We only heard one side of the Dentist’s conversation but it was enough to discern where he and Rosso had planned to meet: some café on the pedestrian mall just adjacent to the same playground where Rosso and I had had our discussion just prior.
Either he wanted a public space to avoid any drama or he was sufficiently ensconced in this town that he wasn’t worried about any coming his way.
In either case it was a smart play.
How he’d respond to seeing Carol was anyone’s guess I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure where her allegiances lied anymore beyond the next line of blow but I knew that the real Carol was still in there somewhere and I felt it my duty to try and save her.
I was no saint myself, not by any stretch of anybody’s imagination but there were still men far more evil than I running free and unfettered and I had to find a way to stop them.
Whether it was for my sake or Carol’s or Kevin’s I didn’t know anymore. Maybe it was just pettiness or some misbegotten sense of trying to right my own wrongs by bringing the world down on Rosso and the Dentist, but my mind was set on, even if it was the last thing I did.
Carol moved across the room to the bar and dumped out a peanut-sized chunk of cocaine on its surface and started chopping it up with a credit card.
She knew I didn’t like her on the stuff, for her sake or mine but what was I going to say, here, now, tonight?
“What do you say, lover?” she asked me, purring out the words. “How are we going to do this?”
“Well, I said, we need to get out of here but Edward has eyes everywhere, you got any ideas?”
After snorting up a decent sized line she looked at me, her mind racing, lips moving, going a million miles an hour but really just spinning its tires in the mud. Emotionally or pharmacologically she was in no position at all to be making decisions of any kind, let alone logical ones, but that was okay because I already knew what I had to do.
“Look, I said, “just, hey, take it easy. I have a plan.”
“Okay,” she said a subtle tone of optimism that may have been legitimate or may have just been the coke now coursing through her bloodstream. She started cutting up another line, this coke to chase the coke that made her feel good, keep it going just a minute or two longer, keep chasing that high that like a dogs tail stayed just always out of reach.
Behind the bar was a bottle of vodka, the expensive kind that sat on lighted shelves in bars I’d never have taken a drink in but were popular amongst the kind of guys Stan and I would have to pay visits to from time to time back in Chicago. It wasn’t any better than any other vodka, really, when it all came down to it but they were rubes to begin with and were drawn to it and the status they felt ordering it gave them like so many moths to a flame.
“I think we need to get you your boy back. And I think we have to get out of town. The three of us. All together.”
“Okay, okay, let’s do it, she said, rolling and bouncing on her feet now the coke having completely taken hold.
I took the bottle from the shelf and placed it on the bar.
“But I think I’m going to need a drink first, there any ice in this place?”
When Carol walked around behind the bar to grab some ice I followed her and when she leaned over to open the ice chest I moved in behind her and put my hand on the back of her neck, where her shirt collar met the skin and held it there.
“Hi there,” she said, sounding almost giddy now.
“Yeah,” I said, “hi.”
When she stood up with the full scoop of ice I slammed her head down into the edge of the bar and she went limp.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said, “but this I have to do alone.”
I turned her over and looked at her face, my aim, at least was still good – her nose was untouched, unbroken, and the padded edge of the bar absorbed enough of the blow that she got just enough of a concussion to put her out but not enough to put her down.
She was breathing fine and twitching enough for me to recognize that she’d be out for a while.
I scooped her up and took her to the couch that sat along the far wall and laid her on it. Along the wall opposite were some small high windows that started at about ground level and they were covered with tasteful muted curtains. I yanked one set of curtains off, tore it into strips and tied Carol’s eyes behind her back and her legs together. With the curtain from the other window I tied both her legs and her arms to the wire frame that ran beneath the cushions themselves.
Whenever she came too she’d be staying put. Of this much alone I was certain.
I walked back to the bar and considered the coke that was still laying there for a long minute before brushing it into the small bar sink that was underneath it on the other side of the bar and running some water down the drain after it. Whether that was the only coke she had I doubted but at least I could try and make a difference here, now, tonight.
