It had been another one of those seemingly endless days when, like King Midas in reverse, everything I touched turned to shit. True, cold calling was a thankless and futile task at the best of times. In fact, most people in the company hated it but me, well, I just seemed to have a knack for it. A silver tongue. An innate ability to worm my way into peoples affections. To get them to fork out their hard earned cash for something they neither needed nor desired. To sell ice cream to Eskimos, as Foley, my boss, said. But recently, knockback had followed knockback and I’d started to feel as if I was losing my touch. I could see the predatory looks in the eyes of the young Turks who were so eager to take my position as top dog in Premier Properties. Something I was not going to allow happen, for sure.
The working day eventually ground painfully to a halt and I inevitably ended up sitting by myself, drowning my sorrows in a dreary hotel bar, staring out of the window as the autumn rain lashed the deserted car park. Letting my resentment bubble and boil. As was my want.
‘Think there’s a storm on the way?’ said Shelley, the pasty-faced barmaid, as she collected the half-empty glasses from the table next to mine. An uproarious group of young women had sat there for a while, knocking back tequila slammers and spewing out dirty jokes. A tiddly hen-party that had called in to shelter from the rain. I’d attempted to start a conversation with the dowdiest but the women had quickly made a hasty exit, of course.
‘Do I look like a weatherman?’ I said to Shelley, and glared at her. I didn’t need her pity-induced small talk today, that was for sure. The Half-Moon Hotel was a charmless place, catering to travelling salesmen for the most part but it was situated halfway between my office and my apartment and I called in after work most evenings for a drink or two. I occasionally chatted with Shelley, coming on all empathetic as she prattled on about her tedious family. Her monotonous life. On days like this, however, I preferred to get drunk in the company of my own self-loathing, thank you very much.
Shelley flushed and went behind the bar, noisily restocking the fridge with overpriced bottles of beer. Muttering under her breath. Her angelic exterior quickly crumbling. Predictably showing her true colours.
But then, most people were predictable, truth be told. They just couldn’t see outside the limits of their own experience. Couldn’t think outside the box, as Foley, would have said. They had a paucity of imagination.
When most people first clapped eyes on me, for example, their initial reaction was usually one of revulsion, followed quickly, perhaps, by pity. Sometimes hilarity. And maybe I would have been the same as them if I hadn’t been born a hunchback. Maybe I’d have been just as blinkered in my worldview but my disability gave me a unique perspective on life. Gave me an edge, really. A liberating cruelty.
There were many worse things than being a freak, after all. Being ordinary, mediocre, drab were much, much worse. Like Shelley. She was a mousey blonde with a mousey personality. One of life’s perpetual drudges. She did, of occasion, have her uses though and so I thought it best to make my peace with her. I limped over to the bar and gave her a weak smile? The limp? Oh, that was a fake, apart from the hump I was in the best of health but better to be hung for a sheep than a lamb.
‘Sorry about being so grumpy, Shelley,’ I said, drooling a little. Yeah, that was fake, too. I wiped my mouth with a napkin and put on a sigh.
Shelley beamed a 100 watt grin.
‘No problem, Ed, we all have our off-days.’
If the time was right, I would, perhaps, have gone into a long moan-ologue about how every day was an off-day for someone with my … problems but I wasn’t in the mood for a pity party so I just ordered another gin and tonic and then hobbled back to my seat, quickly followed by Shelley, who placed the drink on my table with an exaggerated flourish before heading back behind the bar.
A storm had indeed picked up, the sound of the rainfall mercifully drowning out the Joni Mitchell songs that were leaking out of the sound system. The front door noisily burst open and a group of shiny-happy-people loudly rushed in, eager to get out of the downpour. Two men and two women. Mid-thirties. All nice enough looking and well turned out in clothes that were fashionable but not overtly so. One of them spotted me looking over and turned to his friends. Whispered. They glanced over furtively and smiled uncomfortably. Ordered their drinks and retreated to a table as far away from me as possible.
Any other night, I would have had some sport with them. Maybe shuffled over and tripped so that I fell into their laps, accidently grabbing one of the women’s breasts. But today I had little energy for anything. I picked up my briefcase and took out a paperback book that I’d bought from a second-hand book shop during my lunch break. Sniffed it. Stroked the cover, which depicted some sort of elaborate machine that had been invented purely for the purpose of inflicting pain. I began reading and was submerged in a world of glorious suffering when someone stood over me, coughed and spoke.
‘Gorra love that Kafka,’ she said in a strong Liverpool accent.
I looked up as she took off her rain hat and let her long black hair fall loose.
‘A greatly misunderstood humourist,’ I said, straining a smile.
She took the book from my hands, frowned and almost threw it across the table.
‘When I was a kid I thought a penal colony was a country full of dicks,’ she said. Took off her raincoat and hung it over the back of a chair. ‘Maybe I was right.’
She pulled out another chair and sat next to me. Straightened her short black dress. Picked up my drink and sipped it.
‘Gin makes you sin,’ she said. She spat an ice cube back into my glass.
‘Do I know you?’ I said.
‘Well, you do now.’
She held out a perfectly manicured hand. I took it. It was ice cold.
‘I’m Roma. Shelley’s sister. She’s told me a lot about you. A lot. ’
She winked. I flushed and glared at Shelley who was behind the bar cleaning glasses. She looked uncomfortable and averted her gaze.
‘The resemblance is … is …’
‘Not biological,’ said Roma.
‘We’re both adopted.’
Roma clicked a finger and Shelley rushed over from behind the bar.
‘What can I get you?’ she said with voice like shattered glass.
