I made a cup of green tea and turned on the television. The weatherman said we were in for a perfect day, and I said right back to him, “the hell we are, buddy.”
For three years I’d done the jobs around the office that no one else wanted to do. I cleaned the toilet, I cooked a lot of the meals, I even picked up Eddie’s dry-cleaning. And now it looked like I might blow it, right when I was finally moving up. I dialed up Eddie's number. Dan the Man answered the phone.
“Whatcha got?” he said, after I told him about my restless night. His voice was like a kazoo, and it grated on me even when I was operating on all cylinders.
“Flu I guess. Headcold.”
There was a thud as he cupped his hand over the phone. I could hear some of the guys laughing. What a bunch of pricks.
“Eddie wants to talk to you,” Dan the Man said.
Of course he did. This was the big day after all.
“Ronnie,” Eddie said.
I was scared as hell to talk to him, but at least he had a creamy voice like a tub full of Amish butter—the exact opposite of Dan the Man.
“Boss,” I said.
“Seems to be the problem?”
“Sick as a dog,” I said.
“Hell no. Sore throat. Flu maybe. The real deal.”
“I never got that expression,” he said. “I never seen a sick dog in all my life.”
Eddie liked to twist your own words back on you like that, and he was damn good at it. I've seen straight up gangsters get shaky hands during a business meeting with Eddie Sesto.
“Maybe when they do get sick, they get real sick,” I offered.
There was a long pause. At least Eddie liked me: Ricky Cervetti and Dan the Man had both told me so. But he was irritated just the same.
“Not sure what to say, champ. Job’s gotta get done. I thought you were tired of dishes.”
“Man up. Hit the drugstore and buy some cough drops. This job'll go faster than coke at a Mexican party.”
I tried to laugh but it turned into more of a desperate, choking wheeze. That’s when Eddie believed me. I could hear some real worry creep into his voice.
“You won’t be making sounds like that,” he said.
“No way Boss.”
“All right then.” The line went dead.
I called up Doc Brillman’s office and made an appointment for one o'clock that afternoon. Marcia told me the fish were doing well. I clean and maintain their office aquarium, and Doc Brillman gives me fifty percent off of all things medical. His aquarium is a joy to be around. Bright blue and yellow African cichlids swimming over a pile of river rocks, set up to look like a slice of natural habitat. Last time I was in there to do the monthly water change, Marcia asked me why I like fish so much.
“Don't you want a dog or a cat—something normal?” she said. She smiled a lot at me even though she was married.
“Fish are easy. I can leave the house for a few days without having to worry about it.”
“I guess,” she said. “But I like to scratch behind my dog's ears.”
Marcia loves to watch me change the water, and she always stands close enough so I can smell the apricot scent of her hair. Sometimes I have dreams about her. Nothing dirty, just simple dreams about us planting a garden and living in a real Leave It To Beaver kind of house.
Every three months or so I have Doc Brillman give me a once over, just to be sure I'm not dying from some terrible disease. I'm neurotic that way. Each skin discoloration is a melanoma, and a sharp pain in my side is surely pancreatic cancer. I can't stop thinking about death. It might be a good thing to die already, just so I can finally stop worrying about how and when it's going to happen. Eddie used to make fun of my hypochondria, until Tall Terry fell over dead from a massive heart attack at age thirty-nine. After that, some of the guys thought that my vitamins, flax-seed oil, and frequent doctor visits might not be such a bad idea after all.
I let the shower run for a good fifteen minutes, and I stood there in the steam thinking about the job. I switched it from hot to cold, cold to hot, trying to find a magic temperature that would fix my aching head and blocked sinuses.
I made a piece of toast and smeared peanut butter all over it. Got about half of it down and threw the rest in the garbage can.
I dug in the back of my sock drawer and got my gun. It's a Beretta 92, and it's real compact. Bought it from Ricky Cervetti for three hundred bucks. I tucked it in my belt and pulled my shirt over it, and then I checked it out in the bathroom mirror to make sure it was well concealed. I wanted to be a deep sea diver when I was a kid, and here I was tucking a gun into my pants and studying myself in a bathroom mirror covered with toothpaste spots.
The filter on my twenty-nine gallon aquarium needed changing. One of my tiger barbs was infected with ich—or maybe velvet disease—and I'd been dosing the tank with copper sulfate. I had a dozen tiger barbs in that tank. The other eleven were doing just fine, but I had to keep the water spotless or risk losing the whole lot.
The guys at the office made fun of my aquarium hobby too, until Eddie asked me to set up a fifty-five gallon tank in the front room of the office. “Makes us look innocent. Real legit,” he said. On paper, Eddie is running a vacuum cleaner business. The front room is a hodge-podge of yard sale vacuums sitting extra visibly in the main window. I set up Eddie's tank with a half dozen huge angelfish. You should see the guys now with that tank. They named the biggest fish Frank, after Sinatra, and they practically fight each other when it's time to feed them.
