An Exercise in Debt Management

“Why is it that they have those laws against having ice cream cones in pockets?” I had asked, sipping from my coffee as I stared out the café window. I had a healthy suspicion that I was being watched. I just couldn’t shake the feeling. I was sure that I had seen the same car come around the place at least three times already. Anyhow, it was a nice day, but a bit too warm for my taste. So, we had decided to come in for some coffee before dinner.

“Horse thieves.”

“Horse thieves? What about horse thieves?”

“Horse thieves used to put ice cream cones in their back pockets to make the horses follow them out of the open. Then they could rustle and thieve to their hearts’ delight.”

“But why ice cream cones? Why not carrots or sugar cubes or something normal to carry around in their pocket?”

“Well, those aren’t really too normal to carry around in your back pocket, sweetheart.” She cocked an eyebrow, drinking from her own mug with a bit of a smirk. “Besides, I don’t know. I guess they just really liked ice cream cones.”

“Yeah, well…shut up, that’s what.” I stuck out my tongue and squinted my eyes, scrunching up my nose in the process. She responded in kind.

“Why did you ask, anyway? That seemed like a pretty random question.” She leaned back in the chair until the back touched the wall, holding her reclined.

“I dunno, it was just bugging me for a while. I read it in some book somewhere or something. Maybe the internet? Doesn’t really matter anyway.” I yawned a bit, finishing off my coffee and setting the cup on its saucer. “Wait, how the hell did you know that?”

“I’d just talked about it with someone before when we were talking about stupid laws. Guess it was like this, really. Except less coffee.” She replaced her cup as well and let the chair drop forward with a click as the legs made contact with the tiled floor. “So…”

“So…” I reached into my pocket and snared a stray token. “Ready?”

“Ready.” She grinned at me, her teeth showing prettily as always. “Heads I win; Tails you lose?”

“Call it in the air, hon.” And with that I flipped the coin up into the air, my palm placed out to catch it.

“Tails!”

But the coin didn’t make it back into my palm. Right when she called it I heard the plink of the metal bouncing off of the ceiling fan that I’d forgotten was busily circulating the air right above our heads.

“Shit.”

And the coin was gone, whizzing off across the room and smashing into one of the larger coffee pots on the counter behind us. There was breaking glass and a general murmur about the debit to the paycheck of the poor waitress that must have dropped it. That is, until the roll of paper towels being used to wipe up the heating element tipped over and quickly ignited. This wasn’t so much of a problem until the man running up with the fire extinguisher skidded across the rather impressive pool of coffee on the slick tile and launched himself well away from where he’d have come in useful.

One thing led to another, and then the wall was ablaze.

I was about to suggest we head out and ditch the bill in the confusion when the alarm flared up and pierced straight through my head. There isn’t an awful lot that sticking your hands over your ears can do about a wailing alarm that seems intent on doing its best banshee impersonation. That, and then you can’t really grab anything to cover your head to stop the stale water pouring out from the sprinkler system. It seemed as good a time as any to get the hell out of that place. So I said so.

“You think? I was just beginning to enjoy myself.” She glared at me a bit, but the tongue sticking from the corner of her mouth alleviated any fear of annoyance. “C’mon, before you melt.”

With that, we were out into the street and she was wringing out her hair and spitting onto the sidewalk.

“That’s not very ladylike, Mandragora.” I chided. She looked at me. I stopped.

“Some of that nasty ass water got on my tongue. Gleh.” She spat again, tying her hair back as she righted herself. “And of all the times…Why couldn’t this have happened before I started growing my hair out again?” She frowned, picking at her soaked blouse. “And my new shirt…” Her lips formed a pout and she gave me those eyes of hers. They were green that day. Well, they were almost green. Her eyes were more of a dark blue, a little amber nova going on around those super-massive black holes she calls pupils.

“Could’ve been worse, Girlypants.” I noted, stepping out of the way of some of the more hurried ex-patrons.

“I’m failing to see how.”

“Could’ve been a white blouse. It’s a shame, really. Remind me to burn all of your colored tops when we get home. I hear a storm front’s coming through in a few days.”

She hit me over the head just as the fire truck siren broke its way across the humid air, dopplering its way toward us. That’s when we both looked behind us at the smoke billowing from the soggy café.

