Matt dashed past the thatch-faced doorman, bounded up the spiral staircase and came to another door. Late again. Sweat in his eyes. He struck the door buzzer, angled his face toward the surveillance camera and waited. He tucked in his shirt, which was wrinkled and too large, like it belonged to someone else. The door opened.
Quinn stood behind the reception counter, eyes the color of faded denim. “I don’t wanna hear it.”
“It’s been the cruddiest day,” Matt said. “Spent last night on a friend’s couch. Ava kicked me out. I think we’re through.”
Quinn exhaled long and slow. “Not my problem,” he said.
“Don’t do this.”
“You’ve had your chances, kid. Two weeks’ worth but you don’t catch on.”
“I’m a quick learner. You said so yourself.”
“Even if I overlooked you bein’ late… There’s things about this job you just can’t learn. You either know them or you don’t. Can’t be taught.”
“Quinn, please, don’t do this to me. Not now.”
“Don’t take it so hard, kid. I went through three other just like you, all thought they could breeze through it, but not a-one lasted the week.” Quinn straightened the clutter on the desk as he spoke, squared everything to the edges, and angled the aluminum baseball bat beneath the high ridge of the counter so only those behind the desk could see it. “You’ve had almost three weeks, kid,” Quinn said. “Done well as could be expected. I’ll pay you up to the end of the week. No need for you to work tonight.”
“No,” Matt said and stepped closer to Quinn. “One more chance,” he said. “I can do this.”
“No more chances,” Quinn said. “End of conversation.”
Quinn moved to the counter hatch. Matt stayed put and would not let him pass.
“What all is there to this job?” Matt said. “You make it out to be something other than it is. I’ve done everything you asked. I don’t complain. What else is there to it?”
“You ain’t got it.”
“It – whatever it is.”
Matt glanced at the aluminum bat. “I got it. What else is there?”
“The job is what it is,” Quinn said. He outweighed Matt by a hundred pounds and stood six inches taller. “You collect the fare, make sure the girls ain’t in trouble, and you mop up afterwards – that’s the easy part. You ain’t come across the hard part, yet.” He placed a hand as large as a trashcan lid on the kid’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have let you into this to start with. This work ain’t for you. No hard feelings, ok?”
“I need this,” Matt said. “I’d quit, you know I would, if I for one second didn’t think I was right for this.”
Quinn thought for a moment, shifted Matt out of his path like the wind can bully a discarded napkin, and climbed the spiral staircase that connected to the bar. Matt moved through the hatch and behind the reception counter. He balled a fist and sucked in a deep breath and hung his head in his hands.
Chet pinned the brunette down with his full weight. The knot of muscles on his leathery back twitched and tensed as he pushed inside. He caught her throat with a liver-spotted hand and squeezed and the woman swatted it away. The cot creaked and shunted against the gold-painted wall. The old man wheezed and jerked and pinched her neck with his hand. She gasped, pried at his fingers. He held tight, squeezed harder, thrust faster.
The thick crimson crushed velvet drapes trembled in the breeze from the balcony and the hum of Manhattan traffic hissed like waves come ashore. The teenage brunette struggled and gasped and tore at Chet’s hands clamped around her neck.
The door opened and Quinn entered. The sight of the old man and the girl stopped Quinn mid-stride. The girl angled her head toward him and mouthed words. Quinn traversed the room in ten large strides, took hold of Chet and yanked him off the girl. He dragged Chet into the hallway and threw him against the wall.
“Hey, I’ve got a half-hour left,” Chet said. “You can’t do this.”
The girl rushed out of the room and threw wild fists at the old man and Quinn, who still had Chet pressed against the wall, let a few blows land before he pushed the girl back into the room. She got Chet’s clothes and tossed them into the hallway.
Quinn socked the old man in the gut and watched him slump to the floor. “You don’t tell me what I can do,” he said. “This is my place.” He threw his leg out at the man and caught him two, three times with his jackboot and knelt next to the man’s face and said, “Don’t ever come back.”
Chet’s sallow cheeks flushed crimson. “Please,” he blubbered, “I won’t cause any more problems. I got carried away. It won’t happen again.”
“I won’t repeat myself,” Quinn said. “And make sure you leave the girl a sizeable tip on the way out.” Quinn clamped a hand around Chet’s neck and squeezed until the man’s eyes became glassy and swollen. “You’re a pussy.” Quinn released Chet and entered the girl’s room.
“Please,” Chet said, “this is all I’ve got.”
“Not my problem.” Quinn shut the door.
The hallway stank of cologne, ammonia and dead cigars. Chet stood and listened. Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” groaned from the radio inside the room. Laughter. Bedsprings tooted.
Matt did the same thing he did every night: he killed time. He began with a fresh puzzle in his book of Sudoku and got most of the ones filled in before he put his pen down and hung his head in his hands. He again took hold of the pen and used it to write in the Sudoku squares: this is an easy job so why can’t I do it right? He crumpled the book into a ball and deposited it in the trash can and leaned back in the chair to stare at the ceiling. White, the color of a vanilla milkshake. His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday. No money. The main reason Ava had kicked him out of their apartment. Homeless, penniless, and workless.
Matt glanced at the aluminum baseball bat on the counter. Drummed his fingers on the blackened oak desktop. Whistled tunelessly. But his mind continued to churn the conversation with Quinn. What had he done wrong? How could he put it right?
Surveillance cameras located in the upstairs bar fed images into a bank of monitors set into the counter. No one except dancers. Trade was always patchy until after midnight. Only a handful of regulars came early. Most customers were out-of-towners and blow-ins, who wanted ceaseless liquor and an endless party. Drunk as those guys would get, it was never a problem to handle them. Drunks were easy. You can baffle a drunk with simple logic and eject them from the premises without violence, so long as they knew what the rules were. Matt wasn’t at all worried about the customers. He knew how to talk them round, get them to do what he wanted, to pay up and leave quietly. Matt’s chosen way had been preferable to the alternative, until Quinn had said otherwise in their conversation earlier.
