The next day after work I find Luis’s Mexican Grill in the full-boat grip of rigor mortis. Subdued voices, no laughter. The light crowd focuses either on round plates of Umberto’s semi-famous enchiladas or CNN’s pretty-face actress blaring death estimates for another Baghdad bombing. The air tastes brittle, ready to crack.
A stranger might think America’s war in Iraq was to blame for this pall, but I can see the cause is much more personal. Armed violence threatens the home front as well. I don’t recognize him as being among Luis’s friends, but another Toltec warrior pins me from under Luis’s caballista sombreros. Within reach of the stranger’s big paws, a tall brown package leans against his barstool. Could be a couple of golf clubs. Maybe one of those thin, fungo baseball bats. Then again, the shape reminds me a whole bunch more of a single-barrel, pump-action shotgun.
No wonder the joint’s tense.
Luis is busy making drinks. He takes a few minutes to spot me, Luis collecting money and mixing big pitchers of margaritas. Soon as our eyes lock though, my favorite bartender/club owner wipes his hands on a white towel and struts my way, Luis jaunty, but tense, too, the swagger contained.
He snatches at my offer of a handshake. Wow. The restaurant’s atmosphere isn’t the only thing uptight around here. Luis’s shiny black eyes bear the resolute, defensive wariness of a big-city cop walking up beside your car. One hand on his holster.
Whatever Luis’s problems, mine are worse. I decide to file a formal complaint. “Bluefish threatened my children, Luis. He brought that creep-ass giant with him, too, surprised me, Ryan, and Beth at the restaurant. Bastard had me roughed up in front of my kids.”
Luis’s eyes briefly shut. A long, slow blink. He says, “Did you agree to do him the favor?”
I nod. “I couldn’t say no.”
“What about this man Tony?”
“I haven’t heard from him since the day before yesterday.”
Luis reaches low to his left, draws up a half-full bottle of Herradura Gold and pours us two shots. “It is lucky for me I have not yet fathered children. I have only myself and the restaurant to protect.”
My friend doesn’t know the half of it. Besides Beth and Ryan, my current security responsibilities include Carmela, Shore Securities, and Mama Bones. Thanks to my boss and market mentor, Mr. Vick, I’m sworn to protect his, mine, and ours. Where’s my badge? My troops? Where’s Tony?
“I noticed the guy with the shotgun,” I say. “I assume he’s a friend of yours.”
Luis ignores my implied question. He wraps two fingers around his shot glass, drinks his Herradura and sneaks a glance at the front door. Maybe he thinks I’m guessing, that his armed pal remains obscure.
I throw back my own tequila. Tilt my head in the guard’s direction. “I admit I’m nervous looking. I have to go see the A.A.S.D. lady in a few minutes. But, come on, Luis. That guy pinned me like an owl on a field mouse when I walked in. And that brown paper package beside him is about as subtle as a bazooka.”
He shakes his head. “Then Bluefish’s spy will easily pick him out as well.”
“Count on it.”
He pours us another shot. “I must make my friend less visible.”
I glance at the hombre beneath the sombreros. “And maybe get a couple more friends.”
I park in the Martha Washington Inn’s side lot, grab my coat, and slide out of the Camry. A putrid, river-bottom odor whacks my nose. Branchtown residents have been throwing nasty things in the Navasquan River for more than four-hundred years. The gifts return in spirit every low tide.
I breathe as shallowly as possible walking to the hotel’s main entrance. The Martha Washington Inn perches on a small bluff overlooking the river, the hotel’s whitewashed wooden exterior molting away like feathers from an ancient seagull.
Cool and clear this evening in Central New Jersey. A few clouds glow pink in the west. Not a bad night to roost at the Martha’s upstairs brass and mahogany bar, watch the sun go down. After dark, lights pop on in the big river estates, throwing sparklers onto black water.
Maybe after I meet with the A.A.S.D.’s Anne Marie Talbot, I’ll have a Bombay martini and check out the lights.
I let go of the Martha’s front glass door and swivel to see who’s called my name. It’s Tony Farascio, all six feet of him, the stubble on his George Clooney cheeks thick and black as coal dust.
“Hey, Tony. What’s up?”
“I decided to help you with that other thing.”
Tony sticks out his hand. He’s wearing tan cotton slacks, new white sneakers, and another extra-big, short-sleeve knitted green golf shirt beneath an unzipped Navy blue London Fog wind breaker. I’m familiar with his big hands, that crunching grip, but as he walks toward me I notice Tony also owns exceptionally light feet for a big man. Like a pro defensive lineman.
We drop the shake. “Carmela told you I was going to be here?” I say.
“Well, I don’t need any help with the A.A.S.D.. But I sure could have used you last night. Bluefish threatened my children.”
Tony slams a forefinger to his lips. “Wait a minute,” he says. He guides me inside the Martha’s lobby, then off to a quiet corner beside a thirty-gallon blue Chinese vase filled with blooming yellow forsythia stalks.
“Sorry, pal,” he says. “But I didn’t think Bluefish would make his move that fast. Plus, I had to get permission. But I’m on it now.”
“I heard about the cash he gave you,” Tony says.
“You did? From who?”
“I got friends in Bluefish’s family. All over, in fact. You still have his money?”
Tony smiles and wraps a thick arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go have a pop at the bar. You can tell me about this A.A.S.D. problem.”
“I don’t have time. The A.A.S.D. woman is waiting for me now. She just came into town today on a fluke and agreed to meet me. So it’s important. I don’t want to be late.”
He shrugs and redirects me toward the elevators. “Okay, let’s go see her. We’ll have a pop later.”
Once again I resist his forward momentum. Like before, my shoes slide on the slick marble. “You can’t go with me,” I say.
“Sure I can. You’re going to need me.”
He plows another few steps toward the elevators, me scuffing along with him. Suddenly he brings us both to a halt. “Wait. I got an idea. Let’s go back to your car, get Bluefish’s money. We might need that, too.”
My heart rate ticks up a notch. “What are you talking about? What’s Bluefish’s money got to do with the A.A.S.D.? Jesus, Tony. You’ll get Shore closed down letting her see all that cash. Like I’m trying to bribe her.”
“Her name’s Anne Marie Talbot, right?”
“And if she files her report with co-mingling charges included, Shore Securities gets hurt bad?”
“So trust me, Carr. Vick told you to ask for my help, right?”
“Yeah, but there’s no way Mr. Vick would want you to bribe her. Jesus.”
Tony tows me through the glass doors, back outside. Once more, the gooey, tongue swelling smell of dead fish punches me in the nose. Tony’s arm, the odors, fear suddenly pumping up my heart rate...feels like I’m about to faint.
Mr. Brooklyn checks my face, shakes his head. “You look upset.”
There’s no way I can stop Tony Farascio from doing whatever the hell he wants. If I try to muscle him, I’ll end up as rotting goo, reeking like the other poor souls paving the Navasquan River bottom.
“When you give me Bluefish’s money, I think I gotta go see this Anne Marie by myself,” Tony says.
My jaw drops. Joining my series seven license, my Gift of Gab turns temporarily suspended.
I am freaking speechless.
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