P.O.D --- Payment on Delivery
One: President's Choice
"You've got nothing better to do for a week, do you?"
The day started off horrible and didn’t get much better.
For starters, Ken forgot to set his alarm the night before. He never forgot. It was the last thing he did before he fell asleep, right after he brushed his teeth. But for some reason he forgot, and he woke up an hour late when his cell phone went off. He stubbed his toe on the bedside table as he threw himself out of bed and slipped on the soap in the shower, and burned his fingers on the toaster when it refused to pop his toast out at him. He couldn’t find his good shoes even though he’d just been wearing them the previous night and had to settle on the old ones that were losing their padding and liked to cut up his ankles instead. His dark mood turned black when he opened the door to leave at last and found a knife protruding from the wood. It pinned in place a less than friendly reminder that rent was due in two days and that it would not be accepted late this time, and he forced himself not to wonder how he was supposed to get enough money together in time without resorting to begging his friend Yohji for a loan.
But what really told him that he was going to have the worst day of his life was the moment he looked down from the road for just a split second to read a text message off his phone and he side swiped another car. The two vehicles had pulled off to the side of the road and Ken was banging his head against his steering wheel, cursing himself as loudly and colorfully as he could. He’d never gotten into another accident before; his driving record was perfect. And now this…? He winced as he lifted his head, peering out the window to try and get a glimpse of the other car. Maybe the damage wouldn’t be that bad…
His stomach tied itself into a hundred vicious little knots when he saw the other car- not really because of the dent that went down the side from the back door to the trunk and not only because the car was a BMW imported from overseas. Mostly it was because of the very pissed off looking foreigner that had just climbed out of the driver’s seat to turn an acid look on him.
“Oh shit,” he moaned, fingers clenching on his phone. “This is not going to go well…” Scrounging up every bit of courage he could find, he unbuckled and slid out of the car. It took two pushes to get the door to close all of the way and it made a loud groan of protest as it finally clicked into place, and he looked from his ancient, tattered car to the formerly flawless one parked in front of it. It was almost funny that his car didn’t look hurt at all. Almost funny in the way that made him want to curl up on the ground and cry, perhaps.
Nervous steps brought him towards the other man, who had turned to survey the ugly dent, and he bowed as low as he could, trying to ignore the curious traffic that slowed to a crawl to study the accident. “I’m so sorry,” Ken said, digging his name card out of his wallet. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. I am completely at fault here, and I promise I will cover the expenses of getting it repaired. I’m so sorry.” He held his card out to the other and the man reached out to take it from him. He risked looking up at the other’s face and the coldness in the hazel eyes that stared down at his card made him gulp. A thought occurred to him then and he thought to ask, “Umm, you can speak Japanese, can’t you?”
If he’d thought he’d been getting a dirty look before, it was nothing to the look that was turned on him now. “I understand Japanese perfectly well,” was the cold response, and the man looked past him to his beat up excuse of a car. “Something makes me doubt you would have the money to repair a car like this, however.”
Ken had no right to be offended at the blunt observation that he was broke as dirt, but he felt his back stiffen anyway. “Sir, I understand that I am at fault here.”
“Yes,” the man agreed easily. “You are.” With that he turned away, pulling his cell phone out of one jacket pocket. Ken took a few steps back towards his own car as the man began speaking rapidly in a language he couldn’t understand, and he took advantage of the other’s distraction to call Yohji.
His friend and coworker answered on the first ring, sounding annoyed. “Where the hell are you, Ken?” he demanded. “I called you half an hour ago. You plan on actually coming in to work today or did you fall back asleep?”
“Please don’t start with me, Yohji,” Ken begged, turning away from the sight of the expensive car and angry foreigner. “I’m stuck on the road and I can’t come in yet. I just got into an accident.”
There was an audible choke as the other almost inhaled his cigarette, and he waited until Yohji had finished coughing before continuing. “It’s my fault,” he said quickly. “I looked down just for a moment to see who had messaged my phone and I went right into the other lane.”
“Damn,” Yohji said. “You all right?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine…” He peeked over his shoulder. “Oh God, Yohji, it’s a BMW and some fancy rich foreigner. Rent’s due in two days and Farfarello’s going to kick me out on my ass if I can’t come up with the payment. What am I supposed to do? I can’t pay for this car’s repairs!”
“Hey, hey,” Yohji soothed him. “Don’t start panicking. We’ll figure this out. Just keep bowing and don’t say anything but ‘I’m sorry’ when the police show up, and then you get your butt over here and we’ll figure out what to do about it, all right? It’ll all work out, I promise. Things will be just fine.”
Ken didn’t really believe him, but he allowed himself to be fooled for a few minutes because it was better than having a panic attack. “Call me after the police are gone, all right?” Yohji said. “Do you need me to come out there?”
