by Dave Zeltserman
The two men who walked into the bar worked for Ned Bishop. Both of them wore dark gray suits with jackets that were a half size too big, to hide their shoulder holsters and provide quicker access to the guns they held. Jack Tomlinson thought the one with the blockier head and cropped gray hair was named Marvin, although he wasn’t sure whether it was the man’s first or last name. The meaner-looking one, with a sharp, angular face and razor-thin lips, was nicknamed Nails, and Jack remembered hearing it was because of the thug’s penchant for hammering nails into the hands of deadbeats.
Bishop’s hired muscle wasted no time in approaching him. The one nicknamed Nails showed a sneer as he appeared to take in the tawdriness of the bar, first glancing at the middle-aged woman sitting alone with a glass of Chardonnay, then at the raggedy couple in a booth, before fixing glazed eyes on Jack. Jack, for his part, fought back the urge to slam his fist into the bar. Instead he maintained a friendly countenance, as if these men only wanted to order drinks from him. He knew that wasn’t why they had come. They were there because of Mitch. The only question was how much money did Mitch owe Bishop this time.
Before Jack could say anything, Marvin put his index finger to his lips and shushed him. In a soft voice that Jack had to strain to hear, that sounded almost like a cat purring, Marvin asked about the bar’s layout.
“The kitchen’s to the right. Down that hallway is a storage room and an office. No basement.”
“Any of the doors locked?”
Jack pulled out a key chain, slid two keys off of it, and handed them to Marvin. Marvin handed these to Nails, who headed to the kitchen. He wasn’t there long, and then he was walking around the bar and down the hallway that would take him to the other two rooms. Jack had no idea what was up, but figured it was somehow related to Mitch. He smiled pleasantly at Marvin as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Several minutes later Nails returned and tossed him the keys. Jack was mildly surprised to see that Bishop’s goon had come back empty-handed and hadn’t helped himself to a bottle or two of top-flight booze.
Nails told Marvin that there was no one back there. He turned his pale, half-lidded eyes toward Jack. “Not very crowded up front either, is it?” he remarked.
Jack shrugged off the comment. “It’s the time of day.”
“Nah, I think it’s because this place is a dump. Like someone could pick up fleas here if they hung around too long.” Nails leered at the woman at the end of the bar. “Or maybe a fleabag.”
“The place is clean,” Jack said, still maintaining a pleasant demeanor, still playing dumb. “Nothing to worry about, gents. What can I get you two?”
“You gotta admit, Tomlinson, this dive is a big step down from where you used to work,” Marvin remarked. “What was the name of that establishment?”
“Stockman’s,” Jack said, his eyes dulling despite his efforts to show these two nothing.
“That’s right,” Marvin said. “A classy joint.” He showed Jack a pitying smile. “Quite a fall from grace for you, huh?”
“Not really. Just too many bad memories there,” Jack said under his breath. When he saw these two walk into the bar, he had promised himself he wasn’t going to bail Mitch out this time, but it was a worthless promise, and he had already lost his resolve. It was odd that Nails had searched the bar for Mitch. He’d also caught a certain look in the thug’s eyes that told him if he didn’t fix this, they were going to do worse than just give Mitch a beating. Even if he hadn’t seen that, what choice did he have? He had promised his mom on her deathbed that he’d look out for his younger brother. Besides, Mitch was the only family he had left. But dammit, the timing once again couldn’t be worse. He was just beginning to dig himself out from the last mess Mitch had left him, but that’s the way things always were with Mitch. Two steps forward, three steps back. He breathed in deeply and let the air out in a pained sigh. “How much does my brother owe?”
“That’s cute,” Nails said.
“You think he’s playing dumb?” Marvin asked his partner.
“I don’t know,” Nails said, his sneer hardening. “It could be genetic. I’m guessing he’s the genuine article, like his dumbass brother.”
“Seriously, guys, I don’t know what’s going on. I haven’t heard from Mitch in months.”
“You’re sure about that?” Nails asked.
