It was Baltimore's oldest and scruffiest municipal course. And yet despite the unshielded traffic along its borders, and roving bands of Lake Clifton High students shortcutting their way across the fairways, the course had the audacity to charge people 31 dollars to hack away at it.
Adlai's drive scattered the same group of class-cutting delinquents who had flipped him off on 11. He was surprised they did not steal his ball.
Probably because Richie - the third member of their party - hadn't bothered to wait for Adlai and the Prep Cook to tee off, and had played on ahead without them, barreling his golf cart down to where he hooked into scrub pines, singing to himself and looking just crazy enough for the kids not to mess with. A don't-fuck-with-this-threesome ambassador of nutsy.
Adlai stared down at Richie looking for his ball in the rough, lighting up a cigarette and swinging his five-iron like a sickle.
"Who is that guy?"
The Prep Cook choked on his Mello Yello. "You been playing here since April and you don't know Richie?"
"I know he's the guy who plays with driving-range balls no one wants to get paired with, but who is he?"
The Prep Cook stood 6' 3 1/2"; walrus-shaped, deceptively athletic, wearing a pair of chili pepper-patterned kitchen pants that rippled in the breeze as he clocked his ball after Adlai's.
"I have no fucking idea. The Looney Crooner of Clifton Park?"
Adlai released the brake on the cart and they rolled down the path, jolting to a stop as Richie fired a line drive out of the trees, across North Rose Street, and into the Jewish Cemetery beyond. Without a word, he dropped another ball and sent a 90-foot bump-and-run.
"Nice one Rich," called the Prep Cook.
Richie twirled and jabbed his iron at an imaginary foe, a la Chi Chi Rodriguez's sword dance. "Riiiight around the cornerr."
It was Richie's musical catchphrase. A mysterious lyric half-sung for his every occasion: an acceptable shot, a port-o-john stop, the arrival of the beer-cart girl. "Riiiight around the cornerr..."
Adlai grumbled over his ball. "What the fuck is that? Riiiiight around the cor-ner?"
"Probably some old Ralph Kramden Ed Norton type shit."
"Whatever it is, the damn thing's stuck in my head."
Adlai got too much loft and landed well short of the green, tracing a rainbow arc over Richie as he zipped across the fairway. The psycho duffer was in a world of his own now, brandishing his pitching wedge like a saber-rattling Roosevelt leading a charge to the green and spurring his EZ-Go on for all it was worth.
Determined to correct a recurring slice, the Prep Cook made some adjustments to his backswing before addressing his ball, only to have Adlai break his concentration.
"You guys got any openings down at the Scupper?"
The Prep Cook stood back up, flashing a grimace. "Dude, we let two waitresses go last week. And one of the dishwashers is getting canned today, although he don't know it."
Adlai gave a small laugh. "I'm not talking about washing dishes. More like something that requires a little charm. Maître d', valet, something like that."
"Are you serious? Those jobs were cut last fall. Boss's wife greets you at the door and you park your own. Money's getting so tight I won't be surprised when management starts going through coat-check pockets looking for spare change."
Like menstruating co-workers the two were in golfer sync now, both overshooting the green into the fringe on the opposite side, not 12 feet from the traffic of 32nd Street.
"I thought you harbor institutions made it no matter what."
Adlai leaned against a wooden sign that read Golfers are not allowed to leave the course to buy anything while the Prep Cook studied his shot and waited for a fuzz-thumping T-Top Monte Carlo with shredded trunk woofers to pass.
"The steakhouses do. But when the seafood guys get skittish they start fucking up inventory. They over-order one week and under the next. And once the second guessing starts, it's like betting red or black..." The Prep Cook chipped his ball within four feet of the pin. "...And that's the name of that tune."
"So when you overstock and can't sell it, you take it home and have a big clambake, yes?"
"Hell no. We hold that shit to the almost very last minute. Not the kind of chance I'm gonna subject friends and family to."
"Don't tell me you guys actually toss the stuff. You mix in some Old Bay with mayo and call it crab dip right?"
"Dumpster babies all of it."
"But... it's gotta be worth something. Can't you sell it to a homeless shelter or something?"
The Prep Cook took a long look at Adlai.
"You ain't right, Adlai. I guess if you wanted you could can the shit into some kind of hobo chowder, but of course you'd need a canning machine, so unless you know some wharf rat restaurant owner who truly doesn't give a shit about the health inspectors or repeat customers, you're out of luck in the fish business."
"Can't you freeze it?"
"Adlai, Please shut up and play golf."
They had to squint to spot the cup on 14 due to the fact that Richie had left the pin lying on the green. Adlai could see him just beyond the hole, drumming his knees impatiently behind the wheel as he tailgated the line of carts waiting on 15.
As maddening as Richie's lack of etiquette was for the Prep Cook and himself, Adlai felt even worse for the poor saps playing ahead, with Richie's unannounced practice balls dropping from the sky all around them. He asked the Prep Cook if it was considered unethical to aim for members of your own threesome.
"If it's Richie, it's encouraged."
Adlai hit his prettiest shot of the day, and watched giddily as it ricocheted off the roof of Richie's cart. Richie sang loud enough for the entire back nine to hear.
"Riiiight around the cornerr!"
"How 'bout those guys at the side of the road with the vans and a canopy tent with the hand-painted fresh-seafood signs with the backward S's," Adlai asked. "Couldn't you drive your leftover shrimps out to Route 40? Peddle 'em off there?"
"Man you're goin' to an awful lot of trouble to dump refuse."
"Its not refuse man. It's near refuse. You just gotta get rid of it before the final buzzer."
"Adlai this town ain't as stupid as you'd like it to be. Word travels."
"So change up locations. One week Route 40, the next week Middle River."
"You forget Adlai, that this is Smalltimore. More people know that shifty mug of yours than you'd ever guess. I happened to drop your name in front of my aunt one time and she told me to 'stay away from that guy.' You wanna sell old clams at a lemonade stand on Eastern Avenue be my guest. My hunch is that you won't get any more out of it than a wasted afternoon and a citation for funking up the atmosphere."
Adlai stared off into the distance trying to think of somebody he could sell seafood to. He was so intent on an answer he failed to notice Richie in an altercation with a group of 14-year-old girls directly in the way of his next shot, loitering ostentatiously and passing around a pack of Menthols.
He continued to pester the Prep Cook until they came to an asphalt skid at the cart return. Richie was already having a High Life on a bench outside the clubhouse as Adlai cut to the bottom line.
"So, supposing I can figure something. Can I have the next batch of tossables?"
"Man you stink like it does. I told you they are firing people down there. All I need is for some busboy on smoke break to see me putting a bushel of crab legs in the back of your car."
"So leave 'em by the dumpster. I'll come pick 'em up. I'll even wear a tie and if anybody asks, I'll tell them I'm a health inspector."
"There's gotta be something for me in this Adlai. Otherwise it's just stupid. Scratch that. Either way it's stupid."
"That's what they said about Amway. Where's the hurt in trying? I'm the one doing the legwork. If anything pans out, I'll give you fifteen percent."
"Fifteen percent? I'm the supplier!"
"And I'm the one who's got to swing the deal you keep calling unswingable. Take it or leave it."
"Alright Adlai. Go for it. Monday night's the two-minute warning. Every restaurant's last-ditch fish special. I'll leave whatever's left behind the dumpsters after closing. If I were you I'd get there before the rats beat you to it."
"Thanks man. I owe you one."
Don Ruckerson scratched his nose with a pencil and looked Adlai in the eye. "Tell me again where you're getting this stuff?"
"Good friend of mine. Amateur waterman. Doesn't have the licenses yet and is having a pretty good run of it. Plays cards with some real salts. Knows some guys who know some guys."
