He wasn’t buying anything, didn’t seem to know or be waiting for anyone….
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ephraim. He had sharp eyes for 9th Street, an alert bearing that never seemed to watch. After 37 years in the Italian Market, in his spot near the corner of Montrose and 9th, first as an unwelcome interloper, then the time-tested veteran, and now as the old man who’d hung on too long, he could tell who would and who wouldn’t stop at his vegetable stand, who might buy, which were the thieves. Who didn’t belong.
The short, powerfully built man who’d been watching Ephraim’s stand on and off from across the street for more than a week wasn’t buying anything, didn’t seem to know or be waiting for anyone. And after a week of watching, he reckoned, the man would know there was no point in robbing in him. The produce wilting and fermenting in the roasting July air cost him more than he made some days. Still, Ephraim had fairly jumped when he turned around and came face to face with the stranger.
“You need help,” he said.
More than 100 years old, Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market stretched for six boisterous blocks along South 9th Street, from Federal to Fitzwater, and its defining characteristic was the outdoor curb stands, pressed along the curb on the eastern side of the street. The epicenter of the stands ran just three blocks, from Washington to Christian, a gritty, shimmering hub of activity even if it seemed to run out of energy by the time it reached Ephraim. Delivery trucks and forklifts, people pushing hand trucks, or toting boxes and the odd animal carcass crisscrossed 9th Street, slowing the progress of cars, buses and more delivery trucks to a crawl.
Ephraim Gonzalez, near Montrose Street, had what had been one of the prime spots. Set up in the street in what would have been parking spaces, the stands were ostensibly mobile tables facing in toward the sidewalk and the “brick and mortar” butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, restaurants, cafes and shops selling spices, fresh pasta, fresh tortillas, cheeses. The Market still thrived, but new nearby grocery stores and new residents with different tastes and habits had started to undermine the curb stands. Men like Ephraim Gonzalez held on, their profit margins shrinking as foot traffic declined.
“I can help,” the stranger said again.
“We can’t pay you,” said Ephraim, indicating his wife Lupe, who was busy repositioning her stool under the frayed awning for some shade. Her deeply lined face had the stillness of one practiced in the art of never complaining.
“Everyone else on the street has help,” the stranger persisted. “Family, paid workers. You need help. I don’t mean to be rude, but it looks like maybe you can’t lift or move things the way you mighta used to been able to.”
Well, thought Ephraim, staring past him, at least he now had the stranger pegged: casual labor. Like so many others before, the guy would be gone with the first day’s pay, or show up once or twice more, probably drunk. There would be arguments, and then he’d be gone for good. Ephraim supposed he’d rather cut to the chase and just have him gone. If, as seemed likely, he was going to lose everything he had worked for, he’d rather it be on his terms alone. Ephraim stared at the stranger impassively.
“The area under your stands is a stinking mess,” the man continued.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Ephraim seemed to say, his eyes still, dispassionate. He turned away from the stranger, shaking his head. Interview concluded.
“So here’s my thought,” said the stranger, moving to stand in front of Ephraim again. “I work for you, eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. You’re closed Mondays, right?”
“I can’t pay anyone,” said Ephraim, evenly, patiently, without apology or anger, as old men do. He stepped away again, as though there were something important he and his wife needed to discuss.
“Yeah. I got you,” said the stranger, keeping next to him. “Hear me out: I work for you for like six weeks. We reckon up then. If there’s been a positive change, we split it.”
“Nobody works for no money.” He shook his head at the thought.
“Oh, there’ll be money.” The stranger unbuttoned his shirt, stripping down to a dark black tank top t-shirt, stark against his sturdy, if pallid, chest and limbs. “I can start right now.”
He showed up sober and on-time the next day, and the next. The man was keen, Ephraim gave him that. He must have been nearly fifty, but he moved like a teenager, minus the sullen inertia. There was an easy joy and purpose about him that Ephraim found attractive, and infectious. He wished his own son had taken even half the pleasure the stranger seemed to in the work. He hadn’t been able to get his son Jorge interested in the business, and now he was gone, God only knew where.
