His parents had expectations of him when they named him 'Reuben'- a name that evoked, to them, images of grand, dynamic paintings and large women. He was going to do great things, inspire people, make history. They were going to be so proud of him.
The lesson that Reuben took away from it, however, was that he went well with rye. Serendipity would have it that, when he was older, there was a bar across the street from his 'Cash for Gold' outfit and it was a rare day that he was not found with a gin and tonic after closing hours. But to say that drunkenness was his greatest flaw would be an insult to his other flaws, which he treated equally.
It was alright to have a drink every night, he justified. It’s not like he was using his own money.
He was just the right amount of crooked to be ranked beneath underlings in the hierarchy of organized crime. His place in the chain of command meant that he never had to talk to Moretti and never had to deal with the consequences of being tied to the boss. The entire relationship benefitted him, for all he was concerned, and his work was simple.
Every once in awhile, a package would appear on his doorstep with no return address. It would be full of money. Reuben wasn't a fool- he knew a raised bill when he saw one. And with the string of bank heists in the past few years it wasn't that hard to figure out what was happening. Any idiot could bleach a ten and reprint it as a twenty: no one checks to see which president is actually in the corner pocket.
He found the idea that they were stealing physical dollars to be a charming touch of antiquity when identity theft was so much easier. That’s how he know he had a boss with convictions. At least seven of them in the state of Pennsylvania, but no one was going to say that out loud where someone could hear it.
It was easy to have a high payout when your money was funny. This was the agreement- he gets the reputation of the highest payout on his side of town in exchange for legitimate goods, takes them to a real dealer that pays real money, and he gets to keep 40%. The only time he ever had to see anyone about anything was when they came to pick up the profits, and they always came in looking like customers.
To any onlooker, he seemed unaffiliated. It was only Reuben who knew their faces.
The sorts of people who know the power of money come in two types: those who sit in comfy office chairs overlooking the vast city sprawl from an office building that serves no purpose other than to make more money for the man sitting in the comfy chair, and those who meet in back rooms or darkened alleys under code names like Needles and The Shark.
It was entirely possible that Needles got his name from a drug history, and it was even more probable that he got it from his likeness. He was thin, with a long face and a long nose and long fingers- all of which made him look like an urban legend instead of a living, breathing person with very bad teeth. Finding clothes that fit must have been a nightmare, and he often settled for jeans and a tee shirt underneath an ill-fitting suit-jacket.
The Shark looked more like a bear than anything, but ‘Sam the Bear’ didn’t alliterate and was already taken by a local radio personality. But it made sense to those that named him, if no one else, because Sam hailed from Hawai’i and the majority of people held a vast misunderstanding of how dangerous sharks really were. Sharks, being rather harmless when you leave them alone, were a horrible choice. Sam, on the other hand, was dangerous at any given moment.
Which brings us to Reuben, who thought he was named after a sandwich and looked like he’d been dressed in a hurry by the late 90’s and then overcome with a massive hangover. He, himself, was suffering from a hangover this morning. Now that it has been mentioned, it was also a rare sight to see Reuben in a manner that did not seethe the phrase ‘regret’’ in one manner or another.
But instead of meeting in a dark alley, they were taking up space in the back room of Reuben’s shop- a room designated for two things: counting the money and meeting with Needles and the Shark. Well, three things if you counted the cot in the corner.
“Alright,” Needles began, with the Shark standing behind him just in case. In case of what, really, was kind of a stretch when it is considered that Reuben was neither tall nor strong and often gave off the impression of being a distant cousin to the rodent family. “You’re probably wondering what the sitiation is.”
It was rare that they would ever contact him outside of their passive exchanges. If there was a Meeting, of any sort, then that meant that it was not about money laundering. It meant that he had a Job To Do.
So when Needles dropped a handful of photographs down on the white folding table, Reuben was certain that someone had made The Boss a touch touchier than usual.
The photographs were of a mean-looking guy, standing taller than even The Shark: very tall, very square. Reuben peered over his sunglasses at the photos, thinking that maybe it would cut the glare from the lights in his office. No, the photos were just awful, blurry pieces of shit taken from behind bushes and around corners. Most of the shots got just enough detail to tell that the subject of the photo had dreadlocks reaching to the middle of his back.
“So who is he,” Reuben asked.
“This is Lou Rhodes. And he used to be one of Mr Moretti's hired muscle.” Needles was on a last-name basis with The Boss. Reuben knew his name, he just never saw any point in saying it. He peered at the fuzzy photos on the table. Yeah, he could see it. Sort of: he at least looked like all of the other big, muscle-lumbering men that he’d seen accompany anyone associated with Moretti. “But he dropped off the face of the earth awhile back and they think he might be talkin’ to some cops.”
