A Crime Novel
Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner
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When the mob finds itself on hard times and has to lay people off, the boss decides to give two different hitters separate lists of “overdue accounts” — a backlist — to see who distinguishes themselves enough to remain on the payroll.
The sharp-tongued Bricks and the hapless, eager to please Cam find themselves faced with challenges they never imagined when they got into the business.
But there’s no other choice than to settle out the names on … The Backlist.
“Zafiro and Beetner partnering up is as sure a bet you’re going to get. The Backlist was a must read for me, and it should be on the top of your list, too. Bricks and Cameron are going to light you up!”
— Jim Wilsky, author of Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds and Closing the Circle
“Warning: Prepare to become oxygen-deprived when reading Eric Beetner’s and Frank Zafiro’s tag-team masterpiece, The Backlist … from holding your breath on just about every page. Before you begin, make sure you’re in tip-top physical shape. Prepare to get blisters on your fingers and papercuts from turning pages — this is breakneck warp-speed cinema, that twist within twist kind of plot that snaps necks. Some readers will end up in the ER…”
— Les Edgerton, The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, The Rapist, The Bitch and others
“Wry, dark-humored, a trip down the rabbit hole of killers with more smarts than healthy and a competition so fierce it’ll make your knees buckle. The Backlist is a fast-paced read that keeps you grinning and aghast from page to page.”
— Gary Phillips, author of Hollis, P.I.
READ AN EXCERPT:
Getting in to see the old man used to be easier.
Actually, it was even easier to get face time with his old man, but I guess it isn’t really fair to make comparisons. I was still wearing pigtails and a training bra when Saverio was the boss. Not exactly a major security threat. Add to that the fact that I was always with my pops, who Saverio trusted in more ways than one, including with his life.
So I guess I shouldn’t judge Salvatore too harshly. He inherited the big chair at a time when any pretense of omerta was out the door, and when the family started making sure its soldiers remained loyal through pretty simple means: if you turned rat, they killed your whole family. It was old school Sicilian. It was harsh. And it was effective. There wasn’t a single made guy who turned state’s evidence in the decade Sal’s been the boss. So that’s something ya gotta respect.
Still, getting through the gauntlet of doors and sides of beef wearing cheap suits just to see him was a pain in the ass. And he summoned me. It’s not like I was just showing up trying to sell magazine subscriptions.
Finally, I made it into the waiting area outside his office. Bruno Taggliarti stood next to the door, his giant arms crossed over his chest. He looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain, two words I’d be impressed if he knew.
“Be a minute,” he grunted at me.
I shrugged and took a seat. As if he knew the old man’s schedule anyway. Besides, I knew there was a pin-sized camera just above the door. When Sal was ready for me, his consigliere, Max, would come out and get me. Bruno would get the news same time I did.
The waiting area was quiet for a few moments except for the sound of Bruno’s labored breathing. Christ, I’d hate to hear what he sounded like after doing anything strenuous, like opening a door or reaching down to tie his shoes.
“Tell me something, Bricks,” Bruno said.
“You a dyke or what?”
I fixed him with a flat stare. “Why, Bruno? You cruising for a piece of ass?”
“Always,” he said, his tone becoming affable.
I shook my head and looked away. These guys, every one of them thinks if you won’t sleep with them, the only possible reason is because you’re gay. Couldn’t have anything to do with them being slobs.
“Seriously, though,” he said.
“No, you ain’t a dyke?”
“No, I won’t sleep with you.”
“So I suppose a blowjob is out of the question?” He gave me a meaty smile.
I was already tired of this jousting, but sometimes I think Sal has it set up to be part of the price of admission. You want to see the boss? Well, you gotta put up with Bruno’s bullshit at the door. And don’t pussy out, either.
“Why do you care?” I asked him. “You doing a dissertation?”
“Why do you care, Bruno?”
He shrugged. “Just wonderin’. I mean, you got the look, right?”
“What look is that?”
“Short hair. Kinda stocky. And you don’t dress like no girl, neither.”
“Sounds like you got it all figured out.”
Bruno scratched his fat cheek. “Yeah, not really. I got, like, you know, suspicions. It ain’t a for sure. Which is why I’m asking. So, whaddaya say?”
“I say I wouldn’t fuck you if you were the last man on earth.”
He gave me a knowing look and wagged his finger at me. “But if I had tits…?”
“Take a look in the mirror, jerk off. You’re a B cup, easy.”
He frowned. “Why can’t you just answer a straight question, Bricks?”
