I snap awake with a jolt. Urgency crawling through my brain. I’m halfway out of my damp and twisted sheets before I realise who it is, but by then the door is already swinging open.
Salvatore Colisetta looms like a debt collector in a three piece suit that looks like it costs more than a month’s rent. Sally’s skin tone tells the story of a bloodline that runs all the way back to the boot. He walks in without an invitation.
I don’t so much step back to accommodate him so much as he shoulders past me, stopping just enough inside my apartment for me to close the door. His eyes don’t know where to settle and I watch him grimace as they first try the pile of dishes in the sink, then the rumpled afgan on the sofa, and finally on me. The last one seems to affect him the most.
“Sally Calls. I haven’t put the coffee on but your welcome to-”
“I want nothing from you.” His English isn’t the best but he’s got the habit of butting in down pat. I brace myself. I can still feel the vibration of last night's whiskey humming between my temples. Whatever Sally’s got to say it better not be important. There’s no guarantee I’ll remember his visit when I wake up from sleeping it off.
He doesn’t make me wait long before he fills the air with his sombre baritone.
“Boss got a job for you. Payphone, Fisher and Main, 1am.” My heart sinks with each new detail spewed from this foreigner’s lips. My clears enough to recognize I’m being hauled around by the nose again. My stomach lurches. I shut my eyes against the golden light streaming through the living room and swallow. When I open them Sally’s smiling at me, taking pleasure in how helpless I am. A shaking little mouse in its nest.
“How much longer am I going to have to do this?” My question is meant to be angry, but it comes out as a pathetic wheeze. Sally just looks at me like that should be answer enough. Satisfied, he does a slick about face on his wingtip and pats the side of his head to keep his pomade slick hair in place.
He takes one last look around as if he can’t wait to tell the guys back at the Starlight Club what kind of a box their pet P.I lives in. I slam the door at his back, it’s the most aggressive thing I can do.
The sun’s moved to the foot of my bed when someone else decides to have a round at my front door. This time it’s not an oil slick soldier from The Outfit, but a sweaty kid in a courier’s uniform holding an envelope.
I haven’t seen Harry in months. He was sore when he rode the rails out of town and sounds just as sore through the telegram. Three crisp knocks at my apartment door rouse me from the couch and bring me face to face with a kid no older than sixteen. His breath reeks, like he’s been popping certs all morning. The stink reminds me of gin and I have to focus hard on the black ink contrasted to the telegraph’s yellow paper. I read that Harry’s in town and wants to talk. After all this time he wants to bury the hatchet. Though I can’t be sure he doesn’t want to do it in the base of my skull.
Of course I’ve tried to write to him. What kind of friend would I be if I hadn’t? I’d sit in front of my old Remington mashing letters in a half hearted attempt to get my thoughts across. My page was stiff with liquid paper before I resorted to a fresh sheet and a #2 pencil. Whether it was typed or my own shaky hand I could never think of the right words. So I said nothing at all.
I get to Nancy’s around 4:00pm and take my usual booth. The coffee tastes like it was brewed while Sally Calls was playing errand boy for his boss, so I pour a little bourbon in for a kick. My eyes wander the isles of faded orange polyurethane. Somewhere in the labyrinth of booths Nancy stalks with an eye for what she calls “unreputables.” The old buzzard had roused me from a doze a few times, demanding I pay for something or make tracks, so I guess I earned the stink eye she shoots me. If she wanted to give me the boot for improving the house blend then she could go right ahead, I preferred Hogan’s Place anyway. I add a few more nips to the engine oil in my mug and check my watch.
When the bell on the door jangles I know it’s Harry. He was always trying to throw his weight around and he steps too hard into the glass and more than a few eyes look up from the special of the day. Harry brings the October chill with him and goosebumps race each other across my back. He squeaks across the wet linoleum and a pair of leather oxfords in my vision announce his presence. Water drips from his coat while he tries to figure out if the lump keeping the booth warm is the man he used to know.
It’s not the words, so much as the way he says them. That same haughty tone like I’m wasting his time already. Even though he called on me. I trace a line from the puddle at his feet to his eyes. My neck feels ancient, my head stuffed. Harry Clemens stands in a wool coat cinched at the waist and a scarf caressing the exposed skin of his freshly shaven neck. He pulls off his leather gloves a finger at a time and in one absurd second I think he’s going to swipe me across the face with them. He slaps them on the table in a heap and sits down snapping twice. I smile. Every regular knows Nancy gets to you when she wants to, if she wants to.
“Something funny?” Harry asks, his tone still as cold as the air he’d walked in with.
“You’ve been gone a long time.” I smirk around my coffee mug. The bourbon makes me bold. What I would give to feel like this when that slick gangster oozed into my house. I wonder what Harry feels so pissy about, and if he’s called me down here just to pout.
