“Did you see the moon tonight?” he said.
“No,” I said, “why?”
“It doesn’t even look real, it looks like a painting of the moon, like at an opera.”
“Have you ever even been to an opera?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “why?”
“Then how would you know what it looked like?”
“I dunno,” he said, “it just looks like what I imagined it would be like.”
“Different,” he said, “unreal.” Better than real. Bigger.”
“You know what it looks like to me?”
“Night,” I said. “Let’s go.”
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He was my girlfriend’s kid, a dreamer, no good for this kind of work but she said he was ok. I had my doubts but I was desperate. My regular guy was down with pancreatitis and this needed to be done. What can you do?
We were in the car, headed west to Iowa City. Off to see some dentist from Chicago who left town fifty grand in the hole to somebody he shouldn’t have. We weren’t expected to collect. Just to remind him of his obligations. Why he thought he could skip out I don’t know. You can’t really hide anymore. Not in this day and age.
“What’d he do,” he said, Kevin, the kid.
“He bet more than he had and he lost.”
“What’d he bet on?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“It’s not my job to be curious.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Look,” I said, “what does it matter?”
Curiosity has no business in this business. And neither did I really, but that’s another story.
We had just stopped to pee and eat at a truck stop that claimed to be the “world’s largest.” It wasn’t impressive.
He had a burger and chips and I had eggs and we left. It was just after four and the dentist went jogging every morning at six. It’s good to exercise. That’s when we were going to get him. You can’t hide in this day and age. And you can’t run from your debts either. That’s how I got to where I am today.
The sign by the road said “IOWA CITY 42 miles.”
“We’re going to be early,” I said.
“So,” I said, “I’m gonna have to burn off some time. I’m not gonna just park in front of his house all Christ in the open waiting for this asshole to wake up.”
“Yeah,” he said, like he understood.
I had never been to Iowa before. Traffic was good, I guess, and it was a quick trip. When I got the job it seemed like halfway to California to me but I grew up near the lake. Cicero Avenue was the edge of the universe when I was a kid and then I thought there was a big forest and some mountains and then Los Angeles. What the hell was Iowa? Okay, maybe I was a dreamer too at that age, but I know I couldn’t have done what we were about to do and I worried if he would be able to either.
I’d been with Kevin’s mother for five years but he just showed up three years ago. His father had had custody, down on Florida, but then he died. Shot during a hold-up. A real winner. I don’t know what she could ever have seen in him. But, then again, some folks could probably say the same thing about me: disgraced former cop, 4 years in Pontiac, officially a house painter but mostly the money came from this.
I chased down debtors for a handful of Chicago’s bigger bookies.
I got in deep to them myself and went to prison before I could pay up.
The interest didn’t stop when I was away and when I graduated I had quite the student loan to pay off.
They knew I couldn’t pay and rather than having me planted in a cornfield somewhere they offered me a job. I took it.
I got 10 percent of every debt I collected and five years into it I was only a hundred grand in the red. Still a lot of money, but hell, it’s a lot less then the debt I started with.
Kevin took after his dad, unfortunately. Out of high-school a year now and still no job. Video games. Weed. Girls. Always had a plan but never had any follow through. No ambition. Just like his father, from what I’ve heard.
Carol was a bartender, I knew her before I went inside but we didn’t get together until after I got. She knew what I did and it didn’t bother her. Maybe she was tolerant, maybe she just didn’t know any better and it all seemed normal to her, but she was alright. A little rough around the edges but so was I. She worked days. I worked nights. We still found the time.
When Stan got laid up sick Carol suggested I take Kevin.
“Do you want him involved in all this?”
“Everybody needs to work,” she said.
He didn’t know what I did and when I told him he got excited. This worried me. For the young guys doing this there was the money, sure, and it could be good if you were willing to take the risks but for too many of them they liked the violence.
That was a part of it, obviously, we couldn’t report our deadbeats to a credit agency so sometimes we had to be a little more hands on but the violence was just part of the message, not the message itself. The message was pretty clear: pay what you owe. Nine times out of ten that was enough. Somebody who get’s their fingers broken tends to remember their debts. Anything beyond that was unnecessary and foolish. Either they killed somebody or they got whacked themselves.