“Same reason you can’t see your own dinger.”
He gave me a confused look.
“Because you’re a fat asshole,” I said, helping him out.
He sighed. “Gotta be a carpet muncher with that attitude,” he said, half to me and half for the record. “Man hater, right?”
The door opened. Max DaCosta stepped into the room. His tailored suit was such a sharp contrast to Bruno’s ill-fitting excuse for one that it almost made me squint in pain.
“Problem here?” Max asked Bruno, his tone quiet but authoritative.
“No, sir,” Bruno answered immediately. He didn’t exactly snap a salute but I was pretty sure he straightened his posture when he spoke.
Max turned to me, his eyebrow arched.
“No problem,” I said. “Bruno and I were just talking a little anthropology.”
Max glanced back to Bruno. “Impressive.” Then he waved me inside. “Mr. Giordano is ready for you, Paula.”
I rose and followed him into the old man’s office.
Salvatore Giordano was what you’d call a traditionalist. In an age when most of his peers wore track suits and played video games most of the day, Sal was old school. He dressed well, he had manners, and he believed in loyalty. His pops taught him all three things, if you ask me, but where do any of us learn our most important lessons, right?
“Bricks!” Sal said, giving me a smile as he stood. “Good to see you.”
“You, too,” I said.
Sal came around from behind his desk, opening his arms to me. I leaned in. He took me firmly by the upper arms and brushed a kiss on first one cheek, then the other. His skin smelled of expensive cologne, but was rough and scraped against mine.
“Please, have a seat,” Sal said, releasing me. “You want something to drink?”
“No, I’m good.” I sat in the plush leather chair in front of Sal’s desk.
“No? You sure?”
Sal returned to his own seat, settling in. Max took a chair off to the side.
We sat in silence, me waiting, and Sal just watching me. I had the uncomfortable sense that he was deciding something right then, and I didn’t like it.
“How long you been with me, Bricks?” he finally asked.
“I’ve been with the family all my life.” Couldn’t hurt to remind him of that, especially with the odd vibe I was suddenly getting. “My pops used to bring me in here when your old man had that chair.”
He smiled but the warmth didn’t reach his eyes. “Ah, yeah. The good old days,” he said with a light chuckle that quickly faded. “You know, having you do what you do for me, it’s kind of strange. Something they call a contradiction in terms.” He spoke the last part slowly, like it would be a concept I had never heard of or wouldn’t get.
He motioned toward me. “Look at you. You’re a woman.”
“Last time I checked, anyway.”
“How many women you figure get used as button men?”
“I’m guessing zero.”
“Exactly. Zilch. But my old man, he had a soft spot for yours, so here you are.”
I didn’t mention how my pops also got pinched taking care of a particularly messy problem for Saverio, and how he went to prison for it. How he didn’t utter a word to the cops the entire time, even after he got the cancer. How he took every single secret he had to his grave.
I didn’t mention it because it was Sal’s mess that my pops was cleaning up. So while the loyalty he showed to the family was understood, it was also an unpleasant reminder that even Sal fucks up sometimes.
He leaned back in his chair, appraising me. “Still, I gotta admit, there’s another reason I kept you on the payroll. You know why that is?”
His eyebrows shot up. “Yeah? What, then?”
“I deliver.” Then, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I added, “Just like my pops did before me.”
To his credit, Sal didn’t frown or otherwise react. He just nodded slowly. “That’s right. You deliver. Like the Federal fucking Express.”
We were quiet again for a few moments. Then I asked, “Is this about a job, then?”
Sal never gave me my assignments directly. Usually, I met with Max at some diner somewhere and he gave me a packet with everything I needed to know. The money came after. I paid my own expenses.
Sal sighed, and glanced over at Max, giving him a little nod. Max stood and motioned for me to do the same.
Confused, I stood up.
Max held his arms straight out to the side, miming me to follow suit. “If you please.”
Then I understood. “Christ, you think I’m wired?”
“Just a precaution,” Max said.
I shook my head in disbelief. “In a million years, I wouldn’t even think to do something like that.” I looked over at Sal. “I’m my father’s daughter, Sal, just like you are your father’s son.”
“I know,” he said. “But what’s the old saying? Trust, but verify.”
“You’re quoting Russian proverbs now?”
His eyes narrowed. “I thought Reagan said that.”
I turned back to Max, holding my arms out to the side. “Go ahead,” I said. “I don’t even have my pistola. Your guy at the front door took it.”
