Belltown Burrito Kitchen had two official entrances, one for the restaurant proper, and one for the espresso line. Its third entrance, the unofficial one, lay around the corner, in perpetual shadow of the Space Needle. Rick approached that entrance now.
In proper show of respect, he wore a suit: blue/green sharkskin over a stiff white shirt open at the collar. He had considered a tie, but Kat had already left for the morning when he had gotten the call to come in, and he didn’t have her knack for the Windsor knot. Once he had gotten used to a Windsor, he found he could no longer make due with one of his own lumpy, uneven, throw-over knots, no matter the quality of the tie’s silk, nor the stylishness of its pattern.
That was only one of the crummy habits that these two years with the love of his life had squelched in him.
Still, for eleven o’clock on a freaking Monday morning, he supposed he looked reasonably composed for a meet with Big Ham.
He rapped the plain, pale door twice with his middle knuckle. Not quite a secret code, but the fellas knew each other’s knocks. The way any tight crew would after so many years. Seattle was a small market for the Franchise.
“Open,” came a voice from inside. Rick recognized it as Billy Wishman’s.
Small, friendly crew.
Rick opened the door, swinging it wide. Everyone at the card table looked up. Billy Wishman, Cone Bower, Sam Nickles, Little Andy, and a couple others—all crowded around the little folding-legs table in the little back room surrounded by shelves of canned salsa and stacked bags of rice. The whole full-time crew and a few of the associate members.
Just about everybody, in fact, except Big Ham.
The table itself was bare, no cards, no chips, not even coffee. The guys had nothing to do at that table, so all they did was look at Rick standing in the doorway. Every last one of them.
“What up, fellas?” asked Rick.
Billy Wishman was a couple years older than Rick, so just north of forty. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he lacked a certain something in the charm arena. Part of it was his look, skin and remaining wisps of hair (not his fault, of course) that were both comparable in color to the off-tone short-sleeved shirts he wore. Billy had never smiled in his life, at least never so that Rick had noticed, but he showed his teeth now in what he must have thought would pass for one. Not that much of an improvement.
“Come on in,” said Billy. “And shut the door.”
“I will,” said Rick, “but are you sure there’s room? You’re packed like Vienna sausage in here.”
“Ha, ha!” said Conie. “That’s a good one, Rick. Vienna Snausages! Ha, ha! Funny!”
Conie looked around for confirmation and received enthused nods. Everybody was trying hard.
This crew was good people, but if they had one flaw they had many, and amongst those was the flaw of dancing around a thing, so he did what he could now to push them toward making their point.
“I got called in to meet with Big Ham,” he said. “But I don’t see Big Ham.”
“He ain’t here,” said Billy.
“And he ain’t coming, I guess,” said Rick.
“Not exactly,” said Billy.
That could mean anything. Rick supposed Billy intended it that way.
“So who am I here to see?” asked Rick.
“We want to put something to you,” said Conie.
“Yeah,” said Little Andy. “We got something to put to you, now will you shut the door already so we can start the meetin’.”
Rick chose his tone and his next words carefully. Casually, lightly, he said, “I don’t know, guys, if I shut this door now, how much of a chance do I have of ever opening it again?”
Billy’s damp brow furrowed, and then, as if some of the relatively fresher air flowing in through the open doorway had reoxygenated his brain, he widened his eyes and said, “Jeez, Rick, what the hell? It’s not like that! We just want to ask you something. A simple question.”
If it was so simple, why had they played it off like the boss wanted to see him, which clearly wasn’t the case? He decided not to press them on that yet. Besides, if they wanted him dead, there was not a lot he could do against the whole crew. Oh, he might bolt now, race back through the alley, and dive into traffic, but where then? Just about everyone he worked with was right there in the room. The entire local operation. There were other towns, of course, but the Franchise had crews in all of them.
And once you joined up with the Franchise, there was no such thing as a career change. Only retirement.
Rick shut the door, and leaned back against it, his hand still behind him, clutching the knob. Maybe running would still be worth it. Who doesn’t want extend his life, even if only by a few days? Or hours.
“No chair for me?” he asked.
“We’re not gonna keep you long,” said Little Andy.
“Okay, okay,” said Rick. “So what is the question, already.”
“You’re coming up on your second anniversary, you and Katherine, yeah?” said Billy.
“That better not be the question,” said Rick. Families were off limits, there were codes about things, and Rick was about to lose his sense of humor. Whatever they were up to, they had better not bring Kat into it. He would make sure they regretted that. He would find a way.
“What I mean is,” said Billy, going on as if he had no notion that Rick’s attitude was changing quickly, “do you ever think about your future? Her future?”
