Hard Case Crime publishes hardboiled crime fiction by Stephen King, Donald Westlake, James M. Cain, Michael Crichton, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins, and other greats. Here's an exclusive excerpt from their new title, The Secret Lives of Married Women, by Elissa Wald. The paperback is only $5.97 on Amazon.
Two identical twin sisters - one a sexually repressed defense attorney, the other a former libertine now living a respectable life in suburbia - are about to have their darkest secrets revealed, to the men in their lives and to themselves. As one sister prepares for the thorniest trial of her career and the other fends off ominous advances from a construction worker laboring on the house next door, both find themselves pushed to the edge, and confronted by discoveries about themselves and their lovers that shock and disturb them.
Elissa Wald is the author of Meeting the Master (Grove Press) and Holding Fire (Context Books). Her work has also been published in multiple journals and anthologies, including Beacon Best of 2001, Creative Nonfiction, The Barcelona Review, The Mammoth Book of Erotica, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Ex-Files: New Stories about Old Flames, and Brain, Child Magazine. Previously, she worked as a stripper, ran away to join the circus, and spent a summer working on a Native American reservation.
The Secret Lives of Married Women, by Elissa Wald
Kaiser Tech was a start-up company in midtown Manhattan that provided computer services to small businesses. I was there as a temporary receptionist. At the time, the company was just three men and me in a very small room. Bryce was the owner. He was in his early forties and looked like a cross be- tween a koala and a cement truck. He had graying hair combed back in waves from his forehead, a barrel chest, and limbs like hams. Marcus and Stas were the two engineers, both striking in their way. Marcus was slight of build with eyes the color of a koi pond: a startling clear green flecked with gold. Stas was tall and lean with light brown hair, and his own hazel eyes were wide and dreamy.
When I’d taken this job, it hadn’t seemed promising, but I was so demoralized already that it hardly mattered. I’d just botched my first major role in a Broadway play, that of Blanche DuBois in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. The critics were unanimous in trashing me (Leda Reeve is the weak link here...this Blanche would do better to rely on the kindness of casting agents for the afternoon soaps...painful to watch, for all the wrong reasons...shallowly rendered... lacking in conviction). This flurry of reviews appeared the morning after our opening night, and the show closed before the end of the first week.
For many days afterward, I could not stop trembling. I trembled even while lying in bed at night. During the afternoons, curled up at one corner of my threadbare sofa, it seemed my every thought included the word failure, the word finished. I made cup after cup of tea just to have something warm to hold. I was afraid to talk to anyone I knew, even afraid to answer the phone. It felt like a matter of survival to shut down, as though maybe—if I could block out any reference to the play, shun each condolence call, never look at another newspaper—none of it would be real. If I kept my head down, put one foot in front of the other, aspired to nothing beyond my own next breath, maybe I could disappear, or turn into someone else. Answering the phone for a technology company seemed like a fine start.
The temp agency gave me an address in midtown west. Getting there involved a bus and then a subway, as well as several icy blocks on foot. The office was in a dismal part of town just south of the Port Authority, where junkies and hustlers still made up much of the street population. The building was run down, the tile in the lobby crumbling. Bryce’s company was on the fourth floor, and even before I reached his threshold, I could see that the space was little more than a hole in the wall. It had industrial carpeting and the walls were cracked and stained. A row of grimy windows provided a view of the building’s airshaft.
An aisle divided the office, which was otherwise partitioned into cubicles. Bryce was at the far end of the room, talking on the phone; he motioned for me to take a seat. By the near wall was one small table with a folding chair, and I could see nowhere else for a visitor to sit. But no sooner had I settled there than Stas entered the room, his arms full of computer equipment. I didn’t know his name yet, of course. And he did not introduce himself. What he said, in a heavy Slavic accent, was: “Please remove yourself from this table.”
I stared at him.
“Stas,” Bryce said, laughing. He had just hung up the phone.
“That’s fucked up. Don’t mind him,” he told me. “He’s not trying to be rude. That’s just the way he talks. He’s a Siberian brute.”
