The man who stepped out of the bar was afflicted with what he decided was some kind of permanent scowl syndrome. It had to be hurting his head to keep his brow all close together like that, jaw clenched, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was short and broad and kinda mean-looking, but he was the only person he’d seen in hours, so…
The man blinked at him, noticing him for the first time. His eyes were strange – he couldn’t pin it. They were in shadow, so he couldn’t quite make them out. “What?” asked the man. His face hadn’t loosened up at all.
“Spare any change, sir?” he repeated, as politely as he could manage on an empty stomach and tired eyes.
He grunted, eyes sliding off him and back into the bare midnight street, and he pulled a packet of cigars out of his back pocket. “No, sorry.”
He tipped his head. “Thanks for your consideration.”
The brim of the man’s hat came back up after he’d lit his cigar from the matchbook in his wallet, and he was watching him with an almost curious eye. It had an amber glint in the glow of the cigar, and it was sharp, but kind of wary. Soldier-like, maybe… experienced eyes.
He felt suddenly self-conscious, under a stranger’s gaze – it had been so long since anybody gave him more than a once-over. He sat up a little straighter, trying to exude I wasn’t always like this. And so what if he was, really? Why did that matter? Why did he have to come from somewhere more fortunate to deserve anybody’s charity?
“You’re sleepin’ on the street?” he asked, around the cigar between his teeth.
He had to bite back the ‘obviously.’ What kind of people did he know, that hunkered down on the curb outside of bars and begged for scraps when they had some warm bed and full pantry to go to? But he mustn’t snark. He’d got a beating for less, from less mean-looking guys than this. Charm, always charm. Be polite or you’ll be in the dirt. “Sure am,” he answered. “Tryin’ to, anyway.”
The man said, “Hm,” and the frown etched deeper into his face. From the wallet still in his hands, he fished a note and handed it to him.
“Thank you kindly,” he said, and then choked on his breath, seeing the number inked onto the bill and squinting at it hard. He held it to the lamp, and it illuminated the ‘50’ true as anything. “This is a fifty.”
“Yup. Sure is,” said the man, tucking his wallet away.
“Thank you,” he repeated, unsure what else he could say. “Really, I… you don’t know how much I… thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” muttered the stranger, dragging nicotine out of his cigar and exhaling so much that it obscured his face. His words felt almost like a shadowed warning, and he swallowed, staring at the note in his hand for another second before he folded it up and tucked it safely into the inside pocket of his coat.
When the smoke dissipated a little more, the man flicked a glance to him on the ground, as if thinking he would have vanished in the time it took for the air to clear. “You not eager to spend that?” he asked. A brush-off if he ever heard one, but he was too intrigued to move.
“I’m not one to run from interesting company,” he said.
The man scoffed and took another drag. “You should. For your own sake. Nobody who knows what’s good for them gets interested in me.” And it was odd, that wasn’t a threat, exactly, more of a warning. Somebody who was tired of the way he was living, but resigned to it. Everything he said created another layer of mystery to this strange character in front of him. At seeing his eyes still on him, the man grunted and took his cigar from his mouth, rummaging in his pocket with his other hand.
“Here,” said the man, who was feeling more and more like a dream every second as he dropped a single key into his hand. The logo on the chain was for the motel a few blocks from here. Room 54.
“I can’t take this,” he protested, trying to hand the key back to him.
He just smirked, the rest of his face shadowed by his hat. He stubbed out his cigar on the ashtray on top of the garbage can on his way past. “I think you already did, kid. Get a good night’s sleep and forget about me. Y’hear?”
Some. A nickel and dime, here and there.
It wasn’t like he could stop being a killer. He’d always be one, didn’t matter if he swore off killing for the rest of his life, however long that ended up being. He’d always be a man who had killed. But he could change in other ways.
So he made funny faces at babies when their parents weren’t looking. Bought a hockey fan a beer at a bar. Punched out a mugger. Gave some cash to somebody living on the street. A kind act whenever he could spare it. Nickels and dimes.
He’d reclaim the way kindness felt under his skin until it belonged to him. He wouldn’t get close, never close, lest the people he was trying to pass as belonging to got cut by the razor blades under his skin. He’d keep his distance. Be rude and brash if he had to, to keep them out of harm’s way. But not cruel. What would be the point of escaping Weapon X if he was going to stay cruel?
So, any change?
Same old, same old. Nickels and dimes.