I remember this clearly though it was years ago. Outside the Shangri La Lounge I was looking at my hands. Hands that for thirty-nine years had seen me through good and bad times. Hands that cracked and bled in the cold as I worked days, nights, and weekends trying to make things work. Hands that had never betrayed me. Hands with skill wielded by a mind with talent but cursed with a knack for being there (wherever there was) just a little too late.
So that evening, I was meeting a friend I’d known since high school. His name was Sidney. Sid and I’d been drinking buddies for years. He never seemed to change, and I’d come to count on that consistency since my wife left.
She had been uninterested with our life for a long time and decided one day that the grass was greener in Edmonton. Do people actually move there? I thought that everyone in B.C. was from there. Why would someone go back?
At least most of the kids were out of the house. Ted was a long-haul driver and Ricky was in college. The only one I had left at home was my daughter, Virginia. Blonde, with fewer brain cells than her brothers but she more than made up for it in looks. She was in drama class and excelling. She had talent and attracted guys like a magnet. I had to watch her all the time, not because I didn’t trust her, it was the guys I didn’t trust. When she was born my mama laughed and told me to keep the shotgun handy. I didn’t laugh for long. I kept the shotgun handy: loaded.
I had her take martial arts lessons and got her a cell phone so she could stay in touch. I wanted her to be able to call me for help if she couldn’t kick the guy’s ass. That was pie in the sky, ’cause she never needed me in that way. My problems did however start with the phone.
A Nokia N900.
She was at a party and loaned the phone to her best friend for a local call and her best friend put it down so she could put on some mascara. Somebody spilled a drink and everything became distracted. Somebody stole her phone, which was actually my phone, and called a one-nine hundred number in the Bahamas, and left the phone in the bathroom with the airtime accumulating. It sat there for twenty-four minutes at $2499 a minute. Yes, I was stuck with a bill that was non-negotiable and strictly my responsibility.
It’s simple math: $59,976.
I didn’t have the money. I scraped together $34,012 from all over the damn place and I was still way in the hole. Collection agencies started calling and I was about to lose everything. That was when I started to get to know my beer real well. Eventually, I decided to call a local guy that was supposed to be able to solve money problems.
He solved that one for me! He gave me a loan for twenty thousand bucks and said I could take six months to pay it off. I could live with that. Living on rice and KD I could make it.
My timing has never been so fortuitous. I should have known better, but I really knew something was wrong when my beer began to talk just after Sid arrived at the beer hall.
“Hey, retard! What youse needs is ta see da New Boss!” said my Herman’s Dark Lager.
Sid’s mouth dropped open and so did mine. This isn’t the sort of thing you expect while slurring secrets over barley sandwiches. A toxic-hot chicken wing dropped from my fingers clanking into the plate of bones beneath. I grabbed a paper napkin and wiped my face.
“Jesus, Val!” said Sid as he pushed his stool back and stepped away from the bar.
“It’s none of your business!” I shouted into my glass.
The mouth of the glass twisted into a sneer mocking my outrage.
“Da problems you got can’t be fixed by praying and Holy devotion. Youse’s gonna hafta do moah dan dat an’ da New Boss is proly da only guy who can help youse,” said the beer as my teeth ground on the lip of the glass.
“Ouch! Careful, rube! You wanna break me or somethin’?” said the 12 ounce glass as I tightened my grip.
Sid was staring at me like I was crazy.
“Are you going to stand for that?” he asked.
“Shut up short stuff!” said the Beer to my friend.
“Dammit,” I said.
The Beer’s insult had struck pay-dirt. Sid isn’t tall. As a matter of fact, he’s only 4 foot 9 and rather sensitive about the whole height thing. I gave Sid an imploring glance and brought my attention back to the glass.
“Apologize! You scared my friend out of his pants,” I said.
“A’right, a’right. I…apologize to Mr. Sidney Schwiftman: Longshoreman of short shtature,” the glass spat.
“That’s it! I do not have to take this from a strange beer” said Sid as he shoved his mug of Bud across the bar and walked out.
“Look what you did,” I said gesturing with my hand toward the door as it banged shut. “My best friend and you chased him out of the bar.”