I walked out of the room and towards the door to garage I had seen when we pulled into his driveway.
If what I needed next was anywhere in the house this was as likely a place as any. I wasn’t disappointed. From a clearly-never-used red tool box I pulled a pair of blue-handled channel lock pliers and made my way back towards the rec room where the bottle of vodka awaited me. I grabbed it off the bar, moving quicker now, looking to get this over with as quickly as possible, and entered the small powder room that was tucked into the corner.
Opening my mouth and craning my head around I examine my teeth – my molars in particular, top and bottom looking to see which one looks different from all the others.
On the lower side of the left hand side of my mouth the third tooth in looks cleaner than any other tooth in my mouth proof positive that somebody had done something to it recently. If I was the sort of guy that spent a lot of time looking in his mouth I’d have probably noticed it earlier but I’m not, so I didn’t.
I took a mouth full of the fancy vodka and swirled it around in my mouth before swallowing it down. It was smoother than most, maybe those rich guys weren’t all show.
I took hold of the tooth with the pliers and tightened my grip on them as hard as I could. I knew I wouldn’t have the stomach or the balls to try this twice so I needed to be ready.
I ran a silent countdown in my head and at “one” I pulled hard on the tooth while twisting the pliers out and away from my face and the tooth snapped out while making the same sound as a pretzel being stepped on a hard wood floor.
I started to gag but held it together, the pain I was able to handle, it was the sound that nearly sent me over the edge.
Looking inside my mouth I saw that the root was still in place but I had torn up my gums a bit and was starting to bleed.
I took another swig of the vodka and rinsed my mouth again before spitting the metallic tasting mix of spirits and blood into the sink.
Holding the tooth up to the light I could see a small piece of metal, barely bigger in diameter than a piece of hair protruding through the bottom. This has to have been the tracking chip that I’d been walking around with. I took another swig of vodka, this time to drink, before putting the bottle town on top of the toilette tank.
I dropped the tooth down next to it, one more small part of me that I knew I’d never get back, and might never even see again.
Back in the rec room I checked on Carol one more time, breathing steadily now, the coke starting to wear off the concussion fully taking hold. I brushed her hair off her forehead and kissed her on the same spot where I had slammed it into the edge of the bar, partially one more way of saying sorry, partially a goodbye.
Once outside I walked down the long driveway and saw the gas station at the end of the block that Kevin had gone to for a drink our first night in town.
Two minutes later I was inside and the girl behind the counter gave me directions to downtown where Rosso and the Dentist were having their sit down. Turns out it was only a few blocks away. They were selling cheap yellow sweatshirts festooned with the “Iowa” logo for fifteen dollars and I bought one and threw it on over the shirt I was wearing. Once outside I ditched my jacket in a garbage can and pulled the hood up over my head. Though I was older than just about everybody else in this town at least I had a half a chance in hell of fitting in. Ten minutes later I was at the cafe and walked pasted it twice, once from each direction.
Rosso and the dentist were sitting with their back to the window facing the playground in two stuffed leather chairs adjacent to a small table that held their drinks. Kevin sat nearby digging at some sort of ice cream in a small plastic cup. If they had any men outside on the perimeter they didn’t notice me and I didn’t notice them.
I walked into the cafe and took a quick glance around and here, too, I saw none of Rosso’s goons. With me safely under house arrest at the dentist’s place I could see where maybe they became over confident.
I walked past them, to the other side of the room where there was a small counter selling pizza.
I ordered a slice and held it while looking for a table where I could keep my eye on them. There were none so I settled for a stool by the door where I could watch them in the reflection of the glass.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying to one another but I didn’t need to to understand what was going on.
The dentist was trading Carol to Johnny in exchange for Kevin.
What they had planned for either of them I didn’t want to know but I knew it wouldn’t end well.
