It gives me great pleasure to showcase the third winner in the LongShortStories “PAY IT FORWARD” Challenge short story contest.
By Robin Davis
“It’s so much harder for the big ones to find good homes. I’m glad you and Buster hit it off so well.” Susan smiled and handed the leash to Marge, the silver-haired lady adopting the animal shelter’s largest client, a two-year old Saint Bernard with sad eyes and a happy tail.
“Thanks for being patient with me. I wish I could take them all, laughed Marge as she ran thin fingers through Buster’s thick fur and let him push the door open with his formidable nose.”
The door closed and Susan’s smile lingered. She ran her hands through her curly auburn hair, leaned back in the old swivel chair next to the beat-up donated desk, and picked up a cold cup of coffee, abandoned the hour before when Marge had returned, determined to make a final selection. Susan’s friendly persistence with anyone who showed even the slightest interest in one of the shelter’s adoptable dogs, cats and occasional rabbits made her the star member of the small team who served with the zeal of volunteers rather than the clock-watching attitude of many better paid employees.
“Susan, you’re amazing.” Allen, the shelter veterinarian, parked his lanky frame against the open door and smiled at Susan. “I didn’t think anyone would take Buster-you’re really on a roll with the big dogs-Max, Henry and now Buster-all in one week, and Midnight last month! Maybe now you can find a good home for that new Great Dane we just got in.”
“Just luck, Allen. And don’t give me too much credit for Midnight. He’s big, but very quiet, and so nice. He was easy to adopt! By the way, I need to leave a little early today. That new market just opened over on Sheldon Boulevard, and Mike is getting back from his first out-of-town sales trip tonight. I’m gonna surprise him with dinner and a birthday cake.”
“Great idea-lucky guy!”
“It was hard for us after he was laid off, but things are getting better now and we both deserve to celebrate a little.”
“You deserve it. Say ‘hi’ to Mike for me, and tell him to pass the word about our friendly Siamese and house-broken Dachshund.”
* * *
Admiring the stately old houses, oversized lawns and big trees lining the unfamiliar boulevard, Susan didn’t notice the untrimmed branches partially obscuring a stop sign until it was too late. She slammed on her brakes and felt a sickening jolt as her old Honda crunched into the side corner of a new, black and undoubtedly expensive, Mercedes.
“Idiot!” yelled the red-faced driver. He leaned out his window to survey the damage to the side of his car, “What, are you blind?”
Susan opened her door and stood next to her damaged car. She blinked tears from her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see the stop sign until it was too late,” she said.
“People like you shouldn’t be allowed to drive,” spat the agitated driver.
Another man calmly but quickly walked from the other side of the Mercedes, placed a hand on the driver’s shoulder and quietly said something too softly for Susan to hear. The driver grumbled and walked away, crossing his arms as he leaned against the front door of the car.
“Don’t worry, both cars are drivable and I’m sure your insurance will cover it,” said the man. He smiled at Susan and extending his hand. “I’m Corey Daniels. This is my car, and Sol over there is my unhappy driver.”
Susan smiled back, reassured by the good-natured manner of the well-dressed man who seemed indifferent to the damage to his car.
“My name is Susan McEhan. I’m really sorry I hit you. But, you see Mr. Daniels…my insurance lapsed because we couldn’t afford to pay the bills. Now that my husband was re-hired, we’re planning to restart it at the end of this month. But now this, just when our luck was changing.”
Corey’s smile faded, but he remained polite.
“Well, Susan, I’m not going to just ignore this damage, or pay for it out of my own pocket. You were illegally driving without insurance, and I’d guess you’ve caused at least three thousand dollars worth of damage. How do you propose we take care of this problem?”
Susan’s hands trembled as she brushed away a tear, and her voice faltered.
“Could we pay to have your car fixed-maybe not all at once, but over a few months. Would that be ok?”
“Why should I wait a few months to be paid?” Corey asked calmly, holding eye contact with Susan until she looked away.
