A short science fiction piece by author Shadrack Adu Antwi.
She walked leisurely down the corridor, enjoying the woolly slippers on her shuffling feet. Dark brown doors, tightly shut, run along both sides of her way. There was enough light from the electric bulbs lining the ceiling to see a woman emerge around the corner. This woman seemed drunk, swaying slightly as she came up, her long legs, jutting out of a high-hanging skirt, swung and crossed each other like the hands of a scissors to a waltz, her high heels scraping loudly on the cement floor, and her purse dangling in one hand. Lead behind by her other hand, came a man. He was in a shirt, and a tie that seemed anxious to find a resting place as it danced over his pouting belly. As she passed them, the woman curled her glowing red lips in a warm smile.
“Hello, Schonia”, she said.
“Hello,” she smiled back.
The man met Schonia’s eyes and lifted and dropped his eyebrows in greeting, then quickly looked down and away.
The woman and the man will enter one of the doors and leave the corridor empty as before. Slow business the last few weeks left many of the girls coming alone after working the streets all night. Maybe some dirty cops were jacking up their rates for the madam. It could as easily be the bad times, and the madam making the girls ask for more.
Schonia turned the corner and after a downward flight of stairs, stepped into a corridor, much like that above, its harsh blue lighting and quiet only twitched by the muffled giggles of a girl coming from one of the rooms. All seemed fine on this floor so she made for her last stop, the reception area, neither eager nor hesitant to be done so she could get back to her room to finish her cut of the weed and booze, stretch out beside Mantis, and likewise, fly into oblivion.
A girl’s sharp painful cry cut through the quiet. It was from the reception area, and it sounded like Tina. Some customers could get rowdy at times, and for that there is Rox. He carried a gun in case his bear-like shoulders aren’t enough. The only time someone overpowered him, Mantis was there to handle the unruly fellow. The big fellow had been with Schonia. He got mad because she wasn’t—as he put it—enthusiastic in her performance.
“You don’t have passion for your job,” he screamed, the disappointment and anger contorting his face into some unsavory gargoyle as his hard palm hit her face and sent her to the floor in a heap. Her hand fell on a stool, and she swung its legs at his head, leaving a bloody gash. He went berserk. He punched and dragged her into the corridor, threw her against one wall, then the other, and hurled off anyone who tried to budge into his delightful sport. The girls called Rox but moments later he was down, his ribs and kidneys under assault. The man had taken Rox’s gun but showed no inclination to use it. Rather, he swung one hard boot after another into the helpless Rox’s sides.
That’s when Mantis fortuitously appeared from downstairs to save poor Rox’s ribs and life. The next day the fellow’s naked body was found at the beach, with the words “Be nice at Mad. Duvoir’s” etched unto his chest and belly in sharp knife slashes. A wistful detective, a love of mirth woven into his face, noted the surprisingly “apt use of such perfect abs”. After the body was taken away the detective came by with his uniformed colleagues. They seemed to have given up, or didn’t care a lot, and just wanted enough to type out a report to stick somewhere in the depths of their computers where eyes hardly ever pry. But nobody saw anything; maybe the fellow carved his own chest before breaking his own neck.
So now Schonia walked softly around the corner and peered at the reception. Rox was there, dead. He was being dragged through his own blood by a sharply-dressed man of average build. That was Tottio. After he had propped the body out of sight behind the counter, Tottio covered the blood with two large rugs he removed from other parts of the floor. Two other men stood by the counter, but she was drawn to the fourth, also with his back towards her. This man had pulled Tina up from behind the counter, and held her tightly by the neck as she whimpered and choked in pain.
“Toot, toot, toot”, he put his finger on his lips to quiet her even as he slapped her face repeatedly.
It was Toothpicks, his muscle-bricked neck and shoulders barely contained by the tough jacket which seemed at least one size too small. Schonia wondered if they had killed the other girl as she saw no sign of her. She hurried back unto the second floor. She reckoned she had no more than five minutes for they certainly were there for Mantis and they’d shoot him on sight.
