by Jack Fay
I picked up on the second ring, and before I could say, “Connolly here,” Miss Bitchy told me to get my butt up to the CEO’s office. She hung up before I could ask why.
Word around the office pegged the CEO as a moron cloaked in mediocrity, which I thought a bit harsh, but never having been around him I couldn’t verify the description. Persons in lower management, such as myself, rarely interacted with the CEO, and that was just fine as far as I was concerned.
The receptionist on the executive floor, who by the way has an awesome pair of headlights, buzzed me through the glass doors. I gave her my Hollywood smile and was rewarded with a look that questioned my manhood, if not my right to exist. A left, a right, and another left put me in view of Miss Bitchy. Her desk was located adjacent to the sprawling corner office occupied by Mr. Mortimer Heard, Chief Executive Officer of Pastries International, which everyone knows is the national snack of the Republic of Texas.
Miss Bitchy pushed a button on her intercom and said, “Mr. Connolly is here, sir.” A voice came back, “Send him in.” Miss Bitchy pointed at the door with a finger that looked like a chopstick wrapped in old leather. I’m five-ten and she’s got me by six inches, and while I’m a little hefty here and there, she controls the market on boniness. She had, quite apart from an uncommonly displeasing appearance, a disposition that would rival a pit bull on speed.
I tapped on the door as I entered. Heard was seated behind a battleship-size desk, reading what appeared to be a report of yesterday’s production of donuts and counterfeit Twinkies. Without looking up, he pointed with his chin at the leather-upholstered chair facing him. I started to sit, but hesitated. The seat of the chair was dusted with white powder, an odd circumstance. I looked for the source and found it next to Heard’s elbow. The powder on the chair had migrated from a pile of confectionary sugar that surrounded a half-eaten Bavarian Cream. The powdery ring around Heard’s mouth told the rest of the story.
Five minutes went by before Heard placed the production report to the side and looked up. Through eyes trying to meet, he gave me a two-second appraisal and said, “Who are you?”
“William Connolly, sir.”
“And why are you here?”
“Your secretary said you wanted to see me.”
The vacant stare retreated. He said, “Of course, you are Connolly from umm, let me see, umm, quality control.”
“Yes, sir, that’s me, all right.” I waited for him to respond, and when he didn’t, I said, “How can I help you, sir?”
“Close the door, Connolly.”I was tempted to tell him that the door was already closed but being naturally cautious I went to the door, opened it a fraction and then closed it with a thunk.
Back in my seat, Heard said, “There is a matter of inconvenience that I want you to address.”
He leaned forward, the sleeve of his suit now encased in confectionary sugar. “A woman I do not know calls me every day. She claims we are engaged and demands I set the marriage date.” He picked up the remainder of the Bavarian Cream and chomped on it before continuing. “She says she is Princess Sophie of the Hapsburg Empire in Austria, or some such nonsense, and as soon as we are married I will be a prince, the future king of whatever.” Heard tapped the side of his head. “She’s obviously insane.”
I didn’t give word to the thought that the woman had to be insane if she wanted Heard to be her husband. He slapped both hands on the top of his desk, which created a cloud of sugar. “Get to it, then,” he said.
“Yes, sir, I’ll get to it right away.”
“That’s the attitude, Connolly. I like a man who digs right in and gets things done. You’ll go far in this company as long as I’m around. Mark my words. Oh, and by the way, I may have to reduce the staff in the quality control department.” He leaned across the top of his desk and with a conspiratorial wink, he said, “Don’t let that get around, Connolly. It will be our little secret.”
I paused with my hand on the doorknob, wondering what it was that Heard expected me to do. In his parting shot he rescued me by saying he had complete confidence in my ability to keep ‘that crazy woman’ from ever bothering him again.
In the elevator on the way back to my office I knew I had two things to do. In order of priority, tune-up the old resumé, and then do what I could to end nonsense calls from a Princess named Sophie.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that the calls were made from New Beginnings, a rehab clinic in Livermore, California. I Googled the name and learned it was a five-star operation specializing in social ‘adjustment’. The patients, women only, lived on the premises.
My call to New Beginnings was answered by a pleasant sounding young lady who identified herself as Melissa, the clinic’s receptionist. I told Melissa I wanted to talk with Princess Sophie. Melissa lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “Princess Sophie is not her real name.”
“Well then, what is her real name?”