"Is this guy a fisherman Adlai, or a mobster?"
"All I'm saying is my guy is finding all the spots and hauling the stuff in. Technically illegal, sure, but what isn't? Not your problem. Just don't ask any more questions and I show up with a Tuesday night special at a price that will make your already-clogged heart stop."
"I don't need any more legal trouble these days, Adlai. Your mother knows that better than anybody."
Ruckerson's Seafood on Dundalk Avenue was one of his mother's longest-standing clients. As a home-practicing attorney, working out of her den with a Dictaphone in stockinged feet, it only seemed right that Jackie Dallas's number was the one called for the kind of legal advice required from a low-end beach bar, 140 miles from the beach.
With its steady clientele of working class regulars chasing Pikesville Rye with Natty Boh, Ruckerson's had precisely the undiscerning patrons he was looking for.
And although his mother's career had gotten in the way of some beautiful ideas in the past, Adlai had long ago determined that there was no good reason that he (or the art of creative entrepreneurship) should have to suffer just because she had managed to pass the bar and earn the credentials to officially pick a nit.
"If you think putting out complimentary seafood appetizers for Tuesday happy hour is legal trouble, then by all means take a pass. I'm just trying to do you a favor Don, and help out a friend until the fishing regulators stop jerking him around. If you like I'll come back when he can legitimately charge what the stuff's worth, and you can cry about that instead..."
Adlai slowed up on the pitch, comfortably cruising back into in Truthland.
"Monday night is Football. Wednesdays you got pool league plus all the mid-week Powerball traffic. Thursdays are this close to Friday and the place fills up with thirsty types getting a jump on the weekend. Tuesday's the only weak spot in your lineup. Trivia night. Isn't that like, 1998?"
"Are we still doing that?"
"According to your weekly City Paper listing, yes. But the last Tuesday I was in here it was Deadsville, save the three ancient slobs arguing over the pro-wrestling career of Big Daddy Lipscomb. Put some gumbo out. Honestly Ruck what have you got to lose?"
"Okay Adlai. Maybe you've got something. Bring me what you've got Tuesday morning and we'll see if we can work something out. What's the guy fishing?"
"Little bit of everything. Wants to learn all aspects of the trade. Catch of the Day in every sense of the word."
"Yeah. Okay. Come on by after ten, and I'll take a look."
The Rusty Scupper sat perched at the end of a concrete pier, with a hotel-guestbook center-spread view of the Harbor; 180 degrees of after-hours office fluorescents and orange Hooters neon, their reflections twinkling below a waterline dotted with bobbing paddleboat sea-dragons.
Adlai backed the 240 Z up to the Scupper dumpsters sometime after 1:00 am and popped the hatch. He wrinkled his nose and peered around until he spotted a wooden bushel basket marked "A.D." sitting up against the slime-crusted rubbish container. Adlai hoisted and stowed it quickly in the back of the Datsun, and headed out for Route 40.
The Prep Cook had left more than he'd expected. There was no way it would all fit in his mother's refrigerator.
It was 1:30 when Adlai pulled into the parking lot of King's Liquors. Little more than a trailer-sized refrigerator with a loading dock jutting out the front of it, King's Liquors was Baltimore's go-to destination for cut-rate beer, ice, individually wrapped pickles and Utz products. Simply drive your pick-up to the beer sign-lit dock, roll down your window and holler how many cases and of what, and in less than three minutes you were loaded and gone, peeling the shrink wrap off a stick of home-cured beef jerky with your teeth before you reached the first light.
Additional services included Western Union, scratch-offs, and for those last-call will and testaments, a notary public.
He drove around back and saw Dwight stacking empty pony kegs onto a hand truck. Adlai got close and honked once, bolting him upright and causing him to topple the kegs.
"God-dammit!" Dwight slammed his palm against the hood of the Datsun. He made no move to retrieve the runaways.
"What's happening Dwight? Long time."
"I saw you last week. You hit on my girlfriend."
"You know damn well."
"Since when is teaching a girl how to play shuffleboard hitting on her?"
"You left an imprint of your belt buckle on her ass."
"I was just teaching her form. Shuffleboard's a skill."
"Pushing a hockey puck down a sawdusted plank is a bar game for people too drunk to shoot pool."
"Are you calling Denise a drunk?"
"Fuck off Adlai. We're between break-ups anyway. What do you want?"
"I need to stow some stuff in your walk-in."
"I ain't stowin' stolen goods."
"Not stolen. Nothing to sweat whatsoever. I'm just a guy needing some cooler space."
"C'mon man. Help a brother out. Not costing you zip. This is the age of the barter. Next time you need a favor, I'm your guy."
"You. You're my guy."
"You know it."
"So like, when you decide to teach Denise how to merengue, you're my guy."
"Merengue is stupid Dwight."
"Get lost Adlai."
Dwight sat on Adlai's hood and lit a cigarette. "Ten bucks is an insult."
"You don't even know what it is!"
"Doing you any favor whatsoever has a twenty-dollar minimum."
Adlai had his keys out and was already moving around to the back of the car. "One basket. Overnight. I'll be back tomorrow morning to pick it up. All I got's ten though. If I had more you'd be welcome to it."
Turning his back, Adlai nonchalantly checked his wallet, front-pocketing all denominations except for a five and five ones while Dwight stared at the soggy basket.
"No deal Adlai. No fucking way."
"Why the hell not?"
"You're talking to a guy who will eat hot dogs three weeks after their expiration date, and I ain't eating that."
"Why not. That's fresh outta the Bay."
"They're fresh out of your ass. I had a shrimp that shade of gray once. No sir. Never again."
"I'm not asking you to eat it Dwight, I'm just asking you to store it for a night."
"Uh-uh. That shit is one day away from Gut Twister. It might not smell tonight, but in the next twelve hours it's gonna turn toxic."
"What are you talking about? I tell you it's fresh."
"You forget I used to shuck downtown and we served almost anything. I know the signs. Beside, the boss man's got about thirty pounds of deer jerky hanging in there, and it would be my ass if it starts tasting like chum."
"I'm telling you it's fine. Listen, I'm in a bind here."
Dwight had already begun to trot after the keg that had travelled the farthest, his wallet chain chink-chanking. "See you at the Dredge man. Stay away from Denise. Mr. Bill's ain't the only person in town with jumbo crabs."
"Alright Dwight. Thanks for the tip."
Adlai pulled back onto Route 40, sniffing the car interior deeply and wondering what exactly had tipped Dwight. His nose was picking up nothing more than the usual wafts of the Cross Street Fish Market. Maybe not standing over the sushi grade tuna, but certainly nowhere near the gutting sink.
He had already rejected the idea of buying coolers. This scheme was still in the experimental stage, and Adlai would be damned if he was going to spend any money out of pocket before turning some kind of profit.
Not while there was a perfectly good bathtub in the guest room at his mother's place.
Pulling into his mother's driveway, Adlai could detect no light coming from her bedroom window. Even with a Nelson DeMille, her guiltiest pleasure, Jackie rarely managed to stay up past one. Coast clear.
Not that it mattered. Adlai had no intention of passing his mother's bedroom door with his dubious catch, having already mapped a sentryless route to the guest room via the foyer and main stairwell.
He opened the hatch and lifted the basket out, heading for the front door.
A long gray stream of seafood goop ran down the front of his khakis. Adlai reconsidered and walked around to the side door, opting instead to drip through the mudroom, up the back stairwell, and past his sleeping mother.
Not optimal but better than anointing his mother's Oriental staircase runner with Neptune's secret sauce. He'd have to take his chances on the landing.
The drip wasn't slowing. Adlai hustled.
