Have you ever tried to kick a caffeine habit?
I launch a wingtip-clad foot into the solar plexus of the miserable bastard lying in front of me; the sobbing, weeping pile of human excrement who’s begging – pleading – with me about his miserable life, his miserable spouse, his miserable girlfriend-on-the-side, his miserable children. The shot to the gut temporarily lets all the air out of the windbag, and his pleas are replaced, at least for a brief, glorious moment, with a sucking sound as he tries to re-inflate his lungs and keep from retching his Egg McMuffin on the sidewalk.
I light up a Pall Mall and enjoy the first relative peace and quiet I’ve been able to experience all morning.
I examine the little white cancer stick held between two fingers on my right hand. One vice at a time, I thought to myself. Besides, I tried to go cold turkey with cigarettes before – multiple times before – and I just keep coming back to the damn things, no matter how bad they might be for me, or how many times my doctor tries to warn me off.
Kurt Vonnegut once said – I got a thing for famous quotes – anyway, Vonnegut said of Pall Malls that they were “a classy way to commit suicide.” Given society’s current trend towards demonizing all things tobacco, that’s probably as close as you were ever going to get to a celebrity endorsement in this day and age.
The disappearing orange glow of a neglected smoke and the accumulating gray/white ash, opposite the service end invite me to take another drag, and I do, releasing a steady stream of tinted blue smoke into the atmosphere.
“Please, don’t!” The fucking worm begs for his life, regaining his breath and intruding on my peace of mind. “I have money. I have… I can get money…”
“Fuck you,” I tell him through clenched teeth. I press my toe into the asshole’s hand like I’m stubbing out the cigarette still safely clenched in my fingers, and I twist to make sure he gets the point. He screams.
Maybe I’m just being irritable because I haven’t had my morning cup of Joe.
“Jonesy, what the fuck are you doing?!” shouts Vic as he labors to pull his fat ass from behind the wheel of his prized ’69 Chevelle. He wheezes from the exertion as he toddles over to where we’re standing, next to the trunk of the car. “This man needs his hands. What do you do for a living again, sir?”
“I’m… I’m an accountant,” the jerk-off stammers as if he’s finally found an ally.
Vic mulls it over for a minute, then says, “Well, you can probably still punch those big calculator numbers with a broken finger or two, amIright?” He gives me the nod, and this time, I stomp down with my heel.
“Fuuuck!” screams the accountant, his anguished hollering bouncing around the inside of my skull like a baseball bat bouncing off bone right behind my eyes.
I’m not normally this ornery and vicious. Fact is, you get me on a good day, I’m halfway to a fucking teddy bear. Downright sweet. Cuddly, even. Vic’s usually the big prick of the two of us. But the goddamned caffeine withdrawal was kicking my ass. And I needed to kick something back.
Samuel Johnson – the guy who practically wrote the English dictionary – he said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Right about now, I can see he had a point…
“Alright kid, enough.” Vic shoos me off.
I let up on the hand, but I’m not finished. I kneel down beside the asshole and clock him right in the jaw. Not enough to put him out. Just enough to give me that small flicker of satisfaction you get when you punch an asshole square in the face.
“Enough, I said!” This time, Vic grabs me by the shoulders and yanks me back into a standing position. Everything’s foggy, and I’m a little woozy from the sudden change in elevation. He leads me away to chat in private.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he whispers to me.
“I don’t like this fucking guy.”
“I can see that. Seriously, what the fuck’s gotten into you today?”
“I’m on this stupid natural cleanse bullshit,” I tell him. “A week without any coffee, or, really, any caffeine at all. So far…”
Vic lets out an exasperated huff, and starts to walk away, then turns back fast enough that I almost topple over backward from my shaky, caffeine-starved sense of balance.
“Get it together, Jones.” He wags a fat finger in my face, and I want to tear it off and shove it up his ass. I suppress the urge.
