Copyright© 2015 by Gordon Johnson
Margo looked up from encouraging Anita to feed herself. "Sure. Fine by me."
Jeannette looked over from the sink, where she was washing breakfast dishes. "Visitors? Same ones as before?"
"Yes. I think it could be interesting. You WILL stay for that, won't you, Jeannette?"
Jeannette notice the tone, and replied. "Certainly. I shall be here. I can go to the bank afterwards."
Margo looked up, keenness in her gaze. "The bank? Can I go with you, Jeannette? I have to arrange a change of address for my investments on Earth. Can I use this address in the meantime, Enid, until we get a permanent home sorted out? Should just be a few days."
"No bother, Margo. Having you here a few days will suit us fine – won't it, Jeannette?" She smiled at Jeannette.
Jeannette smiled back. "I think that would prove satisfactory, Enid."
The biggest problem for her business was getting the protection extended to another city. As it was entirely "off the record", she could not ask direct.
Esme Limbada was in a quandary of her own making. Her business had expanded so much that she either had to settle for stasis or take that next step. Four years after taking her idea into the slum districts, she had put most of the local moneylenders out of business by undercutting their rates. One now worked for her as a branch office, sticking to the modus operandi that Esme had established. He was a happy man now.
She had originally decided that lending money to poor people should be profitable to the business without being extortionate for them. Her own upbringing had been from the same class of people, and she knew that most of them were relatively honest folk, willing to put some effort into making their lives better.
With her payoff as financial support, she reckoned she could afford to absorb some losses and still make a profit without charging the earth. She thought she could model her moneylending enterprise on the credit union idea, just have it a private enterprise effort rather than a local community bank.
The credit unions worked to fixed rules about how much could be borrowed, and insisted on a track record of saving small sums before lending at all. These organisations had a social purpose as well as a financial one. Her business would be entirely financial, but with a social, charitable, ethos underpinning it.
She reckoned that when clients saw how she operated, they would keep coming back to her. She was right. She rented an apartment in one of the better apartment blocks, and used word of mouth to tell people she was in business to lend money at cheaper rates than they were paying. When they asked her what she meant by cheaper, she said, "show me evidence about what you are paying, and I will offer the same loan at a rate ten per cent lower."
The idea got around, and soon she was being asked if she would consider offering a competitive rate if the client had first asked around other lenders. She demanded, "Prove what you are being offered, and we should soon have a deal." Lenders who never offered a written rate, only verbal, were dealt with by secret recording of their voice. Esme would happily lend a cheap digital recorder for the purpose. No return of the recorder, no deal, of course.
It worked. Her clients did all the market testing, and Esme only had to calculate how much she could undercut and still make a reasonable profit, allowing for the occasional failure. She recruited one of her clients, Timmy Fouks, an out of work clerk, as a collector. For every payment collected, a small sum was deducted from his loan. He was very effective, as he knew most of the other clients and was able to judge who to pressure and who to give some leeway to.
By the time his own debt was cleared, Timmy was into the scheme and asked to continue Acting as a collector, building up his own pot of savings in the process. In the meantime, Esme had encountered an expected difficulty. Two large strong-arm men one day appeared at her door, "suggesting" she give up her business before she suffered "accidental" damage to her person or business.
She dealt with this in her own unique way. She greeted them with an unsettling smile, the grin of a hungry big cat.
"Come in, gentlemen, and we can talk this over. I am sure we can find an amicable solution to this impasse."
Puzzled at this reaction, they entered. She sat them down at her living room table, and joined them, producing shot glasses and a bottle of Austrian schnaps to oil the wheels.
"Gentlemen, we are all in business, aren't we?"
They agreed that this was a fact. One man was the clear leader and spokesman. She went on, as she poured them a drink,
"Now, in business, there is a market for everything, is there not?"
"Including the pay you get for your job, of course."
"Of course", they agreed.
"So, if you gentlemen tell me what rate of pay you are getting, we can discuss what rate you would take to work for me instead. I would not ask you to go around bashing people or premises. Instead, you would provide me with physical protection against gentlemen in the same business as yourselves.
"I would expect that you two would be good at advising other gentlemen to steer clear, and thus avoid unnecessary violence."
The lead thug got this point, but his partner was less mentally agile. "Joe, what is she talking about?"
"Jimmy, she is offering a better paying job. We would protect her, instead of threatening her. FOR MORE CASH, Jimmy."
Jimmy brightened. "I like that, Joe. She sounds like a nice lady."
Esme glared at them both. "Gentlemen, let me tell you this, once and once only: I AM NOT A NICE LADY. I was in the army, and they taught me a lot about self-defence. Please do not force me to demonstrate what I might do to you. You would not like it."
Joe blinked and sat back, astonished. Jimmy looked confused. "Joe, did this nice lady just threaten us? This little woman?"
Joe was more careful in his response. "Yes, she did, Jimmy, just as a warning, though. She is tougher than she appears, but she prefers to pay for protection rather than do her own stuff. Right, lady?"
"Joe, you and I are on the same wavelength. I don't believe that violence is a good way to do business, unless I am forced to it. I have financial backing for this business, and you would be well rewarded by sticking with me. We can put you on salary, rather than piece-work."
"What does she mean, piece-work, Joe?"
"That's what we do now, Jimmy: paid by the job – each piece of work, O.K.? She is offering regular pay, even if we don't bash anyone."
"Hey, does that mean we get paid for doing nothing, Joe."
"If you like, Jimmy. It is more like being paid for hanging around, doing nothing except look fierce. You can still threaten to bash people, but mostly you won't have to do it."
