It was approaching midday. Nearly lunch time for the average worker bee. But from his 24th-floor office, Michael Haywardson considered himself above the buzz of that pedestrian lifestyle. As such, he typically took his lunch at his desk—if he ate at all—having it delivered right to him within half an hour of placing the order through his preferred food delivery app. Michael fancied himself a wise man and as far as he was concerned, there was nothing wise or economical about doing anything that he could pay someone else to do.
Eddie poked his head inside Michael’s office to find his colleague at his desk in typical form. Michael was so engrossed in the two screens in front of him that he hadn’t even noticed Eddie’s knock.
Eddie let himself into Michael’s office and plopped down in the leather chair in front of the carefully organized desk. Michael almost didn’t flinch when Eddie leaned in to fiddle with the pens in the holder on the corner. He leaned back, carded his fingers over his belly, and said, “Hey, man did you just checked the escort directory?”
Michael’s distracted response was delayed by several moments.
“Oh, hey, Ed. What’s up?”
“Dude. When was the last time you blinked? I think you need to take a break.”
“I have a call with the Koreans at 2. I was planning on smoking a cigarette right before that.”
“Wow, okay. Why don’t you come grab lunch with me. I was gonna pick something up at this amazing little Sri Lankan joint I just discovered a couple weeks ago. It’s only a ten minute walk from here.”
Michael’s gaze was still very much glued to the screen. He clicked away on his mouse with a staccato tempo that matched the saccadic dart of his eyes over infinite lines of text. It took him another few moments to process that Eddie was still waiting for an answer from him.
“They don’t deliver?” he mumbled as he squinted and moved in a little closer to the left monitor.
“Dude, seriously? Come on. It’s a nice day. The fresh air will do you some good. Let’s just go.”
Michael finally pulled his stoic glare from the screen and turned it to Eddie, who was waiting with the same kind of vibrating patience as a dog with a treat balancing on its nose. With his elbow dug into the armrest, Michael leaned his chin onto his fist and rocked in his chair.
He bit at the inside of his cheek and let out a long sigh. He knew that he should eat before his call with the Koreans. They always took such a huge amount of time.
Eddie clapped his hands together and sprang back to his feet.
“Great! I’ll meet you downstairs in 5.”
With the silence restored, Michael tuned back into the dissonant high pitched whir seeping from his monitors and scowled, already annoyed by this unnecessary break in his workflow.
Though the day was a touch overcast and fall was looming, the streets were still buzzing with the last vestiges of summer. Eddie stretched his arms wide and took a big, exaggerated breath as he stepped out from their office building’s revolving glass door. Michael’s shoulders were hunched and his fists were shoved without ceremony into his coat pockets as he followed behind.
Suits and tourists and students all blended together to form an onslaught of steady waves moving along the sidewalks in both directions, jostling the two men like a ship on a stormy sea as they made their way toward Eddie’s most recently discovered foodie mystery spot.
With his hands still in his pockets, Michael grimaced every time he grudgingly twisted his body to avoid brushing any of the oncoming riffraff.
Eddie, on the other hand, seemed rejuvenated by the mere movement of his limbs, which spent too much of their day atrophied by desk work, and the prospect of a delicious meal. He smiled wide like every passing face was an old friend.
“Their Tuesday spicy pork special is seriously amazing.” He looked like he was throwing an imaginary dart as he punctuated his sentence with one hand. “Aw, man, seriously, dude! It’s so good. I can’t wait for you to try it.”
Even after six years of working closely together, Michael was always as impressed as he could be with the number of ways Eddie was able to say ‘seriously’ and make it sound like a new word every time.
“Sure, man,” said Michael. “Whatever you say.”
In matters of business, life, and lust, Michael had always been the kind of man who got what he wanted when he wanted it because it was simply how he had always chosen to live. He was results-driven with little room or patience for anything that steered him off that direct course from want to fulfillment.
Naturally, Michael’s annoyance only grew when they arrived at the storefront of their destination only to find that it was closed for the day.
“Sorry, dude. I didn’t even think to check. Figured we’d be safe on a Tuesday.”
Michael scoffed through his nose.
By then, Eddie was completely immune to Michael’s surliness quirk; he wasn’t fazed by this hiccup in their plans at all.
“No worries, man,” he said clapping Michael on the shoulder. “It’s cool. I know another place nearby.”
“It’s not Sri Lankan, but it’s still curry. And damn, it might actually be the best curry in town.”
Michael didn’t have any opinion on curries. “Whatever, man,” he said. “Food is food. Can we just get it so I can get back to work?”
Eddie shook his head at Michael’s lack of enthusiasm for quality food adventures. “It’s just appeal,” he said.
Michael had no idea what Eddie meant by that, and quietly followed his lead.
