Monday, July 9, 2007

Retribution

Bullets flew everywhere. The table behind Handsome Rob cracked as two of them struck solid wood. A bead of sweat fell from his neck and lazily wound its way between his shoulder blades to the small of his back. Let’s go to an auction, she says. It’ll be fun, she says. Buy that case, she says.

The shooting had stopped for now. Rob reloaded his Desert Eagle and peered around the edge of the overturned table he was behind. He spotted his girlfriend Brenda crouched behind the large platform unsold items were stacked on. It was Brenda’s idea to attend the police auction. He wasn’t having a bad time until he started bidding on that stupid briefcase. It ended up igniting a bidding war between a black man and a Mafia type, with the black man pulling a gun and threatening to kill everybody.

Being fresh out of the joint, spending a whole day surrounded by cops wasn’t exactly Rob’s idea of a good time. But, he would do anything for Brenda. Even though he was in prison for five years, she stayed with him. He filled the long, cold prison nights with thoughts of her. Her perfectly tanned skin. Her silky black hair. Her heart-stopping smile. And her deep, brown eyes that seemed to stare into your very soul.

“You two motherfuckers wanna leave, I let you live,” said Tawruss.

“And let you get that case?” said Nice-Guy Eddie. “Hey, stunade. Why don’t you leave and let me take the case?”

“Yeah? Well, I got me a bargaining chip.” There was a quick squeal.

Brenda!

Handsome Rob looked out again. The black guy had his left arm wrapped around Brenda’s upper body, dragging her toward the center of the room. The gun in the right hand was digging into her temple. Rob stood up with his hands in the air and said, “Calm down, friend. Don’t do anything rash.”

“You can’t tell me what to do, cracker,” said Tawruss. “If one of you two motherfuckers don’t get me my case right now, I’ma blow this bitch’s head off.”

“I don’t have it,” said Rob.

“Me neither,” said Nice-Guy Eddie.

“Shee-yit,” said Tawruss. “Neither one of you has it? My mamma didn’t raise no dummies. Looks like I needs to give you punk-ass bitches some motherfuckin’ motivation.”


Tawruss pulled the trigger. A mist of blood shot from Brenda’s temple, and she collapsed to the floor, dead.

A primal yell came from Handsome Rob. He raised his weapon and fired. His finger kept pulling the trigger until the slide locked open. The contents of an entire magazine were now lodged in Tawruss’s chest. He coughed, stumbled back, then collapsed to the floor like a rag doll.

Handsome Rob ran across the room to the body of his fallen girlfriend. Dropping to his knees, he placed her head in his lap and started stroking her hair. He was quietly sobbing when Nice-Guy Eddie walked over to him.

“Hey,” he said.

Rob looked up at the other man. “I don’t want your stupid case. Just take it and go.”

The sirens outside had gotten closer. Both men could hear heavy footsteps lining up outside the auction hall. Nice-Guy Eddie said, “It’s gone. Here, take this cell phone and get out of here. If you ever need a favor, call the first number under contacts. The cops’ll be here soon. You better go.”

Rob got up and went to the fire door. He turned to get one last look at his fallen girlfriend. The sun nearly blinded him as he burst through the door into the alley behind. He ran to the corner and saw an A subway stop across the street. He crossed, weaving through traffic, and dashed down the stairs. Hopping the turnstile, he squeezed into the last car of an uptown train as it left the station.

Handsome Rob sat down, lowered his head, and closed his eyes.

********

It was a nice spring day. The sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky. It was warm for April, but not too warm. A cool breeze rustled the leaves starting to form on the trees that lined the street of his neighborhood.

Handsome Rob was on top of the world. He’d recently teamed up with another bank robber named Oberg Wyatt who was as professional as he was. In their first couple heists together, they’d pulled in nearly half a million dollars. The two had some sort of subconscious chemistry when it came to crime. Oberg compared it to two world-class jazz musicians jamming. Rob wasn’t much of a jazz fan, he just thought what they did was a great deal of fun.

