"What the hell are you waiting for?" Shane asked.
Gary took a long drag off his cigarette and nodded towards the jewelry store across the street from where they stood.
"I don't get it. Every month we come through this neighborhood to collect but we never go in there. That place makes more cash in a day than most of the restaurants and stores on our list do in a week."
Shane looked at Gary intently. "Ronford don't pay us to think. If he wanted us to give that shop a shakedown, He'd tell us."
"It just don't make sense. You know what I'm saying?"
"Forget it, Gary. We got work to do." Shane turned and opened the door of the flower shop they stood in front of. Gary followed him reluctantly still eyeing the jewelry shop.
A small bell above the flower shop's door jingled as they entered. Martha looked up from behind the counter and the smile on her face vanished instantly as she saw who it was.
Shane walked up to the counter. "This place just keeps looking nicer and nicer, Martha. How do you do it?"
"Thank you," Martha answered nervously. She slid her hand under the counter and produced a gray envelope which she handed to Gary. He flipped it open and took a quick count of the cash inside.
"Don't nobody ever bother you, do they Martha?" Shane grinned. She shook her head sadly. "Good. Then see the money's worth it. Let's make sure it stays that way, okay?"
Shane led Gary back outside the shop as Gary stuffed the envelope into his coat pocket. Shane stopped on the street corner to check his list of places to visit today, but Gary walked on past him without slowing.
"Hey, what you doing man?"
"Taking the initiative."
Gary crossed the street, heading for the jewelry shop. Shane cursed heavily under his breath and moved to follow him.
"You're going to get us into some deep shit, Gary boy."
"Naw, but I might get us a raise."
Malarath Jewelers was the oldest and most successful shop on the street. Its windows were filled with high quality, hand cut gems and sparkling necklaces and bracelets better suited to Beverly Hills than New Jersey. Unlike the other shops around it, its doors were made of a thick wood instead of transparent plexi-glass. Gary pushed them open and sauntered inside.
Old man Malarath sat on a stool beside a display rack of pearls. He smiled a nearly toothlessly grin at Gary and Shane as they entered. His adopted son, John, swept towards them, eager to greet the new customers.
"Hello, gentlemen. What can I help you with today?"
Gary punched him full force in the gut as Shane pulled the doors of the shop closed behind them. John fell to the floor gasping for breath.
"This is a pretty bad neighborhood to be running a joint like this, wouldn't you say?" Gary laughed. As John started to get up, Gary kicked him dead on in the mouth. John went down again, spitting blood and teeth. "What kind of insurance do you fellows have for your shop? Not the kind you need, I'm guessing."
Old man Malarath got up from his stool. His bones seemed to creak as he moved. Liverspots covered his skin and the silver hair atop his head was so thin that Gary could make out the blue of veins beneath it.
"I think you boys are making a mistake," Malarath said, his eyes meeting Gary's. Gary felt a shiver run down his spine. The old man's eyes were hard and like ice. "Did Ronford Jr. send you? I bet he didn't."
"Shut up!" Gary screamed, pulling a .38 from a holster inside his coat. Gary moved towards the old man and slammed him up against the nearest wall. He pressed the .38 into the dangling, wrinkled flesh of the old man's chin.
"Jesus." Shane muttered. "Gary, I don't. . ."
"Look, pops, you've gotten off too long. It's time you paid up like everyone else."
Malarath said nothing but the hurt and anger he felt was clearly shown on his face. A bruise was already forming on his skin where Gary's gun poked him. After a moment, he said, "John, get up and give these gentlemen what they want."
"That's more like it," Gary said, "You are a wise man after all, Malarath."
John holding a hand over his bleeding lips, hobbled over to the cash register and opened it. Suddenly, Malarath struggled against Gary's grip. "No!" the old man yelled at John, who yanked a 12 gauge from its hiding place and leveled it at the intruders. Gary fired twice with blinding speed. His first round struck John's shoulder and sent the shotgun flying across the store. His second tore into John's throat as blood sprayed from the wound.
"Shit!" Shane raged and rushed to the register. He stuffed his pockets with as much green as he could.
