Crime Fiction Friday: TODD ROBINSON

Todd Robinson will be with us twice in the next two weeks. He’ll be calling into our Hard Word book club on March 26th and will be attending our Noir Night April 5th with Jesse Sublett & Matthew McBride. His book, The Hard Bounce, stars Boston bouncers Boo & Junior. Here’s a story Todd sent us with one of their other misadventures.

The Legendary Great Black Cloud of Ralphie O’Malley

“4DC Security,” Junior answered the phone in a falsetto about as feminine as Hulk Hogan. Junior had been answering our office phone like that for a good three years running and the joke never seemed to wear on him. He called the voice “Wendy”.

Wendy was our imaginary receptionist, which was fine since our imaginary office was a desk stuck in the liquor room above The Cellar, Boston’s shittiest rock & roll bar.

I try not to let Junior answer the phone all that much.

I hit the button to turn on the speakerphone just as a weary sigh replied to Wendy’s greeting. I recognized the sigh as belonging to Barry Hardon, Boston’s lowest of the low-end parole officers. “I don’t know why I even call you turkeys.”

“Because we work cheap?” I replied.

“Boo, that you?”

“It’s me,” I answered. Because it was.

“Don’t forget me, sexy,” Junior said, as Wendy again.

“You’re about as sexy as ten-foot catheter.”

“Thanks, Hard-On” Junior said in his natural voice, which was somewhere closer to a Rottweiler chewing on gravel.

Barry sighed at the dig, which he’d probably heard at least three times a day during the fifty years he’d been on the planet.

“What’ve you got for us, Barry?”

Barry sighed again. Seventy to eighty percent of conversation with Barry Hardon consisted of him sighing in various tones and pitches. “I need you guys to go get Ralphie O’Malley again.”

“What now?”

“He had a hearing two days ago. Dummy fell asleep drunk on the train. He got picked up for vagrancy.

“Vagrancy? Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“That still a law? The fuck is this, the Great Depression?”

Barry went on. “Kinda. Probably would have gotten it dismissed, if the fuckwit had actually shown up for court.”

I swear, only Ralphie O’Malley could get arrested for vagrancy. “We’ll have him in by this afternoon. Fee?”

“Two hundred.”

“Deal.” I hung up the phone.

“How much?”  Junior asked.

“Two bills.”

“Dammit,” he said as he pulled on his coat. “It’s fuckin’ freezing out. Shoulda got another fifty.” Junior pulled knit mittens over his hands. He saw me smirking. “What?”

“Nice mittens, Mary.” If you can’t see why mittens covering the knuckles of a man with H-A-R-D and C-O-R-E tattooed across them is funny, then I can’t explain it to you.

“Hardy-har. You’re gonna have a good time explaining to the E.M.T’s how these mittens got inside of you.”

Ralphie O’Malley always said that his luck permanently switched for the worst on October 2nd, 1978. Ralphie claimed that he was sitting on the lap of the elder Mr. O’Malley the moment Bucky Dent hit his home run out of Fenway. As the ball arced over The Green Monster, Mr. O’Malley leapt up in disbelief, sending Ralphie airborne off the couch and headfirst into the TV screen, effectively busting both the Zenith and his only son’s head.

Since that point, society, the fates, and even Ralphie himself considered him something of a jinxed soul—I didn’t know of a bar in Boston that didn’t eighty-six Ralphie during important baseball games.

Or hockey games.

Or basketball games.

Yeah, Ralphie wasn’t much welcome during football season either.

But it was deeper than that. I’d seen some of the old timers actually cross themselves when Ralphie entered the bar, heard people half-kiddingly talk about the invisible cloud of doom that followed him wherever he went.

Remember the Sox in 2004? Everybody thought it was funny to chip in and buy him a weeklong trip to New York during the ALCS.

That jinx ain’t so funny any more, is it?

Then there was the night of “the girl”.

One evening about two years ago, the heavens parted, the stars aligned and the cloud looked like it lost its way for the night. Lo and behold, Ralphie was talking to a girl. An honest to goodness, living and breathing girl. And a cute little blonde, at that.

Silently, we all rooted him on. We’d never seen him talking to a girl before. All seemed to be going well. I even thought I might have even seen a twirl of the hair.

Then the cloud found its way back to Ralphie’s coordinates.

Out of nowhere, somebody dropped a full pitcher of beer from the balcony. It wasn’t heavy, just angled right. The pitcher landed right on the crown of Ralphie’s head, knocking him silly. The cheap beer erupted in a mushroom cloud, directly into the blonde’s face. Ralphie was lights-out for less than a minute, but of course by that time the girl had skedaddled in beer-soaked humiliation.