Jimmy smiled. "I like that idea, Joe."
Esme thought she would push a little more. "I might expect you to lean on other money-lenders at times, Joe."
He thought about this, while Jimmy responded "You mean like, lean on Mister Vardy, lady?"
She guessed that "Mister Vardy" was their current employer. "Yes, Jimmy, Mister Vardy may have to learn that you boys are not just pawns to be pushed around."
"We don't get pushed around, do we, Joe?"
"Not literally, Jimmy, but she means we get used as if we are not important."
Esme pointed out, "In MY organisation, you two would be important. You would get health care, help like dentist if necessary, and job satisfaction, as well as regular pay."
Joe now spoke up. "Lady, I think you have got yourself a couple of bodyguards." He fished out a scrap of paper from his pocket and wrote on it. "This is what we get paid for a job at the moment. We mebbe do a hundred jobs in the year."
Esme looked at the figure, did a quick mental calculation, and announced, "Gentlemen, I think we can double your annual remuneration. How does that sound?"
"Sounds great, ma'am."
Jimmy wanted to know, "What is remuneration, Joe?"
"Why doesn't she just say pay, Joe?"
"Because she is a clever lady, Jimmy, and likes to use big words. Do you want your pay doubled?"
"Gee, yes, Joe. I am all for that. So we work for you now, missy?"
"Yes, Jimmy. We will work out all the details later. I have to fill out forms for your employment data – your work record, Jimmy."
"Yeah, sure. Joe writes things for me. I can't write much."
"Jimmy, we must see about that. I like my employees to better themselves, even if in a small way. Reading and writing are important assets to have."
Joe was all business, now. "Lady, we don't even know your name. We was just told to come here and say our piece today, with the bashing to come later if needed."
"Joe, I am Esme Limbada. Remember the "bad" in my name, always. It is wise to do so. Now, if you come back here tomorrow, around midday, we can go find a burger for lunch and chat about your duties. All I need for now are your surnames, and any middle names."
Joe said, "Mine is Belmonte. Jimmy's is Caruso, but he is not much of a singer."
Jimmy said, "My middle name is "Slugger", Mrs Bad."
"No, Jimmy, that is your nickname. You don't have a middle name." Joe contradicted him. "Sorry, Miz Limbada. Jimmy gets confused sometimes. He depends on me to look after him."
"You do a good job, as far as I can see, Joe." Esme congratulated him on caring for his friend.
"We was at school together. He lived in the same block as me, and I looked on him as a little brother, though we are the same age. It worked out well. Any bully soon got sorted out by us."
"Ah, so that is why you got into this work?"
"You may be right, ma'am. There was not much work around, except labouring, for the likes of us. We had to find something to bring in the cash for our folks."
Esme had a spark of light in her head. "Your folks got into debt with Mister Vardy, did they?"
Joe looked surprised. "How did you know that? Yes. He was the one who asked us to work for him, so we could help pay off the debt."
"How much is the debt, Joe?"
"Over ten thousand dollars, ma'am. It wasn't much to begin with, but with the interest payments, it just grew quite a lot."
"Interesting." Esme pondered, then, "Joe, your first job is to go back to Mister Vardy and tell him you are offering him a generous five thousand dollars to clear your parents' debt, as a one-off payment. Lean on him a little – no, lean on him a LOT, so that he sees that if he does not accept this clearance deal, he will suffer "accidents" in the future. Wait here."
She got up and went to the back room, coming back a couple of minutes later with a wad of banknotes. "Joe, here is the five thousand, to pay him off. Get a written receipt for it, understand? Jimmy, this is where being able to read and write comes in handy."
Joe gaped at her. "You are trusting me with five thousand dollars?"
"Yes, Joe. It is up to you to show you are a trustworthy employee of mine, and at the same time help your family. Are you up for that?"
"Ma'am, no-one has ever shown that sort of trust in me before. I will do exactly as you say, ma'am, and we will see you tomorrow at noon. Jimmy, time to say goodbye to your new boss."
"Goodbye, boss. Nice to meet you."
The two ambled out, waving goodbye as they went out the front door.
Esme sat down again, hoping she had judged things correctly. As always, most folk are inherently fine folks, given the chance. If she could help Joe's parents, they would make sure Joe was a good employee for her. Jimmy would do anything Joe said, that was clear.
That episode was several years ago, and the much expanded business was running smoothly. She had got Jimmy on to learning to read and write, with Joe offering sympathetic assistance, and now he could easily write his name and a brief occasional letter to his amazed parents and siblings. He was still stuck on form-filling, because of officialese, but if Joe told him the answers, he could laboriously write them into the spaces indicated.
Timmy was on salary as well, joining her in the "office", dealing with clients. He knew the ins and outs of the business, and she could leave him to almost anything. There had been no strong-arm attempts since Joe and Jimmy had joined the firm, so life was good.
She locked her front door, to give herself a break for a coffee, as this was Timmy's day off, and she never had coffee at the office counter. She had hardly put the percolator on when the phone sounded its demand for attention. She picked it up.
"Is that Esme Limbada?"
"It is. Do you need help?"
"No, but we may be able to help you find your child."
"What child? I don't have a child."
"If you are the person we think you are, you gave birth to a child while you were in the army; a child born by caesarean section and removed without you seeing it. Are we correct? We have nothing but the desire to help you meet your child."
"You seem to think you know a lot about me. Who are you?"
"We are The Personalia. You may have heard of us."
"Personalia? The only thing I can think of with that name are a bunch of alien spaceships somewhere out in space."
"Exactly. Clever you."
"You don't sound like an alien. You sound like a human being."