by Jason W. LaPier
The lights in the garage were off, but the morning sun came through the windows, smearing through waves of dust to dimly illuminate the space. Emilio’s Mustang, white, gleaming. Shelves of neatly stacked paint cans. The rack of long-handled lawn and garden tools, each meticulously cleaned before being hung. Golf clubs. Fishing poles. Hunting shotguns.
In the middle of it all, Emilio hovered above. As if someone had taken a snapshot as he began his ascent to Heaven, his hands spread, his head bowing, tilted slightly to one side to say a last goodbye to his favorite Earthly possessions. Though his pale face was not serene; it was bunched and angry, cheeks bulging into squinting eyes, neck stretched long and reddened by the orange extension cord that snaked around it twice before slithering up into the rafter. Dancing among the motor oil, paint fumes, and cleaning chemicals was the distant but unmistakable smell of excrement.
“Why haven’t you cut him down yet?”
At the sound of her voice, the three living men in the garage flinched and turned to face her. They were all in their tracksuits, bright, gaudy blues, contrasting with Emilio’s understated pinstripe pajamas.
“Angela.” Chance stepped in front of her, his broad shoulders blocking her view. He rubbed his bristly gray hair with a thick hand. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to see him like this.”
He shifted, and though he didn’t touch her or step closer, he had a way of using the weight of his physical presence to push others away. She could see in his body language that he didn’t want her there. His hands went out to the sides in a non-aggressive, sympathetic gesture, but she felt it as the spreading of wings, the cornered animal making itself bigger to drive off a threat.
“Joey called me,” she said, because she knew Chance hadn’t known.
“I thought she should know,” Joey said apologetically from the other side of the garage.
Chance turned to direct a heavy frown at his young associate. The glare caused Joey to fidget, and he pointed up at Emilio. “You want me and Buck to get him down?”
Joey’s twin was stalking around the garage, looking up and down, hand on his chin like he was playing detective. “Has to be a hit,” he said with a short, decisive nod.
Chance turned away from the boys, once again spreading those hands in front of her. “Angela, you should go. Let us take care of this. I’ll have Joey call you.”
She stepped to the side. “What did you say?”
“Definitely a hit.”
“Clam it, Buck,” Chance grunted.
“A hit?” Angela shook her head. “You think this is a hit? Where’s the gunshot?”
Buck blinked and pointed vaguely. “There’s no gunshot. He was just hung.”
“That’s not a hit. That’s suicide.”
“A hanging can be a hit. Joey, remember two years ago over in Mills End? Remember Lefty?”
“Lefty Mason,” Joey murmured. “Southside Crew hung him in his own garden shed.”
“Hey, what’d they hang ol’ Lefty with?”
Joey cocked his head in thought. “I don’t know. It was a garden shed. Maybe an extension cord?”
“Well did anyone look for a note?” Angela said.
“A suicide note.”
They all looked around dumbly for a moment, as if a note might appear suddenly and bite one of them on the hand. She didn’t want to believe someone would do this to Emilio. It was too much work, too elaborate. It was easier to believe he took the time to do it to himself. He could have been depressed. He should have been depressed.
She stepped closer to the twins before Chance could start flapping those wings at her. She tugged a flask from inside her jacket and unscrewed the top. “Who was with him last?” She took a swig, savoring the burn of the gin on her throat. “Last night.”
“Well,” Joey said sheepishly. “Buck dropped off Candy at about eight o’clock.”
“Yep,” Buck said. “She didn’t stay though. Called me for a ride home at ten.”
“And who found him here in the morning?”
“I did,” Chance grunted. “Ten AM.”
She took another hit. “So he was alone from ten last night until ten this morning?”
“Ain’t you supposed to be in AA?” Buck said.
Joey slapped his twin on the shoulder. “Don’t be a dick, Buck.”
“He sent the girl home at ten,” Angela said, thinking out loud. “I still think this could be suicide.”
“But there ain’t no note,” Buck said.
She glared at him, screwing the top back on her flask. “Selfish to commit suicide, even more selfish to not leave a note. Sounds like Emilio to me.”
Buck’s hands fell to his sides and he frowned. “You know, he was like a father to me and Joey.”
Joey slapped his twin’s shoulder again.
