Gordon unhooks all three chains, throws open the bolts at the top and bottom, unlocks the deadbolt and opens the door to his guests. They shuffle across the spare apartment’s threshold, muttering greetings, offering wine and cheese and looking about with grim disdain.
It’s not a pretty sight. The carpets are old and stained by some long-gone animal. The wallpaper is grey with the soot of a slow combustion heater so rusted and abused that smoke is leaking from its seams. The lighting is dismal; cheap fluorescent tubes made weaker still by carbon buildup.
Four cold steel chairs are arranged around a card table adorned with plastic wine glasses and a bowl of salt and vinegar chips. Behind it, against the far wall, rests a computer workstation with four blank monitors, a high-backed leather office recliner and a small beer fridge. Gordon collects a bottle of beyond-nasty generic chardonnay from the fridge and gestures for everyone to take a seat.
There’s a moment when nobody can think of anything to say. Gordon never initiates a conversation. Then Jerry says “Jesus H. Christ. What in the hell is this place?” He taps his glasses back up his beaky nose and curls his lips in dismay.
Gordon winces. “This is my place. It’s my turn to host. This is my place.”
“What’s that smell?” Seth takes a seat, sniffs at the chips and frowns. “Those smells?”
“You live here?” Cheryl flicks a glistening black bang from across one sea green eye and surveys the room, knowing everyone will follow her gaze. There is a galley kitchen comprising a microwave, a kettle and a narrow sink, all camouflaged with a screening wall of filthy crockery. There’s a optimistically king-sized futon lying unmade in a corner, surrounded by cigarette butts, orange peels and crumpled lads mags. There is a door, ajar, which leads to a small bathroom, recently used.
She pans the room with blank disdain. The men do likewise. This is how things are with her. She accepts the imitation without acknowledgment. She offers no further comment on the state of Gordon’s accommodation. They all know what she thinks. They think it too, Gordon included.
“Can we get started?” He’s okay to move things along once the ice has been broken. At least he’s okay here, in his place, with these people. “Sorry. I know you all wanted to meet somewhere nicer than this. I just…I couldn’t do it, okay?”
“Is your condition getting more severe?” Cheryl’s voice is cool but not without sympathy. She and Gordon have worked together the longest. She’s more aware than most how much he has lost.
“Sometimes it’s under control.” Gordon doesn’t want to talk about it, but there is a lot riding on this meeting. Any of these three could give him a negative evaluation and he’s on his third strike. If he gets one more black mark, that will spell the end of field work. Head office has made its policy abundantly clear. “Other days – like today – it’s just too much. I can’t face going out.”
Seth takes the bottle from Gordon, cracks it and pours a taster into his not-glass. He makes a face and pours glass and bottle into the kitchen sink. He opens his own contribution, a three-figure shiraz too classy to display its medals on the label, and serves it with the cheese platter.
“Let’s get underway.” Jerry is senior this month, but the position’s a token formality, something for head office. Here, face to face, they share an equality of standing that is tilted only by individual accomplishments. “I’ll go first. I had a pretty typical January – seven partials and a complete. The last one was more luck than judgment, though. I had a neighbour unexpectedly drop in and make a generous contribution. The rest came via the usual collection channels. Cheryl?”
“My month was much the same. The protective services gig is rife with opportunity. I picked up eight. Oh, I know none of you count mine as full size scores. Blah blah blah, heard it all before. It all looks the same on the register.” She holds up a list, defying anyone to repeat their past remarks.
“Nobody doubts your efficiency! I don’t mind saying I’ve had a great month.” Seth swirls his wine, takes a deep draught of the fumes and tips his head back for a mouthful. He enjoys stringing out their anticipation. “Eleven, as a matter of fact.”
Cheryl is too self-possessed to whistle appreciatively like the others, but even she raises an eyebrow. The gesture echoes around the room. Seth joins in, to everyone’s amusement. “Eleven. Very impressive.” They all share the sentiment. Seth’s accomplishment reflects well on all of them. “Tell us.”
Seth is a born storyteller. He rocks back on his chair to the point of danger and lights a cigarette, eyes on the smashed remains of a smoke alarm on the ceiling overhead. “You all know I’ve been working on a new routine? Well, I trialled it this month. The results are encouraging, I’d say.”
He waves the glass around, illustrating his points with dramatic gestures. Not a drop spills. “The first step is to find a nice upstanding family, one with a little social prominence. Local politician husband, activist wife, kids with prominent academic or sporting achievements, that sort of thing. All three is best.”
