Roger sat in the gaming room of his local pub with a dwindling reserve of chips in his cup. The feeling of sinking deeper into the irredeemable with every coin inserted gave him an odd thrill, even though fundamentally he knew it was stupid. That was the point. And it made a fantasy come to life in his mind: If he kept losing he could always go home to his flat, pack a bag or two, jump in the car and just drive–just say goodbye to everything and maybe get a job picking fruit, cash in hand. Forget the credit card companies and live off the grid somewhere. There would be no point being afraid now that things had got this bad, he told himself. At least he had only himself to worry about. His child maintenance payments had been infrequent and incomplete for a while now, and Roger was sure that their value to his ex-wife was more symbolic than material.
He had been approached at the casino at about this time last month by a man, a strange looking foreigner, who had offered him a loan at twenty-five percent. Just put a hand on his shoulder and said, “You need money?” Now the loan was due, and Roger couldn’t even afford the interest. There was no point hiding away; they had his details. The short, stocky man had introduced himself as “Bob,” in answer to Roger’s polite enquiry. Roger’s impression was that the name was not the man’s real one, In fact, Roger wasn’t completely sure he’d heard the name correctly, so shortly and sharply was it spoken in that accent that made words sound like plosive gunshots.
The place was one of those pubs that smell like ashes, even though supposedly no one smokes in them anymore. It was large and nondescript, with a vermillion carpet that glowed in the semi-dark. A depressing place, just right for firing up vague dreams of escape.
Suddenly there was a scream. It sounded at first like someone in pain, or who had just walked into a room to find a loved one in a pool of blood. Then there was a noise of cascading coins, followed by more screams that now dissolved into laughter. There was agitation as people got up to go and see which machine had paid off.
It was in the midst of this bewilderment that Roger felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the man from before.
“Time you pay.” The moment was so timely, Roger’s heart thumping from the shock he had just received, that it seemed a little uncanny, as well as frightening in the more obvious sense.
He spluttered incoherently before being actually physically lifted up and shoved into the adjoining sports bar. Wouldn’t someone intervene, seeing him treated like this? But he knew that he himself would have done nothing. Also, the man could have been a bouncer. He was dressed for the part in his plain black and white suit, and built for it as well, despite his short stature. Roger was coherent enough to reflect that, fortunately, they were not heading out via some emergency exit into the rear carpark, say, where he might have been about to get his brains smashed out behind a skip bin. No, if he was being taken outside, it was via the front entrance, via the sports bar, then the bistro.
But they didn’t make it to the bistro. Sitting straight-backed on a stool in the corner, past the bar and in front of a TV showing a horse race, was a little old man. He was staring at them and sitting there in an improbable posture, like he owned the place. His skin was finely lined, Roger could see in the fluorescent light and, like Bob, his head was hairless–eyebrows included. Both their faces were heavily ridged, conveying the impression of having been molded by the willpower within, and just stopping short of Neanderthal. With these features in common, their matching suits and regal bearing, they could easily have been father and son, if not the same man at different stages of his life.
“Mr. Bunting want talk with you.”
As with Bob’s own name, his boss’s was hard for Roger to make out. In fact, he may have got it wrong from start to finish, since he never saw it in print or made it a topic of conversation. It was an odd name for a foreigner, and the way Bob said it, emphasizing both syllables strongly and equally, left it no residue of familiarity.
Bob did not sit down but remained standing like a body guard, just out of Roger’s line of vision, having pulled out the opposite stool at the little round bar table in a disconcerting display of politeness. The little man stared straight at Roger, who glanced away, then back again, then feeling that he should speak, stuttered out an introduction “. . . Oh, of course you know who I am, Bob took my details.”
“This hotel belong to me,” he almost exclaimed, making Roger feel that he was trespassing. I have many business concern, in you country and in my country. It is good you here tonight, Mr. Dunn, so we can meet in person.” Hs accent as the same as Bob’s, though his English was evidently better. As Mr. Bunting spoke, his lips and Adam’s apple visibly oscillated, but there were none of the other little bodily movements and gestures that make speech seem organic and human in even the most composed individuals. His lips seemed paralyzed on the verge of smiling.
There intervened a pause, as Mr. Bunting continued to stare, unblinking, as though assessing Roger of waiting to for him to look away, which he did, momentarily. Then he said: “Look, I know what this is about. I’m sorry. You can’t . . .” he was going to invoke the “blood from a stone” cliché, but decided just in time that it was impolitic either to mention blood, or to tell this man what he could or could not do, but in extremity Roger’s mind tended to resort to cliché. “I mean, sorry, my payday’s next Thursday.”
“Are you married, Mr. Dunn?”
“Not anymore.” Lucky. He could play that up, if pushed. He really had not seen Ashleigh or his ex-wife for months. If he were dead they wouldn’t know or care.
“You owe me some money,” Mr. Bunting seemed to gloat. “How will you pay?”
“Well, I can pay. . . some in a week.”
“You not answer my question. You job, it make good money?”
