Tuesday, 3 August 2010
THE LAST CIGARETTE By Chad Eagleton
In the Turkish café, Mifflin sat across from his soon-to-be former boss. “You’re still smoking?” He asked, the three words hiding his distaste poorly.
Elzey stared at the younger man before opening his pack and showing the contents. “One left.” Smoke forked out of his nostrils and seeped from his mouth. He patted what remained of his hair.
“You’ve got another pack or two in your coat.”
Elzey shook his head and stroked his stubbled chin. “No,” he said.
“You’re quitting everything then?”
“Quitting everything?” Elzey drug on his cigarette to keep his lost in a nicotine fog. He calmed, nodded and flicked the ash from his smoke. “I promised my wife. She quit fifteen years ago. Tried to get me to quit. Couldn’t do it. But I promised when I retired.” He dragged on his smoke and then drowned his cough with a swallow of coffee.
“Good for you. It’s bad for your health and no one smokes anymore.”
Elzey looked around at the café full of cigarettes and hookahs. “No, I suppose not.”
Mifflin waived one of the waiters over and pointed at his cup. When it was filled and they were alone, he said, “Exciting plans for retirement?”
“My plan is to do nothing. I mean that—literally, I want to do nothing. No cross-country RV trips. No cruises through the tropics. No home improvement projects. I want to do absolutely nothing.”
Mifflin sipped his thick, black coffee. “You won’t get bored?”
“Bored would be nice.”
“You won’t miss the excitement?”
“Excitement?” Elzey chuckled. “No.”
Mifflin took another drink and made a face.
“Not Starbucks is it?” Elzey thumbed the back of his cigarette.
“No, no it’s not.”
“Haven’t gotten a taste for it yet?”
“I hope I never do.”
“Some things you never really get a taste for. You choke them down.”
Mifflin took a final sip and pushed the cup away. He opened a tin of mints and nestled two in his mouth. He snapped the tin closed and placed it neatly on the table, adjusting the distance between mints and his cup only once.
“So, you got the promotion.” Elzey squeezed the cherry from his cigarette into the plain, clay ashtray and pocketed the butt.
“I did,” Mifflin said and smiled, showing white mints between whiter teeth. “Are you surprised?”
Elzey tongued the back of his dentures. The cherry smoldered in the ashtray. Mifflin watched it. “No,” he said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“If you’d like.” He checked his watch. “I have 45 more minutes on the job.”
“That why I’m here?” Mifflin crunched one of the mints.
“One last duty.”
The two of them walked through the narrow streets to the Asian side of the city. “Are you going to tell me what this is about,” Mifflin asked as they moved through a crowd of lady boys. Mifflin didn’t seem to notice that one of them was rather pretty. Elzey wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t noticed the car following them either.
“Female or Asian?”
“Neither,” Elzey said. “Its how I refer to him.”
Mifflin followed him through a long alley and onto another street that didn’t look any different than the one before. “His real name?”
Elzey rushed across the street just ahead of oncoming traffic. Horns blared. Cars swerved. Mifflin ran after and Elzey watched him out of the corner of his eye. The younger man didn’t clutch either his side or his hip—he wasn’t carrying. Probably afraid of ruining the cut of his suit.
“Honestly, I don’t remember,” Elzey said. “I’ve always referred to him as Kim—he knows me as Kipling.”
If the names meant anything to him, Mifflin didn’t say. Instead, he questioned, “Do we have a file on him?”
Elzey turned left down the next street. It was both wider and emptier. He tapped his temple and said, “Only in here.”
“And that’s supposed to help me?”
“Not as much as speaking with him.”
“I suppose you haven’t written any of it down, at all?”
“No,” Elzey said. “He’s always been a good source of information.”
“His motivation? Blackmail? Ideology? Grudge?”
Elzey turned a street vendor away with a look. “Despite protestations otherwise, it’s the same as everyone else’s—money.”
Mifflin’s pace stuttered.
Elzey glanced at the other man’s shoes. “It’s not further,” he said.
And it wasn’t—the road narrowed and splintered off into several directions. Elzey took none of them. He squeezed between two buildings that looked constructed overnight, but he knew were older than him. The trailing car took one of the side roads as Mifflin followed, stepping lightly and surprised at the wide courtyard beyond the tight fit.
“We’ll stop here for a minute,” Elzey said. “I want to smoke my last cigarette.”
Mifflin nodded, took his phone from his coat and began tapping at the screen.
“Got somewhere you have to be?”
“No,” Mifflin said.
Elzey removed his last cigarette. He straightened it, crushed the soft pack and returned it to his pocket. He clenched the cigarette between his yellowed, false teeth. “Then what are you doing?”
“I can smell water. Don’t know if it’s the Bosphorus or the Hellespont.”
“Neither,” Elzey said. “Below us in an old aqueduct. Age caught it before you were born. In the summer, and you’ll see for yourself, the smell is quite awful.”
Mifflin pocketed his phone. “Quaint.”
Elzey rubbed the lighter. When he decided it wouldn’t bring him any luck, he lit the cigarette and listened to it burn. He dragged until his chest hurt. Mifflin grimaced at the billowing exhale. Fanning the air, he said, “Will you miss it?”
Elzey looked down at the filter, at the brown circle growing in the middle of the wadding. “The cigarettes or the job?”
Mifflin stood with his hands in his pockets. He wiped something from his shoe across the uneven brickwork. “Both,” he said.
Elzey coughed once and adjusted his smoke, rolling it between his fingers until it rested against the webbing. He drug twice from the corner of his mouth, his hand covering his face like he wanted to keep a secret. “No,” he said.
“Really? How long have you smoked?”
“As long as I’ve been on the job.”
“And you really won’t miss it?”
“I hope not.” He picked a bit of tobacco off his tongue.
“But you will. It’s what you know.”
“Now, it’s what you’ll know.”
They waited in silence while Elzey smoked purposefully and without enjoyment. When he was done, he scrubbed the cigarette against the rough stone and dropped the butt. “Alright then. Through there.” He reached into his pocket.
Mifflin moved toward the alcove.
Elzey quickstepped behind him. He grabbed the back of Mifflin’s neck and slipped the knife quickly between ribs. The point of the blade pierced kidney and the pain stopped the scream even as he opened his mouth.
Elzey pushed him deeper into the alcove, stabbing as they went.
When it was over, he removed Mifflin’s wallet and dropped the empty pack of cigarettes. He pocketed the cash, removed the credit cars and pitched the wallet into the courtyard. He walked slowly down the steps, desperately wanting another cigarette even as his chest ached.
He steadied himself and looked back once a the crumpled body wrapped in shadow and shade, all except the polished, shoes gleaming in the noonday sun spilling through the top of the courtyard.
Elzey coughed once and poked at his right rib. After the pain passed, he reached into his pocket for a handful of the butts he had saved through the morning. He walked straight ahead to another crevice between the two buildings leading out into yet another set of streets. He scattered the butts at the head of the narrow alleyway and then exited through the south side of the courtyard.
He dropped Mifflin’s credit cards on the sidewalk and crossed the street to the waiting car. Neither of the two men in the front spoke until after Elzey had thrown the knife into the Hellespont.
“We’re admirers of your work, Sir,” the balding one said.
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“No,” Elzey said, “I don’t smoke.”
Chad Eagleton is a writer living in the Midwest with his wife and dog. His work has been published in Powder Burn Flash, A Twist of Noir, Bad Things Pulp Pages, The Pulp Pusher, Beat To A Pulp, Darkest Before The Dawn, and Crimefactory.