The Ritual

By Henry Simpson

Shortly after five o’clock on a Monday afternoon, Roman Cruz pulled the white stretch Caddy into the driveway of Terry Swan’s home in Pacific Palisades. He was wearing his usual work clothes, a black leather jacket and gloves, black slacks, and black boots. Swan, his backseat passenger, unlocked his own door, stepped out of the limo, took a deep breath, and stretched. He was tall and thin, with shoulder-length black hair, and was wearing a stylish silk pastel suit, matching silk shirt, and custom loafers. His shirt was unbuttoned halfway down to his belt line and a thin gold chain hung over his hairless chest.

Roman escorted him to the front door, cleared the security alarm, followed him inside, closed and locked the door, and reset the alarm. He picked up the envelope that lay on the floor and handed it to Swan. He had seen many, and knew it contained a list of names, phone numbers, locations, and times. On most weekday evenings, Swan’s answering service slipped an envelope like it under the door before 8 p.m.

He followed Swan into his den. Swan opened the envelope with a silver pocketknife, took out a single sheet of paper, and read it. “We’ll leave here about ten-thirty,” he said softly without looking up. “We have three dates. If nothing weird happens, we’ll be back here by one o’clock.”

“Yes, Mr. Swan,” Roman said.

He watched Swan go behind the bar, tip a tiny vial of white powder over a mirror to form a cone, and carefully fashion two white lines with a razor blade. As was Swan’s usual practice, he paused and seemed to admire the lines and the perfect reflections they made in the mirror. Satisfied, he put a glass straw to his left nostril, inhaled as he drew it along the line, and then repeated the process with the right nostril and remaining line. He then stood upright, as still as a statue, looking off into space and as if Roman had disappeared. Eventually, he shook his head, leaned close to the mirror, and blew the few remaining grains of powder into the air. He put the vial, straw, and mirror back into their special place beneath the bar. He then left the den, went to his bedroom, and closed the door.

Roman thought of this nightly routine as a ritual. Swan performed it as religiously as a pious churchgoer receiving communion. The only time it varied was when Tiffany was home and disrupted it, but she had been gone for weeks and Swan had not told Roman if or when she would return.

He waited, listening for the sound of the shower, which signaled his freedom until ten-thirty. When he heard it, he left by the back door and crossed the yard to his quarters, a guest cottage the size of a motel room, with a bathroom and kitchenette. It had been his home since coming to work for Swan as his primary driver and bodyguard eleven months ago. He was always with Swan, except on weekends.

Alone at last, he shed his clothes, and then blended and quickly downed his bodybuilder’s cocktail followed by a quart of milk. He lifted weights and exercised for forty-five minutes.

He went to the bathroom, turned on the cold water at full pressure, and stood under the shower with his eyes shut. There, he imagined himself in the hot summer fields of Salinas where he had once picked strawberries with his family. Hard, sweaty work that made him feel good, and the days were warm and beautiful, and the best part of it was not being alone.

After the shower, he changed to fresh clothes, set his alarm for 10:25 p.m., and dozed in his only chair as a basketball game played on his TV. When the alarm sounded, he opened his eyes, leaped to his feet, and headed for Swan’s back door.

He was inside, waiting, before Swan appeared. A few minutes passed, the bedroom door opened, and Swan entered the den. He looked refreshed, now wearing a white suit, white shirt, white tie, white shoes, and holding in his hand a white Panama Fedora. Oblivious to Roman, he lifted the cool hat to his head, walked to the bar, and observed himself in the mirror behind it. He adjusted the hat in several small increments, adding degrees of tilt until the brim matched the angle of his narrow, sloping shoulders.

To Roman, Swan’s snappy white outfit made him look like one of the Mexican upper class of European descent who treated Indios such as his family with indifference if not contempt.

Swan became aware of Roman, and looked directly at him. “Well, Roman, what do you think?”

“You look like a man of power, Mr. Swan,” Roman said.

Swan turned back to the mirror for another look. He smiled at his reflection, admiring himself. “Yes, I think so, too.”

Roman wondered what the customers would make of the two of them, black and white, like the dogs on whiskey bottles.

