It was six-thirty in the evening when I rolled up to the place, a Bungalow court off Laurelwood with crisp yellow grass and a sun-faded BERNIE 2016 sign out front. It was a normal enough neighborhood, if deserted streets and boarded-up storefronts was your idea of normal.
The job was a standard drop-and-go as far as I was concerned, but the woman standing at the door had a different idea. She was a knockout: tall, lithe, and casually attired in a pilled purple bathrobe and a single sock – a child’s — that went all the way up to her ankle. Her delicate features were partially hidden by a homemade face mask that looked to be stitched together from a ratty Joy Division T-shirt. A banana clip held her tousled raven hair suspended above her head like a downy Old Faithful.
“Have something for me?” she muffled through the mask. Her sea-blue eyes tightened into half-crescents. I took that to mean she was smiling, probably.
“DoorDash delivery, ma’am,” I said, handing off the Popeyes order – three crisp limbs of some unlucky bird and a Dr. Pepper to wash away the memory — then started back down the walk.
“Wait,” she said. “I’ve got another tip for you here.” She disappeared into the house and quickly returned, a brown paper bag in tow.
“Here,” she said, passing it over. “For being out there.”
I opened the bag and looked inside. A four-pack of Charmin.
I gripped the bundle and headed back to the car. “Thank you again!” she called out, but I didn’t turn around. Something was burning my eyes, and besides, I knew I’d never see her again.
The phone buzzed the way babies cry when they’re hungry. I wasn’t available and didn’t want to be, but in the Dashing world you’re either available or you’re broke. I picked it up and read: Five Guys. Three bacon cheeseburgers with everything and one chocolate shake. I grabbed my hat and headed for the jalopy.
It had been two months since the virus put an end to the sleuthing business. I’d shuttered the office when the order came to lay low, but by then it didn’t matter much anyway. There wasn’t an unsolved stiff or blackmail plot that would whistle within six feet of my door, and I was in a spot. The papers kept telling me that help from the Feds was coming, but it was moving slower than a hippo, and would be about as useful when it arrived. I’d have to figure this one out all by my lonesome.
That’s about the time DoorDash walked into the picture. It looked like a sweetheart of a deal, but my gut told me there was something screwy about the job. For one, it was common knowledge that DoorDash had pocketed tips a couple years back. It was a clumsy swindle and they’d gotten pinched, but they’d managed to slip the cuffs, the way everyone with money seems to.
Still, you can’t pay the electric company with hunches, and I’d signed on.
I was a part of this gig economy nastiness now.
The drop-off point was a three-story Colonial in Vista Heights, a stately old neighborhood that guarded its beauty as selfishly as a miser guards his fortune. I parked my Chrysler across the street and eyed the mark: an old man in khaki shorts and a bright blue polo who was drowning a rosebush with a garden hose. The man had the look of someone who didn’t just read Nextdoor, but posted there too, and his head shot up as soon as I cut the engine. He stared at my heap in studied disgust, like he’d never seen rust before in his life. I let him stare.
I met him at the edge of the lawn. His skeletal hand gripped an ebony cane that was topped with an ivory handle in the shape of a lion’s head, and an N95 covered his bony face.
“I see you eyeing my mask, young man. Yes, it is an N95 — I have twelve more boxes in my study. And no, you may not have one.”
“Nuts,” I said.
“Come now, inside. Place my victuals on the kitchen island here. I am going to make you wait, young man, until I have verified the contents of your delivery. I know your sort, always eager for graft and pilferage!”
He snatched the bundle and began his inspection. Suddenly his gnarled hands froze, then scrambled around the inside of the bag in a panic.
“My Red Robin order is missing the French fries!”
I wasn’t in the mood for playtime. “Call the boys downtown, gramps. I’m just a dasher.”
“What impudence! Such an attitude is why you’re a food delivery boy! I suppose you’ve never had respectable work?”
“Once,” I said. “But it didn’t agree with me.”
“Always with the quick turn, eh, young man? Well, how about one more — this time through my front door!”
The old man thrust his cane into the small of my back, pushing me towards the door. I turned and gave him a hard look. For a second, I thought about taking off my face mask and letting him have a puff.
In the end I didn’t. But it was a long second.