|Oct/Nov 2015 Fiction|
Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona
They'd let me out of state prison three months before—one of several stays I'd had thanks to the generosity of Michigan taxpayers. Prison was no vacation, but the first few days on the outside were even scarier. In prison, I had respect. I had credentials. I was a veteran after all—not from the military, the military was in another galaxy from where I stood—but from the streets. I was short, dark like a Serbian should be, wiry as General Electric. People knew they couldn't mess with me. What they didn't know was I just wanted to mind my own business, get on with my life. When I got out, I took a good long breath, got drunk, found a woman to spend the night with. Then I tried to figure out what the hell to do next. My skills were specialized—armed robbery, extortion, credit card fraud. That was my official resume. The less said about the unofficial part the better. I was determined not to go back to the pen. Even if prison gave me a little security, I knew if I got sent away again, I'd be there till I was a rusted-out old man.
It was spring, 1975. I went back to my hometown, Benton Harbor, down by Lake Michigan just north of the Indiana state line, and along came Dimitri. He needed a driver. Would I be interested? I wouldn't be involved in the rough stuff, he promised. I would have what politicians and CEOs called "plausible deniability." I would just be a chauffeur. I wouldn't know what went on at three in the morning in a boarded-up house on the southeast side. Gunshots? What gunshots? Nobody could demonstrate what they call "my willful association with a crime"—which was a line I got out of one of the law books I read in prison. I did a lot of reading in prison. That was how I got so damned smart. That's why the guys started calling me The Prof, which was rich seeing that my educational attainments were on the lean side. But I was fine being called "Prof" this and "Prof" that. Had a ring to it. And it seemed to fit too once the prison eye doctor told me I needed glasses and I got a pair of wire rims on the state's dime. I looked like a real brain, and I grew a goatee 'cause I thought it fit the part. Looked sharp, I have to say.
"Nothin' to worry about, kid," said Dimitri, who called everyone "kid" even if they were called Prof on the inside, and even if they were his age, which I was, or almost. Dimitri and I had gone to Benton Harbor High School in the late '50s, and we'd stayed in semi-regular contact since then. I admired him when I was a repeat freshman and he was a senior. He was tall, and if my hair was black, his was so much blacker I swear I could see blue in it when the light was right. Reminded me of a grackle's head. Dimitri got along with everyone. Race, religion, the kind of clothes a man wore—hell, it didn't matter to him. You name it, Dimitri would talk about it with you. The girls liked him, the rich ones above all. Those chicks knew that later in life they'd marry Boring, so this was their only chance to run with Danger for a while. So Dimitri ended up in the back seat of some fancy cars.
Dimitri went on to big things, while I made it to my sophomore year, spent a half-year in a reformatory where the food didn't taste like food, and then decided it wasn't worth it, fuck high school, and fuck anyone who tried to make me stay. I got traction down in the minor leagues running stolen goods between Benton Harbor and Chicago, while Dimitri played in the majors, at least for a while. By the time he asked me to be his driver, people said he'd lost his touch. He was doing jobs below his pay grade.
Some of it may have been connected to the mess my hometown was in. Back when we were growing up, Benton Harbor was hopping. Lots of stores, two movie theaters, wise guys from the South Side of Chicago, sometimes from Flint or Detroit, too. Decades before, Al Capone thought of southwestern Michigan as his playground, and he would stay at the Hotel Vincent in Benton Harbor and the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, across the river. He and his people would go boating on Lake Michigan, lay around on the beach, maybe play a little golf. That was the Golden Age for local gangsters, and there was still something of all that, like submachine gun smoke hanging in the air, when Dimitri and I hit the market.
Then things went to hell in a hand basket. By '67 and '68, everyone had a gripe about something—Vietnam, civil rights, the environment. Most white folks abandoned the city, and soon there were too few jobs, too many drugs, and too many politicians milking the issues. Benton Harbor's glory days were over. A man had to deal in the lowest of the low stuff to make ends meet. I figured Dimitri had just adjusted to his market, like any good businessman. But I didn't really care if Dimitri was feeding off the bottom a little more than he used to. I thought of him as my friend, and he had something to offer. I was no youngster anymore; it was time I settled down with a fixed occupation and started saving some money. Working for Dimitri was a very mature thing to do for a man who'd done time.
