Money’s Tight

By Matthew Jones

The cats were back.

The landlord had promised to find their den and gas them out. But there they were, sitting on my balcony and pawing at my laundry. I suppose I should have been grateful that they weren’t as dangerous as the dogs that lived down in the alleys, but it was hard to feel grateful when a pack of feral calicoes were trying to steal my underwear.

I shouted at them to move, but the only response I got was a hiss as they returned to tearing at my clothes. I sighed and took a few steps across my cramped room to rummage in the closet for the spray. It had a picture of a snarling dog on it, but I figured that poison is poison, and if it was strong enough to bring down a dog, then a couple of cats shouldn’t be a problem.

A few short pumps out the window and it was done. I would have to wash the clothes again to get the smell out, but at least they were still my clothes, instead of lining a den somewhere. I called my landlord and asked him when he would get rid of the cats, but he just muttered that exterminators are expensive, and gave his answer to everything:

“Money’s tight.”

After the bodies stopped twitching, I tossed them over the edge of my balcony. The bundles of fur tumbled down into the dark alley, some 10 floors below. There were some muted thumps, then growling, as the alley-dogs fought over the fresh meat. The growling and barking rose in pitch and volume before ending in snarls and whimpering. I was glad I didn’t live on the first few floors. Cats were bad enough pests, but dogs were downright dangerous.

***

Hurrying along the darkening streets, I looked up at the artificial sky, hundreds of meters above my apartment. The lights were slowly dimming, to simulate late afternoon. Soon night would fall, although, the overhead lights meant that it never got truly dark down here. There were a few stray cat hairs on my sleeves, I absent-mindedly picked them off, taking care to avoid the now quiet alleyway. The nearest

transit pillar was at least ten minutes’ walk away, but the line to travel to the upper plate was already about a hundred people long. It always got this way in the evenings, people just loved to see the real sunset. I joined the line and started waiting. I could have taken one of the private elevators, but the public ones were far cheaper, and, like my landlord always says: money’s tight.

***

About an hour later, I finally arrived on the upper plate. The fading sunlight, filtering through the trees and buildings more than made up for the wait. My favorite part of the day was when the last rays of sun hit my face. Growing up, I had never imagined that I would be able to live up here permanently, but this job paid well, and I had built up a nice little nest egg so far. Maybe another six months and I would be able to afford the deposit on a rental unit. Of course, I still needed to get references, but working in a high-class restaurant gives plenty of opportunities to brown nose, especially with some influential people.

The thought of that always lifted my spirits, I had never seen a real sunrise, but the dream of living and working on the upper plate was close to hand. Unfortunately, to realize that dream, I had to work, and a job on the upper plate meant having to deal with some less-than-pleasant people, including, of course, my boss.

“Rebecca, you’re early.”

“Yes, Ms. Burke. The rail was on time today.”

“Hmm, well, your shift doesn’t start until seven, so don’t clock in until then. And change your shirt, all that hair on it, it’s disgusting.”

“Yes, Ms. Burke. Right away.”

“You don’t have too many bookings in your section tonight, so you’ll be training the new girl. Make sure her uniform is in better order than yours”

“Yes, Ms. Burke.”

“Excellent.”

I suppose she might have had a condition like OCD or something, it would definitely explain her love for all things orderly, but that wasn’t important. I owed her a lot for taking the chance and giving a sump rat like me this job. I was only earning about twice as much as I used to make below, but this was legal, safe money, and I didn’t have to degrade myself… Well, there were a few old men who tipped better when I paid them “special” attention, but that wasn’t the same. So I smile, I show the proper courtesies, and I do all the things that Ms. Burke loves, because I owe her, and I need this job.

***

The new girl was hiding in the uniform closet. She had figured out the apron, but the tie was confusing her.

“It’s a simple Windsor knot, just follow me.”

I undid my tie and showed her the correct way. As we finished, she introduced herself as Sarah, and stuck out her hand, I took it and told her my name.

“Have you ever worked in a restaurant like this?”

“Not exactly…”

“Ok, well it’s pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. There are two groups of staff, wait staff and betting staff. While the customers are betting on the dogs, don’t bother them. Only take orders during breaks, and after each round, ask if they want drinks. If they’ve just won, they’ll drink to celebrate, if they’ve lost, they’ll drink to feel better. Either way, they’ll get drunk and tip better.”

“Ok.”