I thought about the job the whole drive over to Eddie's. His partner from the old days, Al Da Paolo, got out of the joint three months ago. Eddie helped him get acclimated, of course; set him up with a warehouse job and a cheap apartment. But there was way too much heat to let him back in the business right away, and Al wasn't the type for legitimate labor. For the most part, Eddie did a good job placating him. But it was getting worse. Dan the Man had to meet up with Al every Saturday night, buy him a few drinks, and keep the skids greased.
He was a real boozer, and there were plenty of nights when Crazy Al (that’s what we'd taken to calling him) showed up at the office door after an evening at the Hotsy Totsy, drunker than a hoot-owl, and Dan the Man had to see him home while Eddie cussed at all of us and knocked things off his desk. We all knew what was coming.
So last Thursday Eddie takes me out for a quick bite at the Totsy and asks me if I’d be up for the job.
“I never done any wet-work,” I told him.
“I know,” he says. “Gets you some valuable experience and gets us all rid of a big problem. Guy's giving me a real headache.”
I went home that night, drank a couple beers and watched eleven of my tiger barbs swim around in unison while the sick one with white fungus on its gills lagged behind, desperate and twitchy like a guy with palsy.
All I could picture was Crazy Al and his droopy, watery eyes. Would he look right at me? I felt like the guy in The Tell-Tale Heart, but with one big difference: there was nothing about Crazy Al that bothered me. No nervous tick; no filmy eye. The truth was that I kind of liked Al Da Paolo, and when I said as much to Dan the Man the next morning when he stopped by to pick me up for the day's collections, he told me that he liked him too.
“This ain't about likes or dislikes,” he said. “It's business. Like those fishes, right? Whole tank is healthy, except for that one.”
He pointed at the barb with the white spots and bloated stomach.
“You probably like that fish a whole lot. Might even be your favorite one. But he's gotta get flushed for the good of the whole tank. Get it?”
It was a pretty good analogy. For a guy like Dan the Man, that is.
And like anything you're chewing your thumbnails over, the day of the big job showed up a little too fast, and here I was, sick as a dog—whether or not Eddie Sesto had ever seen a genuine sick dog in all of his sleazy life.
I stopped at Walgreen’s and picked up some Fisherman's Friend menthol cough drops. Doc Brillman recommended them once. They're all natural, and strong as hell.
Eddie and Dan the Man were the only ones in the office. Eddie told me to sit down. I watched Old Blue Eyes and the other angel fish drift by like skinny ghosts. Eddie lit up a short cigar and Dan the Man stood there with his arms crossed, giving me the icy stare. For a minute I wondered if they'd decided to do me instead of Al Da Paolo.
“I got the cough drops,” I said and rattled the tin around.
“This is serious,” Eddie said.
I nodded. Dan the Man opened a briefcase and pulled out a twenty-two caliber Rossi revolver with a shampoo-bottle silencer mounted on it. It looked like the work of some ambitious high school kid.
“We shootin' rattlesnakes?” I said and took out my Beretta.
“Traceable,” Dan the Man said.
“But a twenty-two,” I said with obvious disgust.
“What are you, dumb?” Eddie said. “You know who shoots twenty-twos?”
“Plinkers. Old ladies. Eagle Scouts?”
“Exactly,” Eddie said and puffed on his cigar. “Looks like some crackhead loser did it. Tried to rob the place. Messed things up a bit. Dug through some dresser drawers.”
“But will a twenty-two get the job done?”
“Ask Bobby Kennedy,” Eddie said.
“Drop it off the Suttcliffe Bridge later tonight,” Dan the Man said. He handed me the Rossi, scooped up my Beretta and tucked it in his belt.
“Don't worry. You'll get it back,” he said.
A deep cough welled up in the back of my throat, and I wheezed and hacked for a few long seconds. I threw in another cough drop.
“Christ, he really is sick,” Dan the Man said.
“Sure he is. Look at that babyface,” Eddie said and pinched my cheek. “You think he could tell a lie?”
I felt like a fifteen year old kid on a first date—the old man sizing me up to see how much of a threat I might be to his daughter’s good name.
“Don’t mess this up,” Eddie said. He gripped the back of my chair with both hands and looked me dead in the eye. “Don't mess this up.”
The walk to Crazy Al’s was about a mile, and we took the route that ran along the river. It was all warehouses down there, and what few people you saw were just bums and old fishermen. It was the part of the city that people liked to forget about. Dan the Man stopped and looked up at a window.
“That’s it,” he said.