“We’re all right,” said Rick evenly.
“Sure, sure. You earn, I’m not saying you don’t.” Billy looked at the other men around the table. “I think we can all say we earn, right, boys?” And as they nodded and murmured their assents, he went on. “But none of us is a spring chicken. Sure you’re healthy now, but what if you caught a stroke, or a prostate cancer? What then? Hell, anyone of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. We need assurances, Rick. Assurances.”
“I don’t guess I—”
“You know my cousin, the accountant,” said Conie. “His firm matches his 401(k) one hundred percent. And they pay seventy-five percent medical. Hell, they even got group rates on homeowner’s insurance. What have we got?”
“This is a cash business,” said Rick. “You need to squirrel something away.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, Rick,” said Billy, leaning in as if he’d been waiting for Rick to say that. “When you break it down, we’re not all that well-paid. Considering the risks and all. I’ve been reading up on the one percent. A lot of them guys pull down way more in stock and benefits than they do in straight salary and commissions.”
“Look. We’re soldiers. We work for the Franchise, and the Franchise gives us our cut. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has been for—well—forever. Trust me, all you will accomplish will be to bring the hammer down on yourselves.”
“I told you he wouldn’t do it,” said Little Andy derisively.
Rick looked at Billy. “Do what?”
“Put our demands to Big Hammy.”
“Me? No, I won’t. You’re right about that. And neither will any of you. If you did, two things will happen. First, Big Ham will bust a capillary laughing you right out of the room.”
“Like hell! What’s he gonna do without a crew? He can’t run the operation by himself,” said Andy.
“No. That’s right. Which is why the second thing that Big Ham will do is pick up the phone and dial that New York number. You know which one. And you know what happens after that. The man on the other end of the line will say, What the hell do you want? And Hammy will say, I got a problem, a big problem, out here in Seattle. And the man says, “So what? Your town, your problem, you fix it. That’s what we pay you for. And then Ham says, All-righty then, but it’s gonna cost ya. At that point, Big Hammy has the attention of the man on the other end of the line. So he lays out your entire scheme. He doesn’t embellish it. He doesn’t have to. He can just about hear the man’s face turning purple all the way out in New York. Before you know it, flights are booked. A lot of flights. And some hard-nosed, real honest-to-god East Coast gangsters show up. And brothers, I’ve been out East. Trust me, you do not want that to happen.”
Billy Wishman attempted his smile again. “See, this is why we need you to negotiate for us. None of us talks good like you, Rick. And none of us sees the ins and outs like you. We need your smarts.”
“You’ve just had them. I told you not to do this. No good will come of it.”
“You’ll think of a way,” said Billy. “You’ll work it out.”
“You don’t get it,” said Rick. The tiny room sweltered and he had had about enough. He was going to go home and have a long cold shower, and then a nap. Then he would get up and start a light supper. When Kat got home from the hospital, he would tell her about the crazy meet-up he had had with these knuckleheads, and they would laugh together.
“No,” said Little Andy. He stood, and pulled up his shirt front to show the .38 tucked in his waistband. “You are the one that doesn’t get it. You are either on our side or you are not. If you are not, then we’ll have to kill you, Rick.”
Conie made a move with his arm under the table.
Rick, who wasn’t armed, of course, looked at Billy. “So I guess the ‘no guns in the clubhouse’ rule is out the window?”
Billy shrugged, and looked sheepish. “What can I say, Rick. Changing times.”
* * *
Rick went home, but he didn’t nap. He waited for Kat. He had managed to buy a day, pleading that he needed to come up with a negotiating strategy. When Kat got home, he waited patiently while she peeled off her scrubs, showered, and then sat down in her terrycloth robe to relax, rum and coke in hand, bare feet up on the footstool. She eyed her toes, probably deciding whether or not she wanted to give her nails another coat of her current favorite polish, a color that was not black, she had informed Rick, but rather Midnight Onyx. Then he told her what had happened.
“Good!” she said when he finished.
“Damn straight. You guys work hard, and you take a lot of risks. You should get some benefits.”
“We’re criminals, Kat.”
“What does that even mean nowadays? Anyway, all the more reason you should get your share out of the Franchise. You’re outlaws and you still have to suck up to the man! How ironic is that!”
“Maybe I haven’t explained it well enough.”
“It’s fine for you, because you’re on my insurance, but the wives of these guys don’t work. Stop being so selfish.”
“You heard the part about how this could get us all killed, right?”
“Could get them killed, you mean. Without you.”
“That’s right. Or me by them.”
“Those guys would never kill you. Those guys love you.”
