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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Ring Finger
by James Harris

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El Amor de Alimento was exactly how Richard had remembered it. Painted in thick swirls of rich-coloured oil daubs, the picture of a Spanish couple dancing the Flamenco still hung above the front desk, and the tables, chairs, and even the red-stained glass candle holders hadn't changed in what, eight, nine years?

Richard made his way to the rear of the restaurant, where he noticed a new addition: A long mirror stretched the whole length of bar. It reflected the many bottles of wines and spirits that sat underneath; they cast green, brown and yellow hues up the wall. He thought it gave the place a warm ambience, made the restaurant seem bigger, the way mirrors do in nightclubs and clothes shops.

He was actually early and stopped to order a beer at the bar. Something told him he would need one tonight. He pulled out his wallet from the inside pocket of his pin-striped jacket and nodded at the young bar girl who was struggling with a large order of cocktails. A large red-faced man in a particularly tight suit impatiently watched on, as though the drinks were his lifeline. Richard grinned and scanned the room in the mirror while he waited. The restaurant was obviously doing well: on a Wednesday evening, the place didn't have a single table to spare. He looked up and down the length of the mirror, throwing quick glances at all the couples enjoying their conversation and wine.

The bar girl finally finished the order and the gentleman reluctantly smiled, lifting a martini lemonade to his mouth and flicking the olive into an ashtray. She made her way back down, and as Richard gave the mirror a last glance before looking up at her, he noticed his fiancée, Gayna, sitting at their usual spot in an alcove at the back they'd always chosen this spot because it was dark, romantic, and they'd liked to smoke: she had quit five years ago, but he still liked to savour the odd cigar.

She'd arrived even earlier. He'd hoped to surprise her by not only being early, but first to show. He studied her reflection, and although there was only a single bottle of water sitting on her table, from thirty feet he could tell she'd had a drink or three; her cheeks were rosy and she always toyed with her hair after a second glass. Maybe she'd sunk a couple at home? She wore the lilac, tight-fitting dress with the open back, the one he'd bought her last Christmas.

The girl asked if he had a table booked, and he pointed over to Gayna. Instead of beer, he ordered a bottle of Australian red to be sent over. As he approached the alcove, he nervously straightened his tie, an underlying feeling of dread surfacing with every step.

"You're on time," Gayna said, flicking her hair from her face.

He laughed. "Don't look so surprised, dear."

"The office actually let you go then?"

Richard held his arms out with his palms showing and shrugged. "Look, I'm early aren't I? The secretary didn't show; you're lucky I'm here at all. Absolute bloody mayhem it was today."

"Okay, okay, just teasing," she said, twisting a blonde lock around her index finger.

He pulled out a chair. "So, why'd you choose this place tonight?" he asked, sitting down. "I've ordered a bottle of red by the way."

Gayna called him at lunch to inform him that she'd booked a table for seven o'clock at the restaurant they'd frequented when they'd first met in their twenties, and he'd been suspicious ever since that call. To say she'd been acting strange over the past fortnight was an understatement, and he knew something strange was on the cards. He didn't like the fact she'd needed Dutch courage either. She had made a real effort with her appearance too; not that there was anything wrong with that, of course, but there was definitely a reason behind it all. He had to admit, she did look good; she always did after a drink. It brought colour to her skin, and her eyelids fractionally drooped, giving her a look of enchanted naughtiness, pure seduction.

"We haven't been here for years," she said. "Thought it would be good to spend some time together. We never seem to do anything anymore."

"Oh I see, blaming me? Please Gayna, not this old record."

"Oh come on, drop the feeling-sorry-for-yourself routine."

"Look," he said, raising his voice, "I'm only trying to make things comfortable for us." A waiter approached, carrying a bottle of wine and Richard softened his voice. "You know that."

Before responding, Gayna let the waiter proceed with the preliminaries, sipping the wine and accepting a full glass. "You're a solicitor for God's sake," she said, the waiter now out of earshot. "We don't need to scrimp and save to be comfortable. You're always working late."

He'd heard it all before. "I'm hungry," he said. "What're you having?"

Gayna frowned and shook her head. "I decided before I got here: The steak, medium-rare."

"Same as always. I'll have the sea trout, I think. You want to order now?"

Gayna shrugged. "I guess so."

Richard raised his menu, and the nearest waiter, skinny and tall, swiftly approached, as gracefully as if he were skating on ice. He spoke with a soft Spanish accent and his friendly smile never once faltered.

Richard ordered for them both and with the same smoothness as he'd arrived, the waiter disappeared out to the kitchens.

"So why did you really book this place tonight?" Richard asked, drumming his fingers on the table.

From the darkness of the alcove, Gayna peered at him through the candlelight. The flickering red glow cast moving shadows up her face; her cheekbones were accentuated and her eyes were dark pools with crimson arcs glimmering in the corners. "Is there anything wrong with us having a meal together? If you've something you'd rather be doing, just say."

"Calm down, I was only asking. What's the matter with you? You seem so edgy."

