At five minutes to two it rang, making both of them jump. The silence had long since worn off; George was demonstrating his skill at making theremin-like music by squeezing his hands together. Jesse suspected trickery and could not determine exactly what the fraud was or how it might be executed, so after his initial start, he sighed in relief that they finally had a client.
“Where are you? He’s on his way from the airport!” George held the phone away from his ear. Jesse had no trouble hearing her.
With composed courtesy, George said, “Fearing some temporary communication trouble, Madam, we came across the bridge and are minutes from your house. Madam, we need your address.”
Silence. Only George heard her when she said, “I asked the governess to provide it. I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.” She provided an address, which was, as promised, mere minutes away, and they rolled out.
Jesse whistled as he got out of the truck. They’d never had such good access to a move site before; he estimated the turnaround was large enough for three tractor trailers and maybe thirty cars. Jesse did not get to bask for long. He and George were wordlessly greeted as the door was opened by a perfectly coiffed, groomed and uniformed maid whose fixed smile woke Jesse’s PTSD with a vicious blow.
This was no one who could help him or protect him. This was the face of someone terrified of someone else, and willing to watch you drown to stand on shore.
She led them into a smallish, comfortable room off the entranceway.
Jesse remained standing to make a show of respect and also to stay alert, as he had no intention of moving his gaze from the door. He managed breathing exercises while he did it. You’re a superstar. On the inhale! Silent affirmations please. On the exhale!
“What’s with you,” George muttered. He was running a finger over a wooden sideboard, which looked like a splendid antique. “You sound like a bellows – puff, blow, puff, blow. Having tummy troubles?”
“No,” Jesse said, and continued his breathing exercises. George acted like a social justice fellow traveller, but he had a marked distaste for a show of weakness from anyone, and beaked off if he saw it (and whenever else he chose.) It was a failing, and an instructive one.
George abandoned his antiquarian pose and stood next to Jesse.
The client entered and said, “Please follow me.” George made a small noise which could have been assent. Jesse couldn’t have spoken, and walked, in a strange foggy state, after George. Even George seemed cowed by this woman; he’d never been this consistently servile with anyone before. It spun Jesse around, and it scared him.
He realized she would only speak with George, so he could zone out.
She was very polished; her hair was a shoulder-length brown cascade but Jesse thought, looking at her unmemorable beauty, if I look away I will not be able to remember her face, and does that make me face blind or racist?
George stopped dead and said, “Madam, I smell blood.”
The woman turned, eyes wide, and then said, “I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“As you say, Madam,” George said. “You said it was a selection of pieces which you want moved.”
They had started late, and then they ran into the second snag. It was a doozy.
It was a fifteen room house, and she wanted them to move something from every room. In each case it was an item no sane two person crew could manage. something antique and delicate. Or something really awkward and heavy. Jesse’s thinking, already slowed by unease, now slid into panic. They had maybe half a dozen furniture blankets. Not an issue, she responded. She seemed amused for the first time, but the pleasant expression passed and a fixed glare replaced it.
She would supervise them as they were wrapped. She sent the maid to get tablecloths, immense swathes of patterned white linen, to make up the deficit.
Unlike every other woman they had helped so far, she would not touch a single item or pack a single box. She stood at the foot of the entryway stairs and directed traffic in a steady flow of Mandarin and some other language George couldn’t make out, and then the clear soft English.
“Does Madam expect your husband to arrive in the middle of the move?” George asked.
“Do as I ask,” she said, which was not an answer. She quietly directed her maid to block two doors open, both facing onto the yard and away from the front entrance.
“Who is this person?” Jesse said under his breath as they moved the first piece onto the truck.
“I don’t know past her name and her pedigree, but I can still smell blood, and I could swear that whoever was bleeding is still bleeding,” George said. He said, “I wish I knew more about the husband.”
“I wish you could teach a course in how to smell things,” Jesse said. He didn’t want to think about the blood, and couldn’t understand why George would say such a thing to a customer, even if it was true, as was Jesse’s dark prediction.
As they spoke, they moved a brace of lacquered chairs. To Jesse’s mind they were hideous and impossible to keep clean but another thousand bucks awaited them if they helped this person, as requested, so Jesse was fine not expressing his opinion.
“It’s a gift, and a shitty one. Teach it? – that would be impossible! It would be no gift if I could, in the sense that you could merely take it from the box and use it when you were bored and wanted to do party tricks,” and George nodded to himself. “It’s no fun living in a metropolitan area and having a usefully precise sense of smell. The smell in the back of the van, for example, is not something you want in the Smell-O-Vision equivalent of Dolby Digital 5.1, with commentary track.”
“Let’s be thankful our host won’t get into the van,” Jesse said.