Ari stood with the phone pressed to her ear, though the caller had already hung up. Her hands shook as she suppressed the mounting panic and welling tears. The bell above the pawn shop’s door rang out, announcing a customer. Her troubles would have to wait. Inhaling deeply, she choked on the unpleasant scent of stale cigars and heavily layered kiosk cologne. The putrid combination wafted past the curtain hanging between her and the front of the shop. In an effort to compose herself, she wiped her eyes and forced a pleasant smile before pushing through the dusty curtain.
Just inside the shop’s door was Mr. R. He wore an animal print suit of velour fibers that glistened in the shop’s fluorescent lights as he strolled to the counter. The suit lay smoothly over a crisply ironed white button-up and blood red leather loafers. He smiled a wide grin as she emerged from the back office. A gold enameled front tooth glinted at her and she suppressed a wince.
“Ah, Mr. R!” She feigned surprise as her voice oozed sweetly over her smile. “What brings you in today?”
He leaned on the counter, splaying an unnaturally tan hand covered in thick gold rings. He was so close she could almost see her reflection in the gold tooth. He looked into the glass beneath his bejewelled fingers, checking his teeth. Ari held her smile, though it made her breathe through her nose. She feared his stench would knock her to the floor at any minute. After a nauseating eternity, he rapped his knuckles on the glass and leaned back. Her shoulders relaxed a little but her smile did not.
Mr. R. ran his hand through greasy salt and pepper hair. Flakes of snow white dandruff went flying into the few sunbeams that penetrated the heavily postered windows.
“Well, Miss Miller, word on the street this morning is that your daddy got himself into a bit of trouble at the card club last night,” he paused, picking an invisible thread from his suit, “and has since gone missing.”
She winced, his statement cutting through her smile like a blade. The call she had received just before he arrived had been to deliver that very news. She nodded, her smile fading and tears welling again.
Mr. R. stepped toward the counter and unceremoniously produced an embroidered tissue from his suit pocket. “There, there dear.” He said, his shrill voice dry, “I’m sure I can help you with nasty daddy’s debt.”
With an unattractively guttural sniff, she hesitantly took the handkerchief. “How?” Ari asked as she dabbed her eyes, uncomfortably aware of the mascara on her face.
Mr. R. stroked the silver stubble on his pointed chin as though he were truly unsure as to how he might help. Then, in an exaggerated gesture, he waved his hand through the air and exclaimed, “I’ll pay the card club for you!” His grin made the hairs on her neck stand.
“But, I could never repay you.” She said with a whine, the tears rolling again. “The shop barely makes enough to cover our costs.”
“Oh that’s no problem! I’ll – just – take,” he paused, perusing the cheap jewelry piled up beneath the glass top counter, “that.” His overgrown nail pointed to a tangled and patinated necklace.
Ari furrowed her brow, “But it’s worthless. It would never cover the cost of father’s debts. Nothing here could.”
“It will do all the same. Hand it over.” He said with a wolfish grin and extended his palm. She unlocked the case and pulled out the necklace. Mr. R. tucked the trinket into his pocket. “I’ll settle Mr. Miller’s debt this evening,” he winked, “thank you dear.”
Though the weight of her father’s debt had been lifted, she did not feel liberated. Mr. R. wasn’t known for playing fair. She was certain he would be back.
The day’s business had been slow. She was looking forward to closing time when the glass door pushed in and the bell chimed. She turned from the stack of vinyl LP’s she had just taken in pawn and was unsurprised to see Mr. R. sauntering in. His stench hit her like a wave crashing to shore and she steadied herself against the counter. She smiled pleasantly in spite of the olfactory assault and brushed her thick red hair out of her face. “Welcome back Mr. R!”
Today’s suit was a silk tapestry woven in alternating hues of deep blue and violet. The result was a shimmering fabric that appeared to shift colors with his movement. It reminded her of an oil slick. He wore a full new set of gold rings and chains, each laden with gems in the hues of his suit. “Slow day dear?” He mused, glancing around the unchanged inventory layered with dust and neglect.
She shrugged and held her smile fast as if she didn’t yet know what he wanted. He thumbed through the box of records on the countertop, pulling a few and then setting them aside. She waited.
“You’ll be glad to know,” he began in his usual pitchy cadence, “that I settled your daddy’s debt as we agreed.” He set a few more records aside. “Unfortunately, it was a great deal more than I had anticipated.”
Her smile remained but inside she was tied in anxious knots. He rested his elbows on the glass topped counter, put his chin in his palms, and looked up at her. “I’ll be needing some additional compensation, of course.” he said in a sickly sweet tone. Before she could react, he popped up and pointed at the ring case next to her, “One of these, I think.” She couldn’t hide her shock. The rings were in worse shape than the necklace he had taken the day before.
“Mr. R., really,” she began to protest, but he cut her off with a pungent wave of his hand. Biting her tongue, she unlocked the ring case and spun it round so he could see each of them in turn. They were mostly costume pieces, brought in by elderly women who could not afford to live on their government payout. Her father would pay next to nothing for them just before lying to the next customer about the rings’ royal origins. After a moment’s consideration, Mr. R. pointed to a wide bronze band inlaid with small amber orbs. The amber was foggy and the bronze dented. It was easily the ugliest ring in the case. She hesitated, but he tapped impatiently on the plexiglass just above it, so she reached in.
