Denied

My dad lay dying, intermittently mumbling short bursts of information. Missing my mother. Lots about Jonathan, my older brother. The favorite with a tech start-up. His worry over the youngest, Claire. She’d been spoiled into addiction and until recently, was still getting payments from the Bank of Dad. I waited for my name to rally forth, but it never came. Like always. Growing up, I thought I was the family dog.  There, under the table, listening, waiting for someone to say my name. Maybe I should’ve spoken up.

I absorbed Dad’s worry as my siblings texted me for updates. Should I come now? Do you know how long?

Jonathan searched for cheap flights. Got to find something affordable, sis.

Claire marshaled social media sympathy. Friends, this is SO hard.

I placed my phone near Dad’s ear so he could ease into the next plane listening to music. Suddenly, he clutched my hand.

“Did we do the right thing?” he asked.

“Dad, what?”

“You, you more than anyone, you will understand, won’t you? You’ll help them now.”

“What do you mean?”

“The signed Stephen King. On the shelf. Find it. No one else knows.”

He settled back, slowly releasing his grip on my hand. He took his last breath as the sun rose.

Two weeks later, we gathered at Dad’s house. It should have been earlier, but Jonathan pushed the funeral back three days. It will be more convenient for me, Sis.

He’d found those cheap flights.

And Claire? At least 75 people were Facebook weeping over her loss.

I steeled myself for the day, hiding in the kitchen, binge-eating chips.

“You’re going to get fat. And the toilet roll in the bathroom is all wrong.” I looked up to see Claire.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“You’ve got it flipped the wrong way.”

“Did you fix it?”

“Well, no. Not my house.”

“Right.”

I carried a plate of sandwiches to the dining room.

“Everyone settle in,” Jonathan said. In all the rush, I’d forgotten Dad’s last words.

The signed Stephen King. Find it.

I slipped away and retrieved the book from the bookcase. Inside, there was an envelope from the state lottery commission. The shocking revelation might have caused the average person to show her hand. But not the loyal dog. My parents had won a thirty-five-million-dollar lottery. There were bank deposit slips and several transactions. From what I could tell, they’d given almost all of the money away.

Almost.

The papers said it was a private account, accessible only through a specific attorney. All the details were there.

I stepped toward the dining room. There were cracks in the ceiling. Paneled walls from a bygone era. You’d never know they had great wealth. Dad said I would understand. I would help them.

No one else knows.

“Jonathan, you don’t get an equal share,” Claire spat. “You got an advance on your inheritance to buy your house.”

“That’s private!” Jonathan snapped.

Claire shrugged. “I guess not.”

“It says here divide equally among my children,” Jonathan waved a piece of paper. “Besides, you went through a lot of dough for bail money and then rehab. Twice.”

That had to sting.

            “What do you think, Sis?” Claire asked.

“About what?” I asked.

“The distribution. Dad can’t have meant that the remainder of his estate is equal. You were with him. Did he clarify anything?”

They stared at me. The money debate might go on all night with drinking and shouting and me, alone in the kitchen washing dishes, putting away food. Taking care of everyone else’s mess.  

I’d inherited a family secret. I could change their lives in an instant.

Or not.

“Well, did he say anything because my livelihood is on the line,” Jonathan shouted.

“I need to know how much now!” Like always, Claire.

There are a lot of ways to die, I thought.

I’d experienced the death of a thousand slights.

But to deny someone? That’s another way to kill. Slowly.

“He said he wanted me to have the Stephen King.” I clapped the book shut.

The oldest got all the praise.

The youngest got all the attention.

But middle sister gets all the money.


In the Frame

I loitered on the edge of the crackling pavement, watching cruel smoke ribbons emanate from the ash of Cocody Marché.  The ghosts of Abidjanais merchants’ middle-class dreams keened above.  Harvey, a 280-pound bead of sweat, muttered over his shoulder while mopping his grotesque brow: “The police have officially declared it an electrical fire.”  A beat.  “You’ve passed your test, Abby.”  A fat envelope, a thoughtful pause.  “If you’re looking for something longer-term, you’re hired.”

No time for Aristotelian debate on the ethics of Harvey’s client, the French conglomerate opening a new centre commercial downtown and seeking to dominate the local consumption scene.

Or on my own mores, come to that.

“I’m in.” 

“Instructions for your next assignment.”  Another francophone capital sous-saharien.  “Read and return them.”  I complied.  Harvey ignited them, tossed the stub into the ashes.

A straightforward job.  A savvy, well-oiled tycoon (petro-state, government monopoly, connections, wife + girlfriend, etc.) – who cracked the stereotype by eschewing the traditional Parisian flat and embracing his penchant for contemporary Africanart.  Binoculars – Harvey’s lone advance contribution – confirmed a Diarrassouba painting in the girlfriend’s salon

So, I contrived to meet her. 

Acting the part of an insipid, insouciant American at a garish club did not unduly tax my faculties.  I “accidentally” bumped the young hoyden’s drink while attempting (failing) to dance to coupé-décalé, and promptly offered an apology beverage.  Adequate French and a strategically-employed wallet procured my invitation to her next fête. 

