“Much Worse Ways” by Joseph Hirsch

This was Ant’s first time in Ohio, and he wasn’t impressed. Pennsylvania, he knew from the Poconos, but this was pure boondocks. The sticks. His passenger, Carmine, didn’t seem to like it either.

The morning sun came rushing through the tinted windshield of the rental car, and Carmine spoke while playing with the rounds in his Desert Eagle. He had a habit of ejecting a magazine, and thumbing the top round, depressing the spring action over and over again. It annoyed the hell out of Ant, especially since they weren’t here to shoot anyone. Probably.

“Nothing,” Carmine said. He was sneering at the cornfields and silos, but sneering was his default state. He had mad black eyes, cold bird of prey eyes that swam in a face that was all hard edges and angles. His ears were short and tight to his head, like the cropped ears of a fighting dog, and he had a habit of sniffing, as if constantly picking up errant bits of powder from his last toot.

“There’s something,” Ant said. He pointed to a billboard rising on a pylon arm, with a passage from the Bible pasted up there in bold black letters.

Carmine did what he did, snorted, sneered, shook his head. “These hillbillies and their Jesus shit.”

Ant looked over at him askance, taking his eyes from the road for a moment, and away from the horizon where the sun was rising. “You ain’t Christian, now? You turn Muslim in the Bing?”

“Comedian.” Carmine at least stopped playing with the Desert Eagle, which was an improvement. He slammed the mag home and chambered a round with the blued slide action.

Ant watched the road, kept his left hand on the rubber grip of the rental’s steering wheel, fiddled with the radio with his right.

“You’re wasting your time,” Carmine said. “Nothing but sister-fucking preachers on there talking about how you’re gonna go to hell if you don’t send them fifty bucks.”

Ant rolled his eyes. He could afford to do it. He was wearing sunglasses. His passenger was a world-class fuckup, and everyone knew it, but his uncle still pulled enough weight in this crumbling Thing of Ours that when his nephew got caught dealing, he didn’t die. He got a courtesy beating (the bruises of which were still healing) and busted down from capo to soldier, but that wasn’t what should have happened.

His ass should be decomposing in quicklime, or providing feed for the guppies in the Hudson, but the Big Hand of Grace had interceded on his behalf. He should have been grateful but that wasn’t in his nature, either.

Ant had fought the thought that came to him, but since it was the truth he could only struggle against it for so long. He knew that working collections with him was supposed to be a humbling for the kid. Ant was a go-nowhere, non-promotable face in the crowd, he knew. There was something a little too gentle, a little too sad about him.

It wasn’t that Friends of Ours couldn’t trust him; it was just that he reminded them of some uncle with a hangdog expression, someone who might be told to hit a guy and bring back his finger, and return later only to tell the boss that the job was done, but that he hadn’t had the heart to make the poor bastard part with his digit, especially after he caught sight of that wedding band.

He sighed. Then he looked over at Carmine, who was edgy, clenching his teeth like a snake working its jaws around a field mouse. The monkey was on the kid’s back. He’d go back to the powder, to dealing and using, and he’d probably get another free pass instead of ending up pushing up daisies.

The cornfields flew past on either side of the road, a sea of glowing stalks. “You want to stop off for a coffee before we go check on this kid?” Ant waited.

Carmine didn’t seem to hear him. He was gazing out of the passenger window, suddenly somber, as if he were a prisoner being transferred from one joint to another and this was the only time he got to see the free world.

“Carmine?”

“Nah,” Carmine said, and shook his head. Ant realized he’d heard his question, but had just been doing his own space cadet thing there in the passenger seat. “Let’s collect. I want to get back to the city.” He sniffed. “Enough with this Children of the Corn shit.”

****

Hardball road had turned to a private drive, and as the car’s shocks absorbed the bumps in the pavement, clouds of reddish dust flew up and coated the windshield. Now it was Ant’s turn to sniff. Something like morning glory or milkweed out here was making him runny.

Carmine looked over at him with something like hope in his blackish eyes. “You got a bump?”

“Allergies,” Ant answered.

Carmine’s piece was tucked now, just like Ant’s black Beretta, but the older shylock could tell the young hothead was thinking about his gun. Maybe he needed the adrenaline that came with clipping someone, as a substitute for coke. Maybe coke would have been better for him, Ant thought, if the only other option was clipping guys to get his rocks off.

Carmine squinted. He had forgotten his sunglasses on the nightstand back at that Motel 8 that smelled like jizz and piss. “So this guy owes the Man Upstairs a quarter mil?”

Ant nodded. “That’s the book on him.”

The road was more uneven now, and the luxury Town Car rollicked as if it was a covered wagon crossing the prairie.

“And we ain’t even supposed to collect? Not break anything, not even rough him up? Just make sure he’s okay?”

Ant had been in this game much longer, and didn’t feel like the kid was entitled to an explanation, but if his own explaining kept the little shit from talking, well then, he was happy to drop knowledge on the knucklehead’s curly dome.

“First, Ohio ain’t New York. Collections rarely involve making problems disappear. Maybe you get away with that shit in Cleveland. Not out here.” He looked out the side windows as if they were on rural safari, the red beeches and white-barked oaks thick and high enough at the shoulders of the road to form walls barring the light of the following sun.

“Yeah, you’re right. We stick out. These Opie Cunningham types would probably lynch us like moolies. We’re probably the darkest motherfuckers out here.”

Ant didn’t answer that, but the truth was he felt like giving Carmine a slap; open-handed, sure, but just a little something fresh to go with those retreating purple bruises on his face. Ant didn’t feel personally all that comfortable out here in the boonies, either, but he’d been around some real Oakie type white guys back when he got drafted in the Army a million years ago and he found that some rednecks could be alright.

“There,” he said, pointing.

A wooden post fence ran alongside the right shoulder of what passed for the road now. Fiberglass boulders, the kinds rich people used to build fake waterfalls, were at the edge of the property line. There were imported palms, probably shot full of formaldehyde like the Vegas palm trees, to keep them from withering in this hostile climate. The main house was in the distance, settled at the spur of a hill. It was a Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired spread, timber and rich gray stone built around a central A-frame roof.

The clay beneath the wheels crunched once, announcing the transition to gravel. Motion sensor misters ejected bright jets of foamy water that caught sunlight and formed wet rainbowing beams that shot skyward. One of those little trains that kids ride at petting zoos started to life and clacked its way across a narrow-gauge rail track, trailing them as they drove. A conductor’s whistle tooted and a jet of steam burped from the train’s lead car and caboose.

