The old man delivered flowers every weekday morning, to a variety of locations. The flowers were left on his doorstep each morning and would contain instructions for proper delivery. Occasionally he would need to deliver them to a particular recipient. Occasionally they had no recipient, but needed to be taken to a location and tucked out of view. The locations didn’t repeat. Neither did the recipients. It was simple work, and he was very good at it.
The old man was unobtrusive looking. If pressed to describe him, one might say he was of middling height, with neutral colored clothing. He dressed the way your father might dress. Short hair, sort of grayish. He might have worn glasses, or he might not have. It was difficult to remember. He was also eminently uncurious. It had never occurred to him to unwrap the flower packets and see what else they might contain. He never remembered the names of his recipients nor the locations he had visited; those details simply didn’t seem particularly important. He didn’t look for any trends, and so he didn’t see any. It was this quality, above all else, that had helped him be so successful in his work.
Today however, there were no flowers to be delivered. Back at his small apartment, the old man sat back in his armchair with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. It was a lovely morning, bright and clear. The old man had turned eighty-five last Friday. He celebrated his birthday alone, as he always had, and gave notice that he intended at last to take his retirement. He had worked many years for the organization, and felt his retirement was well earned by now. Though of course there was the matter of finding his replacement. The company had insisted he do that one last task. It seemed absurd that he should be the one to hire his replacement. Surely the organization would know best, but he was told to pick whoever he liked best. It was proving more difficult than he originally imagined, however. He hadn’t yet found someone appropriate. Deliveries had been halted while he was finishing recruitment. The organization didn’t like halting deliveries. This was an uncomfortable thought. The old man picked up the phone and a list of numbers (provided to him ahead of time) and began calling to schedule interviews.
The first prospect was no good at all. Too young, and too chipper. The second one was a surly seventeen-year-old. Her parents dropped her off. They asked questions. This wouldn’t do either. The third, a young woman recently graduated from college, was more promising. She arrived on time. She was pleasant, courteous, well dressed.
“The job is uncomplicated. The flowers will arrive each Monday and Thursday morning at 6:00. Wake up to get them. You mustn’t leave them sitting on your doorstep. A note will be left on top. It will contain instructions. Follow the instructions exactly. Do not consult a map to find that delivery location; use the directions that are provided. Do not take your mobile phone with you on deliveries. No matter the weather or your health, you must deliver the flowers. You may not employ anyone else to deliver the flowers for you. You may not accept other employment. You may not discuss the terms of your employment with anyone else. Does this sound like something you could do?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Good. I will contact you by the end of the day if the company approves your hiring.”
“I’d just like to ask a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
The man hesitated, uncomfortably. “Go on then.”
“What is the purpose of this? This is quite a lot of compensation for a job that will take very little time or effort. I just don’t want to get involved in anything illegal.”
“The organization has its own purposes, and its own reasons for secrecy. But they’ve given me no reason to distrust them, and I’ve done this work for quite a while. As far as I know, delivering flowers isn’t illegal. As for compensation, that’s not my area. Should you be hired, a letter will come with the first delivery of flowers. This letter will provide you with details on how you’ll receive payment. You won’t have contact with me again.”
“Thank you. I hope to hear back.”
The young woman seemed the best candidate. The old man informed the organization of his decision, and it was approved. So the position was filled and the old man could relax. The organization would move forward with the necessary paperwork. It was all done on computers now, very different from when he was first hired as a young man, sixty years ago.
Several weeks later, however, the man was becoming restless. Was his replacement performing her duties appropriately? Surely if there was any problem, if he was needed, the organization would contact him. And yet the old man’s anxiety lingered. For the first time, unsatisfied curiosity rankled inside of him.
He still had the young woman’s phone number. He’d not disposed of it after arranging the interview process. He wasn’t sure why. He resolved to phone the young woman and check in with her, see how she was taking to the job, and what she thought of it.
He called her later that afternoon, and she picked up almost immediately.
“Hello. I interviewed you for your position several weeks back. I was calling in to check up on you.”
“Yes, I remember you. I wondered if you might not call at some point.”
“Indeed? I’m just calling to see how you’re settling into the new job, whether it suits you or not.”
“Of course the job is simple enough and it suits me fine. They certainly pay well enough. Is that the only reason you called?”
“Yes, yes. I just wanted to check in and make sure that you were doing everything as I explained it to you, that there was no difficulty.”
“No, that’s not why you called.”
The old man didn’t know what to say. This conversation was not going as he expected it to at all.
