The Field Trip
Louis Hill peered anxiously downward, hoping to catch his first real glimpse of the Ozark Mountains, now held in a shroud of thick morning fog. He had crossed the range only three days before, traveling north but in the pitch of night could only feel their presence, these Ozarks, the first mountains he would ever see. As it was, only occasional patches of transparent haze allowed him any view at all. He could see trees, stand upon stand, forming giant slopes, but without the richness and diversity of shade that nature provided them. Nor could he see mountain tops arch into clear sky in elegant contrast or the valley floors and their passes. He could only imagine the panoramas. Louis Hill was away from home for the first time on a working field trip for his employers, Masters Protective Services.
The car snaked down the narrow mountain road, little more than a series of hairpin turns, and Louis’s supervisor, John Seaton, took them skillfully, driving well beyond the speed limit so prudently recommended by the State of Arkansas. Seaton was in a hurry and would not be delayed by low visibility or bad roads. Louis heard a gasp from the back seat and turned to see that Oly Allen had gone white. Oly, the third member of the party, was a thin, middle aged woman, given to nervous tension, and she was shaken now.
“Please slow down, John,” she asked.
“Relax, Oly,” Seaton replied. “I’m an excellent driver, and if you want to get home tomorrow night, we have to stay on schedule.”
Louis closed his eyes from the haze and felt confident that no accident would befall them today, for they owned the road, such as it was. Not another soul was driving, for it was Christmas day. There was one more stop in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then they would head for home.
As they made their way out, Louis wondered how he came to be in this place, with these people who were little more than strangers to him. Of course, it was simple. He needed a job badly. He took home eighty dollars a week to provide an opportunity for people to steal. He had spent the last eight weeks running the exact change ruse on unsuspecting clerks in drug and department stores, restaurants and grocery chains, attempting to reach the expected quota of four “catches” a day. The survival of the new Masters office in Houston depended on producing a respectable number of crooks, and whether they were hard-up cosmetics counter girls or desperate hardware salesmen, it really made little difference. Louis hated these shopping tours and feared most of all the object of his mission—the catch. He rode each day with crews of women, hard unattractive women of prison guard mentality, who berated him constantly for his lack of aggressiveness. He tired of buying ties, aftershave, and cans of Raid, only to throw the merchandise into the trunk of the car to be returned to the office at the end of the day. He was equally weary of buying three lunches a day and doling out egg rolls and pizzas to the incredulous and distrustful service station attendants. How could one explain that the food was okay? There were reports to fill out and receipts to reconcile in this morass of a third-rate secret agency, but the trip came up, and Louis decided he would stay on a little longer. Five days of shopping accounts in Louisiana and Arkansas had taken them from Lake Charles to Fayetteville and south to Little Rock and El Dorado, and they had remarkably averaged one catch a day. Louis witnessed his first interrogation three days into the trip in Harrisonville, Arkansas. The subject of the interview was a woman in her eighties, a clerk in one of ITT’s Continental Bakeries. Situated in a rural area, the shop specialized in selling day-old products, bread, and sweet rolls. The woman apparently took just over three dollars of the multinational’s sales during the test. An astute and cautious inquisitor, John Seaton was confident he could get a confession from her, but even his reversion into the Stalin School of Tactics failed him. The woman only admitted making an error and the session ended inconclusively with the Continental management opting to take over the matter. Louis secretly admired the woman’s indignant resistance, and when no one else was watching, he wished her good luck.
“Leave me alone,” she said, her wrinkled white face impassive, her tone frigid.
As they sped south toward Louisiana, Louis wondered how the old woman was spending her Christmas.
“Hi, folks, my name is Tony Roy, and I hope you’re enjoying your stay at Pines View Lodge. I’m here to play your favorite tunes, and I want to kick off this last set with one of my favorites.”
Tony Roy sang.
“By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising. . . .”