Now, for most people, embarrassing as that incident might have been, the story would have made for a great bar tale of ill-fate and circumstance, told over and over to great guffaws and shots of whiskey lifted in good humor. For Ralphie, it was just another bitch-slap from the heavens. Hell, even Junior and me couldn’t find the funny in his tragi-comic existence anymore, and we’re the masters of the form. Most of the time, it was just sad.

“Warming up” Junior’s car was just a figure of speech, since the heater didn’t work. It was also three below zero that afternoon. Wind chill my ass. Cold is cold. We sat there, shivering and cupping our hands over our cigarette cherries for warmth while Junior’s ’79 Buick, (which for some sweet fuck-all reason he’d named Ms. Kitty), slowly stopped coughing like a habitual three-packer.

“You gotta get this heater fixed, Junior.” My demand might have had more weight if Ms. Kitty’s heater had ever worked.

Junior glared at me, then tenderly rubbed the dashboard, as if I might have injured the car’s feelings.

We drove onto Storrow Dive heading out to Quincy, where Ralphie lived in a house with his mother.

Miss Kitty had warmed up to a temperature just above welldigger’s arse by the time we got to the O’Malley residence. If houses were representative of the people who lived in them, then Ralphie’s was dead-on. The paint might have been light blue at one point, but had faded into a peeling gray, hanging off of the weather-beaten shingles for dear life. The porch, half-built, had never been painted at all—a project undertaken long ago and never finished. It too, looked like it was clinging to the house simply because it had no better place to be.

Junior clucked his tongue as he killed the ignition. “This is gonna break Mrs. O’Malley’s heart again.” Miss Kitty wheezed once in seeming agreement, then fell silent.

“You’d think she’d be used to it by now.”

“Wonder what she cooked last night?”

It wasn’t the first time we’d had to pick up Ralphie. Almost a year ago, Ralphie got busted for public drunkenness after he peed, blind drunk, between two parked cars. One of the parked cars just happened to be an idling black-and-white.

When we showed up at the O’Malley house the last time Ralphie forgot he had a court date, Mrs. O’Malley cooked us leftovers while Ralphie showered and got dressed. She cried the whole time. That alone might have been enough to kill the appetite of lesser men, but Mrs. O’Malley made one hell of a chicken pot pie. Besides, it seemed to make her feel better to be doing something just then, to feel appreciated. As far as I could tell, Ralphie never disrespected his mother, just took her for granted like a lot of people do with their parents.

Junior and I both lost our families when we were kids. For a long time growing up, all we had was each other. We knew how important family was. And how fragile. We appreciated a warm meal from a mother—even if it wasn’t our own—in ways you wouldn’t understand if you still have yours around. Appreciate those pot pies.

The front steps groaned under our weight, as if they too were dreading our presence. The wind blew cold whips across the porch and our faces. All of a sudden, I found myself coveting Junior’s mittens. “Ring the bell.”

“You ring the bell.”

“I’ll ring the bell, but you’re telling her.”

“Hell with that. Ralphie’s telling her.”

“What if Ralphie isn’t here? We have to tell her something.”

Junior either shrugged or was wracked by a huge shiver. “Tell her we came here for a play date.”

“Just for being stupid, you get to ring the bell. Please, before something freezes off of me.”

“Bet you wish you had mittens now, don’t ya?”

As Junior and I bandied our Mensa-level discourse back and forth, the front door swung open. I had a half-second to assume that somebody heard us coming up the steps. I say “half-second” because during the latter half, an arm clutching what looked like a wooden blackjack with a leather strap came crashing down into the middle of Junior’s face. Blood sprayed from his nostrils as he lurched back, stepped on a slick of ice, and went tumbling backwards down the porch steps. Lord, it looked painful.

I took a step back from our attacker and got ready to crack somebody’s skull with a straight right. Then I found myself face to face with all five-feet, two-inches of Mrs. O’Malley. Complete with pink and orange floral print housedress on.

And one shoe off.

She was wild eyed, panicked. “You leave my Ralphie alone!” she shrieked. She raised her weapon again, ready to brain me with it this time. “Don’t you hurt him anymore!”

“MrsO’MalleyMrsO’Malley!!!” I leapt back, hands up defensively. “It’s just us! It’s Boo and Junior!

She squinted at me through lenses thicker than those used on the Hubble, but kept her hand up. It was then that I saw her weapon. It was her other shoe. She’d attacked us with one of her wooden orthopedic sandals. “Boo?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. My hands were trembling, part adrenaline rush and part hypothermia.

“Baaah-bra?” Came a voice from across the street. In the doorway facing opposite us, another housedress was standing with a steaming cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “You want me to cawl the cahps?” she yowled. Neighborly help with a Boston accent thicker than paste.

“We’re fine!” I yelled back and returned my attention to Mrs. O’Malley. “We’re not here to hurt Ralphie.” Then I noticed that her trembling lower lip was pooched out and bloodied. Somebody had popped her one. And recently.

