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Authors: Christopher G. Moore

Paying Back Jack

BOOK: Paying Back Jack
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Paying Back Jack

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Paying Back Jack

A NOVEL BY
CHRISTOPHER G. MOORE

Copyright © 2009 by Christopher G. Moore

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.

Originally published by Heaven Lake Press in 2009

Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America

eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9891-4

Grove Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West
www.groveatlantic.com

For Busakorn Suriyasarn

ONE

CALVINO'S LAST SPORTS jacket was ruined when Nicky “the Toad” Marras's blood splattered over the lapel and down the pocket. A couple of things to bear in mind about Nicky the Toad: he didn't die, as Calvino only punched him in the nose after the Toad had reached a knife hidden inside his boot. One of those fake Gurka knives sold by street-side vendors. The Toad had an affinity for blades. He pulled it when he got drunk and argumentative, or started getting mad over some contested World Series statistic. The year Joe DiMaggio was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame and half a bottle of whiskey had set him off. It was the kind of thing the Toad could kill someone over.

Calvino's maid had sent the bloodied Gucci knockoff to the dry cleaner, and the dry cleaner had sent it back with a note. It seemed that Nicky the Toad's blood was as obstinate and mean as the man himself. Nothing could be done to remove the stain. They could sew on some patches, but it wouldn't look like an original Gucci anymore but more like a counterfeit tailored inside a Bangkok sweatshop. And that blurring of the distinction between an original and a counterfeit pretty much summed up Nicky the Toad, who'd watched too many gangster movies.

Calvino had moved on from that night in Bangkok, as had Nicky, back in New York. Calvino's law: After thirty years without any contact, an old school friend surprises you with a trip to Bangkok, gets loaded, starts coughing up old grievances, and reaches for a gun to settle scores; you may have to hit him hard and sacrifice a perfectly
good sports jacket. Life was a series of blowbacks but blood is one that sticks to the clothes and to the memory.

A light drizzle outside cast a mid-afternoon gloom over the interior of Venice Tailors, a hole-in-the-wall Sukhumvit shop house tucked underneath the broad concrete arch of the Skytrain. Everyone said it was climate change that had made the weather weird, out of sync. Vincent Calvino stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the far end of the shop. He was the only customer. With an election up in the air, no one had been spending. People held tight to their money, planning to use it for an emergency escape—except for Calvino, who had nowhere to escape to. Arms stretched out, eyes closed, he meditated and let his mind float. Circling around him was Tony, the Thai-Chinese tailor, a measuring tape draped around his neck, a piece of blue chalk in one hand. Slowly Tony removed the jacket from the wooden hanger, pulled it onto Calvino's left arm, swung it around, and then threaded Calvino's right arm inside. Grinning and bobbing his head, he admired the final work in the mirror. Only the name of the shop and the Italian posters had any real connection to Italy. Customers played along, pretending that Tony was actually a Tony and that he channeled a line of Italian tailors back to Leonardo Da Vinci.

Tony's assistant, an elderly Thai called Uncle, sat at the cutting table on a high stool, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Uncle had liver spots sprayed on his neck and hands like he'd been hit by a double-barrel blast of buckshot. He drank green tea for energy and flashed nicotine-stained teeth. In front of Uncle were stacks of well-thumbed fashion magazines bought secondhand from service staff at five-star hotels. Zegna, Brioni, Kiton, and about every other high-end brand were in the glossy ads and editorial features. Tony studied these images the way a counterfeiter examined a hundred-dollar bill. Sadly, imitation was dismissed as second-rate. Tony had turned it into high art.

Tony signaled his assistant to switch on the lights. The overhead neon fixtures flickered, the light danced off the faded posters of Grand Canal, the Coliseum, and Palazzo Vecchio. Tony had never been to Italy, but that didn't matter much. He was a brilliant copyist. He'd mastered the ability to copy the fine detail from the silhouettes, using similar fabrics, and that was enough to come up with a replica
that would have fooled the hardcore fashion-conscious New Yorker. Tony's reputation had drawn many customers.

“Don't look, boss,” said Tony, who had slicked-back hair and a diamond pinky ring. Tony adjusted the shoulders and buttoned the middle button of the jacket. In the back of the shop Tony's wife sat on the floor with a couple of kids, watching a game show on TV.

Calvino opened his eyes and looked in the mirror. It had been Colonel Pratt who'd suggested it was time to up his game. Calvino was half-Italian, and convincing him to buy a stylish sports coat had taken no arm-twisting. Tony had made a perfect Brioni knock-off. It looked like a five-grand jacket—powdery blue with cream windowpane, a cashmere-and-silk blend, with dual back vents and hand stitching. Tony had worked his magic.

“Do you like?” asked Tony.

Calvino raised his arm, watching the sleeve rise slightly. “I fixed the sleeve from last time,” said Tony. This had been the third fitting.

“It's okay.”

Tony yanked down on the back and the jacket tapered at the waist.

The assistant made a grunting laugh and gave the thumbs-up sign. “Very beautiful, Khun Winee.” Then the wife looked around the corner, tearing herself away from the game show to pipe in with her two cents: “You look like young man, very handsome. You now high-society man. Women like you too, too much.”