And he was right; she did suddenly seem on edge, nervous. It had been the same at home over the past week, too. One minute she could be as sweet as pie too sweet sometimes and the next, sharp, abrupt, vague, as though he didn't even exist.

She spoke softly. "Nothing's wrong, Richard." She looked up at him and forged a smile. That smile. Whenever they watched a T.V. quiz show together, and they'd both given different answers, his more often than not being wrong, that same smile appeared on her face. Except that was smug, and this had an unknown added factor. A smirk?

"What's so funny?"

Gayna placed a hand to her mouth. "Oh nothing, just... Oh I don't know. Am I not allowed to enjoy myself?"

"Not when you're up to no good, no."

That smile again. "Whatever do you mean, dear?"

Richard drained his wine and re-filled. "Top up?" he asked, noticing Gayna's quarter-full glass.

She didn't need persuading.

Now it was Richard's turn to smile. "Had a few before you arrived, did you?"

"Yes. Is that a problem?"

"No, no, just noticed, that's all." That wasn't all he noticed; he loved it when she became tipsy and sarcastic. Her cheeks were flushed, and her cleavage looked extremely inviting in that dress - the reason he'd bought it - and as for those seductive eyes... "You look good," he said, his eyes still on her chest.

She pulled a curled lock down to her mouth, clasped it between her teeth, and let it spring back into place. "I know."

Richard laughed and took a large swig from his glass. Gayna did the same, but each time she lifted her glass to her mouth, her hand looked unsteady. Richard noticed this and it only added to the trepidation of awaiting the real reason she'd asked him here. He didn't want to push it; he just played along and pretended to enjoy an evening meal.

Richard stretched, breaking an awkward silence, and looked around the room. "The place still looks the same, doesn't it?"

Gayna nodded. "Yeah, I guess."

"Remember when we first came here? We were both in our last year at Uni."

"Of course I do. Those were the days you paid me any attention."

Richard knew he was treading on thin ice. She was in her unreasonable mood. No point in arguing you couldn't win. "Those were the days we didn't have any responsibility."

Gayna was amused by this comment and snorted. "Responsibility," she said.

Richard didn't reply. Instead, he prolonged the time he held his glass to his mouth, praying the moment would pass. "I'm bloody starving," he eventually said. "Food always did take a while in this place. Mind if I smoke?"

Gayna shook her head. "No, go ahead, darling." Just as quick as the wind, her attitude had changed. Another new characteristic he'd seen over the past couple of weeks. It was bordering schizophrenia but he shuddered to think of it that way.

"I'll order another bottle," she said, craning her head to catch a waiter's attention.

In the time it took for another bottle of red to arrive, Richard had pulled out a small silver case, from which he'd selected a cigar and a book of matches. He patted at his jacket and trouser pockets, and eventually gave up, frowning. "I haven't had a smoke all day. I've been on the bloody phone most of the time. You'll have to excuse the teeth," he said tearing off the end of the cigar. He hated a cigar unless the end had been cut clean; the rough kind always left strings of tobacco in your mouth, contaminating the palate and ruining the flavour of the smoke. He plucked away any lose strands and spat them into the ashtray.

"Charming," Gayna said. She then pouted. "Poor baby didn't have his smoke?"

Richard struck a match, waited for the sulphur fumes to dissipate, and then rolled the tip of the cigar in the flame. After it was evenly lit, he bought it up to his mouth and inhaled until the tip was aglow with orange embers. He let out a relieved sigh as he blew a plume of white smoke to the ceiling. "I've got a ton of paperwork to do," he said, taking another puff.

Gayna downed at least a quarter of her wine. "That's why you want to rush through this and get back to your precious laptop, isn't it?" When she placed the glass down, she miss judged it, tilting the glass, nearly spilling some.

Again, Richard noticed, but wisely kept quiet. "Not at all, dear," he said. "Just saying how busy I've been today. It can wait."

"Well that's something, I suppose," she said. "We could have cocktails after."

"I won't turn that down," he said, again enticed by her cleavage. She was half cut, leaning forward, one elbow resting on the table, her open palm supporting her chin. She had a look of total indifference, as though her being there was a chore. She knew what she was doing, and he loved it.

Richard inhaled, just as he saw a waiter approaching carrying two plates. "Shit, damn and blast! Will I ever get to smoke this thing?" He stubbed the tip in the ashtray in such a way that it would not be damaged, and left it sitting in the groove on the side.

Gayna grinned, the candlelight distorting her features into a mask of sinister glee. Or would she have looked like that regardless of the flickering light? "Guess they must've got a younger chef," she said.

The waiter placed the plates in front of them both, asked if everything was to their satisfaction, and then, in a turn, was gone, the kitchen doors still swinging as he disappeared through them.

"Looks good," he said, picking up a fork.

Gayna didn't reply; instead, she watched the candle flame, hypnotised. Eventually she said, "Hang on. There's something I want to do."

