‘‘I want to see your boss.’’
No answer. The man behind the desk flicks through a stack of papers, leisurely sipping his steaming mug. A receptionist, maybe. Clean-shaven, pale skin drawn tight over bony sunken cheeks. Brown hair tied back in a ponytail.
The proprietor shivers in the gloom. Sweat prickles his brow. He glances out the window at the rustling trees. Clears his throat again.
‘‘I want to see your – ’’
‘‘Why am I talking to you, Mr Clay?’’
The man’s cold voice slices through the silence. His eyes dark narrow slits. ‘‘Why is this conversation even occurring?’’
The proprietor stiffens and blinks. Swallows hard.
The man pulls a sheet of paper out from the desk drawer. Glances at it dismissively. ‘‘David Clay. Clay’s Smoking Parlour on Salmon Lane, isn’t it?’’
The proprietor doesn’t reply.
‘‘…Yes. Mr Clay. I need to see your boss.’’ The words tumble out of him in a babbling rush. ‘‘Something’s happened. Something bad. Last night. There was an incident. The boys -’’
Frank holds up one finger. The proprietor snaps his mouth shut with a click of teeth.
The receptionist settles back into the plush armchair. Steeples his fingers together. ‘‘My name’s Frank, Mr Clay. And if we had our photographs this morning, on the timely basis that you yourself promised…’’ He smiles, thin and terrifying, ‘‘…then this conversation would not be taking place, and Mr Starrick would be very happy.’’
The proprietor opens his mouth. Closes it. The room oozes with comfort around him, luxury wrapped in deep shadows. He glances hopefully at the thin cane chairs in the far corners.
‘‘You’ll remain standing,’’ Frank tells him.
He blinks. ‘‘What?’’
‘‘You’ll remain standing until we’re finished.’’
‘‘What?’’ he stares, astonished.
‘‘Right in front of the desk.’’
He just stands there, mouth clamped shut. Frozen in surprise.
‘‘Arms by your sides,’’ Frank says patiently. ‘‘Stand up straight. Don’t slump.’’ Calm, quiet matter-of-fact voice. Silence in the gloomy room. Just faint background noises booming in from the street outside and blood buzzing in the proprietor’s ears. Heart thumping in his chest. He can see score marks on the desktop. Deep thin grooves carved deep into the wood. A knife, maybe. The silence unsettles him. His skin prickles. He glances at the thin wicker chair to his left. It’s humiliating to stand. Doubly so, when told to by a damn receptionist with shiny hair. His knees ache. He glances at the hard chair to his right, brain screaming fight back, stand up for yourself. Just go ahead and sit down on one of the chairs. Just step left or right and sit down. Ignore the guy. Just do it. Five easy paces. Just walk over and sit down, and show the guy who was boss. Like winning a straight flush, or trumping an ace. Sit down, for God’s sake, his brain screams at him. But his legs don’t move. He stands still, as if paralysed, frozen rigid with outrage and disbelief and humiliation.
Frank reaches into the desk drawer in front of him. Pulls out the crumpled empty pouch. Dumps it on the table. ‘‘Care to explain this?’’
His voice is dangerously light.
The proprietor stares at it. He can’t speak. Mouth dry as dust.
Frank pulls out a photograph. Slides it across the table. ‘‘And this?’’
The proprietor forces himself to look down. A moment frozen in snapshot, one shadow slamming an elbow into another’s face. Behind them, two indistinct smudges sprawled on mattresses, obscured by the bone-crunching blur of motion.
Frank tsks. ‘‘You know these are useless, right? What a waste.’’
Mr Clay breathes in. Forces down the fear bubbling in his gut.
‘‘There’s a kink in the chain,’’ he finally mumbles.
Frank scowls. ‘‘Chains don’t have kinks. Hoses have kinks. Chains have weak links.’’ He drums his fingers on the table. Fixes Mr Clay with a cold hard stare. ‘‘Are you ‘fessing up? You’re the weak link?’’
‘‘What? No! No-no-no, of course not-’’
A deadly pause. ‘‘So what happened?’’
The proprietor swallows. Buzzing in his ears.
‘‘There was…’’ he trails off.
The door creaks open behind him. He twists around to see a thickset bald man in a boxy suit plant himself by the door. Hands clasped over his beefy torso, sausage fingers interlaced. Black piggy eyes.
Blocking the exit.
He turns back to Frank. Unease crawling through his gut. ‘‘It…our place was hit. Last night. We…’’ His voice drops to a whisper. ‘‘…We lost the package.’’
