Bonus Short Story: Wraith

The pulsing throb of a sub-woofer sounded in the distance. The reverb of a wide, open room made fools of the treble and mid-range frequencies while an erratic strobe added to the place’s confusion. Below it and the disco ball, center stage, was Candy. She gripped and mounted the greased pole better than any other girl in the joint. Her body whirled and spun, unfurled and contorted with sexual predation and temptation.

Soren watched a cascade of bills flutter out around her from some jackass at the pit. Another one with more money than sense. Candy dipped low to show her tits from an upside down angle. To her credit, she was more an expert than any other girl Soren had. She swung past while upside down, gripping the pole, and managed to pull twenties from between his teeth with her own. She was an earner, and damned if she didn’t deserve every penny liberated from dumbasses like him.

Soren threw back the last of his straight scotch, made a come hither motion toward one of the other girls– a waitress in nothing but a G-string and two tassels. Soren ordered up another drink, stuffed an extra twenty in the side of her thong. She sauntered to the bar for his drink as he focused on the American across the curved booth from him.

The guy was well-dressed. No suit or anything, but he had a certain flair of style that said he liked fast women and expensive cars– or perhaps it was the other way around. In either case, he’d come in looking for more blow than anyone Soren had ever met. It wasn’t unusual that someone came to him for drugs. He ran the club, after all, and everyone knew if you blew enough cash on strippers you were probably doing coke off their tits at some point.

Still, Soren had gotten out of the game years ago. More importantly, there was something about this guy he didn’t like. Something in his features. They were American features, but with an almost translucent skin that he swore showed bone beneath. That’s not to say that Soren was prejudiced. One man’s money was as good as any others’ and he’d happily take it regardless. In fact, most of his best girls were Americans working off debts back home. The exchange rate nowadays was enough to bring in scores of ’em, even with his high standards.

This guy though, there was something in the way he held himself. He seemed not to inhabit the room, or even reality around it. It sent a chill down Soren’s spine. He didn’t like that. He’d learned to trust his gut long ago, and it was telling him to lose the guy. Something else though– curiosity, maybe– told him to understand the gut feeling better before deciding.

So, instead of sending the guy straight to the bouncer, who’d escort him out back to the dealer, Soren sat him down for a drink. He was going to do his best to suss out the guy’s overwhelming creep-factor. The thong and tassels girl brought Soren his scotch and something equally strong for the American. He watched her leave again, then refocused on the American before him.

“What you’re asking for,” he said casually, testing him. “It’s not something many people could get. Even if I were so inclined to make deals of that nature, it would be beyond me.”

The guy was clearly disappointed, but his face suggested he wouldn’t give so easily. He spoke with half-ridicule, half scorn, and in a tone so cold it froze Soren’s veins, “I thought you were a player, man. Cock of the walk, and all that shit.”

There it was, Soren thought. That was what he’d sensed, the thing he disliked, that he didn’t trust. At least, he was pretty sure that was it. The tone of voice had thrown him. Anyway, he should’ve guessed it; everything with this guy was dominance and alpha-level bullshit. He looked as though he had no idea how the game was played. Even if Soren were still in it, he wasn’t stupid; he wouldn’t have been so easily baited even on his worst days.

“Get out of here,” he said firmly.

The guy didn’t budge, only his jaw tightened. Soren made eye-contact with a bouncer. Bane was a thing of meat so wide he had to angle through the club’s doors to avoid getting stuck. He looked like he could lift a semi, and at that, Soren was pretty sure he did it regularly, just to pass the time.

Bane appeared as Soren rose. He drained the last of his scotch and buttoned his blazer, “Escort our friend outside. He’s hereby barred from the club for life.” The guy made to speak through his teeth but Soren spoke over him, “If he resists, break his knee caps.”

The guy held his tongue with a snarl. He stood to be escorted away. Soren blew a relieved breath feeling his blood warm again, “Americans.”