Ant was bemused, his partner a bit disgusted. “Who is this fruit? Some kind of chomo?”

“Nah, he does a lot of handicapping for the Man Upstairs and the other bosses, and a little bit of betting.”

Carmine looked over at him wide-eyed. “Two fifty in the hole isn’t peanuts.”

Ant looked back at him, held his eyes. “It is when you’re making the bosses five mil a year. Also, this kid always pays his debts on time.”

“Not this time,” Carmine said, shaking his head.

“I know.” Ant stopped the car in front of a low fence made of galvanized pipe at the entrance. “That’s why we’re here.” He threw it in park.

Carmine undid his seatbelt. Ant thought that was funny, a cokehead who played Russian roulette with his life and owed stacks of paper in all five boroughs but wore his seatbelt. What the hell kind of actuarial tables was this kid consulting?

“Five mil a year I would have heard of,” Carmine said, getting out and slamming the door loud enough for its report to echo through the fields like a shotgun crack. “You forget, I got my own juice operation and I hear things.”

You got your own debts, too, Ant wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead, he adjusted his own gat holstered beneath his khaki windbreaker and said, “He doesn’t go in for football, baseball, anything like that, so no one you know takes his action.”

Ant pushed the pipe fence slightly and found it was open.

“What’s the guy’s poison?” Carmine said. If Ant had just looked at his face and not listened to the words, the kid would have looked like a hissing vampire. His eyeteeth were visible and his ears pinned back even farther now, almost like those of a bat primed for echolocating prey. Everything anyone ever said seemed to piss him off. Only the sound of his own voice put a smile on his face, but the residue of the expression usually subsided to the default cokehead rage when it was the other guy’s turn to speak again.

“Fucking cricket,” Ant said, and laughed. This client was a world-class weirdo, no doubt about it, but he was also some kind of gambling savant, a numbers-cruncher who had his own software program he invented and used to watch for patterns. And he let the bosses know when it was time to lay or move smart money. He could look at a flowchart of bets placed and money lain, and where anyone else would have seen a rollercoaster, he discerned the fearful patterns of the greedy nestled in among the peaks and troughs of frantic action.

Carmine didn’t need to know any of that, though, so Ant didn’t tell him. It was almost as if he withheld the info from him because he felt the kid wasn’t worth sharing in the enchantment this oddball cast with his long shadow, even among the old mob heads. Those old ginzos were only human, after all, and liked a good human-interest story as much as the next man. The easy, clean money with no problems also didn’t hurt when it came to giving the kid with his trains and his cricket action a wide berth and some extra time with his debt.

Nobody was getting hurt provided the client didn’t tell them to go fuck themselves when they found him. This was going to be exactly what the bosses said it would be, unless the guy himself decided to play it different.

They stepped lively over the train track and kept out of the path of the misters, not wanting to mess up their loafers more than necessary. Neither had greased their shoes or bag-wrapped them, since this wasn’t a hit and they didn’t have to take follicles away with them.

Ant led and Carmine followed, talking to the older man’s back. “There was a short eyes in the Bing with me, upstate. Loved trains.”

“That doesn’t mean this guy is fucking kids. I think he has a girlfriend. A sexy Indian broad.”

“Indian?” Carmine caught up to Ant. “You mean like dot or peace pipe?”

“Dot.” He wasn’t in the mood to converse further. The guy was like a fucking ex-wife or something, or even worse, a petulant kid who you brought to a Yankees game with primo seats right behind the dugout, who could only complain about the sun being in his eyes or wanting another hotdog. Carmine was probably still salty over being broken down to soldier and no doubt didn’t want to be put out to pasture with an old shylock, but the feeling was mutual. Ant had just about had it with him.

“Yeah, well,” Carmine said, walking alongside Ant and not getting the hint. “Wife or no, a grown man into trains is probably a chomo, or something’s off.” He spun his finger clockwise around his temple, the universal sign for crazy. “It’s like grown men watching wrestling and thinking that shit is real. I ain’t letting one of them babysit my kids.”

Ant didn’t like to think about Carmine having kids, but it was inevitable if you thought about it. A lot of fucking and probably not a lot of condoms. Voila.

A whitewashed cabin serving as tack room appeared on their left. This spur of land had been hidden by the fiberglass boulders as they drove along the road, which may have been the developer’s intent. Beyond the tack room was a paddock that smelled of manure, straw and grass, more invigorating than disgusting at this distance. It didn’t smell worse than the pony track, and it smelled a hell of a lot better than the average cigar-smoke clouded off-track betting joint.

“He must have horses,” Carmine said. Something like respect edged into his voice. This guy obviously had money, skills, and property. And maybe he even had thoroughbreds. Perhaps he and Carmine could work out some kind of sideline, nothing backdoor against the bosses, just a little extra action. His ears twitched slightly and his eyes darted around.

The barnyard scents were masked as they passed the equipment shed, the strong leathery smell of the brown saddles and wooden-handled brushes reminding Ant of the musk of his old man’s aftershave.

“Alright,” Carmine said. “We know he’s got horses. Where the hell are they?”

They continued walking toward the paddock where the sun spilled its light and made the carpet of grass and moss smell even more fragrant. A golden hayrick was silent and still one moment, and then shattered. Yellow fibers flew in ten different direction as if a scarecrow had been blasted pointblank with a Mossberg.

“Holy shit!” Carmine’s piece was out before Ant’s. The kid was keyed up to ten but you had to hand it to him. His reflexes were firing on all cylinders and maybe the coke had something to do with it. Paranoid was better than careless.

Carmine smiled when he saw the horse, a real smile, something closer to human. A half-Arabian, half-Pinto clopped along, neighing, showing them its teeth and flaring its pinkish foaming nostrils.

“He’s spooked,” Carmine said, a trace of sympathy in his voice. He stowed his gun.

“They’re all spooked.” Ant pointed toward a racing course abutting the paddock, where orange construction barrels minus their reflective lights had been set up in a cloverleaf pattern, along with sliced tire rubber, to form a rodeo run. The horses stampeded in a circle, some paint specimens blotched black and white like cows, as well as one of those dwarf ponies kids had at their birthdays when the family had a little money. No thoroughbreds, though, and all the other horses were frightened even worse than this one, which promptly turned from them and clopped away.

