Billable Hours by Jim Davies

Billable Hours
Jim Davies

The old man slid into the chair across from Dale with the precision and finality of a closing German car door.

Yes?” Dale was annoyed. She was an attorney and had lots of work to do. She was billing hours at this almost-empty diner because being in her quiet office late at night put her to sleep. She just wanted to eat and get some work done in a different environment. Now this stranger out of nowhere. She closed the brief. Didn’t want him seeing the confidential information. She took off her glasses and rubbed her bleary eyes. It was late; her vision was starting to fail her.

Busy night?” The old man’s creamy eyes surveyed the table between them, covered with files, papers, and her laptop and briefcase. His skin wrapped the bones in his head like parchment around a fish in the oven. The blinking “open” light in the window cast a greenish glow to his right cheek – one second on, one off.

No, this is all a show so that people don’t chat me up.”

The old man took this good-naturedly. “You getting enough sleep?”

Dale laughed and shook her head. “I’m a lawyer.”

How much do you need, and how much do you get?”

Eight and five.”

Can’t delegate sleep, can you?”

Dale leaned back far as the booth allowed. “Nope.” She made a show of looking at her watch. Then put her glasses back on so she could read it. Almost midnight. Crazies starting to come out. What could a grandpa legitimately want with a 28-year-old woman in the middle of the night? Well, all shady characters eventually needed lawyers. Maybe she could score a client out of this, though she’d never conduct a client meeting in a public place. “There something I can help you with?”

The old man’s smile was gone so suddenly it was hard to imagine it had ever been there. “I’ll get right to it, then. You look about half-dead, and I’ve got a way for you to make other people sleep for you. They sleep a bit more, and you get another hour or two during the day. To work, or do whatever you want.”

Well, that doesn’t have ‘scam’ written all over it, does it?”

I don’t want money.” He pulled a golden bracelet from his jacket pocket and turned it slowly in his hand. It didn’t look like it was made for women in particular. Just a simple chain. It was also reflecting the light from the ‘open’ sign. Gold. Green. Gold. Green. “Just tryin’ to be helpful to a pretty young thing.”

Why did she sit in this booth again? Oh yeah. Dale leaned over the back of her booth and held out her plastic tumbler. From here she could just reach the Diet Coke fountain and refill.

The waitress glanced up at the sound, then went back to picking at her cuticles. Dale was a regular and the server didn’t mind. It was a 24-hour place, but not busy, and Dale tipped handsomely.

The bracelet tinkled in his fingers. “I give you this. You put it on. When you shake someone’s hand, that person gets tired, goes to sleep for a few hours, and you get the benefit.”

So you’re in some cult.” Dale leaned back against the seat and watched his face. You could always tell when the shark was about to spring the trap – something about involuntary muscle twitches.

Nope.” The man smirked at her. “I’m Will. What’s your name, lawyer?”

Dale.” Neither held out a hand to shake.

Well, Dale, let me ask you something. This life you’ve got. How’s it working out for you?”

Dale opened her mouth to tell him how good it was, but stopped and sighed instead. It takes mental effort to lie, and she was too tired to put in the concentration.

He let the bracelet swing a bit, catch the light. “I’m just tryin’ to help you out. Take it, if just for the placebo effect.”

Dale laughed at that. “Okay, fine,” she said, holding out her hand.

One corner of his mouth turned up. “It needs a drop of your blood.”

Dale dropped her hand and laughed again, sipping Diet Coke. “Of course it does.”

Your subconscious has to be convinced.” Will fished around in a pocket before pulling out a medical sharp. “Thought I had an extra.” He ripped open the wrapping. “Got diabetes. Usually have a few in a pocket.” He poked his finger and squeezed three drops of blood onto the bracelet, then winked at her. “Mumbo jumbo! Heh, gotta have a ritual so the mind believes it’ll work.”    He dropped the sharp onto a napkin then fished another one out and handed it to Dale. “Your turn.”

Dale examined it. The seal was not broken.

Will let her look the sharp over, then held out the bracelet. “Just one drop, Dale.”

The carbonation was burning her tongue. She swallowed. “Why did you put your blood on it, then?”

He winked again. “All part of the mumbo jumbo. Stage magic and all that. But your subconscious, it don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality, so it’ll think it’s real.”

Dale’s eyes felt heavy. She turned the sharp around in her hand and fantasized about needing less sleep. There was a douchebag at work, Edward Tresh, who got by on four hours a night. How was she supposed to compete with guys like that? Even the guys who needed as much sleep as she did just bit the bullet and worked eighty hour weeks. She wasn’t going to let Edward Tresh, or the rest of them, make partner before she did. “Maybe.”