“Uh, it’s ok.” This was as close to a lie as he felt capable of. It paid what he deserved.
“Then why you not pay me now? I think you are a gambler, lose much money all the time.”
No answer seemed necessary.
“I think you not pay if I give you one week, one month, one year.” He raised his hands above the table rim and counted very deliberately on his fingers: one, one, one. “No, I think a different thing. Instead of I hurt you, I give you more. Something good. I give you a girl. New wife for you.”
Roger incredulously repeated back what he had just heard, adding in the missing words.
“This girl from my country, she come here to work; she very pretty girl, need husband. You like pretty girl, Mr. Dunn? I want you marry her. I pay you $100,000 to marry this beautiful girl,” he emphasized, pointing first at himself, then at Roger, almost touching his chest across the small table. The finger did not shake in the slightest, and Roger felt that it contained enough force to push him off his seat.
Roger mentally went over the dangers of what he was being asked to do, and came up with only a vague but potent sense of trepidation. Still, he mumbled some words of agreement and looked for approval in Mr. Bunting’s face. But he was evidently smiling as widely as he could already. He did not offer his hand, but said, “Good.”
It felt a bit like making a pact with the devil, but then Roger had more than once imagined that, given the opportunity he would probably accept the offer.
Now Roger watched those thin lips lower themselves crookedly like cheap blinds. A glimpse of his gums gave the impression that, despite the strength he radiated, Mr. Bunting might not be in the best of health. This brought on a premonition of how it would feel to wake up tomorrow morning with the sun coming in through the uncurtained window with the broken blind, head pounding and bank account still empty.
“Keep you phone on, Mr. Dunn. We call you any time.” Mr. Bunting said, standing up, and emphasizing that “any time” in a way that felt like three blows of a mechanical hammer to his temple. He ignored Roger’s extended hand and simply kept standing and staring as Roger backed confusedly away, feeling the hand of Bob on his shoulder.
Having gradually come down in the world from his low-flying corporate days, Roger now worked for an “outsource provider,” in a call center that ran various “campaigns” on behalf of mostly public sector clients who cared little for the quality of the customer service they offered. In terms of call centers, this one was quite a peach, Roger understood. Before getting this job he’d lasted a fortnight in an outbound place after making less than fifty percent of his sales quota; here there were quite a few “lifers,” of which he was probably one by now.
It was one of those occasions on which Roger completely forgot what he was talking about and to whom. The customer had spent minutes detailing the number of times he had previously called about his allegedly faulty electricity meter, the names of people he had spoken to, where he had been transferred and what he had been told, and Roger had stopped listening minutes ago. He just couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened at the pub two nights ago. “Well, I can imagine how frustrating that must be,” he said as sympathetically as possible. “Let me pop you on hold for a moment and see what I can do.”
He did so, then clicked the “end call” button on the “Virtuaphone” with his mouse. There was a slim chance it would come back at him, but the caller had had a silent number, so it wouldn’t be his fault if the line really had cut out and he couldn’t call back.
It was his break now, but before he could take it Tim, one of the teamleaders, was beside him, nervously demanding attention. Tim was pleasant enough, atypically of those with his job title. Roger had the impression that he was an inoffensive brown-noser who had risen too fast due to that trait for his confidence to have quite caught up.
“What’s up, Tim?”
“Oh, umm, Tina’s on the phone now to this Mobitel customer you spoke to the other day. Can I give you his client ID?”
He read the number off the back of his hand. It was a customer for the dodgy phone carrier they represented who had called through at 4:58 pm the previous day. He had vociferously disputed his bill and grown insulting when Roger tried to placate him, so he had put him through to what he thought was an unstaffed extension, and left a note saying that the customer had hung up.
“Well, umm, Tina wants to talk to you about it after she’s finished sorting things out with him.”
Roger could see her gesticulating like a classical politician on the little podium where her desk was located so that she could survey everyone on the floor. It gave him that unpleasant, ice-cold feeling that had never got any easier to deal with since he was a little boy waiting outside the Principal’s office.
“Okay. Mind if I take a quick smoko then? I’m due a break now.”
“Uh, I guess . . .” Tim said, glancing to and fro between Tina and the sorry individual in front of him.
It was absurd but he felt like a naughty child, afraid to answer to this high-heeled girl with the sharp voice who would still have been in school when he was already raising a family. For a few years, anyway. He looked around at the stuffed toys and action figures posed along the workstation dividers, his colleagues just out of high school, the montage of pictures from various staff parties with Tina dressed as Wonder Woman. She had a nice body, he had to admit.
Roger went downstairs and out into the real world, where he lit a cigarette and dragged on it gratefully. It would be his last one till tomorrow, unless he wanted to go around picking up butts off the pavement to make rollies.
Checking his phone, he saw a missed call from a silent number. That took him instantly to the brink of panic; but just as it did so, the phone rang in his hand.
“I call you two times!”
“Sorry, I was at work. Sorry. You can always leave a message.”