“I want to talk to the girl,” Angela said, tucking the flask back into her jacket.
“Angela, you should really let us handle this,” Chance said. “It’s our responsibility.”
She ignored him and pointed at Buck. “Text me her address. I want to talk to her now.”
It was a tiny apartment, the kind where the kitchen, living room, and dining room were all one room. The couch as pink as the dishes stacked in the doorless cabinets, the carpet worn and patchy, dust-gray shades covering the single, small window. The place smelled like sugary candles and stale cigarettes. The girl stepped aside to let Angela in and a shimmer of silver blurred toward her, stopping short just inches away. The German Shepherd widened his stance, bared his teeth, and rumbled a low growl.
“Justice!” the girl said, bending down to clap her hands in front of him. “Stop it! Go lay down.”
The dog blinked and looked from the girl to Angela and back, then straightened up nonchalantly. Ignoring them, he began sniffing around the carpet in lazy circles.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said. “He’s very protective.” She stuck out a hand. “You’re Angela, right? Joey told me-” the upbeat note caught in her throat and she sobbed suddenly, redacting the offered hand to cover her mouth.
“Let’s sit down.” Angela took a step toward the couch, then opted for one of the two chairs at the small, round table. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Candy,” the girl said quietly, sliding into the other chair and dabbing at her eyes with the sleeves of a long, black night shirt.
“What’s your real name?”
She looked at Angela, blinking tears away and clearing her throat. “Candy. Short for Candice.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought…” Angela trailed off.
“What did Joey tell you.”
Candice fought with a sob, shuttered it back. “Emilio’s dead.”
“He said he thinks it was a heart attack.”
She sniffed and cocked her head, dark roots showing at the base of her white-blond hair. “No. Well. He said to be careful who I talk to.”
Angela sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Candice. You might have been the last person to see Emilio.”
“Oh, God,” she said, and began crying openly.
The German Shepherd came around and nosed her gently in the leg, but she kept her face in her hands, making a muted squeaking sound. The dog gave up and moved on to Angela, dropping his head into her lap and peering up at her with arched eyebrows. She ran her fingers through the soft fur on his head and scratched him behind his ears.
“Oh, he likes you,” Candice said, momentarily breaking from her suffering.
The tip of the dog’s tail wiggled. “Yeah, I guess he does,” Angela said. “Maybe I should get a dog like this. I bet he’s a good guard dog.”
“Oh, yeah,” the girl said. “Nobody fucks with me when Justice is around.”
Angela’s hands moved down the dog’s neck and kneaded into his thick shoulder fur. “We had a dog just like this when I was a kid.”
She took her hands away as a memory overtook her. She must have been eleven years old. The dog had been in the family since the day she was born. Her parents had gotten him as a puppy when her mother was pregnant. Named him Kevin, but Angela renamed him Chewie as soon as she was old enough to talk. That dog never left her side, they spent every single day together. Then one day there was something wrong with him. He was always so loving, so gentle, but something had changed. Her father said he just went screwy in the brain, that it happened sometimes with dogs.
There was an incident, and Chewie bit one of her father’s friends. He wasn’t Chewie in that moment, he was something else. Chewie was gentle, always licking and nosing everyone, but this dog was an animal, eyes bulging, baring teeth and locking onto the man’s forearm. Blood streaming onto the carpet. The man clamoring and cursing. Her father punching the dog to get him to release his grip.
The dog had to be put down after that. Her father put a leash on Chewie and dragged him into the back yard. She wanted to go, but her mother held her back. She heard the pop, like it was nothing more than a branch breaking. The sound was so innocent, she thought maybe he hadn’t done it, maybe Chewie was coming back. But her father came back into the house alone and set down a black-as-night pistol onto the table and then went to the liquor cabinet.
It wasn’t until several years later, when she was a teenager – after her parents split – that she realized when a dog has to be put down, most people take it to the vet. Get a shot, watch the dog drift into breathless sleep. Until that realization, she thought that shooting an old dog with a Glock 17 was the normal way to deal with it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t offer you anything,” Candice said. “I only have soda. Do you want some?”