Was there a thrill? Sure, at first. Like some girl you’re hot for when you’re seventeen. Then, all of a sudden you’re in your thirties and she’s been your wife for a dozen years and it’s just something you’re used to. It’s just a job. And so was this. Just a job. But some guys wanted to be known, to leave no doubt who they were. Why? It’ll just bring the heat that much faster. I just wanted out. Assuming the dentist paid up I was five grand closer. I would never have agreed to do this now, with Stan down, but the economy was tight all over. Even bookies were hurting I guess.
We got off the highway and cruised past his house. It was nice but not too nice. Like a dentist’s house. A dentist with a betting problem. We weren’t as early as I had feared.
Kevin lit a cigarette. It was a menthol and I hated the smell so I opened the windows.
The air was nice. It wasn’t yet fall but it was crisp. Around here anyway. In the city it seemed like it was summer and then, BAM! it was winter, just like that. All the buildings absorbed the Sun’s heat all day and it seeped it back out at night. You could never catch a break.
The coffee at the truck stop was weak and I was still sleepy but the fresh air woke me up.
“So what’re we gonna do?” He asked me.
We had reviewed it. It wasn’t complicated. It almost never was. Grab the dentist, throw him in the back of the car, and remind him of his responsibilities.
“What do you think he’ll do?” he asked me.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think he’ll pay?”
“I don’t think he’ll have it on him,” I said.
“No,” he said, “I mean what if he doesn’t pay?”
“He’ll pay, they always do.”
“What do you do if they don’t?”
See, this is what I’m talking about. Overeager. Seen too many movies. I should have backed out right then.
“It’s never come up,” I said.
It was, of course, a lie.
We drove twice around the house and then parked up the block where I could see it. It was only five and we had an hour to kill.
“I’m thirsty,” he said, “I shouldn’t have eaten those chips.”
“Well, that’s true,” I said. “Salt will do that.”
“I want to get something to drink.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“There was a gas station back there. On the corner where we turned.”
“Ok,” I said. “Don’t take too long.”
“You won’t drive me?”
“No I won’t drive you,” I said. “This car doesn’t have to be seen prowling around all over the place here. If you want something just walk over there.”
He got out and walked towards the corner. I lit a cigarette of my own and breathed in the cool morning air.
He had been gone for twenty-five minutes. This was not good. I checked my watch. It was five forty I checked the rearview and saw him standing on the corner under a streetlight across from the gas station talking to two girls. This was worse. Any other place, any other time I would have jumped out of the car right there. But in any other circumstance I wouldn’t have had to do it in the first place. I looked at my watch again and then the rearview. He was walking towards the car now trying to suppress a smile.
“Hey,” he said when he got in.
“Get something to drink?”
“Talk to anybody? I saw you, don’t lie to me.”
“They were some girls I knew from high school. They go to school here.”
“What’s you tell them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like say for instance, what in the fuck are you doing in Iowa City?”
“I told them I was here visiting.”
“At five thirty in the morning? Jesus Christ, what did I tell you?”
“They saw me.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was coming out of the gas station and they saw me, said hello. What was I supposed to do?”
He did have a point. I hadn’t considered that there would be anybody he knew in this town.
“And so what’d you tell them, why you were here?”
“That I was in visiting a friend, and had walked over to buy some smokes.”
“Were they drunk?”
“Yeah, they asked me to come back to their dorm with them.”
“Well, you better hope they don’t remember talking to you. This is exactly the sort of thing that ruins jobs. Somebody seen where they shouldn’t be, cops ask around, somebody remembers something, pieces fall into place. It’s sloppy.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was about to say something else when a jogger ran past the car.
“Hey,” he said, pointing. “Isn’t that the guy?”
It was. And it wasn’t even six.
The plan was for him to drive and I would do the grab. Pull up, jump out, grab the dentist, simple. Now it would be complicated.
He ran past us on the sidewalk opposite where we were parked.
“Quick,” I said, “take the wheel.”
I hopped out and got into the back seat and Kevin slid over into the driver’s seat. He pulled a U turn and we were now on the same side of the street as the dentist. The streets were empty at this hour, the sky still mostly dark so we stood out pretty easily. I scanned the road ahead of us and looked over my shoulder to look out the back window and didn’t see any other foot traffic: no dog walkers, early joggers, folks leaving for work. It was a nice enough neighborhood that it looked like people didn’t have to get up too early in the morning to make their money.
“See that driveway up there,” I said, pointing out a house five houses ahead, “with the red minivan parked in it? Pull up into there and I’ll get out and get him there.”
“And put this on,” I said, as I handed him a black ski mask.
We pulled on our masks as he moved the car up the street.