Kraj had never killed a sleeping man before. Even as he stood over the man’s bed with a silenced .380, he felt the need to wake him before doing the deed. He’d planned it well enough. Segura’s wife was away at a charity event and would be until the late evening. “Hello, sunshine,” Kraj said, poking him with the silenced handgun. The man came to slightly, then opened his mouth. Kraj put two bullets into his skull–sput sput–which collapsed from the rear like a child’s toy, blood spreading like spilled coffee across the expensive-looking pillow and coverlet. “Tricky Ricky sends his regards,” Kraj whispered.
He unscrewed the suppressor, picked up his brass, and holstered the weapon under his arm. Making his way through the house and down the long stairs, he opened the French doors to the patio and jogged out into the cool night. Kraj had parked his Nissan Altima on the street adjacent to Segura’s, a little farther than he liked to walk after a job. He liked the feel of the gas pedal under his foot, the sure response of the wheel to his touch, the feel of the tires on the asphalt. Tonight wasn’t his lucky night. A police car moved slowly down the street, looking for something. Kraj crouched behind a neighbor’s hedge until the car had moved on. Still, the easiest twenty large he’d ever made.
Once behind the wheel, he felt better. He guided the car through its paces, back down the street. We are now leaving West Elmira, he said to himself. Tricky Ricky’s club, the Twist, would be right in the midst of its closing shift, so he decided to stop by to see Kristin, the manager of the club, ostensibly his boss, or at the least, his direct connection to Tricky Ricky Gutierrez, where the money lived. She was also his more than occasional lover, despite their relative positions, which complicated and enhanced his job at the same time.
A huge black man named Penny worked the door this Thursday, a job that normally fell to Kraj, whose job as bouncer covered his real gig: collector and enforcer. Kraj worked the Thursday through Saturday night shifts, the nights when he could make a few hundred in tips. It was a good thing Chef Pedro also ran a good kitchen, because the crowd didn’t seem to be much of a crowd tonight. He nodded to Penny and slid past the velvet rope to the sound of hissing. He flipped off the crowd as he went in through the dining area to the rear, near the bar and the dance floor. He had to ask Amber, the bartender, three times to get a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. She’d been a bartender for some time, but Kraj was on her shit list for a number of things, like fucking Kristin instead of her. The gossip mill ran full time at the Twist.
Amber thumped the drink down in front of him and turned away before he could even speak. Feeling badly for her, he dropped twenty-five dollars on the bar and took his drink into the kitchen and up the stairs to the office. He opened the door on Kristin, who had her head buried in some paperwork. Ricky laundered all his drug money through the club, and Kristin figured ways to wash it all. She wasn’t popular among the staff, but she knew all kinds of dodges and tricks that could fool the IRS, so she would be in her position for a long time if Ricky had anything to do with it.
“How are things?” Kraj said, tasting his drink. Jack Daniels. That bitch Amber.
“Terrible,” she said. “I have to account for an extra ten grand this month, and the IRS is not going to believe our clientele drinks enough to account for it.”
Kristin looked tired. She normally dressed the part, but tonight she had on a tight t-shirt and a sweater over some black leggings. Not dressed for success, not that Kraj cared.
“You look unwell,” Kraj said.
“What does that mean?”
“You look tired,” Kraj said.
“You mean I look like hell,” Kristin said, bristling.
“No, it means what it says.”
“All right. Did you do the thing?” Kristin said.
“Ricky’s thing. Yes.” Kraj cracked his knuckles.
“Front page news?” Kristin said. “Tomorrow’s headline in the Star-Gazette?”
“They’ll get to it eventually.”
“Got to love backwater towns.”
“I’m tired too. You want to come home with me?” Kraj said.
“I’ve got to figure this tonight. Quarterly taxes are due by Friday. Ricky is impatient, and I want shit to balance to the penny, and that is so not going to happen.”
“I will see you later then, I guess,” Kraj said.
“Say hello to the twins for me,” Kristin said, her head already back in the numbers.
