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Two dogs raced around inside a chain-link fence in the back yard, barking furiously. One looked as if he’d nearly escaped the enclosure.
“I call them Doug and Barry,” a woman’s voice said from behind him, and Alec jumped.
“Clever,” he said. “And Jesus, you’re quiet.”
“He’s the gardener.”
“Jesus,” she said. Alec glanced at her. Brunette, tall for a woman but still nearly a foot shorter than he was, she was almost what many men would call Amazonian. Her shoulders were square and broad, her waist thin, her forearms visible out the end of her sleeves firm and muscled. Her large right hand clutched a tablet, and in her left she held a stylus that appeared tiny between her thick fingers. A single wireless earbud dangled from her left ear.
Alec couldn’t hear anything through the thick glass, but he could see a squat, round man in some kind of khaki uniform shouting and waving at the dogs as he filled in the holes around the fence with gravel.
“Why do they want to get out so badly?” he asked.
“The dogs? I don’t think they want to. I think they just like to see him shout.”
It did look that way, as the dogs ran up and down the fence line barking and wagging their tails as the gardener chastised at them and shoveled.
“He tries to put some chemical around the perimeter that keeps them from digging. It lasts about five days, and he comes once a week. So it’s just long enough between applications that they can start digging again.”
“Why don’t you have him come more often?”
“Are you kidding me? For what he charges? No way.”
“Clearly, you can afford it.” Alec gestured around at the room. Besides the elegant glass windows looking out on the yard and the gleefully digging dogs, there was a fireplace against one wall, rarely used. In front of it was a bearskin rug, polar bear as far as he could tell, and likely real. Surrounding that was a matching couch and loveseat set, and an odd-looking leather recliner that seemed out of place and appeared to be older than the rest of the furniture.
The door he had entered through consisted of solid redwood or something similar and covered an entrance, at least, nine feet tall. He had no doubt it was thick enough to stop nearly any bullet or other attempted assault.
“I can afford it, of course,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “It’s the principle of the thing. He knows I have money, so he charges accordingly. I won’t give him the satisfaction of giving in. Besides, it’s entertaining.”
He had to admit that was true. The dogs were shrinking back from the chain-link border, where Jesus was spraying some kind of chemical they didn’t like.
Alec smiled, then turned back to his host. “So, I’m going to be working with you for a while?”
“Not with me, for me. I’ll tell you who to go chat with, how far you can go, and you do as you are told.”
“I am. I just started and you’re my first assignment, I guess.”
“I’m not your assignment, but I will give you one. They’ll be simple ones at first, but I specialize in less resistant customers.”
“What does that mean?”
“What’s your title?” she asked him.
“Have you been dealt a card yet?”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Ah, they do send them to me green. Okay, let me explain. I’m what you call a ‘Collector One’. I contact people who may be behind on their debts a little, and verbally encourage them to catch up.”
“You know, like when you get behind on your credit card payment, and you get a phone call? That’s me, only for Solitaire.”
“Can I ask how you got recruited?”
“Sure. I was a bank collector for about five years, but I was getting paid shit. I drove an eleven-year-old Kia to work, lived in a shit-ass apartment, and ate out once a month at most. But my recovery rate was nearly 87%. I would call people, empathize, tell them why they should pay, and I would make arrangements with them they nearly always kept.
“Someone from Solitaire noticed. Next thing I knew, I was working for them calling gamblers and the like. When successful, I collected a percentage of what people paid, a good one, and I was making real money. Next came this house, the adopted dogs, and the cars, furniture, all the good stuff.”
“I think so. You, my friend, are a Collector Two. If my efforts don’t work, you get to go make an in-person visit before my next phone call. It tends to motivate people to pay much faster.”
“I figured that.”
“I’ll tell you how far you can go in your efforts. If we collect, you and I split the percentage. If our methods aren’t persuasive enough, we pass things on to the next level.”
“Okay. Sounds good.”
“Do you have a gun?”
“You don’t use it unless I say, and at this level, you never, ever kill a target. Get me?”
“Got it. Never kill a target.”
“I mean it. If they die, their debt becomes yours, understood?”
“Here’s your first job,” she handed him an address. “Bruises only. No broken bones. No further than a simple roughing up.”
“I can do that,” he said, reading the slip of paper.
“Report back here when you’re done.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
He left through the front door, almost ashamed to walk to his aging Chevy. Hopefully, if this new job went well, he wouldn’t be driving it for long.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t even asked how much he was getting paid for this one.
At a solid six-foot-nine, Alec didn’t often have to result to violence. He was trained in martial arts, several of them, but as a security guard and bouncer, he didn’t often use them outside the Dojo.
People saw him and his size, he asked them to do something, and they did it.
Still, he hadn’t been known for restraint. When he did have to drop the hammer on someone, he tended to underestimate his own strength, their weakness, or the violence needed to resolve the situation.
The first time he’d ever been charged with assault was also the first time he was approached by a well-dressed man from an organization called ‘Solitaire’. The man had met him outside of the county jail when he was released on bail. Turns out the man had paid to spring him.
Alec turned him down, suspicious of something that seemed too good to be true. He’d taken his card anyway. The second fight resulted not only in his arrest, but he’d also been suspended by this boss. So, he called the number he’d been given, the man bailed him out again, Alec quit his job over the phone, and here he was.
The car belched a large plume of blue smoke as he accelerated from the first stoplight and headed toward his destination. Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All album blasted from the speakers.
As he turned into what he knew to be the right neighborhood, he slowed and turned the radio down, which somehow enabled him to see the house numbers better. He stopped almost directly in front of the house he’d been sent to, turned off the engine, and silence descended.
The house looked pretty ordinary, probably three bedrooms or so, a two-car garage, painted a pale shade of blue. The white paint on the trim and shutters might have should have been refreshed five years before.
Alec unfolded from the tiny vehicle and strode to the aging front door covered in scratches and looking worn down. He knocked, hard and loud, and it shook in its frame. Any harder and it might have flown open.
“Who is it?” a feminine voice said from the other side.
“Alec, from Solitaire,” he said, as he’d been instructed. “I need to have a word with you.”
There was a long pause, and he raised his fist to knock again when he heard a click, the rattle of a chain, and the door opened.
The woman in front of him was both thin and short, just over five feet tall if his guess was right. She looked to be in her early twenties, had long black hair that nearly reached her waist, and wore thick glasses perched on her nose. She wore a plain floral dress that reached all the way to the floor.
Alec consulted the piece of paper in his hand. “Terry?” he asked.
“Were you expecting someone different?” she asked.
“I—well, I don’t really know.”
“You’re here about my debt.”
“It seems you’re not answering your phone,” he said. “My employer—”
She burst into tears. “I know. I just can’t pay.”
“I’m afraid this isn’t a friendly request,” he told her. “This is what comes after the friendly visit. I’m here to tell you that you’ve been extended all the grace you’re going to get. The people you owe money to, the ones I work for, aren’t going to wait.”
“So,” she sniffed. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Convince you to pay,” Alec said without conviction. This was not at all what he imagined it would be. What was he going to do, just deck this tiny woman on the spot, rough her up a little bit? Hell, he’d barely have to touch her, and the fight would be over.
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