Ellen Land had received her third letter from Premium Bank credit card notifying her they were sending her to collections for her unpaid balance when she got her first call from the collection agent. His tone was polite but firm. "May I speak to Ellen Land?" For the rest of her life, she would regret not telling him he had the wrong number.
"What is this regarding?"
"It's a personal business matter. Is Ms. Land available?"
She'd been busy that overcast Southland morning, packing her daughter Joy's fruit roll and peanut butter sandwich while her perky 9 year old was finishing her orange juice and cereal at the breakfast table, open lunchbox and book bag beside her. Out the window, the yellow Redondo Elementary school bus had just trembled up in front of the house and she was late.
She was behind with the DWP, the call could be about her water or power being shut off. And, due to the nudge of fear, Ellen Land said the absolutely worst thing she possibly could have. "This is she."
"I'm calling on behalf of Premium Bank. You account has been sent to collections. My name is Mr. Tabernac and your account has been assigned to me."
Not wanting to be overheard by her child, Ellen took the remote phone into the bedroom. She kept her voice down, docile. "Mr. Tabernac, I'm really sorry about this bill. I'm a single mother of a nine year old and in June my daughter broke her leg in two places on her bike. They just changed my health benefits at work and I wasn't covered so I had to put the doctor on the credit card." It was a little white lie. In fact, she had not been able to pay her medical insurance that month and had been temporarily without coverage. Wouldn't you know it, that was when Joy had her accident.
"If you can send a payment out today we can get this matter cleared up." Like he hadn't been listening.
"I don't have the money."
"You heard me. You have a debt and you better pay it. You owe us money." His manner was blunt and rude. It infuriated the single mother in an already hassled mood that morning. What an aggressive jerk!
"Mr. Tabernac, are you calling from India?" Silence on the other end of the line. "Half the calls I get from you people are from some broke ass India outsource company and obviously you people don't speak English."
"Do I sound Indian to you?"
"Well you obviously don't speak English because you didn't hear a word I said."
"You will pay your bill or--."
Inflamed, Ellen hung up on the idiot.
The phone rang another 10 times that day.
It was just the beginning, but Ellen didn't know that then.
She went about her day. Joy had a playdate and sleepover with her friend Piper across the street so she would not be home that night. Looking forward to a night off alone, the mother had a pile of Netflix and a bottle of wine she picked up at Trader Joe's. She tossed the romantic comedy in the DVD player, poured herself a glass of Prosecco and tried to enjoy herself. But fear nibbled at her nerves and her mind kept wandering to the bills, wondering if she did the numbers right. She was so behind. Getting off the couch, she sat at her desk and pulled the bills out of the drawer, going through them at the same time the movie was running.
Six months ago Ellen had lost the job she'd held for 10 years when she'd been fired from her elementary school teacher post in the L.A. Unified School district as part of sweeping layoffs from the egregious state budget cuts. She'd taken a job as a secretary at a local law firm at a quarter of the pay and barely kept food on the table. Ellen sorted miserably through the bills on the table, acid indigestion burning her throat. There was exactly $1,297.00 in their bank account until her next paycheck in two weeks. $17,562.68 owed to the mortgage. $921.43 for the phone. The phone was on a payment plan and she'd be okay there. Another eight hundred in various expenses left her about a hundred and fifty dollars in the hole for groceries over the next two weeks. Flipping through the disheartening pile of paperwork, Ellen rubbed her eyes, getting foggy. She knew she had to start apartment hunting in the area. At least then Joy was not going to be too badly uprooted and lose all her friends. She tried watching the silly romantic comedy with Cameron Diaz and George Clooney. Predicable tear jerker button pushing of beautiful people finding love with other beautiful people, it just depressed her reminding her of her loneliness and weariness of being strong too long. Forget about dating, forget about sex, she was just trying to take care of her kid, but was going under and the boom was about to drop. Exhausted by worry and sporting a pounding headache, she lost the desire to watch a movie and just wanted to crash.