Her voice was a little higher pitched with a note of pleading as she looked Corey in the eyes and responded, “I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll tell you what, Susan. I’m in the business of loaning money to companies that need to get past one kind of problem or another. It’s a risky business, but it pays well because I charge a lot for my services. You seem to be in need of similar services. You can pay me the cost of the repairs over time, but for that courtesy to you, I’ll need a nice profit. Since I’m in a good mood, we’ll only add forty percent to the total.”
“What do you mean?” Susan seemed confused.
Corey continued, “Let’s say the repairs cost three-thousand dollars. You’ll pay me four thousand, two hundred – spread out over the next year. I think that’s fair.”
“An extra twelve hundred dollars? That’s a lot of money.”
“Yeah, it is,” responded Corey, “But maybe no more than the extra amount you would have to pay to get insurance if we report this accident. We can keep this little problem just between us. The authorities never need know you ignored the stop sign back there.”
Corey smiled again with what appeared to be real warmth.
“I don’t really have a choice,” Susan said. “I suppose I should thank you for being flexible.”
“That would be nice.” Corey laughed. “A lot of clients take my services for granted, but sometimes I run into someone who shows respect and gratitude. Take my driver, Sol, for example. He made some mistakes that cost him more than he could afford to pay, but now he’s working it out by driving me around when I need it. And, he’s very loyal. Not many people try to cause me trouble with a guy like Sol hanging around. When someone casues a problem, I let Sol to exercise his ‘executive judgment,’ so to speak.”
The image of a smiling jackal flashed through Susan’s mind, and despite her desire to get as far away from the situation as possible, she was stubborn and refused to completely submit to Corey’s will without at least token resistance.
“Do I get to approve the repair estimate?” she asked with a smile.
“Sure, why not?” Cory answered with an amused look. “We’ll get the estimate and bring it by your place later today with a promissory note. Give me your address and phone number, and take my card in case you change your mind and want to file a police report.”
With a courteous nod to Susan, Corey turned and signaled Sol that it was time to go.
* * *
Susan finished icing the freshly baked cake, set the dining room table with the “good” china, and had put a ham into the oven to roast when the doorbell rang. As promised, Corey was there with the repair estimate and promissory note. Sol was waiting beside the car at the curb.
Susan quickly reviewed the estimate for the repairs, and was mildly pleased to see the total was only twenty-eight hundred dollars instead of the three thousand she was expecting-plus Corey’s commission. She read and signed the promissory note and reluctantly thanked Corey again for his flexibility.
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Susan,” said Corey smiling. “I smell something good cooking, and it’s making me hungry. Time for Sol to drop me off at home so I can eat my wife’s good cooking and open envelopes with checks that I’m sure my diligent customers have mailed to me. I’ll look forward to your first one in a month. Don’t be late – there’s a late fee built into the promissory note you signed.”
There was that jackal smile again, and Susan was glad that the rest of her business with Corey would be conducted by mail. She watched him walk back to his waiting car and then went to take a hot shower. She was eager to get dressed for Mike’s return home and give him the nice surprise she had planned for his birthday. Sometime during the evening she would also work in the explanation of why they would be on a lean budget longer than they had hoped.
* * *
As Susan turned off her hair dryer she heard the ringing doorbell, followed quickly by an impatient knock at the door. She quickly pulled on a blouse and jeans, hurried through the living room, and peered through a gap in the curtains. Sol stood by the door holding a document and looking at his watch impatiently. She opened the door and without a word, he pushed his way into the foyer, his eyes flitting over her blouse, down to her jeans and back to the paper in his hand.
“What do you want?” she asked with a frown and a step backward.
Sol closed the front door before answering, “Corey says you gotta sign one more paper-sayin’ that you owe me a hundred a week for protection.”
Susan had a much closer view of Sol than she wanted. His hair was short on the sides, greasy and thinning on the top. His unsmiling face was swollen from mild obesity, red and mottled with acne. His rough hands were not recently washed, and his belly protruded above a belt that looked a size too small. His smirk alarmed Susan. Her mind raced. It would be at least an hour before Mike returned home. Had Corey really sent Sol, or was he lying?