He opened the door of his favorite coffee shop and grabbed his usual table by the window. The barista saw Rob enter and came over a few minutes later with the coffee exactly the way Rob liked it. He said, “Thanks, Joe.”

Rob scanned the room. It was filled with the usual bunch of college students hunched over laptops and the yuppies who impatiently waited on line while incessantly yapping into their Bluetooth headsets.

“We’ve got a tremendous upsell opportunity here.” Bluetooth Yuppie #1 said, interrupting Rob’s tranquil morning. “We should interface on this offline. If we think outside the box, we could generate a real paradigm shift here.”

Bluetooth Yuppie #1 swiped his debit card at the cash register and grabbed his coffee. As he turned and walked out of the store, he bumped into a young brunette, sending the stack of papers she was carrying all over the floor. He continued out the door without pausing.

Rob shook his head, got up, and went over to help the young lady. He said, “Bunch of savages in this town.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Could’ve been worse.” She tucked some of her long brown hair behind her left ear and continued to pick up her papers. “Thank you,” she said.

She looked into his eyes and Rob felt like he had been struck by lightening. Her eyes were a dark brown and about as deep as the Grand Canyon. She extended her hand and said, “My name’s Brenda.”

Rob had to think for a second before replying, “Rob.” He felt a tingly sensation throughout his body as her skin touched his. For the first time in his life, Rob was speechless when talking to a woman.

“I think that’s everything,” Brenda said as she stood up. “Thanks again,” she said and flashed him a great big white smile.

Rob held the door for her as she walked out. After a couple seconds, Rob snapped out of his trance and bolted after her. He could up to her at the corner. “I can’t believe that jerk didn’t even stop.”

“Well,” she said, “I’ve come to accept things like this about New York.”

“It’s not all like that.”

“I know.”

They walked the next block in silence. Rob said, “I noticed you have a lot of drawings there. Are you an artist?”

“Marketing Manager for a company that makes those little USB Key things,” she said. “What do you do?”

“I work in banks mostly,” Rob said. “On the security end. I try to figure out where the vulnerabilities are and how criminals would exploit them.” No need in telling her the whole truth.

“That sounds exciting,” Brenda said.

“It can be sometimes,” Rob said. He nodded his head to the bank across the street, “This is my stop.”

“Well, thanks for helping me again,” Brenda said.

“Listen, can I see you some time?”

Brenda flashed him another smile. She reached into her purse, grabbed a card, and handed it to Rob. “My cell’s on the back.”

“Great.” Rob couldn’t help grinning himself. Brenda turned and walked away. Rob stared at her until she turned the corner and went out of sight.

Handsome Rob went inside and robbed the bank.

********

The subway car pulled into Penn Station, nearly all the passengers got off. Rob went with them, figuring it was a good idea to be lost in the multitudes. Even on a weekend, the hustle and bustle Penn Station is hardly slack. Tourists from outside the city and country, lifeless stiffs working Saturdays, and the typical New Yorker traveling cross-city all mingled here. To them, Handsome Rob was just another face in the crowd.

The phone in his pocket began to ring. “Yeah.”

“Good. You answered. What’s your name?”

“They call me Handsome Rob.”

“Nice-Guy Eddie,” said the voice. “I think I figured out who set us up. Meet me tonight, 9:00 at Chelsea Pier.”

“I’ll be there,” Rob said and snapped the phone shut. “Brenda, I swear to you, I will find who took that briefcase. And I will make them pay for killing you.”

The respectable people were still out in the city at nine o’clock. Pretty soon the second shift would come in. Despite the respectable image of New York that permeated American culture in the past decade, the night still belonged to the hookers, thugs, and junkies. The sun had recently set, and the air was thick with humidity.

Handsome Rob moved along with the crowd, but disconnected from it. He felt someone fall into step with him and caught a glimpse of Nice-Guy Eddie on his left. Nice-Guy Eddie said, “Nice night.”

“Who was it?” said Rob.

“All business, eh? Let’s stop here.” He nodded to a railing.