Voilà.

I wore wide-legged pants to the party (unattractive, pragmatic; attractive shoulder-baring top necessary) and brought a suitably expensive bottle for the hostess.  The house thrummed eclectically; the living room stereo blasted Algerian rai, the hired band played Congolese ndombolo.  The party attendees were well above my cut – young professionals in everything from finance to film, the occasional NGO runner.  I spent ten delightful minutes discussing the enduring relevance of Calixthe Beyala’s work with a female engineer, and another ten on possible contenders for this year’s Mo Ibrahim prize with a gentleman schoolteacher.  Then I headed to the restroom to put my head between my knees and reconsider my life choices.

But Harvey had held my return ticket against completion of the job.  The attendees had largely moved outside; dinner was served.  In seconds I lifted the painting from the wall and darted into the bedroom with it.  Extracting it from its frame – slightly warped from the humidity – proved tedious, but I managed.  I rolled it up with the care I’d have extended to a magic carpet, and tucked it into the cardboard tube just extracted from my left pant leg.  I was just about to return it when she entered –

– deconstructed my colonialist conneries with panache –

– and asked what I thought we could get for it.

I whistled.

« Lui – » She shrugged elegantly toward her lover.  « Il ne me plait plus. » 

Half a commission beats a late-night arrest, I reasoned.  Aloud, I said, fervently, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


Two in the Streets

Two a.m., and last call was fifteen minutes ago. The slender guy at the bar paid with cash, peeling twenties off a thick wad that he stuffed back into the inner pocket of his cashmere coat. He looked around the bar and shook his head as if to clear it, and then he wobbled toward the door.

The wind grabbed the door out of his hand and he staggered going out into the January chill. The Rolex Oyster on his wrist caught the light as he went out and turned north up Second Ave. Wrong way, mister. Nothing up there except dark streets as empty as the eyes on a skull, all the way up to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I counted slowly to ten, then shrugged into my navy pea coat and left my last glass half-drunk on the table, weighing down a ten for the waitress.

By the time I hit the street, he was a block ahead of me, weaving all over the sidewalk, a drunk on his way home. He paused to lean against an old Honda Civic that was parallel-parked at the curb, and then he shook himself, raised his head, and walked on. I stayed in the shadows and moved along behind him. Watching. Waiting.

The two kids that came out of the alley were lean and hungry-looking. Greasy T-shirts, jack boots, dirty jeans If I’d been close enough to smell them, I knew they’d reek of weed or patchouli. The taller one had a hunting knife in his hand, and the polished steel blade caught the little ambient light there was and reflected it dully.

I skulked along under the awnings of the building, speeding up a little but not enough to make myself breathe hard in the cold night air. No reason to give myself away. Not yet.

I was close enough now that I could hear their conversation.

“–like a donation, you know,” the shorter one said and grinned at his buddy. “A little something to keep us poor orphans warm on a cold night like this.”

The man in the cashmere coat wasn’t having it.

“Leave me alone,” he said. “I’m just looking for a good time.”

“You found one,” the wolf with the knife growled. I was close enough now that I could see the pitted acne scars on his face. He held the blade low, cutting edge up, like he knew how to use it. He jabbed it toward the man, his face breaking into leering grin.

“Come on,” the shorter one said. “Let’s just get the money.”

“We take the money, and maybe take a piece of him, too. He could ID us.”

“He’s drunk, he ain’t gonna ID shit.” He turned to the wobbly man in cashmere, who seemed to pull himself up to his full height. “Come on, man. Give us the fuckin’ money.”

“I’m not drunk,” the drunk said. His voice sounded full of righteous indignation, and I grinned a little. I’d been there myself. I flipped the tail of my pea coat up and put my right hand in my back pocket.

The one with the knife made a come on, come on gesture with the blade, and I saw the drunk’s hands go up, saw his hand dip into the coat pocket.

Good, I thought. Give them what they want. Give me time.

But the gun that came out of the jacket wasn’t what either of those kids wanted. The first shot rolled like hard thunder along the buildings, and I could barely hear the clatter of the knife as it hit the concrete sidewalk. The next shot followed less than a second later, and then both bodies were sprawled on the concrete. The slender man in the cashmere coat stood there for a moment, the gun seemingly forgotten in his hand. Then he put it away and walked on up the street.

He wasn’t weaving anymore.

I still had my hand in my hip pocket, my fingers curled around the cold metal of my Birmingham PD detective’s shield. I left it in my pocket and came out of the shadows to stare down at the men lying dead on the street.


Ground Beef

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” I said.  A few clouds grazed lazily across a field of stars.  They lumbered onto moon, and the world went dark.

Tanner kept on shoveling.

“Ole died,” I said.  “And so Lena goes to the newspaper man to write an obituary.  ‘Just put, “Ole died,”’ Lena says.  ‘That’s it?’ The man asks.  ‘You don’t want to say anything more?  If you’re worried about money, the first five words are free.’  So Lena thinks and says, ‘Okay, put “Ole died.  Boat for sale.’”

