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.”
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.