They stopped and leaned on the railing. Rob looked across the Hudson and waited for Nice-Guy Eddie to speak.

“The case belonged to a guy goes by the name of Mr. Grey. No one’s really sure, but we think he used to work for one of the Five Families. It was seized in a raid a couple months back, but he wasn’t caught. I guess he saw the case was coming up for auction and thought this was the best way to get it back.”

“Why us?”

“Most likely payback. There was a contract on him a while back. My boys ended up getting his family instead of him. That black guy was horning in on a nice drug trade he had set up. Probably trying to get the competition out of the way.”

“What about me?”

“Don’t know his beef with you,” Nice-Guy Eddie said. “Maybe it’s all coincidence.”

“I don’t believe in coincidences. How do I know I can trust you? Seems like you got all this info very easily.”

Nice-Guy Eddie said, “I’m people who know people.”

“Mafia?”

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Nice-Guy Eddie shrugged.

“When do we get him?”

“Haven’t found the guy yet. It’s only a matter of time. Besides, New York is not as big a city as it pretends to be. Why don’t you stick with us? We can offer you protection in case this is bigger than one guy.”

“Fine,” said Handsome Rob. “But when we find this Mr. Grey, I’m going to be the one to pull the trigger.”

Rob spent the next day with Nice-Guy Eddie in one of the mob safe houses. They were surrounded by beefy Italians who didn’t say much and served fresh homemade pasta by an elderly Italian woman. They were finishing up their linguini dinner when Nice-Guy Eddie’s cell phone chirped.

“Yeah? OK. That’s good news. Take him to the warehouse in Queens. We’ll be there soon.”

Rob said, “Did you find him?”

“No,” said Nice-Guy Eddie as he shoveled another forkful of pasta into his mouth. “But we have a lead. This kid who works at the police auction. When we were all pointing our guns at each other, he grabbed the case and ran out. We figure that he delivered it to Grey. It’s up to us to persuade this scecchino to tell us where Grey is.”

“When do we go?”

“Finish up your dinner first. Then we’ll have some desert. He ain’t going nowhere.”

The warehouse was a couple blocks from Silvercup Studios, where The Sopranos was filmed. The streetlights were few and far between; the only illumination coming from the headlights of Nice-Guy Eddie’s car. They entered the warehouse through the loading docks. Handsome Rob saw a couple heavies standing near a skinny kid tied to a chair with a blindfold over his eyes. His shoulders were slumped and there was dried blood around his mouth and nose.

Almost gently, Nice-Guy Eddie asked the kid what his name was.

“Randy,” he stammered. “Randy Park.”

“Randy,” said Nice-Guy Eddie. “They call me Nice-Guy Eddie. Do you know why they call me Nice-Guy Eddie?” The kid shook his head. “Because nobody wants to see me to get angry. They want me to stay a nice guy. Now, Randy, you want me to stay a nice guy, right?” The kid nodded. “Good. Tell me about the guy you gave the case to.”

“What case?”

“The silver case from the police auction yesterday.”

“I don’t know anything about a silver case.”

“Randy, Randy,” Nice-Guy Eddie shook his head. He then nodded to the heavy standing to the kid’s left. He unleashed a wicked punch across Randy’s chin, almost knocking the chair over. Handsome Rob swore that he saw a tooth fly across the room. “You see, I’m not very happy right now. You don’t want me to ask a third time, so tell me the truth. Who did you give the case to?”

“Some guy named Grey.”

“Good,” said Nice-Guy Eddie. “Now how do you know this Mr. Grey?”

“He contacted me about a week ago,” said Randy. “Asked me to make sure nobody at the auction got a hold of the briefcase. If anything happened, I was supposed to grab it and meet him in the alley out back.”

“So, you know what he looks like.”

“No. He just said he’d be wearing a Yankees cap.”

“The fat fuck with no fashion sense,” said Rob. “I saw that guy hanging around the auction when Brenda and I came in. He was wearing a Yankee hat and a suit.”