Gordon protests “None of that fits your usual client profile! Have you changed your collection targets? Is that something we can do now?”
They all know he’s about to complain about being the last to get the memo. Seth hurries on to cut him off. “Wait for it, wait for it. So, I find a family with the right social pull. Preferably one with a big house in one of those closed estates. A little bit paranoid about personal security and safety, yeah? If they have dog patrols and security cameras, that’s even better.”
“So what I’ve done the last couple of times, which seems to work best, is to wait until everyone’s asleep and start a kitchen fire. Nothing too crazy. I don’t want to burn the place down. The trick is to use oil to get a lot of good smoke going, so it’s too thick to see that there’s not much else to it. Alarms go off, family sensibly implements evacuation plan, and –?” He waits for them to get it.
“The fire brigade shows up,” says Gordon. “Of course.”
“They have no problems putting out the fire, of course. And while the family is out on the lawn explaining that they didn’t leave the stove on when they went to bed, the safety team will go through the house. One of them will find the evidence.”
“Evidence of what?”
Seth shrugs. “The father’s collection of unseemly photos of the kids? The handgun and heroin Mother keeps under her bed? Bundles of unmarked bills? It doesn’t matter much. I like to mix it up but it depends what I have to hand.”
Gordon says “You wait to see if one of them has the guts to risk his career accusing upstanding citizens of depraved crimes?”
“Something like that.” Seth makes a scissoring gesture with his fingers. “Funny, there’s always at least one. And they’re always happy to take a secret meeting with an investigative reporter snooping after the truth.”
“Sounds a little elaborate,” says Gordon.
Seth refuses to entertain doubts. “Thank you.”
“I can’t believe you managed to pull that off more than once. Eleven times?” Jerry shakes his head, murmurs something about the ‘the risks’, sounding awed.
“Well, there were a couple of two-fers. I took it on the road, moved between states. I’ll need to start changing it up to avoid establishing a pattern. I feel good about the flexibility though. There’s definitely some room for variations on the basic theme.”
Cheryl raps her knuckles on the card table, signalling approval. When the others follow suit, Gordon’s glass tips over. He shuffles his chair back to avoid the spill but otherwise ignores it. He sits on his shaking hands.
There can be only truth between them. This they all know. They all look at him.
Gordon’s pale forehead is dotted with pimples, now an angry red. The grubby walls seem closer. The grimy light seems more pallid.
Gordon’s nostrils flare as his breathing steps up a pace. All at once he wants to pick up his glass but it’s too late for that to be anything but sign of vulnerability. “None,” he says at last.
Seth exhales a great lungful of smoke. Jerry claws off his glasses and rubs them with a silk cloth. Cheryl stares and says nothing.
Nobody says anything.
Cheryl sighs in exasperation. “You can talk to us. We’re a team.”
He breathes out slowly, breathes in again, wrestling for control. His heart is racing but with a struggle he holds out until the early hints of calm return. “It’s getting worse.”
“When did you last score?”
“Those two Jehovah’s Witnesses at the start of December. Nothing since I moved here.”
“That’s a long time.” There is no condemnation in her voice. It is what it is.
Jerry has been with the team the shortest time. He doesn’t understand anything and says so. “So you’re scared of crowds or whatever. Agorophobia, it is? Can’t you go out at night instead?”
“It’s not a day or night thing. I’m not a damned boogeyman scared of the terrible day star! It’s just- “ He struggles to find the words. “There’s too much out there. I can’t deal with it. Not anymore.”
Seth has lit a new cigarette. It’s a different brand from a different packet. He drops the first packet, its gruesome health warnings all but blotted out by a dry coating of rust brown splatters, on the floor. “Where does this leave us, buddy? We’ve got quotas.”
“He’s right,” Jerry chimes in. “Not only that, we have a reputation to protect. The best team in the whole division. Hrochrach’s crew would love to see us fall back to the pack.”
“They would eat us alive,” says Cheryl. Nobody mistakes her meaning. “I am sympathetic, I really am. You have been at the top of your game for longer than most of us have been alive. But look at this place. Look at yourself. We need to know, Gordon.”
“What do you need to know?” He knows. She knows he knows. He needs her to ask anyway.
“Have you given up?”
Gordon rises, knuckles-down on the table, stares each of them in the eye. The wobble of the table and the wine spotting on the lap of his sweatpants undermine the effect. He presses on with his prepared speech. His only roll of the dice.
