Story by David Busboom
Illustration by Carol Wellart
I look past Lenny Gayle at the woman who’s just come into Zeke’s Restaurant and feel the same as every other man in the place. She makes a beeline straight for us, though what she finds interesting in two middle-class old men I can’t fathom. She’s tall, auburn-haired with the edges of it curling around her dark leather jacket’s upturned collar and down past her shoulders. Under the jacket, a tight, black, low-cut shirt tucked into belted jeans. She walks with a slight limp.
Lenny looks up from his meal, sees her, and his already stone-cold face freezes even harder. He looks at his watch, remarks that he can just make his late train if he hurries, thanks me for my time, and drops some money on the tablecloth. The dynamite, bundled in “Merry Christmas” wrapping paper, rests on the seat between us. Lenny threw his sports coat over it just to be safe, and now he doesn’t even pick it up as he hurries out. Other than a cursory glance at her chest, he doesn’t acknowledge the young woman at all as they cross paths.
She watches him go, then turns to me with a chuckle.
“Your friend seemed eager to leave,” she says.
Just to see her has a startling effect, but that low laugh and throaty voice is like the caress of fingertips across a naked stomach.
“He has a train to catch,” I say. Then, feeling bold, I extend a hand. “Call me Duke.”
“Layla,” she reciprocates, smiling. “But won’t your friend be cold on the train without his jacket?”
But she’s already picked up the sports coat, as though she means to chase Lenny down and return it to him.
“Who’s the present for?” she asks, looking at the package.
“Me!” I flash her a grin I hope is roguish and charming.
To my surprise, she returns it.
“Why didn’t you open it?” She seats herself in Lenny’s chair without waiting to be asked. On a different day I might’ve asked her, but now I’m feeling anxious to follow Lenny’s example and leave.
“Uh,” I begin, less convincing than I intend. “He—my friend—said to open it at home. Not appropriate to show in public.” There. Maybe she’ll think I’m a dirty old man and want nothing more to do with me.
No such luck.
“Now I’m dying to know what it is!” Her expression changes. Her voice drops even lower, takes on a conspiratorial tone I’ve heard often in my career. “Listen,” she says. “I’m in a motel not far from here, and I’m pretty sure there’s some mistletoe over the door. Why don’t we take this back there and open it up?”
She throws her lapels back wide, inviting me to admire the flesh of her throat and the small swell of her breasts. I’m not sure what her game is, but there’s a certain sincerity—a reality—about her that makes me tingle. She’s not playing. Perhaps she’s a hooker, looking for an easy, safe, holiday score.
I should turn her down. I try not to bring women into the mix when I’m in the middle of a job—that’s been my policy since I left Chicago back in twenty-eight. But how many chances like this do I have left? She’s no average streetwalker….
Before I know it, I’m nodding my head.
“O-okay,” I hear myself stammer. This dynamite gig is no big thing, anyway. Just a little impromptu remodeling to one of the downtown storefronts for a business rival. It’s been small potatoes since Mickey went to prison—not many people want to hire a septuagenarian contract man. For six months I’ve sat around L.A. doing nothing except hustle girls and smoke hash, and then Lenny contacted me with this job. Lenny’s a good man, cautious, and his unwillingness to get his hands dirty has helped keep me employed.
All the more reason to brush her off, my conscience tells me, but I ignore it. I’ve had a lot of practice at that.
“What do you do for a living?” Layla asks as I pick up the package and follow her outside into the comfortable SoCal winter. She still carries Lenny’s jacket.
“Retired,” I say. It’s almost true. Then I see an opportunity: “Used to work in Hollywood. You an actress? I may be able to pull some strings.”
Her eyes and grin widen.
Maybe this’ll be a freebie.
She leads me to her car, a battered red Plymouth GTX, and I get in the passenger’s seat. She starts it up. As we pull away some dark-voiced rock singer on the radio warns an evil woman not to play her games with him. I almost laugh when she turns it down.
“So, Duke,” she says. “Guess you know John Wayne?”
“Just a fan,” I say, hoping the truth will come off as modesty. “You see True Grit? That’s what I’ve got.”
“Yeah,” she laughs that throaty laugh. “I can tell you’re a regular Rooster Cogburn. I bet you’ve even got a six-shooter under that trench coat!”
