Stale sweat, tobacco smoke and perfume. This was what he registered upon being shown into the room, and it did little to calm the clamouring nerves coursing their way through his system; he felt as if he’d been thrown into hell, and the assault on his nostrils did little to sway this conclusion. He was in trouble, and he knew it. That’s why they’d asked to see him here, in the smoking room – business and pleasure seldom came separate in his line of work, and an invite to the most elite of his employers haunts could only spell bad news. He shuffled slowly into the dimly lit room, hands clenched in his pockets to stop them shaking, eyes darting nervously around the room all the while. His salivary glands seemed to be working double time, but a lump had surfaced somewhere in his throat, making swallowing difficult. On top of this, his heart was beating ten to the dozen; his palms, armpits, chest and forehead were slippery with sweat and his breath was coming in short, sharp, ragged gasps. In short, Paulo Rodriguez was absolutely terrified.
As he stumbled further into his own personal nightmare, Paulo’s eyes began to adjust to the hazy, smoky atmosphere and he was able to discern the shapes of people; whether they stood or sat, all were smoking. The hum of conversation hung against his ears in a low key, just into the realm of discerniblity, like the faint buzz of some invulnerable insect, and this pushed his tension up several more notches. Faces turned through the musky air as he passed by his employers guests, a few making whispered comments to their companions; one or two jabbed the fiery butt of a cigarette in his direction as if to emphasise a point. He moved onwards, focus and destination alike fixed on the door at the end of what felt like the longest room in the world. As he stumbled in and out of clumps of patrons, he lifted a trembling hand from his jacket pocket and reached inside the garment itself. His fingers fumbled their way into his secret pocket there, but found not the reassuring cold steel touch of his handgun. That, of course, had been removed on entry, and it was only force of habit that had driven his hand in search of such an unachievable goal – tension, in Paulo’s opinion, could so often be dismissed with just a few squeezes on a trigger. He gulped, forcing down the ever-persistent lump, and a small amount of bile with it, and forced his hand out of his breast pocket – now, if ever, he needed such protection.
He stumbled onwards, slowly losing more and more of his sanity to the choking atmosphere, eyes darting left and right in the smoke, as though salvation was waiting to catch his eye through the gloom. Fear had now snaked its long fingers entirely round his heart, gently squeezing with every other step and an odd churning sensation in his stomach threatened imminent regurgitation. He passed by another group of people, and this time, someone stuck out a hand that battened onto his wrist and restricted any further movement. Smoke unfurling from his lips, the figure flicked ash from the cigar held in his free hand, clamped it between his teeth and beckoned Paulo closer. Closing his eyes and struggling to keep the bile down, he obeyed, inclining his head until his ear was level with the figures mouth, and waited. The figure exhaled another plume and coughed slightly, before leaning in until his was no more than an inch away.
“You’re in trouble, laddie.”
Paulo stiffened, and the fingers clamped around his arm tightened, as though worried someone might spot this sign of weakness. The old man laughed, a thick Irish cackle that forced its way up through a tar thickened throat, surfacing as nothing more than a bout of coughing.
“Oh yes,” he said, “You’re as good as dead. Third botched job, I hear. The thing about mistakes, boyo, is that they’re designed to produce a learning curve.” He sucked in another lungful of cancerous fumes and blew them out into Paulo’s face. It was all he could do to not recoil in disgust. He opened his mouth to offer a reply; justification or preservation, he knew not which, but he felt it was important that he contributed something to the discussion. When he found the words, however, he felt his throat constricting, preventing speech. The figure smiled, and took another drag. “One mistake, that’s relatively easy to forgive. Two is pushing it. But three?” He shook his head. “That’s practically suicidal.” Paulo shuddered involuntary. Death’s presence, it seemed, was becoming increasingly evident. “On the other hand,” the man went on, drawing a fiery line in the air with his diminishing cigarette, “there is a way out. Carter. Blame it on Carter and all shall… or rather should be resolved.”
Mouth dry, heart racing, Paulo turned his head towards this figure and opened his mouth to speak, but the figure shook his head a fraction of an inch from side to side and resumed his smoking, flicking the fingers on his free hand towards him. Understanding the dismissal, Paulo turned and continued on his nightmarish odyssey through the smoking room. The advice began to chase itself round and round inside his head, and he knew not which to follow. If he chose to lie, and blame Carter, then there would be two outcomes: either he would succeed and be praised (at the unfortunate Carter’s cost) or his lie would be outsmarted, and he would be vilified. In his line of work, commendation would come in the form of his continued existence. Condemnation would lead to its cessation. Lost in his own thoughts, it came as a surprise, a nasty, jolting surprise, when he found himself at the end of his journey. With glances, murmurings and the ever-persistent stench accompanying him all the way, he had reached the door at the end of the room.
Heart rate and oxygen intake ever increasing, Paulo stood in front of the door, the impending sense of doom bearing down on him like some invisible beast. A few eternal seconds trailed by before he raised the courage to even study the door. A sign, white letters of black card, was pinned to the left, just above eye level. “Looking nice for the boss?” read the notice, and below that a thick arrow indicated the mirror hanging on the wall alongside it. Paulo inched to the side and gazed into the reflected world. Although the general darkness did not allow for much observation, he caught a dim view of his own shocked face, his pale skin in stark contrast to his black surroundings. Subconsciously, he found himself straightening his tie and jacket; appearance was important to his employer and Paulo could do with as many saving graces as he could cling to, given the severity of his situation. His eyes turned back to the door. Knock and wait until you’re shown inside, that was what he’d been told on entry. Just after his gun had been removed. But even as he raised his fist, his focus was drawn to a second sign tacked to the door, this one gold on steel. A shiver coursed its way down Paulo’s spine, and again he was forced to swallow bile; his employer’s ironic sense of humour only worsened his outlook. Despite being the only room branching off the smoking room, the door was numbered. 101. Paulo grimaced, braced the fist still suspended in mid-air, and pounded twice on the cold wood, just between the two signs. A few more seconds trickled by before the door was opened by a man dressed in a crisp black suit, and Paulo was shown into the worst possible room in the world.