And I wouldn’t let it, that’s why I was here. I had only one shot at this and it was game time. They both rose slowly from their chairs, still talking, amiably but strained, even that I could tell just by watching their body language. Johnny rose last, still too full of himself to rise first for anybody. Kevin stayed seated maybe he knew better than to interrupt them while they were still finalizing whatever sick deal he was just the marker in.
The dentist made for the door first Kevin second and Johnny taking up the lead, surveying the scene, this cafe apparently just the newest corner in his ever growing sphere of influence.
Just after the last of them exited I dropped my slice in the garbage can by the door and followed them out.
“Gentlemen, I think we need to talk.”
Johnny spun around first squaring his shoulders, caught genuinely by surprise.
The dentist’s face grew wide and slack at the same time, this being maybe the first time I had had the upper hand on him since I got here.
“But I, how did, but you, I thought,” he stuttered while fumbling for his phone which is what he no doubt was using to keep track of me on.
“I’m not really interested, doc, I’m just about done here, had it, kaput, we’re done with this shit, all of us. It ends here, tonight.”
I could have been wrong but I thought I saw just the beginning of a hint of a smile start to creep across Kevin’s lips.
Wherever he had stood, wherever he’d been put in all this, because of what he wanted or what he thought he wanted out of all of this I get the feeling that old Lenny might still represent the nearest thing he’d seen to the cavalry in some time.
“Lenny,” Rosso said, “I’m quite impressed. Though I can’t say I’m surprised, after all you’ve always been a scrapper.”
“And a dentist, apparently, when I need to be,” I said spitting a mouthful of bloody spit down onto the ground in front of them.
“So what’s your plan, Lenny, you going to gun us both down, here in public? And then what? How far do you think you’d get if you did? Not far, not anywhere, especially not here. You couldn’t even get the cop’s attention when you tried to flip us both earlier. You think that’s some sort of accident, a fluke, one more turn of bad luck?”
Rosso started chuckling at the very thought of the absurdity of this and, in spite of me, I started to laugh along with him.
“You are out of your league here, Leonard,” the dentist snarled, angry now, “that you were smart enough to move yourself out of my house proves you are but just an advanced form of a pest, hard to kill, but nothing more. Where are you going to go?”
“Really, Lenny, listen to the doc here. We may be on the outs, more or less, but I do have to respect him on this issue. Things are beyond you now. That you’re even still alive is just a matter of my sentimentality far more than any usefulness or utility you may have once had. What do you want?”
“I’m taking the kid, I’m taking Carol, we’re leaving town, tonight, the three of us. No questions.”
Kevin’s eyes widened. Whether it was at the prospect of leaving Rosso’s world, seeing his mother again or maybe even just at seeing me assert myself in front of men who had had no real standing to so much as ask them the time of day I don’t know.
“And how do you figure that’s going to work, exactly, Len?” Rosso asked. “You gonna fly away from here with the kid under your arm like Superman?”
“I’m not a kid,” Kevin said. And here I knew he was on my side, maybe for the first time since I had brought him into this whole mess.
“No,” I said, Edward here is gonna give me his keys. I’m taking his ride.”
“Or what, you idiot?” Rosso said. “You’re gonna tell the hall monitor we were out between classes without a hall pass?”
“You may be big in Chicago, you may even have pull here, cops can be bought and sold, maybe even judges, I don’t know how it is in Iowa but just because it’s a smaller town means squat to me except it was probably that much easier for you to buy your way to the top. But this is also a town full of writers and there’s some sort of contest going on here in town, I saw a flyer for it, write a novel in a month or some bullshit and the little talk we had just the other day, you remember that? Where you fessed up to all the shit that you’ve done, the both of you sick fucks? Yeah, I recorded it all, on this.”
I pulled the digital recorder from my pocket and waved it in front of them both like somebody shoving a cross in the face of a vampire in the movies I used to go see as a kid.
“And that recording is loaded into an email which Carol is gonna send to every person listed on that website, and every newspaper in Chicago and Iowa, if I’m not back, with Kevin, in twenty minutes time.”
The dentist looked to Rosso with a look on his face that was half shock and half “how could you let this happen.”
