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Russ T Mann

The Collector


Nick “the Brick” Dimopolous marches down Astoria Boulevard, ignoring everything but addresses. Ignoring snoozing bums curled against dilapidated buildings, clutching paper bags filled with their day-to-day existence. Ignoring jiggling hookers hawking their wares. Ignoring packs of youths clustered together, waiting for the easy prey. Ignoring rain that comes and goes in waves. Only addresses concern Nick the Brick.

He tracked that little mole Georgie Whittle to a dilapidated brick tenement in Queens, south of Hells Gate and Kennedy bridges. Georgie moved since his last visit, which suited Nick fine. He liked a challenge every now and then. Besides, it gave him another reason to pummel the little shit.

Nick recalled their previous encounter. Georgie neglected to have his payment ready. He’d told Georgie before snapping his thumbs, “If you’re going to borrow from the big boys Georgie, ya gotta pay the big boys back. This is a business, not a charity organization.”

Georgie begged and pleaded for more time, promising the money next week. No such thing as more time existed in this business. Time was money. Besides, if he let one off the hook, word would spread. Never, not even when that blonde suggested a quick tumble for an extra week, did Nick relent. Never mind that he helped himself to certain…liberties, anyway. She received no extra time.

Money owed came paid back in full, usually after his first visit to a customer. For that, he received a hefty salary from the Valentzas family. That, and what he persuaded out of his customers kept him living well. Arriving at Georgie’s tired five story tenement, he concentrates on the job at hand, swapping sweet remembrances of past accomplishments for an animal instinct. For fresh meat.

Nick retrieves his good luck charm, a 1921 Morgan Silver Dollar received from old man Valentzas himself. He flips the coin. If heads, he’ll use the front door, tails a back entrance. Rain starts, a sudden drenching downpour, while time slows, the city enveloped in unnatural silence. Fat water droplets hang motionless in the air, as the coin spins at normal speed to the apex of its arc, then drops, one bright revolution after another.

The city rushes back to life in a shocking cacophony of sound. A truck swerves, splashing a sheet of water towards him. Nick jumps back. The coin drops, brushing past fingers from his outstretched palm. Bouncing off cement with an audible ping, it plops into the gutter, swept up in a river of rain, mud and muck hurrying along. Horrified, Nick lunges, but the coin flashes bright silver, just once, then descends into a sewer, gone in an instant.

He storms the front door, determined to make Georgie pay with flesh and bone. Disregarding the sudden, slow-motion silence just moments ago, he climbs three flights of stairs in anger, eager to get on with it. Glaring down people who lurk in dark, graffiti covered shadows, he follows a third-floor hallway reeking of cheap wine, unwashed bodies and urine. Silent in front of Room 324, he listens, senses on high alert. Georgie’s chain-smoking stinks through the door. A floorboard creaks, the radio broadcast of a horse race snapping off. Nick wraps on the flimsy wooden door.

“Who is it?” Georgie’s high, warbling voice calls from the other side. Nick pounds again. In seconds, it opens a crack, a thin brass chain preventing it from opening further. Georgie’s pointy nose and dark weasel eyes peek out. Seeing Nick, he slams the door, but Nick wedges one steel toed ankle high boot between door and frame.

Georgie whimpers. Nick growls with delight, brown eyes leering thru the crack. Black curly hair drips rainwater down his ruddy face and across jowls bunched up against the collar of his shirt. “What’sa matter Georgie? Ain’t you glad to see me? I’m sure as hell glad to see you. Took days to find ya, but now we can have a nice long chat.”

Georgie steps back, eyes darting. Nick’s scarred fingers curl around the door, wiggling it, testing its strength. An instant later, his shoulder smashes it open, the inadequate chain swinging like a lazy metronome. Barely 5’4” and 150 pounds dripping wet, Georgie backs up until he cowers against the back wall of the dingy, one room apartment. Horrified, he regards this monster in his doorway, simpering in high-pitched terror.

A suitcase sits open on the bed, half filled with crumpled clothes and horse racing forms. “Georgie, you ain’t going somewhere, is ya? I hope not. At least not ‘til ya pay me.” Nick slams the door closed, glee in his eyes, a malicious, satisfied grin on his lips.

Georgie’s diminutive frame trembles. “I’ll have the money next week. I swear.” Bandaged hands thrust out, adding emphasis to his high-pitched pleas. “Please. Not again.”

