The clocks on display in the shop were nothing but junk seeded on top of an even larger pile of junk. They all displayed seven o clock. Every damn day those clocks held him hostage with a pace slower than cold molasses. As if to further mock him, they tortured him with their tedious ticking and methodical detachment. In this moment, however, they were giving him the best news of the day: it was closing time, which meant he was free. Seven o'clock at last. Time to close up, find a chair at Ben's to force down the slop of the day, complain to the first unfortunate passerby in sight how his business was crumbling, and finally, plop his tired bones on the rickety cot in his musty little room.
While Aaron Mansill was not a multi-millionaire by any means, he was certainly wealthy enough to afford some extra comfort. He preferred, however, to lay low, due to his obsessive preoccupation with thieves. He saw them everywhere and in everyone; even in the men he hired to protect him or collect his dues. For this reason, he preferred to hire help that was a little on the slow side, and lazy to the point of ridicule. Any mistakes or oversights they could commit were offset by the fact that they were too dumb to fool him. More importantly, that they would not be likely to turn from guards into thieves. He did his best to seem destitute, and as such, he lived a modest life. He was doomed to live a miserable life until his death. That was, however, the price to pay to become rich.
Not that he had much life left in him. He was just over sixty years old, but decades of hardship and sacrifice had worn him down both in body and spirit. Because of this, his appearance was that of a man twenty years older. He was of miniscule stature, thin, gaunt, and hunched over. His skin was waxy and colorless, his limbs weak and trembling. He was almost completely toothless, but he did not wear dentures. He preferred it that way; he could not fathom that gold, the noble herald of wealth, could ever be used for something as unimportant as teeth. It was a wonder he was even able to eat. He didn't mind, though. It meant he had to spend less money on short-lived nourishment.
No doubt about it, Aaron was a truly generous man. He had given his all for his precious Lucille. He had invested his body and soul without thought, and never asked for anything in return. He had secured it, protected it, cultivated it, pampered it, and never, ever, squandered it.
It was important that his shop mirrored his appearance: old, loathsome, dingy, and useless. What kind of outlaw would ever want to rob a place like that? If an outlaw did attempt to rob the place, they wouldn't have gotten away with much. Lucille, as he called his beloved treasure of a savings, was safe and sound elsewhere.
He gently placed the ledger in the drawer of a worm-eaten desk and stood up from his chair with a groan. He wasn't much taller standing up than he was sitting down. He wore a small cap made of black cloth and grabbed his walking stick, which would have better served as crutch for how it was proportioned. Even it was shabby. The sporadic traces of paint that remained testified that it was once lacquered, but now it was nothing but a splintered wooden stick with a tarnished brass head.
He busied himself with closing the doors and windows. When he approached one window, through the glass that had been burdened by years of dirt, he glimpsed a large silhouette. He shuddered with delight, as he had always done at the prospect of a new deal.
Aaron claimed to renounce the use of firearms, so he never carried one. Truth was that he didn't have the strength to lift a gun without shaking like a leaf, let alone shoot one. He had no reservations, however, regarding the use of firearms in his shop by others in his stead; especially when it was for reasons of conducting business.
"Y'all polish silver here?" Upon entering, the customer began with a phrase that hinted at the need to sell goods of dubious origin. The door was so small that the huge man had to bend over and contort himself to get through it.
"That and much more Oh, it's you, Hugg." He had already worked for him several times as a fence. Most of the time, he would move stolen personal effects and small items from heaven knows where. Hugg had experienced first-hand how tightfisted a man he was, with his constant penny-pinching ways. Doing business with him was unpleasant, to say the least.
Mansill made enough money from salvaging, but his main source of income came from his loans. Lending money was like growing beans; put a seed in the ground and if it's fertile you come away with a sackful. His small financial contribution to the client's needs was the seed, the fool's vain optimism was the fertile soil, and the interest made was the bountiful harvest.