Nice-Guy Eddie smiled, “Good. Now, how were you supposed to get in touch with Mr. Grey?”

“I wasn’t,” said the kid.

“Come on,” said Nice-Guy Eddie. “You’re the inside man and you expect me to believe there was no way for you to contact him?”

“I swear, he didn’t tell me anything. Just meet him out back with the case.”

Nice-Guy Eddie pulled a nutcracker from his jacket pocket. He walked up to the restrained kid and said, “Are you right-handed or left-handed?”

The question was greeted with a bunch of mumbles and sobs. Nice-Guy Eddie nodded again and the heavy grabbed the kid’s left arm, holding it steady. Nice-Guy Eddie slipped the nutcracker over the knuckle on the pinky finger of Randy’s left hand. He said, “Now you’ll see what happens when I become not so nice a guy.”

He squeezed the nutcracker down slowly. The pop as the bones around the knuckle broke was almost drowned out by the kid’s pathetic screaming. Nice-Guy Eddie moved the nutcracker to the knuckle of the ring finger and broke that without any pause. He then moved the nutcracker to the knuckle of the middle finger and said, “Changed your mind?”

“Yes. Yes. Oh, God. Please stop. Please,” said Randy.

“How were you supposed to contact Grey,” said Nice-Guy Eddie.

“I don’t have a phone number or anything. He just said to make an ‘x’ in white chalk on a certain mailbox in Washington Square Park before 9am,” Randy said. “If I made the ‘x’, he’d meet me at one of the park benches at 12:30. That’s all I know. Please, don’t hurt me any more.”

Nice-Guy Eddie put the nutcracker back in his pocket and started walking toward Rob. “Time to set a trap.”

********

Handsome Rob tore off his shirt, popping several buttons in the process. He wadded the shirt up and threw it in the corner. Looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, the wound didn’t seem too bad. The bullet had just nicked his right side between his bottom two ribs. There wasn’t much blood, but it stung like a bitch.

Rob grabbed a washcloth off the rack, ran it under the tap, and wiped the drying blood off his side. He winced in pain when he accidentally hit the mouth of the wound. He heard the front door of his place open and Brenda called, “Baby? I’m home.”

Shit. How am I going to explain this one? Rob said, “Yeah? I’m in the bathroom.”

“You know, I’m feeling kinda tired tonight. How about we just order in?”

“OK. That sounds good.” He dabbed again at the wound. It was still oozing a little blood, but not as bad as before.

“You in the mood for Chinese?”

“OK. Yeah. That’s fine.”

“Is everything OK?” Her voice was getting closer to the bathroom door.

“Yeah,” Rob said. “I’m just…ow.” He stopped as he hit a really sensitive spot. He bit his lip and prayed that she would just stay out of the room until he had a chance to dress his wound.

“Are you sure you’re…..Oh my God! You’re bleeding.” Handsome Rob turned his head to see Brenda standing in the now open doorway. She rushed over to get a closer look at his wound. After looking at it for a couple seconds, she opened the medicine cabinet and got out the iodine, gauze, and a roll of medical tape.

“Brenda, honey. It’s nothing,” Rob said.

“Nothing? What happened? Were you and Oberg doing something stupid again?”

Any past injuries he got during a robbery or getaway, Rob had blamed on some extreme sports adventure with Oberg. When he tore his ACL scaling a playground fence after a particularly hairy robbery of a First Union bank, he said he and Oberg had gone mountain biking.

“No, it wasn’t Oberg’s fault,” said Rob. “The two of us were….”

“OK, that’s it,” she said. Brenda put the bottle of iodine down on the sink and walked over to the doorway. She turned around and put her hands on her hips. “I want the truth, Rob. Not some stupid extreme sports story. This has gone on too long. Either tell me the truth or I’m leaving you.”

Rob’s shoulders slumped and he put his head down as he exhaled. Without looking at Brenda, he said with his eyes closed, “We rob banks.”

“You …. What?!” She blinked, incredulous.