He made for the club’s rear, passed through the long room of lighted mirrors. The other girls were half-naked or getting there for their shifts while Candy finished being eye-fucked on-stage. His eyes skirted the girls for anything unusual, came away satisfied.

Past a door at the back of the dressing room, he entered his office. It was small, with just enough room for a desk, some chairs, and a couch along one wall. A laptop was closed and powered down on the desk. Behind them, a wall of flat-screen TVs showed feeds from cameras across the club. Soren gave them a passing glance then sank into his chair and opened the laptop.

It was roughly a half-hour later that the hairs on the back of his neck upended. He smoothed them with a hand. The same shiver from earlier coursed through him, made his shoulders buck and jostle with a shudder. His blood froze again. He swallowed hard, audibly.

“Something wrong?” A familiar voice said.

Soren spun ’round, a pistol out to see the American a little beside and behind him.

He raised the gun, “You!”

His features pointed lethally, “Me.”

“What the hell are you doing here!?” Soren demanded. “How the fuck did you get in?”

His face angled downward. Shadows played across it. He looked downright demonic now. His eyes glowed yellow from fury rather than light. His translucent skin iced over until his whole body was almost opaque.

Soren barked an order at him, “Get out!”

The man stared. The yellow eyes glowed in transparent sockets. Soren went pale as the wall behind the man appeared.

“You should’ve taken my offer, Mr. Soren. I could’ve made you rich.”

Soren thumbed the pistol’s hammer, ready to fire, “I’m warning you!”

There was a sudden flash. An icy wind impaled Soren. His innards froze. Ice crystals formed on his hands, froze the gun to them. He fell to the ground. His still-warm legs bucked him onto his back. He gasped for breath against frozen lungs. The man approached and Soren’s eyes widened.

“You wonder what I am,” he said, his voice now discordant with grating harmonies. “But a wraith is nothingness, that primal terror no man wishes to accept as true. It is for ego’s sake alone. He fears nothingness, for in it, he is nothing. And man must always be something.” He hesitated with a snarl. His eyes flared brighter, “But you will not be a man when I am finished with you. You will be nothingness too.”

The man suddenly disintegrated into a fog. It fired at Soren like a missile. He screamed, but it was drowned out by a climax of laughter in the dressing room and the pounding beat of a dancer on-stage. When Bane came looking later, he found nothing. There the wraith was proved honest; nothingness where once there’d been a man.

Short Story: A Job to Do

Smoke curled and rolled beneath a low-hanging light, dissipated by the wave of a wrinkled hand. The man it was attached to hunched forward over the table beneath the light, in a booth seat of a dank bar most just called by its designation. Officially it was named The Oldhouse Tap. Unofficially, it ran by other names, most as unappealing as its never-swept, never-mopped tile floors. Even the walls had felt the rigors of age, their wall-paper stained and peeled like a cheap motel.

Another man sat before the smoking man, both with large mugs of beer that were more foam than brew. Such was the way the burnt-out bartender poured her patrons their poison. She cared about as much as they did. Most people in at this time of day were still on company time, the others hiding from their wives or families when they should have been at the unemployment office, or one of the half-dozen places through-out town with help-wanted signs in their front windows.

Instead, they were spread out around the bar, staring up at a television that never strayed from its Info-Corp news channel. Like them, the two men at the booth were mostly quiet, but when deigned to speak, did so in low, hushed tones. The second man hunched forward over the table, parted the smoke with his wrinkled, black, sunken eyes.

“I can have the money in a week, all I need’s more time.”

The smoking man took a drag from his cigarette with a few, resolute nods, “And you’re sure of that, yeah?”

The other man began to launch into a tall-tale. Of course, he started by explaining his position; like many others, he’d been laid off due to the shaky economy. No amount of groveling or employment seeking would help. All those help-wanted signs were for men and women twenty years younger. The shops in town didn’t care much for the older generation with their responsibilities, bills, and needs. They wanted expendable assets to leash one day, and kick-out when they were no longer cost-effective.

