The waitress actually wrote a letter or two on her pad before she wrinkled her nose at me. “What?”
“Just kidding. I’ll have the crawfish etouffee.”
After she left with our orders, Bobby scowled and said, “I don’t need a clown, Mack. I need a guy who can do the job.”
I let my eyes droop and faked a yawn to annoy him.
“You in or not?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“I ain’t so sure.”
“The money, Bozo, the money.”
“Quit calling me that.” I hated Bobby’s whining, especially because he’d never lost his baby fat. He’d been chubby since we were kids. I know, I know--I'm an asshole. But everything annoys me.
What a goober--he seriously believed I would whack his wife for a thousand bucks. I had half a mind to ask her for the same price to do him then drive off into the sunset with two thousand, laughing, and forget them both.
Hire a hit man? Bobby didn’t have the balls to make his dog move over for him on the couch. He never even put up a fuss when Stella banished him to a separate bedroom. But Stella was tougher than her husband, and certain to do something politically incorrect if I scammed her, and I’m not one of those anarchists who enjoys upsetting the anti-violence protestors by getting himself shot.
While my mind wandered, he squirmed but silence was beyond his skills set. “I’ll give you half up front.”
I sipped my whiskey and gazed at the empty booths behind him, waiting till his nerves chewed through so he’d go on negotiating against himself.
“I might add a little if you do it quick--I mean maybe, you know--if you guarantee . . . .”
I lazy-eyed him and turned to study the mirrors and bottles of booze behind the bar.
“I mean, what do you want, man? I’m trying to be fair here.”
“Standard procedure is the full pop before a move like this, you know that.”
He blinked and pretended he knew that but was trying to work me. Dumb as a box. Tells shot off him like popping corn, easier to read than the text on my phone. He rubbed at the moisture condensed on the side of his glass and acted like someone who could think.
I waved to the waitress for refills and pointed at Bobby as the guy who’d pay. And pay in full he did, one hundred percent, the next day. A thousand in twenties.
But it was the moment the waitress set down our drinks that I decided what I’d do. And the second after that, I felt a shiver of having overlooked something essential. A bad moon rising.
With the cash hidden in my glove compartment, I parked on Royal, walking distance from their place on Ursulines. I pulled my hat low over my eyes and waited in the drizzle close enough to see Bobby come out. When he left for work, I knocked on the door to their apartment.
“What do you want?” Stella’s a real charmer.
“We need to talk.”
I motioned beyond her toward the inside. “In private.”
She looked me up and down suspiciously, like I was planning to seduce her, which come to think of it was not a bad idea.
So we’re seated across from each other in their living room and she doesn’t offer me a drink or ask how I’m doing or anything at all. Compared to Bobby, she’s Miss Texas hold ‘em.
“Bobby’s trying to get you whacked.”
A normal woman would get upset or tell me I was full of it and throw me out but Stella took a drag off her cigarette and watched the smoke for a minute, then smiled. “What’s he offering you?”
I put my hand over my heart. “Me? Hey . . . Stella . . . .”
She did her give-me-a-break face. When I didn’t say anything she smacked her forehead. “Duh, right, you heard about it at the bowling alley.”
I held my hands wide and talked like a killer: “You know I’d never do a job on you.”
She burst out laughing so loud I felt like a ridiculous fifteen-year old humiliated in front of his whole school.
“I’m kidding, Stella.”
She laughed even harder.
The last thing she said as I left was, “You and Bozo deserve each other.”
On the way home I was so pissed off I wanted to shoot the woman. Seriously frosted.
“I want my money back.”
“I spent it.”
“You can’t take my money for something like that and not do it.”
“I’ll pay you.”
That went on for a month.
“I told you, I’ll pay you.”
“You said that two months ago.”
I thumbed toward the calendar on the wall but that only confused him.
“You did what?”
“You wouldn’t give me my money.” I hated it when he whined.
“Exactly what did you tell her?”
“Just about our deal.”
“Are you insane? What did she say?”
“You don’t have to shout.”
I patted the air between us to placate him.
“She says you told her too.” He pouted when he said that. Bobby could whine with his damn body language. “But you didn’t tell her about the money, and she wants it.”
“You told your wife you paid somebody to whack her and she wants a refund?”
“You didn’t do it.”
“Your logic boggles the mind.”
“I knew you wouldn’t really do it.”
“I just wanted to get her attention. She treats me like I’m not a man.”
Here I thought I knew all his tells and he’s the one playing me. Blew right past me and I bought the whole Cinderella.
I wasn’t doing anything, wasn’t bothering anybody--just sitting at the bar minding my own business, having a drink or two. Stella marched in followed by three rejects from Central Casting for a mob movie. It was comical. The big one was six feet six, three hundred pounds, wearing a pink shirt with a white tie, and I swear, a jumbo diamond ring on his little finger.
Playing cool I can do. “Hello, boys and girls.”
Quicker than a reflex the big one said, “Men,” in a deep voice that made me jump like a child getting goosed.
“Men,” I said before I meant to say anything. Humiliation visits close behind Stella in my experience.
They all laughed. Then I noticed the big guy’s ice cube eyes and five o’clock shadow and here it was only one or so and I’m thinking this gorilla really is some kind of mobster, I mean the scariest guy in The Godfather.
“You owe me a grand,” Stella said.
“Don’t fuck with me.”
I slumped. “I don’t have it.”
She held up an index finger. “One week.” She glanced up at the big guy then at me like he was or else, and paraded off with her little entourage to their table. I knew then that big guy was going to kill someone soon.
