SOME GUYS are born with a target for a face.
At 8:17 on a Monday morning, Ruben was stomping up Broadway through rush-hour pedestrians when an elbow jabbed him in the ribs and shoved him sideways. Hot coffee sloshed onto his belly and pants and splattered onto the sidewalk along with the lid.
Really? His blocky knuckles dripped caffeine. Some asshole had knocked it all over him.
His free fist tightened. He spun to spot the guilty son of a bitch. “Hey!”
Ruben’s face got him into plenty of scuffles. Stony scowl, dark skin, proud nose. Strangers swung at him often enough that he didn’t mind anymore and took advantage of their fear whenever he could.
Step up. Ruben crushed the cup and what was left of the coffee gushed up and out. He said nothing as he scanned the nervous faces, allowing the menace to bake off him. Step to me, junior.
But the elbow’s owner had vanished, and the commuters around him jostled away like Ruben was radioactive. No one said a word.
He had stopped for real java to wake him up for his first day. Not that syrupy Starbuck’s shit, but hand-roasted perfection from a tiny Peruvian lady he’d found around the corner from his brother’s office. She always had a line and he didn’t care.
“Jeez.” He stopped and swatted at his soaked belly. He’d already removed his borrowed jacket on the 6 train and sweated through his shirt crossing Central Park South. The windy day was hot enough that it might dry before he reached the office.
His bull’s-eye face had gotten him in trouble again.
Ruben eyed numbers on the buildings. He looked at the map on his phone again. He hadn’t figured out the streets and the avenues yet. He had been in New York three weeks, ditching Miami as soon as his divorce was final. Fuck Marisa and fuck the Sunshine State.
Ten months of not drinking and living in a motel had kicked his ass all the way to Manhattan. He’d found an AA meeting in the neighborhood and started to look for a sponsor in the city.
New start, new life.
He’d caught a jetBlue flight right onto his kid brother’s doorstep. He arrived with all his hair, two changes of clothes, and plenty of experience beating the shit out of people. Anything was possible.
Half a block from the office, pounding footsteps on the concrete made him turn to look over his shoulder. Someone yelped in surprise back at Ninth Avenue.
Twenty feet up on the crowded sidewalk, a skinny man in a windbreaker sprinted right at him, knocking angry New Yorkers out of the way. He sported a thick walrus mustache and clutched something black.Gun?
“Stop him!” A thirtyish dude in a suit sprinted hard, catching up in the cleared wake. “Hey!”
Both men were running directly toward Ruben and the rush-hour mob gave him no room to maneuver. When he tried to step clear, an old man on his right pushed back with a glare.
Skinny walrus plowed into the commuter crowds, elbowing suits and secretaries out of his way. No one interfered. Typical.
Hard to tell who the bad guy was, but to be truthful, Ruben had no shits to give.
None of my fucking business.
He could see the door and all he wanted to do was get off the street. Already, Ruben was late for work and had no intention of sticking his beak in. He’d bounced and brawled enough to know trouble when he saw it chugging at him on rails. He was hemmed in by shuffling commuters and too big to slip between them.
The red-faced pursuer kept chasing, slower but steady, the tie flapping over his shoulder. He barked again breathlessly, “Wallet. Hey!” A picked pocket, then.
No time to react. Ten feet now, Walrus looked up, right at Ruben, then lowered his head to rush like a bull. On purpose most likely ’cause Ruben hadn’t moved back.
As Walrus rammed into him, Ruben shifted left and twisted, extending his arm, and caught his waist. Instead of releasing him, Ruben hoisted the narrow body into the air on his shoulder and flipped him sideways into the newsstand at the curb. Candy bars and magazines smacked the pavement.
“Asshole.” Ruben stood and wiped his cheek, and the crowd pulled back, gawking. He stepped on the skinny arm and clawed the wallet from the scrabbling hand. He tugged, the wallet gaped, and without warning a sheaf of $100 bills whipped loose into the hot breeze churned by the traffic. Good job, Oso.