Max stepped forward. He ran his hands over my body, searching me with a light but firm touch. He was efficient and thorough, checking everywhere. Still, I was glad it was him doing the search instead of Bruno. That was something, at least.
When he’d finished, he gave me a curt, almost kindly nod, but there was no hint of apology in it. Then he motioned toward my chair, and returned to his own.
I sat down, took a huge breath, and let it out. Sal sat, watching me. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” I asked.
Sal reached out for a gold colored pen on his desk, toying with it while he considered my question. Finally, he said, “I’ll cut right to it, Bricks. Times are tough.”
I knew that. It’d been four months since my last assignment and six months since the one before that. I guess it was a good thing I lived cheap and knew how to budget.
“You know, with the economy and all that?” Sal continued. “Well, it affects our business, too. We’re like a corporation, just like GM or Ford or IBM. We deal in what they call fiscal realities.”
Slow and steady on the last two words again, like I was a moron. I suppressed the frustration, not wanting to let it show on my face. This guy might have his doctorate in Mafioso 101 but I’ll bet he didn’t know that in between doing jobs for him, I managed to get a real degree from a real college.
And he didn’t need to know, either, I reminded myself. Just like he didn’t need to see how much his condescension pissed me off.
I sat stoically, and waited.
“These fiscal realities are forcing me to make some hard decisions. Decisions my old man never would have imagined possible in his time.”
“You declaring bankruptcy?” I blurted.
Sal scowled. “Don’t be a wise ass, Bricks. It ain’t attractive.”
Like I gave two shakes about what he found attractive or not. But I did care about leaving this office alive and staying that way afterward, so I buttoned up.
Sal sighed, and let the scowl diminish. “Actually, it ain’t that far from the truth. We’re gonna have to downsize our operation.”
Sal looked over to Max. I followed his gaze.
“Significantly,” the consigliere said.
I waited for more, but Max simply sat quietly and said nothing.
“Yeah, so here’s what significantly means,” Sal continued. “It means I don’t really need more than one button man these days.”
Oh, Christ. I was being laid off by the mafia.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
Sal shook his head. “No. Dead serious.”
I almost laughed at that. Then I wondered how in the hell I was going to file for unemployment, and the desire to laugh out loud doubled. I pressed my lips together to hold it inside.
“The thing is,” Sal said, “we’re gonna try to do this honorably. You know, in a way my old man would’ve been proud of? So we’re gonna license a few people to start their own families in other cities if they want. Other people we’ll give a nice severance package. Some people have already got their legit business for laundry purposes, so they can get by on that. It’ll work out.”
That sounded like something Sal told himself so that his father’s ghost didn’t haunt his dreams at night, but I kept that inside, too.
“But,” Sal said, holding up a finger. “There are a few loose ends. Some things that need to be tidied up.”
“Like a couple of guys who know too much. Guys who we know won’t keep their mouths shut once they get cut loose. Guys who fucked some things up to help put us in this situation. Things like that. They’ve been on the backlist for a while, but now we gotta move on things, so their number’s up.”
A picture of where this was going started to form in my mind. “And that’s where I come in?”
Sal smiled that same empty smile he’d flashed at me when I came in. “Always the smart one, Bricks.”
I shrugged. It didn’t take a genius.
“Yeah,” Sal said. “That is where you come in. I’ve got three of these loose ends that need taking care of. You take care of them, you not only get paid, but I keep you on as what they call an independent contractor.”
I thought about it, more for form’s sake than anything else. I didn’t have a choice, and we both knew it. If I refused, I became another loose end. I had to say yes, and decide later if I wanted to follow through or blow town.
Like that was even an option. What kind of work was I going to get with experience as a hit man and a degree in philosophy?
Dishwasher, that’s what.
“What about your other buttons?” I asked.
Sal gave me a frank, even stare. “I’m asking you to do this. Because of your old man and mine, truth be told.”
“And because I always deliver.”
“Well, I guess that settles it, then.”
Sal flashed his insincere smile again. “I knew I could count on you. Max will be in touch with the details in a day or so.”
I stood up. So did Max. Sal didn’t.
“This has to be taken care of as quickly as you can,” Max said quietly. “We can’t begin our downsizing measures until all three issues are resolved.”
Max gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret and didn’t really like. Then he escorted me to the door, and I found myself standing next to Bruno the mouth breather again.
Bruno asked me something about eating pussy, but I didn’t catch all of it and didn’t answer. Instead, I made my way back the way I’d come. It was much easier leaving than it had been arriving.