Angela felt the flask in her left hand, the fingers of her right working open the screw top. She must have pulled it out without thinking, and froze for a second, caught in the act. Then she opened it and took a hit. “I’m good, thank you. You want some gin?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Yeah me neither. Four years sober.” She took another pull and closed the flask. “Listen, Candice-”
“Call me Candy. I hate Candice.”
“I want you to tell me about last night.”
The girl shifted uncomfortably. “About … last night?”
“I don’t mean that. I mean – Emilio. I want you tell me how he was acting. What was his mood?”
“He was happy,” she said, and looked down at her hands. “When I got there. Later he was upset.”
“Was that when you went home?”
“Yes. He – he got a phone call.”
“I don’t know. But he was upset. He was yelling. I – I’m sorry, but I don’t like to be around when he gets like that.” She lifted her head, a fleeting moment of defiance. “So I called Buck. I went outside to wait for him, and then I came home.”
She found his cellphone on the kitchen table back at the house. The call history ended at 6:22PM, when he had called Buck, presumably to arrange for Candy to come over. She looked around for a suicide note while she was at it, but the place was uncluttered, as usual, and if there was a note, it would have jumped out.
She fell to the couch, sinking into the fat cushion. She could hear the faint murmur of men barking at each other in the garage. The flask came out of her jacket and she let the taste and the burn close her mind for a moment. To be nothing – nothing but heat and flame. What it would be like, to be fire. She squeezed her eyes tight, but nothing would come. No tears, not even a tickle of wetness.
She opened her eyes and found the flask light. Not empty, but she might as well top it off from Emilio’s reserves. He wouldn’t need it. When she stood, the keys she’d left on her lap slid onto the floor. When she bent down for them, she saw another phone, just under the couch.
It was a prepay, cheap and clunky in design. It took her several minutes of trial and error to find anything in its abbreviated menus. Then she began to piece something together.
Text message received, 9:32AM: getting everything set up. expect call tonight.
Text message received, 1:19PM: last chance. we good?
Text message sent, 1:28PM: were good
Call received, 9:58PM, lasted 18 minutes.
Missed call, 10:19PM.
Text message received, 10:32PM: where r u? call back?
Missed call, 10:46PM.
Missed call, 11:27PM.
Missed call, 12:14AM.
Text message received, 12:19AM: call me back
The texts and calls were all to the same number, and it was the only number in the phone’s history.
She went to the liquor cabinet. She selected a bottle of Hendrick’s, topped off her flask, and screwed the top back on. Then she sent a text.
She stood in the silence of the house. She had nothing, no idea what to do. She should be letting Chance handle things. He’d been around forever, and this was the kind of shit he knew how to deal with. But for some reason, she couldn’t leave it be.
The phone chimed.
we need to meet. safe to call?
She breathed out long, slow. Her finger danced around the top of the bottle she’d just poured from. She pulled it back. Hit the call button on the phone.
“Jesus, where the fuck you been?” The voice was a man’s, but not one she recognized. When she didn’t answer, he said, “Hey, you there?”
She made her voice low, quiet, distant. “Yeah.”
“Everything got all fucked up. We need to regroup. You still wanna do this?”
“Alright. We’ll talk more in person.” There was a shuffling in the background. “Go to the Southeast Shore Marina. Come to the drydock. Look for a sloop called Trermuda Biangle. Forty-five minutes. Okay?”
She hung up and stood there numbly for a moment. Was that voice familiar at all? She couldn’t grasp anything. She never paid attention to the people around her, around Emilio.
She opened the cabinet below the liquor shelf. Inside was a wooden box, in the same place it had always been, at least for twenty years. She opened the box. The Glock 17 was still there. She had not looked at it in a long time. When she was a girl, she saw her father put it there. He never used it again, and when no one was around, she would pull out the box and open it. She would sit cross-legged on the floor and cry for Chewie.
She took the gun and a clip out of the felt lined-box. She slid the clip into place and checked the safety. She tucked the piece between her stomach and waistband and headed for the garage.
Joey slipped out of the narrowly-opened door in the kitchen as she approached. He closed it behind him and stood in front of it. “You don’t want to go in there right now, Ang. Dr. Pisco is examining the body.”
“For what? On the off-chance he didn’t die of strangulation?”
“I’m sorry, Joey.” She stared him in the face, and his eyes met hers with an unchallenging softness. “Look, I need your help with something.”
