Working Holiday, by Kenneth Schneyer

Working Holiday
Kenneth Schneyer

Tony couldn’t find the front desk. In all the hotels he’d ever seen, you pulled hard on heavy glass doors and nearly ran into a desk that was more like a wall, with one or two kids behind it and, these days, hidden video cameras everywhere. Here, you climbed a faded wooden step, rattled open a screen door that didn’t even have a lock, and you found yourself in, what, a den? An alcove? On his right sat a dining room; on his left, a doorway to the back of the house; in front of him, an antique roll-top desk, also without a lock. In good condition, too—it had probably cost several hundred, maybe a couple thousand.

“Hello?” said Tony. There was no answer. How did they expect you to check in if there was no front desk and no one around when you showed up?  Maybe he’d come in the wrong way.

He stumped back down the step, avoided treading on the barbered lawn or the neat flowers, and circled to the flagstone walkway and the massive, elegant front door.

It wouldn’t budge and didn’t have a doorbell. From the old bits of leaf and sand he saw in the crack, Tony guessed no one ever opened it. It was for show. He blew out a puff of air, shook his head, and returned to the screen door on the side.

Back in front of the roll-top desk, he called, “Hello?” more loudly. There was still no answer, but now Tony thought he heard, from the doorway on his left, a distant clatter of aluminum pans. Following it, he eventually discovered a long, narrow kitchen. At the far end, a skinny woman of his own age, maybe fifty-five, her salt-and-pepper hair tied into a pony tail, was setting a dirty mixing bowl into a deep metal sink. She looked up, her face flushed from cooking.

“Hello, there!” she said cheerfully, her blue eyes wide. “Just get in?”

“Yeah,” said Tony. “Tony Silva. I have a reservation.”

“Well, of course you do!” She rinsed her hands in the sink, dried them on her apron, and offered one, still damp, to Tony. “I’m Flora Vertrauen; welcome to Breeze-by-the-Sea. Would you like a cookie?”

She gestured at a platter on the counter.

“You don’t have to,” said Tony.

“These are for the guests. We put them out in the dining room every afternoon at 3:30, along with lemonade. You’ll just be the lucky first.”

“Well, thanks.” The cookie was still warm. It had chocolate chips, walnuts and some other flavor he couldn’t identify.

“Hazelnut butter,” Flora said.

“Oh,” he replied through a mouthful of crumbs.

Tony got his suitcase from the car and followed Flora up two narrow staircases, conservatively pricing the various flower vases at $200 apiece. A flimsy lock barely held the door of his room shut. The room itself had a sloping ceiling on which he’d bump his head if he got too close to the foot of the bed. The bedspread, curtains and doilies were fussy, reminding him of his mother.

After unpacking, he lay down on the frilly spread, took a deep breath and sighed. Rest. Vacation. Holiday. He needed this relaxation so badly he could feel it in his fingertips, in the joints of his thumbs, where the doctor said the arthritis was starting. The fingers are the first to go, he’d heard. Once you lose them, you’re washed up. Might as well retire. Not that he could afford to retire. How many more years could he keep at it, and what would he do then?

He sighed again, this time deliberately. Now was not the time to think about work. Now was the time to sit on a beach, drink a fancy drink and watch the girls. Rest those thumb joints.

#

When he came down to breakfast the next morning, Tony found people already at each of the four tables.

A young, freckled man sat with his redheaded wife, their diamond rings so new that the flashes of sunlight from them hurt Tony’s eyes. They didn’t take their eyes off each other except to keep from spilling food in their laps.

Two couples in their late thirties were arguing merrily about the merits of different whale-watch operators. One of the men wore a Rolex, one of the women a bracelet of high grade amber. The red handbag next to her on the table was a Hermès, not a knock-off.

Two white-haired, deeply tanned men in white shirts and eighteen-karat gold chains spoke in low tones to two women who looked about thirty. One of the women, the one wearing a platinum-and-lapis hairclip, noticed Tony and gestured with her eyes, telling him, You’re supposed to sit down.