#

An hour before midnight they were in the white stretch Caddy, cruising down Hollywood Boulevard, surrounded by a slow-motion kaleidoscope of moving cars, lights, reflections, bright colors, and people going to and coming from clubs, looking to hook up like predators and prey, pursuing the pleasures of the night. Some were players, some watchers, some stoned out of their minds, and a few others, like Swan, were getting ready to meet clientele and make deals for money.

“First stop, Caribe,” Swan said from the backseat.

“Yes, Mr. Swan,” Roman said.

He turned off the boulevard into a driveway and stopped. A tall young man with dreadlocks took the keys as they stepped out of the car. Roman took in the busy scene outside the club, a dark windowless box with a big red-yellow-green neon “CARIBE” sign over the entrance, a teeming crowd of youth gathered in small groups, talking, smoking, some waiting in line to get inside a front door guarded by two formidable bouncers in tuxedos.

“This looks like Kingston,” Swan said.

“Africa?” Roman said.

“Jamaica.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Roman pushed through the crowd, Swan following in his wake to the head of the line. The dark-skinned patrons gave them dirty looks but averted their eyes when Roman glared at them.

A doorman recognized Swan and smiled broadly. “Hiya, Terence,” he said. “I like the white suit. That is highly elegant.”

“Hey, Rayburn,” Swan said. “Have a party favor.”

Swan shook the doorman’s hand, and the doorman’s fingers closed around what Swan had slid into his palm.

“Thanks, man,” the doorman said. “You and Roman can go on through. Have a nice evening.”

People waiting in line shouted complaints and curses as went through to the club. “Shut up, you people,” the doorman yelled at them. “Mr. Clean got business inside.”

The club smelled of perspiration, ganja, cigarettes, and spilled liquor, and shook with the deep bass sounds coming from the dance floor, aswarm with young couples writhing convulsively in close quarters to the beat of an overamped hip-hop crew on a raised dais. Roman felt the intense heat and pulse of the space. The clientele were mostly black and the bartenders and servers mostly white.

Swan waved to a passing cocktail waitress and she stopped. “Hey, Brittany,” he said in a voice loud enough for her to hear above the vibrations and roar. “You seen Garrick tonight?”

“Yo, Terry,” she said. “Your man’s in a booth on the other side of the dance floor.” She gestured with a tilt of her head.

Swan put a small packet on her cocktail tray.

She looked at it with puzzlement.

“That’s a party favor, sweetheart.”

“What?” She held a palm up to her ear.

“Trust me, honey.”

“Seriously? A packet of sugar? I don’t use it.”

“It ain’t sugar, sugar, and it ain’t at all fattening.”

She smiled. “Okay, Terry. I get it.” She slid the packet into a vest pocket. “See ya.”

Roman watched her walk away, his eyes following until she disappeared into a crowd on the dance floor.

“You like that?” Swan said.

Roman nodded.

“Nice ass, that girl. You got ideas?”

Roman said nothing. He did not like the question, or the way Swan taunted him with it.

“She gets good tips here, and bigger ones after work.”

“She does tricks?”

“They all do here. Don’t hook up with that one.”

Roman looked toward the crowd, hoping for another glimpse, but she was gone. “Why?” he said.

“She’s got genital herpes.”

“How do you know?”

“Well,” Swan said with a laugh, “I heard it from some sad sack’s got genital herpes.”

They pushed through the throng surrounding the dance floor and found Garrick sitting at a table with two male companions. He was a bloated young man in a shiny blue suit. His friends looked like hustlers. He perked up when he spotted Swan and grinned. “Yo, Terry. What’s up?”

“You left a message at my service,” Swan said. “Here I am.”

“Yeah, and thanks for coming ‘round to meet me and my crew. These are my brothers, Dontrell and Otis.” He turned to the two. “This here’s Terry Swan, my main man.”

The pair extended their hands but Swan ignored them. Garrick’s fixed smile faded. “How come you dressed up like Boss Hogg?”

Swan’s face clouded.

“Maybe he’s got a clan meeting,” Dontrell said.

Otis laughed.

“Maybe I do,” Swan said. “We gonna lynch us some uppity colored boys.”

Dontrell and Otis exchanged angry glances and scowled at Swan.

“Be cool,” Garrick said to them. “I know this white devil.”

“You want to talk to me,” Swan said to him, “tell your crew, go take a walk.”

Garrick turned to Dontrell. “Go smoke some dope, man. I gotta talk some important business with Mr. Swan.”

