Larry ushered the anxious woman into his office and noted with satisfaction the calming effect its caramel walls, photos of ocean and mountain scapes, fake orchids, and soft music had on her.
He sat behind the wide desk. “Now, Mrs. Smith, it looks from my paperwork here that you have missed three, no four, payments on your debt to us.”
Mrs. Smith’s nose was running, and she wasn’t bothering to wipe it. Larry’s gaze slid to the photograph of himself, aged twelve, dressed as an altar boy, standing between the priest and his mother.
The woman’s voice dragged him back. “Please,” she murmured. “Give me more time.”
Her pain hurt him. How often had he heard that plea? How often had he had to deny it? “I’m sorry,” he said. “My uncle’s a tough businessman. If you don’t repay the debt by Friday, we’ll have to take the house.”
She started sobbing, making long, ugly gulps that drowned the cello playing in the background. “My husband will kill me if he finds out.”
“Now, now,” Larry said soothingly. “You’re exaggerating. You know he won’t really kill you.” Tyrone, on the other hand, would literally kill if the boss didn’t get his money. Unless… Larry pushed a box of Kleenex towards the weeping woman. “Unless…” he paged through the file. She looked up, hopeful, took a tissue and pressed it to her face. “Your daughter, Lisa. She’s thirteen, right?”
“What of it?”
She moved squeakily on the plastic-covered chair. “What of it?”
“Mr. Vangere, my boss, likes pretty girls. Perhaps if you dropped Lisa off one day, he might forgive the debt.” Mertle Maygrove, the madame they regularly used, could groom Lisa. She knew what Uncle Marco liked.
“No!” Mrs. Smith whispered. “Not my baby.” Her eyes moved quickly, but the posters and music didn’t calm her. He’d hit a nerve and cut through the lullaby of sea and cello and vanilla-scented candles.
“Just one afternoon of discomfort for Lisa would protect your family from tragedy.”
She blinked. Was she tempted? His clients were like rats in a maze, breaking their claws against the metal walls of their trap, smashing their skulls till they bled, shrieking mercilessly, losing control of their bladders, ready to rip apart their own young. Sometimes Larry felt like a rat himself. He didn’t want to be in this room; the pictures, the music, the candles were as much for his nerves as for theirs. The clients had only one or two such conversations each. He had to endure hundreds. He’d asked his uncle for another job, a clean job: driving, even typing — after a particularly difficult interview with a woman he’d persuaded to give up funds reserved for her husband’s chemotherapy, but he regretted asking the minute the question was out of his mouth. Uncle Marco had laughed and said he needed to man up. Did he really want to type for a living. Like a girl? Enforcing was a man’s job. Larry had reluctantly agreed.
The woman was speaking again. “Take me instead,” she said, her chin raised.
“Instead?” For a moment he was nonplussed.
“Instead of Lisa. I have experience. I could show your boss a good time.” She fluttered her eyelashes. “You too…”
He was tempted to laugh. The woman still had a good body, long, blonde hair, and a mildly pretty face if her mascara wasn’t running. Larry could imagine doing her. But she was hardly up to his uncle’s standards. He was tempted to point out that the boss preferred veal to jerky, but this would be gratuitously cruel. He shook his head. “Nice thought.” He paused, pretending to consider the offer. “But no. The boss wouldn’t buy it.”
Her jaw tightened. She wanted to kill him, he knew. He’d had clients try that and was prepared. He opened his desk drawer a couple of inches. Retrieving his Baretta Small would take less than a second.
Or perhaps she wanted to kill herself. But that wouldn’t help; Tyrone would come for the money anyway, with his chainsaw and tire iron. Now she was about to start begging. Larry steeled himself.
“Please,” she begged. “Please have mercy on me. Please, please!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My hands are tied.”
The waves of her tears rolled over him. He hated being so hard. He wanted to be that boy in the red robe and white surplus, swinging the thurible of incense. He wanted to be clean again.
Thirsty after his talk with Mrs. Smith, Larry ducked out of the office and stepped into a corner bar he’d never entered before, somewhere he wouldn’t be recognized. The walls were covered in dark green embossed leather; the ceilings were high; a smoky mirror reflected towering rows of bottled liquor and glasses gleaming in the lamplight. An Irish fiddler was playing lively Celtic tunes. Larry took the last seat at the bar and scrutinized his own boyish features and thinning hair in the mirror.