Only one table was less than full. Already sitting there was a blond man of about forty in a slim seersucker suit and white shoes, calmly reading the New York Times—not the Globe—while sipping tea he’d poured from a china pot. His hair was combed straight back, but one lock fell deliberately on his forehead.

“Can I sit down?” asked Tony.

The man lowered his paper slightly and glanced at the table, then looked up at Tony.

“Apparently so,” he said, in a genteelly nasal voice.

Tony stuck out his hand. “Tony Silva.”

The other man looked at the hand for a moment, then shook it blandly. “Endicott. Lowell Endicott.” The Old Boston accent fit the name like an expensive glove.

Tony sat down, then looked around for coffee. Endicott, without looking away from his paper, said, “Flora will bring you coffee in a few minutes.”

Seeing that Endicott was reading the Arts section, Tony asked, “Have you seen the scores?”

This time Endicott’s eyes flicked down to the table long enough for his left index finger to separate the Sports section and slide it over to Tony.

“Thanks,” Tony said.

The Sox were doing no better today than yesterday. Flora brought coffee, sausages and an omelet with green specks in it. It reminded Tony of a salad dressing he’d had once, but it was nice.

“You on vacation too?” he asked Endicott, who nodded. “You’re awfully well-dressed for a guy on vacation.”

Endicott permitted a faint smile and glanced down at his pale yellow tie. “It’s a working holiday, you see. I have some business obligations.”

“Oh. What do you do?”

“I’m a consultant.”

Tony nodded. He’d met several people in his life who called themselves “consultants,” and never had the faintest idea what they did. Sometimes he suspected they did nothing at all. But of course it wasn’t always easy to explain your work so that other people could understand. Tony himself always said he did “alterations and repairs,” which was true enough in its way. Maybe Endicott called himself a “consultant” because any other answer would have taken him twenty minutes.

The whale-watch couples got up to leave just as Tony was putting cream in his third cup of coffee. As they disappeared through the doorway, he noticed the red handbag still resting on the table next to a nearly untouched omelet. He pushed his chair back, crossed to the other table in two strides, picked up the bag by its bottom and followed the foursome out in hurried steps that made too much noise on the floor.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” Tony called to the woman in the amber bracelet. “I think you forgot your purse.”

She squeaked a little “Oh!” and came over to him.

“Really, Pandie,” said the man with the Rolex. “Do you leave cash and credit cards sitting out, too?”

“The cash and credit cards are in the bag, genius,” she retorted. Then she turned back to Tony. “Thank you so much, um—”

“Tony. Tony Silva. I’m glad to help. It’d be a shame to get to the whales without your stuff.”

“Pandie Markus. This bigmouth is my husband Danny, and these are our friends Mel and Dana.”

“Hi,” said Tony, not knowing which was Mel and which was Dana.

#

Flora had explained that the famous beaches, the ones popular with the kids, were on the other side of Cape Ann, a few miles away from the touristy section and Breeze-by-the-Sea. Tony decided he’d walk the whole way, spend a day at the beach and walk back. He put on swim trunks and an old shirt, pulled the brim of his Red Sox cap over his forehead, took the lightweight folding chair out of the car, and set off.

It was a mistake. Despite the ocean breezes, things began to get hot after about an hour, with that familiar coastal steaminess. The road between the “historic district” and the beach didn’t have a sidewalk, and the cars tore past close enough to the shoulder that Tony kept thinking they’d just missed grazing his arm. He’d never been much of a walker, even when he was young and not so heavy. By the time he got to the beach, he was coated in sweat, itchy all over, with aches in most of the joints in his legs, hips and feet.

He tried to cool off in the ocean, but the water felt like ice. So, instead, he sat in his chair and watched the girls. There were dozens, in bikinis that were barely there at all.

