When Gerard was 18, he was bounced from the idle dream of adolescent poverty out onto the street without much ceremony. Since he owned a bicycle, he became a bicycle messenger. After some hazing and abuse by the regulars, he became one of them, and acquired a good waterproof messenger's bag, a smaller waterproof purse for his own stuff, a rain suit, a few tools, a spare tube. He also acquired, on advice, a heavy oak dowel, probably a part of some piece of furniture, something like a short billy club, which could be carried under the handlebars, and with which, he was advised, some kinds of trouble might be averted by judicious use. He was ready for a rough world. The main danger to Gerard as a messenger, though, though, was not purposeful attack but random movements by semi-conscious motorists and zombie pedestrians. After being hit a few times Gerard acquired a sixth sense about it and a reflective jacket, and these improved his work life a bit.
One benefit of being a messenger was that, as he moved around the city, he had the opportunity to interact with a lot of people, including pretty receptionists. Unfortunately, the extremely low class status of bicycle messenger operated to make most of these interactions unproductive of a social life, much less romance. Gerard did occasionally get some kind of recognition, but it seldom moved past the casual greeting stage, at least until he happened to run into Miss Chinchilla.
This was not, of course, her real name, which was Spanish but less probable. She was small, chunky one might say, without being at all fat, cute, and her hair a curious, elegant, almost metallic grayish-blonde color with harmonized surprsingly well with her smooth Hipanic complexion. Unable to remember her Spanish name, Gerard referred to her in his own thoughts as 'Miss Chinchilla', which nicely mixed the concept of a small, cute animal with great glamour and wealth. She worked for a huge gray featureless corporation on the East Side whose purpose was difficult to discern — large computers or communications systems, maybe. She was a single spot of life and color in their big gloomy lobby.
It was difficult to figure out how to get on with Miss Chinchilla, however. The fact that both were working at highly time-sensitive jobs made it difficult to indulge in idle exploratory chatting.
Once, Gerard went to the expense of buying a small bouquet of flowers at a nearby street vendor and took them to the receptionist, claiming he had found them (so as not to be too forward) and said, 'Look, they're perfect, someone just threw them away, I thought you would like them.' The receptionist agreed they were perfect, produced a large glass vase out of a cabinet, and told Gerard to fill it at a water fountain in the office hallway. She put the flowers on her receptionist desk and fluffed them a little. 'It really brightens this place up. That's very kind and thoughtful of you,' she said, and imparted a dazzling smile. Then the phones started ringing and buzzing and she had to go back to work and so did Gerard. He was happy that day.
However, the next time he went there, hoping to advance the relationship with a little chit-chat at least, she wasn't there. When he asked, someone told him she had left to get married; another person opined that she had been involved in a lurid office romance and had to quit; a third, that she had found a better job further uptown. They weren't sure, but agreed she didn't work there any more.
It was not long after that that Gerard encountered the monster street tramp who would change his life. He had been given a typical delivery in the then still-decrepit Lower East Side. It turned out, though, that the address didn't exist. Thinking he must have gotten it wrong, Gerard pulled out the pager and punched a code to get the dispatcher to send the right address to the pager. After a short time it beeped. Gerard tried to read it, but the figure did not show up well in the late sunlight.
Just then, as he was peering at the pager, a huge tramp sort of person appeared in front of Gerard's bike and grabbed the handlebars. He must have been drunk or crazy, but he was very large and very strong, and he had taken deep offense at Gerard and his bicycle for some reason.
'You goddamn little motherfucker,' he howled at Gerard. He began to twist the handlebars in such a way as to turn the bicycle over. Gerard tried yanking the bike back, to no avail; the bum was big, firmly planted, and very determined.
Gerard, having filled his teen-age indolence with martial-arts movies, allowed the spirits to take over. He let the bike turn, fell off sideways, and rolled into the fall, just as he would have if the bicycle had been hit from the side. As he slid off, he grasped the dowel from under the handlebars; everything happened in a single smooth motion. He came up on his feet immediately, and found the dowel already poised in his right hand, with his left raised to block or grasp, his feet in a martial-arts stance, all without a moment's thought.
