Old slippers, those repugnant slippers worn by Agnes, the building manager slowly and methodically shuffled down the hallway. I could hear ‘em scratching along from down the hall. I was sitting in my room on the fifth floor at the Occidental Hotel, a fleabag in the rundown area south of the city. It was Sunday morning, and she was coming for the rent… I know she was… I could feel it. I had already blown her off twice that week and she was trying to nail me down.
The shuffling was closer, and a pair of shadows appeared under the door. Seconds passed and there was a knock.
This was followed by a momentary silence. I stayed quiet, and a few seconds later there was another knock and a series of low muffled curses. Moments later the shadows slowly moved away, and I started breathing again.
It was close enough to ten A.M., and I poured myself a stiff bourbon and coffee. Dust filled morning sunlight filtered in through the ambered and fly-specked roller window shade. I sat at the table and finished my drink, then poured another. The room was getting stuffy… I needed to clear my head.
I slinked out of my room, quickly making my way down the worn and faded carpeted hall. Fancy 1920s era glass wall sconces lit the way. I always thought it must have been an elegant building in its day, a hundred years ago. I liked the design of the wallpaper, even though it was cracked and peeling.
It was possible Agnes could happen upon me in the elevator, so I took the stairs – she never uses these. Once at ground level, I snuck out of the lobby, carefully watching for her. I strolled down the sidewalk and found myself at the pier, where the Puget Sound meets the heavily industrialized parts of South Seattle. There was often a cool breeze and mist coming off the water. It was always therapeutic.
I found gainful employment a few weeks earlier, a job at an all-night diner washing dishes and cleaning up. I worked a regular shift that evening plus an extra shift later during the two A.M. rush when the local bars and taverns cleared out. I made a little extra green and caught up on my weekly rent. When I brought cash to Agnes the next day, she scowled at me. But I was current, at least for a few days.
I never felt lonely when I grew-up back in Chicago. There was always something happening. But that was before I moved out west, and with a new identity. Raymond Black… that’s what I’m telling you my name is. I can’t tell you what my real new name might be. I have reasons for this.
I stay off social media, don’t take chances, and fly below radar. This is how I live. But some days are unnerving, and I wonder if the mob is still actively searching for me. Am I gonna get a bullet in the back of the head, or get grabbed and whisked away in a van, or cement shoes perhaps. All the usual scenarios invade my mind. They often include men wearing fedora hats. I’m a paranoid wreck. I check the window each morning, carefully pulling the blind to one side ever so slightly, looking down at the street, searching for anything unusual. A dark sedan parked out front, an out-of-place man looking at his phone, leaning against the streetlamp, this sort of thing.
On Wednesday morning, much earlier than I thought humanly possible, my phone rang.
“Raymond? It’s Vince… Vince at the Diner. I need you to come in. I’m short a dishwasher, Donny got pissed and quit. I need you here my man… do me a solid, will ya?”
I got out of bed and dressed. I don’t know why people need to eat at five A.M. anyways. What a fucked-up deal. I made it in, but jeez.
Upon arrival, I was already two hours behind with overflowing tubs of dishes, cups, silverware and everything else you’d find in an all-night diner scullery.
“Ray, I need forks ASAP!” came from Delores the waitress as she flew past grabbing a fresh stack of napkins.
The hours dragged by, and the volume of customers mercifully began to lighten. Morning sunlight finally made its way through the big picture windows at the front of the restaurant. I brought a stack of clean dishes out from the back and spotted two men in business suits sitting in one of the booths, looking at the menu. Their faces didn’t have the appearance of typical businessmen. It was the familiar weathered and hardened look, the look of ruffians but in expensive suits. The kind many Chicago mobsters I used to know might have while casing the joint or scoping somebody out. I’ve seen it a million times. A deep sense of dread filled the pit of my stomach. I tried to stay in the back and out of sight for a while. Maybe they’d leave before I needed to go out front for any reason.
“Raymond, can you clear the booth behind those two gentlemen sitting there?” Delores said in her usual booming voice.
A family of seven had finally vacated after an unusually large pancake breakfast. I tried to stall.
“Sure thing Delores, I’ll be right there.”
“Fuck… OK, just stay calm… you can do this Ray,” I said under my breath.
I grabbed an empty tub and walked sideways, pretending to look out the side window making a beeline for the booth. I don’t think they noticed me, while I filled the tub with dishes, cups and glasses. Maybe I’m just paranoid. They’re probably not Chicago gangsters looking to ice an old enemy. More than likely, they’re local car salesmen or something like that. I cleared the booth, but I still hid in the dish room ‘till they paid their bill and left. I’m jumpy, my nerves are ragged. It’s gonna take a while to get use to the new life of Raymond Black.
A ragtag hotel room is welcoming after a ten-hour shift. I sat on my bed and undressed. My shoes and pants were soaked, even though I wore the plastic throw-away apron the diner provided – they only last so long before beginning to grind through at the beltline. Water spray and food particles enter and after a while, a person’s clothing is saturated from the bellybutton down. Anyone who’s ever toiled in the thankless world of restaurant dishwashing can tell you.
The wet clothing needed to go in the laundry bag, but something wasn’t right. The bag appeared to have been moved. I always keep it positioned neatly at the end of the bed. Someone’s been in here… but rifling my laundry bag? How would they know? A panic came over me. I quickly removed the dirty clothing on top concealing the false bottom and the two hundred and fifty thousand in smaller packs of hundred-dollar bills. I frantically counted it. One eighty, one ninety, and so on. Two forty… two forty. I re-counted, but still a single pack of ten thousand short. Re-counting three more times, my scalp began to tingle with dread. Could Agnes have been in here? And worse, that crazy lady went through my dirty cloths and absconded with ten grand. My mind raced. What to do… what to do. I quicky moved the remaining bills to my leather satchel, in which the money fit easily, and looked sort-of inconspicuous.
