget could expand to include eating two meals a day. He hadn’t yet stated his strict conditions, but anything short of sex or murder for hire would suit me fine. I could handle anything, except—
“Do you have cats?” I asked. Any hairball would be a deal breaker. Even for free rent.
“No cats.” Bockman seemed amused. “Nor hounds, falcons or gerbils.”
“I can do without a litany of the animal kingdom.” I extended my open palm like a traffic cop. The cliché “Beggars can’t be choosers” had been my mantra while seeking a low-rent apartment. The cheapest rental I had found still had exceeded half my monthly income. That one had required keeping seven cavalier cats happy while their owner was away. I lasted there only forty-five days. The cost of my allergy meds had offset the savings on rent.
Bockman quit yakking and fussed with the shoulders of his close-fitting jacket. He avoided eye contact. Guess he wasn’t used to guys like me, sarcastic comedians who can be annoying while being funny. Or maybe not so funny. My career “showed promise”—my agent’s faint praise. My bank statement showed depletion. I needed to cinch this deal.
“I’m good at honoring conditions,” I assured him. Should have added, as long as I agreed with them. But “free” could take the edge off my attitude. “My stint in the army taught me not to question orders.” Unless those commands were arbitrary intrusions on my personal well-being. Still . . .
He smoothed the front of his jacket. I swallowed any thought of saying something wiseass. Both of us were a bit nervous about each other. But I sensed each wanted the deal settled here and now.
Then he smiled, his eyes wide open, and spread his arms in welcome. The effort extended a bony wrist from his sleeve, revealing his watch. He checked the time.
“How stupid of me,” Bockman said, smacking his palm against his forehead. “I could be burned at the stake.” He loosened his wristwatch and tossed it onto a small table. “I’m running very short of time.”
“What are your conditions so I can abide by them?” I attempted to grease the skids to my immediate occupancy of that vacant room.
“My rental conditions are few, but each is ironclad and must be followed to the letter.” He lifted a three-quarter-length cape off a chair back, wrapped the garment around his narrow shoulders, and stood arms akimbo. “Never, ever,” he thumbed over his shoulder, “try to open the door to my room, my inner sanctum, office and computer center. I keep it locked at all times. Don’t forget, this is my home. You are the renter.”
The trouble with having a landlord as a roommate is that they act like they own the place. I was tempted to rattle his cage by tossing out a line my ex-wife had once used on me during our settlement negotiations. “Su casa es mi casa—your house is my house.” Hah. But Bockman probably wouldn’t appreciate my offbeat humor.
“See this wooden chest beside me?”
My new landlord used one ribbon-tied shoe to nudge a sturdy box covered by a flat lid. Considering Bockman’s quaint costume, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pirate’s chest. But it was just a plain rectangular box made of smooth boards.
“Whenever it appears outside my locked door,” Bockman said, “look inside for a list of my needs. Purchase the items and leave them in the box. Same-day service would be appreciated. Especially if you do this before you retire for the night. My requirements will be limited. I have taken care of almost everything.”
Yeah, like when my ex convinced me she had paid off all her credit card charges. They kept showing up for months after she left. I wasn’t going to be suckered again.
“Sorry,” I said. “My limited finances won’t cover front money for someone I know, let alone a stranger in lime-colored tights.”
“Okay.” He blinked his owlish eyes at me. “There’s fifty dollars in the tea container on the kitchen counter. Take that.”
“And if that’s not enough?” I’d learned to hammer out monetary details before moving in. Free rent couldn’t change that.
“Here.” Bockman pressed a sheet of paper into my hand. “My accountant, Mr. Perello, is handling my finances while I’m away. Perello’s telephone number is included in these instructions.”
There was that corporate PST letterhead again. Below the fussy font Bockman had noted his accountant’s contact info, followed by a reiteration of the locked-room-and-box instructions. Then began an odd list of personal preferences on items to be purchased. My new landlord insisted on such trivial things as spearmint, not peppermint. Chocolate instead of vanilla, and vitamin tablets, not soft gels—-and never in plastic blister packs. Fifty bucks wouldn’t buy much if Bockman stayed away for long.
“I can’t see pestering Perello for pocket money,” I said. “Accountants and lawyers are two professions I avoid. They charge you for saying hello.”
