Occasionally I will find a piece I wrote and squirreled away for some reason. This is a short-fiction piece I put together back in 2011. I figured I might share it just for the fun of it all.
One of them was going to die.
I sat in the back of the smoke-filled room, my arms folded in front of me and my eyes locked on the two men standing across from each other, only a long polished oak dinner table separating them. I watched as they stood hurling obscenities and slander at each other like greedy politicians nearing election day. Spittle flew from their lips as they cursed and yelled and pointed their fingers all in a manner most heated. They both knew the gravity of the situation. They both understood exactly on what type of edge they were precariously perched. In the moment where a situation becomes a matter of life and death, a man’s instincts for survival take over and everything that society has imprinted on him; be it morals or values or a sense of honor, they all fly out the window like a canary let loose from his cage.
“You’re a lying sack of crap!” the man on the left yelled. “You don’t have the spine to admit when you screwed up and I won’t stand for it.”
He was breathing heavily. Exhausted under the weight of his own argument. I watched as his chest heaved and his left eye began to twitch. The man was mere seconds away from a violent physical altercation and yet I sat, calm and steady as a rock, knowing that my place was not to interfere.
“I know better than to lie,” his opponent replied. “I know things went to hell in a hand-basket today, but lying about what happened will only make things worse. If I did what you said I did, and I’m not saying I did, because I didn’t, but if I did, why would I shoot myself in the foot yet again by lying about it when everyone knows the truth will come out sooner or later? Why? It doesn’t make sense!”
My gaze drifted to the man seated at the head of the table. His hands folded in front of him and resting gently upon his lap. His eyes were hidden under the wide brim of his fedora. He showed no emotion. No indicator of his mood showed on his face. The man was a blank slate.
“Charlie,” the man said, his voice low, a hair-touch above a whisper. “I want you to tell me your story. Tell me what happened. In your own words.”
“Of course boss,” the man on the right replied, adjusting his collar.
“And Matthew,” the old man continued, “I want you to keep your trap shut while Charlie is talking. Am I understood?”
“Yes sir,” the man to my left replied, chilled to the bone by the boss’ icy words.
“Then begin,” he said, shifting ever so slightly in his chair.
I watched as Matthew took his seat, the fiery hatred in his eyes not daring to recede as Charlie cleared his throat and began his tale.
“It all started this morning when me and Matt went with Joey Q to pick up the weekly payment from Tommy Johnson, that old jerk who runs the antique shop. Every week the guy’s supposed to kick up ten percent of his take to Joey to pay off a debt for something I don’t quite remember.”
“Does it matter?” Matthew interjected.
“I’m trying to tell the damn story, alright?”
“You’ll get your turn, Matthew,” the old man said with a nod. “Continue.”
“Thanks Boss. Anyhow, Joey Q brings me and Matt along for backup because the old codger’s been busting his balls about the payments. Says that business is slow so ten percent is taking too much out of his bottom line or some other such line of crap. So he wants to bring us with him to show the old jerk that he’s got the muscle to take the money if he doesn’t want to hand it over willingly.
“So we get to the store and Joey says to the old man ‘Do you have my money this week?’ To which the guy says ‘I’ve paid my debt and then some, you’re not getting anything else’ and so Joey busts him one across the lip to show him who’s boss. Well the old guy reaches under the counter and Mr. Shortfuse sitting over there assumes he’s going for a gun and pulls a piece of his own. Before I know what the hell is going on he’s popping six shots off into the old shop keep.”
I kept my eyes on Matthew, trying to gauge his reaction to Charlie’s story but he doesn’t flinch. He knows he’ll get his chance to tell his side of the story. He doesn’t want to give up anything before he’s had his say. He’s smart and he’s collected. He knows his place.
“Turns out Johnson was going for his stash box to get Joey his cash, but Matthew got jumpy and plugged him. Of course, the gunshots bring the kid who works the back room running out and he’s got himself a shotgun. Matthew emptied his gun into the old guy, so he’s standing there like a squirrel on a railroad crossing while this kid racks off a shotgun blast into Joey Q’s face. Of course then I pull my piece and shoot the kid twice in the chest and we high-tail it out of there before the police get there.”
