“There are no coincidences in life. What person that wandered in and out of your life was there for some purpose, even if they caused you harm. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense the short periods of time we get with people, or the outcomes from their choices. [ . . . ] Nothing is too small to be a mistake.”
― Shannon L. Alder
“Hey, are you okay?”
William jumped nearly a foot in the air when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He whirled around in his chair to see Bernie – no, Reggie, that was it (he was still learning everyone’s names). His coworker was standing by the desk, looking concerned.
“Ah! I, er, what?” William stammered, flushing hard and trying to steady his breathing.
The corner of Reggie’s mouth tugged upward. “Tough first day, huh?”
William stared at him wildly. “What?” How could he have known? Was he in on it, too?
Reggie gestured at the entrance to the office. “I noticed your clients didn’t come back with you. They bailed on you guys, huh? Decided they ‘weren’t ready for such a big step’ or some nonsense?”
It took William a moment to figure out what Reggie was talking about – or rather, what he wasn’t talking about.
“Oh!” William said, failing to hide his relief. “Yes, something like that. I’m not sure of the details, M-Marie did most of the talking . . . ”
He trailed off as he glanced into her clear-windowed, closed-off office. She was standing, talking on the phone.
Reggie followed his gaze. “Marie can be tough, but she’s the best,” he said easily. “You’re lucky to have her train you.” He grimaced. “I had this old guy – probably the last house he ever sold was to the Flintstones.”
William let out a laugh because it seemed appropriate, but he still stared at Marie.
“So what did happen? Which house did you show them?” Reggie asked. “Was it one of the mansions on Third and Ninth? Those are a hard sell.”
“Yeah . . . Yeah, it was a mansion,” William said slowly. He looked back up at Reggie. “Out in the country. By the train tracks.”
He watched his coworker’s face closely. But Reggie only blinked. “Really?” he said. “Odd location. No wonder they didn’t go for it.”
William sighed and slumped back into his chair. “Yeah.”
“Anything else wrong with it?”
A mysterious key . . . an ominous glow . . . the couple never coming back out . . .
William suppressed a shudder. “Yes. No. I don’t know. It was old, I guess.” He didn’t want to think about it.
Reggie seemed to mistake William’s fear for embarrassment. “Don’t worry, newbie,” he said kindly. “Everyone has their bad days. It’ll get better.”
He gave William a thumbs up that was only half-heartedly returned, and then went back to his own desk.
William glanced at Marie’s office again. She was still on the phone, talking animatedly with whomever was on the other line. She didn’t look perturbed that the couple hadn’t returned, even though it had been hours. It was almost like this kind of thing happened all the time.
He watched her for a little while longer, then reached for his cellphone. He was gonna need a drink after today.
* * * * * * * * * *
“LET’S ALL MEET @ THE BAR ON ROSEMEAD BY THE BBQ PLACE!! @ 6 SHARP! LAST ONE THERE PAYS!!!”
Why had he agreed to six o’clock, why? He hadn’t even left the office until 5:30, and now he was in this huge crowd waiting for the stupid crosswalk sign. It was rush hour, even for pedestrians – he’d never get there on time. William scooted around the edges of the pack to peer at the other street. Maybe he could zigzag across . . . or jaywalk . . .
The light turned green and people began moving, nearly leaving William behind. Walking quickly to catch up, he was about to try to make his way to the front of the crowd, when they passed by an alleyway and William thought he saw the barbecue restaurant’s sign in the distance. He stopped at the edge of alley, rising on his tiptoes. Yes, it was the restaurant! Well then, he’d just take a shortcut through the alleyways and so probably make it on time, maybe even be early.
It was much darker and quieter in the alley than the street, but William was too distracted to really pay attention. He was peeved at Dorothy for making such ultimatums in the first place. Last one there having to pay . . . He was the one who’d had a bad day, after all – and it was his first time at the new agency to boot! He had thought for sure that would get him a free drink from somebody.
William suddenly noticed that he could no longer see the end of the alleyway, nor the barbecue sign. Worse, there was a rotting wooden fence blocking his path forward. He frowned at it and whirled around, even more frustrated. He must’ve made a wrong turn . . .
