I walked down the alleyway again, making sure that there was only one way in or out of this converted garage. If Rance actually lived in that dump, this wasn’t going to be a murder. It’d be a mercy-killing.
I stepped back into an alcove while a car drove down the narrow alley. There wasn’t much traffic – I’d been here for almost an hour and that was only the second car to drive by. No one else lived on this alley. Rance seemed to have the only garage that was made into living space.
I went up and knocked on the door. I wondered if Rance could even get out of his apartment if his door was blocked by a van or trash truck.
I heard mumbling from inside, and the door finally opened. It opened inward, which was smart – if it opened outward, a passing truck might’ve tore it off its hinges. That’s the kind of place this was.
Rance was not aging gracefully. I’d seen homeless guys who looked better. Of course, we were three times as old as the last time we met. But at least I’d kept in shape.
“Hey, buddy!” I said, grinning like an idiot. “Long time no see, Rance!”
He was half in the bag already. There was no recognition in his eyes.
“St. Polycarp High? Football? The Fightin’ Swordfish?”
He didn’t recognize me, but he remembered the team. He whispered its name, questioning.
“That’s right, buddy! You gonna invite me in?”
I pulled a quart of Jack Daniels Black out of the pocket of my trench coat. The prospect of some decent liquor forced the decision. He stepped back and waved me in.
The place was all one room, with a curtain half-concealing a toilet in the corner. There was no sign of a shower or bathtub, but from the smell, Rance rarely washed. He evidently slept on a beat-up sofa that took up one entire wall.
He slumped into the only upholstered chair in the room. It was next to a table and faced a beat-up television, which was showing a baseball game with the sound turned down.
He made a feeble attempt to act like a host. “Pull up that chair. And there should be a clean glass over the sink.”
There was only one other chair in the room, a hard-backed chair in the kitchen area. It was next to a low, built-in counter, where he probably sat to eat. The few glasses were in a shelf over the sink. I found two almost-matching lowball glasses, then brought them and the wooden chair across the table from his armchair. I noticed that the table had a drawer facing him. The drawer was half open. I guessed that he kept a handgun in there. You’d need one in a neighborhood like this.
There was an empty fifth of cheap whiskey on the table. He’d been drinking it out of a tall water glass. When I cracked the Jack Daniels open and started to pour, he held out his water glass, refusing the clean one I’d brought over.
“To each his own,” I said, as I poured his glass half full of Jack.
“To St. Polycarp!” we toasted. I sipped mine. Rance drank his down in one long swallow.
He’d been pickling himself for so many years that four fingers of whiskey had no visible effect. But he looked me over with rat-cunning. No doubt he wondered if he could get something out of me besides liquor.
“Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself,” he said.
“I’ve done OK. Lot of medical expenses lately. Old football injuries, they just get worse as we get older, right? Even if you were second string, like me.”
I’d been watching the television out of the corner of my eye. As Rance was trying to work out something to say, I shouted, “Did you see that catch? Beautiful!”
His attention returned to the baseball game as he watched the instant replay. He also reached over to a transistor radio on the table and turned up the sound. The Old School Way to Enjoy Baseball: watch the game on television, and listen to the superior commentary on the radio.
And with his attention diverted, I filled up his tumbler again. I also dropped a crushed pill into his drink, swirling the glass to dissolve it. Nothing exotic – just the sort of anti-anxiety medication that someone like Rance would be likely to mix with his alcohol.
I saw yesterday’s newspaper on the floor next to his chair. It was open to the obituaries. When I picked it up, a cockroach scurried out from underneath. I folded the paper so Minka’s obit showed and placed it on the table. Rance was draining half his glass again.
“Damn shame about Minka, isn’t it?” I asked.
Rance’s face fell, either from the pill I’d slipped him or the death of his old friend.
“That old Polack,” he slurred. “He was the best!” We toasted, and he downed the rest of the Jack in his tumbler.
I filled it up again, smiling like a shark.