“Also, it’s pretty warm tonight, so push the pinot grigio.”

That was met with a blank look

“It’s a dry white wine.”

A continued blank look.

“It won’t quench their thirst, so they’ll drink more, get drunker, and tip better.”

“Isn’t that a bit…”

“Yeah, it is, but it’s also more money in your pocket.”

She didn’t look convinced, but I knew that the allure of cash would win her around.

The new girl was hiding in the uniform closet. She had figured out the apron, but the tie was confusing her.

“It’s a simple Windsor knot, just follow me.”

I undid my tie and showed her the correct way. As we finished, she introduced herself as Sarah, and stuck out her hand, I took it and told her my name.

“Have you ever worked in a restaurant like this?”

“Not exactly…”

“Ok, well it’s pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. There are two groups of staff, wait staff and betting staff. While the customers are betting on the dogs, don’t bother them. Only take orders during breaks, and after each round, ask if they want drinks. If they’ve just won, they’ll drink to celebrate, if they’ve lost, they’ll drink to feel better. Either way, they’ll get drunk and tip better.”

“Ok.”

“Also, it’s pretty warm tonight, so push the pinot grigio.”

That was met with a blank look

“It’s a dry white wine.”

A continued blank look.

“It won’t quench their thirst, so they’ll drink more, get drunker, and tip better.”

“Isn’t that a bit…”

“Yeah, it is, but it’s also more money in your pocket.”

She didn’t look convinced, but I knew that the allure of cash would win her around.

“Anyway, make sure you fuss over their kids, parents love that, and it means they’ll tip better. Oh, and it helps to… flaunt yourself in front certain customers, if you know what I mean.”

“Why are you so obsessed with money?”

“Life without money sucks, you should try it sometime, see if you change your tune.”

***

Later, the customers started to arrive, and the orders started flying. As soon as I heard her recommend the pinot grigio, as a good drink for a hot day. I knew she would be fine.

One of my tables had a fat, little boy of about eight. He had won a small stack of coins in the last round, and his parents were crowing over his ‘victory’. I approached them and turned on my ‘waiter face’.

“Wow, that’s a little fortune for a little man! You’ll be rich before the night is over!”

“He’s following in his daddy’s footsteps, alright!”

The boy chimed up, confusion in his eyes.

“But daddy, why did I win, if my puppy died?”

“Because he killed two other puppies, and came in second. Now, how about we try to pick a winner this time?”

“Would you like some more wine sir? That bottle is almost empty.”

“What? Yes, yes, another bottle, and a glass for my boy here, we’re celebrating.”

“Right away sir.”

***

“Look at all this cash!”

Sarah bounced over, waving her tips for the evening. The restaurant had been only half full, so the take wasn’t all that spectacular, but it was her first time, so I cut her some slack. Besides, the evening’s finale had stirred up the crowd. The dogs had taken down the convicts sent against them, and most of the patrons had made good money on that, which they were happy to throw around in celebration.

The condemned men were probably given a choice, work in the sump, or provide entertainment. They were both death sentences, but this one was a little faster. Tonight’s bunch died quickly, including the returning fighters from last night, still carrying their wounds.

“Nice wad, don’t spend it all in one place.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to! Are most nights like this?”

“Most are better”

“I’ll need to get a better place now, and new clothes and…”

She went on like that for a while, listing all the ways her life was going to be better now that she had finally gotten a job on the upper deck. Eventually, we cleared off our tables, and went down to the kitchens for our break.

“This food is amazing!”

Sarah spat crumbs when she spoke, the tart she was eating had been cooked a little too long, and while that meant it was not good enough for the customers, dry crust never hurt a lowly waitress.

“Seriously, you’ve got to try it! I never knew that dog was so good. I mean, they look so… dangerous”

“These aren’t those feral things in the lower decks, these dogs are prize pedigree fighters, fed on only the best foods.”

“But they’re not tame…”

“They can be. Usually, if a dog is a good enough fighter, they won’t kill it when it gets older. They use it to make more tough dogs. Some people even put them on chains and bring them around, inside the city.”

That made the tart catch in her throat, I knew it would. She glanced nervously around herself, as if there would be a dog here.

“Like, around this city?”

“Yeah. If you want, we can stop by the park on the way to the pillar later, maybe we’ll see a few…”

“A…few? No thanks, I saw them plenty through the windows.”