She burst into her room. Mantis was sprawled on the bed, conked out. Too many scars from bullets and knives dotted and run across his taut back. Empty bottles of whisky stood on the table by the bed and a palpable smell of weed hung in the room. Only Mantis can say he awaits the bosses’ first move, then offer himself on a bed.
She ran to the window, shoved away the blinds and glass and pushed her face into the cold night. Shimmering in the dim light from the aged street lamps was a narrow alley, and across it a block of clone-like brick buildings stretching from the street into the calm darkness to her left. The first of these buildings was directly across the alley and close enough that she could make out figures through some of its dimly-lit windows. This stark building so gaped at her that she thought she could see some of its dwellers through its walls, trudging up the dead stairs, creaking under the weight of their lives. Rows of dumpsters were stacked close to the buildings to give room on the narrow alley for the garbage truck or the occasional car. One of these sat right below from her second floor window, and her face suddenly lit up. She wondered if she could do it, and if it would escape the hunter making his way to her room.
She pulled herself from the window. Mantis was lean but with his height and muscular body he still weighed quite a ton. Crouching on one knee she pulled him unto her back and half carried and half dragged him to the window. He was bare-chested so she could make out the helmet, boots and gun tattoo on his left shoulder. It was the reminder, he said, of dying along with his real brothers in the desolate mountains, fighting enemies whose tenacious passion for killing only paled at their zest to die.
She lifted him onto the window-sill, planted a peck on the tattoo and a lingering kiss on his lips, and then carefully pushed him so he fell through the air and into the supple mound of plastic trash bags with a soft thud. She watched anxiously as he slipped deep into the softness and was covered till about only his head and feet were visible. The dumpster’s heavy lid, prodded from its rest against the wall, slowly creaked shut over its newest addition. She shut the window and pulled over the blinds. There was a sudden knock but she went to the door after the second louder one and opened it a mere crack to make out Tina’s face. The dim light revealed little except for the wide open eyes and a tear trickling down a cheek.
Then it happened fast. One of Toothpicks’ men, with eyes set deep in a massive head, mushroomed behind Tina. As he swept her away his left foot hurled the door into Schonia, throwing her to the floor. He swooshed inside with a heavy-muzzled gun. The second man, in dark glasses and heavy long black coat, followed closely behind him, covering the other half of the room. Tottio was next, turning after his silenced gun into the bathroom which was just to the right of the door. Toothpicks came last, pulling Tina along. Meanwhile Big-face and Shades-guy swept the room, dotting noiseless bullets all over, with special care to the bed. Big-face walked up cautiously and poked the gun around and looked into the closet. He came out, shaking his head.
“He’s not here,” he said excitedly, out of breath, likely from mere fear. He rolled the tiny cigarette in his mouth frantically from one corner to the other of his mouth.
Schonia rose up and sat on the bed. She clasped her forehead which had received most of the flying door and stared emptily at the drippy red and green oil painting of tulips hanging on the wall. As Big Face and Shades-guy tore apart the place, hissing like angry cobras, Tottio slouched nearby, looking at his two fervent comrades with a bemused smile. Rather than look under the bed, they fired a few shots there.
Toothpicks left arm went half-way up. “Stop the commotion,” he said sharply. “She has a lot to tell us.” He was instantly obeyed.
He moved to the middle of the room so he was only a few feet from Schonia. His eyes zeroed on her, and she looked deeper into the painting. After a while, he smiled tightly and turned away. Mantis had told her that Toothpicks read faces and movements so well that when he tortured it was seldom for information, but more often for the thrill of the spectacle. She just made him give up for a moment; her heart skipped a beat in triumph.
“So there’s been some partying here,” he said as he looked around and settled on the roll of weed on the glass ashtray, wisps of smoke wafting from its end.
“Where’s he? Mantis?” he growled.
