Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: Night Train - Part Five
Jackson Lerner never had any use for dramatics.
He simply stepped closed his office door behind him and made straight for his table. I leaned all the way back and smoked my cigarette all the way down.
His plain, charcoal gray suit clashed with the tailored black glad-rags his patrons wore. I knew him to be in the habit of having his jackets cut with a little extra room in the shoulders and arms, which made them hang a little funny on him.
I saw none of their drunken exuberance reflected in the expression on his face.
Two of his guys-- a tall albino fellow named Joshua and and a sawed-off fireplug of a guy we called Shiv-- fell into step alongside him. They stopped ten yards short of my table.
Lerner stopped along his way to shake hands with this one or that one, then walked past Joshua and Shiv, stopping in front of me. He bowed toward Madeline.
“Evening, Mademoiselle Perilloux,” he said.
His pronunciation had more Paris than bayou in it. Still, I gave the man credit for trying.
“Hello, Jackson,” she replied. She looked from him to me, then back at him.
He looked awful, even taking the crummy Santa Fe lighting into account. His face looked gray and pitted. He had bags big enough to carry bowling balls under his eyes. His already receding hairline seemed to have retreated further up his head in the four days since I'd seen him last.
“Moe,” he sighed.
We looked each other over for a good long while.
I felt for Shiv and Josh. Watching a couple of heavies give each other the once-over is boring business.
“You're in my seat,” said Lerner.
I nodded toward the empty chair on his side of the table.
“What's wrong with that one?” I asked.
He gave me the patented Jackson Lerner half smile. He was too self-conscious about his teeth to smile any bigger.
“You leave me at the mercy of my enemies, Moe.”
“Enemies?” I laughed. “You? Here in your joint?”
“You're not gonna make this easy for me, are you?”
“Can you think of a reason I should?”
“I suppose not.”
He took a seat.
Madeline watched the both of us, clearly relishing her ringside view.
“You wouldn't mind putting your hands where I can see 'em, would you?” he asked, still smiling.
I kept my hands where they were-- right hand on the table, left on my thigh.
Josh and Shiv took a step forward. Lerner waved them back.
“Have it your way,” he grumbled.
He worked a cigar free from his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth. I struck a match. He leaned forward for a light.
“You think your boychiks back there are going to let anything happen to you, Jack?”
“You never know, Moe,” he said after a healthy draw on the cigar. “You never know.”
“You got that right.”
The half-smile faded away and he almost said something.
“Care for a drink?” he asked instead.
“Sure. Is four o'clock a good vintage?”
Madeline chuckled. Jack shrugged it off.
“I forgot. You're pretty high hat where booze is concerned.”
“What can I tell you, Jack? I've got standards.”
The smile returned.
“You've also got questions. So let's get to it.”
I stared across the table and dropped my butt in the ash tray.
“How are you, Jack?” I asked.
He enjoyed a puff off his stogie before answering.
“Boy, you really go in for the kill off the top, don't you?”
“It's just a simple question.”
“Nothing's ever simple with you, Moe.”
I couldn't argue with that.
“The question stands. How are you?”
He spread his arms out wide, grazing Madeline's shoulder with his fingertips. She gave him the stink-eye but didn't move away.
“I'm doing just fine. Everything's Jake, Moe. You heard otherwise?”
“I've seen otherwise.”
His voice, always low and rough, got downright gravelly.
“Have you now?”
“How long have we known each other, Jack?”
He put his arms down.
“Oh, 'bout six years.”
“That's an eternity in this racket. You trust me after all that time, don't you?”
“Sure, Moe, I--”
I rode right over him.
“Or at least you did. When's the last time I gave you a bum steer?”
“Can't say as you ever have. Where's all this goin'? You're givin' me agida over here.”
“Would you say I'm an important man in your organization?”
“Come of it, Moe. You know the answer to that.”
“So why have you been doing the exact opposite of what I've been advising you to do?”
“Gimme an example?”
“What does that dumb Mick have to do with anything?”
“You asked me for an example.”
“What about him then?”
“Why'd you give him the heave-ho? He's been a pal for as long as I've been around.”
“He's a loose cannon.”
“Now that's a hoot.”
“I'm not sure I like your tone of voice, Moe.”
“I'm not sure I care if you like it or not, Jack.”
“Time was you knew your place.”
“Time was you didn't do things likely to put us all in the clink. Or the morgue.”
He treated himself to a deep, head-clearing sigh.
“What is it, Moe? You flacking for him now?”
“When have you known me to flack for anyone?”
“I guess you got something there.”
“All he ever said was we'd sell a hell of a lot more hooch if we went in with the group than we can on our own. The more of us on the job the faster the Mounties have to run to keep up with us. Once we're on our side of the border we're home free.”
“Sounds like you agree with him.”
“That I do, Jack.”
“Well, that's not the way I do business,” growled Jack.
“Maybe you ought to think about it.”
“It's not just O'Shaughnessy. You've been taking a lot of guys out to the country lately. Friends of ours. Good friends even. I think you're cracked.”