The only sound was the thud of the shovel.  Back in the old days, when they would have gotten $20 each to dig a grave, that joke would have killed Tanner.  I threw a couple more loads of dirt, climbed out, and sat down next to the hole with the last two beers from the truck.

Tanner paused and stepped, heel to toe, around the edge.  He’d grown early – one of the reasons Sports Illustrated attributed to his success – his foot being just over one-foot long by the time we were fourteen.  He measured twice, tossed his shovel out, and pulled himself up beside me.

“I can’t believe I killed him,” Tanner said, rubbing his forehead.  The moon peeked through just enough to shine a small sliver on his mud-encrusted World Series ring.

“It was an accident.”  I finished off my beer and pulled out a tin of chew, for old times’ sake.  “Could have happened to anyone.”

“It’d just been so long, you know.  Like, what – 10 years?  I was gonna go straight to my Aunt’s, but when I drove in and saw Humphry Hill…I…I just wanted to take a look.”

I spit, and nodded.  “Big Mac’s been sticking close to that hill at night, on account of losing his leg to a coyote a few years back.”

“He didn’t even move.  Just looked at me with his one good eye.”  Tanner swallowed hard.

“He was living on borrowed time anyways.  I mean, he was old when we were kids.  My dad has a photo with him on his first day of Kindergarten.”

“They wanted me to take a picture with him tomorrow.  For the billboard, you know.”  He jerked his head towards the highway.  The shell of the sign was currently covered with a sheet – lumpy from the cutout of the letters reading “Birthplace of Tanner Gibbons” – in preparation for tomorrow’s ceremony.

I spit again, stood, and brushed off my jeans.  “Well, let’s get at it.  We need to get your vehicle cleaned up, too.  Can’t go to your party with guts in your grill or blood in your bed.”

“Thanks again for the help, man.  It’s been too long.”

I shook his hand.  “What are friends for.”

We got beneath Big Mac.  Fortunately, the old Holstein wasn’t more than skin and bones, and it wasn’t much of an effort to hoist him into the hole.  Tomorrow morning I’d come by with the cultivator – I needed to do this section in the next day or so anyways – and soon it’d look like all the rest of my family’s fields.

As we dumped the dirt back into the hole, Tanner asked, “Should we say a few words?”

“Sure, do you know any prayers for a cow?”

He gave a smile, like he used to do right before we’d find some trouble when we were kids.  “What did St. Peter say when Big Mac got to the pearly gates?

“The steaks have never been higher.”


Philippine Farewell

The Cessna Citation banked hard right for a few paralyzing seconds before leveling, and what caught Max’s attention was the glimmering Pacific appearing through the window, its dazzling vastness extending as far as the horizon allowed. Briefly, the majestic view made him forget how much he hated to fly, or, more specifically, how much he loathed air travel in general. He hated the spatial wastefulness of airports, and he despised mouth-breathing passengers, violent turbulence and intrusive security checks. He harbored a hatred for all aspects of air travel as much as he hated blowhards who blathered on about politics or religion whenever conversation arose, which is to say he hated everyone and everything with unmitigated passion, though he kept those fervent emotions repressed—it was never wise to reveal too much from within the inner sanctum.

But when the orders came down from Rodel Ocampo to be at the private hangar inside Davao International before sunrise, Max complied, as did a few others: Carlos, Ernesto and Darrin. The hoodlums met on the tarmac, boarded the plane, and took off as daylight was breaking.

Ocampo, better known as The Saint of Death or Rodel the Devil, depending on which Filipino slum one inhabited, was a cliché middleman for an arm of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel that had been running ungodly amounts of crystal methamphetamine through the Philippines over the previous decade. He was a slovenly sort who was promoted to his position because of an influential uncle with a rubber stamp mentality. Max had little respect for the man other than the fact that Rodel happened to pay his subordinates in cash, and he paid rather well.

For Max, he was fine with steady income that was under the table. He’d encountered a tiny bit of trouble back in the States, trouble that came with a warrant and a prison sentence between 15 and 20. Max was an assumed name he’d been living under for half a year, and he was perfectly content to spend the rest of his days on the run as a free man with his new name, living in his modest apartment near the coast where the bikini-clad migrated. The pretty young things liked Americans, though they liked cash even more.

The flight had been steady for nearly half an hour when Rodel rose from his seat near the cockpit. He steadied himself on headrests as he lumbered toward his men at the rear of the plane, where they sat as far away from each other as possible. He walked a few feet forward before stopping midway. “Boys, everyone aboard gets their hands dirty on this job.”

Rodel had a thing about not getting his own hands dirty, which was understandable, but his repeated proclamations were like swallowing castor oil. They never went down easy and tended to stir nausea. He pointed at Darrin and Carlos. “Garbage to unload in the rear. Takes more than one to carry a load, so you two are up first. Let’s make this quick.”