I didn’t know why my drink was getting so personal, but drinks are personal. Everyone has a favourite. Some drinks feel sexy. Some look sexy. Some look like swill. Some are designed to get a person smashed fast. Some are meant to be sipped for hours. I once had a date that could sip a vodka gimlet for three hours. Cheap date but hard to lay. There are people who like to order a specific drink to signal others at their table that they are “looking for action.”
There were about fifteen or twenty people in the bar that afternoon, and it seemed that most of them (like me) were there because their problems seemed too big for the universe. There were guys sitting alone; women sitting alone; and some couples sitting alone too. In the centre of the room, at a round table, sat a woman sipping A Bitter Canadian. Next to her was a shrivelled up man sucking on a 3 Dollar Hooker. Her drink figured to lend me its own two cents.
“You’re fucked man!” yelled the Bitter Canadian from the Highball glass while the 3 Dollar Hooker quivered in the shot.
“I hate Bitter Canadians,” I whispered, having felt their acerbic wit in the past.
This level of hostility at the Shangri La Lounge was unprecedented and I honestly wasn’t prepared. The air smelled of errant smoke and spilled beer. Low lighting hid the faces of the people in the shadows, but I could tell they were whispering about me, their heads bent together in conspiratorial intimacy.
“So what the hell would you do?” I raised my voice to the 3 Dollar Hooker.
“Suga’, I’d call me a cab and hole up fo’ a weekend,” she said with a worn-out sultry southern drawl.
“And when the weekend was over? What then? That’s just plain stupid. This guy says he’s gonna kill me! I owe him twenty grand and he’s kinda intense,” I said wiping my brow.
Over in the far corner a smartly dressed business woman was wooing an Afro-Canadian stock broker in a Brooks Brothers suit. She wore a red business suit with black fuck-me pumps and a gold ankle bracelet on her crossed over left foot. There were curves in those legs that could have slithered off a French curve.
“What’s that?” her drink, a Caribbean Romance, barked with longing.
“Haven’t you been listening?” said the stock broker’s Slow Screw in a Collins glass.
The Caribbean Romance chuckled huskily. “No, I have eyes for you, and you only—my little lovely Slow Screw,” she whispered just loud enough for the entire room to hear.
“Ask for a taste of his drink honey,” The Caribbean Romance said to the business woman. Glasses were exchanged.
“Yep, yep. His lips will do,” said the Caribbean Romance with a seductive undertone.
From the far corner three After Work Specials all called out that they wanted to know what was going on. I was devastated. Drinks were whooping from all sides. What’s a man to do when confronted with an overwhelming tide of alcohol? I was weak and by that time I had nothing to lose. Soon the other patrons (besides those whose drinks were clamoring for my blood) were staring at me.
“I owe about twenty thousand dollars to Mick the Knife,” I started out, “but for some reason he’s reneging on his promise to give me six months. I can get the money, but Jesus—not in two weeks. My credit cards are maxed and the payday loan place won’t touch me. It’s like a conspiracy. I don’t know who I pissed off but someone doesn’t like me.”
The other patrons were sympathetic but I saw nobody reaching into their pockets to lighten my load.
“So…,” began my now warm beer. “We find ou’ selves back at squa’ one. You need to go to da New Boss.”
I put my lips to glass, quaffed a gulp, and gazed into that slowly growing emptiness.
“Come o’n. I ain’t got unlimited time here…” the Beer said. “If you wanna meet the New Boss, I need ta set dis up quick like.”
“Da! You had better hurry!” hollered a Wicked Tasty Treat from the side.
I was scared, broke, and the alcohol was too much.
“Okay, set it up,” I said and swallowed it down. “Another please!”
“It’s confirmed,” said a new Hermans. “Your meeting is at 8:30 tonight. 565 Lincoln Avenue North. Be prompt.”
“Jeez, that’ll teach me to cry in my beer.”
A two-metre tall blue fish with saucer-sized, lidless eyes walked in and I paused before finishing the drink and paying the bill.
“That is so weird,” I said to the barkeep tugging on his sleeve. “That fish is so tall!”
* * *
I arrived at 565 Lincoln Avenue North at 8:25 and waited outside. I parallel parked my white Chrysler Neon snugly between a black Lexus and a maroon Beamer. There was a no parking sign directly above both of the other vehicles but none where I had to park. The Lexus sported a skull and crossbones nestled between two fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.