“Well I’ll be damned.” She muttered, wide eyed. Then she turned to look at me. “You don’t think…”

“Yeah. Well, we don’t really have to tell anyone about this, now do we?” I was getting a bit nervous as the fire truck continued its approach, the screeching almost becoming unbearable. “And goddamn that siren! Agh! Let’s just get home and dry off. These people can take care of themselves.” I grabbed her arm and proceeded to pull her down the sidewalk, navigating carefully through the gathering crowd and hiding ourselves among the dozens of bodies.

We were in the clear when the truck whirred past us, forcing us both to clutch our ears in pain and utter a simultaneous “Fuck!” from the noise.

“You know, it’s not so bad once it hits the red shift. It’s the blue that really gets to me.”

*******************

We were both itchy and rather sticky by the time we got back to our apartment a good ten blocks away from the minor catastrophe, so we decided a shower was in order. Clothes were readily shed and thrown under the sink for lack of a better hamper to put them in. No sooner had I stepped in than the phone decided to ring its damn head off.

“Could you get that, Boy? I’m not dee-cent.” She cooed and poked me in the stomach, her fingers trailing downward in an effort to prove her point.

“Yes, ma’am.” And I was off into the kitchen, dripping my footprints across the linoleum.

“Ahoy hoy?” I butchered a horrible accent.

“Moran.” I knew that voice. It was a voice that made getting out of town a wonderful and glorious idea. So was hanging up. I knew he knew my voice, and I tried my best to disguise it, but there’s only just so much you can do. The phone rang again, but I just skulked back to the bathroom and peeked in behind the shower curtain, my hands groping at will.

“Ack! Who was it, Boy?” she asked, pulling away where I couldn’t reach.

“Nobody, Mandyragorya.” I lied, reaching my arm in after her. “What do you think about staying in tonight, hmm?”

“Well, since we seem to have brought calamity to some poor little bistro whatsit already, I was thinking we could get some takeaway. I haven’t felt all that well since we got home anyway.” She sniffled a bit for emphasis.

“Alright then, Pretty Girl. Chinese okay?” It was always okay.

“Yes! Get whatever; just make sure you get an order of crab Rangoon too! Mmm…Rangoo-oon.”

“I love you, Mandragora.” I poked her in the stomach and left her to do whatever it is that women do that makes a shower last for half an hour.

“I love you too, Silly Boy!” she called after me before the door closed with a clack.

*******************

This wasn’t the kind of thing that could be planned for. You had to start playing by ear and hoping like hell your fingers didn’t slip during the big finale. They had found me. Of course, it was only to be a matter of time, but I had hoped it would take a little longer to clean up the mess. I’d found the best thing to do in these situations was to keep as calm as one could and not do anything too out of the ordinary. Ordinary seldom attracts attention. All I needed was a bit more time, and perhaps some food.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the usual delivery kid when I came to answer the door. A small wiry man in spectacles stood there with a briefcase like some sort of overwrought cliché, wearing a suit normally reserved for those who plan on bleeding you dry via the wallet. He wasn’t too worrying, though. It was more the two large men framing him like rooks that had me rather nervous.

“Ah, Mister…,” He looked down to a scrap of paper and laughed in a humorless way, “Anonymous was it? So good to finally meet with you. We were worried about you, when your phone cut off like that. These are my business associates Sir Reginald III and Lord Stanley. Might we come in?”

I did my best to fill up the doorway and keep a blank face, but I knew my options were rapidly falling away. In the past, I had not made the best of company when it came to moneylenders, and it seemed that tonight it was intent on catching back up with me. It was then that I wished I had gone ahead and paid the extra money for caller ID.

“Mister Anonymous? I really must insist that you let us in that we may more readily go over the stickier details of your finances.” Lord Stanley punctuated with a horrible knuckle crack, but his tough façade was quickly eradicated by a wince as he shook his hand vigorously.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.” As subtly as I could I reached behind and locked the door before stepping out into the hallway and pulling it shut. I had to keep her out of this. “But we can, of course, go somewhere nice and public, hmm?”

The man had a bit of a nonplussed look about him, but he consented with a nod. He turned and headed down the stairwell, leaving his escorts behind to lift me bodily and carry me out themselves. Outside was their car, idling in front of the building. My heart was sinking rapidly, but I didn’t think it in my best interests to let on. What was worse, we passed the delivery guy on the way out. It was a horrible mess all around.

They threw me into the car and I was squeezed in between the two. It stank of cigarettes and something wholly unpleasant that I couldn’t quite place. The car started going and the skinnier man looked at me from the rear-view, a little grin on his face.