We talked for quite a while. I told him all the stories I knew about Minka, and a few I made up. I’d gotten them all second-hand, back then.
If Rance remembered that I wasn’t part of his clique, he didn’t say anything. Not as long as I kept the Jack Daniels flowing.
“Y’know wha he did for me? Y’know wha that Polack did for me?” Rance sniffed, holding back a tear.
“No, Rance. What did he do for you?”
“Senior year. I was gonna get cut from the team. I played on that team all the damn way through school, and they were still gonna cut me! Just ’cause I hadn’t grown as much as some of the others. Is that fair?”
“No, it isn’t fair, Rance. What did Minka do?”
“There was this egghead on the team. Nobody liked ‘im. Stand-offish, too good to party with the rest of us. So, day before coach announces the cuts, Minka comes to me and says, ‘That snot-nose is gonna steal your spot on the team, Rance. We haveta take him out, so he can’t play.”
“And did you?”
“Did we ever! In the scrimmage, I kicked ‘is knee hard as I could, twice. And seconds later, Minka tackled ‘im! Blindside! Slammed ‘im inta the ground hard enough to break ‘is ribs!”
Rance made a little noise, which might have been a laugh.
“Wasn’t Coach mad at you for injuring a fellow team member?”
“Yeah, he was mad, but he hadn’t even been watching. So what could he do? He didn’t even know who to blame, and everyone kept quiet, even the egghead. No one ratted. That egghead was out for the season, an’ I got to stay on the team!”
A tear rolled down his face. “Minka was the best frien’ I ever had!”
We were silent for a minute. Rance drained his tumbler yet again.
Then I pulled something out of my jacket.
“You know, Rance, we should send this to Minka’s family.”
I spread the cheap condolence card out on the newspaper, positioned next to Minka’s obituary photo. I laid a ballpoint down next to it.
“Sign it, Rance. Show them how you felt about Minka.”
Rance was crying openly now. Weeping for his best friend Minka, for his lost youth, for what his life had become. He lifted the tee shirt that stretched over his belly and blew his nose on it.
“What do you say, Rance? Just this once, tell Mika how you really feel?”
“Wha do I write?”
“Write, ‘I always loved you, Minka.’ That’s right.” I had to hold the sympathy card in place as he scrawled on it. “And write this, ‘How do I go on without you?’”
It wasn’t overly legible, but the cops could dope it out. I poured him another drink, making sure to slip another crushed pill into it.
“Good job, buddy.”
“Won’t they thin’ I’m a fag?”
“No. They’ll know that you and Minka were best buds.” I handed him the drink.
A few minutes later he was snoring. I took the gun out of the drawer and left it on the kitchen counter.
I quickly looked around the converted garage. Amazingly, he had some clean towels and sheets in a closet. Worn, but clean.
I draped one sheet over me. I’d brought some big rubber bands, and used them to keep the sheet wrapped around my arms. With my left hand, I pulled it away from my face so I could see. I walked over to Rance, looking like a threadbare ghost.
Then, with my right hand covered by the sheet, I picked up the gun and put it in Rance’s hand.
Then I put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The sheet kept the blood splatter from getting on my clothes. The result wasn’t perfect – now there was missing blood splatter in the room. But in a dump like this, maybe no one would notice. The cash-strapped local municipality wasn’t going to spend thousands of dollars on forensic tests for old Rance.
And if they did, well, it really wouldn’t matter. Not anymore.
After wiping down the bottle and anything else I might have touched, I balled up the bloody sheet and put it in a plastic bag. It was then that Rance opened his eyes.
He made a gurgling noise, trying to get blood out of his esophagus.
“Gee, Rance ol’ buddy, it looks like you screwed up your suicide. You just took out a little of your brain and your sinuses. Burned your mouth, too. They might be able to keep you alive on a ventilator for months, until you get an infection they can’t cure. I can’t imagine how much that hurts, though. Not the way I’d want to go. But, like I said, to each his own.”
