THE ADDRESS WAS the Avalon State Bank Tower on Fifth Avenue, near St. Patrick's Cathedral. Nineteen-year-old Judson Blint, hot inside his light gray Gap sports jacket, JC Penney summerweight necktie in aquamarine, Banana Republic short-sleeve white button-down shirt buttoned down, Wal-Mart black cotton socks, and Macy's lace-up black dress shoes, none of which he was used to wearing, had walked up the twenty-some blocks from Penn Station under the August sun, having ridden the train in from Long Island to start his real life, now that the vacation he'd given himself after finally getting out of high school had come, by his own decision, to an end.
Yes, there was the Avalon State Bank Tower, looming up ahead of him, bleak and gray and stern; but he would not be deterred. He was a winner, and he knew he was a winner, and he was about to prove he was a winner. Stepping through the glass entry doors to the lobby, he looked left and right, found the building directory, and went over there. Allied Commissioners' Courses, Inc. — 712.
Good. He was about to turn away when another familiar name snagged his eye: Intertherapeutic Research Service — 712. Also room 712?
Suddenly suspicious, he cast an eye over the rest of the business names arrayed before him, and there, at the far end of the alphabet, was another name he knew: Super Star Music Co. — 712. What was going on here?
Judson Blint had come to the city today thinking he'd solved the biggest mystery in this equation, which was where to find the offices of Allied Commissioners' Courses, Inc., so he could meet the company's owner, one J. C. Taylor. Mr. Taylor did not want to be found — he'd made that clear enough — but Judson had used many of the techniques he'd learned in the Allied Commissioners' mail-order detective course, plus a few techniques from old private-eye movies and a couple extra he'd made up himself, all of which had led him here. To Intertherapeutic? To Super Star?
Madly curious, Judson took a 5-21 elevator, got off at seven, walked down to 712, and found painted on the door the three names he recognized, plus, beneath them, a fourth he didn't know: Maylohda, Commercial Attach'e.
Maylohda. What was that, a country? Who was J. C. Taylor, anyway?
Only one way to find out. Taking one last deep breath, Judson turned the knob and entered suite 712.
What a mess. This was a small, cluttered receptionist's office in which the reception desk almost disappeared into the accumulation of stuff. All the available wall space was taken up by floor-to-ceiling gray metal shelves, stacked to bursting with small brown cardboard cartons. The computer and printer on the battered gray metal desk were the only neat things in the room, but they were upstaged by stacks of labels, piles of books, and leaning towers of what looked like most of the world's unpaid bills. Columns of liquor store boxes, some empty, some full, obscured and jammed most of the space. And in the middle of it all, stacking books into another liquor store carton, was what had to be the receptionist.
Oh, my God. She was something out of Judson's dreams, but not the more soothing ones. No, more like the ones inspired by video games. In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no. Only louder than that.
She looked over at him when he entered, and what she did say was, "You want something?"
"I'm here," Judson said, deciding that boldness was the only strategy, "to see J. C. Taylor."
Hefting a book in one hand, she looked him up and down. "I'm afraid he isn't in right now," she said. "Did you call for an appointment?"
"Oh, sure," he said.
She didn't believe him. "Yeah?"
Reaching to his inner jacket pocket, bringing out the white legal-size envelope, Judson pressed on, afraid to move forward but even more afraid to stop. "I'm supposed to give him my resume," he said.
"Oh, you are, are you?" Cold eyes were not on his side.
"I'm hoping to get a job here," Judson said. "With the Commissioners' Courses. I took the course, you know."
"No, I didn't know."
Judson frowned over his shoulder at the door, with all those company names on the other side. "Is he really all of those?"
Now a wintry smile did appear. "Why? You sent in for them, too?"
"To Super Star," she said. "Did you send in lyrics to have music written, or music to have lyrics written?"
"Lyrics. I sent in lyrics."
"Most of them do. And the fuck book before that, I suppose."
"Yes, ma'am," Judson said, and felt his cheeks grow hot. No woman had ever said "fuck book" to him before. Or «fuck» anything, come to that.
The wintry smile again. "Lied about your age for that one, didn't you?"
He had to smile back. "Yes, ma'am."
She put a hand out. "Let me see this resume."
He handed the paper to her, and she walked around the desk with it, saying, "Sit on some cartons, the chairs are all full."
They were. He sat on a stack of liquor store cartons and she sat at the desk to open his envelope and read his job resume. The room became very silent. He could hear himself breathe.
She looked up. "How old are you?"
She nodded. "You lie pretty good," she said. "Maintain eye contact, all that."
