Lawrence led the men inside the building.
Whiterose Hall for Music and Theater. A decent-sized hall that was built in the late seventies, made to support lower-income families by housing after-school programs for students in the West Stephenville area. However, the funding was never quite there, and the theater was abandoned a year before the turn of the century. Given almost twenty years to rot, and the same kids that were supposed to be saved by the arts were now dancing to the rhythm of another drum. The drum of a gun.
“It does not impress me, that you would take me to such a place for a meeting.”
A man walking just behind Lawrence started running his mouth.
Xander L. Granon.
“It is old, unwanted, and even stingy. My employer would not be pleased to learn that you are treating your guests in such a manner.”
He had to be joking.
Lawrence entertained him, regardless.
“I assure you, Mr. Granon, this is the safest place to be meeting in broad daylight. Out of sight, a roof over our heads, and we have control of every inch of this place. As you saw when we came in, the entrance was secured by my own men, and the same goes for the other entrance on the eastern wing, and all exits are accounted for as well. And we did a clean sweep of the area – stage, backstage, seats, rows and aisles and halls – an hour before the appointment. Believe me, no one will be interrupting us. If someone truly had something planned against you, here, they’d have to already be in the building.”
“Hm, your confidence in your men does not go unnoticed. But we shall see if you truly have the power to back up those words. Otherwise, my employer will not be impressed.”
“Oh, believe me, Mr. Granon, if nothing else, your employer will be very surprised by how much power we really have.”
Granon didn’t respond. He simply walked, eyes cast in shadow, appearing as though he was deep in thought.
It was Lawrence, Granon, Granon’s men, and then Lawrence’s men, walking down the center aisle towards the stage.
The difference between the two leaders, and by extension, the two groups, was clear as day.
There were gang members, and there were gangsters. Granon was the latter.
A long, black trench coat, unbuttoned, Granon let it flow behind him as he sauntered. Under that, he had a black tuxedo, sans the tie. Balding, or at least his hair was thinner at the very top. Taller than Lawrence, heavier as well, but he wasn’t fat. He had a stomach, and his weight affected his gait, causing him to take long, slow steps, but it didn’t seem accurate to label him with a short, simple word. Saying he was burly provided a more detailed image.
He could probably kill Lawrence with his bare hands, if he wanted. And Lawrence was well aware of that.
Lawrence, however, was much less informal in his attire. Hair slicked back, wearing a white sweater, with a leather jacket on top. Slim fit denim jeans and black dress shoes. Not exactly standard business attire, but this wasn’t exactly standard business, either. Exceptions were allowed to be made.
The subordinates matched with their leaders as well. Granon’s prim and proper to Lawrence’s not. In terms of power, size, and scope, the employer Granon was representing maintained an operation head and shoulders above Lawrence’s gang. In any other circumstance, Lawrence would have gone to him. But in the here and now? The situation was completely flipped.
Lawrence was the one with the cards.
“Did you have a long trip, Mr. Granon?” Lawrence asked, as they continued down the aisle. Decades of wear and tear had taken its toll on the theater. The carpet was sticky in some spots, sodden with something in others, and bits of various pieces of trash. Paper, kernels of popcorn, syringes, and bullets, casings and holes.
Granon made a low, deep grumble that carried throughout the space.
“I would rather not find trivial things to speak on, boy. I prefer to discuss topics of actual substance.”
“Of course. My apologies then.”
“Then step faster, boy.”
Lawrence stepped faster.
They walked the rest of the way without many more words being exchanged. They’d walk into patches of shadows, with soft patches of light falling on them every now and then. There wasn’t a lot of power going through the theater, but there was enough for it to function and be used as a meeting place. It would do.
Lawrence reached the front of the stage, the surface of it raised a good three feet above the ground. The rest of the men were right behind him.
There was already a small step ladder resting against the stage. Lawrence stepped up to it first, his back to the rest. Granon was about to go next, but he was stopped by one of his own men. They went up ahead of them, and extended a hand to him for assistance. Without appearing particularly upset at the gesture, he accepted the help and got up onto the stage.