The man beside him turned and grinned. Larry nodded, thinking that the stranger, whose ears jutted out from an egg-smooth head and whose small eyes twinkled behind round glasses, was even less likely to get lucky than Larry himself. Poor sod. Then he saw the clerical collar and laughed. A priest wouldn’t even try to pick up a girl.
The bartender caught his eye and Larry nodded fractionally.
“Put it on my tab,” the stranger said.
“Turning down a free drink?” the man asked.
“Nothing’s free in my experience,” Larry said. This was true, but against that, the price would probably be no more than talk. And there was something about the stranger’s eyes, intelligent and guileless, that suggested that the talk would be all right – as long as the man didn’t beat the God drum too much. He shrugged his thanks. “I know a joke about a priest and a rabbi. Like to hear it?”
“Sure.” The priest chuckled. “An oldie but a goodie. Have you heard this one…”
After a pause between sips and punchlines, Larry slumped a little deeper on his stool and let out an audible sigh.
“I’m a good listener,” the priest said.
“I hate my job.”
“Mmm,” murmured the priest as gently as an archeologist extracting a bone fragment.
“I’m a loan officer at a bank,” Larry continued. Not strictly true, but close enough. “I have to choose who to lend money to – whose dreams to fund and whose to refuse. And then I have to come after them when they default.”
“Break some knees,” the priest suggested with a grin.
Larry blinked. “Fortunately bankruptcy’s an option nowadays,” he said, not lying exactly, “But I hate disappointing people. I hate their resentment. I hate being blamed.”
The priest asked the sort of question priests ask. “Do you think you’ve done anything wrong?”
The sort of question that complicates things. Larry stared at him, for a brief moment longing to lay down his burden and have the broad-shouldered stranger take it up for him. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” he asked instead. “The bank would fail if I lent money to everyone, or if I allowed people to default. Then I’d be out of a job and so would dozens of others.”
“Sometimes I hate my job too,” the stranger confided. “And for some of the same reasons.”
“Really?” It wasn’t possible that this upstanding priest could share his troubles.
“I have to listen to some very painful stories and take the brunt of a lot of anger about the unfairness of the world. It gets to me sometimes.” Here he gestured to the bartender for another round.
Larry took his martini and swilled it gratefully. “Wow. I’m surprised a priest would have the same occupational hazards as a … bank loan officer. I wish I knew how you deal with it.”
“I try to get away every six months or so – go somewhere beautiful and refresh myself.”
“Like a beach…” Larry suggested.
“Yes. A wild coast with sand and rocks and thrashing waves.”
Larry nodded. They were the same: they suffered the same torments, and longed for the same relief. “Do you know of a place like that?”
“As a matter of fact I do…” The priest drew a smart phone from a pocket and tapped a few buttons and then held the screen out to Larry – three cottages nestled together on a bluff – whitewashed with red roses and thatched roofs next to a stretch of white sand with rock formations sculpted by the ocean in the background. “It’s a timeshare. You can buy a share in one of those cottages for the price of a day’s work.”
Larry’s eyes opened. “For a week?”
“There must be some catch. Are they all right on the inside?” he asked.
The priest touched the screen and images of gleaming kitchens and magnificent poster beds appeared.
Larry hesitated. He picked up the fresh martini that had appeared in front of him and sipped.
“Better move fast,” the priest added. “I hear they’re selling like hot cakes.”
Usually Larry took his time over big decisions. But he was only risking a few hundred bucks. Why not be spontaneous now? What could go wrong? “Where do I sign up?”
The priest texted him a link.
Larry fiddled with his phone, his fingers clumsy after three martinis. Then, he pulled out his credit card. “Done,” he said a few minutes later. “Perhaps we’ll be there at the same time. I would enjoy talking more with you. I need to be around a better class of people.”
The priest lowered his head. “Well, my job’s done here. I must be going. Take care, young man.”
Larry watched the man leave, his bald pate gleaming in the lamp’s glow. “Nice guy,” he said to the bartender.
The fiddler started playing Amazing Grace.
Larry arrived at the remote island off the Washington coast in the late afternoon. The place was exactly what he’d seen in the photograph – whitewashed cottages, red roses, a rocky beach. A thin breeze wove through the warm air carrying the scent of the sea. The ocean was just the right mix of green and blue and gray to lull the senses.