He drew out a broad knife and petted its rugged blade invitingly at her. She ignored him, picked up the roll of weed, stuck it between her lips and inhaled hard on it. He got up and carefully walked around the room, his eyes raking every detail, with regular darting glances at her. But she stared at the painting, and imagined herself floating away somewhere. When he came to the window he opened it and looked out. He checked up and down the streets, and stared down at the dumpster. For a frightening several times he would turn around and look at her for a moment, then push his head out the window again. She could feel her heart thump, but was sure only she knew that. At last, he pulled his head back and closed the window. His look turned to annoyance as it settled on the paper roll between her lips.
“That’s enough smoking that,” he said and beckoned with his hand.
Shades-guy walked over and took the weed from her lips. He crashed it under his foot and returned to stand by the window. Schonia wondered why he would be in dark glasses in the night in a dimly-lit room; but these goons always came in a variety of oddities. A bright scar ran across his left cheek from under the left shade; maybe there was no left eye, but a hollow. With that another may have impressed differently, but she only saw a hurt man in an over-sized black coat gripping a rifle. He seemed to suddenly become aware of her gleaning eyes and shifted on his feet, clutching the rifle tightly. Caught you, huh, little hurt boy hiding behind a pair of shades and a gun? His lips curled up in a defiant sneer. He lifted the rifle slightly. No, I’m a big bad man, with a big bad gun.
Toothpicks voice yanked her back. “Where’s Mantis?” he repeated, turning the knife so the light played on its blade.
“Up my ass,” Schonia replied with just a hint of irritation.
Her words hang in the air, and then Tottio smirked, “He sure should hide where he loves.”
He looked around, clearly pleased with his comedic chops. Slowly, Toothpicks turned till he looked squarely at him.
“You fucking piece of shit”, he said slowly. “This is my bloody show. You shut the fuck up till I tell you to read your lines.”
Only the smirk went off Tottio’s face as he stared back coolly.
“I don’t see why you want to protect him,” Toothpicks said to Schonia in a soft, caring voice. “He buys you corvettes, practically lives with you, but never made you stop being a hooker. Isn’t that strange?”
Tottio snickered from behind him. “Well, his awesome fucked-up-ness likes a girl who’s a hooker, not a girl who was a hooker.”
Toothpicks ignored him. “The information I have is that he is here, at least about half an hour ago. The source is very reliable, too, from past records.”
“No, no,” Tina protested as Schonia glanced at her. “I’ll never tell on you, Schonia. They came and forced me to bring them to your room. I told them nothing.” She blubbered on.
“What the hell?” Toothpicks cut her short. “Why are you still here?”
In a breath, he reached for Tina, slashed her throat with his knife and dropped her back to the floor. Moments later she was lifeless, her face and hair and the woolen carpet smudged in her blood. Carefully, as he faced down Tottio’s look of mixed admiration and disgust, Toothpicks wiped the knife on her clothes.
“Sorry,” Toothpicks sighed after roving his eyes over Schonia some more. “I love the game—but sadly we don’t have time. “ He then turned to Shades-guy and said, “Pliers.”
Tottio pulled her up from the bed, stuffed some cloth in her mouth and restrained her from behind, leaving her hands free before her. Shades-guy eagerly walked over with a pair of small menacing pliers and took one inviting hand.
“I’ll do this,” Toothpicks said suddenly. He took the pliers from the deflated man.
He grabbed her left hand and clamped the pliers’ on the smallest finger and squeezed on nail and flesh. The pain coursed through her hand till it was a shattering presence in her mind but the cloth in her throat allowed only the excesses of her painful cries to come out.
Methodically, savoring during the pauses in between, Toothpicks went from one finger to the next and finished with the five amidst muffled cries of agony. Her trembling and sobs died down and her crushed middle finger rose alone in the air as she buckled at the knees and only Tottio’s unwilling arms kept her up.
