I found the dead girl by accident. One vibrant green eye turned pastel from the muted gloss of suicide. Her stare held an indifference that I envied. For a second I wondered if this was part of Mickey’s plan, or some bizarre set up. I panned across the houses and found my target three doors down. I centred the crosshairs on the breast pocket of his Arnold Palmer polo and tried to keep my hands from shaking. My finger began its slow squeeze on the trigger and I wondered what killing the most powerful man in town would mean for me. I had ten minutes to figure it out. I thought back to the beginning of it all, and to what I knew for sure.
I thought I had it all. Wife, kid, a decent place in suburbia. Everything you were supposed to have by the time you were thirty, and I was knocking on the door of 29. As far as I was concerned I was ahead of the game. The last thing I needed to open that fabled gateway to “true happiness” was a dream job, and I was going through police training on track to be a constable by the end of the summer. I couldn’t make a living on the poker circuit so I went for my other passion, donning a uniform and joining the thin blue line.
One Tuesday I went for lunch with Lance, a fellow cadet who loved hot wings and wanted to become a police officer for the same reason I did: when we played cops and robbers as kids, the kids with the badge always won. He’d grown up on the same movies I had: Heat, Donnie Brasko, Serpico. We practiced our best Pachino while driving to the Second Round and kidded ourselves on how hardcore it would be to go undercover.
The Second Round Bar and Grill was owned by Carlyle Frenco. Everyone in town joked it was a mob hang and maybe they were right. Lance and I wanted to see for ourselves, to show our ‘surveillance potential’ to the rest of the cadets. We went every lunch hour during training. Trading our police issue T's for plainclothes we went in trying to spot some pudgy dudes in tracksuits talking about how much they boosted from a cargo shipment like it would be that easy. The place was always next to empty when we went there. Except for one table full of guys who seemed to have nothing better to do but play cards and bullshit on a weekday afternoon. They weren’t wearing tracksuits, but they stuck out like wiseguys to me. Lance wasn’t convinced.
“Come on man, they look like a table full of grampas out before the home wrangles them back for supper at 4 pm.”
“Haven’t you read any books?" I asked him. "Guys who iced Jimmy Hoffa looked just like grampas, it’s how they blend in.” I was sure of it. Lance waved me off and pretended to look over the menu, but I saw his eyes flick over to them a few times.
I thought I was sneaky enough hiding behind a menu pretending to examine the wing flavours all the while listening as if they’d discuss the latest robbery or murder right there over the complimentary bread. I was doing well (at least I thought I was) until one of the so called grampas whistled through his teeth and asked if I needed a seeing-eye dog. The guy was Mickey Deluca, and when he turned his bulk in the booth the vinyl exhaled air like a runner with a stitch. He eyed me suspiciously before his gaze softened and he invited us to play. I lit up. Lance blanched and said he had to piss. From the way the colour leaked out of him I was surprised it didn’t rush out of him right there. Maybe he wasn’t built for undercover work after all. I thought of his weak Pachino impression and figured maybe he was better suited behind a desk. Let him go hide and empty his wee-wee, one day I’d be his boss.
The guys made room in the booth. One of them with a hearing aid in a Tommy Bahama button-up asked if I had ante to be big blind. I felt 7 sets of eyes turn to me. I should have recognized the look wolves give mutton.
I’d brought in most of mine and Samantha’s down payment for the house from a lucky flop playing casino poker down south, so when I saw they were playing Hold’em I took it as my good luck. It had been a while since I played, but I had some practice bluffing boomers out of their pensions during Stu Bringham’s neighbourhood poker night.
This table full of balding men looked on par with the neighbourhood guys. They had crows feet and wore chunky New Balance sneakers. I didn’t see any of the smarmy charms of Robert De Nero or Joe Pesci. Up close they were more Grumpy Old Men than Goodfellas. I told them I’d play one hand. I meant it, despite the familiar drop of excitement in my stomach.
I won three hands in a row. I was getting the cards and when I didn’t have pocket kings I caught a break on the river. I was playing the game of my life but I was also sponging everything I could from these guys: names they talked about (mostly nicknames.) Places they went (Mickey mentioned a home ‘up north’ a lot.) A few of them asked about me but nothing more than where I grew up and who my dad was.
I matched the bravado and ball-breaking, getting jabs in where I could. I was living my dream of working undercover. I felt a rush that the card table couldn't hold a candle to. I felt like I had the power to end any one of these guys while I took their money hand over fist. I felt like laughing in their faces.
Lance appeared from the men’s room looking a little less like death warmed over. I wanted that to be my big exit, to leave in a flurry of cash and rub it in Lance’s face that at least one of us had what it took to hold our shit together in front of the city’s criminal element. But when I tried to leave the guys around the card table spit vowel sounds and curses at me. Lance asked if I was ready to go and the guy in the palm tree button-up told him where to go and how fast to get there.
They wanted to try and win some of their money back. I told Lance to take the car and grab us a 2-4, that I felt like celebrating my big win that night. I was cocky, and why not? I was on a hot streak. If this table full of geezers wanted to go home empty-handed with their egos bruised, Let ‘em. So I pushed my luck. I should have seen the con from a mile away.
At the time I blamed Lance. I figured somehow his leaving the bathroom had screwed up my luck. I lost one hand, and then two more. I got out bluffed by a guy in bifocals for God's sake! I got mad and bet big, looking back on it that was when my luck actually ran out. When my piddly leather wallet had emptied all of my piddly little paychecks, Mickey threw his arm around my shoulders and told me he liked me, that I had balls. He said I could pay him back, then he explained how the interest worked. I had a credit card, I knew how that hook worked. I told him I didn’t get paid for another two weeks. He told me that didn’t matter with that same smirk he’d been wearing since I started losing.
When I left the Second Round I was into him for a thousand dollars, with the interest starting as soon as my Nikes touched the parking lot. When Lance pulled up in my used Buick with 2pac blasting he told me he got some premium pilsner since I seemed like I was winning. When he told me what I owed for my half of the beer it was my turn to blanche.
On Wednesday Mickey called my house. He didn’t answer me when I asked how he found my number. He answered my question with one of his own, his voice void of the jovial camaraderie reserved for the card table. He asked me where his money was. I told him I didn’t have it. He asked me if he should go to Lyla’s public school for the cash. When he said my daughter’s name, terror leaked into my gut like I'd been shot. His message was loud and clear: Mickey could get to my family anytime he wanted. So Mickey Deluca had me make a choice, either he makes a couple of phone calls and a carload of guys comes over to collect, or I do something for him.
"And you can forget about calling your little pocket pool pal there. No point in getting any cops involved, even ones in training pants." I didn't bother asking him how he knew, the important thing was that he did. He gave me an address. He said there was a payphone there that I should call him from that Saturday night, that is if I didn't want anything to happen to Lyla or Samantha.
To Be Continued. . .