“Phillipe, it’s been a long time.”
Phillipe cringed. They’d called him Blondie for so many years, he’d come to believe they didn’t know his real name. He should’ve known better.
“I needed the money.”
“Sure, sure.” Bear, true to his name, stood well over six foot tall, a bushy beard hiding the lower part of his face. His eyes pierced through Phillipe, causing the latter to lower his gaze. “So you doing the ‘one last gig and I’m out,’ or are you in for the long haul?”
Blondie swallowed. “Don’t know yet.”
A toothy smile. “Depends on rent, am I right? Need a little extra now we’re heading toward the end of the month.”
“You know how landlords can be.”
Phillipe cleared his throat to fill the silence. “I…didn’t think you’d take my call.”
“I nearly didn’t.” Bear turned to face the window, staring out over a silent city. “But I was reminded how…useful you could be.”
“Yeah, thanks. What’s the job?”
“Oh, straight to it? No foreplay, just straight for the-”
“I’m not here to play games.”
“Not anymore, hm? Strictly business now—that’s not the Blondie I remember. You always liked a bit of-” he smirked, “Well. I suppose people change. It’s your standard route, ‘round Eel Town. You hit the usual places, they’ll be expecting you.”
Bear almost looked impressed. “Talking shop upfront? You really have changed. Standard fee for a standard route. Two hundred.”
The piercing gaze returned, and Blondie felt his stomach flip.
“Standard fee,” Bear repeated. “You go out and do an extraordinary job, flip a few more stops to our side—maybe then we’ll talk about increasing fees. Until that time, you’re on a temp basis.”
“You left me, remember? And I’m welcoming you back, out of the graciousness of my heart. We’ve all got rent to pay, Blondie. Do this job, do it well, and I’ll see that you’re fairly compensated.”
Blondie blew a sigh from his nose. “Fine.”
Bear’s security didn’t bother to lead him out, he knew the way. Arriving street side, Phillipe stared into the darkness. A single flickering streetlamp lit the way.
He set off in the direction of Eel Town, lost in thought.
Almost missed the double footsteps, echoing in the night.
Pausing at the corner, leaning down to light his cigarette. “What do you want, Buck?”
A figure, barely visible in the shadowy doorway behind him, chuckled.
“You haven’t lost your surveillance skills. I’m surprised, you been gone a long time.” The woman stepped forward, “Quite a long time.”
“What do you want?” Phillipe repeated.
“C’mon, Blondie, can’t two old friends catch up by the light of a shitty streetlamp? For old times’ sake.”
“We’re not friends, Buck.”
“Mm, maybe not. But you and Bear are pretty tight, right?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This prodigal son bit you’re pulling, returning after so long. As if you can make up for what you’ve done.”
“And what have I done?”
Buck took a step closer, into the dim circle of light. A web of scars crisscrossed the left side of her face, stretching back below the waves of hair. “You left at an interesting time, Blondie. Our little arrangements nearly went public. ‘Specially your normal routes. ‘Specially the one through Eel Town. Where is it you’re heading now?”
“You think I had something to do with all that?”
“I know there’s a rat. Bear weeded out some weaklings, but me and some of the others can’t help but think he didn’t quite get the right one.”
“Well, keep your ears to the ground and, oh—sorry,” Blondie flashed a faux-apologetic look, “ear.”
“Always at it with your schoolyard humor. Real cute.” Buck pulled back the left side of her wig, thrusting the scarred side of her head nearer to Blondie. “He did this to me, said I heard too much.”
Phillipe couldn’t help but recoil at the sight, averting his eyes.
“And I stayed on his side, never faltered once. You left—imagine what he’ll do to you.”
Blondie swallowed and forced a cold smile. “I’m plenty aware of what he’s capable of. Don’t worry—I’m not coming for your spot at his side. I’m just here to pay my rent, make up for my leaving.”
“And get on his good side again.”
Without another word, Blondie crossed the street and carried on toward Eel Town.
“It won’t work, rat,” Buck called after him, fixing her hair. “Get out while you can.”
He spared a glance over his shoulder to see she’d vanished, disappearing back into the shadows.
A dozen blocks later, he’d arrived.
“Kasey,” he called, jogging across the street to greet the stall owner.
She had her back to him, handing a paper cup of coffee to a customer, and started at his voice. “Blondie? You’re back.”
“In a way,” he replied.
Kasey thanked the customer and ushered him off, turning to face Phillipe. “I heard you were dead.”
“I should be so lucky.”
“You want a coffee?”
“No, thanks, I’m here on business. The usual, you know how it is.”
Kasey shook her head slowly, “I, uh, I already contributed to the Charitable Fund.”
Blondie took a few steps closer. “C’mon, Kasey, you don’t have to play these game with me.”
“I’m serious, Blondie.”
“You know me. I’ve covered for you how many times? Well, help me and I’ll help you. Hasn’t that always been our deal?”
“In the past, sure, but-” she leaned closer, “Blondie, things have changed. And I’ve already contributed.” She emphasized the words, but they meant nothing to Phillipe.
“We always collect on the last Saturday of the month, Kasey, and that’s today. Don’t tell me you sent your…donation in early.”
“Blondie, you should go.”
“Blondie, this isn’t Bear’s territory anymore,” she hissed. “Now unless you want your head to roll, I suggest you scram.”
“The hell it isn’t. Eel Town’s always been-”
“Things change, Blondie.”
He glanced down and noticed she had her hand beneath the stall’s counter. “Kasey, you’re not seriously-”
“Sorry, Blondie. Look, I am. You covered for me with Bear, and I appreciate it. But Bear’s not king around here anymore. And you’re not welcome.”
He turned to see the crowd of stall keepers, the business owners of Eel Town. The same ones he’d known for years—the same ones he’d collected from for years.
It took Phillipe slightly too long to realized he’d been set up. The crowd descended on him, taking out years of pent-up fury in a few minutes.
The next morning, as headlines told of the fatal attack on the Eel Town Extorter, Bear read the paper with a bittersweet smile.
“Tried to warn him,” Buck said, leaning against the doorway.
“One last job,” Bear mused, “They never learn, do they?”
She snorted. “He never was very bright.”
Should’ve known better.