Dying to Call You
Mrs. Grimes, this is Helen with… ”
“Not interested.” Click.
“Hi, Mr. Lester, this is Helen with Tank
Titan Septic System Cleaner. We make ---”
“I told you people to take my name off
this list.” Click.
“Hi, Mr. Hardy, this is Helen with Tank
Titan Septic System Cleaner. We make a septic tank cleaner
for your home system that is guaranteed to help reduce large
chunks, odors and wet spots… .”
“You just woke me up, bitch. Call here
again and I’ll kill you.” Click.
“Have a good day, sir,” Helen said,
as he hung up on her.
It was ten o’clock in the morning. Helen
Hawthorne had made more than a hundred calls all over the
country in two hours, waking up people in Connecticut, irritating
them in Iowa, ticking them off in Texas.
She hadn’t sold anything so far today.
She was desperate. So was everyone else in the telemarketing
boiler room. Desperation was ground into the foul wrinkled
carpet. It clung to the dirty computer screens. It soaked
into the scuffed white walls.
How did scuff marks get eight feet
up on the walls? Helen wondered.
“Let’s hear you selling, people,”
Vito the manager said, as he prowled the aisles, making sure
everyone was calling. “Loud and proud.”
There was nothing proud about this job, although
it was loud. All sixty telemarketers were shouting their sales
spiel into the phones . . .
Girdner Inc. was a company with a split personality.
The Girdner Sales boiler room was on the fourth floor of the
office building. Dirty, dingy, hidden from sight in the back
of the building, its staff sold septic-tank cleaner from Maine
On the first floor was their showcase, Girdner
Surveys. They conducted slick surveys for suits at the national
ad agencies. Girdner Surveys looked like an expensive lawyer’s
office. A rain forest had been cleared to provide its mahogany
paneling. The carpet was expensively subdued, some color between
blue and gray. It was like walking through a soft smoky fog.
The dignified receptionist could have been a dean at an exclusive
Helen thought there was something weird about
the dual operations. Why was the survey side fit for corporate
kings, while the boiler room was the most awful office squalor?
Couldn’t Girdner afford fresh paint and carpeting for
the boiler room? Couldn’t they at least clean the place?
Vito the boiler-room manager was never seen
in the elite Girdner Surveys. Neither were most of his telemarketing
employees. The Hispanics and young blacks in their tight tank
tops and outrageous platform shoes, the junkies, felons and
bikers, were not allowed through the mahogany doors.
Boiler-room refugees like Helen came
in the side entrance and were hidden away in a phone room.
That door was kept shut. She was below-stairs help, well-spoken
enough for survey work, but never seen by the high-priced
Girdner Surveys was presided over by a preppie
named Penelope. In her early thirties, Penelope’s beige
hair, skin and suits were forgettable. What Helen remembered
was her stiff, rigid manner. She reminded Helen of those dolls
with the bendable joints. Penelope talked through clenched
teeth. Helen thought her other orifices were probably clenched,
Penelope did not give pep talks to the phone
staff like Vito. She hated talking to them. When she was forced
to communicate with the lower orders, she sat behind her desk,
gripping her chair arms and staring straight ahead.
Mostly she issued orders to the phone room
supervisor, Nellie, a lively blonde who had more personality
in her little finger than Penelope had in her whole body.
Nellie, fat and fifty, had a voice so alluring that men proposed
marriage when she called them.
“OK, ladies, it’s just the three
of us tonight,” Nellie said. “We’re recruiting
from the A-list, which does not stand for asshole, no matter
how abusive these guys get. These are the richest names in
Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward Counties. We’ll
pay good money -- two hundred bucks if they’ll participate
in a martini study. Just remember, two hundred bucks is pocket
change to these people.”
Berletta, the other woman working the phones,
groaned. “The richer they are, the meaner they are,”
she said in her beautiful Bahamian accent.
It was true. Surveys for beauty products, candy
and beer, paid only forty or fifty dollars. But most blue
collar subjects needed the money. They were polite.
“Cheer up,” Nellie said. “You
could be calling doctors.”
