Like taxes or the Mets imploding before July, blood is an inevitability in his line of work, so he wears the red Jordans whenever he makes house calls. A full-service operation like his, working all over the city, he doesn’t always have time to stop at home and shower or change clothes. Plus, the Jordans look killer.
Ray puts one size thirteen foot in front of the other, counting house numbers, comparing them to a piece of scrap paper that looks Lilliputian in his massive, fleshy grip. He comes through this neighborhood every Friday, but he can never remember the numbers. He likes the mix-and-match feel of the place. Number eighty-five stands at the intersection of two streets—one side residential, new construction in an up-and-coming part of town; the other commercial, a Dominican bodega sharing the sidewalk with an electronics store and a clothing boutique.
A group of kids in jeans and T-shirts loiter outside the grocery store, tossing a baseball back and forth, passing around a two-liter bottle of RC Cola. They stare at him from across the street as he pauses at the bottom of the stoop, clearly talking about him, but he can’t make it out. He gives them a head nod; their leader, a lanky kid in a ratty old Ewing jersey, nods back. Ray is pretty sure he’s seen the kid around before, but when he’s on the job he never lets his focus wander. The first time he drops his guard could be his last.
He takes the stairs up to the brownstone two at a time, humming to himself. The heat of summer hangs in the air, dense, oppressive. Almost quittin’ time, he thinks. One last gig and that’ll be his week done, then a two-hour drive upstate to see Cherry and go out on the boat. All he’s thought about all week is her fat ass in a bikini.
Two hard raps on the door. “Package for Mr. Trent.”
Movement inside, bare feet shuffling on hard wood. A small, balding man with puffy cheeks and the shadow of a mustache opens the door, looking up at Ray.
Ray pushes his way inside past the stunned man, closing the door gently.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Trent.”
Trent mumbles noncommittally, allowing himself to be guided into the living room, one of Ray’s massive paws at the small of his back.
“Please, have a seat.” Ray points to a leather recliner set up across from a gigantic TV.
Sweat forming at his temples, Trent licks his lips. “You, uh, work for Mr. Pollitz?”
“You got it.”
Ray gives the guy’s living room a quick once-over. There isn’t much besides the TV and the chair. A loveseat off to the side, obviously rarely used; a stereo system on standby mode; no pictures on the walls or tables.
Turning suddenly, Ray walks over to the loveseat and sits down, sinking into the leather. Time to get down to business. He doesn’t want to keep Cherry waiting.
“You know why I’m here, Mr. Trent?”
“P-please, call me Joe.”
Ray repeats the question.
Joe nods, swallowing audibly. “I, uh, I’m a little late. I know.”
“An hour or two is late, Joe. Unprofessional, but workable. You’re delinquent.”
“I know, I know.” Joe’s hands move in time with his mouth. “I’ve had a few cash flow problems, but I’m good now.”
“I’m real glad to hear that, Joe. It’s been a long week. Grab that money for me and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Well, you see, I don’t have it all. Not here. Not right this second, I mean. But it’s coming soon, I swear.” Joe makes prayer hands, putting them in front of his mouth.
Ray gives Joe a look, like a teacher disappointed with a student who hasn’t done his homework and then decides to lie about it.
“Business has been a little slow, but your money’s coming. I’m good for it, I swear.” Joe’s voice seems to rise an octave or two.
“That’s not gonna fly, Joe. The boss man likes to cut out early on Friday. Me too.” Ray stands, flexing his arms.
Five feet between the two men, another ten from the living room to the front door. To his credit, Joe doesn’t try to run. Ray hates when they do that.
“But, I—please. Please. I’ll have it Monday. I’ll have extra!”
Ray can see the sweat pouring off Joe’s forehead now, thick drops streaming to his chin and down his neck. The collar of his shirt darkens with moisture.
“I’m really sorry, Joe. If I made an exception for you…That’s bad for business. You understand.”
A small sound escapes Joe’s lip, some sort of cross between a laugh, a sob, and a hiccup.
Ray sets to his work with grim efficiency.
There’s a certain artistry to it. He has to bring them to the edge, violence and pain pushing them right up to their threshold, then pull back before they can tumble headfirst into the abyss. Like stress testing, but with blood and bone. The trick is keeping them intact enough to continue making payments. Ray was a little too eager his first few collections, and Mr. Pollitz was not pleased—dead men don’t settle their debts, as he likes to say.
Ten minutes later Ray counts out half of what Joe owes—plus a ten percent surcharge—and stuffs it in a brown paper bag. After wiping his knuckles on the back of a white handkerchief he keeps in his back pocket, he closes the safe door and rotates the dial a few times, then covers it again with one of the stereo speakers. Joe came to his senses pretty quickly, which was smart. Money is replaceable—body parts, not so much.
“One more week, Joe.” Ray squats beside him on the floor. “You seem like a good guy. Don’t make me come back, okay?”
Joe nods, tears in his eyes, snuffling and wheezing.
Ray pats him on the shoulder and stands. “Good man.”
He walks through the hallway, spotting a few red drops on the red leather of his Jordans, barely noticeable.
“Have a good weekend, Joe.”
Ray opens the door, steps onto the stoop, and closes it behind him, cutting off the faint noises coming from inside. He jogs down the steps, humming again, cash in his pocket, his mind on fresh water, cold beer, and Cherry’s sweet ass.
The bat hurtles into view from one side, Louisville Slugger absurdly clear for a fraction of a second before the thick wood slams into his face. He feels bones shatter, blood exploding from his nose like a geyser. Ray takes an instinctive step back. He sees the second swing coming in like a fastball over the middle, but he can’t do anything about it. The bat cracks against the side of his knee, and he collapses to the sidewalk in a heap.
Two skinny kids in jeans and T-shirts fade in and out of view, his vision hazy.
“Hurry up!” one of them says.
Ray feels hands rummaging in his pockets, feels his wallet and his phone and the bag of cash being lifted.
“Come on, man, let’s go.”
One of the kids crouches in front of Ray, loosening his sneakers then pulling them off his feet.
“What the fuck are you doin’? Let’s go!”
The kids turn and sprint away, disappearing into an alley.
Ray struggles to breathe, blood filling his nose and mouth. He looks down at his feet, left knee a mound of agony. He sees white socks pointing toward the sky, the image blurry. One of his toes pokes out of a hole in his sock, tickled by fresh air.
The money’s gone, he realizes, lurching toward unconsciousness. The boss is going to be pissed. Like, he might just take a bat to Ray’s other kneecap kind of pissed. That money needs to be in Mr. Pollitz’s hands pronto, which means his lazy weekend at the lake with Cherry will have to wait.
Getting to his feet slowly, Ray leans against a telephone pole. The neighborhood is noticeably—suspiciously—empty. No one wants to get involved. He supposes he can’t blame them.
Ray coughs, a thin spray of blood shooting from his mouth. He wipes his lips with the sleeve of his shirt and starts a slow, shuffling limp toward the car. Bits of rock and rough pavement scrape against the bottoms of his feet through the holes in his socks. Looking down, he realizes the little fuckers took his shoes, too.
He’ll turn the entire neighborhood upside down if he has to. The kids won’t get far before Ray finds them. Taking the money, well that’s part of the biz. He has a professional obligation to retrieve it and deliver it to the boss, but how that’s accomplished is entirely up to his discretion. Snatching his Jordans, though? Off his feet, like he’s some sort of bum? That makes the debt personal, and he’s going to collect every red cent.