Exclusive Look Inside: The Beast

Summer Shining Like Gold

There was just something about Clifford. He seemed to walk to a different beat as he strolled down the street. Like everyone else was trailing along the ground and he was floating, with a band playing his theme song in the background. When people got close to him, stepping inside that cloud of expensive cigar smoke that followed him everywhere he went, there was a moment when they could almost hear it. The distant hint of music on the wind.

Some people called it charisma, and they loved him for it, but even the people who didn’t love him found themselves caught up in it. Like this was all his story and they were just bit-part characters.

Working inwards from the thick blue smoke, there were more colours to see, bright custom suits and silk shirts, things that would have looked garish or comical on anyone else but seemed like the perfect fit for Clifford. Every line tailored to his body, every colour offsetting the natural ruddiness of his skin. If somebody took the time to stare for long enough, the body beneath the suit could be made out, the camouflage penetrated and the thick-necked potato-shaped physique underneath all that expensive tailoring made visible. The truth beneath the lie of humanity, some great lumbering ape all dressed up in the glamour of something more.

His hair was thinning on the top and his muttonchop sideburns seemed to have thickened to make up for it, like the hair hadn’t gone, just migrated down to the sides. Like gravity was winning its battle against him. They hung dense on either side of his rounded face, slimming it to something almost handsome when he was seen head on. When he was staring at himself in the mirror, he looked the best that he ever had, but seen from the sides he had a comically archaic look, like he was some old colonial mayor—someone of station and power, no matter which bit of history he got dropped into. If he’d been handsome, or less odd looking in all his forced grandeur, then he wouldn’t have been so easy to like, or to trust. But with all of these funny affectations he verged on being a clown. A caricature of the successful businessman. A cartoon character and, as such, completely harmless.

Victor saw all of that. He took it in, and he smiled at his latest customer. There was money here; every inch of the image that Clifford projected hinted at it. As he rattled off his extravagant order, it was all that Victor could do to keep up. Letterheads, holographic business cards, envelopes, gold leaf on everything. Everything—money was no object. He had two busy businesses both booming and he needed the world to know what a success he was. He didn’t say it in so many words, but he screamed it in everything that he did. With the massive order placed and the back of the print shop already rolling into action to accommodate it, this living embodiment of the American dream reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. It was thick to the point of bursting. Hundred-dollar notes squeezed in so tight that they were crumpled at the edges.

Victor’s eyes widened as Clifford gestured with the wallet, like it weighed nothing, like it wasn’t more money than this shop turned over in a month. Did they want a deposit or did they trust him?

For the very first time, there was an edge to the conversation, and Victor felt like he might be getting a glimpse of how this bumbling joke of a man made his money: the silence that he left, and refused to fill, the sudden tension that came with just a cock of his head. This was definitely a man who could cut a deal. A man who could turn up the pressure. The silence only stretched for a moment before Victor couldn’t take any more. No need for a deposit. We’re all friends here. And just as though it had never moved an inch, Clifford’s smile was back again and he had a fat-fingered hand stretched out to shake. Victor couldn’t hesitate now, not with nearly a thousand dollars on the line. He reached out and suffered through the bone grinding shake that followed. It wasn’t like there was malice in Clifford’s beady little eyes, just the need to show he was the boss. The biggest dog in the park. Victor made sure to keep a straight face even as his hand began to pound in rhythm to his heartbeat. Showing weakness in front of a guy like this cost you respect, and respect was return business with a different hat on. Seemingly satisfied, Clifford released Victor’s hand and headed for the door. He was heading to the next town over; he’d come to settle up and get his stationery later. All good. No complaints. Everyone was satisfied.

Through the plate glass of the front window, Victor watched him go, the cloud of blue smoke thinning as the moments ticked by, the glamour that the man had projected fading just as fast. Why hadn’t he taken a deposit? Why hadn’t he had the guy pay upfront? It was so much money, so much stock that would be ruined if the guy didn’t come back. It had all happened like a dream, reality only creeping in from the edges now that Clifford was gone. He couldn’t be sure anything had happened at all. There was nothing signed, nothing but the ache in his hand and his own scribbled notes of the order to prove Clifford had ever been there at all. Could it have all been a daydream on a dull afternoon? Clifford had certainly seemed like an imaginary character.

That was when the sun glinted off the hologram on the business card still resting on the countertop. The example that Clifford had given of exactly what he wanted. Victor lifted it up to eye level with a sigh, then he got to work.

Out on the street, Clifford rolled on, lighting a new fat stogie cigar from the last one, then pausing in his strut to twist the ball of his foot on the remains of the last one. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. It could not be a better day.