I remember the first time I got past the second set of doors. It was my first meeting with the big man, Saverio. The day I was invited in.
It helped that my Uncle Rocco was high in the ranks of the organization, but I swear that wasn’t the only reason they took me in. Since that day more than ten years ago I’ve proven myself, same way I had for seven years before that meeting.
Shit jobs, boring jobs, muscle jobs, whack jobs, even. I do it all. I’m a triple threat. The all-arounder. The utility man.
Christ, it gets goddamn tedious sometimes.
But now I was being invited back inside. To the room where good things happen. Promotions. Sure, Saverio is long gone, but if I made it past the outer set of doors, something was up.
Little did I know.
The regular guys were there. Mikey and his cousin Leo. Everyone called him Big Mike, but I’d known Mikey since we were both virgins on the prowl so I never called him anything but. Even when he started giving me the orders. And now he was sitting in the big office? What gives? I knew it didn’t mean he’d jumped up the ranks that high. He was a guest here. Holding meetings in the safest place there was. Away from prying eyes, bugs, and snitches.
It didn’t bode well for whatever this meeting was about, but all I could think about was how it was Mikey and not me sitting behind that desk. I guess being a nephew of Rocco’s only got me so far to the front of the line. And in this business, blood is thicker than just about anything. Even Rocco’s own wife’s gravy.
Leo, he never says a thing. Just sits there while Mikey gives me my assignment. So Mikey does all the talking again. I think he could see the disappointment on my face. Soon as I saw him and not someone higher up, I knew this wasn’t my big break.
“It ain’t good news, Cam,” he said.
“Why? What’s up?”
“Things…” He sighed and leaned back in his borrowed chair like the weight of the world was on him. “Things ain’t what they fuckin’ used to be.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
I was trying to keep it light. Mikey was sitting there like two tons of bricks.
He told me why. Things were ugly up top. Somebody broke ranks. One of the bigs.
“He turn states or something?” I asked.
“Worse,” Mikey said.
He flipped sides. Took a dozen guys with him and all the business they ran. Florida guys. Bastards. The short story was that things were tough all over. The shit had hit the fan and all of us in that room were standing downwind.
“So what do we do about it?” I asked.
“Cutting back,” Mikey said. “Big time.”
I swallowed but it got stuck halfway down my gullet. “I’m fired?”
I was about to protest, “But I’m blood, Mikey,” when he stopped me.
“You ain’t fired. In fact,” he leaned forward on the desk. “I need you to do some firing for me.”
I couldn’t help a smile crossing my face. I felt the new sweat on my forehead start to cool as the blood flowed out of my face and back to normal. I’d been spared.
“Whatever you need, Mikey. You know that.”
Mikey smiled. Pained and weak, but it showed I was one of the last people he could trust. I wondered where the really top guys were. Mikey’s bosses, and their bosses. How bad did this get and how high did it go? Not for me to wonder, I guess.
“It’s gonna mean some gun work,” he said.
I nodded. “You know I’m good for it.”
“You’ve always done right by us, Cam. Always.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m family.” Subtle reminders never hurt. Sometimes I wonder if Mikey remembered. Not like I was on his Christmas card list or anything.
And a hit? Yeah, I’d done that before. Twice, in fact. It had been a while and the others weren’t exactly my best work, but when the coffin lid closes nobody cares how a guy died, only that he did.
Mikey stood, international symbol for ‘this conversation is over.’ A guy like him is all about the subtleties of body language. This business is all about it. Who shakes hands with who, and who goes first. Who stands when you enter a room and who waits until it’s time for you to leave. How big is the pucker when you kiss somebody’s ass.
“I’ll send over your first assignment tonight, okay, Cam?”
He took my hand. For a minute we were old friends again. Lifting cases of booze off trucks, working a guy over for a missing payment, sweating our balls off to get with Marie Fitzano.
“You do this well for us, we got more,” Mikey said. “You help us clean up the mess, and there’s a spot for you here. On the inside. For keeps. You get it?”
I smiled. “I got it. I’m your man.”
“’Cause you’re family,” he said.
I never felt more like it.
Gave my whole goddamn life for this family. I grew up hearing my mother bitch and moan about no good shiftless bastard Uncle Rocco. Why was he walking around like the king of shit mountain while my dad is dead in some army helicopter crash off some Pacific island? She hated Rocco and everything he stood for on his whole side of the family.
This was a guy I had to meet.
