Back in the day.
I'd been out of the army for two months, and I'd already killed five men, but I could barely pay the bills. The army hadn't really paved the way for legitimate employment on the outside.
I had a string of medals for marksmanship.
After the first seven weeks of Ranger training, a guy with bars on his shoulders ordered my transfer to a special outfit. No patches. No insignia. No name. It wasn't anything I could put on a resume.
But there was always work for someone with skills. Fists, knives, guns.
Stan had gotten word I was handy with my pistols. That's how things worked back in the day. No matter how careful you thought you were in keeping a lid on things, The Word always got around. So Stan had sent Thumbs Hogan to invite me for pie.
In the years I'd known Stan, we'd had pie four times.
The first time was when he made me New Guy in the monkey cage. I was young and hungry and smart, and I'd known a good opportunity when I was handed one.
We shook hands. I started making good money.
I didn't have set hours. I didn't punch a clock. I just did whatever Stan said. Or, more often, whatever Thumbs Hogan said. Sometimes people wouldn't come across with money they owed Stan. A laundry service or a gin mill or one time even a Lutheran preschool. Sometimes a deadbeat gambler needed a knuckle job. Sometimes people got too curious about Stan's business, and I was sent to convince certain parties to take up other hobbies. Variations on a theme solved any problem. Me and a gun. Me and a set of brass knuckles. Me and a baseball bat. Me.
Then there were those times that somebody called Stan for help and was willing to pay big money to have a problem go away. And Stan would put me on a plane to Denver or Little Rock or Portland, and I'd disappear the problem into the night. Sweep it away in a clap of cordite, a.45 caliber stab of light into the darkness.
It had been after one of these trips that Stan and I had pie for the second time.
I'd been sent to pull the plug on an assistant D.A. in St. Louis, but I'd been handed a bad scouting report. I walked into a room full of guns and had some trouble getting out in one piece. The bullet I'd taken in the belly had me out of action for three months. Before Stan would pass me okay for work we'd met for pie. He'd wanted to look me in the eye. To see if I could still handle it.
"We got to stick together," Stan had said.
"If we can't stand by each other," Stan had told me, "the rest don't mean shit. You remember that."
The third time we'd had pie was after Thumbs Hogan took it in the back.
He'd been giving a delinquent gambler a knuckle job. The gambler was having a bad football season and was into Stan for ten grand. So Hogan had the gambler down on the gambler's carpet in the gambler's living room, breaking the gambler's ribs when the gambler's fourteen-year-old daughter screamed into the room, tears smearing down her face, yelling for Hogan to get off her daddy as she unloaded a.22 caliber pistol into Hogan's back.
So two bites into my pie, Stan had told me I was in charge of the monkey cage. The new chain of command went from God to Stan to me to the boys. I wasn't quite an executive, but I was more of a somebody than I'd been before. Congratulations.
The fourth time for pie had been six years later, just after Dad had died.
Now Stan had called and said it was time for pie again. Something was up. I said pie sounded like a good idea, but my gut twisted into a little knot.
I walked into Troy's Diner just after three in the afternoon. I had my explanation all rehearsed and ready for when Stan asked about Sanchez. Self-defense all the way. Still, you didn't retire one of Stan's boys without Stan's permission. It was a matter of etiquette.
The diner was full of unwashed college kids with too many tattoos and too much time on their hands. Stan wanted to meet someplace where nobody would see us. I spotted Stan in a back booth, sat across from him. The coffee and pie arrived a few seconds later, brought by a pale twenty-something waitress with black hair and black lipstick. Hot apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
He nodded to me. "Charlie."
Stan had been in the South since before I was born, but he still retained his deep Bronx accent. He came south in 1955 with a pistol and an attitude. His voice sounded like a bag of rocks in a tumble dryer.
Stan had looked old even when I'd first known him. Now he sat shrunken inside his blue, pinstripe suit. His head was bald as a melon, dotted with dull brown liver spots. His face was a wad of sagging red flesh, but his bright blue eyes were hard and alert.
"Beggar Johnson's in town tonight," said Stan.
Beggar Johnson and Blade Sanchez had been tight. Sanchez had even gone as far as saying he was going to work for Beggar. I looked at my pie like it was the priority of my life. Inwardly, I braced myself.
Stan produced a rolled-up paper bag, slid it across the table to me. "Look inside."
The bag contained the metal receiver box for the hidden microphone we sometimes used, also the cordless earpiece and the tiny tape recorder. I looked in the bag again. I looked at Stan.
"Beggar and a couple of his men are coming up to meet me and mine," said Stan. "I want you on the listening end."
I blinked at him. "Why?"
He frowned. "Why? Because I say why is why."
I nodded. "Sure, Stan."
"Then stick around after," he said. "I might have an errand for you. And keep this under your hat."
"Sure. What am I listening for?"
