A Novelette

1.

Shane Zino left the slammer even with the man but owing a crime boss his ass. And the first stop was a social club to pay his respects or else. After all, Leo Toretta was the reason Shane walked out of this jungle alive.

Shane launched from the prison grounds in a dark sedan driven by a corrections officer. The destination was a train station, and once Shane boarded, he’d be headed for Hudson City and his sit-down with the Mafia chieftain.

When Shane arrived in Hudson City, he spotted Leo’s goons anchored at the terminal exit. A pair of meatbags, the size of pro wrestlers waiting for him. Beyond the glass doors, a tricked-out staff car and his ride to the social club.

He ducked into a restroom to collect his wits and splash the mug with iced water. He was screwed, and the whole thing wigged him out.

This time out of the pen he vowed to be finished with the underworld. Any more trouble from this point, he was flirting with twenty-five to life. If convicted, it was a mandatory bit. Thanks, but no thanks.

Freedom cast its black magic, pushing him to the outer banks. Hours from lockup and straight time had him by the stones.

And there was no way out of the terminal beside the guarded doors. The station was hemmed in by a river, rail yards, and a bottling plant. He looked up at the ventilation windows. A tight squeeze with no idea where he’d land.

He decided to make his escape and let Leo wait his turn. Next week, never. He had a mother’s gravesite to visit and a breathing father to see. Plus, he needed to nail down a crib, find a job, and get cracking on this gig called life.

Gripping a baseball cap and sunglasses from his gym bag, while raising the collar of his jacket, he left the men’s room, joining the next wave of commuters bustling for the street.

He tucked his chin and passed the brutes on the way out. He kept his block tilted, spotting the gold-plated chrome idling against the curb. Shane knew the soldiers manning the cockpit of the Cadillac and didn’t need to glance over.

Continuing his jinxed journey, he cut down the boulevard before turning a corner towards the subway. Once he paid his fare, a car pulled up, whisking him further away from downtown Hudson City, the gangsters, and his debts.

2.

Speaking of the bill and Shane’s deal with the devil, Leo had stepped in and dealt the protection Shane needed. The cover to survive the dungeon, but the shelter Shane deserved. Shane kept his mouth shut and faced extra prison time for not giving up the chief.

Meanwhile, made guys were playing weasel and rolling over. Belly up on that thing of theirs for reduced time and softer facilities. Transfers to trailer park minimums with Wi-Fi, pool tables, and cable TV. Others skipped the tank altogether, headfirst and over the falls for the rat program.

Then came the feds, cornering Shane for dirt on Leo and the Torettas. Shane pleaded the fifth, acting all stupid. A crime boss from Hudson City? Never heard of that guy. In Shane’s mind, he was square with the mob. Screw Leo and the Torettas. They owe me, Shane thought.

3.

Shane already qualified for Section 8 housing, a relief program that kicked in for half of the monthly rent. He had enough cake to lay down the deposit, thanks to the voucher in the prison’s care packet.

Shane also carried a prepaid debit card, loaded up with one large to help out with the duds, haircuts, and cell phone. Food stamps for the Ronzoni and spaghetti sauce.

The last time he left prison, Shane squandered the kitty. On the way home from the can, he burned the boost on broads, booze, and dope. Woke up two weeks later in a drug den. Hazed to hell and busted back on a parole violation.

Shane had an appointment with a lady to show him the apartment. Her first job out of grad school, with a master's degree and company car. They met at the building’s entrance to view a one-bedroom in a rundown walkup.

After a quick tour, Shane signed the paperwork and handed over the pair of vouchers to get him the keys and make it official. His own flat and privacy. The woman wished Shane well and left for the next lost boy.

There were always the small shocks and tremors those first weeks out of stir. The price of cigarettes, gas, and runts from the neighborhood all grown-up acting know-it-all. Fashion twisters, like the night he showed up for a happy hour in black jeans and a mullet.

Shane never experienced the Twilight Zone shit. Cooped up for eons, kicked from the time machine. Super freaks back in the wild, unable to hack it. Next thing you know, they’re in a wolf mask on the Eyewitness News, looting a bodega at gunpoint.

At thirty-five, he decided things should and would be different. Heck, guys his age were busy setting up college funds and coaching Little League.

4.

Shane stepped out of the daylight and into the darkness of Hudson Blues. The bar was in the middle of an expansion, making Joe rethink a menu change as well. Joe was Joe Zino, Shane’s father.

“I’m glad you’re out and home, but I’m concerned. You know where I’m going with this,” Joe said.

“I told you, Dad, I’m done. Once I got out, that’s it — I’m never going back,” Shane told the old man.

“I want to believe you, but you know the bar business. People come in here and talk. I’ve been hearing things.”

Joe was an old-school hard-ass. I’m your father first, your friend second. Want to leapfrog the order, earn it.

“Leo Toretta’s name popped up with yours. You know who I’m talkin’ about. The same Leo who runs the Hudson City mob,” Joe said.

Joe’s full head of white hair was razored to a crew cut. The tight black shirt reminded the young studs to cool things down. A diamond stud earring, which is one more than his son had.

“I don’t have any business with them,” Shane said.

“That’s not what I heard. The mob wants to bring you in and straighten something out. Are you into these guys?”

“I’m clean and don’t owe them anything. Money, merch, nothing.”

“Then why were they in here lookin’ for you?” Joe asked. He didn’t demand an answer, more like snapping a stiff jab, getting sonny’s attention.

“The Torettas were here?” Shane asked.

“They wanted to know when you’d be out and stopping in,” Joe said.

Joe knew the deal. When you’re into guys like this, they call your number and there’s no way to beat it. Hey Shane, you have to take a ride. Drop this off, pick that up, take it here, take it there.

“I have a better suggestion. Put some money aside and go into business for yourself. You might not end up rich, but you’ll be your own man,” Joe said.

“It’s gonna take a while to raise the bread.”

They shifted to the finances part. What finances? Outside the relief cards and stipend for punching license plates, Shane had squat. Most of his money went to the lawyer to reduce the charges and sentence. He once co-owned a house but lost his end through default. Low and behold, the house was still there, with Shane’s ex-wife and new husband.

Joe planned to give his son a boost once he returned. A nest egg to get going. Then his mama got sick, depleting Joe’s account. Forced to cut back on the renovations, only getting back to it.

Shane assured the old man he was done enough. This was Shane’s shit storm, and his to navigate.

“You should be workin’ around the clock. You’re young enough to hack it and being busy will keep you off the streets,” Joe said.

A few barflies called out for another round. Joe went back to tending the bar and Shane left for his next stop.

5.

After watching an older brother zoom through the wash, Solomon Rayfield decided society had enough cops. What the system and the hood needed was somebody to give a duck’s ass about guys returning from a stretch.