Walking up the hill on a quieter street just off the main drag, they approached the entrance to an underground metro station with a black sign above the door that read ‘Peel’ in bright white letters.
“Ohhh,” Michael said, stopping to look up at the sign. “At Peel.”
“Yeah, dude. That’s what I said.”
Eddie stepped ahead to pull the heavy weather-stripped door and held it open for Michael. The stream of people moving through the point of entry forked around Michael, who was standing stock-still on the sidewalk looking at Eddie questioningly. He was noticeably confused.
“What’s wrong?” Eddie asked.
“Where are we going?”
“Down to the curry place I was just telling you about.”
“Dude, come on. Haven’t you ever been in the metro before?”
Michael stuttered inaudibly and looked away, shaking his head as if he might be able to rattle a sound from it that could distract Eddie from his lack of words.
Michael had never been in the metro before.
“Oh, wow…” Eddie said as this realization dawned on him. “You haven’t ever been in the metro before.”
“I mean…” Michael’s brow furrowed when he crossed his arms and shrugged his shoulders up a little closer to his ears. “Yeah. I think… once, maybe.”
Eddie shook his head and walked up to his old friend and colleague, placing a hand on his arm. He gave Michael a gentle squeeze of encouragement.
“No worries, Haywardson. Come on, follow me. Let me show you the world where us public transport-using street rats live.”
Eddie took a couple of steps down the escalator and stopped, bracing himself with both hands as he leaned back into the moving banister. He looked up at Michael, whose body language suggested he was much less relaxed than his laidback pal.
“So, believe it or not, there’s not just a bunch of trains down here that take us plebs all over town,” Eddie said. “No, sir. There’s actually a whole underground city below the superficial sidewalks you,” he pointed a finger gun at Michael, “trample down every day.”
Arms still crossed, Michael’s eyebrows raised along with his skepticism. “Underground city?”
Eddie simply cocked his head and flashed a cheeky smile. “You’ll see.”
They walked off the first escalator, rounded a corner, and mounted the next one that took them even deeper. There was a cool, dusty dankness about the place that only increased the more they sank below the noise of the surface world.
“Just how far down does this go, anyway?” Michael asked as he studied the faded bricks lining the walls, mildly disconcerted having realized just how much earth was above them now.
They stepped off the escalator onto grimy once-white tiled floors and rounded a final corner to find the opening to a dingy, lively alley lined with tiny shops, cafes, and restaurants. Though well past its heyday, the lane held a sort of unexpected charm over Michael. A blur of people walking in the opposite direction swam past him like a school of shimmering minnows while he collected his quiet shock.
He skipped a step to catch back up with Eddie.
“You mean to tell me that this has always been here?”
“H-how…” Michael stuttered with quiet awe. “How did I not know about this?”
“I dunno, man. It’s on literally every list of things to do in this city.”
Michael was genuinely impressed.
Eddie glided along at a steady clip as he maneuvered them through the bazaar of scarf shops, gimcrack boutiques, and single-table coffee shops. Looking at them, Michael couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to sit at one of those cramped, un-wiped tables in the midst of all this hurried foot traffic. And yet, he also found himself wondering with increasing intrigue about the kinds of people who have done just that.
All the while, commuters on their respective missions continued to brush past him on all sides. Usually he’d be annoyed by so many people breaching his bubble, but he was too caught up with whatever unfamiliar feeling it was that he felt taking in the discovery of this curious hidden world.
So caught up that he hadn’t even noticed that Eddie was no longer beside him.
When Michael turned back, he saw Eddie walking into what, from afar, looked like a glorified broom closet. But as he approached the opening Eddie had disappeared through, he found, nestled snugly between a smoothie bar blaring reggaeton through cracked speakers and a Vietnamese nail salon drowning in fluorescent light, a tiny blink-and-you-miss-it curry counter.
It was the kind of place you’d never see until someone pointed it out. Michael wondered then how many of the people who walked by it every day didn’t even know it was there. For reasons he couldn’t understand, he got the same pompous ego rush he felt whenever he skipped the line at a special event as he walked over the threshold to meet Eddie.
“This is it?” He tried to sound unimpressed to keep up appearances, but he was still in slight awe.
If Eddie noticed Michael’s attempt at aloofness, he ignored it completely. “This is it, dude!” he announced with a proud grin. “Come on.”
Eddie walked up to the counter, rang the service bell, and sniffed the air while they waited.
“Damn, that smells good, doesn’t it?” Michael could almost hear Eddie’s eyes glaze over as he said it.
Michael noted the heady aroma of cumin and cloves as he walked up to the glass protecting the array of curries and wondered how long he had until his coat began to absorb the scent. That said, as he looked up, pretending to study the time-bleached photos of the thali selections on the menu above them, he had to admit that he didn’t quite mind the smell as much as he thought he would.
