He pushed through the throng at the front door, and ran.
He bumped into a woman coming in, knocking her bag flying, and he ran.
He hit the corner, grabbed a light pole and spun, aiming up the block, and he ran.
He dared to look back, just once, and saw no one following.
But still he ran.
He ran until he got to his own block. It took him twenty minutes. He didn’t dare stop.
Ricardo sat across from Constantine, his hands in his lap under the table, fingers now intertwined and twisting, then barrelled into fists. He could feel something wet between his fingers and knew that he had cut himself with his fingernails. But he felt no pain. Shock works that way.
Constantine was talking, and Ricardo nodded, happy to agree but not hearing a word Constantine was saying. He winced and screwed his eyes up as he got a slap on the head from behind.
“Pay attention, Ricky.”
Ricardo nodded again.
“I don’t think you’re paying attention.”
Ricardo nodded again.
“I said put your hands on the table where I can see them.”
Ricardo did as he was told, swallowing and daring a glance around.
They were seated in one of Constantine’s clubs, the early morning light filtering through now open blinds. Two girls were already warming up on stage, getting ready for the lunch hour. One of the girls looked older than usual, perhaps in her forties. Some bump and grind tune was playing and she was stretching out, clothed only in a tiny sequined outfit no bigger than an eye patch. She looked bored, but gave a little wink when she caught Ricardo’s eye.
“Want me to arrange a meeting?”
“Hmm?” said Ricardo, looking back at Constantine.
“Remind you of your mother?”
A chuckle came from behind him, and Ricardo winced again. Constantine leaned back and spread his arms wide.
“So, allow me to recap. Just so that we’re on the same page. Shall we do that?”
Ricardo nodded again.
“I’m going to need a little more from you, Ricky. Like words. Can you manage that?”
“Yes…yes,” said Ricardo, flinching as a beer was dumped onto the table next to him. Some spilled out the glass and he watched it spread, harsh overhead lights reflecting back at him.
“Let me see,” said Constantine, placing the glasses hung around his neck over his eyes and opening a small notebook, “let me see.”
He licked his thumb and turned a page.
“Okay,” he said, glancing at Ricardo over his glasses. “This is how it is. On the night of the 13th of March, in the year of our Lord 2020, last Friday in fact, your brother Sammy did enter this fine establishment and sit at the bar, there” – he pointed to a stool at the bar – “and proceeded to order a beer. Am I right so far?”
“Take a sip, Ricky.”
Ricardo looked down at his beer again. His throat suddenly seemed very dry. He took up the beer mug and had a sip.
“Fact 2: on the night of the 13th of March he did strike up a conversation with one Consuela while at the bar.”
“Yes,” said Ricardo.
Constantine looked at him again. “Fact 3: he offered Consuela a cigarette and lit it for her with a cheap dime store lighter, then offered her a drink.”
Ricardo said nothing. Constantine seemed not to mind.
“Fact 3: the barman did then and henceforth caution Sammy that said Consuela was, in fact, out of bounds vis-à-vis she belonged to another and was not to be bothered. Yes?”
“I don’t know,” said Ricardo.
“These are the facts,” said Constantine, waving his notebook at Ricardo.
“I know about the girl,” said Ricardo. “I don’t know if he was warned by the barman.”
“Well, he was,” said Constantine. “Do you know how I know this?”
Ricardo shook his head.
“Milo,” Constantine said to the man standing behind Ricardo, “how do I know that the barman warned our good friend Sammy?”
“Because Consuela is Fernando’s girl.”
“Was,” Constantine corrected him, “was Fernando’s girl. Why would he warn good ole Sammy about Fernando’s girl?”
“Because Fernando gets sticky about people talking to her.”
“And who was Fernando?” asked Constantine.
The man now leaned forward, huge hands on the table and his face level with Ricardo’s, just behind his shoulder.
“Fernando,” said the man, “was Constantine’s…how do I say this…most trusted friend? Lieutenant? Confidant? What’s the word?”
“That will work,” said Constantine, nodding. “That will work. Fact number 4: Sammy preferred not to heed the warning of the barman, instead asking Consuela again if she wished to have a drink.”
Ricardo sat, saying nothing, his hands still on the table, the spilled beer now touching his fingertips. Constantine stared at him for the longest time.
“Fact 5: upon seeing this, Fernando himself left an important conversation to voice his disapproval and ask Sammy to stop.”
