Home > Uncategorized > Day Two Hundred and Twenty-nine: Debts

Day Two Hundred and Twenty-nine: Debts

Lower-middle-class suburbia was exemplified by the house on Sparrow Lane. All the houses, really. They had been built by a developer back in the early eighties, and he offered only three basic templates to choose from. But this house seemed to exude it, seemed to be the Platonic ideal of what a quiet suburban home should be like. The bushes were all trimmed back, some of them flowering pink and blue above a freshly-mowed lawn. There was a sprinkler, throwing out rainbows in the late-morning summer sun. A garage fit for two cars, windows that were clean and flanked by white shutters against dark blue aluminum siding.

And, yes. A fence. White pickets, with ivy growing up and around them.

It was enough to turn Eli’s stomach.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and stared at the house. The car was heating up, but the boss made him pay for gas out of his own pocket. So, no air conditioning while he thought about whether he should wait for this stupid son-of-a-bitch to come home from whatever errands he was running, or just break in and wait for him inside. Neither was a good choice. If he waited there too long, some nosy neighbor would start to wonder why this late-model Tulay sedan had been sitting there for so long. On the other hand, if he parked it somewhere – there was a gas station half a mile away – those same nosy neighbors would wonder who this large bearded man was, why he was walking through their nice little neighborhood, and what he was planning to do with that baseball bat.

“Fuck it,” Eli said. He started the car and carefully crawled through the development’s winding, bird-named streets. A left on Blue Jay, a right on Robin, and another right on Cardinal. Eli wanted to see Buzzard and Raven and Osprey, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen.

The gas station was a little more than a mile away, as it turned out, and Eli added another couple of beatings to the bill of abuse that he was about to pay out. Usually a guy who owed Vaughn Coltraine money could expect a few bruises around the head and neck just as a reminder as to his responsibilities. This guy – Isaac Sobrio – had already been through the “I walked into a doorway” phase and was now into round two. This was where a hospital visit usually became necessary, and it’s where Eli’s skill set really started to shine.

He carried the bat on his shoulder and tried to look like a guy just out for a walk. With a bat. Maybe to meet his nephew, little Jimmy, the gap-toothed kid with the freckles who loved nothing more than to play ball with his big, hairy uncle on a Saturday morning. He was wearing a baseball cap, after all. And sunglasses, but it was a sunny day. Nothing to worry about here. Just a man with a bat, no ulterior motives at all.

Eli wasn’t sure if he was pulling it off. He’d been told once that he smiled with the dead eyes of a shark, and the only time anyone had seen him genuinely happy seemed to be when he was playing guitar at one of the boss’ barbecues. A baseball bat was not a guitar, of course, and he wasn’t prepared to start any barbecues today.

That didn’t mean he wouldn’t, of course. It just meant that he hadn’t written it into his plan for the day.

He walked to the back of Sobrio’s house as though he’d been there a hundred times before. The garage was still empty, and he couldn’t see anything going on through any of the windows back there. He pulled at the ground-level doors to the basement. They were locked, and he shrugged. It was worth trying.

The alternative was riskier, but nothing he hadn’t done a hundred times before. He went to the sliding glass doors that led in from the tiny back porch and pulled a windshield hammer from his jacket pocket. He didn’t bother looking around – what would he do if there was someone looking at him, anyway? Wave and ask about their begonias? A quick tap and the glass shattered, falling in a heap by his feet. Eli shook his head and stepped in. If he’d been Sobrio, with the money he’d borrowed and knowing that sooner or later a man like Eli would show up at his house, he would have at least sprung for the laminated glass. It wouldn’t have stopped him, of course, but it would have been annoying.

The living room didn’t quite match the suburban perfection of the outside. In here, the furniture was old and mismatched. A sofa that looked like it had been passed from friend to friend for years had books and clothes piled on all but one cushion. The TV was at least a decade old, and the walls were bare of any decoration. Eli was glad that he was wearing shoes, too. The carpet was dusty except for a track that had been worn between the sofa and the kitchen. The place smelled like everything needed to be washed. Or perhaps burned.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator was empty except for half a six-pack of cheap beer and some condiments in the door rack. There were the discards of a week’s worth of take-out in the garbage, and a couple of cups filled with standing water in the sink.

That sick feeling in Eli’s stomach changed. Shifted. He was a big man, and he was very good at hurting people. But no matter what movies and TV liked to say about the leg-breaker, Eli was not a stupid man. Stupid men did not last long in this operation.

