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Saint Jerome’s eyes were hard flint from his long life as a criminal and his smile had a soft glow because he was good at it. The well-tailored baby blue suit draped over his large frame was trimmed with gold to match his three gold necklaces. One necklace carried a simple gold cross, the second held a silver locket, and the third was empty of any ornamentation, as if he were a simple man of simple desires.
He most definitely was not.
At the Saint’s signal, the woman shopper patted me down. “He’s clear.”
Saint Jerome touched the blue velvet at the top of the cast-off pile. “Do you have this in red?”
The shopkeep—Anton—pressed himself farther into the corner. “Yes, yes sir. I’ll go get some.” He managed to slink through the back door—the one I wanted him to open—without moving one inch closer to the Saint.
“It’s been too long, Demarco,” the Saint said. His voice was oddly high for the masculinity of his body. “I miss seeing you around.”
I kept the woman in the corner of my eye. “I’ve been busy.”
“That’s what I hear. Busy getting in a little tussle with some of my boys.”
“Busy saving your boys from this Lauder character.”
Saint Jerome set the blue velvet down as if it were a dead fish. “Lauder.” He shot a look at the woman. “I’m hearing a lot about this Lauder.”
I paced around the outer wall of the shop, trying to make my movements casual, as if I weren’t immensely intimidated by this man. Logic told me he wouldn’t kill me in person, but logic and a roll of dimes wouldn’t help me buy tomorrow. A lot of men died with more. “Seems he’s heard a lot about you, too. Like he has a grudge.”
The Saint spread his open hands, palms up. “There are a lot of grudges going around these days. Can’t we find in our hearts for forgiveness?”
“Spoken like a true saint.”
Jerome’s eyes went hard and dark as the black void outside the station. “We all do our best, Demarco. Everybody but you.”
“Maybe my best isn’t up to sainthood.”
“Saintly behavior isn’t expected of you today.”
I found myself next to the bolt of velvet that had been so popular. It was nice, but they were right. The blue didn’t really pop. It needed red. When I spoke, I failed to keep the agitation from my voice. “If something is expected of me, it’ll have to wait. I’m on a job.” How many dimes would it cost to get me out of the trouble my mouth kept getting me into?
Saint Jerome shrugged his massive shoulders. The chains around his neck glittered in the shop’s yellow light. “Maybe you can multitask.”
“This is good cloth,” I said. “Where do you suppose Anton got off to?”
The woman’s posture changed, and I could tell my words got to her. She knew as well as I did that Anton was hiding in back.
Unless he wasn’t. Unless he was somewhere calling down Lauder’s men, setting up an impromptu ambush.
The woman made a few quick gestures. Sign language, but the only word I picked up was “Go.” She was paid to be paranoid.
“What’s the story, Jerome?” I pressed. “Why go through all this trouble to track me down and talk to me face to face. It’s not about Sam.”
“I was in the neighborhood on some business that required a personal touch.” His relaxed smile was unreadable, but I had the distinct impression he was sizing me up.
“And you decided to cross the street and pop in on me when you saw me walk past? We’re not friends. You have a reason to be here.”
He pressed a palm to his chest in mock hurt. “Not friends? That’s not what I heard.”
So Sam Wash had talked. Talked, and reported on everything I said to him. I wondered if it had all been a sham just to measure me up. Maybe I could make a decent living as a paranoid bodyguard like the woman. I was practically a natural. “I told you before, I’ve already been hired for a big job. If you have something else for me, it’ll wait.”
This time, I’d pushed the Saint too far. His jaw hardened and his eyebrows bunched up with anger. “Listen to me, handyman. I’m offering you work and you’re going to take it.”
I listened.
“There’s a bureaucrat who’s been giving me trouble. You’re going to get him out of the way for me.”
What was I, his hitman? “You have people for this.”
He flashed me a saccharine smile. “They’re busy.”
The woman crossed the store to me and handed me a sheaf of paper. I didn’t bother looking at it.
Jerome continued, “There’s a little paperwork here that needs filing. That’s all. The kind of paperwork that that nice sister of yours needs to file from time to time to keep her restaurant legit.”
“You know, real friends don’t make veiled threats.”
“Who’s making threats?” He lifted a bolt of white velvet and showed it to his bodyguard. “I like this one,” he said.
The woman said, “It’ll show stains.”
“Filing where?” I asked, not wanting to know where the conversation was going.
Anton picked that moment to return with a bolt of red velvet. It was quality stuff, and he held it up like he was a fisherman bringing back a triumphant catch. He practically glowed with excitement of it, but a touch of fear lingered in his eyes. “Red,” he said. “It was hard to find, but I knew I had it somewhere back there.”
Saint Jerome looked at him with all the warmth of a tiger shark. “Get the job done,” he said without bothering to look at me. “Everything you need is in the paperwork.”
With that, Jerome and his bodyguard left, stepping from the store directly into a black vehicle, which sped away.
Anton cleared his throat. “Do you still like to leave out the back?”
I clapped him on the shoulder. “Anton, I need a drink.”
He looked down at the red velvet. It spilled out over his hands like blood. He smelled of the sour sweat of fear. “I don’t think I can help you with that.”
I said, “This morning I didn’t have a job at all. Now I’ve got two, and I don’t want either one.”
Anton nodded. “You need a drink.”
“That I do.”

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About the author

AWEichenlaub

Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub

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