In the records of about six construction companies (and Frenco Ironworks) Mickey Deluca’s name had “Independent Consultant” next to it. What the records don’t say is that anyone who doesn’t want Mickey’s particular brand of consultation finds the occurrence of accidents in the workplace increase almost over night. When these companies came to their senses and brought him in as project consultant Mickey would squeeze money from wherever he could and kick it all the way up to the top of the Frenco crime family. What pissed Mickey off weekly, he told me, was the amount of money that left his hands and went into those of Carlyle Frenco.
“I’m tired of his getting rich off the blood and sweat of my labour, and I’m gunna do something about it. Or, that is, YOU’RE gunna do something about it. Mickey ran a card game out of a housing development being built on the west side of the city. I stood in the sweltering phone booth on Saturday while He told me his game was going to be robbed at 8:00pm. In the ensuing chaos I was to put a bullet in Carlyle Frenco, Mickey's boss. This, he assured me, would clear my debt.
* * *
Later I drove through a cookie-cutter copy of our neighbourhood. This one had different kids jumping through different sprinklers and dodging Super Soaker blasts, but it still made me homesick the night of catch and cold beer I left behind.
Mickey gave me directions to a new build sitting on top of a hill. He said everything I’d need was in the master bedroom. I parked my Toyota in the shell of a garage and walked through the beam and joist bones of the house. I felt the sweat collect on my forehead as I climbed the stairs. In the bedroom I found a Remington Model 700 with a Nikon scope fitted to the rail like some bulbous tumour. I was familiar enough with it to check the clip and chamber a round, my right hand sliding the bolt with practiced ease. my heartbeat thunderous in the silence of the house.
I sighted the cul de sac below. Mickey's directions had been brief. I felt his nervousness at talking over the phone reverberate in every jowly syllable he muttered. He told me to look for the place with the green siding, but either forgot or withheld that two of them had green siding; more signs of the speed of suburban progress. I peered through the scope into the first one I saw, and that’s how I found the dead girl
She had blown a portion of her cheekbone away. The gun still loosely gripped in her right hand. The late evening sun glinting off the smooth unblemished steel of the slide. The house had a picture window where a small greenbelt held witness to her final moments. I wondered if she reflected on the fate she shared with the tiny swath of trees being eroded by the progress of the excavators. Her shadow languidly stretched under a coffee table where a suicide note in her smudged writing slanted away from the holes. Was it a subconscious cry for help? The aversion to things punched through.
A shadow slipped over the top of hers and a brunette girl entered suddenly. She was dressed in denim cut-off shorts, a tank top, and sunglasses pushed into a makeshift hairband. Though her clothes were more off the rack than her blonde friend’s expensive taste.
The brunette took in the scene, her features blending sorrow with fear. She let out a wail and I was grateful not to hear its lonesome desperation. She dropped her purse and rifled through it for her phone. My stomach knotted at the thought of the police showing up. Her head suddenly snapped up as she heard something. Recognition rippled through her features. She began frantically pointing at the dead girl. A guy in cargo shorts and a navy blue button-up stopped short at the crime scene. His eyes were wide.
Google taught me how to read lips. I decided it would be a handy skill to have while I underwent my self-appointed training to go undercover, but until then all it had done was help me win bets made with my classmates. Gwen was the victim. The guy, Rick or Nick, hunched to look under the coffee table at her. He looked up at the brunette to answer a question, nodding. I watched her lips closely, it was Nick for sure. When he looked back at Gwen, I didn't need to read lips to know Nick was livid.
It was 7:52 pm.
The brunette, Lucy, insisted they call the police while Nick kept repeating they needed to think and to call her family first. I didn’t like the way he kept looking at Gwen. His eyes were crawling over her body from her painted toes to the hand holding the gun. Her matching nail polish chipped, bitten, and broken. There was something accusatory in his stare.
It was 7:55 pm. At Mickey’s place cigarette smoke hung suspended at the ceiling fan while the guys played the river and the flop. I recognized Mickey in a maroon silk shirt. Carlyle sat across from him wearing a white Polo, his eyes flicking between his cards and his cash.
A black Mitsubishi pulled up outside the house and two guys in ski masks got out. 30 seconds later they burst through the door pointing guns and shouting orders. A few of the card players went for their waistbands but stopped short when the vast expanse of a shotgun barrel was levelled at their eye line. Carlyle sat motionless, committing the thieves' movements to memory. He didn’t look away when one of the robbers told him to and the shotgun stock connected with his cheek hard enough to make me wince. Mickey was shouting so loud spit was flying from his lips. He threw every curse he could at the gunmen while repeatedly asking them if they knew where they were. He could have won an Oscar with his performance.
At Gwen’s house, Lucy opened and closed her phone dial pad chewing on her lip, her eyebrows arched in indecision. Nick kneeled next to Gwen wearing his expression that didn’t know if it wanted to be contempt or sorrowful. His left shoe picked up a drop of blood from somewhere. Conclusions itched at my brain. Facts slotted together to make a deduction that stayed held back by stress and the ticking clock.