He stopped dead.
There was a man standing there in the middle of the alley, blocking William’s way. He wore a black motorcycle suit and a ski mask that was halfway pulled up over his face, exposing a bearded mouth.
William dropped his briefcase. “Oh god, oh god, oh god . . . ” he began to moan. How stupid he had been to come this way! A dark alley was of course going to be full of muggers – or worse. “Please don’t hurt me, I’ll give you whatever you want!”
“Hold out your palm.”
As he was trying to not immediately burst into tears, William wasn’t sure he’d heard the stranger correctly. “What?”
The man snapped his fingers, and three more masked people parted from the shadows. Another man and a woman went to stand behind William, and a second woman stood next to the first man. They all were carrying rifles.
If William had actually eaten that day, he would vomited right then and there. As it was, he was absurdly glad to be wearing dark blue pants. But then, why did it matter? He was about to get killed. His knees buckled, and he fell to the ground. “Please . . . ” he moaned.
“Hold out your palm,” the first stranger said again, coming right up to William’s trembling form.
“I-I don’t have any cash, b-but I’m sure w-we c-can – ” He nearly screamed when the man and woman behind him suddenly pointed their guns at him.
“Hold out your palm.”
This time, William didn’t hesitate and held up both his hands. He kept his eyes on the ground.
He felt the stranger take his left hand and examine his palm with cold, long fingers. William could barely breathe. Then the man roughly tossed William’s hand down and stepped away. Startled, now he did look up.
“Nothing,” the stranger snarled. The others lowered their guns. He pointed at William. “Don’t you work for Vasquez & Jones?”
William stared. “Vasquez & Jones?”
“The real estate agency!” He moved swiftly closer again and grabbed William by his jacket, nearly hoisting him to his feet. “Do you work there?”
“Y-yes!” William squeaked. “I just started today! I’m new! Please don’t – “
But the man had already released William, who crashed to the ground on his backside.
“Waste of time,” the stranger growled. He snapped his fingers again, and his comrades walked away from William and disappeared back into the alley’s shadows.
“What’s going on?” William cried, even though he knew he was tempting fate. He was horribly lucky that he hadn’t just been murdered in cold blood, but why did these miscreants care where he worked? Why had they wanted to see his palm? “Who are you?”
The man merely smirked at him, and then he too faded into blackness, leaving William alone in the alley.
He slowly got to his feet, trembling all over. His briefcase was covered in filth, he noticed as he retrieved it. So was he . . . among other things . . . But otherwise, he was unharmed, if thoroughly shaken and confused.
They had clearly been after something, and that something must be connected with the agency. William had the horrible feeling it had to do with the incident with the couple this morning.
Carefully backtracking his way out of the alleys (he no longer cared about being late), William found himself back on the street once more, which was still packed and noisy. He followed the crowds meekly from street to street, feeling both numb and utterly relieved to be alive.
He wondered briefly why they hadn’t just killed him anyway for their trouble. After all, he could just go to the police and report the incident. They had been wearing masks, true, but still . . .
William stopped outside the bar. Through the foggy windows, he could see his friends at a table, already drinking and laughing. And as he might have suspected, there was a tall, untouched pint of beer in front of an empty chair, waiting for him.
He knew why that stranger had let him go. It was the same reason that William would enter the bar and explain his disheveled, disgusting appearance by making up a wild story about nearly getting run over by a taxi, or maybe a bike rider had knocked him into the gutter. He couldn’t tell them the truth.
No one would believe him.
These prompts are so weird. Maybe it’s the logician in me – or the realist – but I can’t see anybody just forking over their palm to a complete stranger in a dark alley. So I tied this story to an earlier one – and I think it works quite well! Still doesn’t make much sense, but hey, it’s fiction~ *jazz hands*
Want to do the challenge yourself? Today’s prompt is: “You’re walking home from work one night and taking shortcuts through a labyrinth of dark city alleyways to meet someone on time. Suddenly, a stranger parts the shadows in front of you, comes close, and asks you to hold out your palm. You oblige.”