"You get to drive a nice car or two, right? You keep your mouth shut, which I know you will—I know you're a standup guy—and I'll see to it some things come your way in due time. Meanwhile, it'll look like you're staying out of trouble, and you got a regular job. What's not to like, huh, kid?"
"Sounds okay to me, D."
So I drove for him. It was as easy as he said. The work was steady, four or five nights a week, depending on what was going down. It was mostly straightforward stuff. Dimitri would lean on some chump in Paw Paw over gambling debts, or police his crystal meth operation in Coloma, where the farm boys couldn't get enough of the stuff, the dumb shits. There was only one time when Dimitri had to rub out somebody who'd gotten in his way. But I don't think Dimitri actually did that one because when it happened his gun was still in the glove compartment of the car I drove. Course he may have had another gun with him, or he took one from Vlad, a dangerous goon who usually rode with us. Vlad was a born killer, and he picked his nose a lot. I always hated that habit.
Dimitri followed through on his promise that I'd be paid well. I had more money than when I was out on my own. I had nice clothes, a little bit of savings, books I could actually buy instead of always going to the library, where the dried up old witch at the checkout didn't like a man who had a naked lady tattoo on his neck. Driving for Dimitri taught me an important lesson. I once thought I could muscle the world by myself. I was a real romantic, a dreamer. I thought I was an anarchist, or a traditional hajduk, a Balkan bandit. I'd read about those guys in L. S. Stavrianos's The Balkans Since 1453 my first time in the pen. That was one of the best books in the prison library, and the hajduks, man, those guys were straight-shot heroes to me. My strut was a little stronger and my hair a little blacker when I imagined I might have Balkan-fucking-hajduk blood flowing through my Slavic veins. But when it came down to it, I realized even a bad-ass hajduk needed to eat. That's another lesson I learned in the prison library. Some whacked-out German poet once wrote, "first comes the grub, then morality," or whatever. I needed to hook up with a good solid business enterprise like Dimitri's. As Dimitri always said: "Small business, it's the heart of America." I was in the heart of America working with Dimitri, and it felt as natural as broken glass in an empty lot.
Not long after I started driving for Dimitri, my younger brother by three years showed up. He wore a black suit, which was to be expected, it being my old man's funeral and all, but it was the badge and police-issue Smith & Wesson he showed me that gave me a little problem. We were at the reception, a pathetic affair—not much booze, lousy food, lots of crocodile tears from relatives I'd never met—but about right when I recalled the life my old man led. He raised my brother Niko and me on his own, you might say, which meant he alone beat us, rather than him and my mother, who was nowhere to be seen after I was like eight years old, and who to us was "tricky Tamara" because that was what my old man called her on account of all the tricks she pulled so she could decorate her arms and legs with needle marks that looked like bruised measles. We didn't know what kind of tricks she did when we were small—I once asked my dad if she was a magician who sawed ladies in half—but we found out soon enough. Boys of our background usually learned this stuff earlier than most, and believe me, this was not the kind of stuff you learned from a book.
So Niko sidled up to me—no, he slithered up to me like a banker—just as I was finishing a rubbery boneless and skinless chicken thigh that was supposed to have traditional Balkan spices but tasted more like something scraped off the sidewalk in front of the Black Cat tavern down on the corner. At least the potato salad was edible.
"Bro, how ya doin'?" he said through his buzz cut and posture, straight as a two-by-four. Which was rich—his saying that—after I hadn't seen him or talked to him for, what, five years before he was there in the pew next to me at St. Croce Orthodox Church on Harrison Avenue? I mean, I knew he was a State Police Detective Trooper Specialist 11. I heard it through the grapevine, to quote Sir Martin, and the grapevine worked overtime when it got wind of the fact that my brother, The Prof's near and dear, was a cop. I knew too after a confab with one of my jailhouse-lawyer pals that Niko's exalted position gave him the chance to do undercover work, or surveillance of suspected criminals, or provide backup cover for other officers. In other words, he was big-time, a real pasha, and he strutted around like he was. I was more convinced than ever I needed to keep my distance from him. In my line of work, a man had to be above suspicion, and having a brother who was a cop was like having a crazy-high deductible on your car insurance. It just hurt you any way you looked at it.
