"Not that it matters, but how'd you track me down?"
"Piece of cake. All I did was call Directory Assistance. The name Millhone's unusual, so I figure it's like the old saying goes; apples don't fall far from the tree and so forth. I proceeded on the assumption you were somewheres close. You could've got married and changed your name, of course. I took a flier on that score. Anyways, the point is, how'd you feel about gettin' these things back?"
"I don't understand how the stuff ended up in Olvidado. I've never rented storage space down there."
I could hear him begin to hedge. "I never said Olvidado. Did I say that? I go to these auctions all over the state. Lookit, I don't mean to sound crass, but if you're willing to pony up a few bucks, we can maybe make arrangements for you to get this box back."
I hesitated, annoyed by the clumsiness of his maneuvering. I remembered my struggle in Mrs. Rosen's class, how crushed I'd been with the grade after I'd worked so hard. The fact was, I had so little in the way of personal keepsakes that any addition would be treasured. I didn't want to pay much, but neither was I willing to relinquish the items sight unseen.
I said, "The papers can't be worth much since I wasn't aware they were missing." Already, I didn't like him and I hadn't even met him yet.
"Hey, I'm not here to argue. I don't intend to hose you or nothin' like that. You want to talk value, we talk value. Up to you," he said.
"Why don't I think about it and call you back?"
"Well, that's just it. If we could find time to get together, you could take a look at these items and then come to a decision. How else you going to know if it's worth anything to you? It'd mean a drive down here, but I'm assuming you got wheels."
"I could do that, I suppose."
"Excellent," he said. "So what's your schedule like today?"
"No time like the present is my attitude."
"What's the big hurry?"
"No hurry in particular except I got appointments set up for the rest of the week. I make money turnin' stuff over and my garage is already packed. You have time today or not?"
"I could probably manage it."
"Good, then let's meet as soon as possible and see if we can work somethin' out. There's a coffee shop down the street from me. I'm on my way over now and I'll be there for about an hour. Let's say 9:30, quarter to ten. You don't show? I gotta make a run to the dump anyways so it's no skin off my nose."
"What'd you have in mind?"
"Moneywise? Let's say thirty bucks. How's that sound?"
"Exorbitant," I said. I asked him for directions. What a hairball.
I showered and flung on the usual blue jeans and tee shirt, then gassed up my VW and headed south on 101. The drive to Olvidado took 25 minutes. Following Ted Rich's instructions, I took the Olvidado Avenue exit and turned right at the bottom of the off-ramp. Half a block from the freeway, there was a large shopping mall. The surrounding land, originally given over to agricultural use, was gradually being converted to a crop of new and used cars. Lines of snapping plastic flags defined tent shapes above the asphalt lot where rows of vehicles glinted in the mild May sun. I could see a shark-shaped mini-blimp tethered and hovering thirty feet in the air. The significance escaped me, but what do I know about these things?
Across from the mall, the business establishments seemed to be equally divided among fast food joints, liquor stores, and instant copy shops that offered passport photos. There was even a facility devoted to walk-in legal services; litigate while you wait. BANKRUPTCY $99. DIVORCE $99 ... DIVORCE W/ KIDS $99 + FILING FEE. Se habla español. The coffee shop he'd specified appeared to be the only mom-and-pop operation in the area.
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