Darrin stood and Carlos followed suit. Rodel turned to Ernesto and pointed at the hatch at the front of the plane. “Open the door and watch that first step.”

Max’s breakfast of eggs and grapefruit began to protest. He could only think of what could go wrong once the hatch was open, having seen too many movies where the passengers were sucked out by the vacuum. He made sure his seatbelt was buckled and drawn tight, looking up just as Darrin and Carlos were lugging a plastic garbage bag that was duct taped and weighted. It had the contours of a human body. Ernesto opened the hatch. It got windy and loud. The two men tossed the bag and went to retrieve another.

Rodel yelled at Max. “Get your ass up here, Maxie.”

Reluctantly, Max unbuckled and followed orders, his knees quaking as he straightened, but he only managed a few steps before Darrin and Carlos grabbed him underneath both arms. They dragged him to the open hatch, his screams dying against the rushing wind.

Rodel leaned in close. “Time to grow some wings.”

With a shove, Max quickly discovered something much worse than flying.


One Bad Spin

For the rest of my life, I’ll never be anything but The One Who Left Mom Alone in the Car That Night. It’s like landing on the “bankrupt” wedge on Wheel of Fortune—no matter how well you’ve played the game, one bad spin undoes it all. I’ll never be Selfless Angie Who Took Mom in When No One Else Could Be Bothered or Sweet, Patient Angie Who Put Up with Mom’s Bullshit While Everyone Else Lived Their Best Lives—just Stupid, Careless Angie Who Left Mom Alone in the Car in the Wrong Neighborhood at 2 A.M.

In my defense—how’s that for the title of my memoir? In My Defense: The Angie La Rosa Story—I thought the 2 a.m. thing would work in my favor. Who the hell goes to QuikMart at two o’clock in the morning? And anyway, what could happen in three minutes?

I know it was three minutes because that’s the deal I made with myself: three minutes, not a second longer. Long enough to stretch my legs and buy one of those enormous 89¢ fountain pops you can only get at places like this. We’d been on the road since 7 a.m. because Mom couldn’t get it through her skull that her yearly trips to Boca weren’t a good idea anymore. There’d be consequences for drinking a quart-and-a-half of Diet Coke, but I’d been running a cost-benefit analysis since Kankakee and I decided I’d take the hit.

I was at the counter when I heard the first gunshot. At first, I didn’t panic. One gunshot is a question mark. But then the gun went off again, and that’s when I knew it was bad. If one shot is a question mark, a second one is a period. Sorry, Angie, you’re fucked. Full stop.

Through the door, stomach in my throat, mouth full of battery acid, and the first thing I saw was my mother. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in the car like I told you, Mom? The second thing was the man who’d just ruined my life. The last thing was the blood. Three things, in that order: Mom, man, blood.

“Jesus, Mom,” I heard someone say. Oh, right—me. “What the fuck did you do?”

Mom held the gun at her side as casually as she’d carried her orthopedic shoes on the beach last week. She used one foot to turn the body over so I could see what was left of the face. “Frank Marino’s oldest,” she said. “He recognized me, kitten. The little bastard went for his phone as soon as he saw me.”

Sure enough, there was Frank Junior’s iPhone on the pavement, a few inches from his stupid, dead fingers. Mom had broken every mob rule in the book when she dropped the dime on the Marino family six years ago, but things had worked out like she wanted: Frank Senior was in prison, the Marino family had imploded in his absence—backbiting shits, every one of them—my family had slid into the void they’d left in the local hierarchy of killers and thieves, and Mom had finally gotten the retirement she wanted. (It turns out the feds are disturbingly good at helping old ladies who turn state’s evidence fake their deaths.) Everything was fine until I had to stop in the old neighborhood for my Diet Coke fix at the exact moment Frank Junior decided what would really complete him was a gas-station burrito. Fuck me.

I couldn’t see the clerk through the window, but I had no doubt she’d already called the cops. For a few seconds I fantasized about driving away and leaving my mother in the parking lot for the police to deal with, because fuck them too, but then Mom was snapping her fingers at me and I slipped back into my default persona. Angie Who’s Forty-Two Years Old and Still Does Whatever the Fuck Her Mother Tells Her to Do, at your service. Mom shooed me into the driver’s seat, and we were back on the road before the first blush of blue light tinted my rearview mirror. 

Jesus, Mom. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in the car?


The Naughty List

The Christmas tree stood proud, red and silver and plastic. It smelled real. The collector’s wife must have lit a pine-scented candle before leaving for church.

The presents, more than I’d ever seen, were wrapped and stacked beneath simulated evergreen needles. Gold and blue paper popped under lights and tinsel—the place looked like a Hallmark movie set.

“We need to get in and out, fast,” I said. “If the collector returns and we’re here, we’re fucked.”

Smitty didn’t answer. I glanced right. He stared at the tree, oblivious, munching Santa’s cookies.

“Cut it out,” I said. “Those are for Saint Nick.”

