“This guy the best we have?” The Old Man filled two glasses with 150-year-old whisky that had its own otherworldly glow, a spirit of crimson hues on the verge of wildfire. He handed one to Alfred.
Slowly and imperceptibly, his skin unfurled into a rictus, the furrows of his brow growing deeper, ploughed by years of violence and sinful thought. The Old Man sneered at Alfred’s dark-gray, hand-stitched Brioni. Fresh outta some pizza oven, he thought.
Ran his huge sausage fingers through a shock of rich bimetallic hair that seemed to wave and slither of its own accord.
Alfred took the glass, couldn’t summon the required single nerve to meet his boss’s glare. “No, but he does things quietly and to standard, leaves no mess for someone else to clean up, or for a curious detective to discover.”
The Old Man’s skin around his mouth drew in slightly, straining under something that tried to claw its way out. He unbuttoned another snap of his 50-year-old Stetson shirt, sat back in the overstuffed club chair, exhaling the unspoken comment he wanted to loose on Alfred. “Sounds like the best to me.”
“He’s small time,” Alfred said, dismissing the Old Man outright. He absently loosened his tie, unbuttoned the top mother-of-pearl of his crisp white shirt.
“What are you looking to have in your stable? Some high-end killer in bespoke Armani and Prada? A Hollywood version of the real thing?”
The two men sat in front of an ancient fireplace, one that burned day and night with old-forest oak that cracked and popped its presence every now and then. House was secluded in a forest of a thousand trees and deadfall from a hundred years of come and go, all cycles of weather, sun and the celestia. The heavy stone walls and double-tiled roof kept the interior chilled down to 70 degrees, even in the dead of a Florida summer.
No one within 20 miles.
“He’s not what I expected in a fixer, that’s all. But he gets things done.” As an afterthought, Alfred whispered, “Sir.”
“Family?” The Old Man drew harder on the whisky, threw a lasso around a few words that tried to escape. Poured himself another; didn’t offer one to Alfred.
“High school sweetheart or something. Novelist. Not bad at all. Couple of hit books maintain them in cash, so they live comfortably. Little condo out on North Longboat Key.”
“What, he doing all this gratis?”
“Near as we can tell, she doesn’t know a thing about his little side business.”
“What else he do?”
The Old Man took careful aim at Alfred’s eyes: “Houses or Picasso?”
“More like Picasso. Actually, he’s excellent but won’t get out there in the market. Keeps a low profile.”
His glare pulling off Alfred, it softened as it aimed somewhere up in the vaulted rough-hewn rafters: “Smart boy.”
“Yes, but it’d be good for him to do something other than drive his own taxi. He needs an outlet.”
“Drives a cab?”
“TommyTaxi, if you can believe that.”
Both men snorted what may have been a laugh. Alfred’s was a derisive one. The Old Man was genuinely amused.
“Did really well on that last job. How’d it end?” The Old Man knew the answer.
A corner of Alfred’s mouth rose imperceptibly. Was it pride? “Local law enforcement called it a suicide.”
“It’ll work, yes.”
The Old Man turned and leaned into Alfred: “Not like last time with that . . . hitman you brought in from Puerto Rico. Disaster.”
Not turning to his boss: “Unfortunately, these types are all pretty much the same.”
A corner of the Old Man’s mouth pitched up slightly: “You’re a snob, Alfred. A high-bred, white-collar snob. Bet you’ve never even been in a fist fight your entire life.”
Alfred looked nervously over at the man who gave him all his marching orders, remained smartly silent.
“And I’ll bet this Tom guy’s never been over to your house, has he? Hell, you don’t even thank the kid for a job well done, do you?” The Old Man laughed at his underling, reached over with a grizzly paw and patted him on his arm, cutting the tension a bit, but knowingly added a whole new level: “Don’t worry, I’ve been in this business too long just like you, so I’m a bit of one, too.”
That was a lie: the Old Man came from nothing, sweated blood in bust-ass blue-collar shitwork, crawled up the ranks and over every person in his way, even buried the bodies himself.
No response from Alfred. Looked straight ahead. “Tom will do right by us, Viktor. And then we’ll give him another job. And another. And he’ll keep doing well . . . until you have him, ah, accidentally killed.” Alfred regretted that last statement as soon as it spilled out.
The Old Man’s head turned slowly, eyes narrowed. Patted him on the arm again, claws out this time.
Alfred flinched noticeably.
“You need a vacation, son.”
Alfred recoiled again, knowing what the Old Man meant: he would be shuttled out of the office for an indefinite period, while they found a younger replacement, someone maybe not so uptight . . . and snobbish with the hired help.
“Alfred, your problem is simple: you’re an asshole wound up too tight. Your strings are thinned in places that make you vulnerable to snapping at an inopportune moment. Can’t have that, can we?”
No response from Alfred.
“This Darlington fella sounds like good people to me. Keep him around. What do you think?” he asked, not giving a damn about Alfred’s reply. Took a long sip of his whisky, held the glass in front of him, watching the flames meld with the ancient whisky and dance wildly through the flutes, reminding him of that bouncy little redhead. Teeth, tits and ass on a stick of dynamite, that one, he thought.
“I think he should show his paintings somewhere, get his face out there.” Alfred felt his entire body quiver.
“The kid needs to be brought along slowly.”
Alfred’s small voice: “I hear Malaysia is considering new artists for government installations.” Quivering, and now a painful itch inside his shoes.
“Just make sure he stays on the payroll, son.”
“I’ll see if we can’t get some of his work out there, maybe use a different name for Tom. Be good for him.” Now shaking, Alfred tried desperately to maintain a small measure of control.
“Bring up one of the girls, Alfred. The little blonde thing this time.”
“It’s only a matter of time before Tom—ah, Mr. Darlington’s artwork is discovered, then he’s off to Paris.” He leaked slightly into his underwear.
“Make it two: blondie and Emily. She’s still with us, eh? The redhead?” The Old Man put a firm hand on Alfred’s arm, stilled his shaking.
Through an all-body shudder, he felt the Old Man’s grip tighten up up up over his chest and farther up around his throat, cutting off blood to his next thought.
Alfred dropped the glass.