Rochelle wanted nothing to do with the wretched briefcase. It was thrust into her life like a wedge in her ribcage.
Wednesday lunch time was the only chance she had for shopping Collins St. for a sexy little dress to wear on Saturday night. And Saturday night was important, damn it! Looking in a fancy shop window, she was totally absorbed by a shiny red number on a mannequin that was too tall for the short dress, thinking if that doesn’t get Mystery Man’s attention nothing will. And thanking her lucky stars she wasn’t taller than the mannequin! Knowing she had found something decent to wear, Rochelle was now feeling more relaxed about going on a blind date with this guy Tina met recently. In fact she was secretly looking forward to it.
As Rochelle decided she would go in to try on the dress she vaguely heard the rushing footsteps of someone anxious to get past the throng of people in the street. She turned for the door and she stepped straight into a dorky-looking business man holding up a tan coloured briefcase. The man was so flustered and panicky, Rochelle felt that his manner didn’t match his apparent age which she always associated with success and confidence. He thrust the briefcase into her arms and told her to look after it for a week, don’t open it, don’t speak to anyone about it, DO NOT go to the police and he’d collect it from her next week. Same time, same place. Rochelle began to protest but as quickly as he appeared, he simply dissolved into the crowd.
Rochelle watched the ambling crowd swallow the over-stressed stranger, the red dress forgotten, overridden by a new thought. Danger. Terrorists. Bombs. Drugs. She quickly put the briefcase down on the ground and backed away from it, oblivious to the city sheep who slowed down to watch her but asked no questions for fear of becoming involved in something more life-changing than choosing the wrong coffee shop for their latte. A tan briefcase? Who buys tan briefcases? Who makes tan briefcases?
That was when she noticed the label. A large white card attached to the handle like an airline destination tag. But this didn’t have MEL printed on it in large letters. It was smaller writing. Do I want to know what it says? She thought. No! I don’t. It could be dangerous. I don’t want anything to do with it. That weirdo has made a mistake. I’ll just slowly walk away, pretend I never saw a thing. I won’t be anywhere near here next week and my life will continue as normal. I’ll meet a gorgeous guy on Saturday Night and I’ll live happily ever…
“Excuse me!”, The male voice was close but Rochelle was hardly listening. “Excuse me. Is that your case?”
Rochelle realised she’d been staring at the briefcase, now a good three metres away and must be looking a bit suspicious. “No!” She replied a little too forcefully, like a chocolate-covered child denying any knowledge of missing sweets.
Whoa!, he’s quite cute, Rochelle thought. Who needs a briefcase? This young specimen can take my briefs any time! Why is he giving me that strange look?
The young man picked up the briefcase and turned the label to read it. “It’s got a name and address. Rochelle Summers, Unit 3, Number 7, Wicklow Court – Hey!”
Rochelle freaked. She grabbed the tag and tore it from the briefcase. They know who I am! They know where I live! Holy Christ, what to do, what to do! Rochelle bolted, leaving the stunned (stunning) guy standing outside an expensive women’s clothing store. She never looked back. She never considered the irony of running so fast away from what could be the long sought-after man of her dreams. There could be anything in there and by the way the delivery guy was behaving it probably isn’t legal. People have gone to jail for getting involved with stuff like this.
Rochelle zigzagged through the random people dawdling along the street towards her office, heart pounding. Tina will know what to do. A block away she felt a stitch in her stomach and had to stop to catch her breath. She leaned against a wall with her forearm cushioning her head. Her bag slid off her hip and she impatiently swung it back again and realised she still clung to the briefcase tag. She almost tossed it into the street but the thought of littering inflated her guilt so she unfolded it instead and read it. It did indeed have her name and address on it. And her phone numbers. Home, business and mobile. Calm, Rochelle, Calm. Don’t stress. Be calm. What don’t they know about me? Without thinking she turned the tag over. “Look after me, Rochelle. TELL NO-ONE!”, it read. Rochelle’s breath solidified in her throat.
What about Tina? Surely I can talk to my best friend. Of course I can. Rochelle made up her mind to email Tina as soon as she got back. She walked steadily towards her building and smiled weakly at Steve who was standing outside, smoke in hand. As she pushed the revolving door she could feel his stare on her behind. Piss off, Steve. Not in the mood.
