Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Coda by Thomas Mueller

I

I parked next to a bright blue-painted anchor, half-buried in the sidewalk next to the curb, and hoped that the gulls flying overhead wouldn’t crap all over me before I could make it inside. The air was chilly and salty and damp like a sweater drying over the back of a chair, but the sun was out and the wharf didn’t seem as threatening as it had in the fog the night before.

I made it into the bar without my coat getting messed, went over and took a stool at the counter. The bartender, a worn-out looking man in his thirties with a mop of shaggy blond hair, eyed me for a long moment before putting down his Playboy and asking me what I’d have. I ordered a beer and a bowl of chowder.

The man disappeared sullenly into the back. I looked around the room. The blood had been cleaned out of the booth in the corner, but the wood was still chipped where I’d dug the two slugs out of the wall with my pocketknife.

Blondie came out with my food and tossed a couple packets of oyster crackers down next to my chowder—almost as an afterthought—then went back to his magazine. The beer was warm, but the chowder was good and I dug into it hungrily.

I had almost finished the bowl when the front door opened and Frankie Two-Fingers came in, followed by a couple of bruisers in suits—one whip tall with a massive torso and arms like bowling balls and the other fat and short like Frankie.

“Boss liked your work last night,” said Frankie, walking up to me and holding out his hand. I don’t know why he goes by Frankie Two-Fingers; he’s got all ten. I frowned at him and didn’t shake. He looked uncomfortable for a moment before finally putting his hand back in his pants pocket. Leaning back to his companions, he said, “Wally is one cool mother-fucker, gotta give him that much.”

They looked very much of the opinion that no, they didn’t have to. Frankie walked over to Blondie the bartender and snatched the Playboy out of his hands, then hit him upside the head with it. “Beat it,” Frankie said.

“Hey man!” said Blondie. “Who’s gonna watch the bar, you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Frankie. “I work for Lawrence Hopkins, you work at his bar. That makes us like, co-workers right? Only,” he pulled a flashy, nickel-plated .45 out of a shoulder holster and set it loudly on the counter, “this sorta makes me your supervisor. Get me?”

Blondie looked unimpressed. “Whatever. Just run some water over that chowder bowl when he’s through with it. Otherwise that shit sticks on the sides.” He pulled out a pack of smokes, walked around the counter and shuffled out the front door.

“Wash the dishes?” Frankie punched the air in the direction Blondie had left. “Asshole.”

“Did your boss need anything else,” I said, “or can I go back to Merced?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” said Frankie, a nasty grin twitching the corners of his mouth. “You ain’t done yet. Mr. Hopkins has decided you and he ain’t quite square. I’ve got another job for you, tonight.” He turned back to the other thugs. “Gimme the folder."

I didn’t wait for him to turn back around. I stood up, reached over and picked up the .45 from where it was still sitting on the counter, and shot Frankie Two-Fingers in the hand. The bullet tore off his pinky finger in a spray of dull red wetness. He turned around and stood staring stupidly at me, blood streaming from his left hand. The two thugs behind him were fumbling their guns out of their hip-holsters as I shot them, one in the head, the other in the shoulder.

Frankie finally recovered his wits enough to lunge at me, but I grabbed the stool I had been sitting on and hit him in the side of the head with it and he went sprawling. He crashed into a table, scattering wooden chairs. The pain from his hand had caught up with him and he stayed on the floor moaning. I walked over and nudged him onto his back. I put my foot on the wrist of the hand I had shot and pressed down hard. He howled.

“Tell Hopkins we’re through,” I said quietly, then reached down with his gun and shot a second finger off of his hand. I removed the clip, dropped the heavy gun by his side, and then walked out onto the street. He was still screaming as I climbed into my car and drove off.

II

Two hours later, after checking into a different motel, drinking a couple cokes from the vending machine outside my room, and taking a too-short nap, I decided to go to Mattie Jenkins’ place across town. My head hurt and my clothes felt stale and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of San Francisco, but that wasn’t looking likely. Not yet, not if I wanted any chance of leaving without bringing everything I hated about San Francisco back to Merced with me.

Mattie lived in a quaint—seedy, to my eyes—little apartment a ways in from the corner of Divisadero and Union. I hadn’t told her I was gonna be in the city, but that was mostly because I didn’t expect I’d have the time to see her. Mostly.

She opened the door at the third knock, smiled at me, then took the cigarette from between her pouty red lips, slapped me hard with the same hand that was holding the cigarette, and then took a long drag before flicking it past me down the steps to the curb.

“Can I come in?” I asked.

She frowned, then brushed a lock of dirty blond hair behind her ear and said, “Yeah, okay.”

Her apartment was one long hallway with three closets—the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen—and at the end was a small living room with a sofa and a window staring out on the small space created where the buildings next door and behind butted to form a kind of chimney. In the apartment directly across from us I could see a young mother watching television while her daughter played with some kind of doll on the rug at her feet.

Mattie picked up a glass of orange juice from the floor by the couch and sat down. She nodded and I took a seat next to her. She didn’t offer me anything to drink.

“I came here to—” I began, but she cut me off.

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t fucking pull me into your shit again. I don’t care why you’re here. You wanna fuck, fine. Let’s fuck. But I ain’t your wife; don’t unload your bullshit on me.” She took a sip of her orange juice and I could see the outline of her nipples pressing against her shirt. She was skinnier than I remembered.

“I’m not here to cause you any trouble,” I said. “I just need my things.”

Mattie looked at me blankly.

“The box I left here,” I said. “You told me you’d keep it for me.”

“Oh, that,” she said. “I pawned it.”

I massaged my temples with one hand for a minute. My headache was still going strong. “You got some aspirin?” I asked.

“Sure.”

Mattie got up and went down the hallway. I heard a medicine cabinet click open and then closed and she came back with three white pills in her hand. “Open,” she said, then lifted her hand to my mouth and let the pills slide in. She handed me her orange juice and said, “Go ahead and finish it.”

