The Charred Tree

The Price of Four Minutes

Frank Davenport burst into the coffee house and scanned the patrons for the man he had come to see. He spotted Jimmy McTiernan dressed in a white suit sitting in one of the big comfortable chairs near the back of the shop. He was sitting with his ever-present companion in chinos and a linen sportcoat. Frank strode toward the overstuffed chairs occupied by the loan shark and his companion. He dropped the duffle bag on the small table in front of the men. “There’s your money, Mr. McTiernan—every penny I owe you.”

McTiernan sipped from a demitasse of espresso and settled back into the leather upholstery before speaking in his cultured and genteel Savannah accent. “Thank you, Frank. I really do appreciate your coming all the way down here to bring this to me, but are you sure it’s all in there?” He gestured toward the duffle. “You do realize that it’s after noon, right?” Frank’s eyes went wide and darted to the clock mounted high on the wall behind the barista—12:04. Four minutes! He had missed the deadline.

“Mr. McTiernan, please! That’s $250,000. That’s all I can get. Can’t you let me have those four minutes? I have nothing left.” His voice broke on the last word. Frank felt his resolve begin to fail; when he closed his eyes he could see in his mind a brick wall that trembled under pressure and began showing cracks along the lines of mortar. The sound of his keys jingling brought him back to himself as quickly as he’d left and he shoved his right hand into the pocket of his rumpled pants before the trembling became worse.

McTiernan eyed him over the edge of the cup and tutted. “Now, Frank, you know that’s not how it works with me. We discussed this when I made you that loan and you said to me—you said most clearly—that you understood the terms of our business. I have already been quite lenient and given you an extension to pay your debt because our families have known one another for so long. I am not an unreasonable man, Frank, not at all unreasonable like that crazy Hungarian, Farkas. Hell, he’d have already cut out your heart and eaten it for not paying him on time.” He turned to his companion, “Haven’t I been fair and understanding, Johnny?”

Johnny Baker sneered and kept his eyes locked on Frank, “Absolutely fair and understanding, Mr. McTiernan.” He placed his coffee cup on the table and cracked his knuckles as he leaned back in his chair.

Frank paled at the sound of the pops from Johnny’s hands. Most people thought his nickname—The Breadman—was because of his last name, but Frank had heard stories that revealed a less benign explanation. Rumor was that when The Breadman was sent to settle an account, the poor schmuck holding that account would be found with every bone in their body broken and folded into a big lump. One of the detectives investigating one such body said it looked like a loaf of bread ready for the oven. At least five bodies in similar conditions had been found along the coast between Charleston and St. Augustine but there was never enough evidence to tie the killings to Johnny Baker and he always seemed to have been at least a hundred miles away at the time.

“…I’m coming from, Frank?” McTiernan snapped his fingers twice. “Frank?”

Frank pulled his attention away from the colorful history of Johnny Baker and back to the more dangerous man. “Uh…. Pardon me, Mr. McTiernan. What was that?”

McTiernan noted the confused and slightly vacant look and sighed. “To sum up, I said that it would be very bad for my reputation if I were to allow you any more leeway than I already have. Certain proprieties must be maintained for the continued existence of our civilization, sir, and the payment of one’s debts,” he stabbed his finger at Frank, “is of paramount importance.”

McTiernan drained the last of the espresso from his cup and set it on the table next to the duffle. “I have no doubt that bag contains the money you claim. It serves to pay off the principal of our agreement as well as the interest and late fees accrued to date. However, since you did not keep your side of our agreement to settle this debt by noon today, the next—and last—payment of $25,000 is due in a week. It will not be extended again. One week from today—here, by noon—you will settle your account with me, Frank. Or Mr. Baker here will have to collect in whatever way he sees fit.”

The Breadman smirked and his eyes glinted. Frank gulped.

“Mr. McTiernan, I can’t do it. There is no more money.” The pressure in Frank’s mind built to the breaking point. “You might as well go ahead and kill me now.”

The two seated men looked at one another and chuckled before McTiernan replied, “I think you still fail to realize the situation. Your death, by whatever means that should come about, would not cancel this debt. I recommend—highly recommend—that you settle our business before anything untoward might happen to you. T’would be a pity if my associate had to call upon your lovely wife and that dear precious daughter of yours. You cannot run—if you run they will pay. You cannot send them away—my associates are already watching them closely and any attempt to leave Savannah will meet with very unfortunate results.”

Frank’s eyes widened. His mouth went dry and an iciness settled into the pit of his stomach. Had anyone asked him a moment before how bad his situation was he would have said it could not possibly get worse. The man in white’s comments showed him just how wrong he could be.

McTiernan’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. “Is there any chance, sir, that I have failed to impress upon you the facts surrounding our business?”

Frank shook his head. “No, I understand. You will have what’s owed you by noon a week from today.”

“Very good. I will see you then.”
Frank sat in the brown overstuffed leather chair where Jimmy McTiernan had sat a week before and drained the last of his Americano. It was his third of the morning and he signaled the barista to send over another.

“The same? Six shots, simple syrup, and heavy cream?”

“Yes, thanks.” Frank flipped through a magazine while he waited. None of the articles or pictures interested him—hell, nothing interested him today. Today he would be free and his family would be safe. Despite having paid close attention to everyone that approached, Frank moved his foot to the right against the small duffle bag. His debts would all be paid today.

The barista brought the coffee and Frank handed him a bill with instructions to keep the change as Jimmy McTiernan and Johnny Baker entered the front door of the shop. The Breadman lead the way and glared at Frank to vacate the chair. Frank remained where he was and stared back at the larger man while the tension built to a palpable level.