Smitty laughed. Rotten yellow teeth flashed between crack lips. The ugly hole poked out of splotchy skin. “I’m on the naughty list.”

I frowned. “Put the treats back.”

Smitty grinned. “Who gives a shit?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

My mind flashed to the orphanage and the pain and the cold and everyone calling me “Cracker Bitch” and the wrapped GI Joe and the joy—overwhelming happiness. Somehow, exactly what I’d asked for, magically appeared under my bed. I never figured out who put it there, or how they knew. The attached card said: “Merry Christmas -Big S”.

That’s when I became a true believer. 

“Santa’s real,” I said.

Smitty’s ugly hole broke ear to ear. “The fuck your say?”

“A thing happened… At the group home when I was a kid.”

“Yeah, I heard those priests are friendly.”

“Not that, asshole. A gift from nowhere.” I frowned. “Shit, I don’t know.”

“Wait… you think Santa is real?” Smitty laughed. “You fucking idiot.”

I slapped his dirty mouth. “Don’t disrespect Santa.”

Smitty held his jaw and whimpered like a bitch. 

I pointed to the wall-hung paintings. “Mass is over in five minutes. Let’s get these out.”

We loaded Big Tony’s requested art in the back of the stolen van. I drove away. 

I was halfway to Hoboken. Sinatra crooned in the background. I felt good. Big Tony paid well. I’d be able to get my boy the PlayStation. 

I looked right, checking the mirror. In the corner of my eye I saw Smitty. He cradled a small, blue and gold wrapped, present.

My stomach soured. “The fuck is that?”

Smitty shrugged. “We jacked ten original oil paintings.” He raised the gift. “Who gives a shit about this?”

“The kid, and Santa.”

Smitty laughed. 

I stopped the van. “Get the fuck out, leave the present.”

His bloodshot eyes went wide. “What?”

I pulled my Glock and pointed the 9mm at his head. “Drop the present. Walk to Tony’s. Do it now. Disobey and I’m offing you, just like Lucky Larry. Fuck around and find out.”

Smitty did as he was told.

I was disappointed. I wanted a reason.

I banged a U-turn and returned to the collector’s place. I sprinted inside, dropped the thing, and got out. As I drove away, a silver Bentley rolled past. I’d beat the collector home by minutes.

I drove to Tony’s, delivered the stuff, and got paid. Smitty sat there, wet from melted snow, looking sour.

He smirked. “The true believer.” He sucked a menthol. “Ever since we got out of the pen, you’ve been a pussy.”

I tasted menthol. “Fuck you. Santa’s real.”

Smitty chuckled. Tony shrugged. I left.

• • •

I woke at sunrise on December 25th. There was a text from Fat Tony on my phone.

“Turn on the news.”

I flipped the switch. The anchor spoke.

“Tragedy in Hell’s Kitchen. A local man, Gerald Smith, died last night. A dump truck, managed by Kringle Enterprises, lost control on ice. The truck skidded to a stop, but the load of coal broke loose, crushing Mr. Smith. He was 42 years old.”

I texted Tony. “Tragic”. The fat man didn’t answer.

I reached under my bed, looking for my jeans. I felt something and pulled it out.

It was a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year, with a red bow, and a little card, which I opened.


“Merry Christmas,

Presents for the good. Coal for the naughty. Don’t fuck around.
Stay Frosty,


—Big S”

I opened the bottle and took a long slug. The good burn hit. I felt merry.


OUTSOURCING

Johnny Maggio’s wife was having an affair. But a divorce was out of the question, as the Church frowned on such measures. Instead, Johnny chose to have this lothario rubbed out. The Church also felt rather strongly about murder, but this was a matter of pride.

The Romeo in question was Vinnie “Two Cats” Castiglione, a small-time hood with a gambling problem. Johnny wasn’t inclined to wade through all the dive bars, meth dens, and floating crap games on the West Side to hunt down some third-rater. Johnny gave the job to his lieutenant, Tommy Octaroro, plus fifty grand for Tommy’s trouble.

• • •

Through the wages of sin, Tommy Octaroro had achieved a prosperous life including a seven-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath, McMansion on the North Shore, a forty-eight-foot ketch moored at the yacht club, and a high-rise condo in South Beach. Tommy wasn’t willing to lose all that to eradicate some low-life who crossed the boss. Too many risks: cops, witnesses, a retaliatory lucky shot by Vinnie.

At Sunday family dinner, his sister Julie again whined to Tommy about advancement for her son Donny. The boy was good with numbers, but seemed to lack a certain malevolence necessary to succeed in their world. This was the kid’s lucky day; Tommy promised his nephew twenty-five thou and the opportunity to make his bones.

• • •

Donny Stillwell liked the idea of being a made man and all that came with it: the respect, the money, the ladies. Especially the ladies. But he didn’t want to have to kill someone. In almost all the fights he’d been in, going back to grade school, he came out the loser. And he was deathly afraid of firearms. But he was more terrified of his Uncle Tony, so he accepted the assignment.