Vic walks up to the accountant, who’s weeping in a ball, propped up on the Chevy’s chrome bumper, next to the vanity license plate that reads PS3-WGN – Vic was convinced that it spelled out “Pussy Wagon,” but no one else ever seemed to share that interpretation. Vic kneels down to talk to the accountant on his level. “Do you know why we’re doing this?”
“Please, please, I don’t…”
Vic grabs him by the collars and hoists him to his feet. He playfully slaps him around a little – not to cause damage, or at the very least, not the kind of damage I wanted to inflict. Just to shut him up.
“I don’t, I don’t…” Vic mocks. “This ain’t about what you don’t. This is about what you won’t. You get me?”
My palms are sweating, and my pulse is throbbing behind my forehead. It’s been three days since the last time I took a decent shit, even though my stomach’s constantly churning.
“What’s your name, buddy?” Vic says, playing equal parts good cop and bad cop.
“M-m-Mike…” stammers the accountant.
“Bullshit!” I yell from about ten feet away. “You don’t think we already know that ain’t your name, ya lying fuck?”
“Jonesy, cool it,” chastises Vic, before turning his attention back to the accountant. “Look, you want to be Mike, you can be Mike for all I care. You can be John, George… fucking Ringo for all I care. I don’t give two shits about your name.”
“Wh-Why are you doing this?”
“Well, my partner over there… he does it because he’s got a bad disposition. Mother didn’t breastfeed him enough as a kid.”
“Fuck you, fat-ass!” I snarl.
“Me, I do it because I’m a people person,” Vic continues, unfazed. “In this line of work, you get to meet so many interesting people… like fucking nosey bookworm accountants who should have kept to their own fucking business!”
“I didn’t… I don’t…”
“There he goes again with the ‘I don’t…’ thing,” Vic says to me as if I’m paying attention. Concentration ain’t exactly my strong suit at the moment. I flick my spent cigarette butt towards the edge of the dock we’re standing on, but it skitters in a shower of sparks just short of the water.
“What you don’t is ir-rel-e-vant,” continues Vic, enunciating each syllable as if it makes him sound sophisticated. “You seen something you shouldn’ta seen, and you know what? That’s fine. Last I checked, there ain’t no law against seeing, ain’t that right, Jonesy?
He gives me a look as if to say “Help me out, kid,” but I just silently glare at the pair of them. He shrugs and turns back to the accountant.
“He’s more of the strong silent type, I guess. Anyway, where was I… yeah, ain’t no law against seeing. But what the fuck do you do?”
“I was… I’m just doing my job…”
“You go looking into old tax returns, and you find some ‘ir-reg-u-lar-i-ties,’” – another 15-point scrabble word from Vic – “and you bring them to our employer, seeking a big fat fucking payday to keep your mouth shut! Now, like I said, ain’t no law against seeing… but that to me? That sounds like extortion. And last I checked, extortion, yeah, there’s a fucking law… right, Jonesy?”
I belch something rancid from deep inside my fouled-up guts, and swallow hard to keep the bile from rising any higher in the back of my throat. I manage not to puke, but it’s touch-and-go for a minute.
“M-m-my daughter, she needs braces…” offers the accountant in the way of weak-ass excuses.
“Your daughter needs braces?” Vic repeats. He balls up a fat fist, and slugs the worm in the stomach, crumpling the bastard and dropping him back down to the ground like a discarded tissue. He pulls out a thick wallet from his back pocket and thumbs through.
“How much is braces? Couple hundred? Couple thousand?” he asks, pulling out high-denomination bills and dropping them carelessly and disdainfully on top of the gasping accountant, one at a time for effect.
Vic grabs him by the back of his neck and lifts him back up to face him. “If you really fucking needed the money, you coulda asked instead of making empty God-damned threats! The amount of money you’re talking about, it’s nothing! My employer spends more to get his shoes shined. This ain’t about you being needy; it’s about you being greedy!”
Vic lets go of the accountant and he collapses back on the ground, crying.
“Gimme back my damn money,” Vic orders.
The worm accountant scrambles to collect all the discarded bills and hand them back to my fat fuck of a partner. The sun peaks out over the top of a warehouse, sending kaleidoscope daggers across my field of vision. I shield my light-sensitive eyes.
Vic takes a deep breath to change gears, and starts pacing around the accountant, like a tiger looking at a meal. “You… well, y’know what? Today is your lucky day, my friend. The god of fat, balding middle-aged accountants is smiling down on you today, amigo.”
“W-why?” snivels the accountant, tears, snot and a little bit of blood covering his fat nobody-face.
“Because you chose to soar a little fucking too close to the sun, Icarus,” – I quietly applaud Vic on remembering basic third-grade Greek mythology – “and you know what happened to him? Wings burned up. Fell to his death. This time around, though, my employer is a forgiving man. He’s a generous man.
“If it were up to me and him,” Vic says, jerking a thumb back in my direction, “we’d let you fall. Frankly, neither one of us likes you very much, if that ain’t plainly fucking apparent. But our boss has a kind fucking heart, and he’s willing to let you walk away from all this, provided you don’t say nothin’ to nobody about what you fucking know. Understand?”
Vic’s phone chirps that cheery factory ringtone that came standard – he never could figure out how to swap it out. He pulls the phone from his left-front pants pocket and looks at the screen.
“Shit, I gotta take this. If you ain’t too busy, you think you can watch over our friend til I come back?”
I don’t say a word, and quietly walk over to where the accountant is weeping on the ground in praise of his second chance at life. Vic excuses himself to the Chevelle. The accountant is practically manic in his gratitude towards us.
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” he blubbers over and over again, wiping his snot face on my sleeve. I yank the arm back, almost dropping him flat on his face.
Why does this guy get – no, deserve – a fucking pass?
“…shuddup…” I tell him under my breath.
“OhmyGod, I have to call Marcy, my secretary… she saw you guys grab me out of the parking lot, and she’s probably so worried….”
That would be Marcy, the secretary he’s schtupping on the side… who told us where to pick him up, without so much as a regret in the world. Each word makes me hate him more. My head is pounding.
“Shuddup.” I say, a little more forceful.
“Y’know, I could just lose that tax return, right? Show of good faith to your boss, prove I’m a team player, that kinda thing? Who knows, maybe he’ll offer me a job. Guys like him need accountants they can trust, righ…”
“Shuddup! Shuddup! Shuddup! Shut the fuck up!” I shout, cutting him off. I pull a switchblade from my back pocket, and quick as a cobra pouncing on a rabbit, I flick the blade open and plunge it into his neck up to the handle.
His eyes go wide –begging, pleading, confused – but he’s finally stopped talking. He falls back off the blade and onto the ground, dark red blood gurgling up from the wound and out from his now-silent mouth as the life pours out of him and onto the asphalt of the dock parking lot.
“You’re not going to believe this,” says Vic, emerging from the driver’s seat of the Chevelle. “That was Suzy. My fucking kid needs brac… WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?!”
“I just… I don’t…” I stammer.
“There’s a line we’re not supposed to cross!” hollers Vic. “We’re fucking cops, for Chrissake… maybe shitty cops, but we ain’t supposed to be murderers…”
“It was the caffeine… the light off the warehouse,” I whisper, dazed.
“Fuck this shit,” he throws his hands up in the air. “I ain’t going to jail for you, and I sure as shit ain’t losin’ my pension for you…”
Vic climbs back into the Chevelle and punches the familiar three numbers into the keypad on his cell phone. The fog starts to lift from my brain, and I move alongside the driver’s side door.
“Yeah, I’d like to report an assault… anonymously…” Vic says into the phone.
“Vic, get out of the fucking car,” I say, clicking the hammer back on my service revolver.
“I’ll call you back,” says Vic, hanging up the cell phone. “Easy, Jonesy… we can talk this thing through…”
Vic slams the car door into my arm, taking me by surprise, and is out of the car, his thick hands around my throat much faster than they should have been for a man of his size and age.
I try to pry the big man’s fingers off my throat, but it’s no use. Shadows start creeping in from the edge of my field of view.