Louis sipped his second Bacardi and coke and took in the decor of the Wilderness Club, resplendent in ersatz wood grain and red vinyl. He was loose and felt pleased to be of age in Louisiana, for he was impatient in adolescence, sensing from a tender age that success would only come to him as an adult. At the moment he felt like one, albeit a slightly drunken one.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” Seaton asked as he sipped scotch and water.
“Oh, it’s very nice,” said Oly. “Especially the music. He’s a good singer, don’t you think?”
Seaton nodded in polite assent as his eyes surveyed the room. Mindlessly he began tapping his glass on the table, and then he spoke.
“Let’s drink to our success—five catches in five days. You’ve done well.”
Louis was embarrassed at this show of mock camaraderie. Little had passed between them in the past week, and everyone knew it. Seaton spoke again.
“We just have one more assignment which we will take care of in the morning, and then we’ll be on our way back to Houston.”
“What kind of place are we shopping?” Louis asked.
“It’s a Singer Sewing shop right downtown. There will probably be two clerks, so the best thing to do will be to run a correct change test with you going first, Oly, and Louis following you.”
Seaton continued to talk, but Louis found himself unable to pay attention to the words. He was tired of Seaton, of the way he talked, and longed to be someplace else. He studied his supervisor. Seaton was perhaps six feet tall and of slender build, with sandy hair graying at the temples. He nevertheless retained the look of a petulant child. During his enforced confinement with this man, Louis concluded that Seaton’s function was little more than that of a confidence man, running a game on clients, subordinates, and everyone else. What really bothered Louis was that like other con men, this incorrigible promoter of security schemes and oily character at large moved easily in the world, a world Louis was stumbling to assimilate without success. Louis wanted to succeed, but he knew he could never be like the John Seatons of the world.
“Louis, didn’t you say you used to sing in a band?” asked Oly.
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Louis.
“Why don’t you get up there and sing a song?” said Seaton.
“Oh, I don’t know, it’s been a while, besides, I don’t know what to sing.”
Seaton excused himself and, to Louis’s horror, went over and spoke to Tony Roy. As quickly as he left, he returned and before Louis could speak, he heard Tony Roy say, “We have a young man in the audience who sings with a band in Houston, Texas, and he’s going to come up and do a song for you right now.”
The people in the room, half full, applauded dutifully.
Louis felt his stomach knot up and his mouth go dry.
“Go on, Louis,” said Oly. “It’ll be fun.”
Louis looked at John Seaton, who said, “C’mon Louis, break a leg.”
An external force seemed to move him out of his chair, and he made his way with mechanical steps to the stage.
“What’s your name?” asked Tony Roy.
“What number would you like to do?”
Louis screamed inside, what song did he know the words to?
“Uh, how about ‘Let It Be Me’?” he mumbled.
“Okay, by the Everly Brothers. Now what key do you sing in?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure, just let me hear one and maybe I can tell.”
Roy played a chord on the piano, and Louis said, “That’ll be okay.”
“Folks, this is Louis Hill and he’s going to do a hit ballad made famous by the Everly Brothers—‘Let It Be Me’.”
Louis heard himself sing:
“Don’t ever leave me lonely
Tell me you love me only
And that you’ll always, let it be me.”
Something was wrong, but he couldn’t tell exactly what it was.
“Each time we meet, love, I find complete love,
Without your sweet love, what would life be?”
The applause was polite and restrained, and now Louis knew he had made a mistake.
“Well, I guess Mr. Hill can be forgiven for being a little off key tonight. Let’s give him an E for effort.”
Louis shook hands with Roy and returned to his seat. To his surprise, he didn’t care if he made a fool of himself. He was going home tomorrow.
Around eight thirty the next morning, a bright yellow sun shone on downtown Shreveport’s Main Street. Louis, along with Oly Allen and John Seaton, was waiting for breakfast in Poole’s Pharmacy. Louis was sipping coffee, nursing a slight hangover, and as usual, growing tense just before shopping an account. The fear of catching some poor fool pocketing small change and the subsequent ritual of interrogation chilled him to the bone, but he could say nothing, certainly not in the company of his colleagues.
