TongueSeptember 11, 2018
Don’t let this asshole get to you.
His father’s litany played over and over in Tongue’s head.
When they get to you, they own your ass.
He fiddled with the metal post piercing his tongue, rubbing it against the roof of his mouth and resisted the urge to drive Dom’s nose into his brain—couldn’t guarantee it would kill him. Maybe if Tongue hit him with the napkin dispenser, he could crack his skull, kill him, but he couldn’t be sure. He nearly reached for it but stopped himself. He’d endured four years living in shit in Scranton, dealing light and robbing New York bound carriers driving up from Florida on 81.
He’d only get one shot.
“That tongue jewelry is gorgeous,” Dominic said then sipped his cappuccino. He wiped the foam from his lips with a cloth napkin. The fat shit in the corner cracked up. “Did you put on peach-passion lipstick before sucking dicks in the alley in Scranton?”
When they get to you, they own your ass.
When he didn’t flinch, Dominic held a hand out to one of his guys standing at the door to the pizzeria. The soldier came in and pulled a .45 out of his shoulder holster then set it down on the table between the two of them.
“Come on kid. You’ve got such a hard-on for me. I can see it in your eyes. Your blood is screaming for mine. Now’s your chance. It’s loaded.” He released the magazine on the Colt and showed Tongue the cartridges in the clip. Then, he slid it back into the grip, clicking it in place. Dom popped off the safety and set it down between them, and Tongue sensed his guy twitch, tensing like a cobra before it strikes. Even the carpenter stopped work on the remodel, setting down his hammer. Everyone knew this routine, though Tongue doubted they enjoyed Dominic’s twisted shit. Under the current power structure, his crew had an obligation to defend their boss and thus defend their own turf. Dominic protected them and ran South Philly, making it safe for his guys to operate. His crew kicked up to him, and he paid their tax to the family boss. If Tongue tried anything, they’d cut him down. Dominic rubbed his left eye. “Fucking headache,” the skipper said.
“Allergies,” Tongue commented.
“It’s all this fucking construction,” Dominic said. “So you going to do something, kid?”
“I got better things to do with my time then deal with this shit,” Tongue said, relaxing his body and stepping back, signaling his surrender. His submission would contribute to a spurious sense of security and make it easier when the right time came. He just had to stick to the fucking plan.
When they get to you, they own your ass.
“You can stay cool,” Dominic said then slid the piece back under his jacket. “I’ve got a job for ya.”
“None of that courier shit anymore,” Tongue said, playing up attitude and confidence. He had to convince Dominic he had nothing to worry about, even if it took years of grunt work like running numbers and putting up with his sadistic shit. But he couldn’t kiss his ass. Dominic had killed his father, and he expected some malice. “You do this thing right, and we can talk about your future.” He took out a post-it note and stuck it to the table. Tongue reached out to pick it up but hesitated. He still had time to get out, though he’d never get back in. Dominic watched him, savoring the moment with his eyes, probably enjoying the satisfying moment when he’d ruined another soul. Tongue knew what it meant, what he would become and feared his mother watched him from heaven, praying for his soul, telling him to walk away and let the dead be dead. He didn’t really have a choice though. Tongue grabbed the sticky note. “Make it clean, and I’ll kick in another 5Gs.”
One of the two soldiers guarding the door stepped inside and waited for the okay to let him leave. “Give me back my shit,” he said. Dominic laughed then waved his two fingers in the manner befitting a monarch, and his guys handed back Tongue’s .22 and phone. Everyone had to turn in their stuff when they visited the boss.
He turned into the city, keeping the river at his back. He loved Philly as a kid, ruling the subways and buses, running the sidewalks, grabbing purses on the train or hubcaps off Broad Street around city hall. Once he read the name, he was in this, and couldn’t help feeling like he was whacking the wrong guy. But what choice did he have? He couldn’t take on Dominic’s crew, and they’d defend their boss as long as he breathed. Tongue couldn’t do it without allies. Pop had taught him many things, most of which he ignored at the time, and he couldn’t get his death out of his head now that he was back in Philly. He knew the public story but never really found out what happened behind the scenes.
Four years ago, Pop made a drop at a bank in Chestnut Hill where his crew had an arrangement. A couple of Philly cops stopped him going to his car, responding to a call from the bank manager about an attempt to extort money from one of his tellers. The cops said he’d pulled his piece on them, but it had to be bullshit. Pop couldn’t fire such a heavy piece after his stroke. His father had been a good man, a smart man, loyal to the regime. He looked after people, hotheads like Dominic, and was up for underboss. Dominic couldn’t let it happen and must have ordered him cut down. Now he ordered his son to do the same, and he had no choice.
He turned over the note. George Smitz. Who the fuck was George Smitz? Dominic had drawn a small rat below the name, so this guy must have been a snitch. He pushed the thoughts away, getting ready to do the job and made his way on the EL. He waited until dark.
