The Cost of Living

The car skidded to a halt, just as the front bumper lightly pushed the back of the man’s leg. The driver let out a sigh of relief, the man had walked out onto the road without looking and even now he hardly noticed the contact the car had made: he seemed off in a far away land. The car honked and the man jerked, twisting around quickly and peering into the car. The driver’s face dropped, he looked down at a photo he was holding of a tall, white male with wispy blond hair and a crooked nose, and then looked back up at the j-walker: he had found his mark. “Fuck,” he muttered as the man turned around and sauntered off the road, “that would have made it so much easier.”

The driver reached for the glove compartment of the old, racing red MG, and searched for his gun. Knocking something with his hand, he heard the coffined thud of metal on carpet. He reached down and picked up the leather sleeve that contained his badge. Detective Sergeant Richard Dawson of the Queensland Police Force, read the identification card with big red letters, like some twisted graffiti, that read ‘void’ in place of where his mug should have been. His golden badge, once a symbol of the law he had enforced, had an indentation upon it. Running a finger over the groove, he remembered the shot that had almost taken his life.

The badge was just a hunk of metal to him now, a relic of the past, when everything wasn’t so grey. ‘Those were days to be remembered’, he thought, ‘the camaraderie, the corruption’. When Sir Joh was the Premier no one would look at a cop twice for fear of being “harassed”, which always made it so much easier to get the kickbacks he deserved. There was little organised crime back then, unless you count the force, until Fitzgerald came and messed it all up. He stared at his badge and squeezed his finger tight; he tried to crush it, but instead only drew blood. It didn’t matter: he had a job to do.

The past was past, but presently he was doing the same job in a different uniform. He was an enforcer for the Villatella Family, a respected, uncompromising gang who originated in Italy but moved to Australia to seek better options. ‘The bastards took over the town three months after the Fitzgerald Inquiry’, he thought. They had owned the valley and were in the Commissioners little black book, but now they ran the town, filling that void of corruption.

Dawson drove the car up the road, parked in the shadow of a Jacaranda tree and stared across the road into the Art Gallery at all the Mr’s and Mrs’s in their fancy clothes drinking shitty wine. A thought struck him; the type of crowd that goes to an art gallery would never get offended if you offered them drugs. ‘Anywhere in Australia’, he thought, ‘I could walk in and offer someone ‘illegals’ and they would be up for it or at worst have a polite refusal and a smile for him to take away, fucking hippies’.

He got out of the car and walked towards the gallery, putting the pistol into his side holster, his red leather jacket concealing the piece. Pushing past the stained glass door, the first thing he noticed was a sign that said open bar. ‘O joy’, he thought.

He both hated and loved open bars. You never quite know what you are getting yourself into. He approached slowly, noting the activities of other parties at the bar. He felt for his wallet and pulled it from his jean pocket. The bartender approached him, “What’ll you have?” he asks with a smile on his face. ‘Smug bastard’ he thought. Dawson looked over the bar and asked for the cheapest beer he could see, “I will have a Powers Gold, thanks.” The bartender, who according to a name badge was known as Frankie, popped the lid and hands it to him. Something about that bottle-top popping is harrowing; at this point there is no turning back. No one ever really believes alcohol could be on a tab. “Is this free?” he wondered.

Usually, he would gauge the answer by slowly turning his body away from the bar, keeping his eyes on the bartender as long as he could, skewing his neck at an odd angle. As soon as he body would turn one-hundred and eighty degrees he would do what he called “The Olympic Relay” as he quickly power-walked away, a mixture of triumph and fear making his blood course through his veins, gripping that beer like it is the Olympic torch, making sure he will never drop it for it is a symbol of such glory.

Unfortunately, as he soon discovered, the bar had been open between five and six. The clock above the bar now read closer to nine o’clock. The bartender stopped him as he made his turn, “That will be ten dollars.” Grumbling something about bullshit rules, Dawson paid for his beer with what little cash he had on him and sat down on the bar stool. ‘That is why you have to doubt’ he thought.

Dawson had barely had a swig of his beer before a young women dressed in a fancy red leather dress approached him, “It is my birthday today!” she celebrated.
“Happy Birthday,” he replied,” How old are you?”
“I am twenty-five,” she beamed.
He turned back to the bar expecting her to walk off, “Wait,” she said,” aren’t you going to buy me a drink?”
He stared at her amusingly, “Why?”. She paused for a moment as if the question was one of foundation shaking consequence.
“Because it is my birthday?”
“And that justifies a drink? No bloody way.” As he said this she stalked away, on the prowl for another drink. She had probably already forgotten about him.

She expected him to buy her a drink; clearly she was too immature for the world. ‘There are only two periods of buying someone a drink for their birthday’, he thought. The first period was from eighteen to twenty-one: when people are young, loving life, trying to impress the people they are with, and generally wasteful of money. They want to be accepted and they know it will be reciprocated on their birthdays. The second period is from thirty-five onwards: because if you see a thirty-five year old celebrating a birthday at a bar then they have had a sad life and you should probably buy one for the poor sod.

He looked back at the clock, it read five to nine. Dawson didn’t have much time; there was a message he had to send. He took the photo out of his pocket and turned it over. “Let all those people know what happens when you owe us,” was scrawled upon the back in a messy red scrawl of what he thought could be handwriting. He turned the photo back and looked at the man’s portrait. His name was Antonio, which was almost all he knew. He didn’t like to deal in last names; it became too personal if it did. Antonio was a successful performance artist, which was something Dawson really didn’t really like. ‘What was wrong with a good drawing?’ he always said. But, Antonio had bigger issues than whether Dawson accepted performances as a viable form of art.