“That’s my line,” Kraj said. Kristin referred to their mismatched dogs, Joe, a half-pit bull/half-demon puppy, and Kaiser, a Chihuahua. Kraj usually referred to something else.
Driving home on the Clemens Center Parkway, he noticed three or four police units operating in stealth, where they were normally sucking back coffee at this hour. West Elmira was light years away from Southport, but there was probably an all points bulletin out by now, provided Mrs. Segura had gotten home at her preferred time. When he reached Pennsylvania Avenue, blue lights flashed up and down both sides of the street. Kraj checked the .380 in its holster under his arm, feeling the weight of the silencer in his pocket.
There were two cars ahead of him in what he assumed was a DUI checkpoint. When he reached the officer in charge, he kept both hands on the wheel and remembered to answer with ‘Sir,’ but it didn’t seem to help.
“License and registration, sir.” Officer Brown Badge 3329 said. Kraj handed the paper and plastic out the window without speaking. “Where are you going?”
“1042 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Kraj said.
“Where did you come from?”
“Ah. You’re a bouncer?”
“How did you guess?” Kraj said, with genuine interest.
“What else would a guy your size do?”
“Waste management. Construction.”
“Good point. On your way then,” Officer Brown said. Kraj continued down the street with no interruptions and turned into his condo. He could see Joe already in the headlights, tongue lolling in the window. On the way in, his phone buzzed. Kristin: Cops have been here. You OK?” Kraj texted back that he was fine. Kristin: keep the light on for me. Kraj thumbed the phone off and let the dogs out. It might be a good night after all, If Kristin came home this early. She’d take some time to calm down, and Kraj had just the remedy.
An hour later, Kristin still wasn’t at his place. Kraj had already gotten over the world news of the night. Terrorists captured in Belgium and Paris. Another ho-hum night in the legacy of Europe. He’d tried finding a soccer match somewhere in the world, but nothing seemed to be happening. He phoned her, but the call went straight to voicemail. A voice started nudging at his ear, but he didn’t pay attention until Kaiser began barking, inasmuch as the little dog ever did, his bark sounding more like a throaty cough. Even Joe pricked up his ears. An engine revved in the driveway. He pulled back the shade and looked out. He didn’t recognize the car, a late-model black Lexus. The driver turned on the light in the car, and he could see Kristin in the passenger seat, her hands bound, her mouth gagged.
The driver got out first, handgun held low at his side; then the back seat passenger got out and took Kristin out by her hair, tossing her against the side of Kraj’s Altima. Kraj let the shade drop and pulled the .380, screwing the suppressor on and dousing the lights in three quick but subtle motions. He cuffed the dog silent with his foot.
“El Asesino!” the driver shouted.
Kraj stepped out. “Leave her alone!” he said.
“In 30 seconds, she will be dead, and soon after, you will,” the driver said. Kraj answered with three shots from his old Walther, punching the passenger in the stomach three times. Kristin ran shakily toward Kraj and the driver shot her in the back. By then Kraj had leaped down the deck stairs and punched another shot into the car windshield. The impact came in his right leg, staggering him to the gravel driveway. The driver shot again and hit him high on the right side of his chest and Kraj went down, firing as he fell. He thought he saw the man collapse but then darkness swooped over him like a black bird.
Kraj awoke in the recovery room of St. Joseph’s Hospital with his leg dressed and a gauze bandage on his chest, already dark with blood. A New York State Trooper sat in the room with him.
“Did she live?” Kraj said, dreading the answer.
“I’m sorry, sir.” the trooper said. Kraj let his head fall back on the pillow.
Ten or fifteen hours later–he wasn’t sure–Kraj awoke with both leg and chest throbbing. He saw that the state trooper, a different one, stood outside the door. He pushed the call button. Five minutes later he pushed it again. If he needed the hospital, then he also needed painkillers. With the state trooper there, he felt relatively safe. The nurse came in without speaking and administered something warm and calming, but rough like dog fur.
“Did they live?” he said to the room. No one answered.
Later he became more coherent, and troopers took his statement, shaking their heads. Kristin had died, but the driver and passenger had not been on the scene when neighbors called in the shots.
