I counted out nine one hundred-dollar bills onto the desktop and took the pistol and ammunition. I considered suggesting that he give up the business for a while….
I drove through Philadelphia, onto Ridge Avenue and headed west. The antenna farm was visible above the horizon for a stretch, long lines drawn against the gray sky. Past the city and into Whitemarsh Township, the road changed designation, from an avenue to a pike, and widened to four lanes. On either side were houses, commercial buildings, car dealers, but the road was also fronted by long stretches of green, open land. It got more built up the closer I got to Norristown. I drove past a run of strip malls. Just beyond the big five-point intersection at Chemical Road was an overpass. Low in the distance was the long-idled steel mill property.
Inside the borough the road changed names again, this time to Main Street, and more closely resembled a densely occupied, aging urban arterial. I traveled through the business district, past the Montgomery County Courthouse, and a few blocks later turned toward the river.
I parked just off an intersection two blocks in and approached an address in an row of shabby three-story brick houses. Some porch fronts sagged, and there were slates missing from the common mansard. I climbed the steps and knocked.
Parsons opened the door part way and squinted. “Hey.” His white tee-shirt stood out against his complexion. He let me in and closed the door behind us. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. He was a big man but appeared to have lost weight. The undershirt bagged about his middle. He led me into the kitchen, scuffling along in a pair of slippers. The curtains were drawn here, too, but these were lighter and gave everything a sickly tint. He said, “I think I have what you want. Something you can carry?”
I could smell liquor on his breath. “Yeah. Something small,” I said. “It’s not for show.”
He nodded and opened the door to the basement. It wasn’t like him to drink at all, let alone during the day. I didn’t like it.
I followed him down the steps. Something was different about the house, too, but I wasn’t sure what. He pulled open the bottom drawer of an old metal desk.
“This is a clean piece. Girl I know picked it up last month in the city. Personal protection.”
Parsons used straw buyers – people without a record who could go to gun shops and make legal purchases. He was quiet and careful, and it was reasonable to assume that the others he dealt with would be, too. He showed me the pistol.
“Glock 43, subcompact automatic, nine-millimeter, six round magazine. Made to be carried under a jacket,” he looked up, “or in a purse.”
Whatever was wrong, his thick fingers still moved skillfully over the weapon; he released the magazine, cleared the chamber and laid the pistol on an oil-stained towel.
“You want to test it?”
“No need. Do you have ammo?”
It took an effort but he smiled at the compliment. “Sure.” The house was quiet. Usually, music would be playing here, the radio or a record. Parsons walked across the room to some shelves and said, “You want a holster for it?”
“No.” I understood what was different. The house didn’t smell of cigarettes. “Where’s Olivia?”
He fiddled with something on the shelf. “She passed.” He motioned toward his chest. “Cancer.”
“I’m sorry.” Just to say something, I said, “How long was she sick?”
“Diagnosed eight months ago. They gave her treatments – radiation – but it was just, you know, to make her feel better.”
“Yeah,” he turned, “that’s the word. Only one of her kids came to the service. Her youngest boy, Jamarr.”
I needed to move this along, but said, “Sons miss their mothers,” and pointed to the Glock. “How much?”
“That’s you, all right. Always the professional.”
I waited for him. He finally said, “Nine will do. I’ll throw in a box of cartridges.” He turned back to the shelf for them.
I counted out nine one hundred-dollar bills onto the desktop and took the pistol and ammunition. I considered suggesting that he give up the business for a while – that it might not be good for him to stay closed up in a dark house full of weapons – but he already knew that. I said thanks and left.
The above is excerpted from A Few Days Away, a forthcoming novel by Tony Knighton.
This April 9th-18th, the Media Film Festival will be streaming Just What Leaks, a film by Ted Knighton in which his brother Tony, a veteran Philadelphia firefighter and crime fiction writer, answers questions about the city, firefighting and his writing career. Purchase tickets here.