The following is a fictional story that will be published through The McNicholas Milestone in installments. All characters, settings, and dialogue are purely figments of the imagination.
PART TWO: THE CLERK
Mother is four inches taller than me, and quite a deal wider. I hadn’t noticed until now as I found myself standing in on the side of the roadway, out front of a parlor and waving a hand in the street to hail a taxicab. The stolen party dress swallowed me whole, handing off my figure like I was nothing more than skin and bones… a human clothing hanger.
Miss Marion had pinned my hair back at the nape of my neck earlier this morning. I itched to pull the clips from my aching scalp and reposition them, but my shaking hands convinced me otherwise. I shifted my focus to the car horns and the sound of rubber on cement. A car slowed, and I dropped my arm.
“Need a ride?” the driver said, cranking down his window.
“It would be much appreciated,” I nodded once. He was an older gentleman with white hair and ancient laugh lines, telling the story of a full life.
“Where to?” he asked, car door clicking as I pulled it open gently.
“467 Bakerfield.” The reply was automatic. The Conners’ house was one I knew well. They were old friends of my parents, and I had grown accustomed to visiting Mrs. Conners in the wake of Mr. Conners’ arrest allegations.
“Yes ma’am,” the driver said, peeling away from the side of the road. I let my eyes trace the horizon as the sun dipped below the surface of the earth. Seconds turned into minutes, and a few minutes turned into a few more until the driver halted in front of a long brick driveway.
“This good?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes sir,” I said, digging around in my pocket for a dollar and a couple coins, a part of the stash I had safely tucked away in my dresser for the past couple years. “I can walk from here,” I said as I handed him the money. With a nod of gratitude, he sped off, disappearing into the night.
I had walked this path a million times during the day, but when I slipped through the wrought-iron gate and took in the expansive acres of twinkling lights and dancing people, it was hard to recognize the Conners’ estate. I started my trek towards the house, haphazardly set-up tents lining the driveway, all dressed in premature Christmas light bulbs. Hundreds of people milled about the lawn, bubbly champagne overflowing their glasses. The laughter danced around my head, as a band played music to be drowned out by the constant chatter of the masses.
“Here,” a frazzled waiter shoved a glass of that sparkling liquid into my hand and then scurried away. I sniffed at it once and wrinkled my nose, leaving the glass on a nearby table and diving into the crowd. Mr. Conners’ was here, losing himself amongst the people as one does at a party such as this. I surveyed the yard, then the house and all its lit up windows. A wave of exhaustion washed over my body. Somewhere in my hasty planning I had overlooked the fact that Mr. Conners was a small person in a large crowd. With a sigh, I plastered a cartoonish smile on my face and tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of me. She spun on a heel, almost toppling over in the process as she studied my face in the dim glow of the lights.
“Do I know you?” she yelled over the noise.
“No,” I forced an airy laugh. “I’m looking for Mr. Conners,” I yelled back.
“Who’s that?” her brow pinched together. “Do I know him?”
“That’s what I was ask…” I trailed off and sighed. “You know what, don’t worry about it.” I was to subject myself to far too many of these conversations until finally a kind young gentleman pointed towards the front patio. I made a beeline for it before Mr. Conners could slip back into the labyrinth of people.
I was aware of his presence before I could see him. A small army of people had gathered around him, congratulating him on his freedom and thanking him for hosting the party. I wasn’t entirely certain that everyone who had gathered even knew who he was. It didn’t matter, I was here for one reason, and his name was Mr. Jonathan Andrews.
I wove my way through the people, squeezing between bodies and catching a few wayward elbows in the side. Then I could see him. Mr. Conners had been gone for two years, but he had aged ten. I hadn’t seen him in the time he had been away, and I hadn’t interacted with him directly in at least four times that, but his previously auburn hair had gone grey, and his eyes were nothing short of a tired old man’s. He didn’t see me until I forced my hand into his and shook it a couple times with an intensity that demanded attention.
“Mr. Conners,” I quipped. “So good to see you again. Alive and well, I presume?” A flicker of confusion flashed across his face.
“Do I know you?” he asked, letting go of my hand and bringing his drink to his lips. I let my jaw drop in mock offense.
“Of course you know me!” I gasped. “I know it’s been two years, but how could you not recognize me?” He narrowed his eyes slightly and sucked his lip into his mouth. The intoxication mixed with my conviction had him convincing himself of something that wasn’t true. After a long pause, he opened his mouth to speak.
“Mary?” the name was more of a question, a guess. I smiled warmly at him. “How could I possibly forget my niece?”
