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Anton Sim
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dyinglang.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2013

Dying Language

 

by Anton Sim

 


 

Jack stepped out of the unemployment office and there was a lit cigarette in his mouth before his foot touched the sidewalk. He removed his tie and shoved it in his jacket pocket and leaned back to stare between the buildings of lower Manhattan at the darkening sky.

“Damn.”

“I know how you feel,” said a guy. Jack glanced over at him. Rumpled man in a rumpled suit. Late forties. Disobedient hair.

“Gonna rain,” Jack observed.

“Oh, that,” the guy said. “I thought you were talking about those creeps inside.”

“They’re just doing their jobs.”

“Which is what? Make me come all the way down here just to give me a hard time, I swear. Had to bring a list of all the places I’ve applied for jobs, and then they act like I’m not trying hard enough.”

Jack took a deep drag and fingered the folded paper in his pants pocket. It listed company names, job titles, dates, contact information. Everyone wanted experience. Whatever kind of experience they were looking for, Jack didn’t have.

“You on their e-mail list for job leads?” Jack asked.

“I, uh, no.” The guy looked sad. “I don’t have a computer.”

“You’re not missing anything. They send me crap like social media director, operations analyst. I don’t even know what the hell those are. I got one for plumber last week. At least that one I understood.”

“What were you before?” the guy asked.

“Before what?”

“Before you were unemployed.”

Jack sucked on his cigarette. “Employed.”

“I was a proofreader. Might as well be a blacksmith. English is a dying language. Nobody writes in full sentences anymore and they make up the spelling as they go along. A post-literate society, they call it.”

“I got another name for it.”

“If I had to live on the peanuts they dole out—” The guy jerked his finger over his shoulder at the unemployment office. “I’d starve.”

Taking a last drag and tossing his butt in the gutter, Jack looked at the guy. “Living off your savings?” he asked.

The guy laughed. “I look like a guy who’s got savings?”

“So how you paying the bills?”

“I got friends. I’m not about to tell those creeps about it or they’d cut me right off. But I do some odd jobs, some errands, you know. This and that.”

“This and that,” Jack said.

“Yeah, exactly. Easy cash, a few bills in the wallet now and again.”

“It’s good to have friends.”

“You’re telling me. I’d starve without ‘em. Hey, you got a cigarette, maybe, I could borrow?”

“No.”

“I figured.”

“You can have one, but you can’t borrow one. Borrow means you’re giving it back. You’re a proofreader. You should know that.”

“It’s an expression,” the guy said, accepting the butt and a light. “Thanks.”

“What kind of errands?” Jack asked.

“Take somebody somewhere. Deliver something. You know.”

“I wouldn’t mind friends like that.”

The cigarette paused halfway to the guy’s mouth. He squinted at Jack through the smoke. “I was just kidding.”

“Sure you were. Me too. Hungry?”

“Me?” The guy laughed. “Last time my stomach was full a white man was president.”

“I could use a bite. My treat.”

In the restaurant, a Subway with stained tables, Jack kept the guy talking over a Chipotle steak and cheese hero. Outside a light rain started and stopped and started again. When the guy finished rambling about the Mets, Jack said, “So, about your friend with the errands.”

“I told you, I was kidding.”

“Yeah, you did.”

The guy licked his fingers and looked at Jack for a long time, then shook his head. “Look, if I put you in touch with my friend it means less work for me. And I need the moolah, you dig?”

“Sure, I dig. What if you didn’t have to do the work and you still pulled a cut?”

The guy considered. “Like a commission?”

“Like that.”

“Commission sounds good. You want maybe I should give him a call and introduce you?”

“That would be nice.”

“Nice for you. What’s my end?”

“Eighty-twenty on any work he tosses my way.”

“Fifty-fifty.”

“Enjoy the sandwich,” Jack said, rising.

“Okay, seventy-forty. Final offer.”

“Seventy and forty equals one-ten,” Jack said, still standing. “You must have been one hell of a proofreader. I’ll give you twenty-five. Yes or no. It’s getting late.”

 Placing the remainder of his sandwich on the center of the paper wrap while staring at Jack, the guy wiped his fingers with a napkin and took a cell phone out of his pocket. An old flip-phone. Jack continued to stand while he dialed and spoke.

“Hey. It’s me. Yeah. No, no problems. What? Okay, I will. Yeah, I said I will. Listen, I met a guy.” He paused. “Doesn’t matter. He’s looking for work. Any kind of work.” Again a pause. “Yeah, that’s right. You want to meet this guy? His name’s—” He raised his eyebrows.

“Jack.”

“His name’s Jack. Yeah, sure, he’s with me right now. At a Subway. No, the restaurant.”

Jack slid back into the booth as the guy chatted a while longer and gave the address and hung up.

“He wants to meet you. He’ll be here in ten.”