“They have a funny way to show it.”
“They only put all their confidence, all their hopes and dreams into you, that’s all. Right. Funny.”
Rick sat down on the arm of her chair and looked at her. “I’m trying to be sensible.”
“You should go all the way with that.”
“What do you mean?”
Kat picked up her rum and coke and the ice clinked. She held the cool glass to the side of his temple, right at the place where he only then noticed it had started to throb. She always seemed to know what he needed.
“Leaving aside the nonsense that they would harm you, what else are the boys sure to do if you don’t go along with them? On their own, without you?”
“And with you, what gets done.”
“Something slightly less stupid.” Maybe.
“A lot less stupid. You’ll see. You’ll work it out, you always do. You’ll come up with something. I believe in you, and I’m never wrong.”
“You sound like Billy. I’m telling you. All it takes is one call to New York….”
“Oh, that’s simple then. All you have to do is make sure Big Ham doesn’t call New York.”
Rick shook his head. Bless her heart. “No, I already thought of that. If I whack Big Ham, they’ll send someone out anyway.”
“Of course. So if you can’t kill him, and you can’t let him call, what else do you do?”
He felt a smile coming on. “Why didn’t I think of it!” he said, looking into his lovely wife’s beautiful eyes, which were sparkling with pride.
He started to get up.
She caught his wrist. “What are you doing?”
“I have to call Big Ham, set a meeting.”
Kat’s lips parted, and she pulled him back toward her. “Leave it for half an hour.”
* * *
Two-and-a-half hours later, Rick made the call and set the meeting. Big Ham didn’t often agree to meetings that late in the evening, but something in Rick’s tone must have telegraphed urgency, and he agreed with less argument than Rick had expected. By the time Rick got to the Denny’s near the railroad tracks, Big Ham was already inside, and was in the process of ordering a Double Grand Slam from the usual waitress, the one he habitually called Flo even though that wasn’t her name.
She had never corrected him.
Rick sat down, and “Flo” smiled. Ham didn’t even look up from his menu. He had his face buried in it so that only the pink, fleshy dome of his head greeted Rick. He grunted to himself as he flipped though the heavy leaves of the menu, like a jeweler appraising trays of diamonds and finding them all wanting.
“An’ a butterscotch sundae,” he said finally. He closed the menu and handed it back to Flo.
“Two or three scoops?” she asked.
His lips tightened in an expression of dissatisfaction. “Two,” he said, as if the question, and his own answer to it, angered him. He wanted that third scoop, oh how he did.
“Need to look at the menu?” Flo asked, offering the one Ham had given her to Rick.
“He’s not hungry,” said Ham.
Flo probably should have known to end it there, but waitress-skills kicked in like autopilot. “Coffee?”
“He ain’t thirsty,” said Ham.
This time Flo did move away, tucking the menu under her arm and then pulled the ticket off her order pad before placing the pad back in her apron pocket, as if the idea of having Big Ham’s order ticket against her body disturbed her.
“It is a little too late for coffee,” said Rick, after she’d gone. “Thanks for meeting me, Ham.”
“Cut it out. Tell me what you have to tell me. No, the hell with it. I don’t guess I need to hear it. You. Of all people, you.”
Rick put a hand on the table. He ran his palm over the cool surface. “I don’t know if we are on the same page.”
“No? Then go. Tell them you did your due diligence. Let me have my last meal in peace. I don’t know why everybody has to talk about everything anymore anyway. Changes nothing.”
“Okay then,” said Rick.
Ham snorted. “Are you perplexed? You look perplexed.”
“I guess I am.”
“That makes the both of us. You tell them for me—you ask them. Ain’t I done everything good?”
“Times are changing.”
Ham’s eyes went soft. “Don’t I know it, son. Well, nobody ever said this job has a retirement plan.”
“I don’t know that that is part of it. It’s mostly medical insurance they are after. And a little income guarantee.”
“What?” said Ham.
It had become apparent that Big Ham didn’t know what Rick was talking about, and Rick didn’t know what Big Ham was talking about. Rick laid out everything he had been charged to ask for.
Big Ham listened silently.
They are quick at Denny’s and Rick didn’t have a lot of detail yet to impart, so by the time Flo returned with Big Ham’s plate, Rick had finished talking. Big Ham stared at him in silence for a good long time. He didn’t even look down at, or touch, his plate.
“Can’t you get coverage through your wife? She’s a nurse, right? Don’t she get the insurance?”
“Physician’s Assistant,” corrected Rick. “It’s for the other guys.”
“I thought you were here to take me out of the picture,” said Ham.
