Her heart was lonelier than Sergeant Pepper’s and the whole fucking band. I could see that from across the bar, not that across the bar was like seeing across space and time. It was more like twenty feet and, at that time of night, the view was relatively unobstructed. She had last call girl written all over her. Don’t misunderstand, she wasn’t a call girl. She wasn’t even much of a girl. At least thirty, she hadn’t fit that description for quite some time. What I mean to say is that she was the kind of woman who probably had more than her share of men, but only because she understood that desperation was her ally. She was that pair of shoes on the discount rack you bought because you needed shoes and you only had so much money and the store was closing. When the bartender screamed “Last call for alcohol,” it was her mating song. She was a last call girl.
I watched her quarry approach, lean into her, buy her a drink, watched them leave: him on unsteady legs, her propping him up. I imagined the sting she would feel tomorrow morning when she saw that look in his eyes, when he was no longer too-full of drink and desperation, no longer in need of that last pair of shoes, when dashed hopes would again break her lonely heart. But as fascinating as she was, she wasn’t why I was here.
I was here because I was bored. It was that simple. I couldn’t stand another minute as a shopkeeper, selling wines to nouveau riche assholes who understood even less about quality than I understood about the role of subatomic particles in the structure of the universe. What they thought they understood was the implication of price, which meant they understood very little about substance or value. Well, fuck, when your president is an ex-actor—and not a very good one—and the world of high finance turns on junk bonds and hostile takeovers, value and substance don’t count for much, do they? I was here because I’d taken the kind of gig I vowed never to take when I got my license. I was here to watch the Spider’s back and this particular spider lacked the evolutionary adaptation of rear-facing eyes to do the job himself.
Having grown up around the corner from one another, Spider and I had been friends for as long as I could remember. Dick Thomas got the handle Spider because he was a gangly bastard as a kid, all arms and legs, each limb seemingly with a mind of its own. He wore thick glasses and dressed like an unmade bed, but he stuck out for all sorts of reasons in the old neighborhood. In a place where you were either Jewish or Italian, a place where Jews could recite the Hail Mary and the Catholic kids ate bagels and lox, being a Wasp marked you as a freak. We had no clue what Protestants did or what they were about. Another thing about Spider was that he always had a book in his hand. Always. He once told me he had visited worlds the rest of us couldn’t even imagine. I suppose he told me because he thought I was smart enough to understand or maybe it was because I was the one kid in the neighborhood who, even then, had his back.
If our senior class at Lincoln had voted on the least likely among us to become a gangster, Spider Thomas would’ve won in a landslide. Yeah, but you can’t pay attention to that kind of shit. Spider sure as hell didn’t. He graduated from Baruch College with a degree in accounting and promptly set about building an empire. He ran underground gambling parlors all over the five boroughs of New York City, a few in Yonkers, and one or two on Long Island. He made sure not to step on anyone’s toes, glady, even eagerly, sharing as much as fifty percent of the profits with either the local Mob families that controlled the territories his clubs were in or with the gangs that ran the remaining territories. They were thrilled to get the cash without taking any of the risk. Because of Spider’s largesse, his de facto partners provided protection against robbery and police raids.
“Moe,” he once told me, “when you spend your whole childhood trying to not get the shit beat out of you, you get good at figuring out effective survival strategies. After the first time I got held up for my lunch money, I started keeping half the money hidden in my sock. It kept everybody satisfied. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.”
Spider was happy to take his percentage of profits from the clubs and invest them in a wide range of legitimate businesses. Though the corporate structures were thickly layered to hide his interests, Spider Thomas now owned small pieces of two off-shore banks, car dealerships, fast food restaurants, a string of convenience stores, gas stations, and a chain of laundromats. Laundromats, I liked the irony in that. Spider had turned his legitimate businesses into a money laundering juggernaut. That’s what this meeting was about. The Russian mob was known for controlling its own money laundering, but a group of young up-and-comers from Brighton Beach were considering farming out a sizeable chunk of their laundering operations. They weren’t of the generation that had spent hard time in Soviet prisons and they weren’t particularly interested in American prisons either. They wanted to spread the risk around. That was always Spider’s foot in the door, his understanding of risk versus reward.
“You ever play golf, Moe?” Spider asked me a couple of years ago.
“Not much. Why?”
“It’s my favorite sport.”
Spider was the most unathletic person I’d ever known and couldn’t picture him driving a golf ball more than fifty yards using a Howitzer. “You play?” I asked, trying not to sound completely incredulous.
He laughed. “No, but I love it. Every decision a golfer makes is a calculation of risk versus reward.”