In the office, he waited while the receptionist talked with another client, an elderly woman, oddly dressed in a heavy coat, stocking cap, scarf and dark glasses, who looked vaguely familiar. Mertle Maygrove! What was that old whore doing here? And she looked just awful. She must be deathly ill.
Perhaps she hoped the sea air would do her good.
“Just leaving,” she muttered when he asked.
“How was it?”
She shuddered, and slipped a finger under her cap to scratch her scalp. Her thick auburn hair was gone; in its place he glimpsed bare skin tattooed with a jagged Frankenstein scar.
“Plan to come back next year?” he asked, because he couldn’t think of anything better.
“I’d rather die,” she muttered, and then louder. “Yes. I’ll be back. I have no choice.”
“Why… What?” he stammered.
“Read the brochure,” she said with a gesture towards a stack on the desk.
The first page of the pamphlet talked about the refreshing power of Dogwood Cottage and its cleansing redemptive qualities. He was distracted by the movement of a heavy-set man approaching the desk. Tyrone Graves? The hitman’s bulk was unmistakable. He turned and Larry drew back appalled. Part of the man’s nose and upper lip were missing.
“Give me some Vicodin please?” he asked the receptionist is a meek voice.
The young woman shook her head.
She wagged her finger at him. “You know the rules, Tyrone.”
“Please. The pain is unbearable.”
She ignored his plea and turned with a big smile. “You must be Larry. We’ve been expecting you.”
“What is this place?”
“They give you cancer, man!” Tyrone yelled, before a couple of burly male nurses appeared to escort him from the room.
Larry swallowed. “Is that true?” he asked.
“You have the opportunity to part of a magnificent experiment that could save thousands of lives,” she said with a smile.
He glanced through the pages, images of surgeries, detailed drawings of tumors. “I’ve changed my mind. Give me my money back.”
“Oh, not up for a little flesh eating virus, are you? They say it’s really bad when it gets to your testicles.”
He was sweating hard. “I’m willing to lose my deposit.”
She shook her head, holding up her left hand to the light. “Nope. Sorry.”
He swallowed. “All right. Keep all of it. I’m leaving.”
“Nope,” she said behind him, firmly enough that he stopped.
“What do you mean ‘nope’?” He moved closer and leaned across the desk. He had learned to use his body to assert dominance. “I don’t want the product you’re selling,” he said, enunciating each syllable. “I’m not going to take it.”
“Well, that’s just it,” the girl said, squaring her shoulders. “You’ve already had the product. Your stay here is payment.”
“I don’t understand. The product is the timeshare. I’ve never been here before.” He picked up a brochure and tapped the image of the cottages.
She pulled down a screen and then punched a few computer keys.
“The product,” she said, and the screen flickered with images: Larry in the hot tub with a call girl, Larry in the thirty foot motor boat, Larry picking up Lisa in the limousine. “Your product was one of the real high-end ones.” She smiled. “Now, you have to pay off your share of the account.”
Pay. He could pay. “I have money,” Larry said. “Let me use your computer. I can download a large sum into your account right this minute.”
“Perhaps you’d prefer your lymph nodes pulsing with cancerous tumors. I hear the chemo for that is really toxic.”
“Please,” he begged. “I’m just a lowly cipher. My wealth hardly compares to my uncle’s, and my crimes are trifling beside his.”
She hitched her lip between her teeth and waited, as if she’d heard these excuses before and wasn’t impressed. He panicked. They were going to strap him down, introduce cancer into the most sensitive parts of his body, even his brain, and then flood him with dangerous chemicals, taking care not to use pain-killers so that they could measure the side-effects. The drugs were totally untested. Not everyone survived, and those who did wished they hadn’t.
He shifted where he stood, left and right, a rat in a maze. Then he turned and ran towards the exit and found it locked. He tugged on the doorknob, and then turned towards the window, slipped and hit his head. He touched his temple and blanched when he saw the blood. The girl approached followed by the two big men who had taken Tyrone.
He felt a sudden warmth between his legs and saw the her gaze move contemptuously to his crotch. He covered the stain with one hand and whimpered. “Have mercy on me. Please!”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This is a tough business. My hands are tied.”