The room smelled of flowers. Haralson was altogether disgusted by the sweet smell wafting from the rosebush just outside O’connor’s bar. He didn’t want to be there. The scent of rose was overpowering and it distorted the taste of his IPA. There was also the problem of the bar’s patrons. Mobsters, loan sharks, and other undesirables met there daily. They spoke in loud, drunken voices not intimidated by police. Freelance criminals made the bar home, too; they used the protective umbrella of the mob to run their private enterprises. Most were money-lenders, some were fences, and there were some black market dealers as well. James Haralson had a meeting with the infamous loan shark Dan Flanagan.
A month and a half ago, Haralson borrowed fifteen thousand dollars from Flanagan to pay various overdue expenses. The bi-weekly payments didn’t matter, neither did the high interest rate. Keeping his apartment and car was enough to justify the desperate end. Haralson already missed his first payment two weeks ago. Haralson learned through rumors how Flanagan operated, so he expected Flanagan to beat him with a metal bat. He only got a friendly phone call. Yet, he wouldn’t be able to pay the second payment either, which is why Flanagan forced him to this meeting.
Flanagan walked into the bar and brought with him a sweet rosy aroma. Everyone fell silent. High ranking mobsters rose to greet him. Flanagan smiled as he shook hands of men who told stories about the many men they had killed. Haralson straightened his posture as Flanagan approached. He stammered but Flanagan silenced him with a lift of his index finger. “You fucked up, friend.”
Haralson nodded. “You… You know I’ve got a problem. I just need time to recover. I can get you the money. I promise.”
“I’m not looking for promises anymore. You know how well I’ve treated you in comparison to these lowlives. If you weren’t a friend of mine you’d be in deep shit, but here we are having a polite fucking conversation.” Flanagan’s eyes were sharp and refined through the years. He looked at Haralson and asked, “You haven’t forgotten what happens to someone who misses a third fucking payment, right?” Flanagan hated swearing but it was effective.
Haralson said, “yeah… you’ll off ‘em. I promise you, Greg, I’m good for this. Next payment… two weeks from now I’ll have exactly what you need.” Haralson clenched his fist under the table trying to hide his overwhelming fear and anxiety. He knew Flanagan could read anybody, though he still tried to mask his terror.
“Yeah, I’ll kill you. So what are you going to do exactly two weeks from now?”
“Good. So we have an understanding. Fifty-five hundred dollars saves you from a bullet.” Flanagan snatched Haralson’s IPA from the table and downed the rest of the bottle. He left the pub reminding Haralson a last time of the consequences of missing another payment.
Haralson’s head spun. He felt dizzy and ready to surrender his chili cheese nacho lunch back to the world. The room spun and loud voices that were once tolerable grew to cacophony. He stood but his shaking legs urged him to sit back down. Haralson confronted the singular idea he didn’t normally consider: death. It was unpleasant. Memories he once used to calm himself were seeped in the dye of mortality. The people in his memories would one day die, just like he would one day. Just like he will if he doesn’t give his money to Flanagan. Doing so would be difficult; he was a chronic gambler.
Payday was soon and Haralson knew he would have a problem saving the amount needed. For the following week Haralson stuck to eating cheap meals and avoided bars and clubs. He needed to avoid any scenario that he would be urged to spend money. Haralson scheduled his day by the hour: from teaching classes, to his commute back home. As long as he had specific appoints to keep — even if the appointment was with sleep— he would be less inclined to devolve into his gambling.
He attempted to replace gambling stimulants with blaring television and equally loud background music. When he graded papers he listened to the radio and watched hospital dramas. The method stopped the brunt of the gambling desire but it still lingered. He had the same plan for the following week. He increased the distractions by adding books on top of music and TV.
There was a pervasive idea that seeped into Haralson: the simple thought that he would die alone. He was thirty-two and starting to feel his prime slip by. He hadn’t showed interest in anybody who showed him overt affection. It was a habit. His nature was to refuse affection directed at him. There were times he wished to have someone to share his time. They were fleeting though and easily distracted by casino lights and sounds. He had no choice to confront his thoughts now. The fears grew as the distractions became less effective. For the first time in a while, he had to think that unwelcomed thought:
Following, were aches in his chest and a palpable emptiness. He wanted to share his life with someone but he had rejected everyone. There was no one to call — everyone was too busy for him. Haralson paced around the house desperate for a solution to his growing discomfort. He knew, as all addicts do, that only gambling would soothe the ache. I’m stronger than that, he thought. His arms and legs shook anyway. He wanted to sleep but loneliness dominated all assets of his mind. Unable to sleep or relax, Haralson decided to take a walk.
It was dark, just past 9 P.M, and there were already a few people wandering the streets. They were loners, bar wanderers and the lonely hearted moving desperate to find a group to belong. Haralson remembered being a drifter of that sort. He would walk into bars to buy a single drink and made conversation with other patrons. Most of them gave Haralson a cold shoulder and continued with their conversations. Following rejection, he moved to the next bar. There were also groups that spent their time outside; They would have loud conversations as if the quiet of the general public didn’t matter. Haralson was rejected from these crowds too. The longer the night endured, the more he resembled a drunken bum. There were times, too, when he ran into his student’s parents. They always acted like they hadn’t seen him.
