Another pick-up tonight in a bar. How original. Just once I’d like the Boss to send me some place unique. Like the frozen foods aisle at the supermarket, or the drama/theater section of a bookstore. Instead I’m always in places where it’s too dark to see what the person you’re flirting with looks like. It’s where the men that we pick up do their most despicable work. I think they like going back to their roots. Before they were powerful and it was more of a challenge felt like more of a game. The organization got a tip on his location and one of our members has been tailing him for months and giving me detailed reports on his movements and habits. To prepare for the pick-up. This area is the hip city center where the fanciest hotels are located, and for this man it equals a high-class female buffet.
Usually how it works is someone will contact the Boss’s partner in the police department, but in really rare cases someone might contact her directly, which is infinitely more difficult since we don’t exactly sprinkle out our business cards like fairy dust. This man’s last girlfriend had nowhere to turn after what he did to her and knew that nobody would believe her if she went public. This man is fairly well-known in contemporary literary circles. I devoured all three of his short story collections before all this happened. Now the books are shoved in the darkest corner of one of my bookshelves collecting dust while I debate on whether or not to keep them. Luckily this woman got into contact with our organization, and it’s times like this I know that what I do is worth the pain it causes.
It’s only ten after five, but the sky is colored like a late night and patched with inky clouds. I’ve only got an hour before I have to make contact with Mona who’s in charge of making the drop. The author’s already seated by the enormous champagne fridge when I descend to the basement. Based on the reports, he’s usually got a gaggle of admirers around him to whom he can pontificate - and probably fuck a couple of them afterward - but today he is holding the red-headed bartender hostage in order to impress her with the champagne brands he keeps at his place. Redhead works at a few different bars in the city. We don’t know each other’s names but she’s helped our organization coordinate several pick-ups. Pick-ups are my job in the organization. It means I have to establish contact with men like the author and get him to members like Mona who make drops. I’m only half of the operation, but I have to act, manipulate, and be absolutely precise in my timing. Any mistakes and we lose our target and risk destroying the whole organization.
Across the room, I lock eyes with Redhead and she lays a menu in front of the empty stool next to my target. He iss only half-sitting on the stool, one leg touching the floor. It’s supposed to convey confidence, but more likely it’s him trying to elongate himself and conceal how short he really is. I wriggle onto the stool next to the author and slouch into a meek little lump as if I’m chilly. The author likes timid women so I’m told. The ones with no confidence until he convinces them that his attentions are their validation.
My symptoms start as soon as I’ve sat down next to him. It begins with a pressure in the upper middle of my chest. The first time it happened I thought it was either an anxiety attack or a stroke. Then a tingling sensation in my fingers and in the back of my neck, the kind everyone has when they pick something up without using their regular five senses. The pressure gets worse and it’s a struggle to draw breath and appear normal. Sometimes there’s a brief wave of nausea - more than passing this time. Luckily my shudders looked like a brief chill in the air.
His eyes are locked on to the side of my face. Hemust have started tingling when he realized there was another vagina in the room. I pretend to scan the cocktail menu and try to ignore a minute throbbing in the back of my head. That’s new. The author’s not bothering to hide his staring so I offer a hesitant smile. The pain in the back of my head gets stronger.
“What can I get for you?” Redhead is relieved I’m here.
“I don’t know,” I try to sound distressed as I turn to the author. “Do you have a recommendation?”
You’d think I’d asked to go down on him right there from the look on his face. “Do you like sweet or spicy?”
“Both.” I giggle as if I can’t believe I’m flirting.
“I’m sure you like it strong too.” He slid the menu from my hands and tapped something on the list. “Don’t look, it’s more fun when you have to guess.”
There’s a procedure when my pick-ups try to ply me with drinks. The accomplice puts in all the ingredients so it looks like a normal cocktail, then floats a layer of alcohol on top. It smells strong, but it’s not enough for me to get soused. If pain was a flashing light; that’s what the back of my head feels like, and the closer he gets the worse the pain. I’m dreading what will happen when his hand makes contact with my bare wrist. But I have to let him. I’m not like the other members in the organization. I can see what the men have done. I’ve had this ability for the last six years but I’m never prepared for that sudden assault on my senses. It’s like watching a grainy 35mm film. It’s feeling it too. Feeling someone’s racing panic and adrenaline, your throat raw with their screams, or feeling your limbs go numb and knowing they weren’t able to fight back when it was happening to them. He couldn’t see the traces of his crimes, lingering behind him.
