2. Cash Cow

 

 

When I got up, Mr. Nestor was gone. It felt strange to peek into a grown man's bedroom, but he wasn't there. It was eerie. I felt like a prisoner. I had no indication that I couldn't do as I wish, but I never had any affirmation of that, either.

I felt like there was something I needed to be doing. At the orphanage, everyone had chores, and since I was the biggest "child" there, they gave me the most laborious ones.

My hair was matted and messy, so I forced it up into a tight bun. I hated having long hair. I ate some dried fruit and greens and then went downstairs.

"Good morning, Katya!" Mr. Nestor said from a ladder. He was dusting. The windows had been cleaned as well. It wasn't spic and span by any means, but he had been hard at work. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you. Wow, the place is looking pretty good. When did you get up?"

He shrugged. "I didn't sleep. But that's okay! Hey, could you hand me that bucket?" he asked, pointing at the foot of his ladder. I walked over and handed it up. He scooped cobwebs and dirt into it and set it down by his feet.

"You get any customers, yet, sir?"

"No, but I will. How comfortable would you feel babysitting The Humble Wares while I go on a run? I have to meet a supplier downtown."

"The whole building to myself?" I asked. I remember being nervous just thinking about it. Not only was this shop his new baby, but I can't think of a time I was ever really alone before.

He nodded as he cleaned. "Yes, well, you are fifteen. That's plenty old enough to handle a few customers, and I'd really rather not close up every time I need to leave."

"Uh… Okay. Yeah, that's fine. When is this happening?"

"Well, now that you're up…" He grunted as he got down from the ladder. A thick layer of sweat coated his dark face, and sweat stains pierced his chiton. I could smell the must from several feet away. "I'll put this stuff away and head out. I'll only be gone for thirty minutes or so." He took the ladder, bucket, and duster and shoved them in a corner. "Is there anything you need before I leave?"

I shook my head, but as he went to leave, I stopped him. "Actually…" I clasped my hands together and looked down nervously. "I ate some food before coming down without asking. Is that okay?"

He chuckled, but not in a condescending way. "Of course!" My eyes lifted to meet his as he came over to me. "Listen… I'm not naive enough to think you'll come to think of me as father soon, or maybe ever. Heck, I'll even have to get used to thinking about you as a daughter. But, if I don't treat you that way, then it will never be that way. Understand?"

When he said that to me, it erased most of my worries. I had been so distrusting and confused as to why he chose to adopt a teenager when there were perfectly good children at a more appropriate age. Maybe I'd ask him about that later, but at that moment, my worries ceased to be. My happiness showed on my face as clear as day, and I decided to help him.

"Good," he said and walked towards the door. "I'll be back soon." I waited a moment after the door shut behind him, but I rushed upstairs as fast as I could when I was sure he was gone. I didn't want to leave the storefront unoccupied because I felt like that would be a betrayal of trust, especially after what he had just said.

I grabbed my cow and ran back downstairs to stow it behind the counter. The bone I used would be wasted if I kept sealing and unsealing it, so I left it unsealed. It was mainly for the noise canceling anyway, as the coins inside could be loud.

Mr. Nestor seemed to be the type of man with a frail ego and a strong sense of duty. He would most likely be adverse to the idea of me just giving him the money to pay back his debt, so I had a better idea.

I waited for a customer. And waited a little more. When fifteen or so minutes had passed, I grew impatient and went out the front door and flagged down the first person I saw who didn't look like they were in a hurry. The dog followed close behind me.

It was an elderly man. He was frail and walked as though he could fall at any moment. "Excuse me, sir," I said when I approached. I puffed out my lips, raised the pitch of my voice a little, and looked up at him like a puppy. The dog followed my lead and did the same, even though it was considerably less effective for a rundown, shaggy mutt. "I work at that establishment over there, and if I could get a sale, I could be up for promotion."

He looked at me with a pitying grin. "I'm sorry, ms., but I'm not interested."

