Friday, January 29, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 341 - Sam Roseme

COMMUTE - SAM ROSEME

He’s watching me. Again.

Josh looked out the corner of his eye at the man sitting next to the window. The man wore a baseball hat and sunglasses even though it was night and they were underground. Each time Josh moved, the man’s head followed. Josh didn’t need to see his eyes to know he was being watched.

Josh stood and gripped the handrail of the BART car as the commuter train glided beneath the San Francisco Bay. It was past 10 p.m. Another late night at the office. Despite the hour, the train was standing room only. A Giants game had just ended and most of the passengers wore the orange and black jersey of the hometown team. Their conversations about the game were loud, fueled by overpriced stadium beers.

The train rose above ground and stopped at the West Oakland station. Headlights floated past on the freeway below. The train then descended and traveled underneath downtown Oakland.

Josh questioned himself. It was late, he was tired. He couldn’t trust his own thoughts. He thought everyone was looking at him. They all knew his secret.

Maybe it’s not him. He looks different than last time. He looks different every time. I’d only met him in person once. But I do look at a photograph of him everyday. At work. On her desk. No, it’s not him. I’ve got to get a grip. He’s just another commuter. That’s all. I’ll prove it.

Josh crossed the width of the train to stand next to the doors opposite where he’d been standing. It was a test. If the man moved his head, it was him. If not, he’s just some guy.

The man’s head turned, the bill of his hat tracking Josh’s movements. Josh had his answer. It was him.

Josh’s stomach turned and his heart beat faster. He felt claustrophobic and needed to get out. The train re-emerged and Josh considered getting off as it stopped at Macarthur Station, but decided not to. His station was next.

Josh turned to face the doors so that he would be the first to exit the moment they opened. “Rockridge Station,” the conductor announced. Josh stepped hurriedly off the train. He walked past the car he’d been in as he headed toward the stairs. He glanced through the window. The man in the hat was still seated, staring straight ahead. Josh exhaled and his shoulders relaxed. He looked back one more time. Just to be sure. The man in the hat suddenly stood and bolted toward the doors as they were sliding shut. The man stopped them with his hands and slid through. Josh’s eyes went wide. He turned and ran toward the stairs, looking back once to see the man following. Josh bounded down the steps two at a time, weaving through the crowd. At the turnstiles, he found the shortest line.

“C’mon, c’mon,” he said out loud as two pudgy baseball fans fumbled with their BART tickets.

Josh hurried down another flight of stairs to street level. A red light stopped the pedestrians at the first intersection. Josh crossed anyway. A Subaru wagon grazed his knee. Just three more blocks and he’d turn on his street. The cafes and bars were emptying with a mix of professionals and Berkeley students. If Josh walked any faster he’d be running. He looked back one last time. A group of men in Dockers poured out of a sports bar. Several wore hats. Josh didn’t see the man who was following him.

Josh sprinted the half-block to his house. His hands felt swollen trying to pick out the right key. He looked over his shoulder. Finally the right key and the door opened. He slammed it behind him and locked all the locks, the doorknob, deadbolt and chain. He ran through the house and made sure the back door was secure. From his closet he pulled a Louisville Slugger signed by Barry Bonds, pre-steroid allegations. He gripped it tight and sat on the couch.

The sunshine woke him in the morning, bat on his chest, clothes and shoes still on. Grateful to be alive.

In less than an hour Josh was back in San Francisco to start another day. The morning commute was uneventful, as always. The sun shone on the city from above the East Bay hills. He had just enough time to grab a bagel and coffee.

The meeting was beginning as Josh entered the partner’s office. Everyone else called it a ‘team meeting,’ but Josh refused to do so. Teams are in sports. Calling a group of lawyers a ‘team’ was a tad too corporate speak for Josh. Though he feared that if he stayed at the job too long he’d be throwing around terms like ‘skill set’ and ‘think outside the box’ without even noticing. He told himself that would be when he would quit.

The partner on the case, Catherine Mann, gave Josh and two other associates their next assignment. This case was similar to all the others Josh had worked on in his two years at the firm. The client was always some rich guy who was the CEO of a company. Mr. CEO liked being rich very much and couldn’t imagine being any less rich. But Mr. CEO had inside information about something bad in his company. So Mr. CEO did two things, he tried his best to keep that information from finding its way to the public and he sold all his stock in case it did.