The bum seemed surprised and dropped the bike. He stepped over it and took a mighty swing at Gerard. It was a good killer punch, but a bit too slow; Gerard easily stepped aside and swung the dowel from far back, connecting very solidly with the bridge of the bum's undefended nose as he followed his punch through. It produced a meaty crunch, and the bum fell to his knees holding his hands over his face, and started crying, a weird mewling sound. A small street crowd, sensing blood sport, had gathered. 'Oh, look what he done,' shrieked a young woman.
Gerard jumped back and and picked up his bike and started walking it quickly away. He threw the dowel in a sewer; the cops were likely to come, and they hated bicycle messengers and would no doubt accuse him of attacking the bum; a weapon would prove it. He was looking for an inconspicuous side street, an alley, a dumpster, anyplace to be out of sight, when he realized a man he hadn't seen before was keeping pace with him.
'Nice,' said the man, when he saw that Gerard had noticed him. Gerard looked up; the fellow was middle-aged, with a sort of hard rodent look about him, in shirtsleeves and business pants, as if he was the proprietor of one of the stores on the street.
'What's nice about it?' asked Gerard. His voice was still shaking with the adrenalin from the fight, and he was angry as well, because he had lost the dowel.
'I like to see a guy who knows how to take care of business,' said the man.
'I'd rather not have the business,' said Gerard. 'I'm just trying to deliver a goddamn package.'
They were not that far from the bum yet, who was now flopping around on the street, making louder noises, and gathering a larger audience. 'Look, I gotta get outta here,' said Gerard.
'Understood,' said the man. 'Let's go this way. If the cops come I'll say you were with me and don't know nothing about that bum.'
They turned into a side street and walked for a few moments. The sounds of the larger avenue died away. They stopped.
'I hafta deliver the package,' said Gerard after a moment. He started trying to figure out how to backtrack without running afoul of the police. The stupid, crazy incident had already cost him precious, irreplaceable minutes; minutes which would soon be lighting a fire under his dispatcher.
'That's another thing I like,' said the man. 'Somebody who can get a job done, who is determined to get a job done. Now, I happen to know someone who is looking for a messenger, a courier, like that, some who can get through and can take care of business. He is prepared to pay way better than your everyday shit messenger job.' He pulled a card out of his pocket. It was like a business card but it had only a phone number on it. He handed it to Gerard. 'Stick that in your pocket, and if you want to talk to my friend call it.'
'Who should I say,' Gerard asked.
'Oh, uh, “Art”', replied the man. 'Yeah, “Art” ought to do it. Now, I gotta go,' he said, and walked off down the side street. 'Call that number,' he called back as he departed.
What an asshole, thought Gerard. But he stuck the card in his pocket. Then he eased back to the avenue. Although only a few minutes seemed to have passed, the bum and his audience were gone, and no cops were in evidence. The city had swallowed them, as it does. Gerard pulled out his pager to start over, but the fall had cracked it and he couldn't read it. Cursing, he went looking for a pay phone and after three or four tries found one that worked.
Predictably, the dispatcher was enraged by the story, and told Gerard he hadn't been hired to fight with bums or break his pager on the street. He would have to pay for the pager and would get docked for a late delivery. He might not have a job the next day; for although he, the dispatcher, was the soul of mercy, the dispatcher's boss was not a lenient man. Gerard took all this without protest. The dispatcher gave him a new address, not at all like the one that he had been given before, but fortunately not far away. When Gerard got there they were just about to close up. The package was accepted with bad grace and of course there would be no tip. He started to tell his story, but no one was interested; as far as they were concerned, it was just another nasty little interlude in the Big City and they wanted to go home.
The next day, before he even was finished with his breakfast, the dispatcher called him (a great favor) and told him not to come in for a few days. The boss was riled up about a number of things and might take them all out on Gerard. 'I'm gonna say you called in sick because of the beating,' said the dispatcher. 'You went blind and can't find your teeth, which fell out. The boss ought to enjoy that.'
'I didn't take a beating,' said Gerard.
'Just shut up and stay home a few days,' suggested the dispatcher. 'That's your beating, okay?'
