The sunshine was warm but the air was still chilly with the damp of the night’s rain. It wasn’t like Cole had anywhere to go; he’d gone to great lengths to see to it that his life was as random and pointless as possible. He’d been tossing crumbs to pigeons for the last hour, thinking, trying not to think, pondering fate or free will and if he should stay in the city or move on.
The wind gusted up, blowing a touch of the coming fall into his hair and around the browning leaves in the trees. It was a sure sign that the winter was going to be colder than Cole generally liked and if he stayed put even a few more weeks he’d have to buy something warmer than his thinning jean jacket. It was a good sign to move on.
“Well,” he said to the pigeons that were cooing out of reach, “What do you guys think? Should I stay?”
They ignored him; his crumbs had run out.
“Thought as much.” He sighed and pushed himself to his feet.
The wind gusted again and a piece of damp newspaper floated up, caught the breeze and smacked wetly into Cole’s face. It was just damp enough to stick to him, clammy and vaguely slimy. He batted at it but when he went to pull it away, the wet paper shredded, leaving only one piece intact when he finally managed to pull it from his face and neck.
He glanced at the damp length of paper in his hand and raised an eyebrow. “Huh.”
Aric hovered outside the small shop, watching for the current visitor to finish up and be quietly escorted out. He dropped his finished cigarette and crushed it under the expensive Italian leather shoes he was wearing. The man that passed him looked stuffy, ordinary, and he didn’t even glance up as Aric passed. He shook his head at the man’s blindness and opened the shop’s door.
Bells hung over the door rang. “Be right there,” a gruff voice called from the back.
“No rush, Mike. It’s just me,” he called out and scanned the front of the shop. It had become a collection of antiques really. Old ink wells, paintings, books, well polished furniture all sat about. None of it was untended, dust gathered nowhere and the quality of the items was superb.
Aric paused in front of a centuries old mirror. It was getting flyspecked now as the silver that made it shine wore away but it was still a lovely item. The frame had been handcrafted, carved and polished almost as brightly as the reflective surface. The sight of the glass made him smile warmly but the sight of his wind tussled hair made him frown.
“You’re such a vain creature, Aric,” a voice called from behind him.
That brightened his smile, showing the line of strong white teeth. He took his time and soothed the last of the highlighted locks into place. “You’re just learning this?” He turned and was again shocked by the man’s age. “You look like a monk, as always.”
Mike glanced down to the tan shirt he was wearing tucked into the black dress pants. “Well, maybe that’s because I am. What brings you by?”
He flipped the newspaper out, the ad folded to be on top and held it at arms length toward Mike. In a large, bold advertisement in the help wanted section was an entry that read:
Archival and Personal Assistant Wanted: Knowledge and background in theology, mythology, folk stories, ancient history, philosophy, story telling or related area necessary. Formal education not required, must be willing to work in an independent manner, be flexible and open minded, skill at dealing with difficult individuals required. Work environment is varied and often challenging, travel may be required. Excellent compensation, benefits and housing option available. Temp position with option for long term, full time employment for the right person. Apply in person only, today only.
“I’ve seen it, I placed it.”
“I guessed as much. I wanted to make sure you were still breathing after Hue read the paper this morning. Or did you slip a Mickey into his coffee?” He dropped the paper onto one of the vanity tables as he walked past.
“He isn’t here.”
“Ah, explains the apply today only part. Where is he?”
Mike rubbed at an aching hand, the cold weather was killing his arthritis. “Your father is flying in, you know how he hates traveling alone.”
“And you let Hue go without you?”
“He’s a big boy, Aric,” he snapped back and moved to return to the warmer back room where he could sit near the heater and bake some of the pain from his bones.
“But father is a pain in the ass, he always gives Hue fits! You should have gone with him.” He followed the old man and slowly started to notice the limp.
“And have Hue worry about me as well? Look at me. I don’t travel well anymore. I’m an old man.” He sighed and lowered himself down into his chair; the kitchen table in front of him had a small stack of interview papers filled with his notations.
Aric really did look at him and agreed, Mike wasn’t getting old, he was old. “You’re right, I’m sorry. Hue’s going to throw a fit when he hears of this.”
“Let him. I’m a burden now, it’s time for me to retire. I’ve a nice room arranged through the order down south.” He motioned to the coffee in the pot but Aric just waved it off.
