by Ed Helenski
“That’s a lovely ring. May I see it?” Johnson asked, extending his hand across the table. Mike hesitated only a moment before holding his own hand out for inspection.
Mike was used to doing some fairly unusual things in the course of a day, which was how he got into the million-dollar club, and how he stayed there. Eight percent commission was what he lived for, and if it meant schmoozing with this old fart, so be it. The guy acted a little poofy, and as his fingers gently took Mike’s hand the thought crossed his mind that the guy might be coming on to him. But Mike was prepared to do a good many things for his eight percent, and if that meant playing along with the guy’s queer little fantasies so be it. But Mike wasn’t prepared for what happened next. While holding Mike’s hand with his right, Johnson grasped his steak knife with his left, and plunged it through Mike’s hand and into the wood of the table.
Mike screamed and tried to pull his hand free, but the pain was unbearable. Mike passed out.
He had agreed to meet Johnson at the restaurant at 1:00 PM. It was not unusual for Mike to meet clients in a variety of locales, from their homes to one notable occasion at a strip club on Venice. No matter where the meeting; the eight percent commission had always been foremost in his mind. And Mike made sales. Properties worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars were brokered on a regular basis, which kept Mike’s bank account full, and his ego sated. He had come to meet Johnson because the man had called expressing interest in the property on West 38th Street, the hulking stone mansion that had once been the Mariner’s Club and had later been cut into apartments. Now that the neighborhood had become trendy again, the house was ripe for renovation into a real showplace, and Mike had thought he could get at least two point five million for it. You didn’t need to be a math genius to know that eight percent of that was some serious change.
Mike had never heard of Bowler’s, the restaurant where Johnson had arranged to meet him, but the address was a good one, and he had never hesitated to go. When he had arrived at the address he had discovered a small, but well maintained brownstone with no commercial markings at all. There was simply a doorbell which he had rung. An expressionless man wearing what amounted to a butler’s uniform had immediately opened the door. “Mr. Johnson is expecting you,” the man had said, and led him into a dim hallway, paneled in some dark wood. There were several small dining rooms off the hall, each with only three or four tables, sparsely occupied by men in fine suits and women with the look of great money. He had been immediately impressed with the place, which was obviously something close to a private club. If the food were good he would inquire as to reservations. There were a number of women who would be very impressed with such opulent surroundings. And impressed women showed their gratitude in the most delightful ways. That was one of the things Mike had learned since joining the million-dollar club.
Mike had been led to a table in the farthest room, one occupied by an older man with a small, precise moustache, wearing a grey suit that no doubt cost more than a thousand dollars. The man had introduced himself as Mr. Johnson, and apologized for having started lunch without him. “I simply cannot tolerate low blood sugar,” he had said, taking a bite of the very rare piece of filet in front of him. Mike understood completely. Twice a day he had to use insulin to control his diabetes. Low blood sugar was a problem he was familiar with. Then he had asked to see Mike’s ring.
Mike emerged from his lapse when the dour faced butler had thrown a glass of ice water in his face. Sputtering he reentered the world of agony, and nearly passed out again as his attempt to move his hand shot more bolts of pain through his arm. “My apologies for the water, Mr. Nichols, but I find it most difficult to negotiate a deal when one’s associates are unconscious.” He picked up his fork and then looked momentarily bewildered until he recalled what had become of his knife. The butler returned immediately with a new one, and Mr. Johnson cut another small precise bite of filet. He ate it with delight. “Excellent meat. You should really try some. But perhaps steak is a bit beyond your ability just now. Am I right?”
Mike screamed. He yelled for help. He shouted obscenities at Johnson until he grew hoarse. Johnson simply watched him and ate his lunch, finishing the filet, the rice pilaf, and a small dish of snap peas. When he was done he dabbed at his lips daintily, and leaned back in his chair. “Have you quite finished, Mr. Nichols?” The butler appeared by his side, bringing a cup of coffee and removing the dishes. Mike saw that he left the second steak knife sitting on the table.
“Please. For god’s sake. Call the police. Help me.” The butler didn’t even make eye contact with him, but simply walked out into the hall and vanished.
“I don’t think the police are needed, Mr. Nichols. Nor would it be prudent for you to call them. I think you will see what I mean soon enough. In case you have not yet surmised, my name is not really Johnson. My name is Garambald, Jacob Garambald. You do know the name Garambald, don’t you?”
Mike shook his head. The pain was beyond belief, and he was beginning to think that the only way out of this nightmare would be to play dumb, though the name meant nothing to him in any event.
