It was already midday by the time Connor found himself at the crumbling, crime-infested neighborhood that on most days he avoided. Using mass transit to get to this part of town was a nightmare of vandals, vagrants, pickpockets, and urine-smell. Several times Connor had ended up way off the mark due to delays or departures that simply never happened. Rather than waiting for the bus to show up again, Connor always found the quickest connection he could even if it went the wrong way. It made more sense to keep moving rather than wait around in one spot too long, but the consequence was a trip that took him twice the usual duration. Not that he minded. He had needed time to think about everything he had to do and say. The continued aching in his side urged him to reconsider this course of action as he made his way down the sidewalk.
He had very reluctantly called the number on the bent-up card that had been shoved into his pocket by none other than Donald Chance. He hadn’t wanted to. He really hadn’t wanted to, but he couldn’t find any better people to aid him from among the twisted and crooked people that were his acquaintances. Information was the only thing that was going to help him when it came to getting rid of this shadowy hunter Charise had called an Om de Daunatori. Chauncey had clearly known something about it, otherwise he wouldn’t have run away. But Connor still hadn’t relished dialing the number on the card and hearing the snobbish British accent of the man who only yesterday had given him each and every throbbing pain he was feeling on his body.
“Yeah, it’s Connor Donnelly.”
“You found the girl?”
“Almost. I need to ask a favor.”
“What makes you think I’d do you a favor?”
“I’m the only one who can find the lady you’re looking for. If you don’t do this little thing for me, it’s going to seriously hamper my ability to locate her.”
There was a pause. “Fine, but only if we meet face to face. Come to this address.”
Connor had taken some comfort in the knowledge that Chauncey could only do his little trick in person, otherwise he would have known Connor was lying about his value as the sole person capable of finding Leyla. It gave Connor the very slightest bit of control should anything arise in the future.
That knowledge didn’t do him much good on this particular street, miles away from the address Chauncey had given him. No, this stop-off had to happen before he went to the Brit, otherwise the next step might prove fruitless. Still, this was the last place anyone ever wanted to drive by, let alone visit. This was, in Connor’s opinion, the very bottom of barrel in a city which consisted of about 90% bottom.
The majority of the houses and apartments along this block had been purposefully abandoned. They were on the bad side of town, in disrepair, and far from any areas of urban development, so nobody had a reason to come through and buy them up. It had become a squatter’s paradise and the center of a large portion of the drug trade in the area.
Several of the more intact apartments had been set up for cooking meth, crack, and other substances or just distributing the larger stockpiles of drugs into smaller portions for dealers to take out onto the streets. Labyrinthine passages had been made through the many rooms in the buildings so that, even when the cops decided to raid the area, they couldn’t catch anyone but junkies too strung out to know what was going on. This was no great place to be if you valued your future, but it was a hell of a place for recreational substances.
The door to the tiny tract house, which leaned against the larger apartments that surrounded it as if it had long ago given up supporting its own weight, was faded and had a lot of wood patches keeping it together. It had been repeatedly broken down, bashed in, or battered apart to the point that it was more a hodgepodge of several different doors rather than one. A small piece near the bottom fell off as Connor knocked on it. He waited there, looking around to make sure nobody was coming up to beg him for drug money. The few people who were on the street looked too tweaked to actually speak, so the door mercifully opened without incident.
Hip-hop spilled out of the house loud and raucous with a beat that rattled through the floorboards. Connor could hear a few voices complaining about keeping the door closed ‘in case of cops.’ The man who answered looked around suspiciously. He was Latino, in his thirties, with a mustache that was starting to look decently filled in. Connor walked inside, the door shutting behind him.
“Well slap my balls, if it ain’t Connor mother-fuckin’ Donnelly. I always knew you’d get off your high horse and crawl your way back down here!”
“Mostly I’m just here on business.”
“Everybody is, holmes. You wantin’ uppers or downers fer yo’ … business?”
“Actually, I’m looking for Leyla. Have you seen her?”
“That bitch?! Yeah, I been stickin’ it to her every night. Surely you’ve heard us.”
“There’s two things wrong with that statement, Os. One is Leyla stooping so low as to mess around with you. The other is your ability to get it up every night.”
Oscar stared daggers at Connor, but decided to laugh instead of hit him. It really could go either way with this guy, so his side was glad to be spared another sucker punch. “Someone’s gonna’ put a shiv in you one day, Connor, and I’m gonna’ laugh right over your grave.”