“I’m nawt asking you!” from across the street.

“Junior?” she asked the crumpled heap lying upside-down on her front steps.

“Guhhhhh,” replied Junior.

We sat in the dining room while Mrs. O’Malley reheated some chowder and biscuits for us. Junior had a black garbage bag with ice in it pressed against his nose. The long remainder of the bag trailed up and over his head like a novelty plastic wig.

“You look like the worlds worst Cher impersonator.”

“I’ll make you Cher,” he threatened.

I took a second. “What?”

Mrs. O’Malley waddled back into the small dining area balancing two huge bowls of soup and a Tupperware container between them. “I’m so sorry I hit you, Junior. I thought you were those other men.”

“What other men?” I asked through a mouthful of biscuit.

“The big men who came and took my Ralphie away.” Tears welled behind her glasses, the moisture making her eyes look like two bloodshot fishbowls.

Junior and I looked at each other over our bowls. “They say who they worked for?” Junior asked between spoonfuls.

“No, they just said that they were coming to get him. That he was late.”

Goddamn you Barry, I thought. “What did they look like?”

“One was big and had blonde hair the other one was heavyset and bald. The bald one hit me.” She pointed at her fat lip.

I looked at Junior again, his mouth pursed tight in the same anger I felt. We knew the grabbers. The Swede and Fat Pat. Two other meatballs for hire, both of whom had brief stints under us at 4DC. We fired the Swede for being stupid.

Let me tell you, when a man is fired from a bouncing job for being stupid, that says something. He couldn’t figure out how to subtract 21 years from the driver’s licenses. One too many requests for Lady Googoo (or whatever the fuck her name is) on the jukebox was what clued us off that our clientele had taken a sudden dip in the age bracket.

Fat Pat was just a mean pituitary case who had the misfortune of being fat and having been named Pat. Calling him heavyset was the charity of the year. Fat Pat looked like a pink Irish blimp.

“We’ll find Ralphie for you, Mrs. O’Malley. We promise.”

She smiled and sniffed back her tears. “You boys really don’t have to. I know my Ralphie can get himself into trouble. It’s not your problem. He just breaks my heart sometimes.”

“It’s not a problem. We want to make sure he’s all right too.”

She squeezed my shoulder with a pudgy hand. “Let me get you boys some cheesecake,” she said, and headed back to the kitchen.

Junior glared at me.

“What? I got chowder on my face?” I dabbed at my chin with the holiday print paper towels we were using as napkins.

“What did you promise that for? Isn’t this more than enough work for two hundred dollars? Two hundred dollars that we ain’t even gonna get now?”

“C’mon, Junior. She’s old, she’s alone, and she’s scared. We’re just going to make sure that those two fucktards brought Ralphie to Barry and didn’t put him in the hospital.”

“If they’da showed up with Ralphie already, Hard-On wouldn’t have called us.”

“That’s my point.”

Junior folded his arms across his chest. “I just can’t believe you promised her. Never promise anything to nobody.”

“What if I promise to love you forever?”

“Touch me and I kill you.”

“Homophobe.”

“I’m a you-aphobe.” And before I could mock his poor comeback, “Fuck off.”

“Thanks Barry, you colossal prick,” I said as we stormed into his office.

“Hey. Hey!” Barry held his arms out, indicating his office and the man sitting across from his desk. “I’m with a client here!”

“Hey George,” I said to his client.

“Hey Boo.”

“What’s the big idea sending Swede and Fat Pat over before us?” Junior sat on the edge of the desk and ruffled around the papers on the blotter. “That’s not very professional of you, sending two teams on the same job.”

“What?”

“Your little brother again?” I asked George.

“Yeah. Stupid-ass kid stole a car this time.”

“He eighteen yet?”

“Turned last week.”

“That’s no good.”

“You’re telling me. What happened to his nose?” George swirled a finger in the general direction of Junior’s ugliness.

“Got hit with a shoe.”

“Oh”

“Cut it out!” Barry stood and slammed his palms onto the papers that Junior was mussing. “What the fuck is the matter with you two?”

I glared at him. “Why did you send Fat Pat and The Swede to the O’Malley’s before us? We’re not your fucking clean-up crew.”

“First of all, they’re idiots.” Junior tipped over Barry’s pencil holder. Pens clattered onto the floor.”

Barry groaned and sighed, “Now look what you did.” Then he shook his head, confused at my accusation. “Who’s an idiot?”

“Secondly, did Fat Pat tell you he socked an old lady in the mouth in the process?”

Junior was reaching for the coffee cup that read World’s Greatest Grandpa when Barry stabbed at his hand with a letter opener, missing his fingers by an inch. The opener stuck straight into the worn wood. “You touch one more thing Junior, and I swear to God I’ll stick your hand to the desk.”