Carmine shook his head, started thinking about the economics of it, became disgusted, returned to sneer mode. “This fucking jamoke is pissing away valuable horseflesh.” He spit, doing his asp routine as he shot saliva out like venom from hollow fangs. “I could manage this place.” He looked around, surveying the ridges and crests, as if this was all his just by dint of his new proclamation and the other guy’s mismanagement. He thought this chomo cricketeer goofball didn’t deserve this, any of this, and he would take it, or at least lean on the guy, if he could find a way.

“It’s beautiful out here, though.” Ant raised his head, expanded his lungs, took in a bracing shot of northern Ohio air. The boonies were alright sometimes. Still no Poconos, though.

“Yeah.” Carmine nodded, touched his Desi where he kept it cinched against the band of his red Versace boxers, fuck a holster. “Good place to bury a body.”

Ant gave up, and Carmine smiled as he sensed the old shylock’s exasperation with his new ward. The older man pointed toward the stone and wood manse on the hill. “Let’s go check on the client.”

They moved toward the parceled tongue of green land where the home sat. Ant was the first to the front door, which was heavy walnut studded with rusty brass tacks. He tried the handle. “Locked.”

He looked to the side of the door, where the doorbell still glowed. He depressed it, and a few bars of Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London echoed through the house.

“Comedian.” Carmine sniffed. Ant looked over at him and saw the Desert Eagle was out of the boxers again. “You want me to blow her off the hinges?”

“Check around back.”

Carmine nodded, holding the gun out in front of him. Ant rapped on the front door with his knuckles a few times, then followed his partner around to the rear of the house.

“Aw, shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Ant asked. He saw Carmine looking down at his wingtips, disgusted as the shoes made a farting noise while he extricated his feet from a muddy swale.

“Shit,” Carmine said again, looking back at him. “Literal shit.” He looked down at the compressed pile of feces with the impression of a leather shoe sole in it. “I thought it was a pinecone.”

Ant stifled the urge to smile. Carmine continued. “What kind of animal takes shits this big?” He held his gun toward the pine trees rounding out the property line, their massed green forms fading into the condensed morning dew that rose from the warm grass and evaporated as the day got hotter.

“Not horses,” Ant said. “The shape’s all wrong.”

“Oh, you an expert on horseshit?”

“No,” Ant said. “I hear that’s your specialty.” It was the first time he’d fired back. It felt so good that he was thinking it might not be the last time he did it.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The horses neighed in the distance. Ant ignored them and his sidekick, walked farther around the back of the property, studying the junkyard’s worth of decommissioned, rusty and bird-shit splattered equipment laying fallow there.

A yellow Caterpillar digger with a full bucketload of dirt stood frozen in place, as if the operator had just left it running for a minute to go take a piss. The earth next to the digger was backhoed, fine gravel and something glassy like quartz shining from the topcoat.

“This guy burying hookers out here or something?”

Ant shrugged. “Maybe he was thinking of building a pool and changed his mind.”

“Looks like he may have got the fuck out of Dodge.” Carmine waved his gun toward an old cloth-wing biplane, sitting next to a couple cars on blocks and some weird microlight bubbletop helicopter thingy.

“With what?” Ant asked. “With one of these little Fan Man toys?” He still remembered that legendary fight (and the five grand he lost) in which Riddick Bowe and Holyfield (pre-ear biting) were going at it toe-to-toe, creating another bona fide classic, when some joker with a massive fan on his back and a parachute crash landed at ringside. One of the weirdest nights of his life. Some ginzo at ringside had used a pocketknife to cut himself off a swatch of the parachute silk and claimed it gave him luck, which maybe it did, until he got his head turned to coleslaw with a shotgun in a poker game stickup some years later.

“This guy’s a hobbyist or something,” Ant said. “You ain’t going far in one of these.” He looked around the junkyard in which high weeds grew. “Plus, I know this guy. He ain’t a runner.”

“Maybe not, but he ain’t playing with a full deck, either.”

Ant didn’t care about the guy’s mental state. Priority One was getting in the house. He scanned the back of the building, looking among the fragrant cedar logs and bluish stone masonry for a door. He found one. A screen door fronting a glass door.

“Here we go.” Ant smiled. He didn’t want to blow the front door off the hinges, but busting some glass wasn’t too rude, especially if they found the guy, figured out he was okay, and offered to pay for a replacement pane (or deduct it from the quarter-mil the kid owed).

Ant pulled on the screen door, which creaked. The sound startled to life a fluttering passel of winged vermin that caused him to shield his face, use the cross-armed guard like he was Archie Moore walking down an opponent in the ring.

An eyrie’s worth of goldfinches had been startled from the eaves, casting feathers about and rushing in one large mass, as if they were doves released to presage a potentate’s entrance to his royal court.

Runty cackling came from behind him, and Ant turned. “They’re just birds, man.” Carmine flashed those viperish choppers. “You going soft on me?”

“You get all the shit off your shoes?” Ant smiled back at him, and the smile dropped from Carmine’s face. That made the grin on Ant’s face widen even more. He knew he was playing a dangerous game with a violent and dumb psycho, which didn’t make sense, as he had seen this kid’s kind before and he knew he would make his way to a shallow grave one way or another, with or without his prodding. Why start trouble with someone who spent all day looking for it?

“Fuck you.” Carmine said. It wasn’t a very witty rejoinder but it seemed to satisfy him. He stepped next to Ant, pointed his Desi at the door, and smashed the butt of his piece against the glass, shattering it totally in its doorframe. He had done it quick enough to avoid cutting his hand or getting glass in his partner’s eyes, but Ant still thought a courtesy warning would have been in order. What the hell, he thought, and pulled out his own Beretta.

They stepped through the gaping hole where the glass door had been a moment before. Both gasped on entering the mudroom, where an unplugged, massive white freezer unit had ceased to freeze anything for at least a couple of weeks. Purple rotten chicken and black venison steaks swam in dirty gray water, which spilled over the edges of the white tub, streaking the sides of the industrial freezer with blood from rotted meat.

“Worse than a body,” Carmine said, covering his mouth with the sleeve of his leather jacket and walking over to slam the top on the freezer closed.

“I got to agree.” Ant tried to take short breaths through his mouth, but even beneath the smell of the fetid freezer unit, there was a chaser of something like piss-soaked woodchips in a habit trail, along with the spoor of something stronger, like musk or estrous. It felt like they were in the hamster cage of a giant lazy teenager who never cleaned it out.