Haralson walked to achieve an idle mind. As he saw people laughing on the streets, Haralson’s loneliness overwhelmed him. Each group, each person was a reminder of his past rejections and fortified the idea of his loneliness. Haralson thought, no one would care if I died and moreover, the thought was correct. He did the only thing he could to stop the line of thinking: walk five blocks west to the Springs Casino.
It was an obnoxious bright place with signs that seemed stuck in the 1950s. People in suits walked in and out as frequently as those who dressed in sweatpants. Haralson entered the building. A young woman at the front desk greeted him, “Hello Darling, are you here to play?” He nodded his head and walked past her. The bright lights instantly changed his mood. The colors and sounds reminded him of previous times he had spent there at the casino and he was happy. The slot machines beckoned him. They pleaded that he spend his money. They cried in high-pitched, 8 bit inspired voices for Haralson. He sat down in front of a dollar machine and started to play. The process was automatic: When he ran out of cash pulled out more, and he repeated it until the banker told him his card was declined.
Flanagan spent his time between cracking collar bones and maintaining his ties to the mob. He ran his gig independently of the them, and he got respect for it. Flanagan made sure people knew his name and why he had busted them up the way he did. It made him one of the most brutal criminals around, not out of malice. Those who associated with Flanagan by choice, rather than money owed circumstance, had a pleasant time around him. It was a matter of business: If you didn’t screw Flanagan over, he wouldn’t do the same to you. If you happened to cross the line, you were more likely to end up with a bullet in your head than be forgiven.
Flanagan found it hard to spend his free time in the city. Whenever he walked into a bar or grocery store, the entire establishment froze. Patrons looked among themselves to figure out who messed up. Most of the time, he was just shopping or trying to unwind for the day. There is a luxury in being a feared criminal, but one of its perks certainly wasn’t friendship or even basic human closeness.
The Friday Haralson spent his paycheck gambling, Flanagan was watching television and relaxing with a beer. He didn’t watch sports and also didn’t like many of the TV shows airing; he thought they were derivative, uncreative garbage. There was nothing else to do, and not even Flanagan wanted to work all day. He was into the climax of a hospital drama when one of his cohorts called. The ringing startled him. “Hello?”
“Guess who decided to spend their money at the Springs?” a gruff voice said.
“Was it Derek? The porn producer?”
“Nah. That teacher you seem to like.” Flanagan hung up the phone. He knew this would happen. He tried to convince himself Haralson would be different, surely he would pay up. However, the banker confirmed Haralson spent all of his money, which mean he had to act. Even as his mind told him to let it go, he grabbed his jet-black 9mm pistol and headed downtown.
Haralson, after coming out of his delirium, headed towards the exit. The bright lights and sounds couldn’t soothe him. They cemented the mistake he had made. The ambiance of the casino reminded him of each mistake. The machine’s video game noises reminded him of every time he won but kept playing until he had nothing. Now he truly had nothing. Soon Flanagan will find out, Haralson thought. At the front door were two large men who were not the typical bouncers. Haralson recognized both brown coated men. He turned to the back exit. He ran through a crowd but the henchmen weren’t following him yet. He exited the building through kitchen, and heard a yell over the bustle of the casino; it was Flanagan. He ran through alley ways turning corners as fast as he could. He knocked over anything he could to slow his imaginary pursuers. He kicked down trash cans and moved dumpsters to block the way. He could feel Flanagan’s presence. Haralson knew Flanagan would be armed with the jet-black 9mm; he had seen him fire it plenty of times before. If Haralson couldn’t escape, the next bullet Flanagan fires will be in his skull.
He winded the streets heading the same general direction. Flanagan would come looking for him, so he had to distance himself from the casino. He kept northward even as the street signs looked unfamiliar. The sun started to rear over the mountains. He was exhausted. Haralson had no choice but to find a place to sleep. It couldn’t be in a hotel, it would be too obvious, so he found a quiet alley beside a dumpster to rest. It smelled like decomposing flesh. He looked around to find the source of the smell and found a nest of dead rats. With no better place to stay, and certain that the smell would keep most people at bay, he put his coat over his body and closed his eyes.
Sleep never came though, his nerves sharpened from adrenaline and his heartbeat rattled his body. Any sound, be it footsteps or otherwise, startled him. He wasn’t safe outdoors. His only chance at even a little peace would be to find a hotel room with multiple exits. Haralson got up and walked among the public, who started to rise for their Saturday. He walked to the nearest ATM and got a $100 cash advance. A hundred dollars was nothing in comparison to the debt he owed.
Haralson searched the city for a few hours. He moved through alleys and walked along bigger streets only if crowds would hide him. He was looking for a hotel tucked away in the city. It had to be not far outside of town to be obvious but not too nondescript to look like someone may hide there. Haralson saw glimpses of men in brown coats, like Flanagan’s men, in the corner of his eye. Haralson didn’t know if he was actually seeing them or hallucinating from lack of sleep. He even saw Flanagan’s face in some of the morning runners. He had to be near, Haralson thought. He stopped at a regional hotel whose name he had seen from the street but at which he never bothered to stay. He felt the massive presence of the henchmen behind him, yet there was no one when he turned to face them. He saw Flanagan’s face in the front desk clerk, too He smiled in a crooked way, just like Flanagan did. Haralson froze in place and started to sob; he realized that he had met his end. The man’s face changed to one of a chubby, young male.