“Mr. Bunting tell you answer you phone.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I’m at work; I’m sure you understand, I’ve still got to make a living, at least until . . . Here Roger trailed off awkwardly, hoping that Bob would offer some confirmation of the financial side of the deal struck between Roger and his boss, preferably in the form of money in the bank.
Bob got straight to the point immediately at hand. “Your wife come at airport six-fifteen tonight. You collect her. Her name Annie. I text you picture and detail. Money tomorrow.”
Roger assented, and Bob hung up abruptly.
His heart had been beating with anxiety and the nicotine rush from an overdue cigarette; now it was thumping with elation. Roger went back up in the elevator, swiped his card as was necessary, and made for his desk. He collected his coat and looked about for anything else he owned of value. There was nothing. He looked across the room at Tina who was sitting up on her little corner podium-like workspace. She stared at him with hostility; he stared back, thought “why not?” gave her the finger, and walked out. He had never seen that look on her face before.
The promised picture did not immediately arrive. When finally it did, it was extremely overexposed–so much so that really all you could tell was that the girl or woman had a roundish face, big eyes and dark hair. She was either very young, or keen to be so perceived in fact. From the days before he had given up hope, Roger remembered the tricks women used on dating sites to obscure their age and their less attractive features. There was even something a little disturbing about those really huge, dark eyeballs in that pallid face. Her lips looked quite bloodless, too. But the main worry was whether he would be able to recognize her.
A complication was that Roger would have to get home by public transport in order to get to his car. Normally he would have driven to work, but just at the moment he couldn’t afford all-day parking.
First there was an unexplained delay to the train; Roger paced up and down the platform, unable to quell his rising fears. The bus was late, also. By the time he got home it was 4:30 and he had still to get across to the other side of town somewhere between the after school rush and peak hour. It had started and stopped raining a couple of times on the journey, and the sky was overcast like doomsday.
Worse, once he had finished the hurried tidy-up and changed into fresh clothes—before finally getting out on the road, the petrol gage menaced him as he drove towards the airport. There were literally no funds he could draw upon until the following day. If he couldn’t get the two of them back home, well, they would work something out. The main thing was to be there in time.
So, was Annie going to move right in with him? Probably there would be another phone call at some stage, peremptorily telling him to chauffeur her somewhere else as her work-schedule demanded. He could deal with that; could his car? It didn’t sound too healthy and was overdue for a service. Well, you’d think they would know what they were getting with him. Maybe there would be a new car, a new place to live . . . ? Maybe he would never have reason to look back.
Unfortunately, a few kilometers down the freeway to the airport the engine started overheating, and a smell of burning began to fill the car. This had happened before a couple of times, but not for a while. Roger shut off the aircon and kept driving into the grey clouds on the horizon.
Then he felt the car struggling; no, it wasn’t struggling, it was giving up. The needle on the dashboard was quite calmly dropping to zero as the car smoothly decelerated and he realized that he had only a few seconds to pull over. There were horns behind him. He put on the hazards and sat there, numbed by the predictable malice of fate. It was a long time since he had paid his roadside assistance membership. In a moment, Roger was looking uncomprehendingly at the engine, waves of heat hitting him in the face while the cold ate into the rest of him. The oil was fine and he could see that the water was bubbling away in its plastic reservoir. One vehicle after another swooped past him like beasts of prey hunting something of greater account than him. It was spitting rain again, so he got back inside the car to think what to do.
It was five o’clock. No drastic time shortage as yet; still, it was difficult to see how he might get out of this one. Who could he call upon? Who might be able to come and pick him up and take him to the airport, not to mention back home again? He couldn’t pay. There were thirteen dollars or so in his bank account, and he had no credit. It was three days from pay day. The answer was obvious, but he didn’t want even to think it. His bride-to-be’s flight came in just after six. Roger didn’t really have any friends; he’d lost them all in the course of a marriage that had been quite demanding upon his time, and after that was over, had felt disinclined and poorly positioned to make any more.
The only person he could conceivably call was his ex-wife. They were supposed to be enemies, he guessed, but Roger was past blaming her; it was only her contempt to which he feared exposing himself. She might have just finished work, or she might have finished over an hour ago to pick up Ashleigh. She even lived nearby. On their housing estate you could hear the rush of the freeway like waves at the beach. He used to find that noise almost relaxing when he had lived there, too.
Concentrating hard on the money that was coming his way, he tapped Juleigh’s name in his phonebook. He would just not think about what he was doing; it would be just like talking on the phone at work. It went straight to message bank. He sighed and looked out across the four lines of traffic all going in one direction. Maybe he could report himself to the police as a weirdo staggering around on the margin of the freeway. That should get him a lift, though it might be in the wrong direction.
Then his phone rang.
Her initial response was only a slight chuckle of surprise. He remembered how, during their breakup, he would sometimes read an affectionate tone into her speech and manner that turned out to be really a kind of amused contempt.
“I hate to ask, but I need a small favor–”
“Oh?” she said, suspicious.
