THE VAGUENESS OF MAYBES - KIERAN J. SHEA
I deserved it. You steal and you get caught, you pay. It was as simple as that.
“What were you thinking, huh?”
What was I thinking? Not clearly enough apparently. Thought me and Mike the Spike had the job down neat. It wasn’t like it was either of our first shipping container boost for crying out loud. The scored-off serial numbers—we moved all those Honda outboards two states away and everything, the whole job, it was good to go right out of the box. Or so I thought.
Sitting there I wondered if Mike the Spike had tipped his hand after a similar surprise visit. No way. Mike the Spike was good thief. Mike the Spike was as hard as they come.
I had about my fill of these two rent-a-toughs dispatched by Hunt to send his message. What, did they actually expect me to speak clearly with the three count number they did on my jaw? My head throbbed and my mouth was a slosh of watery iron. I can take a punch but two on one and some doubled-up tube socks full of golf balls? Mmm...not so much.
“Mr. Hunt wants whatever money you got for those engines and he wants the name of the jerkoff you unloaded them to, McCabe. He wants those engines back.”
I nodded and inched back to the wall of my kitchen. Lifted myself up until my shoulders rested against an unfinished section of drywall I’d hung the day before. Planted my hands at my sides on the linoleum and took a bloody, wet breath through the searing gaps of my nostrils.
Just a beating. Those two, no way did they have the horses for bigger risks. I squinted up at the two kids with the one eye that hadn’t completely puffed shut. Couple of gangly buzzcut fucks very impressed with their young buck strength and riding the rush. Unlaced Timberlands and matching hooded Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirts. Shit, I had tools in my truck older than the both of them. Combined.
Slowly I lifted my wrist and motioned to the counter.
I gestured a second time, weakly pulsing my hand in a gimme fashion.
“Gig, give this dumbass his cell.”
The one called Gig snatched my Nokia from the kitchen counter. He whipped the cell phone at my chest and the Nokia bounced down between my splayed legs. I shook my head.
“What, you want to write it down for us?”
I nodded and widened my good eye to confirm.
“Get this old fuck a pen and a piece of paper.”
The one called Gig started rifling through the drawers in my kitchen. He found a pen almost instantly but rummaged about some more.
“Can’t find no paper, Carm.”
“What’re you, fuckin’ retarded? Grab a paper towel or something. Jesus.”
Gig ripped off a stream of paper towels from the dispenser affixed to the underside of the cabinets and then walked over and tossed the pen and the paper towels in my lap. Drops of my blood stained the towels as I bent over and bloomed like small roses on the white, dappled paper. Super absorbent Bounty—the quicker picker-upper.
I plucked up my cell from between my legs and, making a show of it, thumbed through the cue. Clicked the pen twice and wrote a lie on the paper towel spread across my aching right thigh. Then I added a note that said I’d get the money back to Hunt by the end of the week and the engines too—promise. Another lie, but fuck them.
The second one, the one who answered to Carm, stood as he swiped the towels from my outstretched hand.
“Gah, blood all over these towels and shit. You better not have AIDS, old man.”
I didn’t say anything as he read what I’d scribbled down. Then I waited for the parting shots.
Old man? I guess so.
Covered up as best I could.
An hour or so later Morgan Leary made coffee in my kitchen as I dressed my ribs and tended to my wounds in the bathroom.
“Chock Full o’Nuts? Ugh. Life is short, Dave. You should at the very least buy some good beans and grind them down. Get some Sumatra, some of that flavored spiced pumpkin coffee they do this time of year. Drop twelve bucks and get some Starbuckin’ wage slave to set you up with a good drip blend.”
I groaned and dabbed a wet washcloth to my split lip. Outside the salt-glazed bathroom window a wet onshore wind rattled the lone scrubby tree in the clay pot on my patio.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” Morgan said, “You win some, you lose some. That merchandise was hotter than shit, they know it and we know it. It’s all part of the game. If your friend down Maryland hasn’t unburdened himself by now he’s a total fucking idiot. Even if they find out some other way, Hunt and his guys go beating the bushes for that stuff they’ll be at a dead end. I’ll tell you what, though. I’d love to see the look on Hunt’s face when he finds out what you gave those two clowns was bullshit.”
I stepped into the kitchen as Morgan poured us both a mug.
“Heard from Mike the Spike?” I asked quietly.
Morgan slopped some half and half into his coffee from a carton pint and handed me a zipper locked plastic bag of ice cubes.
“Mike the Spike? He’s good. Mike the Spike is up north.”
