"He's almost twenty minutes late," Mike thought, annoyed, as he continued to sweep the dust from the white tile floor behind the counter. The 7-11 was a complete mess: trash cans spilling over, mice under the shelves, and most of the food was past expiration. Mike seemed to be the only employee who cared; Justin worked the night shift from five to one but never cleaned and Mr.Chenko, his manager, was a hermit who rarely came out of his office. Mike often drifted off at work, only to be reminded he was not alone by the occasional Russian shouting he overheard coming from the back office. He had met Chenko only once, and that was enough for him.
Mike called ahead before his first visit; Chenko was waiting for him outside the store as he pulled in. The first thing Mike noticed was his neck tattoo. Chenko was a tall, thin Russian man and on his neck was a poorly drawn dagger which immediately made Mike uneasy. His face was hairless, and Mike could see the pale spots over his eyes where he had shaved his eyebrows. His bright red Adidas tracksuit almost made Mike laugh as he stepped out of the car to greet him. Chenko was superficially warm, in contrast to his appearance, to not scare him off. "Welcome, my friend; you are here for the job?" The thick Russian accent made sense, considering how poorly worded the job listing was.
"Yes, sir, I saw it on craigslist. I'd love to start as soon as possible," Mike responded professionally.
"This is good; you worked before?" He asked, now staring directly at Mike with his puffy red eyes and extending his hand, guiding Mike to enter the store.
"I worked at Superfoods for the last year and a half."
"Why leave?" Chenko asked, scrunching his face and raising what would have been his right eyebrow.
Mike now approached Chenko's bare office and could see it was empty besides a desk, phone, a half-eaten hamburger, and two chairs. Chenko slipped past Mike and sat behind the desk. "Sit," Chenko said. Mike complied.
"I don't like dealing with people. I'm somewhat of an introvert," Mike started. "I like this place because, so far, there's nobody here."
Chenko now had his long fingers folded in front of him, listening to Mike attentively. "I am also like this. Customers are rare for us. You will like it here," He said, pleased with Mike's answer. "You work alone on shifts. I will be here, but very busy with other matters. Seven to five and $12 an hour. Does this sound good to you?" He reached out his hand for Mike to shake.
Mike paused, then shook Chenko's worn-down, sandpapery hand. It felt like he had just shaken hands with the devil.
He snapped out of his reminiscent state and rejoined the present predicament. Justin was always on time and Mike had begun to look forward to seeing his beat-up '94 red and white Chevrolet pull in the front lot at five o’clock sharp. Their conversations were always brief as Mike rushed to leave and Justin rushed to start working, but they liked each other. Mike had just started working last week and Justin had helped train him on his first day. The job posting was riddled with spelling errors and simply asked for a cashier willing to work six days a week, Mike needed the money for school and seemed to be the only applicant. Mike had been checking his phone every thirty seconds for the last half hour. "Mr.Chenko better not make me stay."
Right on cue, as if Mike had summoned the devil himself, Chenko slithered out of the back room. He took a long stride out the door as his right hand matted down his wrinkled 7/11 bowling shirt, exposing another badly drawn tattoo in the middle of his chest. He raised his wrist to check his watch. "Five twenty?" He said, reading his Rolex aloud. He addressed Mike in a thick Russian accent. "I thought the fat boy was supposed to relieve you?"
Without missing a beat, Mike replied. "Yes, sir, he texted me he was on his way. He just ran into some traffic." He began to feel his face get hot at the thought of Chenko calling his bluff.
"Is he at the light?" Chenko walked hurriedly towards Mike and the window where he could see the street.
"He never late," Chenko muttered under his breath. He towered over Mike as they stood shoulder to shoulder, gazing out the window. His eyes traced over the landscape and across the street at the white Subaru sitting at the light. After seeing no sign of his employee, the phone in his office began to ring, and Chenko returned to his lair.
"He was supposed to clean the basement tonight; if he does not show up, you must do it." His back faced Mike as he walked away.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I made plans already."
Chenko froze in the doorway, now looking at Mike directly. "Is simple. Fat boy is not here; you will clean the basement, or you fired". His tone was condescendingly polite as he slammed the door to his office behind him.