He explained with more concision and coherence than he had anticipated. There was silence for a moment. He was going to ask her not to hang up when she said, “Where are you?” Fortunately, he was just past the pedestrian overpass from the factory direct shops to the train station, a familiar landmark.
It took her about half an hour to get there; she managed to spot him and pull over onto the freeway shoulder behind him without any mishap. She sat there unsmiling, staring ahead while waiting for him to let himself in the passenger side, she was reminded of numerous occasions in the course of their marriage, such as the early months when they had only had one car between them–her old one, the one they had had sex in quite a few times. This one was much nicer.
He kept thanking her and making vague excuses while trying still to think up a plausible story about what he was doing. He was almost going to say that it was his mother he was going to meet, but then he remembered that the old woman kept in touch with Juleigh; fair enough, given that she had sole custody of her sole grandchild. His mind refused to work. Since agreeing to help, she had clearly had time to contemplate the situation from a perspective unfavorable to Roger. Preoccupied with the flow of traffic, it took her literally several minutes to find a gap. Tension rose.
“How is Ash–?”
“Can you wait a minute? I’m trying to execute an illegal maneuver, here!”
At length they were moving and it was she who next broke the silence. “So, what’s the story?”
“We’re going to the airport, you said. You don’t have any bags. Who are we picking up?”
Roger hesitated. “It’s a bit complicated. I’m doing someone a favor–”
“Is it the kind of favor that could put me in jail as an accessory? Because Ashleigh needs at least one parent to look after her.”
Roger stuttered and mumbled, trying to decide what line to take. She had given him an out; better take it.
“Yeah, it’s probably better you . . . I mean, it’s nothing that could get you into trouble, don’t worry, but–”
“Save it, Roger. I don’t care. I don’t know why I’m here, to tell the truth. You can find your own way back.”
“Oh, uh, couldn’t you . . .” He honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. He had been living moment-to-moment since the car had stopped.
“Doesn’t your friend or whoever have any money for the bus or a cab, either?”
“Oh, sure. Yep, it’ll be fine.”
Silence reigned for a while, unchallenged. Then Roger asked after Ashleigh.
“She’s sick, actually.”
“Oh, is it anything serious?”
“What would you do about it if it were?”
“Sorry, I was just asking if she’s okay.” Who was looking after her, then? It didn’t matter. To ask would only invite scorn. Was she living with that guy now? Did his daughter have a new father? It was better not to ask, not to know. Neither of them said anything further, but looked straight ahead all the way.
When they reached the airport, Roger had to apologize and promise to pay Juleigh back the exorbitant price of parking. “Sure,” she said blandly.
It was 6:25 and the plane had been on time. The immediate difficulty now lay in recognizing Annie. Juleigh was on the phone, so fortunately Roger was spared having to explain the situation at the crucial moment. Idiot, he hadn’t thought to make a sign with her name on it. Or rather he had, then had forgotten to actually do it, thinking it was more important to clean a few dishes back at the flat.
He had scrutinized a few faces that might conceivably have been Annie’s, when suddenly the ghoulishly pretty one from the photo–no mistaking it–jumped out of the crowd towards him. She was unearthly, like a generic vision of an extraterrestrial–though taller, more attractive and far from bald. That hair was as striking as anything else about her. Her eyes were large with their dark irises and pupils seeming to merge to form one big, dark blot (she must have been wearing contact lenses). Her figure was sleek and otter-like, a little short-legged but otherwise shapely. She was wearing a fitted dress with black and creamy-white diagonal stripes, and Roger noticed that her skin was even paler than those stripes. She would have looked like a business woman except for the frivolous and stiff little flap of fabric, cut on the diagonal, that decorated her waist.
She had seen him. Roger supposed she had been shown his license photo; though that wasn’t much to go on. Probably they had looked him up on Facebook.
“You are fucking kidding me,” said his ex-wife behind him, but he could hear her supercilious expression almost breaking into a smile. She was hooked now. He supposed that this was why Juleigh had been susceptible to his plea: she hoped that she might witness some disgrace of his.
Roger introduced himself, leaning in for a kiss on the cheek despite his nerves. “And this is Juleigh . . . a friend of mine.”
His future wife had the submissive manners of a courtesan, smiling and dipping the darkly arresting headlights of her eyes to nod in acknowledgement.
Seeing that she said nothing, he asked gently, “Do you speak English?”
“No,” she said, softly, shyly.
“I thought that to get a mail order bride you had to at least have a job. Is that what this is?”
Roger paused, uncertain how to answer.
“Hi, I’m Brian’s ex-wife. I’m here because his car broke down and he had no money for a taxi.”
He had almost forgotten that she could be so horrible. But Annie just smiled, mercifully uncomprehending. They had soon collected Annie’s luggage and reached the car. There was only a single piece: a large, old-fashioned looking brown suitcase. It wasn’t very heavy.
“I really appreciate your help tonight, Juleigh,” he said, pressing his luck and newfound psychological insight, “but maybe you can just drop us off at the nearest station and we can catch the train. You know I’m sorry to ask; it’s just it’s a long way, and–”
“Oh sure. This girl can get a taste of what kind of a life she’s in for with you, then you’re on your own!”