“We. Rob. Banks.” He stared her straight in the eyes and enunciated each word so she couldn’t mistake what he was saying. “Oberg and I were at the Commerce Bank on Broadway near Washington Square Park this afternoon. We were about to get away when the security guard decided to be a hero. We were leaving the bank. He must’ve grabbed his gun and ran out into the street after us. He got off a couple shots and one of them hit me in the side.”

“You and Oberg rob banks,” Brenda said. “I don’t fucking believe it.” Rob was shocked because on the rare occasions she swore, he never heard her say the f-word before. “How fucking stupid are the two of you? I mean, jeez, they could put you away for a long time for that.”

“We’re careful,” Rob said. “Both of us are professionals. We’ve never killed anybody. We’ve never even fired our guns during a robbery. It’s just…you know that old saying about finding something you’re good at? Well, this is something I’m good at.”

“You’re taking other people’s money. Honest people who work hard for a living. Probably some of them are just scraping by.”

“I know. And sometimes I feel like a world-class heel about doing it. But I give a lot of what I take to charity. That Catholic school down the street? Most of that new playground was paid for with the money I took. I just hope to make the good outweigh the bad.”

Brenda dropped her shoulders and walked over to him. She picked the bottle of iodine up and began to clean his wound. “Listen,” she said, her voice softening, “I can’t be involved in anything criminal. I should turn you over to the cops right away. But, I love you Rob. And I can’t do anything about that. So, I don’t want to hear anything about any heists. If you have to, call it ‘running an errand’ or ‘making a withdrawal’ or something.”

“OK.” Rob said. “I’ll do anything for you. I love you, babe.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead.

********

The mark had been made and the kid was sitting on a park bench. Handsome Rob and Nice-Guy Eddie where in a black SUV parked on La Guardia Place with a good vantage point. Rob said, “Think he’ll show?”

“Who knows?” said Nice-Guy Eddie. “Still got my boys looking for him. If he don’t show, we still got other options.”

Nice-Guy Eddie looked at his watch, “Any minute now.”

Rob peered through the windshield to get a better look at the kid. He seemed nervous. His head was bowed, hands clasped in front of him, and his left leg was bouncing a mile a minute. The normal city traffic of joggers and businessmen streamed by without paying any attention.

The kid’s head jerked up suddenly. Handsome Rob followed his eyes to a silver Buick that had just slowed down. The kid jumped up and started to run, but it was too late. Before he took his second step, the first bullet tore through his leg and spun him. Two more bullets followed in quick succession through the kid’s newly presented back. Plumes of blood exploded from the grey sweatshirt he was wearing. He fell. Limp. Dead.

The Buick accelerated quickly with a squeal of tires. Nice-Guy Eddie started the SUV, yanked it into gear, and pulled out onto West 4th Street to follow the Buick. The Buick sped down 4th Street before making a hard left onto Lafayette. Handsome Rob saw the light turn red just as the Buick made its left turn, but Nice-Guy Eddie said, “Hang on.”

He jerked the wheel hard to the left, cutting of a line of angry New Yorkers. The Buick hung a right onto Astor and blew through the merge with 8th street, causing a yellow cab to slam his brakes and horn. Nice-Guy Eddie hung with the Buick, sideswiping the cab as it tried to pull ahead. The Buick continued straight ahead on St. Mark’s Place until it hit Tompkins Square Park. The driver swung a right and then a left, going the wrong way on East 7th.

Ducking in and out of the oncoming traffic, Handsome Rob couldn’t help but think how good a wheelman Nice-Guy Eddie could’ve been. If he had hooked up with Rob and Oberg, they’d own half of Manhattan at this point. They saw the Buick make a left onto Avenue B, but Nice-Guy Eddie had to slam on his breaks to avoid a U-Haul coming straight at them.

Both vehicles were at a complete stop and the Pakistani driver of the U-Haul hopped out. He started screaming and gesturing wildly in Nice-Guy Eddie’s direction. “What do you think you are doing? You offspring of goat!”

