Wiley left the administrative offices of Raritan Valley Community College carrying the catalogs and promotional literature that his high school math teacher had tasked him with picking up. Mr. Markov said he would count the favor as extra credit. This was odd now that he thought about it. Until this moment he simply had been annoyed at the extracurricular assignment. Extra credit scarcely mattered in the last semester of high school, but Wiley wasn’t good at saying no. He knew that all this printed information was available online anyway. He wondered if his math teacher was trying to influence him to enroll here by physically introducing him to the place. If so, it was the most interest the rather ineffectual Markov ever taken in him. In truth, it was a likely destination for him. He couldn’t afford private college and had no desire to take on student debt.
Outside the building Wiley realized he had exited by another door than the one he had entered. He was disoriented, but he struck out across the grass in the direction where he thought he had parked. He soon spotted his car. He had guessed correctly.
Despite a half-empty parking lot, a black Cadillac limousine occupied the spot next to Wiley’s aging Honda Civic. The narrow space between the two cars was blocked at the back by two men in conversation. One was middle-aged with gray in his hair, a short beard, and crisp blue jeans with what looked like an expensive blue blazer. His frame was husky but otherwise the man appeared fit. The other fellow was younger, shorter, and wearing a classic blue chauffeur’s hat. Wiley saw he would have to acknowledge them in order to get to his driver side car door unless he circled awkwardly around the front of his car. He then noticed a flat tire on the limo.
“Whoa,” said Wiley sympathetically as he approached the two. “Do you have a spare, dudes?”
“Indeed,” answered the bearded man. “The problem is that we need two.”
The man pointed to the rear tire on the opposite side. Wiley noticed for the first time this also was flat.
“How did that happen, dude?”
“Vandalism is a notion that comes readily to mind. There are people in the world who dislike cars they can’t afford, such as this one.”
“Yeah, maybe. That sucks, guys. Well, good luck. I’ll just slip past you. This is my car and I have to go.”
The bearded man didn’t move aside but instead held out a hand. “Alex. Alex Farkas. This is Yuri. You are?”
Wiley didn’t want this conversation to continue, but he chose not to be rude. He hesitantly reached out to the proffered hand. “Wiley,” he said. He saw no reason to provide more information than that.
“Not a name one hears much anymore. Named after Wiley Post, were you?” asked Alex.
“Wiley Post: the first person to fly around the world solo. He died in a plane crash with Will Rogers in Alaska.”
“I don’t know who they are, but maybe you’re right. I’d always assumed I was named after the Warner Brothers coyote.”
“I can’t refute that possibility either.”
“Yeah. Um, dude…if you don’t mind, I still have to get to my door.”
“Call me Alex, and yes, of course.” Still forming an obstruction, Alex said, “Wait, I wonder if you could do me a favor.”
Wiley wished he had walked around the car and skipped the conversation, but he responded, “What favor?”
“Any chance I can, as they say, bum a ride with you? I have to get back to my hotel for an important meeting.”
“I don’t know who says ‘bum a ride’ anymore.”
“Now you do. Yuri here can handle the tire issues. Can’t you?” The driver nodded. “But it will be some time until the new tires arrive and I have to get back.”
“The Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. I can compensate you for your trouble.”
“I’m just going to Bridgewater. Look you could just call a cab or Uber or something.”
“Waiting for a cab will take as long as waiting for the tires. You’d be doing me a service, and Basking Ridge isn’t much farther than Bridgewater.”
Wiley didn’t want this man in his car, but again he balked at saying no. He often berated himself for not sufficiently defending his own interests. He had learned the childhood lessons of generosity and cooperation too well for his own good. He sighed and hoped this good deed would not be too severely punished. This fellow didn’t seem like a criminal – at least not of a type who would be dangerous to him.
Wiley sighed and said, “You won’t care my rusty Honda after your ride.”
“My first car was a Pinto with 140,000 miles on the odometer. Your car is a Lamborghini by comparison.”
Wiley unlocked his car with his key fob as Alex strolled to the Honda’s passenger side.
“Wait a minute,” said Wiley as Alex opened the door. “Let me clear the seat.” Wiley tossed Markov’s college literature in the back seat. He bent over the console cleared the front seat of junk mail, napkins, coffee cups, and books. These joined the catalogs in the back. Alex slid in to the passenger side. Wiley got in and started the car. The rumble was just loud enough to indicate a small hole somewhere in the exhaust system.
Wiley turned out of the campus driveway and accelerated toward I-78.
“So what are you studying at college?” asked Alex.
“Nothing. I’m a senior at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. I was just getting some materials from the registration office. I’ll might be starting there in the fall though. What were you doing there? I’m guessing you’re not a college student either.”
“You guess correctly. It was a personal matter.”
“That’s not very illuminating.”
“Don’t worry I’m not a hit man if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Wiley hadn’t thought any such thing until Alex said it. Now it worried him.
“You seem to know where you’re going,” said Alex fingering his phone, “but my smart phone says 78 to 287 to exit 30B.”
