You want to know what really bugs me? I’m sure you don’t, but I’ll tell you anyways. Actually, lots of stuff really bugs me. But the thing that bothers me that is integral to this story is this: when, instead of leaving a real message on your voicemail or your answering machine, you just leave on that factory pre-set, the one that goes, in a really robotic voice, “Hello. You have reached [and then it recites whatever number you called]. We are unable to answer the phone. Please leave a message.”
You never really know if you’ve reached the right person, you know? I mean, even if you’ve called this guy a hundred times, even if you’ve left him tons of messages. You still can’t bust out with something like, “Yo, dude, last night was amazing! Those hookers we picked up turned out to be drug-runners from space, and we had to flee to Mexico to pick up some-“ You get the picture. You can’t leave something like that on an answering machine that doesn’t tell you who you’re calling, because there’s always a possibility that you might have hit just one wrong button, you know?
And then instead of leaving a message for your buddy who ended up leaving just a little too soon, you’re leaving it for a total stranger. And always in my head, I see this homely little housewife standing there, a look of complete horror on her face as she listens to this terribly obscene message, and if she doesn’t have a heart attack right there on the spot, what she does is, she calls her brother, who’s a cop, and next thing you know, you’re in jail for shit they don’t even have laws for yet.
So, yeah, that’s what really bugs me.
I listened to the little robot, telling me what number I’ve just called, and telling me if I would like to leave a message, here’s what I need to do. I didn’t want to leave a message, but since the business was what you might call urgent, I told the machine, “Hey it’s me, give me a call. It’s important.” I didn’t leave any other information, because I figured that if I had just left a message for a complete stranger, the less they knew about me, the better.
“That wasn’t a very good message,” Arnie said. He was standing in front of our giant fish tank, watching our pet turtle. The turtle didn’t have a name yet, mostly because we couldn’t think of a cool name. Neither of us knew where the turtle or the aquarium had come from, but we assumed that one of us had ordered it while on a bender of some sort.
“I think it was.” I was sitting on the pool table. Neither of us were sure where this had come from, either, but it had been a part of the Drunk Tank for so long now, that it didn’t seem to matter. The pool table’s name was Todd.
“Where’s the passion, man?”
“Apparently, wherever Mandy is. Did you e-mail her?”
“E-mailed, did that instant message thing, left a message on her cell phone and her regular phone, everything. Now it’s a waiting game.”
Arnie’s always saying stupid stuff like that. Now it’s a waiting game? Who says crap like that? Sometimes I don’t know whether to blame Arnie’s behavior on all the booze, or if I just go smack his mother for watching soap operas all day while she was pregnant with him. I for sure know that someone should get smacked, I just haven’t figured out who, just yet.
“Well, we can’t wait too long—I have to go out to work tonight.”
“Is it Monday, already?”
“Yeah, man, that’s what the computer says.” The hard thing about being me and Arnie is that you’re totally at the mercy of others, as far as time goes. We’ve been known to drink away entire months without realizing it. You’ll be sitting there, writing a check or something, and the guy at the counter is like, “It’s actually twelve, eight, oh-four.” He says it all nice, because people are making mistakes like that all the time—like they get in the habit of thinking it’s November, and they just keep writing eleven in the spot where you put the month—but he probably wouldn’t be so accepting if he knew the sad truth.
With Arnie and I, we really think it’s still November. We’ll be like, “Let’s see…I remember watching the Charlie Brown Halloween special, and scoffing about that ‘great pumpkin’ crap, and I remember going to that pre-pre-Thanksgiving sale—that was on the third. And then that case of whiskey came in on the fourth, I remember that. And now it’s December? I’ll be.”
The days just kind of slip by, and if you aren’t careful, they turn into weeks and months. Arnie swears that 1998 never happened, but I won’t accept his theory that the whole world decided to play a trick on him just so he wouldn’t be able to use his “The Ladies From Marvel Comics” calendar. It’s still sitting there on his dresser, neatly shrink-wrapped in plastic, waiting for days that will never happen again.
“Man, if it’s already Monday, that means Mandy has been missing for…what, like two days?”
“She went out on Saturday night, I think. Yeah, that sounds about right. So we didn’t talk to her on Sunday, but so what? We don’t talk to her everyday, man, we aren’t her girlfriends, man. We’re guys, Arnie, and guys don’t have to talk to their friends everyday to make sure that everything’s fine.”
“I talk to you everyday.”
“That’s because my life is a nightmare. I’m sure Mandy’s fine. The important thing is to not discuss this while we’re out on patrol. I mean, if Captain Pizza-Guy finds out that we know who he is, and if he finds out that he’s dating our ally, things could get messy.”
“Maybe Mandy’s actually just playing a role, you know? Maybe she’s undercover, setting him up so that we can capture him.”
