Cha drove up the hill to the lot outside of Santa Cruz in a 1956 Chevy Pickup that ran like Jesus serviced it special. He looked forward to seeing this place, not just the online photos that made it look majestic but its drabber elements that would require the work he looked forward to. He never looked forward to the work that paid; it was perfunctory.
The place’s appearance did not disappoint. He had driven up separately from the broker, had gotten here early. When he was the one working, he made a point of arriving first. Making a purchase was another form of work, which he was too good at to fuck up before forking over money.
It wasn’t that Cha liked his work that much, only that he could ignore its effects. He didn’t know whether the men he killed did so as payment for a petty grievance; more likely it was something serious, and it wasn’t up to him to decide who was right. Why was not a question he ever asked.
He looked out now from his new home, top of the hill, down at the little trickle of a creek that ran alongside it. This was where he would want his end of the line to come, at a wooden table beneath Redwoods over barbecued steak with a beer, but he knew it was likely to occur in the city, in an alley or outside a bar or somewhere that could be measured by the length and width of its bloodstains and the dark that would forever follow, that he brought to other people and was bound to return to him.
The call came. Cha saw the number, no name, and answered. The gruff voice gave an address.
“An hour,” Cha said.
The answer was a grunt and the end of the call.
The meet was at a bar with outdoor tables. No indoor dining allowed. Fine with Cha, he didn’t need to catch something that might kill him. There were plenty of guys like that already.
He waited a half hour before his guy showed, walked inside to order and returned glass in hand.
“What’s up, Billy?” Cha drank from a beer.
“The usual. Old lady won’t get off my back. I say the other night, I wish to hell they’d open the bowling alleys, and she starts screamin. ‘You want we should all get disease so you can knock down some pins? That means more to you than takin care of your wife?’”
Billy laughed and Cha did too.
“That’s the way with women though, ain’t it?” Cha said.
“How would you know? Why ain’t you ever settle down?”
“Come to gettin laid, Billy, I wish I did. But I got guys like you, always tellin me shit make me glad I didn’t. Til this fuckin demic.”
“You got guys like me. What a life.”
“Yeah.” They both shut up a while, drank. “So,” Cha said, “who?”
He gave a name. Cha knew the guy, where he liked to hang out anyway. Of course, that place was closed now. Still, he could find the guy. There were other places like it. It helped that they had mutual friends. Problem would be gathering information without giving away why he needed it. Not that a friend of either man was likely to be talkative. Had to find a mutual friend who liked him better was all.
Downtown, a sidewalk, he strolled, paper coffee cup in hand. Hoped the guy would show, walked down the block, across the street and back up. Plenty of people on the sidewalks wore masks but not all, not by a long shot. Cha wore one, the guy approaching with a big smile didn’t.
Cha stopped several feet short of Gerard. “You don’t believe in masks?”
“Fuck off, you don’t wear a mask I’ll find what I want from someone else.”
“We’re in fresh air here. And I ain’t sick. But you do what you want.”
“Look, cross the street with me. There’s a broad down there sellin masks on the street. I buy you one, you wear it.”
“You are scared,” Gerard said, but he crossed with Cha. “You know, if your people hadn’t started this—”
“Fuck you, Gerard. You wanna gimme info about a guy we both know or not?”
“Yeah, okay, but the mask. We’re outdoors, nothin’s gonna stick to ya.”
“Why take a chance when I don’t have to?”
“It’s not a chance. We go inside some place, yeah, maybe that’s a chance. You know how much shit is in the air? Get sick from that more than my breath.”
Cha didn’t talk until they approached the blonde. She stood back several feet from her table of masks, her own mask in one hand while she talked into her phone with the other.
“Okay,” Cha said, “what do you want?”
“They got one says Fuck the Plague?”
“Nothin like that far as I can tell. Pick one and let’s go.”
Gerard stepped up to the table and the woman backed up into the parking space behind her. A car, probably hers, took up most of the space.
He looked a couple minutes, picked one with a Rolling Stones logo.
“The Stones? You’re gonna show your age.”
“Ain’t no hidin it.”
“Okay. Miss? This one.” He pointed and she picked it up off the table. It was wrapped in plastic.
Her accent was Eastern European, maybe Russian. Cha liked it, liked her ass too, wished there was a way she could like him as much as he liked her, handed her a ten.