“Melissa’s voice continued in the whisper mode. “I don’t know,” she said.
Unable to hide my proclivity for sarcasm, I asked her, “What do you know?”
“She’s supposed to be very rich. I heard the doctor say she has more than a billion dollars. Something to do with Silicon Valley, computers and all that stuff.”
A billion dollars, I thought; a figure well out of the range of believability. Common sense, which some say I have little of, dictates that a woman who calls herself a princess can easily claim to be a billionaire. Melissa interrupted my thoughts. “I guess you want to speak with her.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Yes, you can’t.”
This conversation was going nowhere fast. “Is it possible the Princess is a prisoner, chained in a dungeon with rats chewing on her toes?”
“That’s silly. We don’t have dungeons. We don’t have prisoners either. Rats I don’t know about. We have ‘clients’. That’s what we call our patients. Clients can leave anytime they want. But they aren’t allowed to talk on the phone.”
Clients can come and go as they please but can’t talk on a phone? What kind of madness is that? I put the question to Melissa and she was quick with an answer. “I meant to say that you can’t talk with Princess Sophie at this particular time. That’s because there’s no talking on the telephone between midnight and noon.”
I looked at my watch. In Livermore, California, noon had not yet arrived. I said to the receptionist, “I am going to give you my name and phone number. Please ask the Princess to call me at noon.”
The receptionist said that would be fine so I gave her my name and number and added, “Tell her it’s in regard to Mortimer.”
My phone rang at noon on the dot, Pacific Standard Time. “Connolly, here. Who am I speaking with, please?”
“You are speaking with Princess Sophie Hapsburg of Vienna, presently residing in California, awaiting overthrow of the illegal Austrian government.”
Right to the point. No fooling around. The Princess wanted to let me know I was talking to a person of high station. Her voice was not what I had expected. A screeching rant it was not. Her enunciation was clear and her words perfectly paced. The woman on the other end of the line gave evidence that craziness and stupidity have nothing to do with each other.
“Mr. Connolly, you are the wedding coordinator, I presume.”
“Actually, I am not. I am Mr. Heard’s personal assistant. He has instructed me to tell you that the marriage has to be postponed.”
With a hint of anger, she said, “My followers will be displeased, very displeased.”
I was prepared. “Early this morning Mr. Heard was rushed to the hospital where at this very moment he is undergoing emergency surgery to remove a very large polyp from his throat. He will be hospitalized indefinitely and unable to talk. There is a chance he will never talk again.”
“Yes, not talk.”
My hope was she’d put Heard into her past and move on to someone else but the hope went AWOL when she said, “I will leave for Houston first thing in the morning. I’ll sit by Mortimer, accelerate his recovery and show him my deep and abiding love. He will be happy while convalescing. The name of the hospital, please.”
Oh, no, I thought. I’ve stepped in it. What to do? My mind was working at warp speed when the Princess repeated her demand for the name of the hospital.
I said the first thought that came to mind. “Mr. Heard expected you’d want to be at his side. But he cannot bear for you to see him while he’s in a state of helplessness. He wants you to remain in California until he recovers. But he will communicate with you regularly.”
She sounded doubtful. “How will that be possible if he cannot talk? I have a feeling you are not being truthful with me, Mr. Connolly.”
“Would I lie?” Of course that was exactly what I was doing. “Princess, I would be fired in an instant if Mr. Heard even thought I was less than truthful to the woman he so passionately loves. He wants you to call me. I will give your message to him, he will write a reply, and I’ll read his reply to you.”
The Princess was slow to answer. “The communication must occur Monday through Friday, without fail.”
“Most certainly, Your Highness.”
She must have liked the ‘Your Highness’ touch because her tone softened. “We will commence the arrangement tomorrow.” In the background I could hear a woman’s voice demanding the Princess give up the phone.
“I must go now,” she said, “but there’s one last thing. Tell Mortimer to be discreet about our lovemaking.” The phone clicked off.
At noon during five consecutive weeks, calls came to me from Livermore. I could set my watch to it. The Princess gave a different declaration of love in every call, which made me begin to wonder if she’d ever run out of mushy things to say. My replies weren’t anything to write home about either. They came from the realm of fantasy, and had no connection to anything the Princess had said in her previous call. I stuck with knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, Merlin the wizard (who was obviously me), dragons, and royal weddings. The Princess gobbled them up like Garfield attacking a bowl of grated tuna.