Rochelle didn’t have to wait for the lift. A small crowd returning for the afternoon leg of their journey to five was gathering near an open lift door. Rochelle joined them as her mobile signaled an incoming text. She managed to read her text and wished she’d waited for the next lift, although the sardine-people in the lift were all that prevented her from falling down as the blood drained from her face. “Where is the briefcase, Rochelle? Get it back. Tell no one. One week.” No number. “Oh, Shit!” she said aloud.
No way! I’m not getting it. How am I supposed to find it, anyway? Someone’s probably taken it, by now. No, I’ve got to get back to work. Hopefully someone’s called the terrorist hotline and the bomb squad already have the street cleared with a robot going in. I’ll have to tell Tina. As if in answer to her last thought the phone beeped again. This text simply read “TELL NO ONE!”. Rochelle, struggled to hold back a whine.
The lift arrived at her floor. She stepped out, walked quickly to the door, fumbled with her security card, pulled the frosted glass door open and stopped dead. She saw nothing but briefcases. There were only about four or five but they just seemed huge and overbearing.
Rochelle let out a breath. Get a grip. This is normal. Everyone has a briefcase here. She slowly wandered back to her cubicle and sat down, half expecting a mystery email telling her to look after a briefcase for a week and not tell anyone about it. There were none. Just the usual meeting requests and a spam notification from IT, just in case it isn’t as unwanted as the spam-filter thinks. They can wait.
Rochelle typed a quick email for Tina. “Meet me at the OK bar after work – R” The OK bar was code the women used for one of their not quite favourite drinking holes. It was a reasonable plan B when their preferred venue was, for whatever reason, not preferred. Only Tina and herself used the term so Rochelle felt confident that anyone eavesdropping on her email wouldn’t realise what she was up to.
* * *
Rochelle sat alone at the bar sipping her soft drink, feeling like the designated driver with no one to drive. She wanted a clear head when she explained her problem to her best friend. Tina had replied to her message with a curt “C U @ 6” but it was approaching half an hour after.
Rochelle was oblivious to the men watching her. Rochelle only had eyes for the door where she expected Tina to appear any second. Suddenly she was there – and Rochelle’s phone beeped. Another one. Rochelle quickly read the message as Tina came rushing in, pushing past the male obstacles that challenged her path to the bar. “Don’t let her read it”, it read. What? Rochelle put the phone away before Tina could ask questions. There were too many Rochelle couldn’t answer. Wouldn’t and couldn’t.
“Hi babe! Sorry I’m late. Got held up at work. Didn’t get a chance to text. The weirdest thing happened on the way here, too…”
Rochelle stiffened. Tina opened her bag and produced a DL envelope. “A bicycle courier came roaring up on the footpath and stopped dead in front of me, gave me this and said to give it to you. It’s got your name on it. Said it was vitally important that I give it too you immediately – What’s wrong, Roche?”
Rochelle’s fear-ridden, bulging eyes were boring straight into Tina’s and Tina didn’t like it one bit. She’d never seen Rochelle like this.
“I don’t want to open it. I know what it says.”
Tina could hear the stifled tears in Rochelle’s voice. She stared. “Something’s seriously wrong here, girl. You wanted to talk to me about something and this letter’s got something to do with it so I’m listening.” Tina paused, allowing Rochelle to begin.
Rochelle just looked down. “I can’t tell you. I’ve been getting freaky messages since lunch time saying not to tell anyone.” Rochelle could control her tears no longer. “I don’t even know if I should have told you that much. That letter’s just another one. I’m scared Tina!”
Tina took her friend in her arms and rocked her. When Rochelle had calmed a little Tina asked the first logical thing that occurred to her. “Did they say what would happen if you did tell? You know, did they make any threats?”
Rochelle had never considered it. Just the fact that someone unknown to her seemed to know so much about her was enough to twist her mind into madness. Rochelle shook her head.
“Would you like me to open this?” Tina asked waving the envelope in front of Rochelle’s hypnotised eyes. Rochelle shrugged, forgetting her most recent warning. Tina opened the envelope and held the single folded sheet of paper towards Rochelle. Rochelle waved it away indifferently.
Tina slowly unfolded the sheet, and Rochelle suddenly realised this letter was what that last text message referred to. She snatched it away and held it so Tina couldn’t see.
“Rochelle, what is going on?” This time Rochelle heard stifled tears in Tina’s voice.
Rochelle ignored her and continued reading the letter.
“THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE KNOW TOO MUCH. REPEAT: TELL ABSOLUTELY NO ONE OR CONSEQUENCES WILL BE CONSIDERED.”
