a serious joke: chapter 12

“My uncle got arrested for sodomy. Fortunately, his lawyer was able to get the charge reduced to ‘walking too close’”

-american lawyer joke

“Benjamin S. Zion, attorney at law,” he said, extending his hand. Jim Spleen shook it, tentatively. “What brings you here today, Mr. Spleen? Walk me through it.”

Jim took a seat in the leather chair opposite Zion, who was dressed rather casually in khaki pants and a polo shirt—tufts of matted chest hair protruding from the collar loosened to the first button. Jim made as if to speak, paused, then ventured sheepishly, “this is free, right?”

“The consultation is free,” Zion answered reassuringly, taking a sip of his morning coffee and puckering. His demeanor was in some indefinable way not particularly ‘lawyer-like’. Perhaps it was the cut of his hair; swept behind both ears and hanging near shoulder-length in back, while the front marked a slightly receding line along his forehead—slicked back, a thin wisp of a stray curl hanging over the ridges in the skin of his face. He came across casually, no doubt well-off but decidedly lacking the air of the rich. His old Lincoln Navigator sat rusted out along the edges of the bumper outside in the parking lot, a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, magazines and empty CD jewel cases scattered about the passenger seat. Jim had noted it as he’d entered the business suite earlier. Not a typical rich man car. Likewise, things were scattered lightly about in the small windowless office room they sat in now. Personal articles of mail, crumpled up pieces of paper, a bottle of Windex, a half-dismantled Xerox machine positioned at an odd angle adjacent the door. Zion reclined in his seat, elbows up, fingers interlocked behind his head. “I remember just the bare bones of your story.” He snapped back, ducked into a desk drawer and rummaged through some things for a moment. “Wrote just the cliff’s notes down here somewhere…” He couldn’t find them.

“Well, basically,” Jim assisted, “I think I’m being stalked.” A cat jumped up onto the desk, cutting Jim short and producing a startled jolt in his torso, arms halfway raised almost as if to shield his face from a projectile. The cat sat up, purring. Staring a hole in Jim.

“Never mind him,” Zion said, grinning halfway. “Office cat,” he said, reaching down into his desk drawer and taking a small saucer out. Placed in front of him, the cat stooped down and began lapping up some warm milk.

Jim strained to concentrate, the cat’s sandpapery tongue lapping up warm milk, intermittently glancing up at him…knowingly. Jim did his best to gather his thoughts and explain the situation halfway as succinctly as he’d already explained it to the cat. And to do so in a way that wouldn’t make him look like a complete lunatic. Fortunately, in questioning his agent about the booking that night in Richmond, Jim had come up with a somewhat grounded lead. Something that both seemed right and might at once lend a bit of verisimilitude to his story. The show that’d ended up in Jim fleeing in a mad dash through the avenues and alleyways of downtown had in fact been booked for John Lewis that particular night by what had been relayed to Jim as a new agent. Someone he hadn’t heard of in the nightclub circuit before. A ‘Sam Vest’. Vest Booking and PR. Jim had known Lewis’s agent for years. He’d talked to him only days prior. There had been no mention of Lewis jumping ship. As a matter of fact, when asked offhand how that insufferable bastard John Lewis was performing, the man had said ‘fine. Just fine.’ And that he’d even renewed his contract little more than six months beforehand. “The problem is,” Jim explained—now well into his story and doing not too badly at appearing sane—“I looked this…this Sam Vest up. No such guy. He doesn’t exist.”

The lawyer looked uninterested. “Doesn’t exist.”

“No.” Jim fished around in his pants pocket and pulled out a dog-eared piece of paper, folded in quarters. Unfolding it, pressing it flat against the desk and rotating it 180 degrees to face Zion, he continued, “here. It’s a flyer.”

“Vest Munitions,” Zion read outloud.

“I dug deeper. My agent called around. She used to do that sort of work.”

“What sort?” Zion asked, sliding the flyer back in Jim’s direction.

“Investigating. Private. Not like Sam Spade or anything, but more of a desk job. Like a…what’s the word…researcher. But conducting background checks, skip-tracing, things like that. She found this ‘Vest’ name comes back to a shuttered gun and ammo shop in the mountains. Roanoke. The place has been closed for just inside of a year. But the phone number’s still in service. She called. Machine answered. Place closed nearly a year ago…I called then…same thing, a machine. The voice on it. It’s hollow…” Jim trailed off, caught off guard by a sideways glare from the cat. Its emerald eyes glinting briefly, catching the light off the banker’s lamp positioned haphazardly on the corner of the desk.

“You mentioned something about loss of wages,” the lawyer said flatly. “Is this related? So far, what you have is a criminal matter. Now, stalking is a hard crime to prove, I know. I’ve had civil cases that included stalking among other causes of action, sure, but you may want to be sure you’ve exhausted your criminal prosecution options before going down that road. Have you visited a magistrate?”

“I’m not looking to press charges. Not yet. First I need to find out who this ‘Vest’ guy really is. That flyer appeared in my mailbox the other day. Just the day after I called that closed up gun shop.”

“You think you’re being tracked. Why?” Zion asked the question despite having the sense not to. So far, this was not a case. “More importantly,” he added, leaning forward, “what exactly is it I can do for you, keeping in mind a detective does a detective’s work, an attorney does an attorney’s work.”

After a pregnant pause, Jim answered. “…Did you ever have a really, really vivid dream, Mr. Zion?” Zion hesitated. Unsure what territory he was headed into. Professionally, the consultation was now well over and done with. On another level, however, something goaded him, begging him follow. He did. Furtively.

“I did.”

“Well,” Jim Spleen said, leaning in close, “so did I. A dream so vivid that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was something…” he paused, staring off into the diplomas hung at slight angles on the wall behind Zion. “…it was something else.”

“Go on…” Zion said, slowly.

The Cat had finished its saucer of milk. Licking its chops, Zion reclined in his leather chair, fingers tented. Jim continued. Both men were now venturing into a foreign land…