THE REFERRAL SYSTEM - KEITH RAWSON
Tonight's show is Unsolved Mysteries.
You remember that show, right? The one where Robert Stack spent an hour dressed in Sam Spade gear and stood around on a fog-covered street corner, attempting to freak you out about alien abduction and haunted houses. I loved Robert Stack. In my opinion, he was one of the best voice-over talents in the business; ranked right up there with James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman; the major difference being Stack's voice is just flat out creepy, whereas Jones and Freeman are far more comforting and inspiring. It was Stack's steel-hard, slightly menacing delivery that made him the ideal host for Unsolved Mysteries.
Tonight's showing isn't a Robert Stack episode. Tonight's episode is from the new incarnation of the series. Stack doesn't host or narrate because of the whole dead guy thing. The new version of the show is hosted by that one Italian guy who always plays either a cop or a gangster in the movies. I normally like the guy's acting abilities, even though it seems like he’s spent his entire career playing some variation of himself. I’m not a fan of him hosting Unsolved Mysteries, though. His voice doesn't have the same mysterious verve, the same sense of dread. It’s all right though; what I’m really interested in is a missing person's case being featured.
The segment is about a thirty-five year-old Tucson, AZ woman who disappeared while on a shopping trip to Tijuana, Mexico. She drove down alone on a whim, according to her grief stricken husband. The woman's been missing three years now and her husband of only two years is still grief stricken.
This leads me to believe one of two things:
1) The husband is the one who did the wife and is a very good actor
2) He knows who did her and feels guilty about it, but is afraid to divulge what he knows to the proper authorities.
I can care less either way; all I’m waiting for is the 1-800 number so I can place my tip. The story winds down with a big snotty plea from the husband and the show fades to a voice-over of the Goomba actor and the number. I dial it in as he’s speaking and wait for the operator to pick up.
“Unsolved Mysteries, this is Gwen.”
Female, I hang up.
Females are a no-go; the only problem with these kinds of shows is that some nights all of the operators are women.
“Unsolved Mysteries, this is David.”
Here we go.
My phone calls started off as an accident.
I’m a flooring salesman: carpet, linoleum, ceramic, travertine, anything you can walk on, I sell it. I’m very good at my job. A major reason I’m so successful is largely due to referrals. My clients list largely consists of individual home owners who just happen to like me enough to pass my name along to friends and family members. When I first started out, I treated each new referral as if it was a fragile treasure; I handled each with care, calling only when it was most convenient for the client; never calling more than once then every couple of weeks. My referrals loved me for my professionalism and the fact that I didn’t clutter up their answering machines with hang-ups or too many unnecessary messages.
I waited for them to call me back.
But, like any salesman, I’m numbers driven; the more sales I made, the more referrals I converted, the more money that went into my pocket. So, after a few years of cultivating and collecting, of nurturing each new lead, I grew impatient. I wanted more sales, more money. I started including a referrals form as part of the easy credit application that most of my clients took advantage of. I came up with the bullshit line that if the new client didn’t come up with at least three new clients for me to contact, there was absolutely no way for me to process their application. Ninety percent of the clients I worked with bought into my line without question; the other ten percent knew I was full of shit because They’d filled out credit applications in the past or worked in the finance industry.
The only issue I dealt with my new referral system was that a good portion of the ninety percent would panic and list bullshit names, addresses, and telephone numbers on their references page. Pages and pages of nothing but disconnected lines; of robotic voices informing me the number I’d reached was either no longer in use or disconnected. The bullshit leads got so bad that I started getting into the habit of calling them after ten o’clock at night; the way I figured it, no one was on the other line anyway so why bother pretending to be courteous?
Sometimes there were people on the other end. The first one came from this single mom named Crystal something or other; re-carpeted her entire condo with low-end, off-white Berber. Cheap sale, but she filled her credit application with fifteen names and numbers. I figured they were all fake.
I dialed the first number on Saturday, May 18th; it was eleven o’clock at night. The wife and kids were in California for the week, amusement park hopping and escaping the grinding heat of Phoenix in late spring. The TV was tuned to some black and white movie with Charlton Hesston playing a Mexican. I had the volume off and I was thinking about taking a look at some internet porn and half-listening to the phone receiver; waiting for the pre-recorded voice to tell me I was an idiot for even dialing.
One, two, three rings...
“Circle K, this is Chad. How can I help you?”
I’m not the type who’s at a loss for words when faced with an uncomfortable situation; in fact, I thrive on it. Not that being on the phone with a convenience store clerk was awkward, just unexpected.
My throat went tight; I swallowed and produced a noise that sounded something like a cricket rubbing its hind legs together.
“Hello?” asked the voice on the other end.
I cleared my throat, but instead of saying: No, I think I have the wrong number, like a normal person would, I piped up, my voice coming out of my throat high and feminine.