“Are you quite sure, Mr. Nichols?” The man raised one eyebrow in a gesture both prissy and somehow terrifying under the circumstances.
“I’m sorry.” Mike choked out, tears freely running down his face now. “You must have me confused with someone. Someone else.”
“I’m very sorry you chose to play games, Mr. Nichols. I assume you are playing games, because if you truly don’t recall the name that simply makes your plight worse.”
The butler had materialized behind Mike, and suddenly he grasped Mike’s free hand and held it to the table in a viselike grip.
Mike shouted “NO!” and then Garambald had taken the second knife and driven it even more deeply into the polished wood of the table, going through Mike’s left hand in the process.
More ice water and several slaps had been required to revive him this time. His hands ached as if they had been plunged into liquid nitrogen, and blood was seeping out onto the dark wood around them. “Please.” he said thickly, struggling to stay awake, “I don’t know what you want. Tell me. Please. Tell me” He was whimpering and crying as he spoke.
“I hope that refreshes your memory. Surely you remember Bettina? Bettina Garambald? Dark hair, beautiful brown eyes? You met her at Nancy’s? At the bar?”
The name Bettina rang a dim bell for Mike, but he couldn’t place it. He shook his head again.
Garambald made a tsking sound. “I would really dislike having to send for another knife. And the next appendage I pierce will certainly not be a hand. You seem to be fresh out of hands. Please try and concentrate, Mr. Nichols.”
Through the pain and shock Mike tried to focus on the name. Finally a face came to him, a young girl, one he had met several months ago. She had been sitting at the bar when he arrived at Nancy’s on a day after a particularly sweet deal had gone down. He remembered her now. She had been quite a vixen. He had taken her home that night, and after he had put out numerous lines of cocaine they had engaged in some very vigorous and very rough sex. The girl had been insatiable, and he had taken her again and again in every way imaginable until he was unable to continue. She had been most indulgent to his rather outre tastes. She had left several messages for him since, but Mike made it a practice to never call a woman once he had had her. What was the point after all?
“I can see you remember. You were most unchivalrous, Mr. Nichols. A woman gives herself to you in a most passionate fashion, and then you dismiss her like a common whore. Is that the way you treat women, Mr. Nichols?”
“I, I remember her now, yes. She was a lovely girl. But…” Mike struggled to think of some spin to put on this, some way to pass it off. “But you are a man of means, like me, you must know that women are a dime a dozen if you have money.”
“I am most disappointed in that reply. The girl you speak of is not a dime a dozen. In point of fact, she is my granddaughter, and I take a dim view of nouveau riche like you behaving in such a manner. Although I suppose given your ancestry you simply don’t know any better. You are really just a very common sort, aren’t you Mr. Nichols?”
Agreement was the only course open to Mike at this point. He hoped that the man might let him go if he was repentant. “Yes, yes, I was wrong. I’m really just a stupid man. I’m so so sorry. Please. Please don’t hurt me any more.”
“I wish I could believe your sorrow, Mr. Nichols, really I do.” His face was a mask of sympathy. “But even if I did, there is the matter of honor. You wouldn’t know anything of honor, though, would you?” He paused to reach over and lift Mike’s face, now sagging as the pain got the better of him. The butler came to the table with a small bottle on a tray.
“Do you recognize this, Mr. Nichols? You have had a glucose tolerance test before, have you not? Does this bottle ring a bell?”
Mike saw the bottle through rapidly clouding vision. It was the same thing they had used in the hospital; a thick cola beverage made up mostly of sugar. It was used to test the body’s ability to digest and absorb carbohydrates. He began to moan.
“If you would, please,” Garambald said to the butler, who grasped Mike’s head and held it back, pinching his nostrils shut at the same time. The man was strong in any event, but at this point Mike couldn’t even offer token resistance. Garambald took the bottle and upended it into Mike’s mouth. Mike swallowed to avoid choking, and soon the bottle was empty. He began to feel very sick, and knew that without insulin he would shortly go into shock.
“Please. In my case. My insulin.”
The butler picked up the case and carried it off. Mike felt himself slipping away. His head lolling, he saw someone else come to the table and stand behind Garambald. A vaguely familiar voice spoke. “Are you ready to go, Grandfather?”
“Indeed I am, my dear. I think our business is concluded.” The man stood stiffly, and the girl took him by the arm.
“Don’t you think not returning phone calls is simply the rudest behavior?” she asked the old man as they walked.
“Oh, I quite agree. There is nothing worse than a rude person. Still, it is never too late to teach someone manners.” Grandfather and granddaughter walked out of the room, arm in arm.