He tried to walk away, but I stepped in front of him. "I'll pay you. Ten drachmae, and you can have whatever you want in the shop."

Ten drachmae was a lot of money, but I didn't work very hard for it anyway. With ten drachmae, you could convince people to do most anything. He stopped in his tracks. "What?" he asked in confusion. "Ten?" His gaze shifted over to the store. "That place doesn't look like it could afford to part with that kind of money."

I grew impatient because Mr. Nestor could come back at any moment. "It may not look pretty, but it does well. Won't you come in? Please?" I said and held out ten drachmae in my palm.

After a brief hesitation, he finally nodded, took the money, and followed me back. My pace was far faster than his, so I kept slowing down for him, even though I really didn't want to. He was the first to enter since I held the door open for him, but I made a grand gesture when we were both inside. "Welcome to The Humble Wares! Select anything you'd like, and receive ten drachmae."

I tried my damnedest to sound passionate and entertaining, but I was in too much of a hurry to be genuine.

With no pep in his step whatsoever, he began browsing the shelves. There were only two isles, which made six rows altogether with the walls. But that might as well have been one hundred isles for that guy. I quickly began looking around for things that might have interested him.

I hadn't yet really looked around at what Mr. Nestor sold. It was a bunch of crap, to be honest, but I did manage to find a nice wooden cane. It would probably only give the old man a couple of splinters before it smoothed out.

"Hey!" I said and ran up to him, holding out the cane. "How's this? Nice, right?"

It took an eternity for him to reach out and inspect it. As time went on, it was like his movements were slower. "This is actually pretty nice," he said.

Then the door squeaked open, and Mr. Nestor came through with a basket full of random trash. He locked eyes with the old man and smiled like a madman. "Good morning, sir! Let me set this down somewhere, and I can be right there to help you," he said and fast-walked to the counter.

I remembered my stash was behind the counter, and so I ran to intercept him. "Hi, welcome back." By that time of rushing around, I began to get out of breath. I leaned in to whisper to Mr. Nestor. "So… This is a weird request, but can you let me serve this man?"

Upon seeing the path behind the counter blocked, Mr. Nestor set his basket of odds and ends on the countertop. He twisted his face in confusion. "Katya, it's my responsibility. Thank you, though. Your drive is admiral, and thank you for holding down the fort while I was away. Now, if you'll excuse me." He went over to introduce himself to the old man and began talking to him.

Sweat formed on my forehead. I couldn't let that wrinkled man foil my plan. I grabbed my stuffed cow while Mr. Nestor was distracted. With it behind my back, I nervously walked up to the two men and interrupted their conversation. "Mr. Nestor," I said to get his attention.

"Sorry, one moment, sir." He turned to me. "Yes, Katya?"

"Um… A kid ran through the store and spilled some milk in the back," I said and pointed to some vague spot out of sight.

Where he should have been annoyed, he simply sighed and kept a friendly demeanor. "Oh, alright. Can you not clean it up for me while I conduct business?"

"Well, see. Uh, I'm allergic to milk." I bumbled through the excuses, but I was proud of myself for being so clever.

"Oh, goodness! Sorry to hear." Mr. Nestor turned back to the old man. "I'm terribly sorry, sir. There was apparently a spill in the back. I'll just be one moment. I want to make sure it won't stain anything."

As soon as he was out of sight, I presented the cow to the customer and whispered to him. "Here, take this. It has money in it. When it's time to pay for the cane, just hand this to Mr. Nestor. Okay?" I desperately hoped that my quick explanation didn't confuse him. It didn't look like the wheels spun too smoothly in his head. Mr. Nestor was about to round the corner, so I pushed the cow into the old man's hand. It was evidently heavier than he expected because he nearly dropped it. I gestured with my hands. "Keep it up, like this, so the coins don't fall out."

"Katya, I didn't see anything," Mr. Nestor said.

