Short Story: Bad Business

Rain pelted the ground in sheets of cascading waves just beyond the alcove of the Flaming Hat Pub & Grub. The place was one of those dives built on sincerity and hope, and when that died, it attracted the same flies every elderly tavern’s corpse was prone to.

Yan Federoff wasn’t one of the flies though. In fact, he hated bar flies and the Flaming Hat more than most people stuck there against their will. Part of it was the name; it was a stupid name, more than likely a contributor to its own downfall. It was never intended as a homosexual establishment, and that made “Flaming” all the more pointless– especially given the bigoted owner that often tended the bar.

Maybe it was the air that always stank of stale beer and stagnant piss. That seemed more likely, Yan thought. He exhaled a long plume of smoke through the waterfall pouring out decades-neglected gutters. His smoke disintegrated into the sheeting rain, and he suddenly knew that was it.

The place was like an old cesspool of bile and death, and you couldn’t smoke in it. That was why he hated the place. It didn’t help that every time he was supposed to contact someone there, everything inevitably went tits-up.

His mind started to broach the subject, but he stopped before it could. Too many bad memories, too much life left to live. Dwelling wouldn’t change the past, and he didn’t believe in regret anyway. As he saw it, if you hated life, you changed it. Otherwise, quit bitching, ’cause hindsight’s always 20/20.

A new-model auto-car rolled along the street from somewhere in the distance. It was sleek, all curves and plastic, like a beauty pageant contestant with more intelligence. The door opened unceremoniously. In the dim recesses of the car’s rear bench-seat, an old, white-haired man was leaned sideways. He looked into Yan’s eyes, gestured him into the car.

Yan did his best to appear formal and stiff as he plunged through the storm for the car. Last thing he wanted was to be wet, but appearing soft in even the slightest way could spell death for his business. The last thing he needed was someone joking with wannabe world-dominating buddies about the guy “afraid of a little rain.”

He slipped into the car, directed to the bench-seat opposite the man’s. Even after twenty years, it was eerie to sit in a car with no driver or cock-pit. All of that stuff had been phased-out, replaced by state-of-the-art computer processors and navigation software. Most cars were just a couple of bucket-seats and a pair of doors now, everything else was under the hood. Pissed the auto-mechanics off something fierce when their industry went totally belly-up, save those few lucky enough to be employed by corporate garages.

Yan took his seat across from the man whom thumbed a cell-phone to punch in an address. Its information was transmitted via wi-fi to the car, read by the processor, and its door shut. A short ding sounded, and the car began to roll forward.

“Mr. Federoff,” the old man said. His voice was gravel in a tin can, rattling out sounds rather than speaking. “You have something for me?”

Yan reached into his jacket pocket, produced a small flash-drive. He handed it over, “As requested, everything to be found on Moscow’s heads of state.”

The old man took it, slotted it in the car’s armrest. A holo-screen appeared in front of him, projected from a diode in the ceiling. It tracked his eye movements as he shuffled through active windows for the drive’s contents. He settled on one, nodding slowly to himself. Sub-folders opened in a cascade of detailed documents and various, image files.

“Very good, Mr. Federoff,” he rattled off. “Very good, indeed.”

“And my payment?” Yan asked, his face blank.

The old man fished a similar flash-stick from his front blazer-pocket, leaned through the projected screen to hand it over. Yan took it. The car rolled to a stop and the door opened on pouring rain.

“Thank you for you work, Mr. Federoff,” the old man said stiffly, cutting off the diode’s projection. “Now, please leave.”

Yan remained still, indifferent, “After I verify the credits.”

He dug a cell-phone out of his pocket, hovered it over the flash-stick. The old man chewed his teeth with a half-snarl, aggravated at the implication that he might stiff a man for his work. Yan didn’t care. He’d seen enough weasels in high-end cars with caviar tastes on off-brand, box-wine budgets to know cred-transfers were the only ways to verify their stories.

A bar flashed on the screen to acknowledge the old man’s claim. Yan leaned forward and half-walked along the car and out into the rain. He stepped out, instantly soaked by the storm.

