Frankie Donato said, “You got Tommy Vig’s thirty large?”
“Sure,” Swede Forsberg lied. “You think I got a death wish or something?”
Frankie was one of those friends, Swede didn’t remember why he called him a friend. “Associate” was probably a better word. Frankie was all right to have a beer or three with, maybe head down to The Meadows and bet some sulkies. Not someone to confide in.
That was why Swede had no intention of telling him about how he’d lost the thirty thousand he was supposed to deliver to Tommy Vig tomorrow. Tommaso Vignarelli was his real name. No one called him that. Tommy Vig was easier and more accurate. Tommy was the strictest and most powerful shylock in Pittsburgh. “Vig,” he’d say. “Call me Vig.” Like there was no difference between his name and his income. The three points he charged everyone he carried paper on. The Vig. Juice. Points. Not interest. Bones don’t get broken over interest.
Three points didn’t sound like much to Swede when he went to Tommy after his cut of a hijack came up short. Mortgage companies got – what? – six, six-and-a-half? What Swede forgot – what he always forgot – was why he went into criminality in the first place: because he wasn’t a financial analyst. Mortgage companies get six percent interest a year. Vig’s juice was three percent a week. Every week, payable Thursday afternoon by three. Nine hundred bucks a week. Miss a week? No problem. The new balance is $30,900. The new vig is nine hundred twenty-seven bucks a week. Every week, payable Thursday afternoon by three.
Tommy gave Swede a chance to work off his vig for this week. Go to Baltimore, see a guy owed Tommy money for some flat panel televisions fell out of a container at Patapsco docks. Thirty grand. Tommy told Swede it would do him good to carry around that precise amount of dough. Give him a concrete image of how much he owed.
The trip was worth nine hundred to Swede. Drive four-and-a-half hours, see the guy, drive back four-and-a-half hours. Not counting expenses like gas, tolls, and lunch, Swede could gross a hundred bucks an hour. Not that he’d see any of it. He just wouldn’t have to give Tommy any of his own money.
“Meet me at Pimlico,” the guy told him. “I’ll be in the grandstand, paddock side.” Swede found him by the bar. Real boozer. Even his Daily Racing Form smelled like scotch.
“Have a drink,” the lush said after they were both sure who the other was and the money had changed hands. “On me.” Swede – who only drank when liquor was available – agreed, just to be sociable. One drink led to three, which led to an impromptu meeting of the Council of Those Who Drink Too Much and Stupidly Besides.
About the time Swede lost track of how many drinks he’d had, Vern Hanley – that was the drunk’s name, Vern Hanley – draped an arm over Swede’s shoulders and looked around the bar to make sure no one was listening to the pearl of wisdom he was about to share.
“You wonder why I spent all day in the bar? Haven’t put down a bet all day. You wonder about that?”
Vern answered all Swede’s questions before he had a chance to ask them. “I’ll tell you why. Seventh race. That’s why. Lucky seven.” Vern slurped down the rest of his drink and signaled for two more. “Sure thing. Horse is feeling fast today. Got some extra Wheaties in his feed, you know what I mean. Soapy Feet, or Soapy Wheat, or some soapy thing. Short odds, so no one will suspect a thing.”
The horse’s name was Soapy Pete, and he went off at 2–1. Even Swede’s limited math skills could figure this one. He owed Tommy Vig thirty thousand. He had thirty thousand in his pocket. Bet this thirty, win maybe sixty, pay Tommy the thirty he was picking up plus the thirty he owed him, maybe have a few bucks left over for a steak and some companionship.
Never take gambling advice from a drunk you met half an hour ago.
The horse with the extra incentive was a filly named Sophie’s Sweet in the eighth race. She won by three and paid three-twenty. Soapy Pete ran a gallant race and made up a lot of ground down the stretch. Came from six lengths down to catch all but the head of the seventh race’s winner, a chestnut named Box Cutter.
So when Frankie Donato asked if Swede had Tommy Vig’s thirty large and Swede said, “Sure,” he wasn’t really lying. It wasn’t that Swede didn’t have Tommy Vig’s thirty grand; Swede didn’t have Tommy Vig’s sixty.
