Authors: Eoin Colfer
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Humorous, #Thrillers, #General, #FIC016000, #FIC050000, #FIC031000
Nobody but me.
Me and Mike had a tête-à-tête last year over a little fatal friction I had with his lieutenant. Zeb was in the mix too, which rubbed all participants the wrong way. The upshot being that I was forced to ask one of my Irish army buddies to make like an armed-to-the-teeth gnome in Mrs. Madden’s garden back in Ballyvaloo, just to ensure Zeb and I kept breathing Essex County air.
I felt a part of my soul wither when I threatened a guy’s mother. It was about as low as I’ve ever crawled but I couldn’t see any other way clear. Every day since I struck that deal I have honestly believed that part of the fallout from dealing with the devil is that you re-make yourself in his image. There was a time when threatening a guy’s mother was not on the table no matter what the circumstances, especially considering what my own mom went through.
I would never have made good on that threat, I tell myself daily. I am not that bad.
Maybe I can claw my way back to how I used to be. Maybe with Sofia lying beside me in bed, her hair backlit to a golden nimbus by the morning sun.
Listen to me. I sound like Celine Dion on a boat.
Anyhow . . .
Irish Mike Madden was only promising not to butcher Zebulon and me so long as his mom was alive, or rather he promised to kill us just as soon as his mom passed away. The nuts and bolts aren’t important as such. Basically, now that his mom is gone, this guy Mike has Zeb and me strapped over a barrel with our pants down and half a pint of K-Y Jelly wobbling on his palm.
I am in two minds about this latest development. I feel the familiar brain fatigue that comes with being tossed once more into the cauldron of combat, but also I am the tiniest bit relieved that Mrs. Madden died and I didn’t have anything to do with it. At least I hope I didn’t have anything to do with it. I better call my gnome when I get a minute, because the ex-army guy I had watching Mrs. Madden is known for being a little pre-emptive. Maybe Corporal Tommy Fletcher got fed up keeping an eye out.
I hear Zeb in my ear.
“Yo, D-man? You passed out on the sidewalk?”
Yo? Zeb loves his adopted culture. He called me bee-yatch last week and I had to knuckle him quite seriously on the forehead.
“Yeah. I’m here. Just had the wind knocked out of my sails a bit with that news.”
“Ah, Jaysus. We’re not pushin’ up the daisies just yet.”
“So what happened to the mother? Natural causes, was it?”
I hope to Christ it was natural causes.
“Some of it was natural,” says Zeb, with titillating vagueness.
I gotta admit, for a long time I thought titillating meant something else.
“What do you mean, some if it?”
“Well, the snow and the lightning.”
“Go on. Tell me, I know you’re dying to.”
“I wish you had FaceTime. This is a hard one to do justice without video.”
Zeb is really testing me now. I shouldn’t have disrespected his acting skills.
“Zeb. Lay it out.”
“Lay it out? Who the fuck are you? Shaft?”
I shout into the phone’s speaker. “What happened to the bloody mother?”
I have lost it and so Zeb wins.
“Calm down already, Irish. What the hell?”
Zeb is all about the games. His favorite one is pushing my buttons, but I have some game myself. The army psychiatrist taught me a little about manipulation, which wasn’t really on the lesson plan but he thought it might come in handy seeing as I was moving to NYC.
“Okay. I’m calm. But I gotta bolt now—meeting at the casino. Call me later with the blow by blow.”
I can hear the scrabble as Zeb sits up in his seat.
“Come on, Danny boy. You got time for this. Might be the last story you’ll ever hear.”
“Tell you what, leave it on the machine and I’ll play it back later.”
I’ve oversold it.
“Screw you, Danny. Goddamn meetings, my ass. You had me going for a second, but I’ll take pity on you. Old Lady Madden went skiing, can you fucking believe that?”
I presume this is a rhetorical question but Zeb waits for an answer.
“No, I cannot believe that,” I say deliberately.
“Well, believe it, Irish. This old lady strapped on her skis and struck out across the veld.”
“Veld. Field. That’s not Hebrew is it?”
“If you know what it ain’t, then why interrupt? It’s like you hate me.”
If there is something more exhausting than a conversation with Dr. Zebulon Kronski then I will shoot myself in the face before attempting it.