"Wonderful," Mike thought. "Another three hours in the Gulag."
After another ten minutes, Mike moved onto the windows to stay looking busy. He sprayed the Windex on the glass protecting the beer fridge and began to wipe it clean. The store was almost always empty. It sat in the corner of an intersection ten miles from the nearest town. Mike often wondered how Chenko was still in business, considering there were only singles inside the register, and Mike estimated Chenko ate nearly $60 worth of food on the job every week.
Moving onto the windows overlooking the parking lot, Mike squirted the Windex again. Just as Mike wiped the liquid to the side, he saw Justin's red and white Chevy speeding towards the intersection, blowing the red light.
Mike was beaming; he could finally go home. He raced to put the Windex bottle and rag back in the storage closet so he could greet him. He looked out the window as Justin swerved into the lot at full speed, kicking up dust and making a muffled drifting sound as he parked the car sideways, taking up two spaces. Mike could barely see Justin's face as the dust cloud shielded his truck. Mike heard the door open, then the ring of a bottle hit the pavement as an empty fifth of Jack Daniels fell out of the driver's side and bounced along the pavement. "Has he been drinking?" Mike thought.
"Chenko!" Justin's hoarse voice called out from the car. The dust cloud was beginning to settle; he saw Justin attempting to get out of the door, clearly inebriated. Another bottle skipped across the pavement and made a loud sound. Mike sprinted out the door to meet him.
"What the hell happened to you?" Mike asked as he looked over Justin's slouching body. He attempted to lift his legs to get out, but his foot would not budge.
"Mike… Mike man… where's the Russian?" Justin asked, out of breath and pausing to think in between words. Chenko appeared in the doorway, alerted to Justin's arrival by the screech of his tires on the dirt.
"You're late, fat boy!" He shouted over the sound of the car's engine.
Justin kicked his foot to free himself and stumbled out of the car, wobbling like a toddler learning how to walk. "Listen, you sick bastard…I quit!" Justin shouted back, attempting to get closer to the man.
Chenko paused for a second. "Clean the basement. Then you quit, fat boy!" Chenko said, his tone more aggressive.
Justin stumbled, almost falling back. Mike grabbed his arm before he could fall, struggling to support his weight.
Mike called over to Chenko. "Sir, we need to get him home; he can't work in this state."
"Clean, or you are fired, fat boy!" Chenko said, ignoring Mike's request.
"I… I'm not…no," Justin's voice began to fade as he slipped off of mike and stumbled to the ground.
Mike ran over to take the keys out of the engine, then back to lift Justin. Chenko stood arms crossed in the doorway, not budging a muscle. "Mr.Chenko, I'm taking him home; I'll clean the basement when I get back," Mike said reluctantly.
Mike thought he saw Chenko slip a smile out of the side of his mouth. He waited a good ten seconds for Chenko's reply.
"Ok, Mike, we will clean the basement together when you get back." Seemingly satisfied, he turned and retreated into the store. He left the boys alone in the dirt.
Justin then made a loud grunting noise.
"Is he dying?" Mike thought.
Justin grunted again, rolled over, and threw up on Mike's shoes.
The car ride home was filled with strange noises from Justin, causing Mike's heart to skip as he thought about getting puked on again. Justin was out cold until they were two minutes away from his house.
"Don't…clean," Justin whispered, still sleeping.
"What? What the hell were you thinking back there?" Mike asked, disappointed. "You were just telling me last week how much you needed this job."
"Basement," Justin said, this time seemingly coherent.
"Yeah, I'll have to clean it now. Thanks, asshole."
"No…no, no," Justin whispered this time. "Don't help him clean the…" he started to whimper.
"What? I have to because you can't, stupid."
There was a long pause until Justin's head slipped off the window base.
"People!" Justin threw his head up, startled, and looked out the window. He then went back to his resting position.
"Where? I don't see any. Look, we're at your house now. Come on."
Justin fell back asleep.
Mike rolled into the dirt lot and stared inside the convenience store. It had a different energy than before. Justin had shaken him up a bit. He had never seen him so unhinged. He'd always seen him come in high, but this was different.
