“This your first time isn’t it? You look scared.”
Frank looked back at the girl, surprised at the question. He was prepared to say “Hell no” since that was the default answer when a beautiful woman asked you if you were scared, but he faltered and blinked instead, wondering if the fear had been that obvious.
Suddenly the elevator felt smaller than the six by six by eight measurements.
He could feel the heat bloom like a mist off of his top lip, that heat going right back up his nose like a dose of some drug. The heat was the result of the adrenaline pumping through his system, the same adrenaline that made him clench and unclench his fists, a nervous tick he had never manage to shake. He realized that he was also sweating behind his ears and that his muscles were all tense. Anything that he said to the girl about him not being scared would be a lie.
He wasn’t scared, though. He was terrified.
The girl (what was her name again? Melody? Melanie?) smiled and reached out to hold his arm for a moment, and he instantly calmed down a little.
“There’s no reason to be scared,” she said. “I’ve done this dozens of times. These guys are mostly sweethearts.”
Frank tried to smile back at her, but his face wasn’t selling or buying it and seemed to have no intention of cooperating. There was still a niggling thought at the back of his head, and the weight and bulk of the gun strapped on under his suit jacket. Just in case, was what Flanders had told him back at the office. Frank hadn’t believed it then either.
“Just follow protocol,” Frank said then, repeating the words Flanders had spoken to him and all of the other new guys.
Melanie/Melody smiled reassuringly. “That’s right sweetie, just follow protocol.”
Frank looked up at the number on the elevator display, watching as it dinged past 15, 16 and 17, and wondered just when he had become so claustrophobic. He felt anxious just standing there in the elevator, and there was a rising panic in his chest that made it hard to breathe. He had never been claustrophobic in his life, not even when he had been wiggling through tiny water-filled passageways two hundred feet underground as a teen with his buddies. In fact, he had been the one who had to reassure the other guys to be cool, so where was this sudden claustrophobia coming from? And why did it feel like his head was being squeezed between the ungainly but powerful thighs of a very small but determined man seated on his head?
Follow protocol. What the hell did that even mean?
Melody was speaking to him again. Now he was sure her name was Melody.
“Why don’t you tell me what protocol is. It might help if you have something to focus on.”
The elevator dinged as they arrived at the 22nd floor and the doors slid mercifully open. Frank nodded to Melody, grateful for her suggestion and tried to clear his mind from his impending panic. He focused on the words that had been written in the brochure for the place he now worked, the same words that had been repeated during the interview process and then again this morning when he had checked in with the rest of the new hires.
Following protocol, to the letter, Frank stepped out into the hallway first, making sure that Melody stayed behind in the elevator. She was the seasoned professional and stood there patiently, beautifully elegant in the black evening dress she had picked out, the one that showed off her long legs through the split that went all the way up to her waist on one side. She had picked out a long pearl necklace (real pearls) since this particular client had a liking for pearls, a fact she had confided on the way back while trying to get a read on Frank.
“Make sure the escort is protected at all times,” Melody said, quoting directly from some invisible rulebook. “You have first right of entry, so make sure you take that right.”
Frank checked out the empty hallway, noting first the twelve-foot high walls, unusual in any apartment building. The walls were covered in patterned fabric wallpaper that was gaudy and beautiful at the same time. The next thing he noticed was the expensive thick carpeting that lined the short corridor and Frank had a moment to think that the entire hallway would photograph beautifully, but by that time he was already moving on, checking out the five closed doors in the corridor. They were identical, a heavy black wood with bronze handles and bronze peep-holes. There were no mail slots on the doors. Above each door was a tiny but expensive High Definition surveillance camera that Frank knew fed to a monitor system somewhere inside each apartment. For some of the lazier customers, they could get the camera feed sent directly to their expensive television sets, either on a separate channel or as a picture in picture.
“‘No one else is allowed to ride in the car unless assigned. No one else is allowed inside the elevator with you.’ It’s clear Frank. Can I come out now?”
Melody was right. The hallway was empty of course; most of them were, but there was always a chance of something going wrong, especially with these wealthy clients. That was something Frank personally knew from his four years of being a personal bodyguard for rich assholes. The irony was that it was now his job was to protect this girl from rich assholes and judging from the wealth on display in the corridor, he was going to be dealing with a major league asshole.
“Come on,” he said then and for the first time that day, he was grateful for the familiar weight of the Glock in his shoulder holster. “Let’s go.”
“You don’t look too good,” Melody said as she exited the elevator. “You having a panic attack or something?”
“I’ll be fine,” Frank said with a fake smile. “Just a little claustrophobic is all.”
Melody smiled knowingly. “I’ll bet you were never claustrophobic before this elevator ride. Am I right?”