“Must live close.”

“He was in the neighborhood. Twenty-five percent, right?”

“Not a nickel less.”

By Jack’s watch it was just under eight minutes when the newcomer walked through the door, brushing a smattering of moisture off his overcoat. He was thin, in his late fifties or early sixties, bald up top with salt-and-pepper peninsulas over the ears and a matching mustache.

“Can’t decide if it wants to rain or not,” the newcomer said. He had an easy smile. “One of those nights. This is Jack?”

“This is him.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m Lucas.” They shook hands and Lucas slipped into the booth next to the rumpled guy.

“I hear you’re looking for work.”

“That’s right.”

“I wish I had a job for you, Jack, really I do. With this economy, though, I can’t afford to take on any more staff.”

“It’s a tough economy,” Jack agreed.

“Tough is what it is. Tough is definitely what it is.”

Jack waited him out.

“What is it you do, Jack?”

“Whatever needs doing. Except social media director or operations analyst.”

“That’s a pretty broad resume.”

“I’m adaptable.”

“Let me phrase it another way. What was the last job you got paid for?”

“Is this an interview?”

“It’s a discussion. We’re discussing. Three friends.”

“What was the last job you got paid for, Lucas?”

A Subway employee was running a damp rag over tables near them. They let him finish and head back behind the counter before speaking again.

“You know, you’re not the most convivial man I’ve ever met, Jack.”

“I’ve been told that.”

“You’ve been told you’re not convivial.”

“Words to that effect.”

“He’s dependable, though,” said the rumpled guy. He looked nervous, like he saw his lottery ticket swirling around inside the toilet. “Aren’t you, Jack?”

“Never had any complaints.”

 Lucas stroked his mustache. “Tell you what, I’ve got an errand needs running. Just a one-off. You up for it?”

“Always.”

“I need somebody to run out to Queens and collect on a debt for me. Guy owes me fifteen large. Thing is, this guy is the disagreeable sort.”

“I’ve met a few like that.”

“Havermeyer’s his name. Has a tendency to forget his obligations. I need someone who won’t be intimidated.”

Jack said nothing. After watching him a moment, Lucas adjusted his coat. Getting ready to leave. “All right. Tomorrow morning, just past eleven. That’s when he gets in. You stop by, handle my problem. Collect my debt. I want it paid in full. Got it?”

“What’s my take?”

“One fifty.”

“Pretty slim, considering.”

Lucas smiled and spread his hands. “No taxes.”

“It’s an audition, right?” asked the rumpled guy. “More jobs to follow?”

“An audition, I like that,” Lucas said. “Yes, it’s an audition. Jack does good on this, we’ll see what else turns up in the future.”

 “Deal.”

Jack had known there was a job, that Lucas was holding back. Otherwise why bother to come out on a night like this to meet a stranger. In fact, Jack had his suspicions about the whole arrangement. The accidental meeting outside the unemployment office. The “friend” with errands, who just happened to be minutes away. Smelled like a set-up.

Havermeyer had to be trouble—more trouble than they were ready to handle personally. They were looking for someone to walk into the lion’s den on their behalf. Fine, they found him.

Collecting fifty bucks up front—for transportation—and the address in Queens, Jack promised to head out in the morning.

The next day was overcast. The sky was what Jack’s ex Lydia used to call “threatening.” Jack wore a waterproof jacket and a pair of running shoes and an old Coors Light cap that he got free at a bar one night during a holiday party.

The address was on Hauser Street in Astoria. A drab little drinking hole called Unusual Suspects, nestled between a shoe store and an Italian deli. Jack got there a little before nine and watched the block. Not much business for the shoe store. The deli did okay.

A few stray raindrops pelted Jack occasionally and then quit. The clouds seemed confused.

At ten thirty-nine a girl wearing a raincoat hurried up the steps to the bar and tried the door. Locked. She looked at her watch, made a call on her cell phone, then stood there with her arms crossed, looking up and down the block. A few minutes later a young guy in a leather jacket showed up and unlocked the front door. They went inside.

Shortly after, Havermeyer arrived. Jack knew it was Havermeyer from the description Lucas gave him. Heavy-set. Too much pasta, too many beers. Stringy black hair down to his collar. Slight limp. He wore a gray hoodie and held his arms away from his body, like an ape. From one hand dangled a plastic bag with a happy face on it.

Jack knew better than to follow him immediately into the bar. That wasn’t the kind of confrontation he was looking for. Better to let him get settled and comfortable.

At eleven-fifteen, Jack crossed the street and tried the door. Locked. He rapped on it with gloved knuckles and the young guy opened it, no longer wearing his leather jacket. He had on a black t-shirt with a band name and sported thick, ropy muscles and curly hair and was chewing a toothpick.

“Yeah?”

“Havermeyer.”

“What about him?”

