“How can I help you sir?” The secretary eyed the man standing in front of her desk with a cautious smile. This was not the usual visitor, but she had been trained to deal with people like him.
The man cleared his throat and immediately fell into an unfortunate coughing fit. He managed to slip out a quick pardon before burying his face into the right arm of his grey coat. It had been the color of sand on the beach a long time ago.
“Sir, there’s water behind you if you would like. Just lift up the red part,” said the secretary as she placed her hand on the telephone.
“No, no,” the man insisted before immediately falling back into a fit. It lasted for half a minute. In the meantime, a woman in a grey business suit approached the desk. She hesitated at first, looking at the man hunched over in front of her. The woman offered to grab him some water, but the secretary shook her head and waved her into the office. Finally, the man stood up straight and looked at the secretary behind her desk.
“I’m sorry, Miss. I am a very sick man. The city is not a very friendly place during the winter,” he said. The secretary nodded sympathetically, keeping her hand on the phone. “Don’t worry, Miss. I’m not contagious or anything. My troubles run deeper than that, I’m afraid.”
“How can I help you, sir?” The secretary’s tone had hardened.
“You see, Miss…” He looked at the secretary’s name tag: Jessica. “Miss Jessica, I’ve run into a bit of trouble. I don’t have a lot of money, Miss Jessica. And it’s hard to buy food and stay warm when I don’t have any money.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Is there any way that I can help you?” Jessica looked at the clock behind the man’s head.
“I know how to make money, though. Not a lot, but enough. Enough for some McDonald’s for dinner and a box of Cheerio’s from the Seven-Eleven. Would you like me to show you, Miss Jessica, how I used to make money?”
“Sir, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave if you don’t let me help you.” The man reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out three blue, plastic cups and a red, furry ball. As he laid these out on the table, Jessica began dialing a number into the phone.
“What I want you to do, Miss Jessica, is to watch very carefully. You see I have three cups here.” The man picked up the red ball between his thumb and index finger. “And this, Miss Jessica, is the prize you need to keep your eye on. What I’m going to do is place this ball under the middle cup right here.” The man smoothly lifted the cup and slipped the red ball underneath. “Now what I’m going to do is mix these cups all around, and I want you, Miss Jessica, to keep your eye on the cup with the ball under it.” As the man began re-arranging the cups on the desk, Jessica finally connected to the line that she had dialed.
“Yes, assistance needed in the front lobby. There is an uncooperative stranger who is currently trying to scam me using a ball-and-shell game.” As a man in a sharp, navy two-piece walked into the lobby, Jessica’s face became irritated. “I’ll explain what he’s doing later, that’s not important. Just send somebody down here as soon as possible.” Before Jessica could slam the phone into its dock, the sharply-dressed man grabbed it out of her hand. He raised the phone to his mouth.
“Mike, are you still there? Yeah. I know. No, that won’t be necessary. I’ve got it under control. Sure thing. Thanks.” The man gently placed the phone back into its place and turned his attention to the man sliding the cups back and forth on Jessica’s desk.
“What’s your name?” the suited-man asked. The man playing with the cups looked surprised. This obviously wasn’t a common question for him.
“Sir, my name is Joseph Richard Quine, sir.” Joseph reached out his hand to shake but was met with no response.
“Joseph, nice to meet you. My name is Ryan Winger, and this is my company: Windy City Investments. I’m going to ask you a question, and I would prefer that you answer as directly and accurately as possible.” Joseph nodded his head dutifully and stood up straight.
“Yes, Mr. Ryan, sir. I will do my best.”
Pointing at the cups still on the desk, Ryan said, “A good first step, Joseph, would be to put your silly game away.” Joseph sadly looked down on the cups. Jessica watched Joseph with cautious curiosity.
“Sir, Mr. Ryan, sir. I was about to ask Miss Jessica here under which cup she thinks the red ball is under.” Joseph smiled back and forth between Ryan and Jessica. Neither reciprocated. Ryan took in a deep breath.
“Joseph, I don’t like playing games. I won’t even play fucking Monopoly with my own damn kids. It’s partially because I don’t have the time, but it’s mostly because the money. Isn’t. Real.” Ryan approached Jessica’s desk. “But there’s something I despise even worse than games that try to sell you fake money.” He grabbed the blue cup on the far right and lifted it up to reveal nothing. “It’s people like you, Joseph.” Ryan picked up the cup in the middle and showed nothing again. “People like you really, really get on my nerves, Joseph. Do you know why?” Ryan put his hand on the cup to the far left and stared into Joseph’s wide eyes. “Do you want to take a guess at what’s under this cup, Joseph?” Ryan laughed. “I’m willing to place a bet.”
“Sir, Mr. Ryan, I give you my word that the ball is under that cup.”
“I would really prefer if you didn’t lie to me, Joseph.”
“I’m not lying, sir. I swear to God, and on my momma’s grave, and on my coat, here.”
“Joseph, I know you’re lying because I know who you are.” Joseph’s eyes grew wide. “Don’t you remember?”
* * *
The L rocked back and forth as it passed underneath the dark tunnel away from the city. Ryan intensely gazed at the book he was reading: “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. His thoughts were soon interrupted by a conversation across the train-car.
“You look like a lucky woman, Miss.” A woman politely laughed.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“I’m feeling your luck today, especially, Miss. And I have a proposition for you.”
“What kind of proposition are you talking about?” She sounded skeptical.
“It’s a game, Miss. A game that anyone with two eyes can win.”