The crowd went berserk. Pedestrians knelt and scrambled to scrape the cash off the sidewalk and street as Walrus tried to get to his feet, slipping on shredded newspapers.
Ruben was so broke that even one of those hundreds would’ve made a difference, but he couldn’t make himself crouch. “I can’t believe these—”
“Hey!” Footsteps. The suit in pursuit had reached him, red faced and out of breath, running right over the money. “Thank—”
Ruben pushed through the pandemonium. “Where’s a cop? Huh?” He looked at the shameless crowd stealing in plain sight. One girl was holding her phone up, taking pictures or video of folks scraping and squabbling over the crisp bills. “Where’s a goddamn cop?”
Movement and growls behind Ruben made him turn. Walrus had staggered to his feet, knocking over a pile of New York Posts that slid across the sidewalk as he loped away, kicking the other thieves aside. So fast everything almost felt staged.
“Thank you.” Closer now, the wallet’s owner didn’t sound upset. “Thanks.”
Ruben looked up as the other guy pushed in front of him: handsome with a square Anglo face like a goddamn bull’s-eye.
Talk about a target.
Ruben had always thought his resting thug face picked fights for him, but this one? Shit. Practically begged to be mugged or popped.
“Beautiful, man. Amazing.” He smiled at Ruben, still shaking his hand.
Jesus, he’s good-looking.
“You’re a life saver.”
“Uh. I didn’t save shit.” Ruben gestured at the bold thieves around them.
“I don’t care about the money. No.” He shrugged and riffled through the wallet, checking for something besides the cash, maybe? “Doesn’t matter.”
Ruben was too late and annoyed to pay much attention.
“Yeah. Great.” The coffee stiffened Ruben’s shirt in the sultry June air. He had zero interest in sticking around to explain to cops. The way he looked, he needed to tread careful here. “Whatever.”
A faraway siren scattered the rest of the commuters. Back at the newsstand, a paunchy vendor salvaged the papers he could still sell, cursing at no one and everyone.
Ruben swiped at his chest again. The spill didn’t show too much on his brother’s suit but the shirt was a goner. “Damn it, damn it.” His brother could bitch him out later for screwing up his first day. Like always.He pushed through bodies toward the office’s front doors.
Empire Security had an itty-bitty suite Charles had leased next to a nail salon far west of Columbus Circle, over near the river. A ten-minute walk from any subway station. Ruben knew nothing about Manhattan, but from the battered grates and overflowing garbage cans he figured the rents were lower in this area for a reason. Charles loved to cut corners, so his firm was called “Empire” because that was the name painted on the door when he moved in: Empire Salvage. Charles had replaced “alvage” with “ecurity.”
As Ruben reached for the elevator button, he sensed someone in his blind spot. Company.
“Hold up.” Wallet dude stood right behind him, shifting his weight in a two-thousand-dollar suit with his gold tie still crooked from running. Handsome but a little goofy. Late thirties, couple years younger than Ruben. Not skinny or thick, more of a medium build. Glossy ash-brown hair and a jaw too square to take seriously, like a corny dad in a minivan commercial.
“Uh. I didn’t take your money.” Ruben’s skin tightened. Is he following me? He looked back in the direction of the scuffle. “You shoulda stayed out there to talk to the cops.” Go away.
“Same.” The man smiled, flushed but not sweaty. His eyes were a strange blue-gray, soft as felt.
For the first time, Ruben clocked the expensive clues he’d missed outside: the razor-cut hair and four-hundred-dollar dress shirt. Manicured hands, buffed and pink. On his wrist, he sported a seven thousand dollar Ebel watch. Handmade loafers. “Look, I gotta—” He nodded at the Empire Security sign.
“We’re going the same way, then.” He let Ruben step through. “Allow me.”
Allow you what?
Ruben scowled as he poked the button for his floor. “Empire?”
“Appointment.” He eyed Ruben’s arms and shoulders. “You got some fucking moves, huh. Soldier? Fed?”
