In the hallway just outside the dining room, I run into a charging rhinoceros. No wait. It’s the Creeper, crushing me against the wall and emptying my lungs with his horn-like fist. I know rhinos are bigger and stronger than the Creeper, but it doesn’t feel like it. Or maybe I was fooled by Creeper’s soiled, spotted gray coat. It smells like and otherwise resembles animal hide.
Probably a funny thing to notice when you can’t breathe, but I think Creeper’s got that European perspective on bathing, too. You know, only sissies use soap.
“Get up,” he says.
I’m sinking to the floor as he growls this. When my butt hits reaches bottom, I still can’t grab a breath, let alone stand, and since I don’t see or hear Ryan, I choose to stay right here on the hardwood floor, occupy Creeper’s creepy attentions.
Air surges into my lungs as rhino-man yanks me up by the belt, wraps his anaconda arm around me, and spins me horizontal. Holding me on his hip like a small rolled up rug. My lungs and spirit enjoy the newly reacquired air supply until I hear small footsteps in the hall.
“Run, Ryan,” I say.
Holding me with his right arm, Creeper jumps sideways and snatches Ryan with his left.
“Hey,” Ryan says.
I feel like a beetle in the clutches of a six-year-old boy. Helpless and doomed.
My world view begins to bounce, my arm bumps a door jam, and Creeper delivers us like lost pets, one on each hip, back into the dining room. The huge chamber isn’t empty anymore, though. Bluefish relaxes at my old table with Beth. His greasy fingers caress her hair.
My fingernails press into my palms. I’m all out of smart ass.
Every inch of the five-thousand-square-foot dining room smells like Creeper’s unwashed armpits. And I can’t take my eyes off his nose. It has more bends than a toboggan run. I still want to kill Bluefish for touching my daughter’s hair, but I realize now isn’t the best time.
“Have I made my point?” Bluefish says.
He glances at both of my children. Beth's the oldest. Maybe Seaside County’s best teenaged swimmer. And Ryan. My shortstop and Hardy Boys fan. My kids nibble their dinners at one table, Bluefish, Creeper, at another. There’s maybe twenty feet of distance between us. I wish it were twenty miles.
Where in the hell are the other diners? A waiter?
“I understand,” I say. “The point is you’re threatening my children.”
For the kids, I’m forcing a smile. Playing relaxed. Showing them everything’s fine. Both of them keep sneaking glances. How could they not? I have to pretend I’m just dining with an eccentric client who likes to wear black silk suits and eat with his creepy rhino-shaped bodyguard.
So far, Bluefish and Creeper are holding their voices and tempers down, going along with my client act. Although Creeper doesn’t have to say or do much to make things look scary. The bandaged wound Luis put on his temple oozes blood. I hope it hurts like hell.
“My point is you can’t protect them,” Bluefish says. “Not twenty-four hours a day, not for one fucking minute if I choose otherwise.”
“I get it,” I say. My hands ache to snatch this bastard’s slicked-back hair and rip off his scalp. Instead, I’m saying, “I’ll open your account personally.”
I force myself to bite my prime rib dinner, and then beg my jaws to chew. See Ryan, Beth? Everything’s fine. I glance again at Bluefish’s temptingly long, grip-able hairdo, but I’ve got no real options as far as I can see. Getting Beth and Ryan home safely can be my only priority.
“Good,” Bluefish says. “In the trunk of your car you’ll find a red gym bag with one-hundred-thousand in cash and a signed Shore Securities’ account application. Buy me big cap, big name stocks.”
“All right,” I say. “Blue chips for Bluefish.”
I hand the valet his tip with a shaky hand and slide in behind the wheel of my Camry. Because of the wide market for its parts, America’s best-selling automobile is also the country’s most stolen. Wish someone would steal my Camry with Bluefish’s money in the trunk.
“Okay, Pop, we’re in the car,” Ryan says. “So who were those men?”
Both kids buzzed me with questions when Bluefish and Creeper abandoned us in the dining room. I told them we needed to scram, that I’d answer questions when we got to the car. I needed time to think.
Beth saying, “Daddy?”
“They’re friends of Mr. Vick’s,” I say. “The one named Bluefish is mad Vick went away and left me in charge at Shore Securities.”
“Is that why that big creepy guy picked us up like puppies?” Ryan says.
Internally, I can admire my son’s eye for detail. He’s got Bluefish’s driver pegged.
“Max is a little rambunctious,” I say. “Like a big kid.”
The quiet in the back seat indicates a certain skepticism, I suppose, but in this case I think lies are superior to the truth.
Beth says, “Daddy, are those men like the people who tried to kill you last year? Criminals?”
The best lies, however, always offer a bit of truth.
“Maybe, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Bluefish isn’t mad anymore.”
“He didn’t exactly look happy,” Ryan says.
Like I said, Ryan’s got an eye for detail.
“If you had to ride around in a car with that smelly guy Max, would you be happy?”
Bouncing into my ex-wife Susan’s driveway ten minutes later, breaking a long silence, Ryan asks if he and Beth need to go into the FBI‘s witness protection program.
“No,” I say. “But I’ll need to if you tell your mother about this.”