That it was all bullshit was fine, I sold it and they bought it.
“It’s a young man’s town, Johnny, a young man’s world, and you can’t expect to run things the way you used to or run your mouth the way you do with impunity anymore.”
“Len,” he said, “look, there’s no reason we can’t talk about –“
“No reason? No reason? Fuck, John, I can think of about a thousand. But right now I simply don’t care enough to list them off for you. I’m leaving and we’re done. This isn’t the old days anymore; you can’t silence one person or even two to keep a secret. You come after me or Carol or Kevin, that’s it. The email goes out. Half a dozen other folks I know have it as well, it’s my insurance policy. Anything, and I mean any fucking thing happens to any of us you’re through. Now give me your goddamn keys, doc.”
The dentist looked to Johnny for guidance and after a long beat where I could tell Rosso was looking for any possibly outcome that didn’t involve him getting outed and spending the rest of his life in a supermax prison somewhere where no amount of pull would get him the sort of creature comforts he would need to last so much as a week he nodded, visibly deflated at having been cornered.
The dentist fished a set of keys from his pocket and handed them too me.
“You’ll never make it far, you know,” he said while handing them over, “you’re already dead.”
“Shut the fuck up, Ed,” Rosso said.
“Where is it, your car?”
“Up the block and to your right, down the next corner, in front of an Indian restaurant. A black Prius.”
“Okay,” I said, although I already knew just where it was. Both his car and Rosso’s were parked in two handicapped spots at the corner, placards hanging from the rearviews, no doubt just another scam they had pulled off either together or apart.
“C’mon,” I said to Kevin, “let’s go get your mom.”
Kevin looked at Johnny for a moment and then made like he was going to move towards him and Johnny flinched, the first time I’d ever seem him do so.
Maybe Kevin had a chance after all. If you can stand up to the likes of Johnny Rosso there’s nothing that could ever really scare you besides the fear every man carries inside.
Kevin and I hustled up the street together, he looking over his shoulder every dozen paces or so, half expecting this spate of freedom to be as short-lived as the last few were.
I didn’t bother. I didn’t expect they would try to do anything, to call my bluff, but if they had there was nothing I could have done about it anyway.
Inside the car, Kevin lit a cigarette, a menthol, and even though I hated the smell I bummed one off of him. I needed a puff after everything that had just happened, thinking about what was about to.
I backed out and headed for the dentists’ place and as I waited for the light to change I saw Rosso and the dentist turning the corner, no doubt headed to Rosso’s car together to do whatever they thought they could do to stop me, to stop their worlds from crashing down on their heads at the click of a mouse.
I turned left onto the next street and even though I was almost two blocks away I could still see the fireball that filled the when Rosso stepped on his brakes and the wires that fed his brake light that I had pulled out of the fixture and stuck into his gas tank twisted together shorted out and caused a spark, incinerating them both instantly.
Kevin spun around when he saw the blast light up the sky and he looked at me for comment and I raised my eyebrow at him and smiled.
He smiled back and I knew that he understood.
Carol was still out cold when we got back and we loaded her into the car together.
In the trunk were two paintings I recognized as early Matisse’s and knew would fetch a pretty penny on the black market art scene.
I knew a few guys back home who had fingers in that and if I sent pics of what I had they could arrange a safe and anonymous cash sale sometime in the next month or so.
They were my severance; the box of Rolexes I snagged from his bedroom would be my ATM card.
Carol, and maybe Kevin too were my retirement gift.
Together, wherever we ended up, if we stuck together, we just might actually make it.
Carol came too just after I turned south, heading as far away as I could get before we had to stop for gas and, for once, she was quiet.
She lunged forward and hugged us both tightly causing me to swerve almost into the median and then she just started crying.
Rosso was gone. The dentist was gone. Iowa was almost just another speck in our rearview mirror as we barreled down the road, a bright orange moon hanging low on the horizon our guide, looking bigger and brighter than it possibly should, kind of like in an opera.