“Now it’s not downhill skiing, I’m not saying that, the woman was eighty-five for Christ’s sake, but she takes herself and her dog across the field to see her older sister.” Zeb giggles gleefully. “Older sister. You Irish people are made of volcanic material or some shit.”
“Get on with it.”
“There’s a storm brewing. Big smokestack clouds sitting on the hills, so Ma Madden decides to take a shortcut. A fateful decision, as it turns out.”
I gotta sit through this performance. No choice.
Fateful and smokestacks, fuck me.
“She clambers over a stile, which it took me a while to find out what the hell a stile was, let me tell you. So the old gal is Forrest Gumping over this ditch with her ski pole up in the air when an honest-to-God bolt of lightning hits the pole and blows Ma Madden clear into the afterlife. A bolt of motherfucking lightning.”
A bolt of motherfucking lightning. And there we have our weather reference, with apologies to Elmore.
“You gotta be kidding me?” I ask, totally non-rhetorical. I really want to know if Zeb is shining me on. He does this kind of shit all the time and nothing is off-limits. Last year, in the middle of my own hair transplant procedure, he told me I had skull cancer. Kept it up for three solid hours.
“I kid thee not, Dan. Boiled her eyeballs right in the sockets. One in a million.”
This is bad news. The worst. Mike never struck me as a guy with shares in the forgive and forget business.
“Maybe Mike is a bigger man than we think,” I say, totally grasping. “Maybe he realizes that the club is a good earner and he’s gonna let that thing we had slide.”
Zeb chuckles. “Yeah? And maybe if my Uncle Mort had a pussy I’d snort cocaine off his ass and hump him. No way is Mike letting anything slide.”
Uncle Mort and I have clinked glasses a couple of times, so now Zeb is responsible for yet another grotesque mental image that I will have to repress.
I feel that sudden icy terror in my gut that you get when you’ve accidentally forwarded an e-mail about a grade-A asshole to the grade-A asshole.
“Zeb, tell me bereaved Mike is not sitting opposite you listening to you blather on about his poor, recently deceased mother.”
“’Course not,” says Zeb. “I ain’t a total moron.”
“So how do you know he ain’t letting anything slide?”
“I know this,” says Zeb, calm as you like, “because Mike sent one of his shamrock shmendriks over to pick me up. I’m in the backseat being chauffeured over to the Brass Ring right now.”
“I better get over there,” I say, picking up my pace.
“That’s what the shmendrik said,” says Zeb and hangs up.
I am sincerely worried that my watchdog, Corporal Tommy Fletcher, has gone operational and wired this old lady up to a car battery. Violence never bothered him much even though his Facebook profile describes him as a loveable teddy bear. I would go so far as to say that some of Tommy’s more memorable wisecracks were inspired by moments of extreme violence. An example being one particular night in the Lebanon a few decades back when Tommy and I were Irish army peacekeepers trapped on a muddy rooftop with our colonel between a lookout tower and a bunker, listening to Hezbollah mortar shells whistling overhead. I was swearing to Christ I could hear the tune of “Jealous Guy” in the whistles and thinking to myself, Mud? There’s not supposed to be mud in the Middle East.
But the mud wasn’t the major gripe. Worse than that slick paste, or even the incoming fire, was the fear of death coming off the three-man watch in waves and how it manifested itself in our leader. The colonel who had been green enough to accompany his boys on watch rationalized that he wasn’t even supposed to be there and therefore he couldn’t possibly die.
Don’t these stupid bastards understand? he repeated in a voice that grew increasingly shrill. I only came out to show a little solidarity, for God’s sake. They can’t kill a man for that.
The colonel was right, the Hezbollah didn’t kill him, they just took one eye and one ear, which prompted one of Tommy’s immortal quotes in the billet a couple of hours later: Typical officer. Get on his bad side and he can’t hear nothing, can’t see nothing.
Oscar Wilde had nothing on Corporal Thomas Fletcher when it came to sound bites.
I decide to jog across to the Brass Ring. Downtown Cloisters is only a few square blocks, and a cab would have to follow the mayor’s new one-way system, which seems designed to transform honest citizens into raving psychopaths on their daily commute. Anyway, the run gives me a chance to clear my head, even though a shambling ape-man in a leather jacket is bound to draw what the hell was that looks from people who for a split second are convinced that they’re about to be mugged.