“No, no,” Ken assured him. “We can’t just leave the shop like that. You stay there. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, let me know how it goes, all right?”
“I will, I will. I’m sorry, Yohji.”
The older man sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “I bet you are… Talk to you in a bit, okay? Bye.”
Ken clicked his phone closed again and tucked it into his pocket, folding his arms over his chest defensively as he found himself once more the target of a cold gaze. Neither had anything else to say to the other and it was another ten minutes before the police showed up to investigate the scene. Ken did as Yohji told him, babbling apologies and reassurances that he would pay for all repairs, bowing to everyone present and giving another name card to the police for their files. The foreigner finally returned the earlier gesture by handing over one of his own and Ken winced at what he saw written there. Brad Crawford, CEO of Choice Enterprises. He didn’t recognize the company but that meant squat compared to the embossed ink on the small card and the man’s rank within the organization.
Ken wanted to die.
Yohji was waiting for him when he finally managed to make it to the shop and Ken was more than happy to flop against him and moan into his shirt. “Yohji, I’m dead,” he wailed. “You should have seen the look he was giving me. He’s going to string me up by my toes for denting that expensive car of his.”
“Hey, hey,” Yohji murmured, giving his back an encouraging rub. “Things will be just fine, I promise. Here, come sit down and let’s think about it, okay?” He guided Ken over to where two stools sat by the counter, easing Ken onto one before taking the one in front of him. Ken offered his friend a miserable look and Yohji tried to give him a smile in response. “Look, I’ll talk to Farfarello about the rent, okay? He might listen to me and I can get him off of your back for a while so you can worry about this.”
“You think that’d actually work?” Ken wanted to know.
“Of course,” Yohji sent back with a confident grin. “You know he’s more likely to listen to me than you.”
Ken gave a glum nod. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But there’s only so far he’d be able to let it slide, you know? There’s a dent this long,” and he spread his arms out to indicate a massive length, “down the side of that black BMW. The cost to get it knocked out is going to be more than my rent. Even if I could get Farfarello to give me more time to come up with the money, I’d still have this bill and then the next month’s rent just a short time after I paid this month’s.” He gave a heavy sigh, rubbing at his eyes. “I’m thinking the only thing I’ll be able to do is take out a loan to make ends meet until everything gets caught up.”
“You think the orphanage can loan you a bit of money?” Yohji asked.
Ken shook his head. “I’m not asking them to help pay for me,” he said with a frown. “They’ve got just enough money to scrape by as it is. I’m not their problem anymore.”
Ken sighed again, looking around the empty flower shop he and Yohji worked at. “I’m sorry I’m so late to work.”
“You just be glad Momoe-san called in sick today,” Yohji told him, grimacing at the thought of what would happen if the sharp-tongued woman had been present. “Her back’s bothering her again so she decided to stay home today and give it some rest. If she’d been here she would have gone up one side of you and down the other.”
“Well, that’s the *only* thing going for me so far today,” Ken muttered. “I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies.” He pushed himself off the stool and wandered around the shop, checking on the plants. Apparently they hadn’t been very busy this morning; all of the plants were trimmed and watered nicely. Yohji only worked for two reasons: an empty shop or Momoe-san’s watchful, beady little gaze. As soon as the girls showed up Yohji took over the role of playboy and let Ken handle the rest. Ken didn’t argue because Yohji was very good at talking girls into buying things, and it wasn’t like it was back breaking work to repot a few plants.
“You going to be okay?” Yohji wanted to know.
“Yeah, yeah… I’ll be fine. I just need today to go over, you know? I’d ask to just wake up all of a sudden and find out this has all just been a bad dream, but I’ll settle for counting down the minutes until it’s time to crawl back to bed.”
“Well, maybe I have just the thing to take your mind off of everything,” Yohji said, sliding off the stool. He tugged a magazine off the counter and moved to Ken’s side, holding it out in offering with a triumphant grin on his face. “Here, take a look at this.”
Ken frowned as he turned to see it better, eyeing the pictures on the cover before reading the flashy kanji scribbled across the page. “What the hell is this supposed to be?” he wanted to know.
Yohji was all too glad to explain and began flipping through the booklet. It seemed to be a catalogue of sorts, but instead of merchandise, there were pictures of people’s faces. Yohji skipped the section that seemed to be only men, going directly to where girls were listed in the back half. “See this?” he said. “This is for people like you who are too lazy to go out looking for love. Mail order lovers! Isn’t it great? You pick a pretty face and place in a call to see if she’s available, and you can rent them. They come in week and month increments.”
Ken looked towards the ceiling for patience. “Yohji, only you would think such a thing is a great idea.”