It was a long and strange journey home via two train journeys, with lengthy wait times either side. Roger apologized, but tried to make light of it as best he could. His embarrassment was lessened in that Annie’s whole manner said that she had no comprehension of what was going on around her and that she would take her cue from him–if not from some more dominant male–in all things. Her unblinking eyes were trained on him the whole time, as if she were in love with him; yet her face was expressionless, except when he would return her gaze directly and she would avert her gaze.
She didn’t say much, but what she did was in an accent that was recognizably akin to that of Mr. Bunting and Bob, but fortunately much softer. She spoke quietly and her tone was breathy, as though she had difficulty getting enough air into her lungs. With her compatriots she shared the ability to sit still as a lizard.
It started raining heavily at one point; fortunately there was shelter at the station and the short, violent shower had finished by the time they disembarked to walk home to Roger’s. There was a strange moment when Roger stepped in a deep puddle, turned around to warn Annie a moment too late–and found her wading straight through it without seeming to notice. It unnerved him a little.
They walked down the alleyway behind his block of flats, through the carpark and approached the rear entrance. A fright was in store there, as the shadowy figure he often nervously half-expected to emerge from behind the cotoneaster bush did indeed appear, shuffling out from behind it to stand silhouetted by the security light, holding an umbrella. He waved, and began pacing.
The caller was a smallish, middle aged man who stood there looking like a child caught shoplifting. His eyes did not meet Roger’s and at first he said nothing. He had a feeling that if the man had been wearing a hat of any kind, he would have taken it off and wrung it between his hands.
“Excuse me . . . sorry . . .” he began, then reached inside his jacket pocket and removed a couple of fifty dollar bills, which he proffered. “I waiting here . . . Mr. Bunting say . . . My English, so sorry.” He managed to say.
Roger was naturally nonplussed by the situation. He looked behind at his feminine shadow, who offered no hint of recognition or reassurance. There seemed nothing to do but take the money and show him upstairs, his heart pounding with indignation and fear of the world he was stumbling into. Alone in the living room, he went into the kitchen to find a drink of appalling wine. His socks were wet, it was cold, and he was hungry; a drink, and flicking on the oil heater was all he could do to right the situation for now.
The stranger was in the bedroom for a few minutes only. There was a faint knocking and squeaking noise as two people coupled on Roger’s old double mattress-and-base. He had bought it from the Salvation Army two years ago, and, he reflected, this was the first time it had seen any action. It reminded him of an incident when he was a teenager hosting a party and a couple had used his bed in this way. He had wanted that girl himself, and thought she was interested in him, while he filled her up with Southern Comfort. The memory of that shame replayed while a new one was forming.
When the little man came out Roger stood up from the couch and went to open the door to facilitate his exit. Didn’t smile or say anything, didn’t care of he was being rude to some lowly associate of Mr. Bunting. He and Annie were unbelievably tired, not to mention wet, and this clueless fool thought he could camp out on the doorstep? The visitor looked at Roger now with an astonishingly different aspect, seeming to read Roger’s mind. He seemed taller, broader, a different man. He had hair and eyebrows, but otherwise he might have been Bob’s twin.
Then he stepped forward and smacked Roger in the face with his umbrella, knocking him back against the wall, before leaving.
The phone rang, waking him. It was work, calling to see why he wasn’t there already. He hung up. He had fallen asleep on the couch after enough time had passed to reassure him than there would be no more callers that night, and for his lip to stop bleeding and finish bruising. He wanted to get away from his home, which was apparently not his home any longer. He logged in to his bank account and found that a deposit of two thousand dollars had been made. So that was how it was going to work. Of course, they wouldn’t want to attract attention by depositing the whole sum at once, but still. Had he heard the amount right? Or was it that small payments meant no escape, in case he had the temerity to attempt it.
Roger decided to go to the 7-11 on the corner for smokes, and also buying a couple of doughnuts. When he came back, he went to the bedroom, listened for a moment, and knocked. He hadn’t seen or heard Annie after the man left, prompting him to knock on the door at one point and ask if she was alright, then enter the room when no response came. “Okay,” was all he had got out of her. There was no answer now, either. Roger entered to find her sitting up, hair covering her face like a slipped party wig.
“I go to work?” she said in that breathy voice.
“Do you want breakfast? There’s a doughnut here.”
Annie looked at him, uncomprehending, from behind her half-parted, silky curtain of hair, which she did nothing to rearrange, but which fell into order under the force of gravity. He made eating gestures to show his meaning. “Oh, no, no,” she said.
“I’ll just make you a coffee, then.”
“No coffee. I work now.” Roger hated to think how this reflected on the probably relationship between Annie and her employers. Her body was not even her own for the purpose of eating breakfast. Worse, he hated what it implied was on his own immediate horizon.
“Help me,” she said. “Watch me.”
“You want me to . . .”