I tried to be cool and nonchalant on the walk to the bank. I rented a safe deposit box and left it there. I may have raised eyebrows there too, walking in with the bag, but at least my cash would be safe from Agnes. I still couldn’t use it, the serial numbers on the C notes were consecutive and traceable, and if Agnes tried to cash one, they’d eventually trace it from the Chicago bank heist, to right here – this crummy fleabag hotel in South Seattle. I had to get them back somehow. Maybe I could break into her room or talk her out of it I thought.
I returned to my room and fixed my usual bourbon. I sat at my little card table and tried to calm down, when a familiar shuffling could be heard coming from the hall. The two shadows under the door stopped and there was the soft knock – Agnes.
“Raymond, I know you’re in there, let’s talk.”
There she stood in a pink floral muumuu and those dreadful slippers, smiling at me with a knowing, sinister look. I let her in and closed the door. In the past, I had only encountered her in the dimly lit hall, never in a well-lit space. Up close, she looked much older and smaller, with dyed red hair and two-inch grey roots visible. There was a long pause, and I finally spoke up.
“You got some nerve goin’ through my stuff Agnes… you know ya can’t spend ‘em, right?”
“To hell you say, I’m gonna spend ‘em and I intend on getting more.”
“They’re traceable Agnes, serial numbers. They’ll eventually track ‘em right back to you, then me. We’ll both go to prison… is that what you want?”
Well…if I can’t use them, then what’s to stop me from goin’ to the cops. I’ll let ‘em know you’re here… how ‘bout that Raymond?”
“Now be reasonable Agnes. Maybe we could work a deal… we’ll launder it, and whatever’s left we split eighty-twenty. You get twenty percent and all you have to do is keep your mouth closed. How ‘bout that Agnes, that’s a pretty sweet deal.”
“You’re getting warm baby, but I was thinkin’ more along the lines of fifty-fifty and I keep my big trap shut. I like that arrangement better.”
I glared at Agnes, and she glared back, not giving an inch and standing her ground. It was as if she was used to dealing with run-down hotel tramps like me. I have to say, I was taken aback by her boldness, her shrewd, aggressive attitude. I’m from Chicago and I was letting this little old lady work me over.
“All right Agnes, fifty-fifty and I’ll do all the work. But getting it laundered can be pricey… I’m gettin’ raked over the coals, just so you know.”
“Well Raymond, it’s better than going to jail, right? I’m hanging on to the ten grand as collateral, ‘till I get the rest. I have it in a secret place with a note for the police attached in case I have a terrible accident, if you catch my drift… so don’t be thinking of anything cute. Got it?”
She had me cornered. It’s almost as if she’d done this sort of thing before, a real Ma Barker character if I ever met one. I had to get clean money, get her off my back and move to the other end of town. Maybe when this is over, I’ll head south where it’s warm, and live a carefree life on the beach for a while, ‘till I get it together.
I knew a few people around the city… I just did. The best I could get was sixty cents on the dollar.
“It’s dirty bank robbery money,” my guy told me. “Sixty cents, and that’s the best you’re gonna get around here.” I took it.
One hundred and forty-four thousand of clean dough in my satchel, and I take half. Hardly worth all the trouble I’ve been through. It would have been all mine, but that nosey old lady had to go through my laundry bag. What can I say, why was she in there in the first place? Does she do this with all the tenants at the hotel? Probably. It seems to pay dividends, doesn’t it? Agnes gave me the unclean ten grand and burned her note she had prepared for the police. I made her do it right there in the room. I took the remaining cash and had it cleaned.
The next morning, I got up and dressed as usual. I checked the window, looking across the street first. A dark blue Ford sedan sat parked next to the curb, trying to look unremarkable, but standing out with its little chrome hub caps that scream Federal Agent. I looked straight down to the sidewalk on the hotel side and spotted Agnes chatting with two men in suits looking conspicuously like the men who were in the restaurant a day earlier.
My heart stopped, and I could feel adrenaline surging through my veins. I started planning my escape. Maybe I could sneak out the boiler room back door in the basement. But then to my relief, the two men turned and went back to their car and left. A few minutes passed and soon came Agnes’ shuffling and a knock on my door.
“You should be kissin’ my butt Ray… I saved us just now. They were askin’ all kinds of questions, asking if anybody from out of town is staying here… things like that. I think it’s best if you vacate Raymond. Go find another place to live. Our business together is through. I want you out… and don’t come back,” she said pointing her finger at me.
She was a tough old bird, but she was right. The Feds were sniffing around, and it was too risky to stay, even for one more day.
I was working ten-hour shifts at the diner and was practically fighting with Vince to get a day off here and there. I knew he was having a hard time getting people to show up for work. But I liked the diner scene. It reminded me of when I was a teenager in Chicago, dishwashing and later cooking in the all-night joints along the interstate. New people coming in every day, truckers, travelers, shift workers and the like. That’s why I felt slightly ashamed when I left and never told Vince I was quitting. I wanted to cut him some slack and give him a two weeks’ notice, but I needed to get outta town that night.
I took my satchel, suitcase, and caught a southbound bus for sunnier places. Maybe I’ll find another dive hotel to stay at in a new city, somewhere warmer, and a new cozy little diner. Such is the life of Raymond Black.
Carl Nord writes short fiction stories and humor. He has been published in Rosebud Literary Magazine, (issue 66), and has a humor piece appearing in the upcoming issue 70 of the same publication. Carl lives and works in the Seattle area with his partner.