Solomon was straight up, didn’t play favorites, or buy into the victim scam. He treated every case the same. He prided himself in the position and the quest to paddle guys around who were willing to pay full price.

What he didn’t stand for was the goof from the inside. Guys rolling into purgatory with their stupid tattoos and game plan for spreading it real on the street.

Solomon looked at the file before him, already doing the prep work once Shane Zino flew into his electronic inbox.

Shane entered Solomon Rayfield’s parole office through a metal detector. Cubicles fanned the office space with both men and women officers. Shane noticed the new kids before them. Shane found Solomon’s area and got into things.

“Says here you served two and a half on a six-year sentence. Good behavior’s always a good sign. Any drugs or alcohol since you’ve been out?” Solomon asked Shane. Shane shook his head, telling the officer no.

“Because of your history, you are required to participate in a twelve-step program. It’s mandatory,” Solomon told Shane.

“If that’s what they want, I’ll do it. I don’t want any more trouble,” Shane answered.

Solomon touched on the standard stuff, which meant support systems and local influences, good, and not-so. Shane opened up about his mother's passing while he spotted his time. His father was local, a sister lived in Florida, his brother in California.

Shane mentioned his divorce. No kids, yet two years in they were separated. The marriage splintered from the get, shot to shit by the time Shane reached the walls. Solomon inquired about any contact with his ex-wife since he had been out, but there wasn’t a need to have any. She remarried while Shane was away.

They moved the lingo toward the here, now, and the forked road he was up against. Shane started feeling better about the session. Solomon sensed it too, easing up. The kid in his cubicle had a shot.

Solomon assured Shane the whole trip was about the process. One step at a time, check your rearview and sides. Be careful where you dive headfirst. Any wrong turns, don’t waste a minute. Slug the brakes, punch reverse, and get the heck out. That was the top advice Solomon handed every file. What they did with it separated the survivors from the guys who found their way back to the jug.

Shane’s biggest fear was not finding a decent job. With that bloody rap sheet taped to his ass, he hoped to do better than flipping burgers and rounding up shopping carts. He hadn’t shown up expecting breaks and favors. Just a chance.

Solomon claimed there was plenty of work available and it was all up to Shane. Find a job that leads to a career or something like it. There’s no luck, Solomon preached. Having a plan and the discipline to stay the course is a big help and comes in handy.

Shane was down. Before a friendly fist bump, Solomon needed a drop. He passed Shane a urine cup, pointing out a restroom down the hall.

6.

Galaxy Taxi kept a barn uptown that was a bus ride from Shane’s new flat. Shane read a driver wanted slug line and thought a cab company sounded better than parking cars or warehouse work. He already called to set up an interview.

Shane hit the taxi depot, reaching the dispatch hut. A few drivers, who looked like birds from the prison yard, milled around, smoking cigarettes, waiting on cars and their shifts to start.

Shane wondered if he should mention his last job, firing out license tags. An odds-on favorite to can the deal. He wanted this job, needed it worse.

There was this rumor out there that ex-cons can’t drive taxis. As if there were some law on the books about it. Maybe in other states, but not Jersey. Unless your ankle fires off shark signals, you’re free to zip the bridges and tunnels.

Cab companies were always fishing for bodies with a pulse. The ones who weren’t would get around to it. Drivers flunked out daily, hitting the track, skipping town. The lines start flaming up, and they were back to chumming the want ads to cover their ass.

Shane entered the dispatch office deciding to go full monty. Screw it. He’d turn the screening into a dry run. Time to get used to talking with people outside the cell blocks. If they don’t ask about employment gaps, don’t bring up the license plate presser. These guys weren’t the only hot dogs around. If the job demanded more soap and water, he’d scrub down the next place.

The owners were young guys who seemed pretty cool. More concerned about Shane’s history at the wheel, faxing motor vehicles for an abstract. Any radical off-road remained his business. Shane didn’t lay out everything, doubting the agency would spit out his getaway records.

The fuckwad Shane was replacing remained on the lam. Holed up in a motor lodge with a topless dancer, dope, and shift money. The kind of cat Shane would love to know back when. A tow truck entered the grounds hauling the ditched cab while Shane played his best good ole boy.

He had never driven a taxi before but knew the area. A local guy without getting too local about people, events, and places like his father’s bar. The owners were down with attitude, ambition, and availability. Turning their heads when they had to. Nothing beats running a business with guys who were alive and wanted to work.

A fifty-fifty split, plus tips, minus the gas. Shane aced the interview, crash-coursed a training session, and found himself penciled into the schedule. Later that day, he was behind the wheel, tapping a taxi meter, and fetching rides from the dispatch hut.

7.

The Torettas were waiting on the goods when their house private eye, Reggie Delgado breezed in. Sal and Dino were busy cranking a job for Leo that involved a rogue ex-con and no-show, Shane Zino.

Sal and Dino were top soldiers and right-hand guys to the crime boss. In charge of the hardhat and lunch bag detail for the family. The same guys manning Shane’s welcome wagon that day at the train station.

On a previous phone call, Sal gave Reggie the roundabout on Shane. Just released from prison, should be around. Find him and make it snappy — we don’t want this thing turning into a goose.

Whenever the Torettas needed to snuff a rat or find a smartie hiding out, they dispatched Reggie. The private eye nailed down the marks with video, pictures, and printouts. He often dealt with Sal and Dino, who passed Reggie’s dossiers to the bruisers and hitmen.

Before this dirty work, the police suspended Reggie for being as straight as a dog’s hind leg. Once Reggie’s lawyers negotiated a buyout and reworked pension, he quit the force and went straight to Leo. The Torettas became his main account.

Ex-cons were easy money. They were required to register and be logged into the data systems. Reggie had all the underground software and routers to gain access and tap such information. If not, he had the contacts to snatch it.

“Your boy’s uptown. Has an apartment in the ghetto section and is driving a cab for Galaxy Taxi,” Reggie said. The investigator located Shane and tailed him around to verify the bullet points.

“I’ll tell the old man,” Sal said.

“This thing has been driving Leo up a fuckin’ wall,” Dino said. Which meant the captain was riding these two through the rafters. At this stage, the soldiers wanted Shane worse than the crime boss did.

8.

Fay Winston was a reforming speed demon burning the hippie chick look, with a paisley headscarf, matching blouse, and denim skirt. She tried not to smile too much, due to the hack job crank had done to her mouth.

Shane cared less. It was the crooked smile that always sent him buzzing. He spotted Fay right away. A looker, breaking all the speed limits. Fay’s eyes were a pale green, like seafoam. Her skin seemed on the rebound, but most of the women at the step programs never dolled up, overboard anyway.

They managed some eye contact during the session, and Shane felt a cool vibe. Something he hadn’t sensed in awhile. Be nice to have something and someone to go along with it.

