There were probably twenty other people in the bar, scattered in twos and threes at various tables. The three main corner tables were taken out front, and there were people at probably four other tables on the floor. The six fans suspended from the ceiling turned slowly in the dim light, mixing the aromas of beer, cologne and whiskey with smoke, mostly from cigars.
The polished cedar-plank walls and bar complemented the mahogany floor and imbued the room with a quiet atmosphere. The walls seemed squat in the large room, as if barely containing it.
At the large round corner table in the back beyond one end of the bar, Big Joey Barbosa shifted and leaned forward in his chair. His off-white linen suit coat made him look even larger than he was. It hung open over a blood-red shirt with a neat linen tie that matched the coat.
As if in slow motion, he reached his cigar steadily across the table, seeming to measure the distance in inches. He stopped reaching, let his hand hover for a moment. Then he tapped an inch of ash off his cigar.
The fractured grey ash was a fitting contrast in the polished center of the black marble ashtray.
He mumbled, “We’ll see how long that lasts.”
Then he purposely retracted his arm, like a robot with the beginnings of rust in all the wrong places. He rested both elbows on the table and grimaced, then glanced up over the heavy black frame of his glasses. He locked Nick Leonisi in his gaze, regarded him for a moment, then leaned back in his chair again. “Hey listen, Nick, you’re a good friend. I mean that.”
“Sure, Joey. Hey, whatever I can do.” He shrugged slightly. “But hey, you know, anybody would’a—”
Bringing his cigar to his mouth, Barbosa waved it side to side. “No no. C’mon, don’t do that. You know better. I know better.” He puffed the cigar. “Most’a these mooks are just like a broad. Would’n’ gimme the time’a day if their middle finger was a fuckin’ watch.”
Despite himself, Nick allowed a laugh to escape.
Barbosa arched his eyebrows. “You like that? Yeah, I wish it was mine. Buddy’a mine, Steve Wedel. That was his. Guy’s some kind’a writer, that guy. Look him up. ‘Specially if you like weird stuff. You know, vampires, werewolves, shit like that. An’ all’a way out in Okladamnhoma too, y’know?”
He leaned forward again. “I mean, think about it. You think they got vampires out there?”
He leaned back and answered his own question. “A’course they don’t. I mean, they got what, like one person every eighteen square miles or somethin’? How’s a vampire s’posed to live on that?” He wagged the cigar in the air. “Well, you know what I mean.” He shook his head. “Hell, I don’t even know how people live out there. Dry, y’know? Arid even. No real trees. No real rain ‘cept when it comes all at once. But wind? Hey, they got lots’a fuckin’ wind.” He swirled one finger in the air. “Trouble is, it’s all round an’ stretched out, cloud to ground.” He laughed.
Nick laughed too and nodded. “Yeah yeah, I get it. Tornadoes, right?”
Barbosa shrugged. “Yeah. But what I was sayin’, most’a these guys are like a broad. Would’n give you the time’a day. You know, unless they smelled money.” He raised the cigar for emphasis. “Ah, but when there’s money, they’re like sharks in a blood pool with a fresh-faced white guy flailin’ his arms.” He laughed again, then looked away and gestured toward the bartender. “Hey Mickey, two more, eh?”
Some thirty feet away near the end of the bar, the bartender nodded. “Right away, Joey.”
Barbosa turned his attention back to Nick. He wagged his head and quietly mimicked the bartender. “Right away Joey, he says. Like he knows me or somethin’, am I right?” He moved the cigar in circle in the air and focused his attention on Nick again. “Hey, but look. I like your style, y’know? I like the way you took care’a that thing for me. So—”
Nick watched the cigar closely, and thought about money. He wondered whether Barbosa would mind if he lit a cigarette. “Hey, Joey, like I said, it wasn’t no prob—” He felt the big man’s gaze on him and refocused. It was as if the words had piled up in his throat. He looked at Barbosa. “Sorry, Joey. I didn’t mean’a in’erupt.”
Barbosa looked at him for an instant longer than necessary. “Yeah, hey, no problem. So what I wanted’a say, how ‘bout you join up with me an’—”
The bartender bustled up. “Here you go, Mr. Barbosa.” He set the first glass down a bit too hard. The glass thumped dully on the table. “Sorry it took a minute.” He glared at the first glass as if it were at fault. He was careful to put the second drink on the table more gently. But he was focusing on Barbosa, and he sloshed a little liquid out of the glass he set in front of Nick. “Ah jeez, Mr. Barbosa, I’m sor—”
Nick forgot himself. He jerked his hands back. “Hey, what is it witchu, eh? Ain’t you never served no drinks before?”