The pair hesitated, and then stood up, muttering, and left.

A waitress arrived at the table.

“Sit on down, give the fine lady your order,” Garrick said.

Swan and Roman took the empty seats.

“Black coffee for me,” Swan said. “Get the big man a Diet Coke.”

Garrick frowned. “You drink coffee, man? I’m paying. Why you insulting me?”

Swan looked at Roman. “Check him for a wire.”

“I ain’t wearing no wire.” Garrick said.

Roman patted Garrick down, and nodded at Swan.

“That’s good,” Swan said. “Hey, now, you gonna do business or jive me as usual?”

“What?” Garrick said.

“How many times we met, Garrick?”

Garrick shrugged.

“I’m busy, but I keep track. This is three. You always play the same lame game, bringing along your friends, sending them away, we talk, and then nothing happens. I think it’s all a show to impress your lowlife friends.”

“Talk to me.”

Swan wrote a number on a cocktail napkin and pushed it to Garrick. “That’s a minimum order.”

Garrick squinted.

“The man needs glasses,” Swan said.

Roman laughed.

“I can read it,” Garrick said.

“What’s it say?”

“I can’t read your writing, man.”

“Tell him, Roman.”

“Ten thousand,” Roman said.

“Powder?” Garrick said.

“What else?” Swan said.

“I want rock.”

“Mudville Coffee Company does not sell that product. Or espresso or green tea. You want to impair your customers?”

“They ask for rock, man.”

“There’s a distributor in south central.”

“Millard Fillmore?”

Swan laughed. “Or Jefferson Davis.”

“He’s a gangster. Shoots up homes, people, kids. Man’s totally evil. You’re a gentleman, Terry. That’s why I want to deal with you. You sell a quality product and do honest business.”

“Like Walmart.”

“I mean it, man.”

“The fool has seen the light, Roman,” Swan said.

“End of next week,” Garrick said.

“Leave a message.”

“End a next week. Hey, Terry, you ain’t touched your coffee.”

“It stinks,” Swan said, pushing back his chair and standing.

Roman nodded at Garrick and followed Swan across the dance floor to the entrance. “How do you think that went?” Swan said.

“I don’t know,” Roman said.

Swan turned to Roman. “What the fuck do you know, Roman?”

Roman said nothing and tried not to think about Swan’s abuse. He hated that he often said or did things that made him feel stupid, weak, and helpless.

He pushed through the crowd, with Swan close behind. Outside the entrance, a young man in a suit touched Swan on the arm and handed him an envelope. Swan slid it into a pocket, nodded, and continued on his way. Roman gave the valet a parking chit, and he retrieved the Caddy. Swan handed the valet ten dollars and a party favor as he got into the backseat.

Soon they were back on Hollywood Boulevard.

#

Morocco was a squat, earth-colored building with fake minarets on an asphalt lot ringed by potted palms. The lot was full of sporty cars and the entrance with sharply-dressed young men waiting to get inside.

The parking valet, a long-legged crew-cut blonde in a military-style uniform, bent down to Roman’s window and smiled. “Welcome to the Orient,” she said, handing him a parking chit.

Roman took the chit and smiled back. This chica was hot. He was about to say something to her when he heard Swan’s window roll down.

“Haven’t seen you before,” Swan said to the valet.

“I started last Wednesday,” she said.

“What’s your name?”

“Real name or nickname?”

“I give a shit. Tell me what to call you.”

“Mickey.”

“I’m Terry. I drop in here regular.”

She looked skeptical. “If you say so.”

Swan put a party favor in her hand. “This’ll give you a pickup, Mickey, help you remember me next time.”

She looked at the packet. “Thanks a lot, mister. I’ll sure remember you.”

“Ask another valet to explain.”

“Don’t party too hard, Mr. Trump.”

The music—heavy disco electronic with loud, pulsing rhythm, hit them at the door. Gay couples were dancing feverishly under strobe lights, and the long bar was filled with singles, pairs, and small groups. Swan went to the bar and nodded at a barman. “Is David in his office?”

“Hi, Terry,” the barman said. “He’s expecting you, so’s Nathan.”

Roman followed Swan down a long hallway until he stopped at an unmarked red door and knocked. A small glass window popped open and shut, and then the door opened. They entered.