"Bro," he said, "got a proposition for you."
"What kind of proposition could you have for me?" I didn't want to sound hostile, but I felt hostile and sad (for my father, not for being out of touch with my brother for so long) and angry all at once, so my response was a little harrier than I'd intended.
"Little touchy, I'd say," he said, looking around like he was playing undercover right there, only an hour so after we'd lowered the old man into the ground and it made me think of the time he'd beaten Niko in a drunken rage and I had to take him, crying and bleeding, to the emergency room all by myself, and I was twelve or about that. And I told them at the ER that my younger brother had been roughed up bad by some older black kids out at Silver Beach, and he came out of the hospital looking like Boris Karloff in The Mummy. I was the first one to autograph the cast on his arm. I hated lying to cover up what my old man did, I knew it was wrong, but I felt I had to do it, and it wouldn't be the last time.
"Look, you're in no position to be hostile toward me," Niko said. "I know your record, I know you've been out of the state pen for a couple months. I know you don't want to go back. What I have to offer you will interest you, I guarantee it."
I never loved my old man. But when Niko started talking about a proposition at the reception, I was upset for my father, who was no angel, true, but he'd just checked out, and a son has to honor his parents no matter what. Niko was working a deal of some kind, he was using the funeral for his own professional interests, and in my book that was like showing a porno flick at Sunday Mass.
"I know about Stefania Delaparte, too," he said, and that made me almost take a swing.
"What does she have to do with anything?" I spat. I'd lost my appetite by then, and even though I'd already given up on the chicken thigh, the potato salad had still held promise until Niko started on about Stefania. I put the paper plate on the table next to me, wiped my mouth with the napkin, and threw it on the plate.
"Greg Lafferty? Now I know you know that name, bro, and how Stefania fits in there."
"I don't know any Greg What-the-Fuck-Ever."
"But you and Stefania, well, we can talk about that later."
"There'll be no later, Niko. Our conversation ends here." I tried my best to not raise my voice, but I didn't do so well judging from how a few people in the room were eyeing us.
"Let's step outside and have a smoke, bro," said Niko. "No need to make this uncomfortable."
Because I was still close to taking a swing at my brother but also because I desperately needed a smoke, I accepted, and soon Niko and I were standing on the front porch of my old man's dilapidated wood-frame house. The neighborhood had once been nice—lots of little kids on bikes, older kids playing baseball in the street, Yugoslavs, Italians, Greeks, Jews, a real good mix, and friendly. These days, half the houses were boarded up and the others either had squatters or gangs or both—not quality folks like Dimitri, who was a legitimate businessman, but nobodies who would rather shoot your face off than give you a simple hello.
"Not the same place we grew up in," said Niko, lighting a cigarette and handing me the pack. I declined; I had my own smokes.
"So let's get to the point," said Niko, his face like something you'd see in a horror movie where the crazed serial murderer is acting all rational even though you know that inside the man has gone so totally off his rocker that no one could save him, not even the beautiful young woman detective who in her heart feels that there's a good person lurking inside the guy's wracked soul.
I had to give credit where credit was due once Niko started talking. He didn't nibble around the plate throwing curveballs and sliders and other assorted junk. No, he fired fastballs right down the middle like he was saying, "Here, hit it if you can, I dare you." He said he wanted Dimitri, like so many other cops did. The difference was he had a way to get him, and I was it. I was the door to Niko's future, and I stood wide open, he said.