“Fucking pigsty,” Carmine said.

Headache, Ant thought. He’d read somewhere that was the Secret Service’s codename for Bill Clinton’s fuckup cokehead brother. Codename Headache, he thought. That’s you, asshole. He scanned the walls of the room with his eyes, especially the upper corners, which were so thick with black mold that the growth had a downy glowing layer of peach fuzz to it. It almost looked like there had been a botched Jewish lightning job for insurance, done by an amateur who didn’t know how to torch a place correctly.

Carmine’s voice came to him while he studied the walls. “Why’s this dude live like a fucking savage? He’s obviously got money out the ying-yang.”

Ant’s hand was sweating on the checkered grip of his Beretta now. It was important to stay alert without being jumpy. He didn’t come all the way out here to check on this guy just to accidentally clip him. That was a call he didn’t want to make back East, to say that he’d just greased a big moneymaker.

He took stock of the rest of the room now, which was nothing but piles of paper stacked to eyelevel.

“Hoarder,” Carmine said.

“Yeah, I seen something about it on TV.”

As they migrated from the mudroom to what had once been a kitchen, they saw an oven, its door open and its metal-grated cooking shelves overfilling with stacks of racing forums. In the center of the kitchen was a mass of papers and folders and receipts so large and bulging that it looked like a pack mule’s burden, some slanting pile that went from floor to ceiling under which a hidden beast suffered. There was the barely discernible wooden skeleton of a table beneath the trash, and it looked like it would all topple like a house of cards if they so much as breathed on it wrong.

“Sticky wicket!!!”

They both turned their guns to a silver birdcage, where a particolored and feathered tropical oddity sat on its perch, tangerine-colored claws gripping a brass rail. The door to the cage was open, but the bird didn’t seem in a hurry to leave.

“Sticky wicket!!!”

“If you say so,” Carmine said, and lowered his piece. Ant also eased off his own heater.

Carmine looked at him with a crooked grin. “Something tells me Polly here didn’t leave that pile of shit out back.”

“You, my friend, have keen powers of observation.”

Carmine’s smile widened as he took the compliment and was blind to the ironic lacing.

“Goo!”

It was a new voice, something closer to human but not quite, which made the skin crawl. This wasn’t the mimicry of a bird but the simpatico cry of an animal that was almost them, but wasn’t quite.

It was a small monkey, squatting on his haunches in a red doorman’s pelisse. The crimson jacket was open, with golden threads wound in fleur patterns around the brass buttons. He had little hands that looked like the eerily human digits of a racoon when it was busy washing up in a creek bed or rummaging through trash.

The little monkey frowned, puckered his lips as if he tasted something sour. He ignored the birdsong about the “sticky wicket.” He regarded the two humans for a moment with a furrowed brow, his forehead wrinkled and pinkish like that of an old man who’d gotten too much sun at Brighton Beach. His face had frosted markings, little patches of gold the color of a Jersey Shore Guidette’s bad highlights.

The monkey lay on his back now, exposing his distended potbelly and an uncircumcised penis that looked like an inflamed baby carrot.

“What the hell? Does he want us to whack him off?” Carmine pointed the gun at the monkey.

The little Capuchin hissed, and Carmine flashed his teeth back at him, a look of disgust and rage washing over his hatchet-nosed face. He settled a bit as the monkey’s long scimitar tail curled around the front of its body, concealing both its penis and its potbelly. The monkey glanced around, his jacket wide open. He lay in languid torpor, as if free of care from predators and waiting to stud with an auditioning cast of female capuchins.

Ant smiled down at him. “Hey big guy, where’s the man of the house?”

“Anthony, man, he doesn’t speak English.” Carmine flashed his gun in the direction of the bird. “Even Toucan Sam over there is just repeating some shit he heard. He doesn’t know a sticky wicket from the hole in his ass.”

The monkey’s amusing lazybones routine was making Ant too happy to really fire back at Carmine, who looked disappointed that the old man’s rage was waning. He had been looking forward to pushing him toward a confrontation that would cost him.

“I don’t know what the hell a sticky wicket is, either,” Ant said. He holstered his Beretta again inside his windbreaker, asked the monkey again, this time in a cooing voice reserved for the very young or precious pets, “Where’s the old man?”

The monkey’s brown eyes rolled toward the hallway behind them, farther inside of the house, where the first couple stairs on a wrought-iron spiral staircase led up to the second story. Ant looked over at Carmine.

“What?” Carmine sneered. “You think he’s telling you something? It was just a look, you fucking mook!”

Ant stepped nose-to-nose with him. “Don’t call me a Mook, you fucking worthless dope fiend.” He set his jaw, teeth grinding together as he resisted the urge to put the hardest part of his forehead against the softest part of the kid’s nose, and watch the claret pump in spurts timed with his heartbeat as if from a water sprinkler.

Carmine’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “After we finish up with this fucko’s action he owes, you and me are gonna have words.”

“We’re gonna have more than words,” Ant said. “I’m gonna take my belt off and beat your ass like you’re my son and you came home from a pricey Catholic school with an ‘F’ on your report card.”

Carmine controlled his sadistic smile. The back-and-forth amused him a bit, this prelude to blood play. “We’ll see, old man.” He was shorter than Ant, and had to raise up on the tiptoes of his shit-stained shoes to meet him eye to eye. “I just hope you packed your lunch, and your nitro pills.”

The eye-lock lasted a few more seconds, and then, with no one winning the staredown outright, the monkey made another one of its baby noises, another vocalized sound just short of being words.

They both looked at the Capuchin. “You got a thing for monkeys?” Carmine asked, looking back at Ant but raising his gun arm. He pointed his Desert Eagle at the reclining monkey, who (perhaps having some experience with a dart gun) seemed to realize the curly-headed smaller man meant him no good. He tuck-rolled in a motion so quick that he managed to peel out of his jacket at the same time as he ran from the room.

“Sticky wicket!”

“Yeah, I do, actually,” Ant said. “My grandpa made his living as a barrel grinder in the Old Country.” They had taken the Old Man’s monkey at Ellis Island, as well as his tonsils and his real name.

Ant waited, wanting to see if the kid wanted the shootout to happen now or after they checked on the client. If he said something against Ant’s grandfather, anything, then the answer to the question of when to get down was now.

