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The Cold Spotby Tom Piccirilli
Chase was laughing with the others during the poker game when his grandfather threw down his cards, took a deep pull on his beer, and with no expression at all shot Walcroft in the head.
Only Chase was startled. He leaped back in his seat knocking over some loose cash and an ashtray, the world tilting left while he went right. Jonah had palmed his .22 in his left hand and had it pressed to Walcroft's temple, a thin trail of smoke spiraling in the air and the smell of burning hair and skin wafting across the table into Chase's face.
You'd think it would be disgusting, acrid, but it was actually sort of fragrant.
There was almost no blood. One small pop had filled the hotel room, quieter than striking a nail with a hammer. It didn't even frighten the pigeons off the sill.
Walcroft blinked twice, licked his lips, tried to rise, and fell over backward as the slug rattled around inside his skull scrambling his brains. The whites of his eyes turned a bright, glistening red as he lay there clawing at the rug, twitching.
The others were already in motion. Chase saw it had been set up in advance, well planned, but nobody had let him in on it. They didn't entirely trust him. Jonah opened the closet door while Grayson and Rook lifted Walcroft's body and carried it across the room. Walcroft was trying to talk, a strange sound coming from far back in his throat. He was blinking, trying to focus his gaze, his hands still trembling.
Chase thought, He's staring at me.
They tossed Walcroft in the corner of the empty closet, slammed the door, and immediately began cleaning the place.
No one looked at Chase, which meant everybody was looking at him. Nobody said anything as they wiped down the room. So that was how it was going to be.
The room continued leaning and Chase had to angle his chin so things would straighten out. He shuddered once but covered it pretty well by bending and picking up the ashtray. They wouldn't want the butts tossed in the trash, they contained DNA. Maybe. Who the fuck knew. They were evidence anyway, some keen cop might nail Rook because he always tore the filter off his Camels. It was a clue.
Chase carefully split the cotton nubs apart, stepped to the bathroom, and threw them in the toilet. He washed out the ashtray. Maybe it was the right thing to do, maybe not. It could be downright stupid. It felt insane. What really mattered was they had to see he was trying, that he was very much a part of the crew.
He dove for the cold spot deep inside himself and seemed to miss it. He couldn't look at his face in the mirror. His heart slammed at his ribs, trying to squeeze through. He noticed he wasn't breathing through his nose, was beginning to pant. He started again. He made sure he left no prints on the toilet handle or around the sink. He tried to move into that place again and this time felt himself begin to freeze and harden.
When he got out of the bathroom the closet door was open a crack. Walcroft was still squirming and had kicked it back open. One shoe had come off and a folded hundred-dollar bill had fallen out. Rook said, "Son of a bitch," grabbed a pillow off one of the beds, and drew his .38. Walcroft kept making the sound.
Chase knew then he would hear it for years to come, in the harbor of his worst nightmares, and that when his own loneliest moment in the world came to pass he'd be doing the same thing, making that same noise. Rook stepped into the closet, stuffed the pillow down on Walcroft's face to stifle the shot, and pulled the trigger. There was a loud cough and a short burst of flame. This time the pigeons flew off. With his teeth clenched, Rook tamped out the pillowcase. He nabbed the c-note and shut the door again. That was finally the end of it.
Chase was fifteen and he'd been pulling scores with his grandfather for almost five years. First as a kid running two—and three-man grifts, a few short cons, kitten burglaries–as Walcroft had called them—and then working his way up to taking part in an occasional heist. Jonah always packed guns during jobs. Chase knew his grandfather had blasted his way out of a few tight situations, but so far he'd never seen Jonah kill a man.
Now this, one of his own crew, a part of his own string.
Earlier that day, the score had gone down smooth as newborn ass. They hit a bookie joint run out the back of a fish market owned by the North Jersey mob. Jonah had explained how years ago nobody would've dared mess with any of the syndicates, but the days of the mob families' real power were long over. They squabbled among themselves more than they battled the FBI. Sons put their fathers under. Wives turned informant on their Mafia boss husbands. Everybody flipped eventually.
So the four of them went after the book. It was sometimes a little tough putting the string together because a lot of pros wouldn't work with someone named Jonah, despite his first-rate rep. It was one of the reasons why Chase started as a driver so early on, just so they wouldn't need to find the extra guy. Besides, Jonah couldn't drive for shit.
Chase sat behind the wheel of a stolen '72 Chevy Nova that he'd tuned on his own. He'd also done the body work and new paint job. A Turbo 350 transmission, 454 bored engine, solid-lift camshaft, and a Flowmaster 3 exhaust so the car practically hummed like a struck chord. The horsepower seeped into his chest.
Part of being a wheelman was putting everything you had into a car and then letting it go again. After the heist they'd be able to sell it to a local chop shop for an extra ten grand, which Chase'd keep himself. For what Jonah called his college fund. It was a joke to all the crews they ran with, how young he was. It took a while but eventually they came to respect him. For his scouting and driving skills, his nerves, and the way he kept his mouth shut.
Rook and Grayson came out of the fish market with a sack of cash each. Jonah followed, carrying another two. Five seconds later Walcroft came prancing out the door holding a giant yellowfin tuna, smiling widely so that all you saw were his bright eyes and perfect teeth under the ski mask. It got Chase laughing.
They'd expected forty grand, maybe a little more since the fish market was the hub for six different books who all turned in their receipts on Friday noon, in time to get to the bank before the midday rush. Not a major score, but an easy one to keep them afloat until the next big thing came along.
They climbed into the Nova, Walcroft hugging the fish to him for another second and saying, "I shall miss you, my friend, but now, back to the smelly depths of Joisey with you," then tossing it in the parking lot. Chase let out a chuckle and eased down on the throttle, moving smoothly out of there.
They had a hotel room on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Chase had the way perfectly mapped, the streetlights timed, and hit the road heading east just as some of the mob boys came running outside. One of the fat ginzos tripped over the fish and took a header. Both Chase and Walcroft started laughing harder.
The goombahs rushed for their Acuras and Tauruses. Nobody had too nice a car in case the IRS was watching. They followed the Nova for about a mile until Chase made a left turn from the right lane and bolted through a stale yellow light.
This was a family town. The mob mooks had grandchildren going to the school on the corner, their family priests were in the crosswalk heading to the local rectory. The Mafia gave it up with hardly a fight, too worried about running over a nun or crossing guard. It almost made Chase a little maudlin, thinking these guys had a home they cared for more than they did their own cash. He hadn't stayed in the same town for more than three months since he was ten years old.
He'd been ahead almost 150 bucks in the poker game. Walcroft about the same. Now Chase realized the others had let them win to distract them. He wondered if he'd been a little sharper and seen Jonah palming the gun, and had dared to warn Walcroft, would his grandfather have shot him in the head too.
Rook and Grayson finished wiping the room. There hadn't been that much to do, they'd been playing cards for less than an hour. They took their split of the score and said nothing to Chase, which meant they were saying a lot.
He listened to their footsteps recede down the hall and then sat back in his chair. Icy sweat burst across his forehead and prickled his scalp. He stared at the closet.
Chase had liked Walcroft. The man had taught Chase a little about computerized engines and how to circumvent the LoJack and other GPS tracking systems. Unlike all of Jonah's other cronies who'd bothered to teach Chase anything, Walcroft was young, only about twenty-five, and knew about the modern systems. The other pros and wheelmen were Jonah's age. They'd been at it for decades and only wanted to steal cars that came off the line pre-1970 because they were simpler to boost and reminded them of their youth.
A surge of nausea hit Chase like a fist. He wanted a bite of something but all the liquor bottles were gone. He spread his hands across the table and held himself in place until his stomach stopped rolling.
"Wipe that table down again," Jonah said. There was no heat in his steel-gray eyes, no ice.
A confidence man knew how to read human nature. He could see down through the gulf of complex emotion and know what people were feeling, which way they were likely to jump. Chase had gotten pretty good at it over the last few years on the grift.
At least he'd thought so. Now he looked at Jonah and tried to read him. He couldn't. There were no signs. Nothing but the hardness of stone.
Jonah stood five-nine, about two-twenty of rigid muscle, powerfully built. Fifty-five years old, compact, everything coiled, always giving off intense vibes. Mostly white hair buzzed down into a crew cut, just a flicker of silver on top. Huge forearms with some faded prison tats almost entirely covered by matted black hair.
There was a quiet but overpowering sense of danger to him, like he'd always speak softly and be perfectly calm even while he was kicking your teeth out. You knew if you ever took a run at him you'd have to kill him before he'd quit the fight. If he lost and you left him alive, he'd catch up with you at the end of an empty desert highway, barefoot on melting asphalt if he had to. You'd never stop looking over your shoulder. He'd mastered the ability of letting you know all this in the first three seconds after you met him. Nobody ever fucked with Jonah.
Now that lethal cool was filling the room. Chase had always thought it was directed at the other thugs and never at him, but here it was, turned all the way up, Jonah just watching.
So now Chase knew.
One wrong move and he'd be quivering in the closet. He met his grandfather's eyes and held firm, as rigid as he could be.
"I liked him," Chase said. "Tell me it wasn't because of the fish. You didn't snuff him because he was dancing around with the goddamn fish."
"He was wired," Jonah said.
"What? For who?"
Chase shook his head but didn't shift his gaze. "No. No way."
"I didn't see a wire."
There was nowhere else to go with it now.
Chase stood and started to make his way to the closet. Jonah blocked him and said, "We need to leave."
"We were going to stay here for three days."
"We've got another job waiting to be cased. We have to be in Baltimore by midnight."
"I want to see it."
"We don't have time for this. We need to go. Now."
Unable to do anything but repeat himself, like a brat demanding presents. "I want to see it."
"Rook took the tape and microphone."
"I didn't see him do that either."
"You were too busy trying not to throw up."
Said in the same flat tone as everything else Jonah ever said, but somehow there was still a hint of insult in it.
"Walcroft's chest will be shaved."
"It wasn't on his chest. It was down his pants."
"Then his goddamn pubes will be shaved."
Jonah crowded him now, refusing to get out of the way.
Had this been coming for a while? Chase wouldn't have thought so twenty minutes ago but abruptly he felt a fury asserting itself within him. As if this was the natural course for him and his grandfather to follow, the only one, and always had been. The two of them standing here together face-to-face with a dead man in the closet.
The air thickened with potential violence. Chase glanced down at Jonah's hand to see if he was still palming the .22. Jonah had his hand cupped to the side of his leg. Jesus Christ, he was. It had really come down to this.
Time to let it go, but Chase couldn't seem to do so. It was stupid, he could sense Jonah's thin patience about to snap, but maybe that's what he wanted. He wondered if his need to push the point had anything to do with his parents, with the way his father had ended up.
"Why would Walcroft suddenly start wearing a wire?" Chase asked.
"You say that like it's an actual question."
Maybe it wasn't. Everybody eventually flipped. Chase moved another step forward so that their chests nearly touched. He realized there was no way he could beat Jonah, but at least the man would have to work a little harder for it than a quick tap to the temple. All these years, all the talk about blood and family, of fatherhood and childhood, the discussions about unfulfilled vengeance, going after his mother's killer, and they'd come down to this. Two kids in a sandbox.
"Why did you really ace him?"
"We need to leave."
"You didn't even blink," Chase said. "You've done it before."
"You asking for any special reason?"
"I'm not asking. I can see it now. You've done it before."
"Only when I had to."
From the Paperback edition.Copyright © 2008 by Tom Piccirilli
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