Who Sat Down Beside Her

Who Sat Down Beside Her

by Joseph Cusumano

Using the bottom of a coffee mug, Lara crushed the caffeine tablet, chopped the small particles into a fine powder with a razor blade and snorted all of it up with a short length of rolled paper. Compared to the blast she still craved, rehab or no rehab, intranasal caffeine was a poor substitute. For the moment, however, she had borrowed enough initiative to shower, dress, and make herself a decent breakfast. Lara was still underweight, and she wanted her boobs back.

After breakfast, she slipped into a pair of low-heeled pumps, grabbed her jacket and stepped outside. Had it not been another day of gray skies and rain, she might have made it. After staring at the dreary landscape for several moments, Lara abruptly turned and reentered her apartment, her pulse already beginning to climb.

The silver-gray, hard-cased Samsonite suitcase scraped the bottom of her bedframe as she pulled it out. After unlatching the top and removing a zip-lock bag, she placed a small quantity of its white powder onto the top of her dresser and used the razor’s edge to form a line. As long as she didn’t bang it into her veins, she wasn’t a total addict, at least not like the crew she’d met in rehab. Those burn-outs, as she referred to them, had already lost their teeth while she still turned heads.

Fifteen minutes later, she was barrelling down the highway to her office, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” booming from the Bose. With her entire nervous system set to blitz mode, it was a lot easier dealing with the decision she’d postponed. Ron, her business partner and on-again-off-again thrill, should be told the news of her recent windfall, at least the cash part of it. It would allow their fledgling business to avoid bankruptcy.

Two days ago, she had returned to the Seattle airport after a fruitless trip to San Francisco and was among the first travellers to exit the plane. Her Samsonite was among the first pieces of luggage to reach the carousel, and by the time the last passenger got off the jet, Lara was on her way to short-term parking.

After arriving at her apartment, she tossed the suitcase onto her bed, undressed, showered, and dried herself. Still having some clean clothes in the suitcase, she flipped it open and was stunned. On the left side were half inch thick bundles of Jacksons plus a few stacks of Franklins, more money than she had ever seen at one time. On the right side were four large zip-lock bags filled with white powder. Naked and damp, Lara stared at the contents until she shivered.

Ron arrived at the office about five minutes after Lara. Although none of their employees were in their cubicles yet, Lara asked him to come into her office and close the door behind him. By then, she had decided that the cash and drugs she’d found were a gift from heaven, not someone else’s dangerous ill-gotten gains. But Ron was a four per-center, one of the very few who had stayed clean after a couple of days in detox. Almost everyone else needed months of rehab to kick the habit. He was the exception to a rule that got tossed around in rehab regarding cocaine, that the first time you tried it, you were signing over durable power of eternity to a molecule. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Ron about the cocaine.

“Well, shit! You’re cranking again!” Ron said. It wasn’t a question. Lara’s first impulse was to deny it, but her runny nose and constant movements made that impossible, especially to a former addict. No way I can take the Fifth in this court, Lara realized, so she pled guilty and braced herself for a lecture she didn’t want to hear. But instead of playing drug counsellor, Ron surprised her by focusing on a more immediate issue, one to which she had given little thought.

“Can you tell if somebody took your suitcase, emptied it out, and then refilled it with the coke? Or do you think it’s not even your suitcase?”

“It’s not mine. It just looks like mine” Lara said.

“How do you know?”

“All the internal compartments for storing separate items have been torn out. I also found some scratches on the outside that mine doesn’t have, and it smells funny on the inside.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know … some weird chemical smell.”

“Does it have an I.D. tag on the handle?”

“No.”

“Did yours?”

“No,” she replied. Ron appeared to relax a little.

“So whoever packed the money and drugs in the suitcase that you took home likely has your suitcase and clothes.”

“Yeah, but like I said, there was no I.D. tag on mine.”

“Was there anything in your own suitcase that could identify you?” he asked. From the look on her face, Ron saw that she hadn’t considered this.

“Well?” he prodded.

“Give me a moment, will you?” she shot back.

“What about the documents for the group in San Francisco? Were they in the suitcase?”

“No. I carried them in a briefcase along with my tablet.”

“Did you have any personal items in the suitcase?”

“Like what?”

“Like…prescription medicines with your name and address on the label. Or mail. And what about your travel expense receipts?”

