By Stephen Thom
Shu-Kee Leung finished the afternoon section of his split shift at four pm. He handed his tables over to a colleague, placed his apron and notepad in his locker, shrugged his jacket on and left the Dragonara Hotel out the back exit.
He was standing under a doorway by the bins, trying to light a cigarette, when he spotted the Buick parked across the road. It stood out amongst the hatchbacks around it. A stocky man in an ill-fitting suit was leaning against the hood and staring at him.
Leung looked away and flicked the metal piece on his clipper lighter. The flint wouldn't spark. He could see the man crossing the road in the corner of his eye. He flicked and flicked.
The man placed a large palm gently but decisively on his back. Leung looked despondently at the useless clipper.
He was led over to the Buick. His guide opened the rear passenger door. Leung saw Mr Hasin smiling his tight-lipped smile from the back seats. He ducked in and sat next to him. His palms were sweaty as he reached for the seat belt. The bruiser who'd ferried him over squeezed behind the wheel and eyeballed him in the rearview mirror.
Mr Hasin brushed fabric flecks from his trousers. Leung caught a flash of silver cuff links.
'We've been trying to call,' Mr Hasin said. He adjusted himself to look at Leung straight on, throwing an elbow over the top of the seat. His dark hair was slicked back. There were perfectly symmetrical white patches on both temples. His moustache seemed to be attempting to mirror this ratio, a miniature zebra crossing beneath his nose.
Leung blinked. He caught the fat man's eyes in the mirror. Mr Hasin leaned forward and placed a hand on his thigh.
'I would very much like the remainder of my money,' he said. Leung sniffed and opened his mouth. Abruptly, Mr Hasin laughed.
'You've been a little lax, haven't you, Shu-Kee?'
Leung chuckled nervously and Mr Hasin snatched his hand away. Leung tallied up numbers in his head. He'd repaid half. He was sure. He was a regular at the Royal Chimes Casino, a small-time gambler. Mr Hasin was also a regular. They'd shared a few beers. He'd tapped Leung several times when his tips had run dry. This was an odd development, though.
Mr Hasin patted the driver's seat headrest and they pulled out. Leung's back straightened and he clutched the seat cushion. Mr Hasin flexed his left hand and examined his fingernails.
'I think it's best we come to a little arrangement. It's not good to be in debt. It's a bad feeling. Weighs on a man. We'd like to get you involved in a bit of work. Easy work, good money. It works out best for both of us. Levels everything out.'
Leung felt glued to his seat. He made to speak. Something caught in his throat and his voice croaked.
'... split shift,' he managed.
'I'm aware of that,' Mr Hasin said. He ran his fingers through his oiled hair. 'We'll have you back in plenty of time. Easy work, good money. Sometimes you have to call in a few markers, Shu-Kee. This is business. It works out best for both of us.'
Leung's head sunk into his chest. He saw the driver grin in the mirror.
Leung stared forlornly out the window as they turned into Semple Street in Fountainbridge and parked outside Annabel's Nightclub. The driver opened the door for Mr Hasin. Leung slid over and emerged after him.
He glanced up at the dull silver of the Annabel's sign, the curved font. He'd never been. Gold-plated tables and chairs, apparently, if that was your thing. The fashionable nightclub for the in-crowd. Leung did not think he was part of the in-crowd. He followed Mr Hasin as he clipped past the main entrance and down a side street. Perhaps he was part of it now, he thought.
Mr Hasin was waiting amongst stacks of black bin bags and crates of empty bottles at the Annabel's rear entrance. The driver lumbered past Leung and rapped on the door. They waited several seconds. A man in a white t-shirt emerged, glanced at Leung, and ushered them in.
They ascended a dark spiral stairwell, footsteps echoing. Leung smelled stale booze and cigarettes. The stairs were sticky. He felt like he had stepped out of his own life and into someone else's. He was worried about his tables. His tips.
At the top of the stairwell the man in the white t-shirt led Mr Hasin down a short corridor. They disappeared into a room. The driver held his raised palm up against Leung's chest but there was no need, he was happy to wait. He didn't want to go down the corridor and into the room.
Eventually Mr Hasin leaned out and jerked his head. The driver led Leung over to the room.
It was an office. The carpet was a plush velvet. There was a mahogany desk by the far wall, a bookcase with stacks of files, a drinks cabinet and a large safe. The safe door was open. Bags of coins were strewn across the carpet in front of it. A large black tin full of stacked notes was wedged open.