“Pray we never meet again,” the old man warned.

If Yan were younger and more flagrant or arrogant, he’d have laughed at the insinuation. It was posturing, a lashing out of wits at his implication. Yan had learned the hard-way what that could do to future prospects though– or even present bodily blood-content. Instead, his jaw tightened, added a harsh angle to his left jaw. He gave a micro-nod, and the door shut. The car pulled away along the street.

Yan stood, drenched, on the sidewalk to rubberneck the area. A couple of younger Asian women were hobbling together beneath an umbrella, trying to keep in-step with one another, but it was otherwise empty. He slipped into the shadows of an alley before they could get a glimpse of his face or figure, keyed up his internal comm with a thought, and dialed a number from his mental directory.

A tone sounded a few times before a tin-rattling gravel voice answered. He was silent as the old man repeated “hello” a pair of times.

He sensed the tone about to go dead, “Izmennik.

Thunder cracked as if a lightning had struck the street ahead. A fireball erupted through the downpour. Windows shattered along the buildings. Glass shards melded with rain, indistinguishable. Screams from the Asian women told Yan all he needed to know. He slipped under a door-way’s overhang to light a cigarette, then fished the hood of his sweatshirt from beneath his jacket, pulled it over his head.

Piz da,” he muttered.

How could the guy have really expected him to blackmail every one of the heads of state? That was as good as declaring war on Russia. More importantly, it was putting himself directly in the cross-hairs of every agency in the country. He needed them more than the payday. The SVR alone was one of his best suppliers of information, his trade. The last thing he needed was some brown-nosing rich bastard trying to make a name for himself by outing politicians, or worse, puppeteering events through them.

But he couldn’t turn down the money. Who could? Who would for that matter? Instead, he cooked up the scam with a few friends in the FSB, fattened his bottom line, and took out a problem for the government. No one would be anymore the wiser for his betrayal, and if it did come out, it would only seem logical. After all, anything else was just bad business.

Short Story: The Secret Keeper

My hands are covered in blood, black and blue with bruises so I wipe them like an auto-mechanic with a shop towel. That metaphor feels the most apt, especially given I just worked the sunuvabitch over like a mechanic works a rust-bucket. He’s tied to a chair, jogging pants and wife-beater splattered with wide trails of blood. Between the sheen of sweat that covers his body like a greased hog, and the swollen-red bits of flesh beneath it, he has that same worn-out, beat-up look of a decades-old Ford that’s worked one too many days.

I don’t care why he’s tied to the chair. I never do. I just do my job.

As usual they brought me in after they’d nabbed the poor bastard in the night. They’d given him just about every other type of treatment known short of the MK Ultra-style drug and plug, and he’d still kept his mouth shut. That’s why I got the call. That’s always why I get the call. You know the one. It goes something like this: There’s a click as I thumb my burner-phone, half clothed in a towel and wet from a still-running shower or some other, mundane bullshit task of life. Then, there’s a deep, male voice– or maybe it’s high and feminine. Either way there’s a voice and it says; “we have a problem.”

That’s it. The phone clicks off. I finish my shower, lunch, or whatever, and leave. I toss the burner in a dumpster down the street during my walk to the pick-up point. It’s always the corner of eighth and Main. I picked it ’cause most days I can watch the petite book-shop owner across the street shuffle back and forth at the counter. She’s always leading with her left foot, but writing with her right hand.

It used to be I’d just stare at her ass, watch it buck left and right with those supple hips. Now though, I try to imagine what’s on her mind. Is it something good, bad? Maybe heartbreaking or even arousing? I’m never quite sure. Must be a sign of getting older and mellowing out. You think less about pussy and instead the person around it. There’s a lotta’ pussies in the world, half as many as there are bodies, but people are rarer. I’m not talking about a human creature. There’s more than enough of those to go around. No, I mean people– personalities and thoughts and dreams worth a god damn.

