Come and See
It felt like there were bugs crawling on him again, but Scales didn’t bother scratching. Why should he? The itching, that sensation like roaches pricking his skin, couldn’t be stopped by digging at himself with his nails or really anything short of a full belly. Scratching would just leave him with a bunch of bleeding wounds. Which would make the hunger even worse.
It probably wasn't just the hunger, he decided: the stares helped. They watched him, unsure if he belonged there or not. Was he a misunderstood artist, or a homeless tweaker? Counter culture genius or punk rock degenerate? None of them bothered being discreet, not even the waiters, whose circuits of the room meticulously avoided him. It didn't help that he hadn't had a meal in over a week, and consequently was, at present, not only unable to stop swaying in place to keep his balance, but had also wasted away to what the more avant garde among them would describe as "heroin chic" and the more sensible as "heroin addict".
The ones who had judged him closer to the "homeless punk rock degenerate" end of the scale were the ones who deserved to win the kewpie dolls, and they weren't wrong; he didn't belong here. So they stared at him, openly, between bites of crackers with imported cheeses that stank like a goat's shit. He stared back, studying them from the corner, sniffing the air and taking them in with it, overhearing their mediocre conversations, each asshole thinking they were the art critic for the New York Fucking Times. Like the old timer on the far side of the room, droning on about color choices to his dried-up husk of a wife. The husk wore too much perfume, the sickly sweet flowery crap that old ladies used to execute chemical warfare against church pastors, supermarket produce clerks and grandchildren, and Scales teetered on the edge of retching. Was anything actually worth putting up with this place and these people any longer?
Scales reached for the handle of the door that would lead to moonlight, music, munchies and people who weren't pretentious pricks. A hand slightly smaller than Chicago stopped him. If it hadn't been obvious the hand's owner was a bodyguard from the starting-linebacker-sized hand, it would have been from the Reservoir Dogs standard-issue suit. The bodyguard was super-black too, like Africa and coal got together and made a baby.
"Mr. Nicholas will see you now," Bodyguard Zimbabwe said, tilting his head toward a door at the back of the room. His voice was just as deep as expected, like having a conversation with an asteroid.
The doorway opened onto a set of stairs that got progressively narrower the deeper they delved. And as the staircase narrowed, the mildew stink in the air got overpowered by something much worse, like they were getting closer to the carcass at the bottom of the Cracker Jacks.
The stench would have meant a visit to "Gag Reflex Junction" or perhaps "Dry Heavopolis" for any normal person. To someone with Scale's nose...well, if Bodyguard Zimbabwe were lucky, he wasn't part of the cleaning crew too.
At the bottom of the stairs, a hallway stretched out before them, lit by flimsy plastic sconces stationed every dozen feet or so. They stabbed at the darkness with butter knives, barely making it flinch. The hallway was an expanse of cool concrete walls and putrid stench, punctuated every so often by a nondescript wooden door that almost blended in with the walls.
The door at the end of the hall wasn't like the others, and fit in about as well as Scales had upstairs. Didn't dank, grey basements have metal doors warning people away? Weren't they cloaked in graffiti, also warning people away? If they were brave enough to be wooden, didn't they at least have enough sense to let their paint chip away to complete the run-down/dangerous motif?
This door was willing to violate expectations. It had the nerve to be deep mahogany with a curved brass handle, polished sufficiently to catch the dim sconce light and somehow manage to glitter in response.
The door did, however, fit in perfectly with the den on the other side. Scales' feet practically sank into the burgundy Berber carpet as he crossed the threshold. And speaking of that threshold, the damn thing must have been magic, because the stench didn't cross it. The walls were paneled in the same mahogany as the door, and appointed by frosted glass sconces that cast the room in light as soft and warm as a blanket fresh out the dryer. In the wall, a fireplace crouched, the old school kind, as wide as Scales was tall, with a cool granite mantle that stretched past the mouth by a foot on each side. It was big enough he half expected to find gargoyles perched on either corner.
The room's literal and figurative centerpiece, however, was a magnificent monstrosity of a desk that matched the mahogany of its surroundings. Topped in glass and a felt blotter with brass edges, this was the kind of desk where contracts got signed, where deals that sealed fates got made. And behind the desk Mr. Nicholas was entrenched in a presidential chair whose tufted leather was the same shade of burgundy as the carpet.
His hair was dark. His eyes equally so. His suit looked expensive and Italian - It even smelled like olive oil.