Barry pried the opener from the desk and held it stomach-level to keep us at bay. “Now. Calm down.” Barry smoothed his thin hair, composing himself after our mess-up attack. “Mr. Smart, would you please wait in the front room while we sort this thing out?”

George crossed his legs and leaned back into the fake leather chair. “Nah, I’d rather hear what these guys have to say.”

“Yeah Hard-On. Let him hear about the kinds of guys you’re hiring now to do your pick-ups.”

“What guys? I hired you two jackasses. Where’s Ralphie?”

“You tell us.”

Barry’s face was a shifting mass of bewilderment and twitching eyelids. He held his hands up, palms open, and breathed deeply through his nostrils. It whistled like a tiny tea kettle. “Now,” he said through clenched teeth and forced composure, “why would I know where Ralphie is? Isn’t that what I hired you two numbnuts to figure out?”

“So your first team never brought him in? That what you’re saying?”

“You are the first fucking team!” Barry hollered. He held his palms up again, re-composing. His tea kettle nose whistled once more as he took another deep, calming breath. Then he opened up the drawer of the desk, popped two antacids and chased it with Maalox. Calmly, he said “You don’t have Ralphie then. Is that what you’re telling me?”

Junior sucked on his teeth. “Uh. No.”

I said, “You don’t have him either?”

“I do not.”

“Shit,”

Barry sighed into one of his trademark groans. “So what you’re telling me is, somebody else got him before you two did?”

“Looks that way.”

“Who?”

“Well, we know who. Now we have to figure out why.”

“Well, why don’t you both do that. Because one drawer down? Under the one filled with pills and syrups to keep me from hemorrhaging myself into the morgue every time I sit on the crapper?”

“Yeah?”

“I have a gun.”

“Gotcha,” we both said at the same time.

“Always good to see you George,” I said as I backed out of the office.

“Yeah. Better circumstances next time, huh?”

Junior was slowly backing out, too. “Yeah.  Forget everything we said. Barry’s a great guy.”

“Real stand-up,” I said.

“For a Hard-On.”

Barry reached for the drawer.  We ran like hell.

By the time we got back to the car, Mother Nature had decided to take a swipe at us too. Ominous black clouds roiled over the Boston skyline, the air holding the charge of an impending storm

“Well, ain’t that just a dandy,” Junior said, flinging his hands skyward in frustration. “So now what? I’d say we got maybe a couple of hours before we get dumped on.”

“You hear how much we’re getting?”

“Yeah. Two hundred dollars for this bullshit.”

“I was talking about snow.”

“I know what you were talking about.”

“Maybe there’s something back at the O’Malley’s. Other that that, we just have to find Fat Pat or Swede.”

“If the snow doesn’t cover them up, we might be able to find a trail of fried chicken bones. That should lead us to Pat, at least.”

“Do we have their numbers still?”

“What? You gonna call them and ask; ‘Hey, you guys beat Ralphie O’Malley into a coma?’, or do you have another question in mind?”

“Bring the mountain to Mohammed, my brother. We’ll call them and say we need extra guys for a gig.”

“Think they’ll buy it?  Fat Pat sure as shit qualifies as a mountain.”

“They should. They’re even dumber than us.”

“True dat.”

Back at The Cellar, Junior and I waited downstairs where the bands played. It was early enough in the day that the space was still completely empty.

Did I mentioned it was soundproofed?

Half an hour after I left a message on The Swede’s voicemail, I could hear the huge, thumping footfalls that heralded Fat Pat’s march down the stairs.

I crouched behind the gate opposite the entryway. They walked in, looking around for us in the darkened room, the only light emanating from the red exit signs.

“Where are they?” Fat Pat wheezed softly from the exertion of walking down a flight of stairs.

“What time they say to be here?” asked Swede.

I shut the gate with a slam, making them both jump in surprise. Well, Pat didn’t jump exactly, but he did wiggle.

“Jesus, Boo,” wheezed Fat Pat.

Behind them, Junior silently vaulted the bar, baseball hat in hand.

The Swede caught a glint of metal reflecting off my hand. Dumbly, he asked, “Why you wearing knuckles, Boo?”

Junior swung for the fences, whacking the bat into the thick meat at the back of Fat Pat’s thighs. Fat Pat screamed, dropping hard to his knees onto the concrete floor. With Pat’s weight behind it, the fall probably hurt more than the bat.

The Swede turned to his fallen buddy. I could almost smell his synapses firing.  “Hey!”

I socked him hard in the ribs with the brass knuckles. With a pained explosion of breath, Swede was on the ground next to his pet blob.

I flicked the lights on and stood over the two dummies. “Now, before this experience gets any more painful for you guys, just tell us who told you to grab Ralphie O’Malley and…what the fuck happened to your head, Swede?”

