Chapter 4: Wading Further Into Plum’s Shadowy World.
Plum was treating me to a lavish lunch for the hundredth time when I finally worked up the nerve to ask how she supported herself. Curiosity overcame any qualms I felt about asking such a personal question. I half expected Plum to get angry.
She just laughed and gave me a sly look. Plum motioned for me to come closer. I leaned forward eagerly. She looked around with exaggerated care before leaning across the table. My mind raced ahead, trying to predict what type of illicit activity she would describe. Plum smiled wryly.
“I trade in information darling. You might say I’m an information broker,” she murmured.
The answer caught me off guard. I sat back, trying to wrap my brain around it while Plum’s almond-shaped eyes searched my bewildered face. The blank, uncomprehending look sent her into gales of laughter. Plum’s glossy mane fell forward and she flicked it back over her shoulder, shaking her head in wonderment. I had been given the can-anyone-be-that-naïve look a thousand times and refused to let it put me off.
“What kind of information do you deal in? Are you talking about blackmail-worthy secrets,” I asked.
“Sometimes but not always. There are many different kinds of information. Knowledge of any sort is power.”
I was more confused than ever but her shrewd expression excited my interest. Plum had me in the palm of her hand and knew it. She just smiled and dug into her salad. I knew what that meant. I’d have to wheedle it out of her. Sometime between the main course and dessert she gave in to my relentless cross-examination.
I’m sure we made quite a picture; me staring with silver dollar eyes while Plum broke it down like a weary parent explaining why the sky was blue. She was an entrepreneur of sorts, running a private temp agency that supplied secretaries, clerks, maids and chauffeurs for the wealthy and well-to-do. At least, that’s what she reported to the IRS.
Plum had a veritable cornucopia of secret enterprises that never made it onto the books. I’m getting ahead of myself though. All of her temp employees were quietly efficient and blended into the background of their contracted employers’ homes and businesses. It’s amazing how many tidbits of information a well placed employee could pick up.
Plum knew more about business dealings that most Wall Street insiders. She also knew more about what really went on in most households than the inhabitants themselves. A bit of insider trading here a little blackmail there and viola, Plum was a very wealthy young woman.
What information couldn’t be gleaned from her circle of employees could be purchased from a network of contacts ranging from beauticians to owners of restaurants. Plum often bartered information for favors. You’d be surprised at the number of business owners who would have gotten their permits revoked after an honest inspection.
I know she sounds like a cold, calculating person. However, that’s not the way Plum came across in person. She could charm the skin off of a snake. She’ll favor you with one of her mischievous little grins and pepper sentences with girlish laughter that made everything seem like a private joke.
Maybe that’s why I accepted her story so readily. On the other hand, I wanted to be like Plum so badly that I could taste it. I wanted what she had. At that point, she could have claimed to make a living scamming retirement homes and I would have seriously considered joining her.
Hey, I’m not proud of it, but the life of decent, law-abiding piousness is part of what got me saddled in debt. I was sick of eating beans and lunch meat sandwiches for dinner. Do you know what it’s like to bump into old acquaintances who seem to have the world at their feet, knowing that you’ll be lucky to keep your head above water for another week?
How about when you go home and overhear your mother struggling to find something noteworthy about your life to share with her braggart friends? Every mom has at least one snooty friend who simply insists on chronically every moment of their prodigy child’s life. I always feel like such a failure listening to my mother come back with some feeble response when people ask about my career.
After all her high hopes and sacrifices, I hadn’t done anything notable with my life. Four years of college and I could barely pay the rent on my rundown apartment. The student loan sharks were circling ever closer, devouring each extra dollar I earned. I had gotten a real estate license to supplement my income. Somehow, it became my only source of income.
The college degree that I had worked so hard to earn did not seem to be worth the paper on which it was printed. It wouldn’t make any difference if I could somehow keep my failure a secret. I’ve known people who seem content to lie about being successful.
I’m sure you’ve known a few phonies; the people who put on airs, driving a new car that they can barely make payments on, getting fancy clothes and the latest smart phone on credit. It works for them because people seem to measure success by the number of things a person owns. That lifestyle wouldn’t work for me. Other people might be impressed, but every time I looked in the mirror the truth would stare back at me.
My mood had swung low and Plum must have sensed that I was ripe for the picking. When I’m depressed, my irrational side takes center stage. The curtain closes on my common sense and I’m like a different person. Things were destined to spin out of control this time because I was tired of playing it safe.
For once in my life I was going to take a chance. How much worse could things get? My job was stressing me out. None of the dozens of resumes that I sent out had garnered a single interview. Most companies weren’t even bothering to send me rejection letters. Those who did regretted to inform me that they were looking for someone with a higher degree or several years more experience than I could claim.