“Pour some of that piss you call beer onto my casket, and I’ll laugh with you. Now, seriously, do you know where she is?”
“Hell no. I ain’t seen her for awhile. Not since you went on your huge ‘Hugs not Drugs’ kick. What happened to you, man? You used to be cool.”
“I realized there were better things than getting high.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Like having some money leftover in your pocket. So do you know where she might go if she was looking to hide?”
“Shit. I don’t know. There ain’t no better place to hide than here. Maybe over by Francis’ with the bums?”
“I doubt that’s her scene.”
“If I were you, I’d check those really nice hotels uptown. Cute little piece like her could probably talk her way into a free room. If not, she could always get some ignorant honkey to let her share his.”
“You know, I don’t think your brain’s been completely fried yet, Oscar. Maybe you should go take another bump.”
“Fuck off, man. I’m tryin’ to help here, and you have to go mouth off.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that.” Connor scratched the back of his head apologetically. He was preparing for his goodbye when he had a moment of insight. “Hey, Os, I think I would like a bit of crystal.”
Oscar’s smile flashed with the sheen of greed that came whenever he smelled a new business opportunity. “Y’see, I knew you wasn’t a pussy! I got what you need, Connor. I’ll even give you a returning customer discount.”
Connor winced, this part was going to be a bit trickier. “I’m a little strapped right now. Think you could give me this one as a courtesy?”
“Fuck, white boy, you know my policy on favors! You ain’t a cop, you ain’t a supplier, and you ain’t a fine piece of tail, so your credit level is pretty fuckin’ low!”
“Hey, I did that thing for you that one time, remember? How’d that work out anyway?”
“Well I ain’t arrested, so how do you think?”
“Vans, right? It’s like I said, white women and minivans are beyond reproach. Way I figure it, you still kinda’ owe me for that.”
“Shut up!” There was obviously a kind of mental arithmetic slowly working its way through the rusty cogs of the dealer’s brain. Finally it seemed the benefit of picking up another client outweighed the cost of losing a sale right now. That same sheen of greed came back to his smile. “Yeah, y’know what? I’ll give you a round on me, fer old time’s sake and shit. Don’t say I never did nothin’ fer ya’.”
“Yeah, you’re the milk of human kindness.”
Connor left the land of the lotus eaters with the tiny bag of meth burning a hole in his pocket. He had struggled once with the substance, and didn’t relish having to muster the will to break the habit again. But with what Charise had said, he might need the tiny translucent white crystals to keep him awake and away from the Om de Daunatori. It would be worth the habit if it managed to save his life. This thought made the ache that much worse, desire and need mixing into a consuming bitter-sweet feeling that burned like acid and sex down in his guts.
As he hopped on the bus towards Chauncey’s address, he tried to take his mind off the drugs. Oscar had a point. A girl like Leyla loved a fancy hotel, but would it be secluded enough to keep her hidden? It was at least worth checking out tomorrow, he decided. First, though, he had to attend to business.
Several more hours of transit finally brought Connor to the address Chauncey had given him. Connor stared in awe at the gleaming skyscraper that rose up like a glass middle finger that consumed the skyline. As he crossed the grand lobby with its brightly waxed marble floor, he kept his head down and moved straight for the elevator. Especially in his usual ‘blend-in’ get up, he stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the sharply pressed suits and dresses of the people moving in and out of this building. He considered adding the tie for a moment, but decided it wouldn’t help any. The doors slid open and he did his best nondescript impression as he stood there amidst the business people inside the elevator.
He hated meeting with shady people in general, not that he knew any other type to meet, but Connor discovered that it was far worse to meet a shady guy in an office high-rise. As the numbers ticked up on the elevator, he was achingly aware that this limey was not simply renting this space on the weekend for a con. That meant that this uptight prick who had kicked the shit out of him, this British bastard who probably did a lot of the same things Connor did, was so much more successful at it that he could afford to keep an office in a place like this. The elevator doors opened, and Connor found that Donald Chance’s office was one of only five on the whole floor. He walked down the brightly lit corridor then smoothly pushed the door to the office open.
Nothing on the outside indicated that this office belonged to Chauncey. Connor would never have known where it was were it not for the instructions given to him by the Brit himself. The exterior was austere, empty. The inside was another story.