The old man he knew as Mr Miller came down the spiral staircase in a bundle and buttoned the jacket of his three-piece as he limped toward the exit. Chet took hold of the door latch and turned it and jiggled it and rattled the locked door in its metal casing.
“The door’s locked, Mr Miller,” Matt said. “It’s always locked. You know that. It doesn’t ever open till you pay what’s owed.”
“I owe nothing,” Chet said and flecks of spittle sprayed as he snarled the words and he shook the locked door again. “Open it up.”
Matt stood. “I can’t do that. Now, what’s the matter, Mr Miller? Whatever it is I can take care of it for you.”
Chet approached the counter and came alongside it to the open hatch. Matt witnessed the distillation of anger and fear on those brown eyes of his. “You tell me what’s going on, Mr Miller,” Matt said. “There’s no need to get up all fixed up in a heap of trouble.”
“I want to leave,” Chet said sharp enough to score glass. “I’m not paying for something I never got.”
“Just ‘cause the plumbing don’t work, doesn’t mean you can dodge the service charge,” Matt joked. He cut his laugh short when Chet did not join in.
“That’s not what this is about.”
“Not my problem.”
“What’d you say?”
“Not my problem,” Matt said. “You pay no matter what. It’s always been that way.”
“You’re all the same, ain’t you?”
“I’m actually quite reasonable. If this was Quinn—”
“Well, now, Quinn ain’t here, so you better think smart, boy, and open that door.” Chet moved a step closer to the kid.
“Pay me what you owe, first.”
“You’re a honey badger.”
“I’m a … what?”
“You called me a pussy?”
“Either a pussy or a Baptist.”
Matt glanced at the aluminum baseball bat on the desk. “What’s got into you?” he said. “I’ve been here near three weeks and you’ve been here every other night, and now you’re like this…?” Matt placed his finger on the emergency call button on the desk. “You understand what will happen if I push this?”
Chet thought for a moment and slapped Matt on the cheek. Matt’s eyes watered and he stumbled back a step.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Matt pressed the emergency call button and glanced at the aluminum baseball bat.
They both grabbed the bat. Matt shoved forward and they crashed against a wall. Chet struck the kid with a fist and winded him and twisted the bat free. He raised it in a swift arc. Matt threw himself at the old man, grabbed his waist and slammed him into the counter. Chet’s spine cracked like popcorn. Matt wrenched the bat free and took several steps back and raised the bat.
“Don’t you come another step,” Matt said.
There was movement on the spiral staircase. Chet snarled and ran at Matt. The bat crunched into Chet’s shoulder and Chet fell backwards, struck his head on the corner of the counter hatch. He slumped to the tiled floor. His legs twitched and juddered and became still. He had ceased breathing. What pooled beneath the old man’s head looked like strawberry syrup.
Quinn came down the stairs with a SIG pistol and noticed the body. He lowered the pistol and with his free hand scratched at the side of his head and tucked the pistol in the waistband at the back. He went to the counter and picked up the telephone. “We got a situation,” he said. “No one gets into the lobby.” He replaced the receiver in the cradle and watched the empty space to the right of the desk for a long time. He came out of reception, stood next to the old man and studied the body’s position.
“Look at that,” Quinn said “Awful lot of prune juice.”
Matt’s legs gave way, the bat dropped to the ground, and he lurched toward the counter, leaned on it to keep from falling over.
“Finally popped your cherry,” Quinn said in a strained tone.
“I need to go.”
“If you think that’s best.”
Matt stared at Quinn, who hadn’t yet glanced away from the corpse. “What do you mean?”
“Where are you gonna go?”
“I’ll go…” Matt wanted to say home, but he had no home.
“Got some place you need to be?” Quinn pointed his eyes toward the door. “Be my guest.”
Matt bit his lip. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it? This,” he said with his eyes on the corpse.
“You’re blooded, now, kid,” he said. “What’s it matter what I want?”
“I have to go,” Matt said. “This isn’t the job I want.” He stumbled toward the door.
“What do you think the cops will do when they find out about this?”
The kid stopped walking and scratched the hot wetness from his eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Do your job.”
“You mean, call the cops?”
“Maybe your arrest jacket ain’t thick as a redneck’s son,” Quinn said. “Take your chances with them if you want. That’s not down to me.”
Matt turned to face Quinn. Their eyes met.
“What do I do?”
“Take this turtleback into some alley a couple of blocks over and dump him,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna miss him,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna come lookin’ for him.”
“I can’t,” Matt said.
“It’s your job.” Quinn moved next to Matt and took him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. “You still want to keep it, don’t you?”
“Can I trust you to make this right?” Quinn said.
Matt heard movement on the spiral staircase that led to the bar and also from outside the door that led to the ground floor. There was nowhere he could go, nowhere to hide.
“I can handle it,” Matt said.
“Did he pay what was owed?”
Quinn maintained unwavering eye contact until Matt nodded his head. Quinn stepped back and Matt fell to his knees next to the corpse and searched inside Chet’s jacket. He removed the wallet and stood, the iron-smell of the dead man’s blood on him.
“What happens now?” Matt asked.
“You collected the fare,” Quinn said. “Now, mop up afterwards.”
BIO: Michael McGlade holds a master’s degree in English from Queen’s University in Ireland. He is an Arts Council award recipient. His competition-winning fiction appears in the book Powers Irish Short Story Collection (2012) and in publications such as Green Door, Calliope, OMDB Mystery Magazine, and Grain. He is editor-in-chief of music publication GigApe.com. mcgladewriting.com