Samurai by Robert Hopkins
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our Legends of the Fall short-story competition. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
“Why does everyone hate me?” she said, seated in Benny’s swivel chair beside the computer. “Is it because I am Polish?”
Someone taped a sheet of sandpaper to the door of the office. It was coarse and brown, and printed across the top of the sheet was DITA. Underneath was a logo of a bulldog’s head. Benny went batshit.
“Priority number one,” he yelled down the phone, “find out which of them did it and fire him. Just do it.”
It must have been Willy or Roman. Probably both of them. The sandpaper was from Poland, but taping it to the door sounded like Willy. I knew he hated her guts. He resented the fact she didn’t sweat for her money. One time on a job a contractor saw Dita sitting in the Hilux, waiting for Benny to finish talking to the client. She sat completely still, utterly unmoving, her head angled to one side, her arms folded across her stomach.
“What does she do in your company?” he said.
“She’s the minister for blow jobs,” said Willy.
“Have you found out which one of them did it yet?” said Benny in the bar of the Four Seasons one afternoon.
“I’m working on it,” I said.
“It was Roman. I know this,” said Dita, who was seated beside him. She placed her hand on the muscle of his inner thigh and squeezed. “Back in Poland he wouldn’t dare give such trouble.”
I stared at her grip on his leg. They must have had sex that morning. Benny was so relaxed. He was the star of the bar, sporting a woman half his age. But she wasn’t relaxed. She was angry. I didn’t understand. The company was making more money than it had in the Tiger days. Benny had divorced his wife, and there was a diamond on her ring finger that almost covered her knuckle.
The next day Benny received a phone call from a motorist who claimed Willy had cut him off in the company truck. When he caught up with him at the traffic lights and complained Willy jumped out of the cab and threatened him with a machete.
“I’m very sorry about that sir,” said Benny. “You can be sure I’ll take appropriate measures immediately.”
He put down the phone and began laughing. Uncontrollably. Couldn’t stop.
“Willy’s a psycho,” he said. “Arsehole picked the wrong bucko to be messing with.”
We decided Willy couldn’t be trusted running the work sites. He was a skilled climber but not very good with people. What we needed was a canary. I pulled Gareth off the crew one day and bought him lunch in the Wishing Well in Milltown.
“Benny’s very impressed with you,” I said. “He wants you more involved in the day-to-day running of the job.”
“What about Willy?” he said.
“Say nothing to Willy. You know what he’s like. We need you to make sure the paperwork’s done, deal with the clients. If Roman or Willy’s acting up we have to know.”
“Do I get a pay rise?”
“Play your cards right and in six months Benny promises you’ll be foreman.”
I bought him a few pints and talked up his future. Gareth’s meteoric rise through the ranks. Young men love that kind of shite. Buy them a carvery and slap a badge on their chest and they’ll work all day for frigging peanuts. I know I did.
I bought a new sword. A Japanese katana from the 17th century. I had to get a loan from the credit union. It cost me five grand, but it was worth every penny. Holding it in my hand, it made the other swords feel like clumsy toys. Given its age and pedigree, I knew this sword had killed people. I couldn’t shake the feeling it was somehow alive. The samurai used to say a sword lives in its scabbard. I hung it over the fireplace and took it down twice a week to clean. It was a task I looked forward to. A katana comes apart like a piece of Ikea furniture. You unwrap the silk cord from the handle, a wooden shaft covered with mottled stingray hide. The blade slides out of the handle. After removing the hand guard and the blade collar you’re done. Holding it carefully, with silk scarves wrapped around my hands, I could feel the perfect balance between the blade and the tang. It had a lethal, reptilian grace, like a venomous snake, something cold that could wake in your hands and twist and bite you.
Every couple of weeks I took Gareth out for a few pints in town. I’d settle him down in a quiet corner and pour some drink into him. Take the hood off the cage and let the bird sing. Roman had a notebook in which he kept track of the unpaid hours he was doing. Willy was smoking dope on the job. He was also the one who had taped the sandpaper to the office door. They were doing nixers together on the weekends and making plans to start their own business.
Every Friday evening I’d drop into Benny’s office and give him the takings from the week. I’d watch his eyes light up at the sight of the money. He’d watch mine ignite as he peeled off a few notes and handed me my bonus. One time no one answered when I rang the bell, but the door wasn’t locked so I stepped into the porch. Inside it was dark. I walked down the hallway and into the office. It was dark there too, the last bit of twilight fading out around the window, leaving the rest of the room striped in half-shadows. I could hear Dita on the phone upstairs, talking to somebody in Polish. I stood by the window waiting for her to finish, smoking a cigarette and watching a beggar work the passing trade crouched in his spot beside a cash machine.