He wondered if Fay had some warmth and fuzzy of her own. After the meeting, Fay hung around just long enough for Shane to exit and head out for his shift at the taxi company.

It always ended like the final bell at school. People jumping, skipping, and running around. A little comical, as if they graduated, and were heading out to an after-hours hot tub party.

Fay was put together. The material was woven to drape and she made it hug. The look always turned Shane on, and he stepped up to her, smiling. Fay welcomed the advance, remembering not to smile back. A little, but not as much as she would have before the meth assault.

They headed for the same bus stop. Different numbers, times, routes shooting off, taking each further away. They had around eight to ten to hit the patch and board.

Fay got right into it. Shane wasn’t a user. He was sober and hadn’t been lit up in years.

“What are you doing here?” Fay asked.

“Same as everybody else. You mean my weapon of choice?” Shane replied.

“Only one weapon? You’re lucky,” Fay said

“I was in prison. I had no choice but to get clean,” Shane told her.

“Cold turkey’s the best and the worst,” Fay said. That it is, Shane agreed.

“What about you?” Shane asked.

“You name it I’ve done it. I have a college degree and had a career in financial planning. Flushed it all down the drain just to stay high,” Fay claimed.

“Can’t you go back?” Shane asked.

“Not with my record. I’m on probation for possession and stuck waiting tables at the Gotham Diner. I lost everything. My job, the condo, the car, and custody of my son.”

“Sober?” Shane asked.

“Yeah, so far,” she answered. Fay knew it was a process. The ability to get through the one day at a time mantra. The meetings weren’t a vaccination or a two-hour time out.

“How old is your son?” asked Shane.

“Four,” Fay answered, as a natural smile creased her lips thinking of her boy.

“Are you able to see him?”

“Twice a week. One hour sessions supervised by county care. You want to see a picture?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Fay started pulling out photos, passing them to Shane. At that point, they reached the stop. In moments, they heard the hissing and rattles of an incoming bus.

“Here comes my bus,” Fay said.

Shane handed the pictures back. Fay took the photos and stepped toward the bus. She stopped to share more eye contact with Shane.

“You seem like a nice guy. Maybe we could go out for coffee sometime?” Fay said.

“I’d like that,” he replied.

9.

Shane stood alone at the stop, waiting on his whale. Instead of a bus, a jacked-up Caddy with gold-plated chrome, spoked wheels, and tinted windows came. The Toretta staff car and mean machine, in the hands of Leo’s security detail.

Dino drove the rig as Sal rode shotgun. The two bruisers from the train station flanked the rear corners. The space between them was reserved for that bitch Shane. If not, the trunk would work out fine.

The company car hit the bus stop and halted. Shane stood frozen as he watched Sal and Dino staring him down through the windshield. The rear doors opened and out spilled a pair of goons.

No use in running. They’d light him up on spot and Shane didn’t pack a blowtorch to return the napalm.

Shane knew Sal and Dino from the good old days. Pegging them the tag team at the old man’s Hudson Blues, putting out the high alert. Shane stepped towards the vehicle.

10.

On the outside, The Colosseum Cafe draped an Italian flag on one side of the front entrance and an American on the other. Inside, portraits of heroic countrymen smeared the walls. Frank Sinatra in a fedora, Joe DiMaggio taking his famous swing. A bruised and swollen Rocky Marciano, smiling with his heavyweight belt.

Leo Toretta manned a rear table with an open dress shirt, slacks, gator slip ons. It was the white hair Shane noticed from across the club. A natural frost up, smoking a cigar. The diamond in his pinky ring gleamed, like the beam from a distant search team.

Sal and Dino sat Shane down, each taking a seat. The gorillas from the backseat weren’t invited to this one.

“You don’t even come by to pay your respects?” Leo said, sounding pissed off about it.

“I apologize, Leo,” Shane answered.

“I sent these two to your father’s bar, to give you a heads up. Then I gotta hire some private eye guy to hunt you down and find out where you are,” Leo said.

“I just got out,” Shane told Leo.

“That’s no excuse. You were supposed to stop by on your way outta that shit house. Five minutes. No sweat off your ass. ‘Hey Leo, I’m home, and I wanted to drop by and thank you for all you did for me.’”

“Must have slipped my mind.”

“Slipped his mind,” Leo said, eyeballing the table. Shane didn’t respond.

“I’m the one who pulled those strings,” Leo continued. “I got you out of that animal house called general population and into that secluded wing. That country club cell block with all the other Italian kids and made guys. And this is the thanks I get?”

“And don’t forget about the funeral,” Sal added.

“That’s right. When your mother passed away, God rest her soul, who do you think got you that special furlough to attend the wake and burial service? Most guys in the joint have to show up in jumpsuits and handcuffs, surrounded by deputies — if they’re lucky enough to go. I made sure the bulls stayed in the parking lot and you had a suit, looking like a civilian instead of a convict,” Leo said.

“You’re right, Leo. I don’t know what to say.”

“I had high hopes for you, Shane. I always waited for you to come in here and tell me you wanted to do somethin’ with yourself.”

“If there’s anything I could do to make it up, I want to know.”

“We’ll get to that. What happened Shane? A good, stand-up kid from the neighborhood. And you threw it all away. My door was always open, and not one time did you ever walkthrough here.”

“I had other things going on.”

“I understand that. I respect it too. You wanted to be your own man, run your own crew. When you got into trouble, you could have come to me. I might have been able to take care of it.”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

“We’re not here to talk about the past. There’s something else I wanna discuss. It’s more important. You ever hear of a guy named Frankie Manzo?”

“I know Frankie. We grew up together. Frankie Dime.”

“That’s right. Frankie Dime. Well, little Frankie’s become an embarrassment. He thinks he could run wild in my territory, just because he’s got the backing of some hot shots with guns and money.”

“What do you need? Anything Leo, you know that,” Shane said. Shane figured he could go up there and talk to the bird, rope him in. Leo paused to snarf his espresso.

“Sal,” Leo called out.

“The situation with Frankie’s outta hand and needs to be straightened out. It’s a job we’re workin’ on,” Fat Sal said.

“You were involved in that hairy shoot-out. The one with the niggers at that stash house, right?” Dino asked.

“Something like that,” Shane replied.

“What difference does it make? You know how to fire a gun. That’s what we’re talkin’ about, here,” Leo said. Shane didn’t answer, as the muscles in his stomach formed a fist. Not the visit Shane had in mind.

“We have to know if you’re up for the job,” Sal said.

“What job?” asked Shane.

“We want Frankie whacked, and you’re the hammer,” claimed Dino.

“I don’t believe this,” Shane said.

“Pour him a drink,” said Leo. A rock glass appeared as Dino snatched a bottle, dipping it toward the cup. Leo slid the tumbler over to Shane.