In his haste he forgot to disarm the alarm system, and was fumbling for the light switch with an armload of squish when the electronic siren went off. Panicked and still in the dark, Adlai hastily set the basket down on top of a fresh pile of laundry and scrambled to enter the deactivation code.
There was silence. Quickly broken.
"It's me Mom. Everything's cool. I just forgot to disarm when I came in."
"Adlai every time you do that it scares the crap out of me."
"It's fine, Mom. Go back to sleep."
"Actually I've been having real trouble sleeping. I'm up reading."
Adlai suddenly regretted the itty bitty book light he'd given her last Christmas. It was making it harder to keep tabs on her from outside the house.
"Erratic sleep patterns aren't good for you Mom. Maybe you should take an Ambien. Something."
"Maybe you shouldn't hook your mother on pharmaceuticals and remember to turn off the alarm when you come in here at three o'clock in the morning."
"It's two twenty. Go to sleep."
"I'm telling you I can't."
Adlai flipped the light switch on and surveyed his situation. The thin wood of the basket was almost soaked through, perspiring like a Tupelo Baptist choir through cornstarch.
There would be no getting past her now.
And then Adlai saw his answer. After all, its whole purpose was to clean wasn't it?
He lifted the lid on the mudroom's top loading clothes washer and poured the contents of the sea basket inside, then went back out to the Datsun for the bags of ice he'd picked up at Royal Farm to top off the mix.
He'd ice everything overnight, set an alarm and be up before his mother. Then simply dig his bounty back out, throw in the load of dripped-upon laundry, start a heavy cycle, and be at Ruckerson's by 10:00 am. Perfect.
As a precautionary measure against Dwight's predictions, he opened a package of Dr. Scholl's odor eaters he spotted on his mother's boot shelf, and threw it in with the load.
He chucked the empty basket beside the carport's recycling tubs and went upstairs to what was now called the Guest Room, although it hadn't changed much since it was his, save the dartboard removal and untacking of Kathy Ireland. Adlai fell out on the bed, exhausted.
He would have slept through lunch if not for the shrieking.
"Aaadlaaaaaiiiiiiiii! Get your ass down here!"
Adlai rolled over and looked at the clock radio. 9:25 pm. Off by 12 hours. The alarm he set for 8:00 am would be going off that night.
For a sleep-numbed few seconds he wondered what his mother was screaming about.
"Who the fuck does this?"
Then he got a whiff of his hands. An Eau de King Oscar that hadn't been there before going to bed. Strong enough for his mother to use the word fuck.
He dropped his wallet and keys in his shoes and went downstairs where his mother was going ballistic.
Adlai ignored Jackie's frothing tirade as he rummaged through the kitchen in T–shirt, boxers and socks, arming himself with a garbage bag and some large wooden salad tongs before braving the mudroom's swinging door.
"I overslept. Was gonna take care of this before you got up."
If he'd been wearing a collar, Adlai was fairly certain his mother would have grabbed him by it.
"What is wrong with you?"
Adlai stepped around her and plunged his arm into the washer, bringing up tongfuls of sea goop as fast as he could, and dumping them into the black Hefty bag.
"It's a washer. It washes things. Relax. Would you have rather me used the tub in the guestroom?"
"This is an 'either or' question? I almost put pillowcases in there. How about no uncooked seafood except in the fridge. Better yet, how about no uncooked rotten seafood anywhere whatsoever!"
"You think it's rotten?"
"Are you kidding me? Is that a root vegetable on your face? Try inhaling. Catches don't get any deadlier."
There would be no more denying it. Dwight's timeline had been on the money. The washer smelled like Arthur Treacher's outhouse. Adlai told himself that once the seafood was somewhere other than the confined space of the Maytag, the stench would dissipate.
He set the bag down long enough to put on some khakis from a pile of dirty laundry, hoping to negate the lack of credibility conveyed by a man in his skivvies, and went back to work.
His wheezed speech echoed from inside the washer as he gathered the last of the spin-cycle chowder, refusing to inhale.
"Mom, have you got any of that Zero Odor stuff left?"
"Adlai, I'm going to ask this one more time, but slowly so you hear it. What... in the hell... IS WRONG WITH YOU?"
The tongs were becoming clumsy as they scraped barnacled bottom. Adlai came up for air and went in after the last of the squish-scraps barehanded.
"I'm late as it is. If it makes you feel better I'll come back and push all the buttons on this thing for you. It washes you know."
"It washes, yes. It does not digest shrimp shells."
"Surprise, the shells are still on the shrimp."
Adlai hoisted the sagging bag over his shoulder like an undersea Santa Claus on his way to fill the bad kids' stockings with mushy calamari. There was a spray bottle of Zero Odor on the wire shelf over the dryer. He grabbed it on his way out.
Adlai turned the key in the Datsun only to discover he'd left the running lights on overnight; his battery dead. Using the duplicate on his ring to unlock his mother's Subaru, he loaded his sack and drove away, feverishly mashing at every window button on the armrest and spritzing Zero Odor over his shoulder.
By the time Adlai got to the restaurant, Don Ruckerson had come and gone. An assistant manager took a break from arranging plastic crabs in a fishing net to inform him that Don had a 10:30 dentist appointment, and probably wouldn't be back until after lunch.
Zero Odor had become an essential part of the transaction, and there was no telling just how long its magic effect would last. Like all As-Seen-On-TV products it wasn't sold in stores, and he was already down to the bottom of the bottle.
He'd been introduced to the "Molecular-Rearranging Miracle" by a videographer buddy shooting an infomercial. Adlai was paid to play the shill, posing as a random man-on-the-street convinced to stick his face in a box of soiled kitty litter and swear he didn't smell a thing.
Adlai had noted how good the props were. "What are those cat turds, sculpted Styrofoam? They look real."
The director laughed. "That's because they're cat turds."
Adlai was floored. His nose had almost been touching. The bottle of mystery mist really worked.
In a December 22 panic, he'd ordered an economy bottle shipped as a Christmas present to his mother that she received on January 3rd. Over the next few months Adlai tried to beat Zero Odor, and lost every time. Against old Chuck Taylors. Moldy cardboard. Mildewed lifejackets. Locker-imprisoned sweatpants. And once, in a mintless fix and late for a date, on his own garlic breath (according to the label, it was nontoxic, although the infomercial said not to spray it on food or pets).
And today, it had defused Davy Jones's ultimate stink bomb.
But for how long? He'd never run a duration test, and Don's after-lunch return was a guesstimated two hours away.
Adlai had no intention of letting a basket of income turn into a funky pumpkin. Not when he was this close. It was now obvious that this transaction would be a one-time parlor trick, but he had already put in too much effort to come away with nothing.
Don would return from his dental appointment, take a look at his purchase, toss it and then most likely fire the assistant manager. So theoretically everything could still work out fine, as long as Adlai got the money in his pocket beforehand.
Adlai let out an indignant stage exhale, then with an assumptive tone asked the assistant manager where would he like him to put the seafood, to which the assistant manager replied, "Whaahuh?"
With an undercurrent of impatience, Adlai introduced himself and informed the manager that Don Ruckerson had agreed to buy discount seafood from him.
"Discount seafood? I don't know anything about it."
Adlai played the card he'd been dreaming up on the ride over, just in case Don asked what he was supposed to do with his briny potluck.
"It's for ceviche."
Adlai had no idea how to make it, but was pretty sure you could use just about anything. Like fish chili.
"He didn't say anything to me about it."
"I don't really know what to tell you. Don told me he wanted to start putting out a happy-hour ceviche but couldn't afford to. I'm trying to do him a favor. Hate for him to miss out on it just because he's got a toothache."
"It's a gum scrape."
"A gum scrape. They scrape out your gums."
Adlai's mind was scrambling for a solution as to how he was gonna get this guy to open up the register, and how much to bargain for.