He walked around to other rooms in the house, and found them the same. Minimal furniture, if any at all. No one had cleaned in ages, but there wasn’t enough garbage to raise a stink. The floor was filthy except for where it had been well-treaded. He went back to the kitchen and grabbed a SmackyBurger bag out of the trash. There was ketchup smeared in the french=fry carton, and it was still a little tacky. He replaced the bag and ran his fingers under the tap. The water came out clear and cold.

Upstairs there was a bedroom and a small bathroom, and another room that was just empty. The bed was unmade, and laying on the floor. In the bathroom, the floor of the shower was still wet.

“This is not right,” Eli said to himself. The house was in use, as recently as this morning. The outside looked picture-perfect, but the inside was a slum. He knew how much Sobrio owed, or at least had a ballpark figure. The boss didn’t send Eli around for much less than fifty grand, and that would be for fifty grand that was well overdue. With that much money, the guy should be able to live a life better than some jerkoff kid just out of college. Sobrio kept the outside looking perfect and let the inside rot away. But what for?

The word came out of Eli’s mouth before he was aware that he’d thought it. “Camouflage.”

Eli took out his phone and speed-dialed his boss. “Eli,” he said to the voicemail recorder. “I’m at his house now. Something doesn’t look right. I’ll wait for him to come home and… I dunno. But this might get bigger.” He thumbed the disconnect button and put the phone back in his pocket.

He went back downstairs, trying not to let his feet thud as he went. He was starting to get nervous, and he wasn’t sure why. Elias Otis didn’t get nervous. That was for other people.

The stairs took him to the kitchen again, and he found himself wishing the guy would just come home so he could break the guy’s legs and get out of his rat-hole. He tapped the baseball bat against the floor a couple of times. Maybe Sobrio wasn’t coming home anytime soon. Maybe Eli should just leave and come back later.

No. The broken back window would probably spook him. He was probably well aware that there’d be someone coming after the money. He’d pack up whatever he had and run.

Eli looked around the kitchen again, and found himself staring at the door that most likely led to the cellar. He stared at the door for a minute and then shrugged. “What the hell?” he said as he opened the door.

There was a bulb on a pull-string at the top of the stairs, but the switch at the bottom didn’t do anything. The basement smelled cool and musty, like all basements everywhere. He gave the switch a few more flicks and then took the phone from his pocket again. The screen wasn’t the best flashlight, but it would do. He swept it slowly in front of him. There were piled-up cardboard boxes, an old exercise cycle with clothes draped on it, the glint of metal off a storage rack.

He turned off the phone and turned back for the stairs. Then he heard the whimper.

It was quiet and it was scared, sounds that Eli was familiar with. But there was something else under it. Something he didn’t expect to hear and really didn’t want to.

“Hello?” he said, putting some bass into his voice.

The darkness was silent for a long moment, and he shifted the grip on his baseball bat. He opened his mouth to speak again when he heard another whimper. It was a little louder, but not by much. It sounded like an animal, one that was sick. Afraid, maybe.

Eli turned on his phone again and held it out in front of him. He held the bat in his other hand, his grip up high. “Hello?” he said again, and he hated the softness in his voice. He swept out the light as he edged forward, knowing deep in his heart that he wasn’t going to like what he was about to see.

He was more right than he knew.

The boy in the cage was twelve. Maybe thirteen, but it was hard to tell. The cage was barely big enough for him to lie flat, and the bottom was covered with an old army blanket. Other than a pair of old jockey shorts, the boy was naked and bruised. He winced away from Eli’s light and whimpered more loudly. Eli switched off his phone’s screen and stood up. The darkness didn’t hide anything anymore. He could still see the cage, right in front of him. He could still see the boy, and the bruises, and the fear. His grip on the bat began to ache.

His phone rang, the jazzy, clear ringtone that he’d set for his boss. “Eli,” he said, his teeth clenched. “Yeah,” he said. “No, he’s not here yet.”

He listened and nodded. He turned to the cage, where he could just make out the boy looking at him through his fingers. “Don’t worry,” Eli said. “I know just what to do with this guy.”

Eli ended the call. A quick sweep with the screen’s light and he found an old kitchen chair, piled high with shoeboxes. He swept them off and sat down, leaning the bat against the cage.

Sobrio would come down here. There was no doubt about that. He’d see the broken glass door, and this would be the first thing he thought of. He’d come rushing down here to make sure his pet was okay.

And then Eli would do what he did best.

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