Please Help (conclusion)
He went and had a look. He had to make some noise…grunting, drawing breath, clacking a little, with his pocket key ring banging the wall under the sill.
“Hey ya,” Milton said, low as he could. A head came around the wall.
This, spoken like the guy was a joke to them, preceded laughter; a couple remarks in whatever their language was.
The head returned, and Milton said, a little stiff: “Catch ya, hon.”
“No,” she told him. “Get back. Hell back.”
Sure. He caught her, touching her above the hips when she landed, steadying her on her feet.
He said, “I don’t know your name. I’m Milton.”
She crossed to the kitchen, twisting away. He stood for a second wondering if he couldn’t make his girl like him. She was pouring milk over cornflakes.
“I got ice cream,” Milton said.
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 girl, the th said like a t, like they did in places. 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. He 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 go.”
If they were making 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 took the side she was sitting on. He took the last cookie, left 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 me some way.”
She got to her feet, padded around the mattress perimeter. She leaned, and hugged him. “How nice you are, Milton. Scoot over, Kat.”
Settling, Lusanne said to Milton: “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 propped on elbows, scraping the ice cream carton, licking the spoon. Milton wasn’t 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 bucks, that way, to live on. If this wasn’t charity, what was…? Wanna force a guy his age to work, or something.
He was making mistakes, though. Coming back from the store, he had got himself half convinced of it…that whatever this bunch was trapping him into would make the sentence, when he got arrested, 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, “when you have money, you can borrow money. 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 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 setups, if you’re set up to start.” Milton gave a chuckle.
“You think. My sister could tell you the scam is men who make promises. That’s why we’re here, instead of home. Camber isn’t divorced. So,” Katrina said, “they won’t get married. 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’s been charged with securities fraud. But his expert will still do what he does.”
“How you mean?”
Lusanne put her hand over Milton’s eyes. The contact was sudden, 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.
“Not yet.” That was his girl. “Ask him about me.”
“Ponytail. Light brown. Pretty face.”
“What’s pretty?” Her voice said, who cares about that?
“Never mind.” Lusanne let Milton see again. “Just think, if I said…like… It’s a big responsibility. A man could go to prison. You might back off, describing Steven. Brown hair is not much.”
“So the expert gets under the witness’s skin?”
“Or the jury,” Katrina said. “Camber’s lawyer makes them afraid their names will get out. You can say a lot, you know, when you talk about being careful.”
“I’ve made my deposition,” Lusanne said. “So it’s all known. But I’m not testifying. He’ll only be acquitted.”
There was one thing weird. “How come the stuff with the window?”
Milton rose and went to the sill. A line of masonry decorated the rear façade, supporting the window cuts, jutting inches, room enough for reckless feet to edge. And he saw it now, this empty center was a dip between apartment houses. Flat roof below, AC and vent hoods.
No one would see the girls escape, unless they—the cops, whoever—set up shop in one of those units across the way.
So his girl had gone off to get food, and he’d talked to her and made her worry.
Steven said, close at Milton’s back. “Okay, guys, it’s really time to clear out.”
Milton shook his lapels. The son of a bitch had wanted him to jump. He turned, and they were all standing. Were they leaving him on his lonesome, to add all this up?
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 Katrina’s hips and told himself, maybe I’m not seeing that either, like it was a 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 plunked on the floor in Milton’s old place, laughing. “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, rather they didn’t. 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. Jessup had sold tonic water, something like it, on TV…yuppie crap, if there were still yuppies. Later 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, can’t take the chance, can’t pass up the chance. So Jessup oughta understand. This time, he’s not gonna put it across. No win to crow about. See, the charges were no good. I got off. They can’t touch me.” He was imitating Camber Jessup, in the way people did, just making his voice high. “Nothing this time but ugly rumors, digging into people’s heads.”
Lusanne came to stand in front of Milton. Too creaky to rebuke the son of a bitch, Milton worked on his posture, facing her more or less like a gentleman. She moved as though she would hug him, but at last put her hand over his, leaving it for a moment. “Milton, you have to go first. You won’t see us anymore…if you’re lucky. But you won’t forget, please? Only answer truthfully.”
He had lost this day.
He had lost the money in his wallet. Would they even send him something in the mail? No, they couldn’t. No contact, or he’d screw up as a witness. Milton shuffled down the street, making it slow, his exit from the scene. Of course he would help his girl, if he ever got the chance.
One more, over his shoulder…but the windows were on the back alley. If they would’ve waved goodbye, you couldn’t know it. He might show up here sometime, pictured himself punching in the code—
Nah, stup, he counselled himself. None of them are from this neighborhood.
The sisters must live on the lake, in a high-rise, a penthouse.
On one of those boats, maybe.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)