"We had a deal for thirty-five pounds of high end, at seven bucks a pound. Two forty-five total but for Don I'll call it an even two hundred. Call him if you want."
It was 10:45. With any luck Don Ruckerson was safely in the arms of a dental hygienist with a mouth full of cotton.
He watched the assistant manager dial and wait for the beep.
"Don, it's Doug. Listen there's a guy here that says -"
Adlai interjected mid-sentence. "I've got other people lined up, I was just trying to do Don a favor."
Doug held out a hand asking for quiet as he tried to finish his thought. "- that you have some arrangement to buy a shipment of seafood from him -"
"But I do need a yes or no now. This stuff won't keep forever you know..." Adlai took a look at his own cell phone, as if there was something pertinent on it.
Doug shook his head in an effort to silence the unshutuppable Adlai Dallas while trying to wrap up a coherent message to his boss. Adlai ignored it.
"Tell Don it's thirty-five pounds total, but I'll call it a generous thirty. He does business with my mother."
Doug gave up explaining the situation intelligently, ended the call, and shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you."
"Whatever. He must be getting forgetful if he didn't mention it. He was really excited about this ceviche recipe. Bobby Flay I think. Anyway, have a good one."
Adlai bluffed a move towards the door.
Doug pooched his lips out and wiggled them around. "Okay, take it around to the kitchen entrance and tell Ed it's for ceviche. I'll let Don know when he gets back."
"Okay great. That's perfect. All that's left now is the settling up."
The assistant manager hesitated for a moment and then opened the register, counting out four fifties from underneath the change drawer. He was tired of the hot seat. This guy obviously knew Don, who was he to call bullshit?
"Here's two hundred. I assume Don has your number?"
Adlai pocketed the cash and made a mental note to turn off his phone for the rest of the day. "Of course."
Working against the last possible hurdle of a kitchen-staff inspection, Adlai waited outside in the Subaru until three unshaved doughboys in aprons emerged from the service entrance for a smoke break. Adlai worked quickly, hustling the Hefty bag past them without explanation and into the kitchen, deserted save one silent woman by a cutting board, facing the wall and chopping onions.
Tearing a hole in the bottom, Adlai squeezed the contents of the bag into a large pot he found hanging on a rack and made room for it in the industrial refrigerator. He noticed a quart-sized bowl of peeled shrimp covered in saran wrap, and as an afterthought, unwrapped the bowl and scattered the shrimp on top of his own pot.
Adlai sped back to Jackie's, catching another break as he realized she had yet to notice her car was gone. He jump-started the Datsun, and let it idle while he took a shower.
It was almost time for a victory nap.
Two-hundred bucks wasn't a windfall, but it would get him through the weekend.
Don Ruckerson spent most of the afternoon in a dental chair, having only rinsed once before receiving the news that he needed prophylaxis. There had been a cancellation just after his appointment. Don pulled the awful trigger and submitted to the whole unpleasantness in one sitting.
He didn't get around to hearing his assistant manager's confusing message until after 2:00, but due to Novocain mush-mouth didn't call the restaurant until it was close to 3:00. Doug told him that the ceviche had already been made.
Through a fog of intense discomfort Don grunted something that sounded like "Who tha heah knoves hahta make seveechee there?" followed an unintelligible sidebar about Adlai Dallas, and finished up with a "Ahkay, reemime me ta puh ih ow ih I fohgeh."
Don didn't bring up the question of payment, and neither did Doug, already suspecting that somehow he'd fucked up.
The T. Rowe Price vs. PNC softball game scheduled for that night would obviously have to be rescheduled. The ominous cloud cover of Baltimore left little doubt.
The T. Rowe team consisted mainly of guys from the mailroom and a handful of junior execs. Not wanting to waste a bona fide excuse to leave the office on time, they donned their uniforms and met in the lobby to decide what bar they should assemble at while waiting for the game to be officially called off.
Word in the break room was that the much-reviled PNC team was already drinking, 17 floors below at the Water Street Tavern. Not wanting a repeat of the last inter-company pre-softball game convergence - when the T. Rowe All Caps drank in the same bar with the Constellation Energy Bills and over $900 of damage was inflicted on one of the Pratt Street Ale House's 18th century beer coppers - the All Caps team captain decided to avoid any run-ins. They would slum at one of the establishments closer to the Patterson Park fields.
Directions were passed around to a laminated porthole of a dive called Ruckerson's. Drinks were cheap, and they could have their run of the place in almost-certain anonymity. Business had been bearish as of late; layoffs, late nights and a sagging morale. A good old-fashioned middle-of-the-week tying of one on was in the air.
Tina had been fighting with her boyfriend Tommy which was nothing unusual, except that most of the time they'd wait until after her day shift dancing at the Haven before lighting the fuse. But Tommy had just been laid off from his latest construction job for showing up stoned (which astounded him) and was spending the afternoon hanging around the low-end neighborhood strip joint, enjoying the perks of Tina's employee drink discount and getting just sauced enough to take issue with the fat guy in the sweatpants who was contributing less money to her g-string than slobber.
Due to his former work schedule, Tommy had never laid eyes on Fat Freddy and his infamous sweatpants, with no way of knowing his Haven status of day-shift mascot; the too-old-for-active-duty firehouse dog that couldn't stop himself from begging for scraps. He was considered harmless (his sweatpants were not), and although he didn't tip much, he tipped, drinking rum and diet coke until the after-work crowd showed up.
For a Highlandtown strip club manager, that made him a VIP.
So after one pretend "fumbling" of the g-string too many Tommy snapped and gave him a shove. Tina told him to cool it, but by then Tommy was already feeling the psychological benefits of blowing off some steam and all three - Tina, Tommy, and Fat Freddy - went at it.
There was no bouncer on the day shift and the manager had to come out of his office, which was never good. Tommy got tossed but the manager waited until the end of Tina's shift to tell her she was fired. "At least until you drop that moron."
One of the other girls, Danielle, stopping by to pick up her check, was almost cold-cocked as Tina threw her weight against the fire exit door on her way out.
Danielle asked Tommy? and Tina nodded once. It was just starting to rain. With no further questions, Danielle tucked Tina into her Jeep Grand Cherokee and started driving, looking for anywhere Tommy wasn't, to sit and have a drink. And in Danielle's words, dance for the sake of fucking dancing.
After two months of staring at Classified Ads with an English-to-Russian dictionary Andrei finally got a job.
Nothing great. A one-timer for pocket change. But to a dry-docked sailor with limited English and a tug captain recovering from knee replacements, 50 bucks was 50 bucks.
Posing naked for three hours in front of a semi-circle of aspiring sketch artists was just fine with him. At least until this fad of employers requiring legitimate working papers ran its course.
He was hungry.
And all the villager optimism his mother scrawled to him from the self-sustaining nowheres of central Russia in her letters, extolling an unshakable belief that community would always take care of its own, was doing absolutely nothing to balance Andrei's nearly constant state of low blood sugar.
Obviously the woman's knowledge of community did not extend to the wharves of Baltimore, USA.
But indeed the employment cavalry had arrived.
All he had to do was show up at the Life Drawing class in some East Baltimore art studio Wednesday morning, take his clothes off, and sit on a big wooden platform. The woman who hired him even asked him not to shave or comb his hair, saying he was extremely authentic.
Andrei didn't know what extremely authentic meant, comprehending only that he was not to comb his hair.
What a country!
Tonight, he would eat something other than potted meat. Maybe even go out for some clam strips. By Sravog he could almost taste it!
Wendell opened the pneumatic bus doors and let the crazy lady on while the hippie secured his bike to the rack up front. Four more hours and he could kiss this mind-number of a route goodbye forever.