Mickey took a quick step backward. “I’m really sorry, sir. I guess I was bein’ too careful.”
Too careful? He couldn’t keep himself from continuing. “Yeah? Well how ‘bout you go be careful somewheres else, eh? Maybe where they ain’t wearin’ five-hundred dollar suits.”
Barbosa snapped his gaze up to the bartender. He hesitated, allowing the look to sink in. Then he said quietly, with an air of patience, “Mickey. Mickey, hey… can you not see we’re tryin’a have a conversation here? Eh?” He put the cigar in one corner of his mouth and spread his arms, palms up. “An’ as if the in’eruption ain’t enough, you’re pourin’ drinks all over my friend? You lookin’a wake up deep somewheres? Eh?” Barbosa moved his left hand across toward the right side of his dress jacket.
Even in the dim light, Mickey visibly paled. He straightened quickly, then took another step back. “Oh, no. No, Mr. Barbosa. Sorry.” He took another frantic step back and raised both hands in front of himself. He fairly screeched, “S-sorry, Mr. Barbosa! Sorry!”
His gaze still on the man, Barbosa pulled a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his jacket. He reached the handkerchief across to Nick as he frowned at the bartender. “So what, I’m gonna shoot you now? Here, in my own place?”
“N-no, Mr. Barbosa. Of course not. I just— I’ll get a towel.” And he spun on the ball of one foot and disappeared.
Quietly, Nick said, “Hey, Joey, I didn’t mean’a overstep there. The guy’s your employee, so—”
Barbosa said, “Hey, don’t worry about it.” He grinned, then gestured toward the retreating bartender with his chin. “This guy, eh?”
Nick thought Barbosa was about to shoot Mickey too. But he grinned. “Yeah. What was that all about?”
“Y’never know with these guys. Look, I’d like you to think about—”
Mickey hurried up again, almost running into the table. “Here it is, Mr. Barbosa. And a fresh drink for both of you. On the house.”
Barbosa looked at him and frowned. “What is goin’ on witchu today? An’ I am the house, you moron. Get the fuck outta here.”
Mickey set both drinks on the edge of the table, then turned back so fast he almost tripped himself.
Barbosa watched for a moment as the man retreated, then looked at Nick again. “As I was sayin’, I want you to come in with me an’ Johnny Red.” He put up both hands, palms out. “It ain’t nothin’ big, at least at first. But later on it can be as big as you want.”
Nick waited, not wanting to risk interrupting again. When Barbosa didn’t say anymore, Nick said, “So, ‘scuse me for asking—come in as what? An’ do I know this Johnny Red? I don’t recall the name.”
“Yeah, no, you don’t know him. I mean, you might’a met him at the place a time or two. He’s been there when you was there. My daughter’s wedding, an’ the reception after Ballsy Mac’s funeral. Maybe one other time. But that don’t mean you’d remember.”
With his right hand, he took the cigar from his mouth and gestured toward Nick with that hand. “He remembers you, though. It was his idea, bringin’ you in, I mean.”
“Yeah? So what’s the deal?”
“What you did for me, knockin’ off that piece’a trouble? That’s the deal.”
Nick frowned. “Sorry, but I don’t follow.” He followed the cigar with his gaze as Barbosa moved it to the ashtray again, tapped off the ash, and moved it back to his mouth. “Hey, you mind if I smoke?” He reached into his coat pocket and brought out a pack of cigarettes.
Barbosa said, “Nah, hey, a’course I don’t mind. But you don’t want one’a them things. Them thing’s’ll kill you. I should’a offered you a cigar.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a five-cigar case. He opened it and extended it. “Here y’go. Take one. Your choice.”
“Nah, really Joey, I don’t mind just a cigarette.”
Barbosa gestured with the case. “I insist. C’mon, we’re celebratin’ here.”
Nick looked at the case. There were four cigars, two longer at about seven inches, one at about six inches, and one at about five. All were close to an inch in diameter. He finally nodded. “Yeah, a’right. Thanks.” He took the shortest cigar and looked at it closely.
Barbosa closed the case and slipped it back into his pocket. “Here.” He put a double-blade guillotine cutter on the table and slid it across. “Just take off the top eight of an inch or so.”