They ate breakfast in silence, paid the check, and walked out to the car.
John Seaton said, “I’ll park down the street from the Singer store, and Oly will go in first. Now Oly, before you make your buy, wait until you see Louis. We’ll give you a couple of minutes to pick something out.”
“It doesn’t matter what I buy?” asked Oly.
“No, anything you can pay for in correct change, but try to keep it under ten dollars. When you see Louis, give him a chance to pick up the layout of the store, and Louis, you make sure you’re with her when she gives her money to the clerk.”
“Okay,” said Louis.
Then he saw it, just on the corner—the Singer Sewing Center.
“Okay,” said Seaton. “Go ahead.”
Louis got out of the front seat of the car, and Oly emerged at the same time from the back.
“Not yet, Louis,” scolded Seaton.
Louis stopped in his tracks. Fortunately, the car was not parked directly in front of the store. Louis returned to the car and got in beside Seaton.
“That’s a good way to blow a test, Louis,” said Seaton.
“Look, John!” Louis said sharply. “There are so many people on the street, I could hardly have been noticed, and besides, I didn’t walk in front of the store.”
“Okay, okay, relax. We’ll give Oly one more minute.”
Louis’s anger receded as quickly as it had flared. He felt foolish.
“I guess I’m just anxious to get it over with,” he told Seaton.
Seaton nodded in silence. Then he said, “Okay, Louis, go now.”
Louis was out of the car again. The store was just up ahead on the left, and as he got closer to it, his heart began to pound, loudly enough, he thought, for anyone to hear. It was the same way every time. Louis was certain everyone knew his identity and purpose, seeing clearly through the subterfuge and sham acting. He found it almost impossible to look people in the eyes. Finally, he stood in front of the store and through its window saw Oly examining patterns. He also saw a man and a woman behind the checkout counter. He pulled the door open and entered. The woman was engrossed in discussion with a customer, while the man, in his fifties and of stocky build, seemed to be studying receipts. Louis was relieved for had someone approached him offering assistance, he would have had not idea what to ask for.
He walked to the hardware section. He had to decide quickly what to buy. Scissors, he would buy scissors, an item a man could ask for without betraying ignorance of sewing. Louis knew nothing of needles or bobbins but could easily justify a need for scissors to the clerk. He looked at Oly to let her know that she could make her buy. He cursed under his breath when he saw what Oly held in her hands. A pair of scissors just like the ones he had picked up.
Suddenly the female clerk was upon him.
“Sir, may I help you?” she asked.
Louis quickly replaced the scissors.
“Thread,” he said. “Uh, red thread, a couple of spools.”
“The thread is just over here. Follow me,” the woman said. “What type did you want?”
“Oh, cotton will be all right.”
Louis hoped that Oly could stall until he could free himself and cover the cash register. The male clerk remained behind the counter.
“Will this do?” the woman asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
The woman looked at him with a quizzical expression. He forced a smile and said. “A trick.”
“A magic trick, that’s what I use the thread for.”
“Oh, well, Mr. Henderson will take care of you.”
“Thanks very much.”
As he moved toward the register, he heard Oly speak to Mr. Henderson.
“What is the tax on these?” She held out the scissors.
“Thirty-three cents, ma’am.”
“Here you are. My husband is waiting in the car.”
She put eight dollars and thirty-two cents on the counter, and turning on her heels, quickly left the store.
Louis held himself far enough away from the counter to be unobtrusive and observed Mr. Henderson. The clerk did not open the register, for the reading of the last sale remained, four dollars and eighteen cents. If Henderson didn’t put the money in the register, where was it? As Louis walked up to the counter, he was afraid he knew.
“That’ll be seventy-nine cents, sir,” smiled Mr. Henderson.
“Here you are,” said Louis, and gave Henderson a dollar bill.
They had another catch, for Louis was certain that Henderson had the money in his pocket. This was the most flagrant thievery yet to occur on the trip. He walked coolly out of the store and as he approached the car, his excitement mounted. Without hesitation, he told Seaton and Oly, “We have a catch!”