Haralson confronted the man. “I — I need a room. How much are they,” he asked mumbling in one syllable.
The clerk, after staring at Haralson, said, “A room is 80 bucks a night, sir. Do you have a preference of floor?” Haralson indicated the first floor by raising his index finger.
He handed the clerk the hundred-dollar bill and after a moment of typing the clerk gave Haralson his room key. Before he left Haralson asked the clerk, “What’s your name? you look familiar. Did we go to school together?”
The man shook his head, “Name is Chris Thomas. I don’t think we’ve ever—”
“Listen Chris, there is a very dangerous man after me. He wears jeans and a sport coat and has his hair all slicked back, you know, like old school. He’ll come in with at least two men. Those guys are large. Probably six-foot five or so. If you see a man resembling him even a little, call the police then call my room. I swear to God Chris, if you don’t call me when he comes, I’m going to leave your name on this sheet of paper,” he said waving a page from a notepad with the hotel ledger. “And I will tell him before he puts a bullet in my head that you tried to help me escape. And you do not want to be his target. He might not kill you but he will certainly torture the hell out of you until you’ll want him to. You got it, right? I hope you’re not a fuck up, for both our sake.” Haralson headed to his room still sensing Flanagan. I can’t escape him, Haralson thought.
Flanagan was pissed. By the time he arrived to the casino his crew lost track of Haralson. He sent his men looking for him and got into a taxi himself to look around. Even in taking less-used roads, Flanagan was unable to find Haralson. He thought to himself just how much he regretted ever seeing this guy as a friend. Hours passed and Flanagan hadn’t received a word from his henchmen. The sun was rising over the horizon and, despite how peaceful the sunrise made him feel normally, he was angry. It mocked his inability to catch Haralson. He called Bruce, the lackey who had called him the night before.
“Where the fuck are you?”
“We’ve been tracking him all night,” Bruce said after yawning. “We only catch glimpses of him then he’s gone. We’re in the next city, Dover, just out of downtown. I’m sure we’ll see him again, you should come down”. Flanagan called a taxi and headed to Dover. The taxi ride, although only 20 minutes, had been entirely too long. On his way to meet Bruce, Flanagan saw a homeless man sleeping on a park bench that looked like Haralson. He had his hand on his gun read to draw but as he got closer the man’s face changed. Flanagan sighed and continued on his way to Bruce.
Bruce mentioned to Flanagan that they had seen him again. “He came out of an alley a little ways back and took off. He looked tired as hell.” They didn’t see him in downtown and none of the hotels there recognized his face — even when encouraged with the sight of a gun. Flanagan had a suspicion he was around, an intuition honed from working with people of Haralson’s sort for years. Flanagan thought, Haralson decided to stop in this city. He tried to walk the city in Haralson’s shoes. He imagined himself a depraved man running for his life, hiding in holes and sleeping near gutters. Except, he thought, scared men don’t sleep. Especially not in the open. There were too many opportunities for the hunter to sneak up on them and end their life. Haralson would be in a place where he could let his guard down, potentially even sleep, and still have a route of escape.
Until mid-afternoon Flanagan and his crew went to every hotel and motel in the area, and they asked each clerk if they had seen Haralson to which they said no. In the late afternoon Flanagan found the Oceanview Hotel. The attendant there was about his age and a bit chubby. Flanagan flashed his gun then asked the man, “Have you let a Haralson in here today? He probably paid in cash and looked like he hadn’t slept. I’m a really good friend of his and I need to see him immediately.”
The man stammered, “Yes he checked in a few hours ago. He told me to call the police and his room if I seen you. Then threatened to make me an accomplice. I didn’t do anything. I’ll give you his room number and everything but I don’t want to die!” Flanagan nodded and the clerk wrote down the room number 104 and gave him a coded key. Flanagan gestured to his men to go outside to block his escape. Flanagan walked down the hallway. He was sweating. He always sweated in the pending moments of killing someone, but he was otherwise completely adjusted to murder. He drew his gun as he passed 102. Then 103. 104. He slid the keycard to the lock and the light shone green.
He swung the door open. The last bit of the afternoon sun leaked into the room and filled it with a golden brilliance. The wind flew through the open curtains. It carried the distant scent from the ocean but was overpowered by a bittersweet smell that emanated from the center of the room. In the middle, a ceiling fan tried to spin against an obstacle which created a whirring sound. Haralson’s belt was wrapped around the base of the fan and around his neck. He was limp and long dead. As the body dangled, his flesh changed in chunks from tanned skin to black rose petals that were carried by the wind about the room. Flanagan sat in the hotel room chair for hours watching his friend decompose into ebony flowers. An hour after sunset, the last petal started to fall. The wind swept the petal outside where they both danced then faded abruptly.