I can’t help but smile.
She pulls the Plymouth into the parking lot of a cheap motel, kills the engine, and lights a cigarette. No mistletoe in sight, but I don’t tease her. When we get out, I’m sure to bring the package with me—I have no intention of opening it in front of Layla, but it’ll be safer in the room than waiting in the car.
She tosses the cig, leads me inside, and we’re plunged into darkness as the door shuts behind me. I set down the package and lift my arms blindly, hear Layla’s jacket sliding off and hitting the mattress. Another sound to my right makes me shudder, but before I can reach for my Colt the bedside lamp comes on and I’m staring down the barrel of a small black Beretta at the end of Layla’s straight, steady arm. She’s smiling.
“That’s right, Woody, keep ‘em up,” Lenny says at my right, near the lamp. I don’t dare move to look at him, but his gaze burns the side of my face.
“Lenny, what the f—”
“Shut up!” he snaps, bolder than he’s ever been. “If you don’t know what this is about, you deserve it even more than I thought. He was my nephew, Woody.”
I remember. Before Mickey got pinched the last time, he had me arrange a motorcycle accident. Kenny Gayle liked to brag about his uncle’s business, the stupid Brando wannabe. The cops had their suspicions but were never able to make anything stick. Lenny was sore about it for a while, but he wasn’t too dumb to remember who sliced his bread. Of course, Mickey hasn’t done any bread slicing for almost a decade now….
“Ready?” Layla asks. She’s talking to Lenny, but her eyes are on me. She’s cooler behind a gun than I was at her age—not even twenty-five, I’d bet.
“Not yet,” he says. “I want to hear him admit it.”
No use playing dumb. “Lenny, he’s been dead ten years.”
“There a statute of limitations for my sister’s son? She hasn’t spoken to me since. I’d have done this long ago if I’d been able to find someone you didn’t already know.”
I nod toward Layla. “She’s gonna do it? Christ, Lenny, why am I not surprised?”
Her face hardens, but Lenny chuckles.
“Just keeping my hands clean, Woody. My specialty’s acquisition, not elimination.”
He moves to pick up the Christmas package and crosses in front of Layla. I grab him with both hands and spin him around in a chokehold, keeping as much of myself behind him as possible. He almost cries out but stops himself—I’ll give him that much.
“Bet you’re not even carrying, stupid fuck!” I snarl in his ear. He struggles, but I’ve got one arm around his neck and the other twisting his own right fist up into his back. I’m stronger than he is. Always have been.
Layla keeps the gun on us without a word. Never lowering her arm or looking away, she crouches down and reaches for the package.
“What’re you doing?” Lenny chokes out over my elbow. “Shoot him, for Chrissakes!”
I force a chuckle. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain so close to His birthday, Lenny?”
Still watching us, she drags the package to her and rips open one corner, peeling the paper back as far as she can with one arm and no leverage, revealing the shoebox underneath. She gropes for the lid, lifts it. Her eyes, and the gun are fixed.
Lenny squirms in my grasp. “It’s all there, goddammit, just shoot him!”
Inside the box, I can see wads of cash. Maybe a hundred grand in bundles. Layla’s eyes drop for the first time as she steals a glance—
I shove Lenny forward. He falls on her in a screaming tangle of limbs. Her gun goes off as I grab mine, and then I’m pointing the Colt at Lenny’s back as he moans and bleeds on top of her by the foot of the bed. The motel seems pretty-well deserted, but if anyone heard Layla’s shot there’ll be more bodies here. Soon.
I put another bullet in Lenny and he shuts up, slumps down over the girl. I grab the open box of cash and run out the door without another look. Layla’s Plymouth is unlocked. I plop the box in the passenger’s seat and check the ignition.
I run back to the room and throw open the door—
Layla’s just getting to her feet on the other side, like something straight out of a horror film: covered in Lenny’s blood—hair matted with it, top of her shirt soaked. Her left hand still clutches the little Beretta in a death grip.
It swings up, and I realize too late I’ve hesitat—
— ♦♦♦ —
How far will a corrupt cop go to save his job and reputation? How much would those things be worth? Ted Reid didn’t know the exact answer, but he knew it was more than a couple of coppers…