I found the entrance to the Black Death Collection Agency tucked behind the restrooms of Mr. Fugimoto’s Steamboat Sushi. Access was only possible by navigating a gauntlet of rolling dish carts and boxes, past the service counter, where Ruby kept her grim vigil. With tattoos peeking from the sleaves of her blue kimono-jacket, crooked name tag, half applied makeup, and “don’t fuck with me” eyes, she looked as lost in her twenties as I was.
“Elevator?” I pointed down the cluttered hall.
Ruby’s eyes rolled under her sharp black bangs as she stepped out of the way and let me pass.
I took the freight elevator down to the sub-basement, where it opened into the attempted lobby of the BDCA. Unfinished drywall divided the brick basement, ornamented with graffiti flames. A sagging couch haunted one wall with a broken table, tied together with the frayed corpse of an oriental rug. Above the door in colorful block letters, “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”
To work for Chad was to abandon hope, so I jettisoned mine and entered the drywall box of an office. There were twelve folding tables, evenly spaced, each equipped with a telephone and a folding chair. Eleven were occupied by gray-faced agents, sifting through blue, five-by-eight index cards. There were two office doors, separated by a cuckoo clock. Chad stood in front of one, waving me over.
“Good morning, Reapers!” Chad shouted.
“Good morning, Satan.” returned the chorus of agents.
“This pasty son-of-a-bitch here is my half brother, Caleb,” he jabbed his thumb toward me. “Say hello, dingus.”
“Hi,” I waved.
“Fuck you, Steven.” the Reapers answered in unison.
“That’s right, scumbags, no mercy! Treat him like any other parasite trying to rob you of your ill-gotten spoils!”
The cuckoo clock ejected its squawking bird, commanding Chad’s Reapers to begin dialing. It was nine a.m. and the West Coast was open for business.
“Who’s Steven?” I asked.
“You’re all Steven, I don’t like learning names.”
“C’mon dummy, I’ll get you started.”
Eternally, Chad’s lackey, I entered his office and sat on a short stool in front of his desk. He reclined in his leather chair, popped the collar on his pink polo and pushed his lower lip into a smug smile. Whether it was his paper rout or slinging dime bags in college, seems like I always ended up working for him.
“Listen up, numb nuts, the sooner we get you up to speed, the sooner I can get you out of my mom’s basement and living your best dipshit life, understand?”
“Zombie debt, that’s what we do. Shit so far past the statute of limitations, so uncollectable, that no credible collection agency will touch it.”
“Damn right!” he tossed me a stack of cards. “I pick up debt at fractions of a cent on the dollar, by the time I fuck-it-full of interest, late fees, and service charges, my ROI is obscene! It’s practically free money, but for the fifteen bucks an hour I have to pay you fucking Stevens!”
“What am I supposed to say?”
“Read the script, it’s on your table. When those sorry pricks surrender their digits, then you bring it to Lyudmila. Game over, no one escapes Lyudmila!”
“I see why they call you Satan.”
“Correct, now get dialing dick head.”
I took a seat at the empty table and began dialing while Chad played Call of Duty on his sixty-inch flatscreen. Not one person answered my calls that morning, though I could hardly blame them. I wouldn’t pick up either if “Black Death” appeared on my caller ID. In fact, it was rare to get a victim on the line. When it happened, whispers of “fish on” passed among the Reapers and everyone stopped to listen.
“I will dig up your grandparents, toss them in a dumpster, and sell their grave plots!” or “I will personally come to your house and rip the copper plumbing out of the walls, pawn your appliances, and sell your wife’s underwear if I have to!” were standard Reaper threats. If successful, the Reaper scrawled the credit card number on the blue card and rushed it to Lyudmila’s door.
Summoned like some administrative succubus, with lithe and succulent limbs lurking beneath the carapace of her skirt and jacket combo, she would appear. Her hair was a tightly wrapped golden shell; her blue, eviscerating eyes offering damnation from the height of her stilettos. I was terrified and profoundly smitten.
“Well done, Steven,” she would say in her thick Russian accent, before receding to the shadow of her office to perform the perverse rituals that extracted human souls from index cards.
At noon, the cuckoo sounded and the room emptied for lunch. Ruby arrived, fighting her way through the exodus, arms weighed down with bags of sushi. The scent of rice starch and soy filled the room as she knocked on Chad’s door with her elbow.
“This is the deluxe?” his lower lip curled in disappointment. “Put it on the desk.”