Frankie hadn’t come up for air. “Still owe him thirty, right? I mean, besides the thirty you’re carrying for him.”
The last thing Swede needed was for Frankie Donato to remind him how much was half of what Swede owed. “Yeah, Frankie, I still owe him thirty, even after I hand over the thirty I’m carrying. That thirty’s not mine, has nothing to do with me, except to work off my vig for the week.”
“Take it easy, Swede. No need to get testy on me.” Frankie sipped an IC Lite and lit a cigarette. “It’s gotta hurt. What are you paying? Nine a week?”
“You know it’s nine. You just busting balls, or do you have a point?”
Frankie slid his empty glass across the bar for a refill. “What if I knew a way to get you out from under?” Real cool about it, like asking, “Is it raining out?” or, “Is your sister busy Saturday?” Trying not to sound too interested.
“Go on.” Swede’s last time listening to someone else’s bright idea was fresh in his mind. No point being too eager.
“I know a guy might be able to help out.” Frankie pulled his fresh beer toward him with one hand and pushed a buck across the bar with the other. Efficient.
“What kind of work?”
“No work. There’s this guy, he wants to get some money on the street. Willing to knock off some of the juice to build a customer base.”
“Half. Says he’ll only charge a point and a half.”
“You telling me you know a discount shylock? Does Vig know about him?”
“Not yet.” Frankie had this way of drinking, never lifted the glass more than he had to, brought his head down to the beer. Made him look like one of those toy birds, bobbing its head in the cold water forever. “Like I said, this guy’s just starting out.”
“All he’ll do is start out. Once Vig hears about him, he’s gone.” Swede thought about the possibilities. “Unless he brings some juice of his own.”
“What do you care?” Frankie said. “You borrow thirty from Sid, pay off Vig, then you pay Sid half as much each week. Or you pay the same and actually pay down the debt. So what if Vig hears about it? Even if he runs Sid off, or clips him, you’re out clean.”
This had potential. Frankie didn’t look nearly as drunk as Vern Hanley had, and Swede knew Frankie. They weren’t kissing each other on the mouth, but he was a stand up guy, as far as it went.
“He hangs in Wilkinsburg. Joint called Klimo’s. Look for him around nine. Tell him I sent you.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Why can’t I just be doing a friend a favor?”
“I don’t know, Frankie. Maybe because you’ve never done it before.”
“Go ahead. Be that way. If you must know, Sid says he’ll split the first week’s vig with me. You happy now?”
As a matter of fact, knowing Frankie would get two and a quarter from the deal did make Swede happy. It was nice money for no real work – free, really – and not so much that Frankie might be inspired to color outside the lines on something that might roll back on him if it went bad.
Swede thanked Frankie – not too much, kind of like that “Is it raining?” thing – and beat feet over to Klimo’s. Place was pretty busy for a Wednesday. Bar about half full, four empty booths out of the dozen. Lights on the half-shell made sure no one was identifiable from more than a few feet away.
Sid Kresge sat in the last booth, across from the men’s room. Hair combed straight back, moderate to heavy grease. Pinky rings on both hands, class ring on his right ring finger, diamond crusted wedding band on the left. Held an unlit cigar as thick as his thumb, never put it in his mouth.
Swede sidled up to the booth. “You Sid?”
“Am I Sid? Am I Sid? I don’t know. It depends. Are you in need of cash? Now?” Kresge looked Swede right in the eye through the whole act. “Yes, I see it. A man looking for cash always has that look. Yes, I am Sid. Sid Kresge. Have a seat, my new friend. I can feel it, the start of a wonderful relationship.”
Swede sat down and Kresge ordered a couple of drinks. Straight bourbon for Swede, B and B for Sid. Sid paid.
“I always pay for my customers. You’re going to be giving me a lot of money for as long as you want to. I can afford a drink.”