“Thanks,” I said. The orange juice helped clear my head a bit. Mattie sat back down on the couch, closer to me this time, and we were silent for a moment. Then I said, “You remember who you sold it too?”

Mattie frowned, her forehead scrunching up in the cute little way I remembered. “Yeah, I took it to Sheckley’s over on Geary. That’s really all you came for?”

I stood up. “It’s good to see you again, Mattie. I mean that.” I turned away, but Mattie got up and put a hand on my arm.

“You can stay if you like.” Her eyes were wide and glistened invitingly, and she was standing close enough that I could smell the flowery scent of her hair.

I leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Goodbye Mattie. Thanks for the aspirin.”

III

Sheckley’s had a tattered awning over the door that looked like body of an old WWI biplane that had been shot all to hell. It was wedged in between a Chinese grocer and a yogurt shop, and you’d never notice the front door if the awning wasn’t there. I’d only been inside once before, years back.

I pulled on the front door and waited for the buzzer to sound, then went in. When the door closed, the heat hit me, nearly knocking me to my knees. The old man must have kept the thermostat cranked up to well past ninety degrees.

“Walter Hopkins, that is you, isn’t it?” It took me a moment to place the voice as coming from overhead, but then I saw the wiry, sweater-clad figure climbing down from a stepladder in the corner. Sheckley grinned at me, and I thought for a minute that the wrinkles in his face were going to swallow his mouth and eyes, leaving nothing but a nose poking out from between the folds. He hobbled over to me and held out his hand and I shook it, feeling his leathery grip sandpaper my palm.

“Kept it for you,” Sheckley said, without my asking. “Knew it was yours when she brought it in. I gave her a fair price—figured she needed the money and helping her out was the right thing to do, but I weren’t never gonna sell it. It’s in the back. I been keeping everything oiled and ready.”

“I don’t have the money for it right now,” I said. I was carrying my savings in my back pocket, and about half of it had already gone into motel rooms.

Sheckley sniffed. “That’s just fine. You’ll come back and pay when you can. Gimmie a sec,” he said. A minute later he returned holding the wooden box under one arm. A hundred emotions flooded through me at the sight of it. Sheckley saw the look in my eyes and chuckled. “Want I should spread the word you’re back in town, send a little work your way?”

“I just came to square my debts. One way or the other.”

Sheckley shook his head. “World doesn’t always work that way, son.”

I grimaced, thought of the ex-wife I still rented a house with, the mother who’d died and left me with eight grand in back rent, the perpetual kindness of a son who’d made big it spite of his old man, and the kid brother who’d sent his goons to meet me at the bar earlier today.

“No, not always.” I thanked Sheckley and walked back out into the cold sunshine, the box pressed tightly against my side.

IV

I went back to the motel and put the box on the bed and sat in the chair by the window staring at it for a long time, but I couldn’t bring myself to open it. Finally I put my coat back on and went outside.

I got into my car and began to drive, knowing where I was going in the back of my mind, but not wanting to acknowledge it. I had been shit-faced drunk the last time I’d driven to Donnie Corrino’s house, but I even then I’d had no trouble remembering the way.

My headache had finally started to abate when I wheeled in behind Donnie’s ancient rust-brown Ford, pulled the handbrake and stepped out. North of the Panhandle—shitty side of town, shitty memories. Maybe somebody else had good memories of that god-forsaken place; if they did, they could keep them. I didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Donnie had been a cop for twenty-five years, and my friend for fifteen. He was crooked as they came, but at the same time strangely moral, at least in terms of adhering to his own fucked-up code of ethics. He was as much of a brother to me as Larry had ever been, maybe more.

I had barely shut my car door when I heard a bolt being thrown and saw the door inside the metal security gate creak open. I stopped. Donnie was peering out, dressed in his boxer shorts, a police special in one hand. He pointed the revolver through the bars at me.

“Get the fuck outta here, Wally.” He scratched his balls with his free hand. “Get outta here, man. Larry gets word you’re back in town and shit’ll hit the you-know-what.”

I held my hands out to my sides. “Larry called in his marker, that’s why I’m back.”

Donnie frowned, and lowered the revolver slightly. “That don’t make no sense.”

I shrugged.

Donnie fumbled a key into the lock and opened the security door. “Well, come in then.”

The place was the same as I remembered it, only dirtier. Donnie pulled two plastic cups off of a stack sitting on the mantel and filled each half full of cheap gin. He drank his down, then handed me the other. “Wanna tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

I told him what I knew, taking a sip of the tepid gin when I had finished.

After a minute, Donnie said, “Larry’s gotta be in some kind of deep shit if he’s willing to call in his marker with you.”

I didn’t argue.

“You want my opinion, the hit last night was legit, but the business this morning about Larry wanting more from you, that was just Frankie seeing an angle he could play and trying to get some work outta you on the side. He always was a louse.”

Again, I didn’t argue. Donnie looked hard at me for a moment, then sniffed. “You want me to contact Larry, see if that’s really what went down.” It wasn’t a question.

I nodded. Donnie poured himself another gulp of gin and went into the kitchen. I looked down at my own cup, but decided I needed something besides a couple cokes and some orange juice in my stomach if I was going to do any serious drinking. I heard Donnie on the phone, and so I already knew what he was going to tell me when he came back into the room.

“Larry’s gonna have a little talk with Frankie Two-Fingers. He said to tell you last night squared you.” Donnie had the revolver in his hand again, and he gestured to the door with it. “My suggestion: get the fuck outta Dodge before he changes his mind. This is me telling you, understand?”

I nodded and Donnie looked almost like he was going to smile, but he didn’t, and neither did I. “See you around,” I said. I put the plastic cup down on a table by the door and let myself out.

Halfway to my car I heard the hammer on the revolver cock.

I didn’t turn around and Donnie didn’t fire, so I figured it meant we were square too.

