I meet my contact in front of the Chicago River on West Wacker. We’ve never seen each other before but he takes a single glance and knows he’s got the right man. Without a word, we sit on opposite sides of the concrete bench, our backs to the water.
I’m clean-shaven and sharply dressed, but that makes no difference. A mother nearly pushes her stroller into traffic in her haste avoid passing too near me. Businessmen pause in their cell phone conversations. A jogger spots me and immediately spins about to head in the opposite direction, almost toppling a businesswoman. The woman is too busy keeping an eye on me to cuss out the jogger.
My heart weeps but this is good for business. My contact sees what’s happening and it’s like a long list of references on my résumé.
“I’d like to buy you lunch,” my contact tells me. “I hear good things about the T-bone at the Regency Steakhouse. It’s in the lobby of the Hyatt.”
He hands me an envelope stuffed with cash. I glance inside briefly before tucking it away.
“Tomorrow,” my contact says. “Arrive about noon. Stroll around. There’s a big aquarium in the lobby, they got lots of fish like you’ve never seen before. Check them out. Let people see you.”
“In other words, do my thing?”
“Yeah, do your thing.”
And now he looks at me. He studies me with a kind of admiration. I don’t know his name and never will, but I consider him a friend. Criminals are the only people who don’t judge when they look at me. It’s the Upstanding Citizens who shoot me the Evil Eye, who scurry past, who place themselves between their little ones and myself.
Maybe someday I’ll meet a nice lady who cracks safes or drives a mean getaway car and she’ll look at me with something other than wariness and maybe we’ll date and fall in love. Sure I may be drawn further into the criminal world than I ever intended, but we’ll both be happy for a time.
But probably not.
Because in this world, looks are everything.
I pat the wad of cash in my suit jacket. It can buy a lot of T-bones and it’s all on account of how I look. My heart weeps but it’s a living.
Every morning I look at my face in the mirror and try to determine whether it’s a blessing or a curse. I cannot honestly say just what it is about me that sparks such loathing and distrust. When I go through my day, I hear people talk but it’s like soft music playing in the background. I only hear the words when I make a point of listening. Then: “There is just something off about him.” “Ewww. Some creep just looked at me.” “Let’s move to another table. I don’t like the looks of that guy.” “I hope somebody calls security.”
It’s always been this way and the worst part is how polite everyone is. When I was a kid, teachers would tell me, “The other children just don’t feel comfortable playing with you, but here are some nice toys. Why don’t you go over to that nice corner over there?”
Nobody came out and said, “Get away from me, you’re fucking ugly.” That would have been bad, but at least I’d know it wasn’t my fault. Instead everyone has always been oh-so-polite. There was always “just something off” about me, and that was worse. It meant I was a horrible person with some vague-but-shameful defect of which nobody would speak.
I would have taken being called ugly over that any day.
I arrive at the Hyatt right on time and do as my contact instructed: stroll about and smile at people. Usually I keep my gaze down so as to attract as little attention as possible, but now it’s Showtime. I walk tall and hold my head high.
The throng parts for me like the Red Sea for Moses. The concierge’s gaze tracks me like a sniper scope. The hand of the desk clerk reaches automatically for the phone. He’s probably not even aware of it. When I walk by hands reach for phones, for pepper spray, and sometimes for guns.
I do nothing wrong, certainly nothing criminal. I’m clean cut and wearing a tailored suit, but I might as well be dressed in rags. I saunter to the big aquarium. Sure enough, lots of exotic fish swimming about. Is that a lion-fish?
The hotel manager steps out from his office and moments later a security guard joins him. The manager points my way but they can’t approach yet. They have no legitimate reason, and it’s eating them up. I almost feel sorry for them, standing there on high alert and itching to do something. They can’t, though, because I’ve done nothing wrong. Part of me sympathizes, yes, but a vindictive part of me loves their frustration and wants to draw it out.