I once had a client who compared golf to chess. In his opinion it was the ultimate thinking man’s game. I didn’t know what it was about golf, but people seemed to see all kinds of deeper truths in it that were lost on me. Maybe I’d take it up someday. Yeah, right after cliff diving and lion hunting with knives.
McGee’s Tavern on 7th Avenue in Park Slope had once been an old school Irish pub, but was now a bastion of Yuppie-ness. The bar menu featured things like grilled figs and goat cheese on focaccia crisps and the bar itself offered twenty brands of single malt scotch at prices that would curl your nose hairs. Park Slope was where people who weren’t from Brooklyn lived in Brooklyn precisely so they might remain apart from the hordes of the great unwashed. Native Brooklynites like Spider and me and transplants like the Russians detested Park Slope. The Russians hated it because it wasn’t Brighton Beach and they stuck out like circus clowns at a funeral mass in this neck of the woods. Because both parties despised the neighborhood, McGee’s was deemed the perfect meeting place—Brooklyn logic. In spite of McGee’s unfortunate turn to fusion cooking and pricey scotch, the owner was amenable to renting out his backroom after closing time. He didn’t give a shit about who was renting it or why. For him it was simply a matter of when the room was needed and how much you were willing to pay for the privilege of its use.
The idea was that there was to be no muscle at the pow wow. Each party was allowed to bring an unarmed and unaffiliated second as sort of security blanket. That’s where I came in. I was definitely unaffiliated and, for the only time since I got on the job in the late 60s, unarmed. I didn’t like it, but those were the rules. In a nod to paradox, the seconds were to arrive first and neither was to participate in the meeting itself. I suppose that made sense. When your goal is to discuss the process of turning huge sums of dirty money into piles of nice clean cash, you don’t want any witnesses to the proceedings. The meeting alone amounted to a criminal conspiracy under the Rico Act and could earn each party a long bid in a federal penitentiary.
Neither of the principals had yet arrived, but I’d spotted my opposite number the moment I walked into the joint. It would have been tough not to. He was ugly as a rotten peach and big in a very unflattering way. Fat? He wasn’t fat exactly. He was what my mom used to call husky or chubby, not terms you heard much anymore. Not very ego affirming and definitely bad for self-esteem. Worse for his self-esteem was his outfit. In a crimson, double-knit leisure suit, he was about as inconspicuous as a steamed lobster at a white sale. He was 50 if a day and what little hair he had was gray and unkempt. Still, I knew better than to judge him as no threat. Just because he was supposed to be unarmed didn’t mean he was and I’d had the piss kicked out of me by some pretty rough motherfuckers who looked like they’d go down in a stiff breeze. I wasn’t sure he’d made me right away, but since we were the only two guys left at the bar and the stickman was busy restocking the beer cooler, my guess was he’d figured it out.
I raised my glass of Dewars to him as a gesture of kinship. He kind of snarled his lip and grunted. He was no threat to Billy Idol, believe me. I shrugged my shoulders, went back to sipping my drink, and gnawing on bar mix until the Spider and his potential business partner arrived.
When Spider first approached me about the job, I asked him why he wanted me there.
“You’re a Russian Jew. They’re Russian Jews,” he said as if that explained it all.
“It’s not that simple, Spider. It’s not like the Masons. We’ don’t have a secret handshake. They’re not Russian Jews like I am. First off, I’m a Ukranian Jew. There’s a big difference. When my family lived over there, my Zadeh’s two biggest worries were the foot pedal on his sewing machine breaking and the Cossacks raiding the shtetl. These guys…that’s not how they were raised. Their parents and grandparents were suckled on Stalin and the State. These guys are rough characters.”
But it was as if he hadn’t heard me. “Shtetl, I like that word.”
“I heard you, don’t worry. But they’re Jews,” he said. “I’ve grown up with you, surrounded by Jews my whole life.”
“Oy, Spider,” I said. “These guys aren’t Jews the way you know Jews. They pretty much grew up godless, without religion like you know it. I may be as lapsed a Jew as there is, but I’m the chief rabbi of Jerusalem compared to them.”
“Moe, the bottom line is I trust you to have my back. You always have, even when it cost you. That’s why I want you here.”
