TWA #13 – Short Story “Contracts” by Ian C. Williams

Contracts

 

The mob must have a phobia of nice places, because I’m meeting my contact under the sleaziest eatery at an even sleazier pub. Crossing into the hazy musk of its narrow walls, the synthetic tonics and colognes make my eyes water. I blink back the welling tears and shrug it off, nodding to the bartender as I walk over to the particularly smoky corner where I find Fynn, a corpulent blue-skin with a serious hygiene issue. I swear, the man has pressed suits but takes offense at the mention of a steam shower. Weaving my way through the odorous veil surrounding him, I settle myself across from Fynn and rest the carapace of my elbows on the table.

“Glad you made it,” says Fynn, temporarily removing the hookah stem from his lips to reveal a catalogue of yellowed teeth that look like they have seen the worse end of a meat grinder. But then again, I’m not really one to say anything.

“The directions didn’t make it easy.”

Fynn releases a wet laugh. “Murray, you’re always bustin’ jokes. Now, what all did they tell you?”

“The usual. Problem, new target, meet Fynn in a seedy den of thieves.”

“All right. So look here.” Fynn leans his girth across the table, his double-lidded eyes flicking here and there over my shoulder. “There’s this guy, call him ‘The Runner,’ an’ he’s been causin’ the family a headache. Filched on his ‘membership dues,’ an’ thinks he can get away with it, right? That’s where you come in.”

“Needs some friendly encouragement and a pat on the back?”

He cackles again. “You have a way with words, Murray.”

“So where am I going?”

“That’s the funny part so try not to laugh too hard,” He pauses, staring at me with unblinking slit pupils. “Terra! Can you believe it Murray? The kid’s tryin’ to hide out on Terra!”

I don’t like to say that I’m shocked, but I really am. Terra? That’s a lot of distance for a planet that hasn’t even mastered intergalactic space travel. “Why Terra? There are no defenses there, and certainly no chance of governmental protection.”

“Don’t know, Murray. Maybe he’s got somethin’ up his gills. Maybe he’s just stupid.” Fynn stands up, wiping his palm sweat onto his slacks. “Don’t matter. We’ll set you up with a profile of the guy. Just go an’ terminate him.”

“Well, Fynn. That’s really a long way off. Transportation costs are going to be crazy.” I say, chewing the inside of my cheek.

“Don’t worry about it. The boys got it taken care of.”

“What about the cover? Humanoids have such a different biology.”

Fynn chuckles. “Got that too. New technology. Got our hands on it couple months ago. You’re not talking your way out of this one.”

“I know. I know, Fynn. Just being thorough.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Right.” I sigh. “Before I go, I need to pick up some documents from the Ministry of Social Sciences for my mother. I did promise that I’d pick those up for her.”

“We know how you are that way.”

“I always keep my promises.”

Fynn pats his chest down, looking for a cigar, I suppose. “How’s the ol’ girl doin’ these days?”

We wade our way through the smoke towards the exit, “About as spirited as ever. She had to take it easy after the accident.”

“Accident?”

“Her exoskeleton is getting brittle as she’s getting older.”

Fynn shakes his head. “It’s happenin’ to all of us, Murray. My joints are gettin’ tired these days. Anyway, you’ll find that profile back at your place.”

“Take it easy, Fynn.” I wave as he lumbers away. “I’ll take care of it for you.”

Fynn gestures something as he disappears into the smoke, and I slip my hands in my pockets. I watch the spot where he vanished, half lidded and tight-lipped. There’s something about Fynn. Something classic. Or maybe just something greasy. On this planet, it’s hard to tell.

 

—–

 

My mother’s house is on the edge of the city, far enough away to block out the noise but close enough to be convenient. She’s really into this underground card game on the mile ground. I try not to judge, and she seems to make a lot at it. Who am I to judge anyway? I kill people for money.

“Just open it! I’m here!”

My mother’s door doesn’t open more than forty degrees – I need to fix that – so I squeeze inside and drop off the folder from the Ministry of Social Sciences on the entry table, next to the abstract ceramic statuary where she stows her secret stash of weekly earnings. She still doesn’t realize that I know it’s there.

“I picked up those documents you needed,” I say, glancing around her kitchen. “Where are you?”

“On the balcony, watering the plants.”

My mother doesn’t own plants.

After a scuffled sound, she hustles inside and smiles at me, her glistening round eyes ablaze with the daring so familiar to her. “So, baby,” she says, busying herself around the dining room. “You’re staying for dinner tonight?”

“I wish. I have a job out on Terra.”

“All the way on Terra? You’re bound to get a bundle on that one.”

I shrug. “Yeah. It’s not a bad payout, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“You know, Mom. I wouldn’t mind just – you know – settling down, finding a girl, having some kids. The usual stuff.”

