Thanks to Cormac Brown for hosting Friday Flash Fiction.
Thief and Friends
In matters of life and death, one could not forever rely on the judgment of his fellow man. This fact of uttermost importance dawned upon me as I watched an innocent man die.
* * *
Quentin Landry shuffled a worn deck of cards and slapped it on the center of the table.
“Your cut,” he said, and I lifted a fat part of the deck, watched him turn over a two of spades. “Stick a fork in me,” he groaned.
He looked at the board, shrugged. “At least I won't get skunked. Even when you play cards, you can't stop being a thief.”
I laughed. The mountain of chips to my left said it all. We'd been four when we started playing cribbage, a little more than two hours ago. I'd gone on a tear, and both men, friends of Quentin introduced to me as Klein and Paco, were washed out before the beer got warm.
They left, pissed. I had trouble making new friends. Sue me.
“Went to see Leary today,” I told Quentin as he dropped a five of hearts.
I threw down a ten and advanced my peg two spots. “Man should put up a sign in the place, says Fuck first, ask questions later. I had a nice ring. Diamonds. Took it from this place, owner's gone to Greece or something for the winter. Won't know it's gone before Easter.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the stunning figure of Lisa Potter. Her flowing red hair bounced on her shoulders as she strutted down the stairs, one fine hand gliding along the rail, the other holding a half-full snifter.
“Worth at least ten grand, I'm sure,” I continued while Lisa dropped into an oversized leather chair. “Bastard wouldn't give me more than two.”
My eyes settled on Lisa's bare thigh, plump and tanned, revealed by the slit in her skin-tight dress. She'd just come home from one of Landry's night clubs, an upscale joint where she worked in the VIP lounge as a hostess.
Seven of spades on the table. “Twenty-two,” Landry said. “Ain’t personal. Leary's been rough on everyone. Cops dropped in a couple of weeks back, took a long look at his place. Turned everything upside down, came up empty. Now, he's afraid IRS are coming to finish him off.”
I peeled my eyes off Lisa and returned my attention to the cards. I threw down a nine, called, “Thirty-one for two,” and moved my peg two spots closer to victory.
“He'll have more to be afraid of than the IRS if he keeps this up,” I said.
We counted cribs, and the game was over.
“That's it for me,” Landry said as he stood and walked over to Lisa. He kissed her on her forehead, and grabbed the snifter. “Had a good night?” He took a long sip.
Lisa nodded. “Busy. Jim had some trouble with a couple of italian kids, but other than that, it was calm.” She took her glass back. “Check your e-mail. Luke's pissed about something Parker did.”
“Fucking kids, I tell you,” Landry sighed, before making his way to the staircase. He stopped and turned to me. “Shall I talk to Leary?”
I shook my head. “I'll see what I can get on the internet.”
He shrugged and started up the stairs.
After he had disappeared, I stood and pocketed the chips. Landry never kept cash around, so we used chips from his casino. All we had to do was have them changed the next time we were in, and we'd a get a nice cheque written out, minus a ten-percent cut for the house. No questions asked. Perfect.
Lisa glared at me from the couch. “You fleece them again?” she asked.
I shrugged. “They're grown men who should know what they're doing.”
Her full lips curled up into a smile and she showed two rows of perfect teeth. “They should know a thief never stops thieving, right?”
She sipped from her glass, her bright eyes looking at me over the rim.
“We should talk,” she said.
My heartbeat picked up. I wasn't sure I was in the mood for the conversation she wanted to have. “Listen, if it's about the other night—”
She tapped the cushion next to her. “Sit.” Her expression turned somber, so I obeyed.
I could feel the warmth of her body, could smell her sweet perfume. I shoved aside the lusty thoughts cramming my brain.
“It's not as pleasant, I'm afraid,” she explained with a shy smile.
I waited for her to continue.
“Nick Ross was in here the other night. He and Quentin had a few beers while I cooked. I heard everything they said.”
She set her empty glass on the glass, but wouldn't look up at me.
“What'd you hear?” I asked after she had stared at her bare feet for too long.
She swallowed, kept her head down.
“Nick got a contract. A hit. Nick asked Quentin if he should take it.”
Intriguing. Nick Ross was a veteran hitman. I'd heard many stories about him over the years. For him to ask for anybody's opinion was beyond weird.
“What did Quentin say?”
“Said, considering who the target was, he had no opinion.”
“Who is it, Lisa?”
She swallowed again, looked away. Her next word was barely above a whisper, so I had her repeat.