So he stood there, baffled and silent, as she got up, went to her suitcase, unzipped and spread it open, before standing it up lengthways. It was actually a portmanteau, like those that must have been used by travelling performers in the olden days. Dresses hung on their hangers on a collapsed rail like the stand of an ironing board, which Annie now extended. She then pressed a clip and out popped a little compartment for shoes. She went about her business deftly, looking at Roger constantly just as she had done on the way home from the airport. It was very strange, and reminded him of a dog in the presence of its master. She was without modesty where nudity was concerned, also, which was perhaps not so surprising.
Was she giving him the come-on? No, impossible.
“Don’t you want a shower?” he asked as she began pulling on her clean dress, a low cut, hot pink one that left little doubt as to her profession or her lithe figure–in case he’d missed it while she was bending over just now. His body responded but confusion held him back.
“Oh, no, no.”
Didn’t she sweat? Wasn’t dehydrated? The other, equally odd thing, was that she didn’t reapply her makeup, which was still in place from the previous night. Nothing was smudged, no panda-eyes, etc. Were her eyelashes fake? He thought of Bob’s and Mr. Bunting’s rugged brows. Now she stood dressed and smiled at him again. Although he hadn’t seen her do so, she had found time to put on some perfume. It was sweet like artificial lollies, and there was a lot of it.
“When do you have to be there?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers.
“I work here, now.”
And immediately, the buzzer sounded. It was a hideous sound, like receiving an electric shock to the temples. Guests were so infrequent Roger had never got used to it, if that were possible.
He went into the kitchen and answered it, visceral anguish building within him. The voice on the other end spoke some foreign syllables, but was not strident or angry. Not yet. He went down the stairs, resigned, (the key-button being broken), and opened the door.
Roger came home late that night, drunk and considerably poorer. In the living room everything was as he’d left it, his blanket from the night before still there on the couch, the TV on the same channel, chattering away at low volume. It was at once cold and stuffy; inevitable, because if you opened a window he heat would go out, and there wasn’t much of that. So what if men came and went? The best thing he could do, obviously, was to keep out of their way.
It was with trepidation that he stood before what used to be his bedroom door.
“Excuse me,” he piped.
“Excuse me,” he said, louder, “is there anyone in there?”
He reached in and turned on the light before entering.
Annie pulled herself upright on the edge of the rumpled bed, her hair a mess as it had been in the morning, though its texture was such that there seemed no danger of tangling. It was disconcerting, the way she acted so surprised at his entrance; her movements reminded him of a spider, especially of one that appears to be dead, having been swatted or sprayed, but then comes back to life unexpectedly. She soaked up his gaze as her eyes focused—then abruptly her head lolled deferentially. Roger felt embarrassed; didn’t she know that he was no one?
“Sorry, I . . .”
“Roger,” she said, staring into her lap, “please . . . help me.”
She was still wearing the pink dress she had put on that morning, but the decolletage had been pulled down and stretched, probably permanently, below one of her breasts, which she was not hurrying to put away. The skirt was up around her hips and her hairless pubis was visible. He tried not to stare, not that she minded.
She raised her arms up like a child who wants to be picked up and carried away, or like a ballerina in some scene of mythic pathos. He approached and went to pull the dress over her head. Her skin was cold–colder than it had been the previous night, and this, coupled with her stillness, shook him in a way that was not far from eroticism. When he picked her up she was totally limp: exhausted, no doubt. And suddenly the thought occurred to him that she had passed out, or worse. She didn’t seem to be breathing–and, he was no doctor, but where was her heartbeat?
“Annie! Are you okay?”
A pause while she drew breath with difficulty, then “Yes, I okay.”
“Can I put you down? Just while I run you a bath.”
So he did, leaving her on the couch, where she reclined bonelessly while the bath filled up. When it was ready he carried her in and laid her down in the tub, propping her head on a folded towel.
Just then the buzzer sounded with inimitable harshness. Roger’s stomach folded itself into a paper crane. “Hello?” Nothing on the other end at first; then a strident voice speaking those now-familiar foreign syllables. Funny, he thought, looking for some regularity amid the chaos, the ones last night and this morning were both shy–at first, anyway. It took him a moment, but he found himself saying: “I’m sorry, look, she’s in the bath,” he said, to no apparent avail, since the caller repeated the same syllables as before. He apologized again and tried to communicate that the establishment was closed, but it was no use.
When he opened the outer door, he saw by the security light not one but three men standing there. One was as bald as Bob or Mr. Bunting, while the other’s hair was falling out, giving him a highly unattractive appearance in conjunction with the greyish-white, stone-like quality that those two gangsters’ skin possessed. Their attitude was imperious. The second was different, looking over his shoulder and around the place, looking about him as if wanting to escape. He had that same heavy bone-structure, but in his case it made him look like some put-upon, uncomprehending beast. Roger took all this in at once, thinking of a bridegroom being shown a good time at his stag party, even though there was no atmosphere of fun about the proceedings.