“Be quiet, Bobby. I need to think.”
After a few minutes, I moaned.
“Are you okay?”
“Who were those guys with Stella?”
“Nobody has friends like that.”
“From that creepy club off Bourbon?”
“You’ve got to help me, Bozo. I’m in trouble.”
He looked hurt.
“Bobby. You know I meant Bobby.”
“Can you lend me a grand?”
He got shifty-eyed. “I don’t know, Mack. Stella wouldn’t like it.”
I threw my hands in the air. “Christ, you can’t tell her.”
He pressed his lips together and closed his eyes.
First sliding our drinks to the side, I leaned over the table, deep into his space, and tapped his arm. “Those were real bad dudes she was with. They’re going to hurt me. Are you hearing this?”
He peeked out of one eye. “That’s a lot of money, Mack.”
“I’m in trouble, Bobby. Friends help each other.”
“What’d you do with the other money?”
“I don’t know. Paid off loans? I don’t know.”
“I can lend you a gun.”
“What do you mean, gun? Where’d you get a gun?”
Alarm swept over his face, and he pulled his hands next to his belly, above the table, like not to touch whatever was there. Reminded me of a chipmunk. “Not me.”
I looked at the ceiling. “Spare me from mystery, Lord.”
The next morning, Bobby opened his front door shivering and sweating, eyes wide, like a child.
“Are you sick? Is that why you called?” I almost put my hand on his forehead to check for a fever.
He shook his head and quickly closed the door behind me, first glancing fearfully out as if a monster might be crowding in to spring on its prey. I hadn’t seen that kind of terror on him since we used to watch Shock Theater on late night television in junior high school.
He took my hand and led me through the hall to Stella’s bedroom, where she lay on her back in a pool of blood, with a small red puddle on the center of her chest. Motionless as a smoked ham. Smelled a little funny too--unpleasant, to be honest about it, but I didn’t say that aloud.
“Bobby, Jesus. She killed herself.”
“I didn’t mean to.” He made a helpless gesture toward the floor across the room, where I saw the gun.
“You shot her?”
“It was an accident.”
At that, I ran.
I made it to the bowling alley with no one I know seeing me. I grabbed a fist full of score sheets and asked my buddy to charge it all when I finished so I could put beer on the same ticket. He knew I was good for it. I filled out enough score sheets to document that I had to have been there for three hours, drank two beers too fast, bopped around talking to people trying to say things, you know, stuff so they’d remember seeing me there. I charged the beer and games to my credit card and made certain the date and time were legible of the cash register receipt. Proof that I was nowhere near Stella’s.
Took off and ran most of the twelve blocks to the diner. There I ordered a hamburger, and the waitress served it precisely in sync with Bozo sitting down at my booth. Nobody around seemed to be staring.
“Figured you’d be jammed up.” He smiled. “Not to worry. I told them you did it.”
My burger and onions slid from the bun into my lap.
“You crazy fuck--”
He cut me off. “Not you, you. I described you so I’ll remember but if they ask, I’ll say it was a guy who looked like you but I know you and know it wasn’t you.”
I grabbed a wad of napkins and tried to clean my pants.
“You know, so I can keep my story straight. I won’t contradict myself when they good cop-bad cop me because I’ll remember your description. Clever, huh?”
“I don’t want to go to jail.” He began crying.
“Don’t worry, they’ll kill you first.”
At that he cried full on, like a baby I once saw that sat bare-bottomed on a lit cigarette.
“I didn’t mean it, Bo--Bobby. Come on, man.”
“They’ll kill us both, Mack. I heard her talking to them. They’re coming over here this afternoon.” We simultaneously checked our watches. Three hours till noon.
“When this afternoon?”
He shrugged helplessly. “What are we going to do?”
Not that planning ahead ranks high among my strongest gifts, but having to clear out fast was one scenario I’d actually thought about carefully on a number of occasions, so I only needed to consider our options for about ten seconds: “Run.”
“We’ll take my car. I’ve got a couple grand.”
“You said you--”
“I know, I know. You got any cash?”
He shook his head so I said, “We gotta go anyway. Pack some clothes. Come on.”
Halfway through packing his stuff he paused and stood up straight, thinking, then nodded. “Stella does.” And hurried back into her bedroom.
He crept carefully around the edge of the blood, gently opened her closet door as if trying not to awaken her, and got down on the floor. On his hands and knees he looked like a fat little boy. It was sad. Poor Bobby never meant anybody any harm.
Pushing aside some shoes and boxes, he uncovered a loose piece of carpet. He yanked it up and leaned down close to a safe. With his hands shaking so much, so what if he had to dial the combination four times, because when he opened it he pulled out stacks of money, bundles of hundred dollar bills, more money than I’d ever seen.
Who knows where she got it--maybe from those tough guys--but Stella’s bundle filled a suitcase. Naturally that one went on the bottom underneath ours when we packed the trunk.
Crying and singing and laughing all at once, and my convertible rocking with our waves of grief and fear and relief at the getaway, we cracked up together at every stupid joke. I gotta say, that was a feeling sublime as the Hallelujah Chorus on Christmas, it was, to race west on Interstate 10 toward California with Bobby (no more Bozo).
Into the sunset.
Award-winning author Paul Lees-Haley has previously published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Alabama Writers Conclave’s Alalitcom, Voices, G/C/T, Hypertrophic Literary, CoEvolution Quarterly, Trial, Spectrum, and numerous psychological and legal journals and magazines.