"I wouldn't give you the time of day," she informed him, "if it wasn't for this resume." And she waved the three sheets of computer printout he'd done at home in his bedroom.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"A beautiful tissue of lies."
She smiled more fondly at his resume than she had so far smiled at Judson. Running a finger down the list, she said, "What have we here? Bankruptcies, deaths, mergers. Every bit of this job history is compelling and makes you the very highest level of job applicant, and yet not one of these claims could be verified." She transferred her smile to Judson, adding some ice to it. "You must have worked long and hard on this."
The mixed signals Judson was getting from this woman were driving him crazy. She was accusing him of being a liar, but she didn't seem to be angry about it. Was his being a good liar supposed to be something positive? An asset for the job? Not knowing whether he'd do better to acknowledge his duplicity or deny it, he just sat there and stared at her, knowing full well he was the bird and she the snake.
She dropped the resume on her messy desk with a flip of disdainful fingers. "We aren't hiring."
"As a matter of fact—" she said, and the phone rang. It took her until the second ring before she could find the phone in the jumble on her desk, and then said into it, "Maylohda, Commercial Attach'e. Oh, hello, John." She smiled much more warmly into the phone, liking this person John. Judson seethed with envy and listened closely. "Sure, I'll tell him. Ten tonight at the O.J. He's due to come over here soon, help me move some of this shit out. Talk to you later." She hung up and frowned at Judson. "Where was I?"
"'As a matter of fact— »
"Oh, right. Thank you. As a matter of fact, I'm just now in the process of shutting down all those lines. The Maylohda number's working so well, who needs the hassle of all the rest of it?"
Judson said, "Ma'am, what is Maylohda? Is it a country?"
"Of course it is. Do you know there are almost two hundred different separate nations in the United Nations?"
"No, I didn't."
"No, and I bet you couldn't name more than twenty of them. Maylohda's just as good as Lesotho."
I'm sure it is.
"Just as good as Malawi."
"Why wouldn't it be?"
"Just as good as Bhutan," she said, and the door opened and a man monster walked in.
Could this be J. C. Taylor? Judson prayed not. It was horrible. It was as though he had fallen asleep in a video game and woken up in a fairy tale, the kind with ogres in it.
This fellow absolutely filled the doorway when he entered. His head was like a rocket's nose cone, with nasty curled-up ears on the sides. His body appeared to be the size and softness of a Hummer, in broad brown slacks and a green polo shirt, as though he were trying to disguise himself as a golf course. This behemoth looked at Judson without love and said, "What's this supposed to be?"
"We're still working on it," the woman said. "He came in with a cocked-up r'esum'e, but a goddamn clever one, and said he wanted a job."
"You're shutting down," the monster pointed out. "Devote your time to the Maylohda scam."
"I know, Tiny," the woman said, and Judson lost a word or two while trying to encompass the idea that this person might be known as Tiny. When he tuned back in, she was saying,"… gonna miss this old stuff. I know I don't have the time for it. But then there's this infant here."
Judson thought, Does she mean me? Yes.
The woman looked at him. "You're eighteen, nineteen, am I right?"
These people were out of his league. He'd come to the city from Long Island today not knowing there were people who were out of his league, and now he would just dwindle and dwindle on the train all the way back, until he was so small you wouldn't be able to find him. "Nineteen," he said, and sighed, and got to his feet, and reached for his resume, even though he knew he'd never have the boldness to flash it ever again.
"Hold on there," she said.
Surprised, he stopped where he was, bent forward slightly over the desk, holding the resume. He looked at her, and she offered him a sunnier smile than before, a sort of encouraging smile, and said, "Sit down a minute."
He sat down, and she turned to the man-mountain, Tiny, and said, "Before I forget, John called, he wants a meet at the O.J. tonight at ten."
"Good," Tiny said. But then he pointed at Judson and said, "Whatcha keeping this around for?"
"He made me realize," she said, "if I get an office manager, he can take care of all the old stuff, so I don't have to give it up after all, and I can still concentrate on Maylohda."
He considered, then nodded that massive head. "Not bad," he agreed.
She stood and came around the desk, smiling much more welcomingly, hand stuck out, saying, "Welcome to the firm, Judson."
He leaped to his feet. Her handshake was very hard. He said, "Thank you, ma'am."
"I'm J.C., of course," she said, astonishing him yet again. "Josephine Carol Taylor. But you're a bright kid, you figured that out, didn't you?"
He could recover fast, which was a good thing, because, he now realized, he was often going to have to. "Oh, sure," he said. "Nice to meet you, J. C."