Frank gazes blankly at him. ‘‘And?’’
The proprietor stares at him. ‘‘It’s…we need help.’’
Frank scoffs. ‘‘I’m not giving out refunds.’’ The smile slides off his face. ‘‘Can’t you handle it y’self?’’
The proprietor shivers. ‘‘But I…I pay you for protection.’’
Frank’s eyes narrow. A deadly pause. ‘‘What are you tryin’ to say?’’
Frank leans closer, voice low and venomous. ‘‘No, you just said it. You waltz in here and say I’m not very good at my job.’’ He glances beyond the proprietor’s left shoulder.
Knuckles crack behind him.
He gulps and sweats. ‘‘I-I didn’t mean that.’’ The words tumble out of him. ‘‘I’ll make good. Please. I swear-’’
Frank arches an eyebrow. The proprietor clamps his mouth shut.
‘‘You’re wearing my jacket,’’ Frank says. ‘‘Would you take it off, please?’’
The proprietor stares at him. Then he glances down at his jacket. His Savile Row. Grey pinstriped cloth, tailored to fit. A prized possession. His father had taken him to the tailor’s and personally introduced him, like his grandfather before him. He’d run his hands reverently over the fine cloth weave and clapped him on the shoulder with pride in his eyes. My brave boy, off to make a name for himself. Father and son, an unbroken three-generation heritage of business success.
‘‘You’re…you’re joking, right?’’
Frank blinks at him. ‘‘I never joke.’’ He holds out a hand. Beckons impatiently. ‘‘The jacket, please.’’
The proprietor stares blankly at him. His ears go hot.
‘‘This is my jacket,’’ he frowns.
‘‘No, it’s ours.’’
Calm, patient certainty.
He shakes his head. ‘‘I bought it myself. On Savile Row. It’s definitely my jacket.’’
Frank smiles in the gloom.
‘‘You don’t understand, do you?’’ he leers.
‘‘Understand what?’’ the proprietor gulps.
‘‘That my boss owns you now. You’re his. And everything you have is ours. We own you. And by extension, what’s yours is his. And when he’s not here to collect….what’s yours is mine.’’
The proprietor stares at him. Silence in the room. Just the faint background noises from the street and the frantic thumping of his heart. Fight back! his brain screams. Walk out now. You didn’t endure Piccadilly morning rush and an hour’s traffic crawl to be talked down to like a schoolboy. Deal only with Mr Starrick himself, not his damn receptionist. Stand up for yourself!
‘‘So take my jacket off,’’ Frank says quietly.
The proprietor is still staring at him, mouth gulping soundlessly.
‘‘Take it off,’’ Frank insists. ‘‘It’s not your property. You shouldn’t be standing there wearing another man’s jacket. Ain’t good manners.’’
His voice is quiet but menacing, razor-steel. The proprietor’s face is rigid with shock, but suddenly his arms are moving, struggling off the jacket and holding it out by the collar. Like he’s in the menswear department handing back a garment he hadn’t liked.
Like he didn’t own it at all.
‘‘On the desk, please,’’ Frank smiles.
The proprietor lays the jacket flat on the desk. Feels the fine wool snagging over the rough surface. Frank pulls it closer and roots through the pockets, one by one. He glances at the contents and assembles them in a small pile in front of him. Balls up the jacket and casually tosses it onto the floor in a pathetic crumpled heap.
The proprietor watches him do it. Says nothing.
Frank picks up the fountain pen and tucks it into his own breast pocket. Sweeps the pile of sorry trinkets into the drawer. The proprietor screws his eyes tight. Breathes hard. Forces himself to open them again.
‘‘What do you people want?’’ he asks.
Frank’s eyes narrow. ‘‘I want you to take my tie off.’’
The proprietor shrugs, helpless. ‘‘No, seriously. What do you want from me?’’
‘‘Forty-two pounds ten shillings. For the product we supply, and the security we provide. That’s what you owe us.’’
The proprietor swallows and nods. ‘‘I know. I’ll pay you.’’
The proprietor blinks and gulps and sweats. ‘‘Well, I-I’ll need a little time.’’
Frank nods. ‘‘Okay, you’ve got an hour.’’
The proprietor stares at him. ‘‘No, I…I need more than an hour.’’
‘‘An hour’s all you’ve got.’’
‘‘…I can’t do it in an hour.’’
‘‘I know you can’t. You can’t do it in an hour, or a day, or a week, or a whole month, or a whole fuckin’ year, because you’re a useless piece of shit who couldn’t find his way out of a wet sack, aren’t ya?’’