He had been thrilled to learn, just yesterday, that he had been transferred to the Convention Center route. Starting tomorrow.
It was a busier route, but straight-shot driving with fewer wackos than his current one, and that would surely make for a less painful work week.
Seven more stops and he'd be done for the day. It was time to celebrate a little.
God knew he deserved it.
Roger Patton was tired of feeling like a well-dressed Labrador retriever. Sit. Stay. Fetch.
As an assistant to the State Comptroller for over two years now, he could count the serious projects he'd been put in charge of on one hand. Everything else seemed to fall under categories of conference room coffee-and-Danish trays, public-appearance press releases, staffer birthday gifts, and taking the Comptroller's Infiniti X in for the never-ending servicing of its maddingly temperamental dashboard computer; the car seemed to be named for the number of times you could expect all its electrical misfirings to work themselves out.
None of it was doing a damn thing to pump his resumé.
His latest assignment: find some alternate entertainment for the Comptroller's in-laws from West Virginia who had been to Baltimore a grand total of twice. Box seats had been arranged for the hapless Orioles who were playing the Royals; even without the string-pulling they could have probably scored seats over either dugout on their own. Now weatherman Marty Bass was calling for rain, the skies already backing him up with conviction. It was Baltimore at its dreariest.
"Just find some locals joint that serves the kind of seafood West Virginia hillbillies understand," the Comptroller had told him. "Last time they were here I got 'em reservations at The Oceanaire and they tried to order fish sticks.
"Someplace cheap. With something to do and not Karaoke. I gotta go with them this time or my wife is gonna tie her knees in a knot and I'm already down to twice a month. And I sure as shit ain't got nothing to talk about with those people."
Roger leafed through the bar ads of the City Paper, looking for an idea.
Gene's Gun Shop, named after a partner long gone and owing enough never to be heard from again, was located in one of Baltimore's more crime-riddled neighborhoods, flanked for the moment by a fly-by-night cell phone shack and a wig shop.
After six years, Ray was long over the guilt of peddling pieces in a police-blotter part of town, but the boredom of running a business that did so little business, that was deflating.
With fresh legislation requiring a longer wait for background checks and stiffer sentences for carrying concealed weapons, Ray didn't sell many guns anymore. He still repaired a few now and then, but for the most part merely accessorized, providing folding stocks for illegal automatics already bought on the street; and assorted Baltimore pocket toys: butterfly knives, collapsible batons, and the occasional pack of throwing stars.
Although lately he showed a spike in sales for the fake AK-47s that shot rounds of yellow plastic pellets. Maybe the hopheads were staging battle-training exercises down by the light rail tracks. There was one artsy-looking kid in a defaced MICA shirt that went through three cases of ammo a week; he reminded Ray of an old-school glue sniffer from the '70s. Ray had seen him one time on the steps of the Mt. Royal Tavern firing into the skies over commuter traffic and laughing himself sick at the pelting yellow hailstorm and its bewildering effect on people behind the wheel.
But the profit margins of novelty-item sales did not justify the upkeep of running a small business on Howard Street.
Ray was sifting through a drawer of punch pins and looking at naked girls online when he realized it was ten minutes after closing, which irked him. The Koreans closed the corner takeout at 6:00 on the dot, and Ray had been dreaming about their fried shrimp since breakfast.
Maybe he could stop by Ruckerson's and pick up some takeout on the way home.
Don Ruckerson had to admit. It was the best trivia night ever.
There was a buzz of bent elbows from one end of the 75-foot horseshoe bar to the other, the taps flowing, and the shot glasses running low. Margaritas by the pitcher for the softball team at the party table, who were gleefully assigning names to unshelled peanuts and smashing them by hand with a wingtip shoe.
Leesa the bartender pinballed around the interior of the U-shaped bar, clacking off the rails with her belly ring, sloshing foam in the cocktail-fruit bins, and giving out angel wings like Potterville's Nick the bartender on the 1949 National Cash Register that came with the place.
One particularly talented girl was working the jukebox and keeping heads nodding in an I-can-dig-it-yes bob with her undeniable set list of deep-cut Joan Jett, Badfinger and Eagles of Death Metal. She had carved herself out a little piece of floor by the wall-mounted juke to dance, evidently under the impression that it was possible to push her ass out through her back pockets.
At the opening thomp of Lakeside's "Fantastic Voyage" filter-pedal funk line, she was joined by a friend who began to invoke a tube of toothpaste, squeezing out the very last of herself.
Both the bus driver and the man eating fried shrimp from the carryout bag couldn't take their eyes off them. The fried-shrimp guy had ordered his food to go, but apparently decided to grab a seat at the bar once the girls' engines began to turn over.
What the State Comptroller was doing there was anybody's guess, but he was a Democrat and had already agreed to pose for a quick snapshot with Don for the barroom's Baltimore celebrity wall, so his first round of drinks was on the house.
The Comptroller and his wife were seated at the far bend of the bar with Ma and Pa Kettle. It must be some kind of PR stunt, Don surmised. Bolster his "just folks" image.
Don shifted his bedroll-shaped backside in his seat as he surveyed the crowded, jostling room and smiled. Money.
Don was at his nightly post, perched at the greet-and-seat podium by the entrance to the now-closed dining room, riding the high of a dental ordeal over and done with.
Took it like a man.
He lifted a finger at a passing Joyce and called for his usual, a shot of peppermint schnapps.
The menthol zing on his freshly scavenged gums was painful, but there was something extra buzzy about the alcohol splashing raw flesh. Don thought about Scarface rubbing cocaine all over his gums and signaled Joyce for another shot.
Leesa had been emceeing the Tuesday Night Trivia for over two hours now, using the kitchen microphone to ask the questions, between kitchen-staff announcements of "Order up."
Here was bar competition at its most disorganized, with a house policy of first one to say the right answer at a volume loud enough for Leesa to hear gets the points. The game consoles and monitors standard for 21st-century bar trivia were as foreign a concept to Ruckerson's Seafood as a wet nap to a Great White.
Which was making things enormously difficult to follow as teams attempted to name six members of the Dirty Dozen, stealing answers and trying to out-yell each other.
Leesa called QUIET! as the barroom became bleacher-crowd unruly, arguing over which movie had Donald Sutherland, Kelly's Heroes or The Dirty Dozen, collectively shouting down the guy who kept insisting he was in both, with a side fracas flaring up over whether it was Telly Savalas or Don Rickles in the role of Sgt. Crapgame.
She was already in the weeds when Don told her to refill the ceviche bowls.
It was true, almost every serving bowl was down to the juice. The day cook and bartender had collaborated on the dish after no one could get hold of Don. Bobby Flay had several ceviche recipes posted online, but each was designed for specific seafood.
Having rarely prepared anything without a fryer basket, the two men were astonished to learn that raw seafood could be "cooked" with citrus alone. The revelation sparked a chemistry-set spirit and the two worked as mad scientists, oblivious to each other's increments as they drenched the pot with lime, cilantro, and repeated splashings of rail tequila.
Chips on the side.
A spiked mystery-salsa with some chew to it; enough to pique the barroom palate. Double-dipping became the norm, if for no other reason than to take a second guess at what the hell it was they just swallowed. And by then one could feel the tequila.
As it is with working people stuck somewhere between whatever fast-food crap they'd shoveled for lunch and the dinner they were putting off in favor of Smirnoff Ice, there was little hesitation to dig into anything free, be it cheese-glopped floppy disks or little artificially colored pigs snuggled in gooey half-baked blankets.
And so even though the concoction was not so much ceviche as a poor man's Tequila Sunrise laced with aquarium water, it was a hit.
Kitchen staff worked a ladle through the cauldron of sea-monster bits and pushed the freshened bowls through the service window, eliciting hearty cheers from a crowd drunker by the half-hour, and already concocting excuses for Wednesday's inevitable sluggish start.