Dropping into bed, Ellen popped an Ambien, and that put her right out.
Until the ringing phone woke her up.
She didn't sleep at all that night, because the phone kept ringing, every time coming up as Unknown Caller, but she knew who it was and didn't pick up. This had to be against the law, she fumed. It was harassment. The stalker phone calls exploded like breaking glass until long past midnight, making her feel menaced. But much as Ellen wanted to pull the phone cord out of the wall, she couldn't because Joy was over at Piper's and what if there was an emergency.
All day, groggy and nerves raw from lack of sleep, Ellen muddled through. She picked up Joy from Piper's. When she came home the phone was ringing and the caller ID said "Unknown Caller."
She yanked the plug out of the wall.
This way Ellen avoided upsetting her little girl by her having to explain the constant ringing phone. But now she couldn't receive regular calls from her friends, now couldn't get calls from her friend Sandy, whose any-time-of the-day interruptions of nutty stories about the latest loser she was dating from match.com were the vicarious adventures Ellen lived for. It was disturbing how such a small thing as not being able to get calls made her feel like she was hiding in her own home, isolated and cut off from her outside connections. The single mother coped by checking for voice mail every hour. There was always a new message from the freak, the same threatening and belligerent missive on her voice mail. "Mrs. Land, this is Mr. Tabernac from Camarillo Collections, regarding your past due balance of $4,005.00 to Premium Bank. It is urgent you return my call at--." Didn't he have any other cases? She couldn't believe how she was being terrorized, her freedom infringed. Unsafe in her own home, gnawing fear like a rat running around a wheel in her guts, a dread always in the back of her mind, it was impossible to relax. The collection agent was so intrusive it took a psychological toll on Ellen, but she didn't have the money, so decided to ignore the creep. Just wait him out, she told herself.
Sooner or later he would stop calling. He had to.
When the calls didn't stop, she called Verizon and changed her phone number, called her friends and gave them her new number. Problem solved.
Now he was calling her at work.
And so it went for a week.
And then the calls stopped.
Steering her Toyota to the curb in front of the school, Ellen grinned and kissed Joy as she bundled into the passenger sea with her school stuff. Just as she was about to pull away from the curb, the single mom saw her friend Piper's mom flag her down and hurry over to the driver's window.
"Hi, Sandy, what's up?"
The other woman kept her voice down. "I keep getting calls for you. This man says you owe some kind of bill. He keeps calling and asking me to give you his number. Honey, is everything okay?"
Blindsided and mortified, Ellen's head swam with fury. The collection agent was deliberately humiliated her by calling her neighbors to say she owed money. How did he get her neighbors numbers? This was her private business and he had no right.
"I think they called Bob and Maryanne too."
"Ugggh. Thanks, Sandy. Good to know. I'll get on the phone with them and make sure they stop bothering you." Ellen sped home, in a rage. Joy, sensing her mother's agitation, did not say a word.
The phone was ringing when they got in the door.
Ellen swept the receiver in her hand, having an out of body experience as she registered the unknown caller I.D. "Ms. Land this is--."
"Listen you piece of crap! You have no right to call to my neighbors and tell them my personal business!"
"We can do whatever we want."
"Hey, creep I'm talking to you!" And Ellen unloaded on the collection agent, fueled with so much rage she did not even know the words coming out of her mouth but every single piece of profanity and filth she had ever heard uttered flew forth in an obscene aria of verbal abuse from her lips. When he tried to interrupt, she cut him off. "I can say whatever I want and you can't do crap you because you called me you dirtbag! You hear me? You piece of crud! You ever call this house again, I will come over to your office and take this phone and jam it down your throat!"
A beat. For long seconds there was silence
The tone of his soft whisper was chillingly vacant.
"I'll see you soon, bitch."
The line went dead.
The calls stopped coming.