The men followed him closely, then, once inside, made a bee-line for the bedroom door. The odd-man-out was escorted between the other two, one of whom placed an arm around his shoulder. Roger called out, “I’m sorry guys, she’s not in there; like I said, she’s in the bath right now.” They turned to face him as one, faces inscrutable as carven monoliths. “Sorry, I didn’t–we didn’t–know you were coming. It’s late.”
One of them pointed towards the bathroom door and said something with a questioning intonation. Roger nodded. The first briskly man entered the bathroom; the other remained behind at the far end of the living room, minding the odd-man-out and by turns following whatever his companion was doing in the bathroom and looking back at Roger with what could only be interpreted as hostility, contempt. A few clipped words passed between them. The other man now exited the bathroom, strode past his companions and straight up to Roger in a way that forced him to struggle with himself not to flinch. The stranger threw some sharp syllables in Roger’s face before grabbing his shirt front and pulling him across the room. Roger was too shocked to fight or protest. He took him into the bathroom and up to the edge of the bath, then threw Roger down on his knees Roger grabbed the edge of the bath to prevent the full impact, but nonetheless cried out in pain and fear. The man’s hands were very strong and sure.
“They’re going to kill me!” he thought in that moment, without understanding why, but imagining a gun held to the back of his head while he knelt there, looking down at Annie, who stared back up at him from under the bath water.
He was being reprimanded: good, they wouldn’t waste words if they were going to kill him, would they? Then the two of them lifted him up by the armpits and bundled him back into the living area. Then they threw him face-forwards into the coffee table, which tilted forward as it caught him in his gut, so that he tumbled in an undignified half-somersault. Winded and in shock, he managed to turn himself around and sit up, propped against the underside of the table.
“What about Annie?” he asked in a whisper. There was no answer, but a glimmer of amusement in those cold faces. Their grip, too, had been cold.
One man only stayed in front of him, staring him down; the other took out his phone and began walking around, apparently performing an inspection. Was the man on the phone calling an ambulance for Annie, or calling Mr. Bunting to inform him what had happened? At length he held the phone out to Roger. On the phone, as best he could tell, was Bob.
“I say you no answer my call again, I tell Mr. Bunting.”
“I . . .” He had nothing to say to that. His phone had had a flat battery when he left.
“You stay with you wife all day. It you job. No go anywhere!”
That much he remembered verbatim when replaying the conversation in his mind later on. Afterwards, when he was alone and presumably—hopefully–free to relax as best he might, Roger sorted through the fragments of broken English he could recall, and found that the instruction had been without qualification.
Now one of the men retrieved Annie from the bathtub and carried her, still dripping, into the bedroom. She raised an arm, languidly, and placed it around his neck. Soon a mechanical knocking sound issued from behind the bedroom door. Roger, still leaning against the overturned table, couldn’t believe it, but sat there in shock wondering at many questions.
When the men re-emerged, Roger was standing up as best he could with a pair of badly bruised kneecaps, unsure what to do. The odd-man-out walked in between the others on the way to the door. He looked as though he had been struck blind and was shaking all over. He was also dribbling, Roger could see, jaw hanging slack and eyes rolling back in his head as he lumbered forward like an animal walking on its hind legs. Roger could hear him breathing, too, and it was not a pleasant sound. The man behind had to guide him at one point when he lurched violently to one side and collided with the book case, smashing an attractive green glass kerosene lamp that was one of the only ornaments in Roger’s flat. Perhaps he was an epileptic or had some other neurological condition, and the excitement had proven too much for him?
When he went in to clean Annie up for a second time that evening, she was lying on her belly on the soaking wet bed. Evidently water from her lungs had spilled out of her in large quantities.
Roger pondered all that had happened as he lay on the couch that night, unable to sleep. There was nothing he could do. Why was he Annie’s keeper? Was she a potential runaway? No, he’d noticed that that was far from the case. She was helpless. On the contrary, it was easy to imagine that she became completely inert the moment you blinked, slumping like a slack-stringed puppet.
He watched them as they came and went. They would come in groups as often as not, sitting on the couch, staring straight ahead while waiting their turn in the bedroom. There was no restlessness in them. They had the ability to sit erect and absolutely still, waiting–and then moving suddenly in a way that made it clear how lethal they could be should Mr. Bunting give the command. He began to develop a theory that they didn’t even breathe–except in order to issue fusillades of speech; in fact, their plosive style of speech seemed a consequence of a constant need to reload, so to speak, with air in order to produce vocal sound at all. A normal person would hyperventilate if they tried to copy Mr. Bunting’s men. Further, it seemed likely that they had no heartbeat, perhaps no blood; that would account for their grey granite complexion. Annie’s, though paler and perfectly even, was certainly no more sanguine.
Yes, he was fairly sure that she no more breathed than ate or went to the toilet, which she certainly did not.
