A string of old bells jangled when Terry stepped into the dingy, dim-lit diner. The snowflakes on his shoulders sparkled gently in the jukebox light before they melted into the wool of his overcoat. Terry was an older man, thin, hair more salt than pepper peeking out below the brim of his perfectly fitting trilby. The diner was closed, but a handful of men sat around tables in booths of cracked red vinyl. The jukebox was playing a ridiculous saccharine doo-wop song. Boneyman, Boneyman come on Boneyman. That was some kind of irony, Terry thought.
At the sound of the bells on the door, everyone in the diner turned to look at him. One of the men stood and approached him, a large man in an ill-fitting polyester suit. The man sneered and pointed a fat finger at the large black duffel bag Terry held at his side. “That the cash?”
Terry let his gaze drop down to the bag, and then back to his host. He raised an eyebrow and gently cocked his head. It was a carefully calculated expression, just barely there. The host’s scowl deepened.
“Ok, asshole,” he said. “Boss! Our old friend Terence finally decided to pay us a visit!”
Terry didn’t show his annoyance. “Just Terry, actually.”
From the back of the diner, a lightly accented and too cheerful voice, “Ah, Terence!” A slim man burst through the swinging kitchen doors. He was wearing a much nicer suit than anyone else in the diner, except Terry, maybe. He had a mess of curly black hair, which had been carefully tamed just enough to seem elegant. A large gold ring adorned the little finger of the hand he extended for Terry to shake.
Terry took his hand, inclined his head, and leaned into his smile a bit, letting it feather the corners of his eyes. “David.”
“Would you care to join me? So we can discuss our…” it was David’s turn to smirk, “…situation?”
Terry nodded, a reserved tilt of his head. David made an exaggerated sweeping motion with his hands, gesturing for Terry to follow him, right this way. They walked to the back corner of the diner to a large round table. Dim lighting, sticky vinyl tablecloth, mostly empty ketchup bottle, the works. Terry sat, placing the duffel bag on the scuffed tile floor beside him.
They sat in awkward silence for a moment, both of them conspicuously ignoring the other men in the room, who had begun to change tables, moving closer to their corner booth. David seemed to be testing Terry, who was in no hurry to be the first to speak. Terry sat calmly, his gloved hands folded neatly on the table in front of him.
David broke first, a hint of annoyance pulling at the corner of his mouth. “I have to admit I was expecting to see your boss this evening.”
Terry’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he did not drop his pleasant smile. He spoke slowly. Clearly. “I do not think that will be necessary.” A pause. “However, it can be arranged if you find it important.”
“I’m inclined to think your boss is trying to send some message by ignoring me, and I have to say, I’m not particularly fond of the implications of that.”
Terry again inclined his head slightly, maintaining eye contact with the man across the table. A moment passed.
“And yet. Here you are. Carrying a large bag,” David leaned slightly out of the booth. He frowned. “Much larger than you would need for bringing what we requested of you.”
“I have brought you precisely what my employer has requested me to bring.”
One of the men who had been standing around the table took a half step forward. “Seems like our message got through to him, boss.” He wheezed some sort of cancerous chuckle and stepped back into line. David sneered at the man.
“My employer,” Terry said, “Did not appreciate the tone of the message that was sent.”
Wheezy chuckled again. David’s head turned sharply to the line of men. “Alan. I think there’s something you should be attending to in the back.” His voice was flat and quiet. Wheezy’s face reddened at this. He nodded sharply and disappeared into the kitchen.
David turned back toward Terry. “Excuse my associate, he seems to have some funny ideas about what happened at your establishment. There was no ‘message’, at least not from us. This neighborhood just isn’t what it once was. Violence in the streets… drugs… you know.”
“I do know,” Terry said. “You and your associates are willing, then, to set yourselves up as our… protectors.”
“We know you might find it distasteful Terence.”
“My name is not Terence.”
David rolled his eyes and took a breath. “Terry.” the word fell from his mouth like a bit of gristle from an overdone steak. “We know that you and your boss might find it distasteful, but we are what we are. The petty thieves and muggers on the streets out there know who we are and they don’t mess with us.” He leaned forward. “They don’t mess with our friends either.”
“And so, my employer is supposed to pay for the privilege of being your friend.”
“That is the idea… ‘Terry'” David’s demeanor had not been particularly friendly, to begin with, but as he spat Terry’s name back at him, there was a threat there. He nearly growled it.
“Well then.” Terry retained his calm, pleasant smile.
“It seems your boss has understood our meaning though,” David again leaned out to look at the bag sitting on the black and used-to-be-white checkerboard floor.
“We did,” Terry said. “We understood it when you first offered it to us, and our answer–my employer’s answer–is the same as what I told you then.”
“That you do not think you’ll be needing our protection.”
“Quite… though my employer used much more colorful language when I told him about it.”
Terry inclined his head in a polite nod.
A man that had been sitting at a table nearby stood and approached their corner booth. He leaned in and whispered loudly into David’s ear. “The bag…” The rest of the men, apparently thinking the same thing shuffled with unease. A couple of them stood. Terry saw hands tuck into suitjackets. Eyes widened. Eyes narrowed. A bead of sweat upon a brow.
David remained calm, shooting a disdainful look at his associates. “So if you do not intend to pay for our protection–that is your prerogative of course–what is in that bag? Surely you haven’t come into our place of business to threaten us?” With an almost imperceptible turning of his head, David signaled his men. Those still seated stood. As a group, they took a step forward. Hands emerged. Guns, of course.
Terry ignored them. “Interesting, sir, that you would take such offense at what you are perceiving to be a threat, considering the ‘message’ your associates attempted to deliver the other night.”
“The bag, asshole.”