But that didn’t mean Donny had to be the one who pulled the trigger. He figured to subcontract the work, enjoying all the benefits of the transaction, while avoiding any danger of physical injury.

He reviewed his list of underworld associates. The Dominicans were too hot-headed. The Nigerians too untrustworthy. In the end, he selected a pair of Moldovan brothers he worked with exporting stolen luxury sedans to Eastern Europe, and offered them ten G’s, to take care of Vinnie.

• • •

The Ceban brothers, Timur and Vadin, undertook the commission because they didn’t wish angering Donny and lose the franchise running misappropriated Mercedes to Romania. But the brothers were smugglers, not killers. Neither owned a gun. To perform the deed, they hired a recently arrived Armenian immigrant. The man had served in his nation’s special forces and was reputed to have assassinated of a rogue Azerbaijani General.

• • •

Sak Arakelian was eager to build a reputation in his newly adopted country and took the Moldovan’s deal. But he was still unfamiliar with America and didn’t want to make a fatal error with his first murder-for-hire. So he posted an ad on Craigslist under “Services Wanted.”

• • •

Inside the local bar, a man approached Arakelian, but did not sit. “You posted the ad?”

“Are you a cop?” Arakelian asked.

“Do I look like a cop?”

The man didn’t look like an American cop, at least the ones Sak had seen on television. His hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed. His teeth weren’t gleaming white. He didn’t wear the latest expensive fashions. “No.”

“How much?” asked the man who didn’t look like a cop.

“Two thousand,” Arakelian said, keeping three for himself.

The man nodded. “Who’s the target?”

“A hoodlum named Vinnie Castiglione. Do you know him?”

The man stiffened and blinked rapidly.

“Is that a problem?” Sak asked.

The man relaxed and shook his head. “I know where to find him.”

“Half now. Half when the job is done.” Arakelian slid an envelope across the table.

The man who didn’t look like a cop took the envelope, stuffed it in his jacket pocket, and departed. 

• • •

In his car the man counted the money, punched the address of an Atlantic City casino into his GPS, and started the engine. From the backseat came a pair of high-pitched meows. He turned and reached with both hands to scratch their ears. 

“Luck’s running our way, Girls. Get ready for a little road trip.”


Fore!

Me and Deke were down in my basement, talkin’. He worked the counter down at my shop, and I’d invited him over after closing.

“When I turned fifty, I told myself I was going to get a new set of golf clubs. Running a plumbing supply business is hard work, and I deserve a little reward now and then, you know? Plus my last set was over twenty years old.” I stood and picked up a sand wedge that was leaning against my chair. Gripped it as if I was about to blast a shot out of a greenside bunker. “Went for the game improvement clubs. Used to hit classic blades when I was a kid, but the technology in these things? Amazing. Sixty gram graphite shafts. Low kick point for higher ball trajectory. Tungsten weighting, thin top line, smooth hosel transition. Cost some serious cheddar, too. Going to have to sell a lot of toilets to pay for them. But they’re worth it.”

Deke looked as if he wanted to say something, but I barreled on. Bad habit of mine. People were always telling me to slow down, but when I talked about golf, I got carried away. “Sprang for the whole custom fitting. Tried different shafts, different club heads. Ten different brands. Hit dozens of balls with the Trackman, got all the computer results across all the important parameters: club speed, ball speed, spin rate, launch angle. They even have something called the smash factor. The higher the smash factor, the better.”

I glanced at Deke. Seemed like he was taking it all in. “You play,” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Great game. Meet some interesting characters, too, that’s for sure. I had a guy in my regular foursome a while back who referred to each of his clubs as a different weapon. His driver was his bazooka. He’d get up on the first tee and declare, ‘Time to launch the ol’ bazooka.’ Then he’d send a screamer down the fairway. His six-iron was his six-shooter, and after a good shot, he’d blow on the club’s grip like he was an Old West gunslinger cooling off the barrel of his revolver. He called his four-iron his rifle ’cause he always hit it straight and long. His wedge was a scalpel, for its pinpoint precision. He called his putter his sword and after he sank a long putt, he’d wave it around and slide it into an imaginary scabbard on his belt with a flourish, just like some old-time golfer used to do.” I got up and demonstrated with the wedge in my hand while Deke followed the entire act with wide eyes. “That guy was a trip, all right.”

I stared at Deke, and he stared back. Awkward silence.

I began again. “Did you know that in golf, players call their own penalties on themselves? That’s one reason it’s such a great game, that sense of honor. I like to think I’m an honorable guy. In fact, I try very hard to do the right thing, and it bothers me—a lot—when other people aren’t as honorable, you know?”

Deke nodded. I think he was trying to say something again, but it was hard to tell with the strip of duct tape across his mouth. I had the feeling he’d get up and leave, too, if only he wasn’t hog-tied to his chair.

“So it really pained me, deeply, when I found out you were skimming some of my profits down at the shop. My margins are slim enough without my employees ripping me off.”