Swede had a huge purple shiner, the whites turned blood-red from smashed blood vessels. Over the eye, a huge red knot bulged horribly. More than slightly ashamed, The Swede said, “I got hit with a shoe.”

Junior and I looked at each other. “No shit?”

“No shit,” Swede said. “What happened to your nose, Junior?”

“That woman is a fuckin’ menace,” Fat Pat said, shifting uncomfortably in his barstool. His legs must have still hurt like a motherfucker. Boo-hoo. Since it took the three of us to help Fat Pat back up the stairs, my back was killing me. I drew the short straw and got bottom duty while Junior and The Swede pulled from above. I’d have to remember to boil my hands after.

“She’s like Bruce Lee with a Dr. Sholl,” Junior agreed nasally, his nose clogged from the swelling.

“It was an accident. I mean, I swung on her, but I didn’t know who was hitting at us when I did. She’s a freakin’ animal.”

The Swede gingerly touched his disgusting eye. “But we swear to God, Boo. We never hurt Ralphie. We just grabbed him for–”

Fat Pat silenced him with a hard glare.

“For who?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Fat Pat said, a bit too quickly. “We got an anonymous call, said pick up Ralphie.”

“Who paid you, then?”

“Direct deposit.” Fat Pat said, then smiled, obviously satisfied with his on-the-fly answer. Truth be told, it was pretty smart for Fat Pat.

“Where did you drop him then?”

“I…” I reached over and grabbed a fistful of Fat Pat’s ear and twisted.  “Ow-ow-oww!” he whined.

I loosened the twist but didn’t let go. “Shut it. I’m asking Swede.” While Fat Pat may have exhibited a minor talent for improvisation, Swede was dumber than a bag of wet hamsters.

Swede looked nervously at Fat Pat. “We… Just… Dropped him off?” He answered in the form of a question, like an unsure fifth-grader. But since this wasn’t Jeopardy, I continued my line of interrogation.

“Where?”

“On a corner?”

“Let me get this straight,” Junior interjected. “You two rocket scientists snatched Ralphie, then just released him back into the wild on some corner? Is that what you’re babbling at us Swede?”

“Yes.”

“Retard,” Fat Pat muttered.

“Hoooo-kay, Pat,” I sighed, “as much a contradiction in terms as this may be, natural order has made you the brains of your operation. Swede?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a retard. Fuck off.”

“Got it.” Swede jumped up and walked out quickly, abandoning Pat. He stopped at the doorway. “Yo Pat. Call me later if you want to rent a movie or somethin’.”

“I’m gonna step on your head later, is what I’m gonna do, you stupid fuck.”

The Swede looked sincerely hurt by Fat Pat’s anger and walked away, head down. I felt a twinge of guilt, like I’d just kicked a disabled puppy.

I turned my attention back to Pat. “So, all things considered, we’re just going to keep hurting you until you tell us who paid you to get Ralphie.” I twisted his ear again.

Pat squealed in pain. “I can’t,” he whined.

Junior leaned in close. “Whaddaya think, Boo? Another inch and the ear starts to tear off?”

“Let’s see.”

“Garrett!” Fat Pat shrieked. “We took him to Al Garrett!”

“Aw, no,” Junior said softly.

I released his ear and smacked him upside the head with the same hand. “What’s wrong with you?”

“He paid us.”

“How much?” Asked Junior.

“Five hundred.”

Junior leveled his gaze at me. “More than we’re getting.”

“We don’t do work for that psycho.”

“Just saying.”

“Where did you drop him?”

“The Garrett Bowl.”

Albert Garrett ran a vast bookmaking operation out of a bowling alley in North Quincy. Word had it that he and his crew of townie goons used the bowling balls and pins with a great deal of creativity to hurt people who were late with his money. I don’t even want to talk about the ball-polisher rumor.

I did, however, want to beat the cellulite off of Pat, but instead said, “Get the fuck out of here,” in a tone that left no room for misinterpretation of what the day held for him if he stayed.

Never has four-hundred pounds moved so fast. He looked like a Beluga ninja as he shot out the door.

“Now what?”  Junior asked.

I groaned and rubbed the tension spot between my eyes. “Feel like driving out to Quincy?”

“No, but I guess we kinda have to now, don’t we?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t try to get all clever and said something like ‘Let’s go bowling’.”

“Shut up.”

Momentum and element of surprise count for a lot, but a full charge in a car battery counts for something too. About a half a mile from the bowling alley, Miss Kitty decided to cough and wheeze herself to a sputter just as the first thick clumps of snow started tumbling from the sky. I melted a few on the way down with the fiery language that I directed at the car and Junior.

There went our momentum.

Ever try to muscle a small tank through the snow? Then you’d know what it was like trying to move a ’79 Buick through a Nor’easter. If we didn’t find a gas station soon, we’d have a real problem on our hands. Junior seemed calmly unsurprised.