I started riding my bike across town to sit with him and his pals outside of a sandwich shop that served meatball grinders Rocco said would, “Make your dick hard, your arteries harder and your stomach solid steel.”
I got him and the boys coffee. I bought him his paper. I’d go down to DeLuca’s and get him the cannoli he liked special.
How could he not bring me in?
So that was the first sacrifice. It wasn’t even my dignity and pride at running errands for him like a slave right off the ship, it was my mom. She said if I kept on working for the man I’d be dead to her. I called her bluff, but she was dead fucking serious.
I tried to call a few times, even stopped by on Christmas Eve, but she left me on the porch with snow falling down my collar while she turned up the volume on her favorite holiday record—the one of the dogs barking out Jingle Bells.
Never saw her again.
Then there was Tia. Lovely Tia. Two years younger than me, but smarter by a mile. Tight little body. Dark brown hair, dark eyes. Full lips and a smile that showed her crooked teeth and, man, did that slay me.
The minute I saw her I stopped chasing tail with Mikey. I had a purpose. I didn’t want to just get this girl in the sack. That’s how I knew it was different. I knew I’d fallen in love.
Say that word and you get your ass kicked by the guys I run with, but I didn’t care. I went to the bookstore and tore out pages of Shakespeare and copied it down for her. I swiped roses by the dozens off the carts those Korean guys run uptown.
Then the job started getting more serious. I had my first muscle job and came to her afterward to get my knuckles bandaged. And my nose. And my ribs. My muscle job days were a slow start. I went in with my fists, but often met up with guys who fought back with shit like baseball bats and steel pipes.
She started to say things. Not like my mom kind of things, ultimatums and stuff, but she was worried. She told me she loved me too, and she didn’t think this was a good path I was on.
I told her it was the only path I knew, then I quoted Robert Frost about two paths in the woods and I figured she’d think I was smart. She said all that meant was that I chose wrong.
Then came the first hit.
I told Tia everything about my jobs. I couldn’t not tell her. So I did. She told me if I did the hit that she’d leave me. Made me choose.
Now, I’m not the kind of guy—but I know a lot of them—who would tell his girl to shut up. Remind her that he’s the man. She was my world, but the family—the job—that was my life. How do you choose?
So I called her bluff and guess what? I’m two for two. She moved out. Changed her number.
A bunch of the guys said I should go get her back. That it’s my call when things are over, not hers. But if she didn’t want me, I wasn’t gonna force her.
I told the guys if you love something, set it free.
They beat the shit out of me. I stopped reading poetry after that.
I slid my key into the lock, gave it a nudge. First up, then over, then a slight drop. Honestly, this old lock’s idiosyncrasies are worth more than three extra deadbolts. You gotta have a precise hand to get it to open up. A lover’s hand.
I’ve been using it for three years now, and know its nuances well enough that I can open it with just one hand while holding bags of groceries, or while drunk and fumbling.
It’s my door.
I get it.
It gets me.
I wish the rest of my life was that easy.
Once inside, I put the deli sandwich I picked up at the Korean place in the fridge next to the two bottles of Peroni beer already there. They weren’t just for show. I liked beer even better than I liked vino, which was cause for suspicion about your heritage among many Italians. So while birra Italiana isn’t the best brew in the world, I made a habit of drinking it anyway. When you’re only half Italian already, and the half is on your mother’s side, you need every advantage you can get to fit in with the family.
The family. La famiglia. When you think of that word, you’d like to think of large dinners, loud discussions, loving arms. Ever since my pops died, though, it’s been none of that.
Truth be told, it really wasn’t like that before, either. About once a month, my Aunt Marie will invite me over for Sunday dinner but I don’t go two times out of three. It either turns into a grief session over Pops, with Marie leading the charge until my cousins get whipped into enough of a frenzy to join in, railing against the cops and the government and especially “them goddamn rats” that were all responsible for him ending up in prison. Or him getting cancer. I’m not sure which.
If it ain’t a Popsfest, then it’s Ma’s turn and we get the subdued, unspoken, talk-around-it bit. That’s where they pretend my ma didn’t bail on Pops and the famiglia during the first year he was in the joint. She ran off with some guy who was a doctor down at the free clinic.
Some black guy, to be more accurate.
I always thought it was funny how the biggest shame most people in the family felt about the situation wasn’t that Ma had no loyalty when the chips were down. Or that she cut and run, and with another man, too.
Nope. All my cousins, Aunt Marie, the whole family? They were most upset that Ma went with a black guy.