At first glance, one might take Aaron for a materialistic man. However, he was not. Interest rates are not physically tangible, but an abstract concept. Yet, he adored them almost as much as his Lucille. He respected them with earnest dedication, so what was wrong with demanding that the people in business with him do the same?
Despite his wretched appearance, the hustler had several internal strengths. For example, he was a very open-minded and tolerant man. In fact, though he did not himself partake in spirits, he didn't knock those who spent their days getting loaded to the gunwhales. Quite the contrary; he indulged them, pampered them, and was always at the ready to give them whatever they needed. It often happened that in order to get their fill, they handed over personal effects that were worth at least ten times what they received in return. The important thing was to reassure them that they would be able to repay such a small debt. Naturally, they rarely ever could. No problem. He would be so kind as to settle for what was left, as collateral. He also exhibited the same open-mindedness with gamblers. As far as he was concerned, he had no idea how to play cards or dice, but he still took it in his heart to support practitioners.
Mansill considered salvaging to be a form of publicity; a great way to bring in business. The men in those parts weren't used to handling more than ten dollars at a time. So, when they entered his shop to sell misappropriated items, they often came out with a little money, a huge smile stamped across their face, and a single desire: to have a good time. Whether it was in a saloon, a game room, a brothel, or all three, it didn't matter. They'd take a liking and couldn't help themselves. They would run out of money and crawl back to Aaron for a loan.
Vice is an ugly beast, and you must put an end to it before it puts an end to you.
Good ol' Aaron took care of that too. When those poor, naive people didn't even have their skivvies left as collateral, the trader understood that they had developed a true addiction and stopped ransacking them before things got unmanageable. Oh, how many folks he saved that way!
All things considered, he was a tried and true philanthropist. Yet, everyone despised him.
To be fair, Badfinger was also a tightfisted man who certainly would not be tangled in a trap of expensive vices, even if it held the prospect of a thousand dollars in his pocket. It was another good reason to not nurture any sympathies toward him. He knew from experience that if he handed over money in exchange for whatever he had to offer, unlike what usually happened with others, he would not be back again.
Now that he let him in, there was nothing more he could do but to try to pay as little as possible, so that he could earn at least something in the exchange. He certainly would not give him a penny over half of what his black-market wares were worth, which would have been a quarter of the estimated value when speaking of legal methods of distribution.
"Aaron, my man, this time I'm gonna make you filthy rich!" Hugg began with a wily grin.
If all my customers were like you, the shop would have gone under and I'd be auditing the books of some Big Bug, he thought, then said, "Rich? Don't you see what I've been reduced to? Unfortunately, not all customers are as reliable as you are, but it's their own fault they're destitute. I'm happy you're here. We've always done good business, you and me."
"Mostly you. I can't complain, anyway. You've never passed me a fake banknote."
Aaron had scammed several of his customers with fake money, but he only ever did so to folks with one foot in the grave or those who couldn't harm him or otherwise harass him with a bounty on his head. He never would have dared to enact such obvious chicanery to such a dangerous brute as Badfinger.
"They told me you're also a forger, so I'm assuming you ain't a very good one at this point. Don't matter. I need you to put on your dealin' hat."
"Same as always!"
"Well, I reckon this time the matter is a little more serious. We'll have to talk for a while without being bothered." He had brought enough items with him to get at least a thousand dollars. Their true worth was nearly three thousand, but he knew that cheapskate Aaron would never produce that much money.
"Ok. Close the door, but be aware that you'll have to wait for the money tomorrow. I only have eighteen in the till." He wanted to make it clear that there was no reason to pull any dirty tricks.
"Yeah I know how it works. We did this last time, too. Now let's talk shop. Then tomorrow you send me one of your henchmen to bring the money and take the goods."
"Temporary employee, not henchman. If you put it that way, you make me sound like a man of mischief."
"Ain't you a damn loan shark?"
"The fact that I take pity on folks who have a hard time making ends meet doesn't make me a loan shark."
"I saw how you pitied Mudd, alright. He left Little Pit with a case of rifles he risked his hide to swipe out from under them soldiers and came back wearing nothin' but his drawers, a swollen face, and both thumbs smashed to bits."