Will raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

I’m not going to cut myself open at a diner. I’ll do it at home.”

He hesitated, peering at her with an intensity that make a shiver crawl up her spine. “Fine. But promise you’ll do it.”

A sudden desire to be rid of him fled through her being. “Yeah.”

He stared at her for a little too long to be comfortable, then relaxed and nodded. “Alright.” He stood, put the bracelet on the table in front of her, then walked out.

Dale started and gazed after his retreating back. Her finger found the bracelet and played with it, moving it around on the table, then her hand picked it up and slipped it on her wrist. She went to take another sip of Diet Coke but thought better of it. She was utterly exhausted. She needed sleep, not more caffeine. And it was only Tuesday. She looked at the bracelet on her wrist. The idea was absurd. But hey, free gold, right? Though it was probably fake – just like its ‘magical’ properties. Her eyes started to slowly shut.

But. (She forced her eyes open again.)

What if I didn’t have to sleep?

As silly as the whole thing sounded, as tired as she was, she could not resist wondering what it would be like if it actually worked. After a few minutes of fantasizing, she noticed that she’d finished her tumbler of Diet Coke. That was it. She stood up, packed up, and left.

#

When she finally got home, she looked at the clock in dismay. Two am. And had to be in her office by eight. As she brushed her teeth she spotted the bracelet on her wrist out of the corner of her eye. She spit. Why not?

She took the medical sharp out of her pocket and examined it. Still sealed. Looked okay. She tore it open and put it in the flame of a lighter for a few seconds, just to make sure it was sterile. Then she took the bracelet off, pricked her finger, and let two drips of blood onto the bracelet. They didn’t sink in or anything. She didn’t know what she expected, but suddenly the whole thing seemed preposterous. She put an adhesive bandage on her finger, then slipped bracelet back on her wrist, and was asleep in minutes.

#

While standing on the driveway, rummaging through her purse to get her bike keys the next morning, she noticed the gold bracelet still on her wrist. She’d completely forgotten about the old guy from the night before. What was his name? Will? As she gazed at the bracelet it started coming back to her. The guy, the blood. God, really, did she shed blood? The tiny princess Band-Aid was still on her finger. She ripped it off.

She wanted to get rid of the bracelet, but her house was already locked. She was wearing gold earrings…What the hell; it wasn’t a bad looking bracelet. Simple. Classic. She kept it on and biked to the firm in the brisk autumn.

#

Dale stopped at a local coffee shop on her way in, and was at her desk at five after six. Didn’t matter, nobody else was there yet, and that was the point. She drummed her fingers on her desk while waiting for her computer to boot.

At nine am, she locked the screen and stood. She had a consultation meeting with a new client, some guy who’d knocked over a tattoo parlor. She’d been working for three hours, the coffee was wearing off, and she was getting slightly groggy. No time to get another coffee. She walked into the meeting room. Edward had beaten her there.

Ed.” She nodding to him in greeting.

One of the partners was already there too, Donald Gowen. “Mr. Krelborn, this is Dale Saunders.”

The client was young and male, like most of clients at a criminal law firm. He was wiry and kinetic. He thrust out his hand and she shook it. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Saunders.”

As soon as she sat down, she felt better. “Let’s get started.”

As the meeting progressed, she noticed Krelborn yawning a lot.

Sorry,” he covered his mouth, trying to suppress another one, “for some reason I’m exhausted.”

A shiver shot up Dale’s spine as she remembered that bracelet she was still wearing. Surreptitiously she eased it off her wrist and slipped it into her blazer pocket. It freaked her out a little. That couldn’t have worked, could it?

She zoned out of the conversation and tried to noodle this out. Her mind was sharp. Her knee started pumping up and down under the table. Maybe it was just her own mind, making her feel awake. The placebo effect, just like Will said. But she hadn’t thought of the bracelet until Krelborn said he was tired, and she’d been feeling more chipper since she shook his hand. The placebo effect would work on her, but how could that have made Krelborn tired? Creepy.

At the end of the meeting Krelborn said he had to cab home and sleep.

Dale swallowed. The truth was, she felt great. She’d snapped her briefcase shut and was strutting out the door before anybody else got out of his chair.

#

The next day, she woke up at five before her alarm. She’d stayed up the night before until one in the morning, no caffeine, and gotten a boatload of work done. The bracelet did seem seemed to be doing something, but God only knew how… or what. She tried to remember everything Will had said… Somebody else will sleep for a few hours. You will stay awake an extra hour.

Something like that. It struck her that she had no way to get in touch with the old man. She had questions. She wanted to thank him. Really, it didn’t matter how it worked. It was awesome.

