Friday, November 16, 2007

BIG MONEY, Chapter 18

The truth about what?

That’s the question I keep asking myself as I shower, smear Jif Chunky on wheat toast, and natty-up for work in a Navy blue Canali, white button-down shirt, and a maroon tie embroidered with tiny gold clocks.

The Canali’s secondhand, mind you. An unshaved, greasy-looking guy comes by the office every few months with a rack or two of little-worn expensive suits. Rumor is he buys them from recent Wall Street widows.

Wearing dead-man suits is as close to The Street as most Branchtown brokers will ever get.

Or maybe Gina’s message--putting my suit aside for a minute--is just her way of tugging my chain about her unfaithful husband. Maybe her message is a kind of red herring. A McGuffin. She could be so mad at Tony, so fed up with his cheating, she won’t believe a word the dumb bastard says.

Been there, done that. Wonder if Mrs. Tony Farascio’s pissed enough to take a lover?

Not that I discerned any direct or indirect offers earlier this morning. I trust my instincts to have mentioned such sweet intelligence. Not that I’d even consider an affair with a married woman, mind you...although consideration is a tricky word. I’m not counting brief flashes of wicked fantasy.

I crank open the Camry’s sky roof as I roll onto Shrewsbury Avenue. Except for parallel golden streaks of airplane condensation, a few puffs of pink candy-cotton on the eastern horizon, the windy sky sets a clean palate for the coming day. The crystal air tastes like pine forests and snow-topped mountains.

I’m headed to work earlier than usual today, the sun still a yellow bulb playing peek-a-boo behind Branchtown’s century-old sycamores and oaks. The kind of trouble I’m in--Bluefish threatening Ryan and Beth, Walter leaving, Talbot’s charges, then her murder, Big Tony’s wife giving me stiff ones--sleeping wasn’t an option. My mind buzzes.

One good thing, an idea that came to me as I spread my peanut butter, I’ve decided to send Ryan and Beth away from Branchtown. By good, I mean they’ll be safe. Missed but safe. My ex-wife Susan won’t go along at first, but I think she’ll cooperate after I describe Bluefish, the Creeper, the stories about Anne Marie Talbot’s body I overheard at the Branchtown Police station.

For twenty-four hours, I guess I figured Beth and Ryan would be safe as long as I did what Bluefish wanted. But Tony disappearing with the bookie’s hundred grand, and Talbot’s murder, definitely changes my assessment. Branchtown’s turning ugly, especially for me and mine. Susan has to relocate our children someplace even I don’t know about.

A man doesn’t like to think he could be tortured into giving up his children’s whereabouts. But why even take the chance? I’m a stockbroker, not special ops.

Crossing the train tracks, I glance across Broad Street toward Luis’s Mexican Grill. Luis’s and Umberto’s cars are parked there every day except Monday, but I’m earlier than usual, curious if I’ve beat them to work.

Both cars are there, Umberto’s fifteen-year-old Ford clunker and Luis’s well-maintained red Jeep, but something else quickly grabs my eye. Something that kicks my heart into race mode. A fast-rising column of black smoke gushes from one of the restaurant’s side windows.


I have the Camry in a left turn anyway, so all I have to do is hold the wheel a little longer to snap a U across both northbound lanes of Broad Street. See how easy? Now my little Japanese import points right back into Luis’s gravel parking lot. Who cares if a Branchtown cabby honks and shows me his middle finger?

I dig inside my coat for the cell phone as I bounce into the lot. The front suspension bottoms on the cement driveway, skids across the gravel. A double-boogie rhythm grabs hold of my heart.

The 9-1-1 lady takes my name and Luis’s address, but I say no when she asks me to stay on.

“I’m going inside,” I say.

Black smoke chokes the kitchen from ceiling to my waist, a solid hot mass, the line between black and clear a sharply defined slash across the rectangular space. The top of the long, food-prep table is already invisible.

I fall to my hands and knees and scurry like a rat along the wooden legs. Heat radiates on my back like the noon summer sun. My knees crack and shout with pain on Luis’s imported Mexican tile.

Shit. I had to wear the Canali, right?

Umberto lies near the kitchen’s twin stainless steel sinks he uses to wash vegetables. My fingers check the chef’s pulse. The heartbeat feels strong and steady. I check around us, but there’s no sign of Luis.

I grab Umberto’s collar and drag him toward the back door. I duck walk to keep my head out of the smoke. Thank God the pint-sized Umberto doesn’t weigh much more than Beth. I have him outside on the back steps before I can say roasted pablano chili.

He coughs. Breathing fine on his own.

Crawling back inside, I see the mass of hot black smoke engulfs the top three-quarters of the kitchen. I have to crouch lower than before, finally crawling, snaking along like some Marine recruit dodging barbed-wire.

The clean air tastes hotter than before, too. My lungs tell me to turn back.

I wheel right at the twin sinks on my way into the main dining room. My slacks begin to shred at the knees and elbows. Nobody’s ever going to wear this imported puppy again.

The fire must have started in the basement. Flames almost eat me as I approach the burning cellar stairway. I push the door closed, blocking the flames, to make it past.

In the dining room, I see nothing on my right, but to the left, I spot a black Reebok poking out from behind the bar. Luis. I wriggle closer, the cloud of searing smoke warming my back like a red-hot poker.

I tug on his ankle but can’t move him. I inch closer. My back feels like it’s about to explode in flames. I grip him with both hands and yank. Nothing. He’s stuck like a long-term investor.

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