I’d never actually walked into the home of an organized crime boss before. The place looked like the Adam’s Family backup set. Three stories of yawning dark windows stared out like dead eyes from under peeling white framework. A four story belltower rose above the front door and dominated the whole neighborhood. The yard was ringed by an iron fence and I was mildly surprised to not find corpses dangling from rusty hooks. A single gate stood closed at the front of the property and behind it stood a guy I immediately nicknamed Lurch. He held a well-fed Rottweiler on a blue chrome chain.
“You are expected Mr. Valentino,” said Lurch, swinging the gate inward. I glimpsed a shoulder holster under his jacket as I passed him. In it was a gun with a well worn grip. I swallowed hard. Things were getting real.
The walkway up to the house was old concrete; It was turning to powder the way concrete does when too much salt is used on winter ice. My shoes made scuffing noises until I picked them up. Two rows of daisies along the path were beginning to close for the night. Lilies in a small grey pond swayed in a tepid breeze and a Willow caressed the crab grass beneath. Small stones peaked from behind shrubs but not enough so that I could tell whether they were natural, decorative, or memorial. A chill ran down my spine.
Lurch ignored me once I passed him but the rotty’s eyes followed me all the way to the front door where I was admitted by another Lurch-type. Inside Lurch was monstrous. He wore a blue shirt, navy slacks, suspenders, with an Uzi dangling from a strap over his shoulder. I’d only seen them in movies. I swallowed again and missed my beer.
Inside Lurch took my Built Ford Tough jacket and hung it up, checked to see that I had no weapons, and with a firm hand planted between my shoulder blades pushed me, not kindly, through a double door. Two hallways stretched off into the distance and I thought I heard low voices whispering my name, but that was absurd. I stepped into an anteroom and was searched this time by a weasley dude in a ruffled Spanish shirt with a Don Juan goatee, the guy—not the shirt.
My knees were shaking. I’d heard things on the street about the head of the Finish Mafia. A shadowy individual known as “Maestro.” He was known to have a penchant for little girls, especially blondes. Something started screaming in the back of my head—but a quick pinky into my ear canal stopped that. Maestro’s organization trafficked street drugs manufactured in garages and ran “protection” for the neighborhood. The kids knew his limo by sight and his men gave away candy to the children on the street. His rep with the kids was top-drawer. They all thought he was Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy wrapped into one. It made me sick, and I was into this “arrangement” before I knew he was the power behind Mick the Knife.
* * *
Mick had sidled up to me at Smitty’s Grocery store, while I was drooling over expensive spaghetti, and asked if I needed help—financially. I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but I was ready to listen to anybody with money. I’d had a couple of drinks and I took his money right there and then. It didn’t occur to me that he happened to know exactly how much I needed and my name.
I took the money. When I hauled my butt into the front door I was already feeling borrower’s remorse and Virginia could tell. She could also smell the booze on my breath. I told her about the money and how it would save our ass from the poor house. She wasn’t impressed and thought it was too good to be true.
“That’s the alcohol talking, dad,” she said with a beatific smile.
“I hope not,” I said before going off to bed.
* * *
So there I was standing before the Maestro’s door.
“Go on in. You are expected,” Weasley said.
My forehead was soaked and my breathing wouldn’t settle down. I was starting to hyper-ventilate. I grabbed the over-sized ornately decorated gold inlaid, solid silver door knob and went in.
The hairs tickled at the back of my head. Maestro was flanked by two bigger goons. Neither one had a gun that I could see but the menace was palpable. I took off my hat and twisted it in my hands as he talked to somebody else.
Maestro was finalizing plans to go golfing the next day and his golf-clubs leaned against the wall behind him. He had a gold-inlaid driver. I’d never seen one but instinctively wanted to use it.
“Yes sir?” I addressed myself to the goldfish bowl on the single-legged, gold-inlaid, carved mahogany occasional table where he swam in lazy arrogant circles.
My eyes followed his golden scales as his filmy fins floated in effortless folds behind him. He stopped momentarily and stared out of the goldfish bowl—directly at me. My left eye began to twitch uncontrollably and I held my hand up to keep it from making me look crazy.