She’d taken down the dreamcatcher she’d had hanging over her bed and kept the bracelet there for the night. Lying in bed, in the early morning moments before complete wakefulness, she gazed up at it, then reached up and put it on.

#

As she locked her bike outside work the next day, a beggar approached her. She considered him for a moment, and then took out a five-dollar bill. “What’s your name?”

Alan.”

I’m Dale.” She thrust out her braceleted hand.

He looked suspicious, but his eyes were hungry for the fiver. He shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Dale.”

She gave him the money. He nodded and stuffed it in his pocket and walked away without making eye contact again. As he walked away, he yawned.

If I were begging on the street, I’d want to sleep all day, she told herself.

She slipped the bracelet into her purse and faced the day with vigor.

For a while, she faced all her days with vigor.

#

Will woke up groggy and looked at his watch. He’d slept for nine hours.

He rolled over, stewing, missing the good times, the bracelet times, when he got three hours (or less) of sleep every night. Now he felt like he was wasting his days away. He got up and washed his face, happy with what he saw in the mirror. He looked better. Younger again.

Dale must be using the bracelet.

#

Dale woke up in the pitch blackness. Was that a noise or did a dream wake her up? She listened for a few moments and heard nothing.

She rolled over and put her arm on Eric, her new squeeze. A month ago, before she’d gotten the bracelet, she hadn’t had time for a boyfriend. But now she felt like she could have everything.

She was going gangbusters at work. The partners were complimenting her on her productivity, and she even had Edward running ragged. The fact that she shook hands with him once in a while probably had something to do with it. Levels the playing field, a bit, eh, Edward?

She was using the bracelet three times a day and had never felt so alert in her life.

The extra time had given her opportunities for a social life, too. She’d started dating Eric, a real nice guy, a cop she’d met in court. She’d meet him for dinner or whatever after work, maybe catch a movie, maybe make out on his couch. She was able to finally relax because she knew she’d have no trouble staying up all night working. It was exhilarating. Not tonight though, she thought as she caressed his chest, slowing rising and falling in sleep. She’d been laying off the bracelet today because she expected he’d be sleeping over.

While she listened to him breathe, her mind wandered, settling on some things that were a bit disturbing. She was feeling a little creaky, and she’d noticed she was getting wrinkles. More than she’d expect at 28. And some gray hairs. That was bothering her but she just figured she needed to sleep on the weekends, at least for her body’s sake, but it didn’t seem to happen. There were always friends in town, movies to see, Eric to bang.

Not to mention work, the relentless work.

So she ended up not sleeping at all.

The other didn’t just bother her, it tried to worry her. One of her clients died. His car had drifted into the wrong lane. Fell asleep at the wheel, the paper said.

She pushed that out of her mind. Again. She wasn’t even sure if she’d braceleted him that day. It was Saturday, and it felt good to sleep. She cuddled up to Eric, glanced up to make sure the bracelet was still hanging above the bed, and closed her eyes.

Another noise.   

Her eyes bolted open again.    She held her breath and heard the floorboards creaking in the next room. Someone was in the house. Good thing she was sleeping with a cop.

Eric!” she whispered. He grunted in response.

Someone’s broken in.”

Like a machine, Eric went from deep sleep to cop mode. He slid out of bed and was kneeling by his clothes in one smooth motion. He put his pants on. She saw the gun belt in the dim moonlight coming in from the window. He listened for a moment, and then the two of them heard another noise, this one unambiguous. Someone was definitely here.

Eric ran to the door and burst through into the living room. She heard Eric shout “freeze!” and the yelp of the intruder.

Okay, okay!” A voice from the living room. A light went on.   

Eric started talking on his cell phone.    The intruder must have been subdued.    Dale scrambled out of bed and put on a robe.

Squinting in the light, she gazed at the face of the burglar who was sitting on the couch. He had thick brown hair, a five o’clock shadow, and was wearing black. He glanced up at her when she walked in, but then quickly averted his gaze and looked in the other direction.

Eric got off the phone. “My buddies are on their way. You know this guy?”

The guy kept looking away from Dale.

Hey!” Eric barked, “Look at her.”

The man looked at Dale.

No.” I don’t…know him, but… he sure does look familiar… The man looked away again.   

Eric was reading the man his Miranda rights when it struck her.

Will?” The man jerked but said nothing. “You’re Will, aren’t you?”

My name’s Sam.” But even the voice was familiar.

Eric, I… I think I know this guy. But…” She hadn’t told Eric about the bracelet, and it seemed like a lot to explain in the middle of the night, but she had questions for Will and he was about to get carted off to jail.

“…but I thought he was older.”

Eric looked up from his phone and narrowed his eyes. “Say again?”

Dale moved so that she was facing Will head-on. It was him, she knew it was. “Will, what are you doing here? And how did you get so… so…”

Will just looked down.