When I turned the corner, I glanced in the rear-view. Donnie was still standing in the doorway watching, the revolver held rigidly at his hip.

V

I was driving down Fell Street, nearly to Van Ness, when the tow truck smashed into me. It crushed the passenger side of my Plymouth inwards in a hail of glass and noise and destruction, and the force of the impact spun my car off the road and smashed the hood into a lamppost, wrapping metal around metal in a kind of post-coital lover’s embrace.

I swam in and out of consciousness for a minute, but somewhere in the midst of it I unbuckled my seat-belt and opened the driver’s side door, which--amazingly--didn’t stick. I must have passed out on the sidewalk for a minute, because when I finally came to I was on my back, staring up at the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun.

My focus adjusted to the man behind the weapon. He was sweaty and tall and and balding and had a ridiculous pair of large square glasses resting on his nose.

“Johnny Alamo sends his regards,” said the man in a whiny, nasal baritone. He reached out with the hand that wasn’t holding the shotgun to cock each barrel and, as he did so, I whipped my hand up, grabbed the gun and pulled it towards me, up and to the side. One of the chambers went off, but the gun was pointed at the grass over my head and not the concrete and it only set my ear ringing like a phone bank during a Christmas telethon.

The man had lost his balance when I grabbed his shotgun, and he landed on me with an elbow in my gut that almost sent me reeling right back into unconsciousness. I gathered my wits and, before the man could get up, I grabbed him in a chokehold, stopping the blood to his brain. I held him until he went limp and then held him a little longer, not caring if it killed him. I rested for a minute, then rolled him off of me and got slowly to my feet.

I looked at my wrecked car and then at the man who had tried to splatter my brains across the pavement. I kicked him in the stomach, but he didn’t react. I reached down and plucked his glasses off of his nose, dropped them at my feet and ground them into the sidewalk with my heel. Fuck you, buddy, and your stupid glasses.

Drivers who had pulled over at the sight of the wreck were beginning to get out of their cars, so I grabbed the shotgun and patted down my would-be assassin until I found his keys and a couple of spare shells. When I straightened up holding the shotgun, the onlookers bearing down on us suddenly found a hundred fascinating things to look at that weren’t me, and I took the opportunity to make my unsteady way over to the open door of the still-pristine tow truck. I threw the shotgun onto the seat beside me, started the engine, and backed slowly away, keeping a wary eye out for anything else the day decided to throw my way. After a couple minutes I cursed under my breath. My headache was returning, with a vengeance.

VI

I ditched the tow-truck and the shotgun in a parking lot a few miles away and caught a cab back to my motel on Lombard. The cabbie eyed me warily when I got out, like maybe he was expecting me to stiff him and run, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t press him on it. I paid the fare, wishing I’d thought to take the hitman’s wallet and not just his keys.

After the cabbie screeched back out into traffic, I stood for a long moment on the curb and thought about what to do next. A hot shower and searching out a bottle of aspirin topped the list, so I walked back to my room and let myself in. I was closing the door behind me when the fist connected with my jaw.

VII

The blow dropped me to my knees. I raised my arms to my face, but no more punches came. I shook my head and blinked my eyes and felt my headache pounding behind my temples in response.

The thin man who’d hit me closed the door and leaned against it. He tucked his thumbs between his suspenders and his grimy, used-to-be-white wife-beater and grinned at me like maybe I was about to tell a funny joke he’d heard before.

The other man in the room took a seat on my bed and rested his hand on the wooden box—my wooden box—that sat there. He was squat and round-faced and had a wispy beard that made him look like a gnome in spats.

“Let me guess,” I said, wiping the blood from my mouth with the back of my hand. “Johnny Alamo?”

The Gnome shook his head and clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “It’s Johnny à la Mode, limp-dick. And no, I ain’t him.”

The thin man in the suspenders snorted. “Johnny Alamo. Ha! What a limp-dick.”

The Gnome frowned at his companion, then said, “Johnny à la Mode’s gunning for you, that’s the truth of it, but we don’t work for him. We’re what you might call,” he paused, “off-payroll consultants. For Commissioner Preston. He wants to know why you’re back in town.”

I sighed and squeezed my temples between my thumb and forefinger. “I’m not back in town,” I said.

“Sure,” the thin man said, “you ain’t back. That’s why you just offed a couple a Johnny à la Mode’s enforcers last night and then sent him the slugs you used and a nice little letter explaining how you were back in town.” He looked at the Gnome. “What a limp-dick, am I right?”

While he was talking I had palmed the ashtray from the table behind me. I threw it at him, striking him a glancing blow on the side of the nose. He clutched his face with both hands and yelled, “The fuck was that for?”

I looked over at the Gnome, who hadn’t moved. He shrugged. “The limp-dick thing was getting a little old.” He got up off the bed and walked past me to the door. “Com’on Sam, he says he ain’t back in town, we tell the Commish he ain’t back in town. Then maybe we get a hamburger. I’m hungry.”

Sam gave me a long, dirty look, but finally followed his partner outside, slamming the door behind him. I locked the door—for whatever that was worth—and walked over to the bed and picked up the wooden box. I sat down in the chair by the window with the box on my lap and stared hard at it for a real long time. Then I put it down on the floor next to me, got up and ran a shower.

VIII

Mattie always said I did my best thinking the shower. I’d done a lot of my best everything with her in the shower, but today all the hot water did for my head was remind it of how much the rest of me hurt.

I toweled myself off and, with a frown, stepped back into my two-day-old suit of clothes. I started to put on my jacket, then stopped, shrugged it off, and lay it on the bed, walked over and picked up the wooden box by the chair. I opened it, took out the shoulder harness with its two extra clips and slipped it on, slid one of the two silenced SIG P210’s into the holster under my arm. I dug out my old ankle gun, a Colt Detective Special my father had owned, and buttoned it under my pants leg.