“Come on, finish up and we’ll get set for tomorrow.”

Before we left the kitchen, we passed the service elevator. The doors opened, and there, piled on top of a dolly, being pushed by a kitchen hand, were all the losing dogs from tonight. There were some fine specimens there, a few big yellow ones which looked to have a lot of meat under the fur.

As the dolly rolled out of the elevator, it caught on the corner, the impact caused a few of the bodies to shift, and an arm to flop out from under the bodies. A human arm. Sarah grabbed at my arm.

“That’s… That’s a…”

I cut her off before she could say anything.

“Not here, later.”

***

“So what did you think the ‘pork’ we were serving was? Pig meat? Please, do you know how expensive that is?”

“Wait… you knew about this?”

We had finished up our shift in almost total silence. Every time that Sarah caught my eye, she started to say something, but I always stopped her with a shake of my head.

After our shift finished, Ms. Burke had us clock out before collecting our payslips. It took Sarah four tries, since the sweat on her hands kept interfering with the palm scanner. Ms. Burke had a bright and shiny smile for the new girl as she handed over the slip and told her how nice it was to have another girl around. Sarah just nodded and made her way to the exit, making sure that I was close behind.

She tried to talk to me in the parking lot, but again I stopped her. Then at the station, and while we rode the car down the transit pillar, and again as we walked to my apartment. Each time, I shook my head and said: “later”. But now it was later, and

she was still as fired up as before.

It’s cannibalism!”

“No, it’s smart. The convicts are going to die anyway, so this way, they provide entertainment, and food.”

“It’s illegal!”

“True, but we had judges, businessmen and celebrities in the restaurant tonight, and a lot of them ate the ‘pork’”

“But what if they don’t know it’s… human?”

“Then it won’t hurt them. Look, when I found out, I reacted like you, but you get used to the way things work on the upper plate, it’s… it’s different up there.”

“We should report them!”

“And then what? Lose our jobs? Never get hired again? Burke is a bitch, but I owe her, she gave me a job!

“What is it with you and money!?”

“Being unemployed is a guaranteed trip to the sump! It’s a living hell, I’m not going back there.”

That gave her pause. The sump, the surface, the foundations, whatever you called it, you knew it was bad down there. Packs of predators roamed the wastes, tectonic activity shook the ground, winds full of dust and dirt wore away your skin.

The sump had only two resources that couldn’t be grown, recycled or otherwise replicated on the plates: water and iron. You either worked in the refinery complexes where toxic sludge was processed, piped up to the plates, and then later reprocessed, or you worked in the mines. I had known people who worked in the mines. They were usually criminals, who had opted to try to make a life on the surface. Unstable

mineshafts and random tectonic shifts meant that these people never lasted long, after a while, I stopped making friends with miners; I knew they wouldn’t be around for too long.

The people too poor to get onto the plates, the outcasts, the criminals, they were all sent down there. We were nicknamed ‘sump rats’, since we never saw real light, and just scurried from place to place, trying to avoid the worst of the harsh environment. There were only a few ways that a girl could make money down there, not all of them tasteful, and I had tried them all.

I wasn’t going to go back there. I just needed her to see the sense of it, or, if not that, then to just leave me out of it. I started pacing around the tight quarters, ending up by my closet.

“Can you just pretend you didn’t see it, I mean, what did you see? An arm? What if they were just throwing away the bodies?”

“But they weren’t, you just told me that.”

“Pretend I didn’t! Just forget about it, and start fresh tomorrow.”

“I can’t. We need to go to the news, we need to report it”

“It won’t change anything, there’s no evidence, and if there was, there are enough influential people who will shut any investigation down.”

“Not if we start down here. We’ll show people here what people up there are like.”

She kept talking like that, starting slowly, but getting louder and louder, more and more passionate. She started gesturing wildly, full of righteous fury and zeal.

The can was in my hands before I knew what was happening. The one with the snarling dog. I brought it down on the bridge of her nose and saw the fountain of blood blossom outwards. Then, a few pumps of the spray later, and it was done.

***

Later, after the twitching had stopped, I stripped her down and brought the body out to my balcony. Meat was meat, and the dogs deserved a taste of ‘pork’, it was pretty good after all.

I burnt her uniform, and sold her watch and jewelry, making sure to leave nothing to connect her disappearance to me.

I kept her tips though, I have a nest egg to build, and this would get me into the sun that much sooner.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s