Reuben frowned, still trying to shake the last bit of drunkenness from his head. “Please don’t say you want me to kill him,” he said. You don't ask money launderers to kill people unless you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Needles smiled, showing him every single one of his rotting teeth. “Don’t worry yourself, Weller. We know that you’re not an assassin.” Reuben held his breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “We want you to spy on him. We gotta know two things- is he doing business with someone else and is he talking to the cops. Someone got us tangled up in some foreign arms dealing and we think he might be the guy. The Boss doesn’t think he’s a threat. We need to make sure.”
“You got me spying on this guy?” Needles nodded. “How dangerous is he?”
Needles was sucking on his teeth a little. “He’s only dangerous if you piss him off, so you’ll be able to get close if you need to. Just don’t let him know what you’re doing.”
Well, that much was a given. “What’s the payout?”
“You’d have to close your shop for a few days if you want to catch him. We’d be happy to reimburse the potential payout and an additional one-hundred dollars per day for… inconvenience.”
Reuben swished the idea around in his mouth. He could do better. “Make it two-hundred. Having to abandon my store this close to the end of the month when people’s rent is due is mighty inconvenient.”
Needles didn’t seem to like this game very much, but after some thought, he nodded. “We can do two hundred,” he said.
“And my payout per day runs about ten grand.” He gave them a sideways grin. Needles groaned.
“This is the address that he was last seen at,” Needles said, handing him a slip of paper.
Reuben reached for it carefully, as if one false move might stick him with one of his fingers and infect him with whatever was afflicting his teeth. Needles pulled it back just before he could take it, causing him to tumble forward. “These better be some damn good shots,” he warned.
“You asked me to do them,” Reuben said, snatching the address from his fingers. The Shark took a step forward and Reuben sank back into his chair before he risked getting his lungs ripped right out. (There had been a rumor, of course, but no one could confirm nor deny whether Sam The Shark kept the lungs of someone who looked at him funny once. But it was always a good idea to be on the safe side, especially when he weighs the bulk of three of you.)
“Well, I believe that’s all,” Needles said. “Can’t get those photos if we’re holdin’ you here, now can we?” He stood, The Shark followed, and they left Reuben Weller alone in his office. He sat back in his chair, putting his feet up on the table and running a few numbers in his head. Ten grand a day plus two-hundred for ‘inconvenience.’ The trick was… how long could he keep up the charade that he was actually working and not just sitting around while the cash piled up.
The first day was going to be dedicated to traveling to this… sad little mountain town he was holing up in. And it wasn’t going to be hard to get a better shot of him than whoever had decided that a brown blur was enough to go by in the first photos. He’d be done in hours with some creative staging.
He leaned back and smiled. And to think that there were people out there that had to work for a living. What chumps.
What absolute chumps.
Reuben had never heard of Harrenville, and it was no wonder: it was barely a dot on the map, taking up approximately two square miles in the mountains and it looked to be mostly dead trees. To get there, he had to drive through a series of switchbacks with no railing. His station wagon was not built to accommodate sharp turns and he was thankful that he was, for one, going uphill and not down and for two- the only person on this road.
He was solidified in the fact that the only people who would ever be on this god-forsaken road was if they were looking to kill themselves or if they were never intending on leaving. Even if he didn’t do any actual climbing, Reuben was exhausted by the time he got to the top.
The incline flattened to something a little more forgiving on his hydraulics. The road was elevated a good twenty feet above the actual soil. He whizzed over the top of a massive white building, easily identified as a factory of some kind- although it was unclear what exactly a place named Syracorr might do. The black and bare earth even made the white walls of it seem dirty, even moreso with the bright lights shining straight onto it. He didn’t really see the point in the twenty-foot fence, nor the barbed wire coiled around the top of it like a vine. Who would want to break into a factory?
Harrenville was nestled in a small valley between ridges, giving the impression that the lights from houses might actually be stars being held there by the mouth of the mountain. It was only 9:00, but there didn’t seem to be many lights on, even in the middle of the summer. Small towns turn in early, he guessed.
Driving down the street in downtown was just so… sad in comparison to driving around in the city. There was no one on the streets, either. The only things that he spotted that were open this late seemed to be gas stations and hotels.
Well, he wasn’t about to stay at a hotel. That was a perfectly good way to waste most of his compensation money. The back seat of his station wagon was just as good as a bed in his definition.
Instead, he found Rosemary Lane, where Lou was last seen, and parked at the Sav-A-Lot across the street. Road-weary, he climbed into the back seat with a bottle vodka and fell asleep to the quietest night he had ever experienced.
See, he could tell that this was a really nice part of town because when he woke up there was a pamphlet advertising a homeless shelter. He woke to two of them flapping in the wind from his view between the gap in the front seats. One had Jesus on the back of it. He stared at Jesus waving at him from his cross for a good thirty minutes before Reuben had settled that he wasn’t intent on waving back. He lifted his head, almost immediately wanting to put it back down again, and slowly remembered why he was sleeping in the back of his car this time.