Nick did, then looked at the cutter. “I never seen one’a these up close before. Is that gold?”
“Yeah. Got my initials on the other side too.”
Nick nodded. “Nice.” He handed the cutter back to Barbosa, who slipped it into his pocket.
Barbosa struck a match and reached the flame across the table. “Allow me. You just draw on it. I’ll move the flame.”
When the cigar was lighted, he shook out the cedar stick, dropped it into the ashtray and sat back again. He drew on his own cigar, then said, “So anyways, what you did for me on this last job. That’s what you’ll do in this new deal we got goin’. You know, if you want in.”
Nick frowned. “So I’ll be knockin’ off broads?”
Barbosa studied him for a moment. “Let’s not be crass, Nick. Let’s look at it as solvin’ problems, see. Solvin’ problems for guys who deserve it. An’ who can’t solve ‘em on their own.” Again he leaned forward. “An’ are willin’ to pay.”
He snuffed out the stub of his cigar in the ashtray, then slid it to the left across the table. “This is what business people call an untapped field of endeavor, Nick.” He laughed. “Ain’t that a mouthful?”
He held up the fingers on his left hand and ticked them off one by one. “Look, we got the drugs. We got construction an’ the teamsters. We got the numbers. An’ that’s good, but it’s all divided up. We got our little piece of New York, along with the other four families.
“Johnny Red’s got Cincinnati an’ Cleveland. Bologna’s got Chicago. Somebody else’s got Atlantic City an’ New Orleans an’ Phoenix. Couple others on the west coast, plus Vegas, right? So everything’s all divided up. An’ ‘at’s okay. We all get a slice’a the pie, see.
“But this new deal, it’s all ours. What I mean, no matter what area you’re in, this is a service nobody provides.
“This book I seen awhile back, there was a guy named Charlie Task. Fiction, you know. He advertised ‘Real-Time Solutions for Real-Word Problems’ see. An’ what’s the one thing most real-world problems have in common?” He held up his hands. “No, wait. First, lemme narrow it down. What’s the one big problem most real men have in common? That’s what we’re talkin’ about here. What’s the biggest common cause of their problems?”
Nick frowned again as he puffed his cigar, then gestured with it. “Women?”
Barbosa slapped the table. “Women! Sure!” He grinned and spread his hands.
Again, Nick gestured with the cigar. “Yeah, maybe. But whaddya gonna do? Like the man said, y’can’t live with ‘em, y’can’t can’t shoot ‘em.”
Barbosa’s grin drained from his eyes, then disappeared as he leaned forward again. “But that’s the thing. Most people can’t shoot ‘em, Nick. Most people.” He leaned back again. “Then again, they got no problem takin’ us out. Or more likely, usin’ some other poor sap to do it for ‘em. Hey, you got insurance? Fuggidaboudit. So what I’m talkin’ about here is kind of a pre-emptive strike.”
Nick said, “Oh, yeah yeah. I see what you’re sayin’. When you see ‘em comin’, get them before they can get you.”
Barbosa snapped his fingers, then pointed the index finger at Nick. “Exactly. An’ after you took care’a that little problem for me, it started me thinkin’. There’s a lotta guys out there who can’t solve their own problems. An’ I talked with Johnny Red. He thought it was a good idea, an’ he suggested you.”
Nick nodded. “So these guys, you mean they can’t do for themselves what I did for you.”
“Right, right. Too much publicity or whatever. An’ chances are, the problem will solve them first. ‘Cause I tell you, Nick, women fight dirty. A lot dirtier than we do.”
Nick held up one hand and grinned. “Hey, you don’t gotta tell me.”
Barbosa nodded and laughed lightly. “Yeah. Hey, they’re even dirtier than us pros, eh? An’ they’re everywhere, Nick. An’ they’ll come after us for whatever reasons, you know. Just like that one was comin’ after me, there are others out there, an’ they’re comin’ after other men like me. Like us.
“An’ it don’t even hafta be a wife with an insurance policy on ‘er mind. Maybe a guy’s the head of a corporation, an’ maybe his mistress gets greedy. Or maybe he’s a CFO with a dirty till and a secretary who has file access. Or politicians.” Again, he snapped his fingers. “Hey, our new endeavor could stay busy 24/7 working for nobody but politicians.
“You think about it, Clinton wouldn’a been impeached if this service was available when he came across Lewinsky. Heh heh, you know, so to speak. An’ ‘at Tripp broad, she’d’a took a trip all right. Heh heh heh.”