“Come on, Shane — it’ll loosen you up,” claimed Leo. Shane sipped the whiskey.

“Thatta boy. You feel better now, right?” Leo asked.

“I know I’m into you. Big time. Don’t you think this is a little steep?” Shane asked.

“What do you think? I’m fuckin’ around? I got nothing better to do than chase a guy down who shoulda been here in the first place?” Leo replied.

“Isn’t there something else I could do? Another way to pay you back?” Shane pleaded.

“Not at the moment. This Frankie Dime kid is causin’ too much trouble. It’s startin’ to look like the family can’t control a low-life drug dealer,” Leo said. Or an ex-con thought Shane.

“Pick a number and I’ll pay it off. Whatever. Your call,” Shane pleaded.

“Why do you behave so disrespectfully? If you came to me when you were supposed to, I would have waved the debt and had somebody else do this thing,” Leo told Shane.

“I’m on parole,” Shane said.

“You know me, who I am? There’s nothing left to negotiate,” claimed Leo.

“I need another drink,” Shane said, as Dino obliged.

“Wise up, Shane,” Dino said while tilting the bottle of courage.

“You’re gonna go up there and take him out,” Sal told Shane.

“This is crazy. I can’t walk in someplace and kill somebody,” claimed Shane.

“You think we’re playin’ games? After all this, you wanna pick up and take off? Go ahead, there’s the door, Shane,” Leo said, as he lifted his arm to point out the exit, daring Shane to bolt.

“I’m not leaving. There’s gotta be another way to settle this.”

“Let me ask you about prison for a minute. I don’t have to tell you what goes on in there. It’s a nightmare, right?”

“Yeah, totally.”

“If you had to do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you choose general, thinking you’d be better off?”

“No, definitely not.”

“That’s right. Every goddamn gang-banger in that crazy house wanted a piece of your ass. And I’m the reason they didn’t get it. Now let me explain something so we understand each other. You pass on this job, go ahead. And one day, sooner than later, somebody’s gonna walk into your father’s bar and drill a bullet in your old man’s fuckin’ head. Then we’re even. Is that what you want?”

Then kill me now, and get it over with, Shane wanted to say, hating himself for finding this snake pit. Shane paused for another breath and a sip of bourbon. Frankie Dime had to leave the building and Shane was all in. That’s what he told the chieftain as the cables in his belly continued to twist and tighten.

“Sal and Dino will go over all the details. Get him outta here,” Leo said, turning away.

11.

Back in the day, a punk named Frankie Manzo hustled dope around Shane’s high school. The dude with the connections and magic pockets made Frankie the man.

Wheeling dime bags around town in his chauffeur-driven Trans Am. Frankie pulled driver Jim off the pumps at a local gas station. A flunky older kid a few years ahead, dropped out, living that dream. Frankie offered that mungo a future with a Firebird and Jim zapped to.

The sophomore set up shop in grandma’s basement, turning dead grampa’s tool room into a full-blown head shop. Frankie started belting it out Mayberry big, making the basement hot. He overstayed granny’s welcome, moved the op to an upgraded Iroc Z, and carried a pager.

Once Frankie came of age, he fired Jim and drove himself. Frankie then hired an outlaw to pack and ride shotgun. He started to meet customers in dark alleys, vacant lots, and park benches.

Narcs would dial the digits as well, setting off the pager. As the legend grew, so did the battles with the system. Arrests, evaded charges, overturned convictions. Crafty lawyers charge coin and the drug loot came in handy. When the lawyers whiffed, Dime buzzed the plank for state prison.

Ejected from the pen with a new business plan, Frankie decided to expand and open things up. With his share of granny’s will, he picked out a spread, getting himself and his dope off the streets.

Frankie flipped the pad into a shop and spa. Tricked-out parlors with bean bag cushions, couches, and extra rooms to splashdown. Frankie’s travel center became a regular tourist stop.

The speed demons were invading the place, blooming into a tribe. That high school punk had become the meth king of Hudson City, holed up in his mountaintop temple. Frankie Dime: the second-coming of Brando in Cambodia.

12.

In a side room at the Colosseum, the mob’s latest recruit sat with Sal and Dino. Sal pulled out a small briefcase, placing the toolkit for murder on the table.

A 9 mm pistol with a packed clip sat in the well. An envelope with pictures and printouts of the target’s nest. Sal ordered Shane not to check in until Frankie hit the bricks for good.

“His spread is off of Hudson Boulevard,” Sal said.

“The Heights section?” Shane asked.

“You know it?” Fat Sal replied.

“That’s where I was arrested,” Shane told them.

“Then you shouldn’t have a problem with the area,” Sal assured Shane.

“One of the conditions of my parole is to stay out of that part of Hudson City,” Shane claimed.

“Be careful,” said a smart-ass Dino.

“I think it’s about time you get into job mode,” Sal said. Which meant rehearsal, yoga, and all the funky stuff one needs to master before embarking on a mob hit.

13.

Straight time was supposed to be coffee dates with women named Fay. Holding her hand in the park, meeting friends and family, weekend road trips.

Instead, he was head-first into that bloody machine. With game time rushing in, Shane hit a bodega on the way back to his pad. He left with a bottle of Southern Comfort smothered by a paper bag. Outside the shots with Leo, Shane hadn’t soaked in three years. Once he kicked the can, Shane stuck with the program. Today was different. He didn’t have the urge to drink as much as he wanted something reliable to calm his blood.

Shane showered, dressed, and started pacing. Just like he did back in stir, lapping a darn cell. Side to side, back wall to grill, and back. Shaking up the routes, not to go crazy.

Shane rescued the muscle milk from the bag and a shot glass he bought with it. He resumed the pacing, as if the whiskey was a broad, mulling how to settle the mess.

He got up and snatched the shot glass. In one motion, Shane twisted in a pitcher’s wind up, hurling a fastball across the flat. The shot glass smashed the wall, exploding into a cloud of chips. Shane opened the whiskey, pouring it down the bathroom sink.

Watching the Southern Comfort whirl in the drain when the ah-ha moment struck Shane. Frankie was moving up the chain, becoming a threat. Not a threat to start his own family and become mister big cat. A threat to squeal.

That’s how the cops operated the trade. The police started by flipping out the dealers. That info leads to the mules and stash houses, smoking out the bigger hitters like Dime. Once they sparked Frankie up with twenty-five to life, everybody figured he’d start chatting. That noise would point to Leo and the council members, pushing them all in the drink.

Shane was here to waste Frankie before the narcs came in and dragged him off to headquarters and turning him over to the feds. Leo needed somebody who knew Frankie well enough to get up in his face, point-blank style.

