Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Thanksgiving morning Salmanowitz was running wild. Midway through the second quarter number eight had already racked up over a hundred yards from scrimmage and the Pilgrims were pounding Fox Lane 21-0 in their traditional Turkey Day rivalry. Light frozen rain fell from a grey sky making the hill above the field slick enough for the rowdier students to ride down using cafeteria trays as sleds. Jo, wearing dark glasses and a wool cap, weaved her way through the crowd and "trayers" until she found Fisher on a ridge stomping his feet to keep warm. Without a word she snuggled next to him.
Once they had agreed on the plan, they had been very careful not to be seen together; not at the track, not at Edgar's, not even at Fisher's apartment. Today they blended in pretending that they were no different from any other pair of parents standing on the hill watching their sons run to daylight. But they were different. A more discerning eye would know on sight that Jo and Fisher were cut from a cloth contrary to the Jacks and Jills climbing up this hill. There was no holiday gathering scheduled for their clans later this afternoon, no turkey dinner with stuffing and cranberry sauce at granny's, no prayer of thanks for the bounty before them.
Today was circled for a different reason; they were going to kill a man.
Salmanowitz broke loose again and galloped like a two legged moose towards pay dirt. As the crowd cheered Jo lifted her head from Fisher's shoulder.
“He's going to be there all night doing the inventory. The gun will be in the top drawer of the desk. I made sure, it'll be right there.”
“After you shoot him, remember to trash the office, really trash it. And don't forget to leave the safe open, you've got to make sure it looks as if Jack discovered the break-in during the robbery.”
“He'll never know you're there,” she whispered. “He'll walk right into it.”
Fisher closed his eyes, the heat of her breath gave him goosebumps. In the end-zone, Salmanowitz remembered to keep his helmet on as he held the ball high in the air while his teammates danced and whooped along the sidelines.
“You're positive what's-her-face will put you up?” Jo asked.
“Yeah, I'm sure.”
“Then...O.K.” Right. Nothing left to do but do it. “You know...” she said, “...once we start this...”
Fisher looked her dead in the eye. “It's already started.”
Jo took his hand and squeezed it. They stood that way for a long moment before she let go and walked up to the road above the hill. Fisher watched her climb past all the moms and dads and kids and leashed barking dogs. Frozen rain glistened in the streetlights.
“Turn around,” he muttered, “turn around.” At the top of the hill she turned back and saw him. She gave a brief wave and she was gone.
Under the guise of "smoking the peace-pipe", Fisher had accepted Claire's Thanksgiving dinner invitation, but his real job was was to be seen drinking himself into oblivion in front of Claire and her family. Sitting in the middle of the table between his ex-editor's sister and aunt, Fisher downed glass after glass of red Zinfandel.
He had pre-lined his stomach with yogurt in order to absorb the intoxicants, and every time the opportunity presented itself he ducked into the kitchen to empty his glass into the sink. Fisher was never a boisterous drunk, so he merely let Claire think he was getting quietly toasted while her family prattled on about property taxes, the price of heating oil and the Islanders slim chances of winning the Stanley Cup. And after the gang had all departed, he made sure to have a large snifter of brandy in his hand as his kept Claire company while she did the dishes.
He'd agreed to her dinner invitation with the proviso that they would not discuss the Dispatch, but as soon as they were alone, he knew Claire would want to revisit his firing.
“Let me talk to the publisher, Fish.”
“Let me try. He's not that bad of a guy. I think I can get him to knock it down to a suspension. Three, four months.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Fish, all I'm saying is let me try. What do you got to lose?”
Slurring his words as he refilled his snifter Fisher said “Fl.... Florida.”
“Florida? What about Florida?”
“That's where I'm going. To Florida.”
“What do you mean? When?”
“You got a job?”
“Give me a week. Two, tops. All the people I know down there...”
"Uh huh." She forced an encouraging smile. She knew Florida was the last place Fisher would be able to find work, but she said nothing. He'd find out. Florida tomorrow, all right then; she had him tonight. The classic rock station was playing Al Kooper singing “Something Going On.” Blood, Sweat and Tears, thought Claire watching Fisher nodding off on his feet. Man, that said it all.
"Where are we going?"
