Not Even a Mouse: A Rona Shively Short (Chapter One)

I don’t ask for much. In fact, I don’t ask for anything at all. The Christmas season is always a little stressful for me, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not the shopping, hell, I don’t really shop. I just send everyone gift cards and let them figure it out. It’s not the parties…I don’t really go to those. Since I work for myself, there really isn’t much need for a company sponsored event. It’s not the jolly bell-ringers that stand outside of the grocery store begging for your spare change. They don’t really bother me because I usually just ignore them. No, for me, the stress comes from an entirely other place. For me, the stress hits me at about the time when everyone else is starting to feel relief. It hits me as I’m putting away my little, fake Christmas tree and trying to figure out why I bothered to set the damned thing up in the first place. It’s not like I have people over anymore. The people I used to spend Christmas with are either dead or out of my life for some other permanent reason. This year, I needed to keep busy. If I didn’t, it might give me too much time to think about why I don’t have a best friend to share the holidays with. It might be too much of a reminder that forty is right around the corner and I’m just now starting to grow up. I’ll have to put that conversation on hold for a bit, though. Don’t want to spill the beans.
I’m sitting in my office, looking at the ceiling as I do on many occasions. It hasn’t changed. It’s nothing fascinating, but it’s a hell of a lot better than looking at the pile of bills on my desk and comparing it to the ever-withering balance in my checkbook. My phone started ringing and I nearly fell out of my swivel chair. I had been deep into my “meditation” and the sudden shrillness of the phone’s ringer had startled me. I sat up and collected myself before reaching across the desk to answer.
“Shively,” I said.
“What are your hours today, ma’am?” a voice asked.
My hours are pretty much what I make them, I thought, but in an effort to sound halfway professional, I said, “9 to 4, what can I help you with?”
“I’m just down the street, I’d really like to speak to you in person if you don’t mind,” the voice said. I couldn’t really tell if this was a man or a woman. The voice was low and gravelly, but it could have been either had they smoked enough cigarettes in their day. They were definitely over forty. That I could tell. I’m not sure how, but I could tell.
Inwardly, I groaned. I really hated having people come into the office. I had only invested in the space to keep people from coming to my apartment. I wasn’t much of a hostess and truthfully, I preferred meeting my clients in public places. It was just one of those things. One less place they could track me down should they decide they want to shoot or otherwise injure me. “I guess that would be alright. I’m here for at least another hour,” I said reluctantly.
“Thank you very much, I’ll be around in a few minutes,” the voice said and they hung up.
“Okay,” I said to the dial tone.
I hung up and waited for the inevitable knock at the door. This visitor would be here whether I was ready or not. I sat back and put my hands behind my head. I really didn’t know how to prepare, so I figured I’d just sit for a moment and look stupid. It’s one of my strengths.
Fifteen minutes passed before I heard the knocking. I must have drifted off for a moment, because again, I was nearly startled out of my seat. I stood up, collected myself and walked the five steps across the office to my door. When I opened it, I didn’t see anyone. I stepped back and started to close the door when a tiny, old woman exclaimed, “Hey, wait a minute!”
I looked down and was shocked to see a woman, not more than three feet tall, standing in my doorway looking up at me. She was dressed in some kind of velvety, red wrap that made her look like a fancy bag lady. She was disheveled and her face sported a fresh bruise the size of a walnut just under her left cheekbone. Someone had roughed up this poor little, old lady. This immediately pissed me off.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what happened to you?”
“Can I come in, please?” she said huffily. This woman was not happy. She pushed her way past me before I could invite her in and then plopped down in the small wooden chair beside my desk. She fussed and fidgeted around for several moments apparently trying to arrange her wrap so that it wasn’t bunching up underneath her. I could understand that, I hate bunching.
“Can I ask what happened to your cheek?” I asked her.
She ignored me, so I gave her a few minutes to get situated and then I walked back over to my own chair and sat down. I thought about offering her something to drink, but then decided to wait and see if she answered my question. She looked up then and eyed me suspiciously, as though I was the one who was forgetting something.
“Aren’t you going to offer me something to drink?” she asked, twisting her face up as she spoke.
This is why you should always trust your first instinct about a situation. “I’m sorry, would you like something to drink? I have coffee and bottled water. I might have a Coke in there.” I pointed to my mini-fridge as though it held the answers to the questions of the universe.
“No, thank you,” she replied curtly. Well, now, why the hell would you ask if you didn’t want anything? Any sympathy I had felt for this woman was quickly dissipating.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me, what happened to your face there?” I asked her again.