“Not right now. I thought it was some sort of courtesy call. To ‘inform me of the decision,’ so to speak. Frikkin’ New York.”
Rick was near speechless. He scratched his neck. Finally, to break the silence more than any other reason, he stated the truth. “No. I don’t know anything about that.”
“I see that now. Okay, forget I said anything.”
That was going to be hard to do, thought Rick. “Of course,” he said.
Ham waved his hand. “Politics. You don’t even want to know.”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
“Order something.” Ham lifted his heavy hand to flag the waitress.
“No, no,” said Rick. “You’re right, it’s late.”
Ham shrugged. He picked up his knife in one hand and his fork in the other, then dove into his Grand Slam like it was his last meal—which evidently he had believed it was. Mouth full of eggs, hash browns, pancake, and heavily salted pork products, he called across the empty restaurant to Flo. “Put another scoop on that Sundae,” he said. Then he glanced at Rick with the demeanor of a guilty child. “Why not?” he asked. “Got something to celebrate now, ain’t I?”
Big Ham shoveled in another massive forkful and, still eyeing Rick, chewed open-mouthed. Then he hard-swallowed what hadn’t fallen back out onto his plate.
“No healthcare,” he said.
“Maybe I could help you with this other thing,” offered Rick.
“What other thing?” cried Ham, expelling biscuit crumbs like snowflakes. “There’s no other thing. I told you to forget it. Don’t you know how to take instructions? Now look. That’s how it is. Non-negotiable. No healthcare, no stock options, no Christmas Club, no frikkin’ birthday cake. All right? You gotta tell the guys. You appointed yourself spokesman.
“So go speak, spokesman. Exercise the charge of your office. Let them down easy, I don’t want any lingering bad feeling over this, so do a good job. You’ll think of something.”
* * *
Rick didn’t know what, and on the drive home he didn’t get any brainstorms. He figured he’d probably be tossing all night thinking about it, but as it turned out, he would be awake for another reason.
He pulled onto his street. As he approached his driveway, he couldn’t help think the house seemed too dark, although, at this hour, it would have been stranger if Kat did had lights on.
Only one streetlamp towered close enough to cast a bit of its illumination over the front window of his home, but that was enough to reveal something. Rather than pulling into the driveway, Rick cut the engine early and rolled to the curb in neutral. He undid his seatbelt and bent across, opening the passenger-side door with minimal noise. He slipped out into the chilly air, fixing his gaze on the house window, or, more specifically, the wide gyre of cracked glass that now formed a target-like oval upon it—with a bullet hole at its center.
* * *
Only when Rick found Kat in the master bathroom did he finally let himself exhale.
As he had told her to do if it ever came to this, she was scrunched down in the bathtub, holding his silver-plated .38 in both hands, which she rested on her knees. The .38’s barrel leveled at the door. She was in pajamas.
Rick took the gun from her gently and rested it in the floor, pointed away. They embraced.
“How long ago?” he asked.
She didn’t respond.
“Did you see anything?” Anyone?
She shook her head.
“I’m going to have a look around,” he told her. He picked the .38 up and gave it back to her. “I won’t be long. You did good. Just a little while more.”
Shock, he thought. Poor kid.
He squeezed her hand, and then left her.
He did a sweep of the house and then outside, front and back, all in the dark. On his way back to Kat, he started turning on lights. Everything clear.
He pulled the comforter off the bed on his way to the bathroom. Inside, he took the gun and secured it in a drawer under the counter. He got her out of the tub, wrapped her in the comforter, and set her down on the toilet. She seemed much smaller than usual. He ran her a glass of water and squeezed her fingers around it to get her to hold it. When he gently moved her hand up toward her mouth, she looked at him with surprise, as if just noticing he had come back. But she took a sip.
Gradually, he got the details out of her.
She’d been sitting in the living room, reading, when she heard a pop behind her head. Silencer, most likely. No car sounds before or after.
The curtains were sheer and would have made her an easy target in her reading chair if the intent was to kill. So there was that. This time.
This had happened, as best as she could figure the time, an hour ago. Not long after he’d left to meet Ham. Quickly after he’d left, as a matter of fact.
Rick walked Kat back to the bedroom and remained standing after setting her on the edge of the bed. He worked the details over in his mind.
The ringer of the bedside phone broke his concentration. Kat jumped, and then smiled slightly in reaction to being startled. “Now who could be calling it this hour?”
He started to say something about that to her as he moved around the bed and reached for the phone. He was going to say that whoever was calling probably had something to do with what had happened, but that she did not need to worry, and that person was going to pay the consequences of the night’s actions. Then he witnessed the bemused expression that was growing on her face. She was recovering herself, her usual sly, sarcastic self. She would be okay.