The Russian arrived first. I’d been told his name was Yuri, not that I believed it was his real name. Whatever his name, he was rather more elegant than his second. Then again, that wasn’t saying a whole lot. I’d seen dancing bears who were more elegant than my opposite number. This guy, Spider’s counterpart, was in a different league. His gray, chalk-striped suit was Italian with a thread count in the millions and his alligator shoes, also Italian, cost more than the bartender was going to make this week, next week, and the one after that. His shirt was custom made. His yellow power tie was Hermes all the way from Paris and his watch was handmade in the Alps. I wondered if it yodeled every hour on the half hour. He had piano fingers with manicured nails and slicked back black hair like Pat Riley, but I wasn’t dumb enough to think America had softened him up. He had nice white teeth, but a hard mouth and a cold expression that nearly frosted my glass.
“I am Yuri,” he said to me. He gave his vicuna topcoat to Dancing Bear, ignoring the man completely.
“I’m Moe.” I nodded, not offering my hand. Yuri didn’t strike me as a handshaker. “You don’t mind if I take a look at your topcoat, do you?”
Yuri smiled, though it didn’t exactly thaw my glass. “Very thorough. This reflects well on Spider,” he said. “Sergei, give the coat to Mr. Moe.”
Sergei. So, Dancing Bear had a name. He handed me the coat. It was lovely and I treated it with respect. It contained no weapon that I could find and I handed it back to Sergei.
“It’s clean,” I said.
“So, Mr. Moe, to be equitable, would you mind if Sergei were to…what is the phrase?” Yuri pretended not to know. I believed that about as much as I believed his name was Yuri.
“Frisk me. Pat me down.”
“Yes, exactly that.”
I raised my arms up to shoulder height and spread my legs wide so that Dancing Bear might have full access to the goods. Sergei was even uglier close up and he didn’t smell much better than he looked. He didn’t seem like much, but, as I suspected, Sergei was a nasty piece of work. I could tell he’d done this a thousand times before. His hands were practiced and strong. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out he’d been a cop somewhere along the way.
“Is not with weapon,” he said with a snort, turning to his boss. There was little doubt in my mind that Sergei was simply a flunky and on the regular payroll. I didn’t say it aloud, but I thought the choice of a stooge reflected badly on Yuri’s judgment. Having a guy’s back sometimes meant more than being a tough guy and if Yuri’s needs stretched much beyond patting people down, he was shit out of luck with Dancing Bear.
When they were done with me, it was my turn to frisk both of the Russians. Christ, there hadn’t been this much feeling up in Brooklyn since Candy DiNardo’s parents went on a cruise and she invited everyone in the sophomore class at Lincoln to her house for a makeout party in her basement. That was the night I got my hand under Susan Maestro’s bra and touched a hardened nipple for the first time. Man, that was a feeling I would never forget.
“Why you smile like idiot?” Sergei asked.
I was awfully tempted to say something about mirrors and Sergei’s familiarity with smiling idiots, but I kept it to myself. “Just thinking about a girl from a long time ago.”
“Ah, a sad romantic,” said Yuri. “You are Russian?”
“Ukrainian Jew. My people were from outside Kiev.”
“Me too, from the Ukraine. Odessa,” he said.
“The Black Sea, huh?”
Yuri flashed that smile again, warmer still this time.
“How about Sergei?” I asked. “Odessa too?”
“No. Is Russian born in Chechnya. Strong like bull. Dumb like ox. Loyal like dog.”
“Very good, Mr. Moe. Yes, Sergei was cop in Grozny, but he was greedy. He got caught selling weapons to the Muslims.” Yuri wagged his tapered index finger. “Very bad offense. The Muslims will rise up when Soviet Union crumbles. Lucky for him, he saved my brother’s life in gulag.”
“Loyalty works both ways.”
“To a point, yes.” Yuri looked at his Swiss watch. “Spider is not late, but…”
“No,” I said, looking at my own. “He will be here exactly on time. It’s Spider’s way.”
As I said it, I realized I had once again underestimated Spider. That I was here as much to put Yuri at ease as I was to act as a second or to provide security. My guess was that Spider knew all along about Yuri being Ukrainian and that once we got talking, Yuri would find out about my heritage. I was meant to be a kind of calling card for Spider, a preview of how he did business. My being here would show his potential partner how thoughtful and rational Spider was, that he considered his choices and acted wisely and in everyone’s best interests. My being here would prove more about Spider’s worth than endless words. When he finally walked in, Spider’s job would already have been half finished. He would just need to close the deal.
Then there was a sharp rap at the glass door of McGee’s and the four of us—the barman, Yuri, Sergei, and me—turned to look. And fuck me if it wasn’t the last call girl.
“Let me in,” she said, her desperate voice muted by the glass. “Let me in, I forgot my bag. Let me in, please.” She kept rapping on the glass with the underside of a thick ring. “I’ve got my house keys in there. Let me in.”