The entire back wall was made up of a bookcase so tall that Connor was unsure how anyone not in professional basketball ever got something off the top shelf. Books, sculptures, and other oddities filled up the space such that the back wall was a riot of color in an otherwise thematically tidy office. The desk, which was unoccupied, was mahogany with classic lines and a slew of papers and files strung over it. The rest of the space was filled with a few couches, a long table, several white rugs, and a strange series of statues along the wall opposite the desk. There was something off about the sculptures, but Connor was interrupted before he could take a closer look.
“Mr. Donnelly, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Chauncey was standing by one of the windows. He gazed out perfectly transparent frame for a long moment before turning to Connor. The sarcasm that oozed from the British man’s voice had the oily sheen of extreme disgust.
“Heya,’ Chauncey! You know, I really missed you. I thought to myself, ‘Connor, you should really go see where Mr. Chaunce operates.’ It seemed like good manners, really, and I’m sure you love good manners. Y’know, because you’re from Eng-a-land.”
“Yes. I shall have to have you over for tea sometime. Get to the point.”
“Well, you see, I’ve been looking for the girl, just like you asked, but I have some big obstacles that are really stopping me from succeeding.” He knew he had to shoot straight from here on out, which was the only reason he had visited Oscar at all. Chauncey’s little trick was a fly in his ointment, but he had no choice. He needed things, and the Brit was the only one supplying. He had to get what he needed without raising the alarms of the pompous polygraph. This was going to be the hardest thing he had ever done: a con with no lies.
“Oh, really? So you thought to call me; that’s touching. Just out of a morbid sense of curiosity, what are these obstacles?”
“Money, for one. It occurred to me that you are the type of man who has it, and I am the type of man who needs it. So I feel like there must be some kind of arrangement to be made here.”
“Maybe if you had played ball when I first approached you, but now I’m disinclined to remunerate you for your smart mouth and obviously cavalier attitude.”
“And I’m disinclined to hand over the blonde to you and your uptight British snobbery.”
Chauncey looked livid; he walked straight up to Connor and practically whispered, “Then perhaps I shall just kill you right now, Mr. Donnelly.”
Connor’s heart was racing. He knew the man was serious, but he had no choice but to press forward. “Do that and your only tie to the girl is gone. You don’t strike me as the type of man who wastes assets, m’lord Chauncington.”
He could hear the hard swallow of the limey. Chauncey tried to stare him down, but finally backed down. Connor was glad that he was right about one thing: Chauncey had enough reason to circumvent his rage. “Fine. How much?”
“You mean, what’s the going rate for me to hand someone near to me over?”
Chauncey made a cruel jape of a smile as he chortled, “You are cheeky, aren’t you?”
“Don’t tell me that she’s not worth that to you.”
“You don’t honestly believe that I’m going to pay you one million dollars, do you?”
“I expect that, if I have the girl, you have a cool million for me. That’s just quid pro quo, Chauncey.”
Chauncey made a disgusted expression, and looked Connor up and down, considering what to do. Connor hadn’t lied about looking for Leyla, and this was clearly the weight that pushed the Brit over the edge in his favor. “Fine. But I will have the girl in my physical presence before you get any money.”
“Not quite, Chaunce.”
“I am going to need a small amount from you if I’m going to be able to look for the girl.”
“Like an advance?”
“It’s only a drop in the bucket in comparison to a million, so I know that you won’t mind.”
Irritation spread across the Brit’s whole body in a wave, “How much money are we talking?”
“Ten thousand should do.”
Suspicion lit the corners of Chauncey’s eyes. “For ten thousand dollars you will be able to continue looking for, and presumably find, the girl?”
“And you will bring her to me?”
Connor did his best mask of incredulity. “What have we been talking about Chauncey? If I give you the girl, you give me one million dollars.”
“Minus ten thousand.”
“And you aren’t trying to trick me right now?”
“Chauncey, has your little ‘ability’ told you that I am trying to trick you?”
The man begrudgingly said, “No.”
“Then what are you worried about? Is ten grand really that big of a deal to you? I mean, look at this place.”
“Fine. But there will be no more money until I have the girl in hand.”
“That sounds fair.”
Chauncey went over to his desk and opened a drawer. Connor could hear the beep of a code being entered and then heard a small safe being opened. When the British man came back up from the desk, he had a fresh stack of bills with the paper wrapper still attached. He handed it to Connor with extreme hesitation. “Don’t try to fuck me over on this, Mr. Donnelly.”