Tongue climbed through the window of the Horsham apartment, easing his weight off the fire escape. Even if anyone had seen him this time of night, he doubted anyone would have cared. Junkies ripped off these places every night, and half the time the cops never showed up. They stole, paid their dealers who paid their rent and bought milk from the local shitty market, and everyone knew their place in the urban ecosystem. He searched the apartment, making sure no one was around—maybe one of Dominic’s guys, waiting for Tongue in the darkness. He’d get his one shot before Tongue could be ready and claim he’d shot a junkie breaking in to his place, all nice and neat. Problem gone. He stepped through piles of fast food wrappers and piles of dirty laundry. Roaches scurried, darting through the slim shafts of light coming through the windows. After checking the open kitchen, bedroom and living room, Tongue found a position on the far side of the couch, facing the front door. This would do nicely, hit this George when he stepped through the front door still holding his keys. Tongue banged into an end table, knocking over a row of bottles. They clattered and chimed, rolling onto the worn carpet. He might as well have rung a fucking church bell. He froze, listening in the dark. A television below him rumbled the Eagles game. Someone slammed a door down the hall, and he jumped, nearly breaking for the window. He steadied his breathing, fiddling with piercing with his tongue. Sweat soaked the armpits of his hoodie, chaffing his skin. Tongue waited in the darkness, clutching the piece through the fabric of his pocket, not yet pulling it.
A door slammed in the hall. A woman yelled in anger, muffled through the wall.
No one shot him.
Tongue relaxed. His mouth ached from all the fidgeting, and he readied himself, taking out his piece. Floors creaked. Light dimmed. People sensed changes in the environment, could feel presences even if they didn’t see an intruder. He wished he’d had more time to figure out who George was, though he didn’t want to know him. He probably could have found him on Facebook, but then he’d know more about the man. The face of a grandchild would haunt Tongue for the rest of his life, and he’d survive it only if he thought of it as a banal function. He’d just pull the trigger and didn’t think about what the bullet hit. The guy probably deserved it anyway, and it comforted Tongue that he could be delivering a kind of justice.
Still, he waited, enduring sore legs, keeping himself from checking his phone for the time. George Smitz should have been home by now.
The lock clicked. Keys jangled. Tongue grabbed a cushion and pressed it to the muzzle. He braced his arm for the recoil, keeping it straight. In Scranton, he’d practiced at the range but it never prepared you for the tension of confrontation. His hand shook, and he jiggled the piercing, slicing up the soft skin of his mouth.
A small and slim figure stepped through the door. The light of the hall distracted Tongue’s eyes, but immediately from the gait and shape, he sensed something off. The guy could have had a girlfriend, even a mother living with him, though everything about the apartment depicted a lonely loser. Curves shaped her squat body. She gently sighed, probably not happy to be home.
He had to make a move. What choice did he have? Tongue aimed low for her neck, hoping to hit above or below. In a moment, she’d switch on the light, maybe scream, grab her phone. Fuck. But this couldn’t be George. They didn’t kill chicks. The whole thing was a fucking setup.
“Don’t turn on the light,” he said.
“Who the fuck?”
“I’m the guy with a gun aimed at your throat, and you’re the chick who is going to answer me.” He should have shot her but he needed to know what was going on.
“If you’re here for a fix, you can take my old bras or six bucks in change on my dresser. But it won’t pay for shit. And you better hope I never find you.”
“Where’s George Smitz?”
She hesitated, probably reassessing the situation. The arrogance in her voice reminded him of a Philly cop.
“What do you want with George Smitz? Did . . . Dominic send you to figure this shit out? He said he was sending someone. A lawyer or something who would talk to internal affairs.”
“Georgia Smitz. Named after my father’s homeland.”
The name sounded so familiar to Tongue. “You’re a fucking cop?”
“You’re not a lawyer, are you?”
“Oh fuck,” she said. “He knows I won’t talk. I’d never do that to him. He’s got to know that.”
Tongue had to see her to figure this out. “Turn on the light,” he said. She flipped the switch on the wall, revealing a small, stocky woman with a nice build and short dark hair. She looked like she was coming home from a night job, wearing uniform pants and a belt holding a flashlight and taser. The Russian flag tattooed her shoulder, revealed by the cut of a tank top. He’d seen her before and finally placed her—one of the cops who’d gunned down Pop.
“You’re just a kid,” she said.
“And you killed my dad.”
Tongue pressed the pillow to the muzzle, eager to pull the trigger, but he couldn’t move his finger. Dominic played games, and somehow through some twisted shit, he’d be shooting himself. There had to be more.
“You’re Mario’s boy. Christ. I didn’t want to do it. My partner didn’t give me a choice. You know how dirty cops are. They don’t need to shoot you just not back you up on a raid.”
Tongue knew how it happened, how you got your hooks into someone. Once she’d killed his father, they had her. She’d start doing jobs for Dominic, and he probably fucked her on the weekends. She needed a hero, someone to get her out. But she’d gotten caught. Tidy. Nice and tidy.