I have no idea if he understood any of that, with part of his brain gone. His eyes didn’t track me, but that could’ve been because he’d shot up his optic nerve.
Whether or not he understood, I had one more thing to say before I left.
“By the way, that egghead that you and Minka sandbagged? That was me.”
“That’s why I killed Minka a few days ago.”
He turned his head towards me as I exited.
The alleyway was still deserted. I walked down it for three blocks to where I’d left my car. The trash bag with the bloody sheet went into a dumpster. My bad knee – the one Rance had injured some forty years ago – didn’t hurt at all. That was probably due to the titanium replacement.
Of course, waiting forty years for revenge would be crazy, even for me. The fact is, I hadn’t thought much about my football injury until I got my knee replacement last year. I was lying in the rehab ward after the operation when I realized what had really happened.
Call me stupid, but I hadn’t believed that Rance and Minka had injured me on purpose. Their own teammate? I was naïve about human nature back then. I’d always thought it was an accident.
Immediately after High School I was a little too busy to think about it. My knee and ribs healed just in time for me to get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
It was in the ‘Nam that I learned about the cruelty and randomness of life. And that’s when I decided what I wanted to be: a badass. Like the mob guys I’d seen growing up. Guys who did what they wanted, when they wanted. Guys who’d kill you if you got in their way.
I could never be a made man or an actual member of LCN. You had to be 100% full-blooded Sicilian for that, not an Irish-Italian mutt like me.
But I knew that, if I became good at something useful, the mob guys would employ me. Sometimes they beat or killed their enemies themselves. Sometimes they employed freelancers. That’s what I became, a freelance assassin.
The Army taught me how to kill.
Vietnam taught me to like it.
But La Cosa Nostra let me make a living at it.
I’d changed a lot since I lived in this town. But there was a chance someone would recognize me, and I didn’t think I wanted to die here. When the cops catch up with me, I’m planning to shoot it out. I’ve been in prison, and I don’t want to do that again at my age. Prison was a lot easier when I was an angry, musclebound twenty-four year old. I’m slower now, my hearing is bad, and I know I can’t fight unarmed the way I used to. So no prison for me, thank you very much.
But you never know – they might come for me while I’m asleep, for instance. Better to pick my time and place, then go out with guns blazing.
I’m on borrowed time as it is, ever since Simon Pasko got himself arrested and told the cops everything.
I planned to drive far away from here, as soon as I got something to eat.
There used to be a pretty decent 24-hour diner on the interstate. Turned out it was still there. I pulled into the lot and circled the building, just from force of habit. Then I parked – front facing out for a quick exit – and headed inside.
They’d put in a closed-circuit camera over the front door. Damn things were everywhere these days. Before I came in camera range, I pulled a long-brimmed baseball cap out of my back pocket and put it on. I made sure the brim hid my face from the camera.
There were some vending machines for newspapers next to the door. The hour was late enough that one of them had tomorrow’s paper. I bought a copy, then went inside.
The place was nearly empty. In a few hours, when the bars closed, it would be full of drunks. But I needed food, to counter the alcohol I’d had with Rance. I sat myself, picking a table in the corner. Back to the wall, as always.
I took off my cap. The nuns of St. Polycarp had trained me well: don’t cuss, hold the door for others, and no hats inside.
After serving another table, a waitress spotted me and headed over. Halfway to my table she recognized me and smiled.
“Deuce! Welcome back!” she said.
That’s not my real name. But since I never give my real name, it’s what people call me.
She was a fine-looking woman, Pearl was, about ten years younger than me. I never made a pass at her – well, not after the first time – because she was a lesbian. That doesn’t bother me, although it must have made for a rough divorce. Don’t people know that they’re gay before they get married to the opposite sex?
I gave her a sincere smile, not the idiot rictus I used with Rance. Of course, I genuinely liked Pearl.
“How long has it been, Deuce?” she asked. “Two, three years?”