Niko told me how he was part of a big crime task force for southwestern Michigan. It was organized by the Feds and included state and local cops. They called it Operation Controlled Burn, meaning it was like setting a fire—Dimitri, in this case—to stop a bigger fire, which was organized crime in the Great Lakes area. That it involved murder didn't bother anyone. "The CIA can do it," said Niko, "the Feds figure they can do it too." He told me that after it was done I'd disappear, and they'd hustle me off into something like a witness protection program, or in this case an assassin's protection program, and I'd be away from Benton Harbor, away forever from a life of crime. I'd have security, and I'd never have to worry about going back to the pen, Niko would see to that. He'd protect me like Superman protects Lois Lane.
In the meantime Niko would spread a crazy story about one of the other gangs whacking Dimitri and Vlad. The cops figured gangs would come in to claim a piece of turf and there'd soon be a lot of shooting. Niko and his pals would follow the smoking guns. Then would come the fun stuff—big busts, multiple arrests, thick black headlines. Niko would bask in the glow of the whole operation. He'd go high up in the ranks of the State Police, and then, who knew? Maybe he'd run for office or move over to the Feds.
I stared at Niko after he was done. Somehow I wasn't astounded. Instead I had the feeling I'd always known my little brother was capable of something like this. The poor bruised little kid now wanted to be the bruiser. But thinking about this also made me sad about what some people are willing to do to stop hurting. It made me sad he thought I'd be willing to off my long-time friend, a man who looked out for me and gave me an opportunity. Sure, Niko felt he had the upper hand. He was going to put my ass on the side of the law. But was the law's side always the right side?
"You think you've got it all figured out, don't you, Niko," I said. I wasn't going to let my sorrow for him or the admiration I felt for the straight-shot way he'd laid out the plan fog up my thinking. I stubbed out my cigarette on the sidewalk, threw the butt in the street, and walked back into the house without saying another word. Niko didn't follow.
I thought that was the end of it. Or I hoped it was, and we all know how hope can make people believe something will happen that has no chance of happening at all, like there'll be a pot of money at the end of a rainbow or you'll get a steady factory job with health insurance and a pension program. I continued to drive for Dimitri, and everything seemed to work out fine. Dimitri's business ventures seemed to flow along, and there was no rough stuff, no funny business. I drove, Dimitri operated, Vlad picked his nose looking like a low-class bouncer at an even lower-class strip joint.
Then Niko showed up again. I'd been cleaning out the old man's house, throwing away all kinds of shit that I figured was too shabby for Goodwill or St. Vinnie's and impossible to sell because of its condition. Chipped and broken plates and cups; a few glasses that not even ten years in a high-power industrial dishwasher would get clean; some ratty chairs and a worn old green couch that I swear still had the smell of a square-headed mutt we had for a few years that I named Brick.
I had just moved some beat-up lamps to the curb, ready for refuse pickup the next day, when Niko came driving up in a black Ford Crown Vic, unmarked, which meant it was marked like a leper in a maternity ward. "Let me take you to lunch," he said after rolling down the passenger side window. I hesitated. There I was, standing by the curb, my brother in an unmarked police car inviting me, folks in the neighborhood looking at us, I was sure of it, even though I didn't see anyone. Believe me, people in this kind of neighborhood noticed when an unmarked police car cruised their street. And I was standing there, an ex-con, and not wanting to call attention to myself. So I locked up the house and hopped in, and it all seemed familiar, I'd been in police cars before. Difference was, I was usually in the backseat, looking through the wire mesh that separated perps from cops, so this was a little new for me. But everything else was as before: radio chatter; the Crown Vic windshield, wide and high like a picture window; the scary feeling that this was The Man's car, and nothing you could say or do would change that. It smelled like The Man. All plastic and air freshener.
Niko took me to lunch at greasy spoon a couple blocks from my dad's house, nothing exciting, and I had the BLT with fries and a chocolate malt. What Niko had to say on the other hand was exciting, and not in a way that gave you pleasant fluttering sensations like you feel in your stomach when you walk up to your girl's house and think about the night you're about to have. No, this was exciting in a horror-movie way.
"So, Stefania," he said, and I thought, of course, he'd brought her up before, said that was something for later, and now "later" had come. "I know what happened there in Kalamazoo."