Roman recognized the two young men who stood waiting inside. David and Nathan looked similar. Both were clean-shaven, short-haired, buff, and meticulously dressed in tailored shirts and slacks. The only way that Roman could tell them apart was to remember that David, on the left, had blond hair and Nathan, on the right, had black hair and a small gold hoop in his right ear.

They both looked pleased to see their visitors.

“It’s so good of you to come, Terry,” David said. “My God, you’re dressed like Jay Gatsby. How wonderfully campy. Why, it’s been ages, and all we seem to do is send messages and boxes back and forth. You look absolutely fabulous, Terry, and,” turning to Roman, “why, so do you, Roman. You two do make such a pair, like yin and yang.” David’s eyes traversed Roman. “My goodness, Roman, I do wonder how much you can bench press.”

“A small car I’m sure,” Nathan said. “A Volkswagen perhaps.”

“You must spend a great deal of time in the gym to maintain that imposing physique,” David said. “I’d love to see your pecs and deltoids.”

“He certainly must work up a copious sweat,” Nathan said. “I bet he gets lots of looks from all the girls and boys.” Nathan touched his chin with a fingertip. “You like girls, don’t you, Roman?”

Roman felt tongue-tied.

Swan laughed. “Roman’s celibate, don’t you know?”

“What a shame,” Nathan said. “You’ve turned the poor boy into a eunuch.”

Swan cleared his throat. “What can I do for you two gentlemen?”

David snickered. “Never ask two lusty lads that question, Terry. You should know better. But I suppose you’re right. We’ve had enough playtime. Come along, Don and Sancho. Let’s all sit and have some more serious intercourse.”

Swan sat in one of a pair of facing loveseats. Roman sat beside him.“That’s not very intimate,” David said.

“I won’t pout,” Nathan said, “provided Roman lets me feel his bicep before he leaves.”

David said, “Roman, do make sure he feels only your bicep. All right, boys and girls, let’s talk.” He sat opposite and Nathan joined him.

“What’s on your mind?” Swan said.

“Nathan and I are planning to open a new club in Laguna Beach in three months. The design work is done and a contractor’s ready to break ground. We’ve hired a very talented designer to handle the interior theme—Tangiers. It will be a stunning place, for our usual spicy clientele. We’ll need to ramp up our orders after we open. Twenty-five percent? I do wish I could predict the exact amount but it’s too early.”

“Congratulations on your success, gentlemen. No need for the apology. We can be flexible about deliveries, especially with valued customers, which you are.”

“The other thing is, well, I know you’re a specialty house, founded in, what year was it?”

“Nineteen twenty-one.”

“Always the same high-quality product.”

“Branded and guaranteed.”

“Well, Terry, we’ve been getting requests for some other anodynes.”

“Can’t help you there.”

“Do you offer anything else at all?”

“No. We wholesale a single product. It’s company policy, always has been.”

“Seems shortsighted. You would certainly increase your profit if you broadened your offerings. We receive many requests and, frankly, we see an opportunity here.”

“My advice is to stick with what is relatively safe and you understand exactly what it does. What I offer, you make a nice profit, it keeps your customers alert, helps them stay up all night, dance, feel fine. You start providing them with H, they’ll get depressed, fall asleep, overdose, and die in your restrooms. Ice is cheap, you’ll make almost no profit, and users get paranoid and aggressive, they’ll eventually kill someone or die. What’s not to love about it?”

“Shit,” Nathan said. “Oh, dear, David. That is not a pretty picture at all. Perhaps we’d best listen to Terry. He’s the expert.”

“Thank you, Nathan,” Swan said.

“Thank you for the advice, Terry,” David said. He looked at Nathan. “Are we done, m’love?”

“Not quite,” Nathan said.

“Oh God,” David said.

They all stood. Nathan approached Roman and gently caressed his bulging right bicep with a fingertip. “Oh, my,” Nathan said. “That’s as hard as a rock.”

The parking valet smiled as they approached. “Hi, Brittany,” Roman said, handing her the parking chit.

She accepted it and looked at Swan.

Swan gave her a ten-dollar bill.

“Thanks, Terry,” she said appreciatively. “You’re a generous man. I’ll get your car.”

#

They were back on Hollywood Boulevard.

“Octane 120,” Swan said.

“Yes, Mr. Swan,” Roman said.

They drove in silence.

“Ever heard of Del Bean?” Swan said as they approached the club.

