(This story was originally published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the online literary journal The Fox Chase Review. Because FCR has ceased publication, the story is reprinted here.)
Jake’s estranged wife was mixing a drink for me in the kitchen of her new apartment when Jake called me on my cell. I answered but didn’t tell him where I was.
“I need to borrow some money,” he said.
He was a good friend and my conscience was guilty, so my first question was, “How much?”
“Could we talk about it in person? I’m at McGlynn’s.”
I hung up and watched Linda slice a fresh lemon for my whiskey sour. Then she added a cherry. She was wearing her office clothes—black pants and a flowered blouse, plus heels—and the workday had left her beauty wilted but still readily apparent. It was a sunny Friday afternoon, the start of a holiday weekend, and Linda had gotten out of work early. My schedule is irregular, so I was free as well.
There was no romance between us, but I had encouraged her to move on from Jake. The guy was on a losing streak. Linda handed me the drink.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Jake wants to borrow some money.”
She drank from her large glass of red wine while watching me. “What are you going to do?”
I had a sip of my drink. A little too sweet, but overall, I couldn’t believe Jake had blown it with this woman. “I’m going to enjoy this drink, and then I’m probably going to do something stupid.”
She shook her head. “Weren’t you paying attention when you were lecturing me all those times?”
I tipped my glass back and took down several swallows. Linda walked over, her heels clicking on the linoleum floor, and took the glass out of my hand.
“Chugging is so undignified.” She tossed the rest of the whiskey sour in the sink. “Come back when you have more time.”
I got to McGlynn’s just after four o’clock. There weren’t many cars there, so it was easy to notice the guy staring at me as I crossed the parking lot. He was in a sky-blue Cutlass Supreme.
He flicked a cigarette outside his window. “You Jake’s friend?” he asked.
“What’s it to you?”
“He’s inside, tough guy. Waiting for you.”
He looked familiar, like someone I had seen at a party or something. I couldn’t quite place him. I kept walking.
Inside, the pretty blonde hostess greeted me. I told her I was meeting a friend and continued past her. I spotted Jake at a lonely table along the far wall, drinking a tall glass of beer. Most other customers seemed to be at the bar, with a few scattered at booths here and there. I got a Guinness to bury Linda’s whiskey sour and joined him.
“So spill,” I said.
He gave me a weak smile. “I’m trying to get back on my feet, you know that. Well, I got some magic cooking at the poker table a few weeks ago. Up at the Trump in A.C. I fell in with a group of guys who seemed to be on their way down while I was on my way up. I got invited to their private game. You know how it goes.”
My Guinness was curdling in my stomach. “I think I know the rest of this story.”
“I’m sure you do. I should’ve walked away. Pretty soon I could barely stay in the game. I needed cash from somewhere.”
“That’s when you should’ve called me. So who’d you call instead?”
“There was a guy from Spinelli’s crew around. He helped me out.”
“They’re waiting on five grand. I need half of it today to keep my legs in working order.” He tried to drink some of his beer and he choked on it.
I looked away, at anything at all to keep my eyes off him. My friend from the parking lot was in the bar now. He was on his cell, talking loudly, being important for everybody to see.
I turned back to Jake. “I have to think about it.”
His eyes widened with surprise, enough surprise that I was annoyed.
“This is my life,” he whispered.
I looked at my watch. “I’m going for a drive,” I said. “I’ll come back with my answer.”
He grabbed my arm as I stood up. “I don’t have anyone else I can ask,” he said.
The tough guy in the bar watched me go, and the hostess gave me her professional smile.
I called Linda from my Impala. “Do you believe him?” she asked.
“Yes and no. I feel like I’m getting forced into something, so that makes me suspicious. But Jake does seem scared.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” she said.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. “Unless it comes back to you,” I said.
“I can take care of myself,” she said. She was quiet for a moment. I could hear her moving around. “I’m looking out my window,” she said. “I see a guy parked out there. He’s looking up at me.”
That made up my mind for me. I got the cash from home, went back to McGlynn’s.
Jake was waiting for me in the tough guy’s car. I pulled into a space, and Jake came over and got in beside me. I handed him the envelope.
“I could kiss you, buddy,” he said.
“Save it. It’s just a loan between friends. With a flat ten-percent interest rate.”
“If you think that’s all you’re getting back, you’re crazy.” He opened the car door.
“So where are you off to now?”
“Making settlement. What about you?”
“I’m going in for another drink. But next time around, you’re buying.”
He gave me a big smile. “You know it.”