“Yes. I know where it is. I’ve just driven past it a bunch of times. Actually, my high school’s prom is being held there tomorrow night in one of the ball rooms. It’s that time of year, you know.”
“I suppose it is. Are you looking forward to it?”
“I’m not going.”
“It’s not the sort of thing I go in for – and I’m not really a dancer.”
“I think you’re telling me you don’t have a date.”
“Did you ask anyone?”
“These are very depressing questions and I wish you’d stop asking them.”
“Wiley, I was a lot like you: a real zero in high school.”
“Dude, you do remember that I’m doing you a favor.”
“For which I intend to compensate you.”
“I don’t want money for this.”
“I wasn’t going to offer it.”
“Then what…? Never mind. But you went to your prom anyway, I suppose is your point.”
“No I didn’t and it isn’t,” said Alex. “I never dated at all in high school. I deserved a cover photo on Entertainment Meekly. Plenty of my classmates should have been inside. I’ve always thought that the least realistic aspect of teen movies is all the romantic drama. There are always a handful whose lives are exciting that way, of course, but for most teens their high school years are just not very interesting. That includes prom attendees who by and large are suffering through an awfully awkward evening.”
“Now I’m even gladder I’m not going. It sounds like it still bothers you though.”
“High school always will bother you. They are key years but when I got my diploma I felt it just documented my waste of all four of them. I skipped college to escape more of the same, and my life began to get interesting.”
“You finally got a date?”
“Yes, but beyond that. You don’t need college to become a cultured person. Often it gets in the way.”
“So you’re arguing against college as well as prom?”
“I’m not arguing against either. It depends on what sort of person you are or want to be. And what you’re willing to risk to get there. I signed up for an international security agency and self-educated. I even read some of the books I was supposed to have read in high school.”
“Does that mean you were a security guard and read at your desk when you were supposed to be doing rounds?” asked Wiley who was irked by the trend of this conversation.
“Wiley, my boy, you can be passive-aggressive. Well, that’s something, I suppose. No, ‘mercenary’ better conveys the nature of the job than “security guard.” There was down-time when I wasn’t being shot at. I made a lot of contacts in remote and unstable parts of the world – contacts valuable to a person with flexible scruples. When my contract was up made use of them: gun sales, money laundering, gold smuggling, and so on.”
“You’re messing with me, right?”
“Not at all. Mind you, I don’t recommend you follow my career path. It requires a particular temperament and usually leads to an early death. I was fortunate to make enough to retire and smart enough to quit then.”
“I don’t think there is any risk I’ll emulate you,” said Wiley.
“Such is my impression. So, I won’t pass along my contacts to you.”
“Fine by me. Um…this big meeting I’m driving you to… it isn’t some criminal smuggling enterprise to which I’m now an accessory?”
Alex smiled. “It is not, and I’m not wanted by the law in this country. My appointment is with two young ladies.”
Alex smiled. “It is not, and I’m not wanted by the law in this country. My appointment is with two young ladies.”
“I gather you mean I’m esthetically too old. In another 25 years you might reevaluate your adjective. Besides, you are making assumptions.”
Wiley leaned against his door as the Civic navigated the curve of the exit ramp onto Maple Avenue. The hotel lay directly ahead. He turned right into the hotel driveway and pulled up to the main entrance.
“Well, here you are,” said Wiley. Good luck on your… um… meeting. It’s been different.”
“Park in one of the spaces over there and come upstairs. Just for a few minutes. I guarantee you won’t regret it.”
“No, sir. I’m sorry, but this has been weird and I think I’m done.” The remark by Alex about assumptions brought another possibility to mind. “Besides, Dude, I’m straight.”
“Don’t be so definitive at your age, but that’s not an issue. There really is someone I want you to meet who won’t challenge your pose in that regard.”
“No, I have to get home. I told my mom I’d be back by six.”
“Call your mom and say you’ll be late. That’s what cell phones are for.”
“I can’t call her at work and she’s working late.” He had no idea why he had revealed this information. He knew he needed to be more cautious with people he didn’t trust.
“So you really don’t have to get home by six. Stop complaining and come on up. I’m not luring you into an abandoned warehouse. This is an upmarket hotel. You’ll be quite safe.”
With his manhood called unsubtly into question, Wiley pulled in to a parking space. He hoped that Alex would exit so that he could lock the door behind him and be on his way, but Alex showed no signs of moving until Wiley stepped out of his own door. Wiley derided himself for not simply ordering the man out of the car. He derided himself more as he accompanied Alex into the hotel and got on the elevator. He needed to get better at confrontation: something for which he effectively had been chided as a child. When the elevator started to rise it was not the movement that made him feel queasy in his stomach. As they exited the elevator and walked down the hall, Wiley was acutely aware of the distinct hotel aroma from the products used by the cleaning crews.
“Don’t look so apprehensive,” said Alex as he slid the key card and opened the door to his suite.