If my brother had sent the slugs I’d dug out of the wall to Johnny à la Mode, then he was playing a new angle I didn’t know about. I didn’t like that. Maybe he wanted me out of the picture for good, without having to give the order himself, maybe it was just the string of some larger intrigue that didn’t concern me. Whatever the reason, and like-it-or-not, I was stuck in the middle. I needed answers, but first I needed new wheels.

I called up a guy used to be a buddy of mine—Jon Loveless—who owned a used car lot down in Bayview and called in my marker with him. He probably hadn’t thought about his dead sister-in-law once in the seven years since I’d killed her for him, but one mention of her name and he promised to have a Volkswagen out front of my room in twenty minutes flat, the keys in the ignition and gas in the tank.

I sat down on the bed and realized I was getting hungry. I didn’t want to get up, but I did anyway. I kicked the box with the spare SIG under the bed, grabbed my coat and headed across the street to a drug store up the block. I bought two peanut-heavy candy bars, ate one and stuffed the other in my pocket, and drank half a bottle of water after chewing up a handful of aspirin. When I got back to my room, the VW—a green Bug—was sitting out front and a pimply-faced kid was climbing out.

“You Wally?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Here’s the keys,” he said, handing me a single key on a key-chain with a silver medallion that had been stamped Ace of Spicks in some kind of stylized font. I wondered what the hell Ace of Spicks was, but the kid didn’t look likely to know, so I pocketed the key and medallion.

“Hey, man, you headed anywhere near Castro?” asked the kid. “Think you could drop me….” He saw the look in my eyes and trailed off. “Okay,” he said, “I’m just gonna go now.” He hurried away, nearly tripping twice and looking over his shoulder about every three steps.

I got into the VW, stuck the key in the ignition, ate my other candy bar and mulled over what to do next.

IX

Back in the day, Donnie Corrino, Lawrence and myself had been the three major players in town. Larry’s father--my step-father--had built up an empire in San Francisco. Racketeering, pimping, murder-for-hire, he did it or he knew a guy who knew a guy. Our mother--Larry’s and mine--was his favorite whore, but it was her boys he doted on. He grew tired of her when we were still in our teens and sent her packing, banishing her to a slum in Oakland where she struggled to eat on money from tricks and, when her long-abused body went too sour to sell, whatever extra dough Larry and I could manage to send her way.

Jay Hopkins finally got popped in the ear by one of the long line of two-bit hoods he had screwed over to reach the top, and Larry, myself, and our friend Donnie inherited his organization. Larry vowed never to go down like his father, to become untouchable and elusive and the baddest mother-fucker in town. And he did just that.

I never liked being Larry’s cleaner, but it was necessary and I was good at it. Donnie covered the cop angle, and for the three of us things went more-or-less smoothly for years. Until Donnie and Larry fell for the same woman, and that woman happened to be Larry’s wife.

Her name was Sharon Callahan.

When Donnie finally made his bid to take Larry down, he precipitated a blood storm that left the organization reeling, but Larry remained untouchable and I stayed out of it and watched our livelihood burn down around them.

Larry and Donnie finally called a truce, but they found the only thing they could agree upon was the fact that if one of them couldn’t have Sharon, the other sure-as-fuck wasn’t going to get her either. So they came to me.

I saw a way out of the life, and I agreed to the hit on the condition that Larry, Donnie and I were quits. Donnie agreed, saying only that he couldn’t promise not to plug me the next time he laid eyes on me, but Larry, always one eye toward the future, stipulated that I owe him a favor, obligatory and with no expiration date. The do-it-even-if-it-kills-you kind.

And it was that favor that he had cashed in last night.

X

I was backing the Volkswagen out, about to leave, when a dark red sedan coasted into a space at the far end of the motel and four young guys got out, all in suits that did little to hide the automatics protruding from their armpits and absolutely nothing to hide the shotguns they held at their sides. They headed toward my room, dripping with false confidence and fear-laced bravado, and were so obviously a hit squad that they could have been carrying pink flamingos instead of shotguns and not been mistaken for anything else.

I carefully swallowed the urge to gun the motor and speed away, and instead drove slowly toward them, the VW puttering along like world’s biggest billboard reading Here I Am Coming Right Toward You, Fuckers.

To a one, none of the four suits even glanced in my direction; sometimes stereotypes can be more useful than anything.

I contemplated parking, walking up behind them, and plugging each one in the head. They had obviously been sent to kill me, and knew I wasn’t so rusty I couldn’t pull it off, but that wasn’t me anymore. With the exception of last night. And this morning.

Still, I didn’t want them to have too easy a time following me, so I waited until they had kicked in the door to my motel room and disappeared inside, then I rolled down the window, reached back, and shot out their passenger-side tires. I holstered the SIG and then pulled out of the parking lot, turning left to head west down Lombard.

Two bullets spent, six left in the clip, and four more guys trying to kill me. The day just kept getting better and better.

XI

If there was one place I didn’t want to be, it was San Francisco. And if there was one place in San Francisco I didn’t want to be, it was the Hopkins penthouse at the top of the Halcyon building. I knew I would have to confront Larry there sooner rather than later, but I had a stop to make first.

I drove along Geary, swung around the Point and headed down the coast. The waves of the Pacific Ocean sparkled like diamonds around a debutante’s neck, and, like those diamonds, hinted at the wonders out of sight below. I passed the park and another two minutes after that I could see Elijah’s flat coming up on the right. The road was deserted, so I hung a quick u-turn and tucked the VW behind a dilapidated Jeep that looked like it had belonged to a surfer by way of a gay pimp by way of a sorority girl who might or might not have gone down on the entire lacrosse team in the back seat, one right after another. It was a dumpster with mirrors, and I almost gagged at the thought that someone still actually drove it.

I satisfied myself that I hadn’t been tailed, or that if I had they were good enough to not make themselves known, then I walked up the stairs and rang the doorbell.