Oly squealed, “He didn’t ring up my money?”
“No, I’m certain of that,” Louis replied.
“Did you see what he did with it?” Seaton asked. His face flushed; he, too, was excited.
“It wasn’t on the counter, and I know he didn’t ring it up.”
Seaton’s eyes lit up and his face became a leer. “He put it in his pocket!”
“Yes, I think so,” Louis said in a breathless tone.
“That’s great, that makes six catches in six days! Now listen, I have to call the store manager and ask if he wants to handle the interrogation. You two wait in the car.”
He wasted no time making his way to a phone.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Oly. “I wonder what will happen to him.”
“If it goes like the others, he’ll probably just be reprimanded.”
The predatory euphoria Louis brought back to the car began to recede. He forgot himself for a few moments and performed his function coldly, but a vague apprehension now began to grip him, and he was afraid for the future of Mr. Henderson.
John Seaton appeared outside the car.
“We’ll be meeting Mr. Marriot in twenty-five minutes. They want us to handle the interrogation.”
“Who is he?” asked Oly.
“The store manager. Now Oly, why don’t you have some lunch or do some window shopping? We’ll meet you here in about an hour.”
“I don’t understand, John. Why can’t I go with you?” she pleaded.
“Three people is too many, Oly, and besides, he could become hostile and even withdraw completely. It works best with two people.”
Oly became sullen and remained silent.
“John, I would prefer not to go with you,” said Louis.
Seaton became angry.
“You can’t cope with this job if you can’t deal with the questioning. This is your goddamn catch, and you’re going with me!” His tone softened. “Louis, it’s the only way you will ever get used to it.”
Louis realized Seaton was right. It was his catch. He had to go.
“All right, John,” he said, his tone resigned.
Stanley Marriot, a man of medium build in his early thirties, greeted them inside the store. His youngish face held a grim expression.
“I have him in my office. He doesn’t know what’s going on,” said Marriot. “How are we going to do this?”
“First, we will ask him where the money is,” Seaton said. “Have you balanced the register?”
“Yes, it checks.”
“Then we know he didn’t ring it up. When we confront him in this way, he will have no choice but to produce the stolen money. After we do that, we’ll find out how much more he has stolen and over what span of time he has been taking it. Usually, a person will confess to stealing about half the money actually taken.”
“You mean he may have been doing this regularly, I mean over a long period of time?” Marriot asked.
“You can be pretty sure of it,” Seaton said. “But he will fill in the blanks for us.” He turned to Louis. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Louis.
“Mr. Marriot, if you’ll introduce us,” Seaton said.
Marriot was hesitant. “You won’t be too hard on him, will you?”
Seaton reassured him. “We only want to get the truth.”
They walked into the office and found Mr. Henderson sitting in a chair opposite Marriot’s desk. He was startled and at first didn’t recognize Louis. He turned to speak to Marriot, but Marriot spoke first.
“George, these men are from the home office, and they have some questions to ask you.”
Stanley Marriot was distinctly uncomfortable, his face ashen. If Henderson had any inkling of what was to come, he didn’t reveal it.
“Mr. Henderson, my name is John Clark,” Seaton lied, “and this is Louis Tyler. You may recall seeing Mr. Tyler earlier today.”
Henderson looked at Louis and said to Seaton, “Yes, he made a purchase this morning—thread, I believe.” Henderson was calm and very polite.
“That’s right,” said Seaton.
Louis remained silent.
Seaton then asked, “Do you recall the customer you attended just prior to helping Mr. Tyler?”
Louis saw a trace of panic cross the expression of George Henderson’s face, and, just as quickly, it was gone.
“I’m not sure. It think it was a woman.”
“Do you remember what she bought?”
“I think she bought some scissors. Say, what’s this all about?” Tension began to surface in Henderson’s voice.
Stanley Marriot said, “Relax, George.”
Then Seaton’s voice cracked like a whip. “I think you know very well what this is about. Shall I tell you what we know?”