My only hope – the .38 I’m still desperately clutching, despite my airway being squeezed by the big lummox in front of me. Vic spots my hand come up with the pistol, and loosens his grip on my throat to paw at the heater. I gasp as we struggle for control of the gun.
The sound of a single gunshot startles the seagulls at the end of the dock.
* * *
“You know, I always said, ‘Shredded lettuce is like the stripper glitter of fast-food condiments…”
“What the fuck are you going on about?”
“Shredded lettuce. It’s like, my girl, she don’t like me eating this shit,” said Pete from the driver’s seat, as he shoves another Taco Bell beef taco down his pie hole, and then starts to talk with a mouthful of food. “So, it’s like, whenever I eat this, I always gotta worry that she’ll find it on me. And you can never get that shredded lettuce shit off… it shows up in the most inconvenient of places.”
“You a fucking comedian now or something?” says Mustache Mike from the passenger’s seat. “Cut out the comedy routine, Seinfeld. We got a job to do. We need to stay professional.”
The two chew in silence for a minute.
“You really think he’s in there?” asks Pete, pushing up the glasses that always seemed to be slipping down his face, and which did nothing to bolster his non-existent reputation as an intellectual.
“You know any other ’69 Chevelles with that stupid fucking license plate?” Mike nods towards Vic’s car.
“I don’t know about this, man,” says Pete. “What if he’s gone full-on mad dog killer? What if we’re walking into a fucking shoot-out at the O.K. Corral?”
“What if I slug you in the fucking jaw, you goddamned pussy. We got orders, and orders is orders…”
The two hired thugs step out of the Impala and walk across the street to the coffee joint.
As they pass through the door, a little bell rings, announcing their entrance. I nod over to them, acknowledging their presence and inviting them over to where I’m sitting in a booth.
“We been looking for you, Jonesy,” says Mike. “Since the fuck-up this morning.”
“I figured,” I say, rubbing the bruises on my neck. “The boss send you?”
I motion for them to slide into the booth opposite me. “You guys hungry?”
“We just ate,” squawks Pete, to Mustache Mike’s annoyance.
“Taco Bell?” I ask, knowing these two and their habits.
“Yeah. You know, that shredded lettuce, it’s like the stripper glitter…”
Mike elbows his partner in the guts to shut him up.
“Well, I’ll tell ya later, I guess,” Pete says.
“Well, if you guys are interested, this place makes a mean cappuccino,” I tell them. “This ain’t the fanciest joint – not like that Starbucks shit – but it’s probably the best cappuccino around…”
“Nah, thanks,” refuses Mike. “I quit that shit. Couple months back. Better for my nerves.”
“Yeah, I guess it would be,” I concede. I sip from the cup, and lick the foam off my top lip. “You boys ever have a bad fucking morning?”
“Calling what you had a ‘bad fucking morning’ would be a serious understatement,” Pete says.
“Yeah, well… anyone reach out to Suzy yet?” I felt like shit when I thought about what I had to do to Vic. I felt even worse when I thought about his family.
“Yeah, the boss called her,” says Mike. “She and the kid’ll be taken care of.”
“Good. Kid needs braces.”
We sit a few minutes in silence until I break it.
“So where do we go from here, boys?”
“You know the drill,” says Pete. “We gotta take you back to see the boss.”
“Orders is orders,” I say, turning to Mustache Mike. “Got time to finish my coffee?”
“Yeah, kid. Take your time.”
I take another swig of my cappuccino. I know Mike’s already got the safety off, and the gun’s pointed at me from his coat pocket. I ain’t making it to see the boss.
I pull a nail from the Pall Mall pack in my torn shirt pocket and stick it between my lips. “Got a light?”
Pete pulls a dinged-up Zippo from his front pants pocket, his hands trembling a little as he holds it up for me to ignite my cigarette.
“You can’t smoke that in here,” admonishes the barista from behind the counter.
“Relax, doll… I probably ain’t finishing it,” I take a deep drag before turning back to my would-be executioners. “You guys ever hear that quote from Kurt Vonnegut about Pall Malls?”