Elijah Woodward had been my backup gun for years, but the day of the Sharon Callahan job was the last day we’d spoken. I’d told him I was calling it quits and that I didn’t want him along on my last run, and that was that. I didn’t ask what he was going to do after I left, and he didn’t say. For some reason it seemed like a more important question now than it ever had back then.

There was no answer, so I rang the doorbell again. Nothing. I was about to give up, but something nagging at my subconscious told me to push on the door. I did, and it swung open, coming to a stop against the wall. I steeled myself and walked in, knowing what I was going to find before I found it.

Elijah--older and heavier, but still the man I remembered--sat on the couch, the handle of an icepick poking out of his left eye. Two more icepicks pinned his hands to the cushions at his sides.

Someone knew I was going to come here and they had left me a message. They were showing off, telling me they could pull my strings, make me dance, and that kind of showboating had Lawrence Hopkins written all over it.

I closed the door, went down the stairs, climbed back behind the wheel of the VW and gritted my teeth. It was time to pay my brother a visit.

XII

I needed a change in scenery, so I rolled down my window and cut through the park, thinking about the times Mattie used to ditch class and meet me at our bench out front of the Tea Garden. She was my other life, the life that made me wonder if happily-ever-afters might actually be real, and I kept her away from Larry and Donnie and all the bullshit of day-to-day Crime, Inc as if her life depended on it. Until the day I stopped by her apartment to say goodbye on my way out of town. But, even then, she never knew exactly who I was, what I was. It was a small thing, but I was glad for it anyway.

I turned up Park Presidio, heading back to Geary, when the black-and-white rolled up behind me, lights flashing and siren braying. I pulled over, put on the e-brake and unbuttoned my coat, resisting the urge to thumb the safety off on my SIG.

I adjusted my rear-view and waited. After a moment, Thin Sam and the Gnome--the knuckleheads from earlier that afternoon--climbed out and ambled over, looking like rejects from some buddy-cop flick. The Gnome reached in through my open window and used the inner handle to open my door, then leaned against it and stared at me, smacking his gum. The round-faced dwarf thing was seriously fucking up his tough guy image, but if anybody had mentioned it to him, he hadn’t listened to them in the slightest.

Finally he reached up and took off his sunglasses, said, “Yeah. You’re all kinds of not-back-in-town.”

I heard his partner laugh, but the other man didn’t add anything. I guess his nose still hurt.

“Looks like knowing you is some kind of fatal disease,” said the Gnome. “First Donnie Corrino--” I looked at him sharply, “--and now Elijah Woodward. Someone sure as hell thinks you’re back, and they don’t like it. No, sir.”

I didn’t say anything, but my mind was racing. None of it made any sense. If whoever was doing the hits was gunning for me, why kill two men out of my past, why come at me sideways? It was Larry’s style, granted, but there wasn’t any reason for it to be now, at this particular moment, and after all these years. And this Johnny à la Mode guy shouldn’t need all the theatrics just to bump me off for revenge over last night’s killings. Not to mention the fact that he shouldn’t have known about last night in the first place. And why did these two free-lance non-cops know so much more about what was going on than I did, unless someone in Larry’s organization was cluing them in.

Everything kept coming back to Larry Hopkins.

As if he’d been following along with my train of thought, the Gnome said, “Maybe Brother Dearest has been setting you up all along.” He held up his hands. “Ain’t none of my business. But the Commish wanted us to tell you to settle things quick-like between yourself and Larry, before shit turns the water ‘round here brown. He likes everything to run smooth, he said to tell you.” He pushed my door shut and backed away. “Remember, Wally, smooth like a whore’s sweet snatch. That’s the ticket.”

The two walked back to their police cruiser, Thin Sam chuckling as if shaved pussy was god’s own gift to comedy, and then they tore past me into traffic, making a fancy BMW swerve across the median to avoid them.

Donnie was dead. Elijah was dead. My stomach felt suddenly sick, and I knew where I had to go next.

XIII

The dark red sedan was parked in front of Mattie’s place when I got there, and the acid feeling that had been gnawing at my gut bubbled up into a mist of fury that nearly blinded me. The four guys in their too-tight suits were just letting themselves out, grinning at each other and shooting the shit like nothing had just happened at all.

I parked, got out, slammed the driver-side door behind me and began to walk quickly across the street towards them, not giving a fuck if they saw me coming or not. They did, but only barely registered my intent even as I pulled the SIG and popped two of them in the head.

One shot, two shots, four left in the clip. One of the remaining two had the presence of mind to swivel up his shotgun and send a load of pellets booming my direction, but he forgot to aim and his shot only shredded the rear passenger door of their red sedan next to me. I shot him in the shoulder, then the head. Three shots, four shots, two in the clip.

The final suit dropped his shotgun with a clatter and sank to his knees, covering his head in his hands and mumbling something about mercy and forgiveness and god and all of that other crap people spew who’ve fucked up and know it. I walked over to him and kicked him in the ribs. He fell on his side, clutching his midsection, and I put the silenced barrel of the SIG about two inches away from his eye.

“Who sent you?” I growled.

He whimpered and stuttered out, “J-J-Johnny-Alamo-please-don’t-kill-me.”

I stood up and shot him twice above the ear, fingered the catch and let the SIG’s clip fall to the sidewalk beside him. Five shots, six shots, plus the two at the motel. Empty.

I holstered the SIG, took a deep, shuddering breath and went inside.

XIV

The apartment was empty; Mattie wasn’t there. I checked every room, but aside from the empty glass of orange juice on the floor by the couch, there was no sign of her or anyone else. My insides began to unknot and the adrenaline drained out of my system, leaving me with the cold knowledge that I had taken my vengeance out on the hit squad over nothing.