Doctors were paid the most -- up to three hundred
dollars per survey. Arrogant and greedy, they acted as if
they were stepping off their thrones to participate.
“You know the drill,”
Nellie said. “Be polite. Be persuasive. We need to sign
up thirty people, ages twenty-five to forty, who make more
than one hundred thousand dollars a year and drink martinis
made with Silver Spur vodka. The computer data base is sorted
and ready. Start dialing.”
Girdner computers had incredible information
on the survey subjects. Tidbits mentioned in a casual phone
conversation with a survey recruiter found their way into
The computer told Helen who took Prozac, lived
with a boyfriend, split with their mate or suffered from bipolar
disorder. She knew who had a baby -- a newborn opportunity
for diaper and formula surveys. Helen could see which women
used tampons or pads, information used for personal-care product
surveys. She knew who had hysterectomies, disqualifying them
for those same surveys.
For nearly an hour, she labored through voice
mail, answering machines, “he’s not home”
and “don’t call me at dinner” without one
bite. Not even a nibble. She was getting discouraged.
She looked at the information on the next prospect:
“Age 40. Occupation: Financier. Annual income: more
than five hundred thousand. College educated. Smokes Dunhills.
Drives a Land Rover and a vintage Porsche 911. Owns a Cigarette
boat. No pets. Uses MCI long-distance service. Drinks martinis
made with Silver Spur Vodka more than three times a week.
There was one other comment, this one by a
survey recruiter: “Good talker in focus groups but has
a bad temper on phone. Can be mean.”
Mean or not, he had the right demographics
for this survey. Helen took a deep breath, dialed and said,
“May I please speak to Mr. Henry Asporth?”
“This is Hank.” The man had a rich
voice to go with all that money.
“Hi, this is Helen and I’m with
wait just a minute.” Sweetie. Helen ground her teeth.
She’d rather he was mean than call her sweetie.
Asporth had put the phone down. Helen would
wait thirty seconds before she hung up on him. An old anti-telemarketer
trick was to put down the phone and never come back.
Helen heard someone say, “Hey! Wait a
minute.” A woman. She sounded young. She seemed surprised
and a little scared. Then Helen heard a man and a woman arguing,
but it sounded far away. It probably was. A house like Hank’s
was measured in acres, not square feet.
“What do you mean, what am I doing in
here?” The woman’s voice was higher and clearer
than the man’s.
The man’s voice was a low, angry rumble,
but Helen couldn’t pick up any words.
The woman sounded defiant, but there was a
taunting, teasing quality to her voice. She seemed to have
the upper hand. “You want it? Well, then you better
give me what I want. Otherwise, you’ll never get your
hands on it. You’ll be sorry. I can put you away for
a long time. You’ve been a bad boy, Hank. You’re
just lucky I like bad boys. I’ve waited long enough.
I want an answer, and I want it tonight.”
Helen heard the man’s voice again, low
and angry, but still impossible to decipher. Even without
the words, Helen felt its cutting edge.
“I’m not lying,” the woman
insisted, her voice rising.
Then the woman’s voice changed. Now she
was afraid. “What are you doing here? Get away from
me. No!” More voices, talking over each other. The man,
angry. The woman, sounding more frightened. Her high, light
voice was easier to understand. His was a low rumble. And
was that a third person? Helen couldn’t tell. They were
too far away.
Helen heard a loud clunking
noise, like something heavy was overturned. Then the woman
said something that didn’t make sense. It sounded like,
“It’s the coffee --” Her words were stretched
into a short, explosive scream.
But there was no misunderstanding her next
frantic words: “What are you doing? No! No! Hank!”
Her scream was cut off.
Helen had never heard anything as terrifying
as the next sound. It sounded like someone was fighting for
air. Helen had her hand protectively on her own throat, as
if the strangler might grab her through the phone.
“Hello?” Helen said, her voice
a frightened croak.
Dead air. Then a click.
Someone had hung up the phone.
at Murder on the Beach
DYING TO CALL YOU: The third
book in the Dead-End Job Series by Elaine Viets - Signet Mystery,
$5.99, ISBN: 0-451-21332-7
for Discussion Groups for
Dying to Call You.