“I keep my meds in my purse, and the travel receipts are in my briefcase.” She lifted her purse and the dark brown leather briefcase off her desk to show him, her arm trembling.

“And what about mail? Did you take any mail with you, even junk mail?”

“Yeah, I did…”

“And where is it?” Ron asked.

“I read it and threw it away at the hotel. Most of it was women’s magazines.”

“You threw all of it away before you packed your suitcase in San Francisco?”

“Yeah, I think I did.” She wanted to kick herself.

* * *

It would have to be Connie. Two years ago, Connie had been so helpful when Lara had her abortion, driving her to and from the clinic and spending the first night sleeping on a cot alongside her. In other circumstances, Lara would have used the word godsend to describe her. But when the ordeal was over, Lara drifted away. She still had some guilt about it—the separation from Connie, not the abortion—and decided that she must have needed to close an entire chapter of her life, one that had included her closest friend. Now she needed Connie again.

Lara arrived at her favorite coffee shop five minutes early and twelve pounds underweight. She had no appetite but ordered a pecan-filled pastry with her coffee. The coffee came in an old style, heavy white ceramic mug, just like the ones from which she’d sipped hot chocolate while in grade school. The pecan pastry lay on a plain white china plate, and the silverware was stainless steel. Nothing fancy, but the place had none of the cheap, disposable feel she encountered nearly everywhere else. After meandering around the coffee shop, Lara found an empty table at the rear.

She still hadn’t decided how much she would have to tell Connie and how much she could keep to herself. The financial predicament of her company? Her cash windfall? That she was cranking again? Her uncertainty about whether she had left personal information in the suitcase, the one that the smugglers now possessed?

Suddenly aware of someone standing at the edge of the table, Lara looked up and saw her friend. Like herself, Connie was tall, brunette and fair. Unlike herself, Connie had curves.

Connie gave Lara the smile she remembered, the one that said everything is going to be okay. Lara jumped up, hugged her and didn’t want to let go. Neither did Connie.

In minutes, they were conversing as if their separation had never occurred, and Lara remembered what she most admired and envied about her friend; Connie saw life as an adventure, and she still trusted her own judgement.

With a two-year hiatus, they had some catching up to do, and there were enough safe topics that the time passed easily and quickly. But Lara knew that Connie would eventually prod her with the question that was the reason for their tête-a-tête.

“Lara, is something getting you down? You don’t look well, and you’re too thin.”

Lara glanced at her coffee and untouched pastry, still undecided about how much to reveal. She would just have to begin and trust herself to say the right thing.

“It’s not completely my fault,” Lara said.

“I read the article in the paper a few months ago about the business you started,” Connie replied. Lara remembered the friendly note that Connie had sent at the time, one to which she should have responded. “Is your business in trouble?”

“That’s a big chunk of it. You don’t know my partner, Ron, but we met on a detox ward.”

“Strange place to formulate a business plan.” Connie smiled.

“For sure, but I needed something to work toward, not just something to get away from. Without a project like this, it would have taken me a lot longer to get clean.”

“What kind of business is it?”

“Crowd lending. People with money to invest who can’t earn much more than two percent in CDs can get up to five percent if they loan their money to us. Then we loan the money out at seven percent to small business start-ups. Each investor’s money gets spread out over a large number of different start-ups to minimize risk. It’s a neat business model. We have much lower overhead than a bank does because we do relatively little investigation into the people we loan to. Of course we provide information to our investors regarding the nature, size, and number of start-ups in our loan portfolio.”

“Most of this is done online?”

“Exactly. We almost never meet face to face with investors or borrowers, and that saves a huge amount of overhead and time.”

“Sounds efficient. Is it working out?”

“Sort of. The trick is simply having enough borrowers and lenders, so I was really excited when I got a call from a larger company based in San Francisco. They’re in the same business we are, and they wanted to explore a possible merger with us.”

“That sounds great. What happened?”

“I went to meet the CEO in person. I showed him our current balance sheet, the profit and loss statement for the most recent quarters, and our projections.”

“And?”

“He lost interest, fast. He thought the projections were unrealistic and said we had made the most common mistake start-ups make.”

“Let me guess,” Connie interrupted. “Beginning without enough capital to stay afloat until the operation becomes self-sustaining.”