The proprietor stares at him, shaking with humiliation.
‘‘Take the tie off!’’ Frank screams at him.
The proprietor jumps and flings his hands up. Scrabbles at his neck. Struggles with the knot.
‘‘Get it off, you piece of shit!’’ Franks screams.
He tears it off. Drops it on the desk in a crumpled tangle.
‘‘Thank you, Mr Clay,’’ Frank says quietly.
‘‘What do you people want?’’ the proprietor whispers.
Frank bends down to a different drawer and comes out with a handwritten sheet of paper. Dry, yellow, filled with a dense untidy scrawl. Some kind of list, with figures totalled at the bottom of the page.
‘‘We own thirty-nine per cent of your business,’’ he says. ‘‘As of this morning. What we want is another twelve per cent.’’
The proprietor stares at him. ‘‘You… you want a controlling interest?’’
‘‘Exactly,’’ Frank nods. ‘‘We hold thirty-nine per cent now, another twelve gives us fifty-one, which would indeed represent a controlling interest.’’
Frank smiles. ‘‘Supply and demand, my friend. We haul in your product, you arrange the photos. Lord Andrews. Judge Warrick. Sir Dudley. Imagine the scandal if word got out. Peers of the realm, hooked on opium. The leverage we hold. That’s how this works. We provide the product, you provide the evidence.’’ He leans back in the armchair. ‘‘You got a problem with that, your operation shuts down. Your product doesn’t arrive. Your clients don’t come. Your cash flow dries up.’’ He taps the parchment. ‘‘Here’s the new contract ready for your signature.’’
The proprietor swallows again. Shakes his head.
‘‘No,’’ he pleads. ‘‘No you can’t.’’
Frank shrugs. ‘‘Mr Wallace said the same thing.’’
The proprietor shivers. ‘‘He-he did?’’
‘‘Until we mentioned his niece. Sweet girl. Lovely hair.’’
The proprietor’s blood runs chill.
‘‘No,’’ he whines. ‘‘No, I can’t give up my business. I won’t do that.’’
‘‘Okay, then we want forty-two pounds ten shillings within the hour.’’
The proprietor just stands there, glancing wildly left and right. The thickset man pads soundlessly across the thick carpet and stands still, arms folded, right behind him. Boxing him in.
Trapped. No escape.
‘‘The watch, please,’’ Frank says.
The proprietor glances down at the gold chain watch bulging in his pocket. A treasured family heirloom from his mother, passed down from her father. He pulls it out and hands it over with trembling fingers. Frank nods and drops it into another drawer. CLUNK.
‘‘Now take my shirt off.’’
‘‘You can’t make me give you more money,’’ the proprietor pleads.
Frank smiles, as if humouring a poorly-told joke. ‘‘I think we can. Take the shirt off, okay?’’
‘‘Please, I…I have a family.’’
Frank shares a smirk with the thickset man. ‘‘Why does everyone keep telling me that?’’
‘‘Look, I won’t be intimidated,’’ the proprietor blusters.
The thickset man casually brushing his coat aside. A pale shirt. Black braces.
A knife thrust through a tan leather sheath.
The proprietor shrinks away from him.
‘‘You’re already intimidated,’’ Frank smiles back. ‘‘Aren’t you? You’re about to make a mess in my trousers. Which would be a bad mistake, by the way, because we’d only make you clean ’em up.’’
The proprietor says nothing. Just stares hard at an empty spot in the air between the two men.
‘‘Twelve per cent of the business,’’ Frank says gently. ‘‘Why not? It’s not much. And you’d still have forty-nine per cent left.’’
‘‘I…I need to speak with my lawyer,’’ the proprietor forces out.
‘‘Okay, go ahead.’’
The proprietor’s eyes dart around the room, desperate. ‘‘But how…?’’
‘‘There’s no telegraph in here,’’ Frank says. ‘‘No letters. The boss doesn’t like letters.’’
‘‘Shout,’’ Frank shrugs. ‘‘Shout real loud, and maybe, just maybe, your lawyer will hear you.’’
‘‘Shout,’’ Frank repeats. Calm. Patient. ‘‘You’re real slow, aren’t you, Mr Clay? Put two ‘n’ two together. There’s no telegraph in here, you can’t send a telegram, you can’t leave the room, but you want to talk with your lawyer. So you’ll have to shout.’’
The proprietor stares blankly into space. Blood rushing in his ears.
‘‘Shout, you useless piece of shit!’’ Frank screams at him.