Nick stalks forward, one slow step at a time. “Oh, don’t worry Georgie. Won’t be your thumbs again. This time, I want ‘sumpin won’t break like a toothpick.” Nick stalks another slow step, relishing this moment.

Georgie scrambles under the bed. Nick dives after him, one long arm stretched to get a momentary grip of Georgie’s foot, before his forward momentum stops, shoulder jammed between floor and bed frame. Room shaking, dust mites float down from the ceiling, silent testament to this sudden explosion of noise. Georgie scurries, emerging on the other side of the bed. In a flash, he escapes out a window. Footsteps race down the metal fire escape and echo off brick walls. Nick roars. He extricates his arm and shoulder, bounces across the bed, climbs through that same window and descends to street level, already a block behind.

Rain pounds down in gray sheets. Desperate for a place to hide, Georgie labors up First Street, winded after only two blocks. Eyes dart over his shoulder time and again, eager to see anything besides Nick’s inexorable advance. Across an empty baseball field he stumbles, scrambling on, only to find himself up against the East River, trapped, nowhere to hide.

Gulping air to fill aching lungs, he positions a metal trash container, fetid with decay, between he and Nick, who approaches with a scowl. Nick rips the can out of his hands, hurling it aside. It clangs away, bounces off a light pole, then rolls back, spewing garbage sodden with rainwater, each revolution of the can vomiting another spasm of filth before rolling to a stop after crossing between them, leaving behind a putrid trail in its wake.

Nick steps forward, eyes narrowed, like a serpent cornering his prey. “Whatcha go and do ‘dat for Georgie? Maybe we could have worked something out. Not now though. Not after ‘dat.” 

Georgie backs up until his legs hit a thigh-high concrete barrier. Below, the East River flows in the rain, a dark maelstrom filled with debris. Nick lunges, one massive paw grabbing at Georgie’s shirt. His foot slips on ground slick with mud and filth from the garbage can. Momentum carries him forward, sliding as if pushed by invisible hands. Georgie does the only thing left to do. He grasps a skidding, off-balance Nick by the arm and pulls backwards with all the strength left in his legs. Both men splash down into the angry river below.

Nick sinks like a stone, caught up in the current. He clutches Georgie in desperation, the two of them pulled down and further into the raging river. Georgie delivers a vicious kick to Nick’s face, breaks free and strokes to the surface, legs leaden. Gasping for air, one exhausted stroke after another, he swims to a rusty ladder affixed to the wall, clinging to a rung with both hands, too exhausted to rise further.

Nick claws to the surface, gasps for air, then sinks, river water oily in his mouth. He pulls himself to the surface, already under the Kennedy bridge, before sinking after another gulp of air. He sinks and rises three more times, each time briefer and farther north in the strong current, then sinks for good, his steel toe boots like two anchors in the cold, hungry river. Hells Gate bridge towers above. Nick the Brick’s last thought before unconsciousness takes him is disbelief.



When he comes to, Nicholas finds himself walking downhill on a dusty path. A desolate, sepia colored country surrounds him. Crippled trees, devoid of foliage, dot the rocky landscape. His shadow projects ahead of him, suggesting a light behind. Not inclined to turn and investigate the light, in fact, repelled by it, he walks, not wanting to slow even a second to turn around.

He trudges along the dusty path. Whirlwinds of grey dust rise with each step. From the ache in his calves, the thirst in his throat and the dust collected on his trousers and boots, Nicholas guesses this march has lasted longer than his memory of it.

He rubs dry and itchy eyes, but instead of bringing relief they sting worse. After the third time he gives up, for now they burn and water. Bloodshot and swollen, deep purple circles surround each eye, his mouth twisted in a perpetual grimace. Still, he continues, compelled to move ever forward. Ever downward.

Seconds turn to minutes, minutes to hours, hours somehow into days, time insignificant in this nightmare world. Air becomes damp and cold. Throat parched, body aching, eyes burning, he marches, ignoring his surroundings. A moment later, one foot sinks into mud the color of pitch. 

An ebony river, wide and slow, reeking of death and decay, blocks his passage. Compelled to cross no matter what, he curses the fetid stream that blocks his way. Curses the dark, dank world he stands in. Curses the damnable, ever-present dusk. Curses the sucking sound his foot emits, prying it from the mud and muck. Nicholas saves his loudest curse for an old man in a small skiff, not more than a hundred feet from shore.