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you,” I asked as I pushed from inside the passenger door. My calves burned with the effort.

“Sooner or later. The catalytic converter is jacked.”

“And you haven’t fixed it…why?”

“Because we don’t make me enough money for these stupid fucking gigs that leave us stranded in a fucking blizzard?”

‘Nuff said.

Of course, the next gas station was directly across the street from the alley. Junior popped the hood and then the trunk. He pulled another battery from the boot.

“You had another battery in there the whole time?”

“This one’s not juiced either.”

“Why?”

“I just keep switching and re-charging the batteries when I need to. Forgot to juice both.”

I was about to nail Junior with a vicious retort, but couldn’t squeeze it out between my chattering teeth. That was our lives, in a nutshell. Jury-rigged. Held together with tape and twine and a whole lot of duct tape.

Then it hit me…

If the grapevine held true about Al Garrett, we might have a card to play after all.

“Junior, wait.” I grabbed his shoulder as he headed into the garage.

“What?”

“I got an idea. I need that battery.”

I went into Junior’s trunk. It was the usual treasure trove of worthless shit. I pulled some wires from a busted receiver (that he’d been meaning to get fixed), a joystick from an old Nintendo (he didn’t know why he had it) and of course, duct tape. I stuffed the contraption into a grease-stained duffel bag and told him my plan.

Junior grinned and nodded appreciably. “Fuckin’ MacGuyver.”

Fuckin’ MacGuyver.

The four goons stopped their bowling game when Junior and I walked through the frosted glass doors of The Garrett Bowl. I never realized how eerie a silent bowling alley was. You could’ve heard a mouse fart as the goons watched us walking through the lobby.

We went up to the bored-looking girl behind the shoe rental booth. I could smell her hairspray across the counter. Her bangs saluted us crisply. She didn’t look up from her nail filing when I cleared my throat. Probably for the better. Junior didn’t look up from the ten-grand worth of cleavage that heaved between her open-collared bowing shirt.

She popped her gum. “You guys Boo and Junior?”

Shit.

And there went the element of surprise.

“Um. Yeah.”

“Al’s waiting for you.” She pointed a pink talon at the door next to the counter that read: Manager’s Office.

Allow me to reiterate.

Shit.

We opened the door and walked in to see the wide back of a black leather chair. A finger came up from the other side, giving us the ‘one minute’. Garrett was on the phone.  “Yeah. The line is four and a half, you give him seven. The numbnuts is so in love with the Pats, he’d do it on nine. Yeah…”

The rumors were true. Behind the desk were a dozen flat-screen TV’s, each one broadcasting a different sporting event; from the greyhounds at Wonderland Park to a poker tournament to—was he watching cricket? On the desk sat three expensive-looking computer banks, complete with three more flat-screen monitors.

He’d come a long way since his old man ran afoul of a chest full of cholesterol and left the bookie business to little Al. Twenty-five years old at the time, everybody laughed when the skinny kid went to collect on his dead old man’s vigs. Al answered the dismissals with a brutality that became its own urban legend, stories that degenerate gamblers tell their kids to get them to eat their peas.

A decade later, nobody was laughing any more. Not after the rumors about the ball-polisher hit the grapevine.

“Call me tomorrow.” He finished his conversation and turned his chair to us. Al Garrett looked a lot younger than his current thirty-five years. His long hair was slicked back and tied behind the navy suit jacket that looked like it cost more than my entire wardrobe. That wasn’t saying much, since my entire wardrobe was probably worth about sixteen bucks. The suit was nice, nevertheless.

“You’re Boo and Junior, right?”

“I’m Boo,” I said, stupidly.

“I’m Junior,” Junior said unnecessarily.

“How did you know we were coming?”

“When Tom Brady’s nuts itch, I know how hard he scratches. You think I wouldn’t know that you two assholes were coming my way?”

I made a mental note to have a serous conversation with Fat Pat the next time I ran into him.

Junior bunched his fists. Garrett saw it. “Unh, uh, uh.”  He waggled his fingers and the huge canary diamond on his manicured pinkie finger twinkled at us. I wondered if the girl in the lobby did his nails for him. “You don’t want to pull any tough guy horseshit with me, boys.” The finger moved under the desk. “I press this little button underneath here and those four big guys out there come running in. I’m afraid they’re not very nice.”

Neither were we. If Garrett’s bruisers were on a par with Fat Pat and Swede, I think we’d normally have had a righteous chance. Unfortunately, Junior and I were both half-frozen and spent from pushing a goddamn Buick for a mile and a half. As it was, I gave us a fifty-fifty chance, at best.

“We’re not here to start shit. We were just wondering how business was,” I said.

Garrett smiled crookedly at me, opening his arms to encompass his obviously pricey electronic kingdom. “Not bad,” he said, dripping sarcasm.