Occasionally they’d catch him looking. Most rolled their eyes and flounced away, but a few smiled, and one even winked. Tony noticed that a bunch of them were wearing jewelry along with their swimsuits. Some of it was gold, with one or two diamond earrings or necklaces. A guy could do well with a metal detector out here, he thought. And some of the girls were so careless that it would be easy just to snap up some good stuff when they went off to the bathrooms.

I am on vacation, Tony reminded himself. I am not working. It doesn’t matter how careless the girls are with their jewelry.

Vacation, though, wasn’t the problem, and neither were the joints in his thumbs. It was becoming harder and harder to make a living. Sure, diamond earrings left on towels by careless girls were easy, but how often could you score something like that? Besides, the usual dealers became more cautious every year about jewelry without a bill of sale or some other proof of its history, and he couldn’t blame them. The cops were breathing down their necks every day, and Internet searches made it easier to trace things.

The big money had always been in households. Well, no, the really big cash money was in banks and stores, but those were impossible these days. Between cameras, electronic signal systems, silent but direct lines to police—well, you couldn’t count on anything. No, houses were where the money was. Small electronics, cash in drawers, silver, jewelry and, for the well-informed professional, sometimes rare books or recordings, antiques, stamp collections, even software titles. Tony’s friend Marty kept him up-to-date on what titles would sell for the most, and which would get a guy in trouble fastest. He’d made a thousand in a single week on items no one else would stop to look at.

But, even for him, households were becoming harder. Burglar alarms were a bewildering zoo of different breeds and quirks. As soon as Marty showed him how to beat one, somebody came up with a new wrinkle that would stump him. There were webcams you couldn’t even see. And then there was the merchandise itself: Silver, like jewelry, was tougher to move; it sometimes even came with serial numbers. People were making more purchases by credit card, so large amounts of loose cash were scarce. And the small electronics were a nightmare: People switched from iPods to iPhones which mostly had built-inGPSbeacons, inviting the boys in blue to knock on your door before you’d slept through the night.

For a man of Tony’s talents, business was drying up. He didn’t know what he was going to do.

#

It was surprisingly difficult to find a good place for steak, burgers or chowder in Rockport. There were lots of hoity-toity restaurants serving undercooked, over-seasoned game birds with rainbows of skimpy raw vegetables and just enough rice to fill a shot glass; Flora spoke lovingly of these, and most of the other guests seemed to prefer them. Endicott was dining at the most expensive place in town.

As he walked towards Beach Street in the early evening light, with a breeze from the sea moistening his forehead, Tony passed by a dozen bed & breakfasts, all large houses with shingle siding that looked like they’d been built a hundred years ago. None of them had anything but a screen door keeping out the world; he stopped at the third house and walked right in. Nobody entered the entrance hallway, nobody sat in the sitting room, nobody dined in the dining room. Although the paintings, small clocks, and other knickknacks would come to only a few hundred, more valuable antiques lay in easy reach, and a guest had left another bag, a Prada this time, in the sitting room. It wouldn’t surprise him if there was an unlocked cash drawer, too.

He shook his head in disbelief. All it’d take would be a workman’s uniform, a large box of tools and a battered duffel bag. If the upstairs locks in this place were anything like the locks in Breeze-by-the-Sea, he could make short work of them in a half-hour; in early afternoon he might avoid detection altogether. Didn’t the pros ever come here, except on vacation?

Then he realized he was doing it again. Rest, he told himself. Repeat the word “vacation” three times every fifteen minutes for the rest of the night. He left the naked guest house and continued in search of dinner.

Endicott had called himself a “consultant.” Maybe Tony should become a security consultant once he retired. These people could use one.

#

The next day Tony drove to the beach instead of walking, taking sunscreen, an umbrella, several bottles of chilled water and a new spy novel. It was overcast, though warm, so maybe he didn’t need the sunscreen and the umbrella, but he used them anyway.