"Weaponry, especially of the military sort, is a uniquely uncomfortable topic. Regardless, I found a way to pay him handsomely. Next thing I know, the hack came crawling back after a game of poker. A less charitable fella would ve sent him away, but I wanted to help him. But then he wanted to make a game of it and I was forced to send a mediator to persuade him to return the goods to me. I'm not all that good at convincing folks, so I asked the kind help of someone more practiced than me. I'm no debt collector, that's for sure. You're free to believe that my associate exaggerated a bit on your friend, but I personally refrain from making judgments on the job of a professional in a trade of which, I repeat, I know next to nothing."
"All them fancy words just to tell me you washed your hands of it. Don't even think about playin' me like that, ya damn loan shark! Any good business you ever did with me was because of Mudd's introducin' us." Which was just one more reason to sic his dogs on Mudd, in addition to the fact that Mudd hadn t kept his word and returned the money. He was the one who brought one of his least favorite clients to him.
He remembered the it perfectly fine. It was a simple question of getting back the fifty bucks he had lent to Mudd, plus another modest interest fee of forty-nine for services rendered. It was also only right that the extra twenty dollars required to hire the mediator to settle the outstanding account did not come out of his own expenses. They were all documented costs, yet people still stubbornly considered him a shark.
"I have no intention to deceive anyone. What I want most is to be clear with my customers, especially the most loyal ones, like yourself. Perhaps it is my honesty in how I conduct my business that would explain why I've never been able to lift myself out of total poverty. Unfortunately, I am just the middleman, and I get to keep very little of what passes through my hands. If you then take into consideration the folks who unfortunately meet their maker before paying off their debts or the times that I'm unable to sell what I've taken on, you ll see that it's a miracle that I haven't gone under yet. As you can see with your own two eyes, this work has reduced me to a shadow of my former self and I don't even have a pot to piss in to show for it." Oh, how many times he had pulled that card and in so many contexts! It was, perhaps, the only subject he ever discussed with such tenacity. All hogwash, of course. But as wise men say, hiding something is the best way to protect it. He was incredibly protective of his Lucille. He alone was the only one who was to ever know, not only of her contents, but of her very existence.
"Is it me, or have I heard that ballyhoo already? Anyhow, quit your bellyachin', 'cause I've got an eyeful for you. Here I have near five grand in gold and precious jewels." Hugg opened the bundle on the desk, revealing its contents.
Sure enough, an unnerving expression of longing momentarily flashed in Aaron's eyes. The look made Badfinger feel as though the man was blatantly ogling his woman's backside. He wanted to knock him across the room, but he had to make the deal for at least a thousand bucks, so he was going to have to bite the bullet. It wasn t too difficult. He would have handed over his wife, rest her soul, for much, much less. To be honest he had attempted it in the past, but she resisted. Truthfully, it was one of the reasons that he had killed her, in addition to the fact that she had the gall to undermine his authority as head of the household. His children were his property and if he decided to eliminate one because he was no good, he had every right to. It really was a simple and indisputable concept. Yet that shrew he was dumb enough to marry had squalled until he couldn't take it anymore. Putting her out of her misery was inevitable. She was challenging his role as head of the family. He was well on his way to be the best trapper around, but because of them he had to go get lost in the bush and live like a stray in that cursed land. However, his time for redemption had finally come.
While he was lost in thought, he had also missed the first part of the assessment during which the dealer, now armed with a monocle, had spewed a series of complicated words to discredit his goods. He returned to reality at the ideal moment, because he seemingly caught the only part of his long-winded speech worth listening to: the final evaluation.
"...all of which I had predicted at first glance. I'd say about the best I can do here is about five hundred dollars. Don't ask me for any more because I would have a hard time finding any more cash."
"Go to lick a cowhand s boot, you damn cheapskate! You hear what I just said? I know for a fact that this stuff is worth over five grand!" Hugg swore, then thought to himself, "Alright, five hundred bucks is a good start."