Jack gave him a confused look. This game-playing didn’t make any sense. He also didn’t like the undercurrent of menace that he was picking up from Nails—that this was something more serious than his brother piling up gambling debts.
“Look, fellas, as much as I enjoy your sterling company, how about you just tell me what I need to pay to square things for Mitch this time?”
Nails snorted derisively. A thin smile twisted Marvin’s lips as a shadow darkened his eyes. “Seven hundred and twenty,” he said.
Now Jack was really confused. Bishop wouldn’t send these two thugs to collect a paltry sum like seven hundred and twenty dollars. He’d wait until the vig compounded the amount to at least ten grand before he’d send his muscle to shake Jack down. Maybe this was more serious, like Mitch shooting his mouth off and saying something Bishop took offense at? Could that be what was behind this?
“If you fellas take a seat at the bar, I’ll pour you some drinks and get you the money.”
Marvin and Nails both sat at the bar. Marvin asked for a Grey Goose vodka martini and Nails told him to leave a shot glass and the bottle of Old Forester. After Jack had them settled, he went to the office and found six hundred and forty-five dollars in the safe. He had enough cash in his wallet to bring the amount up to the required seven twenty. Later, after he dealt with Bishop’s thugs, he’d make some calls and try to replenish the money he was borrowing from the bar’s safe. If that didn’t work, he’d report a robbery at closing time and claim that a couple of punks wearing ski masks forced him at gunpoint to open the safe.
When he got back to the bar, he handed Marvin the seven hundred and twenty dollars. Marvin thumbed through the money and stuck the wad of cash in his pocket.
“Your moron brother owes Bishop seven hundred and twenty thousand dollars,” he said.
Jack flinched as if he’d been slapped. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would Bishop extend Mitch that type of credit?”
“These aren’t gambling debts.” Marvin used his index finger to draw Jack closer, and he lowered his voice so that the woman at the end of the bar and the couple in the booth wouldn’t be able to hear him. “Your walking-dead brother ripped Bishop off and left two of his men in the hospital with fractured skulls.”
“Mitch wouldn’t do something like that.”
“The video recording says otherwise.”
“Your idiot brother was too dumb to realize there was a surveillance camera,” Nails said.
“This has to be a mistake. Someone who looks like Mitch.”
Marvin took out his cell phone, fiddled with it, and showed a video of a man with a big goofy grin standing outside a door. It was Mitch. There was no mistaking him. Jack watched as Mitch pulled a ski mask over his head, reached behind him for a big piece of iron, probably a .40-caliber pistol, punched in a code on a keypad, and swung the door open. Marvin turned off the video and stuck the phone back in his pocket. “I got another video of what he did inside the money room, but you don’t need to see that.”
“Mitch was working as a bagman for Bishop?” Jack asked, incredulous.
“You’re joking, right?” Marvin waited for Jack to say something. When he didn’t, the hired muscle continued. “We don’t know yet how your brother got the location or the security code. He just showed up uninvited, cracked some skulls, and helped himself to Bishop’s money.”
Nails eyes had taken on the dead, glassy look of a snake’s. He said, “Your brother’s a dead man. Whether you are also remains to be seen.”
Marvin raised a hand to shut up his partner. He said, “You’re taking us to your apartment so you can prove to us you don’t have Mitch stashed there.”
Jack understood fully what was going on. These two goons were trying to size him up and decide whether he had anything to do with the robbery or knew where Mitch was hiding. They must’ve had orders from Bishop to search the bar and his apartment, but what they really wanted was to get him alone so they could work him over and be convinced that he didn’t know anything.
“I’m not going anywhere with you two gents.”
Marvin finished what was left in his martini glass, pushed his barstool back, and got to his feet. Nails also stood, his arms held loosely at his side, his eyes hooded.
“You don’t want a scene here, do you?” Marvin asked in the same soft purr he used earlier.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to one.”
“If you don’t want to take us to your apartment,” Nails said, “we can drag you to the office back there and have our private talk there.”