The kid, however, wasn’t that stupid or crazy. His tongue darted out of his mouth, between bared teeth, and he bounced on the balls of his feet in those shit-shined shoes again. “Let’s go collect. Then you and me can settle, you monkey-loving washed-up Mustache Pete motherfucker.”

The two men made for the spiral staircase, jockeying their way through the doorframe at the same time, brushing their shoulders against each other, not even able to agree on who would be first through the door. Ant busted through first, just by using his weight to his advantage, leaning and boxing out the kid with the wiry frame as if setting a pick in basketball.

Ant couldn’t remember being this pissed in a long time, not even on hits, maybe not since high-school, when some Irish kid had made fun of him for being a fat mama’s boy, after his Italian grandma showed up at the schoolyard’s fence during recess to hand him fresh mozzarella through the chain-links. The only way to keep from killing this kid was to stay focused on the task at hand. He looked up the strange swirling canyon that the spiral staircase formed, with a butternut stucco ceiling up above.

“Hey, man!” He shouted. His voice echoed. “We’re just checking on you, brother!”

Carmine pulled the arm of Ant’s jacket until it was wrinkled, and almost yanked the older man down the first couple of stairs he’d already mounted. Ant slapped Carmine’s hand away, making his transgression official. He’d laid hands on someone with a lot more juice than him.

“The fuck, kid?!” Ant said, wheezing a bit. He tried to conceal his heavy breathing from Carmine, but the little fuck smiled at his labored gasps as he spoke.

“You trying to let him know we’re coming? We need to get the jump on this fucking jamook.”

“‘Jump?’” Ant said. “We’re not on a hit, you fucking psychopath.”

Carmine’s narrow nostrils flared. “Don’t call me a psychopath, you fat old fuck.”

Blows landed on both sides, Ant thought. He didn’t like being fat or old and he was sure the kid didn’t like what the prison headshrinkers had to say about his state of mind when he was upstate on that three-to-five beef at summer camp.

“Let’s go,” Ant said, turning, beyond done with this fucking kid.

He took the heavy steel stairs two at a time and was on the second floor in moments. Carmine was right behind him, breathing down his neck and literally warming him with his breath as he ogled the second floor’s rooms, so different from the hoarder’s cesspit downstairs.

“Fucking A!” Carmine said, walking into the glowing room on the left, beckoning with its bejeweled light. “Fucking score!”

Ant followed him. “It ain’t a score and it ain’t a hit. And if he ain’t in there, then we’re checking the other rooms.”

A quick glance showed Ant that the client wasn’t in this soft den, with its bookshelf-lined walls with a stepladder on rollers, and one of those ancient expensive walnut globes sitting in a corner of the room.

“Jesus,” Ant said.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Carmine smiled at him, so preoccupied with the new toys before him that he forgot their prior beef, at least for the moment. “This fucking kid might be alright.”

At the far wall of the room was a massive fireplace, large enough that either one of them could have stood in its rock chamber without having to crouch down. The mantelpiece above the fireplace was scalloped with a bas relief of Kama Sutra scenes, cross-legged women with vaginas round and swollen as pears and drooping milkfat breasts, locked in weird conjugations with two or three other men and sometimes what looked like strange elephant gods and satyrs.

“Dude’s a freak,” Carmine said, moving around to sample the rest of the room’s diverse treasures. A bird tweeted from outside the house and a horse neighed, the comingling sounds coming to them from the other side of a stained-glass window. He looked at the walls, one of which was hung with what looked like sequined Indian woman’s saris, flame and jade-colored dresses tacked to the stucco like acoustic pillows to dull sound. There was a bed of nails, a room divider set up as if someone was changing clothes on the other side of its panels. It was black and gold, made of ebony and enamel with lotus flowers painted on its squares. Another one of those big-breasted, plump-vaginaed Ganesh elephant women was in the center of the triptych.

It all held Carmine’s attention until he saw a shelf where a couple of special trinkets were buttressed by a golden miniature of Noah’s ark, with ormolu giraffes, ivory elephants, and jade birds brimming from the overfilled berth of the old holy man’s boat.

“No shit.” Carmine picked up an old gun, a matchlock that looked like it belonged in a museum and not in his hand.

“Put that down.” Ant looked around, worried, not knowing whether or not they were on candid camera, or if there was some motion sensor that might bring a sheriff out here to check on the town’s richest citizen. He could hardly blame the kid for being a bit spellbound, but playtime was over and they had to touch base with the client, and also lay hands on that quarter mil, if they could. If the client said he didn’t have it, and they kicked that info up the ladder, and the bosses said to break something, then Ant would break something. And maybe take something, too. But not until then.

The kid pointed the damascened ancient weapon at Ant with one hand, holding the Desert Eagle low in his other palm.

“Put it down,” Ant said.

“What? You scared a getting shot with a three-hundred-year-old gat?” Carmine cocked back the hammer, which was a tiger head sculpted in silver.

“Nah, I’m worried you might break something.”

“So what?” Carmine said, but at least set the antique gun back down. “The kid’s probably insured by Lloyd’s a London or something.” He looked back toward the fireplace where the scent of naan was in the air, the smell similar to brick oven pizza. “In fact, I bet me and this kid could work something out on an insurance job.”

“Always scheming.” Ant left the room and walked down the hall. He had his Beretta in his sweating hand, but low, and with his finger on the safety mechanism.

“You’re goddamn right I’m scheming,” Carmine said. “We’re always supposed to be on the hustle. That’s how you move up.”

Ant knew that dig was meant for him. He’d never get promoted, he knew. It was just the nice guy stink he carried with him, the fucking off-off Broadway tragedy of his life, the Willie Loman of the Genovese’s fading star, dimming over the Williamsburg Bridge. This new dawn was crowded with as many Russians and Albanians and motherfuckers from countries whose names ended in “-stan” as decent, hardworking Italians. And Brooklyn was a goddamn bike path for rich white kids now.

“Hey, man!” Ant shouted down the hall’s length. “We’re just checking on you to make sure you’re okay. We haven’t heard from you in a good minute.” His voice echoed off the cold walls of the hall and the tile at his feet caught the soft footfalls of his patent leather shoes.

Two suits of knightly armor holding broadswords with frog jousting helmets stood guard in the hallway, facing each other. Their breastplates were highly shined steel, reflecting the forms of the shylocks as they moved down the hall.

Farther along a massive lithograph covered half a wall above a mirror shaped like a knight’s kite shield. Ant stopped to admire the picture. It showed an elephant using its snout to snatch a fop’s snuffbox from his hand while he was playing cards with another womanish man in powdered wig. There was a caption to the etching, at the base of the drawing, but it was in some language Ant didn’t understand, not English or Italian, though he thought it might have been French.