I could see him leaning over his girlfriend. Her face was contorted in fear. She was fighting him off and she was stronger than he’d expected. A strong push had almost knocked him off balance. But before she got to her feet, he jammed both her arms under his knees, seized her head and smacked it three times against the floor until the pain and dizziness made her go limp. It was so efficiently done. With no need for force, he lay across her as if he were stretching out on a sleeping bag.
I want to ram my barstool into his miserable face. The Boss tells me I should simply redirect that rage to my job. We’re doing important work. It’s easy for her to say when she only has to read or hear about what these men have done. Until you’re forced to see it, you have no idea how close to impossible it is to even take a breath when your chest feels like it’s splitting in two and you want to crush the man in front of you into dust. But you still have to play a part. So I flutter my eyelashes and thank him for paying. He winks and waves Redhead over to bring me another drink even though I’ve barely made a dent in the first and there’s still forty five minutes before I’ve got to get this scum sucker in the right condition for the drop.
Fifteen minutes to go before we’ve got to go outside and I’m leaning on the bar looking tipsy. It’s not hard to fake with the throbbing in the back of my head. He toyed with the edge of my sleeve. He looked relaxed, but I could see him observing me, wondering how many more drinks it would take before I went limp. “Let’s go out for some air.” One of his fingers had found its way under my sleeve.
“Should we go somewhere else?”
“Forget it, my liquor cabinet at home is better stocked than any other place in the city.” He perked up, pretending to be struck by an idea. “Would you like to come over for a drink? I mix fantastic cocktails.”
Some valuable advice for pick-ups that the Boss gave me is to look grateful that the man chose you. It’ll make them all hot and heavy for you and therefore easier to manipulate. “I’d love to.”
Too easy.I’m sure both of us are thinking it. He helps me with my coat and threads his fingers through mine as he leads us up the stairs. The symptoms start again. My chest tightens, then I have the sensation that every organ wants to collapse on itself. Something is different. The outline of a broad body over an inert figure on a bed. My knees buckle at the rush of pain, pulsing and raw between my legs.
I’d been unconscious when it happened to me and when I woke up the next day my brain had decided that whatever it was still innocent, despite the fact that I’d passed out fully clothed and woken up naked. When I looked behind the figure, I saw a pile of scattered clothes and the bunched undershirt. The one I’d found the next day covered in a white crust that smelled faintly of ammonia. It had been shoved under a table to hide the evidence. Even then I’d done nothing.
My heart was going to crack. Explode in two The idea of collapsing on the stairs right there and not moving was suddenly appealing.
“Hey there, you alright?”
Focus. That’s never happened before. I’ve worked so hard to keep it under control, it can’thappen now. We’re in the lobby and I’m frozen by the doors. Hopefully my giggle doesn’t sound as pained as I think. “I’m tipsier than I thought.” Oh the hungry look on his face. I could drive an elbow into his gut and drop him to the floor right here.
“We’ll get a taxi.”
Mona’s car swings a sharp turn past the hotel entrance right on cue. I hurry down the steps and flag her down.
“Thirsty girl,” he chuckles as we slide into the back seats. His arm is around me.
“Finally!” Mona turns around and hands me a little bag. “What the hell took you so long? I circled the block three times!”
The beloved author doesn’t get to respond because I give him an almighty chop to the carotid. He crumbles onto me like an old plaster wall. Mona swings onto a dark street and I fumble the syringe out of the bag she handed me. It’s clumsy work in near darkness. Mona’s my usual point of contact, she’s responsible for delivering the targets and we both take timing very seriously.
“Give it some gas! The drop is in ten minutes!”
“I can’t get his sleeve up!”
“Then use your imagination!”
The injection doesn’t go in his arm, but they say it goes into the bloodstream faster when you do it there. He should be out cold for a good five or six hours.
“Wonderful. Get out.” I’ve barely shut the door when Mona burns rubber down the street, panicked about missing drop.
I wait until there are less people around and walk a few streets before I get into a real cab. I get out two blocks before my apartment and walk the rest of the way back. I need the cool air to clear my spinning head.