“Stinking, slimy bastard,” he spits, his finger pointed like an accusation at the decrepit figure in the boat. “I have half a mind to dive into this water to wring your scroungy neck. Bring that pitiful excuse for a boat here. I’ll pay you in silver to get me across.”

Nicholas removes a leather bag of coins from his pocket and empties the glittery contents into his hand. He knows not where the coins come from, unaware of his previous existence and only remembers his name, not how or why he is here. Nevertheless, he craves coins. The sight of all that silver sets his heart aflutter. “Either that, or I’ll get my hands on your filthy head and make you eat the scum on this river bottom. You’ll beg to ferry me across.”

At the sight of the coins, the old man poles the craft towards shore. He disregards the curses shouted at him. He’s seen the kind before. Many times. Maybe this time, he thinks. Maybe this time.

The boat touches shore. Nicholas regards the old man. Hunched over a wood pole rubbed smooth by two gnarled, arthritic hands, his pale, translucent skin peeks through tattered rags he wears as clothes. A long, scraggly, unkempt beard hangs to his chest, the lines on his face well-worn, mouth pulled into a comfortable frown. This man hasn’t smiled in a very long time. Grey hair hangs in greasy strands into his face. The eyes cannot be hidden, however. Black. Blacker than the water. Almost reptilian, they glow obsidian, like poison.

For a moment, Nicholas hesitates, reluctant to enter the boat. Only a moment though. This wraith isn’t going to stop him from crossing the river. He ignores the gloom and foreboding that surrounds him in this barren land. A haste to cross the river consumes and compels him, ever forward. Nicholas pictures piles of silver coins, all his, once across.

“How much to cross?” Nicholas hisses at the man, uneasy again when those cold, black eyes never waver.

“All of it.” The old man’s voice, deep and slow, no hint of emotion, unnerves Nicholas. That voice holds the quality of accustomed boredom.

“All of it! Ha! Two silvers. If you get me across dry.”

“As you wish.”

Nicholas steps in. The bottom of the boat, covered in calf deep, inky black water seeps into his boot, foot soaked in seconds, raw with cold. “Make that one silver clod!” Nicholas spits between clenched teeth, his brown eyes boring into twin pools of coal.

“By your command.” Again, that uninterested voice. However, his black eyes hold a twinkle, like a far-off lantern in a fog enshrouded night, barely discernable yet perceptible all the same. Nicholas pauses, wondering if he should enter the boat. All doesn’t seem right here. Then he pictures the riches to come and nothing else matters.

“You get this when I’m across the river.” Nicholas holds up the coin. “And only when I’m across, safe and sound.” Pushing off with his other foot, Nicholas trips into the skiff face first when the craft makes a sudden movement beneath him. In the process, the silver coin slips from his grasp, falling to the boat with an audible ping. He scrambles after it, afraid the old man will retrieve the coin before he can. Once the coin is back in hand, he looks up, ready to curse the old man.


But the old man is gone. The skiff moves out into the flow of the powerful river. Nicholas peers back at shore, seeing a silhouette march away from the mighty Styx. The figure turns once to gaze back.

The face that smiles back is his face. The hands with a leather bag of coins are his hands. The lips, pursed in a whistle of joy, are his lips. Brown eyes twinkle. His brown eyes.

The creature in the boat who had once been Nicholas Dimopolous, tries to scream. Instead, a raspy voice emerges. The whisper of the undead. He drops the silver coin from the boat bottom into pockets filled to the brim with coinage that clinks and glitters. He aches for more. His black thoughts center on the pouch carried away toward a far-off light. An unnatural, ever-present light that outlines the crippled trees of Hades Gates.

A flood of pictures race through his mind’s eye, the last image, a man with bandaged hands and a smile of deep satisfaction. That picture fades, a memory that grows fainter and fainter, like a far-off echo answering for the last time.

Then the gnarled, withered hands of Charon clutch the pole and push, the craft slipping further into the murky water. Charon’s obsidian eyes adjust to the gloom, searching, like the eyes of a serpent, for more silver coins that will sate his hunger.




Russ T. Mann has written fiction and poetry for decades. Family and friends say he has a way with words. His first and only published work, a poem 40 years ago, is long forgotten and the magazine long defunct. After this, life got in the way of pursuing further publication. He married, raised a family and now, nearing retirement after a career in Supply Chain and Engineering for several manufacturers, decided to try publishing again. He lives in West Allis, Wi with his bride, a chinchilla named Choo-Choo and a goldfish named Jelly. Bienvenue à la Danse, Russ.

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