Ruben shook his head. He’d dropped out of boot camp so long ago it didn’t count. “Not really.”
“Gotcha.” The guy seemed to be waiting for a signal. “But security now.” He nodded sagely as if that explained everything.
Ruben stared at the numbers overhead, his inner freak detector blaring. He plucked at his drying crotch and wished for a swallow of the coffee he was wearing. “I’m late already.”
“Me too.” His stalker didn’t move. Just that intense scrutiny which made his skin prickle. “Sorry about before, the—” The guy snapped his mouth shut, biting down on whatever he’d almost shared.
Off-balance, Ruben swiped at the cooling splotch of coffee on his slacks. Terrific.
“I’m Andy.” He didn’t blink. “Bauer.” Huh. The exaggerated jaw practically begged for a left hook, such an obvious target it made his square face seem familiar. He smiled crookedly, revealing one deep dimple.
Ruben snuck another skeptical glance. “Do I know you?”
“No. I owe you, man.” Like Ruben, he stood a couple of inches under six feet, but he seemed glued together out of felt scraps. Raggedy Andy. Ruben had twenty pounds on him easy.
Ruben looked down at the greasy linoleum. This is what he got for giving a shit. He was gonna show up for his first day at work late, wet, and ignorant, followed by some Anglo weirdo who looked like a handsome punching bag. Could this elevator be slower? He’d bet money this loaf of white bread had never thrown a punch or held a gun in his life.
Ten bucks said Andy Bauer didn’t curse. Twenty bucks said he played Frisbee with an Irish setter.
He seemed to be holding his breath, so Ruben did too. Freaky. The elevator arrived and they both stepped inside.
Fifty bucks said he’d never talked to an alcoholic greaseball. A hundred, all Bauer’s friends were as uptight and lily white as he was.
Nobody can be as honest as this guy looks.
And so, Ruben ducked into his brother’s office ten minutes late with a good-looking lunatic in tow, ready to be bitched out.
The trim receptionist turned back to wave him toward the office, her ass like a plum, high and sweet. They’d met a couple days ago, and she only knew him as her boss’s loser brother. She barely looked at him. “Mr. Oso? Le esperan.”
He nodded at the Spanish and pretended he understood so she’d smile and stop talking. He was Colombian, so people assumed, but he only spoke about ten words of español. “Good morning,” “Thank you,” and “Fuck off, I don’t speak Spanish” marked the outer limits of his conversational abilities thanks to poor, snobbish grandparents who’d given up everything to come north to the Land of the Free-range Idiots.
Behind him Bauer said something to her and she made friendly chatty sounds.
Charles poked his head out and knocked on the door frame. “Wanna introduce me to your buddy?”
“We don’t know each other.” Ruben nodded a silent apology at his brother. He could feel Bauer approaching him from behind but didn’t turn. “I think he’s yours.”
Charles sported one of his Hawaiian shirts: hibiscuses and starfish on teal. He collected the ugly things and wore nothing else, even under suits. Back in Florida, everyone made fun of the habit, but Charles dug the comfort and the color, still pretending to be a mobster when he could get away with it.
“Andy Bauer. I’m your nine o’clock.”
Handshakes. They stepped into the cramped office.
Bauer turned back to Ruben. “And you are?”
Charles sat down. “How—?”
For the first time, Ruben looked Bauer straight in the eye and was a little startled to find him staring back with unblinking intensity. Baffled blue-gray eyes, soft and hidden as dust bunnies. Bauer spoke without turning. “He tossed a mugger for me downstairs.”
“Ruben is joining us from Florida.” Charles rummaged in the heap of files composting on his desk.
Bauer looked between them. “You look like brothers.” Uptight little nod.
They did: same square build, same Colombian beak, same crappy clothes… except Charles had gotten tubby and wasn’t sleeping on anyone’s couch. Ruben had wrestled in high school and had his father’s barrel chest; he couldn’t touch his toes, but his knuckles could crack a windshield. Besides, Empire wasn’t exactly the Secret Service. In lieu of a loan, Charles had thrown Ruben a job, paying him to get his shit together.
