This is the first story of mine to be accepted for publication. I still remember how thrilled I was to appear in print for the first time. Since then the novelty has worn off. The story appeared in a handsome print edition of The Freedom Forge Press. The idea for it actually came to me in a dream.
It all started on a Thursday afternoon in May. I was alone my antique store, catching up on paper work, when three men entered. They looked like tough characters. Not many men drop in, and rarely three at once. They didn’t really seem to be checking out the merchandise either. My suspicions were slightly aroused from the beginning.
“Can I help you find something?” I asked. “We have more in the back, some nice oriental carpets, if that’s what you’re interested in.” One of the three approached me; the other two guys gave up the pretense of browsing and just watched.
“Yeah. You can help me,” he said. I detected an unmistakable Eastern European accent. “We’re watching out for the neighborhood, if you get my meaning. You give us monthly payment and we protect you, make sure nothing bad happening to you or your store. My friends here, they helping me out.”
I was too stunned to speak. My store isn’t located in the greatest neighborhood, but I never heard of anything like this before, not around here anyway.
“My name is Galdar. You can think it over. We come back in an hour. Don’t do anything stupid.”
With that they left, just like that. What could they do to me if I didn’t pay up? Beat me up to a pulp, burn my store to the ground, that’s what! I thought of closing the store and leaving for the day, but that would only put off the inevitable.
An hour later Galdar was back, this time alone. I had a better look at him. He seemed to be in his early thirties, about six feet tall and slim—quite a nice looking guy, actually— with good features, closely cropped dark hair and hazel eyes. I could tell that he was fit. In other circumstances one might have thought he was charming, but there was something sinister and threatening about him now. Definitely not a man to mess with.
“I’m back,” he said quietly. “I hope you’re ready to do business.”
“Just how much are we talking about?” I asked.
“For you I cut deal: special rate is five hundred a month.”
I gasped. “Five hundred dollars a month? You’ve got to be kidding me! Do you think I’m swimming in money here?”
“Don’t make difficulties, Mr Austin. I don’t think you have much choice in the matter. It’s five hundred bucks—now!
“I won’t do it. Get the hell out of my store.” I was feeling brave at that moment for some reason. I had to put up some resistance.
Galdar nonchalantly moved over to a nearby display of Royal Doulton china, pretending to examine a soup bowl. Then he put it down and before I knew it he was behind me, grabbing my right arm, forcing it up behind my back, while his other arm went around my neck in a choke hold. This guy was quick and strong, no doubt about it, and I was no match for him. I have always been slight of build and not in the least athletic. “Okay, okay,” I managed to croak. “I’ll give you what you want.”
He released me. I coughed and sputtered and reached for my check book.
Galdar checked my arm. “That will be cash, of course. We do cash only.”
“I’ll have to get it from the office in the back.” He watched me but didn’t follow. I handed over the wad of bills.
“Thank you so much, Mr Austin. I knew you would be a reasonable man. We are back in a month. See you then.” As he opened the door he turned, repeating his previous bit of advice: “And Mr Austin—don’t do anything stupid.” He smiled, turned and left. I wanted to throw something at him.
My fury at being the victim of a shakedown abated after a while. I checked in with my neighbors and they all reported the same thing. One of them had gotten roughed up a lot more seriously than I did. We were screwed. As the police in this town are famously corrupt to begin with, I knew that reporting the crime was futile. I did a bit of snooping on the internet and came across a few reports of a Russian mafia gang that had been causing trouble in town. Galdar was no stranger to law enforcement. And his first name was Alexei. That little fact didn’t give me much comfort, but it somehow put a human face on the thug that had extorted me.
I spent the month dreading my next encounter with Galdar. I tried to put it out of my mind but the date loomed like a freight train barreling down the track I was tied to, getting ever closer. I felt completely powerless. How could I possibly challenge a man who held all the cards in this game? I pondered my options. There weren’t many. Then I remembered something I had read in my younger days, a bit of wisdom that has stayed with me ever since. There is a passage in the Tao Te Ching where Lao Tzu says something about the weak being conquerors of the strong, the pliable conquerors of the rigid, how water can wear down the hardest stone. I devised a strategy.