“Um, okay. Of course.” He reached a hand toward her, stopping just short of touching her. “What do you need?”
“I need you to come with me somewhere. I need to meet with someone, and I might need … backup.”
“No questions, Joey. I need you to do this.”
“Okay, Ang. Whatever you say.” He frowned and looked at the door to the garage. “You want to talk to Chance about it?”
“No,” she said, too quickly, so quickly she surprised herself. “I mean, I just want to leave him out of it, just for now. We’ll come to him later if we need to.”
“Well, I gotta tell him something.”
She sighed, then tried to cut it off, tried to hide her anxiety, her impatience. Joey was right, he would need an excuse to leave with her. “Tell him I’m inconsolable. Tell him I’m going to pieces out here. Tell him you need to get me home. Tell him you’re worried about me.”
“I am worried about you, Ang.”
“Then tell him. And hurry up. We need to move.”
She lay in the grass on the hill just above the marina and scanned the drydock with binoculars. She couldn’t see any of the boat names, but there were only a couple of sailboats. In front of one, a black man in a brown suit jacket that looked too hot for summer paced back and forth.
She texted on the prepaid, almost there
Through the binoculars, she saw the man reach into his pocket and look at his phone.
“Okay, down there, just on the other side of that chain-link fence,” she said. She pulled down the binoculars to see Joey squinting into the distance. “Here, get a good look.”
He took the binoculars, then groaned. “What the fuck. Angela, that’s one of Roberto’s guys.”
“What’s his name?”
“Shit, I can’t remember.” Joey put down the binoculars and his eyes turned up in thought. “Jackie or Jackson or something. Why are you meeting with this guy?”
Roberto was a name she’d heard before, but she didn’t know what it meant, who he was. She never paid any attention to the organized crime political landscape. She avoided it as much as she could, and drank away any of it she accidentally learned.
“You just keep an eye on my sweet ass, Joey.” She allowed herself a faint smile, which she quickly dispatched. “Don’t get close unless you have to.”
She went down the other side of the hill and circled back around to one of the marina’s entrances. When she came through the gate of the drydock, she strolled around the middle aimlessly for a few minutes, sparing an occasional glance at Jackie-or-Jackson. He continued to pace, checking his phone and watching the entrance, paying no mind to the blonde woman who looked lost among the big-boy boats.
When she sidled up behind him, she surprised herself at how easy it was. The Glock poked into his kidney. “Don’t move. Breathe slow.”
He sighed and dared a glance over his shoulder. “You robbin’ me, Blondie? Gonna be disappointed if you is.”
“Call me Angela. Turn around slowly.” She kept the gun low but held steady. They were shielded from view of most of the world by the barnacle-coated hull of a sailboat.
“Alright, shit.” He turned, not quite raising his hands, but showing his empty palms. He looked her up and down. “Yeah, I know I know you from somewhere.”
She felt pressed to move things along. “You’re name is Jackie, or Jackson, or something?”
She laughed in genuine amusement, surprising herself. “You must have disappointed parents.”
He ignored her; instead realization creased across his face and he looked around, turning his eyes but not his head. “Where’s Emilio?”
“He’s dead, Jackie.”
His jaw went slack. “Aw, shit. Aw, man.”
“What kind of deal were you two cooking up?”
“Look, Blondie, I don’t know you-”
“I told you, my name is Angela. You made a deal with Emilio, now you deal with me. Got it?”
He stared at her long and hard, his dark eyebrows bending inward, his eyelids narrowing, then widening. “Shit. I know who you are. You a little Emilio-ette.”
“Good,” she said, cringing. “So talk. Make it fast, I don’t like standing around out here any more than you do.”
“Yeah, okay. It’s about treaty negotiations.” He put up his hands and made talking-puppet gestures with them. “Roberto and Emilio. Turf disputes. The three month truce expires next week and talks are set up. Emilio wants – wanted – the lower half of Chinatown back. But he needed leverage.”
“And you were going to help him?” She lowered her gun to see if the show of trust would get him talking faster.
“Yeah. See, one of Emilio’s guys shot my boy Randall in the back last Winter. Fucked him up real good, put him in a wheelchair, know what I’m sayin? So we were going to take care of this guy. Make it all dramatic, send a message. The kind of hit that Emilio would have to come back on.”