“Then why are you fucking with small fries like Ralphie O’Malley?”

The smug little bastard steepled his fingers on the desk. “Let me explain something to you guys about business. I’m working with a lot of figures here. Am I going to bust up somebody who owes me fifty G’s and make him incapable of working and earning my money? Or am I going to bust up the guy that owes me five and make sure that Mr. Fifty gets a clear picture of his future?”

His point made perfect sense to me, which made me a little ill. “We just want to know where Ralphie is. Beyond that, we don’t have any stake in this.”

Garrett leaned his chin onto his hands. “Now, why would I tell you anything if you have no stake in it? That wouldn’t be very good business, would it?” He bit his lower lip coyly. “Tell you what. You give me the five grand that Ralphie owes me, and I’ll tell you where that fucking loser wound up.”

I reached into the bag and pulled out my contraption. Garrett went eight shades of sickened gray and reached under the desk.

“Unh, uh, uh,” Junior said, waggling his finger this time. “Why don’t you keep those pretty rings where we can see them, Zsa Zsa.”

He slapped his hands quickly onto the desktop.

I pressed a button on the joystick. “If your hands move, I press that button again. Then you have a serious problem.”

Garrett’s color settled on a nice shade of green. “Are you guys fucking nuts? You’re threatening me with a bomb?”

Junior and I laughed. “Why would we do that? This isn’t a bomb. Like I said, we don’t have a stake in this. But right now, you sure as shit do.”

Some pink returned to Garrett’s face. “Then what in Christ’s name–”

“It’s an industrial-grade electromagnet. Amazing what a little knowhow and a helpful nerd at Radio Shack can accomplish.”

Green all over again, Garrett made a soft choking noise deep in his throat.

Junior circled his finger teasingly over the red joystick button on our car battery Frankenstein. “So, if you move your hand, we activate this sucker and wipe out all the electronics in the building.”

“Though I’m sure that smart-boy here has backed up all his numbers, addresses and amounts onto another system.” I looked at Garrett and grinned. “Right?”

He made that moist choking sound again.

Junior tapped a thoughtful finger over his lip. “I’m even willing to bet it’ll conk out that panic alarm of his, which should give us plenty of quiet time to beat both the crap and the whereabouts of Ralphie out of you.”

Garrett cleared his throat. Greasy sweat poured down his greasy forehead. “If you press that button, or lay a hand on me, I swear to God you will one day find out what your own cock tastes like.”

“You tried that once, didn’t you Junior?”

“I was young. I was experimenting.”

“You get close?”

“Meh. Couple more yoga classes and I’d have had it.”

“You two clowns think I’m kidding?” He was talking tough, but his hands were still pressed to the desktop.

“Albert, Albert, Albert,” I sat on the corner of his desk,” do you really want to get into that kind of mess, cock removal, forced ingestion of removed cocks, etc, etc, over little Ralphie O’Malley?”

A droplet of sweat dangled on Garrett’s nose. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Beaten, he said, “I had him dropped off at his house five hours ago.”

“What?”

“I don’t have him. You’re right. You think that little shit is worth me getting into anything serious? I had the boys slap him around, then dropped him off at his mama’s around two this afternoon.”

A little light bulb popped on over my head. The only thing it illuminated was how stupid we’d been. “Well, been nice doing business with you.”

Junior packed up our battery and we walked out the door.

All that for nothing. At least Garrett hadn’t called our bluff. Our “industrial-grade electromagnet” couldn’t even start an old Buick, much less demagnetize anything.

MacGuyver, my ass.

“You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me,” Junior said as Miss Kitty fishtailed through the rising snow. A small snow bank passed dangerously close to my door. We couldn’t afford to get stuck now.

It was there all along.

We were so taken aback by Mrs. O’Malley’s kamikaze shoe attack that we didn’t listen close enough to what she was saying. She’d said, “leave my Ralphie alone,” And “don’t hurt him anymore.” Who was she protecting if Ralphie wasn’t there? If he hadn’t been returned, how could she have known that he’d been hurt?

We got played big time by a sweet old lady.

God dammit.

Visibility was nearing zero when we pulled up in front of the O’Malley residence for the second time that day. A set of fading footprints leading away from the house were freshly marked in the snow.

Junior squatted over the prints. “You think Ralphie bolted?”

I shook my head. “Those are Mrs. O’Malley’s shoes. Feet are too small, and look…” Edged around the first few steps in the snow were ruby flakes of what was probably Junior’s blood.

“Small feet, my ass.” Junior cupped his busted nose. “Where the hell is she going in this shit?”

“Probably ran to Star Market for some blizzard supplies.” I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of the old woman trudging through the snow in her sandals, felt bad for eating her food. Looking at the sad house, I realized for the first time just how little she and Ralphie had other than that depressing piece of real estate and each other.