He was used to it, expecting it, in a way. He had grown accustomed to having subordinates bend to his will, being the center of his own universe. He had become used to being a gangster.
As Granon was helped up, he was greeted again by Lawrence. A warm expression on his face, he signaled with his arm a suitable place for Granon to stand. Granon moved as though Lawrence wasn’t there at all.
One after another, everyone else got on the stage, taking their place. Lawrence stood closer to the side, stage left, while Granon settled for the spot opposite him, stage right. Their respective crews assumed their positions, too, standing together behind their leader.
The stage was largely cleared out from any props or set dressing, anything worth taken had already been claimed years ago, and anything left behind was left to the hands of time, breaking and falling apart, rendered even more useless.
From the auditorium, with everyone gathered, it probably would have looked like they were here for a rehearsal, going through the lines, practicing how to bounce off of the other person’s reaction. Actors on a stage.
But, this was no rehearsal, this was very much the real deal.
Both parties waited for the other to make a move.
A tension, but not a strained, tested one. There was no threat assumed, here. But, nothing was guaranteed, and as things stood, nothing was established.
That was why Granon was here. That was to be discussed.
“I’ll start,” Lawrence said, taking the initiative.
“Please,” Granon replied. His accent accentuated his impatience.
Lawrence smiled, clasping his hands together. He was taking it in stride, willing to maintain a pleasant attitude for present company.
“I wanted to start off by thanking you and your employer for approaching us with this opportunity. I was hoping that something like this would come my way, but I wasn’t expecting it to come so soon.”
Granon had his arms to the side. He made fists with each hand, and then unclenched.
“Don’t flatter yourself, boy, you just happen to be in a fruitful position. Anyone would be a fool not to overlook your movements.”
“Then, I appreciate the close attention you’ve been giving us, Mr. Granon.”
Granon made a sound, as if to blow off Lawrence’s comment.
“To be rejected by Mister after we gave him our proposal to enter the city. It is… offensive, to be forced to turn to hooligans and thugs, to achieve only a small portion of my employer’s original stake in the land.”
“It’s a shame that you had to experience such a setback in your plans, but I’m sure we can work something out, between us and your employer-”
“Yes, it is.”
“-but, who knows? Perhaps together, we can achieve far better results than if you had gone the more traditional route.”
Granon’s brow furrowed.
“That is what my employer hopes. So we shall see.”
Another set of seconds with silence, enough for it to be noticeable. Lawrence didn’t appear bothered by the brief lull in the conversation. Just the opposite. He used that time to fix his posture, keep his hands together, and to maintain a pleasant attitude. A lot of work, but he didn’t show it on his face.
“I’m curious, you mentioned that you had went to Mister first with a proposal. Did you, by chance, get to meet him?”
“That’s strike two with your needless attempt for banter, boy. No, I did not meet with Mister. I have only met with his secretary. A woman.”
His face scrunched up, and his tone was one of disgust as he said that word. He was a man that thought highly of himself, clearly, and to be passed off to someone’s secretary…
The idea seemed to offend him, and he wasn’t happy to be reminded of that situation, the set of circumstances that had brought him here in the first place. To Lawrence.
“Again, I apologize for overstepping my boundaries. It’s unfortunately a bad habit of mine. I try my best to be diplomatic, especially with people I might be working with, but doubly so with those I’m simply acquainted with. Having even a decent standing can go a long way. It’s something I learned from my old boss.”
The side step. Lawrence had an open to inquire about this secretary. Not much of Mister himself was publicly known, or even acknowledged. The whole idea of him seemed to be shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Unsubstantiated claims and false notions, purposely thrown out as to cast doubt and confusion about his exact identity.
Getting information on this secretary would have been valuable, but Granon didn’t seem to be in the mood to divulge those details. If Lawrence wanted to get that out of him, it was not going to be now.
Granon massaged his chin, and then fixed his collar and jacket. They were already pretty straight.
“This old boss of yours… where is he now?”
Granon’s question was met with a brief pause, but that was on Lawrence, this time around.
With a slight tilt of his head, his arms spread, he answered, “It was something I learned watching her fail in trying to apply the same principles. I won’t make the same mistakes. That was what I learned.”