"You need to lie down," she said.
"I'm fine. I'm fine. I can drive."
"Yeah, right into a tree." They reached the top of the stairs and she guided him into a room."
"Where am I? he said groggily"
"The guest room," Claire said helping him on to the bed.
"Christ, everything is spinning. Where's the bathroom?"
"Down the hall."
"What... what are you doing?"
"Shh," said Claire, unzipping his pants.
"Shh." She spread open the fly of his boxers and wrapped her fingers around his cock. "Not like I'm a stranger."
"I'm really swacked. I don't think I can."
"No?" She tried to arouse him by pressing the fleshy head with her fingernail, but when Fisher started to snore Claire removed her hand from his pants and sighed.
"What a waste", she muttered, not sure if she meant his talent or her time. She pulled the comforter over his body. "What a waste." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. She walked down the hall to her room.
Fisher waited until he could hear Claire gently whinnying in sleep before he crept from the bed. He waited another two minutes before easing open the storm window. Holding on to the drainpipe he lowered himself down to the ground from the second floor. He stood in the shadow of the house, listening. The streets were still, houses all dark, the inhabitants deep in the land of nod digesting their enormous Thanksgiving feasts. Something sprinted across the lawn and came to a stop in the driveway.
Fisher watched the animal dart back into the dark. He took a deep breath and followed into the night, cutting through the back yards of the hamlet. He tried to convince himself that he too was an animal on the hunt, driven by instinct. An animal kills by instinct. Eat or be eaten. But he had never killed a man, certainly never sat down and planned it out. Oh yeah, Spengler and the can of Right Guard. But back then he was only a stupid kid looking to get even. And now? An animal, black gloves over his paws. If he only could do it with his hands, then maybe, maybe. But with a gun? He didn't know. How could he? He wouldn't know until his finger was on the trigger. He should have practiced. Gotten the feel of the thing. Gone in the woods somewhere firing at squirrels. What if he missed? He concentrated on his breathing, even, steady. The ground flew beneath his feet, stride after stride.
How long had he been going? He had no sense of time, It was as if he was running through a dreamscape, a dark road through stretches of woods filled with tall pines standing like sentinels. He knew he was approaching the bay, he could smell it before he could hear it. Something was rotting on the beach.
The surf was relentlessly pounding the shore. It sounded like a drummer with machine hands, the powerful rhythm beating in Fisher's head; kill-kill-kill-kill-kill-kill.
The woods thinned to a small clearing, a row of old maple trees lined the path to the parking lot. And there was Edgar's. Landy's Lexus was the only car in the lot.
Doug Kershaw was singing "Rita Put Your Black Shoes On" from the boom box as Landy rolled a joint on top of a box of tequila. Inventory was mind-numbing, exhausting work, and it was definitely time for a break. He had been at it since mid-morning, stopping only long enough to eat a blackened catfish Poorboy the chef left for him. Landy had no interest joining Jo and the staff for the Thanksgiving party at their co-op. Frankly he didn't give a shit about any of them, they were all Jo's hires and none of them would be working with them in Florida. Well, maybe one.
He couldn't wait to move the operation south. In Florida he'd be able to play golf seven days a week, twelve months a year, no more dragging himself north to this dump of a town, no more hustling hundred-a-hole skins with the likes of divot-heads. He lit the joint and inhaled deeply. Yeah. Now that's what he was talking about. "Rita, put those black shoes on." Somewhere in the middle of Kershaw's fiddle solo the phone started ringing.
Fisher was so startled by the sudden ring he nearly pulled the trigger. Jesus, he thought, Jesus, get a hold of yourself. Gun goes off the whole deal is blown. Easy. Take it easy. The ringing phone was perfect. Landy would have to come in to answer it, and when he did, Fisher would shoot him through the throat. Landy's hands would go up like JFK, his eyes spinning like pinwheels before he dropped to the floor. Fisher lifted the gun and aimed it at the door and waited.