Nice-Guy Eddie lowered his window and flipped the driver off. He then jerked the gearshift into reverse, backed up a few feet, and then put the SUV back in drive. He cut the wheel sharply and slammed on the gas. The SUV smashed in the front end of the U-Haul, shoving it back a few feet. Nice-Guy Eddie didn’t slow down, taking the SUV over the curb, knocking over a blue mailbox in the process.

“Damnit, we lost him,” said Handsome Rob. “Wait. Look there.”

Handsome Rob pointed to an underground parking garage on the next street. The arm was just coming down across the entrance. “Someone just went in there,” he said. “Maybe it’s our guy.”

Nice-Guy Eddie slowed the SUV to a crawl as they both peered in the direction of the garage. A couple seconds later, a man came out, walking hurriedly toward the door of the adjacent building. They both got out of the SUV and walked with determination toward the man.

The man they were watching punched the code in the keypad and the door unlocked with a satisfying buzz. He opened the door, but sensed someone was behind him. He turned around just in time to catch the butt-end of Handsome Rob’s Desert Eagle square across his nose. The shoved the man inside and closed the door behind them.

Nice-Guy Eddie threw the man into one of the chairs in the lobby and placed his gun directly on the man’s forehead. “Where’s Mr. Grey?”

“Who?”

“Your boss. The guy who sent you to the park today.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Handsome Rob took out his Swiss Army knife and walked closer to the driver. He said, “Your boss is responsible for killing my girlfriend. This is going to be very painful if you don’t tell us where to find him.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Handsome Rob placed the knife under the kneecap of the driver’s left knee, gently pushing on this patellar tendon. “You don’t tell me what I need to know, I’m going to jam this sucker in as hard as I can.”

Handsome Rob started to push the knife in when the driver said, “Fifth floor. He’s on the fifth floor. Apartment 531.”

Handsome Rob walked over to the elevator and pressed the UP button. The doors opened with a friendly ding. “Let’s go,” he said.

Nice-Guy Eddie pulled the trigger, splattering the driver’s brains across the wall. “What did you do that for,” said Handsome Rob.

Nice-Guy Eddie walked past him into the elevator and pressed the 5 button. He turned to Handsome Rob and said, “No witnesses.”

The elevator door opened on the fifth floor hallway. They got out and walked to the left; toward apartment 531. Nice-Guy Eddie put his hand on the knob and turned. The door was locked. He nodded to Handsome Rob and took a step back. He kicked the door open and Handsome Rob went in first.

It was a large, open apartment with white walls and a deep red carpet. The door frames and molding were a darkly stained wood. The big screen TV in the living room was tuned to ESPN and glared across the glass coffee table and black leather sofa in front of it. Handsome Rob and Nice-Guy Eddie both smelled something cooking and went into the kitchen.

Mr. Grey was standing over the stove, sautéing some chicken in a lemon butter sauce. He turned his head in Rob and Eddie’s direction and stopped moving when he saw who was there. After the briefest of pauses, he threw the pan directly at Rob’s face, raining scalding butter on him. Grey then dashed out of the kitchen, but Nice-Guy Eddie went back the way he came and cut Grey off in the dining room. He leveled his gun in Grey’s face and said, “Going somewhere?”

Grey stopped and put his hands up at shoulder level. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t know what you want, but I can make it worth your while. I’m a very important man.”

He turned around, but Handsome Rob was standing right behind him. Grey turned back to Nice-Guy Eddie and said, “You know what we want. You tried to kill both of us. Now it’s time for a little retribution.”

“You fucking guys,” said Grey. “You think you could kill me and get away with it? There’s no fucking way. I’m protected from high up. Higher than you can even imagine. Anything happens to me and you’re dead.”

“I don’t take too kindly to someone trying to whack me, but I’m not going to kill you. He is.”

“No hard feelings, huh,” said Grey.

His answer was a punch to the mouth. His two front teeth were knocked loose, and he fell flat on his ass. Handsome Rob growled into his ear, “You killed my girlfriend. I’m going to make you pay for what you’ve done.”