Eric hung up his call. “What’s going on here? How do you know this guy?”

Okay, Eric, this is a lot, but this man’s name is Will. He gave me a bracelet a little over a month ago. He told me I would need less sleep if I wore it.”

Will watched her eyes.

That gold bracelet you keep— ”

Don’t tell him where it is. Anyway, yeah. It seems to work.” She sat on a chair. “So. Will. You here to take the bracelet back?”

Yeah.”

Dale raised her eyebrows, indicating that he should continue.

Will shifted uncomfortably. “I missed it. The extra time.”

Why am I…” Dale cleared her throat and lowered her voice. “Why am I getting older? I mean, so fast? And you…” He was a young man again.

You’ll return to normal when I start using the bracelet again.”

Uh huh. Well, if that’s so, then why break in to get it? Why not just explain it to me? I’d have given it back to you.”

Will screwed up his face, like he was thinking. “Didn’t think you would…”

He was struggling to make a lie.

Dale exhaled, pulled her robe tighter around her body, and stood up.

Eric gestured to the door and didn’t take his eyes off of Will. “Dale, go unlock the door. The cops are here.” He opened Will’s bag and dumped out a bunch of band-aids and medical sharps. He put them back in the bag, shaking his head. “Weirdo.”

#

Dale had some explaining to do, and stayed up with Eric for several more hours. He didn’t look as if he believed her, not completely, but he wasn’t the easiest guy to read in any case. His face was like one of those Easter Island heads. She finished up. “But now I’m concerned, because I’m looking older. I look like I’m 45. Did you notice?”

He squirmed. “It isn’t the kind of thing you bring up with women. I’m no lawyer, but I’m smart enough to know that. I was going to suggest you should see a doctor.”

She considered this. She imagined going to the doctor, telling him about the bracelet. That would lead to a referral to a psychiatrist, for sure. She could lie to the doctor about the bracelet, but then what would be the point of going?

There’s a premature aging disease called progeria…” Eric wouldn’t meet her eyes.

That was depressing. If he had looked it up on the internet, he’d definitely noticed she looked frayed. And he was speaking in medical terms, so he didn’t believe her story about the bracelet.

She couldn’t rightly blame him.

Other people were noticing too.

Don Gowan told her to get some sleep; she looked “like hell.” Easy for a partner to say. Don looked as if he got lots of sleep. Golf is a tiring game.

She was looking older. Feeling older. And Will had looked younger. Maybe he was stealing her youth or something? It sounded ridiculous, but so did the idea of delegating sleep with a gold bracelet, so who was she to dismiss it?

I think that’s enough tonight.” Eric flopped back down on the bed. “I have to work in the morning.”

They went to bed, and eventually they both fell back asleep.

#

The next morning Eric hurried out after some toast and coffee, leaving Dale in the kitchen alone and caffeinated at eight in the morning on a Sunday. She thought about Will. The bracelet. Aging.

Will’s story didn’t make sense. If it had been true, he’d have just come to her. If aging was is a side-effect of using the bracelet, why couldn’t they have just switched it back and forth every month? He must have been lying about why he wanted it, maybe about how the bracelet worked. He must have thought of that lie on the spot, too, because if he’d thought of it earlier, he could have just come to her with that story. She would have believed him and given the bracelet back.

No, there was something else going on.   

She took another sip of coffee and looked out the window into the Seattle drizzle. I have to stop using the bracelet. It wouldn’t be easy. It seemed like her life depended on it now. You’re my only hope now, coffee, she thought.

She looked into her cup. It was empty.

#

A few weeks later Dale looked in her bathroom mirror at her hair, now almost completely gray. She didn’t understand it. Her hands had those little tea drop stains that her grandmother had.

Her friends told her she was working too hard. No question about that, especially since she’d stopped using the bracelet. She was back to her old self, needing eight hours and sleeping five, and she was completely exhausted, running on coffee half the day and fumes for the rest. The bracelet hanging over her bed was a constant temptation, but she’d managed to stop. But it wasn’t working. She looked fifty and she felt fifty. Eric had dumped her. Probably for an older woman who looked younger.

So if she wasn’t using the bracelet anymore, then why was she still getting older? She cried big wet tears, not for the first time, until she felt empty. She had to do something.

She opened her closet and put her pincushion in her coat pocket, along with the bracelet, and walked to a nearby twenty-four hour copy store. Inside was a young guy, his hands in his hair, eyes red with exhaustion, reflecting the wan glow of his laptop screen. Probably working on a paper that was past deadline.

She slid into the chair across from him with the precision and finality of a closing German car door.

Billable Hours by Jim Davies 1

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