Jimmy’s got a race horse. Tommy knows a man. Lizzie’s got a wedge and Jimmy’s got a plan.
That thing sucks money right out of the wallet and craps it on the stable floor. Jimmy’s tried everything. Techniques and so forth. Running on sand, limb massage, muscle manipulation. Steroids.
There ain’t a damn thing Jimmy won’t do for that horse.
I hadn’t been planning to get mixed up in the thing. I wasn’t looking for anything to do on the team. Jimmy calls it the syndicate, my understanding is that since Jimmy and Lizzie provide the sugar, they are the start and end of the whole thing. Everyone else? Hangers on. Looking for a golden shiny shadow to bask in.
I wasn’t looking for shiny shadows or golden fleeces or miraculous flaming sunsets. All I wanted was to be left alone. One minute you’re pulling on a cold beer, thinking about the small things and the next moment, you’re in a trailer with a restless race horse. Strong enough and big enough to kill you if it decides it wants to.
“Just stay calm, that’s right. We’ll all be fine.” What the hell are you supposed to say to a blind folded nag in a silver box?
When we get to the track, I am taken a little on the blind side by the sheer volume of traffic. I mean there are people everywhere. Stand still long enough and money will fall from your hands, fly from your pockets. This place is a cash vacuum and it makes me nervous.
Watching the high rollers gets bile inducing after a while, so I stroll around trying to look unattached and disinterested. Trying to avoid involvement in anything. I swerve a couple of conversations; dodge an attempt to debate odds. I’m doing well when I find the hospitality tent. The atmosphere in there is schizophrenic. Those at home are doing well. Drinking, talking, laughing. Those on the edges like me – it’s the hostility tent and when I feel hostile I get a twitching in my fists that won’t lay down until I land them on someone.
That’s another reason I didn’t want to be here.
“You got any interest in this next race?” I turn to the voice and take in the scene in seconds. This character is a wannabe. He is doing his best to project. He wants to be wealthy, confident. His skittishness around the eyes suggests otherwise.
“I don’t got an interest in anything.”
“What do you do?”
“Do?” I say, looking for an escape hatch and hoping this won’t end with his face torn off.
“Yeah, do. What do you do? For a living?”
“I’m between jobs.” He has no sensitivity to the conditions, just wants to be seen yakking it up with someone, anyone. That way, people might think he is connected. That I sought him out and not the other way around. I know the form. Never been to a race before but I’ve seen plenty of this slime manoeuvring.
“What do you do when you’re not between jobs?”
“I hurt people.” I dig in on the hurt and twist it sharply, hoping that he catches the vibe. He seems startled for a second or two and then ploughs on, regardless. I’m suddenly homesick for Jimmy and Lizzie. Tommy can kiss my ass.
When he’s finished telling me about his building contracts and his work force and what a progressive kind of boss he is and how he may be able to help me – no promises, of course – he gets back to the horses.
“It must be pretty exciting, owning a race horse. You know?”
“What’s exciting about it? I’ve got a dog. He’ll do.”
“A racing dog?”
“No. A barking dog.”
I’m starting to think its working. He’s losing interest. His eyes are dancing around like twitching reeds in the everglades when a storm comes up. He ain’t wanting any part of me. I’m thinking he must be very pleased with himself for adding the ‘no promises’ proviso on to the job offer. Guessing that about him is probably the only bet I’m likely to win today.
I’ve found that telling the truth with people like him seems to work better than trying to avoid the facts. Telling him I hurt people. It’s not much of a gamble. The under and over odds on it being a mistake to make the admission are slim. He won’t think I’m serious. If he does think I’m serious, he won’t expect it and the words will make him retreat into the crowd and spend the day hiding from me.
As it happens, I haven’t been entirely honest. I kill people is more like. I have a specialist skill set and it costs a pile to pull the trigger, if you want me. Not that it’s always a trigger. You sleep like a king in this job. One of those medieval guys who worried about having their head cut off by a cousin all the time. In this job, it’s loose connections and mouths. They get you electrocuted and I’m not even trying to be cute with the language.
I find Jimmy by the grandstand wearing binoculars like a real owner. I’m warmed up on a couple of beers and whisky chaser, so I’m starting to thaw out and relax a little.
“How’s the horse?”
“The horse is great. Where you get to?”
“Oh, here and there. Looking around, watching rich people.” Jimmy smiles and his shoulders move slightly. He is wearing a tuxedo at a race track. It’s his thing. His image or trademark or whatever you call it. I can’t decide if it’s a great gimmick or just makes him look like a shit.
