Their yells echo down the alleyway as I run blindly through the darkness. My heart beats furiously as I clutch the package to my chest, and shoot a quick prayer to the gods, hopeful that my car is where I left it. A sigh escapes my winded lungs when, rounding the corner I see my faithful black Buick sitting in the street. For a brief moment all my fears are alleviated. 'Almost home', I think to myself as a bullet sings past my head slamming into the brickwork mere inches away. Don’t these bastards ever give up? The way they’re acting you'd think I’ve just stolen their first born. Come to think of it I've done that before and it didn’t amount to this much trouble. I keep my head down and continue moving, aiming for my escape. As I close in on the hulk of black metal and rubber I see it, a dark suited figure leaning against the hood of my car. His face momentarily glows red as he lights up a cigarette. Heavy smoke wafts gently into the breeze, filling the brisk night air with the strong aroma of tobacco. It’s obvious I’m caught so I slow down and calmly walk the rest of the way, package still firmly pressed to my chest. This is going to get messy, I can tell.
‘Mr Carol, how nice of you to join me.’ The dark figure says between smoke filled breaths. I shoot a glance behind me as I hear the gunman approach. His strikingly large jaw jutting out from an otherwise plain face, was locked in a permanent scowl. The man on my car motions and the gunman halts and withdraws a few steps. Not quite far enough for my liking mind you, but enough to give me some room.
‘Let us dispense with formalities, Mr Carol, or James as it were. You have something of mine, I want it back and you presumably want to live.’ He raised a hand to his lips and took a long draw on the cigarette, ‘seems like a simple exchange to me.’
White smoke curled out his mouth as he spoke, it reminded me of the Chinese dragons during new years, only they wore less gold. I let a silence hang between us as I worked out the odds of getting out of this ordeal alive. It wasn’t looking good.
‘Mr Pepworth, Linton.’ I nodded politely towards my esteemed host. ‘Surely with all your riches, gaming houses, and business associates like Mr Big Jaw over there, you can live without one small piece of useless junk? Which, might I remind you was stolen from my client long before you got your greedy mitts on it.’ I was playing for time, pushing for that one magic moment when I could make my move. By the gods I hope this works. Pepworth sucked the life from his cigarette and discarded it on the damp ground, snuffing out its dull glowing life with his patent leather shoes. I had a strong feeling that if I didn’t get out of here soon I would know what that cigarette felt like.
‘Don’t toy with me, James.’ He spat my name out in a cloud of smoke. He had obviously meant the effect in a menacing way but I had to do everything to hold back my laughter, the mental image of Pepworth as a dragon had stuck. Unfortunately my humorous take on the situation must have shown on my face.
‘You think this is funny? Do you know how many two bit crooks, hired guns and private eyes have tried to pull this off? More than you’ve had hot dinners my friend, and all of them were better than you could ever hope to be. What makes you think you can get away with this?’
It’s a question I constantly ask myself, why the Hel do I do what I do? Well for one, it pays the rent, mostly. That and killing yourself with booze takes to damn long. The answer he’s looking for, my raison d'être if you will, is something I try not to think about too much but it slips out before I can check myself, ‘I’m cursed.’
It sounds stupid when I say it out loud. Pepworth shoots a confused look at his man, ‘cursed?’ He asks, ‘you believe this clown?’ Turning back to me he gives a look that’s usually reserved for idiots, and small children. It's a look I'm all too familiar with.
‘why don’t you enlighten us on your ‘curse’, Mr Carol.’
‘Not much to tell really,’ I begin, casually walking over to lean on the door of my car. I smoothly shift the package into one of my deep coat pockets as I sidle up to Pepworth. ‘A while ago, I did a favour for a friend of a friend and his god cursed me in return. Said whoever kills me will suffer his wrath, or something like that.’ I looked up at Pepworth his face was blank. This is usually the part where people either back away or crack up. Wait for it, there we go. Pepworth cracked a smile, his hardened middle aged face looked like it rarely had the chance to laugh, to really let go and enjoy a good side splitter. You’re welcome, I thought as I snaked my hand around the side mirror of my car it comes away cleanly, held there only by hope and gum. Once, long ago, I used to protest and tell them, ‘no, it’s true!’ but I’ve learnt now to just keep my mouth shut and let them laugh. Mainly because it’s great for catching them off guard and gaining the upper hand.