There was no knowing when the last client would come. Once or twice he had been able to go to bed on the couch after midnight and sleep through till mid-morning without interruption, but more often there would be a caller or two, and he must be ready for them. Of necessity he slipped out occasionally for supplies. He went to the 7-11 across the road and used his card, now increasingly in the black, and running back in time with his frantically beating heart. So far he hadn’t been caught.
What his neighbors must have thought about the comings and goings he could only imagine. Mr. Bunting and his minions would no doubt be capable of handling any situation that might arise in that regard.
He had grown psychologically enthralled to an extent out of proportion to the violence he had so far suffered–although there had been more of that since the bath incident. Moreover, it was more the way they looked right through him, seeing him as the useless coward he knew he knew himself essentially to be. But on the other hand, maybe he was supposed to rise to this inner challenge, to brave the possibility of that terrible buzzer raking over his being at the crucial moment. His one, far-fetched hope was that it was some kind of initiation test. Watching them, Roger began to identify with them, to feel an overwhelming aspiration to join and be accepted by the gang.
But the hypothesis gaining the most ground was that they intended to torture him to death.
Their only weakness besides sex with Annie seemed to be the enjoyment they derived from causing him pain. True, they mostly ignored him, but there was no knowing when the next attack would come. For example, he was beaten once for keeping them waiting outside the door. That had happened because the previous client had demanded a martini—the first time any of them had expressed any interest in drinking. Roger had had to run to the bottle shop, some distance away, and by the time he returned that client had left and two more had arrived.
When they beat him, he knew that it was always with much of their power held in reserve. They could have punched through him like steel through paper.
Days would go by without a glance in his direction; then a new and worse trial would confront him. Most recently he had been required for the first time in the bedroom while the clients were in there with Annie. They ordered him to strip. “Now, fuck you wife,” they commanded him, laughing in the disturbing way they had, like dogs panting, teeth bared. She lay there, legs spread wide, her dark eyes expressionless, seemingly indifferent and uncomprehending of his pain, while the others stood in a circle around him. Needless to say, he could not perform. “I show you,” one of them said, pushing him out of the way, one handed, with such force that he fell over and was allowed to stagger out into the living room, where he poured himself a large drink of Jack Daniels, a luxury he had not been able to afford in years.
Now, the amount Mr. Bunting had agreed to pay him was finite, and Roger was growing convinced that the term of these payments set a term to his life. That was the essential torture of his position. For evidence, he could point to the fact that the payments, though regular each fortnight, were not of a constant amount. Their amount seemed to correspond to the insults and pain inflicted on him in the preceding period, and it was increasing all the time. Time was running out. It seemed a logical progression from here to physical castration, to death, Roger told himself. Not for the first time in his life, but with more conviction than ever before, “Nothing to lose” became his silent mantra.
A definite pressure was building within him. Maybe he too had strength held in reserve. Late one night after what he hoped would be the last visitor, Roger bathed Annie (as he had learned by trial and error that he was, in fact, supposed to do) and put her to bed as usual; then, his heart pounding, he got in beside her and pulled her cold body to his. There was no “What are you doing?” or “What you do?” Just the languid movements of a sleepy whore–like a snake waking up in the springtime. He had been afraid of a repeat of his previous impotence, but touching her skin was thrillingly erotic, like ice applied to an erogenous zone at the right moment. Her sweet perfume was powerful, filling his sinuses and brain with a new appreciation of everything.
Roger had never been the type to be turned on by a woman who didn’t pull her weight in bed. Despite appearances, that wasn’t Annie at all. The clue had been there in the intent, devoted look he had felt more than seen her give him (and presumably everyone else) when they were alone; this time, however, she didn’t look away. She gazed into him as if he held the key to her existence, just as, he deeply felt, she held the key to his. Without nostalgia, he remembered how it had been at first with Juleigh, all those years ago. Now, just as he was about to take her, she wrestled him underneath her with surprising strength and straddled him. She was smiling, as if enjoying his surprise. Then she held him with her dark eyes in the dark, the city lights outside the first floor window lighting the room enough for him to see and marvel at her beauty. This was their wedding night.
He was inside her–and then a split second later, with the first movement of her hips, it was as if a hypodermic needle penetrated him in turn. Then, before he could respond in any way, it was compressed and emptied. Its contents entered his bloodstream in a burning, freezing cold rush. Joy became terror, bliss agony. It was something alive with a horrible alien life-force, and it was in the process of seizing its rightful throne within his consciousness and his body, having overrun them both. His heart was its artillery.
And in the same moment the metallic noise of the front door buzzer entered his soul through his ears like a serrated weapon.
Roger gasped and seemed to fill his lungs with the unbreathable air of the outer universe, into whose blackness he was now banished for eternity. But it wasn’t peaceful there, even if the noises were all in his head, his head was in an eternal process of exploding like that of an astronaut in some film. An unending crescendo of discord built up and plateaued on a level far beyond anything he had known or imagined before. Before his mind stopped functioning, the last thing he could comprehend happening to him was a complete involution of consciousness from head to a heart that seemed to be pumping mercury.
Despite all this, how this second marriage compared to his first Roger was never in any position to say.
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