“The job” it turned out, was anything Katowski didn’t feel like doing himself. If no Private Investigator’s license was required, no gun likely needed, and particularly in situations where Katowski would be recognized within the small business community of this burnt out New England mill town, then I was the man. I was Katowski’s second, his man Friday, a factotum by any other name.
My very first assignment involved the telephone call Katowski answered while I was with him. A Miss Prunella Rose required an escort to dinner and the symphony that evening. Katowski made it clear that I was to be a gentleman escort, just an escort, not a gigolo, not a bodyguard. I was to be pleasant and safe company for a lady who wanted an evening out.
We were outside the boundaries of my personal experience here. I couldn’t imagine hiring a companion for an evening on the town. I couldn’t imagine anyone I know hiring an escort. And nobody could imagine anybody hiring me for a rent-a-date. However, as Katowski explained, the requirements for the position are not quite what I might have thought. Miss Rose needed someone well-mannered, groomed, moderately articulate, safe, and most importantly, unknown. I fit the bill, if I may be immodest. Katowski agreed. We had spent the remainder of the morning going over my lack of a criminal record, ensuring I could be bonded. Katowski laughed when I mentioned the required drug test. He said that if you were smart you wouldn’t even apply knowing you would fail a drug test. And he didn’t need a laboratory to identify the stupid people.
Eight o’clock found me waiting outside “The Faded Orchid” a fashionable local eatery known for small portions and big attitudes. A black town car pulled to the curb and stopped. The driver got out and raced around to open the rear door. He extended his arm and helped the passenger, a stunning woman in her late forties, onto the sidewalk. This woman was so well dressed that even I recognized the fact, without really knowing how. She was in no way showy or ostentatious, yet all eyes were drawn to her. She stood straight upright, looked around at the crowd, strode purposefully to me, took my left arm in her right hand, gestured towards the door, and intoned; “Shall we?” Apparently my date had arrived.
The maitre d’ peered coldly over his reading glasses. “May I help you,” he asked, without even a hint of sincerity.
“Table for two, please.” I flashed a confident smile at my guest.
I hesitated. It hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation. Katowski’s instructions had been to meet Miss Rose outside the restaurant. He hadn’t given any further details.
“Williams,” I tried.
“I’m sorry, sir,” He wasn’t really.
I looked over his shoulder at the dozen or more empty tables behind him. “Katowski?” I was grasping.
“No, I’m afraid not, sir.” Now he was looking over my shoulder.
“Boynton” I felt inspiration.
He didn’t bother to speak, just raising one eyebrow and giving me a pitying look.
“Marlin.” My date spoke in a low, clear voice. The hairs on the back of my neck stood erect as if they knew something I did not, but they did not see fit to pass any information on to me.
He gave me a smirk, then turned all his attentions to my companion. “Of course, Mrs Marlin. Your table will be ready right away.”
He snapped his fingers and called out, “Bruno!, Table for two for Mrs. Marlin and her, ahem, companion.”
A young man dressed in creased black trousers, starched white shirt and black bow tie appeared out of nowhere and beckoned for us to follow him.
I stepped back to allow my date to precede me. As I shouldered past his podium, I turned to give the maitre d’ an appropriately dirty scowl, but it was deflected by his smirk, letting me know how much he had enjoyed my humiliation. I was having fun so far.
“Bruno” led us to a discrete table in the corner and helped the lady into her seat. He handed her the open menu with a flourish, and turned to give me a menu and wine list. My guest raised her hand to wave off the wine list. “I’ll have a perfect vodka martini, Belvedere, to start, and a bottle of Chateau Pape de Neuf, um, 1989 with dinner.” She gave me an inquiring look. “If I may be so bold?”
”Of course, whatever you wish.” I was relieved. Choosing wine in a restaurant terrified me. I had never been in a position to afford or require an appreciation of wine, beyond the belief that corked bottles indicated better wine than screw top bottles. I won’t even discuss wine in cardboard boxes.
I turned to Bruno. “I’ll have a Dewars and soda to start.” I opened the leather-bound menu.
A quick glance and I realized that there were no prices listed. I knew immediately what had happened. I smiled knowingly and handed my menu to the lady, while reaching for hers. “I believe there has been a mistake.”
She looked bemused, but continued the menu exchange. When I opened her menu I found there were no prices in it either. This could not be good.
Even in my limited social circle The Faded Orchid had a reputation as one of the finest restaurants in town. Now that I was looking at the menu, I was beginning to have my doubts. Despite a menu which unfolded to be slightly larger than a doormat, the entire list of options consisted of one soup, three appetizers and four entrees. None of which I recognized as food.
Now, I don’t expect a finer restaurant to serve Buffalo wings or nachos, or some of the other delights of a pub menu, but, by God, any quality establishment should provide French onion soup, shrimp cocktails, and steak. There was no steak on the menu. I looked on the back for more, but, nothing. No steak. I tried to decipher the descriptions of the offerings. I recognized some of the words as food items, but the context was beyond me. Oh well, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be work.
My companion had put her menu aside and I followed suit. Our drinks arrived, none too soon. I finish mine in one draw, placed my glass heavily on the table and signaled Bruno for another. The lady sipped her martini decorously. The scotch quickly worked its magic, and I felt my courage increasing. There was a question nagging at me.
“Mrs. Marlin?” I asked.
“Rose, Miss Prunella Rose.” She made it clear that there would be no further questions on that topic.
I was saved when Bruno arrived with my scotch. I could see that Bruno was going to be better company than Miss Prunella Rose.