“Ouch!” She cried, pulling her hand back, “Something pricked me!” The tip of her finger was already swelling beneath a growing dot of blood.
Once again, Mr. R. produced a handkerchief to aid her. She wrapped it tightly around her finger and handed him the bronze ring. A nail protruded from beneath where the ring had rested. “Ah, thank you dear,” he said and then pointed to the nail, “and it would appear we have found the offender who assaulted your finger. You must be more careful.”
Her finger throbbed beneath the handkerchief as she held it with her uninjured hand. She watched in disbelief as Mr. R. held the ring up to the light, examining it as if it were a rare treasure. Seemingly satisfied, he placed it in an interior pocket of his iridescent suit and left with nothing more than a nod at the door.
Ari dropped the tension she had been holding in her shoulders. It was past closing, so she locked up the shop and stepped in back to tend to her finger. The bleeding had subsided, but the handkerchief could not be saved. Ari was glad to be alone in the shop, her father still hiding from debts that he didn’t know had been paid. Part of her hoped it would stay that way.
Just after midnight, the shrill ring of the shop’s phone jolted her awake. With a groan, she pushed herself from the bed. She had barely taken a step when she slammed into something and froze. It made an ‘oof’ sound in a familiar voice.
“Dad?!” she screeched as she flipped on the light. “What are you doing here? Where have you been?” The questions tumbled from her lips, each more angrily than the last. Mr. Miller was hunched and ragged in filthy clothes. The circles under his eyes were as dark as bruises and they might have been, but she didn’t care. She grabbed for the still screeching phone but he lurched forward and knocked it away.
“Don’t!” He cried desperately. “They’re looking for me. We have to go!”
Ari stepped away from him, his hands held out to her pleadingly. “What do you mean? No one is coming for you because I worked it out. Your debt is clear.”
He shook his head and then turned to the closet, pulling things down until he reached a battered dust covered box. Her eyes went wide when he dumped its contents on the bed. It was filled with cash. Crumpled, rolled, or crisp, the bills poured from the box in all denominations. She gaped up at her father’s weathered face, her voice completely gone. He spared only a moment to look at her apologetically and then hastily collected the money and stuffed it into a bag with clothes and other items.
“Ari, I’m sorry. I’ve been a lousy father, but even I can’t let this happen. We have to go, now.”
Finally her voice returned and she squeaked, “But…but Mr. R. said–”
“MR. R.?” He interrupted, thundering and manic. “That psychotic overdressed rat has had me locked up in his card club for the last two days. A waitress found me in the store closet and let me go.”
She was shaking now. It was common knowledge that Mr. R. was crooked, but she had never thought he could be dangerous. Her father’s story replayed in her mind as she quickly began stuffing essentials into a bag of her own.
“While I was there,” her father continued as he zipped the bag and tossed it over his shoulder, “he told me that he knew I couldn’t pay, so he would clear the debt with the most precious item from my shop. I didn’t get what he meant at first…” his voice trailed off and Ari shivered with disgust.
Within minutes, their bags were packed and stowed in the old truck her father kept parked in the alley behind the pawn shop. She bounced nervously in the passenger seat and checked the rearview mirror every few seconds. Her father finally jumped in and started the engine, which rumbled hesitantly to life beneath the rusted hood.
“What about the shop?” She asked as they began to drive away.
In that moment, a massive blast erupted in the alleyway. The truck rocked with the concussive force and Ari clapped her hands over her ears as they started to ring. She whipped around. A mountain of flames towered where their shop had stood as a grisly black cloud of smoke rose quickly into the night sky. She turned to her father, who stared straight ahead as he whispered, “Rumpelstiltskin won’t take a thing from me.”
“Order up!” Sam called as Ari quickly wiped a table before heading to the window between the front of the diner and the kitchen.
“Yer catchin’ on quickly Red.” He said in his thick southern accent. She grinned sweetly at the nickname and collected the orders for table 5. The smile stayed as she handed out plates piled high with eggs, extra crispy hashbrowns, and bacon. She liked this new place and the classically hospitable people who lived there. After refilling coffee for a few customers seated at the counter, she leaned through the window to watch Sam. He was expertly assembling a double-decker club sandwich.
“You’ve got some serious skills Mr. Sam,” she remarked as he nodded in agreement. “My father sent his compliments on the fried chicken you sent with me last night. He ate every piece!” Sam beamed. Ari loved the gap between his two front teeth and the freckles sprinkled across his rounded cheeks. She stiffened as the bell over the diner’s door sang in its ringing tone. The pleasant mood shifted. It still reminded her of the pawn shop.
“Jus’ a customer,” Sam said with eyebrows raised. Smoothing her hair, she forced a steadying breath. Usually, the smell of Sam’s good cooking calmed even her most erratic nerves. But that was not the familiar scent that overcame her now. A suffocating sheet of rancid cigars dipped in discount cologne draped over her. The back of her throat burned with bile. Ari gripped the window’s ledge tightly and froze.
“Is this seat open, dear?”