“I know,” said Rick, smiled back at her, “the nerve, right.” He pulled the handset out of its charger.
The voice on the other end wasn’t a surprise. What surprised Rick was his own reaction and the trouble he had reining in his anger upon hearing it.
“Are we good?” asked Ham.
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
“We’re good then.”
“Good. Because there maybe was certain miscommunications tonight, and they should not have to carry over into the tomorrow. You agree?”
“Some actions may have been taken based on other assumptions, you see?”
He saw. Ham had ordered somebody—it didn’t matter who—to put a scare into Rick when he’d thought that Rick was somehow working against him with New York. Now that Ham knew that wasn’t so, he was calling to say that it was all a mistake, and bygones should be bygone.
“A good boss has to do certain things,” Ham went on. “For one thing, he’s got to be consistent, right? And this thing has a chain of command. The boss gives the orders and the soldiers take the orders, and that’s it. Anything else and the boss looks weak. And if the boss looks weak, the boss is weak. Them’s the rules. I didn’t make them up, but they work, right?”
“For instance, if I wasn’t the boss, I could say I’m sorry. I could say I’m sorry for any misunderstanding, and I could say at least no harm was done, right? Could have been a lot worse, right? But I’m the boss so I can’t do that. You understand.”
“No harm, no foul,” said Ham decisively.
“I agree,” said Rick.
“Get some sleep,” said Ham, and disconnected.
Rick started to make a call of his own. He dialed six of the seven numbers and then stopped.
“I need to go out,” he told Kat.
“You’ll be careful?”
“I will. I’ll drive you to the hospital first.”
“I know you are. I just need you where a lot of people are around, so do you mind going into work a few hours early and staying in the Doctor’s lounge?”
“I guess I can do that.”
“I’ll come pick you up later today. But one thing, Kat.”
“If I don’t show up, don’t come home.”
Kat looked down to hide her worry. “Well, you better come get me then, Rick. We need to come back home, both of us. For one thing, this is where all our stuff is.” She raised her head again and looked him in the eye. “Promise, Rick. Promise you will come home.”
He didn’t know what to say.
* * *
Billy Wishman’s home was much like Rick’s own, practically its twin. Not surprising as both were part of the same housing tract. Billy had gotten his after seeing Rick’s. “Classy, Rick,” Billy had said at that July 4th barbecue. When was it? Only a year ago. And Rick had helped smooth things with the realtor, as he would also do later with others on the crew. The realtor had been skittish at the thought of so many new buyers wanting to pay cash suddenly. In the end, the economic downturn had given the agent enough incentive to let Rick allay his suspicions. Money was money, wasn’t it?
Billy Wishman opened the door after one short knock. Or rather, he cracked it.
The soft, worried—and worriedly alert—sound of Billy’s voice leaked through the door crack: “Oh hi, Rick, how’s it going, Rick?” was all Rick needed to know that he’d guessed right.
“Kind of late for me to be knocking on your door, isn’t it, Billy?”
“Oh, that’s okay, Rick.”
“I wanted to let you know that I met with Ham tonight as discussed.”
“That’s good,” said Billy. “Okay, thanks for stopping by.”
Rick caught sight of black metal, chest-high.
With his shoulder and foot, Rick jammed against the door, making the crack wider, wide enough to reach in and grab the shotgun by the barrel. With a good hold on it, he slammed his body into the door, sending Billy backward. In the same instant he twisted the shotgun from Billy’s grip.
He cracked the shotgun open, turned it, and let the shells drop into his hand. He put the shells in the side pocket of his jacket, and leaned the shotgun against the wall behind him. Billy was prone on the floor, mouth in an O shape.
“Where are Margie and the kids?” Rick asked.
“Will they stay there?”
Billy nodded rapidly. “Everybody is asleep. No trouble. They won’t make no trouble. You don’t need to worry about them.”
“You can get up if you want,” said Rick.
“Thanks,” said Billy. “No hard feelings?”
“That depends,” said Rick. “You know families are off limits.”
“It wasn’t my idea, Rick. You know that. I even tried to talk Ham out of it. I couldn’t. I tried, but I’m not a good talker like you. I just couldn’t get him off the idea. You understand. And an order is an order. I got to follow orders. We all do. You would have done the same.”
“Except I could have talked him out of it, right?”
Billy swallowed. “But if you couldn’t, then you would have done the same.”
“Maybe. Maybe I’m doing the same right now. Maybe Ham gave me an order.”
“Oh, please,” said Billy. “I’m real sorry. How’s Kat? She’s not too upset, I hope. I’m sorry about the window. I’ll get that replaced for you. Of course, I will. I’ll do it first thing.”