Oh right- money.
And the nearly-empty town that he’d rode into the night before was now crawling with people. Hundreds of them of all ages just milling about in the street like they didn’t mind blocking traffic. However, the traffic seemed to be curiously missing. He squinted in the late morning sun.
The entire street seemed to be blocked off for some kind of… event- the kind with lots of tents and the smell of grilling meat. About twenty feet from his car was a white tent that seemed to be selling home-made dog biscuits and cat toys. It made the place smell musty. The stall next to them was selling jam.
The concept of a Farmer’s Market wasn’t completely lost on him- he knew what they were in theory. Honestly, he liked the idea of selling shit at a 100% markup- he just wasn’t very good at coming up with a product that anyone would want. If he knew a thing or two about farming he might just sell vegetables, but he didn’t know the first thing about farming, let alone the second.
He’d just never been to one before. He’d never thought that people would actually line up for home-made salsa mixes. And everyone was so… friendly. The stall owners were chatting up customers instead of rushing them out the door. People seemed… genuinely happy to live in this town.
What a weird place this was. Reuben didn’t think he could handle that kind of life: everyone knowing everyone, going to the market on Saturday, turning in at 9pm because that was when they rolled up the sidewalks. He’d turn out to be the black sheep before he even unpacked.
He thought the present lack of vegetables kind of odd. It was the middle of summer. Didn’t vegetables come from summer?
But that wasn’t important. What was important was finding this Lou guy and getting some good dirt on him.
He was pretty sure no one actually lived downtown, but with his car blocked in from the market there wasn’t much of a way to go looking for Lou unless he wanted to explore the entire town on his own. And if he started asking questions in a place this small, people would figure he was up to something.
He hoped Needles didn’t mind him stalling. After all, he needed to blend in. The aviator sunglasses and jean jacket shouldn’t have helped, but it did aid him in preventing people from looking at him for too long. Quite possibly out of embarrassment.
The word ‘quaint’ crossed his mind. Low street lamps, pots of pansies on the corner of brick sidewalks. All the buildings looked pretty old, maybe from the 1950’s or earlier. They took good care of them in the sense that they weren’t falling apart, though a couple of them were vacant. Someone was playing a guitar on the street corner. He only seemed to know about four chords, but at least he knew them.
On the other side of a small tent selling assorted cat-shaped tchotchkis was a display of flowers uninhibited by canopy: catching his eye with bright yellows and pinks in the sunlight. The slight tint of his sunglasses made them glow, or… maybe it was the migraine. But he found himself walking past the cat figurines without even feigning interest and towards this bright little spot of color.
The flowers were arranged in little white buckets and tilted at an angle so that they could all be seen. The entire display of them had to be about five feet high and ten feet long, and cascaded in colors so bright that he at first thought them to be fake. But they smelled, some of them too strongly, and when he touched them some of their petals bruised.
No one seemed to be manning the station, which he thought was terribly irresponsible. Someone could make off with the entire thing and he’d be out of luck. He refused to believe that even a small town like this didn’t have someone with sticky fingers.
He heard a bell ringing behind the display and saw the shadow of someone coming out of the storefront the flowers were perched against. Reuben ducked behind the cat trinket’s tent and pretended to be interested in a painted resin figurine of a tabby playing a double bass.
The photos were pretty blurry and didn’t give much detail to the man’s face, but if the singular long dreadlock that had escaped his puffy hat and ran down the length of his back were any indication, Reuben was pretty sure he’d found Lou.
Maybe it was the angle, but he didn’t look nearly as threatening when he had an arm full of daisies. He looked quietly happy to sit on a little stool and greet people as they walked past his stall. He even looked happy when no one bought anything, or looked at him… or even acknowledged that he existed.
That was kind of sad, but Reuben put it into perspective: if a stranger breezed into a town like this and tried to blend in with the townspeople the way Lou was, it made perfect sense that he wasn’t going to be accepted very well. And there was always the chance that one or two of them knew who he was.
In a town only two miles square- if one person knew, then everyone knew.
He ditched the cat tent and positioned himself in a cozy little nook with a view of Lou’s perch. All he had to do now was keep his phone out and get a photo of him talking to any one of the dozens of cops that seemed to be pretty much everywhere. It didn’t even matter what the context was, it just had to look right.
In fact, it took less than an hour before Reuben saw someone with a shiny badge and a blue uniform heading his way. He got the camera function ready on his phone fired up and was ready to take some photos from his pocket when the cop completely missed the shop and had his eyes fixed on him.
“You got a reason to be here?” Reuben looked at his name tag. Officer Durst.
“No,” he said, dropping the phone back into his pocket.
Officer Durst scribbled something into his notepad, ripped it out, and handed it to him.
“The hell is this?”
“A ticket for loitering.” He tipped his angular hat before walking away. “Have a nice day.”