On the first day, the man had eaten no lunch. On the second, Ephraim shared his. On the third, Lupe packed one for him from home and they finally learned his name, Thomas. By then he’d moved the stands and cleaned thoroughly under them and begun the clandestine business of cleaning out the storage locker at the far corner, one street away.
“I don’t technically have a garbage removal contract,” Ephraim said nebulously.
“I got you. I need to split it up, a little here, a little there over time.”
Summer business was like the heat, arriving in stifling waves, between eight and ten in the morning, and again between three and five. Thomas would begin restocking at 2:30, setting out produce that had been protected in the cold locker. These days, it had become something Ephraim had done only sporadically. After the first week there had already been a nice uptick in afternoon sales.
The cold locker, which had been decaying along with the produce stored inside it, was a revelation. For years, Ephraim had felt a bitter, impotent regret every time he’d gone into it. He figured it would have taken a pair of younger men two or three days of dirty, backbreaking work to get it in shape. Or, as it turned out, four days for one guy on a mission. And part of the reason it took that long was that Thomas had been careful not to overload other businesses’ toters and dumpsters when disbursing the garbage.
“I took care of it,” he said brightly. “But I don’t know. I felt like people were watching me.”
A moment later Thomas seemed to come back from wherever his own brand of madness had taken him.
It wasn’t all perfect. Thomas definitely needed to work on his customer service. Part of “the 9th Street way” involved shoppers complaining, either to lay a foundation for bargaining a lower price or because it was their nature. Nothing personal, just business.
“Then don’t buy it!” Thomas snapped as he plucked a bunch of asparagus out of an elderly woman’s hands. “It’s a good price, and we’ve got the best of any—”
Ephraim had stepped in quickly. “I can give you two bunches for the price of one, ma’am.”
“Up the block,” she said, pointing, “they’re selling it for half this.”
“No way! That’s b—”
Ephraim quieted him with a stern look. Nevertheless, he put the asparagus Thomas was holding back in the tray. Nodding sadly, he turned and walked away toward his wife. The woman walked away uncertainly, dragging an empty shopping tote behind her. At the corner, she hesitated.
“I think she’ll come back,” he said quietly to Thomas, though he looked directly at Lupe as he spoke. “I’ll take care of it, when she does.”
“She was lying about the price up the street, Mr. Ephraim,” said Thomas.
“Of course. But here on Ninth Street, insulting the product is the way many people say hello. You can’t take it personal. And she’s going to buy the asparagus, and probably some potatoes, maybe some peppers. And I’ll give her a free box of blueberries to make up for your outburst.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If you call them out, you lose the sale. If you hold to your price and nod sadly when they say they’ll buy from someone else, they usually come back. Because we’ve checked, and we already know everyone’s prices…and their quality.” Ephraim patted Thomas on the shoulder kindly. “Stay even, be helpful. And be real…but not too real.” He grinned widely at Thomas, his teeth the color of dried corn, decay touching the right incisors like huitlacoche mold blooming through the kernels.
Another day, a drunk, mad with heat and liquor had a screaming fit in front of the stands. Ephraim stepped in to gently move him along, but not before the man vomited on the sidewalk and collapsed, crashing into a stack of pineapples. As Ephraim tried to help him to his feet, the drunk took a broad swing, catching the side of Ephraim’s head with a glancing blow.
As Ephraim staggered, Thomas rushed in and hoisted the drunk to his feet in one movement, slamming his body hard against the brick wall. One hand held him under the armpit, the other clenched tight at his throat. Thomas’s eyes blazed. The drunk gurgled something, his breathing labored. For a moment more he stood there, holding the drunk just off the ground by his neck. He drew his arm back, cocked, a piston ready to drive through the man. A moment later Thomas seemed to come back from wherever his own brand of madness had taken him.
He let the drunk man slide down the wall, where he coiled into a pitiful heap.
Lupe, helping Ephraim to his feet, spoke: “Hey, borracho, you move now or we call the cops.”
“I’ll get some water to wash this filth away,” said Thomas. He grabbed a bucket, and looking straight down, walked away.
“I’m not sure I want to sell. Least of all to him. I’m not sure I’m done yet.”
Tuesday morning, they arrived to find the stands covered in putrid garbage.
“Damn, I’m sorry Mr. Ephraim. I must’ve pissed some folks off when I was cleaning out the locker.”
“I don’t think it’s because of you,” he said peering at the rotting vegetables, the rank fruit. He handed Thomas the key to the cold locker. “Bring the shovel and a couple buckets,” he said. They were an hour and half late opening the stand.
At ten past one, Ephraim and Thomas took their lunch, crouched in the shade against the wall of the vacant butcher’s storefront across the sidewalk from the stand. They ate the tortas Lupe had brought while she sat quietly on her stool, gazing into the distance, an enigmatic, mahogany statue.
Thomas was looking up and down the street for customers when he noticed that Ephraim, who never looked for long at any one thing, was staring across the street at an unlikely pair of white men who were talking together on the sidewalk in the shade of a pavilion roof. One, in his late forties, wore a suit too dark and tailored for this heat, Thomas thought, while the other, a bald, thick-necked mountain of a man, wore black T-shirt and dungarees, both stained with sweat, dirt and dust, like he’d just come off a job site.
The well-dressed man detached himself from his hulking companion and walked across to them. He squinted in the blistering sunlight as he slipped between two passing cars. Ephraim, who never seemed to watch, followed the man’s progress toward them. Thomas’s gaze remained on The Hulk, who radiated witless, undifferentiated menace as he leaned back against a shop window, arms folded in front of him.
“Glad to see you’re up and running, Ephraim,” the man said. “I stopped by early today and saw the stands heaped with garbage. That can’t be good for business.”
Thomas and the Hulk continued their face-off across the street.
“No,” Ephraim said through his food. “It’s not. But we took care of it.” He looked away toward Thomas.
“Any idea how it happened?” the man asked.
“I have an idea,” Ephraim replied.
“Well, I was sorry to see it. And sorrier to see you’ve had to pay someone to help clean it up. I know how tight money is.”
“What were you looking for this morning…when you came by early?” Ephraim stood up. Ever the merchant, he said, “Blueberries are good today. Peaches are excellent… Tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans.”
“Oh, I’m good for now.”
“Another time then,” said Ephraim and walked over to his wife.
The man stood on the pavement for a moment, as unsure as the woman with the asparagus as to what the next move was. “I didn’t catch your name,” he said to Thomas.
“I didn’t give it.”
The man held out a business card. “We need casual labor all the time—but guys who’re ready to work. Work sites, quick renovations. Good money. Cash. Ask him.” He jerked a thumb backward toward the Hulk, still leaning under the threat he carried. “You look like you could be useful.”
Thomas took his card. “I got a gig right now. But I’ll hold onto this.”
“Give me a call,” he said and walked away toward Christian Street. His companion peeled himself from the storefront and sauntered, keeping even with his boss on the opposite side of the road.
“So what’s with Mr. Business Card?” Thomas asked as they both got back to work.
“He’s a developer. He bought up all the properties around mine—‘assembled’ is the word he used. Like toys, or something. And he’s letting everything go to hell, so whatever he’s planning will look good in comparison. He’s doing the same thing up around 20th Street, west of Broad.”
“I’ve seen the For Lease signs around the block, but none of them have his company’s name on them, the one on the card.”
“No,” said Ephraim, “that’s not how he works. Always in the background, hiding. But I know. There are no secrets on Ninth Street.”
“And he’s wanting to buy you out?”
“I’m not sure I want to sell. Least of all to him. And I’m not sure I’m done yet.” Ephraim started re-arranging the broccoli-rabe display. He reached into his pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill. “Get some more crushed ice, ok?”
“I wasn’t an accessory, Mr. Ephraim. I just happened to be there.”
Next day as they were setting up, Thomas said, “I gotta ask: you figuring it was Mr. Business Card who dumped all that trash on us?”
“You think we should do something about it?”
“No. I can’t prove it was him.” As an afterthought, he added, “And what would we do? If you’re thinking about putting fear into him…He’s not one to be frightened. You need to have a soul to feel fear.”
Thomas extracted details from Ephraim a bit at a time, like a dentist pulling a cracked tooth. Ephraim owned the three-story building with the vacant butcher shop they crouched against for lunch, along with the four one-bedroom apartments above, three of which were occupied. The fourth, on the top floor at the back couldn’t get a city occupancy certificate. The reason was hazy. He also owned the stand.
“So you own this spot then?”
“It’s a gray area,” Ephraim conceded. He shifted a box of mangoes and took his time turning each so that they showed their best sides.
Thomas had learned that Ephraim needed time to speak. A merchant to his core, he could be chatty with the buying public about all kinds of inconsequential things, but about anything that mattered, he said little, his silences those of someone afraid to give anything away. Thomas waited.
“The city owns the street,” Ephraim continued finally. “It’s obvious. But if I pay the yearly fee and keep my licenses up to date, I hold a kind of title to it.”
“A kind of title?”
“A…legacy,” he said, finding the word in the distance. “I bought out Old Man Sancero in ‘eighty-seven for the right to sell here. And I’ve owned the right ever since. Paid him cash. Everything I had, and everything I could get from family and friends.”
“Was it a lot?”
“It was to me then,” he said. “Later, I bought the building and all its problems. I wish I hadn’t, but I wanted to make sure I kept the stands.”
“But you said—”
“It’s fluid. In the beginning, I paid the city for the stand. Then, for a while, I paid my fees to the Association here. Then I paid it to the city through the Association. Now, I pay the city again. And they could change these spots to two-hour parking tomorrow if they wanted. It would be an ugly fight, of course. But they could do it.” Another long pause. Then, “But as long as they allow stands here, the only insurance I have—and it’s small security—is that no one disputes whether the stands in front of the brick buildings belong to the building owner.”
Ephraim grinned his yellow and gray smile. “Which is why I bought the building, also from Sancero.”
“So if you sell the building to that developer…?”
“He’ll kick me off the stands as soon as he can. I could write up the paper—the contract—to say he couldn’t, but he has deep pockets and powerful friends. I wouldn’t last long.”
Thomas looked around, lost.
Ephraim put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not going to sell. Not now.” He looked away quickly, like maybe he’d given something away too cheaply.
“Looks like he’s got some thick muscle behind him. Not just rich and powerful friends.”
“The big man doesn’t worry me.”
“You thinking I’m you’re muscle?”
“No, Thomas. Never. That’s not my way. Me…I do my job, I deal straight and fair”—here he looked to the heavens with a smile before adding—“…mostly. I pay my fees. And,” he added with a shrug, “I use a lawyer when I have to. Which is why he can’t touch me.”
He paused again, and Thomas figured that was the end, and he should get back to work, but Ephraim added: “I think maybe you know something about the big man’s life. He wasn’t afraid to come over the other day—which he usually does—but something made the developer tell him to stay on the other side of the street. Did you know the big man?”
“I know the type.”
“You know it well?”
“But I see that maybe you want to be different. You don’t want to be like that.”
“No,” said Thomas. “I don’t.”
“The place you stay on Spring Garden Street. It’s a halfway house, I think?”
“Yeah,” said Thomas. It was his turn to speak carefully, not to give too much away. “I did my time,” he began, “twenty-nine years for accessory to murder. I guess I went inside about the time you bought this stand.”
“I see,” said Ephraim as he rearranged some carrots.
“I wasn’t an accessory, Mr. Ephraim. I just happened to be there when a drug deal went bad and the shooting started. Two of them got killed. I got shot in the leg, and I was the only one who got caught. I’d only come along ‘cause my boss told me he could pay me after the transaction…for something else I’d done for him. I was seventeen. Getting a name as an enforcer—with the crew, and with the police.”
“Twenty-nine years?” asked Ephraim.
“They tried me as an adult. They gave me life.”
Ephraim shook his head sadly.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about a lot of things. Everybody I ever knew is dead—the guys I worked with; the guys I worked for, guys I hung with…my mother. Even the house I grew up in is gone, replaced with some big ass, modern thing that looks like shit.”
“Maybe one of our friend’s developments?” Ephraim grinned.
Thomas shrugged. “Even the cops from back then are all retired and moved on. Probably to Florida or some shit.”
“A stranger in your own city,” said Lupe sadly. He hadn’t realized she was listening too.
“In a way, it makes me free,” he said to her. “I spent years praying for a new start, to have a purpose, you feel me? And now I got it. The governor himself commuted my sentence to time served ’cause I was a minor when the offense was committed.”
“A new start,” Ephraim affirmed.
“And a new purpose. I don’t want to be that guy who went in thirty years ago. I’m not him. I didn’t get out just to go back to gun slinging and enforcing. Just to get dead. I don’t forget the past, but there’s real freedom when the past don’t remember you.”
Ephraim nodded. “We could use a couple boxes of mangoes. They’re selling well.” He handed Thomas a set of keys. “Those are yours now,” he added. “Keep them.”
“That’s how this whole street will go, one at a time, no one to replace them….”
The next morning, Thomas arrived to find garbage strewn across the sidewalk in front of their stands and in the gutter next to them, as though no one had cleaned up at the end of the previous day. As he walked up, Ephraim was disputing with a young man in his mid-twenties who was taking photographs.
“Hey, I’m just documenting the conditions at the Market,” the kid protested haughtily. Chestnut-haired and tan, he was dressed in fashionable, tight, little-boy trousers, the cuffs hemmed too high, showing his bare ankles, like he’d just stepped off a yacht. “This is free speech. I can take pictures of anything I like.” He snapped a picture of Ephraim.
Thomas stood very still, not wanting to escalate things.
“Yes, but who sent you?” Ephraim asked the kid.
“I…no one. I had time today,” he stammered unconvincingly.
“Yes, but I saw. You walked right to us. Right by all the other stands. You didn’t take any pictures of them…for your documentation. You wanted a picture of this stand. And you wanted it today. Now.”
Lupe walked up to them and took a picture of the kid with her phone.
“She can’t do that!” he squeaked.
Ephraim grinned as he looked back at Thomas. He put his hand gently on Lupe’s shoulder as she snapped another before he turned back to the young man. “Tell your boss that if this happens again, I have my own…documentation. And it will not go well for him. After today, I would never sell to him. You can tell him that, too.” He paused and looked past him up the block, adding, “I think maybe your ride is leaving.”
Thomas, Lupe and the young photographer followed Ephraim’s gaze and saw the Hulk standing next to a dark blue car, the driver’s side door open, one foot on the road, the other in the car, watching them. Thomas saw the Hulk realize that all four of them were now staring back at him. He turned quickly and got into the car. The photographer scurried toward him.
“You want me to follow ‘em?” Thomas asked.
“Not necessary. We need to get to work. But,” he added brightly, “much of this trouble may be over. I have someone interested in the butcher’s space there. He wants to put a little restaurant. I’m meeting him tonight. You want to meet him with me, about nine o’clock tonight?”
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I have to be back no later than eight.”
“Of course,” Ephraim said.
What had been a general resentment of the halfway house and its rules was now a searing hatred.
He arrived at work next morning to find the stand empty and police tape closing off the sidewalk corner and the stand. The door to the vacant storefront was covered with the yellow tape. Thomas ran to the cold locker, but there was no one there. He ran back to the stand. Even the police were gone. In desperation, he ran to a stand worker he was friendly with and asked to borrow his cell phone.
“Didn’t you hear?” he said to Thomas as he handed over the phone. “He fell down the basement steps last night in the butcher’s. He’s gone.”
“It’s a damn shame,” the owner of the other stand chimed in. “A good guy. That’s how this whole street will go, one at a time, no one to replace them…kids selling up and moving on. They don’t—”
Thomas walked away, the phone to one ear, a finger in the other so he could hear better. It was like a gut punch. He could barely breath. Lupe picked up. “Mrs. Gonzalez? It’s Thomas. Are you ok? What happened to Ephraim?”
“Oh, Thomas, it’s terrible bad. Ephraim is dead.”
“Are you ok, Miz Lupe?”
“Yes, but I don’t have no one.”
“I’ll be there. Tell me where you are.”
The next four days, he helped Lupe Gonzalez as long as he could each day before, vampire-like, he had to return to the halfway house at no later than 8:00p.m. Her stony composure had left her. She looked lost, haunted, and it tore at him every time he had to leave. What had been a general resentment of the halfway house and its rules was now a searing hatred. It was their damn rules—their fault—that he hadn’t been with the old man when he’d stayed late to meet the prospective restaurateur. Their fault he left Mrs. Gonzalez alone every night to weep and fret. He thought of his own mother, alone at the end, and anger left him breathless.
He kept the stand open, assuming Ephraim’s job. The rents on the upstairs apartments just covered the mortgage and taxes, but there had to be cash flow for Lupe. Using Ephraim’s phone, given to him by Lupe, he tried to find the person who had wanted to lease the old butchers’ space for a restaurant. It was now doubly important to get someone in there. But no one answered when he called any of the last numbers on the phone. Alongside his sadness at the loss of his boss—and friend—he had to admit that he also felt purposeful.
This was who he was now, not like before: He was contributing. Decent people needed him. When called upon, he had answered, and he would go on doing so. He couldn’t fix everything, but he could see that she wasn’t left high and dry, alone and lost.
Sunday was busy. During a lull, he was trying the last number Ephraim had called again when he noticed the Hulk together with another equally intimidating enforcer, thicker but equally bald, walking by on the opposite side of the street under the pavilions—Shrek and the Hulk come to Ninth Street. They sauntered side-by-side, slow and malevolent as a growl, their combined bulk and listing gait forcing anyone encountering them to step into the street.
As Thomas watched them sourly, the phone to his ear, he saw the new man reach casually into his pocket for a ringing phone. He stopped and showed it to the Hulk. Both men looked at it, and then both looked hard at Thomas. A piercing jolt of clarity ran through him. The one holding the phone pressed a button, declining the call. On Thomas’s end, a recording immediately cut in telling him that the voicemail box of the person he was calling had not yet been set up. Across the street, Shrek put the phone back in his pocket, and both men continued their menacing way.
Thomas went back to refreshing his displays, but as he did so, he kept track of the pair out of the corner of his eye. When they reached the corner of Christian and Ninth, he saw Shrek hand the phone to Hulk, who took it and wiped it with his t-shirt before slipping it into a trash can in front of Lorenzo’s Pizza. Thomas waited a moment for the men to turn the corner before asking another stand owner to keep an eye on things while he grabbed a slice of pizza. He returned with a slice and the phone.
Screen lock had not executed yet, and he was able to open the phone application and scroll through the phone’s recent calls. There was his own call from five minutes earlier. There was the call to Ephraim on the morning he died, presumably setting up the fake meeting. He pulled out the developer’s business card. There was the call to him from the dropped phone at 9:45 that same night telling him the job was done.
Back at the halfway house, Thomas spent a terrible, tortured night. The evidence on the phone, he saw, was not enough to convict. The phone calls were circumstantial and the motive was oblique at best. The developer had good lawyers, Ephraim had said. Out of seething anger, a clarity began to take hold. Informing the police and making public that he knew what had happened and who had done it would make him known, bring him into the light, closing off other avenues he might like to go down. There was indeed freedom when the past forgot you.
He still had the phone. He was amused to find that the pass code was “0000.” Maybe the developer had smart lawyers, but he was scraping the bottom with these two. Thomas remembered that Ephraim had said the developer was trying to tear down a block west of Broad Street. Thomas had seen it, a set of abandoned rowhouses. More than half the block was vacant and rotting. What if he set fire to one of the buildings? He wondered. Make it obviously arson. There was a can of gasoline in the shed behind the cold locker which Ephraim had used for a portable generator.
Thomas could leave the phone at the scene, which would show a call to the developer’s work number, implicating him. The fire investigation wouldn’t stop him, but it might distract and slow him down long enough for Thomas and Lupe to figure out next steps. It certainly wasn’t Ephraim’s “way,” nor was it his anymore. He resolved to keep that part of himself, the old self, locked away.
He forced himself to channel Ephraim—be smart, play straight…mostly.
The funeral was held the next day, Monday, so that Market people could be there to pay their respects. They came in abundance. Ninth Street must have been deserted. The developer showed up too. He seated himself at the back with the Hulk, who fidgeted uncomfortably with the neck of his black dress shirt. Thomas was incandescent with fury. His head throbbed, his very skin burned. He forced himself to channel Ephraim—be smart, play straight…mostly. He watched without looking, keeping an eye on the two at the back.
When the developer came forward to pay his respects to the widow he had created, Thomas moved to stand alongside her. He offered trite condolences and then murmured, “Your husband and I were in advanced discussions about buying the building. I don’t know if he’d mentioned it…”
Lupe regarded him flatly. She looked at Thomas, who stepped forward to take the proffered card. As he took it, something inside him clicked, like the time lock on a bank vault. A door opened on what he had worked hard to keep locked. The searing heat abated, replaced with bracing cold. “Let’s you and I talk outside,” he whispered to Thomas.
Thomas nodded. “Let me finish up here. About twenty minutes.”
The parking lot at the front of the building was empty. He found them at the back of the funeral home, where the hearses parked, a narrow, sun-blasted patch in between two high walls. “You’ve got to help her see reason,” the developer said, his voice echoing faintly. “She can’t keep going by herself. You can’t help her forever.”
“What if she wants to keep going?” said Thomas. “The building pretty much pays for itself, the stands are making money.”
“It’s easy,” he said, puffing out his chest and straightening his jacket. “You’re either the guy who’s going to help me, or you’re the guy in my way. I reward those who help me. The others…” Here he looked at the Hulk, sweating copiously in the heat, who twisted to show a thick police baton under his black blazer.
Thomas looked away, nodding contemplatively, seeing but not watching. There were no windows in either the Funeral Home building wall or the opposite wall separating them from the street. They were alone, and they must have thought they had him cornered. As he looked back at the developer, he raised his hands, palms up, a shrugging, conciliatory gesture.
Then he grabbed the Hulk’s truncheon.
As the Hulk lunged toward him to seize it back, Thomas took a side step and swung with both hands. It connected right where he’d wanted it to, the base of the skull where it met the spine. As Hulk collapsed in a heap Thomas dealt him another quick blow below the ear.
It happened so quickly, the developer hadn’t moved. He stood motionless, astonished as Thomas jammed the end of the stick into his neck with both hands. He fell back onto the hood of the car, a raspy, reedy whistle coming from his mouth, like something deflating. Thomas jabbed his knee into the man’s crotch to keep him from falling, and then drove the thinner end of the truncheon into his chest. The hood flexed under the body from the brute force. He stepped back and the developer’s body fell. He examined his work. Neither man moved.
He fished the car keys out the Hulk’s jacket pocket and threw both bodies into the back back seat. He hadn’t driven a car in 30 years, and he almost crashed into both walls as he reversed out of the hearse space. By the time he’d driven a few blocks, he had the feel of it again. As he drove to Ninth Street, he’d check the back seat every so often to see that neither had moved.
Shadows were growing long as he parked across the driveway apron in front of the storage locker and ran in for the gas can. Between Ephaim’s funeral, and normal Monday closures, the area was deserted. He put the can on the floor of the passenger seat and drove to the other site, west of Broad Street, parking in a service alley just behind the condemned buildings.
Thomas found a key to the chain link fence that guarded the vacant properties on Hulk’s key ring, and he let himself in. He walked carefully through the debris and destruction in the rowhouses until he found what he was looking for in the middle rowhouse: a large hole in the first floor leading down to the basement.
Taking care not to fall through, he jumped and kicked at it until the hole opened up wide enough for two people to fall through. He threw floorboards and debris into the hole and then dragged Hulk into the house. He put the keys back in Hulk’s pocket and dropped him through to the basement where the body landed on top of the debris.
The developer went into the hole next. On Thomas’s third trip, he splashed a little of the gasoline into the front seat and wiped down any areas where the police might lift fingerprints. He left the passenger car door open.
Inside the abandoned house, he spread gasoline all over the first floor, reserving the last little bit in the can, which he lit and dropped on the two in the basement. Flame erupted through the hole and quickly engulfed the first floor. Thomas walked quickly out.
It was getting dark now, and he had to get back by eight.
James McCrone is the author of the dark political thrillers Faithless Elector, Dark Network, and Emergency Powers, “noirpolitik” tales of a nation on edge and a conspiracy to control the presidency. His fiction has appeared in Low Down Dirty Vote and Rock and a Hard Place magazine. James is a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, and Phila. Dramatists’ Center. He lives in South Philadelphia.