The barman dipped under the service bar and moved to the door. The keys were in the lock, but he turned back to us for a thumbs up or thumbs down.
“Tell the bitch, no.” Sergei said. “Go ‘way!” He waved at her and shouted.
That did it. She started crying those lonely heart tears and the pounding on the door got louder and more frantic.
“Let her come,” Yuri said. “Let her come.”
Even as the bartender turned the key, I got that sick feeling in my belly. I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew something was wrong. As he pulled the door back to let her in, I went over in my head everything that had happened since I walked into McGee’s. The barman dipped back under the service bar. He reached down and came up with a too-large black leather bag. Fuck! That was it, I thought. She didn’t have a bag.
“Run,” I screamed, as I dove behind a table. “Run!”
But it was way too late for that. The last call girl had already stuck her hand in the bag and come out with a .40 Beretta. Sergei went first, his white shirt dyed red with his own blood to match his crimson leisure suit. Her second shot caught him flush in the face and the back of the rotten peach exploded. Dancing Bear would dance no more. Then it was Yuri’s turn. He too had taken cover behind a table, but with the hollow point ammo she was using, he might as well have hidden behind a wall of papier mache. I didn’t so much see Yuri go down as I heard it. The last call girl calmly walked over to where he’d fallen, took aim and redecorated McGee’s plank flooring with Yuri’s viscera.
I peeked over my useless cover to watch her turn the Beretta on her accomplice and blow the barman away. She wouldn’t need to waste a second bullet on him. I heard her heels clickety-clack on the floor as she strolled toward me. Funny, I didn’t think about my wife Katy or Sarah my daughter. I didn’t think about much of anything except Susan Maestro’s right nipple hardening to the clumsy touch of my fingers. Not sure if I was breathing, I closed my eyes and waited.
“Better get out of here, Moe, and take this,” said the last call girl, handing me an envelope. “The cops will be on scene in less than two minutes and my employer won’t approve of them finding you still here.”
I didn’t have to be told twice. I was smart that way.
Ten blocks away, I could still hear the sirens. It sounded like half of the precincts in Brooklyn had responded to the call. I pulled to the curb under a street lamp and opened the envelope. There were ten, crisp thousand dollar bills folded into a sheet of lined paper. All the note said was this:
Just golf, Moe—risk versus reward. Hope the money is thanks enough.
Don’t worry, you’re safe.
I drove to the nearest Catholic church I could find and put the cash, all of it, into the collection box. In spite of his talent for laundering money, Spider wouldn’t’ve been able to get the blood stains off those bills with all the chemicals in the world. He was right about me being safe, though for months afterwards I paid an awful lot of attention to people walking up behind me on the street. It was silly really. I’d been around long enough to know that if it was coming my way, I would never see it coming.
I never saw Spider again, not alive, anyway. About a year after the thing at McGee’s, they found pieces of him in plastic garbage bags in Sheepshead Bay, the Gowanus Canal, and the lake in Prospect Park. Some parts they didn’t find at all. Now Humpty Dumpty had someone to keep him company. I went to the funeral, but hung back. I wasn’t in a reunion with his family type of mood. A man came and sat down in the same pew as me, a few feet to my left. He was very well dressed and appointed and there was something vaguely familiar about him. After a while, I couldn’t help but sneak glances at his profile. His face was like a word on the tip of my tongue. I knew it, but I couldn’t quite place him. Then he turned to me and spoke in a thick Russian accent.
“You know Spider?”
“I did,” I said, placing the face. This man looked like an older, rougher version of Yuri. His brother, I thought: the one from the gulag. “Did you know him?” I asked, trying not to lose my breakfast there in church.
He smiled a frostier smile at me than his brother had managed. “Yes, we had business together.” He spit on the floor and twice brushed his palms across one another in. “Now business is done.”
He stood and left without looking back. I followed his lead and didn’t look back.
Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman is the New York Times-bestselling author of thirty novels—including five in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series—short stories, poetry, and essays. In addition to his acclaimed series characters, Moe Prager and Gus Murphy, he has written the stand-alone novel Gun Church and collaborated with decorated Irish crime writer Ken Bruen on the novel Tower.
Reed is a four time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories: Best Novel, Best Paperback Original, and Best Short Story. He is a four-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year. He has also won the Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He has been signed by film director Michael Mann to write the prequel novel to the movie Heat.
With their kids moved away to far off Brooklyn, Reed, his wife Rosanne, and their two Siamese cats, Cleo and Knish, live in the wilds of Suffolk County on Long Island.