He split his time equally between watching the girls play in the surf and reading his novel. Ten years ago the book would have had no claim on his attention at all, but this time the girls’ smooth faces, clever muscles and exuberant breasts reminded him of his own pot belly, sagging jowls and grey hair.  The Tony Silva of the last decade would have entertained fantasies that one of the girls might find him attractive, might flirt with him in a harmless sort of way. The Tony Silva with the aching thumbs and no retirement plan knew they’d be repulsed, that if they were friendly at all it was because he reminded them of their fathers. Or grandfathers. So he watched them the way you’d watch a sunset or admire a beautiful statue. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Spy novels weren’t as fun as they used to be, either. This one seemed mostly to be about Kenya, full of things he’d never heard of. Back in the day, the villains were all Russian, or else working for the Russians, and you learned the terrain pretty easily. Nowadays you’d find yourself as easily in Thailand or Chile or even Vancouver, never knowing who was an enemy and who was a friend.

When he got back to Breeze-by-the-Sea in the mid-afternoon, he found Pandie and Danny Markus scurrying around the place as if on a scavenger hunt. So were their friends Dana and Mel, with Flora helping out, lifting up papers, pulling furniture away from the walls, ducking under tables and chairs.

“Lose something?” Tony asked.

“My amber bracelet!” said Pandie. “I had it this morning at breakfast, and I took it off to put on my sunscreen, and now I can’t find it.”

“Might have left it anywhere,” growled Danny.

“I did not leave it anywhere,” said Pandie. “That bracelet is important to me.” She turned back to Tony. “Danny brought it back from a trip to Poland five years ago. It’s over a hundred years old.”

“Did you already check your room?” asked Tony.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“And you’re sure you didn’t take it with you when you left?”

“Positive.”

“You might have noticed earlier,” said Danny.

“Do you have anything helpful to say?” asked Pandie.

Tony joined in the search, but they got nowhere. Pandie left for dinner looking like a child who has just dropped her ice-cream cone on the ground. Afterwards, over cookies and lemonade, Tony took Flora aside.

“You know, anyone might have just walked in here and taken that bracelet,” he said. “You leave your doors unlocked all the time.”

“Only during the daytime,” she said.

“Yes, but at night everyone’s here. It’s during the day when all the guests are out on the town and you’re here by yourself.”

“And my husband Andy. And Magdalena.”

“Magdalena?”

“The chambermaid. She comes over in the afternoons.” Then her face fell. “Oh my, you don’t suppose…”

“What, that the chambermaid took the bracelet?”

“Well, yes.”

Tony thought about it. “How long has she worked here?”

“Four years.”

“And nothing’s disappeared that whole time?”

“Not before this. Oh, well, you know, the occasional pair of swimming trunks or address book, but nothing valuable, nothing like this.”

Tony began to muse about how a pair of swimming trunks might disappear, but at that moment the screen door clicked twice as Lowell Endicott came quietly in. The jacket of his suit draped over his shoulder in a pose right out of GQ, and despite the humidity he didn’t seem to perspire; his nonconformist lock of hair was exactly where it had been the last time Tony’d seen him. He carried a leather briefcase—not flashy, but expensive—which he set on the table before pouring himself a glass of lemonade. He raised his glass to them in a salute.

Tony continued, shaking his head. “I don’t think Magdalena took it, especially if she’s never taken things before. That’d be an awfully hard thing to sell without papers if you didn’t already know how to do it.”

Flora nodded, looking relieved. Endicott raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

“Which brings me back to my point,” said Tony. “Anyone can walk in here. I think you should consider locking the doors when there’s nobody here to watch.”

She nodded again, and then said, “You know a great deal about this.”

“I watch a lot of cop shows on TV,” Tony said without missing a beat. He didn’t add that he only did so for a laugh because they were so absurdly wrong most of the time.

He could feel Endicott watching him when he left the room.