Then, Granon shook his head.
“Now your mindless prattling has begun to affect me. No more messing around, boy, we are to discuss our terms and be finished with this, as soon as possible. Let us start properly.”
Lawrence gestured. “By all means, Mr. Granon.”
Granon shifted, fixing his jacket and his collar.
“My employer would like to have a presence in your territory. To rent space, if you will. He wants a presence in the city of Stephenville, and to spare everyone from a war, he will work out something with you and your… group.”
“You’re asking to take a chunk of what little space we have.”
“We will be paying you for that… chunk. My employer has had an eye on Stephenville for a very long time. You see, the operation I represent, Molotok, is still relatively new, much like your own, but we’ve seen exponential growth in only just a few years. Our work reaches all over the world, and we have personal connections with dozens, if not hundreds of other organizations. From China, Mexico, and of course the motherland. If you would ever need to share correspondence with someone within the Kremlin, I could perhaps arrange that, should our arrangement prove to be fruitful.”
“Damn. I can’t think of reason why I’d need to, but it that would be a good resource to put in my back pocket.”
“So you understand the power we, and my employer, wield, yes? It would prove highly beneficial to have us in your backyard. And, as you have mentioned, we both stand to benefit from us having a hold, here, not just cash and connections. Though, I would think you have far more to gain from this that we do.”
“We arrived here a week before we announced ourselves to you. I wanted to take our time and be thorough, but, I must say, I was not exactly enthused by what I had seen.”
“And what did you see, Mr. Granon?”
“Not just what I saw, but how long it took me to see it. I did not even need a week’s time.”
“Explain, if you may.”
“Your territory is still small, lacking in any meaningful real estate, aside from maybe this theater, but that is not much of a consolation. Your men are amateurs, untrained and unkempt. Like street dogs. I am shocked to see that such a low tier gathering of thugs have managed to get so far in such a short amount of time. Impressive, perhaps, but I question how tight a ship you run, here.”
“That’s what you got in only a few days of looking around?”
“I researched, boy, I asked around and gathered what I could. Because I knew someone like you, with a crew like that, could not have possibly gotten into the position you are in now without some sort of… divine intervention.”
Lawrence must have had some kind of reaction, and Granon must have picked up on that.
“Yes, see, I did do my research. I heard about what had befallen the last two organizations, that they were attacked by the one they call ‘V.’ No one has ever heard of you, and you suddenly rise up to fill in a void? It may have gotten my employer’s attention, but you have also raised my suspicion. That is why I am here. To screen you, before I officially extend my employer’s deal. I even heard a child is among your ranks, assuming a consulting position. Fitting, for a boy to take advice from a child.”
Lawrence had leaned a bit, looking around, clearly acting for his audience.
“God might be watching, but I don’t see any kids. Do you?”
Lawrence’s men reacted, chuckling at his bit.
“I do,” Granon said.
This probably wasn’t going as well as Granon had expected. Lawrence would have to find a way to convince him, if he wanted to.
Lawrence spoke. “It might not be quite up to your standards, Mr. Granon, but I can guarantee you that things are running just fine on my end. My crew might not have the experience, but we know to take care of a terrority. Our existence may have seemed like a very sudden development to others, but we weren’t born yesterday. As I mentioned, I had worked for another… operation, as you have put it, and I been in this city for almost two decades, now. I know the culture, I’ve lived in it. And I do have my own connections, as well, that have proven themselves to be quite useful, and will continue to be useful moving forward. If you manage to stick around, maybe you can borrow upon those connections, for a fee.”
Granon paused, as if to take in everything Lawrence was saying.
“I have been watching you closely, boy, and I was not at all subtle about my being here. Yet no one approached me to inquire about our business in the area. I had to go to you. It reeks of incompetence.”
It was starting to be clear why Granon was coming at this meeting with that blunt demeanor, making disparaging comments. Stingy, boy, hooligans and thugs, dogs, incompetence, among others. Granon seemed to hold himself in a high esteem, and he made it obvious that he was not pleased that the smaller, lesser man had all the cards. He had to go to him. Lawrence.