"Oh, the dog must have cleaned it up." I looked over to the mutt who laid by the door, asleep. By that point, Mr. Nestor looked somewhat annoyed but went back to talking to the customer.

The old man inspected the cane in his hand and looked at me quizically. "Well, I do like this cane a lot. You know what, Nestor, I'm going to buy this."

A huge grin swept through his face. "Great, let's head over to the counter and exchange coin!"

Confused, as this man didn't seem too comfortable with the situation, he simply held out the stuffed cow I gave him. "No need, my boy. I have all the payment you'll require right here. I don't need the change." He looked at me and nodded, although I think it was more of a question. I nodded back.

"I didn't even tell you how much it costs," Mr. Nestor said and took the cow. "Wait, this cow…" He turned it over in his hands and felt the weight and saw the glyph. "This cow has a sealing glyph. It's like a pouch? Brilliant. There aren't a whole lot of people in this town who have Erdos bones."

The old man looked at me with shock, at which I just shrugged. "Right, well, um, consider the pouch a gift."

"Hold on." Mr. Nestor dug his hands through the coins inside. Eventually, he dumped a few out. And then more. It took a lot of effort to stuff one hundred and fifty coins into that cow, so I was frustrated that he undid most of my work. "There must be over a hundred and twenty minae here. That's…" He gasped at a sudden realization. "That's well over a talent! I can't accept this."

The old man's jaw hit the floor, and he was as surprised as Mr. Nestor was. He looked at me for confirmation, to which I nodded again. "Uh, no. That's for you. This young lady's service has been splendid, and the cane is of good quality." He spoke with the fake cadence of someone unsure of what they're doing.

Mr. Nestor side-eyed him and furrowed his brow. "I would only charge a couple drachmae for that cane. You can't give me all this money. My pride won't accept it!"

What a stupid argument! I thought. Just accept the money! It will clear your debt!

I opened my eyes wide and gestured with my hands to egg the man on. "I insist. I have too much money to burn through. If you're uncomfortable with it, however…" The old man looked at me and grinned. "I can take a talents-worth back, and you can keep the rest. I would be pleased with that."

Any smile I had vanished in an instant, and I began silently fuming. Mr. Nestor sighed deeply. "Okay, if you insist. I appreciate this more than you know. You said it's due to Katya, here?"

"Oh, yes. All due to her. She's an excellent young saleswoman." I couldn't even put a polite expression on my face. That man was essentially robbing me right in front of my eyes.

"Wow, I did not know that. Okay, how's this?" Mr. Nestor split up the coins on the table. It looked to be about fifty minae on his side, and the rest, which I knew to be about one hundred, on the old man's side.

The old man looked ecstatic. "If you're sure. I wanted to give you a bit extra, but I'll take whatever you don't accept, I suppose." He punctuated his remark with a laugh.

Mr. Nestor handed him the cow. "Here, you'll need a way to carry all of that. It's yours, anyhow."

"Ah, great. Thank you, young man." He gleefully stuffed the coin into the cow and took his new cane. "Pleasure doing business with you."

"And you as well, sir! Here, let me get the door for you." Mr. Nestor saw him out. I stood stock-still, stunned. Quietly furious. "Well, well, well, Katya! Beautiful day! Wow, what a marvel. I mean, look at all this coin! That man is a saint. What an amazing guy. Here, help me count it up. This will go a long way to paying off my mother's debt."

I begrudgingly accepted. We split the coins between us and counted them separately. There were fifty-seven minae, which could be converted into 2,850 drachmae. The old man would be counting ninety-three that night.

"This is great. I mean, just… Wow," Mr. Nestor said. He was beaming. I looked at him closely and swore I saw him wipe away a tear.

I bought that tear. I paid for it with most of my money.

I was angry as all hell, but that tear softened me up.

The Humble Wares needed a lot of work, still. I walked up to the window and looked at all the market stands outside. "We have a long way to go, Katya, but if you're as good a saleswoman as that great man said you are, then we'll make it."