“Let’s go,” Carmine said in his ear, close enough for the hairs on the back of Ant’s neck to bristle. “We ain’t here to sightsee.”

Carmine turned away from him, walked down the hall, and now it was Ant’s turn to follow.

They entered a room with a skylight shaped like a pyramid in the center of the slanted ceiling. Shafts of sunlight broke through the tinted glass bubble, and gave the room a soft glow. Ant thought this is what the world must have looked like through the Dolce & Gabana sunglasses of a thousand dollar an hour call girl, suffused with a golden light limned in a bubbly champagne haze.

“The guy running an OTB in here?” Carmine held his Desert Eagle out in front of him, looked over his shoulder at Ant, “or a pawnshop?”

Either one was plausible. The room was lined with banks of monitors welded to steel-plated mounts screwed into the walls. The TVs featured satellite-delay broadcast games of cricket from Sri Lanka and India, as well as matches from local pitches in England being transmitted on grainier feeds. Another monitor was lower-tech, looking like a glorified screen for an old Atari video game. It showed what at first glance looked like bowling brackets, although closer inspection revealed it to be a list of weather and pitch conditions, meteorological reports, as well as a DL lists for players with sprained ankles or rotator cuff injuries. There was also an old-school chalkboard with a ton of oddsmaker’s formulae written on the greenish-gray slate, the faint palimpsest of earlier erasures from previous math equations making it look like the kid was trying to figure out time travel rather than just trying to make the bosses some money.

Inside of the walls with their monitor banks lined up like slot machines was a massive cage of steel grating enmeshed with unspooled lengths of chicken wire. The cell was freestanding like a shark tank, but with dimensions closer to a casino’s cash room or maybe, as Carmine had suggested, the other side of a pawnbroker’s cage.

The door was open and they looked inside the metal cage. The client was lying there, a smallish white guy in a blue Polo shirt with an upturned collar, oxblood house shoes, and a pair of terrycloth shorts. He smelled of body odor and Indian spices, and was curled up to one of those massive life-sized plush animal toys, a giant stuffed Siberian tiger like the ones that Wall Street assholes bought for their spoiled kids to snuggle up with in their East Side carriage houses, while mommy and daddy went out on weeknights to some gala function to bribe some alderman or kiss a DA’s liver-spotted ass.

“Told you,” Carmine said, whispering, as if he didn’t want to wake him up. “He’s a chomo or something. What kind of fucking grown man sleeps with a stuffed animal?”

The Hindi blow-by-blow from the monitors played low in the background, but the announcer shouted loud enough and long enough on one sustained syllable for Ant to know something of significance had happened in one of the cricket matches. It was like a soccer game, where even the most disinterested American who refused to call it football and spoke no Spanish beyond Cerveza had to at least look up when someone who sounded like Tito Puente shouted, “GOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAL!!!”

It was then they saw that the animal wasn’t stuffed, probably first realizing it was alive when they saw the greyhound-thin tines of its ribs sticking out; rich people didn’t buy their kids plush oversized toys with such sad and realistically starved dimensions.

The two shylocks were spellbound, transfixed by the sight of the great beast’s heart muscle laboring from within its white and black striped chest.

“Shit!” Carmine said, and stepped back, holding his shaking gun in front of him. The tiger either didn’t know or didn’t care that it struck fear in the two men. The monster lifted its head and yawned, revealing its massive white knifelike teeth and the top of its mouth all the way down the pink tunnel of its throat, each ridge on the roof of the mouth like another rung on a ladder to Hell.

“I ain’t ending up like Siegfried and Roy, man.” Carmine tried to back up and Ant grabbed him swiftly, holding the leather of the little weasel’s jacket in a cobra clutch.

“Don’t fucking move.” What he knew about animals came from nature documentaries and the Bronx Zoo, but he knew enough not to run or show fear. “Slowly,” he whispered.

The big cat batted the form of its master, flipping him onto his back and exposing the front of his body. The face, chest, and groin areas had been dug clean of flesh, scooped of innards, hollow now as the inside of a tree trunk emptied of softwood pulp to form a canoe. Red bits of blood, pinkish bone, and fatty tissue were still lining the carcass’s inner hull. But the body had been devoured well enough that no bit of the man’s remaining loose meat looked to be larger in size than a pomegranate seed. The soft flesh of the groin area had been torn out, and the butterfly-shape of his pelvis had been broken from one femoral neck to the other like a cracked wishbone. His sex organs were history, and not only was his face without features, but his head was mostly without shape. The tiger had made himself a man-skinned rug and rested on the stretched-out remains of the pink hide, greasy from the leakage of marrow that had seeped from cracked bones. Time had already dried the dead man’s skin considerably, and the remains of his sticky flesh were somewhere in consistency between beef jerky and tanned leather.

“Oh god,” Carmine said. He tugged against Ant’s hold, which only became a stronger death grip, wrenching more leather material in his meaty fist.

“Easy, kid. Slowly.”

The door to the cage was still open, and it was a choice between going forward and closing the tiger in with what was left of his meal, or slowly backing out of the room and making their way outside, knowing the tiger might still come after them.

Option Two sounded best to Ant. He didn’t have the balls to go a single step forward, toward the cage door. So he walked backwards, pulling Carmine along with him, heel-toe, heel-toe, very slowly, so slowly that the wooden floorboards beneath their feet barely creaked. He felt reassured, safer as the white tiger yawned one more time, showing its red-streaked teeth that, when considered individually, were like ivory tusks or rhino horns. Maybe it was sated, and as long as they didn’t provoke him or her, they might not be on the menu. Ant wondered what it must be like, in this world where men were always trying to win a pissing contest, to be able to terrify someone with your mere yawn.

“Good,” Ant said, turning as they got out into the hall. He clutched his Beretta. “Okay,” he said, to Carmine, whose thin lower lip was quivering. “We got out of there with our asses. And we got an answer for the bosses. It might not be the one they want.” He shrugged. “But we know why this guy ain’t paying his debts. He’s cat food.”

Ant headed past the souvenir room and made toward the spiral staircase. He didn’t sense Carmine behind him, and he turned to confirm his gut feeling that the kid wasn’t following him. He wasn’t. Carmine stood fixed in the doorway to the weird off-track betting room that the Siberian tiger had turned into its playpen and charnel house.