At length the young woman broke the silence. “How about you come over to my apartment after the flower delivery on Thursday? We’ll have a little chat, and we can speak more openly.”
“Yes, I suppose I could do that.”
“Good. I live downtown. Meet me at the corner of 5th and B Street. I’ll show you the way back to my apartment.”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“Thursday then. At one o’clock.”
She hung up. The old man wasn’t certain whether this type of contact was allowed. It made him uneasy, though he saw no particular harm in it. It hadn’t been forbidden, exactly. And the had organization never given any indication that they monitored his activity outside of the deliveries. His hands were clammy. He wiped them on his pants and took a deep breath. It would be fine.
Thursday came and the old man arrived early. He stood on the corner to wait for the young woman, leaning against the building there, scarcely noticing the bustle of the street around him. The young woman arrived exactly on time, and nodded to the old man in recognition. She didn’t speak, but motioned for him to follow her. They walked several blocks to a bus stop. They boarded the bus and she paid for his fare. After a short ride they disembarked and walked a few blocks to a squat but cozy set of apartments. She let him in.
“Sorry for the silent treatment, but you never know, do you?” the young woman said.
“I suppose not,” agreed the old man.
She motioned to a table and chairs. They both sat down.
“So, now I think you’d better tell me everything you know.”
“Everything you know about the organization. Why they do this. Where the money comes from. Who they are.”
“All you need to know is what I told you in the interview. Are you having any difficulties? Your paychecks are coming through, aren’t they? I can give you a number to call if you have any difficulties in that regard.”
“No, no the paychecks are fine. They’re coming through and they’re certainly generous enough. But that’s my point. It makes no sense. What is the point of this job? Why are they paying so well?”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t know. There’s no sense in asking all kinds of unnecessary questions. The organization has their reasons I’m sure and I don’t see any reason to go meddling around in things that don’t concern us.” The old man shifted in his chair and checked his watch.
“I’ve been keeping an eye out, and they follow me. They follow you too, I imagine. Even still. You must have known that. They don’t even try to be discreet. It’s the same two men every time. And I don’t mean only when I deliver the flowers. They watch me all the time, everywhere I go. I expect they’re outside the apartment now, waiting to see when you’ll walk out.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the old man said, his eyes darting to the door.
“Yes, you do. You’re afraid of the organization. You must have noticed what they do.”
“You should speak more carefully, young lady. The organization has offered us a very fine living and asks very little of us. It would be unwise to…question their motivations. There could be repercussions,” said the old man.
“What are they going to do? For whatever reason, it looks like someone has to deliver the flowers. And it can’t be those men, or they’d be doing it themselves instead of following us and watching while we do it. There’s something going on here. I know there is. And you know more than you’re telling me.”
“I don’t know anything that would be of interest to you. Meeting here was a mistake. I must go now. Goodbye.” The old man left the apartment with astonishing swiftness.
The old man returned to his house badly shaken. This had been an inadvisable risk. He had put in his time with the organization for 60 years and has just now gotten his life and his peace of mind back. He had no business gossiping with new employees, with anyone. It would only lead to trouble. It wouldn’t happen again. He would invite no suspicion.
That night, however, he was woken at 11:00 PM by his doorbell ringing. Several minutes later, it rang again. And a third time. The old man was determined not to go to the door. No one decent would call at this hour. In the morning he went out to get his newspaper and found a note slipped inside the features section – “I suggest you answer next time,” it said, black Times New Roman on a plain white slip of paper.
The old man hurried back inside, alarmed. For the rest of the day, the doorbell remained silent. The old man kept his curtains drawn. He sat waiting in his dim living room, waiting for the call that he knew would come.
At eight in the evening, his phone rang. He picked it up wordlessly and waited for instructions, just as he always had.
“Your candidate has proven herself…unacceptable. She has been relieved of her position.”
“You will resume deliveries until further notice, and await further instructions.”
The old man exhaled shakily. “Of course, yes.”
The man on the phone hung up.
The old man walked outside the next morning to collect the flowers. He opened the note on top. On top of the usual instructions was a personal message. “See that you don’t make trouble again, Albert.” The old man looked up. Across the street, two familiar men made eye contact. The old man locked his door, read the instructions, and began walking to his destination. The two men followed close behind.
Kelly Anne Doran is a writer and blogger from Southern California. She’s written essays and articles for BUST Magazine and Mental Floss, and humor for Points in Case. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyadoran.