Not a Poe Fan
"…No shit! Really? You're saying they put this café on the very spot Edgar Allan Poe used to live? Well. Well! If I were the sort of guy who gave a fucking shit about Edgar Allan Poe, I guess I'd give a fucking shit that he fucking lived here. But since I am the opposite of the kind of motherfucker who gives a fucking shit about where Edgar Allan Poe dined, shat, and slept, excuse me if I do not strike an impressed pose. Instead, why don't you impress me. Go into your pocket and take out the money you owe. And then, why don't you put it on the table where I can proceed to pick it up and move towards the door in one fluid and easy motion, leaving you here to appreciate the ambiance and heavy portents of the illustrious haunting author's former haunt."
Wow, I thought, this guy has either done way too much coke, seen way too many Tarantino movies, or done a whole lot of coke while watching Tarantino movies. But he was the guy Block sent to collect. So he was the guy I was going to have to deal with. I forced a smile and dove in.
"Mister…Mister…You never told me your name—"
"When I listed the ways you might impress me—was social chitchat among the options? If so, my error, so let's review the transcript. OH. It was NOT! The money. Now."
"Well," I said. "The thing is…"
And here I paused. Because this part was going to take finesse. This part always took finesse.
"The thing is…I don't actually have all of it. Not in cash. Not right now. But there is…You'll be happy to know there is hope. Real hope. I have a solid plan to—"
In some ways, getting slapped in the face is actually worse than getting punched. The physical pain is almost the same. But there's an added dose of humiliation and shame on top. An overlay of mortification. As if someone dumped a pail of loser juice over your head. Plus, your cheeks gets all flushed. And the handprint takes five or ten minutes to fade. Which only stacks the embarrassment. Who, I said to myself, other than junior Nazi officers in old features, just sits there and lets another man slap them?
That would be me, apparently.
"Pardon my ass for not letting you finish your eloquent soliloquy about not having the goddamned money I am here to collect. But I wasn't sent to this motherfucking snot-hole of a city to come home with an excuse no matter how gingerly worded. Do you know why I was sent to this snot-hole of a city, Monroe?"
"To collect money."
"Not excuses, apologies, or jokes. I was sent to bring back liquid financial instruments. In the amount of sixty-eight thousand dollars."
"Of course you were."
"Look. I was given another option." He went for a Sopranos-influenced dead-eyed stare as he said this. So I'd glean the meaning without him having to spell it out. The effect it had was to make his eyes go a little crossed. I fought the urge to let out a small laugh by clenching my butt cheeks.
See, bookmakers had a policy when it came to collection. And it wasn't the one you see on TV, where first they break your pinkie, then your arms, and then, if that doesn't work, puncture your lungs and throw you in the river. Uh-uh. The traditional rules for their agents, like the one trying to scare me, were: you can hassle a player, bruise him a up a bit, harass him like hell. But there was always a line that couldn't be crossed. No permanent damage. This is what separated them from the real hard guys. And kept them out of jail. They counted on it. I counted on it too. They also knew that their real edge was that to a gambler, there was a fear worse than death. Being cut off. The bookies understood the player's sick thought process and used it against them: "If you have to kill me, fine, but at least take my action on how you're going to do it."
I was about to point out this distinction when my tablemate leaned in close and grabbed hold of my shirt.
"My employer feels that his reputation as a kindhearted man is starting to cost him. He discussed this with a few other men in his line of trade. And they agreed. I have been authorized, understand this, Monroe, I have been authorized to make a sweeping fucking gesture, the kind of gesture that ramificates wide and far, the kind of gesture that changes the game, the kind of gesture that will enable me to take a long break from this work and finally catch up on my knitting. You get me?"
I no longer had the urge to laugh. Something in the way he said it made me believe him.
"Yes. I get you."
"Then let's get the fuck out of here so you can put your hands to some motherfucking money."
As we exited into the brutal February air, I considered running. I had been doing three miles four times a week and figured that the surprise of my taking off plus my newfound cardiovascular fitness might give me some time to think, but as I played it out, I saw that it was a short-term solution. At best. Instead I led him down into the 79th Street subway station so that we could take the One train to my brother's office at 1619 Broadway.
Steven, older than me by three years chronologically but more like twenty emotionally and financially, immediately grasped the situation. He opened the oversized lacquered humidor on his even more oversized oak desk and offered a Cubano to my companion.
"Fuck no! I want one thing and one thing only. I have no TIME for bullshit."
"Yeah," Steven said. "Got it. I was only trying to add a tincture of civility to the ugly situation my brother finds himself in as we work towards a solution."
That was vintage Steven. Amusing himself at the same time he was encouraging the thug to underestimate him. I knew I was going to have to pay a heavy price for bringing my brother into it, but at this moment, that was fine with me.
"The only motherfucking solution I am interested in is—"
From the humidor's false bottom, Steven brought up a Sig Sauer p226 semi-automatic pistol and, steadying himself against the desktop, aimed it right at the collection agent next to me.
"Please shut the fuck up. Okay?"
The room went silent. This time I allowed the small laugh to escape my lips.
But Steven said, "Laughing's kind of rude, Monroe," so I clamped it down again. "Go into his pocket. Let's get a name."
I wasn't sure if the coke was wearing off, if it was the pressure of the situation, or if having to remain silent was sapping all his energy, but Gewerts (that was the name on his license, Stewart Gewerts) just kind of slumped in his chair and offered no resistance at all as I took out his wallet and passed it across the desk to Steven.
"So, Stewey," he said, the pistol still raised, "walk me through the steps from here to you returning home without the money and with my brother in the clear."
"Can I hit the bathroom first? Please?"
"Monroe, go into his jacket pocket this time. Get out his blow. Lay a line on the table so we can have a conversation."
I did as told and within moments (SNOOOORRRRRTTT! Hack, hack, SNORT!), Stewey was, if not quite as demanding, definitely reanimated.
"Look, man, there is no scenario, no roadmap, no path that gets you from the Point A you just suggested to Point fucking Z. You know how the fuck this motherfucker works. I come back without the money, they have to send someone else. And by someone else I mean three goddamn badass badasses, the kind of cocksuckers who makes me look like a lightweight or no one pays ever again. They fucking know it. And you motherfucking have to know it!"
"Well, sure. But I thought I ought to give you the chance to correct my underlying assumptions. Because otherwise…well, otherwise, I can't let you get back there, right? You just said as much, Stewey."
Knowing Steven as I do, I had a feeling that this is where he was going. Let the poor sap who was about to be offed come to the conclusion on his own that this was the only appropriate course of action. And then watch him try and squirm out of it.
"No. No way. No! That's one motherfucking conclusion that I do not fucking share! Think it through, man! I don't come back, then they have to send in the fucking troops, the motherfucking Navy SEALs of the collection business, the fucking United States Marine Corps of legbreakers. The Army fucking Rangers of enforcers, and they don't just come for your brother. They come for you, too. 'Cause your brother will give you up. No, so you gotta let me go, man, let me go and I…I'll make it like I absconded with the money. Like I lit the fuck out for the territories—"
Gewerts was sweating now. And not mildly. His shirt was almost leaking, like it was the inferior product in a paper towel commercial, and the sweat smelled too—it was acrid, bitter coke and beer sweat, and it was really distracting me from his words. Evidently, Steven had had enough too.
"Stewey," he said, as he raised his free hand. And Gewerts stopped talking. But his jaw was still grinding and his eyes didn't seem able to come to rest, they went from Steven to me to the door behind him. The closed door. "Stewey, I feel kind of bad that I've let this go on so long. It's not fair to give you the Pit and the Pendulum treatment, drag this out, you know?"
"I don't think he gets the reference, Steven."
"I'm glad to explain it to him."
"Don't bother," I said. "He's not a Poe fan.
"Not a Poe fan?"
"No, he was quite clear on this point. If it's about Poe, don't even get into it."
"That's too bad. I was going to tell him the story—I was going to tell you a story before shooting you—but if you don't care for Poe—"
"No! NO NO! Please. I'll listen. I'd love to listen. Tell me the story! Please!! Dude, man—please tell me the motherfucking story…whatever you want, but don't shoot!"
"Look, Monroe, he's on the edge of his seat there. Literally on the edge of his seat, leaning all the way in. I think you got him wrong. I think he is a Poe fan. Certainly an enthusiast at this point in time—"
Gewerts made his move. He jumped out of his seat and dove for the door. Steven shot him in the leg, sending the skinny bastard sprawling to the ground.
"The miscalculation you made, Stewey, is in thinking that your employer won't get paid. Of course he will. And then I'll tell him that you tried to steal from him but that I took care of it. And he'll cut me back a percentage for my discretion. This way, everybody wins."
Now Gewerts was crying and curling up into a pain ball right near the door. Steven turned to me.
"Monroe, something just clicked for me."
"Yes. You know how focused Stewey got at the end there? That's how you get when you have real action on a game."
The sobs and pleas coming from the ground became a sort of plangent soundtrack as I felt a surge of emotion—my brother finally understood.
"Yes. That's right. That's the only time I'm really alive."
"I thought so. That's why I can't really get pissed at you, no matter how bad you fuck up. You can't help who you are. Come here."
I went to him, and he opened his arms and gave me a hug. As we separated, he raised his pistol once more and was about to squeeze the trigger. "Hey," he said to me, "how much you want to bet I can get him to recite 'The Raven'?"
"I don't think he knows it. Hey, Stewey, do you know 'The Raven'?"
Sob. Sob. Shudder.
Steven said, "Everyone knows 'The Raven.' How much?"
"Well," I said, "if everyone knows it, you have to give me odds. Three to one. On five grand"
And, at this, I guess Gewerts just couldn't take it anymore. He let out one more huge wail, gathered his strength, jumped up on his one usable leg, and charged Steven, who, calmly, put four bullets into Gewerts's gut, blowing him back against the wall.
As the sound of the gun was still ringing out, I looked at my older brother. "You know what this means, right?" I said.
"It means that I win. He didn't recite 'The Raven.' And now he's never going to. So I win! A bet's a bet's a bet!"
And then, finally, I laughed. It was a real laugh, loud and strong and booming. And nobody, not Stewart Gewerts, not my brother Steven, nobody, said anything to stop me.