And yet, I have a job to do, and so I finally relent and give them what they want: an excuse to approach. I snap a photo with my cell phone. I bet there’s an app that would tell me exactly what kind of fish it is. Pushing the button on my phone is like activating a report-control device: the manager speaks a couple words to the rent-a-cop and a second later they’re striding my way.
I pretend not to notice until they’re right next to me. The manager says, “Excuse me, sir.” I turn and smile, polite as you please, pretending not to know what comes next.
He tells me that taking pictures of the fish is not allowed. It’s against the rules of the hotel. Of course, there are no signs to this effect because the rule only sprang into being when I snapped my photo. The security guard stands beside the manager and glares at me.
I make no scene. I hold out my palms all innocent-like. I smile and say I was just on my way to the Regency Steakhouse over there. I tell him I’ve heard good things about the T-bone.
The manager grumbles a few harsh words about corporate policy and abiding by the rules. Even after all these years, it still amazes me how strangers feel justified in lecturing me.
Somewhere my polar opposite must exist. I imagine him applying to drive a Brinks truck or manage a daycare. “Do I need a background check?” he asks. “No sir,” says his smiling employer. “I trust you. You have such an honest face.”
I come out of my daydream and see people looking our way and pointing. It seems that taking photos of fish has become the Crime of the Century. I smile and assure the manager that I’ve learned my lesson. I even offer to delete the photos from my phone. He’s at a momentary loss for words so I jump in and gush about how I really should have known better. I apologize for traumatizing the fish and am careful to sound sincere and in no way sarcastic. I pull forth my wallet and offer to pay for the fish. I restrain myself from offering to pay for the poor fishes’ therapy. I know where to draw the line.
He finally pulls himself together and mumbles a warning about not doing it again. He and the goon march away with deliberate, self-important steps. I chuckle and head to the Steakhouse. Once there, it’s the restaurant staff that goes on alert.
The security staff has visibly increased in the hotel lobby, which means it has been directed away from other parts of the building. Is some nefarious something-or-other happening in one of the rooms upstairs? I don’t know and don’t want to know. Knowing too much can be construed as aiding and abetting. All I’m doing is going to a restaurant for lunch.
I sit at a table and the restaurant manager strides over to ask if there’s something he can help me with. I attract managers like a magnet, everywhere I go. I know he wants to get rid of me but too bad. I order my food just as if he were a waiter. He has nothing on which to write my order. I make it complicated: extra this, no that. I’m very civil the whole time. I apologize about the special order, and then throw in a few substitutions.
The poor guy hardly knows what to do with himself. He asks if I’d like the order to go. I pretend not to understand why he would even ask such a thing. He says, “Never mind,” and dashes off for the kitchen.
The restaurant is in direct line of sight from the lobby and the front desk of the hotel. Everyone can see everyone else and security is eyeing me up and down. I’ll be hauled in for questioning later, there’s no doubt about that.
“You always seem to be around when something nasty goes down,” one of the detectives will most likely growl. I hear that a lot and detectives love to growl when they interrogate me.
“But what have I done wrong? I went out for steak.”
“Is that a crime?”
They’ll let me go. They won’t like it, but they’ll have to let me go because whatever foul deed occurred, it happened in a whole different part of the hotel. There will be no connection to me. At least, none they can prove.
My food arrives and the T-bone is delicious. I take my time eating and just when the staff thinks they’ll be getting rid of me, I order dessert. I savor a piece of cheesecake. I linger over coffee right up until the police arrive.
For one second I imagine them heading off to another part of the hotel instead of toward me. No dice. Fingers point and the cops don’t have to be shown twice. They make a beeline for the suspicious looking man in the steakhouse.
My heart weeps but damn do I ever eat well.
Seth Chambers has worked a wide range of jobs and often draws upon this richness of experience for his literary creations. He currently works as an ESL teacher. His stories have been published in F&SF, Perihelion SF, Fantasy Scroll and Isotropic Fiction. He lives in Chicago with a neglected spouse and a spoiled cat.