"Excellent... He didn't seem to have taken it too badly. His stuff is easily worth three thousand bucks, but I won't give him any more than a quarter of that," Aaron thought as he replied, "Now let's not exaggerate, young man! At most, it's worth two thousand on a clean market. Underground it's not even worth half that. Then consider the fact that I have to find buyers, and that's never a guarantee, then there are the administrative costs... If all goes well, I earn maybe three hundred. If it doesn't go well, I'll come away empty-handed."
"Then you should close up for good. Seems like you're too old to do this job. Not only are you hard of hearing, looks like you're half-blind, too. Does that look like some junk jewelry you get for just two grand? Go clean that lens a little better so you can see what treasures just came into this junk heap of a store! I could always go to somebody without cataracts. You ain t the only one I do business with."
"All right, all right. I'll give you that. Perhaps you'd be able to get $2,500 in a no-nonsense boutique. That said, the black market would pay half, at most. $1,250. Look - just because it's you, and I want to be sure we continue to do good business together, this time I'll take the hit. I'm not greedy. If I can make an honest three hundred bucks, I'm happy. So, with blind optimism I will value this stuff at $250 more. I'm giving it all to you. Let's close at $750. And people wonder why I'm by the wayside..."
"I reckon you're gonna earn at least twice as much. And what in tarnation are these 'administrative expenses'? Anyway, today's your lucky day. It's a deal!" It wasn't the thousand dollars he was hoping for, but considering that he had no one else to turn to, what he was getting out of it wasn't half bad.
"So tomorrow afternoon at 3 o'clock, be at the table at the back of the Ben s. You know the one. A mediator will come and pick up the goods and give you $740."
"Hang on a minute now... why are we ten short all of a sudden?"
"Delivery fee is the responsibility of the client. It's standard practice."
Hugg grabbed the little man by the collar and lifted him off his stool. "You're wearin' down my patience," he growled.
"All right, all right. Let's divide the delivery expense. $745."
"Yes, but since you can't pay me tonight, I have to book a room that's gonna cost me five dollars. So, $750."
"Ben's nightly rate is three dollars and fifty cents. So, $748.50."
"And my dinner?"
"Come now, you d be eating anyway, whether or not you had to book a room."
"Maybe, but I'd make do with somethin cheaper. I want the difference."
"Look, only because you're about to rip my shirt, I'll give you $749. Not a penny more!"
"All this hullabaloo just to get an extra buck outta me! Keep your goddamn dollar." Hugg spit on the floor in disgust. "Wretch," he barked on the way out.
Mansill breathed a sigh of relief and barely suppressed a satisfied smile. Thanks to his fine circle of buyers, he would take in over $1,500. Maybe even $1,750, so he would net an even thousand. Actually, a thousand dollars, plus one. Another nice cut for his Lucille, the love of his life.
He was about to do a little celebration dance, when the brute Badfinger suddenly stopped halfway. "What does he want now?" he thought.
"You're such a snake that I was gonna leave without doin' the very thing I came here to do." The ox turned with the expression of someone who wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.
"Don't do this, I just earned you a small fortune."
"Yeah, yeah," the other man quipped. "Listen, I have a big fat document that's all full of important looking stamps and figures. I think it might just be worth something. I heard tell that you know about these things."
"I can tell you with confidence that regardless of the markings, official documents are almost always useful only for the people they are addressed to and rarely useful for anyone else." Aaron was skeptical. "Let me take a look."
Hugg slipped the rolled-up paper from his coat pocket and laid it out on the desk, placing his hands on the edges so it wouldn't keep rolling up. The trader scanned it over while maintaining a look of indifference.