“You’re betting that I don’t have a sawed-off shotgun within reach. Or that you can get to your guns before I blow a hole through one of you.”
Jack was bluffing, but he was a good poker player. Better than Mitch, anyway. Nails again showed a hard sneer, but Jack caught a glint of indecision in his eyes. The thug had to know that if there was a shotgun behind the bar, he’d be the one taking its blast.
“It looks like we have a standoff,” Marvin said. “Any suggestions?”
“I can promise you you’re not finding Mitch without my help.”
“We’ll make you help us, then,” Nails said.
“That’s not going to happen unless I do so willingly.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’re bluffing about having a shotgun,” Nails offered with disgust.
Marvin ignored his partner. “How much do we have to pay you for your help?” he asked.
“That’s not what I want,” Jack said. “If I get you back Bishop’s money, you let Mitch live.”
“That’s not an option.”
“It’s the only way I help. Call your boss. Ask him.”
Marvin frowned at the suggestion, but he worked his cell phone out of his pocket and made a call. Jack listened as the hired muscle explained the situation to his boss in a hushed tone. At the conclusion of the call, Marvin’s lips pressed into a bewildered smile as if he couldn’t quite believe what he had just been told.
“You’ve got one hour to find your dumbass brother,” he told Jack. “He’ll still have to pay a price for what he did. Some broken bones, a few busted teeth, but he won’t lose any limbs and we’ll leave him alive. If you jerk us around with this to buy him time, you’ll pay a price also. This acceptable to you?”
Jack shrugged. “I’d rather visit him in the hospital than the morgue.”
Marvin checked his watch. “One hour, starting now. And you got to deliver what he stole from Bishop or you’ll still be burying what’s left of him. Even if it’s a dollar short. First, though, you take us to your apartment.”
“I don’t think so.” Jack worked his apartment key off the chain and tossed it to Nails. “Your charming associate can search my place and catch up with us later. If you’re only giving me an hour, I’m not wasting a minute of it.”
Nails gave Marvin a questioning look. Marvin responded with a nod, and Nails left with the apartment key. Jack waited until the thug was out of sight before using the bar phone to make a call.
“Steve, this is Jack Tomlinson. Yeah, Mitch’s brother. You hear from him the last couple of days? . . . That’s too bad. You know where Carl Weeks likes to hang out? . . . Donleavy’s, huh? Okay, thanks. How about Al McCluskey, any idea where I can find him? . . . Hell, that would be great. I’ll owe you one. If you get ahold of him, send him to Donleavy’s, okay? Tell him I should be there in twenty minutes. That it’s a life-and-death matter. Thanks, man.”
Jack got off the phone and told Marvin they needed to get over to Donleavy’s in Bushwick.
“Who’s Carl Weeks?”
Jack made a shrugging motion mostly with his eyebrows. “A lowlife Mitch has been hanging around with. What I’ve heard is, the two of them have been pulling off short cons at different Brooklyn bars. Small-time stuff. McCluskey is Mitch’s sponsor.”
“Your brother’s in the program?”
“Court ordered. It’s not something he takes seriously. How about giving me back that seven hundred and twenty dollars?”
“I don’t think so. Your price for me calling Bishop. And if you don’t find your idiot brother, you’ll have more serious problems than that money to worry about.”
Jack let it go. Marvin was right. That money was the least of his problems. He was wearing jeans and a white long-sleeved shirt tucked in at the waist. There was no place he could’ve been hiding a gun, and Marvin could see that. When he reached for his weather-beaten leather bomber jacket, Marvin snapped his fingers for Jack to hand it over. After Marvin made sure there were no weapons hidden inside any of the pockets, he handed it back. By this time, the couple in the booth had cleared out, and Jack informed the woman still nursing a glass of Chardonnay that he was closing the bar early due to a family emergency, but if she came back the next day the first two drinks would be on him.
Copyright © 2019. Brother's Keeper by Dave Zeltserman