He leaned forward again. “What I’m sayin’ here, we can do a lotta good, see. An’ make’a lotta money in the process.”
Nick nodded and took a puff off the cigar. “So we identify women who are headed toward knockin’ off some guy, only we knock off the woman before she can get it done. Is that it?”
“Well, yeah. Sort’a. Only the guys—” He held up his hands again. “The clients, I mean—they do the identifyin’. We got no moral judgments to make, you know, who’s doin’ what or any’a that. We just get paid for doin’ a job. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Okay, so you an’ Johnny Red, you’re bosses. An’ I’m what, the button?”
Barbosa nodded, his gaze steady on Nick. “At first. At first. But as we grow, you’re a boss too. That’s why I said I wanted you t’come in with us. You know, instead’a sayin’ I got another job for you.”
A red flag went up. “Me? A boss?”
Barbosa already had run through all the territories. All of them already had bosses. What kind of boss would Nick be?
Again, Barbosa leaned forward. “Here, what I’m sayin’ is this. I want you to be Charlie Task. Only you’ll be in charge of how you do what you do. You’ll be the boss of that.” He shrugged and his voice changed like it always did when he slipped off his prepared speech and started ad-libbing. “You know, maybe you even bring in other guys, train ‘em to do what you do. All’a that. You’re the boss of that.”
That clarified it. He wouldn’t really a boss. He’d be a glorified capo with a specialized crew. Just another stooge lined up to take the fall. “An’ you an’ Johnny Red—”
“Me an’ Johnny Red are puttin’ up the dough. You figure out what you need, we supply it. Three-way split. Me an’ Johnny Red get 40 an’ you get 20. But we supply whatever you need: cars, guns, drugs—whatever. Plus we pay you your full split, an’ we pay whoever you get. We also find the clients an’ make the deals.”
“So my 20 is all profit?”
“Okay. What else? Oh, so do I know up front how much the client is payin’ us?”
Barbosa sat back and frowned. He spread his hands before him. “Hey Nick, ain’t I always treated you right?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m just sayin’, you know. It’s not personal. It’s just business. I mean, if I’m gonna be a boss, like you an’ Johnny Red only with a smaller cut—
“Yeah, but I explained the smaller cut, right?”
Nick nodded. “Yeah, sure. I got no problem with that. Only if I’m a partner, you know, another boss, I ought’a know how much the job is worth, right?”
Barbosa eyed him carefully. “Yeah. Yeah, you’ll know. Hey, we’ll work it out, right? I’m sure Johnny Red won’t have a problem with that. So we’ll work it out. You’ll know.”
“Okay, good. ‘Cause it’s just good business, right? I mean, for all the bosses to know what’s goin’ on.”
“Yeah, sure.” Barbosa seemed relieved, but also dismissive. “So you got any other questions or what?”
“You don’t mind?”
“You don’t mind if I got other questions? I mean, it’s business, right? An’ this is a big step for me.”
“Yeah. No, I don’t mind.”
“A’right. Just one more. The broad from the other night. Just for example, I mean. If you was the client an’ Johnny Red made the deal, how much would we bring in total an’ how much would I make? You know, just for example.”
“Just for example?”
“Yeah. You know. So I can see it in my head. So I can get if firm in my head.”
Barbosa nodded. “A’right, just for example. An’ we’ll use round figures, you know, to make it easy.
“Say I get a call from a guy, an’—”
“No, but you’re bein’ the client.”
Barbosa frowned. “Oh, yeah. Right. A’right, say Johnny Red gets a call. From me, right? An’ say I want this broad—”
“What’s her name?”
“What? What difference does that make?”
“I dunno. Maybe some, maybe none.”
“A’right. Maybe it’s Sue or Roberta or somethin’. Whatever. The guy—I want ‘er whacked for whatever reason. So maybe Johnny Red tells me it’ll cost me fifty large.”
“If he’s you, though?”
“Yeah, I mean, that’s the example, right? You’re the client. Or somebody equal to you.”
“Sure, okay. Then maybe he tells me a hunnerd grand. Okay? Easier to figure anyways.”
“So we tell the guy it’ll run him a hunnerd grand an’ then we get you the info an’ you hit the broad, right? Then I get forty grand, Johnny Red gets forty grand, an’ you get twenty grand.” He held up one index finger. “But again, me an’ Johnny Red pay all expenses, pay off any heat, an’ so on. All you gotta do is pull the actual trigger. You know, or whatever. Maybe it’s better if it looks like an accident.”