There’s no clock in at nine, clock out at five in our line of work. At OrgCC You come in after a pick-up to debrief the boss, and you come when there’s a new one to be made. There’s no casual Fridays, or team-building exercises, or company holiday parties. The location is not a secret subterranean lair. It’s off of a main thoroughfare on the third floor of a building. The bottom floor is a deli and the second is the apartment for the deli owner. If some of our pick-ups could see us during debriefs. A group of highly trained women who spend their nights locking wrists and karate chopping throats, hell bent on taking down every predator they can, all sitting around a conference table annihilating pretzel bagel sandwiches squidging with cream cheese. OrgCC sounds like a high-end cosmetic company and some of us used to refer to it as “Creeper Catchers.” We stopped when the Boss finally told us that the Cs were for her daughter whose body was found by the side of a highway one summer night twelve years ago. The crime was never solved, although they always suspected her boyfriend. She and her husband (our police contact) decided to form OrgCC instead.
The conference table is already spread with the mixed bagel assortment and spreads from downstairs, plus two giant carafes beside them. The conference room is empty except for Mona. She nurses a black coffee and swings gently back and forth in a rolling chair.
“You were supposed to be here at ten.” “I overslept. Where is everyone?” “Boss needs more time. Like you.” “I’m sorry about last night.”
“Sorry wouldn’t have been good enough if I’d missed the drop.” “Is he awake?”
“Probably. I’m sure he thinks he’s been arrested for tax evasion. They always think it’s for a financial crime.” Mona sets her cup down and peers at the ragged puffs of skin under my eyes. “You’re overworked.”
“You’re a vegan.”
“You can’t control it when you’re tired. I know you saw yourself, that’s why you didn’t sleep.” “A little milk in your coffee won’t kill your stomach.”
“I’m serious! Another mistake like last night could seriously cost us!”
“Leave it alone.” Mona is geared up for a fight, but I don’t have the energy. I concentrate on spreading a vegetable cream cheese on my bagel, while Mona glares at me. “What’s the meeting about?”
“She’s finishing up some paperwork for the new hire. My favorite second cousin as it happens.”
“You have that many?” I ask through a gargantuan bite.
Mona takes a slug of coffee and ignores me. “The boss wants to train her to make drops like me.” She must’ve seen my wounded expression through my next bite. “Don’t worry, it’s not the end for us.”
After thirty minutes exactly, the boss emerges from the back office followed by another woman holding a stapled bunch of papers. She is medium height with dark brown hair and dusty brown skin like someone who plays in the sun a lot. As they come closer, I see she the tip of her nose is upturned and it makes her look like an antique doll. It’s endearing and very distinctive. Too distinctive to be doing pick-ups like me. The day I was hired, the Boss told me she wanted me to do pick-ups because I looked average. Apparently people are less inclined to stand up for, or notice you if they can’t say “What a shame that happened. She’s so beautiful!”
The symptoms hit me all of a sudden. The pressure at the center of my chest. Then a tingling so strong my limbs feel like they’re buzzing. Then wave on wave of nausea. All of my insides feel like they’ve been looped with a string and pulled taut. It gets stronger as she gets closer, and when she looks in my direction, I can see that it was that cute, upward swoop to her nose that triggered the catcalls.
Such a tiny detail, but they thought it was hilarious and called her banana beak and asked if her nose was an extra in the ‘Jaws’ movies. She ignored them. They started following her, making bird noises. Then she was running and they pursued, one of them humming the theme to ‘Jaws.’ They ended up in a parking lot where there were only three cars and no other people in sight. It happened under a streetlight, and when both were finished, they ran off, leaving her in a heap where she trembled for hours until she finally had the courage to stand. But she was still too scared to walk to her car.
I don’t realize I’ve fallen out of the vision until I look at her again. Her face swims in and out of focus. Everything sounds like it’s underwater. Then the girl gives me her hand and as she pulls me up, it’s like a light being switched off. I feel normal again. More than I have in years. She looks at me as if I floated down from the clouds and waved a magic wand at her.
“Go home.” My Boss’s low command. She and Mona look shaken.
“But, the debriefing?”
“Go. Now. Rest, eat some real food, call your family, but stay away. I’ll call you next week.” Mona is still staring at me, wide-eyed as I scurry away to grab my coat.
“Wait!” Her cousin thuds down the hall after me. “How did you know about everything?”
“You must have, you told me. And a lot of other things I didn’t understand. But I felt different after you said them. Lighter somehow.” She still has that look of wonder on her face.
“I need to go home.” I feel nauseous again.
“Yeah get some rest, we can talk another time. We’re working together now.” She manages a smile and pats my arm. This time my senses stay quiet. No feeling except for the brief warmth that comes with concerned, unsullied physical contact. I need sleep. Another day might bring me the explanations I need.
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I really like the concept! The characters are really interesting, and I like the idea of your main character's abilities. Feels like the start to a larger piece to expand on everything.