I felt trapped and time was passing. My biggest fear was that one day I would wake up and it would be too late to salvage my life. Every lackluster year that flew by after college seemed to mean three steps further away from the possibility of achieving my dreams. It felt like being backed into a corner. I was constantly re-assessing goals, adjusting and settling until self-sufficiency seemed to be an impossible dream.
Opportunity knocked and the idea that it might not come again pushed me over the brink of desperation. Selling those properties to Kenji had been a blessing and a curse. Now, Mr. Canfield expected me to unload more of his rundown properties.
If I didn’t sell something else soon, I was in danger of sliding back down to the bottom of the office pecking order. Real estate brokers who did not produce didn’t last long. Selling those properties only seemed to underscore my poor selling record up until that point.
Over lunch, Plum casually informed me that Kenji was pleased with his properties and wanted to know if I would be interested in making similar sales. I could scarcely contain my jubilation. Closing a couple more deals might be just the thing to get Mr. Canfield off of my back. Besides, nothing would please me more than to be able to wipe the smirks off of my co-workers’ faces. I’d show them that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
The waiter’s arrival put an end to the conversation. I practically had to stick a napkin in my mouth to stop myself from whimpering. Begging was not an option. Plum would only make me wait longer. Besides, I had a little bit of pride left. Not much but a few kernels.
After lunch, we stopped by Plum’s bank and she let me enter the vault with her to retrieve her safe deposit box. She wanted to get some jewelry out for a party she would be attending that night. My mouth dropped open at the sight of all the gorgeous pieces set with precious stones. There were rings and broaches, bracelets, necklaces and matching earrings. She even let me try on a couple of things.
That evening, remembered the way I looked in that jewelry. People would certainly treat me differently if I were adorned with bling like that. I fantasized about living a jet-set lifestyle. Plum appeared to have the magic key that I had been searching for all of my life. If she would help me then I knew I could achieve my dreams.
Of course, it was not going to be easy. Nothing worth having in life is ever easy. Once Plum had the hook in my mouth, she decided to let me twist in the wind a bit before reeling me in. She abruptly broke off all contact with me the next day.
She was waiting for me to come crawling to her. I hated her for trying to break what was left of my spirit. It wasn’t enough that I adored her and longed to be just like her. She wanted to underscore how empty and hardscrabble my life was without her.
With my anger to sustain me, it was relatively easy to resist calling her the first few days. I held out for several weeks, but it grew increasingly difficult with each passing day. Every time I got frustrated at work, the urge to pick up the phone was overwhelming.
People would look at my properties and pass or their credit would be so bad that no one would loan them enough money. Kenji called just when I thought Plum had completely abandoned me. He arranged to bring some of his friends by the office. At least she was serious about his interest, even if she wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t much but it made me hopeful that Plum would eventually call.
Kenji’s friends always came when the office was practically empty. I didn’t savor the thought of being alone with these men. Even Kenji with his jokes and laid back attitude sometimes gave me pause. They were all very polite but something about their eyes made me nervous. These were men whom you did not want to cross. Their versions of smiles never reached their cold, dead eyes.
I told myself that it was a figment of my overactive imagination. More than once, disquiet stole over me. My nerves jangled when they were around but I carried on with one transaction after another. It was easy to justify everything because there was no tangible evidence to support my suspicions about the source of all that cash.
Mr. Canfield had no problem with it. So my conscience allowed me to sleep. For all I knew, they were using the buildings for legitimate businesses. Kenji owned a gold shop. It stood to reason they had similar enterprises. Fate had finally thrown me a bone and I wasn’t about to screw things up by getting curious. It was none of my business.
They didn’t volunteer any information and I didn’t ask any questions. Besides, I told myself that this was how the real world operated. That must be the way to get ahead in life. Nothing else I attempted all those years had worked. Kenji’s friends were a little rough around the edges but they had all the trappings of success. I was determined to carve off a few pieces for myself before the windfall was over.
Mr. Canfield was ecstatic with my progress. He had begun treating me like the daughter he never had. More than once, I caught co-workers shooting me sour looks. It was nice to be in the winner’s circle for once. A few more sales and Mr. Canfield might give me something decent to work with. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with Kenji and his crowd. That became my mantra.
You would think that I would be busy basking in the glow of my sudden success. After all, I could finally write home with true stories about closing a record number of deals. I even managed to open a checking account. I bought a television set and laptop to replace the things I pawned.
Imagining my sister dizzy with jealousy when my family opened the gifts I shipped them was icing on the cake. Yet something was still missing. I would come home in the evening and vegetate in front of the television all evening or surf the Internet until my eyes ached.
Most nights, I didn’t even bother to eat. Heating up a frozen dinner in my new microwave just seemed to require too much energy. Forget about using the stove. I felt empty inside. Success on any level is not very enjoyable when you have no one with whom to celebrate. Oh sure, my mom was proud but she was miles away.