On one slow day, the Princess told me how it came to be that Mortimer had asked for her hand in marriage. She said they had been seeing each other for several months when they were invited to a dinner party at a villa overlooking Lake Como. The host was the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and among the guests were Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and others whose names I did not recognize. Mortimer had asked her to join him on the balcony where he fell to one knee and begged her to marry him. She even provided the date.
I knew her story was made up because on that particular date Mortimer Heard had been in Dallas reciting his annual lies to stockholders. But I was curious, so I went online to the history pages of the New York Times. On the date cited by the Princess, a dinner party had been hosted by the Ambassador to Italy, at a villa on the shore of Lake Como, and the names of guests were just as the Princess had said. The name of one guest intrigued me, Miss Vivian Barry, founder of CyberTech, located in Mountain View, California, which happens to be in Silicon Valley.
Every once in a while, which was too often for me, I’d bump into Heard. He’d make a comment like, “Glad that the idiot is off my back.” On one of those times I gave him a big smile and made a comment that the world was full of idiots. The jerk thought I was referring to the Princess.
After five weeks of telephone calls it was only natural that the Princess had begun to think of me as a friend. Some people, like Heard, would say the Princess was nutty, cuckoo, weird, or all three. To me, the Princess was a befuddled woman who deserved more from life than what she was getting.
Then, for a reason I could not understand, the calls stopped. Part of me said, “Boy, am I glad that’s over,” and another part said, “I hope she’s all right.”
So confident was I about keeping my job, I put the resumé back in the file drawer. On a Friday afternoon I was preparing to sneak out early so I could beat the traffic to Galveston. But my plan ended when the security guard at the visitor’s desk called and said I had a visitor. “What’s the visitor’s name?” I asked.
“She says the name is Princess Sophie.”
You gotta be kidding, I thought. I told the security guard to give her a visitor’s pass and direct her to the lobby conference room where I’d join her. My greatest fear at that moment was the possibility that Heard, in his mindless wanderings, would be seen by the Princess.
When I arrived at the lobby conference room, she was standing with a posture that reminded me of the Queen Mother. She had placed a stained backpack on the conference table, and through a broken zipper on the backpack I saw the tips of worn athletic socks. I’ve never used the word ‘gaunt’ before, but that’s what she was. Facial skin, toneless and cracked, held her lips tight against yellowed teeth. Tired eyes peered out from under bushy eyebrows and below her nose, thin and pointed, was a hint of a mustache. Over the front of her shoulders hung a braid of light brown hair that reached to her knees. She wore baggy camouflage pants, torn at the knees and ragged at the bottom where they touched Converse sneakers. It was difficult to judge the contours of her upper body because the size of the shirt she wore must have been extra, extra large. The embroidered name on the pocket announced the shirt had once belonged to a person named Hank. Yet beneath her appearance were traces of an abandoned beauty. The only item not ravaged by time and wear was the company’s visitor pass appended to Hank’s shirt.
She ignored my invitation to sit, and said, “You have not bowed, Mr. Connolly. You must bow before addressing me.” I bowed and apologized. She selected a chair at the end of the table and I took a seat on the side closest to her.
“What brings you to Houston, Princess?”
“I have come to tell Mortimer that I no longer love him and must refuse his untiring entreaties for marriage because I have fallen in love with someone else. Mortimer’s adoration deserves no less than for me to give him the bad news face-to-face. In that regard, I must insist you take me to his bedside without delay.”
Now this was a wrinkle I had failed to anticipate, but being a bullshitter of the first order, I came up with an off-the-cuff answer. “I’m afraid it is not possible to see Mr. Heard. He passed away last week and has been buried at the place of his birth in Wampum, Idaho.” I lowered my head as if contemplating the gravity of the CEO’s death.
She did not demonstrate sorrow. After a long minute of silence she spoke. “It is just as well. He has been spared the agony of losing me to another.”
It was not my place to ask for the name of the lucky guy who had ousted dear Mortimer. All that mattered to me was the end of an ordeal that had been dumped on me.
I needed an opportunity alone to organize my thoughts to finalize the whole affair. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“I do not drink coffee.”
“Do you mind if I get a cup for myself?”
“Not at all.”
It being late afternoon, the company cafeteria was empty except for the lady manager Windexing the sneeze guard above the food line. From an urn I filled a cup with coffee waiting to be dumped. I pointed my cup to the kitchen behind the serving line and asked the manager if she had any extra fruit back there.