Gerard sank back on the bed with some dismay. Two or three days without work meant two or three days without money. As he went through the pockets of his pants to see what funds he had left, he found the card.
What the hell, he thought, and called the number. When someone answered he said 'Art' had told him to call, something about messenger work. 'Ah, “Art”', said the voice. 'Yes, you can come in immediately,' and gave him an address in part of midtown still dumpy in those days.
The building Gerard arrived at was an oddity: although small, it had been built with the austere, monumental design of something much larger. There was no sign outside. Going in through broad doors, Gerard found himself in a large, almost empty room dominated by banklike marble. A receptionist sat at a round desk in the middle, a severely elegant Black woman in a sheer black dress. She might have been a model. She was studying something on the desk; it seemed she did not bother to look up as he came in, until he reached her desk.
'My name is Gerard,' he began.
She nodded to her left; there was a door there. 'That way, Mr. Gerard' she said, and went back to her silence.
Gerard entered the door and found himself in another austere office. There was a large desk with a man in a suit sitting at it. He wore a gray suit, and his skin and hair seemed rather gray, too. Gerard decided he was the Gray Man. Unlike the receptionist he studied Gerard as he came in.
'I came about the job,' began Gerard.
'Yes,' said the Gray Man. 'Let's cut to the chase. This is not an ordinary sort of messenger job. We need someone who is capable and determined, who can carry though and overcome difficulties. My associate, “Art”, seems to think you are that sort of person. The emphasis here is not on speed but reliability. If you choose to work with us you will be paid by time, not by job, and you will receive cash. You will be given Packages of considerable value, one at a time, to take to specific locations in a secure, careful manner; you will deliver them only to the person indicated and no one else. If that person cannot be located and identified, or is unable to accept the Package, you will return here with it. You will not get a receipt, or indeed accept anything of any kind from the recipient of the Package. If you are impeded, you will go around the problem to complete your mission regardless. If your bicycle breaks, you will continue on foot. You will never call this office from outside except when explicitly instructed to do so. You will strictly avoid any interaction with the police or other authorities, or strangers insofar as possible. Do you think you can handle that?'
'Sure', said Gerard. They went on to discuss his pay. As 'Art' had promised, the money was good and completely off the books.
The next day he showed up at the same place. When he entered the receptionist, seemingly unchanged from the day before, indicated a small cardboard box wrapped in plastic, and a sheet of paper with an name and address on it. Gerard was going to take both but the receptionist said, 'Memorize the address.' After a minute she took the sheet back. 'See you later.' said Gerard on the way out. The receptionist didn't respond. The Package was quite small, and Gerard dropped it into his purse, feeling that it would bounce around too much in his regular messenger's bag. This became his habit when the packages were small, as they usually were.
The delivery was uneventful: a nondescript man in a nondescript office who had the right name. There were four or five of them that day. When he came back for the last time the receptionist wordlessly handed him a blank envelope with currency in it. Several days of this kind ensued. Gerard thought he had a good thing going.
Then, one morning, as Gerard was making another delivery, a cab started out of a parking lot on an adjoining street, swung into the the intersection Gerard was crossing, and headed straight for Gerard. Gerard swerved to avoid the onrushing car, figuring it too would turn out of the collision path, but then he realized the driver was actually aiming at him and acclerating. He jammed on his brakes and went into a slide, crashing into the front of the cab. But the cab driver had miscalculated; in aiming for Gerard, he also hit a curbside lamppost, and bounced back. Gerard did not hit very hard, and fell down and backward. A cab coming the other way screeched to a halt, its front end right over Gerard. There was a lot of screaming. A man Gerard thought might have been the driver of the attacking cab, peered under the other cab at Gerard, his face twisted with anger or fear, and reached for Gerard, but Gerard easily slid out of his reach. The face disappeared.
Soon enough Gerard heard the hoarse voices of cops telling people to stand back. Gerard, although banged up, realized he was not broken; somehow, he hadn't been crushed or run over. So he relaxed and eventually they dragged him out of the mess. He told some people in uniform he was fine and they shoved him in a sort of ambulance van, along with his bicycle.