My mother laughs, a high pitched, pattering sound like rain on a thin roof. “Baby, what do you mean you want ‘the usual stuff?’ What is that anymore? It’s nothing special to be ‘usual.’ Doesn’t make you a bad person.”

“Yeah, but there’s bound to be something else I’m good at.”

“Besides,” she shakes her head with a grin. “Your father never had a problem with it, and he was a good man. This is what we’re built for, Murray. We’re built with this, this gift. This—”

“—‘This blessed gift to spontaneously borrow the lives of people who no longer need them,’ yes, I know, Mom.”

She nods. “I said your father never had a problem with it, and he really didn’t. And look how comfortably we’re set up! Pays the bills, Murray. Can’t ask for more than that, can you?”

“I guess not, Mom. ” I look out of the window by the balcony, overlooking the city outskirts. The spiraling pyres of the city pierce the cloud cover like a syringe sliding into a lung. “I just think it would be interesting to live a life without having the ability to, you know, pat a guy on the back and, well, and take their breath away.”

“But that’s not the way life works. You can’t custom order a life – yes, I’d like an easy existence with a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Medicine, a couple kids, and a sultry figure like the girls in those fast food ads!” She looks at me with an expression somewhere in the middle of sympathy and tough love, “Murray, baby, it doesn’t work like that. Besides, it’s not so bad.”

“Yeah, Dad was a good guy. It’s not so bad doing what he did.” And I suppose I mean it. “You’re right. Always are.”

“Damn straight, I am. Come along home when you’re done. I’ll save you a plate.”

So with the thought of reheating leftovers later, I wave and slip out.

 

—–

 

The traveling part of the job is always the least interesting. It’s long – especially all the way to Terra. Leaning back in my seat and crossing my arms, I stare at the gauges and sigh. I can’t say I’m looking forward to hunting around for some runaway on a planet of seven billion. But then again, maybe it could be a fun vacation spot. A nice diversion from my work, my mom – to give me a chance to be myself. This line of work is so taxing, and it’s been so long since I’ve done something for myself. Then again, what’s so great about Terra? It’s pretty archaic there, but it could be nice to go without some of the luxuries of home.

I’m traveling light this time around, not that I ever travel particularly heavily. My spacecraft is minuscule and cramming a cornucopia of lethal weapons in it would be ludicrous and impractical. Besides that, I shudder at the thought of me trying to use one of those weapons anyway – you could put an eye out with one of those things. That, and if I were stopped by the Intergalactic Division of Security, a knapsack full of machetes would be difficult to explain. My gift is killing people, not smooth-talking my way out of criminal infractions.

I check my reflection in the mirror, gauging how believable my human disguise looks. Middle aged, greying, and somewhat on the overweight side. The skin around my face is loose around my skull, a subtle indicator of age. My hair is thinning, which I could use to contribute to my cover persona. Humans are so attached to their hair.

 

—–

 

Terra, or Earth as the inhabitants call it, has yet to achieve space-readiness. They have fumbled around with space travel, dabbled in it, but they haven’t made it out of their own solar system. They are landlocked, so to speak. When I was younger my father told me before a job that when intergalactic life decides to skip town and hide on Terra, they hide in the semi-populated rural areas of the globe. Places where they can blend in without having to worry about so many people seeing through their disguise. It seems like a clever plan, but Dad said it doesn’t hide anybody very well. I figure that applies to “The Runner,” at any rate. My sources say his name is Ignus and that he landed somewhere in the Midwestern sector of North America, in small section of a territory they call “Utah.”

 

—–

 

Setting foot on the dirt, sparsely carpeted by patches of mismatched grass, I wander towards a small town fitting the qualities that Ignus should find appealing – lightly populated, agriculturally centered, quiet. It’s not all that bad, actually. I wouldn’t mind escaping out here.

I’ve landed my ship in a cleft of rock and cloaked it, several miles away from the city itself. I’m in no outrageous hurry, so I take my time and meander towards the town. The buildings are cast a burnt amber in the late afternoon sun, now immense and round in the heat of summer. The clouds blocked out rolling portions of the landscape, spotting it like scattered watermarks. On the corner of the edge of town there’s a rustic bar, “Diane’s Place.” Seems like a good enough place to start. I’ve only been to Terra once before, a long time ago, but I remember their beverages being all right.

The door is open, so I stroll in like a beleaguered man ready to rest.

“Afternoon,” the bartender nods towards me. “What’ll it be today?”

I ease myself onto a stool at the bar, “What do you recommend?”

“We have some local craft beers on draft. They’re very good.”

“That sounds fine.”

“Do you prefer a dark beer or a blonde?” He says, pulling a mug from the cooler.

I shrug. “Surprise me.”

“Well, has it been a rough day?”

“It will be.” I drum my fingers on the bar.