Ruby covered the desk with enough sushi to feed the entire office twice over, then turned for the elevator. I held the door and we rode up together.
“How’s the food here?” I asked.
Ruby’s endorsement notwithstanding, I elected to give Steamboat Sushi a try. It was a conveyer belt concept, with seating along the meandering, water filled track. When my order came up, rather than carrying it the few steps across the empty restaurant, Ruby placed it on a tiny paddlewheel steamboat and sent it winding down the bamboo lined river.
While my sushi steamed along, a strange scene was unfolding in the park across the street. On one end of a fountain pool was an eight-foot-tall bronze swan with ballerina legs, on the other a spindly old man with frizzy white hair and Bermuda shorts. He pranced with abandon, exposing the shambling tabernacle of his soul with each bizarre step of his courtship ritual.
My sushi passed in the distraction and I lunged after it, losing half a California roll to the dubious depths of the sushi river. Ruby rolled her eyes, snapping on latex gloves as she ambled over.
“Any chance I could…”
“Not my call,” she cut me off, looking nervously toward the kitchen.
“Oh,” I sighed. “Well, what’s up with that old man and the swan?”
“That’s Tom, he’s harmless,” she said. “Everyday he’s out there, seducing that statue.”
“He looks demented.”
“Say’s Satan’s debt collector.”
“Hey, I’m just trying to move out of my stepmom’s basement.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” she teased.
“Here!” Mr. Fugimoto appeared from the aether, thrusting a towering Godzilla roll in front of me. “You happy?”
His words were less of a question than a commanding resolution. Ruby’s eyes widened as she looked at me, suggesting that there was only one answer to Fugimoto’s query.
“Yes,” I said, confused by the upgrade.
Mr. Fugimoto nodded deeply, then vanished back to the kitchen.
“Good answer,” she exhaled and scooped out the drowned roll.
“The Godzilla roll is fantastic!” I said, mouth half full. “Why is this place so empty?”
“Mr. Fugimoto demands customer satisfaction,” she whispered. “He scares the shit out of everyone, including me.”
“Why stick around?”
“I need the job,” she sighed.
“Yeah, working for Chad wasn’t my first choice either.”
“You don’t look the type.”
“You’re too nice,”
“Ruby!” Mr. Fugimoto shouted.
“Ugh,” she squeezed my forearm with her wet latex glove, offering a quirky smile before returning to the counter with a final eye roll.
The following day, Chad pulled me aside before the shift and gave me some advice.
“Look dick, think of it like dating, it’s a numbers game. You get shot down, on to the next.”
I began dialing with purpose. Not for Chad, but to spite him. In his war, battles were defined in terms of financial and romantic conquest, the only things he understood. Thus, the question wasn’t if my redemption lay behind Lyudmila’s door, it was how many blue index cards it required.
Her door opened many times that morning, but not for me.
At lunch, Chad received another unsatisfying deluxe and Ruby and I watched Tom woo the ballerina swan as my sushi puttered down the bamboo river.
By Friday, the closest I had gotten to a credit card was a lonely old man who offered to mail me his toenails every month if I promised not to hang up. The weight of my failure was eroding my confidence and I was beginning to believe that I would never see Lyudmila’s door open or hear her brutal appraisal, “Well done, Steven.”
When the cuckoo squawked noon, Ruby appeared, with Chad’s deluxe. However, instead of her uniform, she wore a plushy tuna costume, her black bangs poking out below the big googly eyes. She deposited nearly her body weight in sushi on Chad’s desk.
“Are you sure this is a deluxe?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said, her fists balled inside her blue felt fins as she walked away.
I followed her, to see if she was ok, but Chad stopped me.
“You need a reset. Take off early, go get laid, or whatever you do. Come back Monday and we’ll get you reaping.”
“Fuck you Chad!” I said, once safely in the elevator.
Upstairs, Ruby, still in her tuna suit, was receiving a stern lecture from Mr. Fugimoto, which I dared not interrupt. As I exited the restaurant, Tom frolicked across the park in his Bermuda shorts, gleefully engaging the ballerina swan with a neon feather boa.
That night, I dreamed of Lyudmila, Reapers cued at her door, cards in hand. One-by-one, she took their blue cards between her painted lips and drew them into her office. Raucous and obscene, their passion permeated the closed door as I waited my turn. The door opened and she released the majesty of her golden hair, bearing down from her height with those blue daggers. Her lips parted, but I had no card to offer and the door slammed shut with the thunderous laughter of Reapers.