This usually goes unnoticed during good times. The shareholders don’t make a peep because, hey, their stock is up 30 percent for the year. Who cares if Mr. CEO took a little extra so long as everyone else is getting theirs? And if the shareholders don’t care, then the SEC doesn’t care. The government attorneys have plenty else to worry about. Like leaving the office right when their clocks strike 5 p.m. But as soon as the economy goes in the shitter, as it just did, and the shareholders have lost their retirement savings, well, then, it’s time to scrutinize just how Mr. CEO paid for that villa next to George Clooney’s on Lake Como.

And that’s when Mr. CEO picks up the phone and dials the offices of Sacks, Sacks & Gold LLP. The Sacks senior partner then calls a junior partner and tells her she has a new case. The junior partner then calls a team meeting.

That’s all neither here nor there to Josh. All Josh knows is that he and the other associates on the case are now being told by Catherine that there are 20,000 e-mails from the company that need to be reviewed by Sunday night. In other words, when the documents are printed and put in binders by paralegals--and which had god damn better be ready by tomorrow--Josh will not feel sun on his flesh for four straight days.

That’s fine, Josh thought. It may be safer for him to work all the time. If he works late enough the firm will pay for him to take a cab home, keeping him off BART and away from the man in the baseball hat.

Josh glanced around Catherine’s office. It was large enough so that everyone at the meeting was comfortable. There could have been a half-dozen more associates and there’d still be room left over. The office had floor-to-ceiling windows that provided sweeping views of the bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz. On Catherine’s desk sat a framed photograph of her and her husband, Mark. Josh studied the picture. He looked closely at Mark’s square jaw, thin lips and pointy nose. Josh knew that Mark had been an investment banker in the city, making big money for the past several years. But then when the downturn came, he had lost his job. The same month Catherine made partner. One would think that Catherine’s promotion would ease Mark’s stress from his unemployment. But it only made it worse. Mark’s sense of worth was wrapped up in his career. His wife’s success further diminished his confidence. On the rare occasions when they spoke, it was mostly to argue. Josh knew all of this because Catherine had told him.

Josh pulled his focus back to the meeting.

“When reviewing the e-mails, you need to highlight any mention of assets being transferred. Any company assets. And make sure to note any loans involving officers of the company. We need to know where all the assets that were in the company prior to July 1, 2008 went.”

The first thing Josh noticed about Catherine when he met her was that she never once said ‘um’ when she spoke the way most people Josh knew did. There were no awkward pauses. Her speech was fluid. All right, that wasn’t the first thing Josh noticed. That would have been any number of things. Her long, smooth legs. Or her tight skirt that was snug against her ass and helped show off those legs. Or it could have been her big lips or piercing blue eyes. Yes, the first thing Josh noticed about her was that she was sexy. Not a common thing among partners or even soon-to-be partners, which is what she was when Josh met her his first week at the firm.

Today she was wearing a skirt that stopped just above her knees, a white blouse and dark jacket.

“And again, I’m going to need a summary of our findings by Monday morning so that I’ll be able to respond to the SEC by Wednesday. Any questions?”

The only question running through the associates’ minds was, Why the hell did I become a laywer? Josh asked himself that every day.

“Okay, thanks, everybody.”

The associates couldn’t get out of Catherine’s office fast enough. Josh, however, took his time, pretending to jot down a few last notes.

When he stood up to leave, Catherine asked, “Are you free for lunch today?”

“Um, yes,” Josh said. “I am.”

“Great. I’ll see you then.”

Nothing else needed to be said. He already knew the when and the where of lunch. And he certainly knew the what.

He went back to his office. Since the documents wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow, he spent the next hour and a half surfing the Internet trying to get his mind off the fact that he was being stalked. He was watching a clip from last night’s Letterman when he noticed it was already 12:25 P.M.

