The chill ocean air tickles at my earlobes, and I stand at attention somehow at peace with life; even through the screams of the man there with me, standing isolated in the centre of the shore that seems to stretch for miles. I pull a cigarette and light it, the bright flame dancing licks between each wind wisp; my first in some time. With a furrow of my brow I watch the smoke leave me and fly off into the distance.
There was once a man behind the maniac, a man not unlike you and I; his mind turned rotten by the cool skeletal hand of reality. The very thing he has lost his grasp on is that which has caused his condition. Irony finds its way through the smallest of cracks.
To paint you a picture of what my eyes show before me, is that of a grown man wearing nothing but a black pair of jeans and the Beretta 9mm in his right hand, pointing it upwards to the heavens and letting out an almighty shriek to the gods that inhabit this far away land. There are two other men with me, but none of us can cease the cruel madness.
I allow my mind to wander through the streams of memory it has created for itself and, piece-by-piece, each knot in the rope that has led us here makes itself clear. What brought three best friends to their knees, battered, bruised and bleeding? Was it love? Or was it hate? It's amusing how often the fine line between the two can release a subtle shudder before vanishing altogether, allowing its two brethren to fuse finally.
Our story is nothing if not a tale of woe. The distant shimmer of the life we shared before disaster struck nothing but a fading haze in the corner of our eyes. A tale of good and evil, and the morality of the road toward. What brought us to this evil place? When did the hatred consume us all? I look around the beach and a single tear forms in my eye before vanishing completely. It's over, I think to myself.
The ocean lays still, the stars glisten above us, and the only thing breaking the peace is the naked gunslinger, frantically grasping at any small strands of sanity the night has left to give. He had once been the sanest of us all.
Irony. Small cracks.
I laugh at the world.
She doesn't laugh back.
POCKET CHANGE & CANDY-BARS
I met the boys on a cold winter morning. Not the kind of cold causing but a mere chill to the scruff of a man's neck, but the type of cold that could freeze hell itself through and through; the type with a bitter wind that could chill the very soul of the man brave enough to challenge it.
They came to me riddled with ambitions of grandeur. I was sceptical at first; for I could have poked a hundred holes in the idea when I heard it, but I didn't; for before me I saw only two young, clueless entrepreneurs whose drive held my tongue.
The idea had originally come from William, the older of the two. A counsellor's son who had given in to his father's impressionable speeches of how a man's mind was not a thing to be wasted. Since celebrating his seventh birthday he had spent three years with his head buried in university level textbooks, with words and concepts far beyond the understanding of any other ordinary boy his age. Long nights spent pasted at his desk, his shoulder overlooked every hour until the chapter was finished, his hatred for his father's expectations hidden behind bleeding eyes.
The two boys could not have been further apart in likeness, for Daniel; who had been forced to fend for himself since his eleventh birthday, had never used his hands for an honest-day's work in his life, unless you count the many items of bric-a-brac he would swipe from store shelves amongst a hard-day's living. His home life was somewhat left-field compared to Will's comfortable 'catalogue' family; his father was a crook of ill-repute, even amongst the company he kept. Making a living off shady-deals and the odd 'touch-up' for a local loan shark. He spent his money on the horses and his time painting his wife with bruises. One day he just never came home, and both mother and child would hide no more, although the damage was done and the mother never found the bottom of the whiskey bottle.
The boys both had parents they despised, and I suppose this is what drew them together initially, on the day I first met them. Daniel was fourteen, William a year older. I had been behind the desk at my store, when I watched Daniel walk in and scour the shelves. Boys of his sort would come and go frequently, trying to lift a chocolate bar or a packet of biscuits, but the moment the item reached their pockets I would be over them. It was important that the young soon-to-be-crooks learned their lessons early, I told myself, especially in a city as enriched with sin such as this; where finding a noble profession became harder and harder for each wrinkle that scarred a man's face.
As I watched and waited for the boy to swipe what he would, William walked into the store with a list for his father. I knew only William by name at that point, Daniel being nothing but a potential liability at the time. If it weren't for my keen eye he possibly would have disappeared within the shelves, another dull ghoul that simply passes beneath my radar until they reach the register, even then their faces and attire would elude me.
None of us had any idea of where our lives would lead from that very moment.
"Hullo Mr. Videl" The boy was always well mannered, and no matter how often I insisted that he dropped the 'mister' he would refuse. We swapped pleasantries before he handed me the list and I looked it over, my eyes shifting upwards every second or so to view Daniel over his shoulders. He had reached the candy section, and I could see his hands itching with delight. Will said something trivial but I missed it, my concentration was abruptly nailed to the door as it swung open and the bell chimed violently. Today marked the day that all four of us met. The two boys, myself and Harry Carter. Dubbed 'The Fox' in his circles due to his sly wit and rich, wiry red hair. Though he was a larger man, the type whose waist bowled over the cut of their pants like too much dough crammed in a jar, he was known to move quickly when needed, and more often than not unheard. Quick as….well, as a fox. Mr Carter was the owner of a number of nightspots in the city, and the figurehead of almost all that was wrong with it. Seated on his handcrafted throne on the top level of the 'Shadow Lounge', the largest nightclub the city had ever seen; Harry Carter was the devil reincarnate. A large iron thorn in the city's side, he dipped his greasy fingers in every nook it could find shelter. His nightclub itself, a seedy den of sin filled with yuppies drooling over short-skirted girls with even shorter morals. Always accompanying him, he had his right-hand man Archibald Crisp, 'The Weasel', and today was no exception. The moment I saw the two of them enter my heart sank.
I quickly whispered a warning to William and told him to go to the back of the store and my mind forgot about Daniel altogether. Leaving the Weasel to lock the door and hang the 'closed' sign, Carter made his way to the counter, tapping dramatically at his timepiece.
"Looks to be about that time Marko". He unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them to his elbow, revealing a foot-long scar up his left forearm. Hundreds of stories as to its existence circulated, though I'd bet a year's wage if a single one of were true.
"Not in front of them Harry", I suggested, tilting my head towards the boys and staring daggers at the man.
His stood there motionless with a blank look on his face, though I noticed a slight quiver in the corner of his lip.
"Harry this isn't something for children to…" I say, quickly looking to the corner at the children.
"Five weeks I gave you. Seven you've had. My kindness can only stretch so far".
I felt a line of sweat form rapidly on my brow and the anxiety kicked in. "Harry please, if you'll just give me more time…"
He let out a haughty chuckle, partially manic, and shook his head.
"You hear that Archie? I'm not quite certain I heard the man but it seems he wants more time".
The Weasel moved in closer behind his boss and stared at me, smiling. "Don't we all?" I immediately knew that there was no reasoning with the man, and that my luck had simply run out. I turned my efforts to silent prayer. Lord, deliver me from evil. Deliver me from the Devil himself.
I watched as The Fox pulled a golf club from the rack and inspected it closely.
"I can give a man many things Mr Videl", he said, his throat shuffling vigorously before he spat on the ground. "But time is not one of them".
I knew what was coming next, but I never dropped my gaze.
Never lost composure.
* * *
When it was all over and done with I was lying in a pool of my own blood; my body broken in most places. I could feel an immense pressure around my forehead and was fairly certain that my nose had been broken several times. To rough up a man's body is to send him a message, but to break his face is the mark of a message for others. I was to be put on display, a disheartened lesson for any other pockets lined with the Fox's gold to see. God how I hurt.
The items from the shelves littered the store floor, most of their stock smashed and useless. The boys were huddled in a corner crying yet unharmed. As he walked out the door, Harry Carter turned to me and spat yet again, this time landing one square on my chin. "Seven days Videl".
When the Fox and Weasel had left, I called the boys over to help me up. I wrapped my arms around their shoulders; wincing at the agony the simple movement caused me, and comforted them. William asked after my wounds, though I waved him off with a scoff and let pride get the better of me. I winced sharply through the pain and told them to fetch the broom from behind the counter.
The three of us spent an hour cleaning the store, and when we were finished it looked terrible, though none of us cared much in the end. I gave the boys free rein to take home whatever they could fit in their bags, and told them sternly not to mention this to anybody. Before they left me to my wounds I grabbed William and gestured towards Daniel. "There's good in that one. I can feel it. Can you feel it William?", I asked, more a statement than an actual question, and I feel that even at such a young age, where the mind is still learning the ways of the world, he did.
* * *
Five days passed and I had managed to rustle up enough cash to satisfy the Fox's greedy hands. It wasn't at all easy, but, as my Maria would say; "Where there is a will, there is a way". I would then screw my nose up and poke my tongue out at her, to which she would give an embarrassed laugh and ask how she ever fell in love with a face like mine. It was the little things, as it were, that I missed about her, much as any man who has loved and lost does.
I saw a lot more of the boys since the day I was beaten within an inch of my life. They would come by each day; William after school, and Daniel after his misadventures about the city. Both would help around the store for pocket change and candy-bars. Short on cash I was only too happy for any help I could get.
It was nice to see the boys getting along so well, and Daniel had found an honest way to make money, which I felt was a productive lesson to work into the spongious mind of a troubled child. It also kept William away from his father's heightened expectations and he seemed happier because of it. Wherever possible I would guide them in the right direction with little specks of wisdom that I felt was beneficial to their growth as informed members of society. They would often come to me riddled with questions of girls and life, to which I would return with the sort of advice a father would give his sons.
They never asked me about Harry Carter and I never brought it up. The truth was that I was not proud of the reason I owed, nor is it important. What was important was the fact that the boys learnt a very powerful lesson that day, or so I had thought. The lesson I wanted them to learn was that you always pay your debts, and I believe that William understood that, however it seemed that Daniel chose to take a different lesson to heart. I fear that his lesson was that powerful men made powerful things happen.
A large piece of me always feared for Daniel and the sort of man he would become, although my fear seemed for naught as he grew into a fine young man.
The happy days made a turn for the worse a year later; when the police discovered a body stuffed inside a petrol drum in the river. The story was plastered on every newsstand on every corner and it wasn't long after the media bang that detectives arrived at the store to speak to Daniel.
I wrapped the boy in my arms as he cried for his father; tears of expectation more than hurt. After twenty minutes the faucet switched off and he went about his duties without a care in the world. The hatred he held for the man replacing any feelings of sadness or regret that he might have had.
* * *
I watched them both grow up together into young men and when the time came for them to leave my little shop it hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. William had, much to his father's delight, been accepted into a law degree at a university out of town. Daniel had found a full-time position as a construction worker across town.
They were boys no more, and over the next two years I saw and heard very little of them both, which saddened me deeply, as I had grown rather fond of them over the years. My shop began to feel smaller and emptier as the days passed, each morning seeming peculiarly identical to the one prior; my own personal Groundhog Day.
My life continued on much the same way it had before I met them; the dull life I had strived for. I was only a few years away from an early retirement and was quite looking forward to finally giving in to the talk of 'prime real estate' and selling the gold mine I worked in before kicking back with a cocktail in hand on some far away beach. I could almost smell the ocean.
Scary thought that I ended up at an ocean; though not in the way I pictured it in my head.
Any dreams of a peaceful life of solitude came to an abrupt end two years after the boys left me. Business was poor; the offers for the shop dwindled and then disappeared altogether. Money became harder and harder to find, until I was left no choice but to return to The Fox.
It was mid-morning and the streets that buzzed when the sun stooped below the horizon were now filled with commuters shopping in the tiny stores before they would hide themselves, caged and barred from the night-owls and sketchy folk that would pour in from the surrounding suburbs, in search of booze, broads and a way to forget their lives.
The infamous 'Shadow Lounge' loomed before me. It's large red dragon shaped as the 'S' casting a mean shadow over the stained pavement of the street.
You could almost taste the sin.
The Weasel was waiting at the door in a white dress shirt with rolled up sleeves tucked into a pair of Italian suit-pants, jingling a set of keys in his hand. He worse the sly grin he was known for and made my stomach churn at the very sight of him.
"Archibald", I gritted my teeth and made a weak effort to smile.
He pulled a gum packet from his pant pockets and threw one into his mouth; furiously chomping away at the mint-filled square. He must have noticed me watching him, as he said, "They're for the cravings. Finally kicked the smokes".
"Good for you". My voice was filled with venom, and I made no attempt to hide it. You and me aren't finished Archie. Not a by a long shot, I thought. "Is Harry in?".
Archie let his head fall to one side and spat the gum onto the pavement. "Mister Carter is upstairs. This business?"
I gave him a guilty nod and followed him inside, fists clenched and wanting nothing more than to see his skull paint the doors of the club.
Someone's going to get to you one day you slimy rat bastard.
The Shadow Lounge itself was a magnificent display of a nightclub. The walls were painted rich velvet, with ocean blue Chinese lanterns dangling from the roof causing the entire building to be blanketed in a dull blue hue. The lounges were made from what looked to be pure satin, with large gold dragons embroidered against the backrest of each and every one of them. He was definitely a man that liked to show off, I thought to myself. The bars were all made from glass, which made the light bounce of in different directions creating a form of eye frenzy that made my brain hurt. The Shadow Lounge was full of shadows, but it was a beautiful thing to behold.
Archie led me upstairs to Carter's office, where the big oaf sat in his mahogany throne, and an absolutely stunning brunette on his lap, although she didn't look at all thrilled about it.
Crime pays, I thought to myself.
When he saw me enter he gave the girl a slap on the ass and ushered her out of the room before giving Archie the nod to close the door behind her. The room was suddenly blanketed in a cloud of doubt and cruel shadows.
"Marko. Come in, have a seat". He could play the part of the nice guy, but every bone of Harry Carter's body was filled with a dark evil that few men possess.
I put my hands in the air to tell him that I was fine standing, and he continued.
"That girl? Her name's Monica. Absolute sweetheart. Found her flipping burgers at the eatery down the street. I thought to myself, what's a perfect pair of tits being wasted dangling above bacon grease for? So I offered her a job here. I'm a nice guy like that you see Marko? I like to help out wherever I can. So tell me, how can I help you today?" The man made me sick, but I answered him regardless.
"Well the store isn't doing so well again. I guess I had nowhere else to turn". My head was bowed with shame, my eyes fixated on the stained hardwood beneath my feet.
"What of those boys of yours? I hear one's a bricklayer now? Or was it a carpenter?", He stopped to judge my reaction, but quickly continued when he saw my blank faced reply.
"And the other one? Wallace wasn't it? Studying to be a big shot lawyer? Don't tell me you haven't called them!" He was toying with me, a simple…sizing up of the cocks if you will. Harry was boss-dog, and he wanted to make damn sure I knew it.
I gave the slightest shake of my head, my eyes now firmly pinpointed at Harry's. "This is the last time Mr. Carter, I swear it".
His face broke into a sinister grin, "A man learns many things in this business. The most important of which is that even the clever ones, like you Videl, no matter how often they tell themselves that it's the last time, always return".
I stared at him blankly; disinterested in his warped wisdom although I let him continue.
"The fact of the matter is simply this; the last time a man borrows money off me always ends the same way: Face down and full of doubt in a ditch with his innards pouring out into the dirt".
It was more of a threat than simple information and it was well heeded. I had every intention of paying him back however, even giving myself time to work a payment plan into my weekly budget. I was certain that I would pay him back. Then again, so was every man that walked through these doors. It became an addiction after a while, and one not so easily broken.
I nodded my head to let him know that I understood, and we spoke numbers. Seemingly satisfied, he gestured towards Archie to go to the safe and stuff a bag full of cash, every bill that entered felt like neatly stacked, unmarked green slices of my soul.
"Eight weeks Marko". It was all that he needed to say; that and no more.
The Weasel led me back out onto the street and left me there, the two of us remaining silent the entire way. I looked up at the sky as the sudden change in light blinded me. I swear I saw God in the flash, pointing his judgmental finger and shaking his head at me.
I took what was left of my pride and walked briskly away from Carter's den of evil and let my tears carry me all the way home. It was there that I lost face and disappeared inside a bottle. It was there I lost my heart. It was there that I gave up on my dreams of the beach and the cocktails, and for a brief moment, I believe I forgot about the boys.