“Honestly, it was just a guess. You mentioned you had a holster that can hide my gun from a skill, and I just figured you had a lot more you weren’t showing us.”
Big El snorted. “You guessed. That’s why you called me on a Sunday morning? You’ve got some balls, Mack.”
“I’ve heard that before. Sorry for interrupting your breakfast.”
“It’s not ready yet, so you’re not interrupting. And you won’t be. Hand the phone back to Tedz.”
I handed the phone back to the man who’d been watching my conversation with a raised eyebrow.
He spoke quietly into the phone in French, quietly enough that I didn’t hear much of anything. He hung up with a beep and set the phone back down on the charger behind the counter.
“Mack, Manny, come with me please. My employer has asked me to give you a seat in our private waiting area. There you will be unobserved by any future customers, which I believe is what you want, yes?”
I nodded as Manny said, “Yes.”
We followed Tedz across the store to a door set in the back wall, a non-descript steel door with an “Employees Only” sign.
Tedz unlocked it with a key on his ring and gestured us both inside.
The room beyond was just large enough for one L-shaped couch and a square wooden table covered with magazines. On the opposite wall an identical steel door led further in. Despite the small size it was well appointed and comfortable. The walls were a tasteful off-white, the lighting provided by several sconces. The couch was a puffy, thick black leather job and the coffee table was solid, thick dark wood. Underneath our feet was a deep shag carpet in a cream color.
“Have a seat and make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. My employer has said that he will join you when he is done his breakfast.”
“Thanks,” I said, but Tedz wasn’t done.
“You should be aware just how unusual this is. I expect that you will find my employer’s services today to be very costly.”
I didn’t have a chance to respond before Tedz left the room, closing the door behind him. I heard the click of the door locking.
“Oh shit,” I said, and stepped over the door, turning the handle. It really was locked.
I pounded on the door. “Tedz!”
Ten seconds later the door opened again and Tedz peered in, looking annoyed.
“Yes, do you want something?”
“You’re locking us in?”
“It is for your protection, and the protection of our VIP customer area. Please, relax yourselves and wait.”
He closed the door in my face again. The bolt clicked audibly back into place as Tedz locked it again.
Manny had already sat down and put his feet up on the table.
“Don’t worry too much, Bro. Big El’s a good guy.”
I was keyed up, the tension of the last few days seeming to return. I sat down but immediately stood back up and started pacing.
“Chill, bro. This is good. I’d heard that there was a secret shop that Big El ran, but I didn’t ever expect to get access to it. It’s for real gangsters only.”
“Yeah, I’m just worried I might have pissed Big El off.”
“Like I said, Big El’s chill. He’s a good guy, Bro. You don’t have to worry.”
“I don’t know man, he’s a fixer. For all we know he might be making a deal with the Hip right now.”
“Well shit, Bro. Now that you say it like that,” Manny said, trailing off. He sat up.
“Did you bring your piece?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve always got it on now, like you. At least when I’m in the shadows.”
I kept pacing. The carpet absorbed all of the sound, like the room itself seemed to. Manny and I were in utter silence, the only sounds being the ones we ourselves made. It was unnerving.
Time passed so painfully slowly while we were waiting in that room. Even Manny was feeling it, despite his earlier relaxed demeanor. I had put the fear into him, and he was unable to peacefully sit and read. We chatted a little bit about inconsequential things, but even that conversation had quickly died.
I had just managed to sit down for a couple of nervous minutes when I heard keys rattle outside rear door as someone unlocked it. I shot to my feet, my hand around the grip of my pistol, ready to draw. I had a terrifying vision of the door opening and Magnus and his goons pouring in.
Manny stood as well, his hands at his sides.
With a final click of the lock disengaging the door opened, and a little bit of the tension left me as Big El stepped in.
He was dressed slightly more casually this time around. Instead of his immaculately tailored black and white suit, he was wearing khaki slacks and a polo shirt. Less gold, as well.
“Manny, Mack. It’s good to see you both,” he said, looking us both over.
He took in my stance and as he did, I realized I was still holding the gun and let go.
“Caution is good, Mack. Despite your early morning call, I bear you no ill will. I will never sell out one of my customers without cause.”
“See, I told you he’s good people, Bro.”
“Thank you, Manny.”
“Big El, we’re in a bit of a situation, and we need” I started, but Big El cut me off.
“I know about your situation with the Fatally Hip. For someone so new to the game, you have made enemies very quickly, Mack. One of Magnus’s shooters is in the hospital, I’ve heard. Was that you?”
I opened my mouth to answer, either to deny or admit it, I wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, he cut me off again.
“No, don’t tell me. Consider that a rhetorical question. Now, you’ve gained temporary access to this room because you made me curious. You made a big play, and I respect boldness. I can see, however, that both of you are still small fish. Normally, this space is only for those that are invited. People known to me or referred by respected members of our community. You are neither of those, so why should I let you have access to our restricted wares?”
I pulled my roll out and held it up. “We can pay. We are doing pretty well.”
“Cash? Everyone can pay. I’m not a charity. While cash is required, it is not sufficient. Give me a better reason.”
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. I racked my brain, trying to come up with some way to sell him, but I drew a blank. I decided to try something radical, the truth.
“You’re right, Big El. I made at least one really nasty enemy in the last few days, and I regret that. I just didn’t see any other way. Best case, we would’ve both ended up in the hospital. We fucked up, but we didn’t deserve that.”
“Agreed, Magnus and his gang are not known for being forgiving. This is not a reason.”
“All right, here’s the reason then. I fucked up and my friend Manny here is paying for it. We need your help to hide from those psychos until we can defend ourselves, or maybe forever. I know that’s not a good reason either, charity. So I’ve got one last reason for you. We’re small fish now but we’re not going to be forever. I’m going to be a big fish—maybe the biggest. When I do, my friends are coming with me. Manny, and maybe you too, Big El.”
“I’ve heard that from young men before. Most of whom are now dead, or in prison.”
“Wait a second, Big El. Mack here’s born for this shit. My bro’s got balls of steel, and twice now he’s come out on top versus the Hip. Doesn’t that count for something? He got the Brass Dragon tong to give us a loan for 6K. I believe him. If we can just survive this shit with the Hip, my boy here is going straight up.”
Big El seemed to weigh that seriously. “Still, I don’t believe you can afford the equipment you want. If I take a risk on you and you die, I will lose my investment. I’m not in the business of losing money.”
The hope that had been building in my chest dropped out, and I gritted my teeth against the disappointment.
“I understand,” I said, unable to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
“That said, I have been known to gamble from time to time. Even the occasional longshot, like you, Mack. Let’s see if we can make a deal.”