Reuben looked at the slip of paper in his hand, trying to decipher the jumble of handwritten letters. What was abundantly clear to him was the number fifty, preceded by a dollar sign. “Who the hell tickets fifty for ‘loitering,’” he asked no one. “How is that even a crime,” he asked to the same no one.
Officer Durst turned around to address the questions personally, significantly angrier than before, and Reuben hurriedly went elsewhere.
And now that he’d had his little brush with the law, he could see that there were Cops everywhere. This block alone was crawling with them, and they must be bored around here. No wonder they were making him do it instead of pulling from any of the other guys in their pool of resources. Reuben didn’t have a criminal record, at least much of one, anyone else would likely have been arrested on the spot.
He angrily stared down at the loitering ticket. Loitering tickets in the 21st century: ridiculous. He wadded it up and tossed it against the windshield of his car, where it joined Waving Jesus. He could still see Lou from this spot, but the camera saw him as a barely-moving brownish dot against a butter-yellow backdrop. This was no good. Of course, it meant another day of work, another day of pay- so it wasn’t all bad. But it did mean that now he had to strategize: follow him around, maybe get a foot in the door and try to get to know him.
That meant socializing, which was just awful.
The sun began to settle against the bare tops of the trees, casting the street in a reddish color. Tents were dismantled and goods were packed away in rolling totes and put into pickups and minivans.
Reuben had stopped staring at the shop, deciding that it was a futile effort to get anything on him with all the police hanging around. But the sound of car doors slamming and the feeling of lightness when the street cleared broke him out of his seven-hour daze. The smell of dog biscuits still lingered in the air, but he now had a clear view of Lou’s shop as he broke down his display. It looked like he hadn’t sold much, if anything. The cops had moved on, now that the rest of the town had been ushered back to their homes.
Lou emerged from his shop, carrying a large black bag, and locked the door.
Well, that was certainly interesting. He didn’t seem to be going towards any car, but he was definitely going somewhere with that bag. Reuben hadn’t given up yet- he was going to find some dirt on the guy somehow and that was certainly a dirty-looking bag he had there.
He kept a generous twenty feet behind Lou as he very casually walked through the brick-paved sidewalk. You could fit anything in a bag that size, he thought. Guns, drugs, money. A dead body.
Well, maybe not a dead body but probably parts of one. Like an entire leg, perhaps.
Maybe a really small dead body.
He spent a good three blocks trying to figure out if there was a dead body in that bag or not. By that time he decided that the bag wasn’t moving the right way to be something soft or squishy. Didn’t move right for a sack of money, either.
He was judging the weight and movement of the bag so intensely that he didn’t notice that they’d run completely out of sidewalk until his shoes started squeaking against wet grass. Finally paying more attention to his surroundings instead of contemplating the contents of a stranger’s duffel, he realized that Lou had lead him out into the woods. The sun was almost down completely now, leaving only little hints of red through the trees.
Reuben hid behind a bush, waiting to see what would happen and his camera ready. As the sun disappeared, a streetlight flickered on and the shadows of three other men walked through it to join Lou.
Well now, this could be anything. But if his experience was worth its salt, it was that strange men meeting in dark places was generally some variety of criminal activity. This weird little burgh didn’t have dark alleys. The treeline by the river seemed to be a good enough place to conduct any kind of business.
And Reuben thought, well… if he couldn’t get footage of him with a cop, then catching him doing business with someone outside of the family was just as good.
The light was leaving, he’d have to do this quick or suffer the pitfalls of orange street lamp illumination. He saw something round, white before Lou turned away from his line of sight. Damnit. He snapped a couple photos anyhow, thinking maybe it would pick up something better than just his vague outline.
And that was when he heard a steady beat begin. It took him a moment, but soon he realized that the sound was coming from the four of them.
For fuck’s sake. He followed the man for almost a mile to snoop on him and a god damned drumming circle. Damn hippies. He bit his tongue and tried to hold back from screaming in frustration.
Twenty minutes of drumming had gone by and it looked like these hippies were set to last the whole night. God-fucking-damnit. There was nothing on this guy.
And this was taking too long.
He walked another twenty feet away from the drum circle before dialing 911. “Hello,” he said, disguising his voice by an entire octave upward and about thirty years. “Yes, there are some men out in the park making an awful racket. I can hear them all the way down the street! And I think they might be smoking the mari-ju-ana!”
It took five minutes after hanging up before he saw the flashing lights in the distance and that was just about enough time for him to conceal himself behind another bush. The drumming slowed to a stop while the sirens gave a warning ‘whoop.’ Reuben heard the other three escape through the bushes just as the car doors slammed. He lifted his camera just about an inch above the bushes.
Lou came out from behind the tree-line, illuminated by the street lamps and the flashing red-and-blue of the police car. Damn, that was going to fuck with the light balance. But if the best he was going to get was blurry silhouettes in a night shot, well… honestly it almost added a touch more legitimacy to it.
The cop got out of the car and shared an intense silence with the florist.
“We got a call about a disturbance,” the cop said finally.
“This is a public park, you know,” Lou said. “I pay my taxes.”
“You were being too loud. We have to respond to complaints.” The cop put a hand on his radio and mumbled something into it. Click, click, click, went the shutter on the camera. The silence between them was a real, physical thing. The cop sighed. “Lou, I told you to cut down on the weird shit.”
“This is one of our holidays and no one’s getting hurt over it. We got religious freedom in this country.”
It seemed like anything the cop said was going to be a long, drawn-out sigh. “You can’t be doing this these days. People around here get a little jumpy about this kinda shit and you gotta tone it the fuck down.” The Cop wasn’t sounding like a Cop. Click click click. “Look, I’m gonna let you off with a warning. But if I come to hear you doing stuff like this again, you’re coming down to the station.” Lou bristled and clenched his fists, but said nothing. “Are you hearing me, Lou,” the cop demanded.
From his distance, Reuben couldn’t even hear if Lou said anything. If it was anything at all, it was little more than a mumble. From behind his bush, the best he could see was a hung head. The cop accepted this and got back into his vehicle.
As he drove away, Lou took a step towards the car and yelled, albeit late: “Yeah, my taxes pay your salary too, Mike.” Mike The Cop was already down the road, but Lou seemed pretty pleased with his belated comeback. Nonetheless, he started sagging his shoulders in defeat and gathered his things.
So far this was a waste of time. The photos he’d gotten here were pretty much useless between the obvious animosity that Lou had against the police and the shitty lighting. He gave them a quick glance before the man started walking away from the park. Nothing but silhouettes and tension. Damnit. All he needed was one good photo and he could just coast on it until Needles showed up for a check-in. But even that was proving to be harder than he thought.
His entire walk back to the car, Reuben tried writing scenarios where he might see him co-operating with the police a little more. As someone who barely ever co-operated with anyone, he found it a considerable challenge. Cops, being his least favorite kinds of people, were even less co-operable.
So it became clear to him that to set up anything worth capturing, he was going to have to get to know him better.
Which meant making friends.
The word left a sour taste in his mouth. He was never good at it. How did you make friends as an adult? He couldn’t even do that in college, where it was supposed to be easy. Needles and them came to him, not the other way around and to use the word ‘friends’ to describe their posse was stretching the definition a little too far.
He got back to his car, crawled into the back seat, and called it a night.
When he awoke, Waving Jesus was joined by a flier for the four-chord guitarist on the corner. He made a considerable amount of effort to make sure that he didn’t sleep in and was pleased to discover that he had woken up at ten in the morning. He was absolutely capable of being responsible.
Today was the day. Or rather, today was going to be the first of a few days with a better and more stable plan. He wrestled a bit with clean clothes, managing to pull a miraculous trick of physics to do so while hidden in the back seat of his station wagon. A stray passerby may have noticed the occasional emergence of a naked foot while he struggled to put on pants, rising from behind the panel of the door like an underfed whale and crashing back down as he wriggled them over his hips.
It was clear that this was not the first time he had done this. It was also not the first time that he had trimmed his goatee in the rear-view mirror.
The shop was already open by the time Reuben rounded the corner, and had been for awhile. Lou was spending a quiet moment watering the plants, checking their leaves for what Reuben suspected was probably mold. He spent a few moments pondering the simplicity of this man’s life, how nice it must be sometimes to have an honest job in a quiet town. To cater to little plants instead of sharp-fingered men and invisible bosses.
Well, at least it was a simple life for now. Reuben was about to ruin it.
His entrance was announced with the ring of a little bell above the door and Lou looked up from inspecting some kind of lily. “Welcome,” he said, pushing s dread-lock away from his face. Regardless, it ended up dangling in the way until he stood up. “How can I help you?”
Towering an entire foot over him, Lou was even taller up close than he was from a distance. And Reuben’s immediate reaction to someone of considerable height was to be intimidated, given that his usual encounters with taller people are those who threaten violence. But even so, there was something about Lou that just… wasn’t intimidating to him. Even if he knew he could probably crush his skull between this two palms, it was hard to imagine him actually doing that here. Maybe it was the gentleness that he spent on his flowers or the minutes-late comeback he’d offered the police last night. Maybe it was because he just… didn’t look mean, at least not when he was trying to be friendly.
Oh right. Talking. He had to talk now. Why did people go into florists again? What was the next holiday? … Labor Day?
“I need something for… a funeral,” he mumbled. Funerals happened anytime of the year. At least that part wouldn’t require too much thinking.
Lou dropped a pair of clippers into his apron pocket and developed a solemn look. “My condolences,” he said. Reuben had never met a person this sincere in his entire life. “Who died?”