Life went back to normal.
Ellen did not register the Buick that was parked up the street until the third day it was there.
By the following week, her house was getting messy. Depressed and lethargic, it took her until early afternoon to get to the breakfast dishes in the sink. As she loaded the dishwasher, Ellen looked out the window and saw Joy with her book bag walking up the path. She experienced a shudder, because the school bus had not come by and it always dropped off her little girl at exactly the same time. And where did Joy get that lollipop she was sucking?
"Hey, pumpkin, you're home early."
Inside, her daughter regarded her with innocent button eyes as she put down her knapsack. "The nice man picked me up at school and took me home.."
The single mother's stomach turned somersaults. Kneeling by her kid, she touched her face, her arms, and her shoulders, to see if she was okay. "Honey, I told you never to get rides from strangers, didn't I?"
"He said you said it was okay."
"Did he hurt you? Did he touch you?"
The child shook her head defensively and her mother knew she was telling the truth.
"And he gave you the candy?"
"No sweets before dinner." Ellen removed the candy from her daughter's disappointed clasp and dumped it in the garbage like it was a bug. She didn't want to scare Joy, didn't want her baby girl to know fear, but her protective instincts told her she better sit down and have a conversation with her soon to tell her what was going on.
Ellen went straight to the police.
She dropped Joy off at Sandy's across the street and gave her friend a stern admonition that nobody but her was to pick her kid up, Ellen drove downtown to the Redondo Police Headquarters. The patient black female detective named Jones was sympathetic and concerned as Ellen described her tale of woe with the sinister collection agent, but was not encouraging. "Ms. Land, I feel your pain but unless he breaks any clear laws, there is not much we can do."
"What about him picking up Joy at school for Chrissakes? Isn't that illegal?
"Did you see it?
"No, she told me."
"Then it's her word against his."
Her taxes at work.
The doorbell rang.
The collection agent stood on the stoop.
The man was about 6 feet tall, broad and muscular under the cheap ill-fitting suit. In his 50's. His hair was parted, greasy. His brown, moist eyes glittered beneath this bushy black unibrow, on a swarthy Italian face. "Mrs. Land?"
"I'm Mr. Tabernac."
"I know who you are."
"May I come in?"
Her life flashed before her eyes.
"We need to talk."
And she let him in. "Would you like something to drink?
Walking to her cupboard about the sink, she opened it. Rows of coffee cups. Her hand hovered. Several comic character clear glasses. Yes, that was what she needed to use. Her mind worked fast. She felt his penetrating eyes on her back and knew they were undressing her without having to turn around. His low, gravelly voice continued, husky and flat. "My job is to recover past due amounts for my clients. I hear every story there is and you have to understand that. I know you are not a criminal, not a bad person. But you owe money. You have to pay. No exceptions."
"I don't have the money."
"You can get it."
"I can't, that's the point." She opened her fridge and pulled out a cold bottle of Arrowhead, pouring it into the glass. Now she would have to face this bastard, sit across from him, better get it over with. She took a deep breath, turned, met his hard eyes, saw his lopsided grin, walked over to her table, sat down and pushed the glass of water over to him.
"Thank you," he said politely. His urban accent was hard to place. New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, she wasn't sure but something like that.
Then he did what she wanted him to.
He picked up the glass with his bare fingers, and drank.
His Adam's Apple bobbed as he gulped the water. He'd missed a spot shaving.
Putting down the glass, the collection agent named Mr. Tabernac eyeballed her from his face filmed with an unhealthy sweat that stained his shirt collar by his tie. He watched for the longest time without blinking, knowing the intimidating effect his gaze had on Ellen. "Twenty four hours, how's that sound?"
"Are you threatening me?"
He just smiled, looking at the collage of pictures of Joy on the fridge. "Nice kid." Fear and panic pushed Ellen past some subconscious psychological fear threshold inside her because now her worst nightmare was here, in front of her, the worst happening, and terror fled, replaced by cold inevitability and pumping adrenaline.