“Is Mike available?” Which was the name on the credit app.
“Mike? Mike who? Mike Stern?” Super polite Chad asked.
I scanned the name and I was surprised to find that was exactly who I was looking for.
“Yes, that’s him.” I didn’t modulate my voice; I kept it at the same pitch and added a slight purr to it. “Is he available?”
“No, Mike works swing shift. In fact, he just left a few minutes ago.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. I really needed to talk to him.”
“Well, I can take a message for you if you want me to.”
“No, no, that’s okay I’ll just call back tomorrow... But you have a great night.”
“Wait! Hold on a second! Seriously, I can take a message. Sometimes he comes in at night to pick up some beers or smokes... are you his girlfriend or something?”
The clerk actually thought I was a woman. Personally, I thought I sound like a twelve year-old who was about to drop his testes, but I guess the voice could've passed as female. I figured the guy was either extremely bored or the loneliest man in Phoenix.
“No, I’m just a friend... I don’t have a boyfriend right now.”
“Really? That’s surprising, ‘cause you sound, I don’t know, really pretty.”
“Oh, I guess.”
I kept him on the line like that for over an hour; flirting back and forth. Chad seemed like a good guy and I was right; he was just lonely. He was recently divorced and working the graveyard shift in order to afford his court-ordered child support. He missed his wife and his little boy, but he understood why she divorced him: He liked to screw around on the side, he liked screwing around a lot, and his ex had just caught him at it way too many times for her to bear. But now he was living in a dumpy studio apartment and all the women he used to love screwing around with so much wouldn’t come near him unless it was to clip him in the teeth with an aluminum baseball bat. But that’s how women who liked married men were; the minute the wedding band came off, they split out in search of men who still wore the ball and chain around their necks and were in need of obligation-free fucking.
I crafted a similar story, divorced a couple of times, working graveyard shift as a night auditor at a hotel; no kids, no current man, no obligations. I really led old Chad on and kept it up for two weeks after our initial conversation. Our little phone dates eventually led to us making a physical date for lunch at some pizza place in Chad’s neighborhood. I showed up, not as my phone self, but as the real me, dressed in business attire and toting around a portfolio of carpet samples, pretending like I was meeting a client.
He was pretty much how I pictured him from our conversations: not bad-looking, but not exactly a heartbreaker; mid-thirties, thinning sandy brown hair, a bit of a paunch, dark bags under his eyes, and the shallow pale skin tone of a night worker. I watched him for an hour. I watched as his demeanor turned from cocky player-to-beaten down, dumped on his ass schlep of a human being. I walked out of the pizza place with my smirk hidden behind the straw of my coke and I tossed my uneaten slice.
“Unsolved Mysteries, this is David.”
I’ve been at it two years now.
At first, I stuck with convenience stores and graveyard shifts. I experimented, changing up tone, regional accents, and race; I thought I sounded best as a southern black woman. Six months in, I bought a digital voice modulator from one of those urban spy places and fooled around with that for a few months; I gave it up, it felt effortless and plastic.
“Yes, I have information regarding the Alison Jansen case.” I use my Mexican single mother voice; I make it cracked and nervous, words warbling mid-syllable. “I have information.” Oh yeah, I really play it up, like I’ve been living with the secret too long and I’m overwhelmed with emotion.
“Yes, ma’am, any new information you can provide would be very helpful to the family.”
I didn’t play them all like Chad. Most of my conversations only lasted ten or fifteen minutes; the clerks were usually busy or distracted by one thing or another; but occasionally I would get another Chad, another lonely man looking for company, a touch of humanity, a friendly voice in the middle of the night.
“It’s so horrible...”
“I know, ma’am, take your time.”
I don’t know why I started calling into the responsible citizen tip shows.
The need for a greater audience?
“I know... I know where...”
“You know where what, Ma’am?”
I tried the AM radio call-in shows at first, but I never made it past the producers screening calls before you made it on air. The shit thing I learned about radio producers is that most of them are women, and women just don’t buy my act; somehow they just know the person on the other end of the line is a man pretending to be a woman.
“The body of Ms. Jansen...”
“What about the body, Ma’am?”
If I had to really think about my reasoning, I guess I would have to say it’s because of the salesman in me.
“I know... I know where the body is.”
I’m just naturally results oriented.
BIO: Keith Rawson is a little known pulp writer who lives in the alkaline desert wastelands of southern Arizona with his wife and very energetic three-year-old daughter. His stories have appeared in such publications as Plots with Guns, Pulp Pusher, CrimeWav.com, Bad Things, Powder Burn Flash, A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp and many others. You can find him most nights dicking around on either Twitter or Facebook, or stroking his already over-inflated ego at his blog Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips.