by Jamie Grefe
Ned is at the Chevy-Levy coffee house, hidden among those night alleys, between chicken-on-a-stick standing bars, shady karaoke joints, porn shops, and used vinyl bins. He likes it here. Other than the desert, here a man can still think.
Grime on the tabletop, white dust. The smell of roast beans. He tucks himself into a table by the window, slams three of the best espressos in Troilus, and scans the room for his contact. He’s waiting for The Shingle, one of Floyd’s top admin goons, to show up and waste more of his time. He runs a fingertip across the rim of the leftmost cup.
Vinyl clicks, blurts sheets of guitar fuzz, coats the dive in a wet rumble. Xu Fan, the man with a television for every freak to get their rocks off on; he mime-points a remote at the sky. “Power off,” Ned says. “Lay it down, lay it down,” he sings, not noticing the vintage set in the corner of the coffee shop, the one broadcasting an unmoving shot of a single palm tree on a stormy morning, just swaying there, before it cuts to—bugs breeding, writhing, chewing skin.
Three men argue in a foreign tongue from a corner table. A guy they call Brown throws a busted Operation board game to the ground. His arms flail like a chicken mime. The board game’s innards clack, click and the fool pulls at his own hair, howls, too lit up on crack or smack or windowpane to care.
“Hi, Suzie, how’s the water?” someone says in a warbled voice, too slow. A tattooed woman in a nurse’s uniform waters tulips outside the joint, smock covered in checkered streaks like lines of spattered grace. She grins like a vampire, curtsies in front of the window. Ned looks away, folds his hands in prayer, closes his eyes.
One second later, those eyes blink. The Shingle sits across from him: portly pig of a man, ratty goatee down to his gut, bad suit and tie with a scar running from cheek to hairline as if a leech smacked his face and never left. He places a manila envelope on the table, pushes it toward the three empty espresso cups.
“Days like this are meant for hosing. Don’t you think so, Houston?” he says. “Ever hosed on the DarkGil dime?”
“I keep myself occupied,” Ned says, opening the envelope, sliding out a black and white glossy of Xu Fan bending to get in a limousine. Pose, frozen, quiet. Ned studies, digests the image. Got it. From the photograph, Xu Fan looks old, wispy mustache old: chin wrinkles, a debonair elder shot stiff in the frame of some secret paparazzi flare. Ned lets a slip of paper drop from the envelope.
The Shingle’s finger stabs it, says: “Johnny H. on the line, compadre.”
Ned deadpans The Shingle, trying not to disappear in that pigface visage. The Shingle holds out a ball pen. Ned thumbs it from him like magic, twirls and lets it hit the dotted line. He doesn’t sign.
“Understand these new terms, yes?” The Shingle says. “Updated and unabated.”
“What new terms?” Ned says, scanning fine print, ignoring the howls of a man across the room with a chunk of Troilus lodged in his gut. “Wasn’t told about no new terms.”
The Shingle leans back, meaty hands spider to his lapels, push open his suit coat. A katana, black handled grip, juts out his side—evil music swells. “This,” he says, stroking the hilt, “is my cute Japanese girlfriend. I keep her here for when things go,” he chuckles, says this with the most annoying clarity, “awry.”
“I got her from Mr. Floyd. Kind of a company perk.” He’s stroking her now, flicks his tongue. “She wrangles folks. Prevents them from not fulfilling an operation or having second thoughts like not finishing an operation or cutting short an operation. She’s a sucker for operations.”
“Floyd advised me to introduce my girl when one’s operation is of the utmost, and I mean the utmost, importance to DarkGil interests. You understand, a man of the proverbial cloth, ever faithful to the kill, ever fulfilling of employment obligations, as you are, Ned Houston.”
Ned keeps eyes locked on The Shingle, scribbles a squiggly on the dotted line, sets the pen on the table. “Here,” he says, “are your new terms.” But, at that moment, a city breeze—or a potent nostril gust from Ned—whisks the paper to the floor, just inches from The Shingle’s stupid loafers. “Pardon me,” Ned says. “Drafty in here, isn’t it?” A tiny plastic heart from the board game skitters under the table, vanishes.
“Should stick you just for making me bend—” and The Shingle, reaching down, grunts for the signature, has no time to react. Ned fistfuls his hair, shoves face to tabletop, pinning him there, pressing hard, forearm to the side of his head. With his other hand, Ned jams an empty espresso cup into The Shingle’s eye, pulls up on the eyelid, so the dirty cup mashes soft pulp. He pushes. No one in the joint notices, but someone is singing a lullaby in Dutch, something about unrequited love, perhaps.
Ned: “Try and scream, pig. I’ll turn your eye into French drip.” Silence. The Shingle wheezes, chokes. “If I catch you flashing your girlfriend in front of me again—indecent exposure—I’m going to make sure she spends the rest of her pathetic life on a journey from your ass to the tip of your tongue, then we’ll all be mute, licking steam.”
The Shingle writhes his pig-body, but Ned has him in a bind, is bent so close to him each whispered word sounds like a death scream: “It’s been quite a ride. With stains like you going around intimidating DarkGil talent, the company is sure to stink a fart to Friday. And, yes, I’m gone, sucker. Unabated.”
Bam—Ned shoves The Shingle, rises from the table. Snatch envelope, snatch photo, and head for the exit.
Jamie Grefe is the author of THE MONDO VIXEN MASSACRE (Eraserhead Press, 2013). His second novella, MUTAGON II, is forthcoming from Holy Mountain Outreach, an imprint of Dynatox Ministries. Grefe’s short fiction appears in New Dead Families, elimae, and other fine places. Find him at: http://shreddedmaps.tumblr.com