I couldn't see straight, much less think rationally.
I left Quentin's house and climbed into my car. I sat behind the wheel and stared into darkness.
One thing was sure: I could trust Lisa. All these years, she'd never given me any reason not to. She'd always been willing to share things she overheard at work, which helped me pull off more than one job.
As for Quentin, his reaction was perplexing, to say the least. He'd not gone to bat for me, hadn't threatened Ross. Heck, he never bothered asking who was behind the contract.
Which was my next question: who? Who would pay to have me erased? Who had I crossed so badly? I wasn't going to sit here and bullshit myself into thinking I had no enemies. I knew better than that. You don't live the life I live without driving certain people up the wall.
I worked my mental Rolodex, bounced some names around. Nothing fit. Obviously, the answer wasn't going to come by sitting in a cold car in the dark of night.
I had to start knocking down doors and talking to people.
Nick Ross deserved a visit.
* * *
Ross lived across town, in a cozy place on the second floor of a five story building. There were lights on in one of the apartments on the top floor, but the second was dark. Getting in the building was going to be easy; there was no doorman, and no entry-level security.
I expected Nick’s flat to be more complicated. For your average Joe, it would be. But for an accomplished burglar like myself, it was like running from a fat man.
The lock was simple, and I let myself in, quietly shutting the door closed behind me. Thirty seconds were all my eyes needed to adjust to the darkness.
A narrow hallway split the flat in two. To my left was the kitchen, with the living room across. Down the hall, I made out three doorways. The first gave onto a small office space. Nick's bedroom was at the end of the hallway, across from the bathroom.
Nobody home. In the office, I turned on a flashlight and sat at his desk. While I waited for his laptop to boot, I searched the desk drawers and a filing cabinet. What was I looking for, exactly? A note saying 'Kill Macneil. $5,000. Love, Quentin'?
The computer held a lot of files, mostly music and pictures. Most of the pics featured gorgeous, young women in various stages of undress. The setting of these pictures was familiar: it was the VIP club at Funky Funky People, one of Quentin’s clubs. Lisa had worked there until recently.
I turned off the computer and made sure to leave everything as I had found it.
I quickly sifted through the rest of Nick's crap. There wasn't much worth stealing, save the laptop, but this was not the time. If Ross came home to find he had been burglarized, he'd suspect me right away. Too many coincidences.
I was back in my car and headed for home in no time flat.
* * *
A green sedan was idled at the corner of my street, a few hundred feet from my front door. Behind the wheel sat Nick Ross.
He’d evidently made his choice.
I pretended not to see him, then parked in my drive and walked into my house.
I waited for his next move.
* * *
It was a short wait.
For a few minutes, I went through the apartment turning the lights on and off, then turned them all off like I’d gone to bed.
He’d be a fool to come in through the front door, I thought. The back door was in the kitchen, so I sat at the table with a silenced pistol in my hand and waited.
Sure enough, the lock soon started turning and the door opened slowly to reveal Nick’s massive silhouette. He stopped for a second to listen, then came in and pushed the door nearly closed.
When he came further into the kitchen, I turned on the flash light and trained the beam on his face. The glare blinded him and he couldn’t see the gun pointed at his gut.
“There’s a front door for visitors, Nick,” I said.
Nick put his hands up to shade the light, and I saw the long string of piano wire he held.
Figures, I thought. His weapon of choice. Nick was a creature of habit.
“Sit,” I ordered, then stood and flipped on the overhead light. “I’d offer you a drink, Nick, but I want you to be straighter than an arrow for this.”
Ross pulled a chair and sat. Defeat and humiliation flashed on his face for a beat, but he wiped it away and cast hard eyes on me. If the gun unsettled him, he didn't show it.
“I’m disappointed, Nick. Piano wire? Did you really think you’d sneak up on me? That might work with an old man whose trophy wife wants to cash in. But on me? Losing your touch, Nick?”
“You ain’t worth the price of a bullet, MacNeil.”
I laughed. “But I was worth going to Quentin, weren’t I? Since when does Nick Ross ask for approval before taking a job?”
He shrugged. “There are some people who care for you. I can’t fathom why, but hey, to each his own.”
Enough small talk. “I got plenty of room in my budget for bullets.” I raised the gun to his head and cocked it. “Who gave you the job, Nick?”
Ross snickered. “You’re a gutless thief, MacNeil.”
“How’s it feel to be on the other side of the gun, Nick?” I smiled. “Who?”
A silent game of chess followed as he judged whether or not I had the balls to paint my kitchen walls with his brains. Then he came to a decision.