“You really mean to retire? So close to the convention?” He did sit down, he needed to.
Mike just nodded. “I mean to, and have. All I need is a replacement.”
“But the convention.”
“Will be better served without me holding Hue back. Can you honestly disagree?” He raised bushy, white eyebrows and smiled gently. No one had been willing to point out his growing age but he saw it.
Aric glanced away. “No, I can’t. But this advertisement, Mike, it’s never been done before. Hue needs someone from the clergy to help him. He’s going to be livid when he finds out.”
Mike glanced to his cooling coffee, unable to meet the dark eyes watching him. “Do you love him?”
“What kind of question is that?” Aric snapped back too quickly.
“The kind I’ve wanted to ask for far too many years. Indulge an old man, do you love him?”
There was an awkward moment but Aric sighed and broke it. Too comfortable with the aging man to lie or hide to save his own ego. “Yes, I do, as if he were a son, or as if he were my father, depending on what mood he’s in. I do love him.”
Mike nodded knowingly. “As do I, as do I. We’re losing him, Aric, more so every year. Surely you’ve seen it?”
He hadn’t. “He seems fine.”
That made the older man snort. “Fine? I haven’t heard him laugh in seven months, I mean really laugh, not that cynical, bitter chuckle he uses. He’s been broken, he needs a good year-long vacation but there’s no time. He’s fading away before our eyes. The last thing he needs is another stuffy monk hovering around. He needs someone alive and vital to be his friend. Policy and Hue be damned, I know what I’m doing.”
“He has lost weight lately and he hasn’t been to the club in ages,” he started slowly. “You’re still taking a huge risk.”
“But it’s one that needs to be taken. If it is meant to be, it will be. Don’t worry, the prospects are dim, this lot is no better than what would be sent normally.” He sighed and waved to the stack of applicants.
Bells rang from the front room.
“And here comes another.” He sighed and pushed himself painfully to his feet. “You should go, unless there was something else?” Mike paused.
“No, just, thought you might need protecting.” He smiled and stood, aware that he wasn’t going to be allowed to stay to watch an interview simply for amusement’s sake.
“Check tomorrow,” he muttered and caught sight of the man standing near the door.
Aric noticed him too and paused in the doorway. Not six feet tall but tall enough to stand out in the small shop, dark blue eyes hid behind a messy fall of light brown tumbled hair. The tips of the messy hair had been dyed bright fire engine red and it accented the casual, unconcerned expression that had been forced on the man’s face. He was too old to be a goth kid, and looked well on his way to his thirties but he was dressed in black jeans, black t-shirt. The jean jacket tossed on over all the black was covered in marker drawings, signatures, patches and pins.
The man nodded to the pair that just stood there. One looked to be in his mid-thirties, tall, with blonde highlights streaked in his brown hair. The cut it fell in had to have cost more than Cole had paid for rent last month. The man was dressed like euro-trash, the expensive button down shirt was left unbuttoned around his collar, the belt was as finely made as the shoes and the pants had to have been custom cut to fit so well. Even the coat that hung long and loose over the fit frame was pricy, stylish and almost too much of a display of casual wealth.
The other man was the exact opposite. Plain, ordinary looking, his white hair was cut short and simply. The face may have been handsome at one point but now it hung in aged wrinkles and lines. There was a thinness to the man’s skin that spoke of age greater than the lines proclaimed. His dress was as simple, understated, unfussy and downright plain.
Both stared. Cole shrugged and held out the now dry scrap of paper. “Hey, I know it’s getting late, but, you still interviewing?” He’d folded the paper over and tucked it away, but the idea of it had kept resurfacing during the day and it drove him to at least see what the job was.
The older man blinked and nodded. “Of course.” He came over and offered a hand. “Mike, Mike Hadlin.”
“Cole Manner, and yes, my parents hated me to stick me with a name like cool manner,” he headed off the joke. His eyes slipped to the other man, the one still standing staring. “Have we met before? You look familiar.”