Okay, the olive oil might have been the product of an overactive and overhungry imagination. Whatever, it was still every bit as Italian as Vinnie Benedetto slurping up a plate of marinara in the middle of the Sistine Chapel.
As Scales approached, Mr. Nicholas rose, extending his hand. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Scales." The pair of bodyguards behind him (as big as Zimbabwe, but significantly whiter - like, albino-taking-a-milk-bath white) tracked Scales' movement to make sure he wasn't up to any shenanigans.
"It's just Scales. It's a nickname."
Mr. Nicholas gave a patronizing smile. "Yes. I'm aware."
The itching increased its intensity as both men sat. "So there was some work you needed done?"
Mr. Nicholas waved off the comment. "We'll get to that. Something to drink?"
There was absolutely zero chance Mr. Nicholas had the vintage Scales craved; he shook his head as one of the Vanilla Gorillas poured Scotch from a crystal decanter.
Mr. Nicholas sighed heavily. "Straight to business then." He sipped his scotch then leaned in, elbows resting on the blotter. "I need you to procure a book for me."
"Go on," Scales replied. He'd expected the job to be something more exotic considering all the cloak and dagger hoops he'd had to jump through thus far.
"It's quite rare. The only one in existence, in fact."
"Let me guess: the book's current owners aren't planning on listing it at Sotheby's, are they?"
Mr. Nicholas cocked an eyebrow as a devilish grin split his face. "Hardly. I've developed something of a reputation as a...let's call it a 'collector'. Said reputation precedes me with the owners. They've taken precautions to ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands." Mr. Nicholas held up a pair of paws so pink and pristine they looked like today was the one day each year they weren't encased in gloves.
Scales leaned in, matching Mr. Nicholas. "Fine, whatever. Steal a book-"
"Procure," Mr. Nicholas corrected.
"Yeah, okay, procure," Scales made a show of rolling his eyes and waving his finger around in a la-dee-da circle, "like a dude like me gives a fuck - some book. What's the payoff? Something as rare as this book's probably pretty well protected. What's worth me risking the fiery pit I've damn sure got waiting for me if this goes sideways?" It was more brusque than he should have been, but he got rude when the hunger got this bad. Okay, maybe just ruder.
Mr. Nicholas leveled a withering stare. The bodyguards' shadows stretched across the room like demons clawing their way out of the fireplace, reaching for prey. "You have a certain reputation as well, Mr. Scales, one that's preceded you into my notice. I'm aware of your...appetites." He paused, letting his words sink in.
Scales felt the bugs again. Along with the familiar clawing at the back of his throat.
"Acquire the book, and you'll have an endless supply of them."
Scales pushed off the chair's armrests, toppling it in the process. "Bullshit. Bullshit. I'm gone."
Bodyguard Zimbabwe blocked the exit. He didn't realize the world of hurt he was bringing on himself. "Move. Now. Or die. Painfully. Your choice."
"One side, DeLago," Mr. Nicholas said as he strode up alongside Scales. "Your threats are unnecessary, tiresome and pointless, Mr. Scales. Follow me." He stepped across the threshold into the hallway without waiting for Scales, who, admittedly, was more than a bit flummoxed.
Scales called after him, "Where're you going?"
"Come and see, Mr. Scales. A show of good faith awaits." They stopped at the second door on the left. Bodyguard Zimbabwe handed Mr. Nicholas a manila folder, so fat it could barely close.
"On the other side of this," Mr. Nicholas rapped on the door with his knuckles, "is Winston Flynn. Mr. Flynn is, by all accounts, a terrible example of humanity. Serial rapist, two-time murderer and legal-loophole-exploiter. If there were any justice in the world, men like this wouldn't be in the world. But that's why there are people like you, the cosmic equalizers, Mr. Scales."
Mr. Nicholas passed the folder to Scales. "All the evidence is there. If you feel the need to verify." Scales read the top page, a police report, and closed the folder three sheets in: the first crime scene photo.
Mr. Nicholas flung the door open with all the flair of a ringmaster, and the tangy, pungent aroma of iron greeted Scales.
The room possessed the cramped appeal of a broom closet, and was only slightly larger. A pudgy man slumped against the wall, unconscious. Three days of salt-and-pepper scruff stubbled his chin, more hair than he had on his head.
His breathing was shallow.
His right wrist was cuffed to a pipe above his head. His left had been slit.
The door clicked shut behind Scales. The change came over him. His pulse slowed. His pupils dilated. His canines pushed through his gums. To full puncturing length.
From outside, Mr. Nicholas spoke. "Bon appetit, Mr. Scales."