“I said, earlier…” Terry lifted his hands slightly and edged out of the booth with slow, smooth motions. He bent toward the bag on the floor. “I said that if you wanted to meet with my employer, that we could arrange it.”
Everyone in the diner leaned forward as Terry slowly reached down and unzipped the bag. He lifted his head and held out his empty hands as if he were doing a magic trick then upturned the bag spilling its contents onto the floor.
“What the fuck!” someone said. Guns raised, men stood tense and ready to jump into action. David stood.
“Terry,” he said. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say here, but I know I don’t like it.”
“I suspected you wouldn’t,” Terry said. He stood.
David looked at Terry, then down to the floor. Bones. Human ones, and old. Ivory colored. Worn smooth with age. A skull peeked from the bottom of the pile.
“Are you…” David stepped back, his gaze never leaving the pile of bones. “…are you telling me… that this is your employer?”
“That was the implication, yes,” Terry said.
David sighed, loudly. “OK. Enough bullshit then. I don’t care if this is some kind of prank, or if you’re just batshit crazy. Doesn’t matter. We’re done.” David turned to leave. “Terry’s got a lesson to learn here, boys.”
One of the men stepped forward and placed his hand on Terry’s shoulder. The man that had greeted him when he entered. “Let’s head out back and have ourselves a little chat, Terrence.”
“Take your hand off of my shoulder,” Terry said.
He didn’t move his hand but leaned in closer. Terry could almost taste his cigarette and dinner mint breath. “Listen, old man, this isn’t going to be too much fun for you, no matter how it goes down, but there are levels to how bad it can get, you know?”
“I see,” said Terry.
The man with his hand on Terry’s shoulder pushed gently as if to lead him toward those swinging doors, but Terry resisted. His ever-present mildly pleasant smile deepened just a bit as he heard what had become to him a comforting familiar sound. A quiet rattling scrape. The slightest hint of a breeze cooled the room. His assailants had not yet noticed.
“WHAT THE FUCK!”
On the floor, the bones were moving. They were coming together; piling up on each other. Terry took the moment of his captor’s confusion to take a step back, out of their midst. This wasn’t going to be pretty, but Terry didn’t have too much sympathy for violent would-be extortionists.
Only a few moments had passed. The dollar-store gangsters were still standing stupefied watching the miracle unfolding in front of them. The bones leaked a kind of black goo, which pulsated and moved, binding the bones together, pulling everything into shape. The shape of a man, more or less. The arms were too long and the bones didn’t look quite right, but the shape was undeniably humanoid.
It was only about half-formed when the wisest of the henchmen decided to try to run. He was a smaller man, standing a few paces away from Terry. He took a couple of sneaking steps backward and then abruptly spun on his heels to run from the room. He didn’t make it far.
A skeletal hand shot across the room, connected to the still forming specter by a stretched thread of the black goo. The hand hit the runner hard on the back of the neck and pulled him back to the center of the group.
The skull was pulled up, setting itself on the figure’s tall shoulders. It stood something like a head taller than everyone else in the room, an imposing skeletal figure robed in undulating tendrils of viscous darkness. It held the limp body of the man it had caught and scanned the room. Its gaze landed on Terry.
It spoke. “Evening, Terentius.”
Terry nodded. “Boss”
The mobsters in the room watched this exchange in stupefied silence. Idiots. If they had all run, some of them might have made it.
The figure spoke again. “I take it they didn’t like our proposal?”
Terry shook his head. “Never even got that far.”
The skeleton shook its head. “Dumbasses.” A wet crunching sound. The runner’s neck twisted strangely and he was dropped in a heap on the floor.
The man’s fall seemed, finally, to snap the rest of the idiot crowd out of their drooling slack-jawed awe. Gunfire erupted from all sides, filling the room with a thin haze of blue-gray smoke. Windows shattered. Someone was shot in the crossfire.
Terry shuffled back, toward the front of the diner to watch the proceedings, and his boss snapped into a frenzy of violence unperturbed by the gunfire. Things went too fast to really follow what was happening, but Terry had seen it all before. Guns clattered to the floor. Bodies fell. Terry saw a sharp-looking bone puncture out the back of the man that had tried to “take him out back”. Another lost his head, though Terry didn’t see how it was removed.
It was over in moments. His boss stood at ease amidst the carnage as the gunsmoke swirled and faded.
“David escaped out the back,” Terry said.
“Which one was David?”
“Ah. Well.” The skeletal figure shrugged. “I doubt they bother us again, anyway.”
Terry looked down at the twisted broken bodies on the floor. “Maybe,” he said. “I’ve been telling you this neighborhood is getting pretty rough. It isn’t what it was 50 years ago.”
The skeleton sat down at the big corner booth. “I know, Terentius, I know. It’s just that moving is such a pain.”
“That it is.”
“It’s been a while since I got to crack some skulls, anyway.”
Terry gave his boss an endearing eyeroll. His boss smiled. Or, he didn’t quite smile, but after all these years Terry had gotten used to reading his expressions. This was a slight tilt of his head, a slight opening of the teeth, an almost imperceptible raise of the shoulders.
Terry sat at the booth across from his boss. “Should we try to do something about David?”
“What do you think?”
“Hard to say, he may just run off now that he’s met you, or, he might dig in his heels, hire better henchmen. Maybe we just wait to see what happens.”
“Works for me. You hungry?”
The jukebox started up again, its old lights flashing dimly across the diner. Wake up! Little Suzie, wake up! The skeleton stood abruptly with a groan.
“I hate this song. Let’s get out of here.”
Terry gathered his duffel bag from the floor and took out a wrinkled trench coat, and hat, handing them to his boss. They stepped over the bodies of the men on the floor and walked out into the snow.