While Pepworth is bent in half laughing, I take my chance and throw the mirror directly toward the gunman. It catches him square in his huge jaw, giving me a few precious seconds to sprint into the alley and head back the way I came. He recovers quickly and lets off a few rounds blindly into the darkness. My trench coat billows out behind me as I run. I pat my pocket making sure the prize was still where I left it. Pepworth’s gunman is close behind and I’m quickly running out of alleyway. Soon I’ll be back on the open street, no car, and a a rather pissed off thug after me. Fat lot of good a vengeance curse will do me in a situation like this. So the guy’s going to be tortured after he kills me, great except I’m not going to be around to enjoy it am I? I’ll be hanging around the Elysian fields or more likely stuck chatting to some second rate underworld god for the rest of eternity. I need a plan and I need it quick. I checked my watch, almost one in the morning, I might be lucky which would make a welcomed change. I take the chance and run out into the open street. Thankfully I was right, and just as I emerge from the alley the local pubs and clubs began to outpour with drunken revilers. Ducking and dodging between the crowd I make my way through the now busy street just in time to catch a lift on one of the departing night buses. I watch out the back window and catch Pepworth and his man scanning the crowd, searching for me. I sink down into a crowded seat next to a neo-punk and his rather handsome, ginger companion. With a sigh of relief I once again pat the bulge showing on my coat and begin to relax a little.
I’m surrounded by drunks fresh from the late night clubs. The scent of youth, sweat and booze mingles in the stuffy air and it reminds me I haven’t had a drink in a while. The thought of knocking down a bottle of wisky at this point makes me smile, the night turned out rather well, despite all efforts to the contrary. As the bus rounds the corner a young English youth seated across from me yells out to his friends, ‘Check out those geysers going to town on that car!’ I lazily turn out of reflex more than anything just in time to see my two would be killers reducing my car to nothing. I wince as Pepworth smashes a hole in the bonnet with a crowbar. ‘Oh well,’ I think as the bus rides on into the night, ‘that’s what expense accounts are for.’
‘What do you mean, you don't’ want it?’ I couldn’t help but yell down the phone, ‘after all the trouble I went to get this back for you! You still owe me the other half, plus expenses!’ The line went silent and I slammed the receiver down. A golden apple sat on my desk looking expensive but ultimately useless. I had half a mind to throw it at the wall and see how far it would bounce. Some how Pepworth must have tracked down my client and spooked them, why else would they suddenly refuse to collect? The old wooden desk chair creaked as I leant back and surveyed my sorry excuse for an office, now I was out ten grand, plus the repairs to my car, and for what? A sorry excuse for a paperweight. It's times like this I wonder why I even bother to get out of bed these days.
My hand wandered to the top drawer in my desk and fetched out a bottle of the cheapest rot gut booze I could find, nothing but the best for this guy. Considering everything that had transpired I forwent the customary glass and took a long, hard swig from the largely empty bottle. It burned all the way down and I didn’t feel any better for it, in fact I felt worse. Frustration took hold and before I knew it the bottle was hurling through the air towards the door. An explosion of glass interrupted the silence of the room as the bottle hit the wooden door frame, the golden liquid ran down the wall pooling into a sad puddle of depravity and glass. I pulled my wide brimmed hat down over my face and lent back into the protesting chair, its rollers biting into long-worn grooves in the floorboards. I closed my eyes in a concentrated effort to hide from the world. A world full of landlords, loan sharks, bar tabs, and mechanics. Thieves, the lot of them. Successful thieves mind you, but thieves none the less.
‘Lucky bastards,’ I mumbled under my breath as I put my feet up on the green, leather inlaid mahogany desk, a constant reminder of better times. As I was silently contemplating how much I could get for the desk on pawn, a knock at the door echoed throughout the office. My thoughts raced as I mentally ran through the list of those out to get me. The rent was already three weeks late, I had a bar tab was longer than my arm, and it was best not to mention the number of loan sharks I owed. Plus I could now add Pepworth wanting his paperweight back to the list. The knock sounded again, a little more forceful this time.
‘Shit,’ I thought sitting up and mentally checking my options. The window and accompanying fire escape were too far away and the gun in my desk was out of ammo. ‘Shit.’ I repeated, out loud this time. I could see the silhouettes of two people dancing behind the large pane of frosted glass in the door.
‘Mr Carol?’ they said again, trying the door knob. The lock had long since given up its job and was due to be repaired, once the rent was paid of course. I had a few seconds to appreciate the delicate balance of my misfortunes culminating as the door opened slowly. A beam of dull florescent light cut into the darkened room along with the voice again.