McTiernan finally broke the standoff. “Just sit over there, Johnny,” he said while motioning to a nearby table. “Frank and I are old chums and this is friendly business that won’t take long to conclude. Bring me my usual.” The Breadman stalked to the counter and ordered his coffee and a double espresso for the man in the white suit.

McTiernan sat in the chair—the smaller of the two—next to Frank and leaned forward with his forearms propped on his knees. “So, Frank, I got your message that you have the money. I knew a resourceful man like yourself would find a way.” He gestured to the duffle between them. “Is this it?”

“It is.” Frank did not move from his relaxed posture in the chair. He glanced to the clock behind the counter. “And since it is an hour before the deadline, I assume that you will call off your people and leave my family alone?”

“Indeed, Frank. Indeed. You have kept your side of our arrangement so I consider our business concluded. I hope you understand that I never wished for any unpleasantness to mar our relationship but business is, after all, business.” McTiernan leaned back in his chair and accepted the saucer and demitasse from his companion. Johnny moved to sit at the nearby table. Frank could feel menace flowing toward him with the scowl Johnny sent his direction.

“Good. I had hoped our business would remain polite and civilized, Jimmy.” McTiernan’s eyes flashed at Frank. Unbidden familiarity was something he did not tolerate and Frank’s use of his common name did not sit well with him. “Do you mind if I ask you why you chose to take such a hard line with me, Jimmy?”

The Breadman started to rise from his chair but McTiernan waved him off as he leaned forward. “Although our business is concluded, Mister Davenport, you should maintain the proper level of respect when dealing with me,” McTiernan warned. The color in his face rose along with his anger. “I handle my business as I deem appropriate. A piss-ant the likes of you pleads poverty and can’t pay what’s owed? He needs more incentive to meet his obligations. Would you have paid your debt had the stakes not been so raised? I think not!”

“You’re right about that, Jimmy. I had already ruined my life. Selena found out about the money problems before I brought you the money last week and told me she was leaving me. Told me to move out and forget about seeing Meagan because she was going to take her to her mother’s place down in Florida. It was all I could do to convince her to stay in Savannah this week and that only because I told her about your threats.”

The look McTiernan gave Frank was still angry at the use of his familiar name but pushed on. “That’s good, Frank. You saved their lives. It would have been a shame if an accident had happened to them somewhere on I-95. That can be a very dangerous highway.”

Frank felt the rage build up within him and break free from the chains he had used to hold it in. He leaned forward in the chair. “I’m not sure you do understand, Jimmy. I don’t think you understand that my life is ruined. I don’t think you understand that everything I did this week to get your money was not an attempt to salvage what’s left of my life. I don’t think you understand that what I did this week was to insure their safety because I have nothing left but that!” His voice had grown from a menacing whisper to a full-voiced shout by the end of his tirade. Johnny Baker stood and took a step toward them.

“Calm down, Frank. You’re causing a scene.” McTiernan stated flatly.

Frank stood and screamed at McTiernan. “No, Jimmy. This is a scene.” He pulled the Beretta from its resting place at the small of his back. The Breadman lunged for it, but too late. Frank pulled the trigger and Johnny Baker’s face imploded on itself in a red mist before his body fell across the table between the two chairs.

Screams from the other patrons in the shop filled the void as the sound of the shot faded away. People ran for the doors and the baristas dove behind the counter. McTiernan was in shock and looked unbelieving at the body convulsing next to him. It was several moments before his frightened eyes rose to meet Frank’s over the looming black hole of the barrel of the gun pointed at his chest. McTiernan’s phone began to ring in his coat pocket.

“You want to know what the price of your goddamned money was, Jimmy? You want to know the price I paid for my family’s security? It’s you, Jimmy. Just you.” He pointed to Baker’s body. “That sonuvabitch was only a bonus for me.” The phone kept ringing.

Frank reached down and pulled the phone from McTiernan’s suit coat as it stopped ringing and went to voicemail. He threw it on the table next to the stunned man. It began to ring again. “Answer it, Jimmy. I don’t think the person on the other end wants to leave you a message—that’s already being done.”

McTiernan picked up the phone with an unsteady hand. He dropped it before successfully retrieving it. He opened the phone mid-ring, “Hel…” his voice broke. “Hello?” He listened for several seconds as the voice on the other end of the connection spoke. His face turned as pale as his suit and the phone dropped from his fingers. The sound of sirens came from the street outside.

“What’s wrong, Jimmy? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Pretty sure it’s not this bastard.” Frank kicked the still body of Johnny Baker without moving the gun from McTiernan’s chest. “Not that you cared for him anyway except for the brutality he could do on your behalf. By the way, how is Farkas?”

“They’re gone. He said everyone is dead.” McTiernan whispered. He slumped back into the chair.

“Not yet, Jimmy. There’s still one left and that’s the one that makes sure my family is taken care of. That’s the one that pays all debts…pays for the mess I’ve made of things. I told you I had nothing else to pay you but you insisted. The only thing I had left was something the crazy Hungarian was willing to pay dearly for. You. I’ll spend the rest of my life behind bars, but yours ends here.” McTiernan looked up into Frank’s eyes and saw nothing there but fury. “Goodbye, Jimmy.”

The gun fired three times. The white suit blossomed in red. Jimmy McTiernan died gazing at the tiles of a drop ceiling.


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3 thoughts on “The Price of Four Minutes

  1. Love it, straight up hard boiled pulp.

  2. Pingback: Story Delayed « The Charred Tree

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