“You’re not exactly on the breadline yourself, Riley.”
“What do you know?”
Jimmy leaves it and scratches the end of his brogue in the dirt beneath us. He just makes vague semi-circles with the tip of the sole. I wonder what it says about his state of mind. Maybe he’s just bored. Or maybe he’s just antsy waiting for the start of the race. I wonder if the mob has him tagged for a share if he wins. It ain’t their hay day but it’s still New Jersey and money smells as good in sixty six as it must have done in thirty six. Horses mean money. Money means greed. Greed brings complications. When you have money, greed and complications, people get killed. That brings the whole show back around to me, though I have no real connection to the mob. Loose or otherwise.
“I’m in the hole pretty bad, Riley. Lizzie’s been good for the money so far but she gives much more, Ralph will suspect something.”
“So which do you want more, Lizzie or the money?”
“I sort of like things just the way they are.”
“Lizzie and the money.”
“Sure. Why not?”
“The eternal problem. Faced with a choice, men want the whole thing and usually end up with nothing.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
See what I mean? I didn’t want to come here today. I didn’t want to walk around the paddock dirtying my shoes. I didn’t want to hang around the greased up money monkeys, so slimy they drown on the spot. I didn’t want to know about Jimmy’s problems or Lizzie’s finances and I had no real deep longing to starch Ralph.
Ralph’s what they call an industrialist. Made his money from oil refinery plants in Jersey. I’ve got no bones with Ralph. Trouble is; Jimmy got a bone for Lizzie, which means Ralph’s position has always been delicate. Jimmy gets bored with Lizzie, no problem. Lizzie gets bored with Jimmy, no problem.
Thing is, these people and how they operate, the sides forever change. Jimmy thinks I’m his friend. If for instance, Lizzie gets bored with Jimmy but Jimmy has problems accepting it, given the money that her old man has and what she would stand to lose if he found out about the affair, Lizzie could just as easily talk to me. She talks to me and friendship means nothing. It’s all about who can pay, baby.
On balance, Ralph is probably the easiest target for me. I’m not above killing women but I wouldn’t thrill to kill Lizzie, it would be a shame to waste her in her prime.
So now, here I am, back in the horse box with the horse that didn’t finish. I’m sat on a shelf, sort of near the top of the box. I don’t know if all of the boxes have this arrangement and I don’t know why I agreed but it’s uncomfortable and I consider shooting Tommy, just for laughs.
We rock and roll through the falling darkness and I wonder why we had to sit around for so long after the race, schmoozing with the dead legs and lawyers. I dealt with the situation by getting ramped up on a couple of specials I had in my pocket and a few beers. I don’t mix that shit up religiously. When you do, you see angels and Satan and the whole mouth of the river Styx yawning open to receive you. That’s no kind of way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I do just enough to take the wood out of the people around me and make them seem human.
“Riley, you alright in the horsebox again?” And that was me. Pills kicking in, beer softening opinions, so her I am. I feel sorry for the horse. The stupid thing spends half its life in this crate, the other half failing to meet obligations and expectations. If things don’t look up for the horse soon, I can see a deal being made with one of Ralph’s buddies over at a canning plant.
The darkness coming down like it does is the start of things getting a little weird. I’m floating in a pool of narcotic half light, altered perception and although I am familiar with the mechanics of altered perception, I am behind the beat in this hose box. I’m not in gear for this situation. The elevator rises but stops somewhere around my neck. The top floor is empty. That’s when the creeps make themselves at home.
The doubts. Picture it. Dark box. Horse. Jolting ride. No visibility, except for the small shafts that penetrate the oxygen slits high up around the horse’s head space. The horse races under the name Doublegone. And I am. From the twin combination of alcohol and pills. When that thing moves, I can feel its breath. When it twitches, I imagine a whole network of muscles moving in sync beneath the smooth surface of his flanks. I’m beginning to think that I was there at the unveiling of creation when the box launches from a pot hole, rises on an angle too sharp for me to accept and then dips, hits and lurches.
Doublegone and me make plenty of noise and try and untangle our awkward confusion. He ain’t on drugs but he might as well be. He’s got The Fear worse than I do. All thoughts of Lizzie and Ralph have left the scene. This is about keeping this horse from spooking itself into a murder.
By the time we have the back door opened for the guys up front to check on us, I’ve fed ol’ Doublegone my last three tablets. There hasn’t been an immediate reaction from him but the act of being fed seems to have built a fragile bond between us. I’m talking to him, slow and sweet when the door opens.
It’s Tommy. The asshole.