Richard put his fork down. "Gayna," he said, slowly, "what you up to?"

From under her chair, she retrieved her handbag. She stood, stepped around the table and dropped onto one knee, pulling out a little black box. Her eyes were big and innocent as she stared up at him.

He tried to speak, but she shushed him, placing a finger to his lips. "I know this isn't exactly the conventional way of doing this," she said, "but I feel this is the right thing to do." She proffered the box and Richard accepted it with a look of incredulity. People were now watching, most holding a hand to their mouths, disguising laughs and grins. This had totally thrown him; he'd expected a talk, a lecture, perhaps, but not this.

Much to Richard's relief, Gayna sat back down. "I don't know what to say," he said, studying the box as though it were something alien.

"I think it will bring us closer together," she said. "Open it then."

Richard looked at the box and then up at Gayna, then back to the box again. An inane smile lifted one corner of his mouth as he slowly popped open the box's lid. He peered inside, and the smile faltered, and then completely fell from his face, as though every muscle in his face had systematically shut down. He flinched, made a sound resembling a scalded puppy and flicked the box onto the table, where the contents toppled out, rolled and eventually stopped at the salt and pepper mills.

"It was really quite hard to come by," Gayna said, matter-of-factly.

As Richard jerked his chair back, he knocked the table, and his glass of wine tipped over, dispersing its contents in a red wave across the cloth. "What the fuck?"

Gayna raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised she could type for you with those nails," she said.

Sitting in between the salt and pepper mills, a thin, silver ring sat loosely below the first knuckle of a dismembered finger. The finger's nail was long and French manicured, and Richard had a flash back to the office, the way he could always hear those nails clicking away on the keyboard, even with his door shut. Gayna held out her hand. "Not like these horrible, chewed splinters."

Richard couldn't speak; his attention was still on the finger, and the way it pointed in his direction, as though accusing him of separating it from its hand. The sea trout sitting on his plate had been served with its head still attached, and that too stared up with a large, soulless, accusatory eye.

"Don't look so fucking surprised," Gayna snapped, placing her bag on the table. "Don't try and deny it either. Carla was very talkative when I showed her this." From her bag, she pulled out a flat, oval shaped piece of metal. At each end, holes had been cut out for grip, and in the centre, a smaller hole, but big enough for, let's say, a finger to fit through. She gripped both ends and pulled: the egg shape elongated, and a blade snapped down across the face of the hole with a sound that resembled a samurai warrior unsheathing his sword.

"My cigar... I've been look... that's my cutter!" he yelled. "What've you done?"

The tall waiter appeared on the scene noticing the spilt wine. He dabbed at the red-stained cloth with a white towel, casting a nervous eye at the unusual couple who had started to cause a-bit-of-a-scene. He didn't notice the finger sitting in between the salt and pepper mills, and after he'd finished, he asked if everything was okay, Richard in particular, who had stepped back from the table, mumbling incoherently. The waiter placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, again asking if everything was okay. Richard shoved him away, shouting, "She cut off her fucking finger! I can't believe... you stupid, stupid bitch!"

The waiter steadied himself, grunted something in Spanish and grabbed Richard's arm. They both wrestled, Richard proving too much of a match for him, throwing him against the alcove wall. A bigger waiter serving at the bar end of the restaurant noticed the disturbance and calmly but swiftly made his way over. Richard struggled with them both, and as he started to yell, "Get off me! It's her! Listen! Please! She cut off her finger!" a well-built man approached from three tables down, trying to be the hero, , his partner hissing at him to come back this very instant! Everyone craned their heads to watch, even the young bargirl who had stopped stacking glasses to get a good view looked on with a wry smile.

Gayna stayed seated. "You wondered why your precious secretary didn't call in today? Ha! Did y'know you were having your end away with a tramp from the Dunstall Council estate? Very classy, Richard. Nothing but a common slag sleeping her way to the top!"

"It wasn't like that... you..." Rather than finish his sentence, Richard lunged forward.

The two waiters and the large man combined managed to contain Richard's flailing arms, and they dragged him out from the alcove.

Gayna grinned. "But of course, you knew that; that's why you hired the little whore."

Richard made one last attempt to escape the six clutching arms, but failed. "What've you done to her?" he spluttered. Apart from the occasional gasps from the stunned customers, and the clattering of cutlery on china, his heavy breathing was the only audible sound in the shocked silence.

The wannabe hero pushed Richard's arms up behind his back, proceeded to lift him, and shoved him towards the door. Moments before being thrown out onto the street, Richard managed a final look back, just as Gayna snatched up her steak knife. In a white-knuckled grip, she grasped its wooden handle like a caveman grabbing a cutting tool, and after glimpsing her reflection in the serrated blade, she stabbed the point hard into her steak. Watery blood and juices flowed out from the hole, and with wild, frantic strokes, sawing rather than cutting, she hacked a gaping slice in the meat, giggling, "And her breasts! So much firmer that mine! So youthful and tender, so much softer to the touch!"

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