The other man went into detail on his experiences, “I was in with a shop down Main St, a coffee place– nothing in the front mind you, they don’t want the geezers working the front. They’ve got an image, you know.”
“Hmm,” the smoking man said with a long drag. He blew a long plume, “Got to have appeal with the kids.”

“Exactly.”

He went further in the same vein, but the smoking man was no longer listening. He’d heard all the tales a million times over. Everyone had their sob story, and everyone thought theirs was worse than everyone else’s. In truth, the smoking man knew they were all the same. It wasn’t his business to care, but he knew nonetheless. Each of the men and women he’d met were cut of a similar cloth; all older– his age really– out of work, and needing money. In a way, he sympathized; it could just as easily be him. Well, not him, but him in another life. He could have just as easily found himself in their shoes were circumstances even a little different.

Alas, no amount of empathy, sympathy, or cold beer would change what he knew now. He wasn’t like them. He was what they wanted to be; well-aged, still sane, and with immovable job-security. He even had spending money, something in direly short supply these days. Hell, he thought, probably not a one of the patrons in the bar today had that. They were all likely drinking on tabs that would follow them past their graves.

He listened to the sob-story a little longer, if only for courtesy’s sake. He already knew what would happen. It wouldn’t be another month before he was back in here to discuss the terms of the man’s repayment, only to be begged and pled with to hold off on collecting. Unfortunately, begging and pleading only went so far. Maybe the man hadn’t personally helped to tank the economy, but he had to deal with it the same as the rest. The problem was, dealing was all they ever tried to do. Not a one of them had learned to hold to their word.

He’d been in the banks’ employ long enough to know that the defaulters knew the stakes. Loans were an uncommon luxury even in the best of times. Now, they were downright impossible to come by. Even so, most of the people that had signed on the dotted lines had still refused to cop to the responsibility inherent in signing. Then, when the smoking man came to collect, they bargained and begged, and pled for more time.

His job wasn’t the most pleasant by any means. He could think of thirty or forty jobs off the top of his head that he’d rather have if only they were quite so secure in their need. That was the interesting thing though, as much as people wanted what he had, they never wanted to take the opportunity to get it. It left him as the sole member of an occupation where help-wanted truly meant it. But it wasn’t a fun job, most certainly unpleasant even with the best cases. Too many people defaulted nowadays, and by the first and fifteenth of every month he was expected to be in fifty places at once. Most places weren’t much different than this one.

Sure, a few of the people would repay the debt, or else shake his cynical core to feeling with their real misfortune. In those rare cases, he’d leave with a thankful politeness, possibly never to be seen again. Or else, he’d promise to return, understanding of their unfortunate circumstances. Whatever that latter groups circumstances were, he was certain he would never find any of them in a dank pit like the Oldhouse.

That was how the smoking man could tell the unfortunate from the dead-beats: when the unfortunate were down-trodden, lost for hope, they ran to their families to spend those possibly last moments with them. Conversely, the dead-beats were always in bars, restaurants, what-have-yous, running up tabs and knowing their last moments were upon them. It was an effective system, one that only a man working so deeply under the table for the banks could have established– or even distinguished.

He listened to the man tell his woes for another half-cigarette, then stopped him mid-sentence.

“I can’t help you,” he said as he rose from his seat.

He pulled his over coat open on the one side while the other man stammered and choked on his beer. A moment later a gun was out. A single, suppressed round ended the man’s life. He fell forward onto the table, blood leaking from a wound in his head. The rest of the bar had watched, each of them fearing they might be next. The smoking man replaced the gun into its shoulder-hoslter, then stepped over to the bar to drop a wad of cash on it.

“The bank will send someone by to collect the body,” the man said as he snuffed a butt in a tray on the counter. “You all have a good day. I’ll be seeing some of you next week.”

Most heads were hidden as he turned away. He had work to do. There was such little job security left in the world, and though it was messy, it was still a job that needed to be done. Even if there was no-one else willing to do it, few would do it as well as him.