Outside, he walked four blocks, just out of the Financial District and into the beginning of North Beach, the city’s Italian neighborhood. Before entering the white apartment building he checked his Blackberry to see if she’d sent him a last-second message, a warning. Nothing. He walked in and took the elevator to the fourth floor. Apartment 415. He pulled out his key chain and unlocked the door. He was the first one there. He always was. He sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Fatigue hit him. He wanted to lie down and sleep for hours. He hadn’t slept well on the couch last night, waking at every sound. He hadn’t slept well for weeks. Ever since he first noticed him watching, following. But he couldn’t sleep now.

The door opened and Catherine walked in. No words were exchanged. She walked to the bed and began undressing. The dark jacket, the blouse, the skirt. On the floor. Then came Josh’s clothes. Blue dress shirt, brown shoes, khaki pants. He sat back down on the edge of the bed. She pushed him back and straddled him.

Josh didn’t know what a pied-a-terre was before his first visit to apartment 415. When Catherine and Mark moved out of the city to the suburbs, they agreed to buy a pied-a-terre. They thought they’d be more likely to go out at night in the city if they didn’t have to make the long drive back to Marin. A nice idea, but Catherine could count on one hand the times she and her husband spent the night there. She’d used it many more times for ‘lunch’ with Josh.

The apartment was enough to serve its purpose, nothing more. It was a one room studio with a bed in the middle, couch on the side, a table big enough for three, and a small kitchen space. No TV, no computer, no decorations. Not much. Josh joked that pied-a-terre was French for crash pad. Catherine didn’t laugh.

Catherine and Josh lingered in bed for a few minutes after they were done, kissing each other softly. Catherine was up first. She dressed quickly, one last kiss and she was out the door and back to work. Josh always waited five minutes before leaving. But this time when she left and the apartment was empty, Josh imagined Mark walking in. Josh didn’t trust that their precautions kept him safe anymore. Before every lunch, Catherine called Mark to confirm there’d be no way he could drop by the apartment. They were safe to meet if Mark answered and said that he was busy at work or on the road or, nowadays, at their home ‘looking for a job.’ If Catherine discovered he was close by she would call Josh’s cell phone or e-mail his Blackberry to tell him to stay away. But Josh was convinced that Mark knew about them, or at least suspected. Mark would lie to Catherine about his whereabouts. Say he was home when he was waiting across the street from their office, watching. Josh sensed that Mark was near. The fear sent a chill through Josh’s bones. A sensation he hadn’t felt since he was a kid, alone in his house, believing it was haunted.

Josh hopped off the bed, dressed quickly and left. He walked past the elevator and descended the four flights of stairs. He peered past the door on the lobby level. No one. At the door to the street he spotted a man on the far sidewalk. The man wore a black hat and sunglasses. Mark? Josh couldn’t tell. The man crouched down as if to tie his shoes. But he just held his shoelaces, motionless. The man was still for a moment. Then he turned his head so he was looking right at Josh. The tinted windows of the building protected Josh, but Josh still felt that the man could see him. The next instant the man stood and continued walking forward, rounding the next block.

Josh was breathing hard. He ran his hand up his sweaty forehead and into his hair. He pushed through the door and walked in the opposite direction from where the man had gone.

Late that night Josh was waiting on the platform for his train. It was just past 10 P.M. once again. Lunch with Catherine lengthened his days by several hours. And he hadn’t billed enough hours to be reimbursed for a cab. How do you bill time spent having sex with a partner?

Their affair was going to end. Tomorrow. Josh couldn’t handle it anymore. Neither thought it would go beyond the first time but then it became a routine all its own. One that was tough to break. Catherine and Josh worked late every night for weeks in the months leading up to Catherine’s election as partner. The case they worked on was a good one. Josh actually believed that CEO was innocent. A first. The CEO was being punished because his company’s stock took a dive for reasons beyond his control. It should have been an easy victory. The CEO made it difficult when he attempted suicide. Potential jurors could only take one cue from that. He was guilty. But he wasn’t. His company, his career, was everything to him. When it was gone what was left? Josh couldn’t imagine feeling emotional about a job, let alone jumping from a 13th floor balcony because of it. Thank God for scaffolding.