“Keep the change.” He took the mask and walked away. He’d find her again after the job. “Put it on.” He handed Gerard the mask.
Gerard struggled with the plastic a minute, pulled a knife from his pocket and cut it open, put on the mask and dropped the plastic to the sidewalk. “I feel ridiculous.”
“You look it. Now tell me where to find Jimmy James and you can toss the damn thing.”
“Toss it? I could pull jobs in this.”
“Great. Talk to me.”
“You want the guy with the stupid fucking name. He shoulda changed that years ago. Jimmy and James, same goddamn name, why say it twice?”
“Don’t know,” Cha said. “I just wanna know where to find him these days.”
“Ain’t so easy. He liked bars.”
“What’s in it for me?” Gerard said.
“There’s no money in this. I just wanna talk to the guy. Old friend.”
“You wanna talk to a guy and money got nothin to do with it.”
“Why the fuck would I talk about the guy if I was gonna pull anything?”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the guy wants a answer.”
“Okay,” Cha said. “Money could come into it. I get some, you want a piece, right?”
“How you gonna know what I get paid?”
“I know what a job’s worth.”
“Maybe, maybe not. You gotta trust me on this.”
“You know how stupid it is talkin about this and we both wearin masks?”
“We’re past that.”
“Terms then. Gimme a hundred now, more later if the job smells like it.”
“If it smells like it? Let’s find a place with outdoor tables, get a drink. I get my info, you get your money.”
Cha smiled. “No shit.”
They were downtown, places with outdoor tables open on side streets. They wouldn’t talk anything confidential, no need to be secretive or extra quiet. Just find a table and drinks and a place to sit. It was mid-afternoon, no need to order food, but they went to a burrito joint with tented outdoor tables, ordered chips and salsa and two beers.
Gerard dug into the chips. He dipped one into the salsa, took a bite. “These are good.”
Cha didn’t need to wash anything down but this conversation. He drank. “Where do I find him?”
“There’s a poker game. I got invited, went one time, not my scene.”
“You know Bill Latiker?”
“Don’t know where he lives.”
“You got a pen and paper?”
“Just gimme the address. It’s gonna cost me a hundred, I’ll remember.”
Latiker’s place was up the hill, a nice house in a nice neighborhood. Jimmy must be doing well for himself to even garner an invite. How he was doing well was, again, not Cha’s concern, no more than why he’d kept that stupid name all his life. He agreed with Gerard on that one.
He’d called Latiker, got the address a second time and an invite, so he showed, knocked on the door, saw the bell after he knocked and rang it. After a minute, Latiker let him in. Neither man wore a mask.
“Cha, how ya been, surprised to hear from ya.”
“Yeah, you know, between jobs and with this fucking lockdown… I heard you had a game and getting out sounded nice.”
“We gotta see our friends, right?” Latiker patted him on the back, turned to walk down the hall. Cha followed. “Room’s in back. Cards and drinks and a couple guys you know.”
Through a narrow door at the end of the hall was a large room, jazz playing on an expensive looking stereo, couches on two walls, a large screen TV that was off on another wall, and a full bar with card table in the center of the room. The table was green felt with pockets for chips, for six players.
Tiny Roberts engulfed one seat, a vast round name with a typical criminal’s sarcastic nickname. Gabby Acosta sat at another, took up a normal amount of space. Sadly, his nickname was not sarcastic, his mouth already open when Cha entered the room.
“Hey Cha, just a minute, middle of a story.” He went on talking to Tiny.
“Anyone else coming? You got a table for six.”
“One more should be here,” Latiker said. “You know Jimmy James?”
“Hell, this feels like old home week. Damn glad I came tonight.”
“And I got an extra seat if some fly by night stops by, so they get a seat if they’re next here, but ain’t expectin nobody.”
“You look good, Bill. Whatcha been up to?”
“Not much, you know, this, that, the other thing.”
This was why Cha liked Latiker. Never talked about business.
“Same with me,” Cha said. “Just bought a place in the hills. Ain’t this, though.”
“You work that place, build it up, invite me over when it’s ready.”
“Sure, Bill. I get a scotch?”
“Two cubes of ice. Whatever’s your best.”