Glad and disgusted and tired, I turned to leave. I made it nearly to the front door, and would have walked right on out, stupidly and without a second thought, if I hadn’t heard the faint sound of a shotgun pump racking in a shell somewhere outside. I dove backwards and too the side, but not fast enough. The edge of the shot peppered across my shoulder like bee stings from hell, but I was on my back and too busy scrambling madly back inside the apartment to pay it any mind.

In the single, brief glance I’d had of the street below, I registered six guys--one of them Frankie Two-Fingers--arrayed below the steps up to Mattie’s apartment as if Union street was the O.K. fucking Corral. I imagined Frankie was about ready to kill whoever had spoiled the setup, but I thought I might just like to save him the trouble.

I went into the bathroom, wedged myself between the bath tub and the toilet and had just managed to pull the Detective Special from its ankle holster when the first of Frankie’s hired help came charging through the door. A bullet to the head did little to stop his momentum, and he went sprawling across my legs, coming to a stop when he face-planted into the side of the tub. It would have hurt like hell if he’d still been alive to feel it.

One shot, five to go.

The second goon fired around the corner before coming in, but succeeded only in aerating the shower curtain before I popped him, too.

Two shots, three shots, three to go.

There was a lull, and I was already moving to take advantage of it. I lifted the first goon off my feet and then sat down facing the doorway, holding him in my lap like a lover I was about to give the reach-around to. I set my revolver down on the tile floor, searched in the goon’s coat and pulled out the .45 I found inside.

The next two of Frankie’s hitmen came through together, their own handguns blazing. I felt the first goon’s body jump and thrash as their shots pounded into him, and I fired back blindly, aiming for center mass. I sneaked a glance around my involuntary shield’s head, saw one of the goons on the ground and the other clutching his belly, blood spilling through his fingers and splashing onto the bathroom floor like big, red raindrops. I shot him again, this time where it counted, then threw away the .45 and pulled out my SIG, slamming in a spare clip as I crawled out from beneath lover-boy's dead weight.

I stood next to the doorway and listened. Nothing.

“Frankie, what’s the deal here? We going all the way, or what?” I shouted.

“Asshole,” yelled Frankie from somewhere below the front steps. “I got a bullet right here with your name on it, care of your brother, so why don’t you come out and meet it like a man.”

I was about to respond, when four shots came from outside, and I heard the voice of the Gnome say loudly, “Come on out, Wally. You hear me? You’re clear now, limp-dick, so get your happy ass down here on the double.”

XV

Thin Sam and the Gnome were standing by the foot of the stairs looking up at me when I came out of Mattie’s apartment. I still had the SIG in my hand, and they both had their own weapons held loosely at their sides. For a moment we just stared at each other. If I’d cared a little more I might have been concerned they were about to draw down on me, but they didn’t, and I holstered the SIG and sighed and sat down wearily on the top step of the stairs.

The Gnome pocketed his revolver, climbed up the steps and sat down next to me. He pushed up the brim of his hat and whistled through the gap in his front teeth.

“Shit, Wally,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, not knowing what else to add.

Thin Sam shoved his .44 Magnum back into the holster on his belt, walked over to Frankie Two-Fingers and felt for a pulse. He looked at the Gnome and shook his head.

“So, what now?” I asked the Gnome, staring down at the pile of bodies on the sidewalk below.

“What the hell you asking us for?” said the Gnome. “We ain’t cops.”

Thin Sam walked over and leaned against the hood of their black-and-white.

The Gnome cleared his throat, put a hand on my shoulder. “We all heard Frankie say what he said. I mean,” he sniffed, “your own brother--that’s rough, pal. Any way you slice it. But it ain’t exactly like--”

He kept talking, but I tuned him out. The afternoon had turned balmy, and a flock of pigeons flapped by overhead. I could smell cordite and rosemary from the bush near the stairs and I wanted a cigarette, but I hadn’t kept a pack in my coat in years, though I still carried a lighter.

“Anyway,” the Gnome was saying, “Mr. Preston wants to give you one last chance to clean everything up. Do what you gotta do and then leave and all is forgiven.”

I sat for a moment longer and then got up. Sirens were beginning to sound in the distance, and I looked down at the Gnome and raised an eyebrow.

“We got this,” he said, making no move to get up.

I nodded, walked across the street, got into my VW and pulled away from the curb. Thin Sam tossed me a salute as I passed and grinned like dog that had just discovered it could lick its own balls. I gunned the engine and didn’t smile back.

XVI

There was blood on my clothing—some of it mine—and I still had one stop to make before I drove to the Halcyon building, so I ducked into a five and dime on Fillmore, bought a new set of clothes and changed in the men’s room, trying not to gag at the odor drifting over from the stall next to mine. I left my old clothes folded up on the toilet seat, along with my empty ankle holster, and splashed some water on my face before I went back outside.

I decided to leave the VW where I had parked it, and I walked the five blocks to Tasty Lena’s, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.

The small pastry shop was still where I remembered it, and, inside, the Armenian was standing behind the counter, two hundred pounds of muscle and mustache that hadn’t changed the slightest since the last time I’d seen him.

“Walter,” he said, nodding. “What’ll you have?”

I couldn’t remember his name for the life of me, so I ordered two large muffins and a cup of coffee. I ate the muffins and listened to the Armenian talk about his niece who was going to some university back east. The coffee was as good as I remembered it, and, when I’d finished, I handed him my last twenty and asked if I could use his phone. He beamed widely and gestured for me to come behind the counter. A couple of calls later and I had Commissioner Preston’s home number. He answered on the first ring.

“What?” he growled into the phone.

“It’s Walter Hopkins,” I said.

He grunted. “Well? What do you want? Share your feelings? Get a pat on the back, maybe a hand-job? You know what you gotta do.”

“I can’t kill my own brother,” I said.

“Oh for the love of--” I heard him take a deep breath. “He’s gunning for you. You want I should come over, draw you a picture?”

“We need to meet,” I said. “I want answers before I go to Larry.”

“It’s Sunday,” he said. “It’s my fucking day of rest, asshole.”