One of the T. Rowe mailroom guys, back from sharing a joint in the parking lot, began to take small sips straight out of the bowl.
It was beyond time that some handler should've shepherded the Comptroller out of there. The elected state employee was on the opposite side of the room from his wife and farm folk, flirting stupidly with one of the curvier softballers, bellowing "Sha Na Na!" as the answer to every music question and finding it hilarious.
There was only one guy, Don noticed, not making an ass of himself. The grizzled foreigner with wild strings of dirty blonde hair springing out from under a sailor cap at the far side of the bar, glassy-eyed and grinning as if this was the most delightful room in the world.
Don hadn't heard him say more than More chips and Pabst, please all night, in a thick Russian accent.
The bus driver and the fried-shrimp take-out guy continued feeding the dancing girls singles for a jukebox already so backlogged with selections that the off-duty pole spinners simply responded to each dollar with a sexy blank stare before pocketing it. The go-go girls might cut into his waitresses' tips, Don knew, but he did nothing to stop them. They were setting a hell of a mood.
Around 11:30 things got a little too heated over whether Jamie Lee Curtis was a hermaphrodite even though it wasn't officially a question and Don declared everyone a winner, bought the house a round, and told them to get the hell out.
After an evening of scattered thundershowers, the skies had opened up again and it was pouring. Aided, perhaps, by the ghost sots of a Baltimore past, they all made it home alive.
Wednesday morning was nobody's friend.
The mail guys were up first, shambling into the bright fluorescents of the office, groggy and gummy-eyed, sorting the WSJs from the Barrons and jockeying for first dibs on the empty storage room they used for naps.
Buzz was the first to get sick, spewing violently while rubber-banding personal mail for the CFO, including the lavender envelope that contained the handmade glued-macaroni birthday party invitation from his seven-year-old granddaughter.
The rest of the T. Rowe mailroom followed suit, counter-clockwise. Henry, at Buzz's immediate left in turn set off Stan and then Jamal. Closing out the sequence was Chuck, who abruptly restocked the office-supply cabinet with a visual mnemonic of his name, sploshing a drawer full of post-its with a new rainbow of sticky color.
The biggest loss of the day was triggered by Jamal. He threw up on a too-risky-to-email bike-messengered envelope of insider information that had highly paid fingers hovering over hot buttons since Monday's opening bell of the Bombay Sensex.
Jamal made a home in the men's room, cradled in a corner stall like a greenhorn sailor sent to his cabin, until the ceiling and floor returned to their traditional locations. When he found he could stand again, he washed the secret memo and held it under the hand dryer before telling the new guy to take it to the top floor.
Within the hour there was wood splintering on just about every rung of the corporate ladder as it became evident the investment company had missed out on the opportunity of the quarter, if not the year, by less than 45 minutes.
The fallout made examples of peripherally blamable scapegoats, as happens when such astronomical numbers are lost with no explanation that's fit to print. Two senior research analysts lost their jobs, with one of the casualties' irate and overmedicated trophy wife smashing four pieces of highly collectable Depression glasses upon hearing that she "might have to cut back for a while."
But the most seismic result of the morning would not occur until that weekend, during the second hour of a Toy Story-themed birthday party in Ellicott City. As the Mr. Potato Head piñata was being hoisted on the swing set, the mother of the birthday girl, thinking herself out of earshot, got her business-before-family father on the phone and began to uncork a lifetime of holding back. Initial thwacks were taken at the piñata as guests listened to the woman angrily dismiss his claims of being oblivious to the event and his defense of most certainly not having received the one-of-a-kind macaroni-art invitation "Kylie worked over 45 minutes to surprise you with!"
The woman continued to recount his other past absentee atrocities, turning back the calendar as far as 1982. After more than a couple of apprehensive stares from other parents, she had the sense to move around to the side of the house, and yet if it hadn't been for the timely busting of the Mr. Potato Head and subsequent squeals of the assembled, her shriek of "...the piano recital and the state gymnastics meet..." would have been heard all the way to the swim club.
And with the slamming of the phone, the Sr. Executive Vice President who never received the invitation to his granddaughter's birthday party mumbled "screw the inheritance tax" and for the first time in his life wondered what it would feel like to vote Democrat while his daughter kicked an inflatable Moon Walk.
Around 9:30 am Tina wobbled around to the strip bar's back entrance, popping Tylenols and wishing she had sunglasses to put over her sunglasses. The two go-go girls had stayed up after leaving Ruckerson's, talking until well past 3:00, flopped on the couch and balancing ashtrays on their stomachs.
The conversation hadn't gotten snappish until Tina drunkenly confessed that she didn't want to dance anymore. That she needed a push to get her out of there, away from the easy money and on to something better. Danielle was quick to infer some holier-than-thou shit and told her if she was such a morally upright citizen meant for something better she could just hand over her wad of jukebox go-go girl singles.
The next morning Tina, groaned herself upright, checked her purse and realized that in a fit of self-righteousness she'd given Danielle all her money.
Waking up to face a jobless reality, she left the snoring Danielle a note, took the keys to her Jeep Grand Cherokee, and drove to the Haven to ask for her job back. Before anyone had the chance to find a replacement.
The manager was in his office, sucking back the last of a breakfast roach. When he saw Tina he offered her the end of it, and as she gratefully pinched the resin-sticky tip of the smoldering paper, he asked if she would mind filling in for Janice on the morning shift. Her kid was sick.
Tina couldn't tell if he remembered firing her at all.
The clientele that morning consisted of two guys in H&S bakery uniforms straight from the all-night shift, Fat Freddy, and his infamous sweatpants.
Infamous due to the fact that no one at the Haven had ever seen them clean; a shifting assortment of landmass-shaped stains, overlapping and continentally drifting from day to day, up and down his lap and thighs. Many of the night girls didn't make the same concessions for Freddy's pants and refused to go on with the pants sharing the room, on those rare days Freddy stayed past the day shift.
Tina changed in the ladies room, murmuring an atheist's prayer that Tommy would stay away today while contemplating which jukebox songs would take it easiest on her pounding head. She limbered up, determined to treat the shift as an early morning exercise class, and sweat out her hangover.
Tina was getting a good slow burn on her quads to Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning" when she noticed Tommy sitting at the bar. Before she could react, Fat Freddy got up to put a ripped single in her leg warmers and without warning Tina felt her stomach launch itself a good six inches, slicking the stage and splotching a chartreuse-tinged Asia on Freddy's legendary warm-ups.
Later, nursing a ginger ale while the manager disinfected the pole, Tina noticed Tommy was gone. Well, at least there was that.
A Tommy cleansing.
The manager threw his sponge in a bucket and addressed Tina from the stage.
Scratch that Tina corrected herself, a total cleansing.
"Thanks Boss," was all she said.
With any luck, even Freddy's pants would get a wash.
There was no official instructor for the life drawing class. The woman who hired him was unstacking chairs when he got there. She showed him to a corner where he could "disrobe," which to Andrei's ear sounded awkward.
Students would be coming and going sporadically (spore-attic-lee?) until noon, she told him. "They'll tell you what kind of poses they want."
Another woman with a drawing pad and large vinyl bag of art supplies waddled in, breathing heavily through her nose, and sat in a folding chair facing a detached section of painted plywood staging in the center of the room.
The woman unstacking chairs informed Andrei that it was "Show time."
At first he sat quietly on an exercise mat atop the platform with his feet dangled over the side as if waiting for a doctor's examination, looking away to middle distance as a handful of mismatched art enthusiasts trickled in and begin sketching his scrotum with broken bits of charcoal.
