Please Help (conclusion)
Their names, but he might have got them wrong…he only heard what he thought he heard…were Katrina and Lusanne. Maybe Katherina was the name of his girlfriend. Her sister had been here longer, and her accent was easier, but her name was harder to be sure of. Milton stood for a while, then sat for a while.
Got up to pace, and was letting the three of them eat everything, before it occurred to him he was taking a big thing for granted. He should test them right now, say, “Okay, I helped you out. Gotta run.”
If they were going to make him stay, he’d be getting pretty hungry.
He sat again on the floor. It was too much to climb on the mattress with the girls, but he’d taken the side she was sitting on. He took the last cookie, just there in its plastic, untouched.
“So when’s the party break up?” he said.
“Listen,” Lusanne said. “You can’t leave. Not this minute.”
“I’m not asking to. I mean, not if you still need my help some way.”
She got to her feet, to pad around the mattress’s perimeter. She leaned over and hugged him. “How nice you are, Milton. Scoot over.” She said this to her sister. Lusanne again to Milton, settling, “It’s right of you to help. You think this is a crime, what we’re doing here.”
He glanced across to the counter, where the guy was leaning over, scraping the ice cream carton, licking the spoon. Milton was not a perfect law-abider. He thought he gave people a good feeling about themselves. People liked doing charity…it was a kind of service he gave. He got a few dollars, that way, to live on—and what was that, if it wasn’t charity?
He was making mistakes, though. He’d got himself, coming back from the store, half convinced of it…that whatever they’d trapped him into would make the sentence, when the cops arrested him, tougher, the fine bigger.
“All you need to do, if anyone asks, is tell them you saw Steven holding us up. He had a gun. Answer everything you can truthfully answer.”
“You see,” Katrina said, “if you have money, you can borrow money, and if you borrow a lot of money, you can invest it, and if you turn over the investment fast enough, or keep your creditors off for long enough, you can walk away…” She waved a hand, looking for a word, or phrase.
“Yeah, that’s the basic scam. The mother of set-ups.” Milton chuckled.
“But her partner. They would get married…only he’s not divorced. Well,” Katrina said, “now they won’t get married. But Camber has an expert, who always comes to testify when he gets sued. This time, he isn’t getting sued.”
“No, this time,” Lusanne said, “he has been charged with securities fraud. But his expert will still do what he does with the jury.”
“How you mean?”
Lusanne put her hand over Milton’s eyes. The contact was sudden, as before, and he felt a little buzz of flattery, that she would.
“Now, what does Steven look like?”
The buzz died. Steven, he would have said, looked like a son of a bitch. “Um. Brown hair.”
“I have brown hair.”
“Muscle. Sort of crouches and moves around fast.”
He heard Katrina laugh. He felt Lusanne’s hand relax.
“No.” That was his girl. “Ask him about me.”
“Um, ponytail. Light brown. Pretty face.”
“Yes, yes. What’s pretty?” Her voice said, who cares about that?
“Never mind.” Lusanne let him see again. “Just think, Milton…it’s a big responsibility. A man could go to prison. Or I suppose be bankrupt. Then you would say… Okay…?” She was silent for a minute. “I don’t know much for certain…I hate to say something wrong.”
He got her. “So this guy’s expert gets under the witness’s skin?”
“Or the jury,” Katrina said. “He makes them afraid their names will come out. You can say a lot, you know, when you talk about being careful, about importance and seriousness.”
“I’ve made my deposition,” Lusanne said. “So it’s all known. But I’m not testifying. He’ll only be acquitted.”
Steven said: “Okay, guys, it’s really time to clear out.”
Milton watched Katrina push herself to her feet. Were they leaving him on his lonesome, then, to add all this up? He thought he could…but there was one thing weird.
“How come the stuff with the window?”
He got to his own feet, and went to lean over the sill. Looking this time. A line of masonry decorated the rear façade; it maybe supported the window cuts. It jutted three or four inches, allowing someone reckless to edge along it. And he saw it now, this empty center was a dip in the midst of a square. There were roofs down below, and all around attached houses. He guessed no one would see the girls escape, unless they—the cops, whoever—had set up shop in one of the apartments across the way. He guessed you wouldn’t expect anyone to try a thing like that, either.
Katrina had been going off to get food, and he’d talked to her and made her worry.
Truthfully. He repeated Lusanne’s stress. I didn’t see her do it the first time. What do I know? He pictured his hands on her sister’s hips and told himself, maybe I’m not seeing that either, like a real memory. Maybe I’m making it up.
“People have to do their jobs. Janitor…building sup. Jot down their little report. Can’t hurt.”
Steven had got next to Milton, without Milton’s hearing him, laughing when he jumped. “You get the phone, right? Jessup has his own security. Rich fuck. He’s thinking he’s in good shape right now. He doesn’t care if they find Lu. He’d rather they didn’t. He just wants to cover his ass.”
Jessup. Camber Jessup, sure. A guy who could have made himself up, monikered with this mask, this name that conjured no picture. About a Milton or a Steven, people had an idea. He’d sold tonic water, or something like it…yuppie crap, if there were still yuppies…and then he’d sold risk, betting against disaster. Hurricane seasons had been mild for a while, that was the phrase Milton remembered.
“He’s been scaring people for years, with this thing…this can’t not thing. Can’t take the chance. Can’t pass up the chance. So Jessup oughta understand. He’s not gonna put it across this time. I mean, no win to crow about. Just ugly rumors, digging down in people’s heads. See, the charges were no good. I got off. They can’t touch me.” He was imitating Camber Jessup, in that way people did, just making his voice high.
Lusanne came to stand in front of Milton. She moved as though she would hug him again, but at last put her hand over his, leaving it for a moment. “Milton, you have to go first. You won’t see us again…if you’re lucky. But you won’t forget. Only answer truthfully.”
He had lost this day.
He had lost the money he’d had in his wallet at the start. Would they even send him something in the mail? No, they couldn’t. No contact, or he’d screw up as a witness. He shuffled on the street, looking up, making it slow…his exit from the scene. Of course he would help Katrina, his girl, if he ever got the chance. They weren’t watching out the window. No, the window wasn’t on this side. He wasn’t forgetting, either. He thought he might come back, pictured himself punching in the code…and still there was no point. The sisters must live on the lake…in a penthouse.
Or on one of those boats, maybe.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)