Sal texted Shane with pictures of the work car and the name of the street where they had Reggie park it. Open, with keys on the visor. The instructions were to leave it in the same area with all the mob’s stuff — meaning the gun. Once he ditched it and vanished off-site, Reggie would retrieve the vehicle and the freight.

Shane grabbed the pistol and left his pad searching for an Oldsmobile Alero. A broken-down heap by a caput car maker. An omen and silver lining he needed, thought Shane. After tonight, both Shane Zino and the Oldsmobile could part ways at the rainbow’s edge. First, he’d have to find it and arrive in one piece.

14.

Shane tilted the Alero up the hill, spilling into the Heights section of Hudson City. Hadn’t changed that much since the last time he saw it. Dark, seedy, and dangerous. The kind of place where bad things go down at any moment. Pick out a street corner, sit, and wait.

A gutter where junkies and runaways converge. Plenty of cheap rooms and low-budget hotels. An easy place to find digs, if you wanted to live here, or just spend a night or two. The only snag was most people come here to die. They’d given up hope of beating the demons, crash-landing in hell. Now it was a zombie film. An abyss waiting for the walking dead to drop.

Shane spotted the house, pulling a drive-by. One of those run-down places. Some of the windows were blacked out by Dutch Boy paint. Others were whited out, giving off an opaque glow with the lights splashing behind them.

He found a cross street and rolled into a parking spot. The house was an old number with a bluestone foundation, wooden steps, and a warped porch. Dark cellars that looked gothic and haunted from the street and sidewalk. Most were where the coroner found and clocked most of the bodies.

Once a house, now a hellfire club. Pimps and hookers worked on the first floor. The doors were removed from the frames, cutting to the romper rooms, set up like a peep show. Stained mattresses with all the skid marks. Love sessions, blood from needles, mice, and bed bugs.

Shane hit a slanted hallway with crooked floorboards, like a haunted house. A pair of chicks in high heels, tattoos, and bee-stung lips surrounded Shane. The usual cliche of “Hey baby, looking for a good time?” His pick of the lineup if he were in the market. Shane waved them off, heading for the stairs.

Frankie Dime remained holed up in the attic like Rapunzel. The second floor was more of the same as the one below, only with less traffic and more business. The rooms are occupied by sex acts and dopers popping their dirty pins. Others slept on the same type of mattresses, burning off the splash.

Shane noticed a guy sitting on the floor, spaced out. The angle he picked provided coast to coast of perps walking in and out and Shane guessed him to be a narc.

Ahead was the entrance to Frankie’s belfry. Easy riding to this point, until Shane turned the corner. The rest of the house may have gone to pot, but not the penthouse section.

Two big dudes, the size of linebackers kept the door. The larger one wore ear muffs, hip-hopping to rap music Shane couldn’t make out. His partner seemed less Run DMC and more gangsta. Stiff and at attention with a gunmetal wand at his side, parked against the wall like a baseball bat.

Shane hooked another turn, leaning toward a bathroom. A swift move, as if Shane had been here before, drumming in to take a piss. He did, then returned for the steps and away from the house. The time was no way right. Not for murder.

Shane was pissed. Not at the setup. With the gun. What the hell were these guys thinking? Passing him a pocket-sized bazooka. Once he set this thing off, he’d have to take on the town. Shooting himself off the board, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.

That was only half of it. The possible narc and that bodyguard’s damn waffle. He’d never smuggle the piece up the steps. Forget the fire escape. It’s rusted out and didn’t reach Frankie’s nest. Ole Dimebag was smart. He knew something was up.

Shane had to step off and figure things out. First, he had to doctor this gun. He knew the area and where to go.

15.

Shane would drive there. No sense in risking a jump. He’d have to waste the wrong guy, postpone the job, and really piss off the pope.

Shane probed a maze of small commercial buildings. A plaza hemmed in by meadows and railroad tracks. He stopped the car and entered a metal shop. A guy named Johnny hunched in dark scrubs working at a lathe.

“I need a muffler,” Shane told Johnny.

“Let me see it,” Shane pulled out the pistol, handing it over. The geezer inspected the weapon with a power glass and a measuring tool, flicking the instrument like a switchblade. Johnny gauged the opening, then the barrel.

“Could you do it?” Shane asked.

“Yeah, I could do it. But I’m not too sure about it,” Johnny said.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know you, mister. Never seen you before. First time in here?”

“Trust me, after tonight you’ll never hear from me again.”

“I’d like to believe that. But my experience tells me different.”

“You know the deal. I’m on a job and can’t leave empty-handed. You gotta help me out, man.”

“I don’t like asking questions. It’s none of my business. But I have to be sure. The last thing I need is some half-assed cowboy shootin’ things up, and the cops comin’ in here asking questions. And they will want a description. I don’t like givin’ people up, but I’m too old to go anywhere.”

“You don’t have to worry about that. Besides, I found you. What does that say? Yeah, I’ve never been in here, but I knew where to go.”

“You don’t live around here, do you?”

“No. And once I’m done, I have no plans on coming back.”

“Who sent you?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me. Whoever you’re here to take out — that’s none of my business. But I need to know who you’re working for. I want to know who sent you.”

“I’d rather not drop any names.”

“Listen, son. You have a job to do and need a certain tool to do it. Now, for the last time, who sent you?”

“The Torettas,” Shane said. Johnny paused, sat back, and flipped his visor to study Shane.

“You’re a friend of Leo’s?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah.”

“Leave the gun.”

“Thanks.”

“Come back in two hours. I’ll see what I could do.”

Shane returned to the Olds and waited for Johnny to weave his magic. He tried killing off the time, starting with the radio. A west coast ball game, a southern-fried Jesus freak, a college station cranking out power ballads.

Shane guessed Johnny needed overtime to make a few calls. Checking on the pirate’s story who dropped in jonesing for a muzzle. Wouldn’t give a rat’s ass over the level of friendship. Needed to know the kid was connected with the family and not name-dropping.

Shane stepped from the car to pace around and smoke a cigarette. Push the blood through the system. The whole thing made no sense. A crime boss dogging over a small-potatoes drug dealer. Lousy principal. As if Frankie Dime broke a law on the old country books, giving Leo and his homeys a hard-on.

Frankie Dime might be more trouble than he was worth, but how much? Very little, Shane figured. Shane tried not to think about it. The last thing he needed was to choke on a planned hit, even if his own life had lost focus.

That’s when Shane thought of Fay Winston. The hope and promise that Fay or someone like her could bring and wondered if she had. A woman to come home too. To love and live for. Shane vowed right then, he’d never set foot again in any part of Hudson City.

Johnny’s two laps were in and Shane grabbed the jocked-up piece. The silencer did in fact resemble a muffler, and Shane figured the old man harbored a Lee Marvin man-crush. It didn’t matter how it looked, as long as it stayed quiet. Shane settled with the metal worker, shoving off to fix Frankie Dime.