“Not yet but keep talking.”
I don’t take it further. Tommy already has a list of contenders after his scalp. Even by the standards of the circles I move around, Tommy has angles enough to die in his sleep at thirty two. It’s just a matter of time. Piss off enough people, think you’re above it all for long enough and one peaceful night, your sleep will be made permanent, dreams destroyed, interrupted by a half dozen bullets.
We live in a state of perpetual hope where Tommy is concerned. I would love to do it but I don’t kill for pleasure. His name appears on a contract and I’ll ice him in a heart beat. Until then, it’s enough satisfaction to plan and wait.
Tommy says they can probably manage to get me in the cab as Lizzie is no longer up front. She met her fin tail fancy ass car at the rendezvous spot. No-one worries about the bottle of champagne she guzzled at the races. She will drive back to Ralph and blow his horn like nothing ever happened. Jimmy probably tells himself it ain’t the case but guys like Ralph, landed, loaded and protected don’t put up with being neglected.
I follow Tommy and his snake-doing-a-shit-walk up to the cab. The interior light shows up Jimmy, leaning slightly forwards, brow creased. “How did the jolt effect Doublegone?”
“He’s fine, Jimmy. He was a real thoroughbred about it all.”
“He’s still got a long face,” says Tommy but no-one laughs and I wonder if Jimmy and me would have a whole lot to lose by just murdering him now and burying him somewhere off the Jersey turnpike. Even with the love potion and booze to mellow my soul, I want to skewer his heart.
“Fine,” says Tommy. “Have it your way.”
“We hurt your feelings, not laughing at your little joke?” I aim to gaud him but he just wants to drive and sulk in the dark. Passing lights illuminate his face now and then, shadows win out at this stage of the day.
When we finally reach Jimmy’s place the first fingers of daylight are crawling into view all along the endless horizon all around us. The soft brush strokes of orange and yellow will come later, for now the early rising fingers of daylight are the colour of ice and the association causes me to shiver.
We all enter Jimmy’s house and the bourbon is riding different ice in cut glass crystal effect tumblers within seconds. Tommy smart mouths and brags his way through a succession of this pussy and that pussy. What, when and how he said this or that to. Who he did this and that to. Who should know better, who won’t do it again and who better be looking behind him. I’m not impressed. I’ve heard it all a score of times and I’m always surprised that Jimmy seems to have patience for this shit. Maybe Tommy has a function for Jimmy that I know nothing about. Otherwise, I can’t fathom reason number one for keeping this guy around the place.
The small hours pass this way, Tommy talks. Jimmy sometimes laughs or cuts in. Tommy refills the tumblers, I brood. Mostly I brood about cutting Tommy’s throat but here and there I get to thinking on Ralph.
Tommy has a long history of bending cars when he drinks hard. He has pretty much laid off the drink today. This has given him a thirst that he seems enthusiastic to exploit. Once we enter the third hour of this, he has mercifully talked himself into a stupor. I hope his dreams are bad ones.
“This Ralph business,” says Jimmy. Like we are here to talk about golf.
“Well… I got nothing against the guy.”
“Except that he got to Lizzie first and sits on a pile higher than your house.”
“This ain’t just about Lizzie and the pile. Me and Ralph are competitors.”
“In the sense that a junior high team competes with the Pittsburgh Steelers, maybe.”
“Look,” says Jimmy. “Ralph’s next move is into cables and wires. Electronic stock. Warehousing and wholesaling.”
“That’s what you do.”
“You know, for a smart guy Riley, you can sometimes come over dumber than a duck’s dick.”
This from the guy who likes Tommy.
“There are plenty of reasons to rub Ralph out. You don’t need to know what they are.”
“I like the guy.” It’s true. It’s an occupational weakness but I’m leaning toward Ralph at the moment and thinking about perhaps getting Jimmy to lay off.
“You met Ralph, what? Three, four times? How the hell do you like the guy? You don’t know him.”
Here it is. The thing about Ralph.
Ralph is someway and then some older than Lizzie. Straight off, you got to hate a guy who manages to pound a stunning woman, twenty years younger than he is. He wears Ray ban shades, all of the time. Second of all, you got to hate a guy who wears Ray ban shades all of the time.
Ralph is funny, smart and apart from the Lizzie thing, pretty down to earth for a guy who owns a fifth of Jersey. I’m thinking that if I got closer to Ralph, he would know plenty of people who could pay a lot more than Jimmy can for me to ice people. Making the move to Ralph would be like business expansion. I have no evidence for sure on the matter but my gut tells me that guys like Ralph, they tend not to be scared of moving obstacles out of the way.