“What kind of fruit?”
“Apples, oranges, bananas. Whatever you got.”
She flashed me a more than friendly smile, and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Before she reached the kitchen door I called out, “Some cookies, too, if you have any.” She returned carrying a brown paper bag bulging with fruit.
I saw a spark in the Princess’ eyes when I placed the paper bag on the table in front of her. “I hope you will accept this small gift from Pastries International, which everyone knows is the national snack of the Republic of Texas.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I was running out of things to say, and discussion about weather was not my strong suit so I asked, “How was your flight?”
“I do not travel by airplane.”
I figured she could not have walked from Livermore, California to Houston, Texas. “So how did you get here?”
The surprised look on my face prompted an explanation. She said, “Hitchhiking allows me to inform drivers, mostly truck drivers, of the scurrilous Austrian government, and solicit support for return of the monarchy. No one has ever spoken against my cause.” She threw back her shoulders and pursed her lips as if warning me to watch what I say.
I cooperated. “Your efforts are very commendable, Your Highness. I am sure it is only a question of time before your family is restored to its rightful place.”
“I knew you’d agree, Mr. Connolly. You and I are of the same mind. What is the word…simpatico? Yes, that is the word. We are simpatico.” As she was saying simpatico, she slipped her hand inside Hank’s former shirt and removed an object wrapped in a paper towel. She handed it to me, and said, “Open it, please.” Inside was a rose, at least the remnants of a rose; a single petal clung to a lifeless stem. “This is my gift to you, Mr. Connolly.” I guess I was distracted by staring at what remained of the rose because I did not see the Princess’ hand move across the back of my hand and remain there. My eyes moved from the rose to her face. Holy shit, I thought. I’m Heard’s replacement. I held the rose at arm’s length in front of me to create what I hoped would be a barrier.
“A lovely gift, your Highness and, oh, by the way, will you be leaving Houston soon?”
She said, “I know you will be very disappointed, but I must leave right away. My followers in Livermore deserve to be informed of this new development. I will return as quickly as I can.”
She rose from her chair and I sprang to open the door. She placed the bag of fruit and cookies in her backpack and I bowed as she moved toward the door. She patted the visitor pass hanging on the front of Hank’s old shirt and asked, “Must I return this to the security desk?”
“No, that is not necessary, Princess.” My primary objective at the moment was to get her out of the building as smoothly and as quickly as possible.
“Very good,” she said. “I will keep this pass as a memento of the occasion.”
I said nothing and led her to a side door that opened onto Westheimer. She said, “Please tell me the way to I-10. I must hurry if I’m to be in San Antonio before dark.”
I pointed at a street that intersected Westheimer. “Turn left on that street right there and it will take you to I-10. Please be careful, Your Highness,” I said.
“Do not worry, Mr. Connolly. I find protection and rest in welcome centers. Only occasionally do I sleep on the side of the road.”
In the morning of the following Monday I was busy resurrecting my resumé. I no longer cared to work for Pastries International, which everyone knows is the national snack of the Republic of Texas. Working in a company orchestrated by Mortimer Schmuck had become unendurable.
I was adding another white lie to my resumé when the phone rang. “Connolly here,” I said. The caller was a Sergeant Rayburn out of the state police station in El Paso. The sergeant said he had a visitor’s pass to the headquarters building of Pastries International.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Because the person visited was you.”
I asked him what he wanted to know and he said, “I can read your name on the pass but not the name of the visitor. The pass is pretty much torn up.”
“So how can I help you?”
“I want to know the name of the visitor.”
“Can you be more specific? I have visitors all the time.”
“There’s a backpack. It’s pretty much stained, but I can see an imprint on it. Looks like the initials ‘V.B.’ and below that it says ‘CyberTech.’”
V.B. for Vivian Barry? CyberTech? Billions? Could it be true?
The sergeant added, “The person in question was a woman.”
“That’s right. She was struck and run over by a 16-wheeler on I-10.”
I told the sergeant, “Her name was Princess Sophie…and she was my friend.” I laid the phone back on the cradle and had a good, long, cry.
Jack Fay former Special Agent, Army CID; security director for a major oil company; university adjunct; and author of 10 non-fiction books in law enforcement and security management. He currently resides in Atlanta where he owns and operates a company that sells online courses to private investigators and security managers. http://learningshopusa.com/