Swede sipped his drink while Kresge carried on about a woman at the bar, Arabs, how much do you think this ring is worth, why the Pirates never win, Israel, and whatever else crossed his mind. Swede looked around for some people, a crew, something to show Kresge had muscle. The man sat in a bar doing everything but wear a sandwich sign said “Shylock.” He either had juice from on high or he was the dumbest schmuck in the world.
“Let’s talk money, Swede.” Somewhere in Kresge’s ten minute monolog he’d got Swede’s name. Swede didn’t remember giving it to him. Swede didn’t remember saying much of anything during the wall of sound Kresge used as small talk. If he had, he didn’t see how Kresge could have noticed it. Maybe Kresge had more on the ball than Swede figured.
“How much you need?” Kresge looking straight at him now, all business.
“It ain’t like I need it, like needing it, you know,” Swede said. “It’s just I got some opportunities.”
“Right, I understand.” Kresge had a voice that made everything sound sincere, then ruined it with eyes that said whatever came out of his mouth was sarcasm, if you were lucky. “You don’t need it, like needing it, I know. You just like to support small businesses and would rather pay me fifty times what you’d pay a bank.
“Don’t say it. Banks and you don’t get along. That’s fine, Swede. You and I have no problem. We’re going to get along fine. You know why? Because I’m only going to charge you half as much as that guinea crook Tommy Vig. You know why? The golden goose, that’s why. There’s more money out there than any of us can spend, Swede, if everyone just takes their cut. Big if, I know. People are naturally greedy. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Tommy Vig’s bleeding you dry. Think of me as Sid, The Tourniquet. I’m here to stop your bleeding. Tell me how much blood you need.”
Swede figured he might as well. There was no other way he’d get to talk. “Sixty.”
“That’s a pretty deep hole, Swede. You’re smart to quit digging. I think you may be in luck.” Kresge fished around in a briefcase on the booth beside him. “Slow night tonight. I’ll bet I got that much on me.”
Swede almost spit a mouthful of bourbon across the table. He had it with him. This guy either had the heaviest connections in the world, or he was even dumber than Swede thought.
“Point and a half a week. When are you paying Tommy?” Swede told him fast, while Kresge snuck in a quick breath. “Pay me Thursdays at three, then. Make it easy to remember. Not tomorrow, right. Might as well keep the nine hundred, I’ll do that much for you.
“Here’s ten.” Kresge rummaged in his case, came out with a wrapped stack of bills. “Count it.” His hand disappeared back into the case.
“Here?!” Swede felt his bowels loosening. “You want me to count it here?”
Kresge stopped fooling with the bag long enough to hit Swede with a stare that would’ve done Tommy Vig proud. “I’m not going to let you take it home and claim later I shorted you.” The semi-retarded smile came back as fast as it had gone. “It’s okay. It’s dark back here, no one’s around. How long have you been doing this? You got to relax.”
Enough shylocks had bled Swede over the years for him to know they didn’t carry briefcases full of hundred dollar bills to pass out in public places. He really did have to regroup now. Kresge kept pulling money out of the case, piling it on the table, away from the light of the sconce. Thirty grand now. Swede excused himself to go to the can.
Kresge never looked up. “Take your time. I’ll be here.”
“All right,” Swede said between his teeth, “but put that money away.”
Kresge gave a look like Swede’s comment had been another in a long line of insults to his professionalism. He held the briefcase in one hand and swept the piles of cash into it with a flourish. “If it will make you feel better.”
Personal business concluded, Swede threw cold water on his face at the sink. He could be out from under when he saw Tommy tomorrow afternoon. Almost out. He’d still owe the nine hundred vig from the week just ending. What the hell, hit Kresge up for it when he got back. It would only add – drop the zero, add half what was left – a hundred thirty-five bucks to the weekly nut. No, not one thirty-five. Thirteen-fifty. Thirteen dollars and fifty cents. Peace of mind every week for the price of a cheap CD.