“Closer to four, I expect.”
“And here I am, slingin’ hash! You’d think I’d have found a better job by now.”
“Well, Pearl, the world needs waitresses.”
“I suppose. Life being sweet to you?”
“Can’t complain.” I didn’t ask about her life, because I knew it had been hard. She kept her two boys after a bad divorce, but her new girlfriend left her, her momma died of the cancer, and then her oldest boy died four or five years ago. So I don’t ask.
As for why they call me “Deuce” – well, I tip in two-dollar bills. I started doing it with strippers. It made me stand out: a roomfull of guys tipping in ones, and me tipping in twos. Then, since I always had a stack of twos in my pockets, I started giving them to waitresses as well. I tip well. That’s part of who I wanted to be – a dangerous guy who tips big, like a mobster. (A classy mobster – some of those clowns walk on their checks, knowing that no one will dare stop them. Do they care that their waitress gets stuck with the tab when someone walks? Do they even know?)
Another reason I tip big is that I’m always picking a table in back, preferably in the corner. If I have to make someone with sore feet walk further, of course I’m going to tip well. I don’t want them to spit in my food before they bring it out of the kitchen.
Pearl and I talked a while about nothing, then I placed an order. I ordered a lot of starchy crap, pancakes and pasta. When I was a kid in the army, I would put Tabasco on the lousy army chow. Nowadays, even drinking alcohol gave me indigestion.
I read the paper as I ate. I was thinking I’d dodged a bullet until I turned to the B Section and found the Pasko murder case on the front page.
Along with a mug shot of Simon G. Pasko.
And two nice, clear pictures of me, the unnamed assassin Pasko had hired to kill his wife. I even made it look like a robbery. But all I can do is confuse the issue. The cops figured out that the only person who wanted her dead was her husband.
What kind of moron films his meeting with an assassin-for-hire? Yet that’s what Simon Pasko did. Maybe he did it so he’d have something to bargain with if he got caught. Or maybe he did it because he was afraid of me (which he was, as I recall). I suppose he might have thought that, if I’d shot him, a DVD showing the act would be a sort of revenge. He was a civilian, not one of my mob employers.
Whatever the reason, the cops had a DVD featuring me, and they put stills from it everywhere – on the internet, on television, and in the newspaper.
Briefly, I wondered if I could get out of the country. Maybe go back to Thailand, where I’d had my knee replaced. Medical tourism, they call it, having operations done in a country where it’s cheap. I was sure I could have plastic surgery done there, too. Get a new face.
Maybe I could’ve done that before 9-11. But now there were no-fly lists and TSA agents who check everyone going in or out of the country. And with cameras everywhere and facial-recognition technology, I probably wouldn’t even make it as far as an airport. My big, scarred mug was too damn easy to recognize.
No, all that was left for me was deciding where I’d make my last stand. I should be happy that I’d finished my bucket list of people I wanted to kill. Rance and Minka were the last ones on the list.
“What’s the matter, Deuce? Don’t like the pancakes?”
So much for situational awareness. I hadn’t even noticed Pearl’s return.
I put the newspaper face down, so she couldn’t see my pictures in it.
“Just not as hungry as I thought I’d be, Pearl.”
“Anything else I can get you, then?”
“No, I’m done.”
“Well, then, mind if I sit down? You’re my only table at the moment.”
“Please do. I could use the company.”
As usual, I’d picked a table big enough for four people. She sat and put her feet up on another chair. Like I said, waitresses get sore feet, especially when they do this job for twenty years.
“Got a story I’ve been wanting to tell you, Deuce, if I ever saw you again.”
“You know that my oldest boy, Jimmy, got killed just a few blocks from here. That’ll be four years ago come June.”
That was in the local paper, which I read online. “I was really sorry to hear that. My condolences.”
“Yeah, well, Jimmy was a wild one. He was always in some kind of trouble or other. But here’s the thing: when Jimmy got killed, he was still living at home with me. And I couldn’t bring myself to go through his things. I left his room just the way it was. It’s only been recently that I could bring myself to do that.”