I admired the sand wedge in my hand. Thirty five inches long. Fifty-six degrees of loft. Sixty-four degree lie angle. Three point two millimeter offset. Twelve degrees of bounce on the heavy metal head.

Sharp leading edge.

I took my stance. Found my rhythm with a couple of waggles. Backswing straight, then slightly inside the line. Full turn, pause at the top, followed by a powerful hip turn as I exploded through the hitting area, connecting with my target in a smooth stroke meant to maximize the smash factor.

Deke screamed as his left kneecap shattered.

Fore!


Vic Has Got to Die

Anton fell to his knees in Vic’s front hall, bleeding from four or five wounds. He had lost count during all of the shooting and stabby-stabby and was busy holding his guts in so maybe he could make it out before the police showed up. He looked up at the ostentatious piece of shit front door with deep wood carvings and a brass handle. Vic had crowed how he got it special ordered from the Philippines.

Fuck, Vic, Anton thought. Vic was dead, along with four other guys. Each got what they deserved. They made their choices, forgetting that loyalty is everything.

Anton touched the wall with a bloody hand to steady himself. The other hand on his stomach felt hot from the blood. He frowned, wondering if  it was the other way around, that his hand was growing cold. Didn’t matter really, he was running out of time. With a grunt, he rocked forward and got a foot underneath himself and started to stand.

He gasped for air as the the world dipped out of focus—

—Three weeks ago a coke rattled Vic decided there was a snitch in the group and that just couldn’t stand and since Anton wasn’t there it was easy for Willie, who was now dead in the living room, to finger Anton, Vic agreed and wanted it taken care of but the fools who went after Anton got his girlfriend Cassie and his baby girl instead, Cassie was in the ICU and just might make it, but it still meant that meant Anton had to kill Vic, and boy did it feel good putting two rounds into Vic’s chest after finding him in his bedroom, begging—

Back in the world, Anton licked the sweat from his upper lip and put a foot forward. His body felt heavy, like he was moving through a snow drift, as he wobbled on his feet. A red smear followed his hand as it slid across the wall, underlining the portraits of Vic’s grandparents. Three hard steps and he was out of wall with another six to the front door.

He had never bled like this and wondered if this was what dying was like, a drifting away. If this was the end, it was worth it. Anton leaned forward and let his momentum carry him halfway to the door when he heard it.

A cough. From upstairs.

Anton turned and looked up the stairs. He had killed everyone in the house, he had watched carefully before he came in, he knew who was and wasn’t in here, he was sure, so maybe he imagined the—

Cough, cough. Throaty and bubbly.

Anton’s shoulder’s sagged. Vic. He wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway.

The cops were on their way, someone had to have heard all of the shooting and the screams, what if they got here and Vic’s stupid coughing led them right to him, and they saved his life, then all of this would be for nothing. His baby girl, Cassie. One gone, one maybe dying.

Cough. Followed by a groan.

Sirens in the distance, Anton turned away from the door. Three steps back to the wall, three more to the stairs, twelve to the top, fifteen to the bedroom…

But then, soon, maybe even in the next five minutes Vic could be dead and this coughing was how the bitch was going to go out, real slow like, knowing this was it. Anton smiled at the thought and looked over his shoulder at the door. He should just keep going, get out, climb in his car and get the fuck away because Vic was gonna be dead. He looked down at his bloody hand. So would he if he didn’t get to the hospital soon.

Anton swallowed. His tongue felt fat. The front hall flickered with white and blue light.

And if he was dead, who would sit next to Cassie, look her in the eye and tell her it was done…


Pothole

Now Ramos and I, we’re in the groove. The kid on the stretcher is dead but still screaming, not dead enough yet. The ambulance gallops over every pothole like some kind of bullshit steeplechase. At a corner pause, we hear more gunshots outside and a block away, but barely notice. We’re doing a hundred things at once and exchanging no words. With great partners, it’s almost telepathy. I think of a large-bore IV, then Ramos is there, passing me two fourteens.

He’s brilliant and skilled and just a great guy to spend twelve hours on an ambulance with. We read each other’s minds and his folks own Pollo Tropica over on Bennington, so every shift we eat whole Cornish hens for free and buckets of Spanish rice. Although we’re on different ambulances tonight, right now it’s me and him in the back of my bus while his partner, Angie B, follows behind in their empty rig.

Foley drives. He’s new and sucks at it, but he can find the hospital without directions. I stick two large-bores in the kid’s massive neck, one on each side, and open the fluid wide.

On the right side, across his external jugular: Living My Best Life. Weird-ass life hack bullshit for a kid in his trade, but I don’t have time to dwell. Ramos corrals intestines that squirm and slide like wet snakes. He braces himself between the stretcher and the ambulance cabinets, while I’m pinned at the knees beneath the head of the stretcher near the kid’s face. Despite the fluid, the kid’s pressure is tanking and I know his heart won’t beat all the way to St. Bonhomme’s ED.