“Fucking mulignan,” my cousin Peter said at one dinner shortly after Ma bolted. “They oughta stay with their own kind.”
“Watch that talk,” Aunt Marie told him, but without the customary sharpness usually reserved for profanity at the Sunday dinner table. That was her way of expressing agreement, I guess.
“I’m serious,” Peter said. “We oughta file a missing person’s report or something. Not like any self-respectin’ Italian girl would go wit a moolie. Not on her own. It’s fuckin’ kidnappin’.”
“Here’s an idea,” I told him. “How about you file a missing persons report on your fucking brain?”
“Oh!” came the hue and cry from all assembled.
But it worked. We never talked about it again, at least at the rare Sunday dinners I attended. But the tension in the air? Thicker than Aunt Marie’s gravy. Yeah, Ma didn’t get talked about but what didn’t get said was a lot.
Thing is, I don’t blame Ma.
I knew the doc. I went down to the clinic for a broken finger once. Nice guy. Had an air about him that just put you a little bit more at ease, even if you were hurting. He had a warm smile, too.
So I don’t blame her. She had her shot at happiness and she took it. She was born into this life. She married a man who was waist deep in it when they met and neck deep by the time he went to prison. But honestly, I don’t think she ever wanted to be a part of it.
Listen, any mafiosa who can fill a journal about love and life, especially in ways pretty much nobody in this family could understand, is not really the best fit for this life. And if leaving it all behind means her and the doc had to go into some kind of self-imposed witness relocation program or something, my bet is that for her, it was worth it. Love was worth it.
But sometimes I feel a little itch to be pissed off at her. I mean, she left me, too, right? And now I get to deal with all of the not talking about it that goes on at family gatherings, and the mild stench of suspicion that her actions draped onto me.
Yeah, sometimes I get a little bitter. But then I say fuck it. What’s the point? She’s gone and life is life.
I realized I was standing at the refrigerator with the door open, lost in thought like some kind of moron. I closed the fridge and walked into the living room. I took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of home.
It had become a different smell these last few weeks. My apartment was returning to normal, I guess. When a lover moves out, their scents are the last thing to go, hanging on for days and weeks as a reminder. But in this room, at least, all the remnants of Jesse were gone.
I should have known it wouldn’t work. Call Jesse my latest mistake in a long list of them. Usually I figure it out sooner, though. But with Jesse, I thought maybe things were different.
But they weren’t.
As the song says, I guess winter just wasn’t my season.
Or hell, maybe I’m winter and that wasn’t Jesse’s season.
I sighed in frustration. All this bullshit reverie was shaping up for a shitty night of feeling sorry for myself, and that’s a monumental waste of time.
Instead of the past, what I should be thinking about is the future. The contracts Sal was giving me. The chance I had to secure a solid place for myself. Pops and his omerta did plenty to offset Ma’s actions, but for all the talk of famiglia and taking care of people, this business was a whole lot of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, motherfucker? This was my opportunity.
I couldn’t do anything until Max called, though, I reminded myself. So relax. I needed to get buried in a good book, but the novel I was reading now was mediocre to crap, so I had to hope there was something good on TV.
Yeah, right. That was happening.
The rustling, tapping sound from the bedroom was faint but I still heard it. A spike of adrenaline fired through my chest and into my head. When it cleared a moment later, I was already crouched next to the small couch with my gun out. Thank God for instincts.
I leveled the pistola at the bedroom door. It stood open a few inches, but no light streamed through the crack. Whoever was in there had to know I was here. I’d flipped on lights. Gone into the kitchen.
Jesus, I’d been a sitting duck while I stood at the fridge like a zombie.
I shook away the thought. Slowly, I rose to a low stance and moved toward the bedroom. I kept a sight picture on the door, waiting for it to swing open. I fully intended to blast whoever came out.
What if it was Jesse?
I clenched my jaw and exhaled slowly.
Okay. Be sure of the target.
But be sure fast.
Wait. Why was the light turned off? If it was Jesse…asleep, maybe?
I hesitated. My gut told me no. It wasn’t Jesse. And from what I heard today in Sal’s office, I had to wonder if that whole goddamn meeting had been a ploy to get me relaxed so that some mope could clip me in my own apartment.
They always come as your friends, Pops had warned me once from behind thick glass. His voice always had a tinny sound coming through the phone receiver. In this life, you always gotta be aware.
Not standing around mooning over lost mothers and lost lovers.
I narrowed my eyes at the door. Two feet now. Then one.
