THE CLEANER • by Timothy Barrera

It was 2:12 AM when my phone rang. I knew who it was even before hearing that monotone voice.

“Ritz Hotel.  Penthouse Suite.”

I voiced confirmation and the line went dead. I pushed myself out of bed and dressed in silence. My wife — used to my late night trips — never stirred.

As I stepped off the elevator onto the hotel’s top floor I crossed myself — habit — then jimmied the door to the penthouse. The suite consisted of a common area, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a master bathroom. The silencer at the end of my handgun sliced the doorways as I moved room to room in search of my quarry; I found Tommy in one of the bedrooms by the bathroom door. A knife held in one white-knuckled hand, the cell he’d used to call the boss in the other. Blood was everywhere.

“Ya out of it, Tommy?”

No response. Sometimes he went back to the drugs to forget what he had done. I approached slowly. Leaning in with my gloved hand I gently touched his shoulder.

His eyes came alive with fire. I rocked on my heels and fell back, almost putting two rounds in his chest. The fire slowly faded and his eyes welled up. He dropped the knife.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he cried.

Seeing he was no longer a danger, I holstered my gun, stood, then stepped past him into the bathroom.

She lay there, a young Latina girl, sprawled out on the floor and staring up at me. Her legs stretched out wildly from where she had been kicking with her final convulsions in this world. The petrified look on her face still held a fraction of the horror she had experienced not long before. The blood pooled around her head was shaped eerily like a halo. Whether she had a halo in the afterlife I’d never know, but I took it as a kindness that she had one here.

The middle of her maid uniform was stained a dark maroon. It formed a perfect circle on her white blouse. Her left hand bore no ring, nor trace of any recently removed. Good. No husband or fiancé to call the cops right away. That gave us time.

Her right hand was clenched, gripping the edge of the shower curtain. I pried it open and found a clump of hairs. Tommy’s. I crossed myself again and carefully retrieved them.

Tommy had the morals of a saint when clean, but when he shot up they faded away to the malevolent desires of a demon. The boss, Mr. Valente, would never have put up with such behavior from any of his men, but Tommy wasn’t just one of the men. Tommy was Valente’s only son and heir.

My job was to clean, not judge. I was no saint and I owed Mr. Valente. He’d kept me out of prison, but I wasn’t free. I’d traded one warden for another, and the latter made it clear my family would pay if I didn’t. I hated the job, but had little choice.

“I didn’t mean to, man,” Tommy said as I laid plastic sheets down then started to dismember and bag the body. Less conspicuous that way.

“I told her to leave it… to just leave, but I don’t think she understood me! She was talking gibberish!”

An illegal maybe? That would simplify things and would explain why she was working so late. If the hotel hired illegals it may not even report her missing. Was this what the American Dream had become?

“She came in, in the middle of the night!”

I’d heard this story a dozen times…

“She just kept yapping at me and cleaning the place, man!”

Always a slight twist…

“She stole my sheets. I needed those!”

Always a sad story…

“Then she started on the bathroom, I was tweaking, man, bad, I mean… man… I needed a hit…”

Always another body…

“Then she was changing the toilet paper,” Tommy continued, “I told her, man, I told her the rolls go over, not under! Over, man, OVER!”

I turned from the body and looked at Tommy. He didn’t typically get so agitated after the fact unless he had shot up again, but the shaving kit where he kept his needles was still closed. I needed to calm him if he was going to walk out the front door without advertising what he had done.

“I hear ya, man. The TP roll goes over, not under,” I said.

Tommy balled his fists into his eyes and began to cry again.

With the bags filled and the blood scraped off the floor, I pulled my cell and sent a text. Tommy had regressed to rocking back and forth and mumbling to himself. It was as calm as he would get.

I had just finished packing the bags into two large suitcases when the door opened and two men in suits came in. They picked Tommy up and walked him out the door without a word. They would be heading to another pre-reserved hotel penthouse.

I took the maid’s key card and descended the stairs with my heavy suitcases. I used the card on a door marked ‘Emergency exit only, alarm will sound!’ The alarm sent several other maids and cooks fleeing, trying to get away before the lights and sirens came. Definitely illegals.

I loaded the suitcases into my trunk beside the shovel and lime and pulled out just before the first of the flashing lights arrived. I still had a few hours of darkness to bring the girl’s remains to her final resting place. As I descended into the Lincoln Tunnel, the maid’s face — complete with bloody halo — floated across my vision. It joined a long line of faces. Her piercing stare, along with all the others, was the true price I paid. The price of freedom and safety for my family: a piece of my soul.

Timothy Barrera was born and raised in upstate NY. His mundane life is interrupted only by wild dreams and an even wilder imagination. Some of these dreams and imaginings he quickly forgets, but a select few remain to haunt him. These, he writes.

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