He grumbled a bit more, but finally agreed to meet me at his home in one hour’s time. I hung up, wrote down the address, thanked the Armenian and left, glad to have the walk back to the car to settle my nerves.

I stuck my hands into the pockets of my new coat, feeling the shoulder holster press against my side. One full clip in the SIG and one spare. Time to go see Larry.

XVII

Two of Larry’s guys stood guard in the lobby of the Halcyon building at all times, usually Red Flannigan or his semi-retarded brother Bud and someone else Larry considered talented yet ultimately expendable. A small army of other guys would roam through the building’s staircases and single elevator, while old Charles Mulligan sat on his stool outside the door to Larry’s penthouse--the same stool he’d sat on all day, every day for nearly twenty years--and polished the stock of his antique, perfectly-maintained Thompson sub-machine gun.

It was the same simple setup that had kept Larry safe during all the years I’d known him, and I could tell as soon as I walked into the lobby that nothing had changed. The organization had plenty of rivals. Every once-in-a-while, one of them--unimpressed with the stories--would take a run at Larry’s penthouse. Even the cops, back under Captain Sullivan, had tried it once. It always ended the same. Larry was untouchable, and if you didn’t believe it you were a goddamned idiot.

As the sliding glass doors rolled shut behind me, I took in Red Flannigan sitting next to the receptionist with his feet propped up on the front counter, reading a copy of National Geographic. There was a small hole in the thick wood paneling below his feet, and I knew that the barrel of his shotgun was poking through it, and that it had been trained on me since the moment I’d walked through the door.

Red finally looked up and his face broke into a grin. “Mr. Hopkins, sir, I figured you for dead years ago, but here you are walking up to me, looking a fine sight and not a day older, not a one. You’ll excuse me while I phone Mr. Hopkins and make sure I don’t have to kill you dead with this here shotgun?”

I nodded and looked around the room while he made the call. If Larry really did want me dead, I didn’t want Red’s scarred, ugly face to be the last thing I saw.

I heard the receiver bang down in its cradle. Red said, “Go on up, Mr. Hopkins, and watch out for Old Mulligan--there’s an even chance Mr. Hopkins will forget to tell him you’re coming.”

I nodded again, walked over to the elevator and pressed the button for the top floor. The doors slid closed and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.

XVIII

The buzzer buzzed and the doors rolled open and I was there. No gunfire, but that didn’t mean very much.

“Hello?” I said loudly.

“Come on out, laddie. They told me you was coming. I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead by now.”

I didn’t feel particularly reassured, but I took the old man at his word and stepped off of the elevator. Charles Mulligan sat on his stool at the end of the long, featureless hallway, hands resting on his knees, machine gun leaning against the wall. “Well, now, Mr. Hopkins,” he said, “can’t say as I’m very glad to see you, all things considered. Me, I was hoping you really had gotten out of the life for good.”

“A marker’s a marker,” I said, without much feeling.

“Aye, laddie, that it is,” chuckled the old man. He shifted position on the stool and stretched and his biceps bulged like he’d just eaten a can of spinach. “Go on in, Mr. Hopkins, your brother’s expecting you. But take my advice, this time when you leave, don’t come back. This city, it’ll be the death of us all.” He yawned and then waggled a thumb over his shoulder. “Inside with you, then.”

I nodded and walked past the old man, then turned, and in one motion pulled the SIG out and shot him in the back of the head, reaching across to catch him as he began to slump forward off the stool. I lowered him gently to the ground, saw the Thompson still standing where he'd leaned up it against the wall.

One shot, seven in the clip, and a lump in my throat.

I opened the door to Larry’s penthouse and went inside, letting it shut behind me with heavy click.

Larry stood staring through the bulletproof glass door that opened out to the veranda. If he’d heard anything through the door, he wasn’t letting me know one way or the other. Finally he turned and looked at me. His face had grown lines since the last time I’d seen him, and the tracksuit he was wearing made his still-powerful physic seem dumpy and impotent. He ran a hand through his greased-back hair.

“You were supposed to do the job and then get outta town,” he said, without preamble.

“Lotta people been standing in the way of my doing just that,” I replied, “and most of them have been pointing guns at me.”

“Yeah, Donnie told me Frankie’d gone rogue. Lousy, two-bit, cock-sucking fuck.”

“Frankie’s dead,” I told him, “so is Donnie. I didn’t kill them, but they’re dead all the same.”

Larry narrowed his eyes.

“Why’d you call in the marker?” I asked.

He looked out the window uncomfortably.

“Something rattled you.” It wasn’t a question.

He turned back toward me and began to chew a fingernail nervously and suddenly I was seven and watching Jay Hopkins beat the living shit outta my kid brother and vowing to myself never to chew my nails when the old man could see, not after watching Larry catch hell for it like he had.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” Larry said finally, bring me back to the present. “Word on the street was, new player named Johnny Alamo was in town, vying for the role of top dog, head snake, king-fucking-pin. Whatever the hell it is that I am, he wanted to be it. And word was he knew my weakness, could get to me whenever he wanted to, had spies in my organization--probably Frankie Fucking Two-Fingers, now that I think about it. I needed someone I could trust--absolutely--to take out his lieutenants and show him I wasn’t afraid of him or anybody else.” He chewed off a hangnail and spit it out. “I wasn’t gonna call in the marker on you. Ever. Not after what you done for me. You deserved your chance. Hell, you deserved to take Mattie with you. Never have been able to wrap my head around why you let that one get away.” He took a deep breath. “I knew things was starting to go south today, and the first sign of it, I had Buddy Flannigan go get Mattie and drive her up to her mother’s house in Marin.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. The damn headache was coming back again. “Johnny à la Mode,” I said quietly, letting my hand fall to my side.

“Say what?”

“You said Johnny Alamo, but his name’s Johnny à la Mode.”