We didn’t want to bust open Mrs. O’Malley’s door, despite her lies and assault, so we tried a couple of the ground floor windows. All locked of course. Junior looked up at the second level. “There we go.”

Craning my neck, I could barely make out the tip of a blue curtain billowing through a cracked window jamb.

“Bend over,” I said. We had to move fast, my fingers were starting to go numb again in the cold.

“Now’s not the time, Brokeback.”

“Cut the shit. We got to hurry before Mrs. O’Malley gets back. Let me climb on you. I think I can reach the ledge of the lower roof.”

“No way. Lemme climb on your back.”

“Are you kidding? You way thirty pounds more than me. Besides, my arms are longer. Or do you want to wait it out and dance with Dr. Scholl again?”

Junior muttered something about his goddamn jacket, but bent over. I climbed on his back and had to stand on my toes to reach the ledge. Junior howled as my toes dug into his spine. My fingers grasped around the edge just as Junior disappeared from under my feet, cursing all things about me. I swung my right leg up and over the lip, but couldn’t get enough purchase in the driving snow to bring my left leg up.

“Pull, you tubby bastard,” Junior yelled from below.

I swear to God…

I had one shot to grab the sill and pull myself up. If I missed, I was going back over the edge. That thick Irish fuck had better catch me.

I let go of the gutter and scrambled for the window. I started to slide when my fingers caught the jamb and held.

From across the street, I heard, “Hey! You stawp that! I’m cawlin’ the cawps!”

Housecoat was back.

“Better move, brudda,” yelled Junior. “I think she means it this time.”

I was too out of breath to answer, but figured we had a few minutes until the cops could respond, blizzard and all.

I pulled myself up and opened the window wide enough to climb into. One leg was in before my other foot slipped in the snow. I toppled through the opening and landed in a heap onto the floor, the wind knocked out of me on impact.

I lay in that heap wheezing for a few seconds, staring at the wall of the room that I’d belly-flopped into.

Unless Mrs. O’Malley hung a decades-old Jim Rice poster in her bedroom, I’d climbed right into Ralphie’s room. With more effort than I thought would be necessary, I managed to get to my feet. All things considered, I was feeling pretty good about my athletic abilities when I saw what was on the bed.

“Aw, hell no,” I whispered to the nobody else in the room.

Junior’s teeth chattered ferociously when I opened the front door for him. “The fuck, Malone? You stop to take a shit?” Then he got a look at my face. “What? What is it?”

I led him up the stairs into Ralphie’s room.

Ralphie lay on the bed. A black garbage bag, just like the one Junior had on his nose earlier, was still pressed to his head. The draping plastic looked as though the legendary Great Black Cloud of Ralphie O’Malley had descended right onto his face. As I pulled the bag away, the condensation from the melting ice rained down his face like tears.

“Fuuuuuuuck…  He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yeah.” I said.

“Those motherfuckers…”

Ralphie had been worked over pretty hard. His eye was swollen shut and crusted blood still clung in his nostrils.

But they didn’t kill him.

I turned Ralphie’s head so Junior could see what I’d already seen.

Caked blood had trickled out his ear and matted into the ratty pillowcase. The left side of his face was dented deep, a clear indentation on his temple.

An indentation that was the same size and shape of an orthopedic shoe heel.

“Fuck me with a chainsaw,” Junior said, as sadly as a man can say ‘fuck me with a chainsaw.’

The sound of locks tumbling snapped us both back to attention. We heard the front door open.

“Ralphie? I’m home. They were out of Devil Dogs, but I got you some Ring Dings.”

Junior and I just stood there looking at one another, as frozen and silent as Ralphie.

“Ralphie?” she called again. I could hear tears in her voice. “I’m sorry, honey. Please talk to me. I’m sorry I hit you.” The tears turned into guilt-ridden wails. “We’ll get the money somehow. Please, Ralphie. You gotta stop gambling.” Deep, wracking sobs echoed up the stairwell at us. “Ralphie, please talk to me…”

My heart broke on her every word. Junior bit his lower lip and shook his head. We’d heard enough. I unlocked the deadbolt on Ralphie’s door and opened it. “Mrs. O’Malley?” I yelled.

“Who is that?”  Fear overtook her sorrow for the moment.

“It’s Boo and Junior, ma’am. You have to call a doctor. I think Ralphie’s really hurt.”

Junior punched me on the arm. “What are you saying to her, Boo? He ain’t hurt, he’s fuckin’ dead.”

“You want to tell her?” I hissed.

He bit his lip again.

“What’s wrong with Ralphie?” Panic edged her voice.

“Mrs. O’Malley?” I said, as I descended the stairs. She stood shaking in the foyer, looking very small and very cold. “He needs an ambulance,” was all I could say.

We sat with her and held her hand until the police arrived.

One thought on “Crime Fiction Friday: TODD ROBINSON

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