The phone rang, four, five, six times before Jo's voice clicked on the answering machine. “Hi, you've reached Edgar's, the best sea-food restaurant on the bay. We are closed on Thanksgiving, and open again tomorrow for lunch and dinner. Please leave a message after the beep.” There was a beep and a pause before Jo spoke. Noise from the staff party could be heard in the background. “Hi, it's me. You there? Jack?” Her voice sounded calm, not a care in the world. Landy would come in for sure now, Fisher thought. His hand was sweating inside the glove. “I was checking in, seeing if you're coming over. There's still plenty of food, people are here. Jack, you there?” Jo's voice continued on the phone, “Jack? Maybe you're on your way. Jack? O.K. Happy Thanksgiving.” The machine clicked off. Jo's call established her alibi. Good.
Now it was Fisher's turn. He waited, gun aimed, his nose twitching as the aroma of marijuana drifted into the room. He held his breath thinking the last thing he needed was to be woozy from a contact high. But still no Landy. It was quiet, so quiet out there. The music from the boom box had ceased.
Had Landy gone upstairs? Or fallen asleep? Was it possible he'd dozed off? How long would he be out for? Fisher needed to get this done and get his ass back to Claire's house. Or maybe he should go, get the hell out. What was he doing here? He wasn't an assassin, a professional killer who could wait passionlessly for hours. What was that Salmanowitz had said about the tattoos in his head? Did it for a girl.
Fisher crab-walked along the wall to the door and stood. As he was rubbing his legs to get the blood flowing, a shadow crossed his face. He looked up to see Jack Landy smirking at him with a joint in one hand and a metal baseball bat in the other.
“Mr. Smalltime,” Landy said. And then he came up swinging.
Fisher ducked and heard the swish of the bat pass inches over his head. As he shoulder-rolled out into the storage room to avoid Landy's next swing, the gun dropped out of his hand and bounced into the corner. He tried to get to the stairs, but Landy cut him off swinging again at Fisher's head. Fisher ducked and the momentum of Landy's swing spun him around.
Fisher reached for the bat and tried to yank it out of Landy's grip. But Landy countered him, pulling back with both hands, forcing Fisher to spin around, allowing Landy to get behind him and choke Fisher with the bat against his windpipe.
Landy dragged Fisher backwards through the open door and into the walk-in freezer all the while jammimg the bat against Fisher's throat. Fisher gasped for air and desperately tried to get the bat off his neck. Black spots danced in his eyes, he was passing out. His only chance... if he could get close enough to the wall to push back. Fisher pulled them both forward, kicked up both of his legs and pushed off the back wall of the freezer.
He drove Landy straight backwards not allowing him a chance to duck. Landy's smashed the back of his head into the low beam over the walk-in door.
Landy released the bat and dropped like a stone face first on the floor.
For more than a minute Fisher couldn't move. He was dizzy, his throat felt like it had been severed. He struggled to his feet. As he stared down at the crumpled body on the floor he could feel the hatred rise inside him.
“Fuck you,” he snarled. “Come at me with a bat, you fucking fuck? You fucking piece of shit!” He drew back his foot, a milisecond from kicking Landy in the head. God he wanted to. God he wanted to boot Landy's skull clear out the walk-in and watch it bounce across the storage room like a head of cabbage dropped off the back of a truck. But he stopped himself. No. Leave no evidence, no shoe mark to be traced back. Be smart.
First things, first; was Landy dead? Fisher bent down and checked Landy's faint pulse. Fuck, he was alive. Barely. Well, he couldn't last long, not in the freezer. It would look like an accident. This was even better than they had planned. No break in, no attempted robbery, no gun. The gun!
Fisher replced the pistol in the office drawer. What else? What else? The bat. He put the bat in the corner behind the safe. He found the hand truck and wheeled it around Landy's body into the walk in. He filled the truck with boxes of frozen shrimp to make it look as if Landy was pulling the load out when he banged his head. Then the last touch, Fisher dropped the half-smoked joint next to Landy. Let the cops connect the dots.
He looked at his watch. A quarter to two. It It would be seven hours until Jo “found” him. Plenty time for a man to die.
Fisher kept to the original plan and left Edgar's by the kitchen egress. He circled around to the front, keeping in the restaurant's shadow. But when he reached the parking lot he was surprised by a grey car making a u-turn. Fisher dove for the ground, pushing his face into the dirt. When he looked up the car was gone.