“Huh,” said Larry, “that’s kinda clever. The guys wouldn’t remember it for shit, but it’s like something I might have come up with, maybe told you as a joke.”

“Yeah,” I said, sadly, “exactly like something you might have come up with.”

“Well?” he said, his eyes looking at me almost pleadingly, “what does it mean?”

“It means you were played,” I said, and then I pulled out the SIG and shot Larry twice in the head. He remained standing for a long moment and then dropped to the ground, and a part of myself, a terrible, wretched fucked-up part of myself that still loved my little brother and remembered the way things were when we were growing up together, screamed and screamed and screamed inside my head until it was hoarse and gone and all that was left was Larry, dead on the floor across the room.

One shot, two shots, five left in the clip.

“They did find your weakness, Larry,” I said quietly to the empty room, “it was me.”

XIX

When I got to the Commissioner’s home, the Gnome was waiting for me out front, standing behind the white picket fence.

“You’re late,” he said, “I gotta mark you down tardy.”

“Traffic,” I replied. He opened the gate in the fence for me, said, “After you,” and then followed me inside.

Preston was sitting in an easy chair in his drawing room, holding a glass of scotch. A service revolver sat in his lap. Thin Sam stood by the mantle and grinned at me when I came in.

“Here we are,” said Preston, taking a sip of the scotch. “Happy now?”

I stared at him and didn’t say anything.

“So Lawrence Hopkins is gunning for you and you’re such a big, fat pussy you won’t lift a finger, even to save your own sorry hide?”

“You’re asking me to kill my own brother,” I said. “I can’t do that.”

“I can’t do that,” repeated Preston, mockingly. He laughed. “Liddle pussy bitch doesn’t wanna kill his bwother.”

Thin Sam laughed. The Gnome stayed silent.

“Little pussy bitch doesn’t get a choice in the matter,” said Preston, his voice suddenly hard.

I said, “Because this isn’t about Larry gunning for me.” Preston narrowed his eyes and looked at me with heightened interest. “And neither is this about Johnny à la Mode,” I continued, “but that’s mostly because he doesn’t exist.”

“Well, whoop-de-fucking-do, give that man a cigar. Look everyone, Wally’s finally pulled his head outta his ass and shook some of the shit out of his eyes.”

Thin Sam guffawed, and I saw him mouth ‘limp-dick’ when he thought I wasn’t looking.

“You set up Larry, got him to believe he wasn’t untouchable any more, got him to call in his marker on me. Then you tried to convince me that Larry and Johnny Alamo were both gunning for me.”

“Keep stroking,” said Preston, “I like hearing about how clever I am.”

“Not very clever, considering your plan is falling apart.”

Preston only smiled.

Thin Sam laughed again. “Tell him why you’re smiling, boss,” said Thin Sam. “Tell Pussy Bitch why it don’t matter if he knows.”

Preston’s smile faltered. “Shut up, Sam.”

Sam shut up.

“What Sam’s so indelicately hinting at,” said Preston, all smiles again, “is that I’ve still got my ace in the hole.”

I was sick of banter and my head hurt. “Get on with it.”

“Once I get rid of Lawrence Hopkins, I own this town. I’ve known this for years, and in that time I really did manage to find out your brother’s weakness,” said Preston, self-satisfaction dripping off his words. “His weakness is you. But it’s your weakness that’s even more interesting: your weakness, in turn, is him. He doesn’t know about what did, what you pulled over on him and Donnie all those years ago.” He paused to emphasize his point. “But he’ll find out if anything were to, say, accidentally happen to me. And he’ll sure as hell fucking find out if you don’t kill him for me. Not to mention the fact that you’ll get the needle for all those fuckers you popped earlier today. If you cross me.” His voice had turned cold like scrap iron in a snowstorm. He was speaking so forcefully I expected the paint on the walls to crack. He got up out of the chair, said, “Now get the fuck outta my sight and do what you’re here to do. Kill Larry, and then get the fuck outta my town.”

I stood motionless and let the words fall to the ground and roll around a bit, before I said, “There’s still one problem with your plan.”

Preston smiled. “You’re so smart then, Mr. Big Shot, go ahead and tell me.”

“Larry’s already dead.”

I pulled the SIG and shot him in the face and then shot Thin Sam in the shoulder as he tried to draw his Magnum. He dropped the gun, sat down hard on the ground, and began to reach for the Magnum with his other arm, but I leveled the SIG at his heart, caught his eye, and shook my head slightly. Then, keeping my gun on Thin Sam, I looked over my shoulder at the Gnome.

He was standing motionless, hands out at his sides. I said, “Town’s yours if you want it. Or we can see who’s faster.”

The moment seemed to stretch forever. I thought: one shot, two shots, three in the clip.

Finally the Gnome shook his head. “I’m hungry,” he said, “I want to go home, eat a hamburger, drink a couple beers, maybe jerk off to a porno and call it a night. Far as I’m concerned, we’re square. That goes for Sam too,” he said, and he walked over and picked up Sam’s .44, handing it to me butt-first. Then he offered me his hand and, after a moment, I shook it.

“What’s your name, anyway?” I asked.

The Gnome snorted. “Said I don’t have a beef with you. Doesn’t mean I want you to take me to a movie, buy me dinner.”

I smiled wanly, turned around and walked out the front door and down the path, closing the gate to the white picket fence behind me.

XX

Later that night, when I finally got home, Sharon was standing on the front porch, waiting for me and smoking a cigarette. Or maybe it was just the latter, I don't know. I climbed out of the VW, leaving the door unlocked, and started up the steps and she said, “You promised me you’d never go back to San Francisco.”

“And you promised me until death do us part," I replied. "Some things don’t work out the way we’d like.”

She looked chagrined. “I really did love you,” she said. “Not just for what you did.”

“I know,” I said. “For a while there, we both even loved each other.” I hugged her briefly, unlatched the screen door, and went inside.

The End

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