The dark fog slowly faded and Malloy found himself lying on his back staring up at the ceiling of a pale room that had sea foam green walls and beige trim, with the air overwhelmingly scented of antiseptic. Intense pain radiated on the left side of his face and right shoulder; when he tried to speak he found it hard to move, even his body was stiff.
With the numbness of the painkiller wearing off, Malloy's mind slowly cleared and he cringed at the thought of the last job he had, not being the best he encountered. He had his share when riding with Johnston, but never to the point where someone would willingly try to break his face.
"A busted jaw ain't nothin', Kid," said Nick when he came to visit earlier.
"Does it have to be this hard?" Malloy thought, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.
In the early evening, Malloy leaned against Johnston's dark sedan with the tinted windows, picking his nails. He looked up at the mid-sized house crafted of concrete across the street with reddish-brown terracotta tiles lining the roof. Its large panel windows were covered by heavy dark drapery that obscured the house's interior.
"Are you sure he's home?" Malloy complained as Johnston rummaged through the backseat, searching for a weapon to use. "Why did Mister Nick say to bust this guy below the neck? I don't get it..." Moments later, Malloy spotted a young man in a bright blue windbreaker, gray hooded sweatshirt and black jeans jumping the fence from the rear of the yard and race down the street. "There he goes!" he shouted and Johnston grunted when his head struck the ceiling. Malloy took off for the road, keeping his target in his sights. He heard the roar of the engine and Johnston sped up beside him. Malloy grabbed for the open door once Johnston slowed his pace and jumped inside the side passenger then grabbed for the wrist-bound slingshot tucked on the dashboard next to a satchel. Strapping it on as Johnston floored the engine, they caught up to the man in the blue windbreaker. Malloy reached for the satchel that rattled and withdrew a smooth river-polished stone, loaded the slingshot and released the stone, striking the young man squarely in the back. He let out a cry and quickly struck the ground. Johnston slowed and Malloy stepped out to walk up to the young man that twitched. "Um, are you okay?" he asked timidly.
"What kinda question is that?" the man moaned from his place on the ground. Malloy stepped on the young man's back as Johnston came around in the car and exited moments later, approaching Malloy with an aluminum bat in hand. "What you guys want with me?"
"I'm afraid you already know," said Malloy as Johnston reached into his rear pocket and withdrew a sheet of folded paper. Handing it over to Malloy, he nodded and shook it open and read its contents before clearing his throat. "Now I see what Nick meant," Malloy thought as he scanned the various charges. "He cares too much about his skill to mess it up."
"Well?" the young man snapped. "You gonna stand there are what?"
"Sir, you owe Mister Nick fifteen hundred dollars," Malloy announced, "He's willing to give you a week from the day we contact you time to pay."
"What if I don't pay up in a week?" the client grumbled. Johnston waved Malloy back and he stepped rearward, watching in horror when Johnston smashed the bat into the client's leg. The man screamed as Johnston gave several more whacks then calmly returned for the car. Malloy ran after him, trying not to hurl. Johnston tossed the bat in the rear seat and started the sedan.
"What if someone saw you?" Malloy cried as he yanked off the slingshot and chucked it on the dashboard. Johnston shrugged and shifted gears, then pulled away.
Malloy felt nervous once Johnston pulled up to the apartment complex.
"Um, so you're not going back to Mister Nick's?" Malloy asked. Johnston nodded and exited the car. Malloy stepped out and headed up the stairs, becoming increasingly uncomfortable when Johnston grabbed a small duffel bag from the trunk and followed him. Upon entry, Malloy pulled out of his jacket and tossed it in the nearby chair near the door then headed for the parlor windows. He drew the shades as Johnston entered moments after him and shut the door. Setting his bag in the chair, Johnston approached Malloy and tapped him on the shoulder. "W-what is it?" Malloy asked weakly. He turned around and Johnston grinned holding up a deck of playing cards. "Sure, why not?" Malloy said in relief. "Do you know how to play Pinochle?"
After playing several hands of cards at Malloy's kitchen table over coffee under the pale yellow light of the single exposed bulb that hung over them, the telephone rang and Malloy set down his cards.
"No cheating!" Malloy said and Johnston snorted. Entering the parlor Malloy picked up the receiver near the chair situated next to the window. "Hello?" he answered.
"So how's progress?" Nick said from the other end of the line.
"Nothing yet," Malloy said nervously. "We're working hard on it, honestly!"
"Did you break the bastard's legs?"
"Get up there and finish the damn job!"
"But he's got a week, right?"
"Yeah... Yeah, he does." The line suddenly cut off and Malloy looked at the receiver in disbelief.
"What was that all about?" he grumbled. Putting the handset back on the cradle, Malloy returned to the kitchen to find Johnston preparing another cup of coffee at the stove. He frowned and took his seat at the table, scooping up his hand. "It's your go," said Malloy as he discarded and picked up another card from the deck. Johnston returned to his seat, sipping his drink. He grabbed his cards and rearranged his hand, then set it on the table with a triumphant smile on his face. Malloy looked over and burst out laughing. "That's great if we were playing Gin Rummy!" Johnston scowled and huddled over his drink as Malloy grabbed the cards to reshuffle and deal.
After several hours of playing, Malloy retired to bed, only to awaken later when he felt something poking him in the back. He grunted as he snapped to attention and sat up, facing Johnston standing over him wearing black jeans, navy t-shirt and black windbreaker with a dark brown driving cap over his sandy-red hair. He motioned at Malloy to get up and gestured to his silver wristwatch. Malloy groaned and glanced at his alarm clock to see the red digits read 1:30 am.
"Do you ever sleep?" Malloy complained as he left his bed and staggered after Johnston that headed out the door.
Johnston pulled up in front of Mercy General Hospital and motioned to Malloy to stay in his seat. He exited the car and withdrew a pair of black leather gloves from his jacket pocket. Pulling them over his thin bony hands, Johnston waved at Malloy and headed up to the front entrance of the hospital. Moments later the young man they assaulted earlier exited the double glass doors on crutches with one leg in a cast. Malloy watched in horror as Johnston kicked one crutch away and caught it as the client fell over, stunned. He then kicked the other crutch away and proceeded to slam the crutch he held into the client's good leg. The young man screamed as Johnston beat him brutally.
A security officer ran out the hospital moments later and Johnston deftly swung the crutch around, knocking the pistol she held in hand several yards away. He slammed the broad end of the crutch to her throat and pinned her against the wall. The woman kicked Johnston back and Johnston expertly sidestepped her attack, letting the crutch fall to the ground. He put up his hands and backed away as the security officer reached for her radio. Johnston swiftly grabbed for arm and wrestled her to the ground. Gaining the radio, he chucked it across the street into traffic and let her go, hustling for the car. Malloy bit his fist when Johnston calmly drove away.
Back at the apartment, Malloy heard his phone ring once he put his keys in the door. He groaned once he entered and stomped up to the parlor table and picked up the receiver.
"Sorry," Malloy muttered without greeting.
"Is that all you gotta say?" Nick screamed. "I'm dockin' yer pay for makin' a scene like that!"
"I wasn't me, I swear!" Malloy cried. "I didn't do that!"
"Like Johnny would do stupid shit like that!" Nick banged the receiver, forcing static over the line. "Do you know how much dough I gotta cough up to pay off dem goons?" Nick's tinny voice screeched. "I don't like having the heat on! It's bad for business!" The line cut off with a slam. Malloy moaned and dropped the handset.
"Damn it! why me? Why do you all hate me?" He heard a cough and whirled around to face Johnston that stood at the kitchen doorway with another mug of coffee in hand. "This is your fault!" Malloy shouted and stormed for his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
The next morning, Malloy rose to the scent of coffee brewing. He moaned and sat up in bed, then screamed when he saw Johnston standing in his doorway with a mug in hand.
"Why are you still here?" he cried. Johnston tapped at his watch and stepped out the door. Malloy punched at his mattress, unable to say anything in return.
Once showered and dressed in clean clothes, Malloy downed a cup of coffee, glaring at Johnston that smiled warmly at him. He pet Malloy on the head as he scooped up his keys and headed out the door, humming a cheerful tune.
After making their rounds of collections, once the sun set in the sky, Johnston drove to the client's house that had concrete walls and terracotta roof tiles. Malloy grabbed for the aluminum bat while Johnston had the bloodstained wooden one and they both marched up the porch steps. Johnston buzzed the doorbell and they waited as the lights turned on.
"Coming," the young man called. The door opened revealing the client in a wheelchair. He screamed at the sight of them and Johnston kicked the door open as the man quickly wheeled backwards. "You said you were giving me a week to pay!" he cried as Malloy stepped indoors.
"I know," Malloy replied, "but my boss wanted to make sure you don't neglect despite the hospital bills and all." Johnston shut the door behind them as Malloy continued after the man until he hit the wall on the other side of the room. Malloy pressed the baseball bat against the man's chest and he held up his hands in surrender. Johnston calmly stepped up to them, tapping the bat in hand.
"If you bust up my face, then what's the point of me paying?" the man screeched.
"That's why Mister Nick said to keep it below the neck." The client screamed when Johnston slammed his bat into his arm, immediately forcing it lame. Malloy pointed the bat in his face and pressed the end against his nose. "Please don't scream," he said gently. "Mister Nick is already pissed with me for paying off cops. It's coming out of my pay and I really need to keep my lights on."
"It fucking hurts when you're smashing my arm like that!" the man wailed.
"Then bite on something." Johnston went through his pockets and withdrew a handkerchief. Handing it to Malloy, he balled it up and jammed it into the client's mouth and Johnston gave another heavy slam with his bat. Malloy backed away and lowered his bat as Johnston set the wooden one over his shoulder. He took out the handkerchief and shook it out, then wiped at the man's eyes. Johnston pet the client on the head and dropped the cloth on the floor, then stalked out the room. Malloy swallowed hard and gave a feeble wave, then took off running for the door. Johnston hummed and drummed his fingers along the steering wheel as Malloy chucked the bat in the rear seat and slammed the door, shaking. "You sick bastard!" Malloy thought as Johnston pulled away.
Back at the apartment, Malloy played cards with Johnston over coffee, passing the time. Later after dozing off at the table and Johnston took a nap on the couch, the telephone's ring roused Malloy and he grunted once he staggered to his feet and stumbled into the parlor. He saw Johnston with the phone in hand, listening intently. Hanging up the line, he motioned for Malloy to follow and Malloy groaned as he grabbed for his hat and keys.
"Why can't we just steal something?" Malloy protested as Johnston drove for the hospital. Johnston parked in front of the hospital and stepped out to put his fingers in his mouth, blowing a loud whistle. He waved and jogged across the lot as Malloy stepped out, watching a taxicab pull up to Johnston. Approaching closer as Johnston withdrew his wallet and paid for fare and Malloy heard protesting as the trunk popped open. Malloy went around and withdrew the wheelchair folded within, setting it on the ground as Johnston grabbed for the young man that had both legs and one arm in a cast, hoisting him over his shoulder.
"Yo, the guy don't wanna go with yas," the cab driver said, leaning out his window.
"He's not fancying the idea of male nurses," Malloy said quickly as Johnston dropped him in the chair. "Now, Sir, don't be a hater! We're trying to help you here!"
"Please, don't leave me with these guys!" the client wailed.
"Whatever," the cab driver grumbled. "I got my fare." He drove away and Johnston grabbed the young man by the face, clutching hard.
"Now look, I don't like doing this," Malloy said sadly. "Mister Nick is blowing up my phone wanting to make sure you're good on your money."
"I said I was gonna pay!" the client squawked. "What the hell? You give me a week and each day you bust my ass!"
"It's part of my job..."
"So you keep this up and I might not be able to pay!"
"I'll let him know." Johnston let the young man go and motioned Malloy to come closer. Malloy did as told and Johnston pointed to the back of the wheelchair. Malloy held onto it as Johnston leaned into the seat with his knee on the arm rest. Taking his good arm, he held it in a firm grip and gave a slight twist. The client gasped.
"Please don't break my other arm!"
"If you don't scream, then we won't."
"Okay!" Johnston snorted and let go, then took off his hat and shoved it in the man's mouth. Malloy reached forward, wrapping an arm around the man's face as Johnston grabbed the client's arm and swiftly pulled the shoulder out of socket, then rammed it against his knee, forcing it to snap. Malloy paled as the client's muffled screams rang in his ears. Johnston nodded to Malloy as he let go and Malloy released his hold. Grabbing for his hat, Johnston waved Malloy back and Malloy let go of the wheelchair. Johnston took it in hand and turned the chair around, then kicked it forward, sending it rolling down the parking lot. The man screamed as he careened out onto the street and cars honked at him as they swerved out the way. Malloy cringed as he followed Johnston back for the car.
"Same time tomorrow?" Malloy said weakly and Johnston grinned.
Later that night, Malloy tossed in bed and eventually sat up, too disturbed to sleep. He padded into the parlor where Johnston dozed on the couch. Malloy sank into the chair facing the window and glanced at Johnston that snored softly.
"For a mute guy," he murmured, "you can be so scary!"
Hours later, the telephone rang and Malloy picked it up.
"Yes?" he answered.
"Get your asses to Mercy General now," Nick commanded. "That bum that owes me money is gonna get discharged!"
"But Mister Nick," Malloy protested, "There isn't anywhere else we can break him! If we bust his ribs it might kill him!"
"Tell him if he pays the fifteen grand owed me, I'll knock off his hospital fees."
"I'll tell him straight away." Malloy hung up the line and shook Johnston awake. "We gotta get going," he said. "That guy's about to get released." Johnston sleepily nodded and yawned as he sat up, rubbing at his eyes. Malloy left the apartment and headed for the car parked downstairs, waiting for Johnston.
At the hospital, Malloy spotted the client being wheeled out the door by a slender female nurse in a crisp white uniform that had pale short blond hair. The young man appeared agitated with casts on both his arms and legs. Malloy exited the car and approached offside, waving hesitantly.
"Yes?" asked the nurse.
"You son of a bitch!" the young man screamed. "If I wasn't all broken up, I'd kick your ass!"
"Er, your patient owes Mister Nick some money," answered Malloy, "and I'm here to collect it."
"It's clear he's unable to pay," replied the nurse. "He's been in several terrible accidents, especially last night!"
"Well, Miss Nurse, it's because he's refused to pay us."
"Mister Nick said if he paid the fifteen grand up front without interest, he'd clear the hospital fees."
"What if I came up with the money?" Malloy's jaw dropped open.
"You can't be serious!" he cried, astonished. Johnston approached the group with brass knuckles over his large bony hands. Malloy glanced to Johnston and he shrugged in response. Malloy chuckled. "Well, I guess you paying his debts shouldn't be trouble."
"In exchange, I want this Mister Nick of yours to pay his medical bills he's accumulated since you two started harassing him and cover his treatment afterwards until he recovers." Malloy shook his head.
"I don't think he'd go for that, Miss Nurse."
"What if I offered to be his private nurse?" Johnston suddenly made a choking sound.
"Do you think he'd go for that?" Malloy asked as Johnston turned away, coughing and gasping for breath. He waved Malloy away and headed back for his car. Malloy shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I guess you can come along. He didn't say 'no'." The nurse wheeled the cast-bound young man across the lot to Johnston's vehicle that had the trunk open. Johnston grunted as he cleared the weaponry from the rear seat and dumped them all in the trunk. Shutting it with a slam, Johnston stomped for the driver's side as Malloy helped the nurse get the client in the rear seat. After they got in, Johnston revved the engine and threw the car in gear, peeling away from the lot.
At the nondescript office building, Malloy cringed outside the door as Johnston leaned against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, listening to Nick argue with the woman.
"Who the hell do you think you are saying that to me, huh?" Nick bellowed. "I ain't believing your shit till I get my goddamn money, or I'm sending this broad to smash in your fucking head!"
"Get Mister Nick his money in an hour," Marta's voice threatened from the other side, "or you're dead!" The office door slammed open and the nurse stalked out, red in the face. Malloy entered cautiously and stood in front of Nick's desk as he smoked hard on his cigarette, brewing. Marta stood behind his chair, clutching her snub-nosed revolver in hand.
"I don't even wanna look at ya," Nick grumbled. "What the fuck is wrong with you today, huh?"
"I--" Malloy shrugged his head and looked down at the floor. "Nothing, I guess."
"Apparently something is!" Nick spat. "Johnny says you're getting too soft on these bastards these days. He's doing all the work!"
"He freaks me out!" Malloy cried. "I just can't do it! It's not in my nature!"
"This broad can beat some goon with her eyes closed," Nick growled. "How hard is it to bust some chump upside the head, huh?"
"Well...!" Malloy felt a tap on the shoulder and looked up and sudden crushing pain slammed into his face, forcing him corkscrewed onto the floor from a hard right hook. He struck the floor on his shoulder and he groaned as he turned onto his back, stunned as instant agony ravaged through him. Malloy cried out as saw Johnston standing over him with bloodied brass knuckles over his hand surrounding in a red ring of light before everything faded.
Malloy felt a tap on his shoulder and he slowly roused, facing the mysterious nurse that agreed to pay Nick his money. She held a black briefcase in hand.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Groggy," Malloy murmured.