“We had to go through a lot of trouble to get you, you know.” That grin! “You should really feel quite honored. It’s not often anyone gets to come meet the Man. Even less often that anyone gets very far past the whole ‘meeting him’ too.”

“Well I don’t want to be a bother. You can, yanno, go on and let me out. I’m sure we can work something out to benefit everyone, eh?” Only trouble was, I didn’t have anything they wanted.

“Oh no, we don’t need to do that. I hear you’re too good at hiding to be let loose. The Man’s going to get his due.”

*******************

It’s odd. I never was much of a worrier, not even when all of this started going down. I would just tell myself that so long as I stayed at least a step ahead, there wasn’t going to be any trouble. I never thought to give myself a few extra feet, though that would have come in handy for when I stumbled. I had plenty of time to reflect, though, when I was bound up in that damned room.

I’m not really sure how long they kept me there, my watch being on part of me that just happened to be tied up. For whatever reason I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew I had the butt of a gun slam across my face. I quickly became alert.

“Thought you could hide from me, eh?” It was the Man. There he stood in all of his well-dressed glory. He had such magnificent taste. It was a shame he was such an ungodly bastard. “Should’ve covered your tracks more carefully, Moran.”

“I missed you too, the Man.” I managed a smile.

“Yeah, I’m sure you did. That why you kept ditching on us?” And the gun came back around.

“Yeah, about that…” My head was throbbing, and I’m sure I had a few gashes, as I couldn’t see from my right eye from the sticky red veil dripping down over it. “I’m sure I’ve made every payment. Would I be living in that dump if I had the cash on me?”

“You’ve got a point, but you’ve got a past too. Sorry for the hands-on approach, but…” He pulled up a chair and sat down across from me, lighting a cigarette. “Oh, where are my manners. Did you want one?” He proffered the pack, a stick poking up from the top.

“No thanks, I’m cutting back.”

“As you like it.” He tossed it onto the table beside him, propping himself up on an elbow and blowing a few rings in my face. “Now tell me, where’s the cash, huh? I’d hate to have to do something unwholesome to an old friend.” That was the look he had the last time I saw him, back before I became a new man. There were gunshots, there were screams, and there were dead children. The Man…he was not a good man.

“Look, the Man, the reason I stopped making payments was because they stopped making their way to you.” I had to get out of this. “That guy, Wran. I had been making my payments through him, but every time I’d give him the cash he’d come calling a few days later saying I’d run him a bit short. Before I broke it off I’m sure I lost a good ten thousand or so to him.” I was pretty adept at buck-passing. “If you’re after your money, you should check with him.”

“Oh no, don’t worry about Wran. He’s been well taken care of. What hurts me…” Here he stood up to walk behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. “What hurts me is that you didn’t come to your old pal, the Man, about all this. I’m sure we could have worked something out, you know? It’s a shame, really.” His grip tightened uncomfortably and I heard something pop.

“Yeah, real shame.” I was wincing obviously, but it didn’t really matter. The pain had numbed some in my head, which was nice, but I was feeling a bit light-headed. “Look, isn’t there some way I can make it up to you?”

“Funny you should ask.” It was not going to be pleasant.

*******************

I was right. It was not Pleasant. It wasn’t even in sight of Pleasant. If the sun were Pleasant, this place would be something on the exact opposite end of the galaxy. Under a rock. The smell was ungodly and I couldn’t do anything to cut it. Not to mention the heavy sack. Wran wasn’t exactly what you would call a small man.

As I hauled his dissected carcass through the darkened docks, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had let myself get into this mess. It wasn’t all Wran’s fault, really. He was just a greedy bastard with a coke habit. Judging by the bits I could see, he’d had one blow too many. But it was before all that, back when I had been someone different. I hate to admit it, but I have a taste for excitement, and nothing was more exciting than wagering my own money on high stakes events. The only trouble was when I started using other people’s money. That’s how I met the Man. He offered me fixes and fortunes, and all I had to do was get my hands dirty. It had seemed a good idea at the time.

“Hold it, who’s there?” And there went the reverie. A man came walking out from behind one of the crates outside the processing warehouse.

“It’s Moran. I’m here with a delivery from the Man.”

“Moran? Where the hell have you been?” It was Whit. We went a good ways back. He didn’t look too bad, considering the last time I saw him was at a shootout between him and some crooked cops trying to get in the papers.

“You know, here and there. Looks like Wran’s a bit worse for the wear, though.” I dropped the sack at his feet, the assorted parts jostling.