Charles nailed Ruben with a don’t-fuck-it-up glare, but he spoke to the handsome stranger. “Point is, I’m giving you my best, here.”
Bauer looked to be loaded and paranoid. “I’ve considered hiring a private investigator, except security is the real issue.” He kept fidgeting and combing Ruben with those weird light eyes, as if he recognized Ruben from somewhere.
Ruben cracked his knuckles quietly. Something didn’t fit. “Private investigation isn’t something Empire offers.”
“But security is.” Charles waved Ruben’s objections away.
“I appreciate it.” Bauer spoke with a lowish voice, not deep but hushed… like he needed extra air to get words out. “I know the whole thing sounds crazy.”
Charles turned to Ruben and they shared a glance that felt like an eye roll. This job sounded like bullshit. Charles knew he needed the money, and maybe this was some kinda bone, beginner-friendly and screw-up-proof. A favor for a client?
If Ruben hadn’t been late he could’ve gotten the 411 from his brother, but that was his own fault. Long as someone paid him, he’d guard an outhouse.
“We’re going to need details.” Charles flapped a sheaf of paper onto his cluttered desk. “I got a contract here. Formality, but still.”
Ruben stole another glance at their new client, which gave him a funny feeling he couldn’t name.
Charles’s mobile rang and he held up a finger to answer it. He looked to Bauer. “Why don’t you fill Rube in?” That quickly, Charles had ducked out and Ruben was low man on the pole. So much for felt scraps.
Taking his brother’s chair, Ruben let his wide shoulders brush Sir Whitebread anyways, just to let him know who’d be in charge. Well, as in charge as you can be when you’re surviving on Burger King and your little brother’s pullout. Ruben had the indigestion and the crick in his neck to prove it. He wasn’t twenty. Hell, he wasn’t thirty anymore. He’d turned forty-one in January and his body didn’t bounce back the way it had.
“What’s the situation, exactly?”
Bauer stared right at him. “Precarious.”
The unblinking scrutiny made Ruben squirm. Was this guy a bigot? A queer? No, just… odd. Ruben flipped open his pad, a leather journal that fit in his hip pocket. Time for a list. Plus it gave him somewhere to look that felt less intense. “For example?”
“Well, it’s an office in a residence. A few employees and most of them work from home. But I have clients in and out at all hours.”
And you chase muggers in broad daylight. Right.
“Look, way you nailed that guy, I figured you for an off-duty cop.” Again that intense stare.
“I dropped out of the army.” Ruben had ditched boot when Marisa had her first miscarriage. “But I can fight and I take orders fine.”
“My situation is…. What’s needed here is something a little more….” His mouth couldn’t make the word. He plucked at his pants.
“Off the record.” Ruben nodded. Tighty-whitey wanted some brown hands to do his dirty work.
Sure enough, Bauer gave a sigh of relief. “Nothing crooked, you understand, but I don’t want to run the risk of compromising any of my clients because I’ve got Dudley Do-Right riding shotgun.”
Ruben squinted and then forced his face to relax. “So you’re looking for…?”
“More like Dudley Do-Wrong.” Money to burn, then. A whale had floated into Empire’s little lagoon. “A bodyguard.”
Ruben looked up at that. “Executive protection.” Why did he have a bad feeling about this? He throttled the thought and focused on landing as much cash as possible. Hell, maybe a place to crash. “Twenty-four hour?”
“Work hours, I think.”
Lucky me. Ruben could imagine how Raggedy Andy’s fancy guest room compared to a Spanish Harlem walkup. Privacy mattered enough that his current digs won there. He had enough headaches without a head case down the hall.
“Incidents.” He fell silent and did the goofy dad-smile again with his deep dimple.
Ruben held his tongue. Obviously this dude had sat in first class reading too many airport novels. When Ruben looked back up, Bauer was eying him critically, and that funny feeling returned. “What type of business?”