“Fucking guy,” said Grey. “All he cares about is a little pussy. Broads like that are a dime a dozen.”

Handsome Rob shot him in the left knee.

Grey screamed in agony. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

Handsome Rob walked over to the fallen Grey and put his foot on Grey’s injured knee. He slowly put his entire weight on that one foot.

Grey screamed out again. Handsome Rob turned to Nice-Guy Eddie and said, “Get me something to tie him up with.”

Nice-Guy Eddie returned a moment later with a leather belt. “Best I could find.”

Handsome Rob took the belt, kicked Grey to turn him over, and secured Grey’s hands behind his back. He yanked hard, pulling Grey to his feet. He walked Grey over to a dining room chair and forced him to sit down. Rob said, “We know why you picked Nice-Guy Eddie and the other guy, but why me?”

“Happy coincidence.”

Handsome Rob pistol-whipped him across the mouth. “Try again.”

“No reason.”

Handsome Rob hit him again. “I know you’re lying to me. Tell me the truth!”

Grey looked up at Handsome Rob, blood now pouring from his nose and mouth. “You’ll never find out.”

Handsome Rob hit him again and again, knocking Grey out of the chair. He picked him back up and threw him in the chair again. Nice-Guy Eddie took a step forward, “He’s not going to talk.”

Handsome Rob turned around, “That’s what you think.”

He looked around the room, trying to find something he could use to his advantage. His eyes finally fell on the French doors that lead out to the balcony. He grabbed the chair Grey was sitting on and began to drag it toward the door. He kicked the doors open and spun the chair, sending Grey skittering across the balcony, finally coming to rest at the railing. Handsome Rob threw the chair back inside the apartment and began to advance on Grey. He picked Grey up and threw him over the railing’s edge, holding on to Grey’s belt.

Grey wobbled and kicked his legs, making it harder for Handsome Rob to hold on to him. He said, “Tell me why you picked me.”

“I told you,” said Grey, “it was random. I didn’t know you were going to be there.”

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold you.” Handsome Rob swung Grey around to demonstrate his point. “Tell me the truth or you’re going to be a greasy stain on the sidewalk.”

Traffic rumbled in the distance. A boat in the harbor blew its horn. A pigeon landed on the fire escape across the building. Kids played on a nearby park. Time seemed to stand still. In the quiet spring afternoon, Grey’s voice seemed to melt into the cool breeze that floated through the alley. “All right. Pull me up and I’ll tell you everything.”

Handsome Rob pulled him back into the balcony. He walked Grey over to the large leather sofa and sat him down. Rob sat down on the glass coffee table, face-to-face with Grey. Nice-Guy Eddie took a standing position behind Rob and slightly to his left.

Grey took a deep breath, held it for a second, and let it out slowly. The words began to pour out of him, slowly and calmly. “I told you I’m protected from on high. That’s where the orders came from. I’m just the messenger. You said you already knew, but I’ll start from the beginning.

“I used to do things for the mob. Sort of an independent contractor. I’ve done things for each of the Five Families. Then one day I was approached by a representative of the Russian Mafia, a guy named Boris Zubov. He offered me a position as his right-hand man, if I helped him take over the protection racket on the waterfront. That meant going up against my old employers. I did. And that’s when they put a contract out on me.

“Nice-Guy Eddie probably already told you about that. His ‘associates’ killed my family while I was out with Boris. Getting you to the auction was not personal,” he said, turning his eyes to Nice-Guy Eddie. “I understand that it was only business to you, and you were just following orders.”

Grey turned back to Handsome Rob. “Tawruss, the black guy, is a drug dealer trying to make a name for himself. He has little or no imagination of his own, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a ruthless son of a bitch. He’s trying to take over the drug trade in Harlem. He got most of the other black and Hispanic gangs out of the way by doing burning necklaces, probably something he saw on The Shield. My employers wanted him eliminated before he took complete control.