Two women sat watching TV from arm chairs flanking a round coffee table. One was a thirtyish ash blonde in a smart businesslike attire. She clicked off the TV with the remote as Alex and Wiley entered. The second was a long-haired brunette decade or so younger, extraordinarily attractive, and dressed somewhere in between informal and trashy. She sipped from a wine glass. An open bottle of zinfandel was on the coffee table. Wiley could see the age spread was much too narrow to be mother and daughter, but Wiley wondered if they were stepmother and daughter.
“Hey Alex, where have you been? We’ve been lonely,” said the younger.
“I’ll bet,” said Alex. “There is someone I want you to meet. Ophelia and Ariel, this is Wiley. He kindly gave me a lift.”
Unsure what to make of the situation Wiley simply answered, “Interesting names.”
“Well, each is Shakespearean in her own way,” said Alex.
“Thank you, I think,” said Ariel.
“Nice to meet the both of you,” said Wiley. He was no more comfortable than he had been on the walk up. “Well, have to be going. I’m pressed for time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Alex. “You’ve done me a service and I don’t leave debts unpaid. How old are you Ariel?”
Wiley knew that the question meant Ariel was not Alex’ daughter, a possibility he already had re-categorized as low.
“Ariel, I’m not carding you for that wine glass,” said Alex. “Honestly, how old are you?”
“That’s what I thought. Did you enjoy your prom, Ariel?”
“Never went. I dropped out of high school.”
“Well then we can save the experience for both of you. You’re going tomorrow night with Wiley, if that’s OK with you. It’s being held downstairs.”
“So long as I’m on the clock.”
“Of course. I’m leaving for New York tomorrow morning but the room is paid through the day after tomorrow. The limo will be at your service for tomorrow, if you wish to use it. Wiley, you can pick up Ariel here at this door and before then you can reach her on the room phone if necessary.”
“Well, that’s great, Alex,” said a bewildered Wiley, “and Ariel, you’re just amazing. But I don’t have a tux and doesn’t Ariel need a dress?”
“I’ll take care of Ariel’s needs. And I’ll have a tux in the room here for you. I have good sense of your size,” said Alex.
“But you know,” said Wiley. “I can’t actually dance. I’ve never… well… had the need.”
“Ariel, before the prom tomorrow, show him some dance moves. You don’t need to be Fred and Ginger.”
“Never mind. He doesn’t need to be good. Just let him get through the damn prom without too much embarrassment. Besides, everyone will be looking at you anyway.”
“Again: thanks, I think,” she said.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Wiley of Alex. “This is insanely over the top for a car ride.” He looked over at the silent Ophelia for some indication of what was going on, but he couldn’t read her expression.
“You are prying open the mouth of the gift horse, Wiley,” answered Alex. “Never mind why. Just show up here tomorrow early enough for Ariel to get you into shape.”
“I don’t know what to say,” said Wiley.
“Say goodbye. We’re done here. See? You’re alive and unmolested. Ariel, walk him to his car. Get to know him a little, and then come back.”
“Right. I’ll be back,” she said over her shoulder to Alex as she accompanied Wiley out the door.
The door closed behind them.
“Ophelia?” asked the woman Alex had called by that name. “You should give me warning before springing a name like that on me. Why Ophelia? Do I seem crazy to you?”
“It’s just the first name that came to mind after I introduced Ariel.”
“Wiley is pretty naïve but he must know she’s a hooker by now. He probably thinks I’m one too.”
“Well, I couldn’t very well tell him you’re a private detective, could I? Besides, what does it matter what he thinks?”
“I suppose it doesn’t. Doesn’t it bother you out that you and he both…I mean with Ariel.”
“OK.” She shook her head, sighed, and pulled a hand-written invoice from a jacket pocket. She handed it to Alex. “Are you going to settle up now?” she asked. “I added some extra expenses – you told me not to be cheap if I needed to grease a few palms. Wiley’s math teacher was sure I was up to something very funky when I bribed him to send Wiley to the college, and he demanded more money at the last minute than we’d first agreed. I assumed you would be OK with it.”
Alex glanced at the bill. “Hefty, but you assumed correctly. Do you want cash or gold?”
“You carry around gold?” she asked.
“Just a handful of one-ounces.”
“I’ve never been paid in gold before. Lay it on me.”
“I’ll have to make up the last few hundred in C-notes, unless you have change, said Alex.”
“I don’t. Gold and a smidgen of cash will be fine. I gather he’s your son.”
“So the DNA indicates.”
“OK, I wasn’t going to do this but I have to ask. Why don’t you tell him? Why all this intrigue and expense over a stupid prom and a working girl? Why not just leave him your money like other rich parents?”
“For very good reasons. One: He is happy with the family he thinks is his so there is no reason to rock the boat for any of them. Two: I want to do something special for him that is extravagant. Three: I want to limit my extreme indulgence to a single occasion because I intend to live long enough to spend every last dime on myself and bounce the check to mortuary.”
“I took the job, finished it, and accepted payment so I suppose I’m in no position to judge. But Alex?”
“If you also have a daughter and plan something special for her, hire another detective.”