Authors: John Prindle
Text Copyright © 2014
Poison Arrow Press
The Art of Disposal
The Wetwork Edition
fully restored, revised, corrected
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
“Eddie wants to talk to you,” Dan the Man said.
Of course he did. This was the big day after all. I closed my eyes and waited, the phone cold against my ear.
“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, 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
sick,” I said.
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, where we live 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 vacuum cleaners sitting extra visibly in the main window. I set up the office aquarium with a dozen angelfish, and the guys practically fight over who gets 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.
Then Eddie took me out for a quick bite at the Totsy and asked if I’d be up for the job.
“I never done any wet-work,” I said.
“I know. 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 homemade shampoo-bottle silencer. 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 into the river,” 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.
“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 Paolo 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.