“Giants?”

“He retired from that grabass. These days he’s into sports bars.”

“I’m a Raiders fan.”

“Why?”

“Salinas, me and my homies, we like Oakland better.”

“So, you think like your homies?”

“Not about everything, Mr. Swan.”

Swan laughed.

Roman lucked out, finding a space on Hollywood Boulevard. Octane 120, with walls of dark glass, resembled an oversized coffee shop at the front of a parking lot, no valets in sight. From the outside, it seemed dead. Inside was a sports bar half-filled with young men in small groups drinking beer, talking loudly, and shouting cheers and catcalls while watching sports events on enormous TV screens.

“I like this place,” Roman said they walked through. “All the games going. It rocks.”

“Jockstrap city,” Swan said. “You see any chicks? It’s gayer than Morocco.” He looked around. “I don’t see Bean.”

“What’s he look like?”

“Big white steroid junkie with yellow hair, favors a doo rag. Let’s check the poolroom.”

They went through a portal into a dark space with pool tables illuminated by hanging lights.

“That’s him, chalking his cue,” Swan said, pointing at a huge man with long bleached blond hair at a table with two men. Roman remembered Bean as a big lineman, and he’d probably put on a hundred pounds since then.

Bean spotted Swan. “Dope Boy!” he shouted. He turned to his friends. “That’s Terry Swan, the man we been waiting for.”

Swan stiffened. “Be cool, Del.”

Bean laughed and threw down his cue with a bang. “What you got to hide, man? You look like you got off a jet from Colombia.”

“Let’s go,” Swan said to Roman. “He’s hammered.” Swan turned and walked. Roman followed.

“Hey!” Bean yelled after them.

Swan kept moving, not looking back.

“Don’t you turn your back, I’m talking to you!”

Bean’s friends laughed.

Roman looked back. Bean was coming after them with a crazy, angry look on his face. “He’s following us,” Roman said.

“Stop, you faggot,” Bean yelled as they entered the lounge. Heads turned toward him from all directions.

Roman caught a glimpse of Swan’s frightened face as Bean got closer. Swan sprinted ahead through the entrance. Roman followed, but stopped outside. “Get in the car and lock the doors,” he shouted after Swan.

Swan, running for the car, gave no sign he heard Roman’s words. It did not matter to Roman, who knew what he had to do. The moment he turned, Bean came through the door, drenched with sweat, his face crimson, spittle covering his lips and chin.

Roman turned to confront him, but Bean’s eyes were on Swan, now in the Caddy. He did not seem interested in Roman.

“Mr. Bean,” Roman said calmly.

Bean looked at Roman, hesitated, and then walked over to him and stuck a finger in his chest.

Roman grabbed it, snapped it upward, and felt it break in his hand. Bean screamed.

Still holding the finger, Roman pulled it toward himself, drawing Bean close enough to feel his hot, beery breath.

“Leave Mr. Swan alone,” Roman said.

Bean grimaced, began struggling, and wrestled his digit loose with a yell that sent a chill through Roman.

Bean reared back, swung at Roman’s head, missed, and staggered drunkenly past.

Roman slammed a fist into the side of Bean’s neck, knocking him face down onto the sidewalk. He lay stunned, started to lift his head, and Roman kicked him once behind the ear, and he lay still.

Roman looked down at Bean and considered kicking him again, but stopped himself. He felt no real anger toward the former athlete, only the duty to protect his employer.

He backed away from Bean, and was about to head for the Caddy, when he noticed the crowd gathering around to watch the action. He looked at the faces and read them based on vivid memories of violence. What they all wanted was to see him kill someone; Bean would do fine, but it did not matter who.

He turned away, pushed through the ring of rabid faces, and continued to the Caddy, ignoring disappointed cries from the crowd. Soon he was inside the Caddy’s safety and silence, speeding along Hollywood Boulevard. When he stopped at a red light, he glanced in the rearview and saw Swan’s face with a faint residue of white powder beneath his nostrils.

“I don’t think Mr. Bean will bother you again,” Roman said.

Swan looked into the rearview, but said nothing then or during the rest of the ride home to Pacific Palisades.

Eventually, the silence got on Roman’s nerves and he felt he had to say something. “You know what, Mr. Swan? I don’t think you should wear the white suit again.”

 

Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).

 

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