"You'll know when you hear it." He stood and dropped a twenty on the table. "Wait a few minutes before you leave. See you tonight."
He walked out. I sat. Drank coffee. The ice cream on my pie melted.
I thought about what Stan had said, but even more about what he didn't say. The unhappy stink of change was on the wind. A big shake-up coming our way. I'd seen shake-ups before but never from inside the eye of the shitstorm itself. We didn't help decide policy down in the monkey cage, so if Stan wanted me on my toes, then on my toes I'd be.
I signaled the waitress for more coffee, and while I was considering my soggy slice of pie, I realized Stan hadn't even asked about Sanchez. No mention. Not a word.
Back in the day, a hot game for high stakes in the back room at O'Malley's would have meant a dense layer of gray-blue smoke. Hard men keeping cigars alive with short, nervous puffs, ties pulled loose, pistols checked at the door, a line of hookers snapping gum at the bar waiting to reward winners, console losers.
But this ain't back in the day.
The stakes aren't so high, and smoke hurts my eyes. I wasn't in charge of much, but I was sure as hell in charge of the monkey cage. You want to light a Lucky, take it out to the alley.
"That's forty bucks," said Bob Tate. He looked at Lou Morgan, and Lou looked back like Bob had just asked for a kidney.
Bob shrugged. "In or out?"
Lou looked at me. "What do you think, Charlie?"
I sighed at him. Didn't answer.
"I ain't got forty, man," said Lou.
"For Christ sake," said Bob. "We just got paid yesterday. What the hell do you do with your money?"
"What about a loan?" That was Benny. Always trying to be helpful.
I said, "I'm getting bored here."
And that settled it.
"Never mind then," said Lou. "I'll pass."
I scooped the dice off the center of the board, rattled them in my fist, and rolled. Eleven. I scooted the race car around the big third turn, passed the cartoon policeman with the whistle in his mouth, left Park Place and Luxury Tax in the dust, and parked my car right next to Lou's little tin dog.
"Son of a bitch," said Lou.
I counted out forty bucks and passed it to Benny, who'd drawn duty as banker. A tenth of the normal price. That's how we'd adapted the rules to use real money. Everything divided by ten. He gave me the white square of cardboard with the blue across the top. The deed for Boardwalk.
"We might as well cash it in," said Bob. "He's got the yellow ones and the green ones and now the blue ones."
As far as Bob was concerned, nothing had a proper name. Everything was the blue one or the green one or the lumpy one or the wet one or the one that smelled like cheese. He'd been married nine years before his wife had caught him with her sister. When I asked which sister, he'd said, "The easy one."
The door leading into O'Malley's front room opened. Amber scooted through amid the crowd chatter. They had a basketball game on, and judging from the crowd's surly tone, the Magic were taking another beating.
Amber had a paper sack in her hand. It bulged with money, which meant one of Stan's mules had dropped off his weekly take. Amber scooted over to the floor safe behind the bar and dropped it in. On her way back out, she diverted toward the table, bent and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.
"Tell Danny I'll call him tomorrow, would you, Charlie?"
"No problem, honey." I beamed at her.
She turned on her high heels and swished back into O'Malley's. Everyone at the table watched her go.
Amber and my kid brother Danny had a pretty steady thing going. They'd been dating about a year, and I was pretty sure Danny was ready to pop the question any second now. But you could see in Amber's eyes she had a lot of living yet to do. She was just twenty years old and working on her degree in theater arts at UCF. A pretty kid with her head in the clouds.
But I couldn't blame Danny. Amber was a knockout. Thick hair the brown of highly polished antique wood. Deep, dark eyes. She always had this knowing expression on her face, like she knew something you didn't. A little impish half-smile. And you desperately wanted in on the joke.
So I'd gotten her the bullshit O'Malley's job. Officially she was a "hostess." She called taxis for the drunks. Ran errands. Brought paper sacks full of money to the back room. Mostly she winked at me and the boys, made us feel like we were all twenty years old again. That alone was worth what we paid her.
But don't get the idea that any of the boys had inappropriate thoughts about her. We all sat there, a table full of doting uncles. Let someone even look at Amber sideways and wait for the bloodshed. Once a few sailors who had no business being in O'Malley's in the first place thought a little grab-ass would get them on Amber's good side. Suddenly, five ugly uncles had them by the ice cream suits. They'd woken up in the alley.
"It's late," said Benny. "Who's closing?"
"Me and the new guy." I jerked a thumb at Lou. He'd only been with us a month and was as dumb as a sack of doorknobs. But Stan said take him on. Stan said it, we did it. That's how it worked until God or Stan said different.
"How long you guys going to call me the new guy?"
"Until we get a newer guy," said Bob.