All of this was below him. If he had not been ordered by his employer to be here, handling this, then he probably would be elsewhere, far away from this theater as possible.
Lawrence answered. “Who’s to say we aren’t watching you closely, either? You call us dogs, so allow me to take that a step further and say we know a few tricks. For example, Molotok, while a Russian word, has its origins in Ukraine. But, on this side of the country, you’re known as the People’s Hammer.”
“Anyone with mouth and a brain could figure that out. It is not impressive.”
“All I did was tip my hand, I can’t exactly show you everything I’ve got, can I?”
Granon frowned, the lines on his face becoming more prominent. Nervousness? Something else?
Lawrence seemed to notice that reaction, and gestured, putting his hands up.
“I’m overextending myself again. Please, continue.”
It was impressive, that Lawrence was able to navigate through this. Dealing with headstrong, stubborn people, giving the air of a gracious host, trying to satisfy a guest.
It was almost uncanny.
Granon gave himself a moment before he did continue. “I add disclosure to my previous statements. They reflect my personal opinion, and my personal opinion only. They do not reflect upon the thoughts of my employer.”
“And what does your employer think, if I may ask?”
“He thinks that your organization has… potential, and, what is the word, momentum. You have managed much in just a short amount of time, and it has gotten his attention. My employer has already tried the traditional route, and he was stopped in his tracks, so now he hopes that a less direct approach will get him to where he wants to go.”
“And where does he want to go?”
“Everywhere,” Granon said. “My employer wants to build an empire, and that means having a hold in this city. With so many other organizations rubbing shoulders in one place, it means a lot of connections, and potential partners. He believes that everyone will benefit from our being here. I, too, share in this sentiment.”
“And your employer truly believes that working in our territory will help him get that empire?”
“I mentioned you having momentum. Truth be told, he sees you like a wave, that he can catch and ride out as far as it can take him. Going the traditional way, there is a chance that we might stagnate, and expansion efforts do not go as well as intended. I have seen it happen with many operations in the past, and I do not plan on ours falling to the side. Perhaps, with you, we could make the necessary splash to gain the proper notoriety, and our efforts can continue from there.”
It was easy to imagine that Lawrence’s thoughts going to The Chariot, after hearing Granon’s comment. Not everyone who ventured out to follow a goal or dream would make it out a success. It was probably easier to fail in a spectacular fashion than it was to come out on top, ahead of the pack.
“There’s a risk either way,” Lawrence said. “Try to catch a wave to make a splash, you could end up drowning, instead.”
Granon couldn’t have looked less pleased with that response. He inhaled, his upper body puffing out, and when he exhaled, the sound could be heard from way across the stage. Like a bull, getting ready to charge.
Lawrence couldn’t have looked less perturbed.
“I’m just giving one way it might go. If we do go through with this, and it doesn’t go the way you want, don’t come airing your frustrations out at us. We’re not liable for any trouble that comes your way as you do your thing.”
“I would not expect you to be, and I expect more of myself and my employer than to ever resort to such things. We operate on a far stronger code of ethics than you are perhaps used to.”
Lawrence shrugged. “Perhaps.”
Granon’s reaction was visible. He clenched his hands again, and started rolling his shoulders back. His men started looking amongst each other, as if worried what their boss’ next move might be.
“I tire of this, boy. You seem to have a real talent for making me meander, something I was trying to avoid, coming into this. I am a very busy man, and you are making me use up more time than I had scheduled for this. My employer should be expecting a report about our meeting right about now, and yet I still find myself stuck in the middle of it.”
Lawrence brought his hands together, making a sound that travelled and echoed across the theater. “Well then, let’s not keep him waiting any longer, shall we? But before we jump into anything, I have a suggestion. I have some terms and conditions and stipulations I want to share with you. If you’re going to be using some of our territory, then you have to agree to every single one. No exceptions.”
Another roll of the shoulders by Granon.
“Very well. To start, I’d ask that not only you pay rent, but taxes, as well. It’ll help supplement our funds, keeping us from being in the red, and if we can keep operational costs down, we can actually continue. If we can afford to do that, then we both benefit. You know what I mean?”
Granon’s stare was hard. “We were not expecting a tax on top of rent, but I’m sure my employer is willing to negotiate something.”
“Good. Also, we have a very specific way we’re conducting our business here, in this neighborhood. I can’t exactly tell you those specifics, and I can’t exactly tell you how to conduct your business as well, but I will let you know when yours affects mine. I’ll give you up to, let’s say, three warnings? And from there, I’ll have to jack up the prices for every infraction thereafter, as a penalty.”
A pause by Granon.
“You assume that it will come to that.”
“I’m not assuming anything. I’m just laying down the rules as I see fit. If I draw the lines now, you know how to adjust to working here, to plan accordingly. I wouldn’t want you to accidentally stumble into something you shouldn’t, and I’d have to give you an infraction-”
“You are toying with me, boy!”
Granon’s voice boomed. His men stepped back, and Lawrence’s men responded in much the same way. The only person who kept their ground was Lawrence, himself.
“You have the gall to impose taxes on top of the generous rent my employer was willing to pay you, and then threaten me with warnings and penalties should I step on toes that you will not allow me to see? How about I crush your feet with a power press? How many of your infractions would I get from that?”
“I’ll pass on the feet crushing. And it would be one infraction for each-”
It could not have taken him more than three steps to cross the stage, to reach Lawrence, but Granon moved with a surprising speed, rushing Lawrence before he or his men could properly respond.
Granon brought his arm low, swinging up. It collided with Lawrence, a solid hit to the stomach. With enough strength that Lawrence was lifted off of his feet.
No sound came out from him. Not a gurgle or a grunt.
Lawrence landed back on his feet, but he was bent over, clutching his stomach. Hurried, he put a foot ahead of him, as to not fall over.
His men moved to retaliate, and so did Granon.
“Stay!” Granon roared, as if he was ordering animals. “You move and my men will give this theater a sunroof! This is between two men!”
He swung again, slamming Lawrence in the back. He yelped, crashing down against the wooden surface of the stage. His body hitting the floor made an audible impact.
Granon’s men were already in position, half of the group down on one knee, guns pointed, with the other half standing over them, weapons at the ready. Two sets of that formation, positioned on either side of Granon. In that time, Lawrence’s men only had their hands by their hips. They wouldn’t move an inch without a violent repercussion.
Through grunts and groans, Lawrence tried to speak, address everyone on stage.
“Guys, guys, it’s, ow fuck, I’m okay. We were just, dammit, discuss things.”
“There is no more to discuss. I refuse to play along with your games any longer. My employer may have seen something in you, but seeing you, up close, I know that this was nothing more than luck falling in the lap of incompetent, inept fools. I predict that you will fall apart under your own weight very soon, unable to handle the pressure and attention your movements have received. Perhaps I should stick around and watch? I am sure I can take care of this territory with far more conviction than you could comprehend. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Another sound started coming from Lawrence. Scratchy, strained, cords scraping together.
A rasp laugh.
“You really did not do your research, did you? Less than one week of watching us, and that was the conclusion that you came to? You have no… idea, about who we are. Otherwise, you would have thought twice than to do what you just did. Believe… me. Those last two organizations that came before us? God or no god, they still wiped themselves out. So… watch out. You might end up going in much the… same way.”
Lawrence laughed again, or he tried to. The grating noise was enough to put a confused expression on Granon. Mixed with anger, he gave the air of a bull, looking for anything to put his horns through.
He settled for Lawrence again.
“Do not question me, boy!”
Granon accentuated every word with a kick, striking Lawrence with a on beat, four-on-the-floor rhythm. Lawrence had put his hands up and over his head to protect himself, but they fell to his side, limp. The last kick struck him square in the chest.
Lawrence stopped struggling, breathing, moving.
Watching, useless, the damage already dealt.
Lawrence’s men were fighting multiple urges. To check on their boss, to run after Granon, or to fire back at Granon’s men. But, said gangsters were still ready to shoot, holding them back. If they so much as twitched, the floor and curtains behind them would be painted red.
Like Lawrence, they were still, unmoving. Watching, useless.