I checked on the card game. The thieves made their way around the room telling the card players to empty their pockets and take off their jewelry. One grabbed the cash while the other zip-tied their hands in front of them. Carlyle sat with his palms flat against the table. He had his head lowered as if he were listening to the voices of the thugs trying to place them. I watched the slow faucet from his nose drip blood onto the tar-stained tabletop.
When I looked back Nick and Lucy. My mouth was dry and I smelled the putrid stink of my own panic through the perfume of wildflowers and raw sawn wood. Nick stood up. He was holding the pistol. A drop of blood from the barrel joined it’s mate on his shoe. The deduction began to grow clearer, but nothing made sense. Why he was knowingly contaminating a crime scene?
Maybe that’s the point I thought. It was in the way he was screaming at Lucy to put the phone down while holding the pistol in a relaxed southpaw grip. From that angle, I could see the ejection port. Firearm identification was covered in the first week of training, they took great care to ensure we knew small details so we could accurately I.D the guns when we called in active shooters. As I watched Lucy scream at Nick (What are you doing?!) I realised what was off about the pistol. The ejection port was as backward as the writing was on the suicide note. Nick took a step forward, the argument ramping up. Lucy was furious at him for touching the gun. He told her he was looking for clues. He transferred the gun to his right hand as he ran his left hand through his hair.
When I saw his left hand, I knew he was going to shoot her. Running due south of his pinky was bluing that I first mistook as a bruise. At that moment I realised it was a smear of blue ink, the bane of left-handed writers everywhere.
Lucy screamed at Nick to put the gun down and get away from Gwen. That she had just talked to Gwen that morning and she was fine, she was happy, but now she was dead and they needed to call the police because something wasn’t right. She told him he couldn’t stop her, her decision made.
Nick stopped moving then, his body tensed. I knew the seconds were slipping away. Distantly in my memory, I heard Mickey threatening my wife and daughter. Nick was frantic, the situation was getting away from him. Lucy held the phone to her ear as she asked What the hell was he even doing there anyway?
Nick snapped his head up, his mouth working like he had something in his teeth. A flush in his cheeks spread while tears fought each other to break that sacred barrier first and cascade down.
Gwen was a hobby, he spoke. She was something fun on weekends when he told his wife he was out of town. She went along with their arrangement at first, but she got greedy. She got tired of being a side piece, so she told him if he wanted to keep his wife in the dark he’d have to cough up more than the cost of a mani-pedi and groceries for the week. He refused, she threatened to call his wife. She forced him, he continued, she never should have mentioned his wife.
Lucy had gone pale. Her eyes were locked on Gwen who could offer no rebuttal. You were supposed to be gone, Nick continued, you weren’t supposed to find her until Sunday, but now- he started to raise the pistol.
The thieves were leaving. Mickey shot a glance over his shoulder wearing a look of controlled rage similar to Nick. Carlyle was looking at each man in the room as if trying to see the sins in their heart. I looked from Carlyle to Nick. I thought of Samantha, of Lyla. I thought of Mickey and the money. What choice did I have? It was 8:00 pm.
Lucy lunged at Nick, her hand going for the gun. I reacted then, compensating for distance and reviewing lessons on trajectory and bullet drop. Nick sidestepped and pushed her to the beige carpet. He levelled the pistol as she scrambled to recover, his right hand cupped the ink stain on his left in a classic shooter’s stance.
I held my breath and squeezed the trigger.
The seconds of hang time between the bullet leaving the rifle and hitting its target carry an anticipatory eventuality. It’s one time, maybe the only time, that the mortality of a person can be measured. That feeling, that intimacy through such a vast expanse. In those seconds my dream of working undercover burned away, I didn't have the stomach for it after all.
The bullet hit Nick just above his thigh and he crumpled. I cycled the bolt and ejected the shell into my right hand. I emptied the rest from the clip into my palm and pocketed them. I found a dry patch near the bottom of my shirt to wipe the rifle down before dropping it and running back to the garage
I skidded to a stop in front of the same Circle K I called Mickey from. The phone booth was still stifling. I grabbed the searing hunk of plastic as I dropped lukewarm quarters in the coin slot. I wondered what Carlyle would pay for first-hand surveillance on who gave him the shiner, and what almost happened at Mickey’s place. A guy with that kind of influence could make a lot of problems disappear. I called the Second Round and asked for the owner’s extension. I kept my message short and hoped it was believable. I left my cell number and hung up. I called in an anonymous tip for a suspected murder after that.
When I pulled into my driveway I could hear Stuart and Lacy Bringham’s sprinkler in the distance, and the soft clang of Nina Fricker’s wind chimes. I saw the glow of Samantha’s bedside lamp behind our window blinds. I would tell her everything, I had to. I took a deep inhale of the night. I smelled freshly cut lawn and the pristine promise of another sun-bleached day. On the passenger seat my cell phone started ringing, Private Caller floated across the screen in brilliant white letters. I held my breath hoping to make the moment last and started counting the seconds.