The clandestine meeting took place at twelve thirty on a Thursday. Two men armed with black briefcases approached each other in the darkness, flanked by muscle-bound henchmen who busied themselves looking tough. The second-hand light refused to fully illuminate either faction.
“You were to come alone,” Drago admonished his older rival.
“As were you,” Arvloski retorted.
A mirthless chuckle escaped Drago’s thin lips, his face a collaboration of sharp angles and shadows.
“You know me too well, Niko,” he confessed. “As I know you.”
“Is that it,” Arvloski asked, pointing at the case with his dimpled chin.
“Niko, my old friend. What is your hurry,” Drago responded. “You seem nervous.”
“Not nervous, Comrade. What is the word … eager?”
“I have never known you not to ask of Katerina,” Drago pressed.
Arvloski swallowed hard before responding. His sallow pallor was made all the more evident by the pronounced puffiness beneath his sleepless blue eyes.
“And what of my dotchka?”
“She grows large with child,” Drago informed him, pausing before twisting the knife. “We think to call him Nicholas.”
Arvloski blanched, his jaundiced skin verging on translucence. He took half a step towards his smirking adversary with balled fists before catching himself. He didn’t feel his jagged fingernails digging into the meaty palms of his giant paws.
“There will be time enough for hugs later, Niko,” Drago taunted. “Let us first do this business that has you so … eager.”
“Open the case and hand it to Sergei,” Arvloski instructed, nodding at the behemoth in the black t-shirt that was no fewer than four sizes too small.
“Niet. You will open your case and hand it to Petr,” Drago countered. “Then I give you mine.”
The two men stared at each other, refusing to blink, before the distant warbling of a car alarm pierced the tense silence.
“We open cases at the same time,” Arvloski suggested, losing the battle of wills. “On count of three.”
Drago withdrew the gold cross he wore around his neck and rubbed it between a calloused thumb and finger as he considered the proposal. Coming to a decision, he tucked the well-worn charm back into the unruly thatch of chest hair that struggled against an overmatched v-neck sweater.
“Da, count of three,” he agreed.
“Adeen,” Arvloski led, unlatching the spring-loaded clasp on his case with a satisfying snap.
“Dva,” Drago followed, unlatching his case as well.
“It had better be in there, Comrade,” Arvloski warned.
“That is going for the both of us, Niko,” Drago replied.
The men nodded and finished the count in unison as their goons tensed for battle.
As the lids on both cases swung open, revealing the contents within, the group was suddenly bathed in blinding, white light.
“Politsii! Politsii,” Sergei bellowed.
The cases fell to the ground as panic-stricken men fumbled over one another in their haste to flee. A new voice called out above the ruckus, but Arvloski was too focused on the item lying on the ground next to one of the upended cases to notice. Blinking the sight back into his eyes, he reached for it.
“Arlen, just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Hearing his name jolted the loss mitigation specialist back to his senses. He looked across the break room at the disapproving female face staring down at him from the bank of switches that controlled the overhead lights.
“Is that my ahi,” Shelby from internal auditing demanded, pointing at the saran wrapped mass lying on the floor. She took in the melting ice that lined the open briefcase sitting next to it with a heavy sigh.
“Not the black market organ syndicate thing again? What is wrong with you people? And who smells like dijon,” she asked.
Arlen dabbed at the yellow streaks on his cheeks with one hand while fingering the spent packet of fancy mustard in his pocket.
“Nice touch. Let me guess, you’re a terminal liver patient this time,” Shelby posited. “Can’t you freaks at least use your own lunch?”
“Oh, relax, Shelby,” Drake said from off to Arlen’s left. He was fishing change out of his pocket as he surveyed the vending machine options. The second case lay open at his feet, a stock approval letter template resting within its felt lining. “Just having some fun. We didn’t hurt your precious tuna.”
“If you two paid as much attention to the poor excuses for files that end up on my desk as you do to these little diversions, maybe we wouldn’t have a six month logjam,” she countered, hands on hips, tapping the blood red nail of her index finger with each of the last four syllables.
“Get back to work,” she ordered the hulking security guards who were doing their best to blend in with the faux wood paneling on the walls.
“Yes, ma’am,” a neckless crew-cut answered, shooing his charges past the skeletal exec.
“The eight hundred line is fielding ten bomb threats an hour, and you morons are in here playing Cloak and Dagger,” she hissed.
“Won’t happen again, ma’am,” Crew-cut promised as he slunk out of the room.
“What’s it matter anyway,” Arlen wondered as he climbed to his feet. “I have seven hundred open files on my desk, for crissakes. Seven hundred.”
“Oh, cry me a river, Evita,” Drake retorted. “I’m sitting on nine fifty, easy. We’re pissing in the jet wash here, Shell. Where are our reinforcements?”
“Upper management is talking about bringing on new staff,” she answered.
“Yeah, they’ve been talking about that for the last fourteen months. Shoot, when I took this gig, I figured there was a putt putt in the conference room.”
“No kidding, right,” Drake echoed. “I couldn’t believe it when I found out we didn’t have video poker on our PCs. Couldn’t think of any other reason it would take eight months to process a file.”
“I know, I know,” Shelby admitted. “I thought we got off for company scuba trips to the Caymans between approvals.”
“Look,” she relented. “We’re all under a lot of pressure, but you can’t keep doing this stuff. The prank phone calls to non-delinquent account holders, the BPO dead pools, the contests to see which one of you can collect the most four letter words or longest hold times from Real Estate agents … ”
Arlen and Drake did their best not to smile as they shared a furtive glance.
“Yes, I know about all of it,” Shelby assured them. “There are real people out there depending on us to resolve these short sales, no matter how futile it may seem. It’s time you started taking your jobs seriously.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Arlen acknowledged.
“Straight and narrow from here on out,” Drake promised. “Scout’s honor.”
“Good,” Shelby replied. “Now clean up this mess and get back to your phones, would you?”
She turned on her three inch heel and strode towards the door, dousing the confined space in the oddly medicinal scent of hers that had long reminded Arlen of Vicks VapoRub.
“Let’s play pin the tail on the lien release tomorrow,” Drake whispered as he sidled up next to Arlen.
Arlen nodded and the conspirators bumped fists, splaying their fingers upon contact to mimic an explosion.
“Shell,” Arlen called after the retreating auditor.
“Yes,” she responded, turning back to face the grinning pair as she reached the hall.
“Don’t forget your fish.”