Taking his large foot off of Lawrence, Granon clenched and unclenched his fist. He paced around Lawrence, glancing up, taking long, measured breaths. He was cooling off.
“Not much else to say? Consider this an infraction, for continuing to ignore my warnings about prattling me with small talk and useless questions. Pray that I do not give you another.”
If Lawrence was breathing again, it wasn’t noticeable. He was still down, on his back, eyes staring at the ceiling.
Deliberate, lax, slow enough for it to make a point, Granon fixed his coat and suit jacket. He ran his fingers through his hair, putting more thin strands on top of his head, covering that bald spot.
He walked over to Lawrence, who was finally showing signs of life, however, they were taken away as soon as Granon put his hand on Lawrence’s shirt and jacket, using them for grip as he lifted him with an ease that was no longer surprising.
He tossed Lawrence at his own men.
Some of them ran away to avoid the incoming crash, a few stayed to try and catch him. They did their best, with Lawrence falling into their arms, and they fell back on their bottoms. At the very least, they softened the blow for him.
Lawrence was essentially dead weight as they struggled to return him, and themselves, to their feet. He was, in no way, shape, or form, able to continue this meeting, if it could even be considered one, by this point.
“I hereby rescind my employer’s offer. If we are not allowed a plot in this land, then we shall take it. It is what you Americans excel at, yes? So I am sure you will understand. The next time we are face to face, you will be having to make a deal with me.”
He turned to leave, his men a step behind him.
“I know my way out. Your other men stationed around here shall not touch me or my group as I make my exit, nor will you follow me as I depart from this theater, or there will be hell to pay. I say that not as a threat, but as truth.”
He marked his leaving with a final word, but it was hard to make out, or even guess the meaning. Another language, probably.
The doors at the far end of the auditorium clanged together as the closed, ringing out Granon’s exit with a bang.
It seemed that Granon would be able to leave without much trouble, as Lawrence didn’t have the breath or overall ability to voice an order to his men.
They regrouped, looking over him, checking to see if how bad he had been hurt.
It was clear, now, what Granon being here meant for the gang, and how far he was willing to go for any slight against his self-perceived notion of being a real man and gangster, and his superiority over those he thought was lesser than him. A real volatile figure, one who couldn’t be allowed to make movements in this part of the city.
Lawrence wasn’t able to voice an order to strike back, but he didn’t have to.
Xander L. Granon met the chilly wind as he got outside. What little hair he had left whipped above his head as he walked down the steps, heading back down towards the sidewalk and street.
He was talking to one of his subordinates, who had ran to stay by his side, catching his words. The outdoors, during foul weather, were not conducive to attempts to listen in, unlike a theater. The wind cut out most of what Granon had to say.
“… the men! Everything… and… mercy… takeover!”
Some of it wasn’t in English, but some of it was. The words mercy, paired with takeover didn’t seem to match very well. It was a small blank to fill, but Granon probably meant no mercy.
He was already preparing for a hostile takeover.
If he couldn’t get what his employer wanted at the normal rate, and if he couldn’t even handle making a deal with a smaller, but present gang, then what would that say of his competence when he returned? Granon’s ego was probably too bloated to simply go back home empty-handed. No, he wouldn’t leave until he had something to bring back. Even if it meant taking it.
Granon stood at the sidewalk, but he didn’t wait long. A long, black limousine pulled up to the side of the street, meeting Granon and his men.
Wordless, or rather without words that could be picked up, Granon got inside the limousine, followed by his men. The limousine hurried away from the sidewalk, turning onto the next road, moving with speed and purpose.
And then he was gone.
More words, much clearer than anything else in the past thirty minutes.
“The People’s Hammer are definitely going to strike down some trouble, as I thought. They were never going to be good neighbors.”
The voice that responded was hardly recognizable. Maybe it was the cold, or something else, but it grated, and had a twisted quality to it.
“Let’s remove their nails before they make a move, then.”
“Fun fun fun. Let’s get them back for what they did to my L-Boy.”
Silent, I leapt from the overhang above the Whiterose Theater’s entrance, and continued to tail Granon.