Below that dire warning were three sets of names, contact details, dates and times. The first name Rochelle didn’t recognise. The date and time however, was probably around the time Rochelle first decided to put a huge distance between herself and the briefcase. The second was the IT guy at work. The time against his name was barely fifteen minutes later. What’s he got to do with it? The third person listed was Tina. The time was – Now!
“I gotta go. I shouldn’t have involved you”, Rochelle grabbed her bag, the envelope and, still clutching the letter, she bolted for the door.
“Wait! Back door!” Tina didn’t wait and Rochelle didn’t need to be told twice.
“Don’t follow me”, Rochelle commanded, thinking of the danger Tina would be in if she learned too much more.
Rochelle came to a halt in the alley behind the bar. The gloom had risen as the sun blanketed the city in its own shadows. A few newspaper pages blew around in little cyclones. Nothing unusual could be heard above the city drone. She quickly glanced around expecting to see a man against a wall, behind the dumpster, peering over the evening paper he pretended to read. Or someone looking out from a window, waiting to report her latest movements to their superior. Perhaps a silhouette on a rooftop disappearing from view. Nothing.
If they’re not here they’ll be in the main street. Waiting and watching. She could run but she could not hide. She suddenly realised her loneliness and selfishness overwhelmed her desire to protect Tina. She wanted Tina’s comforting soul beside her again. Running alone was as bad as not running at all. But running with a partner, even if that partner is totally ignorant of the reason yet painfully inquisitive, is surely better.
Rochelle turned around, hoping to see Tina standing in the doorway. Nothing. What did you expect? You told her not to follow you!
Yes, but she should have ignored me!
Then out of the darkness of the bar’s interior emerged the familiar shape of her friend. Her reliable, dependable, ever-present best friend. Tina walked down the last section of the short dark corridor and stepped out.
““You looked so lost out there, I had to come out -”
“Cut the crap, Tina.” Rochelle lowered her voice. “Listen. Talk about anything you like but promise me that if I drop the word ‘Amsterdam’ into the conversation, you’ll head in a completely different direction without looking back. Deal?”
Tina saw by the fear in Rochelle’s eye’s that she was deadly serious. “Okay”, she said, a little unsure of what she was committing to.
“Good. Thank you.” Said Rochelle, relieved. “I don’t want to sleep at home tonight so I need to get some stuff. Not at yours either.”
“Okay. Then to my place, then a motel, deal?”
Tina took Rochelle’s trembling body in her arms and whispered in her ear. “I don’t know what it is that’s shook you up so bad kiddo but I’m with you all the way.”
“All the way to Amsterdam?”
* * *
The taxi driver’s eyes widened with pleasure when he saw his latest customers. Neither Tina nor Rochelle gave him a second glance but climbed into the back seat and gave him Rochelle’s address. He wasted no time sparking up a conversation.
“Busy day at work today, ladies?”
“Yep. Rochelle, did you end up getting those toys for Saturday? You know the battery powered ones with the speed control?”
It was the first time Rochelle felt like laughing since before lunch but managed to contain herself. She knew Tina was probably trying to help get her mind off this weird situation and knew that Tina enjoyed watching the bemused reactions of people around her. Rochelle could only play along and try not to laugh. The taxi driver had moved into the traffic and was listening intently.
“Yes. I got us one each.”
“Did you go shopping today for something sexy to wear? Did you find something?”
“No, I didn’t get a chance – “
“Oh, no! So you’re wearing your birthday suit? I was going to wear my birthday suit! We can’t both wear the same.”
Rochelle almost snorted as she suppressed laughter.
“Stay on the road, Sonny Jim”, Tina caught the driver stealing a glance at them through the read-view mirror, no doubt supplementing the view with his own imagined vision. The driver silently and obediently drove them to Rochelle’s place.
Rather than letting the meter run while they gathered up some personals before heading to Tina’s, they paid their fare and the now shy and respectful taxi driver bid them farewell. Rochelle and Tina were still laughing like drunken women as the taxi pulled away and they walked down the otherwise quiet driveway to Rochelle’s unit. So much so that neither of them noticed the blue hatchback parked across the street nor the man in the driver’s seat.
Rochelle had almost forgotten the day’s events when they passed unit 2 and her own front door came into view. What she saw made her grab Tina’s arm with such force Tina would wear long sleeves for a week to cover the bruises. Tina didn’t understand what besides an ugly tan briefcase on the front porch could have made Rochelle react the way she did. If there was anything unusual here that was it. Wasn’t it? Tina wasn’t so sure.
Rochelle only saw the briefcase…