She looked up at the ceiling and then around at my office. It wasn’t very impressive, so I braced myself for an unsolicited critique. “You should really get some plants in here, dear,” she said, “this place is so dreary.”
“Okay, yes, I know that, but what I don’t know is why you are here,” I said, getting impatient, “I hate to seem pushy, but you’re avoiding my question.” I’m not inclined to ignore signs of abuse, especially when little, old ladies are involved.
“Well, if you must know, I fell down the other day and one of my animals kicked me in the face,” she said testily, “not that it’s any of your business.”
“Your animals?” I said.
“Yes, my animals,” she said, not offering any additional information about the nature of the beast who had kicked her.
I was sure she was lying, but I decided not to press the issue. “Okay, then, what can I do for you, Ms.?”
“The name is Nellie, and I have a problem with my…employees,” she said, “I think someone has been stealing from us.”
This seemed straightforward enough. “What kind of business do you have?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment and then put a finger up as she nodded her answer, “Manufacturing and distribution of toys, knick-knacks and other stuff, mostly.”
“Mostly? What else is there?” I asked.
“Well, it’s really hard to describe, but the part I’m most worried about has to do with our inventory,” she said.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked, never failing to hear that stupid song in my head as I said the words.
“I think it’s been a few months,” she said, “I wanted to be sure, so I waited before coming to you.”
“And what makes you sure?” I asked.
“Well, I started marking some of the items so that I could track which ones went missing,” she said, clearly impressed with her own ingenuity, “and for the last two weeks, there have been huge gaps in the merchandise that should be on the shelves.”
“Okay, then,” I said, “I guess I can look into this for you. What is the name of your business?” I pulled out a contract and prepared to write down the particulars.
“It’s Santac, Limited,” she said, finally smiling. Her spirits seemed to be lifting somewhat, but for no reason I could ascertain.
“Santac is spelled…?” I asked, writing down what I thought it should look like.
“S-a-n-t-a-c, limited,” she said.
“And are you’re the owner of the business?” I asked.
“Yes, part-owner, my husband and I own it together,” she said.
“Is he aware that you’ve contacted me?” I asked.
“Oh, heavens no,” she said nervously, “he wouldn’t understand all of this.”
I sat back for a moment to consider whether or not I should proceed. I didn’t like to handle family business cases where everyone wasn’t aware of what was going on. It made for a messier than normal investigation.
“Is he likely to give me any trouble if he sees me around your place?” I asked.
“Oh, no, he wouldn’t do that,” she said.
“Are you sure, because I don’t want to be hassled while I’m trying to do my job,” I said.
I hated giving the old lady a hard time, even if she had been a little rude. But, what I hated more was being bothered by people when I was trying to check shit out.
“He won’t even know you’re around, dear,” she said, “he’s usually not in the office.”
I nodded and we continued filling out the contract. I explained my fees and she pulled a checkbook out of somewhere within her frock. She wrote me a check for $1,000 and handed it across the desk. I folded it and slipped it into my jacket pocket so that I could take it to the bank later. We talked about some possible scenarios for my checking out her warehouse and decided that I should come through as some kind of salesperson. I didn’t much care for the idea, but I figured it wouldn’t matter much what I was as long as I got a look at some of her employees. She had it narrowed down to three of her stockers. She couldn’t figure out which one was stealing, but she knew that it was one of the three. She wanted me to come in and look around as though I were assessing their needs for some kind of product that I sell. I hate using my imagination to this extent.
Before she left, she reached out to shake my hand. When her hand touched mine, I was surprised by its warmth. This crotchety gal seemed like the type whose hands would be cold and bony, but hers was warm and soft. I suddenly felt like I was standing there with an old friend. There was something strange about her. I wasn’t prone to being naïve, but she reminded me of someone.
“Nah,” I said to myself, shaking my head. I reached into my pocket to take out the check she had written. The name on the check said, Donella Clos. Not even close, I thought. It was a completely different spelling. Anyway, I didn’t believe in stuff like that and if she was someone magical, why didn’t she smell like cookies. Wasn’t that the deal, all those elves and shit smelled like cookies or sugarplums or something Christmasy. “I must be losing my mind,” I said to no one in particular.
I got out a deposit slip and one of those envelopes for the ATM machine and started to fill it all out. I’d drop this in the bank on my way home. There was really no need to sit here in the office all day. I had an answering machine and it actually worked, so I left.

Come back tomorrow for Chapter Two!

Until next time…

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