Aric’s eyes slid to catch Mike’s with a knowing glance. “Perhaps we have met before. Aric Aliss.” He offered his hand and was surprised at the warm strength in the stranger’s grip. “Well, I’ve a job to do, believe it or not. Mike, call me tomorrow if you need me, or come by the club. I promise not to corrupt you too horridly. Cole, it was a pleasure to meet you again.” He was grinning wider as he hurried out of the door, bells chiming as he escaped. Hue was going to be pissed but maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Cole let the stylish man slip by him, suddenly aware of the grime that had splashed up on his shoes that morning while he’d been out walking around and the rather cheap, dingy way he was dressed. It left him standing in the unusual shop, with the man that seemed as old as the items around him. He glanced around again and tossed his head to the one side.
Mike’s eyebrows raised. “You know antiques?”
Cole shrugged. “Not professionally. That’s an especially nice ghost dance shirt.” He pointed with his chin to the white leather beaded shirt carefully framed on the wall. “Shame someone was wearing it when the bullet hole was made.”
“Don’t lose sleep over it, they lived. The shirt wasn’t plundered if that’s your meaning.” He watched carefully as both curiosity and skepticism slide across the agile face before it settled back to unconcern. “Well, let’s get this started shall we?” He smiled and put on his best, well behaved grandfather look and guided the young man back into the small work room.
Cole followed and sat across from what had to be the older man’s chair; it was worn to the shape of the slender body and pulled close to the small stove. In fact, the room was hot enough that he stripped off the jean jacket and hung it on the back of his chair before sitting down.
“Sorry for the heat, these old bones don’t like the damp any longer.” He groaned as he sat back down and took his pen back up. “Do you have a resume?” Most of the folks today had, and the plain, boring lists were giving him headaches.
Cole shook his head. “No, I don’t, I wasn’t planning on coming by. Look, I know I’m not suited, we don’t need to do this. I just wanted to know what this was all about.”
Mike nodded and pulled a notepad onto the table. “Why would you come all the way here just for that?”
“Because the paper smacked me in the head this morning and I had nothing better to do.”
“You’re not currently working?”
“I was parking cars at a hotel downtown for a while.”
“But you’re not any longer?”
“I’m not a bum.” Cole answered sharply. “Look, I went to college, I’m half way to my master’s in education. I was a ninth grade English teacher a couple of years ago.”
“And yet, here you are, parking cars.”
“I just…” He wasn’t sure how to explain, every time he tried people didn’t get it. “I just woke up one day. Six AM like always, and sat there. I knew if I got up and went to work and forced jaded, rotten, little monsters to read and ruin the beauty of Whitman or Shakespeare one more time I would do it again, and again, and again. I just knew that if I gave in for one more day, every day for the rest of my life would be just the same. So I didn’t.”
Mike’s pen moved across the paper. “You wanted to be a writer?”
“I’m not so good or so vain to think that. I just knew there was way more out there than I’d ever dreamed of and I wanted to see some of it before I was too old to. Spent a year backpacking in Europe, four months in Africa, cut across the Middle East for a time, spent nine months bumming around India and Asia, jumped to Argentina and went north until I was back home. Been floating about here since, working when I need to, moving when I feel like it.” He watched the pen scratch across the notepad and fought the urge to tear it up.
“What kind of work?”
“Any kind. I fixed cars in Columbia, juggled, badly juggled, in Morocco, told stories in Scotland, parked cars here. I’m a hard worker and I learn fast. Figured if nothing more I fit your flexible requirement.” He grinned at that, wondering if the stuffy old man even understood the double meaning such a request could carry.
“Well, that’s excellent, if a bit unconventional. You aren’t adverse to travel.”
“No.” The grin melted into a smirk.
“Mr. Manner, I must ask some, unconventional, questions.”
“I was asked if I had lice once, the only requirement for hire was being willing to work and vermin free. I think I can deal.”
That made Mike chuckle. “Well, not so unconventional as that. Are you religious? Do you believe in God?”
“Which one?” He replied with his normal sarcasm about such matters.
That turned Mike’s chuckle into a laugh. “Indeed!”
“Seriously? Do I believe in one set of dogma? Naw. Do I believe there is something beyond what we can measure and see? Sure, why not. I’d like to believe that there’s some all knowing creature that looks out for us but I don’t think it works that way. So, I guess, I’m agnostic, skeptically so.” He watched the man’s face for signs of reaction and found little.
“Do you have any allergies?”