I took the ice. “Up north?”
“His relatives or someplace. Trust me, Mike the Spike is well aware of what’s happened so he’s going to be away from Atlantic City for a while until all this Hunt business settles down.”
Morgan took a slurp from his mug and set it down on the counter. He tilted my head with one of his spade-sized hands as he checked my butterflies. I knew about Morgan’s past as a semi-professional ECHL left-wing enforcer more than a decade past, so I trusted his patch and go judgment.
“You’ll heal. Golf balls in a couple of tube socks, man, I never thought of that.”
“So what’s the deal?”
“With what? You and me? We’re cool. You take some of your end and see the doctor I wrote down for you and make sure there’s no internal bleeding. Zonk back some Percs, take it easy for a few days. Heal up.”
“But they knew.”
“So they knew, big whoop. Maybe there was hidden camera that you guys didn’t know about. Maybe somebody saw you and Mike the Spike and decided to snap a picture.”
“But everything was cold. The truck I ditched, the plates...”
“Of course they were. I wouldn’t expect anything less from you but things have a way of turning to shit, don’t they?”
“Listen to you. Still. You’re lucky it wasn’t worse.”
“Give me a little credit.”
“I always do, but yet here we are, Dave. Here we fuckin’ are.”
It took Herculean effort to lower myself down at the kitchen table. The adhesive tape around my ribs pulled at my dry skin and my back felt like it had been pole-axed. With Mike the Spike out of the picture I knew I was on my own with Hunt and his goons and my uneasiness must’ve shown through the swollen bruises on my face. Morgan dragged out a chair and adjusted his tan cashmere topcoat as he sat down.
“Look, I know you’re working on this bungalow here. Smart thing that. Putting your cash into something with a long haul value given what’s going on out there and at your age and all, but you need to understand something here, okay? Look at me now. You need to be a ghost, Dave. You need to disappear for a while until all this nonsense levels out.”
I glanced away again. Stretched my stiff neck.
“You have someplace you can go for a couple of weeks?”
“How about a motel?”
“C’mon, Morgan. I don’t want to spend my days watching crappy cable and jumping every single time housekeeping knocks. I’m in no condition to defend myself and suck at that anyway if you can’t already tell. Those two freaks know where I live, man. They know where I live and when they come up short and Hunt doesn’t get his engines back or the money I got for them they’ll be coming back here.”
“That’s your fault.”
“Listen to me now. You’re exposed and this is a mess, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal. Think about it. You’ve been good to me and for intents and purposes by that you’ve been good to a certain individual we both know across town. This territory comes with the nature of your abilities and while you should’ve been more careful, this first and only time I can remember things ever falling apart on your end. You’re a stand up guy, Dave. We appreciate your services. Hell, I appreciate your services but these low-balling twats and their dirtbag, wannabe honcho Hunt? Him sticking his fingers in our backyard? Those morons have no idea who they’re fucking with.”
Of course I knew who Morgan was talking about when he said a certain individual we both know across town but didn’t dare speak Dante Donofrio’s name. Morgan and I were cordial, but one smack down a decade is about all I wanted to handle at forty-five years of age, thank you very much.
“So where am I at really?” I asked.
Morgan drank some of his coffee and leaned back. Leveled a warm, bemused look.
“In good hands, Dave, in good hands.”
As much as it hurt I did what Morgan told me to do. I set fire to my end seeing Donofrio’s special quack over in Somers Point, bought an idiot-proof .38 from another guy Morgan referred me to, and vacuumed a little over two grand from my safety deposit box. Went up north to Seaside Heights in Ocean County to lay low for three and a half weeks until I didn’t lurch about like some gimped-out zombie humping to the convenience store for microwaved food.
After nearly a month of introspective soul kicking and skipping AA meetings for fear that I might come across a rat (it’s a small world don’t you know) I was going out of my gourd. Of course there was a time when I was much younger when I could put trouble like mine out of my head, but outside of meetings no one ever has the balls to admit just how much bad choices gain weight as you grow older. One minute you’re young and the future seems like a dare. The next thing you know you’re taking a fall. Fair enough. Do a small three and a half year jolt and it sucks to high heaven but you do it clean and come out on the other side. You come back and jump through all the shameful hoops. The so-called friends who never had an inkling about your dark sidelines keeping their distance. The contractor jobs hit so thin you find yourself groveling. A couple of lean years go by and life gets back to some semblance of the order you remembered and then one fine day a friend of a friend presents an opportunity you just can’t pass up. Goes well. Helps with the bills and your daily hovering act with the booze and one small score leads to another. Soon you’re lying to yourself again, thinking you’re invincible and eye-balling liquor store specials in the newspaper. Fuckin’-a, I should’ve quit while I was ahead.