As Charlie took his seat I took a glance at the boss. He didn’t offer any reaction. He was always good at that. Keeping himself in check and letting nobody get close. He’d been a crime boss for close to forty years. He came to power back when gangsters were still gangsters. The kind who could walk up to a parked car in broad daylight and empty a clip into the guy inside and walk away without fear of police action. He was the kind of gangster that people wrote books about. The kind that stood covered in the shroud of American myth and nobody knew how to get to. His name was Vito Castiglio and he was the last of his kind.
I had seen Vito in many meetings just like this one. I had watched him sit there, unmoving and unyielding, as he boiled any situation down to its core and resolved the issue with the steely resolve that came with decades of finely tuned illegal business savvy. Today would be no different. While these two idiots yelled at each other, convinced that one’s story would influence the boss to their favor, neither of them understood like I did that the outcome had been decided before either of them had stepped into the room.
“Derrick,” he told me, “I’m a patient man. More patient than most men in my business. But people will always test my patience. The fact that even with my reputation people still try to pull the wool over my eyes forces me to treat every word that comes from the mouth of anybody as inherently false. There are three sides to every story, the way one guy sees it, the way the other sees it, and the truth. I make it a point that I find the truth. Every single time. Let someone get away with a lie once and they know they can do it again. The bold grow bolder when left unimpeded. You’ve got to show them that you are above them. So far above them that they’re almost beyond notice at all. That’s how you succeed in this business.”
That stuck with me. It’d been years since he gave me that speech and it still rattled in my brain like a song stuck on repeat. The way I saw it, someone like Vito Castiglio could make his own truth by sheer force, but he wouldn’t let himself work that way. I guess he could have just as easily been the greatest police detective the world had ever seen if the money was right. Vito Castiglio took enormous pride in cutting through the mystery and solving the puzzle. It was just another way to feed his ego.
It was hard to watch as Matthew told his version of the day’s events. “Look, we showed up to the store like Charlie said. Except Charlie decides he wants to play ‘Mr. Tough Guy’ and grabs the kid working there and says he’ll kill him if the old guy behind the register doesn’t pony up the dough. Turns out that old man Johnson isn’t as useless as he thought and he pulls out a shotgun from under the register and aims it square at Joe’s head. Charlie freaks and plugs away at the shopkeep, who as he’s falling down pulls the trigger, scattering Joe’s brain across the ceiling tiles. The kid rushes at me like a damn banshee and bites my damn arm so I pop him once in the head with my piece. I even got the bite marks to prove it.”
Matthew rolled up his sleeve to reveal a bandage wrapped around his upper forearm. Showing it off to Vito and proving nothing in the process. The bandage covered whatever the wound really was and for all I knew it could have been a cheap trick covering nothing at all. I wouldn’t put it past the guy. I hadn’t known
Matthew long but he was a con artist to rule all con artists and my gut reaction said that bandage was a fake out.
“Are you both finished?” Vito asked looking up from the table, his pale blue eyes glinting in the dull glow of the lamp hanging overhead. “Because my time is valuable and I have places to be.”
“I’ve said everything I have to say,” Matthew half-mumbled.
“Same goes for me,” Charlie echoed.
“Good,” the old man said.
Neither of them had time to react as the old man fired two bullets into both of them, his hand gripping a smoking gun underneath the table. The two men slumped over in their chairs and fell to the floor, groaning as the blood seeped from the holes in their gut.
“I know everything. You should have just left town, you might have lived longer,” Vito said, stepping around the table and aiming his gun at Charlie’s head. “You both had a beef with Joey and you wanted him dead. So you killed him and tried to use the shop keeper as a patsy.”
Another shot rang out as Vito put a bullet in Charlie’s head.
“You thought he would be alone, but the boy showed up and you had to take care of him. You not only cost me the money old man Johnson was kicking up every week but you betrayed one of your own to do it. And worse than that, you thought you could lie to me about it.”
Another shot and another bullet. This time into Matthew’s head.
“When you lie you dig your own grave.”
The old man handed me his gun and I wiped it clean with my handkerchief as he walked out the door letting it slam closed behind him. I shoved the gun into my waistband and walked over to where Charlie lay bleeding out onto the floor. I shook my head in frustration. I told them to be discreet. I told them never to panic. If I had known how this would have turned out I never would have asked them to kill Joey Q. I would have done it myself. The old man trusted me. In all the years I’d known him I’d been the only one to keep him fooled. All that talk and all that rhetoric meant nothing when it came to family.
My name is Derrick Castiglio and I am my father’s son.