Plum summoned her assistant to take me to my room. I was taken aback when a redheaded Amazon responded to her summons. She had on an amazing white leather pantsuit with flames cut out to reveal enticing parts of her toned, tanned body. She informed me that her name was Flame. I wondered if everyone in that house had superhero nicknames.
Suddenly, I noticed that Flame was staring at me expectantly. My face flushed. I realized that she was waiting for me to introduce myself. I stammered my name and then studiously avoided her amused gaze. My eyes dropped down to her feet, which balanced on a pair of the tallest white leather platform shoes that I had ever seen.
She showed me to a narrow room at the back of the house containing a bed, nightstand and dresser. The view from the window overlooking an expanse of lush lawn and garden made up for the sparseness of the room. Flame was gone when I turned back around. It was a relief to be free of her mocking stare. I unpacked and lay down for a nap. It was getting dark outside when Flame came into my room and nudged me awake.
“Get up and throw on some clothes. Pick out something old that you don’t mind getting messy,” Flame ordered.
“Why, am I on cleaning duty or something?”
“Not exactly…ever heard of dumpster diving?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
“Then you’re in for a real treat. Get something to write with so I can give you an address. You’ll have to catch a cab.”
I got dressed and wandered downstairs. The remnants of dinner were still laid out on the dining room table. I made a mental note not to sleep so late next time. Plum was nowhere to be seen. At the other end of the long, cherry wood dining room table three women who could easily have been models sat filling their plates. I instantly felt self-conscious. They looked at my worn jeans and looked away disdainfully.
One of them made a snide remark under her breath and all three laughed, shooting me nasty looks. My limbs felt heavy and clumsy under their judgmental stares. It was high school all over gain. Here I was thinking that the events of the past weeks had made a new woman out of me and a little thing like this threatened to unravel my new-found confidence. Suddenly, I wasn’t very hungry. I had to force myself to eat.
After dinner, Flame called a cab for me. An hour later, I was thigh-high in trash wishing I had never heard of dumpster diving. My partner was a diminutive, chain-smoking employee of Plum’s. His name was Yul. I couldn’t tell how old he was. He had a smooth, ageless face dominated by a hawkish nose. The thick, purple-rimmed, vintage Clark Kent glasses covered most of his face.
We were in the dumpster behind the Southside Bank picking through the day’s refuse. The sour stench rising off of the putrid remains of lunches that had fermented as they baked in the hot dumpster made me want to gag but didn’t seem to bother Yul.
He sifted through wet trash bags as well as dry. I stood watching him in horrified silence, wishing that I had also brought a pair of elbow high rubber gloves. Surely, Yul didn’t expect me to help him with the wet trash bags. I suspected that the old pair of cracked leather driving gloves he had given me earlier would quickly get soggy.
“How can you stand the smell,” I asked disgustedly.
“Ah, you get used to it.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this. It’s filthy in here! I can feel the germs crawling all over me. I don’t think I’ll ever feel clean again! Can we hurry up and get out of here? I think I’m gonna be sick!”
“We can get out as soon as we find something useful.”
“Why would you look through a dumpster for something useful? It’s full of trash Einstein. Don’t companies shred all of their sensitive documents?”
“The smart ones do. That’s not what we’re looking for though.”
“How about clueing me in on what we’re looking for? I’d like to get out of her before the stink sets in my hair!”
“The name of the game is information. Old company phone lists, records, post it notes…”
“Why post it notes?”
“Some idiots write useful tidbits of information like their computer passwords on them.”
We crawled around in the bowels of the foul dumpster for an hour and a half before Yul and I came up with anything that wasn’t shredded or rendered illegible by congealed grease or sauce. He found a banking industry newsletter.
I discovered an interoffice memo. Yul was so proud of me that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d only discovered the memo because it got stuck to the bottom of my shoe. He danced around in the dumpster waving our treasure above his head.
Yul moved to climb out and I nearly knocked him over scrambling out. Our finds seemed utterly useless, but if he was happy with them then I was ecstatic. We must have been quite a sight to the casual observer. My sneakers were coated in a mixture of refried beans and potato salad. I suddenly understood why Yul had insisted on taking the bus instead of driving.
We were standing at the bus stop trying not to breathe through our noses when I decided to ask about our little treasures. Yul had ripped something out of the newsletter and tossed the rest back in, after making such a big deal over finding the thing. Curiosity was overcoming the nausea prodding at my stomach and I was kind of getting used to the funk emanating from our filthy, sweat-soaked clothes.
“I’m thrilled that you finally decided to call off the treasure hunt Yul. But why are you so happy about a stupid phone list and a little scrap of paper from a newsletter? Why did you throw away the newsletter?”
“We didn’t need the whole thing, just the mailing label.”
“Ok, now I’m completely in the dark. What good does a stupid memo and a mailing label do you?”
To my relief, Yul didn’t slap on the old can-you-really-be-that-clueless look that Plum was so fond of. On the contrary, he seemed to relish explaining things. I rather got the impression that old Yul liked the sound of his own voice.
He explained that the memo announcing the fact that the bank had just hired Susan McGowan in the accounting department was valuable because she wouldn’t be familiar with everyone in the company. That was where the mailing label would come in handy. It belonged to Network Administrator Bradley Michaels.