“Finance. A trader, really. Apex Securities. I run a hedge fund.” Bauer bounced his knee. “I work from home.” He kept eying Ruben with blank hero worship, as if casting him in some super-spy bullshit studded with dry martinis and wet pussy. “As a precaution. I’ve got a lot of sensitive documents in the office right now, and I’d feel better with someone on hand to make sure there are no—”
Ruben raised his eyebrows, patient.
“Up on Seventy-Eighth and Park. I live in the Iris.”
Which meant exactly nothing to Ruben. He’d ask his brother. “Sure. Okay.”
Why would someone this loaded hire Charles’s little company, which mainly rented bouncers and backup security for parties? Bauer could have gone to Citadel or Stone Security. They had tech departments and goons who’d fought in the Israeli army. By comparison, Charles had a gut and a divorced drunk on the payroll. Something odd there.
When he looked up from the pad, Bauer still hadn’t moved or blinked, apparently… his dashing face still as stone. Hell, maybe Bauer was only pretending to like him.
“I mean, it’s a secure building. Co-op bachelor pad. They did the renovations three months after 9/11, so the board went a little nutso with the cameras and alarms.”
“Who has access? Besides you.”
“To the Iris? Uhh….”
Ruben flipped to a blank page. “Your apartment. You gotta wife, girlfriend?”
The guy looked married, the kind of walking Sears ad: as if any second a ranch house, a chirpy wife, and giggly blond toddlers would spring out of the ground around him.
Headshake. “A couple girls I get with. Nothing serious. I travel a lot.” Bauer blinked and looked away. “For work, y’know.”
Not queer, then. With a stray flicker of jealousy, Ruben tried to imagine any woman who’d wanna fake a climax with someone this bland. Then again, who could figure women? Maybe he had a cock the size of a pint glass.
Bauer’s eyes came up, soft as flannel. “Marriage doesn’t agree with me.”
Ruben’s gaze flicked to Bauer’s lap. No sleeping anaconda there; maybe he fucked ’em with his wallet. Batshit Bauer had capital to spare.
Note to self: get rich ASAP.
“You got angry employees? Clients with a beef?”
“Hardly. I got an assistant that stops in a couple times a day, for schedule and research.” He looked at his nails. “Housekeeper comes in three times a week. My IT kid when the computers need pruning or weeding.”
“Which tends to be?”
“Weekly, at a minimum. Has to be. My biggest expense.” Shrug. “My computers never stop upgrading.”
The emphasis made Ruben pause and raise his eyebrows. He didn’t ask the question, but he left space for an explanation. Curious played better than stupid, in most situations.
Bauer’s lips scrubbed his teeth before he explained. “For investors, a quarter-second lag can mean millions of dollars. Finance drives all technology. We’re the reason chip upgrades happen. Even more than gaming or medicine.”
Ruben perused his brother’s tiny, cluttered office. A thousand security places in Manhattan and he comes to us? Sketchy. “Anyone else who drops in with any regularity, then?”
“A couple international clients I’m friendly with. My assistant. Cook. The gardener comes up twice a month.”
Gardener? How big was this bachelor pad? The knot of irritation tightened in Ruben’s belly.
Bauer must’ve caught the reaction because he added, “I’m in the penthouse, so I have a couple terraces with trees. Pool downstairs. Y’know.”
Oh yeah, genius. I know all about penthouse pools on Park Avenue. “Right.” This jerk was so loaded he’d forgotten that most people wanted shit they couldn’t afford.
Ruben kept his face blank, the expression Marisa called “Aztec asshole.” A sharp pang of missing her took him by surprise. He hoped that new guy treated her better than he had. “And you suspect some kinda theft?”
“A security breach, more like. The Apex Fund handles some players.”
“We’re not equipped for tech breaches, let alone a full executive protection detail.” Charles had trouble checking his e-mail.
“This isn’t hackers.” Bauer held up a hand, right on the edge of rude. “These people have been in my house.”
“Look, I know how it sounds. I’m not a nutjob. High-risk investment creates some pretty weird bedfellows.”