“What am I being charged with?” Kraj said.
“You may need a lawyer for the gun charge, but if there are no bodies and no witnesses, that’s pretty much cut and dried. As far as we know, you didn’t kill anyone at all.” The reporting officer winked quickly at him, but Kraj already knew. The cops knew it was organized crime, and Tricky Ricky Gutierrez had filled the right wallets somewhere in the great chain of command in the sky. He should be called Lucky, not Tricky.
Kraj tried to relax against the mattress, but even with the intravenous fluids cooling his veins and the morphine dulling the pain, he needed to think of a plan. Tricky Ricky had stopped by with a promise of money for silence, but he already knew Kraj wouldn’t talk. Kristin’s death cemented that. Kraj asked him to find someone to feed Joe and Kaiser. He hoped the dogs would remember him when he got out in a few days.
When he arrived home, Joe and Kaiser waited at the front window, looking well-fed and happy. Inside, the house had been cleaned top to bottom, excepting the normal wear and tear two adult dogs caused. A note lay in the middle of his polished dining room table: You owe me, Amber. He opened the refrigerator and found spoiled milk and a half-full container of cashew chicken that had grown green fuzz. Not everything was perfect. He cleaned the refrigerator as best he could with his bad leg and chest pain. He’d been given a standard brown cane when he left the hospital, but it didn’t mix well with cleaning and kitchen duties.
The Walther and suppressor were both gone, so he had only the Colt Python .357 for work purposes. He kept it loaded and within arm’s reach or strapped on his hip all day long. He’d not forgotten the two men who somehow knew he’d killed Segura. The driver, at least, was still alive. Not for long.
Ricky told Kraj to take a few days from work, but Kraj got impatient after just two days and hired an Uber driver to take him to the Twist at seven on a Wednesday night, He paid the man, an angular Latino with slanted eyes, and walked in through the front door, hopping slightly with the cane and favoring his bad side. He shook hands with Chef Pedro and waved at the sous chefs. It almost seemed as if he was a hero. Amber waved from the bar and crooked her finger at him.
“Do I still suck?” Amber said.
“I appreciate you feeding my animals,” Kraj said. “I do not know anybody else who would have done it.”
“I’m sorry about Kristin,” Amber said. “I mean, she was a bitch, but no one deserves to go out like that.” Kraj patted her on the arm and said nothing. He made his way up the stairs to the office with some little difficulty. He sounded like an old man, tapping and stepping, tapping and stepping. Tricky Ricky stood at the top of the stairs and offered Kraj a hand, but Kraj waved it off.
“Five days after you take two bullets, you come in to work. Huevos, hermano. Great big fucking huevos.” Ricky sat behind the desk in Kristin’s ergonomic chair, facing a huge pile of paperwork. “You know I’m in a spot, right?” Ricky said.
“Finding someone with Kristin’s specific skills, yeah.”
“I’m sorry about her, by the way. They got her because they wanted to get to me. To send a message to me.”
“I have a message for them, too,” Kraj said, flipping his long leather jacket aside to show the Python.
“That reminds me,” Ricky said. He pulled Kraj’s Walther and the suppressor from a desk drawer. “I have some friends who expedited the red tape for you.” Kraj tucked them into his jacket pocket.
“It will take me a day or two still to get better. I wanted to come in and see you.”
“I can’t replace Kristin, but I need to replace her. Understand?” Ricky said.
“I thought about Amber,” Ricky said. “She knows her shit, and what she doesn’t, I can help her with. And so can you.”
Kraj thought this over. “This puts me in an odd position,” he said. “She’s been feeding my dogs,” Kraj offered.
“I never heard it referred to like that, but I admire a man who moves quickly.”
“You don’t understand,” Kraj said.
“I understand what I need to. Keep me ignorant on the rest, OK?” Ricky said.
Kraj moved his head sideways, and his neck cracked.
“Sounds painful,” Ricky said.
“Enough of this,” Kraj said. “Who shot Kristin?”
“I don’t know,” Ricky said. “Segura has a brother, Emilio. He lives in the projects over near the hospital. That might be a place to start.”