Fisher's heart was pounding through his shirt, his felt pressure on his chest, sweat was pouring down his face. He swore he was having a heart attack. He leaned back against the wall of the restaurant and waited for the pressure to stop. Who the fuck was that? Some drunk who took the wrong road? Did they see him? Ten minutes passed. No sound except for the distant howling of wild dogs. The pain slowly abated, his breathing returned to normal. Using the door handle for leverage he pulled himself off the ground. All right, so far so good. Time to get out of there. He walked into the woods, picking up his pace a little at a time into a jog, a jog into a trot, a trot into a stride, a stride into an all out run.
Safely back in the guest bedroom, Fisher peeled off his sweaty clothes. He was exhausted, every part of his body ached, all he wanted to do was sleep for about a month. He hadn't seen a car or a light on the way back. All of it seemed like a dream. Jo's disembodied voice on the phone: “Is anybody there?” Landy's stoned stupid smile, the bat swinging through the air, the thud of his head against the beam of the walk-in... Fisher struggled out of his t-shirtand his pants. As he was pulling off his shorts, the door opened.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I...was too hot. I couldn't sleep.”
Slipping out of her robe Claire said, “I know the oldest cure in the world.”
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The weather turned cold and damp, in the drizzling rain all the color seemed to have been sucked out of the race track. The grandstand looked like a penitentiary, the crowd thinned down to the hard core, the desperate and the lifers. Jo and Fisher's winning streak was over. Since the day Fisher cracked his head in the freezer, neither he or Jo could pick a thing. Long shots, favorites, hedge-bet parlays... nothing, nothing but losers. With the losing came the finger pointing; they were snapping at each other like turtles.
“What do we have left?" Fisher asked.
“Not much after that flyer we took on your horse," said Jo. "What was that brilliance? 'Green Fields'?”
“A prayer shot. Horse had done nothing.”
“Like you're picking anything,” said Fisher.
Jo muttered under her breath "better than you," and walked away.
“Where you going? Jo?"
“The can. You mind?”
“I'll be at the bar,” said Fisher. “You want something?”
He couldn't hear her reply so he ordered them both doubles and watched the replay of the race on the monitor over the bar. Green Fields was late out of the gate and never a factor. Ten lengths behind by the first turn, the horse didn't seem to give a damn, wanting nothing more than to get out of the cold and rain. Smart horse.
Almost a week had past since the ax fell at the Dispatch, but Fisher still hadn't told Jo. What the hell, just a job, right? On the worst day of the year he'd rather be at the track than cover soccer sectionals in the sunniest of fields. Still, being fired ate at him. He never liked being kicked out the door. Christ. Why the hell couldn't the God damn kid keep his God damn mouth shut? What would Jo think of him now that he was unemployed? How different was he from the rest of the sad face clowns roaming the the vast half-deserted stands?
Jo returned and sat next to him at the bar. She flipped the hair off of her face and picked up her double-Irish.
“I'm sorry, Fish. I don't like fighting.”
He felt better immediately, like a heat lamp had been turned on bathing him in warmth. He had never been a hand holder, particularly in public, but something about having her hand in his changed all the rules. Before he even knew it he told her about the Dispatch.
“Fired? Why would they fire you?”
“Some fucked up thing. They had it in for me.”
“But I thought your editor...”
“She's a whore.”
“I'm sorry, Fish.”
“Hey. What are you gonna do?” He forced a smile. But she knew better.
“You want to go?”
“Yeah, let's get out of here.” For the first time he could remember, Fisher realized there was someplace he'd rather be than the track.
Up the parkway they could see the flashing lights of police cars and E.M.S. vehicles. Traffic had moved less than a mile in the last half hour and frustrated drivers were leaning on their horns. Overhead, Fisher heard a different honking. He leaned out the car window and saw the geese in chevron flight flying south. He imagined what the water fowl saw below them, the long grey island turning brown, cars small as snails inching along.
Jo, reading his mind, said “Fish, let's get out of here.”
"I can take the next exit, but Broadway is going to be just as bad."
"No. I meant get out of Rosehill. I hate this place."
“Fine with me. Pretty much shot my wad.”
“You know... that horse you like...”
Fisher's pulse jumped. "J.D.'s Catfish."
"Yeah. He races Monday, right?"