Gary slammed Malarath back against the wall. "That was stupid, pops! You better keep your mouth shut about what really went down here or we'll be back, understand?"
He let go of the old man. Shane had already thrown the doors wide and disappeared down the street. Gary watched Malarath limp over to his son's body and fall to his knees beside the cooling body. Tears burned in the old man's eyes but his look was one of hatred as Gary made for the doors.
"Tell Ronford, I will be coming," Malarath sobbed quietly.
Gary chuckled as he ran out onto the street. He met Shane in an alley several blocks away. Shane was royally pissed. "Deep shit, man. I told you so."
Gary waved off Shane's remark. "How much did we clear?"
Shane pulled out a wad of cash. "Nine thousand and something."
"Damn. They had that much just sitting around?"
"Ronford's going to go crazy when he finds out what you did."
"Nine grand," Gary muttered, "Nine f---ing grand, in one pop."
Jerry Ronford sat behind the desk in his office above Baal's Paradise. He owned the club and it was rather successful but really it was just a base of operations for his real business in the city. He glanced up from a stack of paperwork as David opened the office door and leaned inside. David stood nearly seven feet tall and had to duck slightly as he entered, his thick muscles rippling under the black T-shirt he wore. In a slow, dim voice he informed Jerry that Shane and Gary were there to see him. David made a great bodyguard and bouncer but his skills as a receptionist were often found lacking.
"Let'em in," Jerry ordered and went back to his work.
Gary and Shane passed by David's hulking form and stood in front of Jerry's desk. Gary's earlier bravado was gone. Both men looked liked kids who'd gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
"How do things go today?"
"We got a bit over twelve thousand," Shane said leaning over to lay a stack of envelopes and a wad of bills on Jerry's desk. Jerry dropped his papers and stared at them.
"To what do I owe this unexpected increase?"
"I. . ."Gary started but his voice cracked. "I added Malarath's to the list."
Jerry pushed back from his desk and rested his hands on the desk before him.
"I don't remember telling you to do that."
"You didn't," Shane answered nervously.
"Things went bad," Gary added. "I killed the old guy's son."
"You're on your own with that," Jerry said calmly.
"Shane, find yourself a new partner. Gary will no longer be in my employ."
David grabbed Gary from behind and snapped his neck effortlessly. The giant held Gary's body like an odd doll in his arms.
"Is that everything I need to know?"
Shane nodded, watching a trickle of blood form at the corners of Gary's mouth.
"You may go then. I will look forward to seeing you next month."
Shane fled the office as David dropped Gary's body to the floor.
"Go get someone to help clean up this mess!" Jerry snapped at the giant. As the office door closed, Jerry got up from his seat and paced nervously. The name Malarath meant something to him but he couldn't quite remember what.
Jerry stepped over Gary's body and poured himself a scotch. He downed it in a gulp and poured another. Malarath. His hand slid unconsciously under his shirt and clutched the five pointed star which hung on his necklace. He yelped and pulled his hand away. Burnt into his palm was the was the shape of the star. At that moment, he remembered where he had heard the name.
Jerry owed his success to his father, who in turn owed Harold Ronford, Jerry's Grandfather. Harold had moved here when the city was still young. It was he who had laid the foundations of the family's turf and set up the beats they walked even today, though some things had changed of course. Jerry remembered through the haze of the years when his father had taken over the business. It had been snowing that day and the schools had been closed. His father, cursing like a mad man, had been forced to bring Jerry along to that meeting where the power had changed hands. He could see in his mind, Harold in his three piece suit and his bald head with the smell of hospitals about him talking to his father. His grandfather had looked into Jerry Ronford Sr.'s eyes and told him never to bother Mr. Malarath. Malarath was off limits to the whole organization. When Jerry's father had protested saying Malarath was a gold mine waiting to be milked, Harold had slapped him so hard the sound had echoed in the room and told him no again. No one else had ever done that to Ronford Sr. and lived. Yet his father had backed down and Malarath's had been off limits until today. There were stories even back then about the old man. People said that he "wasn't right."
Jerry downed his second glass of scotch. He knew he had the cops in his pocket. Surely there was nothing the old man could do to him now, but this business of murder in broad daylight left him feeling uneasy. Maybe it was best to lay low for a while, cut back on some of his bigger deals, just in case the feds got involved.