Nick nodded. “Right, right. An’ my twenty grand is clear, right? All profit?”
“Absolutely. Like I said, your twenty percent is all profit.”
Nick’s cigar wasn’t quite half gone. He nodded as he puffed on it a final time, then put it in the ashtray with the tip toward the center. “Hey, good cigar, Joey. An’ thanks. But I guess I’ll have to stick with my cigarettes. You know.”
“Yeah, yeah. What you’re used to. I get that.”
“Yeah, stick with what I’m used to.”
Barbosa hesitated for a moment as he watched Nick tap the rounded end of the cigar so that it slipped farther into the ashtray. The burning end. Then he frowned. “So what’s this all about, Nick? I mean, I asked you here to hand you a golden ring. But you don’t seem all that excited at the opportunity. Plus you’re still talkin’ about the broad from the other night.”
“No, I appreciate it, Joey. I just wanted some particulars, that’s all.”
“An’ I got ‘em. An’ I guess I gotta decline. I mean, you’re payin’ me what, five grand for the broad the other night? I mean, I guess that’s the standard, right?”
Barbosa’s eyebrows arched. “What? Have you not been listenin’?” He sat forward in his chair. “Hey, Nick, the other deal ain’t done yet. That was just you pushin’ a button for me, right? So yeah, five Gs. You know, if you need a little more all you gotta do is say somethin’. But then plus this opportunity.” He frowned and sat back. “What’s got into you?”
Nick shrugged. “Nothin’. You know. Only a guy’s gotta watch out for himself, am I right? I learned that from you, Joey.”
Joey frowned. “Why you talkin’ like this? You don’t want in, just say you don’t want in, that’s all. You an’ me, we go on like before an’ I’ll find somebody else to—”
“But I do want in, Joey. Or I would if it was real. I mean, it sounds like it’d be a sweet deal.”
Barbosa frowned. “It is a sweet deal. You kiddin’ me? Wait— Whaddayou mean, ‘if it was real’?”
“So you didn’t hear the news about Johnny Red?”
“News? What news?”
“He’s dead, Joey.”
Joey gripped the arms of his chair and sat up. “What? How?” From force of habit, he glanced around, then shifted his attention back to Nick. Almost in a whisper, he said, “What happened?”
Nick reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. He tapped one out of the pack, then slipped the pack back into his coat pocket. “Gunned down. He was gettin’ out of his car at a sports bar.”
Joey sat back. He paled slightly and reached for his wine glass. As he brought it to his lips, he said, “So when did this happen? An’ how’d you come to know about it?”
Nick put the cigarette between his lips as he reached for his lighter. He kept his attention on Joey the whole time. “Happened last night about nine p.m. Karen told me.”
“Karen? Karen who?”
Nick lit his cigarette. A thin blue trail of smoke curled up past his left eye and he moved his head slightly to avoid it. “You know. Karen. I guess she arranged it.”
With his cigarette between his index and middle finger of his left hand, Nick pointed at him. “Yeah, that’s the one.” A slight smirk tugged at one corner of his mouth.
“You lied to me? But you—”
“Nah, now come on, Joey. You know me. I never lie.”
Again, Barbosa glanced around, then leaned forward and pointed at Nick. “You said you popped that lousy broad!”
Nick smirked. “No, I said she wouldn’t bother you no more.” He raised a pistol from beneath the table and fired once.
After the explosion, the world was silent for a moment. Then everyone else in the place rushed out through the front door.
A red spot appeared on Barbosa’s tie.
His shoulders arched, and then he raised one hand to cover the hole.
He looked at Nick, his mouth hanging open. “What?”
“An’ she won’t. Guaranteed.”
“An’ she’s payin’ me fifteen grand. ‘Bye Joey.” He fired again and the bullet struck Barbosa just above the inside of the left eyebrow. His mouth retained a perfect O shape.
Nick calmly slipped his pistol back into his coat pocket. “See, Karen had this idea. Seems there’s a lotta women feel a need to knock off the jerk they’re with.” He pushed his chair away from the table, then stood and repositioned the chair. “Not for money, though. Just because.” He laughed. “That’s the beautiful part.”
As he turned away, he said, “Like you said, Joey, it’s an untapped field of endeavor.”
* * * * * * *