“Now, that was random. No, not that I know of.”
“Can you cook?”
“Is this a job interview or a marriage proposal?”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
He shrugged. “I can toss shit together.” The casual swearing slipped out but the older man didn’t even acknowledge it. “So, who’s the asshole?”
“Pardon me?” That got Mike’s attention.
“Well, anytime an ad mentions ‘must be good with difficult people’ as a requirement, it normally means the boss is an asshole. Since you aren’t one, I assume that means someone else that works here is the dork. Who is it?”
Mike sat and studied the man across from him. “You’re blunt.”
“I don’t need this job. I’m too comfortable with myself to pretend to be something you might approve of. Should I go?”
He shook his head. “On the contrary, it’s refreshing. To answer your question, I’m not the boss as you put it. You’re interviewing to replace me.”
“So the boss is an ass.”
“Sometimes, he can be rather difficult, sometimes. However, we deal with a vast array of people and personalities. Some are more rational than others, some require very creative means of management. Do you feel someone so blunt would be able to manage that situation?”
“Just what is it that you’re hiring for?” He glanced around but the simply decorated room could have been a store room or kitchen from the 1950’s, even the table looked dated. Nothing gave clues to the nature of just what occurred around it.
“I am the personal assistant to Mr. Hugo Dana.”
“Oh, it’s all so very clear now.”
Mike narrowed his eyes and wasn’t sure if the man across from him was the best or worse choice, but he was certainly the most exciting prospect that had arrived all day. That alone earned him some leeway. “Mr. Dana is a mediator of sorts. His job is to sooth the egos of his clients and see that things run smoothly. Your job would be to make his job and life easier.”
“So you are looking for a wife. Sorry, not interested in marrying some old fellow.”
For the second time, Mike laughed. “Well, now that’s an interesting mental image! Mr. Dana isn’t an old fellow like I am, but he is rather mature.”
“Now, that’s cryptic.”
He leaned across the table. “And you’re fascinated. This is a very special job, Mr. Manner, unlike any you’ll ever have. I’ve spent the last seventy years doing this and have never been bored once.”
The old man didn’t look more then seventy. “Just how old are you? And how have you been able to work for this Dana for seventy years? Did you work for his father or something?”
Mike leaned back and shook his head no. “All in time. Temp position is ninety days, salary is four thousand a month, plus room and board if you wish it. Insurance is provided and paid in full, if you’re still here after ninety days. Sadly vacation time is when Mr. Dana can find the time for himself, which is rare.”
“On the job, no one can teach you how to do this.”
Cole raised an eyebrow and felt a gnawing sense of curiosity at the pit of his stomach. “Start date?”
He sat back and folded his arms across his chest. His study of the older man gave nothing away. “Am I being offered the job?”
“I think so.”
“Will I be sold into white sex slavery if I agree?”
Mike barked out a laugh again. “Well, I should hope not. Would you like to be?”
“My love life’s been a touch barren lately.” He shrugged. “It might be amusing.”
“If we’re very unlucky, Mr. Dana may well arrange such a happenstance. So, what do you say?”
“Ninety days, huh?”
“It’s more money than you’ll make parking cars.”
“No suit and ties, no dress code?”
“It’s a very liberal work environment.”
“Ninety days, I’m game. When do I meet this Mr. Dana and get his final say?”
“Oh, he’s away today, he’ll be back first thing tomorrow morning and he doesn’t have final say. We sort of replace each other, I don’t think he’s ever fired anyone yet.” He stood up and offered his hand. “Welcome aboard.”
Cole hopped to his feet and accepted. “Thanks, so, is there any paperwork? What forms do you need to see?”
“Oh, nothing like that, we’re pretty informal.” He smiled. “Not even a confidentiality contract, you just be back here tomorrow at seven and we’ll get you settled into the apartment upstairs. Will you need help moving? I’m sure I can scare up some strong people.”
He shook his head. “No, I travel light. Thanks.”
“Thank me tomorrow, lad. You haven’t met Mr. Dana yet.” He ushered the young, hopefully as un-easily shocked as he appeared, man out the front door. “Tomorrow at seven!” When he pulled the door shut, he locked it and pulled the blinds. Things were definitely looking up, and as he made his weary way up to the apartment above the store, he found himself whistling.