Short Story Saturday: Norb Vonnegut
I’ll try again tomorrow.
Phoebe sat at the kitchen table, afternoon shadows sweeping the room, rambling thoughts her only companion. She had not bothered with the overhead lights. She was too busy warming up and savoring her cup of coffee—one sugar, heaps of cream, piping hot the way she liked it.
Tired or not, at sixty-six Phoebe was enjoying retirement. Sure, there were times when she missed teaching. She loved her eighth graders, even when they got out of hand.
But truth be told—retirement gave her more time to shop. Daily opportunities to spoil her grandson rotten. Too bad today’s Christmas expedition ended in defeat.
Bam, bam, bam came the knock at Phoebe’s door, reverberating through her modest home like angry thunder. The pounding burst a cache of happy memories that could have lasted well past her afternoon coffee.
I have a doorbell, you know.
Phoebe cracked open the front entry, leaving the heavy chain in place. Crazy things were always happening in her neighborhood. And it paid to be careful. She eyed two men, their suits rumpled, their ties loose. They reminded her of Jack Webb and Harry Morgan from the old Dragnet series.
“May I help you?” Phoebe asked.
“I’m Agent Fletcher, and this is Agent Dixon.”
He even sounds like Jack Webb.
Both men flashed their badges, and Fletcher added, “We’re with the FBI.”
“Is something wrong?” she asked, immediately forgetting the assault on her front door.
“Are you Phoebe Anne Jenkins?” asked Fletcher. “Mother of Todd Jenkins?”
“Is my son okay?” She grew anxious in that fraction of a second.
“He’s fine, ma’am.”
“Oh, thank goodness.”
“We have a search warrant. Will you let us in?”
“What’s this about?” Phoebe stammered, unhooking the latch.
“We’re asking the questions,” snapped Fletcher. “Were you at the Staples on Tuckahoe Road this morning?”
Dixon’s eyes darted round the room, soaking in the family photos. It was like he needed to touch everything in sight.
“Why, yes.” She was growing more alarmed by the second. “How do you know?”
“What was the nature of your visit?”
“Nature of my visit,” Phoebe echoed, thinking cop talk sounded very serious indeed. “I was looking for my grandson’s Christmas present. Have you seen the toy helicopter that Staples is advertising?”
“Did you speak with the manager?” Fletcher asked, ignoring the choppers.
“I asked him for help.”
“Help, Ms. Jenkins?”
“It’s Mrs., may the lord rest my husband’s soul. And the manager told me they were ‘sold out,’ Officer Fletcher.”
“It’s Agent Fletcher.”
“The store received one-hundred-and-fifty helicopters last week,” she said, trying to be helpful. “That means they’re selling twenty-one a day.”
“Did you tell your son?”
“But you planned to tell him?” persisted the agent.
“What’s this got to do with Todd?”
“We’re asking the questions,” Fletcher repeated. “Did your son pay for this info?”
“Why would he do that?” Phoebe felt herself growing defensive.
“Did you proceed to the Staples on Central Avenue?”
“They were sold out, too,” she confirmed.
“What were you doing at the Staples in Scarsdale?” pressed Fletcher. “That’s three in one day.”
“My grandson will be heartbroken if he doesn’t get that helicopter. But Scarsdale was sold out. Can you believe it?”
“Right,” acknowledged Fletcher in an odd tone, somewhere between empathetic and scoffing.
“Is Todd in some kind of trouble?”
“Do you have any receipts?” he asked, plowing forward, indifferent to her question.
“I told you. The helicopters were sold out. Central Ave. sold two hundred since Monday, and Scarsdale another two fifty over the last eight days.”
“Smells like channel checks.” Fletcher exchanged glances with Dixon, his face knowing, his voice full of accusation.
“Channel checks?” Phoebe wanted to help these men. They were FBI after all. But she didn’t like them. Not one bit. “I was looking for a toy. Not a television.”
“This is classic mosaic theory.”
“What’s this got to do with art projects?” she asked. “I was trying to get the skinny on helicopters.”
“You’re good,” Fletcher said, the cynicism clear in his voice. “No wonder your son’s hedge fund is so successful.”
“I still don’t understand what you want from me.”
“The game’s over,” he growled.
“You’re feeding inside info to your son,” charged Fletcher. “Numbers from one store. Numbers from another. They don’t sound like much. But put them together, and they add up to an unfair trading advantage. Did the employees say anything else about their store sales?”
“Just what I told you. They can’t keep those helicopters on the shelves.”
Dixon was holding a framed photo of Phoebe’s grandson.
“Can’t you please tell me what’s wrong?” she pleaded, snagging her grandson’s black-and-white from the agent’s hand.
“Let me paint the picture,” Fletcher barked with Jack Webb’s staccato inflection. “Your son runs a hedge fund—”
“He’s good at math,” she interrupted.
“You spent the last four hours at three different stores. You didn’t buy a thing. No receipts. Zip. But you spoke to the manager at each one. My agents say you were asking all kinds of questions. You’re throwing around inventory numbers left and right. And we think something’s rotten.”
“Oh my lord,” Phoebe exhaled. “Were you following me?”
“Let me ask you something,” demanded Fletcher, pouring it on now. “You like to shop, right?”
“What else is there to do?”
“She’s probably working for one of those ‘expert network’ rings,” observed Dixon, pursing his lips and shaking his head left to right.
“What ring?” Phoebe was confused.
“You’re an industry specialist,” Fletcher charged. “You better level with us. It’ll go a lot easier for you. And your son.”
“Tell me what to do,” she gasped, fear taking over, her voice rising. “I’ll cooperate. Anything.”
“Does your son pay you for this info?”
“He takes me to lunch.”
“Hah! I knew it,” the agent triumphed. “Do you use email?”
“Okay that’s it,” Fletcher said, turning to Dixon. “Get the team in here now.”
Dixon hustled to the front door, full of purpose. Things were heating up. He whistled all loud and screechy through his front teeth. He signaled for reinforcements with his index finger.
A dozen FBI agents swarmed through Phoebe’s house. Armed with cardboard boxes, they packed up her computer and her answering machine. One agent—a young, earnest, living ad for talcum powder—snagged a takeout menu from her kitchen.
“I think we’ve got something here,” he informed Fletcher. “There are phone numbers scrawled next to the Hunan beef.”
Phoebe was stunned, speechless, her eyes wider than the saucer holding her cup of coffee.
“You need to come with us,” instructed Fletcher. “We’re taking you to White Plains for more questions.”
“May I get my shoes?” she asked, her voice listless, her demeanor beaten and zombie like. “My purse, too?”
“Go get them,” Fletcher instructed Dixon. “Make sure she’s not hiding anything.”