He knew I was home. A dark room works to his advantage. If I open the door, I’m backlit in the doorway. Perfect silhouette, just like a shooting range target.
I considered for another moment.
I stood to the side of the door and listened.
Another tapping sound, just like the first noise I heard.
I let go of my gun with my left hand, holding it only in my right. With my left, I snaked my fingers around the door jamb and through the cracked door. In the second and a half it took me to find the light switch, I hoped no one was close enough to kick the door shut on my wrist.
My fingers found the switch. Without hesitation, I flipped it. In the same moment, I booted the door open and swung low around the door jamb, button-hooking into the room. My back against the wall, I swept my gun across the breadth of the open space, looking for the intruder.
My bedroom was a mess, though. Drawers pulled, items tossed. The doors to my wardrobe stood open. I checked it quickly for anyone hiding, but found only my sparse collection of clothing inside. A quick look under the bed revealed no one.
The bedroom window was wide open. A breeze fluttered through, gently swaying the wooden handles of the shades. The rustling, tapping sound they made was the same one I’d heard from the living room.
I lowered the gun, but didn’t put it away just yet. I looked out the window, but all I saw was the iron of the fire escape. I craned my neck, checking up and down.
The lock on the window wasn’t just jimmied or forced, it was destroyed. Whoever did this, and I hoped I found the fucker, wasn’t too smooth. Just a brute force punk burglar, I figured.
I thought about that for a minute. Was that all it was? Or was my gut reaction out in the living room right? Could Sal or Max have sent someone to do this?
If so, why didn’t they finish the job? Why’d they run?
The mess in my bedroom solved the mystery for me. I searched through my stuff as I put it back in order. Not much had been taken, but the little thief got some spare cash I kept in the top drawer of my nightstand and a little bit of jewelry. All of my jewelry, actually, because I didn’t really have a whole lot to begin with. Not my thing. The little fuck could have it for all I care, but it pissed me off that someone had invaded my home.
This was a straight up rip-off.
I knew I could find out who it was. Too many people in this neighborhood didn’t mind their own business. Maybe until I heard from Max, that’s exactly what I’d do. Solve my little burglary problem. Not like I’d call the cops about it. I didn’t want to be in the system, not as a suspect but not as a victim or a witness, either. Besides, like they care. I don’t sit around like my cousins bitching about the “fuckin’ cops” all day long, but I sure as hell ain’t calling them if I don’t have to.
I was almost done picking up the mess my little piece of shit visitor made when I found my mother’s notebook. It was part way under the bed, hidden by a handful of my panties, a couple pairs of which were missing. The composition notebook was full of her feelings of love for the doc. For some reason, she didn’t take it with her when she took off with him. Maybe she didn’t need them anymore. She had the real thing.
I tossed it onto the bed while I finished picking things up. When the room was back to normal, I looked at the notebook sitting there on the bed. I thought about reading some of her thoughts about love instead of the shitty novel I was trying to get through. That could be my night. A deli sandwich, a bottle of Peroni’s, and Ma’s lovelorn, inscrutable love journal.
Not tonight. Fuck that.
I put the notebook back in the dresser, unopened and unread. Then I went into the kitchen and got a hammer and a few nails out of utility drawer. Thieves might be able to force a window lock, but let them pop it open with four good nails holding it in.
Yeah, summer was coming, and I’d probably pull those nails out myself soon enough, but until then, it solved at least one problem in my life.
Leo showed up smiling silently at my door. He handed over a manila envelope, never saying a word. It’s Leo, what are you gonna do? I couldn’t be insulted.
“Hey, Leo.” I tried to be friendly and not hurt that Mikey didn’t come himself. Leo stared back at me like a mute and held out the envelope. I took it and left him in my doorway, the door open as my invitation inside. He took the offer and stepped in, lighting a cigarette as he entered.
The metal click of his Zippo closed in sync with my tearing of the envelope. Inside I found my first assignment.
There was a picture of a guy about my age but older by a few, a little heavier, less hair. But the thing that stood out to me in the long lens snapshot was his outfit, or I should say his uniform. He was a cop.
“Fucked up, ain’t it?”
I had to look up and see if someone else had entered the room. Nope, it was Leo. He sat on my couch and smiled that pasted-on smile as he let smoke ooze out his nose. Leo had a dead tooth that I could never not look at. It sat there, all brown and conspicuous in the line of otherwise white teeth.
“A cop, yeah,” I said. “Not gonna be easy.”