My look at that moment may have said "I want to kill you," and if it did, then it was a true and straight look. He knew about my unofficial resume, the part about how nearly two years ago I left a two-bit punk, Greg Somebody-or-Other, with a bullet between the eyes in a back alley in Kalamazoo, which I always thought was a shit-town, but was about to get even shittier if Niko knew all about the incident. Greg Fuck-All had been messing with Stefania, a local girl, about eighteen, at least she told me she was, and I was in my mid-twenties. A girl whose laugh made her auburn hair sparkle and her teeth glimmer. Stefania had tried to tell the guy she was dating someone, and she was, she was dating me, and we were pretty serious, though I was in Benton Harbor, almost an hour away, and she was in the shit-town she lived in, so I couldn't be there all the time, especially when I was working a scam that tied me down for a few days or even a week.
One night, Steffi and I were at a drive-in, and I bought her favorite for her, an olive burger, onion rings, orange pop. We finished, the waitress took our tray, I paid. Everything was fine, and Steffi and I planned to go back to her mom's place and watch TV with her for a while, and then when her mother went upstairs to go to bed, well, you know. Then a car goes by, and I saw on Steffi's face that something was wrong. "That's him, isn't it?" I asked her. She didn't say a thing, but I could tell. I pulled away from the drive-in and began following the car, a green Barracuda, one of those older models with a big back window that I always thought was nothing but a gimmick, and it sure must heat up the interior in the summer. "Don't," said Steffi, because she knew me, knew what I was capable of, and said once that was one of the things she liked about me, but she had also never seen me go from swagger to action.
I wasn't going to let her talk me out of following Barracuda Man. I knew the ways of the world, Steffi did not. All I wanted to do was apply a little muscle. Get him to stop hassling Steffi. So I followed and saw him park his car behind a row of boarded-up shops, where he was going to do God knows what. I got out, took a pistol from the glove compartment, said to Steffi to stay where she was (and I knew she would by the way she tried to blend into the seat fabric), walked into the alley, and called out to Greg What's-His-Name that we needed a little conference. Turns out, he was no choirboy, the man had a gun, and then rough language and a few mutual pushes led to his pulling his piece and waving it around like a cheerleader with a baton. I reacted, and the rest was a bloody fuck-up. Funny thing was—the scary thing—that I wasn't sorry. Not really. That bothered me a lot, and I wondered what was wrong. I'd done robberies, armed and non-armed, and beat up a few guys who got in the way of a job, but to kill a man, that was something I never planned and never wanted. Yet when it happened, it was like, this is necessary, this had to be done, the man is a creep for always sniffing around Steffi when she'd told him many times she wasn't interested, and he pulled his gun, he did.
One thing led to another after that—they always do—and Stefania, young, sweet, laughing Stefania, said no way she could stay with a man who'd done what I did. She was scared and confused and I didn't ask her to stay quiet about it or anything. I just wanted to reassure her it was all on me, on my conscience, she wasn't there, didn't know a thing, didn't see the gun or hear the shot, and I'm sorry, Steffi, please forgive me, I did it for you. I could see the way she looked at the blood spatters on my shirt, and that look told me a world of things, one of which was that no amount of pleading would ever bring Steffi and me back together.
"You don't know shit about Kalamazoo," I said to Niko, but I was bluffing. It was like playing poker and knowing the other man had a great hand, but maybe he'd slip up, and you'd find a way to make something out of nothing.
"Bro, I've got all the evidence. A detective buddy of mine in the Kalamazoo City Police has given me everything I need. Your Stefania was there—my detective said there was a witness who saw two men go into an alley, heard the gunshot, and saw a woman waiting in the car—and that means both of your are on the line for this. The witness says he saw a man get back into the car, a white Chevy or Pontiac—sort of like your white Impala maybe?—the man and woman argued, and then they drove off. Lucky for you he didn't get a plate number. You'd be doing life by now, and I you'd not be in a position to help me."
"How come the police haven't come after me yet if they've got so much on me?"