Tomorrow morning, Yul would contact Susan posing as Bradley and inform her that he needed her user name and password because there was a problem with her login. Using Susan’s password, he would have access to bank records, credit records and account information.
“That’s really impressive Yul but what happens when Susan calls Bradley to see if she can log back on? She’ll find out that Bradley never called her and there’s nothing wrong with her password. If they become suspicious then they’ll change the password and then you’re screwed.”
“All I need is a couple of minutes to take root in the server. Then Bradley can change everyone’s password and it won’t make any difference to me. He won’t though. Network administrators are notoriously overconfident. Most likely, he’ll assume that Susan just got confused. When you’re new, it takes a while to learn names and recognize voices.”
Yul chuckled, “Even if Bradley turns out to be smarter than the average network administrator, he’ll just deploy his anti-virus software. When everything comes up clean, Bradley will shrug the whole thing off, turn over and go back to sleep.”
The cross-town bus came and Yul dragged me on, despite my protests that Plum’s house was in the opposite direction. I was dismayed to discover that our dumpster foray was far from over. On the contrary, we still had insurance company and cellular phone corporation dumpsters to hit. Yul had evidently decided to make a night of it.
By the time our mission had drawn to an end, my back was stiff from bending over and my knees ached from crouching to dig through trash bags. I won’t even try to describe the odor wafting from the two of us. I walked to Plum’s house from the last bus stop.
The guards at her ornate wrought iron gates had been apprised of my endeavors. They were poised to have a good laugh at my expense. Judging from their guffaws and predictable jokes, they weren’t disappointed. I fervently wished that I’d had the foresight to take along a second pair of shoes and a change of clothes.
I was too tired to care. I deposited my food-encrusted sneakers outside and limped inside. The house was dark and no one seemed to be downstairs. For a few fleeting moments, my spirits lifted. Maybe no one else would see me and I could go up to bed in peace. Flame seemed to materialize out of the gloom. She stood giving me an exaggerated once over from head to toe, smiling broadly.
“So you survived the dive? Where are your shoes? Did they stick to the bottom of a trash bin?”
“They’re outside on the front steps. I’ll hose them off tomorrow. Did you wait up all night just to gloat or is there a good reason why I’m being graced with your presence at this hour?”
“Meow! My aren’t we catty tonight? I suppose scrounging around in trash cans like an alley cat may have something to do with your sour puss. Retract your claws newbie. I’m not here to start a fight. I brought a plastic bag for you to put your disgusting clothes in. Cheer up. You should be pleased that you got to go out with Yul.”
“Why is that?”
“Women that come to work for Patricia either put their bodies or their brains to work. Evidently, she thinks you’re smarter than you look.”
“Yeah right, it takes a lot of brains to roll around in filth.”
“Sometimes, you have to push up your sleeves and get dirt under your nails in order to get results. Yul is one of the best hackers in the biz. Keep your eyes and ears open. You could learn a lot from him.”
“I don’t know how much good that would do me. Beyond turning them on and off, I don’t know a whole lot about computers. Why did she assign me to do this kind of work?”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be doing anything complicated. That’s Yul’s job. You might even find yourself scurrying around and getting coffee or running errands for him tomorrow. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something. If he sees you’re genuinely interested in computers then he’ll work with you. Yul’s really patient. He loves what he does.”
“I wish Plum had asked me what I was good at.”
“She doesn’t have to ask you anything. You work for her, not the other way around newbie. Just keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told. Besides, you probably won’t work with Yul more than a couple of days, unless he puts in a request for you. More than likely, you’ll be sent wherever you’re needed or wherever Plum thinks you can learn something useful.”
“But I thought Plum’s temp service was all maids, chauffeurs, nannies and butlers.”
“That’s just a fraction of the services she offers.”
“Plum told me that she’s an information broker.”
“That’s her main focus. All of her other enterprises support the brokering of information. Think of her business as a clearinghouse. People contact Plum seeking information and she farms the requests out to her ‘researchers’. Some of the folks she uses are subcontractors.”
Flame took in my bewildered expression and sighed,”For example, Yul has his own business. Plum calls on him for special cases. Experts are too expensive to keep on retainer. If you ask me, it’s a better arrangement for him. It gives him the freedom to accept or decline a job as he sees fit.”
“That is fascinating. She has things set up just like a legitimate business.”
“What makes you think her business isn’t legitimate? A lot of corporations and community leaders enlist her services. Real intelligence gathering is usually accomplished through underhanded tactics. How else do you think governments uncover information that a corporation or enemy is trying to bury?”
“You sure seem to know a lot about Plum’s company.”
“I’ve worked for her for ten years.”
“Wow, nowadays working for a company that long is practically a record. I’ve been meaning to ask, what exactly do you do around here Flame?”
“I do whatever is necessary,” said Flame with an enigmatic smile.
“What does that mean?”
“Goodnight Patricia, try not to let any of that filth caked on your clothes smear or fall off on anything. The maid will have a fit if you make a mess.”
Flame left me standing in the hallway with my mouth hanging open. I was too tired to be irritated. It was a relief to be alone at last. I was kind of getting used to Flame but whenever she came around, I felt a little on edge.
The shower felt heavenly. I emerged relaxed and in good spirits. As irritating as Flame could be, she did give me some useful information and helped me put things in proper perspective. I slid between the clean, cool sheets sighing contentedly.