“How do you know that Ralph doesn’t know?”
“Doesn’t know about what?”
“Doesn’t know Doublegone from a cocktail sausage. Jesus, Jimmy. Doesn’t know you’re banging Lizzie?”
“He does know. At least, I think he does.”
“So how do you know he hasn’t ordered someone to stiffen you up?”
“Has he talked to you?” Jimmy seems tired. He drags an open palm down his face, stretching the thing out and moving it around a little. The face, not the hand.
I look at him and wonder what is behind the question. Is this a suspicion or is he just curious?
“What if he has?”
“So he has?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Jimmy kicks this around awhile. He drains the last of his bourbon, makes a face and a ‘pah’ sound. Like a grimace lacking conviction, his expression is short lived. His heart isn’t in it.
“Perhaps Ralph talking to you or someone else might make the whole thing less complicated.”
“In what way?”
“Give me an out. My life’s not going too good.” He chugs the mostly melted ice around the bottom of his tumbler, looking for magic tricks or more whiskey.
“Now I know you’ve had too much to drink.” I tell him to go to bed and forget all about it. I tell him we’ll come at this with a different approach in the morning. It’s been morning for quite some time when sleep takes me for a walk through a forest where the trees know my name and cars have feelings. Sometimes, I think I should quit mixing the pills and the booze.
When I wake up it is to the sound of dead horses.
The words reach me all at once, dragging me by the heels from dreamland but they only seep through one at a time, waiting quietly for the rest to arrive. When they are all lined up and I can think about them, I realise that Jimmy has been telling me that Doublegone has been shot through the brain.
Knowing that I fed Doublegone the dancing candy, I wonder if he got all mixed up and shot himself.
I arrive at the scene in the barn, detached and still buzzing on bourbon. The show is worse than anything I have had to sit through in one of those Off -Broadway productions. Doublegone, legs stiffer than a morning boner, lays there, eyes glazed, lips curled back and horrible horse teeth, yellow with decay and protruding in a queue like a line-up of ugly whores at the court house makes me feel edgy. The clean and obvious bullet holes through the front of his head and the exit mess on the stable wall, exonerate me in my eyes. I wonder how it is that I ever got to the place where I see a horse murder as stomach turning and yet feel no such alarm at killing people. I’m not going to stop doing it or go and see a doctor, I just mull it over for a few seconds.
Jimmy is in poor shape and Tommy’s incessant bullshitting isn’t helping. Spotting a chance for sport, I go and hit Tommy firmly upside the chops and tell him to keep his stupid ass opinions private. He glares at me but isn’t able to think of anything to say. I’m so happy, I almost sneak back to my room and unload into toilet paper. The prick.
“Any ideas, Jimmy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Ralph. Or someone he knows.”
“You think this is his way of warning you off Lizzie?”
“Looks like it could be.”
“What you gonna do?” I let the question reach him and find him. He gets to know it and is comfortable with it.
“Kill Ralph,” he says. Not for the first time, I am startled at how easily a man can give the order when he won’t have to see the result.
When I roll the Chrysler 300 to a dead stop outside Ralph’s office, I’m still in four minds about how I should approach the job. We are on nodding acquaintance and I believe that this will buy me time. I don’t feel too good about putting any bullets into Ralph but this is important to Jimmy. He says he will double my normal fee and speculates that Lizzie will match terms from her end.
The refinery around me, is a wide open space punctuated with huge barrel like containers, zigzagged with iron stair cases and observation platforms. Chimney stacks spew thick, grey to black smoke clouds across the skyline. There are a number of one level buildings spread about the place and here and there, cars, delivery trucks and vans stand idle, heating up in the brutal mid afternoon scorch.
I check my revolver for ammo and follow the directions I have been given for gaining access to Ralph’s inner sanctum. I picture him, feet on a blond wood desk, all smiles and shades telling someone in his Texan drawl that oil is in his blood and to trust him on the price. I feel bad for the guy. Even if he did kill Jimmy’s horse.
I tap his door lightly with the knuckle of my abuse finger and wait.
“Yeah?” It’s him, dusty throated like a hangover.
I turn the handle and enter his sparse office. He isn’t interested in creating an appearance of success. He is too busy to line his walls with examples of wealth. The bare panelling and basic carpet add to my mental impression of a man who looks more bullshit than he is.
The shades are in place and the fattest cigar I have ever seen smoulders in the ash tray- a nuclear sub lit at one end.