The day arrived and Galdar showed up alone. There was no one else in the store. He was neatly dressed, wearing slacks and a dress shirt that was complemented by a fine silk tie. The trace of a beard around his jawline was neatly trimmed. That told me something about him: that he had a certain consciousness of his image, that he was perhaps a bit vain, that Galdar liked playing Galdar—at least on a superficial level.
“Mr Austin, so nice to see you again,” he said, extending his hand. It was like we were best of buddies, two guys negotiating a friendly business deal. Of course, I shook his hand. There was something almost comical about this courtly role playing.
“Hello, Alexei,” I said, cheerfully. For a brief moment he looked surprised.
“How you know my name?”
“I know a lot about you.” I waited a moment to let that sink in, then asked, “how is your mother?” He was totally taken aback by that one. It was a shot in the dark, but worth a try.
“My mother? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Everybody has a mother. Is yours still living? Does she care for you? Do you take good care of her? Is she proud of you?”
“Of course I take good care of her! What d’you think? I’m the best son.” He was on the defensive, as I hoped he would be. He folded his arms over his chest.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I replied. “Every mother deserves to be treated with care and respect.” I could see that I had hit a vulnerable spot. Maybe Galdar wasn’t so tough after all.
He quickly pulled himself together. “My mother is no concern of yours. Now we need to do a little business. You got something for me?”
I didn’t say or do anything. I just looked at Galdar, looked him straight in the eye, but that seemed to unnerve him. He was so flustered by my passivity that he lunged at me and quickly tripped me over backwards. I landed flat on the floor, on my back. He immediately straddled me and had me pinned down by the shoulders. I was totally immobilized. His face was only inches from mine as he spoke softly but deliberately: “Mr Austin, either you cooperate or bad things are going to happen to you—I assure you they will. I really don’t want to hurt you. So, what’s it gonna be?”
“Okay, I’ll pay up. Just get the hell off of me.” What else could I do?
“That’s a good boy,” he said, lightly slapping my cheek a few times and flashing me his pearly white smile. He actually helped me to my feet. When I handed him the money he didn’t say a word, but gave me an affectionate squeeze on the arm. What a guy! I wanted to throttle him on the spot.
The next month went by all too quickly. I turned over in my mind every detail of our previous encounter. There were cracks in his armor, I was sure of that; it was only a matter of exploiting them. There was a sensitive, vulnerable man beneath Galdar’s swaggering, polished exterior, and that man was just below the surface.
On the expected day Galdar once again showed up alone. It was near closing time. As he came in he turned the sign on the door to ‘closed’. We exchanged a few cordial pleasantries.
Before he could say another word I asked, “Alexei, why are you such an angry man?”
He bristled at the suggestion. “Angry? I not angry! I very content, a happy man.” His short laugh rang hollow.
“No, you’re not. You like to bully others. It gives you a sense of power, but it doesn’t bring you any real satisfaction. I can tell. You’re a lonely man without any friends, your life is empty. You’re not really a thug, you just behave like one.” And then I delivered what I hoped would be the coup de grâce: “Your mother must be ashamed of you.”
I had really hit a nerve this time and I could see the rage rise in him. He clenched his fists, and for a moment I thought he was going to take a swing at me. He didn’t. Instead, he grabbed a cut glass vase that was on the table next to him and flung it to the floor. It shattered with a great crash. He looked like a naughty child who had just thrown a tantrum and was waiting for a harsh reprimand. I knew I had him then. Approaching Galdar, I flung my arms around him. He was so astonished he didn’t react at all and made no attempt to push me away. I could feel the warmth of his cheek near my own. Inhaling and exhaling, I enveloped him in the empathy I genuinely felt for him at that moment. We remained in this awkward embrace, suspended in the numinous intimacy of our breathing. Slowly Galdar melted; I could feel the tension in his body dissolve as his defensive armor crumbled to nothing. Gradually his arms went up and he reciprocated in the hug. The water had worn down the rock.
“Austin, you a very good man. You my friend. I give you most special deal of all: from now on protection is free for you.”
This time it was I who took his hand, taking it in both of mine, clasping it firmly. “Alexei,” I said, “We are now friends forever. But somebody’s gonna have to pay for that vase.”
We both laughed.