“Got to love those late shifts.” He chuckles as he tosses a coaster down and sets the mug on it. A dark, frothy brew filled the glass in front of me. I sip it and I realize why I remember these things.

“Yeah.” I grimace. “Nothing like it. Thanks.”

He offers a half-hearted salute and returns to cleaning the tumblers in front of him and I return to my job, scanning the bar around me. Nothing readily stands out in the crowd, so I return to making lackluster moon-eyes into my beer mug. I figure that defeated body language communicates, “I’m totally not planning on killing you” more than being obnoxiously friendly. It also provides me with the perfect cover to eavesdrop, I mean, I suppose I wouldn’t suspect that a guy who’s planning on marrying his bar drink is listening to my conversation.

“She just won’t quit nagging me about the spare bedroom! It’s not like…”

“You know I know a place we can go and have a great…”

“My boss just won’t quit riding me…sometimes I just wish I could ride…”

“I’m not saying that it’s out of this world, but it’s not from Terra, that is, Earth…”

“You watch way too much SiFi. You really need…”

“Just chill, man. I didn’t mean anything when I said…”

Terra, huh?

No one on this planet accidentally calls this hunk of dust Terra. Pushing my mug forward for a refill, it tips over and clanks against the bar. I bury my face in my hands and sigh. The bartender reassures me that it’s no big deal – no harm done. In a moment, there’s another mug in front of me. I look over my shoulder at the faces in the bar and it’s obvious that I’m probably the least covert person here. Attempting a small apologetic wave, I glance over the room and single out the voice that’s out of place. It belongs to a generic young man, standing by the entrance, a nearly empty bottle in his hand. A perfect way to blend in, unless someone’s looking for the quirks that make people individual. Now he sticks out like a blank canvas in a gallery.

At this point, kind of like me.

I turn back to the bar and pick up my beer, trying to be smooth this time. I figure he’ll be here in a minute – with the contents of that bottle, maybe less. As predicted, the kid makes his way over the bar next to me, leaning on the edge with his elbows to get another drink. He fidgets. He scratches the back of his neck, clicks his fingernails together. A nervous tick shivers through his veins as he perpetually peeks over his shoulder at the door.

“Waiting for someone?” I ask, not offering eye contact.

I feel his gaze for a couple moments before he attempts a reply. “No. No I-I’m just here. Getting some drinks.”

“Join the party.” I try nodding at him. “Know what, next round’s on me.”

“Really?”

“Sure, why not? I’m not going anywhere for awhile.”

“Man. People here are so nice, even if you are a total butterfingers. Do you mind if I sit down?” He points to the stool next to mine. I shake my head, and he settles himself there. As far as I can tell, he seems placid enough, an easy mark.

“My name’s Clarence,” I say.

The kid hesitates, “Jim. My name’s Jim. Hannigan.”

“Good to meet you Jim,” I forge a small grin, and risk a gamble. “Haven’t seen you around here before. What brings you to the area?”
“I just wanted a change of scenery. Places get old, you know?”

“Here’s to that. I’ve been all over this country, still looking for a place to settle down.”

Jim tilts his beer and swallows, emptying it and nodding for another. This guy drinks beer as if it’s water, and it’s clear that his body isn’t used to the amount that he’s consuming. His eyelids are getting heavy like they’ve been tied down and stretched like a circus tent. “So, Clarence, what do you do?”

“Eh. This and that. I’m in public relations right now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” I nod, risking another gamble. “This company is trying to move further west. It’s called Ignus Industries.”

Jim flinches and shoots a look at me, but I pretend not to notice. This is the confirmation I need. But still, I’m curious. I’m curious as to why someone wants this guy out of the picture. That is, it doesn’t seem like he deserves it. Sure, he’s skipped out on paying people, but I feel that there has to be more to it. At any rate, it’s worth sticking around a little longer. Doesn’t hurt anything.

I continue as if the name doesn’t bear any significance. “Most of the guys there are these young rookies. I’m the oldest guy there, but I have a degree in the work and figured, why not? I can deal with kids.”

“Did you say Ignus Industries?” He asks, attempting to appear casual.

“Yeah. Probably some new lingo that kids use these days. I don’t keep up with it anymore. Have you heard of it?”

“No.” He shakes his head very slowly, saying something under his breath before taking another drink. “Never heard of it. How is that kind of work?”

“It’s all right. I don’t mind it.”

“You’re a pretty friendly guy. I could see how you would be good at something like that. What kind of things do you do there?”

“I’ll show you sometime,” I stretch my back. “Are you interested?”

Ignus coughs, finishing off the beer. “I only ask because I’m out of work.”

“What happened?”

“It’s complicated,” he says, shaking his head as if measuring his words carefully before committing to any. “Got in some kind of mess with some people, had to take out a loan with some other people…ended up not being able to pay it back right away. Lost my job over it. Lost my home. My family. Guess I’m kind of lucky to make it through on my own two feet.”