“You think so, eh? Hokum, I say. You been in this game a long time. You're not so lily white yourself.”
Madeline looked at me hard out of one eye. I couldn't tell by her face who was ahead on her scorecard.
I tried to spot Williams.
“Lookin' for O'Shaughnessy's pup? The one who followed you in?” he asked. “He ain't here. Not anymore.”
“Now, see? That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.”
“Keep your shirt on, Moe. He's all right. More or less.”
“Which is it? More or less?”
“He'll be all right. Gonna have a spot of trouble with his trigger finger for a while but he'll live.”
“You feeding me a line?”
“On the level. He can hoof it out of here with you if he likes.”
“Swell,” I murmured.
I looked to Madeline.
“Give us a ciggy, will you?”
She fished her hope chest out of her purse and slid it my way.
Jack watched me with interest as I helped myself to a smoke and lit up, one-handed.
“All right, Jack,” I continued, “I've got another one for you.”
“I'm all ears, Moe.”
I took a drag on the cigarette, letting the smoke fill my lungs, then let it all out.
“Why'd you try to bump me off?”
He leaned back, looking like he wanted to take his time answering.
“I can understand about Robinson. The guy ran you down every chance he got, just because he knew you from the old days.”
He nodded in agreement.
“The man mistook longevity for authority.”
“But me? Six years, pal. Six years I've walked your walk. You just said I've never steered you wrong. So what's the story?”
Jack got quiet. He worked hard at not glancing Madeline's way, I'll give him that. He kept his head still and pointed dead at me. His wandering eye gave him away. He kept his mouth shut.
“Whatever your reasons, I hear the boys don't much care for it.”
He turned to Shiv and Josh.
“Is that right, boys?”
They didn't answer him, which was, in itself, of interest. I saw questions in his eyes-- questions and hurt-- when he turned back around.
I kicked him while he was down.
“Is Madeline the only reason?” I demanded.
She raised an eyebrow. I shot her the look, the one that says, 'bide your time'.
Jack said nothing.
I kept going.
“What about Hersch?”
“What about him? You flacking for him too?” he croaked.
“Having your kid brother measured for a pine box too?”
The band climbed back on stage and went about tuning up.
“What's it to you, Moe?”
“I'm starting to think the wrong brother's running this outfit.”
Jack laughed out loud.
“And you wonder why I'd want to knock you off. The both of you.”
“Your talking about your own brother, Jack,” chimed in Madeline, not bothering to hide her disgust. “That's your blood.”
He leaned back in his chair, extending his arm in Madeline's direction. His half-smile made it all the way to three quarters.
“Just taking out the trash, doll,” he said. “Nothing more.”
“You're including me in the that, Jack?” I asked him, taking the Colt out of my pocket. “Who's next? Aaron? Moses? Tell me, Jack. Who?”
His smile crept the rest of the way. It stopped dead before it touched his eyes.
“Line up with the trash, you get taken to the curb.”
“Now that's the first sensible thing you've said all night.”
The drummer set the beat and a minute later the joint was swinging again.
I gave it a minute to get good and heavy, then stood and put three bullets into Jackson Lerner's chest.
No shift. No dodge. He took the slugs straight up, the impact rocking him back in the chair. When the front legs touched back down he slumped forward.
The music stopped. It took me a second to realize the pounding in my ears was my own beating heart.
I felt every eye in the house on me. The four I was most concerned about belonged to Josh and Shiv. Neither man made a move.
I counted to ten, thinking about the desert vistas out west as I waited.
When I didn't get shot I made a show of dropping my Colt in my jacket pocket.
“Anyone got a problem with what just happened?” I asked.
A couple of guys-- Santa Fe customers I didn't recognize-- raised their hands a little.
“Anyone who counts?”
None of Jack's men so much as blinked.
Madeline sat stiff-backed in her chair. Something on her face made me look twice, something I'd never before seen on her face. Surprise.
“Swell,” I continued. “Let's get this cleaned up. Next round's on me.” I stared down the band. “Earn your pay, boys.”
The bandleader, a tall, skinny black kid who looked about twelve years old, nodded. He snapped his fingers, counted out a beat, and got things going again.
I stayed where I was until people started to dance, then I stepped around the table and made for the office. Madeline walked with me. Josh and Shiv fell in behind us as we passed them. The rest of Jack's guys went back to whatever they were doing.
I leaned in close to Josh's ear.
“Was Jack on the up and up about O'Shaughnessey's man?” I asked him.
“Far as I know, Moe,” he replied. “We gave his hand the dresser drawer treatment but he's breathin'.”
“Sorry 'bout that, Williams,” I muttered.
“Didn't catch that, boss,” said Josh.
“Never mind. There's at least two doctors in here tonight. Get him fixed up as best you can and take him home. Don't put him in a dimbox. Drive him yourself. And Josh? Quit calling me boss.”
“Got it, boss,” he said, grinning. He peeled off to get Williams.
Shiv took up position next to the office as I opened the door.
I looked to Madeline.
“After you,” I said.
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.