New Orleans 2003
Donny Jackson turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door and entered the apartment, then used his foot to hook the door shut behind him. His hands were full. In one he carried a medium-sized Samsonite case and a plastic bag containing a box of duty-free Cuban cigars, in the other his keys and a bunch of mail that had accumulated during his latest trip to Vietnam.
The temperature inside was just a few degrees from being chilly and he could hear the ceiling fan rotating slowly. For once the building's super had remembered to turn the power back on for his return. He used an elbow to flick on the lights.
It felt good to be home. If you could call an apartment he saw for less than two months out of every twelve home. There had been times when he felt it was nothing more than a five-room closet; a place to store his clothes and his MP3 player. Still, it wouldn't be for much longer. If all went to plan then he had only three more weeks before he had his hands on more money than he had dreamed possible in his wildest fantasy. He would never have to work another day in his life. No more long-haul flights in cramped, tourist class seats. No more cheap, flea-ridden hotels in fourth-world countries. No more having to take orders from a bunch of pricks.
Setting down the case and the cigars, he quickly sorted through his mail. Predictably, all were circulars addressed to the occupier of apartment 36. Donny was meticulous about keeping his name off mailing lists, and the apartment was leased under a corporate name, by the firm that employed him. But it took more than that to defeat the marketing men.
He had expected to receive a card from his mother. It had been his birthday the previous day. Celebrated by the devouring of a Big Mac and a strawberry shake in a Hanoi McDonalds. His forty-second birthday and she hadn't missed one yet. He went through the envelopes again in case he had overlooked it. Nope, nothing there. A little disillusioned, he threw the mail on the chrome and smoked-glass coffee table. He would trash them later.
Shaking off his jacket, he draped it over the back of a chair and slipped his feet out of his penny loafers. He sniffed at an armpit and screwed up his face. Boy, could he use a shower. He moved across the room to his MP3 player and selected a Garth Brooks album, turning up the volume. The music would help him unwind while he showered. Installing a remote speaker on the bathroom wall was his only contribution to the apartment's fixtures and fittings.
Jackson walked into the bedroom and through to the bathroom. He swung open the glass door of the stall and turned on the water. It would take a few moments to reach the temperature he liked. Studying his face in the mirror, he considered shaving, but since he would need another shave in the morning, what was the point? He screwed the top off a bottle of mouthwash, took a hefty swig, and started to gargle away the taste of airline food.
As he lowered his head to spit in the sink, he caught a face reflected in the mirror. A mountain of a man with skin as shiny and black as an eggplant, his long hair hanging down in braids tied off with red and blue ribbon. Warhol's Marilyn Monroe adorned the front of his short-sleeved shirt. The man grinned wickedly, displaying a solid gold bicuspid.
Jackson knew the dental work only too well. Gilett and he had worked together on countless occasions and Jackson had considered him an ally. The man's unannounced manifestation in his bathroom suggested that he had been wrong.
The stiletto blade in his hand confirmed it.
Jackson twisted around and spat a stream of mouthwash straight into the man's eyes. Momentarily blinded, Gilett's stabbing thrust veered off course slightly and deflected against a collarbone instead of severing Jackson's spine as intended. Locking his hands together, Jackson clubbed his attacker, catching him off balance. He followed up by grabbing a handful of hair and slamming the man's head against the Spanish tiles on the bathroom wall.
He seized hold of Gilett's right wrist. It felt as hard and rigid as a baseball bat. There was no way he could match Gilett for strength. He made a claw of his other hand and raked his eyes. Gilett caught his arm and pushed it away before he had inflicted any real damage.
They wrestled for dominance, grunting with effort, their feet slipping on the marble floor. A cloud of steam enveloped them as Garth Brooks started into Friends in Low Places