She heard the words coming out of her mouth as if she were listening to somebody else. "Why me? I mean, it's only four thousand bucks. You only get a percentage of that. Don't you have other clients, other people in collections you need to recover from? How can you spend all this time on poor little old me?"
Now he blinked. Something dark and unhealthy filmed his eyes as he looked down at his big fingers clenched around the glass. Ellen suddenly noticed how huge his hands were and how mashed the cartilage on the knuckles was. He paused and when he raised his eyes, violence burned in them and it took all her self-control not to evacuate on the kitchen chair. "You went off on me. You got in my face. No piece of trim talks to me like that, single mother or no. Remember what you said?"
"I'm sorry. I was having a bad day?"
"Remember your exact words?
He did. He repeated them back to her. Every one. Every piece of filth and profanity and they sounded a lot more comfortable coming out of his fat wet Al Capone lips then they did hers. "That's what you said."
"I work for a living, lady. I don't deserve that."
"Please accept my apology."
"I'll accept your past due payment, in full, in twenty four hours."
"I have a little girl."
"That something you should think about." The threat in his voice was unambiguous and fury flared in her belly.
Ellen rose to her feet, fists clenched. "Get out of my house." He sat the table, looking up at her, the faintest trace of a smile in the corner of her mouth, as if to say this one is feisty, a look so maddeningly patronizing it inflamed her. "Out of my house, right now, or I pick up the phone and call the police."
She grabbed the receiver and put it to her ear.
The line was dead.
She couldn't breathe. The collection agent finished his water, set the glass on the table, picked up his hat and walked to the door. He shot a dead, vacant glance back at her. "Twenty four hours." And he was gone, screen door slamming behind him. Ellen locked the door, as if it that would help. But it was okay, her plan had worked.
The glass of half drank water sat on the table.
Carefully lifting it by the bottom of the glass, she raised it to the light.
His fingerprints were all over it.
"I ran the prints."
Fred Kaminski was a hefty and affable Private Investigator Sandy recommended when she had her cheating ex-husband tailed three years before. The balding middle-aged gumshoe operated out of second floor walkup office overlooking the beach. As a favor to Sandy who had dated him briefly, he had agreed to work with Ellen pro bono and she sat across from him now. "Well, his name is Anthony Costa and let's just say he has a lot of experience in collections. From 1984 to 1998, he used to work as an enforcer for a Mafia loan shark named Tony Petrano in Las Vegas. Costa was indicted for aggravated assault for breaking some guy's legs in '99 and did a 5-year stretch. He was suspected in a dozen other brutal assaults and at least 1 murder, but they couldn't tie him."
"Oh My God."
"The collection agency is legit. He owns it. It's been profitable because his high success rate in recovering unpaid debts for his employers is unequaled. The guy is a mafia thug and he uses hard-core intimidation tactics. And he gets his company hired by banks and credit companies now, who obviously in this economy are turning a blind eye to who they get into business with."
Ellen rubbed her eyes." "Tell me some good news."
"As you know, " he continued, "collection agencies are given a wide berth by the law enforcement agencies in terms of what they can do to collect and what is actionable for you as a citizen, but criminal harassment is just that, a crime, and there are lines they can't cross."
"He has crossed all of them, Mr. Kaminski! I'm being menaced!"
"If we can catch him physically accosting you, breaking and entering, or stalking you, we can have him arrested. Then you have multi-million dollar lawsuit against the bank for hiring this creep. If he has done it to others, it could be class action suit."
A strange flicker of hope danced in the back of Ellen's mind.
Suing the bastards.
She and Joy's money problems over forever.
Then another image flashed in her head, Joy with a bullet hole in her skull, and she felt her bowels lurch with fear.
"I want to kill this guy." Her teeth clenched. "I mean it Fred, I've never felt this way before but I want to take a gun and dead him."