“I’m not here to hurt you, Billy.”
Billy brightened. “Well, sure you’re not! I know that. We’re comrades. Soldiers. I knew that.”
“Then why the shotgun?”
Billy’s lips moved, but no sound came out at first, while he searched for something plausible to say. Then finally, “Home security. Just a precaution.”
“That makes sense,” said Rick.
“Hey, you want an orange juice or something? It’s getting on toward morning.
Rick did not move or respond, waiting for the silence to get to Billy, which did not take long.
“Okay, Rick. What do you want to know?”
“When you talked to Ham, what did he say?”
“The first call, or the second call?”
“Take them in order,” said Rick.
“First time, he just said go to your house and put a bullet through the front window. Said you wouldn’t be home, and that no one should be hurt. And I said—”
“I know what you said. You already told me what you said. You tried to talk him out of it, you said.”
“That’s right. That’s the God’s honest truth. I told him—”
“What else did Ham say?”
Rick frowned to express his disappointment with Billy’s answer.
“N-nothing but… I think he said it was a tough thing, but not to worry too much about it and it had to be done. He said something like that. I didn’t ask no questions. You know me. I’m solid. I don’t make waves. I do my job.”
“You’re a soldier, I know. And that’s all Ham said on the first call?”
“Okay, second call.”
Billy noticeably brightened. “About half an hour ago. He said forget everything, job well done, and so forth, and that we’re we all friends again. Don’t worry about it. All back to normal. I told him that was a relief, because there was no cause for anybody giving anybody else grief. Rick is a good guy, I told him. And we all ought to stay friends, just like always—” Billy caught himself and gulped. “Oh jeez, I forget you told me you only wanted to know what Ham said, not what I said. You told me that a minute ago. I’m sorry, Rick. I just felt you should know that I had your back and all.”
“I appreciate that. I’m going to need to use your house phone,” said Rick.
“Sure. Of course. There’s one in the kitchen. Did you go out without your cell phone?”
Rick didn’t answer. He went to the kitchen, picked up the receiver, and started dialing the ten digits he knew by heart though he had never dialed them before, because he wasn’t supposed to.
Glancing back over his shoulder into the living room, he watched Billy get up. Slowly.
Rick listened while the number rang four times. A male voice—not gruff and not soft, not young nor old—picked up and gave a one-word greeting. “Office.”
Rick identified himself.
“And?” said the voice.
“And I need to speak to someone about something.”
A pause. “What was your name again?” asked the not young, not old, not gruff, not soft voice.
Rick told him. He waited, listening to the tap tap tap of a keyboard on the other end of the line.
The voice returned. “You’re not to use this number. If you have any questions or concerns, you’re advised to take them up with your local management team. Do you understand?”
Rick didn’t say anything.
“Are you going to hang up now, or shall I?” said the voice, which now registered the slightest hint of annoyance.
Rick didn’t hang up.
The voice exhaled—pointedly. “Please hold,” he said. “I’m putting you through.”
The hold music was a Beyoncé tune. She was one of Kat’s favorites. Rick rested his hand on the cool marble counter top. Nicer than his.
Billy came cautiously into the kitchen.
“I’ll have that orange juice,” said Rick.
Billy nodded with a forced grin and went to the refrigerator. He took the bottle out. Not fresh squeezed, Rick noted with disappointment.
Billy took two glasses out of a cabinet and set them on the counter. He twisted the top off the orange juice container. The container gave him trouble, though finally the seal broke and the vacuum gave way with a thick and satisfying thunk.
Billy smiled as if to say, that was a close one! and poured juice into each glass. “Say, what with all that was going on and all, you didn’t happen to get a chance to ask Big Ham about our health benefits, did you?”
Rick didn’t say anything. Billy still held the orange juice bottle. He held it close to his belly, gripping and twisting away at its slippery neck compulsively.
“Marge still have those tomato plants out back?” asked Rick.
“Sure,” said Billy. “Not ripe now, but I’ll make sure you get a basket when they are. I’ll make sure.”
“After I’m finished with this call, I’m going to need to borrow a few things from you, is that all right?”
“What kind of things, Rick?”
“Just common, everyday household items.”
The orange juice bottle slipped out of Billy’s grip. He squatted and caught it, just an inch before the floor.
“Whoa!” cried Billy. “Did you see that! That was a close one! I almost lost it, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” said Rick. “You almost did.”