“Yeah, heard about that.” He squinted at me through his thick glasses, scratching his chin. “You look like hell, Moran.”

“Thanks, Whit. I appreciate it. Now, you gonna help me with him or am I going to have to call the Man and get him to come out here and do it for us?” That got him moving.

“Naw, we don’t need to be getting him. This isn’t the kind of work the Man needs to be doing.”

Together we dragged the bag around the back of the place, loading it into one of the spare crates. “Where is this going to end up, exactly?” I just had to know.

“You see that factory over there?” He pointed across the way at a low building I could hardly make out in the dim light. “Dog food place. I got another gig running there. I can’t tell you how many deadbeats have ended up in tight little piles on someone’s fancy lawn.” Whit grinned at me, with a wink. “Lucky thing it was Wran and not you. Heard you ducked out on the Man a while back.”

“Well, seems like we have that all straightened out, don’t it?” I clapped him on the back, and then quickly wiped my hand off on my jeans. “Look, I need to be going now. But you, uhm, you keep in touch or something.” With that, I turned and started hurrying back to the waiting car.

“Oh! Moran!” I stopped and turned back, indicating my hurry with a few taps on my watch. “Won’t take a minute!” Whit jogged over and grabbed my hand, slapping a sizeable wad of cash into it. “From before, remember? That nest egg we had going? It hatched. See you later, bro.” He winked at me again and hurried back to the crate.

Whit owed me. I had saved his ass at my safe house one too many times for him to shirk on our agreement. I tucked the cash into the extra pocket I had sewn on the inside of my pants and got back to the car, just as Weaselface was crushing a cigarette under his heel.

“It’s about time, Mister Anonymous. I’ll have to ask that you keep the window rolled down on the way back to see the Man. And wipe your feet.”

It was then that the shots rang out, flying within inches of my face. One of the larger men went down, I think it was Reginald…I didn’t really pay too much attention as we all hurriedly piled into the car. It was in gear and speeding out of the dockyard before the doors were shut, chased by the ricochet of bullets hitting the car and blowing out the rear window. It was a nice setup.

I thought we were in the clear when we made it back to the main road, but that’s when the other car made its entrance. We were just passing by the first light before the turn off to the Man’s place when they started firing at us again. I was curled up on the floor in the back, hands over my head. Weaselface was hunched over in the front passenger seat, and the remaining thug was deftly steering us out of harm’s way. Then the tires blew out. We were in trouble.

That’s why, at the first red light, I bailed. I hurled myself out of the door and rolled, surely breaking something important, into a side alley. I wasn’t too sure where I was going, but I was sure it was better than where I had been headed. The cars sped off behind me, and I’m pretty sure there were some more gunshots before I heard the unmistakable sound of a stoppable forcing meeting an immovable object. But that wasn’t at the top of my priorities. I knew I had to tell Mandragora to get out of the place, because I was sure that would be the first place those bastards would think to check.

Right across the street was the café, and in that café I knew there was a payphone. Whether or not it was still in service was something I didn’t have an option about. I didn’t often think much of fate, but it was then that I was feeling some sort of divine force ushering me along.

The whole area was roped off, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around so I let myself in. The place stank of burning and stale water – a pleasant combination. There I was, squelching through the cindermuck, and trying to find the phones in all the torn down muck. Luckily, most of the damage had been to the front of the place and the way to the back was mostly unobstructed. Even luckier was the fact that the phone was only mostly melted, and I’d take mostly over fully any day. With mostly, there’s still a chance.

As gingerly as I could I lifted the warped receiver to my ear, grateful for the working, if not warbling, dial-tone. I had just punched in my apartment number when a car pulled up, headlights blazing, and just idled there. I was trapped. That fear that had been dancing around my heart now started to beat on it in a rather uncomfortable rhythm. I ducked quickly, leaving the receiver dangling by my face. There were times when mostly counted. Being mostly followed was not one of them.

The car just sat there, engine growling, not going anywhere. I was sure they had seen me. I was the only thing still standing in the place, so I’m sure I stuck out terribly. Frozen in place I couldn’t will my legs to move, and my throat was too tight to answer the faint voice whispering out of the receiver. She was a breath away. Outside, a door slammed and the lights went out. It was time to move.