Foley wallops a huge pothole while turning to avoid it and the box where we struggle turns into a yard sale of equipment and people. Ramos ends up at the far end of the box, up against the doors and on his back, a flailing turtle unable to get up.

I land face down in thick puddle of carmine fluid tinged with caliginous brown vomit, and right before I lose my own cookies, I see it. Rolling in the blood just under the head of the stretcher. A thick, blood-soaked roll, with a hundred dollar bill on the outside.

Before I can think a moment more about it, I grab the roll and slide it into the side pocket of my uniform pants.

Back on my knees now, I see the kid looking at me. His skin is waxen and greying and he’s stopped throwing up.

“I’m dying,” he says.

Ramos is still on his back, cussing and struggling to get up.

“Come on, man. Almost there.”

The kid points toward my thigh. “Get something nice.”

He’s flatline on the monitor now but staring at me still.

I feel naked and corrupt.

But I keep the money in my pocket.

We lurch into the ambulance bay and the doors fly open and shapeless faces, my colleagues on other ambulances, some nurses, doctors, the whole trauma team it seems, excited to see us: gowned up, masked up, ghoulish and ready for action. The faceless mob reaches in and the stretcher is gone, zombies come for the feast.

I’m supposed to go in, give report, explain all this to the trauma team. But I don’t. The side pocket on my pants is alight, burning with possibilities; me, on the other side of the Styx, with a burden I will now have to bear.

I’ve never taken a dime before tonight.

I know others who have.

I need the cash, though. I’m broke, got a sick kid and an angry wife, both betrayed by the shit paycheck I bring home for all this.

I’m not sure I can do it, walk away with a dead kid’s money.

Then—I am.

Just like that.

Then he’s there. Foley. Standing in the open back doors, staring at me in his new uniform and new boots and new eyes void of nightmares, pitying me, still in the pool of blood and puke but on my knees now.

“I saw what you did,” he says. “What’s the split?”


Getting Your Money’s Worth

The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

The idea was I’d be lawyer for the Visalia Vipers, and the club would have legal representation no matter what. I’d gone to college on the GI bill, came back to Visalia, and successfully represented myself in traffic court. Twice.

The trick for traffic court was getting cases rescheduled the Friday before three-day weekends when cops were either working holiday overtime or out of town. Kept my Honda Fury out of impound and the tickets got dismissed. I bragged about it more than I should, but my uncle listened. A year later I was at the University of San Diego learning about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Being away from my brother and my uncle, I started dating girls who didn’t snort fentanyl. I could cover my tattoos with an oxford shirt buttoned all the way. If I wore a t-shirt to a bar, the stick-and-poke on my forearm became part of a story people told about me:

Smart kid, dusty town, ran with thugs, military, straightened up. Eventually, it was a story I told myself, too.

The upper crust called it “life experience” and “personal history.” The further I got from my brother, my uncle, and the plan to be the club’s lawyer, the more the Visalia Vipers became just that: history.

Being a lawyer, I handled my own name change. In Los Angeles, I hid in plain sight: my TV screen glowing from an apartment, one window out of millions. I traded my bike for a Jeep and joined a book club. Drank beer at places the Vandals would never think to visit.

Some nights, in bed with the windows open, the night air carried occasional gasoline shriek from the highway: an unyielding roar of pipes throttling; releasing; screaming torque from concrete to the heavens. Some nights I ignored the sound: thousands of bikes on the road, like thousands of lawyers in Los Angeles. None of us looking for each other.

Some nights, though, I checked the lock on my door. The pistol in my nightstand.

The first year was tough, but like thundering engines on a highway, my fear of my uncle drowned to a whisper I convinced myself was gone.

The bar down the street from my apartment was my speed: cocktails too simple and proven to attract the hip crowd, but too classy a place for a tougher audience. That night I went in for a drink and found a graceful chin resting on a tanned shoulder. Her eyes were impossibly dark and aimed at me. I bought the drinks.

When we kissed, she pried open the top of my mind, and I fell into the deep chasm of those eyes. But the honeyed pleasure of the kiss was quickly replaced by a sensation of falling, and then of tumbling on a rollercoaster. I would’ve begged it to stop but my mind was gone in those impossibly dark eyes that had swallowed me whole.

I woke in my own bed, some distant pounding against my temples, sunlight warming the sweat on my body.

Beside me, her tan skin on my bedsheets had gone slick red, with more blood than I’d ever seen. I had the presence of mind to realize I was holding my gun.

The pounding between my temples was actually two police officers pounding at my door.

My uncle transferred to the county jail in Monrovia a week after I arrived. He even managed to get a cell next to mine, and by that point I wasn’t even surprised.

His first words to me: “No hard feelings.”

He understood making a clean break and start over. “I just think it’s important to get your money’s worth.”

Jailhouse lawyers are protected men. I write and read, and have a pair of fancy headphones to drown out the chorus of inmates while I work on cases for the Vipers.

Sometimes I think about working on my own case and getting out somehow. But I close my eyes and see the tan skin of her shoulder. The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

They made sure I paid, too.