Guys my size are not really supposed to move fast unless we’re in a cage match, and usually I take it nice and nonthreatening among the be-Starbucked civilians, but today is a quasi-emergency, so I pound the pavement over to the Brass Ring. I say quasi because I’m reasonably sure Mike is not gonna do anything violent in his own joint, plus if he wanted to kill me, Zeb would hardly be afforded the opportunity to give me the heads-up.
Mike knows all about my specialized skill set, as another tall Irishman might say, and he has a proposition for me. I just bet that fat faux Mick has been planning his delivery.
You see, laddie. I’m a businessman. And what we got here is a business opportunity.
Except he says opera-toonity. For some reason he can’t pronounce the word right and I wouldn’t mind but he works it into every second sentence. Irish Mike Madden says opera-toonity more than the Pope says Jesus. And the Pope says Jesus a lot, especially when people sneak up on him.
Little things like that really get to me. I can take a straight sock to the jaw, but someone tapping his nails on a table or repeatedly mispronouncing a word drives me crazy. I once slapped a coffee out of a guy’s hand on the subway because he was breathing into the cup before every sip. It was like sitting beside Darth Vader on his break. And I’ll tell you something else: three people applauded.
It’s about half a mile over flat terrain to the Brass Ring, so I’m nice and loosened up by the time I get there. I don’t think I’m gonna have to crack any skulls, but it never hurts to have the kinks worked out. A person can’t just spring into action anymore once he gets past the forty mark. Once upon a time I could hump my sixty-pound backpack down twenty miles of Middle Eastern dust road; now I get short of breath putting out the garbage. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I can put out the garbage just fine but I was trying to make a point. Ain’t none of us as young as we used to be except for the dead. They ain’t getting any older. And I might be joining their ranks if I don’t focus the hell up and stop drifting off on these mind tangents.
Middle Eastern dust roads? Jesus Christ.
Mike bought the Brass Ring at a knockdown price after the previous owner found himself with a few extra holes in his person. The joint is about as classy as clubs get in Cloisters, Essex County. The façade has got a half-assed nautical theme going on that extends to the wooden cladding and porthole windows but not to the door, which is brushed aluminum with several chunky locks dotting the metal like watch bezels.
There’s a guy out front, smoking. He’s not that big, but he’s mean and twitchy. Also, this goon isn’t overly fond of me because I put a little hurt on him a while back. Actually I’ve kicked the living shit out of most of Mike’s crew at one time or another, so while I am welcome in this club, it’s the kind of welcome piranhas extend to raw meat.
“Yo, Manny,” I call, waving like we’re tennis buddies. “Mike is expecting me.”
Manny Booker jerks like he’s been slapped and I figure he’s flashing back to our last meeting.
“Just fucking calm down, McEvoy,” he says, his hand strangling the air in front of his breast pocket. This is because he’s aching to pull his cannon and shoot me, but he’s under orders never to draw in public.
“I am calm, Manny, but you look a bit jumpy. You worried I’m not outnumbered enough?”
“We got your friend inside, with a gun pointed at his face.” Manny blurts this out, right on the street.
I can’t look at Manny for too long because of his beard. He’s got one of these Midlake folk-singer bushes that are springing up on cool faces all over these days, which is okay, I don’t have a problem with that, had a nice beard myself back in the nineties. What makes me squirm is the fact that his wiry nose hair is so long that it grows right into the beard, so in effect he has a beard growing out of his nose. I’m not surprised Mike keeps him on the door; who could get any work done with a nose beard hovering around the place? Fecker’s beard hair is red too, so from a distance it looks like Manny got himself punched in the face and is fine with blood all over himself.
Nosebleed beard? People are animals.
I give Booker a nice shoulder-check on my way in, just to remind him of past pains. You never know, if negotiations break down, he might choose to run away.
The Brass Ring has got nice carpet, chocolate brown with golden thread. Plush is the word. And the bar has a comforting walnut burnish that gives a drinker confidence in the barman before he ever sets eyes on him. Irish Mike and eight of his boys are seated in the lounge with their pieces right out on the table. And there, in the middle, sits Zebulon Kronski, spinning one of his war stories. I think it’s the one about how we met in the souk outside UN headquarters in the Lebanon, where Zeb had set up an underground cosmetic surgery, supplying fillers to religious fanatics.
“So, anyways. In marches Daniel palooka McEvoy just when I’m about to inject a syringe of fat into the militia guy’s dick.”