“What about us?” Carmine asked.

“What about us?” Ant shot back. The fuck was the kid’s problem?

“I ain’t leaving here empty-handed.”

Ant took two steps away from the staircase and toward the kid. The tiger was nowhere to be seen, was still probably inside the cage and getting ready to doze back off to sleep, but it took every sperm cell in Ant’s balls to get him to take a step back in the direction of that cage room. “Carmine, fuck ‘empty-handed.’ You don’t get your ass in gear, you ain’t leaving with any hands.” He pointed toward the room they’d just left, where he’d almost upchucked the remnants of his undigested continental breakfast from that shit hotel where they’d stayed last night. “You want to end up like that fucking guy?”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Carmine said. “That tiger’s full. We can get the drop on him, now. He’s gotta be worth something.”

“Worth something?!” Ant couldn’t believe this shit, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He couldn’t believe they weren’t already downstairs and on their way out of this haunted house lost among the Ohio hills. “Kid, I don’t give a fuck how bad you think you are, you don’t ‘get the drop on’ a tiger. He’s king of the fucking jungle.”

“That’s lions.”

“Whatever,” Ant said, waving both hands, the one with the gun and the one that was empty of all but gesture. “I’m out.” He made as if to go down the stairs, but the kid wasn’t budging, and the sad fact of the matter was that if Ant came back with bad news about the quarter mil, plus he was minus one powerful, connected dude’s shithead nephew, he himself might be cat food. “Let’s go.”

“I ain’t going anywhere.”

Ant walked back to him, again. “Okay. So what? You want to sell this thing to a fucking drug dealer, walk it on a chain to a cabana in Miami or something? Maybe board it with United at JFK?”

“Comedian,” Carmine said. “Nah, I’ll clip him.” He held out his Desert Eagle. “Put a couple holes in his ass, maybe one in his head.”

“And then what?” Ant asked. “Fucking sell tiger steaks to some whacko who wants bushmeat or the poacher’s blue plate special? Turn him into a rug?”

Ant mulled over what kind of hole this jerkoff had dug himself into with bookies and drug dealers to be this desperate, to consider trying to blast at a tiger.

“Sticky wicket!” The bird shouted from downstairs. Ant wondered where the hell the monkey was right now. Hopefully the tiger wouldn’t get him, and one of the frightened horses didn’t trample his ass or something. Little domesticated monkeys didn’t do well on their own.

“Nah,” Carmine said, sniffing. “I got some things going on with a Chink from Macau.”

“We ain’t got a tranquilizer gun and darts,” Ant said. “Who wants a dead tiger full of holes? Even hunters use guns that don’t fuck up the meat or coat.”

“He just wants the dick.”

And didn’t think he’d heard correctly, so he said, “What?”

“The cock and balls. You steep it in wine. It’s like juju, not like a Afro …”

He struggled for the word like a momo, and Ant supplied it to him, like the comparatively wise man he was. “Aphrodisiac.”

“Yeah,” Carmine said, not even trying to repeat the word he’d just heard. “It ain’t like that. It’s a luck thing. They give it to each other as a present. The uh, tiger, cock and balls.”

“You don’t even know if that thing in there is male.”

Carmine winked. “Only one way to find out.”

“I’m responsible for you, kid. You don’t need Interpol on your ass.”

“Interpol? That some James Bond shit or something?”

How was this kid still alive? “International Police. You move something to Macau, and it goes sour, you better have a good plastic surgeon and a fucking airplane. I keep my capers domestic.”

“Speaking of airplanes,” Carmine said, “I got a junk and scrap connect in Yonkers who can probably get rid of most of this guy’s-”

A rush of white fur and a sound that rumbled in their bellies like thunder interrupted their rap session. Carmine shrieked as the white tiger with the ice-blue eyes almost unhinged its jaw to take his head in its mouth. The beast’s gums were blackish-purple, the edges of the teeth covered in yellowish plaque and spotted as if afflicted with scurvy. For all that, though, the maw was fierce as it opened and struggled to receive the head. The tiger’s teeth pinched down, incised the thin skull of the man whose screams didn’t so much as make the hairs on its half-recumbent back bristle. What was a nightmare for Carmine was a boring afternoon nosh for the big cat.

“Shiuuuuuuuuh!” Carmine went from sounding like a man to a monkey as the tiger bit down, piercing the kid’s temple with one half of its jaw and crunching through the kid’s face with the other half of its mouth. Moans intermingled with the pop of bone and snap of cartilage.

Ant stepped backwards, tripping over himself until he fell to the edge of the stairs. He righted himself before he could plummet down the iron steps to the first floor. He’d sprained something as he caught himself in the process, but that was better than falling down the stairs and ending up in a wheelchair.

The unreality of what he was seeing made him weak in the knees. Tigers were in cages, tigers were in zoos. Tigers were in movies. They were not supposed to be three or four paces from you with only air and opportunity between them and you, especially not with a suffering man in their mouth as a noontime snack. Ant almost hated the tiger as much as he feared it, for making him feel sympathy for a guy he’d been about ready to clip a couple minutes before.

Carmine made his form stiff in the tiger’s mouth. He jerked and flopped in a way that would have been comical under other circumstances, wiggling like an animatronic puppet short-circuiting due to faulty wiring. Then he went as planar as a diving board, as he tried to push the tiger’s mouth open and free himself while he still had some blood, some life, some fight left in him.

Blood leaked from his body and seeped from the tiger’s jaw, which seemed to bear a faint smile along with its snarl. Reddish-purple venous blood dripped like paint from a can with a hole in its bottom. It was coming out at a rate that meant death if nothing was done soon. Maybe the best-case scenario was if Ant clipped the tiger now (and managed to miss shooting Carmine) the kid would bleed to death in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.

“Ant, man!”

Ant held his Beretta out, pointed the front sight of the handgun at the tiger’s frosty glowing eyes that were so beautiful, pools of glacial ice so deep that all sound disappeared, even that of the screams, shrieks of unendurable pain that Carmine was still going through, the terror the poor bastard faced in trying to win a staredown with the unendurable. Nobody, or at least almost nobody, deserved to go out like this.

And yet he still lived with his form in the tiger’s mouth as the great beast shook its massive furry skull from side to side. The motion of the tiger’s head made it hard to get a bead on it without risking a shot at Carmine, even at this close range.