“I mean the whole goddamn mess. Florida. The cutbacks. Everything.”
He sat still waiting to hear my opinion on the matter, flinging a leg over the arm of my couch as he settled in for a good long stay, it looked like, even though he didn’t take off his jacket.
“Yeah, I mean…” Leo caught me off guard. I’d about exhausted my thoughts on the matter. What else could I say beyond, “Fucked up is right.”
“Gotta trim the dead branches, yeah?”
“Yeah.” I guess I sorta followed him. Dead branches, dead leaves… whatever. Really, I wanted to study up on this cop in the envelope and not worry too much about the larger problem. Guys in Florida? What did I care? If it gave me my shot at bigger things, then let them flip sides, go to the cops, the feds—whoever. Let them start to kill each other in the streets if that’s what they want to do.
When I thought about it, I realized that’s what we were doing. And I was being asked to pull the trigger.
The cop’s name was Arnold Harbin. Nine-year veteran of the force after four years in the Army. I had an address, a work schedule and a list of his last five meetings with one of our guys, his usual contact. Next one was a week from Tuesday.
What I didn’t have was any reason why they wanted this guy taken out.
“So, what’d this guy do?”
Leo had gone silent again.
“Seriously, Leo,” I said. “He must have screwed up something.”
“It matter?” More smoke came slowly out of him. He didn’t seem to exhale as much as open his mouth and let the smoke drift out on its own schedule.
“I don’t know. I just kinda wanna know why.”
“Everything’s in the report.”
“The only things in here are his address and his work schedule. I don’t even know what he was doing for us. Why was he on the payroll?”
“Why are any of them?”
When I get boosted higher in the ranks, I’m gonna slap that stupid grin off his face. Maybe do him a favor and knock that dead tooth out of his mouth.
“Okay, don’t tell me. I just thought maybe it could help me do the job better.”
Leo hauled himself off my couch. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
He gave me a wave behind his back as he left without another word. Didn’t even close the door behind him.
I walked over and kicked it closed with my toe, then sat down to read up on Arnold Harbin.
It was a toss-up—do it at home or do it at work. At work the whole thing could go down as an in-the-line-of-duty thing. He’d get a hero’s burial and there would be way less heat on me because they’d think it was some crackhead or pissed off ex-con getting back at the cop who busted him.
But did it send the right message? Part of this operation was reasserting our muscle, right? Letting people know we were still in business, even if the management has changed a bit. If this guy Harbin dies and no one knows it’s because he crossed the family, then there’s no lesson learned for the rest of them.
Kinda why it would be nice to know how he crossed us. It’d be great to make the hit some sort of message about the way he fucked up. The way snitches end up with their tongues cut out or guys skimming off the top with sticky fingers show up dead with those digits removed and long gone down some sewer somewhere.
Not that I wanted to get into anything so involved, or bloody. In my other two hits I’d done my damnedest to get in and get out. A bullet or two and I’m gone. I don’t need to be hanging around doing butcher’s work.
And if you do it once, they expect it going forward. These early jobs become your M.O. If the big man wants a job done a certain way, he’ll call you up.
“Get me that Cameron kid, the one who cuts off their balls and stuffs them in their cheeks like a squirrel eating peanuts. We need this guy to know he can’t keep eating from the company feedbag, capisce?”
Shit like that. I don’t want to be the balls in the mouth guy.
So, okay, I decided—it’s a home job. Hit him where he’s vulnerable. And invading the sanctity of a man’s home sends a message. He’s less likely to be armed, too. I mean, he’s a cop. I catch him at work and he’s definitely got a gun on him. Taser too. A Kevlar vest.
So, yeah. Home it was.
I checked the clock. 8:16. I could do it that same night. Pack my bag and get in the car and be done with it in time to come home and catch The Tonight Show.
Kinda quick, I thought. Don’t want to jump the gun. It may need planning.
Then again, if I come back quick with a job well done it’s gonna look good. I show up the next day to Mikey and say, “What else you got?”
That’s gotta instill confidence.
I sat and thought about it, the pros and cons. I smelled Leo’s smoke in my couch cushions. Bastard. At the very least I needed to get out and grab something to eat. I’d have time to think, time to plan.
I took the envelope, dug my gun out of the side table—a Springfield XD-S. I never liked wearing a holster so I like something small enough to conceal. It holds seven in the clip so unless Officer Harbin is a cat with nine lives, I had my first gold star coming from Mikey in the morning.
If I decided to do it that night. A burger, a beer and my mind would be made.