Skip-tracing is an inglorious vocation. Sure, the money’s okay, but only if you’re good. Same goes for job security. But nobody wants to know what you do. Well, maybe they do, like if you were a cop, but there’s always the arm’s length they keep you at. You aren’t one of them. They have debt. They all have debts. And you represent the pimp they have to deal with when they stiff their hookers. Your calls are met with fear, indignation, loathing, and sometimes rage.
I’m Carlton. I’m the banker’s pimp.
It hasn’t been a good night for me. I’ve made a hundred-and-fifty calls, gotten hung up on a hundred and ten times. I got tiny violins from nice old ladies and struggling moms twenty times at least, seven times people yelled at me and insulted my mother, three people demanded I send them the actual loan agreements (which I did), five people requested to talk to my manager, three people threatened to report me to some agency they think will get me fired or absolve them of their debt, and one person claimed the person on my list had died. That may have been true. Maybe.
Only one person agreed to pay the full amount of what he owed, but he was my Moby Dick. We’d crossed paths. Not physically. I have to say my real first name, but that’s all they get. But I used every trick in my arsenal on this guy, Francis Taylor. I called his work until they threatened to report me. I called up his neighbors to confirm his address, which is perfectly legal, by the way, and I spoofed his area code when I wanted to trick him into picking up.
And he did it all. He asked for the loan agreement. I sent it. He yelled at me, told me how he’d fucked my wife. I’m single. He threatened to report me to the Department of Consumer Affairs. At least he got the right agency. Then came the violins, and the phrase that pays.
“You can’t squeeze blood from a stone,” he told me. Everybody thinks that’s the open-fucking-sesame of bouncing on your debt. You know, if they just say they refuse to pay, and tell us to stop calling, we send them a form, they fill it out, send it back, and then it’s the court’s problem. But far be it from me to tell them that. I get commission on getting them to pay, and on most days, I get people to pay.
Oh yeah, so my white whale tells me he’s going to pay the full amount, twenty thousand and change, by the end of the night. Promises me. But it’s eight-fifty-nine, and I’ve already locked my computer and laid the headset on the hook. Looks like Ahab sails on. I get my coat and pull a bottle of aspirin out of the pocket, black coffee chaser.
“No bites today?” Johnny Adams, my supervisor says.
Johnny circles with his mouse. I know he’s playing a game on Facebook. “It’s a Friday, man.”
“We’re getting some new accounts Monday. Better luck then.”
“Hope so.” I punch out and walk the corridor to the parking lot. Some days, good days, bad days, it’s like walking down the entrance to a stadium, head hung high or low, depending. I see Janet behind the desk in the front office and nod. She smiles. Don’t know why she’s here so late, but I did hear she was fucking Johnny. So Johnny will have a good night at least.
It’s fucking cold out. The parking lot’s nestled between two outcroppings of tall pines, but that doesn’t help, because when the wind blows, they act like a funnel. Tonight, no wind, just bitter. Can’t wait to sit in my freezing car, waiting for it to warm up.
I start her up to the chorus of Do You Love Me by The Contours. I turn it off, not in the mood for the Mashed Potato or the Twist. The vent is blowing ice crystals, damn near. And the car smells funny. Did I run over something? I toss my coat on the passenger’s seat.
“Sorry I’m late.” What the fuck was that? I turn only far enough to feel frigid steel touch the tip of my jaw. The round hole pressed into my neck.
“Hey man, look, take the car.” My hands are up. Oddly, I’m regretting not keeping a cleaner car. Maybe I would’ve seen him.
“No, we’re cool,” he says, and the voice sounds awfully familiar. “It took me a little while to get it. I didn’t think the guy would fight back, but you know, that’s not here or there, ya’ know? Hey, maybe we should get out of here. Put that thing in gear. I’ll tell you where we’re gonna go.”
Who the fuck is this guy? And why does he sound so damn familiar? He keeps the gun on me, and climbs into the passenger seat. He’s just a shadow in the shitty light of the parking lot, but he’s wet. Slick, more like.
