The circle fell into a hush as an aged man wearing a pressed three-piece woolen suit cleared his throat and stood. His name was Alfred, though everyone in the group called him Al, and his oily scalp, shaved clean of any hair, glistened under the florescent lights.
He said, “Good evening, gentlemen,” and someone in the group snickered. “I’m glad to see all of you back”—he looked around the circle and focused on one man seated three chairs to his left—“as well as a new potential member.”
Everyone in the group looked at the new attendee. In stark contrast to Al, who looked in his fifties, this younger man, closer to thirty than twenty, wore blue jeans and an olive-colored, loose-fitted shirt printed with red hibiscus flowers. He wore sandals on his feet, and his toenails were the color of rotting onions. The young man gave the group a stoical nod of his unshaved face before turning his attention back to Al.
“Maybe later, if you’re comfortable with it,” Al said, “we’d like to hear your story.”
He turned to the group. Like him, they were dressed in suits, ties and leather shoes.
“First, however, a little bit of housecleaning is in order. You’ll see in your packet, on page two, a detailed listing of price quotes from local vendors for a body scanner. You will recall, this is direct response to Bob’s request to find some other non-evasive way to verify that all weapons, including guns, knives, garrotes and, yes, even Shurikens, have been turned in at the door. While nobody likes to have their person touched, it is still an important function of safety for the entire group. As a means to give this topic some direction, then, I would like a motion authorizing me to make a deal with the second vendor on the list. He’s higher priced, but the quality of the scanner is far superior.”
Someone in the group said, “So moved.”
Al nodded. “Thank you, Bob. Do I have a second?”
“Second,” another man said.
“I have a motion and a second. Is there any discussion?” When nobody replied, he added. “All in favor please raise your hand.”
Collectively the group assented.
“Good.” He now turned to a man on his right. “With that business done, we’ll let Charlie go first tonight.”
The man stood and said, “I’m Charlie Smith.”
The group collectively said, “Hi, Charlie,” which was quickly followed by a lone voice, muttering, “Right, we’re all Charlie Smiths around here.” That comment drew a couple of chuckles. Charlie even smiled before he continued.
“It’s been six weeks, on my honor, since I last killed someone, and this”—he held up a token chip on a chain—“I keep in my pocket to remind me of my commitment to the Big Kahuna upstairs and this group.”
Most of the group clapped in response; a few pursed their lips and nodded; one man held up a hand, pointed his finger, and said, “That’s the way, Charlie!” The new attendee looked around and furrowed his brow.
Charlie held up a hand. “It hasn’t been easy, though. Some days I feel… tortured.” He bit his bottom lip. His eyes watered. “Most days, it seems. Like this morning, this guy at the coffee shop not only cut in line, he then turned around and said, ‘You keep lookin’ at me like that, mister, you and me, we gonna have ourselves a little come to Jesus.’ And there I was, thinking, yeah, all right, but you’re gonna go see him first, pal.”
Laughter filled the air.
“I’m telling you guys right now, though,” Charlie said, “it took everything I had to fight the urge to stick him right there, and then watch him bleed.” He smiled. “The only thing that kept me from doing it”—he held up the chip again—“was feeling this in my pocket as I reached for my knife.”
The group mostly applauded.
“That’s a great story,” Al said as Charlie took his seat. “One we can all relate to.” There were a few nods to that. Al looked at the new guy. “What do you think?”
The guy leaned forward, arms on his knees. “I think…” He narrowed his eyes and looked around. “I think some aliens must have come down here and fried your brains, every last one of you.”
Bob said, “Hey, wait a minute.”
Al waved him off.
The young man shook his head. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I was told there was this group of men like me who meet every week down in the basement of St. Michael’s. I remember thinking, hey that’s cool, finally I can meet some guys and we can chew the fat, maybe share some tricks of the trade.” He scoffed. “Only I come here and find myself in a room full of sissies.”
“Yo, pal,” Charlie said.
“Pal? Look, man—whatever your name is—we ain’t pals. In fact, I don’t think I want to be in the same room with somebody who not only let another man disrespect him, but then stopped short of doing anything because of some powder-puff, cream-colored chip in his hand.” He laughed. “You’re no assassin. You’re just a beaten down puss who probably wears pink panties under—”
Before the man could react, Charlie jumped from his seat. He grabbed the man by the head and gave a swift jerk. A dull pop filled the air and the young man’s body went slack; he fell to the floor.
Looking down, Charlie blinked. Al rose and stood beside him.
“You want the chip back?” Charlie said.
“The way I see it,” Al said, “this is only a minor slip—a stub of the toe. We’ve all been there before.” He clapped Charlie on the shoulder. “You just need to climb back on the wagon and press on.”
Al looked down at the dead man. “It was a righteous kill, though.”