Bluefish’s black Chevy Suburban crunches gravel in Luis’s parking lot and then rolls quietly across the sidewalk into light traffic. Red dash lights cast a hellish glow on Bluefish and his doublewide driver, Max, who waited for us outside and had big trouble squeezing inside the SUV.
Max would have trouble squeezing inside a bus.
Luis and I are tucked in the Suburban’s middle row behind Max and Bluefish. From the jump seat behind us, Bluefish’s two pals in business suits press their semiautomatics against our necks.
“Here’s the deal,” Bluefish says. “Tom Ragsdale is a degenerate gambler. No one will take his action. But then your asshole boss Vick tells me he’ll guarantee his son-in-law’s bets. Okay, I know Vick a long time. I take his word. But a few months go by, and now this hump Ragsdale is into me for eighty-nine gees.”
“Rags and Vick’s daughter are getting divorced,” I say.
“Well, I’m just saying. But no matter what, why is this my problem?”
Bluefish’s head turns back to the windshield. “Everybody tells me Vick’s coming back at the end of the summer. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. In the meantime, I’m holding Vick’s share of Shore as collateral, meaning you and your big mouth friend are going to do me a couple of favors.”
The Suburban turns off Broad St. at Newman Springs Road and heads toward the Garden State Parkway. Every other building is a gas station or a liquor store. Guess people who work in Branchtown like to fuel up before the big ride home.
“Carr, you’re going to open an account for me at Shore Securities, help manage my money.”
Luis raps his window with soft knuckles, listening at the glass. He silently tests the door handle, too. It’s locked. The driver Max must have switched on his override. Is my favorite bartender considering a bailout?
“Sounds painless,” I say to Bluefish, “but a few months from now you’ll want Shore to accept bags of cash, or stolen negotiable securities. I know how this crap works. It’s why Mr. Vick never opened an account for you all the time he’s known you.”
Luis’s hand tests the door handle again. Hope to hell he doesn’t leave me in here alone. Double hell. That driver Max makes my skin creep. His head is the size of a jack-o-lantern, his back and shoulders like a rhino.
“What favor do you ask of me?” Luis says.
“Liquor distribution,” Bluefish says. “I got a company in Philly would like to supply your restaurant.”
“No,” Luis says.
Bluefish’s head drops to his chest. Very expressive, this bookie. I should introduce him to Walter. “This ain’t no negotiation, asshole, you and me going back and forth. Do what you’re fuckin’ told or I bury both of you alive in the pine barrens.”
He nods out the window. We’re on the Parkway headed south now. Manicured lines of scrub pine, oak, and maple trees border both north and south lanes. Another fifteen or twenty miles, the forest turns shorter and wilder. Nothing but scrub pine.
“Perhaps there is a third choice,” Luis says. “A contest. Myself against your driver.”
Turning to us, Bluefish’s eyebrows jump halfway to his receding hairline. “You want a piece of Max? That’s your genius solution?” Bluefish shakes his head. “You come across as smart, too, although maybe I was fooled ‘cause you don’t talk much. But no, I see no benefit. I’ve got what I want right now.”
“What if I agree to include a one-quarter interest in the restaurant itself--in addition to my liquor business?” Luis says.
Wow. My man is feeling confident. Is Luis in possession of material facts of which I am unaware? Maybe something to do with that door handle?
“Hey, I’m impressed,” Bluefish says. “How about you, Carr? You’re not going along with this dumb idea, are you?”
I’ve never gone wrong trusting Luis yet. El Hombre. He’s got a mean plan, I know it.
“Sure I’m going along,” I say. “Here’s my offer: Max wins, you get your new account at Shore, plus I’ll agree to launder cash for you, say $100,000 a month.”
Bluefish scratches his narrow chin. “Your actually making this tempting.” He sighs. “Max? What do you think?”
A bus zooms by in the fast lane, a steel box loaded with senior citizens and their rolls of slot change headed for Atlantic City. Max, The Creeper, shrugs. As if the Suburban went over a small bump.
“Max stomp him,” Max says.
Bluefish says, “Hmm. So what’s the rules, Pedro?”
“No weapons,” Luis says. “The fight will continue until there is only one man still able to fight.”
“Sounds like a waste of time,” Bluefish says. “Max?”
The driver’s huge head bounces up and down maybe an inch. My pulse ticks much higher than that. This duel is going to happen. Luis versus The Creeper. A ball of imaginary grease rolls around my stomach.
“Max stomp him quick,” Max says.
Bluefish stares out the car window. “Well, why the hell not.”
“If I win, you will forget about these so-called favors?” Luis says.
Bluefish shrugs. “If you win? Right. Turn off at the next exit, Max. I can’t look down at a fifty-dollar-bill lying on the sidewalk and not pick it up.”