“You’ve obviously seen this before. From the CEO’s point of view, we would be a drag on his company. It was a huge let-down.”

“Do you think he was right?”

“It looks that way. If we don’t get bigger very soon, we won’t be able to pay the salaries or the rent. We’re going through our cash too fast.” Lara took a large swallow of coffee, hoping to warm herself without having to force food down her gullet. Closing her eyes, she felt the warmth spread through her chest and stomach. “About a month ago, I started doing something risky.” She paused, and Connie gave her the encouraging nod she needed. “I started paying the interest owed to the early investors with money coming in from new investors.”

“You mean a pyramid scheme?” Connie seemed horrified.

“Not like Madoff!” Lara insisted.

“How is it different?”

“Well for one thing, Ron and I aren’t living some extravagant lifestyle. I’m just trying to keep the business alive until it reaches a size where it can generate a profit.”

“Does Ron know what you’re doing?”

“No. I’m keeping two sets of books.” When Connie remained silent, Lara looked down and fidgeted with her napkin and silverware. The pastry on her plate looked even less appetizing now than when she had bought it, and after cutting it into small bites, she lifted the plate to her friend. Connie took a piece, held it between thumb and forefinger, and continued to wait. “But I’ve been given a way out,” Lara finally said, and she amazed Connie with the story of the switched luggage and cash windfall, not mentioning the plastic bags filled with cocaine.

When she finished, Connie asked, “And what does Ron think?”

“That I have to turn the money over to the police.”

“And you?”

“If he doesn’t let me save the business with the cash I’ve found, I’m going to buy him out.”

Connie left the coffee house fifteen minutes later, wondering why Lara had bothered to ask her opinion.

* * *

Shit! Shit! Shit! Is this for real? Lara read the email for the third time.

Ms. Wilson: You are in possession of property that is not yours. We are referring to the contents of a suitcase that you took from the airport on December 3rd. We believe you took it from a carousel by mistake and that you wish to return it in exchange for your own. Park your car at the lot on the corner of 27th and Carter this coming Tuesday at 4 PM. Leave it unlocked with our suitcase on the floor of the back seat and leave the area immediately. You may return to your car after 4:30 PM. Your own suitcase will be in the back seat.

I did leave some kind of I.D. in my suitcase, Lara realized. But how did they get my email address?

In less than a minute, she had her answer. Using Google, she found all sorts of online services that would provide that information and much more. Lara jumped up from her desk and quickly headed into her bedroom. After tossing the suitcase on top of the bed, she opened it and stared at the contents. Although she had taken some of the cocaine from one of the plastic bags, the bag was still over three-quarters full. The other bags were untouched. As for the cash, she had taken only two of the bundles of twenty dollar bills, leaving well over $300,000.

If they had contacted me right away, I wouldn’t have dared touch it. Why the hell did they wait? Do they expect me not to have used a little coke and cash after two whole weeks? What are they going to do when they discover that some of their stash is missing?

Lara didn’t have any answers, and pacing the rooms of her apartment didn’t help. She stopped to glance at the clock on her fireplace mantle. It was 9:30 PM. No wonder she was crashing. It had been over fourteen hours since she had snorted her daily allotment. Maybe she could get some sleep and face things with a clearer mind in the morning, especially after her morning fix.

After undressing in her bedroom, she entered the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Not good. Red-rimmed eyelids. Patchy discoloration on her left cheek, typical of coke users. Her face was gaunt and the bathroom scale confirmed it; she was down an additional four pounds. I’ve got to start eating! she vowed. I’ll get a solid breakfast in the morning.

Lara leaned over the bathtub to turn on the water but immediately jumped back. A spider the size of her hand was inside the tub. She quickly backed out of the bathroom and closed the door. The space under the door was too narrow to permit the thing to crawl through. This calmed her somewhat, but re-entering the bathroom was out of the question. The landlord could deal with the spider in the morning. Alone, she wouldn’t have faced it with anything less than a flame-thrower. She tugged on the door again to make sure that it was completely closed, headed for the half bath off the living room, and washed her face and hands repeatedly.

Lara knew she needed a sedative and took a double dose. When she finally relaxed enough to fall asleep, her dreams were overrun by spiders which had long, bony human fingers in place of legs. She whimpered and thrashed about in bed, but the sedative prevented her from wakening. The spiders climbed all over her, used their human fingers to pull her hair, and bit her arms and legs. When she couldn’t seem to swat them away, Lara glanced at her hands. Her fingers had turned into bristly spider legs.