“Man, the things they were talking about getting up to? I don’t think she likes us enough to do something like that just so we could take down a bad guy.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point. You think he already knows who she is, and maybe he’s just using her to get to us?”
“Man, I would really hope not. I mean, I hate the guy, but there are some things you don’t even wish onto your worst enemy. Remember how mad your wife got? And that was just for cheating on her. Imagine if you had actually USED her, you know? Chicks get really sensitive about stuff like that.”
“I like being used,” Arnie said, and you could tell he was thinking about that Rachel girl.
“Yeah, but girls aren’t cool like guys. They get all weird about feelings and stuff.”
He was still thinking about Rachel, so I threw a pool ball at him. It bounced off his shoulder and rolled away somewhere. So far, we had lost eight of the pool balls, but it didn’t really matter since we mostly used the table for passing out on.
“There’s no need for violence.”
“There is when you’re giving me the creeps like that. Don’t be thinking about crap like that while I’m the room, okay? Besides, we need to be thinking about Mandy.”
Arnie got a huge grin on his face, and his eyes kind of glazed over. I threw another pool ball at him. This time, I got the highball glass he was drinking out of, and it shattered onto the floor. Ruining his drink is about the only real way to get Arnie’s attention. “I don’t mean think about her in that way, you perv.”
“Sorry, dude, I just can’t help it.”
Instead of continuing the conversation, I climbed off of the pool table and went to make a sandwich. I was almost finished when the doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Arnie asked.
“I’m sitting over here elbow-deep in roast beef, man. How the hell would I know who it is?”
“I’ll go check.” He ran up the stairs, tripped, and rolled back down. The doorbell rang again. “Hang on, I got it.”
I went over and fooled around with the computer, trying to pull up the outside cameras on the monitor. Instead, I only managed to get a still-shot of Spongebob Squarepants doing some odd little dance. I went back to making my sandwich.
Arnie came tumbling down the stairs a couple minutes later. He was holding a bottle of rum in one hand, and a large envelope in the other.
“Who was it?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man. Some kid. He said that a guy paid him twenty bucks to deliver this to our door. He said the guy was dressed up in a leather coat and a mask.”
In case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s what Captain Pizza-Guy wears when he comes out to screw with us.
“What’s in the envelope?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man. Probably something sinister. I think maybe we should call in the police, or maybe the FBI before we open it.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “You can never be too careful when dealing with something like this. Yoink!” That “yoink” thing, that’s me yelling “yoink” as I grabbed the envelope out of Arnie’s hands. I totally copped that sound from The Simpsons, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past ten years. I didn’t want to mess around while Arnie tried to explain to the police, or maybe even the FBI why we needed their help in opening an envelope. Also, when you live the lifestyle that Arnie and I tend to lead, you generally try to avoid—as a general rule—the involvement of the authorities. Plus, I was kind of hoping there were some nasty pictures of Mandy in there.
I ripped open the envelope, which would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t been trying to do it while staying out of Arnie’s reach, and would have been a lot harder if Arnie hadn’t been so drunk.
There weren’t any dirty pictures inside, though—just a little note, printed out on plain white paper.
“What’s it say?” Arnie asked. He had quit chasing me by then, and had settled onto the couch with a snifter full of brandy. Since I wasn’t having to run around to get away from him, I was able to read the note.
“I’ve got your girl Mandy. If you ever want to see her alive again, it will cost you ten thousand dollars. Expect a call.”
“Expect a call? That’s kind of cryptic, isn’t it?”
“It’s kind of stupid, is what it is,” I told him. “Why not just call in the first place?”
“He’s playing head games with us. He wants us to know exactly who we’re dealing with.”
“I think the guy’s just an idiot. Why give us time to call the cops and get a trace?”
“Probably because he knows we won’t call the cops.”
“Of course we’re calling the cops! Look, man, I realize you don’t understand the importance of human life the way that the rest of civilization does, but this is Mandy we’re talking about.” Yeah, about that whole not-involving-the-authorities thing, what can I say? I’m fickle.
“Where do you get off talking about the importance of human life, dude? You don’t even like people. Just the other day you were talking about what a better place the world would be if Sea Monkeys were running the show. Besides, I have a plan.”
“First of all, don’t discount the Sea Monkeys-as-rulers plan until you’ve thought clearly about the benefits. And second, I’m not even going to listen to whatever brain-boggling idiocy that you’ve convinced yourself could ever possibly work as a plan.”
“I think you should at least hear me out.”
“You think that because you’re a moron, man. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“What if we just gave him the money?”
“What?” This wasn’t the kind of thing I was expecting from Arnie at all.
“Yeah, man. We just give him the money, we get Mandy back safely, and then we unleash her on him. I mean, you get a chick with as much brains as Mandy, and then really piss her off—think about the ramifications.”