* * *
Of course, there was only one explanation for this.
He knew. About his wife and I.
How? Had she confessed? Had we been seen? Heard? It wasn't like we'd been having a month-long affair, ducking into hotel rooms in the middle of the day to screw, like a boss and his secretary.
We'd had one night. One hour, actually. Fiery passion, bodies meshing together, names yelled out and sheets soiled.
“Leave,” I sighed. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Ross pocketed his piano wire, stood, and made for the front door. He stopped and turned to me, opened his mouth to speak, but I put up a hand that silenced him. He shrugged and let himself out.
I sat at the kitchen table with a bottle of whisky until the sun came up.
I wanted to call Lisa, pepper her with questions, but decided against it. No sense in alerting Quentin to the fact his plan had gone to hell.
The clock showed noon when the solution to this conundrum finally came to me.
* * *
Lesson one a thief learns is that people are creatures of habit.
Get robbed, or mugged, or have a child kidnapped, and the first question the cops'll ask you is if you had a daily routine. Did you always leave and return at the same time? Always take the same streets to work or to school? Park at the same place, shop the same store, order the same coffee?
Lisa and Quentin were no different.
At precisely 10:15 that night, I watched Quentin pull up to his house in his late-model Benz. You'd think it was unusual for a man who owned three nightclubs, two restaurants, and a casino to come home so early. But he had others run the businesses. Most days, he'd leave home around lunchtime, check up on things, have dinner on the waterfront and head home. He was getting along in age, and had lost much of his desire for late nights.
Lisa had left the house around 4 p.m., dressed in her uniform, which for her was as simple as something tight and revealing. She had a body men and women admired, and she knew it.
She wouldn't be back before midnight.
Which left plenty of time for her husband and I to chat.
Which left plenty of time for her husband and I to chat.
We had a lot to catch up on.
* * *
“Hey, Mac. What are you doing here?” He looked surprised to see me, alright. “Come in, come in.”
But he recovered quickly.
“Get you a drink?” he asked as I followed him into the den. “I'm beat. No cribbage for us tonight, I'm afraid. Early breakfast tomorrow, on top of that.”
He kept his back to me the whole way, never bothering to look over his shoulder.
“Did you sell the ring?” he asked as he opened the liquor cabinet and fished out a bottle.
I approached him, stopped a couple of feet away.
“I was thinking of buying it,” he explained as he reached for a couple of glasses. “Lisa's birthday is coming up. Make a nice gift.”
Yeah, right, I thought. The ideal husband.
“That's one special woman, I tell you,” he added.
I watched him pour a finger of whisky into a glass, then turn to face me, offering me the drink, which slipped from his hand and crashed on the persian rug when he saw the pistol pointed at his chest.
Not the last words he'd imagined for himself, I guessed.
The three shots tore his chest open. His italian shirt darkened with blood and he dropped to his knees, his face fixed in frozen stupor.
His face landed in the puddle of whisky and broken glass, blood mixing with the amber liquid.
After kneeling next to him to check for a noexistent pulse, I stood and exhaled with the satisfaction of a job well done. I turned, went for the front door, only to find my path blocked.
“So we meet again,” Nick Ross said from the other end of the room.
I looked at his hands. No wire this time. Just a gun. One big mother of a gun, with which even the blindest of mice couldn't miss.
I nodded towards the corpse. “Hope he paid up front.” I smiled. “Now, if you'll just let me through, I'll get out of your hair.”
Ross didn't budge. He pointed the gun at me. “Leaving jobs hanging ain't good for business. Especially when my clients turn up dead.”
Thinking on my feet, I tossed the gun at him. While he fumbled it, I rushed him, my shoulders lowered like a pass rusher.
The explosions echoed in the room as bullets tore through my leg and sent me twirling in the air before I landed heavily on my back, a foot away from Quentin.
“Motherf--,” I yelled as I grabbed my leg, my hands quickly drenched in the blood seeping out of my shredded knee and through my pants.
The shots were still ringing in my ears when Lisa stood over me.
“Hello, Mac,” she said with a mischievous look on her face. “So good to see you, as always.”
Ross joined her, and they both looked down at me, smiling. Ross pointed his gun at my head, but Lisa pushed his hand away.
“Please,” she said. “He's mine.”
Her arm came up and she pointed a gun between my eyes.
“You made it easier than I thought, Mac,” she said as her finger curved around the trigger.
I closed my eyes and let happy images of her naked body gyrating under mine carry me into whatever happened next.