Frank stared at the woman in front of him and wondered not for the first time how she had managed to have gotten so jaded about the whole experience of what she did for a living. She seemed to know so much about exactly what he was going through–
“Does this happen a lot? Did this happen to your other drivers?”
“Happened to me the first time. I remember Jimmy had it pretty rough. He puked all over his shoes, and we had to deal with that smell all evening. The smell of puke kinda never goes away, you know? Don’t worry about it, though. You kinda get used to it.”
“Is it because of them? Are they doing it deliberately?”
“You kind of get used to it, especially here on this floor. We get a lot of business from this one floor you know. If these guys lined up their schedules, I could spend about an hour here and be done for the day, but that ain’t never gonna happen. Instead, we’ll be back here in about an hour, then an hour after that. If they didn’t pay so well, it would be a pain in the ass.”
Frank noticed that she hadn’t actually answered the question, but was busy concentrating on not throwing up. What the hell was casting him to feel like that anyway? Were they pumping chemicals into the air or something?
He focused on the task at hand, on following protocol dammit, and lead the way down the hall towards apartment 1704. Melody followed, and Frank was sure she was checking to see if he was going to throw up. They probably had a bet going or something and he hadn’t even had a chance to make a bet himself.
Protocol. Find the door and with your escort waiting at your side, proceed to knock three times.
Knock-knock-knock, on the dark wood of 1704. Frank pulled out his smartphone and pulled up the app they had installed just this morning for the job. It how they tracked where he was and how far from a client, so they could be more efficient with the service. It had useful reminders about protocol and even had a timer that self-started as soon as the job was accepted.
Bodyguarding had been a lot easier than this. At least then he never had to deal with the sweat that came from keeping his mind calm and focused and his stomach from exploding its contents all over the expensive corridor.
“He’s going to give you a hard time,” Melody said. “He gets off on it. Likes to fuck with the new guy and you’re the new guy.”
The door opened a crack and an intense blue eye peered out at Frank.
“Did I send for you? I thought I sent for a girl?”
Announce yourself clearly. Have your phone ready with the app already open. Try not to throw up.
“I’m here from your VPR service sir. The girl, Melody is here as requested.” Frank held out his smartphone. “I will need your thumbprint for validation.”
“I could take her you know,” the blue-eyed man said, still hidden behind the door. Frank suddenly stopped noticing the sweat and the way his stomach was flip-flopping as adrenaline flooded his system. It was as if a coldness had settled over him, that familiar coldness that came when a fight was already started. Fighting he knew, it came instinctively to him and everything about this blue-eyed man was screaming that the fight had already started.
Frank didn’t take his eyes off the single blue eye staring out at him. He had already shifted just a little bit, enough so that when he rolled to the side, his hand would be going immediately toward his gun.
“Melody, please return to the elevator. We’re done here.”
Melody turned to walk away. The blue-eyed man threw open the door and grabbed the smartphone from Frank, not seeing or ignoring how Frank stepped back, his hand reaching for his weapon–
“Okay! Okay! I was just kidding!”
The blue-eyed man pushed his thumb onto the screen and it beeped. He threw the phone back to Frank and grinned at Melody.
“Come on in sweetcheeks,” he said. “Time’s a-wasting.”
Melody rolled her eyes at Frank as she walked back to the blue-eyed man.
“Told you he likes to fuck with the new guys.”
Frank didn’t need to look at the phone. He was cold as steel, the fear banished from him for the moment, his instincts and years of training guiding the way. He never took his eyes off the intense blue eyes in front of him.
The man called himself Marcellous, but Frank could spot a pseudonym from miles away, and to be honest, the name didn’t fit the man. It was a name from another time and this man was just an oddity, clad only in the patterned silk Japanese robe and black socks as he was. There was al lean muscle, taut and lean and Frank had no doubt that he would fight dirty. Men like him always did.
For a second, Frank considered taking Melody and getting the hell out of there, but that voice spoke up from the back of his head that he needed the job, especially now and besides, all he had to do was follow protocol.
“You have ten minutes. Any longer than ten minutes–“
“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” Marcellous grinned at him. He wrapped an arm around Melody;s neck and pulled her close, almost a lover’s embrace. Melody smiled and Marcellous ran his hands all over her body and kissed her neck.
“I’ll be okay Frank.”
Marcellous pushed her inside and the door slammed shut.
Frank stared at the door for a long moment, straining to hear the sounds of a struggle, but of course there was nothing.
After a moment he leaned on the wall opposite and glanced at the timer on the VPR app on his smartphone and it was then he realized that the panic was completely gone.
Now all he had to do was wait for the vampire named Marcellous to be done with the girl.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a new thing I’m experimenting with. I hope you enjoy it even though it is a different tone from what you usually expect.