"Then you'd go to jail, your kid would become a ward of the state and both of your lives would be ruined. Do this my way. Play it smart. Let me use you as bait. Then we'll catch him, get him arrested, and sue this bank blind. It's the right way to handle this."
Ellen rubbed her eyes.
"Bait gets eaten."
The PI lit a cigarette, coughed and looked pensive. "It's interesting this guy changed his name from when he worked for the Petrano crew. Could be Costa got into trouble with them, maybe he's hiding from them."
That gave Ellen another idea.
To her surprise, she found who she was looking for was listed in the Nevada phone directory. "Mr. Petrano, please."
"Who is this?
"I know where he can find Anthony Costa."
A gravely, dead voice came in the line. "This is Petrano. Speak."
"I know where Anthony Costa is, if you are looking for him. He used to work for you as an enforcer and I don't know who he is to you now, but he has changed his name and is working as a collection agent for Premium Bank is the L.A. area. His new name is Harry Tabernac. He is a crazy and scary man whose has been threatening me and I am frightened because I'm a single mother with a little girl and I'm afraid he is going to hurt us. I found his true identity because I had a private investigator run his prints. I just called to provide you this information."
There was a long pause Ellen felt the weight of on her end on the line.
The voice lowered. "Where do you live?"
How much worse could it get?
She told him.
Ellen hugged Joy and carried the child's suitcase to her grandmother's car parked across from hers in the underground garage. It was like a movie. She had arranged the meet there so Costa could not watch her make the transfer of her little girl to her grandmother's car that would drive her safely out of town. As Joy happily crammed her stuff in the front seat, excited to get a week off of school with Grannie, Ellen took the worried older woman to the other side of the vehicle out of earshot. "Don't give anybody your number up in Big Bear, Mom"
"Don't worry, dear. I won't. I'm just so worried for you. You should call the police."
"They should do something."
"Yes, they should. Don't worry Ma, I'm a big girl."
Looking over her shoulder in sudden alarm at the echoing screech of tires in the cold cement fluorescent shadows of the parking garage, Ellen heard it was on the next level and caught her breath. No cars had followed them and all the other vehicles parked in the complex were empty, or so she thought. They better be. On the drive over, she was certain she hadn't been tailed.
Giving Joy a big kiss, Ellen told her precious child to listen to Grandma and avoid sweets. Then she climbed into her own car and followed them out onto the street, which was empty in both directions and they were not being followed as far as she could tell. Watching through the windshield, she saw the tailgate of the other car make a right and disappear up the block, Joy waving innocently at her through the back windshield.
Ellen wondered if she would ever see her baby again.
The house was dark.
Ellen sat at the kitchen table, lights off.
She had started smoking again.
He was out there.
She could feel it.
The mother listened as the house settled on its foundations, random creaks and groans unnerving her. The wall clocked ticked.
At exactly 3:35 AM, she heard the metal scrape of the lock pick in her back door.
She sat staring straight ahead, guts doing cartwheels as she heard his footsteps behind her coming up the hall. He would be able to see her now. The snap of wood on the loose board in the corridor placed him just past the closet.
The click of the hammer of the gun seemed like it was in THX.
"Freeze or I'll blow your head off!" Kaminski's voice boomed. "Get down on the floor hands behind your head, now!" And Ellen was on her feet just as the private detective leapt out of his closet hiding place behind the surprised Costa. He grabbed Costa by the throat, the gumshoe's ugly .44 Magnum jammed in the intruder's face as he pushed him down to one knee. But the collection agent's left fist swung up into the PI's neck and then the right slammed into his groin. Kaminski dropped his gun unfired as he fell to the ground, half-conscious on the way down. Cold when he hit the floor.
Ellen was dead.
Simple as that. She knew it.