Catherine billed over 3,000 hours that year. Inhumanely high for most civilians but typical for an attorney up for partner at a firm like Sacks. Josh wanted her to make partner. She was his mentor. Her success was his.

They were working late together that first night. All the other offices were dark. It was past midnight. They sat close, taking a break, talking about life. They’d opened a bottle of wine. Catherine’s knee bumped Josh’s accidentally. She kept it there. He didn’t mind. Her hand on his thigh, she leaned forward. They kissed.

“I have an apartment,” she whispered. “Just a few blocks away.”

Josh didn’t say a word. The fact that she was married flashed into his mind. The fact that she was his boss, too. But she was the partner, he was the associate. He took orders, she gave them. Besides, he’d never turned down sex before. He didn’t even know if he was capable of doing so.

Once the initial barrier had been breached, having sex was too easy not to. All it took to instigate was one word, lunch. Catherine had tried to end it once. She took Josh aside and told him no more. She said their relationship could ruin her career, a partner having an affair with an associate. She’d sacrificed so much for her job. She didn’t mention her marriage.

Josh looked both ways on the platform. Mark, if the man in the baseball hat and sunglasses was actually Mark, wasn’t there. Eight minutes until his train. Josh waited at his usual spot in the middle of the platform but then decided to change his routine. He walked to the end where the last car would stop. There was no one near him. The safe thing to do at night for those worried about muggers and rapists is to board in the middle. If you’re worried about crazed husbands, you change your routine. Josh closed his eyes and began to fall asleep. He jerked awake as he felt himself fall forward. He took a few steps back just to be safe.

Josh was able to pinpoint when Mark discovered their affair. The firm had a breakfast to formally introduce the new partners. A debutante’s ball for grownups. A room full of circular tables covered in white tablecloths at a nearby hotel. Not everyone was invited, just the firm’s partners, the honorees and their spouses and one or two people who worked closely with the newly elected partners. It was strange enough that Josh was invited, stranger still that he sat next to Catherine at their table. Mark sat on the other side of her. The firm’s chairman ended his speech by saying that he’d like the new partners to approach the lectern to say a few words. “Catherine Mann,” he called out. “Why don’t you go first?”

Catherine wasn’t expecting to have to speak. Stalling to give herself time to organize her thoughts, she grabbed her glass of water. Empty. Absentmindedly, she then reached for Josh’s water glass. Half full. She grabbed it and took a sip. Josh froze. Why don’t you just shout out, I sleep with this man next to me? Josh thought. Mark stared at Josh’s water glass as Catherine made her way to the front of the room. Josh didn’t dare look over.

Then Josh made it worse a few minutes later when he caught up to her in the hallway that led to the restrooms. He touched her waist and whispered in her ear to be more careful. Mark turned the corner just as Josh released his hand. He stopped at the sight of the two co-workers.

“Hey, babe,” he said. “I’ve got to get to work.” He kissed her cheek. “I’m proud of you.” Then he turned to Josh and shook his hand. “Josh, great meeting you. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

Thinking about it now, Josh wondered if those last words were a threat.

The electronic sign told Josh his train would arrive in one minute.

Their affair was over. This isn’t how he wanted his life as a lawyer to begin. He was paranoid and depressed. He’d been out of law school less than three years and had already ruined his career, his life. His life and his career had become intertwined. Just like the suicidal CEO. Just like Mark. Just like the way Josh promised himself he’d never become. No, the affair was going to end.

The sound of the oncoming train drowned out the footsteps behind Josh. He was moving forward before he realized he’d been pushed. He was able to stop his feet at the edge of the platform but the momentum kept his upper body moving. The last thing Josh saw was the frightened face of the train’s conductor.

The only witness later described it to the cops as ‘like a slow-motion dive into a pool.’ The witness had been drinking but was pretty sure the pusher, who escaped up the stairs, was wearing a black hat, sunglasses, a skirt and high-heeled shoes.

Josh was right. The affair was over.

BIO: Sam Roseme is currently a lawyer in San Francisco. He has written for various publications including Readers’ Digest and the New York Law Journal, and he recently wrote a book about his experience in New York City politics.

1 comment:

Paul D. Brazill said...

that was great. very well set up.