* * *

“Ms. Wilson, there’s nothing in your bathtub.”

“What about the rest of the bathroom? Maybe it crawled out of the tub and is hiding in the closet,” Lara said.

“I checked everywhere,” Rick answered while walking into the kitchen where Lara waited. “It must have gone down the drain. I’ll run some hot water in case it’s still in the pipe.”

When he finished, Rick told her to call if she saw the spider again; then he returned to his office. Lara stepped gingerly into the doorframe of the bathroom and looked around. Her search included all four corners of the ceiling. The last place she wanted to find it was on top of her head, but Rick had been right. It was gone. Lara pushed the rubber plug into the bathtub drain as far as it would go, aware that it would be difficult to remove later. She then filled the tub with enough hot water to fog the mirror above the sink even with the bathroom door left wide open. Next came the lavender bath salts. Once settled into the hot water, the tension in her neck and traps begin to ease.

Thirty minutes later when Lara had finished dressing, she went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator in hope of finding something palatable. But having neither added anything fresh nor removed any of the older items, she caught a whiff of something that had spoiled and quickly shut the refrigerator door. Her final preparation for work was a long line of white powder.

* * *

Lara exited the freeway at 27th street and headed south toward its intersection with Carter. The clock on the dashboard read 3:45 PM, and the parking lot designated in the email was less than a mile away. Even with fur-lined gloves, the steering wheel sucked the warmth out of her fingers, and the mirror on her visor had been especially unkind. Sunken eyes, patchy discolorations all over her face, dark stains on her teeth.

Several minutes earlier, she had jerked the steering wheel when the spider crawled across her windshield and been buffeted by the blaring horns of other drivers. In the previous days, Lara had seen it multiple times. At the office, she had watched it climb onto Ron’s lap and settle in. When Ron continued to calmly sip his coffee, she knew the spider wasn’t real, but Lara believed it was something she could handle. It couldn’t be any worse than what she had experienced years ago with ketamine.

However, this had been a turning point for Lara. Ron was aghast when she showed him the anonymous email. He begged her to follow the instructions that had been sent. It meant she would have to surrender her windfall and go back into detox and rehab, but he insisted there was no alternative.

Eventually Lara agreed, knowing full well that the business might fail, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell Ron about the second set of books she’d been keeping. If she ended up in prison for defrauding their investors, Ron would be left to pay both Peter and Paul.

Lara was three blocks away from the parking lot when everything suddenly became clear. She immediately pulled into an empty parking space and sat with her heart pounding.

How could I have been so stupid? she wondered. The anonymous email was sent by Ron, and he’s the one coming to switch the suitcases! Then while I’m in rehab, he’ll try to buy me out for a song, maybe even force a sale in court by claiming that I’m a hopeless addict who was committing fraud and destroying the business. Nobody will understand that I’m the only one who can save it.

Devastated by the betrayal, Lara sat a few more minutes before another suspicion crept over her. Was Connie in on this too? Was Connie going to be Ron’s new partner? Given her own wasted condition, curvaceous Connie might already be Ron’s new love.

She swore out loud and angrily shoved the gearshift back into drive, made a hasty U-turn, and headed back to the highway. Instead of heading north on the interstate back to her apartment, she took the southbound ramp. Five minutes later, she crossed the river and the state line. With the suitcase in the back seat, she didn’t need anything or anybody.

Lara glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw two large spiders crawling on the inside surface of the rear window. Although her hands instantly gripped the steering wheel tighter, she kept the car in the center of the lane.

◊ ◊ ◊

Joseph Cusumano
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work.

5 thoughts on “Who Sat Down Beside Her

  1. Loved it. It gripped me throughout. At the end, the rational part of me saw that she was slipping into paranoid delusions but I kept thinking of that saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” So the story, with its unsettling (for me) ending will stay with me. Thank you, Joseph.

  2. I’ve read this story before, when it was submitted to another publication, one for which I read slush. I had questions about its plausibility then, and still do, primarily about how a suitcase full of cocaine and money would make it through airport security and why the drug dealers wouldn’t have somebody watching the barrage carousel to make sure the right person retrieves the suitcase. Nevertheless it’s clever.

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