B-Sides: McClintock's Man
B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
The sputtering man made a sputtering sound for a few seconds more, until the last of the air in his lungs was spent, and his arms went limp, and his head sagged deeper into the horse trough. Roland let the fool’s head go, and he slipped sideways onto the ground, mouth hanging open as liquid trickled out.
“Paid by Friday,” Roland said, standing straight again. “Or we finish this properly.” He gave the man a hard kick to the stomach, and the fool vomited water, gagged and wheezed himself back to life.
Roland’s two associates—Bunt, the big lad from Glasgow; and Tully, the wee lad from Ayrshire—delivered kicks of their own before flanking their boss on his way back up toward Wellington Street. They popped their collars and straightened their hats, doing their best imitations of civility and sophistication...though nobody who saw them would mistake them for gentlemen.
Out east, the bellowing and clanging from By’s damned nuisance seemed to be getting louder and louder. It bothered the pretty ladies of Uppertown, sure, but it drove Roland mad. He spat into the street and turned his posse westward, to get as far away from the Irish as he could.
They settled in the back of Firth’s Tavern, down the hill by the water. It wasn’t yet early afternoon, so the well-heeled members of Wellington society were still pretending to be sober—which left them the run of the place, more or less. A few daring Canadiens had come in off the river, but they knew to keep their distance.
Half an hour and four pints later, a gentleman in a red waistcoat stormed in, slapping his hat down upon the table and pointing his walking stick at Roland like a sword.
“Wallace hasn’t paid?” he snapped.
“No, but th’day’s young, still,” said Roland with a shrug, and sipped his beer.
“The longer you delay, the better chance Mr Wallace has of spending what he owes me on something other than me.”
“Aye,” said Roland. “And the better chance I charge ‘im a penalty for bein’ late.”
“I’ve responsibilities of my own. I can’t just wait forever for—”
Roland slapped a sack of coins on the table. And another. And another. Heavy sacks, too. “Last week’s penalties,” he said. “You alright, Mr McClintock? You seem a wee bit on edge.”
McClintock snatched up the sacks, shoved them into the pockets of his coat and bared his teeth. “You fools spend half your days drinking and chasing women. I’ve a business to run here. I’ve bills to pay. And if you—” he pointed a menacing finger at Bunt in particular. “—can’t perform to expectations, I will cut you loose without a second thought.”
He snatched his hat back up and stormed back outside, slamming the door behind him.
Roland raised an eyebrow to Bunt. “Wha’ did you do to the bastard to make ‘im hate you so, eh?”
“Dunno,” shrugged Bunt.
“‘s ‘cause he’s ugly,” said Tully, and they all laughed.
“It’s because he slept with McClintock’s maid,” said a voice from the shadows, and they all turned with a jolt, because none of them had realized someone was there. The man was smooth, with an accent that felt familiar and alien all at once. His clothes were impeccable, but there was something about him that seemed like he belonged in Roland’s world more than McClintock’s. Like a well-groomed wolf, masquerading as a lapdog.
“Who’re you?” asked Roland, more curious than upset.
“And how’d you know about Mary?” asked Bunt, more upset than curious.
The stranger gave an amused shrug. “It’s my business to know the things others want to stay quiet,” he said, then offered his hand. “Poole, by the way. At your service.”
Roland shook his hand, cautious. “I doubt you’re at anyone’s service.”
Poole grinned. “Astute. But in this case, no, I am offering my services to you good fellows. Because I suspect you’re in need of it, after the trouble your evening will hold.”
“Bunt again?” laughed Tully, into his beer.
“Charles Wallace’s been struck by apoplexy,” said Poole, with a sympathetic shrug. “No telling if he’ll live or die.”
Roland spat curses into the air. “When? When’d this happen?”
“Two nights past,” said Poole. “The family’s keeping it quiet until they’re certain of the outcome. But given Mr Wallace’s wide-ranging gambling habits...”
“C’mon,” said Roland, up on his feet, blood rushing through his body like it had to escape. He kicked Tully’s feet off the table and roared: “Come on, ye daft fools! If we don’ get there fast enough, there’ll be no—”
“Oh, there isn’t,” said Poole, calmly. “The doctor who treated told Captain Bowen—one of Mr Wallace’s more significant gambling opponents—and Captain Bowen’s men cleared everything of value from the Wallace house this morning.”
Roland swore loudly and angrily. The Canadiens in the corner made themselves a little smaller, just in case.
“McClintock’ll have my head for this!” he seethed, kicking his chair across the room. “He’ll have all our heads!”
“Which is why,” said Poole, “I offer my services. As a facilitator. A calmer of passions.”
“No one can calm McClintock’s rage at this,” said Roland. “No one and nothing.”
Poole set an envelope on the table, lifted the edge. It was full of bills, and not small denominations. He smiled. “A miraculous recovery, perhaps?”
Roland frowned at the money, but didn’t reach for it. “Aye, and the catch?”
Poole’s calm smile flickered for just a second. “Representation. On my behalf.”
“No,” said Roland. “I’m McClintock’s man. I don’t work for anyone el—”
“And you shouldn’t. And you won’t,” said Poole. “Here’s the predicament: Mr McClintock is quite adept at getting people into debt, but without regard for how or whether they’ll get out of it. He excels at the short term, but lacks a gift for the horizon, if you will.”
He tapped the envelope. “I will cover every penny McClintock’s owed, so you and your associates can stay in his good graces without worrying about the day-to-day struggle, as you do now. The day a debt comes due, you will show up at his home with a bundle of cash, and no excuses.”
“And in return?” asked Roland.