“What do you have at Edgar's?”
“I don't know. Maybe five grand.”
“Not much. He'll go off as one of the favorites. Short odds”
“It's only Wednesday. By Sunday night after the weekend receipts, and if I don't make any deposits the rest of the week...”
Fisher nodded. Ahead the police had cleared a lane and traffic began to move.
She was late. They were suppose to meet at the paddock before the third race. He'd already backtracked their circuit from the saddle-up to the grandstand three times. Faces, faces everywhere, but not hers. He fed the anxious devil in his stomach a chili dog and washed it down with two beers and a Jack and Coke. Now he was fighting off the urge to throw up as the whole mess churned inside of him.
For the first time in weeks there was a good sized crowd filling the stands, definitely a bit of electricity in the air. Already on the day two long shots had come in, the second a fifty-to-one shot part of a daily-double pay out of over nine hundred dollars for a two dollar bet. On the track the third race was in progress. Two horses charged down the stretch, less than a neck separating them. Fisher had eschewed betting on any of the preliminaries, preferring to plow the few hundred he had left to his name all in on J.D.'s Catfish.
Their plan was to place the bet as close to post-time as possible, too late for the sharpies to jump in on their action and drive down the odds when the twenty-thou hit the win pool on the big board.
A roar went up from the crowd as another long shot pulled out the third race. Happy bettors were jumping up and down on their seats. So far, not a day for the favorites. For the tenth time, Fisher looked at his watch. Where was she?
Jo knew she was running late. The morning had been filled with small Edgar's fires that had to be put out; broken dishwasher, floor schedule fuck-ups, a pothole the size of an open grave in the parking lot. When the smoke cleared she ran down the basement steps not even bothering to turn on the office light as she knelt at the foot of the safe. It had been a banner weekend at the fish house. Two large parties arrived late and ate and drank well past closing on Saturday, and a surprise engagement brunch more than doubled Edgar's usual cover numbers on Sunday. She hadn't yet counted it all, but she was sure there was almost twenty-five thousand dollars in cash stuffed inside the safe. She wiped the sweat from her hand and spun the four number combination. The lock was stubborn, you had to be precise in order for the tumblers to click. When the safe gave way on her first try, she thought it augured well for all concerned. But when she opened the door the shelves were empty. Behind her she could hear the office chair turning. Jo nearly jumped out of skin as the desk lamp clicked on.
“How's it going, sweetheart?” a voice said.
“God damn it, Jack! That's not funny.”
“I thought you were going to hit the ceiling,” he said.
“And that would've been a riot. I almost swallowed my tongue.”
“Keep telling you. Always watch your back.”
“You're a sick fuck, you know that? A complete sick fuck."
"Calm down." Landy lit a cigar and smoked. He knew Jo hated when he did this in the small office, how territorial it was forcing her to breathe his imposed stink.
"When did you get back?” she coughed.
“Thanks for calling. Letting me know anything about where you were.”
“I did. I called a couple of times.” His smile faded. “I was told you were out."
"Where's the money?"
“Got it all right here.”
“Well, give it back. That's for the bills.”
“Twenty-five thousand dollars, Jo. That's a lot of money to keep sitting around. Doesn't look like you paid anything this week.”
“I've been letting the float get up a little bit. None of the purveyors are yelping.”
“Yeah, but if we should happen to get robbed... again.” Landy chuckled. Was there really a time, Jo thought, when she found that laugh sexy?
“Why did you take the money?”
“Because,” said Landy, staring at the glowing tip of his cigar, “I'm buying a restaurant in Florida.” The phone rang. Landy waited for Jo to answer it, but she just let it ring and ring.
“Another restaurant? Are you crazy? We're losing money here.”
“That's why I put it on the market.”
“You put Edgar's on the market! I don't believe it.”
“Believe it. I even put an add in your sportswriter's little paper.”
“You don't even ask me or give me some sort of...”
“Some sort of what?”
“I run this place. I've been here six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year...”
“You weren't here today.”
“Go fuck yourself,” she practically spat.
“What? I thought you'd be happy. Aren't you always telling me how much you hate it here? How dead it is? So now I'm getting us out. A new place on the Gulf Coast. Things are hopping there. You'll love it.”