When David returned, Jerry told him to get the car ready. He was going home early today. Seeing Trish and the kids might help him to take this crap off his mind.
Shane felt lucky to be alive. He'd went straight from Ronford's office to his dealer and scored a huge hit. His apartment was trashed but he didn't give a rat's ass.
He smiled as he finished tying off his arm and got the needle ready. In a second, he would be as close to heaven as anyone ever got in this life.
Shane jumped, dropping the needle, as he heard the voice behind him.
"Where is your friend, Mr. Kingston?"
Shane whirled around to see Mr. Malarath standing beside his bed.
"What the f--- are you doing here?" he shouted at the old man. "How did you get in?"
The old man grabbed him by the throat and lifted him single-handedly from the bed. Shane's feet kicked in the air, knocking against the bed's frame. His eyes bulged as the old man's grip tightened, cutting off his breath.
"I don't suppose it matters. I'll find him soon enough."
Shane's screams echoed down the hallway, but no one came to see what was happening. People in his building didn't take chances.
Jerry fell asleep on the long ride home. David drove the car up to the front steps of Jerry's large three story house in the suburbs and got out to open his boss's door.
"Mr. Ronford, you're home," David said gruffly, tapping Jerry on the shoulder.
"You're home, sir."
"Oh, thanks, David," Jerry said getting out of the car. "Let's go see what Trish has cooked up for dinner."
"I hope it's not turkey again, Mr. Ronford." David grunted, his disgust evident.
"David. . ." Jerry started, then decided not to waste his time. Trish hadn't actually cooked in years. Jerry saw to it that she had servants to do that kind of thing for her.
"Honey, we're home!" Jerry yelled as he and David walked into the foyer and began to hang their coats. He looked around expecting to see Brian come running around the corner in any second. Daddy coming home was still a big event for the little guy, but nothing moved in the house. Jerry felt cold inside and dread crept over him.
Noticing his boss's discomfort, David drew his 9mm and went first into the living room. Trish's body dangled from the ceiling fan by a strand of her own intestines. Jerry's son and daughter sat on the couch watching her limp body turn in slow circles before them. Their eyes were glazed over and their souls far away.
Malarath sat in Jerry's favorite chair . "Welcome home, Mr. Ronford."
David leveled his gun at the old man and emptied the clip in a series of thunderclaps. The bullets passed through the old man harmlessly, shredding the cushions of the chair. Malarath casually waved his hand and David burst into flame. The giant howled as his skin began to melt like wax. He turned towards Jerry and came at him with his arms open in a blazing embrace. Jerry drew his own 9mm and shot David point blank in the forehead, side stepping the giant's corpse as it went sprawling across the floor. The scent of charred flesh filled the air. Jerry stared at Malarath.
"I did nothing to you! You had no right to do this!"
"I had every right, Jerry. A deal's a deal no matter how much time passes. That doesn't change."
"What are you talking about?"
"You've worn that pentagram around your neck your whole life. Have you never wondered what it meant?"
Jerry held up his bandaged hand before his face and saw that the blood and pus from his wound had leaked through the cloth in the pattern of the star on his necklace.
"You have broken the pact your grandfather made, Jerry. All your family ever had is now gone. I gave it and I have taken it away. You are mine now."
The sun had set outside. The room was dark but for David's burning remains. In the flickering light of the flames, Jerry thought he saw Malarath's face change. In place of liverspots there was now scales and long horns sprouted from the old man's forehead. Malarath's eyes seemed to glow a bright green.
"To hell with you!" Jerry shouted, fleeing for the front door of the house.
"Exactly," Malarath cackled.
A wave of flame seemed to erupt from out of nowhere like an explosion. It swept through the house setting everything ablaze. Jerry screamed in pain and stumbled a few feet from the door. The fire grew hotter and the ceiling gave way. It fell over Jerry and Malarath with a loud crash. Then everything was still except for the fire itself. A quiet voice whispered once more, "Exactly."
First published in The Murder Hole, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 by Eric S. Brown and Bewildering Stories.