Stas looked taken aback but said nothing further. I rose from the table and gathered my things as Bryce waved me over. “Come on back, I’m ready now anyway.” He stood and nudged his own chair toward me before seating himself on the edge of his desk.
Finally Stas spoke again. “What I said was rude?”
“That’s okay,” Bryce told him. “We’ll buff up your act yet. All in good time. Did you know I was the headmaster of a charm school before I got into the I.T. business?”
Stas ignored this. “What would an American say?” he wanted to know.
Bryce turned to me. “Lisa. It is Lisa, isn’t it?”
“Leda.” “Leda, right. Leda, what would an American say? A polite
I smiled gently and somewhat apologetically at Stas, hoping he wouldn’t hold this little etiquette lesson against me. “I guess if I needed to get someone out of my way, I might say some- thing like...oh...I’m so sorry to trouble you, but I’m going to need this table.”
“I’m sorry to...trouble you?” Stas repeated.
I’m sorry to trouble you, he repeated in a murmur. I’m sorry to trouble you... And he turned back to the jumble of equipment.
Bryce grinned broadly. “Okay, great. I’m sure you’ll have a perfect phone manner and this’ll be the easiest money you’ll ever make. We don’t have any clients yet, so the phone only rings like once an hour. The pace will pick up soon, but for now you can read a book, surf the net, do whatever you want between calls.”
He explained that Marcus and Stas were in the process of building a proprietary server. When they were done, the company would sell its custom network to corporate offices. In the meantime, Bryce was placing his first few ads, and if any prospective clients called, he wanted to sound like a legitimate business.
“Now here’s what I want you to say when you answer the phone. No matter how dead it is. Even if it’s the only call all day. Pick up and say, Kaiser Tech, can you hold? Like you’re super busy and juggling a bunch of customers. Make them wait for like thirty seconds before you come back and talk to them.”
It would be hard to explain why I felt such a sense of consolation in that shabby room. But I did; somehow the hard- scrabble space seemed to offer reprieve, deep cover, even an unlikely cheer. It was like a sheltered little cove where I could drift as mindlessly as a cork, expending no effort and incurring no censure: someone workaday and sensible, blameless and safe—someone else altogether. It had something to do with the anonymity: none of these men knew me, or knew anything of my failure. Also, they were glad I was there; this was unmistakable. It had something to do with the close, cozy quarters, the snow falling outside the windows, the space heater that Stas set beneath my desk. It had something to do with the banter, which went on all day and was comforting and enlivening, and something to do with Bryce, who was a life-force unto himself. Maybe even something to do with his disdain for the world of theater.
“I moved to New York ten years ago. Want to know how many Broadway shows I’ve bothered to see since then? Take a guess,” he said. “It’s a big, round number.”
“We’re going to take the world by storm,” he would say. “Marcus, Stas, the day we go public, I’ll step aside and let you two ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.”
“The only question is how much time we’ll need to take this thing through the roof,” he’d say. “But ultimately our success is guaranteed. It’s guaranteed, because I’m not going to stop until I’m done.”
“It’s a hundred and fifteen fucking degrees,” he’d say, “and we have the only swimming pool in town.”
After I’d been there two weeks, Bryce took me aside. “I have an idea for you,” he said. “Not just an idea, but a proposition. Not just a proposition, but a one-time opportunity. An opportunity that will alter your destiny.”
By now I was used to outsized statements from Bryce and my only response was to smile faintly, patiently.
“I want you to stay on and help me build this company,” Bryce continued. “I want you to sell the system for me.”
I knew what this really meant; he’d touched on it a few times before. He wanted me to canvass the area businesses. I pictured myself going door to door like an Avon Lady. I imagined other receptionists, girls in their early twenties, whose job it would be to toss me out on my ass.
“Bryce, that’s very generous of you,” I told him. “But I can’t.”
“Why not? You’d be unstoppable, a star. I knew it the moment you stepped over the threshold.”
“I don’t know anything about computer networks.”
“That’s perfect! That’s the best part. I don’t want some tech- head going around for me. You don’t have to know anything. You just need a few buzz words to throw at these people and you need to understand the business model. These guys are lawyers, accountants, realtors...they don’t know the first thing, don’t even know what questions to ask. You’ll be with me the first twenty times; you’ll listen, absorb the drill, learn your lines. You’re an actress, for Christ’s sake. It’ll be the most natural thing in the world for you.”