On a frigid Tuesday night when I’d had enough of hiding in my motel room up north I drove my pickup truck out to the local mall and bought a pre-paid cell. Making my way down through the thinning rush hour traffic on the Garden State Parkway, I dialed Morgan. Music thumped loud over the line when he answered on the fifth ring.
“Morgan, it’s Dave.”
“Dave McCabe! Hey-hey! How’s the hamburger?”
I touched my face as I drove. “Better. Pills are gone.”
From the sound of his voice Morgan seemed to be moving. The heavy bass in the background abated some as I heard something else, perhaps a door, clack closed.
“Mmm, those pills. Surprised you even took them at all seeing you’re chummy with Bill W. Habit forming those Percs. You should try Aleve.”
“I have and I am.”
“Good. That’s the spirit. In step all the way.”
“So where am I now?”
“Where are you now? You tell me.”
“Oh yeah? Driving? Where to?”
Morgan paused. “So I trust you’ve been shopping.”
“You know there are laws in this state, Dave.”
“It’s seven o’clock at night. Jesus Christ, Morgan, it’s dark out. No one can see me. Everybody and their friggin’ mothers are on the goddamn cell phones. Nobody cares.”
“You get pulled over by a state trooper and you’re on a burner you’ll care plenty.”
“Look, I’m cool all right? And for the record I’m traveling light too. No way am I that stupid.”
“Never said you were. So, if you’re light, where did you make your deposit?”
“Couple of swamps near Toms River.”
“Good. That’s good. Smart. Fight Club is still sitting on your place though.”
I banged my fist on the steering wheel, “Damn it! Fuck. What the—shit!”
“Relax,” Morgan laughed, “I’m just pulling your chain. Lighten up. A week back me and a couple of boys went over and introduced ourselves and shared the gospel. This Hunt character, he’s a regular Chamber of Commerce and Knights of Columbus type family man. Once we put things in proper perspective for him…it was a Come To Jesus in about three seconds, give or take.”
As Morgan spoke the southbound lanes of the Parkway eased left and opened out over the expanded Mullica River Bridge. The bridge was part of a fifty-three million dollar project that spanned the vast westward marshes of the Great Bay and Little Egg Inlet estuary. To the east and south I could glimpse the first low edges of the Atlantic City skyline glowing stark and white like a neon-ribboned jaw. The noxious, sulfuric stench of low tide poured through the vents.
“So what’s that mean exactly?” I asked.
“It means you’re in the clear.”
A bus heading for the casinos streaked past on my left.
“Yeah. No one is going to mess with you so keep driving and come on home. Take care of your house and get your footing. Stop by the place when you get a chance and I’ll buy you a Coke and lap dance.”
I felt lightheaded with relief. Briefly I wondered what the Morgan meant when he said he shared the gospel with Hunt and a chill slithered in my gut.
“Jesus, Morgan,” I said, “thanks. Thanks for everything. I’m really sorry about all of this. I guess I owe you.”
“Forget it. C’mon, didn’t I tell you that you were in good hands?”
“See? There you go. Hey, now that I think about it you know what? If you’re feeling so obliged my sister’s attic needs some new insulation rolled. Her husband, God, he’s a real whiney piece of dogshit and has been putting off the job for months.”
“Of course. No problem. I’d be happy to help her out. Just give me her address and I’ll take care of it right away when I get back, no sweat.”
“Excellent! That’s my man. Dave McCabe, Mister Fix It.” Morgan went quiet for a moment. “Listen, Dave. I know all this business has been rattling to you and all, but once you get settled I think I might have something else you might be interested in too.”
“It’s not until way after New Year’s,” Morgan added, “but I think the specs on this thing could really use someone like you who’s going to be walking on eggshells and birddoggin’ the corners.”
“So who? Just me and Mike the Spike again?”
“Yeah, you two. Maybe. Maybe another dude on point.”
I wanted to ask who he had in mind for the third. I never liked the vagueness of maybes, but I knew better than to ask.
“You, uh, think that’s wise, I mean, with all that’s gone down recently? You know, me being back on the job so soon?”
Morgan laughed heartily and I nearly missed my exit.
“Guys like you, Dave,” Morgan said, “you’re always on the job.”