“And enemies.” Invisible enemies who leave no proof. Right.
Bauer bobbed his head and exhaled loudly. “You see my problem?” The way he said “my” made it sound like the problem was something he owned.
Only a saint would turn away a client like this. Charles would shit nickels, but Ruben smelled a rat.
Ruben squinted, trying to provoke a real reaction. “Well, not really.” Too easy, too easy. The words slipped out of his mouth. “Why us?”
“’Scuse me?” Condescending and jittery, both. Maybe he wasn’t a nutjob, but Mr. Bauer definitely wasn’t telling the whole truth.
“Empire is hardly a triple-A outfit, Mr. Bauer.” He looked around at his brother’s shabby office, the coffee-ringed desk and dusty cabinets. “We’re not exactly at home on red carpet. We do event security mostly for people who don’t make the papers.”
“Exactly.” Bauer blinked. “I’m sitting here because of what you did this morning.” Boy Scout bullshit.
Ruben trusted his instincts. He wondered if he could convince Charles to give this gig a pass. He crossed his arms, giving his best bouncer glare.
“I don’t want the NYPD involved. On white-collar crime they suck and I don’t need feds digging up the bones in my closets.” He obviously hadn’t heard “no” or “why” too often. “I need an experienced pair of eyes on me while I close a deal, but I need to steer clear of the standard bullet catchers.”
“Still, why slum it with us if you’re really worried?”
His calm brow clouded. “That’s a bit tricky.”
“Yeah?” Ruben held his unsettling gaze. “Meaning?”
“A high-end firm may be the… problem. I’d like a fresh pair of eyes from a new angle. Tighter security. Nothing flashy or complicated. And so I came to you.” The goofy smile returned, almost desperately casual and cheerful.
“Right.” Ruben ignored his gut and thought about the money. “Executive protection. Daytime only.”
“A few nights. I hit a lot of black tie events. Partying with clients and grooming accounts. I’d present you as a friend, an associate.”
“Again, I feel like we’re a bad fit, Mr. Bauer.” Ruben sat back. Those investors would take one look at his dark complexion and crappy clothes and peg him for a blue-collar bruiser, a middle-aged drunk who cashed checks at the bodega. Everything about this gig raised his hackles. “We don’t exactly look like buddies.”
“Why not?” Bauer eyeballed Ruben’s clothes, the scuffed oxfords, the crooked tie. “A haircut. Wardrobe. Incidentals. Expensed, obviously.” He looked serious.
“’Cause you’re pretty prepped out and I’m a big ugly spic?” Ruben scowled a second. “Just a hunch.” Ruben dropped the pen on the pad. “All due respect, don’t shit a shitter.”
“Fair enough. My family has accounts with Kroll, and I don’t want to worry them unnecessarily.”
“Mr. Bauer, you’re not being straight with me.”
Bauer blinked, for the first time, it seemed. “Straight?”
“Pretty sketchy logic there. Espionage? Sabotage? Your family of superspies and stock market ninjas.”
“Now you’re not being straight.” Bauer’s eyes hardened. “Let’s just say I have reason to distrust my family and their friends.” For the first time, the predatory edge sliced through all Bauer’s folksy charm, calculated and forceful. “So I’m hiring you.”
There he was. Nice to meet you, motherfucker.
The silence felt like embarrassment, but whose? Without waiting for an answer, Bauer opened his briefcase and began writing a check. He glanced up. “Retainer.” All balls and no sense. Scribble, scribble.
Ruben could hear Charles bellowing in his head: Take the fucking job. Empire needed the money. He did as well. He’d go nuts sleeping on a couch all summer with a busted A/C. The red flag wasn’t Bauer or his bull’s-eye face; it was the cushiness of the deal.
“Two, three weeks at the outside. Twelve hundred a day plus expenses.”
Even though Empire only would have charged him seven.
Ruben knew exactly what things cost—one of the side effects of growing up broke and scrimping his whole life. He probably knew the prices on Bauer’s clothes better than the man who’d paid for them. Too easy.