Tommy Vig would kill him if he found out. Kresge must have protection, or he’d be dead already. If Vig couldn’t whack Kresge, he’d dry up the pool of customers. Unless Kresge was so well connected his umbrella covered his customers, too. Not likely, Carmine Bevilacqua favoring a Jew over a paisan, but money was thicker than blood with these guys. The fact that Kresge was still walking around, flaunting his business like he did, was all Swede needed to prove he was connected. Whether he was connected enough to cover Swede wasn’t important. Vig might kill him for taking the loan. Vig would kill him – tomorrow – if Swede walked in without the thirty large he’d been sent to pick up in Baltimore.
Some concentrated thought, and world without debt called to Swede. At a point and a half he could pay off the principle. No more weekly juice. This kind of thinking had allowed Swede to pay $51,300 in interest on a thirty thousand dollar loan and still owe thirty thousand. It never occurred to him his weekly payment would still be as heavy a load as what Tommy Vig had been killing him with for over a year, because now he owed twice as much.
Swede spent more time in Klimo’s men’s room thinking on these prospects than he’d thought about anything since he’d spent that weekend with Carla Mitchell after she told him there was a chance she might – probably didn’t, but could – have herpes. The results would teach the value of patient thought – even faulty thought – to any man.
All that thinking saved him twice. Deciding to take Kresge’s cash would keep Tommy Vig from killing him for being short on tomorrow’s delivery. It also meant he was in the men’s room when Sal Imperioli came to Kresge’s booth.
* * *
Sal Imperioli had made a lot of money from the restaurant unions and Carmine Bevilacqua thought he was a comer. Problem was, Sal couldn’t get made until he broke his cherry, and legitimate hits were hard to come by in modern Pittsburgh. Established guys got what work there was. The territorial dispute between Tommy Vig and Sid Kresge was made to order. Carmine would loan Sal out to Tommy Vig to clip Kresge. Vig loses a competitor, Sal gets made, and Carmine solves two problems with one solution. A true win-win. Except for Sid Kresge.
There was a catch: not even Sid Kresge was dumb enough to operate out in the open without some muscle behind him. He paid a percentage of his weekly take to Carmine for protection, and to outsource the collection of delinquent accounts as necessary. A true Twenty-first Century solution.
Carmine didn’t mind taking pieces of both Kresge’s and Tommy Vig’s action, as long as they were both good with it. Carmine didn’t see any direct competition, thought Kresge was going after niche work, nickels and dimes here and there, accounts beneath Tommy Vig’s attention. Worst case scenario, Vig would clip Kresge himself, and no one but Carmine would be any the wiser.
No one could have figured Kresge would try the discount shylock bit, and undercut Tommy Vig’s rates. Even worse, that lazy prick Tommy decided he wanted some service for all the street tax he’d paid over the years, and came back to Carmine to get rid of Kresge.
Carmine Bevilacqua didn’t get to be the boss of western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio from Youngstown south, and the parts of West Virginia worth having rackets in by failing to seize opportunities. Tommy Vig was bitching, Sal Imperioli needed a notch on his gun, and Sid Kresge had broken the deal he had with Carmine by infringing on Tommy Vig’s action. The fact that Sid had no such arrangement with Carmine never entered into it. Tommy Vig was a made guy, and even the boss couldn’t afford to get caught screwing with a made guy’s income. Sid was just some schmuck who made extra cash from running a chop shop out the back of his car lot, wanted to put his money to work, and saw too many episodes of The Sopranos. He had to go, and Sal was just the guy to do it.
Disappointing Carmine was not an option for Sal. It didn’t matter that neither Carmine nor Tommy Vig told him why Sid Kresge had to go. Just knowing he had to go was enough for Sal. He followed Kresge for a week, learned his habits. The habit Sal liked best was the one where Kresge sat in the same booth in the same dim bar for five hours every night. Kresge talked to everyone who came by, never know who your next customer’s going to be, right? So Kresge never flinched when Sal slid into the booth and told Sid he had something for him. Two in the side of the head from a silenced .22 was what he had. The untraceable gun he left in the booth. Shell casings could be linked to the gun, but not to him, since he’d wiped them down and worn gloves when he loaded the magazine.