“Mr. Daniels didn’t say anything about this. Let’s call him,” she said.
“You callin’ me a liar?”
Sol was no longer wearing the white shirt Susan had seen earlier, and his green tee shirt was darkened with circles of sweat under his arms. His forehead and neck shined with sweat.
“You ain’t gotta choice, bitch,” Sol said. He took a step closer and thrust his face uncomfortably close to Susan’s. “I’m thinkin’ I’ll collect your first payment right now.” He grabbed her upper arm and squeezed.
“Let me go, you bastard. There’s no money in the house.”
“We can work out a special deal, you and me,” Sol said.
His smirk broadened into an open-mouthed smile. He stepped even closer to Susan, forcing her back against the foyer wall. His belly pressed against her body and he slid his hand down her arm and around to her back. Dropping the paper he was holding, he grasped Susan’s neck as she attempted to slide sideways away from him.
“Here, gimme a kiss, honey,” he commanded.
Sol’s open mouth covered Susan’s lips and his tongue tried to invade her mouth.
Susan clenched her teeth and fought against Sol’s firm grasp as he continued to probe her mouth, his tongue pressing against her teeth. He moved his left hand under her chin and pressed his fingers sharply against her cheeks, increasing the pressure on the back of her neck with his other hand. Susan tried to yell “no” but the word was garbled. Her hands beat uselessly against the sides of his arms. Struggling, she opened her jaws slightly and immediately felt Sol’s tongue gain entrance. She bit down-hard-and tasted the metallic saltiness of Sol’s blood. A wave of nausea made her gag as Sol jumped back with a hand to his mouth.
“You damn bitch!” he cried, looking with astonishment at the blood on his fingers and touching his lips with his bleeding tongue.
Before Susan could react he struck her hard across the face knocking her head against the wall and then hit her a second time, bringing blood to her lips. She gasped in pain and panic as Sol grasped her hair, jerked her head forward, and pulled her off balance. As she fell forward, Sol struck a glancing blow to the side of her head, cursing when he failed to make direct contact. She fell hard on her side, badly bruising her arm, and a sharp flash of pain seared through her wrist.
Susan tried to roll away from Sol but he straddled her and forced her onto her back. With her hair in both hands, he banged her head hard against the floor. Dizziness and tears in her eyes made it difficult to focus on Sol’s face swimming only inches above hers.
“You’ll pay now, bitch,” he said, slapping her face hard and tearing at her blouse, popping one of the buttons onto the floor.
Susan wanted to scream but could only whimper. Her mind shifted into slow motion.
Sol pushed her bra roughly above her breasts and pawed her with coarse fingers.
“Yeah slut, you’re gonna pay right now,” he hissed and groped at the snaps of her jeans.
Susan struggled to focus her thoughts, to summon the will to fight back, or to at least turn her face away from the angry, lust-filled eyes above her.
A dark shadow passed over her head.
“Son of a bitch!” Sol yelled. “NO.”
Susan was suddenly relieved of the weight of Sol’s body pressing her to the floor. She heard a long, terrified scream, mixed with a low, rumbling growl, and smiled slightly. She was still too weak to move.
The screams subsided into a gurgling whimper, and Sol’s shoes ceased their brief, futile scraping against the floor. Then, all was still.
Susan smelled familiar bad breath, and felt something warm and wet against her cheek.
“Hello, Midnight, I’m sure glad to see you,” she whispered.
Descended from hundreds of generations bred for loyalty and fierceness against predators, her black and tan Mastiff, adopted from the animal shelter only weeks before, whined and gently licked her face.
Susan turned her head with effort, finding it difficult, through dizziness and remaining tears, to determine whether Sol’s inert silence was due to terror or to death. She took a deep breath and slowly began to get up to phone for help, but with no great sense of urgency.