16.

As Shane entered the spook house, the scene had cut itself loose. Most of the sex fiends were gone, giving up the fort for the few dopers who remained. Shane pondered if the narc, or someone like him, was still around. As Shane searched the premises, he bumped into a pair of idle lovelies on the first floor.

This time around, Shane was game. Well, almost. He had to jack up the lust for two of his buddies. The big guys upstairs and outside Frankie Dime’s door. Shane padded the price for marathon sessions, making sure the gals went through the night. They bagged the money and got the point.

Shane hung back as the stilettos marched the stairwell. Sweet hot breath, looking to get down, all on the house. What the fuck? They’ve been here all night and the party’s pretty much over. Drug dens weren’t like bars. People didn’t pound hours on end, catching up to tolerance. The dope scene was good time Charlie in reverse. The more one did the less it took to reach outer space.

Once the box springs hit the floorboards, Shane scrambled for the attic door. He kept his driving gloves on, gripping the knob. A narrow port like a mine shaft sent Shane skyward, landing in Frankie’s lair.

Geeked out with psychedelic rooms, colored lights, and lava lamps. A time warp with genie bottles and bongs the size of bassoons. Shane was too zoomed out to hear the classic rock.

He took a few steps in, as Frankie Dime leaked a bedroom with a petite hippie chick. A hot number who looked old enough to be enrolled in one of the local colleges. Not shabby at all, Frankie. Chicks dig dope. At this age, they dug dealers even more.

Two years from now, a chick like this would reach the fork. Done with college and the speed scene. The ones who stick it out would outlive the Dimes, moving up to the shakers calling the shots. The guys loading up Frankie.

If Frankie was smart, he would become one of those guys. Leaving this freak pad for a mansion on the hill. Gated grounds with pit bulls keeping hungry watch instead of Doofus and Bufoon. If those two make it, they’re parking cars and driving big shots to the airport.

By then, Frankie would drop the amateur Dime and would go by Mr. Manzo. Only his friends would call him Frank. Only women and his mother would know him as Frankie. But he was a long way out, and that was about to become never.

“Hey man, it’s been a while,” Frankie said as he spotted Shane. A bit surprised, but not overly, or suspicious. That was a dumb thing on his end, looking better for Shane.

The two shook hands. Frankie knew what Shane was doing here. Living free, back in the game. Happy to hear Shane boarded the crazy train. The co-ed started to run a bath, taking a doobie and her iPod with her.

Shane tailed Dime angling for his office, a carved out the bedroom. That was where everything went funky. Shane’s head started to hum and white stuff out. The radiation in his chest exploded while his kidneys plunged. Great Scott.

Shane blinked a few times to shake his blurred vision. Once he refocused, Shane locked into the back of Frankie’s long, thick hair. Shane noticed the gray strands woven into his fluffy mane. The back of Frankie Dime’s shoulders appeared swollen. Not fat, just the mileage from age and getting on. The less Dime looked like Frankie, the easier this would be.

That firefight the Toretta’s spoke about happened in the dark and Shane was ripped out on Molly. The whole thing felt like a movie set, anyway. Jacked up on the edges that night, he wouldn’t have felt a cobalt bomb.

Shane never pointed a gun at this range. Dry-fire at the movie posters on his bedroom wall. Showing the tough guys who are boss, yeah. Point blank? On a real-live target? Never.

Shane wouldn’t recall how he grabbed the gun. The motion and angle of his arm. His hand gripping the handle or the way he pulled out the musket. He just did it.

And it all went down as if Shane were disconnected. Did the gun feel like it was in a killer’s palm, or did his hand feel the hard rubber and diamond-plated grip? He couldn’t tell.

Shane’s arm reached full extension, poking Johnny’s muffler at Dime’s skull. The white haze in Shane’s mind, a blizzard. Felt more like the rush from a crack pipe, but wasn’t.

Shane kept the aim of the muzzle in a stiffy and squeezed. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Three pills weighing nine grams each thundered for brain matter. The exit wounds acted more like the water from a toy pistol than the brute force of a murder weapon. Frankie’s head didn’t explode, but a few chunks catapulted skyward, glued to the walls.

Frankie Dime was gone after the first strike, before tumbling in slow motion, or so it seemed. Good thing the gunfire didn’t ka-boom — the room flashed as if Shane packed lightning bolts.

Johnny did all right. The most noise was Frankie hitting the floor and some metal scraps sucked up by the walls, sounding like a nail gun. Shane scooped the shell casings and skipped for the attic door.

That was when Shane halted. An about-face from the military. A woman in sixties regalia, sitting on the couch like a patient in a waiting chamber.

Shane felt his insides collapse, as Fay Winston turned her head, pointing her distant and jade-colored eyes back up at Shane. The lock-in continued.

Music blared from the bathroom, as incense escaped the seam of the door frame, fuming the parlor. Not nearly as thick and deep as Fay’s shame for allowing Shane to see her here, in a place like this. Something nice and maybe promising up in smoke for both of them.

The job and its sense of urgency pushed Shane toward the door. He kept watching Fay, moving from her sight and down the stairwell.

17.

Shane climbed into the Oldsmobile and drove off as if leaving Frankie’s after seeing Fay, not Dime. Shane was tooled on jobs before. Hold-ups, break-ins, lab invasions. You pilot off in tune, not a firebird screaming for the sun.

Shane reached a red light feeling as if he wanted to let his system break loose and topple. No different from his days as a tweaker. Jonesing for a score in that quicksand of withdrawal. Shane started shaking as if a panic attack decided to arrive instead. Shane gripped the wheel, hoping for a false alarm — the aftershock of murder.

The stop signal gummed the tires to the pavement, and Shane to the driver’s seat feeling anxious. Tempted to blow the stop, the quake subsided and the light turned green.

Shane watched the police cars digging for the cursed house. Entire squadrons, buzzing in from all points. A shooting or something like that had the police ticked off.

Once Shane hit the crest of the Heights section he began his descent. Of all places, the cusp of downtown Hudson City and the Toretta’s union hall. The crate straightened out, as Shane decided to relax and get home.

Good idea for this hellcat. An ex-con with mob ties and his drug history. Concealing smoke with fresh shots that, oh-by-the-way, matched the ballistics at the current murder scene. Not to mention his prints, the hot choo-choo, and parole violation.

The Alero had a busted fuel gauge, forcing Shane to crash pit row. The last thing he needed was an emptied tank. The twist in the script that usually popped up around now.

The cops in the Tiger Mart eyeballed Shane at the coffee station. Three AM on the weekends, maybe — but the middle of the week? They kept it up. Staring him down while hashing their stories. Every few moments, another took his turn hawking Shane.