"You must be sensitive to painkillers."
"I have the money for your boss, so you should be okay soon."
"Thanks, I suppose?"
"Don't thank me."
"Why not?" The nurse placed the briefcase on the nearby bedside table and snapped the case open, revealing several stacks of bills and sheets of typed papers.
"You said that it was okay to buy against your policy so that the client wouldn't have an unfortunate accident."
"My policy's not worth beans!" Malloy cried, sitting up. "I can get three hundred off it, or maybe get at best six!" The mysterious nurse withdrew the papers and handed them over to Malloy. He took it in hand and read the documents, stunned to find his signature signed in the marked fields.
"It seems that you're worth a lot more than that." She said darkly. "Thank you for working with us."
"This can't be happening!" Malloy cried. "I didn't sign this!"
"But that is your handwriting, true?"
"So you've no complaints." The woman snatched the documentation away and placed them in the case, shutting it with a click. "Once you're released, I'll meet you again." Malloy watched her leave in stunned silence.
"What just happened here?" he thought. "Did she do something when I was doped up?" Malloy struck his palms against his head. "Think, stupid!" He felt ill at ease when he realized he could not recall anything. Malloy glared up at the ceiling. "What are you doing to me?" he yelled.
Once Malloy was given the clearance to go home from the doctors, after gaining his discharge papers and a bottle of painkillers, Malloy grunted as he entered the lobby and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the nurse in the waiting room standing at the magazine racks. She smiled and waved at him.
"You're feeling better!" she said brightly. "That's good!"
"I still can't talk very much," Malloy murmured. "It hurts to talk..."
"Well, your insurance is insufficient to cover the broken jaw and you'll have to pay out of pocket," the nurse explained. "All it will pay for is teeth extraction."
"My insurance is shit..."
"No worries... I'll take good care of you."
"Well, can I at least get a name?"
"Cassandra." Malloy nodded and followed Cassandra outdoors. She approached a silver sedan that waited in the patient pick-up lane and she opened the door for him. Upon entry, Malloy ducked in and saw a young man with long red hair wearing a tan fedora and matching boots, shirt and suit sitting on the other side.
"Well, hello!" he said brightly.
"Hi..." Malloy said nervously as he sat beside him and Cassandra shut the door, then entered the front passenger seat. Malloy glanced at the driver that wore a dark brown suit and open collared shirt. He wore dark glasses and had shoulder-length black hair. He sat rigidly, appearing uncomfortable despite his stony exterior.
"Please take us to visit Mother," the red-headed young man said. "We've got a lot to talk about!" The driver silently shifted gears and pulled away from the lot.
"Who are you?" Malloy asked nervously.
"I'm Reginald," the young man said brightly and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, squeezing Malloy tightly. "We're going to be the best of pals, I'm sure!"
"Um, if you say so."
"Cousin Cassandra, what do you think he'll be worth to us?"
"We'll see if he can pass the test first."
"Oh, you'll see. It'll be fun, fun, fun!" Malloy cringed when given another hard squeeze.
After a long drive, Reginald glanced at his watch and tapped the driver on the shoulder.
"Stop here," he said. "I need to test something." The driver broke out in cold sweat as he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. "Come with me, will you?" Reginald stepped out the car and the driver did the same. Reginald tapped at the window. "You too!"
"Me?" Malloy asked, surprised.
"Yes!" Malloy swallowed hard and also clamored out. He quickly put up his hands when Reginald pointed a pistol at him. "Hey, what's that for?"
"This is to kill with, silly!" Reginald said brightly. "You act like you've never had one pulled on you!"
"I don't like it," Malloy wailed. "I don't like guns at all!"
"How can you be an enforcer and you don't like guns?"
"I just beat people with stuff, like with bats and pipes, you know?"
"Then beat him." Malloy's mouth gaped open as the driver stiffened.
"You can't be serious!"
"Then I'll beat you."
"It wouldn't be the first!"
"Oh, you're no fun at all!" Malloy's ears rang when the loud discharge banged around them and he staggered back as sudden pain ripped through his chest. He looked down to see a growing bloodstain spreading on the front of his shirt.
"You see, you're worthless alive," Reginald said gently. "Your boss doesn't care about you at all. All he cares about is money." Malloy found it hard to speak as Reginald fired again. The searing ache overwhelmed him and the darkness took over.