Toothpicks cupped her chin in one hand and turned her face up to meet his own.
“Do you love him so much,” he breathed into her face. “Or me you hate so much?”
“Both,” she blurted out. “And neither.”
The pliers were coming onto her fresh thumb when he started, and reached into his clothes. He pulled out a small cell phone from his clothes. With an impatient look he put it to his ear. There was a short conversation with a mellow voice at the other end that would frequently boil over and scream curses to the hearing of all. Toothpicks was patient but firm and the line finally clicked off to a last string of audible obscenities.
The call ended, the phone hang limp in Toothpicks hand. The room was silent as his head whipped to and fro. With a snarl he hurled it at the wall. It shattered in smithereens.
“Those fat pigs sit on their asses,” he hissed, “I do the laundry and now they’re going to kill me?
We’ll see about that.”
Big-face and Shades-guy shrank into the walls as much they could but Tottio was all disdainful morbid fascination.
“Somebody tipped the SWAT off,” Toothpicks calmed down enough to tell. “We need to leave now. Else those pigs have a team on stand-by to take us out if we are captured.”
The fact took a moment to sink in. Then Tottio hurled Schonia onto the bed in disgust. “The same person who tipped us that Mantis was here? The madam? Or was it the bosses looking to do two jobs with one stroke? Or the girl at the reception?”
“What girl?” Toothpicks said with interest.
“I’m here at times. There’s always two girls at the counter. We found only one.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Toothpicks quizzed patiently.
“Well,” Tottio went on, with scorn. “I thought what you did not see is not important.”
Toothpicks arm flicked up and the bullets went thud, thud into Tottio’s head. The twin reddening holes in the forehead caught, at its cusp, the spiteful face’s metamorphosis into shocked indignation. The body tipped over. Toothpicks walked up to it and sent four more rounds into the back of the head, leaving a pulpy mass of hair and blood on the soft carpet.
“Now move,” he boomed.
Then he stopped, and turned to Schonia. “It’s all your fault.”
Shades-guy and Big-face also froze. Toothpicks put the gun away and drew out his knife. She was seated on the edge of the bed and looked on with nonchalance as he approached. He pulled her up by the neck and shoved the knife into her belly. As he twisted the jagged blade to exact more pain, grinning devilishly, she pulled out the hairpin and thrust it up into his throat. He let go off her and reached for the piece of steel to stop, even turn back, the hands of time, but it was buried so deep in his flesh there wasn’t enough for his fingers to grab. His knees gave way from the ebbing of life and his words of disbelief became gurgles in the blood spilled into his mouth. As he pitched over he made a futile reach for her and left long bloody streaks as she shoved him off. She had pulled the hairpin from under her arm where it had been stuck in her chemise since they came in, her movements and posture careful but natural to conceal it.
She staggered backwards and sank on her knees as one arm held the knife and tried to stanch the gash in her belly. Her sight was almost a blur but she could see Shades-guy and Big-face still and gazing at each other like a pair of tomb-statues.
Shades-guy had his gun straight at her. He seemed eager to shoot, but for Big-face’s gun trained on him, the gyrating cigarette in the mouth the only animated thing on the broad face.
“What are you up to?” Shades-guy hissed after a seemingly long moment.
Big-face only shrugged. Finally Shades-guy clasped his rifle to himself again.
“She will die anyway,” he said as he walked to the door. He stepped out after peeking into the corridor, Big-face’s gun tracking him all the way.
Shades-guy’s footsteps receded and Big-face went to the door and looked out. Satisfied he returned and stood over Toothpicks’ body. He shot twice into the skull. He looked up at Schonia, surprised that she was staring at him.
“I like sleeping well at night,” he pronounced. With a last roll of his cigarette he turned and slipped out the door stopping only to say a mock “Adios” to her. As the sound of his running feet died down she fell on her side, her blurry eyes on the window, and her mind on the dumpster and the stoned-cold man among its bags of rubbish.