She chewed it over in her mind, wishing she didn’t have to sort out these political games. “So when Roberto and Emilio come to the table to renegotiate their truce, Emilio gets to play the outrage card because one of his guys just got whacked?”
“Exactly. My boy Randall gets payback – that we can’t get now cuz of the truce – and Emilio gets Chinatown back.”
“So I’m supposed to believe he would sell out one of his own like that?” She acted the part with indignity, but the truth was that she wouldn’t put it past Emilio.
“You know him better than I do,” Jackie said levelly. “Knew him, I mean. Besides, this guy-” he started, hesitating. “Our target; he’d had been a pain in Emilio’s ass for a while now. It’s what ya’ll white people call ‘win-win’.”
She knew she had to ask who the target was, but she didn’t want another name, another player. Someone else she was supposed to know and didn’t. She switched the gun to her left hand and pulled out the flask with her right. “Drink, Jackie?”
“Yo wait a sec, how did he die?” he said, stepping close to her. “How did Emilio die?”
“We found him in the garage this morning, swinging from the rafters.” She shoved the pistol into her waistband to free up both hands so she could get the top of the flask unscrewed.
“Oh, shit. This is bad.” Jackie’s long fingers went to his open mouth and he started pacing.
“Hey, don’t plan on going anywhere,” she said, aiming the flask at him. “I want some answers.”
“What I said before. Making the hit dramatic.”
“To send a message.” She brought the gin to her mouth, then paused, pulled it back down. “Oh, don’t tell me-”
“Randall’s idea. Everyone remembers that Lefty Mason hit a couple years ago. An old school hanging.”
“Who was the target, Jackie?” She grabbed at his jacket lapel with her free hand. “Which one of Emilio’s guys shot your friend in the back?” Again, she knew she’d heard these conversations when they happened months ago, but her willful ignorance clouded her memory.
“Oh, shit, oh, shit. Someone found out. If Emilio was hanging, someone found out what we were planning.”
Jackie Robertson’s head kicked to one side and the hull of the boat went red. After a delay, his body slumped awkwardly, his jacket sliding away from her hand, and her mind registered the high-pitched pop that had preceded it all.
She turned to see Chance, a silencer at the end of his pistol, still wearing his gaudy blue tracksuit, fifty yards distant.
He slow-jogged up to the body and leaned over it, then seemed to be satisfied with his work. “I always hated that prick,” he grunted. He turned to her, the gun not trained on her, but at the ready. “I told you to leave this alone, Angela.”
“You killed Emilio.” The flask in her hand trembled impotently. She stared at his gun, unable to to bring herself to pull her own from her waist. “You hung him with an extension cord in his own garage.”
“He was going to sell me out.” He kicked at the corpse. “To this asshole. They were going to hang me. All for turf.”
“Chance,” she whispered.
“Well now I get to take over,” he said, pointing his gun at his own chest. He turned it outward, waving it around at nothing in particular. “Now I get to go to war with all those motherfuckers. Roberto and all his bitches.”
There was a shadow that caused them both to turn, too late for Chance as the butt of Joey’s pistol came down on the back of his head. Chance’s gun dangled from his fingertips, then clattered to the concrete. He dropped to one knee, then to the other, then to all fours.
“Thanks, Joey,” Angela said. She heard her voice quiver, felt the flask of gin slip from her fingers, hitting the ground with a slap. She turned to him, her eyes finally tearing. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, Ang.” He put his hand on her shoulder and steadied her, but only for a moment. She looked into his eyes and saw the fear in them. She felt the Earth stop its rotation and restart in the opposite direction. Now he was steadying himself against her. “You’re the head of this family now,” he said.
“I thought maybe when he died, all of this would be over,” she said. “That I could just go my own way.”
“Your dad wasn’t a saint, Ang. But he was our boss.” Joey pulled his hand away and stood up straight and nodded at her, honoring her. He gestured at the barely-conscious Chance. “So, whachu wanna do with him?”
“I guess I’ll start with what my father would have done,” she said quietly. “Don’t expect me to make a habit of it.”
She raised the old Glock 17 and put down the disloyal man.
© 2014 Jason W. LaPier