Anthony Costa reared up and faced her, his sick eyes full of murder. "I said I would see you soon, bitch." It was over. She could scream, she could run; he'd be on her in a heartbeat and she knew she'd never manage a squeal before he did things she didn't want to know about that would end in Joy not having a mother. "Look at me!" He snarled. Ellen did not want to but she did and oh, those terrible eyes. So this is how it ends, she thought dismally.
Ellen heard the car in the driveway. So did Costa.
The front door buckled in. Two huge men barreled into the living room. They wore raincoats and had mob soldier written all over them. One look at them and the collection agent froze, paralyzed with fear. "Hello, Tony." The larger of the thugs grinned. "Mr. Petrano says hello." The hoods grabbed the collection agent before he could move and twisted his arms behind his back so hard his legs turned to rubber. Costa had a look the stunned Ellen had never seen on his face before...abject terror.
"You think you can steal from Mr. Petrano and he won't find you?"
"Step aside lady. Mr. Petrano says let you know this cockroach ain't going to bother you or anybody else, again."
Ellen stood her ground. Fear fled, a fierceness swelled and she fixed the mob men in an steady gaze. "Hold him," she said. They did, twisting his arms like a coat hanger behind his back, as the petrified animal that was Anthony Costa cringed like a jellyfish under Ellen Land's withering gaze and she walked right up to him, facing her enemy and confronting her worst fear. This worm was what she had been afraid of?
She punched him as hard as she could right in the mouth. It felt very, very good.
The collection agent sagged in the mobsters' arms, blood dripping from his fat lip, dropping his gaze, whimpering like a girl.
"The rest is ours," the big one said.
"Let's go," the bigger one said.
"No, NOOOOOOOO!" Their captive wailed in misery and fear of what lay ahead for him. The muscle boys shoved a rag in their captive's mouth to gag him. They dragged the struggling Anthony Costa by the arms out the front door, dumping him in the open trunk of their car and with muffled thuds emanating from the closed boot, pulled out of the driveway in a squeal of tires and sped off up the street.
Relieved, Ellen rushed to the fallen P.I. stirring on the floor and saw Kaminski was okay.
The light went on in the house next door.
Sandy rushed out, half asleep, in her nightgown and blinked groggily at Ellen. "What the hell is going on out here? Is everything okay?" she said, worried.
Ellen just smiled from the doorway.
It had been month a month since she received the million-dollar settlement check from the bank in agreement for dropping her lawsuit on the collection agent and she was still getting used to the idea of never having to work again a day in her life. As long as she could remember she had been worrying about money, and now she never had to again. Ellen re-experienced the forgotten joy what it felt like to be a careless teenager and slowly began to relax and unwind. As her anxiety attacks ceased, Ellen stopped taking anti-depressants and drinking altogether and at night slept like a baby. Joy mercifully remained oblivious of the entire collections nightmare.
God had taken care of them, her mother said.
God helps those who help themselves, she replied.
Ellen Land never heard from the collection agent again.
Sometimes she felt a grim twinge in her gut imaging what they did to him and she disciplined herself not to think about it. There was no longer the stab of fear when her phone rang and she could pick up and hear Sandy's latest romantic misadventure without hesitation.
One day a new parent at school named Jackie, a quiet single mother just moved into the neighborhood with her four young sons, joined the PTA. She had that familiar look of strain and anxiety Ellen recognized from the pressures of crushing financial problems, the suffering resulting from the harassing phone calls, the terror of debt. It was a killer. Ellen empathized with the stoic fear in the other mother's eyes, the debilitating strain of being strong too long and knew what she had to do.
She took out her checkbook.
About the Author
Eric Red is a Los Angeles based motion picture screenwriter and director whose films include THE HITCHER, NEAR DARK, BODY PARTS, BAD MOON and 100 FEET. Recent published short stories have been in Weird Tales Magazine, Shroud Magazine and Dark Delicacies III: Haunted anthology. His first novel DON'T STAND SO CLOSE will be published in July.