“In return, you will act as an incentive for the debtors to sign their situations over to me. Not as an explicit threat, but a reminder of what they will be facing if they decline my offer.”
“*And in return?*” Roland said pointedly.
Poole grinned. “Two percent of McClintock’s take.”
“Two percent of your take,” Roland said.
Poole’s smile didn’t change a bit. He offered his hand again. “Shall we?”
It was no exaggeration: the Wallace house was stripped bare. Curtain rods were torn down, the carpets carted away, furniture either taken or broken and left for scrap. The only piece that wasn’t stolen was the large bed in which poor Mr Wallace lay dying, soaked in his own drool.
Roland, Bunt and Tully stood in a row at the foot of his bed, while Mrs Wallace wept at her husband’s arm—partly because of the state of him, and partly because she knew damn well who these visitors were.
“There’s nothing left,” she said, voice trembling with fear. “They took everything we had.”
“Your husband owes Mr McClintock a lot of money, Mrs Wallace,” said Roland, using a fact like the sharp edge of a vicious weapon. “And that debt has come due.”
“My husband is dying!” she cried. “He’s half-dead already! What do you think he has to give anymore? He’s—”
“Got any sons?” asked Roland, and she looked up, horrified.
“Daughters, maybe?” asked Bunt, with a menacing grin.
“Th-they’re away...” she said. “In England and Boston and—” She got a little terser, less scared. “They’ve powerful friends there. Our son, James, his trading company is—”
“Will they be ‘ome for the funeral?” asked Roland.
Roland nodded to Tully, who slipped a blade from his belt and made his way around to the other side of the bed.
“Wait, no!” pleaded Mrs Wallace, reaching a frantic hand out to make him stop, as if she stood any chance of succeeding. “Please, no!”
“When ye write to your lad James an’ tell ‘im o’ his father’s demise, do ask him to bring cash when he returns. I’d hate to have to repeat this with another Wallace so soon...”
Tully leaned in with the blade and Mrs Wallace screamed, and—
“Wait just a minute!” bellowed Poole, coming up the stairs in a huff. He stopped in the doorway and shouted: “Don’t you dare touch that man!”
Roland sneered over his shoulder. “An’ why not? He owes—”
“He owes? Have you no decency, sir?”
“No. No I don’t.” He nodded to Tully, and Tully—
“How much?” asked Poole, urgent. “How much does he owe?”
Mrs Wallace was at a loss; she clearly didn’t know. Roland tried not to let his satisfaction show. “Nine hundred five,” he said.
Poole’s eyes narrowed. He smelled a scam. “Nine hundred and five,” he said. “Sounds high.”
“Wha’ can I say? The bastard had a gambling problem.”
“Indeed,” said Poole, pulling a wallet from his inner pocket and flipping through his bills. He found what he was looking for, and held it out for Roland... but then pulled it back at the last second. “Mrs Wallace, I apologize. In my haste, I forgot to ask your permission.”
She seemed just as dazed as before, but in a new fashion. “Permission to what?”
“To settle your husband’s debts, I mean,” said Poole. “Here and now, to clear out any monies owed to these...thugs.” Roland bared his teeth at this. “So you may carry on with your grieving in peace.”
“Y-you would do that?”
“Of course, madam. I abhor the suffering of others.”
“Then yes. Yes, please yes!”
“Excellent,” said Poole, and made a show of handing Roland the money again, only to pull it back yet again. Even as a farce, this act was getting tiresome. “There is, however, something I would like in return.”
“A small thing, really. To be named administrator of your husband’s financial interests in Philemon Wright’s operations, across the river.”
“B-but those are—”
“Far too complex for you to handle alone,” said Poole. “And I promise you, your future will be well in hand, with me at the helm. I will ensure a generous allowance—”
“But our sons—”
“Your sons will only want what’s best for their mother,” said Poole.
Mrs Wallace squeezed her husband’s hand, and said a silent prayer, then shook her head, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t,” she said. “That was his legacy. The bedrock our children were meant to have. I can’t just give that away. Not like this. I’m sorry.”
“No, no need to apologize,” said Poole, putting the cash back into his pocket. “You do what you think is right. I’ll not fault you for it. It’s a complicated world, Mrs Wallace, and I wish you best of luck with it.”
He turned to go, and Roland stepped forward again, smile widening. “An’ so we’re back where we started,” he said. “Does anyone remember wha’ we were doin’?”
“Funerals,” said Tully, knife at the ready again.
“Ah, right,” said Roland. “Let’s get on with it, then.”
“No!” screamed Mrs Wallace. “I accept! I accept! You can have the shares, just please—”
Poole was back in the room in an instant. He slapped the cash into Roland’s hand and pointed to the exit angrily. “You, sir, are dismissed!” he said.
Roland grinned at him. “Pity,” he said. “The fun was just beginnin’.”
Firth’s was anything but empty by the time the sun went down. Riotous lumbermen were singing songs with drunken English workers, sloshing beer about and losing all sense of decorum the further into the kegs they got. Roland, Bunt and Tully nestled themselves in the back, celebrating a good day in relative calm.
“How did he take it?” asked Poole, finding his way through the crowd with four pints at the ready. “Mr McClintock, I mean.”
Roland took a beer, raised the glass before drinking. “He was right pleased,” he said. “Impressed we’d squeezed blood from tha’ stone.”
“Miracle workers,” said Poole, settling down across from them. “And by the way, inflating the debt like you did—”
“—will never happen again. You work for me now. You do as I say.”
Roland sighed, nodded. “Aye. We do, and we will.”
“Excellent. Now tell me: who else is due a visit from McClintock’s man?”