For all Ant knew this was how the tiger picked its cubs up to handle them, lifted them by the scruff and carried them from one spot to another until they left cubhood. Carmine wasn’t a tiger though and even the lightest grip from the jaws of the Siberian monster would have terrified the hardest man and made him bleed profusely.

Ant’s hand shook on the Beretta as he tried to steady it in his two-handed grip.

“The fuck you …waiting for?!” Carmine’s voice trailed off, as if he couldn’t believe that he could still talk, and the sound of his own disembodied cries sounded too foreign for him to believe.

His whines were weaker now, perhaps from blood loss and shock. He still struggled to pull the gripping jaws from his head as he sobbed and spluttered. His blood, spit, and piss joined the foam lathering from the mouth of the raging tiger and formed a puddle of bodily fluids belonging to both man and beast on the hardwood. When he tried again to pry the vised jaws open, the tiger growled louder and clamped down harder, possessive as any animal who had found something new that doubled as a toy and a meal. Its body had wasted somewhat in this house without a steady supply of food, for Christ knew how long, but its instincts were still solid, and it wasn’t giving up the man in its mouth without a fight. Its searing hot breath was strong enough to make the Milano leather of Carmine’s jacket flap like a windsock as he danced against the pain of the teeth and the terror of being so close to the tiger and its oppressive stink, its savage power. Its growl sounded like a buzzsaw motoring toward him while he could only look on helplessly at the deep-toothed blades. His shrieks grew louder but he suddenly stopped trying to pull. The piercing screams tapered to moaning as the jaws drew tighter, slowly closing like the doors of an elevator as one ran toward them in a dream where everything was implacably against them.

Carmine used his waning strength, shouted over the growling, the low purr whose vibrations made each one of his wounds sting like a thousand enraged hornets alive inside his skin now. “Help, man! Fucking shoot it! Please!”

Ant looked at the tiger’s whiskers, which were white but dirty, and hard like the quills on a porcupine, soaked at the tips in blood as rich and dark in color as ink. A man could write a treatise with one of those quills, in the blood of Carmine, dip it into any of the Gindaloon’s many gaping wounds to fill the primal fountain pen. Not that Ant would ever put his hands anywhere near the beast’s face. The icy eyes warned him against trying anything stupid.

“Sticky wicket!!!”

He still couldn’t get over the tiger’s beauty. This big cat was obviously worse off in this menagerie than he would have been in a zoo, but he was still quite a specimen, one of those rare collaborative efforts between God and the Devil that had worked out quite well. An apex predator.

“Hugah!!” Carmine shoved his arms against the immovable mouth one last time. He pushed as if trying to bench-press an impossible load of weight plates as muscle fatigue slowly brought the bar back onto his chest and there was no one there to spot him. He got his rage back for the moment and punched the animal’s mangy discolored ribs, whose white and black striped coat had a brownish tint to it, like that of a polar bear kept in an enclosure where kids could stare at it. “Ant! … Ant?” Carmine opened his blood-gooey fists, tried stroking the tiger’s coat in the hopes of placating it. He left red palmprints on the dolomitic coat, finger-painting with the last echoes of his leaking lifeblood. He didn’t know what he really hoped to accomplish. It was the instinctive submission of the weak in the face of savage strength, his soft manicured hands stroking those spiking shoulders, all pride gone and nothing but the fear of the totally defeated left. As the animal growled now, the blood of its new victim sprayed between its teeth like a red mist. Just the tiger’s breathing caused a wet shower of blood to splash and fleck the nearby walls and the honeycombed grouting of the floor, already slippery with a coat of blood that flowed like water from a busted pipe. Even the tiger’s blue eyes were bloodshot from backsplashes of gore, the gristle from its previous master drying on its flaring nostrils joined by skin stripped like thick cuts of raw bacon from Carmine’s throat and face.

Ant lowered the Beretta, hit the ejector to pop out the magazine. He pulled back the well-oiled slide to eject the round that had been chambered, and he placed that and the mag inside a pocket of his windbreaker.

He looked in the tiger’s magnificent glassy eyes, which beheld him with waning suspicion, and a near-intelligent interest, closer to what he would expect from an elephant or maybe that monkey downstairs. He saw himself reflected in the massive, marblelike blue orbs, his fat, flabby, and sad form well-defined enough in the twin mirrors of the predator’s eyes for him to adjust a tie to perfection or perform his morning blow combing just by the light of those feral electric-blue pools.

The tiger shook Carmine like a chew toy, opened its mouth for a moment to resettle its sharp jaws on another part of the punctured and semi-limp body. In that quick instant where the Siberian adjusted its grip, Ant saw enough ruptures and shreds on the kid’s body for it to look like the tiger had pulled a hit, given Carmine a working-over with everything from a machine pistol to a ball bat and a couple icepicks. The prey was alive but unconscious, food ceasing to struggle against its fate as the teeth sank deeper. The side-to-side motion of the tiger’s wagging head broke a few more bones in Carmine’s body, a final crack like crepitus popping in his neck before he gave up the ghost.

“Bon Appetit.” Ant turned and headed down the spiral staircase, as he had intended to do five minutes or so ago, though it felt like an eternity had passed since then.

He wondered, as he made for the front door, what the hell Immigration had done with his Grandpa’s monkey when they confiscated him at Ellis Island. Sold him as sweet and sour chicken to a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, maybe? He’d heard the stories like everyone else, but those were mostly about alley cats, not monkeys.

He walked outside into the midday warmth, listening to the clop of the running horses as they rushed around their cloverleaf track, all those palominos, paints, and Arabians with nowhere to go but around and around again in endless circles.

The sun was higher in the sky now, broadcasting the warmth of its generous light in showering rays. He felt like going to McDonald’s in the rental and getting a cup of Joe, maybe having a little convo with the cornfed girl at the drive-thru about the weather. Maybe they could chat a little about the local flora and fauna (but not the megafauna in the mansion) before he went back East. Then he’d give the Man Upstairs the bad news about the moneymaker, as well as the good news about the bigshot’s nephew. If they wanted to clip him for letting Carmine get done up the way he did, no problem. There were worse ways to go than a bullet in the back of the head, he knew.

Much worse ways.


Joseph Hirsch’s shorter works have appeared in Underground Voices, as well as in 3 AM Magazine. He was also previously a writer for Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. He served four years in the U.S. Army, wherein his travels took him to locales as disparate as Iraq, Germany, and Texas. He is the author of several published novels.


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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