The most tedious part of the job was closing. Stan's bookkeeper counted up the take for the night, balanced accounts, and locked everything in the safe. The bar out front did a good business. O'Malley's had a regular crowd, mostly middle-class stiffs who pushed a pencil from nine to five and needed a few hours to unwind before going home to the wife and two-point-three kids. But what O'Malley's pulled down in a week wouldn't even pay for the men who sat around the Monopoly table every night.
When I was the new guy, I'd always wondered why Stan wanted a bunch of goons sitting around.
I remember it had been maybe a year since Stan had sent Thumbs Hogan to offer me a job. I'd been the little tin dog then, just a kid with a steady hand, a good eye and a quick trigger. I remember the night like it was yesterday, like it was slow-motion action footage, replayed over and again. Thumbs wasn't there that night, so Tony Dale was the race car, Eddie Mex the top hat. Porky Mullins had definitely been the shoe. Strangely, that was my clearest memory the night of the holdup.
Porky held the shoe delicately between his thumb and forefinger, his meaty pinky finger stuck out like he was drinking tea with the queen. Each time he moved the shoe a space he'd say "Walk." I thought he was about the corniest guy I'd ever met. A guy as big as a hippo in a plaid sports jacket.
Porky rolled a four. "Walk, walk, walk, walk." His little pinky sticking out. "Hey, that's Marvin Gardens. I wanna buy that."
"I already own it," said Eddie Mex. "Welcome to Casa de Marvin." He camped up his Spanish accent even though he was fourth generation and born in Oregon. "No extra charge for breakfast in bed, huevos rancheros, and Bloody Marys."
"I don't care if you own it or not. I need it for the monopoly," said Porky. "I got the other two."
"Don't give it to him," I said. "He'll load it up with hotels."
"Hey, fucking New Guy, put a sock in it." His eyes stabbed at me from behind big, fatty folds of flesh. "I'm down two hundred bucks, and I still don't own dick here. I got Water Works and Baltic Avenue and one fucking railroad. Now I want Marvin Gardens, and I want it right fucking now."
I shrugged, tipped my chair back, watched the show.
"Okay," said Eddie. "You want it? A hundred bucks."
"What the fuck? At least pull a gun on me. Ya damn spic. A hundred fucking bucks."
Eddie smiled big. "Lo siento mucho, seeenyooor, but if you want the land, you better fork over a Franklin."
Tony Dale sat quietly like a big Irish lump.
We all checked our watches. The midnight drop. About five minutes early but no big deal.
Tony hit the button on the wall near his chair. The buzz stopped and the lock on the back door clicked. Eddie opened his mouth to spit another remark at Porky.
The back door flew open, and two black men dressed in dark jogging suits exploded into the room. Each held two revolvers in tight fists. They began firing immediately, spraying the room with lead.
If I hadn't been leaning way back in my chair, I'd be dead. After the first shot, I fell flat on my back, the bullets shedding drywall over me. Eddie took it in the side of the head just above his ear, slumped to the floor like he'd had the air let out of him. Porky and Tony flipped the Monopoly table, cash and dice and hotels scattering. Tony had his pistol out but never got off a shot. The first black guy drilled him square in the heart. But Porky was quick, moved well for a big man. His silver-plated.45 flashed into his hand, and he unloaded the clip into the attackers. They twitched, dropped their weapons, sprawled on the floor.
It was all over by the time I got to my feet. I stood next to Porky, and he pointed his empty automatic at one of the dead black guys.
"Holy shit, that's Leon."
I looked at the corpse. "Who?"
"He washes dishes here," said Porky. "Son of a bitch must've been casing us for a month. He knew we got cash drops back here."
I looked at Porky. A dark stain crept out of his jacket, spread across his white shirt.
"Porky." I pointed at his chest. "You okay?"
He looked down at himself. "Aw hell." He opened his jacket.
"Aw, shit, New Guy, I'm fucked." He collapsed to the floor.
"Christ! Hang on, Porky. I'll get somebody."
I ran to the front of O'Malley's. Deserted. Everyone had hot-footed it at the sound of gunplay.
I called the paramedics, but by the time they got there all they found was Porky lying on his side, eyes open, a pool of blood around him like cherry syrup, little green Monopoly houses dotting the blood like gumdrops.
Now cash drops came through the front. We only used the back door if we needed to cut out in a hurry.
"Charlie, hey, man, you listening?"
I blinked. Looked at Lou. "What is it, New Guy?"
"I asked if you'd seen Blade."
"Yeah," said Benny. "Where's our knife boy?"
"He's not here," I said. "Are we playing or what?"
Benny and Bob took the hint immediately.
"What do you mean not here?" said Lou. "I can see that, man. Is he working or something?"
"Hey, New Guy, you don't like the way I answer your questions?"
"It's not that. I just-"
"Am I the information booth, is that it? I'm supposed to keep you informed about every little thing that goes on?"
"Sorry, Charlie. Never mind, man. I withdraw the question."