“Ruby Valentino…” he hissed.
His sonorous voice reverberated through the side of the twelve inch bowl and I felt it in my chest.
“I like you Valentino,” the goldfish said, “and I hear you have a problem.”
Maestro floated away giving me a glance that said he acknowledged my existence but little else. He leisurely proceeded, circling inside the impeccable crystal goldfish bowl and pointed his words at me.
“Mao Zedong said power grows from the barrel of a gun, Rube.”
“It’s Ruby, sir,” I stammered.
“I know Rube,” he said. “My point is that violence is power and violence is what I do best.”
I shivered and the goons smiled.
“I have power, because I am willing to commit extreme violence, Rube. I started as a small fish down on the wharves. I’d run numbers for bookies and slowly I built my business up into the organization you see around you today. My friends stick with me. I have a reputation. My family is well respected. My kids go to the best schools. I have the ability to leverage people. If they choose not to do as I say–I break kneecaps, backs, or skulls. It just depends on how much they owe or how much they refuse to cooperate. I once broke a guy’s back because he owed me five grand…”
The large bulbous eye on the left side of his head looked at me and my heart raced. I knew. I knew what he meant.
“This guy…Mick the Knife…” I started.
“I know Mick,” said the mob boss. “I hear you owe this nefarious individual some funds. How much?” he said with a casual left fin flip.
“Twenty thousand dollars…give or take.”
“Oh, my,” said the Goldfish with the slightest smile.
“Yeah, and he agreed to give me six months to pay it back. An’ I agreed to the interest he wanted, but now he says he wants it back in two weeks, an’ there’s no way I can come up with that…”
“Ah!” he said slowly floating back in my direction.
“And I heard that maybe you could help me out,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said as he frowned. “That was the alcohol talking?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Did the beer say anything more?” he asked.
“No. He just said that you might be the only one that could help me.” My breath caught in my throat.
Maestro floated away once again. The silence was crippling. My stomach was doing gymnastics and my chest felt like it was made of lead until he turned, but he didn’t turn to me.
“Rufus?” the Goldfish said to the goon to stage left of the Goldfish bowl. Rufus looked surprised, gave me a vicious glance, and faced Maestro with a concerned look.
“Yes Mister Maestro?” Rufus said.
“I want you to go out and buy a lime-green limo with solid oak dashboard and Corinthian leather upholstery,” Maestro said.
“Rube,” said Maestro, fixing me with his stare again. “I’ll talk with Mick the Knife and arrange to have your ‘problem’ alleviated. This is going to COST. Meanwhile, I want to see you and your daughter here in three days; seven in the evening. Go”
“Get Mickey over here. I need to talk to him again,” I heard Maestro say as I left the room.
* * *
Three days later I was standing in front of Maestro with Virginia. She looked wonderful and I was feeling better because Mick the Knife had phoned me to say he was “allowing” me up to six months to produce the money with interest. We’d stopped off briefly to have supper at the Chuck Wagon and I’d had a Beer–she’d had a Shirley Temple.
Rufus and Cedric were elsewhere this evening and we three were alone. Maestro had been drinking. His Rye was sitting next to the fishbowl. He began to talk and he was direct and to the point.
“I will require the use of your daughter for a week as payment for services rendered,” he said.
“What?” I said, stunned.
“What does that mean daddy?” asked Virginia.
“It means my lovely tight dream, that I will use you for my own pleasure and any child you conceive will be mine.”
Maestro laughed as Virginia sobbed and turned to me.
“Daddy!” she said. “Do I have to?”
“Fore!,” the Rye whiskey shot glass said.
“What?” said a surprised Maestro.
Blood rushed to my head as my mind crystallized.
“Someone once said that evil must be opposed lest it prosper,” I said as I stepped forward, grabbed the gold-inlaid driver, and took a stance.
“Sometimes a man has to take a stand against it.”
“Ruf..” Maestro began to scream.
“FORE!” and I drove Maestro through a wall.
* * *
Life returned to normal and I got that six month extension. The organized crime scene had to adjust to the loss of the local kingpin, but all in all, Maestro wouldn’t be missed. I continued to meet Sid each week and drink but I knew better than to always listen so close when the alcohol was talking.