“Fact 6: Sammy, being a cheerful guy and perhaps a little in his cups, then chose that moment to offer Fernando a drink instead.”
“Face 7: Fernando thanked him gracefully, declined the offered drink, and asked Sammy to be on his way. Are you with me so far?”
Ricardo nodded. Constantine nodded. The man behind Ricardo nodded.
“Fact 8, and this is the important one so pay attention. Our Sammy then took exception to the instruction, perhaps – and this is unlikely – because the light was in his eyes and he didn’t see that it was Fernando standing there. He said some words, Fernando said some words, Sammy stood up and pushed Fernando. Consuela, in the meantime, being a clever girl, got out of Dodge. How is this going?”
“Fine…fine,” said Ricardo, trying to look away but drawn to the notebook.
“Fact 9: Fernando found a broken bottle in his neck and Sammy ran.”
Constantine closed his notebook and sat back, taking a sip from his own beer. Ricardo couldn’t move. His mouth was now dryer than ever and he was rooted to his chair.
“You will note,” said Constantine, “that we used the term was. Consuela was his girl. Why do you think we use this term?”
Ricardo said nothing.
“Words, Ricky, I need words.”
Ricardo tried to say something but his mouth wouldn’t work. He tried to lift a hand but he had no control of them. Constantine nodded to the man behind him. Ricardo cried out as he was lifted from his chair and thrown on the stage. The two girls scattered. Constantine’s voice came again, louder this time.
“Words, Ricky! Words! Let’s hear you say some words!”
Ricardo was held down, a massive hand around his throat. He clutched at the hand and gurgled, struggling to get loose.
“Was, Ricky, was!”
Milo punched Ricardo in the face, and his nose crunched. He gagged as blood flowed from his nose into his mouth and his hands now went to his face. He was lifted again and thrown on the floor in front of Constantine. A boot kicked him over onto his back and then stepped onto his throat. Ricardo looked up through glazed eyes as Constantine bent over him.
“You’ve been a good friend, Ricky, a good man. It pains me to see you like this, because your idiot brother doesn’t understand his place in the world. Is this the first time we’ve had trouble?”
Ricardo tried to shake his head but the boot on this throat prevented him. Constantine didn’t wait.
“No, not the first time. But this one, you will agree, is a problem. Lucky for us, your brother is an idiot. If he were not an idiot, he would be long gone. So the real question is: how are we going to fix this?”
The boot lifted from Ricardo’s throat. Arms lifted him and dumped him back onto his chair. His beer was forcefully thrust into one hand, spilling again but this time down the front of his shirt, mingling with the blood flowing from his nose.
“I’m open to ideas,” said Constantine, sitting down across from Ricardo. The man handed him a dishtowel and Ricardo mopped at his face.
“No ideas?” said Constantine.
Ricardo shook his head.
“Well, then, allow me to suggest one. Would that be okay?”
“Capital!” said Constantine, clapping his hands. “Then this is what we shall do!”
A hand came from behind Ricardo, a mobile phone dropping onto the table in front of him.
“You’re free to go,” said Constantine. “Sammy shall remain as our guest. You will receive instructions over the course of the day, via this phone. That phone is now your wife. You are married to that phone. You will take it everywhere. You will do nothing else but cradle that phone. You will answer the phone if it rings. You will check every message. You will not speak to anyone else. You will not go to work. You will nurture that phone.”
Ricardo sat. The phone was pushed closer.
“You will receive a message today. The message will contain details on two people that we have an interest in. Another message will confirm the location of a weapon. You will, today, fetch the weapon and proceed to locate the two people we have an interest in.”
Constantine leaned forward, looking at Ricardo over the top of his glasses.
“You will then, today and before the clock strikes midnight, shoot the two people that we have an interest in. You will shoot them dead. Dead like Fernando. Dead like Consuela’s broken heart. You will take a picture with that phone to confirm this. Pictures. Plural. From multiple angles. You will send them to the only number stored on that phone.”
Ricardo sat, quiet, not breathing, no longer mopping at his face.
“Once we receive the pictures, Sammy can go. And then you go. You both go. Never come back here again.”
Ricardo was pulled to his feet and hustled towards the door.
He was spun around to face into the club again. Constantine held up nine fingers.
“I gave you 9 facts. So I’ll be giving you 9 bullets. Don’t waste them.”
This is part 1 of a longer story, which will be published soon as part of a collection.