12 Before 9


A well-dressed old man carrying a leather briefcase was pacing on the sidewalk outside my used bookshop in Philly’s Spring Garden neighborhood when I arrived this morning at 12 before 9.

Half an hour later, he was inside, taking his sweet time browsing book after book. I hoped he’d make a purchase – or just leave – soon. I didn’t usually have customers this early, and my decision to open on time for him meant I hadn’t been able to grab breakfast at the diner across the street.

“Um, excuse me,” he said finally, holding a well-worn hardcover. “What do you make of, uh…” – the old man’s nervous voice dropped to a whisper – “page 132?”

So that was his angle. “That’s an interesting page,” I replied, no emotion.

The old man didn’t look up from the book. Most people don’t when they request my special services. I suppose they want to know as little about me as possible.

When the silence got awkward, I asked, “Would you like to make a purchase?”

“Yes,” he said after a deep breath. He set the book down, almost dropping it from his shaking hands, then lifted his briefcase onto the counter and popped it open. He pulled out a very full, sealed manila envelope. Carefully avoiding eye contact, he handed it to me.

I took the envelope. “Will that be everything?”

The question surprised him, but he stammered, “Yes, yes. It’s all in there,” before closing his briefcase and scurrying off.

I opened the envelope just enough to see the beautiful green of 250 crisp $100 bills and pull out a folded piece of paper. I slipped the paper into my shirt pocket and the envelope into the safe under the counter. Time to walk across the street for three cups of black coffee, two eggs over easy and a buttered English muffin.

Sitting in my normal booth, I unfolded the paper, which read: “Douglas Serlnik, work: 600 Arch, home: 2014 Spring Garden, gray Lexus: AL9-53E2.”

All the information I needed. But that work address sounded familiar.

“Morning, Gloria,” I said as the waitress poured my first cup of coffee. “Hey, do you know what’s in the building at 600 Arch Street?”

“600 Arch? You mean the IRS building?’

“That’s it,” I nodded. “Thanks.”

I should’ve given the old man a discount.

~ fin ~

Erik Arneson lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and editor, Elizabeth. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder, and many other places. His comic book Fortune is available from Comixology, Indy Planet, and NoiseTrade. He hosts the Title 18: Word Crimes podcast. Find him at www.ErikArneson.com and on Twitter @ErikArneson.