‘‘No I can’t,’’ the proprietor trembles helplessly. ‘‘I-I don’t know what you mean.’’
‘‘Take my shirt off!’’ Frank screams.
The proprietor shudders violently. Raises his hands. Hesitates, with his arms frozen halfway in the air.
‘‘Get it off, you piece of shit!’’ Frank screams.
The proprietor’s hands leap up and unbutton it, all the way down. He tears it off and stands there holding it, breathing hard, shaking in his thin undershirt.
‘‘Fold it neatly, please,’’ Frank smiles. ‘‘I like my things neat and tidy.’’
The proprietor does his best. He shakes the shirt out by the collar and folds it in half, and half again. Bends and lays it square on top of the mahogany desk.
‘‘Give up the twelve per cent,’’ Frank prompts.
‘‘No,’’ the proprietor whispers, clenching his hands.
Silence in the room. Silence, darkness and churning fear.
‘‘Efficiency,’’ Frank says quietly. ‘‘That’s what we like here. Deals running smoothly, ticking like clockwork. Streamlining the process. No wasted time. Cutting through any wrinkles. You should’ve paid more attention to efficiency, Mr Clay. Then maybe your business wouldn’t be heading down the drain. So what’s the most efficient way for us to do this?’’
The proprietor shrugs, helpless. ‘‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’’
‘‘Then I’ll explain,’’ Frank smoothes his palms over the polished wood. ‘‘We want you to comply. We want your signature on a piece of paper. So how do we get that?’’
‘‘You’ll never get it, you bastard,’’ the proprietor snarls. ‘‘I’ll go bankrupt first, damn it. I’ll file for insolvency. You won’t get a damn thing from me. You’ll be in court five years, minimum.’’
Frank shakes his head patiently, like a primary school teacher hearing the wrong answer for the hundredth time in a long, predictable career.
‘‘Do whatever you want,’’ the proprietor growls at him. A last desperate defiance. ‘‘I won’t give you my company.’’
‘‘We could hurt you,’’ Frank shrugs.
The proprietor’s eyes drop through the gloom to the desktop. His tie is still lying there, crumpled and forlorn, right on top of the rough gouges from the knife.
‘‘Take my trousers off!’’ Frank screams.
‘‘No I won’t, damn it!’’ the proprietor yells back.
The bald thug at Frank’s shoulder stomps forward, a wicked gleaming knife in his gnarled fist. The proprietor stares, horrified. Squeezes back against the desk. Nowhere to run. The bald thug closes in. The blade hovers before his eyes. Closer. Closer. The proprietor gulps and sweats, wide-eyed, transfixed by gleaming steel. Never sees the fist swinging in. Clenched knuckles smash hard into his flabby gut and he goes down like a sack, squirming and gasping and retching.
‘‘Take the fuckin’ trousers off, you piece of shit!’’ Frank screams down at him.
Another savage kick crunches into his ribs and he yelps and rolls around and writhes on his back like a helpless turtle, gasping, gagging, fumbling, wrenching at his belt. He gets it loose. Scrabbles for the buttons, the zip. Tears the trousers down over his legs. They snag on his shoes. He wrenches them free and kicks them away, sobbing. Yelps as another boot slams into his back.
Frank raises a hand. ‘‘That’s enough, Ed.’’
The thickset man steps back, glaring daggers. The proprietor heaves a ragged lungful of air, wheezing and coughing.
‘‘Get up, Mr Clay,’’ Frank says quietly.
He staggers to his feet, unsteady, head down, panting, battered and dazed, hands splayed on his knees, stomach heaving, thin white hairless legs protruding like twigs from his underclothes, socks and shoes still on his feet.
‘‘We could hurt you,’’ Frank says. ‘‘You understand that now, right?’’
The proprietor nods and gasps, pressing both forearms into his gut. Hands splayed over his bruised stomach. Heaving and gagging.
‘‘You understand that, right?’’ Frank asks again.
He forces another nod.
‘‘Say the words, Mr Clay,’’ Frank growls. ‘‘Say we could hurt you.’’
‘‘You could hurt me,’’ the proprietor croaks.
‘‘But we won’t. That’s not how the boss likes things to be done.’’
The proprietor raises a trembling hand to swipe tears from his eyes and looks up, hopeful.
‘‘He prefers to hurt the wives instead,’’ Frank shrugs. ‘‘Efficiency, you see? It gets faster results. So at this point, you really need to be thinking about Mary.’’
© 2017 Tom Burton