The contents of the briefcase Sid’s mortal remains were slumped over held no mystery for Sal; he’d watched Sid take cash out of it for a week straight. He wanted to move Sid’s body to get at the cash, but this was Sal’s first hit. Everything went smooth as Gina Feroce’s ass until Sal actually pulled the trigger. Now it seemed as though everyone in the joint was watching him. The waitress caught his eye. Two of the guys shooting pool looked up. Sal had almost convinced himself no one had heard anything – they hadn’t – when the men’s room door opened and Swede Forsberg came out.
Sal was in his car before anyone but Sid knew for sure he’d been in Klimo’s. Sid wasn’t saying.
* * *
Swede missed all this, practicing his thinking in the john. He threw more water on his face, hitched up his courage and pants, and left the men’s. Someone was talking to Kresge, maybe giving him a story the way they were huddled together, so Swede hurried himself over to the booth while Kresge still had enough money to bail him out. The other guy left before Swede got a good look at him and Swede slid into the booth next to Kresge. “Okay, I’m in. Better make it sixty-one even to get me out completely.”
Not getting an answer surprised Swede a little. Kresge must have heard him, hunched over the briefcase like maybe he was playing with the cash again. Swede noticed Kresge wasn’t moving at the same time he recognized the new smell in the booth. Swede lacked a head for figures, but it didn’t take Stephen Hawking to figure Kresge not moving plus the smell of cordite equaled one dead shylock. It crossed Swede’s mind this might be the longest Kresge had been quiet since he was born.
Swede’s first thought was to look unobtrusive and get the hell out. Then a second thought sparked somewhere in the far of reaches of his crocodile brain. Dim, but Swede’s brain didn’t have enough fuel for any idea to burn too bright. It was Swede Forsberg’s eureka moment, his apple falling from the tree, lightning hitting his kite. The only thing that could keep Swede from becoming Sid Kresge’s celestial pinochle partner was still in the booth: the briefcase with the money.
It took this previously unexercised part of Swede’s brain a minute to sort out the possibilities. The money had to be in the case. The shooter would’ve taken the whole case; he wouldn’t go picking through it. Everything Swede needed to pay off Tommy Vig forever sat in a briefcase not three feet away. The briefcase with a dead man sprawled across it.
The options were clear: move the dead man, or become one. He screwed up his courage for the second time in five minutes – the second time in thirty years, and first since the Carla Mitchell weekend – and pulled Sid’s body upright. Good thing Swede had just come from the john. Sid exhaled when Swede stood him up, scared him so bad anything not already deposited would have been public knowledge. He composed himself again, reached around, and took the briefcase. Left Sid where he was. He hadn’t bled much, and the best light was on the intact side of his head. No one would know until the waitress came by with a refill and learned a whole new meaning for the term deadbeat customer.
Swede didn’t dare look in the case until he had it in the car. He wanted to drive away first, but a man who’d bet thirty thousand dollars on a fix he heard of from a drunk he’d known for half an hour doesn’t have that kind of discipline. He counted the money, figured out he had almost sixty-five hundred to spare, and almost knocked himself out bumping his head against the roof of the car.
Happy ending, right? Tommy Vig gets his money. Swede gets out from under. Sal Imperioli earns his button. No losers. (Except for Sid, rest in peace.) Swede was so happy, he was thinking divine intervention. His luck must be turning, and he knew to ride a lucky streak. He rode this one all the way to the Meadows, where a tout he knew put him onto a sure thing in the third race. And the fifth, to recoup the unfortunate events of the third. And then the eighth.
A couple of strip car thieves found Swede Forsberg in his trunk the next Tuesday. He’d been shot twice in the side of the head with a .22 and his pockets were turned inside out, the mark of a deadbeat. Tommy Vig had his best collection week ever.
BIO: Dana King lives in Laurel MD and works at an undisclosed location in Washington DC. He has previously had stories published by New Mystery Reader and ThugLit, and has over 100 reviews and several interviews published by New Mystery Reader. This is his first story for Crooked.