“I’ll try to send some more money.” Bockman exhaled through pursed lips. “It will be in the box. Don’t be surprised to find old English coins.”
“I’ve never found anything wrong with good old American money,” I pushed back at him. “Lots of people accept it, kind of a worldwide phenomenon.”
“Sell them to a coin dealer.” Bockman’s shoulders worked uncomfortably beneath the fit of the cape. “They will be valuable.” He tugged at his sagging stockings. “I have a collection . . . I’m, ah, I’m a numismatist.”
The little guy was all jumpy, twitchy. He kept glancing at his wristwatch on the table, as if he was worried he would miss the last train. He ran a finger under his nose. He was working pretty hard to wrap up our deal and didn’t seem to be trying to put anything over on me. I shot him a quick smile and put up another open palm to settle him down.
“We won’t be talking again,” Bockman said, a grateful smile appearing. “No telephone or cell number to reach me. Now, repeat our understanding.”
“Check for the box,” I said. “Buy what’s on your list, put the stuff inside and leave it outside your locked door at night.” I couldn’t resist a tag line. “And don’t peek.”
“Important.” He raised his index finger. “My oak box is the only container you can use. No plastic or cardboard. Furthermore, if you write a note to me, it has to be handwritten. No computer printouts.”
I screwed my face into a Gomer Pyle expression and resisted the temptation to add, “Golly, Mr. Bockman.” Then I added my surefire closer: “And I won’t tell anybody.”
Tension seeped out of Bockman. His drawn shoulders relaxed like warm pudding. He tilted his head down as he let out a long breath of relief.
“To tell the truth,” I said, “I don’t really care about other people’s problems. My curiosity is nil.”
Not exactly true. Strange happenings and wacky people were my comedy source material. So I fudged a little. But Bockman needed reassurance, and I needed free rent.
“I’ll be your box-jockey,” I added.
“I’m not certain how long I will be away,” Bockman said. “But then, I issue my own return ticket.”
He smiled at some private joke. I felt like putting a headlock on Bockman and giving him a noogie like I used to do to my kid brother whenever he annoyed me.
“Now, Elliot, do we have a deal?”
Bockman rummaged in a leather sack-purse tied to his belt and extracted a key. He put it between his teeth while he tugged a pair of black leather gauntlets over his small hands. Then he spat the key into his right hand.
“Works for me, Bockman,” I said. “Just so you know, I do stand-up comedy. Some improv. Late hours. Sometimes I get out-of-town gigs. My schedule is erratic.”
Bockman fussed a gloved hand across his forehead. He still held the key, so he looked like he was winding his brain. Cracked me up.
“Perfect,” Bockman said, his face lighting up like a kid being offered ice cream. He flipped the apartment key over to me. “Fare thee well, Elliot.”
“Wait,” I said. “One little question.”
I felt Bockman owed me a tidbit of information in exchange for me being his flunky. If nothing else, I might have to defend myself to the cops if Bockman went missing or was fished out of the Bay. Or if they came knocking on our apartment door searching for him, and me knowing little more than my landlord was peculiar.
“I’m curious,” I said. “What does your PST Corporation do?”
“Particle Shift Technology,” he enunciated. “Leading-edge science. Futuristic.” He affected a smug smile. “Or not.”
Technology? Science? Not of any interest to me. In my opinion, particles should stay put and not move around. The little man was having too much fun with this. Was he making a joke at my expense? Yeah, well, my business was comedy, and he didn’t know dip about that.
“Now, our business has concluded,” Bockman said. “You can move in tomorrow. Excuse me. I have a rendezvous with Lady Greyhurst. I wouldn’t say she’s a fair maiden, but then the ex-mistress of a king is always a lady.”
Another flourish of hand and cape as Bockman steered me across the threshold and closed the door. I chewed on this last enigmatic exchange at the bottom of the sidewalk stairs. From somewhere behind his closed door, a jumble of sounds, fading clicks and whines, reverberated as if a volume control was being adjusted. Then I understood.
Bockman was like a Star Wars fanatic. Costumed, in character, to play some super-graphic computer game set in Old England. An image of the skinny Bockman hunched over a game console, stroking his joystick, conjured up a deep belly laugh. I walked up the Chinatown alley that was now my neighborhood, turned right at Wing Fu’s corner restaurant, and headed off to pack my meager belongings.
© Copyright 2008 by Jon Cory