Payment

Her glare is so hard her heavy mascara almost cracks. “We had a deal,” she says, and if the desk wasn’t between us she would’ve slapped my face. And I’d be fine with that. I knew how to respond to violence, even from a woman of her standing.

“And I’ve upheld my end of it,” I say.

“Hardly!”

The sneer makes her face more grotesque than it already was. Might’ve been pretty once. Her husband must’ve seen something in her, and it sure wasn’t money. That was all his.

At least, it had been. I’d seen their arrangement, and I felt for the guy.

“I found your brother.” My chair creaks like old bones as I lean back.

“Then where is he?” She looks around the room theatrically. Not that there’s much to look at. I keep the shades down to hide the smoke-coated wall opposite. There’s a broken fan in the corner, and an empty plant pot. Used to have a plant, but it died.

I push the file nearer her edge of the desk, know she still won’t pick it up with those fancy gloves. “It’s in the report. And I told you last night. Even gave you his current address.”

Or maybe I hadn’t. Things had been murky. And painful. If the shades had been open, banging my head against that wall would have brought some relief.

She doesn’t make a move on the file. She’s perched on the edge of the chair, her coat pulled round her body. Fine quality, too much fur. She wore her money like a drunk wears depression.

My own jacket hangs by the door, lifeless after last night’s beating, the bloodstain on the right arm dry now. Not my blood.

“I don’t like your attitude,” she says.

“That’s why you pay me. So you don’t have to like me. Speaking of which‌—‌transfer or credit note? Can’t see you carrying hard currency.”

“You don’t deserve payment until you find my brother. That was our contract.” She spits the last word at me.

“I told you‌—‌I found him. Read the report, you’ll know where he is.”

“I want him here.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal.”

“It was implied.” She snorts, like one of her horses. “I was led to believe you had some intelligence.”

“You should’ve dug deeper. Then you’d know I’m not a sap. You contracted me to find your brother, not drag him back to you. To be frank, I wouldn’t want to put him through that. I’m not into torture.”

She might think I only use my fists, but my words open-hand her face. She recoils, lets out a gasp. I don’t move a muscle.

“Don’t even pretend you understand my family,” she says when she’s recovered. I’ll give her this much‌—‌she’s strong-willed. Won’t be broken like her horses. She’s more of a challenge than that. Just ask her man. If he’s not too afraid to talk bluntly.

“Oh, I understand plenty,” I say. “I understand how you pay for your brother’s silence and distance, how you bail him out so nothing comes back on you. You keep him sweet, and when the sale of daddy’s business goes through, you might claw back some of his share. What, you think I don’t know about the terms? Eighty percent to the firstborn, and the rest shared between you and the adopted one. Yeah, I can see how that might rub you the wrong way, seeing how you love the green stuff. Love it so much, you’ve almost gone through your man’s fortune as you work him to a slow death.”

She keeps a lid on her anger. “And you think I should be like you?” she says. “Some of us set our sights higher than the gutter. But I have a charitable heart. I’ll offer another twenty percent. That should keep you liquid for a few more days.”

Yeah, she pegs me for a drunk. Doesn’t want to look too deep.

I shake my head. “We’re done.”

“You came highly recommended. It would be a pity if the failure to satisfy a client damaged your reputation.”

She has no idea how to play this game. “Listen, lady. I took your case as a favour. Most of my work comes from my kind of people. They’re not going to pay any attention to some plum-mouthed back-stabber. In fact, you slag me off, that makes me look better.”

“It certainly can’t make you look any worse!”

I tilt my head. Not a bad come-back. But not good enough. “People like your brother‌—‌they’re my bread and butter. They have genuine problems, and I do what I can to help. Sure, some can’t pay full rates, and I’ll cut them some slack. But every so often, one of them comes into a tidy sum. And people like your brother, they remember how they’re treated. They get in a sticky situation, they want someone they can trust, maybe someone who removed a parasite that was after leeching them dry.”

I watch her seethe for a while.

“You don’t want to pay for completion of the job, that’s your prerogative. I’ll chalk this one up to experience. And maybe I go to some bar, have a moan about the toff who refused to pay, take the sympathy of all the tradesmen I drink with as I vent my frustrations. Then I move on. Maybe check in with your brother every now and then, see if he needs a hand with anything.”

She can’t come back with anything. She shakes like a wino in recovery. When she stands she’s unsteady, has to hold the side of the desk.

I let her walk to the door in silence.

It closes behind her. I slip the file into a drawer, open the one below it, pull out the glass and the bottle. I break the seal and pour a couple of fingers in celebration.


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One thought on “Payment

  1. Pingback: New short story – ‘Payment’ | T. W. Iain

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