I studied the rusty fire escape and imagined the long climb up, and by the time I looked back Dan the Man was already a vanishing figure. He was probably going out to breakfast somewhere, the lucky bastard. I sucked on another cough drop and started climbing.
It was easy enough to pop the lock on Crazy Al’s kitchen window, but I crawled through slow because I was scared as hell that maybe he was still at home. I tried to think of what I'd say if Al Da Paola found me halfway through his kitchen window, eyes wide, a wet cough drop clenched between my front teeth.
It was a dreary apartment with carpet that looked like it would never get clean no matter what you did to it. There was a mummified fern in the center of the card table in the kitchen. I bet you a million dollars Crazy Al's Mom or sister brought it over when he first got sprung. The curtains in the living room were thick and ugly and frightened away most of the daylight. A Hollywood set designer couldn't come up with a better place for an ex-convict to hole up and drink his life away.
On the walls in the hallway were some old photographs. I studied one of them, trying to deduce if the wrinkled woman in the picture was sad or tired or maybe both, and if and how she was related to Crazy Al. She was his grandmother, I decided—though the photograph itself seemed a little too old for that. Great grandmother maybe. A stranger's pictures are like puzzles where you have all the pieces and the thing is fully assembled, yet it still makes no sense at all.
Then I saw it, a bright light from the bedroom. Al Da Paolo had a ten gallon aquarium in there, green with algae and decorated with a plastic treasure chest that burped out bubbles of air. An old fashioned diver with a gold helmet contemplated the contents of the miniature chest. I looked at that tacky aquarium and my head got hotter. My stomach turned. Fish tanks should be minimal, Zen, decorated to mimic nature. Now I finally had my reason for doing Crazy Al. “Anyone who has a fish tank like that deserves whatever they get,” I said aloud.
There were too many fish in there. One sketched-out tiger barb searched for some of his own kind. Tiger barbs have to be kept in a group or else they go mad. Al Da Paolo didn’t know a goddamn thing about aquariums, and that's the way it is with most people. They buy a basic ten-gallon for their office, or for a snot-nosed kid, and end up killing every poor soul they dump inside. Now I didn't feel so bad about Eddie drawing that black line through Al Da Paolo's name.
I got to thinking about friendship and what it really means. It’s not about time. Some people get the foolish idea that the people you know from way back when should somehow mean more to you—but I’ve never seen it that way. Sometimes you grow up and don't have anything in common with a guy you ran with when you were a teenager, so do you really owe him anything?
Then I thought about Marcia at Doc Brillman’s office, and I could almost smell the apricots when she leaned over her clipboard to write down whatever it was she wrote down about me. Here I was, sicker than a dog, stuffed up nose and sore throat, eating cough drop after cough drop, waiting on Al Da Paolo to get home and if he didn’t hurry up I might just miss my appointment. A real wave of sickness rushed over me.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and laid the revolver in my lap, and I watched the haphazard gang of fish dart back and forth in the ten gallon tank. A blue gourami looked as big as a sea monster as it nipped at the helmet of the plastic diver.
“Ronnie?” a voice said. I looked over, terrified. Al Da Paolo stood in the doorway of the bedroom. He wasn't supposed to be home for another forty minutes.
Then I heard Eddie’s four chilling words echo inside of my mind.
I was messing it up all right. My hands started shaking, and I gripped the gun and realized how ridiculous that shampoo-bottle silencer looked. Pantene. Thick and lustrous. Rinse and repeat if desired.
“Eddie sent you?”
You could hear the comprehension of deep betrayal in his wavering voice.
“I’ll pay you double to say you did the job. Then I’ll disappear.”
I was frozen.
“You ain’t got it in you,” he said, and stormed into the bedroom. I fired one shot that hit the right side of his neck.
His eyes did get bigger, just like I’d imagined; but instead of cool sadness they were all rage and terror, and he knocked the Rossi across the floor before I could fire again. My cough drops flew out of my shirt pocket and scattered across the carpet like precious rubies. Next thing I knew he had his thick arms all over me and we were running into the walls. Soon we were out in the hallway.
He threw me into the picture of the sad old lady. The glass cracked and fell all over me. Blood pumped rhythmically from the bullet wound in his neck. I punched him right on the wound and he cried out like a half dead cat. His mouth opened and closed, searching for any good snatch of air. I pushed him back into the bedroom.
The fish tank was right there next to us. I knocked off the lid. I forced Al Da Paolo's head under the green water and held him firm while he pushed on the stand with the last of his dying strength. There were a thousand bubbles and a muffled underwater scream, and the aquarium churned like a pot of stew that someone had left on HIGH and forgotten about. I could almost feel him giving up the ghost.