That was the thing with cops, always on the scope. Suspicious of everybody, anything that moves. And there stood Shane, feeling as naked and common as a winter horsefly, trying not to fumble the joe.

Good thing he didn’t look like a mule, or worse, a tweaker. Mr. Shitfly with dirty clothes, greasy hair, and twinkly eyes. Or a hired gun humping the goods. Faster than the heat from a blast furnace, the patrol would have his palms on the bricks, spreading ’em out.

Shane decided to speed up the pit stop. He split the fuel station, nice and easy. One eye on the rearview, making sure the cops hadn’t decided to look further into his appearance. Shane watched the parked prowlers fade from sight, and no badge hopping in.

Shane fished for his cell with direct-dial, calling the fellas. Sal sounded wide awake as if it were daylight instead of the graveyard shift. Most of these guys, outside the bosses and old-timers, weren’t morning birds.

Shane figured the deal to be done and paid in full. Sal put the kibosh on that one, alerting Shane to expect another call. There was more Mafia blood on the books and Shane protested.

Frankie Dime is gone, my man. Sayonara. Go back to doing what you guys do, and leave me out of it.

“Nothing’s over until the old man says so. Once I speak to him, you’ll hear from us,” Sal said.

Trapped in the lobster pot again. And they would let him know when he’s coming up for air. Shane wondered if he should have joined the mob when he had the chance.

As badly as Shane wanted the gun, he didn’t need the headache. Shane buried the pistol in the glove box, avoiding more blowback and looming debt. He ditched the vehicle on the same street where he found it.

18.

When Shane returned to the pad, it looked and felt lopsided. He wished for that Southern Comfort to stop the ringing in his bones. Shane dashed for the toilet and barfed his brains out instead.

The local news kicked off with a shooting the fuzz figured to be drug-related. The usual segment. A woman reporter stood by a box of caper tape the police rolled out. The death house in the background and everybody was acting like it was the planet’s first murder.

More jump cuts filled the telecast, splitting shots with studio anchors. And it was the same reel, over and over. EMTs mushing off a stretcher with a black body bag strapped onto it. A mug shot of Frankie Dime and an undercover video of street-corner dealers. No suspects yet, but off-camera, the police were hounding the pavement.

Shane dozed off and woke up feeling as if every organ inside him went missing. Replaced with articles creepy and sinister, as if abducted and mangled by a medical team from a flying saucer.

Shane was a criminal, not a killer. Even if his career never scaled urban legend heights. And the whole thing emptied him. Never a religious guy by any stretch, but one day, he’d have to answer for this. Not why he did it but why he didn’t. Why he never held his ground, standing these bad boys down, even if it meant his own life instead of brother Dime’s.

Hogwash. Shane had the balls to stare them down, the brains not to. They would have wasted Shane on the spot and fished for another deadbeat to whack Dime.

The other booner, he was still on the hook. Sal made that clear on the ride home. And that’s when the sergeant-at-arms beamed in, sending the cell buzzing across Shane’s coffee table.

Shane didn’t want to answer. Fuck these guys. Fuck the whole thing. Shane watched the phone fishtail as if the caller was so pissed off, the phone sensed his wrath. Shane wished to stuff the damn cell down the shitter. He relented and picked up.

“You forget how to answer a phone?” Sal asked, sounding more like a snarl.

“What do you want?” Shane replied. The breath in Sal’s voice shifted. Not too thrilled over Shane’s tone. Shane didn’t care. They turned him into something he never dreamed of. If he were a soldier, this call would be to throw a party and present Shane his button.

“The old man wants to see you.”

“We don’t have any more business. We’re done.”

“I don’t think you heard me,” Sal said.

“Tell him thanks for everything, but I have a life I wanna get back to.”

“You don’t want me to tell him that.”

“Why not? He’s your boss, not mine.”

“Listen to me, you fuckin’ wise-ass. We’ll let you know when you’re outta the hole.”

“That was a lot more than I owed, and now I have to live with killin’ a man. I grew up with the kid. I know his family. They didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Cut the high and mighty — you had a debt to pay and a job to do.”

“And it’s done.”

“Relax, Shane. One step at a time,” Sal said, letting Shane think about making a fight out of it.

“This might be your racket, but it’s not mine. It doesn’t matter if he was a scumbag and had it coming.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“It’s over. Don’t call me anymore.” Shane, all revved up. He might have the stones to talk back, but not the ones to cut the chord, hang up, and dismantle the cell.

Sal didn’t bite. Calm, cool, and used to waving the upper hand to play it. He ordered Shane to slug the brakes and let him finish.

“Quit actin’ like a hothead. When the old man calls your number, it makes no difference if you’re a made guy or not, whether you’re with us or not. Do you understand? He’ll let you know when you’re out.”

Shane still didn’t get it. Sal put it another way, posing it open-ended.

“You remember that promise we made about the bullet and your father’s head?”

“You bastard.”

“Who you gonna run to? Am I gettin’ through now, or what?”

They had him all right. Clutched by the armpits and hair, heading straight for the cannibal pots.

“Get the fuck off your high horse and keep your phone on.”

“When and where?”

“You’ll hear from us. When you do, be ready to move.”

Sal hung up, turning to Dino. “What a pain in the ass. I don’t know what the hell Leo ever saw in that guy.” Which didn’t need any arm-twisting. Sal might have disliked the kid, while Dino hated that piece of shit with a psycho’s passion.

“Fuck it, Sal. We should go down there and take him out.”

“Forget it. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.” Sal said, which was Dino’s point all along. They wouldn’t pull any triggers until the old man decided how to flush Shane down the pike. Why Leo would waste any more minutes on this jerk continued to mystify the Toretta soldiers.

“Leo presses the button, I want the job,” Dino told Sal.

19.

The cabbies on Shane’s shift stood around the hut at Galaxy Taxi waiting for their cars. Smoking cigarettes, engaging in small talk. Shane passed them up, entering the office and facing the dispatcher.

“I don’t have a car available,” the crank started in.

“How long do I have to wait?”

“I had to replace you with another driver.”

“There a problem?”

“Yeah — when you don’t report for your shift.” The guy was a real crab. Slamming phones, barking at the drivers and customers, in between giving Shane the riot act.

“I cleared the time off.”

“Not with me you didn’t. I was short, it was busy, and we lost too much work.”

“When I found out I needed more time, I called.”

“Nobody told me about it. I’m running a business, not a frat house.”

“I don’t get it,” Shane said.

“Two weeks in, and you’re already takin’ time off. I really don’t know you. Is it legit? Are you comin’ back? Meanwhile, the phone’s ringin’ off the hook, and I have all these calls to cover.”

“What are you telling me? Where do we go?”

“Give me a few days to work something out. In the meantime, another shift opens up, I’ll give you a shout.”

20.