#

The next four days were, for Tony, like living through an elaborate practical joke. He lost track of all the highly marketable, even unique, items that were left practically in his lap. Sapphire necklaces, wedding rings, century-old gold pocket watches in mint condition, rare coins, designer shoes. On each occasion he notified someone, usually the manager or owner of whatever place he happened to be in. On Wednesday he retrieved a gold cigarette case for Lowell Endicott, who displayed a varnish of gratitude over a thick layer of boredom. What was he doing with a cigarette case anyway? Tony doubted the man even smoked; it was a status symbol, like half of what Endicott wore or carried.

Meanwhile, every day Flora, one of the guests, or people in town told him of disappearances—thefts, Tony was sure—from several bed & breakfasts on nearby streets. The stolen items were left carelessly lying around, or in unlocked guest rooms, or else they were easily-removed decorations of the guest houses themselves. No one ever saw anyone “suspicious,” although Tony doubted that they had the slightest idea what to look for. Given how carefully the thief was choosing his prizes, Tony’s first suspect would have been himself. But he hadn’t been near most of those places, and hadn’t seen anyone he knew, or who he thought was in the business. Not that even he could tell, not all the time.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was on Thursday, when he came back to Breeze-by-the-Sea from a dull day of sightseeing to find, sitting on the rolltop desk in plain sight, an eight-cent postage stamp from 1959, in mint condition, depicting “Ernst Reuter, Champion of Liberty.” It was like seeing $2,000 cash in a mail slot.

Flora!” he practically bellowed. She came hurrying in, looking surprised and a little irritated, but her face fell when she followed his accusing finger to the stamp.

“Oh, that’s from Andy’s collection,” she said.

“I’m glad you weren’t going to put it on a letter,” said Tony.

“Now, don’t be that way about it. He was putting some new stamps in his book earlier in the afternoon. He must have left this one behind.”

“Left it behind?”

“This is a very safe community,” she said, taking a pair of tweezers from a drawer in the desk and using them to pick up the stamp. Then, chewing her lip, she added, “At least it used to be.”

“‘Used to be’ is about right.”  He sighed. “Flora, would you please lock the door? You’re not doing yourself or the guests any favors by leaving it open and letting people walk in. At least be more careful about where you leave things.”

“But nobody took it,” she said. “And the problem was that Andy was careless about leaving it out.”

“Flora.”

“All right.”

But his efforts accomplished nothing. The next morning at breakfast Flora told him her two most valuable vases, a rare painting in an empty guest room, and her favorite copper cooking pot had all gone missing. It felt like a personal insult. Here, some demon’s voice was saying, all you’re good for is stealing. You have no talent for protecting property.

It made him angry and, at a table by himself, he tore at a blueberry scone that was mostly crumbs, trying to put the pieces together.

Somebody had taken five objects from Breeze-by-the-Sea. There had been thefts from other guest houses, but none so concentrated in one place as here, and the only overnight thefts were here. A stranger wouldn’t keep burglarizing the same location; it’d be too easy for someone to recognize you after repeated visits. But if you were supposed to be here, then your presence wouldn’t alarm anyone and you could await your opportunity.

The objects had been chosen with great care, and they were expensive enough that they’d be hard to sell if you didn’t have the right connections. They were all easily portable. Well, all right, a copper cooking pot was unwieldy, but whoever would suspect someone carrying such a pot to have stolen it?  That itself was a stroke of genius.

So the thief was a pro, which meant that it wasn’t Magdalena the chambermaid, unless she was working for somebody else. And the thefts had begun recently, which made Tony think of a guest.

He ticked them off in his mind. Not Pandie or anyone in her party—she was the first victim, and he was pretty sure the foursome had been on a whale watch during one of the thefts at the other guest houses.

The guys with the gold chains or their trophy wives? Not a chance. They didn’t have an ounce of taste between them (although the lapis hairclip did give him a moment’s pause). The honeymoon couple? Tony snorted; they obviously had other things on their minds.