“My… great aunt… twice removed. She married in, hardly knew her.”
He pondered this for a moment. “Well, it’s good that you’re thinking of her now. What did you know about her?”
Reuben began trying to come up with a good generic description of his deceased fictional relative. “She… hm… she was a very wholesome woman, very no-nonsense. Liked soap operas and cross-stitch.”
Lou began picking flowers from their buckets, inspecting a long, white gladiola. “White is a common color for funerals, unless you have any special requests.”
“Um… she liked… yellow?”
Lou smiled. “That’s a very cheery color. Do you know how much you’re willing to spend?”
Spend? If Reuben wasn’t careful, this could end up costing him. He hated spending money, particularly on useless things like flowers. Why couldn’t this pigeon have been a bartender or something useful?
“Not… too much. I mean, she was removed twice.”
“I can do something simple for about thirty dollars,” Lou offered helpfully.
Reuben felt a swift punch in the wallet. “Oh, is that all,” he said. That was some price gouging right there. He bet he could get it for half the price at the grocery store. Hell, he could go out into the field, pick some weeds, and do the same thing for free. His great aunt twice removed would be rolling around in her grave if she weren’t freshly dead and also completely fictional.
But Lou seemed to take that as an affirmative and began arranging them neatly in their decorative wrapping. He managed to somehow take a handful of scrawny-looking flowers and make them look like a hundred. He arranged them artfully in their bundle, arching them almost as though he were making a mockery of Reuben’s inability to do it himself.
He wiped away a few stray petals, giving the entire thing a last look before deciding it was finished. “I certainly hope she likes it,” he said. Reuben declined to remind him that she was dead and wouldn’t be liking much of anything.
Begrudgingly, Reuben reached over the counter for the flower arrangement, still trying to think of a way to weasel out of spending thirty dollars on something that he was literally going to throw out as soon as he got the chance.
The following happened in this order and over the course of three seconds. Out of the corner of his eye, Reuben saw a white truck slow down in front of the store. There was loud crash and he was aware of one of the front windows shattering into millions of pieces. He was not aware of the big, red brick careening towards him- just that his face suddenly hurt and he was on the floor. The faint sound of screeching tires provided a harmony to the ringing in his ears.
When the room stopped spinning, he peeled himself off the floor, but only an inch before rolling back onto his back in pain.
“Jesus Christ, are you okay,” Lou asked, though Reuben couldn’t do much in the way of answering aside from a moan. Lou began searching frantically for a First Aid kit. “Shit, shit shit,” he muttered as he tore through the cabinet to find it. Though, once it was in his hands, he seemed at a loss for what to do with it.
He held up two fingers. “Um… how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Thirty four, now give me the damn ice pack.” Without question, Lou tentatively handed the cold pack to him, Reuben promptly slammed it against the floor and dropped it on his face. “Am I bleeding?” Christ, it felt like he was bleeding.
“I’m calling the hospital,” he said.
Reuben sat bolt up and immediately regretted it. “No hospitals,” he said. Hospitals asked for information. Hospitals were a mess if you were going under an assumed name, which he wasn’t yet but he would have to be when he got there. But Lou was looking at him weird. “I mean… It’s just a scratch. I can handle it myself.”
“Okay, but I am gonna call the police.” He turned to speak into his phone.
Reuben’s whole body protested the idea of getting the police involved, but once his head cleared a little he began to think of the opportunity to get the shot he had been waiting for. “You’ll need a witness,” he offered.
This town was so damn small that there was a police vehicle sitting outside the shop in less than a minute. Reuben was honestly a little surprised that his phone call didn’t amount to sticking his head out the door and flagging one of them down.
When an officer came, it was not the same one from the previous night. Reuben noticed, but he didn’t do much in the way of caring, even though it would not have surprised him to see the same people twice in a period of twenty-four hours. He was preoccupied with getting a good shot of the two of them talking.
The lighting was definitely better here, and if he cropped it just right he could make the cracks in the window look like it was just light refracting.
Lou was keeping a perfect calm as he talked to the cop about what had happened. “I didn’t see much,” he said. “I was finishing up an order and all of a sudden a brick hits him in the face, glass is everywhere.”
“It… it was a white truck,” Reuben offered. “Didn’t see much else. Before… y’know… the brick hit my face.”
Well, some witness he made. Lou seemed unimpressed with his input but didn’t ask him to leave. Having him present offered a little bit more legitimacy than if it were just Lou claiming it. It became clear to Reuben that for as much of a marshmallow as Lou was, he was not well-liked for one reason or another in this town.
“Everyone in this town has a white or silver car,” said the officer. “Except for the station wagon parked at the minimart.” Reuben narrowed his eyes. He was going to have to move his car. “Do you need to go to the hospital, sir?”