“And you, Handsome Rob.” Grey paused and smiled a sick little smile. “This was personal. I agreed to take out Nice-Guy Eddie and Tawruss if they let me take you down as well. Jimmy Shrub was my cousin. You murdered him in cold blood.”

“Shrub was a fucking loser,” said Rob. “The only reason I killed him was because he blew our deal. He promised nobody would get hurt. Then he decided to get high and kill a bank manager for no reason. If I didn’t put a bullet in his head, the cops would’ve sooner or later.”

Nice-Guy Eddie chimed in, “So this was all to eliminate the three of us. The case had nothing to do with anything.”

“No,” said Grey. “My employers wanted that case. If I didn’t get it back to them, they were going to kill me. I came up with this plan. It would get them the case back and eliminate two of the thorns in their side at the same time. If I pulled it off, I would’ve had more clout than ever.”

Nice-Guy Eddie said, “Where can we find this Boris Zubov?”

Grey laughed. “I don’t work for the Russians any more. My new employer made sure they were minimized.”

“Then who sent you.”

Grey stared right in Nice-Guy Eddie’s eyes and said slowly and clearly, “Ferrucci.”

“Bullshit.”

A big smile crept across Grey’s face. “You’ve gotten soft. Ferrucci wanted to put you out to pasture. Once you’re out of the way, I am to be his go-to guy.”

Nice-Guy Eddie tore across the room. He shoved his gun into Grey’s mouth and screamed into his ear, “You’re lying. You’re fucking lying.”

“Hey, Eddie. Calm down,” said Handsome Rob. “Listen, even if he’s telling the truth, you can fix this. We get Grey to tell us where the case is, you can return it and be the hero.”

“Where’s the case?” Nice-Guy Eddie said.

“Bedroom,” Grey mumbled.

“Kinda hard to talk with a gun in your mouth, isn’t it? Rob, check the bedroom.”

Handsome Rob went to the bedroom and looked around. The bed was an unmade mess of silk sheets and a black comforter. There was another huge TV mounted to the wall. He didn’t see the case right away, so he started looking under the bed and in the closets. Rob finally found it on the floor of a closet. He picked it up and went back into the living room.

“Got it,” said Handsome Rob.

“Good,” said Nice-Guy Eddie. He pulled the trigger, sending the back of Grey’s skull sailing into the adjacent dining room. Handsome pulled his gun out and pointed it in Nice-Guy Eddie’s face. Eddie responded in kind.

Handsome Rob said, “What about our deal? You said I’d be the one to pull the trigger.”

Nice-Guy Eddie said, “I altered our deal. Live with it.”

“Nobody’s fucking professional any more.”

“I’ve got bigger problems to deal with than your disappointment. You wanted the guy dead, he’s dead. Now we have to solve my problem. Give me the case.”

Handsome Rob put the case on the floor, never taking his eyes off Nice-Guy Eddie’s and never moving his gun. He slid it across the floor and stood back up. Nice-Guy Eddie picked up the case and made a couple steps toward the door.

Handsome Rob said, “I don’t care about your problem. So your boss turned on you. You got rid of the competition, so your job’s safe.”

Nice-Guy Eddie laughed an evil little laugh. “Safe? This isn’t some corporate take-over. I may have gotten Grey, but there are fifty guys out there just like him who would be itching to take over.”

“Then leave the city,” said Handsome Rob. “Just drive away.”

“I can’t do that. No. I have to handle this my way.”

“Are you going to go Keyser Soze and wipe everyone out?”

“Something like that.” Nice-Guy Eddie lowered his weapon and looked into the distance. “You’re right. This is not your problem. It’s something I have to take care of myself. We better get out of here before the cops come.”

Nice-Guy Eddie turned and walked out of the apartment. Handsome Rob lowered his weapon and looked at the lifeless body of Mr. Grey. He then put his Desert Eagle in its spot in the small of his back and turned to the balcony.

He looked out over the alleyway and adjacent buildings. He could hear the hustle and bustle of the city. Life went on around him. But Handsome Rob didn’t know how his could go on without Brenda.

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