* * *
Rick left Billy’s, supplies gathered in a big leaf bag, with only about ninety minutes of darkness left to him. It was a toss-up now whether to proceed tonight, or wait. Each way had its advantages, but ultimately Rick decided to play it out immediately, in order to avoid complications. There were already enough of those.
Big Ham lived in another housing track, up on a big hill, but not too far.
The alarm at Big Ham’s house didn’t give him any trouble, alarms were how Rick had had gotten into this business, back in the day, and like any good craftsman who took pride in his skills. He had kept up with them even as he had moved into less hands-on work.
He went in through the garage, then broke effortlessly into Ham’s Mercedes, seating himself on the passenger side after dropping his bag of supplies behind the seat.
He took out his cell and dialed up Ham. The old man answered. Clearly, he’d been asleep, though Rick had guessed that from the silence of the house.
“What is it now?” mumbled Ham.
“Sorry to bother you so early, boss. We need to meet for breakfast.”
Ham groaned. “Call me later. About six hours. Jeez, Rick. Whatever it is can wait.”
“It concerns New York,” said Rick.
After a pause, Ham said. “Oh, yeah?”
“So you see we have to meet.”
Ham groaned. “Give me half an hour. Usual place.”
“Sure,” said Rick. “I appreciate it.”
The call ended and Rick glanced at the time. He leaned back on the headrest and folded his arms against the morning cold. He closed his eyes, knowing the sound of Ham coming into the garage would alert him when the time came.
* * *
When it did, Ham’s big figure practically blocked out the entire doorway into the garage. His hand went behind his back, to the holster in his waistband, when he saw Rick’s figure sitting in the Mercedes. Well, that kind of thing at so early in the day will make any guy jumpy, sure, thought Rick.
Rick showed his palms and Ham let his arm fall back to his side without drawing his piece. His expression held a look more curious than fearful. He approached his Mercedes. Rick leaned across and opened the driver’s side door for his boss.
“What gives?” said Ham.
“I’m sorry. It’s not good we should be on the streets at the moment. You better get in.”
“Oh, yeah? So New York is making a move on me. That’s confirmed? You confirmed it? How? How did you confirm it?”
“Who did you call?”
Rick gave him a look.
“You’re not supposed call them.”
“Any beef, you are supposed to go through me.”
“They told me that too,” said Rick.
“I’ll be surprised if this don’t come back on you. You broke a rule,” said Ham, grinning amiably. A friendly grin, a grin to say, I’m on your side. “I’m surprised they didn’t inform me yet.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
Ham’s grin disappeared. “Exceptions to every rule, I guess.”
“I don’t know,” said Rick. “There’s an exception to the no-call rule, though. One exception.”
Ham looked away. “Can’t report to the boss when you’re reporting on the boss.”
“You son of a—” Ham twisted in his seat, reached behind himself again, and this time he did come up with the shiny pistol that he’d holstered in his waistband. He held it on Rick with hesitation, a little thrown-off, most likely, by the fact that Rick had let him do this much.
“When you’re ready,” said Rick, “I’ll explain how this is going to go.”
“I’m the one holding the gun, Rick.”
“Guns don’t matter. You know how this goes. Orders from New York. You’re a soldier.”
“Men get desperate. Do stupid things. Are you sure that I won’t do a stupid thing, Rick? That could be bad for you.”
Maybe I should be worried, thought Rick. Ham had done some stupid things already, stupid things that had lead them to this moment. However, Ham was too curious to shoot him, at least so far.
“How do I know you really talked to New York? How do I know you ain’t doing this on your own?”
Ham adjusted his grip on the pistol. His hand looked slippery. A line of sweat beaded down the side of his face. “Ain’t I a good boss?” Ham asked.
Rick didn’t answer. He didn’t want to prolong the inevitable, and for another reason. No need to be cruel. No need to tell Ham the obvious. That he wasn’t a good boss. Even by his own standard he wasn’t any good. A boss doesn’t show weakness he had said—or words like it. Doesn’t order windows shot out on speculation. That’s no way to handle things.
Rick had spoken to New York, and New York had agreed. Or maybe New York had already made the decision and Ham had had every reason to be paranoid.
Rick was trying, was working hard in his mind now, to keep things on a professional and a non-emotional level. This is just a thing I have to do for work. He tried to make sure he kept thinking of it that way and not about how Ham had brought Kat and their home into it.
“This is how it will go,” said Rick. “You and me will drive out to the old stockyards. In the backseat is a garden hose and duct tape. You’ll run the hose from the exhaust into the window, taping everything up tight. You’ll start the engine, turn the radio on low, and just go to sleep.”
“Oh really? Why not just do it here?”
“Do you want Lorraine to be the one to find you?”
Ham looked down.