Shane’s penciled in to visit his parole officer and hurried on over to see Solomon Rayfield.

“How’s the job?” Solomon asked.

“It’s going,” Shane said.

“You don’t sound too good about it. Do I need to call?”

“No.”

“You know the rules. If you’re out of work, I have to report you to the judge.”

“What does that mean?”

“Depends on what mood he’s in. Could be a weekend in the county, a stiff fine, or worse.”

“Could I have a few days?”

“I need to know the details. Was there a disciplinary problem? Any drugs or alcohol involved?” There were, but nothing to do with the bender Solomon’s talking about.

“No issues. I needed a few days off. I cleared it, they got busy and needed to fill out the shift. If you have to call, go ahead. I’m being straight up about it.”

“Fair enough. Cab companies are always bitchin’ about lost calls. If they call you back, fine. If you’re still unemployed by the end of the week, I have to write you up on a parole violation. And don’t run. It’ll only cause you more trouble.”

“I understand.”

“My suggestion is not to wait for them. Don’t let some cab company that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you send you back to the county jail. You don’t need that, them, or their trouble.”

Shane agreed. Plenty of taxi companies around. For now, a quick way to get on the books and behind the wheel. If not, he’d work the grill at Burger Shack or round up shopping carts at Food Town. Anything. Anything, but jail.

21.

Back in the flood with the group meeting. Shane approached the huddle of smokers, looking for Fay. She hadn’t checked in yet. He hoped she didn’t jump back into the drink, sailing herself over the falls.

The fearless leader showed up and the group entered the church basement. Moments later, Fay glided in, taking a seat away from Shane. Once she settled in, she searched for Shane. His eyes waited for hers. Once they met, Fay beamed her crooked smile.

After the session, they found themselves on a bench in a local park. Shaggy willows, swans on a lake, love seat benches. Shane splurged on tallboy coffees from a nearby vendor.

“It’s none of my business about the other night. I didn’t say anything,” Fay said.

“I figured that. The police would have picked me up by now,” Shane replied.

“God, this disease is a killer. I was doing well. One bad day and I fall off the wagon.”

“It’s a tough road, and it happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“I’m only here today to see you. I’m going back into the jar. I can’t take any more chances. If I relapse again, I’ll binge. I can’t have it,” Fay told Shane.

She didn’t get into her prick ex-husband playing games with story hour. Shuffling the times, like a twisted board game. Fay refused to blame, rollover, and play the victim.

“I already checked into a rehab facility. I’m just waiting on a bed,” Fay said.

“Don’t get down on yourself. You have to get better. And you will.”

“I have to go.”

Sometimes, things happen fast in life. Shane watched Fay walk-off, blurring off in the distance toward the bus stop. Watching her fade-out, sensing he might not ever see that lovely woman again.

22.

The rough boys expected a circus that night at Frankie Dime’s, banking on Shane doing the deed and getting trapped. Wasted by Dime’s posse in the middle of it. If Shane managed to escape, bumping into an undercover or a uniformed badge on the way out, he’d know better not to shit any beans. Man, did the wise guys play this story.

The old man wanted to see Shane, and this time he snapped to. The rig from hell arrived curbside, pausing for Shane to hop in. Dino pressed the pedal and the gang hit the slopes. Shane caught Dino’s eyes glued to the road through the rearview. Sal parked right in front of him. No way they’d waste him now.

“The job went off as planned. You came through. Held up your end of the bargain. Murder’s dirty business. I don’t like it,” Leo said. The crime boss shared the backseat.

Shane thanked him, acted all cool, and wanted to shit a brick. A crime boss never uses such language, curse words like murder. How did he know Shane wasn’t snitched up? It’s a done deal. I’m going down, Shane thought.

“I want to apologize. You’re right — I should have seen you right away. I don’t want to cause any more problems,” Shane replied.

“That’s not why we called. I changed my mind,” Leo said. Well, here it comes.

“About what?” asked Shane.

“When a guy’s into me and they pull a job like this, I throw him something. Not this time. Not with you,” Leo said.

“Fair enough. I owe you more than that. A lot more.”

“Forget the job. What’s done is done. Frankie’s gone. That’s not why I wanted to see you.” Forget this, forget that. Why the fuck am I here? Hey Leo, tell numbnuts to pull over, and I’ll get out. Then we could really fuhgeddaboutit.

Dino dipped the Caddy deeper into the ride. That’s when Shane noticed unfamiliar roads. They started by hitting rough terrain with gravel and spots of hardpan. The windows hemmed in by cattails and sewer plants, closing in on the banks of the waterfront.

The Boneyard. An outback for smarties fiddling with the mob’s electricity. Shane started to sweat and tremble. The ride along crossed a killing field. A hostile dump notorious for message hits and morning headlines. A fish up the ass, a mouthful of chopped testicles, missing digits from severed hands.

Dino swept the wheel and the Caddy descended further. Something’s going down. Dino dive-bombed the basin, spitting through a dogleg cut from the meadows. To Shane, it was the archways to the hearth of hell.

Leo didn’t give a command when Dino pumped the brakes. The Caddy purred as the module fell silent. A pause that felt like ten minutes.

“From here on out, you’re on your own. That door we talked about is now permanently shut. And once that door closes, it never opens again. Capeesh?” Leo said.

“I understand,” Shane told him.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Shane. You had a golden opportunity to be a soldier, and then a made man with his own crew. Believe me, you’ll end up in prison. And when you do, you’re on your own. And this time, you’ll never make it out alive. That’s your sentence — your punishment from the family. Get out of the car,” Leo said.

Shane did as told. Once his feet hit the soil, Dino ripped a fishtail, nearly clipping Shane on the way off. A plume of smoke whirled Shane as the staff car mashed it back up the hill.

Shane began his climb, vowing to defang and defeat Leo’s testament that Shane would remain a loser and lifelong patsy. An example and a reminder of mob failure left behind and dying on the vine for all to see. The poster boy for grunts thinking they’re better off outside the lines and what could have been.

Shane’s climb reached the crest and he stopped to gaze. The social club and the gangsters in the distance. The Heights up in the clouds. The Boneyard behind him. Shane took a deep breath and started walking in the opposite direction from all of it.

The great news, he was out for good and alive to witness it. The not so keen, stranded on some bumfuck roadway. The Vatican sure stuck Shane on a bit of a ledge. One heckuva hike to the nearest train station, bus depot, or taxi stand. But he couldn’t complain.

Shit, up until this point, what did Shane know about freedom? Didn’t know what it was, but felt as if he boarded a rocket ship blasting through the sky. Maybe Shane was onto something and headed somewhere after all.

The End

Fiction and nonfiction: http://www.phil-rossi.com/home.html Background actor and day player: https://www.backstage.com/u/phil-rossi/

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