Inside, the hostess wasn’t at her station. I went straight for the bartender, a guy in his sixties with glasses and a large belly. I asked him if he remembered the obnoxious guy talking on his phone, and whether he said where he was going that night. No dice.
As I was leaving, the hostess was back at her station. I gave her a wave.
“Wait,” she said. “I heard you asking about that guy.”
“That’s right. You hear anything?”
“Yeah. He told me he’d be at Delaware Park tonight in case I wanted to have some fun.”
I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my face. “I think you just ruined his night.”
“I’m happy to hear it.”
I called Linda again. She told me the car had driven away. I told her not to let anyone in. “No duh,” she said.
I headed for Delaware Park around eight. I went up to the bar that sits in the middle of the third floor and had a gin and tonic. Then I found a poker table. It’s not really my game, but I hadn’t spotted the Spinelli soldier yet and wanted to blend in. I was down around a buck-fifty when I stood up and returned to the bar.
I saw him before he saw me. From that bar, you can watch a row of table games in action. One of them is this roulette variation where the wheel is upright and the croupier stands between the wheel and the green felt table. A crowd of guys, including the one I wanted, were tossing their chips on the table. The croupier was a tall, gorgeous Asian woman.
I sat down and ordered another gin and tonic and watched. The croupier spun the wheel. When it stopped, my guy yelled and pumped a fist in the air.
Then things got interesting. The croupier didn’t react to him at all. She collected the chips off the table like they were all losers and called for a new round of bets. Either she completely whiffed on his bet, or she just didn’t like him and didn’t mind aggravating her bosses. A floor-staffer joined them and I could tell he was radioing to a manager. They were going to have to check the cameras to verify the bet. This was going to take a while.
“One of you bastards should buy me a drink,” the guy said.
“I’ll buy you a drink,” I said.
He had that ugly mop of sweat that comes when you’re having too much fun on too much booze. He hesitated, confused. “Yeah, sure,” he said, recovering his inner tough-guy. “Jameson.” He came around to my side while the bartender went to work finding the right bottle. “Nice move today.”
Before he could get on the seat next to me, I grabbed his balls and squeezed hard. He tried his best to keep the pain off his face. Some of the people by the roulette table were talking and looking at him. The last thing he wanted was a scene.
I didn’t want one either. I let go.
“Are you out of your God-damn mind?” he wheezed.
“I don’t like seeing my friends pushed around, that’s one. I don’t like getting pushed around myself. That’s two.”
The Jameson came. He ignored it.
“Yeah?” he said. “Some friend. I was just helping him B.S. you so he had the funds for some action coming his way. You’re a dead man now on account of that good friend of yours.”
I made a motion like I was reaching down again as I stood up. He flinched away from me and upset the glass of Jameson.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Small-Time.” I went on my way. The Spinellis are punks and they know it. They don’t rate with me.
I drove out of there and called Jake from Route 4, heading toward Linda’s place.
“Hey, there,” he said. “No broken bones.”
“How was the action tonight?”
He let out an ugly, drunken laugh. “It treated me real nice. So I guess you know. How’s that?”
“I ran into your friend at Delaware Park. I don’t think he was happy to see me.”
“There’s no need to make trouble.”
“No? I don’t like getting cheated. I don’t like cars with Spinellis showing up at Linda’s.”
“You’ve gotten pretty chummy with my wife, haven’t you? That’s what made taking your money so much fun. I’ll be on my way. I’m just going to get a goodbye-kiss before I go.”
I was still ten minutes from Linda’s. I didn’t know how close Jake was. I called her and gave her the details. “You can call the police if you want,” I said.
“And miss out on the fun? I’ll see you when you get here.” She hung up.
She was renting a two-story townhouse in Federal Estates. I passed Jake’s rusty Ford Taurus, which he’d parked askew of the curb, and parked myself. I called from the front walkway and she let me in. She was wearing black satin pajamas and holding a taser.
Jake was lying on the floor, unconscious. Drool was dripping from his mouth.
“I forgot to lock the door,” she said. “Whoops.”
“Did you search him?”
She shook her head.
“He should have cash. Did you want me to take care of him?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to let the police handle this one. I want to tell them that he attacked me. I just need to get some marks on me. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to punch me in the eye?”
I sighed. “I will if I have to.”
She kissed my cheek. “You’re always so sweet. That’s okay, though. I’ll just plow my face into the refrigerator or something. Get out of here so I can work things out. I’ll have you over for a drink tomorrow, if you’re interested.”
“Very.” I headed for the door.
“Wait,” she said. I turned around. “My whiskey sour,” she said. “Did you really like it?”
I noticed she was still holding the taser. Not that my answer would’ve been different.