by Matthew Duffus
Jamison Corey had finished plating the last of the trout he’d purchased that morning when his youngest waitress intercepted him at the pass with her mouth twisted to one side. He didn’t wait for her to speak. “Order up! Table seven.”
“Did you make a special without telling us?” She picked at a cuticle in a way he’d told her not to.
“We went through the entire menu. As always.” He shuffled past her to check his sous chef’s compote. It had been runny all night.
“The loner at four says he wants something called a Mickey Special?”
If he’d been holding a plate, it would have fallen from his hand and shattered against the unforgiving concrete floor. He breathed deeply, fighting back the scowl that sought to crease his face.
“Let me take care of something. Then I’ll deal with the loner.” He could feel her eyes on his back and waved her away. “Table seven, remember?”
Once she’d left, Corey turned to see if the sous chef had noticed the conversation. He hadn’t. He was high most of the time, but he was the best help north of the Twin Cities, so Corey put up with the spaciness. The compote was runny, he noticed, but he didn’t have time to deal with it. Instead, he walked into his office, spun the dial on the safe beneath the desk, and removed the Sig Sauer and ten-thousand dollars he kept for emergencies. He slipped the gun beneath his chef’s whites, trapping it between the small of his back and the waistband of his checkered pants. Then he crammed the pack of bills in a hip pocket and steadied himself before heading into the kitchen.
“Yo, Pete,” he called to his second-in-command, trying to sound as casual as possible. “You’re in charge. I have to do a thing.”
Pete lifted his chin in response and went back to the greens he was drizzling with balsamic.
Out the back door, the air was crisp, fall already settling in so far north, but he couldn’t pause to enjoy the scenery, as he often did. His restaurant sat directly on the water, the dining room suspended on posts that were sunk into the waters of Lake Superior. He headed for his car, in the unlit back lot. The staff had asked him to illuminate it, but he’d refused so far. His margins were tight enough that any unnecessary expense would hurt.
A voice called out of the darkness, “You’re not going to get that Michelin star if you run out on your customers.”
It was so dark he considered reaching for the gun, but curiosity got the better of him. “How’d you find me?”
“Don’t sound so excited.” A familiar shape materialized out of the gloom, standing between him and the car, an old two-door that he wasn’t sure would have gotten him very far but would still have been better than being gunned down in his own parking lot. The man was six-five, with the shoulders of an Olympic swimmer. Difficult to mistake even in the dark. “Why don’t we go back inside so you can fix me that special? It’s been years since I had a good Philly Cheese Steak.”
“Sure. I’ll just introduce you to everyone as my long-lost-whatever.”
“And we can talk about the books. You must be doing pretty well for yourself, based on the write-ups.” The man clapped a hand on his shoulder and added, “Amazing what you can learn with a library card these days.”
“The books are my business.” As much as he’d feared this day might come, he wasn’t about to roll over and take what he had coming.
“Partners, remember? I figure I’m in for quite a windfall.”
“I’m not going to lie to you,” his uninvited guest said, his voice trailing off as he looked out the dining room window at Lake Superior. The man had gone by many names over the years, but Corey knew him as Rick Assenbacher, which he’d been surprised to find out was his actual legal name. Even with all of the fake IDs and manufactured backstories, he’d been trusting enough to tell some people the truth. He pushed the remaining dill tartar from his Canadian walleye around the plate, the tines of the fork scraping against the most expensive china Corey had been able to afford. Once Rick had tasted the dribble of sauce he’d collected, he continued. “I’m not loving the bald look.”
Instinctively, Corey ran a hand over his head. He’d shaved it before he’d moved north, not due to hair loss but for a fresh start. When he’d left Florida, he’d wanted to leave that life behind as well. An old waitress had told him he looked like an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe she’d seen on a TV special.
Rick was his opposite, making them look like a comic pairing out of the vaudeville era. His widow’s peak dipped close to his forehead and a thick gray beard covered his face and most of his neck, creating a wolfman effect that made Corey as uncomfortable as the big man’s very presence.
The dining room and kitchen were closed, the two of them the lone remaining occupants. He’d kept Rick tucked away in his office until closing, when he’d hustled the staff out of the building as quickly as possible without anyone growing suspicious. He had owned the place for nine years, ever since he’d arrived in town, and for the first time in that period, he felt his grip slipping.