That left Endicott.

Tony nodded slowly, watching Endicott out of the corner of his eye. If anyone at the guest house right now had the taste to tell a rare amber bracelet from an ordinary one, it was Endicott, with his seersucker suit and his polished Brahmin manner. Endicott, who couldn’t bother to speak to Tony for longer than five minutes. Tony put his lips together as if to whistle, then stopped himself to avoid making a sound. With his lavish lifestyle and his polished manners, Endicott had a perfect cover; no one would suspect him in a million years.

And there was no way to tip anyone off. Endicott had started watching Tony closely as soon as he heard him telling Flora about the difficulties in moving an antique amber bracelet; maybe he spotted him even before that. If Tony told anyone that Endicott was the thief, Endicott would be sure to finger him. Tony had been careful during his career, but there were one or two incidents on his record that would tickle police suspicions. Then they’d start digging, and who knew what they’d find? Endicott had nothing to fear from him.

But he couldn’t leave it alone, not completely. Not the way things had been going.

He waited until everyone else left the room; as usual, Endicott was still dawdling over his tea and his Times. Tony walked over to his table and sat down without asking for permission. Endicott turned the page of the newspaper and looked at Tony with a quizzical expression.

“I want to ask you something,” Tony said.

“What do you want to ask, Mr. Silva?” Endicott glanced at the Business section as if Tony were distracting him from something important.

“How much do you make from your… work?”

Endicott lowered the paper and scrutinized Tony. “That’s a rather personal question.”

“Yeah, it is, sorry. But I’d really like to know.”

Endicott considered for a moment. “Are you including the revenue from my portfolio? I’m doing rather well this year.”

“No, I’m not including the… portfolio.”  Tony felt himself getting red in the face. “Just the work you do.”

“Well,” said Endicott, pouring more tea from the pot. “It varies, you know, depending on business conditions, but generally I earn between three-hundred and three-hundred-fifty thousand dollars per year.”

Tony swallowed. “Three-fifty?”

“Often.”

Tony looked down at the table, then back up at Endicott, who hadn’t returned to his paper but was examining Tony’s face. It was humiliating, but he went on, “Do you think… do you think you could teach me how you do that?”

There was a long pause. Endicott studied him as if he were appraising a piece of costume jewelry. Tony wondered whether Endicott was going to invent a profession on the spot. But finally he said, “I don’t think there would be very much point in that.”

“Why not? I’m a good learner. I’m a professional.”

“Oh, no doubt, Mr. Silva. But if I may say so, I don’t think any disparity in our incomes comes from a disparity of skills.”

“No? Then what does it come from?”

“Social position. Despite the leveling talk, the class warfare and the mythology of universal equality that has permeated popular culture in the last few decades, there are still some professions where social standing makes a difference. Entrée into those professions, while possible for those of humble origins, does not yield the maximum benefits for any but those with the background, connections and social skills that come from more fortunate beginnings.”

Tony’s stomach felt sour. “I don’t know the right people and I didn’t go to the right schools.”

Endicott gave the merest shrug. “I’m not Professor Henry Higgins, you know.” He set his paper on the table and stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some transactions in Boston I must attend to. A lovely place, this. I’ll recommend it. Feel free to read the paper; I’ve finished with it.”

As Endicott stepped out, clicking rather than banging the screen door, Tony felt the ache in his thumb joints return. Some guys had all the luck.

—END—

Kenneth Schneyer lives in Rhode Island with his wife (singer & scholar Janice Okoomian), their two children, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye.  His first story appeared in 2008; since then, he has sold stories to Analog, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Abyss & Apex, Cosmos Online, Daily Science Fiction, GUD and elsewhere.  He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop, and is the newest member of the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop. Trained as an actor, lawyer and project manager, he now teaches humanities and legal studies at Johnson & Wales University.

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