The casino was a squat Georgian structure between a restaurant and a tattoo parlor. The windows were tarnished and ivy climbed up the bricks. The streetlamp ahead of it was pestered by persistent moths. Raphael stared at them when he stood posted at the door with his arms crossed. He was assigned to wear a black leather jacket with a deep hood that shadowed his bronze face. His sky blue eyes pierced those of anyone who passed by. Perhaps that was what made this night such a slow one.
This was the end of his second week on guard. He was to stand guard and dissuade anyone without an identification that proved them to be an adult, and to stop anyone who ran out with unauthorized money, as this was common as of late.
The aroma of smoke and spices wafted out of the pizzeria on one side. He breathed it in and heard the snarl of his stomach. That was a welcome contrast to the stench of tobacco and alcohol behind him. He heard the tune of Metallica mixed with curses and roars of laughter.
The moon had risen above the structures. It must have been about midnight.
"How is everything?" Draguta appeared beside him with a shot of whiskey and presented it to him.
"All is well," Raphael answered and threw the shot back. He passed the glass back to his boss.
"Good," the man slapped him on the shoulder.
The study man disappeared back into the casino. Raphael squared his stance and crossed his arms once more. He had lost count of the hours he spent in this position at the casino.
He moved his eyes to watch a couple people cross the street and approach the casino. One was a youth about eighteen or so, and the other was a girl about the same age.
"Excuse me, sir," said the young man. "May I go in there just a second?"
"Do you have identification?"
"No, we just know that our dad's in there. Can we go get him?"
Raphael sneaked a glance over his shoulder, but Draguta was not to be seen. He returned to his position. "Describe him."
"Tall," said the girl. "Brown hair and eyes, probably wearing a suit."
"And he may have been drinking," added the boy.
Raphael remembered that man. He arrived with some other men in suits already intoxicated. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Go get him and be out in five."
"Thank you, sir," the boy darted inside with the girl behind him.
Raphael replanted himself at his post with crossed arms. He could hear the voices of the youths and the slurred protests of their father, but within minutes, the three emerged with the brother and sister supporting the man between them.
"Thank you," the boy called over his shoulder.
Raphael dipped his chin in a nod of acknowledgement and stared after them. He reached into his jacket and inserted earbuds into his ears. He dropped his eyes to the MP3 in his pocket and pressed play to start "Cement Shoes" by Project 86.
Towards the end, a series of shouts and curses erupted behind him. He peered over one shoulder and saw two men pursuing another as he rushed toward the exit. Raphael reached out and snatched him by the collar as he ran past, then wrenched him back. There was a stack of money in his grip.
"I won this!" the man stared up at him with surprise and some anxiety. "The dealer tried to cheat."
"And that is exactly what the last thief said," Draguta appeared with a sneer.
Raphael snatched the money and shoved the man into the arms of his boss, who shoved him out to the street. He stumbled and caught himself, then spun around to face his accusers.
"You know I won that money –"
"I know we have an anti-cheating policy," Draguta reminded him, "and that Raphael enforces it."
The man stopped. Then he turned and disappeared down the street.
Raphael stood a little straighter the remainder of his shift. It was not until the coral rays of dawn stretched across the street that he disappeared into the casino and made his way to the back room.
"Come in," Draguta rose out of his chair to greet him. "Please, sit down."
Raphael seated himself across the small desk and clasped his hands on his lap.
"I have been extremely pleased with your dedication these last weeks," Draguta said with a smile as he seated himself and leaned back in his own chair. "You have great potential. You are capable of much more than standing beside a door all night."
"Appreciate it," Raphael answered.
"My respect for you increased even more tonight when you caught that liar. So I am proposing," he rose to retrieve a photo from a shelf beside him and seated himself again, "a promotion. I've a list of people that have cheated or scammed this casino and the amounts they stole. You confront them and retrieve the money that is owed us. You have my permission to use any means necessary, although I suspect you'd convince anyone pretty quickly. And such a promotion includes a residential upgrade."
He set the photo on the desk and moved it toward Raphael. The residence was sizeable, and settled on an ample property in a secluded region. There was a turquoise pool behind the back patio and a palm tree on either side.
"This is in an upscale area," Raphael observed.
"Yes, it is," Draguta leaned toward him with anticipation. "So what do you say?"
Raphael picked up the photo and, after a moment, dropped it back on the desk.
"I appreciate your confidence in me. I shall prove you right."
Draguta released a pleased smile. "Good."
He slid open his desk drawer and withdrew a pair of cigars and a lighter. He passed one cigar to Raphael and lit the other in his mouth. He then ignited the one Raphael and clamped between his teeth.
"You got anywhere to eat lunch?" Draguta asked as he removed his cigar a moment.
"No, not particularly," Raphael answered around his own cigar.
"Pick any place in the area, and it will be on me. This deserves a celebration."
The Southwest Steakhouse became their chosen destination that afternoon. Raphael dressed in a crisp black shirt and black jeans, as these were the nicest clothes he owned. Draguta was seated across him in a black suit and shined shoes.
"Are you a steak man?" Draguta asked.
"Yes, sir," Raphael answered.
His mouth watered when he examined the menu. Steak with a blackberry marinade piqued his interest. Steak with sliced bell peppers and a marinade made with coffee snatched his attention. He ordered this, with extra Tabasco sauce and a glass of red wine proposed by Draguta.
"We are going to celebrate this right," he had insisted.
Draguta requested a Carne Asada steak along with his glass of wine and passed their menus back to the waiter. He returned his eyes to Raphael and clasped his hands on the table.
"I am thrilled to have you on my team. I can see that you are courageous, loyal. Well, I am a loyal man as well. I stand by those who are loyal to me like no one else ever will."
"I believe that," Raphael said with a nod.
"Good," Draguta eased back in his seat with a smile. "We will work well together."
Their wine arrived prior to their meal. Raphael raised the glass to his mouth and savored the rich, smoked aroma and the essence of raspberries. It streamed over his tongue with a sharp bite, but he swallowed it within a couple gulps.
"Impressive," Draguta remarked. "Excuse me. I must use the restroom."
Soon after he disappeared around a corner, their meal arrived. Raphael stared down at his steak and peppers drizzled in Tabasco sauce with a watering mouth. He assumed it would be polite to await the return of his boss before he started to eat, but the challenge remained. He had not smelled a meal this appealing in his life. The steak was even garnished with some sort of pale petals. A meal fit for a king!
When Draguta returned, he seated himself with an excited smile down at his steak. "Looks delicious."
"Yes," Raphael agreed. He watched his boss start to saw his steak apart before he did the same.
The meal was as appealing as it looked and smelled. The spices awakened his senses, and the bitter petals added another twist to the flavors. He was completely satisfied when the meal ended, until Draguta proposed dessert.
"You have done enough," Raphael raised one hand with a humble smile.
"Remember, if we are to celebrate, we should do it right. Now, what would you like?"
In the end, Raphael ordered a mud pie and Draguta a slice of raspberry cheesecake sprinkled with the berries themselves. The two dined with delight in their desserts and smiles in their expressions. Raphael was more than pleased with his position than ever, and he said so to Draguta when he shook his hand.
"My pleasure, all of it," Draguta assured him and returned his grasp. "Get some sleep. You can move into your new place as soon as you please."
He and his driver deposited Raphael ahead of his apartment soon after. Raphael was exhausted after the week of nightshifts and lunch meal he stayed awake to attend. He squinted through the sunshine he had grown unaccustomed to as he trudged up the stairs and into his apartment.
There, he closed his curtains and cast himself across his mattress to sleep…