I hurriedly cut the line on the phone with my handy multi-tool (better to have and not need) and crawled through the muck to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Inside I stood up and was confronted with two choices: bust out the window and risk the noise giving away my escape, or stick around in the only place there was to hide in the place, unarmed. Alright, it wasn’t much of a choice, but it was a spectacular crash when I flung the conveniently solid trash bin through the window before making my way out behind it.

I scraped a nice jagged line down my side, courtesy of a pane of leftover glass, and landed in a pile of god-only-knows and surely disturbing a number of rat nests. Rats be damned as I somersaulted into a run. All in all I considered it a success. Though I smelled like a sooty garbage man, and looked like an escaped, bleeding lunatic, I was, for the moment, alive.

That counted for quite a great deal, but would be meaningless if I didn’t get to Mandragora in time. Luckily for me, people walking along at night talking on their cell phones recover a bit more slowly than the time it takes to get out of sight after you grab it at a dead sprint. Tripping over the sidewalk with one eye on the touchpad I hastily dialed home again, twisting my ankle quite soundly in the process, and shading the air a light blue.

“Well ‘Hi’ to you too.”

“Mandragora? Are you alright?” Hesitant relief coursed through me, temporarily numbing the screaming pain in my side.

“I’m fine. But where are you? The delivery guy said he saw some muscle putting you in a car?” She sounded worried. Worried, but also not bound and gagged.

“Look, don’t worry about that right now.” It’s hard to sound reassuring when you’re out of breath and trying not to bite your tongue as you run. “What I need you to do is grab your purse and whatever cash you’ve got and get out the apartment. Hide out of sight somewhere for a bit. I’ll find you.”

“What’s this all about? Is it the Man you’ve talked about?” Fear was creeping in.

“Just please get out now. I’m on my way.”

“Okay, okay. I love you, you Crazy Boy.”

“I love you too, Mandragora.”

The honking of a horn had me lunging into the nearest side alley and into the back of a truck just large enough to stop anything getting past it. I scrambled up the back as best I could before a shot rang out, stopping that thought. The Man stepped into view, his favourite .40 S&W in hand.

“That wasn’t very nice of you to run off again, Moran.” He fingered the trigger, aiming at my leg. “I think you should come on back.”

“Well, see the thing about that is…” and here’s where the brain stopped. In one blurred, terrified motion I threw the phone at him and ran straight ahead, a bullet grazing my inner thigh, much too high for comfort. I ran hard. I ran like a man runs from another man with a gun and the desire to use it. Another shot and fire ran through my right arm. I staggered and kept running, every move a catastrophe of pain. Anything was better than standing in front of a firing squad.

But I’m a former smoker. Smokers can’t run very long, and the recently reformed only slightly more so. A reformed smoker with a few bullet holes and a rapidly tearing cut in his side can make it about three blocks before he collapses out of sight into a side alley with a heaven-sent dumpster. At least I was close to home. So damned close. I prayed with all my heathen heart that Mandragora had made it out alright.

The car raced past me and screeched to a stop in front of the apartment building, the Man and a few others pouring out and racing in. I was still trying to catch my breath when a hand took hold of the back of my neck and something unpleasant was pushed into the small of my back.

“Boo.”

I laughed and spun around, knocking her into the wall as I fell against her. “Please don’t ever do that to me. I don’t think my heart is built for it.”

She gasped when she got a good look at me. I had forgotten about the pistol whipping. “What the hell happened to you?” She reached out and touched one of the swollen gashes, making me wince. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry.” She kissed me on the cheek, and then looked at me sternly. “So, where’s my explanation? And why do you smell like a burnt garbage man?”

I scanned the area for any movement but the men seemed to be busy from the sounds of an apartment being wrecked coming from a fifth story window. Quickly, I moved to the car and ushered my woman in before hopping in the driver’s side and tearing open the panel in an attempt at hotwiring the thing.

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about? Whose car is this?”

“It’s the Man’s car, baby. Almost got it…” The car started beautifully and I went to shift it into gear just as shots rang out again. A few bullets tore through the roof sending me under the steering column for cover. We’d been spotted from above. That’s about when the shots came from beside me, followed by a muffled scream. I looked over at Mandragora, shocked.

“What?” She tried her best to look innocent, the Luger smoking in her hand. “A girl has the right to keep safe. Besides, it’s your gun.”

I couldn’t help laughing as I floored it away from the apartments, heading toward a safe hospital not too far away. My leg hurt like hell, my shoulder was growing uncomfortably numb, my face was throbbing, and I smelled like shit. However, I was in the black again, and that’s all that really mattered.

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