Sequel to Smoke
Every town has one of those. Regardless of how upscale, how astonishingly cultured, how universally dignified, it’s assured to feature such a wretched, malodorous dive. The place might not bear the title, but, beneath whatever layers of divergent decoration and distinctive names that strive to conceal that fundamental fact, it’s unquestionably one universal institution. I am currently trying my best to stifle my revulsion, as I ease into the stagnant darkness. The passage is found beneath the decrepit, pitted, bullet-riddled banner a familiar event, occasioned by the irksome necessity to visit my contact. He may not be a beggar, but ever since I made the resounding honour of his acquaintance, I have never questioned why he favours such a hellhole.
The ambiance can be related to a rift inside your head; a ringing, rattling din of drunken blathering emerging from the scarred and vomit-drenched bar. The few dubiously private booths emit a muddy, smoke-choked mystery, hosting people no doubt visiting appropriate company. Holding a distasteful scowl, I step over the prostrate form of a man whose life could only be so accurately described by the substance leaking out of his trap and the strength of the putrid odour, blending in ever so perfectly with the accumulated reek of the tavern. I barely refrain from the compulsion to deliver a swift kick to him as he utters a vulgar retch; noisily digesting whatever liquid meal he has partaken of late.
The miasma of the place is nothing less of olfactory rape. It is a nagging, gut-wrenching violation of one’s senses, utterly unapologetic. It is a scent that clings onto all surfaces, writhing away at one’s items of clothing and hair as surely as one’s very sanity. Nothing can be done to remove this radioactive waste site, save for a flamethrower followed by sixty, possibly seventy, lengthy and raging showers. I deliver a crisp glance at the swarthy man looming over a lot of very captive audience of sunken drunks. He acknowledges my presence with a sharp inclination of his quizzically square head. Before jerking his chin explicatively towards a booth at one of the place’s more distant fringe, beneath the shadow of a cloud of cigarette smoke. That is indeed a pleasant perfume, masking the putrescence produced by many of the bar’s patrons, and I discover myself revealing almost a bewildering smile as I arrive at the dense mist.
“Alberto.” I mutter, barely raising my voice. I feel it would be appropriate, considering how the murmuring drone of the other guests are kept at a politely minimal volume, probably with a cautious regard of how they are all presently in the throes of protracting hangovers. I dislike him woefully, and also am fairly confident that the sentiment is entirely mutual. The slightest notion of a relationship, personal or not, shared with such a person is the fabric of nightmare that fuels the desire to gouge one’s own brain with a chainsaw. He is not noticeably bad on the eyes, but his temperament is as civil as that of an articulate cockroach. He greets me with a puzzling yet penetrating stare of his brown eyes, underscored by a revealing mop of raven hair, and gestures me to sit down. To me, it might as well be a declaration of war, but I have little choice. I ease myself onto the sobbing, poking and curiously square Naugahyde cushion, elegantly decorated with that standard of inns: interlaced black electrical tape. “Or should I say, Anderson?”
“You dressed up to see me? I’m touched.” His voice rumbles in an odd duality of mouth and chest, hoarse and clipped. It is inevitably mixed with a foreign affliction, though not from any nation I would associate with such a name like ‘Alberto’. I snort, and reply with a languid roll of my eyes. I can barely resist a snide comment, as it would be best not to be confrontational, yet. “Do you have it?”
“How else can I justify stepping into this forsaken place?” Within my jacket is a tiny object, which proved to be infinitely more challenging to acquire than what I have previously perceived. It is quite remarkable the amount of effort and time required to secure a miniscule lump of plastic, though its contents are obviously more significant. I would not want to dabble with it regardless, as it would not be that surprising should the packet vigorously burst into flames at the slightest touch of those unprepared. “Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“No.” Naturally. I am but an asset, and thus not deserving of any explanation. I can understand, if only he is not such an insufferable individual. Regardless, it is not in my interests to care. “Are ‘ya going to give it to me, or will I have to ask a less gentlemanly.” The possibility of Anderson even being halfway polite dawns on me, and I thus must try my best to hide a sneer.
“Whatever.” I convey levelly, maintaining as levitous a tone as I can. It would certainly not be unreasonable to ask for an extra few tens of percentages, as that would barely cover the throbbing in my chest, or the scalding agony boiling from a crudely stitched laceration across my right leg. Getting me to show up here warrants an extra twenty thousand as it is. “Last job.” I gently, with utmost caution and due diligence, seize the zipper of my jacket, ease a hand into the lining and extricate the package. Just as I set it upon the table before me, he sweeps it towards him with a sharp stroke of his arm, not even bothering to check the content. He is presuming I would never consider betraying an employer, and he would be wise.
“Pleasure doing business.” I have no urge to wait around, and quickly usher my way out. However, I soon find myself obstructed by what can only be seen as Anderson’s followings. Men with well-pressed leather coats and thin-striped Homburgs, as well as a distinctive lack of influence under their footings, are in the way. I cannot hold in a powerful, aching sigh, as I am forced to turn around.