“So, the other day, I was going through his books. Jimmy wasn’t a big reader, but he still had his schoolbooks. Don’t know if you know this, but when kids go to Catholic school, they make the kids buy their own books. Not like public school, where they loan the books to the kids each year.”
Usually I’d lie about my background, but there didn’t seem any point in it now. “I went to Parochial school, Pearl. I remember.”
While Pearl was talking, a state trooper entered and went over to the counter. The counterman poured him a cup of coffee in a go-cup. But the trooper eyed the whole room, and he spotted me in the corner.
“OK. And I know I told you several times that I gave those two-dollar bills you tip me with to my boys. They liked them.”
The trooper turned away from me and sipped his coffee. But he was looking at me in the reflection from the front window. I hoped we weren’t going to have to shoot it out right here. I didn’t want Pearl hurt.
“My youngest son, I’m sure he spent every one I gave him. He’s that way – money burns a hole in his pocket. But Jimmy, I could never tell what he’d do.”
The trooper made a decision and left the restaurant. Maybe he didn’t recognize me after all. Or maybe he decided that an assassin-for-hire required backup.
“So, I’m going through Jimmy’s books, and there’s this big atlas they made him buy for school.”
“Catholic schools still teach Geography. Or they did, when I went there.”
“Right! So I open up this atlas, and can you guess what I found inside?”
Since it was that worthless son of hers, I was thinking drugs. But I wanted to be polite, so I just shook my head.
“It was those two-dollar bills of yours. The ones you tipped me, and that I’d given him. On every page, laid out four to a page. Pressed flat like they was a corsage from the prom!”
“God damn!” That I had not expected.
“He saved them. He almost had enough to fill up the entire atlas. I don’t know why, but they meant something to him.”
“So I just wanted to thank you, Deuce. You gave some kind of happiness to a troubled boy.”
“Oh, and no charge tonight. It’s on me.”
I had no idea what to say. Thankfully, a young couple came in and sat down just then, so Pearl got up and gave them their menus.
Look, I’m a bad guy. I know I’m a bad guy. I made that decision back in Vietnam, forty-some years ago.
And I can’t ever remember doing something good for no reason. Tipping big? That was part of my image, and I expected quick service for it. Every good thing I did with the expectation of some kind of reward.
Except for this, this thing with the tips and Pearl’s son Jimmy.
I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if I did, I’d be glad that something I did was good. One simple, unselfish act.
And that’s when I spotted the lights of a police car in the parking lot. From different angles, so there had be at least two of them. That state trooper must have called for backup, after all.
I stood. Pearl had comped my meal, but I paid her, anyway. I turned my wallet upside down and let all the bills fall on the table. Several hundred dollars, a final tip for Pearl. I wouldn’t be needing money any more.
Then I hustled through the kitchen and out the back door. I held my gun out, ready to shoot. The cops should’ve had someone there, but they didn’t. Not yet. Clumsy.
All that was left was to choose the place for my last stand.
Well, the alley where Jimmy died was just a few blocks away. I’d try to make it there. On foot, since the cops were by my car.
I knew exactly where Jimmy died.
After all, I was the one who killed him.
I didn’t know that he was Pearl’s kid, of course. He was just some lone, drunk kid who decided to mess with an old man with a limp. Maybe he’d planned to rob me, maybe not. I shot him dead without a second thought. I didn’t even bother to confuse the crime scene, like I usually do. Like I did with Rance.
Can’t say I felt bad about it, either. Although I am glad that I’m carrying a different gun. It wouldn’t do for forensics to show that my gun killed Jimmy. Pearl wouldn’t like that.
My new knee felt fine as I jogged across the field behind the restaurant. This was as good a place to die as I could expect.
And the only thing I felt bad about was that the pile of cash I’d left for Pearl didn’t include any two-dollar bills.