A year ago, Antonio had an opportunity to perform in the States, but it turned out he couldn’t afford a tour for his act. Antonio had become famous for a piece entitled ‘Human Nature” which involved setting up a room in the middle of a busy market and allowing a person to come in one by one. Inside were hundreds of pieces of fine china and glass models. The person was dressed in safety gear, handed a mallet, and told that the only way they could leave the room was to destroy one of the items. He then filmed what would happen. Sometimes a person would destroy one thing, maybe not even using the mallet. He soon discovered that most people would enter a frenzy and destroy multiple delicates. They would crash through stands without even a second thought. He was heralded in the Australian art community for such outlandish work, and soon they wanted him to tour the US. But all those individual items, all those reels of film, and all the labour to build the room cost a lot of money. Too much for who was at the time some small town act. So he approached the family for a loan and scarpered off to the states. Six months later he came back living rich off the backing of scholars, patrons and sponsors; yet the family didn’t see a cent. They had tried to be reasonable, but somehow he kept missing their appointments. It was time to remind him what he owed.

Back in the days of the force, Dawson had always been a violent man, but only ever to those he thought deserved it. Murders, child molesters, and arsonist were accidently dropped a few times, just enough to make them hurt but not enough to make them bleed. But now days he couldn’t tell up from down when it came to his morals. He was just as bad as the people he put away. He didn’t have a problem with the corrupt days because he could get away with anything in the pursuit of justice and sometime his pockets were a little heavier for it. Now he had a wife and kids to feed and no legitimate forms of work he could do. He had been burned by the Report and skin was still peeling.

Dawson knew the guy’s history, but that was just a picture of the past. His only crime was that he owed scumbags money, which wasn’t much of a crime at all. If anything he was just a little stupid. Dawson looked down at the photo and saw a gleaming wedding band. ‘He has wife maybe even a kid’, he thought his throat tightening. He played with the gold band on his own finger, twirling the worn hunk of commitment around his finger. These things were always infinitely more complex than he wanted it to be; always he had to act simple. He wasn’t paid to think.

He looked up and saw people milling around the stage, somewhere a gong resonated and the room grew quiet. From above the stage descended a man, naked except for a vest made of sheep’s wool; it was Antonio. He slowly dropped down towards the microphone stand as a spattering of applause broke out amongst the crowd, somewhere beside Dawson a man cried, “Such genius!” Dawson didn’t get it. ‘Some comment on wearing clothes perhaps?’ he thought.

It didn’t matter, the time had come and he had is audience, idolaters all of them. For all his moralising Dawson had made a decision, ‘It doesn’t matter what he has done, I have to do my job, and otherwise it will turn out worse for me. I won’t even get a message’.

He pulled himself from his stool holding his beer in his right hand. Pushing through the crowd he made for the stage. Everyone moved compliantly, they were too busy staring at Antonio to care. Somewhere above, speakers begin to play classical music. An air of superiority fell over the crowd as they began to clap louder. Antonio touched upon the stage at the same time as Dawson, a look of calm over both their eyes, Dawson moved with a refined grace towards his target. Drawing back his hand he smashed the bottle across Antonio’s face staggering him as he began to sag against the rope line that had lowered him down. Chunks of golden, broken glass became lodged along his jaw line, almost giving the appearance of stubble, before blood began to weep from his wounds.

Dawson drew his piece and drew him in close, pressing the cold metal against the man’s left shoulder. “We take what is owed,” he whispered looking into eyes filled with terror and pain. Dawson stared at him with a grim veneer, ‘He is only a boy’ he thought. He pulled the trigger and the man screamed, blood spurting from his back like a broken fountain, staining the window behind them red. Bits of muscle and flesh stuck to the window were beginning to kill in a way that made Dawson cringe. Antonio fought around in his harness, but Dawson grabbed him by the neck and delivered a bone crunching head butt that knocked his victim out. The boy hung limp, swinging on his rope like a metronome and when Dawson finally stood back he couldn’t pull his eyes away from this image.

Finally, he turned around to see that no one had moved, not an inch. No one had so much as cried out. All he could hear was Beethoven’s Fifth playing above his head. Dawson stared at them with contempt before walking off the stage and exiting the building through the fire exit. He started to jog back around the building, ‘surely someone had called the cops’ he thought. He reached the front of the building and stopped, he was struck dumb by a sound that he was not expecting. He had predicated looks of horror, or screaming, or curses, but what he heard was the one thing he had not expected. He walked up to the red window and put his ear against the cold, stained glass.

He heard clapping. Not just simple polite applause, thunderous appraisal was coming from that hall. He heard someone wolf whistle, and then another cried out, “Such genius, he has really out done himself this time!”

‘They thought it was all an act’, he thought, ‘some performance’. He turned around and slowly walked back to his car. He looked into his vehicle and his eyesight was caught by a flash of gold. His badge was sitting on his seat where he had left it. Picking the badge up he started to shake, ‘They aren’t far off from the truth’

He got into his car and started the engine, the MG roared into life. The jacaranda had shed its leaves all over the bonnet and now his car appeared pink rather than red. As he drove away he could hear the applause slowly fading. Someone laughed, someone screamed and in the valley of fear a little, red man thought about broken china.