“What is the meaning of this?” I can feel a column of concentrated rage beginning to rise within me, and struggle to control it. It has been three years of ordeal, and I am definitely not eager for this bastard and his organisation to renege upon a solemn vow; trust and reputation are reciprocal. “That was the deal. I do this, and I’m done.”
“Sorry, I can’t let you leave.” He’s not that stupid, is he? I cannot believe the fool is actually smiling, an exposure of savagery glinting away at those flawless, pearlescent teeth. I feel my hands clenching, subduing an enormous pressure ready to spring from my fingertips.
“I know your boss, Alberto.” I growl dangerously. Patience is something I am not willing to demonstrate to people like these. “The old man might be caught in a snowstorm half his days, but he never lies.”
“Old man’s gone. Who do you think the new man in charge is?” I grit my teeth. “You’re looking right at him.” With a severe shake of my head, I feel like slapping him illustratively across the face. “He’s the only reason you were still alive.”
“You cannot be serious.” I iterate, my voice briefly lurching to a shriller octave. This is not what I have worked for, and I do not intend to be convinced. “You have to be on dope if you think you or your merry men of daisies here will be able to stop me.”
“I don’t, but I also know that you’re dizzy with a dame.” I can feel my pupils dilate. My personal safety is a far-gone conclusion, and I am entirely certain of my ability to escape from here. However, if he so much as to insinuate – “Doll’s named Carolyn, ain’t she?”
“How dare you?” I approach him, not entirely astonished when the sleek, gleaming contours of a handgun erupt into his palm.
“Don’t be so hasty.” He snaps, the smile evaporating in an instant. I do not care for his tone, or for the glare that has arisen from those miserable, dead eyes. The only thing occupying my attention is what exactly does he plan to do with that dirt he has on me. “No one knows about her. If you go down easy, I promise the bird won’t get hurt.”
“Why this, why now?”
“Don’t forget, I know you since you were in the force.” His voice is but quaking and aggravated. Never before have I seen him like this, certainly not in such a place amidst the oppressive, noxious cloud of smoke so dense that it would seem possible to clamber along the curtain of smog to the stratosphere; the unbelievable stench of concentrated humanity. “That night, when you and Johnny staked outside the creep joint. One of those you killed that day was my nephew.”
I am forced to stay still, suffer through a litany of dull thumps, of vaguely sickening crackle played by his hands onto the booth. It is as if to remind everyone of his own ordeals, of the pains he sat through, made to be both antagonising and annoying, a truly original combination. “So this is about revenge?”
“No…” The grin returns to his face. “Mostly an excuse really, as the old man rather liked you. I have to admit, this isn’t much of a planned operation, but I felt like I had to do it. I put only a half-hearted effort into this, as that is indicative how much this even means to me.” An eerie silence settles upon us. I recollect my options, only to arrive at a conclusion I should have from the start. There is no longer any running away, and now something much bigger than me it at risk. If I were to act, I would have to do so now.
He seems to unable to grasp how swift I am, as I vault forward, brandishing the eviscerating length of my concealed blade. The steel plunges itself into flesh, forcefully disarms the heat. My other hand delivers a solid, skull-shattering blow to my erstwhile contact. Still, I soon realise that I am virtually deaf from the thundering report of the pistol within these narrow confines, along with the blazing sheet of warmth beginning to flow across my abdomen. I grab furiously at the securities, with all the fight left in me, and smash them into the booth beside us. The way is finally clear, but I cannot help but ease a hand into the jacket, my palm emerging with a ghastly veneer of crimson.
Others seem to be feigning ignorance, but my focus cannot be spared at the moment. What I see is virtually black, stark, lustrous ebony, beneath the dim lighting. I stumble about, as my vision begins to deteriorate, swimming and shimmering from the wound. Making it out, I collapse against the gritty, liquid-stained brick façade with a dismal sigh. The icy air caresses my cheeks, seeming to cool more miserably with every instant. I cannot resist a certain ironic smile at the inexplicable agony. I conjure an image of a shock of velvet, tender grin, a solemn, yearning kiss at parting. What will I miss, if not for those desperate, longing touches; hushed words; and the glorious, passion-inflamed clash of flesh?
“Damn…” I groan, as my vision retreats into a dejected, tunnelling darkness, tapering further upon the dark, featureless sky above. Nothing feels quite like this regret. The very moment I am certain I can be free: free to embrace that gleaming beauty, free to spend the rest of my days at ease, only to know that the sole promise of any value to me is invalidated. The aspiration I sought for, safeguarded, for years; that single glimmer of hope… destroyed.
“I’m sorry -” I cannot even complete my sentence, as my chest hitches with one final, melodramatic breath. My mind draws a blank, ignoring the bellowing wall of sirens emerging, and only focus on a single instant. I can hear the sound of her calling my name from a distance, though I know it is but a dream.