At the end of the street there was a little mom and pop grocery store, and he stepped inside to pick himself up a soda, not even pausing in his stride when he caught the tail end of an argument between the shopkeeper and some teenager. Nothing could slow his stride. Nothing could take the spring from his step. Outside, he rested a shoulder on the side of the building and took a long draw on the bottle. Life just couldn’t get better than this. It really couldn’t.

The teenager came out looking dejected, all fight gone out of him now. Not even noticing Clifford in his cloud, he trudged off up the road, still grumbling and muttering to himself.

‘They weren’t hiring?’

The boy hadn’t even noticed the colourful mass of Clifford falling into step beside him. Despite his girth, it was like his footsteps made no sound. Like he was a big cat. He was certainly smiling like the cat that got the cream. ‘They said I’m too young.’

‘Bullshit.’ Clifford said it so casually that the boy actually did a double-take. He’d never heard an adult talking like that. Certainly not to a stranger. ‘You look big enough to be working to me. How old are you?’

There was a momentary pause as the boy made some internal calculations, trying to work out where this was going, what he could get out of it. Clifford bobbed along beside him as if he didn’t care whether he got his answer or not. Finally, the kid let out a sigh. ‘Fifteen.’

‘Fifteen? I was working building sites when I was fourteen. What a crock! Can’t work in a shop but you can carry brick?’ He shook his head in disgust, then just went on strolling along in companionable silence while the kid was left holding the figurative ball.

The longer it went with Clifford strolling alongside him, saying nothing at all, stretching out the awkward silence, the more desperately the boy felt like he had to say something, until finally, he blurted out, ‘I could carry bricks.’

Clifford smiled to himself then slipped back into the conversation as though they hadn’t missed a step. ‘I bet you could, strong lad like you.’

There was an edge of heckling in that. The hint of sarcasm lurking just below the surface of the conversation. It made the already riled up boy raise his voice. ‘I’m strong enough to do construction!’

Chomping down to keep his stogie in place, Clifford threw his arms up in the air. ‘Course you are, kid. Look at you. Little Hercules, ain’t you?’

The boy was not a little Hercules. He had thin arms and the build of somebody who had not been getting three square meals a day for most of their life. This was not a track and field star, nor was he built like an American football player, the way that Clifford himself still was beneath the upper layer of expensive clothes and the blubber of rich living. There was that persistent edge of mockery. The boy had tried to keep his head down and just walk home, but this jackass was going to keep taking digs at him. He stopped dead and faced the guy.

‘What’s your problem, man?’

Clifford burst out laughing. ‘My problem? I’ll tell you…’ From the inner pocket of his jacket, he drew out another one of those gold-trimmed business cards with the holographic logo. This one was branded for a completely different company than the one he’d left behind in the print shop, but the business he was in remained clear. Construction. The kid stared down at this gaudy little testament to Clifford’s lack of taste with his mouth hanging open. He’d never seen a business card before, let alone held one that felt so expensive. Thick, creamy card brushed over his fingertips as Clifford plucked it back from his grasp. ‘My problem is that I hired a kid to work a site up on Whistler Mountain and he didn’t show up today. Didn’t call in sick, didn’t book a holiday, nothing. Just a no show. And I still need to keep things turning over. You don’t get big gigs like this every day. You need to keep the client happy, you know?’

The kid nodded his head as if he had the first inkling of what Clifford was talking about. ‘So, what do you say kid? Want to make some money?’

It was only then that it finally clicked into place in the boy’s mind. ‘You’re offering me a job?’

‘No. I’m offering you the chance to earn one. You come up to the site, I put you through your paces, see if you’re up to the work. It turns out you can cut it, you’ve got a job for the summer, or a permanent spot on one of my crews if you ain’t got school to be going back to. If I take you up there and you can’t do a damn thing right, knock stuff over, don’t bother turning up one morning, then you’ll be out on your ass faster than you can spell your own name. So, what do you say?’

That awkward silence slammed back into place, but the boy knew without a doubt what he needed to do. There was no turning down an offer this good. He held out his hand. ‘Sounds like you’ve got yourself a deal, mister.’

When Clifford took the kid’s hand and shook it, there was no pressure. It was almost a caress over the boy’s uncalloused palm rather than a real shake.

They headed off to Clifford’s car so that he could drive the kid off up into the mountains. Companionable chit chat followed them all the way until they were out of town and up to speed.

Once civilisation had slipped out of sight in the rear-view mirror, the older man fell dead silent. The kid tried to keep up both ends of the conversation, but before long he gave up. He kept looking Clifford’s way, and for the life of him, he could not see the amiable businessman who’d come ambling along and offered him a solution to all of his problems. His stare was blank, his eyes dark and distant, even the perpetual smirk that the stogie in the corner of his mouth forced on his ruddy face looked more like a rictus of hate than a smile now. He turned to look at the boy, and for a moment the kid saw the darkness behind his eyes and it stole his breath. There was just something about Clifford.

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