The car pulled away from the curb and slid smoothly down the deserted street. Parker sat quietly in the opulent interior, watching the streets pass by outside. There weren’t very many to pass. Within five minutes they had reached the edge of town and turned right, following the town outskirts. Small houses with big yards full of rusting junk dot the fields and scrub grass growing everywhere. They passed a diner with a sign so faded that Parker couldn’t even make out it’s name. No one spoke. The driver Maurice seemed to be following some prearranged route.
The slow, rich voice spoke again. “So then Parker, to business.”
Parker turned to look at the man he had been searching for, the man who he needed to impress. He was, at first glance, perfectly ordinary looking. Perhaps forty-five years old, with dark hair and a small, neatly trimmed beard. He wore a dark business suit, plain and unadorned with any trappings of wealth. He was a large man; he undoubtedly enjoyed the finer things in life However, much of his largeness was not physical. It was his presence, the way he stood and the way he held himself. It made him seem to grow and those near him seem to shrink. Here, still half-hidden in shadows and wreathed in pungent cigar smoke, he loomed.
He spoke again, his voice oozing out of the smoke cloud like melting chocolate. “So you say you can help me? Why should I trust a strange man who approaches me at the last minute and says that I need him?”
Parker thought very hard. This was an important answer. The boss didn’t want to know if he could trust Parker, he already knew that he couldn’t. What he did want to know was if he could trust his money to keep Parker obedient. A trustworthy man had standards. A desperate man did not. He couldn’t afford them. Parker hesitated. He hated being desperate. But Amanda’s face flashed through his mind again. He had to do this. For her. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Because it is very important that I be somewhere far away tomorrow night. And I know that a man such as yourself would understand that I would not make such a declaration unless I had great need to do so.”
The man looked at Parker for a long moment, his face showing nothing. On the surface, Parker was the model of composure, but inside his heart was thundering in his chest, so loudly he was amazed the man couldn’t hear it. He had seen how scared Frank was of this man. If he made one wrong move, Amanda would never see her favorite uncle again. There would be no investigation, no reports, nothing. He would simply disappear. But he had survived this long, so maybe, just maybe...
Finally, after hours of agonizing stillness all compressed into mere seconds, the man nodded. Tension that Parker hadn’t even noticed existed suddenly drained out of the air. The man made what might have, on a different face, been a smile. “Indeed. A good answer. And as I said before, I could use some experienced assistance in this job. Frank and Joseph have an unfortunate preference for the stick.
“I would be happy to provide a carrot.”
“Excellent. However, I still have my doubts as to your motives in this.”
Parker felt his lungs freeze over. Carefully he forced out a response. “I am not a cop, if that’s what you mean. Would an undercover cop be foolish enough to wear this?” He indicated his ragged suit.
The boss laughed suddenly, a hearty chuckle that did nothing to put Parker at ease. “Oho! But I know you are not a cop, Parker. But that does not make you on my side.”
Parker took a deep breath. This was it; no turning back now. “I am on my own side. But if I am paid five hundred dollars in cash by the end of the day, I will do whatever you need me to do without hesitation.”
“In that case, I believe we have an understanding.” The man extended a hand. “Call me Anderson.” Parker shook it, feeling sweet relief coursing through his body. It was done! He was in!
Anderson sat up and rapped on the glass divider. Maurice did not respond, but made an abrupt U-turn and sped back the way they had came. Grinding out his cigar, Anderson turned to Parker and said, “So, you will begin at once. At the moment, I find that the presence of several local business’s in this town to be an inconvenience for me. You will work with Frank and Joseph to remove them.”
Parker kept his face carefully impassive. “Of course. Which places do you find irksome?” What was the job here? This did not sound like a robbery. And all the shops and diners in this town were tiny, insignificant, and more importantly, dirt poor. What was the point?
“Frank has a list. So far, my agents have been unsuccessful in getting them to leave town. See that all four of them agree to move out by the end of today and you will get your money. Understand?”
Parker hesitated. “If I may ask, why do you need them to leave?” What was he doing! That was foolish, he shouldn’t have said it!
Anderson’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “You may not ask.” The beginnings of an avalanche rumbled in his voice again. “Listen to me, Parker. While I admired your nerve to approach me before, I will not tolerate insubordination. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” Parker kept his voice steady, but could not help feeling uneasy. He did not like the sound of this. Turning out shop owners and line cooks was most distasteful. So uncivilized, a waste of his talents, really. But he had to get to Amanda’s, and it was far too late to turn back now. There were no other alternatives; he had made his choice. So be it.
The car pulled to a stop. Parker looked outside and felt his stomach drop out of his body. They were back at Griffon’s pawn shop. Frank and Big Joe still lounged outside. Through the window, he saw Griffon emerge from a back room and begin sorting inventory. Oh no. Surely not.
Anderson selected a new cigar from a silver case. “As I said, you will begin at once.” He removed a silver cigar cutter from its nook in the case. “Is there a problem, Parker.” The cutter made a clean schnick sound as it neatly sliced the tip off of the cigar.
Parker swallowed. “No sir. No problem. None at all.”