Henderson’s composure was breaking down rapidly.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Then I’ll explain,” said Seaton. “The woman who bought those scissors from you this morning works with us. Do you remember how much those scissors cost?”
“Around eight dollars,” said Henderson. His voice was brittle.
“Eight dollars and thirty-two cents to be exact,” said Seaton. “Now, Mr. Tyler here,” he continued pointing at Louis, “has told us that that money was never rung up on the cash register.”
Henderson was now openly shaken. “Well, sometimes when you get real busy that happens. I guess I forgot.” He nervously fingered his glasses.
Stanley Marriot said sadly, “George, the money is not in the register.”
Seaton spoke softly, “George, did you put that money in your pocket? Do you have it now?”
Henderson’s shoulders heaved. The tension melted from him. He said to Marriot, “I guess I just wasn’t thinking.”
He stood up and took from his pocket the $8.32, placing it on Marriot’s desk. Then he looked at Louis.
Louis could not avert his eyes from those of George Henderson. He was surprised, for he could see no anger or hatred. Henderson seemed to look at him as though extending some unspoken sympathy or perhaps forgiveness. His eyes damp, Henderson removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief.
“Will I lose my job, Stanley?” he asked.
“It’s not my decision,” said Marriot.
Seaton was only halfway into his questioning; he began to exploit his breakthrough with a more conciliatory approach.
“George,” he said, “the best thing to do for yourself is to tell the truth. Now, how long has this been going on? Six months, a year, or longer?”
Louis began edging toward the door. He wanted to get out, outside where he could breathe.
“Just a couple of months. You know things haven’t been going too well at home. I’ve had trouble making ends meet.”
“Do you have any idea how much money you’ve taken over that period of time?”
Henderson did not answer.
“George, it’s important that you tell us. You must have some idea,” said Seaton.
Henderson sighed and said, “I’m not sure, Maybe a couple or three hundred dollars. But,” he turned to the manager, “I could pay it back, Stanley. It wouldn’t take long to do that.”
Marriot said, “George, it depends on what the district manager says. We’ll see.”
Seaton spoke. “We’re finished for now, Mr. Henderson. I wonder it you would mind stepping outside for a few moments?”
“Yes,” said Stanley Marriot. “I’ll talk to you in a few minutes, George.”
Henderson rose heavily from his chair and made his way to the door. he seemed in a mild form of shock, the kind that overtakes the humiliated, the condemned. His eyes met Louis’s a final time, and Louis now saw fear. Then Henderson was gone.
For the first time now, Seaton and Marriot sat down.
“This is terrible,” said Marriot. “I just can’t believe it’s happening.”
“It’s always difficult to accept,” said Seaton. “The best of employees can compromise themselves. It happens all the time, believe me.”
“When I first took this job,” said Marriot, “George helped me get over the rough spots. I’m not sure I could have made it without him. In that time, we’ve become friends. I just hope his tenure helps him.”
“How long has he been here?” asked Louis.
“He received his fifteen year pin just two weeks ago,” said Marriot.
There was silence in the room as Marriot picked up his phone to call the district manager in New Orleans. The call went through quickly, and the discussion was short.
“I’ve been told to fire him,” said Marriot flatly.
“Just like that?” asked Louis.
“That’s Sims for you, no mercy. Is there anything else?” Mariott asked. His tone became impersonal, his manner aloof.
“No,” said Seaton. “We’ll be sending our report on to New Orleans. We regret putting you in this unpleasant position, but we had no choice.”
“I understand,” said Marriot.
As Louis and Seaton left the store, Henderson was nowhere to be seen. Louis was relieved not to have to look in the man’s eyes a final time. He thought of Henderson’s family and was ashamed.
“Louis, you shouldn’t feel responsible,” said Seaton. “You did your job. The man was a thief.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Louis.
Louis wondered what George Henderson would think if he knew they would both be looking for new jobs next week. Louis thought it would be little consolation.
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.
Visit Fiction and Poetry for more by Steven Robinson.