The room’s prize tables were situated a few feet beyond the shoreline. They were all two-seaters, designed for couples. Corey had led Rick to one of the larger tables closer to the kitchen, the opposite of the cozy, romantic atmosphere that was as responsible for the restaurant’s reputation as the food.
Rick was clearly savoring his discomfort. The man must have had something on his mind but took his time revealing it. “This is good, but the Mickey Special is better.”
“I don’t go by that anymore.”
“So put it on the menu and say it’s named after somebody else.” He pushed the plate away from him and leaned back, posing as the sated bon vivant. “Cheesesteaks are probably too simple for you now. You change the menu every night, so everything is special.”
“I’m touched by your knowledge.”
“Like I said, library cards are the gateway to the information superhighway.”
“Nobody calls it that anymore.”
“I’ve been out of commission for a while.” Rick stared at him long enough that tension filled the air between them, but Corey refused to look away. Finally, they broke eye contact at virtually the same time.
“You want to tell me why you’re here? Or is this just a shakedown.”
Rick waved a hand toward the window across the room as though he was one of the women on a prize show revealing the latest wares to a contestant. His arm was long enough Corey ducked as it swept over him. “Needed a change of scenery.”
“They’ve got even more water in Florida.”
“No hurricanes up this way. And I haven’t seen snow in I can’t remember how long.”
Corey made a fist in his lap. Even so far north, they were a month away from snow. Rick couldn’t possibly intend to stay that long.
His old partner smiled. “I’m messing with you. If I stay that long, I’ll turn into Jack Nicholson in that movie.”
Rick made a gun with his fingers, pointed it at him, and pulled the imaginary trigger. “You always did know what I was thinking.”
“It’s a bit of a classic.”
“We made a great team.”
Corey tapped his fist against his thigh and tried to breathe. He’d been meditating for years, but he still needed reminders.
“My question still stands.”
“I knew this guy down south who talked like you. He didn’t do well in that environment.”
“Since I never had a problem down south, I assume you mean Dade CI. That’s your last known address, I take it.”
Rick glared at him again. He’d been a master of such a look back in the day, which had made their jobs much easier in tandem with his size.
“And here we were having a friendly chat.”
He ignored the way Rick had squared his shoulders. He was just over six-foot himself, but he knew from past experience that he could hold his own no matter his opponent’s size. Of course he’d never gone up against the big man.
“Does your parole officer know you’re two-thousand miles from Miami?”
“Slow down,” Rick said. “I haven’t had dessert yet.”
“We’re all out. It was half-priced wine night.” He shrugged. “We were busy.”
“Didn’t look like it when I got here. Maybe business isn’t as great as I thought.”
He ignored the comment and picked up the plate and silverware and began to rise.
“You going somewhere?”
“As much as I’ve missed your repartee, I’ve got a meeting with my supplier in the morning. I can’t just sit here and banter with you all night.”
He knew his mistake as soon as the other man stood up. His hands were full, and he wasn’t about to drop his decent china. Rick grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around, bracing him against the table. He pushed Corey’s head to the tablecloth and reached beneath his chef’s coat. Corey had grown soft. Over the course of their conversation, he’d forgotten the gun was there. Somehow, Rick knew. He pulled it out and brandished it at Corey as he returned to his full height.
“This isn’t very neighborly.”
“Old habits…” He could still feel the tablecloth’s texture against his cheek.
Rick waved the gun around the room. “Leave the plate and get us a bottle of whisky. Nothing from the well. The good stuff.”
Corey walked to the bar, calculating how quickly he could make it to the door. Not fast enough to avoid getting shot in the back, assuming Rick was as good as he used to be. It was clear he, Corey, was not.
He returned with the bottle and two glasses, knowing Rick would send him back for a second one if he didn’t bring a glass for each of them. Rick was generous with other people’s possessions. Plus he’d never liked to drink alone.
The gun sat on the tablecloth next to Rick, opposite his whisky glass, the two positioned like a table setting.
“I never understood why you assumed you were smarter than me.”
“How would your PO feel about you sitting in such proximity to that piece?”
“My PO and I aren’t currently on speaking terms.” He swirled the whisky around his glass appreciatively. Then he took a sip, all with his left hand, keeping his right free just in case. “I worked my ass off finding you,” he said. “And this is how you greet me?”