I always snuff my cigarette out with my left foot as the black sedan rolls up to the crosswalk. I never do it like that anywhere else, only when I’m watching her. The brakes on the sedan squeak as I give her frosted, platinum blonde hair a final look, then angle down into the car’s back-seat.

From there, each call’s a little different. Some days its a car-ride across town to an abandoned warehouse, or maybe a dry-docked tanker in for repairs at the harbor. Hell, we even used a hotel room once; rented out the whole damn floor so no-one would here the guy’s screams. What a waste of cash. He cracked like a damn egg and I’d barely touched him!

Sometimes though, when the situation calls for it, I get to really enjoy myself. Not in the torture, though in my line of work you find ways to enjoy what you do. Why live and work– and do your job well at that– if you can’t enjoy yourself? I mean I get to enjoy the life that accompanies the really swanky places they put me up in. We’re talking billionaire, yacht-club, coke from a G-an-hour stripper’s tit-crack level of swank. It’s the kind of shit you think only exists in movies ’til your numb face is between her plastic tits and shes pumpin’ you on the suite couch.

I’ve seen all of those types of places too. Not the places themselves. I’m not needed that often. But I’ve seen all their types; the tit-job, coked-out party places, the tea and crumpets, dusty-muff-stink places. Hell, even the ones where people address you as sir– because they know slavery’s still alive and well, and black, white, brown or flaming red, they’re whipped into sucking you off and thanking you for the privilege.

It’s the life to live when you’re young. You’ll never see anything like it unless you’re working for the black-box government-types like me, or get in deep with the hardcore mafioso like my bloody friend there. Let me tell you, take the former; the latter, always, always gets busted eventually. Even if they don’t– even if they’re one of the infinitesimally small numbers that slip through our fingers ’cause they’re greasier than a whore in tub of petroleum jelly– they still die younger than us. They spend half their lives looking over their shoulders for guys like me, hoping their time doesn’t come sooner than its planned to.

As for the poor fuck tied to the chair? Like I said, I don’t care why he’s here. Sure, I am too, but I just do the rough stuff. They ask the questions. Who are they? Pray you never find out, ’cause you’re either gonna’ be the one being asked, pissing yourself– oh yeah, a lot of ’em do that too, trust me– or you’re gonna’ be the one asking. There’s no two ways about it unless you hear about “them” and never more than that.

There’s a lot of people, mostly those bleeding-hearts who like to pretend their shit don’t stink. They “object” to my methods and line of work. Funny, they’re usually the ones begging us most to do this shit when their asses are on the line. I digress.

I do what I do because I’m good at it, and I’m good at it ’cause I like to push a person’s limits. It’s freeing. Something you can only understand after unleashing hell on a guy– or a chick, hey I don’t discriminate blood’s blood– and finding out his face is harder than you thought, and ending up with lacerated knuckles or torn tendons.

But it’s freeing for the mark, too. You have any idea what it’s like to keep secrets that’ll have you murdered if you tell them? No. How could you? Having that shit hanging over your head isn’t healthy. Eventually you reach a point where you’re helping ’em more than you’re hurting ’em. Which, even I know is a lot, but think how much better they’ll feel once they heal up in Witness Relocation and their conscience is clear. Not all of them make it there, but the doesn’t change facts. If they choose to give up what they’ve got, I get to free them of that burden.

I’m a secret-keeper; a sort of new-age sin-eater that swallows up all of these fuckers’ pain, bleeds it out the knuckles while I’m hammerin’ on ’em. In a way, I’m the one that suffers most for knowing what I do. Thank fuck for worker’s-comp and mandatory psych-evals. Maybe one day they’ll straighten me out enough to cover up my recurring wounds, then I can ask that cute minx out at the bookstore. I thought about saying I was a boxer once, but then realized I’d have to keep that cover by actually boxing. What fun is it when the other guy hits back?

There I go, digressing again. Anyway, that’s what I do. I beat the piss out of people for ol’ Uncle Sam, free them from their burdens, even help make the world a little safer in the process. I guess whatever my real title is, I’ll always just be the secret-keeper. Who knows, maybe even the minx has some secrets to tell.