At first the medics insisted he must have a concussion, but he turned out not to have any medical insurance, and possibly because he made a half-hearted pass at one of the hospital staff, they put him out of the hospital the next morning. Miraculously his bicycle had not been stolen and was given to him by a hospital worker. As he checked out he was given a message; it turned out to be the familiar phone number.
He called and heard the voice of the Gray Man.
'Gerard', he said to him.
'Come on in,' said the Gray Man.
'I'm convalescent,' said Gerard. 'They said I should go home,' he added.
'You can convalesce in my office,' said the Gray Man, in a manner which made Gerard believe he had better follow this suggestion.
When he got there, the receptionist told him to go right in. The Gray Man sat there flanked by two men who made Gerard think that coming in had been a really bad idea after all.
'Well, Genius,' said the Gray Man, 'What's your story?' Gerard started to describe the incident, but the Gray Man cut him short. 'We know all that,' he said. 'Where's the Package? The Package you were carrying, in case you don't remember.'
'I saw the cops coming, and I couldn't move, so I stuck it,' said Gerard.
'You stuck it?' ask the Gray Man, incredulously. One of the men behind him started to chuckle, but the Gray Man shut him down with a gesture. 'Where did you “stick it?”'
'I stuck it under the bumper of the cab I was under,' said Gerard. 'It stuck nice and solid, it's probably still there.'
'He is a genius,' said one of the men behind the Gray Man. 'Who woulda thought?'
'Only thing I could do,' said Gerard. 'I couldn't get out with it, the cops woulda took it off me. Couldn't leave it there. Thought I better not push it in the sewer, or out in the street. So I stuck it behind the bumper of the cab.'
'You couldn't have gotten the number of the cab, I suppose', said the Gray Man.
'Yo, I was under it, but they only put the numbers on top.'
'Listen, wise-ass,' started the man who had chuckled before.
'No,' broke in the Gray Man, turning around, 'he did well. It was a damned smart move. What was stupid was trying to run this operation with messengers. They must have made him. A messenger's face is just hanging out there. Then they hit him with that cab. But we know they didn't get the Package because of the way we asked the driver. What we have to do is find that other cab.'
He turned to Gerard. He took an envelope out of his desk. 'Take this,' he said to Gerard, moving it smoothly across the desk. 'Have a nice long vacation out of town, and don't ever come back here, and forget you ever came in here, or even thought about ever coming in here. Understand? And get out of the messenger business; it might not be healthy for you.' The envelope, although slim, had a nice bit of heft, thought Gerard. It felt like whatever was inside it was new and crisp.
'What place?' asked Gerard. 'Where am I, anyway?'
Later, when Gerard got home, he opened his little purse-like bag, and took the last Package out. It was pretty small, and no one had bothered to search his little purse-like bag, so he still had it. He set it up on his bureau and contemplated it for a long while, wondering what was in it. He studied it carefully and noticed the address of the place where the Gray Man had been printed on one side. It must be a pretty good thing, he thought. He shook it and he thought it tinkled a little, like an instrument, maybe, or pills in a bottle. Then he took it outside and put it in a mailbox.
He never saw the Gray Man or his friends again; indeed, when he went past the place where the office had been, it was being torn down or renovated and there was nothing left of it but the dusty frame of the building.
He did see Miss Chinchilla again, though. Some weeks later he went up that way on a personal errand, and thought he'd just check in. And there she was.
He walked up.
'Hi,' she said with a smile, 'what do you have?'
'Nothing but me', said Gerard. 'I just thought I'd stop by. Last time I was here you weren't. They told me you got married.'
'What? Two months ago? I was just away on vacation with my family, you know, two weeks with the old folks in Puerto Rico. What a drag! These jerks around here will tell you anything! So what have you been up to?'
'Nothing much, just the usual stuff', said Gerard. He couldn't think of anything else to say. 'Well,' said Miss Chinchilla, 'I have to get back to work here. But you should bring me some more flowers some time soon.'
Gerard wandered out. He had been wondering about how to deal with the money; but now he thought Miss Chinchilla might be able to give him some good advice about it next time he saw her.