Latiker waved a hand at the wall. “Single malts that shelf and the one below. Pour your own.”
Yeah, Latiker was doing well. Two long shelves of single malt, like the best liquor store he’d ever been in. After a few minutes he went with a BenRiach 12; he preferred a smooth scotch to the peaty version. Which was right next to it on the shelf. Latiker wasn’t fucking around.
“Incredible,” was all Cha could say.
“I like a comfortable poker game.”
“Jesus, you got that.” He dropped two cubes of ice in a whiskey glass and was adding the scotch when Latiker left the room to answer the door.
“Cha,” Gabby said, as Cha took a seat at the table, “didn’t know you was in town. If I knew, I’da called and we’da had some nights. Well, I guess this’ll be our first. I hear you say you never been to Bill’s? A shame, he runs a great game, we’re all regulars. Kick a little back to the host, of course, but then we can win it back, or not, don’t matter much, it’s all good fun and we drink, I got tequila, good shit, you got what, that a scotch? Yeah, I heard Bill’s collection is great, but so is the tequila, and the bourbon, you could come here for years and never drink the same thing twice.”
“Hi, Gabby,” Cha said.
“Cha!” It was Jimmy James, coming at him from his back. “Where you been?”
“Bought a place, fixin it up between jobs. Lotta time between jobs these days.”
“Fuckin ne’er-do-wells in short supply?”
“You wouldn’t think, but yeah.”
“Now careful, everybody, Cha could be here to knock off any of us. He’s that kind of guy.”
“Never knocked no one off, Jimmy. Don’t know where ya heard that.”
“But you never know where anyone hears anything, do ya, Cha?”
“More interested in fixin up my place.”
“Jesus, Jimmy,” Latiker said, “fix a drink and let’s play cards.”
Jimmy shut up, listened to Latiker. He’d put Cha on edge, which was okay, it was where he should be. Only not around Gabby and Tiny. They were good guys, as bad guys went, no one who needed to be hit. For all he knew, they had hits on Jimmy too. Or on him. In this business, you never knew.
Unlikely from the others, but Jimmy suspected. So he’d kill him tonight if he could, fine. But first, cards.
They played. Exactly what they did, cards in hand and on the table, eyes on each other. They weren’t brilliant card players and they weren’t bad. Mediocrity all around and Latiker was the best of them, plus he took his kickback every hand. A small piece of the ante, but it added up. Cha should host a night like this, only he’d probably lose enough he wouldn’t turn a profit. He didn’t mind losing tonight, although he tried to win every hand. Poker was a difficult game.
By the end of the night, everyone buzzed, they all headed to the door one by one. Cha was first, got in his goodnights, including the endless one with Gabby, stumbled down the hall and out the door to his car. Where he sat and waited. He would never pull a hit drunk, but he wouldn’t let himself be hit either. He waited for Jimmy.
And got, in his car, a second longwinded goodbye from Gabby, who constantly thought of more shit to say. None of it worth listening to, but all of it to say. He didn’t even know what Gabby was short for. Gabby went on forever.
Until, at last, forever ended and Jimmy made his exit. He wore a gigantic smile, drunk but also seeing Cha.
“You gonna kill me, asshole? That why you’re here?”
Cha kept his windows up, his eyes blinking like he couldn’t drive anywhere, watched Jimmy stagger to his car. This whole card game was a DUI collection if the cops swooped it, and as many different routes as these guys would take, no reason they shouldn’t.
“Hopin to clear my head before I drive.”
“Never works.” He reached into a pocket, walked over and pulled out what looked like a prescription bottle, shook a few pills into his hand, popped some and held out the rest.
Cha rolled down his window and took the other four.
“Ten, fifteen minutes,” Jimmy said. “And you’re good to go.”
“Sure. See you next week?”
“If nothin comes up.”
Like if he didn’t kill Jimmy in the meantime. They were friends, no matter what Gerard thought of him, but a job was a job. And it wouldn’t be cool to kill a man on Latiker’s property. He would kill Jimmy, though. He needed the cash. Needed it to upgrade his place in the hills. So when he died, it would be in comfort.
He rolled up his windows, hoped this night of recon hadn’t been too great a risk. He would kill Jimmy, and he’d do it soon. Had to get paid before he started to show symptoms. Before he died first.