Stan came through the door from O'Malley's front room and into the monkey cage. He had the whole parade behind him. Stan's right-hand man Larry Cartwright was in tow along with a fat guy called Jimmy the Fix who made sure all the hot stuff that came through got shipped to the right place to be fenced. Jimmy and Larry were movers and shakers in Stan's organization. I didn't know Larry Cartwright too well, but Jimmy was a stand-up guy.
Beggar Johnson came next. Young compared to Stan, maybe mid-forties. Blue blazer, pink shirt open at the neck, no tie. Black hair slicked back like Pat Riley's. He stood straight and tall like he owned the world. Guys like him ran things from an ivory tower and only came down when it was doom time.
I sized up the two guys with him. Both trouble, but for different reasons. I didn't know them, but I could tell the type.
The first guy was short and twitchy. Bland, clammy face under a dishwater haircut. His eyes pinballed around the room, not really taking anything in, hand clenching and unclenching the whole time he stood swaying next to Beggar. His hand jerked up to his nose every few seconds, tweaking it between thumb and forefinger. Coke-head. You could spot one a mile away, and dangerous. Either Beggar didn't know, or he didn't care that he had a man under him who could go squirrelly at a moment's notice.
Unlike the coke-head, the other guy was dangerous by design. He was tall and Aryan, blond and stiff. Young. Wore an expensive black suit, purple shirt and tie. He was hard and cold, and his jacket bulged in the right places.
Stan broke off from his guests and motioned to me.
I told the boys to pack up the game for the night and met Stan in the center of the room.
"Tell Amber to come up to the office and see what everyone wants to drink," said Stan. He tapped his chest and gave me a wink.
He had the wire on. I nodded.
Stan led his guests upstairs where he had a boardroom with a table and enough chairs to accommodate everyone comfortably. I sent for Amber, told her to hustle it up and see what everyone wanted to drink.
I told Bob and Benny to get home.
"What's the deal?" Bob Tate had a big worried look on his mug.
"Ask me again tomorrow."
Bob nodded, gave Benny an elbow nudge. "Let's go."
I told Lou to keep an eye on things out front.
I waited until he was gone then slipped on the ear-piece.
"- young lady can get us some drinks," Stan was saying.
I imagined them up there. Stan and Larry and Jimmy at one end of the table, Beggar and his boys at the other, everyone wearing big phony smiles. I didn't like the idea of the guy in the purple tie being up there. He was strictly enforcement. If he was up there I felt like I should've been too. Too bad. I didn't make those decisions.
"No drinks." Beggar. "If I wanted drinks, I'd go get drinks. I'm here to talk business. I'm going to talk quick so I think you better listen."
Stan sent Amber out. I adjusted the volume.
"Okay, Beggar. What brings you all the way up from Miami? What couldn't be handled with a phone call? You wanted us to run down Rollo for you. We done it. What else?"
"How old are you, Stan?"
"What the hell is this?"
"Don't get me wrong," said Beggar. "I have nothing but respect for what you've accomplished here. You've done a hell of a job. Nobody could have run Orlando like you. Especially in the old days. But this ain't the old days anymore. Things change. It gets tougher and tougher to keep business at the level it used to be at."
"The hell you say." Stan. "I run a tight ship. You got complaints? Let's hear them."
"This isn't just me saying this, Stan. It's come straight down the chain. You're sitting on a big fat apple here in Orlando. Hotels, bars, Disney sitting over there like a big, ripe plum. Every hotel should be using the laundry service you tell them to. Every bar should be on to your beverage service. You've maintained well here, Stan, but the town's expanded these last ten years. You haven't. It's a juicy territory, and you're not squeezing hard enough."
Stan made a disgusted noise in his throat. "And who can squeeze harder? You, I suppose."
"I suppose I could."
"So I'm out with the bathwater, am I?"
"It's not like that. Nobody wants to put you out to pasture. Just let me move some of my people up here, show you how to shake a few more leaves off the money tree."
"Bullshit. You think I don't know the slow squeeze when I see it."
"I told you," said Beggar. "Nobody wants to squeeze you out." He lowered his voice. "But it can get tough if you want to play it tough."
Stan muttered something I couldn't catch. "Okay. What am I supposed to do?"
"Good," said Beggar. "You're doing the right thing. First we need a favor."
"There's a guy up here. In your town. Took some stuff that ain't his. I need you to go over and make him unhappy."
"Seems like all your problems run up here to Orlando."
"Can I count on you or not?" asked Beggar.
"He's meeting one of your boys. Donovan."
"Small time. Owns a titty bar. A nobody. So what?"
"We know he's nobody," said Beggar. "That's why we figured you wouldn't mind giving him up."
Stan sighed heavy and ragged, the sound of his soul being pulled up though his throat, the sound of our world changing forever.
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