Time passed slowly. Andrei had no clue how long he'd been sitting there. He had begun to see the shape of a baby elephant in a water stain on the opposite wall when a stringy woman eating a muffin and wearing a gardening hat barked under her breath.
Once again the words sounded very weird to Andrei.
He crossed his legs and rested his chin on his hand, an inadvertent Thinker. It hurt his back and after five minutes he realized he wouldn't be able to hold it comfortably.
Andrei leaned back on his arms in search of a less painful position, eliciting a collective groan from the group. Upon hearing the expressed displeasure, he moved again, causing the muffin eater to snap at him to make up his mind.
Andrei took a guess, rolled onto one side, and assumed the bearskin-rug centerfold pose Burt Reynolds did for Cosmopolitan.
From this new vantage point he noticed a disheveled spiky-haired punk wearing a ratty MICA tee shirt who kept rubbing his nose and giggling at a pitch far too high for anyone over the age of nine that wasn't a girl. Andrei was pretty sure the punk's inexplicable mirth had less to do with the sight of a naked man squirming in confusion, and more with whatever high you can catch inhaling art supplies.
Andrei altered his huffer theory as little yellow plastic round somethings started rattling out of his art supply box. Something in the amphetamine family, Andrei surmised, due to the kid's nonstop tittering. There was no way he could have known they were plastic AK-47 pellets, never having come in contact with a fake AK-47.
Andrei continued holding the position until his right hip started to ache. As he readjusted, something horrible roiled inside him, from somewhere down near his hernia scar to somewhere up around the top of where his liver should be, as unexpected as John Hurt's chest burst.
That's when the muffin-mouth lady let out an exasperated sigh, lifted her chin and spoke to him directly.
"Please strike a new pose and hold it. And for the love of art," she repeated, "please make it interesting. Something unexpected."
Andrei still couldn't comprehend what these people wanted and no longer cared. A strange sensation had come over him, bringing both tunnel vision and vertigo. With a shudder, he doubled over.
And then - per their request - Andrei gave the class something new to draw. Whether it was interesting or not was debatable. All would agree it was unexpected. Most of the drawing circle put their charcoal away and made for the exit as Andrei held onto the edge of the stage as if it was an ice floe and he the salmon-sickest polar bear in the Arctic.
The kid with the MICA shirt, however, opened a tin of colored pencils and got to work, realizing that the tableau before him would make an ideal show flyer for his art-school band, The Rejaculators - due to its visual encapsulation of the band's own philosophy of art – and possibly even the album cover for their forthcoming vinyl-only issue, entitled Spit It Back.
Within 48 hours there were Rejaculators flyers posted all over downtown featuring Andrei the naked Russian splashing goop all over the tops of his hairy feet. A 4x6-foot Kinko's blowup of the spewing Russian was strung up sideshow-style over the entrance to the Ottobar announcing the Spit It Back record-release party.
A week later, as a recovered but rather bummed out Andrei wandered downtown in search of Help Wanted signs, the hardcore kids began to point him out to each other.
"How do we know that guy?"
The next morning in Fells Point a kid with a black rose in each ear yelled "Oi!" as Andrei passed.
The following day he was stopped on the street by a tug captain he knew by sight but had never met.
"Hey, uh... you're the Russian right, Andrei is it? Listen, I'm going out next week and could use a man."
Andrei shook the tug captain's hand with a seasoned grip and looked him in the eye; the international language of "Hire me."
"It's funny," the captain said, "I was driving down Maryland Avenue trying to think of someone for the job, and I look up and see this awful poster of a guy throwing up all over himself naked. Really disgusting. But for some reason it made me think of you."
Andrei smiled. His mother had been right.
Ray had a customer, the likes he'd never seen cross the threshold of Gene's Gun Shop. A Big Daddy.
His identification looked legit. As did his freshly notarized Designated Collector's card. His Amex was platinum. And he had a list.
The first gun he asked for was a Smith and Wesson Model 67. As Ray touched his chin, trying to picture it, the man added, "The one Adrienne Barbeau carries in Escape from New York."
Ray didn't know of the Frenchman or his escape, but he did have the gun. Two of them in fact, under glass in the center display.
The customer stood just under 6', in good shape and well put together, with hair high and tight, sporting a charcoal grey jacket over a purple crewneck.
He moved comfortably in light wool slacks, pointing each gun at people who weren't there and having imaginary conversations with Snake Plissken while pretending to free the President.
Ray had no idea what the man was doing and decided he must be in the movie business. They shot all kinds of cop-drama shit in this town. A prop guy maybe?
Next he was interested in the gun Angelina Jolie had in Tomb Raider. Ray did some googling and learned from a site called whoshotwhowithwhat.com that it was a Heckler and Koch 9mm, a gun he happened to have in one of the wall cases.
Ray took it out and watched the customer caress it lovingly, as if Miss Jolie had pleasured herself with it between takes. And then he slid it in the front of his pants and closed his eyes.
Ray snuck a look at the man's Collector's credentials, still by the register. The box beside History of Mental Illness remained unchecked. The freak has a platinum card, Ray told himself. Surely he's okay…
The man extracted the gun from his slacks, then fished deep into his front pocket for a well-worn piece of paper.
On it was a female cartoon rabbit. But sexy, a steamy one; with Veronica Lake hair and crazy-straw curves straining the seams of a red satin dress, aiming what looked like a .38 Colt directly at Ray's startled eyes. Everything in the picture was an illustration except for the gun, which was the real thing. Despite years of Baltimore street life and untold horizons of internet porn, it was one of the most twisted juxtapositions Ray had ever seen.
"You know what this is?"
It's batboy kinky, is what it is, thought Ray.
"The gun?" Ray hazarded.
The man reached out to take the picture back, stroking the rabbit's backside gently with his thumb. "Jessica's gun..."
Scratching your nutsack with Lara Croft's gun sight was one thing, but this was Saturday Morning Super Sickie.
"It's definitely a Colt. Looking down the barrel like that I'd say it's a 1908, but it's tough to be certain. Let me see what I've got and we'll compare 'em."
Unlocking the case of Colts, Ray wondered what other famous guns he might have. It put new spin on his inventory. Celebrity gats!
Ray fantasized a quick slogan. Gene's Famous Guns. Where the movie cops shop. Shoot on Location!
A kid in a black and gold Superman tee who obviously should have been in school entered the store. He was either sleepwalking or so stoned he could barely open his eyes; they were drowsy slits. Ray pointed to the No minors allowed sign and then the door.
The kid went back outside and stared into the front window's selection of brass knuckles, evidently able to see through his eyelids like the Man of Steel himself.
Ray held out a Colt 1908 to the collector and watched him aim it back at his own face, replicating the camera angle in the picture and comparing it to the one brandished by the cartoon Playboy bunny.
He'd take it.
Then the man produced what looked like a solar-powered Texas Instrument from the Carter Administration, calculated his total, and asked for one last gun.
"A special one," he said. The man leveled his gaze at Ray, heavy on the gravitas. "Beatrix Kiddo."
The man could have dramatically whispered "Mairzy Doats." Once again, Ray hadn't a clue.
"I knew you wouldn't have it."
"I don't even know what it is."
"The Bride. Beatrix Kiddo. Firestar M-45. Not to be confused with a 9mm 1911. Of course I'm not expecting her custom longslide."
Ray grinned like a bad kid at the start of a little Jimmy joke in church. Not only because everything this guy said sounded absolutely filthy, but because he was now an unbelievable four for four - that exact model Firestar was in pieces on his workbench in the back room.
He'd bought it in a box of crap for next to nothing, hoping the repair work required might be therapeutic. Once he replaced the firing pin and found the right-size extractor spring in his shoebox of tiny miscellany, it would be a nice little pistol. Four-hundred bucks maybe.