“So fucking stupid,” she said.
He hesitated. Dominic had manipulated her too, fired her like a shotgun. She’d pulled the trigger, but he pulled the strings. Still, what choice did he have now?
“I’ll kill the greasy fucker,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, steadying his arm for the recoil. “I’ll get him for you. I promise on my father’s grave.” He stepped forward, closing the distance between them. A .22 didn’t have a lot of power, and he wanted to be sure to finish the job.
“Just don’t. Give me a minute. I need to think. I’ll kill him. I swear.”
Dominic sipped his coffee and paged through his iPad. “Everything good, Anthony?”
Tongue nodded. “Neat. Tidy.”
“You clear—” Across the restaurant dining room, the carpenter nailed up drywall, shedding dust into Dominic’s espresso. “Knock it the fuck off when I’m having breakfast.” The startled carpenter stopped and set his hammer on a table. The fat guy sat in the corner playing solitaire, and the same two of the guys from the crew stood outside, guarding the door. Naturally, they’d searched him, though he hadn’t bothered bringing in the .22. What was the point?
Tongue sweated through his shirt and hoodie, soaking the fabric. He shivered in the chilly air of the restaurant, struggling to swallow down the burning vomit that kept rising from his stomach. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. His choice would change him forever, and he knew if he survived this encounter, it was time to get out of the life—if he survived.
“Anything weird about it?” the skipper asked, touching his screen, not even looking up at Tongue. So close, and he couldn’t touch him. His guys outside watched through the window, keeping an eye on things, but they probably didn’t worry too much. They thought Tongue tamed. Maybe he was now. Dominic had probably meant to kill his spirit, to bring him down into the shit with him, and Tongue would carry the experience the rest of his life, which may have been another hour or two. Tongue checked the clock: almost nine. The seconds smacked him in the skull.
“I couldn’t see shit,” Tongue said.
“Not as stupid as your old man then.” Tongue held his tongue, restraining himself. It would be soon, but he had to keep his cool for just a little while longer.
The cook carried out a plate of eggs from the kitchen and served it to Dominic. The skipper cut a piece and chewed it. He showed no emotion over Georgia’s death, didn’t twinge once. He conducted business as usual, going about his day and deciding who lived and died.
“We’re going to take care of you. I always take care of my people, but I need a favor first. Mike and Chris need someone to keep an eye on things when they’re taking care of something in Lansdale. You stood up, and the job pays. A bonus if it’s tidy.”
And here it was. Dominic made his move. Tongue fiddled with the piercing, pressing the sharp end of the long post against his cheek.
“Not interested,” Tongue said, wondering if he could just talk his way out of it.
“Sure you are. Easy payday. And it’s out of the city. Go get some fresh air. They’ll buy you dinner after. There’s an Italian place out there that makes the best gravy like you were licking it off the thighs of Venus herself. You be good and do this for me.”
“Cut the shit for once, Dominic,” Tongue said, going for broke. What did it matter now? He knew what would happen next—all fucking neat and tidy.
“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “Like your old man. He was going to get upped, and I saw my chance. Just the way this works.”
The clock ticked at nine, and Tongue tensed, looking through the front window at the guys.
“Go now, and this will be easy.”
The first guard dropped, hitting the door and banging it ajar. The second sentry dropped right after, hitting the sidewalk. “Hey, what’s wrong with you guys?” Dominic yelled then figured it out. He reached into his suit jacket, but before he could grab his piece, Tongue tore the post out of his tongue. Blood gushed out of his torn mouth, bleeding down his chest and splattering onto the floor. He ignored the pain, and grabbed Dominic by the head then drove the nail into his left eye. Fluid fired, and the oval compressed under the pressure. Dominic flailed at the air, and having distracted him, Tongue ran the length of the room and grabbed the carpenter’s hammer. The pudgy guy in the corner tried to get up and protect his boss but panicked. Dominic finally found his piece, but Tongue swung the hammer, hitting the nail and driving it deep into his head. Dominic dropped, collapsing into the bench and slid down, kneeling onto the floor. He jerked a few times then went still.
“Don’t fucking do it,” Tongue said to the guy. “Not for this asshole.” He raised his hand in peace, and Tongue pushed open the door, knocking the stiff out of his way. A van made a U-turn and stopped in front of the restaurant. Tongue climbed in.
“You were fucking late.”
“You did it?” Georgia asked.
“A man needs friends,” Tongue said, quoting Pop.
“Let’s get out of this fucking city.”by
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T. Fox Dunham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Allison. He’s a lymphoma survivor, cancer patient, modern bard and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books. A major motion picture based on the book is being produced by Throughline Films. Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality or Searching for Andy Kaufman, a book about what it’s like to be dying of cancer, was recently released from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Fox has a story in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from MGM and Fandemonium Books. Fox is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and he’s had published hundreds of short stories and articles. He’s host and creator of What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show, a popular horror program on PARA-X RADIO. His motto is wrecking civilization one story at a time. http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham