Friday, August 17, 2007

BIG MONEY, Chapter 5

One week later, I’m grabbing a stool at the bar of Luis’s Mexican Grill, anxious to eat a couple of Chef Umberto’s green-chili burritos for dinner, when the world’s greatest bartender comes over and leans across the counter.

“Do you know this man?” Luis whispers. His head tilts, indicating I should look in the direction of the corner booth nearest the kitchen.

I follow Luis’s gaze. Looks is, Joseph “Bluefish” Pepperman. Dining with two business-types, although now that I look a tad closer, both of his friends maybe a little too athletic and solid under the suits, ties, and starched white collars. Imported muscle.

“Anybody who bets in Branchtown knows Bluefish,” I say. “I’ve never seen him in here before, though. Have you?”

Luis shrugs. “No, he has never been here before this afternoon.”

Luis wears his usual black slacks and white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. My friend’s high forehead and aquiline nose tell of European descent, but his black penetrating eyes and high cheek bones give him a distinct Native American quality as well.

“Did Bluefish say something to you?” I ask.

“No. But his arrival encouraged several of my customers to abandon their dinner plans. I believe he has more of an interest in you, does he not?”

“What? Has he been staring at me or something?”

“As soon as you walked in,” Luis says.

When I tasted how oily fillet of bluefish was, maybe at a fish fry two years ago, I figured it must be Bluefish’s greasy appearance that earned the local bookie his nickname. The black silk shirts. The slicked back hair. The man definitely sports a slippery quality that seems to match the oily taste of the fish.

Bluefish catches me looking. Slowly, he nods his long narrow head at me in recognition.

But Bluefish’s nickname has nothing to do with oil or grease I learned last year from my friend at the Newark Herald-Examiner.

“You ever see swimmers called out of the Jersey surf by the lifeguards because of a boiling mass of fish?” my friend said.

“Last summer. Somebody said it was a school of bluefish.”

“I don’t know if the bluefish are in a frenzy because they’re eating something smaller, or because they’re being eaten by something bigger,” my friend said. “I never asked because I figured it didn’t matter. It’s the way the school acts that got Bluefish his nickname.”

“Violent, you mean?”

“Out of control.”

Glad I remembered that now. And truly glad that except for the ponies once in a while, I don’t gamble.

This is all doubly good because, now that I’ve noticed them, Branchtown’s minor-league version of a New York goon squad leaves the table and strolls around the bar in my direction. Another doubly good thing: I met Bluefish once at a restaurant in Spring Lake. Mr. Vick, who was taking me and some guys to dinner after a round of golf, told us he knew Bluefish from high school.

“Hey, Carr,” Bluefish says. He offers his hand.

I’m surprised he remembers my name. There were four or five of us at the dinner table that night. The guy must have taken a Dale Carnegie class. I slide off my stool and shake. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Pepperman.”

He slaps my shoulder like an old drinking buddy. “Call me Bluefish.”

Luis saying, “It is not good for my business that you are here.”

Luis leans across the dark horseshoe bar, staring at Bluefish, showing all of us that windy Halloween look in his eyes I’ve only seen once or twice before.

“I would like you and your friends to leave,” Luis says.

Thanks, Luis. Trying to get me killed?

Bluefish’s two sidekicks slide up quietly beside their bookie boss, creating a wall to screen us from most of the restaurant. Bluefish’s men unbutton their Italian sports coats and show us the pistols stuffed in their belts.

Luis may have to reconsider his poor hospitality.

Across the room, a young woman leads her table in sharp laughter. The TV behind the bar blares spring-training baseball highlights. The restaurant’s familiar onion, cilantro, and simmering chili smells seem suddenly sharp and pungent. My pulse is up. What the hell is it with me and guns? Suddenly, they’re a major part of my life.

“Are you leaving?” Luis says. “Or will I call the police?”

I grew up in the eastern, Mexican-American section of Los Angeles. Ever since grammar school I’ve admired the code of honor and fierce pride with which so many Hispanics are raised. Simply put, my favorite bartender is an hombre. You feel safe drinking at his bar, but I hope Luis doesn’t think the switchblade he carries in his back pocket matches him up with those two semiautomatics I saw.

“We’re happy to leave,” Bluefish says. “Your food looks like runny dog shit. However, Pedro, you’re coming with us. I think your big mouth has earned you a spot next to Carr in my back seat. Get your ass out from behind the bar.”

Luis’s face hardens into wood. “I have customers. I will not leave my place of business.”

Bluefish’s men aim their pistols at my head.

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