“Well, but that’s the thing, Bryce. I do like to think of myself as an actress. I have to go to auditions and if I’m offered work, I need to be able to take it.” This was something I was still telling myself, though I hadn’t been to an audition in weeks.
“Fine. So stay an actress. No one’s asking you to give up your ...career. I’m just saying, why don’t you take a break? Take three months. What’s three months in the big picture? Make some money, take the pressure off. Think of it like an acting exercise.”
“Bryce. I’m flattered—”
“Stop. Save it. Don’t answer right now—just think about it. Think about giving me three short months. No, forget that: give me one month. If you hate it after a month, you’ll quit. No hard feelings. In the meantime, you’ll make a pile of cash.”
Before I left for the day, he gave me the outline of a payment plan. “First, I’ll give you three thousand as a base, just for going out there every day. On top of that, you’ll make fifty bucks for each appointment you set. That’s not the real money, but even that’ll add up. Make two appointments a day—you’ve got eight hours to do it, so how can you fail?—and that’s another two grand a month. But where you’ll make a killing is the five hundred I’ll pay you for every customer you find who ends up signing.
“So let’s do a little math, shall we? Two appointments a day is ten a week, right? So let’s say I can only sign one client out of five. That’s an extremely conservative estimate, my track record is way better than that, but I’m low-balling it right now so you don’t think I’m leading you down some fantasy path. If I can’t sign one in five, I’m not Bryce Kaiser. Stas? Marcus? You guys are my witnesses. If I can’t sign one in five, I’ll eat my shorts. So that’s two signed clients a week, which would yield, altogether...we’re talking the worst-case scenario here...a total of nine thousand a month for you. Have you ever made nine thou- sand dollars a month? That’s more than a hundred grand a year. Not bad for a temp receptionist, right?”
None of Bryce’s other employees ever experienced this kind of largesse. Bryce believed in stopping at nothing to motivate his sales force. Otherwise he liked his workers marginal and desperate. He wanted them to need their jobs more than they did their sanity or pride. He hired immigrants awaiting their visas, middle-aged men languishing in the wake of layoffs, even an ex-convict or two. Stas fit this profile perfectly at first, and Bryce started him off at seven dollars an hour, twelve to twenty hours a day, six to seven days a week. His hourly wage was not adjusted in any way for overtime.
During the four-day transit strike that year, Stas didn’t go home at night. He slept in his office chair and shaved in the men’s room. He pretended to consider joining the gym across the street to get a free trial membership. He showered there and marveled that Americans paid money to run on treadmills like rats on a wheel.
I got to know Stas slowly, and over time I learned his history. He’d come to America seven years earlier, in June of 1998, at the age of seventeen. His plan was to study English all summer at SUNY Purchase, then stay on for the academic year as an exchange student. But by August, the Russian economy had collapsed and his parents could no longer afford his tuition.
Stas never once considered going home.
He moved into the local YMCA and got a job as a busboy at the local diner. The free meal employees were allowed to eat before each shift was his one meal of the day. He filled his pockets with the thimble-sized creamers served with the coffee. Every few hours, he went to the men’s room and knocked them back like shots. Sometimes he wrapped half- eaten steaks and brought them back to his room.
Once, friendless and flat broke between jobs, he went a full week without eating at all: seven days of taking in nothing but water. On the eighth day, in a jacket he unearthed from the bottom of his duffel bag, he found a five dollar bill. He walked out of the hostel and across the street to the little Chinese take- out joint, where he ordered a whole chicken and devoured it within minutes. Then he wrapped up the stripped carcass, brought it back to the Y, boiled the bones and ate those too.
Afterward, still ravenous, he could not stop himself from considering all the better ways he might have used those five dollars. He might have bought several boxes of pasta, or a few dozen eggs, or a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter—sustenance that could be stretched over several days rather than wolfed down in one sitting. But by the time this occurred to him, it was too late. The money had been spent.