Saturday found me brooding on Chad’s advice. Maybe he was right; It had been over a year since my last relationship; I was out of practice. The local coffee shop was hosting speed dating that night, so I gathered my courage, banished Lyudmila from my mind, and signed myself up.
Things started poorly, then swiftly escalated.
Carol, my first date, was the manager of a rental car service whose hobbies included scrapbooking and sudoku. She wore a thick turtleneck, glasses, and seemed every bit as awkward as I felt. Her shy demeanor flipped like a switch when I told her I was a collections agent.
“Eww! How do you sleep at night?” she asked, rising before the bell to spend the rest of our time at the pastry counter.
Jasmine, grocery clerk and proud dachshund owner, told me I might as well be a meter maid. A blackjack dealer named Maggie, spent our five minutes telling me about her mother’s six-figure medical debt and that she hoped I got cancer and died. Then there was Caitlyn, the activist, who enthusiastically informed my other dates I was a “dickless colonizer”.
Chad was right, dating was a numbers game, one I lost many times.
Monday, I walked to work in the rain. Tom was in the park, sheltering the swan with an umbrella, dancing in his shorts. The restaurant was quiet, with no sign of Ruby or Mr. Fugimoto as I passed through to the elevator.
I began dialing with weary and defeated fingers; already practicing my resignation speech to Chad. My third card in, a sweet, grandmotherly woman answered. She apologized profusely, unaware of her outstanding medical bills.
“I suppose, I could cancel my Netflix subscription to afford payments, I’ll get my credit card.”
“Yes!” I slammed the phone down in victory.
A few Reapers looked my way and shrugged as my throbbing heart carried me to Lyudmila’s door. Holding my card with trembling fingers, I gently knocked.
Lyudmila was there in all her brutal beauty, her scent, dry like the faded roses of a mausoleum. She pried the card from my fingers and set her terrible gaze upon it.
“A bit small, lesser brother,” her harsh accent, barely causing her crimson lips to move. The door shut before I could speak.
I returned to my desk stunned, pondering the meaning of “lesser brother” and whether that was better or worse than “Steven”. What was I thinking, what did I think would happen? Chad would always be Chad and Lyudmila would always be a closed door.
When the cuckoo sounded, it wasn’t Ruby, but Mr. Fugimoto who delivered Chad’s deluxe. As the Reapers filtered out of the room, he came pushing a rolling table draped with a large white sheet. The immediate impression was that of a corpse on a gurney.
“You order deluxe?”
Chad nodded; his lower lip confused as to which direction it should emote.
Mr. Fugimoto lifted the sheet with a dramatic flick of his wrist, “This deluxe! You happy?”
Chad looked down; mouth agape at Ruby’s sushi draped body, laying on a bed of silk and lotus flowers. Colorful sashimi, elaborate rolls, and crispy tempura covered her entirely.
“Yes,” Chad said, pulling the cart into his office. “You see Caleb, always order the deluxe!”
Mr. Fugimoto nodded sharply and was gone.
I was just about to walk out when Ruby and her cart came rolling out again.
“Oh good, you’re still here,” he said. “Do me a solid and roll this back to Fugimoto’s?”
“Sure,” I said, taking the foot of the cart.
“I thought it was naked sushi, turns out she’s wearing a leotard.”
I rolled her to the elevator, “You alright?” I asked.
“Mr. Fugimoto say’s I’m a platter, platters don’t speak,” she fumed.
Chad had taken a few pieces of sashimi from one of her breasts, leaving the rest of what must of took Fugimoto hours to prepare and Ruby to endure, untouched. Deluxe, indeed.
Mr. Fugimoto met me at the kitchen door, rage pulsating in his eyes. His arms trembled as he reached to the counter for his fish knife. “NOT HAPPY?” he pushed past me toward the elevator, blade in hand.
As I contemplated Chad’s fate, Ruby rose from the cart, peeling off her fish lacquered leotard. She stood naked on the kitchen floor, present and real in a way that Lyudmila never would be.
“What are you staring at?” she said, stepping into her jeans.
“You want to grab a beer?”
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
As we passed through the park, on our way to the bar, we came across the empty concrete pedestal, where Tom’s swan should have been. All that remained were two rusted steel bolts protruding where ballerina shoes should be. Two white swans occupied the fountain, one of them dragging Bermuda shorts from its furiously pedaling feet.