"The witness just came forward a few months ago. Was scared, they said."
"That doesn't look good. Some chump steps forward nearly two years later. What sort of scam is he pulling? And anyway, it was self-defense."
Niko sighed and shook his head, which ragged my ass more than ever since he was acting like a schoolteacher disappointed that a knuckleheaded student couldn't get a math problem right. "Ex-con walks into an alley with a gun, pursuing a man who was minding his own business. Regardless of what you say it was, regardless of what your girl would say it was, I know how a jury and judge will see it."
Niko signaled toward the waitress, real official-like, and asked for more coffee, his third. After she brought it, he leaned in across the table, but I got the feeling we sat miles apart, like we were eyeing each other across Lake Michigan. "Look, this Lafferty guy? I don't give a fuck about him. Word is he raped a fifteen-year-old some time back. I'm surprised he hadn't already jumped your Stefania. But that won't make a difference."
"She wasn't there."
Niko gave me his if-you-expect-me-to-believe-that-then-I-have-some-oceanfront-property-in-Montana-to-sell-you look.
"So the deal is this. You follow through on the Dimitri job, and you're safe and far away, Stefania is off the hook, and Greg Lafferty's murder remains a mystery for which the police have exhausted all leads. A cold case, as cold as our old man, and buried forever."
I shot Niko a look for the last remark, but also for everything else, and for using Stefania, and at the same time the look was directed at me, inside me. I was the one who got Stefania into this because I had to follow Barracuda Man and give him a piece of my mind, whereas instead he got a piece of lead. They had me. It didn't matter that the gun I'd used was somewhere at the bottom of Lake Michigan off the St. Joseph Pier.
"Have the bulls talked to Stefania?"
"Not yet, but they will if they have to. Or you can make that never happen. How many people can shape the future like you have a chance to do here?"
"Dimitri's a good man. A straight shooter."
Another look from Niko, this time a cry-me-a-river look, and I recalled I had taught him that one.
Dimitri liked to talk about stuff I liked—wrestling, baseball, women, news about the old high school crowd. We were big Bobo Brazil fans, the wrestling champ who worked out of Benton Harbor, and so we talked a lot about his great fights with Haystacks Calhoun and Gorgeous George. We used to like the same music, so if he started singing Tommy James and the Shondells or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, I sang along. We knew all the words, and Vlad, who didn't like music at all, would get annoyed as we went through each verse. But we didn't care. Dimitri and I could carry a tune. When we got to the site for whatever Dimitri was doing, of course, we piped down. We were all business. But during the drive, man, we liked to sing, and we didn't care if people heard us. We didn't need the radio or a cassette. I think my singing was part of what Dimitri liked about having me as his driver. It cut the tension, like sweet cuts sour.
Not that we only sang when we drove. We had good conversations, too. About everything. Dimitri knew all the angles, could see right through the news reports and blathering on TV and radio. No one could put anything over on him. I had known from way back he was a talker and a reader—an inspiration for me, in other words—but he surprised even me one night with how much he knew about the Bible. That's right, Dimitri had read the whole Bible, marked up his copy like a teacher grading an essay, and he loved the exciting and violent stories, the ones with killing and gore, so he was into the Old Testament, but thought the New was just okay because Jesus was too much like a filthy, sandal-wearing hippie for his taste. I could see his point on that. He liked that I'd done a lot of reading in prison, and laughed when I told him I was The Prof on the inside. "Kid, if you're The Prof, then I'm The Preacher," he said, and we both howled at that one. Vlad reacted in the same way he did to our singing. He sighed, shook his head, and added, "Christ, another fucking meeting of the minds."
On the night I carried a Walther PPK Niko gave me, Dimitri and I didn't sing much, but we sure did talk a lot. Niko's orders were that I let Dimitri and Vlad complete their job. It was no big deal, their job I mean. Dimitri was having a problem with a dogfighting outfit run by one of his underlings, the son of a rich Whirlpool Corporation executive from St. Joseph. This guy had all the money and girls he wanted, and what did he do? He held dogfights in an isolated junkyard off Red Arrow Highway. There was a rumor about suspicious looking guys hanging around the fights, where everyone had to know somebody to get in. Dimitri wanted to have a look for himself.