Decree for the Annexation of Mexican Territories:
Presidential Concession Act for lot number 3/D.A. 6-24-53
The following action concerns the acquisition of the Mexican regions located south of the New Mexico territory, as agreed by James Gadsen, Plenipotentiary Minister of Mexico, and signed by Colonel Franklin Pierce on the 24th of June, 1853 and ratified by the senate in April of 1854. Following a public auction and in consideration of the honors obtained on the battlefield, the third lot, consisting of 980 square miles of land as shown in the attached map, is entrusted to Major Alton Miles, who officially commits to the responsibility of securing the territory and to provide any support for future work regarding the construction of the railway section affected by the lot in question. The signatory will have the right and responsibility to grant sub-management of any fraction of the lot to land administrators who prove their suitability in terms of skills and means.
Washington, 10th of December, 1855
William Marcy, Secretary of State of the United States of America
Alton Miles, Major Emeritus of the Army of the United States of America
Seen and signed:
Franklin Pierce, President of the United States of America
Only his decades of experience allowed Aaron Mansill to not come unglued. Almost a thousand square miles were more than 600,000 acres. In Texas they would be worth well over three million dollars. Three million dollars! How the hell did that ox in front of him come into possession of such an immensely important document?
It certainly was a hot piece of paper, but all of the mana from heaven that the document was referring to had nothing to do with the person holding the paper, but Alton Miles. He had heard of the name. He had memorized the entire list of America's richest occupants. However, it could very well be that the Miles family was looking for that act of concession, and he had his hands on it. Oh, what could he ask for? Fifty thousand dollars as a reward for a good three million? A trifle. It would be a more than reasonable and immensely profitable ask.
He was sure of one thing: he had to take possession of that document at all costs.
"It's a simple farmhouse concession, in the territory of New Mexico. It doesn't even mention the presence of buildings on the site." Indeed, buildings were not mentioned, but in such a large area there could be entire towns.
"It must be a pasture. How big is it?"
"Look for yourself. Even you can read numbers, right?" Aaron indicated with his index finger on the paper.
"Nine hundred eighty acres. At five dollars an acre, there are nearly $5,000. Not too bad!" He couldn't read, but he was an ace with numbers. "How much will you give me for this?"
"Well, consider that the land will not go to whoever possesses the document, but to the name written here. A certain 'Alton Miles'. A rancher, I suppose. At the very least, I could track him down to give him the document, but it's well known that rewards never exceed three percent of the value. So, at most I could make five hundred dollars. Also, for such little reward I could find myself compromised in an embarrassing situation with the sheriff. And if the guy happens to be dead, the document itself would be compromising for me. You didn't kill him, did you?"
"No, no. Either way, isn't it still good for his relations?" he replied, then thinking, The man I stole this stuff from might have killed him.
"Yes, it is, but there would be further complications. Listen. Let's just let it go. It's not worth it. I can't buy it." The trader shook his head and stared at Hugg with a firm and sincere gaze.
"I guess you're right. How 'bout this, you give me fifty bucks and it's yours." It was a risky piece of paper. Better to be rid of it.
"And if there's a corpse involved? I don't want it. Would you risk compromising yourself for just a hundred bucks gain?"
"If, and only if there's a dead person involved, absolutely not. Not even for double that!" In fact, he had already risked his head several other times and for much less, but he wanted to save face. It seemed as though that document wasn't worth much, and it seemed to be risky, since it almost certainly involved a dead man. That scribbled-on paper felt wrong in his hands. He absolutely had to sell it to the shriveled man. Only he was greedy enough to risk his hide for a few bucks. "Fine. Give me what's in the box and it's all yours," he proposed.
"Hugg, Hugg, whatever am I gonna do with you? So be it. I ll take this paper, though it's probably going to get locked away in a drawer to gather dust. Here. Take the ten bucks and let's get this over with."
"Eighteen. You just told me there are eighteen bucks in your register."
"I need the other eight. It's the last of the month. I need to settle the bill with my tenant. That leech has been on me for a week. Now he's the damn loan shark!"
"Go to Hell, Aaron!" Badfinger ripped the ten dollars out of his hand and walked to the door sputtering curses.
"Open up! In the name of the law!" Through the filthy window, Hugg saw nothing more than a slender silhouette.