“And whose gonna run it? You?”
“I'll set it up. Get everything going. But run it? That's what you do.”
“And if I don't want to?”
The corners of Landy's mouth lifted, stretching his thin lips into a smile of mockery. “What else you gonna do?” he asked. “Seriously. I mean besides dealing dope and blowing money at the track, what do you know how to do?”
Fisher ordered another Jack and Coke watching the time drip away like bubbles in a syringe. Fourth race, fifth race, sixth, seventh... No answer at Edgar's and it was fifteen minutes to post for the feature. "Jesus, Jo, c'mon," he muttered. He caught himself praying “God, please, give me this one, give me this one and I'll never ask again.” He was watching the odds on J.D.'s Catfish climb up to seven-to-one when a woman sitting on the next stool knocked his drink onto his lap.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Fisher stood up, the crotch of his jeans soaked with whiskey and Coke.
“I'm so sorry,” the woman said wiping a bar nap across Fisher's groin. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she continued pressing with her palm feeling his penis through his pants.
“It's all right,” Fisher said pulling away. “It's all right.”
The woman signaled the bartender. “Could you buy this man a drink? A shot of Cuervo Gold for me.” When the young woman turned back she smiled in recognition. "You're David. Johanna's friend. We met at the harness races. I'm Sarah Dupre.”
“Yeah. I never forget a face. Take a picture in my mind. Click, click. I am so sorry about the golden shower. I don't know what happened. My balance is usually like a gyroscope. The earth must've moved or something.”
“How they running for you?”
“Not so great,” said Fisher.
“Man oh man. I know how that goes.”
The bartender, misunderstanding the order, set both of them up with shots of tequila. “No, I was Jack Daniels and..."
“Oh have a shot,” said Sarah. “It's on me. C'mon. Cheers.” She lifted her shot glass. Anxious to get rid of her, Fisher lifted his as well and drank. The sting of the mescal hit the back of his throat as Sarah inquired “Ever do a three way?”
“What?” coughed Fisher, nearly spitting up the drink.
“Box three horses. Trifecta,” said Sarah suggestively licking around the rim of her shot glass. “One time I bet every horse in the race.”
Fisher blinked. What did she say? What the hell was Sarah doing here? She was going to ruin everything. If Jo saw her at the bar she might turn around and abort the bet, thinking something was wrong. But nothing was wrong. The horse looked great at the mount-up in the paddock, the odds had gone up, they stood to make a killing if Jo would get her ass to the track in time to place the wager. Fisher checked his watch.
“Waiting on someone?”
“I see you keep looking at your watch.
“Maybe they're in the can. The excitement of the races and all. One of those facts of life.”
“No, I'm just trying to get a bet in.”
“Yeah? Who do you like?”
“Uh, Runaway Dan,” he lied.
“Three minutes to post,” announced the track P.A. Sarah downed the rest of her Cuervo and slid off the stool.
“Runaway Dan, eh? Well, thanks for the tip. Good luck, partner,” she said with a salute and disappeared into a crowd at the mutual windows.
Fisher walked away from the bar and stopped. He felt dizzy, had his drink been spiked? The grandstand spun around him.
He bent over waiting for the feeling to pass. Feet passed by him on the left and right. “Two minutes to post” announced the public address. "Two minutes." Two minutes. A hundred-and-twenty seconds, a hundred-and-forty-thousand dollars. Still time, still time. For Christ's sake pull it together. A pair of shoes stopped by him and Fisher looked up to see Jo.
“Jo! Jesus Christ. Where you been?”
“Two minutes to post. He's seven-to-one. Give me the money.”
“Jack took it.”
Took it? It didn't make sense. Fisher opened his mouth, but it was saliva-less and no words came out.
“He took all the money,” Jo said. “He's selling Edgar's. He was waiting for me in the office." Tears streaked her face. "He's buying a place in Florida. He wants me to go there and run it.”
Fisher held Jo in his arms, she was trembling like a winged sparrow, he could feel her bones through her skin. He ground his teeth together hard enough to chip a molar and his tongue instinctively felt for the empty space.
"And they're off," called the announcer.
Garbage gulls swooped from the sky diving for detritus, down on the track J.D.'s Catfish charged to the lead.