“I’m here to see him.”

“We’re closed. Come back later.”

“Lucas sent me.”

“Who’s Lucas?”

“Havermeyer knows.”

The young guy looked him over. “Wait here.” When he closed the door, Jack could hear the lock click back in place. A minute later the door opened again. The guy stood in the entrance like a gargoyle, spoiling for an argument. One meaty arm remained out of sight behind the door.

“Havermeyer ain’t here.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Ain’t it.”

“Give him a message for me, will ya?”

“What’s the message?” the young guy asked, and Jack gave him a kick in the groin that dropped the guy like a carton of eggs. Pushing open the door, Jack snatched away the guy’s gun and stepped past him into the bar room.

Jukebox and bathrooms to the left. Counter and stools all the way in the back. A few booths along the right wall. All the lights were on. Didn’t feel like a bar. Too bright. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you can’t come in here,” the girl said. She was behind the counter, doing something with the glasses. Brown hair, shoulder length, tied back in a ponytail. Loose red tank top over a black bra. “We’re not open yet.” Then she noticed the young guy curled up by the door. “What the--”

By then Jack had spotted Havermeyer sitting in a booth in the right rear corner. On the table rested a take-out container full of rice and meat in a thick sauce. Next to that, an open lockbox and piles of receipts and cash. When Havermeyer looked up and saw Jack coming at him, he tensed and hurriedly shut the box.

“What the hell you doing in here? Get your ass out, now.”

“Lucas sent me.”

“You want I should call the cops?” the girl asked from behind the bar.

“No, Katie, it’s fine.” Surprisingly, Lucas seemed relieved. His face relaxed and he smiled. To Jack, he said, “Tell Luke I haven’t forgotten him. He’ll get his money. I’m just a little short right now.”

Next to the front door, the young guy pushed himself into a kneeling position. He groaned and looked up at Jack.

“Not good enough,” Jack said to Havermeyer.

“Tell him not to worry. A few weeks, maybe a month or two, he’ll get everything back.”

Behind Jack, the young guy pushed himself to his feet and took a staggering step forward.

“I can’t do that,” Jack said. “I got a job to do.”

“Whadda you want from me? I got nothing to give him right now. You want a six of Coors Light? I’ll give you that, you take it back to Luke. Okay?” Havermeyer slapped his palm three times on the tabletop. With his fat, greasy smile, he was trying to distract Jack as the young guy approached from behind.

Jack let the guy get within half a dozen feet before pulling out his gun, turning, and putting a bullet in the guy’s throat. The sound of the shot echoed through the nearly vacant room as the guy stumbled backwards, clutching his spurting neck, and collapsed.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Havermeyer said. Jack pointed his gun at the bar, where the girl was fumbling for something under the shelves. The second bullet took off the top of her head, throwing her like wet laundry into the stacked bottles and shattering the mirror.

As her body crumbled to the floor in a crashing litter of broken glass, Jack turned the gun on Havermeyer.

“Here,” Havermeyer said, pushing the lockbox forward. His eyes were wide. “Take it. I’ll get you the rest. Don’t shoot.”

“A man has to honor his commitments,” Jack said, backing up to check the young guy on the floor. Blood still pumping, but he was clearly a goner.

“I was gonna pay it all back. I swear.”

Moving behind the bar, Jack could see at a glance the girl was history. “A person’s only as good as his word.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I agree. You’ll get the money. Today.”

Jack laid the gun on the bar and poured a glass of Johnny Walker Green from the top shelf. “The way I look at it, when a guy says he’s going to do something, he does it.”

“Don’t kill me.”

“You’re already dead.”

Havermeyer’s face went pale and slack. As the words sunk in and he began frantically trying to haul himself from the confines of the booth, Jack picked up the gun and shot him once in the chest. The big man managed to pull himself out of the booth and stand up and take a few steps toward the back of the room, gasping deeply and spitting up blood.

Jack could have let him bleed out but opted to be merciful, stepping around the bar and putting another bullet in the base of his skull. Havermeyer went down, taking two chairs and a table with him.

Finishing his drink, Jack slid the glass in his pocket and the bottle under his jacket and zipped up. He took one last look around the room, making sure there was nobody in the bathrooms and there were no security cameras. Then he stepped outside, where it had begun to rain in earnest. Clouds finally made up their minds.

The rain felt good. Clean, fresh. It was energizing to be back at work, to be doing what he knew how to do. This was his kind of job, his kind of experience. The kind that people talked about in euphemisms: “handle a problem,” “paid in full.” Lucas would be pleased, Jack was sure, and more jobs would be coming. He had passed the audition.

 

 

Anton Sim is a Writers of the Future finalist in the current quarter. One of his crime stories is the lead tale in Thuglit 4 and he has a vignette in Oh Sandy, a humor anthology to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy.

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