“Hey man, I don’t want no problems,” I say, trying to sound like coffee isn’t gatecrashing my urethra. I look over. It can’t be. “Is that—?”
“Blood, yeah, let’s go,” he says. I pull out of the parking lot and he tells me to take a left onto Route 2. I hope he isn’t taking me to my house. Does he even know me?
“I did what you said, Carlton Davis,” he says. “You said to do whatever I had to to pay my debt. I couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone, so I found another guy.” I can see him wiping at the blood on his shirt with the gun. “Fucker was a sponge!” He laughs. I don’t like the sound. Really reconsidering the Mashed Potato and the Twist.
I gulp. Fuck it, he probably assumes I’m scared shitless. “Who are you?” I say. “Your voice sounds familiar.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Frank. Frank Taylor. I told you I’d get you your money tonight.” He wipes his chin with the gun, leaving a streak. “I got twenty-five large in a bag back there. It’s a little more, but what the hell. Call it interest.”
“Wait, how did you—”
“Get it? You probably don’t want to know. You said you didn’t care over the phone. I hope it’s not a problem…”
Another gulp. “No, no, but… how did you find me? That’s what I was asking?”
Frank Taylor laughs. “How did you find my neighbors? How do you find people who don’t want to be found?” He says. “The information is out there, for sale, and nobody really gives a shit who’s buying it.”
He takes a breath. “Your name’s Carlton, man. Not John, or Bill, or Dave… Carlton. And you work for Diamond Recovery Services.” He coughs, spittle flies from his mouth to the windshield. His voice is high and jumpy. I swear the guy’s giddy about this shit.
“I was happy to find that this call center you work out of is only fifty miles from me. So I called Diamond to ask about a job as a skip tracer. I made up some bullshit about experience, and they told me where to go for the interview. Guess what? It was here!”
We keep driving. We pass Old Conson Road, my turn. Apparently, we’re not going to my house. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
“You know what’s ironic?” he says.
I stay quiet.
“Answer me,” he says.
“All the measures you can take, all the security you can put in to a place, millions of dollars even, and you have to entrust it to people who have no clue that they themselves can be hacked.” He wipes his forehead; again, dark streaks. “But you do a people search, you have a weird first name and a general location, and you call a not-so-bright receptionist at Diamond. You tell her you’re from an estate, and you’re trying to find someone to inform them of a legal manner. But OH, DAMN, if only the last name was legible! You sound flustered as you try to wrap your tongue around the only possible last names for the right guy, and she says, ‘Do you mean ‘Morrison?’’ and suddenly, you got the keys to the kingdom, babe.”
Now I remember Janet telling me someone was trying to find me about something. Didn’t think anything of it then. Fuck!
“So what do you want with me?” I say.
“Well, I figure we’re going to hide out tonight, get up bright and early. I need a change of clothes, of course. Maybe a shower… You don’t mind if I tie you up then, do you? Not that it matters. Then we’ll go to your bank, and you can deposit the cash in an account, and we’ll pay off my debt.”
Is this guy fucking serious? It’s beyond me that Ahab did get Moby Dick, and sunk the Pequod in the process.
“Why do you need me?” I say. “You have the money. Can’t you just make the payment yourself?”
“Nah, can’t have that,” he says. “It’ll get flagged no matter who does it. It’s over ten thousand. Plus, I don’t want the cartel on my ass. I did this for you, after all… You should be appreciative of this. This is a win for you tonight! How many times have you ever gotten a hand-delivery?”
This can’t be happening. They always joked around the office about some nut stalking you down, but keeping our private information private was the name of the game when we worked in a job where everyone we talked to hated us. If Janet wasn’t dreaming about Johnny’s pole, maybe she’d have remembered that.