"Chenko must be waiting in his office," he thought as he stepped out of his car and approached the door. The store was silent. No loud Russian phone noises were coming out of Chenko's office, which was very unusual. He was always on the phone.
"Mr.Chenko?" Mike knocked. No answer. Chenko must have locked the door. Mike reached the counter and found a key on top of a post-it note. The handwriting was awful, definitely Chenko's. It read: "Start clean without me, went to the store. Ten Minutes". Mike thought nothing of it and went to the padlocked basement door behind the drink refrigerators. He had never been down the basement. The night shift always cleaned down there (Justin), and the snacks that needed to be stocked were always waiting for him in the morning. He entered the key and began twisting. The lock popped, and he undid the latch as the door creaked open. A cold gust of air wrapped around his face, and suddenly, he got chills. Then the smell hit him.
It was the worst thing he had ever smelt. The closest thing Mike could compare it to was when his family dog had died behind the shed, and they couldn't find him for three days. Mike remembered that smell.
"It's probably some animal that died, a rat or something," he thought, trying to justify it, and taking his first steps down the stairs. Each floorboard he stepped on creaked as it does in horror movies, and he suddenly felt as if he was in one. He was halfway down the stairs when he began to hear a faint wailing in the distance. The sound was getting closer and the hairs stood up on his neck. He started back up the stairs in a hurry, filled with immense fear from this sensory overload. He still couldn't tell from where the noise was coming. He ran up the stairs and closed the door, the putrid smell still lingering, violating his nostrils, and the sirens getting louder. He exited the basement and grabbed the front door handle to leave but froze at the entrance of the shop, the bells from the door still ringing as he saw the police cars pull up.
"Get down!" the officer screamed at Mike.
Mike's mouth was paralyzed but he complied with the command. The officer swiftly placed his hands behind his back and cuffed him as another two cop cars pulled up and six police ran into the shop.
"What's your name son?" the officer asked, in a tone that was stern but less aggressive than before.
"You work here?" The officer asked.
Mike's mouth was frozen.
"I'm talking to you boy! Answer me!" The cop demanded.
"Y-Yes, since last week"
"You know a man named Avlov Chenko?" The cop asked.
A chill ran down Mike's spine. He paused briefly to wet his mouth as it had gone completely dry. "Yes, M- Mr. Chenko's m-m-my boss," he was stuttering worse now.
"Easy there, take a deep breath, we got a call from your coworker, saying you were in danger. I just had to be sure it was you." The cop began to undo the handcuffs.
Mike attempted to compose himself and began to process the situation. "How am I in danger?" He asked sheepishly as he stood to face the cop.
"He said you were going to clean the basement. '' The cop sighed.
"W-What's in the basement? Mike, now on the verge of tears, asked the officer.
The officer looked over Mike's shoulder and into the shop. Mike turned his head and his stomach dropped as he saw the black body bag being carried by two officers through the doorway. Mike felt like throwing up.
"Chief, Chenko won't come out" One of the other officers in the store called out as he banged on the door of the office.
"We'll wait him out then, he has to open that door eventually"
"What the hell is going on!?" Mike was crying now, tears rolling down his cheeks.
"He was gonna lock you down there, till you cleaned up that-"
Just then a shotgun rang out.
"He's armed!" One officer cried as they returned fire directed at the office door that was now swung open. Gunshots rang out as the chief grabbed Mike and threw himself at Mike tackling him behind the squad car. Mike sat, covering his ears as the chief peered over the top of the car waiting for more shots. A few more shots rang out then there was silence.
"It's over son, we got him" The cop rested his hand on Mike's shoulder.
Mike was paralyzed with fear, his stomach was doing cartwheels.
"I'm sorry son, I'll give it to you straight; Avlov Chenko, your boss, was a hitman for Odessa, the Russian mob. He's forced your coworker to clean up a body once, threatening to kill his family if he told the authorities or refused to do it again. He locked him down there a year or two ago for two days and didn't let him out till all the place was spotless. He's had him on a leash ever since. Good thing the same didn't happen to you huh?" The cop laughed.
Mike made a grunt.
"Hey you ain't look so good son, sit back down"
Mike rolled over and threw up on the officer's shoes.