Connor took the money and quickly stashed it in his coat. “You are a very untrusting person, Chauncey.”
“You are a very untrustworthy man.”
“Yeah. Maybe I should put that on my business card. Speaking of, who do you get to print out yours? I like the look of it: simple, clean, like a Greek column.”
“You have your money, now get out of here. I am a very busy man, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Actually,” A small tingle at the back of Connor’s neck suddenly made him think this was going to be the less successful part of the job, “there is one other thing.”
Chauncey drew in a long, exasperated breath. “And what would that be?”
“The thing that scared you off last night. What do you know about it?”
“More than you ever will, that’s for sure.”
“You know it wants to kill me, right?”
“It did seem that way, yes.”
“Then how about you make with the assistance. I can’t find the girl if I’m dead.”
“The monster is not my problem. I contract out to your sort of people when bogey men and such are involved.”
“Which is why you want to find the girl, of course.” Connor kept his tone flat, but the realization hit him like a punch to the gut from a prizefighter. All his focus went into maintaining his composure.
“I warned her when I gave her the job that a curse might be involved. It’s not my fault if you triggered it while you two were mucking about.”
“Yeah, but do you know how to counter it? This thing is really cramping my style.”
“How should I know that? I didn’t put it there. I don’t know what you did to get cursed, and, as far as I’m concerned, you can piss off.”
“Great, you’re a real chum, Chaunce.”
“Look. Bring me the girl, then maybe I can do something for you. That’s the best I can offer.”
“You got a single-minded focus, Chauncey. I admire that about ya.’”
“And I’m very vindictive when I’m denied what I want, Mr. Donnelly. You would do well to remember that.”
“Oh, I got several bruises to serve as a reminder. Thanks for all the help, Chauncers.”
“Let’s not repeat the pleasure soon.”
Connor left the office and moved quickly for the elevator. He didn’t want Chauncey to have second thoughts or realize how much he had been duped by Connor’s imprecise language. When the lift doors finally closed, Connor let himself take a deep breath. One obstacle down, only two or three hundred hurdles to go. He walked out of the lobby and planned for the shortest route to get back to Joey’s, suddenly cursing that he hadn’t asked for ten grand plus enough for cab fare. He had been so focused on the problem, and also on not getting killed, that he hadn’t thought to sweeten the take a little for himself. Oh well, Connor thought, at least I got away clean.
As he traveled back to his side of town, Connor couldn’t help but reflect on the many strange details Chauncey had let slip. He had contracted Leyla for a job and now he wanted to collect. On top of that, he had warned her that there might be the danger of a curse involved. Could he have been talking about the Securities, Ltd. job? Chauncey had never said it directly, but it felt true. Why hadn’t she warned him about any of this? Why hadn’t she even cut him in? If the Brit were willing to pay a million just to talk to Leyla, then that meant he was probably willing to shell out more if he knew he was getting what he wanted. With that much money on the table, why get greedy? None of it made any sense at all.
He took a moment to laugh at himself. Thinking that it didn’t add up for a grifter to be dishonest was beyond ridiculous. Why wouldn’t she keep him in the dark? Why not just keep all the marbles? I’m too damn soft, he thought to himself, expecting some loyalty when there’s so much dough on the table. There was no more point in being a naive thief than a selfless stockbroker. Sure, you might be able to get away with it for awhile, but sooner or later you were just going to get taken advantage of. That’s exactly what had happened to him, and now he was the one left cleaning up all the mess. Finding the blonde Delilah was looking more and more like the solution to all the rest of his problems. And, hell, maybe he would even turn her over to Chauncey for the million dollar payout. Every option was on the table right now as far as he was concerned.
The sun was almost down by the time he had gotten back down to Joe’s Butcher shop. The clerk directed him over to the law office next door. A pretty secretary at the front called the back from her phone then, after a moment, showed him into a board room. For fifteen minutes, Connor sat in the tiny room of blue carpet and tall windows that was largely dominated by the table in the center. He considered the decor of the little sidebar, which featured a whiskey service and a few tasteful flower arrangements. He had almost decided to pour himself a glass when the door finally opened. Joey came in, followed by another man, then locked the door behind him.
“Connor! Just the man I’ve been wanting to see.”