Bruno stood at attention and asked for our order. Miss Rose handed her menu to him. “I’ll begin with the escarole salad, and follow with the duck confeet”
Duck? Confeet? (Editor’s`note “confit”) ((Author’s note “shrug”))Was that like chili con carne? I didn’t recall any duck on the menu. Honestly, I couldn’t remember anything on the menu. You don’t remember what you don’t understand. And what the hell was escarole?
Handing my menu back to Bruno, I took the coward’s route. “I’ll have the same,.” I said.
He flashed a practiced phony grin at me. “Very good Sir.”
I raised my glass in salute to Miss Rose. She returned the gesture and took another sip. Putting her glass down, she leaned forward and peered deeply into my eyes. “So, Mr. Williams, I understand you raise exotic butterflies. How very interesting. Do tell me all about it.”
I took a deep breath and another slug of scotch. I was going to need to be Bruno’d again soon. I launched into the fictional details of my experiences in breeding rare butterflies. Long ago I had discovered that this was a great conversation topic. Nobody dislikes butterflies, in fact many people are enchanted by them, and at the same time, amongst the masses, there is virtually no knowledge of their life cycle. This afforded me the luxury of weaving any tale I chose, without concern of contradiction. I knew almost nothing about butterflies, yet had been able to mine many hours on small talk out of the subject at any number of boring parties. Miss Rose was rapt as I expounded on the care required by the delicate pupae.
Barely had I begun explaining the relationship between humidity, temperature and egg hatching rates among Amazon bird wing butterflies when our salads arrived. Escarole, it turned out, was just lettuce with an attitude. Quite tasty, actually. The evening was looking up.
As I told my lepidopteric tale, I could see I had Miss Rose mesmerized. She was staring deeply into my eyes while I spoke, so deeply that it was almost as if she were staring through me. Emboldened by the continuing ministrations of Bruno, I leaned forward and laid my hand on hers across the table. Miss Rose flashed a brief smile and withdrew her hand to her lap. Chastened, I muttered an apology and fell silent.
To my relief, the main course arrived. Duck confit was interesting, although, a rack of ribs would have been more welcome. We ate without further conversation until, seemingly out of nowhere, the maitre d’ appeared at Prunella’s shoulder carrying a small folded piece of paper which he handed to her officiously, while directing a squinty-eyed smirk in my general direction. She thanked him, and he scuttled off, taking one more opportunity to sneer at me from behind Miss Rose’s back before he faded into the inky depths of the foyer. Prunella opened the paper, appeared to be reading from it, folded carefully, and placed in her black evening bag. She rose from her seat abruptly.
“I must step out for just a moment,” she said matter-of-factly. “Please, continue eating, I won’t be long.”
Some flicker of manners passed through my lightly addled brain, and I stood to acknowledge Miss Rose’s departure. As I sat I waved two fingers at Bruno, hoping he would bless me with a double. He did not disappoint, delivering the golden bubbly nectar in a sturdy glass glistening with beads of perspiration. It was enough to inspire erotic fantasies, were I given to such flights of fancy.
I picked idly at my plate, moving the duck around, tasting some odd green thing that may well have been a vegetable in a previous life. I glanced at my watch in hopes that I would be able to wrap up this evening in time to get a burger before last call. 10:37. It didn’t look good.
I was trying to look around the restaurant at other diners, but the lighting was so low that all I could make out was dark shapes moving slightly at regularly spaced intervals. An indistinct murmur hanging over the room was the remnants of a dozen conversations being whispered over the dozen tasteful oil lamps gracing the tables.
Bruno reappeared at my elbow out of thin air and startled me. I fear I might have yelped.
As I was forming an answer to this most important of questions, I noted that Miss Rose had yet to return. I took a quick look at my watch. 11:05. Odd.
“Sure, Bruno, one more before you throw me out.”
While waiting for Bruno to return, I began to wonder about my date’s extended absence. I looked around and spotted the monkey-suited shoulder of the maitre d’ in the passageway to the foyer. Perhaps he knew something. Perhaps he would share it with me. It seemed unlikly, but I was short on options. I could continue to drink scotch, or I could look for Miss Rose. Decisions decisions. Finally, Bruno arrived with my drink, relieving me of my quandrary. I could do both.
Gripping my precious tumbler of liquid gold I strode over to the foyer. At least, tried to stride, but I might have stumbled on a particularly rough bit of carpet nap. Irregardless, I was once again face to face with Mr. Chuckles.
“Did you happen to see where Miss....errr.. Mrs......um...my dinner companion went?”
He shook his head with more disdain than any one person should be allowed to display.
“Mrs. Marlin took a call at that telephone.” He gestured to the wall with a nod.
I leaned forward, anticipating further intelligence.
Seeing I was not satisfied, he diegned to continue. “Then, she went out that door.”
This time he nodded towards the doors we had come in through.
Oh well, I guess she left. I have been stood up before, but never stood out. I stood there for a moment, not quite sure what the next step was to be. He sensed my confusion, and gave me the prodding I needed.
“The evening is on Mrs. Marlin’s tab, sir”
I was dismissed. Finishing my drink in one swallow, I dropped my glass on his podium, stood up straight, turned and walked right into the heavy doors. Seems they only swing in. After a few seconds of struggling with my balance and the huge brass handles, I managed to find myself once again on the sidewalk out front where this bizarre evening had begun.
I was just standing there in a pool of sickly orange light thrown by the street lamp, drinking in the cool night air, trying to clear my head a little, planning my next move, when I heard a sound coming from the alley that ran to one side of the building which housed the restaurant. It sounded like a cat, not not quite. Maybe like a cat in distress. Or trapped. A few steps and I was facing down the alley. It was shaded from the street lamp and quite dark. As I peered into the blackness I once again heard the sound, clearer now, and even less feline than before. My curiousity overwhelmed my good sense, unarmed it and threw it to the ground naked and whimpering. I walked into the dark alley.