The Hello Girl
by J.L. Vampa
I wasn't supposed to hear it.
I didn't intend to hear it.
The other girls live to eavesdrop on the callers. In the night, conversations are the whispers of lust-laden lovers and gossip fiends. It’s a coveted shift for the lonely and vain.
I find that privacy is sacred.
At 10 o'clock in the evening on a Tuesday, the calls are juicer, though fewer, as are the switchboard operators. Kate was ill that Tuesday and I took her shift. What else did I have to do?
Sherry had dismissed herself to powder her nose when the ring at her station sounded. I certainly didn't expect the other two chattering hens—albeit closer than I—to do anything more than continue their clucking.
I ran over to receive the call, flipping away the hair falling in my face—yet again.
I threw on the headset and flicked the switch.
"Hello. Number please."
A gruff voice rattled off the number curtly.
"Hold please." I connected the jack to the corresponding digit.
As if waiting for the call, the receiver picked up after only half a ring, sounding ill at ease.
"Hold please.” I flipped the switch to speak to both parties. "You are connected. Good Evening."
I reached to pin back the feathery loose hairs from my face, failing to flip off the switch allowing me access to their private call. I didn't realize until the terse man spoke once more.
"What did you do with her?"
His tone didn’t feel right.
"Disposed of," the weary one reported, almost under his breath.
I froze, my hands still in my hair. My heart sped up at the sheer wrongness of what these men could possibly be discussing.
"You were careful?" the caller demanded.
"Acid," came out in hardly a whisper on the other line.
A tiny sound.
A tiny sound that very well could cost me my life.
"Is someone on the line?" the caller growled.
I flipped the switch off.
Bile rose in my throat. My thick skirts were like waves threatening to pull me under as I willed my legs to stand and cross the wooden floor to the New York City directory. Hello Girls are required to memorize the numbers at their own station and there was little need for the directory, so the corner in which it sat was dank and cobwebbed. I lit the kerosene lamp and flipped the pages with trembling hands. There, on the eighth page, I found the number.
Registered to one Roland Blacklock.
I scribbled the number on a scrap of paper and tucked it into the sleeve of my blouse. Donning my peacoat and gloves, I abandoned my shift to the snowy night without so much as a glance from the other girls.
Hurrying to the Policeman stationed at the corner of Fulton and Broadway, I convinced myself the tremor in my hands was due to the frigid weather. The Policeman ushered me and a dusting of flurries into the warmth of a pub, where I gave him the slip of paper. I recounted the call thrice and rattled off my personal information in case he had further questions.
By the time of our conversation’s conclusion, my father's old pocket watch read a quarter to midnight, marking the near end of my shift. Risking termination, I plodded home rather than return. My regular shift would begin in eight hours, anyway, and all the adrenaline from the evening’s hubbub had given way to weariness.
This morning, its bright frost and cheery disposition, make last night's events seem like just a bad dream. Perhaps the men on the phone were discussing a fallen animal, or an object they’ve merely fondly been in the habit of referring to as “she.”
It’s possible… I attempt to convince myself as I make the brisk trek to work, far too early, but who could well and truly sleep after such a night? I pulled my coat tighter against the chill—and the inevitability that my naïve excuses for the evening’s happenings would be proved wrong.
Might as well get it over with.
I took a short detour to purchase a copy of the New York Herald. I scoured the pages next to the heat of a potato pancake cart but found nothing remotely detailing my strange encounter. Perhaps they hadn’t caught the dastardly men yet.
I folded the newspaper up, tucking it in my peacoat pocket, and donned my white gloves again—careful not to let the ink smudge them. I certainly wonder who “she” was. And how she died. And why. Pondering such things made the rest of the walk pass swiftly.
I fiddled with the keys to the back door, the first to arrive for the shift switch. Did those men find her dead or do the killing? I shuddered. What manner of man commits such a heinous crime and deigns to discuss it over the telephone?
I was so preoccupied with my curiosities and jitters, that I completely missed what we’ve been given jittery heightened senses precisely for : Warning.
I tripped over something solid and hit the ground with a thud.
I was too frightened to scream.
Sherry. The call came in to Sherry’s station…
I backed away on all fours in horror and my hand slipped in something slick. I looked behind me…
They were all dead.
I bit back my screeching sobs and ran. Ran through the snow, dripping Laura’s blood on the pristine white drifts, all the way to my flat.
I made it up the three flights of stairs and beyond my door, huffing through my tears before I heaved on the floor of my entry. I threw off my coat, newspaper and gloves scattering, and made for the phone to dial the police.
A door closed behind me.
I dropped the receiver and whirled.
I breathed a sigh of relief and put a hand to my chest. “Oh, Officer. I thought you were an intruder. I’m so glad Officer Thomas sent you to check on me. You’ll never believe what’s happened…”
“I’m afraid I already know.”
But I slipped where I’d thrown down my coat and my gloves and my...
What’s black and white and red all over?
Dear Reader, but my newspaper of course.