Dimitri told me to park his '69 black Lincoln behind a pile of rusted car bodies, about a hundred yards away from the old warehouse where the fights went on. I was to stay out of sight and wait there. "The driver should be as inconspicuous as possible," Dimitri always said, and on that night his rule fit what I had to do like organ music at a funeral. I could hear the crowd buzzing in the distance. I had a couple of fat joints with me, but those were for afterwards, when I knew I'd need something to calm me down. I never smoked grass or drank when I was driving for Dimitri anyway. It would have been unprofessional. So instead I chain smoked cigarettes as I leaned against the long, cool Lincoln.
I was as nervous as a new father in the waiting room. Niko had made everything clear. He'd gone over it again and again, like he didn't trust my memory. I was to do the deed—pop! pop!—and then walk to a boarded-up Sunoco gas station not far from the warehouse, where Niko would pick me up. I knew Vlad and Dimitri were carrying, so I'd have to be quick and on the money with my shots.
Dimitri said he would stay just long enough to take a look around, walk through the crowd, talk with some of the regulars, maybe even place a bet—he was partial to a Dogo Argentino that was the smartest and fiercest of the bunch. I'd gone through all but one of the cigarettes I had with me, and I was jumpier than ever. Dimitri had said a half hour, tops, but it was longer than that and counting. I paced around the Lincoln, threw a couple stones at the chain link fence around the old junkyard. Just as I was about to light my last Camel, I saw the shapes of two men emerge from the warehouse. It was Dimitri and Vlad, and it was time.
I got back in the car, pulled the Walther out from under the seat. I racked it and put the safety on. I rested it under my thigh, door-side, and watched the two men approach in the rearview mirror under the dim lights of the junkyard. It was a hot night, mid-August, and the cicadas were as loud as the crowd. I'd started sweating like I was in a race, partly because I was wearing a jacket. I told myself it was so dark nobody would notice how nervous I was, but I had no idea if that was true. The pistol cut into my thigh.
Then adrenalin took over. The doors opened, front and back, and as Vlad slammed the front passenger side door, I slid the gun out and flicked the safety.
I walked to the junkyard entrance, walked another block to the Sunoco, where within seconds a black Crown Vic glided up like a spaceship. Its front door opened, and I was soon sitting next to Niko as the car headed south out of town. We said nothing, and even if Niko had talked, I would have had trouble hearing with the blood pounding like a forge in my ears. All I knew was that Niko planned to put me on a plane at Chicago O'Hare and I'd end up somewhere that was not here.
"Good job, bro," he said after we'd passed the Indiana state line, about 20 minutes from Benton Harbor, and were traveling west. "Soon we'll have two men at the site ready to dispose of the mess. I hear they've already got a press release ready about a mysterious gangland slaying out on Red Arrow Highway. It's great to be part of an operation that works like clockwork. And my big brother was the man who set it in motion."
Niko extended his hand, palm straight up. He wanted a high five, but I didn't respond. From the look on his face I think he understood. If a man had killed his friend he wouldn't be interested in juvenile shit like that. I sat with my hands on my knees. I sweated even more than before, and I felt the moisture soak through my designer jeans. Then with my right hand I felt the PPK under my jacket, which I was supposed to have left on the Lincoln's front floor mat, driver's side. It was stone-cold, the safety still off. I looked at Niko's face, illuminated in surges by the overhead lights on the Interstate. I thought again of the scared, whimpering little boy, sitting with me in the ER as I held his hand and said, "you'll be okay, you'll be okay." How did that shattered boy come to have a badge and a crew cut?
I wrapped my fingers around the PPK's grip and imagined the scene out past the warehouse. Lots of blood, two men down, Dimitri and Vlad standing over them, guns smoking. What I'd heard as I walked away from the Lincoln was, "We'll get you set like Cain, kid." What I said to Niko as I held the gun to his temple was, "pull over, and make it quick."