“I’m… fine,” he said crossly, holding the ice pack firmly to his face. “It’s… just a bruise.”
“Sir, you’re bleeding from a head-wound.”
“I’ve got a band-aid,” he said.
The officer looked as though he was about to protest the effectiveness of a band-aid against head-trauma, but decided that it wasn’t worth it. “We’ll put out an APB for someone in a white car with a brick,” he said, laughing. “Until then, get a tarp or something to cover up that window.”
Lou nodded. The cop left. Reuben let his shoulders drop, realizing that the process of hiding his face behind the cold pack had wound a significant knot in his shoulder. And now that he wasn’t standing up out of sheer determination, he sank back down against the wall. He thought that the loud ‘thunk’ against the wall would have caught the shop-owner’s attention, but Lou’s eyes were forward and staring at nothing. His lips were moving, repeating the same words over and over again.
“Don’t get mad,” he said in a nearly inaudible mumble. “Don’t get mad, don’t get mad…”
Lou’s shoulders slowly drooped, though he was far from relaxed. His fists were clenching and un-clenching as he surveyed the bulk of the damage. He kicked idly at a shard of broken glass. Reuben was waiting for him to lash out, do something violent like he would expect someone in his position to do, but it was as though all of the shaking anger in him left his body with a single, audible breath.
“Are you able to stand,” he asked, taking a couple steps towards the damage. “There’s a bathroom in the back,” Lou said while rearranging the lilies in the window so he could clear away the glass. “Clean the blood off your face.”
“Yeah,” he said, trying to get back to his feet. He had to climb the wall with his palms to get himself upright, and didn’t let go of it until he found the bathroom.
In terms of criminal activity, money laundering is relatively safe. You get a bag of money, you get rid of a bag of money, no one has to talk to each other. When it came to tailing people, that was another pretty safe job because there was a considerable amount of distance between him and the person who was actually going to get his ass kicked.
So after doing this for a whole five years without injury or incident and the very first time he gets something that might leave a scar, it was from a goddamned brick that wasn’t even aimed at him.
The cut wasn’t very big, but man- it looked like he was trying to fellate a baseball. It had hit him flat against the cheekbone, and a line of blood was trickling down the side of his forehead. He wasn’t sure if his teeth were loose or if they just felt that way because of some psychology bullshit, but something inside his mouth felt askew. Maybe it was his jaw. It could have been knocked out of place or something.
A doctor would probably know the answer to all of these inquiries, however… Reuben was just fine.
He ran the water and peered through the crack in the door. Lou was busy trying to cover up the hole in his storefront. While he wasn’t looking, he swiped through the photos he’d taken. They were good enough, he thought. If he cropped them right it would look like it was just the two of them talking. Unlike the photos taken last night, Lou didn’t seem angry. He just seemed…
Reuben could leave. He’d gotten his shots in, he could probably go home.
But maybe it was the long look that Lou was giving the shattered glass on the floor or maybe it was the way that all the flowers in the shop seemed to be wilting, or it could have easily been the concussion, but he couldn’t just leave the poor guy here to stew in defeat. Besides, every extra day he spent with him was another grand in his wallet and another chance for better photos- especially if this investigation was ongoing.
Hmm… sad wouldn’t do. He needed to stick around and see this resolved and maybe get the bastard to smile in one of the photos. In the meantime, he’d have to stay pretty close to Lou just in case
“Hey man,” he said, dabbing the cut on his forehead with a wet rag. “It’s been a rough day. You… wanna get a drink or something?”
Lou lifted his head, twirling a white lily from the now ruined floral arrangement between his fingers. “I have to cover up the window,” he said.
“So we’ll cover up the window and then get a drink.”
Lou looked at the jagged teeth and gaping maw left in the window and sank into himself. “It’s not even noon.”
“I bet by the time we finish cleaning this place up, it’ll be at least two.”
Lou gave an exhausted kind of laugh. “He’s got jokes.” Reuben wasn’t about to tell him that he wasn’t joking since it at least got him to crack a smile. “Alright, Funny-bone. I got some duct tape and a tarp in the closet. How’s your head?”
Reuben gingerly touched the skin where the corner of the brick hit his face. The bleeding had stopped and the worst he felt was dizzy. Granted, drinking alcohol may not be the smartest of ideas after getting in hit in the head with a brick, but he had a habit of saying: ‘if you can’t fix it, drink.’
Of course, he was only on record as saying this aloud once.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “So, know any good places around here?”
Lou shook his head. “Only one that I’m comfortable going to.”
We get it, Lou. You’re kind of weird and people don’t like you a lot. Otherwise they wouldn’t be throwing bricks into your windows. But come on, it can’t be that bad.
But whatever. If it was going to get him somewhere with people and good lighting, he would gladly let him pick whatever bar he wanted to go to. Lou descended from the display riser and sighed deeply at his job well done. “You know,” he said. “A beer does sound pretty good right now.”