“Let the police find you. Let them tell her. They are good at that.”
“Poor Lorraine,” muttered Ham.
“She will be cared for, as long as you cooperate. You understand.”
“Health plan for wiseguys,” said Ham.
“What do you mean?”
“You were sayin’ the guys wanted some bennies, some security. You wanted to be taken care of. You want peace of mind. Well, we got that. This is us taking care of us.”
“Go ahead and hand me the pistol now,” said Rick.
Ham surrendered the pistol, and then Rick collected the holster from him too. After he secured these items, he instructed Ham to open the garage and back out.
“What about your car, Rick? Do you want to follow me to the spot?”
“I’ll ride with you,” said Rick.
“How will you get back?”
“I’ll be all right,” said Rick.
* * *
Rick waited in the field, watching the Mercedes in the tall grass and listening to its engine gently rumble, until everything was done.
Ham lay quietly, his head against the rest of seat, his eyes closed, and his face expressionless at the end.
Rick walked back north, using the stadiums as a beacon, until he came to the commuter bus lanes. There he waited until the first bus stopped. Because of the hour and direction—the morning commute had ended—he was the only person at the stop, and then almost the only person on the bus.
On the ride downtown he called Kat.
“It’s over,” he said. “You can head home whenever you want.”
“That’s a relief,” said Kat. “Will you be there?”
“I have to go into work. Actually, I have a stop to make before that too. I don’t know how long that will take. But I should be home by dinner.”
“Are you being careful?”
“Of course,” said Rick.
After the call, he made a few others.
* * *
Rick carried a cardboard box—the kind lawyers store files in—with him when he finally entered the backroom of Belltown Burrito Kitchen right around lunchtime.
From the somber but respectful looks on their faces, Rick knew that he would not have to say much to the crew. Billy knew most of it, and would have made up the rest, and then filled them all in.
All Rick could really add was that they didn’t need to worry about a thing, that everything was business as usual, that they should keep the widow Lorraine in their prayers and that funeral arrangements would be announced soon.
Conie shook his head. “A helluva thing,” he said. “Nothing to be done about it.”
“That’s right,” said Billy. “Nothing. Nobody’s fault, and nothing to blame anybody for.” He gazed up at Rick, his face hopeful.
“That right,” Rick told him. He meant it. Time to move on.
The boys were silent.
Although there was some shifting in the seats, some fidgeting and thumb-tapping, nobody pressed Rick for more details. They were good soldiers, they didn’t make trouble—only he did—and that’s why they’d pushed their grievances onto his shoulders. Not one of them could stand up to a boss, he supposed. They didn’t need details. In this business, if the boss handled everything on his own, orderly, thoughtfully, with nobody stepping out of line, a crew could run smooth for a good long while. Ham had showed him that. Old school, sure. But that’s what the boys were, mostly. Old school. Good soldiers. And it was his job now to make sure they stayed that way.
Rick flipped the lid off the cardboard box. He dealt out the packets. Two to a man.
“The blue packets are the health plan. The white packets are for the 401(k).”
He had spent all morning at the law firm used by the crew, arranging it. The plan would be funneled through the restaurant. Everyone on the actual restaurant staff would be getting the same deal because, as the lawyer explained it, the bigger the pool, the better the rate.
“This is what is called an ‘open enrollment period’ I’m told, so you guys need to take those home, look them over with your wives and what have you, and have them back to me signed in no less than a week.”
They didn’t need to be back to the lawyer for a month, but Rick thought better than to give these guys that kind of time. Better to keep it tight with this crew.
The boys stared at Rick with a kind of mild awe.
That was about it. Rick was looking forward to getting home to meet Kat. He’d been up all night, and he had the idea that a bubble bath with Kat was the thing to revive his aching bones and recharge him for the work ahead. So he tried to move it along. “Any questions?”
“I almost can’t believe this, Rick,” said Billy. “What did New York say?”
“Let me worry about New York” said Rick. “I’m the boss.”
Michael Canfield has published horror, mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, and just-plain-odd stuff in StrangeHorizons, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, The Pedestal, and other places. His story “Super-Villains”; was reprinted in the Fantasy: The Best of the Year series, edited by Rich Horton. Born in Las Vegas, he lives in Seattle and blogs occasionally at www.MichaelCanfield.net
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Health Plan For Wiseguys”
“A Health Plan For Wiseguys” represents the kind of “what if” piece we look for. It takes a well-establish theme about “the mob” and turns it a bit sideways to yield a well-developed story with superb characterizations and a not-totally-expected ending. With an opening that pulls the reader into the story, it’s a well-written, imaginative piece—precisely what we want.