Just then, a woman emerged through the rattling beaded curtain guarding the doorway that led toward the kitchen. She wore a simple combination of light t-shirt, dark jeans, and a black apron tied around her waist, all of which hugged her curves in a modest yet complementary way. As plain as her dress was though, her t-shirt was a striking contrast to her burnt caramel skin, and the size of the black bun at the base of her skull gave you the impression that you’d get lost in it entirely if she let her dark locks flow freely.
But Michael was nothing if not a man with an eye for details, and the first thing he chose to notice on this unassumingly refined woman was the pair of perfectly sculpted eyebrows that seemed to lengthen the lines of her soft, dark eyes. They were so pristine, he thought, that a less discerning man would surely assume that they were painted on.
Eddie greeted the woman in French. Michael let his attention wander away from them as he scanned the faded Indian folk art on the wall. Despite having lived in Montreal for several years, Michael didn’t speak French. He never saw the point in wasting time on something so trivial. He made plenty of money just fine with his monolingualism, and he never needed the girls to talk to get the job done.
The woman obviously recognized Eddie. She greeted him with a warm smile and her voice was soft and bubbly with the slight roll of a Hindi lilt as they exchanged pleasantries.
“Get whatever you want,” Eddie said after he had ordered and stepped out of the way, “but the malai kofta is seriously deadly.”
Michael approached the counter. The woman’s smile melted away to a slight sneer when he greeted her in his stern, flat English. He noticed her disdain for him immediately. But he wasn’t upset about it. Quite the opposite.
Hates me? Check.
It’s hard to say what came first: the contempt Michael sometimes earned from beautiful women or the pleasure he got from using it against them. Either way, he had been honing his craft for as long as he could remember, and he had every intention then of pushing the limits of this woman’s distaste for him for his own quiet enjoyment.
He leaned his palms on the counter and looked from the laminated menu next to the cash register, to the window where a rainbow of steaming hot curries sat ready and waiting to go home with someone.
“You got any of that, uh… what is it…” He didn’t have to look up at her to know her glare was already boring a hole into the top of his head. “Butter chicken? You got any of that?”
Michael was a lot more worldly than he ever let on. He liked to keep those cards close to his chest so he could use them to his advantage in situations just like this. For example, he knew that butter chicken was as Indian as egg rolls are Chinese. But this woman didn’t need to know that for him to carry on with this manipulative charade for his own twisted enjoyment.
The woman only released the purse on her lips long enough to spit a quick “No, sir,” at him.
“Ah.” Michael was already too pleased with himself. Man, she hates me, he thought. And I love it. “And that, uh… bread? You know, that nan bread?” She winced at his (very deliberate) mispronunciation.
“Yes,” she said with the slightest bobbling shake of her head. “We have naan.”
With their eyes locked, no one on either side of the counter said a word for a long while.
As it happens, Michael had always been just the right amount of handsome and charming to get away with a little-curated disrespect. He tended to read his targets well and was able to play his games on whatever terms suited him.
What he wasn’t accustomed to was this level of challenge from the ones he chose to toy with. Though this woman was evidently disdainful, she was also stoic. Her dark gaze was immovable. Despite the slight curl to her lip, she remained rather composed. It was almost as if…
She’s biding her time.
The composure she exhibited was admittedly unanticipated, and therefore both unsettled and impressed Michael. The subtle pang of quiet humiliation flared in his ears; he was not a little aroused by her unwavering command of the situation and controlled, albeit obvious reproach.
Eddie was absently flicking through feeds on his screen throughout all of this. Although, even if Eddie had been paying attention, he would have been completely oblivious to what was going on.
“Oh, hey, you know what, man?” Eddie said, without lifting his eyes from the screen in his palm. “I’m gonna go top up my metro pass while we’re here. Be right back.”
With Eddie gone, Michael and the woman continued their doubtful staring contest. But Michael knew his time with this alluring creature was precious and very limited.
I almost wish I had more time to see where this could go.
Just then, the woman said, “Your ignorance insults me.”
His grin cocked; his cock twitched.
“Your repulsion intrigues me,” Michael said, dropping his voice a little lower than it needed to be. This technique was considered swoon-worthy by many. But this woman didn’t have a single fuck to give.
She looked down at the floor as she reached behind her back to tug at the strings on her apron, peeled the flap of black fabric from around her hips and laid it over the counter.
“Come with me.” Her words were as abrupt as her movements. She spun on her heel and headed back to the beads from which she had emerged.
At first, Michael didn’t move.
What is happening? he thought.
“You are following me now,” she said without turning around. “Come.”
He was still hesitant, frozen by confusion.
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