“Oh, come off it. Look, I’ll even buy one for you, since your money’s going to be tied up elsewhere. It’ll do you a world of good if you’d just get laid once in a while. Everyone’s getting some except you.”
“Not everyone,” Ken protested, pushing the magazine away and busying himself with his apron. “Not all of us are interested in screwing everything with breasts and long legs, you know.”
“Hah,” Yohji snorted. “Name someone.”
Ken hmm-ed as he thought. “Farfarello,” he said at last, sending Yohji a smug look over his shoulder.
“Farf? Come on, everyone knows he’s fucking that girl. What’s her name, again? The short one with the big eyes that’s always hanging around the apartments.”
Ken’s eyes went open wide. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he choked out. “She’s what, nine?”
“She’s seventeen. That’s the best way to get them these days, you know- nice and young.”
Ken scowled at him. “Funny words to come out of the mouth of Mr. ‘I won’t date anyone under eighteen’.”
“Shit, man, you know I have to be careful. You think the cops aren’t still watching me? There’s a little note in Asuka’s file that says she used to live with me and now they send me friendly reminders that they know I’ve been connected to a troublemaker. I have to go above and beyond the lines of being a good little citizen. If I start smiling at the young faces they’ll find some way to turn that against me and bring me in. It’s bad enough that I still keep in semi regular contact with Farfarello.”
Ken shrugged. “Well, there’s no proof that he’s actually sleeping with her.”
“You think so? I’d bet next month’s paycheck on it.”
“I dare you to ask him,” Ken shot back.
“Fuck that. You think I’m suicidal? I’m a lot of things but not that. But anyway, my point is that you should at least consider this.” He waggled the catalogue meaningfully and Ken just gave him a cool look in response. The older man sighed, holding up his hands as if in self-defense, and tilted his head towards the back door. “Well, either way, now that you’re here I’m going to go take my smoke break. Back in a few, okay? Smile pretty for the customers if we get any.”
Ken nodded and waved, watching as his friend vanished out the back door. When it swung into place behind him, he flopped down on the stool and burrowed his face in his arms, hoping the day would fly by.
Schuldich looked up from where he was slouched down in Crawford’s chair when the American came storming into work late that morning. A thin brow rose over amused blue eyes and a wide mouth curved into a smirk at the look on his friend’s face. “I see you’re still pissed,” he observed, pushing himself up from the desk. “That bad, hm?”
Crawford gave him an eat-shit-and-die look as he set the briefcase down on his desk. “I’m going to be the one who ends up paying for the repairs,” he said, “and I’ll be waiting for him to reimburse me for it. Judging by his clothes and car, it will be months before he can afford the bill.”
Schuldich gave a low whistle, propping a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. “Grand fun. Is the car parked in the garage so I can admire it later?”
“Schuldich, today is *not* the day for your foolishness.”
“Yeah, I know, I know.” Schuldich shrugged, holding the cigarette out in offering. “Did the judge tell you yet when he’s going to make his decision?”
“We’re to be present at court at three,” Crawford answered, glancing towards the clock and waving the cigarette away. Schuldich perched it between his lips once more, watching as the older man unpacked his briefcase and set his things up for a short day at work. The flame haired German nudged a notepad closer, nodding to the dates and times he’d scribbled on it. He’d come in at Crawford’s request to help keep things organized today, and he figured it was rather lucky that he had, considering the man’s bad luck with this morning’s traffic.
Crawford picked up the list to study it and Schuldich considered him, watching his cool gaze rake over the numbers and names. “Souma says he can get all of the orders taken care of,” Schuldich told him. “They had to move a few things around but it should work out just fine. Also, Chizuru says they finally got that one guy to pay. Toshihiko? Something. She said it like I would know what she was talking about, so I assume you know.” Crawford just nodded, setting the pad back down, and returned to rummaging around in his briefcase. Schuldich watched him for a few moments more before speaking again. “Hey,” he said, and Crawford glanced towards him. “It wouldn’t kill you to smile, you know. Things will go just fine this afternoon and you know it. You always win.”
It was an awkward attempt at reassurance; Schuldich wasn’t used to having to play the role of sympathetic friend and he knew he sucked royally at it. They’d known each other for three years now but they liked to keep the personal aspects out of their relationship. It was what worked for them. But this was a little different and Schuldich was keenly – and almost resentfully – aware that he was really the only one the American had at a time like this.
Crawford said nothing and went back to working, and Schuldich sighed and considered everything that was being stacked on his desk. Among the items was a name card and he plucked it up, studying the characters etched into it. “A client?” he wanted to know.
“The other driver,” was Crawford’s flat response.
“Ah.” The phone rang then and Schuldich reached for it before Crawford could. The other man gave him a warning look as he plucked it up and Schuldich just offered him a lazy smirk in greeting as he lifted the phone to his ear. The tone of the ring meant it was from an outside line, a prospective client, and Schuldich turned away from Crawford to talk. “Choice Enterprises,” he drawled. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Hey,” greeted a male voice. “I was wondering about ordering someone as a gift for a friend.”