“You see, Miss, I have these three cups here. And here I have a red ball. No tricks, you can feel it for yourself.”
“Yes, it feels quite fine, dear.”
“Now what I’m going to do is I’m going to put the ball under the middle cup, just like this.”
“Now, Miss, I want you to watch very carefully. I’m going to slide the cups back and forth, and you need to keep your eye on the one with the ball underneath. Ready?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
A minute passed.
“Alright, Miss. Tell me which one you think the ball is under.”
“The one on the right. Yes, that one.”
“Oh, Miss. I’m terribly sorry. I wanted you to win, really.”
“That’s okay, dear. Here, let me get something for you.”
Ryan closed his book and sat down next to the woman.
“Ma’am, you don’t need to give this man any money.” Ryan said.
“Oh, no, dear, it’s fine. I guess my luck ran out, today! That’s all,” she said.
“Ma’am, with all due respect, which is none, this man is a con-artist.” Ryan pointed accusingly at Joseph.
“Now, sir, that is a lie. You are a liar, sir. We played a game fair and square,” Joseph insisted.
“I won’t sit here and have scum like you call me dishonest, you fucking worm.” Ryan rose from his seat and grabbed the two remaining cups, lifting them up to reveal nothing but empty air.
“Oh, I guess he’s a magician!” the woman exclaimed, trying to mollify the situation.
“Stop making excuses for him,” Ryan said. “He needs to learn that people aren’t going to put up with his crap.” The woman turned toward Joseph and placed a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“Look, dear, here is a gift in return for the entertainment. I hope that you have a nice night.” She stood up and whispered into Ryan’s ear, “Thank you for your help, Prince Charming, but I’m not a defenseless idiot, you know. It’s always a scam. You need to learn that sometimes it’s okay to just be a nice person. I’m sure they mention that in that stupid book of yours.” She turned away and walked off the train-car.
Ryan stood in silence for a few seconds before realizing that it was his stop as well. He pulled out his wallet and grabbed a business card. Handing it to Joseph, he said, “Look, you need to stop scamming people. I understand that money is a necessity. If you’re ever interested in getting a real job, stop by this office. It’s my new company, we do stock investment. We’ll do an interview and maybe get you set-up with something minor. Getting coffee or something. Have a good night.”
“Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it. Thank you, thank you.” Ryan walked away and barely slipped through the closing doors.
* * *
“And here we are. It feels just like the train again, doesn’t it, Joseph?” Ryan gripped the last blue cup tightly. “Except this time, you’ve invaded my office. What’s next, Joseph? Are you going to walk in the front door of my house and scam my son? He’s two. I’m sure he would love the red ball that you’ve currently got stored up your sleeve.”
“Mr. Ryan, I assure you that the ball is under the cup, sir.”
“You never give up the act, do you? Why should I be surprised? Even when I exposed your bullshit on the train, you called me the liar. Isn’t that rich, Jessica?” Jessica shyly smiled and nodded.
“Jessica, tell me what you think about this. How about we make a deal with our friend Joseph, here. If the ball is under the cup, he gets a job here. In fact, not just a job. He gets my job.”
Jessica looked alarmed. “Sir, I don’t think that would be the best idea. We should just have him removed from the office like I was trying to do before.”
Ryan ignored her. “And if the ball isn’t under the cup, Joseph pays me five dollars.”
“I don’t think he has five dollars,” Jessica protested.
Joseph’s eyes grew with excitement. “Sir, Mr. Ryan, I would love to just have a job, sir. I’ll do anything you want, sir. I learned how to use a computer with my friend’s laptop, and I’m pretty good at typing up words as long as someone tells me what to say.”
“Enough! I don’t care about your petty aspirations.” Ryan’s face darkened as he focused in on the blue cup underneath his hand. “1 … 2 … 3.” The cup went up. A red ball.
“No.” Ryan looked up at Joseph in disbelief. “No, it doesn’t work like this. I know you, Joseph! You can’t make money like this!”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Ryan. That’s precisely why I am looking for a job, here, sir.”
“Get out of my office, Joseph.” Ryan grabbed the ball and cups. He opened up the door and threw the cups out into the exterior hallway.
“Mr. Ryan!” Jessica rose from her seat. “Can’t we give him some basic job? We have paid interns who sit around and do absolutely nothing. Have him be a replacement.”
“Jessica, you don’t understand how the world works. People like him …” Ryan pointed vehemently at Joseph. “They don’t deserve our charity. They suck you dry without a second thought, and they’ll never work an honest day in their life.”
Joseph’s face turned sour. He walked complacently toward the door with his head down. “Mr. Ryan, sir, I really wish you didn’t feel that way. I’m sorry for wasting any of your time, sir. May I ask for my red ball, please?”
“No, I’m keeping it. Maybe it will teach you to find something else to do with your life.”
“That’s a fair point, sir. Perhaps someday I will become a great business man like you.” Joseph stepped outside the office, but he turned back. “You’re a good man, Mr. Ryan. You’re fair, and you called me out when I was trying to swindle somebody out of their money. That’s what fair people do, I guess. They can’t help but make sure that things are fair all around.”
“Stop kissing up to me, Joseph. I’m done with you.”
“Right. Sorry, sir. Have a good day.” Joseph soon disappeared down the hallway.
Ryan approached Jessica’s desk. “He is a liar. He is a cheater. He is not the type of person that we want working in this office.”
Jessica stared ahead at her computer screen. “You’re the boss, sir.” Her tone held ice.
Ryan stormed out of the lobby, slamming the door behind him. Jessica was right. He was the boss.