I still didn’t feel comfortable calling Arnie out on his use of the word “ramifications.” I was still pretty sure that he didn’t know what it meant, but I wasn’t ready to admit to him that I didn’t know what it meant, either. Plus, his plan was starting to make a sick kind of sense. Mandy had proved time and again that she was much more efficient than the cops, when she put her mind to it, and I figured that after being used for sex and then used for ransom, she would be more than willing to put her mind to it. And if she didn’t feel like it, we would just call the cops. I don’t know if it was the massive hangover or what, but I felt like it was the honorable thing to do to give Mandy a chance to get vengeance before turning the whole thing over to the cops.
“Just for the record, I still think we should just call the cops.” I said this mostly to cover my ass in case everything blew up in our faces, I would be able to blame it all on Arnie. I just didn’t want to think about how bad things could go if it all blew up in our faces.
“Noted. So are you in, or what?”
“Fine, so we give him the money. You think he’s just going to turn over Mandy?”
“I don’t think it will matter, really. Because by then, we’ll already know right where he’s at.”
“And how will we do that?”
“We’ll trace his phone call.”
“I thought we weren’t calling the police.”
“We aren’t.” Arnie was over there messing with the wall again, trying to push the green button. He kept missing when he tried to push it, thunking his finger against the wall. I think this was mostly due to the fact that he was mixing a gin and tonic while he tried to hit the button. He finally managed to get the button, and the keyboard slid out. He typed a few things while he sipped his drink, and then turned around and said, “All set.”
“All set, what?”
“When he calls, we’ll be able to find out exactly where he’s calling from.”
“You can track calls? Isn’t that illegal?”
“Honestly, no idea. But even if it is, we’re vigilantes, man—sometimes we have to work outside of the law.”
“Okay, aside from any illegal activities involved, what good is that going to do us?”
“This is the coolest. See, if he calls from his house, we’ll know where he lives. If he calls from a cell phone, we’ll be able to trace it and then use it as a tracking device.”
“That has got to be in violation of so many laws. Where did you get this stuff?”
“Picked it up at some flea market.”
I stopped talking to him, then, because it was giving me a hellacious headache. I figured that it was better to just ignore him and hope that everything worked out in the end. I understand that this kind of attitude is terribly irresponsible, but I’ve never been too good about responsibility, anyways.
An hour later, the phone rang. Arnie messed around with his computer for a few seconds, then gave me the thumbs up, which I assumed meant that I was supposed to answer the phone.
“What’s up?” It was Mandy.
“Yeah, man. What’s up?”
“Are you okay? How did you escape?”
“Dude. You have to go out on patrol in like two hours. You haven’t been drinking before your shift, have you?”
“Not since last night. But just answer my question: did you get away?”
“Okay, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Would you care to explain?”
“We got a ransom note. From Captain Pizza Guy. He said that if we ever wanted to see you again, we had to hand over ten thousand dollars.”
“And you believed that I had been kidnapped? Man, you knew I was going to spend the weekend with Jeff. We went upstate to his parent’s cabin, I told you all this. No computers, no phones, just a weekend to relax, get to know each other better.”
“Where are you at right now?”
“We’re at a gas station. Technically, I agreed not to get back online until we got back to the city, but I was wiggin’ out, being out of the loop for so long. He wouldn’t even let me bring my PDA.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but something in the back of my mind told me that I should. “Okay, would you just go over this fantasy weekend plan again, so that Arnie can hear and understand it?”
“Is he there?”
“Yeah, he’s over there, trying to get the computer to trace the call.”
“It’s not working,” Arnie said. “I think I got ripped off.”
“What’s up, man?” Mandy asked him.
“I think I got screwed when I bought my phone-tracing equipment.” He held up a white rectangular box. “Stupid piece of junk.”
“Is that what you bought?” I asked him. “How much did you pay for that?”
“Couple hundred bucks.” He tossed it onto the floor with disgust.
“Dude, that’s a baby monitor. You paid two hundred bucks for a baby monitor?”
He picked it back up. “No, it’s not a baby monitor, it’s a highly advanced tracing system that-“ He looked up at me. “I’ll be damned. Sure enough—right there on the bottom, there’s a big plastic molding that says ‘baby monitor.’ I gotta start paying more attention when I shop.”
“Why are you trying to trace my call?” Mandy asked.
“Haven’t you checked any of your messages?” Arnie asked.
“I started to, but the first one was from Howie, and it said to call him because it was so important. So far, I’ve just been listening to your riveting conversation about getting screwed at the flea market, though, so I’m wondering what was so urgent.”
“Okay, here’s the thing,” I started. Then I stopped, because I really didn’t know what kind of social graces were involved with this sort of thing. Then I decided that social graces never really did anything for me, anyways. “You remember the other day, we were talking about Arnie’s voice analyzer thing?”
“Yeah. Well, it works pretty well. And your microphone, the one you use to talk to us from your house, it works really well, see?”