“Like I said, old habits.”
Rick smiled, a flash of white amid his thick beard. Back in the day, he’d been clean shaven, always, sometimes shaving twice a day owing to how quickly his stubble grew. Now, he’d fit in with all the hikers from the Cities who arrived to take in the Boundary Waters. Maybe that was his goal, Corey thought.
“What if I’m just here to relive old times?”
Corey remembered the last time he’d said something like this. They’d gone to see an old friend who conveniently brokered diamonds, not that Rick had told him so ahead of time. Corey had never liked guns, current circumstances notwithstanding, and only Rick had been packing. Good thing, too, he had to admit, because the minute they walked in the door, the broker went for the piece beneath the counter. Some old friend.
“I don’t do old times.” He remembered the way the broker’s head had snapped back after Rick fired, the bull’s eye he’d hit even more effortlessly than he did the one on the dartboard at their favorite dive.
Rick stood up, gathered the gun and glass, and headed across the room. He tested the water coming out of the bar faucet and, when he was satisfied, added a trickle to his glass. All of this happened with practiced precision, just like the old days, when Corey used to marvel at Rick’s poise. Grace under fire.
“I’m not a lightweight,” he said once he’d sat down. “Did time with a guy who taught me this. Improves the flavor profile, he said.”
“Sounds more like finishing school than prison.”
Rick took a sip. “Damn if he wasn’t right. You should try it.” He sipped again, made a show of smacking his lips and nodding to himself, satisfied that he’d made his point.
“You’re damn testy for a man who brought nothing but whisky to a gunfight.”
“I seem to recall being better prepared a few minutes ago.”
“And now you’re not.” Rick rubbed a hand against the tablecloth, the sound of his calloused palms catching against the material louder than the soothing murmur of the lake outside. “I’m just playing,” he said. “This is no fight.”
When he didn’t respond, Rick said, “Do you ever lighten up?”
He thought about the day he’d been having until ninety minutes prior. Checking deliveries, finalizing the menu, cooking the staff meal. He liked that best. The opportunity to show off before everyone as they watched him prepare that night’s specials. He knew he didn’t need to do this, didn’t have to emphasize fresh ingredients the way he did, but he’d spent two decades dreaming of this place, and he wanted to do it right. The longer Rick was around, the more he feared the dream would come crashing down on top of him.
“I haven’t located Benny and Dre yet,” Rick said, “but once the crew is back together, I’ve got plans.”
“We haven’t been a crew in—”
“Eight years, two months, and five days.” Rick raised his glass but returned it to the table without taking a sip. “You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”
“So you were etching the days on your cell wall? That’s a lot of hash marks.”
Rick stared back at him.
“You think we’re going to pick up where we left off?”
“You owe me.”
Corey reached for his pocket, and Rick responded by going for the gun. He thumbed the safety and leveled it on the chef so quickly Corey could tell he’d been practicing since he got out. Corey reached into his pocket slowly, deliberately, pulled out the ten-grand, and dropped it on the table between them. “Here’s my payout. I’m done.”
Rick returned the gun to its less lethal position, safety still off, and flipped through the stack of bills with his left hand. “This should cover the entry fee for what I’ve got in mind.”
“It’s not an investment.”
“You really think this pays off your debt?”
“Call it a gift,” Corey said. “I don’t owe you anything.”
Rick drained the rest of his glass and leaned forward, blocking the rest of the room from Corey’s view. He weighed at least two-thirty by the looks of it, owing to the weights he’d lifted during his mandatory vacation. Their crew had dealt with bigger men, but none who could withstand the punishment he could deliver. The dumb ones went for the big man first, assuming if they overpowered him, Corey, Benny, and Dre would turn tail. But while those guys got their asses handed to them by Rick, the other three took care of the stragglers and collected what they felt they had coming to them. They were angry at the world back then, confident that it owed them something. They weren’t Robin Hoods, exactly, unless they thought of it as stealing from the rich to give to themselves, the poor. Somewhere along the way, they, too, became the rich. But by then, it was too late. They were hooked on the action.
“Criminal trials are expensive,” Rick said. “It gives those little ADAs a hard-on just thinking about busting people like us. And the government is dying to seize ill-gotten assets. Public defenders aren’t worth shit, so if it wasn’t for Benny and Dre, I’d still be in prison. They made sure I had a halfway decent lawyer. You, on the other hand. I don’t remember seeing you around.”