“See, I knew you remembered,” I said. I had half expected him to go along with my charade only to save himself from embarrassment, but the assignment of a name that was not my own exceeded my expectations. Tonight I was Mary, not Josey.
“Oh, Mary,” his smile was laced with relief as he pulled me into an unexpected hug. “How have you been dear?” Heavens, I hoped the real Mary wouldn’t show up tonight.
“Swell,” I said, voice coated in sugar. “Yourself?”
“Free,” he said, letting go of me. The champagne on his breath tickled my nose.
“And all is right with the world,” I laughed.
“Well,” he said. “Not all I suppose. Did you hear the news?”
“News?” I raised an eyebrow.
“I get out of jail only to find out that one of my dear friends has gone missing.” He shook his head. “It really is a shame.”
“Ah,” I nodded. “Mr. Andrews.”
“Jonathan had his faults, but he was quite the businessman.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know him again?” I leaned in slightly. He barked out a laugh.
“Looks like we’re both forgetful, Mary,” he smiled. “Though I suppose the trial was two years ago. Were you not in attendance?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” I said.
“I could’ve swore you were,” he said. “No matter, I knew him from my trail, and the one between him and that money grabbing brother of the worker who so tragically passed away on the job at Mr. Andrews’ company… Though I suppose I had met him a few days before that too,” Mr. Conners rolled his eyes, sending the crowd of people laughing as if he had made some kind of joke.
“Before that?” I asked.
“Yes, Mary, before that.” More laughter followed. “I had dinner with the man and then the court had the audacity to scream bribery. Hence my sentence.” He placed his empty glass and picked up another from a passing waiter’s tray. “Funny how one night can change everything.”
“Sounds like you have a story,” I smiled playfully at him.
“Perhaps I do,” he shrugged. “But it’s for another time, Mary.”
“Oh, come on,” I pressed. “I’m sure these people would love to hear about your one night to change everything.” The people around us quieted as if lying in wait. Clerk Conners sighed and threw his head back.
“I’m only speaking to this once tonight, though I didn’t intend to at all. I never could say no to you, Mary,” he said, his words beginning to slur slightly. I could see the scene in my head as clearly as a cloudless night sky as he began speaking.
He sat at a table alone in a dim, underground bar. Mr. Conners drummed his fingers on the dark wood of the table, peering through the haze of cigarette smoke. Nights like these were always difficult to differentiate between reality and dreamland. The faint ring of a bell indicated someone had entered the bar. Mr. Conners looked up in time to watch a medium sized, middle aged man make his way to the table. Everything about him was painfully average, but the manner in which he carried himself exuded an essence of superiority.
“Mr. Conners,” Jonathan Andrews nodded once in recognition. “Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.”
“Of course,” Mr. Conners said in reply. “How can I be of service?”
“I’m sure you’re aware that my court date is tomorrow?”
“I am aware,” Mr. Conners said, leaning back in his chair as Mr. Andrews took a seat.
“It is my knowledge that you work quite closely with the judges,” Mr. Andrews said.
“I’m the clerk of courts, I manage their paperwork and such.”
“Exactly,” Mr. Andrews smiled. “And I’m sure you’re aware that I have a great deal of money in my bank account.”
“That money might come in handy for you in the future,” Mr. Andrews smiled.
“I am well off on my own. I don’t need handouts,” Mr. Conners said crossing his arms over his chest.
“I have more money than you, and that money can either help you or hurt you gravely. It’s not a handout.”
“What are you asking of me?” Mr. Conners pinched his eyebrows together.
“Well, perhaps some of the defendant’s records have gone missing. Perhaps they never existed as far as you are concerned, and perhaps you’ll take a check for a small fortune from your newest ally,” Mr. Andrews gestured to himself.
I was pulled out of my reverie as someone from the back of the crowd said, “Did you take it?”
“Of course I took it,” Mr. Conners laughed. “You don’t tell a man like Jonathan Andrews no. Not when they own half the city. In the end that deal landed me in jail for a couple of years while Mr. Andrews walked free.”
“That doesn’t sound fair,” I pushed.
“It was never about what was fair. It was always about who had more money,” Mr. Conners shook his head. “For a long time I hated that man, wanted him to suffer like I did.”
“You don’t want that anymore?” I asked. He shrugged.
“He was just doing what he had to for his company. He is… was a businessman. He did business. I don’t think I would’ve minded if he had gone completely bankrupt while I was alone in a cell though.”
“I see,” I bit my lip.
“He had a lot of people who hated him. It was only a matter of time before it all caught up to him. Still, it’s a shame he’s gone.”
Featured image courtesy of www.criminalelement.coment.