“OK,” Kraj said. “In a few days I’ll check him out.” Kraj dug Oxycodones in a plastic vial from his pocket, palmed two of them and swallowed them dry.
“Take your time,” Ricky said. “He ain’t going nowhere.”
Kraj turned and took the stairs.
“Can you send Amber up?” Ricky said. Kraj turned back and smiled, as best he could. He felt a set of switches begin to fall in place. Emilio Segura. Projects. Hospital. Soon. He picked up his phone and called an Uber driver. Everything will work out, he thought. He had the driver stop at the liquor store. Grey Goose Vodka. Lime juice. Ice. The thought of the alcohol on top of his medicine kept him loose and smiling. Soone he would load the .380 and consider his next move.
Kraj woke every day with the leg hurting less and less. His physical therapist gave him a rubber strap to use on his right leg, to build strength. Patience with his physical infirmities came slowly as his dependence on the Oxy grew. He let Amber into his home twice a week to clean. They never had sex, and Amber never even mentioned the act. He wondered if he had been reading her signals incorrectly all along. He’d never been so wrong in his calculations of women who might want to fuck him. Considering what had happened to Kristin, he understood her unwillingness. He didn’t exactly have a good record after Cami and Kristin.
One day, two months after the shooting, he felt good enough to drive the area. He strapped the .380 in his left armpit, and put the Python under the front seat of his Altima. He took Pennsylvania Avenue across the Chemung River and drove a few block beyond the hospital and made a right turn, exiting before reaching Route 17. There, he parked on a side street across from Emilio Segura’s building. It took a week of trying different times, but he caught Emilio leaving his apartment building at ten PM on a Tuesday night, accompanied by a dishwater blonde and two young children. Kraj waited until they got into the light of a street lamp. It was him. The driver. A sallow Latino man with kink in his hair and a quick gait that the children struggled to keep up with. Kraj considered making a move then and there but wasn’t sure if his leg would hold up. And he didn’t want to kill him in front of his children.
Kraj watched as they got into an old Toyota Corolla and trundled up the street right beside him. Kraj’s armpits went damp with perspiration. It wasn’t fear, exactly, but instead a sweat borne of the fact that for the first time since the war, he knew he had been so close to his death, a matter of inches, that his entire outlook had been changed. Kraj didn’t want to die. He wanted Emilio Segura though, in a matter of both personal pride and revenge. He hadn’t exactly loved Kristin, but he didn’t want her dead under any circumstances, and Emilio Segura had shot her in the back. He couldn’t lose sight of the fact that Tricky Ricky had even more on the line than he did. He’d lost a valuable business connection in Kristin and nearly lost his enforcer and collector, and he would need Segura’s death as a sign that he wasn’t to be fucked with.
Kraj made a U-turn in the middle of the street and headed back up Pennsylvania Avenue to his house.When he got there, the light in his kitchen shined around the pulled window shade. Joe stood with his paws on the window sill, barking his soft bark. Kraj switched the cane to his left hand and drew the Python with his right. Then he noticed a silver GeoTracker parked behind his house and out of sight from the street: Amber’s car. He relaxed slightly but kept the gun in his hand. He would not be surprised again.
Amber stood by the kitchen table, dressed up in a way Kraj hadn’t seen before, a sleeveless silk blouse that showed off her sleeves of tattoos, and tight jeans with red cowboy boots. Around her neck hung a silver pendant, a circle with the capital letter A breaking the top.
“What does that mean?” Kraj said, pointing to her neck.
“It means anarchy,” Amber said. “It’s nice to see you, too.”
“I’m sorry. You look very nice in those clothes,” Kraj said.
“I wondered if you wanted to watch a movie,” Amber said. “I don’t have to work until tomorrow night.”
“Can we watch something here?” Kraj said. “I have all the movie channels.” Kraj didn’t feel like being around people. He wanted Emilio Segura, bloodied and dead, preferable at Kraj’s own hand. he popped two Oxys and washed them down with vodka.
“I know you have the movie channels. I put them on when I cleaned the place, to keep myself company.”