We’re bearing on a red-light and I see my chance; a cop, stopped at the green. Maybe I’m driving nervously. Hope the fuck so. I got to take this chance, seeing as how I’m fucked either way. And did Frank Taylor say cartel? I floor it, zip through the red light, and the reds and blues are pulsing through my rearview. Frank looks back, but keeps the gun on me. I think of grabbing for it, but he starts laughing and turns again, slapping me on the back with his other hand.
“You dog, you!” He says. “Got some balls, huh. Let’s race this fucker!”
“Let me guess. They’re not taking you alive, right?” I say.
He snorts. “No, they’re taking us alive, assuming you don’t crash the fucking thing.”
“You know you’ll get caught—”
“—you know, that calling my neighbors. What a great trick. You should’ve seen it when I showed up at your neighbors’ houses, all dressed up in a suit with a badge and wallet I spent a hundred bucks on. Looked real enough. Your roommate damn-near shit himself. Gave me your dealer… Fucker actually believed me when I told him we had all your phones tapped, and he better not warn you or Jose—”
“Aw, no. He ain’t ‘Joe’ no more. They tend to use proper names when they’re taggin’ your toe… And where do you think this money came from, anyway?”
He killed Joe, Jose, whatever. I wasn’t scared anymore. I was mad. I pressed even harder on the accelerator. Frank Taylor was wiping down his gun. Maybe he was going to toss it out the window. I hoped.
“Bet you wanna kill me now, right?” He says.
I held it in. “He was my dealer. That’s all.”
Frank holds the gun through his slick shirt.
“Take it.” He says. “It’s loaded. I’ll give it to you.” He thrusts the gun forward, but twisted back, like it’s pointed at him instead. I can grab it and I do. I look back to see five cops speeding behind us, berries in full bloom.
“You’re the one covered in blood, Francis.” I say. “They’re going to know you killed Joe. Giving me the gun won’t cover that up.” I turn on my hazards and start to slow down. Damn, I was doing a hundred. Didn’t think the car went that fast.
“I got a little something for you,” he says. “You know, for your troubles. There’s two kilos of coke buried in your trunk. Jose’s kilos. A going away present, I guess.”
“You planted coke? So what? I’ll just tell them you did it.” I’m getting slow enough to pull over. I have to be careful to lay the gun on the ground and kick it, so the cops don’t shoot me.
“Yeah, that’s not the story I’m telling,” he says. “Way I see it, we met through your job, and met elsewhere to work out codes. When you told me to ‘do whatever you have to to pay the debt’, see that meant something else. You really wanted me to rob your dealer. Things went too far, he got killed, and in a panic, I came to you.” He sneezed, blowing snot across the side window.
“You running the red back then? You panicked. Cause we’re both a couple of bloodsuckers, and we hatched a stupid plan that blew up in our faces.”
Am I hearing this right? Is he going to try to frame me? What horseshit. “No one is going to believe that. It won’t stand up in a court of law—”
“—funny thing about cartels and courts-of-law. They already know. They already think you killed Jose. They don’t need proof, just someone to blame. Someone to punish.”
I’m on the side of the road slowing down.
“Who do you think works faster, Lady Justice or Lady Juarez?” He says.
This has got to be a nightmare. He’s done too much homework for this not to be true. I wonder if I’ll even make it to trial. But he was the killer! Won’t he be the first to die?
“You killed Joe. They’ll kill you first.”
He laughed until he coughed more shit up on the windshield. “Did you ever look up my debt? Did you?”
“That doesn’t show up on our screen.”
“Of course not. Might make you realize you’re calling humans.” The sirens are getting louder. I can hear a door shut.
“My debt, it was medical. For treatment. Stage four stomach cancer,” he says. “Doc gave me six months. I’m already a month past due.”
I look at him. He looks me dead in the eyes, which I can see with the reds and blues providing back-light. He’s not kidding. I hear shouting. Guns are drawn, they have to be. I’m going down for this shit.
I floor it.
Liam Sweeny is a novelist writer of crime and noir short stories. His work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. He has an upcoming detective series.