“I’ve seen you handle trouble, and money’s not an issue for me. I’m faced with a sticky situation. The risk is minimal and the pay is not.”
Who on earth had steered this crazy whale his way?
Charles. Ruben sighed. Thanks, little brother.
“Excellent. I’ll meet you at the Iris then to go over particulars.” Bauer gave a victor’s smile and stood. “Tomorrow morning, say?” He rubbed his hands together as if they were sweaty. “I’ll leave your name with the building staff. Ruben…?”
“Oso.” He waited for the joke. In Spanish, the name meant a couple things, all silly.
Not even a smile. “Oso. Right.” Just the square-square jaw and the flannel eyes looking back out of a handsome face that said Punch me.
Ruben stayed in the chair, feeling like he’d had his pocket picked.
Mr. Bauer gave a sharp nod from the doorway. “Perfect.”
Not even close.
Five minutes later, Ruben was still considering that door when Charles came back, eating a greasy bacon sandwich, and shuffled through the paperwork. “You all set with the Apex guy?”
“Cakewalk. That Bauer is hiring a wingman to impress someone.” Another swallow. A drip spattered on his hibiscus shirt. “Ten bucks he’s some Wall Street gonk who’s seen too many thrillers. Scariest thing he deals with is silicone titties and erectile dysfunction.”
“Carlos….” Charles had been christened Carlos, but their parents refused to speak Spanish on principle. No immigrant bullshit for them. Their grandparents had moved to Florida from Soledad after the Second World War. The Osos were American through and through. Roots, nothing. Charles had learned Spanish during his pretend-to-be-mob phase.
“Tsssh. Yeah. You watch.” Charles took a drippy bite. “He just likes your scary mug.”
“Whatsamatter? You said you were doing good.”
“Yeah.” Ruben lifted a shoulder noncommittally. “Yeah, sure. I’m doing great.” Even if he couldn’t put his finger on the feeling that nagged him.
Charles narrowed his eyes.
“No. No way. It’s not that. I’m great. I just woke up late.” Ruben hoped that was the truth.
“I don’t wanna come home to you punching holes in my wall.”
“I promise.” None of that here. Ruben had patched plenty of walls on plenty of mornings.
“Something funny there.”
“Ha ha.” Charles balled up the sandwich shrapnel and tossed it. “What’s funny?”
Ruben squinted. “He is.”
“He is”—Charles overlapped his words—“a spruce goose laying golden eggs, baby. You better sit on that motherfucker till all of ’em hatch.”
Ruben tapped the desk, then slid the check across the clutter toward his brother. Something Bauer had said, but what? It stuck in his teeth like gristle he couldn’t stop worrying with his tongue. “He’s all balls and fulla shit.”
“So much the better. It’s all in his head, then, and he wants to put on a big fancy show. Paranoid on Park Avenue.” Charles rubbed his hibiscus gut and sat. “I think the problem is you’re looking for a problem where there ain’t none.” He plucked the retainer check off the desk. “Good gig. Easy money and no headaches. Fancy clientele. This is a milkbone. You chew on it all summer. Scare up business from his, uh, associates.”
Charles held the check over his face and closed his smiling eyes like the zeros were sunshine. “Give him his show. Ya needta get laid. You need some new threads. Place of your own. Bauer’s your ticket. He does anything funny, you laugh.” A look.
“Sure. I promise.”
“And Rube.” He pointed, fake stern. “Up that penthouse, you better be passing out my cards like crabs.” Charles tried to sell it. “I’m taking care of you, man. You needed work and this deal’s a cinch.”
As in, boring as hell. Ruben tried not to feel insulted.
“You just got divorced. Off the bottle. And it’ll get you outta the apartment.”
“So it’s bullshit.”
“The check’ll clear.”
“Fuck off. I mean that he’s in no danger.”
“Psssh. Danger! I’m in danger, you’re in danger. Life is danger, bro.” Charles wiped his jowly chops. “Might as well get paid.”
(c) Damon Suede 2015