“How well?” Her voice had a dangerous edge to it, so I knew that I should tread lightly. The thing is, I weigh about two tons, and I’ve never been too good at treading lightly, even metaphorically speaking.
“REALLY good. Like all that sick shit you and Jeffy were planning on getting up to in the parent’s cabin.”
“You heard that thing about the licorice ropes and-“
“We heard a lot of stuff,” I said. I hadn’t actually heard the part about the licorice, but I didn’t want to let on, in case my lack of morals ever got the best of me and I went back to listen to the recordings all the way through. “But that’s not the point.”
“Well, you sure as hell better get to the point, before I crawl through this phone and tear you a new asshole for listening in to phone conversations that are none of your business!”
“Hey,” Arnie said, “Speaking of tearing a new asshole, how did he handle that thing with the inflatable raft?”
“Shut up, Arnie,” I said. “Look, Mandy, the only reason we even STARTED listening to that stuff—and I say started, because we turned it off once we confirmed the identity of the guy you were talking to—the only reason we STARTED listening was because your boyfriend’s voice set off all kind of alarms down in the Drunk Tank. Whatever his name is-“
“Jeff, I believe she called him,” Arnie said, looking at the baby monitor and sipping a glass of wine.
“Yeah, Jeff. Jeff is Captain Pizza Guy. He sent us a ransom note, saying that he would only return you if we gave him ten thousand dollars.”
“Okay, guys, just stop a minute. For the moment, we’re going to ignore the fact that you listened to my PRIVATE conversation with my man, okay? I’m only able to do that because I consider you guys my friends. And I think you’re both mentally ill. I don’t know what you got into this weekend, but it fried your brains, both of you. This conspiracy crap, it’s only cute when it’s Mel Gibson doing it, you know?”
She sounded really mad. I didn’t blame her, really. If I thought that a couple of pervs like me and Arnie were listening in to my private sex calls, I would probably be mad, too. In fact, I thought she was dealing with that information remarkably well. I kind of expected her to hang up on us at any second.
“Hey,” a voice said. It was quiet, like how voices always are when you hear them in the background on phone calls, but you could make out the words easily enough. The computer screen started flashing a warning all over the place. “Hey, you aren’t supposed to have a phone! What happened to our promise?”
“Mandy,” Arnie yelled, “The alarms are going off all over the place. You don’t have to believe me and Portly Boy, but when has a computer ever steered you wrong?”
“What about with the baby monitor?” I asked. “I mean, you took a bath with that one, chump.”
“Just ask him, Mandy! Just ask him and watch his face.”
“Fine,” Mandy said. “Hey, did you ransom me?”
“Arnie, you moron! What happened to waiting? Getting her back safe? What if he kills her, you asshole?”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” He looked truly remorseful, which is a look you don’t see on Arnie’s face much at all.
“Just shut up and we’ll see what happens,” I said. The only sounds in the Drunk Tank were coming from who-knows-where, some gas station up in the mountains, I guess. We could only listen, and hope that Mandy would make it out safely.
“I, uh. No, see the thing is-“ It was Captain Pizza Guy, stammering around for the right answer, just like men have done for ages when they realize that they’re finally busted and try to think on the fly.
“Are you Captain Pizza Guy?” Mandy asked.
“No. That’s just some stupid name that that fat bastard gave me and-“ There were about ten seconds of complete silence, and I was thinking that maybe Mandy’s cell phone battery had died. “Oh, shit.” That was Captain Pizza Guy, realizing that there was no getting out of this, just like busted guys have done for ages.
“You brought me up here, we did all those…things…together, I told you all that stuff. And you were just trying to get some money out of it?”
“No! I mean, at first, I thought I could just use it as a way to burn Fat Boy, but…Mandy, I fell in love with you.”
“Fall in love with this, bitch!” That’s pretty much where the conversation ended, unless you count a bunch of screaming in pain as conversation.
The gas station attendant called the cops, and they got there before Mandy could kill Captain Pizza Guy. Generally, I would say that that was too bad, really. But in this case, getting killed horribly would have been a blessing. It would take too long to describe what all she did to him, so let’s just say this: Mandy’s imagination for violence almost matched the wacky stuff she could think up for the bedroom. Captain Pizza Guy probably got off light, though, if you want to know the truth—if she’d had time to actually formulate vengeance, there’s really no telling what she might have done to him.
She had to spend a night in jail, but the judge was really sympathetic, and she ended up getting out with time served. Can you believe that? I moon somebody and end up getting something like two thousand hours of community service. Mandy pretty much screws a guy up for life, and she gets a night in jail.
Anyways, so that was that. So, uh, tune in next time. Even if there isn’t a very good story, you know there’s going to be a lot of teasing Mandy about her sexual deviance. It’ll be a good time. Same fat time, same fat channel.