“You, Sath-valgrazh, the Peeler, who feasts on the skin strips of the valiant, hear me well. And you, Gib’ul-ffest, the Grinder, who is bound to devour the hand-bones of the dying, hear me well. And you, Chirr-sinna-Zhu, the Shepherd, in whose mercy are lost children made blind, hear me well.”
He coughs. His chest aches. “You know the dictates by which I am bound. You know I cannot roam the world, preying on brave men and flensing them for my meals. The crunch of a cancerous bone will not sustain me. If it did I too might have become a famous surgeon, the better to perform unnecessary amputations. We’re all aware that all the kids’ eyes in the world won’t keep body and soul together for me.”
“You are giving up!” Seth is repulsed by weakness. He physically can’t abide it. They all know this.
“No!” Gordon startles them, himself most of all. Emphatic is not his style. He’s thrown himself off. “I just need to adjust a bit, that’s all. Take a new tack. I used to be able to find sympathetic souls everywhere – Salvation Army, legal aids, refugee advocates. A bit of a sob story, a few weeks’ grooming, and they’d be eating out of the palm of my hand. Well, so to speak.” He smacks his lips, regretting raising the subject of food.
“I can’t do things that way anymore. This thing, this anxiety I get – it’s pretty bad. I can’t face people. I can’t meet them, I can’t talk to them. I freeze up or have a breakdown or – well, you all saw what happened last month. The thought of trying to look some bleeding heart in the eye, shake him by the hand and run a con – well, I’m sweating just to say it.”
Cheryl said “Then you are crippled. You can’t hunt. You will starve and die. And you’ll take our reputation straight down with you.”
“We should kill you ourselves,” says Jerry. He even glances towards the door and stands. They all know about the surgical kit in his car, the one he hides away for that moment when opportunity knocks.
“Consider what our Dread Master might say about that,” says Cheryl, “and still yourself.” She so rarely gives commands. The words instil terror and obedience. Besides, she’s right. Jerry takes his seat.
“You have a plan?”
“I’m w-working on something.”
“I could tell you to kill yourself. You would do it and head office would be none the wiser. We would be bound to another fourth and your face and deeds would be forgotten.” She doesn’t want to say it, but there it is. He knows all this.
“Give me another month. I’ll get my numbers back.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then I am a hunter without teeth and my prey is safe from my hunger. I will kill myself if it comes to that.”
His team exchange looks in silence. Gordon knows what they are thinking. It’s what he would be thinking in the same position. He feels the pain in his chest return. He realises that he has been grinding his teeth. His toes itch with a maddening insistence. He remains perfectly still, though whether it’s with the steeled readiness of the predator or the horror struck paralysis of prey, he can no longer tell.
Seth breaks the silent debate short. “Hell, it will take years to break in a replacement. I say we let him go for it.”
Jerry emits a growl, perhaps of disappointment, but nods as well. “I’m sure this is just a passing phase, yes? No sense ripping your lungs out over a temporary setback, right?”
Gordon gives him a tight smile. His shrink’s prognosis has not been so positive but he feels now is not the time to over-share. He turns to Cheryl with a questioning look.
“One month is all we can spare,” she says. It’s a relief for both of them. “Any longer than that and we risk losing his favour. Nobody wants that.”
The meeting breaks up quickly. It’s Jerry’s turn to speak the names of the prey brought down and perform the messy sacraments of their bloodthirsty patron. He takes lists from Seth and Cheryl, checks pronunciations and departs. Seth finishes his smoke and polishes off the bottle, making small talk until Jerry is long gone. None of them ever leaves a meeting together. Then he goes too.
When it’s just the two of them Cheryl asks “Will you really do it?”
“I feel better knowing that you’ve got my back if I have a change of heart.”
She looks at him sadly. “Why go through this farce of another month? Do you hope you’ll make yourself insane with hunger? Will that make it easier, if you want to die?”
She sighs with pity and leaves him to his fate. Gordon is too stunned to call her back and help her to understand. By the time the right words occur, she is long gone.
Gordon makes a cup of tea while the computers boot up. He opens his forums, shunting each one to its own screen. A couple of them have live chats underway. For now he ignores the one with the emo teenagers who cut themselves. He concentrates his efforts in a support group for people bullied in the workplace.
He types: “I’ve just come out of my team evaluation. It was brutal. I swear, they all want me gone. One of them even made a threatening gesture. I can’t take this much longer. What am I going to do?”
Then he sits back, sips his tea and watches the sympathy roll in.