“Ah, I see,” Kraj said. Joe got up on the sofa and lay in the exact middle, so Kraj had to push him to one side in order to sit down with Amber. He sat on the sofa’s right end; he took off the .357 and laid it on the arm.
“Do you need that out?” Amber said. “It makes me nervous.”
“I don’t want to ever be surprised again,” Kraj said. “Sorry.” Amber tucked herself into his left side.
“Do you think they’ll ever find the man who shot you?” Amber said.
“I don’t know if they’re trying. It doesn’t matter.”
“It might matter for Kristin’s family,” Amber said.
“Maybe. What are we watching?” Kraj said.
“Some Keanu Reeves shooter thing. I saw it once. It’s pretty good. It’s about a professional killer.”
Kraj blew out his breath. “OK.” He took a drink of the vodka.
“Should you be doing that with pills?” Amber said.
“if I had to work, maybe not,” he said. She put her head on his shoulder.
Kraj watched the movie with some interest, but thought more about how he could get Emilio Segura away from his wife and children than the narrative, in which the Superman dispatched bad guys who were clearly bad with headshot after headshot. Not realistic, but nice to think about. He thought about messaging Segura directly through email or otherwise, or simply letting it be known in the underground who he looked for and why. He had a feeling that Segura would have bragged his exploits up, and it was nearly time to act.
The movie was half over when Amber got up and went to the bathroom. Kraj took the opportunity to get himself more vodka. He had just moved Joe off the couch when Amber came back naked. He saw where she’d tattooed a cross between her breasts, beside the two full arm sleeves. The anarchy pendant hung over the cross, which seemed a little strange. She didn’t speak, but sank to her knees in front of him and opened his pants. In two minutes Kraj forgot completely the movie and Emilio Segura both.
After she’d finished she took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom, where they fucked with a ferocity he’d never seen in a woman before. At the end, the anarchy symbol felt sharp against his skin as he fell against her, then collapsed at her side. “I needed that,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, kissing his chin. “I needed it too. I’ve only been waiting years.” She tweaked his nose and he laughed. She rolled over and in two minutes her breath began to come slowly and regularly. Kraj law awake for only a few minutes longer, pulling her to him and tucking his hand between her breasts and dreaming of Emilio Segura’s head exploding into gore.
Kraj woke at seven AM and Amber was already gone. He stretched in place, and Joe jumped up on the bed beside him. He spent time petting the dog down. He was already fifty pounds and showed every sign of being massive for his breed. Kraj put on pants and a shirt, then rigged his shoulder holster for the .380, and the .357 high on his hip. Today Emilio Segura would die.
At midnight, Kraj waited outside across the street from the Village Tavern in Wellsburg NY. He’d followed Segura about three car lengths behind nearly all day, and now he had the scene. Segura would walk out at some point, probably accompanied by friends, and Kraj would put him down. Even the potential witnesses didn’t bother him. They were likely to be as dirty as he was.
At 12:15 AM, Segura walked out, accompanied by two friends, all of them drunk and leaning on one another to walk to Segura’s Corolla. Kraj walked across the street as quickly as he could manage, the Walther high in his hand. He stopped in front of Segura and saw the look of astonishment on the man’s face, followed by raw and naked fear. Kraj shot him twice in the head. Segura collapsed in a heap, and the two men with him looked ashen and trembly. Kraj paused for dramatic effect for maybe ten seconds, then ran across the street to a junker Ford Escort he’d bought that morning for the sole purpose of a clean getaway car. One of the two men was already on his phone by the time Kraj got the car started. He drove to a nearby asphalt plant where he’d hidden his Altima.
Kraj ran the Escort’s engine high and ran it into the deep pit of water next to a dragline. Then he walked to his Altima and drove home, where Joe and Kaiser met him with happy barks, and where he waited for the moment went Amber returned from the Twist, and for the sex they would have, and for the dreams that would come later of the world in which Emilio Segura was nothing more than a headline in the shitty local paper, and he, Kraj, was as sharp as he had ever been or ever would be.