Calvino unbuttoned the jacket and shot her a look in the mirror. The last thing Calvino wanted to hear was that he looked like some overdressed Chinese merchant who couldn't tell a merlot from a shiraz. He liked the jacket. It had exceeded his expectations and his budget. Even unbuttoned, there was no sign that he was holstering a handgun.

“Tony, it's good work.”

For a second he thought Tony was going to hug him and kiss him on each cheek. But there were limits to how far down the Italian turnpike Tony was prepared to go. Instead he put his fingers together in a
wai
and gave a little bow toward Calvino. All that Tony knew about Italians came from fashion magazines and American gangster films. He understood the essence of tailoring: a man's jacket made a statement about him. The perfect man's sports jacket occupied a
middle zone between “back off” and “fuck off,” and Brioni had figured out the dress formula for a man who walked in that no man's land.

Tony had a special feel for fabrics and a gift with needle and thread, and he took pride in recreating the best of Italy. High style on a backpacker's budget had always been one of Bangkok's draws for visitors. A bit of self-delusion was all that was required; the rest could be pure Thai. Tony understood suits could be a problem in Bangkok temperatures. The heat, searing and raw, gave the impression that the universe was dragging you through a vapor trail of a supernova. Calvino had said, “I gotta be able to breathe.” Walking around the city in a jacket could be like wheeling around in a portable sauna. So Tony had gone inventive making a jacket without lining in the body except for a few secret pockets. He read that
farangs
liked creativity, so he got creative.

Calvino turned to look at himself in profile. Semi-badass, he thought. Tony had taken extra care to tailor the jacket so his leather holster and .38 police special wouldn't bulge. A real badass didn't need to advertise that he was packing. He glanced at the large clock on the wall. He had an appointment with a new client, General Yosaporn. The General had been retired for many years, and Vincent Calvino had been the first private eye he'd ever hired. The General had been glad to pay the fee. And Colonel Pratt, a member in good standing of the Royal Thai police, who had introduced Calvino to the General, had suggested using part of the money for the new jacket. It was a jacket for impressing a new client. On the job, the upscale tailoring might draw too much attention. “Time to go, Tony.”

Calvino paid the freight and stepped outside onto Sukhumvit Road. He opened his umbrella and walked to the crosswalk. The new jacket made him feel good. He had put on a light blue shirt and a yellow necktie with gray stripes. They matched his soft black leather Italian shoes. Walking down the street, he told himself the rain didn't matter. The rain adds something—a pinch of mystery, a teaspoon of intrigue, he thought. My wet hair gives off a noir posture—or I could be just another guy fresh from the gym.

In a lot of big cities, a good pair of brass knuckles was worth more than a bucketful of gold rings. As he walked along, he thought about the pocket Tony had made for a pair of brass knuckles. “That was thoughtful of him,” Calvino said to himself. He'd reached the crosswalk,
what the English called a zebra crossing, a term that fit well in Bangkok. Only a wild animal would cross at the designated place. Drivers of cars, motorcycles, taxis, trucks, and buses saw a crosswalk and stepped on the gas. He watched the traffic. Colonel Pratt had told him that gold was all anyone needed in Bangkok. That's why skinny, brainy men went for the gold. They could buy muscle. A bus rumbled past, blowing out a glacier-melting belch of black fumes. Calvino, hands in his pockets, feeling on top of the world, asked himself, So what came first? The chicken or the egg? The brass knuckles or the gold rings? It was the kind of dilemma his mother had loved. What do you want with knowledge? It only drives you to know how little you can ever know. What's the point of that?

A clearing appeared in the traffic. Calvino edged onto the crosswalk and was halfway into Sukhumvit Road when a gray Benz—one of the upper-end models with tinted windows that cost the same as a village upcountry—came straight at him. He saw the driver inside, a woman on a cell phone eating satay chicken (it might have been pork), but she didn't see him. The car brushed his side—a grazing blow that felt like the bare tip of a bull's horn passing just inside the bullfighter's red cape. It spun him around and he lost his balance, falling on one hand in the street. A group of schoolgirls who might have taken him for an aging NBA star started laughing. Falling down, better yet coming up bloody, was always good for bystander laughter. Slowly he rose to his feet. The Benz was long gone. He wiped his hands together and found his umbrella. It had been run over and ruined. Clutching the naked spines, he nodded his head, eyes half-closed, and meditated for a moment, trying to find that quiet space within. Not finding it, he opened his eyes and saw the schoolgirls waiting for his next move.

He stopped in front of the 7-Eleven at the top of Soi 33 and examined his jacket and tie in the window. Finding himself in one piece, he figured he'd won. One more time he'd crossed Sukhumvit Road on foot, leaving him wide-eyed, with his heart racing—all the necessary elements for post-traumatic flashbacks. Colonel Pratt would like the story. Calvino walked tall, head up, shoulders back, as he turned into Soi 33. The General had had two influences on him. He'd provided the cash for the jacket. And he had introduced Calvino to meditation. Inside Venice Tailors, he had practiced his meditation as Tony
hovered around him. It had cleared his mind, opened it to every possibility as Tony had asked him what he thought. He'd had no thoughts.

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