Nancy strolls over with her pen and pad. “What’ll it be, stretch?” she rasps.
“I’ll get a cup of coffee, fresh pot. If that’s not too much to ask.” Harry looks like money, and I’m betting the old lady thinks if she holds her tongue she’ll get a decent tip. The only sound from her is her light pink chiffon whispering against her strides.
“Pretty tough on her.” I said
“Coffee looks like engine oil, and I can smell the hooch from here. She doesn’t think much of you.” Harry replied. His eyes finish though who would.
“Guess you’re guilty by association.”
“Yeah. you get that a lot, huh?”
That stings. In the echo of a distant memory I hear a gravel coated voice say “next time keep your eyes to yourself.” Then she starts screaming. I grip my coffee mug tighter, gulp the booze faster, and feel the memory slither back to the recesses where it came from.
Time stretches on as I try to read Harry’s hollowed eyes and gaunt cheekbones. I wait for the penny to drop.
Nancy brings Harry’s coffee and I watch the steam against his charcoal grey coat. Finally I balk. “What do you want Harry, did you call me down here to pout or to throw your good fortune in my face?”
“Is that what I’m doing?” It was Harry’s turn to smile around his mug.
“What? You want me to apologize, is that it?”
“What could you possibly have to feel sorry about?” His mock shock pisses me off, but the light of enjoyment I read in his eyes infuriates me. I slam my fist into the table, drawing stares. Chief among them being the head buzzard herself. “So this is about Louise. Look Harry, She knew what she was doing and she made every choice on her own accord, so you're out of your mind if you think I’m apologizing.”
“You saw what she was doing and you did nothing!” Harry’s coffee sloshes out of the mug and dribbles onto the glossy tabletop. “You call yourself a man?” Harry continues “You had a responsibility, I trusted you with that!”
“You want to talk about responsibility? YOU. LEFT. Harry, you left everything you held dear to chase some pipe dream down the tracks and now you want to come back here because why? What? Because you feel guilty? You should, you earned that guilt pal.”
Harry surprises me by leaning back in the booth and letting out a bark of laughter.
“Guilt? Guilt?! You know you’ve got some nerve Slate, why the hell should I feel guilty? You’re the reason she ended up dead!”
The smack is loud in the silence of the diner. Our argument suffocates the life out of any other conversation. I don’t have enough time to get a decent wind up, but the punch connects. Pain ripples through my hand, up my arm, and just about to my jaw, but by god is it satisfying.
Nancy is on us before Harry can sit up. “That tears it! I shoulda thrown you out when I laid eyes on you, you old souse. Hit the bricks before you get any more blood on my floor.” Harry stands up and I'm happy to see him wobble. I return his hate filled stare. So much for burying the hatchet. He’ll die of old age before he hears an apology from me. He makes a production of paying for his coffee with money from a surprisingly scant wallet. He utters one word.
I don’t remember if any words were said, or who swung first. All I remember is putting every ounce of anger behind my right hand and stepping in. One of us spills blood on the concrete. The next memory I have is Harry driving his fist into my cheek and my vision erupting like a flash.
I see her then. For a split second Louise is in the alley with us. She looks at me with those brown eyes and a fresh crack ripples down my heart.
I wrap my left hand into Harry’s lapels. The stupid fox fur around his collar is matted and slick in the grey light of the afternoon. I feed him another right before he drives his foot into mine.
He cuffs my ear. My vision blurs. More blood hits the asphalt, this time mixed with fat drops of rain. I hear thunder I think, but it be the trash cans Harry throws me into. I don’t know if I black out or not but the next thing I remember is Harry breathing the stench of coffee and blood on me.
“Listen to me good, Percy. Your opinion doesn’t mean shit to me. You owe me and I’m here to collect. You’ve got twenty four hours to get your affairs in order and then I’m coming for you. Don’t mistake my courtesy for kindness. It’s what Louise would want me to do. And don’t even think of leaving town. I’ve still got enough cops in my pocket and I won’t hesitate to get a squad of head crackers to drag you out of that shitbox apartment and toss you in a cell if I don’t see you on that platform. One day Slate, and dry yourself out.”
“I don’t owe you shit.” It was hard to talk with swollen lips but I think Harry got the idea since he rings my bell once more for good measure.
“Twenty four hours. 8:00am to Peterborough. A train car or a jail cell, your choice murderer.”
Harry lets me go and I drop to a heap alongside Nancy’s day old donuts and coffee filters. Above me the world speeds on like a runaway locomotive and I lay half drowned in the rain.
It’s the smell more than anything that gets me up. That earthen stench of old coffee and diner trash.
In my pocket I find a few lonely nickles. It’s no fortune, but it’s enough for a short glass of something brown at Hogan’s Place. My feet find the route to my old haunt and the clouds slap a few more raindrops on my back like an old pal.