Ray told the man he'd have something to show him within the week. The customer got very excited, and asked to see it now, if even in parts. As Ray pushed his way through the swinging door to the back room, he did the world's tiniest fist pump. He was on the verge of doing a month's business in 35 minutes.
The thought made him lightheaded.
Only it wasn't the thought.
It was last night's chilled fish mash.
Ray leaned over the workbench, putting pieces of the .45 in an empty ammo box, and threw up all over them. He put an arm out to steady himself on the padded vise, and threw up all over that as well. Then he was on the floor, holding his gut and blowing bile out his nose, fighting to keep his nostrils clear before the inevitable next bout.
Ten minutes later, he was human enough to call out to the front of the store, in a hoarse attempt to apologize, explain and reassure in one futile communication.
There was no answer.
By the time Ray cleaned himself up enough to reemerge from the back, his customer was gone. As well as three glass casefuls of unlocked inventory.
There was no way the half-cocked pervert had taken it all. Word must have hit the street that the lid was off at Gene's.
Or else the sleepy-eyed middle-school Superman had a backpack.
In the time it took the Prep Cook to wrestle his golf bag off the window seat and into the aisle, the passenger crush for the doors had become Times-Square tight.
There was no way to make their tee time now. This bus wasn't going anywhere without extensive cleanup and a new driver.
The Prep Cook opened his phone to call Adlai, but its screen was dark. He'd forgotten to charge it.
Oh well. Adlai would just have to figure out he wasn't coming on his own.
The Prep Cook hadn't seen the driver lose it, but heard the retch and splat against glass, and felt the lurch into the next lane and up onto the curb, crumpling the front half of a Miata and just missing a fire hydrant.
There had been a collective squeal of panic, then calm. Then osmosis did its thing and the smell drifted down the aisle.
As he stood trapped, slow dancing with his Callaways, he could see that the driver had managed to vomit over much of the expansive front windshield and was now feebly opening a side window in order to spew out onto the street. It took the Chinese woman sitting at the front three tries at the pneumatic door lever before the doors hissed open and people began pushing to get out.
One of the homeless guys with a stoplight squeegee jumped on and was attempting to sponge the windshield from the inside - hoping for some suitable oversized municipally funded tip - as the driver stumbled off to sit on the curb, head between his shins. A thin line of spittle ran from his mouth to the sidewalk.
The Prep Cook regretted not being able to reach Adlai. Not that he really felt like playing golf anymore, but he was curious to know how the whole seafood scheme had worked out.
Adlai lifted his Ray-Bans to look at the starter's watch. It was almost 11:00. Fifteen minutes past their tee time. The Prep Cook wasn't going to make it.
He couldn't help but get the feeling that despite the 30-dollar slice of Ruckerson pie he had coming to him, the Prep Cook had made a conscious decision to disassociate himself from Adlai Dallas. It wouldn't be the first time.
In that case Adlai would just have to consider the money his.
Adlai waved Richie over. Richie, who for the last 20 minutes had been loitering nearby in a spastic orbit, hoping to pair up.
Riiiight around the cornerr.
Adlai reluctantly agreed to let Richie drive, fairly confident that golf carts don't flip over. While waiting for the first hole, Richie lit a cigarette and informed Adlai that his hair was sticking up in back, "like a cockatoo." Adlai would be damned if he would spit-comb his hair because of Richie. He told him to shut up and tee off.
Sniffing the air thoughtfully, Richie unfolded a stack of currency held together with a binder clip and peeled a twenty.
"You know what Chi Chi says don't you?"
Adlai shook his head, beginning to worry that Richie might be in a talkative mood.
"You should never play a round of golf for nothing."
Cockatoo my ass, Adlai thought.
"You're on Richie. But let's make it thirty."
The Prep Cook would've wanted in too.
Don Ruckerson held the phone tightly, unable to believe what he was hearing. The State Comptroller's wife was chewing him a new one.
It was a difficult conversation to track.
Going off about her parents from West Virginia. How they'd only come to Baltimore twice before and now this. A four-hour emergency room visit, the sickest she'd ever seen her father and her mother's vow never to visit this filthy town again, not even on holidays. Topped off with a recounting of the morning's news conference during which her husband projectile vomited all over the press corps.
There would be hell to pay, he could believe that, she ranted. An attempt to poison a public official is technically an attack of terrorism. He could think about all this, she bellowed, as he rotted in Guantanamo.
Their people would be in touch. Buy a good umbrella. A shitstorm was a coming.
The woman hung up before Don had much of a chance to say anything. For a full minute he stared at a picture on his bulletin board of a carefree Don Ruckerson juggling coconuts in Barbados.
Then he picked up the phone, and called his lawyer - Jackie Dallas - who at that moment was sitting at a stoplight on Cold Spring Lane, wondering what the hell was making her car smell like that.
From a distance, Adlai watched Richie kick his ball out from behind a tree, apparently under the impression that he was invisible. It was no longer a contest of who would play the better round of golf, but who was the superior cheat.
The door was wide open for Adlai, since he was repeatedly left to putt out all by his lonesome while Richie breathed down the necks of the unfortunate golfers ahead of them.
On 15, Adlai tested the scorecard waters by declaring a fictitious birdie back on 14. When it went uncontested, Adlai assumed Richie had no intention of paying up; he'd either pretend like he had misunderstood the bet, whip out a memo pad of preprinted IOU slips, or run away.
So afterwards, when Richie took a sip of his High Life, savored another deep inhale of spring air, and handed over the cash, Adlai was genuinely shocked.
It felt like the longest, most enjoyable mugging on record.
Kevin couldn't stop feeling the heft of the gun. He knew it was cliché to say it was heavier than it looked, but it was heavier than it looked.
Not that he'd had much time to get used to it, having purchased the gun not 20 minutes ago for 50 bucks. An Afterschool Special.
Crossing Elm Street with a handful of classmates on their daily after-the-bell pilgrimage to George's Mini Mart to buy some artificially flavored crap for the walk home, Kevin had spotted Sleepy Reese on the curb, knapsack by his side and grinning out from under his eyelids like Mugsy Bogues waiting to go back into a game already won.
Within ten minutes Sleepy had handpicked and flagged down a posse of likely customers, walked them behind the dumpster at the Crown Station and proudly opened his knapsack to display his wares. Reese's Pieces. For a limited time only.
If only Norman Rockwell had been on hand to paint the scene.
Sleepy wanted them gone and gone fast. Fifty bucks each gentlemen. First cash, first choice. There was a dash for the Crown's ATM, but Kevin had been lucky. He'd sold a bottle of his mother's expired Vicodin that day, by the tablet.
By 3:45 Kevin was an armed man. No ammo, but from what he'd seen of the weekday duffers of Clifton Park, he wouldn't need it.
Kevin watched from behind the port-o-pots on 18 as the doofus with the Ray-bans and cowlicked head took two bills from the crazy guy with the beer.
Kevin was never sure whether the crazy guy was a real golfer or just some nut loose on the course sparring with invisible musketeers. He saw him almost every day. Whoever he was, he'd just handed money over to the doofus with the cowlick, who already appeared to have a wad of cash to add it to.
And that made Cowlick the winner.
Kevin watched his "winner" walked to the far end of the almost empty parking lot with his clubs, a loping pipe cleaner in khakis. Like the Keep On Truckin' cartoon guy, his head couldn't seem to keep up with his feet.
Kevin collected himself and took one last look around the immediate area for potential witnesses. The smell of freshly cut grass filled his nose, and off somewhere he could hear the sound of a sprinkler turning on.
Adlai Dallas set his clubs down and was fiddling with his keys when Kevin began to walk towards him.
Honestly, he asked himself, could there be easier money?