Thick Red

“Did you hear what I said?”

Carl glanced up from his half-eaten burrito. The big man across from him had finally taken his damn sunglasses off. Not much he could do to fix the rest of his outfit though. Whoever made those suits must be rolling in it. He waved the burrito casually at the window. At the bright lights across the street that lit up a block in every direction.

“You see, this happens every time. Someone starts making a little money, and one of the big boys marches in, looking to take over.”

When the big man didn’t respond, Carl continued. “But they don’t get it. Not really. This place only makes money cause the food is decent. Ain’t nobody comin’ down this end of town for Taco Bell.”

Carl watched a junkie stumble in the gutter. Watched her get back to her feet, rubbing at her arms, drawn through the sliding doors by the warm glow of electricity. “Well. Almost nobody.”

He took another bite. Used the corner of a scrunched up napkin to wipe away the dribble of sauce running down his chin. Tossed it back between the haphazard plates that covered the booth’s table. “You gonna eat that, Lewis?”

The big man just scowled. Carl shrugged, and waved at the man behind the counter. A nod and a smile. Then the little guy disappeared into the kitchen.

“See, Lewis? That is service. Big boys don’t get that either.”

Carl picked up the plastic cup, and slurped at the last drops of coke in the straw. The ice rattled at the bottom, and he tossed it across the aisle into the green rubbish bag hung from the janitor’s cart. She smiled at him.

“Want another, sugar?”

“Please.”

Carl watched her wander off. “Gonna be sad to see this place close down.”

Lewis pushed himself to his feet. Started to walk away. “I don’t have time for this crap.”

“Yep. Gonna be sad. Like losing a member of the family.”

The big man froze. The janitor sidled past, placed a large coke on the table. Leant down, whispered in his ear. “On the house, sugar.”

The big man turned around, and Carl smiled.

The little man came around the side, dropped two more plates of burritos on top of the empty ones. Carl passed him a twenty. “Thanks, Tiny.”

The big man hadn’t moved. Carl scooped up the closest burrito. “Yeah, you know, as I see it,” he said, somewhat between mouthfuls, “you lose a favourite place like this, like losing a family member. It ain’t dead, cause the people are still breathing. Could still come back. But there’s still a hole. Eating at you. And you know, they ain’t ever the same. If they come back.”

The big man eased himself back into the seat across from Carl. Didn’t touch the burrito.

Carl licked the drops of sauce from his thumb, then reached across the table and took another burrito.

Looked around for more sauce. “Seen the sauce, Lewis?”

The big man clenched and unclenched his fists. “I won’t ask again.”

“No,” Carl replied. “You won’t.”

He leant across the aisle and snagged a bottle of thick red. Upended it over the burrito. It oozed onto the plate as he waved the coke in the air. “Tell me, Lewis. How alone are you? You have someone talking in your ear?”

Lewis didn’t say anything.

“Comforting, I bet. Especially since your wife isn’t around to nag you.”

Lewis lunged across the table, grabbing Carl by the throat. He kept slurping on the large coke, indifferent.

“So no earpiece then?”

Lewis was breathing heavily, but his hand loosened, and he slumped back in his chair. “No earpiece,” he mumbled. “Just like you said.”

Carl nodded, put the coke down, and scooped up the last of his burrito. “You really should eat that,” he mumbled as he chewed, waving a hand at the untouched burrito. “It’s very good.”

“I just want my wife back. Please.”

Carl finished off the burrito, wiped his hands on a wet wipe, and rose to his feet. “Now, as I see it,” he said, shifting his coat into a more comfortable position, “you got two options. Three, I s’pose, if you be a certain kind of person. You could drag me off somewhere. Try and make me talk. But I don’t think you have it in you. So. Two options.”

He picked up a packet of salt. Moved it between calloused fingers. “You can pay what we ask. Or you can call someone. Though who you would call at this point I don’t know. Anyone at the Bureau still taking your calls?”

Lewis shrunk back into the chair. “Please,” he said quietly. “I’ll do it. Just let me have my wife back.”

Carl reached into his pocket, and pulled out an envelope. Dropped it on the table between the plates. Lewis reached for it instinctively, tearing it open. A photo fell out. His eyes widened. “The money ain’t for your wife.”

Carl left him at the front booth of Tiny’s Taco Hut. Staring at the photo of his wife, lying in a pool of her own blood. With his daughter tied up beside her, eyes wide.

By Tom Wells. © 2011