And then the ghost was gone. The weight of death pulled the corpse from my grip and the aquarium went over with it. Two hundred some pounds of dead flesh and ten gallons of water hit the bedroom floor. The miniature diver emerged from the floodwater standing upright in a mass of shiny black gravel, but his treasure chest had disappeared. The blue gourami did death flops around the crooked fingers of Crazy Al's right hand.
Had anyone heard anything? The apartment building was a real dump, and the only people who lived there were refugees from the civilized world. If anyone had heard anything, I reasoned, they didn’t want to know any more about it and they sure as hell didn’t want any cops coming around.
I went to the bathroom and cleaned up. Then I crawled around the bedroom floor, trying to find every last cough drop amid the wreckage. I picked up the Rossi and tucked it into my wet pants.
I was only five minutes late for my appointment at Doc Brillman's. Not bad, considering that I had to walk home, change clothes, comb my hair, and put on deodorant.
Marcia smelled as good as ever, and she wrapped that thing around my arm and pumped it up. Told me that my heart-rate was high and asked if I’d been doing anything strenuous.
“Rough day at work,” I said.
“What is it you do... I mean, besides aquariums?”
“It’s not all fun and games,” I said and imagined that I really did have a respectable job involving chests of aged tea and silk scarves from other countries.
Marcia left, and it felt like I was in that little waiting room for an eternity. I got to thinking that maybe I was in purgatory, the newest sinner of the lot, and Lucifer would come through the door at any minute to tell me he was sorry but the bad things I'd done over the years outweighed the good ones by a fair margin, and I would have to follow him down a long flight of hot stairs. But when the door finally opened it was only Doc Brillman.
“What is it today?” he said.
“Sick as a dog.”
“Syphilis? Schistosomiasis? Skin Cancer?”
“Feels like it could be all three.”
“We all gotta go sometime,” Doc Brillman said with a wink, and I saw a flashing image of Al Da Paolo's stiff hand next to a dead blue fish.
Doc Brillman wrote me a prescription, and I said goodbye to Marcia and headed back to Eddie's place. But I kept seeing this image of one Fisherman's Friend cough drop lying on the floor near the bedroom door.
I was in such a hurry when I left. Maybe it was still there. Maybe the cops would trace it back to me. I bought the cough drops right before the crime. Could something so trivial ever get linked together like that? They’d search the place and see that Crazy Al didn’t own any cough drop tin. It must have come from the killer, they’d say. Some detective would jot it down in his little book and he’d be off like a bloodhound.
You've seen too many Columbo's, I told myself.
Dan the Man was napping on the sofa like a well-fed dog when I shuffled into the front room of Eddie's Vacuum Sales and Services.
“There he is,” he yawned and sat up. “It’s done?”
“How'd it make you feel?”
“Like a bad kid,” I said.
“Eh,” Dan the Man said and handed me back my Beretta.
Eddie came out of the back room, his thumbs tucked under his suspenders. For some reason it seemed funny to me—a guy as dangerous as Eddie wearing suspenders.
“Babyface,” he said with open arms and gave me a hug. “You're a real businessman now. I'm proud of you. I won't forget what you did for me.” He tucked the three grand into my hand and shook it furiously.
“Thanks Boss,” I said.
“I lied to you earlier,” Eddie said. He was silent for a minute and so was I. Eddie can really scare the bejeezus out of you with a well-timed pause.
“I have seen a sick dog before. Freckles. What a sweet girl. Pop let us sit on the bed with her for an hour or two before he packed her in the car and drove her off to get the final shot.”
He almost looked like he could shed a tear.
“Now get out of here and get some rest,” he said.
My tiger barbs darted back and forth, weaving through the tall grasses. The dying one was still fighting the disease. His eyes were as cloudy as marbles and he was lost from the rest of the crew. A real liability. So before I hit the couch to get some sleep and dream about Marcia and our little white house on All American Road, I netted him up and flushed him down the toilet.
At dusk, I took a stroll across the Suttcliffe Bridge to drop the Rossi into the abyss where it would never be found. Hell, even if it is dredged up ten years from now it will never get linked to any of my crew.
And I swear on my mother's grave I saw the damnedest thing when I looked over the rail to let go of the piece. It was a huge dark shadow, in the shape of a fish, and I guessed it to be nearly twelve or thirteen feet long. It cruised on by like a strange spirit from the netherworld. I stood there dumbfounded and thought about the Matawan Creek incident of 1916, when a bull shark left the sea, swam upriver, and killed four unsuspecting souls who never dreamed that such a monster could hide in their midst.
That's the thing about water. There are worlds beneath the surface where cold and cruel acts not only go unpunished, but are considered essential for survival. Worlds that feel alien to people like Marcia and Doc Brillman; worlds where guys like me and Eddie Sesto feel right at home.