He pretended to take a sip, letting the whisky wash against his closed lips and slide back into the glass. Rick was right. He’d taken off as soon as he’d heard about the arrest. Hadn’t bothered packing. He’d simply cleared out his safety deposit box and hit the road. Bought a used car for cash as soon as he reached the Georgia state line, figuring he’d be better off with tags that didn’t say Sunshine State on them.
“You would have done the same,” he said.
Rick smiled. “Sometimes it helps having dummies like them around. Loyalty before brains.”
But neither Benny nor Dre had been the problem that last time. A gang of morons had shorted them for some merchandise they’d procured, and Rick wouldn’t let it go. He stewed so long the bikers forgot all about them. When the big man arrived on his own, they didn’t expect any trouble, given their numbers. Four of them ended up in the hospital, including the confidential informant who testified about the entire episode and got Rick put away. Corey figured Benny and Dre had covered the fees as penitence for not being with him that night to put a more decisive end to their partner’s quest for justice. As for Corey, he had viewed the rip-off as the cost of doing business with criminals. Those bikers were so low on the food chain he wouldn’t have gone with Rick if he’d asked. The big man’s hubris had kept him from asking, and without backup, not even he could accomplish what he’d set out to do.
Corey looked down at the glass before him, with a good ten dollars worth of whisky in it. Rick knew booze, as he did, and Corey had known better than to try to pass off anything second-rate. He preferred to drink it straight, though. The burn made the alcohol taste that much better.
“I’m here to collect payment for services you failed to render,” Rick said. “You’re eight years in arrears.”
He nodded. “I learned a lot in prison.”
Corey had taken his time heading north. He’d spent weeks on the road, eyes fixed on the rear view mirror. He hadn’t contacted anyone from what he already considered to be the old life. Beyond exchanges with cashiers and hotel clerks, he spoke to almost no one. In Minnesota, he spent two weeks in St. Paul, another five days in Duluth, waiting for—he didn’t know what, exactly. He only knew he didn’t want to fuck up and have to run again. He was through running.
“I forgot how broody you get,” Rick said.
“Helped me figure out the angles.”
“I’ll give you that.” The big man poured enough to cover the bottom of the glass and drank it without adding water. “I won’t pretend like I’m giving you a choice,” he said. “This isn’t an are-you-in-or-aren’t-you conversation. This is a call to action.”
Corey heard something outside and looked toward the window. This time of night, he assumed it was an owl on the hunt, but it startled him nonetheless. He hadn’t been that jumpy in years. But when Rick looked in that direction as well, muscle memory took over. In one motion, Corey grabbed the whisky bottle, swung, and connected with Rick’s face. The bottle made a wet smacking sound against Rick’s broad nose, which gave way before he toppled over, his chair tipping backward and hitting the floor. The table wobbled from the weight of the big man going down. Before Rick could so much as cry out, Corey was up, the Sig in his hand. He didn’t hesitate. He leveled it and fired at Rick’s chest, twice. He figured the bottle had done enough damage that he might have bled out, but he was enough of a bull that he could have inflicted plenty of damage before that happened. The gun was the best insurance policy against risk.
Corey dropped back into his chair once he was sure Rick was dead. He poured the rest of his whisky glass down his throat. The burn really was worth it. So much blood, he thought. If only they’d all leave him alone. Checking his watch, he noted that the staff would begin arriving in less than six hours. Not much time for a job this size. He pulled out his phone and dialed a number he’d never needed to save in his contacts. While it rang, he looked at the ten grand in the middle of the table. Flecks of blood had spattered the top bill, ending just before Franklin’s picture, as if out of respect. He removed that one and dropped it on the table, knowing from experience that the droplets wouldn’t have seeped below it. He pocketed the rest for later.
A groggy voice answered, asking what the fuck he wanted.
“You better bring your boys,” Corey said, not bothering to offer any details. “I’ve got another mess that needs cleaning up.”
Bio: Matthew Duffus is the author of the literary novel Swapping Purples for Yellows and story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories. He is currently Writing Center director at Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana, and is actively seeking representation for his first mystery novel.
Read more organized crime stories on The Yard: Crime Blog.