“That’s the spirit,” Reuben said, laughing at his own pun.
Lou looked at him with concern. “Are you… sure you should be drinking? You did get hit in the head.”
“With a brick,” Reuben offered helpfully.
“With a brick,” Lou agreed. Reuben wobbled slightly. “Maybe I should drive.”
You never know what to expect when someone says that their watering hole of choice is ‘out a ways.’ Is it a sports bar? Is it one of those hipster joints? Well, the name of the place was ‘Barnaby’s’ which could have meant literally anything. It was a little brick building squashed between two other brick buildings, with a little blue awning and umbrellas on the patio.
They arrived by way of Lou’s old Volvo, which smelled like it needed an oil change. Reuben, distracting himself from his discomfort of being driven around by anyone but himself, silently counted six bars on the five minute drive, but no- Lou just had to go to this one.
To get to the front door you had to park in the back, walk through some narrow alley, around the fence enclosing the patio, and then through the patio itself. He couldn’t help but think that there were easier ways to design a layout.
After walking through the doorway, he was still unclear what kind of bar this was. The place had low ceilings and brick walls, not that you could tell what the walls were made of under all the junk they had adhered to it. It wasn’t the usual kind of junk. The usual kind of junk was photos of sports teams, signed jerseys, photos of famous people. Reuben was greeted by someone’s crude scrawling of a cuttlefish on a post-it note.
The contents of the walls were all similarly decorated with odd junk that could have been the life’s work of a hermit. There was a tricycle mounted on the far end of the building. Christmas lights were woven into the spokes of the wheel and it was being used as a light fixture.
There was a stage. Well, no- it wasn’t a stage. There was a sunken floor where all the tables were, sparsely populated with people. The ‘stage’ was on the other side of it, just a little nook where the floor no longer sank. What made it a stage was a microphone and someone speaking into it.
Was that… was that poetry? It just sounded like words, in his opinion. None of it rhymed and it sort of had a rhythm to it, he supposed, but he was just not getting anything from it. That was going to be a distraction. He didn’t care much for sports unless there was a pool going and even when that was happening he tuned out the majority of the noise. But this was going to be harder to ignore, especially with the way the sound got muffled by all the shit on the walls.
Lou lead him to a bar stool near the corner of the bar and let him take his seat before taking his own. The bartender, a twenty-something with blue streaks in her hair, saw Lou first and only passively seemed to notice Reuben.
“S’been awhile, Lou,” she said. “Your usual?”
Lou gave Reuben a look of consideration. “I think I’ve decided on coffee tonight,” he said.
“Your loss,” she said. “Dude, what happened to your face,” she said to Reuben, when she finally decided to notice him.
“You should see the other guy,” Reuben said proudly.
“The other guy is a brick,” Lou said. “I’d rather not get into it. Coffee for me and… um…”
“You know, I think I’m feeling a gin and tonic.” The bartender gave him a skeptical look. “What, you DO have those things here, right?” He would be the type who took people to bars that only served specialty drinks. Did he have to say the code word?
Lou made a low gesture with his left hand, almost out of Reuben’s range of sight. Reuben’s mouth twitched a little.
“Yeah, I can do that for you,” she said.
Reuben’s drink was ready long before Lou’s, and by the time Lou had a mug in his hand Reuben had already downed half of his tumbler. “So,” he said. “Why are people throwing bricks at me?”
“They aren’t. They threw a brick at me and missed.”
“Okay, but why?”
Lou sighed. “I’m sure they have their reasons.”
“I’ll tell you why someone might throw a brick at me,” Reuben offered. Lou turned his head. “It would be because I ripped them off.”
“That’s kinda rude,” he said.
“Well, it’s kind of the nature of the business,” he explained. “I run a pawn shop.”
“Pawn shop,” Lou asked. “I don’t think we have one of those around here. But… I guess you’re just here for the funeral, aren’t you?”
“The- oh. Yes. My great aunt. Whom I will miss greatly.”
“Despite not being fond of her?”
“Uh… distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Dude, are you feeling alright?”
He had been trying to ignore just how fast the room had been spinning. He’d found himself trying to focus several times but unable to see anything more solid than the trails of lights left by the tricycle on the wall. Lou’s face was an incohesive blur. The gin had hit him harder than he’d thought it would.
And there was that thought in the back of his mind, in a jumbled mess of thoughts and ideas. Insisting on a barely-attended bar. The hand gestures when he ordered his drink, don’t think for a minute he didn’t see them. Who orders coffee?
It was a setup. Lou must have known why he was here. They put something in his drink.
He needed to move, and fast. His feet felt like lead and they tangled in the legs of the stool. Shit, he should have seen this coming. He should have seen this coming, he should have seen this coming, he should have-
All the way down, into darkness.
The dullest of thuds echoed in his head.