Ralph’s eyes hover for a second and then a smile breaks. The smile says, I’m a good old boy but you pull any shit and you may never walk again. I feel butterflies piling up in my gut and inviting their bigger friends in through my asshole door.
“I know you, don’t I?”
“Sure. I’m a business acquaintance of Jimmy Dodge.”
The smile leaves the party and I am left with the cold certainty that the Ray bans are hiding cruelty.
“What does that cocksucker want?”
“He’s had a situation with his horse, wants me to see you about it.”
“I got to tell you, I’m not in a position to care too much about the situation with his horse. You see, what’s your name, son?”
“Riley. Curtis Riley.”
I offer my hand and he allows it to taste the breeze awkwardly until I retract it. Ralph ain’t so warm anymore.
“Well, you see Curtis Riley… I got me a situation as you put it, with my wife.”
“Don’t play dumb, Curtis Riley. I don’t like dumb. Your acquaintance has been screwing my wife and my wife has been bank rolling his no good racing turtle. That fucking thing couldn’t win a track meet if NASA strapped a genuine space race rocket to its pecker.”
I haven’t got anything, so I stay dumb.
“Now, when I discovered just how much my petty cash was down last night, when I realised that my wife’s shopping account was being used to pay for a horse that belongs to a man who looks me in the eye twice a month, knowing that he is fucking my wife and spending my money, well… I was none too pleased.”
Ralph lifts the cigar from the ashtray and I half expect a taxiing fighter plane to leave its back and make a break for the clouds.
The end glows orange and dense smoke fills the space between us. I notice beads of perspiration at Ralph’s temples and between his eyebrows.
I feel the weight of my gun in the shoulder holster, feel a light headed sense of lost reality and a momentary sway as my knees want to give out and let me down.
“Thing is, I decided that the only way to stop that particular expense was to go to the source. ‘Course, Curtis Riley, I love my wife and if that horse had meant the world to that little girl, I would have sat down with a tick list and we could have maybe come up with a better plan. As it was, she assured me that the horse, that Jimmy Dodge… they were as useful as one another.”
“So you had the horse killed?”
“No, I didn’t. No, son. I don’t do much of that sort of thing personally. No, I thought it was important for Lizzie to show me that she could wash her hands of an investment when it goes sour.”
“Lizzie had him killed?”
“You’re none too bright, are you Curtis Riley? I drove Lizzie over to her beau’s place very early this morning. She walked across that paddock and shot that beast in a way that made me feel real proud. Hell, I almost got a tear in my eye.”
“Sounds like a scene,” I say, trying to be cool.
“It sure was,” he pulls the hammer back with a click and lets his thumb slide away to the side. He points the gun at me and has me nicely lined up. I wonder what he is thinking behind those Ray bans and now that the smile is back.
“Now, thing is, Curtis Riley, it is my understanding that you are a professional hit man. That you kill people for money and you don’t much care what you kill them for or why it might not be such a good idea.”
I’m three steps behind the game plan and the revolver is screaming at me from somewhere beyond my reach, somewhere shut off and somehow unattainable to pull it into the moment.
“Now I never killed a man myself but I admit to being curious and I don’t think I would lose much sleep over killing a man who kills other men for a living.”
When my knee leaves the room via the door behind me, I am shocked at the explosion of bone and muscle. The agony won’t hit for a few seconds and I see it laying on the cheap carpet. Particles of bone lay alongside the tiny white bits of paper that get stuck in carpets and I see a paperclip close to a lump of gristle.
Ralph is on his feet and moving toward me, I can’t hear what he is saying anymore. My ears are a low fly zone of pure noise. My mind is unable to hang on.
When Ralph flies backwards and hits the wall, when he slides down his own office calendar, leaving a wash of blood in his wake, when his Ray bans slip just far enough that I see the surprise in his dish water grey eyes, I am not fully understanding of what just happened.
When I see Tommy The Asshole, Tommy The Loose Mouth stand over Ralph and pump four more bullets into him, I realise that sometimes in this life, we just get people all wrong. I am left with this thought as vomit leaves my mouth and gathers by my ear. The carpet slips into a dreamy shimmer and I know I need to rest. I’ll live, I know I will but I have some thinking to do.
Mark Porter is an ex-stand-up comic, rock drummer and probation officer. His first novel ‘Dogs Chase Cars’ is available through Drugstore Books in March. His Rifkin & Whelan Mersey Mojo series combines laugh out loud humour with extreme violence. The first instalment, Moscow Drive is out in November. He lists Joe R.Lansdale and Christopher Moore amongst his influences. www.markporter.weebly.com