Johnny Paxton stared at the solitary figure seated at the far end of the dimly lit tavern. Seated at his customary table, wearing shades. Day,night, and in between, the dude wore shades. Boston Bob was his name. At least, that’s the moniker he went by now. In this part of town, a man’s name, as well as his past, was his business, no one else’s. Boston Bob’s current business was lending money.
Johnny took a good pull at the double Jack Daniels in the shaky glass. This was his third…double that is. He’d been trying to screw up the courage to approach Boston Bob.
Funny, Boston Bob hardly ever seemed to move. Sat there almost stationary, occasionally taking a sip from the coffee cup on the table in front of him. The cup seemed never to be empty. Soon as it was, Fast Frankie, the bartender, would be there with a refill, like he knew. Weird.
Johnny felt the liquor winding through his body, warming him. Soon, he thought, I’ll go ask him. Hell, it wasn’t like it was a lot of money…only four grand that he needed, but the guy was creepy. Came into the neighborhood about two years ago and set up shop at the table almost immediately. Unlike the other people who lent money, Boston Bob didn’t have any enforcers, and didn’t ever have to resort to physical violence to get his money back. In this neighborhood, that was unheard of. But, they all paid him back. Always.
“Mind if I sit down?” Boston Bob motioned with the fingers of his right hand toward the chair. Never looked up, never seemed to otherwise acknowledge that Johnny was standing in front of him. Johnny didn’t know why, but it scared him. It felt like the air around the table was ten degrees colder than the rest of the tavern. He sat down and stared into the shades. He saw nothing.
“Name’s Johnny Paxton. Maybe you heard of me.”
“Some,” came the reply in a voice not much more than a whisper. Johnny felt even colder.
“Uh, well, you heard ‘bout me, then you know I’m good for what I say. Right?”
“You say so.”
The terse answers were strangely unsettling, though Johnny couldn’t exactly put his finger on why.
“I need some money…four large. You’ll have it back in a month.”
“I’m doing seven for five on vig.”
“Pretty steep. Jimmy the Rug’s doin’ six.”
“You didn’t hear?”
“Rug’s outta business,” said Boston Bob in that raspy voice. No emotion, just flat monotone. “Found ‘em this morning in a Dumpster with the rest of the trash. Ice pick growing in his ear.”
“Where’d you hear that? I don’t know from nothing ‘bout that and I been on the street all day.”
“Take my word for it. I hear things. The Rug ain’t gonna be around no more. Might say I’m the only game in town.”
What was it about this guy? Johnny knew lots of hard guys. Hell, the neighborhood was full of them. Guys who would slit your throat on a bet. In two bits on The Hill, Johnny’d spent time with some of the most cold-blooded killers in the state. Why did this guy make him nervous? He didn’t know, and he didn’t like it.
“So, can you hook me up, or what?” Johnny just wanted to get his money and be on his way.
Yah, no problem.”
“First, we gotta have a talk. Just take a few minutes of your time.”
“I done this before, y’know. I know the drill. You get the vig every week ‘til I pay back the four large.”
“Basically, yah. But, I got this thing about punctuality.”
“I’ll have it on time.”
“Every Monday, by twelve noon, at this table. Not twelve oh one. Twelve. Twelve oh one, you get doubled up on the vig.”
Johnny stared at the figure across the table. Black turtleneck, black leather jacket, black pants, and shades blacker than the night. “Okay, I understand.”
“Good. Now, before I give you the cash, you need to hear a short story.”
“Part of my terms. So’s we understand each other.”
“Know I work alone?”
“Yah, sure, everyone knows that,” Johnny answered.
“Never been stiffed.”
“That’s the word on the street.”
Boston Bob reached inside his jacket and removed what looked like a small jar covered with a piece of black cloth. He set it on the table.
“What’s that?,” asked Johnny.
“Part of the story.”
Johnny looked into the shades again. Still nothing. He wondered if it was such a good idea after all.
“Use to be a lot like you, course when I was a bit younger. Thought I was pretty much of a hot shot, kinda like you.”
“What’s that got to do with the money?”
“Everything. Went to borrow some money, from a guy like me. Wasn’t that much, less than two grand. I just knew that I could parlay it up to six, at least, ‘cause I had a sure thing at the track. I’d done it plenty of times before, no problem.”
Johnny lifted his glass, and just about drained the rest of the whiskey from it. He motioned for another from Fast Frankie.
“Well, seems this guy was real particular about the time his money got back to him, just like me. Thing of it is that I was young, like you, and being young I took liberties from time to time. Maybe you’ve done the same.”
Johnny saw his reflection in the lenses of the shades. Was it possible to look pale in this gloom? “I’d never try to screw you, honest.”
“Hmmm, hope not. Anyway, this guy was real particular ‘bout the time his money got back to him. My sure thing? Well, like lots of other things, it wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t make the vig, never mind the principal.”
“What happened?” Johnny asked, not sure that he wanted to hear the answer.
“I ran. He came for me.”
Boston Bob sat there, motionless, except for his right hand, which was now caressing the cloth-covered container. Johnny felt sweat trickling from under his arms.
“Do me a favor.”
“What?” Johnny said.
“Take the cloth off the jar.”
Johnny reached over and took the cloth-covered jar. It felt cold. He found the drawstring that held it shut and pulled the opening wide. Reaching in, he pulled out a small glass jar, maybe about three inches in height. There was something floating in liquid inside the jar. Johnny couldn’t quite make it out.
“I think you’re going to have to hold that up a bit. I’m told the light in here is not too good,” said Boston Bob.
Johnny picked the jar up and held it so that the light that was available shone through it. He almost dropped the jar when he saw the two eyeballs floating inside. With shaking hands he placed the jar back on the table.
“You see, Johnny, I was stupid. Being young, I thought I could work my way around anything. But, he came for me. Didn’t say a word, didn’t want to hear anything. Just plucked my eyes out of my head. Used a spoon, and it hurt like hell. Sometimes, even now, I think about it, it hurts.”
Johnny’s entire body was trembling. He wanted to get up and leave, but it was like his body wasn’t in synch with his mind.
“Want to show you something, Johnny.” Boston Bob reached up and removed his shades. Where there should have been eyes, there were only sockets, deep and empty. Johnny almost puked. Boston Bob placed the shades back over his eyeless sockets.
“Now,” said Boston Bob, “I need to tell you something else. I don’t work alone. This isn’t even my business. Man who did this to me, I work for him. I’m his front. Anything goes down, I go to the slam, not him. But, anyone welches, then he’ll come for them, just like he did me. Get where I’m going with this?”
“Y-y-yah,” Johnny stammered.
“Good. Two things. Pay back the money, and you never heard this story. If either of those conditions are violated, he’ll come for you. Understand?”
“Yes. I do.”
Boston Bob reached into another jacket pocket and pulled out a huge wad of bills, all hundreds. With practiced skill, he rifled through them, stopped after a minute, separated the bills he had counted out and extended them in Johnny’s direction. “Here’s your four large. You can count it if you want, but I been at this a long time. It’s all there.”
Johnny hesitantly took the bills from the other man’s hand. He stood, ready to leave as fast as he could without finishing the additional drink he had ordered. He was turning when Boston Bob’s voice stopped him.
“What?” answered Johnny.
“Remember, twelve sharp,” said Boston Bob as he tapped his shades. Johnny fairly ran from the tavern.
He sat back in the recliner, listening to a Bach cantata. He loved classical music. So soothing. As he listened to the beautiful melody, he could almost see the notes dancing before his eyes. Well, where he use to have eyes.
The apartment was right over the tavern, quite convenient, specially since he could go up the back way once the tavern closed. No one saw. No one except Fast Frankie, and he’d never tell. Frankie’d been in his platoon in ‘Nam. Been there when the claymore mine had gone off, ripping through the jungle air with a murderous spray of razor sharp metal. He wondered what the mathematical odds were of getting hit in both eyes while the rest of him went unscathed. Probably too high to calculate.
He remembered how he’d wanted to die for that year of recovery in the vet’s hospital once he got back stateside. He didn’t want to be an object of pity from everyone who passed by. With all that time alone, the idea seemed to have popped into his mind almost of its own accord, kind of unformed at first, then he focused on it, refined it, and went about taking the idea and making it reality. Once he’d done that, the rest was easy.
His platoon--he was in charge--had survived almost intact. Actually, he’d been the only one hit. The guys were really good about taking care of each other; they all kept in touch with him, and helped him when he showed up in their town. This was his third city. Each one was good for two to three years, and then it was time to move on.
He’d put the eyes back into the refrigerator, which held several similar jars. Bubba Ray had supplied him with those courtesy of some unsuspecting donors in the unclaimed bodies section of a major city morgue.
The piece was reaching a crescendo. Absentmindedly, he reached over to the table next to him, felt around and located the shades. He put them on. They made him comfortable.
Copyright 2000 J.W. Swain
Email the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org