Scoundrel Time

Exclusive Service

Tom had built up some sort of callus so the leg shackle didn’t bother him as much as it used to. Also, the Team had been very accommodating when he asked for the chain to be lengthened. Those few inches meant he could reach the bathroom, so he felt a little less like an animal in a cage.

“We just didn’t think about it,” the Team cheerily explained in an e-mail. “Thanks for your great work, Tom. The big man really appreciates it.”

Tom knew he did.

“I can’t do it without you, Tommy. I need you here.”

The big man fastened the lock himself with a dainty twist while his sons held him down.

“It won’t be so bad,” the dark-haired one said. Tom still had trouble remembering their names. “You can probably sleep in the chair.”

They let him keep his phone, on the condition that he use his social media accounts to post frequently about how wonderful it was to work for the big man.

“No complaining,” the Team warned him. “We’ll be watching.” Tom never doubted it. There were mirrors everywhere, any or all of which could be the two-way kind he had seen on cop shows.

In a way, this was an incredible opportunity. His work was seen all over the world on a daily basis; it was more than art, he was creating an icon. And he was making a lot of money, unless they had found a way to fake his online bank statements. He had given up his apartment and no longer bought food, so he was definitely spending less. The Team sent in food, the same fast food that the big man liked, which was a disaster for Tommy’s waistline, especially as there was no room to exercise. He dreamed of round, sweet Fuji apples from the farmer’s market near his old apartment.

He wished he had been allowed to bring his cat—a familiar comfort would have made such a difference—but the big man hated animals.

The Team implied he would be left alone most of the time, but Tommy found that the big man was likely to drop in at any time of the day or night. Eventually, he got so lonely that he began to look forward to his visits. In the beginning, he thought that if his work was good enough, the big man would allow him to work on other members of his circle. Tommy would have loved to get his hands on the big man’s wife, who had truly lovely hair. But she had disappeared and anyway, the big man wasn’t the kind to share. The more he liked you, the more likely he would insist on exclusive service, on being the only customer.

“How they treating you, Tommy?” There was always a “they” with the big man, mysterious forces that worked for or against him. He never seemed to grasp that he himself was “they” to Tommy. He walked with a heavy stoop and the stylist’s chair shuddered when he dropped into it.

The essentials of his style never changed—the teasing, the side part, the little ducktail in the back—but there were many variations that might take hours to work out. Sometimes the tease was more or less pouffy; sometimes the honey badger went platinum. Sometimes Tommy didn’t do anything but stand behind him and pretend to trim, snip, snip, snip, while the big man scowled at himself in the mirror.

Tom worried about the future. The big man’s hair was thinning and would only get worse. He wasn’t getting any younger and his stress level was stupendous. The TV mounted above the chair was always on and always tuned to Fox News, but Tom could tell things weren’t going well. Things the big man thought would be simple were actually complicated; his loved ones turned against him. If the day ever came that the familiar golden coif wasn’t possible, would that be Tom’s fault? The big man was not above blaming other people for his problems.

“You know what we need, Tommy?”

“What, sir?”

“We need a war, a nice, big war. That’ll shut people up. Who do people hate the most?”

You, Tommy wanted to say.

He knew what the big man needed. He had seen it before, a lot of hairstylists had—optometrists and dentists probably knew about it too, anyone who touched the faces of strangers for a living—some people just needed to be touched. The big man lifted his chin in his usual combative posture, but when Tommy swooped out the cape and tied it around his neck, some of the tension seemed to leave him.

Tommy put his hands on the big man’s broad shoulders, felt how tight they were, tight as fists, and said, “What can I do for you today, Mr. President?”

The big man smiled and closed his eyes. “Do whatever you feel is best, Tommy. I trust you.”