There was a girl lying on the floor in the middle of the room. Long dark hair. Glassy eyes. Perhaps eighteen, nineteen. Leung swallowed. His forehead wrinkled. The man in the white t-shirt walked over to the corner of the room, near the window. He was pulling latex gloves on.
Mr Hasin knelt by the safe. The driver stood stock still, his hands clasped behind his back. Leung glanced between them. Sweat pooled in his armpits.
'What happened?' He breathed.
Nobody responded. Mr Hasin was transferring stacks of notes into a large duffle bag. Leung stepped back towards the doorway. The driver moved swiftly across the room, placed a palm on Leung's back again, and led him over to the desk. There was a length of coiled rope on the varnished surface. Leung looked down at the girl. She was completely still.
The man in the white t-shirt was craning his neck, peering out of the window. He spoke for the first time. He recited Leung's name and address quietly. Then he turned and stared at him.
Leung thought of his home. He thought of his wife, his children.
Mr Hasin leaned on the desk and pulled himself up off the floor. The safe was empty. The black tin was empty. He heaved the duffle bag up, removed several stacks of notes and a bag of coins, chucked them on the desk, and zipped the bag up.
'There you go, chief,' he said, nodding to Leung. 'Easy money. Told you.'
Leung shuffled. He looked at the money and back to the girl. The man in the white t-shirt crossed over to the table and removed a slip of paper and a pen from his pocket. Leung watched his gloved hands as they flattened out the small sheet.
'Write down your name and address,' he said.
Leung sniffed. He felt his eyes welling up. He swallowed and sniffed again, tried to will himself through this.
'Write down your name and address,' the man in the white t-shirt repeated.
Mr Hasin tapped the desk impatiently. Leung stepped forward. He tried to keep his back straight, tried to cling to some vestiges of confidence and control. He avoided eye contact as he scribbled on the sheet of paper. The man in the white t-shirt nodded. He picked up the coil of rope from the desk, unravelled it, and looked at Leung.
'Move the body to the stairs. Hang her. Hang her over the stairwell.'
There was a silence.
'But she's already dead,' Leung said.
Mr Hasin rolled his eyes. The man in the white t-shirt shoved the rope into Leung's hands and the driver stepped close to him. Leung clutched the sash cord. His left eye twitched. He thought briefly of his tables and tips again. His bottom lip wobbled.
'Best get cracking, chief,' Mr Hasin said. 'Time's pressing. Split shift.'
Leung experienced the subsequent minutes as if he was moving through the doorways of dreams. He edged into the centre of the room like he was a performer in some abstract theatrical production. The three men watched him in silence.
After several false starts he managed to wedge his hands under the girl's armpits and drag her into the corridor. The girl's head drooped at a disconcerting angle, the friction noises on the velvet carpet were strange, guttural hisses, and he had a sudden, overwhelming urge to shit. He clenched and heaved, clenched and heaved.
At the stairwell he knelt and wrapped the cord three times around her throat. The skin was clammy and the sensation gave him the boke. He tied the knot in a confused but decisive manner and attached the loose end to the handrail. He strained and lifted. Veins popped in his temples.
It was almost a relief when the limp frame collapsed over the edge. He heard a snapping noise as he slid down against a metal spindle. He coughed and bile rose in his throat. He desperately wanted to shit.
The man in the white t-shirt was standing in the doorway.
'Stand up,' he said.
Leung struggled up. The man raised a hefty Polaroid camera to his eye. Leung blinked as the bulb flashed. His eyes watered.
The driver emerged behind the man in the white t-shirt, placed his palm on Leung's back, and guided him gently down the stairs. Mr Hasin followed, the duffle bag slung over his shoulder. The girl swayed softly as they passed her. The rope creaked. They stepped out of the door. Leung felt weak and disoriented in the sudden wash of daylight.
He was driven back to the Dragonara Hotel. Mr Hasin handed him a plastic bag containing coin bags and note stacks. Leung wrapped his jacket over the bag.
Once he was inside he stuffed it in his locker and ran to the toilet. When he came out, he tied his apron around his waist and ventured back out onto the floor, scanning the busy restaurant for his colleague so she could hand his tables back to him.
He could remember little about the evening section of his split shift afterwards. He did not make many tips.