“Damn.” I shake my head, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” He wipes away something from his eye. The stand of bottles forming in front of him is quickly becoming a forest. “Find work and start over.”

I bite my upper lip. “You know, I – I wouldn’t mind starting over.”

“Trouble?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it ‘trouble’ as much as a – well – as a nuisance.”

Ignus wheezes what I could call a laugh. “Clarence, man, that’s the same thing. I’ve talked your ear off with my problems. It’s the least I can do to listen to yours.”

“I really don’t want to take up your time, though.”

“It’s nothing, Clarence. Like you said, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, all right,” I spin my soggy coaster around in circles absentmindedly. “You know how I said that I didn’t mind my job? It’s not that I hate it or anything. I just don’t enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, people say I’m good at it. I’m just, just not passionate about it.”

Ignus peels the label from one of the bottles. “Then why don’t you just quit and find something you like doing?”

I sit quietly for a long time, flipping the coaster. “I should. I don’t know what I’d do, but I should.”

“You’re clearly good at public relations, maybe there’s some work you can do with other people. Maybe you could be a salesman or something.”

“Maybe. That’s actually not a bad idea. Thanks, Jim.” I say, grinning. “I need to head out now, actually. I’ll get the tab. I’ll be right back.”

I walk over to the bartender and give him a counterfeit credit card. Terran currency is pretty primitive, so it’s easy to forge. He hands it back to me and I sign the receipt quickly, returning back to Ignus.

“Thanks,” I say again. “It means a lot to me that you took the time to listen. Nobody really listens to me anymore.”

“It’s no problem,” he says. “Thanks for letting me get all of this off my chest.”

“No big deal, Jim. Just doing my best to be a friend.”

“You have no idea how much that means to me. I haven’t had a good friend in far too long!”

“Well, I’m glad I can help. I’ll see you later.” I smile, giving Ignus a couple firm pats on the back.

I turn around and walk towards the exit, pushing my way past the people gathered in the doorway. The hardest part is walking away, hearing the slump, the clatter, the voices. Behind me, I hear the bartender ask if Ignus is okay, and as I slip out of the bar, the panicked call for a doctor.

 

—–

 

I’m not sure what my life is or what I should be doing, but I do know one thing.

I always keep my promises.

 

 

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8 Comments

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  2. This was thoroughly enjoyable. I loved the noir feel that we’re hit with right from the get-go. Our anti-hero remarking on the seediness of where he has to go to meet his boss, and the fact that his boss has an exoskeleton makes me happy all over.

    I’m also a huge sucker for bar conversations, so I enjoyed the slow play-out at the end as our protagonist uses his prey as a sounding board to hash out some of his issues, all while playing idly with a coaster. Very nice.

    There were some odd details thrown in here and there that kind of jarred me out of the story. The papers being picked up at the Ministry seemed like it was something that was going to come back around, though I guess that was just a pretext to have the character visit his mother and broaden our view of who he was. I liked the scene with the mom but, again, what was up with her “watering the plants” yet “not owning plants?”

    Possibly I’ve completely missed something, but for me these details were so nice and gripping and then nothing came out of them.

    Overall, though, an excellent interpretation of the theme and a story that I found surprisingly touching as I went back and thought through what was going through Murray’s head at that bar.

  3. I am a sucker for a bit of noir, so I slipped into this story like it was a favourite trenchcoat and let it buy me a drink. I knew the story was trouble, but the kind I could handle aaaaand that’s quite enough of that.

    I liked the plot, I liked the execution, I liked the slow build up of the character and the kind of weary professionalism he displays.

    The criticism – and that’s a bit of a heavy term for something that’s really just a sort of small irk that should be talked about over drinks at a bar or something – that I gave the other story applies here: the main character is basically a human in an alien suit. He’s almost too recognisable. I think the balance here is right – there’s enough worldbuilding to remind you that the character isn’t human while keeping the narrative relatable.

  4. Man, the voice of this piece was stellar. I love that hardboiled feel.

    It was a solid entry. The world building was quick and easy, and it allowed my mind’s eye to picture everything. Some people want more, I kind of like a story to flow my way visually.

    I felt like it was a very abrupt ending, but appropriate. Good work, Ian!

  5. This week was very hard for me to pick a winner. I really liked both stories but I would have to give this one my vote. This character felt more alien to me and just when I thought he was going to fall prey to human emotions he followed through with his alien nature.

  6. You got me with this one man. Such a beautifully easy flow, never convoluted or relying on deception to really show what the story is worth, just a straight up good write. I personally really enjoyed the remark about the mother not owning any plants, I feel that it alludes to her character and his view of her rather well. And the ending was flawlessly executed. I still didn’t see that coming even after the ol’ pat on the back.

  7. Pingback: Archetypes and Characterization: Writing “Contracts” - The Writer's Arena

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