“Sure, sure, for a friend,” Schuldich agreed, tugging a catalogue closer. Crawford muttered a quiet warning behind him that he ignored, and Schuldich flipped through the pages of female faces. “Do you have someone in particular in mind?” he wanted to know, switching the booklet to one hand so he could jiggle the computer mouse. The screensaver faded and Crawford stilled in his work, giving him a look when he realized that Schuldich had logged in as him. Schuldich knew they’d have words about that later, but he didn’t think Crawford should be so surprised that he’d stolen his password.
“Well, sorta,” was the answer. “He’s kind of hard to buy for, you know. He doesn’t really look at girls very often, so I don’t know who his type is.”
“No girls?” Schuldich asked, tapping a few keys to bring up the database. Blue eyes watched as it loaded, studying the names that were crossed out to indicate unavailability. “How about a man, then?”
Schuldich waved at Crawford to be quiet, pointing to the phone as if he couldn’t hear over the other man. The man on the other end gave a cough. “Uh, no, thanks. I’m pretty sure we can skip past that.”
“All right, then. Tell me a bit about your confused boy and we’ll see what we can find for him. We’ve got everything. I’m sure we have just what he needs.”
“I sure hope so,” was the answer. “Okay, let’s see… He used to be really sporty, but not so much anymore. Brown hair, teal eyes, big smile. He’s the regular kid next door, the kind that gives up his seat to old ladies and helps them carry their groceries.”
“Ah, a bleeding heart.” Crawford reached for the phone and Schuldich swat his hand away.
“Um, in a sense, yes.” There was a pause before the other man added, “Also, we’re both a little on the lower side of the economic scale, so if you have anything…”
“Cheap?” Schuldich drawled, and there was an embarrassed pause on the other end. Schuldich’s smirk pulled wider and he turned back to the computer. “Well,” he said. “I can tell you what numbers are most likely to match your boy and you can make the final decision, or you can leave it up to us to pick which one we think is best qualified for him.”
“You can do that?” the other asked. “I mean, I guess you could. You guys are the experts, and all.”
“Of course we are. It’s our job to be.” Schuldich poked at a few buttons, pulling up an empty form. “You like door number two better?”
“Sure,” was the response. “I’ll trust you.”
“Good. I’ll just need some information.” He took over Crawford’s chair again and Crawford stood off to the side, finished with straightening up. The older man watched in silence as Schuldich got the caller’s information and filled the form out, and at last Schuldich scrolled down to click the box that read “Gift”. “And your friend’s name?” he asked.
“Hidaka,” was the response. “Hidaka Ken.”
Schuldich’s hand froze above the keyboard. “One more time?” he said.
“Hidaka Ken,” the caller said again, enunciating the syllables.
Schuldich thought he would choke on his laughter, and he skipped that line to fill out the man’s address. At last he was finished and he threw a shit-eating grin up at Crawford as he bid the client farewell. “We’ll have something sent by tonight, then. Remember: your satisfaction is our business. Ta!” He clicked the off button and finally burst into laughter, waving a hand at Crawford. “You won’t believe who this order is for,” he gasped out.
“If you say it’s for Hanae, I will shoot you where you sit.”
Schuldich smirked. “You wish it was, don’t you,” he said, reaching out to tug the name card closer. “Someone just placed an order for their little friend Hidaka Ken,” he said, holding the card up towards Crawford. “Looks like he needs a little something to make him feel better about denting in your car.” Crawford scowled, not amused in the slightest, and Schuldich waved a hand at the computer. “Well, it’s president’s choice,” he said. “His buddy says we get to send him whoever we want on a weeklong stint. Should we pull someone off the street for a while? I know you don’t keep anyone with diseases in your ranks.”
“That would ruin the company’s reputation if a client developed an STD from one of our people,” Crawford informed him, crumpling the name card up and tossing it back to the desk.
“Well then, what do you want to do about it?” Schuldich wanted to know, turning the chair to look up at him. “My vote is that you make his life a living hell, but your girls are trained a little too well for that. Hey, does Hanae’s dog still like to shit on the carpet? Maybe you can send the dog along as a little accessory for the girl.”
“The girls *are* trained too well,” Crawford mused.
“Then who?” Schuldich wanted to know, and a thoughtful hazel gaze settled on the German. A faint smirk curved the American’s face and Schuldich felt his smirk twitch wider. Crawford only got that look when he was really about to screw someone over, and it was always worth sticking around once he started making such an expression.
“President’s choice,” Crawford said. “You’ve got nothing better to do for a week, do you, Schuldich?”
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