‘Double Glenfidich for me and another gin for the Elephant Man,’ said Roma.
I flushed with embarrassment, rage and … desire. Roma held my gaze and I felt myself becoming aroused. She slipped a hand under the table and patted my hard penis. Dug her nails in.
‘Patience … you repulsive troll … patience.’
I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Roma fiddled with an unlit Gitanes Brunes and we sat in silence until Shelley brought the drinks over.
Roma put the cigarette back into its blue packet and sipped her drink.
‘Shelley tells me you’re a man of very special needs,’ she said.
‘Well, I’m certain I can help you satisfy those needs, with the right financial motivation.’
‘That’s good to know,’ I said, burning up. Skin prickly. Throat arid.
‘Sure you can afford it, Quasimodo?’
‘I can, I can.’
And I could.
My affliction had been due to some dubious pharmaceuticals my mother had taken during her pregnancy. She had subsequently been awarded a massive compensation payment from the manufacturer which she’d kept in a trust fund for me that I couldn’t access until I reached the age of 24. Now, well into my thirties, despite living quite frugally, I used it from time to time for holidays, and yes, occasional trips to see call girls. I had many special needs after all.
‘More booze?’ said Roma.
She raised her arm like a flamenco dancer and loudly clicked her fingers three times. Shelley brought another round of drinks over, we drank quickly and then the night dissolved into oblivion.
A thunderstorm ripped the night open and dragged me from my sleep. My swampy brain slowly focused on the silhouette of Roma’s naked body as she stood in front of my bedroom window, the tip of her cigarette glowing and disappearing as she sucked on it. A neon sign flickered and flashed outside, lightning flashed and then everything turned pitch black.
‘Power cut again,’ I said. ‘I’ll find a candle.’
‘Don’t bother,’ said Roma.
She leaned over and put out her cigarette on my shoulder. The pain was … delicious.
The cold morning air tasted like lead as I wandered from my apartment to my office. It was short walk but I felt exhausted as I sat at my desk. The morning was like wading through treacle, sipping muddy coffee and trying to concentrate on my work. When lunchtime came around, I walked up to Foley’s office. Knocked.
Foley looked up from his lap top. He was bleary eyed and unshaven but he still kept the good looks that had earned him a highly successful modelling career when he was younger.
‘Shit, Ed you look worse than I feel. You been burning the candle at both ends again?’
‘Something like that,’ I said. ‘Look, I need to go home and catch up on some sleep. I’m no use to anyone today.’
Foley looked as if he was about to say something about me being useless every day at the moment but he bit his tongue. I know I filled the company’s quota of disabled staff and was pretty much unsackable.
‘Do what you need to,’ he said and went back to Facebook.
I left the office and headed for The Half-Moon Hotel. I was relieved to see that Shelley wasn’t working and walked up to the bar, forgetting about putting on the fake limp.
‘G’& T, Ed?’ said Alec, the barman, a fading playboy with slicked back hair and the smile of a vampiric shark.
‘A bit early for the hard stuff. Just a half of Guinness.’
I was tempted to add ‘and that’s Mr Ross to you’. I hated the way people immediately assumed they were on first name terms with the disabled.
As I sat at the bar and sipped my drink, I stumbled through my foggy memory of the previous night. I certainly didn’t remember drinking a great deal but I really couldn’t remember leaving the hotel bar. Apart one moment of wakefulness the night was a blank.
I started to feel a little better and invariably ordered another drink.
‘Is Shelley working later?’ I said.
‘I doubt it,’ said Alec. ‘She was supposed to be working today but she phoned in sick. First time for everything, I suppose.’
‘Oh yes. She’s never sick. You know how bubbly she is. Sweet enough to give you diabetes. Still, since The Vamp appeared on the scene …’
‘The Vamp? Oh, Roma, her sister?’
I started to get excited just saying Roma’s name.
Alec laughed. Licked his teeth.
‘Sister? Well, they certainly didn’t kiss like sisters when I saw them in Le Madame last week.’
Le Madame was an infamous gay nightclub on the edges of the city. Images and words scattershot the sludge that passed as my thoughts. My throat went very dry. I slugged the Guinness but felt like choking.
‘You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,’ said Alec.
‘I’m the fucking ghost,’ I said.
I rushed back to my apartment, sweat oozing through my pores. Ignored the lift and ran upstairs. A click and I opened the door into the darkened room. The heat and the smell of sex smothered me.
I switched on the light. The place had been trashed, of course. My Lap top was gone along with a couple of watches and some other pieces of jewellery that could be described as being valuable. They’d even taken my phones. I knew that my credit cards had been taken before I opened the drawer to my desk but I looked anyway.
I was shaking as I went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took a bottle of Finlandia vodka from the freezer. Poured a more liberal amount into a dirty glass, drank it down in one but couldn’t wash away the thought that Roma- and presumably Shelley- had somehow got my bank account’s pin number from me. Wondered how much cash they could withdraw in one day. Could they take it all?
I poured myself another drink and sipped it slowly. Stared out of the kitchen window as another storm started up and watched the rain batter the city. I knew that I should get in touch with the bank and the police and try to sort out the mess but knowing wasn’t the same as doing. As the song said, ‘between thought and expression lies a lifetime’. Or something like that.
© Paul D. Brazill
Bio: Paul D. Brazill is the author of Gumshoe, Guns Of Brixton and Roman Dalton – Werewolf PI. He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc. member whose writing has been translated into Italian, Polish and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime 8,10 and 11, alongside the likes of Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman and Lee Child. He has edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste. HE BLOGS HERE.